Category Archives: Travel

I could never be contained. I’m a restless, wandering spirit. My flamenco heart only knows passionate and wild ways. I like it best when my hair is rippling in the breeze like the mane of a mustang. True to my Vata-predominant constitution, I’m the personification of ether, air and wind – I move, I change, constantly. Sometimes I travel like a sage – simple living, from ashram to ashram with cheap sandals on my feet, with whatever I can carry on my back. At other times, I’m a jetsetting princess with my branded luggage bags, Versace watches and Christian Dior perfume. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I stay at a luxury resort or a rural hermitage. What matters to me is that every experience of travel enriches my life, no matter where I go, what I do and how I do it. ~ Draupadi @ Jana Thevar

10 Ways to Experience Kuala Lumpur Like a Local

By Princess Draupadi

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It’s always interesting to hear what foreigners think of Malaysia. Every time I travel and people ask me where I’m from and I say it, I get all kinds of reactions. Good ones, so far.

“Oh my God, Malaysia?!”
“Beautiful country!”
“You’re soooooo lucky.”

The last statement was said to me by an European girl I was having tea with in Madurai.

“Why am I lucky?” I asked.

Her eyes widened. “The SUN!” she exclaimed. “All that sunshine. You get so much SUN! The beach.” She sighed prettily and let herself melt away onto the table in an exaggerated expression of pleasure.

I laughed. Cute girl. She was right, of course. But if only she knew how Malaysians reacted to the sun. How we’re tired of getting too much of it, how we’re constantly running away from it. How people here carried umbrellas and wore long driving gloves to avoid getting tanned. How obsessed we are with air-conditioning.

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As much as I love being everywhere else, I really love Malaysia. Tropical vegetation, blue seas, blue skies. Multiracial, multicultural, both rural and urban in almost equal measure. Like any other country we have our ups and downs (including some of the most corrupt politicians in the world), but I’d rather focus on the good stuff.

Kuala Lumpur

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As with every major city in the world, there’s always a recommended bunch of typical touristy stuff to do. Kuala Lumpur (KL) is no exception, as a Google search will show you.

If you really must look at two colossal steel-and-concrete towers that supposedly represent this city, by all means go ahead. However, I think KL has so much more to offer.

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While the towers are shiny and pretty and everything, I’m of the opinion that the lifeblood of Kuala Lumpur lies in the whole vibe, the collective energy that powers this city. The heart and soul of KL lies in the diversity of its people, food, street life, traffic jams, art and culture.

Having lived all 35 years of my life in this city and Singapore next door, here’s my recommended list of things to experience in Kuala Lumpur. Would you like to live the life of a KLite, do the things we do, at least for a while? Then read on.

But first, a little introduction to the local lingo.

***Special Note on Language: Sentences with the Lah Suffix.***

Most KLites speak English, at levels varying from basic to excellent. While many of us locals speak the language really well, we have a unique way of conversing among ourselves, irrespective of race and ethnic background, a phenomenon known to some as ‘Manglish’.

What’s that? Well, somewhat broken English, peppered with words from various languages and dialects spoken locally including Malay, Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin, Tamil, Punjabi and more. For example, macha (Tamil: brother-in-law), jom (Malay street slang: let’s go), tapau (Hokkien: take-away food). Whenever Malaysians get into this mode and start talking like this in a group, we’d understand each other perfectly. Observing foreigners, meanwhile, are generally baffled. 

Brian here says some interesting things about Malaysian culture, and a bit about the language.

To talk like us, add lah to the end of random sentences in conversations with Malaysians. A good way to start trying this out is when you’re ordering food at Malaysian restaurants. You’ll probably use it wrong, but hey, who cares. You’ll surprise the locals, have a good laugh with them and make some great friends – guaranteed.

Here are some recommended ways to use lah accurately:

  • This is my first time visiting Malaysia lah.
  • Can lah / Cannot lah. (When asked if something can or cannot be added to your food, ie pork).
  • It’s so hot lah.
  • I want to buy a drink lah.
  • Can you lower the price? Too expensive lah.
  • Can I have this in blue? I don’t like red color lah.
  • This food is cold lah. Can you reheat it please?
  • This tea is too hot lah. Can you tarik it for me? (Manglish Bonus Point: two street slang words in one go)

So try it. Use the lah. Use it everywhere. Have fun with it, because this doesn’t work outside Malaysia. Where else can you mess up English like this and get away with it?

Now for the list of stuff to try.

10 Ways to Experience Kuala Lumpur Like a Local

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#1 – Taste Signature Malaysian Dishes in KL

Oh the food. KL is a terrible place to be on a diet. If you’re visiting for the first time, don’t even try.

Trying to describe Malaysian food in one blog post is like trying to describe that Avatar planet in one sentence. We have such an incredible variety of grub here that no amount of writing is ever going to do justice to our endless array of gastronomic delights. For the sake of readers however, I will simplify the must-try list of KL-Malaysian foods per below.

Roti canai and teh tarik combo. This is a common Malaysian staple of Indian-Muslim origin. Roti canai is a type of flat bread that is made by spinning the dough in the air until it stretches out. Teh tarik is milk tea that gets its name from being ‘pulled’ – poured in a long stretch from one container to another, until it develops a surface foam. If you’re at the right places, you’ll get to view the impressive theatrics of the undeniably-skilled people making these dishes.

Not a very clear video and probably not Malaysian, but this is a demo of how extreme teh tarik skills can get.

A very KL thing to do is visit a mamak (generally means Indian Muslim) restaurant or street stall, order these, then sit around chatting for hours with friends. You can do this any time of the day and almost anywhere in the city. By the way, the term ‘mamak‘ has also come to mean almost any food place that stays open late, or simply the act of hanging out at these places.

