Tag Archives: Asia

Thai islands, part 1

Hello dear reader,

Welcome to what is probably the penultimate travel blog entry, because we fly home in nine days!! I can hear you all breathing a sigh of relief. Thank you to all of you have stuck with me from the very beginning. I’ve loved having the blog as a diary, and also a way to tell the stories of our trips to my friends and family.

Through the blog I’ve discovered a new love for writing, and as I’m almost a hundred posts in, it seems a shame to throw in the towel now. I’m going to keep the blog going even when I’m at home. Sure, I probably won’t have anything that interesting to write about (except wedding planning… Cough) but I’ve really enjoyed having a new hobby that I can do anywhere (hello international airports) and anytime (hello insomnia!)

So, the past week has been spent having a look around the south of Thailand.
It was really nice to return to Thailand. It’s been the first time we’ve “returned” anywhere on the trip, but it’s a relief to arrive somewhere and understand how it all works, and how to say “hello” and “thank you.”

Unfortunately on the way out of Cambodia I developed tonsillitis. I’d like to take a moment to share with you, and anyone who may or may not have had tonsillitis in the past, one of my favourite ever pieces of journalism: Charlie Brooker on the horrors of tonsillitis.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/jul/28/healthandwellbeing.health

It’s worse, far worse, than international terrorism and child abuse combined.”

Although the above quote is a slight over statement, I love to return to this piece every time I get tonsillitis and share it with anyone who doesn’t understand how FUCKING TERRIBLE IT IS.

So our flight to from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Phuket, Thailand wasn’t a fun one for me.

I went hot cold hot cold hot cold and I couldn’t wear my hoodie because it’s currently in quarantine after I slept in it in a bed full of bedbugs in Siem Reap. (But that’s a song I shall sing another day.)

We changed flights in Bangkok where we were delayed, but I was semi conscious so I didn’t really know or care that much about it.

FINALLY we got to Phuket and had some food (an ice cream for me) and fell asleep.

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(Above is the only photo I took in Phuket! See, told you I was ill! Haha. Our room was really cool, it felt like we were staying in a church and I had a nice new dress on.)

The next day was a slow plod to an English-speaking pharmacy where I demanded antibiotics and then went back to bed with a nice little spittoon next to me. Special shout out to Thomas Copley (aka Nurse Copley) who is basically a SAINT. I seriously don’t understand how people can travel alone. There have been far to many occasions where I’ve been bedridden on this trip (hello Vietnam!) and I’ve relied on Tom to get food for me otherwise I would have died.

Anyway, nothing was achieved for 48 hours other than walking around the corner to visit that cat cafe. I love cats!!!

Then we moved to another side of Phuket, closer to Kata beach. We found our hostel, and as I got there I saw a little dog sat on the bar stool by reception. As I walked towards it to say hello (“sawadee ka!”) it stuck its paw out and gave me a high five! This was one of the best moments ever as it felt like an achievement to even make it there in my sweaty and delirious state!
The hostel was okay but the bathroom was grim and full of cockroaches so we had to knock loudly on the door and turn the lights on and off a few times before we could enter. (To scare them off into their holes) It was a bit hysterical really but I’ve got to the point where I’ll put up with anything!

We chilled by the beach for two days which was nice, and I began to feel better. What would we do without antibiotics?

After Phuket we went to Koh Phi Phi, which was really nice, more filled with backpackers so we felt a bit more at home and I was beginning to feel more human.

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We basically lazed and wandered around for two days. Our hostel was really grim and the toilet was in the shower, but it was okay. We had a crazy thunderstorm one night. The thunder was so loud that it was like someone banging a drum in your chest.

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(our lovely toilet in the shower, for your viewing pleasure.)

The next day we went for a very slow plod up to a viewpoint above Ko Phi Phi. To get there, we followed the tsunami evacuation route. It’s good to see that these have all been put into place after the 2004 tragedy.

We had a nice walk. It was very sweaty, but we met some nice kittens and the view was cool. On the way back down the hill, my foot slipped from underneath me and I completely stacked it. My knee was bleeding so badly that it was running all the way down to my ankles but I just laughed because it ALWAYS HAPPENS TO ME. Tom said “you’ve taken to travelling like a duck with bricks in its pockets,” and then a German man shouted at me for wearing the wrong shoes. No rest for the wicked eh?

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That evening we watched a fire show on the beach which was nice.

Next stop: Koh Lanta. We’d heard Koh Lanta was a nice chilled island to visit. We got a tuk tuk to our hotel which was literally just on a road in the middle of nowhere. Because it’s low season, “quiet” means “totally dead.” Also, we had overlooked that we were visiting a Muslim island during Ramadan. Most travellers rent motorbikes or scooters but because we’re both too clumsy (see above) and we’ve seen too many people covered in bandages we’ve decided against using them. This meant that we were in the middle of nowhere for 48 hours. Because it’s rainy season the weather has been pretty pants so we just basically did nothing! I didn’t take a single photo because it was literally just a dirt road in the rain.

Onwards! Krabi! This was one that I was really excited about because we’d booked somewhere faaaaaancy as a treat for Tom’s birthday. By fancy, I mean £50 a night, but it really goes a long way in Thailand! We checked into the Krabi resort, and Tom said “it’s my birthday tomorrow, is it possible to get an upgrade?” And it worked! Amazing. I need to be more assertive. “Britain needs serts!”

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We were taken to our suite in a little golf buggy and the novelties didn’t wear off for the next 48 hours. Our room was stunning, and huge, and octagonal. We had a lovely bathroom bigger than many rooms we’ve stayed in with a sunken bath. The resort had two massive pools, all you can eat buffet breakfast…. Oh it was just paradise! I’ve never appreciated luxury so much! Tom’s birthday was great, we just spent the day eating and drinking and lying by the pool ordering drinks and charging them to our room which just felt amazing until we checked out and paid the ransom the next day haha!

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(The birthday boy)

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I leave you with the above photo to distract from my despair that the next time I write here we will be GOING HOME!!!😭😭😭

Okay time for happy thoughts, here are some things that have made me laugh so far in the Thai islands:

  • During our time at the Krabi Resort (posh hotel) there was a monkey on the loose who kept emptying the bin at the bottom of the stairs, looting all over the place, and generally causing chaos. The staff laid out a big trap filled with bananas but he wasn’t interested.
  • Also at the Krabi Resort there was a gigantic lizard who was about four foot long and was doing laps around a little posh moat area, making everyone who spotted him scream. Clearly the animals at the resort didn’t get the memo about it being a swanky place!
  • When boarding one of the boats between the islands there was a very official man in an official uniform making an official announcement…. By shouting through a traffic cone.

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Week one in Cambodia

Our first stop after a suspiciously easy border crossing from Vietnam, was Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. We arrived in the evening, and the following day went to learn about Cambodia’s history.

This wasn’t an easy introduction to the country. I’ve ummed and ahhed about writing about the Khmer Rouge, because it isn’t easy to write about and it won’t be easy to read either. However the people of Cambodia want tourists to visit the memorials, and they want the world to know their history, so it only seemed right to get it down in words on my blog.

In the late 1970s, the Cambodian government was lead by the Khmer Rouge, whose rule eventually lead to a huge genocide. They orchestrated a mass famine, and wanted to create a “peasant nation.” They began by getting rid of educated people (I.e people who might have questioned their ideals) the first victims were scholars, teachers, and even people who wore glasses. The country was isolated, money was banned, religion was banned, and a huge percentage of the population were sent to work in slave labour camps.

Our first stop of the day was the Killing Fields Genocide Memorial. We were given handheld audio guides, which enables you to take a tour silently and at your own pace. The Killing Fields is essentially a mass grave, one of many all over the country. As you walk around, you step over pieces of human bone and clothing that rise through the soil every time it rains.

