Balkan Bonanza

I have to start with a confession. I have allowed work to get in the way of my intention to travel and to do the things I want to do. What’s worse I haven’t always enjoyed the work I have been doing, so that’s all got to change if I’m to keep faith with the intentions of this site.
Anyway, with that out of the way, I have finally got round to working towards my goal of 100 countries see the list here, with numbers 80 and 81 on one trip, and number 82 the following week.
My choices this time are probably not in many people’s Top Ten of places to visit but I was pleasantly surprised – in parts!

Skopje

Skopje in the evening

The first stop was Skopje, capital of Macedonia, with a Wizz Air flight out of Luton and a £2.50 (180 MKD) bus ride into the city centre. As with previous trips, I booked accommodation through Airbnb, this time a city centre apartment just off Alexander Square, which was the perfect location to explore the city.

Turkish quarter.

Turkish quarter.

It was close to restaurants, bars, shops and the main attractions, including the Turkish Bazaar, which is worth a wander. It’s a relatively small city so it’s easy to see most things in a couple of days. If you’ve done all the usual European weekend locations and are looking for somewhere more unusual, then Skopje is only a couple of hours from the UK and worth a look.
Then I travelled to a probably even lesser known place, Prishtina, in Kosovo. I checked out trains and buses from Skopje to make the trip. There was only one train a day but regular buses, so that made the decision easy. The process was simple. I turned up at the bus station, bought a ticket for 350 MKD (about £5), and boarded a bus which left 5 minutes later. It was a 20 seater minibus, rather than a coach, but given the road winds through the mountains, that was probably a good thing.
About 35 minutes out of Skopje, we reached the border. It was a relatively painless experience which we might have to get used to depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations but highlighted how we should appreciate the current free movement within Europe. Passports were collected as we left Macedonia, taken away, inspected and handed back. Then we drove 30 yards and repeated the process for the Kosovo border police. This time the passport was stamped. All in all, we were on our way after about 35 minutes, but it’s a lot of faffing about in the name of sovereignty, control of borders etc. After that, it was about a two-hour drive on winding mountainous roads to Prishtina. The bus station is quite a way from the centre so a £5 taxi fare is a good idea. I managed to share with two others who’d been on the bus with me, which I imagine is quite common.
Again I’d booked Airbnb and lucked out once more – although how many great, cheap, comfortable apartments do you have to book in different countries before it’s not regarded as lucky? I have never had a bad place and never paid very much for an apartment. Perhaps the company should consider a name change though because I have never used it to find a B&B or to share a house with a host family. There are loads of great apartments you can have to yourself at very reasonable prices. (Advert over – Airbnb can contact me via this website to reward me for the free recommendation).

Prishtina

Prishtina

A £15 taxi ride took me back to the airport, which is a good 20 minutes out of the centre, and WizzAir flew me back into Luton.
A few days later, another WizzAir flight took me back to the Balkans (I broke the journey for personal reasons rather than work my way around the cities which was my original plan). This time the trip was to the capital of Albania, Tirana.
The airport shuttle bus into the city centre was 250 Lek (about £1.75) and took about 30-40 minutes. Again an Airbnb apartment in the centre meant everything was walking distance away. This makes it much easier to see a city in a short time. And there is a fair amount of things to see with some good bars and restaurants.

Tirana Opera House

Tirana Opera House

A word of warning. Tirana Airport does not yet support boarding passes downloaded to mobiles. This is a problem because you can only check in for Wizz Air flights two days before and are charged extra at the airport if you haven’t already done so. Therefore I had to find a place to print off the downloaded pdf – not a simple process as printing from mobiles is not always straightforward. For me, it involved taking a screenshot of the boarding pass, sending it via WhatsApp to the woman in the shop who printed it from her desktop computer. I guess that’s a downside of not staying in a hotel where that palaver could have been done with someone on reception, but Wizz Air could make the process simpler until all airports catch up. Still, the main cost was time, because the whole process cost me the princely sum of 10 Lek (7p).
So in summary, Skopje is worth a look, Tirana was interesting but more of a working city and less touristy, with Prishtina really only for those with a reason to go there.

