Returning to SE Asia after a 14-year hiatus

Hot-air balloon ride over Bagan's ancient temples

Hot-air balloon ride over Bagan’s ancient temples

Late last year it started again. The urges. The feeling in the deep pit of my stomach. It happens every couple of years or so and I knew what it was screaming for once again: that I must dust off the dirt that had languished on my grotty backpack and go travelling. The direction was clear. Two years ago I was forced to discard a trip to SE Asia in favour of another adventure – buying a place in Margate.


A treehouse overlooking the jungle in Myanmar’s Shan state

Two years on and I knew now was the time – and perfect opportunity – to finally head back to Asia, 14 years after I’d last ventured to the region. Not wanting to dig too much into my savings, I planned to work and travel. It was all rather last-minute – my flight was to depart three weeks later. All I knew was that I would fly in and out of Kuala Lumpur. What was to happen next would be decided once I landed, in hindsight perhaps not to best mindset when you’re facing the twin joys of jetlag and insomnia. The first destination ended up being Vietnam, a country I’d heard friends rave about over the past few years. It didn’t disappoint. I think I’ll always remember my first meal in the country – bulging fresh spring rolls in a busy colourful cafe in Saigon. If this was just the beginning of my Vietnamese culinary journey then boy, was I in for an unforgettable trip. Steaming bowls of pho for breakfast became standard. Rice became my staple. A history buff, the country’s wounded past got under my skin, and the tears welled up reading upsetting stories of the impact of the Vietnam War in the War Remnants Museum. On the flip side, cycling around a village outside of Can Tho with children running outside their homes to greet me, lit me up. I ended up in a backpacker dive bar in Hoi An, lapped up a five-star spa hotel experience at Fusion Resort Phu Quoc (an assignment that didn’t disappoint – I mean how often can you order a golf buggy to hoist your ass down to the beach?), discovered a network of astonishing caves located near Phong Nha, and set sail along Halong Bay, which, whilst overcrowded was still a magical experience.


Travelling over the Gokteik Viaduct, a spectacular railway bridge connecting two mountains in Myanmar

While Vietnam was good for the soul, it was Burma, which grabbed hold of my heart. Minutes after setting foot on Myanmar soil, when rival taxi companies to our ordered Uber were trying to find our lost driver, “Uber, Uber,” bellowed the men in their shirts and coloured longyi in the soaring humidity outside the airport, I knew this country would enrapture me. If rivals were trying to help each other, what could I expect from everyone else? The graciousness and kindness of the Burmese is something I’ll never forget. In Bagan, a shopkeeper with poor English spotted an almost hidden mosquito bite on my ankle and swiftly pulled out a glass jar to dish out some leaves for me to rub on the red swelling bite; she pushed another bunch in my hand to keep for later. When I fell ill, guesthouse staff looked after me. While the streets of Yangon are hectic, with people cooking up dishes on every corner, there’s still a calmness and amongst the locals. In Yangon I cooled off by doing laps in the swimming pool at the sumptuous Chatrium Hotel, where rooms overlook the Kandawgyi Lake.


The spectacular Paradise Cave in Phong Nha, Vietnam

I’m now in Bali, which feels like a world away from the two other countries. I had been warned. Still, I didn’t expect to see two Ralph Lauren stores in Ubud, the spiritual village made famous by Eat Pray Love, and which is sadly perhaps paying the price for the over-exposure that’s followed. Still, the food is healthy and delicious (think tofu curries and green shakes) and I’m making the most of the opportunity to work everyday from a homestay where the fast Wifi and huge veranda terrace that comes complete with scenic views of coconut palms and towering ferns, is proving rather addictive. Every day I end up booking another night’s stay. Namaste, indeed. (Don’t worry, there’s no yogi about to be unleashed).


Tegallalang Rice Terrace in Ubud

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A Roman escapade

IMG_8217What can I possibly tell you about Rome that you don’t already know? I felt like one of the last people to have ever visited the Italian city. Apparently everyone has been. And not just once either. It’s a destination many have clocked up some serious hours over two or three occasions.

