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!


Thailand Week 4 – Stray, the Golden Templ and The White Temple

The last stretch of my adventure was just beginning and yet I still had three more countries to visit. I had met my tour group for Stray, the flexible tour that would allow me to hop on and off at any point during my travels with them while including some activities along the way, and they seemed like a great bunch so I was excited to se off with them.
Day 93 – An excellent way to start the first day of your tour is throwing up constantly all morning. As soon as I woke up I felt a bit queasy but it quickly became so much worse. Despite this I knew I didn’t have a choice but to get on the bus, the countdown to my visa running out imminent. I dragged myself out of the hostel and down the road to the Stray office. As soon as Caitlin, a girl on the tour I met the night before, saw me she said “Are you okay? You look sad”. Sad was one way to put it, death warmed up was another. I almost made it to our first stop of Ayyuthaya without spilling my cookies but not quite. Instead of exploring the old capital I hunkered down on a make shift bed at the guesthouse we were storing our bags at and hoped the sickness would pass.

Luckily by the evening I was getting some of my strength back. In fact I actually counted myself lucky that the first time I had really had tummy problems the whole way through Asia was three months into my trip. I was even more grateful that I had improved before we caught the night train to Chiang Mai. I had already taken a night train in India but this one was quite different and actually more comfortable. Instead of beds being three high there was only two, meaning you got more room. They also seemed wider and had ports to charge your devices on. The only complaint was that they kept the light on all night so its worth bringing an eye mask.

Day 94 – I had heard about the zip lining in Chiang Mai and since it was one thing I didn’t do last time I was there I was keen to do it this time around. I was less keen when I found out the price was over £90! Luckily I wrangled a deal with a girl on the tour who didn’t want to use her included ticket and paid for one of her activities instead, essentially meaning I got it half price. In the end I had a brilliant time but it was barely worth it at half price and I wouldn’t say it was worth the full price at all.

A mini bus picked us up from the hostel and took us to the Gibbon Experience where we spent a rainy afternoon getting soaked to the skin and not even caring as we whizzed over the treetops. Although it wasn’t worth the price the 800m zip line made it almost so. Your heart in your mouth as you step off the platform and fly above the canopy, the rain whipping at your face. It was a lot of fun and as an added bonus we got to see a gibbon sitting in a tree, shaking raindrops off his fur, just as soggy as us.
Day 95 – The day started off with a quiet breakfast at Le Kaa cafe round the corner from Deejai Backpackers hostel where we stayed. I made a plan to visit some temples that day and decided that if I could I would make the trip to Doi Suthep, a beautiful hill temple overlooking stunning views of Chaing Mai below. The guy at the hostel made it sound simple and cheap to get there… I should be so lucky. An hour later I was still on the sidewalk trying to persuade a tuk tuk driver to take me for a fair price. Eventually I gave in and paid for one to take me up and wait for me so he could take me down as well, costing me much more than I had planned but saving myself a huge amount of frustration. The tuk tuks in Thailand have been a new experience. Just as I was getting used to bartering for them in other countries where they will happily talk up and down until a price has agreed upon, I found the drivers in Thailand would shake their heads in disgust at what I suggested and driving away before we could come to an agreement. To be honest it was making me look forward to leaving Thailand. I was told it was the land of smiles but so far I was yet to see many.

All this briefly melted away though when I reached Doi Suthep. The views were just as stunning as promised; you could see the whole of Chiang Mai stretched out below, this vast and bustling city. The temple itself held a greater variety of Buddhas than I had ever seen before, small, big, emerald, gold – all sorts! Behind them the golden stupa glittered in the dying sunlight. I could see why everyone came to see it.

I finished my evening back at Roen Pludee, the food market Joey and I stumbled across and had some of the best food in Thailand. However, it wasn’t quite the same by myself and after a long day I headed back for an early night.
Day 96 – Today we headed towards the border and into Laos but first we made a stop along the way. I had seen photos of the White Temple and was really pleased to find out we would stop there along the way. This incredible temple is so different from any other I have seen on my travels. It is completely white edged with silver mirrors and has a modern influence, with spider man painted on the walls and masks of recent film characters hanging in the trees outside. If that isn’t strange enough the entrance features an expanse of reaching hands and contorted faces. It was bizarre and beautiful. Unfortunately I didn’t get to appreciate it as much as I would have liked though since our local guide rushed us through, a problem that would crop up several times on Stray, so it wasn’t long before we were back on the bus.

In the late afternoon we passed through border control and as the sun was setting we jostled down the bumpy road in the back of a tuk tuk towards our guest house. All of us were amazed at how pretty Laos was. I think everyone was a bit sick of Thailand by then and ready for a change. We ate dinner next to the Mekong river, gazing across it towards Thailand on the other side, excited about the adventures we had ahead of us in Laos.

Thailand Week 3 – monsoons, temple ruins and goodbyes

Joey’s last week in Thailand was just beginning but for me I would have some extra time, passing back through Chiang Mai on my Stray tour I would be starting after Joey left. With just one week left together we wanted to make the most of it. Our days off from diving had mostly been spent relaxing so we were looking forward to doing some exploring and fun activities. We planned to go to Koh Lanta, maybe fit in another fun dive now we were both qualified and do some kayaking and paddle boarding too. Alas it was not meant to be though as they had sold out of ferry tickets on the day we wanted to go and we felt a ten hour night journey by boat and bus would not be fun. Instead we settled on going to the much closer Koh Samui, which still had interesting temples, grandfather and grandmother rocks to see and kayaking too. We booked our ticket and prepared to leave Koh Tao.

Day 86
– Today should have been our warning as to what was to come. Between eating breakfast and spending ten minutes packing up the last of our stuff, the heavens opened. We legged it to the taxi and tried desperately to keep our stuff dry. When we got to the ferry port we had to wade through the flooded street only to be packed in amongst tonnes of other tourists, our raincoats rustling as we jostled to get our tickets and then get on the ferry. This time we weren’t taking any chances, especially with the weather, and we took some travel sickness tablets and managed to squeeze into a space near the railings on a couple of plastic stools. This trip seemed so much easier than the last one, mostly due to the fact that the tablets seemed to totally knock me out. Even when we eventually arrived at our lovely hotel I still couldn’t keep my eyes open and both Joey and I drifted off to the pitter patter of rain on the roof.

Day 87
– We also woke up to the pitter patter of rain on the roof. The weather wasn’t looking much better but we were determined not to let it get to us. It wasn’t a good day for exploring but it was a good day for movies! Seeing as Joey and I are cinema fanatics and both miss the time we had unlimited cinema passes and used to go to see a new film about once a week (at least) we couldn’t resist spending a rainy day eating popcorn and watching movies. We went to the mall and first we saw Assissins Creed, which we both agreed was pretty good except for the last thirty minutes where there were a few flaws with the plot. It is always interesting to go to the cinema abroad too and see how different it is, like the much comfiest seats, the option to sit in double seats with cushions and blankets at the back and at the moment there is also a slideshow of photos of the King where you stand throughout to pay respect. 

After the movie we did a bit of shopping and I got a much needed haircut! Then we couldn’t resist fitting in a second movie and we went back to watch Passengers. For some reason this ticket was even cheaper than the first and we paid about £3-4 for lovely comfy seats and bought in some of our own snacks to make it even cheaper. Passengers was also a good film, if a little predictable, but we enjoyed it. Basically it was our perfect way to spend a rainy day.

Day 88
– Still, we wanted to do some exploring and see what Koh Samui had to offer so when we got back from the cinema we booked to do a tour off the island the next day. However, when we woke up the rain was even worse than the day before. We packed up our stuff in Joey’s dry bag and wrapped up in raincoats but we weren’t holding out a lot of hope of going on this tour and sure enough as soon as we went downstairs we were told the tour was cancelled. We rescheduled for the next day but as the hours stretched on and there was no break in the rain we started to doubt it would happen then either. With no chance of even getting out to the cinema it was a very lazy day of Netflix, napping and beating Joey at cards games (he’ll try to tell you it was the other way around but don’t believe him). 

Day 89 – Rain, rain and more rain. It became a bit of a joke to go to the window every hour and say “guess what? It’s still raining!” We looked up other people’s experiences on social media and saw that everyone was as trapped in crazy floods as we were. Luckily, being on a hill, we didn’t see the worst of it but it was still constant with rivers of water running down the incline behind our room and pouring from pipes. The driveway became a water slide and when we ventured to the end of it there was a huge puddle waiting there. 

