One day in Sintra … city of kings!

Sintra had not been on my original travel plans, but something I picked up on the way. It was anyway just possible after I completed the fisherman’s way quicker than expected. So why Sintra? Well, it’s basically a really nice town and world heritage site located about 40mins from Lisbon by train. A really worthwhile day trip I found – completely different from the outdoor experience of the fisherman’s trail.


Sintra’s charm stems from several royal estates and palaces that bring along a lot of history (full wiki info here). I visited palace of Sintra, the impressive Pena national palace (looks like a castle from a fairytale) and Monserrate (with it’s amazing gardens) – to do all at once is too much for one day unless you just want to race through the estates. You can visit them using the local bus services (EUR12,50 per day, see map above). I skipped the visit to mainland Europe’s westernmost point Cabo da Roca (see here) for reasons of poor weather … rain had really caught up with me after a sunny week … and it was foggy as hell.


Saxon Kings in Portugal

I was a little surprised to see the german royals of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld mentioned on a large board in Pena palace. Indeed, Ferdinand the nephew of the duke Ernest I. married the Portuguese queen Maria II. and rules Portugal until the country became a republic in 1910. Ernest is no nobody, having fathered Prince Albert who later married Queen Victoria of England and thus the progenitor of the current royal family.


Naturally, the downside is that Sintra attracts heaps of tourists, which impacts the atmosphere and most certainly the pricing – I felt like being back in London. It’s wise to get early to Sintra (before the train that arrives 11am) to see place like Pena before all the day trippers and organised tours arrive.

Pena national palace


Sintra Palace




And then it was time to return to a totally frozen London. The airport was pretty busy, but my own mood had picked up from what was a day of many thoughts for me. Back to winter sports and most importantly, Alex!

View from my house the next morning




A few days in Krabi (1): Aonang & Koh Phi Phi

My trip south to Krabi was not entirely of my own making, but a good location to meet my good friend & former Morgan Stanley colleague Ioana. She works in Singapore nowadays and jetted over for the weekend. My journey from Koh Phangan was a straightforward 4,5h boat & ferry combo (seemingly as much time as Ioana needed to clear immigration ;o).

We actually didn’t stay in Krabi town, but rather Aonang (the main tourist hub) some 15km to the west. While there was much to catch-up about, we didn’t last too long on Friday and retired fairly early after a brief look around town, some (Indian) food and a bit of live music. I really loved the aircon, a hot shower and nice bed linen in our ‘kokotel oasis’ hotel after three weeks in a very basic bamboo hut on Koh Phangan. Sleep tight!


For Saturday we decided on a day trip to the Koh Phi Phi islands by speedboat. It wasn’t straightforward to locate the boat, but worked out eventually. The whole trip (THB2600, lunch/water included) is pretty scenic, gets you to a few different islands and involves some snorkelling too (well, for those that brought their swimsuit). The typical 8hour tour includes stops at monkey beach, maya bay (featured in Leonardo Di Caprio movie “the beach”), viking cave (locals collect swallow nests here), lunch at Phi Phi Don, Bamboo island and Pileh Bay (beautiful lagoon ).

Not sure it’s really good value for money, but given we had done little research beforehand it was a good choice to spend the day. I even got my Russian homework done while we hopped from island to island … puhhh. Initially we thought to just take the ferry to Koh Phi Phi (much cheaper), but unless you go there only to hang out on the beach or to stay there it’s not advisable in my view.

After some ok-ish Thaifood in a family restaurant, Ioana managed to get her Thai massage (a steal for anyone knowing Singapore price levels at ca USD10 per hour) while I enjoyed some good live music in one of the many pubs / bars in Aonang. I kept wondering though where the Thai people were given there were mostly tourists around (which I found reasonably annoying to be frank).

Sunday was already the last day for Ioana in Thailand (though she will be back shortly with her family up North in Chiang Mai). We went down the cultural route and visited the Tiger Cave Temple involving your typical temple buildings, a jungle trek and (for me at least) a 1,200 step hike to a viewing point. The steps are very steep (think of a staircase in a Dutch canal house) and together with the heat make for a good work out. There is free drinking water at the top.

And so quickly time was up! Ioana jetted off to the airport while I made my way back to the hotel for my Russian skype class and pickup for the sunset kayaking later in the afternoon.

Hello Thailand & Koh Phangan: Muay Thai training begins

Pretty eventful the time in Thailand so far. Looking forward to spending another month here and improve fitness and my Muay Thai skills. 

