Is that a sausage on your sideboard?

Camping our way around New Zealand was a fantastic way to spend two months; but as much as we knew we would miss all the great things that come with living in the outdoors, we were somewhat relieved to be packing our tents for the last time and boarding our flight to Melbourne. Our first week in the city was spent catching up with Sarah’s Australian family (to whom I’m still not quite sure how she’s related), getting the boring things like bank accounts and healthcare out of the way and paying a visit to a wildlife sanctuary to get a taste of what was to come on our East Coast road trip (Jen was thrilled to see her first kangaroo, which puzzled all the Australians present). We then picked up our campervans and set about our opposite ways: Kev and Sarah headed for the Great Ocean Road as we drove the other way to our first national park, Wilson’s Promontory. The weather was great and we had a nice day looking around for wildlife, stumbling across some emus, kangaroos and a cuddly wombat waddling around – a perfect start. As much as we liked it there, we had made plans to meet Jade in Sydney three days later and so we drove straight back to Melbourne after one night and spent the following three sleeping in our van parked up outside service stations along the Hume highway. On day 4 we arrived at Jade’s place in Sydney and spent the day touring the city, and had a fabulous evening drinking cheap wine and watching troupes of performers wearing masks, leotards and a lot of glitter marching the streets for the Pride parade. 

Once we left Sydney and said our goodbyes to Jade, we could begin to take things a bit more slowly (having driven almost 1000km in our first few days on the road) and we leisurely started making our way west to the Blue Mountains National Park. The entire area was beautiful, and we spent a good couple of days exploring and stumbling across yet more Australian wildlife. A particularly friendly wallaby allowed us to take some selfies with it, and we even spotted the elusive platypus floating around the greenish Blue Lake. He was especially cute , but tricky to photograph as it turns out he’s afraid of everything, even the ducks he spends all day with in the lake.

As was going to be the case for the entirety of our road trip, we only had a couple of days in the area before needing to move on. So, we drove back into and out of Sydney and headed north, towards Port Stephens. It was here that we were hoping to spot a wild koala, the only other classic Aussie marsupial left on our list. We spent the days walking through various nature reserves and national parks, but no luck. The area was pretty nice, though, and we were beginning to get used to life in a campervan. Most nights we found a free ‘rest area’, which usually had a drop-toilet and an outdoor gas barbecue for us to use (and often a creepy lone man in a caravan who had clearly been overstaying and had set up permanent residence by the side of the road). Occasionally we’d get lucky and find a service station with free hot showers and flush toilets – it may sound a touch tragic, but we got pretty into it and it balanced out our hefty petrol expenses quite nicely!
Over the following days and weeks we kept slowly making our way up north, averaging 200-300 km a day. The roads were generally lacking in traffic and the scenery was at times spectacular. We checked in at Port Macquarie for a beach day and a visit to the Koala Hospital; spent a couple of days around Byron Bay to enjoy yet more beach; drove through the relatively underwhelming Gold Coast; enjoyed some city tourism in Brisbane; and paid homage to the late Steve Irwin at Australia Zoo.

The further north we drove, the more the weather worsened. Luckily, we did catch a good spell of almost-sunshine in Noosa Heads. There, we took a few days to get some beach time and walk around the National Park. Again, no Koalas, but we did see a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins and a couple of Green Sea Turtles, so we were pleased.
Our stringent budget only allowed us to camp out in what was essentially a large car park, and one evening we were invited to a very uncomfortable weekly barbecue (the promise of free sausages swayed us), hosted by a trio of local pensioners who sang old country songs, complained when they suspected we weren’t paying attention and then told racist jokes. The next morning we decided we had spent enough time there and left for Hervey Bay.
We were very unfortunate and caught a huge rainstorm the day we arrived. We had hoped to take a trip over to Fraser Island the next day, where rainforests, shipwrecks and Dingos awaited, but the weather would have made the whole experience miserable and so we decided to camp for the night and left the next morning, after finding out that vipers had been roaming the flooded campsite through the night – luckily neither of us had needed to go to the toilet.

The next stop was Mon Repos, where we had hoped to see the turtle hatchlings commence their huge journey from the beach to the Pacific Ocean. Sadly, they had stopped holding guided viewings a couple of days before our arrival. Somewhat disheartened, we left the following morning and made our way to Rockhampton. We had read and heard about the nice beaches in the area and so decided to check them out, though were left slightly disappointed. We enquired about a trip to the beautiful Pumpkin Island and it was then that we first heard about the approaching Cyclone Debbie. A little bit of research revealed that we were heading straight for it and were due to reach Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays at the same time. Despite this (and mainly because there was absolutely nothing else to do in Rockhampton), we set off and headed north anyway. We made it about halfway to Mackay and had numerous conversations with panicked locals before giving in and accepting that it wouldn’t be safe to continue any further. The northernmost point we could reach was a little town (by this point deserted as all the locals had fled south) where we spent one night in a small caravan park, owned by the resident pensioner couple who had no choice but to remain. The only other guest was a strange Australian bloke who invited us for tea in his caravan. With neither of us having ever been inside one before, curiosity got the better of us and we accepted. That turned out to be a mistake, it was disgusting. It stank, there was crap everywhere (at one point I almost leant on what could either have been an old discarded cigar, an uneaten sausage, or a stale turd on the draining board) and the guy fitted your typical serial killer description. Eventually, after having watched what felt like hours’ worth of insanely boring footage of his holidays, him suggesting we holiday together later in the year and hounding Jen for her phone number, we retreated to our vans, locked the doors and hoped to never see him again. Indeed, our first bit of luck for a few days came in the form of his absence the following morning.
We wished the owners good luck as we retreated south to a car park, where we ended up spending two nights as the worst of the cyclone passed. The roads either side of us became flooded and closed by the police, so we made do with our depleted supply of  peanut butter, jelly babies and carrots, made tea with our kettle in the public toilets and found a shower at a seemingly abandoned (and overrun by kangaroos) campground down the road. Three days, two very wobbly nights in our high-top van and one thousand games of Uno later, we woke up to meet our new neighbour – a fallen tree. Hungry and keen to move on, we took it as a sign that the worst of the cyclone had passed in the night and got back on the road, exchanging road updates with Emily and Gemma, our new pals from the car park.

We gingerly drove through a few (at times dangerously) flooded roads to reach Mackay, where we spent a couple of days with  Emily and Gemma, before Kev and Sarah caught up with us. During the cyclone, just to make things even more interesting, Jen had developed an infection in one of her kidneys, and since no clinics in the town had any electricity, a visit to A&E was in order. Whilst we dwelled on our bad luck, Jen bonded with a family from a nearby village over a bag of grated cheese (a questionable hospital snack). It turns out one of their kids had been suffering from appendicitis during the cyclone, and had been unable to get to the hospital for days as a result of the flooding. We stopped feeling so sorry for ourselves after that. 
We eventually got the all clear from the road police and made it all the way to Airlie Beach. The destruction was immediately evident: palm fronds were everywhere, shop signs were half-missing and we saw a couple of large sailing boats lying astray on the beach and rocks. Electricity and running water had not fully been restored, and the vast majority of shops and restaurants remained closed. At this point, a trip to the Whitsundays was the last thing on our mind, so we left the town shortly after arriving and kept moving north until we reached Townsville, but we’re still hoping to make it back up there later this year.

The weather up in Townsville was better and we finally managed an island trip, over to Magnetic Island. We spent a good few hours on the nice beaches and walking around the national park, where, surely enough, we found our first wild koala (we had almost lost hope by this point!) The views from the top of the hills and mountain on the island were spectacular, and it felt good to be doing something other than driving around in the rain for the first time in over a week.
We left Townsville and drove through to Mission Beach, where we walked in the rainforest and came across a few large cassowaries, and approximately 1,457 mosquitoes. Cassowaries are large, funky coloured prehistoric birds, which are pretty to look at, but also the most dangerous bird on earth due to their sharp front claw and territorial nature, so we were a bit startled when one emerged just in front of us on the path. From there we got some distance between us and the coast and drove west and up into the Atherton tablelands, where we stumbled into Gemma and Emily for the third time. Together we hunted down a small platypus, on which we practiced our selfie skills. With that accomplished, we made our way further on to one of the sketchiest rest areas we had found to spend the night, and left early the next day to make our way to the Daintree Rainforest. By this point, the climate was truly tropical and we were hit by nostalgia as the thick rainforest surrounding the roads and rivers reminded us of our time in Asia. We stuck around for a couple of boat trips to see some crocs from up close and then moved on once again, down to Port Douglas and all the way to Cairns, and were super excited to spot some crocs lazing by the side of the road on the way.

Due to the cyclone, we had gained a lot of time and so had a week before our flight back to Melbourne. We met up with Kev and Sarah again and visited another part of the Tablelands, then returned to Cairns and left for our overnight diving trip to the Outer Barrier Reef. The effects of the cyclone were clear once underwater, and the first couple of dives were quite underwhelming (though seeing a huge Grey Reef Shark was pretty cool). However, once we moved onto our night boat, the conditions improved significantly and we enjoyed our 5 subsequent dives, especially our night dive, for which we had to jump in amongst a group of sharks, and could look up and watch their silhouettes above us during the dive. The sunrise over the barrier reef on the penultimate day of our trip was spectacular and we ended our trip feeling very satisfied. 

The following morning we waved good bye to our trusty van, which had taken us 7500km along the Eastern coast of Australia, and boarded our flight to Melbourne. 
After a few weeks of apartment hunting and job searching, both Jen and I are now working full-time and are living in Southbank. We spend most weekends sampling various brunch spots and are really enjoying Melbourne life. I’m training for the marathon in October and volunteering as a penguin guide in the evenings, and Jen is doing her. It might be a while before the next update; after all, detailed accounts of our daily work routines can only keep you entertained for so long.


Slippery when wet

After almost exactly a year since we left home we finally waved Asia a hesitant good-bye. Our initial stretch from India to Indonesia (and even Fiji) was a journey that provided us with both countless wonderful experiences and, at times, difficult and testing moments. Despite those moments, we look back on our first year away with complete positivity and satisfaction, having gained more from that part of our journey than we thought we could. 

So after a peaceful (post-cyclone, anyway) Christmas period in our favourite Pacific archipelago, we boarded our flight over to New Zealand, looking forward to the forgotten (and underrated) comforts that come with a westernised culture. Our first stop was Auckland, where we booked ourselves into a nice AirBnB, which came with a free pet pig who ate our food scraps every morning. His name was Nigel. Enough said. The first few days in the city were spent deliberating over the decision to camp (tents, portable cookers and all) our way around the country. In the end we decided it was the only way  we could afford it and spent many (so many) hours driving around the city, checking every single ‘Warehouse’ we came across for post-Christmas sale remnants. With that eventually sorted, we took some time to explore the nearby area, beginning with a nice “tramp” (Kiwi speak for a hike) around the nearby Whaitakere Ranges and a visit to the little beachside town of Piha. There we were greeted by what was to be the first of many jaw-dropping views. Unfortunately the water at the beach was freezing cold and the sand too hot to stand in – not quite the tropical conditions to which we had foolishly become accustomed.

