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..

Cambodia – Phnom Penh – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

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Su Sdey, Hello!

After an arduous and sweaty 8 hour bus journey from Vietnam, I reached the ever suffering country of Cambodia, staying in the capital Phnom Penh. I would describe it as a typical small South East Asian city; it’s neither hectic like Bangkok or Hanoi, nor serene like Luang Prabang or Hoi An. It’s certainly the visibly poorest of the four countries I’ve visited in Indochina. I saw the handicapped begging, dogs begging and unwashed kids roaming around with no shoes on. When I removed my Western rose tinted glasses, I realised that there were child prostitutes on the streets; it felt grubby and it made me question the morals of particular tourists.

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Throughout my Indochina trip I was repeatedly told by my guide and other local guides to be respectful, to dress modestly and not to touch people. Yet people frequently touched me. I’d been poked, tapped, tickled, my face touched, my cheeks pinched and even my bum slapped by a small child! My pal Emma had her chest groped too. In Cambodia I saw lots of pervy eyes eyeing me up and local guys were taking photos of Emma and me as we walked around. It made me feel really uncomfortable and also angry that the respect I gave to them and their culture was not reciprocated. Ok, rant over. It’s just something for travellers to be aware of, especially women.

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My group had pre planned a cyclo tour of the city and the money you pay is essentially a donation to a local charity. Basically, you sit on a single seat whilst an old man cycles you around the different sites. I felt like such a lazy cow because I like to walk everywhere, but I only agreed to it because the wage gives the men a livelihood.
Another charitable cause whilst in Phnom Penh was lunch at a restaurant run by a non-profit charity that take young people off the streets and train them in hospitality. The food and service was top notch, so it’s working. It makes flashpackers like me feel philanthropic anyhow!

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As evening drew in, I visited a tiny shrine next to the river where hundreds of people had gathered to make offerings of heady cinnamon incense, pretty pink roses, flaming coconut shells and red glowing candles. As the sunset burned over the dark silhouette of the nearby Royal Palace I happily mingled amongst the crowds and drank in the scene.

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The night ended with copious lychee martinis and a hunt for the best music in town. I had to explain to tipsy Emma that the friendly girls outside of ‘Pussycat’ bar were in fact strippers ready to hustle us, haha! We found the local backpackers hostel which had a gorgeous roof terrace and enjoyed the laid back vibe.

Killing Fields
I finally learned the facts about the torture and mass genocide of 3 million innocent Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s; arguably the most senseless and cruel murders in recent history. First I visited the infamous Tuol Sleng S21 prison. The exhibited photos of shackled prisoners dying were horrific.

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Out of 20,000 prisoners only 7 survived and I met one.. Mr Chum Mey, now 85 years old who was only allowed to live because he could mend the typewriters that his captors used to record victim’s ‘confessions’. His wife and 4 children all perished.

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One place you must visit in Cambodia is the Cheung Ek Killing Fields. Millions of people died here and to ignore it, is to ignore Cambodia’s loss and its identity. I found the Killing Fields to be a surreal place where death and thriving nature coexist. Breezy green grass covers mass graves and although the site has been excavated, rain still brings rags and bones to the surface. It’s so eerie yet chirping birds and fluttering butterflies fill the silent air.

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The Khmer Rouge didn’t give their victims the clean death of a bullet, they cost money.. so they beat, hacked and decapitated people instead. There is a memorial where the skulls of thousands are stacked as a stark reminder of what happened here.

 The worst thing to be found in this undignified cemetery is The Killing Tree, a large sturdy oak tree that the sick regime used to murder children by swinging them against it to smash their skulls. Newborn babies were ripped from their naked mothers who were utterly helpless to stop their babies being bludgeoned to death and thrown into a pit. The tree was found by a local man covered in blood and brains and he blew the whistle on the atrocities.
The tree is now covered in bracelets of every colour left by tourists as a mark of respect.

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I wish I’d brought a bracelet to give but instead I bought a flower and an incense stick to lay outside the memorial. It was definitely a once in a lifetime visit and I’m glad I saw it.

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Diana & I squeezed in a visit to the Royal Palace, but initially they wouldn’t let me in, even though I had a scarf to cover my cleavage. Diana lent me her hoodie to save my modesty, but the heat was unbearable.. I spent the next hour sweating like a nun on the beach! Top tip for women, scarves are not always deemed suitable cover up, take a long sleeved top.

