Western Australia – Perth – Shark Bay – Ningaloo Reef

Perth

So I left cosmopolitan Sydney (which I loved) and boarded a flight to Perth for the next leg of my Aussie adventure. It was the worst flight I have ever experienced in my life; 6 hours trapped on a plane with a hysterical child screaming next to me. To add to the misery,  I had been bitten all over by a rogue mosquito and the itching was unbearable. It was also my birthday.

Once I touched down in Perth, I was intrigued to see this less famous of the Australian cities. To be honest, I found it to be quite drab, lacking character as well as modernity. Perth is the capital of Western Australia, a gargantuan state that covers an area of 2.5 million kilometres (approximately 10 times the size of the U.K) yet has only 2 million in population. I met a lot of Irish travellers at my hostel, most were working and travelling to escape the poor economy back home. Australia avoided the global recession which meant that prices were relatively high for backpackers.

Fact: Perth is the most remote city in the world, in terms of the distance from any other city, and is actually nearer to South East Asia than the other Aussie cities.

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I didn’t exactly wander with abandon.. I had booked a group tour through Trailfinders, 14 days traversing the Western coast of this vast continent via the Indian Ocean Drive. The highlight was to end the trip by camping in Kalbarri National Park, but angry Mother Nature was too big a force to be reckoned with. She placed floods, storms, bush fires and roadblocks ahead, so sadly I never got to camp in Kalbarri. Natural Disasters strike often in the Land Down Under and so, you just gotta’ go with the flow to stay safe!

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Our guide was Bushdog Steve, an expert bush man who respected the outback and knew its many dangers. Bushdog Steve was a really engaging character who drove us to our destinations and imparted his wise knowledge of the land, animals and indigenous culture. He possessed a talent of great storytelling and succeeded in terrifying us with tales of tourists dying horribly in the outback!

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Steve bought our food along the way but understandably expected each of us to help him with prepping, cooking dinner and washing up. One night I cooked a Spaghetti Bolognese for 20 people on a BBQ; Aussie style.

As usual with backpacking, accommodation was very basic, with mixed sex dorms, bunk beds, no air con and salty showers being the norm. The immense heat was unbearable at times and so the salty showers didn’t do much to cool and refresh. Fresh water was in scarce supply due to droughts. We each had to drink 3 litres of bottled water a day to stay hydrated in the burning sun.

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I would definitely recommend booking a group tour when touring Western Australia, it’s extremely remote, the terrain is harsh, the elements are unforgiving and the wildlife is venomous. On day long road trips we would have to ‘relieve’ ourselves in bushes, avoiding getting bitten by snakes! One day I went for a tinkle in a bush and scared a family of kangaroos who were sheltering. I frightened them and they frightened me!. A surreal moment.

Top Tip – take a white hat, quality sunglasses, a fly net and high factor sunscreen, I burned even with SPF factor 50 on, so buy as high as you can find.

Highlights of my trip:

Sand Dune Surfing – Lots of fun

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Pinnacles Desert – A Natural Phenomenon

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Lake Thetis and Stromatolites – Actual living fossils

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Hiking at Yardie Creek Gorge

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Kalbarri Abseiling – If you like dangling off cliffs

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Z Bend of Murchison River – Scenic views of the meandering river

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Nature’s Window – Take a pic at this iconic natural ‘window’

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Kangaroos.. boing boing

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Shell Beach – A beach entirely consisting of tiny shells

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Turquoise Bay – Absolutely stunningly perfect!

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Shark Bay – Spot Lemon Sharks in the translucent waters below

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Monkey Mia – Dolphins not Monkeys

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Despite its name, Monkey Mia does not have an abundance of monkeys. It is in fact famous for the scores of dolphins that visit the shore every day to be fed by their human friends. We waited patiently on the beach for the dolphins to arrive, cameras at the ready,  eager to see dolphins fed in shallow water.

They. Never. Came.

We were massively disappointed.

However, a boat trip saved the day. the boat took us out to sea and so we spotted the shy dolphins having fun in their natural habitat.

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Ningaloo Reef

Snorkel the reefs with brightly coloured fish and majestic Manta Rays.

