Stepping off the boat at Dalyan’s mud baths, you’ll be forgiven for wishing you hadn’t. But don’t be put off by the revolting rotten-egg stench of the sulphur pools – after a revitalizing day here, you’ll be gagging for more. The instructions are simple – roll in the mud, bake yourself in the sun till your mud cast cracks, shower off and then dunk yourself in the warm, therapeutic waters of the sulphur pool. Not only will your skin be baby-soft and deliciously tingly, you will also revert to behaving like a big kid: a huge mud bath can mean only one thing – a giant mud fight.

The mud baths are accessible by boat only, with mixed bathing 11am–6pm. The pools can get busy in high season (roughly June–Aug), although there are quieter, outlying pools – ask your skipper.

 

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It’s a hot summer’s evening; overhead is a soft, purple-black and star-strewn sky. The incessant chirrup of cicadas mingles with the murmur of thousands of voices – Turkish, German, English, Russian – and the popping of corks, as the 15,000-strong audience settles down, passes round wine and olives and eagerly awaits the entertainment ahead. All are perched on hard, solid marble, still warm from the heat of the day, but the discomfort is a small price to pay to experience what a Roman citizen would have 1800 years ago, when this theatre, the largest and best preserved in Asia Minor, was built.

The views from the semicircular auditorium, its forty tiers cut into the hillside, are magnificent. At sunset, the fading light on the remains of this once wealthy and powerful city and the Pamphylian plain beyond shows it at its best. There’s a faint taste of the nearby Mediterranean on the breeze and the Taurus mountain range stands in splendid silhouette to the north.

The stage lights play across the facade of the multilevel stage building, ornamented with Ionic and Corinthian columns, niches that once sported marble statues and elaborate friezes and pediments. The lights dim and the massed ranks of spectators fall silent. Slowly the intensity of the lights increases and the show begins. Maybe it’s Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt, whose pomp and splendour match the setting perfectly.

Afterwards, close to midnight, throngs of people – having suspended disbelief for a few memorable hours – disgorge into the night, scrambling not for their chariots but for cars and buses as reality sets in and the ancient entertainments are left behind.

The Aspendos Festival takes place for three to four weeks, starting in mid-June. Try www.dobgm.gov.tr/opera2009 or www.aspendosfestival.gov.tr

 

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Ko Samui is perhaps an unlikely spot to learn the art of Thai cooking. Given the choice between lapping up rays on a patch of sand, palms and waterfalls in the Gulf of Thailand or arming yourself with a sharp cleaver to take on a mound of raw pork and fiery chilies, most people will surely opt for the former – especially when the best plate of food you’re likely to have in your life costs about a buck at the local market.

Yet the packed schedule at the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts suggests otherwise. The school focuses on central Thai food, considered the classic style among the country’s four regional cuisines, with its coconut-milk curries and flavoursome balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.

The classes begin with a discussion of the ingredients (and how to substitute for those hard to find outside Southeast Asia), work up to wok skills and end with a feast of your own making, an array of tempting and delicious stir fries, curries and soups.

Walk into the school’s unassuming shophouse just off Samui’s Chaweng Beach and you may wonder whether you’ve been shanghaied into a tropical Iron Chef gone awry. A sea of tiny bowls bursting with cumin seeds, tamarind, coriander root, galangal and shrimp paste lie scattered across the prep tables, and you’ve got a little more than two hours to whip up three dishes. But before panic sets in, the lead chef calmly explains how to chiffonade a kaffir lime leaf, and soon enough, you’re grinding out a proper chili paste in a mortar and pestle with the steady hand of a market lady who’s been at it for fifty years.

It can’t be this easy, can it? You chop a few more chilies, toss in an extra dash of fish sauce, swirl the wok and – aroy mak – you’ve just duplicated that tom yum kai (spicy shrimp soup) you saw at the market. So what if it cost a few dollars more?

Classes are held twice daily at SITCA, on Soi Colibri.

