Tag Archives: travel

Exploring Jodhpur, The Blue City

Click to enlarge!

The Blue City. Click to enlarge!

It’s time for another travel post! I love sharing these with you because it means I get to go over my photos and reminisce. Hope you guys enjoy them too.

Today I’m revisiting Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. It’s known as the Blue City…for obvious reasons. (The state of Rajasthan also has a Pink City (Jaipur), a Golden City (Jaisalmer), and unofficially a White City (Udaipur).) And yes, the riding pants are named after the city.

My travelling companion and I took the train from Jaipur, sharing a compartment with an elderly woman, her daughter-in-law, and her young grandson. We were glad to be with them because the stop announcements were nonexistent, even in Hindi. Signs in the stations are generally in both Hindi and English, so you can get on the right train at the right platform, you just can’t necessarily get off at the right stop unless you happen to spot the sign going by.

View from the train

View of rural Rajasthan from the train — looks pretty dry, doesn’t it?

A man from our hotel met us at the train station. We almost walked right past him because we’d gotten so used to ignoring people trying to sell us stuff. (Later, back in New Delhi, we projected such an air of being experienced travellers, or something, that nobody at the station even bothered to approach us.)

We’d been travelling through some very intense places for the past week, so we spent our first day in the Blue City just relaxing at the hotel. Like many hotels in Rajasthan, it had an open-air restaurant on the roof — obviously this is a place that doesn’t get rained on much!

Both our room and the restaurant had nice wicker furniture, but the hotel wifi was stronger in the restaurant, so we spent a lot of time upstairs, hiding in the shade from the intense semi-desert sun.

We did leave the hotel to go to dinner down the street. On the way we found dodgy sidewalks, lots of motorbikes, and the alarming fact that after dark, all the local women disappear off the streets. I didn’t notice at first, but every single person we interacted with in public throughout northern India — at hotels, at restaurants, in stores — was male.

(Rajasthan is known as a backwards state, even for India…and it gets more so the farther in you go. Just as a surface example, we hadn’t seen any women in Western clothing after leaving New Delhi and Agra, larger cities where women have more freedom. In fact, we started seeing women with veils over their faces — not opaque veils but sheer ones that matched their saris. This part of India is heavily Hindu and partly tribal, so it’s not a Muslim thing, but I bet it comes from the same impulses.)

The next day we set out to explore the fort (of course). Jodhpur is dominated by Mehrangargh Fort, dating to the 15th century and every inch a fortress. I mean, just look at this:

Mehrangarh Fort, Jaipur

(Lots more pictures behind the jump!)

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Touring the Forts and Palaces of Jaipur, India

Amber or Amer Fort

Amber or Amer Fort

Picture a city in the dry lands of northwest India, surrounded by arid hills. This was once a land of many warring cities led by rajahs — hence the name of the state, Rajasthan — and they’ve left their mark.

Each city has a fortified palace, sometimes several. Most are in excellent condition, preserved by the dry air. They are empty of furnishings, but they look as if their owners have just moved out and may yet return.

In the meantime, they are a favourite haunt of tourists, both local and international. (Read my post on the best of Rajasthan for more.)

Jaipur, the Pink City, location of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rajasthan. For one thing, it’s the closest to New Delhi. For another, the city and its surroundings are host to not one but seven forts and palaces…

(Click through for lots more photos!)

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The Best of Rajasthan, India

One of the most popular tourist destinations in India is the state of Rajasthan. Fortified palaces, arid landscapes, rich curries…all conveniently close to the capital of New Delhi, where most international travellers first arrive. I spent six weeks in India last year, with a good chunk of that in Rajasthan — and I still just scratched the surface of what this state has to offer.

Arch in Udaipur

Arch in Udaipur

Here, then, are the do-not-miss experiences:

1. Trains

Riding the train in India is quite the experience — it is by turns exciting, confusing, stressful, and fun. (For more, see Guide to Train Travel in India.) But if you’re going to do it, Rajasthan is the place to do it in. Most of the major cities are a reasonable six-hour ride apart, with signage and announcements in English as well as Hindi.

