New Zealand, North island: The land of the long white cloud ☁️ 🇳🇿 

This is a really tough blog to write, especially as I feel like we’ve seen and done so much in the past couple of weeks exploring the North island. New Zealand is a country I’ve always been fascinated by. I’m not really sure why to be honest, apart from I’ve always really liked the idea of going somewhere where you can ski in the morning and surf in the evening. Whilst New Zealand does offer this (you’re never further than 100km from the ocean here) it offers so much more; way more than I can cover in a single post. I’ll start by saying this: THIS COUNTRY IS AMAZING. 

We’ve been exploring in our trusty camper, who we’ve nicknamed Leroy (for no reason really, just because). Our trusty steed has been our accommodation, kitchen and home the past couple of weeks and he’s done us proud every step of the way. Whilst I’m somewhat biased clearly, I can’t really imagine exploring this awesome country any other way! It’s so nice having the freedom to literally park up or go anywhere as we please. What I can say straight away is I wish we had more time (and money) here; 40 days to do both islands clearly won’t be enough! 

New Zealand is so well known for its array of adrenaline fuelled activities, but I honestly think the thing I’ve enjoyed more is the landscape. This place is mesmerising at every turn! The mountain ranges that cover the majority of the country are absolutely breathtaking. At so many points I felt like I was in a country totally untouched by mankind, there really are so many points where all you can see is countryside, mountain range, beach or river. Both Kelly and I have had to rack our brains constantly to find a word to replace “wow” as we are both saying it way too much. Seriously, you cannot fathom the beauty of this place unless you see it with your own eyes. 

We had just over 2 weeks to see as much of the North Island as possible. Although NZ is minuscule in comparison to its big brother next door, driving around isn’t a quick exercise. The roads meander up, down and around and through the mountain ranges making 10km take 30 mins in some cases at a push. The roads are all maintained exceptionally well, but being in a converted VW van with an extra 200kg of worktop, kitchen and beds dumped in slowed us down somewhat. Regardless, driving around NZ is an experience in itself. These are by far the most enjoyable and visually pleasing roads I’ve ever driven hands down. If you ever asked me to drive a minimum of 4 hours a day anywhere else I’d tell you to do one! Here I’d go as far as saying it’s utterly enjoyable (apart from in Auckland, that just reminded me of my dreary daily commute up the a12 to work!). On one of our first days, we drove up and down a bunch of monsterous mountains, through a rainforest (where we stopped to see one of the oldest and biggest trees in NZ), across an old glacial flat, alongside rivers containing some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen, along the spine of a peninsula parallel to a beach spanning 90miles, and finishing up the day sleeping out overlooking a vineyards sloping farms. You just don’t get that anywhere else! We both said separely we feel like we’ve driven through about 5 different countries and two film sets in one day on more than one occasion! There are far too many photos to put up of the landscapes, but I’ll do my best. 

Anyway enough of the driving. This is what we’ve been up to the last 15 days. 

Auckland/Browns bay

We had a couple of mates to meet up with who are also traveling. They were staying with a mate who had co ownership of a bar in an Auckland suburb. Meeting up for a quick pint resulted in a night on the sauce indulging in some pretty fantastic food and spending more in one night than we did at any point in all of Asia; a good way to start NZ clearly! The following day we tested our freedom camping (free camping basically) and parked here, attempting to remove any hint of jet lag and just soaked in this for a view! 


The day after we explored the coastline with a rather hungover Oli, had a dip in the sea (slightly colder than Thailand) before starting our trip further up north towards 90 mile beach and the most northern point of the country. To break up the journey, we stayed at a brewery called Hallertau, a fantastic brewers with an equally good restaurant and bar. The next day, we endured the 6 or so hour to hit the cape, and stopped to see the biggest tree in NZ; this thing was HUGE at nearly 3m radius and 50m tall.


 We were fortunate enough to stay at a boutique vineyard overlooking the cape. We obviously had to enjoy a bottle of their vino and ended up chatting to the owner of the vineyard all night. Pretty awesome 😀. 

Cape Reinga/90 mile beach. 

90 mile beach isn’t actually 90 miles sadly; l have no idea why it’s called that. Regardless it’s pretty bloody long! In fact it’s the longest peninsula in NZ, and ends at cape Reinga, a sacred Maori area where it’s believed spirits of the dead sail off to the motherland (called Hawaiki). Cape Reinga is also the most northern point of New Zealand, there’s literally nothing out from the cape for thousand of miles, and we couldn’t have been much further away from the UK at this point. 

When we got to the cape, there was actually a traditional Maori funeral ceremony being held there. Obviously we didn’t get involved or watch/ film, but it was quite a sight to witness. One thing I love about the Maori culture is its connection to wildlife and nature, and this was even more apparent during the ceremony. 

After an hour or so enjoying the sites of the cape we drove back down the beach to another astonishing site; sand dunes! Now I didn’t expect anything to match the dunes I’ve experienced in the UAE but these were damn impressive, especially when sandwiched between beautiful green mountain ranges and a stunning coastline stretching as far as you can see! This was definitely something that couldn’t be missed. Kelly and I obviously boarded down the dunes (I may have climbed the biggie too and jumped down that at full pelt). What a cracking thing to do, and the sites over the highest dune were something else! To finish up this end of the trip, we drove to another peninsula (Karikari) to ensure we were close to Waitangi for the national celebrations the following day. 



 Waitangi (Waitangi day)


We were really fortunate to be in Waitangi for Waitangi Day, a kiwi national holiday celebrating the birth of New Zealand following the signing of the treaty between the Brits and Maori. We were somewhat warned off experiencing this celebration at Waitangi as (according to locals) it’s rife with protest normally. To be honest if this was classified as protest I’d challenge the locals to go to any major city around the world and see what’s going on right now! Yes there was some obvious resentment to this new era of New Zealand but I’d hardly call anything protest! Overall, the day was filled with brilliant cultural experiences, including traditional song and dance, obviously the haka, and Maori tribes bringing the traditional boats (waka) into the shore. This was a great thing to witness and really gave us an insight into traditional Maori culture. Below are a few videos I captured of the activities. 

To finish off a cracking day out with even better weather, we drove further down the coast to a neighbouring town to experience some more history. We stumbled across the oldest British built stone building and an area that was once a Maori settlement, before settling in for the night ahead of another day of driving. 

Coromandel peninsula 

This peninsula is famous for the ocean drive and its stunning beaches. It certainly didn’t disappoint! We drove pretty much the east and west coast of the peninsula, only just missing the tip due to time constraints. Again the sights experienced on this drive were unforgettable. It was another classic of every turn we took we were blown away once again. 

Along the peninsula is a famous beach called hot water beach. This part of the north island is the start of the geothermal highway, where hot pools and geysers are pretty commonplace. On this beach, if you dig a hole, you’ll quickly burn your feet with super heated water! The common activity here is to dig a jacuzzi sized hole and mix sea water with the hot stuff to make a comfortable pool. Sadly this is only really possible at certain points during the day when the tide is right, and due to turning weather we got it wrong: instead we had to accept a casual burning of our feet in the rain. Regardless it was quite a thing to experience! To finish up a long day of driving we headed to cathedral cove, another must see piece of landscape, hoping to start the following day with a hike along the shore. Sadly, the weather turned on us again, so we got stuck in the camper enduring a thoroughly soggy evening. The weather stayed like this the majority of the following morning so we abandoned plans and got on the road again.  



Hamilton/Waitomo

Kelly had set a must see attraction at our next stop, the glow worm caves in Waitomo. 

En route, we stopped In a tiny city called Hamilton, mainly to get a feel for a generic kiwi city. As I said, this place is Tiny! By English standards it would be a small town, and definitely smaller than my home town of Colchester! Regardless, we had a nice wander around getting a feel for the place, which is soon to host a two week arts festival, something we’d both have loved to have experienced. After killing a couple of hours we drove straight to the caves. 

These historic caves are honestly like looking up at the stars, and are definitely a unique experience! The glow worms illuminate the caves with a wonderful blue/green Hue that covers the whole ceiling and obviously shine beautifully bright when in total darkness. We actually rode through the caves on a small man powered boat in complete silence which really added to the experience. Sadly no photos allowed in the caves but this is what it looked like. 

Cambridge 

Considering we both met, studied, worked and lived in Cambridge, we had to really! Cambridge (NZ) is actually the equine and cycling capital of NZ, and even has its own velodrome! We were here to meet Kelly’s old school friend Becks though, who emigrated a few years back and is now married with two kids. After a night camped by a picturesque lake we ventured back to Cambridge to meet her. 

It was great to find out more about life in NZ and in Cambridge, and to spend time with the wee family. We actually ended up having a night out on the town, enjoying far too many drinks at a cracking craft beer bar. Needless to say my head hurt somewhat the following day. Oh well, more fun to be had! 

Hobbiton

I’M GOING ON AN ADVENTURE!!

Now I’ve got that out my system



Time I got my geek on! Obviously if you’re in the north island you have to stop here. When the Hobbit trilogy was made, the entire set of hobbiton was permanently rebuilt to size. They’ve done such a great job making this set so lifelike, they even employ three full time gardeners to keep the place looking tidy, and growing the monster pumpkins like you see in the initial scenes of the first hobbit movie. 