 

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In the days leading up to Thailand’s annual Loy Krathong Festival of Light, pretty little baskets fashioned from banana leaves and filled with orchids and marigolds begin to appear at market stalls across the country. On festival night everyone gathers at the nearest body of water – beside the riverbank or neighbourhood canal, on the seashore, even at the village fishpond. Crouching down beside the water, you light the candle and incense sticks poking out of your floral basket, say a prayer of thanks to the water goddess, in whose honour this festival is held, and set your offering afloat. As the bobbing lights of hundreds of miniature basket-boats drift away on the breeze, taking with them any bad luck accrued over the past year, the Loy Krathong song rings out over the sound system, contestants for the Miss Loy Krathong beauty pageant take to the stage and Chang beer begins to flow.

One of the best places to experience Loy Krathong is in Sukhothai, the first Thai capital, 400km north of Bangkok, where the ruins of the ancient capital are lit up by fireworks.

 

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The Thai people are predominately Buddhist, and through much of their country Siddhartha’s spirit is palpable. Even in the noisy and overcrowded capital city, hard-faced nationals will soften their features and treat visitors with a respect given all living creatures. The exception that proves the rule is the brutal national sport of muay thai or Thai boxing – where knees batter ribs while gamblers wager their salaries on who will fall, and when.

Vendors surround Bangkok’s Lumphini Stadium three nights out of seven, peddling wares and heated snacks to patrons streaming into a theatre of controlled violence. Past the ticket booth is a mere hint of a lobby, its walls pierced with numbered archways too small for the seating areas behind them. A rhythmic thudding from deeper inside triggers a bottleneck at the edges of the arena, the narrow entryways imparting a final suggestion of order before releasing spectators into the clamour beyond. In the ring the pre-fight display has already begun. Like many of the martial arts, muay thai has its roots in national defence, and the fighters perform awkward dances before the bell in honour of a kingdom which was never at any point conquered by foreign invaders.

Drums pulse behind tense woodwind sounds as the early rounds get under way, each fighter cautiously feeling for weakness in his opponent’s defence. The crowd is equally patient, watching carefully for an advantage they can use against the bookmakers. At the end of the second round all hell breaks loose. In the stands men are waving and shouting, signalling with contorted hands the amounts they’re willing to lose. Within two minutes the fighters must retake the ring, and when they meet there are no more feints or dodges. Each attack is without pause. The music quickens. Blows are harder now, exchanged at a furious rate. The crowd raises its voice at every strike. Against the shin, into the ribs. Ferociously. Relentlessly. And then a step backward and to the left reveals enough space to slip an instep up to the loser’s jaw. Patrons make good on their markers while a stretcher carries away the unconscious also-ran. With ten fights a night, there’s simply no time for compassion.

Lumphini Stadium, on Thanon Rama IV, stages fights on Tues, Fri and Sat eves. Take the subway to Lumphini station or the Skytrain to Sala Daeng and then a taxi.

 

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They appear as shimmering arcs and waves of light, often blue or green in colour, which seem to sweep their way across the dark skies. During the darkest months of the year, the northern lights, or aurora borealis, are visible in the night sky all across northern Sweden. Until you see the light displays yourself, it’s hard to describe the spectacle in mere words – try to imagine, though, someone waving a fantastically coloured curtain through the air and you’ve pretty much got the idea.

What makes the northern lights so elusive is that it’s impossible to predict when they’re going to make an appearance. The displays are caused by solar wind, or streams of particles charged by the sun, hitting the Earth’s atmosphere. Different elements produce different colours, blue for nitrogen, for example, and yellow-green for oxygen.

The best place to view these mystical performances is north of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures are well below freezing and the sky is often at its clearest – two conditions that are believed to produce some of the most spectacular sightings.

For the quintessential northern lights experience, pack a couple of open sandwiches topped with smoked reindeer meat and a thermos of hot coffee to keep out the chill, then take a snow-scooter tour deep into the forests of Lapland – Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, is the best base. Park up beside a frozen lake and train your eyes on the sky. Try this between mid-December and mid-January, when there’s 24-hour darkness north of the Arctic Circle, and the chances are you won’t have to wait too long for your celestial fix.

In Kiruna, stay at the comfortable Vinterpalatset (www.vinterpalatset.se).