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That evening was spent, once again, chilling at the backpacker’s rooftop terrace with the girls, sharing stories and drinking baby Guinness mmmmm.     Our guide was Cambodian so he took us to his dad’s ‘Crocodile Farm’, which was actually a back yard swimming with huge green crocs! Standing above the man eaters on a rickety wooden platform did not fill me with confidence for my safety but it was a impressive sight to see nonetheless!

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Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
On the long journey to the next destination, my bus stopped at a place selling drinks and exotic snacks including fried ants and tarantulas. I tasted some ants (crunchy) but I drew the line at munching on a tarantula, instead opting to hold a live one. The hairy beast ran up my arm; but I never freaked out.

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Travel has this awesome way of making you push your own limits and try things you would never do back home. I experienced a lot of begging in Cambodia, or kids just follow you and ask you to buy their wares. I bought some fruit from one little girl, I paid her and walked away. She insisted that she needed my watch for school. I felt disheartened at her audacity and said that I needed my watch but she pressed on. It’s indicative of their poverty that Cambodians have to beg and harass tourists.

I was fairly glad to move on to Siem Reap, a town similar to Phnom Penh but with a more touristy vibe. Siem Reap is a party town with a whole district called ‘Pub Street’ devoted to hedonism in the form of bars and clubs.

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I had some great fun there dancing and meeting new people. There is a cool bar called Angkor What? It’s covered in neon graffiti and I met some right characters in there.

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Siem Reap is the gateway to the iconic Angkor Wat temple complex made famous by featuring in the Lara Croft – Tomb Raider films starring Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who shone a spotlight on Cambodia in 2002 when she adopted her first child Maddox, a Cambodian orphan.

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Angkor Wat is one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited; it is the largest religious monument in the world, first Hindu but now Buddhist.

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It is frozen in time and it’s magical charm set me off on my own little fantasy, that I was indeed a great explorer, and I spent hours wandering around on my own, getting hopelessly lost and climbing anything that I possibly could.

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It’s so big that it took two full days there to see its wonders. Top tip: arrive at dawn to watch the sun slowly rise over the majestic silhouette of the main temple.

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Indochina

So, I’d done a month long whirlwind trip travelling across the four countries of the Indochina loop and lived to tell the tale!

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I had one more night in Bangkok to say sayonara to my group and part ways. I had a nice glass of wine with Emma and watched the sun set over the city.

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I was looking forward to two full weeks in Koh Tao that were to be spent fully alone, unescorted, unsupervised and full on solo yolo! I’d seen many beautiful and many thought provoking things. I’d taken every opportunity that came my way; including kayaking, abseiling, tunnelling, cycling, motorcycling, riding elephants, swimming in cold waterfalls and holding live animals including pythons, bees and tarantulas (sadly still no tigers) Koh Tao was all about scuba diving and I was about to immerse myself in that world and find some true grit along the way.

Vietnam Part 2 – Hoi An and Saigon

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Vietnam part 2 – Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

I continued my growing love affair with Vietnam. Hoi An is absolutely beautiful and it trumps Luang Prabang (in Laos) for fabulousness. It’s neatly sandwiched between the Thu Bon River and the South China Sea. They call it the town of lanterns because every inch of this town is covered in bright jewel coloured lanterns strung across streets, restaurants, shops and bridges. At night-time the river reflects the lanterns like a rainbow of stars. It’s romantic and dream like.

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During the daytime, Hoi An is a plethora of ochre hued buildings framed by dark teak shutters. Every shop is a treasure trove of beautiful tailored clothes, silver jewellery, antiques and hand painted art. The tailors here are world renowned, you can show them a photo of any dress or garment and they can recreate it. I didn’t buy any clothes; instead I chose to invest in a unique piece of art by a local artist. It was a real pain to get my painting back home to the UK via Cambodia and Thailand; but well worth it as it’s something I’ll treasure forever (and thankfully can’t be bought in Ikea!)

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I’d been spending a lot time with my new pal Emma, she likes to party, so we partied hard together! I’d ditched my group to a large degree, because most of them behaved like a herd of sheep and I am not a sheep, I’m a tiger! My mentality on this trip was YOLO – You Only Live Once! So I did exactly as I pleased and wandered with abandon.

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Emma & I hired cute retro bicycles and cycled 5K to pretty Ang Ban beach, the route took us past fragrant shimmering paddy fields as well as crazy congested roads.

