Monday, 19 August 2013

That’s All (for now), Folks

 ”Challenge yourself with something you know you could never do, and what you’ll find is that you can overcome anything.” (Anonymous)

I'm sitting in a VERY posh hotel room, looking out onto the Bangkok skyline (thanks, TravelZoo) and thought it fitting that I round up the last eight months with some final words. In just a few short hours, we’ll be at the airport and will kiss Thai soil goodbye for the very last time as we embark on our new adventures ‘Down Under’. Watch out, Sydney, we’re coming for you!

If anyone would've told me a few years ago that I’d have backpacked for eight months, I’d have been a bit dubious, to say the least. In reality, I'm not sure why it’s called ‘backpacking’. You really don’t spend that much time carrying your bag. Anyway, there are downsides, of course, that Lonely Planet fails to mention. Ridiculously long, uncomfortable journeys, crap accommodation, things NEVER going to plan, inevitable dodgy stomach somewhere along the line… it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. To be immersed in a culture so different to your own and adapt to their way of life can be hard at times. However, we Brits don’t realise how lucky we are – wherever we travel in the world, the universal language of communication is always English. I've met countless French, Dutch, German people who have to forego their mother tongue and try to communicate daily in a language that isn't their own. I think the hardest thing for me, at first, was to become ‘carefree’. I always like to have a plan and pride myself on being meticulous and organised. In the end, I accepted that there was nothing I could do if that bus was two hours late, or the hostel didn't have our reservation. You deal with it. Same goes for my appearance. Being ‘unpolished’ is OK when you’re a traveller. Material things aside, being away from home for so long is also a strong test of character. It’s hard to see Facebook updates and photos of what everyone’s doing and the thought that I’ll miss some of my closest friends’ weddings next year is really hard to stomach. On the other hand, I know that this experience is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’d be stupid to give that up.  

I can honestly say that this is the best decision I've ever made and am so proud of myself to have stepped out of my comfort zone and done something I've always dreamed of doing. I've visited some amazing place and met some incredible people, but I don’t mind saying now that the traveller in me is ready for a rest. I need some stability. I'm excited to actually unpack and hang up my clothes and be in one place for longer than a few days. To wash my clothes in a washing machine rather than a sink (sorry, Mum) and to actually cook a meal (well, watch Ste cook for me) rather than go out; just some of the little things I've missed. I feel I'm ready to get back in the rat-race (if anyone will have me!) and can’t wait to see the funds in my bank account actually increase rather than deplete.

So, that’s it, done and dusted. This isn't the last you’ll hear from me; once I'm up and running in Australia, I’ll write and let you know what’s what. Lastly, if I can give you all one piece of advice from my experience, it’s to never give up on your dream, however small it is. To lose a few pounds, save for those Louboutins (on my list), buy a house or travel the world… the only thing stopping you is YOU. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it, and I'm the living example. Gidday for now, I’ll see you on the other side…

Good Morning, Noon and Night, Vietnam: A six week tour

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour  Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Hey, guys! Long time, no blog? Apologies, it’s been a whirlwind past few weeks. The beginning of the end of our (South East Asia) travels is upon us, and today I'm going to recall our time in Vietnam. It’s easy to draw comparisons with Thailand – the vastness of the country (it takes AGES to get anywhere. I reckon I've spent nearly a full week out of the six we spent here in transit), the food, the people… Whilst I still haven’t made up my mind, there’s one thing that I do know. There’s something here for everyone. There’s the mountains of Sapa for those who are climbing inclined (see what I did there?!), big, bustling cities like Hanoi and Saigon for the culture vultures and last, but not least, those all-important beaches in Nha Trang and Mui Ne for sun worshippers like moi. Anyone who says they didn't like Vietnam clearly spent too much (or too little) time in one place – once you've seen a few of the cities you get a general vibe as to what’s more your ‘thing’; mine was a no brainer from the start – anything involving the art of sunbathing will always be a winner in my book!

I'm not going to sit here and give a full blow-by-blow account of each city we visited (if you’re that way inclined, invest in a guidebook. Much more informative than I’ll ever be). No, I'm just going to reflect on some of the highlights and see where it takes me. Right, let’s start with this. Stereotypes. We all know what one is and probably judge others due to them. We all do it. The media and society in general are to blame. Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that, whilst participating in some obligatory culture stuff on another ‘city’ tour; this time, in the capital Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh. Confusing, I know. Anyone else think that they were two separate places? No, just me then…) we got talking to two British girls. One was from Nottingham (I was slightly perplexed, disappointed even, that she did know where ‘Ocean’ was and did not share in my happy memories of drinking apple VKs whilst dancing to the Bay-watch theme tune) and the other, from London. A ‘posh’ Southerner. Who was quick to comment that, when she learned we were from Liverpool, she didn't think that ‘people from Liverpool travelled’. Excuse me? What are we, aliens? Or too busy robbing hub-caps and wandering in the streets in our Lacoste trackies and Rockports? Get a grip, love. How can someone make such a flippant comment in this day and age?

