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.

A sailing boat on the Irrawaddy, Myanmar, Burma

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.

Golden Rock, MyanmarImage 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.

Woman on train, Myanmar, Burma

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.

Jaggery, Burma, MyamarImage 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.

Country life, Myanmar, BurmaImage 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.

Rough Guide to Myanmar Burma cover

 

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.

Think of The Gambia and sun, sea and sand package holidays might spring to mind, but visitors are starting to explore beyond the beaches. Lynn Houghton tells us eight of the best ways to get off the beaten track.

The tiny West African country of The Gambia is dissected by its namesake, the River Gambia. Much of the landscape is dominated by the river and its tributaries, and beyond the coast you’ll find enormous swathes of lesser-explored mangrove forest, deserted beaches and ‘up country’ adventures. If you’re thinking of eschewing the popular Atlantic Coast beach resorts, here are eight ideas for experiencing a more authentic side of The Gambia, taking in the country’s natural beauty and biodiversity.

Discover the UNESCO-listed Wassu stone circles

About a five-hour drive from Banjul on the north bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic sacred UNESCO site of the Wassu stone circles. The laterite stones, a rich deep mahogany colour, compare in age with Stonehenge in England, and are thought to have a religious purpose, marking burials here for 1500 years. The museum has some interesting information but folklore is much more exciting: talk to the Stone Man, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says you can see lights shining from behind the stones at night – a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.

See foraging chimps at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre

Swinging from the treetops and squabbling with the baboons, West African Chimps are relishing their environment at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre in the River Gambia National Park. They roam free on the Baboon Islands in the middle of the river, while rare red colobus monkeys congregate on the mainland. The centre was started by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979: the first chimps brought here were rescuées and mistreated pets, and there are now 107 completely wild chimpanzees that thrive on these three islands. From Thursday through Sunday, visitors can follow behind a feeding boat to see the chimps in their natural habitat as they come to the riverside to grab a meal.

Chimp on Island, River Gambia National Park, The Gambia, AfricaImage by Lynn Houghton

Explore lush mangroves in the Matasuku Forest

Centuries of legend surround the ancient Matasuku Forest, a nearly pristine area of mangrove covering 17.5 square kilometres along a tributary named Mandinka Bolong. From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons. A Mali King, along with his troops, once managed to make the forest his stronghold but he was ousted by a local tribe; according to folklore, the king’s head, throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land. Today, things are more peaceful. The area has been developed into a sustainable tourism project, the Matasuku Cultural Forest, in partnership with the Gambian government and now includes lodges and a base camp with an arts and crafts market run by local Kembujeh villagers.

Spot rare birds at Baobolong Wetland Reserve

As the dawn mist clears and the morning sun starts to rise, there is possibly no better place in West Africa for birdlife than the Baobolong Nature Reserve. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory. Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Lodge, a mere seven kilometres away on the south side of the river, to spot rare African Fin Foot or Fish Eagles.

Dawn on Mandina Bolong Creek (Tributary), The Gambia, AfricaImage by Lynn Houghton

Float down the River Gambia

Going canoeing along one of the River Gambia’s creeks in a traditional fishing boat or dugout, called a pirogue, is wonderful way to cool off when temperatures soar. Rentals are available from Lamin Lodge, a wooden structure built on stilts over the water, or you can take a full-day trip in a larger motorised boat to explore Kunta Kinteh Island and enjoy a spot of fishing.

Visit traditional fishing villages

To experience local life on the coast, visit the vibrant, colourful coastal fishing market of Tanji in the Kombo region or travel further south to the more authentic fishing village of Gunjur. The market is at its most frenetic at the crack of dawn, when the traditional fishing boats come to shore with their catch. Though fishermen work at a feverish pace, women are equally busy hauling the fish from the boats into large baskets balanced on their heads. Take a wander along the shore and see other workers taking gutting and scaling the fish ready for sale; anyone can purchase a fresh seafood breakfast for a just few Dalasi.

Fishermen, Gunjur Village, Atlantic Coast, The GambiaImage by Lynn Houghton

Check out the street art scene

Art project Wide Open Walls has brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village with sophisticated graffiti art. Some of the work is representational, while some is wholly avant-garde, but all the murals are distinctive. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, and has even inspired the village children to take up making art. Lawrence and Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and have named themselves the ‘Bush Dwellers’. Many street artists are publicity shy and prefer to be known by a name they choose for themselves that reflects their work; artistic duo Neil and Hadley from the UK are ‘Best Ever’, for example, while Brazilian artist Rimon Guimarães has named himself ‘RIM’.

…finally, for the adventurous

Fancy a quicker way of getting across the River Gambia than the vehicle and pedestrian ferry from Banjul, where a three-hour wait is common? Simply wander over to Terminal Road. Once there, young men carry patrons at full pelt on their shoulders down to the beach and into the water to then toss them into an enormous fishing boat. This crossing takes about half an hour and the process is repeated, in reverse, on the other side. The experience probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s health and safety list, but should be tried at least once.

The Gambia Experience offers a variety of travel options and flights to The Gambia including stays at Mandina River Lodge on a B&B basis. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Thailand remains one of the first ports of call for first-time backpackers. But don’t be fooled – though travelling here means following a well-beaten tourist trail, there’s no denying that this beguiling country can take a while to get to grips with. To make sure you hit the ground running on your first visit, follow our top ten Thailand travel tips.

Go slow

Don’t try to fit in too much. You’re almost certain to start in Bangkok and we recommend you don’t rush off. Instead, allow a few days to soak up the vibrant capital’s up-for-it atmosphere, including at least one night on the notorious Khao San Road, before heading south to the islands, or north to Thailand’s second city Chiang Mai. To do both you’ll need at least two weeks; if you’ve got three add Kanchanaburi and the infamous Bridge Over the River Kwai to your itinerary.

What wat?

Thailand is a country of temples, from the magnificent to the miniature, but try to visit them all and you’ll soon find yourself fatigued. Narrow it down to the big-hitters instead like Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok, and Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya. Remember that Thailand is about more than architectural splendour, the street-life and beach-life are just as much a part of the experience.

