[Travel Diary] Why Mandalay Doesn’t Suck

Most people I met didn’t really have good things to say about Mandalay and I was advised not to go on more than one occasion. However, I decided it would be kind of stupid to miss out on the opportunity to take the famous „Road to Mandalay“ (even though I took the nightbus and technically didn’t see much of bespoke road). And after all, we’re talking about Myanmar’s second largest city and cultural capital, so I figured that it could not be that bad. And I was not disappointed: To say I fell in love with Mandalay would be an exaggeration. But I did enjoy the relaxed city vibe, met some crazy awesome people and drove a motorbike for the first time in my life. So consider this a semi-ode to Mandalay.

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View from Mandalay Hill

What to do in Mandalay

Mandalay by Bike

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Mandalay is large, its streets are vast, taxis are expensive and public transport is pretty much non-existant. So you will definitely need to rent some kind of vehicle to get you around. I rented a bike from my hotel for the first day and decided to follow one of the tours suggested by Loneley Planet. I visited some temples, pagodas and markets and just loved biking around the city. Mandalay is pretty much laid out in a grid, so it’s very easy to find your way around. Just start pedaling and see where the road will lead you. While all the pagodas were nice and all, the best yet craziest part was that I did not meet a single foreigner during the entire day! I am not lying. Not a single one – in the second largest city of the country on a tour suggested by the “bible” of all backpackers. Tourism in Myanmar is developing at a rapid pace, and yet you still feel like you have the whole country for yourself. It was only when I went to watch the famous sunset at Mandalay Hill that I saw some other tourists.

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Laundry day at the Monastery
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Burmese kids *love* having their picture taken
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Myanmar is beautiful – and incredibly dirty

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The Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill is a real must-do when in the city. Not only does it give you a good panorama over the entire city and its surroundings (and some good exercise, for that matter). The hill is also a popular spot for young monks eager to practise their English skills. Do not miss out on this rare occasion to talk to an actual monk, as in most other cases they will not be very keen on mingling with foreigners. It’s such a good way to find out more about their motivations on becoming monks, on their backgrounds, on family and monastery life in Myanmar…

The second major tourist attraction in Mandalay is the castle. I did skip on this one though, as (1) it’s expensive, (2) the money goes straight to the government (which you want to avoid as much as you can) and (3) everybody I met told me it was overrated. I just went around it by bike (it’s huge!!) and decided to explore the local markets instead.

Mandalay by Motorbike

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Once you visited all the temples and pagodas in the city center, the best part to get around is by motorbike. Yes, traffic is crazy (even though I found it less intimidating than in Paris…), but you do not need to drive on your own if you do not want to (but I promise that you will want to…). Just inquire at your hostel on where to rent motorbikes and – if needed – a driver to come with you.

On the other side of the Ayarwaddy river, you can drive all the way up to Min Kun – where you can visit the world’s second largest bell as well as Myanmar’s largest, unfinished temple. The ride leads you along numerous small villages and gives you a perfect insight on Burmese life: The vast majority of people are incredibly poor and live in huts made out of simple bamboo mats. And yet, you will be greated with a big small wherever you go.

Make sure to stop in Sagaing and Amarapura as well to witness the feeding of the monks (at 10am – I don’t know if it’s such a big event every day or only on the weekends, as I went on Saturday), to visit local silk factories and also the world’s largest teak bridge. At some point between Min Kun and Sagaing there is also a pretty nice pagoda up on a hill, from which you get an even more impressive view of Mandalay and its surroundings.

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U Bein Bridge in Amarapura

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Min Kun

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Hundrets of monks lining up and waiting for their food

If you drive out of Mandalay on the other side of town, you will at some point get to a water fall which is supposed to be pretty nice. I wouldn’t know though, as one of our bikes broke down halfway and we had to return to town. This didn’t matter at all though, as I just enjoyed driving up the hills through the small villages and waved and smiled at the locals from my backseat (I found myself a charming British driver hihi).

While Mandalay is not a beautiful city at first sight, there are some pretty cool things to visit and it’s worth to just drive around and discover the city at your own pace!

