Kuala Lumpur- A melting pot of culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gili Islands- Part of the furniture

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

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

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

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

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

Clever move guys….

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

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

Saigon- A home away from home

When you go traveling like we are (i.e. living out of a backpack with a seriously small budget), it’s very easy to forget about the normal things you get so used to in your previous life. You quickly forget about simple things like having your own shower, getting washing done, being able to cook your own meal, drive yourself around,  and even just watching a bit of TV or using a Laptop are all the things that are so normal back home and missed whilst on the road. That’s not been an issue at all so far to be fair, but when you return to this kind of lifestyle you quickly remember what you’ve been missing!

On our final leg in Vietnam, we finished up in Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh). We were very fortunate to be staying with some old family friends from the UK, the Kelly’s. The family (Charlie and Janette, Blair and Cameron) moved here around 4 years ago when Charlie got a new job with a Vietnamese firm as their Director for the Vietnam office . They live in a wonderful compound in District 2; about 20 mins on a scooter from the famous backpacker area in the central District 1 of Saigon. Blair and Cameron are both still at school/college, but have been a joy to hang around with at the house in the evenings. They also have two awesome little dogs, Frankie and Pickle who managed to fill our doggy quotas very nicely!


Being at the Kelly’s and living with a familiar family has been the reboot we both needed! Having those creature comforts like a kitchen, a pool, and our own bathroom has been SUCH a nice treat, and company has been fantastic! We’ve been out for dinner with Janette (known by the Easties as JK) and Charlie a couple of times, as well as a family BBQ by the pool one evening: what a fab way to recharge after the non stop madness of Vietnam for a month. The Kelly’s were very kind and lent us their scooter for the time there as well, so we had free reign of the city when we needed. Honestly, if you guys are reading this, we can’t thank you enough for your amazing hospitality and making us feel so at home! We owe you BIG TIME!!!!

We stayed here for about 5 days, and head onto Cambodia next. On our first day here, Charlie drove me around his district to see the sights around the local district. This place is really cool, there’s a very strong arty feel around the whole area, mixed nicely with some very trendy restaurants and bars dotted along the river. D2 is clearly more geared for the more Western audience, with craft beer bars, artisan deli’s and a flood of shops selling American/British produce dotted all over the place, some very snazzy restaurants alongside the more traditional street food vendors you see all over the country.

D2 is TOTALLY different to anywhere else we’ve stayed in Vietnam. The Kelly’s live on a compound that is actually quiet at night to start with! The area is lovely and has everything you’d need surrounding you within 500metres at the most. I’ve also seen more 4×4 cars around here than in all of Vietnam for sure. Whilst it’s not a traditional backpacker spot, it’s been great to see stuff beyond the status quo for backpackers, there is actually so much to see here! We were able to eat at some quality restaurants, including a Thai street food place that needs a special mention. This was easily the best thai food i’ve ever eaten, the restaurant was hidden down a small alleyway and as you can see, it’s designed to look like a street food market (it reminded me quite a lot of the Street Feast pop ups in London to be honest). If you haven’t been to one of those, I wrote a blog about that too! 

When venturing into D1 for a couple of days to do the sights, we also discovered the Bến Thành Market and the new addition of the street food market. If you are in Saigon, you HAVE to stop over at both of these. Seriously, the market itself is crazy, and the new street food market adjacent to the old market is absolutely fantastic, with a great array of goodies to sample. HIGHLY recommended for some cheap grub and even cheaper clothes (if you’re good at haggling).

