Thailand is the quintessential backpacker destination. Here you can make the first footprints on secluded sands, dance shoeless under a full moon and swim beneath cascading waterfalls.

Running through Thailand’s rainforests and temples and looping around its islands and beaches is the so-called “banana pancake trail”, a well-worn, tried and tested backpacker route that has seen the sandals of thousands of independent travellers over the decades.

They’re still coming in their droves and you’re a part of the action as soon as you strap on that backpack – the accessory that ensures you won’t even have the chance to get lonely.

Must-see destinations

For a frenetic introduction to Thailand, head straight to Bangkok where the neon lights and market stalls of Khao San Road still serve as the country’s main backpacker hangout. Slurp noodles, sip local beer and visit the gilded Grand Palace and Wat Pho’s giant gold reclining Buddha with your new friends.

For impressive Thai temples, head to Ayutthaya in the north, the country’s ancient capital now scattered with temples in varying stages of decay. The brooding red-brick ruins are best viewed at sunset, when the golden light makes this atmospheric city a photographer’s dream.

If you’re after something a little more laidback, Kanchanaburi is the spot for you. You can take a train along the famous Death Railway, built by prisoners of war during World War II, see the Bridge over the River Kwai and swim at the tumbling seven-tiered Erawan Falls.

Pixabay/CC0

Ko Pha Ngan is where the sands of Hat Rin see up to 30,000 people arrive each month for the famous full moon parties. The party starts at dusk, when thousands of lamps are lit, and continues through the night, with dancing, fire twirling and, of course, drinking.

If you want to get to know the locals, head to Chiang Mai, the jumping off point for numerous guided multi-day treks and short walks in the country’s remote north. Here you can visit small local communities, but be mindful of concerns around tribal tourism.

Getting around

A journey by tuk tuk is an essential Thai travel experience and you’re sure to use these noisy, fume-cloaked but very fun vehicles to get around, especially in Bangkok. Fares are the same no matter the number of passengers so team up with one or two (three is the safe maximum) other travellers to save money. Agree the fare before setting out (expect to pay 100-150 baht for short Bangkok hops) and be sure to have the right money ready on arrival.

Solo travellers can make good use of the motorcycle taxis that ply all common routes in both major towns and more off-the-beaten-track parts. These only seat one passenger and are no good if you’ve got luggage, but short journeys across town or the island can be good value (as low as 20 baht).

Thailand is a sizeable country and distances between large towns can be great (it’s 700km from Bangkok to Chiang Mai). An overnight bus or train is a good way of getting from A to B while also saving the cost of a hostel.

The overnight trains are operated by the State Railway of Thailand and run on four useful routes out of Bangkok, including services to Ayutthaya, to Chiang Mai and to Surat Thani (a jumping off point for many of the southern islands).

Second-class berths are the best bet for solo travellers, with the communal comfortable seats converting into fully flat curtained-off beds come nightfall.

First-class cabins are set up for two so only book these if you’re happy sharing with a stranger. Bring snacks and drinks and settle in for a long journey.

Don’t fancy the long journey alone? There are plenty of internal flights, with Bangkok Airways, Air Asia, Nok Air (Thai Airways’ budget arm) and Thai Lion Air all offering daily Bangkok-Chiang Mai flights with a flight time of 1hr 15min. Flying also means not having to go back to Bangkok – trains and buses use the capital as a hub meaning you will keep ending up back there.

Where to eat

Eating alone in Thailand doesn’t need to mean a table for one. The best food is often found at the local night market, where mobile kitchens sell noodles, fried rice, sticky rice cakes, pancakes and fresh juices, and seating is communal and lively.

Almost every large town will have street stalls selling noodles day and night, so you can fill up without even sitting down.

Many hostels have cafés or restaurants, where you won’t stand out as a solo diner and may even meet fellow travellers in search of dining companions. Most travellers love nothing more than discussing where they’ve been or are going over a bowl of noodles or a beer.

How to meet people

If you want to meet people, sticking to the main backpacker destinations (including those listed above) is the best bet. Stay in hostels rather than hotels – choose to stay in a dorm so you’ll be sharing with other people and not holed up alone.

In Bangkok stay on or near the Khao San Road for the best chance of impromptu Singhas with your new friends – NapPark is a good choice, with its communal tamarind-shaded courtyard and TV room.

In Chiang Mai, Diva Guesthouse has six­-bed dorms and a sociable café on the ground floor, while Kanchanaburi’s Jolly Frog has a communal atmosphere and hammocks in the central, leafy garden.

Compass Backpacker’s Hostel by James Antrobus on Flickr (license)

Group activities are a great way to make friends fast. You can try everything, from day trips to Thai cookery courses. If you want an insight into Thailand through food, in Bangkok try Helping Hands or the vegetarian May Kaidee, and in Chiang Mai the Thai Cookery School.

For more of an adventure, take a zipline tour through the rainforest near Chiang Mai with Flight of the Gibbon or learn to scuba dive with The Dive Academy on Koh Samui.

A girl’s guide: is it safe for solo female travellers?

Thailand is largely safe for solo travellers of both genders, and despite the country’s prolific sex industry, women are unlikely to attract any more attention than men when travelling alone.

When travelling alone in Thailand, the standard rules apply: don’t take unlicensed taxis and don’t go home with strangers. As long as you use your common sense, Thailand is a perfectly safe place to travel.

Many hostels will have female-only dorms, which may be safer, not to mention a great way to meet other female travellers.

Unfortunately drug-muggings are known to sometimes happen in Thailand, but these are easily avoided. Don’t eat or drink anything a stranger gives you, especially on a train or at a full moon party. Trains and buses are ripe for petty theft so keep all your valuables with you when you travel.

Get more advice on your solo trip to Thailand with the Rough Guide to Thailand

A country in the throes of massive change, Sri Lanka’s heady mix of British colonial heritage, beautiful landscapes and incredibly friendly locals make it a beguiling destination. But the tropical isle has only cropped up on travellers’ radars in recent years, following the end of the country’s 26-year-long civil war in 2009. With more tourists heading to Sri Lanka every year, now is the perfect time to visit. Here are ten tips and tricks to help first-time visitors.

