Saturday, 26 April 2014

Ko Samui and Songkran

12-19 April

After a 24 hour door to door journey from Bangkok, we finally arrived at our destination on Ko Samui.

We had decided to stay in a bungalow on the beach for the week; cabanas a bit like those we stayed in in Tulum. We weren't disappointed. The bar and restaurant area opened onto stunning views of the turquoise blue sea and Ko Phangnan on the horizon.

We relaxed on the beach for the afternoon and had a great dinner of red and penang curry for dinner.

Beautiful view from Island Hoppers bar

The following day was something we had been waiting for with some anticipation since hearing about it in Hue. It was Thai New Year which they celebrate with a festival called Songkran. We had been warned that the minute we left our room we would be fair game for a splashing. Everything seemed calm at first so we set up on the beach, but loud dance music started across the street and eventually lured us out.

What had been a sleepy fruit stand was now a hive of activity where kids with water pistols and teenagers with buckets drowned passers by on their mopeds or sat in the back of pick up trucks. We were soon invited to their side to join the party and share the beer, the owner telling us today is a free day. One woman down the road, an American called Donna, was helping slow the traffic by hula hooping in the middle of the road! It really was crazy!

After some chicken feet red curry and noodles, the teenagers started loading water buckets into a pick up and next thing I knew, Mark had bargained us a couple of seats and we were driving towards Cheweng hurling water at anything that moved. Driving down the street it was clear everyone got involved today; even the guarded 5 star resorts had their guests and staff at the gate with hoses.

We ended the day with a yummy BBQ at the rasta bar a few doors down, exhausted! It was a day I will never forget...

..because is the morning I woke up with terrible stomach cramps like I've never has before. Luckily they were only pain, though excruciating, so I didn't need a Pharmacy and I think I am right in saying it was the amount of potentially unclean water I would have ingested the previous day.

Our pink bike. Well, it was me driving after all!

The next few days were spent relaxing, recovering (for me) and getting reacquainted with a slower pace of life. We'd been on the move for over a month by now, so knowing we had 7 days somewhere was very welcome. 

After recovering, we decided to hire a bike for the day. I had broken 2 pairs of flip flops and Mark was in great need of a haircut. I must admit I was a little nervous getting back on a moped after 5 or so years, but I soon got back in the swing of it. It was great to be on the road again and that evening we found a secluded beach with stunning sunset views for dinner.

Swing time at Freedom Beach for sunset

Before we knew it, it was time to pack our bags again and head off to our next stop, Ko Phangnan!

Friday, 25 April 2014

A change in the wind

There's been a change in plans!

I'm learning new things about myself every day on this trip, and whilst we were in Vietnam, where we thought we were going to build a new life, we realised something.

Ever since leaving Tan An and our not-what-we-expected jobs we busily applied for other teaching positions in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. We had two offers on the table to work in Thailand, and the Indonesian role was progressing well but we both had this strange lingering feeling that none of them were what we wanted anymore. It wasn't so much the work; we'd enjoyed the kids and subject matter of teaching English. It was more the idea of contracts, targets and results. We were having too much fun travelling by now and didn't quite want to give it all up for the lifestyle we will most likely have for the rest of our lives in the UK.

So, whilst going through these application processes, I explored other options that could help us extend our travels. What I found was WorkAway. Its a website for people looking for free help (hosts) and people looking for food and lodging as payment for their work. It was perfect! We could help renovate a Tuscan villa, or garden in the south of France.

In Hanoi we had our first responses, and whilst our dates didn't match with the need of many hosts, one was perfect. A few emails later we were happily accepting an offer to work in northern Italy for 6 weeks as au pairs for a 6 year old boy and a 10 year old girl. I was ecstatic, not only would we have the time to travel through Italy after our stay in Bali, but we would also get to live there which has been a dream of mine for years that I never thought I'd see realised. And what a better way to do it than with a charming and already friendly and helpful family!

There is no doubt in my mind that we have made the right decision, and the longer I am in Asia the more I can see is as the perfect holiday and sightseeing destination, but not somewhere I can see myself living. 'Its not you, its me'.

So, with that is mind, here is the travel plan for the next few months:

26 April: Leave the Thai islands for the mainland
27 April: Train to Malaysia
28 April: Fly to Bali
15 May: Fly to Rome via 23hour stop in Shanghai, China.
23 May: Train to Naples
30 May: Train to Florence
3 June: Train to Bologna
5 June: Train to Milan
10 June: Move in with family
7 August: Fly back to the UK for our next adventure!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Bangkok & some realisations

"Even the book stands all sold the same books, giving me the impression that travelling here to 'find yourself' could only result in you becoming another version of everyone else here."

