Saturday, 29 March 2014

Want to be a Travel Writer? Coming soon...

Love Travel, Want to Write?

Could this be you, blue sea, white sand and a laptop?

Here's 'a great little book' to show you what to do, step by step.
It's for anyone willing to give it a try, even if you can only snatch a little time now and then.
 Write a story, send it to a magazine, make money for your next holiday...
How does that sound?

That's what I do and if I can, anyone can! 
So I'd love to share a few tips with you, call them short cuts if you like, and you could start living your dreams right away.
It's an easy read too with amusing stories and anecdotes, of the kind 'it happened to me', and like any travel writer, I hope to make you smile you as well as guide you along.

So would you like to give it a go, 'make money the easy way'?
Take a peep on Amazon , you can preview the intro and content and pre-order if you wish...
Expected: June 27th

Let me know how you get on and I'll see you on the road!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Massage in Bangkok? Go to Temple...

Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Bangkok ©Solange Hando

Head for the Wat Po, or Temple of the Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok and you can experience a traditional Thai massage, just 260 bahts (barely USD 8.00) for 30 minutes. But don't expect private rooms and fluffy robes.

Walk into the parlour and it's like an overcrowded hospital ward, fully dressed bodies lined up on beds, barely two feet apart, and a whole army of masseurs and masseuses kneading and pummelling to their heart's content. Close your eyes and enjoy the peace, except for the occasional groan of pain.

But these guys certainly know what they're doing for when I emerged, as good as new, into the sunlight, my backpack and its content seemed to have lost half their weight. I was floating on air.

Shrines at the Wat Po ©Solange Hando
Yet, there's more to the Wat Po than a Thai massage. Allow plenty of time to explore this most atmospheric temple in Bangkok, sit under the trees and marvel at overlapping roofs and chedi (shrines), over 90 of them, covered in glittering tiles and Chinese ceramics.

There's only one souvenir shop but lots of free bottled water for tourists and if you must keep in touch with the outside world, free WiFi as well.

Wat Po Reclining Buddha, Bangkok ©Solange Hando

Then be sure to see the famous Reclining Buddha, 150 feet long, but forget the crowds struggling to photograph the whole thing before they rush off to the next temple.

Just stop and gaze at the face, so relaxed and peaceful, and listen to the tinkling of coins dropped into the alms bowls to gain merits, now and for the afterlife.

Guardians at the Gate, Wat Po ©Solange Hando

Then when you  finally step out through the gate, past the fearsome guardians, just wander around the amulet market and pick up a good luck charm for memory's sake.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Welcome to the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel

Entrance to the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel ©Solange Hando

The Kathmandu Guest House remains top of the list for newcomers to Nepal and returnees attracted by its convivial atmosphere. It's a place to share stories, exchange advice, find a trekking companion or, who knows, a long lasting romance.

Set well back from the road, in the busy district of Thamel, it's a peaceful oasis where sightseers and trekkers can rub shoulders with serious climbers and even celebrities.

Garden-facing Rooms, Kathmandu Guest House ©Solange Hando

In a restored Rana mansion, this first hotel in Thamel opened with just 13 rooms but now offers over 100, including quality accommodation in a newly-open annexe. Most pleasant and generally quieter are the garden-facing rooms.

The hotel prides itself  in a wide choice of rooms catering to every budget. An ultra basic single is just USD 2.00 a night while single tourist class rooms with private facilities and buffet breakfast range from USD 40.00 for standard to USD 160.00 for a luxury suite. Double rooms are available and an extra bed can be provided for a small charge. VAT and service are extra, 13% and 10% respectively. Look out for discounts which pop up from time to time.

Eating Al Fresco, Kathmandu Guest House ©Solange Hando

Restaurants include the Café Bahal (above) where international fare and Nepali specialities are served in the courtyard and the new Inner Sanctum offering a varied menu and candle-lit dinners.The Raksi Bar is for chilled drinks and cocktails while the Café Pomelo serves coffee and cool drinks in the garden.

Among other amenities, you'll find a small shopping arcade for jewellery, souvenirs and books,a  beauty parlour, ATM,  free internet and WiFi zones plus in-room WiFi connection.

  Guest House Garden ©Solange Hando

But the guest house greatest asset is its lovely garden, tucked away from the dusty lanes. There are palms and manicured lawns, potted plants, pomelo hanging from the trees and roses, chrysanths and dahlias in all shades and colours.

