Planning Your New York City, USA Trip – Zafigo.com, November 14 2018

New York City (NYC) is famously known as ‘The City that Never Sleeps’, and if you try to partake in all the activities and going-ons it has to offer within a week or so, you’re unlikely to sleep either. The opportunities here are endless, so if you’re heading to NYC for a short stint, it’s worth researching and coming up with a game plan. These tips will help you to make the most of your time in the Big Apple:

Travel wise

Tempting as it is to act like they do in the movies, avoid travelling by yellow taxi when getting around NYC. Not only are they expensive, they’re likely to get you stuck in traffic and waste valuable time.

Instead, opt for the subway, which can bring you all around the city and its outskirts quickly and at any time. It’s worth buying an unlimited MetroCard (USD32 for seven days) rather than forking out approximately USD3 for individual journeys. The subway has the added bonus of free entertainment as the carriages and the stations often make the backdrop for buskers like musicians, stand-up acts, and dancers.

Walking is also a fantastic way to explore as it allows you to take in all of the sights and sounds of this diverse city. Though don’t expect to be able to walk around the whole thing – it’s 784 kilometres² after all!

Get some perspective

It’s difficult to get an idea of the sheer size of NYC when you’re standing in Times Square with skyscrapers on all sides. Not until you take a step back (or up) will you be able to truly appreciate it.

Many people choose to gaze down at the world below from the top deck of the Empire State Building, but it’s not the only place to catch a good view. The Top of the Rock observation deck at the Rockefeller Centre and the One World Trade Centre Observatory are other popular choices, while rooftop bars including The Standard and Le Bain are also aplenty.

For skyline shots, take an unmissable sunset stroll along the Brooklyn Bridge or at the elevated park known as the High Line. Both are a photographer’s dream! Taking NYC in from the water with the Statue of Liberty in the background is another magical experience. While there are plenty of boat tours on offer, the Staten Island Ferry is free to travel on and captures the city skyline at its best.

Dress for comfort

With so much to see, you’ll probably only return to your room to sleep and shower, so dressing appropriately is key. Temperatures often plummet in the winter time, so if you’re visiting around Christmas, be sure to pack a good coat and some winter woollies. Summer in the city is hot, so light clothing is best, though rain showers will happen so do pack a raincoat or umbrella. Regardless of the season, the most important item you can bring is comfortable shoes. Subway pass or not, you will be clocking up a lot of steps. Be prepared!

Get out of town

There’s so much more to NYC than Manhattan. Use your time wisely and check out some of the other boroughs such as Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, and Staten Island, to name a few. You can even combine your city slicker trip with a beach break as NYC has plenty of sandy shorelines.

When you need a break from city life, there are also plenty of breath-taking hiking trails and state parks within two hours of the city. Check out Minnewaska State Park Reserve or tackle one of the Catskill Mountains in the southeast of New York state.

Save on sights

NYC is known for being expensive to visit, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you plan to see most of the major attractions, buy a New York Pass, which will give you savings on most of them. There are several free walking tours on offer for those who want local insight into the city, while some museums and attractions are free on certain days of the week.

This site gives a good overview of what sites/activities are free and when. For me, the best thing to do in the Big Apple is explore the streets and laze in the city’s beautiful parks while watching the world go by. Nobody’s going to charge you a dime for that.

For cheap grub, sites like Living Social and restaurants.com always have ongoing deals, while international site mealsharing.com allows tourists to find locals willing to host people for affordable dinners at their homes. Cheap homemade food and some new local friends? It’s a win-win!

Game on

It doesn’t matter if you’re a sports fan or completely clueless to the rules. Attending a sports game is still going to be a fun-filled experience. Visitors between April and October/ November can take advantage of baseball season while winter time sees the kick-off of the American football games. Of course, there are plenty of others sports you can watch, including basketball and soccer. Fixtures for all are easy to find online. With a hotdog in one hand and a humungous beverage in the other, you’re all set!

If you prefer a more casual and free experience, head to the playing fields in Central Park. Fancy having a shot yourself? At Chelsea Piers, you can show off your batting skills in their baseball cages, or have a go at an alternative activity such as rock climbing.

