whale watching in Mirissa

Why we regret whale watching in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Our first mistake was yielding to the hype. Sri Lanka is said to be the world’s only country in which you can see the largest land mammal (the elephant) and the largest water mammal (the blue whale), so we made whale watching in Mirissa a priority.

Our second mistake was using a local recommendation instead of our Sri Lanka guidebook – and thus we found ourselves at Mirissa harbour at 7am being herded onto a two-storey boat with 80 other people.

We placed our shoes in the communal storage box and gingerly headed upstairs. We found two empty seats at the back and pulled on our life jackets, watching in dismay as more and more people filed onto the boat with giant lenses and selfie sticks in tow. Continue reading

how to hike to ella rock

Ella Rock: how to hike it yourself

A guide to hiking Ella Rock including detailed directions, a route map and a list of essential tips.

Ella in Sri Lanka is beautiful, they said. ‘The closest thing to an English country village’ and the perfect place to slow down, we’d read.

I dolefully thought of this when darting across the thundering traffic to dodge yet another taxi driver insisting on taking me somewhere I didn’t want to go. The main street, stacked with milkshake huts and charm-free cafes, is a loud and roiling stretch of conveniences set up for the tourist alone.

Only in leaving the village and literally heading for the hills will you see the Ella of the guidebooks: grand and expansive vistas that plummet and soar as far as the eye can fly. Nowhere are they more impressive than at the summit of Ella Rock, a dramatic peak approximately 5km from town. Hiking Ella Rock is fun, confusing, taxing, rewarding. Here’s how to hike it without the help of a guide. Continue reading

Elephant safari at Udawalawe National Park

I wasn’t enamoured with the prospect of camping at Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka. I’d had a particularly challenging run-in with a cockroach (a flying cockroach) at a hotel down the road and wasn’t quite ready for more.

As usual, Peter employed all his rugged country charm to convince me that ‘it’s safer in a tent’ because ‘there’s an airlock so nothing can get in’. So, despite the fact that I was done with camping, I agreed to do it once more at Udawalawe National Park. Continue reading

leopard at yala national park

Spotting leopards at Yala National Park: 10 practical tips

We’ve been generally lucky in terms of travel ephemera. In the Norwegian Arctic, we saw incredible displays of the northern lights. In Tonga, we swam with whales on the very last day of the season and in the Galápagos, we snorkelled with penguins. Despite this, I kept my expectations low for our leopard safari at Yala National Park.

It was raining heavily and our guide, a Sri Lankan Scotsman named Damian, warned us that leopards tend to retreat to caves when it’s wet. In addition, fellow tourists had been out on two safaris the day before with no luck in sight.

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The world is not getting better

Life for humans may be improving but what about everything else that shares our planet?

In trying times, social media users tend to share think pieces, charts and graphics proving that humanity has never had it so good.

These graphics focus on the growth of lovely things like basic education, literacy, democracy and vaccination, and the decline of awful things like extreme poverty and child mortality.

The charts are often accompanied by pithy captions like “awesome proof that humanity hasn’t actually botched it.” Continue reading

Is it time for tourism caps?

As world population grows, so too will mass tourism. Will capping visitor numbers help or hinder? We take a look below.

In June this year, approximately 30,000 Icelanders flocked to France to support their team in Euro 2016. What’s remarkable is that the exodus accounted for almost 10% of Iceland’s entire population.

Iceland is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world with only 330,000 residents spread across its vast expanse of land. With this in mind, it’s worrying to learn that an estimated 1.6 million tourists visited the country this year, far outstripping the number of residents and demonstrating a 20% increase on 2015 numbers. Continue reading

Visiting Kon Tiki, the raft that crossed an ocean

In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific Ocean on Kon Tiki, a rudimentary raft made of balsa wood. We took a trip to see the legendary vessel.

“Your mother and father will be very grieved when they hear of your death,” Thor Heyerdahl was told as he prepared to cross the Pacific by raft.

The raft’s dimensions were wrong, it was so small it would founder at sea, the balsa logs would break under strain or become waterlogged a quarter distance into sea, gales and hurricanes would wash the crew overboard, and salt water would slough the skin right off their legs – there was no end to the warnings. Continue reading

outdoor-diversity-problem-feat-image

Does the outdoors really have a diversity problem?

My younger sister watches the Arctic reindeer roam around on my screen. She smiles as one nips at a basketful of grain. Then, she double takes.

“Wait. Is that you?” she asks.
“Yeah. Of course.”
“You look like a farm girl!” she says in a tone somewhere between amusement and disdain. “Where’s your long coat?”
“I was in the Arctic,” I say. “I wasn’t going to wear a floaty coat from Zara.”

She tosses aside the phone, mystified as to why I’d choose comfort over style 350km north of the Arctic Circle.
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arctic reindeer tromso

Feeding Arctic reindeer in Tromso

I’m not an animal lover. I mean, yes, I’m vegetarian and, yes, I had one of those dinky green badges from Blue Peter when I was young, but this was due more to general environmentalism than a love for animals.

I’m wary of dogs, indifferent to cats, and have been known to ask how often people trim their kittens (answer: never). With this in mind, you’ll understand why I was unsure about our Arctic reindeer trip in Tromso. There was no snow on the ground so sledding was off the cards and we weren’t even sure if the reindeer would make it down from the mountains in time for our visit (two weeks before the official start of the season).

Nevertheless, we had a day spare and decided to spend it at Tromso Arctic Reindeer, 16km from the centre of town. Continue reading

northern-lights-in-tromso-featimg

Chasing the northern lights in Tromso

We travelled 350km north of the Arctic Circle to chase the elusive northern lights in Tromso. Here’s what happened.

I pulled the duvet up over my head and huddled against the headboard.

