Volunteering abroad is one of the best and most rewarding things you can do on your travels – but getting involved often isn’t the straightforward and speedy process you might expect. Many people are amazed when it becomes apparent just how much preparation is necessary.

But don’t let this put you off: it’s important to be aware of all the facts. A well-planned placement will be mutually beneficial for both you and whatever people, wildlife or environment you’ll be working with. Here, Will Jones gives us his top 7 tips.

1. Make sure you can afford it

Spending money to work for free may seem bafflingly illogical at first glance, but the reality is that volunteering abroad is expensive. Before you have even paid for your placement you will have to make sure you can also afford the airfare to get there.

You’ll also need to consider the cost of visas and vaccinations. The charge for the placement itself will depend on many things, such as the type of volunteering, the location, and how much time you spend on the placement, and typically covers your accommodation, food, training, local transport, insurance and background checks.

2. Find a good organisation

The international volunteering industry is absolutely huge, and growing by the minute. With so many organisations out there, inevitably some are more scrupulous than others, and it’s crucial to get in with the former to ensure you end up on an ethically sound placement.

The key is research. Tons of it. If you find a project you’re interested in, find out as much as you possibly can about the company behind it. Check online reviews and search through forums. If possible, speak directly to people who have worked on whatever placement it is – any reputable volunteering organisation will be happy to put you in touch with its previous participants.

3. Ask the right questions

Once you have found an organisation you trust, it’s time to dig a little deeper. It would be ideal to speak to them in person but a phone call is a good second best option. Be prepared with a list of questions. Some of these could include:

Why do you need a volunteer and not a local person who could work for a wage?

How exactly does my fee break down?

What kind of training will you provide?

Is there a local partner organisation who manages the project on the ground?

In what ways is the local community involved?

How do you select your volunteers?

What will my day-to-day life be like on the project?

What are the long term goals and how do I fit into them?

What kind of support will I have on the ground?

They should be just as interested in you as you are in them. So if the only questions they are asking are concerned with the numbers on your credit card, be very cautious.

4. Match your skills and interests to a project

When choosing a volunteer placement, it’s really important to think of the big picture. If you are already involved with or want to pursue a career in teaching, a suitable project could be teaching English to children (providing you get a TEFL qualification). If you want to work in the veterinary profession, an ideal placement could be rehabilitating animals back into the wild. Those studying to be doctors or nurses could join a medical elective for a few weeks.

Matching a project to your skills and interests not only means you have a rewarding and truly valuable experience, but it also ensures the project is genuinely benefiting from your presence.

5. Spend a suitable amount of time

How long to commit to any given project is subjective and largely dependent on the type of volunteering. Generally speaking, if you will be working with young children (perhaps teaching) a good amount of time is two to three months, so you can create a real and meaningful rapport with them.

For environmental and wildlife placements, which are often more focussed on manual labour, you can make a positive impact as a pair of arms in just a few days.

Keep in mind that for some projects, on the ground training will be necessary, so factor this into the total amount of time you can dedicate.

6. Be prepared to work hard

Whether you’re digging foundations for a new school in Cambodia, collecting marine data on a coral reef in Belize, teaching football to kids in Romania, educating a village community in Ghana about AIDS, or clearing out a pen in an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, one thing is guaranteed: you will work hard.

This is exactly how it should be: the last thing you want is to be standing around kicking your heels. The harder you work, the more important you will feel to the project and, ultimately, the more difference you can make.

7. Isn’t it better to just donate money?

Sometimes, yes. A good example where money is much more welcome is in areas hit by natural disasters, at least in the immediate aftermath. While it might be tempting to get the first plane out there to pitch in, you could end up being an added burden in what will already be an incredibly chaotic situation. In a general sense, the best thing is to think with your head and not your heart.

In other words, try to put aside altruistic feelings for a moment, and truly ask yourself whether you as an individual will make a more positive difference by physically being on a project as opposed to simply donating money.

Will is the Editor at gapyear.com, a website aimed at backpackers and budget travellers, and where you can plan, book and share your travels. He tweets @willjackjones.

They hang from trees and clothes lines. Bits of plastic bodies jammed onto fenceposts and nailed to cabin doors, decaying heads strewn among the island’s greenery, gazing at visitors through insect-infested eye-sockets. Welcome to Mexico‘s Isla de las Muñecas, or Island of Dolls.

Located deep in Xochimilco, a borough just 28km south of Mexico City, the Isla de las Muñecas is part of an Aztec-made network of canals and artificial islands called chinampas.

Legend has it that decades ago a little girl’s corpse washed up on the murky banks of the island. Don Julian Santana Barrera, the island’s solitary caretaker, discovered her floating facedown alongside a waterlogged doll. To commemorate her spirit, Barrera hung the doll on a nearby tree.

But the little girl’s ghost soon began to haunt him. Desperate to appease her, the caretaker hung more dolls – every bit of a Barbie or scrap of a Cabbage Patch he could lay hands on. Barrera amassed hundreds of them over a span of 50 years. Still, the ghost never left.

Barrera died in 2001. He was reportedly found floating in the same spot that he’d found the girl. Of course, official reports seem to dismiss Barrera’s discovery of the girl in the first place. But the dolls remain, and tourists who visit swear that each doll’s eerie presence speaks for itself – whispering.

