Berat – The Castle On The Hill

Sitting on the bank of a river,  Berat is another Albanian town composed of two parts. Its riverside is drawn out on both sides of the banks, cobbled and narrow. Its routes go back to medieval times as its importance grew. However, the defence of the town came from the castle on the hill-come-mountain, which towers over everything in the vicinity.

This castle is still inhabited today and is a beautiful patchwork of tiled roofs, brickwork houses and narrow alleyways, with townspeople regularly making the tough ascent to take wedding photographs.

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Down below, in the New Town streets lined with cafe’s lead toward a central plaza that opens up around the mosque, where to calls to prayer sweep over the city. There is plenty of food and culture on offer; on the smaller bank, small churches and bakeries can be found.

Beyond the food and architecture it might be a little hard to find an excess of entertainment, but it is a picturesque place and if you’re in need of some R&R on a trip through the country there are certainly worse places in Albania than Berat’s riverside promenade.

DSC_1027Its a complex little town that works as both a sight worth seeing and a handy stopover between Tirana and the North, and Vlore and Sarande in the south of the country.

Like most of Albania, its infrastructure is still not totally reliable. We were caught in a thunderstorm that led to a powercut for over half an hour, and the location of the bus station is slightly ambiguous, but both times locals helped us find our way. It’s just a case of being brave enough to ask.

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Ksamil – The Jewel Of The Albanian Riviera

Ksamil town centre is a dusty, disparate collection of houses and apartment complexes, with precious few directions and precious few English speakers. Getting there is a tad precious too, requiring a plane, a hotel, a boat and a bus. It’s one of those places. If you knew where it was at least.

Ksamil is the last major town before entering Greece. It’s situated on the coast and is sandwiched in by a great lake inland. Close to the ancient ruins of Butrint, many tourists know Ksamil for its beaches, and most arrive from Sarande, a port city in the South of Albania.

Our journey began the previous day in London, with a flight to Corfu. In Greece. Where we slept for a night – if you’re following this route then ideally you’ll stay as near to Corfu port as possible – before embarking on a boat the next day into Albania, to the port of Sarande. From there we stumbled upon a bus taking us to Ksamil. We trundled down dusty roads, following the very vague directions we were sent in broken English (we really enjoyed our little space and our super helpful hose in the end but I wrote a more comprehensive set of directions in my review).

You are probably as sceptical as we were at this point. We had firmly jumped out of our comfort zone and into a semi-arid, post-communism town on the Albanian-Greek border.

Why Ksamil? Beaches, mostly. What few pictures we had seen on the internet were promising. And we were vindicated. They were gorgeous.

They were certainly busy, with many Eastern European tourists taking advantage of the ludicrously cheap prices in Albania whilst less frugal Westerners stuck to Greece and Croatia. But there was always a space on the beach and quieter places could be found, with several beaches covering a few kilometres along the coast.

There were also a couple of islands within swimming distance, which offered further respite from the mainland. The local food was delicious, with most restaurants offering up fresh seafood and huge beers, without stretching the wallet. We found ourselves spending about £5 on our hotel per night and another £5 a day on food and drink, each.

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It was sad to see a lot of litter disposed of in the bushes directly behind the beaches, and English is certainly not spoken widely. There was a lot of gesticulating and pointing, but we were able to get by with translation apps on our phones and the patience of the locals, who were certainly friendly and keen to help. Our hostess even secured us a lift in to Sarande for a bus north, and then the driver let us off free of charge.

There isn’t enough to do in the vicinity of the town to make it worth devoting a whole trip just for Ksamil, but if you are interested in exploring Albania, its definitely got some of the best beaches we found in the country and its position at the very south of the country means it is a great first stop to then venture northwards from. Compared to Sarande, the port of disembarkation and the main city in the area, it’s definitely quieter with no cruise ships in the harbour and has beaches. For real serenity however, its worth going northwards along the Albanian Riviera, to Dhermi, Borsh or Himare.

Himarë – The Most Beautiful Retirement Home In The World

Himare is a large village situated on the Albanian Riviera, split between the New Town on the beach and the Old Town situated about 5 minutes drive up a hill overlooking the sea. It is this Old Town that we discovered was actually a retirement home. Widows would be moved up here when their partners died, and would look after each other. With vines cascading over walls, homes built into the walls of an old fortress and spectacular hilltop scenery, it might have a claim as the world’s most beautiful old people’s home.