Whale Shark watching is in season from March to July.

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Quad Biking

A fantastic way to whizz across the vast sand dunes that hug the shimmering Indian Ocean.

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Turtle Watching – Fascinating creatures that rise to the surface to gasp for air.

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Sunsets – Always breath-taking in WA but quite hard to capture on camera

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New Friends –  the highlight of any trip is making new friends 🙂

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Flying High Over Sydney

Flying High in Sydney

The next leg of my Aussie adventure took me from mellow Melbourne to iconic Sydney.

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Here I stayed at one of the best hostels I have ever come across, the YHA hostel based at the trendy Rocks district of Sydney. This modern building is equipped with everything that backpackers need; dorms, private rooms, laundry room, breakfast service, 24 hour reception, communal kitchen, weekly BBQs and a fantastic rooftop terrace that overlooks the Opera House. You get to stay in a premium location for a bargain price. What’s not to love?

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I only had a whirlwind 4 days in Sydney, but it was a very special time for me because I spent my 28th birthday there. I was fooled into thinking that my birthday present was to climb the mighty Harbour Bridge, but unbeknownst to me, my loved ones had paid for me to enjoy a surprise helicopter ride over the city!

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I was gearing myself up to don a blue boiler suit, harness and helmet to climb the heady heights of the bridge, when I was told that I was in fact heading back to the airport to Blue Sky Helicopters!

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I spent an exhilarating hour flying high above this stunning city, seeing the famous sights from a bird’s eye view. The chopper toured the whole beautiful bay that surrounds Sydney.

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Sail boats looked tiny in the bright water below, pine trees lined the deserted beaches and I got a glimpse of the glamorous million dollar properties that hug the bay. Ferries glided across, taking Sydneysiders to work in the heart of the city. A colossal cruise ship sojourned in the harbour and temporarily blocked the view of the Opera House.

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For regular readers of my blog, I know I always say this.. but the best way to explore is to walk around! I walked the whole city and only took trains when going to and from the airport. Get yourself a map, plot out what you want to see and just wander with abandon!

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To further support my walking philosophy, in Sydney, my boyfriend and I had a unfortunate run in with an aggressive taxi driver and two police officers. After our chopper ride, we needed to get back to the main airport to catch the train back into town. A taxi was called for us but we didn’t want to be taken the whole way into the city. The taxi driver properly kicked off, shouting at us for wasting his time. We argued with him, stepped out of his taxi, but accidently left our (only) mobile phone behind. We only realised once we were halfway around the airport perimeter. I was hot and bothered, upset and frustrated so I waited whilst my boyf headed back to try and retrieve it. Cue the police approaching me in a big van, alarmed that I was some crazy girl sat by a barbed wire fence next to the runway! Embarrassingly I had a cry when telling them what had happened. The police were really nice and dropped us off at the airport, no harm done. It wasn’t funny at the time but I can laugh about it now!

Go see:

Darling Harbour is a nice area to visit, hosting shops, bars and restaurants. Visit the Australian National Maritime Museum or head to China Town, a large vibrant area for Chinese commerce.

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Chinese Garden of Friendship, a gloriously magical garden that sits serenely in between skyscrapers. It’s well worth a visit. If you’re lucky you may even see a Komodo dragon!

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The Museum of Sydney is worth a visit for some indigenous Australian culture and education about aboriginals. I was greeted by big multi-coloured surf boards lining the walls. Australians take their surfing very seriously and it was interesting to learn about the history of Australian surfing. It was also fun for me to stand on a board and pretend to surf (I have tried surfing for real and on a Flow-rider, but it’s really not my forte!)

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Sydney Opera House is world famous and a must see. The architecture is truly unique and still fascinates me to this day. It looks so different up close then it does from afar. I just spent time on the steps and the outside but you can pay to take a tour of the inside if you fancy.

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Taronga Zoo was such a cool place to visit via a ferry ride across the bay. Now, I’m an avid animal lover and so I’m easily pleased looking at any kind of animals, in any kind of setting, in any part of the world. Taronga has indigenous koalas, kangaroos and wallabies as well as zebras, giraffes and cute pygmy hippos. It also boasts an incredible view of Sydney city.