Though we had made the best of it the day before, the rain was getting tedious now. Our plans to finally get out and see more of the islands had been ruined. We stayed upbeat though; I continued to beat Joey at our favourite card game, speed, and we watched more movies on Netflix but hiding out in your hotel room is not exactly what you have in mind when you book a trip to Thailand. I was just thankful it happened while Joey was with me as being together we could keep each other laughing and having a good time despite the weather being against us. 

Day 90 – It was a shame that by this time we were looking forward to leaving the drowned rock that was Koh Samui but even that was looking dodgey. When we arrived at the airport it was packed. We spoke to people who had been trying to get a flight out for the last 4 days! Both Joey and I had a limited amount of time left in Thailand as our visas would run out soon so I was starting to get worried. We both thought we would be there for the longhaul when suddenly the man we had been speaking to earlier about the delays scurried past, telling me on the way that our flight was being called. Typically Joey had gone to the bathroom and I tapped my foot, listening to the announcements for our flight and waiting for him to come back. When he did, we grabbed our bags and battled our way to the front desks. One minute we weren’t sure when we would be leaving and the next we were on the shuttle bus heading to the plane. We held our breath until the wheels left the runway though, convinced at any moment we would be turned back, but in the end we left only an hour behind schedule and arrived in Bangkok with no further hiccups. Tired but happy to be somewhere it wasn’t raining we grabbed a bite to eat, Khaosan road beginning to feel like home now it was so familiar to us.

Day 91 – Determined to finally get some exploring in we booked a tour to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam until it was burned to the ground by the Burmese. The ruins still remain though and a mini bus picked us up and took us 80km outside Bangkok to see what was left. We started at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, a temple that is still in use today and is home to a reclining Buddha on whose feet you can stick coins for good luck.

 Next was Wat Mahathat, which used to house Buddha relics but is now still full of strange beauty with its crumbling walls and half-destroyed sitting Buddha statues. It is also home to the famous Buddha head embraced by tree roots as they have grown around the serene face over the years. It is quite a sight to see, though ruined slightly by the unavoidable tourist queue to get a photo with it.

After visiting Wat Lokaya Sutha, a 42m long reclining Buddha, this one without coins on the bottom of his feet, we went on to see two others sites. One with a huge pyramid-like temple that almost reminded me of Mexican sites like Chichin Itza and another with three smaller, yet still huge and stunning, stupas in a row. Unfortunatly between the guides quiet voice and thick accent I couldn’t keep track of all the information and googling these places has only left me more confused as they seem to also go by the name Wat Lokaya Sutha (I do apologise for my awful research skills) but what I do know is they were beautiful. We perched on stone steps listening to birds whistling and trying to imagine what these structures might have looked like when they were first built. 

When the day was over we both agreed it wasn’t the best tour in the world, with a unintelligible guide and a rather cold and tasteless lunch it wasn’t what we had hoped for, but it was still one hundred times better than being stuck in a hotel room all day. 

It was Joey’s last night so after a nice meal we did some last minute souvineer shopping and tried to pretend that our adventure together wasn’t coming to an end. Our last souvineer was one for ourselves, and perhaps something that will become a tradition for us one day, we got a cute little caricature drawn together to commemorate such an amazing trip. A very enthusiastic tourist who was waiting to have his drawn next took this very awkward photo of us once it was finished!

Day 92 – The alarm went off at 5:30 am and there was no more avoiding the wake up call; Joey was going home today.Travelling with someone had been a very different experience for me and it was hard not only to say goodbye to my boyfriend but also my travelling companion and also a little piece of home. It seemed incredibly lonely to go back to think of going back to setting up my camera for selfies, for writing my thoughts in my journal instead of sharing them with someone and having to carry my own bag around. I have enjoyed solo travel immensely but at that moment I wasn’t ready to go back there. And I wasn’t ready to let go of someone who knew me before this trip, who could give me news on friends and family and share memories that happened longer than a few weeks ago. 

It was hard for Joey too, knowing that he would be going back to a daily routine without me, that there was still another seven weeks stretching out before we would see each other again. Yet he was excited too, and so was I really, because those seven weeks still held so much in store for me. That evening I headed over to the Stray Asia office and met a whole bunch of people who would be my new travel companions for the next few weeks. The next day I would be starting the Stray bus tour that will take me through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the end of my trip. The pass allows me to hop on and off the bus when it suits me, staying somewhere longer and catching up later if I want to or following the group. Some activities are included and they will help to book accomodation, though the cost isn’t included in the pass, and this seemed like the perfect mix between independent travel and tour group travel for me. The people I met were lovely too and I tried to forget all about goodbyes and think of it instead as a see you later.

Thailand Week 2 – lost iPad, scuba diving and fiery New Years celebrations!

Our first week had already flown by and it seemed like we had already done so much and at the same time not much at all. Joey and I were tired from the routine of Elephant Nature Park; although the work wasn’t hard there was always something to do and the early starts were catching up on us. We were looking forward to heading to our first island stop of Koh Tao but we weren’t expecting a whole lot of rest as next on the agenda was scuba diving!
Day 78 – Boxing Day! Before heading to the islands we had a couple of days left in Chiang Mai to relax and soak up the sun. We stayed in the lovely Eco Resort and got up late, swam in the pool and generally didn’t do a whole lot other than nap and eat. After our odd Christmas Day first at the elephant park, then at the hospital and finally at the night market, today felt more like the lazy Christmas Days I’m used to back home… except with a swimming pool and sunshine! In the evening we went out for pizza but when the restaurant turned out to be closed on Mondays we ended up at this awful Mexican restaurant across the road where the meat tasted like cat food. Ugh! Typically, when we went for a wander afterwards we stumbled across this great night market called Ploen Rudee, which was a treasure trove for foodies. We were too stuffed and tired to stay long but vowed to come back the next day.

Day 79 – Another lazy morning but eventually we roused ourselves from our spot by the pool and went on a boat tour. There wasn’t a whole lot to see and the stop at the herb garden wasn’t much more than a pretty place to eat our fruit snack but it was still enjoyable to float down the river in long, low boat with a shady roof. A relaxing way to spend the afternoon. Later we went to a place I had heard of called Art in Paradise. It’s a museum full of 3D paintings you can stand in to look like you are part of the scenery! It was so much fun, trying to pose to make the pictures look the best. It made us feel like big kids again.

In the evening we stuck to our word and headed back to Ploen Rudee night market where we had a feast of BBQ foods! It was probably the best food of the whole trip. We ate BBQ ribs, chicken wings, prawn skewers and for dessert, baked bananas with marshmallows and chocolate sauce, of which we somehow ended up with a free extra portion. We weren’t complaining! We even ran into some of A Team and got to catch up on what they had been up to since leaving the Elephant Nature Park.

Day 80 – The end of our lie ins as we had to get up early to fly to Krabi and then take a taxi to the ferry office to take a bus to the ferry to take a ferry to the island. It was as hectic as it sounds! Our taxi driver had no clue where the ferry office was and since we were tight on time we were getting more and more worried as we drove round in circles. Eventually we found it only to discover that there was complete chaos there! There was no line just a huge crowd of people all trying to get checked in at once. We battled our way to the front and got our tickets, boarded an insanely hot bus with no air conditioning and began to settle down for the journey. I went to take out my ipad to do some reading… only it wasn’t there. With a painful crystal clear clarity I remembered that I had taken it out on the plane and put it down by my side when I slept, forgetting to pick it up again. It was the cherry on top of the already stressful situation. Luckily a phone call revealed that the ipad had been found but getting it back would be a problem as we weren’t sure whether we would be passing back through Krabi and our bus was already on its way. I opted to have it sent to Bangkok and just prayed that both we and the ipad would make it back there.

The ferry ride did not improve the already horrible day. It was crammed past full capacity and behind schedule. By the time we passed Koh Samui and Koh Phangnan, finally drawing close to Koh Tao, the boat starting rocking up and down on the choppy waves. People around us were being sick and I had to stand outside and stare at the horizon to keep from losing the very little food I had eaten that day. In the process I got soaked from the splashing waves and Joey simply held me tight as we both wished we were there already. Thank goodness the taxi ride from the port to our hotel was short. We had booked this cute little beach hut for our stay on the island but after a full day travel we were too exhausted to appreciate it. We did however appreciate the kind, if abrupt, bustling host who waved the guest form away and told us to just get to our room and get some rest. Needless to say, we didn’t need telling twice!

