Barcelona and Santorini- The month of Percival

I’ll be honest, my attempt to return to the UK failed MASSIVELY! Within about a week, I was out of the UK again in Barcelona, and a week later, off to Spain! All of this was fully planned in advance so we could be involved in the wedding of the Century (well, September at least).

I was honored to be asked to be Best man for Gary. Alongside Oli) the other best man), who was also traveling around Asia the past year, had the pleasure of organising the stag from across 3 different continents at one point. Somehow, we pulled this off. Gary and Kakie actually planned their wedding to work around our trip away! I will never be able to thank them enough for this.

Barcelona

So, a week after returning to the UK, I was back on a plane, this time to Barca! Somehow, we managed to keep this entirely secret from the groom, including who was actually coming along. In the end, there were 9 of us for the weekend, mostly from Uni, with Oli, Glen and Sam from other pastures joining too.IMG_8423
Obviously, what happens on a stag stays on a stag, so I can’t report all that much (although nothign was particularly cliche stag activity), but I will say this was like no other stag i’ve been on, and obviously, it was the best (as I played a part in organised it, I would say that).

The weekend consisted of Gary Flyboarding, a bubble football tournament, an absolutely quality craft beer tour, probably the best meal i’ve eaten since this past year, a night out at a Techno club, and plenty of exploring this stunning city.

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There’s too much to mention here about Barca; it’s absolutely stunning and full of beautiful architecture, people, and food. I will 100% be coming back here to do some more exploring.

Santorini

The next step was the wedding! Gary and Katie decided they didn’t want a UK wedding, so went for the obvious next choice, Santorini. I mean, they really didn’t do things by halves here! Santorini is world famous for one of the most beautiful wedding venues in the world: I can definitely see why! This island, once a bloody great active volcano that effectively blew itself up (romantic eh?) is world famous for it’s blue and white buildings off the edge of the steep cliff edges. But there’s so much more so Santorini than just wedding vibes though. The island has some beautiful hikes, like the one we did from Thira  Oia. You literally can’t get away from absolutely breathtaking views everywhere you look here, it’s actually ridiculous!

The wedding party was a small one, only super close family and friends. The Percival clan consisted of Gary’s brother, wife and 2 small kids, his mum, and her best mate, whilst the Ainsworths consisted of parents, sister, and brother in law. Mine and Oli’s respective other halves, Kelly and Fo, made up the final part of the Santorini crew, all sharing a flat together in amongst a villa overlooking the beautiful coast line,

So before the wedding itself, we had the best part of a week here to explore. Our days consisted of a fairly routine approach; wake up, go for a swim in the pool, do something awesome, go eat somewhere beautiful, have a few drinks on the balcony, and repeat: not going to turn my nose up at that! During that week, we undertook a monster hike half way across the caldera, a boat tour around the island, went to explore the ancient ruins, got to experience the local winery and craft brewers, and, oh yeah, witness one hell of a wedding!

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The ceremony itself was absolutely breathtaking. This location is just stunning, the views continued to blow us all away, and the celebrations into the evening kept us all dancing all night long. Basically, it was all bloody awesome!

After a final week in the sun, it was time to ACTUALLY return home. This time, for the first time in a year, with no plans to fly anywhere else anytime soon. It’s a very weird feeling, knowing the life we’ve lived the past year is actually over. In a weeks time, i’ll be returning to work, and back to reality in a big way… Watch this space to see how I get on with that!

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Bangkok and Dubai- The long road home

It was such an odd experience leaving the Philippines. We ended up spending our last day barely leaving our Hotel. Splashing out on a nicer place to crash didn’t quite go the way we planned; our hotel was decidedly average, and our aspirations for gourmet grub ended with a Jollibee (the local Filipino equivalent of Maccas basically). But never mind, you can’t win em all! The sad reality though, was this was the end of our trip, bar a couple of stops en route back to the UK. Our first, being Bangkok!IMG_7459

A great tip for those booking flights home. Fly back from an international hub, but look for layovers. By booking a flight with a long layover in Abu Dhabi, we actually managed to get flights from Thailand to the UK for about £380 each; almost unheard of, especially considering I regularly get flights to the UAE from the UK for about the same price. Planning this ahead, we felt we should probably have a few more days in Thailand as we bloody loved it so much last time around.

There was a little surprise to throw into the mix too. Tim and Steph were joining us for Kelly’s birthday! Somehow, we managed to keep this plan (that myself and the guys had planned months earlier) secret from Kel for months, so needless to say, she was rather shocked. For our final blast, we HAD to crash at Mad Monkey, meaning we’d stayed in all of their hostels over Asia. This old converted hotel had all the great vibes you’d expect from a Mad Monkey, with a cracking location to boot; just down the road from the legendary Khao San Road (but far enough away that you can actually sleep). Obviously, this meant our first night together ended up there, consuming god knows what out of buckets and having a little boogie on the streets.

The next few days consisted of doing the things we couldn’t do last time in BKK (New Years, just after the king died, when most things were simply closed).  Tim and Steph took us to some of the ‘local markets they explored last time they were here: these quickly jumped to the top of the list as some of the most awesome markets in all of Asia! When you avoid the traditional backpacker spots, you really can find some superb little gems; this being one of them!

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The great thing about Bangkok, is there’s just so much going on! This boheamoth of a city literally has something new and awesome on every corner. We all spent a day just wandering around, exploring the wonders of the city around Khao San road, and stumbled across a number of hidden gems (mainly MuayThai related)

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The next awesome thing about Bangkok is the food! Man, there’s just so much good food all around this wonderful country. After the Philippines, we were desperate for fruit, freshly cooked veggies and in general, the beautiful thai food. Seriously, we ate our way through our Bangkok explorations, and I don’t feel one bit guilty.

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One thing  we were really gutted to not do was the floating market on our last trip here. As mentioned earlier, a huge amount of stuff just wasn’t running out of respect for the king. This time, we took full advantage. Hiring a private longtail, we took our time exploring the canals and the floating market. Whilst this is renowned as a bit of a tourist trap, it was still great to see this market in full swing.

Obviously, it was super sad to say goodbye to these guys, especially knowing this ACTUALLY was the last time we’d see them in Asia (we’ve said that before, about 5 times now I think), but with plans afoot to see them again in a year or so back in the UK, it’s certainly not goodbye, but see you soon.

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Dubai, UAE

The next leg of our journey home took us to the adult playground, Dubai! Now you’d think this would be a terrible place to stop at the end of a year away, it’s world-renowned for being bloody expensive, full of opulence and glamour, and basically, not very backpacker friendly. However, my family has been living in the UAE for the past 4-5 years, with my dad recently moving to Dubai, so we got to spend a few days in their company, for the first time in a year!

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I don’t think my family was quite prepared for what they witnessed when we came through arrivals; both Kelly and I fully traveled up in our Alibaba pants and singlets, with me fully rocking the hobo hair. Oh well, gotta live up to the stereotype I guess!

After an afternoon sorting our lives out, washing EVERYTHING we owned, visiting my Dad at his new office, having our first family meal together for about 15months, the real fun and games started. Unbeknownst to us, but my family had planned a few bits and pieces for Kelly’s Birthday (she’s genuinely having the LONGEST birthday known now). The following evening, we all ventured to the world’s biggest inform theme park (I mean, of course, it’s the worlds biggest, we are in the UAE after all). IMG world of adventure is quite simply, outrageous! It really is a monster, filled with rides to suit all ages, with a number vermin on vomit inducing for those with a more sensitive disposition (namely, my mum). The absolute treat for me was the Marvel section, filled with rides from all their major comics. T’was certainly a giggle!

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The following day, we all hit the slopes. Mum and Dad booked Kelly skiing lessons at Ski Dubai, the (again) worlds largest indoor ski slope. Now, if you think about this, it is utterly ridiculous; skiing in a mall, in a desert, when it’s punching above 45c outside. Oh well, we are in Dubai! What was truly ridiculous though was this is Kelly’s first experience on skis on snow!

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Whilst Kel was having her lesson, my family and I hit the slopes for the first time together. I haven’t been skiing with them for well over 18 years and the last time we went my sister wasn’t even born! Somehow, I seemed to remember how to actually do it, with the fear of taking on the top slope dwindling after a few runs on the lower slaloms.

Sadly, all good things come to an end at some point. Our return to the UK was finally upon us. This really is it, the end of our trip across Asia. I’ll be writing another blog about our re-entry soon, but just to wet the appetite, this is what our first experience of the UK looked like… Definitely, something to get used to again I think!

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Palawan- When it rains it pours. 

It feels very odd writing this blog knowing this is the last country I’ll be writing about. At the start of a year traveling I had no idea how quickly it would all seem to go, and how I’d feel at this stage. It’s safe to say the prospect of returning to the UK in less than a month is an incredibly daunting one! Adding to the uncertainty was our final stop, the Philippines. 

You’ve probably seen in the news that this country is being rocked by some rather challenging times. The new president is taking an incredibly tough line on drugs, basically legalising murder of dealers and even casual users, whilst terrorism appears to be shaking the Southern islands, to the point where the foreign office has put a red flag on travel to this part of the country entirely (voiding all travel insurance in the process, thanks for that). Just to add to the fun, we’d be visiting during typhoon season! As ever though, the media have massively inflated the seriousness of the situation, and actually across the northern areas of the county there’s very little to worry about right now. At the 11th hour, we booked flights from KL to Manila to get the most of our final country on this trip. Both Kelly and I were determined to go out with a bang, and the Philippines has been a top country on this list for a few years now! 
Arriving in Manila late at night resulted in writing the majority of the next day off apart from a quick trip out to explore the surround area. Whilst Manila felt similar to other major cities across Asia, traffic here is another level of bad. Reports that it could take us up to three hours to get to the airport from the hostel areas (about 6mi from the Area we were staying weren’t even remotely exaggerated. I’ve never seen anything like it! Anyway, sadly there wasn’t much to see in the local area until the evening, when the city totally transforms: Not necessarily in a good way though. The area we were staying in appeared to be rather popular for, let’s just say, rather large white men looking for young Filipino ladies. Roads were littered with prostitutes, strip joints, massage parlours (I’m guessing with a happy ending), jelly wrestling bars, and even a midget wrestling club. Basically everything you can possibly imagine to objectify women; great…. 

Because of this, and the perceived lack of entertainment or activity in the city, we quickly booked flights outta there to Puerto Princessa, the capital of Palawan.
Our time on Palawan was always going to require a lot of moving around. This massive island has so many spots that many deem as ‘must see’ we’d have to spend a few days at each spot before moving on, and that’s just what we did! After a couple of days exploring the surrounding areas and beaches around PP, we moved straight onto an area rather new to the travel scene, Port Barton. 
Port Barton is a tiny fishing village on a peninsula on the north east coastline. It’s well known for being a true Filipino village, still hanging onto its traditional roots. The beach is clean and well maintained, apart from being covered with fishing boats obviously. The journey here is definitely one to be called ‘challenging’. The road to port Barton is basically non existent at points, and because we’re in the wet season , huge stretches are mud baths. Inevitably, our minivan packed with bags of flour and backpacks got stuck in the mud for about an hour, resulting in me getting down and dirty trying to push it out of the quagmire, followed quickly by helping the next two vans that also got stuck. This was all part of the fun though, and paired with the absolutely stunning views on the drive, it was quite the experience overall. 