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The beach was gorgeously unspoilt with golden sand and a palm fringed coastline. The South China Sea was choppy with strong waves that produced that timeless surf sound.

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We relaxed on sun loungers absorbing the warm sun and read our books, then dined on whole crab and sipped on delicious fresh coconuts. I later walked past the crab tank and felt a twinge of guilt when I saw the poor little live crabbies waiting to be picked for the steam pot. I bravely stroked a couple of them and they jolted up looking at me with angry eyes unable to pinch me. I love all of Gods’ creatures… but I love meat and fish more mmmm.

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Beach time was a welcome rest after so many tiring travel days. However, the return journey descended into a nightmare when we got hopelessly lost, racing to get back before the sun set (we had no lights on our bikes and no helmets) the 20 minute ride turned into an hour and a half of riding into nowhere with thundering lorries beeping at us. Fortunately Emma got us back and we ended the day partying with the international backpacker set at Tiger bar, one of the best bars in Hoi An.

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One of the most exciting activities I did whilst in Hoi An was abseiling with Emma, Diana and where I met Spanish beauty Raquel; who later found me in Koh Tao. We booked this excursion through our tour guide. A minivan picked us up and took us to nearby Marble Mountains, a cluster of hills made from marble and limestone. We geared up in harnesses and helmets and began a slippery climb to see the fantastic ocean view, then to start our first descent. I volunteered to go first as I’d abseiled a few times before and I knew the potential panic that some people experienced. The drop went straight into a dark cave; there was zero visibility so it was a case of listening to the instructor and making a backwards jump into the unknown. (Not to get too philosophical but it’s very much like life itself, if you’re brave enough to take a leap of faith, you’ll reap the rewards). Next, we descended down a 25m sheer cliff face in front of gawping tourists who clapped and cheered, followed by a wee inducing 50m descent into another cave. My top tip is don’t look down when you’re at the very top! It was shit scary but I always love getting an adrenaline kick; so I was buzzing.

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The most incredible Buddhist sanctuary lies in a cave underneath the Marble Mountains. When I happened upon the entrance, it took my breath away and I had some kind of spiritual experience in there. Honestly. Beams of angelic sunlight shone down from the roof casting light on the temple and it’s giant Buddha. Photos do not do it justice. I urge you to go there if you ever have the chance.

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My time in Hoi An was full of laughs and smiles and positive vibes. I felt so calm there and it’s a place that I hope to go back to one day.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)

The city Saigon was a bit of a culture shock after peaceful Hoi An. I was met with a sprawling metropolis of endless retail and commerce, from markets selling cheap tat, to high end designer shops. In truth, I wasn’t enamoured with Saigon, our guide took us to see some buildings of note and a crappy market. I just couldn’t understand why we were staying for three whole days. As per my previous posts, the downside of joining a group tour is the lack of autonomy you have with your travel itinerary. It’s much better to wander with abandon.

I was experiencing a few low days during my stay in Saigon. My guide clearly disliked me, I had marginalised myself from the group and their disapproval was obvious. For the first time I felt lonely and badly needed a hug. I’m sharing this to keep things real, travelling solo is hard.

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I learned so much about Vietnam and the war by going to see the fascinating Cu Chi tunnels, a complex underground network of narrow tunnels used by the Viet Cong to fight the South and the U.S during the war.
Our smiling guide Hai was a war veteran whose side lost. At 19 he worked as a translator for the Yanks and then rose up the ranks to become an officer.

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His stories were heart-breaking, he explained that the young Americans were drafted in, they didn’t know what they were fighting for and every day they cried to him because they were scared of dying. Hai told how he’d have breakfast with his friends and within a few hours they’d all be dead. Half of our group were sobbing during his stories. He then showed us various spiked traps, such an awful way to die. He was an absolute living legend and lucky to live to tell the tale.

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A few of us were given the opportunity to enter the tunnels. Now, I am massively claustrophobic, it’s my biggest fear, so this was a panic inducing challenge for me. But because I am persevering and bloody minded, I crawled through that tiny narrow stuffy hell hole on my hands and knees, breathing so quick and shallow, I conquered it though so I was proud of myself.

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Another top place to visit in Saigon is the War Museum, where Chinook helicopters and imposing tanks stand next to B52s. There were harrowing photos of children disfigured by chemical warfare (agent orange) and I saw some actual preserved stillborn babies. It was sick and hard to look at, but I believe that you shouldn’t turn a blind eye on the horrors of this world. This is what Vietnam really went through and scars last lifetimes.