Day 81
– First on our agenda was to book our diving! I had completed my Open Water certificate on holiday in Mexico earlier in the year but wanted to take things to the next step with my Advanced Open Water, allowing me to dive deeper and hone other skills I have already learnt. Joey was just starting out on his Open Water though so we had to make sure that I could do an extra dive so we would actually get to explore the underwater world together at some point. Our hotel recommended Scuba Shack and they were great. We were signed up straight away and that afternoon Joey started on his theory and I sat outside our beach hut (very much appreciated after a good nights sleep) doing some of my own homework and watching the sun set.

Day 82
– While Joey had to get up early to do some pool work for his first day of diving I, who was going out on the boat later, got a bit of a lie in. It was strange to be doing the same thing but on different schedules and a bit of a shame that we couldn’t do it together. It was my own fault though for being impatient and doing my open water early but it didn’t matter too much as we still crossed paths a lot over the next few days. While Joey had his first experience of diving I went out to open water to practice my navigation and peak performance bouyancy skills. The first dive was on a reef called Junkyard, an artificial reef where coral has been planted on structures and tunnels to encourage reef growth and wildlife. There are all sorts of other things down there though, including a car and some gym equipment! It was very odd to see familiar objects in such an unfamiliar environment but pretty cool too! It also turned out that I got my navigation skills from my mum (sorry mum but you know its true) and although I passed my tasks I did swim an extra length of the square I was navigating, forgetting that I had already turned enough corners to complete it. Oops! 

Unfortunatly my peak performance bouyancy wasn’t much better, though I blame the weather conditions for that mostly. The sea was quite choppy, churning up all the sediment on the bottom and making visibility awful as well as making my task to hover in the water even harder. Peak performance bouyancy is where you control your weight, air in your BCD (bouyancy control device – the jacket divers wear underwater) and your breathing to be able to hover just off the bottom of the sea. This is called neutral bouyancy and when you achieve this you should be able to control your movements simply by breathing in, filling your lungs full of air and making you more buoyant, to float over the reef and then letting it out to drift downwards as you become slightly less bouyant. Obviously this is pretty tricky when the first rule of diving is to always breath continuously but the adjustments are very subtle and its a skill I enjoy practicing so it was good fun despite the conditions. It was also nice to finally catch up with Joey over dinner, getting more and more excited about the diving adventures we would soon be able to take together in the future.

Day 83
– New Years Eve! It was our second day of diving and this time we at least got to go out on the boat together as Joey started his open water dives. The conditions were still less than perfect though and I felt bad for Joey that after I had gone on about how amazing swimming underwater is and all the things you can see, he could barely see anything. He said he didn’t mind though as it helped him concentrate on learning instead of getting distracted by beautiful corals and fish, plus it would make it twice as amazing for him when he did get the chance to dive in clearer waters. 

While Joey continued to learn I went on two more adventure dives. Firstly I did my deep dive, going down to 28m and seeing how colour and water pressure is different a tha depth. We took down a red packet of crisps  but until my instructor shined his light on it you would have thought it was brown. The pressure had also suctioned the packet to the crisps, making it hard and awkwardly shaped. We took a bottle down too, filled it with air at depth and back on the boat watched the lid pop off as the expanded air tried to escape.

In the evening it was time to celebrate New Year’s Eve! The place to be seemed to be down on the beach. Everyone was gathered, drinking from buckets and watching the many fire shows along the shoreline. We hopped from place to place, first having BBQ prawns on the beach, then fancy dessert and wine just off the beach front and later positioning ourselves in front of the New Years signs with a bucket of booze to watch it go up in flames at the countdown. We seemed to have picked the wrong one though as next doors went off with a dramatic fiery blow torch whereas ours was lit by two guys holding long stick with flames on the end. Still, it was amazing to say that we were starting 2017 on a beach in Thailand and more amazing still to be seeing the new year in with together.

Day 84
– New Years Day! For the first day of 2017 we got a day off from diving as the instructors recovered from their hangovers. This meant we could enjoy an easy day too, exploring the island a bit more, tracking down a nice place to sit and watch the sunset, feeling grateful to be where we were.

Day 85
– The final day of diving for both of us and at last we got a chance to dive together. On Joey’s third dive I did an extra dive just to tag along and enjoy experiencing it together. Again, visibility made it slightly disappointing but it was good to get a feel for what it would be like to be dive buddies and later that evening we would already be planning dive holidays we could go on together. My final dive was Fish Identification and it was probably the most enjoyable of them all. My dad, a bit of a fish fanatic, would have been proud. This dive basically involved me diving as usual but with a board I could write on underwater to point out the different kinds of fish we saw. There were none of my favourite trunkfish, little boxy fish with tiny whirring fins, but there were huge batfish with black and white stripes and pufferfish, bigger than you might imagine, and with their spines pressed flat against their bodies.

Finally we had both passed our diving courses and to celebrate we shared a chocolate brownie after a lovely dinner. It was starting to feel like all we did was sleep, eat and dive! It was perfect! It had to end though as we needed to move on to our next stop. We had planned to make the long journey back by ferry to the mainland to cross to the west coast islands and visit Koh Lanta. We were hoping that the weather might be better that side and we could get in another dive with better visibility. Alas it was not meant to be, the ferry was booked up and instead of taking the arduous night journey that was the only option available on the day we wanted to travel, we settled on the closer island of Koh Samui. It was a decision we would come to regret but at that point we were just looking forward to some free time to explore an island properly. Little did we know what awaited us on Koh Samui.

Thailand Week 1 – Elephants, A Team and Bed Bugs on Christmas

The last few weeks has been so full on I’ve struggled to keep up with the blog and I’m well behind on my videos but before I tell you more about my last two weeks in Borneo I thought it was best to update everyone on my first Christmas abroad.For this part of the trip my travel buddy (a.k.a. My boyfriend, Joey) would be joining me for three weeks. . We met in Bangkok and planned to spend our first week in Chiang Mai at The Elephant Nature Park volunteering with elephants before heading South for the islands.

Day 68
– Today was a travel day. I left Borneo and the friends I had made on my recent Great Projects tour behind and spent the journey buzzing with excitement to finally see Joey again. When you’ve been away for so long any piece of home is the best thing ever so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing him. Even though he set off the day before me I would still arrive in Bangkok an hour or so before his flight, so I headed over to the meeting point (there’s actually a designated meeting spot which is really useful if you’re trying to find someone in the airport) and took out my little sign for him. When he touched down we managed to message over wifi for a while. He was just waiting for his bag, he was so close, just down the hall from me and then… my wifi cut out. I tried to reconnect but was worried I would miss him if I was distracted so I gripped my sign tightly and waited. Eventually I saw him strolling through the crowds. I couldn’t stop smiling and the second he saw me with my sign a massive grin spread across his face too. Once we had finally untangled ourselves from our bags and each other, we headed off to our hotel for some much needed rest after a long day of travelling.

Day 69
– Unfortunatly we had tried but failed to extend our booking for our hotel so we were turfed out and spent the morning moving to the hotel next door and doing washing so I had something to wear other than smelly jungle clothes. Since Joey was still pretty jet lagged and we’d had a rushed morning we decided to have a slow paced day exploring the surrounding area. We stayed the next street over from Koh San Road and as we sat and ate pad Thai and green curry by the roadside,venders trying to sell us wooden croaking frogs and scewered scorpions, it was nice to see the famous road changing as the evening went on. Tourists haggled for elephant tops and gypsy pants at the roadside stalls, carts of fried grass hoppers, spiders and all manner of creepy crawlies appeared and music blared from the many roadside bars. My favourite part of the day though was tracking down The Fabulous Dessert Cafe where teddy bears sat at the tables and we ate waffles and rainbow crepe cake. We washed this down with some drinks at one of the pop up bars made from an old VW mini bus near our hotel.