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Savvy street food

Thai street food is abundant, high quality and astoundingly cheap. But it can also be a fast track to food poisoning. Take sensible precautions such as washing hands before and afterwards, and above all: eat where there are crowds; a faster turnover means fresher food. And don’t drink the tap water.

Repel the enemy

Mosquitoes are everywhere, but that doesn’t mean resigning yourself to being bitten. Use a spray-on repellent with at least 50% deet during the day (100% at night) and treat clothes with a permethrin spray as soon as you arrive in the country. Be sure to do this outside though and leave for a while to dry – it’s nasty stuff.

To market

Visiting an open-air market is a must-do and it is here that you will find the best prices and often the best goods. Thailand is a mecca for counterfeit products though, so be aware that what you’re buying is unlikely to be genuine, and never forget to haggle – the first price you’re quoted should come down by at least a third. Some of the best markets are Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, Tha Kha Floating Market near Samut Songkhram and Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar.

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Get the best beds

If you’re on a budget and planning to stay in hostels and guesthouses, simply turning up and requesting a room is the cheapest way to go, and thanks to Thailand’s flourishing tourism industry you’re unlikely to have trouble finding a bed (especially if you use our Rough Guide to Thailand for suggestions). Bear in mind though that air conditioning often costs extra and is worth every penny during the hottest months (typically May to October). If you’re willing to spend a little more on your accommodation, book mid-range or luxury hotels in advance to secure the best deals.

Sidestep scams

At times, it can feel a little like there is someone trying to rip you off on every corner in Thailand and it pays to keep your wits about you. Don’t trust randomly helpful strangers who come up to you in the street with information about public holidays and closed temples; check with your hostel or hotel instead. Always agree a price before getting in a tuk tuk and insist on any taxi you use being metered. Keep your belongings as close to you as possible, ideally strung around you in a zipped up bag.

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Respect the culture

Keeping face is of paramount important to all Thai people so raising your voice and getting angry will get you nowhere. The head is considered the most sacred part of the body, while the feet are the lowest; don’t touch a Thai person on the head under any circumstances, or point your feet (especially the soles) towards anyone – or any sacred image, particularly of the Buddha or the King. Smiling will always get you a long way. Thais tend to smile far more than the average westerner so get ready to beam.

Drink it in

Beer is the alcoholic drink of choice in Thailand and you’ll find local brew Singha almost everywhere. Be aware that it is 6% abv – and that the almost-as-popular Chang is a whopping 7%. You have to be 20 to buy alcohol, though only nightclubs generally ask for ID. Unless you’re feeling flush, you won’t want to order wine; thanks to hefty import taxes you’ll pay at least four times what you would at home.

Safe sex

Yes, the sex industry is everywhere in Thailand, but no, prostitution is not legal here. As well as potential trouble from the police, there are numerous ethical issues involved, not to mention issues of health and safety. So don’t even think about it.

Explore Thailand with the Rough Guide to Thailand. Books hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

After an unforgettable first trip to Kashmir, India, in 1990, Nick Edwards returned to research the area for recent editions of the Rough Guide to India and found some things unchanged, while others quite different.

Ever since being mesmerised by the symphonic juggernaut of Led Zeppelin’s epic track in the mid-seventies, the name Kashmir held a particular allure for me. So when I finally trundled round the last bend beyond the Jawahar Tunnel, on the ascent by creaking bus from Jammu in August 1990, and the rich green hues of the legendary valley suddenly flashed out below, it truly felt as if I was approaching a long anticipated Shangri-La.

On arrival in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, however, it did not take long to realise the situation was less than idyllic. We were greeted by frequent checkposts protected by walls of sandbags and grim looking Indian conscripts toting machine guns. A disputed area between Pakistan and India, there has been both military and insurgent conflict in Kashmir since independence in 1947. On my visit, there was a strict curfew as soon as darkness fell and the armed resistance to Indian rule, then a year into its new phase of violence, had given the place the distinct air of a war zone.

Yet the scene out at Dal Lake, in the houseboat my Greek girlfriend and I had arranged to stay on, was comfortingly peaceful. Dazzling kingfishers flitted and dived for food between the expanses of waterlilies, while we sipped tea and admired the stunning mountain scenery on all sides. It was only when we took a shikara ride to the other side of the lake that we were brought back to reality by the crackling of gunfire behind the majestic Hazratbal mosque.

Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, Asia

Nearly twenty years later, when I returned to cover Kashmir for the Rough Guide to India – having decided the situation was stable and safe enough to warrant its inclusion – there was undoubtedly a totally different feel about the place. This time I entered the area from Ladakh in the east, across the gruelling and barren Zoji-la pass.

Once again the vivid green patchwork of the Vale of Kashmir was a feast for tired eyes. On this occasion I found Srinagar to be a hive of activity. The bazaars were fully operational, the usual subcontinental riot of spicy odours, bright colours and cacophonous cries. All in all, there was a much happier atmosphere among the hugely increased number of Indian tourists, as well as a resurgent trickle of foreign travellers.

The most important cultural sights were now open to visitors, so I was able to reach Hazratbal mosque by road and join the worshippers in its vast courtyard and simple but awe-inspiring interior, crowned by an elegant white marble dome. I also paid my respects at Jamia Masjid, in the heart of the old city, with its pagoda-shaped wooden minarets, exclusive to Kashmir, and the vibrant Sufi shrine of Makhdoom Sahib just to the north. Sufi places of worship, where a palpable sense of the mystical pervades the air, along with frequent outbursts of song, are always a joy. The only place where I encountered any hostility was outside the permanently locked Rozabal mosque, the purported location of the tomb of Jesus, according to the myth that he lived to a ripe old age and died in Kashmir. Here an angry, young self-appointed watchman swiftly persuaded me to move on.

Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, Asia

This time I was also able to make a couple of forays beyond Srinagar. My Kashmiri friend Manzoor, a shop owner in the southern state of Tamil Nadu whom I had known for many years, took me on a trip up to Gulmarg, a ski centre during winter and playground for pony-riding and even zorbing in the summer months. Far more impressive is Pahalgam, around 100km east of Srinagar, whose wonderful location on the banks of the rushing Lidder River makes it an ideal base for treks of varying lengths, best done in the company of an experienced guide.

Back in Srinagar, Dal Lake remains a scene of sublime tranquility, of course. I took up residence Manzoor’s family hotel, Chachoo Palace, a small rickety wooden structure with a delightful lawn bordering the lake. Once more, before a tasty meal of the rich local wazwan cuisine, I found myself sipping tea and watching a kingfisher darting for food beneath the placid green surface of the lake. It was as if those twenty years had melted away.

NEED TO KNOW

Transport Srinagar has a domestic airport with direct flights from Delhi, Mumbai, Jammu and Leh. It is also accessible by bus or shared jeep from Jammu (8–12hr) and Leh (14hr–2 days). Travel within Kashmir can be done by bus, minibus, jeep, taxi or trekking.

Accommodation Staying at Chachoo Palace, on the shores of Dal Lake, is the fraction of the cost of a houseboat, and makes a good initial base for scouting out the best-priced boat. Houseboats vary enormously in price and services offered: be sure to consider the quality of accommodation, number of meals and refreshments included and whether there are free transfers to and from the shore before parting with your cash.

Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India.

Colourful Australian slang, or strine, has its origins in the archaic cockney and Irish of the colony’s early convicts as well as the adoption of words from the many Aboriginal languages. And for such a vast country, the accent barely varies to the untutored ear; from Tasmania (“Tassie”) to the northwest you’ll find little variation in the national drawl, with a curious, interrogative ending to sentences fairly common – although Queenslanders are noted for their slow delivery.

One of the most consistent tendencies of strine is to abbreviate words and then stick an “-o” or, more commonly, an “-ie” on the end: as in “bring your cozzie to the barbie this arvo”. This informality extends to the frequent use of “bloody”, “bugger” and “bastard” – all used affectionately of course. There’s also an endearing tendency to genderize inanimate objects as, for example, “she’s buggered, mate” (your inanimate object is beyond repair). 

All sound a bit complicated? Taken from the Rough Guide to Australia, here’s our guide to the best (and worst) of Australian slang.

The basics

G’day Hello, hi. Short for “good day”.
Arvo Afternoon.
Beg yours? Excuse me, say again?
No worries That’s OK; It doesn’t matter; Don’t mention it.

Northern Territory, Australia

All about Australia

Back o’Bourke Outback.
Banana bender Resident of Queensland.
Beyond the Black Stump Outback; back of beyond.
Billabong Waterhole in dry river bed.
Bush Unsettled country area.
Crow eater Resident of South Australia.
Never Never Outback, wilderness.
Sandgroper Resident of Western Australia.

Bushtucker, barbies and more

Barbie Barbecue.
Billy Cooking pot.
Bottle shop Off-licence or liquor store.
Bugs Moreton Bay bug – type of crayfish indigenous to southern Queensland.
Bushtucker Traditional foods once eaten by the Aboriginal population: witchetty grubs, kangaroo and much, much more.
Chook Chicken.
Cut lunch Sandwiches.
Damper Soda bread cooked in a pot on embers.
Grog Alcoholic drink, usually beer.
Slab 24-can carton of beer.
Snag Sausage.
Stubby Small bottle of beer.
Tinnie Can of beer, or a small aluminium boat.
Yabbie Freshwater crayfish.

Bushtucker pies

A sartorial glossary

Akubra Wide-brimmed felt hat; a brand name.
Blundstones Leather, elastic-sided workmen’s boots. Often shortened to “blundies”.
Budgie smugglers Men’s tight-fitting Speedos.
Cozzies Bathers, swimmers, togs; swimming costume.
Daks or strides Trousers/pants.
Moleskins Strong cotton trousers worn by bushmen.
Singlet Sleeveless cotton vest. The archetypal Australian singlet, in navy, is produced by Bonds.
Skivvy Polo neck.
Thongs Flip-flops or sandals.

A short guide to insults

Bushwhacker Someone lacking in social graces, a hick.
Dag Nerd.
Dill Idiot.
Drongo Fool.
Gutless wonder Coward.
Hoon A yob, delinquent.

Melbourne beach huts

A short guide to compliments

Beaut! or You beauty! Exclamation of delight.
Bonzer Good, a good thing.
Mate A sworn friend – one you’d do anything for – as essential as beer to the Australian stereotype.
Spunk Attractive or sexy person of either gender (but generally a young man); as in “what a spunk!” Can also be used as an adjective: spunky.

Weird and wonderful

Buckley’s No chance; as in “hasn’t got a Buckley’s”.
Burl Give it a go; as in “give it a burl”.
Like a shag on a rock Out on a limb.
She’ll be apples Everything will work out fine.
To come the raw prawn To try and deceive or make a fool of someone.
Warm fuzzies Feeling of contentment.

The Rough Guide to Australia

 

Explore more of Australia with the Rough Guide to AustraliaBook hostels, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Trim out the religious and/or mystical connotations and Buddhism boils down to something quite simple – brain training. Emptying your mind of white noise in the Buddhist manner – and thereby opening it up to richer focus and awareness – has never been easy. But the digital age is making it even harder, with an ever-billowing storm of information clamouring for our attention. So, retreat – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery might just be the perfect balm to your perpetually flicking and scrolling mind.

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Travel to Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia, a country whose name is a byword for notions of the faraway, and you’ve already made a significant mental leap. You’re certainly not in Kansas anymore here – the nearest wifi is hundreds of miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator. The lodge lets you sample the nomadic lifestyle, except with all the hard bits removed and felt slippers thrown in. Expect snow leopards, bears and wild camels – who needs David Attenborough documentaries?

