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Itching for Iceland

All this time stuck inside due to The-Virus-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named has got my feet itching. I had a number of upcoming trips cancelled and further ahead ones up in the air. While I know there are much more serious consequences of our current situation, my experience has got me reminiscing about simpler times…

Like a time where I, stressed upon my return to teaching after a year of adventures, spontaneously booked a flight to Iceland, made friends with 3 strangers, rented a car together and went exploring around the island, chasing those elusive northern lights. I thought I’d take this time with a captive audience to share some of my favourite places and hopefully inspire some of you to get out, get abroad, and get adventuring when all of this is over.

I have to say that Iceland is one of my favourite places I’ve ever been. The barren volcanic landscape, interspersed with glacial lagoons, thundering waterfalls, powerful geysers and towering cliffs is nothing short of magical. I do however have two main tips for budget travellers like myself: buy booze in duty-free in your own country, pack a few packets of super-noodles/tinned tomatoes and get the hell out of Reykjavik. I think my whole trip there cost about £500 for a week (including having to rebook flights, but that’s a story of my idiocy that need not be shared). So without further ado, here are some of my “must-see” recommendations.

Things to Do
Landmarks to See
Places to Stay

Things to do

Two mexicans, a german and an irish girl get in a car. Sounds like the start of a semi-racist joke but these were my amazing travel companions who must be mentioned. After being chased by the police for a short while (turns out it’s illegal to drive without lights on in Iceland, even during the day) we arrived our first stop: Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. We didn’t make it to the Blue Lagoon due to the extortionate entry-fee (£60? No thanks.) Anyone who knows me will know that I am never happier than when in the great outdoors, and this pleasant 1 hour hike definitely made me happy.

A meandering gravel path leads you gently uphill between hot springs that you could happily make a cup of tea with if it weren’t for the smell until arriving in view of the steaming thermal river. The further upstream you go, the hotter it is.I would recommend wearing your swimming costume there as this is very much wild and the small wooden slats afford little privacy; as one might expect in Scandinavian culture! It was not particularly busy here, however we did notice a small group of young men with beers which seemed like an excellent idea – just remember: take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints!

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Reykjadur Thermal River in all its glory.

At Skaftarhreppur there is a short, steep walk up to the top of the twin waterfalls (Systrafoss), where you can see a beautiful flat lake that comes with its own local myth. I’ll not spoil it for you (i.e. can’t remember it!) so you will have to make it to the top to find out for yourselves. The path begins by the hotel and brings you past a traditional icelandic dwelling before continuing upwards.

Of course, there is only one real reason that anyone would go to Iceland during Autumn/Winter and that is to chase the notoriously elusive Northern Lights. I am lucky enough to live in a country where they can be seen, but despite years of trying I have never managed to catch them in Scotland. While there are many organised tours to take you to see the Aurora, for the budget traveller I offer an alternative. Using the app ‘Aurora’ you can see the likelihood of seeing them, cloud cover and where in the world they are currently dancing. Skip to me, lying in bed, pissing off my new travel companions saying “It says that they’re here, but there’s 40% cloud cover, maybe they’re dancing, maybe we can see them, it’s all I want on this trip…” until Andrea broke. “Just go and look out the window for fuck’s sake and then we can all get some sleep.” Minutes later we are all stampeding out the door, mesmorised by the shifting grey-green lights in the sky. I can honestly say that it is one of the most incredible sights I have ever experienced. I would like to note however that they do not appear green as you would see on a camera and you need a camera with long exposure in order to capture them. However, some things should be experienced with the eyes, and not through a screen; something that I am terribly guilty for.

Landmarks to See

It is impossible to drive around the corner in Iceland without coming across some majestic, foaming waterfall. I won’t bore you all with rambling passages describing each of their incredible features, but I will add a wee photo gallery for you here. A photo says a thousand words as the saying goes. However I would like to add a note here: please don’t feel you must see everything in the “Golden Circle”. While many of the landmarks there are truly magnificent, there are equally beautiful and significantly less populated landmarks further afield; the Golden Circle landmarks have been named due to their beauty but also their proximity to Reykjavik and the ability to do them in a daytrip.

