Sunday, 3 September 2017

Everybody loves Chiang Mai

When someone is planning to go to Thailand I always tell them not to overlook the north, and Chiang Mai in particular. Of course if they have only two weeks in the country it's difficult to see both the north and the beaches in the south, but I still insist because I think Chiang Mai is really worth it. What people usually ask next is: "What is there to see in the north of Thailand"? 

One of the temples in Chiang Mai


Chiang Mai is the second biggest city in Thailand, but it doesn't feel like that. The streets are quiet, the old town is dotted with marvelous temples and it's not as intimidating and difficult to navigate as Bangkok. In Chiang Mai you can walk almost anywhere, which is a relief after Bangkok (if you haven't been, that is definitely not a city for walking tours). It is practically impossible to get lost in Chiang Mai,  because a moat surrounds it, giving you an idea of where you are at any given time. 

A night market in Chiang Mai

What I immediately noticed about Chiang Mai is that the atmosphere is chilled out. It is the right place to slow down. The mixture between tradition and innovation is really exciting: thanks to its student population it has many trendy cafés with wi-fi, but also friendly monks dressed in orange tunics waving and smiling at you. This is why many expats choose it as their base in South East Asia. It is also super cheap, both in terms of accommodation and for shopping.

Children monks in Chiang Mai

On the plus side, people in Chiang Mai are down to earth, and generally they don't insist too much with tourists, so I could just walk around and observe things without feeling pressed to buy anything or get on a tuk-tuk.


In Chiang Mai there is a temple for everybody. There is even one - Wat Bupharam - with statues of animals like giraffes and elephants, and even Disney characters, like Donald Duck eating noodles. Some temples are really old and have ruins, while some others are more modern. Most of them don't have an entrance fee and you are completely free to roam around.

An original temple in Chiang Mai

What I like about them is that there are so many things to observe, like offerings in many forms (candy bars, flowers and even money!) and statues from different traditions and religions, with the most unexpected facial expressions - they can be crying or laughing, fierce or serene. Temples in the north of Thailand tend to have a three-tiered roofline and carved gables. All around the main structures there are the so called stupas, shaped like bells.

A stupa in Chiang Mai

I even started asking around or doing a little bit of research whenever I had wi-fi so that I could understand what some details meant. The colourful ribbons tied around some pillars, for instance, mark the place of a spirit house. The ribbons supposedly keep the spirits in a good mood. It's the same reason why they are tied around the keel of longtail boats in the islands of the south. 

Ribbons tied around a sacred pole in Chiang Mai 

Overall in Chiang Mai you really perceive how rich Thai culture is. It is easy to see the beauty of the Buddhist religion, and the importance of traditions in people's daily life. Besides, I was lucky enough to be there during the Loi Krathong festival in November, which I highly suggest to take into consideration.

A temple in Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong


Another reason why I am particularly fond of Chiang Mai is food. There are many options, from fancy restaurants to street food stalls, or casual eateries, but the most exciting things - food-wise - were happening right on the street. 

In my experience it was easy to understand which places are popular because they were crowded with both tourists and locals, and there was a good smell of fresh vegetables and spices. The cuisine of northern Thailand is known as Lanna, from the name of an ancient kingdom, and it has influences from many countries, such as Burma and India. Typical dishes from the north of Thailand are sticky rice or som tam (papaya salad), but of course, I also ate dishes from other parts of Thailand, such as Massaman curry. What is amazing about this is that I don't remember spending more than 2-3€ for a meal. 

Thai fried rice with vegetables and tofu

The food is not only delicious, but also colourul and well-presented almost everywhere. On the down side, the names are sometimes difficult to remember. I also started to develop an addiction to Pad  thai, which is dangerous because there are so many other delicious things to try. 
Doi Suthep

Even if you feel tired of visiting temples, you should give Doi Suthep a chance. It is secluded and scenic, because to reach it you have to venture outside of the city (15 km), crossing countryside and forest, then go uphill until the top of Doi Suthep, a local mountain. If I remember well I went by songthaew, which is a pickup truck used as a shared taxi or bus. This means of transport is super easy to use, because it usually has fixed prices and stops.

When you arrive you will have to climb a staircase that appears to be in the middle of the tropical jungle. It is shaped like a naga, the mythical snake of Hinduism and Buddhism. It's 309 steps, but don't worry: if I made it, you can make it too without problems. Nothing like the Tiger Cave temple staircase in Krabi! If you're really lazy there is a cable car that for just 20 baht (0,50€) takes you to the top. 