Day 70
– We decided some culture was in order before flying to Chiang Mai that afternoon so we headed to the Royal Palace. After much difficulties with the tuk tuk drivers who try to scam you into doing a full day tour including a stop at one of their sponsors, we walked there. The roads were heaving with people dressed in black and filtering through check points. They were mourners, making their way to the Palace as well to pay ther respects to the king. Apparently this will continue for a full year after his death. Because of this the majority of the Royal Palace was closed off but what we did see was spectacular. Everything glitters and sparkles. The temples and pyramid shaped buildings are covered in thousands of gold tiles. Where there is no gold there are intricate paintings or mosaics and shiny statues standing guard. I don’t think I’ve ever visited such a bejeweled place before.

After exploring the Royal Palace we still had some time left so we walked down the road to. Wat Pho, temple of the recline in Buddha. This temple complex was equally impressive, especially the main attraction. The golden Buddha seemed even more massive crammed into a long room no much bigger than itsel and encased in pillars as if he were reclining in the middle of a forest. Behind the statue was a row of pots and you can change a 20 Baht note to drop one coin in the 108 bronze pots and make a wish in each. It is an interesting experience because I found I quickly ran out o things to wish for and had to hint hard about what I really wanted. Too soon we were running out of time and had to make our way to the airport for our flight to Chiang Mai.

We had booked a cheap hostel in a rush the day before and it was a decision we would live to regret. The second we stepped out of the taxi the owner began asking me questions about when we would check out the next day and why hadn’t i read his email about the front desk closing at 8pm and they had been waiting for us. All the while the taxi driver was asking for his money and Joey was trying to juggle the situation. When eventually everyone was paid and happy we got to see our room.. We ere greeted by a rock hard bed (I mean seriously the floor was softer) and a toilet that not only could you not throw toilet paper down but also needed to be flushed with a bucket of water. This is what £2.50 pp accomodation will get you. Safe to say we were eager to get out and explore the night market. We met up with Ell, a friend from back home who happened to not only be in Thailand at the same time ass us but had just finished the same elephant volunteering week we were about to start. As the hustle and bustle of the night market surrouned us and we followed the flow of people down the street, peering at hand made souvineers, sandals and elephant carvings galore, she told us what we had in store for the next week. If possible it made me even more excited.

Day 71– Our volunteering week began! In the morning we went to the Elephant Nature Park Office to be transferred to the park. On the way we watched a couple of documentaries about the torture these poor animals go through before working in the tourist industry. Young elephants are taken and put into crushes where their legs, neck and body are restrained with tight ropes between a small wooden structure. They are not allowed to move or even lie down. “Mahouts” then beat them using a hook, often fiercely jabbing it into the elephants ears and head. This is designed to break their spirit so that they will fear and obey the mahouts, who will continue to beat or threaten the elephants if they don’t comply.

It was a depressing start but something we all needed to know and it made seeing the elephants for the first time that much more poignant. We also got to meet some other residents of Elephant Nature Park when we took a stroll to cat corner. Alongside elephants they have rescued hundreds of dogs and cats, starting with those left homeless by the tsunami. Our welcome day ended with a blessing by a shaman, which involved little string bracelets tied round our wrists for luck and holy water being sprinkled on us.
Day 72 – The real work began and we kicked off our volunteer week with possibly the best job… scooping up elephant poo! It actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds and best of all it meant we got to be out in the park with the elephants. We even took a break halfway through just to watch these magnificent creatures enjoying their freedom. These rescued animals get to roam the park and do what they like, their mahouts (not like the cruel ones from the crushes but men who care deeply for their charges) watching over them, feeding them and guiding them back to their shelters at night. Currently there are a few older elephants you can stroke, and we were also lucky enough to bathe them,  but the park is soon to start a “hands off” policy so that the elephants can have even more freedom and be one step closer to their wild selves. In the meantime though we enjoyed meeting Mae Jan Peng, an old elephant, her eyesight damaged by constant camera flashes of tourists, and stroked her leathery skin. It’s strange that you can actually feel how saggy it is on them, almost hollow and yet at the same time thick. Their skin is covered in coarse hairs and for some elephants this is quite thick and on others it is more sparse. It was incredible! A lifelong dream come true!

Day 73 – Food day today! We spent the morning passing tiny watermelons down a line of people to be scrubbed and prepped for the elephants. The older ones who have no teeth get the rind taken off for them too because they can no longer digest it. We also made rice balls by compacting rice with oats, banana and coconut in so they can pick it up with their trunks to eat it. Later we provided them with some enrichment by stacking corn stalks around their night shelters. In the evening we got a lesson in Thai culture and language and even learnt a Thai song about elephants. I confess I can’t remember the rest but I still have the first bit of “chang Chang Chang” in my head, meaning “elephant, elephant, elephant”. If I can I will try to remember all the lyrics and write them down here though.
Day 74 – More poo! Our group, A Team, seemed to have drawn the short straw when it came to the poo task but we made the best of it, hitching rides on the truck and working together to get it done quickly. Our team was mostly the group of us who had travelled to the park on the mini bus together; we got on so well we requested to be put together. A bunch of us even went to a cooking class together in the evening. Our kind host, Pookie, had tiny gas stoves set up on her patio outside and together we learnt to make some Thai classics: Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, green and red curry and (our new favourite dessert) mango sticky rice – which you should not knock until you try! At the end Pookie and her assistant showed us a traditional way of making sticky rice in a bamboo, making it slightly caramelised around the edges and even sweeter.

Day 75 – We finished our food task early today so that we could visit a local school. Many of the mahouts children go to this school and it is one of the perks of their job that their children are provided with a good education. It was great to see the project supporting not just animals but the local community too. As soon as we arrived I was accosted by a gang of girls who led me round, showing me the bracelets and candles the students make and sell, not to mention quickly getting their hands on my camera and becoming little photographers. One in particular was a professional in the making, getting me and the other girls to pose for her. I’m even a little jealous of some of the shots she got!

Day 76 – Christmas Eve! At home maybe this would have been an easy day of chilling out and getting ready for Christmas Day, maybe seeing friends and having a few drinks but no such luck at Elephant Nature Park as elephants are hungry even on Christmas Eve! This was possibly our hardest day as we had to travel outside the park in the back of a truck and spend the day hacking down tall, prickly grass in the hot sun. We were rewarded with a party in the evening though and a couple of members of A Team, Leon and Erin, even played Santa Clause and Mrs Clause in handing out presents to all the staff and the mahouts. There were lots of performances too and we got to see some traditional dances as well as ones other volunteers had come up with themselves. It was an unusual Christmas Eve but nice to finally be getting in the spirit of christmas!

Day 77 – Christmas Day! So elephants still eat on Christmas Eve and apparently they still shit on Christmas Day. It seemed only itting to end our time at elephant nature park as it began – scooping poo! This time it was done with some Christmas cheer though…

Once our final task was done and we had said our last goodbyes to the elephants we waited for our transfer to the lovely Eco Resort where we would be spending Christmas. I was chatting away to A Team and scratching absent minded lay at my arm. No matter how much I itched it wouldn’t seem to stop and when I looked down I had massive red welts on my arm. I was covered in little spots in other places but where i had scratched was the worse! It was unbelievable how itchy it was! I had to sit on y hands to control myself. Sleeping on the journey back was the only thing that calmed it, that and some natural bite cream we managed to get at the eco resort, but by then Joey was starting to notice little red marks too and getting just as itchy. 

As if this wasn’t bad enough I had been suffering with a bladder infection for the last week so when our Christmas Day would have involved swimming in the pool and tracking down a nice place to eat it actually ended with us sat in hospital so I could get some antibiotics and something for our bites, which we still have no idea whether they were down to bed bugs or heat rash but whatever it was I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. 

Not an ideal Christmas to say the least but all that faded to insignificance when we Skype our families. It has been my first Christmas away from home and so hard not to spend it with my mum. Yet even miles away, across the ocean and in a different time zone she is still looking out for me. I got to open a little hand made stocking full of goodies and travel supplies. I honestly have the best mum ever! As for me and Joey getting presents for each other we headed to Chiang Mai night market again and spent an enjoyable evening scouring the stalls for souvineers for each other. I ended up with some beautiful rings and I got Joey some sunglasses (genuine rayban I was assured). In short, Christmas didn’t go quite as planned, but it didn’t matter, not one bit. Not when I was spending it with someone special and not when I knew my mum was back one with family having a lovely time too. 

My first week with Joey at Elephant Nature Park was amazing. I met some great people and got to be up close to an animal I have admired for years and even based my novel on. It was the best way to start our time together and made us even more excited for our New Years celebrations in the South of Thailand.


