What experiences were really worth the price tag in 2014?
This is about value for money. Best quality for the lowest price. Value is that balance point in the middle. You can get a 4 hour train ride across India for $2… but you’ll be crushed in a sweaty box like cattle. That’s not value for money. That’s just cheap. Flying from London to Athens for $35 in a comfortable, air conditioned plane… Thats affordable, comfortable and definitely value for money!
Moreover, we like to be realistic. we get bored of lists that are all about “the best” of everything. When you travel, sometimes you get suckered in with some truly awful stuff too. It’s not all roses.
So, here we list not only our favourite bits of 2014, but some of the shit bits too. May thee heed our warnings!
Scroll all the way to the bottom to discover our number 1, ultimate experience for 2014!
Countries visited in 2014
In this order:
Cambodia, Thailand, India, Qatar (Airport only), UK, France, Italy, Greece, FYRO Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro.
Approx. 30,000 KM covered by at least 20 different modes of transport, including rowboats, toy trains, rickshaws, sleeper buses and our own two feet!
Content below is related to those countries, only.
We ended up in Prizren pretty much by accident. When travelling from Greece to Montenegro we picked out a whole bunch of destinations at random to stop at. Kosovo was one of those destination that we had never had any specific intention of visiting…
Turns out, not only is the cost of living in Prizren one of the lowest in Europe, but the cafe culture and bar scene is second to none. Even in winter we found a bustling social atmosphere in this delightfully historic town.
War torn? No. Whatever perceptions you have of the conflict that plagued the former Yugoslav region, they are long gone. In prizren, mosques and churches stand side by side and people of all ethnicities welcome you warmly. With a pint of beer in the pub for $2 US and a pizza for 2 people for less than $4, prices rival those of somewhere considered cheap, like Bangkok.
European charm with Asian prices. What a bargain!
Is London cool? yes. Is it good value – Hell no!
Even a single journey metro ticket costs almost $4… double the price of the same ticket in Paris and most other major European cities. If we hadn’t been house sitting we wouldn’t have been able to afford to go at all.
There is some amazing history in London. Also, there are lots of free attractions, like the British Museum and Tate modern as well as some great cheap entertainment venues like stand up comedy at Comedy Carnival. But, once you factor in accommodation, transport and food and drink, it’s so overpriced that long term travellers will find the expenditure hard to justify.
It’s no secret. We like to eat. 2014 has been a festival of food for sure. Asia + Europe, that’s some serious cuisine variety.
We can never pick just one when it comes to food – here are the top 3.
OMG! We have eaten some good stuff this year!
Fresh pizza with raw toppings – Florence ($10 – feeds two, or one hungry person) (Italy)
This is a new take on pizza that we had never seen before. The bread base is cooked in the pizza oven, then the mozzarella, tomato, olive oil and fresh basil is added after (anchovies optional) – and not cooked! So its a crispy base, with raw toppings. Who thought this would work? I guess, not many people, or you would see it everywhere.
In fact, it does work, really bloody well. Yumingtons!
Vindaloo – Goa (With rice and bread for 2 people: $6) (India)
Anyone who spent a lot of time in the UK will have heard the legend of the vindaloo. Big, drunk men head to the curry house after the pub and compete to eat this tastebud burning behemoth of british Indian cuisine.
Of course, the vindaloo you get in England is rarely like the Goan original. Though hot and spicy, the Goan version does not burn your face off. Instead this bright red, garlicky Indian/Portugese fusion dish delights the tongue. (Read More About our favourite foods from Goa)
Best meat on a stick ever – Athens ($15, serves 2 to 3 people) (Greece)
We’ve had some seriously good “meat on a stick” over the years. Most countries do some sort of skewered meat. China, Thailand and many others are serious contenders. But, in an unassuming taverna in Flisvos, on the outskirts of Athens, we got our taste buds blown!
