Experiencing the Naadam Festival Without Joining a Tour

Naadam, also known as “the three games of men”, is the biggest traditional festival held in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. Each July, men compete in Mongolian jaw-dropping wrestling, spine-tingling horse racing and unbelievably accurate archery in the city’s multipurpose National Sports Stadium. Today, women also participate in the archery games and girls in the horse racing. Through this event, the Mongols prove that they’re man (or woman) enough to be the descendants of their notorious and illustrious hero Genghis Khan. 

Naadam is like Christmas to the Mongolian people. Days before the festival, Ulaanbaatar was buzzing with Naadam fever and reached a bewildering climax. It was a sight to witness everyone dressed in their finest deel (traditional clothing of Mongol tribes), prepares lots of food and arak (fermented mare’s milk) and spends the days out in the sun with friends and family. I am lucky to be able to experience the main event in Ulaanbaatar and a more local one in Kharkhorin.

When is Naadam Festival?

The Festival which held in Ulaanbaator is on the 11th and 12th of July each year. Most businesses in the city close from the 11th to 13th of July, and there will be 5-days of national holiday (11th-15th July) for the locals. The outskirts of Mongolia will be holding their own Naadam Festival events throughout July, although the exact dates usually aren’t confirmed until mid-June or early July.

The regional festivals are usually free of charge, and enable you to get much closer to the action. Different towns and regions will hold their festivals on different dates, so it is advisable to do your homework before travelling out of the Capital. I cam across this website which provides a detailed and updated information on Naadam (and other popular festivals) every year. 

This is peak tourist season in Mongolia so be sure to book your accommodation (especially in Ulaanbaator) well in advance. Some of the most popular guesthouses are fully booked for the whole month of July.

How to get Naadam Tickets

There are a few ways to get the tickets in Ulaanbaatar. Due to the popularity among the tourists and locals, be prepared to pay for a hefty price.

The official price for Naadam. Tourists price is USD25 if you are able to get it yourself

Buying your own tickets

There are 3 places where you can queue up for the tickets: Central Stadium, National Wrestling Palace and Central Cultural Palace box offices. Tickets sale usually start about one-week before the festival (6th and 7th July). If you think you can start queuing from early morning, you are so so so wrong! I started to queue at 9.30pm the previous night before, and yet I still can’t get the tickets (even though it is said that 1 person can only buy 4 tickets)!

I wonder what time did these people come??!!

Totally not dressed for the cold night~~

The queue got longer and longer

Cold, hungry and sleepy~~

The queue got longer from the front ’cause other family members all coming in to “join” the queue

I’m just getting further and further away from the box office )=

The moment when the box office opens, and by then it’s noon!

When we thought it’s reaching us soon……..

With less than 5 people in front and us getting so excited, the policeman suddenly announced that the Naadam tickets were all sold out! After queuing for 17-hours under 15 degrees, this is not what I’ve expected. It has been a long time since I felt such disappointment. Nevertheless, we hurried walked off as other Mongols were raging towards the policemen. 

Buying tickets from a Guesthouse

Most of the guesthouses sell Naadam tickets with a tour package (costs around USD120 – USD180 with transportation and meals). Some of the guesthouses which do sell the tickets only that I known of are: Golden Gobi Guesthouse, Taiga Guesthouse and Sunpath Guesthouse. However, they usually charge a premium price, but it shouldn’t cost more than USD60 per person for a 2-day ticket. You may email a few guesthouses before arriving in Mongolia as there are other travelers who pre-booked the tickets at least a month ahead.   

Buying tickets from Tourist Information Offices

There are a lot of Tourist Information offices in Ulaanbaatar. Similar to guesthouses, they do charge a higher price instead of selling the official ticket price. One of the traveler I met bought her Naadam ticket at post office for USD48 but they only issued her a ticket for opening ceremony. 

Buying tickets from a Scalper

I did not try this but I did hear from locals who mentioned that there are ticket scalpers outside Wrestling Palace before the day of the festival start. The price may vary from USD30 to USD100. However, there is always a risk with buying tickets from scalpers that they may turn out to be fakes, so please beware!

After spending days of asking around for Naadam tickets, my Couchsurfing host managed to get me those tickets from some forum for USD50 just the night before the festival! 