Show time

No visit to NYC is complete without seeing a show on Broadway. There’s literally something for everyone. If you aren’t fussed about planning in advance, do some research on a few shows you want to see, and head along to one of the TDF TKTS Booths on the day. This is where you can avail of a selection of show tickets at a fraction of their regular price.

Here in NYC, top class talent spills far beyond the Broadway stages. Subway stations, Central Park, Times Square, and basically any busy public space are guaranteed to play host to some interesting performers, while the city is also brimming with comedy clubs, jazz and blues bars (like the legendary Blue Note), open mic nights, and smaller gigs.

Enjoy the scenery

The Big Apple isn’t just dazzling lights and towering concrete buildings. Believe it or not, it’s actually home to some beautiful natural spaces, the most obvious one is Central Park. Though an obvious choice to visit, I promise it’s as good as they say. Even those who frequent the park during their trip are bound to find a new corner or interesting sight each time.

Prospect Park, the High Line, Hudson River Park, and Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden on Staten Island are just some of the others on offer. While the complete opposite of green and serene, perching yourself on the steps at Times Square for a while is certainly going to afford you some unique sights too. Enjoy the view and people watch.

Make a meal of it

New York City’s definitely not the place to go on a diet. When it comes to food, if you want something, you can find it. But I suggest you make like a local and grab a slice of pizza from one of the city’s thousands of pizza parlours. There’s plenty of debate online over who makes the best one but I’d argue that most are delicious. If you fancy something more upmarket than a sidewalk slice, head to trendy Roberta’s – a famous bar and pizzeria in Brooklyn for a full pizza and a candlelit drink.

The city’s bagel shops, diner grub, Italian fare in Little Italy, and a refreshing acai bowl are all worth sampling, while a cookie from Levain Bakery has my vote as one of the best baked goods ever. Don’t believe me? Oprah, Neil Patrick Harris, and Taylor Swift are all firm fans.

If you don’t know what you feel like, Greenwich Village has plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from, while the food halls at Chelsea Market and the Plaza will certainly stir up an appetite.

Tip right

It’s not just a rumour; you’re really expected to tip in NYC. While sometimes this is added to your bill, other times you’ll need to figure it out on your own. A general rule of thumb is to tip 15 to 20 per cent of your total bill to taxi drivers, bartenders, and waiters, as well as for room service. You can tip more if you feel the service was exceptional.

The idea of tipping regardless of the service or meal is bizarre to many, but just go with it. Many service industry workers are paid well below the minimum wage, so tipping is the only way for them to make their jobs profitable.

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 14 2018. Available online at: https://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/women-travelling-new-york-city/)

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A thrifty guide to visiting Dublin – Zafigo.com, September 12 2018

It’s no secret that a visit to Dublin can make a dent in your bank balance. Ireland’s capital was recently named by Mercer as the most expensive city in the Eurozone in terms of cost of living for expatriates. A separate report by ECA International lists Dublin as the 72nd most expensive city worldwide, beating the likes of Abu Dhabi and London. Yet, this shouldn’t put you off visiting the fun-filled and friendly city. With a bit of planning and some tips from a thrifty Dubliner, an affordable trip can most certainly be achieved.

Accommodation

Be it a hotel or a long-term rental, accommodation in Dublin is notoriously expensive. Hotel room rates are at a record high, with the latest average rate of a standard room at €136.96 (approximately USD159) per night. If you’re visiting Dublin with friends, your best bet is to share the cost of an Airbnb in or near the city centre.

If you aren’t fussed about staying in the city centre, considering planting your roots on the outskirts. Dublin is a small county, so provided you stay somewhere along the bus, Luas (light rail), or DART (train) lines, it’ll be pretty easy to get into the city. Howth and Dun Laoghaire are two beautiful seaside towns within close proximity to Dublin that I recommend. Of course, no matter where you choose to stay, it’s always worth hunting out hotel deals on sites such as Living Social and Groupon. Those willing to give couch-surfing a go will also save themselves some cash.

Long-term visitors will likely struggle to find a cheap pad, owing to a lack of accommodation available to meet the demand. The average monthly rent for a single room in the city is €643 (approximately USD746), and even at that price, rooms are often miniscule and in poor condition. The nightmare that is the search for rentals in Dublin is well-documented, and the best tip I can offer is to start early, long before the college year begins in September.