Where to eat in Mandalay

As always in Myanmar: Do no bother going to an actual restaurant. The best and – by far – cheapest food is served in the local teahouses. They may look very dirty and you definitely do not want to think about the hygiene of those places – and in many cases you also have no idea what you are actually eating. But I once got a full meal for 50 cents at some teahouse market around 90th and 34st street, so there really is no need to complain!

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Where to stay in Mandalay

There are only one or two real hostels in Mandalay and I definitely advise you to stay there if you are a solo traveller and/or want to make new friends. Unlike in other Asian countries, there is no real guesthouse culture in Myanmar (as hard-to-get licences are required for hosting foreigners and strict governmental controls apply) and actual hotels are not the best place to meet fellow travellers. I stayed in Ace Start hostel in downtown and warmly recommend it. The big rooftop terrace is the ideal spot for getting drunk meeting new travel companions. Bonus: You can do your laundry for free and the breakfast was kind of decent.

Mandalay – Good to know

Most travellers will arrive in Yangon, head on to Mandalay and then continue their travels to some smaller destinations, such as Bagan or Kyaukme. Yangon and Mandalay are fast growing cities and you can buy pretty much anything you can think of in the downtown malls. So in case you need to stock up on anything, I strongly advice you to do so in Mandalay: Sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a new charger for your phone, wet wipes (probably the most important utensile when travelling Myanmar)… – most of those things will be hard/impossible to find in the smaller cities!

[Travel Diary] Amore in Venice

Those who know me know that I am not the biggest fan of Italy. Don’t get me wrong – Italian food is among my favourite things in the world (Gelato!!! Burrata!!!) and I surely cultivate a big love for Aperol Spritz. I just think that there are too many loud and sleazy Italians in this beautiful country. Luckily, I gave Italy another shot and just fell head over heels in love with Venice. 

San Marco as seen from the Vaporetto
San Marco as seen from the Vaporetto

I was more than excited when my former boss invited me to his fancy Venetian wedding. After all, I have never been to Venice before (which is actually kind of embarrassing, as it is ridiculously close to Austria) and always love a chance to explore a new city. And what can I say: Venice is amore! I fell in love with this beautiful city, or, as the Italians say: I had a big colpo di fulmine.

Night train to Venice. Watermelon #ftw
Night train to Venice. Watermelon #ftw

Venice

Venice Dursoduro
Santa Maria della Salute
Sunset over San Marco
Sunset over San Marco

Exploring Venice

Even though Venice is situated on water, the best way to get around is without a doubt on foot. It’s nice to take the vaporetto once all the way down the Canal Grande, as you drive by all the main landmarks, such as San Marco square, Rialto Bridge and Accademia. But the vaporetto is actually very slow and expensive (and so is everything else in Venice), so walking really is your best option.

Just get lost in the picturesque streets, stop for Espresso, Spritz and Gelato every here and now and just enjoy La Dolce Vita. And once you get tired from all the masses (because even for a semi-Parisian like myself, Venice is unbearably crowded!), either hang out on the Lido (aka the beach) or take the vaporetto to the smaller island of Guidecca. There is not super much to see, but that’s exactely the whole point: Walking around the little streets and enjoying a drink in the sun with the locals will make you feel as if you were on the Italian countryside.

I am also certain there are many good museums in Venice and when I was there, even the Biennale was still on. Unfortunately, I was too hungover from all the Spritz from the night before to do anything even remotely cultivated on my free day before the wedding. However, my friends told me that the Guggenheim was nice…

Life Adriatique
Life Adriatique
Venice Rooftops
Venice Rooftops
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Guidecca
Dursoduro as seen from Guidecca
Dursoduro as seen from Guidecca

Eating and drinking in Venice

I guess it’s an absolute no-brainer that you will need to eat as many carbs as possible when in Italy. Unfortunately, all the restaurants on our bucket list were closed for holidays while we there, so we just ended up in some random restaurants we discovered while walking around. All the food (= pasta) I had was molto bene, and I guess as long as you stay off the main streets, you can’t do anything wrong.

