The Anglo-Celtic Cup Golf Tour 2018 (Part 1 of 4)

Albufeira, Portugal • May 2018 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

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After seven hours spent reading John Steinbeck’s very average Cannery Row and intermittently staring out the window at the rolling English countryside, the train I rode on eventually trundled its way into Cheltenham Spa station. As is came to a hissing stop I lugged my golf clubs onto the platform, navigated my way through the ticket barrier, and entered the car park to be flooded by the baking south-west sun and the sight of two very familiar faces.

Seventeen months had passed since best friends and travelling companions George and Aaron had bid their farewells to me in Queenstown, but save a few additional stereotypical traveller tattoos their time spent bartending in Australia seemed to have treated them well. Our bromance had been forged over a month-long period circumnavigating New Zealand on a hop-on-hop-off party bus and served as the primary artery running through the pages of my third published paperback Kiwi, Kiwi. Such was the depth of our flashpacking relationship, we’d kept in frequent touch throughout our respective jaunts through Oceania, South-East Asia, Europe and back to the island we all called home.

George had been going on an annual team golf holiday for the previous six years, and as the event rolled around for its ninth showcase he’d asked if Aaron, myself, and their mutual friend Greg would like to be new recruits for the 12-man Celts team aiming to end a slew of English victories that stretched back for half a decade. Having started out as a lads’ weekend getaway the event had since grown arms and legs, with the forthcoming edition set to pit the two opposing teams against one another in a four-day Ryder Cup-style format on a pair of resort courses in Albufeira, Portugal. George had billed it as ‘the hardest four days of golf and drinking in the calendar year’ and I’d accepted and paid my deposit in a flash.

Absolutely ravenous following my journey down from Glasgow, I was delighted to hear that Aaron’s Grandpa had put on a barbecue for the whole family and that the invite had been extended out to myself. He had been born and raised in the Welsh valleys, hence Aaron’s link to the Celts team, and as I munched down a succulent burger and slugged on a bottle of beer he told me about his time spent bringing electricity to the Scottish isles, having seen Jonah Lomu make his international rugby debut for New Zealand as a teenager at the Hong Kong 7s, and asked questions about what my time on the road had been like in the company of his grandson. A truly humble and fascinating man.

A brief stop at the shops to stock up on sun cream also saw Aaron purchase the tightest pair of shorts alive (or so I thought…), before we went for a stroll around the Spa’s beautiful city centre where a jazz festival had been taking place that previous weekend. As the sun began to set and a chilly breeze blew through the air we then headed up to George's estate; the electric gates opening to a sweeping driveway that made the house on the hill look like a cross between a mafia hangout and the set of a rap music video. With our flight leaving from Gatwick at 6am the following morning, and a two hour drive to the airport standing in the way, we had a few ciders whilst reminiscing about life on the Kiwi bus before attempting to get a few hours shut-eye; Aaron and I sharing a bed in the spare room and the second hand of the clock on the wall taunting us with every tick-tock.

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Nothing but the two beams from the headlights illuminated our way as we whistled along the tree-lined single-lane roads of Gloucestershire’s backcountry, Aaron crushing a can of Red Bull behind the wheel, the digital dashboard clock reading 01:30, Lady Gaga spluttering through the radio static, and George asleep in the back as I rode shotgun. Greg, the d’Artagnan to our Three Musketeers status, had been a ‘softcock’. Instead of wanting to get up early for the drive he had travelled across to Gatwick the evening before and spent the night in an airport-adjoining hotel; the type of establishment where lonely businessmen get microwaved room service on expenses followed by handjobs from low-self-esteem escorts (or so I’ve heard?). At least he joined in on the round of 4am departure lounge pints after we’d wasted half-an-hour dragging the golf clubs from one end of the airport to the other in an attempt to find the oversized luggage bag drop.

Softcock - A gentleman who fails to meet the standards expected of him by his peers.

Speaking of our bags, George had been so concerned by our 20kg weight limit that he’d taken a set of bathroom scales out to the car with him so as to weigh the clubs once they’d been packed in their protective cases. His concerns about our breaching of the weight limit turned out to be unjustified, however, when the airport employee didn’t even bat an eyelid as she sent them along the conveyor belt. You’d have thought we were boarding the Apollo Space Shuttle as opposed to an Easyjet flight by the way his brow furrowed at the issue.

A few other lads were getting the same flight as us – Gerry, John Moore and Talbot – and we were to be sharing a shuttle to the resort with a bunch of guys from Bristol whose flight landed a short time after ours. The thirteen of us then had a practice round booked on the Faldo course for that afternoon before the eleven remaining participants arrived in the evening. I necked a double espresso during the wait – or a ‘beaker’ as I was so informed they call it in Portugal – and then washed it down with a cider before boarding the transfer bus. This set me up in high energy and spirits, but when we hit a standstill motorway traffic jam it also had the unfortunate side effect of making me almost piss my pants. Only after and extreme amount of leg crossing and gentle coaxing of our driver, who found the incident far-too-funny, did he eventually agree to pull over and let me relieve myself in a roadside bush. What a great way to introduce myself to the lads.