Juicy is a word that is over used. Not on this occasion. For this skewer spectacular, mixed meat kofta type kebabs literally burst with meaty juices as your teeth cut into them. I didn’t think it was possible to make minced meat like this. But, as we discovered all over the Balkans, “succulent” is at another level.
When it comes to worst value for money food, really, bad food sucks, no matter how much you pay.
Brain Curry (India)
This may have been less than $5 but, seriously, paying any amount for Lambs Brain Curry is probably too much. Sure, you can say “What were you thinking Tommo, of course Lambs brain curry is going to be horrid”. Well, the restaurant we visited in Delhi is renowned for doing the best, and I like the adventurous side of eating…
Scotch Egg (UK)
Over to MEGSY for this one…. Where do I start with Scotch Eggs? Its a boiled egg encased in some kind of pork. That’s then breaded and I presume fried – but then eaten cold. I didn’t think it sounded like the ideal snack – but in my quest to try all ‘local’ English foods, I figured I’d give it a go…
Things to know:
1. Boiled eggs aren’t that great – any way, shape, or form.
2. I have no bloody idea what part of the pig the meat comes from as it’s grey-ish in colour. It’s really a meat surprise.
3. It’s often served with English Colemans yellow mustard. Be warned – this will burn your face off, if you’re not prepared for it.
4. I could not detect and single ounce of Scotch anywhere in this dish. It’s not that I’m upset, I’m just disappointed!
I’m not keen to try this traditional dish again that’s for sure – there’s seriously much better English food out there to enjoyed people!
Beef Tartar (France)
I consider myself to be open minded when it comes to my eating. I’d never had beef tartar before so I figured, while in France, I should give it a go. For some reason I thought I was going to get a tasty slab of raw steak. For those of you who don’t know better already, beef tartar is actually just a pile of raw minced beef with a raw egg yolk on top.
Disappointed much? Yes. Mince? Add onto the fact that it doesn’t really taste of anything and that I also got food poisoning after eating it, beef tartar will not be on the menu again for me. 3 month in India with not as much as a hint of the shits… France: wiped out for a full day.
It may seem pretty obvious to just throw in the only wonder of the world we visited in 2014 as our top attraction choice. Well, not so. We tell it like it is. In our best/worst of 2013 list we pointed out that the Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), Jeju Island, South Korea – one of the 7 wonders of the natural world – was our most overrated attraction that year.
We don’t care what guide books and opinion polls say. This blog features our opinions and we are sometime surprised at how average some top rated attractions are.
Well, the Taj Mahal is popular for a reason. It deserves it’s accolade.
We’ve visited a lot of wonders now, the Taj Mahal has been the best so far. It’s intensely satisfying, perfect symmetry will wow even the most OCD observer. Seriously, the architect must have been a nightmare as a child.
Honorable mention: Meteora
We felt it was a little unfair to the rest of the planet to have to compete with the Taj mahal. If we hadn’t visited the Taj, Meteora would have taken the top spot. Medieval monasteries atop rocky, vertical pinnacles spread out across an awe inspiring valley. There may have historically been 24 of these man-made wonders, now only 6 survive.
Backwaters in Allepey, Kerala.
Kerala is considered the Garden of India. After the Taj Mahal, this was the place we had the most recommendations to visit in India. Visiting the backwaters, an historic canal system, is regarded a major highlight. We disagree, but with a proviso.
The trip we took was not value for money. More on that below. There are ways to see the backwaters for less, we discovered later. There are better areas to do this too, Allepey is overcrowded. So all in all, you should probably visit the backwaters, just not Allepey.
We felt our trip was hugely overrated. Prices have tripled in the last few years for the private boat rides. Even a basic Houseboat with a fan room can now cost over $100 US per night. In India! A 4 hour boat trip cost us $35, which did not include any food or toddy (The local coconut drink).
We’d paid the extra for a “special” experience, but in the end the private boat just followed the same route the local ferry does (which only costs 30 cents). The only difference is, you get a lounger. You get to stop for lunch and toddy (for a supplement), though you could do that from the ferry if you knew where to get off. In addition, you will pay tourist prices for drinks and you will have locals stare at you with contempt as you float around in your luxury boat.