Upon arrival in the village, we quickly found accommodation right on the beach for about £7 a night. Regardless how much you spend here, you’re going to get something far from opulence; the village only gets power for six hours a day, and because the roads in and out are poor, the delivery of goods for hotels or homestays are scarce. This really didn’t matter though, our last intention was to be stuck inside for the few days we were here. Exploring this tiny village takes no time really, but we still spent a good half a day checking out the area. The real attraction of port Barton is the simplicity of life here. Vast areas of the village are agricultural, hosting cattle and other livestock, chickens and patchy areas of growing fruit. There’s very little machinery used on the land, and most rely on water buffalo to turn fields used for rice production. 

The way of life here is very simple and that’s the attraction of coming. Most inhabitants still live in bamboo huts, with the whole family living in one room, sleeping on the floor, with very few material possessions. Walking through one area of the village could be confused with a slum in India (apart from more bamboo), but just like in India, everyone was very happy! The locals were somewhat bemused by a couple of white faces walking through this area though, clearly it doesn’t happen very often!

Sadly though, we were greeted with a day of pretty heavy rainfall. Attempting to save a bit of cash, we hired a kayak to do our own version of island hopping, and as soon as we handed over cash, the heavens opened out of nowhere, meaning we were grounded. Once his calmed down we got onto the water quickly, and headed out of the bay, only to be chased by super strong winds, massive dark angry clouds. That’s one thing about the Philippines in this season in particular, it’s unpredictable! Trying to kayak back to land in those winds was definitely a challenge! The poor weather mixed with an area with one dirt road and no power basically resulted in us sitting on the balcony of our hut for half a day, watching the storms roll in. Once this cleared though, we did manage to get out to enjoy the last bits of the sun on a truly glorious beach, followed by an evening with friends at a reggae bar on the beach. I even got up and played the cajon and bongo with the local musicians. 

Sadly our time in port Barton was short lived. Conscious of our limited amount of time in this country, and 7108 islands (ish) to explore, we kept heading north to el nido. 
Another ‘must see’ in Palawan, El Nido is famous for its huge limestone cliffs and islands, long stretches of beaches, and wonderful sunsets. Again, the weather wasn’t really on our side; half of el nido was flooded resulting in the below average drainage systems overflowing down many streets. Fortubately  our hostel stayed dry.   The centre of el nido is a bit shit at the best of times but this just took the biscuit really! Upon arrival and a quick walk around the town we realised the best stuff to see here was on the outskirts of the town. Our first day consisted of heading to Las Cabanas, a small beach just outside the town. We timed it just right, catching our first glimpse of sun since getting to the Philippines, as well as getting there for low tide enabling us to walk to another island just off the coast! The islands here are all limestone formations so offer some stunning sights, covered with vibrant flora and fauna. 


After checking out a local hostel a bunch of our fellow Palawan buddies we’re staying it, we got to experience the change in El Nido at night. Let’s just say it’s rather lively. 

The following day we were once again blessed with good weather, so took a chance, hired a bike, and rode out of the town to Nacpan. We’d been told this beach was worth the drive, although at the current time the road was rather challenging to ride. People weren’t lying; the yet again non-existent road was more akin to a muddy bog that anything that resembled a road. Fortunately this isn’t the first time we’ve dealt with such conditions on a bike, so eventually made it through the 4-5km of thick mud riding (not always with Kelly on the back of the bike though). It was so worth it though! Nacpan is only just really getting popular with tourists. Adding low season to the mix resulted in us effectively having the beach to ourselves. Quite uniquely, nacpan has a dual beach on either side of a bay, tipped with a small collection of islands crying out for a paradise island development (someone’s already bought the land, I checked). After a couple of hours chilling (and surprisingly, burning) we got back on the bike, took on the mud again, and rode around the surrounding areas. 

Now I know I’ve said this before, but the Philippines may actually have jumped to the top of the list for beautiful landscapes. Honestly, Kelly and I had no idea it would be like this! Because so much of the land is effectively undeveloped, and the volcanic soil is so rich with nutrients, everything is so green and so beautiful! Driving for probably an hour involved multiple stops for photos, because just like New Zealand, every corner resulted in another stunning view. This experience has continued across Palawan and I suspect the rest of this country. To finish off the day, we parked up at Lio beach, a resort currently in development. Whilst the shops and suites didn’t have much going on, this beach was something else. We were the only people there, it was immaculately clean, and felt like we’d somehow discovered an untouched spot of paradise. When this resort is finished it’ll clearly be stunning, and probably outrageously expensive, but definitely one to keep an eye on. Our day of beach hopping made us both realise coming to the Philippines was definitely the right decision, even with the bad weather most of the time. 

Next on our list in Palawan was Coron, one of the top dive sites in the world. There are about a dozen WWII Japanese boats sunk around the island, resulting in some very unique and spooky dives. Kel spent a day underwater exploring three of the wrecks. From what I gather, it was some of the most chalennging yet rewarding dives she’s ever done. Sadly no photos (she was paying more attention on not touching that wreck) but here’s a glimpse of someone else’s experience. 

We spent a few days in coron and had to finish it off with island hopping! Whilst El Nido is more famous for the tours, Coron are just as good, with more shipwrecks you can freedive to, and it’s Cheaper! Setting off at 830am, we immediately entered the world of intense rain. On the open seas this was somewhat daunting, especially as we had a whole day on the sea! Our first stop was a lagoon surrounded by sharp limestone cliff edges. We had to swim through an underwater entrance to get into it, while the now torrential rain continued to batter us, but that just added to the experience. Just to add a bit more fun, this lagoon had a unique thermocline experience (layers of water at different temperatures) and once the sun eventually came out, the water was crystal clear! What a great start to the day! 


Over the rest of the day, we stopped at a small island and reef; a sunken ship, a tiny beach surrounded by cliffs for a spot of lunch, another even more impressive lagoon and a marine park for some seriously impressive corals! This day turned out to be so much better than I could have hoped for. We were fortunate to have some great people on the boat with us too so had a good day all round. 

Our final stop in (sort of) Palawan was boracay. Known for its long and beautifully white beaches boracay has become very famous over the past few years, also now meaning it’s super touristy. It’s become rather well known as a party island like Ibiza too, just without the super clubs. Regardless we agreed to take a punt on it to see what all the fuss was about. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Boracay though was how we’d get there!

Somehow, this was cheaper than an airasia flight, which would have involved a huge amount of transport back to a main airport. Instead we flew this 12 seater plane for less than an hour, cruising at a low altitude so we could see all the islands. I never want to travel anywhere else in a different way now. 

When we arrived at Boracay we realised rather quickly the damage that tourism has done to this Island. The general infrastructure across the whole island just can’t cope, pure and simple. We were greeted by rains (of course we were), resulting in floods down many roads, and unfortunately resulting in overflowing drains around our hostel too. Lovely! For the next 4 days the rains barely ceased, and we only had a glimpse of blue skies for a few hours on our last full day. Fortunately though, we’d booked ourselves into stay at Mad Monkey in Boracay, meaning we were Guaranteed to have a good time with a great bunch of people. We’ve stayed at all the mad monkeys in Cambodia and without a doubt they are the best hostels I’ve stayed hands down, so more out of loyalty we stayed here than anything. This hostel follows the same suit as the others; good food, great Staff, a great party atmosphere with loads of social activities, a pool, and top quality dorms. Really we couldn’t ask for much more from this place (apart from great weather). The only caveat to all this, is mad monkey is definitely a PARTY hostel! The day we arrived most guests were on the twice weekly booze cruise. When they returned, the pool turned into what can only be described as an episode of love island (I assume this is what it’s like), with the cliche drunk British lads behaving like total tools. This was easily avoidable however, as we ventured away from the hostel to explore. This was our game plan the next few days; get out and explore ourselves after all, we couldn’t come all this way just to stay in the hostel! 

Our first full day in Boracay we set out to discover the famous white beach, stretching almost the whole length of the island. Straight away again, the tourism trap commeth! Lookie-lookie men (and children sadly) almost immediately surrounded us selling us everything from boat rides to outrageously priced kite surfing lessons, fake pearls to ray bans. The beach is covered in rubbish and wash up from the sea, as well as thousands of tourists all seeming to be attempting to snorkel in water that’s churned up from the swell. We later found out Boracay is a hugely popular destination for tourists from Taiwan and South Korea all year around, and more recently tourists have come in low season after a bargain, however the local economy has reacted to this and effectively kept prices at high season levels all year round. Finally, the resorts all erect horrific windbreakers in front of their beachfront entrances. 

I can say now if that was low season, I dread to think what high is like. Sadly, it was chokingly busy: You couldn’t really escape the carnage of white beach without local knowledge! On our final day, we took a trike to a beach further north and far away from the tourism strips, resulting in a great day out not surrounded by hundreds of clueless tourists. Again, this was short lived though, as the mother of all storms set in just hours after we found solitude, resulting in us taking refuge again, back in the confines of our hostel. 

Unfortunately, Boracay was a real let down for me. If it wasn’t for Mad Monkey I think it’s safe to say we’d have been rather miserable. Regardless of the weather, for me what was really sad was the evident destruction over investment in tourism can do to a place. A few years back, Boracay was voted one of the top islands in the world to visit. Now, there’s no escape from the carnage that comes from hyper-investment, literally shit running down the streets, a beach in a total state and very apparent damage to the ecology of the area thanks to humans (yet again; plastic and people are ruining everything). 

So after two weeks of rain, we’ve cut our losses and venture further south towards Cebu. The weather is consistently better down here. Let’s just hope it plays ball! 

Cameron Highlands- The hills are alive

In a complete paradigm shift from the island life on the Perhentians, we headed back to mainland, and caught a bus to the famous Cameron Highlands. Situated about 1000m about sea level, the Cameron Highlands have become a must see stop off in Malaysia, made famous by the hectares of tea plantations and strawberry farms covering almost every inch of land. Unlike the rest of Malaysia, which seems to have 3 main weather cycles (hot/really f***** hot/hot and wet) the highlands are well known for having an average temperature about 10c lower than the rest of Malaysia; hence why it’s growing 80% of the fruit consumed across the country (and the tea, obviously).  By pure chance, we ended up sharing the journey with our new regular travel buddy Frank. He was supposed to leave for the Highlands they day earlier, but partied too hard on the Perhentians and couldn’t face the 6 hour journey with a stinking hangover.

The bus journey took us through some truly breathtaking landscapes, consisting mainly of rolling hills, plantations, and forest land stretching as far as the eye can see. Whilst this was obviously stunning, it’s still such a shame to see so much deforestation taking place in areas, as well as previous arable land being swapped for profitable palm oil plantations, known as the primary cause for insane levels of deforestation and ecological destruction in Borneo. It seems in asia, this rampant destruction of land is somewhat unavoidable sadly.