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Royal Botanical Gardens nestled next to skyscrapers and overlooking the bay, these gardens are a picturesque place to stroll, relax and even see some bats and spiders (if you’re not too scared)

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Opera Bar located next to the Opera House and overlooking the Harbour Bridge. It is THE best place in Sydney to sip an ice cold beer and people watch. With a mix of tourists and local cool kids, it’s not cheap to eat there, so my tip is to just order a beer, make it last and soak up the brilliant vibe.

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360 Bar and Dining Dine buffet style in a revolving tower that gives you a 360 degree view of Sydney. The food is excellent and you can help yourself to as much as you want.

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Melbourne, Geelong and Lorne

The Land Down Under

It’s been 3 and a half years since I explored awesome Australia, it seems an age ago but it’s well worthy of a blog post! The trip was instigated by an invite to a wedding with my now ex-boyfriend. That was just the excuse I needed to travel to The Land Down Under! I flew to Melbourne on Christmas day of 2011 with Malaysia Air. No, it wasn’t cheaper despite it being Christmas Day. No, there wasn’t any festive food, we ate curry. And no, Malaysia Air wasn’t dire. At the time, I was really impressed with the airline that is sadly now synonymous with tragedy. The funny thing is, I did no research for this trip, I didn’t book a thing, it was taken out of my hands, so I simply packed a bag, grabbed my passport and rocked up!

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Marvellous Melbourne

I touched down in Melbourne at the end of Boxing Day and was greeted by cold rain. This was not what I was hoping for. Where was the dazzling sunshine and the smell of barbequed food?! After exploring, I found Melbourne to be a fantastic city, it’s classy without being pretentious, it’s cultured without being stuffy, it’s got enough buzz to keep you fascinated without being hectic. The food and drink is world class but expensive for backpackers. The Yarra River divides the city and sets the scene for some great bars and restaurants. These attributes keep winning Melbourne the prodigious title of ‘most liveable city in the world’.

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My best tip is simply to get a map and walk around. You can get trams or horse and carts, but as a rule, walking is the best way to get a feel for a place. Another tip is always wear suncream in Melbourne. I stupidly assumed I wouldn’t need any on a cloudy mild day, but there is a hole in the ozone layer right above Melbs, consequently my porcelain English skin ended up getting seriously burnt!

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Eureka Skydeck – located at a vertigo inducing 297m high, head here for the best view of the city.

Street Art – Head to Hosier Lanetake a camera and view the incredible street art. By the way, It’s illegal to graffiti or tag. You can pay for a 3 hour guided tour by the artists themselves, or you can simply wander around the streets and capture the charm of this public art.

Melbourne Cricket Club– bond with locals and catch a game of cricket or AFL footy.

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Geelong is a good 2 hour drive from Melbourne but well worth a visit. A pretty beach town with an authentic laid back ‘by the seaside’ vibe. Geelong is where Melbournians go on holiday.  It’s also a great place to start a road trip along the scenic Great Ocean Road. I spent New Year there in a plush apartment overlooking the promenade and carousel.  I saw in the year 2012 with friends and enjoyed a balcony BBQ with a front row view of the New Year fireworks display. It was fab.

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Cunningham Pier – take a stroll up this old fashioned pier and stop for a spot of lunch in one of the sublime restaurants.

Eastern Beach – take a beach towel and a picnic, relax, then cool off by taking a dip in the art deco style fenced off sea pool (it stops sharks from nibbling people)

Surf brand outlets – if you like a bargain, head out of town for tons of surf brand outlets selling some seriously discounted gear.

Lorne and the Great Ocean Road

We drove part of the very scenic Great Ocean Road up to the town of Lorne, which has the most glorious stretch of beach with fantastic surf. Standing on Lorne beach, breathing in the fresh sea air, listening to the surf crashing down and feeling the heat of the December sun, was the moment that it truly hit me that I was really the other side of the world, in a continent that I’d always dreamed of seeing. It was a memorable moment for me.

