Ayutthaya or Sukhothai? Which is the best?

Ayutthaya or Sukhothai? Which is the best?

Ayutthaya or Sukhothai: the ancient Siamese cities:  which one is the best?

This article was originally published in January 2016 has been updated with new information.  It also contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links

Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

If you don’t have time to visit both of the ancient Siamese cities of Sukhothai or Ayutthaya this article may help you to decide which one is the best or you could get a copy of the Lonely Planet Guidebook for Thailand (click here for the latest version).  Both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai lie to the north of Bangkok, each was once the capital city and both are brimming with ruins.

Sukhothai is older than Ayutthaya and was once the original capital city of Siam (the original name of Thailand).  The city was abandoned and the population were forcibly relocated south to Ayutthaya in 1583 after a battle, a Burmese invasion and an earthquake.  I visited them in reverse order as I made my way north up through Thailand.

 

Ayutthaya – A UNESCO Listed Cultural Heritage Site

 

The city of Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand for 417 years (after Sukhothai) and before the political power was transferred to Bangkok and it sprawls out, scattered with ancient ruins and temples.  The modern buildings in the town have been built right up to the edges of the rusty red bricks and the collapsed spires of the ancient city and an enormous central area is given over to grassy parkland that is peppered with relics.

Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 when the Thais were forced south from their previous capital in Sukhothai and it lasted as the capital until 1767 when the Burmese invaded and destroyed much of it. In the 17th century it ranked in the Top 16 cities in the world (how have I never heard of it before now?) and it was renowned as a centre of commercial prosperity, international trade and harmony; however what I find astounding is that 1 million people lived there at the height of its power.

It is now quite rightly listed as a UNESCO Listed Cultural Heritage Site and, I repeat, how on earth had I never heard of it before? The old part of the city is bordered by 3 rivers which almost form an island and the monuments and the ruins lie a deceptively large distance apart.  It’s a good idea to hire a bicycle or to tackle the sights over several days in a series of bite-sized chunks, but there’s plenty to see and to do here apart from the old temples.

Click here to compare the current grandeur of Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand to the ancient cities.

 

Ayutthaya or Sukhothai?

What did I see and do in Ayutthaya?

I hired a bike from my Ayutthaya hostel and my first port of call was to the very well laid out Ayutthaya Tourism Centre.  Here I collected a decent map and where I read the informative display boards that explained about the history, the geography, the art and the culture of the city.  I learnt about how and why Ayutthaya deserves its place as a UNESCO Listed Cultural Heritage Site and I also got information on some traditional homestays although sadly I didn’t have enough time to stay in any of them.

Wat Ratchaburana

This was one of the largest complexes inside the park and I felt like Indiana Jones as I climbed up into one of the towers – and then clambered down inside narrow stone steps to the bottom.  I held my breath as it fleetingly crossed my mind that if someone chose to close the hatch at the top I could be there forever until I had turned into nothing but dust – but seeing the ancient murals on a tiny patch of ceiling was worth the slight trauma, as was the special feeling of having the whole place to myself.

Wat Mahathat

Among the ruins of this particular temple is the much photographed head that was caught up in the roots of tree a long time ago and is now bound there forever.  I actually hunted around for ages until I gave in and I asked somebody who laughed and said ‘just find the crowd’.  And I turned a corner and there was a huddle of people all jostling for the best picture of it.  As a mark of respect you should try to avoid standing over a Buddha image so everybody was squatting to get their photos taken with the stone head.

Buddha head in Ayutthaya

Elephant rides

There is a well trampled route – sadly along the side of the main highway – where weary looking elephants ferry tourists along in the dusty heat.  I have to confess to once riding an elephant in India, although I would never do that now that I am aware of the damage that it can do to these huge animals. The training methods are usually based on cruelty and fear – but not withstanding that, it seems so wrong to walk animals along hard pavements with lorries and cars just inches from them and the pollution pumping out, not to mention the sharp hooks that get stuck into their heads by some of the mahoots.

You really shouldn’t buy into this depressing part of the tourist trade; but for now, until more tourists boycott them the elephants are a part of the Ayutthaya tourist scene.

Riding elephants in Ayutthaya

 River Trip

Talking to Annika and Robin from the UK who were staying at my Ayutthaya hostel I learned about the river trip and this was something that I was really pleased to do.  Early one evening a small group of us were ferried around the rivers and canal systems that circle the old city of Ayutthaya for a couple of hours.  This trip included short stops at three very impressive sights.

We visited

  • Wat Phananchoeng with the most massive golden Buddha ever
  • Wat Phuttaisawan with its weird cockerel statues and
  • Wat Chai Watthanaram where we wandered among the ruins as the setting sun showed off dark silhouettes of half broken spires and domes against the night sky
sunset view from the river at Ayutthaya

The Chao Sam Phraya National Museum

This museum had some interesting pieces in it with more Buddha images than you could shake a stick at – but the best bits were the gold and jewelled treasures in the special rooms upstairs.  There was an impressively huge bronze Buddha head and many intricate wooden carvings as well as loads of other stuff, although disappointingly there wasn’t much information in any language other than Thai.

The Toy Museum

Now this museum was just bizarre.  It had a huge collection of toys BUT some would be hard pressed to be called toys. They were grouped together in dusty clusters with, as far as I could see, no thought given to themes or historic relevance. There were cabinets full of plastic pieces such as you might get with a fast food burger meal, and just not one example of each, but hundreds.  There was a definite robot theme going on and some very battered dolls, as well as knives (toys?) pictures and, well, just strange stuff.  It was odd but for entertainment and giggle value alone it was well worth the admission price. You can still get something like these classic robots on Amazon – click here for some examples if you want to bring back some distant childhood memories!

robots in the toy museum at Ayutthaya

The Japanese Village

Ayutthaya was a thriving port and back in the days when it was the capital city the people of Ayutthaya welcomed traders of all nationalities – although they were not permitted to settle inside the old town walls.  Several villages were established outside the city perimeter – among them the Japanese, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch and the French.  I visited the Japanese Village which had a small information centre and a riverside garden but to be honest, not much else, although I was told that the garden is still trying to recover following devastating floods a couple of years ago.