NYE in Bangkok: Given the late arrival from Bahrain (9pm) things had to work out should I want to make it to my NYE party. They did, with immigration and luggage picked up swiftly as well as a speedy new SIM card (still can’t believe that BT mobile is allowed to charge clients GBP5/MB roaming … thieves!). My hotel was in the area Sukhumvit, as recommended by friend & DJ of the night Tim. By 11pm and freshly showered (what a pleasure after this long journey) I made it to ‘Mango Tree on the river’ restaurant on which rooftop we would meet the new year.

It didn’t take long for me meet up with Jan & his friends. I met Jan briefly in London some years back, but we had our last night out many years ago in HK. Facebook helped to discover that we are both in BKK for NYE. Much to talk about! The party was good and the location offered some great views over Bangkok and its rivers though I understand last year there was more fireworks visible. Once we had all greeted 2018, Jan’s girlfriend left … giving us the time to go out for a walk and talk on the way. It didn’t take long until we stumbled into a Buddhist celebration, enjoyed a ride on the Tuk-Tuk and a last beer before Jan called it quits. I continued to explore the city for a while after though was surprised that just few bars (other than the infamous go-go bars) were open late on NYE. 

Not having slept in a proper bed since my last night in London meant that I didn’t see much of the daylight on new years day, but finally made it into the buzzing streets of Bangkok in the afternoon. I stayed mainly in the Sukhumvit area (expat dominated & expensive) and enjoyed some good banter with a few lads outside an Irish pub (the toilet of which boast with really funny scriptures, see below). There was Al (a 51y resident of Bangkok, originally from the US, brought mass mailings to Thailand) and there was John (working in BKK for 6mth, also US) and a bit later was a Scottish guy (professional caddy as it was). Al was the funniest of them all. He could not only do the Michael Jackson dance, but also perform the Superman (happy to show to anyone as & when we meet ;o). Over a few beers we discussed quite a range of things from running styles to (very strange) sexual preferences of Japanese girls as reported by our Scottish caddy. Proper boys round I guess. Later at night we hit the Nana area with plenty of bars and life music. Needless to say … it got pretty late again. On the way home I even managed to enjoy some Thai strreetfood with one of the many ladyboys … 

Getting to Koh Phangan: Initially I wanted to go to the island by night train to Surat Thani and then a ferry. However, tickets were sold out and hence I got myself a late flight into Surat Thani. The night in the airport hostel was lets say practicable be it not overly nice and very disorganised. Thai people can take a lot of time to do their things. Early morning back to the airport and onto a bus for 90mins after which a speed ferry takes you to Koh Samui (2h) and then Koh Phangan (30min). All in for 500THB, not bad. 

May Thai Training begins: At the pier it was pretty busy, as many partygoers returned from the monthly full moon party (for which the island is known). The Diamond Muay Thai gym and camp is only a 10-15min walk away from the pier. I skipped the taxi option and carried my stuff the short way … which under the blazing sun turned into my first training session I guess. At the camp some private training was in progress and the check in to my bungalow very straightforward. My new home for four weeks. Basic as can be without toilet, shower or A/C (and with a funky, pink moquito net ;o). Next to the camp is the kitchen with its fruit bar and laundry service.

Muay Thai sessions are held twice a day (except Sundays) at 8-10am & 4-6pm and you can opt for additional yoga and fitness classes each day (if you can manage). I joined the afternoon session and despite my preparation in Colombia it was a tough one, but so rewarding once you are done. Fitness will come through step by step over the coming weeks. Altogether I managed to squeeze in 5 sessions this week (and one yoga) before taking Saturday and Sunday off nursing some smaller injuries on both feet and my knee.

New friends & training partners: There loads of people coming and going here all the time. Many stay for a month and so time will overlap for a bit longer. So far I had some deeper conversations with Stefan (Germany) & Jason (AUS) – both conspiracy guys as well as with Frits from Holland who joined me on my Sunday temple tour. In general you find many German, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Australian and British folks in our camp. I really enjoy the positive atmosphere – be it during training or over post training meals. 

Exploring the island: Last week I managed to see a few places. Having a scooter really helps and is good fun to take a ride around. First up Mae Haad beach with its land bridge to Ko Ma island, then a temple tour with Frits on Sunday (Chinese temple, Wat Phu Khao Noi, Wat Pho) and the Phaeng waterfall. Many places offer great views over the island. I also visited the food market several times (there are actually a few, but one is more permanent in the centre and offers great food at low prices). On Saturday Stefan had a go at the insects offered at the food market near the pier. I tried some sort of bug – not that bad, but nothing to get too excited about either. We rounded up the week with a visit to one of the sunset bars – Top Rock bar – on Sunday. Great vibes, great views, great time.