Arriving into the Highlands gave us all mixed emotions I think it’s safe to say. Whilst the views were utterly breathtaking, they were shared with such high levels of tourism that totally took away from the picturesque views we had all anticipated. Driving through to the main areas tourists say involved driving past crappy little theme parks, themed hotels (including a Smurf hotel! Seriously; WTF) and a myriad of hawkers selling fluffy minion dolls, Hello Kitty EVERYTHING and the now synonymous in Asia penis shaped bottle openers (again, WTF). It transpired that this is an incredibly popular destination for local tourism as well as tourists from China and Japan who apparently love this stuff.

Conversely, we felt like we’d been transported to mountain ranges in Europe. The architecture here is so different from anywhere else in Asia. The buildings look more like ski chalets you’d find in the swiss alps than something you’d find in other parts of rural Malaysia. I would certainly compare the Highlands to Dalat in atmosphere and general look and feel. Food is obviously a huge thing here just like in Dalat, with hugely vibrant fruit markets and farms, selling an abundance of fresh fruits you seldom see in Asia normally (apples and strawberries, rather than pineapple and mango).

By the time we arrived in Tanah Rata we got exactly what we expected; a small highland town with the proper local delicacies we had hoped for. Our driver dropped us at 8 Mentigi Guest House after a request for a cheap place to stay. At 25 Ringit a night for a bed this was one of the cheapest places we stayed in Malaysia (less than a tenner a night for 2 beds is pretty damn good)! The owner was super helpful, filling us with knowledge about hikes, plantations, and other activities to keep us occupied, and the other staff were simply hilarious. To top it all off, the location was perfect, literally minutes from the main strip but far enough to give us a good night sleep.

We didn’t plan to spend too long in the Highlands; most people we spoke to recommended two full days, which sounded perfect. Kelly and myself and our new travel buddy Frank planned a hike the following day up to the second highest point in the highlands, avoiding the costly tours ushering hoards of tourists around the same sites over and over again. I’m so glad we did this! Not only did we save the best part of $30 doing this, but we had a unique experience on our own without dozens of other people. There are a number of hikes around the highland for all abilities, spanning the jungle areas of the land, or through the rolling tea plantations. We opted for jungles, meaning we could dedicate the following day to plantations. The hike was so worth it! We opted for a number of hikes straight from the center of the town, meaning we would get a number of the routes done in one day, peaking about 2/3 of the way through the trek. Now, we’ve done a bunch of hikes in Asia, so we sort of knew what we were letting ourselves in for, and this was no different to so many we’ve done. The trails were certainly overgrown, and pretty much non existent at points, or offered a number of ‘wrong turns’ that could have got us stuck in the highlands for days. Perhaps my favorite part of these treks though is the fact the unearthed roots effectively act as steps up mountains. This hike didn’t let us down and was made up predominantly of just this! I would certainly not say it was the easiest hike of my life, but it was fun none the less. Doing it with great people obviously helped! At the summit (about 1800m up) we had some awesome views over the highlands and a nice stop to catch our breath and rehydrate before enduring the ‘tougher route’ down. A word of warning for any novice hikers in Asia. If someone says it’s tough here, it probably means its really tough! The decline the whole way back was quite simply insane! It reminded us quite a bit of some of the hike we did in Cambodia, which involved abseiling down a dried up waterfall. Whilst no ropes were involved this time (only bamboo ropes), it was pretty tough on the ol’ knees and feet. Still, a great day out!

The next day, we hired a bike to explore the surrounding areas and obviously, the tea plantations. Spending the day driving around this area was such a joy, especially as the windy and undulating roads were up there as some of the most fun to ride in Asia! We stopped at 2 of the larger tea companies plantations, Royal Plantation Tea and Boh Tea (the largest tea manufacturer in Malaysia; it’s basically a posher PG tips). Whilst the first plantation was rather small, Boh was a total monster, and you could tell in the offering of their tourist services. Royal tea had a tiny tea shop and restaurant, whilst Boh had a museum, live working factory for drying and packaging (they do everything internally rather than outsourcing to other companies), a cafe with some of the nicest views in the whole area, and a wonderful shop offering a huge array of fruit, ice, and loose leaf teas. If you’re ever here, i highly recommend the Boh plantation to get a real idea of what’s involved, and what some of the better teas can taste like (try the mango fruit tea; it’s a total winner!) The rest of the day consisted of exploring the surrounding hills on the bike, and again, was a total joy. I can definitely see why there’s such a pull here for tourists.

I couldn’t not mention the food up here, which was a total shock to us all. I’d go as far as saying we had some of the best Indian, Nonya, and Malay food we’ve had in all of Malaysia in the Highlands! Discovering some of the local secrets is all part of the fun. Special shout out to these guys. This deaf couple run a small street food restaurant that’s only open till 5pm, serving Malay food cooked fresh to orer. Their hospitality was so good, we went back 3 times in the end. Plus to make things better right next door is a family restaurant selling the best Satay beef and Chicken we’ve had since Thailand! Seriously, go there; you won’t be disappointed.

So that was it for the Highlands. It was definitely worth the journey, and i’m so glad we made the effort to get there. We had planned to head to Borneo, but now we’re at the end of our trip, the purse strings are being pulled tighter than usual, so we simply couldn’t justify a near $400 trip there and back for a few days. We traveled back to KL to have one last day with our buddy Cadmon. In true Cadmon fashion, he took us on a couple of food odysseys, consisting of a monster night market never normally seen by western tourists, a top notch dimsum restaurant, and a traditional stop off selling congee (a kind of chicken rice porridge; believe me it’s nicer than it sounds). It’s been so great linking up with someone we met so long ago now on their home turf and getting a real feel for life here not always seen by tourists.

Our time in Malaysia is up sadly. It’s been wonderful and so much more than we expected. Malaysia really is the perfect example of multiculturalism in action, and other nations (including the UK) could learn so much from it. The sights, the food, the people, and the culture are all wonderful, and i’ll genuinely miss being here! But it can’t last forever. We’re now in our final country for the last month of our trip; the Philippines! Hopefully the weather stays on our side (it’s Typhoon season here) so we can really enjoy this last part of our trip.

Langkawi and the Perhentian Islands- Paradise lost 

After such a great few days in Penang, we took others advice and made the short journey to Langkawi, a collection of a hundred or so islands north of Malaysia and basically on the boarder of Thailand (arguably it’s actually over the land boarder at points but still Malaysian territory). We did the journey with Cormac, our new travel buddy who is seemingly doing the same route as us in Malaysia at the same time. He was meeting a lady friend Belinda at our hostel, so we’d have another member of our group for a few days. 
Langkawi is a popular weekend destination for locals we were later to discover. Not only because it’s bloody beautiful, but because it’s a tax free island! Apparently this is somewhat historic; something to do with a promise made by a ruling leader years ago to never tax the land, that’s stuck in place. In more recent years this has obviously resulted in areas becoming a full on tourist trap, and Langkawi now boasts an airport, the largest aquarium in Asia, a number of very upmarket (and eyewateringly expensive) hotels, and obviously, a bunch of activities to please the masses. This, as a budget conscious backpacker didn’t interest us massivey; most of the activities on offer would easily decimate our £15 a day each budget within merely looking at what’s on offer. Because of this, we bypassed the Sheraton and four seasons hotels, and stayed at a great little place just off the super touristy road, offering everything we needed for about £14 a night. Result!

Imagine a super touristy road in any country. You’ve all seen them. The buzz of Khao San Road in BKK, the main strip in Ibiza, spots around parliament square in London. Langkawi had one too that ticked all the boxes, massively overpriced food, dozens of shops selling utter shite with a 200% markup, a number of bars trying to out do each other with their touristic enticements, the works. On our first night we hired scooters and rode up said street in true Asian fashion (the wrong way up a one way street) to see if we just got a bad first impression. We didn’t, it was shite, end of. To add to our entertainment, an obviously new to Asia Aussie traveller and her partner looked aghast when they spotted us and shouted ‘what you doing???? It’s a one way!!’ Welcome to Asia my dear! 

So after effectively deciding that we’d avoid this strip like the plague, and subsequently we’d be missing out many of the tourist laden activities, we set a plan for the next few days to hunt out many of the free activities that were available. Fortunately, Langkawi is blessed with some absolutely glorious topography, beaches, waterfalls, lookouts, and roads so this wasn’t too difficult! 

In the end, the four of us agreed we should probably do the SkyCab, the number one attraction on Langkawi. It’s also one of the steepest cable cars in the world, and the views from the top are supposed to be pretty amazing. As soon as we arrived here, it was apparent this is a SERIOUS tourist spot, with almost a mini theme park surrounding the site offering everything from 4d cinemas, amusement arcades, a very weird 3D art museum, even go karting! Obviously none of that really appealed so we didn’t pay any extra for those, but gained entrance to some as part of our 55Ringit entrance fee (about £10, so an expensive commitment immediately sending us over budget for the day). More on those activities later though. From my perspective the SkyCab was really worth it. The views from the top were pretty spectacular, with lookouts at 3 different points overlooking pretty much the whole island. The views were definitely impressive, and made even more impressive once we also did the sky walk, the worlds highest single suspension point bridge. This spot offered equally impressive views across the hundred or so islands dotted across the horizon. Perhaps the most impressive thing for me was the water. In all the time we’ve been on the road I don’t remember water to have such an expansive turquoise hue, which made for such a beautiful site from so high up. 

Once we ventured back down the cable car, we gave the 3D art museum a go. Whilst this is clearly geared towards the younger end of the age spectrum, there were some great instalments to immerse yourself and interact with. We may have taken a few shots with some of them, once we could battle our way through the hoards of Chinese tourists who seemed totally oblivious of personal space, order and, well, anything around them at all really! 

To finish off the day, we rode to a couple of local waterfalls. The benefit of these was twofold. One, they were free, and two, they could cool us down! The first required a bit of a hike but was totally worth it, greeting us with a natural water slide and beautifully naturally cooled water. At the base of the waterfall was an evidently popular local spot for a dip, with a huge number of locals tourists enjoying the various spots to get drenched. This was a very impressive waterfall, with probably 100ft from summit to base. God I love a good waterfall! 

The following day, the four of us donned our bikes, and spent the day riding around the island, exploring the more unseen areas off the beaten track. Cormac identified a hill we could drive up, which evidently turned out to be the highest point in Langkawi. After a fairly arduous ride for about 45 minutes we made it to the top, paid our £2 to enter the lookout for even more impressive views than the day before! The panoramic views, matched with a clear day free of overcasting clouds made for a great view of the whole island and surrounding islands, and was totally worth it. One issue though to finish this off; I was basically out of fuel! We had to freewheel the best part of 12k back to the main road down the mountain, only tapping the throttle to get us up the larger inclines, before praying to the petroleum gods we’d make it to the closest fuel stop, a good 10k away. I’ve mentioned many times the infrastructure in Malaysia is immensely better than other Asian countries we’ve visited, and sometimes this brings with it a downside. In Cambodia or Indonesia, the primary method of filling up your bike is from a small roadside stall with litres of petrol in old vodka bottles. These tended to be everywhere but here, totally non existent. Hunting out one of the half dozen petrol stations on Langkawi always involved a drive, but unfortunately for us these were all in totally the wrong direction! Regardless, we made it, filled up, said our goodbyes to Cormac and Belinda (both catching a boat to mainland that afternoon), and went about our day. Then we found this. 

