|Our first approach on the Sphinx, and the Pyramids beyond.|
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Sunday, November 28, 2021
|Special edition Greece cover of our book of travels|
|This is not driving in Athens, this is fun, easy-going driving just outside of Patras, our first comfortable and enjoyable moments of being in Greece. Look at that sky.|
|Everyone in every one of those apartments has a car or two that all seem to be out and about on the streets of Athens.|
Saturday, November 27, 2021
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Whenever the we get that first bitterly cold night of the year, I am reminded of our time in Chiang Mai, in April.
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Have you been wondering about whether or not you should do some long term travel? Thinking about whether you could plan it on your own? The answer to both of those questions is a hearty yes. Anyone who ever asks me if it was worth it, I tell them it was the coolest thing I've ever done in my life.
My experience with long trips is limited to one: The Big Trip.
But it was a big trip - nine months long, through Europe, the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia, with my wife and two kids, way back in 2007 and 2008.
All that planning for The Big Trip translates to today, as it was still almost entirely internet and guidebooks then. And the internet certainly hasn't gone anywhere in the intervening years. All the recent trips have been planned using the same methods or techniques or whatever I've learned a lot from all of this, nothing particularly earth shattering, but stuff that might not be completely clear the first time you try to figure it out.
The few years prior to 2020 we did trips (from central Canada) to Spain, Morocco, Italy, and Germany/France. Flying out of Winnipeg as opposed to Toronto or Montreal adds an additional hurdle in terms of time and money (maybe that's two hurdles), which just gives me a little more of a push to make sure things go well - i.e. more planning.
The one big difference from planning The Big Trip is that now it's more difficult to find individual hotels via their actual websites. None of the little places are paying Google to show up at the front of the line, or maybe don't have the tools and know-how to get their sites noticed. This is kind of annoying as it is usually cheaper and better for the hotel if you can book directly.
- Where to Go
- Getting Around
- Travelling with Kids
- Fellow Travellers
- You can't do it all ahead of time
First and foremost, it's important to understand the kind of traveller you are. We are quite fond of the old centres of European cities.
|Lots of small and less small pedestrian alleys in Seville|
Lots of pedestrian avenues, limited or no traffic at all. Think Venice as the ideal here. We love seeing old churches, inside and out. How they are snuggled right into the community, how many of them there are, the architectural elements, and the art inside. Often there is art in there I've never seen before, and that's always a fun discovery.
|Random church-like building in Rome|
Views from old hill towns, towns that rest on the edge of a cliff, towns that sit along a river or beside the sea. Towns that have everything you need in walking distance.
|View of Volissos, on Chios Island, Greece|
Museums, art especially, but antiquities as well (especially if those antiquities belong in the country of said museum…). Warm weather. Not crazy hot, just not cold, and preferably no snow when I'm travelling. I get plenty of snow at home, I don't need to fly somewhere for more of it.
Do you like to drive? We'll occasionally get a car, but often we'll use trains and the odd bus to get around. That can be limiting at times, but also freeing when you're not worried about where to park the car. We also like to take things pretty slowly and get to know a place, so spending a week in Venice sits just fine with us. We rarely blow in and out of a major centre in a single day.
Are you a food person? Is trying new foods and new restaurants every night important? Do you like cooking your own food just as much, or more? Would you like to have an apartment with a kitchen? How does your stomach react to new or different foods?
How mobile are you? It's important to have an awareness of your physical capability so that you are not caught off guard. Lots of Europe has lots of steps and is not particularly adapted to a traveller who is not able to manage a little bit of physicality. We walk a tonne, so to this point that hasn't been an issue. But every now and then I see a hike, one that would not have seemed remotely dangerous ten years ago, and I think, yikes, not sure I want to do that one...
Are you looking for adventure? Climbing mountains or leaping off of them? Parasailing instead of lying on the beach? Our idea of adventure is a good strenuous hike, we'll do a lot of that, but not much beyond that. (If you think hiking is dull, check out this site; we haven't done any of these, but I'm adding some to the list.)
Where to Go
How do you even know where you want to go? Hopefully having a good overview of your interests will be a starting point, now it's time to study. But this is like school work for the most interesting class you ever had. Get guide books from the library. I am easily swayed by photos, so a guidebook with pictures is what I like. The DK books have lots of illustrations and cutouts of various churches/palaces/whatevers. Guidebooks are also a lot more enjoyable to read lying in bed before you go to sleep.
Get on the internet and do some basic searches: Top 10 things in (country/city); best places for food lovers; world's best hikes (I just happened upon this site a few weeks ago. I've never used it, but it looks comprehensive and interesting. Here are some examples for the Cinque Terre in Italy); most beautiful towns in France/Italy/Spain (there is actually an association!). Once you do a few of those, you will find yourself gravitating towards certain countries. If you have a certain city in mind, you can search "Day trips from [city]". The results will likely be filled with loads of ideas, and will start filling up your hope chest pretty quickly. I've found that Tripadvisor is a good resource for restaurants, and use it mostly for that. It's also a good place for reviews on just about anything.
Generally speaking, I will be thinking of a place I want to go to, and start there. For our Spain trip, original thoughts of course included Barcelona, but after some study we knew we wanted to spend a lot of time in the Andalucia region too. Seville and Granada were a definite yes. We could fly into Madrid for a reasonable price, and Toledo was between Madrid and Seville; a quick study of Toledo meant that Toledo was added to the list.
|Alley in Toledo, Spain|
Cordoba. Ronda, too. Okay, we only have two weeks. Now look at a map of Spain and locate all of these places, and then Barcelona. At one point, an unbelievable price for flights to Madrid flashed on my screen, and the tickets were purchased. And no matter how hard I tried, I could not fit Barcelona into our plans. Yes, I could've removed a day from Seville and Granada, and cut Cordoba, but that also meant more time travelling. Granada was an absolute must, but is notoriously difficult (relatively speaking) to get in and out of for a city that hosts the most visited site in all of Spain. And even omitting Barcelona, we still only spent a day and a bit in Madrid.