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Cambodian people were brought here by the truck load, lined up at the edge of a huge grave and bludgeoned to death. (The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste their precious bullets.) The workers would spread chemicals on the bodies to help eliminate the smell and also kill off anyone unlucky enough to survive the blow. I can’t write more. Yet there’s more. There are all the human skulls stacked floor to ceiling, more than you could possibly count, with holes in the top, or completely crushed. There was a killing tree. That makes my blood run cold to even think about it, I’ve got goosebumps all over my legs.
They hung huge speakers in the trees and played deafeningly loud patriotic songs all day, over the whirring of the generators. The audio guide played a sample of the sound, so you can imagine what people heard drowning out the death cries.

Next, we visited the S-21 prison. We didn’t pay extra for the audio guide this time round. I couldn’t face the descriptions of the torture methods. The prison used to be a school. Here, people were held and tortured for up to six months before being sent to their deaths in the fields. The floors still have bloodstains on them and there’s bloody handprints on the walls. It’s a very somber place, and I barely even heard birdsong whilst we were there.

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For some reason the Khmer Rouge photographed each victim before they locked them up. In the museum, all the photos are displayed and make for very haunting viewing. I tried to look at every face as an individual, I felt like I owed them that much…but in the end…. There were too many.

Cambodia has broken my heart. This atrocity happened just over ten years before I was born. I almost can’t believe it’s real, yet walking around Cambodia, I’ve hardly seen anybody over the age of fifty, so it must be real, right? One quarter of the population was wiped out. The regime forced marriages that lead to many children (the people my age) being born of unhappy circumstances.
What I’ve taken from that day in Phnom Penh is an incredible sense of gratitude for what I have, and a growing urgency in my mind that I should never take it for granted.

We left Phnom Penh feeling a little bit like different people to the ones who arrived there.

Next stop: Kampot.
We had a nice time in Kampot. We were only there for one night. It’s a small town built on the banks of the river. We had a nice meal by the riverside watching the sunset.

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After Kampot we went to Kep, which is by the sea. I always feel excited to be by the sea when we travel. I’ve always loved the ocean, but I think my love has been enhanced recently because the climate is so damn hot, a sea breeze does me the world of good.

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I loved Kep! We were taken by tuk tuk miles from the town to our accommodation, which was a little bungalow in the jungle, run by a lovely French couple. We chilled out for two days, frequenting the local sailing club which had stunning views of the sunset over the sea. (And two for one cocktails) we wandered round, and just had a lovely relaxing time.

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Then we hopped on the bus to Sihanoukville, our stepping stone to Koh Rong Island. After a night here we were off to island paradise.

We had a wonderful time. It was stunning! So here’s a little ode I wrote to Koh Rong Island (I had absolutely nothing better to do, we didn’t have wifi because the island hadn’t paid their bill and so got cut off by the supplier.)

Here’s to the peacock-coloured ocean drenched in turquoise, green and gold.

Here’s to waiting for it to be pitch black so you can swim amongst the glowing plankton that is so magical and sparkly that it almost feels like you’re swimming through space.

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Here’s to sleeping in a bungalow on the beach, cooled only by a fan so you wake up with the sun, drenched in sweat. Here’s to your nighttime curfew being determined by the monstrous moths who come out at night, forcing you to switch off the light and listen to music instead of reading as usual.

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Here’s to pure white sand so fine that it squeaks underfoot.

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Here’s to 4km of beach with no people and more importantly, no litter on it.

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Here’s to skipping meals because there’s no ATM on the island and we want to eek out the little cash we brought in order to stay as long as possible.

Here’s to stray dogs who dig themselves a hole in the sand under your sun lounger so they can sleep in your shade and company, only huffing occasionally when water drips on them because you went swimming.

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Here’s to planning birthday surprises, being eaten alive by mosquitos and waking up to Tom doing a magical salsa dance stood on the bed whilst clapping the bastards to death.

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Here’s to the sea that’s as warm and clear as a swimming pool, to cans of yucky cheap beer and getting accidentally sunburnt because the anti-malaria tablets make your skin more sensitive.

Here’s to the ache of there being only four weeks left balanced by the excitement of seeing my friends, family and cats again. 

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….. And here’s to being the happiest I’ve ever been.

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Good night Vietnam.

Well hello from Ho Chi Minh City!

That’s a mouthful isn’t it? HCMC is also known as Saigon. I’m scrabbling to stay on top of the blog. We’ve made it this far! So I thought I’d bring you up to date with recent happenings in a more summary kinda way with the help of lots of photos so that it doesn’t drag on too much. We’re heading to Cambodia on the bus tomorrow, and I must admit I’m totally KNACKERED. Over tea this evening, Tom and I decided to calculate how much travel we’ve done in Vietnam…. Drum roll please… Over 24 days we have spent 70 hours on public transport, which is over 11% our time here (that’s including time spent asleep) so I’ve given myself full permission to be exhausted haha. Onwards!

Hoi An
After Hue, we headed to Hoi An, (not to be confused with Hanoi!) which is a beautiful coastal town set upon the river. It’s an ancient trading port and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old town is really atmospheric and the influence from the trading with China and Japan is still apparent today. It really whisks you back in time, and it ended up being one of my favourite places in Vietnam.

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We had a cycle to the beach one day, then the heavens opened and we sheltered in a restaurant (shame.) We explored the old town by day and by night, which I loved. Hoi An is also famous for tailoring and shoe making. Many people get suits made and sent home. Tom and I decided to treat ourselves to a pair of shoes each. Tom got a beautiful pair of leather and suede brown brogues made, and I went for a pair of sandals. What a luxury to have shoes made to measure for my narrow and high-instepped feet, my toes are singing! (They cost £17 which is much less than I’d normally pay for good shoes) Unfortunately I can’t share a pic of Tom’s shoes as he’s posted them home.

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(They’re dirty already, fingers crossed that they make it home in one piece! Travelling is mighty hard on the old footwear!)

Other highlights of Hoi An were a wonderful musical performance including six musicians playing traditional instruments including a bamboo flute. This then ended up being a game of bingo (I’m not sure why) but we didn’t win…. Also I got a manicure and pedicure. What luxury!

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I was then struck down with some diabolical food poisoning. (From a cheese sandwich, no less) I was very very sicky, so we had to spend an extra night there… Tom eating out in restaurants on his own, bless him. The staff at our homestay were so lovely to me, and kept popping to our room to check on me whilst Tom was out and about. Fast forward a week later and I’m FINALLY back to normal. Oh well…

Nha Trang
We had a lovely ten hour train journey through the day to Nha Trang, which is further down the coast. The train was a nightmare for me, still ill, but I made it!
Nha Trang is a kind of beach resort-like town that is really popular amongst Russian people. This makes it quite surreal because a lot of the writing you see is in Russian, and you have a lot of Russian menus thrust in your face, which makes life even more confusing than normal.

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I spent the day in bed recovering whilst Tom took himself to a brew house he found on the beach (I don’t feel too sorry for him, whilst he sent me photos of his pints haha)
The next day I made it to the beach and drank a coconut at the beach bar. Progress! In all honesty, I didn’t see much of Nha Trang, but I did like what I saw. (Apart from when I saw someone spit-roasting an entire crocodile in the street, which didn’t help my disposition.)

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Da Lat
Next on the agenda was Da Lat, a town up in the mountains that is cool in climate and popular amongst the Vietnamese as a honeymoon destination. Our hostel was a real gem as they gave us free breakfast and dinner, we met some lovely people and the staff were really nice.
On our first day we walked to the Crazy House, a piece of bonkers architecture designed by a female local architect.

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(Above photos are courtesy of google images, as I was still being dopey and forgot to take my phone or camera with me.)

The Crazy House has been a work in progress since 1990, and was really interesting to visit, although it didn’t feel very safe at some points (e.g. When we walked over the roof with a hand rail at knee height) I loved it though. The lonely planet describe it as “imagine Gaudi and Tolkein meeting up and dropping acid together.” Haha.
That evening we went the 100 roofs cafe, a bar by the same architect. This was literally like a maze and it took us a while to find the bar.

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(The best bar I’ve ever been to!)

The next day we took a cable car across the valley to visit a monastery, which was wonderful to get a bit of peace, then we just chilled with people from our hostel and Ruby the three week old kitten who I had to try really hard not to kidnap.