Dumping my bag in the villa which I’d be sharing with George and a pair of other Celts in Russ and Nick, the latter a plus-handicapped former professional, it was then a dart to the first tee where I’d been paired with Aaron and Streety, a mild-mannered gent who’d been given the thankless task of organising the tour for this year alongside Garrett and Bentley, the respective Celt and English team captains for the 2018 showdown. Snapping at the ball, I sent my opening drive straight right and out-of-bounds, setting the standard of my golf for the day in the process. I proceeded to hack it about all afternoon, a few glimpses of the Junior Club Champion player I used to be appearing on the back nine with a run of birdies and pars, but all in all, I just wasn’t swinging as freely as I’d hope. “Oh well,” I joked with the boys. “Best to get all the bad shots out the way today I suppose.”

And as much as I respect and admire Nick Faldo as a figurehead of the British golfing landscape, I can’t say the same for the way in which he designs a golf course. On some of the par 4s I was having to take mid-irons off the tee just to avoid hazards, only to leave myself even longer approach shots in for my second than my first. At least the company was a pleasure.

Following a relaxed dinner that evening of a chicken baguette wrap and chips, what would become my staple diet for the entirety of the competition, Garret and Bentley arose from the head of the table to announce the pairings for the day one foursomes. We now had a full-house and the meal had been spent shaking hands and making introductions with the rest of the lads. I found myself being drawn in the second pairing alongside Morray, a fellow Scot and the current world number 1 – Yes, that’s right, there’s even a World Ranking system going on. I was itching to get one over on the English, especially considering their recent dominance of the event.

I’ve come to realise that I have a deep passion for watching England lose as sport, regardless of what it is. It’s their arrogance and lack of self-deprecation I can’t stand. Take cricket as an example. I have about as much interest in that sport as I do in television talent shows, but when I recently found out that Scotland were on the brink of a historic victory over the auld enemy from south of Hadrian’s Wall in a one day test I found myself absolutely rapt. Everything was tee’d up for it to be a cracking long weekend.

Tour website: https://angloceltic.weebly.com/

 

Riding Scooters around Chiang Mai with the Thai Police

Chiang Mai, Thailand • May 2017 • Length of Read: 8 Minutes

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Checking into our hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s most northern city, my travelling companion Wade and I found the other bed in our shared-dorm already occupied by a pasty-white, blonde-haired chap.

“How’s it going, lads?” he said to us as we entered, in one of the strongest Irish accents I’d ever heard. “That you just arrived?”

“Yeah,” I nodded, dumping my bag on the ground, securing my valuables in the corner locker, and stripping off my sweaty t-shirt. “My name’s Crobs,” I said, still a bit miffed as to his question. In what way could we be mistaken for anything but having just arrived?

“My name’s Connor,” he muttered, shaking my hand.

“And I’m Wade,” said my American companion. “Where about in Ireland are you from?”

“How did you know I was Irish?” he exclaimed, genuinely shocked as to how Wade had guessed his nationality.

“Because you couldn’t be more Irish unless you suddenly burst into a rendition of Riverdance whilst telling us that your dad was Paul O’Connell,” I laughed. “We’re thinking about renting some scooters for the day and going to see the Grand Temple. If you don’t have any plans, fancy joining us? It’s meant to be a really picturesque twenty-minute drive up the winding hillside.”

“That sounds just grand,” said Connor, clearly happy to have made some company. He was twenty-seven-years-old and this was his first time outside of Europe, having only ever previously been overseas to France and Portugal on short family holidays as a teenager. He was going to be in Thailand for one whole month, exploring the scenic north before heading down to the gulf and party islands.

“Top of the morning, chaps,” said the topless guy we passed on the staircase as we made our way down to reception and the scooter rental shop.

“You know what?” announced the man from Galway, looking back in surprise. “I think he might have been Irish?”

“No shit, Sherlock,” laughed Wade, as I put my head in my hands. It was already very clear that Connor wasn’t the sharpest knife in the picnic basket.

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Having never even driven a scooter before, and not wanting my first time to be on the roads of a chaotic city (i.e. I was a shit scared pansy), Wade suggested that I just pay for a spare helmet and hold onto the back of his. A trusted friend, he had a full, valid motorbike licence, and on any sunny weekend loved cruising his behemoth of a Harley Davidson along the arrow-straight dustbowl roads of northern Texas. Wade had taken three weeks off from his job as a sheriff in the Dallas police force to join me for a short leg of my longer backpacking world tour, and as the rental dealer handed him the keys with zero paperwork to sign, he guffawed at the lack of red-tape, structure, and safety.

“Do they literally let anyone come in and rent these death machines?” he gasped, kicking the rusty undercarriage of the bike. “This thing could fall apart any minute.”