Unfortunately, Venice is not a party city at all and all the bars and restaurants close surprisingly early (like 10ish – wtf!?). On our first night, we accidentally discovered a nice little bar which was crowded with locals, and we just got hopelessly drunk on Aperol Spritz. We then moved on to Alba bar, close to Rialto bridge, which I really liked and where we had even more Spritz. Once they closed, we went on to another bar at the Rialto market (and apparently the only bar in the whole neighbourhood to be still open this “late”), where we ended the night with even more Spritz. (Yes, I was very hungover the next morning).

So due to lack of organisation on the one hand and too much alcohol on the other, I am not really an expert when it comes to bar and restaurant recommendations in Venice. However, I really loved the tiny corner bar Bacaro Risorto in San Zaccaria, as it is the perfect stop for a quick Espresso or – even better, if you ask me – a little aperitivo.

And of course, you can not really have a Venetian holiday without enjoying your daily dose of Gelato. I love artisanal ice cream more than 99,9% of all other foods and the one at La Mela Verde in San Zaccaria was particularly yummy. Make sure to try their Fior di Latte!

Fior di Latte from La Mela Verde
Fior di Latte from La Mela Verde
Life Adriatique
Life Adriatique

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Where to stay in Venice

I basically slept in a different part of town every night (long story…), but besides the hazzle of moving my stuff every day, this was a great way to discover different parts of the city every day.

I first slept on the main island in a super fancy apartment which I shared with some friends. It’s only a short walk from San Zaccaria (the main vaporetto stop) and within walking distance to San Marco and Rialto. The place has its own rooftop terrace, which is the ideal spot for some Prosecco at sunset (yes, pretty much all I did in Venice was drinking alcohol and eating carbs). Also, the bathtub is amazing and I want to buy exactly the same for my next apartment.

The next night I spent at my beloved island of Guidecca in Generator Hostel. It’s located right in front of the water, so you get an amazing view over the main islands – without the masses and for a pretty good price. The hostel is very clean and actually pretty fancy and also looks like a good spot for socializing.

Grazie mille once again Ben and Cecilia for inviting me to your magical wedding and merci beaucoup to my Parisian friends for this beautiful weekend full of Spritz and Dolce Vita.

Venice - Wedding Style
Venice – Wedding Style

[TRAVEL GUIDE] SRI LANKA

Oh Sri Lanka, you stole my heart! I guess it’s safe to say that this small island in the Indian ocean is one of the most beautiful spots on earth, featuring picture perfect sunsets, lonely beaches, bright green tee plantations and a very warm and hospital people. I spent a little more over three weeks there and miss every second of it so badly.

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Things to do in Sri Lanka

One of the main advantages about travelling to Sri Lanka is how much this small island has to offer. There sure is something for everybody, whether you prefere exploring old temples or surfing some waves.

Surfing in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is the best spot for learning how to surf, as the water is warm all year round (aka it doesn’t matter if you fall…). I got my first ever surfing experience at Talalla Surf and Yoga Retreat. The resort was quite pricey, particularly for Sri Lankan standards, but I had an amazing surf coach, met so many cool people from all over the world, had the best food and also had a little crush on my yoga teacher. So yes, if you ask me, it was worth the money.

You can also go out on our your own or take private lessons with a local coach. The best locations for surfing are pretty much the entire South coast and Arugam Bay in the east. Just make sure to check where the season is on before you go.

Sri Lanka for walkers

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Pure bliss at Lipton’s Seat in Haputale

Nature lovers will not come short on this magical island, and one of the absolute must-dos it certainly walking up the 5000 stairs to Adam’s peak in the middle of the night in order to watch the Lord-of-the-Rings-esque sunset from the top.

Another walk I absolutely recommend is around the tea plantations of Haputale. There are no words to describe the beauty of this place and I want to go back so badly.

City trips in Sri Lanka

Kandy Cylon Tea Museum
Learning all about my favourite brew at the Cylon Tea Museum

Sri Lanka has many great thing to offer to visitors, but its cities are not one of them. I only heard negative things about the capital Colombo and decided to not stay there at all. And from what I saw just from my taxi from the airport to the train station, I am glad I didn’t.

I did however visit Kandy for two days, the second largest city and supposed cultural capital. And what can I say? I freaking hated it there. Luckily I at least had the best guesthouse on earth and stayed close to the Cylon tea museum, so I just got some much needed detox time.