Keep an eye on university noticeboards and online pages for room shares or consider renting a room in a family home (known as digs) to cut on costs. If commuting is an option, staying in the suburbs or in neighbouring counties such as Wicklow or Meath may save you some stress as well as cash.

Food

The cost of dining out in Dublin varies depending on where and when you choose to grab a bite. Lunchtime offers are aplenty and you’re sure to stumble across them if you simply follow the students. Lolly and Cooks, KC Peaches, Chopped, Boojum Burrito Bars, and any supermarket deli counter are good choices for quality and affordable sandwiches, salads, and wraps. You also can’t beat a good cheese toastie in Peter’s Pub.

Govindas offers massive vegetarian plates for €6.95 (approximately USD8), while Yum Thai Noodle Bar and the Mongolian BBQ do cheap and extremely filling stir fry and noodle dishes for between €6.95 and €10 (approximately USD8-11.60). Luncheonette offers variety at a low cost, with a new menu of healthy dishes under €4 (approximately USD4.60) every few days, while the adorable and affordable Italian café Dolce Sicily is one of my new favourite spots to meet a friend for a hearty bowl of soup, pasta, or Italian pastries.

For dinner, avoid the sky-high prices of touristic centre Temple Bar and check out somewhere around the Dublin 2 area. Some personal favourite choices are grabbing a mouth-watering mezze platter to share at Jerusalem, anything on offer at Café Bliss (which has the added bonus of being BYOB), the €12 (approximately USD14) pizza and a pint on board the Big Blue Bus behind Bernard Shaw (weekdays 5-7pm), and the €5 (approximately USD6) Monday paella deal at Havana.

On weekends, I also love going to the farmer’s market at the seaside town of Dun Laoghaire for some cheap local grub. Try the falafel, it won’t disappoint! Of course, there are always discounts on offer across the city, so keep an eye on the aforementioned deal sites. Another way to save on dining out is to eat a bit earlier; many restaurants in the city offer great early bird deals.

If you’re here for a longer stay, you’re unlikely to be dining out every night. Lidl, Aldi, and Tesco are the best places to do a weekly shop and offer deals on fruit, vegetables, and meat. Though a bit pricier than the supermarkets, farmer’s markets such as those in Temple Bar, Howth, and Dun Laoghaire offer delicious baked goods and organic produce.

Nightlife

Dublin has become awash with trendy cocktail bars, but unfortunately, behind every delectable drink usually lies a €12 (approximately USD14) price tag. If you’re trying to cut costs, pass these places by, along with tourist hotspot Temple Bar which is renowned for its rip-off prices. Diceys, O’Reillys, and The Living Room are known to be student magnets, predominantly because of their affordable drinks and regular deals.

If you prefer a more relaxed environment, try somewhere like The Porterhouse on the weekdays, or hunt out offers in any of the cosy and unassuming pubs in the city’s side streets. When cocktails are on the cards, Capitol Lounge offers them from €5 (approximately USD6), while Sinnotts, 777, and Pygmalion offer two-for-one deals on certain days of the week.

Should you be lucky enough to catch a rare balmy evening in Dublin, head straight to the Pavilion (aka The Pav) at Trinity College. During the summer, this green area welcomes swarms of students, locals, and tourists alike, who can bring their own food and drinks to enjoy on the grass.

Concerts are expensive in Dublin, but many of the pubs offer live music several nights a week for little to nothing. The Bleeding Horse Pub and Whelans are two great choices. Alternatively, wander along Grafton Street for some free entertainment from one of the many buskers and street artists.

If you’re in need of a warm beverage in a chilled environment, head to Accents. This cosy late night café has plenty of comfortable seating, perfect for snuggling up on with a mug of hot chocolate and a brownie.

Activities

In the summertime, most of Dublin’s best activities are free of charge. The city is home to several parks, including Stephen’s Green, Iveagh Gardens, and Europe’s largest urban park, Phoenix Park. All are perfect picnic spots while at the latter, you may even get a chance to watch a polo game or meet some of the park’s wild deer.