Doi Suthep


The temple has an entrance fee of another 20 bhat (0,50€). It is quite big and, as most temples in Thailand, it includes several pagodas and areas of worship. It's a good chance to see how local people pray and pay their respects to Buddha. As any other shrines, Doi Suthep has some relics - in this case that of a white elephant bearing a magical Gautama Buddha's shoulder bone relic on the back. You also have a pretty nice view of the city and of its surroundings from a terrace.

Girl praying at Doi Suthep


There is so much more to do in Chiang Mai than just visit temples and eat delicious meals. If you love animals you can visit the Elephant Nature reserve, for instance. If you are into shopping, the Night Market and the Sunday Night Market are excellent places to goggle at the endless variety of nice purses, scarves, bags and necklaces for sale. Ethnic accessories are often manifactured around Chiang Mai, which is definitely a plus.

The night market

Trekking, rock-climbing, white-water rafting are more activities, but bear in mind that it is very hot all year round in Thailand. Another popular option is to take a cooking class, which is something that I had planned to do in Chiang Mai. They are relatively cheap, but in busy periods they need to be booked well in advance. When I visited the city was busy because of the Loi Krathong festival, and all the cooking class were already booked!

Have you been to Chiang Mai? What did you like best about it?

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Appreciating a glimpse of Dutch countryside in Zaanse Schans

I love cities, but when I travel I also like to see something different. Big cities are not usually very representative of a country, so it's a good idea to venture outside and see how the rest of the country looks like. That's what I did when I was in Amsterdam last March.

The village of Zaanse Schans is located only a few minutes away from central Amsterdam. I took a local train leaving from the Central Station that in just 17 minutes and 7,20€ (return ticket) took me to another world. In Zaanse Schans there are working windmills, the air is fresh and you get to see a glimpse of Dutch countryside. Compared to Amsterdam Zaanse Schans is relaxed and quiet.

Zaanse Schans village

I think it was the turning point in my trip to Amsterdam. Somehow I couldn't connect to the city and the country, so I spent three days sightseeing without getting particularly excited at anything. While the city was certainly interesting and full of inspiration, certainly different from most European cities I had visited before, Zaanse Schans offered a different point of view and an interesting insight on the country. It made me get away from the hype about coffeeshops and red-light districts and see that there is a lot more to the Dutch identity than that.

Lanscape around Zaanse Schans

There used to be a chocolate factory in the area, so as soon as you get off the train you will smell roasted cocoa beans. A few panels explain the importance of this area for both the industrial and cultural heritage of the Netherlands.

The first windmill that you see, even before getting to the village on the banks of the river Zaan, is maybe the most picturesque. It is called De Bleeke Dood (which means "the Pale Death"!) and it was built in 1656. It was restored a couple of times and is still used to make flour.
"De Bleeke Dood" windmill on the way to Zaanse Schans

Wooden clogs, windmills and tulips are all part of the world you enter in Zaanse Schans. Several mills were moved to this area in the 1960s to preserve them for future generations. They are surrounded by extensive meadows, and just to see the sails slowly turning from a distance make you feel like you went back a few centuries, when life was simpler and things like oil or flour or were produced locally.

Windmills along the river

Zaanse Schans is certainly touristic: there were plenty of tourists, especially Asians, with big cameras and selfie sticks, and the windmills now work almost exclusively for them. In spite of that, it is interesting to learn about their several uses: to mill and saw wood for sure, but also to make the pigments used by Dutch painters. For a few euros you can enter them and get to see how they work, then climb the stairs and have a look at the landscape from the top.

One of the mills along the river
There is an abundance of museums in Zaanse Schans, so if you feel like exploring traditional crafts, you could spend there the whole day. There is even a small museum that relates the history and the craftsmanship behind wooden clogs. Moreover, there are demonstrations of traditional crafts, hot chocolate for cold rainy days and a few restaurants.

The best thing about a visit to Zaanse Schans, however, was simply taking the leisurely walk from the train station to the village and then stroll on the water's edge, admiring these huge wooden creatures dating from another time. I spent there a couple of pleasant hours, thanks to the perfect weather. I had to plan really well when to go, looking at the weather forecast a lot, because not all the days I had there were as sunny with clear blue skies. 

Wooden clogs

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Walking through enchanting Ohrid

Ohrid is quickly becoming one of the highlights of a trip to the Balkans, and for a good reason. Leaving quirky Skopje for quiet and pleasant Lake Ohrid made me feel as I had crossed yet another border of former Yugoslavia. Yet Ohrid, with its elegant ancient architecture, is in Macedonia, the same country as bombastic Skopje with its huge statues and its kitsch neoclassical architecture.