If you’re really pressed for time, try riding the Golden Triangle — New Delhi to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) to Jaipur (which will give you a quick glimpse of Rajasthan) and back to Delhi. These are all fairly short rides, with no worries about security on overnight trains, and you’ll get a little taste of the vast Indian train system.

2. Forts

The forts of Rajasthan deserve their own post. For now, I’ll just say that if you love old architecture or are a history buff, these are not to be missed. (For a quick primer on Indian forts, see Visiting the Red Fort in New Delhi.)

There are many fine forts (really fortified palaces) to visit, each with unique charm and character. If I had to pick two to recommend, it would be Amber Fort near Jaipur, with its gorgeous surroundings, many courtyards, and beautiful decor…

Amer Fort near Jaipur

…and Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, with its towering walls, intricate detailing, and museum showcasing items from the time of the rajahs (most of the other forts are simply empty):

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Did I mention this was my favourite part of Rajasthan?

More pictures after the jump…

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Blogiversary the Second

This week marks the second anniversary of this blog. I know, I know, I’m a toddler in the world of blogging, but I’m still excited. So here are some things I’ve learned from being a toddler:

Blogging regularly is good discipline. I’ve managed a regular schedule for pretty much two years now. Given how my fiction writing schedule goes (or doesn’t), that’s not peanuts.

I can’t think short. Blogging is time-consuming, and depending on who you listen to, it might be time better spent working on fiction. I’ve tried to write shorter posts to decrease the time commitment while maintaining the same schedule, and it just doesn’t work. I think long, and that’s all there is to it.

Comments make all the difference. Blogging can sometimes feel like shouting into the ether. It’s a relief when someone steps up to say “Hey, I hear you!” — either in so many words, or with a simple “like”. Thank you all for being here!

This blog is all over the place. Travel blog? Geekery, feminism, and the intersection of the two? Personal journey and mental health? Writing? Yes! (And more.) It may not be the best for platform or building a coherent audience, but it does keep me entertained.

Just to reinforce that last point, here are the ten most popular posts from the last two years:

10. Book Nostalgia: Trixie Belden. Trixie was one of my favourite characters growing up, but I worried when I wrote this post that she would be too niche to garner any interest. Guess I was wrong!

9. Into the Jungle at Taman Negara. A travel post about Malaysia. In this case, I think the popularity stems from the relative lack of other posts on the topic…but I hope the enthusiasm of the writing (it was my first time in a jungle!) and photography encourage readers to look around a bit while they’re here.

8. If You Liked…A Game of Thrones. TV series + bestselling fantasy author + algorithm from online retail giant = win! But more than that, I put a lot of thought into not just “if you liked…” but “if you liked X aspect of…”, and I think it shows. I’ve also done “If You Liked…Temeraire.”

7. Book Nostalgia: The Time Quartet by Madeleine L’Engle. Here’s another “book nostalgia” post about a series that was one of my very favourites growing up.

6. Book Nostalgia: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. And another one! I haven’t done any Nostalgia posts lately because I haven’t been rereading, and it’s difficult to blog coherently about books I haven’t read in years. But their popularity has me thinking maybe I should revisit the topic….

5. Pacific Rim Analysis: Is Mako a Strong Female Character? Like I said, feminism and geekery are topics that fascinate me, and clearly I’m far from the only one. This is the most recent post on the Top 10 list, from August 2013.

4. Exploring the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. This is my only other travel post to have hit the Top 10 so far (though “Guide to Train Travel in India” is sitting at #11), which is funny because I feel like the travel posts are often my strongest. If you liked this one and/or #9, have a peek at some of the others!

3. Defining Steampunk. Clearly a lot of people are not sure what steampunk is all about. Or at least, they weren’t when this was written two years ago — it doesn’t get a lot of hits these days. Regardless, I love steampunk, so I’m happy to be a resource. (I’ve written more about it here.)

2. Book vs. Movie: The Hunger Games. Again, super-popular film and super-popular book made for a lot of hits…which made me happy because I really enjoyed unleashing my (not-so-inner) geek to write this. I wrote one for Catching Fire too, but for whatever reason, not as many people are Googling that.

