New Zealand road trip: part four.

Queenstown back to Christchurch, via the West Coast and North.

Another couple of nights in Christchurch where I had a “welcome back and cheer up” Thursday night with Marsha and a few Friday night drinks with Steffi. Leaving Queenstown for the very last time, I set off on the last leg of my road trip. I was sad to leave; it’s a beautiful place and I have many happy memories there (yes, the ones I can remember when alcohol wasn’t involved) and made a brilliant friend in Marsha. The last morning I was there she sat up in bed and said “don’t go, stay here and we’ll get a house and live in Queenstown”. Haha. I suspect she was still drunk from the night before but well, if I could have, I’d have been tempted. She’s a good friend and I miss her already 😦

I set off to drive up the West Coast, the first real stop to be the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The drive through the Haast Pass was stunning, again all windy roads with mountains and lakes as the backdrop. This one was a little bit different though, and gave an idea how the landscape was going to be changing as I moved north. Lots of trees and green (and a bit of cloud and drizzle). The road was also full of Ferraris coming the other way, but I suspect this wasn’t an every day occurrence though. Looked like some kind of weekend cruise for an owners club. Reminded me of when I was part of the Lincs Mini Owners Club and we’d go out in convoy. A bunch of minis pootling along Lincolnshire country roads isn’t quite the same as a bunch of red (and the odd yellow) Ferraris racing (this is not an inaccurate description) around the winding roads of New Zealand, but, well, I know which car I’d rather be in (and it doesn’t begin with F).

After a day of stopping at waterfalls, beaches (with the most amazing driftwood), swamps and lagoons along the way I ended up at a DOC campsite somewhere on the West Coast (they all started to merge into one after a while, and just became somewhere to stop). Daylight savings had kicked in so it started getting dark at about 6:30pm. When you’re on your own in a tent with a torch that I don’t know how much battery was left, there’s not a lot to do at night so night’s were pretty uneventful after the previous week’s camping. I’d set my tent up, eat something then read for an hour or two before falling asleep. I’m pretty sure I was asleep by 8pm one night. Not a problem per se, until I kept waking up at about 10:30/11pm and thinking I’d had a full nights sleep. It was quite confusing. At least I wasn’t also waking up wondering where the hell I was, it’s quite clear when you’re in a tent.

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One slightly rainy night with loads of sand-flies later, I hit the road again to get to the glaciers. Just a word on sand-flies, in case I’ve not mentioned them before (can’t remember whether I have or not). I thought I didn’t like mosquitoes until I got here. Sand-flies are the only bad thing about New Zealand. They’re relentless and EVIL. Well, the female ones are, because they’re the ones that bite. If only they were different colours, you’d know which ones to swat away when a MILLION land on you and start chomping. The tiger balm I got in SE Asia that’s amazing for insect bites came out again. Because sand-fly bites itch. LIKE HELL. Camping is tricky, because they get into your tent and it’s hard to stop them. At least it gave me something to do that night after dark; find and get rid of the little bastards. I didn’t fancy them thinking they’d got a all-you-can-eat buffet for the next 8 hours or so I was in there.

The glaciers are pretty. They’re not quite as I pictured though. I expected nice shiny blue/white ice, all glistening and pretty. In reality, they’re covered in soil and rocks that have fallen on it from all the movement of the ice and mountains and you can’t get too close because they’re pretty darn dangerous. You can go ice climbing and walking on there and stuff, but it’s mega expensive and relies on the weather. The day I got there started well when I walked to Fox glacier but gradually turned cloudy and rainy. I walked to the Franz Josef glacier in pouring rain and got soaked, but there was no way that I wasn’t going to walk all the way to see it. Was it worth it? Yes, because I would have regretted it if I didn’t, but I did think that Fox was better. Both beautiful walks though, through the valleys where the glaciers used to be (not sure valleys is the right word but not sure what they’re actually called) with different coloured rock, waterfalls and a bit of a barren, stark beauty.

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Glaciers down and a cheeky drizzly walk around Lake Matheson. Then, another night, another pretty DOC campsite.

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The next morning I drove the short distance to a small town on the coast called Hokitika, where I spent the morning carving my own bone and shell pendant with Don King. Well, not actually Don King, but Steve, the shop owner, sure did look like him. A great way to spend a rainy morning, much fun and I’m pretty stoked with my piece of jewellery, which is actually supposed to be two bird wings in the shape of a heart. Whether you think that’s what it is is up for debate, but that’s what it started out as from a sketch by the lovely Dan.

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Unfortunately the rain didn’t really stop much, so I had a drizzly cloudy drive through Arthurs Pass, but it was still pretty amazing, even in the mist. The only thing not amazing was the crisps I bought in Arthurs Pass village for $5.50. Daylight robbery, they are $1.50 in the shops anywhere else! That’s what you get from a shop in the middle of a mountain pass I guess. And, I could have just not bought them, but I had a serious craving for salt and vinegar crisps and I just HAD to have them.

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Another night, another DOC site and a drive through Springfield (complete with pink doughnut) and I got to the seaside, whoop whoop! This time on the east coast in Kaikoura where I had an hour or two strolling along the top of the cliffs watching the sea, marvelling at the sky and the flocks of birds flying in the shape of a dolphin (yes, REALLY). Incredible. Followed by watching seal pups play in a waterfall and stream. Mum, again, you would have LOVED this.

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Another night, at a beachside DOC site this time. After a beautiful sunrise and being given breakfast from a lovely couple from the North Island in their campervan (which doesn’t sound like a lot but when your normal breakfast is a banana, or sometimes a banana and a cereal bar, a bowl of cereal and bit of warm toast with jaaaaaaam is like a veritable banquet fit for a king), I drove up to Picton and across along Queen Charlotte Drive towards Nelson through the Marlborough Sounds.

A beautiful drive but, like Arthurs Pass, a bit obscured by low cloud and drizzle. Still, it’s fun to drive round incredibly twisty blind roads in the mountains near the water (hmm, no wonder my injured arm is hurting). I was also kept amused by all the post boxes. As they’re all little boxes on the side of the road rather than letter boxes in doors, some people decide to go to town and have all sorts of stuff. Little houses, animals, stick men on horses, vehicles, fish, you name it, they had it. My favourite was the mini campervan. An exact replica, in mini size. Wasn’t able to stop and get a picture though unfortunately, you’ll just have to trust me on that one.

I stayed in Nelson for two nights, but didn’t really see anything. Two reasons. One, I had a load of admin to do, having not had internet for ages and two, it got stormy. Proper gale force winds, heavy rain and flooding. Luckily, I wasn’t camping, I’d treated myself to a hostel for a couple of nights. I couldn’t have timed it better, although looking back, I should have stayed another night, but I was getting cabin fever and needed to get back out on the road. It carried on raining and flooding on Good Friday and my plan was to drive up to Golden Bay and Farewell Spit (and Abel Tasman National Park), right at the north west corner of the North Island, but I didn’t manage it. It was raining and flooding so bad the roads were being washed away. And yes I had a ute, but I’m pretty sure Mike wouldn’t have appreciated me trying to go all Indiana Jones in his car. So, after about an hour and a half of driving and it getting worse and worse, I turned round and headed back, and ended up in a DOC campsite in Nelson Lakes National Park. It was still raining when I pitched up, so I spent the night in the back of the truck. There was no way I was pitching a tent in that. When I went to sleep I was the only vehicle in the whole campsite, but when I woke up there was a campervan right next to me. Like, about 2 feet away. The rest of the site was empty. Why? Strange people. That’s like blokes taking the next urinal when there’s other empty ones, or someone sitting right next to you on a bench when the other end is free. We Brits just don’t do that.

