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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Asia’s Top 7 Backpacking Destinations

7. Hit the beautiful beaches of Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sihanoukville’s latest incarnation as a budget traveler hub marks a fresh twist in its tragically eventful history. It is named after Norodom Sihanouk, a former King of Cambodia, under whom the town became a booming and glamorous port in the 1950s. But after the Khmer Rouge seized power the city was symbolically desecrated; the walls of its luxury Independence Hotel peppered with bullets. Through the past few decades, the town has been traveling the slow road to regeneration, helped in large part by intrepid backpackers who braved the journey’s dangerous reputation and brought back word of the area’s sublime beaches, such as the stunning 4km stretch of white sand, Otres Beach. The town is now the hub of Cambodia’s most vibrant backpacker scene, a chilled-out stretch of bars, restaurants, cheap lodging and tropical coastline, lively but relatively unswamped with travelers.

6. Get yourself along to the classic hippy hangout of Goa, India

There’s no denying that Goa’s soul has changed since it was first chosen by the hippies of the sixties as an exotic backdrop for exploration of self and consciousness, distanced from the psychic chains of western civilization and conveniently situated in lush tropical surroundings. There are still strong hippy communities in the area, and ragged westerners travel here to make and sell handicrafts. But these days they share the tourist space – including iconic beaches such as Calangute and Baga – with charter holidaymakers, a creeping quantity of upscale resorts, and Catholic and Hindu pilgrims. But a great backpacker scene cuts through all this, feasting on the fantastic cheap food and cavorting in the bars and on the beaches, and in many ways the area’s increasing diversity makes it all the more interesting to visit. Many budget airlines fly direct to Goa’s airport.

5. Encounter the flora and fauna of Cat Ba Island in Vietnam

The jagged archipelago of limestone islands that compose Halong Bay off Vietnam’s north coast have long been one of the country’s top backpacker attractions. As well as the ocean and beaches, there are mangrove forests, craggy peaks and enchanting caverns such as Song Sôt for tourists to explore. This environment is home to a unique world of flora and fauna, including some of the world’s rarest flowers as well as the golden Cat Ba langur. This endangered creature inhabits Cat Ba Island, one of the archipelago’s best stop-offs, an island of breathtaking beauty which packs the best of Halong Bay into one place and is a great base for kayaking, rock climbing, hiking and water sports.

4. Spend time on the island of Bali, Indonesia

Bali’s volcanic landscape, fringed with world famous beaches and alternating barren and forest covered hillsides, attracts millions of tourists from all over the world, traveling on the whole spectrum of budgets. Famous backpacker sites such as Kuta Beach have now been infiltrated with wealthy resorts, top-end restaurants, and private developers who have chomped chunks of the white sand beach. But there is still a terrific budget scene and plenty of cheap and laid-back bars and cafes in which to meet locals and travelers alike. And you can meditate on the island’s spirituality at Tanah Lot Temple, spectacularly situated on a headland jutting out into the ocean.

3. Drift among the beautiful Gili Islands, Indonesia

The Gili Islands make up a small archipelago just north of Lombok in Indonesia. They became popular with backpackers in the ‘80s, looking for a remote experience of the Pacific isles that didn’t require a super-expensive flight to reach. Even two decades after the first intrepid budget travelers set foot on the island’s powdery sand, it remains relatively undeveloped – there’s no automated traffic, and people travel primarily by horse and cart. But there are a few indulgences to choose between, including a Japanese restaurant, good backpacker accommodation, and, inevitably, a lively Irish bar. The island is also famous for its hatching sea turtles, and there is a sanctuary which buys the eggs from the local population to prevent them being sold in the market. And there are some world-class, uncrowded dive sites, such as the ominously named Shark Point.

2. See a different side of China in Yangshuo

Backpackers first flocked to Yangshuo in the ‘80s, set on the trail by a gushing recommendation in Lonely Planet. They discovered an entirely different China to the rapidly industrializing country depicted in the western press, a quiet, picturesque region spread from the banks of two great rivers, Li and Yulong. Strung between these rivers is a rolling landscape of bare karst peaks, green hills, deep sharp-sided caves and unique sights such as Yangshuo Moon Hill, a limestone pinnacle with a moon-shaped hole reached by over 800 marble stairs.