This is what I really love about backpacking. You hire a bike, just ride randomly around the area you’re in, and discover hidden gems totally off the tourist track just like this beach. Honestly, at this point we could have been on a near deserted Thai island, as we only shared the beach with about a dozen other people. Obviously, we made full use of this and stayed for a good couple of hours, soaking in the vitamin D and great views. 

That was really the end of excitement for us in Langkawi. We had two more days there, but spent one by the pool undertaking much needed life admin, and another totally rained in. Sadly these things happen, but in the near 300 days we’ve been on the road now we’ve had surprisingly few like this. 
Next stop was the Perhentian islands off the north east coast of mainland Malaysia. We set off in the afternoon, and after a fairly arduous collection of journeys (boat/bus/boat/boat), including a 3.30am arrival in the middle of nowhere, we finally made it! Kelly and I had heard a bunch about these islands, but still didn’t really know what to expect apart from ‘they are stunning;just go’. First impressions weren’t far off. The crystal clear water was a beautiful turquoise colour with clear visibility all the way to the bottom. Plus there were monitor lizards everywhere which is really cool. 

This one was a baby. Some were basically dinosaurs
Mixing this with stunning soft white sand and some spectacular sea life surrounding the shores you could imagine yourself to be in paradise again. 

One problem though; tourism is destroying this place. 

You see it all over the world. A place becomes popular because of a new lonely planet review, a few famous instagrammers posting stunning photos at a now iconic spot, or a shitty TV show goes somewhere, and suddenly it’s the new spot to visit. Over the past year, we’ve heard so many times that place X is ‘what Y used to be like before it became touristic’ and sadly, the perhentians falls into the category of being overrun by tourism now. The main beach on the smaller island, Kecil, is literally laden with small shacks blaring reggae from water damaged PA speakers, selling paint stripper bottles of rum/whiskey, overpriced beers, and crap quality food laden with monosodium glutamate and E numbers (the regulations in Malaysia on flavour enhancers appear to be non existent so the processed foods are nearly all full with such chemicals). Accommodation here ranges from tents you pay £12 a night for the pleasure of,  to pretty crappy quality DIY chalets you pay an arm and a leg for, and finishing with the new array of villas at the few opulent hotel complexes that I imagine cost hundreds or thousands a night. 

The type of place we stayed on our first couple of nights
Whilst the beach is beautiful, it’s not big, and is totally overrun with small passenger boats. Walking down the beach is akin to walking along a minefield whilst you spend your time dodging the anchors dug into the shallow waters or sand, broken whiskey bottles dead coral or rubbish. Add to that the constant smell of petrol from the over choked boat motors constantly whirring guests in and out, the percussive rattle of the generators powering every beach front stall (there’s no grid system here, all the power is from generators, and most accommodation only has power during evenings), finding a quiet, quaint, and peaceful spot can be somewhat of a challenge. Perhaps the most upsetting thing on this island was the rubbish. There’s no infrastructure for dealing with the vast amount of rubbish that is generated from so many people, so the resorts, restaurants, hotels and guesthouse just seem to dump, burn, or hide everything. Sewage pipes could be seen running straight into the sea all over the island, or running along the coastal edge from one establishment to another. I discovered at another hotel complex we walked though, they just dumped most of the cans and plastic under the main building out of the view of guests, before carting off into the island later on to burn. For someone who cares deeply about the environment, and has made a real concerted effort to be a sustainable traveler wherever possible, this was deeply upsetting. To top it all off, there is no drinkable water on the island, so you are forced to drink water shipped in from mainland in plastic bottles. I dread to think how many thousands of bottles are disposed of every month, and how easy it would be to combat this in a few simple steps.   

Long beach probably contains about half a dozen dive shops too, obviously appealing to the young clientele keen to dip their proverbial toes in the water and to get a cheap PADI qualification. Everyone I spoke to undertaking the courses seemed really happy with the quality of the courses, training and support, and the price was certainly en par with the outrageously good value found in Koh Tao, widely known as one of the cheapest places to learn to dive in the world. I think it’s safe to say if you want to learn to dive during the day for cheap, party at night, have a short term bender on an island, and cook yourself a little in a state of permanent hangover, this is a great place to be! 

Having said all that, we didn’t partake in any of these activities, yet we still bloody loved it here. 

The problem with places like this that they become so overrun with tourism (and lame tourism too) is escaping it can be a real challenge. But when you do, it can be totally blissful. After two nights staying near long beach we made the move to the other side of the island. This much quieter and more tranquil side still boasted a number of dive shops, hotels and small beach from restaurants. Move beyond the beach however, and you can find basic yet idyllic chalets for dirt cheap, which feel like they are in the middle of nowhere. We managed to get a chalet overlooking the islands and sea for about 70MR (£13) a night; a pretty decent price for this island. The beauty of this spot though was definitely it’s tranquility. One evening we watched a somewhat cloudy sunset whilst reading on our balcony, and felt like no one else was around. The reggae battles from the other side of the island were totally inaudible, the party scene non existent, and the stress levels depleted. 

After moving to the other side, we spent a day exploring the area, discovered an almost secluded beach or two that looked ideal for snorkeling, and decided to head back the next day. The sea was so calm it almost looked like glass, and being so clear we had ideal conditions for a few hours out exploring under the sea. Whilst we didn’t see any turtles, we did spot some very cool looking schools of fish, the biggest trigger fish I’ve ever seen (seriously, this guy was a monster, and probably would have taken a toe off if he’d come for me), a number of needle fish, blue spotted stingray and a small group of baby black tip reef sharks nestling in by the shallow rocks. Overall, pretty awesome! 

Once we found our secluded little spots, we didn’t do a great deal. Days consisted of reading, snorkelling, sunbathing, and that’s pretty much it, but that’s really all we wanted from these islands. 

I guess it’s inevitable and unavoidable really; somewhere is discovered and word spreads, local micro economies naturally tap into increased demand by creating offerings for impending tourists, normally trying to squeeze the most out of profit margins, and before you know it you’re basically in Magaluf, or a stupidly expensive resort. Part of the fun of backpacking on a budget is definitely hunting out the unknown spots where you can live a frugal yet satisfying existence for very little. Sadly the Perhentians probably aren’t that spot anymore (although we did manage to just about stay in our £15 each a day budget, but only just), but it’s certainly not geared up perfectly for those of a slightly more budget conscious disposition. There are so many islands off the Malaysian coast, I’m sure most are equally as stunning with equally as clear and warm water. I just wish we had longer to explore more of them. 

Kuala Lumpur- A melting pot of culture

It’s funny, when we look back over the countries we’ve visited, the consistent feeling we’ve had in capital cities is we don’t really like them all that much. That feeling of ever so slight anxiety I recall from London commuting, constant sensory overload and claustrophobia on public transport feels like such a distant memory, until you enter a capital city. Bangkok is quite simply bat shit crazy, and cities like Delhi are just such an assault on the senses. The great thing about cities though sadly don’t outweigh the bad things from my perspective, but it’s always worth at least experiencing them for a couple of days just to get a feel for the place. So when we arrived to Malaysia at Kuala Lumpur, we weren’t particularly excited about the prospect of another mega city. I’d heard all the things about the airport being a total monster, but I hadn’t prepared for it clearly! 

KL airport is like no other airport in Asia I’ve seen. It’s a shiny glistening city, rammed full of commuters traveling all over the world, absolutely jam packed full of shops (there’s a mall comparable with a Westfield inside the airport), and more importantly, everything was just so damn easy! I remember on a connecting flight to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, we made our check in with 4 minutes to spare thanks to a shocking passport check process, but KL was totally the opposite experience. Everything from buying a local sim, to getting a taxi to the city was a total doddle! This ease of movement continued into the city too, where the metro is dead simple and studiously cheap! 

What definitely made things easier though was meeting a friend we made in Hanoi back in November. Cadmon happened to be flying to Hong Kong for a concert that same night so caught up with us at arrivals. After a quick hello and goodbye we were in a cab to the city, with a vague idea what we were doing, where we were going, and a plan to link up with Cadmon later in the week. 

We decided to stay in the Bukit Bintang district of the city and I’m so glad we did! This area was an easy walking distance from so many attractions and areas defined as ‘must see’ in KL, as well as hundreds of opportunities to sample the famous food of Malaysia (and particularly KL). The food here is a wonderful mix of Indian, Chinese, Thai and the home grown Malay, totally in line with the culture and population. I’ve never seen a place that is so multicultural but more importantly, beautifully integrated multiculturalism. I didn’t get any impression that there were issues with so many cultures living intertwined unlike sadly, we see all too often in the UK (especially if you read the daily mail). It really doesn’t matter where you are in KL you see examples of this; from the Indian/Asian fusion food on the streets, to the general feeling throughout the streets. We saw a mosque next to a Catholic Church, next to a Hindu temple on one street, turned a corner and you’d see a beautiful government building with Islamic architecture mixed with Colonial British influence, aided by a impeccably manicured cricket pitch and pavilion. It’s such a weird yet wonderful mix that you see throughout the city. 

The food is legendary in Malaysia and I can totally see why! Firstly, it’s everywhere you turn, and such a huge part of Malaysian culture. The streets have a constant aroma of Indian spices (it really made me feel like I was back in India), the constant percussive beat of wok’s making amazing stir fries, the smell of BBQ satay and fresh fish, and sadly durian. They bloody love durian here, and unfortunately it kind of smells like a mix of a bin that’s insides are rotting in direct sunlight, and vomit. Needless to say, we took full advantage of this wonderful culinary hybrid and ate our way around the city joyfully (but avoiding durian). If you come to KL, the tourist street food spot is called Jalan Alor and is well worth a look at night. I can’t comment on any restaurants (like proper restaurants, with napkins and silver polished cutlery etc) but I can say all of the street food restaurants (with plastic tables and chairs, plastic forks and plates, and fairly in/out service) were sublime! 

Like with any city, different districts have very different feels. We spent a day walking around the city (getting very weird looks from locals as most people don’t seem to walk around much due to the heat, which is pretty intense) just exploring the different areas. It’s incredible how much change there can be between Chinatown and little India, which are literally a ten minute walk apart. Chinatown obviously felt similar to many others all around the world, but with a market selling fake EVERYTHING that made me feel like I was back in Bangkok. A short trot down a busy road, and you enter little India, where buildings are painted with the most vibrant colours imaginable, statues of Ganesh and Brama are all over the place, the air is perfumed with Hindu incense, and the shops belt loud Bhangra music across the road like their having a decibel battle; just like being back in India, but with considerably less chaos. It was such a nice reminder of all the things I loved about India, with the subtle removal of the things I didn’t love so much! To follow this all up, we walked to the national mosque and surrounding areas. Sadly we couldn’t enter as we were here during Eid, but just being able to check out the mosque from afar was good enough. For the rest of the day, we explored the district around the mosque, housing a number of government buildings, the worlds largest outdoor bird sanctuary, a few more temples, a botanical gardens and a planetarium. What really astounded me was the cleanliness of this area. The pavements and roads were immaculate; so alien for most of what we’ve seen in other Asian capitals. Many of the buildings followed the architectural style of Islamic/colonial British we spotted earlier, and the area felt eerily quiet, mainly due to the Islamic celebrations. Combine all of these things and you could definitely question if you were still in Asia, all of this was just so alien to another places we’ve been! 

