Bali Part 2 – Turtles, Reef Sharks and Sunsets

Gili Trawangan is an island off Lombok known for a party atmosphere but even if partying is not your thing there are a host of other activities to enjoy. We had barely dipped our toes into the ocean and now we were off to the gorgeous white sands and crystal clear waters of Gili T for diving, snorkelling and more. If you want to hit the strip and hop from bar to bar there are cheap drinks to be had and great live music to get the party started. However, our scene is a bit more laid back and we discovered there is still plenty of more chilled out spots, fresh local seafood to try and amazing ocean life to experience.

Day 7 – We travelled to Gili T on a one way ferry ticket for 500,000 IDR for both of us, which is around £28. There may be cheaper deals to be had if you book a return ticket or even with a bit more haggling but since we had heard of return tickets for one going for 600,000 IDR we didn’t think this was too bad. It’s always hard to know what is a fair deal for the locals and a cheap price for yourself.

It was an early start to get to the dock with an hour transfer there and then a lot of standing around in the heat waiting for our boat. You need to have your wits about you as a guy who seemed to be taking us to our boat left us waiting and never came back to collect us when it actually turned up. Luckily the local hawkers on the pier were very helpful and let us know we needed to get a move on to catch our boat. The journey was fine if a bit hot and stuffy and we were soon piling out onto the white sands of Gili T.

Just seeing the hustle and bustle of holiday makers and backpackers, the array or restaurants, shops and bars along the beach front and the dive shops everywhere you looked we had already decided we were glad not to get a return ticket and to extend our time here. Having a 4* hotel also helped! Villa Ombak was stunning and we stayed in a traditional Lumbung room, with our own private terrace and balcony plus outdoor shower to bathe under the stars. We wanted to stay forever.

Day 8 – Knowing our days in luxury were numbered we took full advantage of the facilities today and spent most of the day swimming and sunbathing. In the afternoon we went back to one of the dive shops we had checked out earlier and booked in to dive the next day.

Day 9 – There are a lot of choice with dive shops but after ducking our heads into a few we went with Dive Central as they made the dive sites sound most exciting and seemed pretty chill about us getting back in the water after quite a break from the last time. Only downside was we did feel at times they were selling the dive packages and courses a little too much. This is surely down to competition from other dive shops and partly also because we seemed to speak to a different person each time but as we dropped in a few times over the course of the week to chat about what dive sites were coming up this got a bit repetitive.

Selling aside they were great to dive with and we headed to Turtle Heaven for a mid morning dive. This certainly lived up to its name! Within 5-10 minutes we had spotted our first turtle. They have a mix of Green and Hawksbill turtles and I’ll admit I’m not sure I could tell the difference. I was impressed by the size though with some stretching up to my shoulder if we were laid down next to each other. We lost track of how many we saw in the end but we loved every minute and along with turtles we saw a stonefish, trumpetfish and humphead bannerfish. Along with, of course, many of the regulars you see on tropical reefs, the yellow, black and white bannerfish you would recognise as Gill from Finding Nemo, clownfish too, many bright blue and neon fish, anemones and so much more. If you want to see a video of the dive you can check it out here on our facebook page @ThereAndBackAgainJJ.

Day 10 – As if we hadn’t had enough of turtles we started our day with a snorkelling trip. If you are on a budget then you can join the group boat trips from as little as 150,000 IDR (around £8) but these trips can have up to 30 people on them, so a great way to meet other backpackers but also expect crowds. We opted for a two hour private snorkelling trip so we could choose a time when the sites would be less busy and went early in the morning, which I would definitely recommend. We paid 600,000 (around £34), which in hindsight was more than it was worth for 2 hours, especially as they had advertised it as 4 sites and we only went to 3, however the first place we went to had asked for 900,000 and we had talked the one we booked with down from 750,000 but we were told the prices were high because of peak season.

Regardless we had a great time! Our first stop was Turtle Heaven again and this time the turtles were a lot more active, coming up to the surface to breathe so that we could swim right alongside them. It felt magical to dive under the waves and float along next to them as they munched on coral.

The second site was not great visibility so we didn’t see a huge amount of sea life and didn’t stay long. The final site was the famous ring of statues that is also a popular instagram spot and this was my least favourite of the day. It was pretty cool to dive down and swim amongst the statues but dodging the flippers of other snorkelers trying to get that perfect shot in the water was not so fun. The way everyone was splashing about in clusters reminded me of a net of fish on dry land, flapping about, not really sure which way to go. It has the possibility of being such a peaceful spot but after a while it got a bit too much and we gave up and hopped back on the boat.

To end the day we hired bikes from our Air BnB (by this point we had moved to Lumbung Cottage Air BnB, a huge step back to basics after our gorgeous hotel but it would do the trick or the next few days and the staff were very helpful and kind) and set off to see more of the island. We stuck to the coast and some of the paths were pretty tricky, stony or too sandy to ride over at all, when we cycled back we had more luck cutting across the island where the roads weren’t cut off by sections of beach. The sunset side of the island is a completely different vibe, very quiet and dining and drinking options a lot more spread out but I have to say some of the accommodation we passed looked lovely. Definitely a good shout if you want some peace and quiet. We settled down right in line for the sunset and although slightly obscured by the clouds, it was gorgeous and the perfect way to end the day.

Day 11 – Joey wasn’t feeling a second dive so opted to do research on our next stop but as you can’t keep me out of the water I booked an early morning dive to Shark Point. Dive Central explained that with the water temperature drop recently and the sharks enjoying cooler water there was a good chance of seeing them and I was in luck! This dive was deeper than the one before and the currents were strong so it was a bit of a battle at times but as we were drifting along, letting the current take us, our guide pointed out two white tip reef sharks sitting on the bottom. Neither were huge but one was bigger than the other and both darted awake as us divers went past. I wasn’t nervous of the sharks at all, they really just look like big fish, but I can’t say I would be so chill if it was a great white!

Along with the sharks I saw a sting ray and blue spotted eagle ray, an octopus hiding away in the rocks and a cuttlefish that was so well camouflaged I had to look three times to spot him! It’s incredible to see this animals in their natural habitat and I’m always recommending people give diving a go to enjoy the same wonders. It may not be for everyone but it certainly gives you a whole new perspective from snorkelling alone and actually a lot of the time the breathing is easier (if that’s something that worries you) as there is no chance of accidentally sucking up water. You won’t notice the depth either because there is just so much to see! It really is an amazing experience I feel privileged to be able to do.

Day 12 – As I write this we are sitting in a cafe not far rom the ferry port waiting to catch a ride to Nusa Lembongan where we will stay for a few nights before heading on to Nusa Penida and finally back to Canggu for a final couple of nights. There are lots to do on these islands so I feel our chill out time is coming to an end but having the luxury of three weeks to explore means we’ve been able to do everything at a slow pace and not cram a lot in. The Nusa islands offer some amazing beaches, cliff top lookouts and swimming with manta rays (fingers crossed for us and this big bucket list item!) so lots to see and do. We managed to get a direct ferry from Gili T for 600,000 IDR for both of us which also included a ferry on from Nusa Lembongan back to Sanur, Bali and a transfer from there to Canggu, so even better value than our outbound trip. And apparently boats between the islands are pretty cheap.

I can’t believe we have reached the end of our second week in Bali! I can feel that now we are more energised our attention is beginning to shift to Australia and all we need to prepare for our Working Holiday. It is exciting to still have so much to look forward to but for now I can’t wait to get to Nusa Lembongan and plan our next week of adventuring.

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Bali Part 1 – Finding Our Feet, Thieving Monkeys and Canyoning

Bali, the land of rice paddies, instagrammable swing moments and stunning temples. I had previously dismissed Bali on the South East Asia trip as being too touristy, and though this may still be true, I’ve had so many recommendations to go I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. It also seemed like the perfect respite between quitting our jobs and heading over to work in Australia and only a week into our Bali trip so far, that is exactly what it has been.

Day 1 – We arrived in the evening to Denpasar and had a transfer booked through our Air BnB, though I’ve heard much advise on being careful with the taxis ripping you off and being careful to get metered taxis or even walk a way outside the airport to find a decent rate. Our first two nights were in Canggu, which I had heard was less touristy than Kuta and Seminyak but still close enough to the airport to not be too long of a drive after we had just arrived – though I never accounted for the traffic, which meant we arrived late and crashed out almost immediately.

Day 2 – I was keen to experience surfing in Canggu as the waves are often perfect for beginners but between jet lag and a general feeling of finding our feet in a new place we actually opted to give it a miss for now but hope to return later in the trip.

Instead we explored the local area and enjoyed the food – Oh my gosh the food! We ate mostly Western fare and struggled to find local Balinese places (although we didn’t stray too far from the beaten track either) but every meal was deliscious from the much-needed breakfast burger to the healthy chicken wraps to the spicy noodles for dinner. As much as I always try to sample the local dishes and encourage others to do so I’m a big believer in eating what you want when you travel. If all you are craving is a burger, go for it. If you’ve fallen in love with a local dish and you want to eat it everyday, no one is here to stop you. I think sometimes there can be strange preconceptions on the way we should and shouldn’t do things, including the way we eat, while traveling but at the end of the day variety and balance is usually best and ultimately, do what you enjoy.

That being said, Canggu does seem very set up for Westerners with cool cafes, sleek restaurants and a myriad of clothes shops. There are times when it feels difficult to see the real Bali beneath these tourist constructs, and sometimes it is all taken too far, but for the most part I can’t seem to help but find it all very likeable. Canggu was an easy place to just chill, wandering from shop to shop, more dining options than we could ever hope to try and some great surfing and yoga options too. It is the perfect introductory place to ease yourself into Bali or even as a base to explore from if you fancy hiring a bike and finding more obscure places to visit.

Day 3 – Moving day. Check out was late from our Air BnB. We had been staying in a simple but lovely room attached to four others of the same with a small communal kitchen (though the food is so cheap I’m sure it is rarely used) and a tiny pool to cool off in. If you want some privacy and a quirky or chic place to stay Air BnB’s are a great choice in Bali. Hostels are of course available if you are looking or a more social way of traveling but with such affordable luxury hotels and Air BnB’s you may as well treat yourself and they are often the more popular choice. So after a leisurely breakfast at Monseiur Spoon, at which we had eaten the day before and equally savoured every bite again today, we experienced the joy of doing nothing while waiting for our transfer.

We were heading to Ubud to stay in the gorgeous Hotel Tjamuhan. It’s a place I recommended often through work and I was excited to experience it for myself. It did not disappoint. The hotel looks out over the jungle and winding pathways take you to traditionally decorated rooms overlooking the river. I will admit parts of the hotel are looking a bit tired and shabby, maybe in need of a spruce up but for the sake of the wonderful service and stunning setting this was easily overlooked.

