Warning 1: This is a long one From Kuala Lumpur we travelled to Singapore by bus…well, luxury coach actually. We used good old Trip Advisor to choose a good company to not only get us… More
From Koh Phi Phi, we got a ferry to Krabi mainland; we had been told the ferries had the tendency to be a bit rough and sea sick inducing, so I dosed up on motion sickness tablets and pretty much snoozed the whole journey. It was the type of nap where you wake up with a creased face. We were greeted off of the ferry by a minibus which would take ferry passengers to their respective hostels and hotels. We piled ourselves and our luggage on board and set off. It didn’t take long for us to realise that the driver was living out a failed formula one dream by driving a minibus like a complete lunatic. He was bouncing up and down on his seat and laughing like some kind of deranged person at the horrified gasps from his passengers. He drove at a million miles an hour, narrowly swerving – and only just missing every bus, bike and car in his path. A couple who were sat at the back called for him to stop as they had spotted their hotel, he obliged by screeching to a drastic halt.
While we were stationary – and despite no one on the bus knowing if they were anywhere near their hotels, we all disembarked in favour of walking with our luggage in the heat to find our accommodations, instead of staying on the bus. Naturally our hostel was back up the hill we had just hurtled down. We found it pretty easily – if not a little sweaty, and checked in. It was modern, clean and provided a free BBQ dinner. The highlight for me though, was that the beds had privacy curtains; it’s funny how something as small as a curtain around your bed when staying in a dorm feels like a total luxury. Oh, and another bonus (which was to become a curse), was that we were right by a Starbucks and a McDonalds.
We decided that we would have a chilled rest of the day; we checked out the beach, got a McDonald’s and enjoyed being spectators to giant Jenga at the hostel that evening over BBQ’d corn on the cob. Travel days are always pretty chilled, so it was a great start to Krabi – and thanks to my privacy curtain blocking out the constant on and off of the main lights, I had a great sleep too.
The next day however, we awoke to a now unfamiliar sound …RAIN.
Now, rain in England is to be expected; it’s a total nuisance but you can still go about your day equipped with a brolly. Rain in South East Asia is less forgiving; when it rains, it POURS. This rain just did not let up, even when the black clouds had seemingly vanished, the rain continued to fall from what looked like clear skies. We popped out at one point and got so drenched that my dress doubled in weight and was sticking to me in a most unflattering fashion. That was the first and last time we attempted to combat the downpour. We didn’t know what to do; here we are on the other side of the world with so much to see and do, but in that weather there was just no way we could enjoy anything. So, the afore mentioned Starbucks and McDonald’s became an all to consistent part of our days in rainy Krabi; they were dry, familiar and equipped with yumminess and free wifi – but there were pros and cons. Pro; we were able to take the time to sort out our budgets, dates and route for the second half of our trip from a comfortable Starbucks sofa. Con; that came hand in hand with spending the entire day’s budget on two coffees. As for McDonald’s, we ate more chicken nuggets during our few days in Krabi than I ever would in a year at home. We therefore enforced a ban on both maccies and starbs for the sake of our waistlines and budget.
But who were we kidding? I’m sat here writing this blog with a Starbucks Cappuccino in hand. (It’s the thought that counts.)
Our next stop was Koh Tao, via another surprisingly comfortable ferry ride. Now, I was slightly sceptical about Koh Tao; I was expecting an island ruined by tourism and the aftermath of the nightlife scene. Also, before coming away, we (stupidly) watched a documentary called ‘Murder in Paradise’, whereby the mafia – who are also the police, go around murdering western tourists on Koh Tao. But anyway, here we were. On arrival, we were greeted by a member of staff from the hostel we had booked; he had a sign with our names, and a T-shirt branded with the hostel logo – this is the kind of efficiency I like in my life. He apologised profusely that he was parked up a small hill and not right by the pier, helped us with our bags and drove like a sane human all the way to the hostel. He set the tone for our time in Koh Tao. During the short journey, I stared out of the window, taking in my surroundings. I knew straight away that I was going to love it there.
After the simple transfer from Krabi to Koh Tao, we were already in great spirits and they were lifted even further when we arrived at our newly opened hostel. New hostels are always a bit of a risk as there are often very few reviews, but more often than not, these risks have paid off – and new usually equals clean. First things first, they should drop the ‘s’ and be referred to as a hotel; this place was absolute perfection. It was nicer – and cleaner than a lot of hotels we have stayed in, and had a boutique feel. It was as if an IKEA showroom had been dropped on paradise. There were a few common areas; a fully equipped bar, a chill out room complete with games and bean bags, and a panoramic balcony surrounding each floor of the building, looking out over the luscious green hills of Koh Tao. They also provided a free breakfast buffet and made the most amazing fruit smoothies – which we decided would undo all of the McDonald’s we had eaten in Krabi. On top of it all, the staff could not do enough for us; from recommending sights, to booking transport and also remembering our names and preferences. I did not want to leave.
I know I sound like some kind of keen bean estate agent, but when you’re constantly moving around, it’s amazing how important a clean, comfortable base is – and what a difference it makes to your experience of that place.
Anyway, of course Koh Tao had a lot more to offer than accommodation. We had left the rain in Krabi and the sun was definitely making up for it on the island – so we decided to have a day of just enjoying the sun. Although we both love the beach; the combination of sweat, suncream and sand is sometimes a bit much, so we wanted to find a pool we could relax by – preferably with a view. I researched public pools and pulled up a hotel who allowed non guests to pay a fee and enjoy the hotel facilities for the day. Perfect. The lovely driver from the hostel took us there and we headed up to the pool. What we saw next was the stuff of dreams; it was an infinity pool hanging over the hillside above the sea. All we could see was the turquoise of the pool blending into the deep blue of the sea. We were pretty high up and the view down to the sea was amazing; even from that height, you could make out every rock on the sea bed through the crystal clear water. And the best part was; we were the only ones there. We spent the day alternating between sunbathing and swimming – only interrupted by a Pad Thai and a couple of Chang Beers. It was the most relaxing day, and I just could not take my eyes off of the view. We stayed for the sunset and then made our way back to the hostel; totally relaxed and a little bit browner.
The next day, we headed to ‘Shark Bay’ – we had been recommended it by a friend due to it’s quieter beach, clear shallow waters and good snorkelling. So, off we went. After walking for about half an hour, it seemed that the entire way had been an ascent – and it felt we were getting further from the sea. Anyway, we continued on our mission and began to see signs for ‘Shark Bay’ – finally! We gained some speed at the prospect of being able to submerge our sweat drenched selves in the sea. The signs lead us through a small woods – with no path or steps, to a bay about three metres wide, surrounded by huge rocks. Is this it? We both stood still, silent and confused for a while. No. This was not it. The signs we had followed had lead us to a VIEW of Shark Bay. From where we were stood, we could see the bay perfectly …the only problem was that it was on the opposite side of the island with a vast amount of sea, rocks and potential (probably not) sharks between us and it. We had gone the complete wrong way. We were both out of breath, tomato faced and absolutely saturated in sweat; on top of that, we were now further from our destination than when we had started.
