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2013: A Year of Travel

If you know me, you will know that I love to travel, and 2013 was a record-breaking year, having travelled a little over 46,000 air miles, caught 24 flights and visited lots of countries too – including some not visited previously.

The Houses of Parliament in Budapest, seen from across the Danube at night.

The Houses of Parliament in Budapest, seen from across the Danube at night.

The first trip of the year was in February, visiting Budapest (Hungary) for three days. It was my second visit to the city, but this time I was staying in a better standard of hotel with the most amazing views of the Danube and Chain Bridge. Despite being a member of the European Union, Hungary still uses its own currency, although Euros are widely accepted. Many restaurants and shops display prices in both Forints and Euros.

Hungary isn’t as cheap as I remember and the cost of eating, drinking and shopping is now near enough what it is back in the UK. For anybody visiting, be sure to try some real Hungarian cuisine. A plate full of paprika chicken, boiled potatoes and vegetables is a must.

In April, I visited Phuket (Thailand), again for the second time. After a long flight through the night, I enjoyed an overnight stay at the Best Western Premier Amaranth hotel before continuing to Phuket. The island is only about an hour’s flight from the Thai capital.

Phuket offers some of the best beaches in Thailand.

Phuket offers some of the best beaches in Thailand.

My base for this trip was the Rawai Palm Beach Resort on the south-western tip of the island. Whilst not a beach front hotel, it was only steps away from Rawai beach and several others were easily reachable – including using the hotel’s complimentary transport. The swimming pool at the hotel was really very special but some aspects of the service left a lot to be desired.

On the way home, I spent another night in Bangkok before returning home, again at the rather plush Best Western. With the hotel being quite remote, I was really confined to my hotel room and the pool for the 36 hour stay, and with it being the Thai new year (Songkran), I was keen not to venture out. A huge water fight takes place across the country, and whether willing to take part or not, you are still a target for the many Thais and tourists involved.

Malta was a spur of the moment trip in early May, only 2-3 weeks after returning from Thailand, and I was only there for four days. This was my second trip, having previously made a day trip to the island in 2008. Bonkers, I know!

Once you are finished exploring the island, a ferry will take you to nearby Gozo.

Once you are finished exploring the island, a ferry will take you to nearby Gozo.

The £17/night Coral Hotel in Bugibba was my home for the trip and it was apparently rated three stars. Don’t get me wrong, the hotel was clean, the staff friendly and the rooms adequate, but the award seemed a little generous. The hotel lacked facilities and amenities that the modern day traveller has come to expect e.g. internet access (which wasn’t available at all, not even at additional cost). A fridge in the room was available but this ‘luxury’ had to be paid for, as did air conditioning and even the remote control for the television. Value for money could not be faulted (even breakfast was included) but this really was the Ryanair of hotels.

As a Euro zone country, I expected Malta to be expensive, but it really wasn’t. Just a short walk from the hotel, in the seaside resort of Bugibba, a good quality meal could be purchased for around £4-£5 and drinks were inexpensive too. Further afield and in historic Gozo, the costs weren’t much more. A favourite place was the Fontanella Tea Garden in the walled city of Mdina. It offered great food (including the most amazing cakes) at brilliant prices and with an unbeatable elevated view of the island. On a warm clear day, Al Fresco dining doesn’t get any better.

Later in May, I booked another last minute trip. After lots of flights with British Airways and having collected Avios points for all of them, I decided to spend some of my points and took a trip to Gothenburg in Sweden. It was an interesting routing, going out via Manchester and then transferring onto a tiny jet aircraft for a 1 hour 45 minute flight to Gothenburg.

Gothenburg's Feskekôrka or fish church is actually a fish market and restaurant.

Gothenburg’s Feskekôrka or fish church is actually a fish market and restaurant.

Scandinavia is expensive. Very expensive. Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Scandinavia, was around £130 per night with breakfast included. Just a 2-minute walk from the central bus station, it was perfectly situated. The service was good and the breakfast was excellent. On our second morning I found the pastries and I couldn’t stop eating them. Even after a cooked breakfast (piled high – just the way I like it), I still managed five of the things.

Gothenburg is Sweden’s second largest city but there’s not very much to it. Even on foot, this a city that can be explored in just a couple of days. We however decided to purchase the city pass, which allowed use of the city tour bus and the novelty train tour as well, both operating the restricted winter timetable – in May! The Paddan canal boats, also available using the city pass, were an exciting way to see some of the city and on a warm spring day (around 25°C). A 48 hour pass was a staggering £40 per person.