Her comment got me thinking: what is a ‘typical’ traveller? Anyone who has read my previous blogs will remember my categories of what ‘type’ of traveller you are, but not once did I factor in where anyone was from. Or age, for that matter. I guess the ‘stereotypical’ answer to that would be the 18-23 group, either before or after university. It got me thinking, are me and the Mac too old for travelling? With a combined age of over FIFTY (good God), are we ‘past’ it? Well, after becoming buds with a British couple poolside in Mui Ne, I can tell you we’re definitely not. And I left there feeling completely inspired and energised. Mui Ne itself is a beautiful resort in the South of Vietnam but, unfortunately, is beginning to lose its authentic charm due to the huge Russian influence. Vietnam is to Russia what Spain is to us Brits so the locals are catering more and more to them with all shops having Russian sign-age and most restaurants handing out Russian menus. Now, I personally don’t know anyone Russian so I don’t mean to offend when I say this. They’re very, well, abrupt in their way of communicating. Almost aggressive. ANYWAY, back to our British buds. Amongst the crowds of Russians we got chatting to two Brits by the pool. They’d been travelling for almost a year and, by the sounds of it, had had a fantastic time. And they were both in their forties. They’d decided to quit their jobs and see the world. They weren't weird, hippies, or ‘strange’ in any way. Just a ‘normal’ couple wanting to see the world while they could. After meeting them, I reviewed my thoughts on the ‘stereotypical’ traveller. You’re never too bloody old. If you want to see the world, go out and see it. What’s holding you back is YOU (there’s an inspiring travel quote for you!)

Right, less philosophical crap and more on Vietnam! I have to say, the Vietnamese are a noisy lot. Just in general, whether they’re on their phone, walking down the street… An hour plane journey from Hanoi to Nha Trang literally felt like an eternity. There were children EVERYWHERE. Parents either had no control of their kids running wild in the aisles or didn't care that their brats were jumping up and down in their seat whilst touching the overhead TVs and throwing sweets all at the same time. No, they were more interested in listening to their music or chatting to their neighbour. Both in raised decibels; Vietnam obviously doesn't sell headphones. This was also apparent on the many night buses we endured whilst here. They love to listen to music as a bedside accompaniment, as I do. Just they do it out loud. I spent many a sleepless night listening to (or trying to block out, rather) the dulcet tones of Vietnamese singers murdering 90’s classics. Bless them; maybe they've foregone headphones to purchase their bus tickets? Nope, wrong again. Most Vietnamese tend to prefer the aisle. No, not the aisle seat, the ACTUAL aisle. Makeshift mattresses are laid out and they literally sprawl out for the journey. Not ideal on an eighteen hour bus and you need the toilet. Trying to step over them in the dark to navigate to the back of the bus is impossible. The worlds’ trickiest assault course.

As expected, Vietnam has lost a lot of its authenticity due to the masses of tourists. We wanted to experience some ‘real’ Vietnam, hence our visit to Ninh Binh. It’s a small town two hours south of Hanoi and it’s virtually untouched by tourists. So much so that there are no actual restaurants and to this day I’m thankful that our guest house did food. Nat + no food equals hell! We thought we’d take advantage of being among the few tourists and visit the local sights. ‘Tam Coc’ is a selection of beautiful caves set against a backdrop of limestone mountains (very picturesque) and a tranquil boat ride around the caves seemed like a great way to kick-start the day. Ha. The lady rowing our boat clearly fancied a leg workout rather than her arms, as she preferred to row and steer the boat with her feet. She must've had legs of steel, to ferry two Westerners around; she was only tiny! Feeling bad, I offered to help, and was immediately given an oar. Rowing is hard work, that’s all I have to say. So, the serene boat ride I’d envisaged turned into a workout with me concentrating on the rowing rather than the scenery. The fitness fun continued as we approached ‘Mua Cave’; just a mere 470 steps to the top of this mountain that boasts spectacular panoramic views. Have you ever counted to 470? It’s long and tedious, believe me. And to top it all off, the view wasn't even that great as it was masked by clouds and fog!

With the travels coming to an end, I thought it best to get myself sorted. I mean, I've adopted the carefree attitude of a seasoned traveller the past few months, but I can hardly rock up to an interview in Sydney with bushy eyebrows, horrific hair and crap clothes now can I? The Scouse in me point blank refuses. So, Hanoi was my refuge, if you like, to get back to some form of normality. A quick and cheap eyebrow wax gave me two separate ones again and I threw out the Harem pants and tattered Havaianas and replaced them with good old H&M basics. Reluctantly, it was time for a trim, too. I'm VERY particular about my tresses; my hair is my ‘thing’, you see, and at home I let no one bar a few select individuals cut it. So, you can imagine my hesitation letting people who can’t even speak English loose on it. The lad in Tony & Guy was very sweet, bless him, but I was paranoid he’d cut too much off so made him show me the amount he was cutting off each time. And I have a lot of hair. He did a great job, though, and even curly blow dried it for good measure at the end. I sauntered out of there feeling very Carrie Bradshaw-esque. After five minutes in the heat, though, it was more of a birds’ nest. Bloody humidity…

And that’s it, my friends. Vietnam in a nutshell. Stay tuned for a final ‘farewell’ post rounding up the last eight months… It’ll be emotional. 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Angkor WHAT?!: A short snippet from my time in Cambodia

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware...” – Martin Buber

Hello all! Hope you’re fine and dandy this lovely month of July? Travels are going well, we haven’t run out of money (yet) and the tans are coming on nicely. My white bits are becoming that white that I think I’ll become clinically depressed if I ever return to that shade again. Come to think of it, I don’t think I've ever let myself get THAT white; I used to apply fake tan as regularly as I brush my teeth. So, this installment will fill you all in on the sights and sounds of Cambodia: I literally knew nothing about its history so was going in with an open mind (Do not judge: after a quick browse in my trusted ‘Lonely Planet’ I was as clued up as the next traveller!) Oh, before we start: can’t believe we've FINALLY won Wimbledon! Well in Andy lad, about bloody time too! Although I bet his girlfriend was dying to get some selfies with Posh Spice rather than watch her boyfriend play tennis AGAIN. I hope he buys her a nice bag (or engagement ring) for her patience…