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We were up early for the bus the next day. I dubiously had my eye on the street butcher across from the hostel whilst I ate my breakfast. I then saw him pick up an entire cow’s head, snap the jaw bone open and then cut the tongue out. My new found vegetarianism is being reinforced by the day at the moment haha!

Ho Chi Minh City
Our final stop in Vietnam is HCMC. After yet another long-ass bus we arrived and found our hostel.

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What followed was an interesting night’s sleep with rats running around the floor of our room. GRIM.

The following day we visited the infamous Cu Chi tunnels. These were used in the Vietnam war by the Vietcong so that they could hide from and attack the Americans.

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We saw all sorts of horrifically tortuous booby traps created by the Vietnamese. We were then led to a shooting range where you could pay to fire a variety of guns. I wish I’m joking, but I’m not. Seriously. I was just thinking “why the fuck would you want to shoot a gun, here of all places?!” I’ve never heard gunshots before, and they were absolutely deafening and terrifying, and I didn’t like it at all. Then we were shown an American tank, which lots of members of our tour group posed by, smiling for photos and taking selfies.

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I just find this whole mentality disturbing, and I was quite upset that people don’t seem to have a concept that they’re posing for a photo with a weapon of war, in a place where thousands died. Anyway. Rant over.
We then got to the entrance of the tunnels. We were told that it was a stretch of 100 metres, and we could get out at intervals of 20m. I’d been warned that they were small, but I wasn’t ready for how small the tunnels actually were! You literally had to shuffle along in a crouch. There were people in front and behind, and it was hot and so small. Panic started to rise in my throat, my breath quickened  and my chest tightened and I said “sorry, I need to come out!” And had to go back and get out. I just couldn’t do it. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t even go into the tunnels. I could feel a panic attack coming on and I didn’t want to cause a scene. I’ve realised that I hate small spaces with people in them. I could have managed if it was just me and Tom, but the thought of there being people ahead and behind without being able to get out just…ARGH. The Cu Chi tunnels were an amazing place to visit, and I recommend them to anyone visiting Vietnam.

For the sake of the blog, here’s a description from Tom’s point of view of his trip down the tunnels:

“Claustrophobic, sweaty, dusty and back breaking.”

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(Ho chi Minh city from the view of our rat hotel)

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(My new flutey tute)

On waking in the second morning in the rat hotel I went to the toilet, got locked inside the toilet having made a horrific smell (thanks Vietnamese food) and then had to be broken out by the hotel staff. Mortifying!! To be honest, the hotel wasn’t exactly the best, hence the rodent problem.

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(At least there was a gap above the door so I didn’t get Cu Chi tunnel claustrophobic a whilst waiting to be broken out)

I decided we deserved a fancy hotel with a bed that’s comfortable and no rats…. So spent 17 quid for a night in the Dragon Palace. Yay!

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Our final day was spent in the war remnants museum, which was filled with some really harrowing images. I had a massive lump in my throat throughout. It’s crazy that the Vietnam war was one of the first that was documented by the media.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed our time in Vietnam. I feel most homesick when I’m poorly, so I did struggle with being ill twice. The country is a true mixed bag of crazy hustle bustle in the cities and beautiful countryside. I’m glad we came here.

Things that have surprised me in Vietnam

1) The bananas are green.
2) The oranges are also green.
3) People like crouching. On the streets of Vietnam, you’ll often see people crouched, smoking a cigarette, or chatting. They do it with their feet flat on the floor. I tried this in our hotel room and fell flat on my arse.
4) No one walks really. Scooters are the given mode of transport with locals driving from shop to shop, parking their bike on the pavement outside. This makes it a pretty tricky place to be a pedestrian.
5) Vietnam is home to possibly the world’s cheapest beer. 9p a glass makes a happy Thomas.
6) The gaps between the cities make for a lot of travel time. It’s easy to see why lots of backpackers choose to travel by motorbike. Having seen so many people covered in bandages however, I decided it’s not for me.
7) Families live together. Many generations of one family live under one roof in Vietnam, which is lovely. The Vietnamese are very social and many choose to spend the evenings sat on stools in the street. This makes me want to strive to spend less time in front of the TV when we get home!

8) There are over 54 ethnic groups living in Vietnam today. I really enjoyed meeting some of the Black Hmong tribe whilst we were in Sapa. It was a lovely experience.

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Hanoi again and Halong Bay

After saying goodbye to beautiful Sapa, we were back on the jolly old sleeper bus to Hanoi.

Vietnam’s capital was a bit more bearable on our return, but at the same time, I’ve realised I’m definitely a fresh air, minimal noise and walkable pavement kind of person!
We visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, which was definitely one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to write too much about it here, but if you’re interested, be sure to ask me haha!

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That evening we found the infamous beer Hoi corner. The general rule is, the closer your bum gets to the floor (I.e the smaller the stool) the cheaper the beer is. We were on 15p a glass.

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The following day was Tom’s turn to be ill. I swear that place is cursed. I wasn’t feeling great either. Luckily we had a nice hotel room and a tv complete with the Shaun the Sheep movie to keep me company (very Vietnamese) whilst Tom was being sick. Christ! We sound like a right pair don’t we! We truly deserve eachother haha. Having written off Hanoi we booked a tour to visit Halong Bay the following day.
We were up early and went to the travel agent, then got on the mini bus to the small boat, which was the wrong boat then onto the right boat and then onto the big boat where we were to spend our day. We’d booked the “cocktail cruise” because it was cheap, and covered a lot of Halong Bay. The boat was really grotty but we were with some nice people. We lazed around as we cruised the bay. The day was overcast but it was really beautiful!

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Halong Bay has always been what I see in my head when I think “Vietnam” so I was really chuffed to see it. After a few hours we stopped and went canoeing. This involved canoeing through a few caves which were absolutely beautiful and then ending in a lagoon full of jellyfish, which was a little bit scary.

Later on in the day we had a swimming spot and we both jumped off the top of the boat which was lovely. We finally arrived at Cat Ong island, where we were due to stay the night. In head I’d pictured a big island with a town, where we’d be staying in a hotel. In fact, it was a tiny desert island.

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(Our beach bungalow)

It was amazing! We were lead to our rooms, and somehow, everyone except four of us were put into a ten man dorm. Tom and I were taken to our bungalow with two other Brits. They then decided they’d rather be in the dorm so we had the place to ourselves! I was so happy! I hate dorm rooms so it was a massive treat.
The evening was spent eating, drinking, and being frivolous. Fabulous.

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The next day, Tom and I had decided to go trekking in the Cat Ba National Park. We were the only members of our group who had our big bags with us (as we didn’t want to go back to Hanoi) which made jumping onto a tiny boat in the choppy sea pretty terrifying, but we made it without getting wet. We got the boat to Cat Ba island where we then drove up to the mountains for a very sweaty walk through the forests and up a hill to the view point. I have never sweated so much in my life. We both looked like we’d been fully dressed in the shower. But it was so worth it! The view was stunning.

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I’m still getting used to Vietnam’s mix of madness in the cities and stunning natural beauty in the countryside.

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Good morning Vietnam!!

Good morning Vietnam!

I’m so sorry for the radio silence here on the blog. I seem to be getting more and more behind with the blog due to lack of wifi… Plus we’ve been doing a lot this past week!

So we took a horribly bouncy flight through a thunderstorm from Luang Prabang, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. Luckily it was only an hour in duration.
Tom had pre-booked us an airport transfer to our hotel, and we were delighted to be met by a man holding a sign with our names on. We were then led to an enormous mini van with air conditioning and we had the whole thing to ourselves. Bloody luxury compared to what we’re used to!

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(The above photo is a celebration of being millionaires once again. Tom’s holding about sixty quid haha)

The hotel was fine, apart from the worlds smallest bathroom. We had to stand over the toilet to have a shower and then exit the bathroom to dry ourselves because there simply wasn’t enough room haha! We ventured out into the craziness of Hanoi. I have never seen so many people in the tiny streets. Entire families were sat on miniature stools on the pavements. There were scooters EVERYWHERE and they don’t necessarily stay on the correct side of the road. Or on the road. Quite often they’ll drive onto the pavement and cut you up, giving you a dirty look!
We found a sandwich shop, ate a bit and went to bed.