 I also need to give a shout out to Pasteur Street Brewery. I discovered this craft beer in Hanoi at the start of the trip, but it was sadly rather expensive in relation to our budget so didn’t get to enjoy it too many times on the trip. Kelly agreed that I should go and have a wee sample though whilst in it’s hometown, so we went to it’s bar. I can honestly say that some of their beers rival some of my favourites from around the world. I would HIGHLY recommend the coconut porter, the nitro porter, and the jasmine IPA, all of which were top class! There bar is again hidden down a tiny alleyway and can’t really be seen from the road, but it’s worth finding if you’re into craft beer, and Western food.
A lot of the activity in Saigon that’s a ‘must see’ is kind of based around the wars the country has endured. Over 2 days we visited the American War Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Needless to say, after the war museum, a beer or two was needed! It’s quite amazing how little we are taught about the atrocities that took place during the war. I knew it was pretty brutal, but had no idea about the level of chemical warfare that took place. If you don’t either, just have a Google about Agent Orange, an awful herbicide the Americans peppered all across the place, causing huge devastation at the time, but also continues to cause a number of genetic mutations in newborns. You can really see the impact around the country of Agent Orange, it really was a horrific thing to unleash on the country. I appreciate the museum is clearly one sided and somewhat propaganda fuelled, but the atrocities that occurred from both sides were truly appalling. I can’t imagine anything worse than what went on in the war. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t take any pictures there; it was bloody horrific and out of respect I didn’t think taking photos was the done thing.

We also spent a day at the Cu Chi Tunnels. Whilst this has been jazzed up for tourists, it’s a very good way to get a feel for the way things were during the war, and how the Viet Kong outsmarted the American Army. The Viet Kong basically built tunnels across the whole area, covering over 200km of underground tunnels. These tunnels were used to transport people and goods, but also keep people hidden during the war. The fact that people lived in these tiny tunnels up to 3 floors down is actually incredible. We both had a go clambering through the ‘touristy’ tunnels (slightly expanded for the slightly larger Western tourists). We endured the 60m route underground, that went down 3 floors underground. Now, i’m not someone who gets freaked out by small spaces, but this was something else. Firstly, it was BLOODY hot and humid, it was absolutely tiny (especially with a bag on my back), and super dark. Someone in front of Kel starting freaking out, which didn’t help things. Needless to say, the thought of getting stuck down there, not being able to turn or move past anyone isn’t that appealing!!! Whilst this was a bit touristy and at points felt a bit fake, it’s definitely something I’m glad I saw. I can’t understand though after seeing everything we did, people had the urge to shoot the bloody great guns that are there as more as an attraction; definitely not my cup of tea!

On our final day in Saigon, we took the scooter and rode across to the Mekong, as we didn’t have time to do a proper tour around the area. After a 30minute drive to the river, we boarded the boat to cross over. Unfortunately at this point, Kelly managed to burn herself really badly on a neighbouring motorbike that certainly put a dampener on things. We spent the next 2 hours riding into the delta, but didn’t get very far as we attempted to find something to cover and clean her leg with. We fortunately found a local doctor from the help of a lovely local lady, so decided to ride back to central Saigon along the back roads; again an experience in itself!

Whilst our trip to Saigon was made super special by the Kelly’s, the city itself is pretty awesome. I could definitely see myself living somewhere like this; it’s all so chilled and generally a nice place to be. The roads are f****** crazy though, you honestly can’t fathom how mental they are until you see them!

I think it’s safe to say, this will not be the last time we will be in Vietnam. I know I said i’d fallen in love with India previously, but this is another level. Vietnam has been such a nice (and EASY) change to the total madness we had in India! The people have been fantastic from start to finish, and so helpful at every occasion, the food has been out of this world, and the things we’ve seen I will never forget. I WILL be back one day for sure, and now definitely have the urge to buy a bike and ride from Hanoi to Saigion (Gary, Bub, and Sam, take note. I’m not letting this one go)!

Next stop, CAMBODIA! We start in Phnom Penh before moving South to Kampot and Kep and Sihanoukville. We’re going to spend a couple of nights on one of the Koh Rong islands to have a touch of beachy life again, before heading up to Siam Reap to experience Ankor Wat (well that’s the plan so far anyway). Now I just need to source some dollars!

Hoi An and Dalat- Different Different but Same

It’s amazing how you can pick up on similarities with home regardless of where you are in the world. I’ve found myself on a number of occasions on this trip saying “This reminds me of that place back in England”, but without a doubt I did this more in Hoi An and Dalat  than anywhere else we’ve been so far. The city itself reminds me of the backstreets in Brighton, with a mix of Cambridge and some hipster-esque ends of London too. The place is tiny though, and there’s only really a handful of key roads that people frequent in Hoi An. Regardless of this, the place is awesome, and has a huge amount of character different to many areas of Vietnam we’ve experienced so far.