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That history transcends even today, with the small hamlet embracing its age and floating through life with a tranquility that is generally disappearing from everyday life. The castle that it has, over time, amalgamated itself into is littered with history of Roman and Ottoman invasions, and it is easy to spend an hour walking through its maze of corridors, stepping inside churches and fortifications. Animals and plants roam free here, whilst plenty of locals will invite you up to their roofs to take in the gorgeous sunsets over the sea.

It really is a splendid little place. The New Town has a lovely sandy beach and an open promenade running along it, lined with cafe’s and bars. We spent most of our time on the beach of the Old Town, however. To get there you have to descend the hill, which takes about half an hour on foot (40 minutes back up without hitch-hiking), and the few restaurants there were closed as it was the end of the season (first week of September). This meant that it was eerily deserted bar a couple of local fishermen.

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It was exactly what we had come to Albania for. The beach in the New Town is perhaps better suited for families as it stays shallow for a while, whilst the Old Town beach, called Livadhi, drops off quickly and is more susceptible to waves.

 

The walk is gorgeous, with a stunning view of the sea on the way down and on the way backup the old castle stands, imposing itself over the horizon. We were fortunate to catch a few hitch-hikes on the way back up from other tourists or locals. Hitch-hiking is pretty safe in Albania, especially in a group, just be prepared for a couple of issues with the language barrier but worst comes to worst, screaming “HERE” or “LEFT” generally does the trick.

Interested? Well, as you can see here, it’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere. From Sarande in the south, its about two hours in a minivan, and three hours from Vlore in the north. Interestingly, the road to Vlore features the Road of Death that Top Gear explored when they visited Albania, and our driver did little to avert our fears, driving up the steep cliffs one-handed whilst talking on his phone.

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Whilst I can’t speak to know where to get the bus from in Vlore, in Sarande the buses depart from here, on Rruga Flamurit, and if you’re a bit confused, there will probably be vendors nearby who are willing to help. For more info on the vague and confusing public transport system in Albania, read our guide here.

We stayed in a beautiful AirBnB with a sumptuous view of the Adriatic, although our original booking was upgraded by the host as she had nobody else checked in. She also ran a restaurant, the only one in the Old Town, that saved us from having to get taxis back and forth.

Shkodër – Albania’s Hidden Gem?

Whilst preparing for our trip to Albania, we were excited to see Berat’s scaling old town and relax on the shores of the Albanian Riviera in Ksamil and Himare. Quite frankly, Shkodër was a footnote on our journey- a stopover on our journey from the South of Albania into Montenegro to break up long bus journeys. We had even countenanced on stopping on the other side of the border before hearing about long queues at the checkpoints, and changed our plans after the trip had actually begun. Certainly, no guide books were screaming at us to visit.

In reality, Shkodër bettered even our wildest expectations.

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Arriving in the centre of Shkodër in the middle of the afternoon, on a bank holiday, we were expecting desertion, but were instead greeted by a vibrant and bustling city, even if the majority of the shops and cafes were closed. Having just travelled six or so hours by bus from Berat, we quickly scuttled off to our hostel for some rest, but our brief glimpse of life in Shkodër had peaked our interest in the place.

We knew there was a big castle nearby with some tasty views, and a lake wedged into the mountainous terrain located to the North, but we weren’t expecting much from the city itself. A dusk-lit walk showed us that Shkodër was the liveliest city we had visited yet. Couples walked hand-in-hand down cobbled boulevards, groups of young adults drank beers and cappuccinos outside cafes. It had a distinctly metropolitan feel to it.

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We had been lulled in that evening by cheap pizza, beer and impressive religious architecture. The next day, we ventured out of the city centre. Admittedly, the constructive beauty of the rest of the city was not as impressive but the dense, sprawling apartment complexes certainly mimicked Greece or Italy rather than the pick ‘n’ mix approach South Albania resembled. Our destination was the great castle on the hill, a few miles out of town. It was a long walk and, considering it was peak summer, we set off too late; it must have been midday by the time we arrived, and we were sweating. A lot. And that was before we climbed the hill. But the views. Wow.