1. Escape the traveler crowds in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thailand’s rural north is far less infested with hordes of tourists than the resort-ridden south, and it makes a great escape from the crazy crowds that swarm Bangkok and Phuket during peak season. Chiang Mai is the region’s hub – founded in 1296, it was the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom and designed as the center of Buddhism in northern Thailand. This ancient heritage can be experienced at sites such as Wat Chedi Luang, a towering ruined temple in the center of the city, and the Bhubing Palace, surrounded by colorful gardens a few kilometers out of town. And the city’s cosmopolitan ex-pat population has given rise to a vibrant scene of restaurants, bars and nightlife.

The Best Mosque in The World

They act not only as places of worship but also as schools, community centres, charitable foundations and even (in days past) hospitals and law courts. They are places in which worldly divisions of class, wealth, status and ethnicity vanish, with all becoming equal in the sight of god.

Most mosques around the world are off-limits to non-believers, reinforcing stereotypes and encouraging skeptics to label them as hives of Islamist extremism. Fortunately many of Islam’s largest, loveliest and most historic shrines are freely open to all, not only allowing visitors to experience some of the planet’s most spectacular buildings, but also to glimpse something of the religious and cultural life of these remarkable monuments to the world’s most misunderstood faith.

1. Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco

Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca sees relatively few foreign visitors despite its absorbing array of sights ranging from medieval souks to Art Nouveau mansions, strung out along an attractively windswept expanse of Atlantic coastline.

Few who visit, however, pass up the chance to explore the city’s landmark Hassan II Mosque. Completed in 1993, the mosque stands on an oceanfront promontory, its enormous minaret (the world’s tallest, at 210m) soaring above the coast like an enormous Islamic lighthouse, while the cavernous interior glows with the magical colours of blue marble mosaics, lustrous tilework and enormous pendant chandeliers.

2. Aqsunqur Mosque, Cairo, Egypt

Old Cairo is a virtual museum of mosques, with dozens of historic shrines dotted around the twisting, time-warped alleyways of the medieval centre. Amongst the finest is the stately Aqsunqur Mosque, completed in 1347. Rising above Bab al-Wazir Street, the building’s fortress-like walls are capped with minarets and intricately carved domes, while inside stands the mosque’s magnificent Mecca-facing eastern wall, entirely covered in a luminous array of azure tiles.

3. Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Soaring high above the heart of Istanbul at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (completed in 1616, also known as the Blue Mosque) is generally reckoned the crowning example of Ottoman architecture, with a quartet of needle-thin minarets pointing dramatically skywards and a sumptuously red-carpeted interior smothered in delicate tilework blossoming with thousands of stylized blue tulips.

4. Masjed-e Jameh, Isfahan, Iran

If it were almost anywhere else in the world, Isfahan’s great Naghsh-e Jahan Square would be teeming with tourists. Present-day political and practical realities mean that those who make it to Iran can enjoy an authentically foreigner-free taste of the world’s most perfectly preserved Islamic architectural set-piece.

The square is home to not one but two of the planet’s most stunning mosques, the Shah and the Jameh (Masjed-e Jameh) mosques. The Jameh Mosque is the larger and the older of the two, dating back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian times and has been rebuilt continuously over the centuries to produce the stunning complex you see today, with three stupendously huge, blue-tiled porticoes rising around a vast courtyard, and mirror-perfect reflections in the ablutions pool between.

5. Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

One of the world’s oldest and most revered Islamic shrines, Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque dates back to 715, less than a century after the Muslim faith first burst spectacularly into the world. The monumental building itself reflects the changing times in which it was built, adorned with Classical Roman-style Corinthian columns and Byzantine-style mosaics alongside the first of the great congregational courtyards which subsequently became the norm throughout the Islamic world.

6. Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Looming above the approach roads to Abu Dhabi like a vast wedding cake – with minarets – the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (completed 2007) offers a gigantic monument to the Muslim faith in a region now better known for its seven-star hotels, record-breaking skyscrapers and palm-shaped artificial islands.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Abu Dhabi’s shiny new mega-mosque boasts its own string of record-breaking attractions: the world’s largest carpet lives here, along with the planet’s largest marble mosaic. Although it’s the serene beauty of the overall conception, with vast expanses of lustrous marble and myriad dazzling domes shining snowy white in the fierce Gulf sunlight, which really lingers in the memory.

