Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Thailand | Oasis Yoga Bungalows, Koh Lanta

When we decided to stay on just one island during our time in Thailand, Koh Lanta was my first choice. From what I'd read it had everything the better known islands had to offer, without the crowds. My second must do, was to stay in a bungalow near the beach. When I came across Oasis Yoga Bungalows, it was a no brainer.


We arrived in the evening, after being collected from Krabi airport and driven for two hours, including a ferry ride to the island, and the sun had gone down. Even in the dark, we fell in love! 


The Bungalows are literally just a minute's walk to Khlong Dao Beach. On our first night, owner Farra directed us to Easy Bar on the beach for something to eat & the Indian Bar next door for drinks. We ended up visiting the Indian Bar every night we spent on the island! 


Our bungalow was perfectly simplistic with beautifully natural decor. It had everything we needed - a comfy bed, toilet, shower, towels, air con, a fridge and even reusable water bottles. No TV - why would you need one?! Our little porch housed a wooden table and chairs, surrounded by tropical greenery, and looked out over the pool. A little lizard come to visit while we chilled out on the porch one day.


Koh Lanta & Oasis are very eco-friendly, adopting recycling and composting as ways to manage waste, and encouraging people to use refillable Trash Hero bottles (which you can fill at a number of businesses all over the island!) to reduce plastic. Smoking is banned on the beaches (to avoid cigarette tabs) and lots of restaurants have stopped using plastic straws too.

I swear he was happy...

Speaking of restaurants, the Oasis health bar was a particular highlight. We ate breakfast/brunch here every morning - not only was it convenient but the food was tasty, nutritious and very reasonably priced. As bungalow guests, we could help ourselves to tea and coffee any time too. Tacos were my personal favourite - both the Sunrise tacos with black beans and fried egg, and the baja style fish tacos were an absolute treat!


Of course we couldn't come to Oasis Yoga Bungalows and not check out the yoga. As staying guests, we got 20% off classes. I don't practice yoga as regularly as I'd like, and didn't make it to as many classes as I'd hoped to here either, but I'm so glad I did try it. If there's one moment in my life where I've felt truly, ridiculously lucky, it was practising my downward dogs in a treehouse, surrounded by nature, the sounds of all sorts of birds and beasts, just minutes from the beautiful beach on Koh Lanta.


Kate & Farra made us feel so welcome and completely at home at Oasis Yoga Bungalows. Shout out to Nook for being so incredibly friendly and helpful, and doing it all with a smile! She arranged for us to hire a scooter for our stay, which was delivered to & collected from reception (500THB/£11.45* for 2 days) and even organised us a laundry service (50THB/£1.14* per kg, if I remember right). I wouldn't stay anywhere else.


We paid 5400THB (approx* £124) for 3 nights in November, plus 2000THB (£46*) for airport transfer.
You can find out more about Oasis & book online here.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Thailand | Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai

For most of us, when we think of holidays in Thailand, images of perfect sandy beaches are the first thing that comes to mind. Second, is elephants. We've all seen the cheesy smiles of tourists posing excitedly next to these giant grey animals, and probably a few of people sitting on top of them in great big over bearing wooden structures too.


Here's the thing - elephants are not meant to be ridden. Their backs, despite their size, are not designed to hold any weight. Plus, it's kinda unnatural for a wild elephant just to let a random human jump on it's back right? These elephants are often illegally taken from the wild, beaten and tortured until their spirit is broken, and then taught forced to do tricks or let people ride them. Even after all that, the mahouts still use bull hooks to bully them into doing their "job". It's cruel and completely unethical. So while I wanted to see them, I did not want to book an elephant ride or support any company who offers them.


After a good bit of research, we whittled it down to two sanctuaries near Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park (the most well known ethical sanctuary) was already fully booked, so Elephant Jungle Sanctuary it was. I read lots of reviews, from Trip Advisor to blog posts, before going ahead and booking a full day package for the day of Gordon's birthday.  