My Roman holiday very nearly didn’t happen because two hours before I was due to set off on my first proper holiday for a year, I looked in the mirror and located a mini-golf ball size lump inside my mouth. So that’s how I found myself 45 minutes later at the dentist, where she pronounced a mouth/tooth infection and handed over a slip for me to collect a round of antibiotics that scores of Mumsnetters deemed to be worse that the illness for which they’d been prescribed it for. Ever an optimist (or cynical optimist) I grabbed my suitcase after I cycled back from the dentist in a frenzy and set off on the train. But, alas, when I reached Rochester, my mouth throbbing, I hastily made a U-turn and jumped off.

img_8178.jpgFour days later, feeling much healthier and no golf ball in sight, I rebooked everything, including a cute Airbnb in the leafy suburb of Garbatella, staying with fellow journalist Chiara. I flew over armed with a notebook with a few scribbled down recommendations, one of which was a restaurant near Trevi Fountain that left me a good few euros out of pocket after the truffle pasta highly advised by the disgruntled waiter (they were all pretty miserable in there) turned out to be an eye-watering €35. Probably more than I’ve ever spent on pasta in a year.

So apart from being left high and dry, what else did I get up to? I soaked up the very hot rays in the Villa Borghese gardens until a man sat two metres away (there’s five hectares available, why does this always happen?), took his top off and spent the next hour staring at me. I skipped the dreaded queues at the absolutely glorious Colosseum by visiting around 5.30pm (and using the Roma Pass to bypass the other late-comers). I spent hours hoarded around the Vatican like a sheep. I had a weird – one of those days – on the Wednesday, when I thought I’d head to the beach on the scorching hot day.  What I wanted and what I received were two very different things. Instead, the entire journey went from one mishap to another, ending with finding myself 5km inland many hours after I originally set off, at a small village where I tried to hunt down someone who spoke English to find out where the hell I was. I’d jumped on the wrong bus and ended up in a village with a similar-ish name to the beach. By the time I reached the beach, it was 3.45pm, the beautiful blue skies had turned to grey clouds. There was zero chances of risking swishing about in the sea in my underwear. But hey, the day massively improved when I returned to Garbatella and I hit the gelato (always three scoops at a time, please) but resting face returned after I pulled a vegetarian fried courgette flower out of my mouth and discovered some kind of animal flesh. “Ah, I forgot to say,” admitted the waiter as I vomited into the tissue.


But otherwise the trip was filled with the sweet smell of jasmine as I roamed Rome happy as a lark. The Protestant cemetery, also a cat sanctuary, was the most tranquil spot away from the busy streets of Rome. I stocked up on Burning Man outfits at a vintage store I came across in the Monti neighbourhood Monti. I tried (very easily) to eat gelato twice a day, of course having it for my first meal of the day one day, and squeezed in a visit to Eataly (think the Selfridges of Italian food).

I’ve returned with light dusting of freckles, a spring in my step, and a burning desire to grab my 13-year-old backpack and take off for some extensive travelling later this year/early next year. Ciao, bella!

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A month in Europe’s coolest city, Lisbon


In 2016 I thought I’d be living in Berlin, hanging out at hip bars and derelict clubs and reporting from the city that pulled at my heartstrings the year before. But life has a funny way of turning out. Instead, after reading an article on Margate, my head was spun in a very different direction. “I’m going to move to Margate,” were the words I found myself unexpectedly announcing to those around me. I might have been almost welded to London and other major cities, but my gut screamed Margate. A couple of weeks later, deposit and mortgage broker hastily arranged, I arrived armed with a notepad and pen for a day of viewings. I saw my flat (and knew it was the one as soon as I walked in and caught the high ceilings and skylights), had a glass of wine at a lovely pub down the road, caught a mesmerizing sunset, and I knew this would be my new home.

So Berlin was out the window, and instead six to eight months of my life was spent waiting for my flat to go through (I encountered a few bumpy curveballs like gazumping but hey that’s the rocky road of buying a place, I soon discovered). But it also meant I could wangle a stint in Lisbon towards the end of that maddening wait. The infamous Web Summit was on, I felt the lure of getting my teeth stuck into a new city and digging out some new stories, and so I packed up the contents of my flat, put my stuff in storage and flew to Lisbon. On the same day. Even for the most laid back person, that doesn’t come highly recommended.


But Lisbon was just what the soul needed. The sun on my face, trips to the beach, new neighbourhoods to explore, thighs like steel from climbing 1,452 stairs back to my Airbnb, and new people to hang out with. It was exciting, as any stint abroad usually is. I stayed in a co-living place which I wrote for the Guardian, reported from Web Summit, met entrepreneurs for other features, bought beautiful ceramics, hung out at far too many miradors and rooftop bars – Lisbon will give any city a run for its money when it comes to killer views – and knocked back as many caipirinhas as you can when they’re selling for several euros a pop.