Orientation:

Ayutthaya lies to the north of Bangkok and it was once one of the world’s most prosperous cities.  It ranked in the Top 16 Cities of the World in the 17th century when it contained 3 palaces and many other royal buildings and important temples.

I travelled the five hours to Ayutthaya by bus from the western city of Kanchanaburi (read that article here): home to the famous bridge (over the River Kwai), the Erewan waterfalls and Hellfire Pass. Ayutthaya was the only city in Thailand where I was warned not to go out alone after dark – not because of robbers but because of the packs of feral dogs.  Lying comatose during the heat of the day, these sleepy looking mongrels wake up and prowl the streets at night.  Like something out of a futuristic movie they follow you, circle around you and generally freak you out.  They have been known to attack people when the streets are deserted, and later lying in bed you hear the packs howl and call to each other like wolves. These dogs are no reason not to go to Ayutthaya though – all in all, it is a great city full of history and it gives you more than a glimpse into a past life.

Sukhothai

I took the five hour bus from Ayutthaya to Sukhothai  and I spent a couple of nights here so that I could visit the city and compare it to Ayutthaya. I stayed on the outskirts of the modern town in a tiny cell-like room in a little guesthouse which had nothing much going for it apart from having a real wood fired Italian pizza oven in the garden, where the Russian owner made excellent pizzas and his Thai wife made superb pasta dishes and coconut ice cream.

Sukhothai is older than Ayutthaya and unlike Ayutthaya which has the old and the modern side by side, in Sukhothai the older ruins stand totally separate and are a 20 minute songthaew ride (open sided truck with bench seats in the back) along the highway. It was perfectly safe to do this trio by myself and once at the gates to the heritage area I picked up my map, hired a bicycle and I paid my entrance fee into the main site.

Sukhothai vs Ayutthaya - how can you choose?

There are 5 mains sites in the historical park – the central site, and areas ringing it to the north, south, east and the west where each commands its own entrance fee.  The major ruins are clustered in the centre and were once palaces, temples, and administration centres when Sukhothai was at the hub of the country. The ruins bear a similarity but are different to those in the southern capital at Ayutthaya; these are from an older era, but it is the location which sets them apart. Huge grassy fields are dotted with copses of trees around lakes and streams.

You can see any number of stone elephants, gigantic Buddhas and chedis and stupas. The pace is unhurried as people cycle around the paths and wander among the ruins, scooters buzz around and the minivans ferry coach loads of day trippers, but there is space for everyone and as the temperature climbed and the insects zizzed and fizzed, more and more people chose to flop under one of the shady trees and rest awhile.

elephants at Sukhothai?

I visited three of the five sites at Sukhothai – the central, the north and the west and by then I was done – I was all ruined out.  I collapsed under a parasol drinking an icy cold drink and watching an artist paint a Buddha onto canvas.  I bought one of her pictures as a memento of the region and the ruins before wearily heading back to my hostel.  It was extremely hot and dusty in Sukhothai and while there is plenty to keep you busy for a whole day or even longer in the historic area, I was done.

Ayutthaya or Sukhothai? Both are amazing

Cycling Sukhotha

On my second day in Sukhothai I joined a bicycle tour of the surrounding countryside, where the air was slightly fresher and I learnt about rural life in central Thailand. Our tour, operated by Cycling Sukhothai link here which promotes eco-tourism was led by Mem who led took 8 of us first to a local market and then to:

  • A mushroom farm
  • A (rice) whisky farm
  • A cock breeding/fighting home
  • A fish smoking factory
  • An ice cream maker
  • A frog farm
  • A furniture factory
  • A basket weaver
cycling around Sukhothai

We cycled from one rural enterprise to the next along dusty lanes and by canals and paddy fields where people were planting out the bright emerald green shoots.  They were ankle deep in water and wore conical straw hats and indigo shirts and oxen and buffalo pulled their ploughs.  We tasted the ice cream and the whisky and we watched a proud owner bathing and massaging his champion fighting cockerel.

We passed mums swinging their babies in cribs made from reeds that hung from the roofs of their porches and when I got into my tuktuk to go back to my hostel, the driver suddenly jumped off and ran into the bushes and then came back with a big honeycomb with some very angry bees buzzing around it.  I nervously shared the tuktuk with his oozing gold treasure complete with the still angry insects before collecting my rucksack from my hostel and hot-footing it to the bus station for Chiang Mai and the north.

 

Sukhothai bicycle tour

Ayutthaya vs Sukhothai

If you have time, I would certainly recommned that you factor in both cities on your trips especially if you are interested in history; although after a while you may suffer a little bit from ruin overload.