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Thankfully that evening was more light hearted, I spent it sipping cocktails on the roof terrace of a sky scraper.. very cosmopolitan with a fabulous view of the city below.

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Emma & I went in search of the party scene to get our kicks but we ended up in a club full of Korean princesses. They looked immaculate in their designer dresses but they amusingly stand picking at fruit platters and don’t dance.. So we showed them how English princesses do it!

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I pushed through my hangover and took a boat trip along the Mekong Delta to a scattering of river islands (Dragon, Phoenix and Unicorn). A local lady rowed four of us to Unicorn Island along a calm narrow pass covered with a canopy of ferns, it was a lovely thing to do and I’d highly recommend it.

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We visited a few local businesses on a horse and cart, listened to some serene singers, saw sweets being made and I held a honeycomb covered in busy bees.

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But best of all, I got to hold a big Python (insert your own joke!) which wrapped itself tightly around my leg! Awesome.

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The last night in Saigon was my pal Farzana’s last on the Indochina trip so we went to watch an acrobatic show at the Saigon Opera House.

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My time in Vietnam had come to an end but I took with me some amazing memories that shall last a lifetime and a desire to go back one day.

Vietnam Adventure – Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hue

 

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Xin Chao! Good Morning Vietnam!

Hanoi

So, arriving in Hanoi was a real jolt to my senses after being in sleepy Laos! The city was loud and furious, the residents drive fast, talk fast and hustle you fast too! There are a gazillion motorbikes on the roads but no proper pavements so walking anywhere involves taking your life in your hands. You have to be fearless, maintain eye contact and just strut across the road like you own it, bikers will drive around you beeping, all good fun!

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I was staying in Hanoi’s old quarter and was pleased to find it full of character with a really sociable vibe. As darkness fell, the streets came alive with sellers,drinkers and local young people, all crowded under the neon lights and mess of cables that hung overhead.

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Locals sell a dirt cheap beer called Bia Hoi on the street corners, it’s about 40p a pint! I sat down with some German guys who told me that they were playing a game, it they walked past a Bia Hoi stall in Hanoi, they had to sit and have one. They were only half way down the street and already quite merry! I felt pretty lucky that so many travellers spoke my native English and had a good laugh with them over some rudely mispronounced Vietnamese phrases.

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Being a culture vulture, I visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. The beloved late president died in 1969 and they have preserved his body since then. The mausoleum is guarded by formidable soldiers who make you walk in two by two. I didn’t stay in the crypt for long, Ho Chi Minh looked like a sleeping waxwork eerily lit by an orange coloured light, it’s just really creepy.

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I also visited Ho Lak prison (aka the notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton). It details the torture that prisoners received, also really creepy. The thing is, you’ve got to visit these somewhat depressing places when you travel because they educate you about the real life history of the country that you’re in. The knowledge you gain gives you a new level of respect for the locals that you meet.

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The evening turned into fun and frolics starting at the bizarre water puppet show (amusing but not mind blowing entertainment) followed by a Vietnamese dinner of Bun Cha where we said goodbye to five of our group and hello to two newbies. I found fellow Brit Emma to be very bubbly, sociable and she was looking to party!

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As I like to befriend people of all nationalities, Emma and I had a few beers with some American guys who we met in a bar. It turned out they were in the Military and were such a great laugh. We chatted and eventually performed some impromptu karoke (singing loudly at our table), belting out the songs Hotel California by The Eagles and Livin on a Prayer by Bon Jovi. I was just glad to escape my group and converse with some ‘young people’.

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It was an unexpected late night and I hadn’t packed to leave early the next day, causing a whirlwind at check out. This did not impress my group (mainly retirees) who took the opportunity to bitch about me. For me, fun and spontaneity trumps being sensible every time.

The soundtrack of my trip continued to be polluted with squawking drivel. Daily, certain members of my group avidly checked and discussed the temperature and news in their home towns and beloved provinces. It drove me INSANE!!

Personally, I believe in mindfulness and being present. I don’t care about the local news when I’m travelling or what people are doing back home. Travel should be pure escapism from the drudgery of the life you left behind.

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Halong Bay

I was lucky enough to experience an overnight stay on a junk boat in the famously scenic Halong Bay. Friends had told me how beautiful it was and they weren’t wrong.