Sveti Jovan Kaneo
Let me begin from the best Ohrid has to offer. The church of Sveti Jovan Kaneo is like a perfect postcard. It's just a small 13th-century church on a cliff overlooking the lake, but what makes it so special is the quiet atmosphere. No wonder that in the past it was used as a place for meditation.  The beautiful roof shaped like an half-folded umbrella is one of my favourite features of this church and it indicates an Armenian influence. Just think of the mix of cultures in this small corner of the world. For example, the part of the town on the hill used to be Christian, while the part on the flat land was Ottoman. 

Another picture of Sveti Jovan Kaneo

I reached the church after a short and pleasant hike from the old town. After a gentle bend I saw the church appear in the distance. There weren't too many people (it really depends on the moment of the day) and I spent some time on the hill above the church looking at the perfect view and reading. A woman was painting and every now and then a small group of tourists would come, admire the church and leave after a short time. 

Sveti Jovan from the bend in the road
Nearby there is also a small beach with a couple of restaurants: just the perfect place to chill out. As Ohrid is dotted with monasteries and ancient churches, I kept exploring: I discovered that the church of Saint Penteleimon hosted the first students of the Glagolitic alphabet, which in time became the Cyrill script of Macedonian and other Slavic languages. 

I also ran into the ruins of a fortress, Car Samuil, with an  impressive view, and later into an ancient amphitheater. There is so much to explore that you if you like history like me you'll not get bored. The weather was exceptional and every two minutes there was something to stop for: a nice view, a historical site or a scene of everyday Macdonian life.

Landscape in the old town
The town itself is crumbling in places, but incredibly fascinating. Here old Ottoman traditions meet the Christian Orthodox world. Its cobbled streets all lead to the main square, with a huge tree that is said to be 900 years old. The menus in the restaurants around the square and the bazaar included stuffed peppers, shopska salata, sarma dumplings and other Macedonian specialities.

Charming Ohrid

Ohrid is a small town, so on the second day, having explored every nook and cranny, I decided to take a day trip to Sveti Naum monastery. There is a ferry that leaves at 10 in the morning from the pier and for 10€ takes you there, then comes back after lunch. I discovered that Lake Ohrid was one of Tito's favourite parts of Yugoslavia (he had a villa here) and in the meantime I observed the less developed Albanian side of the lake. 

When I was around Sveti Naum there was an important wedding and even the president of Macedonia was present. The entry to the monastery was 100 dinars (1,60€). It is tiny and dark, as it is inside Sveti Jovan Kaneo church, but the frescoes were somehow fascinating.

Sveti Naum monastery
There were peacocks in the courtyard and some girls were rehearsing a traditional folk dance for the wedding.  There is also another newer church that I liked, some hiking trails, a spring and a couple of restaurants and souvenir shops. It's a nice trip but maybe it would have been better to couple it with something else to fill up the rest of the day.

The newer church near Sveti Naum

I reached Ohrid with a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Skopje. If you're planning to visit this beautiful lake keep in mind that it's tricky to continue on to Greece, and in my experience it was easier to get a bus back to Skopje and then another one to Thessaloniki. If I remember well there is more than one company that servers the route Skopje - Ohrid, so one stand could not be able to tell you the timetable for the other company and try to sell you their ticket only.

A view from behind the fortress

Monday, 20 March 2017

Four enchanted places you should visit right now

1) Chefchaouen

Believe me when I say that I love Morocco, but I must recognize that in big cities like Fez or Marrakesh you can easily feel overwhelmed. The strong smells and the chaos of the medina, the touts, or simply the amount of people walking down the street can make you feel like you've already had enough of this country. In that case a good idea is to spend a few days in Chefchaouen, a small quiet town nestled in the hills of northern Morocco.

A quiet street in the medina
There I just walked around, taking ridiculously gorgeous pictures, and shopping for Moroccan slippers or scarfs without feeling the pressure of the vendors in bigger towns. The walls of the medina are painted a deep blue and even the doors, the stone stairs and the furniture are often blue. 

Men wear the traditional djellaba and look like mysterious wizards, as if they were the last of a disappearing population of magical beings. In Chefchaouen I found people to be extremely welcoming and I appreciated the fact that children could play happily on the quiet streets and small squares. 

Add that to the fact that there are great hiking possibilities all around and you have your perfect Moroccan getaway from the bustling city life of Moroccan cities.

Read more about Chefchaouen in this post from April 2015.

2) Bled

Did you ever wonder what the place where Snow White and Prince Charming come from might look like? I think it must look like Bled.