After a lot of groaning, stopping for breath and avoiding the subject of our consistent routing failures, we were on the right track. Typically, that track took us right back past our hostel – the very place we had set off from in the first place. It was only about ten minutes from there. Finally I could see the glistening of the sea through the trees and focussed on that rather than the burn from my thigh muscles and the sun. As we got closer to the sea, the only directions seemed to point to resorts or apartments and after a bit of back and forth, we figured out that the only way to see shark bay, was if you were a guest at one of the luxury resorts who have collectively bought the whole beach. It had taken our entire morning and all of our energy to get there, so we reluctantly paid one of the hotels for the privilege of SITTING ON THE BEACH and made our way down. Despite our disaster our journey, it was so worth it. The water was shallow and clear, the sand soft and white, and the beach was not crowded at all. We both got straight in the water to cool off and were immediately surrounded by hundreds of little fish friends – no sharks to be seen though. We spent the day swimming, reading, people watching, and marvelling at yet another beautiful view. That night we headed to the beach nearest to our hostel, grabbed dinner and a few drinks, and watched a fire show while the sun set over the sea. In the end, it was an absolutely perfect day.
The rest of our time in Koh Tao consisted predominantly of beaches, views, swimming and sunsets. The island totally lived up to its hype and I’m so glad we went. I can see why so many westerners have ended up staying there to open up hostels, bars and diving schools – the whole island boasts a chilled atmosphere, stunning beaches, and friendly people. All that combined with our amazing hostel, meant that we had a perfect few days.
We ended up extending our time there by an additional night as James suggested it would be good to be there for Thai New year or ‘Songkran’ – instead of travelling on that day. I agreed that this was a great idea. However; google and James must have had a slight misunderstanding, because Thai New Year was a day later than he thought, so we did end up travelling on New Year. However, Koh Tao are currently experiencing a water shortage and were therefore not allowed to celebrate in the traditional way, so perhaps it was a silver lining that we had to leave.
We didn’t miss out on the celebrations though – but I’ll save that for next time.
I already can’t wait to tell you about Koh Samui!
We flew from Chiang Mai to Phuket, where we landed in the early hours of the morning thanks to James’ dodgy booking. We stayed at a hostel next to the airport for the night so that we could get a good sleep and then travel into the town the following day to find the hostel we had originally booked. After a surprisingly refreshing sleep, we got up and headed to the bus stop (aka roadside) with all our luggage, ready to flag down a bus into the main town. The only information the receptionist of the hostel gave us, was that the bus stops outside of 7/11 supermarket. However; there are 7/11’s every few metres, we didn’t know the bus number or colour – and we also started to wonder whether she had meant opposite or outside 7/11. So after about 20minutes of faked optimism from both of us, we aborted the mission and grabbed a taxi straight to our hostel. We were able to check in early which was lucky, but that is where our luck ended in Phuket. Our dorm looked like a prison cell and smelled like damp. We had only booked three nights, and moving would have been a total faff and expense, so we decided to stick it out. The communal areas and showers were fine, it was just our room which wouldn’t look out of place in a jail. I think perhaps we’ve been spoilt by the hostels and hotels we have stayed in so far, so perhaps that made it seem worse than it was. Either way, our mantra became: we only have to sleep here.
After locking our bags in the hell hole to collect mould, we headed out for pancakes, coffee, and a stroll around the town. While wandering around, we found a spa with 1 hour full body massages for £10. No brainier. We’re in Thailand after all – it’s a speciality. We decided against the traditional Thai massage as we had heard they’re painful, so we opted for the aroma therapy package instead. I was anticipating whale music, aromatic oils and us half asleep while the masseurs righted all the wrongs we have done to our bodies on this trip. OH HOW I WAS MISTAKEN. The masseurs were elderly ladies, but once we got into the treatment room; they became agile little torturers. They were clambering on the massage table, cracking bones I didn’t even know I had and pressing muscles so hard I thought I may implode. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – it was half ticklish, half excruciating. Every time I began to relax; BOOM, she would pierce me with her elbow. The oils they used did smell good though, and my skin felt baby soft…unfortunately the mosquitos agreed, and I was bitten so much that my leg looked like an explosion of red mole hills. That night we headed to the most highly recommended restaurant in Phuket for some authentic local cuisine; the food and atmosphere were great, and it was pretty cheap too – although the combination of chilli in our noodles and humidity in the air caused us to sweat buckets, which meant that we absolutely had to stop for ice cream on the way back to the hostel. I tried what a thought was another local delicacy; Bingsu, which is basically shaved ice with fruit, chocolate and ice cream. Turns out it’s not even Thai, it’s Korean.
A must see in Phuket is the ‘Big Buddha’, so the next day we got a bus to the bottom of the mountain on which he lives, and began our ascent. After what felt like 150,000 miles of walking up hill, I realised that we had not passed another person on foot at any point. We had seen a lot of mopeds, taxis and buses – but nobody else walking. We have been getting a lot of things wrong on this trip and I think James was determined to not be wrong on this occasion, so we continued to hike up the mountain …in flip flops, 35 degree heat and surrounded by mosquitos. How come everyone else knew that it wasn’t walkable? After what felt like an eternity, we saw a restaurant – which I now realise was only the halfway point. We downed water for hydration and cokes for energy, in total silence – we were both absolutely dead. We were that red faced, sweaty and out of breath, that the waitress randomly gave us both icepacks which we proceeded to rub all over our faces and necks with no shame. There were some locals gathered outside the restaurant who had trucks, and we managed to pay for a lift the rest of the way to the top. I never thought I could be so happy to get into a strangers car. The Big Buddha himself is 45metres tall and made of white marble; the sheer size of the statue was incredible and the way it glistened in the sun against a backdrop of blue sky, was truly beautiful. We were at the highest point of the Nakkerd Hills and could see over all of Phuket and it’s surrounding islands; the sea was a shade of blue I have never seen before – it felt like I was seeing everything up there through an Instagram filter. The view paired with the majestic presence of the Big Buddha, made the struggle of getting up there totally worth it.
We decided on some beach time the following day; there are a few different beaches around Phuket, so we picked one and got on a local bus armed with suncream, mosquito spray and water. Now, I have described most of our public transport excursions as near death experiences, but this bus ride may even top them all. We were rattling along in the rickety old bus which sounded like a helicopter, chatting to some Welsh passengers – when suddenly we stopped. There seemed to be a bit of commotion and everyone was craning their necks to see what was going on; there was a bus pulled up on the side of the road, who had pulled out in front of us. I have become quite accustomed to the erratic drivers out here, so I rolled my eyes and waited for the other bus to reverse back and let us past. But he didn’t. He just remained horizontally across our lane, while a tailback began to form behind us. Our driver then attempted to go around him, but when he did, the other bus moved forward slightly. Our driver then tried to swerve around him again, and the other driver moved forward to block us further – IS THIS A JOKE? Here we have two buses filled with passengers, whose drivers who are essentially playing chicken in the middle of a busy dual carriage way. It didn’t take long for our driver to lose it; he began screaming at the other driver, who was completely ignoring him and staring ahead. At one point our drivers veins looked like they were going to burst and he was literally foaming at the mouth; during his rage, he started to reach under his seat – in that split second (in my dramatic mind) I thought he was about to pull out a gun. My heart went. The buses are all open and I suddenly felt really vulnerable. But alas, he was just getting his phone to call the police. The other driver then proceeded to copy him and call the police too. We were on the bus for ages before the police arrived and eventually managed to resolve the issue. It turns out that the driver of the other bus was fuming because our driver was taking some passengers to one of the stops on ‘his’ route. This ridiculous argument which caused a huge amount of chaos, traffic and anger – was over £4. What a joke.