With the car (over)loaded with our all not-so-fancy new camping gear, we headed north to the Bay of Islands area. The scenery was spectacular, the sea an amazing array of blues and the woods lush and noisy with the many birds that inhabit them. What better way, then, to explore the whole area than on a 7-hour, 18-kilometre trek. I’m not sure it was what anyone had in mind when they said they looked forward to a nice walk, but Kev, Sarah and Jen did seem to enjoy it – even more so in retrospect, when the leg aches faded a couple of days later. By that point we had reached the Kauri Coast, which gave us the opportunity to admire the thousands-of-years-old namesake trees, which grew as tall as 2 and 1/3 giraffes and as wide as 4 and 1/4 blue whales. There, we also decided to go on a night walk to look for the elusive Kiwi (no, not the fruit), which (rather inconveniently) only comes out at night, is scared of people and is no bigger than a basketball. To better our chances of seeing one, we rented out a red-light torch from the campsite. I had a expected a small hand-held device, the kind people have in their house in case of a power cut. Instead, I was given a very heavy backpack, with a coiled cable that came out of it and lead to a hairdryer-shape lamp the size of a car-headlight. It closely resembled the device the Ghostbusters use to clean up New York City. Armed with our Proton Pack, we headed out and spent a good 2-3 hours looking for the national bird. We heard it a couple of times, but by gone midnight all we saw was a white rat, a couple of huge crickets and a few Possums on the road on the way back. Oh, and some glow worms – they were the highlight (geddit?)

We next headed south to Goat Island marine reserve, where Kev and I braved the icy water and snorkelled around for a couple of hours (again, not quite the tropics, but interesting nonetheless). Then, after a quick stop back in Auckland for Jen and I to check we hadn’t contracted TB and thus ensure we could be granted our Australian visa, we spent some time digging our own hot-tubs at the aptly named Hot Water Beach, explored the colourful volcanic springs in Rotorua and headed up to Tongariro National Park, where I had hoped to embark on another double-digit-kilometre walk: the Alpine Crossing. The rest of the team wasn’t so keen, so we opted for a different hike to some lakes. In the end, the joke was on them, as the supposedly shorter walk was still 16 km long (20 for me as I left them behind for a half hour to go look at the second lake) and took us at least 7 hours. We all loved it though; the weather was amazing and the scenery insane (LOTR’s Mt. Doom was a constant backdrop).

From there we decided to make room in our schedule for a visit to Napier, in the heart of the Hawke’s Bay region (to all the wine lovers out there, yes, the very one.) It was here that Jen and I celebrated our 365th day of travel, with a nice lunch in the beachside town and wine tasting (courtesy of Kev and Sarah, shoutout) at one of the many wineries near our campsite. The next day we hung around doing very little until early afternoon, at which point the tide was out and we were able to commence our 19-km return hike along the temporarily exposed beach. Destination: Cape Kidnappers Gannet colony, the biggest such mainland colony in the world. It’s situated right at the very tip of the headland, overlooking the sea. I don’t know exactly how many gannets live there, but it was a really special sight. The fluffy chicks were very cute and watching the adults clumsily trying to take off was very entertaining. As an added bonus, on the way back we stumbled upon what I first thought was a small stuffed toy. Closer inspection revealed that it was in fact a Little Blue Penguin, the smallest in the world. It must have been 30cm in height, and if you’ve ever seen one you’ll understand just how impossibly cute these little guys are. 

After a detour via the longest place name in the world, we spent a couple of days in Wellington, which saw us reach the end of our time on the North Island. We boarded the inter-island ferry to cross the Cook Strait, hoping to enjoy a scenic and relaxed crossing. Our luck was out. The crossing was very rough, the weather terrible. Hoping to still catch a glimpse of the view from the outdoor deck, I ventured out in the wind and rain. This mistake resulted in a spectacular fall, as I slipped on what was now a giant, metallic banana skin. I was in mid-air for enough time to register what had happened before falling on my bum in front of everyone. Luckily, the bruise faded after a mere 7 days.

In those 7 days we explored the Marlborough Sounds area before heading over to Abel Tasman National Park. Other than the amazing beaches, the attraction there for us was Farewell Spit. It was on this huge seaside sand dune that we first encountered the New Zealand Fur Seals. It was “windy as”, and the combination of rain and flying sand made for a very uncomfortable lunch. Still, we persevered and eventually found the pool of water where a dozen or so seal pups were playing around – it made up for the sand blasting and unwanted shower. Unfortunately, the camera didn’t fare so well and, a couple of days later, it gave up on us. This means we won’t be able to show you any exciting photos from the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers – you DO NOT know what you’re missing.

So we jump ahead to Queenstown, the first town we visited in New Zealand that we actually liked and enjoyed. We decided to forego the bungee jumps and skydives (parents, you’re welcome) and settled for a world-famous Fergburger and a round of frisbee golf. The latter was also a success with the whole team, except for Kev, who threw his frisbee in the lake, got in the lake to retrieve it, got out, slipped on some mud, got back in the lake to wash, got out and then fell on a pinecone. I think he’ll stick to regular golf from now.

Another road trip later we reached Fiordland National Park, where we took a short cruise around Milford Sound. Navigating around the mountains made for a nice couple of hours, despite the constant drizzle, and seeing a large pod of bottlenose dolphins was an unexpected bonus. The weather steadily worsened and the next day we were pleased to be heading to the sunnier eastern side of the island. Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula was our first stop on that coast. We walked up the steepest residential street in the world and spent most of our other time looking for wildlife. We saw all sorts – the huge Royal Albatross, lazy Sea Lions, cute Fur Seals and even the rare Yellow-Eyed Penguin; although, upon seeing the penguins I got too excited and dropped our 6-day-old camera in the sand. It broke immediately. To make matters worse, I also then left my brand new coat on the top of the car before we drove off, never to be seen again. Still, we managed to swap the camera for a new(er) one without hassle, which was a huge relief, and headed towards Oamaru, where we spent the night in order to catch a glimpse of waves of Little Blue Penguins tumbling back ashore after a hard day’s fishing.

No time to rest as the next morning we were up early and on our way to Mt. Cook and the incredibly turquoise lake Pukaki. The area was really beautiful, and our campsite (though littered with poo from the dozens of rabbits roaming freely) was perfectly located on the edge of the lake. We walked around the National Park, saw a couple of big glaciers and icebergs and did little else. Sarah had enough time to build a reputation around the campsite as the lady who bakes, having wowed other campers with her pumpkin and cheese scones and an apple pie. We were way past the dehydrated meals in bags by this point.

500 kilometres up the road, we reached Kaikoura, a seaside town that had been struck by an earthquake some months before. We had intended to go whale watching, but as a result of the quake there was a waiting list of somewhere in the region of 3-12 weeks. As we only had 2 days, we opted for a scenic flight instead. And we were so glad we did. In the 45 minutes we were in the air we spotted some Orcas, two Sperm Whales and a 400-strong pod of acrobatic Dusky Dolphins. It was unforgettable, and Jen was especially pleased to avoid the notoriously choppy boat journey. 

The last few days of our time in New Zealand were spent in the relatively unexciting city of Christchurch, with a couple of day trips to a small French town called Akaroa. Our highlight was kayaking around the bay and coming across a Hector’s Dolphin, the smallest dolphin in the world. It swam right next to us and we had a perfect view of it; unfortunately my GoPro froze and I was denied one of the best shots of our trip so far. Oh technology, how we love to hate you…

That experience rounded off what was a fantastic 8 weeks in possibly the most beautiful country we have visited so far. It is a nature lover’s dream. Despite that, we were happy to escape the constant state of metereological limbo that is New Zealand weather and head over to Australia to commence our year-long visit there. 

I just need to declare my wooden penis

On our final day in Indonesia, we had a dilemma. We had flights booked to Kuala Lumpur the next day, and then on to Manila the day after that. Unfortunately, the United States Embassy had just issued a foreign office warning about foiled kidnapping plots on a Philippino island we definitely wanted to visit, and the UK’s FCO website had the warning up too, as well as advising against travel to other places on our list. The Philippines was one of the countries on our trip that we were both really keen to visit, so there had been two days of back and forth, but when further research revealed that dive boats had apparently been targeted (and we hoped to spend quite a bit of our time in the Philippines underwater), and land travel in certains parts was also not recommended, re-routing and cutting our trip short to make it as safe as possible was going to cost us a lot more money and a lot of things we wanted to see. Perhaps we were over cautious, but on a trip as long and flexible as ours, it’s possible to re-jig the route as we go, and we are still hoping to make it to the Philippines next year. So that left us with flights to Kuala Lumpur and a month to spare before we flew to Fiji. After much faffing on Skyscanner, we decided to go back to Thailand to see the bits we hadn’t managed to see yet, and to complete our Advanced PADI diving course.

We spent a happy few days in Bangkok eating street food, shopping, and spending one night in a cat themed hostel with very pampered fluffy cats (the dream). We struggled to catch the buses this time, as due to the death of the King earlier in the year, many public buses had been taken off their routes and supplied (we think) as shuttles to take mourners to the memorial site. Our time in Bangkok seemed to go quickly, as always, and after an early start, a metro, a (successful) bus, a flight and two boats, we arrived back on Koh Tao, the south eastern Thai island where I first learnt to dive back in April. Our Advanced course went well and although visibility was variable, we enjoyed our three dives – a navigation dive, a deep dive and a night dive. Qualification completed, we begrudgingly left Koh Tao as we were spending the rest of the month on the West Coast islands that we hadn’t managed to visit yet. After a ferry trip to Koh Samui, we took a flight to Phuket. On the minivan trip from Phuket airport into town, we weren’t charmed by what we saw. Sadly, this was still our overall impression on the day we left Phuket too. It wasn’t a terrible place (and we did get upgraded to an apartment, which helped), but we found it to be an expensive, gimmicky tourist town, where even the street food is overpriced for tourists and leathery skinned elderly men stroll about town in speedos and long socks like that’s a thing. We were glad to be heading off to Koh Lanta after a couple of days.

We spent over a week relaxing on Koh Lanta, a much less developed island with lots of fabulous, cheap restaurants, a nice white beach and many cats. We rented a moped to explore the island, walked some dogs from the dog shelter, lounged on the beach and ate everything. My parents then also arrived on Koh Lanta, so we took them on a tour of the island, involving lunch at a beautiful hilltop restaurant where Tommaso got bitten by a blind cat, and spent the week largely playing beach volleyball until the monsoon rains arrived here and there, so we’d have to run to another restaurant and eat yet another meal.