Banana leaf rice. A South Indian style of eating that’s popular in KL. It’s basically rice, curries, vegetables and your choice of Indian meat dishes served on a fresh banana leaf. I’ve done a series of restaurant reviews for KL and Klang Valley for my ‘Banana Leaf Mythbusters’ series: Devi’s Corner, Ganapathi Mess, Nirwana Maju and Moorthy’s Mathai.

The ‘proper’ way is to eat with your fingers, but you can use cutlery and nobody will care. We KLites are a laid-back bunch. So laid back we’re late all the time for everything.

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Ganesh at Moorthy’s Mathai in USJ, Subang Jaya

Nasi lemak. Traditional Malay dish, popular for breakfast. Consists of coconut milk rice, anchovies, a chilli paste, fried peanuts, cucumber and an egg. You can buy it almost anywhere here and it’s often dirt cheap.

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Pan mee. Noodle-based dish of Hakka origin. The star of this dish is the chilli powder-paste. Go easy on the heat if it’s your first time.

Nasi kandar. Rice that can be combined with various curries, meats and vegetables. Ask for a mix of all available curries to eat it like we do.

Nasi goreng. Fried rice, comes in many variations from Chinese to Kampung (village) style. (Malay: goreng = fried)

Noodles. Laksa, mee kolok, tomyam, curry mee, mee goreng mamak, Maggi goreng, fried koay teow. (Note: mamak = Indian Muslim; this term may also be used to refer to hawker and street food in general).

Chinese street and hawker food. Chinese food here is phenomenally delicious. Also, unlike most street fare in Southeast Asia, Chinese food is usually well-tolerated by even the most sensitive of stomachs. The reason for this is Chinese food in KL is always prepared on the spot with fresh ingredients and served piping hot (killing most bacteria like e-coli).

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Durian anything. Despite the high entertainment factor, I don’t recommend durian to foreigners anymore as they just can’t handle it. If you’d like to try one for the sake of experience, then you have an endless variety, from the fresh fruit itself to flavored desserts and ice cream.

#2 – Take a Walk Through Masjid India, Brickfields or Jalan Tengku Kelana 

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These are the ‘Little India’ parts of KL. You can walk around, window shop and simply browse without buying anything and nobody will mind in the least. The shopkeepers are usually more than willing to show you around.

These are great places to buy lungis, kurtas, bangles, bindis, spices, statues and other cool ethnic stuff without being ripped off like in other tourist traps. So walk into some clothing stores and let them tie a saree on you – they’ll do it with a smile. Or, have an Indian tailor sew you some ‘instant’ Bollywood-style stuff on the spot (they charge extra if you want it soon, but it’s totally worth it for a custom-made outfit).

After you’re done for the day, you can finish off with some delicious Indian food at one of the numerous restaurants in any one of those areas.

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Recommended restaurants: Saravana Bhavan (pure vegetarian, Masjid India and Brickfields), Gem Restaurant, Taj Garden, Chat Masala, Anjappar Chettinad, Jassal (all Brickfields).

#3 – Check out the Bukit Bintang Area

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This is the more glitzy part of town and it doesn’t sleep. Bukit Bintang (Literal translation: Star Hill) includes Changkat Bukit Bintang (nightlife and clubs), Bintang Walk (shopping malls, street stalls, buskers), Starhill Gallery (upscale mall), Lot 10 (mall) and more of that kind of thing. There’s a whole lot to do here, so take a stroll and look around. Lots of Arabic culture here too, so you can try the food or indulge in some shisha.

The Sahara Tent is my shopping pit stop, where I refuel on Arabian mint tea and to-die-for baklava.

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If you decide to hit the clubs, the great news is that you can always find a place to eat after you’re done, even if that means 4am. This is thanks to the concept of 24-hour mamak restaurants and stalls in KL. So if you need an ice-lime drink and a hot meal to sober up, you’ll always have some place to go in KL.

#4 – Visit Places of Worship

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I think it’s always nice to follow a local friend to visit their place of worship, regardless how you feel about religion and higher powers. In my experience, most Malaysians will gladly take you with them for prayers, provided you have an open mind.

The main religion in Malaysia is Islam, followed by Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. So there’s a whole bunch of pretty temples and mosques around, such as the National Mosque, Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple, Batu Caves Hindu Temple. My favorite is the red Putra Mosque, picturesque on a lake in Putrajaya. Do note that if you’d like to visit places of worship, you’re required to dress modestly (for mosques, you’d be required to cover your body, full arms and legs, plus hair and neck for women).

Most churches in Malaysia are unfortunately square and boring on the outside, as I’ve heard it’s got something to do with regulations about the architecture for Christian buildings. This is a real shame, but then again there’s always Europe for those gorgeous Gothic and Baroque cathedrals.

#5 – See the Whole City by Train (LRT)

In Kuala Lumpur, almost every major tourist attraction is accessible by trains. It’s such a cheap and convenient way to see the city. There’s the LRT and Monorail (these go high above the ground, so you get a good view of the sights and can decide to get off at stops if you see a place that catches your fancy) and KTM train (ground level).

Consider buying an LRT token for a long random journey across KL city – it’s kind of like a tour bus, but you get to people-watch as well since regular Malaysians use these trains for their daily commutes.

KL Sentral is the main station where all the trains meet, so that’s a good place to start when planning your journey. Carry an umbrella (or use a cap / hat) and water with you if you ever plan to walk for long distances in KL. So yes, travel like we do.

