Planning a trip to Thailand? Or perhaps just dreaming of those beaches and that food? Either way, allow us to offer our 20 essential things to see and do in this spectacular country:

If you live in – or are planning a trip to – London, and you like to eat, you might want to watch this video. We run through the nine rules you need to follow to ensure you make the most out of one of the world’s most exciting cities for foodies.

From street food to top restaurants, via cuisine from across the globe, this will set you up for a gluttonous odyssey around the capital.

Southeast Asia offers some wonderful treks, allowing you to spend days walking through dense rainforests, spotting spectacular wildlife, learning about the cultures of the many different tribes who live in the remoter areas, and often staying with them in their homes and sharing their meals. The following ten treks are highly recommended, and also ensure that any communities visited benefit from your presence.

Taman Negara, Malaysia

There are six observation hides in Taman Negara – one of the oldest rainforests on earth and pictured above – where you can stay the night and experience the jungle in all its noisy nocturnal glory. During the day, you can go on river cruises, explore limestone caves with ancient wall-drawings or climb up to the canopy trail for a closer look at the wildlife. Get more info at www.taman-negara.com.

Charity Challenge, Vietnam

This challenging hike through the hills of northern Vietnam takes you between villages of Black H’mong, Red Dao and Tay minorities, with some nights spent in the homes of tribes and others camping. You have to raise a minimum sponsorship before you go, but because everyone is doing it for the charity of their choice, it creates a real bond among the group, with everyone supporting each other to achieve their aims. Find out more at www.charitychallenge.com.

Intrepid Travel, Thailand

This three-day trek, visiting the hospitable Karen people who live in the hills around Chiang Mai, forms the middle part of a week-long trip starting and ending with visits to some of the highlights of Bangkok, making it ideal for those on limited time. The walking is only three or so hours each day through thick forest, which leaves you plenty of time to explore the villages where you’ll stop off for the night. .

Khammouane Ecoguides, Laos

Escorted by a guide from the local community, this two-day journey in Phou Hin Poun explores some of the vast caves and churning rapids for which this area of forested limestone hills is famous. Bring your torch, as the biggest cave – the stalactite-filled Kong Lor – is 7km long.

Pooh Eco Treks, Thailand

Setting off from Chiang Mai, your guides Mr Pooh and his Karen associate Mr Tee will lead you with flaming torches deep into bat-filled caves and help you get the most of a stay with Karen villagers whom they have known for twenty years. By the end of your trek, they will also have taught you how to forage for food in the jungle. Discover more at www.pooh-ecotrekking.com.

Hill Tribe Tours, Thailand

Run by an NGO based in Chiang Rai, the focus of these trips is more on cultural exchange than physical endurance. As you walk only a couple of hours a day, most of your time is spent experiencing the rhythms of daily life with members of the Lahu, Akha and Karen tribes – perhaps preparing meals on the bamboo floor of your host’s home, helping in the fields or volunteering in the local school. Visit themirrorfoundation.org for more.

Yeak Laom, Cambodia

The dense forests covering the Ratanakiri district in northeast Cambodia are not easy to negotiate alone, so you’ll be glad to have a knowledgeable guide who can lead you to the most remote areas. One of these is the stunning Yeak Laom Lake – which fills a disused volcanic crater – and its surrounding five Tampuen villages, where you’ll learn about traditional handicrafts, customs and beliefs.

Rinjani, Lombok

As the first man ever to take trekkers to Mount Rinjani over twenty years ago, no-one knows the area and its people better than self-styled “Mr John”. As part of the “John’s Adventures” programme, he will take you on a three-day trek up the slopes of the volcano to the sacred lake that fills it crater, known as Segara Anak (“child of the sea”). After a sweaty hike, you’ll be ready for a refreshing swim.

Green Discoveries, Laos

In between tramping through the forests around Luang Namtha in northern Laos, gathering forest vegetables for dinner, you’ll get to meet the Akha people. You’ll sleep in the villagers’ homes, and there’s time to watch or join in with their lively songs and dances, and have a go on some of the instruments they use. Visit www.greendiscoverylaos.com for more.

Mount Kinabulu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

It is just one day’s steep uphill trek and a pre-dawn climb up a rocky ascent to see the sun rise at the summit of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. To tackle it you must buy a permit for at Kinabalu Park’s headquarters. After the hike, soothe your muscles in the geothermally heated Poring Hot Springs.