Good Luck
The Barefoot Bohemian

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Vientiane, Chiang Mai and Yangon.

In contrast to my last couple of posts which were ostensibly about away-days, this is about a much meatier trip.  Although having said that, the manner in which it was planned and executed is still very much in the spirit of the Barefoot Bohemian.  I will also focus on the mechanics of the trip rather than on producing yet another tour guide, although a video of each location can be viewed at The Barefoot Bohemian channel on YouTube if you want a flavour on them. View the video here

Yangon street scene

Yangon street scene

Having found myself with a couple of free weeks and deciding that I really needed to tick off some things from my bucket list (see the list here), I wanted to get the biggest bang for my buck, so it was either completing the missing Asian countries on my list or tackling a couple in Latin America.  Asia won – as so often happens with me.

The big Asian gaps were Laos and Myanmar (formerly Burma), and as I’d never been to Chiang Mai in Thailand and it is conveniently situated between the other two, that went into the itinerary as well.

I have built up a number of air miles with BA (Avíos points as they are now called) so I looked at flights to and from Bangkok. There were flights out but no air mile flights back to London in March or April.  So I booked a £200 flight to Bangkok (with some air miles) and a £20 (yes that does not have a 0 missing) return flight from Hong Kong 11 days later. Then I set about linking them up.  It involved lots of post it notes and numerous permutations but I eventually settled on an additional seven flights to complete the trip ( total cost about £350 which was less than half of the cost I was quoted by a popular flight company who wanted £750 for the same interconnecting trip). And ironically the cheapest way to fly was not west to east as you might expect, but east to west and then east again which shows the value of being flexible and checking all the options.

So the trip became London Heathrow to Bangkok.  Switch airports in Bangkok and fly from Bangkok Don Mueang airport to Vientiane in Laos.  Three nights in Vientiane.  Fly Vientiane to Luang Prabang in Laos and then on to Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Two nights in Chiang Mai.  Fly Chiang Mai to Bangkok then on to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar.  Four nights in Yangon.  Fly Yangon to Bangkok and Bangkok to Hong Kong before returning to London Heathrow.  Nine flights in eleven days with a total price of about £600 including air miles.

Room beside the Mekong in Vientiane

Room beside the Mekong in Vientiane

Next – accommodation.  Having experimented with Airbnb in Krakow, I thought it should be tested a little further in a couple of more remote locations.  It did not disappoint. I got a large spacious room with balcony on the banks of the Mekong in Vientiane, a similar sized and well-appointed room in the old city of Chiang Mai, and a reasonable but not as impressive double room – with breakfast – in Yangon (total cost for the nine nights – about £200).

Room in the old walled city of Chiang Mai

Room in the old walled city of Chiang Mai

A couple of other things to consider – transfers and visas.  Currencies, restaurants, and bars are no longer much of a consideration when travelling, given the proliferation of ATM machines and apps like Trip Advisor to help you find places to go when you arrive in a foreign country.  Airbnb hosts are remarkably helpful with information about their city and can advise the best way to transfer from the airport to the accommodation – with approximate costs so you don’t experience that ‘am I being ripped off’ feeling, actually you very rarely are but of course it can happen.  Visas for a U.K. passport holder are not required for Thailand, can be obtained on arrival in Laos and you can either get a visa for less than £20 for Myanmar, or if, like me, you are putting a trip together at the last minute and can’t wait the couple of weeks for your passport to be returned, then for an extra £15 or so, you can get an e-visa which was approved within hours and worked just fine.

Once the flights, visa and accommodation were booked, I could only foresee three tiny pinch-points. The first was I intended to do the trip without checked-in baggage. This became a little more tricky when I received an email from one of my chosen airlines informing me I was allowed two cabin bags – as long at their total weight did not exceed 7kg.  My challenge just got a little trickier.

Chiang Mai restaurant

Chiang Mai restaurant

The second was my arrival into Bangkok Suvarnbhumi Airport was scheduled for 0930 and my flight to Vientiane left Bangkok Don Mueang airport at 1255, giving me 3 hours 25 minutes between flights. Immigration at Bangkok can be a slow process (about an hour), taxi queues lengthy (30 minutes) Monday morning traffic a nightmare (more than one hour journey) and Air Asia are quite strict on enforcing their policy of checking in at least 1 hour prior to the flight (potentially 3 hours 30 minutes).