#6 – Immerse Yourself in the KL Art Scene: Visit Balai Seni Visual Negara (National Visual Arts Gallery) or Support Indie Music at Merdekarya

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This place is worth your time if you’re a lover of visual art, and would like a taste of what Malaysian artists have to offer. Balai Seni Visual Negara houses some truly fantastic pieces from local talents, many of whom are not internationally known.

The building itself is spacious, well-maintained and beautifully minimalist in terms of design. The best part is that this place is almost always empty – for some peculiar reason, Malaysians don’t seem to value visual art all that much.

If art galleries are not your thing, head over to Merdekarya for some indie music. Fantastic place with a very down-to-earth vibe, it’s well-known in local art circles. Remember to bring enough to tip the musicians.

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Volatile, one of my favorite local bands – the kind of music you get at Merdekarya. From left: Raul Dhillon, Jaime Gunther, Sean Choon, Jordan Scully and Reuben Tor

#7 – KL Bird Park

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A pleasant free-flight aviary with plenty of free-ranging, friendly birds. The whole area is canopied with netting that keeps it cool in the day. KL Bird Park is good for adults and kids alike. Great for practicing your photography as the birds come up close.

#8 – Muzium Negara (National Muzium)

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Some people think muziums are lame, but hey, they’re good places to be if you like history. Muzium Negara is quite nicely done, and if you feel like a leisurely stroll down Malaya Memory Lane for the cost of practically nothing, go here. Dioramas, artifacts, stories about the Colonial Era and the Sultanate…you may just end up enjoying yourself. After all, how often do you get to selfie with a bunch of ancient Malay dudes?

#9 – Hang Out at Malls

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Surprised that I’m recommending something as dumb as malls? Hear me out.

Malls here are huge, common, easily accessible by public transportation and a pleasant way to cool off after the unbearable midday heat. Also, great for shopping as there’s always some kind of sale going on. In addition, consider catching a movie at GSC, MBO or TGV, as most major malls have a cinema.

And you know what? Malls are a very KL thing. We do this a lot.

Recommended malls: Suria KLCC, Pavillion KL, Midvalley Megamall, One Utama, Sunway Pyramid, Mitsui Outlet Park KLCC.

#10 – Hiking

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The best part about KL is that you don’t need to drive out that far from the city for a good hike. There are trails and spots varying from easy to challenging, depending on what you need. Check out FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia – easy), Bukit Broga (moderate), all Bukit Tabur treks (can be challenging), Bukit Gasing Forest Reserve (easy to moderate) and more.

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Additional Tips:

  • As a tropical city, KL can get very hot. Protect your skin, head and stay hydrated. Avoid the midday heat.
  • Most places accept credit cards, but KL is not completely cashless. Do carry hard cash with you.
  • Taxis can be expensive. Ubers are more cost-effective here.
  • Busses are not very reliable, but if you have time to kill or a friend to go with you, that’s fine. Trains are the best and cheapest way to get around as traffic can be terrible in KL.
  • KL is a modern city and accepting of most foreign cultures. However, it’s wise to be sensitive to Islamic customs if you’re going to a place frequented by many Muslims, such as a mosque. In such cases, dress modestly and don’t carry / consume with food with pork or alcohol in it to avoid offending anyone.
  • KL is not vegan-friendly. Regular restaurants don’t really understand the term. Most Indian shops will understand what ‘vegetarian’ means and won’t add egg to your food, but may add dairy products. If you’re vegan, do specify that you don’t want egg, milk, yoghurt, meat, fish or seafood added to your food (if you’re particular).

 

Related Links:

Merdekarya – The Original Malaysian Music Bar

Volatile Band Page

Banana Leaf Mythbusters: Devi’s Corner (Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur)

 

10 Ways to Experience Stockholm like a Local

by Princess Draupadi

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There’s absolutely no doubt that Sweden is a stunningly gorgeous country. It’s true that the winters are bitter, dark and long. However, the moment spring comes around, one gets a peek of what paradise looks like in Scandinavia.

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There’s no shortage of tourist spots in Stockholm, and they’re all worth it. However, if you have a little more time in the city (or if you’ve done the whole major-tourist-spot thing on a previous visit), here are 10 ways to actually experience the city like a Stockholm native. It’s not so much the place that counts, but what you do and how you do it.

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What I love about Stockholm? It has a vibe that I can only liken to gourmet dark chocolate. Smooth, sophisticated, bittersweet. Slightly unyielding until you fully embrace it, and then you experience the irresistible dark seduction, the honeyed softness hidden within its fluid shadows (perhaps what I’m trying to say here is that it’s fucking elegant in a badass way).

Anyway.

Forget the ABBA museum, that warship and the overly-hyped stuff. Here’s how you become local in Stockholm, at least from my perspective. In addition, learn how to work around Systembolaget, get your SL transportation passes and you’re good to go.

1. Picnic in Skansen

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Skansen is basically a huge, open-air ‘living’ museum and zoo. Yes it’s a tourist spot, but there’s something really authentic about it. This is one way to experience Stockholm from a Swedish child’s point of view.

Skansen sprawls over acres of lush, green hillside (okay, only in spring / summer) and consists of olden-days Swedish stuff like restored historical Viking farms and villages, complete with real people dressed the part. So, you have ‘villagers’ baking bread (you’ll be offered some with freshly-churned butter), tending to animals, running the apothecary and serving you tea with lingonberry scones. They have native Scandinavian animals in spacious enclosures including moose, reindeer, farm animals, wolves and foxes.

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I thought this place was for kids, but boy was I wrong! I had a blast. The best place for a picnic is at the peak during summer, where you get an amazing view of the city – if I’m not mistaken, this is somewhere near the bear enclosure. A must-visit – it’ll bring out the child in anyone. So pack yourself a lunch (because eating out is expensive in Stockholm) and head over to this place, it’s easily accessible via public transportation.

