The definitive guide to avoiding Penang’s tourist traps – Zafigo.com, February 8 2018

colour-1298862_1280 (1)As a cultural melting pot, foodie hub and historical hotspot, Penang has become a major tourist destination for both Malaysian and international tourists. However, with so much to do here, it comes as no surprise that the island’s main landmarks can be crowded 365 days of the year. If you’re staying a while and are sick of the hustle and bustle, try this list of alternative activities:

BEST VIEW

Skip Penang Hill

See Muka Head Lighthouse

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The stunning views of Penang’s coastline. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

Gazing down at the twinkling lights of George Town from the peak of Penang Hill is certainly worth ticking off the list. However, if you’re seeking something a bit more tranquil and wish to avoid the crowds, head to Muka Head Lighthouse at Penang’s National Park. It’s not easy to get to – prepare for a sweaty hike through the forest! – but the stunning views of Penang’s coastline will revitalise a tired body and mind. Climb up the twisting staircase to the top and perch yourself on the balcony to watch white-tailed sea eagles soar and be soothed by the sound of the crashing waves below.

BEST BEACH

Skip Batu Ferringhi

See Gertak Sanggul

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This small fishing village is the epitome of a lazy afternoon. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

When you have eaten double your weight in Penang’s famous hawker food, what better place for an afternoon doze than the beach? Batu Ferringhi is Penang’s most popular beach and while it’s beautiful, you will likely have to battle for towel space on a busy day. Head to Gertak Sanggul instead. I stumbled across this beach during a drive around the island and found it to be the perfect place to digest both my thoughts and my food. Nestled along the southern coast of Penang at the edge of a quaint fishing village, it’s rarely frequented by tourists and so, is the epitome of calm. Come here with a good book and watch the boats and your worries float away.

BEST MARKET

Skip Batu Ferringhi Night Market

See Hin Sunday Pop-Up Market

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin's Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin's PopUP Facebook)

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin Pop Up Market)

Every Sunday, the grounds of Hin Bus Depot spring to life with a small artisan market brimming with local crafts and trinkets. Handmade batik garments, natural cosmetics, mouth-watering food and statement jewellery are just some of the treasures on offer at this weekly affair, which sees new stalls springing up each week. While you won’t find the same offering of cheap clothes available in Batu Ferringhi, you will come across plenty of unique gems unavailable anywhere else. What’s more, by buying something here, you are supporting local artists and craftspeople. For the perfect Sunday, take a yoga class at nearby Wholey Wonder and peruse the market stalls before crashing on the grass at Hin Bus Depot to tuck into a tasty lunch.

BEST FOR A COFFEE AND CATCHUP

Skip Starbucks

See The Alley

Skip the staple branded coffee houses and spend an evening at a local shop instead. (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Why go Starbucks when you can have churros at The Alley? (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Let’s face it: I can go to Starbucks anytime. Despite having a three-letter name, they can never get mine right! If I’m in need of an afternoon energy boost or want somewhere to chill with friends, The Alley at Stewart Lane is my top pick. Why? One word: Churros! The small and simple café is famous for the warm doughy delights, which offer crispy skins and fluffy centres in good, equal measure. Paired with a selection of sauces (try the salted caramel) and a steaming mug of coffee, it makes for the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. The only downside of going with friends? Having to share.

BEST BAR

Skip Love Lane

See Magazine 63

(Photo Credit: SM Butler)

A true speakeasy bar, Magazine 63 is quite a challenge to find, but oh so worth it once you do. (Photo Credit: SM Butler)

Walking through Love Lane at night feels a bit like being in a bizarre video game – you have to dodge and leap over dozens of pushy bar promo staff to get to the power up i.e. a refreshing cocktail or mocktail at the end of a busy day. On top of that, the crowds and noise continue to swell as the night goes on. Ditch the hectic nightlife and head to Magazine 63 on Jalan Magazine instead. Nestled behind an inconspicuous doorway, it’s quite a challenge to find; but trust me, it’s worth it. Behind its shabby exterior sits a trendy speakeasy dripping in vintage class, with a unique cocktail menu to boot. Add to that cosy seating, regular live bands and DJ sets and you’ve got yourself the perfect watering hole. A word of warning: at bars this trendy, drinks don’t come cheap.

BEST UNIQUE PHOTO SPOT

Skip 3D Trick Art Museum

See Penang Avatar Secret Garden

(Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh )

The mini forest comes to life with dazzlig lights. (Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh)

Trick art museums have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, but once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. If you’re hoping to get some unusual snaps for the ‘gram, head to Avatar Secret Garden at Tanjung Tokong before sunset instead. When the daylight fades, the mini forest is transformed into an enchanted land that is alive with dazzling lights in myriad hue. A near replica of the mystical land of Pandora in Avatar, this hidden gem is sure to take your breath away.