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DISCLAIMER
Apologies in advance for being a bit moany about Hanoi. I didn’t like it. I was very ill and feeling pretty shit, so sorry I’m not more upbeat about it.

The next day we got up and ventured out for some food. I was feeling like death thanks to the anti-malaria tablets. I had excruciating stomach cramps and no appetite whatsoever and had barely eaten over the previous few days. Plus I’ve been having totally bonkers dreams and night terrors where I can’t breath and panic, so I’m knackered too. Stepping outside was a massive assault on the senses. Smells of people cooking God knows what, traffic everywhere, no giveway system just
TOOOOOOOT and go! Crossing the road was near damn impossible as the traffic is constant. You just have to find a small gap and run.

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We couldn’t find anywhere to eat for ages, and I was feeling exhausted and frustrated. We eventually found a sandwich shop and ordered two of the “specials.” As we sat to wait for the food on miniature stools inches from the pavement, we saw a woman across the road wearing shorts and wellies, crouched over a huge fish she had laid on some plastic on the pavement and she then proceeded to hack into pieces, blood spurting everywhere and running all over the floor. The sandwich arrived. Turns out the “special” was lumps of unidentifiable fatty meat on top of some grim tasting pate. I ate one mouthful, looked at the fish woman and nearly threw up. I’m steadily going off meat!

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(Here’s Tom modelling a mini stool for your viewing pleasure)

We then plodded to the prison. This took ages with the whole pedestrian nightmare thing. At on point, we checked both ways several times when crossing and suddenly a scooter appeared out of nowhere and Tom walked right into it. The driver nearly toppled over and Tom received a nasty bruise to the shin. I started getting more and more jumpy….

The prison was a really interesting place to visit. It was built by the French colonialists and used to imprison anyone who opposed their regime. The conditions were absolutely horrific. During the American war, the Vietnamese used it to hold the American POWs and they were treated really well. The Americans even referred to it as the “Hanoi Hilton.” I’m glad we went, but in all honesty, I spent most of the time on the toilet haha.

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(This is how the Vietnamese prisoners were held. Shocking isn’t it?!)

We then walked to the lake. I was really tired and we flopped down on a bench where we were hounded by some local students who wanted to practise their English. I was more than happy to chat to them, but more and more groups kept turning up and in the end we were stuck there for TWO HOURS before we could politely excuse ourselves and stagger back to the hotel.

On the way back I was terrified after Tom got hit, and I personally nearly got hit by a scooter on about five separate occasions until I cried and had a complete meltdown. I’m not good when I’m ill and stressed! We went back to the hotel and spent a few hours bonding with the toilet whilst Tom went to buy me a sandwich. God I love him. Plus it was a cheese sandwich this time.

The next day we got up very early for our trip to Sapa. I was eager to leave Hanoi behind, plus the photos of Sapa I’ve seen looked stunningly beautiful. We waited in the hotel lobby for an hour before someone came to “pick us up.” What this meant was a bloke on a scooter drove ahead of us, shouting directions, whilst we traipsed behind with our backpacks. Not exactly the pick up I was imagining! Eventually we got to the bus, and discovered it was in fact one of the infamous Vietnamese “sleeper buses.”

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I have no idea why it was a sleeper bus because it was the daytime but oh well. We got a bunk each. I hate bunkbeds. However, being horizontal on a bus is oddly soporific so I spent most of the six hour journey unconscious.
We arrived in Sapa and had a bit of a walk to our hotel. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The entire town was being dug up, with huge abandoned holes in the pavement everywhere, and enormous trucks filled with gravel creating a dust storm in their wake. It felt like we were in a war zone! We felt really disappointed, but it turns out we were just in the grotty end of town, and Sapa itself is really lovely.

The hotel was great, we booked a trip to the Bac Ha market the following day, and had a walk down to the rice paddies. Beautiful.

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The next day was another early start and we took a two hour mini bus ride to the small town of Bac Ha. The market is only there on Sundays. It was full of locals and we got a tour round which was really interesting. Again, the food section was alarming, with unidentifiable offal and stews. The meat section was a “hold your breath” job. I’m so glad Tom told me to put my walking boots on because at one point we had to jump over a big stream of blood.

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There was a really harrowing bit where dehydrated puppies were being sold and they were just so sad and some of them were shoved in tiny cages whilst they whined. I wanted to buy every single one. Live pigs were being rammed into plastic bags whilst they squealed until they found a small hole where there snouts could stick out and they just breathed silently, resigned to their fate. Sometimes it’s really difficult not to be upset. But I was upset. I am upset!! I felt really helpless.

There was nothing I could do. I have to remind myself that I’m here to observe and to learn about how people live. I’m a meat eater, so I have no place to get on my high horse about animal rights because God knows what the animals I’ve eaten have been through. I saw a photo on the outside of restaurant with a dead turtle on top of a salad with his shell all cracked open, and it made me SO sad. And a photo of a goat curled up, eyes closed with some grapes shoved in its mouth. But then I just think, why am I sad about this turtle, and this goat, but not about that chicken that I ate for lunch. Well, it turns out I am sad about that chicken too. I don’t want to eat meat anymore. There. Writing that made me cry.

Wow. Sorry. I’ve just had an epiphany.

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I think of this blog as my diary. I’m sorry if that was a bit personal, and perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but it’s just how I feel at the moment and I want to be honest.

Moving on…. For the rest of the trip we explored the market, saw the border to China, and enjoyed the view of the rice paddies.

The next day was another early start. We were off trekking through the rice paddies. A load of the local women, members of the Black Hmong tribe came along for the walk. It was really interesting to ask them questions and learn about their way of life. I loved imagining myself as one of them. I’d have been married aged 16-18, I’d live with my husbands family, all generations under one roof, and I’d have a few sprogs by now! The children in this part of the world grow up so quickly. You’ll see five year olds carrying their baby siblings on their backs, and babies feeding themselves rice.

I’ll let the photos do the talking. Sapa is a truly breath-takingly beautiful place!

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Until next time,

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The slow boat to Luang Prabang

For the next section of our trip we’d decided to take a slow boat down the Mekong river from Hauy Xai to Luang Prabang. It was to take two days, with a stop over night in Pak Bang.

We’d been recommend by Luke to pay a bit extra to take a luxury boat. The cheap local boats can get very overcrowded. We looked into the luxury boats but none were running due to it being low season. So, local boat it is then! We ended up having a really great time! Our boat was a good mix of backpackers and locals, and we were with David, Daria and Anita from the Gibbon Experience. We got chatting with lots of people, drank beers until the bar was dry and enjoyed the scenery. I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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Eight hours on a slow boat is a really great way to travel! No motion sickness, you can walk around a bit, plus it was such a stunning journey. Also, it cost 20 quid each, for sixteen hours of travel! We arrived at the half way point, Pak Bang, and were shoved in the back of a truck and taken to a hostel by some locals. It was half the price of what we usually pay (tenner a night) but I must say….. It was absolutely grim. I took one look at the bathroom and said “no thank you!” And walked back out. We were then taken to somewhere really nice, so we had a good night! We enjoyed good food, more beer then conked out.

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The following day on the boat was much of the same. We arrived in Luang Prabang at around 6pm and went to find our guest house.
That evening we met our gibbon/slow boat buddies at a bar called Utopia, which is all outdoors and on the banks of the Mekong. It had loads of mats on the floor so you can be horizontal whilst you drink – definitely my kind of place.

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We spent five nights in Luang Prabang because we loved it so much! It was similar to Ubud in Bali… Really chilled and hippie! What I love about travelling is when you find somewhere you really like so you just stay. Here’s a few good memories:

– silly nights spent in Utopia. Being kicked out at 11.30pm and then being bundled into tuk tuks and taken off to the bowling alley with people riding on the roofs and hanging on the back (I was safely inside mum) … Due to the communist government there’s a 12pm curfew in Laos, but the local policeman runs the bowling alley which stays open and is full with drunk backpackers until 2.30pm. I’m crap at bowling but doing it pissed makes it much more enjoyable.

