Tips, deals, and advice on traveling the continent on a budget.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Travel: 3 days on a train to Chiang Mai

By Detlef Berg

Chiang Mai, Thailand (dpa) ­ There may be faster and safer ways to travel around Thailand, but is there one more beautiful?

It takes three days for the Eastern & Oriental Express, one of the most exclusive trains in the world, to make the journey from Bangkok to Chang Mai in northern Thailand and back.

The dark green and yellow carriages are a dream come true for the American James B. Sherwood.

Sherwood bought the carriages in New Zealand and had them redecorated with expensive wood panelling, a lot of brass metal work and Asian décor.

Sherwood is a train fanatic and he is also the owner of the historic Orient Express in Europe. The E&O is purely a product of Sherwood's imagination.

Although the railway has not yet provided the backdrop for an Agatha Christie novel, it has managed to stake a place in the ranks of the world's luxury train journeys.

The train's regular route takes it from Singapore to Bangkok and back but several times a year it makes the journey to Chiang Mai.

With a sudden jolt, the train's 22 carriages roll out of Hualampong train station in Bangkok.

At first, the guests' view is of small houses with corrugated roofs nestled tightly along the railway line. Washing hangs from clotheslines and children wave to the passengers.

Later, that seemingly endless sea of houses gives way to the suburbs and half hour-an-hour later the train passes through rice paddies.

The last carriage in the train is an open-air viewing car designed like a veranda where passengers can take in the tropical air or photograph the Buddhist temples passing by.

The first stop is Ayutthaya, about 80 kilometres north of Bangkok. Ayutthaya was once the capital of Siam and passengers can take a tour of the city in air-conditioned busses.

Passengers who have opted to take the tour learn tidbits of information about the city such as "For 400 years Ayutthaya belonged to the wealthiest empire in the whole of Asia."

A million people lived here during the city's high point in the 17th century.

Merchants came from China, Japan and Europe to found trading posts. The city was built on an island and at the time was surrounded by a 12-kilometre long wall. It was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

In 1767, Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese. Today, the ruins of the temples and palace complexes are still impressive, so much so that Unesco declared them part of the world's cultural heritage. The restored Wat Phra Si Sanphet is particularly well worth visiting.

Back aboard the train, it's time to enjoy a well-earned shower. The air-conditioned cabins are small and offer little space but they are luxuriously equipped.

There is a tiny living room with cherry wood panelling and intricate inlays. There's also a sofa that converts into a bed and a shower-closet. Two large windows open to the countryside passing outside. However, there's not much time to enjoy the view.

Ulf Buchert, the train's German manager, calls the guests to the diner with a reminder that formal dress is desired.

Dining is one of the highlights of the trip. The tables in the restaurant carriage have been laid for a festive occasion.

The train's chef, Kevin Cape, greets the passengers, indulges in small talk and gives advice on the menu and wines. Everything is fresh and the balancing act between European cuisine and Asian cooking is without doubt a success.

To close the evening, there are cocktails in the bar carriage while passengers discuss the day's events and listen to the pianist play As Time Goes By.

Meanwhile, the discreet staff have transformed the cabin into a bedroom. They are the same staff who serve breakfast in the morning in the cabin on a silver tray with fresh coffee, orange juice and warm croissants.

By then, the train has arrived at its destination, Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.

Passengers have only four hours to familiarise themselves with the Rose of the North and of course the train sticks rigidly to the timetable. Not surprisingly, choosing one of the three excursions is difficult.

One of the tours takes passengers to the city's old centre.

There are 36 temples in one area surrounded by a moat filled with water ­ four of the temples are older than any in Bangkok. Chiang Mai has 80 temples in total to discover.

Those interested in traditional craft making should take the second tour.

In the village of Bo Sang at the edge of the city, tourists can observe silversmiths at work, see how colourful paper umbrellas are made starting with making the paper to the painting the umbrellas.

Other stops on the tour include a silk factory and a ceramic workshop where fine, green, shimmering celadon pottery is made.

