Upcoming Travels and GiL on Instragram!

 

I’ll admit, this summer hasn’t gone quite as expected. What started out as a season full of promise and grand plans to enjoy and explore London ended up turning into week after week of struggling to fight off a lingering cold.

I’m one of those annoying people who never gets sick, but when I do, I make it count. It started off with a stuffy nose in late May and morphed into a terrible chest infection that I’m still feeling the effects of today.

However, now that the worst is behind me I can turn my attention to the future. My grand summer in London may be a disappointment, but I have high hopes for my upcoming travels.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Flicker User: Jacob Surland

Copenhagen has been near the top of my ‘Weekend Break’ list for quite some time, so I’m really excited about visiting in late July. I’m taking a Friday and Monday off so that I can enjoy the city for four whole days. There are a lot of sites on my to-do list, including Tivoli Gardens and Nyhavn. I booked the trip based on a great last minute deal on British Airways’ website, and splitting the cost with my other half always help keep the budget in check.

Venice, Italy

Flickr User: Tambako the Jaguar

It’s been five years since I last visited Italy, so I thought this summer was finally the time to go back. I’ll only be in Venice for three days and two nights, so I imagine it’s going to be one of those constantly-on-the-run sightseeing holidays. I’ll be staying at Generator Hostel Venice, who graciously offered me one night’s stay, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the city in person. It’s one of those places I’ve dreamed about visiting since I was a kid and I’m literally counting down the days until the trip!

Bergen, Norway

Flickr User: anieto2k

The August bank holiday is a perfect excuse to get away from London and I booked a trip to beautiful Bergen, Norway many, many, many months ago. It’s just a quick 3-day getaway, but I’ve packed it full of fjords, mountain biking, and scenic train rides.

To save cash I booked one-way tickets to Bergen using British Airways Avios points, and will be returning to London on Norwegian Air, a budget airline. Since I’ll only be there a few days the hotel costs are minimal (especially when split with a partner), and the biggest expense of the trip will be a 1-day tour of Berekvam and Flam with Norway Active.

Bangkok, Thailand

Flickr User: Nik Cyclist

If you’re a regular Girl in London reader you’ll know that I make frequent trips to Bangkok to visit my family. I was last there in April and will be returning again in September. I’m not so much a tourist in Bangkok these days as I am a resident, but I always keep an eye out for useful tips to share with you all when I’m over there. I’ve been taking Thai lessons for the past few weeks in an effort to learn the language and this will be the first trip where I think I’ll be able to speak significant amounts of Thai.

I pay for all my flights to London outright, since using Avios points on long-haul flights isn’t favourable. The good news is that my accommodation is free (thanks, dad!), and so are all my living expenses throughout my visit, including food and transportation. I also work part-time on writing projects on most trips, so what seems like an expensive indulgence actually turns out to not cost me much, if at all. I also rack up tons of Avois points as an added bonus.

Nice, France

Flickr User: Dale Harvey

Last year for my birthday the bf and I took a trip to balmy Iceland. I loved the trip so much that I seriously thought about going again to celebrate my big 2-7, but decided against it since I’d rather visit the Nordic nation in a different season.

Instead, I’ll be ushering in my late-twenties in a slightly more glamorous location – Nice, France. Since my birthday is in October, it aligns well with Nice’s ‘shoulder season’. Shorter days and slightly cooler climes in the South of France mean cheaper flights and hotels, and empty beaches.

This time around, our round-trip flights are coming courtesy of British Airways Avios points and only cost £30/person (score!). I’ve booked a snazzy suite in a 3* hotel as opposed to a standard room in a 4* hotel in an effort to get more value for money. So far the plan is to explore Nice, the beach (if weather permits), Monaco, and possibly Cannes.

Finally . . . Girl in London is now on Instragram!
Writing ‘Girl in London’ always makes me feel like I’m referring to myself in the third person, but I guess I’ll get used to it over time. I’ve finally created an Instragram account for ‘Girl in London’ called girlinlondon_rtw (girlinlondon was taken, as you might have guessed).

My goal with the Instragram account is to take you with me in my suitcase and provide snapshots of London as well as all the different places I travel to. Since I’ll be kicking off a long string of trips next week, I thought it was the perfect time to get the account up and running.

I promise to try to keep the selfies to the minimum.

