A beginner’s guide to Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of South-East Asia’s most popular city break destinations. Home to soaring skyscrapers, some of the most celebrated food on the planet, fluorescent nightlife, and theme parks – there’s plenty to keep even the most cosmopolitan of travellers happy. Not only that, but there is also a beautiful landscape surrounding the city. Plus, it’s well connected to other destinations in the southern hemisphere, making it an incredible opportunity for a multi-stop adventure. Here’s how to make the most of your city break in Hong Kong.

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A foodie’s guide to Japan

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Japanese food is renowned the world over for its subtle taste, exotic textures, and meticulous presentation. Part of the fun of visiting Japan is indulging in this delicious culinary concoction. In fact, it might be the ultimate destination for a foodie traveller. But while dishes such as sushi and tempura have made an international impact, there are hundreds of other local Japanese recipes ready for visitors to sink their teeth into.

Breakfast

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Breakfast is an entirely different situation in Japan. The most common Japanese breakfast is a combination of miso soup, grilled fish, pickles, and rice. Saying that Western-style buffets are also available in most tourist hotels.

Sushi and Seafood

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It’s a myth that sushi and seafood are synonymous. What makes sushi, well, sushi is the way the rice is prepared with vinegar. It can then be served with meat, fish or vegetables.

The most common varieties of sushi are described below:

  • Maki – the seaweed is on the outside of the rice and other ingredients
  • Temaki – seaweed is wrapped loosely around all other ingredients in a cone shape
  • Uramaki – sometimes called ‘inside-out’ sushi, you’ll find the rice on the outside of the seaweed (and other ingredients in the middle)
  • Sashimi – slices of raw fish and seafood on their own
  • Nigiri – hand pressed rice topped with an ingredient, this is the oldest type of sushi and was created in Tokyo

Rice Dishes

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Rice is considered an essential part of Japanese cooking, and many main meals come with a side-serving of rice. Rice-based snacks are also very popular. Such as Onigiri, which is a palm-sized triangle of rice filled with soy, tuna, salmon roe, or sour umeboshi (pickled plum), all wrapped up in a sheet of crisp seaweed (also called nori).

Noodle Dishes

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Noodle dishes are also very popular in Japan, and three main types of noodles you’ll come across are: soba, udon and ramen. Soba are thin noodles made of brown buckwheat flour and can be served hot or cold. Typically hot soba noodles are served with tofu, vegetables and chicken – combined with a hot broth. Cold soba noodles are laid on a bamboo screen bed, with a cold sauce for dipping.

Udon noodles are much chunkier and made with plain wheat flour. Yakisoba and yakiudon are the most common dishes udon noodles are found in, where the noodles are fried (often in a thick soy sauce) along with seaweed flakes, meat and vegetables.

Ramen noodles, made from yellow wheat-flour, are usually served in big bowls in a steaming oily soup and typically comes in three varieties: miso (flavoured with fermented bean paste), shio (a salty soup) or shōyu (a broth made with soy sauce).

Vegetarian and vegan

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While Japan might have been the country that brought the world tofu, plant-based diets are not that common in Japan. While it is easy to avoid dishes with meat or fish in them, it’s hard to find something where the broth doesn’t contain a by-product.  

Like most international cities, however, Tokyo has a splattering of vegetarian restaurants and more restaurants are creating 100% vegetarian dishes. You just need to plan ahead. Kyoto, however, is the most vegetarian-friendly place in Japan. It’s an ancient city that has deep Buddhist routes – where Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, which is entirely vegan, is still served today.

Desserts

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Japan has a sweet tooth and dessert is a big part of its culture. However, Japan was making desserts before sugar was readily available in the country and, as a result, fashioned unique desserts that were based on rice and sweet beans.

One of the most popular desserts in Japan is mochi – which can be a dessert in its own right or mixed with something else. Daifuku is mochi with a sweet filling, ranging from black sesame to strawberry. Mochi can also be turned into an ice-cream. Another popular option is Dango: chewy Japanese rice dumplings served on a stick that can be toasted over a campfire. Small crepe shops are also a common sight in Japan, with their crepes usually served as a cone containing elaborate fillings.

Drinks

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Japan’s most famous alcoholic beverage is undoubtedly sake (also known as nihonshu). If you’re not familiar with it, officially it is a rice wine but tastes more like beer. Two varieties exist – sweet (amakuchi) and dry (karakuchi) – and while there’s technically three grades of sake, these grades are mainly used for tax purposes and don’t indicate the quality of the beverage.

Sake is traditionally served in small square bowls and drank with a meal. You might be asked if you want your sake heated up but most sakes taste best cool. As a final note, sake is 15% alcohol and one small box is more than enough to get someone tipsy.