 

For hundreds more unforgettable travel experiences, check out Great Escapes.

Thanks to the stratospheric rise of the aussie dollar, Sydney has now leapfrogged New York and London as one of the world’s most expensive cities. Almost every street seems to have a concept wine bar or Masterchef-style restaurant popping up and even scuzzy old Kings Cross has cleaned up its act.

Yet while “Sydders” can take a  shark-sized bite out of anyone’s pocket, there’s still plenty of things to do in Sydney for free that don’t involve simply lying on a beach.

1. Use the free tours

For the inside track on any city it’s hard to beat a local guiding you around, especially for free. The aptly named I’m Free Tours offers fun, three-hour walking tours accompanied by savvy locals. Look out for the guides – hard to miss thanks to their lime-green t-shirts – at Sydney Town Hall.

2. Walk the coathanger

Why pay over $200 (£130) to climb the Harbour Bridge, known affectionately locally as “the coathanger”, when you can snap up the same panoramic views for free by walking across? The 1.15km HarbourBridge walkway is best accessed from the north shore so you can keep your eyes on the Opera House as you stroll (or cycle) across.

3. Go swimming

Taking a dip in one of Sydneys thirty outdoor ocean pools is a classic Aussie experience. The water’s warm enough for year-round swimming and mercifully free of anything that will bite you (well, bar the odd hyperactive toddler). One of the most atmospheric pools is Bronte Baths (free), built in 1887, and overlooking the equally lovely Bronte Beach.

4. Challenge yourself to a coastal hike

For those of you who own a pair of hiking boots as well as thongs (flip-flops) there are two excellent coastal walks that kick off from central Sydney: Bondi to Bronte (6km) and the Manly Scenic Walkway (10km).

5. Try a botanical escape

An oasis of calm (at least when its raucous fruit bats are asleep) Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens is a perfect escape from the hectic downtown area. Also within the park is the imposingly colonial Government House (free entry), a kind of pint-sized Buckingham Palace, surrounded by manicured grounds.

6. Head to the free art galleries…

You could easily spend a day wandering around the NSW Art Gallery, whose vast collection includes Asian masterpieces as well as European Impressionist, Aboriginal and colonial works.  For free contemporary art don’t miss the newly expanded MCA or the Brett Whitley Studio.

7. …as well as the free museums

Two of the finest free museums are the National Maritime, which traces the country’s many links with the ocean and the Australian Museum, which, as well as the usual dinosaur skeletons, displays some pleasingly lethal creepy crawlies. Also free are the excellent yet often overlooked museums of the University of Sydney.  

8. Take a free bus to a free internet spot

Look out for the free shuttle bus 555 which does a useful circuit of central Sydney every 10min. For free wi-fi try Sydney’s excellent libraries, you can check in on the lastest Rough Guides content online while you’re there.

9. Hit the Rocks

Easily the most atmospheric part of Sydney, the Rocks harbourside district is where the first Europeans stepped ashore on 26 January 1788. Strolling the cobblestone streets is, of course perfectly free, though its addictive weekend market should come with a wallet health warning.

10. Free festivals

Well worth timing your visit for, January’s Sydney Festival features everything from burlesque circus to indigenous arts and kicks off with a huge free street party. Another annual fixture is the fabulous Sculpture by the Sea open-air exhibition. For other free events check out http://whatson.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au.

Whether you are keen to learn more about their art and customs, such as the many dances of the corroboree ceremony or the songs of The Dreaming, or simply want an authentic trip to Uluru, there are no better guides to Australia’s outback than the many Aboriginal peoples who have lived her for millennia. All the following experiences are run by indigenous Australians and are committed to preserving and sharing one of the world’s oldest cultures.

Go walkabout in the Flinders

While it may look like a vast crater formed by a meteor strike, Wilpena Pound is in fact an 83-square-kilometre amphitheatre of mountains in the arid deserts of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. It’s one of many natural highlights of a five-day trip through the area with Bookabee Tours, staying in remote lodges and Aboriginal communities, taking in gorges etched with 30,000-year-old rock art, and spotting kangaroos, echidnas, emus and many other of Australia’s endemic animals. Bookabee is run by Hadyn Bromley, a former teacher and member of the Adnyamathanha people, who is passionate about sharing his people’s understanding of the region. For him this is an essential part of sustaining his culture – for guests it is one of the best ways of grappling with such Aboriginal concepts as walkabout and Dreamtime.