Vik’s black sand beach – Reynisfjara – is like nothing you’ll have ever seen before. Unless you’ve already been to a volcanic beach, in which case it’s still pretty cool. We’re used to seeing blinding white sand, deep turquoise waters with the sun bouncing off and dazzling the eyes; but this could not be more different. To me, there was something fascinatingly ominous about the deep, black sand and the dark, geometrical caves. It serves as a reminder of who is really in charge – Mother Nature – through the evidence of eruptions past.

If you’ve ever been to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland you’ll be reminded of it as the cliffs are lined with hexagonal stones – perfect for pretending you’re in a band.

If you have the time to make it further afield, Jokulsárlón glacial lagoon is well worth a visit. Diamond icebergs glitter in the water as the glacier looms in the distance. Seals can be spotted in the lagoon, their heads bobbing up above the water in between their hunt for fish. There are boats available to take you into the lagoon (at considerable cost), but the shore provides a stunning opportunity to stretch your legs.

Thingvellir National Park is home to the breath-taking Oxarárfoss waterfall pictured above at sunset. If you can coordinate the timings, try to go just before sunset as I genuinely believed at that point how the country can be full of mystical tales of fairies and omnipotent gods. The golden light was resplendent as it bounced off the surrounding rocks, basking the whole site in a magical glow… I nearly burst into song but I was afraid that would scare everyone off. Thingvellir also allows you to walk between the tectonic plates dividing two continents, which move apart roughly 2.5cm per year.

Finally on my list of landmarks is the west of Iceland. Any Game of Thrones fans out there will recognise Kirkjufell as the Fist of the First Men. Kirkjufell erupts out of the flat landscape, watching over the small village of Grundarfjordur. While we were there we saw a couple getting their wedding photos taken at Kirjufellfoss – can you imagine a more beautiful location? There are a number of beautiful walks and stops to take on route here – but the road itself is worth the journey. Every corner you turn brings with it scenery that would bring a smile even the most cantankerous human.

Places to Stay

As a traveller on a shoe-string budget, my travel recommendations are based solely upon my own experience and budget. I receive no commission if you decide to book these places. When I travel I largely stay in hostels, however due to having a small group of travellers we were able to stretch out to some small self-catering places. We all booked using booking.com and were able to build up discounts by sharing the app with each other and getting initial booking discounts – it’s worth checking if anyone in your party doesn’t already have the app in order to save a bit of cash.

Hellisholar Cottages are quaint self-catered cottages close to Seljalandsfoss. The cottages sleep 4 comfortably and there is a restaurant onsite if you can’t be bothered cooking. I think this worked out about £30 each – less with our discount. Click here to see the booking.com page.

West Park Guesthouse is located on the road to Hellissandur, and due to its remote location is perfect for viewing the northern lights – not that they decided to show up while we were there. While not the most luxurious of places to stay, it was self-catered, cheap, clean and the staff were friendly. Plus we had the whole house to ourselves which added to the appeal. Click here for the booking.com page.

Galaxy Pod Hostels in Reykjavik is a slightly more expensive hostel than I would usually go for (£36 for a bed in a 24 bed dorm), but you get to sleep in a pod and feel like an astronaut so if like I did, you’ve a bit of spare cash at the end of your trip it’s worth splashing out for. Click here to see the booking.com page

Trekking Laos: waterfalls, leeches and lao-lao whiskey

Laos is probably one of the most scenic countries I have ever visited – second to Scotland, of course – so during our short 8 day trip there, we decided to get off the beaten track and get up those mountains, and boy were we glad we did.

We did a lot of research prior to beginning our hike as is our tendency, and decided we were going to mosey on up to Nong Khiaw and do a two day trek with a local home-stay included. There are a few companies who do these treks, so make sure you have all the info you need. While we had a positive experience, there were some factors about our journey which took us by surprise.

The day started at a local restaurant – 45 minutes later my muesli finally arrived and I wolfed it down to head off to the office to get started. We were introduced to our lovely young guide, Peng. ‘It means expensive in English, you call me expensive’ he repeated over and over again. This young man was certainly full of energy, and we were able to ask him a lot of questions about Laotian culture and traditions which we would perhaps not have felt comfortable asking an older person.

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Views from the boat as we set off!