Dolls welcome the island’s visitors by Kevin (CC license)

Dolls nailed to the island’s cabin by Kevin (CC license)

Cabin interior by Kevin (CC license)

Dolls on display by Kevin (CC license)

Shrine by Kevin (CC license)

The forest by Kevin (CC license)

Dolls hung by metal wire by Kevin (CC license)

A pile of dolls in decay by Kevin (CC license)

Rotting baby by Kevin (CC license)Dolls lurk everywhere on the island by Kevin (CC license)

Isla de las Muñecas can be visited by ferry from Embarcadero Cuemanco or from Embarcadero Fernando Celada. Explore more of Mexico with the Rough Guide to MexicoCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Ask anyone who’s ever travelled solo, and they probably wouldn’t want to adventure any other way. It might be daunting at first, and it’s certainly simpler for some people than it is for others. But spending time alone on the road is among the most rewarding travel experiences out there.

Whether it’s a long trip around the world or a habit of solitary weekend jaunts, here are 10 things everybody learns while travelling alone:

1. You always return home with lots of new friends

Ever noticed that you’re more likely to ask one person for directions than you are to ask a group of people? Solos are more approachable, plain and simple. Lone travellers learn that the benefits of this are twofold: not only will other travellers feel far more comfortable introducing themselves to you, but it’s actually easier for you to strike up conversation with others as well.

2. You can engage with locals on a level that only solo travellers can

You know that local folks are more open, and definitely more curious, when it’s only you walking into that hole-in-the-wall café, or sampling the pungent flavours of that roadside food stall. From a heartfelt conversation on a rickety train, to suddenly having a network of genial families happy to host you for a night, you know none of these incredible experiences would have been possible if you’d been travelling with others.  

3. You’re free to adventure as you please, and it feels awesome

There is no need to compromise when travelling alone. No need to appease a friend’s unfortunate craving for an overpriced burger and fries, or their incessant complaints about mosquito bites in a jungle where you’re on travel cloud 9. As a lonesome wanderer you travel where you want, when and however you want to – all with a liberating degree of indulgence.

4. You gain a deep understanding of the destinations you’ve visited

Travelling solo, you’re more immersed in your surroundings. You notice the unique quirks, and subtle character that truly makes a place what it is. But walk around the same street chatting with an old friend, and your mind is often immersed elsewhere.

5. There is something liberating about travelling to a place where no one knows you

For some, travelling alone is like a fresh start. Or a temporary escape from the life-baggage you’re forced to lug around back home. That’s not to say you’re a different person when abroad, but you may notice how much that therapeutic anonymity has changed you by the time you return home.

6. Alone time is healthy and we rarely get enough of it

Time spent alone and unplugged forces you to really reflect on your life back home, your recent experiences on the road and the direction things are headed. Some of those thoughts aren’t always pleasant to deal with, but solo travellers know that even if solitude is a struggle at times, they’re stronger because of it.

7. Distance makes you appreciate the important people in your life

Distance makes you appreciate the people who matter most in your life back home. Especially those you’ve taken for granted. Far away and alone, you’re reminded to make the most of every second with loved ones when you return.

8. Distance teaches you that some people who you thought were important, really aren’t

The same distance can also make you realise that some people in your life aren’t quite as important as you thought they were. Be they a bad influence, a toxic love or a fair-weather friend, it’s not always a welcome realisation. But it’s usually for the best.

9. When you’re a little lonely, you’ll get more creative

Whether it’s journaling, drawing, philosophising or brainstorming future entrepreneurial endeavours, solo travellers are usually forced to find new expressive ways to amuse themselves when there’s no conversation (or wi-fi). You might have even stumbled upon your vocation.

10. Sometimes it’s fun to pretend you’re the only tourist in the world

Isn’t that really what every solo traveller secretly wants, to boldly go where no-one has gone before?

But let’s be honest for a second: very rarely are we ever as intrepid or adventurous as we’d like to imagine ourselves.Still, when you’re the only tourist on that bush bus to nowhere there’s a thrilling fantasy that plays out in your mind as you watch a new world go by out the window – and solo travellers know that feeling is addictive, and stays with you for the rest of your life.

Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Goa, India

It may be known as a party hotspot today, but Goa used to be firmly off the beaten track. The relaxed local culture, delicious cuisine and endless white-sand beaches have always attracted chilled-out travellers in need of a break, with an optional side of spiritual exploration. Whether or not you’re interested in the nightlife, luckily there’s still much of the old, laidback Goa in evidence for the independent-minded traveller today.

Negril, Jamaica

This gorgeous beach may be over-developed in some places now, but it goes on for so indulgently long (it’s around four miles end to end) that you only need to wander a bit further to find yourself some peace and quiet. If you’re feeling particularly active you can join in the watersports on offer, but you may find your schedule is soon pretty packed with sunbathing, walking and, if you’re that way inclined, some meditating.

Glastonbury, England

Hear Glastonbury and you think of the festival. Of course, anyone can find their inner happy hippy at this world-famous music and arts festival, especially over in the Green Fields, but this is a year-round destination. It’s at the heart of the "Isle of Avalon", an area rich in myths and Arthurian legends which attracts Pagans, Wiccans and all manner of New-Agers. Head up to Glastonbury Tor for ley-lines and gorgeous views, or wander along the hippy-tastic High Street.

Cape Maclear, Malawi

Diving, kayaking, walking, snorkelling… there’s plenty to do in Cape Maclear, but you may be content just lazing lakeside in a hammock, drinking in the stunning view of Africa’s third-largest, second-deepest lake. The area’s stayed pretty rustic despite its popularity with backpackers from around the world, and it’s a truly chilled, calm place to while away some time.