Tours start and end in Adelaide, where Bookabee also offers short tours of the city from an Aboriginal perspective. For more details see www.bookabee.com.au.

Take the long road to Kooljaman

Unzip your tent early in the morning at Kooljaman wilderness camp in the north of western Australia, and you can watch the sun rise over the endless white-sand beach and azure sea. Take a short walk from your tent across the sands at the point of Cape Leveque and you can watch the sun set on an equally breathtaking stretch of beach on the other side of the point. You’re so far from anything and anyone here that you’ll probably have both views to yourself.

Run by the two local Aboriginal communities, whose members are all shareholders in the company, Kooljaman offers a total escape into the Australian wilderness, whatever your budget – for those seeking a little barefoot luxury, there are safari tents, while those with less to splash can crash down in the rustic beach shelters. Whatever you choose, the attractions are the same – hunting for crabs with the locals in the mangroves, diving off the empty reef or simply letting your head clear in one of the most remote places on Earth.

Kooljaman has tents, cabins, beach shelters and campsites available all year round. For information on accommodation and activities visit www.kooljaman.com.au.

Learn what rock art means

Standing under the heavy overhanging rocks of Wangaar-Wuri caves in northern Queensland, whose sides are covered with Aboriginal paintings representing the myths of their creation story, it’s easy to forget about the modern world. All the more so when Aboriginal elder Willie Gordon, whose ancestral land this is and whose grandfather was born among these stones, begins to explain the stories and messages in the images. Willie runs Guurrbi Tours, taking visitors on short trips into the native lands of the Nugal people. And as you walk through the rainforest to get to the caves, he tells you about the animals and plants and their various uses, from the sap of bloodwood tree, used as an antiseptic, to various edible grubs. In 2007 Willie was recognized as Australia’s best indigenous tour guide – if you want to understand about rock art and bushcraft, he’s your man.

Wangaar-Wuri is a 40min drive from Cooktown, where Willie will pick you up, or you can arrange to meet him nearer the caves. For itineraries, directions and conservation policies see www.guurrbitours.com.

See Uluru the right way

No one has a deeper understanding of Uluru (Ayers Rock) than the Anangu, the name for the Aboriginal peoples of Australia’s Western Desert, on whose ancestral lands Uluru is found.

While the tourist hordes clamber to the top, despite requests from the Aboriginal peoples to leave their sacred rock alone, Anangu Tours offer a respectful alternative and the opportunity to share in their unrivalled knowledge of the area. Trips to the rock depart at sunrise or at sunset – the coolest times of the day – by foot or by camel. The company also offers workshops in Aboriginal dot painting, as well as lessons in bush survival skills, such as starting fires and hunting with spears.

Tours collect visitors from accommodation near the rock. All tours are conducted in Western Desert languages such as Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, and translated into English. For tour details see www.ananguwaai.com

 

For hundreds more unforgettable travel experiences, check out Great Escapes.

Go on a safari in a 4WD and you have the best of best worlds: a safe, secure vantage point from which to spot wildlife, and the mobility to whizz off as soon as the news comes over the radio of where to go for the best action. Go on walking or horse-riding safaris and the pace is much slower, but you are able to follow tracks off-road, catch the scent of animals, hear birdsong more clearly and get a closer connection to the bush. And if you’re lucky, you may just have that once-in-a-lifetime close encounter with an elephant or a lion. Below are our five favourite slow safari experiences.

Go on a horse-riding safari in Kenya

At Borana Lodge, a working ranch with two thousand cattle at the edge of the Samangua Valley in Kenya’s remote Laikipia region, guests can combine the thrill of horse-riding with game viewing. Choose between rides over grassland among giraffes, hartebeest and impala, or explore the forest at the foot of Mount Kenya. You’ll spend between four and seven hours in the saddle every day, camping out overnight in the bush if you wish. The lodge is luxurious yet was built using only local building materials and dead wood from the ranch. Each of the eight cottages has its own veranda and shares the wonderfully well-sited pool that overlooks a watering hole popular with elephants. This is safari tourism made easy.

