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Shivya Nath, digital nomads india, solo travellers india

One Year of Travelling Without a Home.

Update 2018: After 7 years of travelling the world – 5 of those without a home or permanent address – I’ve written a book about my journey! “The Shooting Star” charts my journey from the cubicle to the road and from small-town India to remote corners of the globe. Published by Penguin, the book is now available on Amazon and Flipkart.

What’s life without a little adventure? I asked myself a little over a year ago. I had been living a semi-nomadic life since I quit my corporate job in 2011, with a base in Delhi and an insatiable wanderlust. On the twenty-fifth day of August 2013, as I sat on the roof of my shabby Delhi apartment, staring at the dark starless sky, my heart filled with an unknown melancholy and my spirit craved more adventure. And just like that, I let go off my apartment, sold most of my belongings, stored some for a winter’s day (thank god!), and set out with my backpack.

For one year, I have moved, uninhibitedly, as much within as with my feet, like a bird without a nest, flapping my wings in the vast skies, swooping down on parts of the world that beckoned me. A soul without a compass on some days, a spirit that couldn’t be contained on others. Much has been learnt, more has been loved – and the one thing that has remained constant is my desire to keep moving.

On acceptance

When people ask me about studying beyond a bachelor’s degree, I want to tell them that the road is my teacher. And what it teaches best is acceptance, life’s most underrated lesson. Like anyone who wants to see the world, I’ve dreamt of seeing all of it. But lingering on a little longer in places like South Australia, Northern Thailand, Auroville, Kumaon and the interiors of Goa has allowed me to observe the little whimsies of life beyond just a shallow peek. I have come to accept that I can’t experience everything in this lifetime, but what I can, I will experience deeply.

Aldona fort

Introspective in Goa.

On relationships

I have never been a fan of obligatory or legalized relationships. And this year on the road has taught me that there is no better remedy for a tired, worn-out, misunderstood soul than swapping your deepest, darkest secrets with someone who was a mere stranger days ago. Truth is, sometimes it’s easier to bare your heart to a stranger.

Romania culture, Romanian people

Unexpected friends.

On money 

The one that never gets old – how do I afford this life? I won’t give you a vague answer this time. I currently handle two regular blogging and social media projects for Indian and Singaporean companies, write for atleast two Indian or international publications in a month, run India Untravelled which is gradually sprouting its own wings, and work with travel companies on ad-hoc campaigns and contests. I love most of the work I do, and what I don’t pays for exorbitant flights and my student loan. And knowing the wealth of experiences money has bought me in this year of being nomadic, I rarely think twice about spending what I earn.

Adelaide cycling

Accumulating money or experiencing the world?

On work-life balance

This has been my biggest struggle on the road. Unwilling to delegate, let go or do a half-hearted job, I have spent long, grueling hours staring at my laptop screen while being location independent. I’ve promised myself that this is going to change. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to delegate, working with diligent and committed freelancers, prioritizing work that pays well, and dreaming of a four hour work week!

Novotel Goa

Work-life balance?

On happiness

Despite the wild, unforeseen, unforgettable adventures a year of being nomadic has placed on my lap, I have merely continued to drift along in the bigger picture, not tipping any closer on the happiness scale. Truth be told, I’ve come closer to knowing that I never will, for it’s a mere illusion, much like the higher powers we try to believe in, because life feels more meaningful with something to aspire towards. Mono no aware; a Japanese saying describes it as a longer, deeper, gentle sadness about the transience of things being the reality of life. Life isn’t always about doing something, finding something, being something. Sometimes you just have to drift along and see where it takes you.

New York parks, Sakura park NYC

Summer turning to autumn in New York – transience in nature.

The Next Chapter…

One year on, on a sunny summer afternoon, I find myself sitting above the Hudson River in New York as I write this. Over an unplanned 5-6 months, I am here to explore parts of North, Central and South America, continuing to trade the stability of a regular paycheck and the comfort zone of a familiar bed with watching the sun set halfway across the globe. Because, what’s life without a little adventure, right?

Hudson river sunset, New York sunset

Sunset over the Hudson River.

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I’m figuring out my travels to Central and South America. If you have recommendations for offbeat experiences, or are a travel company interested in hosting me, please get in touch.

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Romania photos, Brasov photos, Brasov Romania

Snapshots from Romania!

It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.

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Sikkim blogs, west Sikkim, Sikkim himalayas

Sikkim: The Lost Kingdom.

On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga. Read More

villages India, Garhwal village, Uttarakhand villages

In Photos: The Garhwal Himalayas a Year After The Uttarakhand Floods.

I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories. Read More

World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2

What a WWII Polish Refugee Taught me About “Hindustan”.

It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!

For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.

Linger Longer vineyard, Willunga, Mclaren Vale

Sipping wine at Linger Longer Vineyard.

Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.

Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.

The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food,  education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.

polish refugees India, Jam Saheb, Jamnagar Maharaja, Nawanagar Maharaja, World war 2 India

The Polish kids with Jam Saheb. Photo courtesy: Sainik School, Balachadi, Jamnagar.

I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu,  father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.

For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.

The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.

I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.

And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?

World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2, Polish refugees in India

With Karol and Rosemary, in their house in Willunga.

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I googled Karol’s story later and found a documentary called A Little Poland in India, that has documented the lives of some of the Poles in India. Also this story written on New York Times.

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Thar desert, Rajasthan India, sand dunes india

My 13 “Incredible India” Moments in 2013.

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions.

These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country. Read More

Safranbolu turkey, shivya nath

My Million Reasons to Visit Turkey.

Dear Turkey,

I left you with a heavy heart, etched with the magnanimity of your people.

A kind lady in the small town of Safranbolu opened her doors to me on a late rainy afternoon, to feed my vegetarian self a special meal of Peruhi (Turkish pasta) and Pasta (cake in Turkish) prepared for a family gathering.

An old man from a bakery in Ordu gave me a ride in his truck to the town’s chocolate factory, after I walked five kilometers and stumbled into his shop for directions for the remaining three.

A family living in an isolated hut on Boztepe Hill invited me in for a meal of home grown aubergine.

Turkey black sea, turkey countryside, turkey, turkey country, turkey small towns, Amasra

Sunflower fields along the Karadeniz countryside.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Ordu Turkey, turkish customs, turkish food

Inviting entrance to a family home on Boztepe Hill, near Ordu in Turkey.

A blacksmith who found me admiring his creations invited me in for çay and proclaimed his eternal love for Hindistan even though he had never been there.

A young otel (hotel) owner in Cide went out of her way to ensure that I boarded the right connecting buses to my next destination without losing money or time.

A cafe owner in the small town of Ordu, where I impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzone without a hotel booking or so much as a google search, treated me to delicious Turkish coffee made with a secret family recipe, then ferried me and my backpack in his car to a lovely boutique hotel which I couldn’t have located myself without speaking Turkish, let aside get the negotiated price he got me.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Ordu Turkey, turkish customs, turkish food

With my Turkish friends in Ordu, a small coastal town in Turkey.

The airport guy at Istanbul airport who ferries goods gave me a chocolate seeing me struggling to find small change to make a phone call.

A restaurant manager offered me a whirlwind tour of Guzelyurt after I decided his restaurant was too pricey for me to eat there.

An English teacher in a small village in Kapadokya confided in me on how much she misses her mother and told me everything I know about the Turkish education system.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Turkish women, turkish customs

With my Turkish teacher friend in a small village in Kapadokya (Cappadocia).

So many people offered me rides to my destinations along the Black Sea, indulged me in conversations without much of a common language (after first trying to converse in Arabic), and treated me to Turkish tea at the drop of a hat.

You were good to me, Turkey, and I want to come back. Your people are one of my million reasons.

Read more about my adventures in Turkey.

For more travel stories and photos from around the world, join The Shooting Star on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

by road india to thailand, manipur to myanmar, bagan myanmar

The Epic Land Journey from Thailand to India via Myanmar.

About this post: In January 2019, I embarked on a journey from Thailand to India by road, crossing Myanmar over land. This road trip took me from Chiang Mai via Myanmar to Manipur, without boarding any flights. The India to Thailand road route is marked by stunning scenery, misty sunrises, old temples and rice paddies. In this detailed post, I talk about why doing India to Thailand by road should be on your bucket list.

When I got asked to conduct a digital marketing workshop for responsible tourism businesses in India in January 2019, I felt like an imposter. Despite being vegan, choosing eco-friendly accommodations and cutting out most single-use plastic from my lifestyle, I’m extremely guilty of the carbon footprint of the many international flights I take every year. So I began 2019 with a pledge – to cut down flying as much as possible. The only challenge was that I was living as a digital nomad in Chiang Mai and needed to travel to India to conduct the workshop.

So to keep my pledge, I set out on an epic land journey – using public transport – from northern Thailand, through the length and breath of Myanmar, to Manipur in the remote northeast of India. Over a fortnight, I took many buses, drove an electric bike, kayaked on rice paddies, went on a crazy motorbike adventure along narrow winding mountain roads, took a canoe and hiked.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

by road india to thailand, myanmar trip to India, hpa an myanmar

Kayaking on the rice paddies of Hpa An, Myanmar.

Even as I crossed the land border from Thailand to Myanmar and changed my greetings from sawadeekha to minglaba, I had no idea what Myanmar would offer me. Much to my surprise and delight, my land route was filled with karst mountains, misty sunrises, ancient temples, rhododendron forests and the tribal wonders of Chin State. I’m now convinced that long land journeys are infinitely more adventurous than hopping on a plane – and better for the planet too.

The road route I took from Thailand to India

My road route from Thailand to India: Chiang Mai – Mae Sot – (Thailand-Myanmar border crossing) – Myawaddy – Hpa An – Yangon – Bagan – Mindat – Chin State countryside – Kale – Tamu – (Myanmar-India border crossing) – Moreh – Imphal

I travelled by a mix of VIP and regular buses, mini vans and shared taxis. The VIP buses from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot and Yangon to Bagan (overnight) can be booked online. It’s best to book the rest atleast a day or two in advance, through your guest house. Except for the Myawaddy – Hpa An and Moreh – Imphal stretches, the roads were excellent.

Also read: An Open Letter to Indian Parents: Let Your “Kids” Travel

Myanmar E-visa for Indians

Scoring an e-visa for Myanmar was a breeze, even on an Indian passport. I applied online, and received it within 24 hours. The visa is valid for 90 days, and allows you to stay in Myanmar for 30 days.

Also read: How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport as I Travel Around the Globe

Border crossing: Thailand to Myanmar

thailand to India road trip, thailand to myanmar border crossing, mae sot myawaddy border crossing

The border crossing from Mae Sot (Thailand) to Myawaddy (Myanmar).

Even though Thailand has many borders with Myanmar, the one I chose to cross was the Mae Sot – Myawaddy border. If you cross any further north, in the Shan State, you can’t journey into the rest of Myanmar by land because of military restrictions.

The green bus from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot dropped the handful of passengers going to the border at an intersection before heading into Mae Sot town, from where we all shared a big tuk-tuk to the Thai border, got stamped out, walked with our luggage across the Thailand-Myanmar friendship bridge and entered Myanmar. At the immigration office in Myanmar, I got stamped in easily, no questions asked.

While most travellers then haggled with a shared taxi to continue on to Hpa An, I opted to stay at an Airbnb in the border town of Myawaddy, hoping to break the journey. In retrospect, I’d rather have endured the long ride and missed out on the scenery, for Myawaddy is dusty, busy, un-walkable and doesn’t really offer anything.

Also read: 6 Months, 6 Countries: Epic Memories from Central America

Border crossing: Myanmar to India

india to myanmar by road, manipur myanmar border crossing, moreh tamu border crossing

Entering India from Myanmar!

There are two options to cross into India from Myanmar. The first is the Tamu – Moreh border, which I crossed from Chin State in Myanmar to Manipur in India. Moreh is a 3 hour drive from Imphal. The second option is the Rikhawdar – Zokhawthar border, from Chin State to Mizoram. I heard that this one features winding roads and welcoming tribal folk on both sides, but I didn’t end up taking it because given my time constraints and the poor connectivity in this part of northeast India, the journey further would become much longer.

The crossing from Myanmar to India takes longer because you’re entering army territory. After getting stamped out from Myanmar and walking across the Indo-Myanmar friendship bridge, I had to walk about 500m to reach Indian immigration. My passport was stamped and my luggage checked manually at customs. Ordinarily, I would’ve had to catch an auto to Moreh town and wait on the road for a shared taxi, but I lucked out and got a ride with an Indian-Burmese family heading to Assam.

While in the taxi, we stopped thrice again – at an army checkpoint to enter our passport details, at a second checkpoint to deposit a passport photocopy (carry one with you) and at a third checkpoint to have our bags checked again. Phew. The army personnel were really friendly and fun to chat with though!

Also read: Meet the Courageous Indian Woman Travelling the World Solo – on a Wheelchair

India to Thailand Road Route: Things to know before you go

by road india to thailand, land journey thailand myanmar india, india to myanmar by road

A VIP bus in Myanmar, with charging points and gorgeous scenery.

  • While crossing the border from Myanmar to India, I learnt that this border can be used by anyone with a valid visa or residence for India. Visa on arrival is not available here though.
  • Being an army border, I heard that it is closed at sensitive times, like 3-4 days around India’s Republic Day. There’s no way to find out until you get there though!
  • The roads in Myanmar are fabulous, but unfortunately potholed and under construction on the Indian side. Ironic, because India built the roads on the other side of the border! With the many checkpoints and broken roads on the Indian side, the journey to Imphal or even a restaurant to get food is a long one. Stock up on snacks and water. There’s a small shop in the Indian immigration complex to buy sweet lemon tea.
  • Crossing over from Myanmar to India is a bit of a culture shock – with cows and trash lining the streets, incessant honking and broken roads – but if you manage to keep your cool, you’ll end up meeting some amazing people!

Also read: Travelling Abroad First Time? 10 Questions on Your Mind

Highlights of Myanmar

bagan myanmar, by road india to thailand, myanmar trip from india

A surreal sunrise in Bagan.