Day 4 – After a few days of settling in, getting over jet lag and generally relaxing I was eager to get out and explore. The Monkey Forest Sanctuary was only a short walk away from our hotel and cost just 80,000 IDR, approximately £4.40 per person. Word of advise, keep everything in your bag and a lock on your bag too, those cheeky monkeys will grab anything not bolted down, cameras and phones in hand being the exception perhaps, and they know how to undo zips. We discovered this to our peril only a few steps into the sanctuary. Although we had put away sunglasses and hats, Joey had stopped to get something out of the bag for his camera. We were near two monkeys grooming and all of a sudden Joey’s rustling caught one of the monkeys attention. “Joey…” I tried to call to him but it was too late and the monkey was on him! With deft fingers it managed to get into the front pocket and luckily grabbed nothing more valuable than a pack of tissues. After ripping the packet open with his teeth he seemed disapointed to pull out tissue after tissue instead of the yummy snack he was surely hoping for. They never seemed to go for cameras and phones, it was always things in plastic packaging (we wistnessed a few packets of wet wipes being stolen and one couple’s plastic money bag, which luckily the attendants chased down the monkey and retrieved it for them) so they have obviously learnt what is most likely to have food in.

After that we were more cautious but even so I must have caught the eye of a monkey, something you are not suppposed to do, while crouching down to take a photo and next thing I knew he was clinging to my skirt. I tried to calmly back away and the photo Joey snapped may seem like I’m thinking nothing more than ‘oh my gosh, a monkey!’ But I was definitely more nervous than I let on!

For the most part though the monkeys will leave you alone and as long as you follow the advise at the entrance on how to behave they wont be aggressive. It’s a great way to get up close to these semi-wild animals and get great photos. There are also temples there, which seem overshadowed by the wildlife, which is a shame and not what I expected from the complex (I imagined something like Angkor Wat but smaller and with monkeys) but they were still beautiful to see. One area was shrouded in vines and a bridge nearby goes straight through a tree whose roots stand tall and vine- like as well. There are many statues scattered around and Balinese carving is really a sight to see, as our driver the following day joked, “We have so much time on our hands we just carve everything”, and he was right! It is all so intricate and detailed you could stare at it for hours and keep finding new points of interest.

In the afternoon we took advantage of the spa facilities at our hotel. Similarly to Thailand but perhaps not quite as cheap and popular, are the masssages and treatments. We went for a package that included an hour massage, body scrub, yoghurt rub, flower bath and use of spa facilities for half the day for only 1,188,000 IDR approx £70 for two people. Ill admit it was a slightly odd experience at times, having two lovely Balinese women rub us down in what turned out to be literally yoghurt and not some fancy way of describing body lotion, while wearing very ill fitting and very transparent disposable underwear but we walked away feeling relaxed and serene none-the-less. It helps that the massages and flower bath take place looking out over the river with the gentle sounds of the running water, bird life and rhythmic chirping of crickets to further relax you. Would highly recommend.

Day 5 – Our busiest day yet. A good friend recommended us Bali Bro Tours as she had met it’s owner, Dedy, on a previous trip to Bali, before he set up his own business of Bali Bro Tours. We had a blast with him! His sense of humour will have you chuckling all day and although he left most of the decisions as to what we wanted to see for the day up to us, at times he had some suggestions to take us away from the more touristy areas.

Our first stop was Beji Guwang Hidden Canyon to go Canyoning. I had read that morning that the water wasn’t too deep and at points we may go up to our waist but if the water was low it could also be likely we got in no deeper than our knees. Dedy also reassured us the water was likely to be low but we had brought our swimming gear and towels anyway and boy were we glad! As soon as we got the front desk we were told it was full submersion today! The price was 300,000 IDR or £17 approx. This was a little more than what i had read online which suggested the entrance was 15,000 IDR per person plus 100,000 IDR for a guide but possibly my research was out of date or there are multiple entrances that charge different prices, so do your research ahead of time. The currents were also strong in places so if you don’t feel confident in the water it might be best to call in the morning and find out what the water level is like. The guides are great though as they are locals who have been playing in the canyon since they were children and despite being lean they were strong enough to help me up rocks and pull me through stronger currents.

The canyon was so pretty though and there were not many others going through it so it never felt like one long queue of people. We scrambled over rocks, clinging to small ledges at points, waded through water and hopped from boulder to boulder. Round every corner seemed to be smooth rocks with the sun shining down from the crack cross the sky or a peaceful area with small waterfalls running between huge round rocks, or a sunspot between a junction in the river that I could have stayed at for hours. Well worth it.

I was keen to see the natural beauty of Bali and Joey had looked into some waterfall spots we could stop at, including Tegenungan waterfall. This was the only part of our day which was a disappointment. The waterfall was surrounded by restaurants and hotels, which were blasting music, and swarming with people. We had pictured a natural beauty spot but to be honest it all seemed very unnatural and there was a charge, albeit a small one, for going down to the waterfall at 20,000 IDR per person. I think if you want to see waterfalls you will be better off doing research, hiring a scooter and heading off to more secluded areas.

The rice fields were next on the day’s agenda and they were everything I imagined them to be. Even though we had come just after harvest so the rice wasn’t as tall and lush as it would normall be, it made for a spectacular view for a lunch spot and it was nice to go further down for some photo opportunities in the fields themselves.

Though we had two stops left on the list we only made it to one as it was already late afternoon. Dedy had suggested a Luwak coffee place he knew of that also had swings there that would be cheaper than going to some of the more official Bali swings, though almost everywhere we went had either swings or those woven nest type perches for photo opportunities. Luwak coffee is known as one of the most expense coffees in the world, it is made from coffee cherries that have been fed to and passed through the digestive tract of civet cats. I am skeptical of the ethics of Luwak coffee and have to admit the cats were in fairly small cages. We were reassured that they are fed other foods as well as the coffeee cherries and that they would naturally eat these cherries as well but with different countries having different standards of animal care sometimes, it’s hard to tell.

I did feel guilty for enjoying my time here but couldnt help feeling it was a lovely end to the day. Attentive guides talked us through the coffee making process and gave us a free sample of the different flavour coffees they make. It was only 50,000 IDR for a cup of Luwak coffee, which at around £2.80 is cheaper than most standard coffee in the UK and a hell of a lot cheaper than the £30-40 you can buy the Luwak coffee for in some places. Not being a coffee drinker myself I stuck to the locally grown cocoa and treated myself to a chocolate ice cream.

Last to tick off the list was a Bali swing. At 200,000 IDR (approx £11) for around 5 minutes on the swing is probably a rip off but was also cheaper than entry to the swing parks, which we were less interested in. I spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying about getting the perfect photo on the swing. Before coming to Bali I had filled my head with instagram pictures of beautiful women in flowing dresses posing on swings and felt like it was almost a requirement to get that perfect shot. Silly I know. I had even brought a dress to change into to fully look my best and I was worrying about this to Joey who said, “Why dont you do it just for the fun of it and not for the photo”. At that moment behind us a little girl was just being strapped into a swing and when they let her go she whooped with joy. Seeing her giggling and smiling as she flew out over the rainforest made me feel like even more of a fool. She was having the time of her life, the swing was something fun to do, not a modelling opportunity. So I did it, and of course I still wanted some nice photos of the experience, but I also tried to let go and just enjoy it. I whooped too at that rush when they let you go and you feel like you’re flying over this incredible view below. It didn’t matter how I looked; it was fun.

Day 6 – After a couple of busy days we decided to balance it out with a more relaxed one and simply hung out at the hotel most of the day. It was also a chance to forward plan for the next few days and we got our transfer to Gili T booked in. We managed to get a deal for 500,000 IDR (around £28 for two people) one way. We might have been able to get cheaper for a return or haggling a bit more but from comparing places nearby this seemed a fair price for a one hour transfer and over an hour ferry journey. We wanted to leave things open as the planned part of our trip was coming to an end. Once we arrived in Gili T we had three nights at Vila Ombak booked in and then the rest was yet to be decided.

So far though I am loving Bali life. Australia will be all go, lots of planning, driving, adventuring and working too so even if we may be doing things at a slow pace, it is pure joy to sit in a cafe chatting or writing or going through photos and knowing the only thing we have to do with our day is decided whether to go for a swim or where to go for dinner. Two thoughts that are always the forefront of my mind.

I have had some technical issues uploading photos and formatting so apologies for any issues.

Amsterdam: Birthdays, Marijuana Museums and Dutch cycle rides

Amsterdam is a classic weekend break and I feel like almost everyone I know has visited it before, some for the museums and the culture, others for more alternative reasons. Even my customers all seem to be going and they ask me where is a good place to stay and what is worth seeing and I figured I’d finally find out for myself as a Birthday trip last November. This post has been a little delayed with all the Christmas excitement but finally I have a chance to share it.

I’ve been to Amsterdam once before but I wouldn’t really count walking through the streets, getting lost, getting hangry, doing a short canal cruise and then leaving after less than 12 hours a proper visit. As mine and Joey’s birthdays were coming up and they are so close together we thought this would be the perfect way to treat ourselves. So I flexed my fingers, cracked out my travel agent skills and got booking.

 

Day 1 – Pizza and a Temperamental Balloon

Arriving at the airport with the minimum amount of time left to spare I still decided it was a good idea to sit down in Bella Italia and have the pizza I was craving. Twenty-five minutes later and I’m asking the waitress to cancel the order because the plane is boarding as I can see them placing the pizza on the counter ready to be served. We ran to the plane with said pizza in a take away box and munched it while the air hostess did the safety announcement and our fellow passengers shot us dirty looks for being the last ones on the plane. But it was a damn good pizza – I regret nothing!

The air hostesses barely had time to whizz down the isle with their cart before we were touching down. We were staying in The Student Hotel, a place recommended by friends and through work so we knew it was easy to get to we just didn’t know how. Our first experience of the Dutch was amazing! A cheerful lady recommended the 3 day travel passes to us that would allow us to use the trains and trams, explained the easiest route to get to our hotel and wrote down all the details we needed. We were off to a great start.

Getting to the Student Hotel was as easy as promised and a half hour or so later we were crashed out for a late afternoon nap as if we had just flown halfway across the world rather than a 2 hour flight.

 

Feeling refreshed we headed out to Dam Square where I had heard of the grand Switching On of the Christmas lights. We didn’t really know what to expect but it turned out to be pretty cool. A whole show was put on including acrobatics on a crane, singing, dancing and giant balloon birds! The only downside (apart from the fact it was all in Dutch and we couldn’t understand a thing) was the giant balloons had a mind of their own and kept drifting in front of our view at the vital moment. Hence why my photo looks like a giant balloon giving birth to baby balloons! We were so excited by it all though that we failed to notice that the Christmas lights on the De Bijenkorf department store never actually switched on! It was only when we returned home that we discovered someone had tripped a switch and they were never actually switched on.

Day 2 – Anne Franks house and the Weed Museum

Our first proper day of exploring started with a Sandemans tour. We’d been on one of their tours in Berlin which had been brilliant. The guide told us interesting and unique stories and had even given us a full history of Berlin in an amazing 10 minute run down. This tour didn’t quite hit the mark on the same level but I think after Berlin our expectations were high. Our guide, Kendra, was funny and chatty but told more stories about previous groups than about the history of Amsterdam. However, when she did talk history it was clear that was where her passion was and she knew all the old buildings and what they used to be at different points in time.