Off we wandered down to the river’s edge, and hopped into a narrow, really rather rocky boat. I cannot explain to you how beautiful the scenery was, meandering down the Nam Ou river between rugged green mountains on either side. Along our little journey we watched young monk novices playing in the river while the elder monks bathed, families paddling by on their boats and local fishermen trying to catch that night’s supper. We also saw the heartbreaking pollution as plastic bags and tetra-packs floated down the river alongside us getting tangled in the tree roots at the river’s edge- completely unavoidable in South-East Asia, no matter how remote you think you are. Little reminder to say no to unnecessary plastic while travelling – does your take-away coffee really require a carrier bag?

Our boat pulled up on the banks and were greeted by a tiny village where we sat and had a cold drink before beginning our trek up the 100 waterfalls. Joined by a lovely french couple, we were impressed as their tour guide seamlessly switched from English, French and Laotian. Here we were greeted by a local guide who joined us on our trek, bringing up the rear of the group to make sure everyone got up all right. As we walked along Peng and the local guide (I’m afraid I don’t remember his name!) picked bits and pieces to supplement our lunches, including banana leaves to use as plates, and a strange berry that we all thought was disgusting but they were delighted by.

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Kerry trekking through the falls!

The hike was lovely, we got to climb up and through the waterfalls clinging onto a rope at some points. For the relatively fit, this hike is no bother at all and only took a couple of hours. For the less fit, the French couple were certainly older, probably about 50/60 and they took the walk at a more leisurely pace, supported by walking sticks their guide scavenged for them among the fallen branches. They also took an alternative route to climbing through the waterfall. Unfortunately going in wet season meant that there were leeches aplenty, and as I decided the clever idea was to wear my hiking sandals so that I could see them if they latched on, rather than closed toe shoes, meant that I was the lucky recipient of a wiley leech who hid himself under the strap of my sandal for a good 20 minutes. Thankfully after 30 seconds of me screaming like a little girl, Peng came to the rescue and flicked it off nonchalantly with a stick. Not my best “strong independent female” moment.

 

 

 

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The 100 Waterfalls

At the top of the waterfall we stopped for a lovely home cooked lunch which could have fed a small army. Huge portions of rice carefully wrapped in banana leaves to keep them warm and clean gave us sustenance for the (significantly easier) walk down. We hopped back into the boat to visit local caves where the Laotian people hid during a relatively recent war. Unfortunately Peng did not have many details for us on what the war was about or who was involved, but we did see the remnants of old war bullets and parts of bombs, as well as hundreds of bats swooping around the ceiling.

In the evening we had a lovely meal with our host family – trés spicy but delicious despite my tongue wanting to fall off – and wandered into a local wedding. This was absolutely hysterical, we lost our guide and were gestured to sit among benches of villagers who had started the drinking a few hours previously… we were then brought inside and got to give money bracelets to the happy couple. In Laotian tradition when a couple get married you tie string bracelets on their wrists and tuck a few notes inside to get them started. The couple then proceeded to keep filling up our cups with beer, then, as always, one person broke out the lao-lao whiskey – a distilled rice spirit of questionable and highly varying percentage – which kept getting passed around. I had a very strange exchange with a lovely older man who was intent on explaining every detail of the traditions to me, despite not having a word of English but not wanting to pause for Peng to translate, or allow me to look at him begging for help! And, not unsimilar to western weddings, we left as the groom vomited down a gap in the bamboo slats of the house. Some traditions really don’t understand land or sea borders!

IMG_0304.JPGWe dragged ourselves out of bed the next day to recommence our trek through other tribal villages where we were greeted by more local children who dropped everything to guide us to the waterfalls. This was a huge culture shock for us – 5 children, between about 4 and 10 years old just ran off on a two hour hike without any word to their parents. It just reminds us the level of bubble-wrapping that goes on with western children – sometimes with good reason as you can’t just trust the random foreign strangers who walk into your village in the UK, but it’s a sad fact that we can’t. As Peng explained “The children here, they raise themselves.” These kids hopped into the waterfall to play, and sped off home as soon as they heard the distant rumble of thunder, squabbling the whole way down. I can honestly say the return trip on the boat was less than enjoyable as we got thoroughly soaked to the skin as the heavens opened. Well, I got soaked to the skin. I got off the boat to find my two travel companions had been quietly handed ponchos while I was sat breaking the rain in the front seat…

This trek was a fantastic experience, and although the second day was mainly trekking along dirt-roads as opposed to through the mountains, we were told this was to avoid the tangle of leeches found on those paths at this time of year. We got a lovely insight into the local tribes and their way of life, as well as a bit of a reality check – while we’re off travelling the world, taking out 2,000,000 laotian kip to last us 5 days in Laos, there are families in the villages earning 5,000,000 kip a year, as a good wage. Despite the obvious discomfort and white-privilege guilt that presents, is this not what travelling is about, expanding our knowledge and giving us opportunities to re-frame our thinking?