  • Ayutthaya has a much livelier feeling and there is a lot more to see and to do apart from visiting the historical parks but wandering around the ancient Sukhothai city gives you a chance to recharge your batteries.
  • Bus Ayutthaya to Sukhothai and enjoy the scenic countryside on the five hour journey
  • The climate is similar in both cities and both have more than their fair share of temples and glittery gold.
  • Ayutthaya has backpackers hostels and accommodation in dormitories (which I personally prefer) but when I visited Sukhothai only had guest houses (more expensive for the solo traveller and less opportunity to meet people)

Click below for the up to date prices and choices for the Ayutthaya hostels:

And finally – don’t forget to take out travel insurance.  I use Alpha Travel Insurance which works for me.  Check out their latest prices here

visiting the Buddha's head in Ayutthaya
Enjoying Ayutthaya with new friends
The Catalan referendum: an opinion piece by Scarlet Jones

The Catalan referendum: an opinion piece by Scarlet Jones

These are my personal views on events during the recent Catalan referendum – written whilst waiting to check in for my flight at Barcelona airport.  Travel isn’t all sandy beaches and cocktails.  It can be gritty realism and immersion in the lives of real people.  I always do my best to understand the history and to understand about the different cultures and customs of the places that I visit and this summer has been no different as I researched and investigated the history of the Spanish Civil War.  As a result, the recent events that I found myself in the middle of, held even more emotion for me.

(This post may contain affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links.  Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com)

I cried when I left friends behind in Colombia and I bawled my eyes out as my plane took off from Rio after travelling for a year in South America.  On a travel day, I usually sit quietly at bus stations or at airports reflecting on why I feel driven to leave the people that I care for and whom I know that I will deeply miss.

As a travel writer and a blogger I’m very excited to be travelling again, but moving on from a place where I have begun to put down some roots will always be tinged with sadness.

This time the leaving is different.  I feel as if I’m abandoning my friends. I’m leaving behind a country that’s very uncertain of her future.  I have been here in Spain for more than twelve months (with many side trips around Europe) learning about Spanish history and I’m proud to say that I am becoming quite proficient in one of her languages.  I’ve travelled through some difficult regions in the world but this is the first time when I have been a part of a disturbing situation unfurling live and as it happens.

Hopefully things will settle down and quickly, common sense and dialogue will prevail and no side will lose face.  But we must all be aware of how seemingly overnight a small disagreement can erupt into a full blown argument followed by hatred and divisions, and even as I write this, the news reports are changing minute by minute.

Without any Latin blood in my veins I can only try to imagine how deep the feelings of mistrust, past wrongs and a sense of national pride can run.  It seems whilst all around the world many people want the benefits of a globalised planet, many individuals are turning back to their ancestral roots, embracing languages, customs and cultures and wanting to highlight their self-identity within smaller communities.

My grandmother was punished

My grandmother was banned from speaking Welsh in her school and she was beaten when she was overheard speaking anything other than English.  Catalans, under Franco suffered an even worst fate if they were heard speaking their language in public.  I understand the need to claim an identity – I am Welsh, British and European but never English – despite having long forgotten the Welsh language that I learnt in school and that my grandmother spoke to me.  I also know that to force a people to abandon their own culture and to adopt another is done in an attempt to subdue and to degrade them.  It usually only harbours resentment and it can become a ticking time bomb.

The Welsh flag

the awesome Welsh flag

Over the years there have been calls for Welsh independence but for now those voices are in the minority.  Wales is not a wealthy region of the United Kingdom and it receives a lot of European money (I still cannot for the life of me understand why, apart from in Cardiff, the majority voted for Brexit), and the region is better as part of the larger unit.  The people from Cardiff which is the capital city of Wales are among the friendliest and most accepting of other cultures that I have met all around the world.

I understand some of the Catalan people’s call for independence from Spain and I understand the reluctance of the Spanish government to let them vote for change.  But I will never understand how, in a democracy, a government can instruct its police force or army to turn on peaceful protesters with violence.  I was there on Sunday 1st October.  I witnessed first hand the feelings of horror, shame and disbelief that shook the region.

The (illegal) Catalan referendum.

On 1st October many of the Catalan people wanted the right to cast their vote for independence.  This election may have been illegal in the eyes of the law but the people were putting a cross on a piece of paper.  They were not marching in the streets or planting bombs.  They were not screaming offensive racial obscenities, burning down banks or looting shopping malls.  They were simply entering schools and village halls to put a cross on a piece of paper.

Under Spanish constitution the vote and therefore the result of it was illegal.  In the run up to the election, because it was illegal, no proper debates took place. Many people may not have had access to all of the facts BUT at the end of the day, they were queuing up to put a cross on a piece of paper.

And the Spanish government sent in the ‘storm troopers’. Dressed in black they first threatened and then they began beating people indiscriminately.  The elderly and women did not escape.  If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time you could be beaten with truncheons or shot at with rubber bullets. It might be a slower way to break up a crowd but hey, two strong soldiers could physically lift a woman out of a building without resorting to kicking her or pulling her down a flight of stairs by her hair.

History must not be repeated

I have friends on both sides of the ‘border’. I have friends in Madrid and friends in the Basque Country.  I have Catalan friends and Spanish friends who live in Catalunya.  People are worried and they have a deep mistrust of the mainstream media which many believe are manipulated by the government.  They are starting to remember the past.  Modern day propaganda in the run up to Sunday showed images of tanks on the streets in Tarragona.  People became angry until they realised that the photographs had been digitally altered.  Whilst facts are circulated immediately, false images are just as quickly made and fake news is pumped out. It is hard to guage the level of public feeling unless you get down at street level and speak to the people.

Catalan referendum and the flag of Catalunya

Catalan referendum and the flag of Catalunya

On 1st October I was chatting to an eighty eight year old lady from the Catalan village where I have been living.  She had struggled along the road on her walking sticks to go and cast her vote.  I don’t know which side she voted for but she told me how worried she was for her son and grandchildren who were sitting outside the fire station which was hosting the ballot and who were all nervously wondering whether the riot police would descend on them and when.

My friend described to me how she was sadly re-living the day when as a nine year old she, her mother and other female members of her family walked to Barcelona – a distance of more than two hundred kilometres. Her father had gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War and she was just one of a steady stream of refugees fleeing the battle zone.  She was afraid that things were once again beginning to unravel.