While we’re on the subject of sport… only when travelling would I find myself cycling at 4.30am. Yes, you read this right. 4.30 IN THE MORNING. I'm familiar with this time when stumbling in after a night out, but never to participate in self-inflicted exercise. Let me explain… the city of Siem Reap draws international crowds who flock to visit the famed Angkor Wat complex, a huge site housing ancient temple ruins. Some of you may be interested to know that Angelina Jolie filmed scenes for ‘Tomb Raider’ at many of the temple sites here; consequently, one of the local cocktails is named after her and she adopted one of her kids from here (not from the temple site, nor as a result of the alcohol, I'm sure) Anyway, the guide books advise that it’s best to experience the ruins early in the morning and by bicycle. Early and Exercise: probably two of my least favourite words. So this is how I found myself in front of the main temple, Angkor Wat, watching the sunrise from the comfort of my bicycle seat. The ruins themselves are pretty impressive but, in all honesty, once you've seen a couple of them, they all blend into one. The Taj Mahal was way more spectacular, if we’re talking wonders of the world here. I actually enjoyed the cycling; it took me back to when I was a kid, continuously riding around the block as I wasn't allowed to go on ‘proper’ roads! The four of us (us two and our fellow ‘flash packers’ Neil and Rach), we must've cycled close to 40km that day: luckily, it was flat terrain otherwise I’d still be on the way back now!

I can’t write a blog about Cambodia without mentioning its tumultuous past; the horrific events that took place in the seventies still remain at the forefront of Cambodians’ minds even today. From the capital, Phnom Penh, we took a trip to Choeung Ek aka ‘The Killing Fields’, the site where almost nine thousand innocent citizens were brutally executed between 1975 and 1979 as a result of Pol Pot’s ‘Khmer Rouge’ regime. I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson, but just Google the name and you can read about this extreme communist and his drastic ways in order to create a ‘perfect’ communist state. I've visited Auschwitz in the past, and the same feelings of sadness, pity and anger were evoked as I stepped through the gates. The informative audio guide leads you around the site, past mass graves where bodies were strewn once guards had killed the victims with a variety of implements. Guns were not used as bullets were too expensive; instead, they used trowels, knives and other makeshift weapons whilst victims’ screams were masked by propaganda music blaring out of speakers attached to trees. The most shocking sight of all, for me, had to be ‘the Killing Tree’. As it sounds, this was what guards used to smash babies heads against before dumping them into the nearest open grave. There are no words, really, are there? And to think this was all going on during most of our parents’ lifetimes… We concluded the day with a visit to the former high school now known as the ‘S-21’ museum; it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in the seventies and was used as a sort of holding ground and torture camp before its’ victims were shipped off to their fateful end at the Killing Fields. Classrooms became torture rooms (some of the devices are on show) and the photographs that line the walls (the Khmer Rouge was very precise when it came to documenting their prisoners) serve both as a memorial but also a chilling reminder as to what went on here. The whole day is probably one of my most sobering memories of the entire trip.

Right, let’s lighten this mood… What does ‘back to basics’ mean to you? Nature? Tranquility? Yeah, me too… So, when we booked a couple of nights on an island off the coast of Sihanoukville, I envisaged a beach hut, a hammock and nothing but the sun, sea and sand to keep me entertained. Oh, Koh Rong, I got it SO wrong! This island is filled with Westerners and is set up to be the next ‘party’ place: no police, no rules… Oh, and no electricity. Our place kindly turned on a generator between 5 and 11pm; how kind. Would've been useful if I’d have had a plug socket, though. Couple this with no hot water, a long drop with a bucket-flush system of a toilet and some oddly smelling sheets and towels; obviously I was in my element. There was only one thing for it… to get PISSED. My tolerance has lowered considerably since leaving the UK (not that it was sky high anyway) and a few drinks turned into me (loudly) teaching anyone in close proximity how to play ‘Ride the Bus’. I’d obviously ridden it far too many times by the end of the night as I was half dragged, half carried home to spew my guts up all over the floor of our hovel, sorry, hut! I was also absolutely devastated to discover the next morning that, somehow, I’d managed to wear home some flip flops that were definitely not my REAL Havaianas. These weren't even branded. Oh, and were about three sizes too small for me. So, I’d lost my shoes, my dignity… safe to say, we left the next day!

So that, in short, sums up our three weeks in Cambodia. Cycling, card games and cheap drinks! Aside from what I've written about, I found the people to be extremely friendly, the history fascinating and the scenery breathtaking. A definite ‘must’ as a stop on the ‘Backpacker’ trail. Next up, Vietnam: what can happen next? Stay tuned kids, you’ll find out very shortly… 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Livin' la vida Laos!

'All you've got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over. So go!' (Tony Wheeler, Cofounder- Lonely Planet)

Hello all! How’ve you been? Glad to see the UK has had some decent weather recently – about bloody time. Everyone’s happier in the sun, right? Well, something needs to be attributed to the hordes of engagement, wedding and baby news that have reached my tanned ears over the past month! CONGRATULATIONS to everyone involved, 2014 is going to be a momentous year! Anyway, back to Gibbo’s travel news. In just a few short months, we will finally grace Australia with our presence; the travelling dream will be (almost) over as we will have to hunt for something completely foreign to us… employment. In the meantime, thankfully, we still have a few more countries to tick off the list. This stop: Laos.

Now, I admit, I'm not the most cultured sweet in the tin, and all I knew of Laos was that it was home to the infamous ‘Tubing’ frenzy, a ‘must-see’ on the backpacker route. After spending almost a month here, I can vouch that Laos is so much more than this. It’s a country bursting with history and a culture so rich it’s hard not to take an interest. You can imagine my surprise, and delight, when strolling around the streets of Luang Prabang I came across so many signs in French. Yep, so, apparently the French have been to Laos and made quite an impact! This is obvious when you notice the quaint, colonial-style buildings that dominate the city and it was refreshing to read information guides in something other than badly-translated English (although, je regrette, my French isn't what it once was).