2. Have fika in the Old Town

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Gamla Stan literally translates to ‘old town’, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a fantastic place, with the old building facades and architecture maintained from the Viking age.

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However, Gamla Stan has come a long way from its guillotine-beheading days (I’m not kidding, this happened at the main square in ancient times, and the decapitated heads were rolled down the winding streets to be gathered at certain points for disposal, or so the locals told me).

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These days, it consists of elegant, swanky cafes and restaurants, plus stores selling everything from clothing to souvenirs. A great place to have your fika while people-watching, or if you’re as morbid as I am, staring at the cobblestone paths wondering what it would be like if a bloodied head rolled down right past you.

Note: Read my article about the Swedish fika here.

3. Visit the world’s only round IKEA

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I think it would be sacrilegious to be in Stockholm and NOT visit the largest IKEA in the world, situated in the outskirts of Stockholm in Kungens Kurva.

It’s pretty much your regular local IKEA except that it’s freaking huge, located in the motherland of flat-packed furniture AND – here’s the carrot – it’s ROUND. Yes, like a cake, so you walk through the store in wide, spiraling circles. How cool is that? There’s a free bus from Vasagatan near the main train station, so there’s no excuse – at least go there and get a tea towel or something.

4. Hate the red horse

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Every Swede I know despises the dalahäst, the iconic Swedish red horse. I’ve no clue why they detest this innocent-looking creature so much, probably because it’s so touristy-overrated. Nobody seems to know what it signifies or how it came about, but legend has it that farmers carved these things as toys for their kids, to keep them entertained during the long, harsh winters.

So, make sure you turn up your nose at the dalahäst and pretend that you’re too cool to care about it while you’re in Stockholm. Then, go out and secretly buy one for yourself to be taken home. They’re actually super cute, with highly-detailed painted-on flowers and everything.

5. Try moose or reindeer meat

Okay, I feel mean recommending this (and I couldn’t bring myself to eat these when I was there), but these meats are quite common in Sweden. Reindeer are raised like cattle in the far North, and moose are commonly hunted. So, in respect of the local culture, and me attempting to be as objective as I can as a travel writer, this is something you can consider. Or, be like me and just have a good look at all the stuff that fascinates you but you can’t bear to indulge in.

As I try not to condone animal cruelty, the alternative is that Sweden is wonderfully vegan-friendly. Vegans here will simply be spoilt for choice. Take a trip to any major Swedish grocer like Coop, ICA, Eko, City Gross and Willy’s to sample the wide variety of local foods and all the yummy vegan options.

6. Go to a crayfish party

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Crayfish parties, known as kräftskiva, are quite a thing in Sweden. They’re held around August and people basically gather (usually outdoors if the weather is good) for a picnic-get-together thing with family and friends while feasting on boiled crayfish seasoned with dill.

You could still join the party if you don’t eat meat, just bring your own food and nobody will mind – Swedes are very used to vegans. They key is to soak in that wonderful red-gold, Swedish summer-autumn sun and just have fun.

7. Try typical Swedish foods

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As with any country, Sweden has its uniquely-local fare. These are some I highly recommend, especially for fika:

• Lingon berries (these only grow in Scandinavia)
• Punschrulle (I don’t know why this word means ‘vacuum cleaners’, it’s just pastry made of marzipan and chocolate)
• Plankstek (steak served on a wooden board, surrounded by mashed potatoes)
•Prinsesstårta (Swedish Princess cake, made of whipped cream and topped with a marzipan dome)
• Various food pastes in tubes (a very local thing, just like Kalles Kaviar – these can be eaten with crackers or bread)
• Hönökaka (flat Swedish bread, super delicious, goes great with butter)
• Blåbärssoppa (translation: blueberry soup)
Oatly (Swedish vegan milk, goes well with anything)
• Knäckebröd (Tastes like cardboard, but as you only live once, try it anyway)

Skip the rotten herring (surströmming) unless you have a death wish, even the Swedish dogs I know can’t stomach it.

8. Shop at local haunts

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No, not H & M.

Generally, shopping in Sweden is a unique experience. True, almost nothing is made here except Marabou chocolates, but it’s more of the way everything is structured around shopping – you’ll need to experience it yourself to really know what I’m trying to say.

And I’m talking about things in everyday city stores in Stockholm where Swedes get their regular stuff, like Acne StudiosÅhléns and Clas Ohlson. For instance, Clas Ohlson is a hardware store, but you could buy a full fine art set there (think French acrylics, easels, carving tools, chisels, high-end brushes). Zebra-print kitchen knives. Fuchsia-pink toasters with complete matching kitchen sets. Owl-shaped silicone baking trays. Winter hunting socks.

Another store, Indiska, has some of the most beautiful items I’ve ever seen. Indiska, meaning ‘Indian’ in Swedish, sells everything from clothing to house furnishings, all with a New-Age-Indian touch. Very unique offerings. Forget those tacky Viking helmets with the fake golden braids; go here for classy souvenirs.

9. Experience laundry day

Hah! The Swedes and their laundry days are quite something. Never, ever try to influence a Swede about changing plans for laundry day schedules – NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. For any reason.

I found this whole laundry thing in Stockholm intriguing because I come from a tropical country, where it’s pretty much blazing summer heat all year round, every single day. Most Malaysians have a washing machine at home, and it’s just a matter of chucking your clothes into one, putting on a fully automated cycle and finally hanging the clothes out to dry in your yard.

Stockholm natives take their laundry days very seriously. From pre-booking laundry room slots, sorting the clothes to gathering the cleaning stuff, they are so meticulous about the whole process that it’s a mesmerizing phenomenon to watch and experience.

