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.

 

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.

The flood.

So after missing the super typhoon in Hue, we ended up getting rained on a lot in Hoi An. You might remember because I wrote about it. What I didn’t mention in that blog post is how I wondered where all the rain would go. Because it rained all day and didn’t stop that night, at which point it had been raining A Long Time, and me and Nick did have a brief conversation about where the hell all the rain goes. Well, come the morning, we found out.

It doesn’t go anywhere.

Or, more accurately, it rains into the river, the river bursts its banks and floods parts of the town. More precisely, floods the part of the town that our hotel was in. This was the lobby of the hotel in the morning.

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And the street outside the hotel.

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And it just wouldn’t stop raining for most of the day. The water got to the top of my legs in the end, just below my bum.

 

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To get in or out of of hotel meant wading through this brown, murky flood water. It was an interesting experience – seeing dead cockroaches, rats and rubbish floating past, and seeing live rats swimming for safety. Wading through (in the hotel’s bathroom flip flops – top tip) the water, feeling stuff brushing past your legs and feet and not knowing what it is. Luckily only a couple of streets away was higher than our road and we reached dry land, cheap beer and cafes and settled in for the day to eat, have a few jars and people watch.

We bumped into a few people we’d met travelling over the last month or so and ended up having quite a jolly day. We were careful to limit the cheap beers to a fairly sensible amount though; I didn’t fancy falling over in that flood water when we had to walk back to the hotel. I was successful. Huzzah!

In a way it was quite exciting, all part of the adventure and definitely something new to experience, although at the same time one of those things you kind of hope doesn’t happen in the first place – I wouldn’t wish it to happen just so I could experience it. It was like something you see on TV, and these were people’s lives, homes and businesses that were affected. But in true South East Asian style it was all taken in their stride. No panic, no hysteria, no moaning. Just a get-on-and-deal-with-it attitude. Still smiling, still happy.

We did wonder when the hell the water would go down though, especially with it being so high. How long would we have to wade in and out of our hotel? When would the buses be running again so we could make our way to Ho Chi Minh City? Surely it would be days, if not weeks?

Not so. Amazingly, this was the view from the hotel the next morning.

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All that water. Gone. Overnight.

Flood Day:

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The next day (same spot):

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Incredible huh?

We later heard that there had been flooding over much of central Vietnam, and also landslides in which people had died. It just makes you realise how much we are at the mercy of nature, and that actually, we’re pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

We were lucky; no damage to us or our stuff. Just memories of a new experience, a different adventure and a reminder to be thankful for life, safety and health.

Koh Jum-jumbalaya.

Island life part 2 was spent on Koh Jum, a little island on the Andaman Coast. It was recommended to Nick by some friends as somewhere small, quiet and pretty, away from the tourist crowd. Sounded right up our street so we thought we’d check it out. It’s still low season here in Thailand so a lot of places are closed on the smaller islands so we knew it was going to be pretty quiet, but that’s pretty much what we wanted so we got all packed and ready to leave Bangkok to head south.

I was sad to leave Bangkok again, it’s an awesome place and I was suprised how much I ended up loving it. But, new days, new adventures. I can pack my bag in about 5 minutes now; everything has a place and I know just what goes where. I could probably do it in the dark or with my eyes closed by now too. My packing has changed quite a bit since those first few days. I remember repacking a few bits in my mum and dad’s hotel room in London before I left to go to Heathrow and thinking how I had it sussed. Oh how it has changed. Some stuff I’ve ditched, loads of stuff has moved round and I have a few new bits. It’s weird how normal it is now for me to have my entire life in one bag that isn’t even full. Took a bit of getting used to but now it’s totally normal. As is wearing the same clothes all the time and constantly looking for ways to make my bag lighter. As I said to my family last night when we had a catch up, it’s going to be like Christmas when I get back having all my clothes and shoes to wear. I’ve forgotten what things I actually have. Although Dad, that doesn’t mean you can throw them out and I won’t notice. I WILL. Trust me.