Lake Bled
If you've never heard of this lake, maybe it's because it is found in a tiny and relatively unknown European country called Slovenia. Other than being the birthplace of Melania Trump, this Alpine country is little known. In a novel by Paulo Coelho a librarian from the capital Ljubljiana decides to commit suicide after reading an article in a magazine about her country, making people believe that she did it because people don't even know where Slovenia is.

Lake Bled seen from the castle
I have a plan to visit Bled in every season: in winter with snow, in autumn with yellow leaves and in spring with flowers in bloom. I have already been in the summer and it is gorgeous: I cannot think of a better country than Slovenia to breathe some fresh air and rest your eyes with a palette of colours unlike that of any other country.

Read more about Bled and Slovenia in this post, which is actually the first one I wrote on this blog.

3) Sintra

In "Journey to Portugal" Saramago described this small town a few kilometers from Lisbon: as an "English folly, paid for by the cloth trade ...  a monument to an age that had every taste imaginable, but never really defined any of them ....  eclectic to the point of eccentricity .... As empires dominated the world economically, they amused themselves with alien cultures". 

Palacio da Pena
Sintra resembles the dream of a king that went slightly mad  at the end of his life.  Several royal palaces dot the hilly landscape, each one slightly crazier than the other. Some elements are Gothic, others call back to traditional Muslim architecture, or to the Portuguese Manueline style. As if this wasn't enough, mysterious gargoyles look at you from weird angles.

Palacio da Pena

The most charming palace according to me is Quinta da Regaleira, especially the Gothic-style gardens. I spent a couple of hours exploring the grottoes, the statues and the ponds, wondering what the upside-down staircase might mean and feeling that every pinnacle and gargoyle has a secret to reveal.

The gardens of Quinta da Regaleira

If palaces are not your thing in the small town the charming yellow-trimmed houses are a pleasure for the eyes, and the streets bear the names of the writers and artists who tread and wrote about this place, including Lord Byron. 

Read more about my trip to Sintra in December 2015 here.

4) Ait-Benhaddou

I know, I'm listing Morocco twice in this list, but it's merely because that country of djinns is literally bewitching. Moreover Ait-Benhaddou is one of the most incredible places I have been to.
Ait Benhaddou
You may have seen it as the location for countless movies and TV shows, including as Yunkai in Game of Thrones. It is usually portrayed as a city made of sand that appears like a mirage in the middle of the desert. And that is actually what it is: a particularly good-looking ksar that is not completely abandoned and that is at the edge of the desert. The Touareg guides in blue turbans lead the way into a magic world, where you may find anything from Ali Baba's lamp to an ancient amulet.
A berber guide in Ait Benhaddou
This was one of the highlights of my trip to Morocco. It is a perfect stop on the way to the Sahara desert and it is a good opportunity to learn about the ancient trade routes that pass through this part of the world.
Souvenirs in Ait Benhaddou

Monday, 6 March 2017

Exploring the Big Mango: 4 days in Bangkok

"There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror…" - Joseph Conrad
I've already written a Bangkok survival guide, but I would like to go more in detail about this incredible city.

The temples

I literally love temples and history so I just couldn't miss the emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho, located at walking distance one from the other. The former is inside the grounds of  the Grand Palace, which is the only tourist attraction in the city that has a steep entrance fee: 500 baht (13,50€). It also closes early, at 3:30 pm,  so I had to schedule the visit carefully. Wat Pho was equally beautiful and at 100 baht (2,70€) was more affordable. Another plus it that it is open until 6:30 pm so I had no excuse.

A stone giant in Wat Pho

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Places not to miss in Malta

It never takes more than an hour to get anywhere in Malta, even with the public transport. This is why with just 8 days I was able to see many different things, on different parts of the island. Here's my personal top five of places not to miss in this charming  and fascinating Mediterranean country.

A street in Valletta

Sunday, 29 January 2017

A taste of the new world: the colonial heritage of Tenerife

Tenerife, the biggest of  the Canary islands, is famous for all-inclusive resorts where tourists get drunk and enjoy the year-round sunshine, experiencing nothing of the island. Locals insist that the real Tenerife is elsewhere, and especially in the north of the island, where the charming towns and the incredible landscapes will leave you agape.

Tenerife is rich in culture and unique in its diversity. A volcanic island off the coast of southern Morocco, it is home to a biodiversity that is comparable to that of Galápagos. To the tourist it offers a variety of sceneries, from the volcanic lunar landscapes of Parque del Teide to the lush forests of the Anaga mountains, or the golden beaches with sand imported from the Sahara. Because of the microclimates of the island, Tenerife is green in the north and arid in the south.
The Anaga Mountains, on the north-eastern tip of Tenerife

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