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– the best icecream I’ve ever had. Coconut icecream from heaven.

– discovering we had really posh tv channels so avoided the midday heat by lying in the air conditioning and watching The Walking Dead. (Ive reached the point where this doesn’t make me feel guilty at all.)

– a really cool book shop filled with art, where I bought a beautiful tile painted with Buddhas face, made by a local artist. Upstairs they had a cinema room where we spent two evenings watching films.

– the best waterfalls I have EVER seen. Blue water. Stunning.

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(Swimming in an infinity pool is on my bucket list. I found the natural version – swimming on the edge of a waterfall. Tick!)

– walking the streets of Luang Prabang and bumping into people you know from the boat. It gave me a sense of familiarity that made me feel like I was back home in Kendal.

– helping a local shake mangoes from a tree with a big stick.

– meeting a survivor of the 2006 Thai Boxing Day tsunami. Out of 120 people in his village, he was one of four survivors. I couldn’t stop thinking about him for days and days and days.

– walking up a lot of steps to visit the temple and watch the sunset. Got fleeced by a “monk” and couldn’t see the sunset for the people. HA

– wandering around hungover and seeing Anita and Patrick and then joining them on a very slow food crawl from cafe to cafe with more friends joining as they bumped into us.

– hot and killer walks to and from the Vietnamese Embassy to get our visas sorted.

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We left Laos with heavy hearts. Although we didn’t get to see all of the country, what we did see was beautiful, and we made some wonderful new friends. Until next time!

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The Gibbon Experience

Hello stranger!

I’m writing this in our hotel room in Hanoi, Vietnam. I didn’t actually manage to get any blog posts about Laos up, so here I find myself playing catch up! Here’s a post about the Gibbon Experience.

Following our stop in Chaing Kong, we were ready to head across the bridge over the Mekong river that takes you from Thailand to Laos. Admittedly, we both didn’t know a lot about Laos (organised as ever.) After a bit of research on the internet, I was left with a sense of foreboding. The government website explains that Laos is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, there are lots of muggings, and one of the bus routes we were planning on taking was to be avoided at all costs. GREAT.

It’s difficult sometimes when travelling, trying to figure out what to do and remembering to trust your gut about potentially dangerous situations. For example, when we went to Bali, the government website told us not to visit unless absolutely essential due to the threat of terrorist attacks following the bombing in Jakarta. But in the end, we went, we were fine, and Bali has been one of my favourite places so far! Anyway, I digress. We decided to just go for it, and keep our wits about us, and cancel the dodgy bus route where tourists have been bombed and held at gun point. La la la!! (Singing and smiling) !!!

The bridge from Thailand was my first border crossing by land. We queued up and handed over our passports and paid for our visas (in US dollars for some unknown reason) it was easy peasy! We got a tuk tuk to our accommodation, which was deserted. When we eventually found someone, we were sent into a posh hotel across the road, which we weren’t expecting and definitely hadn’t paid for, but it worked out fine, so I’m not complaining! Houi Xay (that’s a fun one to pronounce) is a small town on the edge of the Mekong river and home to the Gibbon Experience. It’s so cool being in Laos and looking across the river to Thailand. We spent the night, and then got up early and headed to the gibbon experience centre for our briefing.

The Gibbon Experience is the top tourist attraction in Laos. It involves trekking in the Nam Kan National Park, zip lining across the canopy and staying over night in the highest tree houses in the world. Plus the added extra that you might get lucky and see gibbons in their natural habitat. We were very excited! We opted to do the “classic” tour – three days and two nights with the minimum amount of walking and maximum chance of seeing the elusive gibbons.

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(A photo of the highest treehouse in the world, to whet the appetite!)

We started off with a two and half hour ride in the back of one of my favourite trucks. The last hour was dirt road and incredibly bouncy, and involved a drive through a river, avoiding the ducks. It wasn’t too sicky, and nice to get to know the people in our group. We arrived at the village, had a warm free beer (fabulous) and then began the walk to the first zip line. The walk was a taste of things to come…. Very very hilly and very very hot and very very sweaty!! We reached a resting point where we were given our zip harnesses and split into two groups. One group of seven people, and one of six. We could choose between two tree houses, number one and number seven. Some members of the group were really pushy and said that “there’s more chance of seeing gibbons at hut seven” so we were left with treehouse one. Kind of annoying when we didn’t get a choice in the matter, plus we’d paid a lot for the trip (£200 each) so I was a bit pissed off, but in the end, dear reader, karma is a bitch…..

We fastened ourselves into our harnesses and carefully clipped ourselves onto the wire. The first zip line was really fun, a real adrenaline rush. I was panicking about being able to stop in time, so I pulled my brake early and stopped quite far away from the platform. I was left dangling mid air and thinking “hmm.” In the tutorial video, we watched a smiling lady pulling herself along the wire hand over hand. I though “okay cool, time to pull myself in.” But she made it look SO easy!! Hahaha!!! I have no core or upper body strength, so pulling myself in was really really exhausting for me. Luckily one of the guides came out and hoisted me back in. This happened many, many times over the next three days. God bless those guides!

We enjoyed more hiking in the beautiful jungle, with our guides pointing out the snakes (little ones) and jumping spiders (surprisingly a lot cuter than they sound!) we made a lunch stop, and then after a few more ziplines, we got the one that took us to our tree house. As I was zipping across, I was thinking “woah this looks so tiny!” But when we got there it was actually pretty huge, and the biggest one in the Gibbon Experience.

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(The little square at the top of the photo is the bed where Tom and I slept)
Behind a curtain on the bottom floor was our bathroom – a squat toilet (yaaaay) a sink and a shower. Then we walked up some stairs to our kitchen and social area. Up the stairs again was where Tom and I slept, and on the floor above, more sleeping space. I was dreading a dorm layout because I’m so sick of dorm rooms and I don’t sleep well surrounded by people other than Thomas, so I was really pleased with it! We had a double mattress on the floor with seriously heavy duty mosquito net covering it that gives you some privacy.
We had a cup of coffee with the guides and then they said “okay, someone will deliver your evening meal at 5pm, we will see you tomorrow at 8am!” I was laughing and like “haha yeah good one!” Then they zip lined out of the tree house. And I was like “holy shit, were 30 metres above the ground for the night, unattended!” For some reason, I’d assumed that the guides would stay with us…. The health and safety procedures are so different on this side of the world. They basically just said “don’t zip line when it’s dark and don’t light candles.” And that’s it. We later were thinking “what if someone has a heart attack or something, what do we do?!” And it was very discomforting when one of the guides told me that our tree house had actually burnt down a few years ago, when some travellers fell asleep with a candle burning and had to zip line out of the burning house in the dark. Terrifying! Anyway, I’m rambling again..

I had a shower. It was completely open air with awesome view of the jungle. I felt slightly exposed, but there is no one there to see you, just the odd gibbon, snake (!) bear (!!) or leopard (!!!)
In the shower you are stood on floorboards with gaps between them. I’m fine with big heights, but I must admit watching the water droplets from my shower snake down the thirty metre drop before hitting the ground below took my breath away and I found myself clinging onto the railing and doing some deep breaths.
There were seven of us in our treehouse; an American couple – Dani and Kevin, Anita from Switzerland, and David from Scotland with his Polish girlfriend Daria. So it was a good mix of people! We watched the sun go down over the jungle, listening to bugs that were deafening, and sounded like someone using an angle grinder, geckos singing and squeaking, an ominous humming that sounded like flies over a body, and all sorts of birds and unidentifiable animals singing. It was SO loud and fascinating!

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When it got dark we played cards by the single solar powered hanging LED light, and a few bugs came to join us. It started off with every five minutes of so, someone flinching and brushing off a mosquito or fly, then we saw small grasshoppers then bigger praying mantis, then moths, then huge moths, and then huge spiders and cockroaches. It was hilarious! We got to a point when we weren’t even scared, just waiting for the bigger and more funny bug to greet us. The grand finale was when an fucking ENORMOUS (about the size of my hand) bug descended from the ceiling in a twirl like a dramatic ballerina towards our table. It had a cape on. It had muscles. It had huge wiggling antenna and about ten wings. We were so giddy and scared and jumpy I’m certain we woke up and scared away every single sleeping gibbon in the jungle. We decided that we should probably go to bed before Godzilla or something arrived for the party.