Time will likely be your worst enemy. Just get over that and concentrate on all the fun you will be having (as opposed to what you will miss out on, sniff).
How to add Barcelona? Well, we wanted to spend four nights in Seville. Barcelona is a one-week city for us, but we would've had to trim that to four days maybe. We might have taken a day from Toledo, but after being there, there's no way I'd do it on just an single overnight stay.
It's three hours by train from Madrid to Barcelona, so that adds six hours more travel time, plus the packing, two and from the station to accommodations - a good chunk of one day spent travelling, likely eight to ten hours, instead of seeing and doing. Sure, we could have done it, but it was too fast for how we want to do things. If you're cool with moving at a good clip, here's a possible itinerary for all that including Barcelona:
- Arrive Madrid (or fly into Barcelona and out of Madrid), immediately train to Barcelona
- Three nights Barcelona
- Train back to Madrid, then immediately to Toledo
- Two nights Toledo
- Train to Seville (via Madrid)
- Three nights Seville
- One night Ronda (drive)
- Two nights Granada (drive)
- Two nights Madrid (drive)
Anyway, am I getting off topic? What's the topic?
Part of the decision making will be built into where you choose to go. If you're going on an extended trip that includes Italy, the things you see may be in part determined by where you go after that. If the next country is Greece, as it was for us, that meant we ended our time in Italy in the south, our last day driving to Brindisi and jumping on a ferry to Patras. However, if we were going to Croatia, we might have instead gone north from Florence to Venice, where it's easier to get to Croatia by ferry. I sort of wonder why we didn't do that now?? Hmm. Italy, to Croatia, to Greece probably would have worked? But, that would've meant Venice in August, super high season there and outrageously busy. Which brings me to another point.
Hopefully if you have the time to do an extended trip, you're not doing it in the high season. That could be exhausting, dealing with that many people for that long a time. People have told us that Venice is no fun because there are just too many people. And maybe that's true in July or August. But we were there for a week at the end of March, and it was one of the best travel experiences we've ever had. Temperatures were comfortable, and the crowds very manageable. (I keep harping on this, but it's true) Because we were there for a week, we could make some easy snap decisions about things. We head over to St. Mark's to visit the church, but the lineup is crazy long. Forget that idea, go do something else. A day or two later, we were passing by St. Mark's in the afternoon and there was no lineup at all. In we went. There was no rush, no feeling like we had to get this done now because we were leaving tonight and why are there so many people visiting my church!??!
|Lots of uncrowded areas in Venice|
Our big trip had a natural flow to it, from Italy into Greece by ferry; Chios, Greece to Turkey. Train to Syria. Car to Jordan. Ferry to Egypt. All overland/water and relatively easy. If you can choose destinations that have that kind of flow, it can save you some of the headaches of travelling between destinations. India was a bit of an anomaly, at least in terms of getting there. We ended up flying from Cairo, which is a long flight. But going from Kolkata to Bangkok is just a three or four hour flight. Again, starting in south India and working our way north and west to Kolkata to make that transition to Bangkok a little more accessible.
Working out a manageable path is a bit like writing an essay. Or playing Tetris. Maybe a combination of both. Taking some time to plan your route thoughtfully will make your trip more manageable and enjoyable.
Finding a place to stay is easy these days, so you should be able to find many good options almost right up to your arrival. If you absolutely positively have to stay somewhere on a specific night or nights, book ahead a little more. A general rule of thumb is to book your first few stays well before the start of your trip. You'll be more relaxed and able to get your bearings, and you may discover some things you like and dislike that will help you make choices going forward.
When we're staying somewhere for more than a few days, I like to stay in an apartment. If 'feels' more comfortable than a hotel to my mind. That being said, there's one thing that I do like about hotels. A good hotel will have a comfortable and inviting common area for travellers to gather. So in those spaces, you are likely to strike up a good conversation with like-minded people. The more interesting of a place you are in, the more interesting that person is likely to be. This has been the case for us all over: Riad Hotel in Hama, Syria, where we met new friends from New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the US; the Luna Hotel in Cairo; El Salaam Camp in Dahab, Egypt; several spots in India; the rooftop at Casa Perletta in Chefchaouen, Morocco, where we met a wonderful Canadian couple who were now (and are still) living in New York, and we've managed to connect a couple of times in person since; the rooftop at Hotel Santa Isabel in Toledo; Hotel Alavera de los Banos in Ronda; and more. Often these places have wonderful breakfast spreads as well, and you are bound to chat about your plans for the day over a pistachio-cream-filled croissant (Hello, Albergo Centrale, Bologna!). You might also get some good info about a place you'd missed in your research.
|Our kitchen in Istanbul|
When I'm looking for places to stay, it's inevitable that you'll find booking.com or airbnb at the top of any search that begins with "Hotels in…" But I will always put in the extra time to find a hotel or apartment website and book directly through them (unless their site feels a little shady, or perhaps has a payment method that seems light on security).
If you're landing in one spot for a week or more, you can often find discounts on accommodations for those longer stays. Airbnb also has a part of their site dedicated to stays of a month or longer with some places offering substantial discounts, sometimes as much as 50%. The monthly rate is not as cheap as if you were renting for a year, but it's far cheaper than a nightly hotel rate. It's worth asking through the actual website of the hotel/apartment if they offer long-stay discounts.