BEST CAFE WORKSPACE

Skip Co-workingspaces

See BEAN Sprout Cafe

Fancy working out  of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Fancy working out of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Co-working spaces certainly have their place and I’d be the first to praise them for their reliable Wi-Fi and endless networking opportunities. However, when in Penang, you might as well soak in the atmosphere while getting some work done. Enter BEAN Sprout Café. Set in a beautiful two-storey heritage building, this relaxed coffee shop is a good spot to escape to when you need to get stuff done and dusted. If the rustic décor and chilled music fail to inspire, sit and work from the balcony which offers great views of the hustle and bustle of George Town. Failing that, their delicious coffee or tasty brunches should be enough to set the brain cogs into motion.

BEST CITY CENTRE OASIS

Skip Armenian Park

See Garden at 23 Love Lane

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit 23 Love Lane)

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit: 23 Love Lane)

Who knew that such a serene oasis existed along hectic Love Lane? Well, it does, and it’s in the form of this boutique hotel’s stunning garden courtyard. It’s the ideal place to escape the mid-afternoon sun and catch up on some reading over a refreshing drink. Non-staying guests are welcome to enjoy the garden courtyard provided they purchase something from the hotel bar. Coffee al fresco amid restful settings? Who can say ‘no’ to that?

(First published on Zafigo.com on February 8 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/guide-avoiding-penangs-tourist-traps/)

 

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10 Dreamy Winterscapes Worth Braving the Chill for – Zafigo.com, January 1 2018

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While the fairy lights may be twinkling and the shops may be heaving, the sun-soaked majority of Southeast Asia is a different world to the chilly, snow-covered places that we often hear about in Christmas songs. It may already be January, but it’s still winter, so if you’re in need of a vacation and want to experience the beauty and enchantment of the winter chill, bundle up and plan your getaway to these places!

Harbin, China

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Do you wanna build a snowman? Or perhaps an icy replica of the Egyptian pyramids? At the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, the world is the canvas. The festival’s 34th edition officially opens on 5th January 2018 and will go on till end February 2018, but the flurry of events and activities actually begin from mid-December, as international ice sculptors start working on exquisitely-detailed sculptures ranging from recreations of famous landmarks to mythical creatures.

Although generally known as one festival, it is, in actual fact, made up of at least three main events: Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, Harbin Ice and Snow World, and Ice Lantern Fair. All of which add up to more than a mouthful, but all you need to know is this: There will be many moments of awe as you walk among larger-than-life structures meticulously crafted from fine snow and get close to faithful reproductions of iconic landmarks constructed of solid ice ‘bricks’, all lit up colourfully.

Hallstatt, Austria

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With many of its main attractions closed for the season, the quaint village of Hallstatt is almost devoid of tourists during winter. There won’t be much to do, but there’s also no better time to catch postcard-perfect snapshots, sans the crowds. Enjoy the breath-taking scenery along the lakeside before curling up with a good book by a roaring fireplace at your B&B.

Edinburgh, Scotland

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With the magnificent Edinburgh Castle as its backdrop, there’s something truly magical about Edinburgh in winter. Despite freezing temperatures, the Christmas period sees its narrow cobblestone streets spring to life with craft markets, fairgrounds, live music performances and even an outdoor ice rink. The town is also famous for having one of the world’s best New Year’s celebrations, known locally as Hogmanay.

Prague, Czech Republic

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Ask anyone in Europe about a Christmas market and the annual event in Prague is sure to come up again and again. Whether you’re shopping for gifts or just browsing, the sprawling rows of stalls piled high with local crafts and foods are worth a few hours of wandering. Warm yourself up from the inside with some grog – warm rum and lemon – or a decadent hot chocolate. The latter pairs well with trdelnik, a rolled dough mix that is grilled and topped with sugar and walnuts.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

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Just one look at ethereal Lake Bled and its surroundings and you’ll be transported into your favourite fairy tale! If you visit in winter, you may even be lucky enough to have it almost all to yourself. Create a fantasy of your own by taking a boat out to the lake’s snow-dusted island while embracing the tranquillity and stunning natural landscape.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

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Yellowstone is pure paradise for those seeking both chills and thrills. Power down the snow-covered slopes on skis or a snowmobile before dipping a toe (or your whole body) into one of the park’s steamy hot springs. Naturally, the park is also a haven for lovers of the great outdoors; you can observe species such as wolves, elk and bison in their unspoiled habitat.

Shirakawa-gō, Japan

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If bucket loads of snow is what you’re after, look no further than the villages of Shirakawa- gō, a rural region nestled at the foot of Mount Haku-san in central Japan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its traditional thatched houses called gassho-zukuri, which look even more spectacular when illuminated and topped with a thick layer of snow.

Annecy, France

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While most visitors to the region quickly skate through to get to the other more famous ski resorts nearby, this romantic gem of an alpine town is worth a visit. Its winding cobbled streets, pastel-coloured houses and the remarkable Château d’Annecy makes this medieval city appear as though it has been taken straight out of a storybook.