And the number one blog post, with over twice as many hits as #2…

1. 7 Writing Lessons from George R.R. Martin. To be fair, this one gets a fair number of false positives — hits from people looking for writing advice from GRRM, or writing lessons given by GRRM. Be that as it may, I’m still pretty proud of how it turned out.

The first two years have been a journey for sure. Hope you’ll join me as we enter the Terrible Twos and beyond!

Your turn! If you track your blog stats, what have you learned from them? Or do you deliberately avoid looking at them?

Top 3 Sights in New Delhi

I haven’t done a travel post in a while — high time to fix that! This week I’m sharing my favourite sights in New Delhi, the capital of India.

(ROW80 update at bottom of post.)

New Delhi is the first stop for most tourists to India. It’s teeming with people, dirty, poor, chaotic, but vividly alive and more modern in some ways than you might think. (Read more about my impressions of Delhi.)

Market in the Paharganj area of Delhi

Market in the Paharganj area of Delhi

And the best sights are…

3. Old Delhi

The Jama Masjid in Old Delhi

The Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, in Old Delhi

If you want a sense of Delhi life in times past, head to Old Delhi. You’ll be buffeted by the teeming foot traffic (and cycle-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws and carts), you’ll have trouble crossing the road, and you’ll be dismayed by the poverty. But many of those things are true of Delhi in general…and Old Delhi is less thronged by tourists, and those trying to make a buck off them, than popular areas such as Connaught Place and Palika Bazaar. You might also get to practice your haggling skills.

Bonus: if you’re inclined, you can visit the great Jama Masjid (mosque) at the centre of the bazaar. You don’t have to be Muslim to enter the courtyard, and the architecture is beautiful.

2. The Qutab Minar

Arches in the Qutab Minar complex

Arches in the Qutab Minar complex

This was actually my favourite place in Delhi, but only because I went at the exact right time. If you go, go at dusk — the most atmospheric time of day. The Qutab Minar is a minaret (prayer tower) that dates from the twelfth century, one of the oldest surviving structures in Delhi.

It stands in the ruins of a contemporary mosque, which itself was built on the ruins of an eighth-century fort. The mosque was constructed with materials from destroyed Hindu and Jain temples, and parts of statues and other stonework from these temples can still be seen in the ruined walls of the mosque. If this sounds like your kind of thing, don’t miss it!

1. The Red Fort

Arches in the Hall of Public Audience

Arches in the open-air Hall of Public Audience

If you like old architecture and/or history, or you just want to get a quick sense of one of the major forces that shaped India, the Red Fort is a great place to start. Built during the heyday of the Mughal Empire — for the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal — it’s an impressive show of power.

It’s also beautiful, featuring red sandstone, arches, marble, and peaceful green gardens…which are in short supply in Delhi, so enjoy them while you’re here. Though it’s called a fort, it was also the emperor’s palace (sadly, no furnishings remain). There are many similar fort-palaces throughout northern India, so if you’re inclined to explore, the Red Fort will give you a good grounding. (I’ve written more about the Red Fort — with lots more pictures — here. I’ll talk about some of the other fort-palaces in a future post.)

Honorable Mention: The National Museum

Buddha statue head from Uttar Pradesh, India

Buddha statue head from Uttar Pradesh, India

If it’s a rainy or unpleasantly hot day, consider visiting the National Museum. It’s not very large, not at all interactive, and the signage isn’t great (bring a guidebook and/or rent an audioguide so you know what you’re looking at). But it does have good collections of:

  • sculptures and woodcarvings from all over India
  • weird and wonderful musical instruments, and related items like masks used in dancing
  • textiles

Bonus: afterwards you can wander up and down the Rajpath, a massive avenue built by the British in a fervor of Paris-envy.

Your turn! If you’ve been to India, what were your favourite (or at least memorable) things about New Delhi?

If you liked this post, you can read more about my travels here.

ROW80 Check-In

I’m not counting blog posts in my ROW80 goals, so the above doesn’t count. So far this week I’ve managed 1 hour of writing…in which I finished a serial short story. Better, I was quite pleased with how the ending turned out — it’s my first attempt at a serial, and I’m a pantser — so that’s a win already.