10-11 April

I was nervous as we landed in Bangkok. I had visions of what it would be like, mainly built upon hundreds of viewings of the film 'The Beach' over the years. I told myself that if I could just about enjoy Ho Chi Minh City the second time around, Bangkok should be ok.

Landing and passing through immigration and customs was much the same as anywhere else in the world except the immigration officers were dressed in the brightest most colourful tropical shirts you can imagine. Perhaps this would be the land of smiles after all!

We quickly and easily found our way to the train station that would take us to the city. It was just like being on the London Underground except we were up above the city.

It was all going so well until we reached the end of the line and needed a taxi to take us to our hotel. I'd read that the taxi drivers don't have the best knowledge of the city, and there is a problem with finding metered taxis who will actually use the meter!  We had all these problems, even with a map of the city and the road we needed marked we were greeted with shrugs. Eventually we went back to the official looking taxi stand by the station. The signs all said 'metered' but buy the time we found a driver who could read a map/knew where we were going he simply quoted us price when we were out of the station and away from help. Tired and frustrated we accepted the extortionate fare 'because of the traffic'.

Finally we arrived at the hotel. They gradually found our booking, informed us the free tuk tuk service was finished for the day and that they could no longer offer baggage storage for free in the first 24 hours. 'Recent policy updates' since I booked about a week before.

This was beginning to frustrate me. Bad WiFi not helping, bed bugs finally pissing me off (sorry for swearing Nan).

Khao San Road

We decided to go get our bearings and find the famous Khao San road. Rambruttri Road came first, and it's bars and restaurants lured us in for a cold one. With their better internet connection we got the chance to catch up with our friends on a group chat which lifted our spirits a LOT and resulted in Mark eating a scorpion, 'crunchy' being his only way to describe it.

When we reached Khao San road I must admit I was a little underwhelmed. Sure it was big and busy, but with so many clothing stands all selling the same stuff it more resembled Primark on any given Saturday than what I expected the 'gateway to south east Asia' to be. Even the book stands all sold the same books (The Holy Cow, The Beach, Shantaram) giving me the impression that travelling here to 'find yourself' or become someone different could only result in you becoming another version of everyone else here; eating the same, dressing the same, reading the same. But isn't that why so many people come here, to leave behind their monotonous and repetitive lives for something different. Will they just find the same with spicier food and more humidity. 'Same same, but different' as they say.

I went travelling because I knew it was now or never. I would never again perhaps have the time, money or freedom to spend months away from home with no responsibilities. I wanted to quench my wanderlust and come home ready for adult life. House, dog, kids - they are all on my list alongside travelling. Deep down I think I thought I'd become the chilled our girl with baggy elephant patterned trousers and a basket of fruit from the market, happy spending a year or so wondering, but that's just not me (well I mean, I have bought the trousers, but its only because they are so comfy). I'm beginning to get the feeling that if life is the same everywhere, I'd much rather be with those I love whilst living. I don't think Asia has the life I want.

But I am so thankful for this realisation. At the end of all this I wanted to be ready to go home, and though I still have months on the road, when the time comes I will be ready.

Just one of hundreds of Buddha statues in Wat Pho, Bangkok

The following day in Bangkok we checked out of the hotel and checked our bags into the 3 hours of free storage we were allowed. We headed to the Grand Palace, but the £15 entrance fee diverted us to neighbouring temple Wat Pho, which houses the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand. Inside we said 108 prayers for our family, friends and life's pleasures.

Saying 108 prayers for those we love

We spent the rest of the afternoon dozing by the hotel pool with our bags before a hodge podge boarding of our coach to Ko Samui and the longest journey of all so far (even our flight from the UK)!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples, Cambodia

8 - 10 April

On the 8th April we left Vietnam. So much had changed since we arrived a little over a month ago, but we were excited to be moving on. At the airport we spend the last of our Dong on 2 hamburgers; we didn't quite have enough but the nice lady let us off! Soon we were in the air and on our way to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I don't know much about Cambodia and need to brush up on my history, but everyone we'd met said the same thing - there's a lot of poverty. This had me a little worried as a have no way of trying to help anyone out of a bad situation at the moment. However, arriving in Siem Reap I thought maybe this town was some sort of exception. Due to the amount of tourism it gets. Everyone comes here (me included) to see the temples at Angkor.