The ranch caters for all riding abilities and there are a few smaller bush ponies for children. For more information about Borana Lodge see www.borana.co.ke. For prices and bookings of horse-riding trips based at Borana see www.aardvarksafaris.co.uk.

Trek through the roof of the world, Kenya

Follow an ancient game trail on foot up to the Losiolo escarpment to one of the best viewpoints of the Great Rift Valley, then tackle a 3000m descent to a riverside camp in the beautiful Lerachi gorge. And that’s just day one. Donkeys will carry all the equipment as you follow a guide from one of the Ndorobo tribes – accompanied by ten Samburu warriors – among the isolated mountain ranges of Samburu that are home to leopards, hyenas and mountain reedbucks. Choose between a five-day trip or a more strenuous eight-day trek into the Rift Valley, including three days in the private wildlife reserve of Mugie. En route you’ll explore several flat-topped peaks with views of the arid plains below, swim in natural pools and visit traditional Samburu villages in this ancient, volcanic land.

For further details, info about the Samburu region, prices and reservations see www.samburutrails.com.

Walk on the wild side, Tanzania

Watching the annual mass migration of wildebeest and zebra as they move from the Serengeti back to the Maasai Mara is impressive enough on any game drive, but on a walking safari you feel even closer to the action. On this unique trip, walking no more than 15km per day, Maasai guides will lead you to safe vantage points on rocky mounds where you’ll feel the ground tremble as thousands of animals roam across the plains. Each night, you’ll camp out next to waterholes or small tributaries in lightweight fly camps, and you’ll eat dinner around a camp fire wondering if there are as many wildebeest in the Serengeti as there are stars in the African night.

Trips depart January to March. For itineraries, prices and bookings see www.wildernessjourneys.com.

 

 

 

Walk with camels in Kenya

Don’t want to carry your bags on a walking safari? Then let the camels do it. On a tour with Karisia Walking Safaris you’ll follow game tracks with Maasai warriors across the Laikipia Plateau in northern Kenya. Walking itineraries vary from a few days to a seven-night hike along the Ewaso River. En route you’ll camp at various spots along the river, pass a nesting site for a pair of Verreaux eagles, and see elephants and hippos at the water’s edge. The trip ends at Ol Malo, a luxury lodge on the edge of the Laikipia Plateau where you can swim in a pool and enjoy wonderful views of Mount Kenya.

For prices, itineraries and reservations see www.karisia.com.

Set out on foot in the Serengeti, Tanzania

It’s back to basics on this walking safari in the Serengeti National Park. Walking in the mornings only and in small groups of two to eight people, the three-day to five-day treks begin in the Longossa Hills and then follow ancient riverbeds to the Orangi River, where you’re likely to see elephants, buffalo and hyenas. You’ll camp in the bush in canvas-dome tents, before returning on the final day to Serengeti Wilderness Camp, where there are several permanent water sources that attract lots of game. This seasonal camp has eight tents and a large dining area, but no permanent structures (lighting is solar and there are compost toilets) so that it can be transported easily to follow wildlife.

The operators are one of only a few granted a permit to lead treks in the Serengeti. The walking and camp teams have radios, mobile phones and a GPS, and you are accompanied throughout by an armed Tanzania National Parks guide. For dates, prices and reservations see www.rainbowtours.co.uk.

 For hundreds more unforgettable travel experiences, grab a copy of Great Escapes.

The Polish woman grins as the car ferry to Tierra del Fuego crashes over the Magellan Strait. The bus groans and moves very slightly forward, grazing the truck in front of us. I grip my chair. She waves a book at me. “Have you read our excellent Podróże Marzeń guide to Chile?” She smiles again as the bus rolls back. The bus driver is outside and stubs out his cigarette. He shakes his head at the sailors trying to secure our vehicle. I tell her that I can’t read Polish.

“You are writer, no?” She points at my note pad. Yes, I say. Rough Guides? She stares at me. “Like Podróże Marzeń?” Yes, I suppose so. “You want a copy? I have a photocopy on my Samsung”. No thank you, I say. “Is the bus supposed to be moving?” She shrugs, then points to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. “This is your book?” No, I say. This is by an author who is now dead. “You know Bruce Chatwin?” She shakes her head. “He likes Patagonia?” Sort of. “Ah, yes, it is so very beautiful”. She looks sad. “But tomorrow our group goes to Easter Island, for the big heads.”