Lapland, Finland

 

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Finland’s northernmost region is sure to enthral adults and children alike. Famous for its jolly bearded resident (Santa Claus!), it also boasts some of the most magnificent winter landscapes imaginable. Cross your fingers and hope to catch the Northern Lights!

Banff National Park, Canada

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Its snow-capped mountains and striking blue lakes are enough to make any adventurer’s jaw drop. At Banff National Park you can also enjoy ice walking, dog-sledding, skating on Lake Louise and hitting the slopes in some of the world’s top ski resorts. Feeling lazy? Pamper yourself at the sauna or pick out a hibernation point in front of the biggest fireplace you can find.

(First published on Zafigo.com on January 1, 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/dreamy-winterscapes-worth-braving/)

2017’s most epic, talked-about travels – Zafigo.com, December 26 2017

Every now and then, you hear about someone who explored the world in such a way that it makes you want to book your next trip right away. As 2017 draws to a close, we recall six inspiring women travellers and their epic journeys.

Expedition 196

 

Cassie braved deathly cold temperatures at Paradise Bay in Antarctica.

Cassie braved deathly cold temperatures at Paradise Bay in Antarctica. (Photo Credit: Cassie De Pecol)

Hands up if you have a travel bucket list that grows by the minute? If so, Cassie De Pecol is bound to make you green with envy. In February, the 27-year-old American jetsetter became the first woman on record to visit every sovereign nation on earth. On completion of her journey in 18 months and 26 days, she also set the record for the fastest time to complete the global trip, beating the previous record of three years and three months held by Yili Liu, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Cassie’s trip, which began in Palau in 2015, spans 196 countries and saw her crossing through some difficult and occasionally, unwelcoming terrain. Her adventure wasn’t just about smashing world records and gaining passport stamps; as an ambassador for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism, she promoted sustainable tourism through meetings with dignitaries, tourism ministers and students across the globe.

Worldwide wheeler

Tackling the chaotic streets of Hanoi, Vietnam is no mean feat but Jin takes it in her stride.

Tackling the chaotic streets of Hanoi, Vietnam is no mean feat but Jin takes it in her stride. (Photo Credit: Jin Jeong)

Unless you have been hiding under a rock recently (unlikely behaviour for our adventurous Zafigo readers!), you’re sure to have heard of Jin Jeong. When she was 24, this South Korean solo cyclist set herself a goal: To spin around the world alone on two wheels. Many told her it was an impossible feat, others warned her that the ambitious plan could prove dangerous for a woman on her own. Yet, despite discouraging opinions and setbacks ranging from accidents to sexual harassment, the bold explorer hasn’t looked back since setting her wheels in motion six years ago.

Sixty-seven countries and 62,000 kilometres later, Jin is as eager to travel as ever, and aims to inspire others to follow their own dreams. She certainly left many of us motivated to get pedalling after her talk at this year’s ZafigoX, an event dedicated to women empowerment and travel.

Turning tragedy into triumph

When the phrase ‘bad things come in threes’ proved true for Megan Sullivan, she bit the bullet and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. (Photo Credit: Megan Sullivan)

When the phrase ‘bad things come in threes’ proved true for Megan Sullivan, she bit the bullet and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. (Photo Credit: Megan Sullivan)

Receiving devastating news will either make or break you. For American native Megan Sullivan, a diagnosis of skin cancer was something that presented her with a new goal: to “live more now.” Her diagnosis, which occurred in the same month as a 50-feet fall in Yosemite and a road accident, encouraged her to embrace her wanderlust and embark on a long-awaited dream trip to the seven wonders of the world. Over 13 days, the 31-year-old made footprints in Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the 98-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Roman Colosseum in Italy.

Documenting her journey on her personal website as well as her Instagram feed (@megthelegend), Megan invites the world to take inspiration from her whirlwind adventure. “The only regrets that I have in my life are from the missed opportunities that I never took a chance on. This year I took a chance and I will continue taking chances to experience the greatest adventure of all: My life,” she wrote.

Running for change

Claire getting to know some new friends in India before running together along the sandy shoreline. (Photo Credit: Claire MacFarlene)

Claire getting to know some new friends in India before running together along the sandy shoreline. (Photo Credit: Claire MacFarlene)

At the age of 19, during a stint in Paris, every woman’s worst nightmare became a reality for Claire McFarlane. Raped and brutally attacked on the streets of one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations, the South Africa-born Australian was lucky to escape with her life. But 10 years later, she was forced to confront the traumatic experience when asked by French authorities to identify her suspected attacker. She did, and followed through with the legal proceedings that helped to put him behind bars.