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The weather got better the next day. The rivers were still high but the rain had stopped and rainbows were out. The clouds started to lift and by the time I got to Hanmer Springs the sun was out and it was a beautiful Autumn day, perfect for scrunching all the leaves and climbing to the top of Conical Hill.

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And then, just as quick as it started, I was back in Christchurch and my road trip was over. Safely back in one piece, nearly 4000km later, I’d had the most amazing 6 weeks.

Incredible scenery and time out to spend by myself. To be at one with nature and the outdoors. Yes, I know it sounds wanky but it’s true. When I was at the top of Mount John or the Sealy Tarns with no one else around, it was so peaceful and so good for the soul. You should try it sometime. I’ve always liked and needed my own space, and loved the outdoors, but this was just something else. I’ve decided mountains are good for me, it’s just a shame we don’t have that many in the UK.

I met some truly brilliant people along the way, and had so much fun. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in a while, and I’ve learnt so many things (mainly being that I just can’t drink on consecutive nights, or that if I’m going to drink shots I need to prepare myself for a hangover the next day, REGARDLESS of how much water I drink and how many burgers I eat at 3am).

I’ve experienced that kindness and generosity of strangers yet again, and been surrounded by people who are open, friendly, positive and enthusiastic. Whether I’m in a travellers bubble, or that’s just New Zealand, I’m not sure. Maybe a bit of both, Either way, I’m not complaining.

I can’t end of course without saying one last thank you to Mike, for the loan of his truck and Jennie, for her amazing hospitality. They’ve been the backbone and launching pad for my adventure and I’ll not forget it.

South Island, it’s been a total pleasure.

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New Zealand road trip: part three.

Queenstown to Milford Sound (and back again). Via Glenorchy.

After another night in Queenstown, recovering from the night before after a couple of beers turned into a Big Night Out, I finally headed out towards Glenorchy for the next bit of my roadtrip, this time with a bit of company with Johnny, the Irish guy I’d met in Wanaka and then again in Queenstown. Him in his campervan, me in the ute.

Driving to Glenorchy is pretty special. A road that hugs the side of the mountains along Lake Wakatipu, snaking in and out and round and round. You can’t go particularly fast, but you wouldn’t want to, because you’d miss it all. There was a bit of low cloud when we were driving up so we didn’t get the full in-your-face-blue of the lake, but I quite like it when the cloud hangs around the top of the mountains. It’s pretty and reminds me of my Dad telling me to make sure I take lots of pictures of the land of the long white cloud for him.

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Glenorchy itself is a tiny little village with not a lot there. People go there for all the walks around and nearby (it’s the start of the Routeburn track). We did the Glenorchy walkway to see the black swans (they seem so much more exotic than white swans), then spent a few hours just sat on a jetty in the sunshine staring out at the lake and the mountains. Just doing nothing but talking about everything and anything; like you do when you are getting to know someone. It was a most wonderful few hours and one of those moments where there was nowhere else I would have rather been.

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We headed up to a DOC campsite at Lake Sylvan. I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned the DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites before. If I have, then sorry. Great little places, cheap as chips (About $6 a night) and always in some of the most beautiful scenery going. Not a lot of facilities, but that kind of enhances the experience. Makes it more authentic. And really makes you appreciate the small things.

Like a shower.

This campsite was pretty cute, some great walks on the doorstep and of course, this being New Zealand, mountains in the background (forget land of the long white cloud, it should be called land of the many mountains).

After a little walk to the lake (renamed Dead Dog Lake due to a piece of wood that looked spookily like a, erm, dead dog) and making friends with a bird called Ray, we had the first night of cooking on the little stove that Johnny got in his campervan. Well, when I say cooking, I mean Johnny heating up a tin of beans and making a cup of tea for us. But, as it was more than either of us had done so far when on the road, I’d say it counts as cooking (pretty much like the time Marsha ‘cooked’ tea for me in Queenstown – definitely counts).

This was probably my favourite night of camping. I’m not sure why, but as I sat there eating my bowl of beans and drinking tea with no milk, it just felt like a pretty perfect evening.

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A lot of the area around Glenorchy was filmed for Lord of the Rings, and the area on the right as you drive up to Lake Sylvan is actually Isengard, not that I’d be able to recognise it mind you. But still, nice to know I’ve actually been there. After a sunset over the mountains, it was back for a night and a beer or two in Glenorchy then onwards to Te Anau to start the drive to Milford Sound.

It takes a couple of hours to drive along Milford Road from Te Anau to Milford Sound but it’s recommended to take your time as there’s loads of places to stop, and DOC campsites galore. We had another perfect night at Henry’s Creek campsite where we played our made up game (sticks and stones) on the edge of the lake until the sun went down then laid and star gazed at the amazing New Zealand night sky for hours. Anyone that’s been to NZ will know about the stars. You can stare at them forever yes? One of life’s simple pleasures. This whole week was about enjoying the moment and the simple things in life. No wifi, no TV, not many other people. Wonderful.

Mirror Lakes, Mistletoe Lake, Lake Gunn nature walk, the three-tiered Humbolt Falls, the Homer Tunnel and The Chasm were all stop offs on Milford Road. Marvels of nature; more massive mountains, waterfalls, forests, weird rocks, and wildlife. The drive was just incredible, my favourite driving day for sure. It was just spectacular.

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The end of a days driving was Milford Sound, and the heart of Fiordland. The best way to see it is from the water, cruising through in between all the amazing mountains and sheer cliff faces, waterfalls metres high tumbling out of the rock to get out into the Tasman Sea and back again. We saw seal colonies sunning themselves on the rocks, and dolphins gave us a show a few times, even swimming along with us in front of the boat for a while, just 10 feet below us. A rare treat and it felt really special to have experienced it. Beautiful, beautiful creatures, I was close enough to be able to see all the different markings and how they glided along in the water, jumping out every now and then. Mum, you would have absolutely loved this.

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Another stop at the Totara DOC campsite on Milford Road (purely because it had my name in it) where we saw the most amazing sunset over the river that ran through it.

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A fitting end for the last night of our roadtrip together before Johnny went onto Wanaka and I went back to Queenstown for a few days before the last part of my roadtrip.

A bit of a ‘this is what we did, where we went and what we saw’ blog post but, well, this week has a lot of personal memories that I guess I don’t really want to write down and share. It was one of the best weeks on my road trip with a fab person to spend it with and I have a whole host of wonderful memories that I’ll cherish forever.

 

New Zealand road trip: part two.

Queenstown and Wanaka. Two similar but wildly different places. Like they’d say in SE Asia, same same but different.

Legendary Queenstown. Home of everything adrenaline. Home to everything big. Big burgers, big mountains, big shots and big hangovers. In your face, busy and bustling.

Wanaka. Laid back, chilled and understated. A place to relax and enjoy and eat fresh cookies at the cinema.

In Queenstown I met up with Marsha again, who I’d first met in Christchurch through a mutual friend. What followed was a fuzzy week of friendship forming, non-stop alcohol, shots, hangovers, lots of laughter, hill climbing, grass sitting, food eating, film watching, sandwich cooking, men watching, life-sorting-out stuff. We met the delightful V from California too, who made us crack up laughing almost every minute with her crazy stories and theories.