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The bay is an area off the coast of Vietnam where thousands of grey limestone karsts protrude from the calm teal coloured South China sea like ancient art.  They create a serene blue grey haze everywhere you look and it’s just stunning. The boat slowly chugged around giving me ample time to take photos from the roof deck.

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The weather was overcast but I happily boarded a smaller boat which took our group to a secluded beach. The sun broke through the clouds and so it was bikini time! I explored the surroundings by hiking up to the highest viewpoint, it was sweat inducing but awesome. Then some very naughty monkeys ‘attacked’ my fellow travellers. I just wandered off on my own (as I’m prone to do!) I climbed a big rock in my bare feet and just chilled on the beach drinking in the views.

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I made sure I was back on the boat for the start of sunset, glass of red wine in hand and my camera in the other. And that sunset was truly unforgettable, the fiery orange sun blazed a hot trail across the shimmering water, turning the sky pink, then orange, then purple… Sigh.

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My guide finally let me escape IJ (loud snorer) and bunk in with my soul sister Farzana (howtogreetapenguin.com)

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We are the same age, both British, both were on a career break, both had recently visited Peru, both love photography and both addicted to Instagram. The only difference being that she is caramel and I am vanilla. Hehe! After a much needed decent night’s sleep on the boat, we headed back to Hanoi where we caught a train further South to Hue.

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Hue Baby!

The overnight train to Hue (pronounced Way) was so much fun, four of us girls had our own cabin with bunk beds! So we put on our pjs, drank beer, ate cake and played cards. I took the time to catch up on my journal and amused myself by hanging upside down from my top bunk to scare Farzana. She got used to my ways (quiet in the day and mental at night).

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On arrival in Hue, we spent the whole day on a magnificent motorcycle tour of the town and countryside. They wouldn’t let me drive so I had to settle for riding shotgun.

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There are no road rules or traffic lights, so you place trust and faith in your driver, calmly balance on the back, no need to hold on and just enjoy the views. Would you believe that was my first time on a motorbike! It was so exhilarating, I loved it! The driver kept telling me to get closer, I can only assume he liked feeling my thighs on him!

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The soundtrack looping in my head was Born to be Wild.. “get your motor running.. Head out on the highway”

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We darted around the countryside and stopped at a number of landmarks including: the ruined Royal Palace,

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An Emperor’s tomb

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The Holy Lady Pagoda

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A coliseum where tigers fought elephants, the evidence being claw marks on the walls. We also stopped at a rice milling factory and watched a tiny old Vietnamese lady mill rice. She had the biggest warmest smile on her face!

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Lunch was at a monastery, cooked by a nun; not my average Tuesday! Whilst travelling, my standard days were generally sightseeing and being a culture vulture during the hot humid sunlight hours, but when the sun set…well, The Gremlin came out to play!

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Night time in Hue was no exception, we went to a bar called Brown Eyes. It was rammed full of local cool kids, Aussie back packers, drunk girls and one particularly handsome blonde Canadian guy. Spot him in the pic. I got chatting to him but he disappeared, then I noticed all theses girls swarming around him. They were falling over themselves and pawing at him. I then found out that he was a young Hollywood actor called Alexander Ludvig who has starred in The Hunger Games, Lost Paradise, Vikings.

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I told Emma who got so excited she marched right up to him and asked for a photo! I tried to be cool and nonchalant which didn’t really work. The funniest thing was that the only person he smooched was slightly clueless Farzana who only walked over to say goodbye to me. She did not stop apologising but I found the whole thing really funny.

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Needless to say, it was another late night, I slept through my alarm and did the usual race to wash, pack and chug down some coffee! So it was Tam Biet (goodbye) to Hue and onwards to my favourite place; Hoi An.

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…

Exploring Northern Thailand

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So I spontaneously decided to go to South East Asia, although it was a last minute decision, the idea had been burning in my mind for a number of years. There were various reasons why I hadn’t gone previously and those reasons had recently disappeared, giving me the freedom to finally embark on my longed for trip.

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The Indochina loop is a well-travelled backpacking route and I knew plenty of people that had already done it and absolutely loved it. I had no travel buddy available to accompany me so I booked onto an organised trip. There are some notable pros and cons of doing this.

 

The pros were that I felt safe with a group; the mountain of itinerary admin was already done for me, and I was travelling with an English speaking guide who made sure that we visited only really remarkable places. The downside was having no flexibility to stay longer in any particular place, being confined to a group of people for one month and not being able to branch off and be independent. If I’m truly honest I was disappointed with the group that I found myself in, mainly retirees who liked regimented structure and needed their hand held every step of the way.