The airport was small and perfectly formed and after visas and baggage claim we were warmly greeted at arrivals by a man holding a sign with my name on it. He was our tuk tuk driver sent by our accommodation to collect us. Mark and I are both getting excited as this is one of the best welcomes we've ever had and we've only just landed.

We had a short ride to our accommodation and get to see the decorations being put up for Khmer New Year in a few days. There were a lot of fancy hotels on the main road and I'm kind of glad to find that our guesthouse is tucked away near the river in a more local feeling part of town. We made our arrangements for our dawn start the next day and headed off for some early dinner. The riverside part of town is cute with its lights and music, giving the illusion of being in a small village! Vibrant, but peaceful.

The next day we were in the tuk tuk shortly after 5 and making our way to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. Its a popular activity so we are not alone. Perhaps 150 other people crowd round the lily pond that is to still it will perfectly mirror the sunrise behind the iconic temple. Around 6am the sun made an appearance and it was definitely worth getting up for.

Unable to sit still any longer we headed for the temples whilst they were still quiet. They are so detailed its almost unimaginable. Each gateway, wall or ceiling has the face for the Buddha in one form of another. Old ladies guard the large Buddha statues which dominate the alcoves and offer incense and plaited bracelets to those looking to say a prayer.

The site is massive, made up of numerous temples. As we only had a day we opted to do the short route, which would cover the larger temples. Most remind me of temples I've visited in Egypt with grand entrances, columns and paths leading deeper and deeper inside, and Chichen Itza in Mexico with its symmetry and symbolism.

Each temple doesn't fail to impress me in some way. At Baphuon it's the long and narrow entrance flanked by ponds, and at Ta Prohm it's the overgrowth by the trees what are somehow absorbing the temple and creating it at the same time. It really was a scene from a movie that you never thought could possibly be real!

After just over 9 hours of temples and somewhere around 5 litres of water we call it a day and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the courtyard of our accommodation, tired but still marvelling in the days discoveries.

We left Cambodia the following day. At the airport I noticed a tiny propeller plane next to a big jumbo and it suddenly downed on me that that could be ours! Sure enough it was, and I nervously held my breath on the hours flight to Bangkok, Thailand.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Halong Bay

5 - 8 April

We arrived in Hanoi from Hue on the 5th. It was an uncomfortable ride up on the soft seat (next time we will splurge on a sleeper) but we made it in one piece. Its a lot cooler here and overcast. I think it had been raining.

Anyway we made our way to the hotel to get settled in for the night. Hanoi is Vietnam's capital, but its smaller feeling and quieter than Ho Chi Minh. Our hotel in the Old Town was hidden in a maze of tiny streets all selling different wares. We passed shoe street, aluminium street, tops street. We were on selotape and stationary street!

We weren't going to be here for long so we didn't plan on seeing many sites, but we did walk along the lakeside to see the Turtle Tower and get some lunch. On the way, there was a wedding taking place at one of the restaurants. It brought the whole street to a standstill as onlookers crowded the road trying to see the bride (I presumed).

The following day we were picked up at 8 to start our trip to Halong Bay. It was a 4 hour journey to the harbour a long another road-in-progress.

Halong Bay is a magnificent collection of over 1000 limestone cliffs and islands. It was one of the top experiences on our wish list for Vietnam and we'd booked a night on board a traditional junk boat to make the most of it.

We boarded and checked into our cabin, which was surprisingly lovely, before being served lunch as we cruised into the archipelago. The food in amazing. Fresh seafood, vegetables, meats and rice with fresh fruit. Its a good job we ate as much as we did as we needed our strength for our first activity, kayaking!
We wore ourselves out paddling through the caves in the calm bay waters then sat on deck to watch the islands float by as we sailed deeper into the bay. I remembered how much I enjoyed cruising down the Nile a few years ago with my family. There was a new view behind every cliff and island and we were away from the rest of the boats giving the illusion we were alone in the bay. It was beautiful.

A little later we climbed one of the islands peaks for a wonderful view in the evening sun, and we watched the sun set wrapped up on deck. In the evening we enjoyed another wonderful meal and sat up chatting with our crew mates from Belgium, Holland and the United States (the Vietnamese couple went to bed early).