Thirty-five years ago, the publication of In Patagonia made Bruce Chatwin famous overnight – in the English-speaking world at least. In 1975 there were few tourists in southern Chile and Argentina. Chatwin finds Patagonia a place of “vicious” sunsets in “red and purple”. It has towns of “shabby concrete buildings, tin bungalows, tin warehouses and wind-flattened gardens”, a place littered with the insane, criminals and British eccentrics, leftovers from the sheep-farming boom of the early 1900s. In Patagonia was a magical book – ‘a wonder voyage’ – about a remote and mystical land. I knew the place must have changed – I just had no idea how much.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Chatwin finds Ushuaia, the world’s most southernmost city, especially dispiriting, full of “blue-faced inhabitants [who] glared at strangers unkindly”. Today this town is perhaps the most transformed of any he visited, a booming tourist depot serving European and American cruises and adventure travellers by the Airbus load – the main drag heaves with shops, Irish pubs, cool cafés and North Face outlets. English is spoken everywhere.

The old prison was a barracks when Chatwin arrived, ‘blank grey walls, pierced by the narrowest slits’, with a brothel next door. He came looking for evidence of the failed anarchist Simón Radowitzky, imprisoned here in 1911. There are no more brothels (at least, none as obvious), and the navy now shares the old prison with the stylish Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia, making the building seem far less foreboding – it’s a fabulous labyrinth of exhibits on modern art, the ‘Malvinas War’ and history of Antarctic exploration. Chatwin would be pleased to see that Simón is also remembered, though the brutal ill-treatment he received is not – displays emphasize that Radowitzky was an anarchist and murderer. Yet the museum is not wholly unsympathetic to the prisoners’ plight. One cellblock has been left as it was; cold, dimly lit and very cramped.

Today Ushuaia lives for tourism, not “canning crabs”. Chatwin remarks on the damage done by imported beavers to the ecology of Tierra de Fuego – today there are tours to go see them. He walks all the way to the Estancia Harberton, where Clarita Goodall (granddaughter of original missionary Thomas Bridges) makes him breakfast. Today tour buses grind over to the spiffy estancia in under an hour for guided tours, penguins and the estate museum. The place is still owned by Clarita’s son, Thomas Goodall, but it’s no longer a working farm. Tourists get to eat soup and cookies at the Mánacatush Tea Room.

Punta Arenas

Chatwin’s Punta Arenas, at the bottom end of Chile, is a sad place: a sort of British enclave in decline meets Spanish city recovering from Marxist dictatorship. Today it is booming from tourism and a bonanza in natural resources. Locals in suits rush around the plaza for lunch meetings while bemused tourists seem dressed for the South Pole (it’s not that cold). The British sheep farming magnates of the 1890s – already an echo in Chatwin’s book – are long gone.

When Chatwin arrived the local dignitaries were commemorating José Menéndez, sheep-farm millionaire, with a memorial in Plaza de Armas: his bronze head is still there, and still “as bald as a bomb”. Chatwin describes the palazzos around the plaza as “mostly officers’ clubs”, though there is now only one club, and most have become banks, hotels or restaurants. The hotel where he stayed – the Residencial Ritz – is now abandoned near the docks, a shabby building up for sale.

Chatwin seems to find the Salesian Fathers museum even more depressing, but this, too, has been completely transformed. The glass showcase of an Italian priest and otter skin is no more, and I couldn’t locate the two “sad copy-books” he mentions. Today the Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello is far more politically correct and an enlightening introduction to the region and its native inhabitants.

Yet there is still a tiny British presence here. The British Club and one time consul closed in 1981 – it’s now all part of the Bank of Chile and off limits, but St James Church and the British School next door are still very much in business. And Charley Millward’s Neo-Gothic fantasy house is around the corner, just as Chatwin describes it: “iron gate painted green, with crossed Ms twined about with Pre-Raphaelite lilies”. It’s now the offices of the local newspaper, Diario El Pingüino.