We went down backstreets, checked out the University and the Amsterdam Museum. She told us that if you’re walking down the street with a pint in one hand and a spliff in the other the police are more likely to stop you for drinking in the street. Marijuana is not technically legal but is tolerated to the point where even the police won’t bat an eyelid about you smoking in the street. We learnt just how many bicycles end up in the canals (between 12,000-15,000) and saw the skinniest house in Amsterdam. And as a final treat Kendra popped over the road to grab us some delicious Dutch cheese from a friend of hers.

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Pancakes came highly recommended to us as a post-tour lunch so we headed there next. It was a nice cafe but not particularly warm or cosy as it had a chain feel to it and the pancakes were nothing special. It’s certainly nice for a quick lunch and more filling than you would expect but there are better options out there and after a bad customer service experience with them later in the trip they wouldn’t be top of my recommended places.

In the afternoon we visited Anne Frank’s House. This is an experience that must not be missed and I found it very inspirational. For me personally, it wasn’t just what the family did to try and survive but Anne’s determination to make something of herself despite her adverse situation. She didn’t just write her diary for fun or to stop herself going crazy in that attack (though these were also important reasons) but to give people a unique narrative of the events around her, something she knew would be hugely important in the future. As a writer this was what I took away from the experience more than anything.

Most of the house is empty and the only things to see are the information and photographs on the wall but the audio tour was very enlightening. Alongside general descriptions are anecdotes and insights from those who were there at the time, making everything in the house seem more real despite the sparse rooms. You move through the house practically in single file and see the warehouse rooms, the offices upstairs and finally the iconic bookcase that kept the annex secret for just over two years. The annex itself is one of those rooms that carries an almost tangible feeling with it. It wasn’t chilling in the same way standing in the gas chambers at Auschwitz was, after all these walls had heard laughter and everyday chatter as well as sadness, worry and fear. Yet it still felt heavy, like a magnet at once drawing you in and weighing you down. What struck me the most was the photos pasted on the wall, perhaps because there was no other furniture, but also because I knew whose hands had pasted them there and from the extract printed next to them “Thanks to Father – who bought my entire postcard and film collection here beforehand – […] I was able to plaster the walls with pictures. It looks much more cheerful” I knew what they had meant to Anne Frank. On my way out I bought her diary at the gift shop and received a special sticker inside to say I had bought it there. I’m still only in the beginning stages of the diary and it is interesting to hear Anne talk about daily life and how, although in many ways it was quite different, in yet more they still went through the same every day struggles they did outside of the secret annex.

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It was still early and there was so much more to see and do so we headed over to the Hash, Marjuna and Hemp Museum in the Red Light District next – just a slight change of pace from Anne Frank’s house! The museum was actually split up into two exhibits in separate buildings down the street from each other. The first detailed the history of marjuana, it’s uses and different varieties. There were some interesting tit-bits in here but no great wisdom that would set about changing opinions on the subject. The second was focused on hemp and the products you can make with it. As fascinating as it is to see car doors, shoes, clothes and children’s toys made from the same substance as a recreational drug, we were flagging at this point and could probably have missed it out altogether. However if you want your free taster of vaporised weed then it’s still worth stopping in at.

Day 3 – Banksy and Red Light Secrets

As we felt that somehow we had flitted back and forth from the Red Light District (who would have known it would be such a lure?) we decided to head off to a different area of Amsterdam and visit the museum square. First things first we attempted to take our classic “I am Amsterdam” sign photo but typically all the other tourists were ruining my own perfect selfie. It was also threatening rain so after a quick snap we ran to the nearest museum.

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The Van Gogh museum takes some forward planning as the queues are ridiculous if you want to get in there and then. Book ahead or rock up literally as they open the doors if you are keen to go. We weren’t feeling the Van Gogh vibes on this trip, instead we went to the Moco museum, which had a great selection of Banksy’s most thought-provoking works. It was just a shame there wasn’t more information about where each artwork was placed as often this is half the significance of the peace. I still found it very interesting and also enjoyed the Roy Lichtenstein and Salvador Dali works that were also on display. It was just the right amount of art for the day and didn’t take too long to go around – plus we picked up discount cards from our hotel to get a cheaper entry.

Our next museum of the day was the Body Worlds Exhibition. This was one I wasn’t sure how I felt about at the end. In case you haven’t heard of it before the Body Worlds displays plastinagtions which are essentially a real human body that has been dissected and preserved with special polymers turning them into anatomical models. Many will find this quite macabre. Peering at dissected body parts or full posed bodies did at times make me feel a bit funny. After all these were people who had once lived their lives, dancing, running and sitting in the same ways their bodies were now eternally posed in. However it also serves an important purpose to showcase our internal structures and make us think in more detail about what makes us us. The exhibit is not just limited to anatomical knowledge and learning how the body works physically but also has a specific theme for each exhibit. The one in Amsterdam was exploring the idea of happiness and all the ways in which our bodily functions affect our happiness. Despite the initial weirdness it was fascinating and I just wanted to absorb every piece of information in there. If you have reservations I would say give it a chance, you might be surprised.

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As if the attractions we had visited so far couldn’t already be more different our next stop was Red Light Secrets the Museum of Prostitution. This is of course in The Red Light District and features the only windows you are actually allowed to take photos of (although of course you ideally want a picture from the outside of yourself in the window but to do this you would need to go through the museum while your friend waited outside). Since prostitution is legal in Amsterdam I was expecting a positive argument running through the museum to persuade people of the reasonings behind this move but I was surprised to find that the information didn’t shy away from the dangers of this profession. You’ll get to see replications of the rooms they use and the difference between a high class prostitute and your average red light window. There are plenty of hilarious photo opportunities as you check out the bondage room and the classic red lit windows. There is also a screen that shows the kind of looks the workers get as they stand in their windows, which definitely sent a shudder down my spine. Actually the part I enjoyed the most was the sex confessions that visitors had written on the wall just before the gift shop. They were brilliant! Even though it wasn’t shining as positive a light on prostitution as I expected it was still a pretty good museum and was the perfect balance of gimmicky and informative.

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Day 4 – Birthday celebrations!

Today was my birthday and as such we were in no rush to go anywhere early. Though the trip was for both our birthdays, Joey had celebrated his the day before we departed so it was my turn to open my presents. I sat in bed eating what has to be the ultimate birthday breakfast of a strawberry and cream waffle drizzled in chocolate and opening my cards. I had already received my awesome polaroid camera early so I could use it on the trip and I had a couple left for when I returned home but even so I was totally spoilt.

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After a relaxing morning we headed off for the Sandemans cycle tour in the afternoon. This isn’t one of their free tours but an extra you can book. Funnily enough we ended up with Kendra as our guide again and enjoyed a few more funny stories and historical facts as we took our bikes across on the ferry with the rest of the group. It was a nice change to get out of the city centre and see some countryside. We zoomed through picturesque parks and cycled along country roads. We saw some classic Dutch houses and the highlight of the tour was the pretty windmill perched on the riverbank. It was an easy pace with lots of stops to ask Kendra questions and hear more anecdotes. On our way back she announced that she had an idea. we could either continue on our way or take a detour to a new brewery that had just popped up nearby. Of course the majority voted brewery and off we went! Though I’m not a fan of beer I will admit that the SOMETHING had some interesting flavours to try and was a unique twist to our tour.

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Back on our bikes we went over on the ferry again and saw the last stragglers from the Sinterklaas parade, the celebration to welcome old Saint Nick to the city for Christmas, that had taken place that day. As much as I enjoyed the ride I couldn’t help the little kid in me being kind of disappointed at having missed Santa Claus.

As if the Marijuana Museum, Prostitution Museum and even the sex show weren’t enough we decided we had to check out the Sex Museum too. This was something I had never imagined doing on my birthday! There is also an Erotic Museum but apparently the Sex Museum is much more worth visiting. I hadn’t expected it to be so big! Although why I was shocked about the amount of sexual artefacts, photos, erotic designs and other paraphernalia that existed from throughout the years I don’t know! It was a good laugh and the sheer amount of stuff was overwhelming! There are actually a few interesting exhibits that show different cultures views on sex throughout history but for the most part this is a very tongue in cheek museum from the giant penis model to the clunky animatronics. It’s cheap, it’s funny, it’s full of penises – whats not to like?

A birthday celebration wouldn’t be complete with a full blow out meal and we couldn’t have chosen a better place. The Seafood Bar does the most amazing seafood platters we just had to try first hand! I think the waiter was getting a bit impatient as he came over about three times and each time we were still debating what size platter we could realistically manage. You can choose between a hot or cold platter with a variety of shellfish and fish dishes piled together in the ultimate feast. We opted for the hot one as it came with prawns and lobster and our eyes almost fell out of our heads when they placed a stand on our table that would hold a plate almost as big as the table itself. We gorged ourselves on seafood and still had room for dessert afterwards. As an extra special touch they even served our desserts on the same plate with a birthday message to the both of us written out in chocolate. Right from the free procesecco when we arrived to the birthday wishes at the end, the staff really worked to make the night special.

Day 5 – Souvineer Shopping and Final Canal Walks

We only had one morning left in Amsterdam and we decided to use this to grab our souvenirs for friends and family. There are plenty of shops around Dam Square (also where Body Worlds and the Sex Museum are located) so we wondered in and out buying tulip bulbs and postcards. Even though it was bitterly cold and threatening rain we took some final photos on the quaint canal bridges and of the neat narrow iconic Dutch townhouses.

I loved Amsterdam and I could see why it was such a popular destination. Even though we had crammed a lot into our five days here it is somewhere I could easily return to again and again and still have more to do.  Winter time was a lovely time to visit, though unfortunately we were just slightly too early for the Christmas markets, but I can imagine that summer strolls along the canals and picnics in the park as bikes whiz by would be equally beautiful. Amsterdam might seem like a city break that everyone has done but there is a good reason for this. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

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Vietnam Part 2 – Halong Bay Cruises, Harry Potter Cafes and Yet More Caves

The end of the trip was drawing near so I was determined to make the most of these last few days. Travelling was beginning to exhaust me. Moving from place to place, living out of a backpack, is a difficult thing to do but oh so rewarding and there was still a lot left to see and do!

Day 133 – Today we left for Phong Na, stopping on the way to check out another set of tunnels. The Vinh Moc tunnels were different though. Here hundreds of people cooked, went to school, received medical treatment, gave birth, watched movies and basically lived underground for six years! We stooped through a winding network of tunnels, imagining how much darker it would have been with oil lamps flickering, as we explored the tiny nooks that served as people’s homes during the war. It was nerve wracking for anyone who was claustrophobic but fascinating! I couldn’t believe they could live underground for so long.

Our hotel was a far cry from the living conditions we had just been to see. The mountains sheltered our swimming pool on one side and palm trees waved at us from the other. It was the perfect serene location for an evening meditation session after our swim. Our guide led us in a beginners meditation class under the stars and I let my mind empty, focusing on my breathing and the beautiful place in which I had found myself.

 

Day 134 – In the morning we headed to Paradise Cave. Apparently you can camp out in one of the cave networks but a day trip was enough for me. I always love spotting the weird and wonderful formations in the rock that look like coral, as if I’m walking underwater, or something alien from a planet far far away. It was nice to see but not nearly as exciting as the afternoon activity.