Hiking in the karst mountains of Hpa An: Although I landed up in Hpa An to break the long journey from the border to Yangon, I was delighted to find a small town on the banks of the Irrawaddy, surrounded by dramatic karst hills, home to peaceful pagodas and friendly ethnic hill tribes. I can’t wait to go back there and slow travel as a digital nomad!

Exploring the lost treasures of Bagan: It was one thing to lose myself among the centuries’ old temples of Bagan on my e-bike, quite another to discover them with a passionate female local guide from Three Treasures – hanging out at a permaculture farm, visiting a library made with recycled plastic and talking candidly about our lives over a misty sunset.

A motorbike adventure in Chin State: I went on a 3-day motorbiking adventure with Uncharted Horizons through some truly uncharted territory in Chin State. We rode on narrow winding mountain tracks, through blooming rhododendron forests, to Chin villages where elderly women still have facial tattoos and smoke cheroots (pipes), having some truly unforgettable encounters.

I had originally planned to travel to southern Rakhine State – undisturbed by the conflict in northern Rakhine State – to spend time at Arakan Eco Lodge. But the detour was too long and my time too short, but it’s good to have this among many reasons to go back!

Coming soon:
Is it ethical and safe to travel to Myanmar in 2019?
A daring motorbike adventure through Chin State in Myanmar
A responsible travel guide to Myanmar
The secret to finding vegan food in Myanmar

land journey thailand to india, india to thailand road trip, myanmar to india by road

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best digital nomad cities 2019, digital nomad hubs, digital nomad locations

Inspiring Places to Live, Work and Explore as a Digital Nomad in 2019.

About this post: Ever since I embraced a digital nomad lifestyle, I’ve been on the lookout for digital nomad destinations around the world. From Guatemala to India, these are my unusual picks for the best digital nomad cities and offbeat digital nomad locations in 2019.

I often lament being born a few decades too late. Of missing out on a time when most places around the world were still pristine, the original hippie movement was still taking shape, overtourism wasn’t a thing, plastic wasn’t a menace and the impact of climate change wasn’t so evident. But then I have to remind myself that my digital nomad lifestyle, one that allows me to spend long stretches of time working online from different parts of the globe – probably wouldn’t have existed either.

Over the past 5 years, since I gave up one place to call home, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a month or two slow travelling in quaint Himalayan hamlets, hip European cities, the stunning Caucasus region, Latin American villages steeped in the Mayan tradition and tropical Southeast Asian valleys with rice paddies.

Behold, my pick of somewhat unusual digital nomad destinations that should be on your radar in 2019:

Tbilisi, Georgia

tbilisi georgia, best digital nomad cities 2019, digital nomad cities

My neighborhood in old Tbilisi.

Back in 2014, well before Georgia found its way to the tourist map, my partner landed an internship in its gorgeous capital city Tbilisi – and I was sold at the idea of basing myself there for a while. It was love at first sight, not only with the warmhearted locals, but also with the hills and canyons that surround the city, the delightful vegan-friendly Georgian cuisine, the local music scene and the shire-like way of life. The best part was the incredible Georgian countryside – the snow-capped Caucasus mountains, the rolling vineyards, the stark Black Sea coast – just a short and affordable mashrutka (mini bus) ride out of the city.

When I revisited in 2017, I was amazed to see that creative cafes, co-working spaces, and international restaurants have sprouted up across Tbilisi, without taking away from its unique heritage. Go while it’s still on the verge of being “discovered” by digital nomads.

Also read: If You’re Looking for the Shire, Come to Georgia!

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

lake atitlan guatemala, digital nomad locations, digital nomad destinations 2019

My incredible abode by Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan appeared quite unexpectedly on my “digital nomad” radar during a solo trip across Guatemala. Immersing myself in its stellar beauty, I found a little paradise that has drawn me back every other year. Unlike the rest of the “modern” world, this is a place where you can still live away from the chaos of traffic and cars, go grocery shopping on a boat, wake up to a pristine lake in your backyard, immerse in what remains of the ancient Mayan culture and watch a volcano erupting in the far distance – yet have access to decent internet, vegan-friendly cafes, yoga classes, live music and a community of people who embrace mindful living.

Also read: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: The Feeling That I’ve Found My Place on Earth

Hpa An, Myanmar

hpa an myanmar, digital nomad destinations, offbeat digital nomad places

Everything I loved about Hpa An in one frame!

Much like Lake Atitlan and Tbilisi, I fell instantly in love with Hpa An (pronouced pa aan), a small town typically used as a jumping point between Myanmar and northern Thailand – but really a perfect place for digital nomads seeking to get away from other digital nomads!

Hpa An charmed me with its rugged karst mountain scenery, spectacular sunrises, old Buddhist temples, ethnic traditions, riverside beauty and the ease of discovering it all on a scooter. It bust the myth that internet in Myanmar is bad; instead I found that data is very cheap and 4G works well in most places. Charging points in outdoor cafes are still a bit hard to come by, but now that I’m travelling with my newly acquired MSI PS42 laptop which has ultra-long battery life, I’m not restricted by that anymore. And unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, I found it easier to connect with locals, many of who speak English, having once been colonized by the British.

Also read: Confessions of an Indian Digital Nomad

Auroville, India

auroville, digital nomad cities 2019, digital nomad destinations india

Greenery, music and peace in Auroville.

Now that I look back at my past travels, Auroville – a somewhat utopic township near Pondicherry in Southern India – was one of my earliest digital nomad discoveries in India. In the bubble of Auroville, I spent my days on a bike or bicycle, exploring the forested terrain, organic farms, healthy eateries, movie screenings and permaculture workshops. The Matri Mandir – the spaceship-like structure at the heart of the township and a most peaceful space for meditation – left me in complete awe.

What I loved most was crossing paths with many passionate people of all ages and nationalities who came to Auroville seeking an alternative way of life. Doctors turned organic farmers, policemen turned artists – for this is a place that allows you to rediscover your purpose in life, and perhaps subconsciously led to my embracing a digital nomad lifestyle. Circa 2013, wifi was only available in Auroville until 6 pm, which meant I had to fight the usual distractions and wrap up my work by the evening; I’ve heard internet is more readily available now – for better or for worse!

Also read: A Guide to Auroville: Things to Know Before You Go

Chiang Mai countryside, Thailand

chiang mai digital nomad, digital nomad cities 2019, digital nomad locations

Digital nomad-ing with my new MSI PS42 in Chiang Mai.

I know, I know, a digital nomad in Chiang Mai sounds so 2014. There’s no doubt that I’m many years late to the awesomeness that is Chiang Mai, but the good news is, the magic hasn’t faded away entirely yet – especially if you live away from the city and popular neighborhoods like Nimman.

Over 2017 and 2018, we spent 2.5 months in Chiang Mai, living in a beautiful self-catering abode next to hills and rice paddies. There’s superfast wifi, of course, but also evening runs under the pink sunset sky, bike drives under the stars, hikes up to peaceful monasteries, incredible vegan food, hipster cafes, local organic farmer markets, foreign language movie screenings, cultural events, co-working spaces and some totally under the radar escapes deep in the mountains and forests of northern Thailand. All this without having to break the bank!

Also read: Where to Find Droolworthy Vegan Food in Chiang Mai

slovenian alps, digital nomad hubs, digital nomad destinations

2019 dream: To live and work in the Slovenian Alps!

I’d go back to each of the above spots in a heartbeat, but in 2019, I’m hoping to expand my digital nomad comfort zone by spending a month or two in Yerevan (Armenia), Cape Town (South Africa) and somewhere in the Slovenian Alps. And who knows what unexpected surprises the road will throw up along the way?

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What are your favorite digital nomad spots, and where do you hope to make it in 2019?

*Note: I wrote this post as part of a campaign with MSI. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine.

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Copenhagen cycling

What Indian Cities Can Learn About Green Tourism from Copenhagen.

On a recent visit to my hometown Dehradun, I decided to take a rickety bicycle for a spin around the neighborhood. The plan was to retrace the cycling routes of my childhood. I pedalled along potholes and pools of water from a broken pipe, ignoring the incessant honking of cars and bikes, trying to reach the river and forests that once used to be our backyard. Much to my disappointment, the river was just a dismal trickle amid a rocky, plundered river bed, and I couldn’t trace the forests at all until I reached a gate with a sign announcing I was entering a private property – I looked wistfully at the old oak trees, now the only green lung in the neighborhood.

Dejected, I abandoned the bicycle ride. As I sat lamenting the lost beauty of the once charming Doon Valley, a local newspaper article caught my eye. The most livable cities in India are not Delhi or Mumbai, it proudly proclaimed; Dehradun is among the top 3 most liveable cities in India. The same city that has lost its rivers and forests to rampant construction. The same city where the streets have become choc-o-bloc with chaotic traffic and the hills have been blocked from view by hideously designed high-rise apartments. Water shortages are common, the air is often dusty and polluted, and the once dark skies glow dejectedly with only a handful of stars. And yet, compared to many other cities in India, Dehradun is probably among the more liveable ones!

Many people I speak to, think this is the price we have to pay for economic development. That high-rises, malls, fancy cars – even on congested streets – and light pollution are a sign of progress. The question is, can economic progress co-exist with green living?

I turn to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, one of the world’s most eco-friendly and developed cities, for inspiration and policies, which if seriously implemented in Indian cities, could transform them into truly smart, green, liveable cities:

No resident lives more than an 8-minute walk away from a green space

While green lungs in Indian cities (think the Aarey forest in Mumbai) are fighting to survive, Copenhagen proudly ensures that no city-dweller lives further than 8 minutes on foot from a green zone. These green spaces include urban parks, gardens with cherry blossom trees, cemeteries with walking and cycling trails, historical monuments planted with seasonal trees, lakes surrounded by green trails, even a theme park with plenty of greenery. Notice what they cleverly did there? In the process of creating green spaces for Copenhagen residents, they also created a vast set of outdoor attractions for travellers. I, for one, fell in love with the seasonal cherry trees in the urban parks, cycling along the Copenhagen lakes and hanging out amid the striking poplar trees of Assistens Cemetery.

A concentrated effort to foster aesthetic green spaces in Indian cities would not only help protect the environment and lower air pollution, but also afford working adults an outdoor space to rejuvenate, leading to a more productive workforce, and boost leisure tourism in cities – both closely linked to economic growth. Oh, and kids with faces buried in their iPads all day could forge a much-needed connection with the outdoors.

Also read: Fun and Alternative Things to do in Copenhagen – Perhaps Europe’s Coolest Capital City

Infrastructure investment and incentives to ensure more bicycles than cars on the streets

On my recent trip to Himachal Pradesh, I heard a local politician proudly share his plan to build a highway to connect remote mountain villages by cutting a pristine primary forest – and in order to protect the environment, he would put a lane for cycling and electric cars.

On a short transit through Lucknow, I drove beside a cycling path that literally broke off in parts with no space to continue the ride.

Cycling infrastructure in India is a bit of a joke. Especially when you compare it to a city like Copenhagen – and let’s not get into how rich they are compared to us, because we have a ton of money to waste invest in statues and other pointless things. I was stunned to see just how far Copenhagen has taken its commitment to supporting cyclists: dedicated cycling lanes as wide as bus lanes, well-laid rules giving priority to cyclists, dedicated traffic lights to regulate cycling traffic, incentives to discourage private cars by making them extremely costly, futuristic cycling bridges that make the commuting time shorter than driving a car, and dedicated parking spaces for bicycles.

Even though solar-powered public buses ply the streets, I was so enamoured by the cycling culture and infrastructure, that I spent a beautiful week – rain or shine – cycling everywhere, including the airport. Believe it or not, even local politicians cycle to parliament everyday!

In Indian cities, where many people suffer from obesity due to lack of exercise as a by-product of endless traffic, health outcomes could be significantly improved by investments in solid cycling infrastructure. I remember reading Ruskin Bond’s autobiography, where he talks about Delhi in the 1950s. In those days, everyone got around on bicycles, even in Connaught Place, and wild animals roamed the forests and fields around South Delhi. Wouldn’t it be amazing to retrieve that Delhi (and other Indian cities) through strategic investment and incentives to transition residents away from cars / uber / ola to bicycles… rather than unsustainable odd-even car schemes or banning private cars altogether with no feasible alternatives?

Also read: Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: These Travel Companies Are Changing the Way You Experience India

Modernise old heritage from within to preserve it

India’s crumbling heritage never fails to dishearten me. Beautiful old houses and buildings, built in traditional architecture and ancient wisdom, are being torn down and replaced with ugly concrete construction throughout the country – and especially so in Indian cities. For that reason, standing at Nyhavn, the old waterfront of Copenhagen and one of the city’s most iconic tourism sites, I was moved to see beautiful old townhouses from the 17th century line the harbor – their exteriors carefully preserved, their interiors refurbished for urban living. Indeed, these are not monuments for sightseeing alone, they are comfortably inhabited and fetch high rents.

My guide proudly explained that Copenhagen owes their preservation to a policy implemented by the municipal government only a few decades ago, forbidding these charming houses from being torn down or modified from the outside. Over the years, this has given residents a chance to live in these aspirational homes, and made them a major attraction that draws thousands of visitors every week.

Luckily Indian cities haven’t lost all their heritage yet. I’m thinking of the crumbling Portuguese houses of Goa and the old townhouses of Bandra in Mumbai – these buildings, hundreds of years old, have survived the brutal test of time. Many of them are abandoned, in dispute or simply in a state of disrepair, and it’s still not too late to institute a strict policy that incentivises their preservation. Economically, it could lead to jobs in traditional architecture, construction, interior design, real estate and tourism – all at once.

I’ve met architects travelling to India from around the world to study the traditional construction in the mountains, for despite being “kaccha” mud, stone and wooden houses, they’ve survived the worst of earthquakes. It’s high time we start appreciating our old wisdom too.

Also read: My Alternative Travel Guide to Goa

People’s movement for organic, vegan food

I know what you’re thinking by now: Copenhagen is lucky to have a government with a vision for economic growth driven by sustainability. But a wise man once said, people get the government they deserve.