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I soon learned that I like to wander with abandon! There were only two girls who were my age that I could relate to and I lucked out with my trip long roomie. I’ll try to be polite.. she was a 68 year old hypochondriac battle-axe who we shall refer to as ‘I.J’. She was grumpy, short tempered, talked at me rather than to me and her loud snoring kept me permanently sleep deprived. Consequently, I had to practise Zen like tolerance which inevitably waned as the trip progressed.

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Travelling is an amazing, wonderful thing to do and if you get the opportunity to see the world then take it… but what other blogs don’t tell you is that loneliness can hit you at any time, especially if travelling solo. It makes you question your choices but ultimately makes you a stronger, more resilient, more confident person.

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Bangkok

Bangkok was just as crazy as I’d anticipated, crossing the road was a like running the gauntlet and hoping not to get mowed down by a tuk tuk! I was based near China Town and went exploring on my own, but I got lost and ended up roaming the urine soaked back streets like a homeless mongrel. I met the group and took a klong boat along the river to Wat Pho temple. Along the river way I saw so many ramshackle huts where families lived in very basic conditions, some watched as our boat motored by, others slowly hung their washing out to dry and ignored our curious foreign eyes. Others approached the boat sold their wares from their own boats.

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The temple visit was my first introduction to Buddhism, a fascinating religion and way of living which instantly grabbed my interest. I then took the opportunity to visit the spectacular Grand Palace with my fellow Brit Farzana. Tip: The dress code is strict so be prepared. We struggled our way through the pulsating crowds in the searing midday sun. The grounds and the many temples were striking and beautiful, but annoyingly tainted by tourists boisterously pointing their large DSLR cameras.

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The other well known place that I visited was the infamous Khao San Road, a stretch of Bangkok dominated by international backpackers. The strip consists of neon bars and open air restaurants where the young backpacker set mix with tourists, all sipping on cold drinks and enjoying fragrant Thai food. It’s worth a visit just to mingle, to people watch and to sense the atmosphere. I would say that a few days in Bangkok is enough, it’s the gateway to Thailand and there is so much more to see of this wonderful country.

Chiang Mai

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The next leg of the trip took place overnight on a sleeper train to Chiang Mai, a real novelty to me and I got way too excited about climbing up into the top bunk and swinging like a monkey. It was hard to fall asleep on a moving train but I got some shut eye before breakfast was served.

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Chiang Mai was refreshing compared to Bangkok; clean and scenic and less busy. I took an awesome cooking class with a local lady, first buying fresh produce from the market where I saw an array of delights; live fish, buckets of frogs, colourful exotic fruits and vibrant spices. Vannee was a good teacher and under her supervision I cooked like a total boss; green curry, pad Thai, shrimp and cashew stir fry followed by mango sticky rice mmmm!

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A major highlight of Chiang Mai was Doi Suthep temple, situated high on the hill overlooking the town. As the pink orange sun set, candles glowed and monks chanted to Buddha. It was a real privilege to watch. I received a blessing and a bracelet from a monk which felt pretty special.

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Another more hedonistic cultural pursuit (to say the least) was when we went to watch a Ladyboy show! Wow, it was seriously rather raunchy in parts but I witnessed some top quality lip syncing, hehe. At one point I was serenaded by a curvaceous performer under the spotlight… certainly a first for me haha!

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A really good way to explore any rural town is to hire a bike and have a wander. I enjoyed a relaxed four hour bike ride along the Chiang Mai countryside; you get to see how local people live, as well as drink in the scenery.

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Our group stopped outside a school to say hello and laugh with the kids, they were so happy to see us! Later, the coolest thing that I witnessed was a monk being tattooed right on his belly. The artist was using sharp bamboo dipped in black ink whilst the monk was held down by others.. Totally awesome sight!

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Chiang Rai
As I proceeded further North towards the vast Mekong River, I paid a flying visit to the town of Chiang Rai. There sits the majestic White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) a stunning dazzling white temple. It’s new and it’s unconventional but just so bedazzling to the eyes, a must see for anyone travelling in that area. Make sure you make a wish at the wishing well, it might just come true!

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Koh Tao – Wait and see… Koh Tao shall have its own separate post.