Our final stop in Thailand this time was Krabi so we took a minivan straight from Koh Lanta to Krabi, which involved getting on a tiny car ferry where the driver got out and locked us all in the van. Thankfully we didn’t sink and drown, and our first impressions of Ao Nang town in Krabi were much better than Phuket. There are huge limestone rock formations set around the Krabi coast (we found it reminiscent of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam) and the beaches are nice. The sea, however, wasn’t as turquoise as some pictures had led us to believe and contained a few jellyfish and lots of sea lice (we never realised these mosquitos of the sea existed before we came to Asia…sadly they do. In abundance.) One day we took a longtail boat over to nearby Railay beach, which has more appealing turquoise sea and no sea lice, which was a bonus. There was also a cave which had been turned into a penis shrine, with many different penis statues. Also a bonus. We spent our last evening in Krabi drinking beers overlooking the sea and doing our secret santa shopping. Tommaso, my parents and I had all drawn names in Bangkok, and had a £5 budget for our gifts that we would exchange in Fiji at Christmas. We always leave Thailand a bit reluctantly, especially when a 5am start is involved, but we soon arrived back in Kuala Lumpur, where we spent a couple of nights before flying on to Fiji.

Our quick stopover in Kuala Lumpur involved a lovely apartment overlooking the Petronas Towers, plenty of malls, a cinema visit and a few swims in the rooftop infinity pool overlooking the evening skyline. If you’ve already read my parents’ blog, you’ll know that our time in Kuala Lumpur did not end so smoothly. We had flights booked from Kuala Lumpur to Fiji via the Gold Coast, Australia. We had all checked online and come to the conclusion that we didn’t need a visa for Australia as we were only transitting for a couple of hours, and belong to the list of transit visa-free countries. Sadly the lady at check-in didn’t agree, and promptly refused us boarding. Seeing our onward flights, AirBnb and car hire reservations go up in smoke, there was much arguing and iPhone waving at the desk as we loaded up the Australian immigration webpage to back us up. Eventually a manager reluctantly appeared who pointed at the small print, mentioning that if you have to collect your bags in Australia, you need a visa. With bag collection on the agenda between flights, we accepted defeat and quietly shuffled away past a very long, grumbling queue of waiting passengers. Sat in a sad huddle on the airport floor, we applied for the Australian visas, which the airline manager had warned us make take a few days to come through, and then we could look at rebooking our flights. Within a minute of applying, my visa miraculously appeared in my inbox, closely followed by everyone else’s. We ran smugly back to the check-in desk and presented our visas, much to the surprise of all the clerks witness to the earlier fiasco, and were so happy to board the plane that we didn’t even mind that every passenger on board our night flight seemed to be suffering from a chesty cough.

On the plane we had to fill out our Australian customs declaration forms, and my heart sank when I realised that I was going to have to admit to carrying a ‘wooden article.’ This wouldn’t be such a problem if the article in question wasn’t a bottle opener with a wooden handle intricately carved into a penis. This was doubly inconvenient as it was in fact part of the secret santa gift I had bought for Tommaso, meaning I had to try and declare it in secret. I muttered I had some ‘wooden handicrafts’ on my person to the officers that asked me, before much smirking ensued as my bag went through the X-ray machine. I grabbed it and scuttled away, glad that I wasn’t made to get it out and show everyone.

No sleep, one more flight and another penis declaration incident later, we arrived in Fiji. On the downside, it was raining, but that didn’t stop the enthusiastic airport staff singing a welcome song and shouting ‘Bula!’, Fijian for ‘hello’, and which it turns out is shouted at every opportunity when in Fiji. Wanting nothing more than a good night’s sleep, we collected our 4×4 and drove off into the rough hillside tracks in the stormy Fijian night. Obviously this was a recipe for disaster, but many confused phone calls, a rescue from the housekeeper and a broken carton of eggs later, we arrived at the house and made midnight omelettes from the sloshy egg remains in the bottom of the carrier bag. What a time to be alive. The rain continued solidly for a few days, and we found out Fiji was actually in the midst of a cyclone, which also involved many power cuts and consequently no water supply. Books were read, podcasts were played and naps were had until we eventually decided to brave the outdoors in a spell of mere drizzle, to visit the Sigatoka sand dunes. Lots of fun was had running up and over the dark sand dunes and exploring the forest before we headed home via a street side veg stall where we purchased our daily pile of aubergines. In Fiji all veg is sold in ‘piles’, and the choice is relatively limited, so aubergine is pretty much on the menu every day. 

Sadly the next day we awoke to yet more cyclone action, but as we were all feeling a bit cooped up and thirsty (our only drinking water was coming from collected rain in a large metal pan in the garden – we felt very Bear Grylls), we decided to brave a trip into Suva, the capital of Fiji. Unfortunately Tommaso and I neglected to bring our coats. If you have ever forgotten your coat during a tropical cyclone, you’ll know the feeling. We squelched into a department store which promptly had a power cut and insisted in locking us all inside, so we hung out in the dark with the staff until we were released. The radio announcements were now warning people to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, so we gave the walking tour a miss in favour of some delicious fish and chips and headed home. When the next morning came, we were finally able to use the beautiful balcony of our hillside house to see the turquoise blues of the sea and rows of hillside palm trees. It looked like the cyclone hadn’t happened. Seizing the opportunity of a day of sunshine and fearing it might disappear again, we drove along the coast to Natadola Beach, which has the amazing white sand and turquoise sea that Fiji brings to mind. Thankfully the cyclone had passed, and we spent a couple of happy days splashing around there, until I got knocked over by a rogue wave and lost my sunglasses in the sea. Fifteen minutes later, after admitting defeat and a touch of sulking, they were miraculously recovered from their watery grave by Tommaso. We finished the day off with a midnight explore of the rainforest around the house, to see what critters we could spot. A couple of oversized stick insects (one about 20cm long), and lots of large crabs later, we headed back. We enjoyed working out what objects the hermit crabs had chosen to be their ‘shell’ (the winner had the end of a hosepipe reel), but we did not enjoy to see that a large toad actually lived in the pan we had been using for water during the cyclone.

It was soon time to say goodbye to the balcony’s turquoise sea view and the resident toad, and travel along the coast to our hotel where we would be spending Christmas. When you drive anywhere in Fiji, you notice that most men wear a funky flowery shirt, and it’s apparently customary to always carry a machete, no matter what errands you might be running. It’s never been particularly appealing to pick up a hitchhiker carrying a machete in England, but no one thinks twice in Fiji. We gave it a miss though – I listen to far too many true crime podcasts to endorse that idea. We spent a great few days over Christmas relaxing at the beachside hotel, which was a festive treat. It involved lots of sunbathing, snorkelling, eating plenty of delicious food (including a Fijian attempt at a Christmas roast dinner) and ukulele versions of the classic Christmas songs. We thought a hot Christmas might just not be quite right, but it turns out drinking bubbly on the beach makes for a decent Christmas morning. Everyone did well in our Secret Santa exchange, and the penis handle bottle opener was obviously a hit. Tommaso and I then spent Boxing Day diving, which was a welcome change from blobbing around in a onesie and eating Christmas leftovers. We did two dives along beautiful reef walls, and saw an array of tropical fish, sea turtles and the outline of some reef sharks below us. We also explored an underwater swim-through tunnel which had a very strong wave surge running through it, so that was a fun first, although I came out a bit battered and bruised at the end. 

This was our last full day in Fiji, and we were sad to leave this old fashioned paradise island with beautiful beaches, food and people who shout ‘Bula!’ and wave their machete whenever you pass, but our next destination was New Zealand, and after almost a year in Asia we were quite keen to revisit the western world. Our next blog update will be from our eight weeks spent in New Zealand, where, in case you were wondering, Tommaso did have to declare the wooden penis on entry.

Did you know my driver was blind?

Our last blog left us in Borneo, and since then we have spent two months in Indonesia, with a few days in Singapore in the middle (our blogs have been a little sparse lately). Our time in Indonesia began in a rainy Jakarta, which was pretty grubby, but nevertheless, we squelched around in an attempt at sightseeing. We visited the (closed) cathedral, had a general wander and then gave up and sloshed back to the bus, where Tommaso was accosted by a friendly local who spoke minimal English, but was keen for Tommaso to guess how old he was. Tommaso’s guess of ’30’ was clearly not appreciated, as the guy swiftly fell asleep standing up, prompting mass confusion on the bus. He briefly came back to life to wish us all a ‘Merry Christmas!’ about ten minutes later, but we never did find out his age. After a couple of days in Jakarta, our highlight was the amazing bakeries that wouldn’t be out of place in France, but at half the price. Many loaves of bread later, we were happy to leave Jakarta for Yogyakarta, which we much preferred.

An hour or two from Yogyakarta are Borobudur and Prambanan temples. We are a bit templed out after ten months in Asia, but we made an exception, especially since Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and it turned out to be amazing. We were expecting hordes of tourists, but it was pretty empty and peaceful with beautiful views. Prambanan was also nice, but a bit less impressive after we had seen Angkor Wat. In Prambanan I ended up surrounded by a group of schoolgirls and had to memorise an Indonesian phrase, which I then had to shout at their entire class, including the teacher, over FaceTime. I’m not sure what I said, but everyone including the teacher cheered – Indonesian schools are strange.

We spent the next few days travelling vast distances to see the best of what Java has to offer, which was both exhausting and wonderful. We’re not usually big fans of group tours, but in this instance it was both the cheapest and easiest means of visiting Mount Bromo and the Ijen Crater, which are fiddly to access alone. Our journey began with a 10 hour train journey to a small town called Probolinggo. The train was actually pretty clean, but the upright wooden seat backs and amount of passengers squashed on to the bench made for a pretty long, hot 10 hours. Once we arrived at Probolinggo we met our group and piled into a minivan for the 2 hour drive to Cemoro Lawang, a small village near Mount Bromo. Our driver drove like a maniac in the dark, around the twisty mountain roads, which worked out well as we managed to sneak into the one and only restaurant just before it closed, before heading back to our heavily sewage scented room with no sink. The one bonus to our room was you had to climb a few steps up to the toilet, which made it feel like a throne (we’ve learnt the importance of finding the silver linings whilst we’ve been away…). Anyway, we had to meet again at 3am to head to the Bromo sunrise viewpoint, so we only had a few hours’ sleep in the sewagey room before donning ten layers and a scarf each and heading off to our jeep. The early start was worth it, as the view looking out over smoking Mount Bromo emerging from the clouds was beautiful. 

Our next stop was Mount Bromo itself, where we walked through the sandy, ash covered plateau and climbed up to the rim of the crater. Looking down into the volcano, we could see a sandy drop and a large black hole, but accompanied by the  extremely loud roars of the volcano, it was amazing. However, the safety ‘barrier’ before the drop (imagine an intermittent concrete rail that reaches shin height) wasn’t quite reassuring enough for me, so I shuffled back down the sandy slope to safety while Tommaso decided to climb up the side with no barrier at all, ‘just for fun’. 