Even knowing nothing about the sustainable policies of the government, it’s easy to get a sense of the how the locals are driving Copenhagen’s movement towards organic and sustainable produce, and cruelty-free food and lifestyle products. Hanging out at local food courts, cafes frequented by locals and farmers’ markets, I fell in love with the conscious living embraced and driven by the city’s residents. Some of my favorites were SoulsKaf Cafe and the Torvehallerne Food Hall.

While organic farmers’ markets and the vegan lifestyle are slowly catching up in bigger Indian cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, the movement is restricted to small ‘hipster’ pockets. In reality, consuming superfoods and organic vegetables has long been part of our traditional way of life, so it surprises me when many pass it off as an expensive new trend. These movements – conscious of the planet, compassionate towards animals and good for our health – need to be driven by locals, but can ultimately transform our healthcare and agriculture sectors.

Also read: 15 Awesome Hangouts in Mumbai to Chill, ‘Work from Home’ and Enjoy Vegan Food

Forward-thinking sustainable hotels

On the outset, Scandic in Copenhagen felt like any other fancy hotel in a big city. Although I prefer small homestays when I travel, I was on assignment and accepted a stay in a luxury hotel, with perhaps a tinge of guilt. That guilt soon faded away when I learnt of Scandic’s commitment to go entirely carbon neutral by 2025! The hotel already measures its water and energy consumption to analyse and implement ways to reduce it. Infact, it was at Scandic that the idea of “hang up your towel if you want to use it again” came about; an idea that has been replicated by the hotel industry around the world.

And Scandic is not alone. Sustainable architecture is a key component of Copenhagen’s city policy, and applies to hotels, apartments and traditional buildings across the city. Green rooftops, urban farming and carbon-neutral buildings are becoming the norm.

As high rise hotels and residential complexes mushroom across India, a policy incentivising green-construction could curb water, energy and waste problems that plague our cities – and of course elevate India as a green tourism hub.

So far, India’s commitment towards economic growth, tourism development and environment sustainability (especially our climate change goals) seem to be crawling forward in silos. Copenhagen’s strategy to integrate them as three pillars of the same foundation has made it one of the world’s most developed, green and aspirational cities. It’s not too late to adopt a similar approach and transform the future of Indian cities too.

What innovative green tourism initiatives have you seen around the world that could be replicated in India?

Featured image: Kristoffer Trolle (CC); check out his amazing work here.

*Note: I travelled to Copenhagen on assignment for Visit Copenhagen. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter to follow my travel adventures around the world!

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What I’ve Learnt on the Way to 60,000+ Organic Followers on Instagram – Tips for Travel Instagrammers.

About this post: I feel like I’ve come a long way as a travel blogger on Instagram, keeping my focus on authentic content, organic Instagram followers and organic Instagram growth. Whether you’re looking at Instagram as an extension of your travel blog, or to join the ranks of the best Instagram travel pages, I hope these lessons and tips will help you craft your organic Instagram strategy in 2019.

There’s no doubt I was late to the Instagram party. I resisted it for a long time, thinking it was a channel that made sense only for photographers – and I don’t consider myself a photographer in the conventional sense. I’ve never owned an SLR camera, haven’t quite grasped the nuances of aperture and exposure, and remain conflicted about the ethics of editing photos.

In my early blogging days, I travelled without a camera, choosing to experience the world as fully as I could. My first camera, a gift from my brother, was a talking Sanyo point and shoot. Yes, it told you to smile when it took a photo – and yes, I remember being playfully ragged for it on my first blogging trip!

Then, things changed.

I started taking my blog more seriously and realised the value of visual content. Instagram exploded, and as much as I wanted to stay off it, I had to join to stay professionally relevant in the ever-changing world of travel blogging.

I chose to approach it differently though. Instead of using it only as a visual platform, I started building my voice in words. Slowly, I attracted followers who care as much about what I write as about the photos – a community that indeed reads my lengthy captions and engages meaningfully with them.

Also read: How I’m Funding My Adventures Around the World Through Travel Blogging

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I miss the days we didn’t stare at our smartphone screens just after waking up or just before sleeping. When we stopped to ask people – not Google Maps – directions. When we walked into a cafe and saw people chatting with each other, not buried in their smartphones. When we read instead of scrolling mindlessly. When we tried to learn a bit of the local language instead of relying entirely on google translate. . . Exploring little mountain villages in Thailand is making me so nostalgic of some of my earliest adventures in Southeast Asia. The time a friend and I picked a little blue spot on the map and went with no idea of where we were heading. Asked our way to a local ferry packed with people and animals and landed up on an island where one man seemed to be everyone’s adopted papa! He adopted us too, putting us up at his little abode on the beach, taking us snorkeling for the first time on his rickety fishing boat, teaching us the tricks in sign language and laughing adorably when I got confused and gulped a whole lot of seawater. I had no camera on that trip so all I have are mental shots of the stunning beauty of those waters, beaches and sunsets. I remember trying to understand the dish I was going to try from the ones they offered, going to their kitchen and being pointed to a dead bat hanging on the wall. It was bat fried rice 😲😂 . . I don’t know if Southeast Asia has changed or I have. Technology certainly has. Making us lazy. Making it so much easier to book online, translate online, snap photos, never get lost, post on the go. So starting last week, I’ve limited my social media screen time to 2 hours a day when I’m working, and 1 hour a day when I’m not. Time to reclaim the original joy of travel. . . And you, ever feel like technology is taking away from travel? . . Shot on #iphonexsmax . #theshootingstar #thailandtravel #southeastasia #digitalnomad #lifeisajourney

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I chose not to try to game the system. Not to play the follow-unfollow game. Not to compromise my travel style for likes or collaborations. Not to dilute my focus on sustainable and meaningful travel. Not to shy away from the reality of long term travel.

And I’m excited to share that despite that, my Instagram community has grown to over 67,000 followers, who often engage in meaningful conversations on my posts. I secretly think I have the best Instagram followers – and if you’re one of those who care to read and share your thoughts uninhibitedly on my posts and stories, I thank you from the bottom of my heart! You make all the time and effort  I spend on Instagram worthwhile for me.

As I write this post, I want to reach out to fellow travel bloggers and travel Instagrammers – the ones who similarly choose not to compromise their voice and authenticity – and say that you CAN grow on Instagram organically, without gaming the system, plastering your gallery with perfect bikini shots and editing the hell out of your photos.

Here’s what worked for me, and what I’ve learnt on the way to 60,000+ organic followers on Instagram:

Building a community is more powerful than gaming the system

You’ve probably heard people wax eloquent about the merits of organic engagement, yet been bombarded with DMs and emails promising thousands of followers. You’ve probably been followed and unfollowed yourself a bunch of times. I have to confess that like many others late to the Instagram party, I hit quite a low when I realised how easy it was to buy and lure followers. And how difficult it could be to grow if you weren’t one of the early adopters lucky enough to be featured by Instagram.

When I made up my mind to seek only organic growth on Instagram, I decided to stop obsessing over who follows – or unfollows – me, and started obsessing over engagement. Were enough people compelled to comment on my posts? Did the comments go beyond “Nice pic” and “amazing capture”, to something more meaningful? Those were the rewards I began to seek, and without quite realising it, began to build an engaged community as opposed to a shallow following. When you really begin to scan the big accounts, only a small percentage of them seem to offer real engagement – some of them have 5-10 times my followers yet less than half my engagement.

If you ask me, a real, engaged community is what can set you apart in the competitive world of travel Instagrammers – and slowly but certainly lead to greater reach too. It’s how I crawled my way to 67k over 3 years.

Also read: Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram

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On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. But as I hiked up, the distinct smell of weed (cannabis) invaded my nostrils. Mountain women walked past me carrying big bags of dried weed tied to their foreheads. Up in their fields, some harvested the crop, some sat in the warm winter sun and rubbed it relentlessly to make hash. Men who looked like goons, suited up, came to negotiate rates. It sells upto 25k a kilo, fetching a much better price than apples or potatoes or other crops they could grow. It’s illegal though, so their fields could be seized anytime, yet the money is worth the risk. A missed opportunity to draw legal revenue from a plant that is now legal in many parts of the world – and proven to be far less harmful than alcohol. . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. Corn drying on their rooftops, massive pumpkins in their balcony. But as I spoke to women basking in the sun outside their doorstep, I learnt that they own smartphones and are savvy enough to run Facebook. Yet rumour has it that the internet is evil, it gets women into trouble, even picked up by goons. We spoke about how YouTube could be used to learn new recipes, get creative with stitching, even solve everyday problems at home. . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. Surrounded by pristine forests, protected by the mighty mountains, close to nature. But speaking to locals, I learnt that in the name of development, the plan is to cut much of the primary forest to build a road right through it (instead of an alternative route with less forest cover). The elders lament that since their childhood, the forest has shrunken – so snowfall is less, water is drying up, wildlife is disappearing – and what good will be a road if you don’t have the means to live? . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. But turned out, there is nothing ordinary about the way they think, make a living, embrace solitude, battle hardships and bond with nature. . . Shot on #iphonexsmax . #theshootingstar #himachalpradesh #storiesofindia #himalayangeographic #incredibleindia

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We can’t do what everyone else is doing and expect to stand out

There was a time when merely having decent content on Instagram was enough to stand out – and Instagram rewarded you as a featured account that would get huge following. Some of those early adopters (smart folks) are making their entire living with Instagram now! The rest of us, though, need to innovate. Travelling is not novel. Great photos are not enough. Introspective quotes have become cliche.

Thinking about this made me realise that I have to offer my audience something different to stand out. And that’s when I started to put all my energy into writing – the one thing I genuinely enjoy too. My captions are way too lengthy, so much that sometimes I have to trim them to Instagram’s word limit. And yet, on a visual platform, my captions are what my readers repeatedly tell me they follow me for.

Some of my friends and fellow bloggers have unleashed their creativity in different ways on Instagram. Siddhartha Joshi (@siddharthajoshi) ran a portrait photography series for 365 days, featuring the dreams of ordinary Indians. Lola Akinmade (@lolaakinmade) started by posting a six post puzzle to tell a story through her incredible photographs. And Abhinav Chandel (@abhiandnow) keeps his followers coming back by mixing travel with stories of a fictional (or not) lover.

What I mean to say is, the possibilities are endless. Taking the time to find your voice and create a niche is the only way to stand out on Instagram.

Also read: Advice for the Young and Penniless Who Want to Travel

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Excited to share that on World Tourism Day today, I’ll be taking over the @wwf Instagram account to talk about sustainable tourism and the impact of our travel choices 👣 . . The idea of travelling responsibly often sounds boring, like a sacrifice. But over the past 5 years, as I’ve travelled without a home, in search of meaningful experiences, I’ve realised that making more mindful choices has led me to some of my best adventures yet! . . In India, this has included discovering the remote mountain villages of Uttarakhand with @greenpeopleind ; indulging in eco-friendly and close to nature luxury with @evolvebackresorts ; getting a sneak peek at the fascinating old traditions and art of Kerala with @the.blue.yonder ; and interacting respectfully with the intriguing tribes of Arunachal Pradesh with @kipepeoindia 🌎 . . After all, travelling is not just about pretty photos. It is also about an opportunity to broaden our perspectives and learn about other ways of life. It’s also about taking a journey within ourselves. . . And you, how do you ensure your travels are more meaningful and mindful? . . #theshootingstar #worldtourismday #sustainabletourism #zanzibar #digitalnomad

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Content still makes all the difference

As with most things online and some things in real life, we only have one chance to make a good impression. When someone visits your profile, are they inspired enough – by your bio and gallery – to hit follow? The rare time they see a post by you, for Instagram algorithm makes it pretty rare, are they inspired to stop, like and comment, so they are shown posts from you more often?

There are thousands, maybe millions, of us competing for the attention of the same audience. And I say competing because the Instagram algorithm makes it so.

I often try to put myself in the shoes of someone leisurely scrolling through Instagram. Will my photo make them sit up, will my caption spring them to some sort of response?

Over the years, I’ve realised that it’s only when I put out really meaningful content that I’m growing my followers and my engagement. There’s no easy way around it, despite what those spammy “get more followers” apps promise.

Also read: 6 Tips to Break Into Freelance Travel Writing

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My favorite “home” and “office” on the Cuban countryside, found on @airbnb 💚 . . This August will mark 7 years of quitting my full time job in Singapore and rebuilding life as a freelancer, entrepreneur and travel blogger! For the longest time, this digital nomad life didn’t allow me to go out of connectivity for longer than a couple of days without having a near panic attack – thinking about emails that needed my attention, projects I could be missing out on, deadlines that needed to be met and staying active on social media. I knew I had to be working from everywhere, latching on to wifi everywhere, if I wanted to make this life work. . . But in Cuba, I realised things have finally changed. That I didn’t hesitate to book flight tickets knowing that it meant 2 weeks of no connectivity. That when I realised wifi works pretty fast in public parks, I wasn’t tempted to use it everyday. That I was ready for a digital detox without any panic attacks. That I’m no longer a complete slave to the internet 😉 . . And in Cuba, I took to writing furiously. The vibrant streets, the gorgeous countryside, conversations with locals, I found inspiration everywhere. And writing for the sake of writing – not for Instagram, not for the blog, not for an assignment – sure felt therapeutic. Now I feel strangely nostalgic about the good old days of little technology – even though I never quite experienced them in my adult life. And now I must pledge to not become a slave to the online world again 🤥 . . And you, how do you balance your online-real life time? . . #theshootingstar #digitalnomad #vinales #cubatravel #writersofig #livethere #shotoniphone

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It’s not worth selling ourselves for brand collaborations we don’t truly believe in

There was a week when my entire Instagram timeline was filled with people going nuts over their free watch from one particular company! Surely many people noticed that. And surely, it left me wondering how many people actually wear those kinds of watches while hiking, or in the wilderness, or on the beach, where many of those photos were shot.

Don’t get me wrong. I do my fair share of paid collaborations – but sometimes you just have to get yourself to say no because the product doesn’t go with your personal brand. Or because your morals don’t allow it. Or because some promotions outright feel like selling out.