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Caitlyn and I headed over to the slightly more foreboding sounding, Dark Cave.The name was much gloomier than what we were to get up to though. Just to get to the mouth of the cave we had to zip line over a beautiful aqua blue river before jumping in and swimming to the entrance. From there we followed a guide into the cave, the light from the entrance slowly diminishing as we walk further and further in. Suddenly the line of people turned, went behind a rock and disappeared. With only our head torches to guide us, Caitlyn and I followed and were led down a narrow muddy pathway. The walls became more and more mud caked as we went and eventually other groups, passing us in the opposite direction, even more covered in mud. At the end of the tunnel was the source of all the muddiness. We had to clamber past everyone, slip sliding on the rocks, and into the mud pool. It was the weirdest, funniest and one of the best experiences of the trip. In the mud there is no way to sink so at one point I ended up flipping over and over, splashing everyone with mud, much to their annoyance. Finally I got my footing but even then I discovered I could hover vertically with my feet off the ground. I could lounge on my back with my feet up as if there was an invisible rubber ring around me. It was hilarious!

Once we were covered from head to foot we climbed out. And yes, I did fall over. And yes, probably more than once. We stopped at one of the pools on the way out to wash off the mud but not before sliding down a natural mud slide! Once we were clean and back out in the open we climbed into inflatable kayaks and attempted to paddle back to the starting point, if you can call zig-zagging back and forth paddling. Back at the start point their was one more zip line to go on. This one seemed even more fun but I managed to mess it up. We had to take the handles and launch ourselves off a platform, leaping into the water at the last moment. Only I followed suit after a few idiots before me and let the thing flip me off, landing flat on my back! Luckily the life jacket absorbed the shock for me but next time, heed my advice, just let go!

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Day 135 – After all the excitement from the day before it was a fairly chilled day today. We arrived in Ninh Binh in the afternoon and decided to go for a bike ride again. We cycled rather clumsily (working brakes are not a legitimate thing in Asia) past towering green mountains and stretches of rice paddies towards a cute pagoda by a lake. Unfortunately we had to pay to get a closer look so we gave up on that and went back past the scenery, which was apparently where the new King Kong movie was filmed, towards the main part of town and another lake before heading out for a nice meal.

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Day 136 – Today we drove to Hanoi and our last point on the Stray tour. I should have been sad it was all coming to an end but with so much travelling and early starts I was kind of looking forward to a few days in one place, even though our time in Hanoi would be broken up with a trip to Halong Bay.

On the way we stopped off at Trang An grottoes boat trip. Here a woman paddled us through the low hanging caves, winding in and out of the different systems and ducking to avoid stalectites. The strength of the women paddling us was admirable too – I even saw one paddling with her feet!

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We passed through mountains shrouded in mist and arrived in the non-stop city of Hanoi by afternoon. As we went in search for dinner along Beer Street, I found I was reminded of Phnom Penh – except there were much more motorbikes!

 

Day 137 – This was our chance to properly explore Hanoi. Our guide walked us here there and everywhere! Unfortunately none of us were much in the mood to wake up early and be dragged around the city and the drizzly weather didn’t make things any better. First we went to see the Ho Chin Minh memmorial but after one look at the long queue we decided to pass on walking past a dead guy, despite how important and respected he is in Vietnam. Our next stop was the Temple of Literature. This old university with its Chinese architectural influences was so pretty and peaceful. A nice little place of zen in the busy city where big stone turtles, a symbol of good fortune in Vietnam, hold plaques with the names of all the students who have graduated on them. Our last stop was the Hanoi Hilton, which was much less glamorous than it sounds. It was a prison for political prisoners and American prisoners of war. The cutaways of the cells with models of the prisoners inside showed just how terrible conditions were for these prisoners.

After that we definitely needed some cheering up. Our guide left us to our own devices and we took over the tour for ourselves, next stop, Harry Potter Cafe! Along an unsuspecting street hung a triangular sign with ‘Always’ written on it. Inside were props to try on and take photos with, memorabilia from the films and books and, best of all, classic HP beverages. I had to try a butterbeer (also known as cream soda and coca cola) and actually enjoyed the sweet liquid topped with whipped cream. Elly was not so big a fan though. On the plus side if the butterbeer wasn’t for you, you could always try a polyjuice potion – so long as no one’s dropped a cat hair in it…

Day 138 – Today was the day of our Halong Bay cruise. I had been picturing lounging on a deck chair as we sailed through magnificent scenery, the sun shining as I sip a cocktail. Well there were deck chairs, and magnificent scenery and cocktails but no sun in sight. Somehow though we managed to brave the chilly air to go kayaking around the rocky outcrops springing from the water. It was like something out of a storybook with its emerald waters and rainforest spilling over the tops of the limestone islands emerging from below. Despite the bay being packed with similar cruise ships to ours, floating along in our little kayaks it felt like we were the only ones for miles. It actually didn’t seem so cold when we weren’t moving so we even braved the water, leaping in from the side of the boat. It wasn’t too bad in the water but as soon as we were out we were running, shivering to our hot showers!

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Luckily dinner was amazing, just as lunch had been, and we gorged ourselves on the feast. The plates just kept coming! As the night sky fell, the stars reflected on the water, the lights from the hundreds of ships sheltered in the bay began shimmering.We soon broke the peace and quiet though with our crazy karaoke singing though!

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Day 139 – If we hadn’t seen enough caves already we definitely felt like we had after this morning. We were taken to the Surprising Cave but the only thing surprising about it was how packed full of tourists it was. The cave was beautiful though, that couldn’t be denied, even though we were all a bit caved out by that point. Our final activity was back on the boat. We had what they called a “cooking class” but really this was putting ingredients inside rice paper to make spring rolls. Still, it was nice to get one last meal in before we headed back to our hostel.

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Day 140 – Finally I had some time to relax. Rachel, Caitlyn and I went exploring and did some much anticipated shopping. We had a lot of souvenirs to bring home, okay? And of course a shopping trip in Asia wouldn’t be a proper trip without a massage stop. I was starting to wonder whether I would get massage withdrawal once I got back home. The only off-putting aspect to my last Asian massage was the horrendous shorts I had to wear so they could massage my legs. They looked like men’s boxers and that thought did not relax me while the massauses hands got to work.

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After a day relaxing it was time to let loose in the evening! We went back to beer street where we had eaten the other night but this time we put the name to the test. We almost got kicked out for bringing our own beers into one of the bars but not before we got some dancing in!

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Day 141 – After chatting to a woman over breakfast, I was recommended to check out the Women’s Museum. On my way I stopped off to grab an ice-cream (another one of my addictions South East Asia had started) and when I arrived Rachel and Caitlyn immediately burst out laughing. Five months travelling and I still hadn’t learnt how to blend in, in fact, in my purple flip flops, classic giraffe tourist top, camera round my neck and audio guide on my head I looked more like a tourist than ever. Once they had stopped laughing we started looking around the museum. It was actually fascinating to read about women in Vietnamese culture, how brave they were in the War and how interesting their views on marriage are, the woman often choosing the man and proposing marriage to him. There were four floors but I only got to zip round the last one, showing Vietnamese women’s fashion, as the audio guide took about four hours. It was still worth a visit though.

It was our last night out together as a Stray group so we attempted a final family dinner only we all ended up eating at different places. We did meet up for one last drink together only this time instead of beer it was hot chocolates. We were just so hardcore.

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Day 142 – My second from last day was spent travelling back to Bangkok where I would fly home the next day. It felt strange that this five month journey was coming to an end. It felt so much longer than five months and to be honest I couldn’t wait to be home. The last time I went travelling I left too early and spent the whole flight anxiously wishing I wasn’t leaving. This time round I had timed things a bit better. I was sick of getting no sleep in hostel rooms. I had eaten enough rice to last a lifetime. I hadn’t seen my friends and family in almost half a year. I was ready to come home. Don’t get me wrong, I loved travelling. I loved being on the road and having new adventures everyday. I knew that a little time of being at home would have me craving those adventures again soon enough, but for now, I needed to rest, relax and most importantly, see the people I love.

I boarded a plane to Bangkok, my third stint there, but this time I would be staying round the corner from the airport rather than on Koh San Road. Though it was a short flight the journey still seemed to take up most of the day, not helped by the fact that I couldn’t find my pick up to the hotel for what felt like an hour. Eventually I made it there though and got at least a brief stint soaking up the sun by the pool, enjoying the 30 degree heat that was so different from the cool air of Vietnam, before eating my last Asian dish. It had to be Pad Thai.

 

Day 143 – The quicker I wanted to get home the longer the journey seemed to take. I distracted myself with another film and suddenly the announcement that we would be landing shortly brought me back to reality. I pushed through the crowds, tapped my foot impatiently at immigration and paced nervously between the carousels waiting for my bag, the last time I would collect it at an airport for a while. England, through the airport windows, seemed so strange and yet so familiar. I burst out of the gate and there was mum, calling out for me. I hadn’t thought I would cry and yet I felt my eyes brimming with tears as I ran to her embrace. There was one more surprise for me though. Mum pointed and the crowd parted and there was Joey, my boyfriend, waiting with a sign and a bunch of my favourite flowers. It couldn’t have been a more perfect homecoming.

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Now a new adventure was beginning – settling in back home, getting an adult job and figuring out my next move. I had finally caught up with my journal on the plane home and this is what I wrote: “I will miss having new incredible experiences everyday. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve just been in awe of the place I am at of the thing I am doing. Every day is a new challenge, everyday is a new opportunity, a new adventure. I hope that even while I am not travelling I can bring a piece of that feeling home with me.”

143 days of joy was just the beginning.

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Vietnam Part 1 – Tunnels, Crazy Bars and Abandoned Water Parks

Over the course of my trip I had heard nothing but good things about Vietnam; most people claim it as their favourite place between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and I could see why. Vietnam turned out to be busy but somehow retain a sense of calm under it all. It’s a place to admire the beautiful scenery, explore shops and markets and quirky sights to see and that’s just what I was going to do…

Day 123 – Crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam was fairly simple; mostly I just sat on a bus (something I am probably an expert in by now), avoiding the dodgey lunch stop food and handing over my passport when it was needed. I arrived tired and cranky, which was only made worse by Maps.me leading me in the complete wrong direction for the restaurant I was trying to go to (for once it wasn’t my fault that I was going in the wrong direction) and almost being killed overtime I crossed the road. Already I could see how different Vietnam would be from Cambodia, more built up somehow, the city felt cleaner and the people even friendlier if possible. Despite my exhaustion I could tell I was going to like Vietnam.

 

Day 124 – I got up late thanks to the joys of sleeping in a hostel and being kept awake all night and asked at my hostel what there was to do. I was soon signed up to a trip to the Chuchi tunnels. These are the tiny tunnels that the Vietnamese soldiers hid in and evaded the American soldiers while fighting them with guerrilla tactics. They have widened most of the entryways to the tunnels now so that tourists can fit in but there is one they have kept original size and it is scary how small it is. I could just about bend down and see down the tunnel but if I had ducked into it there is no way I would have got out again! Even the wider tunnels were claustrophobic and I could only keep going because I knew there were regular exits along the way. My legs were aching for days afterwards though from crawling awkwardly around underground and I couldn’t imagine living and fighting down there. What was also strange was the shooting range they have on site for tourists to buy bullets and try shooting different guns. It was haunting to be walking around what used to be a war zone and hearing the echo of gunshots.