Amazon Rainforest – Peru

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Hola! The Amazon is the hottest, most humid place I’ve ever been, 99% humidity gives one a very dewy glow!

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After a flight to Puerto Maldonado and a minibus ride to the river, I excitedly arrived at Tambopata Eco Lodge on a motorised canoe. Along the way there was some fascinating wildlife to see… I spotted monkeys hiding in the trees, stunning rainbow coloured macaws and curious looking capibarras licking the clay mud riverbank.

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The lodge is all thatched cottages with mosquito nets for windows and candles instead of electricity. The hot shower and hammock on the balcony signified major luxury to me! The lodge has a pet piranha, it lives in a fish tank, that just cracked me up. There is also a very cheeky green parrot called Homero who struts around amusing the guests.

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Armed with just a torch and a camera, my new buddies and I were taken on a night time rainforest walk to seek out wildlife. We saw snakes, poisonous frogs, giant crickets and pretty birds. Our eagle eyed guide (and talented photographer) Jose was drawn to creatures that I couldn’t even see! Although the moon shone brightly in the dark, I couldn’t shake off the sense of unease that I felt. Luckily the local Anaconda didn’t put in an appearance, Jose showed me a photo of it.. and it is the size of a car!
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The best feature of the rainforest is the sound, it is buzzing loudly with intriguing animal noises. There is constant chorus of chirping, caw cawing and monkeys laughing. I never realised how loud it is and it goes on all night long! I lay there every night just listening in wonder and feeling so lucky that I’d got to hear this awesome music of nature.
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The next day we woke at dawn to board a boat to a beautiful lake where we fed the piranhas crackers… I jest not! [below photo is a piranha skull]

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I had some great fun exploring the jungle, climbing trees, I even climbed up the inside of a giant tree and swung off a vine like Tarzan! This incredible day was followed by a night time boat trip to spot Cayman (croccies) they were so cute in a yellow eyed reptilian kind of way.

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During my visit to the Amazon, the best animal I saw was a big hairy Tarantula.. they are actually very shy creatures and in order to see one, you have to coax them out of their hole. You get a leaf with a long stem, you wiggle it down the hole until the Tarantula runs out fighting the leaf. They soon scurry away so you have to be camera ready!

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Tambopata amazingly has a well stocked bar.. so the late evenings were spent consuming rum and sharing hilarious anecdotes with fellow travellers. What I’ve learned is that although people travel due to simple wanderlust.. many solo travellers have a sad story to tell, many of them are healing a broken heart. I would highly recommend taking the brave step to travel alone. It’s liberating, it’s a great distraction, an escape from the rat race, and it enriches your soul. Personally, I take any opportunity to explore this beautiful world because tomorrow never really arrives and I want to look back on my life with no regrets.
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For cool wildlife pics
Joselo Barazorda Wildlife Fotography

PERU – Lima, Cusco, Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

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I can’t quite explain why I chose Peru other than being inexplicably drawn there. It’s a bucket list kind of place. I packed my backpack with hiking gear, ready to fly there alone. The journey from Heathrow began with a few fails… namely forgetting to fill in the Esta form to pass through America, then setting off security alarms, oopsy! The next fail was being pounced on by a drugs doggy at Miami immigration, he smelled my smuggled contraband.. a rogue English apple which was confiscated immediately.. I’m such a rebel.

I admit that I was filled with apprehension about what I was getting myself into. I had done no training for the tough Inca Trail hike, the high altitude concerned me, being alone was ok but sharing a room and a tent with a stranger had potential to irritate me. However, the free flowing red wine on my two flights sorted me right out!

I’d booked with an adventure company and it certainly was the best option for me to feel safe, organised and to meet like minded people (other crazy people). It wasn’t exactly ‘wandering with abandon’ but it was the start of a change of mindset. I had already seen a lot of the world through holidays.. but this was true adventure!

The capital city Lima is a bustling sprawling hub set on the Pacific Coast. I stayed only a few hours before I flew over the heart stopping Andes mountain range. I kept thinking about that film ‘Alive’ where the plane crashes in the Andes and the passengers have to eat each other to survive! Just imagine!

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I touched down in beloved Cusco, the real gem of Peru. Bathed in history with stunning churches, cobbled streets, dogs roaming in packs, shops selling brightly coloured textiles, markets selling everything from coca leaf to octopus.

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Cusquenas carry their angel faced children in slings, all under the watchful eye of their proud statue of Jesus Christ gleaming white high over the town.