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We made the rather fantastic bar Cowboys our local. It’s like the Wild West. The bar stools are saddles, there’s other table stools that have sides (perfect for me), the pumps are guns, there’s a good supply of cowboy hats to wear, a full size grizzly bear to meet you at the door and even a mechanical bull. Yep, a mechanical bull. I didn’t ride it because of my rib, but I spent many a time watching all the other drunkards have a go (when I say have a go, I mean spend ages trying to get ON the thing, only to be promptly bucked off in half a second. Especially if the guys controlling it were feeling mischievous – that happened a lot to cocky blokes who thought they’d be the one to give a good show. Fail.). It also played the same music all the time, although I only clocked onto this after a good few visits, when I realised there was only so many times I could watch Jessica Simpson strut around singing about boots made for walking and wondering what the relevance of her washing a car in a bikini was to the song.

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We drank a lot of shots and met a lot of people. Nearly every night in our hostel someone was drinking, pre-drinking or going out. Most of the nights just started innocently with a drink or two. None of our nights out were planned. The best way. An average bedtime was around 3am, after a legendary Fergburger, which, after a night out, is the BEST THING EVER. I’m sure it’s good sober too, but I never really experienced that. My hangover food of choice was Noodle Canteen.  They did wicked chicken fried rice in a little cardboard noodle takeaway box, great when eaten in the sun on the grass near the lake, chatting about life, the world and the size of men’s appendages.

I rediscovered jager bombs and tequila slammers, mainly thanks to Damien who would always buy a round of shots quite early on. And well, from then on, you’re committed.*

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It was in Queenstown (well firstly in Wanaka but again in QT) where I also met Johnny, an Irish guy I went on to travel with for a week. We all went out for a ‘few drinks’. Ended in a Big Night Out, lots of shots and not a lot of sleep. We all slept in hammocks in the garden in the sun the next day. He did the Nevis bungy jump. Poor bloke.

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But Queenstown wasn’t all about the drinking or nightlife (although, that’s a huge part of it for all travellers, and it sucks you in). I couldn’t do any of the adrenaline stuff (and you can do pretty much anything here. Bungy jumping, jet boats, paragliding, skydives, etc, etc) but I could appreciate the natural beauty of the place. It’s often described as one of the prettiest places to visit, and they’d be right. It’s in a great setting, on the edge of Lake Wakatipu with The Remarkables and other mountain ranges surrounding it and the Queenstown Gardens jut out in the middle, full of trees. In autumn, they are all a glorious mix of red, yellows and greens and well, my eyes had a treat every day I was here. As anywhere in New Zealand, there’s a few walks dotted about, and the views from the top of Queenstown Hill and Bob’s Peak are pretty special, and worth the walk/climb (also helps sweat out the alcohol and burger from the previous night).

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Queenstown was also the place where I used a hairdryer for the first time in months. This might not sound a lot but, oh my, this was a Big Deal. Such a treat! Smooth straight hair for once. It’s the little things in life you know.

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Marsha and I also hopped across to Wanaka for a few days (pretty nice drive in/over the Crown Ranges) to have a bit of a chill out from the madness. Wanaka is like Queenstown’s more laid back cousin (and apparently is what QT was like 20 or so years ago). Just as pretty, just as many hills and mountains to climb but much less busy, less frenetic and much less drinking.

We both loved Wanaka. It was really nice and chilled and we spent a great few days walking, trundling around, eating, drinking $12 cider (Marsha), shopping (Marsha), being propositioned in the supermarket (Marsha) watching very random open mic/karaoke nights (Swedish/english rap anyone?) and visiting what is possibly the best cinema in the world (but possibly not the best film in the world – Pompeii). Cinema Paradiso is a small independent cinema, that has all kinds of seats. Couches, cinema seats, cars (yes, you can sit in a car), bus seats etc. They also sell homemade ice cream and bake cookies in the first half of the film, so at the intermission you can buy warm cookies (whose smell wafts into the cinema near to half time. Mmm freshly baked cookie smell.) for that cookie-induced sugar coma for the second half of the film. Oh, and they’re also licensed so you can buy wine and beer to take in with you, although at nearly $10 a glass it;s not cheap. Lincolnshire people, it’s like the Kinema in the Woods on steroids.

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If you’re visiting Wanaka and only do one walk, do Roy’s Peak. It’s 1578m, so just over 200m higher than Ben Nevis (1344m), the highest mountain in the British Isles. It’s a hard climb, very steep and tough, but, well, well worth it for the view. It’s just incredible. I did gasp when I saw THIS in front of me:

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Definitely a “f**k me” moment. It didn’t look real. The colours, the texture, the view. It was like a painting, stretched out in a technicolour 360 degree view. It’s the middle peak in this picture, by the way:

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We also walked to the Rob Roy Glacier (after a near miss with a cow on the way) and Mount Iron, as well as around the lake. Pretty active yet chilled out few days.

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Then of course we went back to Queenstown and hit it hard that night.

 

 

 

*Disclaimer/note to the parents, I was quite sensible and never got completely rip roaring drunk or put myself in dodgy situations. My rib is still intact and I didn’t fall over once. I think.

 

I’m still here.

Just in case you were wondering. Yep, still here, just not had much internet. I’ve been in New Zealand about 5 and a half weeks now, and most of that has been on a road trip around the South Island. I’ve been spending a few weeks camping in remote spots, climbing mountains, getting drunk, eating Ferburgers, walking in the rainforest, being hungover, watching stars, driving a ute with my favourite tunes blasting out, making friends, making jewellery, enjoying a cuddle or two, playing sticks and stones, getting sprayed by waterfalls, cruising with dolphins, watching seal pups play in the river, sitting on the beach, seeing a glacier up close and getting soaked in the rain.

It’s been a blast, but there’s still a few days left of my road trip. I’ll blog in more detail when I get a bit of downtime, but in the meantime, here’s a few photos. I have many, many more where they come from. Seriously. I have about 3 million photos of mountains, lakes and streams.

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Back to the fold.

I’m back in Melbourne now after my Tasmania adventure (and a little blog hiatus). And what an adventure. I had an incredible time; Tasmania is one of the most wonderful places I have been to so far. I fell in love with it and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back there one day.

I’ll be working on a blog post over the next few days, and I’m pretty sure it might just be an interesting one. Stay peeled! In the meantime, here’s a few photos to give you a bit of a taster…

Australia: the story so far.

I’ve been in Melbourne for a month now. A MONTH. How has that happened?!!

I adore it. I’ve not been doing the normal travelling stuff here. I’ve been staying in one place for a start. I’ve not done a lot of sightseeing stuff. Or any tours. I guess you could say I’ve been living here rather than travelling. Which suits me just fine. I was about ready for a break from all the moving about. It’s been like going home without actually going home.

I’ve been staying with some friends who have just been brilliant. Made me feel right at home and have done so much for me; from giving me a place to stay to taking me out and about, to feeding me copious amounts of amazing food, to buying me a Christmas present and lending me a bike and all the gear so I can get around. Amongst other things. Not sure how I will be able to repay them!

I’ve not just been sat on my bum for a month though. Oh no. I’ve actually been quite busy. It’s hard work this travelling lark. What have I been doing? Read on.