The third group visits the elephants to see them paint with their trunks. There is also an opportunity to ride an elephant up a steep hill.

The next stop on the journey is Lampang, famous for the horse drawn carriages that are built here.

Another highlight of the trip is a stopover at the River Kwai bridge before the E&O returns to Bangkok around midday.

The path is quite clearly the way on this journey and the E&O plays the main role in that trip.

For more inforamtion, check

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cruise through Europe with Cruise Express

Cruise express has introduced a package that give travellers a chance to experience the scenic, historical and cultural highlights of Europe with its new Cruise Express 20-day fly/cruise/tour package.

From just $8990, the package takes travellers from Amsterdam to Budapest, going through major cities such as Cologne, Mainz, Wertheim, Nuremberg, Passau, Linz, Durnstein, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. On board the modern 132 metre Viking Pride cruise ship, travellers will be cruising through these cities, capturing all the castles, palaces and museums that make up a fantastically cultural travel experience.

The package includes 15-days sightseeing on the Rhine and Danube Rivers with all meals and itinerary sightseeing, return flights from Sydney, two nights at the five-star Radisson SAS Hotel in Prague and a Cruise Express escort.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Extra train allows Orkney-London travel in a day

Rail passengers travelling from the far north of Scotland into Inverness will have more opportunities to do so from today (Monday 11 December) as a result of the introduction of a fourth daily winter train from Wick.

The new service, which launches as part of train operator First ScotRail's winter timetable, will provide a connection at Thurso for customers travelling on the morning ferry from Orkney. This is the first time that a fourth daily train on the route has operated all year round.

Natalie Loughborough, First ScotRail's customer service director will be at Inverness railway station to welcome passengers travelling on the first service, and will meet local MSP Jamie Stone, Orkney Cllr Bob Sclater and Frank Roach, Rail development manager of the Highland Rail Partnership.

First ScotRail says the journey time of three and a half hours from Thurso to Inverness on the additional train is a new record, and with the ferry connection means it will now be possible to travel on public transport from Orkney to London in a day.

Since launching in December 2005, the Invernet rail service upgrade, which covers part of the Inverness to Wick route, has led to an increase in the number of people travelling in and out of the Highland capital from the south and north. Service monitoring indicates a 29% growth in passenger numbers journeys on the Far North Line compared to the same period the year before.

Natalie Loughborough said: "The provision of an additional service from Caithness is certain to be well received, increasing the travel opportunities for customers living in the far north of Scotland. Through continued working relationships with industry partners, we hope to encourage further rail travel in this area."

Monday, December 04, 2006

Time travel to beat Christmas crowds

By Kerrie Murphy

IT'S close to the time of year when Defrag turns our attention to Christmas shopping.

Actually, that's a lie. It's close to the time of year when Defrag thinks we should turn our attention to Christmas shopping, but with everything going on at the moment we won't get around to any attention turning until just before Christmas, as usual.

Then we'll decide the shops are too crowded to cope with, even with Defrag's excellent Christmas present-buying strategy of buying a gift for ourselves for every one we buy someone else. So we'll limit ourselves to things that can be purchased online, but with the increased demands on the postal service, a few items won't arrive until after Christmas, leaving us partly empty-handed on the big day.

You'd think Defrag would learn a lesson from this, but you are woefully underestimating Defrag's skill in non-lesson learning.

Without this attribute, Defrag's arms would boast considerably smaller amounts of scar tissue, because we would know better than to think dangerous thoughts such as: "Hey, let's pat the cat."

But still, it's pretty poor form to have to tell someone that they can't have their dream gift until after Christmas, unless of course it's someone who asked for a PlayStation 3, because that one is totally not Defrag's fault.

If they requested a Nintendo Wii, we would also feel on solid ground in turning up giftless, because we could simply explain that we were unable to say the name Wii without laughing and therefore were unable to ask for one at the shop. This is also on the list of things that aren't our fault, because seriously, Wii? They're just taking the, well, Wii with that name.