Just a short DART journey from the city centre is Dun Laoghaire, where you can enjoy relaxing evening walks along the pier at any time of the year. Buying an ice cream cone from famous shop Teddy’s is an absolute must there. North of the city, the cliff walk in Howth is also a wonderful way to spend some time in nature, as are the tranquil National Botanic Gardens.

While not within Dublin, the scenic neighbouring county of Wicklow is also worth a trip if you have time. Spots within it such as Glendalough and the quaint village of Avoca are stunning throughout all four seasons.

Indeed, Ireland is not renowned for having a tropical climate (or anything remotely close), so outdoor activities may be out of the question. Not to worry. The city homes plenty of free museums worthy of visiting, including the Natural History Museum (known as the ‘dead zoo’), the National Museum of Ireland, the National Gallery, the Science Museum, Chester Beatty Library, the Hugh Lane Gallery, parts of Dublin Castle, and much more.

A walk around the grounds of Trinity College is also worth ticking off the list and is completely free. However, if you wish to view the Old Library and Book of Kells as many tourists do, it’ll set you back €11 (approximately USD12.80).

History buffs may wish to check out Kilmainham Gaol Museum, where many of Ireland’s revolutionary leaders were imprisoned and in some cases executed. A tour will provide a good overview of the country’s history and costs just €8 (approximately USD9.30) including museum entry.

From pay-what-you-can yoga classes to free talks and lectures to kilo sales, there’s always something happening in Dublin. Websites such as Eventbrite, Meetup, and Ticketmaster can help you find some of the more unusual events.

Transport

Dublin’s city centre is small and walkable, so if you want to save on transport, slip on those trainers and get moving. Cycling is the next best option. Dublin Bikes is a city-wide bike rental service that allows you pick up and drop off your set of wheels at various stations for just a few Euro.

Dublin Bus, the DART Service, and the Luas are the three modes of public transport in Dublin, with lines extending beyond the city centre and into the suburbs and even Wicklow. If you choose to avail of this, purchase a Leap Card in order to get discounted prices and avoid the hassle of fumbling for change for a bus. Unfortunately, Grab and Uber don’t exist in Ireland, but taxis are plentiful. They can be extremely expensive, however, so probably best avoided unless all other options are exhausted.

(First published on Zafigo.com on September 12 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/thrifty-guide-dublin-ireland/)

Stopping animal cruelty in its tracks – Zafigo.com, June 6 2018

Aaron Gekoski is an environmental photojournalist from the UK who has spent over a decade documenting human-animal conflict. He has recently garnered much attention for his photography project which highlights animal cruelty at wildlife tourism attractions in Thailand. He spoke with Zafigo about the issues with wildlife tourism, being a responsible tourist, and his own goals.

Why did you choose to document this in Thailand?

This is a worldwide problem. It’s not just Thailand, it’s happening in [the United States of] America, the UK, and other places in the west too. Thailand seems to be the epicentre [of wildlife cruelty] as a lot of animals are kept in captivity in a country that has non-specific laws regarding cruelty. The Prevention of Cruelty Act isn’t specific on how big a holding area should be, what you should feed animals, what constitutes cruelty, and how an animal should be trained.

There are things like orangutan boxing shows daily. The majority of people are laughing at it and don’t seem to notice anything wrong, but they don’t see behind the scenes and how the animal may be trained, for example. Also, in other places, animals may have been taken from the wild and then have to live the rest of their lives in captivity.

What did you witness on your trip in Thailand?

The boxing orangutan shows were very bad. There were elephant rides being offered at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, and the elephants were not in a good state. They were skinny, swaying around and didn’t look healthy. Crocodiles there were in poor conditions.

Pata Zoo has four orangutans, a gorilla, and some chimps kept in filthy small cells at this zoo at the top of a shopping mall. They have no stimulation and [live in] an unsuitable environment. At Phuket Safari ECO+, there was a monkey theatre and elephants being made to perform in small rooms. It’s not happening just in Thailand, I really want to stress that.

Are there some places branding themselves as fair and sustainable but not necessarily abiding by these practices?