It’s quite ridiculous that all of this was done just to film for about ten seconds, but I’m glad they did. Visiting hobbiton was definitely a must do on the list, even if it was experienced slightly hungover 😵 


Rotorua 

The land of the geothermal wonders! Rotorua is famous for geothermal activity like acidic pools and geysers, traditional Maori activities, and fun stuff like Zorbing! It should also be famous for being the smelliest place on earth! Sadly we couldn’t afford to do all the fun (story of our life out here) but did we manage to experience the cultural wonders in the town. Bizarrely, an old friend from high school who now lives in Queenstown just happened to be sat at a bar on eat street with her family, so we agreed to do some stuff together the next day. We agreed to head to Te Puia, a sacred Maori site that is made up of geysers and a traditional Maori arts workshops. The stuff that is carved out of wood is pretty spectacular, and it’s great to see the art form kept alive by sites like this. The array of geysers are obviously very impressive too!


As we’ve obviously had far too many days doing far too many strenuous activities 😜 we booked into a geothermal spa just outside the town called Waikite valley (in our defence we only spent a night here as it was only $10 more than a normal paid camp site). What a cool thing to do though! There were 6 different pools all using the naturally heated (and cooled) mineral water. Out of the ground, the water is at boiling point so has to be naturally cooled via waterways etc. We spent a good few hours getting wrinkley the night we arrived and the next morning; bliss! 


The following day we had booked onto a Maori cultural evening with a company called Tamaki. From the moment we got on the bus to the site we were having a great time. Our bus driver was the most entertaining I’ve ever endured and had the whole bus in stitches! The rest of the evening consisted of experiencing a traditional welcome ceremony, learning to do the haka (badly ill admit), learning about traditional Maori dance, and enjoying a feast cooked in a traditional hangi (I am so building one of these when I grow up. Overall it was a brilliant evening that I’d highly recommend to anyone visiting rotorua 

 

Taupo

Sadly our time in Taupo was cut somewhat short thanks to another bout of bad weather. We were hoping to spend a couple of days here but we arrived to wet weather and only had one day of predicted clear skies the following day, so had to change our plans. regardless, taupo is a cool place. Lake Taupo was formed after a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago; its the size of Singapore! Seriously, you can’t fathom the size of this place. Whilst we didn’t really get to enjoy the area properly, it was great to experience the black sand beaches and strangely enough, the black swans and ducks! Bit weird…. en route to taupo we stopped off at a local recommendation, Hukka falls. This rapid area is flodded with hundreds of thousands of litres of water a minute thanks to a dam system further up stream. The water was a beautiful blue Hue and it’s really quite a sight! See for yourself below. 


Tongariro Alpine Crossing 

This is without a doubt the highlight of my time in New Zealand so far, and the reason why we had to abandon taupo. We’ve done some tough hikes to date on this trip, but this won the award for the steepest and generally most impressive! 

This hike was made globally famous (to those not into hiking) from the lord of the rings movies, as mount Doom and mordor scenes were filmed here. After getting agreement from Kelly to spend Valentine’s Day here (seems the perfect way to me) we spent the day hiking across some of the most unique and breathtaking landscapes in New Zealand. This was totally out of this world! At points we felt like we were on the surface of mars, at others we were in Australian bush, then quite simply stomping up an active volcano (or 3)! 14 miles, 1km of elevation, and 6.5 hours later we’d completed this epic hike and felt very proud of ourselves! Again, if you ever visit NZ, you HAVE TO DO THIS! 


Wellington 

After a full day of driving, we hit our final spot on the north island. This is by far the quietest capital city I’ve ever been to! Seriously, we drove in and didn’t even realise it! Regardless, Wellington is a really cool city. We spent an afternoon on the waterfront enjoying the local activities like open air salsa classes and very cool bars and restaurants. To be honest the waterfront itself, let alone the inner city is beautiful in itself and well worth an explore. It all hinted of a quiet waterfront area of London, but maybe 20 years ago. Either way, a very nice place to base ourselves for a couple days. I was lucky enough to meet up with two mates from the UK at different points. It’s such a nice experience; meeting up with people you haven’t seen for years on the other side of the globe. 


The museum in Wellington is another must visit site. I’d go as far as saying it’s probably the best free museum I’ve ever been to! On our first day in the city, we stopped into the ground floor to get a feel for the place, and saw some fantastic exhibitions all about the local and unique wildlife, flora and fauna, geology and landscapes. To top this off they’ve also got a real collossal squid on show, and a full exhibition on how they came to capture it (it was dead before capture, don’t worry). The following day we explored the incredibly harrowing and unique exhibition on the kiwi involvement in world war 1. This included some incredibly detailed models of those who fought that stood well over 10ft tall, alongside all the emotive displays about the atrocities that occurred. The whole museum was absolutely stunning; yet another must see. 

So as you can see, we’ve had a terrible time here so far! In all seriousness, I’m utterly blown away. I have full on caught the kiwi bug and can see why so many others do too! Even when hacking it down this place still seems to be somewhat stunning (I’m sure sun worshiper sweeney would disagree). I can’t wait to see what the South Island brings, as friends who have done it say it raises the bar yet again with natural beauty

Krabi, Koh Lanta and PhiPhi- A final bit of Island hopping

It seems like ages ago that we were on mainland Thailand. After about ten days in total on Koh Tao we had to head back to the mainland to cross to the western Islands. Loads of people who’ve previously ventured to Thailand recommended the Krabi province as a must visit destination. We’d already eyed up a couple of spots we really wanted to visit and had some mates in a similar area, so decided to head to a coastal town called Ao Nang. 

Ao Nang

Imagine Blackpool in Thailand, with less coin machines and no jetty. Ao nang was a real tourist spot, and to be honest I’m not 100% sure why. Ao nang was far from the beauty of other parts of Thailand we’d seen, and totally strewn with shops selling knock off clothing and electronics, average restaurants either selling overpriced local food or feeble attempts at foreign cuisine. You can always tell a tourist spot when the menus are in 5 languages. This was clearly a spot for baby booming brits to come and drink cheap booze and burn, and by the looks of it, half of Russia too! 

We seemed to bring the bad weather with us; our mates who’d been in ao nang for a couple of days had no rain at all: the day we arrived it hacked it down! This basically meant we spent the first night sat in a pub for a few hours with Tim and Steph (quickly becoming our go to travel couple to link up with), followed by a few more bars and a copious amount of beer. This seems to be a trend with these two… 

There’s not a great deal to say about ao nang sadly; we used it more as a port to hop to other wonderful places. On one day however, the four of us went on a trek to Hang Nak, a famous spot known for some pretty stunning sights. After a tough 2 hour trek up some interesting terrain we made it to the summit, and wow, it was so worth it. You could see miles and miles of glorious landscapes, see for yourself!! I could have spent hours here just soaking in the views, but would have been very burned for sure (it was a seriously toasty day)! After 4 hours, about 2000ft elevation we were back on the bikes exploring the surrounding areas. It goes without saying, if you’re in Ao Nang, get out and explore rather than sitting on the beach or sitting in bars! 

One of the main reasons we stayed here was to get to Railey, an area actually on the mainland but only accessible by boat known for its stunning beaches and chilled atmosphere, but more importantly for me, CLIMBING!! We actually ended up spending a couple of days on separate occasions here because it was so nice, one day being beach bums and another scaling rocks. Railay is known for Phranang beach, more than anything for its limestone rock formations jutting out of the sea. Oh, and it’s cave filled with penis statues!! Sadly the day we were exploring this area we were hammered by some long lasting rain clouds. We obviously got drenched but our photos were a bit dull too. 

Sadly because of Kelly’s wrist following a car accident she had to skip the morning of climbing. I booked a morning with real rocks climbing school who I’d definitely recommend. They provided all the kit as you’d expect but the quality of the instructors was exceptional! We spent 4 hours on the rocks, scaling everything up to 50m walls. Sadly, my climbing skills aren’t quite up to that, so I didn’t manage to scale anything near that height, but had a great day trying real walls. This is definitely something I’d have another go at! A word of warning for others thinking of rock climbing, it is NOT the same as an indoor wall, but much harder!!

Koh Lanta

For Tim’s birthday, he decided he fancied Koh Lanta, a larger island on the south west coast. Koh Lanta is known for its super chilled atmosphere which sounded perfect and for what we all fancied after a couple of days with crap weather. After a 4 hour journey in a very cramped bus, we finally arrived at Pitt Bungalows, our home for the next few days. If you ever go to Koh Lanta I really rate this place. You get a private bamboo bungalow with a private bathroom, fridge and wifi, but also you get a scooter included too! The restaurant on site is also very good and very well priced, and you’re right next to the western beach. For us it was absolutely perfect, and even better at £12 a night! Tim and Steph ended up staying over a week longer than us it was that good! 

Koh Lanta was never intended to be a time for doing loads; we planned to have a relaxing time on the island. For Tim’s birthday we spent the whole day cooking ourselves on the beach, enjoying the beautiful 30c water and good company. We ended the night with a campfire on the beach, playing guitar and having a good ol’ sing song. Sadly the next day, Tim got ill/nasty hangover so we did literally nothing, which was great! The following few days consisted of touring the island exploring the various beaches and sights around the island, including an animal sanctuary, where we wanted to adopt all the dogs obviously, and a trip to the national park where we got plenty of enjoyment out of a monkey stealing Coke from a Chinese lady. We ended up staying on Koh Lanta for 6 days in the end. The company obviously helped a lot, but the island itself was just so relaxing and laid back. I’d definitely head back there in a heartbeat! 