Once everyone was back in one piece, we returned to the sewage-room before embarking on the next 9 hour bus journey. This brought us to a village near to the Ijen crater, where we settled in for the night (this time there was a sink but no toilet seat, so swings and roundabouts), before a 4am start to visit the Ijen Crater. We hiked 3.5 kilometres up to the crater, renting some gas masks on the way, as the crater emits clouds of noxious sulphurous gases. Once we reached the top, and were able to look down into the crater, the view was already impressive. The crater contains bright yellow sulphur which is mined by insanely hardworking, wiry men without gas masks, and has a turquoise lake at the bottom. We scrambled down the rock paths, passing miners with baskets full of heavy yellow sulphur rocks, and felt very glad we had rented the gas masks as the sulphur fumes were strong. At the bottom of the crater, the bright yellow of the sulphur is contrasted against the hot, toxic turquoise lake, whilst yellow clouds of sulphur fumes blow around. The place is completely breathtaking (geddit?) It felt completely surreal to be inside the crater, and it’s like nothing either of us has ever seen before.

After climbing out of the crater and hiking down the hill, we took a number of buses and a ferry over to Bali, for some well deserved rest. It felt especially deserved after the final bus ride, where people were packed in so tightly that locals were sat on plastic stools in the aisle, and then as it began to rain, it became apparent that there were holes in the roof so I eventually ended up sat in a small puddle. Although it involved multiple stops for chickens to cross the road (that’s actually a thing that happens), the road was relatively straight, but unfortunately that didn’t stop the Indonesian woman next to us making use of the sick bags, so we were extremely glad when we finally arrived. The driver also celebrated the arrival by blasting out some Indonesian rock music so deafeningly loud that it forced everyone off the bus double-quick. Everyone except Tommaso that is, as he suddenly realised that he didn’t have his phone any more. We interrogated the passengers near us, and had to crawl around amongst the rubbish and sick bags to check around all the seats, whilst enjoying the blaring rock music. Finally accepting that it had been stolen, I left the bus and was trotting after my number one suspect for a second interrogation, when Tommaso called out from the window that he had found it under a seat. As we walked away from our group of loyal helpers, and an angry, delayed bus driver, he mumbled that it had actually been in his bag all along. He is just the best.

We had a week on the Bali coast, which we happily spent relaxing on the beach and learning to surf. The beaches aren’t the pristine white sand beaches that Bali brings to mind, but it did the trick and we felt much more rested after our manic few days in Java.

Our next stop on Bali was Ubud, a peaceful town set amongst the rice padis, where we spent a happy few days eating great food, walking among the rice padis, visiting a few more temples, and doing some yoga.

Once our time in Ubud was up, we took a bus and a boat across to Gili Trawangan, one of the three main Gili islands off of Bali. It has a bit of a party reputation, so we were expecting it to be a bit naff and rowdy, but found that we actually had a really great time here. We spent our days relaxing on the beautiful, clean beach and snorkelling with an array of reef fish and sea turtles. There is also a baby turtle centre in town, which is strangely unmanned, but has three large tanks with super cute baby turtles (turtlets?) bobbing around waiting for their release, which we liked to visit on our way through. We then spent a few days at a Gili Air, a smaller, more relaxed nearby island, where we tried snorkelling, but the sea was either too shallow or too rough, so we returned to Gili Trawangan, and decided to dive. The dive was fantastic, with numerous reef fish to be seen, as well as a giant moray eel, an octopus, a sea snake, around ten turtles and two white tip reef sharks.

With our visas about to expire, we had to leave Indonesia and find another country to visit for a few days before we returned. We settled on Singapore, which I was keen on as my grandma used to live there and talked about it often. Singapore is an expensive country, with many things costing more than at home, which is not kind to our backpacking budget, so we only spent two nights here. Luckily it’s also a very small country, and it took us just over an hour to cross it, before heading off to the world famous zoo, which we enjoyed. We spent our couple of days in Singapore like real tourists, treating ourselves to dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, enjoying a pretty but very hot walk around the Gardens by the Bay, and taking photos outside Raffles Hotel, because we certainly couldn’t afford to go in. Once our time in Singapore was up, we returned to the fantastic airport where we spent so long in the free ‘snooze lounge’ that we nearly missed our flight. Thankfully we didn’t, as the flight attendant donned a flowery shirt and sunglasses halfway through the flight, and played a guitar into the announcement microphone.

We next visited the Indonesian island of Flores, which has much less tourism than Bali. We stayed in a town called Labuan Bajo, which is an unexciting one-street town, but we were here because it is the nearest place to stay in order to dive in Komodo Natoinal Park, and visit Rinca Island to see the Komodo dragons. We did three dives in Komodo, and the sealife and reefs we saw were truly incredible. On our first dive we saw an eagle ray, a black tip reef shark, some jellyfish and many reef fish. While we were on the boat between dives, we started to see the huge black shadows of manta rays appearing below us, and we were keen to jump in. On the second dive, we saw a black tip reef shark, more rays, various reef fish, and some sea turtles, but the highlight was the manta rays. On our dive we were lucky enough to see around 25 manta rays, gliding through the water around us, and at one point over our heads as we hovered near the sand. They grow as wide as 5.5m, and seeing them so close was spectacular. Our final dive of the day was also great as we spotted a nearby school of 4 blacktip reef sharks circling around near us.  However the current was so strong during this dive that I was nervous I might lose my grip on the precarious piece of rock I was clinging to and drift away along the reef, so I was glad when we ascended, especially as I had picked up an anemone sting on my hand too, which took three weeks to stop looking blistered and weird.

Our day trip to Rinca Island to see the Komodo dragons involved a very hot and largely unexciting hike around the island, but it was nice to see the dragons blobbing around in the sun, and they are much bigger than we ever realised. We also learnt that if they bite you, their venom is toxic enough to kill (if you can’t get hold of any anti-venom), and that tourists have been bitten in the past, but there didn’t seem to be any fear of the dragons moving much in the heat while we were around. The afternoon involved some mandatory snorkelling, where there wasn’t much to see and I got bitten in the stomach by an aggressive fish, so that was largely unsuccessful. Once we were back on dry land, we were offered a lift up the windy road back to our hotel on the moped of our travel agent that we booked the trip with. He had been ferrying me around the town since we arrived and booked our trip (T always hopped on his mate’s bike, who confusingly always appeared exactly at the right time and wore a fake police uniform), and only this time did I notice that he was blind in one eye. When I pointed this out to Tommaso, he said that he had realised all along, but had just always taken the other bike…

Having exhausted all Labuan Bajo had to offer, we flew back to Bali for a brief pit stop, where we stayed in a guesthouse with a resident Chinese man who sat in reception in his pants, making loud phone calls. On the plus side, we met up with our friend Will from university, and got to meet his girlfriend Kaori – it was a treat to see a face from home, and in a double-whammy, we also met up with my parents for the evening as our paths crossed. The next day, we took a boat across to Nusa Lembongan, another island off of the coast of Bali. We had an uneventful and pleasant beach week here, celebrating Halloween with makeshift costumes from the contents of our backpacks, before taking a very, very rough boat crossing back to Bali. Feeling pretty queasy when I got off, I really felt like scaling a pile of large rocks with my backpack in order to get up to the dock, which is lucky, because that’s what I got.

Our last week in Indonesia was spent in Sulawesi. We flew to Manado, in the north of the island, which is an unexciting city, and has been prepared for Christmas since early November, with trees up and carols playing everywhere. During one of our wanders we were accosted in the street by some students, who led us into the nearby hospital reception area to film an interview with us about our experience in Indonesia, followed by a lengthy photoshoot. The next day we took a boat over to Bunaken Island, a small island that only has electricity overnight, but has rich and diverse coral reefs. We enjoyed some great snorkelling and did not enjoy the oversized critters that got into our bedroom, especially the hand-sized spider that got inside our mosquito net, and made me scream so loud that the neighbours in the next hut yelled at me. We met a group of French girls here that we teamed up with to visit our last destination in Sulawesi, which was the Tangkoko nature reserve. We did a couple of treks around the reserve, and managed to see a family of tarsiers, which are the cutest ever and look like little fluffy Furbies. We also spotted a couple of bear cuscus, which are similar to sloths, and black macaques, which are endemic to Sulawesi. 

Treks done, we then said goodbye to our French friends and flew to Makassar (where we got interviewed again), and then on to Kuala Lumpur, to begin the next month of our travels. This has been our longest update yet as we squished over two months of travels into one blog, so big ups if you made it to the end, more soon!

A weekend with the swingers

Since we are in our second month in Indonesia now and Jen has still not begun to write this blog (too busy listening to ‘Woman’s Hour’ podcasts), it’s down to me to save the day.

After five and a half months in mainland Southeast Asia, we were eager to bring some change as after that long a time, every temple begins to look the same, every noodle soup tastes the same and every bus ride appears to be accompanied by the same karaoke songs.

So we were excited to arrive in Kuala Lumpur, hoping to discover a new array of foods, culture and attractions. We stayed in Little India, which seems to be the designated backpacker quarter no matter where you find yourself. As the name suggests, there is a large Indian, as well as Chinese, presence amongst the Malaysian locals, meaning that pretty much everyone speaks English to a fairly good level. It also meant that Malaysians (all three versions) are very welcoming and we generally found them to be amongst the nicest people we have encountered so far; they actually STOP to let you cross the road at traffic lights and even say sorry when they bump into you (this in particular took us aback the first time). Kuala Lumpur itself we didn’t find to be as interesting as we hoped – it was a relatively quiet city, with not a huge amount of charm about it. Other than visiting the many malls (we are now enthusiasts) we visited a cave in the outskirts of the city, took a selfie outside the impressive Petronas towers and took a stroll in the relaxing botanical gardens.

After a few days we took a flight out to the island of Penang, where we stayed in Georgetown, famous for its street food and art. Armed with a tourist trail map, I led us on a makeshift walking tour around the old town area, another UNESCO site to tick off the list. If I’m not mistaken (which I very well might be as I didn’t read the guidebook very carefully), the street art trend really began in 2009, with the commission of 50-something metal sculptures to be hung around the town. This was followed by the creation of a number of murals, which we hunted down on our tour. 

As for the food, although we did enjoy it, we found it to be very similar to the mainland Asian cuisine we had just left behind, so we looked back on it with slight indifference as we boarded our flight to Langkawi, a beach island North of Penang, where we hoped to spend a couple of days relaxing and catching some sun. 

It literally rained every day. Being a beach town, there wasn’t really anything to do, other than playing with the resident kitten. Luckily, on our last day, our hotel manager put us and 5 other guys in a tiny minivan and took us on a free tour of the island. We stopped at Skeleton beach, named in a jolly fashion after escaped prisoners who died at sea, and a couple of impressive waterfalls. This cheered us up and we were more content with how our trip in mainland Malysia had ended. Due to time restrictions and costs, we decided on a last minute change of plans and, instead of exploring more of western Malysisa’s national parks and towns, we headed straight for Borneo. 