Next up: either some flash fiction or an attempt to dive back into a novel edit.

I’ve reduced my goal from 5 hours a week to 3, for reasons discussed here, so I’m aiming for 2 more hours this week.

 

A Short Story Inspired by Thailand

This week I have a new fantasy story up at Turtleduck Press. It’s the third installment in “Still Waters Run Deep”, a serial story about a pedlar trying to solve a magical crisis that’s entwined with his own long-buried past. (The first installment is here.) His world is not our own, but it bears a more-than-passing resemblance to ours…specifically, some of the places I saw on my travels earlier this year.

If I were to illustrate the story so far with photos, here’s what I’d choose…

The floating market at the beginning of the story, and the pedlar’s boat:

Thonburi floating market(Thonburi floating market, Bangkok, Thailand)

The river and vegetation:

Longtail boat in Thonburi greenery(Longtail boat in Thonburi, Thailand)

The narrow streams where the pedlar prefers to trade:

Kerala backwaters(The “backwaters” near Kumarakom, Kerala, southern India)

More vegetation along the main river in the story:

Jungle view from boat(Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia)

The Grand Temple in the city:

Grand Palace(Grand Palace, Bangkok)

And from the latest installment…

 

…leaving extra space in case you want to avoid spoilers…

 

The Old Temple:

Wat Arun(Wat Arun, Bangkok)

The golden statue would be something like this, except sitting upright in the lotus position (I did see statues like that, but most temples prohibit photography, so this is one of the few I was able to snap):

Wat Pho Reclining Buddha(Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok)

With those visuals in mind…hope you enjoy the story!

Your turn! Did the photos add to or detract from your experience of the story? If you’re a writer, do you use photographs as inspiration?

Guide to Train Travel in India

It’s time for another installment of Adventures in Asia. I’m mixing personal travel tales with how-tos, and this week is the latter…

Earlier this year, I spent six weeks travelling through India, much of it by train. Like India in general, the trains were an intense experience, chaotic, busy, sometimes dirty…but I wouldn’t have missed them for the world.

Here’s how to get the most out of travelling by train in India.

1. Decide whether trains are practical for your travel needs.

Pros: trains in India are extremely cheap (all of $10 for a six-hour trip in a decent class), they’re a great way to experience the country while not being insulated from it, they beat buses hands down, and they’re memorable.

Cons: they’re not the most comfortable by Western standards (more about this later), delays can be extensive, and you have to plan ahead.

The best parts of India to see by train are those where you can do 6- or 8-hour hops. That’s why the northern state of Rajasthan is so popular: it boasts a string of cities, most an easy day’s ride apart. If you don’t have time to tour Rajasthan, even more popular is the Golden Triangle: New Delhi–Agra (home of the Taj Mahal)–Jaipur (one of the major cities in Rajasthan)–and back to Delhi.

Certain parts of the country don’t have trains at all — any of the Himalayan states, for example — and in a lot of other cases, the trips required are extremely long. Faced with a 30-hour train ride, for example, you might decide to splash out for a plane ticket instead, or even hire a car. (In India, when you rent a car you also get a driver — which is not prohibitively expensive unless you’re really on a budget.)

2. Book your tickets online ahead of time.

Indian train tickets can be booked through Cleartrip, but if you don’t have an Indian mobile (cell phone) number, you’ll need to contact customer service to get an activation code.

The train system has a confusing number of different classes and trains (read all about them at IndiaMike — a wealth of information). The better ones fill up fast, so book as early as you can — best is to do it at least several weeks ahead. We did manage to get some last-minute seats, but they weren’t on the fastest trains or the best classes.

If you don’t book online, you’ll have to go to the station. New Delhi Railway Station is memorable, but not an experience I’d like to repeat. That’s because…

3. Expect chaos.

Big stations are incredibly busy and chaotic, full of people wanting to carry your luggage (for a fee) or take you to your hotel via rickshaw (for a fee) or begging. They’ll be especially eager if you look like a new tourist, or if you’re at a big tourist destination like one of the Golden Triangle cities. And you have to watch out for pickpockets, and not trust people who offer directions, because they may be part of a scam.