Singapore – A Perfect Respite from India

This post is a bit delayed and I’ve done so much in between but I can’t miss out a part of my trip (a post on Kuala Lumpur will come soon too) so here is what I got up to in Singapore.
So far in this trip I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some wonderful people who have kept me going, helped me find cool things to do and generally kept any loneliness at bay. After spending two weeks with the same group of friends and feeling like I had made some true connections I was nervous about being on my own again, after all, the few times I had been by myself so far it hadn’t gone very well. Yet Singapore surprised me. I hadn’t expected to find much to interest me and in the end I felt like I moved on too soon. It turned out that Singapore was the perfect respite from India. There wasn’t a scrap of rubbish in sight, the metro was quick and easy and rarely very crowded, in fact there were no real crowds – not by Indian standards anyway – anywhere and best of all, not once did I see someone pissing by the side of the street. The real thing I loved about Singapore though, was that for the first time I felt like I could do this travelling thing on my own.

Day 29 – I actually arrived in Singapore at a reasonable time and instead of getting ripped off by some taxi driver I managed to get a dirt cheap shuttle bus directly to my hostel. I’d booked myself into a capsule hostel, which essentially meant a narrow room with lots of curtained nooks with beds in with a little fold down table/shelf. Cosy!

Eager to make the most of what was left of the day I quickly made a plan to see the light show by the bay and see the famous Marina Bay Sands up close. On my way out I noticed it had started to rain and when I went back to get my raincoat I invited Kyle, the only other person I had seen in my room, to come with me. He happily agreed since the problem with capsule beds was that as cosy as they were, they aren’t very sociable, in fact, other than hearing the occasional snore, its hard to tell who is actually in the room at any time. He said I was the only other person he’d really spoken to here and was happy for the company too. We made our way to the Marina Bay Sands Mall, which is probably more expensive than other malls in Singapore, but offered some delicious, cheap food. Afterwards we wandered outside and watched a very confusing but quite pretty fountain and light show on the waterfront. Images were projected onto a fan of water and from what I could tell, told the story of a boy and girl growing up, falling in love, having children and joining an orchestra…? Even better was the Gardens by the Bay light show, where the huge sci-fi looking trees flashed multi-coloured to various popular songs, mostly from musicals.

Seeing the amazing “boat balanced on three towers”, a.k.a Marina Bay Sands, from the bottom just wasn’t close enough so me and Kyle rushed back to the hotel to smarten up and came back, whizzing up the towers, straight to the top. The view was spectacular – as were the drinks prices! We sipped Bellinis and admired the twinkling lights of the city spread out before us. Yesterday I had been in India, sitting by a pool in Goa, today I was on the top of a world famous building drinking cocktails. We might have been dressed the part but we were still obviously out of our league. The table next to us ordered another round and a bottle of champagne to celebrate a birthday. Me and Kyle ordered a Pimms to share. We left before we were tempted to buy any more drinks and before I knew it we were at the bottom and I had completely forgotten to take a peak at the famous swimming pool! Put it on the list for next time.

Day 30 – When I woke up Kyle wasn’t around so I made a plan for the day by myself and set off to explore. Though I would have welcomed the company I was also sort of excited about finding my own way around. On Kyle’s suggestion I checked out China town. I visited my second Temple of the Buddha Tooth Relic temple of this trip and a Hindu temple called Sri Marriamman. I saw Chinese men playing chequers in the square and browsed the market stalls full of good luck tokens, little bowls with chopsticks and cut out paper art. 

From China town I headed back to Sentosa. Here I visited the Art Science Museum, the lotus shaped building by Marina Bay Sands Mall. I wasn’t sure whether this would be worth it or not but it was something to do and in the end I really enjoyed it. I ended up going to an exhibit on how art and technology have joined together to showcase environmental issues. There were interactive maps and boards and all sorts. My favourite though was a project where you could colour in an animal, scan it in and then watch it appear on the floor beneath your feet. I chased my flower-shelled turtle as it swam across the dark floor, flowers and other animal projections floating alongside it. Finally I couldn’t end my day without posing by the Merlion Statue and I made a great fool of myself trying to use my phone to position my go pro to get a classic “catching the water in my mouth pose” until a kind woman came and offered to take the photo for me, putting me out of my misery. Selfies can apparently be both a joy and a pain when travelling alone.

Day 31 – One of my favourite days in Singapore and possibly the trip as a whole. I spent the day at Singapore Zoo and two other nearby parks, the Night Safari and River Safari parks. I love zoos! The highlight of this one was getting to watch the tigers being fed. The two white tigers swam in the water, waiting for tasty morsels of meat to be thrown down to them and occasionally snapping at each other in anticipation. When the food came towards them they leaped out of the water, paws spread, claws ready and teeth bared. 

In the end I was too late to properly appreciate the River Safari park and only got a glimpse of the pandas it is known for before they headed into their enclosures for bed time. The Night Safari was a whole new experience though. Sitting on the tram and peering into the dark, trying to catch a glimpse of lions and zebras in the gloom reminded me of being on safari for real in Tanzania. The night noises of creatures howling, grunting and roaring was just the same. It was also nice to just spend a quiet moment enjoying being so close to some amazing animals, standing less than a metre away in the semi-darkness of the bat house as one of the furry, winged creatures swooped down to hang upside down and munch on a bunch of bananas. 

 I loved every minute of the zoo and you can read more about my tips on visiting the zoo in my How to Make the Most of Singapore Zoo post.
Day 32 – Another visit to Gardens by the Bay, this time to see the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest Dome. The first was not really worth the visit. Unless you’re into botanicals its a pretty place to wander around but not much more than a glorified garden centre. I did enjoy a hefty dose of Christmas spirit though, listening to carols being played as I admired tropical plants and posing by the snow globe in the Christmas display for an early x-mas message to my Mum. 

The Cloud Forest Dome was more interesting. Again it had a kind of sci-i/futuristic feel. In fact it was almost as if I had stepped onto a set from Avatar. Above me towered a massive mountain of foliage, water cascading down its sides and walk ways spiralling out from amongs the leafy walls. You take a lift to the top and then wind your way down. There is a little information on cloud forests and not much to see other than this impressive structure, but, like I did, you’ll find yourself drawn in, spotting the different coloured, shaped and patterned leaves that make up the forest. The whole way down I was getting inspiration for sci-fi/fantasy stories!

Day 33 – Perhaps my least favourite day in Singapore. It started out well with my trip to Jurong Bird park. As soon as I arrived I went straight to watch the show and was impressed by the well-trained birds. Parrots flew through hoops, parakeets took dollar notes from the audience and returned it, toucans closed doors to their little shelters and a white peacock ended the show with his impressive tail feathers. 

However, after a little while of walking around the park I began to realise something; when they aren’t performing, birds are pretty boring. Don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful and interesting animals but a whole day of birds was a bit of a bird-overload. Half-way through the day I was dragging my heels but still trying to make the most of it. I pulled out my camera to capture some pelicans preening themselves on their island in the lake when the camera slipped from my grasp and skittered across the floor. Please don’t be broken, please dont’ be broken. I thought desperately as I first pressed and then jammed my finger at the on/off button. The screen remained blank. The lens stayed in its retracted position. I could have cried. My lovely camera that had survived so much and been with me since my gap year trip four years ago had finally given up the ghost. As if I was in a movie (and something more dramatic than a broken camera had happened) it began to rain. I trudged back to the entrance and sat out the storm eating a disgusting dry chicken burger and feeling disappointed not with myself but with Singapore. I completely blamed the whole country for my unfortunate day and was actually a little glad I was moving on to Kuala Lumpur the next day.

Except I didn’t really mean it. One bad day couldn’t over-rule the fantastic time I had in Singapore and we quickly kissed and made up. My first night on top of Marina Bay Sands with another new friend from my trip was great but what was even better was the sense of accomplishment I had from having done so much by myself and having had a great time doing it! I didn’t get lost, I didn’t waste my time not finding anything to do and I loved being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted. It didn’t matter that I spent around 8 hours in a zoo because I was enjoying it whereas someone else might have gotten bored or restless. If I wanted to stop and have a frozen yoghurt looking out over the bay, there was no one there to moan that we needed to be getting on to the next thing. Singapore was easy to navigate, full of fun and interesting things to do and I can’t emphasise enough how nice it was to be somewhere clean after India. Not only was it the perfect respite from the chaos of India but it was a great way to get me back on my feet after spending so long in the company of amazing people. I left Singapore with great memories, some things left to come back for and, best of all, a massive sense of achievement – pretty much the best way to leave any place.