7. Jama Masjid, Delhi, India

A majestic monument to India’s great Mughal rulers, rising in stately splendour above the tangled labyrinth of hectic streets at the very heart of Old Delhi. Commissioned by Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, the Jama Masjid remains an unequalled symbol of Islamic architecture in a largely Hindu country, with soaring minarets, delicate marble domes and a vast prayer hall – as well as peerless views across the teeming melée of the old city from its vast courtyard, raised high above the streets below.

Why you should visit Palma in 2017

Where do I start?

You’ll find it impossible not to start at La Seu, the city’s enormous, attention-grabbing sandstone cathedral, perpetually bathed in golden sunshine and dominating the centre of town.

All flying buttresses and spiky columns, it is a Gothic masterpiece – and best seen from the outside. Its exterior, rising up from the water and announcing this as a Christian-conquered city, is its most striking feature and the stone seats along the old city wall at its base are the perfect place to soak up the sun and plan your assault on the city.

You’re in the heart of the Old Town here, its narrow pedestrianized streets tangling back from the water and begging you to get out there and explore.

Next head to the Royal Palace of La Almudaina, just next door – a great example of Gothic meets Moorish architecture. See the Arab baths and the state apartments, still used by the king on occasion, before retreating to the Italianate courtyard of the Palau March, home to modern sculptures and cracking views over Palma.

Then it’s time to dive in to the city’s street life, following whichever diminutive artery takes your fancy northwards towards the pavement cafés of Plaça Major.

East of here is Sa Gerrería, save this laidback neighbourhood for some bar-hopping later on.

What’s new?

The architecture here hasn’t changed in centuries, but the way you can see it certainly has. La Seu started offering visitors the chance to walk on the roof in late 2016 and if you’re visiting in summer there’s no better way to see the city.

This is not one for the faint-hearted or weary though – there are more than 200 steps involved in the ascent and you’ll be on your feet for almost an hour as you’re guided past the rose window and around the bell tower.

Foodies should sign up for the new food tour from Mercat de l’Olivar, a walking food safari through the Old Town which focuses on the markets. You’ll finish – where else – back at Mercat de l’Olivar, which dates from 1951 and is home to over a hundred stalls, for tastings of everything from fresh bread to sobrassada (cured sausage).

If walking isn’t your style, new bike store Urban Drivestyle Mallorca has vintage bikes and nippy scooters for hire, as well as daily city tours which promise to take you to the coolest spots.

What else is there to see?

Palma is a city that is more about enjoying the good life than ticking off the sights, so make time to relax. Platja de Palma is the best of the beaches, its 4km strand stretching around the Badia de Palma. Stroll along the palm-lined walkway behind the sands and pick your spot for some sunbathing.

If you’d rather soak up some culture, head to the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró, the home and workplace of artist Joan Miró from 1956 to his death in 1983.

It’s a vast site, with several studios including an engraving workshop and print workshop that are still in use and a sculpture garden where you can admire Miró’s work amid Mediterranean plant life.

Where should I eat?

The top pick for dinner is Fosh Lab, which opened in 2016, where British expat chef Marc Fosh experiments with a daily changing menu. Expect an interactive experience here, with plenty of food-focused chat – and to be a guinea pig for test dishes that may or may not make it onto the menu at Fosh Kitchen or Michelin-starred Marc Fosh.

Also worth a dinner booking is Hotel Cort, where simple dishes such as jamón ibérico, grilled octopus and lamb terrine are washed down with Mallorcan wine in the tree-shaded square.

If you’d rather hit the tapas trail make a start at Plaça Rei Joan Carlos I, calling in at Bar Bosch and La Bodeguilla. On a Tuesday or Wednesday, head to Sa Gerrería for the Ruta Martiana: what was once a way of encouraging people out on a quiet Tuesday night has become an event in itself, with dozens of tapas places offering a drink and a tapa for around €2–3.

Trendy, minimalist The Lemon Tree on Carrer Pes de la Farina and perpetually packed Ca La Seu on Corderia are both worth seeking out, but this is a time to head where the mood – and perhaps your nose – takes you.

The Best Area to Stay in Hong Kong

Best for luxury: Central to Causeway Bay

Hong Kong is known as the vertical city, and as you make your way up the Mid-Levelsescalators you can see why. Business blossomed in the 1900s and the influx of western banks, bars and boutiques line the streets on the north shore of the Island.