We were picked up from our hotel around 8am, and made our way to the hills with another 6 tourists. Perched on benches in the back of an open 4x4 vehicle for nearly two hours, we got to know our companions pretty well and hear about their adventures. The end part of the journey is fairly steep through the mountains, and extremely bumpy down the dirt roads to the final destination. We lived to tell the tale obviously but I feel like it should come with a warning - nobody mentioned it in any of the reviews I read and I was not mentally prepared for it!


When we arrived at the sanctuary, we were introduced to our guide and each given a traditional Karen shirt to wear. After a brief introduction it was time to get stuck in and feed the elephants! A bunch of bananas in hand, we got up close and personal with these guys, feeding them one by one. Some were greedier than others and one stole my entire bunch of bananas with his trunk! There were plenty photo opportunities and EJS even have their own photographer capturing the experience to share on facebook.


We met three different groups of elephants, including one baby of a few months old, which of course everybody wanted a photo with. To be honest, Gordon and I kind of held back and watched a lot of what was going on. I felt like people were too focused on getting the perfect picture - doing it for the 'gram - than they were on the magnificence (and welfare) of the animals. Elephants were pushed back by mahouts if they tried to move whilst people were taking photos. By no means would I say we witnessed an animal being mistreated, but I did feel they should have been given the freedom to wander, and not forced to stand still to please some over enthusiastic tourist clinging onto their trunk.


A couple of hours of interacting with the elephants, we headed back to camp for lunch. I was unsure what to expect from a traditional style buffet but the fried rice, chicken and veg was actually really tasty! We had a good laugh making medicine balls for the elephants too - men went off to do manly stuff (smashing up bark) while the women mashed bananas and rice to complete the mixture.


For the final part of the experience, we changed into our swimwear and headed down to the river. We fed the medicine balls to a group of elephants, before leading them for a mud bath! This was such a surreal way to get to know the elephants! They seemed to really enjoy it and a few people in our group joined in getting ridiculously muddy themselves!


Finally, we walked over to the river with these gentle giants still caked in mud, ready to wash it all off. I think this was probably my favourite part of the day. The elephants rolled around in the water, letting us splash them and spraying back with their trunks!



We loved our day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, but I do have a few issues with the experience. Firstly, the photo situation I mentioned before. While there's no riding and it's definitely more ethical than some places I've heard about, I still felt like the experience was more about the tourists - to entertain them and give them what they want - rather than about the welfare of the animals. 


Secondly, while the guides did seem to care for them and treat them well, they couldn't fully answer our questions about some marks on an elephant's ears. We were given a mumbled reply - something about infection, many years ago. In fact, we weren't given any information about the elephants history, how they came to be at the sanctuary or what EJS is doing to help the situation. There were some signs at the camp about the mistreatment of elephants and why they don't offer rides but it was never discussed. 


I don't want to end on a negative, but I couldn't write this and not mention my concerns. We did enjoy our day at EJS and we didn't see any actual mistreatment - I just wish there was a little more education and for tourists to take a step back and give the animals some space when they need it. 

We paid 2400THB each (£111 total) for the full day experience at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai and booked in advance online. This included lunch and transportation! 

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Hello 2018!

Happy New Year! Feliz Año Nuevo!




One of my goals for 2017 was to learn a little Spanish and I did! Not much but enough to get by on the basics, thanks to the Coffee Break Spanish podcasts. I really must get back into listening to them on my walk to work - we've just booked a trip to Spain for April so I should probably brush up a bit. That's one of my favourite parts of a new year - looking ahead and thinking about all the adventures we could plan for the next 12 months.


With that in mind, I'm looking at everything I managed to achieve last year and setting myself some new goals for this one. I can tick off running a half marathon, discovering Thailand, almost bagging two more munros (Lochnagar keeps getting the better of me), learning Spanish, reading more and alphabet dating with my husband - we've reached the letter L!