 

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Dubai’s nickname, the “City of Gold”, is well earned: gold jewellery is sold here at some of the world’s most competitive prices, and shopping among the constant flow of customers, many here for their marriage dowries, is an exceptional experience.

The Gold Souk is a fascinating warren of tiny shops and stalls clustered together in the old quarter of Deira. Visit in the cool of early evening when the souk is at its best, with lights blazing and window-shoppers out in force. Every corner is crammed with jewellery of every style and variety; spotlights pick out choice pieces and racks holding dozens of sparkling gold bangles and chains dazzle the eye.

Buying is a cagey but good-natured process: treat it as the chance to have a friendly chat with the shopkeeper, talking about family, work, life – anything but the item you’ve got your eye on. Then ask to see a few pieces, while surreptitiously assessing quality and sizing up your adversary, before lighting on the piece you knew you wanted from the start.

When the time comes to discuss money, bear in mind that the gold price fluctuates daily – and every shopkeeper in the souk knows the current price to several decimal places. Whereas in the West gold jewellery is sold at a fixed price, in Dubai the cost of each item has two separate components: the weight of the gold and the quality of craftsmanship involved in creating it. The former is fixed, according to the daily price-per-gram (listed in the newspaper) set against the item’s purity; the latter is where bargaining comes into play, with you and the shopkeeper trading prices – always
with a smile – until you reach agreement.

It takes a cool head, amidst all that glittering gold, not to be dazzled into paying over the odds, but the experience is more than worth it.

Most shops in the Deira Gold Souk follow similar hours (daily 9am–10pm).

 

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Deep in the Swedish birch forest your mind can begin to play tricks. As the shadows lengthen and a chill creeps into the pine-scented air you’re reminded of the folk tales that originated here, from gnomes and trolls to the siren call of the Tallemaja or “Lady of the Woods”. But there is one much-mythologized creature very much alive in the forest – the varg or wolf.

Once thought to be in league with the Devil and all but wiped out across Scandinavia by the 1960s, wolves have staged a remarkable comeback. There are now around two hundred spread across the wilds of central and southern Sweden, all descendants of a single pack from Finland. Your best chance of encountering them is in the forests of Bergslagen, just a couple of hours from Stockholm, and home to the country’s predator research centre. Here you can track wolves with local experts, spending the night in a cosy tipi or lavvu, lulled to sleep (or not) by the howling of the pack.

The camp’s location depends on where wolves have been spotted in recent days – they can cover up to 60km in a day so it’s crucial to find the best spot. After a short lecture by scientists at the research centre, it’s time to head out on the prowl. Close encounters are rare, as wolves are notoriously shy and can smell humans from 3km away, but you are almost guaranteed to find fresh paw prints and experience the eerie sense of being watched. As dusk descends it’s time to hike back to the warmth of the tipi in time to hear the wolves howl. Clambering into your sleeping bag, it’s hard not to feel a shiver as this bizarre aria begins – a mournful yet comforting sound, once heard across Europe and now, perhaps, set to return.

The “Howling with wolves” two-day tour is offered by www.naturetravels.co.uk, with regular dates in summer and others available on request.

 

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Whether you fancy an Aussie music festival, a literary break in England or sake and sakura in Japan, March is an excellent month to travel. Spring breathes new life into the northern hemisphere, while riotous festivals take place everywhere from Ireland to Brazil. Here are our tips on the best places to visit in March.

See the start of the cherry blossom season on Honshu, Japan

Japan blushes at the start of each year when its cherry trees blossom. The subtropical province of Okinawa takes the lead, turning pinkish-white like candyfloss at some point in early January. But it usually takes until the end of March for cities like Tokyo and Kyoto to follow suit. Take your camera with you for some seriously kawaii (“cute”) photos, and make the most of the sweet-smelling air; within a few short weeks, the blossoms will have disappeared altogether.