After 3 flights on the same day (we will plant a few trees when we get back home…), we arrived in Kota Kinabalu, our starting point for our tour of Sabah region. First on the agenda was Kinabalu National Park, famous for the namesake mountain, which we briefly considered climbing until we realised that the cost of doing so would significantly shorten our trip’s lifespan. Instead, we settled for an afternoon walk around the park. Despite the heavy rain turning the path into a stream, and our lack of waterproof footwear, meaning that Jen suffered a comedy fall and sulked thereafter, we mainly enjoyed our trek and felt good for some exercise.


After a cold night’s sleep at the local crappy hotel (such is the way for mountain-side accommodation in this part of the world), we woke up early to a beautifully dry, hot day and enjoyed some spectacular views of the hills nearby whilst waiting for the one bus that would take us to Sandakan. We had learnt the night before that the next day was going to be a public holiday, but we didn’t expect the buses to be so full that we would only have the option of sitting on the floor in the aisle for six hours. So, much to the bus driver’s apparent surprise, we politely declined. Sadly all taxi drivers seemed to be on holiday too, so armed with a makeshift cardboard sign, we decided we would have to hitchhike our way there. I took first shift, but mostly received some sympathetic laughter and a couple of waves from amused locals. After 20 minutes it was time for Jen to try and it didn’t take her long to attract the attention of a minivan with a couple of families, which stopped and kindly offered to take us to our destination. As it turned out, we had struck gold. The lady running the operation was a freelance guide, so she spoke perfect English and spent the five hours or so telling me all kinds of interesting facts about Malaysia and, in particular, Sabah. Jen, of course, listened to six more hours of Woman’s Hour.

On our first day in Sandakan we headed straight for the Orangutan Sanctuary, where rescued orangutans are rehabilitated before being introduced back into the wild. This gave us the chance to get very close to a few, who, along with the occasional curious wild orangutan, are allowed to wander freely around the grounds. After their feeding time, we went across the road for a sun bear version of the sanctuary, which was just as nice. In the evening we realised that every man about town was sporting a silk pyjama suit, in a myriad of shiny colours – gold and lilac were particularly abundant. On any other day we would have simply assumed that the peacock-ing technique of finding a partner had just found its way to Malaysia, but then we remembered that it was a holiday, so it must have been National Fancy Tracksuit Day.

A real treat awaited us next when we took a 3-Day/2-Night trip to the Kinabatangan river to see various animals in their wild environment. During the trip, we went on three boat rides along the river, two night walks and a day trek through the jungle right behind our hut. At first we relied heavily on our guide to spot all the creatures, but we soon learned what to look out for and were able to chip in with the occasional sighting. Being in the land of orangutans, we were desperate to spot the ‘man of the forest’ in its natural habitat and, amazingly, we didn’t have to wait very long at all before seeing one on our first boat ride, a mere hour since first arriving at the lodge.

Throughout the three days, from the river, we spotted an amazing array of animals: macaques, langur monkeys, proboscis monkeys, two more orangutans (a pregnant mother and her young), many hornbills, a flying squirrel and a few eagles. From land, on our walks, we found a few tiny kingfishers sleeping (think blue and yellow ping-pong ball covered in minuscule feathers and a tiny orange beak), a scorpion and a banded civet cat, along with many weird and wonderful insects. At times we didn’t have to go anywhere at all to see wildlife, as we found ourselves in the presence of monitor lizards, wild pigs and Pygmy squirrels (they are as cute as they sound). The highlight of the trip, and up there with the best experiences of our entire journey so far, came on the second afternoon. Jen and I were walking to the jetty at the lodge, when we heard a rustle in the trees above the huts; we looked up and gasped loudly as a large orangutan was swinging his (later photographic evidence proved that he was indeed a male…) way above our lodge, no more than 10 metres away from where we were standing. I sent Jen to get the others and we all then spent the next 20 minutes watching the big guy in action. After a while he obviously got bored of us, he threw some branches down to the ground, weed and pooed in front of us and started making threatening noises. Wisely, our guides suggested we walk away quietly and left him to it. Later we learnt that this sort of thing only happens a couple of times a year, so we felt incredibly lucky.

To an otherwise unexciting trip through Malaysia, Borneo provided memorable moments that will serve as reminders of how beautiful natural habitats can be. During our time in Sabah we saw first-hand the impact that human development has on such environments, and I was thrilled to hear from Jen that she had been inspired to want to support ecological conservation more in the future.

We are currently on the island of Flores in Indonesia, spending time with some more wildlife and enjoying being ferried around by very accommodating locals dressed as policemen – but that can wait until next time!

The midnight meatballer

196 days after we left the UK, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh at the beginning of August. The weather was terrible throughout our stay, with frequent thunderstorms and downpours often putting a stop to our day trips. Still, armed with emergency ponchos, we managed to make the most of our time with visits to a few museums and memorial sites, all displaying a vast array of biased information and somewhat aggressive propaganda regarding ‘The War’. The most notorious of these were the Cu Chi tunnels, where we learnt about the conditions in which the Vietnamese lived throughout their clash with the Americans – or, as the introductory video called them, the “batch of crazy Devils”. Our guide was a local whose family had directly been involved in the fighting and this was evident from his enthusiasm and pride when describing the horrific ways in which American soldiers were maimed and tortured by the many booby traps. The tour ended with a mad dash through one of the tunnels. Although this had been made wider for tourists, it was very difficult running around in a squat position, gradually getting deeper and deeper underground, with noticeable increases in temperatures and humidity. Despite the questionable methods used, we did learn a lot about the Vietnam War and the horrific consequences that are still felt to this day.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in Ho Chi Minh, though, as we also took the opportunity to sample the famous Vietnamese coffee (condensed milk is key), tried a popular Banh Mi (basically, a sandwich) and experienced numerous near-misses as a result of mopeds being driven on the pavements, which appears to be encouraged. My favourite part was actually seeing a teeny tiny wild hummingbird flying around in the streets one evening, as I had never seen one before.

After the chaos of the city, we took a bus to Can Tho, to have a look at the Mekong Delta. As ever (it seems), the markets were the big deal here. We took a boat ride along the river to a couple of floating marketplaces. Due to the rainy season, they weren’t in full swing, but still interesting to see. Our guide was disappointed for us that the weather was as bad as it was, so she volunteered to take us around another market and bought us a load of fruits to try. Jackfruit and rambutans get my nod of approval. As for Durian, a decisive thumbs down.

Hoping for some relaxation, we flew over to Phu Quoc, a relatively large island to the south of the country. It looked much better in the pictures, as the main beach was pretty dire and town even worse. Food was nice, though, and we had a good time at the smaller beach near our place. By now I expect we are famous on the island, after we made the cut and appeared on some hotel’s page. We are patiently waiting for our first commissions to come through.

Still with Sarah and Kev, we all travelled to Nha Trang for a few days of actual sun and a nicer beach. Both my and Jen’s consecutive birthdays were coming up, so we had booked ourselves into a pretty sweet hotel. They played ‘Happy Birthday’ on the tannoy at breakfast for all to hear and organised a band to sing for us at dinner, both made us feel special and uncomfortable in equal amounts. On the morning we were due to leave we killed the time until our night train by going to a mud spa – never have I felt so clean after being covered in dirt, and walking through water jets so powerful, they were essentially a human car wash.

Other than the obnoxious backpackers who decided that they would get drunk on the train, play drum and bass and talk about their “stories”, the overnight train journey went smoothly and we arrived in Da Nang the next morning. After a short bus ride (a mere hour) we reached Hoi An. The town is really pretty and we happened to visit during the lantern festival, which made for a really nice atmosphere in the evenings. We tried some delicious food that can only be found there (something about a specific water-well) and drank many a fresh beer, which is freshly brewed lager that lacks preservatives and costs a liver-failure-inducing 10p a glass. We bought a few garments (I resisted getting a suit tailored but did take my trousers to be fixed after I got bitten by a small dog…) and spent a lot of time at the beach. We could have stayed a week, but after a few days we hopped onto another train to Hue. The journey was great, with beautiful views of the forests and beaches at the same time.

Hue was largely unexciting and, after a couple of days of doing not much, we waded maniacally through the floodwater that had gathered outside our hotel (to the joy of many locals locals who filmed the whole thing), and took another train over to Dong Hoi, to check out another beast of a cave. We didn’t have it in us to visit more than one, so we chose to go to Paradise Cave, situated in a national park outside the town. Our hotel sorted us out with a nice discount on the entry fee, but something got lost in translation as they told the park in advance that I was born in 1983 and that Jen’s name was actually ‘Marry Asten Katharin’; despite the fact that this information didn’t match our passports (and that I don’t look 33), we were stamped in with our new identities and we went off to explore. The cave was huge and we walked for a kilometre into it, testing our knowledge of stalactites and stalagmites throughout. On the way out, as I waited for Marry to return from the loo, I took part in a photo shoot with some cheerful Vietnamese tourists. They didn’t mess around and knew exactly how they wanted the pictures to look; one woman punched me really hard in the shoulder for not having my thumbs up and the men shouted at me aggressively for standing up (making them look short as a result.) We had booked our next train for the same night and the travel agent assured us that we would be together in the same “cabbage”, which we shared with a friendly Vietnamese man and his two young daughters. Just as we fell asleep, the guy decided to turn on the flood-lights in the cabbage so that he could indulge in his late-night snack. We checked the time, gone midnight, ideal time for loudly slurping on a spicy chicken meatball, clearly.

At about 5am we arrived early in the capital, Hanoi. Understandably it was too early to check in, so we walked over to the nearby lake to check out what everyone was up to. It was packed with people running, stretching, doing yoga, taking part in dance and tai chi classes (or lurking on the sidelines taking part, but just far away enough not to have to pay), playing badminton, fishing and doing all sorts of other activities. The lake itself with the morning mist was beautiful and we were pleased to have made the most of the ridiculously early start to our day. Later on we met up with Sarah and Kev again, this time they brought pals Barry and Maggs with them, who treated us to a great dinner in the old town.

The next morning we said goodbye again and left for our trip to Ha Long Bay. We had decided to splash out on a 4 star cruise, with an amazing boat and delicious food. During the three days we visited caves, beaches and pearl farms (I pointed out to Jen that Samoa is good for pearls, so we’re safe for a while), kayaked around the huge limestones, took part in tai chi classes and spent a lot of our free time admiring the incredible beauty of this place. We felt extremely lucky that we finally got to experience it all.

Upon returning to Hanoi, just before heading to Kuala Lumpur, we had a couple of days to complete our time in Vietnam. We went to see a water puppet show (it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like) and enjoyed the infamous egg coffee, which is a shot of espresso with what tasted and looked like zabaione on top – it was delicious.

After a few weeks in Malaysia, we are now in Indonesia and have worked our way through Java and have finally reached Bali. We’re falling behind a bit, so I’ll get Jen to start working on the next blog soon!

Did you just wee in the oven?