Did you know that Laos is the most heavily bombed country, by capita, in the world? I certainly didn't. It was on a visit to the COPE visitor centre in Vientiane, a hidden gem that I really recommend all backpackers visit, that my eyes were truly opened as to what Laos has been through throughout history. COPE is a non-profit organisation that provides rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs, particularly for those affected by land mines. Laos was used as a dumping ground in the seventies for all of the USA’s unused bombs, originally intended for Vietnam. As a result of this, many of these cluster bombs remain undetected due to the sheer volumes that were dispersed, providing a daily threat for those living in rural areas. The people here are so poor that farming is a way of life; they do it to survive, not for financial gain. If detonated, these bombs can cause catastrophic injuries and tear apart whole families. COPE aims to educate those in rural areas about the dangers of foraging for metal, as many still do this to earn extra money to feed their families. It’s saddening to think that the country is still affected by something that happened over forty years ago; I can’t even imagine living somewhere that I’d be in constant fear for my life and that of my family.

I know you all love hearing about my transport escapades, so get ready to feast your eyes on this corker. We decided to shun the ‘bog standard’ coach as our entry into Laos from Thailand, in favour of a two day ‘Slow Boat’ journey along the Mekong River. Hint: the key is the name… SLOW. A journey that would take a matter of hours by road is extended out over forty eight hours on a long boat. ‘It’s such a great experience’, ‘the view is amazing’, were some of the benefits sold to us by the ticket vendors; oh, go on then, it can’t be that bad... So, we found ourselves squashed into rows of disused coach seats laid out on this tail boat (not nailed to the floor I might add) to begin this epic journey. As you can imagine, you are restricted as to what you can do in such a confined space and many passengers turned to drinking to pass the time. One such backpacker decided to do just this and, bless her, in true ‘booze cruise’ style, decided to try and match some Aussie lads ‘can for can’ on local beer. This resulted in her chucking her insides up into the river a while later, in plain view of the entire boat. Nice one, love, you've DEFO impressed them now!

To break up the journey, the ticket included a night stopover in a small town named Pakbeng; this place has literally been thrown together to house slow boat guests for the night and is one of the weirdest places I've ever set foot in. Within minutes of setting foot on dry land, I was offered marijuana, opium… To be honest, I probably should've taken up this offer to numb my senses as the accommodation here leaves something to be desired. We did A LOT of searching until we found a place that was half decent; half decent, as in, this place didn't have bed bugs. Thankfully, it was only for one night and we resumed our voyage early the next morning. All in all, the experience wasn't that breathtaking and, in hindsight, the bus would've been just as viable an option. But, hey, this is what travelling’s all about, interesting experiences to relay to you people!

While we’re on the subject of weird and wacky transport options, let me tell you about our first ‘Sleeper Bus’ experience. Yeah, we've done overnight buses before where your seat reclines, but this one had actual beds. Or so it claimed. We were travelling from Vientiane, the capital, to the lesser-known island of Don Dhet. The beds themselves are like little bunks, two people in each, laid out in place of seats. This would've been fine, but only as we boarded the bus we detected a slight issue. We’d been assigned different beds. I'm a friendly person, but really didn't fancy snuggling up to a random Laotian guy for the next twelve hours. I asked if he minded swapping beds so the Mac and I could share the same bunk. He said no. What an idiot. He was on his own, so who did it matter who he slept next to?! Anyway, the guy next to Stevie was more compliant and moved, so ‘The Flash-packers’ were reunited once again and slept soundly all the way to Don Dhet.

The island itself is pretty basic – there’s no ATM, the electricity cuts out at some point every day – yet despite this, we found some great accommodation and spent a few days just ‘doing nothing’, which is fast becoming one of my favourite past-times. It was here we experienced a TRULY awkward moment, proper ‘cringe’ factor. We were the only ones eating breakfast in the restaurant one day and the Belgian owner and his Laotian wife seemed to be having a disagreement over something or other. This quickly escalated into her bursting into tears and shouting comments like ‘Your drinking is a problem’, ‘You don’t love the children any more , ‘Why do you make me feel like this?’ You could cut the tension with a knife; I was frightened to chew my muesli in case it made a sound. Did they not realise we were there?! We couldn't just get up and leave, it was too obvious. So we just had to sit it out until there was an opportunity to bail. I've never been so interested in the bottom of a bowl before… Anyway, the guy did apologise to us later, saying ‘you shouldn't have had to hear that’. Er, yes mate, we shouldn't. Save it for Jeremy Kyle! Just shows, no matter where you are in the world, everybody loves a bit of drama!

I'm going to end with my experience of tubing. Deemed ‘the craziest party of your life’ on one website, you only have to type it into Google to get a general gist of the carnage. The concept is, basically, renting an inner tyre ring and letting the current take you down the Nam Song River. Along the way, you encounter the infamous bars, zip-lines and rope-swings and copious amounts of alcohol. Recipe for disaster? Not so much, according to the thousands of backpackers who used to congregate to the small Laotian town all year round. Many of my friends had been over the past few years, saying it was ‘insane’ and I ‘HAD to go’. Well, let me tell you folks, it’s NOTHING compared to what is used to be. Late last year, the Laos Government carried out a crackdown on the tubing industry, pulling down all but two of the riverside bars. This was as a result of the death of twenty two tourists in the river in 2011 and an unconfirmed number as of yet for last year. Nowadays, the experience is quite relaxed, but you can’t help but think you’re floating through a ghost town. Remnants of bar shacks line the banks, slides remain unused… I predict Vang Vieng will close its tubing doors for good in the next few years and suffer massively as a result. At the end of the day, nobody forces you to drink alcohol, so your decision to dive head first into the river or swing off a zip-line is your choice, albeit inebriated. Having said that, the bars were obviously not Health and Safety approved (where is, though, in these types of places?) and have to take some of the blame. I'm glad I did it, but, in the wise words of my cousin, ‘Go Tubing, get your T shirt, and get out!’