Stopover in Bahrain

On my way to Thailand I decided to stopover in Bahrain. Nothing there attracted me specifically, but I figured it could be interesting for a day. Upon arrival all things went well be it that i was a little tired after only 6h or so flight. Fast immigration and rental car pick-up and a local SIM card (so i could do my Russian skype lesson). The way onwards proved a little harder …

Tree of life: My first stop was the tree of life, some 45min drive to the south (which takes you more than half way through the whole country). Not very impressive … basically a dessert all the way populated with loads of oil pumps and hardly any vegetation. That is why the tree has become an attraction – its a tree in the middle of nowhere. Nothing special really and i was glad i filled the time with a Russian skype lesson.

Back in the capital Manama things got a little better though the feeling was still weird. The sun was hot although it is winter and at 25 degress (in the shade) rather cold for this region. There was no life of the streets. Basically all live in the car and, as i found out later, in the shopping malls. Hard to find a parking spot there.

Al Fateh Grand Mosque: I visited the grand mosque, which is a rather young building completed only in 1988. The free tour provided some interesting insights into Islam although not many turned up for the midday prayer that day (5-10 people in a mosque with a capacity of 7,000). On the way out i even got a free copy of the koran in German.

Bahrain National Museum: A good place to go to learn about the old Bahrain as you learn about pre-petroleum trade & craftsmanship, family and other traditions. Nowadays not much of this is left … amazing how a country can change so quickly.


The pearl fishers of Bahrain

Pearling used to be one of the main industries for the country. For example, in 1905 there were some 17,500 pearl divers out of c99,000 population while in 1928/29 with 20,000 divers some 92% of tax revenues derived from pearling & related customs duties (levied on imports financed by the pearl trade). However, things changed with the global economic downturn 1930, as demand for this luxury good dropped. Add in the comprtition from Japanese cultured pearls and employment opportunities in the oil industry and come 1954 only 538 divers were left (1960 saw the end of pearling completely).

Qala’at al-Bahrain: This old Portuguese fort is one of the few historic buildings you find in Bahrain. Worth a stroll with some decent skyline views of the new Bahrain.

Once it got dark I made my way back to the airport. Refuelling was a pleasure at EUR0,35 or so a liter. The flight to Bangkok would depart at 10pm and so 7pm at the airport was plenty of time.

I met a Scottish guy in the airport pub (EUR10 a pint) who has been working in Saudi Arabia as aircraft mechanic. Every 3 month he gets 3w holiday, which he spends in Thailand. It appeared he tried to make up for 3mth dry period (alcohol wise) by downing quite a few Guinness … we ended up spending a lot longer in the bar than planned at fog led to a shutdown of the airport and a 10pm departure turned into a 10am departure. Crazy! Not comfortable! But some good times with mr Scotland and some Kuwaiti fellows.


In the end I made it to Thailand literally just in time for the NYE party … but clearly not as relaxed as I’d hoped. Not sure Bahrain will see me back again (well, return flight aside … fingers crossed its not foggy again).


Taganga: Still a great spot to get away from Santa Marta’s hustle & bustle

I hadn’t actually picked up on Taganga until Uri, my Israeli fellow Spanish student, mentioned to me. Its 10mins by car from Santa Marta, an Israeli hotspot and offers a way better beach than in the centre of Santa Marta and some good value watersports such as diving, kite surfing etc. It also boasts good accomodation including hotels, hostels & airbnbs (many with great seaviews) as well as many restaurants.

The lonely planet verdict is quite a bit more negative on Taganga in that it deems the place, once a quiet fishing village, as overbuilt and overrun. I share some of the criticism in particular that there local economy hasn’t participated enough in the tourist influx, but also like its evening charm.

Everything is just so close and with a good vibe altogether. Significantly less hassle than on the beachfront in central Santa Marta, much fewer street prostitutes (against what I had been told) and with a fair bit of Hippy touch as every second a guy tries to sell you a tribal wristband (I have 4 by now myself despite not buy any there).

Good place to relax for a few days and use as a base for nearby spots Tayrona & even Minca though for that Santa Marta itself cuts out one (bus) stopover.