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Lorne is famous for its fish and chip shops; they line the beach front and nostalgically remind an English girl like me of home. I slapped on some factor 50 suncream and tried to protect my skin from the harsh UV rays. My Aussie mates started calling me Porcelain Doll due to my paleness, haha!

Great Ocean Road – is an epic and winding 151 miles or 243 kilometres. It’s a wicked way to get to the city of Adelaide by hiring a car, or simply drive part of the way for a day trip.

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My time in the state of Victoria drew to a close. The next leg of my Aussie adventure would take me to Sydney where I had a big birthday surprise in store..

Koh Tao – Scuba Diving in Paradise

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I finally made it to my island paradise!

After one last night in Bangkok, I said farewell to my comrades and flew alone to Koh Samui, I then hopped onto a two hour catamaran which took me to idyllic Koh Tao (Turtle Island)

I was met with postcard pretty scenery: calm turquoise waters, powdery soft sand lined with plush Palm trees, brightly adorned water taxis and giant boulders that had been gently smoothed over time. Koh Tao is tourist driven but there are no high rise hotels to ruin the skyline. Small beach huts nestle quietly inbetween the numerous dive schools. There is one long street that caters to travellers’ whims with; pancake stalls, tattoo parlours, coffee shops, juice bars, pharmacies, motorbike rentals and shops selling nothing but bikinis and flip flops. The main beach is Sairee beach but there are other spots on the island that can be reached using quad bikes or motorbikes.

My fellow island dwellers consisted mainly of the young international flashpacker set, all wearing mirrored Ray Bans, Havaianas and ironic sleeveless t-shirts that showed off their trendy tattoos and their toned bodies. The place is simply awash with beautiful 20 year olds.

Top tip: Shoes and flip flops aren’t allowed in any inside space as it’s considered to be bad manners. You leave them out, they go missing, you end up buying more. Personally I took to skipping around in my bare feet!

Koh Tao is dedicated to the pursuit of scuba diving and that’s exactly what I went there to do. I checked in at Ban’s diving resort, a famously good dive school. Ban’s had top notch facilities, decent classrooms, helpful staff, a cool bar, two restaurants and three swimming pools for practise. At night there was fire juggling and live music on their own stretch of beach. I had definitely picked the right place for me.

I enrolled in a PADI open water diving course. My room was free whilst I was  a student but it wasn’t great, just a single bed with a crappy fan and a cold water shower.. brrr! Annoyingly, I arrived feeling ill with a nasty cough, cold, sore throat and sinus pains. My immune system had shut down as a result of spending a month travelling and partying across Indochina! I paid the price tenfold. I could barely swallow food, so I survived on a diet of strepsils and chocolate.

Despite my illness, I was kept busy attending all my diving theory classes for the first three days plus completing lots of homework. I actually found the learning really difficult because it’s very scientific and mathematical, and my brain is not.. but I somehow passed my theory exam.

Now the practical side of things; how do I make this a truly honest account?! I turned out to be the worst scuba diver.. ever!
My fellow students and I firstly practised in a pool which made me feel panic, and then we boarded a boat which took us out to The Japanese Gardens reef.

I chose to learn to scuba dive despite knowing that I was really pushing my limits, I knew that my dreaded claustrophobia would rear its ugly head. And I hate to admit this but.. I am also fearful of open sea. Simply trying to breathe on an air regulator, underwater, with a mask on was tough for me, let alone attempting to demonstrate the various skills I needed to pass. I actually cried when they made me jump 2m off the boat in full gear. How embarrassing.

I’d love to give you (my lovely readers) a more positive account to inspire you to try diving but I just can’t bullshit you. What followed was a whole afternoon of me experiencing agony, desperately trying to equalise my pressure blocked ears, whilst the instructor pulled me down deeper and deeper. It felt like I was being punched in the ears repeatedly.

I eventually opened my stinging eyes to witness the magical underground playground of coral beds, sea cucumbers, bright angel fish, territorial trigger fish, elusive stingrays and orange clownfish (Nemos) darting out of their blue anemones. I badly wanted to be like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, but sadly I was more of a flounder, too distracted by my pain.