We lifted our mosquito net to discover the mattress was absolutely crawling with ants. We brushed as many off as possible and got in. After a few minutes something huge began to flap around the net. It was absolutely pitch black but we didn’t dare put the torch on to decide if it was in the net or outside. I think it’s best not to know sometimes. I put my earplugs in and fell asleep.

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I woke up early to the sounds of the jungle and had another crazy shower. Our guides ziplined in with some coffee and rice for breakfast. It turns out the carbs would really come in handy!
The second day was just awesome. The uphill walks were incredibly hard for me. It’s a lot of very steep uphill climbs in 35 degree heat, so it felt like walking in a sauna. My chest was tightening and I very nearly cried at one point! I’m not the lithe fit hill walker I was post fruit picking (Ho Ho Ho!) we ziplined into treehouse seven (where the other group had stayed.) it was empty but we could hear the gibbons singing. It was an extremely loud, and almost mournful wailing sound that accelerated into sounding like a car alarm. There were about four or five we could hear, which helped to pinpoint the direction. We crept up to the very top of the treehouse and waited….. Then we saw them. Black and beige gibbons swinging around the trees with their long arms. They were also shaking the branches to defend their territory. It was magical.

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(This extra big gibbon keeps following me around)

Our next stop on the zipline was the tallest tree house in the world. It was mental stepping into the air and hurtling above the trees watching the beautiful view across the canopy. The national park just seems to go on forever. The treehouse came into view and I just felt like I was in Avatar or a Harry Potter film. It doesn’t look real. The treehouse gave me some vertigo, as it was so high up! It was amazing!!

 

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For the rest of the day we were hiking, jelly legged and zipping. It was ace. The guides were really kind. They made me giggle when I asked if the walking was easy for them. They were like “YES!”

That evening at our treehouse we experienced a massive thunder storm. It was awesome. At the same time I had to stop myself from thinking “a treehouse thirty metres above the ground with a metal roof is possibly the last place I want to be right now.”
There was a ridiculous moment when Dani said, “it’s fine! You can tell when a storm is serious when all the wildlife goes quiet!” And at that very moment silence descended across the jungle. It was like something off a film!
The next day we discovered that the other group had been evacuated from their treehouse due to safety. I’m glad it wasn’t us who had to zipline in pitch blackness!

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(A photo of the toilet in the tallest tree house in the world!)

Anyway, we made it through the second night and in the morning I woke up and I could hear the gibbons singing. I shook Tom awake and we looked out from underneath our mosquito net. Mist had covered the whole jungle whilst we were sleeping and it was so spooky and atmospheric. We had very little visibility, so it wasn’t possible to see the gibbons again, which was sad. But I can’t think of a better wake up call. After a couple of hours our guides showed up with breakfast, and then pointed out the langur monkeys in the trees. They were small, grey in colour monkeys that looked a bit like lemurs but without the stripes tail. They started off quite far away but then got closer and closer, until we could watch them swinging from tree to tree and having their breakfast. Occasionally one would freeze and stare at us, then almost shrug and continue eating. There was about forty of them in total. Just magic.

The gibbon experience is a truly wonderful government run scheme. Poachers were damaging the wildlife and vegetation in the national park, so the government created the gibbon experience and trained the poachers to become guides. They’re incredibly knowledgable about the jungle, they showed us all sorts of herbal medicines, and they just fucking love the zip lines. Half the time they zip across upside down with a huge smile across their faces. Our guides had grown up in the village at the start of the trail, and it was fascinating for me to imagine growing up in somewhere so cool. The money from the gibbon experience pays the guides much more than their earnings as poachers, and ploughs money back into the local community and schools. Although it’s not cheap, I’d highly recommend the Gibbon Experience to anyone visiting Laos.

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Suhkothai

We got the bus from Phitsanulok to Suhkothai which was quite manageable because it was only an hours journey. Suhkothai is a city split into two halves: old and new. We were staying in the new side, and eager to visit the old side which is full of more ancient temples. We found our hostel, checked in, and then went for a wander to find some lunch.

To my absolute delight we came across a restaurant called “Poo Reastaurant.” As it had the best name I think I’ve ever heard for a food establishment, we decided to eat there. The food was good, and not at all pooey! The rest of the day was spent in the air conditioned bubble of our room.

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We’re currently in April, Thailand’s hottest month. It’s averaging 40 degrees each day. I’m currently struggling with guilt, feeling that I’m in such an incredible place, I don’t want to spend the day reading, or browsing the Internet when I should be exploring…. but in reality, it’s just too hot to be walking around. The ideal thing is to get up and out early, siesta through lunchtime and then at around 4pm head back out. In our hostels when we get back from sight-seeing around lunchtime, it’s very common for the staff to just be asleep on the floor with a fan on them. It takes me back to when we visited Morocco one August and just spent the majority of the time in bed because it was so hot haha!

So the next day, we were up and out early. We caught a bus to the gates of the Suhkothai Temple park, where we hired a bike each (I realise that I’d sworn to never cycle again in Thailand, but the alternative was even worse)

We ended up having a really lovely morning cycling all around the ancient ruined temples. It was one of those places that really captures the imagination. There were lots of monks everywhere, their orange robes beautiful against the blue sky and reflected in the water. We saw one monk who had loads of gear and a big Gandalf stick who’d been on pilgrimage. There were also lots of young boy monks walking in a long line following their teacher. It’s wonderful to imagine the temples and monks being pretty much the same for the past few hundred years. In the true style of travelling juxtapositions, we had to leave the beautiful park abruptly because I was having a stomach eruption. HOHOHO Asia with a stomach that is dodgy at the best of times…. It’s a good job I’ve got a sense of humour!

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Ayutthaya and Phitsanulok

Disclaimer : apologies about the rubbish photos in this post. I cleared my phone before I got a chance to upload the photos so I had to take them off Facebook and some have ended up miniature!!

In Kanchanuburi, the Songkram celebrations were just rounding up, so we got completely soaked whilst we had our lunch and didn’t manage to dry out before our minibus to Ayutthaya arrived. Cue bouncing around in very soggy clothes for a few hours, but thankfully the minivan had air conditioning so it wasn’t too killer.

Our hostel in Ayutthaya was awesome, and full of little quirks, like the fish pond full of koi that were bigger than Penny and Parker.

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(The door to our room) can I just stop and say that it’s costing us 7 QUID a night for a double ensuite room. How mental is that?! We were paying 20 quid to stay on a campsite in New Zealand in a tent! Amazing. It seems we’ll make it home before we’re bankrupt after all!

The hostel was in a bizarre location though, on the side of a dual carriageway and quite far out of town. We went for a wander that evening, saw a temple and tried to find a restaurant as we were starving. Eventually we were ushered into a family run job alongside the river. It was stunning but we could barely afford the menu and resorted to counting out coins before we could leave. Slightly awkward because we were the only ones in there and shared some weird watery soup and a bottle of water… Not quite the rich westerners the host had in mind!

We set our alarms for 7am the next day as the travel guide suggested “rising early and cycling around the ruins of Ayutthaya” before it got too hot. Tom had been awake all night, so we didn’t manage to leave the hostel until gone 10am.

We cycled to Wat Chaiwatthanaram (mouthful) a beautiful ruined temple that reminded me instantly of the Jungle Book. It was extra special because there was hardly anyone there. Lovely. Loads of the Buddhas were missing their heads due to a raid by the Burmese in the 1700s. The statues were believed to have gold inside. It’s a shame really, but in a way it just made it more atmospheric.

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We’d decided to cycle to the train station to pick up our tickets for travel the following day. On our way we saw a load of elephants waiting to be taken for rides by tourists. Their owners were sleeping on the chairs upon their backs in the building heat. I’ve read quite extensively about the way in which elephants are treated in order to train them to carry humans. It’s completely barbaric. We decided to watch instead, and I enjoyed watching the elephants squirting themselves with water to cool themselves down. They’re truly beautiful awe-inspiring creatures but watching them trudge down the dual carriageway carrying people was really quite depressing.