Overall, the bus journey was stressful, sweaty and took quadruple the amount of time it should have, so we hoped that the beach would be worth it when we finally got there. It wasn’t. The beach was absolutely rank, smelled like sewage and was saturated with people who must have got lost on their way to Magaluf or Zante. We got a smoothie and pretty much got straight back on a bus. What a great day. We headed back to the hostel and packed ready to leave for Koh Phi Phi the next morning.
Koh Phi Phi restored our faith in Thailand; we got off the ferry to a vision of emerald water, jungle topped limestone mountains and colourfully decorated long tail boats lining the shore. Once we found our hostel, we browsed the markets (I bought an anklet which proceeded to rust and break a few hours later) and then grabbed lunch at a beach bar overlooking the water; we felt entirely relaxed for the first time in days. After lunch we headed up to the ‘view point’; you would think that after our traumatic Big Buddha hike, that the last activity we would want to partake in would be a long, steep walk – but we arrived in Phi Phi with a new lease of life, and with that we made it to the top. The view from the peak made me forget that I couldn’t breathe and was saturated in sweat; it was so unbelievably beautiful – photos just cannot do a vision like that justice. We sat on what felt like the top of the world and took it all in. I kept thinking ‘look where I am’ – I felt so lucky sat up there and began to think about how happy I am that we pushed ourselves to do this trip despite our comfortable life at home. We worked, saved and planned for this trip for so long, and in that moment, while sat on top of a mountain with a panoramic view of turquoise water and green jungle – it all felt so worth it. But then I tuned into the most irritating conversation between a group of boys nearby, who clearly viewed themselves as ‘lads’ and were talking all things girls and alcohol – how inspiring. Unfortunately for them, they were less ‘laddish’ and more of an ‘Inbetweeners’ tribute act. They successfully burst my zen bubble, causing me to resume normal programming of eye rolls, death stares and RBF.
James loves the film ‘The Beach’, so for him to see Maya Bay was a real bucket list moment and we wanted to make sure we did it right. So, we decided to book a private long tail boat from Phi Phi and go by ourselves before any of the tours began. We awoke to a horrifically early alarm, got showered and dressed and headed down to the beach. The island felt like a different place at that time of the morning; the pinkish purple dusk light made everything look so tranquil, and the empty walkways and beaches allowed us to properly take in our surroundings without distraction. Our boat was waiting for us on the shore and we got to our destination by 7am. Along with only a handful of other people, we got to see the sun come up over Maya Bay without crowds, selfie sticks or dodgy posing. For once, we felt like we had got it so right. The bay was tiny; only about 100 metres long, backing onto a luscious green jungle. It felt like we were shipwrecked on some kind of deserted island; nobody around, no shops, bars or restaurants – just us and what felt like our own private paradise. James’ bucket list moment was a success. By 9am, the bay began to fill up with tour groups and packed ferries, so we left thereafter; smug with the knowledge that we had the privilege of seeing the infamous Maya Bay in all it’s glory. Our boat driver took us to the mainland via the scenic route and we were back on Phi Phi by mid morning. We headed straight to the beach, claimed two loungers, got snacks – and had no intention of moving for the rest of the day.
I had expected Phi Phi to be crawling with ‘gap yah’ types or ‘lads on tour’ – which I guess it kind of was, but it didn’t feel like it. The beach was quiet and clean and the island was small, with a really relaxed atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed our time there and it was exactly what we needed after our disastrous time in Phuket. Our next stop is Krabi, where we have booked a gorgeous hostel by the beach and plan to treat our time there as a holiday. I know that might sound stupid, because some may think that this whole trip is an extended holiday; but in reality, the constant upheaval and travel from place to place, living out of a bag and having days filled with early alarms and ‘must do’ activities can actually be pretty draining – especially when you have no proper base or home comforts. That said; in Krabi it will be nice to have a base for longer than usual, with no real plans other than to relax, catch up on sleep and top up the tans.
Ps: Today marks exactly halfway through our adventure!
Warning: This is a long one.
We flew from Cambodia to Bangkok to begin our month in Thailand. There are two airports in Bangkok, and of course, we landed at the one which has had no TLC or modernising for about 734 years. Despite passport control taking over two hours, there seemed to be no real security measures; security personnel were chatting on their phones while Chinese tourists strolled in and out of the cubicles where they stamp your passport – to take selfies. WHAT THE HELL?! If you did that in the UK or America for example, you would probably be tasered. Or shot. Anyway, once stamped, we got a cab to our hostel; we hadn’t seen a proper city for a while, so as the taxi took us further into the sky scrapers, bright lights and chaotic roads, it felt like a total novelty. It was late when we arrived at our hostel – which looked like an IKEA catalogue had thrown up (loved it), so we settled in and went straight to bed.
The next day I woke to the news that food poisoning had paid James a visit during the night and was showing no signs of shifting. His need to always be near a toilet, paired with the saturated streets and 38 degree heat, made leaving the hostel seem like a really bad idea. But neither of us wanted to sit around, so we googled what was near and it turned out that we were right by a shopping mall. We figured there would be a plethora of toilets, ice cold air con – and we needed to top up on toiletries anyway. Oh my god this place; picture Harrods plus Westfield …on steroids. Every designer shop you have (and haven’t) heard of, all your home comfort shops (I managed to get my toiletries from a Boots); plus impeccable restaurants, an eco garden, a waterfall, an imax cinema and even cosmetic surgery clinics. It was one of the most luxurious places I have ever seen and I wanted to move in. We both hate shopping, but somehow managed to spend the entire day there, marvelling at absolutely everything; from the clothes to the food to the toilets. I quite like that things we would take for granted at home are novelties and luxuries all over again. That night we went back to the mall of dreams for dinner and to watch Beauty and The Beast at the imax. So cultural, I know; but with James being ill and the unbearable combination of humidity, heat and smog, it was definitely the best decision. We will be back in Bangkok at the end of our trip, so we’ll attempt a more insightful itinerary then.
The next day we ventured onto the Sky Train as we needed to go across the city to pick up our tickets to Chiang Mai. I was picturing a futuristic scene of us shooting along in a bullet train as high as the sky scrapers, looking down over the city. In reality, our particular route incorporated just one stop on the sky train which took all of two minutes. The rest of our journey was via the metro, which was as far from my Sky Train vision as you could get. After being denied a view over the city, and instead presented with a journey entirely underground; that night we researched sky bars. One stood out and was a half an hour walk from our hostel – so we went for it. Once there, we took the lift up to the 47th floor (which by the way was so high that our ears popped on the way up), then walked up the final two levels and out onto the roof of the building. WOW. I cannot even begin to explain the feeling when we saw the view. We were at what felt like the highest point in the city; overlooking skyscrapers, glistening lights and planes taking off and landing below us. It took my breath away. We managed to grab sofas at the edge of the bar area with an uninterrupted view of the city – and of course ordered drinks straight away. Everyone up there was dressed beautifully; the bar was small, and what I can only describe as ‘chic’ (who uses that word except Edna from the Incredibles), the music was right up my street (old school Craig David, Chris brown et al) and the panoramic view was undoubtedly the best view we have had on our trip so far. Plus, we were the only tourists. We sat there for hours.