It’s quite common for places to greenwash. A lot of places dress themselves up as conservation initiatives. They say they’re all about conservation and about reintroduction, but often, they don’t end up doing it. They are money-making schemes working to the detriment of animals. I’m not anti-captivity; there are many zoos doing good things for conservation. I’m anti-cruelty. That’s the goal of this project, to fight cruelty.

Can you name some wildlife tourism operations worthy of support and others to avoid?

In Thailand, Wildlife Friends of Thailand are doing amazing things and have an excellent reputation. Safari World [Bangkok] is the glitziest, the most Disney-fied. What we witnessed was orangutan boxing and a morbidly obese orangutan who sat in a holding area that was much too small, begging for food. It doesn’t fill you with much hope when at the most high-end attraction you witness some of these shows and alarming situations. Phuket Zoo wasn’t great either, and Pata Zoo has had a lot of bad press also.

On the other hand, places like Houston Zoo and London Zoo put a lot of money into conservation. I used to live in London and visit London Zoo. Seeing animals up close inspired me to get into this industry. Most people don’t have access to these animals, so zoos and aquariums are important, but they must be done responsibly. If they can’t be, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.

Did you have any difficulty getting these shots?

I just paid for tickets and filmed animals as I found them. This is all imagery that’s available and open to the public at any time. Those cage images weren’t behind the scenes, these are conditions animals live in.

I don’t want to speculate, but everything I hear about how these animals are kept and trained is bad. For example, elephants go through something called the crush, which is the most horrific form of animal abuse possible. They are literally beaten; their spirits are broken by handlers and they’re beaten until completely submissive.

What reactions have you had to your project?

I’ve seen the worst sides of humanity, and on the back of this, also seen some of the best. People have been donating; someone’s buying me a new camera and a guy is building me a site for free. The idea is to set up a platform so people can flag certain operations. It’ll be called Raise The Red Flag. People can log on to the website and make a report with photos. Once there are enough reports, we will speak to relevant authorities and try to make as much noise as possible.

Do you have any tips for those when choosing wildlife-related tourism options?

That’s why I’m setting up this platform, because there isn’t enough info out there. In general, if it involves animal shows and performances, there’s a red flag there right away. I don’t think animals should be made to perform for people because the way animals have been treated in order to make them perform is quite worrying. You can always do research on a place you are going to, check whether they have conservation initiatives, look at TripAdvisor and find out where they got the animals from.

(First published on Zafigo.com on June 6 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/stopping-cruelty-in-its-tracks/ )

Sustainable Watersports: Diving without Destruction – Zafigo.com, April 20 2018

Even while adventuring in new places, many of us are keen to see what’s literally below the surface. Recent research shows that marine tourism is one of the most rapidly growing tourism sectors globally, and with some of the world’s most beautiful reefs situated in Asia, you’re missing out if you don’t take a closer look.

It has to be said, however, that scuba diving and snorkelling come with a high price, and I’m not just talking about the cost of a PADI licence. There’s a growing awareness of how human activities impact our marine ecosystems, and these popular hobbies are certainly not exempt from the conversation.

Thankfully, several organisations and individuals worldwide have made it their goal to protect what remains of these precious underwater worlds. Established by the United Nations Environmental Programme and currently supported by The Reef-World Foundation, Green Fins is an ever-expanding network that focuses on improving the marine tourism industry through liaising with governments, NGOs, dive centres and individuals in their established countries.

“The overall aim of Green Fins is to protect and conserve coral reefs by establishing and implementing environmentally-friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving and snorkelling tourism industry,” explains Green Fins assessor for the Green Fins Malaysia network Nadhirah Mohd. Rifai.

Along with educating industry players on best practice, Green Fins aims to encourage tourists to take heed when taking the plunge. Here’s a summary of their suggestions:

Support positive change

Green Fins is working to ensure that all of its members serve as guardians to marine life by adopting eco-friendly and sustainable practices. The environmental standards of all dive and snorkel centres who have adopted the Green Fins Code of Conductare assessed annually.

“We recommend visiting Green Fins certified dive operators that can be found in Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, The Maldives and Palau,” says Nadhirah.

For the ultimate eco-friendly dive centres, Nadhirah recommends choosing from their top 10 Green Fins Members on this list; these centres are ranked the best among other Green Fins-certified dive operators.