Ta-daaaa!

How to attend for free

You can still enjoy the Naadam Festival without buying a ticket! Only the opening and closing ceremonies, and the wrestling need tickets to enter the stadium. You can watch the archery and horse racing for free! The wrestling finals are aired on a big screen in Chinggis Square, which is fun to watch with the locals. There are also free concerts and fireworks every night at the Square.

Horse parade

There are always something going on for 3 full-day!

Traditional songs & dances

Where to watch

The opening and closing ceremonies, and the wrestling matches are held at the Naadam Stadium. The archery is held just next door to the stadium. The horse racing is located at “khui Doloon Khudag (Хүй долоон худаг) racing field, approximately 40km from Ulaanbaatar. There are free shuttle buses that transport people from the city to the racetrack from Misheel EXPO (Мишээл EXPO) and Dunjingarav (Дүнжингарав) parking lots – check with your hostel or the ‘student police’ for directions. 

What to Expect

Expect to be pushed around and find yourself surrounded with true-mongol-attitudes! The stadium will be absolutely packed and it is basically impossible to move once the ceremony begins. I was sandwiched at the gate for 15-minutes with the policemen stopping entry, and the people from behind keep on pushing. It was quite an experience!

We got different seats so we can’t watch the ceremony together )=

Many of the seats do not have shade, so bring plenty of water and sunscreen if it’s hot. The opening ceremony is spectacular, and features impressive war reenactments, singing and dancing. Unfortunately, the central stage was blocked by a monkey float from where I’m sitting.

It isn’t a good seat after all

I’m amazed by how little time they took to build a ger

Mark from Thailand

The opening ceremony took about one and a half hours, with all the different tribes and community parading around the Stadium. This was my favorite part of the ceremony ’cause the entry and exit points were just next to me! 

After the ceremony is over, the wrestling match began. By then, the stadium will be quite empty (probably it was too hot and people were getting hungry) and security became slack. I managed to walk to photographers’ area and get a good view of the match.

One of the photographers offered to help me took a picture!

Outside the Stadium was a super huge fair with tonnes of food, games, and basically you can find anything to buy. You can even try out traditional costumes and take pictures with nice backdrop for 10,000MNT (USD4)

Less than USD1

A storm is coming but I don’t care!

3,000MNT (USD1) for 5 tries

The archery can be easily found next to the Stadium. There isn’t much seats to watch the archery. Even if you get a seat, you can’t really see the target unless you brought a binoculars.

Found a spot to stand and watched for awhile

Things to Take Note

  • Beware of pickpockets! Make sure to always carry your belongings in front of you as it will be very crowded and people are always pushing around.
  • Look out for drunkards, especially if you are a female and travelling alone.
  • The event is held during the hottest month of the year, so remember to drink up, apply sunscreen and bring a cap/hat/sunglasses
  • Whether you attend the festival in Ulaanbaatar or other provinces, commentary will only be in Mongolian.
  • Wear comfy walking shoes. Traffic in Ulaanbaatar will be chaotic during the festival, so it is best to travel by foot. The Stadium is about 20-minutes walk from Chinggis Square.
  • It is okay to ask locals to move away if you want to take a photo (without them inside your picture), or if they trying to cut in before you.
  • The locals are always happy to pose for your photos in their traditional costumes.
  • Once you are out of the city, there are no road signs directing you to the exact location of the Naadam celebration fields, your driver will have to ask around.

Dates of Naadam festival at different province (2017)

Hope this guide will help to get you prepared and save some money for the upcoming Naadam Festival! 

Northern Mongolia: Lake Khövsgöl

Lake Khövsgöl (Хөвсгөл нуур) is located northwest of Mongolia near the Russian Border. Famously known as “Blue Pearl of Asia “, it is the second-most voluminous freshwater lake in Asia, and holds almost 70% of Mongolia’s fresh water and 0.4% of all the fresh water in the world. Untouched by industry and modern urban life, Lake Khövsgöl’s water is unbelievably clean. This area is paradise for outdoor travelers and there are plenty of room for activities like hiking, birding, fishing, horseback travel and kayaking.