Our time in Thailand was quickly coming to an end though, with only a couple of days left. We had one more “must see stop” to squeeze in though. 

Koh PhiPhi 

Phiphi is actually two tiny islands in between mainland and Phuket. It was nearly wiped out after the 2008 Asian tsunami, and apparently everything we saw there was newly built since then. Leg island was really made famous by “The Beach” movie from the late 90’s, even though maya bay (the famous scene) actually had limestone rocks superimposed in for the famous scene (fun fact there for you)! 

Every summer literally tens of thousands of people flock to this island just to get a snap on that beach. I genuinely have no idea why people go to so much effort! The islands longboat drivers charge an in-exorbitant amount for a short boat ride, as do the tours! Kelly really wanted to see it, but everything I’d read suggested unless you paid about £50 for a private boat and set off at 6am, or spent over £100 to stay on a boat overnight, you’d be sharing the beach with thousands of people all huddled like penguins on an iceberg; I didn’t fancy that! Instead we looked for alternative ways to see it. 

We opted for a day out snorkelling. As I can’t dive I’ve never been able to experience anything like diving, and PhiPhi is renowned for having some incredible sealife and crystal clear waters. They weren’t lying that’s for sure! We spent a whole day out on a longboat with some awesome people, exploring various coves and areas of PhiPhi Leh (where that beach is). We saw so much sea life, was more than we could have hoped for! I was fortunate enough to snorkel alongside a sea turtle, as well as baby black tip reef sharks, kelly spotted a whole pack of black tips just as we were finishing up, and things like lion fish, oh and of course, Nemo! The coral there is like nothing I’ve ever seen before too (sadly lots by the coast at Koh Tao was dead). We couldn’t have asked for a better day out, it was literally everything we hoped for. And we got to see the anticlimactic maya bay (so glad we didn’t endure the ballache of a boat tour for that). Seriously, if you want to see maya bay, but don’t want to be surrounded by thousands of others do what we did! Thanks again PhiPhi adventures for an unforgettable trip. After two days on phiphi we headed to our final destination, Phuket. Everyone we have spoken to said Phuket was a place to be avoided, so we agreed to spend as little time as possible there. Unfortunately, for the first time in all of south east Asia, kelly and I both got ill from something we ate on phiphi. Feeling sorry for ourselves we decided to splash out on a PROPER hotel, the first time we’ve done this since setting off over four months ago. By splashing out, I mean spending £20 on a room with Ac and a hot shower, not exactly 5* luxury!  

So now we’re in New Zealand! Reflecting on our time in Asia has been really satisfying to be honest. We had the most awesome time overall! For both of us, Vietnam was our favourite country for sure; it’s just so chilled out, the food is SO GOOD, and the whole experience was simply wonderful. However Thailand was a close second. It’s a real shame we had such bad weather for south Thailand (unprecedented for this time of the year). I’ll definitely be heading back again though, thats for sure! 

Asia, you’ve been great, but it’s time for some western living. I’ve wanted to visit New Zealand all my life, so I’m VERY excited about the next five weeks exploring it in a camper van! 

Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – Do what you gotta do 

If you speak to anyone who’s been to Cambodia they will have done two things for sure; been to Phnom Penh to learn about the atrocities the country endured under the Khmer Rouge, and seen the temples of Angkor. After an amazing few days on a beach, we went back to Phnom Penh to visit S21 and the Killing Fields. We knew this part of the trip would be tough, and it definitely was,but you can’t go to a country like this and not learn what it’s been through. 

This is pretty hard to write, so probably read too. Warning for those of you easily upset.

A brief history lesson

For those that don’t know the history, after getting clobbered during the Vietnam war by US bombs, the Khmer Rouge were elected into power and immediately enforced atrocious social conditioning regulations nationally. Pol Pot, the leader of the party vowed to create a totally self sufficient nation, meaning Cambodia created all their own goods and produce. This included EVERYTHING in his eyes, like medicine and vehicles as well as food produce, which was never going to be possible. Pot ordered and forced (violently) all Cambodian residents living in cities to go and work on the fields in the rural areas of the country. The results were devastating as half the nation obviously didn’t know why they were doing! The country was immediately hit by famine, and thousands died from malnutrition and exhaustion (people were forced to work 20 hour days with almost no food).

This sounds bad, but it gets worse. 

It’s safe to say the Khmer Rouge drew its ideology from Marxism and the more extreme Maoism, but took things an extreme to say the least. The concept of creating the pure Cambodian culture stretched to pure xenophobia towards anyone not 100% Khmer, and resulted in widespread ethnic cleansing exercises. It didn’t end there though, Pot believed that the west influenced culture too much with education, medicine, culture, even religion, so simply banned it all. He wanted the nation to return to a agriculture based existence, replicating the life of the Angkor tribes still living in rural areas. Anyone who was educated, spoke another language, or even wore glasses was immediately sent to the farms to work, or to the prisons like s21 to avoid repercussions from family members, the whole family endured the same fate too. Prison camps like S21 (originally a school that was converted into the prison) would torture thousands of Cambodians to endure inconceivable levels of horrific torture and humiliation. The aim of this was to identify the believed spies for the FBI, KGB, MI6 and other nations secret services which obviously didn’t actually exist; yet more of the horrific propaganda spewed from the Pot regime. 

Pot declared the nation full of ‘Enemies’ of the nation who would be punished (tortured and killed). Anyone who had connections to the previous government, was educated, a ‘professional’, anyone not pure Cambodian, ‘economy saboteurs’ who didn’t buy into the new ideology didn’t stand a change, even just being perceived as being intellectual, cause having glasses means your clever innit.

The crimes against humanity committed in Cambodia resulted in a quarter of the nation being murdered. It’s quite rare to see anyone elderly here now, and the average age in Cambodia is one of the lowest across the globe. Research indicates that anything between 1-3 million people died during the Khmer Rouge rule.

S21 Prison


S21 is a prison that was discovered after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979. There are only 8 people who are known to have made it out alive I believe. There have been hundreds of these camps discovered across the nation. What we heard, read and saw there was utterly harrowing. The museum is in tact as it was found. Over the 4 years the Khmer Rouge were in control, around 20000 people were imprisoned here, tortured, and murdered, and this was one of hundreds of prisons. It’s inconceivable to think this happened to recently, yet when we look around we see atrocities continuing all around the world to this day. It really made me take a step back and think about humanity and how shit we are in general.

Sorry, but it kinda gets worse again.  

The killing fields 


After nearing a pretty tough morning at s21 we head to the killing fields (Choeung Ek). This is exactly how it sounds: a field for mass murder. 

After prisoners confessed to treason (or whatever crime they were forced into confessing) at S21/similar they were bussed to killing fields, where they were murdered and thrown in mass graves. Bullets were scarce, so the killing was done with handheld weapons in the main. Horrifically, there was one mass grave just for women and children, where the kids were picked up by their feet and smashed into a tree head first before being flung on a pit with hundreds of other victims. This tree has been named the killing tree and is now covered in bracelets and gifts from those that visit. 

Towards the end of the rule, anything up to 300 people were sent to this field every day! Once you ended up here, you didn’t make it out again: your fate was sealed. Over 9000 bodies have been found across the vast array of mass graves at this site alone. Again, hundreds have been discovered across Cambodia. 

This place was eye opening. From the pits dotted all over the site, to the bits of bone and clothing that still come up from the soil after rainy periods, to the Stupa in memory of those that died, which contains over 5000 skulls discovered so far at the site. I can only use the word harrowing again, it was eye opening, horrific, truly upsetting, and thought provoking.

What I think makes all this worse though, is the criminal charges against the leaders of the Khmer Rouge are STILL GOING ON! Pol Pot took exile in rural Cambodia near thailand until he died, and his cronies have either escaped through dementia, ended up in prison for the later parts of their life, or died themselves. I think to date, only a handful of the party leaders have been imprisoned and only ONE has accepted any remorse or responsibility. Along side this the Khmer Rouge had a seat on the UN throughout all of this, other nations played dumb and didn’t intervene, and some sources imply that countries like the UK And USA actively supported the Khmer Rouge! Even if this isn’t true, there’s not much evidence showing global intervention to stop anything! Seriously, WTF kind of world do we live in? Even writing this is making me hate waves of humanity. How the hell is stuff like this still going on daily across the globe.

Okay that was tough to write, but needed to be written.

So after a day of sadness in Phnom Penh we got a night bus to Siem Reap.

Siem reap- unleashing our inner Tomb Raider


After getting dropped off on the outskirts of the city before 5am, in the rain, with nowhere booked to stay, we weren’t really feeling a day walking around the temples, so spent the day researching the temples and planning our next two days, as well as exploring the city. Firstly, I need to say I really liked this place. The atmosphere is quality, and there’s so many things to do (including going to the cinema on a miserably rainy day, which I definitely did). I’d recommend staying around Pub St if you go as this is where all the action is. I ended up out with some guys from the island for a few bevvies and had a great night. Regardless, you don’t go to Siem Reap for a piss up, you go for the temples.