After our somewhat uncultured time in Bangkok, James felt a lot better and we embarked on our journey to the North of Thailand; specifically, Chiang Mai. We never actually planned to go to Chiang Mai originally; we were always just doing the south – predominantly the islands, but everyone we have met along the way has told us that the North is amazing, so we didn’t want to miss out. Although I have to say; veering away from the plan did give me a bit of a twitchy eye.
The train to the North started off well; we had lots of leg room, air con and free cookies. After about ten hours, we realised that we were not far from Chiang Mai. We then made the mistake of saying it had been a pretty painless experience. We jinxed it. The train stopped abruptly and began revving – I don’t know if trains even rev but this train was revving like it was trying to go up a steep hill in fifth gear, and I was pretty sure it was about to implode. On what felt like the 113th attempt, there was a snap and we started to roll backwards. Yep, WE WERE ROLLING BACKWARDS IN THE DARK ON A RICKETY OLD TRAIN IN THE MIDDLE OF RURAL THAILAND. I stayed calm by reminding myself that trains do go both ways, so perhaps this was a deliberate change in direction – and I felt ok …until I saw locals freaking out. When you see locals losing their plot, you know it’s not something which happens on the regular. The train suddenly stopped and people just started getting out onto the tracks. In England; walking on train tracks is not only illegal but is also 100% going to result in death – which incidentally seems to be a theme on this trip. But we disembarked too, because, well, I don’t know actually – I guess we’re just sheep, but we assumed everyone knew something we didn’t. After a few failed attempts at finding someone who spoke English and knew what the hell was going on, people started to re-board the train. So again, we followed.
We still have no idea what happened, but 90 minutes later, we arrived in Chiang Mai to a sea of taxi drivers shouting, waving and chasing people. You know that scene in Finding Nemo when all the seagulls are screeching ‘MINE’? It was that. We pretty much ran away from one particular taxi driver and ended up picking the one which was the least forceful in her waving and shouting, and therefore the least likely to aggravate our already tired and sweaty selves. Oh how we were wrong. She was called ‘Pun’ and she talked AT us the entire way while her son drove. She asked us approximately 25 times what we’re seeing in Chiang Mai and that her ‘family business’ could do it cheaper, better etc. She tried to give James her number and kept showing me ‘reviews from English tourists’ – I assume to add credibility to her offers …but strangely they were all in the same handwriting and in severely broken English. I think Pun was telling porkies.
After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at our hotel, disembarked the taxi tuk tuk thing, paid the driver and ran away from Pun before she held us at gunpoint to book one of her excursions. We decided on a hotel instead of hostel in Chiang Mai as we knew the journey there would be long and we both needed a few good nights sleep because the last few dorms have consisted of people with severe snoring issues, people who think it’s ok to turn off the air con and sleep in a pool of sweat, and some who turn the lights on and off, open and shut the door and climb up and down from their bunk 100 times per night. Plus, living out a bag is that much less frustrating when you can open it in your own space, and not be in people’s way or get side-eyed when your zips make the smallest sound while people are sleeping in THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY. Walking into the reception of our hotel, I’m pretty sure I actually heard some kind of angelic hallelujah; it was brand new, clean (verging on sterile – just how I like it) and a smiling receptionist greeted us with a speech about free breakfast, free wifi and unlimited free bottled water and coffee. Perfect. Our room was ridiculously nice too; complete with power shower, deep bath, super king bed, mini fridge, dressing gowns and enough space for our bags to explode. We showered (I used all the free miniatures) and crashed out pretty much straight away – once we had checked out the rooftop pool.
Visiting the elephants is an absolute must in Chiang Mai and we spent a lot of time researching the most ethical sanctuaries. We chose the one with the best values and reviews, as well as being highly recommended by a friend. The alarm went of at 5:30am for our 6:30 am pick up; we showered, breakfasted and waited in reception for the coach to pick us up. Half an hour passed and we started to worry that we hadn’t booked it, or we had the wrong day. A banged up old car pulled up outside and in typical British humour, James says ‘there’s our ride’. Good joke James. The driver of said car then proceeded to walk into the reception of our hotel, waving at us. Is this a joke? He told us that the pick ups were taking longer than expected, so he’s taking us to the coach. In his car with dents, mess and no seat belts. Brilliant. We got into the strangers car and he got us to the coach (having driven with one hand holding his phone, the other his iPad, and just about a finger tip controlling the wheel) – once on board the coach, we set off for the mountains. Up, up and up we went; and as per usual, the roads were thin, the mountain sides were sheer drops and the driving was death defying. But I’m getting used to that now.
We got to the top of the mountain and walked to the main clearing. That’s when I spotted them; four gorgeous elephants – one male and three females, all grazing on corn with a backdrop of jungle, mountains and blue skies. It’s a vision I’ve seen on instagram and David Attenborough documentaries a million times, but nothing compares to real life – knowing how close you are to them is incredible. Then came the best surprise of all; from between the adults emerged a baby elephant, who I would later find out was called Dumbo. It was love at first sight. He was so cute and playful and I just wanted to cuddle him but I think he weighed about half a tonne. Throughout the day we got to feed the elephants fruit and corn; during which the adults were patient and un-phased by us, while Dumbo was excitedly delving into all the fruit bags and stealing more than his share. When they took to the river to cool off, we were allowed to join them – we threw water on them while they splashed around and laid down as if they were in the bath. It’s crazy that animals so huge can be so gentle – you can almost see their personalities shining through; Dumbo was playful and his mum protective, while his siblings were chilled and avoided all the fuss. We could tell that the locals who work at the sanctuary and live in the tiny villages in the mountains, love the elephants like family; they play with them, show them affection and do not fear them at all.
It was the best day of the trip so far and one of the best days of my life. It was a once in a life time and I kept having to pinch myself that it was real. My earliest memories are of me as a child with a toy elephant which I could not go to bed without. Who knew that over twenty years later I’d be realising my dream of playing with real life elephants in a jungle topped mountain in Thailand.
Today, our final day in Chiang Mai, we visited the ‘Grand Canyon’. Yes; they have their own (much smaller) but almost identical version of the Grand Canyon. It’s filled with crystal clear waters on which they have set up an inflatable, floating water park – Total Wipe Out style. It was a great last day here, and a great place to cool off from the ridiculous heat …plus; watching James flailing around, falling in the water and holding onto the inflatables for dear life, was yet another highlight of the trip. Next we head to Phuket to start island hopping! I’m loving Thailand, but it’s really bugging me that it’s turning out to be my favourite place so far – because, it’s so generic isn’t it? Everyone goes to Thailand.
But then; I am the most mainstream person I know, so I guess it makes sense.