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(Ride bikes not elephants)

It was getting hotter. And hotter. And hotter. We didn’t realise how far the train station was. The roads were terrible. It was around 40 degrees.- I’m not exaggerating. We found ourselves on a fucking Thai motorway at one point where I had a kind of out of body experience and screamed at Tom “If you smile at me again, I’m going to push you under a truck!!!” This is an example of how I was feeling. Somehow we made it to the station.

Tom went inside to get the tickets whilst I stood outside, taking my hat off so I had somewhere to be sick into. I wasn’t sick but I came very close. When Tom came back outside he said “bloody hell you are PURPLE.” And went to get me a Fanta with lots of ice. (Love him) We cooled down a bit, had some lunch, and then I accosted several tuk tuk drivers asking if they’d take us and the bikes back to the hostel. No amount of eyelash batting would work, as they were only doing sight-seeing tours. We had to cycle. It was absolutely horrendous and I think I came close to falling unconscious. At one point I screamed “WHERE THE FUCK IS THIS FUCKING BRIDGE????!!!!”

Anyway. Every hideous experience is an education. Lessons learnt:
1)Do not cycle in 25km in 40 degree heat.
2) If the locals are sat in the shade looking at you like you’ve got two heads, it’s for a reason.
3) When I return home the first thing I will do is find who suggested “a cycle in Ayutthaya” and personally shoot them.
4) If you find a man who doesn’t object to death threats and still loves you when you’re crying and your head is purple, marry him.

The rest of the day was an exhausted delirium.

The following day we got a pimp-my-ride style tuk tuk to the train station. No more cycling for me HO HO HO! We arrived half an hour early, which was good because the train was 45 minutes late… No one seemed to know which train was which. Train guards told us to get on the train and get off the train. Also to walk between the platforms you literally walk on the train track. A bit stressful to say the least. Meanwhile, a clean shaven man with a MOLE BEARD kept walking past. Let me explain, he had a large facial mole and he’d decided to grow out his mole hair so he had a big long tuft of mole hair about twenty centimetres long flapping around his face. Not helping my state of mind….

Finally our train arrived and we were delighted to find it had air conditioning and half an hour in, we were given a meal! Crazy! So different to our first Thai train journey.
We arrived in Phitsanulok – and joy of joys – none of the tuk tuk drivers knew our hostel, despite our showing them the map and offering to direct them, they refused to take us. So we had to walk to the hostel in the lovely 40 degree heat with our bags on. Plus there’s no pavements, weird stray dogs everywhere, and it’s fucking impossible to cross the road. I arrived in a similar state to the previous day. Tom checked us in whilst I lay on my bag on the pavement outside. I have no shame anymore.

After a few hours in our air conditioned bubble, we were hungry and decided to head out to a nearby temple and to grab some food. After a lot of waiting to cross the road, and being chased by a questionable looking dog we found the temple. Outside were a group of Thai girls, all aged around ten. They asked if they could show us around the temple and practice their English. After they assured us it was free, they found a big skirt for me to wear to cover my legs. It was like a big tube. I stepped inside and they kindly fastened it up for me…. Little did I know that this skirt would completely humiliate me in just under an hours time…

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(Above we’re learning to fold lotus flowers as an offering to Buddha)

We enjoyed a tour of the temple. The girls encouraged us to join in with the wishes and prayers. We shook sticks out of a pot that corresponded with our numbered fortunes, which was lovely. Afterwards, they led us around the back of the temple, and we picked up two more bewildered Westerners.

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(Above the girls are translating our fortunes. Tom was told he’d have a baby girl, and I was told I’d have a boy. One of each it is then!)
We were led outside where we saw a big row of monks sat on chairs, whilst people queued up to be blessed by them. I was hesitant to join in, convinced I’d do something wrong, but the girls insisted. I knew that women had to be careful around monks as we aren’t meant to touch them and should dress modestly. I thought I was all good covered in my scarf and skirt…..

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I was handed a bottle of holy water and a small metal cup. I watched the girls ahead of me and followed suit. We had to crouch at the feet of each monk, pouring water into their hands which they would flick onto our heads in blessing.

At one point my knee hit the bench at their feet which was full of bottles of water and vases of flowers. It nearly toppled but I managed to stop it. I sighed a sigh of relief and then stood up. To my horror as I stood, my skirt dropped to my ankles. This was like some ridiculous Bridget Jones moment… A policeman ran up to me and pulled the skirt up whilst I just wanted to DIE. Tom told me afterward that he thought I was going to be arrested! I managed to pull the skirt back up and hold it in place for the rest of the monks. I was literally counting them down so I could escape and hide my red face. It was equally mortifying and hilarious in the end. Tom said that the other policemen were pissing themselves and taking photos.

WHY AM I LIKE THIS?!! Why does it always happen to me!!!!!!!!

We all piled into one of the girls’ dad’s cars. He’d invited us to join the family for dinner. We were taken to a on street restaurant where we were told that the traditional dish of “morning glory” (what?) was sold. Tom and the Canadian girl we were with were made to dress up in some kind of weird hula dress with fake boobs on the front and a sequinned hat. They then had to stand on the opposite side of the road from the restaurant with a big dustbin lid in their hand. The staff then stopped the traffic and the chef came out with a wok full of morning glory and threw it over his shoulder across the street and then Tom caught it in the dustbin lid.

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https://www.facebook.com/tom.copley/posts/10154183796910159 (the link is Video evidence for those who have Facebook. If not I’ll show you when I’m home xx)

It was one of the many moments I’ve had travelling when I’ve been thinking “what the fuck is going on???!!!” But just had to laugh and roll with it. And so concluded one of the most mortifying and hilarious days of the trip.

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Japan part 2

Next on our route in Japan was Kyoto.

Prepared for the usual faffing and flapping in the subway stations, we left ridiculously early and thus spent a good 90 minutes sat on our bags and waiting for the train to arrive.
The Japanese bullet trains are really lovely and big and spacious. Plus they have a huge long nose at the front so they look pretty cool. They’re fast, and they arrive exactly on time every time. Very refreshing!

Kyoto is an historic town full of temples, gardens, and at occasional times in the year, geisha dances.
On arrival we found our hotel and were offered the choice of a tatami room or bed. (Tatami are the traditional Japanese mats on the floor that we stayed on for four nights in Tokyo.) We opted for the beds and were lead to our room, that had not one, not two, but THREE DOUBLE BEDS in it! All lined up in a big row to create one massive bed. Once assured we weren’t sharing we got a bit giddy jumping around. Certainly makes a change to bunk beds!

We then walked to the only theatre with shows on, which said the tickets were sold out online. We managed to secure tickets for the following day so we were really chuffed. As I mentioned, the geisha dances only happen a few times a year, so we were really lucky. And pleased, as we’d missed the sumo wrestling in Tokyo due to the season.
The rest of the day was spent eating (standard) and wandering around temples. We saw real geisha walking around. They are so incredibly elegant. Their rank is shown by the back of their neck, where an apprentice will have two triangles of bare skin, and a geisha will have one. In Kyoto they are called Geiko (geisha) and Maiko (apprentice.) Having read and been completely fascinated by Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” as a teenager, I had a bit of insight into the gruelling regime and practice that is necessary to become a geisha. So I was extra excited for the following days performance.

 

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The performance
We were ushered into a large theatre, told not to take photos and waited for the curtain to rise.
We were up in the gods but we still had a good view. At first curtains to the sides of the audience rose to reveal ten musicians on either side. They were all oldish, and one side held traditional guitars, the other drums, and one musician had a wooden flute. I was very impressed when they began to play and the flautist didn’t struggle at all whilst wearing a wide belt to hold the kimono together. Impressive!