The Angkor temples are a UNESCO world heritage site; It’s actually the worlds biggest religious site covering a vast distance through forest and jungle land. You could probably spend a week here and barely scratch the surface. We spent two days exploring the main areas but definitely could have done way more. 

Now rather than talking about each temple individually, I just want to give an overview.

Firstly, each place seems like  a one of a kind. We probably visited 20 or so temples over the two days we explored I didn’t get temple fatigue for this reason. On day one we hired a scooter and drove around ourselves, starting at the other end of the main body of temples, and each one we saw was totally different from another. Our first two were either vast and in the middle of the jungle, or a floating temple on a tiny island, even getting to the temple was like nothing I’ve experienced before. You know those scenes in Harry Potter where the ghosts come out the water? This made me think of that!


The highlight of day one for me was the famous “tomb Raider” temple, Ta Phrom. I can see why this temple is so famous, it’s incredible! The whole temple has been taken back by the forest, with tree routes running through the whole thing, taking over vast areas of the site. I have never seen anything like this before, and probably never will again. Seriously, everywhere I looked I was mesmerised. It also made me think the earth always wins in some way… Words can’t really describe this, so just take a look for yourself; this was probably my favourite place over the whole two days.



On day two we decided to be lazy and get a driver. Doing things yourself is cool, but actually quite draining as I spent half my time trying to not tip the bike over on the slippery clay roads peppered with massive pot holes! We started the day with the most famous temple, Angkor Wat.


Again, I’m struggling to put an explanation of how amazing this place was into words. The building itself is huge and beautiful. I can only imagine what it would have looked like in its hay day. The truly amazing thing though is it was built in about 18 years, with rock taken from over 20 miles away. Comparatively when cathedrals were being built in Europe they took at least double this time to be constructed!

We were lucky enough to get up to the top of Angkor Wat; I think the fact it was raining helped us a lot.the views were outstanding but to be honest the higher parts of the temple were simply mesmerising! I also got a blessing from this monk; probably need a few more before I’m accepted into Nirvana!


After a good 2 hours at Angkor Wat we went full blown Lara Croft and went off finding our own temples. I think between us we’ve probably taken 1000 photos of all the temples we visited so theres way too many to put up here, but it was a great few hours seeing some of the lesser known temples buried more in the forestry.

To finish up, we visited Angkor Tom and the surrounding temples. Again, this is HUGE! Climbing up to the top of these was a battle as the steps are so steep, uneven and obviously rather rocky, but it felt like an achievement! Our favourite temple here was the Bayon temple, paying homage to shiva. Again, it’s vast, but the heads of Shiva are just everywhere and so many are so well restored or preserved. It’s a very spiritual place to be and even better place to finish up our trip. I can see why this has been dubbed one of the must see things across the globe. Lonely planet actually named it number one! 

I A couple of pointers if you go manage to go:-

  • Book your own driver, it’s so much easier
  • Ask your driver about the routes and timings of the coaches. There are thousands of people doing these temples each day so if you get it wrong, you’ll be covered in tourists wearing silly hats, thats never good good for once in a lifetime photos.
  • Keep an eye on the weather. We didn’t get to do sunrise at Angkor Wat because it was overcast or cloudy each morning, fortunately we checked the weather so didn’t get up super early to be disappointed. 
  • Likewise if you go when it’s clear skies it’s gonna be HOT! You will get burned and will get dehydrated unless you properly hydrate yourself.
  • Be careful with where you eat. You will get stung in most places. Ask your driver for cheap place, we did this and had one of the best meals we had in Cambodia.
  • DO NOT buy things from kids. Child poverty and child labour are issues here and Cambodia are trying to do something about it especially around Ankor. Don’t encourage it!

So this is our last stop in Cambodia. It’s a magical county that should definitely be on your bucket list. Like India, we both endured a myriad of emotions as we travelled around but overall it’s a wonderful place. Next stop, Thailand for a week of frolicking around the north in the jungles, before celebrating xmas in the sun!

Koh Rong Samloem- One More Night

Kelly and I agreed we’ve been travelling really hard recently and really deserved a nice beach break. Before the onslaught of ‘oh piss off Matt’ messages from my friends and colleagues start flying in (how is work actually?) this is full on sarcasm, but we really wanted some time doing nothing.

The problem with truly doing nothing is it can require some planning in a brain like mine! If I am going to truly achieve or do nothing, I needed to do this to the max! Koh Rong Samloem therefore was on the cards.
Just off the coast of mainland Cambodia there’s a bunch of islands being dubbed as modern day Thai island (from bout 20 years ago, when tourism didn’t overrun everywhere). From what we’ve heard and read, there are stretches where these islands are effectively untouched, with beautiful stretches of white sandy beaches, perfectly clear teal sea, and in the evening, bio-luminescent plankton. Sounds like heaven right? We thought so! We decided to opt for Samloem, the smaller of the two islands as this is still slightly less developed and less touristy.
Sadly it seems like 99% of the backpacker friendly establishments on this island haven’t exactly nailed the hospitality thing, so we decided to book with the 1% that appeared to get this right, Mad Monkey. All the others offered horror stories of rats munching through bags, terrible inattentive staff or food poisoning laden grub. Lovely!
Mad monkey run hostels in 3 other locations in Cambodia, and one in the Philippines, all of which have been awesome that we’ve seen so far. Mad Monkey Koh Rong was literally the only venue we found that had consistently awesome views. Yes it was more than we hoped to spend per night, but let’s be honest, staying on a deserted island resort with all of the above for less than £20 a night for two people isn’t really shit is it? What really nailed it for me is their strong ethos of helping the communities they work with. I really like it when a CSR stance for a company isn’t just a tokenistic corporate move but part of the culture, and I could really see the positive impact these guys were having, especially on Koh Rong Samloem.
We got picked up in Sihanoukville and taken to the only main port on the island, before jumping on a smaller boat to take us to the hostel. From the second we arrived we knew we were in for a treat! As soon as we stepped into those clear waters we knew we were onto a winner.
 
We were welcomed by Vinnie, an American member of staff who helped carry our stuff in and gave us an overview of the island in wonderful comedic fashion. He had an amazing ability to memorise everyone’s names and nationalities almost immediately and remember them for the duration too. Now that’s customer service! He filled us In basics, no WIFI on site, no cash on site (everything is over a tab based system), what happens when of importance (like happy hour and boats on/off the resort) the resort dogs and where to find what. We then checked into our open air dorm which overlooked the beach as well. I was somewhat apprehensive about this at first, but it was awesome, and great to be woken up by the sunrise every morning.
Immediately I realised this place was geared up for simplicity and enjoyment, but more importantly socialisation. We were also introduced by Vinnie to a very special group of guests who had been at the resort for a total of two and a half weeks! One of them, Sahrah, had achieved the legendary accolade of Queen Klang (a 6% lager they sell on site). She drank 42 cans in one day to take the title, that also awarded her a pretty awesome crown made of Klang cans.
 The day we arrived they were due to leave, but quickly decided to stay just one more night. They actually stayed two more after that, something I noticed many people doing over our stay. This quickly became a slogan for the days we were there (it’s also probably how they ended up staying so long)!
We spent the ride to the island chatting with a bunch of fellow guests who we almost immediately bonded with and spent the first day and evening with, but to be honest I felt anyone else in the main social area was there to meet people, and was easy to talk to. I can’t stress enough the impact no wifi had on this. No one had their phones stuck to their faces so was fully engrossed in having a laugh, getting to know people, or playing games. It’s a real shame we live in a society now where this isn’t the norm! I know this sounds horribly cliche but it really felt like the longer staying guests had formed small families. This was especially the case for the two weekers, who were now affectionately called the furniture by staff, and had formed a title of ‘the cool club’ as well as family roles for each other like mother, father, weird uncle, you get the idea. This title suited them big time, they were all bloody awesome and we spent all of our last day with them in the end.
The day’s consisted of very little; Wake up overlooking the sea, head to the bar to share a breakfast and get a quick swim in before food was served (which was also fantastic for the record), head for a lie on the beach armed only with a towel and a kindle (maybe some suncream and a GoPro too), have a little nap on the beach, swim to a hammock partially submerged in the sea, have a little nap again, move to the swing in the sea, back to the beach, maybe get some snacks or a beer from the bar, repeat this three times before sunset, then the fun really starts! Hours of great food, games, a bit of alcohol consumption, some of the best fire poi I’ve ever seen, finally ending with a swim in bio-luminescent plankton at midnight (sometimes nude, you only live once). Perfect concoction for a good night when you consider where you are? I think so! This was a really cool experience and like swimming in silver.
Just like any backpacker hostel, there’s a good craic in the evenings: mad monkeys didn’t disappoint either. The place was filled with things to do with people from simple card games to drinking games, a sack toss equivalent to beer pong onto the nations leaderboard for challenge shots (a specific set of shots to get you higher on the leaderboard. Each nation decided a nickname for their nation before aiming to be supreme champions for that month). When we arrived the Dutch (kindly nicknamed as Swaffelen, just google it) were smashing the board and continued to do so (mainly down to Nicole who I’d imagine is reading this if back on mainland by the time I post). Brexit were in a close second as we tend to be with drinking based activities throughout SE Asia. This became quite a competition as nations quickly formed mini drinking factions to get to the top. No one unswallefed the swaffelers though. I know it sounds like a proper piss up, but I’d be doing the place massive disservice by advertising it that way. If people didn’t want that kind of vibe, they could have a good time anyway, and that really added to it. I think I only met 4 people who didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves from our dorm, but they were miserable bastards from the first moment! It’s a rare occasion where you can safely say 90% of people at a party are having a good time, but I’d say that’s an accurate representation of mad monkey to be honest.
Every day was the same; Repeat the above described routine but throw in the departures and new arrivals three times over the day. This became the only way we could tell the time apart from looking at the sun, which again was seriously nice. Any normal requirements from day to day life totally went out the window, and that alone made this part of the trip worth every penny!
After 3 days of partying and chilling to the max, we got on the 4pm boat back to mainland. We all thought we were on the dull as dishwater speed boat back, but apparently that had oversold so we were out on the party boat (filled with miserable looking families who clearly didn’t want to party). About 30 mins before we docked though, everything changed… The boat actually turned into a foam party! Needless to say we made the most of it!
I mentioned the people were key to this weekend, so I need to give a shout out to some folk who made it for me.
The staff, especially Vinnie, Dan Nicole and Lucas (even with food poisoning) were amazing. From the moment we arrived you made us all feel at home. Thanks guys!
The TCC. Living legends of the resort welcomed us like family. Thanks for making our last night and day in particular such a laugh, and the journey back to mainland such an experience. Sarha, Aline, Monique and Dylan, see you in Siem Reap! I look forward to seeing the family tattoos.
The Brazilians, Augusto and Raphael. We arrived on the island with them after meeting the night before in Sihanoukville. You guys had us in stitches from the moment we arrived. I was so sad to see you go before us!
The Swaffelers, especially Nicole and Koen and Laurens, who certainly propped up the score board a bit (and the bar top at times, looking at you Koen).
The young ones, Jess and Henry. These awesome Aussie cousins managed to single handedly wipe out half the island with their joints, but still somehow partied hard! I put this down to being 12 years my junior obviously….
Ciera, Mara and Molly, the birthday girls! These guys were on the boat with us to the island, somehow smashed a bottle of prosecco without actually touching it (literally split the bottle down the seam) but kept me very entertained for hours. Molly, get in touch about India anytime!
Finally the house doggies! Otis (Scooby Doo), Lola and Oyster were pretty awesome pooches that just topped it all off. What else do you need on an island already covered with good people, food and drinks, and amazing beaches?
I’d go as far as saying this was one of the best bits of the trip so far. Going off the grid was such a nice break from, to be honest, absolutely everything! Having everyone on the same page too really was so good and I’d go back right now if I had the chance. This will certainly be a tough one to beat, and I’ll never forget out time here. Mad Monkey management, if you’re reading this, you’re nailing it. Keep it up. I’ve stayed at hostels over 3 countries across 11 weeks so far, and you’re the best by a mile. Give all your staff a pat on the back too! Keep it up, and I hope to see more from you across Asia and the South Pacific!