We were up at 7 for breakfast before paying a visit to "the amazing cave". None of us knew why it was meant to be amazing! On approaching, our guide Tony tells us the rock is called elephant rock. Sure enough from the right angle it did look like the entrance to the cave was the eye of a semi-submerged  elephant who is poking his trunk out of the water to breathe.
Inside were three caves, each one larger than the last which is pretty amazing. They were cool but not wet like other caves I've been too, and the ceiling looked like sand on the beach. In the largest cave there was a rock called turtle rock (it did look like a turtle). People had left money on his back which our guide told us had something to do with praying for patience, which the turtle symbolises.

Back on board we made traditional Vietnamese spring rolls to be enjoyed with lunch as we sailed back to the harbour. We made it through lunch, but then we were forced to stop sailing as a horrendous storm passed over us. We passed the time playing Uno, as you do!

We got back to Hanoi eventually, after a bit of a chaotic ride home, with just enough time for dinner and bag packing as we are off to Cambodia tomorrow!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


3 - 4 April

We caught the sleeper bus from Hoi An the Hue in the morning. It was strange to be travelling whilst led down, but it was a good excuse for a little extra sleep. The road up was lovely and coastal.

In Hue we dodged a rogue taxi driver for a legit metered taxi to our hotel. The rogue gave us a price of 50,000 and and we ended up paying just 16,000 with the meter so it pays to check, kids!

As normal, we dumped our bags and headed for the main sight, the citadel, imperial enclosure and forbidden city. A citadel, within a citadel, within a citadel. Confusing yes, but much easier to understand when you are there. It was largely destroyed during the American War and there is a lot of restoration work taking place that offered a glimpse of the former glory of the Emperors home. At times though the destruction is so devastating it's hard to imagine so much damage could be done so recently.

In one corner of a temple was an exhibition with images taken from French colonial times showing the citadel in action hosting meetings and ceremonies. Its wonderful to see the story behind the building. So often in historical sights we must use our imagination and art to form an image in our mind, never truly knowing what things were like. It was refreshing to see what it would have truly been like. Though this is fairly recent history, the change in culture and continent makes it all feel as though it could be thousands of years old.

Due to time restrictions we only got the day in Hue, but I feel like it was enough to get to grips with the citadel, and eat some yummy Bun Bo Hue, a beef noodle soup with chilli!

We spent the next day making travel arrangements before boarding the overnight train to Hanoi for the last of our Vietnam adventures!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Hoi An

1 - 3 April

It was the earliest start yet. The alarm pounded my ears at 4.30am. We were up to get the train from Nha Trang to Danang, from where we would catch a bus to Hoi An, the ancient city that I had high hopes for. The whole town is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, so you know it's got to be good!

The sun was just coming up as we left the station and the scenery was beautiful. Trains are a great way to travel (even though my tray got stuck and the toilets were a little scary)!

Once we arrived in Hoi An, we were quick to drop our bags and head into the town to get our bearings. I had so much anticipation that Hoi An would be good, but I was in no way prepared for what we found.

We knew we were onto a winner as we passed signs for 5,000 vnd beers (that's 15p) but then, like the opening of a dam, Hoi An overwhelmed us. The lanterns were bright like gemstones and the houses were all shades of honey and yellow. The whole town glowed in the evening light. Finally we were finding the Asia I'd been dreaming of.

Something around every corner!

We fell immediately in love.

The next day we were up and out shortly after 9am. We went straight to the ticket stand to get our entry into some of the historic sites. 

The congressional buildings we visited were stunning pieces of architecture. Each corner is covered in colour and intricate designs. Inside there are spirals of incense that travellers have sponsored. Their smell fills the air.

Incense spirals in the Cantonese Congressional

Later we had traditional tea in a tea house run by deaf and speech impaired staff. It's so peaceful inside and we sip our tea from tiny bowls in near silence.

Tea at Reaching Out Tea House

The whole town is so charming, it's like a Disney version of itself! Everywhere you turn there is something delightful to catch your eye and it's such a relief after 3 weeks of searching to find something just like this.

Over the Japanese covered bridge

We grabbed a banh mi for lunch (even that was off the scale yummy) before heading back to the hotel to do a little flight booking.

At dinner, we tried the local dish 'white rose' which is a bit like an open Chinese dumpling in the shape of a flower. We eat overlooking the river and a girl selling candle lanterns to be floated down stream.