The third was the Myanmar eVisa required an address in Yangon and stressed that it must be a hotel or a licensed guest house, not a residential address, so my Airbnb accommodation might be an issue.  I resolved this by finding a cheap hotel with a memorable name in the same area as my accommodation and used its name and address.  If it became an issue I could always double book there.

In the end, none of the pinch-points became issues.  I got my bag weight down to 7.5kg and for the first couple of check-ins I wore my headphones, carried my iPad and was prepared to load the heavier items into my pockets.  However, despite numerous signs and warning announcements about their weight policy, no one ever checked the weight or size of my bag, so my achievement of getting the weight down became only a matter of pride in knowing I can do it.  The transfer in Bangkok was simple. Immigration was the quickest I’d ever experienced in Bangkok meaning I was outside in time to catch the free airport transport bus at 1000.  This takes 60-90 minutes and saved me a taxi fare.  And – the visa address? I don’t think the immigration officials in Yangon even read my visa letter.

But a final reminder if you’re thinking of making a similar trip – because I forgot!  Make sure you change back your unused Laotian and Burmese currency because even neighbouring Thailand won’t touch it with a bargepole.  Still, if you forget you’ll already have some cash for your next trip.

Good Luck
The Barefoot Bohemian.

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More Than A Day Trip

Charming Cafe in The Jewish Quarter

Charming Cafe in The Jewish Quarter

Following on from my last post about day trips, Kraków might seem like another location which would be a possible location for a quick visit. It’s a small enough city to see most things in a day, flights are frequent and cheap with early morning and late evening departures and it’s fairly inexpensive once you get there. (A train from the airport into the city centre takes 20 minutes and costs less than £2 each way).

But, for me, the thing which takes it off the day trip list is its proximity to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the former Nazi death camps. I can well understand a visit to these reminders of man’s inhumanity to man which happened only 70 years ago, may not be for everyone. They are undoubtedly a sobering and harrowing experience as you attempt to comprehend the systematic and highly organised extermination of those deemed expendable by the Nazis. However, for me, it would be a massive missed opportunity not to visit when you are only an hour’s drive away.

The gate at Auschwitz

The gate at Auschwitz

There are numerous ways to visit the camps, from public transport on bus or train, to coach tours or private hire minibuses for small groups. Entrance to the camps is free, although you pay about £10 each to join a guided group which is well worth it as the guides impart their extensive knowledge efficiently and with great dignity. I believe it would lose a great deal without their commentary.

Videos of Kraków and of Auschwitz/Birkenau are available on the Barefoot Bohemian YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFswARTZPfWqJZ8-uQQ0JHw

Good Luck
The Barefoot Bohemian.

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Didn’t We Have A Lovely Day…

When I was young a day out involved a trip to the seaside, a fish and chip supper in a proper restaurant – with bread and butter – and falling asleep in the back of the car on the way home, especially if it was a trip to Blackpool Illuminations which mainly involved a massive traffic jam down the seafront and a lot of lights which looked remarkably similar after the first hour. Now a day out can be much more far-reaching and interesting.

thumb_P1010093_1024I have done day trips to Dublin, Geneva, Oslo and now I have added Copenhagen to the list. I accept it requires a few things to make it possible – a willingness to get up in the middle of the night; a budget airline operating from a fairly local airport (although this is not essential if your budget can cope with the additional costs or you have built up air miles – see note*); accommodating flight times with an outward flight in the early morning and a return flight in the evening; a city which is small and compact enough to see in a day and either the attention span of a gnat or no real interest in spending your day wandering around museums, art galleries or churches. If all, or at least most of these criteria apply to you, then perhaps a day trip abroad is for you.

The formula is pretty similar regardless of the destination, and the costs involved are comparable too, so I’ll use the details of the Copenhagen trip as an illustration.

Flight costs vary but are usually between £40 and £120 for a return flight within Europe. Transfers from the airport to the city centre are about £10-£20 each way. This was remarkably simple in Copenhagen.