On my part, I like to think that no matter how desperate I am for the money, I’ll never promote products that use cruelly-derived animal ingredients or test on animals, or travel attractions that abuse animals. That you’ll never see leather bags, animal riding or milk products on my gallery.

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – and What it Means For My Travel Lifestyle

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Hello from LONDON 🤗 . . My first time here and I already feel like I belong! So full of character. People spilling out of pubs onto the streets. Cafes with menus on which everything is vegan unless otherwise specified. So much greenery even in the heart of London. All kinds of accents and languages floating around. If only the rupee didn’t make me feel so poor 🙈 . . Oh btw, I think I found my favorite tee ever – at Goa’s first organic, fair trade, vegan clothing store (no animal-tested dyes, innovations such as coconut shell buttons) called No Nasties! Opens officially on 30th September in Assagao. . . PS: Thanks to so many of you for sharing your excitement on having my book delivered today! Check out my Insta Stories 💚 . . #theshootingstar #londonfoodie #vegansoflondon #vegantravel #shotoniphone

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Interacting and collaborating with fellow Instagrammers can help grow engagement and reach

Posting on Instagram is just not enough. I’ve found that in order to grow my following and engagement, interacting with the active community on Instagram is essential. Answering comments on your own posts is a no-brainer, but starting conversations on posts by others is important too.

When I was a small fish in the big Instagram sea, nothing delighted me more than seeing personal comments from Instagrammers I looked upto. Now that I’m a slightly bigger fish, I try to give back – by complementing photos and accounts that I see high potential in, and by occasionally featuring Instagrammers who use my hashtag #theshootingstar. I’ve also done a couple of cross-promotional collaborations with fellow Instagrammers, for example with Turkish solo travellers Tugce (@bilinmeyenrota) and Melke (@melkeontheroad), which helped me reach out to a new audience.

I think the good thing about Instagram is that virtually, we are all on a level platform. We need to keep supporting and encouraging each other to do better, to create more inspiring content, to have more impactful conversations.

Also read: A Himalayan Village Where Locals Runs Marathons and Their Own Instagram Channel!

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“The Shooting Star by Shivya Nath is a travel book of rare insight and depth… Her travels and her writings are filled with a deeply felt humanism, driven by her own “hero’s quest,” and her thirst for adventure, knowledge, and self-awareness.” ~ Travel blogger Mariellen Ward @breathedreamgo (you’re following all her India adventures, aren’t you?) . . I haven’t had a breakthrough with the international publishing of my book yet, but excited to share that this month, it has been featured on @lonelyplanetmagazineindia (thanks @ra_ra_raasta for the heads up); in the inflight magazine of @spicejetairlines (a 5 page spread!) ; and in an exclusive interview on @livemintlounge ☺️ Swipe right to see the features 👉🏼 . . But truth be told, what got me really excited was to come back after my little end of the year digital detox to an inbox full of stories and DMs from you guys about reading my book, travelling with it around the world, identifying with it and gifting it to your friends/siblings! . . These photos really made my day: 👆🏼by @sumathi_s while hiking in Coorg; 👉🏼 by @atoolfoo at -13 degrees in Arunachal Pradesh; by @shrutibookfairysharma in Lakshadweep; and by @lets.capture.the.world in Rajasthan 👣 . . I know I’ve said it before, but I’m really so grateful to the universe for helping my book find its way to the right readers, to fellow bloggers and friends for their support, and to all you guys for your love and encouragement ☺️ . . If you’re yet to get a copy, Amazon has a special offer today! Link in my profile @shivya . . #theshootingstar

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Don’t forget to have fun, especially while instagramming your travels

I can’t speak for other industries like fashion and food, but I’ve hung out with travel Instagrammers who’ve spent sleepless nights and mornings looking for the perfect Instagram shot – and even gone to the extent of photoshopping stars in their skies when they couldn’t get a really wide angle shot. I appreciate the perseverance to create exceptional content and understand the need to do what it takes to stay competitive… but hey, don’t forget to take some moments away from your lens and take in the surreal beauty of the places you Instagram.

When you look back at life, only your actual experiences will matter, not the photoshopped perfection of your Instagram shots.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

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For 400 rupees a day, they carry stones, mix cement and literally build the extension of the majestic Ki Monastery in Spiti. When we see a grand site like Ki, we’re wowed by the monks who call it home. But the real “wow” happens behind the scenes – by guys who work their asses off for 400 rupees a day. . . Quite aptly, I met them when I wandered down a little path behind the monastery, where they live in tiny makeshift homes and were washing up at the public tap after a long day’s work. They were shy at first, as was I, but when we got talking, they told me that Spiti isn’t like their home in Jharkhand. It’s nothing, they said, barren, brown, no trees. Unlike our Jharkhand, they said, with greenery, fields and pure water. . . Two years ago, when they began visiting Spiti over the summer to help build the new extension of Ki Monastery, their mistry (contractor) told them he was the one who had built the original monastery! How old is he, I asked amused. 40 or 50 years, they said. Well my friends, the monastery was built in the 14th century, then almost rebuilt in the 19th century, I doubt your mistry was alive at either of those times 😂 . . At that moment, surprised and then amused, they looked at each other and laughed heartily at their innocence and how they were going to call out the mistry’s bragging – and I clicked this 📷 . . This is part of my #voicesofruralIndia series where I hope to challenge myself to take more portrait photos and share stories of people I meet on my travels. . . Shot on #iphone8plus . . #theshootingstar #incredibleindia #storiesofindia #spiti #portraitphotography

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We need to think beyond money – what else can we use our influence for?

Many of us are hell bent on proving our Instagram influence for paid brand collaborations – but as we do that, we also need to remind ourselves that money can’t be the only thing we use our influence for. Can we use it to challenge societal conventions? To promote responsible tourism? To spread the word about ethical photography? To encourage more people to travel solo and seek meaningful experiences? To promote compassion towards animals? To raise awareness against plastic consumption?

Whatever the causes close to your heart, make them your mission. After all, life is too short to create perfect Instagram posts just for the followers, money or likes.

Also read: Simple Steps to Reduce Single-Use Plastic – On Our Travels and in Everyday Life

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It’s one thing to know that the plastic trash we generate lands up in our oceans, kills marine life and destroys the underwater ecosystem. Quite another to go snorkelling over a virgin coral reef off the coast of a remote island in Cuba, see the sea bed littered with plastic bags and soda cans and shampoo bottles, and tediously help collect that trash through free-style diving… . . It’s one thing to snorkel to lose yourself in the surreal beauty of the underwater world, spot lobsters and angler fish and see purple-hued corals swaying beneath you. Quite another to see broken corals collected from the seabed and hung on crafted wooden pillars to increase their likelihood of survival so they can be planted among living corals… so this virgin coral reef doesn’t end up dying like others around the world 😌 . . It is one thing to pledge, as you take off your snorkel mask, to be one less person to add to that endless plastic trash in the sea. Quite another to get home to take a shower, and realise that everything from your shower gel to hair serum is plastic… . . The days I spent at the @ioiadventures coral reef conservation project in Cocodrilo have convinced me that I need to do so much more than saying no to plastic bags and bottles. I need to reassess all my belongings and buys. . . Because even though it’s one thing to fill our bags, houses and trash cans with all kinds of single-use plastic… it’s NOT quite another to fill our oceans with them too; it’s one and the same 🐬 . . If you’re keen to start your anti-plastic commitment too, I have a handy post with alternatives (and where to get them) – link in my profile. And if you have ideas for other alternatives, please share! . . Photo shot on @gopro by fellow traveller Anna Berestova, who spent 5 weeks volunteering there! . . #theshootingstar #cubatravel #saveouroceans #planetorplastic #ioiadventures

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PIN it to review these organic Instagram growth ideas later.

Do you love or hate Instagram? What creative ways have you found to use it and grow organically?

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How I Fit All My Life Possessions in Two Bags as I Travel the World.

About this post: Looking to embrace a digital nomad lifestyle? After 5 years of long term travel, I write about my digital nomad packing list, including my travel gear, gadgets, single-use plastic alternatives and things that make my digital nomad life sustainable. This digital nomad packing list will assist you in packing for long term travel, especially as a minimalist.

A few years after I had quit my full-time job in Singapore and embraced a life of travel, I posted a picture of myself zip-lining above the stunning Indian Ocean. That photo received many comments from friends, one of which startled me. It was from an ex-colleague who tagged my former boss and commented, quite innocently, “Shivya used to wear the same dress in office and look where she’s wearing it now!” At the time, I was a bit embarrassed by her observation of my sparse wardrobe. But now that I recollect that moment, I can’t help feeling pretty satisfied owning nothing more than a few clothes and essentials that snugly fit into my two bags.

Over five years ago, when I gave up having a home base to go back to, I sold or gifted away most of my belongings. Since then, I’ve attempted to fill my life with experiences and memories, rather than materialistic possessions. As I wrote in my recently released book, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we humans own things, or our things own us.

Many readers have asked me about what I carry as I travel, so on popular demand, here’s a detailed breakdown of all my current life possessions and some tips on how you can de-clutter your life too:

My travel gear

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My Osprey convertible rucksack and backpack.

Convertible backpack (rucksack)

Back when I still had a corporate job and started travelling during leaves and weekends, I remember picking out a hardy-looking, affordable backpack (rucksack) in a supermarket basement. I had no idea then about the toll that backpack – and others I’ve tried over the years – would take on my back and shoulders over time, as I ran last minute to catch trains, buses and flights.

These days, I think of most backpacks as the equivalent of flying economy class. So a couple of years ago, I decided it was time to upgrade to a first-class Osprey Ozone Convertible 75L, which can be dragged around on wheels, converted within seconds into a bag with straps to carry on my shoulders (looks a bit bulky but the lumbar support is incredible), is seriously waterproof, comes with a small backpack which I use as my laptop bag and offers a lifetime warranty! Since I bought my Osprey, I’ve had to convert it and carry it on my shoulders only a handful of times – while climbing stairs, walking on mucky streets or crossing uneven mountain paths. I love it and highly recommend the investment if you’re serious about a life of long term travel.

In the past, I’ve also used a  Wildcraft 60L rucksack (good lumbar support) and a High Sierra explorer rucksack, which are more affordable than the Osprey Ozone Convertible.

Laptop Bag

I’ve gone through a range of laptop bags over time, including one with a solar panel that I could use to charge my devices when I found myself off-the-grid (similar to this)! It stopped working at some point though and I couldn’t find anyone to fix it. I’ve tried out bags made by Wildcraft and Mountain Warehouse, and had to supplement them with a rain cover when I chased the monsoon.

I’m glad I finally switched to the Osprey day pack as my laptop bag, for it’s entirely waterproof, has great lumbar support (can’t emphasize how important that is when you travel for extended periods of times) and comfortably fits in all my gadgets.

Also read: How I’m Financially Sustaining My Digital Nomad Lifestyle

What’s in my laptop bag

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A glimpse of what’s in my backpack, including my new MSI PS42.

When I began down-sizing my possessions, I wasn’t really sure which things were worth hanging on to. Or which ones I’d miss.

Turns out, those arbitrary decisions on what to keep and what to leave were not life-defining. The components of my bags have evolved with time, as have I.

GADGETS

  • Laptop: I’ve been a long-term Macbook Pro user, but when it began dying on me, I accepted an offer to try the first professional laptop by MSI. Even though the switch to Windows is challenging, I love that my new MSI Prestige PS42 is super sleek, ultra-light (1.19 kg) and looks really cool. The battery life can survive a long bus journey and it has never hung. I’ve been using it for over a month now, and it looks like I’m going to stick with it.
  • Phone: The first ever smartphone I owned was an iPhone 3GS, and I’ve been a loyal Apple user since. I’m currently using the iPhone 10 XS MAX, and love its portrait mode and photography features so much that I use it as my primary camera.
  • Camera: I’ve been a Sony user for a long time, and currently own a Sony RX100 M2 – though I’ve only ever used it for night and astro-photography in 2018, taking all my photos with the iPhone instead.
  • Hard disc, pen drives: Ever since I lost a ton of data and photos to a laptop mishap in Gujarat in 2016, I’ve acquired a Seagate 2 TB hard disc to back up my data weekly. I highly recommend doing this if you work online.
  • Tripod: I’ve been using a small, flexible Loha tripod, but plan to upgrade to a long but light Amazon Basics tripod based on the recommendation of several friends.
  • Headphones: I love my Sony MDR ZX310 headphones – they are light and affordable, look cool and offer great sound quality.
  • Portable USB battery pack: I use a Swiss Mobility Universal Powerpack 4000mAh (similar to this), which is small and lightweight, and allows about 2 full recharges of my iPhone on the go.

OTHER ESSENTIALS

  • Books: 1-2 books to read, 1 diary for notes.
  • Water bottle: I recently acquired a Vinod steel water bottle, and love that it’s leak proof and not too bulky. Mine’s smaller, but I’d recommend a 1L.
  • Bamboo straw: I picked up mine with a cleaner at a resto in Thailand (for the fresh coconut water), but you can easily get it on Amazon or TheEcoTrunk.
  • Wellness: Energy bars, emergency medicines – usually paracetamol and a painkiller – and hand sanitizer. I love the alchohol-free sanitizer by Tree Wear.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

What’s in my rucksack

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A sanitized version of the contents of my rucksack 😉

SEGMENTATION BAGS

Instead of putting my clothes and shoes directly in my rucksack, I segment them to stay sane by using waterproof Quechua bags for clothes (I picked them up at a Decathlon store; can’t seem to find them on Amazon), reusable hotel laundry bags for shoes, and a pouch for toiletries.