“Anyone,” I laughed, having just about acquainted myself with the absurdity of how things are done in Asia by then. “Look at Connor, for example. Would you let that guy near a bike back home? He couldn’t find water if he fell out of a boat.” Whilst we’d been chatting, the Irishman had nervously approached his little scooter in the same way one would a bucking rodeo bull that they were attempting to mount.

“Now, a word of warning, guys,” said the rental dealer, seemingly uninterested in Connor’s distinct lack of ability to sit on a bike even when stationary, never mind ride it. “The Thai police are known to frequently pull over foreigners on scooters and request to see their international driving permits. If you can’t supply them with this then they give you an on-the-spot fine of 400 Baht (£10).”

“We’ll worry about that if it comes to it,” said Wade, neither of us having applied for this permit. Pulling out of the shop and onto the road leading in the direction of the Grand Temple, Connor kangaroo-hopping his bike into gear behind us, we whizzed along about 500m before taking a sharp right-angled bend to our left. There, hidden from view and less than a minute’s drive from where we’d rented the bikes, was a police road block. It stung with irony and suspicion.

“Worried now?” I laughed as we obeyed the uniformed police officer waving us down, the gun strapped to his waist a key component as to why we didn’t decide to simply ignore him and whizz past.

“Can I see your international driving permit?” he asked Wade, mopping a line of sweat from his forehead. The temperature was pushing mid-thirties, and he looked to be baking like a jacket potato in the woollen suit of his.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t know that we were required to have one of them,” said Wade, calmly taking out his wallet from his back pocket. “I do have this, though,” he offered, flashing his diving licence which just so happened to have been nicely positioned in the slot next to his Dallas police force badge. “Oh, look. We’re the same,” continued Wade, first pointing to the traffic officer’s badge and then to his own. The Thai policeman immediately burst into a huge grin.

“Ah,” he exclaimed, grabbing Wade’s hand and shaking it vigorously. “Police friend. So good to meet you. Don’t worry about a permit. Have a good day. Chiang Mai is a beautiful place, yes?”

“Absolutely,” nodded Wade, eventually managing to wrestle his hand free from the policeman’s vice grip.

“And your friend is police too?” he said, pointing towards Connor who had pulled in behind us.

“No, I don’t even have an actual driving license,” replied the Irishman, confused. I groaned. If there was any time to tone down the honesty, then this was it.

“He must pay the fine then,” demanded the policeman in a tone which made us unwilling to push our luck any further. Very willingly, Connor got out some scrunched-up notes and handed them over to the police officer who had now started to fill out a form. “This receipt shows that you have paid the fine and acts as a temporary driving permit,” he explained, handing it to Connor. “You can now drive for the next seventy-two hours and if you get stopped again then you just have to show the police officer this.” Wade turned to me, a perplexed look on his face. I simply grinned and shrugged. This, for sure, wasn’t exactly the type of procedures he was used to following. “You are now free to continue,” concluded the policeman, waving us off.

“Eh, excuse me, Sir,” said Connor, sheepishly. “Would you perhaps be able to show me how I turn my engine back on, please? I’ve forgotten how it works.”

I began laughing behind the safety of my helmet as the policeman gave him a brief tutorial of how the brakes, accelerator and key worked. The same man who had just fined him was now teaching him how to operate the vehicle he was illegally riding. “Only in Asia,” I whispered to Wade as we set off again from our false start.

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Miraculously, Connor managed to stay put in our wing mirrors the entire way up the gloriously scenic route, and with no further unnecessary stops we parked up outside of the temple without a hitch. As Connor wrestled with his padlock, I bought a coconut from a nearby street vendor and sat down on the kerb to take in the spectacle. It was like having an untrained puppy following us around for the day. A puppy who then proceeded to get really angry at me when I couldn’t get a photo of him at the steps to Chiang Mai’s most famous tourist attraction without other people in the background. It was like he expected me to use X-Men mutant abilities to rid the entire place of the hundreds of other visitors who so rudely happened to be wandering around and taking in the grandiose sights and temples for themselves.

And on that note, fuck temples. I simply cannot understand people’s obsessions with them. The same goes for churches in Europe, but whereas churches in Europe are usually located near the main square that also has cafes, bars, and restaurants, temples are always in the middle of bloody nowhere. They never have any tourist information saying when they were built, why they were built, who built them, or their inherent purpose. And once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Call me an uncultured and ignorant agnostic, but I’d die a happy man if I never had to trudge up another endless flight of stairs to visit one again. Half-an-hour after we arrived, Wade and I were itching to get back on the road. Despite having received police tuition, however, Connor again couldn’t seem to get his bike moving.