Terminal 3

There are trains, buses, taxis and a metro to choose from. For me, the metro seemed the most efficient and cost effective. Trains and the metro leave from inside Terminal 3 and a single to the centre cost 36DKK each (£4.13). All prices are based on an exchange rate of £1 to 8.71DKK.  The journey takes ten minutes to Kongens Nytorv, which is pretty central and puts you among the shops and walking distance of many of the main attractions.

The usual hop on – hop off tourist bus costs 245DKK (£28.12) each and this includes a boat trip. In my opinion, the bus was a little disappointing but the boat made up for it, however, it does its job in taking you around all the places you need to see in a couple of hours. In some cities, it’s essential without incurring taxi costs. It also saves on doing any preparation before the trip because all the main attractions will be included.

Little MermaidI’m not really going to review Copenhagen because tourism is so subjective and there are numerous guides which go into much greater detail than I could, however, I found the people friendly and cheerful, but then the Danes were named the happiest people in the world in three of the past four years by the United Nations World Happiness Report.

Food is good and not too expensive even in the most popular tourist areas, and the Little Mermaid is just that – little and a mermaid – but you have to see her.

*Air miles note: Clearly this is only an option if you belong to a loyalty programme with a major airline and have made enough full price flights to build up a reasonable number of miles. But if you have, using air miles can be another cheap way of travelling. To kill the myth, it’s not free. Yes, the flights can be free, or you can pay with a combination of miles and cash, but you would usually be expected to pay the airport taxes and fees. These vary depending on the airport but are usually about £50 per return trip. However, British Airways for one has another scheme which can reduce this to a one-off fee of about £35 for the return flight, if you meet their criteria (check their website – www.britishairways.com – if you are interested and a member of their Executive Club loyalty programme).

Video is now available on the YouTube Channel at https://youtu.be/3vzWmJ-yLKE

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Musical Chairs At St Albion’s School in July.

Union FlagThings at St. Albion’s School calmed down a little in July, although not because of calls to ‘calm down’.  Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down because they were told to ‘calm down’.  No, it’s a little calmer because nothing has really happened, and as predicted in the last newsletter, it seems not much is likely to happen for some time.  This is because the people who wanted us out of the Confederation of Schools are now saying they need to talk to a lot of experts about the implications of leaving – something we’d all hoped had happened before they so strongly argued that we should leave.  I suppose these are not the same experts who clearly told us in May that it was not a good idea.  You remember, the ones Gormless Gove told us we’d heard enough from.  Meanwhile, the people who still want us to stay, clearly have a vested interest in dragging their feet until all momentum is lost, and we end up with some form of staying because by then it will be the best option (again as suggested in what is looking like a prophetic June newsletter).

However, there are some school events to announce, despite being so close to the end of term.  We have a new Head Girl, only the second in our history, and it’s Maggie ‘Mumsy’ May.  That happened after the most pathetic election in the history of elections.

First, Foxy Fox was thrown out – again.  It’s only a few years since he was the Shadow Prefect found to have over-claimed the most in expenses and then he resigned as a Prefect for allowing a male friend to see things he shouldn’t have seen. (More on him later).

Then Crabby Crab (no, they were not all named after animals) got a text telling him he needed to spend more time with his family, and less on his phone not to his family, so he dropped out.

Then, Gormless Gove was thrown out.  Now even his mummy, Lady MacGove, has stopped mentioning him in The Mouldy Murdoch.  But no doubt he’ll be back – they always are.  It seems failure, disgrace and embarrassment are never enough to end a career in politics – or football for that matter.

So that left two girls for the top job – Maggie May and Loathsome Leadsom.  Loathsome spent a couple of days getting most of the lies out of her c.v., refusing to tell anyone how much daddy earned, and then stupidly attacking Maggie for not liking children.  It was only a couple of days later that Loathsome decided she couldn’t hack it either.  And so ended the most bizarre game of musical chairs ever – no-one ever sat down but Maggie was left as the only one circling a single chair when the music stopped.  Not so much an election, or a coronation, more an only-one-left-so-you’ll-do result.