Look with your eyes

While the rainbow of coral and seashells in our oceans may tie in perfectly with your household colour scheme, you must remember that the natural world is not a free-for-all gift shop. Whether dead or alive, don’t remove any coral or other marine life while diving or snorkelling. Besides causing environmental damage, removing coral from the ocean is illegal in many places. So why risk it? Let your memories will serve as the best souvenir. Additionally, be sure not to touch or step on coral, which is very fragile and takes a long time to grow.

Capture moments with care

It’s understandable to be eager to capture moments so you can share with loved ones back home. While underwater photography is certainly permissible, it’s important to take steps to prevent harm. Green Fins recommends that divers take care not to drag photography equipment against the reef as this can cause irreparable damage.

It’s also recommended that you practice your underwater photography skills prior to venturing out on a diving or snorkelling trip. This will ensure you are confident in carrying the equipment underwater and so, are less likely to cause an accident. Finally, as tempting as it can be, photographers are urged not to touch, move, chase or disturb any marine life in the quest for the perfect shot.

Leave no trace

You wouldn’t carelessly dump trash in your friend’s home so why do it to our underwater neighbours? We’re becoming increasingly aware of the impact that plastic is having on our oceans’ ecosystems and while the problem won’t be resolved overnight, you can play your part by ensuring that you don’t add to it. Make sure to bring any plastic bottles, food packaging and other waste home with you after the trip. What only takes a few moments to gather up can have long-term consequences for the ocean if left behind.

Additionally, while it is perfectly acceptable to feed yourself (a day at sea can leave you famished!), share leftovers only with fellow land-dwelling divers. Marine creatures have plenty of grub to keep them satisfied and eating human food could result in illness, aggression towards divers and an imbalance in ecosystems should fish choose to eat human food over algae.

Practice

It’s important to ensure that you know what you’re doing before taking to the water, both for your own safety and the safety of marine life. “Bad buoyancy may cause coral damage when divers kick the corals, as well as coral mortality due to sediments being stirred and then landing on nearby corals, choking them and blocking the sunlight,” says Nadhirah. The best way to practice? Keep diving! Just be sure to keep yourself, and the environment, safe from harm.

(First published on Zafigo.com on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/diving-without-destruction/ )

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

Photo-4

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

Photo-5

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/)

 

6 tips on becoming an earth-friendly traveller – Zafigo.com, November 11 2017

It’s normal to let routine go out the window while abroad. Leaving it all behind is what travelling is about, right? Yet, while it’s okay to ease up on your work and other grown-up responsibilities while you’re globe-trotting, it’s important to remain a responsible traveller overall. Taking a few steps to be more environmentally-friendly is one way to do just that.

1: Say no to plastic

You can easily accumulate hoards of plastic when travelling around Asia, where drinking bottled water is the norm for tourists and bagging fresh produce in the market is a given. You can quickly build a mountain of plastic rivalling Mount Kinabalu in size! Avoid this; it’s up to you to take charge of your consumer habits.

Staying hydrated is certainly important in the heat. To keep your water intake up and your plastic consumption down, why not purchase a refillable flask? In Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, in particular, clean water stations are quite common. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, you can find water coolers at some malls and at the airport. There are also vending machines that dispense potable water at a fraction of the price you’d pay for bottled water at a convenience store. So not only will you be saving plastic, but also some tourist dollars in the process. You can also use reusable containers for takeaway coffees, juices and street food.

Saying no to straws is another way to avoid unnecessary plastic – your fresh mango juice will taste just as good, I promise! In places such as Koh Tao in Thailand, many bars offer metal straws. Support these businesses when possible.

If you’re staying in one place for a while, it’s likely that you’ll be shopping in markets, so pick up some large reusable bags. They’re better for the environment and much easier to carry on a motorbike than dozens of plastic bags.

2: Repair and wear

As a long-term traveller, I make sure that my entire wardrobe fits into my backpack. Unfortunately, wearing and washing the same things again and again soon leads to wear and tear. The easiest thing to do is replace damaged clothes but are you creating more waste in the process?