This is a city you would struggle to visit on a budget. Hotels, public transport and even eating out can be expensive. On our final day, a tiny portion of pasta in a restaurant was around £15 (excluding drinks) and our bill for two at the Hard Rock Cafe was around £80. Alcoholic drinks are heavily taxed in Sweden and even the standard sized bottles of Corona were selling for £7/bottle! A meal at a fast food restaurant costs around £8-£10.

During the August bank holiday weekend, I travelled to Reykjavik in Iceland with my sister, and had the most amazing time. Even in August, Iceland was cold and wet, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves.

No visit to Reykjavík would be complete without a visit to the Blue Lagoon. It's open year round.

No visit to Reykjavík would be complete without a visit to the Blue Lagoon. It’s open year round.

Just like Sweden, Iceland isn’t cheap. In addition to a flight at £220 return, our accommodation – an apartment – was around £100 per night. Excursions didn’t offer the best value either. A trip to the famous Blue Lagoon (including transport) was around £50 per person, with a three hour whale watching trip costing the same. The whale watching trip is one that we both hated (a strong word but it was awful) mostly because of the choppy seas, which made the trip less than comfortable. Both of us wished to be back on dry land and judging by the vast number of violently sick people around us, we weren’t the only ones wanting the trip to come to an end!

The Blue Lagoon was a lot of fun though and worth the near hour-long queue to get in. Numbers in the lagoon are limited, which explains the reason for the wait. Once in, there are no time restrictions and you can bathe in naturally warmed waters and cover your face with silica mud. If you’ve more money than sense, you can also buy a souvenir pot of mud (and other Blue Lagoon branded merchandise) to take home.

In early October, I set off again to Thailand, this time choosing to spend a few days in Bangkok. It was to be my eleventh trip to the country and my second this year.

The two of us travelling checked into the Chatrium Riverside Hotel, a 5-star accommodation on the Chao Phraya River. It was only around £50/night, no doubt because it wasn’t the most central of hotels, even though the city centre could be reached within

The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is one of Bangkok's most well known attractions.

The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s most well known attractions.

minutes. A complimentary hotel boat ran regularly between 6.00am and midnight, taking guests to Saphan Taksin pier, from where boats stopped regularly like buses and the Skytrain was available right above.

The funniest incident of our visit was the tuk tuk scam, which happened on the same day that we arrived. Despite being pretty exhausted after so much travelling, we weren’t going to be caught out and we were already aware of how the scam worked. Although tourists are not stolen from, they are misled and inconvenienced in order to earn tuk tuk drivers commission and even fuel vouchers.

We were getting our bearings in Bangkok, preferring to walk so that we could take in the sights and smells on our journey. Soon enough, we were approached by a well-dressed Thai gentleman. He was sat on chair at the side of a busy road. He introduced himself to us (I forget his name) and told us that he was a school teacher. “Fair enough”, we thought, wondering where the conversation was going. He asked about the reason for us visiting and we gave the worst answer possible – “a holiday”. Tell any stranger in the street that you are a tourist and immediately you are prey! He asked where we going and the truth was that we didn’t know. Before we could end the conversation and be on our way, he had summoned his “friend”, a tuk tuk

Flights to and from the Far East were booked with Malaysia Airlines, flying aboard the very big (and comfortable) Airbus A380.

Flights to and from the Far East were booked with Malaysia Airlines, flying aboard the very big (and comfortable) Airbus A380.

driver to the roadside. He knew of a good shopping centre that we should visit and his friend would take us there for just 10 Baht (about £0.20). Realising where this was going, we ended the conversation, thanked him for his offer, and continued on our way. His offer was reduced to 5 Baht and he tried to usher us into the waiting tuk tuk, but we walked away.

It’s unlikely that there is any real danger to tourists who fall for this scam. Typically, passengers are taken to a shop chosen by the driver, and just for dropping them there, the driver receives a commission. Left in the hands of high pressure sales staff, visitors are encouraged to purchase expensive goods. Leaving the shop, it’s unlikely that the tuk tuk will still be waiting. Once a visitor has been dropped off there, his job is done.