I said I’d be back on the fitness stuff when I got to Australia, and OH YES I HAVE. Just check out my Runkeeper stats for the proof!! I’ve been running, walking, biking and running some more. It’s been GREAT. The weather has been much better for it (cooler, no humidity and a bit unpredictable. Just how I realise I like it!) and there’s so much opportunity for it here; it’s not an abnormal thing. I have to be careful to not do too much too soon though, so I’ve been trying to take it a bit easy but I’ve been so excited to get out there and get moving I’ve probably done a bit more than I should. I have to remember I’m probably not quite at the fitness level I was back in May 2013 before I left! My left knee is a bit whingey at the moment, and I need it to be on top form the next few weeks so I need to keep an eye on that. But most days I’ve done some kind of exercise. Whoop! I’ve biked, ran or walked to and around Westerfolds Park (beautiful) and Bundoora Park, along the Yarra River and Darebin creek. There are hundreds of places to explore here, all along bike and walking trails, so no need to go along any roads really. It’s just wonderful.

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So, what else?

I’ve been into Melbourne city a few times. It’s only 20 minutes on the train so not far away at all. I’ve had a good wander around the streets looking at all the buildings, done a bit of window shopping (I have neither the spare funds, space in my backpack or inclination to do anything more than that to be fair), went to the Botanical Gardens, took the City Circle tram and went up to the top of the Eureka Tower. I ate my lunch in the Carlton Gardens, walked down by the river where I watched people eating and drinking on the outside BBQ’s there (BRILLIANT facility) and marvelled at the Melbourne street art. I watched live music in Federation Square, got lost in the laneways, visited the State Library of Victoria and saw the famous Myer Christmas window display with Bob and La.  Melbourne’s great because the CBD is small enough to wander round really easily, and on a grid system so if you do get a bit lost you just keep walking until you come to a main road and you can soon sort yourself out again.

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I’ve ran in the city too. The first run was with the Run Bird Crew, a running group from a running shop in the city not long after I arrived in Melbourne. A nice bunch of people, I ran around 7km with them, at a pretty fast pace. The guy from the shop (who incidentally was a better looking version of David Beckham – yes, I didn’t know there was such a thing either. Phew.) said it was faster than they normally go. Well, my body definitely felt it. Although, it was good to be pushed, and great to be running with other people again. Even if I didn’t actually run with anyone much, and was last to get back to the shop, haha! I also ran around Albert Park doing my very first parkrun – you can read about that here. Still on the list to do is to run around the Tan – a bit of an icon in Melbourne and something I have to do.

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Bob and La had a Christmas BBQ to celebrate with all their friends before they went on holiday, so I got to eat loads of scrummy food, drink beer, chat with lots of interesting people and make new friends. In the sun. In December. Very cool.

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I went cherry picking near Red Hill, south of Melbourne. It’s is a popular thing here (very similar to strawberry picking in the UK), and one of Bob and La’s Christmas traditions. It was great to see the countryside around the city, as well as have a picnic and eat lots of mage cherries straight off the trees. Yum. On the way back we stopped at Frankston beach which reminded me of South Africa – bright blue sea and golden beaches. Stunning.

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Christmas happened. I’ve already written about that though. And of course, New Year follows Christmas. This year, for New Year’s Eve I got invited by a new friend to join them and their neighbours in a 6 course Japanese banquet and after party. Oh my word. So much food. So much good food. So much amazing food. It was a great atmosphere and I love meeting new people. It was wonderful to see this real life, slightly unconventional, community of family, friends and neighbours in a Melbourne suburb. And I met Australian people! Hurrah!

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I went for a walk with a new friend in Warrandyte which was just stunning. All trees and river and lovely scenery. These places that are technically in the city of Melbourne are just cracking and could have you fooled that you’re out in the countryside. Definitely a green city here.

I went hiking up and around Mount Dandenong with some more new friends. Spectacular views and a bit of a challenging walk. More fresh air, good exercise, one of my favourite things to do and good company. Oh, and we finished with tea and scones. Not bad eh?

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I went to Brighton beach on a hot day, again with some new friends. Lovely to get to know people who live here as I can experience Melbourne like a local. Experience life here. How else will I figure out whether it’s for me or not, long term? 😉 On this day it was supposed to get to about 38 degrees, so what better thing to do than hit the beach in a bikini? We had about an hour and a half of hot weather before I got to witness the famous ‘Melbourne cool change’! Where the wind direction and temperature changes, and the air temperature drops significantly within the space of a few minutes. Cue everyone on the beach trying to hold onto their umbrellas and day tents, avoid being blasted in the face with sand while packing everything up. Beach abandoned, we did what anyone would do and decamped to a nearby trendy pub to drink afternoon cider.

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I’ve watched quite a lot of films. I don’t feel like I’ve seen any for months (apart from the odd one on a plane) so it was nice over Christmas to sit down and watch a few. Especially when they were accompanied by some chocolate. Mmm. Chocolate.

When I was in Zambia last year I made a friend who was from Melbourne. Of course we said we’d have to meet up when I got to Australia. Back then, that seemed like ages away. And all of a sudden it’s here. And we met up. Jenny took me to the Sherlock Holmes Inn. Very English. We had fish & chips. Very English. I had two glasses of rose wine. Not quite so English. They were £5 each. For a small glass. Australia is expensive.

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I went to St Kilda for a walk along the beach and a wander round the streets. It’s a quirky little place, with lots of bakeries (yes, I resisted all those lovely cakes as part of my trying-to-give-up-sugar thing I’ve got going on), cafe and little shops. There’s also an amusement park called Luna Park, which reminded me of the fair at Skegness. It even had a theatre right next to it. just like the Embassy Centre. I had a walk to the end of the pier – there’s a cracking view looking back towards the beach with the city in the background. I love the skyscrapers of Melbourne’s CBD. Hopefully I’ll get to go to a rooftop bar or cinema before I leave Australia.

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I saw kangaroos and koalas at Healsville Sanctuary. I’ve not seen any in the wild yet, so this was the next best thing. It’s not a zoo, more a wildlife sanctuary where native Australian animals are taken to be looked after, rehabilitated and breeding programs are carried out to fight extinction for some of the country’s most endangered animals. I loved seeing all the animals, especially a platypus (which is much smaller than I thought, and very cute), kangaroos, koalas, wombats and tasmanian devils. Mainly because I’ve never seen any of them in real life before. And there were so many amazing birds too. Birds over here are really colourful. Healsville is out in the Yarra Valley, which is a pretty nice part of Australia. Quite quaint, lots of countryside and green stuff and very pretty. A popular place for people to visit and live. It also has a place called Badger Creek. I liked this. I’d move there, just to have an address that had Badger Creek in it. Bob drove back round Mount Donna Buang and through the rainforest so I could stop and see it, which was pretty cool. Not quite like a tropical rainforest; this one was a bit chilly under the tree canopy for a start, and all mossy and damp.

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I went out for Afghan food one night with Bob and La on Brunswick Street. Brunswick Street is a famous trendy street in the Fitzroy suburb filled with bars, restaurants and quirky shops. Luckily since I’ve been in Melbourne I’ve bought some ‘normal’ clothes so I didn’t feel too out of place. Although I’m never going to completely fit in somewhere uber trendy. Because I’m just not, well, trendy enough. But the food here was great. Really great. Not had Afghan food before but now I have. Would recommend.

