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.

A Weekend In Bruges - The Medieval Fairytale City

Bruges, Belgium • September 2017 • Length of Read: 12 Minutes

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Could you please stop what you are doing and give us your full undivided attention. I have a serious announcement to make…”

A silence fell over the cabin as a long pause ensued. We were about three-quarters of the way into the flight from Glasgow to Brussels Charleroi Airport and, ignoring the faint apology for our hour-long runway delay, it had so far been without a hitch. This sounded serious, though. I turned to the girl on my right and noticed that her face had faded to quite the shade of white. Even fake tan can’t hide a flush of nerves. On 22nd March 2016, three coordinated suicide bombs exploded in Belgium, and a Level 3 terror alert was still in place across the country. The UK Government travel advice website continues to issue the warning that ‘terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Belgium’, with the Belgian authorities indicating that ‘there is a serious and real threat’.

“We’ve gone a little bit crazy here today,” continued the pilot, his voice crackling back over the PA system. “But if you play your cards right, one of you could become very rich.”

Putting down my copy of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Texas Rangers come cattle herders, I began to fear a hostage situation.

“Ryanair are giving away free scratch cards,” the pilot then announced, his previously stern voice taking on an almost sing-song tone. “Yes, that’s right. If you buy five scratch cards for just €10 then we’ll give you a sixth one completely free. And if that wasn’t enough, if you buy €20 worth, not only will you get twelve scratch cards but I’ll also throw in my co-pilot’s mobile number. He’s single; enjoys long walks on the beach; can cook, and bends both ways, if you know what I’m saying? Want to be in with a chance of winning €1million? Then look out for our crew members passing through the cabin very shortly.”

I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and re-opened the 900-page tome of which I was only a demoralizing 88 pages into. I’ve written before about how I regard budget airline carriers to simply be shops with wings, and this was a prime example. In addition to the scratch cards; foodstuffs; and gadgets, immediately prior to the seatbelt signs being illuminated for landing the cabin crew then turned master perfumers. Offering a seemingly larger selection of fragrances than the beauty section of a department store, they wheeled a trolley of incense sticks down the aisle, inviting each passenger to purchase exclusive smells such as Jean Paul Gautier and Dior at rock-bottom prices. It all smelled like a con to me, however, and I was delighted to finally disembark down the plane stairs at Brussels Charleroi Airport to a baking sun and blue skies.

I use ‘Brussels’ here in the loosest of terms. Even if you stretched the greater Brussels metropolitan area to its limits, Charleroi still wouldn’t fall into its municipality. In fact, it’s an entirely separate city, the fifth most populous in Belgium, and it took me ninety minutes on a combination of buses and trains to reach the centre of Belgium’s capital. How Ryanair can get away with calling this a flight to Brussels, I have no idea. But then, at least the airport knows. I once flew into Kuala Lumpur Airport only to discover that it was sixty miles, and a ninety-minute bus ride, to the city. That’s like calling Edinburgh Airport, ‘Glasgow Airport’.

I was taking a long weekend trip to the fairytale medieval city of Bruges, and skirting around the numerous armed and camouflaged military that had been deployed at seemingly every transport station in Brussels, I grabbed some dinner and hopped on a seventy-minute train towards my destination. By the time I’d arrived I was still only on page 166. Dumping my bag in the shared dorm I’d booked at St Christopher’s Bauhaus, a chain of dreary and lifeless hostels that are oddly popular across Europe, I headed for a dusk walk around the cobbled historic centre, the entire area a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site. What I saw blew my mind.

The cult black comedy In Bruges is one of my favourite films ever and was the main influencing factor as to why, at that moment in time, I found myself wandering down Bruges’ picturesque cobbled lanes; following narrow brick bridges over quaint canals and across bustling market squares. Grandiose towers and church steeples give the city literal stature as they play big brother to their perfectly-preserved and colourfully painted sibling houses and taverns. Restaurant seating spilt out onto the pavements and the laughter of patrons could be heard over a diverse array of languages and clinked glasses. I slid into a bar called Snuffel and ordered a strong Belgian ale, so absorbed by my surroundings that it felt like I’d daydreamed myself back in time.

Five English lads crowded around a table at the other end of the bar and approaching them with some trepidation I made introductions. “Rangers or Celtic?” asked the shortest and scruffiest member of the group, picking up on my Scottish accent. It was a question I hated almost more than any other when travelling. Almost as much as ‘Where in Ireland are you from?’ which I seem to get asked in droves.

“Glasgow Warriors,” I replied, referring to my local rugby team. I pretended long enough as a teenager that I had a care for football so as not to alienate friendships, but as an adult, I’m happy to admit that it’s a monkey no longer on my back. Nip the conversation in the bud, and if they don’t like it they can piss off, that’s what I say. The lads were in Bruges for one night, having road-tripped through the Channel Tunnel that morning, and, unfortunately for me, piss off is exactly what they then did. Damn.

As the quintet went out to explore, I hung about the bar for a bit longer until I began to yawn. It had been a long commute to get to Bruges, but every step I’d taken so far through the oil-painting beauty of the city had been worth it. Unlike football, I’d honestly struggle to see how Bruges couldn’t be somebody’s cup of tea. Apart from Ray in the film In Bruges, that is:

Harry: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?”

Ken: “What I think Ray meant to say was…”

Harry: “Is the swans still there?”

Ken: “Yeah, there are swans.”

Harry: “How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can that be?”