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Nha Trang

30 March - 1 April

Again, our trip to Nha Trang started the same as every other journey: with an early start. By 7:30 in the morning were rolling down from Dalat through beautiful scenery and simply stunning views.

Once we arrived (and eventually found our hotel) we grabbed a quick pizza before heading to the beach for a dip in the sea. It's immediately clear that Nha Trang is a true beach resort. There was a long promenade against the sand and helpful vendors offer you their sun beds.

We decided to set up camp under the shade of a palm tree on our towels and head for the ocean. The sea was a delight, cool and clear. There was a breeze too so a few kiteboarders were about to provide entertainment.

We dried off on the sand then headed back to the hotel when the afternoons clouds arrived for a nap.

The next day we remembered why hotels with breakfast included are so good! Banana pancakes are a great way to start the day!

We'd booked a boat trip today so we could see the islands around Nha Trang. From experience we also know a boat trip was a good excuse for some fun and this one didn't let us down.

We goggled (because the snorkel was rubbish) and saw lots of fish. At a floating fish market we saw lobsters, squid and various fish for sale. Whilst a squid was being caught we got to see the full force of its ink!

The day ended with karaoke and a happy hour drink in the sea, which I celebrated by jumping in from the top of the boat (after Mark, to make sure it was safe!).

We enjoyed cheap food and BOGOF cocktails that night before an early night as we were leaving for Hoi An at the most ungodly hour the next morning!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014


27-30 March

We arrive in Dalat after 5pm, which is never ideal as it makes it so difficult to get your bearings. The journey into the mountains was slow but scenic, and not quite as scary as we had been told. On the way we pass a dam and a line of pipe which cuts through the forest lookimg like it's straight out of a bond movie.

Once in Dalat we check into our hotel (possibly the worst yet) and head into the town. Searching for somewhere nice to eat after a 5 hour journey, and having no idea where to go makes everything seem 10 times harder. We eventually find a cluster of places amongst the countless cafes and settle in.

We try to get some sleep through the inexplicable banging and crashing that goes on through the night.

In the morning we are ready to give Dalat a second chance, knowing places by day can be a totally different story to their nighttime versions. We start by getting our tickets for the bus out and grab a very tasty breakfast at the popular V Cafe. Eggs and bacon are on the menu, and the stereo is playing a mix of jazz and blues. Perhaps Dalat is Le Petite Paris after all?

Filled up we start the day walking to Crazy House, which deserves its name. Anyone who's been to the Antoni Gaudi house in Barcelona will have an idea of what its like. For those who haven't it's a house designed to break architectural rules. The stairs sometimes climb over the roof and there are niches which have been turned into rooms. Its exciting and we dive in happy to see a little character.

After, we walk back to the lake and try to find the famed flower gardens. Our map is'nt very good and we end up walking around a golf course, of which one of the roads is complete, the other a dusty work in progress. Eventually though we find the gardens. They end up being no more than nicely planted pots, and we decide not to go in. Instead we walk back along the lake instead, passing an ice cream bike, and man taking a nap in the middle of the pavement (and why wouldn't you).

All this time I havent realised how strong the sun has been on my shoulders; its about 10 degrees cooler here. By the end of the day im a bit worse for wear!

The following day we'd booked a trek with Groovy Gecko Tours. We are picked up at 9.30 and driven out into the countryside then we are off!

The trek starts with a very steep ascent to somewhere around 1600ft. Its a hard climb, and I start to realise how long its been since I did a strong cardio workout. Im definitely getting one now! At the top we get a stunning view of Dalat nestled between the surrounding hills. Jungle and forest spread as far as the eye can see, breaking only for the man made lake.

As we start our decent, the forest quickly turns to jungle. Its immediately cooler and wetter and we are told to watch out for leeches. We trek through listening to the sounds of the birds. As the jungle thins the route gets steeper, then suddenly we are on the banks of the lake. Walking through the last of the trees I spot something in the distance. I ask in shock if it's real and Mark assures me it is. Stood in front of me in an elephant! He is clearly there for tourist rides, and looks a little sad about it, but it's the last thing I was expecting to see!

Our guide prepares our lunch whilst we gaze at the lake, and I eat so much fresh mango I nearly pop. It was a great day and just what we needed after weeks of towns and city.

We dont have much trouble getting an early night after such an exhausting day. Good thing too, we've another early start in the morning as we travel to Nha Trang!