The music began, the guitarists playing and singing and the Geiko began to slowly walk towards the stage. There were around twenty of them, dressed in stunning peacock blue kimonos covered in embroidery. (I later learnt that the costumes take six months to make in the run up to the twice yearly shows. They have new costumes each year) Their bodies were painted white, they had their black hair up in elaborate hair dos and they moved entirely as one. I’ve never seen anything like it, they were incredibly coordinated and elegant. They seamlessly pulled fans out from their sleeves which were included in the dance. It lasted for an hour, and portrayed the four seasons. It’s a shame I could take any photos to show you, but it was a privilege to see such a high art form, and I’ll never forget it.

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Next on our agenda was a 24 hour visit to Hiroshima. The city was pretty much flattened by the atomic bomb in 1945, and so most of the buildings are fairly new. We found our hotel, thanks to booking.com’s photo. There was no English on the building so we couldn’t find it by name! The owner spoke no English, so we spent a good ten minutes trying to communicate before realising that we couldn’t check in until 4pm. Not too much of an issue as we left our big bags in the foyer, but we had to lug our small bags around with us for the day. We somehow discovered a sight seeing bus that we could use for free with our rail passes. We sighed a sigh of relief. A day off the subway! Thank fuck!!

We made our way to the Hiroshima peace memorial park. Outside is the Atomic Dome – a building that was directly below the bomb when it was dropped and so was one of the only buildings that survived the blast. No one inside survived however. It’s a very poignant reminder of the city that once was.

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The park surrounding the dome is full of memorials and statues. It has a very peaceful air to it, but at the same time it’s impossible to not dwell on what happened in Hiroshima. We headed into the museum, which told the story of the bomb. It was full of relics left over from the survivor: Scorched items of clothing, a child’s tiny bike, and very disturbingly.. Fingernails. I was left scratching my head at one point thinking “what is gained by displaying these!?” But for many of the items, they were literally all that was left of someone’s son, daughter, mother or father. Similarly like when we visited ground zero, and when I went to a German concentration camp, it was a day I’ll never forget, but there came a point when enough was enough and I found myself covered in goosebumps and feeling like I was on the brink of a migraine. We fast peddled it out of the park. On the way out there was a huge bell that you could ring to signal your desire for peace in the world and giving it a good clang felt like I was exorcising the demons.

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Above is a statue in tribute to Sadako Sasaki who survived the blast aged two, but when she was eleven developed leukaemia as a result of the radiation poisoning. She decided to make 1000 origami paper cranes to demonstrate her desire for peace, but tragically died before she could complete the project. Her classmates finished the task. To this day there are millions and millions of paper cranes at the children’s memorial in Hiroshima.

I’m really glad to have visited Hiroshima. I still can’t understand….I don’t think anyone can EVER understand how politicians can use human life as pawns in their games.

Anyway, after Hiroshima, we were back on the train headed for Osaka. Osaka was a good stop off point on our way to Koyasan, and we were excited and dubious to be staying in a capsule hotel, something the Japanese are famous for!
The main worry on my part was that I was alone with the women and not with Tom. Pathetic, I know, but we’ve been together 24hours a day for the past seven months and it’s taken its toll!
We went to our separate floors to check out our capsules before bed.

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You’re handed a locker key that corresponds with your bed number. In the locker is a towel and some beige pajamas, which everyone wears and makes you feel a bit like you’ve been institutionalised/ joined a cult. The main thing about the capsule is that it doesn’t have a door on the end, just a roll blind so it’s not too claustrophobic, but it does feel a little like you’re in a hostel dorm, I.e. You can hear everyone’s snores and splutters but with more privacy.

The hardest bit for me was actually getting in the pod. I was on the top shelf and it was really hard to get in and out, I constantly felt like I was on the brink of falling flat on my face when I was on the ladder. But luckily, no disasters there. The bathroom was another communal bathing job – so another naked sauna and spa pool before bed. It’s weird how quickly it becomes normal!
All in all, it was a fairly uneventful night. It felt very bizarre to be alone and to agree a meeting time in the morning. In the morning, I climbed up the stairs to the reception feeling immensely relived to see daylight. The women’s capsules were in the basement, and they did feel a little claustrophobic. The capsule hotel goes down as one of the weirdest places we’ve stayed.

The next day we were off to Koyosan, a sacred mountain. We got on the train, got chucked off the train and then had to leg it onto a different train… Lots of fun with your backpack on. Seriously. I love Japan, but understanding the trains is bloody stressful. I can totally see the appeal of a tour group holiday. Japan has been the first place on this trip where I’ve lost sleep over stress. Anyway….

After the first train, we changed onto another train and then onto a “cable car.” It was not a cable car, it was a funicular railway. This has happened so many times on this trip! I get excited to go on a gondola, but it’s not a gondola!
We finally arrived at the top of Mount Koya, and then hopped onto another bus in the centre of town. Koyasan is a good 5 degrees colder than the rest of Japan, which we were already finding cold compared to the rest of our travels. We headed to our accommodation : inside a Buddhist temple. I was really excited!

I’d read in the lonely planet that women shouldn’t touch monks, or be near them in case you accidentally brush them etc. so I was a little apprehensive that I’d make some kind of faux pas but I needn’t have worried. The monks were really friendly and welcoming. We were shown to our room and given some green tea. We felt incredibly lucky and excited to be staying in the temple. It was the most expensive night of the whole trip : £90 for the night, no food included. But it was so worth it, for such a wonderful experience.

We headed out into Koyosan, a tiny town that is crammed full of temples. We went to a huge Buddhist graveyard that feels like it’s in the middle of the jungle. It was freezing and beautiful. We watched lots of people praying. I walked into a small place of worship whilst Tom was at the loo, and was ushered through to a back room and given more green tea by another smiling monk. They seem to love plying us with tea!

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Next we visited a few more temples, and then headed back to where we were staying. They had more communal bathing pools here and more funny Jedi outfits to wear to bed. I had my hot pool to myself which was really nice, and I was amused to hear that Tom had shared his pool with a naked monk! We had an early night because we were due to be awake very early to watch the monks ceremony in the morning.
We set our alarms for 6am and then headed to the temple for 6.30am. It was very cold. We could see our breath and had to take our shoes off inside, but in a way it added to the magic.

Inside the temple, it was a small room full of ornate decorations… Lots of gold. We were ushered in, where we sat down. We could see a monk in metallic robes sat cross legged at the alter with his back to us. He was moving herbs around and burning incense. I realise I sound completely ignorant here, but the explanations were in Japanese so I can only write what I saw. After a while another monk started banging a big gong just outside the room. He did it around 100 times and it was so loud that every strike made me blink! Not exactly the calm morning rituals I’d expected. The monks then began to chant. They all said the same words in a monotone, reading from scriptures and barely seeming to breathe. The effect was completely hypnotic. One monk stopped and started smacking some big cymbals together. Part of me thinks they enjoyed making a big racket to wake everyone up! One of the monks then came to invite everyone to take part in the ceremony. The explanation was in Japanese, and as Tom and I aren’t religious or Buddhist we decided to just observe…. We didn’t want to do anything wrong or cause offence. But we realised everyone else in the room had gone up to the alter and done something with some spices and holy water apart from us. Whoopsie. I honestly think it was best to just observe though. We were then taken on a brief tour of the temple then headed back to our room for some breakfast.

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Our time in Koyasan felt like an enormous privilege, and a wonderful way to end our time in Japan. There have been many many moments in this trip that I’ll always think about for the rest of my life. When I’m stressed out, and not sleeping, and covered in eczema, I’ll think of those beautiful smiling and welcoming monks on top of a mountain in Japan.

We headed back to Osaka and then onwards to Thailand.

In summary, Japan has been truly awesome! It was one of the places I was most excited to visit and it lived up to expectations. Around every corner is something delightful, like a vending machine full of cold beer, or a person pushing their ten chihuahuas around in a buggy. There’s a wonderful sense of community here. The mundane is exciting to me, from the ridiculous music that played when you enter supermarket, or the fact that you can expect your toilet seat to be warm. It’s a place of contrast. People literally live on top of eachother and I’ve never seen more people in one place than in Tokyo. But then there’s the beautiful countryside, huge mountains covered in trees.

I’m already excited to go back one day.

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