Our preference is to stay in the area of the city/town that has most of what we want to see. Coincidentally, the train station will also be close by, allowing you to arrive by train, walk to your hotel, and then walk to most of the things you want to see. Spending a little more to be in the centre is often worth it for the sake of saving time on the metro or bus getting to the things you want to see. I keep talking about Venice, but Venice makes for good analogies. Staying in Venice is more expensive, but there really isn't much comparison to staying outside the city and having to train in first thing in the morning, and getting the train out every evening. Late night walks along the Zattere, a late evening meal, or sitting on your terrace overlooking the city before retiring. Our apartment in Florence was just a few minutes from the Duomo, right in the centre of the city. We could head back to put our feet up if we felt like, or if we forgot something, whatever. Being close just removes a layer of unpredictability and gives you more time, and it's way more enjoyable. When you're travelling for extended periods, saving yourself little bits of time and aggravation goes a long way towards making the whole trip that much more enjoyable. Spend more time doing the things you want to do, and less time on the functional necessities of travel. Of course, this all depends on budget. Sometimes saving a few dollars here and there is worth it, and sometimes spending a few more is worth it, too.
Almost all of the time, within a city we are walking. Sometimes though, the city centres are just too big to walk, as in say, Paris, so the sooner you get the metro figured out, the better.
Nothing puts you right in the middle of the action like walking. A car will get you there faster, this is true, and if that's what you want and need, have at it. You'll walk past shops, past homes, past the people, past workers, past a living city, and it's difficult to get that feel in a car. That being said, once we had our fill of walking around Rome, discovering and making use of the bus stop around the corner from our front door was a boon.
Occasionally we'll take a taxi to the airport, but there's often a cheap and convenient bus direct to the airport from the city centre (like in Madrid, for instance).
In Europe, travelling between cities is quick and efficient with the country's rail system. Buses will connect most of the smaller towns, but there are some places that will require a car to reach if it's important to you. I had used Loco2 in the past, but that has rebranded as RailEurope. I was sad at first, but really, a much more fitting name. It could not be easier to use. So easy, I really don't have to explain it.
Every country has their preferred way of travel. In India, it's the train. Slow but easy and outrageously inexpensive.
|It may not have the kind of amenities you're used to, but if you're in India, I think you'll find the trains comfortable enough. Maybe not the washrooms, that|
Lots of buses serve large and small centres, but we found it most comfortable to take the train when it was available. In Southeast Asia, buses seem to take precedent (Vietnam being the non-conformist here), but are comfortable, clean, and well-maintained. A quick search of getting from Point A to Point B in your country of choice will give you a good idea of what most people do. Generally speaking, most countries outside of Canada and the US rely far more heavily on public transportation, and it works well, and gets used a great deal.
We rented a car twice in Italy, for a two-week period in Greece, and for a single day in Turkey. If you want to drive overseas, be sure to get an international driver's license.
One very important thing to note is the opening hours of any attraction you want to get to, and understanding their ticket procedure. Case in point #1: For visits to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, it is recommended to book your tickets up to three months in advance. Three months!! This may seem ridiculous, but if you're going to Granada, you are likely there to see the Alhambra. And while not a complete disaster, it would be a crying shame to miss it.
|As spectacular as it is from the outside, the interior of the Alhambra is even moreso.|
When you have confirmed your travel dates, book your tickets. The Alhambra is a bit of a special case as it also has very specific entry times to part of the site. Pay attention, and don't miss your time. Just about any reading you do about a place worth visiting will note these kinds of things, but that being said, we still met people who were trying to buy their Alhambra tickets the same day, or the day before who was very angry and had clearly never heard that the Alhambra was a popular place. Case in point #2: Make sure that the place you want to visit is open at that time of year, and on the days you're going to be there. Our trip to Morocco could only be configured in such a way so as to be leaving on a Saturday morning, flying out of Casablanca, home of the Grand Mosque, a grand mosque that is closed to visitors on Fridays. Since we wanted to spend most of our time in other cities, we only arrived in Casablanca on Friday. We hoped that maybe they would make an exception for two exceptionally wonderful people, or that maybe by some miracle they'd just happen to be open that particular Friday, but it was not to be. We got to wander around the exterior, which is pretty cool, but not the same thing. We were prepared for it, so it was not a shock. Sometimes, schedules just won't work out and that's the way it is.
In many cities, you can get special passes that allow you to take in multiple attractions for a cheaper, bundled price. Here are examples from Verona and Venice. Sometimes these passes allow you quicker access without having to wait in line. In Rome in August for instance, we bought a pass, for both Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, at the Palatine entrance that had three people in line. Then we went to the Colosseum and walked past the long, long lineup and into the four-person line for people who already had tickets. That's a big win when you're travelling with kids.
In some places, the major attraction is just exploring, walking, wandering, and getting lost in a labyrinth of back streets and stairs that lead to the sky.
|Wandering around Chefchaouen, Morocco|
A country's tourism website is a good place to start, and popular regions will have their own site that's likely far more informative. If you're looking for info, say, on the amazing Amalfi Coast, positano.com looks worth your time. It's filled with paid tour links, but at the bottom of the page you'll find loads of useful links, like how to get there from Rome, or bus schedules, when to visit, etc.
This goes without saying, but the lighter you pack, the easier it is to get around. You can always do with less while you're on the road, and will rarely find yourself saying, "Boy, I wish I had another ten or twenty pounds on my back right now!" If you really, really need something, you can likely find it wherever you are. I had an 80 litre pack for our big trip, and that was plenty big enough. I brought a couple sketch pads with me, but ditched one of them within the first week. Paper is heavy. As long as you find a place with a washing machine here and there, you'll be fine. If not, a sink and a bar of soap are a good substitute. In some countries, laundry can be done inexpensively, though it will cost you in thread count over time.
Our rule of thumb is always, Pack Light. For our short trips, three to four days of clothes is plenty, with a greater emphasis on underwear and socks. There are a few places where a humid environment is unwelcome. Ah, and good shoes too. I'll take a good pair of walking shoes and a good pair of sandals, no more.