I was charmingly awoken at the unrespectable hour of 5am the following morning by the beeping alarm clock of the Jesus-looking Israeli guy in the bunk above me. Causing earthquake-like tremors as he jumped off his bed to the floor, he then flicked on the light and proceeded to rustle around plastic bags like he was at a supermarket checkout. Well, that was me up for the day.

I was meeting a friend for lunch and wanted to do one of the free walking tours and cross off the main sightseeing attractions before catching up with her. Making my way along the corridor at Bauhaus towards reception, a waft of stale piss emanating from the communal toilets, I inquired with the young girl behind the desk as to where the meeting points for said tours were, their timeframes, and what ones came recommended. She rather unhelpfully couldn’t answer any of these questions. Instead, I found myself browsing around online for the necessary details. It didn’t strike me as too unreasonable a line of questions to ask someone working in hospitality, and I really racked my brains to come up with a reasonable explanation for her lack of common knowledge. I couldn’t find one. She was clearly just disinterested and shit at her job.

The fresh morning air cut right through me as I left the Bauhaus, sending a chill down my spine as I ventured along the now deserted streets. The birds were chirping, the skies were clear, and it was sure to become a scorcher of a day ahead. The rush hour morning commute consisted of a nun bustling past me towards the convent and the hooves from a horse-drawn cart clicking their way along the cobbles. There’s something empowering and inspiring about having a city completely to yourself. You have nothing but your thoughts as company, but at that moment it’s the best conversation you could ask for.

I found my way through Bruges’ canal-lined maze to the Market Square and Belfort bell tower. Probably the focal point of the city, the Belfry, as it’s called in English, stands at a slanted 83m and formerly served as an observation post for spotting dangers whilst housing the city’s treasures and municipal archives. The steep, narrow, winding staircase has 366 steps. I paid my €10 entrance fee to climb them and, before setting off, nodded towards the overweight American tourist limbering up and stretching his calves out at the bottom. Having marvelled at the view of the spectacular morning haze that leeched over the city from the top, I again passed him on my descent, still not even a third of the way up. This was his Everest.

In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the town.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Belfry of Bruges

Our extroverted walking tour guide was a Puerto Rican called Kai. Having initially come across to Europe on a backpacking trip, he’d fallen in love; learned the Dutch language, and now been calling Bruges his home for five years. As a group of misfit tourists gathered around him in the Market Square, Kai began the tour by explaining that the gable-stepped architectural roof features found on a large portion of the buildings were not just status symbols of the wealthy and powerful, but ergonomically designed so that chimney sweeps had easier access for their cleaning duties back in the day.

The following two hours were a continuum of quirky facts and little-known tales from the city’s rich history, which Kai delivered with the performance of a Broadway actor. Some of the more interesting and important points Kai mentioned included:

  • Bruges is home to dozens of churches, but only one cathedral; the reason being that cathedrals act as the seat of a bishop and each faith only permits one cathedral per city.
  • The medieval spiral staircase in the Belfort goes clockwise because most people are right-handed. This direction allows defenders facing downwards a greater range of movement when wielding their swords against enemies.
  • The best Belgian waffles are served from the van parked in Burg Square.
  • A café at the northern end of the city, where old windmills stand atop a grassy hill, serves vegetarian fries that are not baked in animal fat (vital, I know).
  • Apart from snacks and desserts, traditional Belgian food is not much to write home about.
  • In 1488, the people of Bruges executed Pieter Lanchals, the bailiff and counsellor of Emperor Maximillian of Austria. ‘Lanchals’ means ‘long neck’ and the Lanchals family crest featured a white swan. Legend has it that Maximillian punished the city by forcing the people to keep swans on their lakes and canals till eternity. Whether this is true or not, Bruges is covered with them. Crobs Abroad fact: A male swan is called a cob, not a cock. Never give a swan a knob.
  • Many houses have missing windows or even fake, painted ones. Back in the 19th-century people had to pay taxes on the amount of windows they had in their house, and since Belgians have a reputation for being masters at evading taxes a lot of people bricked up the windows just before the taxman came by.
  • Café Vlissinghe is famous for half a millennium of hangovers, having been serving alcohol to patrons for over 500 years. The oldest bar in Bruges, it is almost completely in its original condition.

Grabbing a flat white at the lovely Vero Coffee just off the Market Square, Ann-Sofie soon entered and welcomed me with a big smile. We’d met in the northern Thailand hippie town of Pai earlier in the year whilst both backpacking through Asia, and when I’d mentioned to her that I was thinking of visiting Bruges she immediately offered to take time out of her weekend to show me about her homeland and catch-up. Having studied at Ghent University she was now working in the charming little coastal town of Ostend, twenty-five minutes west of Bruges, and with a summer sun basking over Belgium that weekend she suggested we head out of the city and to the beach. I agreed, and we were soon hammering down the freeway in her hatchback. Despite having working cruise control, the air conditioning was broken, so the journey was pleasantly smooth but unpleasantly warm.

The view along the boardwalk in Ostend is a poster for a permanent vacation, and it felt therapeutic to walk along with a good friend, licking ice-creams and discussing life. Children splashed about in the sea as their parents sunbathed on towels laid down on the golden sand; kids raced along the pier on scooters and bikes, enjoying the last bit of freedom before school started back, and couples held hands as strolled along, embracing their romantic vacation. Staring out to the ocean, it dawned on me that the landmass just out of sight was Britain. Never had I been so close to home, but felt so far away.