Voting day in the Catalan referendum

On 1st October, myself and my friends felt drawn to the village centre to stand with good friends – both Spanish and Catalan – watching and waiting for the possible arrival of the troops. And standing with people who were not violent or aggressive but who simply wanted the right to express an opinion.  Others, higher up on the political spectrum may have had a bigger agenda but in a village of less than eight hundred inhabitants almost half turned out to mark their piece of paper one way or another.

Whilst both sides were spreading their propaganda on the day, most people were getting their news as it happened via social media.  As the ‘storm troopers’ got ever closer to our village and the network of informers telephoned and advised us that the Guardia Civil weren’t too far away it was decided to close the ballot box and hide it.

Like a scene from a film people crossed the road and took their places outside a bar opposite the fire station.  Drinks were ordered, the bar staff brought out plates of crisps and children played under the trees.  Everything looked normal but there was an undercurrent and a nervous tension.  The children ran around blissfully unaware but the adults nervously eyed the street from where the Civil Guard could come.  The music from the bar was turned up changing from pop music to Catalan songs and the Catalan news channel transmitted scenes of the violence in other towns and cities on the television screen.

It was not thrilling or exciting to be in the middle of this scene.  It made me sick to my stomach that this was happening. My friends and I were not there to be voyeuristic but to watch and to bear witness to whatever might happen.  Thankfully our small village avoided the wrath of the soldiers.  But half of the villagers didn’t turn out to cast their vote. Whether they were afraid to vote, had no interest in the vote or were ‘no’ voters who boycotted it because it was illegal we shall never know.  But because of that, the vote cannot count nor should it be claimed to be representative of the majority.

Coming together in solidarity

On Tuesday, two days after Sunday 1st October most of Catalunya ground to a halt.  As I understand it, this was not a general strike or action against Madrid, but a day of reflection, a day of solidarity, a day to come together in protest and to acknowledge the heavy-handed violence that had been a feature of the previous Sunday and to try to show the rest of the world that the Catalans wanted to bring about change without aggression.

People swarmed onto the streets; many carrying red carnations (this flower was also the symbol of the Portuguese freedom movement) and waving the Catalan flag.  People stood, shoulder to shoulder with hands in the air and the bars that had opened attracted people who simply wanted to come together.  Many of the national chains of supermarkets and shops were deserted as people boycotted them in a stance of togetherness.

And now three days on we are playing an uneasy waiting game. Whilst the European Union may not be able to order Spain to allow its regions to vote on the independence issue it could (and should, in my opinion) speak out against a nation that unleashes its Civil Guard on innocent and unarmed people in such a vicious way.

I’m struggling to make sense of this situation and Paul Mason does this much better than me in this article for The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/02/catalans-independence-revolt-spain-independence-flags

I can’t cover the entire political history in this short article.  I can’t comment on whether the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ camps have the answer; but I feel strongly that I should speak out and condemn the violence.  There is a saying: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  I remained neutral and I didn’t speak out against situations in my past but I now mentor many survivors of domestic abuse and I tell them to stand tall and to speak out.

I stand up against the violence in Catalunya on 1st October.

My wish as I fly out from Barcelona airport is that the politicians talk constructively and quickly for the sake of this wonderful country and its amazing people.  I am not qualified to voice an opinion on whether there should be an independent Catalunya; after all I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that the majority in my country voted for Brexit, but I am qualified to condemn the violence that was meted out to people who were standing or sitting with their hands in the air and posing no threat to riot police armed with shields and guns.

I hope that common sense and calm prevail.  I hope that neither side are too stubborn to negotiate.  I hope that the Catalan people manage to retain their dignity and their control and do not retaliate and resort to violence.  I hope that when I do return to my friends and the country that I have grown to love, you are all unchanged by these events.

For now, adios Spain, adeu Catalunya and good luck to all of my friends that I leave behind.

Paz a todos, pau per a tothom.

Additional resources

For an excellent insight into the history of Spain, its regions and its people, the author and reporter Giles Tremlett has many of the explanations in his book Ghosts of Spain – Click here to order it from Amazon

In this piece from The Guardian newspaper Giles Tremlett adds his own opinion and further down in the article you can see how far things deteriorated with the Civil Guard beating the Catalan firefighters. https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2017/oct/01/catalan-independence-referendum-spain-catalonia-vote-live

Below are some more of the most haunting images and video clips from the Catalan referendum that had an entire region stunned on Sunday 1st October, together with the Catalan anthem – both the original and the modern rock version (the Catalans LOVE their rock music)

http://metro.co.uk/2017/10/01/firefighters-defend-voters-from-riot-police-in-catalonia-referendum-6968962/

And in this next link – attacking peaceful protestors – sickening!

https://www.facebook.com/victor.font/videos/10155123348683667/

 

 

5 reasons NOT to visit Finland in winter

5 reasons NOT to visit Finland in winter

Should you visit Finland in winter?  

Won’t it will be cold and dark and expensive!

Finland in winter: Tampere in the snow

I began to wonder why I had decided to visit Finland in winter as my plane landed at Tampere and all that I could see through the swirling snowflakes was a flat, grey and white landscape. I negotiated the stairs of the plane with warnings to hold on tightly to the handrail due to the thick coating of  ice on the steps and I walked out into the biting cold.

I spent six days in and around Tampere I am very happy to be able to contradict all of the warnings that I was given before I set off

It’s always cold in Finland!

 

Of course it’s cold in Finland in winter, but people dress accordingly and buildings are well insulated and toasty-warm inside.  Go out for an evening in any city in Britain in the winter and you will always see people dashing between bars and clubs dressed in short sleeved tee-shirts, girls teetering around on spikey heels and nobody wears a jacket or a coat.  In Finand there’s a no-nonsense approach to the cold.  Layers, layers, hats, scarves and gloves and more layers are not only the sensible choice but the only choice if you want to avoid hypothermia or frostbite.