Getting There

The comfort way: There are flights twice a week from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön for about USD100 per way. The journey takes about 90-minutes.

The budget way:  There are buses leaving daily at 0800hrs, 1500hrs and 1800hrs to Mörön (Мөрөн) from Dragon Bus Terminal. The journey will take about 18-hours on paved road and costs 32,000MNT (USD13).

Do note that there is no sleeper bus in Mongolia, so it would be really nice to have someone you comfortable with sitting next to you for such long journey. And there will not be proper toilets along the way! The driver will just stop along the roadside when someone requested to. Also, be prepared for overloaded bus as the driver will pick up random locals along the way and you may find people sitting next to you on the aisle. 

Ice cream!

To get to Lake Khövsgöl, you can share a taxi/van at Mörön to go to Khatgal town where the lake is. The cost is about 15,000~20,000MNT (USD6-USD8) for 2-hours+ drive. I would recommend taking the 1800hrs as it will be the last bus to arrive at Mörön and the drivers waiting they may be more willing to lower their price.

Arriving at Mörön

Quite a dead town

We arrived at about 6am and haggled for about 30-minutes for a good price up to Toilogt Camp. Initially, we were asked to wait till 8am when the next bus will be arriving if not we will have to pay another 10,000MNT (USD4) more. We were okay to pay extra as we were exhausted from the long bus ride. Less than 10-minutes out of Mörön, the driver decided to charge us more because he said going to Toilogt Camp is dirt road hence more petrol will be used. And so, we ended up in the middle of the road for another 45-minutes before someone willing to drive us for 25,000MNT (USD10).

Not sure if it’s a good decision but I definitely not going to overpay my transport

no car passed by at all~

Time for some road shots

After about 3-hours+, we are finally here!

Toilogt Tourist Camp

Accommodation

Upon reaching at Khatgal, you can either stay at the guesthouses in the village or you can ask the driver to bring you all the way to the national park where you are able to see the whole lake. We chose a luxury option of staying at Toilogt Tourist Camp to pamper ourselves. 

It costs us 60,000MNT (USD25) each for one ger by ourselves for one night. If you google online searching for ger camps in Lake Khövsgöl, you will only find a few established ones and this is one of them. In fact, there are actually a few more smaller camps along the lake and they cost much cheaper. So, the next day we moved to another camp which cost us USD10 per night. 

Eat

Most of the tourist camps has their own restaurant whereby you can choose to include meals with the accommodation. I would suggest to stock up your own food to last you long enough because this area is a perfect picnic spot! We made a mistake for not doing that and we ended hiking 6-kilometers to Khatgal town and 6-kilometers back to camp.


Nevertheless, the hike is totally worth it!!

View of Khatgal Town from the top

Activities

You may do fishing (need to get a permit from tourist office in Khatgal) or kayaking (rent from the bigger camps) on the lake. We chose to do horseback riding instead. An hour of horseback riding cost 10,000MNT (USD4) with guide. 

And everywhere here is soooo nice to take pictures with!!

On our way back, guess what we saw??

I am definitely coming back to the North and spend some time with the Tsaatan Tribe!! 

 

A day trip to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (Горхи-Тэрэлж) is the third largest protected area in Mongolia, and the nearest national park from Ulannbaatar. Located about 80-kilometers northeast of Capital, Terelj National Park is a popular attraction for both locals and tourists.

Bus number XO:4 leaves daily at 1600-hours from the bus stop opposite Narantuul Hotel, and take two and a half hours to get to Terelj Village, next to Turtle Rock. Coming back, the bus leave Terelj Village at 0800-hours and 1900-hours. The bus costs 2,500MNT (USD1) per way.

Turtle Rock

If you prefer to do a day trip, it is possible to do it as well. Day trip tour will be charged at about USD150-USD180 for single traveller. It will be much cheaper (USD50-USD80 per pax) if you can ask another 2 or 3 travellers to join you! 

I happened to meet another solo traveller, Tammy, along the street and we both agreed to go on this day trip together. Instead of joining a tour, we hired a driver (recommended by a staff from the hotel Tammy was staying) whom charged us USD10 per hour. It was considered quite a good deal as we are more flexible with the itinerary and we can take our own time to explore. 