Sea, sun and fun in Sri Lanka

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Talalla beach. Is this place even real??
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This is not a postcard
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Mirissa

The center of the island is beautiful and you can visit lots of temples old and new, tea plantations and what not. But make sure not to miss out on the crazy beaches. I thought beaches like this only exist in movies and I promise you will feel like living in a postcard every day!

If spending entire days at the beach is not your exactly your thing, there are also numerous other activities to do in the south of Sri Lanka, such as whale watching in Mirissa or chilling, eating and shopping in the cute towns of Galle and Unawatuna. And if you are in Unawatuna, make sure to sign up for Karuna’s cooking class, in order to learn how to fix that yummy rice and curry at home.

How to get around in Sri Lanka

 

Three girls one TukTuk
Three girls one TukTuk
Oh those Sri Lankan train rides
Oh those Sri Lankan train rides <3

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Do not worry too much about local transport: Busses go from everywhere to anywhere, but their schedules and routes are completely incomprehensible to foreigners and also untraceable online. The locals will know and will always be happy to help you figure out a route.

I highly recommend you take the train as often as possible, as this is on of the island’s most beautiful adventures. Check out my story about the party train from Hatton to Haputale, for example. You can find a schedule online, but do not rely on much on it, as trains tend to be very late. My advice: Just check out how to get from Colombo to your first real destination (Matara in my case), and figure the rest out once you’re there.

Considering you’re in Asia, another important way of transport are TukTuks – of course. You can hail them anywhere at anytime and they will drive you whenever you want. Just make sure to negotiate the exact price and destination before jumping on, as TukTuk drivers tend to be evil and annoying and will say whatever it takes to make you pay more.

Where to sleep in Sri Lanka

Asanka's Guesthouse
Waking up to this in Asanka’s Guesthouse in Midigama…

The best way to discover local life is to stay in one of the numerous guesthouses. Most of them are listed on booking.com and actually prefere if you book online. This is how I found out about Buddhika’s guesthouse in Matara, for example, where I spent my wonderful first night.

Don’t bother about booking your entire trip in advance though: Just get your first few nights sorted and deal with the rest once you’re there (I know I already said this a few times, but Sri Lanka is really easy to figure out once you’re there). Wifi is available in many places in case you want to do more online research, and in many towns you can also just show up without a reservation and find yourself a nice place to stay upon arrival.

Sri Lanka – Good to know

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Dahl in the making
  • Negotiate always and everything! Guesthouses, TukTuks, food… But especially TukTuks. Sri Lankans tend to want to rip you off, so make sure to bargain at all times.
  • Eat Streetfood. The locals teahouses might look very dirty, but that’s where you get the best food! Oh my gosh Rotti, I miss you so much. <3
  • Eat any kind of food, basically. Sri Lanka is a foodie heaven, with all its savory curries, fresh fruit juices and fatty pastries.
  • Buy a SIM card. You can get them at the airport and I was really happy to have 3G pretty much all the time, in order to check out guesthouses etc. (unless the idea of your whole trip is to totally disconnect from everything, in which case don’t get a SIM card).

Sri Lanka for solo female travelers

I was in Sri Lanka as a solo female traveller, and I never encountered any trouble. Just be reasonable about what you do (i.e. not staying out alone at night) and you will be perfectly fine. Locals will tend to talk to you a lot – especially the men – but just be nice and friendly and everything will be awesome. Also, keep in mind to bring long clothes (to cover knees and shoulders), as you will really not feel comfortable in tiny shorts in places like Kandy or Haputale.

Oh Sri Lanka, I miss you!

[Travel Diary] Lazy Seaside Days in Galle and Unawatuna

The bad news for all non surfers is that the majority of beaches in Sri Lanka are not exactly suitable for swimming and bathing. Even in Mirissa, where there’s only a small surfer spot in the very corner of the bay, the waves can often get too high even for experienced swimmers. But don’t be sad just yet:

This is actually in Mirissa, but I was too busy chilling that I completely forgot to take a photo of Unawatuna's crazy beach hihi
This is actually in Mirissa, but I was too busy chilling that I completely forgot to take a photo of Unawatuna’s crazy beach hihi

Beachfun in Unawatuna

Unawatuna beach is located in a bay and I do not exaggerate when I say that I have never seen a beach like this. The white sand and turquoise water look like the setting of a very cheesy postcard.