So, we hopped on an overnight bus from Bangkok, and arrived in Krabi at 5am after a bumpy and [fairly] restful 11 hour ride. We had to wait an hour for the sun to come up and the Songthaews (shared taxis, like a pick up with two benches in the back – great little inventions) to start running. One songthaew later, we had another hour wait in Krabi town to get another one to drop us off in Nuea Khlong where we had a two hour wait. One last songthaew and we were ready to get the longtail boat in a place called Laem Kruat. Which we just missed by minutes. So, a one and a half hour wait before the next boat which took 45 minutes to get to Koh Jum, where we then had to get a motorbike taxi. Suffice to say, by the time we got to Woodland Lodge, we were pretty shattered and a bit fed up of travelling. A plate of fried rice, a nice cold beer and a swim in the Andaman Sea later and oh yep, we were feeling much better.

Koh Jum reminded me a lot of Koh Mak, in that it was an island, in low season but there was quite a different feel about the place. There are no cars, and the island only got electricity about 4 years ago. It’s a predominately muslim island, so there were lots of women in the most prettiest headdresses I’ve ever seen, and it felt less like a resort island and more a place where people lived and worked amongst the tourists. And speaking of tourists: there weren’t any. Well, apart from me and Nick, and a couple called Jo and Robbie who were permanent long term travellers and regulars on Kho Jum, this time staying for 6 weeks. So, for nearly a week, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. No one else on the beach, in the sea or on the roads. We were the only ones staying with Ray and Sao at Woodland Lodge so it felt like staying with friends. Sao was the most amazing cook and we never ordered off the menu; we just told her what we liked and she’d cook up a storm for us. Mainly street-style food, including my favourite; Pad-ka-prow. Minced pork cooked with holy basil, garlic, chilli served with rice and a fried egg. I now know this is what I had after my second run in Bangkok. It’s amazingly delicious and I could probably eat it every day. Well, I did on Koh Jum. At least once a day. It’s so hot and spicy and tasty and….yum yum yum. Oh, and there was no wifi. Which was great. Just great to switch off for a bit.

The first day we had a few beers at night, which turned into a few more beers. Laura, my best friend, got married this day back in the UK so we had a few beers to celebrate. Ended up more than a little tipsy and so, what better thing to do than to go onto the beach to look at the stars. I decided this was a perfect place to play Twizzles. This is what me and my friends at primary school used to call spinning round in a circle, arms outstretched looking up at the sky then trying to walk straight. Can you guess what happened next? Yep, I fell over into the sea. So of course, the ONLY thing to do was to go for a swim. Fully clothed. In the bit of the sea with all the rocks. I only shredded my leg a little bit. It’s healing nicely now. It was HUGE amounts of fun, and something else I’ve never done. Until now. New experience? Check.

I’m very sad I missed Laura’s wedding. But, I made sure she had some messages and bits from me on her special day, and I rang her in the morning for a quick chat. We’ll have another celebration together when I see her next year so all will be good. Cheers dude!SONY DSC Koh Jum was also the place where my beloved Merrell flip flops met their demise. The comfiest, most brilliant flip flops I have ever owned. Now, ok, they were on their way out, granted, but, I wanted to be the one to decide when to throw them out. Instead, a wild dog decided to take matters into it’s own hands (jaw) and chewed one of them to bits. Just one. It left the other one perfectly intact on the front step of our hut. Like some kind of Godfather-style reminder perhaps. Maybe I looked at it wrong the day before or something. It was a sad day when I had to put them in the bin. SONY DSC Koh Jum village was quaint, small and pretty. After negotiating mosquito alley (a track through the jungle where we literally got covered in thousands of mosquitoes), we had fun chatting to the locals with the small amount of Thai we’d learnt so far, and also found some kind of peanut-sugar-brittle type thing which was basically a small package of peanuty-sugar-goodness. All for about 20p. SONY DSC

