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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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.

Join my digital nomad adventures around the world on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Youtube.

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

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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!

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

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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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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?

Join my adventures around the world on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

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

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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!

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

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

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

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.

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

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 | 

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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!

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

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

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

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.

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

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 | 

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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

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

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

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.

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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!

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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!

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I remember my first trip to Sri Lanka with some clarity. We landed at Colombo International Airport on a nearly empty flight from Kochi, harboring no expectations from this small island nation, of which little was written online until a few years ago. As I walked along the quiet shores of Negombo (a small city between Colombo and the airport), cycled along tree-lined by-lanes, waved hello to young kids who had seen few travellers, gratefully accepted the warm hospitality of my host couple and treated my tasted buds to incredible locals flavors, I knew I was falling in love (Read: My First Impressions of Sri Lanka).

Many years and many trips on, Sri Lanka hasn’t stopped delighting me with its many treasures. Here are a handful of them:

Take the slow train from Kandy to Ella.

Chugging up Sri Lanka’s hill country.

I must confess I’m not a train person. But chugging up on the slow blue train from Kandy to Ella (See: In Photos: Chugging up Sri Lanka’s Hill Country), through mist and light rain, was an experience to remember. From the window, I watched colorful umbrellas move briskly across the green tea plantations. I stood by the door, feeling the wind in my hair, waving to kids as we crossed sleepy villages enveloped in clouds. Birds flew in and out of the train, as we munched on spicy peanuts and Sri Lankan “short eats”. We winded along rolling hills covered with lush tea estates, interspersed with small streams, stunning waterfalls, mountain tunnels, pine forests and vast green valleys – one of the most beautiful train rides I’ve done in all of Asia.

The slow train from Kandy to Ella, through Sri Lanka’s hill country, departs twice daily – early morning at 6am, and at noon. It takes 6-7 hours to arrive in Ella. Buying tickets a day in advance is a good idea. 

Swim on the east coast.

Passikudah by the evening.

We didn’t make it to Galle and the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, since the monsoons were in full swing. And I’m glad we didn’t, because the beaches on the east coast were all I needed. A gentle blue Indian Ocean caresses the soft, white, powdery sands at Passikudah. I’ve swum in the waves before, but never in an ocean so shallow and so gentle, you could think you’re in a swimming pool! Although I sorely missed the sunsets on this coast (and couldn’t wake up early enough for sunrise), the evening skies were always streaked a light yellow, orange or red. And we could snorkel right from the shore, into an aquarium of colorful corals and fish.

Passikudah is located an hour away from Batticoloa, and three hours before Trincomalee. Centara Resort and Spa is a lovely new boutique resort, and offers better value for money than its more expensive neighbours.

Hike in the Knuckles Mountain Range

Up in the densely forested Knuckles Mountain Range, there’s a village, abandoned by all but one family. They forage in the forest, grow rice, host travellers and live in solitude. Life goals, anyone? On the Pitawala Pathana hike (also called the riverstone area) amid the Knuckles Mountains, lie 32 isolated, self-sustaining villages in the where people live off their own produce and have long life spans, despite nearly no access to modern medicine. They make a trip to the city once a month through roads that are barely motorable. If the mist-clad mountains, refreshing greenery, pure mountain air and spectacular views don’t fascinate you, the solitary way of life in these villages certainly will.

TSS team member Remya hiked the Pitawala Pathana trail which takes 45 minutes – 1 hour, with Cinnamon Nature Trails. A moderate fitness level is recommended.

Get off the beaten path at Galkadawala.

In the lap of nature, at Galkadawala.

If going off the beaten path into a small countryside village is your thing, like it is mine, Galkadawala is your place (Read: Galkadawala: Sri Lanka’s Best Kept Secret). It took a great deal of Google research to find it, and that’s perhaps what makes it Sri Lanka’s best kept secret. Maulie, the owner and hostess, quit her job in the garment industry in Colombo, and bought a barren piece of land in Galkadawala six years ago. Today, it’s an oasis by the village lake (tank) – a forest lodge built with recycled materials, surrounded by a mini forest, home to colorful birds and giant squirrels. Surrounding it are the rice paddies of the village, and the barren and lush landscapes of north-central Sri Lanka. She grows her own vegetables and most of the food is traditionally cooked in earthen pots; the most delicious meals I had in all of Sri Lanka were here. We spent our time swimming and kayaking in the village lake, hiking in the wilderness, hearing stories of her adventures in Sri Lanka, and laying on a hammock under the trees! Blissful.

Galkadawala is located a short drive away from Habarana, in the middle of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. 

Indulge in Sri Lanka’s culinary goodness.

Kottu, one of my favorite dishes in Sri Lanka!

It’s a shame that Sri Lankan food is rarely available outside of India, for its gentle spices, often simmered overnight, the diversity of dishes and explosion of flavors makes it one of my favorite cuisines in the world. Being coconut-based, most Sri Lankan food can easily be veganised.

Hoppers appeared on my plate again and again, in many forms – string hoppers served with coconut sambol, potato curry and dhal curry, string hoppers buryani, and plain hoppers served with a slow-cooked cucumber curry – and yet I could never have enough of them. Kothu (a Tamil-Sri Lankan dish made with leftover breads and veggies; ask them to hold the eggs), Pol Rotti, Yeast Rotti, curries and rice, I loved it all.

Begin your culinary extravaganza in the heart of Colombo, where Nuga Gama in Cinnamon Grand is a traditional Sri Lankan restaurant centered around a 210 year old banyan tree! Possibly the city’s first and only carbon neutral restaurant, it employs locally and serves up produce from its home garden in a mouthwatering buffer of 30 local dishes, to be washed down with fresh toddy on weekends.

Live on a tea plantation at Madulkelle Tea Estate.

The hues of sunset at Madulkelle Tea Estate.

An hour from Kandy, the road winds up along the Knuckles Mountain Range, into some of the most pristine tea estates in the hill country. On this pretty stretch sits Madulkelle tea estate, where a Sri Lankan-French team has erected the most luxurious tents on stilts, overlooking the gently sloping mountains above, the terraced valleys below, and tea plantations as far as the eye can see. It was here that I spent the last leg of my Sri Lanka trip, and it was an experience before which all others paled (Read: Tete-a-tea in Nature’s Lap).

At sunrise, we lounged in our balcony, as the clouds engulfed the mountains in a furry coat, then slowly rose with the sun to reveal the majesty of Knuckles. We hiked through the pristine tea trails, watching women work their nimble fingers on the tea leaves, took a dip in the infinity pool literally in the lap of nature, and indulged in the old-world charm of a planter’s bungalow, with wine by the fireplace.

Madukelle Tea and Eco Lodge is located 30 km  from Kandy, and is an eco-friendly luxury retreat in Sri Lanka’s hill country.

Experience Sri Lanka like a local

At the colonial home of a local family in Colombo.

Over the course of my travels, I’ve learnt that there’s no better way to experience a country than through the lens of its locals. Across Sri Lanka, I stayed at unique Airbnb homes, and ended up becoming good friends with many of my local hosts. When I research Airbnbs, I try to pick offbeat locations and look for reviews that suggest that you actually get to spend time with your hosts. Who knows what adventures and perspectives it might lead you to?

What were your favorite experiences in Sri Lanka? Which ones do you want to do most? 

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Note: Some of the experiences on this trip were hosted; others I picked myself. Opinions on this blog are always mine.

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