Yes, Unawatuna is a tourist hotspot and can be quite crowded – and also quite expensive for Sri Lankan measures – but the beauty of the place clearly makes up for it.

Unlike many of the other towns aligned on the coast, Unawatuna has more to offer than “just” perfect beaches (even though, for most of the time, that would be more than enough). With its numerous cocktail bars and restaurants, it feels like an actual holiday town and is the perfect spot to chillax for a few days.

The beach town is also a good spot for shopping (unlike most parts of Sri Lanka) and I bought a nice handmade dress, altered to my measures by the lovely store owner. Make sure to have dinner at the Pink Elephant at least once – I loved this cosy place and the food was ultra delicious.

And if you want to learn how to fix that awesome rice and curry once you get back home, make sure to join a real Sri Lankan cooking class.

Dahl Curry Sri Lanka
Dahl in the making in Unawatuna

Hipstershopping in Galle

Located in a historical fort just a short ride from Unawatuna, the old town of Galle is everything you imagine a colonial port to be. European inspired architecture and shops meet local style.

In the unlikely event that you will get bored of rice and curry, fancy Galle also offers many western food options, such as pizza or lobster. (I ended up having rice and curry once again at Mama’s roof café and it was totally delicious). It’s a great spot to spend a lazy afternoon/evening shopping, eating and drinking.

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Galle Sri Lanka

I loved Galle very much, but personally found that half a day there was sufficient for exploring everything the fort has to offer and actually recommend to stay in Unawatuna for the night, as the beaches in Sri Lanka easily beat just any potential shopping.

If you do need accomodation in Galle, I can highly recommend the Galle Center Home Guesthouse. It’s only a short walk away from the Fort – which makes it much cheaper than many of the overpriced hotels inside the Fort – is very nice and clean.

It’s also just a few meters away from the amazing Galle food market. So much tasty, fresh goodness to discover <3

Food Market Sri Lanka
Tomatoes at Galle market

[Travel Diary] Sea, Sun and Surf in South Sri Lanka

Safaris, yoga, surfing, swimming, sunbathing, getting drunk…: There are so many things to do in the picturesque Sri Lankan south. Please take me back to this happy place!

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Surfing in South Sri Lanka

Surfing is probably the first thing that pops to your mind when you think of Sri Lanka, and for now I can surely not think of a better place for my first surf adventure. I have not been to one of the world’s most legendary surfer spots – Arugam Bay in the east of the island – due to rainy season, but the south coast alone offers more than a gazillion beautiful spots for all levels (full list here).

You can either check in to one of the surfcamps (read all about my stay at Talalla Surf and Yoga Retreat) or hit the waves on your own. Another option which I highly recommend – especially if your surf skills are as ridiculous as mine – is to take private lessons with a local coach. There are numerous surf shacks on Weligama beach, and you can take lessons or hire a board whenever you need – no reservation needed.

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I enjoyed surfing with my coach Loco so much that I actually ended up hitting the waves there every morning and evening for almost an entire week. Loco is the nicest guy on earth – he even helped me send my overweight stuff back to Austria by post, which sounds so much easier than it actually was! – and I was more than sad when it was time to say goodbye. Not before sharing a beer and cigarettes on my last evening and a hearty breakfast in a local teashop before it was really time for me to leave, of course.

After a week of surfing with my awesome coach April at Talalla, the private sessions with Loco in Weligama were the perfect way to improve my skills.

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Travelling South Sri Lanka – Good to know

The towns are all relatively close to each other, so in my opinion it does not make sense to constantly move all your belongings from town to town. Staying in Mirissa is probably the best option, especially if you don’t have tons of time. It’s very easy to make day trips by bus or tuktuk to the neighbouring villages and Mirissa also has a decent amount of beach bars, restaurants and spas to offer. There are numerous excursions starting from Mirissa as well, such as whale watching or safaris.

Busses go regularly between Matara and Galle, and you could even take the train to get around (even though highly unrealiable so probably not the best option).

If you know how to drive and are not scared of the crazy Asian traffic (watch out for the high speed busses in the middle of the freaking road!), then renting a scooter is a very good idea as well.