And that’s it, Laos in a nutshell. I’d regale you with tales for hours, but I'm slightly preoccupied with dusting off my bikinis for our next destination… Cambodia! I haven’t set foot on a beach since Thailand so you can imagine my excitement to get a tan again. Yes, I know there’s more to Cambodia than the beaches; just a small matter of a temple called Angkor Wat that’s kind of a big deal, apparently. So, see you next time – over and out! 

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Thailand #3 – Adventures ‘up North’!

'Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going...' (Paul Thesany)

Hi guys! Feels like an AGE since I wrote my last post; time sure does fly when you’re having fun! So, after our three days in the lap of luxury at the JW Marriott, Khao Lak, it was time to embark upon what was to be our last month in Thailand. Long gone were the beaches of the South; from now on, our daily views would consist of the beautiful mountains and general greenery of Northern Thailand.

First stop… Chiang Mai. As luck would have it, our visit coincided with the huge ‘Songkran’ festival. This city is noted as one of the best to be in to partake in the annual water festival marking the beginning of Thai New Year. I envisioned us watching some nice water shows to bring in the New Year... How wrong I was! Stupidly, we decided to take a ‘tuk-tuk’ from the bus station to our new digs; HUGE mistake. Within ten minutes we were drenched. Literally sopping wet. (Note to self: travel via a ‘closed-air’ vehicle during a water festival) During the four day spectacle, locals and tourists alike line the streets and aim to soak everything and everyone using an array of tools, from shop bought water pistols to a good old bucket. It brings good luck apparently, although I'm sure it brought on a few colds as well after four days of being repeatedly doused in ice cold water. Don’t get me wrong, it was loads of fun – I particularly enjoyed chucking water all over girls who’d made a little too much effort to come to a water festival (eye-liner, anyone?!) Although, after a while, I’d have to pretend that it was fine when groups of Thai kids found it hilarious to come up and soak me. Just as I’d wrung myself out. Aren't children the best?!

Now, most of you know that I'm all about the animals; how could I not be, having been brought up in a house riddled with strays and RSPCA cast-off's?! So, you can imagine my excitement when I found out I’d be able to get up close to both tigers and elephants in Chiang Mai. ‘Tiger Kingdom’ comprises of about thirty Bengal tigers, ranging from a few months to about two years old, which have all been bred in captivity. Obviously, they’ll never be able to be set free into the wild and therefore will always remain in captivity. This is not ideal, but given the current situation in regards to the near extinction of the species, it's understood to be better than to have no tigers at all. I thoroughly read up on this place before we went as I did not want to pay to contribute to animal cruelty. A lot of the reviews are written by vets and all of them agree that the animals are not drugged, which was my major reservation against going. In fact, the tigers have been used to humans since birth and therefore do not see us as the enemy. Yes, they appear pretty docile and are not fazed when you’re with them up close, but this isn't down to anything medicinal. They’re a nocturnal species so obviously aren't going to be ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’ during daytime visiting hours. I mean, would YOU want to be running round in 40 degree heat? They all appear to be healthy and well fed, too, with shiny coats and nice, white teeth. Good enough for me. We chose to go in with the ‘small’ category; the cubs were about three to four months old and were, as you can imagine, unbelievably cute. They were relaxed and, well, happy. They seemed to have a great relationship with the people who care for them, who were not violent towards them in the slightest, from what I saw. The entire experience was rather surreal; there I was, stroking these cubs as I would a bunch of kittens when in reality, they’ll grow up to be one of the biggest predators in the world. It’s just a shame that they’ll never be able to experience true freedom, like their relatives in the wild.

I've always felt a connection with elephants; my earliest memory is sticking my arm out of the window of the car at the Safari Park, only to have it disappear up the trunk of a nosey Nelly  So, when I heard about the plight of one Thai woman to save domestic, or ‘working’, elephants from abominable cruelty, I knew I had to visit ‘Elephant Nature Park’, just outside of Chiang Mai. Lek, this amazing lady, actively goes out into the Thai community and pays the owners of these elephants to give them up so they can come and live out the rest of their lives in her amazing reserve. You've all seen, or at least heard of, companies offering elephant rides and individuals in rural areas who still use elephants in labour tasks. These are what are classed as ‘working’ elephants. These activities obviously do not come naturally to elephants and they have to endure what can only be described as horrific cruelty in order to become submissive. It’s a good job we were shown the documentary detailing this at the end of the day, otherwise I’d have been in tears for the entire experience. Grown men were openly weeping at the footage, it’s that bad. It will DEFINITELY make you think twice about riding an elephant. No animal deserves to go through what they do; it’s known as ‘breaking their spirit’ and it’s a wonder that these beautiful creatures can go on living after suffering the abuse and torture their owners put them through. This all changes, though, once Lek gets her hands on them. She leaves them to their own devices to roam around the huge sanctuary, complete with river, so they can wander freely. They each have an assigned ‘mahout’ (their own personal ‘carer’, if you like) who follows them around all day, offering constant fruit treats and a bit of TLC. What an amazing place. I couldn't wait to get involved.