1. Prepare to go slow

Although infrastructure is improving and transport options are plentiful, getting around this modestly-sized country might feel a little trying at times, with its tightly winding roads and engine-testing inclines. The Hill Country is particularly notorious for eating away at time – whether traveling by bus, tuk tuk or train, expect to inch from one tea plantation to the next at speeds of around 12-15 miles per hour. For those with little time or deep pockets, taking a seaplane or hiring a car and driver are good alternatives.

2. Go to relax, not to rave

Outside of Colombo, and a few beach resorts, hostels with dorm rooms tend to be thin on the ground. Family-run guesthouses are much more common, which means it’s easy to meet locals but tricky for solo travellers hoping to make friends on the road. As an emerging honeymoon hotspot Sri Lanka also attracts a lot of couples. Those looking for nightlife to rival Bangkok’s Khao San Road will leave unfulfilled: beach bars pepper Arugam Bay on the east coast and Hikkaduwa on the west, but these are mellow affairs and many shut down out of season.

3. Treat yourself

If you’ve got Sri Lankan rupees to spare there are plenty of new luxury hotels and resorts where you can spend them. International names such as Aman have already set up shop on the island, and Shangri-La has two new hotels scheduled to open soon. But it’s the home-grown, luxury hotel mini-chains that you ought to keep your eye on. Uga Escapes and Resplendent Ceylon are just two examples of burgeoning local brands that offer more than just copy and paste properties. There are tonnes of great budget boutique hotels across the country.

4. Go north to get away from the crowds

Formerly off limits, the country’s Northern Province is prime territory for those who want to roam off the beaten path. A Tamil Tiger stronghold, it was one of the last areas on the island to reopen to tourists, and has yet to succumb to the same wave of hotels, resorts and other developments, or to receive the same flurry of foreign visitors. If you’re after deserted golden beaches, remote temples and colonial port towns go north.

5. Focus on food

Sri Lankan food is delicious, so make the most of it while you’re there. Though knowing where and when to find the good stuff may prove a harder task than you anticipated. Bowl-shaped hoppers (savoury rice flour crêpes) are a highlight, though are typically only served first thing in the morning or in late afternoon. Rice and curry is a lunchtime affair, while kottu rotty (chopped flatbread stir-fried with eggs and vegetables) is only available in the evening. Those familiar with Asia will be surprised at the lack of street food stalls; instead, some of the best food can be found in the kitchens of small guesthouses.

6. Consider Colombo

With jazz clubs, rooftop bars, boutique stores and internationally-acclaimed restaurants, Colombo can no longer be considered merely a gateway city. And though there are a number of sights to see, the capital is also a great place to simply settle in and get a sense of what local life is like. Watch families fly kites on Galle Face Green at sunset, cheer for the national cricket team at the R Premadasa Stadium or observe grandmothers swathed in vivid saris bargain with stallholders at Pettah Market.

7. Plan around the seasons

While the monsoon rains might not dampen your enthusiasm for exploring bear in mind that experiences can vary wildly depending on the season. If you’re desperate to climb Adam’s Peak, for example, then visit during pilgrimage season (December-May). Outside of these months it’s still possible to hike to the summit, but the myriad tea shops that line the path will be closed and you’ll climb with a handful of tourists instead of hundreds of local devotees, meaning much of the atmosphere and camaraderie among climbers is lost.

8. Get active

Sri Lanka might be known for its stupas, beaches and tea plantations but it’s also crammed with adrenalin-packed activities. Why not try surfing in Arugam Bay, hiking the Knuckles Mountain Range or white-water rafting in Kelaniya Ganga, Kitulgala. Cycling holidays are also becoming increasingly popular with a number of international tour operators offering specialist tours.

9. Make the most of your money

By western standards Sri Lanka is still a cheap destination, but prices are rising quickly: the cost of a cultural show in Kandy has doubled in the last year alone. For everyday items like tea and toothpaste head to the supermarkets in big cities where you can rest assured that you’re not paying over the odds. In the corner shops of smaller cities simply check the packaging, which has the price printed next to the letters ‘Rs.’ (meaning rupees).

10. Understand the culture

At its closest point, only 18 miles of aquamarine waters separate Sri Lanka and India, but there’s a world of difference between the two. The pace of life in Sri Lanka feels much less frantic than that of its neighbour, which makes it ideal for those intrigued, yet intimidated, by India. Few locals bat an eyelid at western visitors and while covering up is always appreciated (and necessary at places of worship), wearing shorts and vests is unlikely to attract much attention.

Explore Sri Lanka with the Rough Guide to Sri LankaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

You can’t expect to fit everything Southeast Asia has to offer into one trip – or two or three or four, to be fair – and we don’t suggest you try. So, to help you start planning, we’ve put together 8 ideas for your Southeast Asia itinerary from The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget.

For those taking a big, extended trip around the continent you could join a few together, but remember that the distances you’ll be covering can be vast. Plus, there’s lots to discover off the beaten track.

For a complete guide to exploring the region and up-to-date recommendations of the best hotels, hostels, activities and more, buy the full guide here.

1. Vietnam

Start in colonial streets of Hanoi (1), the country’s historical, political and cultural capital. Go for a sail around the famed natural wonders of Ha Long Bay (2), before heading to the northern hills to the ethnic minority villages orbiting Sa Pa (3).

Take the train down to imperial architecture of Hué (4), make a day-trip to the DMZ, then move south to charming Hoi An (5). Nha Trang (6) is Vietnam‘s pre-eminent beach party town, whereas Mui Ne (7) offers great water-sports and sandy coasts with a more laidback vibe.

Da Lat (8) is your gateway to the Central Highlands, but if you’re still craving sea and sand the island of Phy Quoc (9) is a haven for beach bums and divers. Float down lush canals in the Mekong Delta (10), and finish your trip in bustling Ho Chi Minh City (11).

2. Myanmar

Kick off in Yangon (1) for street markets and the glorious Shwedagon Paya, then go to Mawlamyine (2), Myanmar‘s third largest city. Catch a boat to Hpa-an (3) before visiting one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the country, Kyaiktiyo (4).