Learning to Swim in the Andaman Sea

 

We all have our shortcomings. Some of us can’t dance. Other can’t drive a stick or ice skate. For me, it’s always been swimming (in addition to whistling and snapping . . . I just cannot get those two down!). You see, at the impressionable age of four I found myself happily drifting along in a community pool, comforted by the buoyancy of my kiddie inner tube. What should have been a magical summer childhood memory quickly turned to terror as my scrawny four-year-old self suddenly slipped through the safety of my inflatable tube straight down into the deep end of the pool.

In lieu of any sort of human instinct to flail and preserve my own life, I was motionless and remember watching bubbles rise to the surface as I headed in the opposite direction. It was right then and there, just four years into the campaign known as life, that I resigned and thought to myself, “I am going to die now”. Moments later I was rescued from being added to the pool drowning statistics for that year by my mother.

Despite desperate attempts on the part of my parents to get me back in the pool so I could properly learn how to swim and prevent the traumatic event from occurring again, I steadfastly refused to do anything beyond wading waist deep in calm water for over 5 years. At 10, peer pressure from summer pool parties had me clinging desperately to the sides of swimming pools as I watched my friends splash carelessly in the deep end. By my teens I had managed to work my way up to a sad sort of doggy paddle, which involved me waving my limbs about until I could achieve about the speed of a snail; and by my early 20s I managed to learn how to tread water for a few minutes.

Satun, Thailand

Taking this story into the present day, I was very generously gifted a 3-day trip to Satun, Thailand recently, which included a full multi-island tour complete with swimming, beach and snorkeling excursions. Not wanting to miss out on exploring a new part of Thailand, I accepted the offering with a bit of trepidation.

Satun is located on Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia and includes dozens of postcard perfect islands strewn across the Andaman Sea. With most foreign tourists heading to nearby Phuket or Krabi (they have better transport links), Satun is left with a handful of Thai tourists and countless white sand beaches with crystal clear, calm waters.

Following a flight into Hat Yai, a shuttle ride, and a speed boat adventure; I arrived on the beautiful island of Koh Lipe. My vacation package included a 2-night stay at a resort located right on Pattaya Beach (not to be confused with Pattaya city). Immediately upon checking in, I dumped my gear in my room and struck out for a spirited round of hardcore wading.

Koh Lipe

As I made my way past several rows of sunbeds and a sprinkling of French tourists, I entered the water timidly. Parts of Pattaya Beach are extremely shallow and during low tide it’s possible to wander over 100 ft from shore before the ground drops offs. The first thing that struck me as I took my first steps into the water was how warm it was. Looking down, I also noticed that the crystal clear waters below me were barely moving. Indeed, Pattaya Beach is so calm that you might mistake it for the most beautiful swimming pool in the world.

Clear waters in Satun, Thailand

Encouraged by the gentle waters, I headed out farther and farther from the shore until my feet began to tiptoe over the sand. This would normally be the point where I would turn around and head for more solid ground, but for some reason I didn’t. Perhaps it was the water’s tender embrace or the buoyancy provided by the sea. Whatever the reason was, I decided to go for it. With one mighty bound I splashed my way around a sloppy freestyle stroke until the sand beneath me turned to into a series hard coral reefs, and I found myself in the company of tropical fish.

Fish in shallow water

I had realized as quickly as I made the decision to swim out beyond my comfort zone that I had finally shed my inherent fear of water. Acting as if a giant weight had been taken off my shoulders, I swam furiously for the next several hours in jubilant triumph.

With my fears conquered, I was looking forward to the following day. The itinerary was packed with island-hopping and snorkeling, and I wasn’t going to miss out on any of it. After a dismal “American-style” breakfast at the hotel, I slathered myself in sunscreen and stepped onto an awaiting speedboat.

Tarutao Island

The next 10 hours flew by in a blur of underwater adventures. Our boat toured Tarutao National Park, which is comprised of 51 pristine islands scattered across the calm azure waters of the Andaman Sea. Stopping first at Tarutao Island for lunch, I was greeted by feral cats and pigs. Hiking through the island’s shaded interior, Tarutao lays claim to a magnificent golden sand beach. Almost completely deserted, I had this shallow warm water paradise. Koh Kai (Egg Island) was the next port of call and is best known for its natural rocky archway. Before visitors began frequenting this isolated destination it was also a haven for nesting sea turtles, which is why the locals named it Egg Island.