Claire’s appalling experience, coupled with her fighting attitude, inspired her to make a change in the world. The result? Footsteps to Inspire, a challenge that will see Claire run 16 kilometres of beach in each country across the globe, to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence. Though her endeavour hit the ground running – literally! – in July of last year, it was in 2017 that it really took off as Claire became a regular feature on the airwaves and in newspapers. At time of writing, she has run 33 countries across five continents, carrying her message every step of the way. In February, she visited Malaysia, where she ran 16km along Batu Ferringhi, Penang. Read Zafigo’s interview with Claire here.

Young explorer

Jaahnavi getting cosy midway through her climb up Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. (Photo Credit: Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru)

Jaahnavi getting cosy midway through her climb up Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. (Photo Credit: Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru)

Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru’s mountaineering feats have brought her more news headlines and world records than she has had birthdays. At only 15, the Indian adventurer has scaled the highest mountains in four of the world’s seven continents as part of her #Mission7summit challenge. She is the youngest girl in the world to scale Mount Elbrus, the youngest Indian girl to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the youngest person to have reached the summit of Stok Kangri in the Himalayas… the list goes on.

She encourages others to aim high through her TED talks, guided treks, and involvement in worldwide campaigns. Jaahnavi now has her sights set on the final three: Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Vinson Massif in Antartica and Mount Everest. She plans to conquer the ultimate peak in April 2018 and has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help her to achieve her goal.

Flying high with the family

The Zapp family flying high in Tibet. (Photo Credit: )

The Zapp family flying high in Tibet. (Photo Credit: Zapp Family)

It’s standard for most to plan their travels before we ‘settle down’, believing that footloose living and family life exist worlds apart. Yet when they hit international headlines this year, the Zapp family from Argentina proved to us all that it’s entirely possible to bring the whole family along for the adventure.

In 2000, inspirational couple Herman and Candelaria Zapp loaded their bags into their vintage car and set off on what they intended to be a six-month trip from Argentina to Alaska before starting their family. One might say that they took one heck of a detour, as 17 years and 80 countries later, the ambitious adventurers are still on the road, only now, with their four children in tow. Despite running out of money in the first six months of their journey, the couple have kept pushing ahead with their dream, thanks to sales of their paintings, their book Spark your Life and the kindness of strangers. In 2017, the family began the final leg of their journey across the Atlantic and will soon return to Argentina to begin the next chapter of their lives.

(First published on Zafigo.com on December 26 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/2017-epic-talked-about-travels/)

5 ways to build your own writer’s retreat – Zafigo.com, November 5 2017

They say that everyone has a book in them. Unfortunately for most of us, it’s not always easy to find a conducive environment to put pen to paper and begin telling our story. While writers’ retreats have been established worldwide to give budding wordsmiths the time and space they require, most of them come with a high price tag. Why not create your own retreat, at your budget? Here are five tips to get you started.

Escape to nature

If you’re like me, spending time amidst nature is enough to cure even the most severe writer’s block, leading to a welcome surge of writing inspiration. There’s just something about the fruity chortling of birds and gentle rush of the wind that encourages me to pick up the pen again. Thankfully, nature is everywhere and comes at no cost.

In Asia, we’re lucky to have dozens of stunning national parks at our doorstep. Find yourself basic accommodation in or beside one of these natural treasures and check in for a few days or weeks at a time. You’re sure to have little distraction from your creative endeavours. I stayed in a quiet hut at the edge of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park and found it to be the perfect location for reading, writing and developing ideas. As a bonus, all of my meals were provided for. I highly recommend finding a place that offers similar packages as it means you can devote less time to chopping vegetables and more time to writing.

Where you can go: National parks in Asia that serve as potential writing havens are Taman Negara in Malaysia, Kirirom National Park in Cambodia and Nakai-Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area in Laos.

During my upcoming travels through Vietnam, I personally hope to get some writing done in the mountainous region of Da Lat as well as stunning Ninh Binh in the north. For those who are easily distracted, or just prefer the sounds of the sea, perhaps it’s best to flee to an island. Koh Kood in Thailand is a winner for me, while Koh Rong Sanloem in Cambodia, the islands in Komodo National Park in Indonesia and Japan’s Yakushima island should be on any writer’s (and traveller’s!) bucket list.

Squad goals

Some people require a bit of a push and titbits of advice to get their creative juices flowing, and that’s why writing retreats have become so popular. If you find yourself in that bracket but can’t afford to fork out for an organised retreat, don’t despair! There are plenty of ways to get the support you need at little to no extra cost.

Most larger towns and cities have writing clubs that see novice and seasoned writers come together regularly to share their work and gain feedback. Why not book a cheap stay in a city you’re keen to see and hook up with one of these groups while there? A few days or weeks on your self-moulded writers retreat is sure to leave you feeling equally refreshed and inspired.

Check out: Hanoi Writer’s Collective and Hoi An Writers Group, Vietnam; MYWriters Penang, Malaysia; Chiang Mai Writers, Thailand and The Singapore Writer’s Group are among such active groups.