The castle, like Butrint in the south, goes back to the Roman period, and sits at the convergence of two rivers, allowing the conquerors to dominate trade in the region. There are still remnants of prisons and living quarters inside.

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We were to depart for Montenegro the next day, so we doubled down and then hiked across the river to the nearby lake- another few miles. Eventually you’ll come across a roadside building complex, situated right on the corner of the lake, with a restaurant inside. This is where we decided to stop, with Montenegro in the distance.

It’s certainly a lot of walking. It would probably be smarter to jump in a taxi, rent a scooter or even cycle. And if you’re visiting in summer, get out early so you can shelter in a restaurant whilst the midday heat rules supreme. We rewarded ourselves for our excursions with a huge, huge pizza. Again. And then the next day, at 6am, we left! It had been fleeting, but if you’re crossing the border, either way, Shkodër is an interesting little place that certainly fills a gap between Montenegro and Tirana. For an extended visit, we heard about plenty of day trips to nearby fjords and National Parks, and even people making their way over to Macedonia.

Environmental problems in Northern Thailand

At the Fortune Community Centre, one of the five programs they run here focuses on the environment; a large proportion of the community outreach the centre does takes them to farms where families depend on a good crop.

However, there are numerous challenges that the group faces in this department. The first is, as every seasoned Thailand traveller would tell you, in the hot summer months there is so much smoke in the air that at times it can be difficult to see for more than 500 metres. We had one of those days just yesterday, when the mountains that surround this area could not even be seen through the smoke.

This smoke is caused primarily by farms being burnt to restore nutrients to the land. Much of the produce of Northern Thailand struggles to grow in the high temperature, low rain period of March to May, and so farmers take this opportunity to burn through their land and help with next year’s crop.

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Whilst in principle not a bad idea, when all the farms are doing this, it causes major health issues and increases the rate of climate change in Asia; the cloud eventually spreads across the Golden Triangle, permeates over much of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and into Myanmar and China, carried by wind and supported by similar techniques in those countries.

Whilst the burning of plant material, even on this scale, is nowhere near as disastrous for the climate as the animal industry or automobiles, the health hazards are very real. Bad air contributes to everything from stunted child growth to cancers. The issue has become so bad that in recent years the Thai authorities have banned the burning of farmland. I have seen however that is clearly still ongoing.

The second issue facing local farms is the battle over pesticides. Again, this is something that is very noticeable here. At a wedding the other day, we were out at a farm for about an hour, and three times an unavoidable odour swept over the ceremony for a few minutes before passing on. This odour only invades the senses around farmland- I have not experienced it in the town yet. That is just one of the effects of the pesticides.

Many of these pesticides stay with the foods, going into the processing plants and then coming back out again to be sold, and then enter the digestive systems of the consumers. This is obviously a problem experienced across the world, but the community here are aware that a lot of the food grown here ends up back on the plates and bowls of the same people who are growing the produce.

The counter-argument is that the pesticides ensure the crop survives an environment where bugs rule. The people here depend on a full crop in order to survive. The problem is that this desperation for survival is in turn poisoning them, slowly.

The Fortune Group here are trying to improve standards through education, but is a small, slow process. But it is one that every country in the world is going to have to start to consider. Environmental sustainability cannot be solved through one, two policies. It is a vast swathe of issues, and in my time here I have learnt more and more about local, on the ground solutions being carried out.

 

The Shan People in Thailand

In 1962 Myanmar, or Burma, underwent a coup d’état that put the army in charge of the state. The infant nation, having only ceded from Britain 14 years earlier, was comprised of one group of people as a majority with several large minority populations spread around the country, as was the case in many post-colonial nations. One such minority was the Shan people, who had obtained some degree of autonomy after the British left Myanmar, but quickly found themselves subjugated and persecuted under the new regime.

Guerilla campaigns against the Myanmese army saw brutal retaliations, with many villages burnt to the ground. The last round of conflict flared up again toward the end of 2015. Even in times of relative peace, men could find themselves conscripted in to the army indefinitely, or bound to borderline slavery working in labour camps around the country. For this reason, there is now a large community of Shan who live abroad, in border towns around Laos, China and in particular, Thailand.

