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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


But there was more to come…


Cambodia Part 2 – Peppercorns, Royal Palaces and Movie Binges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 112 – Still feeling a little fragile from the night before, we eventually made it back to the beach, this time a different one and with less drinking, more sleeping on the sand. We slept off the rest of our hangover and just as we were getting ready to make a move we ran into the Family. They were heading down the beach to wher there was an inflatable obstacle course. Enough said. I was in the water and sliding all over the place in no time. Now that is a real cure for a hangover!

Day 113 – A sad day. For the first time on this trip I had decided to hop off the Stray bus for some much needed beach and recuperation time. The only problem was, my new Stray family would be continuing on without me. It was strange to be on my own again after travelling with people for so long but I didn’t have too long to think about it as I had a ferry to catch. Another reason for staying was so I would get the chance to explore Koh Rong island. The boat ride over was hot and sweaty and crowded but when I stepped off the boat and onto a little pier that led to white sands and clear blue waters, I knew I was in paradise. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laos Part 1 – Tubing, Waterfalls and Traffic Cones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.