Shops and buildings are well heated and often have a double-door porch entry system and they have polar strength double or triple glazing.  Duvets are super-light but super-warm and showers are piping hot.

But the cold here is different to the cold in the UK and many other parts of the world.  It’s not loaded with damp which creeps into your bones and your chest.  It’s sharp and crisp and freezing but invigorating and it makes your senses come alive.  The snow prettys everything up like a layer of fresh white paint and it also dampens noise.  My hostel thoughtfully had a large box of coats and wraps just inside the front door so if you ever needed to dash outside for anything you could throw on an extra layer.

So don’t let the cold put you off.  Wear sensible boots or shoes, take plenty of layers and get outside.  Walk in the forests among the pines where the snowflakes float gently down and birds are eating the jewel-red berries.  Catch glimpses of the frozen lake between the trees, and then find a steamy, warm cafe and cup your hands around a hot mug of coffee and treat yourself to a tasty cake.

 

It’s always dark in Finland!

 

Of course, the further north that you go in the winter the hours of darkness are longer, but in Tampere in January we had daylight for at least six hours a day.  Yes, often the daylight was a soft dove-grey as the falling snow curled over everything and it felt like peering through fogged up glasses but snow also reflects, so once it was dark, everything had a cool glow aobut it.

Street lights illuminate the paths and the shadows retreat deeper down alleys due to the whiteness of snow layering everything.  Buildings are brightly lit and peeping through the windows you can see rooms cosy and clad with pine and warm with crackling  log fires or they are funky and bright in a Scandanavian Ikea type of a way.

After settling in at my hostel I checked out the map and needing to go out and find something to eat, as is my usual practice I asked at reception if there were any places that I should avoid walking on my own after dark.  With a raised eyebrow the receptionist replied ‘It is often dark in Finland’.  As self-preservation is high on my list while travelling solo I then asked if there were any districts or areas of the city which I should be wary of wandering into.  With a complete look of incomprehension the reply was ‘Of course not!  This is Finland!’ 

 

The Finnish language makes no sense to anybody: unless they are Finnish!

Yep!  I can’t argue with this one BUT despite always apologising for their bad English, the majority of Finns that I met spoke impecable English.  And Swedish.  And sometimes Russian or another language or three.  In my six days there I managed to learn two words – kiitos which is thank you and hei which is hello. And I have subsequently learnt that the Finns do not use all of the letters which are available to them in their alphabet.

If a sound is duplicated then they have dropped one of the letters and adopt the other – for example, in English the letter C sometimes makes the same sound as an S and sometimes makes the same sound as a K – the Finns don’t faff about with complications – they have all but dropped the C from their language. So at least if you are learning Finnish the alphabet is shorter.

 

Everything is expensive in Finland!

 

Costs are comparable to those in the UK – with winners and losers across the board.  Granted I stayed in a hostel BUT the prices and the quality of accomodation were excellent. Check the lastest hostel prices at this link. There was also a hotel element to the hostel that I stayed in (The Dream Hostel) so you didn’t have to do the whole dorm experience and I managed to get a return flight to Tampere for £49 with a budget airline!!!!  That’s an insane price and there was also a realistically priced bus transfer from the airport to the city too.

Coffees, beers and food are similar prices to the UK (as I only had carry-on baggage I didn’t even glance at clothing or gifts) but I was pleasantly surprised as I had expected much much worse.

So get yourself a cheap flight to Finland and for budget priced but NOT budget style accommodation book in at the Dream Hostel, Tampere (a more detailed post on my time here will follow another time), grab yourself some Euros and go visit.

You can read more about staying in a hostel at this link to another of my articles here: Hostel tips and how not to behave in a hostel

If you still don’t fancy staying in a hostel (but please do check out the Dream Hostel first) then you can get the up to date prices for hotels at this link to Agoda

The Finns are a cold, silent people!

 

True – you will walk around the streets and people will not be smiley and enthusiastically greeting you, but whenever I stopped and looked a bit lost or I struggled over my map, somebody would usually check and ask if I needed any help.

I visited a church which was disappointingly closed, but Sari, the lady who was sweeping the snow off the path outside it, offered to open it up for me and show me around.

I visited a museum and I was helpfully told that if I were to return after 3pm there would be free entry because it was Friday and later at the museum I learnt about the history of Finland and I also learnt that, while you cannot stereotype a nation, the Finns are a people of few words and are generally shy.  This was written up on the walls under some of the exhibits and while it may be true, the people that I spoke to were warm, friendly, interesting and helpful.

I mostly navigated my way around the city of Tampere with the help of  a free, self-guided walking tour on a map which I obtained from the tourist information office but once inside cafes and coffee shops  and once everyone had shed some of their layers of clothing, I invariably got a smile and warmth from people.

So, if you have a few days free and you can find yourself a convenient flight, do visit Tampere in Finland in winter.

 

Other ideas for Finland

 

I really want to return in the summer and see the stunning landscape without its cloak of snow and ice.  Finland in winter was spectacular with a monochrome beauty but it must be drop-dead gorgeous with its many lakes and islands, andwith trees and flowers and colour in the summer.

If you don’t want the challenge of travelling solo, Explore do some fabulous sounding tours to Finland too.  You can even go on a brown bear watching weekend!… Check out their latest tours here

And for the latest in flight offers I always use Skyscanner.  Try searching with their monthly option for the best deals:


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Finland in winter: a winter wonderland
Finland in winter. Frozen lakes and fjords
Things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam

Things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An.  I had heard mixed reviews about this city in Vietnam.  It seemed that everybody loved it but many people didn’t like its Disneyfied atmosphere: so I went to find out for myself what the truth was about Hoi An and what there was to do there.