Alcohol / Drink
If you have read our blog, you might know we like a beverage, on occasion… Regular occasion. So here are some of our top tipples from 2014.
Old Monk (India)
Rum-a-doodle-do! Old Monk is a rich flavoured dark rum made on the west coast of India. It’s like drinking liquid dark muscovado sugar, but with 40% alcohol content. In Goa, where taxes seem to be lower, you can pick up a litre bottle for $2 – $4 US. You’ll pay more for the mixer than for the booze.
This rum is seriously good. Local hooch is normally brain rotting horror juice. Old monk is genuinely tasty. A rarity of clandestine distilling.
Brew Dog (UK & International)
This is probably a good time to ask what value for money travellers, like ourselves, are doing at a rather premium franchise like Brew Dog. The Scottish brewer is expanding rapidly for one simple reason – They make some of the best beer on the planet.
With outlets in many UK cities, and now worldwide, we’d be happy to rate their “Punk IPA” as beer of the decade. On top of that, they always have large selection of other unique beers to try – with free taste tests. If I’m ever going to pay $10 for a pint of beer, it’ll be at Brew Dog.
Chai Tea – masala tea (India)
In the interest of fairness to the non-alcoholics out there, some tea made it onto the list. Drinking tea, rather than beer, normally seems like an insult to my liver. It likes to be kept busy, you know.
However, the Chai Masala tea you get all over India, is a spicy, non-alco wonder. It’s sweet and incredibly cheap. About 5 to 10 rupees (10 to 20 cents) for a cup on the train – often the cup is made of clay, so it’s biodegradable and you don’t have to feel bad about throwing it out the window when you’re done.
Rakia / Raki (Balkans)
I mentioned the glory of Old Monk above. A local hooch worth drinking. While in the Balkans, we tried a lot of different Raki. It’s a rough and ready transparent beverage that may have been distilled in a grandmother’s front room. Like grandma, if you grew up with it, you probably love it. We did not grow up with it. Nuff said.
Jim & Coke (Cambodia style)
This story was a lesson learned in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I ordered a Jim Beam & Coke. After drinking part of the drink, it was so disgusting I thought I had spilled mosquito repellent in it. I decided to cut my losses and just get the bill. The waitress informed me, she could not find “Gin & Coke” on the register so had just charged me for a “Gin & Tonic” instead…
I can confirm that gin does not go well with coke. Not well at all! I can also confirm, you should ask any Cambodian waitress to repeat back your order before she goes and gets it.
Mumbai to London on a full service, 5 star airline with all our luggage and food included for $300 each? Yep, Qatar often comes in cheaper than taking a budget flight. When it comes to long haul, they just seem to have better prices, provided you book a few months in advance.
General Class India Train Ticket
$1 – $2 USD will get you one of the worst transport experiences of your life. Guaranteed.
One of the cheapest modes of transport, we also consider to be the worst value for money. You’ve seen the pictures of people hanging off the sides of trains? Maybe this could be fun.
Well, comedic pictures aside, the reality of this sort of travel is horrible. Thousands of sweaty people in a humid tropical climate crammed into a train carriage designed for only a couple of hundred bodies. It is sweaty hell. It’s also genuinely scary. You have to fight to get out at a station. Actually fight. Push and claw.
No amount of money saving is worth this. If you can, always pay an extra dollar or two to upgrade to sleeper class. If no upgrade is available, jump in sleeper class anyway and either bribe the conductor or hope the conductor never comes. If you get in sleeper carriage 11, it looks like the general ticket which is marked II – You can play the dumb foreigner card if the conductor does turn up, say you thought the ticket said 11, then offer to pay to upgrade.
We’ve saved thousands of dollars this year in Europe by housesitting. UK, France, Greece. All very pricey destinations compared to Asia. Free accommodation has made it possible to spend long periods in all of them.