The word on festivals

Literary festivals usually offer both free and affordable events and workshops, and are also great opportunities to rub shoulders with established writers. Asia hosts approximately 60 literary festivals annually so you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a destination and activities.

Make your way to: Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (25-29 October 2017), Singapore Writers Festival (3-12 November 2017), Hong Kong International Literary Festival (3-12 November 2017), George Town Literary Festival (24-26 November 2017), and Jaipur International Literature Festival (January 2018).

Walk in the footsteps of the greats

Asian cities have served as both the birthplace and the inspiration for some extremely successful authors. If you’re a budding writer, there are many Asian cities worth a visit. Who knows what inspiration you might glean!

Where to go: Tokyo has a rich literary heritage, with dozens of bookstores and libraries, along with museums dedicated to the writers that have roamed its streets. It was once home to Matsuo Basho, the founder of the haiku, and a museum in his memory sits there today. Though hailing from Kyoto, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami lived and based many of his books on Tokyo. There’s even a walking tour in his honour. Controversial author Yukio Mishima (Confessions of a Mask) was born here, as was crime novelist Hideo Yokoyama, whose novel Six Four famously sold a million copies in just six days.

The colourful and bustling city of Mumbai has served as the backdrop for many famous books, including Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo’s multi award-winning book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Salmon Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, which focuses on India’s transition from colonialism to independence, also used his native city of Mumbai as its stage. The critically-acclaimed Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts was also based in Mumbai and is said to be inspired by real events.

Dozens of authors, including Jungle Book creator Rudyard Kipling and prolific Marathi writer PL Deshpande (Vyakti Ani Valli), were born in the city. If you fancy reading any of these for inspiration, head to Mumbai’s Book Street where you are sure to find something among the heaving stalls.

Check your backyard

After months of seeking out a destination where I can peacefully write and form new ideas, I found the park beside my current home in Da Nang to be the perfect spot. Though it had been right under my nose for months, I never considered it a place to find writing inspiration. Don’t underestimate the destinations on your doorstep.

Try these spots: Take a walk around your neighbourhood, try writing at various places and see how you feel. It could be that park around the corner, the nondescript coffee shop you always walk past without a second glance, the public library, the 24-hour coin operated laundry… any of these might be where your story begins. I urge you to grab pen and paper when you pay a visit!

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 5 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/build-your-own-writers-retreat/)

Four travellers who aren’t letting their disabilities stop them from seeing the world – Zafigo.com, July 26 2017

Even the best laid plans can go awry, and if regular travellers inevitably face that while trotting the globe, imagine how much more difficult it is for those with disabilities. But, as these four bloggers/YouTubers and intrepid travellers share with us, it’s no reason to not explore the world.

Dilara Earle and Justine Eltakchi @ The Pickle Sandwich

Dilaraand Justine of THe Pickle Sandwich in Madrid (Photo Credit: Instagram @ ThePickleSandwich)

Dilara and Justine of The Pickle Sandwich in Madrid (Photo Credit: Instagram @ ThePickleSandwich)

Jet-setting duo Dilara Earle and Justine Eltakchi are shining a light on accessible travel through their hilarious and thought-provoking YouTube channel, The Pickle Sandwich. The duo joined forces after meeting through AirBnB. Justine, an Australian, is legally blind while Dilara, a Scottish, is profoundly deaf. Since then, they have travelled across Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and Scotland together, documenting their adventures as they go.

“We want to raise awareness through sharing our experiences and through comedy. If one person out there realises not to walk away when talking, or not to downplay our disability when we’ve explicitly told them that it’s real and it’s serious, then I’ll be happy!” says Justine when asked about their goal.

Dilara and Justine in Spain

Dilara and Justine in Spain (Photo Credit: The Pickle Sandwich)

Biggest challenges “I have to prepare my equipment really well,” Dilara shares. “I need a million chargers and adapters to make sure I can recharge all my batteries on the road. I also have to try and remember to tell reception to come and get me if there is a fire.”

Recommended destinations Though unable to pinpoint a place that ‘has it all’, Justine and Dilara find that anywhere with big signs, warnings on the walls, step railings and good lighting are easier to get around. Streets that have lots of street art and musicians playing are always going to be easy on the eyes and ears! The secret to it is the locals though. If the people are willing to help you out and reach out to make your day easier, we never forget it,” says Dilara.

Top tip “Your disability can be a healthy part of your identity! The deaf culture and community is amazing, for example. But don’t let it define you. Let your curiosity and love for the world define your experiences of life instead,” says Dilara.