However, many families in these communities are undocumented, leaving them in a vulnerable predicament. Even those who are registered find it difficult, practically financially impossible, for them to go on to higher education, or leave the country to find work elsewhere. Many are eking out a living on farmland or in factories, earning a small pittance in order to survive.

Today there are estimated to be between 4-6 million Shan people, and many have come together in the face of adversity. There are communities all over Asia who are responding to the diaspora of their people not with malice but with dignity and kindness. In Fang, the Shan have secured jobs in the local public service, where they are particularly devoted to helping other Shan with little understanding of the Thai language translate documents, apply for birth certificates, travel permits and they carry out other administrative duties to help the Shan people settle in Thailand. There is also not much tourism in the area, with most backpackers going overland to Myanmar in the West rather than through Tachiliek in the North, and whilst there are National Parks nearby many tourists visit others that are closer to Chiang Mai.

But the Shan are determined to make a life here for themselves and their children. Many young Shan head up a community centre where English classes are held and local Shan teenagers and young adults can come together to work for the betterment of their community, or just relax, play some music, complete homework or play football in their very own ‘stadium’. Even as I type, local children from the surrounding area are arriving to spend their evening playing on the tyre swings and jungle gyms in the playground. A lot of the community work is based on improving the lot of undocumented migrants, teaching them about their rights and about how to stay safe; human trafficking, drugs, diseases and illegal pay are all major concerns for the Shan people.

Centres in countries like Thailand, where wages are very low, are vital to the migrant communities. Sai Mu, the man who I am primarily working with here, used to work on a farm for 150 baht a day, roughly equivalent to £3.80 in England. For a whole days work. New laws have been implemented by the Thai government to try to alleviate this issue but it is difficult to monitor each individual farm, especially in such remote areas. One group of children who I am working with, helping them learn photography skills, all live on the same farm, across six or seven families who cannot afford their own plot of land.

Whilst there are schools here to give children an education, many families rely on the production of cheap onions and oranges for income and therefore simply cannot afford the money or time to take their children on trips to explore the country, buy them a musical instrument or take them to play football. Therefore, these centres which run many day trips to surrounding towns and sights, helping the children connect and identify with their new country, are vital.

Run mostly by young adults – many of the team members of the Fortune Centre who run the projects and outreach are in their early 20’s – they provide other projects devoted to extra-curricular learning, such as photography but also attempt to get them to explore and share their emotions and experiences. There are similar classes surrounding sex, drugs and mental health. Whilst this is just one centre, it is brilliant to see the youngest in the community taking such a pivotal lead role.

I hope to bring some interviews with some of the people involved and some insights into some of the classes soon. 

 

 

Blog Introduction

In the two weeks I just spent in Australia, I read only one book (poor effort I know, please forgive me), but it was a book of real interest and high importance; Songlines, written by Bruce Chatwin, discusses the ancient Aboriginal traditions that created a form of dialogue and communication beyond the comprehension of any Western- and Eastern, for that matter- observers. It also explores the Aboriginal tragedy, the demise of their culture and the fight to keep archaic landmarks standing and out of the hands of corporations who want to build railways or dig for oil and minerals.

Chatwin also intersperses his book with some of his own musings on the nature of humanity; he is particularly interested in how the ambitions and means of life change in humans who live in static locales compared to the few nomadic people left on this planet. He clearly believes that city-dwelling corrupts the human spirit and that a nomad is more pure in heart. Chatwin’s layout is unlike any other I have seen in a book, and he combines humour, sincerity, empathy and anger in his writing in effortless fashion. He also shares some humourous tidbits from meetings on his own travels, being a nomad of type himself.

Inspired by Chatwin, I thought that maybe, rather than tell people about my activities in Melbourne, I could curate my own list of interesting facts and thoughts I had during my time there. As part of this blog I want to try and bring a different angle to the typical gap year blog, and hopefully people back home will enjoy reading about some of the finer aspects of society I observe out here. I certainly met a lot of interesting people in Melbourne and the numerous art galleries there were very interesting. So, without further fluff, here is my list- Bruce Chatwin style:

  1.  Wondering down a Melbourne alleway, I came across an Indian restaurant called ‘Gaylord’.

Will probably post an update about Bangkok/Chiang Mai next week.