“I wish someone had told me” is a series of posts that feed into our inquisitive nature at CN&CO. Each week we hear from someone in our network about something interesting or surprising that’s recently happened or occurred to them – or lessons they learnt. These blogs are a way to pay it forward and form part of CN&CO’s belief that the world can be a better place – and we all have a responsibility to make it so. This week’s post is by Lethabo-Thabo Royds.

I first found out about a place called Lamu a few years ago when I was in Kenya working at the Magical Kenya Travel Expo. I had never heard of it but I met a few people from there who made it sound so interesting. They were also just such cool, interesting people. Like a true millennial I did some Insta stalking and I was blown away! What I discovered on Instagram is nothing compared to what I discovered in person.

Lamu is an island off the coast of Kenya. Many people know Diani Beach and Mombasa, which are both incredible places along the coast; Lamu is about 3hrs from Mombasa. It’s actually a series of islands so when you fly in to Lamu you land on Manda island then take a boat to Shela island or one of the other islands. There are no cars in Lamu so to get around your means of transport are walking, boats, and donkeys.

What I love about Lamu

Simply: everything. I love everything about Lamu. It’s like going back in time and history. The folks in Lamu say it has a speed of its own and you just have to learn to slow down and enjoy it. Even the WiFi speed in Lamu is slower than what it is in Nairobi forcing you to take some time to just kick back and enjoy your surroundings.

It’s hot in Lamu. Kenya, in general, is hotter than South Africa because of its proximity to the equator but Lamu is crazy hot. I got sunburnt from one day of walking the Old Town and taking a few boat rides. And I mean really burnt – I am quite a few shades darker than normal.

The history of Lamu is fascinating and I recommend taking a tour of the Old Town – a UNESCO world heritage site. There were a few people who settled here but the strongest influence you’ll see is that of the Arab settlers. You can see it in the houses and the architecture and you can see it in the culture. For example, I was advised to wear clothes that covered my shoulders while walking the Old Town. I absolutely loved squeezing through the small alleyways that make up the town. Most streets are okay for two people to fit in but others are so narrow you have to slip off into the entryway of a house to let people and donkeys pass.

Yes, donkeys. There are donkeys everywhere and the local people use donkeys to transport heavy items. Since there are no cars in Lamu the only way to carry heavy things is with the help of a donkey. As such, there are donkeys everywhere and they are often hard at work transporting items so it’s best to get out of the way and let them pass.

Depicting donkeys in Lamu
A hardworking man and his hardworking donkey in Lamu. Photo by L Royds

Perhaps, what I love most about Lamu is the doors and the houses they protect. Each house, in typical Arab style as I was told by our tour guide Uncle Bob, has an entry way where you can sit down in the shade. It’s like a longer covered stoep, really. This space is where friends can sit and chat, people can stop to catch their breath and get shelter from the sun and the heat, and where travellers (like me) can sit and marvel at the doors.

There’s something about those doors. I couldn’t stop staring at them and taking pictures of them. I even shared a series of photos I called “the doors of Lamu”. They are sometimes simple and sometimes ornate but each of them conceals this incredible space inside – someone’s home.

It’s weird; the doors give nothing away because you have no idea what is concealed behind them so each time I entered a house I was blown away by what I found inside. Perhaps, I’m also enthralled by the romanticism of it. The doors conceal a house that, once you enter, is like a blast from the past with modern appointments or enhancements. It’s like physically being in a history you read about or heard about and the door is, quite literally, your gateway. Click through the gallery below and you’ll see what I mean. Pictures 3 and 6 depict the entry way to the houses that I mention earlier.

And the houses. Wow. They are amazing and so geared around spaces where people can gather and I love that. Many of our modern houses lack enough spaces where people can gather and be together to eat, to chat, to be kind to each other, and to exist together.

Yoga in Lamu

Yoga is big in Lamu. They even have this annual yoga festival that draws crowds from all over the world. I took a yoga class, courtesy of Banana House, and I loved it. I’ve taken a few classes before but I wouldn’t call myself a yogi. The instructors who took us for the class challenged me to try something and with much trepidation (and some refusal) I did. I loved it. I felt so free. I can’t explain it.

Depicting yoga at Banana House, Lamu
From a face filled with fear to a face filled with pride.

I would absolutely recommend Banana House. There is accommodation here so you can enjoy a week-long yoga retreat or you can just stay at the house and explore Lamu, using the house as your base. There is a honeymoon suite as well so you could enjoy an actual honeymoon in Lamu or a couple’s getaway.

Moon Houses

I stayed in a place called Moon Houses. I loved staying here and it is ideal for a romantic getaway. With the heat in Lamu and the greenery there are lots of lizards. So, if you aren’t into lizards, be aware.

The views from my room were spectacular. There was this beautiful patio-type area facing the sea and an enclave between my room and my new friend Christine’s room where we sat one afternoon chatting and nibbling on samosas. I even woke up early one morning (well, a few mornings) and watched the sunrise from that enclave. I worked in that enclave and I even pinched myself there because I could not believe the view and the fact that I was finally in Lamu. I had some magical mornings sitting there listening to the breeze and feeling connected to the universe.

Depicting the enclave between two rooms at Moon Houses
The enclave between two rooms at Moon Houses. Photo by L Royds

On one day I spent an afternoon on a large dhow, called the Tusitiri, with friends and we enjoyed lunch, views, and time to chill out and relax. But that’s a story for another day.

Gosh. I could go on and on about Lamu. Truly. I met quite a few people in Lamu and many are expats who have been living there for decades. I even met someone who had moved to Lamu temporarily and now finds herself living there permanently. She said it best: she described Lamu as a place where people go when they are lost and somehow find what they are looking for. I was not lost but I did find something in Lamu. The fact that it has drawn so many people there proves what I’m saying – there’s something about Lamu.

What’s crazy is that it doesn’t feel very touristy either.

Lamu is one of the most magical places I have visited and I was only there for a few days. It’s filled with culture, history, fascinating sites, great people, divine food, beaches, and so much more. Visit Magical Kenya and make sure you see Lamu. If you don’t, you are missing out on a real gem.

Thank you to the Kenya Tourism Board, the Magical Kenya Travel Expo, and the Lamu Tourism Association for an incredible time on the coast of Kenya.

If you’re interested, I am doing a series on Kenya. It’s all about this amazing country and the various regions. I am publishing it on our blog every #TravelTuesday with the exception of Tuesdays when I share travel inspiration for the month highlighting a number of destinations around the world. Read the first blog in my Kenya series.

Illustrating a dhow in Lamu
On a sunset cruise on a small dhow in Lamu.