We did our day trip to Terelj National Park on the second day of Naadam. Mongolians are given a week public holiday for this festival. From the driver we then found out that most locals from the capital were likely to drive up to Terelj National Park to spend their holiday! We were glad that we didn’t plan to stay overnight as it will be so crowded.

As this is the first trip out of Ulaanbaatar, I was awed by the countryside’s scenery. 

We stopped by along the road for a mandatory eagle photo-taking!

And we continued our journey to the famous Genghis Khan Statue Complex.

According to legend, this is the place where he found a golden whip. The statue is symbolically pointed east towards his birthplace.

The Genghis Khan Statue Complex comprises of a visitor center which showcases the largest boot in Guinness World Record.

It also has 2 small museums which exhibit the archaeological cultures during Bronze age and another during the Great Khan period. 

And now is the highlight of this complex! 

yes, in reality its very crowded up there

Our last itinerary for the day is to the legendary turtle rock!

Expenditures break-down:

Driver: USD70 for 7-hours (USD35 per person)

Fees for eagle photo-taking: 4,000MNT (USD1.50)

Entry fee to Genghis Khan Statue Complex: 8,500 MNT (USD3.50)

Food & drinks: Prepare snacks from supermarket before embark on the trip

Northern Thailand: Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Rai

Introducing Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Rai, the underrated treasures on the northern part of Thailand. Apart from affordable shopping and unbeatable natural scenery, get ready for stunning ancient temples, large underground caves and gorgeous sunsets over mountaintops as I explore this part of the country.

I was lucky to catch the most luxurious and newest train from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai. This particular train uses new high quality Chinese-built sleeping cars introduced only recently in November 2016. 

12-hours journey, 856Baht (USD25)

After 20-minutes on the train~~ 😴😴😴

Automated door and information panel

The cleanest toilet I had seen on a train so far 😱

Like airplane’s toilet 😱

Bed converted to spacious seat upon arrival

YAYYYYY~~ Finallyyy~~~

Chiang Mai is often referred as “the rose of the North” and is the second largest city in Thailand. It was built as a walled city surrounded by a moat, with new city grown up around it. Though a good portion of the original city wall has collapsed, the four corner bastions are still intact along with various other sections. Most of the ancient temples and museums are located within the walls, I would recommend staying in old city where everywhere is within walking distance.

Inside the wall

Outside the wall

Not expensive to rent a bike to ride around but I prefer to walk since it’s such a small city!

Most of the temples are free to enter! However, do respect the dress code especially for females.

Young monks

Wisdom trees

Though an old city, Chiang Mai is filled with creativity! 🎨🎨🎨

Massage is slightly higher than Bangkok if you enter a nice, air-conditioned parlor. However, you can still find cheap and good masseses inside a temple or pop-up stall at night market. The price difference can range about 100-150Baht for a 60-minutes body massage.

Sunday night market is a MUST go and it’s within the walled city. There is also stage performance by the students as well. If you missed it, there is a daily night market outside the wall but not as good as the Sunday ones. 

Most travellers would opt for elephant camp or tiger kingdom whereas I chose to explore Doi Inthanon National Park, the highest peak in Thailand. Along the way to the peak, you will see two pagodas for the King and Queen.

Inside the King’s pagoda

This is actually not the highest spot…..yet

King Inthawichayanon’s tomb

A little history here: The name Doi Inthanon was given in honor of King Inthawichayanon, one of the last kings of Chiang Mai, who was concerned about the forests in the north and tried to preserve them. He ordered that after his death his remains be interred at Doi Luang (former name which means “Big Mountain”), which was then renamed in his honor.

Now, here’s the highest point!

Nearby, there are two waterfalls: Siritarn Waterfall and Wachiaratarn Waterfall. Siritarn Waterfall was named by the Queen who came to visit the fall. Visitors are only allow to view the 40-meters waterfall from a designated wooden platform. 

Wachiaratarn Waterfall is a spectacular steep drop of 50-meters with a large cascade plummeting over the edge into a deep pool below, creating a misty veil of great beauty.

Due to dry season, it doesn’t seems spectacular

Meet my pai-buddy from Belgium!!