Jeanne Allen @ Incredible Accessible

Jeanne at the Alpine Meadows. (Photo Credit: Facebook @ Incredible Accessible)

Jeanne at the Alpine Meadows. (Photo Credit: Facebook @ Incredible Accessible)

With limited information about accessible travel online, planning a trip can be a feat in itself for someone with a disability. Jeanne, who has lived with Multiple Sclerosis for 30 years, learned this prior to visiting Chicago several years ago, when it took hours of online research and phone calls to concoct the perfect itinerary. “When it was over, I was about to throw away the itinerary that I spent hours putting together and thought, this is crazy, I could share this with others. So, I decided to start a blog,” explains Jeanne.

Biggest challenges On day one of her ongoing 66-day European trip, Jeanne was presented with one of her greatest challenges yet. “Upon landing in Oslo, the plane crew couldn’t find my chair. It was eventually found but the right arm with the controls was dangling off the side and it was broken,” recalls the US native. “Fortunately, it was still drivable but I had to bend forward so it wasn’t very safe.” Jeanne quickly took action by filing a claim and making contact with the wheelchair manufacturer. “They tracked down a manufacturer in Scandanavia and miracle of miracles, things were set into motion. A day later, the repair man drove to Oslo and fixed my wheelchair on the spot.”

Jeanne’s experience didn’t dampen her spirits but rather, gave her a renewed appreciation in the kindness of strangers worldwide. “While waiting to get my chair fixed, our hotel was tremendous. They found zip ties and duct tape and used them to bring the armrest to the right level. They then propped an umbrella under the armrests to keep them upright so I was going around Oslo with an umbrella across my knees. I felt like MacGyver!”

Kayaking lesson with Allie Ibsen at Achieve Tahoe (Photo Credit: incredibleaccessible.com

Kayaking lesson with Allie Ibsen at Achieve Tahoe (Photo Credit: incredibleaccessible.com)

Recommended destinations Having toured the United States (US), Canada and now Europe too, the city of Victoria, Canada currently tops her list of accessible destinations. “Our hotel there had something I had never seen before. My husband went to the room before me. By the time I got there, he was grinning at me like a Cheshire cat. He handed me the key card and said to open it. I did…the door automatically swung open, and stayed open long enough for me to roll in with my scooter.”

Top tip Plan in advance and be specific with your hotels about individual needs. Using all available tools is also a message that Jeanne tries to spread. “We all hate the idea of disability and giving in to it. But once I did, I found life so much easier. For example, I recently got a van ramp which allows me to travel completely independently,” she explains. “If the tools exist, don’t resist them. They really will change your life.”

Cory Lee @ Curb Free With Cory Lee

Cory and his mother on a hot air balloon ride over Israel (Photo Credit: )

Cory and his mother on a hot air balloon ride over Israel (Photo Credit: curbfreewithcorylee)

Despite being diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy at age two and getting his first wheelchair at four, Cory has never allowed his disability to restrain his wanderlust. “I started travelling at a young age in the US and that sparked my love of travel. I never saw any limits, even though I use a wheelchair on a daily basis,” he says. “When I was 15, I took my first international trip to the Bahamas. It was the first time that I saw a different culture and way of life and I decided that I wanted to go much further. I have since been to six continents, with just Antarctica to go.”

In 2013, Cory set up his blog Curb Free with Cory Lee to share his adventures with friends and family. He documents his experiences in faraway and unusual places, from hiking through the Amazon rainforest to soaring over Israel in a hot air balloon. Before long, he was being featured on the likes of Travel Channel and Lonely Planet. “People have contacted me to say that my blog has inspired them to travel to Africa or Israel. Some are travelling for the first time. For many people with a disability, it can be hard to get out of your comfort zone and go abroad. When I go out to different places and write about them, I’m testing the waters for these people,” explains Cory.

Cory in the Blue Lagoon (Photo Credit: curbfreebycorylee.com)

Cory in the Blue Lagoon (Photo Credit: curbfreewithcorylee.com)

Biggest challenges While Cory’s posts are brimming with positivity and snaps of enviable locations, he remains honest about the challenges that he faces. Air travel can prove particularly problematic and on several occasions, he has arrived at his destination only to discover that his wheelchair was damaged. “I’m always worried about it being damaged but I try to have a backup plan. It is important to know of wheelchair repair shops in any place you go to,” he advises.

Recommended destinations “Australia was great; Sydney in particular was spectacular. I could ride every ferry, see every attraction and all of the restaurants were accessible. Iceland also really surprised me. The Blue Lagoon even had a special chair to get into the water,” he says. “Also, the people in Iceland were really friendly and willing to help.”

Top tip Cory is constantly thinking about his next destination and when it comes to accessible travel, he believes planning is key. “Start planning as far in advance as possible. Reach out to other wheelchair users that have gone to the destination. Look for blog posts and get that first-hand perspective.”

(First published on Zafigo.com on July 26, 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/travellers-who-arent-letting-disabilities-stop-them-seeing-the-world/)

I survived a bus crash in Vietnam – Zafigo.com, July 11 2017

Vaccinations? Check. Passport? Check. Visa? Check.