In our last blog post, after continually finding reasons to go back for another few weeks, we finally left Thailand behind and Tommaso, my parents and I flew to our next destination, Luang Prabang in Laos. We knew that Laos has two well known things going for it: fantastic scenery and Beerlao, and neither disappointed. 

For our first adventure we decided to cycle to Tad Thong waterfall, which involved a 6km cycle and a 3km hike. We arrived sodden from a sudden downpour, and hopped into the completely deserted and smaller than expected waterfall for a splash around. As we cycled back we passed what is in fact the actual Tad Thong waterfall, and realised we had waterfalled incorrectly – still, we avoided paying an entrance fee (50p well saved), even though I’m sure the actual Tad Thong is very nice, but can’t say for sure. On the plus side, we found a tiny puppy on our cycle back down so that was good enough for me.

The next day we headed out of town to a rice farm, where we learned about how rice is grown, and had a go at planting some and ploughing the rice paddies with the resident water buffalo Rudolph. The work in the rice paddies is pretty back breaking, and made even harder when Rudolph insists on going off-piste. We finished the day off with some well deserved rice wine and returned to our guesthouse on market street, where the front door opens on to a small side road where each morning from 5am you can buy vegetables, frogs, bats, unidentifiable lumps of meat, a potential but unconfirmed squirrel carcass, or a honeycomb shaped block housing maggots, for when you feel like a snack before dinner. Having purchased precisely nothing in market street, we crossed the Mekong to go hiking in a more sparsely populated nearby island. We were happily ducking under barbed wire and wading through knee-high grass before we spotted some snakes, and someone then pointed out that there are many, many unexploded land mines left in Laos, so we quickly headed back to the path.

The next day we tuk-tukked out of town for some safer fun in the form of Kuang Si waterfall, which was absolutely beautiful. It has gorgeous turquoise water in the various quiet swimming pools, an amazing view when we hiked right up to the top, and as a bonus there’s even a sun bear rescue sanctuary. We spent a few happy hours hiking, swimming and jumping off tree branches until Tommaso got chased away by a large angry crab and I slipped in the mud in my pants whilst getting changed, so we called it a day.

Our next destination was Pak Beng, a tiny village on the Mekong which the slow boats use as a halfway overnight point to Houay Xai, which is a Thai border town and the base for the Gibbon Experience which Tommaso and I did – more on that later. The slow boats are aptly named, and I was lucky enough to have a stomach bug on the day we departed for Pak Beng. I was hoping to spend most of the eight hour journey napping in the luxury of my recycled minivan seat, as it slid around the wooden floor of the boat. Alas it wasn’t to be, as a fellow passenger whipped out a wooden flute and proceeded to play it for six hours, undeterred by his lack of talent or knowledge of any actual songs. After a quick interlude, where I finally managed to drop off, he whipped a large recorder out of his Mary Poppins-esque bag and the uninvited concert continued. Once we arrived, Pak Beng was uneventful aside from a cockroach that somehow ended up down my dad’s shirt one evening, so he jumped up in a panic and whipped it off in the middle of a restaurant, to a crowd of cheering backpackers and a horrified German family. A few days, boats and minivan seats later we arrived in Houay Xai and spent the night in a hut without a sink (funnily enough, not the first time that has happened) before Tommaso and I said goodbye to my parents and took a jeep into the Bokeo national park, deep in the jungle of northern Laos, where the Gibbon Experience takes place. 

The Gibbon Experience was the highlight of Laos for us. We spent three days hiking through the jungle, zip lining high above the canopy and sleeping in a treehouse featuring the most amazing open bathroom, where you showered in rain water whilst looking out over the treetops. Each day our meals and a kettle of boiling water were zip lined in to our treehouse, and we woke to the sound of the gibbons calling each other through the trees. We were even lucky enough to see the gibbons jumping around from branch to branch, and had a wonderful few days with our newfound Australian and Canadian pals. We returned to Houay Xai exhausted, featuring mosquito and leech bites, a wasp sting and caked in mud – especially Tommaso who had borrowed the slippiest hiking shoes ever invented. I, however, had purchased a dashing pair of round-toe rubber shoes for £1.50 at the local newsagent and was very smug as the local guides and I plodded around happily in them, not a slip in sight.

​We worked our way south next, to the town of Vang Vieng, well known for its tubing where you float down the river in an old tractor inner tube. It’s about as safe as it sounds, especially since many people visit the riverside bars as they float down, and there has been a large government crackdown on alcohol sales as there have been a number of deaths. Not feeling the alcoholic gap year vibe, we set off at 9am and had the river all to ourselves which was lovely and peaceful once mum had been fished out of the reeds where she managed to get beached immediately. We emerged relatively unscathed, with only one bleeding leg and mild sunburns and headed straight to a bakery for some well deserved cake. In the afternoon we visited the Blue Lagoon, which turned out to be neither blue nor a lagoon, so after a quick dip we climbed the steep steps up to a large cave. My parents and I chose not to venture too far in as we only had flip flops, but Tommaso decided to hike on with a guy he met in the cave, and disappeared into the pitch black. He reappeared ten minutes later, upon realising the guy was both drunk and super weird. You probably have to be super weird for cave hiking to be your drunk activity of choice.

The next day took us onwards to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Unfortunately I suffered an ant infestation in a packet of mints in my handbag, so emerged from the minivan covered in ant bites and swatting them off me for hours to come. We only spent one night in Vientiane, and it wasn’t especially memorable aside from some confusion at a restaurant where there was a contraption in the men’s bathroom which had potential to be some kind of artisanal urinal, but also looked like a clay oven. I even nipped in to have a quick look, but no one was sure and Tommaso had already weed in it, so we made a hasty exit. 

We rented a jeep for the next leg of our journey, and drove to the village of Kong Lor, known for the Kong Lor cave, having a quick break on the way for a noodle soup and a toilet stop where the flush involved a fireman’s helmet and a trough of water. Resourceful. The cave itself was fantastic – it’s eerie and quiet, and only partly lit, so we floated through parts of it in a boat in the pitch black, which made me a bit nervous as I had been told it is home to 30cm wide spiders, but thankfully they didn’t make their presence known. We spent the afternoon playing with our homestay’s resident kitten, Kellogg, which was all fun and games until the owner told us the villagers had eaten her mother. Moving on, we took a wooden canoe out to the beautifully clear nearby river, and had a refreshing swim. Unfortunately we misjudged it as we got back in the boat, and the back began taking on water until half the boat was underwater and sinking fast, and a lightning storm soon began, because that’s just how life works. After much hauling and panicking, we managed to get the boat back on to the bank and rowed back as fast as we could. Due to the storm, the current had picked up, meaning that we ended up further down the far bank than we had anticipated and the boat, again, began taking on water. After dad had helpfully hopped out of the boat and grabbed hold of a 30cm long piece of rope that was attached to nothing, whilst proclaiming ‘Don’t worry! I’ll just pull us in!’, before slipping on the muddy bank and being unable to neither climb the bank nor get back in the boat, we finally made it to shore. Tommaso then received an electric shock in the shower from the lightning storm, which seemed a fitting end to the day.

After a couple more days of travel and random small towns, we arrived at our final destination in Laos, which was Don Khone, one of the cluster of 4000 islands on the Cambodian border. All got off to a good start when Tommaso and my dad got too close to a goose, which resulted in them being chased down the road by all of his goose pals and a few extra ducks for good measure. Geese aside, we spent a great few days here cycling, unsuccessfully dolphin spotting, finding various oversized critters in unlikely places and avoiding the many children driving motorbikes and sidecars around willy nilly. 

We had a great time in Laos, even though it can be difficult to get around at times, and you never seem to receive the correct change, it is so beautifully green and full of wonderful wildlife. However, with our visas on the brink of expiry, we flew on to Ho Chi Minh city, to begin exploring the next country on our travels: Vietnam. 

Shake your banana!

 Once we got back to Bangkok after a fantastic few weeks in Myanmar, we weren’t content with having only explored southern Thailand, so we headed north to Chiang Rai. The town itself doesn’t have a huge number of attractions to offer, but we still really enjoyed our time there. We split our time up with a few different day trips, the highlight being the White Temple just outside the town. It’s still under construction, with a lot more work to be done; nonetheless, it is easily one of the most amazing temples we have seen so far on our travels. It’s a bit of a confusing mix of traditional and pop-art, with statues of robots, skulls and zombies surrounding the main building. I’m sure that we could have figured out the symbolism and meaning behind it all, but who has the time for that? When finished, this will look incredible and will be a must-see for anyone visiting northern Thailand. For now, the only thing that is totally finished is the toilets, which are completely gold and the most ornate we’ll probably ever use (for toilets to get a mention, they must be good…)

Our other big day trip was a long cycle out to Singha Park, a large organic farm/leisure park a few kilometres out of the town, owned by Singha breweries. Sadly, the namesake lager was not pouring out of the fountains, neither did it fill a small lake in which you could swim and drink at the same time, as one would reasonably expect. So we settled for a cycle around the park (because the 11km to get there, plus an extra six for me as I rushed back to get my forgotten wallet, weren’t enough), which took us on a 10km route around tea plantations, lakes and orchards. Again, the site is not completely finished, there is still a lot of work in progress, but I expect it’ll soon be another good attraction. Basically, if you go to Chiang Rai in a year or two, you’re in for a treat. We finished the tour by feeding the park’s giraffes some bananas, as you do, and another 11km ride back to the town, where we realised Jen had ended up horribly sunburnt with a trendy tank-top burn.

The last noteworthy activity was a furiously efficient cycle tour around the city, fitting in 3 temples and a visit to the hill tribe museum (super dull) between breakfast and lunch – sightseeing done right. The highlight was seeing the near-perfect replica of the original Emerald Buddha, which now sits in Bangkok. 

We left for Chiang Mai in the morning, excited about the city and its reputation for good food. Jen was especially looking forward to it, as there is an abundance of vegetarian and vegan restaurants that cater to her fussy needs. On our second night we walked through the Saturday Night Walking Street Market (or some combination of those words), which was super busy, but great fun. We spent a few hours eating, shopping, eating, drinking wonderfully cheap lychee wine and eating. Jen also bought herself a fetching giraffe face mask (which she has since worn only once in public) in order to take her Thai cultural integration to the next level. On another occasion we also visited the night market on the other side of town. It’s not as good and mainly consists of stalls selling fake everythings. However we did bump into some friends from home, Vicki and Nick, before stumbling upon a bar with a local band playing heavily Thai-accented western hits with great enthusiasm, which we joined in with for a while. Here, a drunk local bloke generously filled up our beers and welcomed us to Chiang Mai at least a dozen times throughout the set, before wobbling away precariously on his moped.

