Sri Lanka - Family backpacking before mass tourism

 

Contributor: Masja
Nationality: Dutch, Netherlands
Instagram: masja_travels
Age Range: 30-40
Gender: Female
Travel Style: Backpacker, Family
Destination: Sri Lanka
Date: July, 2016. 3 weeks

Inspiration:

We were backpacking with our two children (14 and 18 years old), so we were looking for a safe, easy to travel, not too touristic and diverse country. I think Sri Lanka is 'booming', getting more and more tourists each year. We wanted to be there before mass tourism. 

Getting There:

We went there by plane. In Sri Lanka it is very easy to travel by public transport; buses and trains. Distances are not that big and it's very cheap. If you don't mind being in a crowded bus now and then it's a great way to travel! There is lots to see, outside and inside the busses and local people like to have a chat with you. At busstations everyone is willing to help you get on the right bus and if you ask the bus-assistant, he will give you a sign when to get out.
If you want to make the beautiful train trip from Ella to Kandy or vv, it might be wise to make a reservation in advance. We didn't and the next 3 weeks tickets for seats were sold out. We bought free tickets, without chair numbers and were lucky to find 4 chairs in third class, but many people stood for over 7 hours! So, if you already know when to make this trip, reserve tickets.

Where To Stay:

We stayed in hotels and guesthouses. We were surprised by the good free wifi in most hotels/guesthouses, so a day before leaving a place we booked the next accomodation by bookings.com. There are many accomodations in all price ranges. Just read the reviews on bookings.com or tripadvisor and pick your place! 
Our top stay: Mangrove Beach Chalets at Marakolliya Beach/Tangalle

What To Do:

Tourist highlights we did: 
Sigiriya
Lion Rock, Minneriya National Park (elephant safari) and Polonaruwa.

Kandy
Temple of the Tooth (be sure to visit one of the daily ceremonies), very nice colourful market, Pinnawalla elephant orphanage (it's nice to see the elephants this close, but I wouldn't recommend it. Is is extremely touristic, didn't see any injured elephants that needed to recover, it's a bit of a circus. Minneriya or one of the other national parks are a much better choice to see elephants)

Traintrip Kandy to Ella or vv! Best traintrip ever, going through the mountains (2000 m.) through a landscape of tea plantations.

Ella:
Town itself not very special. It's very, very busy and touristic, not a relaxed backpack town as mentioned in our guidebook. But if you like a touristic place and lots of restaurants it's ok. The environment is beautiful and that's why we think Ella is worth the visit. Climb Ella Rock or the easier Little Adams Peak. Great walk through tea plantations! Visit a tea factory. Go to the Ravana waterfall. Walk over the railway to the Nine Arches Bridge and back.

Yala:
We stayed in Tisamaharama to do a 6 hours morning safari in Yala. They warned us Yala could be very crowded, but I guess we were lucky to be there on a relatively quiet day. Saw lots of beautiful landscapes and many animals, including 2 leopards (lucky us!)

Tangalle:
Lovely beach. Stayed 2 nights close to the centre of town in a hotel at the beach. Nice plae to eat on the beach is Frangipani, you can reach it on the streetside or on the beachside. 
Must do: visit Mulkirigala Rock Temple, a hidden treasure. So beautiful and we wondered why we only met 3 other tourist! You climb the mountain and find several caves with reclining Budhas and amazing painted walls and ceilings! Just arrange a tuktuk on the street and let it wait for you while you visit the temple, and let it bring you back again. 

Marakolliya beach, a few km from Tangalle. The perfect desolated beach to relax for a few days in a cabana, an amazing place!

Galle/Unawatuna:
We choose to stay in a hotel in Unawatuna, because hotels in Galle Fort were so expensive and no great reviews, and from Unawatuna it's only a few km to Galle and many buses go this way. Absolutely must visit Galle Fort, but also take some time for the new town! Galle Fort is full of remains of the Portuguese and Dutch colonial period, very impressive.
Unawatuna has a nice beach and good fresh fish restaurants on the beach. 

Go by train to Colombo, a nice trip along the coast line!

Colombo: We only liked 2 things in Colombo: 1: the very busy quarter Pettah with it's stretlife and market and don't forget the amazing Jami-Ul-Afar mosque. 2: the beach, called 'Galle Face Beach'. When you go to this beach end of the afternoon you'll see many Sri Lankan families, all kiting, eating, buying toys, wandering and yelling with their feet in the surf. 

Where To Eat:

Lot's of small restaurants everywhere, with a variety of good asiatic food and sometimes western food. Not expensive. Only in Ella restaurants were realy more expensive. 