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

The Amazon river and its tributaries form one of the greatest natural networks of connectivity on the planet. Digitally speaking, however, it’s a total void. Arrange a stay with the Huaoranis of Ecuador for insights into their culture, from tracking in the rainforest to lessons in their language, which is said to be unrelated to any other on Earth.

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Wifi is not such a rare amenity on campsites these days. But if you’re engaged in ‘wild camping’ – pitching your tent off-piste – then technology begins and ends at a rickety gas stove and a pack of AA batteries. In Norway and Sweden, wild camping is part of the national identity – and with landscapes ranging from the Arctic Circle to island-sprinkled archipelagos, there are myriad reasons to leave the glampsites behind.

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

You’re enjoying a precious moment with a spindly dik dik in Ruaha National Park when all of a sudden: “BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP” goes your phone, the precious animal does a runner and your fellow safari guests make a mental note to blog about your appalling behaviour once reunited with their devices. Because they, unlike you, have respected this remote, luxurious southern Tanzanian camp’s requests that digital equipment be kept under lock and key for the duration of your visit.

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

That these fifteen South Pacific islands are named after legendary eighteenth-century explorer James Cook is a bit of a giveaway – they’re seriously remote. Rarotonga, the main island, is not overburdened with hi-tech distractions – one popular activity is “jetblasting” whereby you hang out near the airport’s runway and, well, get blasted by the displaced air from descending planes. Better, perhaps, to focus on enjoying the islands’ natural underwater beauty, from black pearl fields to coral lagoons.

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Cast yourself away – or rather, paddle yourself – to this restored stone cottage near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh, part of the Lough Erne Canoe Trail. The bothy is neat but basic as can be, its list of mod cons beginning and ending at cold running water, a wood-burning stove and south-facing skylights. With life stripped back to the bare essentials, you’re left with the mental space to enjoy Upper Lough Erne’s tranquil bays and sprinkling of lush green islands.

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Get your hands dirty, cleanse your mind – that’s the basic idea here. A number of operators offer holidays based around archaeological digs, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan – although you could always purchase the tools of the trade and go it alone. Beware, though: a metal detector’s seductive blipping might be hard to handle for those in technological cold turkey.

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

The status of the Marianas Trench as the planet’s deepest point is standard pub quiz fodder. But the earthbound equivalent is less well-known. The true vastness of Georgia’s Krubera Cave has only been fully realised since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it took a team of Ukrainian speleologists two weeks to reach the cave’s 2200m deepest point. Down here, you’re guaranteed friend requests from nothing but spiders, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

With patched-up old Buicks and Cadillacs stalking its capital’s streets like mechanical ghouls, the idea of Cuba as a time capsule is a familiar notion. What lies under the hood of those US classics is about as sophisticated as technology gets in Cuba – the country has the lowest rate of web access in the West, and what’s permitted is subject to heavy government regulation. Time to disengage the brain from all things digital and enjoy the city’s steamy charms.

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

In populated areas of the US it isn’t easy to escape the digital dimension. But the Amish – whose Mennonite ancestors came over to Pennsylvania from Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century – have long done a very efficient job of escaping the clutches of the modern world. In Lancaster County you can immerse yourself in their simple, rural way of life, where houses are not connected to the grid and travel is by horse-drawn buggy.

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

Get grounded in Bolivia’s salt flats

In one respect the Bolivian salt flats are money-spinningly hi-tech – beneath the white expanses lie the world’s largest reserves of lithium, used in battery manufacture. But that’s where links to the modern world end. Tours of the mind-bending salar are a Bolivian must-do and whichever accommodation you wind up in – freezing shack, luxury “salt palace” or Airstream caravan – the landscape utterly overwhelms and grounds you in the present moment.

Get grounded in Bolivia's salt flats

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

The internet has expanded at a terrifying rate since its inception, sure, but the Big Bang did it way bigger and way better. There’s nothing like getting out into the light pollution-free wilds and gazing up at giddying bucket-loads of stars to put you in your place. This ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region offers crystal-clear star-gazing allied to a digital detox programme – being reminded of your own puny insignificance never felt so good.

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

The “windy” of Chicago’s nickname actually refers to a certain loquaciousness associated with the city. But even here you can mute the world with the Monaco hotel’s “blackout” option, which encourages guests to hand in their devices on check-in. Be aware, however, that they also offer free wi-fi, so you can polish that halo even harder should you manage not to succumb.

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Somewhere along Turkey’s tourism-saturated Turquoise Coast, where holidaymakers are assured every home comfort, from full English breakfasts to free wi-fi, there’s an enclave of unplugged hippy-dom. Take a water taxi from Oludeniz (the “Blue Lagoon” in English, setting the evocatively back-to-nature tone) to the steep-sided, beach-fronted valley. You might still be able to data-roam, but listening to the crackle of evening bonfires or the strumming of acoustic guitars is far superior to the hum of social media.

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

“I couldn’t survive without my phone.” If you’re this digitally dependent, then perhaps it’s time you addressed your conception of the word “survive” – and that’s where getting shipwrecked on a desert island comes in. You’ll shell out for the privilege, of course, but before being left to your own devices on a Belize caye, the team will train you up and ensure you’re a budding Ray Mears. Fish gutting and fire building ahoy!

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

If you have ants in your social media pants, make for the unflappable stillness of Lough Hourn and let its tranquility wash over you. The most distracting thing you’re likely to encounter hereabouts is the otherworldly light – though climbing, swimming, seal-watching and star-gazing are all possibilities. This phone-, electrics- and internet-free lodge – two hours by car from Fort William, followed by a hike or a boat ride – is the only survivor from an abandoned fishing hamlet.

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

Explore Antarctica

Time is running out for Antarctica. And not (for now) in the way that you might think: rather it’s the region’s status as a communications black hole that’s most pressingly threatened. The urgency of the data being gathered in the region is forcing change, expediting improvements in Antarctica’s links to the wider world: “Antarctica Broadband” is on the horizon, promising “fast internet from the bottom of the earth”. At least it’ll look impressive when you check in on Foursquare.