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I spent the evening with a guy called Misha I met at the tunnels. He introduced me to a great little Pho place down the road from my hostel and I tried my first pho. It was love at first slurp. What have I been missing all these years?! Later we checked out a brewery and my attempts to develop a taste for beer continued. I did actually enjoy some of the ones we tried and we even got a free taster of a beer cocktail they were trial running. Now as strange as it was, this was more my style. We had a few more cocktails afterwards and it was a nice change of pace to go to some nicer places rather than diving in the first bar that offers 2 for 1 cocktails.

 

Day 125 – If I had wanted to make it to the free walking tour of the city I had been planning on going to today I probably shouldn’t have had the last two cocktails the night before. Instead I headed off to the War Remnants Museum, which was interesting, show casing the effects of war and how proud they are of agent orange victims and what they have gone on to achieve. Even those so badly effected that they rely on loved ones to take care of them were described as having a sparkle in their eyes, or laughing at their father’s jokes or spending all their time with their brother who takes care of them. It was sad but sweet.

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I had been starting to get the blues again recently at spending some time on my own. I was looking forward to hopping back on the Stray bus the next day and seeing everyone again. As luck would have it I got my wish sooner than I thought as I bumped into first Jess and Sophie from the bus, then Ellie and a new girl I had’t met yet called Taylor. We met later for more Pho and the combination of the good food and the good company lifted my spirits!

 

Day 126 – Back on the bus! We left Ho Chi Minh city behind and headed for Da Lat. I pictured a small town but Da Lat was pretty big and, strangely, had a European feel to it. Just before we arrived in Da Lat we stopped at these waterfalls. They were very pretty but not nearly as great as the roller coaster ride there. This wasn’t just any roller coaster ride though, it was one where you could control the speed yourself! Sitting in a  single chair on the track, a lever lets you release the breaks and go whizzing round corners and down dips. Just don’t get stuck behind a slow poke!

In the evening our guide, Tuan, took us out for a street food tour. By the third stall I could tell how much of a foodie he was by the fact that everything we tried was his favourite. My favourite though was probably the Da Lat pizza; a rice paper pancake covered in egg, cheese, herbs and sausage, then grilled and folded. So good!

After filling up on street food we headed to 100 Rooftops Bar, a crazy labyrinth of staircases, tunnels and hallways. Each floor has a different theme apparently but in the dim half-light it’s tricky enough just to figure out where you are. While juggling our drinks we climbed tiny stairways and squeezed through gaps, finding our way to the second bar on the roof – from about three different directions!

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Day 127 – Sometimes it’s great to fill your free days with great activities you’ll never get to do anywhere else and sometimes it’s nice to just explore a place and really get a feel for it. Taylor, Ellie and I set out to do just that. Our first stop was to the Crazy House, which turned out to be very similar to the 100 Roof Tops Bar except this time we could see where we were going. The Crazy House is a hotel and attraction with so many twisty staircases it feels like you’re in one of those optical illusion paintings.

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Once we felt like we had climbed every staircase and seen every nook and cranny we went to find a nice place for lunch by the lake before getting out onto the lake itself. Taylor had been eyeing up the swan peddle boats since we arrived and we couldn’t resist giving them a go. Yes, we were those crazy tourists, three of us trying to peddle on the two sets of peddles, while we belted out disney tunes!

Day 128 – We left Da Lat today and travelled towards Bai Xep, a tiny beach place where we would have the day to relax. First though, was an evening of BBQ, which turned out to be an amazing home cooked feast! Afterwards I showed everyone how to roast marshmallows the right way, in other words, not setting them on fire.

Day 129 – Today was our free day to relax but the weather seemed to be conspiring against us. The temperature had cooled as we moved further North through Vietnam and the sky was threatening rain all day so no sunbathing on the beach for us. That didn’t stop me devouring my latest book though and in the evening we managed to finish our game of Cluedo before the heavens finally opened.

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Day 130 – Today was an exciting day! I had left Rachel and Caitlin, the two crazy girls I had somehow adopted and become Mamma Jess to, back in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and tonight I would be reunited with them in Hoi An. First we had some travelling to do and a stop off My Lai. This was not the most cheerful of stopovers as My Lai was a village where a horrific massacre took place. During the war American soldiers attacked My Lai village but not because it was full of soldiers, because it was full of innocent people. Families were murdered, children slaughtered and houses burned to the ground. There was a museum we could walk round to see photographs taken of the massacre, the stories of the victims and the soldiers, of how many of them suffered depression or committed suicide after the war. There was a huge plaque with all the names of those who died but the most saddening aspect of the memorial were the pathways, preserved with concrete to show the frantic footsteps of those running for their lives amongst the heavy footfall of the soldiers boots chasing them down. It was chilling.

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Arriving in Hoi An made the day much more cheerful though and after a walking tour to see the Old Town we went out to Tiger Tiger bar. I was busy sipping a cocktail when two screaming, excitable girls burst through the door. Caitlin and Rachel engulfed me in a massive hug! Danielle and Annika were with them too and it wasn’t long before we were all on the dance floor like we had never been apart.

 

Day 131 – I nursed my hangover by the hotel pool in the morning but Hoi An was such a beautiful city I couldn’t stay there for long. I went into town to meet the girls and enjoy a bit of retail therapy. With quaint little shops full of tailored dresses and suits, silk scarves, leather handbags and shoes there was plenty of shopping to have. We wandered down the quiet streets, enjoying the fact that no traffic was allowed in this part of the city, meaning a respite from the honking and constant fear of getting run over. Above us hung paper lanterns of all sorts of colours and sizes that soon would begin to glow as soon as the sun went down. At the river you could buy paper lanterns to send floating downstream along with your hopes and wishes. It was by far one of the prettiest places I had been to on my Stray tour.

In the afternoon I went to a cooking class where Mi, a tiny, fun but fierce woman who asked for nothing but precision from us as she taught us how to make flowers out of tomatoes, chicken in lettuce leaf cups and barbecue pork patties with a traditional Vietnamese sauce. For dessert we made creme brûlée and I even got to caramelise the sugar crust with a blow torch!

Day 132 – I was sad to leave Hoi An but unfortunately I didn’t have any more time left to hop off… plus I think Rachel and Caitlin might have killed me after having just met up with them again. So it was on to Hue we went. We decided to hire some bikes when we arrived and our guide described the citadel we could visit where the Emperor used to keep his concubines, but we had a better plan. A couple of the girls had heard of an abandoned waterpark just outside the city so after waiting an age for our bikes to arrive, we set off to check it out.

Riding through the streets of Vietnam is no easy task. If I thought crossing the street was bad it was nothing to trying to navigate the masses of motorbikes on the road itself! Forget all road rules and expect them to swerve at any moment, drive on the opposite side of the road or pull over right in front of you. However, we made it to Ho Thuy Tien alive and began to explore. I expected it to be scary but there were enough people around and sun shining enough to chase any fear away. It still felt a little eery though, with dark green pools at the bottom of dirty unused slides and an empty amphitheatre looking out on weeds and a broken mess. By far the coolest part was the huge dragon towering over the lake. You could climb the abandoned tower to stand in the dragons jaws, where visitors before had graffitied their names, and looked out across the park that might once have held swarms of people, laughing and running from attraction to attraction. It might sound weird but although everything was closed and the rides disused it was still one of my favourite days of the trip.

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But there was more to come…

 

Cambodia Part 2 – Peppercorns, Royal Palaces and Movie Binges

There are times when travelling solo that you relish time alone, times when you have spent days or weeks in others company and long for the freedom to do what you want when you want. And yet there are equally times when the complete opposite is true. After a break from the non-stop, fast paced bus travel of the last few weeks I was looking forward to some downtime but as my stay on Koh Rong drew to a close I found myself looking forward to hopping back on the Stray bus. I was ready to move on, to see what more Cambodia had to offer.
Day 115 – For my last day on Koh Rong I decided to explore the Khmer village I had been staying in at my Inn The Village hostel. The hostel was set up as a place to stay for volunteers helping out in the village and building articulate reefs in the local waters. I meandered through the streets, that were little more than dirt paths, that led from one house to another, small shops or food stalls set up inside their homes. Rural Cambodian houses tend to be on stilts with the bedrooms upstairs and the main living area downstairs between the pillars, usually with a few hammocks hung between them. This village was no different. As I went down towards the water I spotted some children playing with something in a pile of blankets, half buried, behind the back of the house. When they noticed my interest they turned towards me brandishing their find. Three tiny puppies held in their small outstretched hands. They were more than happy for me to hold them as they were more interested in my camera. Being a little rough with it I was reluctant to let it go entirely and I don’t think they paid much attention to what they were taking a picture of but they liked the clicking of the shutter. I had some interesting snaps to say the least!


I spent the rest of my morning and early afternoon on the beach, making the most of the sun and the beautiful sands. Felt so relaxed after my crazy run around the day before! 

Eventually though it was time to get the ferry back and check in to Big Easy hostel, which did the best western food around. I spent the rest of the evening devouring both sweet and sour chicken dish with mango and the rest of my book.
Day 116 – I had planned another day on the beach but when I woke up the weather had other ideas. An overcast day didn’t give me much hope for topping up my tan so instead I shopped and bought souvenirs, stopping for lunch at a great Mexican place called Stay Later, which tempted me in with their sign that proclaimed “Mexican food so good Trump wants to build a wall around it!” They weren’t lying!


I managed to meet up with Team Norway in the evening for some drinks and an embarrassingly bad game of pool!


Day 117 – I had enjoyed my time to myself on Koh Rong and felt refreshed after a break from the constant travel but I was also ready to be moving on and exploring new places again. Danielle, a fun loving girl with ambitions to run her own animal sanctuary one day, and Annika, the ever elegant German girl with an unexpected giggle that bursts out of her, had hopped back on too after their own adventures on Koh Rong. There were also four new guys, only two of which were travelling together but they all seemed to have been on Stray together for a while. 
From Sihanoukeville we travelled to Kampot, which is famous for its salt fields and pepper farms. We took a tuk tuk tour around the rural back roads, stopping at the salt fields first to see how they flattened the land and filled it with salt water. The water would eventually evaporate leaving the salt behind to be raked up and collected. The pepper is apparently the best in the world. I was surprised to learn that green peppercorns are dried to become black and the red peppercorns simply have their skins taken off to become white peppercorns. 


In the evening we relaxed on a river boat cruise to see tiny fireflies flickering on the nearby trees. I also got to see the phosphorescent plankton again when we realised their was some in the bucket of water in the toilet! We took turns queueing not to use the facilities but to shut the door, making the room really dark so as better to see them, then swirling our finger and sending them sparkling in the water.
Day 118 – Leaving Kampot we headed to the island of Koh Tunsay, also known as Rabbit Island. I was disapointed to discover the name did not indicate an abundance of fluffy creatures on the island. There was nothing to do here but relax, read and watch the sunset from my hammock and that was fine by me. 