Asanka's Guesthouse
Waking up to this in Asanka’s Guesthouse…

Accomodation

Two places I can really recommend – not exactly for their perfect locations, as there is not much to do in these towns, but rather for their welcoming hosts and delicious food, are Asanka’s guesthouse in Midigama and Buddhika’s guesthouse in Matara (read all about my wonderful first day in Sri Lanka with Buddhika and his family here). We were lucky to stay in Sri Lanka during Buddhist new year, and Asanka and his family kindly invited us to celebrate the traditional festivities with them in their house. This involved a lot of food and my newfound Swiss friends and I were very full, yet very happy afterwards.

[Travel Diary] Whale Watching in Mirissa

Sri Lanka is blessed with an enormous diversity of flora and fauna and you can even see blue whales – the world’s largest animals – if you please.

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Morning glory at the port of Mirissa

This clearly is an activity for earlybirds, as the boats set out at about 6am form the cute port of Mirissa. I went with Raja and the Whales and fully recommend them. They are more eco-responsible than many of their competitors and put the wellbeing of the animals first. This means you might not get as close to the whales as some other boats, but I think respecting the animals is a clear priority.

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Cosy with my girls
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Leaving Mirissa

In any case, don’t expect a Free Willy-like jump over your boat. We saw a couple of whales from the distance – but that was all it took to make me happy in those early hours of the day. Seeing the water fountains blowing out of the backs of these majestic animals was pure magic.

Another highlight was seeing a giant turtle as it was chilling in the sea before we approached. It’s hard to describe those kind of encounters, but seeing those majestic animals in their natural environment is a very emotional experience, which I highly recommend.

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Can you see it?
Whale watching Mirrissa
<3 Whale <3 (as captured by my friend Martine, as I was too slow to take a picutre)

At about 60USD, whale watching was not exactly the cheapest of activities one could find in Sri Lanka. But due to many years of experience, the guides will almost always know where to spot some whales, so it’s worth the experience. And you get a very yummy breakfast on board!

Just beware that going whale watching is not exactly a good idea if you have a weak stomach. Even though the boats are quite big, things can get quite shaky on the deck.

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Beautiful Mirissa

Whale Watching Mirissa

And speaking of wildlife, I actually also went on a safari to Yala National Park. This, however, is one of the rare things I should have missed out on. Of course, you never know how lucky you get and if the elephants feel like showing up or not. Well, they didn’t seem to be in a good mood on the day I went, as we only spotted a single one – from very far away… If you really want to go on a Safari, I recommend going to Udawalawe instead, as everybody I know who went there was raving about it. But in any case, keep in mind that Sri Lanka is not Africa and that going on a safari in South Africa should definitely be way more exciting.

Links I Like #11

Badass women, modern love life, abandoned buildings and summer of love: my favourite things found on the WWW.

Links I like11

Women played an imported role in World War Two. Not just in the factories, where they replaced the men who were now risking their lives at the front. But also als pioneering army pilots, as we learn here: Women Beauties and their Bombers: Meet the “Top Gun” Heroines of WW2.

Smoking, drinking, driving, shooting, flying.. I love these stunning Vintage Snapshots of ‘Dangerous’ Women from between the 1930s and 1950s.

“What if you don’t care for diamond rings? What if you instead prefer dangerously deep water blue sapphires? What if you look better in the color black than you do in the color white?” Sounds familiar? Check out: I’m Not Just Looking For Love, I’m Looking For Someone Who Can Keep Up.

If I could chose one period in the history of mankind in which I would rather live than today, I would choose the late Sixties without hesitation. Love and rock’n’roll are all we need and oh how much would I give if I could travel back in time to be a part of the forever magical Woodstock: 20 Interesting Facts You Might Not Know about The Woodstock Music Festival of 1969.

The only thing cooler than a walk on the countryside is probably to  explore manmade places reclaimed by nature. I am a huge fan of all things Urbex, and this abandoned castle once owned by the Rothschild family in the suburbs of Paris is particularly awesome.

And last but not least: A Pair of Butterflies Photographed While Sipping on Turtle Tears in Ecuador. It’s as beautiful as it sounds and will surely bring a smile to your face.