Explore Antarctica

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

An ancient term denoting hazily understood lands in the far north, “Ultima Thule” harks back to the early, “here be dragons” days of navigation. And while it’s certainly rugged out here, there’s no chance of it all going a bit Into the Wild, for this is Alaska deluxe – after being flown in, it’s chunky wood cabins, bearskin rugs and saunas all the way. And after an afternoon watching bears catch salmon, Candy Crush will seem a very sorry thing indeed.

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

One of the great joys of travelling is stumbling across unexpected places, wandering without a single destination in mind and embracing the journey. These places are perfect for just that – so abandon the map, leave the sat nav behind and let the road take you where it will.

1. The Mercato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Crowded, cramped and rough around the edges, the Mercato covers several square miles of Ethiopia’s capital city. Reputedly the busiest market in Africa, it’s a fascinating place to explore, with traders peddling their wares out of corrugated-iron shacks amidst a fug of incense, coffee and cow dung. This is very much a market for locals, with sections selling grain, vegetables, tyres and used white goods, but you can still pick up an interesting piece of jewellery or other tourist trinkets if you wish.

The Mercato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

2. The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

The Hermitage quite simply has the largest collection of paintings in the world, and is set in one of the most beautiful buildings in Russia: the Winter Palace, an opulent Baroque confection that served as the official residence of the tsars until the revolution of 1917. The museum contains more than three million treasures and works of art, from ancient Scythian gold to paintings by Picasso, only a fraction of which are on display at any one time.

The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

3. Bock Casemates, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Part of Luxembourg City’s impressive series of fortifications, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, the dark, dank Bock Casemates were carved out of a sandstone promontory overlooking the Alzette valley in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The extraordinary complex of underground passages and galleries ran for 23km (17km still remain), and at one time housed a 1200-strong garrison, along with bakeries, kitchens, stables and the like.

Bock Casemates, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

4. Knossos, Crete, Greece

You won’t be the first person to get lost at the Palace of Knossos. Many of the visitors that wander amongst the courtyards, storerooms and royal apartments that made up the largest Minoan palace in Crete are tempted here by the legend of its labyrinth, and of the Minotaur, the creature it was built to contain. Whilst there’s no sign of the labyrinth today, you can still peer into some of the palace’s remaining rooms, which once numbered a thousand.

Knossos, Crete, Greece

5. The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

The world’s largest covered market, Istanbul’s suitably named Grand Bazaar has been trading goods on the same spot in historic Sultanahmet for more than 550 years. Browsing is an endurance sport here, all the more so given the enthusiastic sales techniques on display, and with more than 4000 shops crammed under one roof, you’ll need to pick your battles – try bartering with the shoe-sellers on Kavaflar Sokak or the gold merchants on Kalpakçilar Başı, or the carpet-sellers everywhere in between.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

6. Kolmanskop, Namibia

Stand in the middle of the old town hall in Kolmanskop and you’ll find yourself knee-deep in sand. Kolmanskop sprung up when diamonds where discovered here in the early 1900s – but it faded just as quickly once the gems petered out, and it was abandoned to the mercy of the desert in the mid-1950s. Today, it’s an eerie ghost town, its once-grand buildings – including a ballroom, theatre and casino – slowly succumbing to the encroaching dunes.

Kolmanskop, Namibia

7. Old Delhi, India

Founded in 1638 as the capital of Mughal India, Shahjahanabad (or Old Delhi) is the most intense and downright chaotic area of the city. Delhi is home to nearly 17 million people, and at times it can feel like most of them are jostling along Chandi Chowk, the heaving main thoroughfare, or in the surrounding warren of streets, where rickshaws and handcarts hurry between bazaars selling everything from spices to wedding garlands to car parts.

Old Delhi, India

8. The Moscow metro, Russia

Perhaps only in Moscow can a lengthy trip on the underground become a journey of artistic beauty. The system was designed in the 1930s to showcase the glories of Mother Russia, and many of the first few lines to open employed the most renowned Soviet architects of their time. There are 195 stations to wander, neck craned, gawping at decor ranging from High Stalinist opulence (think red marble, gold-encrusted mosaics and bronze lamps) to the utilitarianism that defined 1970s USSR.

The Moscow metro, Russia

9. Shinsegae Centum City, Busan, South Korea

Shinsegae Centum City is officially the largest shopping complex in the world – they’ve even got a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records to prove it. This is three million square feet of retail therapy, with over 425 shops filling sixteen floors. Plus there’s a food market, an art gallery, an ice rink, a three-floor spa, a multiplex cinema, a gym, a roof garden and the world’s largest indoor driving range, of course.

Shinsegae Centum City, Busan, South Korea

10. The temples of Angkor, Cambodia

The biggest archaeological site on earth, the temples of Angkor are scattered over some four hundred square kilometres of countryside in northwest Cambodia. For six hundred years from the early ninth century, successive Angkorian kings constructed their royal cities and state temples here – the magnificent Angkor Wat is just the most famous of myriad monuments, among them the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, its crumbling ruins engulfed in a tangle of creepers and strangler figs.

The temples of Angkor, Cambodia

11. Fez el Bali, Fez, Morocco

The extraordinary Medina of Fez el Bali is an addictive maze of blind alleys and dead-end lanes. You can follow Talâa Kebira, the main thoroughfare, down into its bowels, past goods-laden donkeys and ancient fondouks selling olive oils and a dozen types of honey. Metalworkers hammer away at immense copper cauldrons on Place Seffarine, brightly coloured yarns dry in the heat on Souk Sabbaghine, and workers toil knee-deep in the honeycomb of vats that make up the tanneries Chouwara.

Fez el Bali, Fez, Morocco

12. Kumbh Mela Festival, Allahabad, India

The largest religious gathering on earth, Kumbh Mela takes place every three years, alternating between Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The cities are auspicious with Hindus thanks to their location at the confluence of holy rivers, and a staggering nineteen million pilgrims attended the last Maha (“Great”) Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2013, when the surrounding floodplains were turned into a vast tent city and legions of naked sadhus, their bodies covered in ash, plunged into the waters each morning.