And although the (non-)recipient of the games console is not getting the item they wanted, Defrag feels that we're giving them a much more useful gift, which is a lesson about the fruitlessness of thinking you can somehow buy a games console at Christmas in the same month it has been released. That's the sort of gift you can't put a price on. Although if you had to, Defrag would say it's saving us $399.95.

It's also the sort of gift that might result in having the now-wiser person spit in your turkey, so perhaps Defrag should think a little harder about our present plan.

That's when it hit us: the present. Defrag's whole problem with presents is that it's the present, which is December 2006. If we could somehow arrange it so it wasn't, our problem would be solved. So instead of wasting our time and money ordering gifts online that won't arrive before Christmas or trying to get games consoles that aren't available, we should put all our energy into building a time machine that allows us to travel into the future, skipping Christmas entirely. For the price of a console, we're sure we could build a time machine with an impressive amount of levers, dials and valves. We could probably even afford to splash out on some furry dice.

Now at this point, some of you may be thinking: hang on a minute, Defrag. Isn't tinkering with the basic laws of the universe just to avoid Christmas shopping a little extreme? Especially when these days your average service station is open 24 hours a day and has a wide range of items, meaning you rarely, if ever, have to buy someone 4l of synthetic oil and one of those stinky tree-shaped air fresheners.

To which we say: we're wary of buying anything more sophisticated than chocolate and the newspaper from our local servo since we attempted to buy a birthday card there, only to be told that they don't come with envelopes.

For all we know, a DVD purchase would only net us the disc, or a teddy bear only the stuffing. Perhaps the drinks come sans bottle.

But we must confess that we have an ulterior motive when it comes to building a time machine. It would be killing two birds with one stone - if Defrag wasn't opposed to such senseless cruelty to animals.

According to, Google executive Nikesh Arora has predicted that in 12 years the capacity of an iPod will be so large it will hold all the television shows in the world.

"In 12 years, why not an iPod that can carry any video ever produced," he asked, which is all the convincing Defrag needs.

That's right, in the future, we'll be able to carry around all the television in a world. Even Hey Dad, which admittedly is an apocalyptic vision of a future dystopia even more terrifying than global warming and nuclear war.

Despite the bad-sitcom-related risks, this is a future of which Defrag wishes to be part.

Of course, the problem is that, should we be successful in our quest, we'll find ourselves in December 2018 and so we'll still have to buy Christmas presents.

And should we fail to live up to gift-giving expectations then by not purchasing a PlayStation 11, the disgruntled can do more than mess with our food. They can make us watch every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

"These devices are repositories for stolen music, and they all know it. So it's time to get paid for it.'' Universal Music Group chief executive Doug Morris on moves to get Apple to pay a royalty on each iPod sold. (Hey, Doug, you just called more than 42 million people thieves, and they all challenge you to a duel to defend their honour).

This week: Phishing emails are asking people for financial information and money in exchange for tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Here are the top 10 signs an offer of Oprah tickets is phoney.
10. The advertised guest is George Bush who will be "telling the truth about Iraq".
9. The offer is accompanied by an invitation to Tom Cruise's wedding.
8. You get exactly the same offer from 48 people in one day.
7. It asks you to include enough money to pay for the free cars given to audience members.
6. The episode you're invited to is called "Springer update: Steve and the pregnant hooker", followed by "Pimps, Hos and Hillbilly evildoers!"
5. The topic is Get Back in the Kitchen, why women shouldn't have it all.
4. According to the email, the show will be recorded in Broken Hill.
3. On the back of the tickets is a coupon for a free session with Dr Phil.
2. The featured Oprah is Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Nigeria.
1. Oprah's name is mentioned only once on the offer, there is no photo of her and no reference to her book of the month.
Contributors: Keith Cundale, Matt McCarthy, Tim Borten, Paul Hunt, Mark Simmons, Emma Crane, Kitty McGee
Next week: A US survey finds that one in five parents think their children spend too much time online. Send us the top 10 signs your child is spending too much time on the net. Answers before Thursday afternoon, please.