I was glad to get back on to dry land but I still needed to complete two more dives to get my PADI certification, however, I was close to rupturing my right ear drum if I continued. Sheer bloodymindedness and a persevering nature had got me so far, but I just couldn’t risk rupturing my ear drum and then flying long haul back to the U.K. I felt gutted that I’d finally met my nemesis!

I am certainly no athlete but I’m brave and adventurous; I have snorkelled in Australian shark infested waters, I have twice bungee jumped into the Mediterranean sea, I’ve abseiled backwards down sheer cliffs and dark caves, I’ve climbed many mountains, I’ve driven a rally car and a Porsche 911 at break neck speed around a race track, I happily went up in a helicopter over Sydney harbour, I’ve climbed up a slippery waterfall, I’ve kayaked down rapids, I’ve stood balanced on Dolphins and an Elephant. I’ve held a heavy squirming Python, I’ve tickled a Tarantula, I’ve fed hungry Piranhas, I’ve climbed and swung off Amazonian trees like Tarzan and I’ve crawled through tiny Vietnamese tunnels… But I am fucking shit at scuba diving!

Bad Times

I bought some strong decongestants and some water, then slept off the pain in my hovel of a room. When I eventually emerged from my medication coma, I realised that I had fitfully slept for two full days and nights without leaving my room, I ate no food, got no fresh air and experienced no human contact.

I’d been pally with a couple of people in my class but they didn’t know what room I was in. The instructor advised me to delay my dives until I felt better but no one checked on me when I didn’t turn up. I was weak and shaky. I badly needed looking after and I felt very alone. Looking at the positive side, it made me more resilient, because I had nobody to rely on but myself, and I did.

Suffice to say, the scuba diving took a back seat whilst I got back on my feet. Travelling doesn’t always have to be a gruelling challenge, you can just relax and not feel guilty. So I upgraded to my own air conditioned room and started eating proper food.

Valentine’s Date

I made friends with three solo travellers who had formed their own ‘Wolfpack’. Russ a Royal Marine, Jon a smart mouthed San Fransican and James a 22 year old Aussie, who couldn’t make it through the day without a bucket of vodka red bull. I spent quite possibly the best Valentine’s Day ever with them… no not that!…. We chartered a boat and Island hopped, snorkelling the coral reefs, we swam up to Palm fringed secluded beaches, drank creamy coconut shakes, cuddled a sleepy puppy and fed tropical fish from a restaurant on stilts. We laid out on the famously photographed Nang Yuan sand bar beach; unspoilt, scenic, quiet. I had dreamt of going to that exact spot for many years. It was as though I had stepped into my Pinterest travel board.

Hedonism

After a week of not drinking (trust me that’s a long time when travelling) I fuelled up on vodka red bull and partied like it was 1999, memorably limboing under flaming fire and it felt great!
The Morning After. Oh why oh why did I drink 3 buckets of vodka redbull?! How could that ever be a good idea? After doing an all nighter, that day was bleary. I ate breakfast on powdery Sairee beach, whilst absent mindedly watching the calm bright turquoise water lap lazily against the shore. I walked towards no known destination until I found a dog sleeping on the sand. He’d made himself a little pillow by scooping sand into a mound. Genius. So I lay down and did the same. No beach towel, just huddled up like a little dog and snoozed.

On my beautiful island Time existed in a strange dualism, it stretched out endlessly, yet at the same time, it passed by too rapidly. I often wondered if I was dreaming and would wake up to a cold grey day.

So I never finished my diving course. I dedicated my last week to rest and relaxation. I know this sounds like a joke to hard working employees, but I had packed so much into the previous few months that my head was spinning and my body needed to recharge. I would highly recommend visiting the Thai islands to anybody who needs a break, or who plots an escape from the dreary rat race. Blow away those cobwebs blog readers!

Mad Monday
I met the Wolfpack (aka Team Jackhammer) for dinner and found we had a new addition, lovely Leanne from Canada. She has Vietnamese heritage, so subsequently every waitress/barman spoke to her in Thai which was very amusing as she only speaks English. We got on the party train, did fiery whisky shots, danced barefoot on the sand and watched drunk people skipping over fire blazed ropes. Awesome night.