What do you think the purpose of travel is? What can we do to travel respectfully and support local communities? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

 

Introducing: the Karen People

*Disclaimer, this post is speaking generally and does not reflect the experience of all Karen people in Myanmar. I am by no means an expert, and my knowledge is based almost purely on discussions with refugees in Thailand.

Ever heard of the Karen people? Nope, me neither.

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Beautiful scenery in MRM refugee camp

One of the ways that we try to keep our costs down whilst backpacking is by getting involved in volunteering projects that offer food and lodgings in exchange for a few hours work a week. We stumbled upon Project Kare on Workaway.info and thought that this would be an incredible opportunity to give back and extend our thinking whilst swanning around the world on our ‘gap yeahhr‘. Through Project Kare we organised to spend two weeks volunteering in Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp in Thailand, about 6 hours from Chiang Mai. After a lovely three-way Skype chat with Ron where he filled us in on the real-life practicalities of being in a refugee camp, we officially signed up to teach in Bible School (third-level education, the students are studying to receive a Bachelor’s in Theology). Ron kept in touch in the 6 weeks before we arrived, letting us know all and any steps that we needed to take, and putting us in touch with the other volunteers we would be arriving with as well as some past volunteers who could give us hints and tips.

Quick history lesson for you: the Karen people are one of the largest ethnic tribes in South East Asia – about 5-7 million. They hail from Karen State, (Kawthooli in Karen) in Myanmar and have been at war with the Burmese government since 1949. Yup, it’s one of the longest standing civil wars in history, and most of us have never heard of it. Over 150,000 Karen have left Myanmar and are now in refugee camps in Thailand and further afield. And have been. FOR SIXTY YEARS.

What’s the war about? Well, the Karen People want Karen State to be an independent nation. I have to be fully honest here: I do not understand the full extent of the development of the conflict. Despite all my googling and reading, everything is a little fuzzy. Some of this is due to a lack of reliable information – even when trying to establish the population of Karen people in Myanmar, one link suggested the last reliable census was taken in 1931. We did however have the distinct pleasure of meeting the lovely Steph, a politics major based in Washington University who has spent a lot of time in Mae Ra Moe and was able to help us with a few of the details. What I do know is that the Karen are persecuted in their own country, denied education and jobs. Many of the children in the camps are there with no family in order to receive an education.

 

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Professional Development Centre students preparing debates about the cost of education.

But the Karen people are so much more than their refugee status. They are resilient. Despite everything they have been through in Myanmar, when you speak to them they have a distinct sense of hope, and determination to end the conflict. We taught English in a Bible school to students from 17+ in their first year of further education. These classes were both hysterical and eye-opening in equal measure. Many students were so driven to learn English in order to emigrate to the USA, fuelling our hatred of President Trump as new laws stopped students who previously would have been reunited with their parents and siblings from having this opportunity. Others wanted to return to Karen State to join the KNU (Karen Nationalist Union who also have an armed wing) and fight for their nation, while others still just wanted to join a missionary to share their truth with the world. What about this was hysterical? The conversations we had, the terrible, terrible Scottish ceilidh dancing and teaching the conditional tense through many, many rounds of ‘Would you rather?’ Not a day went by in that classroom where we weren’t in stitches laughing at least once.

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Receiving our gifts on our last day.

They are generous. The Karen in Mae Ra Moe treated myself and Kerry like queens. We were escorted everywhere, students insisting on carrying our bags; cooked for (despite our begging them to please let us help, they were probably well aware we would be far more of a hinderance than a help, having very limited experience cooking over an open flame!) and cleaned up after; if they noticed we bought ourselves something, they would make sure they had it for us the following day as well. It’s not just foreigners that are treated this way; but all guests. Two guest Karen Theology teachers working in the camp for two months received the same generosity and respect.