Kumbh Mela Festival, Allahabad, India

13. Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

If ever a building defined its builder, then the Palace of Parliament is it. The enormous centrepiece of Bucharest’s Centru Civic was constructed in the 1980s for Nicolae Ceauşescu, Romania’s Communist dictator, and is regarded as the concrete zenith of his megalomania. Allegedly the second-largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon), the “Madman’s House”, as it was once popularly known, has well over a thousand rooms and took some seven hundred architects to put together.

Palace of Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

14. Beijing’s hutongs, China

North of The Forbidden City, the labyrinth of twisting grey alleyways and half-hidden courtyards that surround Houhai Lake make up the last major hutong district in Beijing. Once the home of princes, dukes and monks, these ancient backstreets are being torn down to make way for modern housing. For now, though, workers still scurry around on rusty bicycles and old men sit quietly in the shade, attending their caged birds, in what has become an ever-dwindling outpost of traditional Beijing.

Beijing’s hutongs, China

15. Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, South Korea

It’s strange to think that at the heart of one of the most densely populated places on the planet, just a stone’s throw away from the gleaming high-rises of bustling Insadong, there’s a quiet neighbourhood of traditional wooden houses, where locals chatter in tearooms and children play in the sloping streets. These charming hanokjip (literally, “Korean House”) hark back to a time when every home in Seoul had paper walls and was crowned with an elegantly tiled wing-tipped rooftop.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, South Korea

16. The Smithsonian, Washington DC, USA

The supersized collection of big-hitting museums and research facilities that constitute the Smithsonian spreads across a large swathe of Downtown D.C. The complex’s collection is so mind-bogglingly vast that if you were to spend a minute looking at every object on display, it would take you a hundred years to see everything – and that’s without stopping to sleep.

The Smithsonian, Washington DC, USA

17. Convento dei Cappuccini, Palermo, Italy

Warning: this is not one for the faint-hearted. Lining the catacombs deep beneath Palermo’s Convento dei Cappuccini, on the outskirts of the Sicilian capital, are the gruesomely preserved bodies of some eight thousand Palermitans, each one occupying its own niche within the jagged stone walls. The deceased were interred here up until the early 1880s, row upon row of them, dressed in their finest and suspended ad infinitum in some sort of grotesque waiting room for the afterlife.

Convento dei Cappuccini, Palermo, Italy

18. Islamic Cairo, Egypt

The medieval city at the heart of Cairo is a tangled web of narrow lanes, towering mosques and aromatic bazaars. Enter the warren at Khan al-Khalili, packed with goldsmiths, spice vendors and traders hawking incense, then burrow your way south to the Citadel, a hilltop bastion with majestic views over the district’s minaret-studded skyline.

Islamic Cairo, Egypt

19. Mumbai train station, India

At 8.30am at Churchgate Terminus, Mumbai, rush hour is in full swing. The trains pulling into platforms are swollen with suburban commuters, many of them carrying up to 3000 more people than they were designed to. When two trains empty onto a platform at the same time, disgorging their passengers in an explosion of colour, you need to stand still, take a deep breath and remember that there’s only another hour and half to go until things start to quieten down a little.

Mumbai train station, India

Tim Chester spends an evening with the “posh couple” from Britain’s latest TV  craze Gogglebox.

Gogglebox shouldn’t work. The TV show about people watching TV shows sounds like the most meta, barrel-scraping idea in the history of 10 Stone Testicle ideas, but somehow it’s compulsive viewing, a window into the country’s living rooms, prejudices and teatime habits that’s pulling in three million viewers per week, a format that has since been sold to the States and numerous other countries.

If you’re one of its legion of converts, you’ve probably longed for a night on the settee with some of the protagonists, an off-camera chit chat with Sandra & Sandy or June & Leon or Christopher & Stephen. As it happens, you can do exactly that.

Steph and Dom Parker, aka “the posh couple”, run a luxury B&B in Sandwich called The Salutation, a sprawling Grade 1-listed, Edwin Lutyens-designed pile set amid gardens inspired by Gertrude Jekyll in the medieval town of Sandwich in Kent. For £99 upwards you can visit the famous property and potentially spend an evening with the pair.

The Salutation, Sandwich - owned by Gogglebox posh couple.

Sadly we missed the £500-per-ticket orgy that was held there the following night, and didn’t catch the likes of Meryl Streep, James Corden and other celebs that have laid their hats in its numerous rooms while filming Into The Woods in recent months, but we nevertheless experienced the kind of evening you’d expect from Britain’s most gregarious hosts.

Dom set the tone as he showed us our en suite room in the Coach House (which includes its own kitchen and sitting room), pointing to complimentary decanters of whisky and sherry, for consumption if we were “getting changed”.

It quickly became clear that bridging drinks are a way of life here, and we were soon plonked on that famous sofa sharing a G&T with the genial host while Steph wandered the house singing Pharrell Williams tunes and making regular trips to the drinks cabinet.

Steph and Dom from Gogglebox

Supper, as it often seems to be in wealthy houses, was conjured on a whim; there’s no official dining here but they can rustle up something if you’re hungry. For us this quick something was a four course blowout of pâté, fillet steak with potato dauphinoise, panna cotta, umpteen cheeses and biblical amounts of wine, and a chance to meet the other guests.

Half of the visitors were out playing golf (The Salutation is surrounded by top courses and uber rich bankers apparently jet in direct from the US to stay and play) and the remainder seemed to be fellow Gogglebox tourists. One couple were celebrating their anniversary while two other pairs were also here for a meet and greet.

Reception at The Salutation, the Gogglebox mansion

It’s a bit odd, making a pilgrimage to meet reality stars, but Steph and Dom are exemplary hosts aside from their minor celebrity status. B&Bs tread a fine line between personal and overly familiar, characterful,  boutique hideaways and someone’s chintzy spare room, and I’ve spent my fair share of nights whispering in bed, tip-toeing around creaky landings, and adhering to innumerable “house rules” printed in comic sans and tucked into A4 pockets.