Puerto Natales and the Mylodon Cave

When Chatwin arrived in Puerto Natales, 240km north of Punta Arenas, the “roofs of the houses were scabby with rust and clattered in the wind. Rowan trees grew in the gardens…most were choked with docks and cow parsley”. Still an outwardly shabby place, the neglected, end-of-the-world feel has disappeared entirely; hostels overflow with backpackers on every corner. You can order a decent latte, cheeseburgers, bottles of quality Chilean red and cheap mojitos. Polish and Korean tour groups shuffle up and down the streets.

The main reason Chatwin visits Natales is for the Mylodon Cave, a short drive north of town. Chatwin’s fascination with Patagonia – and indeed the hinge on which the whole book pivots – had its roots in a scrap of mylodon (giant sloth) skin that Milward, his grandmother’s cousin, had sent back to England.

Of all the places in the book, this was the one I was most eager to see. Chatwin describes a raw, untouched cavern with a simple shrine to the Virgin at its mouth. Inside he sees the remains of petrified “sloth turds”. After rooting around in an old dynamite hole he actually finds another piece of ancient skin, preserved by the dryness. True or not (and Chatwin often made things up), I was intrigued.

When I visited there was a bit of a traffic jam. Several tour buses had arrived at the same time, mostly Germans and Koreans along with a pack of American hikers and a convoy of Chilean and Argentine families in dusty SUVs. The cave is accessed by clearly marked trails from a small visitor centre – there’s even a gift shop and decent restaurant across the road. The gaping cave mouth itself hasn’t changed in millennia, but now a life-size model of a mylodon on its hind legs graces the entrance. Informative displays tell the story of the now extinct giant. The small shrine, turds and any traces of skin have long gone, along with any romance the place once had.

But the buses soon moved on. As I strolled outside the cave I looked back across the icy plains towards the vast snow-capped massif of the Torres del Paine. Chatwin’s half real, half fantasy book was never meant to be a travel guide in any case. And even though Patagonia has changed, of course, its landscapes remain – vast, desolate and witheringly beautiful.

Stephen Keeling is a contributor to the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget.

Think of Morocco and you’ll invariably picture the souks of Marrakesh, the whitewashed walls of oceanside Essaouira, the High Atlas trails of the dramatic Toubkal Massif. Trouble is, so does everybody else. This well-trodden triangle is Morocco’s most popular tourist route – for good reason – but in a country that welcomes nearly ten million visitors a year, venturing just slightly off the beaten track can make all the difference to your trip. Here are five of our favourite low-key alternatives and unheralded highlights to get you started.

MEKNES

Morocco’s forgotten imperial city is more intimate and manageable than Marrakesh, Fez and Rabat, but in many ways just as rewarding. The souks of carpet traders, basketmakers, silversmiths and sweet sellers are on a smaller scale, which means there’s less hassle and the bargaining is more fun. But the Medina is only half the story. Just south of the old town lies the other half: the Ville Impériale, an immense walled complex of ceremonial gateways, subterranean vaults and vast granaries that once housed over fifty palaces. The lavish ensemble was the work of one man, Sultan Moulay Ismail, whose tranquil mausoleum (pictured above) is one of only three active shrines in the country that are open to non-Muslims.

AÏT BOUGUEMEZ

Until the late 1990s, the only way into the glorious Aït Bouguemez was on the back of a mule. Tarmac is still something of a novelty here, and while a highly spectacular road now wends its way down to the lower end of the valley, the villages that dot its barren slopes still feel wonderfully remote. The hordes may flock to Toubkal, but trekkers in the know head northeast out of Marrakesh instead – the Aït Bouguemez’s peaceful trails include a variety of mountainous day-hikes, or you can tackle the multi-day ascent of Jebel M’Goun, one of Morocco’s highest peaks.

TAROUDANT

Taroudant was fleetingly Morocco’s capital before the Saadians upped sticks for Marrakesh five centuries ago, but while the Red City has become Morocco’s number-one tourist attraction, its predecessor has slipped slowly off the radar. Performers gather in the evening at the main square, Place Assarag, just like they do in Marrakesh’s more famous Jemaa el Fna, and there are a couple of interesting souks selling spices and jewellery from the Anti-Atlas. But Taroudant’s defining feature is its majestic ramparts, which encircle the town in its entirety – rent a bike and head out in the late afternoon, when the walls glow like toasted flapjacks.