High-end shops and restaurants are here in abundance, and so are the most luxurious places to stay.

For oriental opulence: Mandarin Oriental. The Mandarin Oriental is often thought of as Hong Kong’s best hotel. The facilities and service are excellent, and you’ll find draped Chinese tapestries and antiques in each room.

Grand rooms, grand prices: Renaissance Harbour View Hotel. As the name promises, the Renaissance offers incredible views over the water. It shares a pool and fitness centre with the Grand Hyatt but set just back is often slightly cheaper.

Best for atmosphere on a budget: Mong Kok

The streets of Mong Kok are a sensory overload: hundreds of neon signs hang above roads that bustle with shoppers – you can buy anything from cosmetics to mobile phones here – and street food stalls steaming with local specialties.

It’s a popular spot for budget travellers; Mong Kok is where the vast majority of hostels and cheaper accommodation are based.

Cash-strapped: Dragon Hostel. This seventh-floor guesthouse offers dorms, doubles and singles. Though it’s not the most glamorous (some rooms are windowless) staff are helpful, and the location is ideal.

A plush cultural experience: Royal Plaza. Located above the Mong Kok East MTR station and above the mania below, Royal Plaza is linked to the MOKO Shopping Centre, where beauty counters and designers shops can be found. You can pamper yourself in the sauna and spa and then dip back into the chaos just a few minutes away.

Best for old China: Yau Ma Tei

For a dose of old China head to the medicinal teashops, street food stalls and antiques markets of Yau Ma Tei.

The Jade Market (a covered bazaar selling varied qualities of jade) neighbours a gathering of the city’s fortune-tellers and the Temple Street night market.

A 15-minute walk from the harbour, it’s the perfect place for rummaging through peculiar antiquities and mixing with the locals.

A great Location: Nathan Hotel. This new-build is located on the always-busy Nathan Road. The rooms are a lot larger than most in Hong Kong hotels and you’re in walking distance from the most visit-worthy places on Kowloon.

A place to rest your head: Booth Lodge. This Salvation Army hotel is a quiet alternative tucked off the main road next to the Jade and Temple Street markets. You can be sure to get a fairly basic but clean room.

Best for exploring: the Outlying Islands and New Territories

Glorious beaches, rugged scenery and beautiful mountainous walks are not the first thing you think of when planning a trip to Hong Kong. But if you have the time to venture out of the metropolis into the new territories, or board a boat from Central to one of the Outlying Islands, a different pace of life awaits.

Lamma has become a haven for expat artists, giving the island its ‘hippy’ label. There are no motor vehicles, so it has a sleepy seaside feel and is the perfect place to escape the city. Cheng Chau and Ma Wan are both home to small fishing villages and quaint beaches that are worth a visit.

The New Territories are sparsely populated in comparison to Kowloon and the Island. Much of the land has national park status, including the group of beautiful beaches on theSai Kung peninsula.

For the budget wanderer: Kathmandu Guesthouse. Offering beds and doubles at the lowest rates on Lamma, this guesthouse is, in a word, simple. You’re here to chill out; finish your day of mooching with a fresh seafood dinner from one of the waterfront restaurants next door.

Luxury meets leisure: The Regal Riverside. Based in Sha Tin, it’s close enough to the lights of the city by MTR but in a perfect position to access the outdoor pursuits of scenic New Territories. It’s great value, even if a little grandiose.

Best for a laidback vibe: Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun

Just down from Soho along Queens Road West, Sai Ying Pun is fast becoming popular among locals and travellers alike. Here you’ll find minimalist cafés, hidden away jazz bars and techno-filled basements.

Follow Des Veoux Road West all the way to Kennedy Town for impressive views of Kowloon.

For the minimalist: The Jervois. At this ultra-modern, exquisitely-designed set of apartments in Sheung Wan, you can expect slick design and complete comfort. It’s self-catering but there’s an endless choice of dim sum and Asian fusion restaurants in the area.

For the city roamer: Eco Tree Hotel. Sitting right next to Sai Ying Pun MTR station, the rooms here are a little soulless but decent in size and the location is perfect for a walk through the Sun-Yat-Sen Memorial Park, or up into Soho.