Coastal Cambodia- chasing sunsets and climbing mountains

So I’ve clearly been having too much fun, and I’m two posts behind. Sorry about that… 

We’re now back in Phnom Penh before heading to Siem Reap for Ankor Wat for a few days of pretending to be Indiana Jones….We decided to start our Cambodia adventures on the southern coastal stretch of the country. Initially, we had planned to cross the boarder to Cambodia via the Mekong delta, but plans changed thanks to some very accommodating friends, and we ended up crossing straight to the capital. After a great evening with UK buddies Steph and Tim that resulted in me losing my beer pong virginity (and winning I should add) we headed straight to Kep.
Now after speaking to a bunch of people about this choice of location, it’s made me realise that listening to others opinions isn’t always the best option. We both LOVED Kep, a very quiet and small fishing town made famous for its crab fishing. So many people said it was rubbish and only worth a short day trip, yet we spent 3 days there in the end. After arriving, we pretty much just stayed at our wonderful accommodation, treetop bungalows. We’d read great reviews about this place where you literally stayed in a pivate treehouse. Sadly, we discovered upon arrival we’d booked “the cheap huts” as they were called by the owner, so weren’t in a treehouse, but it was still awesome. We had our own bamboo hut with a great mosquito net and big bed, power, and a powerful fan for less than £7 a night, a pretty good price for Cambodia.
Treetop as a place to stay is awesome and just what we were looking for. Yes, we didn’t have the treetop bungalow due to budget, but everything else was wonderful. The complex is made up of the bungalows, a main building where you eat and socialise with other guests, and the whole site is absolutely riddled with fruit trees. During our stay here, we absolutely gorged on fruits growing on the site, including jackfruit, passion fruit, fresh green pepper, lime, and banana. We even helped the grandmother harvest passion fruit one morning: I’ve never eaten passion fruit straight from a tree (unsurprisingly) but I can recommend as its DAAAAAMN TASTY!

We decided to spend our first night exploring the crab markets so I could sample the speciality of black pepper crab. We’d been told the sailing club had great views, and we were told right! See for yourself….

Sadly by the time we ventured down to the sea front most of the market was closing up; you win some you lose some. However we dined at a sea front restaurant and the food was amazing! I was served I think 3 crabs in total for about £5, which by anyone’s standards is damn good! I must say though, trying to eat crab without the very western crab crackers we’re so used to isn’t the easiest thing to master without getting very messy. Following this, we headed back to the treehouse to soak in the sound of silence (the only sound we could hear were bugs from the surrounding jungles). 

The following day we decided to do a hike around the national park to save some cash. Cambodia has turned out to be SERIOUSLY expensive, especially in contrast to our planned budget. Cambodia primarily uses the dollar as its base currency, and since Brexit that’s been pretty shit in relation, we were not getting as much bang for our Buck as planned. THANKS BREXIT YOU SHIT!

I’ve digressed again, sorry…

We started by heading to Led Zep cafe at the bottom of the hill, recommended by Bub and Fran who did this trip a couple of years ago. Led Zep have set a bunch of hiking routes around the national park so we stopped to have a fresh lime juice and get some advice. The local lady who served us recommend a route through the jungle known as a “short cut” which we thought was a great idea….


WHAT SHE FORGOT TO MENTION WAS THIS ROUTE INCLUDED ABOUT 600ft ELEVATION, NEAR DEATH CLIFF EDGES AND UNMARKED ROUTES DIRECT THROUGH A JUNGLE!

Seriously, this was an experience and a half. There were honestly points where if we mis-stepped, we would have fallen down a mountain (The photo doesn’t do this statement justice. You’ll have to trust me). 

DON’T WORRY MUMS WE ARE BOTH FINE!!!

However that wasn’t the end of the fun. Once we reached the summit, we realised we had to take the “tough” route down to avoid increasing our distance way more than we wanted. After already sweating out half our bodyweight in about 2 hours this seemed sensible. This route was called the ‘jungle route’, and had a bunch of signs saying this route was only for ‘experienced walkers’. I’m still waiting to find out what an ‘experienced walker’ is to be honest, because what we endured can’t be described as walking! 

We decided to go for it to avoid adding the best park of 10k to our hike, and quickly realised he signs underestimated the route.These photos don’t do this justice in the slightest. We literally spent the next  hour abseiling down a dried up waterfall, trying really hard to not slip on a loose rock and let go of loosely tied ropes. Now, for those of you who know me, you know i like a challenge and like an adventure, but this was pushing things a bit. There were a number of times I honestly thought if something happened to us, we’d be in a right pickle as we had no guide, and didn’t see anyone else on that route since we started. Obviously we made it, and it was an amazing experience and achievement, but it was squeaky bum time for lots of it!


Over the duration of the day, we hiked for over 12 miles around the national park, along the coast, and back to the bungalow, over a duration of 5 hours. I can’t stress enough, in 30+ heat this was TOUGH, but bloody great fun to do together. 


As we felt we earned it we endured a happy hour on the coast to celebrate survival, and we’re greeted with views like this. I’d say it was all worth it…


And this ladies and gents, is why we packed in adult life!!!!

The next day we headed to Kampot where we spent a couple of days exploring the town. It ended up being quite an admin driven, yet social, and booze fuelled couple of days (yes I appreciate those don’t all work well together). We stayed in a great hostel (Monkey Republic) with great people, and ended up partying both nights we were there with new and old friends. This is why it’s so good to stay at hostels here, the social aspect is amazing and you learn loads from others experiences! We decided at this point to head to Koh Rong, two islands off the coast of Sihanoukville. Koh Rong and its neighbouring island Koh Rong Samloem are known as being similar to Thai islands 20 years ago (before they got super built up) so we thought we had to experience this. All I’ll say now is it was so good, I’m writing a separate post about this (COMING SOON!). Kampot was cool, and I don’t feel we made full use of it, but we enjoyed the general vibe and the views. 

After two days in Kampot enjoying the coastal town life we headed to Sihanoukville for one night, which again turned into a party (we’re not good at not socialising clearly). Staying at the Big Easy on the main road heading to the beach resulted in meeting more people we’d end up on the island, as well as people we’d met in Vietnam totally by chance. In our defence we did head to the beach when it immediately started raining so we went back to get some grub and bumped into all the people’s. 
Sihanoukville didn’t really do it for me to be honest. If you love getting utterly wasted and taking hallucinogens this might do it for you, but I’m not feeling that kinda vibe. The town felt disjointed, and totally overrun with tourism, taking away from the heart of the town. This is actually something I’d say about all of Cambodia sadly. The contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia tourism is huge, with Cambodia smacking you in the face with tourist prices, promotions, and offerings. It’s actually a real shame as I feel like we’re missing the real Khmer Cambodia. Considering everything this country has been through though, I can’t say I’m totally shocked tourism has become so important so quickly to support local economies. Sadly so much of the local cultures, traditions and religions were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge that it seems like those holes are now filled with tourism. 
One night in Snook was definitely enough, and I was super ready for a few days doing nothing on a beach completely off the grid! 