I went to a BBQ at the next door neighbours. Hosted by Kieran, Anthea and their two kids. Oh, and a visit from Anthea’s mum Lorna who lives the other side. As my Film Club buddies pointed out, this was a real life ‘Neighbours’ situation. They were lovely. The food was great. Their house is beautiful; they built it themselves, so it’s all new, shiny and modern. Their kitchen island is to die for. Want. I’ll hopefully see them again when I get back from Tasmania as they are (or more specifically, Kieran is) convinced that this Pom will end up stranded or dead somewhere.

There’s been more. I’ve walked around the suburb of Ivanhoe and pretty much know where everything is now. I know short cuts to the shops and train station, and recognise where I am on the bike trails near the creek. I’ve taken the dog for many walks to Darebin Parklands where there’s a strange egg shaped sculpture near a hill and free dog poop bags. I’ve fallen asleep on the train but never missed my stop, bought a pear as a snack instead of a chocolate bar (progress) and woken up pretty much every day without an alarm. I’ve got to know my friends here more and have enjoyed seeing them in their everyday family life. I’m so pleased I’ve been able to meet their daughter, who is just the most wonderful little person. I’ve been made to feel so at home and welcome, which, after 6 months on the road, was so needed you have no idea.

My next adventure will hopefully start this weekend. I’m going to fly to Launceston in Tasmania with a bike, some clothes and a tent and spend a few weeks cycling down the east coast of the island. I’ve got a vague route planned out, but nothing booked or set in stone; keeping it flexible, baby. I’ll be covering an average of around 50km a day, which is around 30 miles. So not too far. I’ve got my padded shorts ready to go. I’m looking forward to combining some of my favourite things; a bit of fitness with a bit of adventure and travel. Excited? YOU BET. Bring it ON, mofo.

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Captivating Cambodia.

Cambodia. A country full of character, history, scenery, lively people and good food. We had about 2 and a half weeks in this amazing country. The first and main thing for anyone going to Cambodia is to go and see Angkor Wat. Obviously a must. But. There’s much more to it than that. It could be said that Cambodia got a bit of a bum deal from us in terms of travelling time. We spent 10 days at the beach in Sihanoukville not doing anything. Not seeing anything, not exploring, not taking any pictures. Because, after all the other SE Asia travelling, we were worn out and ready for a holiday. So, yep, we ate into our Cambodia exploring time to be beach bums. But, it was worth it. I don’t feel like we missed anything, or sacrificed anything. In fact, those 10 days gave us some great times, great fun, new friends and even though Sihanoukville doesn’t feel like the real Cambodia, we met some of the loveliest Cambodian people going. And still had plenty of time to go visit those Angkor temples and to find out more about the Khmer history, include the Khmer Rouge regime.

From Sihanoukville, feeling more relaxed than someone who’s spent a whole year in a spa, we made our way to Siem Reap on a hotel bus. What’s a hotel bus I hear you ask? Well, it’s kind of like a posh sleeper bus. Little compartments for two, with completely flat beds and pillows/blankets, separated to the rest of the bus by curtains with headphones and music (Dr Dre beats no less, although of course they are the fake ones you can get out here). Normally you have to pay extra for this compared to the normal sleeper bus but we ended up being upgraded onto this one for free. Bonus. A pretty decent night’s sleep followed, and we wound up in SR in the morning surprisingly fresh and sprightly. When we originally booked our ticket the woman said she would organise a tuk tuk to take us from the station to the middle of town for free as part of our ticket. We were a bit sceptical, as you learn to take what people say about transport with a pinch of salt as it’s often not quite the case. So, we gave the name James Bond as a bit of a joke. But, sure enough, there was our tuk tuk driver holding up the sign JAMES BOND. I so wish I’d taken a picture but I was too busy fending off other tuk tuk drivers. Honestly, they’re like wasps round a jam jar as soon.as.you.get.off.the.bus. In your face. Literally. I’ve had to push some of them away before. They ignore what you say most of the time too.

The usual routine followed. I’m sure you know it by now. Find a guesthouse. Haggle for a good price. Dump bags. Get food if not eaten. Go for a wander. Find cheap beer. Drink beer. And that’s pretty much what we did the first day. We had our first beer at 11.40am. I don’t remember going to bed but Nick says I collapsed on my bed at about 9pm. We found a great bar on Pub Street doing cheap 50c beer where we sat for around 7 hours. We made some new friends from the USA, Doncaster and Ireland, and all sat there getting drunk. It was a most fabulous day, even if I don’t remember all of it. I do remember my foot bleeding a lot (I’d ripped part of my big toenail off somehow) and falling asleep in the hotel restaurant while waiting for a burger though. Just a usual drunken night out. Only this one cost us $7 each. That’s less than a fiver. For a 7 hour, 14 beer, drinking session. The next day was fairly relaxed, and I didn’t have a hangover. Extremely surprised at this. Either my tolerance level is back up or I was still drunk for most of the day. I suspect the former, the latter would just be scary. Walked lots. Suspect this helped.

The day after was Angkor Temple day. Whoop! You must have heard of Angkor Wat? Or the Temples of Angkor? If not, learn more here. It’s somewhere I’ve always fancied visiting if I ever got the chance, so I kind of woke up a bit excited. There’s bloody loads of temples in the whole complex, but there was three I really wanted to see: Angkor Wat (the main and most famous temple complex), Angkor Thom (the huge city, including Bayon which is the temple with the faces) and Ta Phrom (the one that’s overgrown with trees, as seen in the Tomb Raider films). So, after negotiating hard for a tuk tuk, we ended up with a sparky young lad as our driver for the day. For $6 he took us round. Little star!

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The temples were beautiful. All different in their own way. Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time, that iconic view that I’d seen so often in other pictures, was mesmerising. Made even the more better by bumping into some old friends we first met in Laos. What a spot for a final goodbye, as they’re off to Indonesia, Nick’s off back to Thailand and I’m off to Australia, so no more chances to bump into them. I’m hoping to meet up with them in Oz or NZ though, if the universe plays ball and dates and places collide. Angkor Wat is huge. Really, really massive. Loads of rooms, courtyards, corridors, nooks and crannies. It was also crammed with people, no surprise there. Lots of tour groups. Especially from Japan and China. Who always seemed to be going the opposite direction to me. Especially where there were steps or small doorways. One chap from a tour group even decided to use my leg as support when he fell up some steps. And I didn’t even get a thank you.

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In a way it reminded me of the Taj Mahal, although it’s not really similar in the slightest. I can’t quite explain why, it just does. Maybe the size and scale and, well, I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. It was also lovely to bump into some friends we made on our very first night in Laos, all those weeks ago. Ross and Emma, a permanently cheery, lovely couple have been a bit of a permanent fixture in Laos and Vietnam. We kept bumping into each other all the way round, in different places, which was lovely. But we all realised that this would be the last time, as we were all heading off in different directions after Siem Reap. Although, I hopefully might be able to meet up with them in New Zealand, if dates and schedules line up. It was a sad day, a realisation that the next adventure was soon upon us, which, of course while exciting, also means the current one has to come to an end.

Angkor Thom and Bayon were next. I liked these. They weren’t as restored as Angkor Wat, and were a lot less crowded. I didn’t get pushed or grabbed, or fallen on. Oh, although I did get rudely told to move out of the way while I was taking a photo, so someone else could take on. I may have taken longer to finish my photo after that. Well. How rude.

I liked the faces of Bayon, they all seemed to have a bit of a self-satisfied dreamy smile. It made me wonder what they were thinking of. Yes, I know they’re not real but you know what I mean. Or, they could be magical mystical things that come alive at night when no-ones watching. You never know.  Travelling means keeping an open mind, so, who knows?

