As the face of travel on the terrestrial television, Simon Reeve has presented a number of BBC travel series, from exploring where our tea and coffee comes from, to travelling the entire Tropic of Cancer. Having just returned from filming a new series in India, Simon talks to Rough Guides about adventure, muppetry and a better understanding of the world.

What’s your current location?

I’m at home in North London right now, but I was just in India filming a series called Sacred Rivers and for that I’m travelling down the Ganges, the Nile and the Yangtze. It was absolutely glorious. There were places there I had no idea really existed along the Ganges and when the river comes through the mountains there’s these beautiful white beaches, there’s amazing white water rafting. It was utterly glorious.

Where’s next?

Next is supposed to be to follow the Nile through Ethiopia and Sudan into Egypt, all being well if civil war doesn’t erupt in Egypt.

Tell us where you go to relax.

I go home because I spend too much time abroad and I like doing really ordinary things when I’m back because I’m lucky that I get to do extraordinary things when I’m away.

Bagan walk, Myanmar (Burma)

What was your biggest adventure?

The one that springs to mind is trekking into occupied Burma from India for the series I did when I travelled around the Tropic of Cancer. That was pretty extraordinary for those of us who did it; it was very dangerous. Maybe also across the Sahara, that was phenomenal and involved crossing borders that hadn’t been crossed for decades, areas that no white person had been into – but I think you can have an adventure anywhere in the world. It’s your mindset as much as anything, how you approach it.

Which country’s cuisine is your favourite?

That’s tough actually, because you can get everything in Britain now in amazing quality. But Argentina does some really incredible melt in the mouth meat for a carnivore like me.

What’s the weirdest meal you’ve ever eaten?

Probably penis soup in Madagascar. But there are a number of contenders for the title, that’s part of the gig being the TV presenter. You have to expect you’re going to be required and asked and cajoled into eating some local weirdness that’s never as bad as people think it is and it’s always very memorable and fun. It was a giant todger of a penis.

Tell us about your strangest encounter.

They pretty much all are you know. Filming fairly recently during the Australia series I did, we went from one day, meeting with a vet who rescues injured koalas, to the next day when we met the super buffed up infamous members of the Finx motorcycle gang who the Australian police accused of being involved in most organised crime in eastern Oz. They were covered in tattoos and really steroided up – pretty terrifying guys, but very welcoming and hospitable too. Then two of their biker babes got into a Jacuzzi wearing bikinis while I was talking to them. That was pretty odd.

Simon Reeve in Kenya

And your most moving experience?

Moving? Well there’s a young lady I met called Fatima, who I encountered in a refugee camp on the Kenya-Somali border. She was 22 and she’d been living in that camp since she was three years old. She was very bright and very worldly, she spoke perfect English as she’d been educated by the succession of aid workers who’d come through the camp, which is for displaced Somalis who’d fled the war there but aren’t allowed to go further.

Basically for her entire life, she’d been trapped, in an open prison, not allowed to move more than four kilometres in any one direction. When I think of her, I’m reminded of the pure fluke and privilege that means I was born on this island and that I have a British passport, and that she was born where she is and struggles to exist every day.

What do you love about travelling?

I love the experience it offers me, I love the chance it gives me to educate myself about the world. I didn’t go to university, I don’t have much of an education, but actually going to places, talking to people, and seeing situations is such an amazing form of education.

What do you hate about travelling?

Muppetry, jet lag, airplanes, dangerous roads, poverty, crap food, the usual whinges really. But you know, as soon as I come home I’m reminded of how fortunate I am that fresh water comes out of a tap, so there’s nothing I really hate about it you know. It’s a dream of a job and I know I’m bloody lucky.

Hargeisa, Somaliland

What’s your favourite series you’ve filmed?

It was a series I did called Places That Don’t Exist, I did a number of years back, and it’s all about countries that aren’t officially countries – places like Somaliland, Transnistria, Abkhazia, Soth Ossetia.

They’re not members of the UN, they don’t get to send a team to the World Cup, or a singer to Eurovision, but when you get there you find that in the space on a map there is a country, that thinks of itself as a country, and they have a border and armed guards and flags fly and they have their own national anthem, and their own currency often. They’re all at the centre of past, existing or future wars, so they are very difficult parts of the world but absolutely fascinating to visit and learn more about.

You were given an award for your outstanding contribution to a better world understanding, what one thing should we understand and keep in mind while travelling?