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay- Seeing in my 30’s in style

So I’m going to start by saying this, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Vietnam, and I’ve only been here a week! 

When we planned to come through South East Asia, I saw Vietnam more as a country that I really had to see, rather than having a huge urge to see, but as soon as we had our first night walking around the old quarter I knew straight away I would have a wonderful time here.

Hanoi itself is a really exciting city. We were staying in the old quarter, which is absolutely buzzing with life, with thousands of scooters, and amazing smells of street food. The city has a really cool vibe, it’s obvious why it’s such a backpacker spot. The nightlife is vibrant and chaotic at the same time, but everyone is out to have great time. But what I really loved about Hanoi was the way it transformed when the sun went down, with huge areas of the city becoming totally pedestrianised, transforming into beautiful walking routes, buzzing night markets and fantastic street food quarters. I should say now that over the whole time in Hanoi, we only ate street food, and all of it was outstanding!

What really helped is we booked the most awesome hostel that needs a special shout out. Nexy is a really unique and modern hostel, we were staying in a 14bed dorm that would never normally be my idea of fun, but the dorms don’t feel that big and offer loads of privacy. The hostel has a cafe, games room, mini cinema, awesome wifi, and is in the perfect location for backpackers to explore the old quarter (which is basically a right of passage for anyone stopping in Hanoi). What’s even better is they helped us out so much with booking onward travel, and offered loads of tours to all the big local sights, and more importantly the beds are SUPER comfy!. This is all good, but it was a very reasonable price too! This place is wholy recommended for anyone coming to Hanoi on a budget.9a6e1310-c607-4f72-b68b-07284a55f2b8

The Food

Vietnamese food is one of those cuisines that is not widely available in the UK (except for London) and when recreated by take aways is often done really badly. I was absolutely craving fresh fruit and vegetables after India; even though we were basically vegetarian for huge portions of our India trip, the vast majority of street food was deep fried, consisted mainly of potato and onion, and we couldn’t really eat the fruits because of the water situation (something we were strongly advised to be vigilant about). Immediately after getting to our hostel, we both went out of a food hunt. We joined my mates Tim and Steph (two mates from the UK also on a year away) and their two buddies for some Pho and Bun Cha; obvious choices to start with. The first thing that we get wrong in the UK is the sheer level of fresh herbs we add to such dishes. In Vietnam the pho busts at the seams with fresh herbs, which totally transforms the dish. Another regular Vietnamese addition is the sides of pickled sweet garlic and fiery red Chilis. I really like this as it totally enables everyone to tailor everything they eat to their own liking; it’s the small things that make the big difference.4c53724b-a0c0-435e-aca9-9fa8efa6c684
Over the duration of our time in Hanoi we ate our way around the city, trying anything we could find. The food here is all super fresh, superbly spiced and flavoured, and unbelievably tasty. It also helps because we were only eating street food, you can add super cheap to the list too (everything was at least half the price of an equivalent dish in a restaurant). We found that we were really struggling to identify many dishes though, because of the language barrier. In India we could kind of get by because of the level of English influence around, but it was way more challenging in Vietnam. For this reason we booked on a street food tour to gain a better understanding. I’m so glad we did, as we ate some outstanding food that we probably would have never tried if just on our own sampling things. Here’s a little break down of the stuff we munched.

Bun Cha. Fish sauce and hot water based noodle soup (green papaya and honey for sweetness). Herbs used are mint and marjoram with minced pork patties.
Nom that bo kho (dried beef salad)- Green papaya shredded. Pork shrimp and mushroom dumpling. Dressing is fish sauce lime sugar water

Banh Cuon Nong- Soft rice paper dumplings with mushroom pork and shrimp. Crispy onions on top

Pho xao- Thick noddles with soy etc

Banh mi- French baguettes with BBQ roast pork, pate, cucumber, carrot, green papaya and chill sauce

And this was just a snippet! I hadn’t realised how much Vietnamese food relied on marjoram and fish sauce, beyond the obvious mint array of herbs.
Overall, the food has blown me away. This kind of cuisine is did initially something I’ll be doing way more of back home!

The history and culture

We all know some of the history, but I’d be lying if I said I had a clue about so much of it, which we came to learn about during our stay in Hanoi, a city that’s been riddled with war and destruction over the centuries.

 
On our second day we decided to go and explore the old prison, following recommendations from a few mates. Over the years the prison was used to secure everyone from political protesters to prisoners of war, dependent on when, what was happening at the time, and who was in power. As you would expect the stories we read and the conditions that we saw were quite shocking, but interestingly when the museum moved onto cover the POW imprisonment during the Vietnam war (known as the American war over here) the emphasis shifted more to showing the quality of care American forces were given. One thing that has jumped out at me is the shift in emphasis on war reporting when you’re looking from the “other side”, it’s not bad and I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s propaganda, but it’s certainly made me more aware of reading the content from our own reports. img_9262
This country has had such a turbulent power struggle even without the well known wars, it’s really quite amazing the Vietnamese people are still so awesome! It seems that the old leader, Ho Chi Minh has a large amount to do with this.
Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he’s known here, seems to have almost deity like status here. Just like we saw in India, his face was all over the place as much as Sheva was in Varanasi. He saw in the independence of Vietnam, the north/south battles, and ruled through a number of other periods of turmoil. When he died in 1969, the country went into a state of mourning only rivalled by the recent death of the King of Thailand! It seems that without his leadership, this wonderful country would be a very different place! We were fortunate to visit the royal palace in Hanoi where he lived, but he wanted to retain a simple way of living, so actually had a smaller property within the grounds of the palace. It seems that this simplistic but comfortable way of living is something again that has definitely rubbed off on the nation.


The city itself has so much beautiful history around, covering influence from China and France in the main. We spent a few hours touring the literary museum one day, and you could have thought you’d crossed into China because of the architecture, then you turn a corner to see the grand stately home like mansion buildings with a clear French influence. Running through the streets in the old quarter, houses and cafes have balconies and shutters you’d traditionally see throughout Paris, and in Some areas you could almost be walking down a street in Lyon!

To top this all off, Hanoi is a very cultural place, with art playing a huge part on the way of life, even the bin men have their own theme tune (no joke, they had a theme song that was played whilst collecting rubbish). To add to this, a clear French fashion influence and a pretty wonderful array of street performers makes Hanoi one of my top stops on this trip so far. However I knew that was likely to change; for my 30th birthday we had booked a 3 day, 2 night trip to Ha Long Bay, something that was destined to blow the bucket list out the water entirely!

Ha Long Bay

I seriously have no idea where to begin with this….

Ha long bay (meaning descending dragon ) is such a magical place, and I’ve never seen landscapes like it anywhere else in the world. To call it a bay is an understatement, it’s more of an archipelago of 2000+ limestone islands bursting out of the sea, absolutely covered in greenery and teaming with wildlife. I saw more birds of prey on this trip than I think I have in the rest of my life combined!img_9377

We booked on a trip months ago called Imperial Classic Cruise, which comprised of a night staying on the boat with kayaking and swimming galore, followed by another day and night on a private island, followed by another day on the boat with a cooking class. This operator picked us up from the hostel, and dropped us back so it was seriously stress free.img_9408

The boat itself was cool! We had a great upstairs balcony to chill out on, a private room with AC, food supplied (which was also good) and a great bunch of staff and some guests we really got on well with. We started the trip with a 90minute cruise through the bay getting a feel for the landscape. Honestly, it’s beautiful. I have taken far too many photos because everywhere you turn it looks different. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park for that whole 90 minutes. We were also given the opportunity to go kayaking for around 90minutes, setting off from a local floating fishermans hut (pretty cool). For me this was amazing, as we were able to really explore by ourselves and at points felt like we were the only people in the area.

After a bit of boat jumping we settled down to a pretty heavy night of unplanned boozing, drinking games, karaoke and general noise making with the other guests. We only went to bed when we cleared them out of beer and some guests started falling over.

On my birthday we set off around 8am to the surprising caves, a collection of caves only discovered in the last century. They are called surprising cave because the first cave is small, but the ones after come as quite a surprise. They are HUUUUUUUGE! The way it’s lit as well is pretty awesome, and something I’d recommend going to see. Sadly I think every tour operator in the bay seems to take people there is was absolutely saturated with other bodies… For me what made this little expedition though was the views over the bay. Take a look for yourself!img_9416

After this we boarded a smaller boat to head to our island break at sandy beach resort. The boat itself was rubbish and falling to bits, but it didn’t matter once we arrived at the island.

I actually couldn’t believe we were staying here. The resort consisted of about 20huts over the sea, with a central area for food and drinks. We were totally enclosed by the limestone cliffs which made it feel even more secluded. We spent the afternoon kayaking around the bay in the more choppy water, swimming and generally doing very little except standing in disbelief of where we were. This place was far from 5* luxury but it so didn’t matter, we had a wonderful time with awesome people and really didn’t want to leave.