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But it was Ta Phrom that I think I was most looking forward to. This is the one that’s all overgrown with trees. Where nature has been left to do it’s thing, and you can see how destructive and powerful it can be. Huge trees have grown into, over and through the bricks. The one that was used in the Tomb Raider films (apparently, I’ve never seen them). It was beautiful. Eerily beautiful. Amazing to see all the roots and how they spread. The trees were huge. Really, really huge. It does just remind me how we can be at the mercy of nature. Ok, so there’s no immediate danger to us from these trees (as far as I know they’re not killer trees), but it just shows how things you think are strong can be reduced to a crumbling heap by nature. It’s powerful. We should never forget that, and give it the respect it deserves.

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There’s so many more temples to visit, but these are the ones I wanted to see. I think any more and I would have been templed out. (This can be a common affliction while in Asia). It’s funny, the complex reminded me of Clumber Park (England), India and Mexico in different ways at different times. The more places I go to, the more triggers of memories I seem to get. The joy of travel, eh?

Siem Reap was a great place to hang out. It had a great little vibe. It’s only really a tourist destination because of the temples, but there’s actually lots of other stuff to do too. We hired bikes one day and went out to a couple of the rural villages on the edge of the Tonle Sap lake. It was awesome. The villages were very rural, and it was clear the people who lived there didn’t have a lot of money. But, the people we saw, especially the children, we just lovely. Shouting and waving to us as we biked past.

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We also went and gave blood at Angkor Children’s Hospital. I wanted to do something to help, and I haven’t been able to give blood in the UK last year and of course when I’ve been away, so this seemed perfect. Everyone who can give blood, should. It saves lives, and is vital. I started as soon as I was old enough at 17 and have given as often as I can since then. It’s such as easy thing to do but so important. Seeing and hearing the children at the hospital when we went was heartbreaking, and so I’m so pleased I got this chance to help, just a little bit.

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After Siem Reap, I took my last bus journey to Phnom Penh. A long, bumpy ride, I was so over Asian bus rides by the time we got there. I’m glad it was my last. They’ve been fun, and an adventure, but, well, think yourself lucky with the potholes in England. There’s craters over here, and they don’t get filled in. I’m surprised my spine isn’t shattered and that my brain is still in my head.

Phnom Penh is the capital city. We’d already been there once but only for an hour on a bus changeover. We arrived here in the evening, and headed to the South of the city to try and find a place to stay. It was harder here; places were either full or really expensive (well, expensive in the context of Cambodia/SE Asia). As we were wandering around after having no luck for a while, a guy on a scooter stopped us on a street corner, introduced himself as Greg and offered us his spare room. Of course we said yes, hopped onto a tuk tuk and followed him to his house. Why wouldn’t you?

We stayed with him and his two house mates (Cass and Kip) for our last 3 days of the SE Asia adventure, and it was great. No checking in and checking out, they gave us free reign of the apartment and even fed us pizza. Man, it was awesome pizza.

That’s one the beautiful things about travelling. You meet people and you just know. There’s mutual trust. People offer things, you know it’s genuine. No half-arsed offers. I had a 10 minute conversation with someone in Thailand and now have somewhere to stay in Tasmania next month. And I will stay there. It wasn’t just a polite offer.  You get to meet all kinds of interesting people.  A wonderful thing. The world is small and people are lovely.

The real reason for going to Phnom Penh though (apart from me having a flight to Singapore) was to learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime. I’d heard of Pol Pot, but didn’t really know much about him. Now I do.  We visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum which was originally a school, and then the S21 prison, where people were taken to be imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed. It was a haunting place, where blood stains on the floors and photos of the prisoners made it even more impactive. We also visited the Choeung Ek killing fields just outside Phnom Penh, where huge numbers of people were killed. Both were moving experiences, although the overwhelming feeling I had was anger. Such hypocrisy, power, greed and insanity. Such a complex and twisted history. And these weren’t the only prisons and killing fields; there were hundreds all across Cambodia. In total, more than 2 million Cambodian people died. For wearing glasses, for being a teacher, for being educated, for being able to speak a foreign language. All under the direction of a professor and educated man himself who studied abroad. Go figure.

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I know a lot more now, and the more I learn about atrocities like these, the more I struggle to get my head around it. But the more I hope that things like this are in the past. That they will never happen again. That countries around the world will not let it happen. We must educate people so they are aware, raising future generations to stop this.

Cambodia has been a mix of experiences, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. It’s captured my heart and there’s just something about the country that is special. I can’t quite narrow it down to one thing; it’s everything. Everything that I experienced there.

So thank you Cambodia. You were wonderful.

A holiday from the holiday.

That’s what I had recently. 10 days on a beach, eating lots, drinking lots, partying, sleeping, sunbathing, paddling in the sea, a little bit of running and little else. Just resting and having a bit of a holiday.

You probably think, but you’re ON holiday. Why do you need a holiday? That’s just being greedy.

But you know, travelling is tiring. Travelling can be non-stop. Travelling can be hard work. Travelling can be stressful. Travelling is not really the same as a holiday.

Imagine the last weekend away you might have had, where maybe you went to a new city, or a new place. You’ll have to get there, right, so by car, or train or even plane. Then, you need to find your hotel, that you’ve probably already booked, so it’s just a case of finding it. Then, you spend a few days finding places to eat, visiting sights and attractions, lots of walking, taking pictures, new sights and experiences. Then you travel back, and get home and probably feel a little bit worn out, and maybe in need of a little rest.

OK. Now imagine doing that pretty much every day for a few months. Imagine not having any accommodation or travel booked, so all that has to be sorted out on the move or when you arrive in a new city. Getting to a new place and finding your way around. Learning new bits of a different language every few weeks. Organising visas and getting used to new currencies. Packing, unpacking and repacking. Figuring out who’s genuine and who’s trying to rip you off. Finding a laundry to wash clothes. Lugging a heavy backpack about. Getting on and off buses, trains or tuk tuks. Finding cheap places to eat, where you can try the local food without it costing a fortune.

I tell you, it’s a bit tiring. And I’m not knocking it one bit; I do enjoy every minute of it. And please don’t think I’m being ungrateful, I realise how amazing it is for me to be able to do what I’m doing. But boy, I didn’t realise how much I needed a break until I laid on that beach. A break from doing. No going anywhere, no sorting anything out, no photos or sights to see.

Sometimes, travellers need a holiday from the holiday. A chance to recharge, to stay in one place for a while, establish a little bit of a routine and just enjoy the art of not doing.

And oh, it was heavenly. It worked.

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Vietnam vagabond adventures.

The second bit of my Vietnam adventure took in the cities of Hue (pronounced h-way, not huey, like the guy from Yorkshire on our sleeper bus insisted it was), Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (and a lot of loooooong bus journeys in between each one). We’d already booked our sleeper bus tickets in Ninh Binh before we saw on the news that the super typhoon was due to hit Vietnam right on the central coast – right on Hue, the next day – exactly the time we were due to get there. Hmm, not exactly ideal. Luckily for us, it decided to change it’s course and ended up missing the coast completely, although the first day we got there it was very rainy and windy all day (some remnants from the typhoon) so we could do nothing more but have a chill out day. Part of a rainy day in Hue for us resulted in an Indian FEAST because the local Indian restaurant was only a few doors down. Exactly what we did on the first day in Luang Prabang in Laos so we decided to make a tradition. I felt more stuffed than a shop full of teddy bears afterwards but, damn, it was worth it. After weeks of noodles and the like it was bloody lovely to have a change, and reminded me when I was in India back in July.