Travelling With Kids
Travelling with your kids doesn't have to be more difficult, other than the complexity of travelling as a larger group. Of course, if you've got infants, that's another story. The biggest challenge will be in keeping your kids engaged and entertained, particularly during long bus or train rides. A good book, some simple games, and a curious mind are a good start. Having activities planned that give them something to look forward to makes for great conversation starters. Taking a long train ride is a lot more palatable when the Pyramids are at the other end. We planned a few beach holidays throughout our travels, and the success of the first of those was a great reminder of something to look forward to in the future. As well, there are just lots of spots around the world that are just cool for kids. Be it amazing sites, hiking and climbing, building sandcastles, a world of new food, zip-lining in Laos, or something as simple as drinking from ancient fountains in Rome, there are lots of things to help kids engage with their new surroundings.
This is a big one. Not a big price necessarily, but a big topic. You can travel as expensively or inexpensively as you want. What did our trip cost? Well, a lot. Or not that much. Kind of, but not really. Confusing? Maybe.
Because we were away for nine months, and over a full university year, we were able to rent out our house while we were away. This covered all costs at home, and made us a little money, too. Nothing broke down, no real problems were encountered by our renters, and they were very considerate of our furniture and home, so there were no headaches there. I'm an artist, and I did no paid work during our time away, so that was a bummer money-wise, but also great because I didn't have to think about where and how I was going to get work done; and, I could be dedicated to all the planning that needed to be done while we were on the road. My wife was a school teacher back then, and was able to capitalize on a workplace deferred salary plan: four years at 80% of her salary and then one year off while collecting that held back portion of her salary, so 80% again. It's not necessarily a given that you have to sell everything you own, your car, your house, your possessions, in order to make a long trip happen. We had those four years to prepare for this, so the bulk of our extra cash went towards the trip we knew was coming, as opposed to some vague idea of 'saving money,' and the salary deferral was like a forced savings plan. Keep in mind that no matter where you are, you are going to spend money, whether it's at home or somewhere else. Our costs over and above what we would have spent were not crazy. Of course, we couldn't have done this type of travel indefinitely, but nine months was easily doable. Between the lower income tax and the revenue from renting, we were comfortable enough. If we'd had to cover all our housing costs for a house we weren't living in, that would have been very different.
|Receipt from the Al Khawale Restaurant. At the time, it was 50 Syrian pounds to our dollar. This was a sweet meal for twenty bucks, for four.|
An important factor in all of this was that we planned for six weeks in the Middle East, two months in Southeast Asia, and almost three months in one of the least expensive countries in the world, India. Our first three months were in Italy (very pricey), Greece (not so bad), and Turkey (getting better). Our three months in India cost less than one month in Italy - for the two weeks on the Arabian Sea in Gokarna we averaged less than $25 a day. For all four of us. It was inexpensive enough that at the end of our time in India, I realized that our bank account actually grew, noticeably. It was so cheap that a two-dollar meal in Bangkok seemed an outrageous price to pay for a plate of food. And let me be clear about something: the food in India was outstanding, as it was all throughout Southeast Asia.
|Rooftop at Hotel Kamal. Someone had at this point not learned to pace their lassi intake. This view as the sun set was something else.|
Our most expensive hotel in the last half of our trip was $58 a night at Bentleys in Mumbai. I'm sure we could have found something for less, but we'd just endured an overnight train, arriving at eight in the morning, and we wanted to get settled quickly. Next most expensive? I think it was the Tri Gong Hotel in Chiang Mai. $27. Throughout India and Southeast Asia, it was usually costing us between $8 and $20. In Italy, accommodations cost was in the range of 75 to 90 euros, a little less in Greece, and less again in Turkey. If we'd spent the trip in Western Europe, the trip would've been six months long at best.
In Rome, Monticchiello, Florence, Alberobello, Astros, Athens, Chios, and Istanbul, we stayed in apartments. This allowed us to cook meals up at home and prepare our own lunches if we wanted. This will help keep the food budget on the right side of the ledger. Eating out in the Middle East is much more affordable, even in really good restaurants. Southeast Asia even more so. India, as mentioned above, is the gold standard in this regard. A prime example of this was New Year's Eve in Gokarna at the Pai Restaurant. This was a celebration, an evening to remember, and we ate like kings and queens (which for me, usually means lots, but this was really, really good food. We had a number of different dishes, lassis (a smooth and creamy yogurt drink), and dessert, and the grand total for this extravagance? Ten dollars for the four of us.
|The ever-popular Pai|
Keep in mind that we were doing a lot of walking, climbing, hiking, moving, non-stop it seemed, until we sat down to eat, so we were always hungry, and we could pack it away. In Hanoi, three months later, we paid a visit to Pepperonis, a place that hosted a near-legendary buffet. A 32,000 dong (Vietnamese currency) all-you-can-eat buffet. Two dollars and fifty cents. It was alarming how much empty space our bodies had to store it all. I'm sure we were polite, but wow. I don't think I've ever eaten that much while still being able to move afterwards.
Outside of flights, the rest of the trip, all nine months comes in at around $37,000 CDN. A couple rental cars, lots of attractions, lots of food, lots of trains and buses, snacks and gelati, souvenirs, audio guides, donations, taxis, books, hotels, apartments, clothes, lassis, insurance, dosas, saris, everything.
|Expenses in India|
We tried to limit our flying as much as possible, organizing our trip so as to make use of overland travel.
- Winnipeg to Rome - July
- Cairo to Trivandrum - December
- Kolkata to Bangkok - March
- Hanoi to Vientiane - a gametime decision at the beginning of April
- Bangkok to Winnipeg - May
The total cost for flights was right around $10,000 (and that's even with paying for business class from Egypt to Cairo, a long story not yet covered outside of the book). You've probably heard it said that the most expensive thing is just getting to your destination, and this is particularly true outside of Europe.