This is what I discovered:

Love is in the air.  Everywhere!

Hoi An Love is in the air

Love is in the air

Hoi An is a totally photogenic town and it has marketed itself well.  It attracts hordes of newly-weds on their honeymoon and couples who want to pose for their wedding albums. Dodging the tripods and the professional photographers can prove quite difficult.  Shop keepers are more than happy for lovers to pose in exchange for a small fee in front of their colourful lanterns and in some places it can be difficult to walk along the canal bank without wandering into somebody’s photo shoot.

Hoi An reflections in the canal at night

Hoi An reflections in the canal

 

Must know:

  • In Hoi An the tourism is orchestrated and managed at a highly professional level.
  • There will be a zillion people crowding onto the bridges for the best photo shot.
  • They will use elbows to move in front of you!
  • The food and drink prices are inflated
  • And yes, the touts will hassle you on every corner….

…..but after the brashness of Hue and Danang I have to admit that I did like Hoi An.

Things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam

My friend Gosia and I arrived on the local bus from Danang without accommodation and we wandered around the streets to find the best hostel for our money.  As it was the shoulder season there was plenty of choices and we could bargain for a discount.  We soon found a reasonably priced hostel and Gosia and I quickly dumped our bags and went out to explore and find out what we could do in Hoi An.

If you want to check your accommodation in advance, you can search for hostels here with Hostelz.com or you can look for hotels and other accommodation with Agoda.com.  I use both sites when I am travelling – even if I don’t book in advance.

Hoi An - a pretty UNESCO listed town

Hoi An – a pretty UNESCO listed town

Hoi An old town

The heart of Hoi An as far as visitors will be concerned is the compact old town area which is focused around the canal.

Hoi An gained special importance in the 15th century when it grew and thrived as one of the major South East Asia trading ports.  You will find a mixture of authentic housing styles and luckily the authorities have recognised the attraction of these.  Unlike in much of Vietnam where the old is getting ripped out at speed, here in Hoi An it is being repaired and repainted.

Hoi An canal

Hoi An canal

The brightly painted houses are festooned with flowers and in the evening the trademark silk lanterns light the streets with warm colourful glows and attract hordes of people like bees around a honeypot.

Ancient temples offer tantalising glimpses into a mysterious past and you can jostle for a picture on the old wooden Japanese covered bridge (for a price).  You can browse among the hundreds of tiny shops which sell artisan products and where you will find a whole host of things made out of silk and made-in-a-day clothes or you can relax and sip mojitos on a roof terrace overlooking the canal.

One of the best things that Hoi An has done has been to ban motor vehicles from the old town for much of the daytime and for all of the evening.  Whilst the streets are packed with visiors at least you don’t have the eye-watering pollution and traffic fumes that plague the other towns in Vietnam and while the noise levels are intense, they are at least not the exhaust drones of cars and lorries.

Get your Lonely Planet guide here and discover where you can avoid the crowds and the pollution in Vietnam

One of the downsides is that you have to purchase a book of tourist tickets in order to gain access to the Japanese Bridge and to many of the temples and places of interest.  I only had time to visit one or two of the attractions but it wasn’t possible to pay at the individual sites.  Why not offer the book at a discounted rate?  I would willingly have paid slightly over the odds to see the one or two choice places that appealed ot me.

Hoi An Temple

Hoi An Temple

 

Beware of this trick

The touts do a pretty good job of leading you to think that you need to purchase a ticket to simply enter the old town area. This is NOT true.  The book of tickets will give you access to many of the temples and the Japanese Covered Bridge but ANYBODY is free to wander around the old town area without a ticket.  We saw a lot of tourists hesitantly parting with their cash, believing that they had to do this so that they could enter the narrow streets.

Hoi An Japanese covered bridge

The Japanese covered bridge in Hoi An

The old town of Hoi An is a gem and whilst outside of the UNESCO listed district is a new town; it’s still worth a wander around.  Here life goes on as normal away from the tourists.  Coffee shops and markets are filled with the local Vietnamese residents. Small family run businesses trade as they have done for years and you can find the best Banh Mi stalls in Vietnam.

A long straight road leads you away from the city to one of the beaches.  I hired a bicycle and I cycled along this road one morning whilst heavy lorries honked and swerved around me as I tinkled my bell and I in turn swerved around clusters of school children on their bikes and I avoided herds of cows that were being led through the traffic.

Ho An’s Beach

Once away from the town, the terrifying road thankfully quietened down and I pedalled alongside the vegetable garden area of this region.  Irrigated fields stretch for miles, where many of Vietnam’s green vegetables were growing and people worked in the fields shaded from the sun in their conical hats.  The road became dustier and sandier and eventually I reached the beach.

Hoi An Beach

Hoi An Beach

After the tourist bubble of Hoi An old town the beach was a welcome relief.  Yes, it was busy and yes, it was lined with beach bars, but the overwhelming noise level that had accompanied everything that I had done in Vietnam to date was toned right down.

I treated myself to a cocktail and I settled down on a sun-bed on the sand.  I watched the fishermen surfing the waves in their little bouncy round coracles and I relaxed.  It was lovely to escape the chaos that was all I knew of Vietnam to date.

I would soon discover the interior beauty of Vietnam away from the tourists, but for now, with my cocktail, my book and my thoughts I was very happy.

Things to do in Hoi An - visit the beach

Things to do in Hoi An; visit the beach

Night time in Hoi An

The old town is always busy but it REALLY comes alive at night.  The silk lanterns swing in the breeze, glowing with warm, colourful lights and the street food market sets up on the canal side.  The air is filled with the smell of barbequed food and stir fried noodles and you will be spoilt for choice with places to eat.