We participated in several ‘feeding times’; there is a central feeding station where each elephant has their own individual basket filled with food specific to their own dietary requirements. Some of the older ones, bless them, can’t digest certain foods and their teeth aren't strong enough to crunch through some of the fruits and vegetables. Several times throughout the day, the mahouts lead their elephants toward the station where the volunteers are free to feed the elephant their basket. You forget how intelligent these animals are; the younger ones, rather than wait to be fed each piece individually, impatiently grab the whole basket with their trunk and filter out the tastiest morsels, leaving the bits they don’t find so appealing (normally fruit with medicine hidden in it!). The older ones are more than happy for you to place the food in their trunk, or even their mouth, and are more than happy for you to touch them as they contentedly chew their meal. It was then time to grab a bucket and head down to the river to join in with ‘bathing time’. Elephants love water and their favourite past-time is to cool themselves off in it. Some fully submerge themselves in the water – a sight worth seeing – and although it felt weird, chucking buckets of water over an elephant, there was no question that they loved it.

Throughout the day, as we got more and more acquainted with each individual elephant, we were told of their history and how they came to be rescued. Each story is heart-wrenching. Most of the elephants here are physically disabled in some way, due to their previous working conditions. A few are blind, having been poked in the eye with sharp sticks as a form of discipline; others are maimed, having been tortured or having old injuries that were not treated. One particular elephant, bless her, had her hips broken after her owner physically forced a male onto her back to procreate, and will never walk normally again. It makes you sick to the stomach to think there are individuals out there that can live with themselves after treating these animals in such a way and not feel a single shred of guilt. As the sanctuary is self-funded, I can only hope us tourists continue to visit so Lek can carry on with her inspiring mission to save such an awesome creature.

Before I found us any more animal-based activities to do and ended up forking out our entire travel fund to help a few elephants, we decided to move on from Chiang Mai and visit the lesser known cities of Pai and Chiang Rai. Pai was, by far, my favourite place in the North and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s a small place full of hippies; the Pretentious Posse were out in full force (minus their shoes, obviously!) We visited a few waterfalls and generally chilled out after the craziness of ‘Songkran’. I must tell you about our journey from Pai-Chiang Rai; you’d think by now we’d be used to travelling in all sorts of conditions, whether it be hot/cold/cramped… Try a packed minibus travelling at speeds of 100 mph on windy, mountain roads at 6am. NOT pleasant. Both of us had plastic bags at the ready, the Mac was the colour of off-milk and I had my eye-mask on, desperately trying to concentrate on anything other than heaving my guts up. I never get motion sickness, but after that journey I'm VERY wary of travelling by minibus! I don’t know whether the driver had a hot date hence the rush; there was an adorable baby girl on-board who managed to sleep through all of this, but THEN decided to exercise her lungs just as we returned to a normal speed. Not so cute then. It gets worse… After driving for nearly two hours more than the estimated arrival time, the driver stops the van on a busy, market street and starts pointing at an official-looking building, shouting ‘Visa! Visa!’. We just looked at each other. We’d somehow managed to get on a bus that was doing a visa-run to the Laos border. WHAT THE HELL? Alarm bells really should’ve started ringing hours before, as we were loading our rucksacks into the van. We were the only passengers with luggage. But I was so tired, and I am a bit dozy, so didn't think anything of it. The driver obviously didn't speak any English (why would he?!) but somehow we were finally dropped at the bus station in Chiang Rai, five hours later than planned. Ah well, at least the rest of the passengers found it hilarious that we’d sat on the bus all day for no reason whatsoever!

And that’s it, my friends. That concludes our Thailand adventure (for now). In a way, I've come to think of Thailand as my second home; we've been in-and-out countless times and it seems so familiar now. I do think it’s time we moved on, though, and experienced somewhere completely different with a new culture and surroundings. And with four months left until Australia… right then, Laos, let’s be having you!

Thursday, 25 April 2013

‘Now, THIS is more like it!’ – How the ‘Flashpackers’ should ALWAYS roll!

I don’t usually do this. Dedicate an entire blog post to just one place we've stayed in as, considering we average about two hostels a week, you can imagine why. Far too much work! However, after just three days at this resort, I feel the need to express to you all just how GOOD it is. JW Marriott Khao Lak, we salute you!

After three months of ‘slumming’ it in mostly hostels and a few guest houses  we felt it was time to treat ourselves. After all, we’re no spring chickens (well, Stevie certainly isn't ! Now, for those of you not familiar with the site ‘TravelZoo’, I suggest you get it in your life immediately! I look at it as an upmarket ‘Groupon’ – as well as local deals, it offers huge discounts on hotels worldwide, and they’re all at least 4*; no Hotel Ibis deals on this site! Now, after a few bad experiences with ‘Groupon’, I was a little dubious, but having heard great things off of friends I decided to give it a go. I came across our little gem of a deal a few months ago; the Marriott in Khao Lak is ranked within the top four places to stay in Phuket, Thailand on ‘TripAdvisor’ and every single review raved about how relaxing it was, the infinity pool bar, the food, amazing resort… I was sold!

We flew into Phuket airport from Singapore and, after about an hour and a half taxi ride, we approached the hotel entrance. We then drove for about another twenty minutes – this is how huge the place is – just to get to the reception, where some lovely staff greeted us and took our bags. I think they were a bit taken aback with the sight of two hefty rucksacks as opposed to the designer luggage they’re no doubt used to, but hey, we’re all paying customers, albeit heavily discounted ones! After a refreshing welcome drink we were shown to our ‘Deluxe Pool View’ room… most of the hostels we’d stayed in could've camped out in just the bathroom! The room was lovely and spacious, great balcony, cosy bathrobe and slippers… we were like two kids at Christmas!