To finish off our day exploring we went to see the iconic Petronas Towers, the highest twin towers in the world. These buildings are absolutely stunning, I can see why they are so iconic now! At night, they illuminate and sparkle like diamonds, visible across the whole city. Underneath the towers is yet another monster shopping mall, leading outside to a beautifully landscaped garden and lake area. Walk through the other end of the mall and continue walking for ten or so minutes along the skywalk, and you enter time square, absolutely filled with designer stores ranging from Prada to Hugo Boss. This part of KL reminded me so much of the opulent areas of Dubai. This kind of over polished and shopping centric way of life is so far removed from my day to day it’s unbelievable: people were spending more on handbags and watches in the ten minutes I walked down that road than we’ve spent in a few months in Asia! Still, it’s nice to see how the other half live I suppose. I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb in my £2 singlet and grubby shorts though 🤣.  

As with any place you visit, it’s almost mandatory to visit the touristy stuff, especially as it’s free! I think it’s safe to say there’s not that much really historical stuff in KL apart from the Batu caves, so off we went to see them. Sadly from our perspective we both felt totally underwhelmed (sorry KL). Don’t get me wrong, the outside is pretty impressive, but the caves themselves and the temples inside just didn’t blow us away as much as expected, or anywhere near as much as some of the Hindu temples in India. I appreciate thisbprobably sounds very spoiled, but for us it’s the truth. There’s lots of work going on there now too, in an attempt to ‘jazz up’ the surrounding area which for us just felt fake too. But again, it’s one of those things you’ve got to do and we did it, and it was free, so nothing lost. 

As I mentioned earlier, we had agreed to link up with Cadmon again whilst in KL. We spent a quality day with him exploring the non tourist areas of KL. The day started off with a trip to a Chinese/Malay food market for breakfast, where we got to experience some PROPER local grub, costing all of about £2. We’ve definitely found here (as well as many other countries) the best trick in the book for saving money is to avoid restaurants and eat with the locals, and this summed it up beautifully! Ordering was a bit of a challenge as no signs were in English and many people surprisingly didn’t speak English (in Malaysia it seems like the vast majority do) but the battle was sooo worth it! Following this, Cadmon drove us out towards Cyberjaya to see some of the lesser known areas and buildings. We got to explore one of the biggest mosques out of central KL, and saw some stunning buildings including the presidential offices, a monsterous building that really stood out around the others in the area. I’m so glad we got to see these other areas that were so different from the main body of KL we’d witnessed thus far. After stopping for lunch to have one of my new favourites, vegetable pandan thali (and selection of vegetarian curries, dhal, breads and chutneys served on a banana leaf) and a cheeky beer whilst watching the lions, we finished off a cracking day with some real icing on the cake, a pint on a helipad at dusk! It’s not often you get do to something like this, and doing so in KL whilst overlooking the Petronas towers and KL Tower was simply awesome! I guess the company was okay too ☺️. 

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention we both got tattoos too! 

I’ve wanted a forearm piece for ages, but have been undecided on what for ages (as well as being fairly apprehensive about a visible piece day to day, but oh well). After a lot of searching, we found a tattoo studio very highly recommended (and with a huge portfolio of stunning inkwork) called bloody ink, situated a ten minute walk from our hotel in a small shopping mall. This mall was so different to the others in KL; feeling more like an old school bazaar, with stalls selling everything from cheap knock off goods to smartphones, tattoos to manicures. The mall still allows smoking inside, isn’t even remotely polished, and has a food court upstairs that I don’t think any other backpackers have ever entered, but that’s all part of the charm. Down one end of a small alley in said mall, are a number of tattoo stores; we definitely picked the best! 

I decided to get a piece to commemorate the memories and challenges of this trip. Hanzhi, my artist, was awesome at really taking on board what I was after, and after a bit of redesign work he produced this freehand!

I couldn’t be happier, the detail he’s managed to squeeze in is so much more than I ever expected, and he’s absolutely nailed the brief! To add to all this, I shared my new piece of ink of Reddit, and it totally exploded! At time of writing this has over 250000 views, nearly 300 comments and over 16000 upvotes, making it to the front page (in Reddit terms, this is a big deal). I’m just glad people like it! Kelly went for something totally different. She’s become obsessed with diving on this trip, and counts herself as a bit of a mermaid at the best of times (oh, and she loves Disney stuff), so got herself a constant reminder of her times under water and got a watercolour mermaid. After much deliberation on colour or not, and more importantly watercolour or not she went for it, and 3-4 hours later this was the outcome. I’m sure you’ll agree her artist Miiaow did a cracking job too! 

So that’s our time in KL done! I can definitely say this is my favourite capital in Asia thus far, and I’m actually looking forward to going back. Special thanks to Cadmon for being such an awesome tour guide and friend (and driver especially when you bolted us to our bus with minutes to spare). 

Now onto Penang to explore some street art and to eat our way across it!

Lembongan islands and Bali part two- Above and below the ocean

And onto our next stop! The Lembongan islands.

Nusa Lembongan, Ceningan, and Penida are another tiny cluster of islands, but this time off the coast of Bali. Unlike the Gili islands, these don’t come with the precursor of parties, honeymooning or chilling, but as synonymous with activities more based in the sea. Kelly has got seriously into her diving on this trip, and I’ve discovered a new found love for surfing and snorkelling, so this next leg was always destined to consist mainly of these activites. Our trip to these islands was primarily based around not being on the islands, but loving the time we could spend in the ocean. Also, these islands are primarily Hindu, so we swapped the Muslim culture for a deeper Hindu vibe which is all so everpresent here. 

Lembongan is mainly known for its unique encounters with manta rays and the fairly secretive Mola Mola fish, a deep sea fish that only really comes higher up to the surface for cleaning (I think). Sadly, we arrived just before the Mola Mola season, but regardless there was plenty for us to enjoy! After a day of recuperation from travel, we spent a day exploring the first island, Nusa Lembongan, is a really interesting split of hustle and bustle of busy tourism based strip, deeply entrenched mangrove forest, and desolate, somewhat untouched landscape. It’s so small, we managed to drive round and explore the majority of the island in about two hours, checking out all the local dive shops, potential places to stay, and other activities available. During our ride around, we stumbled across an area known as devils tear which was certainly rather lively, but just around the corner we found these natural infinity pools with almost no other tourists around! 

The island itself is as mentioned already, tiny, but has so much character. It’s very easy to get lost in the outskirts and forget this is one of the most popular destinations in Indonesia for tourists. Sadly though, the island is surrounded by these weird party pontoons, offering water slides, banana boat rides, jet skiing and I’m guessing all day drinking, catering mainly to the Chinese caucus of guests. However, once you look past this, there is so much character on the island you can almost ignore all of this. Lembongan and its neighbour, Ceningan, are actually joined by the iconic yellow bridge. After we’d explored Lembongan, we rode across the rickety yellow bridge for another exploration session. Now Ceningan is definitely an Instagrammers dream, absolutely covered in super trendy beach bars and clubs, covered with the iconic beach swings, trendy beach hut style accommodation painted in bright colours, and surrounded by pretty epic coastal scenery. After a fairly arduous drive across some pretty horrific roads (if you can call them that), we stopped at a couple of spots for a bite to eat, a freshen up with some wonderful fruit tea, and some chill time enjoying some stunning cliff top views. Whilst Cenningan is definitely a less touristy and arguably less maintained island, it certainly has its own charm. We explored the lot (well, the lot that’s accessible by bike across the shocking roads that still exist) in about 2 hours as well, so it’s easily doable in a day. 

ANYWAY, back to the real fun stuff. 

We managed to get arguably the best price for our next few days worth of activities; bonus! This is definitely the best approach for Indonesia; book a place for a night, hunt out the local deals, barter to your hearts content, then settle for the best deal you can get, and enjoy! We decided to book onto a number of trips over the coming days. Kelly went to do the must do dives around the island, whilst I made use of the beginner level surf opportunities and opted for a snorkelling session with a local guide. Now, for anyone coming to these islands, I highly recommend a proper shop around for such activities. We found the cheapest place for diving was called dive concept diving. For two dives around the main manta points, we paid 800000 rupiah, which comes in at about £55, at least a tenner cheaper than most places we found. Watch out for hidden charges, as many places charge extra for heading to manta point (arguably THE place for manta spotting, just off the coast of Nusa Penida) as well as equipment hire. Dive concept didn’t charge for equipment hire,and 150000 rupiah for manta point, so was definitely a good deal! For my surfing, I found this awesome local dude Called Nicky, based in a tiny hut just off the main beach where you will probably land. He charged about 50% what others were attempting to charge, and so ended up paying about £15 for a private two hour surf with tutorial, and around £9 for a three hour snorkelling marathon. I was so happy to book with this guy, I got so much for my money and he was super friendly and jovial throughout. My surfing session was simply perfect. Great waves, just off the coast of the island, with constant support from Nicky offering me 1-2-1 advice. Unlike other surfs I’ve done, it felt like the waves were non stop and relentless, without the constant struggle of swimming back to a good break point. For two hours, I endured 5-6ft waves breaking beautifully across a shallow reef, about 3m below the water level. Sadly this obviously meant on the couple of occasions i wiped out, I did cut my feet up a bit, but regardless this was a quality day on the waves, and way more than I could have initially hoped for. I didn’t get any footage here as I was busy surfing, but here’s some footage of lacerations break, where I spent most of my time surfing 

Whilst I was doing this, Kelly was 30m under the waves, enjoying her time with the majestic mantas. I wish we had more footage of these guys, they really are incredible creatures. Kelly spotted half a dozen across her two dives, and came back utterly mesmerised by them. Obviously, I’m gutted I couldn’t join her but I’m so glad she got to experience them in there natural habitat.

From what we learned on the island, some mantas can reach a wingspan of up to 8m, far bigger than I could have ever comprehended! I think it’s safe to say Kelly didn’t spot any quite this big, but regardless this was definitely a once in a lifetime moment she will never forget, and is definitely a tick off on the list of seeing some pretty incredible sea life! 