Before you say farewell to your well-travelled shirt, ask yourself: Is this mendable? If it’s simply a case of a few holes or ripped stitches, take it to a local tailor to get fixed. Bags, hats, clothes and shoes can be mended in a matter of minutes. Maybe your shorts have a stain that just won’t come out? Why not buy a few colourful patches or badges to cover them? Of course, some things cannot be saved, but that’s not to say that they don’t have a purpose. Your old t-shirt can serve as a cleaning cloth, the strap from your worn bag can become a headband – be creative!

3: Make smart moves

Whether moving by road or air, travelling takes its toll on the environment, and it’s unavoidable. But we’ve got to get to places somehow, right? By being conscious of our travel choices when route-planning, we can at least minimise the effects that our explorations have on the planet.

Air travel is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to CO2 emissions, and cheap airlines make it tempting to fly short distances. While many international flights are necessary, travelling domestically or to neighbouring countries often doesn’t require a flight. Most sleeper trains and buses are extremely comfortable and will leave you with more stories to tell than a quick plane journey.

If travelling within a smaller area, research all public transport options. Trains and buses in Asia are extremely affordable, and in some cases, even free. Taking a car or taxi may sometimes be necessary; if so, try to carpool or share a cab. Even Uber and Grab offer carpooling options in many cities.

Travelling by motorbike is another authentic experience when exploring Asia, and there’s nothing like feeling the wind in your hair as you cruise along in the sunshine. However, if you aren’t going far, why not walk or cycle instead? It may be hot, but a little sweat never did anyone any harm!

4: Get involved

Taking part in a local clean-up allows you to do your bit for the environment while soaking in the sights and sounds of a new place. During my travels around South East Asia over the last nine months, I have been pleasantly surprised to see just how many beach and river clean-ups are organised by locals and expats alike. By asking around or doing a search on Facebook groups, you’re likely to find something similar in your area. These clean-ups are also a great opportunity to socialise, as those involved often arrange to go for some food or a drink afterwards. Some of the more adventurous outings even allow you to kayak as you clean! If you can’t find a clean-up near you, why not be a pioneer and organise one yourself? Who knows what it could lead to.

5: Eat your veggies

It’s well documented that reducing the global meat consumption can benefit the environment but you don’t have to go cold turkey (or should I say cold tofu?) to make a difference. Becoming a vegetarian isn’t for everyone, and I think it’s only fair to respect everyone’s choices. However, even having one or two meatless days a week is a positive step forward. Asian countries have a huge selection of delicious vegetarian dishes waiting to be tried, from pad Thai and papaya salad in Thailand to vegetarian spring rolls in Vietnam. Fresh tropical fruit and juices are also a cheap and easy vegetarian breakfast choice that provide great refreshment in the sweltering heat. It’s quite easy to request vegetarian food anywhere if you can express your needs; learn the word for vegetarian in various languages or better still, use Zafigo’s handy travel cards.

6: Reuse and recycle

Waste collection methods differ in every country, but with a little research and effort, you can find out where to recycle plastic, glass and paper in your area. You can also ask local food businesses whether they sanitise and reuse their packaging. Peanut butter is my biggest weakness, and while living in Da Nang, I found a local company that produces and sells their own. They were delighted to take back my (dozens of) empty tubs to reuse, and many other businesses are equally keen to do the same.

When it comes to recycling clothing that you no longer want, many charities are often crying out for unwanted clean clothes. Ask a local friend if they can point you in the right direction. Alternatively, find or organise a clothes swap party with others in the area – it’s all the fun of a new wardrobe without denting your bank balance.

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 11 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/6-tips-on-becoming-an-earth-friendly-traveller/)

5 ways to make friends in a new city – Zafigo.com, September 12 2017

The initial stages of moving to a new city can be incredibly exciting as you get to explore a new place and all that it has to offer. Then, reality kicks in and you may find yourself feeling lonely and missing things back home. The first few weeks of living in a new city can be particularly lonely, especially when flying solo. While it’s easy enough to pack up your clothes, books and even furniture during a move, there are some things you just can’t load into a suitcase, namely friends and family.

A new group of friends won’t be handed to you on a silver platter, and forming new friendships at an adult stage in life is certainly not as easy as during your playground days. But it doesn’t have to be difficult – so long as you’re willing to make an effort and lean outside your comfort zone.