We decided we wanted to stay closer to the beach than the city centre, and also decided to spend more time here than initially planned so we could just chill out and do nothing for a couple of days, which we definitely managed to do! In fact, we loved where we were staying so much, we booked an additional day beyond our initial stage. We booked into a place called SeaSun Homestay, close to the famous An Bang Beach. To be honest I couldn’t really rate this place higher for anyone traveling on a budget. We had a private room with AC and a BATH (yes, a bath, remember those kids). Every morning we had fantastic breakfasts made up of banana/pineapple pancakes or baguettes with an array of fillings; a great way to start the day. The host also let us use her scooter whilst we were there, which really helped out on a couple of days! The best thing is we paid less than £8 a night for all of this! If you are visiting Hoi An, I would say stay closer to the beach, drive into the city when desired and make the most of the sand and sea.

In total, we had 6 days in Hoi An. This consisted of a couple of days doing very little on the beach, a day exploring the city centre, a day on an un-planned pub crawl (thanks to a day of rain and randomly bumping into 6 people we met across Vietnam previously), and a trip out to My Son that became way more of an experience than we expected thanks to a flat tyre on the highway!

Hoi An City

There are 2 things that apparently everyone should do in Hoi An; get a suit made and do a cookery course. Initially, we intended to do both, but realised quite quickly that all the cooking courses were set at a really low level (I know how to make spring rolls and Pho thanks), and the idea of getting a suit made 2 months into a year away was a pretty shit idea (i’m very likely to expand or contract over that time). We decided fairly quickly to sack off these cliche activities and just explored the city, and realised very quickly that listening to ‘what the tourists do’ is often a TERRIBLE idea when backpacking!  As i’ve said already, the city itself reminded me so much of places like Brighton. Imagine the back street architecture mixed with the boutique nature of shops in Cambridge. This place is trawling with little boutique coffee shops, art shops, and independent furniture shops, not to mention the deluge of tailoring places that absolutely litter the whole area. Oh, and the street food and small shops are pretty much all amazing! Seriously, I think i’ll come here when i’m a proper grown up to just buy some suits, get some art and table decorations for my house (that I currently don’t have), and stock up on epically good coffee!


Apart from all the shops and stuff, there isn’t that much to do in the centre. The whole main area is accessible by walking, and you can easily see it all in a day. The thing is, there appears to be a charge to see some specific parts of the old quarter, but to be honest I wouldn’t bother paying (we didn’t and had a great time regardless). I would suggest spending a day exploring the old town is good, maybe spend a day getting something made, then a day on the beach and that would be enough.

Seeing familiar faces

It’s funny, regardless of where you are, you still see familiar faces. We’ve spent a month (ish) in Vietnam now, and have stopped in about 6 towns/cities, and we constantly bump into faces we recognise. In Hoi An this went to another level though!  We arrived at the homestay and immediately saw a couple we became friends with in Phong Nha from Denmark, so went for lunch with them. We then discovered another couple we met (from Colchester) were also in the city, so they joined. We THEN found out more people were in the city (via social media but also just bumping into them) so had a good little crew with us for the day. On this day the heavens decided to open, so we took refuge in bars for the whole day. This was actually quite a nice blow out! 

Alongside this, we also bumped into loads of the guys we met at the bar in Phong Nha (the Buffalo run crew) on the beach near our place, totally by chance. For those that haven’t traveled, it can actually be quite a solitary activity. Yes, Kelly and I always have each other to chat to, but spending every living moment in each others pockets can be challenging sometimes. Seeing people we’ve met along the way is a really nice reboot to the system and can really make a trip! Obviously, we linked up again in the City on a few occasions which was also lovely.