So after a pretty epic morning of surfing, I went back out on the ocean for the afternoon to get my own taste of the local offerings under the water. Sadly, I didn’t get to see ant mantas, even though Nicky diligently hunted for them off the coast of Penida, but we did explore 5 spots around the three islands, enjoying coastal mangrove spots, shallow coral, deep ocean, and some amazing fish highways. Now, it surprises me still to say this, but I honestly think the reefs we got to explore were probably the best I’ve seen in the 9 months we’ve been away! Seriously, these reefs were incredible; far better than what we saw off the barrier reef in Australia, and probably en par if not better than the exceptional reefs we saw in Fiji! I was quite simply shocked by this, especially following the poor quality reefs we experienced at the Gili islands, clearly seriously damaged by such a high level of tourism. The array of soft and hard coral, and the colours I saw were spectacular, and im so glad I got experience it. If I could, I would have stayed another week just to spend more time in the sea, and sure Kelly would agree!
Our time on Lembongan was short lived, we only stayed for a few days, in an attempt to see a bit more of Bali. To finish off our trip to these islands, we spent a day exploring Nusa Penida. Although this island is by far the biggest of the three, it’s also by far the most desolate, under developed and un-touristy of the three islands, which I’ve gotta say was a nice change from the norm of the past couple of weeks. Regardless, what it lacked in tourism it certainly didn’t lack in character and beauty. We decided to head to a coastal area I’d discovered on other blogs about Indonesia, but with no maps or data, and paths that once resembled roads, getting there was a challenge! Now we’ve ridden some pretty horrific roads during our time away, but the roads on Penida probably took gold, silver and bronze. Once you’re off the beaten track and away from the port, you’re quickly greeted with what sort of resembles a gravel path, made up primarily of huge boulders dotted all over the place, pot holes baby elephants would get stuck in, and cliff edges right on the edge of the roads. They were certainly a challenge to ride, but that’s all part of the fun I guess. Getting tor the spot we’d aimed for though, made it totally worth the effort…

  • After a long two hour drive, we got back to the only properly populated part of the island, and spent the rest of the day exploring the coastal northern strip. This is just what I imagine Bali must have been been like before Australian tourism dominated so much of it; tiny bamboo shacks covering the coast line, covering the sea with fishing lines and traps, barely any Warungs or signs of civilisation apart from the odd new development obviously gearing up for the hoards of tourists that will soon discover this wonderful chilled out place, and by chance, we discovered a tiny turtle sanctuary! Obviously we had to stop to check it out. Whilst this place looked run down, the work they did was fantastic. Run by locals, they buy the eggs off fisherman who’d usually sell them to hoards of Chinese tourists for lunch, hatch them, and release into the wild once they are ready. This sanctuary relied entirely on volunteers, And I was very happy to hear they had loads of westerners dedicating weeks to supporting these creatures. We were lucky enough to see a bunch that had only hatched a few days earlier, definitely the smallest turtles I’ve seen to date. 

Traveling has made me realise the polarising impact tourism can have on a place. When you compare Lembongan to Penida, you quickly realise how quickly tourism can totally dominate an area. Lembongan was great, but it’s safe to say it was nearly totally saturated by crappy western restaurants offering sub par attempts at western food, crappy home stays charging way too much for very little (we couldn’t get a place for less than £12 a night, and we had a crap fan, a shower than consisted of a hose out the wall, and plenty of rust covering everything it could in the bathroom), which was fine for us, but we certainly felt we were paying over what we should have. Compared to Penida which still relied mainly on the locals trade and consisted of family run businesses, full on eating off the land, and untouched beauty. Sadly I definitely could see the impact of tourism taking over here too, and I reckon in 5 years it will be unrecognisable. I’m just glad we got to experience it as it is now. 

Having said all that, we were both sad to leave these islandsWhilst the tourism traps have their downfalls, there’s something to be said about some level of home comfort that comes with western tourism. Arriving back on Bali, we went straight to Canggu, another area close to the heavily Australian influenced Kuta and Seminyak, but with less posh hotels, swanky bars and beaches filled with broken plastic day beds. Now this place is cool! Imagine the awesomeness and laid back atmosphere of Asia with the hipster chic bars and restaurants of east London. What I really loved about this area was the array of small independent shops and restaurants, offering superbly produced menus of local and western food or boutique products all heavily stylised and polished to an incredibly high standard. Over the next four days we frequented a number of these establishments, and I must say we didn’t have a bad meal once! In particular, Deus Ex Machina may actually be the coolest place I’ve ever been to, and Old Mans Restaurant was a cracking spot for a cheeky Bintang or some Sangria. I’ll probably write a blog about the food and drink scene here as it was so good and so unexpected. 

To add to that, the surfing on the coast was brilliant, albeit probably a bit too strong for me. I spent two days out on the surf, loving every minute, but didn’t catch as many waves as on Lembongan (but definitely got my fill of wipeouts, crashes with other surfers, and a couple of wounds from crashing into said boarders). Regardless, it was again bloody fun. Again no footage of this as I was too busy focusing on not crashing out, but someone else has done some great work with a drone for me!

I definitely think I’ve found a new thing I love! 🏄 🌊 🤘

We’ve managed to find so many cool places here I could easily get stuck here for longer, but sadly we fly tomorrow to Malaysia! Indonesia in a pretty amazing country; I wish we had the chance to see more of it, and we will definitely come back for holidays, hopefully with a bit more cash! 

Right, off for one final surf before we fly. See you soon Indonesia, you will be missed! 

🇮🇩❤️🇲🇾

Gili Islands- Part of the furniture

What feels now like months ago (edit-it was months ago, it was back in December) we spent just short of a week on Koh Rong Samloem, staying at the best hostel in the world, Mad Monkey. This was our first proper taste of island life, and we bloody loved it! Our days consisted of pretty much nothing apart from cooking ourselves, swimming, partying, with a bit of naked bioluminescent swimming at midnight to tip off every awesome night we had there. We also met some of the most awesome people we’ve met on this trip so far. Some we’ve managed to link up with again, some were still in regular contact with, and some we plan to meet up with again in Europe sometime. We met a group of legends on the islands who booked a few days and stayed over three weeks. At this point I didn’t think we’d ever be in the same boat, but I was wrong. 

But Koh Rong Samloem was a full on party, we’ve totally fallen for the normal island life. Everything is just so much more chilled out than mainland life. Waking up to the sound of the sea pretty much every day, with days consisting of beach, swimming, and the simple things in life. I’ve lost count of how many islands we’ve been on now over this trip so far, but it’s got to be over a dozen. 
When we were planning Indonesia over a year ago, we knew we had to visit the Gili islands. This tiny trio of islands off the western coast of Lombok have gained the reputation of a must see destination, but not a real taste of true Indonesia (to be fair Bali isn’t exactly traditional itself either)! But the crystal clear water, opportunities for daily swims with turtles, and the positively laid back vibes were far too appealing, especially after our somewhat failed attempts around Bali earlier in the month. 
So we booked a boat, after quite a bit of deliberation and google searching, and off we went. For anyone considering Gili, I’d first say don’t worry too much about the boat journey. They are somewhat notorious as being a bit shit, with a number of boats breaking down and in more extreme cases, sinking! My one piece of advice would be to book with a bigger company, don’t risk a cheaper local boat. For one, they take about 5 hours rather than two on a bigger boat designed for large numbers of passengers. Our boat journey was smooth, not the most comfortable journey, but smooth, and we got there fine. Regardless of who you book with, you will be entering the vessel like this. 

We booked a nights accommodation on Gili T initially, with the intention of moving to another island for a few days, but once we arrived at cheeky monkey homestay we were made to feel so welcomed and at home, we decided to book another two nights immediately. We were greeted by Rudi, the new owner of the home stay, and immediately introduced to Sofia, his Finnish fiancé . These guys welcomed us with open arms and made us feel right at home. They also had such an abundance of knowledge about the islands and surrounding areas we honestly didn’t feel the need to look around anywhere else. The room we booked was just what was needed, with a private bathroom and good shower, a fan to give Anemoi a run for their money, breakfast included that consisted of fresh fruit, an omelette or pancakes, and at a super cheap price. To top it off each room has a hammock outside the room to complete the package, and they had the cutest cats I’ve ever encountered (they were basically dogs). What more could we ask for (maybe an infinity pool, but for about £8 a night on the Gili islands that’s pushing it a bit). 
The Gili islands each have a unique reputation. Gili T is known as the party island as is by far the most densely populated, Meno is a honeymoon island, and Air is a chill out island. We actually arrived to the islands during Ramadan, so the non stop parties ended by midnight every night (when all the bars closed). This had put others off we spoke to, but for us this was perfect. We certainly weren’t that up for nightly partying till 3am, we are old after all 😉. I think it’s safe to say that if you don’t want a constant party, this is easily avoidable. The bars are all along the port end of the coast, with most hostels and guest houses positioned more inland. We never had an issue with noise, apart from one night when our noisy German neighbours enjoyed peer pong a little too much, and returned as the bars closed to serenade us with terrible renditions of U2 songs. That we could live with.
Gili immediately had a huge appeal to us. There are no vehicles on Gili T, with the primary forms of transportation around the island consisting of horse and cart, bicycles, and if you’re super lazy, electric bikes. We never actually made use of any of these though, the island is only 7km in diameter, you can easily walk around it in two hours, I ran around it in 40mins, and obviously all the main stuff is an easy walk away from wherever you are. As with anywhere, the best way to see the off the beaten track stuff is via foot anyway! Also the welfare of these horses was somewhat questionable so didn’t want to encourage any poor treatment.  The island is riddled with amazing restaurants to please any western tourist, a plethora of high quality dive shops all charging the same price for open water certification, and thousands of people on tiny little stalls littering the beach selling everything from snorkel gear to magic mushrooms (they are totally legal here!!!!). We decided to pass on any hallucinogenic antics, and just enjoy the beach though. As with most places we found in Bali, the local Warungs and street food vendors offer the best array of grub too, so partaking in the offerings of the night market was a somewhat regular occurrence, costing on average about £4 for a feast for two. 

We settled pretty quickly into island life, filling our days with reading, snorkelling and generally doing very little most of the time. My relaxing was somewhat scuppered by a couple on Lombok climbing Rinjani, but that’s a different story. 
One day, Kelly managed to get a free shore dive through one of the many dive companies, for the return of a beach clean. One thing that sadly became apparent to us upon arriving was the sheer amount of rubbish on these otherwise stunning beaches. Sadly, it seems that not all travellers give a shit about the environment, their surroundings, or the state of things for other travellers. Whilst Kelly was out picking litter off coral, I proceeded to run around the island collecting stuff where I could. When I returned to the dive site, I continued to collect 5 sand bags full of crap, mainly consisting of plastic bottles, cigarette packets, straws, nappies (fucking nappies, I mean, come on) and anything else I could lay my hands on. When everyone else emerged from the depths, we continued for another hour in the baking sunshine to collect a dozen bags of crap. Sadly this is a daily occurrence too, and upon the reef there’s even more. Seriously guys, if you travel anywhere, just pick up your crap, don’t use plastic bottles, don’t use straws, and maybe consider the environment. To add to our outrage about the state of the littering, we were invited to a showing of a documentary called plastic ocean. This clearly demonstrated the harsh reality of what we’ve done to the oceans, to islands, and to society now with our constant ingestion of toxic chemicals now leaching into water/food sources. I’d highly recommend hunting this down, and watching it, it was really rather shocking and has definitely changed our outlook on our use of plastic.
This whole environmental concern seems somewhat paradoxical it should be said: there are clearly many people on the island doing what they can to preserve the wildlife and reduce waste wherever possible. All is not lost. 