Kalaw (5) is a perfect base for treks to ethnic-minority villages, and traditional life at Inle Lake (6) shouldn’t be missed either. Watch the sunset over Mandalay (7), then soar in a hot-air balloon over the awe-inspiring temples of Bagan (8).

Stroll the botanical gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin (9) before taking the train ride across the Goteik viaduct to Hsipaw (10), an increasingly popular trekking base.

3. Laos and Cambodia

Begin with the unmissable two-day trip down the Mekong River from Houayxai to Luang Prabang (1), the city of golden spires. Then its off to the stunning natural playground of Vang Vieng (2), before venturing to the country’s quaint capital, Vientiane (3).

Enjoy the pretty French-colonial lanes of Savannakhet (4) and explore the Khmer ruins of Wat Phou near Champasak (5). Set course towards Si Phan Don (6) to chill out for a few days in one of the four thousand islands scattered across the Mekong River. Catch a mini-bus to Cambodia for river dolphin watching in Kratie (7), or laze riverside in relaxed Kampot (8).

An easy bus ride takes you from Phnom Penh (9) to  Siem Reap, where the world-famous temples of Angkor (10) beg to be explored. But if you’re feeling a little travel-worn afterwards there’s no better place to kick back than the beach resort and offshore islands of Sihanoukville (11).


4. Bangkok and Northern Thailand

After immersing yourself in Bangkok, Thailand’s frenetic and thriving capital, chill-out among the rafthouses and waterfalls of Kanchanaburi (2).

Rent a bicycle to explore the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya (3) and then make for the elegant temple remains in Sukhothai (4). To break free of the tourist route head to isolated Umphang (5), where the surrounding mountains are perfect for trekking.

Chaing Mai (6) is always a backpacking favourite, but an amble through the arty night markets and excellent live-music bars of Pai (7) shouldn’t be missed either.

5. Thailand’s Beaches and Islands

Commence among the old-world charms of Thailand‘s Phetchaburi (1), then take a trip to the paradisiacal islands of Ko Tao (2) and Ko Pha Ngan (3) for raging moon parties or a detox.

Trek through the jungle in Khao Sok National Park (4) ­– one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet – and as you move further south, consider a stop in the slightly ugly tourist village of Ko Phi Phi (5) for undeniably fun all-night parties, snorkelling and diving.

Continue south to the relaxed island getaway of Ko Lanta (6), before winding this itinerary down in the pockets of paradise still remaining in Ko Lipe (7) and the stunning Ko Tarutai National Marine Park nearby.

6. Singapore and Malaysia

Singapore (1) is an easy introduction to Southeast Asia with its array of tourist-friendly pleasures. But move on to Melaka (2) for a fascinating mix of cultures and an ideal first stop in Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur (3) is a must, and the cooling heights of the Cameron Highlands (4) will provide refuge after the bustle. Relax on the beaches of the Perhentian Islands (5) then make for the rainforests of Taman Negara National Park (6), before catching a ride on the jungle railway to Kota Bharu.

Attractive Kuching (7) is an ideal base for visits to the Iban longhouses, and a journey along the 560km Batang Rajang (8) river into the heart of Sarawak is unforgettable.

Nature and adventure buffs alike will love Gunung Mulu National Park (9), Kinabalu National Park (10) and the wildlife outside of Sandakan (11). Finish this itinerary among the teeming marine life of Pulau Sipadan (12), one of the top dive sties in the world.

7. Indonesia

There’s plenty to discover by starting in Sumatra’s Bukit Lawang and Danau Toba (1), the famous orang-utan centre, soaring volcanoes and island retreats among them.

Take time to explore Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta (2), before moving on to Java cultural heart: Yogyakarta (3), the best base for the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Take a pre-dawn hike up to the crater rim of still-smoking Gunung Bromo (4), adventure the many wonders of Hindu Bali and hop over the Lombok (6) and the Gili Islands for adventures in paradise.

Enjoy close encouters with Komodo dragons in Komodo and Rinca (7) before heading to the mountainous landscapes of fertile Flores (8). Finish up on Sulawesi, immersed in the flamboyant festivals and fascinating culture of Tanah Toraja (9).

8. The Philippines

Start by soaking up the compelling energy of Manila (1), a convenient gateway to some of the country’s more inaccessible areas.

Check out the shipwrecks and prehistoric landscapes of Palawan (2), before you pass through Cebu city (3) on your way to Camiguin (4), a small volcanic island home to a bohemian arts scene and some amazing adventure activities. 

Surfers flock to the acclaimed reef breaks of Siargao (5), while the captivating sunsets and limited electricity at both Malapascua and Bantayan (6) typifies island living at its best.

Boracay (7) also shouldn’t be missed, home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and nightlife rivalling Manila. Conclude this itinerary in the cool mountain villages of the Igorot tribes in the Cordillera (8), nestled among jaw-dropping rice-terrace scenery.

Featured image by Lee Aik Soon.

Despite the name, Bregenzerwald’s KäseStrasse (Cheese Street) in Austria’s Vorarlberg region is not a marked route along a specific road. Instead it denotes an association of cheese-related industries – around 200 partners in all – that are united in cultivating, maintaining and promoting the highest standards of regional cheese production.

Visitors can gain insights about cheese and other regional food production via operations that range from dairies, farms and private cheese makers to butchers, bakers and museums. And by far the best way to explore the area is by hiking.

Vorarlberg, Austria by Andreas Theis via Flickr (CC license)

Bregenzerwald is a splendid rural landscape in itself, dotted with lush Alpine meadows, picturesque farms and traditional wooden-shingled farmhouses. The “route” spans an area of around 100km, with each venue marked by the distinctive KäseStrasse logo.

As you explore, you’re likely to come across everything from the Alpine Dairy Farming Museum in Hittisau, where you can see a 300-year-old dairy kitchen and learn about cheese-making and milk processing (guided tours available), to romantic mountain inns (hütte). There are also some surprisingly modern spots, such as the Käsekeller Lingenau, demonstrating how cheese is matured, and KäseMolke Metzler, which produces natural remedies and cosmetics from whey.