You’ll also spot the beverage shōchū, which is a cheaper version of sake. It’s potent, ranging between 25 to 50 per cent alcohol. Premium brands can be served straight like traditional sake, while budget-friendly bottles are served with cocktails.

While sake might be Japan’s official drink – beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage. Ironically the first ever brewery was set up to please American expats, and Japanese locals had to be bribed into drinking it. These days, Japan boasts four big-name breweries: Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory – each of which churns out several varieties of lager and ale-type beers. Local craft beers are also becoming more popular.

If you’re not drinking alcohol, tea is very common. Green teas in Japan are graded. Bancha, the lowest grade, is for everyday drinking. While Sencha is medium-grade and served in upmarket restaurants. While gyokuro, the highest grade, is served during special occasions.

Ordering and etiquette

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Restaurant and dining etiquette is different in Japan. When you are initially seated, you’ll be handed an oshibori (a damp, folded hand towel, usually steaming hot though sometimes cool in the summer) and a jug of water will usually be automatically brought to the table.

Most Japanese restaurants will give you chopsticks by default, but in touri
st places, forks and knives are usually available (though you might have to ask for them). Chopsticks, however, come with their own rules of etiquette. You should use different ends for your own plate and taking food from communal dishes, and shouldn’t use them to point at things. Also remember to not stick your chopsticks upright in rice, as this is an illusion to death.

As for tipping, it is not usually expected and service charges are automatically added to bills.

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A beginner’s guide to the Philippines

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If you’re looking for a south-east Asia destination with sandy beaches, beautiful underwater reefs and foodie adventures – that isn’t a massive tourist hub – we recommend the Philippines .

This collection of more than 7,000 islands is still little known to British travellers. Despite bringing together everything that makes South-East Asia so popular (food, culture, beautiful beaches and warm weather), it also has a few unique quirks. English is widely spoken, the architecture is significantly different and the people are some of the friendliest you will meet. Here’s everything you need to know before your first visit.

Where to go and what to do

With over seven thousand islands, you won’t get to see everything – so we’ve narrowed it down to the following five things.

Swim with whale sharks

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If you still haven’t ticked swimming with whale sharks off your bucket list, now is the time. Head to Donsol Bay on Luzon Island or Oslob in Cebu.

Get sporty

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Sporty types are well catered to in the Philippines. Not only does its never-ending coastline naturally cater to watersports, but the hilly inland is also popular with hiking and mountain biking. Fun fact: the Philippines is also the unofficial zip-line capital of the world.

Island hop in Palawan

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Island hopping is a must for any beach-bums visiting the Philippines – with Palawan being the number one option. This was actually where the author of The Beach (later turned into a film with Leonardo DiCaprio) was living when he wrote the book. The turquoise waters, colourful reefs, and the secluded location definitely get the imagination going!   

Banaue Rice Terraces

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If you’re looking for a beautiful hidden gem to add to your travel scrapbook – head to the Banaue Rice Terraces. These 2,000-year-old terraces – that were built by indigenous tribes – are a beautiful shade of green and the air is a lot cooler here. Remember to pay a visit to the nearby town of Sagada; enjoy a couple of days caving, spelunking and hiking!

Keep your eyes peeled for tarsiers

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These funny looking creatures are native to the Philippines and have to be seen to be believed. They are actually endangered though – and being only five inches tall makes them really difficult to spot in the wild. The Tarsier Sanctuary in Bohol is the best place to meet them.

Food and Drink

Thanks to the country’s Spanish history, most dishes favour a sour or vinegary taste as opposed to the spicy flavours of other Asian nations. The most famous dish is adobo: a rich stew with garlic, soy and vinegar with some local meats or seafood. Pork is the most popular meat in the Philippines, but fresh seafood is also very common and the mangoes are meant to be some of the best in the world!

How to get there

A direct flight to Manila runs from Heathrow and takes just under 14 hours. However, the Philippines makes for a great twin-centre break with a stopover somewhere else on the way. Dubai is a popular choice, where you can combine a few days in the glittering city before relaxing on a white-sand beach on a remote Filipino island.

Domestic flights are very easy to come by as well and are often the best way to see different parts of the country.

When to go

December to February are the best months to visit the Philippines. Though the shoulder seasons of November and April are still pleasant and offer great value for money. The wet season is between May and October, but the rain isn’t constant and you will still see sunny days.

Other important information

  • Tagalog and English are the two primary languages
  • The currency is the Philippine Peso (which you can pre-order from Barrhead Travel)
  • Boracay Island will be closed to tourists from 26th April 2018 for 6 months for environmental rehabilitation
  • You can enter the Philippines without a visa for an initial period of 30 days (you can also get a tourist visa from the Philippine Embassy before you travel, which will allow an initial 59-day stay)
  • Check with your GP about two months before you travel to see if you need any vaccinations (this can depend on which area you visit)
  • Tipping in the Philippines is usually around 10
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Staff Travel Diaries: India Golden Triangle Tour

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Hi Lyndsay, tell us a little about yourself, what you do at Barrhead Travel and your trip to India?