I’ve seen guys that looked like they fell off the stage during a black metal concert, (complete with tattoos, leather gauntlets and flowing demonic hair) walking into the tvättstuga with dainty little packages of pink softener and eco-friendly detergent.

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Well, that’s Sweden. \m/ for life indeed, but make sure you smell like roses while screaming about Satan and death from the mosh pit.

10. Hunt for kantarell

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Patches of forest are plentiful in Sweden, even around Stockholm. There’s almost nothing I loved more than hiking the Swedish forests during mushroom season, generally between August and September. The air is sharp, fresh, cool and crisp. The grounds are blanketed with moss, pine needles and rhubarb shoots. Sometimes, you’ll see deer and hedgehogs.

While this is a fun activity, watch it – don’t go alone, especially if you haven’t a clue about edible mushrooms in Sweden. It’s better to go with a seasoned mushroom-picker (you know, to avoid killing yourself). While Sweden has numerous delicious local fungi like the Karljohan and champinjon, the ultimate prize for any mushroom-hunter is the golden kantarell. Finding some is as exhilarating as finding that proverbial pot of gold (and just as difficult, because everyone’s after the same thing). If you’re as clueless as I am about mushrooms, you can do what I do; mushroom-hunt for the heck of it, check them out, then forget about it and go buy some kantarell from the local grocery store. Fry them with butter and you have an amazing snack.

Safety measure: Familiarize yourself with the deadly types, especially the red Fly Agaric, Destroying Angel and Death Cap. Anytime you’re unsure, don’t risk it.

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Related Links:

Embracing Swedish Culture: The Art of Fika

10 Tips for Women Traveling Alone in India

Hiking Equipment Review: Deuter AirContact 40+10 SL

Embracing Swedish Culture: The Art of Fika

by Princess Draupadi

How Sweden Got Me Hooked On Fika

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I’m a person who’s constantly evolving. I tend to adopt snippets of culture from around the world easily, embracing ways of life and practices that move and inspire me. This is especially true of places and societies that I’ve had the privilege of immersing myself in and experiencing the native culture first-hand, as a local.

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Sweden changed me in more ways than I can coherently describe. I became so Swedish that I underwent a permanent personality overhaul. I lived in Stockholm for a number of months and experienced life in the Scandinavian capital from the standpoint of a local Swede. From picnics in Skansen to buying acrylics from Clas Ohlson, from butter-frying kantarell to my ready acceptance of unyielding laundry schedules (tvättstuga stories for another day), I dove in with enthusiasm. One day, someone asked me what was the thing about Swedish culture that fascinated me the most. My answer? Fika. Hands down!

Those unfamiliar with Swedish culture may mistakenly consider fika to be just another regular coffee or tea break. Undeniably, that’s what it involves – a spread of coffee, pastries, jams and other snacks that’s shared with family or guests.

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However, the best part of fika is that it’s an excellent way to hone your skills in (and experience) the art of conversation – something which is all but dead in today’s smartphone-obsessed society. It’s almost a subculture in itself, made up of those who truly know how to indulge in and embrace the art of fika.

The authentic fika experience is a concept as sophisticated as the Swedes themselves, and reflective of their discerning palates. Am I exaggerating? Hell no. Just ask any self-respecting Swede. Better still, go to Sweden and observe this interesting phenomenon for yourself. Heck, you can even do it at your local IKEA.

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Funny thing is, I’ve been practicing fika all my life without realizing it. I love long, deep conversations about anything. I’ve always invited friends over for coffee (green tea for me) and snacks – I just didn’t call it fika back then. Sweden just taught me how to fine-tune the art of hosting, attending and enjoying fika. Has it been a life-changing experience? You bet. Then again, everything is for me.

So, What’s Fika?

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Fika is basically a break that involves quality food and the good-company-good-conversation combo. The real art of fika lies in the ability of the host (and often, the guests) to successfully merge food, drink, company and conversation to create unforgettable experiences. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to fika, the best sessions I’ve had are when everyone is feeling warm and relaxed, respected and included. Then, the conversations begin to flow like magic.

There’s no fixed time to have fika in Sweden, though they generally have it twice a day – late in the morning and sometime in the evening. If someone invites you over for fika in Sweden, here’s what you can expect:

1. Good-quality coffee, tea or other beverages (usually more than one type).

2. A spread of food that usually includes pastries, jams, butter, fruit, cakes and more. If your host is non-vegetarian, you may also see food like gravad lax (cured salmon) or cured meats.

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What always surprised me about fika with various people in Stockholm was the variety and quality of the food served. Swedes take their fika seriously, especially if they’re hosting it at their homes. Hosts who invited me over were of the opinion that having instant coffee for fika was borderline sacrilegious (that probably doesn’t apply to everyone in Sweden).

My Fika Experiences In Stockholm

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I’ve had the privilege to have fika with some really amazing people. What’s great is that the experience of fika differs significantly, depending on the people involved.

For instance, fika with my good friend Tony Särkkä, a black metal musician, was always an experience that reflected his fine tastes and artistic inclination. Like me, he was a gourmet tea enthusiast, so fika at his place meant anything from Japanese sencha to white Darjeeling. He had an exquisite dining table made of reflective black glass, which showed off the fika spread wonderfully – vegan butters, almond and oat milk, fruits, nuts, pastries and an assortment of traditional Swedish breads.

We often spoke about books, art and music. Leisurely, sometimes pausing to watch the snowfall through the window. There were times when we wrote poetry together. We delved into topic after topic deeply, unhurriedly. Fika was our way of spurring the creativity of our minds and exploring novel ideas or concepts. Tony has since passed on, but I will always remember him fondly as the first person who introduced me to fika, and forever cherish the conversations we had.