#1 Join a social group

No matter how lonely you feel, you are certainly never alone. Regardless of where you go, there are plenty of like-minded women seeking a friend to share a coffee and a chat with. It’s just a case of finding them! Thankfully, there are several platforms that have been established to help you do just that.

On moving to a new town in Ireland, I joined the local GirlCrew branch and it was one of the best decisions I made. This women-only social network, which now has 46 branches worldwide and over 90,000 members, allows women in the same area to link up online and organise meet-ups and events.

While the first meeting was a bit daunting (and felt a bit like online dating!), once I got to chatting with people, I realised that there are so many other women out there in the same boat as me. Bowling nights, lunch dates and nights out ensued, and I can definitely say that I formed a few lasting friendships as a result.

Girl Gone International is a similar organisation for women worldwide. I am a member of the local group in Da Nang, Vietnam and love meeting both local women and expatriates alike at the fun monthly meet-ups. Not only has GGI brought me brilliant new friends; it has also given me some memorable experiences (such as a movie night on the beach and a Vietnamese cooking class).

#2 Find a new hobby

Have you always wanted to try yoga? Or perhaps you fancy yourself as a guitarist? Whatever your interest, moving to a new place is the perfect opportunity to start something different and in the process, meet new people. Striking up conversations with strangers doesn’t come easy to everybody, but joining a class that interests you ensures that you will always have a conversation starter.

Personally, I find signing up for a full-term course to be the best option. Once your money is handed over, you are more likely to stick with your new hobby and hopefully, continue to develop new friendships along the way. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t the most talented person in the class; I recently joined a Zumba group in Da Nang and am certain that my moves are more akin to Bigfoot’s than Beyoncé’s! As long as you’re having fun and socialising with other people, that’s what matters.

#3 Work from a co-working space or cafe

Working on my laptop at home can feel pretty isolating. But I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re lucky enough to work for yourself or as a freelancer, you can turn your work days into social opportunities by working in a public space. Many large cities and small towns have established co-working spaces where you can rent a spot to work and rub shoulders with others throughout the work day. Some of these spaces also organise social activities and events to allow people to get to know their ‘co-workers’ and share ideas.

A cheaper and easier alternative is to work from a local cafe. Find out where the most popular spots are (in my case, anywhere with strong WiFi, strong coffee and good air-conditioning) and prop yourself up with your laptop and a cafe latte. Stir up a conversation with the person at the table next to you if the opportunity arises. Chatting with the café staff could also turn into a chance to make a new friend. At the very least, working from a cafe will allow you to enjoy a change of scenery and some delicious coffee. Who can argue with that?

#4 Be a volunteer

There’s no point in wasting your free and alone time feeling sorry for yourself or pining for home. No matter where you are in the world, there is always an organisation or cause that is crying out for helping hands. Why not offer to do some work at a local animal shelter or get involved in a weekly soup run?

If you find yourself unable to commit to a weekly volunteer position, seek out one-off events such as beach clean-ups or charity fundraisers. Such admirable causes attract people from all walks of life, so you are guaranteed to meet a diverse range of people.

If you find someone that you click with, don’t be afraid to ask them out for a coffee afterwards. What’s the worst that could happen? Chances are they will only be delighted to wind down and chat after a busy day.

#5 Keep an open mind

Sometimes new friends can be found in the most unlikely places. For this reason, it is so important to keep an open mind and remain patient when you move abroad. That girl you’re chatting with on a long bus journey home could become a firm friend. During a stint living in Paris, I met one of my best friends there completely by chance when she approached me to ask for directions.

While asking me how to get anywhere is a grave mistake (navigation isn’t my strong suit), her decision to approach me certainly was not. It turned out that we have a lot in common. Not only were we both going to the same place and equally as lost as the other, we were also living away from home and enjoyed many of the same activities.

When we finally reached our destination, we swapped phone numbers and arranged to meet up for a drink the following week. Soon, a strong friendship blossomed, and over the next few months we explored the beautiful streets and sights of Paris together. Fast forward four years later and we live elsewhere, but we still remain in touch. And that’s how I know that each time I move some place new, I’ll always be able to find new friends.

(First published on Zafigo.com on September 12 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/make-friends-when-move-new-city/)