This is briefly covered above, but how do you save for a very long trip? Priorities. Make it a priority and it's more likely to happen. It's not a guarantee, but you have to start somewhere. Of course, you need to be making money to save money, and maybe you'll have to do a few jobs you don't like. But the rewards are many. A lot of it is just simple stuff, the most important being spend less than you earn.
- Eat at home. Period.
- I don't drink or smoke.
- I don't go out to bars.
- My entertainment consisted of fees for my sports teams.
- If we needed something, we'd wait for it go on sale.
- No coffees on the way to work.
- No impulse buying.
- We were driving a fifteen-year-old minivan up to going on that trip, and prior to that it was a nearly thirty-year-old car.
- If something went wrong in our house, I'd fix it. Any renos that needed doing, I'd do them.
- You can make budgets and lists and all that, but I didn't bother. I just avoided spending money unless it was necessary. Spend less than you earn, as much and as often as possible.
Do not forget travel insurance. We didn't even use it the time we actually needed it, because the cost of our Italian hospital excursion was only six euros, but this is a critical piece of paper.
You will find that one of the greatest sources of information will be fellow travellers. Make use of those common rooms at your hotel and get talking. There's a good chance you will find someone who has been where you want to go, and they can give you a bit of a lay-of-the-land from a hands-on perspective.
All At Once
An important thing to keep in mind is that you cannot plan a trip of this magnitude all ahead of time. For one, you won't be able to get all your visas at home, you'll figure it out on the road. Our short trips are well planned before we leave home, including where we want to go on any particular day, but because we stay a few days in each city usually, those days and schedules can be mixed and matched as necessary.
For an extended trip of many months or longer, you will not be able to book all your accommodations ahead of time; you won't be able to book all your trains and intercity travels; you won't book all your visits to important sites; you might not even book your flight home. You'll figure it out and book a bit ahead while on the road. You don't even want to book everything ahead of time, as that will take away a bit of the spontaneity long-term travel provides. Too many benchmarks will eventually start to feel restricting. If you get delayed, if you get sick and need to hunker down for a few days, or, most importantly, if you really like a place, you can stay longer.
As long as you have the tools and the understanding of how to do some of your booking and researching, you will be set up for a long and successful and fun trip. By the time March of 2008 rolled around, I found myself booking a flight home for the four of us. More than three thousand dollars worth of flights, at midnight, on the wifi of our guesthouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I'd certainly never done anything quite like that before. But I had spent the previous eight months finding places to stay, things to see, trains to book, routes to take. And every bit of planning I did made it easier to accomplish the next whatever it was that needed to be done. There is no substitute for experience
If you have any questions about planning a trip, drop me a line. I love to talk travel.
|Sketch of Toledo's cathedral, as viewed from the terrace of Hotel Santa Isabel|
Interested in the stories of our Big Trip?
Europe and the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. You can find more info about the books here. If these are not the most beautiful travel memoirs you've ever seen, I'll go on another trip and take better pictures.
There's also a text-only version (with multiple covers) here!
Not sure which book is right for you? Read this!
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
If you're new to this blog, you may see me mentioning "The Big Trip" here and there, without explaining too much about what that entailed. While I've posted a lot of stuff about specific places from that trip, I've posted little about the whole thing, other than this very brief post back in 2014. (Time keeps on moving, I'll tell you that much for free.)
Today, I'm going to fix that, and tell you all about the trip that quite literally changed my life. You could also just go here, or here, or jump right in and buy my books if you're a fan of travel books that actually look like travel. You know, colour and history and faraway places, that sort of thing. There are a lot of books, but this handy guide will direct you to the one(s) most suitable for you.
|A visual overview of The Big Trip|
The Big Trip
Back in the early 2000s, my wife Laura came home from work one day and said, "I need to do something different." She had been teaching for almost ten years at that point, and was worried that she might spend her whole career in a classroom. I was a stay-at-home dad and freelance artist. I was not worried about similar prospects as a stay-at-home dad, but what did I know? Ideas started getting tossed around, and some time off with a bit of travel thrown in the mix was the one that kind of stuck.
In 2003, she started on a deferred salary plan at work. This meant that she'd work four years at a reduced salary, and then get the fifth year off while receiving that same reduced salary. Win-win for raising children and exercising free will. As we thought more about where we'd like to travel, that travel component of the year off grew from three months to a full eight months, thinking that this way we could have some students rent our home while we were away.
In 2006, we went to see Max at Great Canadian Travel to discuss our intentions and our interests, and from that he gave us both a bare bones plan to work from, and the confidence that such a thing could indeed be done. Max gave us a rough route through the countries that we were intent on seeing, plus some he thought we would also enjoy. At that point, the heavy lifting began on my end: research, research, research.* Nearly a full-time job, as now Max had us being gone eight-and-a-half months. "In fact, can you leave earlier? Let's go at the end of July!" he said. Nine months.
Our initial plans included Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, India, and Thailand. By the time July 29th of 2007 rolled around, we'd added Cambodia and Vietnam (and while in India, but for some heated political protests we would have gone to Nepal as well). We were nervous, but ready. Our flight out of Winnipeg left just after midnight on the 30th, and that was it. We wouldn't be home until some time in May of 2008. It was our good fortune that our kids were in grades five and seven for that year, which I think is right in the middle of a bubble of time that makes for good extended family travel.