As I’m writing this blog post, James has plucked up the courage to reveal to me that the one flight he has booked this entire trip, has been booked wrong – a flight we are supposed to be boarding in about 12hours. Instead of leaving in the morning and arriving in Phuket in the afternoon; the perfect time for check-in at our hostel (like we planned), we are actually leaving here at midnight tomorrow and arriving in Phuket at 2am the following morning. So not only will we be a day late to our hostel (which we will have to cancel or amend), we will now have to wait 12 hours from landing until we can check in anywhere. Where are we going to go at 2am? I’m not going to be annoyed though; I’m just going to use his error to my advantage at some point and also remind him daily that I am the brains of this operation.
Anyway, we found a supermarket which sells McVities digestives, so I’m off for a tea.
I have had the best few days.
First things first though, I need to address the most random incident relating to my previous post, where I had a minor (major) rant about some (not all) of the people we have crossed paths with along the way; in particular the over enthusiasts and over sharers. I based a lot of that rant on one person in particular who we met a fair few destinations ago. As my luck would have it, the day after posting the rant, that very person ended up being on THE SAME boat as us in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, in a DIFFERENT country to the one we met her in – and ended up staying on THE SAME remote island as us, at THE SAME hostel. What are the chances?! The answer is; if you’re me, and there’s a chance of something uncomfortable, unlucky or unlikely happening – the chances are high.
The reunion was as awkward as you would expect; she was over enthused to have run into us and greeted us as though we were long lost friends, while I was especially awkward during the run in knowing that I’d pretty much told the world (aka the few people who read my blog) how annoying I found her. She invited herself to join us on the first day at lunch, but luckily it phased out after that and she left us to it. James says it’s because of my resting bitch face and to be honest, if it was, then I guess RBF is both a blessing and a curse. I was in paradise and was not in the mood for screeching and unwelcome hugging and long winded stories you can’t get away from.
Anyway, back to my few days of bliss. After some chill time in Sihanoukville, where we embraced beach days, pool days and a normal sleeping pattern; we took a speed boat over to the island of Koh Rong Samleom. What I saw when we arrived, took my breath away more than anywhere we have been so far. We were welcomed by the whitest sands and clearest sea I have ever seen. The whole place looked like a desktop screen saver. I couldn’t stop staring. My bubble was soon burst though, when we had to walk an actual wooden plank to get off the boat and onto the pier. With our luggage.
From where the speed boat dropped us, we had to walk along the beach to another pier in order to catch a slow boat to the private island where we had booked to stay. (It was this boat where we met the subject of my rant). Now, those of you who have read my blogs from the beginning will know that I thought I was an absolute travel boss by deciding to bring a suitcase instead of a backpack. Well, let me (James) tell you; it’s not such a brilliant idea when you have to roll it across sand. I fear James will use that sandy, sweaty, suitcase pull (while carrying his own rucksack too) against me for a while. Fair enough.
After a short boat ride, we arrived at our destination; a tiny remote cove backing onto the jungle. The boat stopped about 10metres from land, so we all got off with our luggage and waded through the crystal waters to the island that we would call home for the next few nights. It was welcomingly refreshing to get in the water after our journey over from the mainland …not for James though; the wade to shore provided him and my suitcase with some more bonding time.
The hostel we booked is one of the most renowned in the world; it owns the entire cove and is the only place you can stay at if you want to visit this part of the island. They have swings and hammocks in the sea, good food, constant happy hours and no wifi. All you need really. Our bungalow was a four bed ensuite overlooking the beach; the shower was cold (Cambodia definitely isn’t into plumbing) but it’s exactly what you want after a day in the sun. It really felt like we were in the jungle, away from all civilisation; just some wooden beach bungalows dotted around the cove, a private beach and a bar/restaurant overlooking the shore. I loved it all. Although my fan was the only one in our room which made a horrific clicking sound with the ability to wake even the heaviest sleeper, so I couldn’t use it and instead slept in sweat.
Of course it would be my fan that’s broken.
Nothing could dampen my mood somewhere so beautiful though. We spent our days swimming, reading, hammock-ing and eating and drinking way too much. We also partook in some socialising. I know; me socialising with new people out of choice is pretty shocking – especially after my previous ranting post. But we met a few English people who we clicked with right away and spent a couple of nights over eating, over drinking and dancing to some nineties and noughties music with them. The hostel is insane and definitely aimed at people who are there with the sole purpose of getting utterly obliterated by alcohol. We took it pretty easy compared to most, but had such a good time nonetheless. I just couldn’t get enough of the beautiful clear seas and was not going to let a hangover ruin it.
On one of our days there, we went on a snorkelling trip which was all fun and games until the sea sickness set in. Before the motion of the ocean got the better of me though, we had such a good day. Us and our new mates all booked onto a boat which took us out to sea where we jumped off and snorkelled. I had visions of myself gliding through the water like a mermaid, marvelling at all the nemos and dorys …not quite how it went down though. I was more like a paddling elephant than a mermaid and was too busy drinking half the sea and emptying my goggles of water to even notice any fish. It was still fun though, and I was impressed with myself for getting straight into the deep sea without sparing jellyfish or sharks a second thought.
Next, we went to another area of the vast turquoise waters and were given makeshift fishing lines to fish off the side of the boat with …AND I CAUGHT A FISH! It was my first time fishing, and on this trip so far I’ve pretty much got everything wrong – so catching a fish before most other people on the boat felt like far more of an achievement than it was. What happened next though sent the day into slight turmoil.
First of all, it began to cloud over and it felt like the leftovers from the dramatic storm the night before would be back for more – and we were on a rickety old boat nowhere near land. Next, the driver of the boat decided we would cook the fish we caught. Cool idea, but in practise there was a high chance of death; not from eating badly cooked fish as you may think, but because he lit the hot coals with petrol from the boat engine, on the floor of the boat. The wooden boat. I’m no scientist but I’m pretty sure oil plus fire plus wood is not a secure situation to be in. The fish were thrown on the makeshift BBQ – bones, guts, eyeballs and all; I decided pretty quickly that I would not be eating lunch.
We thought we would be heading back to shore to eat, but no; we stopped in the middle of the now rocky sea to consume the undercooked and slightly traumatised looking fish. The boat was rocking more than you can imagine and sea sickness took over my entire body. I had nowhere to go to avoid the rocking boat other than the sea itself. So I jumped in. A few other people joined me; whether it’s because they felt sea sick too, or if they just wanted to avoid the dodgy fish – I was glad to have company in the waves …and was even gladder when we returned to stationary land later that day.
Overall, the last few days have been perfect. We have been surrounded by natural beauty, relaxed completely and my tan is now pretty impressive too. Tomorrow we bid Cambodia goodbye and fly to Bangkok to begin our Thailand adventure. Right now though, our main focus is flushing the food poisoning out of James’ body before our 6 hour bus and 2 hour flight tomorrow morning… wish us luck.
To catch you guys up; we spent a few days in Phnom Penh recently and the main event for me was our day spent visiting the ‘Killing Fields’. It was an entirely sobering day and amongst the educational aspects which both shocked and horrified us in equal measure, the main feeling which took over me was pure emotion. I could write an entire post on that day; what I learned, how it made me feel and the undeniable parallels between Khmer Rouge Cambodia and Nazi Germany. Talk about history repeating itself. But I’ve spent years writing essays at School and University all built on facts, historical events, case studies and other people’s theories – and I don’t want my blog or any post within it to be of that nature.