The passion of those living in Lisbon also rubbed off a little. Everyone there – from taxi drivers to small business owners – were excited by the ripple of tourism the city is currently experiencing. My taxi driver from the airport slowed down his car and pointed out his favourite restaurants, a government official guided me around a new space for entrepreneurs. You could almost feel it in the air that something special was happening – and perhaps because of the crazy level of road works, you were never far away from seeing the cusp of the change. And at a time when so many countries are closing their borders, Lisbon is very much welcoming everyone in. That in itself is worth raising a caipirinha for.

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Sizzling Sicily – The ultimate Italian road trip


The vistas from the Greek Ampitheater, Taormina

In May, I needed a holiday. My body ached for one, I was exhausted from working non-stop, typically six-day weeks. Yes, I’d hopped abroad for a city trip to Copenhagen in February but it was a working holiday with a whirlwind of interviews. By May, I was desperate for a break. I knew it needed to involve the three s’s (sun, sea and sand) but I yearned for more than your standard beach break. And so, after much research, it came down to Sardinia vs Sicily. If you caught the headline you’ll see that Sicily obviously triumphed, thanks to the extra pull of being culturally rich with Greco-Roman sites dotted across the island.

And what a brilliant decision that was, with Sicily proving to be a beautiful and interesting destination, combining everything I needed from a holiday. While the entire holiday was drenched in bliss, it kickstarted with luxury, thanks to two nights at a hotel that I never wanted to leave – and one my mind often flicks back to when I’m drowning in work and need an escape. That place is Monaci delle Terre Nere, a boutique hotel that was traditional yet contemporary and stood in the shadows of Mount Etna, where you could hear her rumbling on an evening.


Taking in the views from Monaci delle Terre Nere

We arrived and were bequeathed with samples of wine from the charismatic owners Guido and Ada, who had lovingly restored the property to create the most wonderful Italian getaway. In an hour I was slightly tipsy, and totally bowled over by the charms of the place. The rooms were all individual – some rustic and traditional (the first room we stayed in featured a former olive press) others modern and chic. A lavish breakfast set outside amongst the tall trees and with sweeping views of the coast, was filled with all kinds of delicacies – olive breads, lemon cakes, cheeses, fruits, meats and eggs. At Monaci delle Terre Nere I woke up at 5am to watch sunrise, I swam in the outdoor pool everyday, I relaxed in the hot tub. And while I could have spent the whole duration there just chilling with a glass of wine in hand, we escaped to Taormina where we sunbathed on Isabella beach and swam around large rocks before escaping up to the old town by cable car to walk around piazzas with pistachio and chocolate gelato and wander around the Teatro Greco, the old Greek theatre, which serves up magnificent views of the coastline and Mount Etna.


Relaxing and swimming by the rock pools in Ortigia 

From there we headed south of the island and stayed on the pretty island of Ortigia, where you can get lost among the cute, cobbled streets. Here we watched (and tried to get our heads around) a Greek play in Italian, climbed down a very long ladder to head to the rock pools where we swam alone and hungrily got stuck into a packed lunch from the local market. The highlight was of course a super long baguette filled with mozzarella, oregano and salad that was knocked up by an old, well-known guy in the market who has been making the best sandwiches in town for years. Do visit the market and fill your bag with herbs and nuts to bring back home.

We stayed in the super-cute Le Lumie B&B in Modica, a beautiful city with sandstone ridges, and where we ate one of the best meals of our lives (I have never tasted ricotta so good). We visited the Baroque cities of Noto, where it was time for more sightseeing and gelato, and Ragusa, where the most welcoming Italian waiter supplied us with extra nibbles and lots of chat when we made a pit stop for coffee and cocktails.


The Valley of the Temples 

By Sicilian standards, it was an almighty road trip around the island. From the Baroque cities we broke up the journey to see the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, before reaching Castellamare del Golfo, in the north west of the island, late at night. Arriving tired and exhausted from a day of sightseeing and driving in the car, we were overjoyed when the owner of the apartment we had booked greeted us with a large pizza box (just 15 minutes before arriving we had discussed how we might order takeaway) and handed us the keys to the room with soul-stirring vistas of the mountains and sea. Oh, and we had a hammock (which admittedly, left me bruised me. Don’t ask). It was divine. During those last few days of the holiday we discovered small, isolated beaches, where we sunbathed and swam out to the rocks, and walked in the picturesque national park. It was bliss.