Our final day consisted almost entirely of travel back to Hanoi, with a pretty average cookery class thrown in (making spring rolls hardly counts as a cooking class I feel). Sadly the rest of the day we spent on a bus, or doing life admin, but that’s the fun of backpacking!

I can safely say I love this place. Both Hanoi and Ha Long blew me away. If they aren’t on your travel lists, they bloody should be! We’re now heading onto a place called Dong Hoi to explore the Phong Nha national park, and the worlds largest caves for a few days before we explore the wonderful area of Hue and Hoi an. We will be taking our first sleeper bus tonight which will be an experience in itself I feel!

Bombay- A Tale of Three Cities 

I don’t know why, but I’ve been fascinated with Bombay (or Mumbai by its new, second name) for some time. A big part of the research for this trip revolved around YouTube videos and blog posts from fellow backpackers, and it seems that Bombay is a place you either love or hate, very much like Delhi (or marmite obviously). After watching a number of cookery shows from Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay on touring India, it seemed like the natural place to finish, and after FINALLY finishing Shantaram after over a year of trying to find the time to finish it, that sealed the deal. What made the end to our India trip that bit sweeter was that we’d be there for Diwali and the start of the Hindu new year as well. Only one word can summarise this succinctly enough; AWESOME!

Our experience of Bombay has been fantastic, but the three main areas we’ve seen have been totally different and need special mentions, hence the title of this blog.

Versova and the other suburbs

We decided months back to book an Airbnb as we suspected it would be insanely busy at all hotels due to Diwali. We were very fortunate to stay with a guy called Baljit and his parents in an area called Versova, north of the main body of Bombay. Versova is the main suburb where Bollywood stars and staff from the film industry reside, so the level of affluence is en par with parts of London. When trying to compare, it probably rivals areas like Chelsea or Knightsbridge. This was obviously a very nice experience, as we were staying in a gated complex, in an open and quiet (by Indian standards) area, with a fantastic array of bars, cafes and boutique restaurants, and literally a stones throw from Versova beach. Whilst this beach didn’t rival the beauty of those we frequented in the South (this one also had a small slum, a sewer/dirty river feeding into the sea and a hefty amount of rubbish across the beach), it was still a lovely place to walk for a couple of hours near sunset.

As we were staying in this area, we were fortunate enough to see it in all its guises. One thing that really was apparent for me in Bombay was the change in the city from day to night, it really is the city that never sleeps. What starts the day as a placid and calm district turns into a bustling, lively and exciting area by night. We spent one evening just scoping out the local bars and venues for a cheeky beer, another dodging fireworks and bangers whilst admiring the beautiful light displays erected for Diwali, and another learning about the Sikh culture and visiting a local temple with Baljit and his mother. We even got given local clothing to borrow so we fitted in with  activities (codeword forndidnt stick out like a tourist as much). 

Following this we went for dinner and had probably the best butter chicken and mutton Bhuna I’ve ever had which was a great way to finish off a great day.
Versova and the surrounding areas were such a change from what I expected of Mumbai. Everything I’ve read and seen describes this place as wall to wall noise, smell and general madness, but this in the main was totally the opposite. Maybe we are just becoming more accustomed to the general carnage of India? Either way, we really lucked out staying in such a great place and with such a great family, who welcomed us so warmly and made us really feel at home and part of the community. If you guys are reading this, thanks for making our time in Bombay so wonderful! 

Central Bombay and Elephanta Island

We decided to try and squeeze the majority of the ‘sites’ into one packed day during our stay. To be honest, I’ve started to realise quite quickly on this trip that so many ‘must see’ sites or attractions aren’t actually that must see; I think I just hate tourist traps to be honest. I think both Kelly and I agree that some of the best things we’ve seen or done have been unexpected, and normally just happen because we are walking around and somewhat off the beaten track. Anyway, I digress…

We started the day off by heading to Leopolds cafe, a critical place in the book Shantaram. For many of you going to a cafe probably seems like a very strange place to head to, but for me this had to be visited. Shantaram for those of you who don’t know is the story of a man named Lin who escaped prison in Australia and ended up living in the slums of Mumbai where he becomes the slum doctor, gets involved with the mafia and ends up in jail again for months to name but a few critical points. The story spans everything from love, war, crime, philosophy, pain and passion over about 1200 pages. To be honest if you like reading and haven’t read this, just read it. I’m barely scratching the surface of describing it and it’s multiple layers. One thing I will say is it’s not really known if this is fiction or non fiction, but I believe it’s non fiction with an embezzled plot. To be honest everything I said earlier about tourist traps is kind of what I felt at Leopolds. The place was full of westerners and the prices were inflated easily by 200% on any other local establishment. Kelly and I shared a meal and went on our way. I’m still really glad we went but wouldn’t describe it as a must see place.

ANYWAY….

Following this we made our way to the Gateway of India via the Taj Mahal Hotel and a number of other historical buildings we Brits stuck all over the place. If it wasn’t for the palm trees all around, so much of this part of Bombay could easily be mistaken for central London, the architecture is so similar from Victorian age buildings in central. 

On this walk to the jetty, we walked through the Oval park, which was absolutely riddled with cricket matches. I’ve never seen anything like it! There must have been 30 matches being played on what I’d classify as a normal size pitch, I have absolutely no idea how the different teams kept track of their team mates, balls, the score, and those other important things for a match. To be honest it was wonderful to see and experience, and I can see why India are so good at cricket now! This photo doesn’t adequately show how busy it was sadly but believe me, it was heaving!

Once we made it to Gateway to India, we boarded a boat to Elephanta island. The island is an hour boat ride from the jetty, and contains almost untouched forest areas and some historical caves with monuments carved straight into the stone. This was such a wonderful change from the city madness, as the whole area felt fairly untouched and tranquil. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely rammed, full of people selling cheap crap to tourists, and people taking selfies in the most obscure of places, but looking past all that (as you need to do across India) it was a very special place. I Also managed to get a bit of OCR practice in on the tress at the top of the hill we trekked; the locals were fascinated! 

But seriously, the selfie thing here is crazy! We’ve been asked well over 100 times for bloody selfies on this trip. We’ve seen people having almost full blown photo shoots for selfies, it’s a little ridiculous to be honest. I had enough at Elephanta and just started photobombing people, and taking photos of people posing for photos. Here’s a small sample of said snaps…


For the evening, we decided to go on a street food spree. We’ve heard so much about the street food in Mumbai but hadn’t had many opportunities to tuck in, so we really went for it. We walked from the gateway to an area regarded as the street food Mecca of Mumbai, Mohammad Ali Road. Whilst on the 5k stomp past the famous CST station (which is absolutely stunning for the record) we tucked into some PROPER tandoori chicken in a roti, some Vada Pav (regarded as the Bombay burger, even though it’s basically potato cake in a bun). By the time we were done at Mohammad Ali road, we’d tucked into an array of Indian sweets, snacks, and small meals, all of which was superb and seldom seen in the UK (yes I got recipes where I could). Because we decided to do this on Diwali, the walk again involved dodging some very interesting and explosive banger and firework displays on the narrow streets. Health and safety well and truly went out the window! As you can imagine though, this really made whole experience of being in in the thick of it come to life.

Dhravi slums

Before visiting the slums, I had a feeling this place was going to be riddled with crime, and poverty, and I’d see people living miserable lives and living in some absolutely appalling conditions. I was expecting to find my experience quite challenging and rather emotional. I think this is in part fuelled by things like Slumdog Millionaire, and the imagery the media use to paint such a picture and tell such a story to be honest, because boy was I wrong!

Dharavi slum is the largest in Bombay (and in Aisa to be fair), with over 1 million people living in an area half the size of Central Park in NYC. The unofficial number of people living here is likely to be much higher though. The slum basically has a population density about 20 times larger than the rest of the city, and average salary for those in the slums is less than £2 a day.


We went on a tour around the slums with a company called Reality Tours, a fantastic company who run a community outreach centre to educate those living in the slums. 80% of their profits go into this centre, and they run sessions on everything from computer use to basic numeracy/literacy qualifications that are endorsed by the British Council, but even sessions on personal hygiene, LGBT rights, elocution and CV writing/interview techniques amongst other things. They do some fantastic work and I’d really recommend checking them out if you are venturing to India at any point. 

We started the tour by exploring the commercial areas, that included the plastic recycling zones, pottery makers and leather workers. About 80% of the recycling for all of Bombay is done in the slum, and the majority of this is plastic. As you can imagine, the working conditions are not great, there’s no health and safety, and the smell of chemicals fills the air to an acrid level, but this is just the norm so everyone gets on with it. In a strange way it was really nice to see the end of the line, as we’ve seen so many people collecting plastic on the streets and now we have seen what happens to it. One thing that really amazes me about this whole process was the array of stages and ways the locals worked in challenging conditions and without all the modern technology we would be used to in the UK. Likewise with the pottery and leather workers, the work is undertaken using machinery, but due to cost and space restrictions many tasks are done by hoards of people. 