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. Whilst we continued to pick up anything we could to clean the place up, we continued to empty the absolutely stunning white sandy beaches. North of the main strip, is an area called turtle point, and I can see why. We proceeded to spend most days there, as without fail we spotted a number of turtles each time we went out. This was just amazing, and getting to enjoy the company of such majestic animals was such an unforgettable moment (or series of moments I should say). We also frequented the Western side of the island, which is far more laid back and pebbled with the more opulent (and obviously expensive) resorts, but greeted us with one of the most breathtaking sunsets we’ve seen on the year so far. 
Oh, and they had swings in the sea, so that was cool!
Before we realised where we’d been, I’d climbed a volcano, gone from a slightly darkened skin tone to something resembling mahogany, and we’d stayed a week! Rudi and Sofia did a great job at keeping us there, we were just far too relaxed to even consider moving too far. We did manage a day exploring Gili Meno, which is well worth a day trip if you’re in the area. Definitely more chilled out, but some great snorkel spots and again an incredibly chilled atmosphere throughout. As soon as we threatened to leave the island, Rudi and Sofia insisted we have a dinner together, and Koman insisted I learn to cook Nasi Goreng for everyone (obviously I duly accepted this kind offer).  Then my mate Kaite arrived and immediately checked into the home stay too. Her and Kelly got on like an absolute house on fire, with a shared love of the ocean and exploration of beautiful places (and an equally twisted humour; didn’t see that coming.) Said dinner quickly amalgamated into a banquet for the whole home stay, with some local friends coming along to have a jam with us. The night was perfect, and polished off with an abundance of the locally produced rice wine. Now we’ve sampled plenty of local alcoholic delicacies on this trip, but this tipped us over the edge. It was quite simply sublime, like a slightly harsher sherry. Kelly with her super sweet tooth got properly into this, and full on suffered the next day, meaning we definitely couldn’t leave. 

Clever move guys….

 We ended up staying twelve days in the end, far more than we had planned, but when you find a place you like so much, why move? The rest of our time consisted of very much the same, with the added extension of beer pong on more than one occasion with Katie and Sofia (let’s just say it was a draw in the end). 
Oh I can’t forget to mention Katie getting serenaded/wooed by the local dude missing his front teeth with a surprisingly good singing voice albeit a bit touchy. I don’t think he succeeded

Basically, what I’m trying to say is, this island is cool, very cool. The people we stayed with made us feel like family, we didn’t want to leave, and loved every minute (apart from the hangovers, definitely didn’t enjoy the hangovers). So whilst this wasn’t a super party fortnight, we got it just right. With the perfect mix of beach life, good people, great music, familiar faces, new friends, Bintang, and time in the ocean we’d well and truly recharged our batteries
Sadly, we had to leave eventually. After 12 days we decided to head to Nusa Lembongan for more of the same. We left cheeky monkey with some lifelong friends, an invite to an upcoming wedding in Lombok, a darker skin colour, some incredible memories swimming with turtles, and our faces on the newly created wall of fame for their longest staying guests at the home stay. If you guys are reading this, thanks for so much awesomeness, and making Gili unforgettable, and making it feel like a home away from home (and accepting us as part of the furniture). 

East Coast Australia part 2- Brisbane to Cairns

Warning! This post contains loads of fun stuff that will almost certainly give you a huge sense of wanderlust!

Firstly, an apology. For those of you reading my posts chronologically, I am sorry this is being posted so close to my last blog. One of the main issues of being in a camper in Oz is you don’t always have access to the internet (a blessing in disguise I say!) For this reason I couldn’t upload any photos to the last blog, so had to wait. I actually posted that from Cairns the day before we flew to Indonesia! Whoops. Publishing blogs from my iPhone isn’t the quickest or easiest thing to do…

Looking back on our Sydney to Brisbane trip, it’s become more apparent to me that we got the most enjoyment out of the landscape and people rather than actually doing things. This is probably for the best; doing stuff in Australia aint cheap! Every day just driving, camping, and refuelling (both us and the van) we seemed to be absolutely burning through money! It’s a really hard thing to get my head around, especially when we’ve been able to live on so little in Asia! 

Neither Kelly or I had been further North than Sydney on previous trips to Oz, so were determined to make the most of this trip across Queensland. We discussed the things we really HAD to do in Oz, and agreed to take the plunge and just do it. More on those activities later.Whilst I say having all the fun in Australia is a costly exercise, if you look around you can definitely find some cheap things to do that are quite simply, amazing. For example, the following day we drove to Bundaberg, home of the famous (in Oz anyway) Rum. It makes perfect sense that Rum is made here, almost every road you drive along in Queensland is bloody cane fields! Seriously, it’s quite amazing how much cane is grown here. During this trip we’ve visited vineyards and wineries, and brewers, but never a rum distillery, so gave that a go. The first thing to say about the distillery is WOW, the smell of molasses around the whole site is as intoxicating as the pure alcohol permeating through the air! Bundy Rum is one of the only distillers that actually undertakes the whole process, from raw materials to bottling left in the world (apparently). Regardless, that was just a fun fact; the awesomeness came from the tour around the site, finishing off with a tasting of their top Rums (over $200 a bottle good). I must say, I do love a good Rum, and some of other more exquisite rum’s were top class, even winning worlds best Rum last year. The site itself was a great mix of historic and modern, with a really interesting museum on the history. Sadly no photos from this tour (they’ve had a couple of pretty catastrophic fires on site over their 170 year life, so no electronics allowed on the tour), but if you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a look. for $30 this wasn’t bank breaking, and well worth the money.

Beating that however, was our next couple of days in and around 1770 (yep, that’s the name of a place). After a bit of research looking for a place to stay, we discovered a kangaroo orphanage called Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary, only a short drive from Agnes Waters. If I’d known about this sooner, I would have spent a whole day here. The sanctuary allowed camping on site, and obviously had hundreds of Kangaroos. Because the majority of these were orphans, they’d been hand reared since childhood (Joeyhood?) so were more than comfortable around humans. Seriously, this was probably one of the highlights of my time in Australia. We arrived at about 3pm, spent the whole afternoon feeding, petting, and generally chilling out with the Roo’s, and woke up the next morning to amazing views over the coastline, whilst having more Roo’s chilling out right next to the camper. Believe me when I say, it was really quite difficult leaving this place. I do need to say though, it’s really rather sad hearing about the Australian Governments approach to Kangaroos; allowing slaughter of thousands of kangaroos a year in each state! I get that from an agricultural perspective they can be seen as a pest, but seriously, it’s not like Aus is running out of space, and these amazing createures only live here! The more time I spend on the road, the more and more I hate humanity…..

ANYWAY

The whole reason we were traveling to this area was for surfing. I’ve never surfed, and never really had any huge desire to do so, but whilst being in oz I’ve become somewhat perplexed by it. We were told about the surf school in 1770 being very good, very cheap, and effectively the last place in Oz you can surf whilst heading north, as you start to enter croc territory! We booked onto the $17 lesson, taught by TBone from Reef2Beach surf school. After a quick tutorial on the sand, we hit the water. Another reason this area is great for beginners is the surf isn’t too monstrous. We were expecting 2 foot waves, but closer to the end of the day we were hitting 4ft waves (trust me, they seem much bigger when you’re trying to surf them!) I’m not sure Kelly really got into it, or ‘succeeded’ at surfing, but I bloody loved it, and didn’t totally suck! Within about an hour, and after changing for a bigger board, I’d finally managed to stand and ride a wave, and spent the next 2 hours attempting again, and again, and again. I was genuinely surprised how much I loved it, and can’t wait to get back out in the water over the rest of this trip! This’ll obviously be me in a few weeks 😉

 

Now, the real fun starts!

The next day, we had an epic drive to Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday islands. Half way through our 700km/ nearly 9 hour driving epic, we got a flat battery! What the hell are the chances of that (the chances are raised significantly if you leave the radio on when you stop for lunch, that’s for sure). After a 2 hour ‘change of plans’, and a new battery later, we made it to Airlie just before sunset. It’s a shame as we didn’t really get to explore the town properly, but by that point we were both exhausted so set in for the night. The following day, we set off on our trip with ZigZag Tours, which we later found out meant we were on the fastest boat out of Airlie! We opted for a day trip to Whitehaven beach rather than one of the epic sail boat adventures for two reasons; time and money. A sail trip will cost in excess of $300 per person, this cost $100! We started the trip cruising around the Whitsunday islands, before stopping at a couple of snorkel spots. Sadly the snorkel conditions really weren’t great, and you could really see the huge amount of damage the recent cyclone had done (another #fuckyoudebbie right there). The snorkelling was just an added bonus for us though. Whitehaven beach was next.

It may seem ridiculous doing a boat cruise just to get to a beach, but until you’ve been you can’t comment. Whitehaven is a bit of a geological anomaly: the sand is 98.9% pure silica! It’s so white it doesn’t get hot, you need to wear sunglasses because of the reflection from the sun, and you WILL burn whilst there. The sand was actually used to made the lens for the Hubble telescope, and can be used as an exfoliator on your skin.  This beach, is quite simply, spectacular. I’ve definitely lost count of how many beaches we’ve seen over the past 8 months, and so many of those have surpassed any expectations I had, but Whitehaven massively raised the bar yet again. I decided to go for a run along the 8km stretch of sand, which was an incredible experience. Once you head further up the beach you swap the other tourists, boats and helicopters for complete solitude. I was the only person on that stretch of beach for a good 40 minutes, and it was utter bliss! Needless to say, the water there is absolutely to die for as well; crystal clear blue and a wonderful temperature. Spending a couple of hours on this (and another) beach across the water simply wasn’t enough, I wish we had all day (although I DEFINITELY wouldn’t have escaped without becoming a lobster).

This would be a tough thing to beat. The following day, we undertook another epic drive all the way to Mission Beach, just south of Cairns.

And then I did this…

Yep, I fell out of a plane at 15000ft, landing on another outstanding beach…. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and after a failed attempt in New Zealand over the Fox Glacier (thanks to the weather; I didn’t wimp out) I decided to go big, and did the highest jump in Oz. This-Was-AMAZING! I’m so glad I got to do it finally, and would 100% do it again tomorrow! For anyone considering a skydive, just do it! I would highly recommend getting the video as well. Yes it’s expensive, but you WILL NOT remember it all once you’ve come down from the adrenaline rush. When can I do my next one???

That was going to be a tough one to beat that’s for sure!

So we went to the Great Barrier Reef for a day of Snorkelling.. That’ll do…

We booked with a tour operator who had exclusive rights to a couple of areas of the Outer Barrier Reef, far more secluded than many of the reef excursions you can do to closer reefs, apparently these slightly more untouched reefs are seriously impressive and well worth a look, so we took a punt. The tour group we went with from Cairns were great, but crazy for health and safety! We had to wear life jackets (never great for snorkelling) and we were only allowed 50m from the boat, before a man with a whistle started making noises at us. In typical Kelly fashion, she got excited and somewhat carried away, didn’t hear any whistes, and got chased around the reef by the captain of our vessel to bring her back closer.

Going to the reef was great, and I’m so glad we did it, but the group we were with were just a bit controlling. I can definitely see why, some of the other members of the tour clearly didn’t know what they were doing, or how to respect the coral, but for Kelly and I this was particularly frustrating. I can’t believe I’m saying this too, but the reefs we got to see in Fiji were actually way more impressive too! I know, we sound so spoiled. Regardless, I’ve been to the Great Barrier Reef!