How To Host Fika At Your Place

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I personally think everyone should embrace the art of fika. At least, try it out – it’s fun. And you know what? It’s so easy to do. All you need is the following as a base, but remember, the more variety of food and drinks, the more interesting your fika will be. Fika can even be done like a potluck, where everyone brings a dish.

Fika essentials:

A good-quality drink of your choice, like coffee or tea (I don’t recommend alcohol for fika)
Some good food. A diverse variety of things to eat makes for pleasant sense indulgence, besides encouraging interesting conversation.
A comfortable place to have your food and drinks with your fika guests. A couch, a café or even a nice shady spot under a tree are perfect.

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Candles are optional but make a great addition. Then, invite some people over! This is where the art part comes in – the art of choosing / combining various food and drinks plus keeping good conversation going.

If your fika guests aren’t the talkative type or are just plain shy, gently get them to open up. Introduce interesting topics to discuss or bring something to the fika, like a good book or a poem. Encourage everyone to share their ideas, thoughts and opinions. Keep things pleasant and light-hearted – fika is not the time to bring up sensitive topics or start heated debates. If the conversation takes a negative turn, gently steer it back to something more conducive.

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Want to incorporate the art of Swedish living into your current lifestyle? Fika is where you start. It’s easy to organise, fun, sophisticated and a great way to bring people together.

Related Links:

10 Ways to Experience Stockholm like a Local

Living Art: Things to Learn from Victor Santal

Hiking Equipment Review: Deuter AirContact 40+10 SL

by Jana Thevar

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My Experience

I’ve been hiking and backpacking since forever. The funny thing is, I never bothered to ‘invest’ in a proper backpack. I just bought whatever was on sale in the market, would fit on my back and had sufficient space for a bunch of stuff.

That worked well enough for a while, until I ran into some annoying issues. My Lonsdale backpack held up surprisingly well over  years of travel abuse, but the PVC interior lining turned to dust one fine day for no apparent reason. As a person with allergy issues, this was a complete disaster.

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I’ve seen friends and travel partners who had it worse while on the road with me: bags falling apart at the seams, zips and buckles getting damaged, rats chewing through canvas, monkeys learning how to unzip compartments on unattended bags, back problems due to uneven distribution of carrying weight, etc.

Space was also an issue with smaller backpacks, as you’d eventually need a bigger piece of luggage for check-in, which can be a hassle when you need to travel quickly with minimal fuss. Also, wheeled luggage bags can be a nightmare when it comes to rural places. I’ve had to drag a 30-kilo bag through village sand paths (the wheels won’t work), broken cement, damaged roads, mud, potholes, up lengthy flights of stairs, cow dung and worse.

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Needless to say, I’d had enough of that. I can’t believe I didn’t get a proper backpack sooner. I HATE my stuff falling apart mid-travel. So, when I came across a random Deuter backpack sale at Sunway Pyramid, I got myself not one, but two bags (50 and 70 litres). Malaysians will know why I did this; Deuter bags are notoriously expensive here. At 50% off the regular price, it was a steal.

I was also curious with regards to quality and performance. I’m always sceptical when it comes to hyped-up mainstream things. Was Deuter really the gold standard for hiking bags, or was it all just meaningless marketing and branding fluff?

Here’s my review of the Deuter AirContact 40 + 10 SL model (for women).

Test Trip Details

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I backpacked alone to the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia for 4 days and 3 nights. While this doesn’t count as a challenging outdoor hike, it wasn’t a walk in the park either. My bag weighed a total of 13 kgs – I packed it to maximum capacity for testing purposes.

What the travel involved (per way) was a 10-minute Uber trip to the train station, a two-transit train ride totalling 2 hours of travel to the central bus terminal (TBS), an 8-hour bus ride to the island jetty, a 40-minute speedboat ride to the island, then walking by foot along the beach for another 20 minutes to the chalet. It was a lot of getting to, then on and off various modes of transportation – more tiring than it sounds.

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Comfort and Design

Amazingly comfortable as the hip and shoulder straps are well-padded, highly adjustable and can be customized for length and fit perfectly. The AirContact models are also designed for optimum air circulation to prevent excessive sweating during wear – this would be great for long hikes in hot weather.

Aesthetic-wise, I loved the blue color. All the female-model bags come with a cute yellow flower that’s actually a hair tie – how ingenious! There’s a contoured steel spine structure that fits your back curvature and gives the pack some structure. Most bags come with a handy water-proof rain cover, which is great for repelling mud too.

 

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Capacity and Weight

I was surprised that there was less space than I expected for 50 litres. However, when packed to full capacity, 13kgs was about as much as I could carry comfortably on my back (I weigh 45kgs, am slight in build with fairly good core strength). The bag itself isn’t the lightest model either, as it weighs almost 2.3kgs by itself – consider another model for long hikes.

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What’s really great about Deuter designs is that they have tons of mini compartments, loops, clips and spaces which you can literally stow, fasten or hang ANYTHING imaginable. The only limit would be your ability to carry the weight.

Durability

The material doesn’t look very long-wearing, but then again I know from experience that the nylon is light but extremely wear-resistant. The seams and stitching are pretty sturdy.

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Summary

I was pretty spent after my trip back, but it was a good kind of tired. I felt like my core got a really good workout. I could actually notice the difference in my abs! More muscle tone and flatter. Overall, no regrets, though I’d recommend a lighter model for longer hikes.

If you see one on discount, buy it! Absolutely worth the money. In the words of a good friend, the proud owner of a Deuter that has survived over 15 years of hardcore outdoor life:

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“These bags? They last forever”.