Even boarding and finding your seat can be tricky. When you get to the right platform, you’ll have to watch for electronic signs that will tell you where on the platform to wait for your train car (check your ticket). If you get on the wrong one, you’ll have to haul your luggage up and down the train, asking other passengers which car you’re in, receiving conflicting advice and trying to get a consensus. When you find your seat, there might be someone in it who will insist you’re in the wrong car.

There will be no staff to help; other passengers may be eager to help, but they may also have their information wrong.

Even after we had a handful of train trips under our belt, we still found the station navigation and boarding process to be exhausting and confusing.

4. Persist and learn the patterns.

Despite what I said in #3, it is quite possible to enjoy train travel in India — even if, like us, you’re not the most confident of travellers. Most of the stations where you’ll be getting on or off have electronic signs and announcements in English (smaller ones won’t, but unless you’re well off the beaten track, you shouldn’t have to worry). The complex system of classes starts to make more sense (tip: AC2 and Chair Car are the best; AC3 is also fine). You’ll get used to the layout of the cars. Even running the gauntlet of would-be rickshaw drivers gets easier — by the time we returned to Delhi, we’d mastered the art of ignoring touts so completely that we weren’t hassled for rides at all, even though my light hair attracted plenty of attention throughout India.

5. The level of comfort won’t be what you’re used to.

I mentioned that trains aren’t very comfortable by Western standards. In the classes you’re most likely to travel in, AC2 and AC3, you’re sitting on benches (reasonably well padded) facing other travellers, so there’s not much privacy, and the windows may be tinted so you won’t have a good view. (At night the benches convert into tiered bunks. In AC2, each compartment can be curtained off and the lighting dimmed individually. We managed to avoid any overnight trips, though, so I can’t be any more helpful there.)

If you’re travelling alone or at night, you’ll want to bring a sturdy lock to lock your bag up for security (there’s a ring for that purpose under each bench). The cars aren’t all that clean, particularly the bathrooms. Most of the time you’ll find each car equipped with three squat toilets and one Western-style toilet — usually with no toilet paper, so bring your own (and hand sanitizer!).

6. Make a conscious choice to relax and enjoy the experience.

Despite #5, if you have the ability to take such things in stride, trains are a wonderful way to see the country and meet locals. India hosts a lot of tourists, but almost everywhere you’ll be seriously outnumbered; I’ve been the only white person in a car many times.

AC2, AC3, and Chair Class are how the Indian middle class travels, so your seatmates will tend to be businessmen or students or families. I’ve chatted with a young woman travelling with her mother-in-law and her small son, showed off the sock I was knitting to a cadre of women, and asked lots of people whether we were coming up to our stop yet.

(And no, you don’t need much language in common to share moments like these. It helps if you learn the local pronunciation for places and a few key words, though many people will have a little English.)

And then there’s the cultural flavour. Periodically, someone will come by selling chai (tea) with a long drawn-out shout of “Chaaai!” that recalls a train whistle, or paani (water) with a low, growly “paani-water-paani-water-paani-water”, or bags of chips in strange and wonderful flavours. In Chair Car class, food and chai are provided free, but I learned the hard way not to partake. If in any doubt, bring your own.

Have you travelled by train in India? Any tips to share?

If you liked this post, you might also like other posts in my travel series, Adventures in Asia.

Visiting the Red Fort in New Delhi

The outer walls of the Red Fort

The outer walls of the Red Fort

In this installment of my Adventures in Asia series, we’re exploring the Red Fort, built on the order of Shah Jahan — better known as the emperor who built the Taj Mahal.

The fort was built during the heyday of the Mughal Empire, a Muslim empire that controlled much of India from the 16th to early 19th centuries. They built a lot of forts, palaces, and tombs that still stand today, even though Muslims have been reduced to a minority in present-day India.

If you go, rent an audioguide — it will not only walk you through the various structures in the fort but also give you a good overview of the history.