One thing that really jumped out at me about the commercial district is how much stuff you see on the streets clearly come from the slums. We saw Breads and cakes being made and packaged for large companies to be sold all over India, we saw leather bags being made for some very well known top name brands, all the crap that’s sold on the streets for ten times the actual cost, beautiful fabrics and saris, the list goes on. It’s a real shame though that none of this is promoted as coming from this area, probably because of the false perceptions  from the general public, just like my initial misconceptions! Likewise, it’s really obvious you shouldn’t buy any of that crap off the streets as regardless of your quality of bartering, you’re still getting ripped off.

Following this, we made it through to the residential districts down the labyrinth like alleys. Now this was exactly as I expected! You had to have your wits about you, as there was no lighting, low ceilings or awnings, broken pavement, open sewers, and trailing electrical cables daisy chaining over your heads in some crazy tangled mess. However, the living areas felt totally different. Unlike my belief that we’d be surrounded by horrific poverty, the area was alive with life. People took great pride in their homes, which were beautiful colours and had amazing street art on the sides of buildings. We saw children dressed up in beautiful outfits for the holy celebrations, more kids playing cricket in the streets (I may have got involved again), and you rally got the sense of a wonderfully close knit community all around you. The area, albeit a slum, actually reminded me of the area we stayed in Kolkata, just with corrugated iron houses.

The thing that really hit home with me, was how wrong I had got it. I reckon I saw less poverty, rubbish and general harshness in the slum than I have in any city in India so far! Come to think of it, I didn’t see a single person begging for the first time in India! Honestly, it was wonderful, and once I had realised my understanding of the slum was totally wrong I felt so comfortable being here. I felt so honoured to have met the amazing people, to see what I’d seen and to get involved in local activity in and around the slums; definitely the most eye opening thing we have done and something I can’t recommend highly enough. The slums are an organic and evolving city within a city, just go with an open mind and be prepared to be amazed.


Sorry, I’ve done it again. I’ve written far too much, but there’s so much to say about this city. I appreciate that being here over Diwali may have enhanced my experience somewhat, but I will go as far to say I bloody love it here! This city is so different to all the others we’ve visited over the last 5 weeks, but with subtle similarities in pockets. There’s so much going on that with every turn down an alley you get a different experience.

This is the last place we visit in India. It’s been a magical time to say the least. I’ll be reflecting on the trip whilst we are en route to Hanoi and will probably write an overview of the whole journey so far. Needless to say, I’ve fallen in love with India a little bit, and WILL be back to explore some more!

Agra- An Inconvenient Truth

Edit: I have no wifi and WordPress is uploading my pics to the start of this blog only, so I’ll upload pics here later when I have wifi. I have some stunners so check back to see them soon

It’s one of the things you have to do if you go to India; go see the Taj Mahal. Everyone knows about it, everyone has seen the famous Process Diana photo, and now the famous William and Kate replication. Everyone I know who goes to India goes to see the Taj, has their photo taken in the centre point, probably a perspective matched shot of them holding the brass tip, and about a quintillion photos of the whole site (yep, that’s a number). I can’t blame anyone for this; it’s such a breathtaking site and it really is a once in a lifetime experience.

The truly incredible thing about the whole Taj Mahal site is the genius engineering that went into the building. There are so many design decisions that really make this so special, from the perfect symmetry around the whole site as well as the tomb itself, the ventilation considerations made to keep the tomb cool, the optical illusions you experience when looking from the main entrance, the truly incredible craftsmanship to incorporate precious stones of intricate patterns and Islamic calligraphy into the white marble, and the fact that the minarets are actually angled 3degrees off perfect alignment so those viewing always see all four, but also in case of an earthquake they would fall away from the tomb. Considering this was built hundreds of years ago this is truly astounding. 

When we were being guided around by Prakash, our awesome guide and photographer, he told us the granite came from Rajasthan, the neighbouring state, I’m on my way to now. It’s worth mentioning though this is hardly driving from Cambridgeshire to Suffolk or actually leaving London (I know my London friends, it’s almost unthinkable isn’t it), this was a 700km journey, pulling an unthinkable volume of granite and marble by horse and cart. No wonder it took 22 years and 20,000 people to build!
We spent a few hours at the site, and I was more than happy just sitting and looking ate the building, it really is that stunning. After the Taj we headed across the city to the Agra Fort, which is somewhat overshadowed by the Taj. Unlike most temples in India either dedicated to gods or dudes, the Taj is built for love and in memory of Shan Jahan’s favourite wife and only true love, who died giving birth to their 14th child. 

Sorry Kelly, as much as I love you, I don’t think I’ll be able to top the Taj..

The second must see is Agra Fort..

Agra Fort has adopted a number of roles over the years, and is now 80% a military base. It’s quite nice it’s still used for government purposes I guess. It was a shame we couldn’t see it all, but what was open to the public was pretty awesome. There are so many layers of the fort that offer difference architectural design changes as the fort was built up and modernised by different leaders over hundreds of years. My favourite part though was overlooking the Taj and the surrounding greenery. I could have spent hours just looking over the horizon to be honest, and for those that know me personally I’m not too good at just sitting. I really loved the contrast of designs and colours around the whole site, and to be honest I liked the contrast against the almost perfectly kept Taj. This fort has seen better days in parts…

Once we did these two sites, we decided to head to Mehtab Bagh ( the Black Taj) and its’s gardens on the other side of the river from the Taj for a different view. The gardens are lovely, tranquil, quiet, and well worth a visit to escape the all round carnage. The Black Taj was meant to be a palace for the King directly opposite that of his love, so he could watch over her but sadly only the foundations were completed before his third sun overthrew him, imprisoned him at Agra Fort and killed his two elder brothers to become king. The ruins of the foundations are still present today. We had hoped to stay until after sunset but security had a different opinion. Still, it was great to see the Taj from a different angle and chat with other tourists.

Then, there’s the inconvenient truth.

I’m just going to say it…

Agra is a shit hole.


I know many of you are probably thinking I’m just saying this because of the opulence we are used to in the UK in contrast to India, but seriously, look past the Taj and the red fort, it really is a shit hole. This is comparing against what I’ve seen so far in this truly wonderful country.

For example, as soon as I got off the train the smell of sulphur stabs you in the nostrils, I can only assume from the polluted river which was abnormally low, thus a huge pile of rubbish sat festering around the banks. I’ve said before in previous blogs I didn’t get when people moaned about the smell bomb of India, but THIS epitomised Ming to me! Unfortunately it didn’t stop there, even some food I had tasted of sulphur (obviously using local unfiltered water) and brushing my teeth using the standard taps overpowered my minty fresh toothpaste with rank egg-like gag inducing taste. Needless to say, and without being too graphic, my body wasn’t a fan (projects ladies, if you’re reading this, your leaving present came in handy!!). I never found out why this was so bad, but my hostel manager said that it is a big problem in Agra, and even locals can’t drink the water; such a shame considering the famine in some areas of India. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink comes to mind…

Then there’s the bugs. There is a break out of Dengue fever and Chicken Gunia in Agra at present so we had to be careful all the time. Because it’s rained so much over monsoon season there are more mosquitos than usual. No one can help this I appreciate, but I found that most establishments struggled to do much about this, so restaurants and our hostel were covered in bugs, and sitting outside was literally like running the gauntlet with some pretty nasty diseases. I didn’t fancy that at all.

Finally, and possibly the most annoying thing for me was the blatant gentrification that oozed through Agra. Locals can’t drink any water, but a 5* Meridien hotel can build whatever it wants and offer a world class service to its guests whilst people outside live in a box. I went into one of the many top hotels scattering the city to nick some wifi and have a coffee. The coffee cost more than any street food I’ve eaten in all of India! The level of opulence I saw around reminded me of trips to Abu Dhabi, which is quite literally another world and totally adrift from reality for the majority of the human race. 

The reason this upset me, is it was obvious many people probably fly into, India and onwards to Agra, see the Taj, and piss off again. The paradox of 5* hotels against the local experience is mind blowing, there are literally people living outside the hotel walls in boxes! I’m not naive to think this wouldn’t happen near a world heritage site and that this is the basic supply and demand economics, it’s just sad the government aren’t doing more to resolve the water issue. 

Finally, Agra is the biggest tourist trap imaginable. Everything has a markup, EVERYTHING! We absolutely decimated our budget seeing the must see sites, eating and getting around, and we only had breakfast and dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we saw the sites, but some of the ticket officers were royally taking the piss with their foreigner inflation (not the establishments inflation, which was bad enough, but the officers on the gates themselves). Rickshaw drivers were literally driving down the road next to us walking for hundreds of metres trying to get us in their vehicles, whilst street vendors selling snow globes and other bits of crap followed us on the other side. I even went for a bloody run earlier around Agra and had the same thing happen. 

No mate, i don’t want a lift, I’m clearly going for a run. Look at my attire. Getting a taxi down the road somewhat defeats the object of going for a run…..

So I probably sound like a moany little bitch, but I wanted to make the point to our people planning trips to India reading this, when going to Agra, get in, and get out! The good is great, but the bad is bad…

I’m now on my way to Jaipur which I can’t wait for. Everyone I have spoken to says Rajistan is an amazing state to visit and Jaipur is different to anywhere else we’ve visited so far. We are staying with a guy from Couchsurfing too, which will be interesting in itself. The best way to experience the local culture is to stay within it, so let’s hope we really get a chance to see it.

Edit: I have no wifi and WordPress isn’t uploading my pics to the right part of my blog so I’ll upload pics here later when I have wifi.