Hue is an old city with a lot of history, and an imperial city that’s not dissimilar to the Forbidden City in Beijing (although nowhere near as big). Over the couple of [dry] days we had there, we just spent a fair bit of time wandering around the city and hired bikes to get out into some small villages out in the countryside. It was one of my favourite places, mainly because I just had so much fun. My Hue Highlights:

  • Hiring bikes and getting out into the villages. We didn’t have a set route, we just set off down one of the roads out of the city with no map, just a vague sense of direction. We ended up biking through some really small little villages, where I guessed they don’t see many Westerners. Or indeed any at all, judging by the amount of children shouting hello, waving and running after us or taking photos of us and the adults who would nudge the people they were stood next to, and point and stare, mouths almost wide open. Which soon changed into big massive grins when we shouted “hello” to them in Vietnamese. Add to that pretty incredible scenery, the best hire bikes we’ve had so far, and you’ve got one of my most special memories of Vietnam. The real Vietnam.

  • The baguette lady just down the street from our hotel. She did the BEST egg baguettes for breakfast which were cheap as chips, and she was lovely and happy and smiley too. I don’t know what she did to the eggs to make them taste so good but I think it was all in the salt and pepper. We went there every day, and I might have even had two some days, they were that good.

  • The little cafe just down the street from our hotel. We managed to strike a deal with them to get cheap Bia Saigon. They even moved one of their tables and chairs for us so we could sit on the pavement and watch the world go by. We might have just gone there both afternoons for lazy afternoon drinking in the sun.

  • The hotel. We stayed in a really nice place. We managed to bargain the price down making it super cheap (around £2.30 each a night) but it felt like we had splashed out and treated ourselves. It was nice and clean, had air conditioning, the best shower yet, and they even came in every day to make the beds and give us fresh towels! The luxury!

  • The architecture and history. The city, especially the old citadel, is very pretty, in a bit of an old run down kind of way. Lots of old buildings and stuff to look at and photograph. Lots of flowers and green stuff too.

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After Hue, Hoi An was a completely different kettle of fish. Old and historic, but in a completely different way. Very French-colonial and quaint, with lots of old wooden and coloured buildings along the river covered in lanterns swaying in the breeze. It’s an UNESCO world heritage site, just like Luang Prabang in Laos, and it reminded me of LP too. Even down to how touristy it was, Yep, the few old streets near to the river were just full to the brim of tourists strolling round, and all the shops were either art galleries, tailors, handicrafts or bars and restaurants. Vendors from pretty much every shop would shout out as we walked past. When we sat down to have a beer or some food, people would try to sell you stuff while you were sat there, or even eating. I found it a pain in the arse, and I’m even more patient nowadays. Luckily we had learnt the Vietnamese for ‘No thank you’ and ‘I’m not interested’ so once you trotted that out they soon disappeared, but imagine saying it 50 times a day over and over again (and I’m not even exaggerating). Arrghhhh. That aside, it’s a very pretty place, but I couldn’t help but have the feeling that it wasn’t the real Hoi An. Those pretty 3 streets down near the river just all seemed to be geared towards the visitors. The real Hoi An was away from the river, which we managed to explore a little bit before the floods. We found lovely baguette sellers (the Vietnamese like their sandwiches), a smashing little cafe with the friendliest people and the cheapest beers (only about 15p each and buy 2 get 1 free) and the best food stalls for dinner. We never got to explore the beaches because of the floods which is a shame, but all in all I enjoyed my time here, and in fact those few days ended up being a proper little adventure, that I couldn’t have predicted, and that’s what makes Hoi An memorable for me.

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Heard of Saigon? Or Ho Chi Minh City? It’s the same place, a big sprawling city in South Vietnam. It was renamed HCMC in 1976 but it’s still commonly referred to as Saigon (which I think I like better). It’s a 24 hour bus journey from Hoi An. Yep, that’s right, 24 hours. Honestly, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Really. It was actually two 12 hour journeys, split with an hours wait in the middle to change buses. After all my travelling this year, long journeys are now the norm. It’s short journeys that are out of the ordinary. My next flight, from Cambodia to Singapore, is only 2 hours. How exciting, I can’t wait! It’s going to seem like a bit of a treat, haha. I then have a 6 hour wait in Singapore before a 7 hour flight, but hey, that’s not the point.

HCMC is big, loud, brash, noisy, hot, dirty, a bit seedy and IN YOUR FACE. Just how I like a city to be. Well, maybe not the seedy part. The traffic is a nightmare, there’s thousands of scooters and trying to cross the road is like running the gauntlet. Moto drivers and bar owners constantly shout at you to get your business, and the usual baguette and noodle stands line every corner. I have to admit, I was getting a bit ‘city-ed’ out by the time we arrived here. Still, in true travelling style there was a big city out there to be explored, so we spent a few days walking lots, eating, finding cheap beers (naturally) and visiting a museum and war tunnel or two.

In no particular order, my favourite things about Saigon:

  • The scooters. Thousands of them. I love just stepping out into the road and crossing, having them all weave their way around you. I love watching as people transport everything under the sun on them, as well as trying to eat, drink, talk or text all at the same time. I love the scooter helmets and all the different designs.
  • The food. Oh the food. We found some places that were so good we didn’t really go anywhere else. I had one of the best chicken noodle soups I’ve had, only 50p for a huge bowlful, in a little local cafe that would show films opposite a glass factory and a place that sold ice. We spent a few afternoons just sitting, eating and watching Vietnamese life go on. We saw a woman delivering a massive pane of glass on the back of a scooter (at first glance you couldn’t see the glass and we just thought she was throwing her hands in the air like she just didn’t care). We saw the young guy delivering ice on the back of his scooter, dripping water and soaking from where he’d been sat up against the bags. We watched a bit of Terminator 3 and drank iced tea after our soup. We found a little family run egg baguette place where we’d go every morning; they’d bring stools out for us to sit on, give us water to drink, and sometimes a bit of fruit. While eating some of the tastiest egg sandwiches I’ve had we’d try and have conversations with them but none of us spoke much in the other’s language.
  • The war remnants museum. It was heavily propaganda-ised, however there was an excellent display of press photographs from the war and some related articles, which helped balance it all out a bit. After this last trip here I finally felt like I’d learnt what I wanted to learn about the war.
  • Cheap beer. We found a great little cafe on one of the main streets where they served cheap beer and we could sit and people watch from the tables outside on the street. We went here a few times; the first night resulted in many beers here, then to a lively bar where we drank loads of rum buckets, met some strange people and had a 5am bedtime. Another time we had to move from the front tables on the street because the police came round and were enforcing the pavement space rules (which seemed slightly strange, as the bar was opposite the police station and they saw the tables there every day, and then saw us get up and move the tables away while they were watching. A bit of a bizarre practice.).
  • The people. The local people in Vietnam are cheeky, spirited and generous to a tee. I very much enjoyed the interactions I had with them, especially some of the street hawkers that would come and pester us when we were sat outside drinking beer.
  • City wandering. We had a good old wander and saw parks, cathedral, the post office (we scoffed at people taking photographs inside until we went in ourselves and did the same thing – beautiful building!), statues, skyscrapers, Christmas decorations, posh hotels, the river and other general city stuff. Saigon has a lot of old and new architecture, and quite often both are side by side, and make quite a stunning view.
  • The Cu Chi tunnels. You can go and visit the tunnels made by the Vietnamese during the war, where many people lived underground for years. They were incredible. They’ve been widened by 35% and lights added but blimey, how people lived and used them is beyond me. They are really hot and humid, claustrophobic and even just going about 100m through them was enough for most of us. Seeing the booby traps they used to maim and kill American soldiers was pretty sobering too. A lot of people died in those tunnels. Hugely saddening.
  • Meeting people. We met some interesting people in Saigon; people who were travelling or just on holiday, and people who were living and working there. We also bumped into a few people we’d met in Laos previously. It’s a small travelling world, especially the North>South Vietnam trail so it’s not really surprising, and a wonderful bonus. I love meeting all different kinds of people when travelling; the conversations to be had can be anything from light hearted and fun, to serious, challenging and in depth. I get to find out about how people live in other countries, how they travel, what their beliefs are, what their viewpoints are and it just keeps on opening my eyes even wider to understand all the things that make the world go round.