Only being there for three days, we tried to utilise all the resort had on offer. There is a state of the art gym on site (yawn), but we donned our gym gear and headed off for the first proper workout of the trip. It’s more modern than any gym I've ever been to – the treadmill was calculating about a thousand things with every step I took; everything from the distance I ran (not long enough) to how many calories I burnt per second, or so it seemed (again, far too few for my liking). Also included in our ‘TravelZoo’ package was an hour Thai massage each; after our experience in Bangkok, I wasn't holding out much hope. This is the Marriott, though, remember? OF COURSE it’s going to be great! The hour went by far too quickly, the massage itself was so relaxing, especially after my gym session; the lady even braided my hair, bless her – don’t think she realised she’d be there for an age due to the amount of hair I have! Even the heat felt different whilst we were there – somehow more bearable. Maybe this had something to do with the large, fluffy beach towels provided at the pool or private beach, or the constant offerings of iced water/watermelon/cold face towels all day; talk about sun bed service!

I've saved the best for last… that’s right, you've guessed it, the food. Now, so far on our travels, as far as breakfast goes, the general opinion has been ‘OK’. I mean, how excited can you get over some bread and a coffee? Well, I’d obviously never been to the Marriott before! On day one, we thought we may as well take advantage of the ‘free breakfast’, so off we trotted for what we thought was the obligatory tea and toast. How wrong we were. The room was the size of a small food court and had various stations offering everything from fresh fruit shakes, cereals, breads, eggs-to-order, to Thai soups and noodles plus Western favourites like sausages, bacon, waffles… We were in our element! I have never eaten so much for breakfast in my life; it’s a good job we were only there for three days! And, with five, well priced restaurants on site, there are plenty of choices for dinner (much) later on.

So, as you can fathom, we had a crap time and are urging people to never go here. Or not. Seriously, I can’t recommend it enough. It would be perfect for a honeymoon (I hear the suites are to die for) or for those just wanting a relaxed getaway. The service is outstanding; the resort is absolutely fabulous… I'm just sorry we only had three days. I’ll be avidly checking ‘TravelZoo’ from now on as I’d buy the deal again without hesitation.

Our next destination wouldn't be QUITE as glamorous – a weekend-long water fight in the North of Thailand to celebrate Thai New Year. Oh, go on then…

Saturday, 20 April 2013

On the ‘Visa’ Run: Malaysia and Singapore

‘To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world…’ (Freya Stark)

Hello all! Let me start by wishing anyone who is running the London Marathon tomorrow a massive GOOD LUCK! A few of my closest buds have been pounding the pavements for a good while now in preparation for the big day and are raising money for several different charities. It obviously takes such dedication and motivation to run for that prolonged period of time (I get bored after twenty minutes) so WELL DONE for getting this far… p.s., they say adrenaline carries you through the last couple of miles!

So, here are the latest, much-anticipated updates of the Flashpackers’ whereabouts! Our Thai visa was up and rather than do a ‘visa dash’ day run to a neighbouring border, we thought we’d spend some actual time in Malaysia and Singapore, of which we’d heard great things. Why the hell not? I'm quite enjoying my rapidly growing stamp collection decorating the pages of my passport! We flew into Malaysia from Thailand then decided to take the four hour bus from Malaysia into Singapore. This was one of my first experiences crossing a country border via land, as opposed to the air. All seemed pretty standard; getting an ‘exit’ stamp from Malaysia and walking through to get my ‘entrance’ one into Singapore. That is, until a guard pulled us aside and led us down a darkened corridor. Oh no, where were we going? Has Stevie’s juvenile criminal past finally caught up with him?! So, we stopped outside a small room housing a contraption resembling a wind machine in it. We had to hand over our passports and individually walk through this device. At one point I did start to panic – did they think we were carrying drugs? I mean, I know I had the equivalent of a small pharmacy in my medicine bag, but the strongest thing they’d find was some cold sore cream, after having run out of painkillers after Full Moon! Anyway, as I passed through, I was sprayed from all angles with some sort of disinfectant. The guard had obviously spotted our dishevelled appearance and the hefty backpacks and assumed we were carrying all sorts of germs. Nice. Ah well, this brings a new meaning to ‘feeling refreshed’ as you touch down in a different country!

Everyone’s heard of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, right? So, there was no problem in researching ‘things to do’ there; we even managed to visit Melaka, a not-so-well known city further south. Singapore was slightly more difficult…did you know that Singapore has no capital city? Well, I didn't  Geography not being one of my strong points, it took me a while to realise why searching for ‘cities to stay in in Singapore’ was proving unsuccessful! It’s actually a South-east Asian island city-state (to you and me, it’s like a cosmopolitan city that also happens to be a country!) To me, there were a lot of similarities between the two countries; both had really efficient public transport, countless shopping malls… But if I had to choose, Singapore has that little extra je ne sais quoi. The skyline at dusk, paired with the lights reflecting off of the water, was very picturesque and I felt very relaxed there. Probably something to do with the fact that Singapore is often projected as ‘the safest city in Asia’. Especially for women.

Our ten day tour would provide a much needed change of scenery; after a month of surveying nothing but the sea and sweating our days away on the beach, walking around fabulous, air-conditioned shopping malls and seeing some sights was a very welcoming thought! However, we had been told these countries were a lot more expensive than what we’d been used to. GREAT. Just what we need. Especially since I’d just discovered that the gem that is my bank (with whom I affectionately share part of my name) had been charging me the world each time I withdrew money. I could've chartered a bloody plane to Singapore with the amount they’d taken! So, with purse strings tightly fastened, we braced ourselves for ten days of extreme budgeting. Upon reflection, it wasn't as bad as we’d expected. It’s common sense - you have to be prepared to part with your pennies if you want to experience some of the major tourist attractions (sightseeing tours in Kuala Lumpur, animal attractions in Singapore). Being a veteran traveller, though (hello three months living out of a backpack!), you do your research and realise that, contrary to what some say, the best things in life (to do) really are free!