Cheese, cheese, cheese by Trishhhh via Flickr (CC license

Then, of course, there are the fantastic restaurants (gasthöfe), where you can sample dishes like the delicious macaroni cheeseesque concoction Käseknopfel. To be registered in the association, each restaurant has to have at least five different cheese dishes on its menu, and use a minimum of five Bregenzerwald cheeses.

In terms of when to visit, the summer is of course best for warm weather. But the region’s KäseHerbst season (the “fifth season”), from mid-September to the end of October, is a popular time to host traditional festivals.

Culture vultures may also be delighted to learn that the region hosts two excellent annual music events: an Opera Festival in Bregenz, and the Schubertiade, which takes place in the charming village of Schwarzenberg.

For tours of the Farming Museum in Hittisau, contact hittisau.at. The Bregenz Opera Festival (bregenzerfestspiele.com) takes place in July/Aug (dates vary each year), while Schwarzenberg’s two-part Schubertiad (schubertiade.at) runs just before and afterwards, usually in June and Sept. Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

Kiswahili is the glue that binds Tanzania together. It’s essentially a Bantu tongue, enriched by thousands of loan words, primarily Persian and Arabic, but also Hindi, Portuguese, German and English.

Kiswahili is pronounced exactly as it’s written, with the stress nearly always on the penultimate syllable. Where an apostrophe precedes a vowel (eg ng’ombe; cattle), the vowel is accentuated, something like a gulp.

The ability to pepper conversation with appropriate proverbs (methali) is also much admired in Tanzania – as elsewhere in Africa. The pithier sayings even find their way onto kangas worn by women, to express sentiments that might be taboo if spoken aloud.

Here are a few of our favourites, taken from the new Rough Guide to Tanzania.

1. Every bird flies with its own wings

Kila ndege huruka na mbawa zake

2. Hurry hurry has no blessings

haraka haraka haina baraka

3. He who wanders around by day a lot, learns a lot

Atangaye na jua hujuwa

4. A heart deep in love has no patience

Moyo wa kupenda hauna subira

5. The gratitude of a donkey is a kick

Fadhila ya punda ni mateke

6. Better to lose your eyes than your heart

Heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo

7. He who praises rain has been rained on

Asifuye mvuwa imemnyea

8. Don’t set sail using somebody else’s star

Asisa firie nyota ya mwenzio

9. Put a riddle to a fool, a clever person will solve it

Fumbo mfumbe mjinga mwerevu huligangua

10. Where there’s a will there’s a way

Penye nia ipo njia

11. If you love a pumpkin also love its flower

Ukipenda boga penda na ua lake

12. A hasty person misses the sweet things

Mwenye pupa hadiriki kula tamu

13. Better to stumble with toe than tongue

Heri kujikwa kidole kuliko ulimi

14. A good thing sells itself, a bad one advertises itself

Kizuri chajiuza kibaya chajitembeza

Explore more of Tanzania with the Rough Guide to TanzaniaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

So you’ve gawked at the guards of Buckingham Palace, hiked up Snowdon and hit the beach – what next? From lethal motorcycle races to mountain towns that look like something out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, here are 8 unconventional things to do in the UK.

1. Horse about at Scotland’s Common Ridings

The Common Ridings of the Scottish border towns of Hawick, Selkirk, Jedburgh and Lauder are an equestrian extravaganza that combines the danger of Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermin and the drinking of Munich’s Oktoberfest. At dawn on each day of the ridings, a colourful and incredibly noisy drum and fife band marches around the streets to shake people from their sleep. It’s a signal: everyone get down to the pub – they open at 6am – and stock up on the traditional breakfast of “Curds and Cream” (rum and milk). Suitably fortified, over two hundred riders then mount their horses and gallop at breakneck speed around the ancient lanes and narrow streets of town, before heading out into the fields to race again.

By early evening, the spectators and riders stagger back into Hawick to reacquaint themselves with the town’s pubs. Stumbling out onto the street at well past midnight, you should have just enough time for an hour or two of shuteye before the fife band strikes up once more and it’s time to do it all over again.

2. Find Middle Earth in Northern Ireland

The mountains rise above the seaside town of Newcastle like green giants, with Slieve Donard the highest, almost 3000ft above the sandy strand of Dundrum Bay. Donard is just one of more than twenty peaks in County Down’s Mourne, with a dozen of them towering over 2000ft.

Conveniently grouped together in a range that is just seven miles broad and about fourteen miles long, they are surprisingly overlooked. On foot, in a landscape with no interior roads, you feel as if you have reached a magical oasis of high ground, a pure space that is part Finian’s Rainbow and part Middle Earth. This is ancient land and prehistoric cairns and stone graves – said to mark the resting place of Irish chiefs – dot the hills, peering through the mist to meet you.

3. Mountain bike on world-class trails in Wales

It’s not often that the modest mountains of Wales can compete with giants like the Alps or the Rockies, but when it comes to mountain biking, the trails that run through the craggy peaks of Snowdonia, the high moorlands of the Cambrian Mountains, and the deep, green valleys of South Wales are more than a match for their loftier counterparts. Indeed, the International Mountain Biking Association has long rated Wales as one of the planet’s top destinations.

Over the last decade or so, a series of purpose-built mountain-biking centres has been created throughout the country, providing world-class riding for everyone from rank beginner through to potential-world-cup downhiller. From easy, gently undulating trails along former rail lines that once served the heavy industry of the South Wales valleys, to the steep, rooty, rocky single tracks that run through the cloud-shadowed hills of North Wales, this is mountain biking at its finest.

_MTB1662 by Dai Williams (license)

4. Explore Britain’s most mysterious beach in Scotland

Cape Wrath is a name that epitomizes nature at its harshest, land and sea at their most unforgiving. In fact, the name Wrath denotes a “turning point” in Old Norse, and the Vikings regarded this stockade of vertical rock in the most northwesterly corner of Scotland as a milestone in their ocean-going voyages. As such, they were surely among the first travellers to come under the spell of Sandwood Bay, the Cape’s most elemental stretch of coastline.