Kathmandu, Nepal

Nepal has had many troubles to contend with, not least the 2015 earthquake, but it’s always attracted spiritually curious travellers and probably always will. After all, there’s nowhere in the world quite like it – a truly awe-inspiring natural setting with a view across the Himalayas, a city full of treasures with a kind and welcoming population, and a key site in both Buddhism and Hindusim. It’s also the perfect base for continuing your spiritual exploration, with treks to Pokhara and onwards to the Himalayas.

Dahab, Egypt

Diving in the clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba; sharing shisha with friends in the evening; sleeping under the stars in Bedouin tents… The laidback pace of life makes Dahab a great place to sit back, relax and enjoy your environment. Though unrest in the region has resulted in fewer visitors lately, there’s little doubt they’ll find their way back soon enough.

Panajachel, Guatemala

During the sixties the lakeside Guatemalan town of Panajachel was so popular with itinerant hippies (mostly wandering down the continent from the US) that it became known as ‘Gringotenango’. As the civil war intensified visitor numbers dropped, but from the mid-nineties travellers started coming back in search of relaxation, stunning views of Lago de Atitlán and… well, what else do you need?

Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand

Just above Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand is this small island, a classic stop on the Hippy Trail. Somewhere between 1983 and 1993 (no one seems sure of the exact date, or particularly bothered) a few travellers started playing music on the beach during the full moon, and year on year the event grew and attracted more visitors. The rest (hard partying, day-glo, chemically-enhanced) is history.

Siargao, Philippines

For real seclusion, head to Siargao Island in the Philippines. If it’s peace and quiet that you’re after, though, maybe avoid September – the island became famous after word spread among the world’s surfers that there’s a break so good they called it "Cloud 9", and the Siargao Cup global surfing competition is now held there annually. For the rest of the year it’s sedate and beautiful, a perfect place to find some zen.

Dali, China

A low-key city by Erhai Lake, Dali has long been a popular stop for backpackers and hippies. It’s still not overwhelmed by tourism, despite its gorgeous surroundings and intriguing traditional architecture (the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple are a well-known symbol of the city), which means it’s still a great place to find a bit of calm.

Eugene, Oregon, USA

Where Portland is hipster, Eugene is resolutely hippy. It’s the place to go for all your tie-dyeing needs, not to mention New Age philosophy, communal living and herbal remedies. There’s a lot to attract any type of traveller, but to get the most out of the city’s gorgeous natural setting and strong artistic community you should absolutely embrace your inner hippy.

Jericoacoara, Brazil

Known for its dazzlingly white beach and impressive sand dunes, Brazil’s beautiful Jericoacoara has been pulling in hippies and surfers for years. It’s a great spot for windsurfing, as well, and of course for walking, sunbathing and any other chilled-out beach activity you can think of. It’s also a national park, so it’s reasonably safe from development for now.

The Cyclades, Greece

Mykonos has always been a traditional stop on the Hippy Trail, but today is perhaps a bit overdeveloped and party-focused for some tastes. Luckily, there are other destinations in this group of gorgeous Greek islands. Keep going to Andros, for instance, and you’ll find peace, quiet and stunning walks. If you’re really after isolation, though, aim for Anafi. It’s the last ferry stop, and the perfect place for some reflection and relaxation.

Lamu, Kenya

The small island of Lamu has long been a prime spot for hippy travellers, and though there have been security concerns recently, it’s not hard to see the attraction. There’s not much to do other than take in the gorgeous medieval town, take leisurely dhow rides to nearby islands, and just chill out, man…

California, USA

California is in many ways the perfect place to find your hippy self. The most hardcore of hippies can chill out in accepting, alternative San Francisco; those who still love a bit of luxury can head to LA to dabble in meditation and organic green juices; literary hippies can go all Dharma Bums and scale the Matterhorn; and anyone at all can find a bit of inner peace wandering the stunning Yosemite National park.

Christiania, Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen is a pretty perfect city for hippy-minded individuals: great cycling, lots of greenery, good food and a thriving music scene. If you really want to get into the hippy lifestyle, though, you need to head to Christiania. This colourful city-within-a-city has been a commune since 1971, and is showing no signs of slowing down. It’s autonomous and self-governing, to an extent, and a fascinating place to see a long-term social experiment in action.

Byron Bay, Australia

Byron Bay means one thing: surfing. It’s famous for its long, sandy beach and a local life so laidback it’s almost horizontal. If you feel like even this New Agey, chilled out surfer town isn’t quite hippy enough for you, head to nearby Nimbin for colourful murals, dreadlocks and tie-dye galore. Nimbin also happens to be known as the marijuana capital of Australia, even holding a "Mardi Grass" festival in May.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Morocco has long been known as a destination for travellers who want to get off the beaten track. Marrakesh and Fez are the obvious places to go, but the travelling hippies of the world have long-preferred Chefchaouen. It’s cheap, cheerful and full of open-air markets and beautiful pale blue buildings. What’s not to like?

Istanbul, Turkey

The only city in the world to sit on two continents, Istanbul has long intrigued and enticed independent travellers. The "gateway to Asia" was a key point on the Hippy Trail of the sixties, a fork in the road from where some would head back into Europe and others would look onwards to India, Thailand, and Vietnam. Today it retains its independent vibe, attracting hippies, hedonists, artists and romantics from all around the world.

Gili Islands, Indonesia

These secluded islands off Lombok in Indonesia are pretty perfect if you want to get away from it all. Backpackers and hippies started heading there in the seventies and eighties, and now the islands are an established destination. They’re perfect for diving, lounging on the beach, and simply doing nothing at all.