For me, the best place was down by the canal where among the tiny little plastic tables, you squat on a low stool and eat traditional dishes from the region while ladies run to and fro encouraging you to eat more.  Like everything else in Hoi An, this is street food manufactured and repackaged for the masses but it was fun, tasty and much cheaper than the restaurants.

Hoi An at night

Hoi An at night

When you are eating street food or in a smaller cafe in Vietnam it is often normal to simply toss your chewed bones, serviettes and rubbish under your table as you eat (obviously check what the local people are doing first!)

If you are lucky there will be a small bin or a bucket there for the bits, but more often than not the debris simply collects around your ankles until the evening winds down and the street traders sweep everything away.  To begin with, it felt quite naughty to throw my chicken bones onto the floor, but after a while, like everything else, it soon becomes the norm.

I met up with my friend and fellow blogger Donna Wanderlust from Haute Culture Fashion and together we hired one of the totally over-the-top tourist boats that silently glide around the canal at night.  Surrounded by young couples who were gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, Donna and myself roared with laughter as our lady pushed us around on the water in the dark with her long pole and she encouraged us to launch the little paper and candle boat that we had bought.  She told is that this would bring us good luck and enduring love (this concept is similar to the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand).

I also met Nam in Hoi An and a few days later I did finally escape from the cacophony of noise when I took a motorbike through the Central Highlands. Read about that trip here.

Hoi An lanterns

Donna Wanderlust poses with the laterns

Would I return to Hoi An?

Yes I would return.

I didn’t have time to go to the water puppet theatre (although I did catch a show in Saigon) and I didn’t have time to explore some of the Chinese and Buddhist temples and shrines in the town, but I would definitely return to Hoi An if I go back to Vietnam.

Hoi An - early morning

Hoi An – early morning

Whilst most things in the town are overpriced, you can buy ‘fresh’ beer for about 30 pence a pint, silk sleeping bag liners for $5 and you can drink mojitos as you watch the sunset from a roof terrace above the canal.

If you can’t get to Hoi An and you fancy one of the silk sleep sacks (great for travelling) you can get one at this link: Silk sleep sack

You WILL get pestered by touts (be firm but polite if you don’t want to buy), you could pay over the odds for bicycle hire, a hotel room, food and tours (bargain hard), but you will get the most beautiful photo opportunities and you will get a glimpse into another era (albeit freshly painted) from the past.

Read more

If you have enjoyed this article and you would like to know more about my adventures in South East Asia, click here for more articles.

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Things to do in Hoi An

Things to do in Hoi An

*Banh Mi – a French style baguette stuffed with a variety of things.  You can choose from belly pork, pate, grilled chicken, fish or meatballs, cucumber, cilantro, onions and then there are the salsas.  This very basic meal is food heaven.

This post contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links

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Things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam

Things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hmong New Year in Laos

Hmong New Year in Laos

 …..and is being awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site Award a blessing or a curse?

After two days on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos we arrived at the UNESCO listed city of Luang Prabang which sits, as do most major towns in Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River.  At this stage we were totally unaware that the Hmong New Year was just around the corner.

I explored Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside, both by myself and with new friends that I had met on the slow boat (you can read what Luang Prabang has to offer its visitors here), but even after a week in the city and getting to know my way around, there was something unsettling that I was unable to put my finger on.

Luang Prabang got its World Heritage Site Award thanks to the fusion of the varying architectural styles.

Traditional wooden Lao houses blend with modern buildings which in turn blend with the villas built by the Europeans who colonised and claimed Laos in the 19th and 20th centuries.

great things to do in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang.

The architecture makes Luang Prabang special although much of the original work is being hidden as the townspeople embrace tourism and cover up the traditional frontages with brash signs inviting you to try the fresh coconut drinks or the cheap beer.

When I was in town there was an additional attraction.  Luang Prabang was celebrating its 20th anniversary of the World Heritage award.

The traditional Laos name for Laos means the land of a million elephants and as a very special attraction a herd of twelve elephants was walked – some for more than six hundred kilometres – into Luang Prabang to take part in the parade.

Luang Prabang

Unesco World Heritage celebration

There was a massive celebration event planned.  Thousands of people turned out, all dressed in their traditional costumes and they paraded along the main street in.  They walked in groups, representing their communities, their villages or their employers.

Luang Prabang

UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrations

They carried flowers, they played instruments or danced and they looked beautiful.  But to be honest, not that many of them looked very comfortable in the spotlight.

The sides of the main street were packed and tourists were running over and shoving cameras in faces to get the perfect shot – never mind the fact that the Laos are generally very shy.  That they were in the parade seemed to mean that they were fair game to some of the audience.

I did take plenty of photographs but I didn’t push my lens into people’s faces and I always indicated that I was asking permission if somebody was looking straight at me.  If they refused to acknowledge me, I lowered my camera.  For this reason I travel with a small descreet camera which I can easily slip into my pocket if anybody indicates that they are not happy to have their photo taken.  I use the Panasonic Lumix which has a decent zoom – click here if you are interested in the specs and the latest prices.

Laos

This lady was happy to be photographed

To be granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site status does undoubtedly bring more visitors and therefore more money to a town, but at what cost?

The locals put on a wonderful procession but in my opinion, many of them were uncomfortable with the attention.  On the other side of the coin the tourists often just get a sanitised Disney-fied view of the world and don’t experience the real world. (Just wait until you read about Hoi An in Vietnam).

To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.

 

It was cold in Nong Khiaw.

Now let’s fast forward in my adventures in Laos via Nong Khiaw which was truly beautiful and pick up the story again after a ten hour minivan ride through tortuous mountains when we arrived in Xam Neua.