BHALIL

Few tourists make it to Sefrou, an ancient market town near Fez that actually predates its more illustrious neighbour. Even fewer make it to Bhalil, five minutes’ further down the road and believed to be even older still. Suffice to say, you’ll have this intriguing little village pretty much to yourself. Bhalil is built on top of a network of caves, many of them still in use as troglodyte dwellings, and chances are you’ll be invited in for mint tea, pancakes and a large helping of genuine Berber hospitality.

ERG CHIGAGA

Spending a night under Saharan stars is one of the real draws of the Moroccan south. Most people head to Merzouga, where the mighty Erg Chebbi dunes roll out to the border with Algeria. It’s a special place, deservedly popular, but the resulting clamour for camel trips – in high season, at least – can leave you wondering if there’s ever a crescent that’s free of footprints, or a panorama that doesn’t feature bobbing tourists clad in blue. Instead, follow the Drâa Valley south to M’Hamid, a desert outpost beyond Zagora, and venture deep into the Erg Chigaga, 60km southwest of town. Camped in the lee of a dune, with just your camels for company, you’ll begin to appreciate what pure isolation really feels like.

Keith Drew is a co-author of The Rough Guide to Morocco.

Rough Guides has muted its orange and blue tones for the release of The Rough Guide to Vintage London, a comprehensive guide to vintage shopping, culture and lifestyle in London.

Whether you’re looking for a retro bicycle, Mod cafe, a fifties frock, or just somewhere a bit different to go for Friday night drinks then The Rough Guide to Vintage London is a good place to start. Wayne Hemingway MBE is the contributing editor and wrote the foreword:

“While for many of us vintage is part of our everyday lives, you can, if you so desire, go a little bit further and live a one hundred percent vintage lifestyle. The Rough Guide to Vintage London shows you how to do it.”

The Rough Guide to Vintage London will be in the shops and online from 1 May 2013.

Catching a religious event or gathering in another country can be an exhilerating experience. Here, from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present five spectacular declarations of faith from all over the globe.

Easter in Seville, Spain

“Semana Santa” (or Holy Week) is the most spectacular of all the Catholic celebrations, and Seville carries it off with an unrivalled pomp and ceremony. Conceived as an extravagant antidote to Protestant asceticism, the festivities were designed to steep the common man in Christ’s Passion, and it’s the same today – the dazzling climax to months of preparation.

You don’t need to be a Christian to appreciate the outlandish spectacle or the exquisitely choreographed attention to detail. Granted, if you’re not expecting it, the sight of massed hooded penitents can be disorientating and not a little disturbing – rows of eyes opaque with concentration, feet stepping slavishly in time with brass and percussion. But Holy Week is also about the pasos, or floats, elaborate slow-motion platforms graced with piercing, tottering images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, swathed in Sevillano finery.

All across Seville, crowds hold their collective breath as they anticipate the moment when their local church doors are thrown back and the paso commences its unsteady journey, the costaleros (or bearers) sweating underneath, hidden from view. With almost sixty cofradías, or brotherhoods, all mounting their own processions between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the city assumes the guise of a sacred snakes-and-ladders board, criss-crossed by caped, candlelit columns at all hours of the day and night. The processions all converge on Calle Sierpes, the commercial thoroughfare jammed with families who’ve paid for a front-seat view. From here they proceed to the cathedral, where on Good Friday morning the whole thing reaches an ecstatic climax with the appearance of “La Macarena”, the protector of Seville’s bullfighters long before she graced the pop charts.

The official programme is available from news-tands in Seville; local newspapers also print timetables and maps.

Morning prayers at Diskit Monastery, India

To join in morning puja (prayers) in a Ladakhi Buddhist monastery, high in the Himalayas, is to enter frozen time. It’s cold outside, even though the sun has hit the Nubra Valley floor. Long, cool shadows fall over yawning monks and novices flagged in plum-coloured robes. Incense is lit and syncopated chanting, more football terrace than enlightened warbling, begins. Breakfast – butter tea dispensed from a dented kettle and porridge from a galvanized bucket – momentarily interrupts the rhythmic mantra. The simple, moving chorus starts once more, but with puja over there’s a stampede past jewelled doors for a morning game of soccer.