Koh Kai (Egg Island)

View from the boat

Each year, thousands of tourists flock to the Andaman Sea for its excellent diving and snorkeling spots. In the spring and summer, the water is calm enough to snorkel in the open sea. There are several known spots for less experienced swimmers and snorkelers known to all the boat drivers in the area. Most are marked by a line of buoys and all boats offer life jackets for both adults and children. After strapping on my gear, I lept into the sea and enthusiastically dunked my head under the waterline to reveal a thriving, colorful ecosystem comprised of hard corals, sea anemones and tropical fish.

Feral island kitten

The water was dense with clown fish, parrot fish and angelfish. Gazing down to the sea floor over 30 feet beneath me were clustered of hard coral and seaweed. The entire experience was a remarkable one and I could only imagine that it would be comparable to swimming in an enormous aquarium. Heated by the tropical sun, the salty water felt as warm as a bathtub and each spot the boat lead us too was filled with more and more sea life.

After a full day of exploring the Andaman I found myself practically cured of my irrational fear of water. Now that I am finally free of this burden, I am re-evaluating my travel bucket list to incorporate a whole new set of amazing island destinations.

The Ruins of Ayutthaya

 

As the only Southeast Asian nation to successfully withstand European colonization attempts, Thailand’s history as a unified kingdom stretches back into the Middle Ages. Today, Bangkok stands as the kingdom’s vibrant capital. 11,000,000+ inhabitants strong, the city is a powerhouse in this region of the world and attracts visitors from all corners of the globe. Visit Bangkok today and its size, density and centuries-old temples make it hard to believe that there was a ever a time when the country’s capital laid elsewhere.

150 years before Columbus set sail for India, Bangkok was merely a fishing village and Thailand’s King U-Thong made his way to the Valley of the Chao Praya River after fleeing an outbreak of smallpox. It was there that he founded the kingdom’s capital of Ayutthaya 80km north of modern-day Bangkok. Named after the birthplace of Rama in India, Ayutthaya rose to become one of the most powerful cities in Asia over the next 400 years.

Set amongst a lush valley with excellent waterway access, Ayutthaya flourished thanks in part to an open and friendly trade policy with the Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese. By the year 1600 there were an estimated 300,000 people living within its borders – 100,000 more than London at the time. Over the next 150 years the city thrived and its population ballooned to over 1,000,000 in the mid-1700s, asserting Ayutthaya as the strongest power within Southeast Asia. French ambassadors likened the city’s size and wealth to that of Paris and at the height of its influence it was poised to become a major contender in a rapidly globalizing world. Then, in 1767, after series of long battles with the Burmese, the walls of the city were breached and Ayutthaya was burned to the ground. With the city destroyed and the king murdered, Ayutthaya was abandoned and construction of a new capital to the south began.

Today, only a trace of once was remains, but the ruins of Ayutthaya still evoke a sense of grandeur and elegance. Distinctive prangs knocked out of alignment from fierce battles and centuries of rainfall jut out organically from the grassy lawns of the Ayutthaya Historical Park. With their protective sheaths eroded, their original brickwork is exposed, allowing you to peer into the very heart of each structure. Sculptures of Buddha dot the landscape and are carefully tended to by locals as many Thai nationals still come to Ayutthaya to pray.

On the ground you can feel the crunch of broken bricks beneath your feet, perhaps shattered in the bloody war that took place here 250 years ago. In the air dragonflies buzz in dense clusters and effortlessly navigate their way around ancient temple spires partially painted with the green of clinging plants. In the distance are several mighty Asian elephants. Though they’re carrying tourists, these magnificent beasts still add to the mystique of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ayutthaya may no longer be compared to Paris, but I would argue that its ruins are as fascinating as those of the Roman Empire. Left mostly unpreserved, the physical condition of the ancient city has become a spectacle in its own right. Partially reclaimed by nature, the ancient temples feel more organic than man made and are reminiscent of Incan or Mayan ruins.

Easily accessible from Bangkok via a cruise along the Chao Praya River or car, the ruins of Ayutthaya can be easily explored in a day with plenty of time leftover for elephant rides and viewing the city’s old Portuguese settlement. For those staying in Bangkok, this is a day trip that cannot be missed.