We actually didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about with Chiang Mai – the restaurants are pretty good and it is an easy place to visit, but we did run out of things to do, so decided to visit the 3D art museum, which turned out to be the best idea ever. We spent a good 3 hours pretending to run away from dinosaurs, flying on giant paper planes, posing for magazine covers and being eaten by giant crocs. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, so we excercised our artistic freedom fully, rolling around on floors and jumping in the air, with only minimal judging from other visitors. The afternoon was then sadly spent at the dentist, as I somehow managed to crack a tooth, but it was the best dentist I’ve ever been to, despite the weird rubber shoes they made us both wear.

After a few months of moving from city to city every few days, lugging heavy backpacks and trekking around towns to try to fill an endless quota of sightseeing, we thought we deserved a famous Thai massage (no, not THAT kind). We were spoilt for choice, but finally decided to go for a parlour run by female ex-convicts who have been re-trained as masseuses. We managed to resist asking them what they had ‘been in for’, donned our fetching nurse-style scrubs and enjoyed the massage, making the occasional pained groan. We were twisted, beaten, stretched and even sat on, and by the end felt like new people, with the added bonus of not coming out covered in oil as we had done after our Indian massages in Thekkady.

The week or so we spent in Chiang Mai was nice, but ready for a change of scenery, we headed to Pai. To get there we took a minivan that took us up through the 762 stomach-wrenching turns up the mountain in just 4 hours. The small town itself is OK, it’s mostly restaurants and hotels, catering to travellers who like to show off what free-spirits they are by not wearing any shoes. Luckily we were able to rent a moped (after a quick, haphazard lesson given to me by the hotel owner) and get out of town to see the sights (whilst wearing our shoes). We visited a couple of waterfalls, a huge white Buddha statue and took in the breathtaking views along the way. By the end, the hotel owner’s dog had taken quite a liking to us and tried to force herself on the bike every time we went out for a ride. In all, we had a relaxing few days in our riverside bungalow in Pai, and even treated ourselves to a fry-up before we reluctantly left.

Every Thai person we spoke to recommended going to Mae Hong Son instead of Pai, so with time on our side, we hopped in another minivan and were driven through another few hundred turns and arrived at the even-smaller town with excitement. It took very little time to realise that the reason that more locals like Mae Hong Son is that there are no barefoot travellers around, but this is also unfortunately coupled with a huge lack of things to do, and we did get a little bored. Most places were shut due to the low season, which meant a serious lack of energy around the place. We did manage a sunset hike to the local temple on the hill, and the sunset was actually the best I think I’ve ever seen, but aside from that, we were happy to bid farewell to Mae Hong Son.

To finish off our time up north, we headed back to Chiang Mai. Not fancying a 7+ hour road trip, with more than 1000 tight turns, Jen suggested we fly. The flight was the quickest ever, at about 30 minutes, and we got from hotel to hotel in about 2 hours. Bangkok Airways even found time to give us free popcorn on the flight (great), we well as a mushroom purée sandwich (not great). 

Back in Chiang Mai, we were able to meet up with Sophie and Cat, a couple of friends from Bath who happened to be on holiday and made the effort to come meet us before we left. We also managed to squeeze in a cooking class, which was great fun. We were taken to a market to buy our ingredients and then over to the school’s organic farm, where we learnt about various vegetables and spices that they use regularly in Thailand; all forgotten now, of course. We cooked a myriad of traditional dishes and they all tasted delicious, ending with a banana coconut pudding – the main thing I took away from making the pudding was being shouted at to ‘shake your banana’ repeatedly. I’m sure that will come in handy in my culinary future. The class was the perfect way to end our time in the north, and the next day we hopped on a plane back to Bangkok (where else?) to meet Sarah and Kev, who had just started their own big trip. We’ve been together for the last month or so and have been exploring what Laos has to offer, but that can wait a few weeks. Until next time!

Attack of the Mantis 

Our last update saw us reach the city of endless possibilities that is Bangkok. Whilst there is little that we enjoy more than wandering aimlessly around the numerous malls and food markets, with 10 days to go before we were due to leave for Myanmar, we decided it would be more productive to fill the time with a short tour of the surrounding region instead.

We started with a visit to Kanchanaburi, the site of the ‘death railway’ and the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. After the trip to the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, we decided we weren’t tough enough to endure another round of emotional museums and memorials. Instead, we (and a hundred or so Chinese tourists) settled for a walk along the bridge, which was as nice as it could be, given the history behind it. With that done, we proceeded onto Ayutthaya, a small town north of Bangkok , which is littered with ruins and old temples. The temples of Angkor in Siem Reap are a hard act to follow, but we still enjoyed our few days here, the highlight being Wat Mahathat and the peculiar Buddha head wrapped in tree roots. 

Our last stop on this mini-tour was originally going to be Khao Yai National Park, but our hopes of going quickly faded after a bit of research revealed our budget couldn’t quite stretch enough. Instead, we booked a minivan to take us back down to Bangkok. Our hotel gave us a couple of options and we asked which one of the two would be quickest, and were told: “Same, Same……But one is much slower.” Most cryptic. As soon as we arrived back in Bangkok we hit the Train Night Market as I was in desperate need of a hair cut. My barber turned out to be a ladyboy, who spoke no English, handed me a menu and went on to cut my hair in a completely different style to what I had asked. I pretended to be pleased, and took part in a small photoshoot, which made them happy, and carried on with our evening looking like a 1930s moonshine smuggler. Luckily, it turns out Jen has a talent for hair cuts, so order was restored the next morning in the makeshift salon of our hostel bathroom, with a pair of nail scissors. 

Next stop was the airport as we set off for Myanmar. Unfortunately a large queue was created at checkin as everyone had to wait while the check- clerk stared at my passport photo and tried to work out which celebrity he thought I looked like. Eventually he decided it was Chris Evans (luckily as in Captain America as opposed to the ginger one from Top Gear). Once he had confirmed with his colleagues that this was indeed the right celebrity lookalike, and Jen and I were forced to agree too, we were allowed to check in and were on our way. Our trip in Myanmar got off to a bumpy start, we landed safely but only after half an hour of the worst turbulence we have ever experienced. I was sat between a very jittery Jen (who, I’m sure, was silently saying her good-byes to everyone she loved) and a nervous father of two, who managed to scare his kids enough to induce in them a permanent fear of flying. There were times when the bumps almost threw us off our seats, but eventually we landed safe and sound and many passengers enthusiastically applauded with a newfound appreciation for land travel, I’m sure.

From the moment we arrived we found similarities between Yangon and many cities we visited in India, which wasn’t surprising given its vicinity to the country and the number of Indian ex-pats who live there. Every man abided to the local uniform of a Lyongi (a long sarong style skirt), checked shirt and a pair of flip-flops; the pavements were filled with stalls selling hot chai, fried samosas and various concoctions of betel nut, paan tobacco and other ingredients undoubtedly great for oral health; and around every corner were curry houses selling wide ranges of (extremely) oily dishes. We didn’t fall in love with Yangon, but we had a great time at the Shwedagon Pagoda and were very impressed with the sheer scale and intricacy of the whole complex surrounding it. We also visited a couple of other pagodas and the big market – basically a congregation of jewellers and textiles shops, which turned out to be a very convenient place for my flip-flops to break, as I was able to send Jen, armed with her picture book, to find a safety pin to rescue my flip-flop for the time being. Although the stall-keepers took it in turns to laugh both at me and at Jen and her book (which has pictures of everything from fried eggs to safety pins to cows), I suspect that they were secretely impressed by our resourcefulness. They actually agreed to only sell her a single safety pin as opposed to the standard pack of twenty if they could call their friends over to laugh some more at her book, so everyone was a winner. To avoid the worst of that day’s monsoon downpour, we finished the day sheltering in a donut shop, while “Last Christmas” was played at full volume and a drunk man kept shining his torch in our faces. Perfect. Funnily enough, it seems George Michael is pretty big in Asia – not a week goes by without a spot of ‘Careless Whisper’ piping up somewhere.

Next up was NyaungShwe, the town that would act as our base for Inle Lake. To get there we caught the 12-hour sleeper train to Thazi, much to the delight of the 14-year-old porters, who took the opportunity to have a photoshoot with us as soon as we boarded. It was a reasonably comfortable ride and the scenery was actually very nice. At 5am we reached our stop only to find out that our next train was delayed by three hours, to 10am. We patiently waited at the station, observing the regular herds of goats and cows passing by, and eventually boarded our train to Shwe Nyaung (which, confusingly, is the gateway town to NyaungShwe). Reminiscent of the flight into Yangon, the first part of this train journey was similar to a roller coaster ride, the carriages swung sideways to such angles that we were genuinely worried it would all topple over and the bumps were so big that at one point our bodies actually lost all contact with our seats as we were all thrown in the air. The journey took 10 hours, but it was the most scenic train ride I think I’ve ever taken. Occasionally we would stop to offload copious amounts of veg (there was far more veg than passengers), and for a chance to get off and stretch our legs. However, the stops were short and I almost got left behind as I went off to buy some drinks and the train had departed without me. I legged it across the platform and jumped onto the nearest door, which was locked. After a few seconds of amusement, the train police felt sorry for me and finally let me back in to enjoy the rest of the ride from inside the carriage.

NyaungShwe was a nice little town, very relaxed and surrounded by green mountains. On the first sunny day we wasted no time and took a boat tour around Inle Lake. The whole lake is huge, it took an hour just to get to the centre of it. We started off with a visit to a silversmith and the ‘Long neck women’, followed by a stop at the Innthein Temple. This was situated on top of a small hill and surrounded by hundreds of Stoopas, it was beautiful and unlike any temple we had seen. After a very scenic lunch on a floating restaurant, we finished the tour with a visit through the floating gardens, where tomatoes and other veggies are grown to then be sold at the nearby towns, and watched the skilful fishermen display their famous leg-rowing technique. We also made sure not miss the cat monastery, where a couple of monks had trained their cats to jump through hoops in exchange for treats. Unfortunately, the cats are now retired so we settled for watching them sleep instead – not quite as impressive, but Jen was pretty excited about the piles of sleeping kittens nonetheless. We didn’t get a chance to go on a bike ride in the scenic surrounding countryside as the storms became heavier and more frequent every day. Still, we had a great time and, as our night bus left the town for Bagan, we were sad to leave.

The done thing in Bagan, to visit the temples in style, is to hire a hot air balloon at dawn and float around until the sun rises. Unfortunately, as we visited in the rainy season, the balloon rides stopped due to the unpredictable weather. Instead, we hired an electric bicycle (essentially a moped, with pedals that were tied up, so you couldn’t use them if even if you wanted to), and we were free to wander the huge plains of Bagan at our own pace. I was a bit wobbly a first, which didn’t help Jen’s nerves, but quickly got the hang of it, and we enjoyed travelling around this way much more than by tuk-tuk or taxi. Most of the temples are not particularly memorable, but when you climb up high and get a good panoramic view of the whole area, you are left speechless. On our last day we left so early that it was still dark and ventured into the fields in the hope of reaching a certain temple in time for sunrise. What should have taken us 10 minutes took almost 45, as we ended up in people’s backyards, took many wrong turns and got stuck in a muddy river bed. Many sunrises we have seen have not been worth the effort, but when we eventually reached our destination we were rewarded with the most beautiful and breathtaking sight. Then, as if our time in Bagan couldn’t get any better, on our last evening as we were sitting in a restaurant having dinner, a large praying mantis jumped on Jen’s head and began crawling through her hair. Jen jumped up and screamed, the many waitresses ran around flapping at her head and everyone else looked quietly horrified. It was truly fantastic.