So despite writing an entire post about what I discovered at the Killing Fields, I’ve decided against publishing it. All I will say is that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a Nazi concentration camp in Germany and now one of the Killing Fields in Cambodia and I encourage everyone, if you can, to go to a place of this sort once in your life. Learning about historical events while standing right where they took place is indescribable.
I know I said I’d write about each place I visit, and I had every intention of doing so – but it’s not been realistic. Not every single place I visit offers enough to provide a good read, and not everywhere has an appropriate place to write and reflect either. So that’s kind of what I want to talk about in this blog post; one month in, I want to talk about expectations VS reality.
I was expecting total hell holes to be perfectly honest. I was anticipating (dreading) unclean bathrooms, pathetically weak showers, uncomfortable beds and a multitude of thefts by the people sharing my dorm. But no. I was wrong. The reality is that everywhere we have stayed has been more than a pleasant surprise. For an average of about £6 per night, we have had modern rooms, comfortable beds, spotless bathrooms (complete with power showers and complimentary toiletries), friendly roommates and staff – and some hostels even have swimming pools, games rooms, cinema rooms, free breakfast and of course; free wifi.
Hostels are also great for booking trips and transport and have no real rules about check in and check out time – which is perfect when you’re leaving in the middle of the night on night buses or arriving in the same way. Everywhere we have stayed (except one which we won’t talk about), has exceeded my expectations. I’ve totally embraced the hostel life when I expected I’d be forcing James to spend our daily budget on staying in hotels. In the case of hostels; reality has been far better than my expectations.
Right. This myth that you can live on £10 a day in South East Asia – or whatever variation you may have heard, is just not a reality. Perhaps it’s because I’m a little late to the party, and backpacking is now so common that tours, transport companies, restaurants and bars have realised they can charge more. Or maybe people are just EXAGGERATING. The reality is that unless you are sleeping rough on the beach, eating from dodgy street food stalls which exude food poisoning from every dish, and choose to do nothing at all during the day – then there’s no way you can live off such a minuscule amount.
In real life, you need to budget about £10 for accommodation per night, £15 per day for food and water, and another £15 for potential excursions, travel or entry fees. And that’s assuming you don’t treat yourself to a mojito or ice cream here and there – which is quite frankly a ridiculous thought. In the case of budgeting; expectation did not match reality. It is of course a whole lot cheaper here than in the UK, just not as cheap as people make out. But we budgeted for that.
I’ve always been adventurous with food; I love trying different flavours and I put chilli (raw or sauce form – I’m not fussy), in absolutely everything. Maybe it’s the Mauritian in me. So my expectation was that I’d be trying local delicacies for breakfast, lunch and dinner on this trip. I also thought all the food would be so fresh and flavoursome that I’d not want a roast dinner or fish and chips ever again. BUT NO. Absolutely everything is fried. When you ask for noodles – even in a restaurant, they’re instant noodles from a packet. Fried. Nothing is fresh …well, the vegetables probably were before they were fried. But nothing tastes fresh; there’s the vague lingering taste of fatty oils in absolutely everything. And when I ask for chilli sauce to salvage the taste, they produce sweet chilli sauce – which is like giving lambrini to a wine connoisseur.
Oh, and the meat. I made the decision to be vegetarian on this trip to eliminate a main risk of food poisoning – and thank goodness I did. I’ve seen some of the meat markets; the meat is hung outside, festering in the scorching sun all day as flies play house in the carcasses. It’s beyond rank. So after a week of eating fried rice with fried vegetables and sugary chilli substances, I’ve since been eating cereal, pasta, bread, pizza, more pasta and more bread. My stomach is a bloated ball of carbs but at least I’ve not had food poisoning or turned into a deep fat fryer. I’ve also had loads of fresh fruit which is available absolutely everywhere, so I guess that’s good. Sadly my dreams of returning to England tanned slender are no more. I’ll still be tanned but decidedly more round than slender. So when it comes to food; reality has not lived up to expectations – but I’m still holding out hope.
So I said I didn’t expect to, need to or plan to learn anything new about myself. But in reality, I have. Three things in particular:
1. I am a snob
2. I am not a social butterfly
3. I am a scaredy cat
So, the first one I think I’ve always known deep down. Being bought up where I was, a snobby streak was always inevitable despite having moved away over five years ago. I like to say it’s just a case of ‘having standards’. Nothing wrong with that. But this trip has truly bought it to light. I find myself having to consciously un-scrunch my nose in all manner of situations – it’s not a good trait but I just can’t help it sometimes. Some people are happy to be unwashed, untidy and unaware of their inappropriateness or my personal space and I’m just not into it.
The second I guess comes hand in hand with my RBF (resting bitch face) issue, but seriously some of the people we have met have been unbearable. Over-sharers are the worst. So many people have told me their entire life story; their family set up, the names of their grandparents and the age of their pet cat – all before they’ve even asked my name. Now don’t get me wrong; hearing about people’s lives and stories is beyond interesting, but we are not talking anecdotes from their travels or crazy life events that warrant being shared with someone you met three minutes ago – we are talking the mundane details of their daily life; and quite honestly, I just don’t care. But once you’re stuck in a convo with an over-sharer, you’re stuck – they want to share share share until there’s nothing left to reveal.
Then there’s the over-enthusiasts; those who claim everything to be ‘sooooooo amazingggg’. I could tell them I have food poisoning, a jelly fish sting and sun burn and they would still be like ‘wowwwww that’s awesome’ or ‘ohhhhh what an experience’. It’s just too much. Perhaps the fact that I’m travelling as part of a 25 year old couple rather than an 18 year old solo traveller – or group of friends on their gap year, plays a part in feeling the urge to vacate most conversations. It’s weird though; I’ve always been a social person and enjoyed meeting new people – but apparently, on this trip I don’t. I guess it’s amplified in these circumstances because I know I’ll never see these people again so I don’t want to waste precious time on my adventure of a lifetime learning about this one time someone got ‘soooo drunk’ that they started walking to another city to find McDonald’s. Read the RBF and move on.
The third has come as a complete shock to me. I have travelled a lot; both on holidays as well as backpacking around Europe for two months, I have lived away from my parents for over five years, I have had more surgeries than I care to count and I have flown more than I’ve been on buses. And yet, on this trip, I have suddenly become fearful of absolutely everything. Flying, food, roads, people, animals, sea…the list goes on. A month in, I do think I’m more settled, but I don’t get it. I’m usually a reasonably confident person and would say I only have a couple of fears; generic ones like clowns and needles. But nope, apparently I’m now scared of the entire world and everything in it. I’m sure it’s just a case of being out of my comfort zone; which before I left, was perhaps too comfortable. My life consisted of working 9-5, watching reality TV, living for the weekend and partaking in general domestic bliss. The fears are definitely fading after being away for a month, and in my defence, the fear of the sea is valid as I have come into contact with more jellyfish than Dory in ‘Finding Nemo’.