CLOTHES FOR ALL WEATHERS

In the span of a few months, I could go from the freezing German Alps to tropical Thailand – which means I need to be prepared with clothes that work for all weathers at all times. I manage this by ensuring I have many layers that can be added on or removed, and choose clothes which are light weight and easily washable. A summary of my current clothes:

  • Shirts: 4 T-shirts and 2 Tops: Of these, two are from No Nasties in Goa and one from TreeWear – both eco-conscious brands that use plant-based, chemical-free ingredients and dyes.
  • Pants: 1 Pair of jeans, 1 harem pants, 1 yoga pants and 1 semi-formal pants for when I need to look a bit more presentable.
  • Summer wear: 1 skirt, 1 pair of shorts and 2 summer dresses.
  • Wind and rain wear: 1 Light sweater and 1 waterproof rain jacket with waterproof pants.
  • Winter wear: 1 winter sweater, 2 heat tech thermals and 1 heat tech leggings from the Japanese brand Uniqlo, 1 muffler, 2 winter beanies.
  • Jacket: I own an ultra-light, foldable down jacket from Uniqlo that works till 0 degrees Celcius; although the brand states that it sources duck feathers from ethical suppliers, I won’t buy a down jacket again, simply because “ethics” are often relative and I’d rather not wear any animal products. I’m eyeing the Save the Duck jackets, which ensure warmth with recycled plastic and synthetic – my friend Kuntal even climbed the challenging snow-capped Lhotse peak outfitted in one!
  • Undergarments and socks: 4 bras, 1 sports bra, 8 underwear, 2 pairs of warm socks, 4 pairs of regular socks.

SHOES

TOILETRIES

  • Shower bars: 1 bar each for soap, shampoo and conditioner, cut up to fit into a little steel box (and the remaining wrapped up dry in paper). I’m so glad I’ve been able to replace single-use plastic bottles with bars without plastic packaging – they last longer, take up less space and are eco-friendly. I always keep a lookout for handmade, vegan bars, especially at local farmer markets. I’ve been using Lush shampoo and conditioner bars – they come without plastic packaging, many of them are vegan and they’re great for the hair. And I recently stumbled upon Soulflower, an Indian brand which also makes plant-based shampoo and conditioner bars; you can contact them to find out which products will suit your hair and request for the bars to be sent without plastic packaging. Can’t wait to try them!
  • Face wash: I like Biotique as well as Body Shop products – and appreciate their commitment against animal testing and animal ingredients. I hope they’ll offer their products as packaging-free bars soon.
  • Lip balm: I love the Lush rose lollipop lip balm which comes in a reusable tin box, doesn’t contain beeswax or any animal product and lasts (almost) forever!
  • Hygiene: Bamboo toothbrush, toothpaste, hair serum, nail cutter.
  • Menstrual stuff: Cloth pads – I like mine from AseSnappy in the US, and have heard great things about EcoFemme in India. Menstrual cup – I’ve finally had a breakthrough, phew! I got myself a Lena Cup in the US, and among Indian brands, I’ve heard good things about the Boondh and Rustic Art cups.
  • I don’t use makeup for I prefer it au natural 😉

OTHER ESSENTIALS

  • Portable blender: Ever since I turned vegan and fell in love with healthy and tasty smoothies on the go, I acquired a portable blender by Vitamer. It’s small, very light and ensures I can have fresh fruit smoothies wherever in the world I am, often sparking much envy from hosts and fellow travellers.
  • LifeStraw water filter: I decided to get a LifeStraw filter over a LifeStraw bottle fitted with a filter because I don’t like the drinking (sucking) mechanism on their bottles – and only need to use the filter while hiking or during the rare times when I’m not able to find filtered drinking water.
  • Snack pack: I’m always prepared with energy bars, nuts, seeds, long-lasting vegan goodies and flavored tea bags gathered from around the world.
  • Takeaway box: I bought a collapsible silicone box but it broke quickly. I’m currently using a small steel box to pack leftovers and for takeaways – and saying no to a ton of single-use plastic as a result.
  • Foldable bags: A handy Mountain Warehouse bag for being outdoors, a foldable 30L Quecha bag when I need to carry extra stuff than fits in my bags (like ferrying a whole lot of vegan goodies, gifts, etc) and a foldable cloth bag for any grocery shopping needs.
  • Medical kit: I always have a small set of medicines – Crocin (for fever), Ibugesic Plus (for pain, menstrual cramps), Allegra (for allergies), Burnova Aloe Vera Gel (for sunburns to which I’m so prone), Volini (for muscle pain), Bandaids and Soframycin (for cuts, wounds), Vitamin B-12 and Vitamin D3 supplements.

THE EXTRA STUFF

There are some things I need occasionally, that are expensive but just too bulky to fit into my bags long-term. For example, snow boots, a snow jacket and an old faux leather jacket I love but only works for spring / fall weather. I end up leaving these things in the homes of kind hosts, friends and family, hoping to retrieve them as and when needed.

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – and What It Means For My Travel Lifestyle

Reducing single-use plastic in my bags

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My attempts at reducing my single-use plastic consumption.

The truth about plastic that’s only good for limited use – like shopping bags, bottles for shampoo and other toiletries, toothbrushes, toothpaste, straws, bottled mineral water etc – is that it harms our environment. Much of it lands up in the ocean, where it enters the body of marine animals or chokes them to death. Some of it goes into landfills and pollutes the soil and groundwater. Some is burnt, releasing harmful toxins, and even the tiny amount that is recycled can only be down-cycled.

So, saying no and reducing our consumption is the only way forward. In my bags, I’ve replaced the following single-use plastic:

  • Plastic toothbrush – with a bamboo toothbrush.
  • Plastic shopping bags – with a foldable cloth bag.
  • Plastic containers for food – with a steel takeaway box.
  • Plastic bottled water – with a refillable steel water bottle and Lifestraw filter.
  • Plastic bottles of shower gel, shampoo and conditioner – with bars for each.
  • Plastic straws – with a reusable bamboo straw and cleaner.
  • Non-biodegradable pads – with cloth pads and a menstrual cup.

You can easily find these replacements on Amazon or TheEcoTrunk (an online store dedicated to sustainable products).

Things I want to replace but haven’t found plastic-free alternatives for yet:

  • Facewash
  • Hair serum
  • Toothpaste
  • I also have a couple of ziplock bags in my bag which I’m reusing till they’re worn out.

Also read: 5 Steps to Replace Single Use Plastic – on Our Travels and in Everyday Life

Joys and challenges of living out of 2 bags

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Carrying my life possessions as I say goodbye to the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia.

JOYS:

  • It’s easy to pack and unpack.
  • I never have a hard time deciding what to wear.
  • An uncluttered life means using very little mental space worrying about my things.
  • I have little to no shopping expenses; all that money saved goes towards travelling.
  • This lifestyle is a conversation starter for a minimalist life, wherever in the world I am. We have to fight consumerism, one conversation at a time.
  • By owning few things and sourcing plastic-free alternatives, I’m trying to reduce my carbon and environmental footprint.

CHALLENGES:

  • Laundry – I have to do it atleast once a week.
  • The temptation to buy new things I don’t need; I find the best way is to stay away from malls and fancy stores!
  • Sometimes I feel judged for wearing the same stuff all the time, but I’ve grown to not care.
  • Physical gifts I receive, for there is no space to fit them in and carry them along. So I end up re-gifting them.

Also read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

Can you downsize your possessions too?

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The digital nomad life – my sleek MSI laptop, Sony headphones and a creative cafe space.

Absolutely. Whether you travel long term or not, you can make a conscious choice to cut down how much you own. I mean, do you really need 10 pairs of shoes?

Where to begin

Consciously look at everything you own. Things that you haven’t used in the past 3-6 months are probably just extras that you can comfortably live without. Clear out your cupboards and give away things in good condition to people who could use them. Re-purpose what you can, especially plastic stuff you already own. If you’re the organized type, make a list of your belongings. Even writing this post made me feel like I still have way more than I need.

The next time you’re about to buy something, ask yourself, do you really, really need it?

Figure out what works for you

As with anything else in life, competition is futile. Some people can get by on much less, some need to own way more. Experiment and figure out what works for you, what makes you feel mentally at ease.

Choose experiences over possessions

When our possessions occupy less of our mind and wallet space, we can focus on spending our mental energy and money on experiences that have the potential to shape our perspective and sometimes even change our entire life.

I’d like to believe I’m making that choice everyday. You?

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PIN ME!

Do you think you own more things that you need?

*Note: I wrote this post as part of a campaign with MSI. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine. This post may contain affiliate links; if used, I’ll earn a little off the products I genuinely recommend at no extra cost to you.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter to follow my travels around the world.

Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star, on Amazon or Flipkart.

Where to Find Droolworthy Vegan Food in Chiang Mai.

About this post: I won’t lie to you – some of the world’s best vegan food awaits you in Chiang Mai. I’ve sampled scores of vegan, vegetarian, healthy, organic restaurants in the city, and put together this list of the absolutely best vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai. Go indulge!

Over three years ago, when I turned vegan, I accepted the possibility that someday, I might be confronted with the tough choice of either staying vegan or travelling nomadically. I couldn’t fathom then, as I resolved to say no to animal products, that I’d one day find myself in a vegan paradise, with nearly a hundred entirely vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants and cafes. Welcome to Chiang Mai, Thailand: the land of vegan food porn and my dream for the rest of the world!

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Mexican bowl at Pure Vegan Heaven.

I’ve now spent a total of 2.5 months in Chiang Mai over two trips, sampling everything from authentic Thai food, decadent desserts, vegan “eggs” and the best goddamn vegan burgers humans have made yet.

Behold, my personal selection of the best vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai, with all photos shot on my beloved iPhone XS Max:

Pure Vegan Heaven

Must try: Vegan breakfast – waffles, pancakes, smoothie bowls

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Best vegan breakfast in Chiang Mai? I think so.

Pure Vegan Heaven had just opened in Chiang Mai when I was leaving the city last year. It has since moved to a creative art space near Chiang Mai University, and continues to consistently offer beautiful, healthy, delicious vegan food. For an indulgent breakfast, I love their vegan waffles (made of sweet potato, oats and whole wheat) served with with homemade choco-nutella, coconut syrup, banana, flax and chia seeds. For a filling meal, their Mexican bowl packs in the goodness of vegan chilli, homemade salsa, quinoa, brown rice and a tiny portion of seasonal guacamole. Their huge acai berry bowl is delightful to cool off your body on a hot day!

Eco-efforts: All smoothies and drinks are served with steel straws; filtered water is available to refill your bottle.

Location: Suthep (Freeative Art Space)
Find Pure Vegan Heaven on: FacebookTripAdvisor HappyCow

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – And What It Means For My Travel Lifestyle

Bee Vegan

Must try: Morning glory stir-fry; Khao soi

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Incredible Thai vegan food at Bee Vegan.

There are few places in Chiang Mai that do authentic, vegan Thai food as brilliantly – and affordably – as Bee Vegan, a cute little resto near Chiang Mai University. Last year, I only ever saw local university students eating there, but word has probably gotten out since and led to its gentrification. The quality of ingredients and cooking – locally sourced, organic, free of MSG – remains the same though. My favorites are the morning glory stir-fry, chinese kale, basil with mushroom stir-fry, sunflower sprouts, penang curry and khao soi – all sumptuous, gently spiced and so flavorful. They’ve also recently added chocolate cookies and two ice cream flavors to their menu – but are yet to master these vegan desserts.

Eco-efforts: Bee Vegan not only uses but also sells steel straws; pick up one, especially for times you’re out drinking coconut water and can’t do without a straw.

Location: Suthep
Find Bee Vegan on: FacebookTripAdvisor HappyCow

Also read: Why I Don’t Recommend Celebrating The Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai

Reform Kafe

Must try: Green curry fried rice; Mushroom burger

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Mushroom burger at Reform Kafe. SO GOOD.

If I were to eat at only one place in Chiang Mai, the all-vegan Reform Kafe would win, hands down. In a relaxed, outdoor seating surrounded by greenery, I’ve feasted on many a decadent mushroom burger – consisting of a pan-fried patty made of juicy textured mushrooms, sandwiched between vegan mayo slathered buns and veggies – possibly the best burger I’ve ever had! Besides western appetizers and sandwiches, they also offer a selection of Thai dishes, of which the green curry fried rice – rice stir-fried with Thai flavors, mushrooms and tofu – is to die for. Order the seasonal mango juice or the healthier but equally delicious green juice to keep you patient, as it tends to get quite packed (and hence slow) at meal times.

Go with an appetite, take your laptop if you intend to work (there’s fast wifi and charging points) and prepare yourself for a vegan feast that’s astonishingly light on the wallet. And by the way, even my non-vegan friends think Reform Kafe has the best food in Chiang Mai!

Eco-efforts: Full points for using steel straws and biodegradable takeaway boxes, but I wish they didn’t have a koi pond in the restaurant; why keep those pretty fish in that confined space?

Location: Near old town
Find Reform Kafe on: FacebookTripAdvisorHappyCow

Also read: 15 Awesome Hangouts in Mumbai to Enjoy Vegan Food

Feast Society

Must try: Eggplant and tahini sandwich; Dilly beetroot tahini dip.

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Dilly beetroot tahini with sourdough bread. Yum.

Started by the owners of Salsa Kitchen (a mexican fav in Chiang Mai; details to follow), Feast Society lives up to its name. They bake wild yeast sourdough bread fresh everyday – undoubtedly the most satisfying sourdough bread I’ve had on my travels. Though the restaurant serves meat and dairy, it offers a wonderfully creative vegan menu, featuring delights like dilly beetroot tahini dip with sourdough bread, an eggplant and tahini sandwich of “deep flavors”, grilled Carribean jerk mushrooms served with coconut rice and mango salsa, and red lentil stew with garlic sourdough bread and popadums! All vegan main courses come with a delicious beetroot and pistachio butter salad. The portions are big and immensely satisfying; my mouth’s watering just thinking of my next visit.

Eco-efforts: Please remember to refuse the plastic straw – which comes wrapped in a plastic wrapper and more often than not, lands up in the ocean and chokes marine life. Hope Feast Society will transition to steel / bamboo straws very soon.

Location: Near old town
Find Feast Society on: Facebook TripAdvisor HappyCow

Also read: On Life and Detachment: A Conversation With Buddhist Monks

ASA Vegan Kitchen

Must try: Beetroot hummus; Vegan chocolate cookies

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Vegan hot chocolate, anyone?