The sky is lightening. Squint and you can just about make out a change in the colour of it, a shift from inky-black to blue-black. As the sun rises further it changes more, until it pales enough behind the stonework that you can begin to make out a hulk on the horizon.

You breathe in and get ready to experience one of travel’s true once-in-a-lifetime moments. And then a selfie stick springs up in your eyeline, a bright screen illuminating the darkness. You are jostled from behind and suddenly you can’t see a thing. The stone pinkens in the sunrise ahead but you’re marooned the wrong side of the camera-swayers. You miss the window, those crucial moments, in which Angkor Wat is at its most beautiful.

Yes, there is very much a wrong way to do Angkor Wat. It’s Cambodia’s most visited tourist attraction with more than two million cameras-on-legs passing through every year. But do it right and you can have it to yourself. Find out how below, but remember: it’s a secret.

How to avoid the crush at the big three

Angkor is not just one temple, but a complex of hundreds spread over a vast area that was once a city home to more people than London. To most visitors though it is three temples at most: Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm.

First up is Angkor Wat, the iconic temple whose name is often confused with the name of the complex as a whole. Although you’ve seen this a thousand times on film and in pictures, nothing can prepare you for the beauty of its five perfectly aligned towers, each one like a corn on the cob.

Nothing can prepare you for the crowds at the West Gate come sunrise either and these are best avoided. Get your guide to take you to the East Gate instead and you’ll walk through the temple from its back side, scuffing along empty stone corridors in the dark and wondering where everyone else is. Watch the sun rise from here, lighting up the stones as it ascends, before heading out of the West Gate for coffee and breakfast at one of the stands nearby.

By the time you’re finished, the worst of the sunrise crowds will have gone but it will still be early enough to explore in relative peace.

Angkor Wat Sunrise North Lake via photopin (license)

The Bayon, with its pyramid covered in hundreds of half-smiling faces, is packed from sun up to sun down and seems to magnetically pull the very worst of the shuffling crowds to its giant stone terraces.

Fortunately, these crowds appreciate a good long lunch and between about twelve and two in the afternoon you may be able to clamber just about high enough among the faces to get them to yourself for a minute or two. Just don’t forget the sun cream, there’s very little shade here.

Ta Prohm, which featured in Tomb Raider, is a contrast, its shady jungle-cloaked ruins most popular during the hottest part of the day. This makes dusk the perfect time to visit, as everyone else heads en masse to Phnom Bakheng hill to see the sunset. Don’t even think about following them, wait a while and you should have no competition for the perfect photograph of this most atmospheric of the temples.

Don’t miss the undiscovered beauties

The big three will take a full day to see properly so buy the three-day ticket ($40 instead of the $20 for one day) to allow enough time to step away from the hordes and see some of the temples you won’t have heard of.

Ta Keo is within selfie stick swinging distance of Ta Phrom but it wasn’t in Tomb Raider and so it is not on most visitors’ itineraries. Even better, this entirely sandstone temple is almost impossibly steep, making the climb up its chunky steps arduous enough to put off most people. The result? A view over the temple-dotted landscape from 21 metres up, and away from everyone else.

DSC_0163 via photopin (license)

If the jungle-claimed Ta Phrom – one of the big three – most grabs your imagination, don’t miss Preah Khan, a massive complex once home to upwards of 10,000 people and today a tumbledown heap of lichen-covered stones and imposing tree roots as thick as houses. Few people wander its ruins, enclosed by a moat so placid it appears like a mirror and surrounded by jungle so quiet you feel like you’ve stumbled on something nobody ever has before.

Get the right guide

However much research you do in advance, Angkor is just too much to take in on your own, especially at around 400 square kilometres.

To really get away from the coach parties you need a private tuk tuk that can navigate the temples and a knowledgeable guide who is willing to be flexible and suggest quiet areas you won’t find in the guidebooks. This isn’t a destination where you can wing it, so book with a specialist operator who has local expertise and is up to date on the best places to get away from the ever-expanding crowds.

Helen Ochyra travelled with Experience Travel Group (0203 468 6268; www.experiencetravelgroup.com), who offer a seven-night trip to Cambodia including a private tour of Angkor Wat from £1,119 per person (including transfers, B&B accommodation in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, flights and taxes).

Greece offers well over two hundred inhabited islands of all shapes and sizes, set like gems in the sparkling Ionian and Aegean seas – so you’re really spoilt for choice when planning a visit. Former resident and Rough Guide to Greece author Nick Edwards picks five of the best Greek islands for exploration.

For archaeology: Crete

As Greece’s largest island, Crete is something of an all-rounder, boasting the dramatic White Mountains, kilometres of fine beaches, the delightful Samaria Gorge and several interesting cities, not least the island capital of Iraklion. For anyone interested in archaeology, however, it’s the obvious place to combine the joys of an island with a variety of ancient remains to rival the mainland.

Just 5km outside of Iraklion lies Knossos, the island’s preeminent ancient site, with its grand, second millennium BC Minoan palace, where King Minos once kept the legendary Minotaur. The layout of the interconnected halls and rooms is truly labyrinthine and much of the palace amazingly well preserved. Here you can marvel at superb ancient art, such as the famous dolphin fresco. Iraklion’s archaeological museum, meanwhile, is also one of the country’s finest, with a host of fascinating Minoan treasures. East along the coast, Malia Palace is another great site from the same era.