The Red Fort, or Lal Qila, overlooks the Yamuna River. Its imposing red sandstone walls are enclosed by a moat (now dry). Once you make your way through the series of massive gates, you’ll see that the complex wasn’t just a fort, but also a palace.

(Lots of photos after the jump!)

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Long-Term Travel: How To Pack

Backpacks lined up at a rest stop during my trip to Nepal

Backpacks lined up at a rest stop during my trip to Nepal

In this installment of my travel series, I’ll share my best packing tips and product recommendations…and, equally important, what not to bother packing. They’re geared for a long-term backpacker-style trip in warm climates, but they’re totally adaptable to other situations!

Packing Principles

The first thing to remember, especially for longer trips or ones where you’ll be carrying your luggage around a lot: packing is all about resource management. In this case, the resources are space and weight vs. the stuff you need to bring. You don’t want to run out of, say, shampoo or underwear at an inconvenient time, but you don’t want to pack a giant bottle of shampoo or 20 pairs of underwear either. Same goes for toilet paper, snacks, and so on. (More tips for packing light here.)

The trick is finding the best balance for you. How often are you willing to do laundry? (That may depend on whether you’ll be handing it over to a hotel front desk, looking for a laundromat, or plugging up your bathroom sink.) How much weight do you want to lug around or your back?

There will be tradeoffs. Want to bring a netbook and a good camera? Then you might have to do with less clothing. Planning a trip with a wide variety of activities or climates? Go for multipurpose clothes and layers. Want more shoes? Pack fewer jackets. You get the idea.

Choose your bags with care. Make sure they’ll work with your travel style. I usually travel with a big backpacking-style pack and a medium-sized daypack, both from my favourite outdoor supply store, Mountain Equipment Co-op. My travelling companion prefers a duffel bag. In places where you know you’ll be dealing with paved roads and a minimum of walking, rolling suitcases are also good.

Be Sure to Pack…

Here are some items I found indispensable on my trip through the warmer parts of Asia.

That's me under the giant hat communing with the elephant in Kerala, India. Also note the daypack.

That’s me under the giant hat communing with the elephant in Kerala, India. Also note the daypack.

1. Crushable hat. If you’re heading for sunnier weather than you’re used to, get the biggest brim you can find. I got mine from Lee Valley.

2. Good guidebook. My current favourite brand is Rough Guides, but I’ve also used Rick Steves and Lonely Planet. It all depends on your travel style — browse several before you pick one. (More about my experiences with Rough Guides here.)

3. Mesh bags. Picking up mesh bags in various sizes will do wonders for your organization. Put all your underwear in one bag, your socks in another, your shirts in a bigger one (or two), and so on. Much less rummaging around wondering how your bag can possibly be hiding an entire pair of pants!

4. (For women only…) A urinating aid such as a Shewee. If you’re going to a place with squat/pit toilets (or none at all), and especially if you have bad knees, one of these is a must! Be sure to practice first at home in the bathtub/shower until you get the hang of it. (Pro tip: if you’re peeing outdoors, don’t plant your feet on a hill!)

5. Travel tech. I usually travel with an ereader (for guidebooks as well as leisure reading), a cell phone (doubles as an alarm clock and, if you have a smartphone, a music player), the best camera I can afford, and a netbook. If you can get away with less, do so — technology is heavy! Don’t forget you’ll also need a plug converter, extra batteries, a battery charger, and maybe even a small power strip (if you’re going someplace where power outages are common).

My trusty hiking boots in the Malaysian jungle

My trusty hiking boots in the Malaysian jungle

6. Comfy shoes. If you’re planning on doing any amount of walking, go for comfort over style — you’ll be so glad you did. For my Asia trip, I took a pair of lightweight Gore-Tex Merrell hiking shoes. (Pro tip: Don’t go shopping for trail/walking sandals in winter right before you leave for a warm climate. There won’t be any.) I also bought a pair of cheapie flip-flops once I got there, for showers and iffy hotel rooms.