Here there are no polite notices and howls of laughter replace the cringeworthy hushed chatter of a million dining rooms. The Salutation eschews the claustrophobia of standard B&Bs in favour of the relaxed conviviality of a best friend’s house, if that best friend lives in a £3.5 million mansion with tasseled toilet flush pulls.

The whole group stayed up into the early hours, discussing everything from Nick Clegg to Leon and June (who don’t like Steph and Dom’s swearing), the long filming shifts and sundry celebrity tittle-tattle. The golfers bowled home suitably refreshed about midnight, all bow ties and crossed eyes while host Tigger and various other staff kept the drinks flowing.

Corner house, Sandwich, Kent, UK

The next morning we blearily explored our rooms tucked up in the eaves, leafing through vintage Penguins before a hearty Full English in the dining room. Tripadvisor nerds would probably note the overcooked poached egg at this point, but The Salutation isn’t the kind of place you spend making critical notes alone in your room. It’s somewhere to spend a riotous night before exploring Sandwich and moving on.

A spectacularly well-preserved medieval town full of half-timbered buildings and narrow streets leading to the willow-lined River Stour (currently being flood-proofed and so covered in diggers and workmen on our visit), it’s a sleepy place that’s given birth to the sandwich and rested on its picturesque laurels since.

The Parkers are selling The Salutation so their hospitality won’t be for sale forever. For now though, and short of a night in front of the box with the Tappers, this is the most fun you can have on a Friday night.

Season four of Gogglebox is on Channel 4 on Fridays at 9pm. The Salutation has a variety of rooms available from £99 per night. Explore more of the area with the Rough Guide to Kent, Sussex and Surrey

During her career break Ros Walford took up teaching English as a foreign language in Chile. Here Ros tells all about the realities and practicalities of teaching English abroad.

As the row of blank faces stared at me across the classroom, I trembled slightly and wondered what on earth I had been thinking when I’d enrolled on a teaching course. A few months earlier, I had needed a new challenge and decided that working abroad as a language teacher would fit the bill. I’d signed up for a 120-hour intensive course to learn to learn to “Teach English as a Foreign Language” (TEFL) at Westminster Kingsway College. Now, as I stood up in front of my first class, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision… Was I up to the job? My knees were shaking and the breed of butterflies in my stomach was proving to be an exceptionally active species. I muddled through the lesson and braced myself for feedback.

Fortunately, the feedback was kind, I passed the course and soon I was boarding a flight to Santiago, the shiny, modern capital of Chile. I found myself a central apartment on the nineteenth floor with views far out over the city to the snow-topped Andean mountains. It was especially stunning at dusk, when the city lights glittered while the orange sky darkened, and it even had charm when Santiago’s infamous smog descended. I explored my new home town, with initial excursions to the tourist hotspots: the sixteenth century cathedral in the attractive Plaza de Armas, the main square; La Moneda, the presidential palace that was bombed during Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état; and Cerro San Cristobal, a large hill from which a Rio-style statue of Christ embraces the nation – before getting to know the local hangouts. However, before I got carried away with sightseeing, I had a job to find…

Chile, Santiago, Plaza de Armas, Metropolitan Cathedral and modern skyscrapers

Without delay, I set about hawking my TEFL certificate around the language schools. Or tried to. It was midsummer and most schools were closed. I sat out the heatwave, lounging by a pool at a peaceful hostel from where I blitzed every school’s inbox. As summer drew to a close, employers returned from the beach and the interview invitations trickled in, along with a sense of disappointment when I realised that full wages would barely cover my hostel bill. One day, I set off feeling disheartened for an interview at an American institute. The laid-back approach of the interviewer was appealing and, unusually, the pay was decent. After a five-minute chat, he pushed a pile of books towards me and said: “Can you be in Nuñoa on Thursday evening?”

When Thursday arrived, I turned up at the Nuñoa apartment as scheduled for my first lesson. I was excessively well prepared but my student Yessenia put me at ease. She was far from being a complete beginner and we chatted away in English. This was going to be ok.

As a freelance teacher, I taught in the homes and offices of individual students and small groups. Although I spent a lot of time travelling to classes, I enjoyed the freedom that came with freelancing. Sometimes I taught for just 2 hours a day; on other days I dashed about the city by overcrowded bus and metro.

Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile, South America

Some students just wanted to have a chat in English, which often led to fascinating conversation. Javier, for example, was a doctor with almost perfect English who had no desire to practice grammar. Instead, he and I would browse the Internet for unusual topics, covering everything from living on the moon to pregnant men. Paula, a glamorous engineer, needed to improve her English for work. During one lesson, I listened with full attention for an hour while she told me about her experience in the 2010 earthquake – the car-park rippling, brick walls toppling. In contrast, businessman Pedro liked to work through his exercise book and was prone to spending painful minutes searching for the right word, whilst I recalled doing the same to my Spanish teacher back in London. What goes around, comes around…

At the office of an engineering company in uptown Providencia, I taught two group classes. At first, my lessons there fell apart despite meticulous planning. During the first fortnight, I managed to break every rule I’d learnt during my TEFL course. I scribbled away on the whiteboard, blathered on in a monologue while students listened patiently, and dazzled them with too much information. At times, I faced a room full of puzzled faces. My main challenge there was how to integrate Marco, a beginner in an intermediate level class. I decided to follow the advice given on my TEFL course. After class one day, I handed him a stack of printouts of extra exercises to help him catch up. “Am I really that bad?” he asked, looking sad. I had so much to learn – not least classroom diplomacy.

School teacher and class, France

As a result, when the next group class came around – with the Advanced students – I felt nervous. I had a Masterchef-style lesson planned for the class: each student was asked to stand in front of the class and explain a simple recipe, TV-chef style. It was a joy to see apron-clad Mauricio throw himself into his demonstration of how to cook the perfect pasta. He was waving his arms around like an Italian chef, tossing imaginary ingredients into the pot along with recently learnt imperative verbs. His classmates were laughing and I was feeling relieved that it was all going pretty well. On that day, everything fell into place: students engaged (check), learning taking place (check)… Finally, I was doing alright.