So Long Tuesday
The hardship of travelling is saying goodbye to people. It’s best to just say “so long”. Leanne and Russ left early for a romantic tryst on the next island; Koh Phan Ngan. San Fran Jon also left that evening.. I can still hear his words “I want it all man, why shouldn’t I have it all”.
I still saw James around but it wasn’t the same. He had a near drowning 30m under when his air regulator was blocked and his dive buddy left him. The dive instructor saved his life. It completely shook him up, but he bravely went back out there and dived again.
Raquel aka La Princesa

I was sat there wishing for someone interesting to pop into my life.. and like a bolt out of the blue I received a message from sexy señorita Raquel who I randomly met abseiling in Vietnam. We met only once, I must have mentioned Koh Tao because she remembered and she had journeyed to my island paradise! It turned out that La Princesa was staying in a hostel right next door to me!

We spent the evening catching up whilst watching the sun set. Raquel is from Spain but she has no home, no roots, few possessions and calls herself a gypsy. She is a free lance journalist for whom travel simply is her life. She’s here for a fun time not a long time and it was very inspiring to be around her.

Wonderful Wednesday
I took La Princesa to my favourite place, the magical sand bar beach at Nang Yuan. We hiked up to the viewpoint in our bare feet, scrambling over rocks in the blazing sun. It was worth it for the spectacular view. The 3 peaks of the island are joined by the sand bar beach which was covered by tide, showing off a shimmering turquoise lagoon. We just sat in silence, no need to talk, drinking in the beauty beneath.
Sadly our paradise was somewhat tainted by swarms of Chinese tourists and general fucktards (excuse my bad language) who snorkel the ankle deep water wearing bright orange life jackets giving them the appearance of corpses floating face down after a shipwreck. They cannot swim, they cover up every inch of flesh incase they tan and they shout when they speak. The worst fucktardery I saw was a man take an Angel fish out of a plastic bag, hold it on his palm for photos, drop it on the sand, then poke it, then he lobbed it into the sea like a tennis ball! No doubt it died from shock.
That night I watched Raquel perform at her outdoor flying trapeze lesson, she was incredible. It takes balls to fly high through the air and trust someone to catch you. We celebrated with drinks and dancing with some other Spanish and Argentinian people. I struggled a bit with the language barrier but it’s an incentive to learn Spanish!

Raquel was not exactly enamoured with Koh Tao, she said it was full of drunk teenagers and wanted to move on to Koh Lipe to spend time with hippies. On her last night she got inked by a local tattoo artist. I watched as he used sharpened bamboo to permeate her wrist with intricate Thai verses. It was a cool thing to witness.

As I said yet another farewell, I actually felt glad to be starting the long journey home the next day. During my trip to Indochina, I had seen and done everything that I’d always wanted to see and do. I had satisfied the thirsty wanderlust that had been rattling inside of me for years. I no longer felt twinges of regret. I was satisfied for now.

… Since I’ve been home, my need to wander with abandon has inevitably returned. At some point in the future, I want to go back to my beloved Peru and see more of South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Brazil) I want to visit beautiful Nepal despite the devastating earthquakes, I want to see mystifying China, I want to see scenic New Zealand and I want to see more of Europe.

I believe in life’s synchronicities. I believe that no matter where you are in the world, certain people will cross your path at certain times for a reason. You feel a connection and you learn from each other. This benefits your spiritual growth as a human being. Some stay for a day and others for a lifetime, but nothing is forever. Our planet won’t be around forever and there are so many wonderous things to see, so pack a bag and explore.. You won’t regret it!

Beautiful Laos

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Beautiful Laos
Sabidee! Hello! After a border crossing from Thailand into Laos, I boarded a slow boat on the mighty wide Mekong River. The boat was spacious and a delicious cooked lunch was provided by the crew. It was a day purely dedicated to travelling to a destination, eight hours slowly meandering, doing nothing but listen to music, casually read a book and watch the world pass by. I think travel days are what you make of them, they can be boring and tedious but it’s actually a great time to relax, to think, to read, to journal, to chat, to daydream, to snooze, whatever floats your boat (pun totally intended).