Hmong New Year

keeping warm in Laos

Xam Neua is in Laos’ most remote province and when we were there was freezing cold, wet, rainy and muddy and I began to fall sick after eating some very dodgy food.

Gosia and I had planned to head up into the remote north eastern region and visit the caves from where the Lao PDR party had conducted their operations but it was just too damn cold and the guesthouses were just too damn horrible.

The only saving grace was that we met the lovely Christian on the bus and hung around together for a few days.  Walking around in the rain and the mud the three of us stumbled across some ladies who were weaving on the porches of their falling down wooden homes and we met others at the bus station who were working on a large tapestry.  This is what I mean by getting an authentic view of a place – meeting and interacting with the ordinary workers, families and people going about their usual business

Hmong New Year

working together

Gosia and I decided that no matter how impressive the caves were we just were too cold to go and visit and I was too sick  so we jumped on another minivan and dropped southwards to Phonsovan.

Many tourists stop at Phonsovan and  use it as a base for visiting the Plain of Jars which was also on our hit list but I was too sick to consider venturing out on a day trip and Gosia was still too cold.

Our accommodation was nothing more than a wooden cabin (think garden shed) with a tiny bathroom attached and piles of fleecy blankets on the bed, although the family that owned the hostel were lovely.  We decided to keep moving south but we had to wait for the next epic minivan journey the following day.

The Hmong New Year

We had a day to kill and we had heard loud music so we decided to go and explore the town.  What a find!

Forget your UNESCO processions and your world heritage parades.We had struck gold and we had landed in Phonsovan at the Hmong New Year.

A large piece of land behind the bus station was hosting a country style fair such as you might imagine would have taken place in the UK many years ago or in the rural United States back in the 1930’s.

Hmong New Year

Hmong New Year

Tailors and seamstresses were busy in the market making new dresses and outfits.  The girls (and many of the men) were dressed up to the nines in traditional Hmong costumes – there were bright colours everywhere.

The Hmong people are, or used to be, identified by their elaborate clothing with the different designs and headwear which symbolised which village or even which family they belong to.  They do still wear the clothes but the dress code is not so rigid as it used to be, or in the towns at least.

Now in Phonsovan during the Hmong New Year celebratons many of the girls have the freedom to choose their own costumes and they team up with best friends to coordinate their look, splashing out on new clothes and tottering around the field aand the dirt roads in towering high heeled shoes.

Hmong New Year

Hmong New Year

On the fair ground itself, hawkers were running country fair type entertainment; there was nothing high-tech here.  There was a rickety looking ferris wheel which appeared to be constructed out of old bits of pipe and there were dodgem cars speeding around a circuit.  You could throw darts at balloons to win a large cuddly toy….. or you could find yourself a husband or a wife!

Courtship rituals of the Hmong people.

In the fields behind the fairground people were swarming around.  Women were standing chatting and eating fried chicken on sticks, small children were scampering around and men were parading and eyeing up all of the young ladies.

Most intriguing of all, many groups had arranged themselves in two parallel lines facing each other.  They were tossing small balls between them as they recited some sort of a chant or poem., many sheltering from the sun under brightly coloured parasols.

Hmong New Year

courtship rituals

I was over the moon.  We had stumbled upon a Hmong courtship ritual.  I had heard about this before I had come to Laos and here I was witnessing it for myself.  This display wasn’t being put on for tourists – this was day to day life during the Hmong New Year.

The done thing is for the participants to look suitably bored as they toss the ball underarm to the person standing opposite but this was one way that they would choose a marriage partner.

Just like many places in the world there were more hopeful women than men, but the men and teenagers who had joined in were looking like the cats that got the cream surrounded by all of the beautiful girls with their perfect complextions, intricate makeup and wonderful clothes.

Unlike imy time in Luang Prabang where I often felt uncomfortable looking at the people, their buildings and the places of interest, here we felt accepted.  Yes, we were stared at – we only met two other ‘farangs’ (foreigners) in town while we were there – but it was a different sort of staring.

There was no animosity just intrigue.  WE were the exhibition, the interesting sight.  We were on their turf during the Hmong New Year and we were constantly invited to take photos of people and their children or to pose with groups of teenagers for ‘selfies’.

I managed to hold my bout of sickness together long enough to enjoy our afternoon in the sun and watching all ages enjoy their Hmong New Year celebrations.

Gosia and I agreed that despite the cold and despite the fact that we hadn’t made it to either the caves or to the Plain of Jars and despite the fact that we had been crammed onto overcrowded minivans for long days of travel (did I mention that the Laos are unable to ride on buses without being travel sick?) we were both so pleased that we had made our long journey around the mountains of northern Laos and we were grateful to be able to join with the Hmong people as they celebrated their New Year.

Do you want to learn more about minority people and their traditional clothing?

Identify your  passions and make your life sparkle.

If costumes are your thing, or art or history I can show you how you can bring more of them into your life via the challenges on the Smash the Pumpkin Project.

The Smash the Pumpkin Project is an online course which guides you along a journey of self development.  You will be given a series of challenges but you are encouraged to weave whatever it is that interests you into your lifestyle whilst you complete the challenges.

You can now trial the Smash the Pumpkin Project for one month, during which time you will get five emails and a one-to-one session with Jane who is the mindset coach leading the online course.

Click here to find out about the project if it is new to you or to remind yourself about the course.  You can read about it here or click the button at the end of the article.  Sign up or, if you want more information drop me an email at info@scarletjonestravels.com .

Click here for the Smash the Pumpkin project

 

Smash the myths, live your dreams.

Pinterest Hmong clothes

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This post contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links

Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

This article was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated and republished with new content

 

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