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I loved Vietnam. I really, really did. I’ve wanted to visit for years, and I’m well chuffed that I now have. I learnt loads, had lots of fun, met some great people, saw some beautiful scenery and had a brill adventure. It’s been my most favourite SE Asian country so far but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Just a feeling. I think I’ll be back someday. There’s so much more of the country to explore, and maybe next time I’ll make it even more of an adventure. And get me one of those scooters.

Bangkok nights.

I’m going to start this post with a caveat that despite spending 5 nights in Bangkok so far I’ve not really done much, so I’m not sure I’ve got much to write about. My friend Nick is joining me in Thailand in about a week and I’ll be heading back to Bangkok to meet him. So I put off some of the tourist things until he arrives. That and I was also feeling a bit ‘templed’ out after India and China. Oh, and I was also fed up with the heat.

So, I had quite a relaxed few days. I had to sort out plans for getting to Koh Mak where I’d spend a week or so before coming back. Sorting out=researching, figuring out how to get there then going and booking bus tickets etc.

I didn’t want to be in the middle of backpacker central, so the place I stayed in was in a mainly Thai residential area south of the river; nice and quiet and away from the madness and crowds. There was a little night market selling mainly meat, fruit and vegetables (most of which I couldn’t recognise and had no idea what they were) that popped up near there so I spent a bit of time walking round it. It was a hive of activity, with people chattering and cooking, the smells and colours all so strong and fresh. It was a full ‘in your face’ experience, making all my senses feel alive and a great way to introduce me to some Thai culture. It also made me pretty hungry so after a bit more wandering I found a little place to eat in. Nothing fancy; just a few tables and a small kitchen at the back. A proper little Thai eating place, where it kind of feels like you’re sat in someone’s living room. There’s no menu, just a load of Thai writing on the wall. The woman couldn’t speak English; I couldn’t speak Thai. We looked at each other with bemused looks on our faces until a chap sat behind me came to the rescue. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing I ended up with some kind of chicken fried rice dish. The tastiest chicken fried rice dish I’d had ever. Add in some fierce chilli flakes from the table and it was incredible. Oh, and the best bit? It cost me less than a £1. “Welcome to Thai food, Paps.” I thought. One of the best things for me about travelling is the food. Trying new food, finding different places to eat. And I’m pretty sure Thailand is not going to disappoint. Especially as they also have fruit carts! I am so excited about this. Carts full of melon, pineapple and other [as yet unidentified and untried] fresh fruit. For pennies. I am SO going to eat healthy while I am here. It’s like the melon on a stick snack carts in China all over again. Such a shame England doesn’t have anything like this. All we have is carb-heavy, calorie laden shitty snacks like pastries, crisps and sweets. No wonder people struggle to eat a healthy diet when out and about, the options are so limited. Maybe that could be my new job when I get back? Fruit-Cart Operative. Wonder how many people would go for it?

That night I sat on the hostel roof with some guys also staying there drinking Chang beer from the local 7/11 (taking dibs on who would do the next beer run), making paper aeroplanes to throw off the roof, watching a thunderstorm in the distance and just chatting about travel, life and the universe. It was such a relaxed evening, a perfect way to spend a few hours, although I’d realised my tolerance to alcohol has definitely diminished and I felt more than a little drunk by the end of it (which was around 2am in the 7/11 getting beer munchie cheese and ham toasties and Hersheys chocolate). I wasn’t drunk enough to forget though that it was a Thursday night, which only means one thing: Film Club night back in the UK, and as 2am here is 8pm back there, my Film Club buddies got a drunken hangout call. I can’t really remember much about the details of the conversation but I remember laughing a lot. And them laughing a lot. And getting chocolate all over myself. Love them.

Walking round this area at night (not while drunk, obviously), down all the little streets and alleyways is like having a glimpse into real life for the people who live here because all the houses have main rooms that all fully open out into the street. It reminded me of those kid’s dolls houses where you could open the front and see into every room. Each building houses something different; people making shoes, people’s living rooms, arcade machines, fabric shops, sewing shops. You name it, there was probably someone doing it. It felt a bit voyeuristic, walking round and gazing into their lives. But a smile and a hello is returned with a wide grin and a warm greeting back, which made me feel better.

One day I went to Lumphini Park and wandered around for a bit, looking for the monitor lizards and checking it out as a possible place to run (it passed). It’s a nice place to pass the time and people watch for a bit. That evening I went out for dinner with a woman who lives in Bangkok, who I know through an internet forum I go on. Another meeting in real life of a random stranger that I only know through the internet, but this time no running, just eating and drinking. I had a great time, and she treated me to dinner and wine at a trendy bar which was super generous of her. I love that the world is such a smaller place nowadays, that I can meet new friends in all kinds of ways and that once again I’m reminded that the world is full of kind, lovely, generous people. It was nice to see a ‘friendly’ face while I’m travelling, and find out more about real life in the city, rather than just hitting the tourist spots. That’s what travelling is about for me.

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And what visit to a big city is not complete without going to Chinatown (via boat)? Now I’ve actually been to China, it’s a bit of a different experience for me. I like it. The one here had lots of small streets with markets, food stalls and everything in between. I’m pretty sure I’ll probably go back again with Nick so didn’t really do much else apart from walk through. Oh, and stop for something to eat at a street stall. Everywhere you go there are little carts that serve up mainly a kind of noodle soup with some kind of meat or meatballs for tiny prices. They quite often have a few tables to sit at nearby so I got my bowl of noodle soup and sat down, adding in chilli flakes to make it a bit interesting. Probably added in a few too many but that’s by the by. They had chopsticks. Oh how I had missed chopsticks over the last few days; forks and spoons seem to be the utensils of choice here. I’d spent a month in China mastering my own special way of using a pair, and really enjoyed it. Now, granted, my method is probably not the same as the ‘proper’ way of using them but it does the job. The chap at the food stall obviously didn’t think so as he came over with a fork as I was halfway through. Hmm. I didn’t think I was that bad. I waved him off with a smile, he returned it with a confused look and a grin.

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I’ll probably go back to Chinatown as I’m pretty sure Nick will want to go there. Nick loves trying new food even more than I do, so I can’t wait for more street food adventures. Mmmm. All that fresh food, packed full of flavour and more heat than you can handle (if you want). Oh, I’m sure we’ll do a bit of sightseeing but it’s the food. It’s all about the food.