After months of route-planning and preparations, the countdown is over. My boyfriend and I are ready for our long-awaited backpacking trip around Vietnam and Thailand, and everything is finally sorted. But I soon learn that no matter how organised you are, or how many travel guides you skim through, there are some things that you just cannot prepare for.

It’s day four. We have just checked out of our room on Cat Ba island, and laden down with backpacks, make the sweaty trek to the bus stop. Our next stop is Hoi An, where we will finally experience the vibrant lantern festival that I had been gazing at online for months.

Before my trip, people had warned me off mopeds, drinking tap water or swimming at certain beaches. But buses? Nobody mentioned them. As far as I am concerned, the bus is safe territory.

I throw my heavy pack underneath the now-packed coach and settle into my seat, sandwiched between two couples at the back. “This is going to be a cosy ride,” I think to myself, as I wave at my boyfriend who is perched beside the driver. Except it was anything but.

Within several minutes of rolling off the car ferry, the deafening honk of a horn suddenly drowns out my music. I had been in Vietnam for four days and know that car horns are basically background music here. So I choose to ignore it…until it grows louder, more urgent, more frequent. I try to steal a glimpse out the window but the dated curtains conceal my view.

And then I feel it.

The powerful force that hit the left side of our bus and sends it crashing over. Beeping is replaced by screaming and the screech of steel against concrete as we toss and turn, like a blender full of bodies and luggage.

Some say that when you’re in an accident, life flashes before your eyes. But the only thing I have running through my mind at that moment is, “This is where I die…”

When we screech to a halt, I look around to find absolute carnage. Broken glass. Crying children. Blood. I still don’t know what had happened when, leg throbbing, I clamber out through the emergency exit. The heat is the first thing to hit me. Then reality. A huge articulated truck is responsible for knocking us off track and sending us sliding for about 40 metres. Looking back, it’s a wonder that we all survived.

Other passengers find their way off the bus on their own or in the arms of another. Some are much worse off than others. A distraught man screams for help as he crouches over his unconscious, blood-soaked wife who he soon lifts into a hospital-bound taxi.

I find my boyfriend and hug him close, speechless but relieved that we are alright. Soon, we too are rushed off to hospital, where we are surrounded by doctors and nurses, speaking to us in an unfamiliar tongue while examining every inch of our weary and shaken bodies.

Several hours of prodding and broken conversations later, we are discharged with two souvenirs: A swollen purple leg for me, eight stitches for my boyfriend. In our torn and blood-stained clothes, we make our way to the nearest hotel and await word about our luggage.

We spoke long into the following nights, questioning whether we should continue our trip. In the end, we decide to keep going. The following six weeks are a struggle as we lug bruised legs and egos around Asia. Yet, choosing to get back on the road is the best decision we ever made.

Before our accident, I felt invincible and to be honest, took many things for granted. The accident, albeit terrifying, brought me quite literally crashing back down to earth. For a while, I became cautious, too afraid to try anything that felt even remotely dangerous. Those feelings soon cleared, making way for a sense of understanding, an understanding that some things in life are outside of our control. But we shouldn’t let this stop us from living. If we can’t always be in the driving seat, we might as well sit back and enjoy the view.

(First published on Zafigo.com on July 11 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/survived-bus-crash-in-vietnam/)

Eight reasons to visit Da Nang, Vietnam – Zafigo.com, July 5 2017

Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city, is often skimmed over by travellers who pass through this port city only to visit the nearby tourist hubs of Hoi An and Hue. But if you choose to explore beyond the airport terminal, you will discover a true gem.

1. Be welcomed by friendly faces

Expect a warm welcome when you arrive in Da Nang as this city has yet to experience the tourist weariness that is obvious in some of the more well-known South East Asian destinations. Visitors are greeted with open arms and most of the locals are willing to lend a hand to new arrivals, whether they need directions, a motorbike or food recommendations. Da Nang is a relatively safe place, and the crime rate is pretty low, but of course it is always important to take safety precautions. Petty theft is the most common offense here so be sure to keep a close eye on your belongings.

2. Gateway to central Vietnam

While Da Nang is a vibrant city full of things to explore, it also serves as the perfect base for exploring the rest of central Vietnam. The ornate and colourful ancient town of Hoi An is only a 30-minute drive away, while other top spots such as the historic imperial capital of Hue, the picturesque Marble Mountains and the ancient Hindu temples at My Sơn are all within easy reach. One place you don’t want to miss is Hai Van Pass, a 21 kilometre scenic roadway through the mountains that became famous following an appearance on Top Gear, and is best explored on motorbike. Those not brave enough to hit the road themselves can take a back seat and enjoy the scenery as part of an organised motorbike tour.

3. Dig into delectable dishes

Vietnam isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of tasty cuisine, and newbies may be turned off by stories about pork hocks, duck embryo and snake wine. Yet, on learning some local lingo and embracing an adventurous appetite, you will soon fall in love with the delicate and fresh flavours.