“You’ve forgotten to take the padlock off you dafty,” I shouted at him as he revved the engine at a complete standstill. Had it been Wade’s Harley Davidson chopper he was riding, this act of bravado may well have looked pretty cool, but because he was on a crappy little Vespa, it did not. Despite this blunder, however, this didn’t stop him immediately overtaking us on the first blind bend after exiting the car park, one hand on the handlebars and the other stretched out and taking a video of himself. The boy evidently had a death wish, and how he managed to make it back to the hostel in one piece is still a mystery to me.

What is not now a mystery to me, though, is why Connor chose Thailand of all places to spend a month in the spring of 2017. That night the three of us went out to a popular backpacker area for a few drinks, and within minutes of taking a seat at the bar, I looked across the dance floor to see our Irish friend grinding on two fat local Thai girls. ‘Well, today has certainly been far from ordinary,’ I thought to myself, taking a long gulp of Chang beer. ‘Nothing that boy does from now on is going to surprise me one bit. He better not try to bring one of them back to our hostel dorm, however, otherwise we’ll most definitely be having some words’.

The 10 Best Hostels on the Planet

The World  • January 2018 • Length of Read: 8 Minutes

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Hostels are not just somewhere we sleep. Hostels are the focal point of our time spent in a certain place. Hostels are where we make new friends. Hostels are where we get drunk. Hostels are where we break out of our shells. Hostels are where we’re introduced to first-time experiences. Hostels are where we get wifi so that we can re-connect with other travellers. Hostels are where we find love… or at least make love. Hostels are where we chill out when the road takes its toll on us. Hostels are where we book onward transport, visas and activities when we’re ready to get rolling again. Hostels are where we laugh. Hostels are where we cry. Hostels are where we create those memories and stories that we’ll be re-telling for the rest of our lives.

Having stayed in approximately 150 different hostel beds on six different continents, and spoken to thousands of backpackers and travellers in the process, here are what I consider to be the ten best hostels on the planet. I could have created an arbitrary set of criteria to help populate the below list, the likes of which are used by comparison websites, but then that wouldn’t be congruent with what I’m trying to showcase here. Hotels are more than that.

As a quick point to note, I’d also like to clarify that I am receiving zero benefits or remuneration from any party in relation to this article, that there are no affiliate links, and that all recommendations and endorsements are completely independent decisions resulting from my own personal experiences.


10. Begadang Backpackers
     
Gili Air, Indonesia

I booked to stay in this hippie-style commune for the sole reason that it had a pineapple-shaped swimming pool, not realising that my bed for the two-nights stay was just a child’s mattress on a raised bamboo plinth; an al fresco affair exposed entirely to the elements and with only a torn mosquito net for protection.

Despite these initial setbacks, however, Begadang powers its way into my top 10 on the sole basis that the exceptional layout of the property is opportunely geared towards creating a welcoming and communal atmosphere. With the pineapple pool surrounded by basketball hoops; tightropes; a volleyball court; and a raised chill-out zone where the hostel’s resident cats can be petted and played with, it would be near-impossible to stay at Begadang without having your entire visit crammed full of fun alongside a host of new friends.

 

9.  Friendly Fun Hostel
     
Dalat, Vietnam

The softly-spoken tones of a tiny, well-dressed Vietnamese women greet you upon entering this charming little abode; and no matter how long or stressful your journey to reach Dalat has been, I can guarantee you that, upon Lan welcoming you into her home, you will immediately transcend into a peaceful and relaxed state.

The four simple, spotlessly clean dorms are stacked one floor on top of the other, the mezzanine housing as a chill-out T.V. room where Lan’s kids and pets can be found playing at all hours of the day. The bar is operated on a 100% honesty system, with a large whiteboard used by the guests to mark the number of beers they’ve had out the fridge, and when hunger strikes everyone then lines up along the large wooden table in the foyer of the house where, for just $3 per head, Lan prepares a delicious buffet of local dishes and culinary treats for her hungry residents to fill their boots whilst getting to know one other.

It’s friendly. It’s fun. It’s like having an adopted mother look after you whilst away from home.

 Bologna, Italy

Bologna, Italy

 Toronto, Canada

Toronto, Canada

8.  Dopa Hostel
     
Bologna, Italy

Wandering around the back streets of Bologna, bustling osterias spilt out into the open-air; wheels of parmesan, dangling meats, and hearty pasta dishes drawing in my nostrils with their fresh smells. I took a table at a restaurant called Osteria dell’orsa, the bear, and ordered a jug of white wine alongside the dish named after the city in which it originated. Tucking into it a short while later, the sun came streaking through an archway at the end of the street and gave the surrounding area an angelic feeling. ‘That’s heaven’ I thought to myself. ‘Everything about Bologna is heaven. Further on up the road, I want to establish a hostel here; to dine to my heart’s content; to drink the best coffee during the day and the best wine by night; to learn the language of the beautiful locals; to converse and make love with the beautiful women; to never return home.’