The Philippines: The Good, The Bad and The Airports

I’ve always liked airports. There is something calming about them to me. Everything has an order and a system and you work your way through it. Check in. Security. Duty Free. Gate. Boarding. Up, up and away. A few years ago when I travelled Italy by train, I thought that skipping that routine would be a relief but actually it was being back in an airport to fly home where I felt most relaxed.

That being said, I think I’ve had enough of airports to last me a lifetime…

Day  38 – Everyone’s advice is always to get out of Manila as soon as you arrive in the Philippines. Apparently there is nothing to do, its kind of dangerous and the traffic is horrendous. So I booked a flight straight to Cebu but ended up with a 6 hour lay over in the airport. That’s all right though, I thought. I’ll get some food, have time to switch terminals and make the most of airport wifi. A bit of a waste of a day, but not too bad. I stayed one night in the aptly named Stopover Hostel just long enough to plan my trip: A couple of nights in Cebu, then on to Bohol and maybe spend my last 5-7 days in El Nido. Oh if only it had all gone to plan…

Day 39
– Getting to Moalboal, my first stop in Cebu, meant a lengthy bus journey. My taxi driver, after breaking down twice before realising we had run out of fuel (his car was so old the fuel needle didn’t work) dropped me off by a bus he insisted was going to Moalboal. I looked down at the maps on my phone showing the bus terminal a minute down the road and across the street but nervously got out of the car and went over anyway. The ticket conductor and a couple of others immediately started saying Moalboal and pointing at the bus enthusiastically and I was ushered on board. 

I spent the majority of the second half of the journey leaping out of my seat at every stop, of which the bus made many, being completely confused over when we would reach Moalboal. I watched with curiousity as the bus conductor gave a whistle every time someone wanted to get off and the bus would slow, allow them just enough time to disembark and then with another whistle we would be off again. I needn’t have worried so much, when we reached Moalboal the conductor let me know, helped me off with my bag and before I could take it off him had given it to a man who had been waiting eagerly by the stop. With no other choice I followed him, quickly realising he was a driver who could take me to my hostel. He got on the back of a motorbike and wedged my heavy rucksack between his legs. ‘No, no, no. I can’t get on that,’ I stuttered pathetically. I had never ridden a motorbike before. But he wasn’t moving and he had my bag. Fuck it. I thought. This is what travel is all about, trying new things, besides what’s the worst that could happen. Apparently nothing. I reached my hostel quickly, easily and cheaply but starving too and immediately went out to explore.

Down the road, ten minutes walk from the hostel, was a little strip of restaurants, bars and dive shops. I ate, booked some diving for the next day and then didn’t feel like going back to the hostel yet. Instead I wandered down the windy dirt path in search of a nice bar. I had heard Chilli bar was good so I decided to celebrate finally reaching paradise, a place where i could rest up on pretty beaches for the next couple of weeks, with a classic holiday cocktail. As I sipped my pina colada, sitting in the perfect spot to watch the sunset, a bunch of children stood in the shallows of the sea below and sang Christmas carols to anyone who would listen. Such a surreal experience.

Day 40
– It was an early start for my first dive and I had three lined up for the day. I had been itching to get back in the water the whole trip and now was finally my chance! I felt a bit like a newbie all over again with no dive computer and everyone sorting out my equipment for me, but it was also nice to be lazy and not worry about those things. Especially when I’m busy watching the thousands of sardines that reside there, the shimmering, mesmerising shoal like an ever changing cloud underwater. This is what Moalboal diving is famous for and I can understand why. But there’s much more than just sardines to see; I counted twelve turtles, swimming majestically through the water or lying on the coral, resting and nibbling. I even spotted a bright blue sea snake, which was a highlight for me as it was something I never expected to see. 

In the evening I went out for drinks with some guys from the hostel and met a bunch of cheeky Philippino kids. They quickly gave up trying to sell us souvineers and began trying to beat the boys at pool, insulting them and calling them Losers. They took more of a shining to us girls, showing off, especially “Jason Derulo” with his spiky hair and mischievous grin. In the end we couldn’t resist buying souvineers from them.
Day 41 My Birthday! I had been really worried about spending my birthday alone but luckily my hostel roommates, Izzy, Daisy and Louie were determined to make sure I had a good time, which meant one thing: canyoning. We squeezed in the back of a tricycle, the typical way to travel short distances around here, and consists of a motorbike with a side car attached. We kitted up and took another motorbike ride (I was getting used to them now) past lush jungle that looked like something out of Jurassic Park, then it was the longest walk ever to the beginning of the canyon but working up a sweat made diving into the crystal blue water all the more refreshing.

We paddled through the water, sliding over rocks and small waterfalls but the best part was scrambling along the side of rocks and leaping off. We jumped from 10 feet, 20 feet and the highest at 35 feet, with a few more in between. I can’t describe the adrenaline rush of falling through the air and plunging into the water below. Although the 35 feet was the scariest the best by far was when you had to take a running jump off the edge, the aqua blue water rushing up to meet you. It was incredible. The day ended at the beautiful Kawasan falls and after that, some celebratory drinks! No cake this year but Izzy, Daisy and Louie did their best with a candle in a beer bottle – the staff at Chilli Bar even sang to me! An incredible way to spend my birthday abroad.

Day 42 – Part of travelling is changing your plans when a better idea comes along so instead of heading to Bohol I made plans to follow my new friends to Borocay. There was one stop I had to make along the way first though, something I couldn’t miss out on. I hopped on the bus to Oslob ready for my adventure with whale sharks.
Day 43 – Apparently whale sharks are early risers. I dragged myself out of bed at 5am and was in the water by 6:30 am. As we neared the spot I could already see their massive gaping mouths moving through the water, eating the food the fisherman throw in the water for them. I knew they would be big but as I dived in the water and caught a glimpse of their long spotted tails and huge heads I realised I didn’t have a clue. They were magnificent. Unfortunatly I couldn’t spend all day in the water though and it was time to catch my flight to Borocay. So began another long afternoon at the airport, having over estimated how long the bus back would take. Thank God the airports here have good wifi!

Day 44 – I finally arrived in Borocay late the night before and joined up with everyone from Moalboal. One of the things the Philippines is known for is island hopping tours so I couldn’t miss the opportunity. Finally I was seeing the white sandy shores, palm trees and clear blue water I had been promised. With a drink in hand we spent the day snorkelling, floating in the sea and relaxing on the beach, not to mention dancing with the locals after lunch. We had the option to cliff dive but since it was extra we gave it a miss… besides after canyoneering we had done our fair share of jumping off high things! 

Day 45 – After so long travelling I finally got my wish to lie on a beach and just do nothing. It was bliss! Even more fun was the famous pasta night at Frendz hostel that evening. With free food, live music and singing and chatting to all the new people I had met, I didn’t think the night could get any better. An email pinged into my inbox, distracting me from the amazing rendition of the Spice Girls going on by all the English guests at the hostel. My MA grades were through and I had passed! I rushed off to tell someone and was immediatly being congratualated. Within seconds I had a shot in my hand. I started to wonder whether I should have stayed at Borocay after all…

Day 46 – Another early start for the airport but it was okay because I knew I would soon be on my way to El Nido, ready for more exploring, island hopping and diving. At the terminal I got on a bus to the plane but when we got there we were made to wait. And wait. And wait. Then we were told there was a problem with the plane and we would have to go back to the airport, potentially meaning I would miss my connecting flight. They put me on a new flight to Manila with empty promises about making my connection to El Nido. So I waited some more. And some more. I watched the board constantly changing the time both of my original flight and the new one, delaying it further and further. By the time I finally stepped on the plane there was no chance of making my connection and I had been in the airport a total of 9 hours! A day in paradise wasted. 

Back in Manila airport (which was starting to feel like home after spending 6 hours there on the first day) I headed straight to the transfers desk only to hear the news I dreaded. There were no more flights to El Nido today. The silver lining was that they would put us up in a nice hotel for the night with dinner and breakfast and I was definitely going to take advantage.

Some things you miss when backpacking: feeling clean and dry from a real towel and not your highly practical micro-fibre one, using a hair dryer, wearing slippers, watching TV in bed and most of all a big comfy double bed (with 4 pillows) all to myself! This was luxury!