5 Word Travel:

Friendly
Easy to travel
Diverse country
Nature (mountains, safaris, beaches)
Culture

Excess baggage:

Some towns don't have an ATM yet, for example Sigiriya and Ella. So be sure to have enough cash before going there. Most popular touristic places have a special tourist entrance fee, which is a lot more than locals pay. You can pay this in cash dollars or local currency, but can't pay with a card, so another reason to make sure to check if there is an ATM or withdraw enough cash in another town. O yes, also many hotels can only be payed cash!


Ha Giang City, Vietnam - Riding the most northern loop

 

Contributor : Milan
Nationality  : The Netherlands
Instagram   : @milan_travels
Age Group  : 19-30
Gender        : Male
Trave Style  : Backpacking by motorbike
Destination :Ha Giang City, Ha Giang province, Vietnam  
Date            : 29th january 2017

Inspiration:  

I was already planning to explore Vietnam by motorbike. Why? To be ultimately free and go wherever I want to go. Explore those beaten tracks not every backpacker has taken yet.

I heard about this most northern loop from another backpacker I met in Laos. After a little google session about the area, I realized where I was about to plunge myself into. I was sold.

Stunned by the pictures of the amazing scenery and roads yet to be discovered. Let's go!

Getting There:

After buying my beloved new motorbike I took off from Hanoi and was heading for my first stop. Ba Be Lake. I would recommend this place to everybody who is heading for Ha Giang. Stunning views and very welcoming people. Plenty of homestays where you can spend the night with the still remaining ethnic Tay people. The road is long and curvy to Ha Giang. Planning ahead and picking your towns to stay the night is crucial.

Local Knowledge:

Still interested? Well, the more north you go the more mystical the landscape gets. You will find yourself driving alongside massive limestone peaks in the mountains and looking down into giagantic valleys people built villages in. The people talk different, eat different and dress different. Ha Giang is the most northern province of Vietnam and the last frontier bordering to China.

Where To Stay:

Bong Backpacker Hostel, Ha Giang City:

Dorm rooms and clean facilities. They organize family dinners where you can eat local dishes with the staff and locals. Most popular in town and great for running into other backpackers.

Thanh Thao Motel, Yen Minh:

Affordable private room with 2 beds so even cheaper when sharing the room.

Lam Tung Hotel, Dong Van:

Private room which I shared with some other bikers. Private bathroom, TV and Wi-Fi included.

After a long day of riding the only thing I cared for was a bed and a shower.

What To Do:

Overall this is about the whole experience of riding the most northern loop of Vietnam.

Getting to know the true north of Vietnam. Enjoying the unreal sights from the edge of a cliff. Interacting with the shy but friendly ethnic groups living in the mountains. Tasting their local dishes. Playing with those colorful dressed children. Wanting to stop every 10 minutes to make a better picture of the scenery than the last one. Because really, the environment seems to change every blink of an eye. From driving in the clouds to braking your way down a steep hill and an endless amount of U-turns until you suddenly drive in the most rural village between massive pinnacles of limestone. 

Eating:

Think about this: Burger King, KFC, Starbucks, McDonalds, milkshakes, pizza, hotdogs, pasta.. 

Now back to reality.

Not there.

Think more like rice in every form (steamed, sticky, noodles, pancakes, porridge).

Look for Bahn Mi. Delicious sandwiches with fillings like pork belly, fish cakes, meatballs and not-messing-around chilies. 

My everyday lunch was Phở Ga. Noodle soup with chicken, herbs and spices, lemon and chili.

Number 1 "Must Do":

A must do is definitely climbing The North Pole. A gigantic tower carrying the flag of Vietnam.

After climbing the staircase to the base of the tower, the views were already magnificent. Climb up to the very top of the tower and you'll have a spectacular 360 degree panorama view over the Yunnan province of China.

If you made it this far. Congratulations! You made it to the most northern part and last frontier of Vietnam.

Number 1 "Must See":

During my trip there was this annual festival down in the valley. A small and simple village was packed with people from all kinds of tribes. All the women were dressed up as colorful as they could with their traditional tribe clothes on.

When I drove a little bit further I noticed the men showing off their strength by competing in games like rope pulling to impress the ladies. Or should I say future wifes?

Top Travel Tip:

Take - your - time. 
Explore, taste, play, see and enjoy your time in the present. Because by the time you have left the north and start heading somewhere else, you are going to think back about this beautiful and remote place.

Excess Baggage: 

Be aware of the weather conditions in the time of the year you're planning to visit Ha Giang Province. It can get pretty chilly up in the mountains in contrast to the warm and tropical south of Vietnam.