Our plan was to move relatively slowly, not trying to fit in every conceivable site in the area in which we happened to find ourselves.
|A rough outline|
We Started in Rome - August
|The patio of our fifth floor apartment in Rome|
|The patio at our trulli house|
Greece - September
It's an overnight ferry from Brindisi, Italy, to Patras, Greece. Here we picked up a rental car and immediately drove to Astros, on the other side of the Peloponnese. One week here gave us the opportunity to visit Epidaurus, Acrocorinth, Monemvasia, and more, from our home base at our Astros apartment. We managed to spend a couple of those days at the nearby beach, our first dip in the Mediterranean. Lots of driving and lots of great food that week. The gyro was quite the discovery. At the end of the week, we drove to the Athens airport to meet some friends from home, and then drove west together to Delphi, then north to Kastraki where we spent three days exploring spectacular Meteora. One night stays in Monodendri and Vikos followed - the days involved a lot of hiking around and into the Vikos Gorge. One night in Nafpaktos before taking the plunge into Athens for a six-night stay in another great apartment.
|Limnos Beach, all to ourselves for almost three weeks|
Turkey - October
The ferry from Chios to Çesme was not even an hour, and just like that, we're in a new country. After clearing customs and paying our 45 euro entry, it was a quick walk over to the bus station. We explained where we wanted to go, but I also understood, through some advance internet study, that we needed a bus that would take us to a particular station in Izmir, because we were carrying on to Selçuk. The bus (like all buses in Turkey) was comfortable and (unlike all buses in Turkey) only half full. Bus terminals in Turkey are like large airports, big and confusing for someone who is unfamiliar with such scale. Fortunately, a man who drove a mini-bus between Izmir and Selçuk found us, and also fortunate, his family owned a hotel in Selçuk too. Two nights here gave us plenty of time to visit Ephesus, and to practice what was quickly becoming one of my favourite pastimes: exploring the food offerings in a new country. It also introduced us to Turkey's national pastime, carpet selling. I say that as a joke, but the number of hours spent in Selçuk carpet shops is not something I will ever brag about. Be polite, be firm, but don't be coerced to stay, either by guilt or by non-stop chatter (and we experienced both and more), and listen to a shopkeeper's spiel.
The bus from Selçuk to Bodrum (I cannot believe I haven't told this story somewhere! I'll fix that soon) was an adventure, mind you a fun one to talk about later. Two nights in Bodrum because a well-known guidebook told us that the Underwater Archeology Museum was one of the greatest museums in all of Europe. Well, our favourite time in the city was a couple friendly chats with Ilhami, a young man who worked a fruit stall near the waterfront. Then an overnight bus, with three stewards taking care of us (and the two or three other passengers(!)), to Antalya. Four nights at the Sabah Pansiyon in Antalya to visit a great museum, further our food experience, and explore one of the great sites of the world.
|Exploring the theatre at Termessos, north of Antalya|
Overnight bus again to Goreme where we visited the Goreme Open Air Museum, the International UFO Museum, and did our first (of very, very few) organized tour. A seven-hour bus trip to Antalya where we visited the fabulous Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, and also had the best dates I've ever had, before or since, from the bulk section on the front steps of a small grocery store. One night in Ankara and then another day bus to Istanbul for a relaxing and fun-filled two-week stay. There is loads to see and do in Istanbul that I won't list here, but it was certainly fun to be in such a great city for an extended period, in a fabulous little two-bedroom apartment. Becoming a regular at the local grocery store, walking over the Galata Bridge nearly every day, visiting the most amazing mosques, eating kebab after kebab after kebab, just a fabulous time. From Istanbul, we arranged our train trip to Syria - what would end up being a 36-hour trip to Aleppo. [Selçuk, Bodrum, and Ankara hotels were essentially walk-ups; Antalya and Istanbul were finalized over the course of many emails sent from hotel computers or our laptop when there was wifi. We arrived in Antalya not entirely certain they would have a room for us.]
Syria - November
After a not-nearly-as-bad-as-it-sounds 36-hour train trip, we had three nights in Aleppo, and this is where it began to feel like we were really somewhere different from home - physically, practically, visually, emotionally. It had been getting a gradually different to this point, and certainly Turkey was new to us, but Syria was the whole package of different, but all in a good way. We ended up in Hama for five nights, mostly because we all got a little bit sick from a bad shwarma at the Hama bus station. But from here, we got to see a couple more truly amazing places in Palmyra and Apamea.
|Setting sun at Apamea|
Then a six-day (day/night, whatever - if something is a stay of three days or nights, it all means we spent three nights in that location) in Damascus. That was probably a bit too long, but we don't mind lingering, and we enjoy all the great food we get to sample in these new places.
Quick note about Visas
Because we were out of Canada for a while, we couldn't get our visas ahead of time. We got our Turkish visa at the port in Cesme when we arrived there; the Syrian visas we arranged at the Syrian Embassy in Istanbul; Jordan and Egypt were arranged at the border upon arrival. India was one that worried us as we'd heard some stories, but that was easily sorted in Cairo before we left Egypt. Thailand doesn't require a visa, just an entry stamp to acknowledge our arrival. The Cambodian visa was arranged at the border, and almost involved fisticuffs. Our Phnom Penh hotel organized our Vietnamese visa for a minimal cost. And finally, our expensive Laosian visa was purchased at the Vientiane airport on arrival.