Just over a month old at the time of writing this post, ASA Vegan Kitchen has a rather small but interesting all-vegan menu, with a lovely floor seating upstairs overlooking the green backyard (the ground floor of the cafe overlooks a busy street). I loved their beetroot hummus with sourdough bread and veggies sticks; the mango and chickpea curry with brown rice was delicious but on the oily side; and I wish I had space to try their blue butterfly pea flower green curry! Also as far as I know, they have the most decadent vegan chocolate cookies in town.

I’m not a coffee person, but apparently it’s the only place in town to offer awesome vegan bulletproof coffee. Whatever that is!

Eco-efforts: ASA Vegan Kitchen offers only reusable straws and biodegradable cups for takeaway drinks. The staff is well-aware of their eco-efforts. Good stuff.

Location: Thapae Road
Find ASA Vegan Kitchen on: Facebook | TripAdvisor HappyCow

Also read: Vegan-friendly Restaurants and Cafes to Indulge in Bangkok

Salsa Kitchen

Must try: Vegan nachos topped with two types of vegan cheese, salsa and black beans

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Nachos with vegan cheese at Salsa Kitchen!

The sister restaurant of Feast Society, Salsa Kitchen is well-known among the expat and digital nomad circles of Chiang Mai to have the best Mexican food in the city. After 3 years of being vegan, I was nearly in tears of joy trying their famous vegan nachos – topped with black beans, 2 types of vegan cheeses and 3 types of salsa! Finger-licking good. I usually order a side of beans to get my protein fix, although the vegan menu also offers a vegan burritto and baked cauliflower tacos, each with a generous helping of vegan cheese.

Eco-efforts: Like Feast Society, I’m waiting for the owners of Salsa Kitchen to do away with plastic straws and plastic packaging. I made the mistake of packing a burrito once, which came in a box with 3 different plastic bags. The next day, I acquired a steel container from Big C Supermarket, and only take away what fits in there.

Location: Near Maya Mall
Find Salsa Kitchen on: Facebook TripAdvisor HappyCow

Also read: Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram

Aanchan 

Must try: Penang curry; Butterfly pea flower pad thai; Almond hazelnut vegan cake

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Blue pea flower pad thai at Aanchan.

As you walk up the stairs to the second floor of the building where Aanchan sits, the aromas of Thai food will flood your nostrils and make you very hungry. Which is great, because Aanchan offers incredible Thai food, with a big, clearly labelled vegan selection, and serves generous portions. Their penang curry is the best I’ve had in Thailand, and the blue butterfly pea flower pad thai is cooked to perfection. The restaurant tends to get quite packed at meal times, so go early – and leave space for dessert. I tried the almond hazelnut vegan cake from their changing dessert menu, and loved it.

Eco-efforts: It was at Aanchan that I sipped a drink out of silicone straws for the first time!

Location: Nimman
Find Aachan on: Website TripAdvisor HappyCow

Also read: Where to Find the Best Vegan and Vegetarian Food in Singapore

Rosy Cheeks

Must try: Japanese bowl, customized without the egg; Pesto tortilla pizza

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Vegan pesto tortilla pizza at Rosy Cheeks.

A hip new addition to the food scene in Chiang Mai, Rosy Cheeks offers a small but creative selection of vegan dishes on its menu (also serves meat and eggs). Their pesto tortilla pizza was love at first bite, thanks to the great quality of ingredients, and there’s nothing more satisfying than their huge green smoothie after a workout. I didn’t quite relish the popular vegan pho-rrito (burrito stuffed with the Vietnamese pho), but I absolutely love their Japanese bowl (customized to be vegan without the egg), which comes with quinoa, teriyaki tofu, seaweed, mushrooms and a sesame dressing.

The shop next door serves their ice creams at Rosy Cheeks, of which only the mango flavor is dairy-free – but being a lover of all desserts chocolate, I’ve never been tempted to try it.

Eco-efforts: Full points for sourcing high quality local ingredients, and using steel straws.

Location: Suthep
Find Rosy Cheeks on: Facebook TripAdvisor HappyCow

Also read: 5 Simple Steps to Reduce Single Use Plastic – On Our Travels and in Everyday Life

AMA Vegan Kitchen

Must try: The vegan “egg”

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Who knew I’d be feasting on vegan “egg”!

Though located in a peculiar location at the base of a condominium, AMA Vegan Kitchen has nailed the art of making a vegan “egg” – with tofu and Himalayan pink salt alone! I don’t necessarily go looking for substitutes or have an opinion for or against them, but that vegan “egg” was surprisingly delicious! This entirely vegan resto sources organic ingredients and offers a decadent selection of Thai food – well worth the detour.

Location: Trams Square Wellness Resort Residency
Find AMA Vegan Kitchen on: FacebookHappyCow

Also read: All the Vegan Food I Loved in Salzburg, Austria

Moreganic 

Must try: Basil leaf lanna 

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Organic ingredients served up at Moreganic.

Located inside the Away Chiang Mai Thapae Resort, Moreganic was probably the swankiest place I ate at in Chiang Mai – and it was worth a one-time splurge (considering Thailand prices). All the food is vegetarian, and though vegan options are not labelled, the staff understands what you can and can’t eat. The interiors are charming and romantic, beautiful for a daytime visit. We tried a couple of Thai dishes – including the spicy basil leaf lanna (with different kinds of mushrooms and veggies) – and loved the food – both how it was presented and how it tasted.

Location – Chang Klan
Find Moreganic on: Facebook TripAdvisor HappyCow

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

Ice Love You

Must try: Vegan dark chocolate ice cream <3

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Vegan dark chocolate ice cream. LOVE.

And you love ice cream, right? Especially when it’s available in atleast 10 vegan flavours everyday – including Belgian dark chocolate, mint chocolate chip, mango, strawberry, bubble gum and cappuccino – and comes with a vegan waffle cone! Just the idea of licking off the melting dark chocolate ice cream with a bite of the crunchy cone makes my mouth water; possibly the best vegan ice cream I’ve tried yet. And the quirky superhero decor of the ice cream parlour – chances are, you won’t find that anywhere outside of Thailand either 😉

Location – Suthep
Find Ice Love You on: Facebook TripAdvisor HappyCow

Vegan travel in Chiang Mai:

Also check out my vegan food guides to Bangkok, Mumbai, Singapore, New York and Salzburg.

What vegan food in Chiang Mai did you love – or which would you most like to try?

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for my adventures around the world.

Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star, on Amazon or Flipkart.

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Highs and Lows of 2018 – And Aspirations for 2019.

In my mind, 2018 was akin to a shinkansen (bullet train) journey in Japan. I immensely enjoyed the ride, but felt like it ended way too soon.

Even though the year wasn’t packed with as many epic travel adventures as I had originally planned, 2018 was the year of a major milestone for me – writing and publishing a bestselling book about my journey so far. Despite this achievement, I’m flooded with bittersweet emotions as I look back at 2018, given the disheartening state of affairs in India and the world.

As I introspect about the year that was, I have also outlined my aspirations for 2019, so when I feel lost or overwhelmed, I can come back here to remind myself:

HIGHS

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Launching my book in Mumbai. Photo: Binal Gala, Vistoria Films.

Publishing my first book!

It still feels surreal to hold a copy of The Shooting Star in my hands or introduce myself as an “author”. My debut book – one that spans my journey from India to remote corners of the globe – took years to come together. I was a bundle of nerves just before it was published, but have since been overwhelmed by largely positive reviews in prestigious Indian publications like The Hindu and Live Mint – and even more so by connecting with so many of my readers on my book tour.

In just over a month of its release, The Shooting Star acquired the status of a national bestseller. It is currently in its third reprint, and I couldn’t be more grateful to the universe for conspiring to help it find its way to the right readers.

Also read: What No One Tells You About Writing and Publishing a Book in India

Falling in love with Japan and Cuba

I only travelled to a handful of new countries this year, and among them, Japan and Cuba – both so different from the rest of the world in their own way – really stole my heart. In Japan, I was introduced to a unique world of bullet trains, onsens (public baths), beautiful food (even as a vegan), plum and cherry blossoms, and secret forests. In Cuba, I felt like I had travelled back in time, discovering the real story behind the legend of Che Guevara and witnessing first hand, the impact of our plastic consumption on pristine coral reefs.

Also read: Why Visit Japan? Because Everyone Who’s a Stranger Was Once a Friend

Embracing the digital nomad life in Guatemala and Thailand

Although I work on the go wherever in the world I am, this year, I based myself in one spot in Guatemala for 2 months and in Thailand for 1.5 months – the longest I’ve stayed “settled” in one place since I gave up my home and began living nomadically over 5 years ago! These periods were extremely productive work-wise and Netflix-wise, and I hope to discover more digital nomad and slow travel spots around the world in 2019.

Also read: How I’m Financially Sustaining My Digital Nomad Lifestyle

The little things 

I was dreading the idea of turning thirty in 2018, but I’m quite loving the thirties so far! I feel more grounded mentally, strangely aware of my mortality, mature enough to pursue things I procrastinated about in my twenties and bold enough to continue fighting the battles that accompany an unconventional life. I also feel really grateful for having good physical and mental health, all the great vegan food I’ve been able to feed my body and for the people (online and offline) who continue to support my craziness.

Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Your Travel Dreams For Later

LOWS

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An introspective sunset in Denmark.

The void after publishing a book

I furiously wrote and edited my book for most of 2017 and part of 2018; then I furiously tried to get the word out about it, hoping that through it, I’ll be able to challenge people across the country to question their life and travel choices. When I heard that The Shooting Star had already sold 10,000 copies, I decided it was time to move on… to what, I had no idea!

At first, it felt like I’d be going back to my blogging and social media life, but my mind, which had been so fired up over the past year, needed more stimulation. It felt like a void that no books or hiking could fill. Like a purposelessness that had surfaced after a period of dormancy. I’m working towards filling it with some adventurous travels and new passion projects in the coming months.

Also read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

Rejected visas and destroyed travel plans

I’ve generally had pretty good luck in the past with scoring visas on my Indian passport, but in the second half of 2018, I hit a bad streak. First, my Kyrgyzstan e-visa got rejected – no reasons given. I had planned the entire journey, even worked out blogging collaborations, but everything fell through. As per their rules, I can’t reapply for an entire year! The same thing happened with the Iran e-visa a month later, leaving me rather disgruntled about why countries are opening up e-visas for Indian citizens if they’re arbitrarily going to reject applications. Sigh.

Also read: How to Score a Schengen Visa on an Indian Passport

Social media burnout

I reluctantly went on a digital detox in Cuba, where internet is scarcely available and people still talk to each other! But in those two weeks, it felt so good to rid my mind of the social media toxins that plague many of us on some level, that it’s been a challenge to embrace the online world (my job after all) again. When I grudgingly returned, I decided to cut down my social media time drastically and even experimented with a 2-3 day work week – something I hope to work towards in 2019.

Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home

ASPIRATIONS FOR 2019

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My digital nomad life in Guatemala <3

Greater focus on promoting meaningful and sustainable travel

My mind is forever abuzz with story ideas I need to pen, but lately – especially after cutting down my social media browsing time – I feel like I need more conscious minds, eyes and ears to promote travel that is meaningful and sustainable. So I’ve set up two new avenues for 2019:

  • Guest posts on The Shooting Star: After much contemplation, I’m now accepting guest posts on The Shooting Star – but specifically related to meaningful and responsible travel experiences. See my guest post guidelines if you have an idea you’d like to pitch.
  • Promoting content on other websites: If you’ve created or come across an article or story that strongly supports sustainable tourism, I’d love to hear from you and share it on my social networks. Please use this form.

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

Fewer flights

Although I try to ensure that my travels focus on local communities and stay mindful of the environment, I’m extremely guilty of taking far too many flights. That means that despite being vegan and consciously choosing not to pro-create, my carbon footprint on the planet is still immensely high. So for 2019, I’m making the rather difficult resolution to drastically cut down  the number of flights I hop on. I’m trying to think of it as an adventure, and for starters, intend to embark upon an epic land journey in January, from Thailand to India via Myanmar!

Also read: 5 Steps to Reduce Single Use Plastic – On Our Travels and in Everyday Life

New passion projects

In the last couple of years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on two very unique passion projects – I Love Spiti, to create awareness about the harmful impact of plastic bottled water and offer eco-friendly alternatives in this high Himalayan region, and Voices of Munsiari, to enable rural storytellers to connect directly with the world using Instagram. In 2019, I have a couple of new projects up my sleeve, in support of my two fond loves – animals and trees. Details coming soon!

As we transition into 2019, I wish you a beautiful, crazy, adventurous and meaningful year ahead. Let this be the year we question our choices, be more compassionate towards animals and each other, and mindfully discover more of our incredible planet.

What were your highs and lows of 2018? How do you want 2019 to shape up?

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter to follow my 2019 travel adventures!

Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star, on Amazon or Flipkart.

Maldives culture | Maldives where to stay | sustainable tourism maldives

Why You Should Stay on a “Local Island” to Truly Experience the Maldives. 

Which island are you from? she asked me curiously. She was 30, wrapped up in a red hijab, sitting under a palm tree on the white sand beach, casually de-seeding wild almonds.

India, I replied with a smile. I asked her about the island that was her home now (the one we were both on), and spent a lazy afternoon chatting about the one she was born on, the one where her husband ran a bakery and others in the Maldives she had been to or heard about.

Just as I was leaving, she asked: Which island in India are you from?

Living far out in the Indian Ocean, surrounded by water and sand everywhere, even I forgot for a while that there is a world where people don’t live on islands!

maldives goair direct flight, maldives local island

First glimpse of the Maldives from the flight window!

A couple of months ago, when GoAir reached out to me regarding their new direct flights from Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi to Male – the capital of the Maldives (and to Phuket in Thailand), I knew I had to write this post. As it becomes easier and cheaper to access one world from another, this is our chance to truly experience local island life in the Maldives – and its fascinating culture, cuisine and underwater world, in a fulfilling yet responsible way.

Here are all the reasons you should choose a “local island” for your trip to the Maldives:

Everyday life on local Maldivian islands is unique and fascinating

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Locals who quickly became friends!