Since both of us are done with Chiang Mai, we decided to take a more adventurous way by riding up to Pai!! 🏍🏍🏍

A popular choice among the backpackers to rent a bike up to Pai as they have another branch over there. Free baggage delivery service!

We shared this bike for 140Baht (USD4) per day

Ready to brave through 762 curves on Route 1095!

Pai is a small town of population 3,000 people, up in the valley north of Chiang Mai. With Thai-Western style restaurants, daily night market, live music bars, tattoo parlors, and lots of hidden gems to be discovered, Pai is a haven for backpackers.  

3-beds room for 160Baht (USD5) per night

First thing to do after 5-hours of riding

As long as you can ride, there’s nowhere you can’t go in Pai!

We were stopped by the police….to take a photo with us

yes, he broke the vine!

50Baht to spend half a day soaking in hot spring

Boss of land split. No charge to visit the land, eat or drink. Amount is given by your own choice

Most popular place to catch sunsets

One of the coolest bar we found inside an alley

The Chinese Village; best to come for sunrise

Luckily there’s 3 of us to share the cost

60Baht (USD2) to spend a day to chill

We spent days biking around looking for new places to explore and chill. When we were done with Pai, we decided to ride back to Chiang Mai before parting our ways 😢😢😢

And yet we went to Pai without a scratch!

Last meal together

My next and last destination in Thailand is Chiang Rai. It’s only less than 4-hours bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. 

129Baht (USD4)

There is only a few popular attractions in Chiang Rai, pretty straight forward if you google it. 

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)

Admission: 80Baht (less than USD2)

Best time to go: Late noon to evening to avoid crowds

Things to note: Photography is not allowed inside the temple. Females have to wear pants/skirts/dress over the knee in order to enter 

Baan Dam Museum (Black House)

Admission: 80Baht (USD3)

“Long Neck” Tribe

Admission: 300Baht (USD9)

The women in “Long Neck” tribe aren’t literally looooong neck! The metal bangles they been wearing are so heavy that their collar bone sank, giving the “long neck” impression.

Blue Temple

Admission: Free

Golden Triangle

Admission: Free

Mae Sai (Thai-Burma Border)

Admission: Free

There’s a huge market for shopaholic 

Where Thailand and Myanmar networks intersect

Immigration border to enter Myanmar

Clock Tower

Admission: Free

Light-Changing Timing: 1900hrs, 2000hrs, 2100hrs

Something to keep you entertained if you stayed around the area. 5-minutes walk from night market.

2-weeks in Northern Thailand….and next will be spending 2-days on a boat ride to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Bangkok: Off the Beaten Path

“If man has no knowledge of the past, he is nothing but a vessel without a rudder on the high seas” 

Bangkok, probably the most popular destination in Asia with its chaotic streets and crazy nightlife. Been in this bustling city several times with all the eat-and-shop-till-you-drop experiences, so this time I’ve decided to explore a little out of the city. No Chatuchak, no night markets, no fanciful cafes nor those “must-visit” temples 😎😎😎

Erawan Museum

Just outside South of Bangkok in Samut Prakan province stand a 250-tons, 44-meters tall three-headed copper elephant. That is the massive icon of Erawan Museum which houses one of the most exquisite art and religious collections in Thailand. 

I was wowed by the impressive rounded stained-glass roof the moment I stepped into the shrine 😱😱😱

A world map blending into the Zodiac and galaxies beyond 😍

A small statue of Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion

As you continue to head up through a long spiraling staircases, you feel cooler and somehow reached a “fantasy world”.

Standing Gold Buddha surrounded by moons, sun, clouds and constellations

If it’s not too hot, you can take a walk along the tropical garden outside the shrine.

How I get there: BTS Skytrain to Bearing Station and then use Uber Bike to Erawan Museum (130Baht; USD4)

Admission Fee: Foreigner price is 400Baht (USD12).  I used Klook apps to book online which cost me SGD11 (USD7) 

The Ancient City

Taking up 320 acres of land, roughly in the shape of Thailand, Ancient City is the largest open-air museum in the world. This huge park reproduces over 100 important monuments from around Thailand. Some of them are reconstructions of buildings that no longer exist. Other buildings are examples of traditional architecture that were scheduled to be demolished and instead were purchased by the Ancient City, dismantled and reconstructed in the park. 