To finish off the last leg of our trip, we kept heading north. After a stop off for 1 night in Cairns, we drove to the Daintree Rainforest, after a number of recommendations from fellow travellers and friends living in Oz. En route, we stopped for a couple of Crocodile tours, exploring both mangroves and the Daintree river. For $25 for both tours this was a total bargain! We did our tour with Crocodile Express, setting off from Daintree village initially. This was a great tour that’s for sure, but more importantly we got to learn so much about these fascinating creatures as well as spotting a bunch (and other pretty unique wildlife along the way). To add a little to the excitement, we even beached on the river bed for 5 minutes due to an unexpectedly low tide, that was a bit of a squeaky bum moment to say the least!

We decided to spend 2 days in the rainforest, camping just south of Cape Tribulation, pretty much the most northern part of the East Coast you can access without a 4×4 vehicle. We camped right by the beach, yet still in the rainforest. The whole area was totally stunning, and somewhat Jurassic. We were fortunate to be camping right next to Noah beach;  one of the nicest we’ve seen so far in Oz. To top this off, it was totally secluded, only really accessible to those camping at our site: no one was on the beach the whole time we were there, which was just bliss. So obviously I had to take advantage of the seclusion. Sadly, this far North going in the water at beaches like this is dicing with death, so we obviously decided against this. Regardless, the beaches, the rainforest, the views and the treks were so worth the drive, and being off grid a few days was a blessing as well! Just to add to this part of the journey, we spotted a family of Cassowaries too! These elusive and rare birds are not found anywhere else in Australia apart from Far North Queensland, and to see a family is a very rare site!

Keep going, not that much further to go….

So now, for the first time on this drive in Oz, we started heading South…

By chance, our buddies Tim and Steph (from previous blogs about India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Melbourne) were visiting Cairns for the weekend. We just can’t seem to stay away from these guys! We all stayed at Ellis Beach, just north of Cairns for one last night together. It really can’t be stressed enough how nice it is to see familiar faces on a trip like this, where you don’t have to do the standard commentary again, and again, and again (where have you been, how long you been on the road, etc etc etc), and with these guys it’s just all so easy. After another cracking evening, we agreed the best way to say our (potential) final goodbyes was watching the sun rise over the ocean, and it definitely delivered! Yet again, what a pleasure it was to spend time with them.

So, that’s basically it! We spent our final day in Cairns (which I must say is a seriously cool city!) before getting a very late night flight to Bali. Looking back, this leg of the trip has been pretty epic! We’ve stayed at 2 vineyards, been to the theatre and the super rugby, explored 4 coastal cities and countless towns, enjoyed 100’s of beaches, been to a wedding show, bought a wedding dress (!!!), caught up with so many awesome people, kayaked with dolphins, hiked alongside Echidna’s, spent an morning and feeding Kangaroos, spotted wild Koalas and Cassowairies, snorkelled at the Great Barrier Reef, jumped out of a plane at 15000ft, run across Whitehaven Beach, gone for a naked stroll along a crocodile laden beach, been to a Rum distillery, spent 2 nights in a tropical rainforest, driven the whole of the East coast of Australia (over 5200km in total), and finished off watching the sun rise over the ocean with some great friends. This 2 months has gone so fast, and I’ve bloody loved it, but It’s time to get back to Asia, so we can stop haemorrhaging money!

East coast Australia part 1- Sydney to Brisbane

So far on this trip of a lifetime we’ve hired Campervans twice, once for 43 days to explore the whole of New Zealand, and once to get from Melbourne to Sydney. Van life may not be the most glamorous way to travel, but damn it’s fun! Without a doubt it’s my favourite method of getting around so far (maybe a close second actually to driving a TucTuc around India), mainly because of the freedom it gives you. When we were figuring out our method of getting up the east coast of oz, we debated between flights to key spots, getting the Greyhound bus the whole way, or a van. In the end the van won, purely because it gave us the freedom we have loved so much to properly explore the place we’re visiting.
For anyone considering a journey like the east coast of oz, you need to consider a few things. Firstly, are you happy being stuck on a bus for hours on end, with limited stops, and potentially being in very close proximity with people you just don’t like (we weren’t, i’m secretly a grumpy shit). Secondly, can you afford to hostel hop constantly and eat out for potentially every meal three times a day (we couldn’t really, and I love cooking so….). Finally, are you happy just seeing the key tourism spots, cities, or hubs? We weren’t; clearly 3 weeks of van life trumped all other options for us!

So off we set again, driving from Sydney to Cairns over 3 weeks, in our new steed, Deadrie. It would be an understatement to say she’s a little rough around the edges, has clearly been around the block a few times and kinda needs some TLC, but she has done us okay so far. We’ve spent the past 9 days getting to Brisbane, making the most of van life by stopping wherever the hell we wanted! This has mainly consisted of stopping at shed loads of Australia’s stunning beaches and exploring a great variety of the coastline and surrounding areas.

Our initial plan for this chunk consisted of driving immediately to Coffs Harbour, about 200mi up the coast. We should have known though, this would never happen. We had our last supper with Kelly’s parents at Hurricanes (an absolute MUST if you’re in NSW, genuinely some of the most amazing ribs we’ve ever eaten), meaning we had literally no chance of getting that far north. We made a last second decision to cut back to the Hunter Valley, purely because it was just so bloody beautiful the last time we were there! We just about made it before the kangaroo witching hour at dusk. Sadly our camping options are somewhat restricted in oz in contrast to the amazing array of options available in New Zealand, so we opted for the cheap option at a site on a racecourse. Typically, there was a circus in town the night we arrived, so we shared the site with some rather “interesting” neighbours. Regardless, we were in the Hunter Valley, it was beautiful, and got to experience some wonderful roads in and out. 

Over the next few days we aimed for Port Macquarie, another coastal town further north. Again, massively underestimating the drive, this took another two days rather than one. We don’t appear to have been very good as this estimated driving Malarkey so far… Alongside this, we took a couple of routes resulting in a two hour round trip to get back to the same spot, thanks to one way inlets, boats not running, and entire stupidity. Typical… alongside this we nearly ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere after exploring some sand dunes on a historical aboriginal site, just to add to the fun.

When we FINALLY made it to port Macquarie though, we were greeted by an awesome beachside town, with plenty to do and see. One of the highlights of Port Mac was definitely the koala hospital, a voluntary organisation set up entirely to rescue and nurture injured koalas. Sadly these cute guys are getting to the point of severe endangerment now, all thanks to humans obviously (not helped by the fact they all have chlamydia though). The work they do is wonderful and you really got a sense of the cohesion of aim from the staff members volunteering there. 

Anyway….After Port Mac we continued our journey north. We are constantly on the hunt for free camp sites which often tend to lead us to some pretty weird places. Our next stop can only be described as a stereotypical hick town to be honest… we ended up pretty inland in the middle of nowhere, staying in the car park of a hotel. This hotel was literally the only sign of local economy for probably 15 miles in either direction, and was populated primarily by guests frequenting the establishment whilst donning their custom made bottle coolers, extreme mullets, and looks of bewilderment as we entered the bar for a schooner. Needless to say, we felt yet again like we were in a sketch from a league of gentlemen “you’re not from around here are you?”

This wasn’t the last time we’d feel like this on this leg of the journey. Another evening again, hunting our a low cost site (of which there are surprisingly few), we drove off track for an hour or so and ended up in a very different situation. This time, I was warned of the “feral” locals before they all arrived for the evening raffle (which we were welcome to join). Kelly with her pink hair got some interesting looks, and I got a full blown stare down from a couple who’d obviously never seen anyone like me before (and I thought I blended in okay here, but apparently not). To finish off the evenings entertainment the local village drunk (I think drunk, but might have been something else) made friends with me at the bar, just as Kelly abandoned me for the solitude of our camper just as I got a fresh beer. It probably goes without saying, but the conversation that came in tow wasn’t the greatest discussion of philosophical theories I’ve ever had the pleasure of partaking in…. The evening was topped off by witnessing a feral local battle to the drunken topple-over, over I believe who truly won the meat platter awarded in said raffle (with a bit of Trump politics thrown in). This was rather entertaining until it took a full on racist turn. I’d been told about the blatant racism which can be witnessed further afield in Oz but this was the first experience I’ve had of true racism in quite some time (probably the first time on this trip). Once the scrap was over, said rowdy feral locals stumbled into their cars and drove off (it appears drink driving isn’t a thing in feral land either). The weirdest thing is, all this end-of-night activity actually occurred about 8.30pm!!!! Ho Hum.

During this leg of the trip, we stopped off at as many of Australia’s beaches as possible, and I must say, I can definitely see what the fuss is about. East coast beaches in Oz have consistently been pretty fabulous; long stretches of sand both along the coast and towards the sea, impeccably clean, and great facilities. It’s a real shame that camping is prohibited at most otherwise we’d have a consistent spot outside all of them up the whole east coast. Ive managed to get a few good runs in along the beaches en route which has been great! My barefoot skills have definitely dwindled somewhat though; the exfoliation from the sand on my feet has made them as soft as baby’s bums after months of toughening them up from rebelling against shoes almost permanently!

Around 1500km north of Sydney, we reached the legendary town of Byron Bay. I can definitely see why this place is so popular; it oozes chilled hippy beach vibe from every pore. We ended up spending a few days here but could have easily made that weeks if we had the time! The weather wasn’t really on our side most of the time, but we got to enjoy sunsets over the beach, some great views across the bay, and the absolute highlight was the sea kayaking expedition we did! We spent a good 3 hours out on the water with our group, and got to see a pod of dolphins surfing the waves just ahead of us. Sadly I didn’t get any great photos of this (this is the best I got) but what a great thing to experience! We can also now both say we kayaked around the most eastern point of Australia. I think it’s safe to say we didn’t really want to leave Byron, but we booked heaps of fun stuff for the next leg of our trip, and there was plenty more to see further north! 

We were also really fortunate to catch up with some mates we made in Vietnam, who lived in Brisbane. We met Gemma and Eric whilst out on our boat tour of Ha Long Bay, and instantly hit it off. I think Kelly and Gemma bonded strongly over their mutual dislike for the drunken northerner we had to endure on our boat. Gemma very kindly offered to house us whilst we were in Brisbane, and was an awesome tour guide too! We spent 3 days with these guys exploring the local area. The outskirts of Brisbane are pretty beautiful, you definitely don’t feel like you’re so close to a city! The city itself is tiny in comparison to others we have seen. Although we didn’t get to go in and explore the city Eric (our trusty chauffeur) gave us a quick drive through. After a day of exploring the surrounding areas, another day trying to explore the Tamborine Mountains (loads of roads and trails were still closed following the onslaught of Cyclone Debbie, donning the phrase #fuckyoudebbie for the rest of the trip), an evening playing drinking games, hours playing with their new pup Nala, walking between islands at low tide and cooking copious amounts of grub on the barbie we’d probably overstayed our welcome so continues north again. Guys it was great to see you both again, and we have to return the favour when you head to Blighty! To add to our Brisbane experience we also linked up with Kelly’s old school friend from Ireland, Marie, and her adorable family. It’s always nice to see how people live in areas we’re visiting, and this was no exception. I could definitely see myself living in a Brisbane suburb after the last few days around here.

So there you have it, over 2500km later we are only half way up the east coast! The next ten days we will be heading to Cairns, with a quick stop off en route to explore the Whitsundays, jump out of a plane at 15000ft, snorkel around the barrier reef and spend a day in a rainforest. No biggie 😳