Working on my beach bum

To note, this has nothing to do with my bum…


An Bang Beach is quite famous, but to be honest I can’t really work out why. After arriving in Hoi An we went to check it out, and realised pretty quickly it’s totally saturated with expensive beach bars and, well, PEOPLE! We’d been told by a buddy in the city to find other areas along the beach, which we did. We discovered an area called Hidden beach (not that well hidden, it had a sign on the road) that was perfect. We were 2 of about 10 people on this large stretch of beach, and there were smaller restaurants we could make use of that weren’t that expensive (not all that good either, but you can’t win them all).


I must say though, this has quickly become one of my favourite beaches anywhere! The water was lively but okay to swim in (see note below though), and an absolutely beautiful temperature! The beach itself was clean and lovely sand, and the fact it was quiet at this stretch just made it. To top it off, I squeezed in a 4mile run along the beach which i’ve been dying to do for ages! If you’re ever in Hoi An, search out hidden beach and avoid An Bang like the plague! The only thing I’ll say is be careful here. The water is choppy, and we aren’t 100% sure, but we may have seen someone drown the day we arrived (we saw them get pulled out then carted off the beach, locals were saying they weren’t breathing).

Expect the unexpected

It’s often the way; you follow others reviews and find totally the opposite. Likewise, the stuff you don’t expect is often the best stuff you never forget. This trip had both experiences in about 7 hours…

After a few days of doing very little, we decided to ride to My Son, a Hindu temple area and UNESCO Heritage site that sadly has been ruined from all the wars this country has endured. After a 90min scooter ride we made it there (but check out these roads, they are certainly testing!)

To be honest it was cool, but somewhat underwhelming (and bloody sweltering too, making walking about 7k a battle). We rode back and got caught in a monsoon, which again, was quite the experience. En route home, we managed to get a flat tyre on the highway, surrounded by thousands of lorries and other bikes. As you can imagine this wasn’t the greatest experience ever. Kelly managed to run across to the nearest built up area, and somehow managed to get a family to call a mechanic via Google Translate (thanks Uncle Google). An hour later, and an extortionate (apparently) 300k (about £10) we had our rear tyre fixed and were back en route. This was actually quite a stressful situation; we literally couldn’t have broken down at a worse spot, and were still wet from monsooning it 30mins earlier, but it’s certainly something I won’t forget anytime soon.

Dalat

After a number of wonderful days in Hoi An, we decided to head to Dalat. Dalat is the main area in Vietnam where fruits and veg are grown; nearly 80% in fact (other than rice, obviously). Dalat is right up in the mountains, about 2000m above sea level, so the temperature is much more like Europe than anywhere else in Vietnam (it was about 20c most days and actually chilly at night)! After a 12 hour sleeper to Nha Trang, we moved onto a smaller bus to take us to Dalat. It was actually only 150km from Nha Trang but with the crazy windy roads through the mountains it took about 5 hours! I must say though, the roads were amazing and the views probably rivalled those on the Hai Van Pass.

Dalat is famous for canyoning, which is basically abseiling down a waterfall. I’d been really looking forward to this. Sadly whilst getting off the bus, I managed to roll my ankle on one of the steeply angled curbs. I know, how very rock’n’roll of me! This somewhat scuppered our plans whilst in Dalat, but at least we saved some money!

We hadn’t booked a hostel, so spent the morning we arrived trying to find a good one which didn’t break the bank. After a couple of hours, and far too much walking on a recently twisted ankle we checked into Dalat Backpackers, where we discovered the guys we shared a room with in Phong Nha were in the room opposite! That evening I went out for drinks with them whilst Kel went to bed. We explored the evening market and literally ate everything that we could see, including satay clams (probably my favourite thing to eat in all of Vietnam), a Dalat Pizza (a rice paper cooked over coals, with egg, spring onion, and dried shrimp), but then we went somewhat off piste and ate an array of the organs on sticks freshly barbecued.
I sampled brain, liver, lung and heart (I think mainly Chicken). Whilst not all were my cup of tea, it was good to try some different things and to be honest, I really enjoyed the heart and liver! I would definitely say to anyone get out of your comfort zone and try new things! That night we ended up in the 100 drop bar. Just go, it’s absolutely crazy and like no bar you will have been in before. 