It's the perfect place to unwind and sip Nepali tea under the trees. They say that many articles and books have been written in this garden and it remains one of the most delightful escapes in busy Thamel. 

However, if you really want to get away from it all and enjoy spectacular views, you could stay in the hill top monastery of Kopan in the Bodhnath district.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Hotel Review, Bangkok, Ramada Plaza Menam Riverside

Bangkok on the Chao Phraya River, from the Temple of Dawn ©Solange Hando

Going to Bangkok? Don't want to sit in traffic jams for hours?

No problem, just choose a hotel by the river and once you are there, you can relax, for there is no better place to stay in the city. Most of the highlights, the main temples, Grand Palace, markets and canals, are close to river and easily accessed by boat, private or public, at amazingly low prices.

You can reach the river front on the sky train from the airport and you will find a few budget venues as well as myriad luxury hotels along the banks.

The Ramada Plaza Menam Riverside, Bangkok ©Solange Hando

The Ramada Riverside has everything you would expect from a 5 star hotel  for the price of an average 2 star in London. I loved it. Set well back from the road, it enjoys a quiet location overlooking the' River of Kings', but just a short walk from the Asiatic mall bustling with seafood restaurants and small shops.

The public river bus stops at the nearby pier but the Ramada has its own boat, taking visitors, free of charge, every 30 minutes, to the central pier where there are frequent connections with other boats, water taxis and the sky train. On the return journey, there's just enough time on board for cool towels and chilled water. Nice touch...

The Ramada Swimming Pool ©Solange Hando

After a morning sightseeing, the swimming pool was my favourite place to relax, especially the bar serving delicious salads and cool drinks in a peaceful shaded oasis. There is also a sun terrace and a Wellness and Spa Centre if you fancy a little pampering.

Breakfast is served in the restaurant or on the terrace looking across the river while come lunch or dinner, seafood and international buffets are sure to satisfy the most demanding gourmets. There are 5 restaurants in all, including a Eurasian Grill and one of the most renowned Chinese venues in town, plus a bakery for those naughty but nice moments.

Riverview from a Ramada Grand Deluxe Room ©Solange Hando

The Ramada feels so relaxed you would never believe there are 525 guest rooms, spacious with all mod cons, ranging from deluxe and grand deluxe to suites. It is really worth paying a little extra for a river view, stunning in the early morning light, as above, and at night when bridges and boats are garlanded in golden lights.

But accommodation and food aside, the Ramada stands out for its excellent friendly service and ideal location, close to Bangkok's top attractions, within easy reach of the city centre and the airport, just 40 minutes away.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Paro, Gateway to Bhutan

Paro Airport, A Festive Welcome ©Solange Hando

All visitors flying to Bhutan land in Paro, the kingdom's only international airport, roughly an hour's drive from Thimphu, the capital. At just over 2000 metres, it's the perfect place to acclimatise for at least a couple of days before tackling the high Himalayan passes further along the way.

But Paro is well worth a longer stop with much to explore in town and the surrounding area. On a clear day, you can see Jhomolhari, Bhutan's second highest peak, from the ruins of Drukgyel dzong up valley.

Traditional Street in Paro, Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Paro is a lovely little town, laid-back and welcoming, with colourful streets where small shops and houses are finely decorated with carved eaves and window frames. Some have auspicious signs painted on exterior walls, from conch shells and lotus flowers to undisguised phallic symbols.

There are Buddhist flags and prayer wheels, giant incense burners to appease the spirits and chillies drying in the sun. The river babbles over the stones, so clear you could almost see yourself in the water.

Paro Market ©Solange Hando

The local market is one of my favourite spots, barely a tourist in sight, just a fabulous display of garden produce spread on the ground or piled in bamboo baskets, from apples and beans to the ubiquitous chillies.

No one minds you taking pictures and there are plenty of smiling faces.

Taktsang near Paro ©Solange Hando

But for any Bhutanese, Paro holds a special place for it is here that Buddhism was introduced to the kingdom. Just out of town, the Taktsang monastery is one of the holiest sites in the country. 

It's a fair trek from the valley floor, two to three hours depending on fitness, but you can ride ponies to the half way point and enjoy the view over the valley and across the rocky precipice to the monastery, known as the 'Tiger's Lair'.