Jordan - November
Entry into Jordan from Damascus was by taxi to Amman, then immediately on a bus to Madaba for four days. If you're curious about that trip and how to smuggle cigarettes into Jordan, here's an aside. Lots to see and do here, including a worthwhile day-trip to Jerash. We had a private car and driver take us along the King's Highway to Petra. We spent a night there and made quick plans for an overnight in the Wadi Rum with a New Zealand family we'd met in Damascus, and had dinner with in Madaba. Then it was back to Petra for three more nights, giving us loads of time to explore at Petra. Worth every day and more. An early and very smokey bus took us to Aqaba, and then a very expensive ferry to Nuwieba, Egypt.
|Collecting sand at Petra, the Monastery in the background|
Egypt - December
We arranged a mini-bus to Dahab with some guys we met while waiting at the ferry terminal in Aqaba. We ended up staying at the same 'hotel' as them for six nights. Yes, six! Dahab has a way of swallowing you up, and making your forget about some of the plans you had while there. Lots of snorkelling by the swimming members of this family, and lots of pretty awesome food, including many milkshakes at Al Capone's on the waterfront, and loads of koshary at The Koshary Place. Three nights in Cairo. Three nights in Luxor, one at the Shady Hotel (longish story) and two at Happyland (I'd go back for their breakfasts alone), before returning to Cairo for a very casual five days. Mostly eating great food and exploring Cairo's juice scene. Then it was on to Trivandrum, India, or so we thought.
|Doorway at Karnak, Luxor|
|View from the Pizza Hut in Giza|
India - December, January, February
In general, India has other plans for you. Once you are comfortable with that fact, you will be fine. Our reservations from Cairo to Trivandrum were cancelled, which resulted in a lot of running from desk to desk at the airport seeking out flights to anywhere in India. Who knew that if you could afford to pay business class fares there will always be a seat for you? At any rate, we ended up flying to Delhi, overnighting there, then flying to Trivandrum the next morning. Our plans for India began in Alleppey, with a one week stay at Palmy Lake Resorts (not a resort, but a homestay - little, comfortable cabins on someone's property) which we had already booked. We had a pretty organized itinerary for India that involved starting in the south, which is called the "easy entry" to India. We thought it best to stick to our plan. Overnight train ride to Gokarna where we spent two glorious weeks on the Arabian Sea over Christmas and New Year's. Restaurants were cheap and plentiful, be we gravitated to two: Pai Restaurant on the main drag (a dirt road), and Mahalaxmi, with it's perfectly perfect rooftop patio close enough to the sea that you could see and hear the waves coming in while we enjoyed our breakfast. Most of our time outside of these restaurants were spent at Kudle Beach. Interesting tidbit: Gokarna was recommended to us by a British couple that we met on the Wadi Rum trip in Jordan. They had spent a fair bit of time in India over the previous years, and when we told them that we were going to spend some time in Goa, they said, "If you want to see Goa like it was twenty years ago, maybe try Gokarna." We did, and we loved it. And we ran into them on our second day there at the Pai Restaurant, and spent some time with them on the beach over the next week or so. Nothing planned, we had no idea where they were staying, no contact info, just bumping into each other around town or at the beach.
|Kudle Beach, a short walk from Gokarna|
|Pai Restaurant in Gokarna|
|We took the wrong train, another over-nighter, out of Mumbai, ending up in Chittorgarh, a blessing in disguise, then a bus to Udaipur that very afternoon. Five nights at Nukkad Guest House, then a bus to Jodhpur for two nights, overnight bus to Jaisalmer for four nights. Overnight train to Jaipur for three nights at Hotel Pearl Palace. Three nights in Amritsar at the gurudwara by the Golden Temple. Overnight train to Agra, for three nights at Hotel Kamal. One day we did a day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, an absolute must. (Note that Hotel Kamal in particular was nowhere near as fancy as their website suggests. Perfectly fine for sure, but they were chosen by their rates, which were under $20 a night.)|
|A Day in the Life of the Taj Mahal|
|Right outside the front door of Hotel Kamal|
Five days in Khajuraho, feeling like we were starting to slow down, physically and emotionally. It was so relaxing to be there, the food at the Agrasen Restaurant so amazing, it was tough to leave.
Tired of buses and trains, we hired a car and driver to get us to Varanasi instead of some kind of bus train combo. We ended up in Varanasi for seven days, trying to figure out our last bit of time in India. Some point along the way, we decided to go to Nepal, but Nepal was doing everything to keep us away. From political strife to worker strikes, it just didn't work out. We then booked a train to Darjeeling, but that too was scuttled by runover from Nepal. Those tickets went unused, and we just ended up going to directly to Kolkata, where we planned to end up after Nepal (or Darjeeling) anyway. On the bright side, Varanasi was great, the Shanti Guest House was perfect and had, you guessed it, an amazing rooftop restaurant. The amount of time spent sitting up there with Rosa from England and Ian from Montreal felt well worth it all. Overnight train to Kolkata and a six-night stay, although I guess two of those were spent at the Sunderbans National Park as part of a tour. And then we were off to Bangkok, on a flight booked from the Shanti in Varanasi, barely a week before.
|Doors of India|
|On our way to Bangkok; guy with taser on the right coming to say, "No photos on tarmac!"|
Thailand - March
Arrival in Bangkok was smooth and easy. Grab a ticket for a taxi, stand in line and wait your turn, give your driver an address and off you go. Three nights in Bangkok on Khao San Road, sort of a backpacker's haven. Did a bit of touristy stuff, and then it was off to Cambodia, via the infamous Scam Bus. So infamous, it gets capitalized. It's an interesting story, if you like reading about crushed dreams and lost hope for humanity. Okay, it's not that bad, but man, what a day.
Cambodia - March
After that crazy day, we ended up at a hotel that was nice, but in a room too small for the four of us for a whole week. One night there, followed by a hotel search the next morning, bringing us to Family Guest House. And get this: they have this really nice rooftop patio, with a small restaurant serving up great food, including the best dragon fruit ever. Ever! Six nights at FGH, and four days exploring around Angkor.
|Angkor, maybe the coolest place in the world|
Two nights in Phnom Penh, and that's it for Cambodia. Long bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City that included a fan belt breakdown. Crossing the border between Cambodia and Vietnam was about as uneventful as I could have imagined - easy, drama-free, quick.