Here blow Britain’s most remote sands, flanked by epic dunes and a slither of shimmering loch; a beach of such austere and unexpected elegance, scoured so relentlessly by the Atlantic and located in such relative isolation, that it scarcely seems part of the Scottish mainland at all. Even on the clearest of summer days, when shoals of cumuli race shadows across the foreshore, you are unlikely to encounter other visitors save for the odd sandpiper. You might not be entirely alone, though; whole galleons are said to be buried in the sand, and a cast of mermaids, ghostly pirates and grumbling sailors has filled accounts of the place for as long as people have frequented it.

5. Discover heaven on Earth in Cornwall

A disused clay pit may seem like an odd location for Britain’s very own ecological paradise, but then everything about Cornwall’s Eden Project is far from conventional. From the concept of creating a unique ecosystem that could showcase the diversity of the world’s plant life, through to the execution – a set of bulbous, alien-like, geodesic biomes wedged into the hillside of a crater – the designers have never been less than innovative.

The gigantic humid Rainforest Biome, the largest conservatory in the world, is kept at a constant temperature of 30°c. Besides housing lofty trees and creepers that scale its full 160ft height, it takes visitors on a journey through tropical agriculture from coffee growing to the banana trade, to rice production and finding a cure for leukaemia. There’s even a life-size replica of a bamboo Malaysian jungle home, and a spectacular treetop Canopy Walkway.

6. Call in the heavies at the Highland Games

Throughout Scotland, not just in the Highlands, summer signals the onset of the Highland Games, from the smallest village get-togethers to the Giant Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, which draws a crowd of around 20,000. Urbanites might blanch at the idea of alfresco Scottish country dancing, but with dog trials, tractors, fudge stalls and more cute animals than you could toss a caber (tree trunk) at, the Highland Games are a guaranteed paradise for kids.

The military origins of the games are recalled in displays of muscle-power by bulky bekilted local men, from tossing the caber to hurling hammers and stones, and pitching bales of straw over a raised pole. Music and dance are also integral to the games, with pipe bands and young girls – kitted out in waistcoats, kilts and long woolly socks – performing reels and sword dances. A truly Scottish sight to behold.

7. Take bonfire night to extremes in Lewes

The first week of November sees one of the eccentric English’s most irresponsible, unruly and downright dangerous festivals – Bonfire Night. Up and down the country, human effigies are burned in back gardens and fireworks are set off – all in the name of Guy Fawkes’ foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 – but in the otherwise peaceful market town of Lewes, things are taken to extremes. Imagine a head-on collision between Halloween and Mardi Gras and you’re well on your way to picturing Bonfire Night, Lewes-style.

Throughout the evening, smoke fills the Lewes air, giving the steep and narrow streets an eerie, almost medieval feel. As the evening draws on, rowdy torch-lit processions make their way through the streets, pausing to hurl barrels of burning tar into the River Ouse before dispersing to their own part of town to stoke up their bonfires.

Forget the limp burgers of mainstream displays and lame sparklers suitable for use at home – for a real pyrotechnic party, Lewes is king.

8. Browse one of England’s oldest markets in Birmingham

There’s enough chaos and colour to rival any frenetic southeast-Asian market here, as a stroll around Birmingham’s Bull Ring markets is an overdose for the senses. The pungent aromas of fresh seafood; the jewel colours and silken textures of miles and miles of rolled fabrics; the racket from hundreds of vendors bellowing news of their latest offerings in hopes of making a sale.

Around 850 years ago Birmingham became one of the first towns in medieval England to hold a legitimate weekly market, selling wares from leather to metal to meat at a site they named the Bull Ring, and cementing the Anglo-Saxon settlement on the map for centuries to come. But while Birmingham has much-changed since medieval times, the noise, excitement and commotion of its Bull Ring markets have barely changed at all – only now you can buy almost anything from neon mobile phone cases and knock-off superhero outfits to fresh meat, fruit and veg.


Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

Some sights are touristy for a good reason. They’re the ones you go to Europe to check off: a wobbly gondola on the canals of Venice, or a mandatory Eiffel Tower selfie. Europe has countless sights all worth a visit in their own right, but there’s so much more to the continent than cathedrals and beaches – and some of it’s pretty bizarre. So from plastic hammer fights in Portugal, to a night behind bars in an ex-Soviet prison, here are a few things to do in Europe you probably never considered.

1. Sleep with fishes at Sweden’s Utter Inn

In many ways, Sweden‘s Utter Inn is your archetypal Swedish house: its walls are wood-panelled and painted red, there’s a white gabled roof, and the location – propped on a little island in the middle of Lake Malaren – is classic Scandinavia. But things get slightly surreal once you look out of the window of the hotel’s solitary room. A large Baltic salmon glides past, followed by a huge shoal of smelt. These are not your average lakeside views, but then you’re not actually lakeside. The island is actually a tiny pontoon, the red house just the tip of the architectural iceberg: Utter Inn lies 3m below the surface of the lake. A night spent here is literally like living in a goldfish bowl.

2. Play for high stakes at Italy’s Il Palio

Siena’s famous bareback horse race – Il Palio – is a highly charged, death-defying dash around the boundary of the city’s majestic Piazza del Campo.  The race is held twice every summer and takes only ninety seconds. The only rule is that there are no rules: practically anything goes as riders shove each other off their mounts. The course is so treacherous, with its sharp turns and sloping, slippery surfaces that often fewer than half of the participants finish. But in any case it’s only the horse that matters – the beast that crosses the line first (even without its rider) is the winner.

speed by Giorgio Montersino (license)

3. Ponder Armageddon at the Plokštine missile base in Lithuania

It’s not often you’re invited to join a guided tour of a nuclear missile base, especially when you’re in the middle of one of northeastern Europe’s most idyllic areas of unspoilt wilderness. However, this is exactly what’s on offer at Plateliai, the rustic, timber-built village in the centre of western Lithuania’s Zemaitija National Park. It’s perversely appropriate that Soviet military planners chose this spot as the perfect place to hide a rocket base. Closed down in 1978, it’s now eerily empty of any signs that would indicate its previous purpose. Until, that is, you come to one of the silos themselves – a vast, metal-lined cylindrical pit deep enough to accommodate 22m of slender, warhead-tipped rocket. The missile itself was evacuated long ago, but peering into the abyss can still be a heart-stopping experience.