And if I was going to replicate any hostel in Italy, then the one I was staying in at that very point in time would certainly be my blueprint. A quaint, second-floor flat, Dopa Hostel is furnished with the style and flair of someone who deserves a PhD in interior design, and the living-room/kitchen area made me feel like I was back in an ERASMUS exchange programme student accommodation; albeit one that was meticulously presented and looked after. A dopo, Dopa Hostel.

 

7.   Planet Traveler
     Toronto, Canada

This eco-friendly hostel runs completely off green-technology, with geothermal and solar panel heating and building-wide LED lighting. Rising like a Phoenix from a dilapidated turn-of-the 20th century structure it also offers free breakfast; super-quick internet access; a monster chill-out area; and, the pièce de résistance, a rooftop lounge boasting a remarkable panoramic view of downtown Toronto and the looming CN Tower.

It is also on this rooftop patio that the staff members cook a free Saturday night barbecue for all Planet Traveler guests. Add in the fact that there’s a nightclub 100m down the road; an organised bar crawl; operated door-to-Falls tours of Niagara; and that it’s within walking distance of everywhere in the city centre, and it becomes the absolute no-brainer accommodation for any backpacker visiting the Ontario capital.

 Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

 Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru

6.  Seagulls Garret Hostel
     Riga, Latvia

Despite fabulous ratings, it came as a shock to find out that, during the conception of this blog post, Seagulls actually said goodbye to its final guests and permanently shut its doors. Whether this was due to the owner’s personal circumstances, for economic reasons, or because of something else entirely, it’s not my place to say, but it is therefore with some irony that I include this charming hostel that was once located in the heart of Riga’s Old Town on my list. I toiled with the catch-22 between reminiscing about my own amazing experiences at Seagulls and the value, or lack of, that it actually gives to present readers, but nostalgia has trumped my desire to turn this blog into a promotional weapon. I write to share my experiences, with a secondary hope that I can inspire and educate others. I’m not a faux travel agent.

So why do I have such an attachment to Seagulls? Well, not only did I meet some remarkable people there, one girl in particular who would change my life, but it was my first hostel experience where the staff actually treated the people who were staying there like friends as opposed to just simply guests. On one of her days off, Kat took a group of us bobsledding; whilst hungover on New Year’s Day the girls behind reception brought blankets into the common area so that we could all have a movie marathon, and when one of the longer-term residents couldn’t get a bed for the night due to an over-booking they let him crash on the couch free of charge. Small touches like these can positively affect your trip in such a big way and, regardless of whether it is open or closed, these small things are the reason that Seagulls places as the sixth best hostel I’ve ever stayed at.

 

5.  Loki
     Cusco, Peru

The ancient city of Cusco sits 11,000ft above sea level and was once the prized capital of the 13th Century Incan Empire. Despite being steeped in cultural history, however, Cusco has become better known in modern times as the city from where travellers embark upon their journey to Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. As a result of this, a number of youth hostels have popped up to accommodate the influx of backpackers navigating their way along the Gringo Trail and into the region. Loki is no exception. But hey, any accommodation named after a mythological Norse God is a winner in my book. Standing on the hallowed grounds of a restored 450-year-old monument, the hostel is split over two courtyards, houses around one-hundred people, and has hammocks; a volleyball court; a computer room; pool tables; a barbecue area; table tennis; travel agents, and even a gym.

What Loki really prides itself on, however, is its two-story bar. Promising to offer the wildest nights in Cusco, as a guest you’ll be subjected to an elaborate fancy-dress wearing, karaoke singing, shot chasing drinking culture that, in an atmosphere where nobody is properly acclimatised to the thinness of the air, can lead to some incredibly funny and absurd happenings. Look no further than here.

 Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia

Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia

4.  Mad Monkey
     
Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia

Hammocks, huts, and a beachfront bar are all that this hostel in the Mad Monkey franchise needs to make it into my top 10 list; Koh Rong Sanloem is just that incredible. It may take two boat journeys into the unknown to get there, but once you set foot on this Cambodian island paradise you’ll not want to leave.

When the clock struck midnight, the music came to a crescendo, the beer stopped pouring, and the bar was closed, plunging the place into darkness. We were living in a wifi-less island paradise, and with zero artificial light or pollution in the air, the sky was able to conjure up its magic for all to see. Racing to the beach, everyone stripped down to their white bits and splashed into the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand. The sea glowed from the bioluminescence of the plankton living in its depth, and with each movement shimmers of glittering gold momentarily glistened under the light of a thousand stars that shone like diamonds on the big black canvas behind them. A more beautiful representation of nature you would struggle to find.

Remove the distractions of the modern world, surround yourself with great company, crack a few cold ones, and see where the conversation takes you. I’m a big fan of the simple life, and it doesn’t get any simpler, or more idyllic, than on Koh Rong Sanloem. Even if it’s wasted time, it’s still time well spent.