7. Quick-dry clothing. Whether you are washing clothes in your hotel room or just get caught in the rain, quick-dry clothing is a must. I bought some high-tech clothes ahead of time — zip-off pants, sweat-wicking shirt, water-resistant fleece jacket — and also picked up some lightweight cotton items once I got to India (bonus: the loose salwar kameez pieces I bought were also culturally appropriate).

8. Door stopper. If you’re going lower-budget, you may find yourself in a perfectly acceptable room…that has no functioning lock, or else a crappy one. Solution? Metal wedges that go under your door. I don’t have a link, but ask at a travel/outdoor supply store.

9. Small flashlight. If you’re in an area of the world where the power supply may be iffy, or even a cheap hotel room that has no bedside lamps, you’ll be glad you brought a flashlight.

Wearing salwar kameez in Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur, India

Wearing salwar kameez in Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur, India

Think About Ditching…

We also packed some stuff that we didn’t really end up using much, and probably could have gotten away with leaving behind completely. (And in fact, at one point we did — we stored a duffel bag full of stuff in Kathmandu, Nepal while we went trekking in the Annapurna Region. Granted, by that point in our trip a lot of the contents were souvenirs.)

1. Cable lock. I bought this complicated lock that completely encases your backpack in metal mesh. We used it on trains, but really, since we never took an overnight train, we could have gotten away without it. And it was heavy, too — remember what I said about resource management? That said, you might want it if you’re hostelling or taking public buses or overnight trains.

2. Travel towel. As it turns out, everywhere we went in Asia supplied us with clean towels. We were staying in guesthouses of sufficient cleanliness that we were fine with using their towels. But again, if you’re hostelling, you’ll want a quick-dry travel towel — those things are very light and compact yet hold a lot of water.

3. Pharmacy. We packed a whole pharmacy worth of “just in case” stuff, from anti-fungal cream to anti-diarrhea meds (which may have actually landed me in hospital, but that’s a story for another day). Absolutely do bring some emergency supplies, but as always, do your best to minimize. Exceptions: tampons and sunscreen may be hard to find.

Your turn! What are your must-haves when travelling? What would you leave behind next time?

Long-Term Travel: 8 Ways to Mix Independent Travel and Guided Tours

Welcome to another edition of “long-term travel how-tos”! I’m sharing wisdom gained from my 12-week trip through Asia and two previous multi-month trips.

This week we’re talking about independent travel vs. guided tours. Often these are talked about as two opposing and incompatible methods of travel. But they don’t have to be.

I’m a hosteller/backpacker from way back, and my preferred mode is still to go indie, but I always incorporate a few mini-tours along the way. Here’s why…and how.

Last time I told you to identify your travel style. But after many weeks of travel, you might want a break from planning everything yourself. Or maybe you’ll find it more relaxing to vary your style of travel as you go. That’s okay!

Here are some ways to incorporate guided tourism into your independent-traveller itinerary…

1. City Tours

Longtail boat in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok

Longtail boat in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok

Even if you’re the most budget-minded of backpackers, taking a day tour of a city when you first get there can be an effective and inexpensive way to get a feel for a new place. Plus, it’s an efficient way to check off all the major sights so you can spend the rest of your time soaking up the ambiance and discovering lesser-known gems.

Many cities offer hop-on, hop-off tourist buses that do a circuit of the biggest tourist draws. Sure, they’re more expensive than public transit, but they’re also more direct, and there’s a guide telling you interesting tidbits as you drive. And you can still wander around the actual sights at your own pace.

How I’ve used it: hopping on and off the famous red double-decker buses of London and the tourist ferries of Bangkok; taking a longtail boat cruise in Bangkok

2. Taxi for the Day

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

If you just want transport between sights and minimal guiding, consider hiring a taxi (or tuktuk, or auto-rickshaw) for the day. It’ll save you having to haggle repeatedly over fares, it gives you more autonomy than #1, and you’ll probably still get some good info from your driver.

Like #1, it gets you point-to-point transport and you don’t have to worry about public transit (or walking, in a pedestrian-unfriendly city). You can even use it for far-flung sights that may be in the outskirts or beyond the city borders.