Day 119 – Today was a less fun day seeing as we were heading to the killing fields and S21 prison in Pnom Penh. Couldn’t be described as fun but it was definitely an interesting day and worth seeing. There is not much left to see at the Killing Fields. The grass has grown over the mass graves and the few buildings there were are gone. The audio guide described what used to be there and we heard the voices of those who had survived this traumatic place. People were corralled and kept under horrendous conditions before having their throats cut or being bludgeoned to death with various tools. More disgusting than that was the killing tree where they took babies by the legs and whacked them against the tree before throwing their broken bodies down to lie with the corpses of their mothers, already in the pits below. They believed in stopping future generations from coming back for revenge. It was probably the most harrowing part of this tour.


Sleng Prison, S21, was almost as bad. Standing in the rooms where people were chained to their beds, starved, tortured and left to die, was chilling. Sleng Prison used to be a school but was converted to a prison to hold people, everyday people, people who were intelligent and educated and didn’t conform to Pol Pots ideals for a nation of farmers. Sitting near the exit were two survivors of these atrocities, selling books and art inspired by their experiences, but I couldn’t understand how they could bare to watch tourist mill around a place that held such nightmares for them.


To make sure the day ended on a high note we went out for a few drinks and a karaoke session! 
Day 120 – Most of our group were hanging in the morning but I wanted to make the most of my time there, even though I had some extra days waiting on my Vietnam visa (I could only enter the country after the 9th). I headed first to the Royal Palace. It turned out to be a very peaceful place, the royal buildings scattered amongst a simple garden, their elegant yellow roofs sparkling in the sunshine. My favourite spot was a small temple on a hill in the middle of a large courtyard. The hill was made up of a small jungle, leaves half obscuring the winding staircase to the top where you could sit amongst the plants and feel a million miles away from the dirty, busy city. My one disappointment was the Silver Pagoda. Despite being warned that it was not silver I had expected something at least to make it stand out but when I reached the end I wondered if I had missed it altogether. I used Maps.me to back track and find it only to discover I had already been inside and viewed the bronze, gold and silver Buddha statues that were housed there. 


As the afternoon stretched into early evening I walked across town to an interesting temple called Wat Langka I had heard about. Here, on Monday evenings, they held a free meditation session for any who want to join in. I looked around the simple but pretty temple, unsure how this worked, and eventually followed everyone else’s lead in getting comfortable on the round cushions spread evenly accross the floor. I attempted to meditate on my own, at first trying to keep my mind clear and then letting it wander, picking up and turning each thought that came to my mind as if it were an interesting pebble on the beach. I had been doing this for 20-30 minutes when a monk softly called any beginners to meet with him outside. He spoke quietly and haltingly as if his mind was on other things, pausing for a time before he came back to explaining to us how to sit and focus on our breathing. We rutrned to the cushions and I tried again. I couldn’t keep my eyes closed without feeling like I would nod off so I focused in front of me and found I enjoyed letting the distant sounds of traffic, the twittering bird calls and the soft movement of monks and the people around me shifting. I left feeling still. I think I’d like to start meditating more often.


Day 121 – Second on my list to visit was the National Museum. It turned out to be a lot smaller than I had thought but that was good as I was still feeling weary after walking around it for an hour or so. I liked the paintings depicting stories of the Hindu Gods best, including the one I had heard in India about Diwali. I was glad that there was information describing them so I could understand the detailed artwork. 

In the evening I returned to the museum to watch the Cultural Show they perform there. This is so important in Cambodia as it is a way to revive arts and skills that were almost lost during the time of the Khmer Rouge. It was beautifully done too, singers and musicians at the side of the stage and the dancers in bright, sparkling costumes. There was a dance where a man and a woman were dressed as peacocks, with big paper tails fanned out behind them, moving as they moved their arms. There was even a dance full of acrobatics as the group pretended to be a giant praying mantis. My favourite though was a dance about everyday life. It showed the importance of fishing and told s story of a shy boy teasing a fisher girl to gain her attention. To begin with she is annoyed with him always stealing her net but eventually she softens and the two end up blushing as their fisher friends notice their hesitant courting. It was very cute! 
 Day 122 – For my last day in Cambodia I did something quite opposite from the cultural experiences of the last couple of days: I went to the cinema. In my hostel, Happy Backpackers 11, there was a cheap and low key cinema called The Flicks 2. I had wanted to watch Dr Strang but as it clashed with the Cultural Show I decided to go to the Flicks 1 and pay $3.50 to be able to watch unlimited films all day. On the way I made a brief stop to Wat Pnom, which was not much different to any other temple I had visited but I felt I should at least try and see it. The cinema was what I really enjoyed though. I saw by the bar, receiving cuddles from the cinema’s very needy cat before finding a spot on the rattan sofas a the back. I watched Moana, Hacksaw Ridge and Dr Strange, one after the other. It was intense but one of my favourite ways to spend the day. In between I ordered popcorn and regretted not ordering one of the huge pizzas, or any other kind of food from the menu, that they bring in to you to munch on while you enjoy the film. As much as I love doing Cultural stuff, sometimes it’s good to just take a “me day” and do whatever you want, regardless of what it is.
My last task of the day was to sort out my bag, easy to cross the border into Vietnam. It seemed bizarre that after so much traveling I was about to visit my last country of the trip. I had heard a lot of good things about Vietnam though and was excited to see how it differed from Cambodia. It didn’t feel like my trip was drawing to an end yet, it felt like I still had all the time in the world.

Cambodia Part 1 – Angkor Wat, Rat Snacks and Phospherescent Plankton

I was kind of sad to leave Laos behind. With great lakes, mountain ranges and rural farmlands, Laos’ landscape had really grabbed me in a way I hadn’t expected. I wanted to know if Cambodia would be the same or wholly different. Same same but different. As it turns out that phrase is pretty apt. Cambodia felt a little noisier, a little busier but still mostly chilled. It also had something I had been missing from Laos; beaches. But the beaches would come later; first stop, Siem Reap.
Day 108 – We arrived in Siem Reap and were immediatly confronted by the wonderful chaos of pub street, which reminded me a lot of Kohsan Road. We had dinner and enjoyed a traditional dance show while we ate. We also said goodbye to Pao, who had put up with us all the way from Bangkok, through Laos and would now say goodbye to us in Cambodia.

Day 109 – As all the guidebooks suggest, we roused ourselves at 4:30 am to go to the famous Angkor Wat. I had been looking forward to this for a while, expecting to be blown away by the magnificent size and structure of this temple. Caitlin, Rachel and I got up only to find ourselves locked into the hostel for the night. No matter, just as we were wondering what to do, a figure rose from the bar like Dracula out of his coffin. Luckily the night guard was much less terrifying though and when he found out our plans for the day he became our tuk tuk driver instead. 

After collecting our tickets (and looking very shell shocked for the photo they take and print on them) we were dropped off at the most famous complex. Here we shuffled through the dark to a spot on the right where we could just see the vague outline of the temple. We settled down and waited for the sun to rise. Actually I think it looked best when the sky was just beginning to lighten but the moon was still hanging clearly above the rising roofs of Angkor Wat, the horizon no more than a dusky yellow glow. As the hour passed, the glow blossomed into subtle pink hues, slowly illuminating the stunning temple before us. Unfortunately it wasn’t as impressive a sunrise as we hoped for and certainly didn’t match the postcard pictures you see of bright oranges and pinks but it was pretty all the same and nice to arrive in the dark and have Angkor Wat revealed to us. 

Once the sun was up we began to explore. I think the main impressive thing about Angkor is the sheer size of it. Hallways stretch out endlessly and it is easy to get turned around in the open courtyards that all look the same. Monks knelt near these, offering blessings for a price. The carvings were what captured my imagination the most though. Even diminished and eroded as they were you could see the detail in them and I could look around and almost see the temple as it once was, covered in these intricate carvings. They brought it to life.

This main temple is just one of many though and we set off on the short circuit to see more temples. And more temples. And even more temples. I enjoyed the Temple of a Thousand Faces (it made me think of sets from an Indiana Jones movie even though it was actually a Tah Promh that The Temple of Doom was filled at, but this one still looked fitting) where the walls were covered in stone faces. Looking down on it all were even more stone faces, looking across at each other on the towers they are carved into. I wonder if they whisper to each other at night. My favourite temple had to be Ta Promh though. This one has been left almost exactly in the condition it was discovered in; rather than restore it, it was decided they would instead pause time, showing what the effects of the jungle had on these temples. Here trees sit on top of the walls, their roots sneaking between the crevices and pushing apart the stone as it grows. It is strange that such a destructive thing can have such beauty. As I wandered along the narrow walkways past crumbling stone and collapsed walkways the only downside to this temple was the crowds. Everyone wanted their photo with the most famous spot and in the muddle of tourists I got separated from everyone. Eventually I found the family (who we had already bumped into a couple of times over the course of the day) and we went to the exit together only for me to find a very tired and fed up Rachel and Caitlin in the tuk tuk. By then I was beginning to sympathise with them and despite having two more minor temples left I said, “Let’s slack them off and just go home”. Caitlin couldn’t tell the tuk tuk driver fast enough.

That evening a friend arrived at the same hostel as me and I got the really cool experience of meeting up with someone I only knew from travelling. It felt like a year ago that I had seen Kate (although technically it was last year!) and yet as we chatted non-stop over Mexican food it suddenly felt like I had only said goodbye yesterday. We even skyped Cat and Olivia from the trip as well who, as luck would have it, had also managed to meet up since Cat’s next travel stop was in Olivia’s hometown of Perth. It was only a short stop though as we were both passing by in opposite directions but still so good to see her again and speak to Cat and Olivia too.

Day 110 – Goodbye Siem Reap and hello Battambang. This is where we would stay the night at our second homestay of the trip. First though we had some fun stop offs. Firstly we were told about a local snack sold off the side of the road in this one spot. Rats. Yes that’s right, huge, marinated, barbecued, rats. Most of the guys tried it and said it tasted fine (like chicken) but something in me just said no and as much as I wanted to be daring and try something new, I couldn’t do it. 

Our next stop was a little bit easier to stomach. We got to ride on a bamboo train! Now if like me you are picturing a kind of thomas the tank engine made of long bamboo poles you will be slightly disapointed. Bamboo trains are actually flat carts on wheels that used to be pushed along the tracks with a bamboo pole but is now whizzed along by a motor. We flew down those tracks much faster than I would have expected! There are also certain rules, such as if two trains meet then the one with the most people on has right of way. Same applies if there are more trains coming in one direction than the other. When this happens the one giving right of way has to dismantle their train until the other one has passed. Luckily our big Stray group always had right of way!

After an afternoon of adventures we arrived at Battambang and got to visit the local school. We brought presents for the kids, including balloons, and this soon turned into pandemonium! Luckily we got to burn off some energy playing football afterwards. This had its own problems though. We were now a crowd of sweaty smelly people and I was betting the homestay didn’t have more than one shower. Turns out they have a better solution. We simply donned some sarongs to cover our modesty and showered together at the huge pots of water standing outside, chucking water over each other’s heads like some massive water fight! Clean and refreshed we got to learn how to make spring rolls and then ate our creations as a side to the delicious home cooked curry – probably one of the best meals I had in Cambodia.