 Bali, Indonesia

Bali, Indonesia

3.  Cocoon Inn
     
Hanoi, Vietnam

A hotel at hostel prices, Cocoon Inn offers luxury like no backpacker’s residence I’ve ever set foot in before. The beds are like sleeping on Cloud 9 and come with their own built-in fan, universal plug socket, and spotless duvet. After four months of constant travel, I spent twelve nights in Hanoi before my scheduled flight back to Europe, and am unashamed to say that a disgustingly large amount of that time was spent lounging about in Cocoon’s spacious cinema room; watching dozens of movies that had been recommended to me by fellow travellers whilst chowing down on the incredible room-service pho noodle soup. Who knew that the perfect getaway from the hectic nature of Hanoi could be found slap-bang in the heart of it?

This means that if you do, therefore, decide to venture outside into the madness of it all, then everything is on your doorstep. Aussie sports bars, clothing shops, food alleys… and what good is a street corner in Asia without a 7Eleven on it? A special mention has to be made to The Note Coffee, in particular, which I found myself visiting on a daily basis when wanting to get inspiration for my writing and website development projects:

Pleasantly greeted with a warm smile by the young barista as I walked through the brightly painted narrow door of the hole-in-the-wall, I was over the moon to see her go about operating the shiny new roaster that took its pride of place on the counter in an absolute seamless manner. Finally, a coffee that wasn’t going to be made using frozen instant beans and boiled hose water. Ordering a flat white and banh mi sandwich, I took a look around at the kaleidoscopic walls and ceiling. It was rather evident how the café had got its name. Signed post-it notes had been stuck to every feasible area of white space, words of inspiration and love being spread by Note Coffee customers from all four corners of the globe. Delighted at having stumbled across this absolute jewel in the heart of Vietnam’s capital, I followed the girl in the neatly-pressed apron up the winding staircase at the back of the shop to the rooftop seating area. She was a student studying Korean and English language at a local university, and clearly loved any moment that she could get to practice with a native speaker. As she went downstairs to make my order, I got my laptop out, and soon after she returned back up the steep stairs with my food and drink on a slip-proof tray. “Here you go,” she grinned, placing it down on a table that had views over the window-box flowers of the street below. “Thanks,” I responded, handing over the cash. I don’t think that smile had left her face since I’d arrived.

2.  Capsule Hostel New Seminyak
     
Bali, Indonesia

Entering my assigned dorm upon arrival at Capsule, I could have been mistaken for sneaking backstage at a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. In a fully-booked room of twelve beds I was the only penis present and, as I unpacked my dirty laundry, girls came in and out of the showers wrapped in nothing but towels. Girls pranced around in sexy lingerie whilst doing their make-up in the mirror. Girls stood around stark naked, unsure about what outfit to put on for that night. Girls. Girls. Girls.

Just down the road from Capsule is one of the best nightclubs on Bali, La Favela, and every Sunday night a party bus operates to take its guests to the iconic Single Fin beachfront party at the south of the island. It’s therefore a big plus that Capsule offers ‘private pods’ to each of its residents, even if a declaration of celibacy has to be signed upon collecting your key.

Nonetheless, I ended up staying at Capsule on three separate occasions in a three week period, celebrating the Balinese New Year with a starlit lock-in, getting a McDonald's delivered to my room, chilling out at the hostel’s massive bar area, and watching movies in their beanbag cinema; all whilst making some life-long friends in the process.

 Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic

1.  Post Hostel Prague
    Prague, Czech Republic

Post Hostel Prague sets the gold standard in terms of what a hostel can be. I had the absolute pleasure of spending two weeks in this utopia whilst re-developing my website and taking a breather from the road, and found it to be simply head and shoulders above anywhere else I’ve ever stayed.

As the name indicates, it’s situated in an old post office, and before I’d even checked-in I was made to feel like a member of the family by Maria, the full-time receptionist and full-time comedian. With an array of wonderful characters working alongside her - city-experts who clearly loved their jobs - the fun didn’t die down for a single minute during my stay. Liam and Heni were a complete double-act, and as Liam would profess: ‘The banter was absolutely banging.’

Rather than list everything that Post Hostel Prague has to offer, it’s easier to just make the blanket claim that they have EVERYTHING covered. Free breakfast – check. Organised activities seven-days and nights a week – check. En-suite, spacious dorms – check. Suitcase-sized personal lockers – check. Fully-equipped kitchen – check. Everything else – check. There’s nothing else to say. It’s perfect.


Now, obviously I can only write from experience, and it's a big old world out there. So I'm interested in finding out what the best hostels you've ever stayed in are? Leave your comments below to enter into the discussion.