Other star Minoan attractions near the south coast are the Palace of Phaestos, which enjoys a splendid hillside location and view of Mount Psiloritis, and the smaller remains at Ayia Triada. In the same region, the ruined capital of a Roman province that encompassed Crete and a chunk of north Africa can be seen at Gortys, while further afield the Dhiktean Cave and Palace of Zakros are yet more ancient sites to be enjoyed.

For beaches: Milos

Despite being one of the lower profile Cyclades, most beach connoisseurs rate Milos as the best in this most famous island group. Perhaps that is not so surprising – thanks to its volcanic nature and horseshoe shape, it boasts an impressive seventy-five beaches, yet is barely 20km across. Rarely crowded except in the height of peak season, Milos has a laidback feel and offers plenty of choices in accommodation and eating.

One of the best beaches on the south coast is sandy Paleohóri, gently heated by underground thermal currents and linked to a second strand, hemmed in by colourful cliffs, via a tunnel through the rock. The headland that encompasses the northern settlements of Adhámas and Plaka is punctuated by a variety of coves, while the long sandy stretch at Pollonia in the northeast is shaded by tamarisks. It is the rugged west coast, however, that offers the purest beauty and most undeveloped beaches of Triadhes, Ammoudharaki and Kleftiko, the latter accessible only by boat.

For spirituality: Pátmos

Given the ever-present significance of religion in Greece, diminutive Pátmos is regarded as one of the most important islands: it’s where St John holed up and received the visions that he dictated to his disciple Prohoros as the Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. Hike up early in the morning to the cave where this took place, now enclosed in an eleventh-century chapel, to have the best chance of getting the place to yourself and even being able to rest your head in the niche where the saint laid his. Gazing out across the sea to the surrounding islands is enough to get even hard-nosed cynics feeling spiritual.

Further up the hill, another eleventh-century monastery, that of Ayiou Ioannou Theologou, commands more wonderful views and is home to a community of monks. Much of the solid structure is off-limits to visitors but the church is delightful and the museum displays some dazzling Orthodox paraphernalia, dark and brooding medieval icons, and some parchment manuscripts. Needless to say, there are some fine sandy beaches and plenty of secular delights to detain the visitor back down at sea level.

For ocean activity: Lefkada

Mid-sized Lefkada has one of Europe’s largest windsurfing centres (near its southern tip) and a gleaming new marina on the edge of the island capital, making it a magnet for those who love to spend time on the water. It also boasts easy accessibility, being joined to the mainland by a causeway, some dramatic mountain scenery and a few of the most stunning beaches in the Ionian Sea on its west coast. In addition, Lefkada Town is an attractive and cultural place, with some fine old churches.

Yachties flock here for the great facilities at the marina, the large dry dock at Vlyho and ease of mooring at the various bays on the east coast, such as Dessimi, Rouda and Syvota. The satellite islands opposite the main resort of Nydri constitute good sailing territory too, while Nydri itself offers the usual range of watersports. Meanwhile, at Lefkada’s southern end, the bay that stretches from Vassiliki to Pondi draws a youthful crowd, who take advantage of the favourable wind patterns and shallow water that are ideal for windsurfing. At any one time, you might count literally hundreds of colourful sails flapping in the breeze.

For a little bit of everything: Lésvos

The third-largest island behind Crete and Evvia, versatile Lésvos (often referred to as Mytilini after its capital) is, surprisingly, little visited. Mytilini itself is a large town with a rather grand seafront, an extensive fortress and several absorbing museums, plus plenty of places to eat and drink. Among the smaller towns that impress architecturally, Molyvos (aka Mithymna) and Ayiassos stand out. The former sits on a north coast headland crowned by an imposing castle, while the latter straddles a mountainside valley and has a warren of streets around the picturesque central church. Various other beautiful monasteries are dotted around the island.

The coastline is blessed with numerous excellent beaches, none better than the 9km-long stretch of pebble and sand at Vatera on the south coast. But there are more geological features than just rock and sand: the large shallow Gulf of Kalloni includes salt marshes that are a birdwatcher’s dream; over in the west there’s a petrified forest; and thermal spas punctuate the eastern half.

As the home of Greece’s most highly rated ouzo, there are a fair few lauded distilleries, such as Varvayianni and Samara, yet the island also produces great wines, such as Methymneos, and olive products.

Finally, there is a strong cultural aspect to Lésvos, which has had a literary reputation since ancient times, as the birthplace of the poets Sappho, Aesop and more recently Elytis. It is also the birthplace of the twentieth-century artists Theriade and Theophilos, who have museums in their honour on the island. A lot of Sappho’s erotic poetry was addressed towards other women (quite a thing for the sixth century) and her legacy is perpetually sustained at lively Skala Eresou, which draws lesbians from all over the world.

Explore more of the best Greek islands with the Rough Guide to The Greek IslandsCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Kris Griffiths takes a tour of the birthplace of reggae, following in the footsteps of Jamaica’s most famous son, Bob Marley, on what would have been his 70th birthday.

Reggae music was born in the downtrodden townships of this Caribbean island. It’s a genre that has managed to captivate most of the globe with its bouncing riddims and One-Love jubilation, thanks largely to its chief ambassador, Robert Nesta Marley.

Despite cancer stealing him at age 36 in 1981, he’s still very much part of Jamaica’s collective consciousness, and in the city he grew up in, he has almost attained the status of a prophet. Murals of his dreadlocked visage abound and his tunes can almost always be heard floating on the breeze.

For fans of Marley and the genre he helped globalise, one of the most fitting times to visit is ‘Reggae Month’ every February, when his birthday is celebrated with tribute shows and exhibitions. But Bob’s Kingston is alive all year round, for anyone from reggae pilgrims to more casual admirers just seeking some ‘positive vibrations’.