How I’ve used it: hiring auto-rickshaws in and around New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, all in India (stay tuned for more about my India adventures!)

3. Adventure Tourism

Your intrepid correspondent in the Thar Desert

Your intrepid correspondent in the Thar Desert

If you’re at a destination that’s known for adventure tourism, sign up for a day or half-day or even an overnight tour. They’ll transport you to the location (usually outside the city), look after you (hopefully…do your research!), and give you an experience you won’t soon forget. Then you can go back to doing your own thing the rest of the time.

How I’ve used it: ziplining in Chiang Mai, Thailand; overnight camel trip in the Thar Desert, India (with Saraha Travels)

4. Specialty Mini-Tours

Bird's nest fern in Cameron Highlands

Bird’s nest fern spotted on a botany walk in the Cameron Highlands

If you have a special interest, check your guidebook or ask your place of accommodation (or the local tourist office, if there’s a good one) if they can hook you up with a small-group or customized tour.

For example, look for an urban walking tour that matches your interests – a ghost tour, an architecture walk, and so on. Or, if you’re outside the city, maybe you can find a guide for the day who specializes in birding, botany, or the like.

How I’ve used it: guided hiking in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

5. Day Tours Outside Cities

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Depending on your destination, you may not want to risk renting a car and braving the traffic. But you do want to go places and see sights that public transportation won’t take you to easily.

If you don’t hire your own transport (see #2), consider joining a tour for the day. You’ll get a guide to interpret the sights for you, and they may even feed you lunch or show you things you can’t see without a guide. And like a city tour (#1), it can be an efficient way to see several destinations in one day.

How I’ve used it: touring Connemara, Ireland; sightseeing around the Cameron Highlands; visiting Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and the ruined city of Wiang Kum Kam outside Chiang Mai, Thailand; visiting Ayutthaya, Thailand

6. Transport Outside and Between Cities

Tour van on the way to the Malaysian jungle

Tour van on the way to the Malaysian jungle

Maybe you don’t want a tour; you just want to get from Point A to Point B and maybe Point C after that. But again, public transport is limited or a little less comfortable than you’d like. What to do?

In some countries, when you hire a car, you’re also hiring a driver…and it’s not prohibitively expensive, especially if you’re travelling with a few others and can split the cost. Worth looking into in Asia.

You may also be able to find a tour company that sells not only full tours, but also just seats on their tour buses or vans. They’ll get you where you want to go, but you won’t have to do all the activities…or maybe you can sign up for just the ones you want.

How I’ve used it: hiring a driver to travel between cities in India when trains were booked; taking a tour van and a boat to Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia (with Han Travel)

7. Backpacker Tours

When you think of a multi-city tour, do you picture giant buses and bland hotels? Think again. Some companies cater to young backpacker types. They’ll take you from city to city in small groups, put you up for the night at hostels, and may let you tailor the itinerary or pick and choose the activities you want.

Some also offer hop-on, hop-off services — take the van to a place you want to visit, hop off, and stay there for a few days until the next van comes along. Again, this is a great way to see a big area in a short amount of time, and make some friends while you’re doing it.

How I’ve used it: Touring in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, Canada, and in Northern Ireland

8. Tailored Touring

Himalayan panorama in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

Himalayan panorama in the Annapurna Region, Nepal

A little anecdote is in order here. After 3 countries and 10 weeks of mostly independent travel, we were about to hit Nepal. I was burned out on travel planning and learning to navigate new countries. Plus, we wanted to go trekking, but were worried about our abilities.

So we did some research and threw ourselves on the mercy of a tour company, Friends in High Places…and they were fabulous. They arranged our whole stay in Nepal, from hotels to a Kathmandu day tour to an amazing six-day trek with guide and porter (and just the two of us!) in the Annapurna Sanctuary region. They took all the worry away. Much as I love being in control of my own travel, and flying by the seat of my pants when I can, I have to say that having those 10 days in Nepal all planned for me was a huge relief…and totally worth it!

How I’ve used it: Trekking in Nepal; self-guided walking tour in the Cotswolds, England

Your turn! What’s your travel style? Have you combined independent and guided travel?