Day 47 – In the morning it was back to the airport AGAIN with hopes and prayers that somehow we would get on a flight. Me and another couple who had also been on the same missed light to El Nido had to wait an hour just for the ticket desk to open. When it finally did we were given more bad news. All the flights to El Nido that day were booked up. This was just getting ridiculous. We had been promised a place on the flight and now that had fallen through too.

Our next best option was an offer of round trip tickets to Busuanga. I quickly searched up some accommodation and saw beautiful beach huts opening right up to the sea and my spirits lifted! We all agreed and tried to wait patiently while the tickets were booked. Finally we were led to check in, handed over our new tickets and began to put our bags on the conveyer belt. The stewardess tapped some keys on her computer and a frown appeared on her face. “I just need to check some details,” she said and I felt a familiar sinking feeling. When the stewardess who had booked our replacements tickets came back I thought she might burst into tears herself as she told us our flights, along with many others across the islands, had been cancelled due to a cyclone. 

I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or scream with frustration! What had begun as an adventurous break in a beautiful paradise islands had turned into a nightmare. I remembered sitting on the bus from Moalboal to Oslob and thinking about how lovely this place was. The people had been so friendly and helpful, there were so many amazing things to do here that I couldn’t wait to see more from the Philippines. I was even already planning my return one day. Yet sitting in traffic for three hours on the way to my hotel in Manila, the place I had been told to avoid like the plague and now would be forced to spend three days at, I found I couldn’t wait to leave and get to the next part of my trip.
Day 48 – A new day and a new start. When travel plans change you just have to make the best of it and in this case it meant using my refund money to enjoy another few days of luxury. I spent my time swimming, lazing in the jacuzzi and roasting in the sauna. Not to mention enjoying my free upgrade on my room, which has given me an apartment all to myself!

In the Philippines I’ve experienced some of the best and worst parts of travelling – from having an amazing time celebrating with people I’ve just met to spending around 3 days worth of my trip in various airports. Although it’s tempting to let this experience ruin my view of the Philippines I think maybe these islands deserve a do-over. One day I’ll make it to El Nido but on this trip, it just wasn’t meant to be, not to mention I’m now slightly less enamoured with airports. Now if you don’t mind I think I’ll curl up in my big double bed and watch another movie…

Uncover India Part 3 – Overnight trains, All night parties and Yolo tattoos

The middle of this trip had seen us relaxing for a few days but now it was time to ramp things up again. We still had a fair way to travel before our trip was over but there was also fun and games to be had along the way. This final leg would both exhaust us and see the trip ending on a massive high – probably the perfect combination for a yolo Uncover India  tour.

Day 23 – Our travels continued as we headed to our next stop, Mumbai. On the way we stopped at the Ghandiji Ashram in Amhenebad and explored the museum there. I hadn’t known much about his life or the movement he began so it was interesting to peruse the displays and read his inspirational quotes. It was only a quick stop though before we headed to the mall for a bite to eat before our train. It seemed to be a unanimous decision to go to Pizza Hut. We welcomed the familiar brands, air conditioned shops and clean surroundings with open arms! 

After stuffing our faces it was time to catch the train. I have never taken an overnight train before but it was pretty much as I expected. I was on the top bunk of three, perched on what was essentially a padded shelf with blankets and sheets. Still, I was out like a light and when I woke up a few hours later the carriage was in darkness and everyone else was snoozing soundly too. It seemed such a strange and wonderful idea to me, a train rattling along with all these sleeping souls, people who were there but not really there, their bodies rising and falling with gentle breath but their minds far away chasing dreams.

Day 24 – We arrived in the early hours of the morning, scrambling to rub the sleep from our eyes and grab our bags to disembark from the train. When we arrived at our hotel we were lucky to get a tour first and have our rooms open and ready to go, allowing for a much needed shower and maybe even a quick power nap. 

Feeling a little refreshed we went straight out for breakfast and then a driving tour of the city. It was so relaxing (almost a little too relaxing as my eyelids began to droop) being taken from place to place, getting to see how green and clean this city was in comparison to everywhere else we had been and only hopping out quickly for photo opportunities. We saw a huge flat block where the richest family in Mumbai lives, a tranquil park called the Hanging Gardens (though I didn’t see anything hanging) and the beach. We also visited Ghandi’s house, which offered more information about his early life and filled in a lot of the blanks from our ashram visit the day before. 

The tour ended with a walk through the slums. This was like Delhi condensed into tiny alleyways, buildings one on top of the other and people winding their way through it all. It felt strange to see this as a tourist attraction when this was peoples way of life but at the same time I was glad to see it; awareness of the different ways people live is one of the reasons I travel after all.

Earlier we had got the bad news that our flight to Goa the next day had been moved forward to a ridiculously early time in the morning (around 3am) but that didn’t put our plans to party on hold. When three huge beer towers were ordered I think we all knew this wasn’t going to be an early night. We were drinking in a place reminiscent of an American sports bar but we soon turned it into our own personal club, dancing late into the evening (even though we were so tired from travelling that 10pm felt more like midnight to us). A few of us even went on to another bar afterwards and sipped cocktails called Trip on the Drip from plastic bags like there was no tomorrow.
Day 25 – Except it was already tomorrow. We stumbled home with around an hour until we had to be up again for our flight. Most people dozed a little at least but I couldn’t sleep. “What did you do, Jess?” Dino asked, “I just lay in the dark and hoped to slee!” I cried back and he laughed. Needless to say the second I was buckled in on the plane my eyes were closed. “Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me” the air hostess repeated until I pried my eyes open, hoping to God there was a good reason for disturbing me. She handed me a cardboard box with a celephane wrapped squished cheese sand which inside. I resisted the urge to open the emergcy exit and throw it out, along with the air hostess. 

It was clear as soon as we arrived that Goa was a much more touristy place than anywhere we had been so far. Tattoo shops, and market stalls were everywhere. Not that I saw much of it, being passed out in my hotel room. It was enough to keep me going in the evening though and I’m glad I did as nothing could have kept me away from watching my tour mates rocking out on the karaoke machine. Dino turned out to be a real microphone hogger and persuaded most people to go up and sing with him, even physically dragging me up at one point to mumble the words in the background. 

Day 26 – I had been asking Cat to henna my back for the last few days and we had never found the time but today, lying face down on the beach, she started on the design. Unfortunately though, a group of white girls on the beach in India will pretty much make you feel like a celebrity, and not in a good way, it wasn’t long before a group of men had surrounded us taking pictures (despite us saying no) and selfies strategically positioned to capture us in the background. It wasn’t like we weren’t used to this sort of thing by now but when you’re on the beach in your bikini it’s a bit much. We escaped the beach for lunch, eating at a restaurant called Hangover, probably so called because of the sloth-like service. The food was good though so all was forgiven. 

Over the course of the trip #yolo had become our catchphrase, and in particular Kate’s catchphrase. Not only was it the style of tour we were doing but it summed up our general attitude towards it too. Everyone was always up for every activity and taking full advantage of all the trip had to offer, after all, you only live once! She had been planning this tattoo for a while now and she finally had the opportunity, but it wasn’t any bog standard hashtag tattoo she wanted, she was having it written in Hindi to commemorate her time in India. It actually looked really pretty too. The only problem with this was the fact that Indians are unfamiliar with the phrase and so kept asking, “Yolo? Is that your name?”

In the evening, with Kate sporting her new tattoo, we went out one last time to celebrate the end of the trip. We all shared our favourite moments of the trip, a few of us even tearing up, and the concesous with everyone was that it was hard to pick just one thing. We had truly all had an unforgettable time.
Day 27 – A day of last goodbyes as people set off home, moved to different hotels or continued their travels to other countries. Everything felt kind of empty and sad but we tried to keep our spirits up, ater all a few of us had one more bonus night just a little way down the coast in Vagator. I shared a hostel with Kate and we sat by the beach, reflecting on the trip but also enjoying a chance to finally just be still and do nothing. 
I’m glad I didn’t listen to the poeple who tried to put me off India but I also think the amount I enjoyed it had a lot to do with the tour and the brilliant people I met on it. It was great to see so much of the country as it varies so much from one place to another but it was also hard going at times and I was looking forward to spending more than a couple of nights in one place. Uncover India was a great tour to do though, it really gave you a true flavour of the country and I appreciated the lengths G Adventures went to make sure the locals were supported in every place we visited, whether that was through the transport we took, the activities we did or the places we stayed.