It all began here.

Growing up in Trenchtown

Although he was born in the village of Nine Mile in north Jamaica, Bob moved to Kingston’s Trenchtown as a young boy with his mother after his father died. It was in this impoverished neighbourhood his musical journey commenced. He learnt the guitar while listening to R&B from American radio stations with housemate Bunny Wailer, with whom he would later form eponymous group The Wailers.

The restored tenement block is now a National Heritage Site and fascinating cultural centre, where reggae musicians congregate to record and perform. A striking new statue of Bob has also been erected here to mark his 70th birthday.

Some tourists are deterred from visiting by a prejudice about local ‘ghetto’ culture, at odds with reality – visitors are welcomed warmly by locals promoting Bob’s peaceful message. Visiting also generates vital revenue for the still-deprived community that spawned him.

Recording at Tuff Gong Studio

Located in downtown Kingston, Tuff Gong is the label Bob founded in 1965 (named after his nickname ‘The Gong’ and being a ‘Tuff’ cookie). Today, its HQ is not only one of the biggest studios in the Caribbean but one of the most famous in the world, attracting not just reggae luminaries like sons Damian and Ziggy but superstars of other genres from Kenny Chesney to Sinead O’Connor.

Housing vintage analogue equipment alongside newer digital technology, the studio allows intimate access to the spaces where Bob recorded hits like Redemption Song and Buffalo Soldier. The label went on to sell millions of records, while Bob’s posthumous best-of Legend became the biggest-selling reggae album of all time.

Relaxing at home

Little did young Bob know, the home he would later buy a few miles uptown would become Kingston’s most-visited tourist site, the Bob Marley Museum.

The colonial-era clapboard house, where he lived for his final six years, is now a preserved shrine. Utensils in the kitchen date from his last days; his unpretentious bedroom left exactly as it was, his favourite guitar still by the bed; and poignant family photos hang on the walls. More dramatic are bullet-holes from the infamous 1976 assassination attempt, a grim reminder of the evil confronting Bob’s non-violent philosophy.

There are also museum spaces literally wallpapered with press clippings that exhibit his vast collection of Gold Records. And you can try Bob’s favourite drink, Irish Moss (made with seaweed extract), in the One Love Café, or a hearty vegetarian stew typifying the Rastafarian ‘Ital’ diet.

Retreating to Strawberry Hill

Following the shooting, Bob often withdrew to a retreat nestled high in the Blue Mountains overlooking Kingston, which is as special a spot to visit today as it was 40 years ago. Now a boutique hotel, Strawberry Hill was then owned by producer Chris Blackwell, who’d signed Marley and found his songs an international audience. Subsequently many famous artists visited, including the Stones, Willie Nelson and Grace Jones – personal photos of whom still hang on its walls alongside various Marley platinum discs.

For those with the budget to stay here, high-end features include a negative-edge infinity pool offering vertiginous mountainside views down to the city. For the rest of us, a traditional afternoon tea will do just fine.

Performing at National Stadium

Jamaica’s Wembley, built during Bob’s teenage years, has for most its lifetime served as a temple for the sport he held dear – football – which he regularly played. Home of the national team, internationally-known as the ‘Reggae Boyz’, it backdropped a significant moment in Bob’s career.

In 1978 the Wailers headlined the massive ‘One Love Peace Concert’ here, Bob’s first homeland show since returning from self-imposed exile, at a time when Jamaica was riven by deadly political civil war. During the song Jammin’, however, peacemaker Bob called for the leaders of both warring parties to join him onstage and shake hands, in a plea for national unity. For that night at least, peace reigned on Kingston’s streets.

Three years later Bob would return to the stadium, for his funeral. A commemorative statue of him – one of several around the capital – still stands outside, wielding a guitar.

Kingston has celebrated his life every year since on his birthday, but for visitors that musical high is on offer here perennially. As his son Ziggy said recently, Bob is more alive today than ever.

Kris stayed at Spanish Court Hotel. For further info on visiting Kingston go to www.visitjamaica.comCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Wherever your itinerary takes you, travel in Myanmar (Burma) is sure to provide a wealth of new experiences – whether you’re air-kissing at your waiter in a city teahouse or witnessing your first nat ceremony. To mark the release of our first guide to the country, co-author Jo James shares fourteen of her essential things to do in Myanmar.

Breakfast in a Burmese teahouse

From Yangon’s traffic-choked streets to dusty village lanes, Myanmar’s teahouses are local institutions. Enthusiastic tea boys dodge between the tables, slopping tea into saucers and serving up deep-fried snacks. Patrons air kiss loudly to attract the staff’s attention, their eyes on the football match on TV and their minds on teashop gossip. Stop for a bowl of mohinga – the nation’s favourite noodle soup, or refuel with a char kway (a Chinese-style doughnut) dunked in a delicious cup of sweet, milky tea.

Float down the Irrawaddy

The Irrawaddy River curls south from foothills of the Himalayas, unfurling past Mandalay and Bagan’s temple-covered plain before spilling its silt-rich waters into the Andaman Sea. Myanmar’s most important waterway is plied by everything from luxury teak-decked steamers to ponderous government ferries and leaking speedboats. Climb aboard your vessel of choice and float downstream to see a slice of riverside life – and remember to keep an eye out for rare Irrawaddy dolphins.