Now, I do LOVE to shop. Back in the UK, it’s actually impossible for me to go shopping and not come back laden with bags… I’ll wear it all at some point, right? Well, SLIGHTLY different here when everything I buy, I have to carry. It does not help when it seems ALL of my adored shops from back home seemed to surround me everywhere we went both in Malaysia and in Singapore. It took massive amounts of self- control to not have a bit of a ‘Supermarket Sweep’ moment in TopShop and hide the evidence in the bottom of Stevie’s backpack! Malaysia and Singapore, by the way, are GREAT for shopping; however, the amount of luxury stores definitely overpowers my high street favourites. In Singapore alone, there are four Louis Vuitton stores. FOUR. It’s not as if each one has queues out of the door – I’d understand if the crowds resembled those a la the Next sales back home – but I walked past a few with not a single customer in! Anyway, my point is, window shopping is a fabulous free activity and we spent many a day perusing the hundreds of stores in the comfort of an air conditioned mall. Talking of free activities, there is an amazing water and light show outside the Marina Bay shopping mall in Singapore (coincidentally next to a Louis Vuitton) which is well worth seeing, and their Botanical Gardens are a great place to spend a day wandering aimlessly through the different sections of plants, trees, flowers… you get the picture! Kuala Lumpur even has a free bus comprising of two different routes that outlined the major attractions of the city, which is a godsend. Another way you can get ripped off is in choosing your method of transport; although it’s easy to just jump in a cab, there are many cheaper alternatives. The Underground systems in Malaysia and Singapore are quick and easy to use – a single trip costing less than the price of a Happy Meal! Yes, there were times we got slightly lost – it did have to be the time we were carrying ALL our bags – but hey, by doing your research and seeking out cheaper options, it left us more money to spend on one of our favourite things… FOOD.

After spending a month in Thailand we were used to street food so sought it out where possible. In all honesty, there wasn't much to offer street-side in Malaysia and Singapore so we resorted to food courts. Now, this is where you can go wrong ; if you head to the ‘international’ food courts with all the familiar chains (Subway, Nando’s, Pizza Hut…) although tempting, you will spend more pennies than if you eat in a ‘local’ one. They are a fraction of the price and, if you don’t mind rice and noodles, very tasty at the same time. I must mention that, as a traveller, you definitely make the most out of the free things on offer. This includes any amenities of your digs. Examples include a free breakfast – alright, it may be some toast and a coffee, but it’s better than nothing, right? In KL we stayed in a great hostel that served mounds of rice and noodles as well as ‘normal’ breakfast items. Not the most conventional way to start the day, but hey, if it’s free, I’ll force them down! Every little helps – free toiletries, complimentary bottles of water… it makes the stay a little bit more memorable and sets the place apart from its competitors. By the way, fellow hostel dwellers, if you’re not already on to it, invest in an eye mask. It’s the perfect solution to avoid being the’ kill joy’ in the dorm who wants to turn all the lights out. Also comes in handy for napping on planes/buses/trains… I haven’t had mine off!

This next paragraph is counteracting all previous advice I've given on seeking out the ‘free’ activities a place has to offer. In Singapore, we took the plunge and splurged on two activities that we deemed ‘essential’: a visit to Universal Studios and our very first Night Safari. Now, I could be classed as a veteran of theme parks, having visited each one in Orlando, Florida near enough every year since birth. Stevie jumped on the bandwagon a few years ago on yet another Gibbo outing to the ‘sunshine state’, so together, we decided to tackle Singapore’s version. It did not disappoint. It was pretty much the same layout as our Floridian favourite plus a few new additions, including a whole section devoted to ‘Madagascar’ (both mine and Steph’s most adored film – ‘I like to move it, move it’) and ‘Far Far Away’, the home of Shrek and Donkey (Jennie P’s favourite!). For the first time in almost three months, we forgot we were travellers and raced around the place like kids from ride to ride (well, most rides; I still retain my ‘wimp’ status as I refused to go on the ‘big’ roller coasters!). It was actually here that I experienced my first bout of home sickness; wandering round the park trying to follow the map isn't normally my job, that’s left up to Sue, pointing out all the available toilets and eateries along the way. There’s normally a herd of us, so it was very strange telling the ride attendant ‘two’ instead of about ‘a dozen’. Yes, we spent a small fortune, but it was definitely worth it, even for the fond memories it evoked of past trips with the family. Speaking of herds, we also forked out for Singapore’s Night Safari; as we’re not nearing Africa any time soon, we decided on the next best thing! It actually makes perfect sense – the animals tend to sleep and hide away during the scorching temperatures of the day, and tend to be more active and alert at night. A tram safari takes you around several geographical zones of the world, housing many of the worlds’ nocturnal species. The walking trails allow you to explore these zones at your own pace and view the animals up close. This is definitely a must for all animal lovers – what I liked most was the ‘open air’ layout, with not a cage or barbed wire fence in sight.

So, after ten days of (window) shopping and (free) sightseeing, the tan was beginning to fade. We waved goodbye to Malaysia and Singapore and boarded a flight back to our second home, Thailand. This time, though, we had a little treat in-store, something to DEFINITELY boost our rankings in the ‘Flashpacker Hall of Fame’. Stay tuned…