The next day we met up with Sam from Colchester. We hired bikes and headed to the waterfalls. By doing this ourselves we saved about $20 each at least (another backpaker tip from me, sack off the tours to save mega bucks! En route, we stopped by the Crazy House, another must see in Dalat. Now the name is bang on, this place is utterly crazy! It’s actually a hotel, but i’m not sure i’d want to stay. I’d love to know what drugs the owner was taking when designing this place.

The waterfalls were really cool, and these are nothing by SE Asia standards, but my first experience none the less. We stopped by the Datanla waterfall as we kinda fell across it (plus it had a rollercoaster type ride to get to it).

We hiked to the fall (and snuck past guards to get further down the fall), saving ourselves probably £5 extra each, which was just great! I’d really recommend seeing this if you’re in Dalat; the whole experience was just great, very laid back, and quite easy. Many people recommend the Elephant waterfalls too which look much more grandiose, but i’ve heard they are quite polluted now.

The following day, we went to explore the town on our own. It was a very chilled day that didn’t consist of much, but was just lovely. It’s so nice to see the proper town as it is day to day just by walking around. We stumbled across the markets and became immediately mesmerised by the vibrance surrounding us. I’d like to think I am fairly good with produce, but I literally didn’t have a bloody clue at half the stuff I was looking at. What I did recognise looked so much nicer than the stuff we get back home too!

That night, I headed out with some guys from our hostel (more people we just happened to bump into that we’d met previously) , and ended up at a bar playing live western music. The band were AWESOME and we had a cracking night, until en route home a card machine swallowed my mates card. 2 hours later and still with no card, we made it back to a locked up hostel, so spent about 30mins trying to wake someone to get in. As you can imagine, at this point, I just wanted bed, especially as we had a bus at 8am the next day.

Hoi An and Dalat were great areas to visit. I’d highly recommend at least 3 days in each area, and try to get off the beaten track. We’re now in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) staying with the wonderful Kelly’s (family friends from Dedham). I’ll try and write that blog whilst crossing the boarder to Cambodia in a couple of days.

For anyone who has done this kind of trip before, I literally can’t get over how quickly it’s all going. Today is day 65 of being on the road, and a day before we reach our third country. It all feels far too quick for my liking! What I can say is we are both having the absolute time of our lives, with absolutely no regrets, a shit ton of wonderful memories and another 9 months of memories to make.