Da Nang is no exception to this rule; in fact, the city showcases some of the best food that the country has to offer, like a medley of local, southern and northern dishes. For an authentic meal, chow down on mì quảng (thick turmeric rice noodles in a tasty broth), usually topped with a choice of meat, fresh herbs and salty peanuts. Other central Vietnamese specialties include bún chả cá (fish ball noodle soup) and bún mắm (fermented vermicelli soup).

If fish is your dish, then Da Nang should be your first port of call as the seafront is brimming with affordable seafood restaurants. Non-meat eaters need not feel hard done by either, as the city is simply packed with quan chay (vegetarian) restaurants – you just have to find them first!

4. One step away from nature

Not many large cities in South East Asia boast a national park on their doorstep but this is where Da Nang stands out from the crowd. Just a short drive from the city sits Son Tra Mountain, a lush green forested nature reserve towering 693 metres above sea level. While hiking to the top isn’t impossible, most choose to wind their way up by motorbike – though it must be noted that a powerful vehicle is required.

You will be spoiled with stunning coastline views along the way, as well as some interesting stop-off points including Man Thai Fishing Village, the 67m-tall Lady Buddha, the 1,000-year-old Banyan tree and Ban Co Peak. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of some of Son Tra’s natural residents, such as the rhesus macaque, red-bellied squirrel or the extremely rare red-shanked douc langur. As the tourism industry continues to rapidly expand here, the future of Son Tra Peninsula is under threat so visit while you can.

5. Run powdery sands through bare toes

If you’re a beach bunny, it’s good to know that Da Nang is home to arguably one of the cleanest and most beautiful coastlines in Vietnam. Stretching for 30 kilometres along the edge of the South China Sea, it hosts several top-class beaches, from secluded bays to tourist hotspots. Perhaps the most famous is My Khe beach, also known as China Beach, which was named by Forbes Magazine as one of the best beaches in the world. Located on the edge of the city, this stunning white sandy stretch sees large crowds in the early mornings and evenings but is relatively deserted throughout the day. However, owing to its immense size, you are always sure to find a spot to yourself, no matter when you go.

After experiencing the madness of the city, this beach is the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate under the shade of an umbrella while gazing out onto crystal clear waters. If you aren’t ready to chill out, test your hand at some surfing, jet-skiing or paragliding. For those who want something more secluded, check out some of the beaches along the Son Tra Peninsula.

6. Non-stop entertainment

If lazing on the beach isn’t for you, it’s easy to keep entertained while in Da Nang. The city is home to plenty of young locals and expats who are always looking for a good time and organised events such as beach yoga, language exchanges, lunch meet-ups and board game nights are all weekly occurrences.

Da Nang also boasts a wide variety of fun and interesting attractions including a small ice-rink, several museums, a concert venue and Asia Park – one of the largest theme parks in South East Asia. Thrill-seekers can get a kick out of the roller-coasters and other fast-paced rides here before taking it down a notch on the 115 metre-high Sunwheel. Meanwhile, party animals eager for a night on the town should look no further than Bach Dang Street, that is lined with dozens of lively bars, restaurants and late-night venues.

7. Bright, blinking city lights

New York, Sydney and London are all famous for their skylines, and while Da Nang is a world away from all that glitz, it does present quite a sight with towering buildings and sparkling bridges. Want to see the city at its best? Aim high and head to the glamourous Skybar at D and G Hotel, where you can watch the city twinkle while wining and dining the night away.

For the cash-strapped, stroll or bike it to one of Da Nang’s many bridges and simply take in the city lights from the Han River. The most famous is Dragon Bridge, one of the longest bridges in Vietnam and one that certainly lives up to its name. The long, majestic bridge takes the form of a gilded dragon, complete with large fangs and hypnotising eyes. On weekend nights, many flock to the bridge to see the illuminated dragon breathe fire and water.

8. Hunt for bargains at the markets

It’s time to brush up on those bargaining skills! The markets of Da Nang are treasure troves brimming with everything from fresh herbs and spices to casual clothing and just about anything else you can think of. Perhaps the most well-known is Con Market, located in the city centre. It may look small but delve a little deeper and you will find a sprawling bazaar with thousands of vendors showcasing a diverse selection of items. Homeware, clothing, shoes, fresh produce, souvenirs and jewellery can all be found at dirt cheap prices here, and if shopping leaves you peckish, there are food stalls and plenty of fruit vendors nearby.

Also worthy of a mention are Han Market and Bac My An Market, which are particularly great for their affordable fruits and vegetables. If you prefer a more conventional shopping experience, Vincom shopping mall and Indochina Towers are full of familiar brands, while boutiques dot the city.

(First published on Zafigo.com on July 5 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/8-reasons-visit-da-nang-vietnam/)