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The two days on the river had an intermission stop in Pakbeng, a quaint little town overlooking the Mekong. The evening was spent exploring a local market and capturing sunset pictures. I had a tasty pork curry dinner washed down with (award winning) beer Laos and chased by fiery banana whiskey. I love South East Asian cuisine but I did struggle with spicy dishes burning my mouth and making my nose run… very attractive!

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Sleep continued to evade me most nights (due to my roommate’s IJ’s loud snoring) but I decided it wasn’t the end of the world… I could sleep when I’m dead! I lay under my mosquito net, listening to the dawn chorus of cockerels crowing and marvelling at where I was. Finally in Laos. Finally exploring the place that I’d dreamed of going to.

Luang Prabang

It took another seven hours of boating up the Mekong to reach the magnificent town of Luang Prabang, accurately described as the jewel of the region. Before we got there we stopped the boat at the Pak Ou caves, large sacred caves situated randomly on a cliff face overlooking the river and accessed only by steps. Considered a spiritual place to local people, worshippers bring gifts of Buddhas in every shape, size and material. It’s basically a ton of statues in a cave but worth a visit nonetheless.

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I absolutely loved Luang Prabang; it’s got a very laid back vibe, real charm and character, lots of handsome French colonial architecture, and fabulous markets that stretch on for eternity. I seriously wanted to buy everything I saw, scarves in every colour, pretty lanterns, detailed embroidery, bright ceramics and handmade jewellery.. just fabulous.

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Although, to me the Laotian Kip currency was very confusing, 70,000 Kip for a scarf seemed like a lot but it wasn’t. I was useless at bartering down prices with the locals, mainly because haggling with poverty made me feel really uncomfortable, so I viewed being ripped off simply as a charitable donation.

I had the most memorable dinner at a gorgeous outdoor restaurant called LaoLao, covered by a canopy of trees on different levels, lit by coloured lanterns and twinkling fairy lights. It was so romantic… it was just a shame I was there with a gaggle of loud Canadians haha! Later, I was keen to make new friends so I tried chatting to some lads in the town’s Aussie bar, one Scouser and two Devon boys, but Man United and Liverpool were both playing, so it was impossible. Sadly they turned out to be total bigots, so I left. It was bizarre finding that level of ignorance in such a place as Luang Prabang.. I mean just go to Magaluf you prats.

I’d highly recommend a day trip to the breath-taking Kuang Si waterfalls; it stuns the senses in every way, with pounding water, vivid turquoise lagoons, and ice cold temperatures. I was brave and had a swim in the icy waters and climbed one of the smaller waterfalls. Randomly there are a group of big brown Moon Bears living in captivity at Kuang Si, hilariously two of them were shagging in front of all the tourists which made me giggle!

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Whilst in Luang Prebang I ticked another dream off my bucket list when I took the opportunity to ride, feed and bathe elephants. With my fellow Brit Farzana, I rode the naughty Elephant who we named Flo and she was such a diva! She ignored her trainer’s commands, she walked wherever she liked, stealing food from people’s gardens, despite being shouted at numerous times. We found it highly amusing and were secretly egging her on hehe!
Flo stood still and lifted her trunk to pose but did a giant sneeze on us; elephant snot on my face was totally gross but certainly a unique experience! As we rode, we got to see an elephant’s eye view of the local town; it was strange to see little kids nonchalantly ignoring the elephants like it was no big deal. After a nice walk, we dismounted Flo and all the elephants’ seats were taken off, we got our bikinis on and rode them bareback (chuckle) onto the beach. We then plunged into the cold murky brown Mekong River for a wash. The elephants loved it; they sprayed us and threw us off their backs. I managed to stand up on Flo and was also allowed to sit on her trunk!
Afterwards we fed them bananas and bamboo and I left feeling elated at having had such a special day.

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Evenings were spent wandering the night markets and eating delicious street food. There was so much to choose from and it smelled so aromatic and inviting.. barbecued meats, spring rolls, curries, noodles and fried rice. I was hoping to lose my Christmas chub on the trip through the process of wasting away on vegetables and rice; sadly the opposite happened because every meal was a banquet! The daily beers were also a contributing factor.