Learn the ropes on quiet slopes in Åre, Sweden

For downhill thrills, there’s nowhere in Europe that can compete with the Alps. But if you’re just getting to grips with skiing or snowboarding and want to avoid the crowds, why not try SwedenÅre, a top-class resort tucked away near Norway on the edge of an ice-white lake, has had a chance to warm up slightly by March – and there’s a good mix of short runs to get you progressing quickly. Even if you end up too bruised to keep skiing after the first few days, there are off-piste activities like ice fishing and dogsledding to keep you entertained.

Meet the Pacific in Auckland, New Zealand

Each March, in a flurry of hula skirts and floral garlands, islanders from across the Pacific converge on Auckland for Pasifika Festival. At the huge two-day cultural extravaganza, held in Western Springs, you can wander through markets full of intricate carvings, watch live bands, or eat pork that’s been roasted over hot rocks, Samoan style. Islanders wanting a lasting reminder of the event aren’t disappointed, either; traditional Polynesian tattoos are also available.

Beat the rush in Recife, Brazil

Everyone knows about Rio, but Recife, more than 1,000 miles to the northeast, remains a relative unknown – for now, at least. This coastal city, once controlled by Dutch sugar traders, will be one of the places hosting games during the 2014 World Cup, attracting international attention to its sweeping tropical beaches and gleaming glass towers. Our tip is to go before the rush. Early March is the perfect time of year to visit; it’s the tail end of the region’s dry season and the city’s carnival – a sweaty four-day cacophony of dancing, drums and whistles – will just be kicking off.

Bathe yourself in books in Bath, England

Writers have long been drawn to the city of Bath. Jane Austen needed no persuasion to set a couple of her books in the spa city, and Charles Dickens picked it for parts of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. The Bath Literature Festival, which began in 1995, marks a new chapter in the city’s bookish history. Held annually at the beginning of March, the event has attracted some of modern Britain’s most successful poets and authors, including JK Rowling, Andrew Motion and Terry Pratchett. Join them for a couple of live debates and readings, and then hear stories from days gone by on a literary tour of the city.

Head south (by southwest) to Austin, USA

If you’ve never been to the Texan capital then SXSW – a ten-day celebration of music, film and interactive arts – provides the perfect excuse to give it a try. Buying a pass for the mid-March festival won’t leave you with much money for beer and tacos (even the cheapest music pass costs more than $600). But there are literally hundreds of unofficial events taking part on the festival’s periphery, from impromptu gigs in bars to free parties run by rebellious local record labels. The only difficult part is choosing which ones to go to.

Celebrate St Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland

New York does St Patrick’s Day bigger, but Dublin will always be the festival’s spiritual home. And apart from swilling Guinness and wearing silly leprechaun hats (both considered noble pursuits in these parts), there’s plenty to get involved with. On guided walking tours of the city you can learn more about the life and legacy of the fifth-century bishop called Patrick who, legend has it, banished all of the serpents from Ireland. Dozens of historic landmarks are bathed in green light for the party that’s held in his honour, and as with New York, a musical parade snakes its way through the city.

For more ideas on where to go, check out the Inspire Me page. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

If, along with rest and relaxation, your idea of the perfect holiday hideaway involves cooking up your own meals with fresh ingredients, then a self-catering stay at Samakanda Guesthouse might be just what you’re looking for.

Tucked away in the hills above the town of Galle, Samakanda comprises two comfortable, solar-powered cottages: one a restored planter’s hut, the other a small bungalow overlooking lush terraced fields. As well as being an idyllic spot to cook your own food, it’s a great place to pick it – guests are welcome to take what they need from the organic spice, herb and vegetable gardens that enclose each property, from fresh salad greens to delicious fruits such as papayas, coconuts, passion fruits and bananas. The estate even grows its own rare strain of red rice, while local markets can supply fresh fish.

Should you fancy a night off from cooking, call on gourmet chef, Rory, the owner and founder of Samakanda, to show you how the stone pizza-oven works, or help you prepare some of his own favourites. With all the meals you and he can rustle up, you’ll also need a way to work it off; walk some of the trails laid out through the surrounding fields and forests, amble down to the river to cool off, or for the more energetic, try an exhilarating 40km cycle ride down through the jungle to the beach…and back.

For directions, accommodation details, rates and reservations visit www.samakanda.org

 

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