Top 5 of 2017 - A Crobs Abroad Year in Review

Glasgow, Scotland, UK • December 2017 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

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“You must be so excited for the adventures that lie ahead,” said Linzi as we stopped to mess about in an outdoor gym on the Australian headland. It was New Year’s Day, and my hostel buddy and I were shaking off our hangovers by completing Sydney’s Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, having welcomed in 2017 by watching the city’s epic fireworks show over the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. The following morning I was catching a flight to Auckland, New Zealand where I’d be meeting up with my travelling companion Gadams to spend four weeks circumnavigating the country’s North and South Islands. Following that, it was anyone’s guess as to what life had in store for me…

As it turns out, I would go on to spend the first two-thirds of the year traversing the globe on what I would later call the Crobs Abroad World Tour; backpacking through three continents, visiting 18 countries and crossing off 14 bucket list items in the process, including: standing up on a surfboard in Indonesia (#3); getting a tattoo (#23); drinking steins of beer in Bavaria (#28); teaching English in Vietnam (#118); bungy jumping off a bridge (#119); getting drunk on a vineyard tour (#146); eating in a Michelin Star restaurant in Singapore (#25), and following a musician on tour (#135). I truly was living the dream.

Things came crashing down upon my return to the UK, however, with a two month period of unemployment made even more difficult when my heart was broken. Thankfully, I can always count on my friends, both old and new, to lift my mood when times are tough. They truly are awesome. I got back on my feet, secured a fantastic job, moved to a more suitable part of my hometown, met a really cool girl, and put all of my focus and creativity into my next book project. The result was my third paperback Kiwi, Kiwi: A Flashpacking Journey around New Zealand being released in early December and I firmly believe that it’s my best writing yet:

In desperate need of an adventure, Scottish backpacker Chris quit his job; packed up his things; boarded a one-way flight to the other side of the planet, and set out on a month-long circumnavigation of New Zealand alongside a melting pot of crazy, like-minded individuals. Join the newfound friends as they trek over active volcanoes; bungy jump off bridges; confront a Maori tribe; embrace the country’s wild drinking culture; party with beautiful girls, and take a life-changing road trip into the deep south. Their hilarious journey is profane, profound, and politically incorrect, as Chris uncovers the true values and strengths of the bonds that can be created whilst on the road.

From riding scooters through rural Vietnam; to bathing with elephants in Thailand; to exploring the fairytale European cities of Brno and Bruges; to 3am drunken archery in Laos, the number of life-enhancing experiences I’ve had in 2017 has been utterly astounding. Not to mention all the incredible friendships I’ve made along the way - you know who you are!

It’s been extremely difficult narrowing down so many awesome experiences, but after much deliberation and thought, here are my top 5 moments in 2017:  

1) Having a week of absolute banter in Bali before hunting for Komodo dragons in rural Indonesia with my newfound bro Fraser.

2) Taking a horrific, harrowing and humbling tour of Auschwitz Concentration Camp whilst in Poland.

3) Spending the night on a Fijian desert island.

4) Spending four nights on the utopian paradise of Koh Rong Sanloem before riding a bamboo train through the Cambodian countryside.

5) Becoming mesmerized by the chilled-out way of life and incredible food in Bologna, Italy.


Have an awesome New Year, dear readers, and here's to a smashing 2018 :)

Follow a Musician on Tour (Bucket List #135)

Birmingham - Manchester - Glasgow, UK • October 2017 • Length of Read: 8 Minutes

The influence that Kip Moore has had on my life cuts much deeper than his raspy voice, boot-stomping riffs and heart-wrenching lyrics. After graduating from college, this South Georgia native found himself playing the dead end cover band bar scene before the lure of the ocean and an infestation with surfing took hold. With $1,500 of savings in his pocket and no plan B, Kip packed a small bag and hopped on a one-way flight to Hawaii. He may not have known what he otherwise wanted to do in life, but he did know that that the answers weren’t going to be found inside his comfort zone.

Making camp on the Big Island in a small wooden hut that he rented for $50/month, Kip spent his days hitching lifts down to the beach to catch waves and his evenings penning songs on a little Yamaha guitar. It took his good friend PJ Brown, who would later become his videographer, to convince Kip that his songs were good enough for Nashville, and a year after arriving in Hawaii he was upping sticks again and heading to the home of country music to try and make it as a songwriter. It was a long struggle, but millions of adoring fans and three top-10 albums later, you could say that it was a good decision.

I suppose it’s not only Kip Moore’s music that I’m drawn to, but his entire worldview. Therefore, when he announced that he was going to cross the Atlantic for a short UK tour to promote his third album Slowheart, and bring his good friends Drake White & The Big Fire along for the ride, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to tick off bucket list #135: Follow a musician on tour.

Birmingham

The first stop on my three-show journey was Birmingham, one of the bleakest and most depressing cities in the country. Arriving around mid-afternoon, I found a relatively safe parking place, dodged a guy on the street throwing up into a plastic Tesco carrier bag, and headed towards my hostel which was pleasantly located in an industrial estate just 200m from the concert venue. I was excited about the gig, but at that point, I was more concerned about returning to my car in the morning to find it propped up on concrete breeze blocks and all four tyres missing.