Their generosity does not just extend to food and hospitality. We met one amazing woman who, as it turns out, did not need to relocate to a refugee camp. Her husband came to work on a church missionary, and they decided as a family that they wanted to do more for their people, despite the obvious upheaval for them and their children. They both work to educate the students, teaching them English and theology and are now unable to freely and safely return home to visit friends and family as they would be persecuted.

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A house in MRM.

They are innovative. So here’s the thing. Typical privileged white girl speaking (or rather, typing) and I have ZERO knowledge of refugee camps. Yes, I have seen the news, the ads for charity and pictures online, but nothing prepared me for this. All we see are starving, dirty children crying next to ramshackle huts. This may be the case in some camps but it is not the case in Mae Ra Moe. Seeing as how the camp has been around for 20+ years and houses 20,000 people (the largest has existed for 60 years and boasts a population of about 60,000), the people have used their skills to build a community. There is a hydroelectric generator for electricity and little wifi huts. The houses are bamboo, but they’re sturdy, and some people have tvs. While Steph was doing her interviews for her thesis one comment stuck out in particular. She asked how the first refugees in MRM build a sense of community, and the man answered ‘There was so much to do. We had to work together to build the village. We didn’t have a choice.’

So, now the scene is set. My English teacher always said that was very important. If you’re reading this Mr. E, let me know how I did. Typed preferably, that handwriting was like cracking a spy’s code…

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Conversation circles at Bible School – a little like pulling teeth at time!

Camp was a HUUUGE culture shock for us. Our contact, Ron (co-founder of Project Kare, a charity to help support the Karen people) had tried to warn us what it would be like. Even after two weeks of backpacking, with our new and significantly lowered standards, it was a shock. We were the lucky owners of a Western toilet! It did still need a pail to be flushed but was very convenient when a certain travel buddy of mine – I won’t name her to try and maintain her dignity- caught a stomach bug. Pail showers were fun. I kept forgetting that due to the painful amount of rain – I swear to God I kept expecting an arc to rock up – the electricity was off and I had to shower in the dark. Refreshing and shocking every time.

We also weren’t quite braced for how religious the Karen people are. While Karen people follow many religions, the majority are Christian. Very Christian. Being asked as a first introduction whether we believed in God and why not, had we read the Bible? never failed to shock us. However it was all well-meaning and led to some very interesting conversations. Interactions between boys and girls are really interesting to watch – even as young adults there is a playful innocence about them. We gave up trying to have male/female partners for ceilidh dancing and there was absolute hysteria when one boy put his arm around our shoulders for a photo on the last day.

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Kerry and I with our Bible School class on our final day.

When we left our students created a beautiful ceremony for us. It involved a speaker announcing in Karen what would be happening (kindly translated by the teacher), songs played on a guitar and sung by individuals and the class, being escorted up and down the room for gifts and speeches – one girl, in tears thanked us for our time and apologised for when they are bad and make us angry, something that never happened! We were given a Karen shirt, necklace and bag, another Karen bag from a different class and one of the girls who took care of us literally hand-weaved a beautiful embroidered traditional shirt for us while we were at work. I can barely even sew a badge on my backpack.

I wish that I could share with you all of the funny stories, experiences and phenomenal characters that we met while in MRM, and maybe over time I will, but for now I will leave you with this:

The Karen people need our help. Those in refugee camps are given provisions by the Thai government but not allowed into Thailand. They cannot even work the field for a few pennies for a local farmer without running the risk of being arrested. And we won’t talk about what happens in Thai prison. Not only are the police dangerous, but the environment. In our time there, three young men went to work at a local farm to earn some money, and took the long route back across the river to avoid being caught. The rain had made the river rapid, and two of them were washed away along with all the money they had worked for. During rainy season, the schools wash away and need repaired, the hospital does not have the provisions it needs and schools struggle to provide even the most basic resources – students must find their own ways to purchase pens and paper. Most staff in the camps are volunteers, working unpaid for their shifts as teachers, doctors and camp management. If you have a few spare minutes please check out Project Kare’s website. If you’ll be in Thailand and would like to volunteer I urge you to – please feel free to hound me with questions via my email or on Instagram if you prefer!

Until next week!