​ Varanasi- An atheist abroad

Okay so the title may be misleading, I’m basically atheist, but I don’t tend to define as atheist as I’m not that clear cut for me. I believe that science can explain way more than religion can, as has been proven time and time again from my perspective. I believe religion has many benefits to society, but sadly from my perspective these are generally overshadowed by the turmoil that surround most, especially with regards to the wars and attacks we seem to witness daily across the globe now. I would never go as far as saying these things wouldn’t happen if religion wasn’t a thing, but I do believe we’d be in a very different world and sadly in some ways,coffee the better. For me, religions set clear principles and values that when adhered to (to a point) can shape a fantastic society, and a happy community, and improve societies. Obviously, though, there’s a flip side to that as well.
I’ve always been interested in theology, but not really studied it in great detail. Coming from an atheist family, but marrying an Irish Catholic girl and my family moving to. country in the Middle East my exposure to Islam and Catholicism has increased exponentially over the years. Plus, I’m now very much at that age where I’m spending more in time in churches for weddings and christenings, and sadly far too often, funerals, so the impact religion has become more commonplace in my life.
“Why the bloody hell are you chatting about religion Matt, this is a travel blog!?”
For those that don’t know, Varanasi is the most holy city in all of India. It’s history dates back thousands of years, and millions of Hindus make a pilgrimage to the holy city every year. Hindus believe that if you are cremated and released into the Ganges River (River Ganga) you will break the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to Nirvana (minus Cobain obviously😬). For this reason there are hundreds of cremations every day at a number of burning ghats, which I’ll talk more about later.img_8261
The city isn’t just Hindu though, across the skyline of the cityscape you see the minarets at mosques dotted all over the place, and hear the choir of the call to prayer. Alongside this, a scattering of beautiful Buddhist temples. Around our hotel in the old town, we could see at least 5 mosques, and had at least 5 Buddhist and Hindu temples within our immediate vicinity (as the crow flies, it probably would have taken hours to find them on the narrow backstreets of the old town). Because of this, Varanasi has an amazing aura around it, with so many people visiting to follow emir believes alone. As you can imagine, this brings with it a true melting pot of cultures and experiences. At one time, I was walking to see the Hindi Ganges ceremony while hearing the Islamic evening call to prayer whilst walking past coach loads of Buddhist monks who were arriving for a Buddhist festival. You wouldn’t see that at the Vatican!
The city itself is amazing, truly amazing. It’s so unbelievably different from Kolkata, with car horns and traffic jams replaced with rickshaws and cows. Yep, cows. The Hindu faith regards cows as holy creatures, so they are everywhere! The labrynth-like experience of the back streets around the old town is made even more ingesting by dodging cows, cow shit, stray dogs, uneven stones for the walkways, and locals on their motorbikes. That in itself is an experience, especially when you see a couple s having an argument! Whilst the are beggars and people trying to flog you stuff everywhere, the poverty on the streets is nothing like what I saw in Kolkata. I must say these street sellers week utterly relentless, and by the end of my 4 days there I was getting rather pissed off with a few of them repeatedly trying to sell me some cheap crap or give me a hand massage. Seriously, these guys will try anything, t always use he standard chat up line of “where are you from?”
For me Varanasi is about the sights and spirituality, the spirituality being the things that’s totally alien to me

The Ghats

The ghats offer a myriad of services, but basically, they are stairs to the Ganges. There are a number of ghats in Varanasi (83 in total I believe), the most famous are the Assi Ghat (where the river Assi meets the Ganges), Dashashwamedh (where the wonderful Ganja Artii celebration is held every evening) and the Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremation ceremonies are undertaken, about 400 each day.img_4080
Each Ghat obviously offers its own experience, but my favourite had to be Dashashwamedh with the ceremonies. Every night, people gather to watch the prayers to the river Ganja, thanking it for its good givings and bringing life to the people of India. It’s without a doubt the most wonderful religious activities I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and we were very fortunate to be there with about 10000 other guests on Ghandis birthday, and to top it off we were speaking with a Krishna throughout the before and during the ceremony about everything from Hinduism to world economics (and more importantly, the false economies and impact of gentrification on modern day society), global warming, and India on the whole. This Krishna completely went against the stereotypical “religious guy” image, and reminded me a lot of the chaplains from my old stomping ground, Anglia Ruskin (big up Nigel and Tony, you guys rock).img_8117
Many people I’ve met have talked about the burning ghats no sadly most of the focus tends to go to the smell. To be honest this didn’t bother me, but seeing the whole process was quite overwhelming and emotional, from preparing and washing the bodies, preparing the fire, placing the bodies, covering with more wood, and finally taking the ashes to the river. Even though I had no idea who was being cremated the openness was obviously alien to me, but the wealth of emotions around the area were very powerful. It’s just such a shame there are still people exploiting the ceremony by trying to catch out unaware tourists (take note people, if someone says to you they are asking for donations for the hospice, they aren’t, they are lying).

Processed with Snapseed.
Processed with Snapseed.
We spent our time at Assi Ghat watching the sun rise. We only just made it, t seeing the sun rise over the Ganges was beautiful, and following that was a fantastic yoga and meditation session run by a Krishna, definitely something I won’t forget any time soon!

I started this blog by talking about my position with religion. I can say hand on heart that Varanasi was the most spiritual place I’ve ever been. Whilst it hasn’t made me flick any internal light switches to on, it has definitely grown my interest in Hinduism, and question many of the priorities in my own life. How long that will last I don’t know but Varanasi will always hold a close place in my heart.