I’d seen my hero perform in Glasgow eighteen months previously, and itching to see him strut his stuff on stage again I got to the O2 Academy early and joined the bustling queue of people huddling for warmth in the nippy autumnal air. Starting up a conversation with the pair of lads in front of me I learned that, similar to myself, one of them had just returned from a trip to New Zealand. We traded stories about the land of the long white cloud for a while before the conversation dovetailed to the reason why we were there in the first place: country music. I told him about the last time Kip Moore had been in town and how he’d performed a free acoustic busking session for everyone after the show as thanks for the support, and by the time we’d entered the venue I was rapt with anticipation. My tickets had been purchased whilst sitting in an Aussie Sports Bar in Luang Prabang, Laos six months previous, and as the stage lights went down I couldn’t quite believe that the time had come. Firstly, however, the honour went to Drake White and his band The Big Fire to warm up the crowd with a thirty minute set of their own.

Quite the presence, the blue jean, white-t wearing lead singer strutted out with a drink raised in one hand, guitar gripped around its neck in the other, and his trademark ‘Apalacian chic’ hat tipped on his head. The response of the crowd was ecstatic and as he went straight into an energetic rendition of Heartbeat, the first track off his debut album Spark, The Big Fire got the audience clapping and singing away. With soaring vocals as smooth as the whiskey he was sipping on, Drake White made his way through Story, Livin’ The Dream and It Feels Good before slowing things down for Makin’ Me Look Good Again, a ballad he wrote for his wife who he politely pointed out as being somewhere in the audience. A closing, upbeat cover of The Beatles’ A Little Help From My Friends then had him jumping on the speakers at the side of the stage as his legs shook out of control with adrenaline. A short, punchy and high-energy set that had the audience on tenterhooks for the headline act to take the stage.

And as the opening drum beat for Wild Ones began, the man himself was then on stage in front of us; dripping with swagger, baggy tank top giving teasing glimpses of his ripped torso and screams from the female fans making his opening vocals almost inaudible: “We’ve been waiting all week… been waiting for the weekend.” Despite it being a Monday night, it was immediately apparent that the audience was there to party, and when Kip shifted from the radio hit Beer Money into Come and Get It and then the raucous I’m to Blame, the party was most definitely in full swing.

Slowing things down to introduce his band’s new guitarist to the audience, the leading axeman took the spotlight and shredded out a finger-lickin' solo before segwaying into The Bull, Moore’s response to all the critics he’s faced over the years and a friendly nod towards people who have stuck by his side along the way: “Every knockdown in the dirt. Every 'no' I ever heard. Sure feels good to laugh when I look back and flip the bull the bird.”

Spilling a measure of Jack Daniels on stage at the completion of his encore, the anthemic Up All Night, Moore then promised to stay behind after the show and sign autographs for every last person who wanted to shake his hand. What a consummate performer.

Manchester

On the morning of the next day’s show in Manchester, the legendary Tom Petty passed away at the age of 66. In honour of The Heartbreakers and Traveling Wilburys frontman, Moore included a cover of Learning to Fly midway through his set list. With an enormous ovation, he then put a request out to the audience as to what they wanted to hear next, which led to him dusting off the chords to Mary is the Marrying Kind, a non-album song that was his first to ever be played on the radio. Shocked that anyone from across the pond had even heard the song, he then chuckled to himself as they assisted him through the second verse with the correct lyrics, some of which had slipped his tongue.

Keeping the acoustic guitar out, Moore then got very personal when telling the story behind the sensational, autobiographical tune Guitar Man. Whilst struggling to make it as a twenty-one-year-old songwriter in Nashville, Moore had a girlfriend back home in Georgia who, at the time, he was head-over-heels in love with. Then, out of the blue, she called him up one day and ended things. Convinced that she was the girl of his dreams, Moore drove all the way through the night across state lines to try and reconcile things with her in person. Standing in her Momma’s kitchen upon arrival, however, he found himself having to ashamedly admit that, despite having some leads, he still didn’t have any concrete prospects; all whilst she was complaining to her Momma that he would never amount to anything. How times change. “This following verse is dedicated to her,” he announced to the crowd as we began to well up:

Well I had me a pretty baby, thought she was the one.
But she soon grew tired, of this love on the run.
Said she felt second, told me I had to choose.
She’s back in Georgia and I’m here with you.

Glasgow

The British country music scene had certainly warmed to Drake White by the time I got back to my hometown, and he had the whole Glaswegian crowd stirring up a giant pot of Big Fire soul soup, as he liked to call it, during It Feels Good; a Freddie Mercury stage presence in the making.

Moore mixed up his set completely for his third show in as many nights, with a cover of U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For allowing each of his bandmate’s to showcase their on vocal talents. He then drew the evening to a close by announcing his return to C2C festival the following March, giving a playful dig towards the organisers for putting his so far down the line up, before the curtain was pulled down with a rockin’ performance of Crazy One More Time. An epic three day road trip journey to see an epic country music star who does things completely his own way.