Paro Dzong and Watchtower on Hilltop ©Solange Hando

Taktsang however is only one of the many religious sites with walls covered in paintings,intriguing horoscopes and prayer wheels you spin for luck. Look out for Kyichu Lakhang set among the paddies and of course, Paro dzong, where festivals are held, with its covered bridge and its old watch tower, now housing the National Museum where pride of place goes to an extensive and highly valuable collection of Bhutanese stamps.

The Bucolic Paro Valley ©Solange Hando

You'll find plenty of accommodation in Paro and around, from traditional lodges and farm stays to up market hotels, and you may well feel you'd like to stay a little longer in this peaceful valley.

Temples aside, there's plenty to do, from country walks to driving to the secluded Haa Valley over the high Chele La pass, relaxing in a hot stone bath or watching an archery contest, but  don't forget, this is only the gateway to the small but amazing kingdom Bhutan...

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Where the Locals Go by National Geographic

Fun in Hong Kong ©Solange Hando

Do you enjoy travelling but prefer to stray off the beaten track and have fun with the locals?
I suggest you take a look at this new National Geographic book titled Where the Locals Go, affordable as a paperback and now available on Amazon.

It covers over 300 places, spanning every continent, showing you how and where to relax, celebrate, shop, eat and play as the locals do. From the Taipei night market to the thermal pools of New Zealand, from a Hula shakedown in Hawai to the Nepali Festival of Lights, it's filled with ideas and tips so you can be a real traveller and share a genuine experience.

 There's also a special section on great cities of the world, revealing the locals' favourite hot spots. How to enjoy Arts and Food in New York, Samba till you drop in Rio, party under the cherry blossom in Tokyo, cycle in St Petersburg, discover the Opera Kitchen in Sydney and more.

This book is beautifully illustrated and sure to inspire and although I contributed a number of features, mostly on Asia, I have no financial interest in promoting it.
I recommend it truly from the heart.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Pokhara, Peace Pagoda for Best Mountain and Lake View

View from the Ridge near the Peace Pagoda, Pokhara ©Solange Hando

Most visitors to Pokhara have heard about the fabulous views from Sarangkot ( the top of the hill you see on this picture, below the high peaks) but on the southern side of the lake, the panorama is even better, mountains and lake framed in golden marigolds or flaming poinsettia.

It's also quieter than Sarangkot and if you walk a little further along the ridge, you'll have the view almost all to yourself, nothing to disturb the peace but crickets and bird song.

Pokhara Peace Pagoda ©Solange Hando

Above Phewa lake, at 1100 metres, the pagoda is a modern shrine erected to promote world peace, gleaming white above the wooded slopes. You are sure to spot it from the town or lakeside and it isn't as inaccessible as it seems.

Hire a boat to take you across the lake to the start of the path then walk up the steep trail through a cool but often deserted forest.  However, if you're on your own, it's best to find a reliable companion or take a taxi from town. Ask the driver to wait, a couple of hours or more, but be sure to agree the price before you start and pay on the return journey.

Looking East from the Raniban Retreat, Pokhara ©Solange Hando

The view from the pagoda is pretty good, with a panoramic café nearby serving cool drinks and snacks but the further you walk along the trail, the better it gets.

Clinging to its own hilltop, along a meandering path then up 500 steps, the Raniban Retreat (above) claims, quite rightly, the most stunning panorama in the Pokhara district. Relax, enjoy a coke or a pancake, and there's even basic accommodation if you wish to spend the night. You couldn't dream of a better place to set eyes on so many Himalayan peaks, several of them reaching over 8000 metres..

Looking West along the Ridge above Pokhara ©Solange Hando

By clear weather, the five peaks of the Annapurna glisten in front of you, with the sacred pyramid of Fishtail in the centre, while to the west you look out to Daulaghiri and the Hidden Valley beyond, and to the east Manaslu, Ganesh Himal and other snow-clad giants.

Sunset on Fishtail, Annapurna Range ©Solange Hando

But even you go no further than the pagoda, it's worth waiting to see the sun set on the Annapurna, a magical moment reflected in the lake as the town settles down for the night.

The pagoda gate is usually locked at dusk but there is a way out along the trail to the rough road where your taxi should be waiting to take you back to Pokhara.