Thankfully, Sicily proved to be the respite I had craved for. Although we explored heavily, there was still lots of downtime at the beach, much much swimming, lots of gelato stops (pistachio was one of my favourites) and so many memorable lunches and dinners. I returned slightly sun-kissed and happy. What more could you ask for?


Paradise? The Natural Reserve of the Zingaro


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A warm embrace for a cool Copenhagen


Colourful Copenhagen

Oh, Scandinavia. How I’ve lusted after your designs, been drawn into your noir crime dramas and envied your off-the-scale happiness levels. I’m not sure it was any of these factors that compelled me to book a trip to Copenhagen in February. I put the urge down to so many friends flocking to the Danish city and coming back raving about it, and how every travel supplement I opened included an interesting write-up on the cool, happening city. I needed a break and there were stories there I wanted to write about. And so that’s how, several days after booking my flights, I found myself in Norrebro, the kind of Stokey equivalent of Copenhagen, in a cool light Airbnb apartment setting me back around £18 per night.



Bowled over by the architect beauty Louisiana 

It proved to a an insightful and fun trip, although a break it wasn’t. I landed – and then dived into a constant stream of interviewing people across the city over the next five days; a couple of hours after arriving I visited a co-working space and interviewed several tech startups. An hour later I was tucking into pizza and a bottle of red with the city’s most talked-about startup in another suburb. The next morning started with a 9am interview in a graveyard peppered with a light spray of snow. I spent my Saturday afternoon in the homes of two residents of Christiania, the city’s freetown. Later that night I hung out with the tech startups from the first evening. On Sunday evening I dined amongst 200 strangers in a church. Though there were a few non-work related jaunts (a trip to arts museum Louisiana, diving into local food markets, dinner with a stranger I met via Airbnb at her boyfriend’s hip new Nordic restaurant in the Meatpacking District, visiting the Botanical Gardens), it was these work endeavours that threw me into the city with vigour. I got to know the locals, came away with interesting stories and felt like I’d (kind of) got to grips with the city. And that’s kind of what you want from a trip, right?



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Travel agenda for 2016

Well last year’s travel adventures were an absolute blast. From a five-day trip to Madrid in March and a festival/spa downtime in Porto, it was mainly a home and European focus, with weekend trips to Wales, the New Forest and Durham, and of course a strong show on the festival circuit.

The bigger trip came later in October, when I decided – or rather I had an unwavering urge – to pack my bags (and most importantly, my laptop), and work from another European city. Where should I go? Paris or Berlin? And so Berlin, with her cool, crazy, fun-loving open attitude, took me in. Those five weeks were brilliant, feeling like I was breathing, living life – a feeling that usually runs through my body like a current when I remove myself from my day-to-day life and go travelling or living abroad.

And so I returned back to London but Berlin tugged has tugged my heart so much that the plan is to head back to the German capital once again for an unknown length of time. My future travel plans are dictated by Berlin, so I expect German adventures to feature heavily.

I am aching to go to Sri Lanka, Burma or Cuba, sun-filled destinations (in the right months) intertwined with history and beautiful landscapes, but that may come later in the year. Trips to the still very hip Copenhagen and Paris are also firmly in my mind.

And so to 2016, here’s wishing you all a year of happy, safe and responsible travel.



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A spell in cool Berlin beckons

Berlin | OberbaumbrückeWhen I returned from my 15-month backpacking adventure in 2003, my mother was overjoyed, “You’ve got it out of your system now.” Not so fast, mother hen. Fast-forward to a decade later, and the urge for travel and adventure and a life less ordinary still beats strongly inside. A couple of years on from jaunts to New York, and I’m yearning for another adventure.

And so this time, I’ve set my sights on a short stint in Berlin. For me, going on holiday – while escaping and alluring as it is – doesn’t dig deep enough to really feel the pulse of a place. I love temporarily residing in a city, going for jogs in the local park, discovering the best street food market or wandering across a little candlelit bar on the way back home to my apartment.

In true Susie fashion, it’s a rather last-minute affair. While the Airbnb apartment in Berlin’s creative neighbourhood Kreuzberg is booked and I’ve bagged a couple of commissions on Berlin, I still need to book my flights but there’s still time (looks at the calendar at the ten days or so I’ve got left) and ideally I would have brushed up on my German. But that’s the joy of spontaneity – finding yourself in Berlin with a couple of suitcases and an open book.

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