Day 111 – We said goodbye to our host family and began the long journey to Sihonoukeville. As if a straight twelve hour bus ride wasn’t bad enough we arrived to find out every room in every hostel was booked up. We had been assured that although the hostel we wanted to stay at didn’t take bookings we would be find to go on arrival, what our guide overlooked though was that we were arriving on Chinese New Year. After trying everything to find us a place our guide ended up giving up his twin room that four of us girls squeezed into. Cosy! With such a stressful day some much needed drinks were in order so we headed to the beach to do some drinking, dancing and even sending some lanterns floating off into the night sky. Once we had come back and collapsed into our shared beds though, there was a loud knocking on the door. I stumbled out of bed and found one of the guys on our trip standing outside, “My roommates fallen asleep and locked me out and I’ve managed to wake up the whole floor except him, do you have a chair or something I can sleep on?” Five minutes later he was snoring on some sofa cushions on our floor making our cosy twin room for two now a twin room for five.

Day 112 – Still feeling a little fragile from the night before, we eventually made it back to the beach, this time a different one and with less drinking, more sleeping on the sand. We slept off the rest of our hangover and just as we were getting ready to make a move we ran into the Family. They were heading down the beach to wher there was an inflatable obstacle course. Enough said. I was in the water and sliding all over the place in no time. Now that is a real cure for a hangover!
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Day 113 – A sad day. For the first time on this trip I had decided to hop off the Stray bus for some much needed beach and recuperation time. The only problem was, my new Stray family would be continuing on without me. It was strange to be on my own again after travelling with people for so long but I didn’t have too long to think about it as I had a ferry to catch. Another reason for staying was so I would get the chance to explore Koh Rong island. The boat ride over was hot and sweaty and crowded but when I stepped off the boat and onto a little pier that led to white sands and clear blue waters, I knew I was in paradise. 

I had opted to stay on the less touristy side of the island near Coconut Beach at a place called Inn the Village, a hostel situated in the middle of a traditional Khmer village. Sarah and her husband started it to offer a place to stay for the volunteers that come to build artificial reefs and projects that help the local community but is open to backpackers who also want to support the villagers. So me and my massive backpack were loaded onto a moto (botorbike) and taken on the most terrifying ride of my life up the most uneven winding dirt path you’ve ever seen but arrived safely five minutes down the road at Inn the Village. Sarah gave me a warm welcome and told me all about the place and what there was to do nearby. Once I had settled in (and checked out the bucket shower situation) I headed straight back to Coconut beach to while away what was left of the afternoon with a good book and a sunset massage.

Day 114 – Having only one full day on the island I decided to do some exploring and head over to the tourist side. There were two routes but the more scenic one sounded like I was likely to get lost and would take longer so I opted to go by road. Go straight until the t-junction then go right, then when you see five huge cement rings go left and from there just go straight, Sarah told me. Seemed full proof even for a notoriously directionally challenged person as me. I underestimated myself…
I managed the first part just fine but by the time I had been going straight for about an hour I started to wonder why I hadn’t hit the town yet. It was supposed to be around 1 hour and a half walk total and I had been going about that long. Suddenly the road became more sandy and I was convinced I was heading towards the main beach. Only the path continued on and away from where I could see a beach down below. After back and frothing or about half an hour, trying to decide whether it was safer to stick to directions and carry on straight or try one of the tiny pathways that might lead to the beach I could see below, I opted for the second. Big mistake. But I was out of water and the sun was searing hot so I decided I had to try. I followed a little track through the forest and came out near a little house all on its own. I asked the residents, who spoke no English, which way to the beach and they waved me off in a vague direction. The ground had been cleared here so there was no path and I couldnt find an easy way down, all I could see was an impassible lake/river and the beach tantalisingly just out of reach on the other side. Feeling close to tears by this point I trudged back to the house and held my hands up to the residents. “I can’t find the way!” I cried in despair. I’m pretty sure they both thought I was crazy. This white girl with her heavy backpack appearing out of the jungle and on the verge of having a meltdown because she couldnt follow directions. They humoured me though and husband and wife walked back down to the water with me, gestured for me to get into a rickety little boat and the husband paddled me across. I couldn’t have been more grateful!
Reaching the sand on the other side though hit new problems. First thing I did was ask where I was. Another tourist (who had possibly seen me being carted over in the boat by a local) looked at me like I was mad and told me I was on 4K beach. I was wrong, I was still far from the main pier. I revived myself with food and drink then set about asking how to get where I wanted to be. Apparently I was only twenty minutes away but “your on the best beach on the island” one of the bar workers addded. So before I set off again I decided to make the most of this postcard perfect beach and relax a bit. I’m glad I did since by the time I actually found the touristy side of the island I realised it wasn’t worth getting to at all. The beach was no where near as pretty, it was overcrowded and there was nothing really unique about it. I was still glad I could say I had seen more of Koh Rong, but was it worth a two hour trek? No way. I was so glad I had made the most of 4K beach now.

My next problem though, was how to get back. I was exhausted and didn’t think I could make it back so far, let alone the act that it would be dark in a couple of hours. I asked around but boats to the remote side of the island cost around $20. One guy told me to come back and if there were more people going that way it would be cheaper. So I grabbed some food and waited but managed to just miss the rush off the boat from the mainland and therefore the people wanting to get to other parts of the island. As if my luck couldn’t get any worse I had apparenty just missed two guys wanting to go exactly the same way who had waited or fifteen minutes for someone to come along and share the boat with them. I was past caring by that point though. I paid the money and sailed back to Inn the Village.
The day did have one other perk though. One of the main reasons I had wanted to go to Koh Rong was to see the phosphorescent plankton that live there and this was one thing that did live up to expectations. I had to wait until it was really dark (the darker it is the easier to see them glowing) and then I went down to the pier and jumped in the water. As I swirled my hands throug the water they begin to spark and zip with little lights. Movements stirs them up and sets them glowing and the more I moved the more I created a snow storm of glowing specks around me. I floated on my back and looked up at the stars, then turned over and through my mask watched the galaxy below water too. It was even more beautiful than I imagined it being. Unfortunatly, also impossible to take pictures of.
I could have let getting lost really get me down, and for a moment it did, but it also made for a funny and memorable day, something that often happens while travelling. What can be the most miserable time in the moment makes for a great story afterwards. It can remind us not to take ourselves too seriously sometimes. Koh Rong hadn’t exactly been as relaxing as I had hoped but overall I still loved it. Even though there was much more of the country to see it was already my favourite place in Cambodia.

Laos Part 2 – Caves, Freaky Turtles and a Dodgey Sunset Cruise

I left off with my Stray group and I relaxing at the lovely River Front Resort, taking a much needed break before our last few days in Laos. Here is how we spent them…

Day 103
– The main reason for stoping off here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, was the Kong Lor caves. This 7km long cave system is more like a tunnel and was supposedly discovered by a guy whose ducks kept disappearing everyday and when he became curious and followed them he found this incredible cave. 

With three of us to a long boat each we felt like twats sitting in clumpy life jackets with very attractive head torches to complete the look, but that didn’t matter so much when we started off into the blackness. Our light flickered over the cavernous roof, catching the swells of rock like we were on the inside of a pitch black wave. We stopped at one point to admire the stalactites and stalecmites, some like thick pillars and others more like blobs and still more slowly developing, no more than spindly icicles for now. The only other time we hopped out was when our little boat and our fat asses couldn’t make it over the shallow little rapids and our driver had to pull the boat through without us in it. Or, as Team Norway found out, when you crash land into another boat and end up basically on top of someone, the two boats like a cross. Luckily no one was hurt but it made for an adventure. Eventually we emerged back into the sunlight on the other side and had a little while to warm up its rays before heading back, this time powering through the little rapids.


Just outside the caves was a big lake that fed into them and the perfect rock for jumping off of. I clambered up to the top, prepared to do an epic and graceful swan dive, only to have my legs decide they were going to try and race my head into the water and bend me at an awkward angle so I jarred my back. I wasn’t that badly hurt though and after a while I went for attempt number two only this time I failed before I even made it on to the rock. Slipping just when I was almost up, I tumbled down, roly poly style back into the water. Luckily no one saw but deciding I would obviously better of watching the pros (aka the Family) doing it, I sheepishly swam back round to join the others without jumping. But still, with mountains shielding us from the outside world and the sun shining, it wasn’t a bad place to cool off and enjoy a nice swim.

Day 104
– I woke in the morning and took one of the boats out to explore upriver a bit more. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my trip. There was no noise except that of my paddle gently propelling me through the water and a few birds twittering in the trees. The water was so clear I could see the rocks, crumbling logs and silver darting fish below the surface as if it were glass. Unfortunatly I couldn’t stay there all day as I had a bus to catch.

We were on our way to Thakek. It was mostly another bus journey day but we were rewarded by an excellent sunset when we arrived. Sipping on some cold beers, the sun became a golden glow across the Mekong, silhouetting Thailand on the other side. It never ceased to amaze me that I could look across the water and see a whole different country.



Day 105
– From not having much to report to having another full on day. We made a few stops today, seeing a temple ruined by the bombing in Laos. Then seeing a temple still in use where they keep the stories written by Monks in a kind of library. Here we all had to put on long skirts to show respect and we walked over a little bridge to the room on stilts that is the library. All of the monk’s stories are written on bamboo and carefully rolled in fabric to be kept safe. 


Our next stop was an odd one. In a lake lives a special kind of turtle called a soft shelled turtle. The Laos people believe they are their ancestors and take good care of them, feeding them sticky rice and other tit bits. They are one of the oddest creatures I’ve ever seen though. To begin with they didn’t look too bad. Their curious heads poked above the water and I could see a slightly weird looking turtle head with a pointy nose but not much more. As a local enticed one to the waters edge with a treat their full strangeness was revealed. They looked exactly as their name suggests. They look like naked turtles. What’s even weirder is the way they try to hide, since they can’t disappear into a shell they simply roll their heads heads back ino their neck flab. Suddenly I could see where the term “turtle neck jumper” had come from.


The final stop had us carting the huge bags of bananas we had bought earlier that morning and had been stinking out the bus all day, into the forest where furtive, quick and hungry monkeys came and took the fruit right out of our hands. To begin with they loved it but soon they were full and no matter how much I coaxed they refused to take a banana from me. The greedy cows who interrupted us though were more than happy to finish them off.


Still a bit creeped out we went on our way and finally arrived in Xi Champhogn. We opted to have BBQ for dinner but this was a BBQ with a difference. Each table had a hole in it to fit a pot of coals, over this was placed a dome with a moat around it. The moat was filled with broth to cook noodles and vegetables in while the top had some melted fat on it to stop the meat from sticking and simply cooked the thin slices of pork with the heat from the coals beneath. The flavour was amazing and it was fun to cook it all ourselves. The place itself was great too. We ate outside and on the walls they projected YouTube videos and it wasn’t long before we were making requests. Our guide broke out the whiskey and when we found out it cost only 10,000 kip, that’s just £1 for a full bottle of whiskey, Rachel and Caitlin went in search for more. There were no traffic cones this night but plenty of singing and dancing to new tunes and old classics. This was definitely one of my favourite nights of the trip.


Day 106 – Feeling a little worse for wear it was back on the bus and on to the next place – Pakse. Pakse is known for the coffee plantations there and we got to sample some at a coffee and tea plantation. I got to try white tea, a new experience, and it was actually really nice. A little like green tea but maybe a bit milder, sweeter. 