If you haven’t tried out housesitting yet, essentially, you take care of homes and pets in return for free accommodation. We’ve stayed in some really nice places, from a chateau in the south of France to a charming townhouse in central London.
If you think that sounds like something you could do, we’ve even got an article on how to become a housesitting pro in no time.
Hotel Rushabh Home in Kolkata charged us $35 US a night, just beating out some of the motels in South Korea for the most expensive accommodation we stayed at in our whole 14 months in Asia.
Under most circumstances, we’d never pay this much for a room – especially in India! The problem was, we were arriving to Kolkata at 3 am. Not an ideal time to go out for a walk to find some cheaper hotels. Online options for Kolkata were pretty limited.
We decided their deluxe cottage would, at least, be pretty nice at that price. A change from some of the places we have stayed.
Well, the deluxe cottage was a wooden hut on the roof of an apartment block. Uncomfortable beds and pretty shabby rooms certainly did not add up to $35 a night. On the Plus side, the staff were friendly and the location was quite central. But, value for money it was not…
Ultimate Experience from 2014!
Of all the things we could have chosen, a party in Greece beat out world famous attractions. You may be surprised why, and no, it’s not just because we are booze hounds.
Rembetika Clubs: Dancing on tables in Athens
Full of food and wine. Stage invasions of crazy women engulfing the band. The music keeps pumping. Flower petals cover the floors and tables. Left over plates of food everywhere.
This would be considered restaurant carnage in most countries. In Greece, this is just your regular Sunday afternoon. Yes, Sunday. Yes, Afternoon.
Rembetika music started out to avoid repression. Secret, underground clubs with live music, plenty of booze and a lot of fun. Today, these clubs are no longer a secret and the parties that were once hidden, are now part of an open Greek culture.
Living in countries like the UK, Australia, USA, Canada etc. You feel under obligation to behave in public places. I’m no anarchist, I’m not suggesting you run outside and smash up cars, and neither are the Greeks.
The point is, in Greece, you don’t feel like big brother is watching. You don’t feel like there is a potential lawsuit at the end of every night out if things get a bit wild. You feel genuinely free.
You may say, well you are pretty free to party wildly in other countries. SE Asia is well known for party insanity?
There is a difference.
In somewhere like Thailand, you are encouraged by local businesses to come and party, spend money, feel “free”. The Thai government is not too happy about those wild parties though. They have even tried to impose partial alcohol bans during Songkran. In Laos, they shut down the death slide and many of the bars in Vang Vieng to curb foreign tourism stupidity.
You’ll also note, most locals are not riding the death slide in Laos. Unlike your regular fairground death slide, this one actually kills people.
Sure, SE Asian locals may party, but rarely to the wild insanity of the backpacking tourists. So, are you really free on your SE Asian playground? Or are you simply part of the tourist trade that brings in a lot of money in return for allowing you to “feel free”.
It’s not like that in Greece. These clubs are not full of tourists on holiday. They are full of local people, enjoying life, every week. Socialising, dancing, letting loose. It’s live and let live. Have as much fun as you can without causing trouble for anyone else.
There is no bouncer to pull you off the dancefloor because you are holding a drink. No one asking you to get off the table or off the stage. No bartender telling you that you’ve had too much wine. No plastic cups instead of glasses.
They want you to have a good time.
[blockquote]Whether you are truly free anywhere on this planet, is unlikely. But of 75+ countries we have visited in our lifetimes, Greece is currently in first place for feeling free.[/blockquote]
This is why a sunday afternoon at any good Rembetika club in Athens is taking the number one spot for 2014. It was the closest thing to feeling genuinely free in 2014.
The economic crisis is certainly not dampening Greece’s party spirit!
Our 5 hour food and drink extravaganza cost about $30 per person. We had a lot of leftover food, because that is the Greek way, so it would have cost less if we had ordered less. Still, the experience was worth every penny – That’s true value for money!
What was your top travel experience of 2014? Leave us a comment.