So, in summary; some expectations have been surpassed by reality while reality has not yet lived up to others. It’s so interesting seeing yourself, the world and your life through a totally new and unique perspective. I almost feel like an outsider looking in sometimes. Some of the poverty we have seen has really struck a chord with me too, which naturally lead to me looking at my own life. I’m so grateful for everything I have, but I’m also proud that I’ve worked hard to achieve it. Some things are just luck though; I was lucky to be born into an amazing family, in a country full of opportunity. A life a lot of the children I’ve met could only dream of.
I’ve learned a lot when I didn’t think I needed to – about myself and about the world and I hope I continue to do so.
We are currently in Sihanoukville and have been enjoying a lot of beach days which has been a welcomed change after the cities we have been exploring. Tomorrow we head to Koh Rong Samloem, an island just a 30 minute boat from here. There’s no wifi, we are staying in the highest rated hostel – and the island itself looks like paradise.
I can’t wait!
We left Hanoi and headed to Hoi An, whereby the journey was an experience in itself. It was our first ever sleeper bus and I’m amazed that I’m alive to tell the tale. The bus was lined with three rows of bunk beds… when I say bunk beds; they were about two feet wide and were pretty much just seats which reclined a bit. You had to sit almost upright with your legs completely straight out in front – luckily my legs fit, but I think James spent the entire journey unable to straighten his. I was on a top bunk and every time I began to doze off, the driver would make an erratic swerve (more death wish driving) and I’d almost fall out of my little section. Obviously I had the ‘bed’ with the seatbelt that didn’t work – of course I did.
The bus was completely packed and there were even people sleeping on the floor in the isles, using other people’s rucksacks as pillows. All I could think about as I stared up at the air conditioning which was about two inches from my face, were the germs circulating the bus and coming out of the air con straight into my airways. What kind of moron would design a sleeper bus for that many people with windows that don’t open? Gross.
After 17 hours …SEVENTEEN, we arrived in Hoi An desperate for air, a shower and to stretch our legs. We found our hostel pretty easily, it was right on the beach; small and homely and was hosted by a Vietnamese lady who couldn’t do enough for us. She remembered everyone’s names, did our laundry, cooked and also booked all our transport. In the evenings the hostel guests all came together to play cards, cook BBQ food and enjoy bonfires on the beach. It was such a chilled atmosphere compared to hectic Hanoi.
We visited the old city where the streets were bursting with colourful lanterns, intricate buildings and busy markets – all surrounding the river and its slow boats which ran through the centre. It’s the most beautiful city; it looked like a painting – as though the colours weren’t real, although while walking around, I was definitely getting a repetitive strain injury from constantly shaking my head at every tuk tuk that asked if we needed a ride. We also made the most of the beach being right on our doorstep and took long walks along the coastline when the sun and heat subsided slightly in the evenings. Our hostel was next to a Four Seasons Hotel, so the beach was extra gorgeous. We googled how much it would be to stay there. It was almost £700 a night. Maybe next time.
We didn’t want Hoi An to be our final stop in Vietnam, but somehow we messed up our visas and it wasn’t clear how long we could stay in the country – which wasn’t a great position to be in. It was difficult to get a straight answer and after the scamming we had experienced, we figured that extending the visa would either be dodgy or we would be charged a fortune. So we played it safe and decided to be out of the country within the fifteen days visa free allowance.
We booked a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we landed and were greeted by a driver who worked for the hostel we had booked (we think his name was Joe), he walked us to his car, loaded it up and began the journey to our hostel. James has been downloading the routes on his phone so we can always check we’re going the right way, I think he does it just to put me at ease. Our driver was chatty and told us where he would recommend going; no scamming, no pressure – just a nice guy. He set the tone for everyone we were to meet in Siem Reap.
We arrived at the hostel (which had its own swimming pool, bar, games room, and cinema), dumped our stuff and headed straight to the bar. There were five minutes left of happy hour – so naturally we ordered four drinks each. And that’s pretty much where it all went pear shaped. We got chatting to another couple who instantly became our best friends, I could feel us all getting louder and more hyper and to be frank; more drunk. The bar tender kept slipping us free shots and ‘extending happy hour’. Before I knew it we were on Pub Street; infamous for its crazy bars, street parties and stronger than strong cocktails.
We embarked on a bar crawl with our new friends and by 1am we were all done. Pub Street had won. The next morning we woke up half dead, showered and headed straight out to find carbs and caffeine. In true brits abroad style, we found a Costa. While we filled up on coffee and all bread based items available, we looked at some photos from the night before; oh dear. It appears James engaged in a dance off with some abnormally flexible Cambodian men and by the looks of things, they won. There were also a lot of pictures of us and our new friends partying in the street with the locals and far too many drinks in hand. To be fair, we had an amazing night; spontaneous ones are always the best – and that definitely wasn’t how we saw our night going less than an hour after landing. It turns out that hangovers and humidity are not friends; so we slowly recovered throughout the day and booked to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat the next morning. A welcomed early night followed. Like, 8pm early.
The alarm at 4am the next morning didn’t startle me at all, we had gone to bed so early the night before that I was pretty much wide awake. Plus, it was kind of like when you wake up early to go the airport and it feels really exciting. We headed downstairs to await our tuk tuk, and behold; Joe! Our airport driver. It’s funny how a semi-familiar face can make you feel safe when you’re so far from home. We got into his ‘honeymoon tuk tuk’ and made our way to Angkor Wat. Despite the darkness and early hour, it was still so hot and the breeze from the tuk tuk ride was much appreciated. We got our tickets and a coffee on the way and Joe dropped us right outside.
Walking up to a Angkor Wat in the pitch black was crazy. Luckily I had torches in our rucksack for such occurrences and we used them to guide our way – there was no lighting at all. We found a good spot away from the main crowd and their cameras and awaited the first sign of the sun. It took it’s sweet time while we got bitten alive by mosquitos; until finally, after a couple of hours, it began to appear from behind one of the towers of Angkor Wat. It was so atmospheric watching the start of a new day, especially somewhere so majestic and full of history. As the sun rose we were able to see more and more of the temple which had been in total darkness when we arrived; after a short while it was completely visible. And what a vision it was. It was a total bucket list moment and I’m so glad we did it.
After the sunrise, we wandered around Angkor Wat; marvelling at the intricacy of the buildings and observing the practicing monks, before heading back outside to find Joe – who stood to attention every time he saw us. We got back in the tuk tuk and began our tour of the temples. They’re all really far apart, so he drove us to each one (the breezey journeys were much needed in the 35 degree heat) and would wait for us outside until we were done and ready for the next. It was such an easy day; no tour group or guide rushing us – we could just take our time exploring the temples and their hidden walkways, view points and carvings. It was a perfect day. Despite the sweltering heat.
That night, after a much needed cold shower, we found the ‘Made In Cambodia Market’ which was full of gorgeous locally handmade clothing and trinket bits; it’s the first market where I wanted want to buy something. Probably because no one was pestering me to. We decided on a place for dinner and sat on the upstairs balcony over looking the markets, where local school children were performing traditional Khmer dances. We watched the world go by from up there for hours; everything was so traditional and well looked after – and all lit by lanterns and fairy lights which was beautiful at night.