Before that we went to another waterfall, this one quite different from the ones in Luang Prubang. This was a mighty thing, rushing out from what seemed like a calm little stream at the top and becoming a magnificent cascade. I had been looking forward to a swim to cure my hangover but the air was colder here and the spray off the waterfall made it even less inviting, so while the unflappable Harry, Ella, Pete and Ellie jumped in, the rest of us admired from a distance. 

For dinner we had another Indian, this one possibly even better than the last and I’m kicking myself that I can’t remember the name of it. Safe to say after loading up on my lentil Dahl it was an early night for me.


Day 107 – Today would be our last full day in Laos. We were going to Don Det and the 4,000 islands. I wonder if anyone has actually ever counted them or if it is just a rough estimate? Getting there was not as easy as you would think though.

Firstly though, we stopped off at yet another temple, this one was one of the biggest we had seen so far, called Site de Vat Phu. At the top of the crumbling stone steps, carpeted by falling flowers, lies a fountain which is considering to be Siwa’s pee. In other words: God’s piss. As gross as this sounds it is considered good luck to climb to the top and splash some of the water (or Hindu God pee) onto yourself. 


Once we had come back down I had another first time experience when Pao, our guide, produced a stick of skewered grilled frogs for us to try. Well, if its good enough for the French and the Laos, its good enough for me. Actually it tastes a lot like chicken. But then what doesn’t?! Slightly more appetising were the little coconut puffs that tasted like pancake…except with sweet corn in the middle. They were a little strange but sweet and tasty. 7 out of 10, would eat again.


On we went towards the ferry to Don Det. I’m pretty sure we all had in mind a big boat, with maybe some benches to sit on, a place to safely park our bus, possibly a little more rustic than what we might be used to in our countries but something along that vein. When we saw what we would actually make the crossing on I think none of us believed it until we, and the bus, were on it and sailing to the other side. The ferry was no more than a wooden platform built on top of three boats, the one in the middle used for steering. That is not an exaggeration. They even have mini versions for motorbikes. It was a relief to reach dry land again intact.


After surviving the ferry crossing Rachel, Caitlin and I had an Indian for lunch, as if eating Indian food twice in Laos already wasn’t enough, before booking ourselves on to do a sunset cruise and see a handful of these 4,000 islands. NOT our best idea. It took ages before we got on the boat and the whole time we had no idea what was going on. We were joined by a random guy who was already very drunk and proceeded to pass us his beer, sit too close and try to make conversation with us. We had just survived the ferry and now it seemed we might be left for dead on some island by the driver and this drunk guy. He even started trying to take photos of me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The second he moved away Caitlin saved me, taking his seat on the bench next to me. When we did stop at a little island we didn’t see the point of getting out to stand and watch on the shore when we could sit comfortably in the boat so much to the drivers confusion we stayed put while he tried to convince us to get out. He gave up and took us on to a different spot and this time we did hop out, only to have our worst fear realised. Well…. almost. As we swam in the Mekong, the sun slowly spreading across the horizon behind us like spilled paint, the drunk guy and our driver decided to take a nap in the boat, only they hadn’t moored us to the island. Luckily they hadn’t drifted far but it was Caitlin who came to the rescue again, swimming after the boat and dragging it back. When we got back to the main island it was the second time that day we were glad to be on dry land again!


Our time in Laos seemed to fly by but I loved every minute of it. It is denitely somewhere I would come back to and spend more time there. I think it has been overshadowed by Cambodia and Vietnam but little Laos should not be underestimated. It is a beautiful place with kind and fun loving people. I knew that when I crossed the boarder to Cambodia the next day, I would miss it.

Laos Part 1 – Tubing, Waterfalls and Traffic Cones

Wow! These last few weeks have been so busy and so non stop my blog has kind of gotten away from me. I have hopped off the Stray bus now for a short stay in Sihanoukeville, Cambodia and finally have a chance to catch up on my blog, as well as sleep! It also helps that my plans for topping up my tan have been sabotaged by a grey sky. So what did I get up to in Laos?

Day 97 –
We arrived in Huey Xia just over the boarder the night before but we didn’t really send any time there. We hopped straight on a boat and travelled on to our home stay experience. The boat was lush. Long and wide it was built to carry 60 people and our small group of 8 plus our guide had it all to ourselves. Even so we mostly stayed up one end where you could slide the roof back and catch some rays, which after a cold morning with the wind making us cocoon ourselves in blankets as we sailed down river, was very welcome.


It took us 6 hours to get to the small village. When we arrived we had a walk around and got to meet the chief. Unfortunatly we came on a Saturday so the school was closed and we couldn’t visit. In fact we were a little disappointed to spend more time on the boat than in the village, but at the same time we got to swim in the Mekong and watch the sunset. We had more time in the village later when we got to participate in a Hindu blessing. It was similar to what I had experienced at the Elephant Nature Park except that at the end we didn’t just get one piece of white yarn tied around our wrists for good luck but instead had every woman from the village circling round us, all jostling to tie another string on our wrists. I had 50 in total by the end of that amazing, hectic, fun ceremony. The villagers are early to bed and early to rise so it wasn’t long after that we snuggled down on our mattresses all in one big room together, feeling like kids at a sleepover again, and went to sleep.



Day 98
– Back on the boat and another long journey to Luang Prubang. We made a stop on the way though, checking out these cave temples that house hundreds of Buddhas. People bring them there for good luck and you are supposed to bring a Buddha in the meditation position associated with your day of birth, for example I was born on a Thursday, which is hands folded in the lap. It’s both a little eerie and quite beautiful to see lines and lines of statues in all shapes and sizes, some glittering and gold and new, some stone and wearing away, coated in dust. 


We arrived in Luang Prubang in the evening with time to explore the night market, though we would come back later or a proper shopping trip, but mostly all we wanted to do was pig out at Aussie bar on their massive burgers while the football was on. We met a couple of interesting Australians too who told us how they had fallen in love with this country that seems so much like the often overlooked little brother to Cambodia and Vietnam and left everything behind to be here. “Live to dream” he said, advice from a contented man who was doing just that.

Day 99
– With our first free day in Laos we were eager to check out the Kuang Si waterfalls, which we had heard were beautiful. Beforehand we had a wander and explored a few local temples but it was the waterfalls that really stand out that day. They were aqua blue, cascading into small and large pools, looking like something out of a fairytale. I half expected to see a mermaid sitting on the edge, combing her hair while another flicked her tail in the water below. While most of the waterfalls are small they all come from one huge drop at the back, tipping over the mountain, the sun gleaming just behind and almost falling down with it. We couldn’t swim in the top one but the others we splashed about in, secretly pretending to be mermaids too, while pesky fish tried to nibble at our feet.


In the evening we went back to the market and I actually enjoyed being able to haggle again, unlike Thailand where I had struggled. I ended up with a lovely painting and some very delicious passion fruit flavoured rum, the last thing I thought I would find in Laos!

Day 100
I couldn’t have planned a better way to celebrate 100 days of travel if I had tried – as soon as we arrived in Van Vieng today we headed straight to the river, grabbing some tubes on the way, and went floating from bar to bar! This was something I had always pictured doing in Laos as it was the main thing I had heard that backpackers do and, although I think its become more low key over the years, it was just as fun as I imagined. What I didn’t imagine it being though was hard work! The river was running kind of low so there were a lot of times I had to frantically paddle to catch up with everyone or to get my bum unstuck off a shallow area! It was ok though as there were plenty of refreshments along the way to keep us going.


What made the day even better was a that I had been travelling with a great group of people since beginning the trip. I was tempted to stop off here but in the end I couldn’t resist staying with the majority of the group. We had Team Norway, four very pretty and elegant Norwegian girls who you would never guess were studying to be engineers, nor would you know they could throw down some serious dance moves as we discovered later that night when we went out for some drinks. Then there was the family, which I never expected to see on the Stray bus and yet they fit in perfectly. Debs, Pete and their two teenagers Harry and Ella had a great rapport with each other and us. These New Zealander’s were quickly beloved by all of us and always greeted by an affection call of “family!” There was Alan who had caught up with us just before our home stay and instantly clicked with us all. Abi, Jess and Ellie joined us too, having started the tour with Alan. Then there was Caitlin and Rachel, one Ozzy, one Brit, best of friends and partners in crime. How to describe them to you? I think what happened that night sums it up. We had played some beer pong, had many drinks and had just started dancing up on a little platform in one of the clubs when Alan slipped and twisted an already bad knee. I went back with him to make sure he was ok but not too long after I heard giggling and stumbling in the hall. I opened the door and immediatly burst out laughing. What I saw was a very drunk Rachel with Caitlin supporting her and a traffic cone clutched in her arms. When they eventually stopped laughing long enough to tell me why the hell they had a traffic cone, the answer was obvious, “because I’m a hazard!” Rachel said. That much was true.



Day 101
– After smuggling the traffic cone out, much to the amusement of the cleaning ladies, we got on the bus to the capital of Vientiene making some interesting stops along the way. The first was to a museum called Cope. The museum show cases the thousands of bombs that were dropped on Laos during the secret war. America had rules about where and when they could bomb Vietnam but those rules didn’t apply in Laos so they dropped bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years on this poor country and its innocent people.  We watched a documentary first about how many of these bombs are still live, wreaking havoc on communities even now as they lie buried under farms, villages and schools and the mammoth task of exposing and safely destroying them. It was fascinating. The museum itself showed testimonies from people who had lived through it or those who had found bombs. It had many casings and demonstrated how people even use them as stilts for their homes because there are so many bomb shells around. It was fascinating, only, like the white temple, we were rushed through and didn’t get to appreciate it properly. Stray is very much go go go and with long bus journeys and schedules to keep I can see why they pressure us bu that doesnt change the fact that I don’t enjoy that aspect of the trip at all.

Before arriving in Vientienne we also saw a temple and a big golden reclining Buddha as well as a mini Arc De Triumph. I would have preferred to stay longer at the museum. However, it was quite late by the time we arrived anyway and we didn’t get a chance to do much except eat a delicious Indian meal we had been recommended by a hostel owner in Chiang Mai. We also all got a starring role on their facebook page when the owner asked if he could have a picture only to take us by surprise by filming a short clip of us promoting his restaurant! 

Day 102
– Yet another long day of driving. It was nice to be covering so much ground but also exhausting. Most of the stops we made were at view points, showing the diversity of Laos from fields to towering mountains. It was all worth it though to arrive at River Front Resort, a haven in the middle of nowhere. Here we stayed in little bungalows connected by wooden walkways and ate dinner looking out over a crystal clear river. We were going to go for a swim in it but we picked a shallow spot so in the end I kind of waded across. Ellie, a girl on the trip we had picked up in Luang Prubang jumped in one of the long boats we were allowed to borrow and paddled across to rescue me on my rock. I thought we might both go in when I climbed on board but I gave the paddling a go and expertly got us across to the other side again. 

Finally, with a day stop over at this peaceful place, we had a chance to catch our breath and relax. We spent the evening playing cards and looking forward to another easy day the next day. Already we were almost done with Laos but there was still more to look forward to yet!