So with Maggie as Head Girl, she wasted no time in picking her prefects.  In a bizarre set of choices the most striking announcements were: No job for Gormless Gove, who stays in the lower desks; Foxy Fox, complete with chequered past, got picked; Pretty Patty was picked to be in charge of some after-school clubs she’d previously called to be scrapped; and most bizarrely of all, the school bully, Barmy Boris was back, only days after going home in tears and refusing to even try to be Head Boy – which is what he’s wanted since he was cloned.

There are two rumours circulating about this.  One is that Maggie has put Barmy Boris in a position where she can bollock him if we can’t pull out of the Confederation smoothly, but not close enough to be involved in talking to them – the giving-him-enough-rope / you-broke-it-you-pay-for-it rumour.  And the other rumour involves a cock-up.  Barmy Boris has been put in charge of school trips, which we call the Foreign Office.  Well, the rumour has it that when Maggie was writing her list of prefects with their roles she wrote F Off next to Barmy Boris’s name and the school office misunderstood and gave him the job.

Either way, it’s an interesting appointment but it’s impossible to ‘un-see’ that image of Barmy, complete with school flags and his trousers pulled into a wedgie, hanging on an aerial runway at a school sports day a few years ago.  It will, and should, haunt him forever.

Now a game of double-speak has begun, where everyone says what they think everyone wants to hear while meaning exactly the opposite.  It’s similar to the normal diet of lies, distortions, and misinterpretations that emanate from the School Council but linguistically slightly cleverer.  For example, Maggie, who didn’t want us to leave the Confederation, is running around saying Exit means Exit.   Can’t fault her on that one.  Stay mean Stay too, but it doesn’t tell us anything.  In fact, the head of English tells us most words mean what they mean because that’s how language works.

It’s all happening because it’s based on the flawed school vote we had, which purported to be a clear Yes-No decision, when in fact, there are shades of grey in both choices.  In other words, if we’d had a vote to ban caning it would be a clear Yes-No vote.  Unless we were suggesting banning it for all offences apart from those involving violence, for example.  In which case, it would have been clear in the vote.  This vote couldn’t cope with the nuances or shades of staying or leaving the Confederation.  We can’t ignore the Confederation altogether so we will have to have some kind of relationship with it, therefore it’s not really a Yes-No issue.  What conditions would be acceptable within the deal we end up with that would satisfy those who voted to leave?  That’s the ambiguity that Maggie is banking on to get her out of having to deliver what many people thought they wanted when they voted.  And after all, a school vote, or any survey, is always going to be flawed to some extent.  Surveys involve asking people what they think, when most of them are ill-advised about what to think, and others simply have not been thinking at all – and that includes both sides of the argument.  But as Maggie says: a vote is a vote, a result is a result and the future will be the future.

Meanwhile, the Alternative School Council is still in chaos and tying itself in knots by trying to out-manoeuvre each other by using the school rule book.  This is doubtless going to run into next term so I suspect this will have to be addressed in future newsletters.

On the sporting front, we have a new teacher to supervise the football after Wonky Way resigned. It’s Hagrid Sam – a safe pair of hands, a systems man and reliable.  He’s renowned for dodging relegation which means he’ll probably ensure we avoid dropping out at the group stage of the World Cup in 2018 but after that, he normally hands over to another manager who specialises in success so who knows if we will do any better than under Wonky.  It remains to be seen whether this appointment is enough to inspire our over-hyped players enough to turn them into winners.  It’s not promising, but if we didn’t want to bring in someone from another school, he was probably the best we had.

Our athletes are preparing to go to the Inter-Schools Games in a country where they have a virus which is a danger for unborn babies.  Believe me, there’s been an unprecedented rush on matron for those sticks you wee on from many of our girls’ team.  The other drama is that our team won’t be meeting many Russian competitors this year as most of them have been banned because some of them are accused of taking drugs.  It’s a shame it’s come to this, but it will certainly speed up the time it takes to get ready in the morning.  Last time the queues for the shaving points were horrendous, especially in the girls’ bathrooms.

Enjoy the holidays.

The Common Room Commentator

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