Relive the Raj

From streets lined with peeling colonial-era buildings and afternoon tea at The Strand in Yangon, to ghostly locations from George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days in Katha, echoes of British Burma reverberate in a handful of places around Myanmar. Nowhere are these echoes louder than in Pyin Oo Lwin, a former hill station, where horse-drawn carriages trundle past mouldering teakwood mansions and a bell cast for George V’s Silver Jubilee still chimes from the town’s Purcell Tower.

Revive yourself with tealeaf salad

Enthusiastic tea drinkers, the Burmese are one of the few cultures to eat tea as well, in the form of lahpet thouq or tealeaf salad. Fried garlic and broad beans, chopped tomato and whole green chillies are added to piles of deep green, slightly pickled tealeaves, creating something like pesto with a strong caffeine kick – a popular pick-me-up for sleepy students and flagging sightseers alike.

Explore Buddhism’s quirky side

Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhism is shot through with a thick vein of mystery and magic, with enough offbeat sights and stories to revive the interest of the most jaded temple-goer. Climb to the Golden Rock, a precarious gold-crusted boulder held in place for centuries by a few strands of Buddha’s hair, meet alchemist monks searching for the secret to eternal life at Hpa-An’s crag-top pagoda and clamber through the insides of a vast concrete Buddha outside Mawlamyine.

Image by Jo James

Join a nat ceremony

Transvestite natkadaws ply a middle-aged lady with whisky as she gyrates to music from a traditional orchestra. Members of the audience tuck 1,000-kyat notes into her clothing to propitiate the nat who has possessed her. Although Myanmar’s native belief system – that the world is suffused by a collection of unruly nats who require frequent mollification with alcohol, music and money – contrasts sharply with Buddhism’s emphasis on restraint and quiet reflection, many Burmese people happily believe in both. Catch the country’s largest nat ceremony in Taungbyone each August, or head to Mount Popa, Myanmar’s most important centre of nat worship.

Take your time on a Burmese train

Journeys on Myanmar’s antiquated narrow-gauge rail network are often uncomfortable and comically bouncy, and timing is unpredictable in the extreme. However, in exchange for risking a bruised bum and a late arrival, train travellers are rewarded with a fantastic chance to interact with local people, from friendly fellow passengers and holidaying monks, to the poised ladies who sway down the aisle selling snacks from trays balanced precariously on their heads.

Try thanaka

Each morning Burmese women and children daub their cheeks with powdery yellow swipes of thanaka, a natural sunblock and cosmetic made from the ground bark of the wood apple tree, with its sandalwood-like fragrance. However you feel about its beautifying abilities – that tawny shade of yellow isn’t for everyone – freshly applied thanaka is wonderfully cooling, and makes your face smell great for hours.

Rock a longyi

Once you’ve sorted out your thanaka, the natural next step is to get yourself a longyi – a tube of fabric worn by men and women across Myanmar. The male version (a paso) is often nattily checked or striped, and tied with a knot in front, while the female version (a htamein) is more richly patterned, and tucked into a fold around the waist. Pick out your favourite design and take it to a tailor, who will sew it up for you and you’re all set – just ensure that it’s tied tightly enough to avoid any inadvertent flashing…

Nurture a jaggery addiction

Irregular, caramel-coloured lumps of jaggery are one of the great pleasures of a Burmese meal. Made from boiled toddy palm sap and jokingly called “Burmese chocolate”, jaggery is exceedingly addictive whether plain or flavoured with coconut shreds and sesame seeds. However unhappy it might make your dentist back home, cultivating a serious jaggery habit is certainly healthier than Myanmar’s other great tooth-rotting pastime – chewing kwoon-ya, lip-staining little parcels of betel nut, tobacco and slaked lime.

Image by Jo James

Get tipsy on toddy

All over Myanmar, you’ll see spindly bamboo ladders disappearing into spiky palmyra palm trees – a sure sign that a toddy tapper is at work nearby. The palm’s sweet, white sap ferments naturally into toddy, a cloudy, lightly alcoholic beverage also called palm wine or tan-ye. Myanmar’s only home-grown alcoholic drink (Mandalay Brewery’s “anti-aging” spirulina beer notwithstanding), toddy is only available from low-key village bars close to where it’s made, making it an unmistakable taste of the Burmese countryside.

Sample village life

Take to the hills in Shan State and trek along the now-classic Kalaw to Inle Lake route, or head north to explore the less-visited area around Hsipaw and Kyaukme. Whichever hike you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to stay overnight in Shan and Palaung villages along each trail – something that isn’t yet possible elsewhere in Myanmar – and to experience rural life first-hand, with roosters for alarm clocks and water buffalo for trail mates.

Image by Jo James

Go to market

Barefoot porters pad down crowded aisles shouldering crates of limes, stallholders lean against sacks of onions lazily smoking cheroots, while prospective buyers prod green mangoes and examine glistening fish. Go for a stroll through any messy morning market and you’ll discover something new, from the novel (Burmese herbal shampoo) and delicious (crispy bein moun pancakes smeared with jaggery syrup), to the malodorous (shapely piles of ngapi fish paste speared with smoking incense sticks).

Get wet during Thingyan

While in theory, Thingyan – the week-long Burmese New Year festival – is a time to solemnly reaffirm one’s Buddhist beliefs, to the outside observer it seems more like a raucous, countrywide water fight. As temperatures soar each April, everyday life grinds to a halt and children and teenagers take to the streets to soak each other and passers-by (foreigners are singled out with particular relish) with buckets and out-sized water pistols. Festivities reach fever pitch in Mandalay, where streets are lined with makeshift stages from which revellers hose down passing motorists to a booming soundtrack of local hits.