Hi there. I’m Lyndsay and I am a Commerical Assistant at Barrhead Travel within the Business Development Team. India has always been a once in a lifetime experience for me personally, it’s somewhere I never ever thought I would visit. Working for Barrhead Travel is more than just a lifetime job, there is so much opportunity for you to visit/feel a destination for yourself – especially destinations that are a bit different or might be out your comfort zone. 

Although India was somewhere I also wanted to visit, I genuinely never thought it was for me as I like to go on beach holidays to relax and do my own thing opposed to an adventure holiday where you have your own local tour guide the full trip and you get to experience things like the locals which you don’t usually get to do on your usual beach/city holidays.

What parts of India did you visit?

I visited Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. This was the Golden Triangle Tour. A tour that gives you a feel for everything as each destination was really different to one another. Delhi was by the far the busiest city we visited. Everything was constant, cars beeping their horns every 10 seconds, roads with no lanes getting used so everyone was just driving wherever they could find a space, cows and goats walking around and stopping traffic whereas Agra and Jaipur was a bit more chilled out and touristy.

What attraction or activity was your favourite?

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Visiting the Taj Mahal is probably going to be the most amazing sight I will ever see. This place is just incredible! We had to get up at 4:30am to be there for 5am to ensure we were first in line as it gets really busy and also very hot. The gardens and the views were just spectacular, it’s hard to put into words how amazing it is to see this, you need to see it with your own eyes. When you first go through the entrance gate it’s almost like it’s really cloudy at the other end and then the more you begin to walk through the Taj Mahal just appears… amazing!

I also did a hot air balloon ride over the city of Jaipur, also known as “The Pink City”. This again was another early rise same time as the Taj visit although totally worth it for the sunrise. The balloon goes 2,000 feet up in the air and glides across the city very smoothly and has incredible views. The hot air balloon can hold up to 16 people (dependant on weight) as it is split into 4 different baskets, you would be surprised, I thought a hot air balloon ride could only hold 2 people! We landed the balloon in a local village which again was another amazing experience. Watching all the kids chase the balloon as we were landed was just so nice, it was like we were landing a UFO they were all super happy to see us!

What did you think of the hotels you stayed in?

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The hotels we stayed in were great, especially for a trip like this when you’re always out and about on the go and only need somewhere to sleep. The first two hotels we stayed in (The Picadilly Hotel and Seven Hills Tower) were a local 4/5* opposed to the other hotel we stayed in (Hotel Mabhuban) which was a heritage home. This was rated as a 3*, it was still comfortable and welcoming enough to sleep for 2 nights. On the second last night, we stayed at the local Fort Sawarda Village in Jaipur which is a 400 year old Fort but now converted into rooms etc. This was a real eye-opener for us as we got to live like proper locals for one night. This accommodation has no Wi-Fi, was very basic but had spectacular views.

What was the food like? Discover anything new?

The food was great considering I’m probably one of the fussiest people ever. I discovered that the majority of Indians are actually vegetarian so they have plenty options for everyone. You will find that you rarely get beef too. No menu in any restaurants will have any curries/Indian food that we get back home, I had never heard of the majority of things. A lot of curries are made with goat instead of chicken, which again was a shock to me. They have loads to offer though and are able to cater for everyone. They even have your usual McDonalds and KFCs!

What would you recommend someone packs when visiting India?

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I visited India in the summer months, which was very hot. Ensure you have a lot of sun cream – there were days where it was 43 degrees.

You always need to be mindful when visiting religious places. You must respect their religion and cover up your knees, legs and shoulders.

I took a few pairs of trousers that were loose and light so you don’t get too warm along with proper t-shirts and not vests.

I also packed a LOT of bug spray. Mosquitos are everywhere and you don’t see them. I recommend taking plenty of bug spray and ensure your full body is covered and not just the parts you can see.

Even though this is an adventure and touring trip, still pack your swimming stuff as you will more than likely have some free time to chill out at the pool. Most hotels I visited had a pool or even a spa area.

Some of the hotel sockets were just the same as back home so we didn’t need an adapter, although I also used the European and US adapter. I would take a variety of both as this sometimes varies. I also took along an extension cable as many rooms only have one plug. 

What are your top tips for someone visiting India?

I carried around tissues and wipes everywhere as sometimes public toilets didn’t have these.

Anti-bacterial hand gel. You can never have too much. 

You are able to wear whatever you wish, although I recommend carrying a scarf around in your bag in case you need to cover up when visiting local mosques/religious places.

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