Diskit is a 6hr bus journey from Leh, but there are only three buses a week (Tues, Thurs & Sat 6am).

Circuiting the Jokhang, Tibet

The Jokhang is the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism, and what it lacks in appearance – a very shabby facade compared with the nearby Potala Palace – it makes up in atmosphere. Located in the cobbled lanes of the Barkhor district, Lhasa’s sole surviving traditional quarter, there’s an excited air of reverence as you approach, with a continuous throng of Tibetan pilgrims circuiting the complex anticlockwise, spinning hand-held prayer wheels and sticking out their tongues at each other in greeting. A good many prostrate themselves at every step, their knees and hands protected from the accumulated battering by wooden pads, which set up irregular clacking noises.

Devout they may be, but there’s absolutely nothing precious about their actions, no air of hushed, respectful reverence – stand still for a second and you’ll be knocked aside in the rush to get around. Inside, the various halls are lit by butter lamps, leaving much of the wooden halls rather gloomy and adding a spooky edge to the close-packed saintly statues clothed in multicoloured flags, brocade banners hanging from the ceiling, and especially gory murals of demons draped in skulls and peeling skin off sinners – a far less forgiving picture of Buddhism than the version practised elsewhere in China. The bustle is even more overwhelming here, the crowds increased by red-robed monks, busy topping up the lamps or tidying altars.

The Jokhang opens daily 8am–6pm. As with all Tibetan temples, circuit both the complex and individual halls anti clockwise.

Honouring the Orixás in Salvador, Brazil

Along the “Red Beach” of Salvador da Bahia, worshippers dressed in ethereal white robes gather around sand altars festooned with gardenias. Some may fall into trances, writhing on the beach, screaming so intensely you’d think they were being torn limb from limb. Perhaps in more familiar settings you’d be calling an ambulance, but this is Salvador, the epicentre of the syncretic, African-based religion known as candomblé, in which worshippers take part in toques, a ritual that involves becoming possessed by the spirit of their Orixá.

A composite of Portuguese Catholicism and African paganism, candomblé is most fervently practised in Salvador, but it defines the piquancy and raw sensuality of the Brazilian soul throughout the entire country. In this pagan religion, each person has an Orixá, or protector god, from birth. This Orixá personifies a natural force, such as fire or water, and is allied to an animal, colour, day of the week, food, music and dance. The ceremonies are performed on sacred ground called terreiros and typically feature animal sacrifices, hypnotic drumming, chanting and convulsing. Props and paraphernalia are themed accordingly; the house is decorated with the colour of the honorary Orixá, and usually the god’s favourite African dish is served.

Ceremonies are specialized for each god, but no matter which Orixá you are celebrating, you can be sure that the experience will rank among the most bizarre of your life.

Visitors are admitted to terreiros, with “mass” usually beginning in the early evening. For information on ceremonies in Salvador, contact the Federação Baiana de Culto Afro-Brasileiro, (+55 3326 6969).

Paying homage to the Queen of Heaven, Taiwan

First come the police cars and media vans, followed by flag-waving and drum-beating teams, along with musicians and performers dressed as legendary Chinese folk heroes, their faces painted red, black and blue, with fierce eyes and pointed teeth. Finally, carried by a special team of bearers, comes the ornate palanquin housing the sacred image of the Queen of Heaven. The whole thing looks as heavy as a small car: the men carrying the Queen are wet with perspiration, stripped down to T-shirts with towels wrapped around their necks.

Every year, tens of thousands of people participate in a 300km, eight-day pilgrimage between revered temples in the centre of Taiwan, in a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The procession honours one of the most popular Taoist deities, a sort of patron saint of the island: the Queen of Heaven, Tianhou, also known as Mazu or Goddess of the Sea.

Becoming a pilgrim for the day provides an illuminating insight into Taiwanese culture. The streets are lined with locals paying respects and handing out free drinks and snacks, from peanuts to steaming meat buns. As well as a constant cacophony of music and drums, great heaps of firecrackers are set off every few metres. Whole boxes seem to disintegrate into clouds of smoke and everyone goes deaf and is dusted with ashy debris.

Check www.mazu.taichung.gov.tw for details.

 

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