Entrance to the museum

Map of the museum

Opening Hours: 0900-1900hrs

Tourist pass is 700Baht (USD20), but if you go after 1600hrs, the fee will be halved (USD10)

Bicycle rental is inclusive! Trust me, you wouldn’t want to walk in this museum

Spending a day here taking pictures with all the architectures is as good as going around Thailand visiting different temples and monuments!! A great place for instagramable photographs 📷📷📷

How I get there: Taking Uber Car from Erawan Museum to Ancient City: 200Baht (USD5.50)

“Death Railway” in Kanchanaburi 

One of the major projects during World War II was to construct a 250-miles railway from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbuyuzayat, Burma. Originally called the Thailand-Burma Railway, it earned the nickname “Death Railway” because over one hundred thousand laborers died during its 16 month construction between 1942 and 1943. Today, part of the railway is still in use daily for visitors to pay remembrance to the horrific history of the Death Railway.

100Baht one-way, about 3-hours journey

Only 3rd class train available

Thai-Burma Railway starting station

River Kwai Bridge where usually tourists will get off here

But I continued on to pass this bridge by train

High-5 to tourists along the wayy

Most locals will get off here……

To pray inside this cave, a cave used to keep the POWs

You can walk along this railway before the train returned from another side

I’m definitely going to get fined for doing this if in my own country! 😋

Just walk back to the previous station (20-minutes) and wait for train back to BKK!

When you board the train from an under-utilized station, you pay your fare to the train captain

How I get there: Took Uber Car from hostel to Thonburi Station 150Baht (USD4) to catch a 0745hrs train. Returned on a 1330hrs train.

*Take note of the return train timetable if you planning for a day-trip only.

Maeklong Railway Market

Apart from floating markets, street markets and night markets, Maeklong Railway market is one unique experience you should try when visiting Thailand. One minute there is a bustling market under umbrellas with stalls scattered everywhere. The next minute a train passes right through the middle of it all, only to turn back into a market a few minutes later. How cool is that?! 

13Baht bus ride

Mini-van from Sai Tai Mai (Southern Bus Terminal) 70Baht (USD2)

Waiting for 1110hrs train to arrive

Here it comes~

So near I can touch it

Catch you later~~

I chose an easier way to get to Maeklong Market by taking mini-van from Southern Bus Terminal, 90-minutes journey. Do not go to Victory Monument, services do not run from there as of 2016.

Train arrival times: 8.30 a.m., 11.10 a.m., 2.30 p.m. and 5.40 p.m.

Train departure times: 6.20 a.m., 9.00 a.m., 11.30 a.m. and 3.30 p.m.

And now, I’m going to catch the 1130hrs train back to Bangkok, which will take me about 3-hours 😴😴😴

Managed to get a ticket 5-minutes the train leaves for Ban Laem: 10Baht 

After 1-hour, reached Ban Laem Station

From Ban Laem Station, walk about 10-minutes along the street you will see ferry crossing pier

Ferry: 3Baht

Once reach to the opposite side at Mahachai, walk along the seafood market and will reach a train station

Another 1-hour train ride: 10Baht

Once arrive at WongWian Yai Station, walk about 15-minutes to the nearest BTS station.

Ayutthaya

Used to be second capital of the Siamese Kingdom, Ayutthaya was attacked and razed by the Burmese army in 1767 who burned the city to the ground and forced the inhabitants to abandon the city. Today, Ayutthaya is an archaeological ruin, characterized by the remains of tall prang (reliquary towers) and Buddhist monasteries of monumental proportions, which give an idea of the city’s past size and the splendor of its architecture. 

15Baht, 3-hours from Bangkok

260baht (USD7) per night

Renting a bicycle is one of the best ways to explore the city

A more luxury option is to go by tour tram

It’s my lucky day!! All attractions are free!!! 😇

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Wat Maha That

Wat Lokkaya Sutharam

River crossing to floating market

200Baht to floating market

yummy but so spicy~

Boat ride along the river

2 days in Ayutthaya is not enough at all…I will definitely come back again and stay longer next time!