 

Related Links:

10 Tips for Women Travelling Alone in India

Ashram Vacations: An Introduction

Deuter (Official Page)

Travel Review: Boracay, Philippines

by Princess Draupadi

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Boracay! The jewel of the Philippines, some say. Cerulean-turquoise waters, tropical sun, over seven thousand islands, fresh seafood, succulent mangoes and all the great things Southeast Asia has to offer. The place has always been a mystery to me, and I’m glad I finally set foot there.

Scenery, view and island vibe

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The best thing about the combination of tropical sunlight, lush volcanic-soil vegetation and clear seawater is the way the colors come alive. Emerald-chartreuse greens punctuated by lazy seabirds, sparkling sapphire waters fading into the golden-white sand. A literal feast for the eyes. It’s the kind of island where you can sit around all day, eating dragonfruits and letting the purple juice run down your chin, taking in the dazzling brilliance of your surroundings and just do absolutely nothing. Yes, it’s that beautiful.

Vibe-wise, it’s laid back. Quiet and relaxed. Not overly crowded with touristy types. Most people on the island appear to be simple village folk. They live fuss-free lives, plying their trade, usually selling local produce and seafood. It’s a far cry from the booze-and-drug-fuelled-party-hype of Balinese and Thai beach nightlife; nothing like the backpacker islands on the Malaysian East Coast either. Boracay is like a legendary island princess – exotic, mysterious and modest, whose real beauty is to be seen and appreciated by the chosen few. Don’t come here for crazy drunken nights and full moon parties.

Food

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Seafood is cheap, fresh and plentiful. Prices are reasonable at tourist-standard spots. The main area in town where most restaurants are based is called D’Mall – not quite a mall, more like an open-air area of eateries, souvenier shops, clothing stalls and the usual stuff catering to tourists.

Hobbit Tavern

If you’re from Malaysia or Indonesia, be prepared for the ‘unusual’ taste of some dishes. I’m adventurous and adaptable enough, but I’ve heard many complaints along the lines of ‘Filipino food tastes very weird”. There’s a mini supermarket in town where you can buy stuff like toiletries, milk, cookies, instant coffee, bread and crackers. I found that prices at this place were quite high.

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I’ll be honest; I didn’t quite like the fish and chips fried in coconut oil (yes, coconut oil of all things – The Hobbit Tavern) and the bland soup featuring a sad chunk of chicken with the life boiled out of it (Jeepney). On the other hand, the grilled squid was great, with just the right amount of flavor and tangy zest (Jeepney), as was the seafood pasta (The Hobbit Tavern). Stay away from the soupy stuff and you should be fine. Food in general is not overly spicy.

Jeepney

Local tip: A wonderful Filipino girl at Jeepney did this for me and my friend when we said we were Malaysian. She chopped up some bird’s eye chillies, put the pieces into a saucer and poured some salty soy sauce over it. Then, she squeezed lime juice into the mix and gave it a good stir, before telling us to use it as a dip for seafood. It was literally AMAZING. I would’ve never thought something so simple could bring out the subtle flavours of seafood so well, and it had just the right amount of zing. Perfect!

Places to stay

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Accommodation is easily available, from budget to more high-end places. I stayed at Shangri-La Boracay because my friends work there, and we got the rooms for free (lucky me). And Shang being Shang, there’s nothing much to say about it except everything was literally perfect. The resort is gorgeous, the architecture and landscaping stunning. You’re waited on hand and foot by extremely attentive staff. In other words, Shangri-La = an impeccable experience in all ways. The only downside was that the resort was on the other end of the island, and getting ‘out’ was impossible by foot. However, they had regular shuttles to town for that purpose.

Shopping

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Forget it. If you already have experience travelling in Southeast Asia, there’s literally nothing new to buy here. It’s all the same stuff again and again. Beach dresses, shell jewellery, keychains, wife-beaters, mugs, tote bags and Rasta-themed red-yellow-green stuff (I never figured out Boracay’s obsession with reggae culture, but I bought a Bob Marley pareo anyway because I’m a huge fan). Virgin coconut oil is sold everywhere, as are local dried mangoes. And oh, they have purses made of real, whole bullfrogs, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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Weather

Tropical mostly with occasional rain. Plan carefully around the island’s monsoon seasons as the weather can change drastically. We went out sightseeing one night and were suddenly caught in a full-blown typhoon that came out of nowhere. Best to carry a light raincoat or foldable umbrealla when you’re out and about.

Currency

Filipino pesos. It appears that exchange rates are far better in your own country, unless you carry US Dollars with you. Money changers are easy to find.

Nightlife

I didn’t go to any clubs, but the island seemed to generally lack good nightlife. Nobody tried to sell me drugs or sex either.

Beach activities

There’s the usual like snorkeling, diving, paraw sailing, catamaran, yacht, jetski and more. PADI courses are offered on Boracay, but I decided to do mine in the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.

Verdict?

Great place to go for a couple, a bunch of friends or with family. Expect slightly higher prices and be wary of the monsoon season (the typhoons in the Philippines are not to be taken lightly). I wouldn’t recommend single travelers to go here as there isn’t all that much to do alone.

See Also:

Index of Articles

 

 

10 Tips For Women Traveling Alone In India

by Jana Thevar

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Dhanvanthari Ashram, Kerala – January 2013

India is an amazing country. I’ve traveled extensively through it and I absolutely love it. I don’t know of any other place with such contrasts and extremes that blend so seamlessly, forming a pandemonium of sights, sounds and flavors that assail the senses in ways you don’t expect. The vermillion and gold, spices and incense, poverty and palaces. The Himalayas. Ashrams. The glitz of Bollywood. Really, there isn’t any place quite like it.