Before I spent 2 weeks living out my castaway island dream on a small “local island” in the Maldives, I imagined that all people ever did there was lounge around on the perfect blue water- white sand beach – like in the pretty photos we see in travel magazines and on Instagram! But unlike “resort islands” where most visitors end up staying, the Maldives has designated local islands where the Maldivian people actually live – traditionally in houses made of corals with woven coconut rooftops – work, go to school, chill by the azure ocean and have plenty of occasions to celebrate.

On my tiny local island of Maalhos in the Baa Atoll, women worked under the coconut trees to weave coconut leaves for rooftops; men commuted by the public ferry every morning to work on resort islands; schools girls clad in black hijabs trained at the volleyball court in the evenings; Thursdays were for beach cleaning and Fridays for afternoon prayers. By night, under the stars, half the island was out on the communal jollies – handwoven lounging chairs, somewhat like a hammock – discussing the day’s affairs and playing local drums, with the gentle waves of the Indian Ocean creating soothing music in the background.

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Evening vibes in Maalhos (and a jolly to chill).

One weekend, we got invited, along with the rest of the island, to a local celebration, where a Maldivian band came by boat from the neighbouring Raa Atoll to perform Divehi music all night long! Another weekend, we found ourselves invited to a local wedding celebration. During our stay, ten O-level students on the island graduated… and where do you go for your graduation socials when you live in the Maldives? To an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean, of course!

Tip: We stayed at Madi Finolhu guesthouse on Maalhos island in the Baa Atoll and absolutely loved it. To get there, take a direct flight from Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore to Male on GoAir, then a public ferry and a private boat transfer to Maalhos.

Also read: How I’m Funding my Adventures Around the World Through Travel Blogging

“Resort islands” could be anywhere in the world

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Life on a local island in the Maldives.

So, here’s the thing: There are two ways to experience the Maldives. You can stay on a “resort island” – a fancy resort on a private island. Pay through your nose, experience luxury which is mostly environmentally unsustainable, see only fellow tourists and walk along a sanitised beach without shells, coconuts and the occasional waste, surreptitiously cleared away by resort staff every morning. You can soak in the beauty of the islands, but perhaps in a bubble with no sense of how the locals really live. You could be anywhere in the world – the Maldives or other islands like Mauritius, Seychelles, Andaman or the Caribbean.

But it’s only on a local island that you can get a real flavour of Maldivian life. Witness kids of all ages in their playground – the beach – surfing on their tiny boards. Learn that although the women are expected to cover up fully and wear an abaya at all times, they cycle or play sports in the evenings, hang out on the public beach under the stars and love Bollywood music. Join men as they play local tunes and chat about the island’s affairs. Alcohol is forbidden on local islands, but amid the refreshing sea breeze, fresh mango juices and laid-back life, I hardly missed it.

Tip: When you stay in a local guesthouse on a local island, the money you spend goes directly to the locals – and you can influence them to be more aware of their environmental impact.

Also read: Travelling Abroad First Time? 10 Questions on Your Mind

Maldivian cuisine is delicious – and the real thing is only available on local islands

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All the incredible Maldivian food we devoured.

Before I got to Maalhos, I was quite worried about surviving as a vegan there. After all, I could walk from end to end of the island in 20 minutes and I imagined all people ever ate was seafood.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that SO many interesting vegetables and fruits grew on our island – green papaya, brinjal, kopifai (a leaf deliciously made into a salad), wild almonds, pumpkin, mangoes, pineapple, passion fruit and my favourite – moringa, the superfood! At the local-run Madi Finolhu Guesthouse, I feasted on different kinds of veggies and curries, along with roshi (a local bread a bit like India’s roomali roti) and fresh passion fruit or mango juices every day. When I explained to locals that I love fish in the ocean but not on my plate, they laughed at first, then nodded solemnly about how the local fish population has been declining.

On the other hand, most resorts in the Maldives serve up a wide variety of cuisines, air-flown from different corners of the globe, with little care for local ingredients and sustainability.

Tip: Check out my food adventures in the Maldives and around the world on my food  Instagram account @nomadicvegan. Inform your accommodation beforehand about your vegan diet, so they can make sure you’re well fed.

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – And What it Means For My Travel Lifestyle

You can explore the Indian Ocean like a real explorer

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Exploring an uninhabited island in the Maldives.

Instead of snorkeling and water tours offered by most resorts, staying on a local island meant we’d hitch a ride to snorkel off an uninhabited island when our host at Madi Finolhu was on his way to work. On his fishing boat, we’d go to virtually unknown spots in the Indian Ocean to snorkel above the most stunning corals, look for Manta Rays at their cleaning stations, come face-to-face with a black tip shark, observe in fascination a green turtle who would come to the surface every few minutes for a breath of air, and most unexpectedly, spot a  large humpback whale presumably migrating via the Maldives – secretly hoping it wouldn’t topple our little boat!

Tip: No matter who you’re out exploring the ocean with, remember NOT to touch or feed any wild marine animals or get too close to the corals.

Also read: Simple Ways to Travel More Responsibly in Ladakh

This is a real-life climate change classroom

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The world’s climate change “school”.

Fascinating though it was to explore the depths of the Indian Ocean with a local islander, it also put in perspective how much our oceans are changing. Our host lamented how many patches of stunning corals have been bleached in the past few years due to the warming climate and increasing plastic trash – the effect of which is very obvious on Maalhos. That inspired him to lead an initiative in his past role as the island councilor to start a waste management program on Maalhos. Each house on the island now segregates waste; organic waste is composted, tin and plastic are compressed and sent to Male, some inorganic waste is burnt but they’re on the lookout for better solutions. Maalhos is also in the midst of finishing up their own tiny desalination plant with a glass bottle facility – so locals no longer have to rely on boiled rainwater or plastic bottled water for drinking!

madi finolhu maldives, local island maldives, maldives where to stay

With our awesome host, Matheen.

I heard some sad stories of fancy resorts that pay neighbouring local islands to take their waste, so they can put up a clean facade for tourists. And of uninhabited islands where trash has been piling up for years – and presumably drifting into the ocean.

As travellers, the islands of the Maldives are classrooms to learn about climate change and the plastic menace first hand – and realise how our travel and consumption choices can have a direct impact on how we choose to experience a destination.

Tip: Please do your bit and opt to drink filtered / boiled rainwater in the Maldives like the locals. Carry a LifeStraw filter or bottle if you must. Say no to single-use plastic like straws and bags; carry your own bamboo straw and reusable cloth bag. Make sure you carry all your plastic trash back to a city with waste management in place; don’t dispose it on the island where it will either be burnt or harm the underwater world.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

You can experience the best of the Maldives on a budget

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The castaway island dream!

Budget is a relative term in the Maldives. Even the most basic resorts charge upward of 500-1000$ per night. In comparison, 60-150$ a night at Madi Finolhu (room only to full board) felt like a steal. To be honest, despite receiving invites to stay at fancy resorts with no responsible tourism policy in place, I’d much rather stay on a local island. I mean, we were among a very small handful of travellers on our pristine, beautiful island; large stretches of the empty white sand beach were ours alone to be savoured; each sunset was unforgettable in its own way; we had private dinners on a moonlit beach under the stars; the magical underwater world was just off our beach, with eels, living corals and all kinds of fish; and many nights, while walking along the beach, we witnessed the surreal glow of the bio-luminescent plankton on the shore, mirroring the twinkling stars in the sky above!

Do you dream of travelling to the Maldives someday?

Note: I wrote this post as part of a campaign by GoAir – who now offer direct flights from India to Male and Phuket, as well as flight+hotel offers. As you know, opinions on this blog are always mine.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter to follow my travels around the world.

Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star, on Amazon or Flipkart.

solo travel destinations

Unusual Solo Travel Destinations to Feed Your Adventurous Spirit.

As solo travellers, we often tend to take shelter in the same tried and tested places. The ones that rank high on online lists of “safe countries for solo travel”, which have several hostels to choose from, where tourism has made it imperative for locals to speak English and where the presence of other travellers puts us in our comfort zone. Over my solo explorations in the past seven years though, I’ve found that such places often tend to stifle our adventurous spirit. The same spirit that originally made us want to go it alone.

Looking back, my most cherished solo travel memories were made in unusual, offbeat places – and while putting together this post, I’ve considered the following parameters:

  • The locals aren’t saturated with tourism: Despite being an introvert, I found it relatively easy to have authentic interactions and make local friends in these places.
  • There’s plenty to do alone, even on a budget: Although this is very subjective and based on personal preferences, these are places where I found plenty to do using public transport and on a moderate budget.
  • A general feeling of safety: It’s important to keep our wits about us anywhere we go or live, but I never felt particularly unsafe in these places.

If you plan to travel solo but can’t decide where to go, consider my favorite (offbeat) solo travel destinations:

Julian Alps, Slovenia

Best solo travel destination for: Mountains and solitude

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Postcard living in the Slovenian Alps.

Although as solo travellers, we’re spoilt for choice in Europe, the one country that really stole my heart is Slovenia. Like every other traveller, I first landed up in Ljubljana – an artsy capital city with incredible vegan food (hello, Barberella Arkade Bistro) – and Lake Bled – a sore disappointment given how commercial it’s become. But further into the Slovenian Alps, I was captivated by the dreamy mountains and valleys, loved hiking and cycling by myself, and ended up staying with Slovenian hosts so friendly, they invited me for home-cooked meals and drove me to their favorite spots amid the stunning rivers and forests. That special connection was so strong that one week after I left Slovenia, I ended up changing my travel plans and coming back to spend the rest of my Europe trip there!

Solo travel recommendations for Slovenia:

Also read: Easy Ways to Take Awesome Photos of Yourself While When You Travel Solo

Hill country, Sri Lanka

Best solo travel destination for: First international solo trip; nature; vegan food

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Mornings at my homestay in Colombo.

I think of Sri Lanka as a saner, smaller, less chaotic version of India – one that is as full of natural beauty yet feels safer and easier to manoeuvre. The capital city of Colombo always puts me in my comfort zone as I sink my feet into the wet shores of the Indian Ocean, feast at accidentally vegan-friendly restaurants and imagine a utopian future for India with lower population, clean streets and better infrastructure. And when I think of the countryside, I can’t stop dreaming of the lush green hills, the train rides along misty tea plantations and rice paddies, the curious locals who become friends with an ice-breaking smile, the forests with indigenous dwellers, wild elephants and big cats, and most of all, of steamed hoppers served with a curry simmered overnight with Sri Lankan spices. Can I go back already?

Solo travel recommendations for Sri Lanka:

Also read: Travelling Abroad First Time? 10 Questions on Your Mind

Kumaon, Uttarakhand, India

Best solo travel destination for: Nature and the slow life

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Hiking in the deodar forests of Uttarakhand.

On some of my earliest solo explorations in India, the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand taught me so much about solo travel. In Peora and Nathuakhan, I learnt to hike alone, put my faith in nature and accept random acts of kindness from strangers. Walking across Himalayan villages in Kumaon, I learnt to embrace the slow life philosophy of locals – sometimes out of choice, sometimes out of circumstance. In Binsar, I learnt of the man-forest conflict and in Sarmoli, I grasped how a small group of committed women can transform their lives and those of many others.

I don’t think I could have enjoyed mere sightseeing in the Kumaon Himalayas. The terraced mountain farms, the pristine lakes, the scented pine forests and the lush valleys are stunning, no doubt. But it’s only when I learnt to club them with a slice of local living, that I truly fell in love.

Solo travel recommendations for Kumaon, Uttarakhand:

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

Ecuador

Best solo travel destination for: Experienced solo travellers; hiking; culture

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Crazy beautiful hikes in Ecuador.

Hiking alone in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador is definitely one of my most cherished solo travel memories – especially when I throw in my time with an indigenous Quichua family and the jaw-dropping beauty of the rugged Andean trails, forests, lakes, valleys, canyons and ridges. Despite spending a month slowly exploring the country – partly by myself, partly with a friend – I feel like I never really got my closure and can’t wait to go back  someday.

Solo travel recommendations for Ecuador:

  • Visa: Indian passport holders get visa-free access to Ecuador with a valid and used US visa.
  • Stay: I loved staying at family-run Airbnbs across Ecuador, and at Black Sheep Inn in the Andes.
  • Transport: Public buses connect most of the country.
  • Learn Spanish: Speaking Spanish is essential to travel in Ecuador.

Also read: What it’s Like to Travel Solo When You’re in a Relationship

Mauritius

Best solo travel destination for: Nature and beaches – if you don’t mind being surrounded by lovestruck couples!

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Black River Gorges in Mauritius.

It’s one thing to read that Mauritius is popular with honeymoon couples, quite another to land on this beautiful island and constantly be badgered with questions of why you chose to travel there alone. But once I learnt to humour the questions, I fell in love with the many faces of the island – hiking in the rugged wilderness above Port Louis and in the Black River Gorges National Park, riding my bike along swaying sugarcane fields, chatting with Indo-Mauritian fishermen and farmers, revelling in the stunning sunrises and sunsets, checking out the craft beer and street food scene, sleeping on a rooftop under the stars, and snorkelling to explore the stunning underwater beauty of the Indian Ocean. I wouldn’t pick it as my first solo travel destination, but I’d certainly go when I’m ready for some sea, sand and solitude.

Solo travel recommendations for Mauritius:

Also read: Solo Travel: To Go or Not To Go?

Cuba

Best solo travel destination for: Experienced solo travellers; architecture; culture

cuba solo travel, offbeat solo travel destinations, best solo travel destinations

The colors of La Habana.

As someone who can’t imagine staying offline for long periods of time, I didn’t know if I’d enjoy exploring Cuba solo. Turned out, the fascinating history, isolated culture, striking natural beauty and endearing locals made me forget all about the internet – even though it could be accessed in public parks! The best thing I did in La Habana (Havana) was sign up for a private “go with the flow” afternoon with Cuban Adventures and spend 3 hours with a young guide who grew up in Cuba – drinking daiquiri, catching a football game, learning about the Afro-Cuban religion, spotting incredible murals and sculptures as we wandered around the by-lanes of Havana and talked candidly about Cuba’s eventful history. 