Continuing our walk, the footpath suddenly came to an end, and we could go no further. A tuk tuk pulled up alongside us and the driver asked “where you go?” We asked to be taken to a big shopping centre that we had read about, to which he agreed. We made it very clear to the driver that we wanted to go to the shopping centre only – “No stops and no shops!” – which he acknowledged. He still tried his luck on the way, recommending a shop that he knew of. “No, no, no! No stops!” We continued to our requested destination.

The driver was clearly agitated as we pulled into the shopping centre, as was I. In fact, I was furious that this man continued to

Looking down from our 26th floor balcony to the swimming pool and Chao Phraya River below.

Looking down from our 26th floor balcony to the swimming pool and Chao Phraya River below.

push his luck. When we stopped, the previously agreed fare of 100 Baht (around £2.00) for the 20 minute journey had doubled. He requested 200 Baht instead, which I absolutely refused to pay. He pointed out that there were two of us in his vehicle and that he wanted 100 Baht for each of us. This chap was really testing my patience. Even though his English vocabulary was limited to about five words and he probably couldn’t understand me, I had a bit of a rant, telling him we had agreed 100 Baht and that is all he would get. “It’s this or nothing”, I said, waving a 100 Baht note in front of him. I may even have muttered a few expletives under my breath as I climbed out of the tuk tuk.

The tuk tuk experience is a must for anybody visiting Bangkok, but just be aware that near enough every tuk tuk driver is trying to catch you out, as are the handful of strangers who will randomly approach you in the street and strike up a conversation. Sometimes it is best just to smile and walk away. If you are approached, it’s probably best to say that you live in Thailand and that you’re off to meet some friends. Don’t let anybody change your plans or take you somewhere that you have little knowledge of, or no interest in.

By far the best way to eat in Thailand is from the many street vendors. Motorcycles with kitchen sidecars are common and you’d be amazed at some of they food they can produce, all at very cheap prices. Various meat and seafood offerings, fresh fruit, pancakes and much more is on offer! For the less adventurous, at least try a tasty banana and Nutella pancake on the popular Khao San Road. It’s definitely not Thai cuisine but it surely still qualifies as street food!

Our hotel, the Berjaya Times Square Hotel, was in a perfect location but it didn't quite meet my expectations. I most likely wouldn't stay there again.

Our hotel, the Berjaya Times Square, was in a perfect location but it didn’t quite meet my expectations. I most likely wouldn’t stay there again.

From Thailand, it was on to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. With an early flight to catch, we set off from the hotel at around 5.45am, catching a boat and three trains before finally reaching the airport.

Our chosen hotel for the four night stay was the very centrally located Berjaya Times Square. What a ghastly place. The hotel lobby on our arrival was chaotic and the staff could not manage the vast number of guests. Keen to get us into a room as quickly as possible, we were given keys for floor 17, which looked more like a building site. Busy or not, we went back down and refused the room. Another was given but it wasn’t much better. Everything was stained, shabby and not of the expected 4-star standard.

Beneath the huge hotel was a large shopping complex and theme park (complete with rollercoaster), whilst right outside was a monorail allowing easy access to attractions in the city and to KL Sentral, the central station, from where trains operated to the airport and to destinations further afield.

Perhaps the two most famous attractions in Kuala Lumpur are the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower. Both are huge structures, which the public can visit in order to get an elevated view of the city. We took a trip to the KL Tower, with a ticket costing around £10.

The last trip of 2013 was Orlando, Florida. It had been a couple of years since my last trip so I was looking forward to going back and doing a spot of flying. After a disappointing flight with Delta Airlines, we collected our keys and drove to our Davenport villa, getting lost on the way. Already very tired, driving up and down the I-4 wasn’t helping!

With some time since my last flight, it was nice to get airborne again!

With some time since my last flight, it was nice to get airborne again!

After arriving on a Thursday night and not flying until Monday, we had a few days of fun, visiting lots of shops and spending far too much money, visiting Clearwater on the west coast and eating plenty of American cuisine too (burgers and fries mostly).

The flying too was great and it was brilliant to at last be back in the air. Even after so long since my last flight, it was nice to know that I could still handle a light aircraft; getting it off of the ground, dealing with emergencies, navigating, manoeuvring and landing it safely too. After a quick test, my licence was revalidated for another two years.

So, what a great year for travel. Here’s hoping for just as many trips in 2014 and the opportunity to discover lots of new and exciting destinations!

All of my hotel experiences are reviewed on Trip Advisor.

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