But one of the best things about these few days was the sea and the beach. Now, I’m not a big beach person. I’m not a sunbather and struggle with not doing a lot. I’m not hugely fond of the sea per se (Jaws has a lot to answer for) but I do like a bit of swimming. And even better if there’s someone to help tell me what’s on the bottom and to keep an eye on me as I can’t really see much without my glasses. So, we swam every day. In some of the biggest waves I have swum in (it was a stormy, windy day), in torrential rain (amazing feeling and sounds) and bright sunshine, the sea was always warm and getting the right bit of beach meant no rocks or sharks. Always a bonus. These will be really special memories for me. And of course, the sea comes with a beach and a beach is always pretty. To look at, to walk along and to watch the sun go down. And we weren’t disappointed by the sunset one night. The whole sky lit up with oranges, reds and yellows behind big fluffy clouds, sending sunshine rays in all directions, all reflected off the ocean. I do love a good sunset. I think the African sunset is still my favourite, but this was pretty impressive, and a pretty stunning picture to sum up island life.

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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.

TPAD Day 1 – 1st June 2013

So, today is Day 1 of my Travel Photo A Day. I wasn’t quite sure what photo to use today to start with. I landed at about 9am this morning (8am British Summer Time) and got to my hostel mid morning. I’ve not really been out with my camera; or really been out that much. I went for a stroll to Pick n Pay (like SA Tesco) to get some food to eat after my run. I had a little nap because I was still shattered after the 11 hour night flight where, although I slept, it wasn’t great sleep. I can’t complain about the flight though; good service, decent food and I got two seats to myself. I went for a run this afternoon (see Runs Around the World #4) then came back and had a shower, food and read my book for a bit.

It was weird, sat reading my book in the garden in the sun. I felt guilty. Like I should have been doing something. It hit me as I was sat there that I am going to have to get used to this. Relaxing. No work. Plenty of time to chill out. I have to admit I felt a bit panicked. What would I do? How will I fill my time? Can I do it? I don’t sit down that much. I like to have stuff on. This might be a challenge. I’m sure I’ll get used to it but it’s a little bit weird. My next 4 weeks will be like having a job because I’m doing an internship which will be Mon-Fri. So like work, I’m just not getting paid. This might help me with the transition. And where I am today is just a transition; there’s not that much to do or see really, unless I venture out a bit further for longer.

So, today’s photo was what happened this afternoon/evening. I had said I was going to have a break from drinking for a bit. Well, that hasn’t happened. I got forced persuaded to have a brandy and coke by some guys staying in the hostel. We went out to get pizza and beer, and have had interesting discussions about apartheid and Marcus was showing us lots of videos of spiders and bungee jumps gone wrong. He has an unhealthy obsession with YouTube. I’ve been sensible and stopped drinking though, it’s not a session, rather just a couple of beers. I’ve even had water. Get me. Well, I do have to be at the airport at half 8 tomorrow morning too.

It was alright brandy though. So, have I started as I mean to go on? Only time will tell. And yep, all you lot who said I wouldn’t last, you win. Only one out of the two though 😛

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Lincoln town.

I love living in Lincoln. It’s a fab little city. [Pretty much] everywhere is within walking distance, there’s lots to see and do. The Bailgate is my favourite bit. It’s old, wonky, pretty and higgledy piggledy. Loads of nice buildings to look at, and of course, The Cathedral. The thing that you can see from miles away. That when you see it, you know you’re nearly home.

Yesterday the sun was out. Had a nice walk up to the top of Steep Hill to a new fudge shop (sea salt fudge=Amazing) and a beer by the Brayford. It was almost like summer. But not quite so warm. I’m going to miss Lincoln. Especially this summer. Wandering around all the little streets, taking photos, running round by the Cathedral and lazing around in the beer gardens.

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