In an attempt at offbeat and meaningful travel, I also landed up volunteering briefly at a coral reef restoration project run by IOI Adventures in a remote village in Isla de la Juventud. Along with locals from the village and a fellow volunteer, I picked up plastic trash from the ocean floor, saw how corals were being regrown, patrolled a deserted beach for turtle hatching, snorkelled above stunning reefs and pledged to further cut out single-use plastic from my life. 

Solo travel recommendations for Cuba:

  • Visa: Indian passport holders can enter Cuba with a tourist card.
  • Internet: Wifi cards are available for purchase at ETECSA (telecom) shops across the country, and wifi can be accessed at many public parks.
  • Stay: I stayed at Casa Particulares (private homestays) across Cuba – some through Airbnb, some through local reference – and loved interacting with local families.
  • Transport: Buses and shared taxis connect most places across Cuba; homestay hosts can arrange both with some advance notice.

Also read: How I’m Financially Sustaining My Digital Nomad Lifestyle

Odisha, India

Best solo travel destination for: Mature solo travellers; culture-seekers

Odisha solo travel, India solo travel, solo travel destinations India

Sunset in the eastern ghats.

I only spent a couple weeks in Odisha, quite nervous about exploring the state for the first time. But I quickly fell in love with everything – the local food (easy to veganise), the warm people, the stunning and diverse natural beauty and the intriguing tribal way of life. I did long journeys on state buses, took an overnight train, explored small villages on a bicycle, and felt safe in the company of those I met along the way.

I say Odisha is for experienced solo travellers though, because travel infrastructure is limited, the regular tourist circuit isn’t geared towards solo travel and it takes some ‘jugaad’ (think hitchhiking pillion on a motorbike) to get off the beaten path if you travel alone and don’t have a car. I’ll be writing a detailed post about my travels in Odisha soon!

Solo travel recommendations for Odisha:

  • Stay: I enjoyed staying at Kila Dalijoda along the eastern ghats and Chandoori Sai in the Koraput region. And loved my time at Desia Ecolodge, where thanks to my host and now friend Bubu, I was able to experience the fascinating tribal culture of Koraput in an intimate and respectful way.
  • Public transport: I got around by buses and trains, and although the quality is pretty much the same as the rest of India, I found the locals to be helpful and friendly, and didn’t feel unsafe.

Also read: How to Plan Your First Solo Trip

The United Kingdom

Best solo travel destination for: First solo trip; cities; hiking

UK solo travel, best countries for solo travel

Hiking in the Lake District.

Though not the most friendly on the wallet, England and Scotland are some of the easiest places to navigate without having to get familiar with a foreign language, with plenty to explore for offbeat travellers. I spent my days in Aberdeen and Edinburgh walking everywhere, checking out old churches, urban parks, edgy neighborhoods and hipster cafes. Renting a car or joining a group tour is necessary to explore much of the countryside, but I found that the Lake District was a beautiful exception – the town of Keswick is accessible by train and bus, and is a great base for incredible hikes in the surrounding Cumbrian Mountains.

Solo travel recommendations for the UK:

  • Visa: Apply for a UK visa at VFS UK; the regular tourist visa takes atleast 14 working days, sometimes longer, so give yourself plenty of time.
  • Stay: Find bed and breakfasts, and old country hotels across Britain, on booking.com. If you’re not signed up yet, register with my referral to get 10$ off your first stay.

Also read: Autumn, Adventure and Artful Living in Aberdeeshire, Scotland

Guatemala

Best solo travel destination for: Mature solo travellers; rugged beauty; cultural immersion

guatemala solo travel, unusual solo travel destinations, solo travel blogs

Hate saying goodbye to Guatemala.

I’ve perhaps never been as nervous embarking on a solo adventure as I was boarding my flight to Guatemala – my first time in Central America. But those solo travel fears were soon dispelled in the quaint town of Antigua, in the home of a Mayan family in an obscure town where I learnt Spanish and by the stupendous beauty of Lake Atitlan. I’ve been so intrigued by what survives of the Mayan culture and so delighted by the basic staple food (beans, rice, plantains, cacao, avocados) that I’ve been back for long periods twice since. I recommend Guatemala for experienced solo travellers because you must learn some Spanish to get by, know when to trust your gut, and figure out the country once you go beyond the worn-out tourist trail.

Solo travel recommendations for Guatemala:

  • Visa: Indian passport holders get visa-free access to Guatemala with a valid and used US visa.
  • Stay: Check out my fav Airbnbs across Central America.
  • Transport: The popular tourist spots in Guatemala are connected by shuttles, while other places are accessible by bus.
  • Learn Spanish: Learning Spanish is a must while travelling in Guatemala; very few locals are able to understand English. I learnt Spanish at the pretty remote Bio Itza School in the village of San Jose, and then again from private Mayan tutor Rebeca along Lake Atitlan.

Also read: What Solo Travel Has Taught Me About the World – And Myself

Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India

Best solo travel destination for: First solo trip; mountains; going off the grid; volunteering

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The stark beauty of Spiti.

The Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh is where my love affair with solo travel began. I still remember my first lonely night in a shabby room in Shimla with some clarity. I had no idea what I was doing, why I was travelling alone, what it was going lead to. But all those questions were dispelled as we drove along winding roads to arrive in one of the most spectacular and fascinating regions of India. Back in 2011, Spiti was a trip of firsts for me – volunteer traveling, hitch-hiking, sleeping under the Milky Way and learning about sustainable tourism. My time volunteering with Spiti Ecosphere impacted me so deeply that I decided to quit my corporate job soon after and began charting a different life for myself.

Solo travel recommendations for Spiti, Himachal Pradesh:

  • Getting there: Take the overnight HPTDC Volvo bus from Delhi to Manali, spend a night or two to acclimatise, then take a shared taxi to Kaza.
  • Traveling in Spiti: I highly recommend traveling with Spiti Ecosphere – their “life as a local” trip is one I want to try myself. You can also base yourself in Kaza for a while and volunteer with them.
  • The “I Love Spiti” campaign: Last year, I partnered with Spiti Ecosphere and fellow volunteers to launch “I Love Spiti” – a campaign against plastic bottled water in Spiti. Consider volunteering in Spiti to take this campaign to the next level!

Also read: Solo Travel Moments That Left Me Scared Shitless

Bahrain

Best solo travel destination for: Experienced solo travellers; culture

Bahrain solo travel, middle east solo travel, offbeat solo travel destinations

With a local friend in Bahrain.

Many countries in the Middle East are shrouded in controversy and oppression, and having heard horror stories from close friends, I’d probably avoid many of them, especially as a solo female traveller. Bahrain (and Oman and Jordan) are exceptions though – some of the more liberal, peaceful ones in the region. I didn’t travel solo in Jordan and I’m yet to explore Oman, but Bahrain has occupied a warm space in my heart since I travelled there a few years ago. Public transport is non-existent and taxis expensive, so I ended up hitch-hiking with the friendliest souls, hanging out in trendy shisha cafes, having heart-to-heart conversations with locals and even finding some surprising Indian connections.

Solo travel recommendations for Bahrain:

  • Visa: Bahrain offers visa on arrival for Indian passport holders.
  • Stay: I stayed at a hotel, but in retrospect, would choose an Airbnb or guesthouse in or close to the trendy Adliya neighborhood.
  • Getting around: Getting around within Bahrain without a car is challenging. I managed with walking, hitch-hiking, being driven around with new friends and the rare taxi.

Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Your Travel Dreams in 2018

North Goa (interiors), India

Best solo travel destination for: First solo trip; vegan food

goa solo travel, india solo travel, indian solo travellers

The sleepy interiors of north Goa.

I’ve never been drawn to the beaches of Goa – often full of boisterous crowds, aggressive drug peddlers and underwhelming food. But the interiors of Goa have continued to delight me for years now, thanks to my earliest discoveries with my Goan hosts Raquel and Roberto. Theirs is not the Goa you read or hear about otherwise – no beaches, no loud parties, alcohol is not the centre of attraction. Theirs is a Goa of sleepy villages, pristine backwaters, lush paddies and the susegad (content) life. One that you have to experience yourself to believe.

Solo travel recommendations for Goa:

Also read: Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: These Travel Companies Are Changing the Way You Experience India

Germany

Best solo travel destination for: Nature; postcard villages; solitude

germany solo travel, offbeat solo travel ideas, solo travel destinations 2019

Postcard villages in Hessen, Germany.

Ever since I got over my misconceptions of Germany on my first Euro trip (no, most Germans are not uptight and the beer’s fab but there’s so much more to the country), I’ve explored several parts of Germany – a lot of it solo. I love the wine traditions along the River Rhine, the Christmas Markets across the country, the forested countryside of Hessen, the waterways of Spreewald, the lost-in-time villages of Southwest Germany and the stellar beauty of the German Alps in Berchtesgaden National Park. Equally, I love the conscious living embraced by many locals, the long train journeys on the Deutsche Bahn (seriously, when will India catch up?) and the fact that I’m never thinking twice about my safety.

Solo travel recommendations for Germany:

  • Getting there:Lufthansa offers direct flights from India to Munich and Frankfurt.
  • Visa: Apply for a Schengen visa at VFS Germany in India.
  • First time to Germany: See my tips to plan your first trip to Germany.

What are some unusual places around the world you’ve travelled solo? Which were your favorites and why?

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter to follow my travels around the world.

Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star, on Amazon or Flipkart.

Why I Don’t Recommend Celebrating the Lantern Festival on New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai.

About this post: On New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai in 2017, I found myself at the Chiang Mai lantern festival, flying paper lanterns on 31st December as the clock announced the New Year – something I never should have done. In this post, I’ve penned down the harmful environmental impact of the Chiang Mai lantern festival, and why I don’t recommend celebrating it.  

Last year, when I first heard of the lantern festivities on New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, I was smitten. I mean, with those gorgeous images floating all over the Internet, it’s hard not to be. So with thousands of others, I made my way to Tha Phae Gate at midnight, scribbled a wish on my lantern, and released it with the midnight countdown to New Year. From where I stood, the sight of thousands of fire-lit lanterns floating in the night sky looked gorgeous. I wrote about it on my blog and hoped to be there again on New Year’s Eve 2018. 

But in the interim, I learnt about the terrible impact of these seemingly harmless lanterns floating in the sky – and witnessed it myself.

Last month, I unexpectedly found myself on a Bangkok rooftop, unaware that it was the eve of the famous Loy Krathong festival in Thailand. From the 41st floor of the high-rise I was Airbnb-ing in, I could admire the entire skyline of this rapidly growing city at sunset. But that evening, the setting sun was trapped in a haze and visibility was drastically reduced. A thick layer of smog hung in the air, obscuring my view – much like it often hangs in the Delhi sky, creating a grim ‘end of the world’ kind of scene. A bad traffic day? I wondered. Just then I saw the cause – a handful of floating lanterns, emitting a dull yellow light, pierced the smog and drifted towards the horizon.

It suddenly hit me that the lantern festival of Thailand is a lot like Diwali in India. On the ground, the lanterns and crackers seem harmless, fun, even beautiful. They seem to light up the sky and our hearts… but both are equally terrible for the Earth and our lungs.

Here’s why I don’t recommend celebrating the lantern festival (on New Year’s Eve or Loy Krathong / Yi Peng) in Chiang Mai and other parts of Thailand:

Sky lanterns are not completely biodegradable

Turns out, even though many of the lanterns are made of eco-friendly rice paper, they also have non bio-degradable parts. A large metal wire and a big chunk of wax, for instance. The wax burns for a long time, emitting CO2, causing air pollution and smog. The kind I personally witnessed in the Bangkok sky.

Also read: 5 Ways I’ve Changed to Travel More Responsibly

The lanterns ultimately land up in farms, rivers and the ocean – and harm animals

The sky lanterns, even as seen from the ground, have a long and unpredictable trajectory. They will travel in the air, with the wind, as long as the wax within propels them. The risk of setting a tree, house or farm on fire is very real. Some will fall in canals, some in fields and farms far away. Some will flow out to the oceans, some will be cleared away. Even the ones that are cleared away, will be cleared from sight, but will probably end up in the ocean someday – as pretty much all non-biodegradable trash does.

The irony is that the Thailand lantern festival – a combination of Loy Krathong (floats on the water) and Yi Peng (lanterns in the sky) – has its origins in paying respect to the water spirits.

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

Chiang Mai’s lantern festival is not a traditional festival

When I set my lantern adrift last year, to the beat of drums, with the help of an orange-clothed monk at a small shrine in Chiang Mai city, it felt like I was doing what locals have always done. But now that I’ve researched it further, I’ve learnt that the tradition of lighting sky lanterns originated in small farming communities in rural parts of northern Thailand – where locals would set their lanterns afloat at noon, in their vast farming fields. And presumably account for the minimal trash later during the day.

According to this article by the Bangkok Post, the lantern festival was introduced to Chiang Mai and other parts of the country only in the early 2000s, as a means to attract tourism!

Also read: 5 Steps to Reduce Single Use Plastic – On Our Travels and in Everyday Life

Sky lanterns have been banned in several countries

To put things in perspective, it is worth noting that sky lanterns had begun gaining popularity in many countries around the world – during weddings and other celebrations. But given the risk of the fire they can cause, the waste they generate and the smoke they release, many parts of Europe, South America, China, UK and nearby Vietnam have banned these lanterns.

I’m kicking myself for not doing enough research last year and becoming part of a tourist festival that is creating enormous waste and pollution in a city and country I love.

Even though I’m likely to be in Thailand on New Year’s Eve 2018, I definitely won’t be spotted at the Tha Phae Gate in Chiang Mai, for those sky lanterns, floating into the night sky, will only remind me of how poorly we’re treating our beloved nature, environment, animals and the ocean.

Have you ever taken part in an environmentally or socially harmful tradition on your travels – and regretted it? It’s time we speak up and let others learn from our mistakes.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter to follow my travels around the world.

Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star, on Amazon or Flipkart.