We only had a few days in Mandalay, our last stop in Myanmar, the first of which we spent at the U-Bein bridge, the longest teakwood bridge in the world (I think) at 1.2km in length. To get there from the city we took a Song Thaew (a public pick-up van) that was too full for us to sit inside, so we ended up riding on the roof with a toothless monk, an enthusiastic old man and some veg (always). We reached the bridge and organised a man to pick us up with his boat on the other side of the lake in time for sunset, allowing us a lot of time to leisurely walk the dilapidated wooden structure. There isn’t much else around there, so with time to spare we walked back with the hope to meet our boatie on the main side. Unfortunately, he had already set off and we reluctantly walked back the length of the bridge again to catch our ride. The sunset was mostly covered by clouds, but that didn’t spoil the experience as we watched people go about their things and monks having photo shoots on their iPhones.

The next day we visited a nearby temple, Mahamuni, which housed a big old golden Buddha that receives constant gold foil applications from devotees. As we admired the statue a monk approached us and asked to take us on a tour of the temple so that he could practice his English, which was truly terrible. He was quite informative though, and we did occasionally make out the odd fact here and there. He was very keen for us to rub our hands on the various joints and limbs of the sacred statues to bring luck to our own corresponding body parts and made sure to tell us the exact weight in kilograms of every monument in the building. There were many monuments. As nice as it was, it was getting a bit tiring, so we were pleased when our time had come to return to our motorbike driver to head back to the hotel. The next day we left for the airport and by early afternoon we were back to our favourite Asian megalopolis. We’re currently in the north of Thailand, exploring the more mountainous side of the country before we head back to the capital to meet up with Kev and Sarah (Mama and Papa Rawls), on the first stage of their own adventure. More soon!

All aboard the boiled egg express

Since our last blog, we have spent three weeks exploring Cambodia. On arrival in Phnom Penh, we were immediately warned by almost everyone we spoke to that we should avoid shoulder bags or handbags and only wear rucksacks, never use our phones in the street and not wear visible necklaces as these are often torn off by passing motorcycle thieves. This didn’t make for a relaxing start, but we settled in once we got chatting to the family at our guesthouse, and the owner’s elderly mother kept quietly handing me mangoes and wandering away without explanation. Unfortunately there was a small colony of rats that lived in the ceiling above our room, who were especially active at night, but you can’t win ’em all.

We spent our first day visiting a small local museum, of which the highlight was the air conditioning, before heading off to visit S-21, a high school turned torture centre at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and the Killing Fields. Both of these places were interesting, but difficult to see. S-21 contains lots of photographs and personal stories of those who were killed in the genocide, and the torture rooms and cells are largely unchanged. Similarly, the Killing a Fields is a chilling place to visit, and as we walked around the Khmer Rouge execution site, we were reminded just how recently the genocide that killed two million people took place, as you have to step around fragments of bone and clothing that still wash to the surface each time it rains. It wasn’t an easy day, but I think everyone should try and visit when they are in Cambodia, to understand how recently these horrors took place and so that they may never happen again.

Sensing that we weren’t full of joy on our return to the guesthouse, the elderly mother silently handed us a few more mangoes, which did help a bit, and we headed off to treat ourselves to some burritos in a restaurant set up in someone’s garage space – a testament to how stingy we have become. I’m probably not selling it well, but they were so good we came back again for more.

Our next stop was Kampot, a sleepy riverside town in the south of Cambodia. After a few sleepless nights in Phnom Penh thanks to the athletic rats above us, we treated ourselves to a colonial guesthouse where we even got two pillows each, so we were living the high life. Our daily walk into the town meant using a closed bridge that’s no longer in use, and blocked off at the far side, so you have to climb through the railings at the side of the bridge, shuffle along the rusty pipe at the side of it, and try not to fall in the river. You could walk an extra twenty minutes along to the new bridge, but there’s no fun in that, so elderly locals with shopping, shoe sellers and nervous tourists all negotiate the clamber over the old bridge. Tommaso helped some kids lift their heavy bicycles through the side of the bridge one day, which they all found very exciting and were still shouting thank yous as they headed off on their way.

 The next day we decided to do some cycling of our own to visit the nearby villages. The locals did a lot of smiling, waving and laughing at how sweaty we were. We took a coconut break, paying 30p each for coconuts that we drank and then cracked open for a quick snack. The owner had a good laugh at Tommaso for not using the machete to craft himself a small coconut-shell spoon to eat the coconut flesh with (what an idiot). We cycled back past a couple sweeping up the shrimp they had been drying on their driveway (hygiene is for the weak), and headed out to a local ‘cinema’ where you can choose your own film. It was a little room painted black where you lounge around on sofas and they bring you noodles – slightly strange, but you can’t go wrong with Finding Nemo. Our last morning was spent paddle-boarding through the mangroves on the Mekong, and we decided to test our filter bottles by drinking it too. Unsurprisingly it tasted terrible, but neither of us got ill, so that’s a small win.

Our next stop was Kep, another sleepy riverside town famous for crab and peppercorns (and both were delicious). We stayed in a little round hut in a lovely quiet garden, and the owner also had two tiny puppies so life was pretty good. From here we took a wooden boat out to Rabbit Island, a rural island with a disappointing lack of rabbits. Apparently it’s shaped like a rabbit, which is how it earnt it’s nickname, but whoever decided that definitely needs to go to Specsavers. We stayed in a large bungalow a few metres from the sea, and lounged in our hammocks drinking beer (only for the budget, of course, as it was cheaper than water). Once all the lights on the island went out (which didn’t take long as there’s only two hours’ worth of electricity per day), we waded out into the sea to swirl around amongst the amazing luminous plankton, which sparkled in the water. This was followed by a bit of a fiasco at 3am, when a kitten jumped through our window and ran around the bungalow. The best kind of rude awakening.

After many a bus ride, involving loud Cambodian karaoke (nope) and locals eating bags of boiled eggs (even more nope), we arrived in Kratie, a town in eastern Cambodia. On our first night there was a sudden monsoon thunderstorm, so we got trapped in a bar (shame) and watched the owner descend into panic trying to bring all the furniture in, before he gave up, got undressed and went out the front to take a shower instead. Resourceful. Unfortunately when we got back to the hotel, I found that some of my knickers had flown off of the balcony (backpacker laundry problems), and were nowhere to be seen. There was a potential sighting at the bottom of the pool, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask the staff to get the giant net to check, so they remain victims of the monsoon. The next day we travelled to the nearby village of Kampi, as this is the reason we visited Kratie – it is the best place to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins. We took a small wooden boat out on the Mekong, and we were lucky enough to see dolphins popping up for air every minute, sometimes in pairs. It was a fantastic morning, and we were lucky to be there in low season when there was barely another boat in sight. Tommaso got so excited about it that when we got back to the hotel, he jumped in the pool and did his best dolphin impersonation, which resulted in him hitting his nose on the bottom of the pool, and it was swollen for the rest of the week.

On that note, we decided it was time to move on to Siem Reap. We booked a minivan through the hotel, who assured us it would be quick and comfortable, and obviously it turned out to be neither. Our 15 seater van kept stopping to pick up families, stragglers and boxes of eggs until there were 27 of us wedged in. On the plus side, there was literally no space to flip the screen down at the front, so we had to forego the karaoke, and Tommaso’s seat buddy began the journey by trimming his nose hair, which kept me amused. He also taught Tommaso some numbers in Khmer (Cambodian), played some love song videos on his phone, which he then replayed if he suspected Tommaso wasn’t paying attention, and wanted to practice his pronounciation of the phrase ‘her majesty the queen’, which he clearly feels he will need often. Once he had that down, he moved on to make Tommaso repeat the words ‘unemployment’ and ‘without love’ in both French and English, to the hilarity of everyone in the van.  This left everyone in such high spirits that one guy played the Titanic theme song three times in a row, which generated some applause and then everyone sang along. Seven hours later (and not a minute too soon) we arrived in Siem Reap. 

We spent a lovely few days exploring the temples of Angkor, and especially liked Ta Prohm, the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed, which is overgrown with tree roots, and Bayon, a large temple with faces carved into all sides of the stone. We tried cycling out to Angkor one day, but it turned out to be a 26km cycle in 38 degree heat, where I had a small collision with a maniac on a moped, and we then unknowingly left our bikes on some red ant nests and had to try and shake them all off afterwards, so we took tuk tuks from then on. 

We found ourselves with a spare afternoon once we’d finished templing, and we had read about the Angkor Hospital for Children, which is based in central Siem Reap and is always very much in need of blood donations. The ethos of this hospital is that every child should have access to quality medical care, so if a family is unable to pay, the child receives treatment for free. I was nervous about donating, firstly because I am a serial fainter when it comes to needles and veins and the such like, and secondly in case the hospital wasn’t of a good standard – we even took our own needles, just in case. However the hospital was clean, and a new, sterile needle is used for each patient. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and the doctor only laughed at me a little bit for being so nervous, so if you’re aged 18-60 and find yourself at a loose end in Siem Reap for half an hour, there’s a free tshirt in it for you!

As our time in Cambodia drew to an end, we decided we should try a couple of the local delicacies we had missed, so we treated ourselves to a platter for dinner, made up of tempura tarantula, silkworm and cricket curry, flying ant spring rolls, a fire ant and pesto pastry and a spider, scorpion and water beetle skewer. It was all quite tasty and fairly inoffensive, except the tarantula (which only Tommaso was brave enough to eat), which was still hairy. 

The next morning we had to take another series of buses (always) to cross the border and get back to Bangkok. The first couple of buses were tourist buses, decorated inside with paisley curtains, which one poor passenger accidentally pulled off when he was trying to get his rucksack down. Naturally, we had to pull over and wait for half an hour so that driver could tell him off thoroughly and get out his screwdriver to fix the curtain before he could consider driving any further. Once we walked over the border to Thailand, we avoided the next tourist minivan in search of a ‘casino bus’ that we had read about. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, so they have built huge casinos just over the Cambodian border, and these casinos put on a load of buses every day to ferry Thai gamblers to and fro. They are huge double deckers, decorated like party buses and each one has a ‘bus boss’ who herds everyone on, sorts out their seats and gives out free water. They welcomed us on, charging us half as much as the cramped tourist bus, and along with our elderly Thai gambler pals, we headed back to Bangkok in comfort, but still surrounded by boiled eggs. We now have a week to spend exploring in central Thailand, before we travel to Myanmar. More soon!