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Home Stay

Part way through a very bumpy winding 7 hour drive through mountainous roads, we stopped for an al fresco lunch at a mountain top restaurant, looking out across the infinite hazy blue mountains and deep green valley below.

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We finally arrived at our village home stay; each home takes two guests to stay over for just one night. I stayed with sweet little Luan Ki and her hubby, their house was basic but clean. It was very quiet there and I admit that I was slightly disappointed that they had no giggling children or puppies for me to cuddle. I walked around the village with my camera, the kids were out playing games and football, and they relished their freedom and each other’s company, obvious from their easy smiles and happy-go-lucky ways.
After our hosts cooked us dinner, about 40 local children came to dance for us, they were so cute. Then they dragged us up and taught us their traditional moves. My little girls took it very seriously and practised over and over so that we could do the dance perfectly. The last dance was ‘Gangnam Style’ which they went wild for! It was quite surreal watching kids from the middle of nowhere singing the lyrics “hey sexy lady”
As a parting thank you gift we gave the children pens and school books which they insisted we sign with our autographs. These Laotian kids are dirt poor and yet they are happy with the most simple things in life, it really makes you ponder.

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Vang Vieng

The next day, I received a bracelet blessing and shared a big hug goodbye to my lovely host. I then checked in to a hotel in Vang Vieng (widely known in the travelling world as the tubing Mecca of the universe) I spent the morning kayaking on the river with Farzana and was in charge of steering us down the low grade Rapids. I did the lady like thing and purchased a few cans of beers before we embarked, etiquette that I learned from a previous kayaking excursion in France. We stopped at some tubing bars for some more alcoholic beverages and I danced on a table feeling rather merry.
The river was a gorgeous shade of jade (unlike the Mekong) and the tall limestone karsts framed the horizon beautifully…shame the damn water splashed onto my iPhone screen which then gave up. Here’s a tip, never take your phone in a kayak.

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The afternoon was spent consuming iced lattes and getting a relaxing massage. Life is good I thought.. but the universe had other ideas.. an ATM swallowed my only debit card and then my phone completely died. I couldn’t even ring the bank; I was up shit creek without a paddle. The situation made me feel panicked and despite trying to put on a brave face, I had a good cry.  Luckily with the help of my multi lingual guide, the next day, my card was eventually retrieved. My phone was still redundant despite trying to dry it out in a cup of rice, sadly causing a ceasefire in my Instagram uploads and regular emails home. But at that difficult time, a wise person said to me:

“Louise, you are the brave discoverer that set out on the voyage. You set out prepared, be it with a positive outlook or an appropriate emergency contact. You look forward to the things you haven’t seen and you remember the happiness you have had. The world is a roller coaster, the uphill is slow and scary but fuck me..is it worth it for the way down.”

Vientiane
The capital city of Vientiane was hot, humid and slightly more cosmopolitan than the other towns in Laos, but there was no real character or charm to describe. There was a small market on the riverfront and locals congregated in the evenings for group exercise.
I wandered with abandon on my own for a few hours and ended up at a temple. I hadn’t planned to visit a temple and wasn’t dressed appropriately (with my legs and shoulders showing) so I tried to avoid the monks as I knew that it would cause them offence. However, a nice monk called Lune invited me over and we chatted for ages. It turned out that he is the same age as me and had been a monk for 10 years. He explained that it had allowed him a good education and the chance to learn English. He told me all about his family whom he missed, and pronounced his love of football.. he supports the English Premier League team Man City. He was such a happy chappy, surrounded by dogs and children, constantly smiling and giving off really good vibes. I really enjoyed talking to him and I was pleased to meet someone unique, on my own, without being introduced by a guide.

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Evenings in Vientiane were mostly spent sampling local dishes, followed by sipping drinks whilst listening to live music. To amuse myself whilst on this trip, I habitually played a game of ‘spot the prostitute/escort/ladyboy’ … usually spotted cosying up to Western male tourists in bars.

I absolutely loved my time in Laos, in my opinion; the people were the friendliest of the entire Indochina region. My next stop was Vietnam where more adventure awaited…