I think the main thing to keep in mind is that you have an impact wherever you tread; whatever you do with your money and how you explore your world makes a difference to other people. You don’t travel in some sort of bubble, whatever you do, it impacts, it connects – don’t pay for hotel rooms in a place that’s owned by the local dictator’s son, try instead to put your money in the hands of local people.

So be careful how you travel, and be good.

Simon Reeve is one of the celebrity travel experts who will be speaking at Destinations, The Holiday & Travel Show at Earls Court, London from 6-9 February 2014. Advance tickets cost £11. www.destinationsshow.com

The road into Senghenydd from the imposing Welsh castle town of Caerphilly snakes along the side of a steep slope that drops into a rocky valley below. Lined with red-toned terraced houses constructed from local stone, the village almost clings to the hillside, and though coal mining died out here long ago, the landscape still bears its scars. You may need to pause on the high street to allow stray sheep to cross the road – this is one of Britain’s most rural corners.

Senghenydd is home to the Aber Valley Male Voice Choir, and though the choir gives concerts all over the world, it is here in the village’s ex-servicemen’s club that the sound is created and honed to perfection. The 59 men, many of them second- or third-generation choristers, perform everything from sombre hymns to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Singing in both English and Welsh, their voices swell in four-part harmonies, as rich and complex as an orchestra.

Male voice choirs are a Welsh institution, part of the lives of thousands of working men from Snowdonia to the Rhondda. The choirs grew from the companionship and community spirit forged by the men who worked down the mines of the south and the quarries of the north.

Times have changed, but they are still going strong. The choir in Senghenydd practises twice a week (the men come as much for the camaraderie as for the music), and visitors are welcome to drop in on a rehearsal – an intimate and moving experience. The high proportion of silver hair in the choir ranks might raise concern about whether the younger generation will carry on the tradition. But with nearly 150 male voice choirs in a land just short of three million people, this unique part of Welsh life is in no danger of disappearing.

For a closer look at the Aber Valley Male Voice Choir, see www.aber-valleymvc.co.uk.

 

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Once a month, on the eve of the full moon, downtown Hoi An turns off all its street lights and basks in the mellow glow of silk lanterns. Shopkeepers don traditional outfits; parades, folk opera and martial arts demonstrations flood the cobbled streets; and the riverside fills with stalls selling crabmeat parcels, beanpaste cakes and noodle soup. It’s all done for tourists of course – and some find it cloyingly self-conscious – but nevertheless this historic little central Vietnam town oozes charm, with the monthly Full Moon Festival just part of its appeal.

Much of the town’s charisma derives from its downtown architecture. Until the Thu Bon river silted up in the late eighteenth century, Hoi An was an important port, attracting traders from China and beyond, many of whom settled and built wooden-fronted homes, ornate shrines and exuberantly tiled Assembly Halls that are still used by their descendants today. Several of these atmospheric buildings are now open to the public, offering intriguing glimpses into cool, dark interiors filled with imposing furniture, lavishly decorated altars and family memorabilia that have barely been touched since the 1800s. Together with the peeling pastel facades, colonnaded balconies and waterside market, it’s all such a well-preserved blast from the past that UNESCO has designated central Hoi An a World Heritage Site.

The merchant spirit needs no such protection, however: there are now so many shops in this small town that the authorities have imposed a ban on any new openings. Art galleries and antique shops are plentiful, but silk and tailoring are the biggest draws. Hoi An tailors are the best in the country, and for $200 you can walk away with an entire custom-made wardrobe, complete with Armani-inspired suit, silk shirt, hand-crafted leather boots and personalized handbag. And if you’ve really fallen under Hoi An’s spell, you might find yourself also ordering an ao dai, the tunic and trouser combo worn so elegantly by Vietnamese women.

Hoi An is around 700km south of Hanoi. The nearest airport and train station are in Da Nang, a 30km taxi ride away.

 

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America’s most over-the-top and hedonistic spectacle, Mardi Gras (the night before Ash Wednesday) in New Orleans reflects as much a medieval, European carnival as it does a drunken Spring Break ritual. Behind the scenes, the official celebration revolves around exclusive, invitation-only balls; for such an astonishingly big event, it can seem put on more for locals than the raucous crowds who descend on the town, but you’ll hardly be wanting for entertainment or feeling left out.

Following routes of up to seven miles long, more than sixty parades wind their way through the city’s historic French Quarter. Multi-tiered floats snake along the cobblestone streets, flanked by masked horsemen, stilt-walking curiosities and, of course, second liners – dancers and passersby who informally join the procession. There’s equal fun in participating as there is in looking on.