4. Get naked in France’s Cap d’Agde

Of a size and scale befitting a small town, France‘s Cap d’Agde legendary nudist resort has to be one of the world’s most unique places to stay. The resort’s sprawling campsite is generally the domain of what the French call bios: hardy souls who love their body hair as much as they hate their clothes, and are invariably the naked ones in the queue at the post office. But the bios share the Cap with a very different breed, libertines for whom being naked is a fashion statement as much as a philosophy: smooth bodies and intimate piercings are the order of the day – and sex on the beach is not necessarily a cocktail. Come evening, throngs of more adventurous debauchees congregate in the Cap’s bars, restaurants and notoriously wild swingers’ clubs for a night of uninhibited fun and frolicking.

Horizontal by Björn Lindell (license)

5. Spend a night at the cells in Latvia’s Liepa–ja prison

Being incarcerated in a foreign country is usually the stuff of holiday nightmares. Unless you want an insight into Latvian history, that is. The former naval prison in Karosta, a Russian-built port that stretches north from the seaside city of Liepāja, is now the venue for an interactive performance/tour that involves such delights as being herded at gunpoint by actors dressed as Soviet prison guards, then interrogated in Russian by KGB officers. Stay the night and things get even harder – you may find yourself mopping the floors before bedding down in one of the bare cells, only to be brutally awoken by an early morning call.

6. Lose your grip on reality in Austria

Pegging yourself as the “Museum of the Future” is, in our ever-changing world, bold. Brash, even. And that’s exactly what the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz is. Dedicated to new technology, and its influence within the realms of art, few museums on Earth have their fingers quite as firmly on the pulse. Come here for the CAVE (Cave Automatic Visual Environment). This room, measuring – cutely enough – 3m cubed, is at the cutting-edge of virtual reality; the simulation uses technology so advanced – 3D projections dance across the walls and along the floor, as you navigate through virtual solar systems and across artificial landscapes – that you feel like you’re part of the installation. 

AEC Linz by Konstantinos Dafalias (license)

7. Play with fire at Spain’s Las Fallas

Catholic Spain traditionally holds fast to old habits, synchronizing Saints’ days with ancient seasonal rites. The most famous – and noisiest – festival of all is Las Fallas: in mid-March the streets of Valencia combust in a riot of flame and firecrackers, ostensibly in celebration of St Joseph.  It’s (barely) controlled pyromania, a festival where the neighbourhood firemen are on overtime and beauty sleep is in short supply. The fallas themselves are huge satirical tableaux peopled by ninots, or allegorical figures – everyone from voluptuous harlots to Vladimir Putin – painstakingly crafted out of wood, wax, papier-mâché andcardboard. They’re exhibited during nightly street parties, before all five hundred of them literally go up in smoke at midnight every March 19.

8. Toboggan without snow in Madeira, Portugal

However you make the 560m climb up to Monte, the hillside town that hangs quietly over Madeira’s capital, Funchal, there’s only one way we recommend getting back down: toboggan. There’s no snow, of course – this is a subtropical paradise. The road becomes your black run as you hurtle towards sea level in a giant wicker basket. At first, progress is slow. Then gravity takes over, powering you to speeds of up to 48 km/hr. When you think you’re going too fast to stop (there aren’t any real brakes here), your wheezing guides will dig their rubber boots into the tarmac – giving you  the first chance to jump out, look down and admire the sparkling blue Atlantic that stretches out before you.

photo by A m o r e Caterina (license)

9. Get hitched at the Roma Bride Market in Bulgaria

While the setting – a dusty field next to a cattle market, perhaps, or a car park – couldn’t be less glamorous, the atmosphere is anything but dull. Heavily made-up girls, blinged to the nines in seductive sequined dresses and high heels, dance provocatively on car roofs, which themselves have been rigged up with speakers pumping out ear-splitting pop. Meanwhile, leather-clad boys strut and pose, eyeing up potential partners as they go. Each year, the nondescript town of Stara Zagora, some 200km southeast of the capital, Sofia, plays host to one of Europe’s more unorthodox happenings: the Bride Market, which typically attracts a couple of thousand people. Nowadays the event is more of a fair than a marketplace though – the space where the courtship process begins before anything more serious is considered.

10. Join a hammer festival in Portugal

Porto’s Festa de São João is a magnificent display of midsummer madness – one giant street party, where bands of hammer-wielding lunatics roam the town, and every available outdoor space is given over to a full night of eating, drinking and dancing to welcome in the city’s saint’s day. No one seems to know the origin of this tradition of hitting people on the head, but what was customarily a rather harmless pat with a leek has evolved into a somewhat firmer clout with a plastic hammer. Midnight sees the inevitable climax of fireworks, but the night is far from over. The emphasis shifts further west to the beach of Praia dos Ingleses, where youths challenging each other to jump over the largest flames of bonfires lit for São João.

photo by Lachlan Heasman (license)

11. Discover the Human Fish in Slovenia

Postojna‘s vast network of caves, winding 2km through cramped tunnels and otherworldly chambers, is the continent’s largest cave system, adorned with infinite stalactites, and stalagmites so massive they appear like pillars. Despite the smudged signatures etched into the craggy walls that suggest an earlier human presence in the caves – possibly as far back as the thirteenth century – this immense grotto’s most prized asset, and most famous resident, is Proteus anguinus, aka the Human Fish. The enigmatic 25cm-long, pigmentless amphibian has a peculiar snake-like appearance, with two tiny pairs of legs – hence the name – and a flat, pointed fin to propel itself through water. Almost totally blind, and with a lifespan approaching one hundred years, it can also go years without food, though it’s been known to dabble in a spot of cannibalism.

12. Attend the World Alternative Games in Wales

Bathtubbing? Wife-carrying? Combined mountain biking and beer drinking? No one does wacky quite like the Welsh, it seems, at least not like the natives of Llanwrtyd Wells. Each year, a series of bonkers events takes place that belies this small town’s sleepy appearance – indeed, with a population of just over six hundred, it can justifiably claim to be Britain’s smallest town. Conceived in 2012 as an antidote to the Olympic Games in London, it involves more than sixty madcap events. Utterly pointless, all of them, though try telling that to the legions of well-honed finger jousters, gravy wrestlers and backwards runners who descend upon the town in their hundreds (sometimes thousands) in search of fame and glory, of sorts. Perhaps the best thing about all these events is that anyone is free to participate – so what are you waiting for?