I noticed throughout the day that there is such stark a contrast in Siem Reap; there are 5* hotels, luxury golf resorts and posh restaurants and bars – yet in amongst it all are children as young as six begging and stealing on the street. It’s hard to stomach sometimes. It provokes a mixture of sadness and guilt with feeling lucky and appreciative of what I have and where I’m from.
On our final night in Siem Reap, we went back to Angkor Wat, this time to watch the sun set, from a temple on the opposite side. It was beyond hot and we were both sweating and growing more and more irritated by the constant sea of selfie sticks and literal photo shoots going on around us. It was also kind of bugging me that women have to cover up their legs and shoulders; a rule that everyone respected and which was enforced by staff – yet there were men in string vests with their nipples showing and some even topless. I don’t understand how a woman’s calf could be more offensive than a mans sunburned beer gut or builders bum. Surely the respectful attire rule should be gender neutral? But anyway; rules are rules.
Our next stop is Phnom Penh, which we will get to by a 6 hour bus.
I’ll let you know how it compares to our wonderful time in Siem Reap.
While in Vietnam, Halong Bay is a must see. It’s been hailed one of the ‘new wonders of the world’, so we began to research how best to experience it. Unsurprisingly there are a million different companies offering versions of the same trip. It’s a minefield of ‘best experience’ and ‘best price’, as well as a whole load of dodgy faked trip advisor certificates. That said, we decided to just book it through our hostel where everyone had been helpful and scam free so far.
It’s worth noting at this point that I have become a total cynic over the last three weeks. I’m second guessing everything and spotting scams before they even start their speech. It’s not the most fun way to be, but you kinda have to be. Especially as we are walking around with ‘tourist’ stamped across our foreheads, which seems to translate to ‘gullible’ everywhere we have been so far.
Anyway, we chose a two night, three day excursion to Halong Bay which would include sleeping on a boat for one night and staying in a water bungalow for the other. It sounded perfect. Hanoi was starting to drive me crazy; dodging death just to cross the road stopped being fun on day one, so the idea of being cut off from motorbikes, beeping horns and people trying to sell me stuff on every corner – or just people in general, sounded like bliss.
The morning of our trip, we were waiting in reception for our pick up, when the lady at the desk said ‘I just got off the phone and you’ve been upgraded today! Don’t tell anybody!’ She claimed it was the same itinerary but a better boat. She’s so sweet so we smiled and said thank you, but as I mentioned before, the cynic inside me has grown and it raised its rational head; she hadn’t been on the phone the entire time we were sat there, and we concluded that this ‘upgrade’ was probably going to end up being a scam.
A few minutes later, our coach arrived to take us to Halong Bay. AN ACTUAL COACH. Not a death bus; a real life coach with air con and luggage storage and seats with backs – and a driver who didn’t seem to have much of a death wish. We also had a tour guide who tried to tell everyone his name about ten times – he even spelled it out (which made it more confusing) but after a coach full of puzzled faces gazed back at him, he gave up and told us we could just call him David. He also told us some history about the bay, which seemed to be a little off …I think David was making it up as he went along. He did however tell us that dragons and fairies live in the Bay – and to be honest, that seemed the most legitimate piece of information he gave us. Cheers Dave.
After four hours on the coach and a few lessons in Davids version of Vietnamese history, we arrived in the bay where we got onto our boat and were presented with a welcome drink and our cabin key. Our cabin was utterly gorgeous; it was clean, modern and complete with a huge rainforest shower which looked out onto the bay. It felt like we were the only people there – all we could see out of every window were the emerald waters and the rainforest topped limestone mountains. It was one of those total wow moments.
Later, we were called up to the deck where we were served a five course lunch while the boat weaved its way through the bay to where we would anchor for the rest of the day and night. It all felt very posh – despite us being in trainers and shorts, and we started to think that maybe, just maybe, the upgrade story was real. Our moment of faith was soon dissolved when we got chatting to some other guests who had all had the same upgrade spiel from their hotels. But we didn’t care – it actually was a better boat than the one we had booked, so it really didn’t matter why it changed.
Once our huge lunch had gone down and we had enjoyed the views from the sun deck, we took advantage of the kayaks on board and sailed around the bay – well, James kayaked, I was more of a backseat driver. Being in a tiny kayak surrounded by such vast beauty and gigantic mountains was amazing. It felt like something out of Jurassic Park – but of course, as David told us earlier; it’s not dinosaurs who inhabit the bay, it’s dragons. We saw neither.
After kayaking, James jumped straight into the water for a swim along with some of the other guests who shared his desire to catch hypothermia. As he was getting back onto the boat, I literally lost my plot; there was a MASSIVE jellyfish right where everyone had been swimming – and when I say massive I mean the size of a man. Everyone started taking photos and squealing. It was so gross and I was completely traumatised by the thought that James could have been stung and someone would have had to pee on him. The staff on the boat didn’t seemed phased at all, but I thought perhaps they could have mentioned that there were gigantic murderous jellyfish before everyone got in the water.
To be fair, this total disregard for health and safety is becoming entirely normal to us now.
For the rest of the evening, we were served even more food (I thought I’d be living off fruit and coconut water but I’m eating more crap on this trip than I ever did at Uni), we enjoyed a few cocktails on the top deck and had an early night. It was the best nights sleep; total peace and quiet for the first time on this trip – no motorbike engines and no cockadoodledoos. Bliss. The next morning we had breakfast and were transferred to another, much smaller boat which would take us to our water bungalow.
After about two hours on the little boat, we arrived at Nam Cat Island; a little cove at the base of one of the huge limestone mountains, surrounded by water. It was absolutely tiny, the entire surface area was no bigger than a tennis court and hosted just ten water bungalows, a volleyball net and an outdoor area for dining. Once off the boat and onto the island, we were pretty much just left to our own devices. I quite liked that; I’m much more a fan of exploring in my own time rather than shuffling around with a tour group – but at the same time we didn’t really know what to do.
There were some kayaks tied to the rickety bridge which we had earlier crossed to get onto the island from the boat – we assumed they were for the taking, so we claimed a two seater and circled our little island. We found an even smaller cove with no bungalows, just an old rusting sail boat on the shore; we beached our kayak to have a look around and looked across the water at where we would be staying. I’ve not experienced anything so beautiful and remote on this trip so far. It felt amazing.
That evening, we played cards, ate too many noodles (and Oreos) and watched as the tide came in, to the point where there was no beach left in our little cove. We were totally cut off. However, James realised the water was actually really shallow and walked from our island to another; it looked like he was walking on water. He was very proud of himself.
We slept well and woke up to the sound of the water rippling against the stilts of our bungalow – not a bad way to start the day. We had breakfast, bid farewell to the island which had been home for 24 hours and boarded a little boat to begin our journey back to the mainland. It felt like we had been away from the chaos of Hanoi for a lot longer than we had, and the city felt even more hectic when we returned.
I’m so glad we went to Halong Bay, it was better than I had imagined – and other than a few added costs for drinks we were lead to believe were free, it was pretty much scam free.
Tonight we take our first night bus; a sixteen hour journey from Hanoi to Hoi An.
We’ve bought snacks and water.
Wish me luck.