Goals for 2018

Travel, travel, travel! We've already booked two trips this year - to London for the Harry Potter Studio Tour(!) and to Seville & Ronda in Spain. Thailand last year took up 2 weeks of my annual leave so this year we'd like to spread out smaller, cheaper city breaks throughout the year. I definitely want to visit a country I've never been to before at some point in 2018.

Exercise more - because it makes me feel good and I actually enjoy it, not to save me from getting fat.

Finally bag Lochnagar! After two failed attempts in 2017, I'm determined to reach the summit this year.


Drive the North Coast 500 - Or walk the West Highland Way? Either way, I'd like to camp and avoid midge season as much as possible, while still getting warm-ish weather... Any tips?!

Use less plastic. Plastic is polluting the seas on a massive scale - something which I witnessed myself in Thailand. We bought reusable Trash Hero bottles on Koh Lanta & haven't bought a plastic bottle of water since. I need to start carrying reusable bags everywhere instead of just the supermarket, and stop using straws too. I'm also going to make more of an effort to avoid food waste at home.

Social Media - I'm aiming to post on Dinner Stories facebook page every day, and double my following on Instagram. Because why the hell not? And on that note, follow us here!

Monday, 1 January 2018

Spirit of North Hop

As the new year begins, I find myself looking back on 2017 and all the fun things that happened. One of my favourite events of the year was the inaugural Spirit of North Hop festival. Fans of North Hop will already know what it's all about - good drinks, good food & good times. But the Spirit was something a little different.


Showcasing some of the best spirits Scotland has to offer, the festival featured 18 distilleries, a Prosecco bar, bottle bar, three awesome food vendors and a fab mini local market too. As North Hop's north east ambassador I was at both sessions - meaning the chance to try twice as much of the offerings!


Spirits

Each bar was located around the exhibition area as they would be on a map of Scotland. In my opinion the best way to enjoy the festival was to make your way around each one, sampling a 5ml taster of each spirit as you go, and then heading back for a cocktail or perfect serve from your favourites. With plenty food breaks in between of course!


My personal favourites included Misty Isle gin from none other than the Isle of Skye and the blood orange cocktails from Stirling Gin! I couldn't resist buying a bottle of my ultimate favourite spirit though - Shetland Reel's original gin. Gordon purchased the Glenrothes Vintage whisky and fell in love with UWA Tequila's cocktails! Laura was a big fan of El:gin's Moray Mocha, and I managed to hunt down a bottle for her this Christmas - it makes a mean Espresso Martini!


Street Food

What is a festival without street food?! Three epic eateries made choosing what to eat ridiculously difficult. Salt & Sauce were lining stomachs with poutine, mac & cheese and unreal footlong hot dogs. I nursed my hangover with a plateful of Fresh Mex cheesy nachos, piled with guac but it was Yatai that really stole my heart. Incredible spicy pork gyoza and their famous bao buns were a big hit! Really looking forward to seeing them out and about in Aberdeen more.


Market

For some of the best boozy merch, the market had everything covered. From Bakery Lane was providing the sweet treats including Esker Gin cupcakes and Teasmith grapefruit gin marmalade! Juniper Press was on hand with the usual gorgeous prints and Curated Stories pop up shop showcased all their best beer books and gorgeous glassware. Bon Accord drinks had a selection of soft drinks to pair with your spirits for the perfect serve at home!


After Party

As if two sessions in one day weren't enough, the party continued well into the night with live music and cocktails down at Orchid! The team had rustled up a special menu featuring some of the exhibited spirits - the Seawolf Daquiri and Braemble Bramble were a delight!


Towards the end of 2017 festival director Michelle announced the end of North Hop as we know it. Sad news but when one door closes, another one opens! I'm looking forward to seeing what's next for my favourite festival. It's been an absolute honour to be involved with the team and see the immense passion and hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make each and every event possible. Don't miss the final fling at the AECC in March!
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