 

Explore more of Myanmar with the new Rough GuideCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Tourists are visiting Thailand in increasing numbers, but some communities remain stuck in a time long passed. In pursuit of the “old Thailand”, Alex Robinson shuns the tour buses and takes local’s route, the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

We’re waiting on the road, huddled together with locals who’ve risen in the pre-dawn dark. “Kneel,” whispers my guide Poj, “and press your palms together”. I do so and wince as a piece of gravel digs into my kneecap. In the distance, hundreds of saffron-robed monks spill out of the monasteries that surround Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple and down the snaking staircase that cuts through the thick forests shrouding the mountain.

I try to stay quiet as the monks approach, holding out their big stainless steel alms bowls. Poj drops bags of warm, sticky Thai rice, wafer biscuits and fruit into the bowls and the monks begin to chant. But not in Thai – they speak the Pali language, a dead dialect that was once used in many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.

To me it sounds as ancient as church Latin, rich, rolling and redolent with the sacred. It’s mesmerising. Meditative. I’m trance-like for five minutes and it’s only after they’ve moved on that I remember the pain in my knee and the pins and needles in my legs.

Tourist Thailand seems far behind. I’ve entered an older country, where monks speak a bygone language and collect alms in the dawn light – as they have done two-and-a-half thousand years. This Chiang Mai isn’t a travel stop for hill tribe handicrafts and elephant camps, but the old capital of the Northern kingdom of Lanna. At least for the next hour. Until the tour buses arrive.

“Tourist Thailand seems far behind”

I began this journey four days earlier in current capital of Thailand, Bangkok. Wanting to find an older Thailand I decided to take the twelve-hour slow train north to Chiang Mai. Most travellers take the overnight train and sleep right through, choosing not to visit the country’s former capitals, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, at all. But I chose to go by day, staying overnight to explore these overlooked destinations.

Leaving Bangkok, I was glad of the peace and calm of the train to my next stop, Ayutthaya. Most tourists squeeze into minivans. But I was one of a handful of foreign faces with a compartment all to myself. Feet up, camera at the ready, I watched the heat and highways of central Bangkok fade into crane-spiked concrete hinterland and then lush green paddy fields, dotted with tractors, workers in conical hats and the occasional languid water buffalo.

I woke with a start as the train jolted into Ayutthaya. This city was once so covered in glittering mosaics that it was said to dazzle visitors from kilometres away. Sadly it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767; temples were smashed, the houseboats and houses, where almost a million Thais lived, were burnt to husks and thousands were forcibly repatriated across the border.

Off the train, I took to two wheels, cycling past Ayutthaya’s network of canals, which was once bustling with boat trade. I could almost hear the vegetable sellers haggle as they yelled for trade from tiny canoes; now the canals are coloured pink with flowering lotuses. When I reached the city itself – a graveyard of crumbling brick palaces, mould-stippled stupas and Buddhas – I found a statue at Wat Phra Mahathat engulfed by a strangler fig, only its serene face remaining exposed among a swirl of roots.

Image by Alex Robinson

“With so few foreigners on the train, I was a curiosity”

There were so few foreigners on the evening train to Phitsanulok that I was a curiosity. Thai people stopped to ask where I was from. The family opposite shared their rice and curry. As night thickened a guard turned my seat into a couchette, covered it with a crisp white sheet and I slept soundly all the way, and when I arrived in the 600-year-old city I was met by my smiling guide, Poj.

The next day we visited Sukhothai, Thailand’s capital in the early thirteenth century just 60km from Phitsanulok. Ransacked Ayutthaya was a forlorn ruin, but the long erosion of time has turned Sukhothai into an eternal monument – a Thai version of Angkor Wat.

In Ayutthaya, Buddhas sat in serried ranks – soldiers against samsara (the material world) – but in Sukhothai, they were veiled by temple walls, serene and as tall as tower blocks, gazing across 800 years of history to a point beyond time. Brightly-coloured tropical birds played among the ornate stupas and perched on the stucco, and nuns and monks meditated at the feet of centuries-old effigies lost at the end of sweeping colonnades.

Image by Alex Robinson

“Instead of tourist crowds, there was the bustle of everyday life”

Before Poj and I embarked on the final leg of our journey and caught the night train to Chiang Mai we visited Mahathat Woramahawihan – a stroll from Phitsanulok railway station. Hidden inside the temple is Thailand’s second most venerated Buddha: a magnificent, three-metre-tall gold statue, crowned with a lotus-flower halo and shimmering in the light.

Instead of the crowds you find at the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, there was the bustle of everyday life. Expectant mums with bags of groceries, school kids, and monks in robes shuffled in through the temple doors and prostrated themselves at the Buddha’s feet. They chanted, prayed, then went on their way, and aside from me – one lone awkward intruder – there wasn’t a European in sight.

But I saw them when I reached Chiang Mai the next day, stuck in tuk tuks in the traffic-choked streets around the city’s old royal moat, clustering around the ancient temples and crowding the tiny bars around the night market. It was fun to join the throng for a while, before slipping off for an early night. To see Chiang Mai as it used to you need to awake for the golden dawn, when monks fill the streets and tourism sleeps.

Alex Robinson travelled with Audley Travel who organise bespoke trips around Thailand, including by rail. Explore more of Thailand with the Rough Guide to ThailandCompare flights, book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The oldest tourist destination on Earth, Egypt has a multitude of things to see and do. There are ancient pyramids, crumbling temples and vast deserts to explore – on foot or by camel – not forgetting the great river Nile. Find the top things not to miss in Egypt for your next trip.

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