Whichever way you choose to see it, you’ll probably vie at some point to catch one of the famous “throws” (strings of beads, knickers, fluffy toys – whatever is hurled by the towering float-riders into the crowd); the competition can be fierce. Float-riders, milking it for all it’s worth, taunt and jeer the crowd endlessly, while along Bourbon Street, women bare their breasts and men drop their trousers in return for some baubles and beads.

As accompaniment, the whole celebration is set to one of the greatest soundtracks in the world: strains of funk, R&B, New Orleans Dixie and more stream out of every bar and blare off rooftops – no surprise, of course, considering the city’s status as the birthplace of jazz.

You might have thought that all of this madness would have been curtailed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but like New Orleans, the party carries on in the face of long odds; indeed, the year following, many of the weird and wonderful costumes were made from the bright blue tarps that have swathed so much of the city since the storm.

See www.mardigrasneworleans.com for more info.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Members of the Igorot tribe of Mountain Province in northern Philippines have long practised the tradition of burying their dead in hanging coffins, nailed to the sides of cliff faces high above the ground. Comfortably predating the arrival of the Spanish, the procedure can probably be traced back more than two millennia. To this day, the age-old tradition continues to be performed, albeit on a much smaller scale than before. While researching the new Rough Guide to the Philippines, Kiki Deere went to find out more.

Traditional burials in hanging coffins only take place every few years or so now, but Soledad Belingom, a retired septuagenarian schoolteacher of the Igorot tribe, has invited me to her modest house in Sagada to tell me more about her tribe’s unique burial practices.

One of the most common beliefs behind this practice is that moving the bodies of the dead higher up brings them closer to their ancestral spirits, but Soledad believes there are other contributing factors. “The elderly feared being buried in the ground. When they died, they did not want to be buried because they knew water would eventually seep into the soil and they would quickly rot. They wanted a place where their corpse would be safe.”

Soledad pauses, shifting in her armchair in search of a more comfortable position. She lets out a little cough before going on: “There are two fears of being buried. The first is that dogs will eat the corpse, so the coffins are placed high up on a cliff, out of their reach. Secondly, years ago, during the headhunting days, savages from different parts of Kalinga and eastern Bontoc province – our enemies – would hunt for our heads, and take them home as a trophy. That’s another reason why the dead were buried high up – so nobody could reach them.”

The coffins are either tied or nailed to the sides of cliffs, and most measure only about one metre in length, as the corpse is buried in the foetal position. The Igorots believe that a person should depart the same way he entered the world.

When someone dies, pigs and chickens are traditionally butchered for community celebrations. For elderly people, tradition dictates this should be three pigs and two chickens, but those who cannot afford to butcher so many animals may butcher two chickens and one pig. Soledad tells me the number must always be three or five.

The deceased is then placed on a wooden sangadil, or death chair, and the corpse is tied with rattan and vines, and then covered with a blanket. It is thereafter positioned facing the main door of the house for relatives to pay their respects. The cadaver is smoked to prevent fast decomposition and as a means to conceal its rotting smell. The vigil for the dead is held for a number of days, after which the corpse is removed from the death chair to be carried to the coffin. Before being taken for burial, it is secured in the foetal position, with the legs pushed up towards the chin. It is then wrapped again in a blanket and tied with rattan leaves while a small group of men chip holes into the side of the cliff to hammer in the support for the coffin.

“The corpse is wrapped like a basketball”, says Soledad, “on the way there, mourners do their best to grab it and carry it because they believe it is good luck to be smeared with the dead’s blood.” The fluids from the corpse are thought to bring success and to pass on the skills of the deceased to those who come into contact with them during the funeral procession.

When the procession reaches the burial site, young men climb up the side of the cliff and place the corpse inside a hollowed out lumber coffin. The bones are cracked to fit the corpse into the small space, which is then sealed with vines.

The newest coffins measure to about two metres, Soledad explains: “These days, coffins are long because the relatives of the deceased are afraid to break the bones of their loved ones. Very few choose to follow that tradition now.”

Today, Sagada’s elders are among the last practitioners of these ancient rituals. Younger generations have adopted modern ways of life and are influenced by the country’s profound Christian beliefs. “Children want to remember their grandparents but they prefer to bury them in the cemetery and visit their tombs on All Saints Day. You can’t climb and visit the hanging coffins. It’s a tradition that is slowly coming to an end. It’s dying out.”