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Japan is one of those countries you can’t really prepare for – the famously impenetrable etiquette, complex traditions and bitingly modern pop culture combine to make a place which could wrongfoot the most experienced traveller. Here are just a few of the things which any gaijin (foreigner) can expect to find out on their first trip.

1. A little Japanese goes a long way

It’s always a good idea to learn some of the language when you travel, if only out of courtesy. In Japan, even managing a hesitant “arigatō” when you buy something or a tentative “sumimasen” when you need to get past someone will have a marked effect. Many Japanese people see a Westerner and worry that they’re going to have to dust off their high-school English, and their relief when they find out you’re making an effort is pretty gratifying.

2. You should really learn how to use chopsticks

There is a bizarrely persistent myth in Japan that Westerners can’t use chopsticks, even though most can quite happily do so. If you’re not confident then it’s best to brush up on your skills before arriving, as some traditional restaurants won’t have any forks. If you’re irredeemably chopstick-averse, stick to international foods, things on skewers, and Japanese curry (which is always eaten with a spoon). Just be prepared to look longingly over at your friends’ delicious plates of sushi, bowls of udon or steaming festival yakisoba.

3. It’s surprisingly hard to be vegetarian

Many people think of Japan as a herbivore’s heaven, but actually if you don’t eat fish you may find yourself with an unwelcome fishy surprise in the most innocuous-sounding dish. The main culprit is dashi, the umami-rich fish stock which forms the basis of most Japanese soups, broths and sauces. Many people in Japan don’t quite understand vegetarianism, but if you’re careful about how you explain it – “I don’t eat any meat or any fish, including dashi” – then you can find plenty of delicious tofu- and vegetable-based meals. Plus, you have a perfect excuse to treat yourself to shōjin-ryōri, Japan’s delicious vegetarian temple cuisine.

4. Being naked isn’t that big a deal

In most countries, being naked is a private matter. You’ll find that Japan is generally the same – most people dress fairly conservatively, and even at the beach it’s usual to carry a cover-up. The exception to all of this is the onsen. If you head to one of these hot springs (or to a sentō, a humbler neighbourhood bath) you’ll have to check in your modesty on entry. Wearing a bathing suit is a huge faux pas, even if you’re at one of the (far less common) mixed-gender baths. Take a deep breath and go for it – after about five seconds you’ll realise that, honestly, no one cares. It may be a cliché, but the experience really is liberating.

5. Matsuri are possibly the best thing in the world

Matsuri (Japanese festivals) are great, as you’ll discover the moment you come across one. Time your visit right and you could see thousands of drunk, mostly-naked men brawling over some sacred sticks (Saidai-ji Eyo Matsuri), a whole mountain set on fire (Yakakusa Yamayaki Matsuri), or a festival entirely about penises (Kanamara Matsuri). Slightly less terrifying festivals feature dancing and singing in the streets, traditional dress, beautiful mikoshi or nebuta and stall after stall of delicious treats. One thing’s for sure: you’ll miss them when you’re home again.

6. “Gaijin” is a very confusing word

Once you’ve learned the word, you start to hear it everywhere: gaijin. Technically it just means “foreigner”, but the nuances are complex. It might be meant affectionately, patronisingly, with a hint of xenophobia, or purely practically – and trying to figure out which it is might drive you crazy. The best response if someone calls you “gaijin” is, as usual, to smile, be friendly and hopefully demonstrate that, not only are foreigners not that scary, some are even quite nice.

7. Laces aren’t worth the hassle

Going into a Japanese house? Shoes off. Traditional restaurant? Socks, at most. Changing room? You guessed it. No matter how lovely your lace-up boots may be, you’ll very rapidly start resenting them – much better to leave them at home. Oh, and while we’re on the topic of footwear: lavatory slippers really are a thing, and you really will be embarrassed if you wear them outside the loo.

8. Japan’s not as small as you might believe

Japanese people tend to espouse a fair few myths about their country, from the idea that Japanese cuisine is irreconcilable with a Western palate to the often-repeated “Japan’s such a small country”. Really, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: north to south, Japan is about 3000km long; it’s bigger than Germany, and half as big again as the UK; just Japan’s northern island, Hokkaidō, is larger than Austria. None of this would matter, apart from the fact that you may be misled and think you can definitely fit in a side trip to Aomori on your way to Ōsaka…

Mount Fujiyama and Lake Kawaguchi / Corbis: Image Plan

9. You will make some mistakes…

Don’t wear shoes inside; purify yourself on the way into a shrine; never pass food from one set of chopsticks to another, or gesture with them, or stick them upright in rice; don’t leave a tip; do slurp your noodles; don’t apply make up on the train; never blow your nose in public; always bring a gift when you’re staying with someone. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg: there is no way you’re going to get everything right.

10. …but you will be forgiven

One of the many good things about being a gaijin in Japan is that, when you do mess up, you’ll probably be forgiven. If it’s something that absolutely has to be pointed out (like wearing toilet slippers around the house) it’ll be done politely, and if not then most Japanese people will just let it slide. So long as you’re trying your best and learning as you go, you’ll be accepted with good grace.

11. You’ll leave desperate to come back

Crazy festivals, complex etiquette, incredible food, stunning landscapes, beguiling history… there are so many amazing experiences in Japan that you’ll never even scratch the surface with one trip. Whether it’s the genuinely warm, hospitable people, or the desire to visit that one famous temple you missed (oh, and that mountain you didn’t climb, and of course that restaurant your friend recommended, and that day-trip you couldn’t squeeze in), you’ll leave with some inarguable reason to come back to this bizarre, beautiful country and learn everything all over again.

If you want to do some research before you go, try checking your nearest JNTO office, and explore more of Japan with The Rough Guide to Japan.

Every September, thousands of people from over a hundred tribes come together in Goroka, Papua New Guinea, to celebrate their unique culture. In this traditional festival, called a sing-sing – the biggest of its kind in the world – there’s a mêlée of dancing, singing and a rainbow of colourful outfits on show.