As the months rolled on, teaching got easier. I relaxed and started to behave like a local: eating hearty, economical meals in brightly lit corner restaurants; grocery shopping at the vast central market; exploring arty Nunoa’s café-gallery scene; day trips to the beach at Valparaiso; weekends camping trips to the Andes; and pisco sour-fuelled nights out in the bars of Bellavista. When it was time to move on, I had to say an emotional farewell to all of that and to my students, some of whom I had got to know as friends. As I packed up my gigantic rucksack, I reflected on my TEFL experience: like most teachers, I’d had good and bad days, but now the bad were much less frequent. Overall, I’d enjoyed the experience and had gained confidence – and now that I could successfully teach a classroom of students, I felt capable of doing anything.

NEED TO KNOW

  • DO research TEFL institutes before you enrol. Standards vary.
  • DON’T do an online course. You need practical experience.
  • DO obtain a Cambridge CELTA or Trinity TESOL certificate – the most highly regarded qualifications.
  • DON’T expect to walk straight into a full-time teaching job.
  • DO use TEFL advice and jobs websites like www.eslbase.com and www.eslcafe.com to help you find work.
  • DO find out pay and conditions before you accept a position.
  • DO find out visa restrictions before you go. Check with the relevant consulate.

Recommended TEFL institutes:

Westminster Kingsway College, London, England
International House (global)
St Giles International (UK, USA, Canada, Brazil)

Explore more of Chile with the Rough Guide to Chile. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Motorbiking around Sulawesi in search of one of the island’s famed funerals, Anthon Jackson attends an intense and bloody ceremony to bid farewell to the deceased.

Leashed to a stake in the ground, the buffalo’s entire body squirmed as its broad throat was slit, its knees buckling and its huge torso collapsing onto the grass. With its last breath, it raised its head high into the air, the gash across its neck stretched wide open and gushing. Finally the bull’s head lowered to rest against the wet ground. It was at this point that the old animists of Toraja, an ethnic group in south Suluwesi, believed the deceased had finally passed on, headed at last towards Puya, the land of souls.

One of Toraja’s famous funerals was underway. Earlier that morning in Rantepao – capital of the North Toraja Regency on the island of Sulawesi – my wife Joanna and I had hired a motorbike for £4 and sped off through the hills in search of one such ceremony, said to be getting started somewhere to the southeast.

Even outside the peak funeral months of June to September, there seems to be a funeral almost every day in Toraja; you just need to know where and when. Today it was the village of La’bo, and after just twenty minutes through the rice paddies we were unmistakably there.

Funeral Grounds - Tana Torajahpyjama via Compfight cc

In the wet fields along the drive were only a handful of farmers and buffalos mired in mud, but here were over a hundred guests: family, friends and a smattering of foreigners led by guides hired in Rantepao. Encircled by towering tongkonan – traditional houses each intricately carved with curved, sweeping roofs of split bamboo – was the casket. All were waiting for the funeral to begin.

Since the arrival of the Dutch in the misty highlands of Tana Toraja, the animistic “Way of the Ancestors” (Aluk To Dolo) has been largely supplanted by Christianity, now the region’s majority religion. Nevertheless, the old funeral rites have survived intact.

Funerals remain by far the most expensive and ceremonious occasions in Torajan life and death, and at their heart remains animal sacrifice. Torajans save up for years to throw a funeral, as the more buffaloes and pigs amassed for the feast, the greater the honour to the deceased.

Tana Torajah, Indonesia funeral SINGLE USE ONLYpyjama via Compfight cc

In my broken Bahasa I asked for the head of the household and was pointed towards a tiny old woman in black. When our turn came to approach her, we handed off our gift with two hands: a carton of kreteks, clove cigarettes. She accepted the present with a smile, offered a frail handshake and ushered us to our seats. Stepping around a dozen or so tied, squealing pigs laid out in the grass to await their slaughter, we made our way into one of the bamboo huts surrounding the grassy field where the casket lay. The women chewed on sweets while the men chain-smoked and sipped palm wine. We chatted with extended family members until the first wave of food arrived.

We spent the following several hours in the hut, stepping out only briefly when the ceremony turned raucous. First came the shaking of the coffin. A dozen men surrounded the coffin, lifted it up and carried it in a wandering circle around the patch of grass. They shook the carved box wildly enough to send the lingering spirit on its way – and possibly break a few of the corpse’s bones. In a procession that was anything but solemn, the smiling widow, trailed by a handful of elderly, black-clad peers, led the haphazard cortege under a long piece of red cloth tied to the coffin.

Next came the eulogies, then more food, and finally, one of the buffaloes was dragged onto the patch of grass. It wasn’t long after the first bit of bloodletting that Joanna was ready to get moving again.

After a round of goodbyes in the smoky hut, we headed out the back way towards the road from where we could hear the shrieks of bound and paralyzed pigs, louder than ever. We glimpsed several of the poor beasts strewn across the hill in various stages of butchery. Our friends at the funeral would have plenty of meat for the feast.

Funeral in Sulawesi, Indonesia SINGLE USE ONLYImage by Anthon Jackon

The final resting place for this deceased would be in one of the limestone caves that dotted the surrounding hills, while some Torajans are buried in stone graves and others high on the cliffs in hanging coffins, the latter taking years to rot and then break onto the rocks below.

Before leaving Rantepao, we rode to a couple of nearby cliff sites, finding piles of skulls at the mouths of deep caves. The wreckage of fallen coffins was strewn around them. At Londa, a few meters up the cliff face from the burial site, was a shelf crammed with wooden tau tau, effigies of the deceased. From their crudely carved faces, painted eyes stared blankly across the rice paddies below, somewhat eerie embodiments of the special bond between the living and the dead of Tana Toraja.

The launching point for attending a funeral in Tana Toraja is Rantepao, (8hr by bus from Makassar), where you’ll find plenty of knowledgeable guides to escort you to a funeral. Explore more of Indonesia with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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