India is a beautiful, colourful, chaotic country but I will admit I was more sad to say goodbye to the people I met there than the country itself. That doesn’t mean I won’t be back one day though as there is always more to see, more to do and more people to meet. 

Uncover India Part 2 – Party buses, Dancing with the Nomads and Painting peacocks

A tour like this can be pretty full on but as we came to the middle portion things seemed to slow down a bit and we got more and more free time to explore by ourselves or simply relax by the pool. Travelling on your own it can be hard to know when is the right time to push yourself to go out and make the most of your time in a place and when to give yourself a break but G Adventures gave us permission to sit back and enjoy our time away from our busy lives back home. Even on a day off there was always something new and exiting to do yet it never felt rushed. It might be hard to believe we had some time to ourselves in between all these activities but trust me these were the most chilled days and our chance to unwind…

Day 18 – We had gotten a glimpse of life in Tordi Sagar the evening before. Dino told us about his work with rural villages before, fitting pumps so tha they had clean water and that afternoon we saw one and Riley even jumped in to give the poor man pumping away a break. The women bossed him about, telling him to work harder before lifting the heavy pots of water onto their heads. 

The children seemed to know the drill with the tourists and one cheeky boy with bright eyes and wiry arms, held out his hand then brought it to his lips saying “chew gum? Chew gum?” Cat,the first person I met in our group, found some polos in her bag and tried to hand them round. It instantly turned into a mad house with the kids clawing at her, bouncing up and down excitedly as she held the polos out of their reach so that she might distribute them fairly. When the wrapper was empty they set her free and the cheeky boy put a polo into his mouth and cracked it in two. “Bleaugh!” He spat it back out on the ground. We laughed and he grinned mischievously. 

This morning we encountered more excitedable kids, this time eager for Olivia’s stickers (though not quite as keen as the evening before), we saw people in their shops going about their work and we also go a chance to visit a potter. He had made hundreds of tiny diyas ready for Diwali but to us he showed of his more superior skills. He spun his wheel, a large round flat stone just balanced off the ground, faster and faster with a wooden stick, wet his hands and let the clay slip through his fingers. We were mesmerised as he quickly mounded a neat little bowl and deftly sliced it away from the rest of the clay and lay it on the ground. Next was our turn and lets just say our attempts weren’t quite so good. I even totally destroyed my first bowl and then next one was pretty wonky too – none of the finess of the professional.

It was back in the party bus after our walk and on to Pushkar city. As we drove we sang to our new favourite tune:

 “The party bus is coming, And everybody’s jumping, Tordi to Pushkar city, An intercity disco, The wheels of steel are turning, Diwali lights are burning, So if you like to party, Get on and move your body!”

Eventually we were all partied out though and arrived in bustling Pushkar in time for a walk through the markets to visit the only temple to worship Brahma. Apparently Brahma was late to the puja he and his wife, Savariti, were holding to bless their new house. She was so angry with him she cursed him that he would only be worshipped in Pushkar city – let that be a lesson to all tardy husbands! 

The temple itself was beautiful, covered in white marble tiles, almost all of which were dedicated to someone. We walked up the steps and rang the bell, letting God know we were there to worship and received a small offering of sweets (remember rainbow dust? Pretty much that but white). After our little moment of calm it was time to set us loose on the market stalls and test out our bartering skills.
Day 19 – Having visited her husband’s temple the day before it seemed only right that we visit Savirit’s temple this morning. It was an early start so we could catch the sunrise and it was worth every single one one of the many steps to the top. Surrounded by mountains, monkeys clambering about in the trees nearby and a chipped cup of chai in our hands we watched the sun slowly emerge from the white fog that seemed to cling to the peaks. And there it was, a perfect orange disc hanging in the sky, the perfect reason to get up at 5:30am.

After a rare free day we had a treat in store for the evening. Dino took us out to the dunes to meet the nomads, although some of the group opted to get there by camel, the rest of us drove. It was so nice to be out in the middle of nowhere at a simple camp, sitting in a semi-circle at low tables as the sun set behind us. The first entertainer of the night was a magician doing sleight of hand tricks, which although were simple, I still couldn’t figure out how he did them – I mean, he made coins come out of my nose! Next there were dancers, who even dragged us up and got us to join in, but first we had to look the part. The nomads plonked down a bag full of brightly coloured fabrics and we dived in. After much faffing, discovering that the only way to keep a scarf on your head was to put sunglasses on top of them and a lot of help from Dino, we were finally all dressed up. The dancers looked even more beautiful than us, their outfits sparkling with sequins, but we did our best to keep up with them. When we were allowed to take our seats again, we watched our last entertainment – fire breathing! Flames leapt from his mouth and up towards the night sky. The evening ended with a hearty home cooked meal and as delicious as it was I had to refuse more by round five.

Day 20 – A second train ride took us from Pushkar to Udaipur (Dino’s hometown) but this time it was less comfortable. We truly got a local experience, turning up to find other people in our seats. One woman insisted she was in the right place until we pointed out the date for tomorrow and she sheepishly moved away. Another woman sat with her knee up, spread out across the small bench that was supposed to seat three of us and merely gestured to me to sit somewhere else when I tried to explain we had booked these seats. After a few firm words from Dino though, she reluctantly moved and we all squished into our assigned seats for the seven hour journey.

Luckily that afternoon there was nothing too taxing to do except enjoy a sunset boat ride and gaze longingly at the five star resorts that float on lake Pichola. In case we hadn’t got enough of the beautiful lakeside view already, which there’s no way you can, we ate at the Rainbow restaurant overlooking the water. I finally got to try some tandoori chicken cooked in a traditional tandoori oven and it was mouth-wateringly good. 
Day 21 – Just as Jaipur is famous for its block printing, Udaipur is famous for its miniature painting. Dino took us to a local artist of good repute and we got to witness his skills first hand – quite literally. After showing us how they mix the paints (FYI they use cow urine for yellow), layer colours and add details before painting onto paper, silk or even camel bone, the artist asked me to come down and sit in front of him. He gently took my hand and picked up his finest paintbrush (made of camel eyelashes) and began painting on my nail. In seconds a tiny elephant and an even tinier baby between its feet had appeared on my nail. Everybody got a turn and soon there were tigers, camels, men and women in brightly coloured dress and blue and green peacocks on our nails. It was the perfect souvineer – if only it could last! But there was a chance to buy their more permanent paintings, which featured even more detail and colour but instead I opted to give it a go myself and do the painting class.

While others went off to explore some more or have their palms read, myself and a few others stayed behind with a different painter who sketched us out a peacock to copy. He showed us how to do each stage but every time our peacocks seemed to look more and more different from the pretty one he was created. I quickly discovered that I had messed up the tail feathers when it came to the fine details and none of us could weild the tiny brush as well as our teacher. But we had good fun and our very own personal painting to take home.

In the evening we got to celebrate Diwali, a part of the trip we had all been growing more and more excited for, and it turned out to be a fantastic night. We shared our stories about our palm readings earlier, laughed, drank, set off fireworks and witnessed traditional prayers. It was one of the best nights of the trip and you can read about it in more detail here.
Day 22 – A cooking class the next day was the perfect way to recover after Diwali celebrations – okay so more the promise of food than the cooking itself. Yet soon we were rolling and stuffing samosas, then stuffing them still piping hot in our mouths, drinking home brewed chai and learning how to make all our favourite foods from the trip, like lentil dahl, chapati and palak paneer (paneer cheese in a spinach sauce). Everything tasted amazing and we all said we couldn’t wait to impress our friends and family with the recipes when we get home.

In the evening Dino treated us to the Dharohar Folk Dance show where we got to see a variety of traditional dances. The theatre was outside and the stage was part of an old palace built in the 18th century. It was lit with multi-coloured lights and the dancers costumes were even brighter. They twirled and span faster and faster until their skirts were just a blur. My favourite dance was one done sitting down where they gently clanged various bells attached to their bodies. The puppet performance was good fun and a brief reenactment between a God and a demon fighting was just strange but by far the most impressive was the woman who could balance 11 pots on her head while dancing! 

With the tour now in full swing everyone was enjoying each others company, feeling more relaxed and making the most of every moment. Yet there was still so much more to see…