“I don’t want to go out,” I said, the words hot and sulky beneath the cover.

Peter pulled the duvet off the bed. “Come on, we’ve got to go.”

I sighed a weary sigh and dragged myself up. It’s true: I didn’t want to go out. We were in the Arctic Circle for God’s sake! It was six in the evening and freezing outside! And dark! And freezing! Continue reading

Things my mother said: the gift of bilingualism

Last year, a friend of mine discovered that my parents never learned English despite moving to England in 1969.

He raised a brow in askance. “But you speak it so well,” he said, a cheeky smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he lampooned those who had oh-so-magnanimously paid me the same compliment in the past.

He, a British-born Asian like me, knew there was no reason for me not to speak English well. After all, I was born, raised and educated in England.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be snarky about the compliment. After all, English is my second language despite the fact that I write, think and dream in it (and only it). Continue reading

Phnom Penned: 10 great books about Cambodia

Cambodia’s literary canon is comparatively threadbare. There are no old masters like Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami nor contemporary voices like Khaled Hosseini or Mohsin Hamid – a fact of little wonder when one considers what happened in the country between 1975 and 1979.

In that short period, nearly all of Cambodia’s artists, writers, and musicians were systematically killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime as part of its radical attempt to engineer a classless peasant society. The culling delivered a devastating blow to the county’s artistic heritage – one that still reverberates 40 years later.

In lieu of grand swathes of literary fiction, the reader can turn to an alternative set of books about Cambodia. Start with our list of 10, as shared on the G Adventures blog.

North Sentinel Island: a timeline of the world’s most isolated tribe

On a map, North Sentinel Island looks like any other idyllic spot in the Indian Ocean. Fringed with beaches and crystal cobalt waters, it lies in the Andaman archipelago of the Bay of Bengal.

North Sentinel Island, however, is unlike any other. It has been described as ‘the hardest place in the world to visit’, ‘the world’s most dangerous island’ and home to ‘the most isolated tribe in the world’.

These sensational labels can’t be qualified conclusively, but they do hold some truth. For an estimated 60,000 years, North Sentinel Island has been home to a fiercely independent tribe that has violently rejected contact with the outside world.

Khmer chameleon: how to blend with locals in Cambodia

It’s become something of a mantra among travel experts, this call to “mix with the locals”. It urges us to learn the local language, to dress in local dress, to “do as the Romans do”.

It’s true that local interaction offers a more authentic experience, but how many of us truly engage beyond haggling at a market or talking to a taxi driver? With western pressures on our time, most travellers are lucky to even leave the tourist hotspots. With a little thought, however, it can be done.

We share on the G Adventures blog five local experiences that offer a slice of real life in Cambodia.

Visiting S21 prison: morbid or meaningful?

There are some sights you likely see only once. Places like Petra, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat are so grand, exotic and expensive, they are the very definition of a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.

Other sights are seen once because once is enough; places like Dachau concentration camp in Germany or S21 prison in Cambodia.

It was discomfiting then to find myself at the gates of S21 prison for the second time in five years. My first visit in 2011 had been harrowing enough. We had evaded an overzealous tour guide and journeyed through the former prison alone – a sobering experience I wasn’t sure I wanted to repeat. Continue reading

The best time to visit Angkor Wat is right now

Years ago, when our trip around the world was still a twinkle in my eye, I met a travel writer called ‘John’ at an industry party. For the first 30 minutes of conversation, John was fascinating as he regaled me with tales of Namibia, Mongolia and Timor-Leste. As the hour wore on, however, and his two drinks became three, he descended into a rant about tourism and how the world’s most precious sights were being destroyed.

“Kia,” he snapped, stressing my name into a single syllable. “The best time to see the world is now. You say you want to travel? Go! Go and see the world before it’s destroyed by the hordes.”

I rolled my eyes. Funny how travel writers always excuse themselves from the ‘hordes’, as if an 800-word commission from easyjet Traveller offers a meaningful reason to be anywhere. Continue reading

Mekong river cruise: an indie traveller’s first time on tour

I didn’t know what to expect of my Mekong river cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia. Firstly, I was travelling without Peter for the first time in four years. Secondly, I’d read mixed reviews of Vietnam and, thirdly, I was embarking on a tour with a pre-planned itinerary.

I won’t pretend that my ‘indie’ travel has been all hostels and roaches. My commissions outside of Atlas & Boots have taken me to numerous luxury resorts around the world, but I’d never before joined a scheduled group tour. Continue reading

Celebrating two years of Atlas & Boots

When we officially launched Atlas & Boots in August 2014, we agreed that it would be a blog for travellers, not a blog for bloggers.

The mechanics of running a site are certainly of interest to a minority of readers, but we wanted to spend our time talking to travellers, not looking inward.

With that said, the two-year mark seems a good time to take stock of where we are, to celebrate our achievements and to look forward to the challenges ahead. Continue reading

Horse riding in Cappadocia

Stone rangers: horse riding in Cappadocia

In his 2009 memoir, journalist Sathnam Sanghera recalls a date with a Sikh girl who describes in detail the intricacies of the movie Police Academy.

Sathnam asks how she happens to remember so much about the film and she replies, “Asian girl. Didn’t get out much in the eighties.”

I laughed because her quip so perfectly captured my early years as an Asian girl in Britain. Despite being born and bred in London, I lived (and chafed) under an extensive set of strict rules which governed what I wore, what I ate, where I went, who I saw and what time I would be home after a day at school/college/university.

I tell you this now to try and relay the small moments of wonder that tend to hit me when I’m travelling – because here I am, in cowboy gaiters, on a horse, riding through the dusty landscape of Cappadocia and the best way to describe the feeling is freedom. Continue reading