If you want to explore more of the Philippines, buy the Rough Guide to the Philippines or to explore this area of the world, look out for the upcoming edition Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget in August 2014. 
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Heidi Fuller-Love spends a day roping cattle, cooking asado and hanging out with a gaucho near Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Gaucho day trips are a-peso-a-dozen near Buenos Aires, but I wanted to head out to an estancia (ranch) with a bona fide member of Argentina’s cowboy club, so when I met Andre – a gaucho guide from toursbylocals.com – I jumped at the chance to visit his ranch in the Paraná Delta.

It’s an hour’s drive through Buenos Aires’ shanty-town-packed suburbs to reach the delta, where Andre awaits me. Back in the bohemian neighbourhood of San Telmo he had looked uncomfortable in his city suit, but here he is in his element. Short and wiry, he wears the pancake-sized traditional boina beret and baggy bombacha trousers revealing bandy legs – the hallmark of any true gaucho.

Before leaving for the ranch, he takes me on a short tour of the Paraná Delta’s tiny capital. “It’s called Tigre because of the jaguars – known as tigres – that once roamed here”, he tells me. We visit antique shops, a crafts fair, a museum packed with the work of Argentine artists and even take a tour of the mate museum before hopping into a shallow-keeled motor boat and taking to the water.

Covering some 5,405 square miles, the Paraná Delta is Argentina’s answer to Venice. A vast, watery wasteland dotted with islands, it flows into the Río de la Plata, which separates Argentina from Uruguay. Churning the chocolate water into worry furrows, we chug past rambling, colonial-style properties. “Many important people have lived here – a few years ago when she was playing Evita, Madonna even came here with her kids”, Andre explains.

With its rich grazing land, the Delta has been home to gauchos for centuries. “My great grandfather bought this ranch”, Andre tells me as we leap from his boat onto the narrow jetty next to his sprawling property.

Gauchos are a potent symbol for Argentinians. The 1940s film La Guerra Gaucha about the gaucho struggle for freedom in Spanish-occupied Argentina is a well-loved classic, while José Hernández’s epic poem Martin Fierro is taught in many schools. According to Andre, this is because Martin Fierro is a symbolic gaucho: he represents the force of good against bad.

In a hummocky field behind the timber-framed ranch house I have my first gaucho lesson. Andre shows me how to sling the boleadoras, those three lumpy, leather-bound rocks tied together with straps that are used to catch wild horses and runaway cattle. It looks easy when Andre swings the weights around his head then slings them in a windmill flurry, neatly capturing the gatepost. When it’s my turn, however, I mistime the moment to let go and capture my own shins, bruising them black-and-blue.

When Andre’s gaucho employee, Jose, brings out two sturdy-boned native Criollo horses, I’m happy to move onto the next class. Donning a pair of bombacha trousers and a woollen boina I swing clumsily into the saddle, then canter off behind Jose and his hairy, wary-eyed dog to round up a few of those big-horned, docile Criolla cattle that Argentina is famed for. Jose lassos a young calf, expertly binding its feet then slinging it over the high pommel of his saddle, then he teaches me to lasso a tree stump. Soon I can catch that darn old stump without difficulty, but when I try out my skills on an ornery herd of galloping Criolla cows, I can’t catch a single horn.

Back at the ranch the mate calabash, made out of a varnished gourd, is doing the rounds. When it’s handed to me I poke the metal bombilla straw through the murky hash of floating leaves on top and take a deep sip as if I’ve been doing it all my life. Made from the leaves of a species of holly, Argentina’s national beverage is so acrid it makes me want to vomit. Snorting with laughter, Andre takes the calabash and shoves a glass of Argentinean Malbec into my hand. “It’s an acquired taste”, he says.

I sip the Malbec, allowing the wine’s soothing flavours to comfort my yerba-assaulted palate, while Andre shows me how to prepare the asado. Using the same technique that gauchos have employed for centuries, he fills a deep pit with charcoal and lights it, then straps hunks of morcilla (black pudding), chunks of mollejas (sweetbread) and slabs of asado de tira (ribs) onto the parilla – a large metal grill, which he fixes almost vertically above the lit fire.

An hour later, I bite into my first crisp, slightly charred chunk of morcilla, take a long sip of Malbec and face up to the fact that I’ll never be much of a gaucho. Andre hands me hunks of asado de tira dripping with parsley-and-garlic Chimichurri sauce. Dropping my fork, I pick up the ribs with my bare hands and tear off strips of tender meat with my teeth.  “You might not be much of a gaucho, but you certainly eat like one,” Andre laughs.

Explore more of the country with the Rough Guide to Argentina, or tackle an entire continent with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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

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

 

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