Vietnam - March
Our early afternoon arrival in HCMC gave us plenty of time to look for a hotel, but before we found something suitable, something suitable found us. A pushy older woman with a red arm band marched us down an unseen opening in the wall of shops on a main street, into a labyrinth of windy alleys and four-storey buildings with about as much girth as a postage stamp. Four days here before it's time for another beach break in Mui Ne. I don't even know how we found out about this place. We had bought some guide books in Cairo, so it was probably through my reading in one of those. Getting from place to place along the coast is made very easy, with a government-run bus that goes from HCMC all the way to Hanoi, with several stops in between. You can buy a ticket for the whole way, and just get on and off wherever you want. You just need to ensure there's available space the day you want to get moving again. At any rate, the bus dropped us off right in front of the Hong Di Guest House. The link shows the wrong location, but judging by the photos, that's the place. They had a perfect little bungalow that was less than a hundred feet from the beach, a covered spot looking at the water where you could eat, and guess what? A great little restaurant too. I am thinking that it might have been that we were constantly so active, that anything with a calorie or two in it would have been extraordinary to our taste buds. Five days here, could probably have spent ten just as easily. Great place, great beach.
|Early morning on the beach at Mui Ne|
Bus to Nha Trang, have some burgers at a restaurant by the sea, then transfer to a sleeper bus, complete with individual seating that folds down into partially-reclining beds. Three days in pretty Hoi An, and then another sleeper bus (this one with no suspension!) to Hanoi, with a quick pit stop in Hue long enough to visit the Forbidden Purple City. One night at the Old Street Hotel, then two nights on a Halong Bay tour. The owner of the Old Street was kind enough to let us in on a little scam run by some tour operators, and we managed to avoid an annoying couple days. Back to Hanoi, the Old Street is fully booked, but we find the Hanoi Guest House, situated in what I called a contemporary medieval village a little north of the Quan Chuong City Gate. Four more days of walking around Hanoi, eating its fine, fine food before this time flying to a new country, Laos.
|View from our balcony for round two of Hanoi|
Laos - April
Our flight to Vientiane became a certainty after hearing the many horror stories of the 24-hour bus from Hanoi. They were enough to get us into an air-conditioned office of Lao Airlines in Phnom Penh to book flights. Two nights in warm and pretty Vientiane, three nights in warm and pretty Vang Vieng, five days in warmer and prettier Luang Prabang. A two-day trip on the slow boat along the Mekong, with an overnight stop at a tiny, tiny guesthouse at the back of a tiny, tiny grocery store in Pak Beng run by the wife of the guy who pilots the slow boat. We arrived in Huay Xai on the Lao-Thai border too late to get across and catch a bus, so we overnighted in Huay Xai, finding a really good Indian restaurant. "Do you serve breakfast?" Yes. "See you in the morning!"
Thailand, Part II - April
Cross the river to Chiang Khong on a stick that some official generously considered a ferry. Stamp stamp into Thailand again, and walk straight to the small bus station, and off again. Chiang Mai was not terribly cooperative, weather wise. Forty-four degrees every day. 44. We limited our excursions to temples and 7-11s. One day in the extreme heat at the non-air conditioned SK hotel followed by three nights at the super duper air-conditioned Tri Gong Hotel. One of the very best places we stayed at the entire trip. $27/night. Everything about this place was well thought out and above expectations. Although, no restaurant. Not really a thing in Thailand, maybe. Not to worry, as good food options abound, as in the no longer there Mike's Burgers. Brilliant place. Long bus ride to Bangkok, and efforts to find a hotel prove aggravating, so it's back to the bus station to sleep it out. But what's this? Is that a bus leaving for Trat at 11:30 pm? Yes it is, says lovely bus lady. Overnight to Trat, arriving at three in the morning. Ugh. Jump in the back of a pick up truck with bench seats (a songthaew), over to the pier, and onto a ferry to the island of Koh Chang. Find a poster for a place that has bungalows on the water. A songthaew arrives at 11am, and off we go, along roads that mostly look like they can handle a vehicle half this size. Seven nights at the extraordinarily simple but perfect Treehouse Lodge (which closed at one point over the years, but seems to be back) on Long Beach, at the southern edge of the island. Two perfect little thatched-roof bungalows side by side, a few feet from the water, and a main lodge that had, you guessed it, a restaurant serving up perfect food. Three more days in Bangkok at the Erawan House a couple blocks from noisy Khao San Road, and just like that, it's April 30th. And sometime shortly after midnight, 275 days after we arrived in Rome, we board a flight headed for Incheon, South Korea, then to Chicago, five-hour layover, and then Winnipeg. Three days later, it snowed. Our first snow in over a year.
|One of our huts on Long Beach, Koh Chang|
And that was that. The Big Trip, 275 days on the road, and around the world.
I think at that point we thought we'd be back to travelling in a couple years or less. But with kids entering high school, and getting involved in sports, developing deeper friendships, it wasn't to be. And we let that dream slip to the background.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that it would bubble back to the surface, but it was almost nine years later, in spring of 2017 before we left Canada again. In the meantime, I'd been creating a lot of art based on the Big Trip, and had a Big Show in 2010. I put edited the blog from our trip and put together a book, three actually that were in full colour with hundreds and hundreds of photos and art.
I've spent much of my free time in lockdown planning, reading, thinking, about all the things we'd like to do when it's possible, and we look forward to getting back to that soon. Portugal, Croatia, more Spain, more Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Southern France. Eastern Europe. India maybe? It's been a while, and we are not the young pups we were back then. We'll see.
For now, I will be content with posting new things I find with regard to travel destinations on this blog, or on Facebook, adding new imagery to my website, or my Redbubble shop, and remembering and writing about some of the places we've been.
If you're interested about a particular place mentioned here and want more information, ask away. I love to talk about travel.
*The Research - I was going to add info about my research and planning for this trip, but this post got out of hand pretty quickly. I'll post about that soon, and link to it here.