Photographer Fabien Astre visited the festival last year and took these stunning pictures.

Speaking about his trip, he said: “Seeing all the different cultures from just one country is amazing. The people are friendly and happy to see foreigners being interested in their culture.”

All images are copyright of Fabien Astre. For more of his photography, see fabienastre.com, or like him on Facebook

New Orleans might hog the limelight, but there’s no end of things to do in Louisiana. Here, Rough Guides author Charles Hodgkins takes us on a tour of the state’s beguiling south.

While it’s easy to understand why New Orleans dominates most discussions of southern Louisiana, there’s much more to the lower areas of the Pelican State than the Big Easy. It’s a storied region that exists apart from the rest of the United States, a heady mix of cultures – most notably Cajun, but also a bit of Creole – happily sequestered on its own terms in a waterlogged place south of the actual South.

Whether you’re cruising the swamps of Acadiana in a crawfish skiff, standing reflectively on the porch of a slave cabin on a 200-year-old sugarcane plantation, or driving over countless bridges to a sandy barrier island at the end of the highway, there’s nowhere else quite like southern Louisiana.

Culture and crawfish in Cajun Country

At the heart of Louisiana’s Francophone Cajun country lies Lafayette, the state’s fourth-most populous city and one of its greatest cultural hubs. It’s the all-but-official capital of the state’s Acadiana region. Although English is the dominant language in and around Lafayette, it’s hardly uncommon to overhear Acadian French – especially each Wednesday night at Lafayette’s Blue Moon Saloon’s weekly Cajun jam.

Within about 15 miles of Lafayette are a day’s worth (at least) of historically significant literary locations, worthwhile museums, nature excursions and small-town Acadiana charms.

St Martinville, a 25-minute drive southeast of Lafayette, is home not only to the Evangeline Oak, immortalised in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline” and still standing sentinel on the west bank of Bayou Teche, but also a waterside complex housing the African American Museum and the Museum of the Acadian Memorial. Each museum relates moving tales from involuntary migrations of the eighteenth century that forever impacted this region: the former interprets stories gathered from over 300 years of African–American history in southern Louisiana, while the latter describes the deportation of the Acadians from eastern Canada and their eventual resettlement in present-day Acadiana.

Another small Cajun town worthy of a few hours’ lingering is Breaux Bridge, the self-anointed “Crawfish Capital of the World”, where a handful of excellent restaurants vie for visitors’ palates. Try airy and pleasant Café des Amis, known equally for its delectable gumbo and Saturday zydeco breakfasts.

Naturally, no visit to southern Louisiana is complete without embarking on a swamp tour, and with wildlife-rich Lake Martin a mere ten-minute drive from Breaux Bridge, you’d be hard-pressed to find a reason (poor weather notwithstading) to not enjoy an outing on the lake’s murky waters. The area’s top guiding outfit is Cajun Country Swamp Tours, operated by father-and-son duo Butch and Shawn Guchereau, extra-knowledgeable locals who interpret the lake’s signature botany and teeming birdlife (cormorants, ibis, egrets, herons) in velvety Cajun drawls. Odds are strong you’ll also spot an alligator or two throughout the two-hour tour.

History and politics in Baton Rouge

Abutting the east bank of the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge is Louisiana’s state government centre, a major shipping port and home to the state’s largest university, Louisiana State. The city’s odd name, which translates to “Red Stick” in English, stems from an early French explorer who, upon arrival, spotted a wooden pole draped with bloody carcasses that marked a boundary between tribal hunting grounds. Intervening centuries have seen the city under French, British, and Spanish rule, as well as the Confederacy during the US Civil War.

It’s no surprise, then, that Baton Rouge’s colourful political past makes for its most uniquely compelling attraction. Louisiana’s Museum of Political History, housed in the Old State Capitol – dubbed “that monstrosity on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain – takes a refreshingly no-holds-barred approach to the state’s notorious history of corruption. Check out the extensive permanent exhibition on infamous Governor/Senator Huey “the Kingfish” Long, who ruled Louisiana politics with an iron fist from the late 1920s until his 1935 death at the hands of an assailant.

Ten minutes away by foot from the Old State Capitol, Long’s highest-profile construction project (and the site of his assassination), the current State Capitol, is free to visit and also worth an extended look. The 1932 building and tower (at 450 feet, the tallest capitol in the US) is a lovely piece of Art Deco showmanship, flanked by 30 acres of landscaped gardens. Ascend to the 27th floor observation deck for commanding views of the ever-growing city, the muddy Mississippi and beyond.

Along River Road

Twisting out of metropolitan Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River southeasterly toward New Orleans, the so-called River Road penetrates Creole-influenced areas of southern Louisiana, winding its way through a peculiar medley of inviting historic plantations and eyesore petrochemical plants. The small town of Donaldsonville is a good stop-off for wandering among huge live oaks that stretch over quiet backstreets like spindly arms; Charles Street boasts a particularly lovely canopy of these trees.

The best of the area’s plantation tours is offered at Laura Plantation on the edge of Vacherie, an hour’s-plus drive from Baton Rouge. Here, longtime-local guides relate tales of the sugarcane plantation’s heyday, when it was one of the few woman-run sugarcane operations in the nineteenth century. Hour-long tours lead through the recently restored “Big House”, adjacent gardens, and, soberingly, into an austere slave cabin.

Laura Plantation-8485 via photopin (license)

Off the beaten track in Grand Isle

Ambitious road-trippers will want to continue their southern Louisiana adventure by trekking out to the end-of-the-road community of Grand Isle, a pancake-flat, storm-prone place set on a wafer-thin barrier island bang against the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly every structure in sight here is built one storey above ground.

With a year-round population of just over 1000 (although tens of thousands of seasonal visitors can descend on the town during summer), Grand Isle is an assuredly sleepy place more often than not; it’s best-known as a main embarkation point for deep-sea fishing trips. Be sure to drive toward the far eastern end of the island to remote Grand Isle State Park, where nature trails invite quiet exploration and a lengthy pier extends over Gulf waters for excellent bird-watching, as well as fishing for tarpon, speckled trout and redfish.

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

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