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Unfortunately, India has earned a reputation of being unsafe for solo female travelers. That’s a pity, because some of the most amazing people I know are from India. My male Indian friends are real gentlemen, with great charm and impeccable manners.

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Meenakshi Ashram, Madurai – February 2017

My Experience as a Solo Female Traveler in India

I’ve traveled around India quite a bit on my own and faced no major issues. With some precautions, you can too. I’m all for women’s rights, empowering women and everything along those lines. However, it’s just wiser to take precautions as a lone female. Some of my tips may irk hardcore feminists out there, but the way I look at it, better safe than sorry.

Here are some tips for staying safe as a solo female traveler in India.

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Yoga Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh – September 2016

1: Plan all your transportation and transits seamlessly. This applies to all modes of transportation you intend to use in India, including flights, trains, busses and hired vehicles. Ensure that you won’t be waiting alone in places that could be dangerous. Take extra precautions to ensure you won’t be waiting ANYWHERE alone after sundown. It’s a lot safer to book hotel pick-up services instead of attempting to flag down local rickshaws and taxis after evening hours, although these cost a little more.

When booking flights that require transit, bear in mind that many Indian airports will not allow you into the airport premises until 2 or 3 hours before your actual flight. I have spent long hours waiting outside airports because they just wouldn’t let me in. They’re especially strict at the Delhi and Chennai international airports. Thankfully, I travel with a yoga mat, so I just roll that out on the floor and read a book until it’s time to go in.

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2. Book transportation and accommodation in advance. This applies to the major stuff in your plans, such as flights and hotels. You really don’t want to risk ending up somewhere and finding out that all the ‘decent’ hotels are fully booked and you have nowhere to stay for the night. There are just too many dodgy characters waiting around to take advantage of desperate, clueless foreigners.

The same applies to transportation; it’s just much safer and better for your peace of mind when you know you have a driver waiting to pick you up. As with most third-world countries, there are touts everywhere who will harass and try to rip you off, especially if it’s obvious that you’re not local. Most reputable travel agencies have websites and are very responsive to online enquiries. Do some research and see which one has the best reviews – TripAdvisor is a great place to start. I have always booked everything online, from transportation to hotels and even ashram stays, even for less-touristy places like Rishikesh.

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3. Carry credit cards and make sure they work. Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere in India these days, which is wonderful. Often, they’re lifesavers during an emergency.

Before you travel, inform your credit card company so that your card doesn’t get blocked (they may assume it was stolen if you try to use it at a new location). Check that your cards aren’t maxed out, and settle your minimal monthly payments before you travel.

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ISKCON Temple, Delhi – September 2016

4. Dress modestly. Many modern Indian men are well-educated, decent and have a global mindset when it comes female attire. However, as with anywhere in the world, people have differing mentalities. I would suggest that you carry a few large, lightweight cotton shawls that you can use to cover your chest and shoulders when you need to (for example, if you’re taking a public bus – this will prevent perverts staring down your cleavage).

Dressing like a local Indian woman will also get you much respect and appreciation everywhere. I noticed that I received exceptionally good treatment when I was dressed in a saree or other ethnic Indian attire – Indians love it when you embrace their culture, and will be more inclined to help you and treat you well.

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Ashram Schedule, Rishikesh – September 2016

5. Carry adequate medication and sort out your vaccinations before traveling. Imagine getting a bad case of food poisoning when you’re travelling alone, in a country known for bad toilets and overcrowded hospitals. Absolutely not worth it, especially if you pass out somewhere and end up at the mercy of strangers. Ask your doctor for emergency medication for diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, flu and allergies. Get your vaccinations in advance to ensure they’ll be effective by the time you travel.

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Women’s Dorm at Meenakshi Ashram, Madurai – February 2017

6. Have addresses and contact numbers handy. It really helps to carry full addresses and phone numbers with you in India, especially those of friends, relatives, hotels, ashrams, your country’s embassy and places you want to visit on your own.

Note down landmarks and nearby streets when possible, as this can help the local drivers locate your address easier. Many street names are similar in India, and this will save you time. Don’t rely solely on your phone – even the best technology can fail. I strongly recommend that you print these out.

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Unpacking at Hare Krishna Hills, Delhi – September 2016

7. Don’t underestimate the heat. This is especially true if you’re pale-skinned and not used to scorching sun, especially the burning South Indian heat. Stay hydrated, pack enough sunscreen, carry protective eyewear and something to cover your head.

8. Carry ‘special needs’ items with you. Some things are notoriously hard to find in India, especially in more remote areas. This includes tampons, tweezers, contact lens solution, specific types of skin care and certain OTC medication.

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Waiting Outside Chennai International Airport – February 2017

9. Don’t take unnecessary risks. I definitely believe one shouldn’t be too careful when traveling. However, if you ask me, India is not the place to be reckless, especially not when you’re a woman traveling alone. Your safety is priority at all times. Eat at clean places. Drink only boiled water or hygienically-packaged drinks. When you go out alone, tell your hotel where you’re going and what time to expect you back. Don’t accept rides, food or drinks from strangers (you can decline politely with a made-up excuse if you don’t want to hurt their feelings).

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Lakshman Jhula Bridge, Rishikesh – September 2016

10. Notify your country’s embassy before you travel. This may seem like an extreme measure, but I do this if I’m travelling to remote places alone. I email copies of my passport, travel documentation and a brief travel itinerary to my country’s embassy. In case of an emergency such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, it’ll make things a lot easier for the authorities to locate you and send help.

See Also:

Ashram Vacations: An Introduction

Hiking Equipment Review: Deuter AirContact 40+10 SL