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Brightly adorned Chola women parade their prized llamas for tourist photos, just be prepared to pay if you want a picture with them.

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Peruvians are noble, proud people, hardworking and polite but they do not embrace tourists in the insincere way that other tourist nations do. This for me is refreshing. It’s viewing their culture as it truly exists, which in my opinion gives an undiluted travel experience. I soon found out that they really do have a fondness for roasted Guinea Pig as well as frog juice and Alpaca burgers!

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I had the good fortune of sharing my experience with a fantastic bunch of like minded (bonkers) people from all corners of the globe. This isn’t always guaranteed.. as I will attest to in my future blogs!

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We visited a weaving project where local women weave the most beautiful clothes and textiles from naturally dyed alpaca and llama wool. Seeing such artful craft makes you feel ashamed of the cheap mass produced clothes on your back. Our guide Fernando spoke both Spanish and English but was able to translate in the women’s indigenous Quechuan, the ancient language of the hill people.

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The journey to Ollantaytambo was long and winding (some pessimists might say bumpy and boring) but it gave me the head space to contemplate life, a trait of every true traveller. The Incan culture was evident everywhere in this tiny characterful town. The scenery whispered it’s secrets and this is where the real journey began.

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INCA TRAIL .. will break you or be the making of you. A four day trek traversing the ups and downs of the world famous sacred trail was both heaven and hell. My legs felt strong and easily carried me, but my heart and lungs strained under the pressure of high altitude. It was tiring but the views were wonderous, the air was fresh, the company was lively and the freedom was liberating. I was finally living my life on my own terms and it felt good.

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Going back to basics was actually fun.. no beds, no showers, no proper toilets, no creature comforts. No make up or nice clothes to hide behind. This was me stripped back with nothing but my wits to rely on. Evenings were spent drinking coca leaf tea to combat headaches, playing card games and sharing stories with new friends. Going to bed in the moonlight then rising at dawn was never easy but worth it for every step closer to Machu Picchu (Old Mountain or Old Penis depending on how you pronounce it, haha!)

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The guides warned that the third day climbing up to 4200m on ‘dead woman’s pass’ was going to be incredibly hard. I can confirm that it was indeed a real bitch of a day and many of my comrades cried with pain and frustration. I proudly never shed a tear, ’cause I’m a warrior. I just kept going with mental clarity and my trusted walking poles.. I praise the inventor of walking poles. It’s amazing the strength that you can find when you need it.

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The trail took us past stalls selling cold beers and sweets. Talk about supply and demand! On the way I happily petted dogs tickled a piggy and chatted with donkeys.

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The way down to camp was treacherously steep but my nimble feet kept me from falling. The chat turned to relationships, a standard universal topic discussed across the globe.

Then before we knew it, the superhuman porters greeted us into camp by applauding. Every day I wanted to applaud them for carrying all the tents, gas, food and water. To cool off I bathed in a freezing cold river, my body shook involuntarily but the icy splashes felt amazing. Every action and thought outside of my usual comfort zone roused me out of the sheltered zombie like life I had been living.

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Rising at 3am in the pitch black to queue at the Sun Gate was worth the tired eyes to see Machu Picchu below, shining in all its morning glory. The ancient city has a special quality and a serene vibe. Chinchillas chill out in the shadows away from the midday heat and tourists bask in the Incan architecture. It’s easy to imagine the scenes from days gone by.

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Note that you have to apply for a licence to gain admittance to MP and get your passport stamped. The Inca trail is also protected by capping numbers, that’s why it’s beneficial to do it through a travel company.

My mission was proudly accomplished, I achieved my goal and happily ticked it off my bucket list… I would advise some hill climbing beforehand though! The journey back signalled time for fun, a few cheeky rum cocktails and lethal Pisco spirits on the train back.

I was tremendously exhausted but nothing stops me from getting my kicks! I headed out in Cusco with my comrades and off duty Fernando took us to a live music venue where the locals rock out to pan pipes and drums. I chatted to people in English, they replied in Peruvian Spanish! Music and dance are international languages and I had the best night there, awesome.

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Saying goodbye to people and the place itself was hard after such an intense experience, but it’s the obvious downside of travelling. I dined like a local (on some roasted guinea pig!) then flew to Puerto Maldonado to experience the next chapter of my adventure in Peru.. the famous Amazon rainforest!

To be continued…