Two final shout outs to finish this post. The manager at our Guest House, Sanjeev, was an absolute legend. If you ever visit this wonderful city (and you should) I can’t recommend the Shivakashi guesthouse high enough. Sanjeev went out of his way on so many occasions to help us out. He got us train tickets, gave plenty of local advice on where to eat and go, and had I spoken to him sooner, would have even got us a boat ride down the Ganges, stopping us from getting ripped off! Sanjeev, if you are reading this, you truly are a legend and thank you for your help on manning our trip so special.img_8265
The final shout out goes to Matt and Charlie, a wonderful couple I met in the French bakery. We ended up chatting for about two hours about the world (they’ve been travelling a while chasing the best dove locations around Asia), and met up today as well over Lassi. We will hopefully meet up in Jaipur too if things work out. It was so nice to meet such a lovely couple who seemed to share a scary number of experiences, both whilst on the road and back home.
Sorry this is such a monster post. If you’ve made It to the end, CONGRATULATIONS! I’m sorry this is such a long one, but Varanasi really struck a chord with me, and I hope I’ve done it justice relaying that. I’m also writing this whilst on a 14 hour train journey and it’s only 9pm locally so I’m nowhere near sleepy yet! I’ll try and write something more succinct on our next stop, Agra.

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. 

Kolkata; a smack in the face on all senses and emotions

Well we did it! We finally took the plunge and got on the plane to Kolkata; a place that literally couldn’t be further from anything we know or have experienced before. To be honest, the moment we arrived at our hotel (not really a hotel to be honest, more of an inn and barely able to be called that), I was utterly terrified, and had one of those “oh god, what the hell have we done?” moments. After about 15 hours of travelling, we arrived at our inn after the cabbie took us to some random area of the city, to a room with no AC, no windows, barely any light, and a very unwelcoming check in to the place we’d be staying. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect; we’d ended up booking a bed in the centre of the residential district; a very dark, grotty and overcrowded neighbourhood made up of a labarynth of alleys and passages. 

The first day, I think it’s safe to say Kelly and I were somewhat nervous to go out and explore, but the sheer heat of our room drove us out, and I’m so glad it did! Kolkata genuinely has been a smack in the face, mixing all the emotions you can fathom into a melting pot and boiling over until dry, but we knew it would be. Seeing so many people sleeping on the roadside, in particular, children, is very hard to see on arrival, as well as all the stray dogs and puppies, and knowing you can’t really help or change the situation can be hard to deal with. But that’s life here and it’s very much the norm. It didn’t stop us wanting to take all the children and dogs home with us though 

I’m writing this on a sleeper train to Varanasi which I’m sure will do exactly the same. Never has the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” rung any truer to me.
I’m going to try and summarise my thoughts in Kolkata in sections that I feel make sense, rather than just a brain fart of conscious thought, so bare with me.

The place 

Let’s be clear here,  India ain’t the tidiest place in the world, and Kolkata certainly isn’t! Everywhere you look there is so much rubbish and mess around you are literally wading through it at points, particularly around markets, but at the same time people were always sweeping up the streets even when it seemed futile.  It was great to see people taking pride even when they had nothing. I literally saw buildings made out of tyres,  bamboo, and propped up with plastic mounds. The amazing thing about the city though, is every night you see the majority get cleared away by the residents. It’s incredible to see what you’ve seen so many times on TV, people collecting all the plastic and metal off streets and selling for recycling, just to raise a few rupees. It’s actually quite amazing to see how much can be done with so little. 


The city itself is absolute carnage I’m not going to lie. As I expected from many Indian cities, it’s horribly overcrowded and noisy. When people say India is a melting pot of smells, they aren’t lying. There is a constant cocophony of smells from cooking food, tabacco (and as much hash), urine, spices, rotting food and burning out motors (a combination of types, clutch, and diesel smoke), all made more pleasant by the heat and humidity. I only really found the rotting smell offensive, and after eating some fruit I bought from a street vendor, I can tell where the smell originates from. I’d like to think I’m fairly open to foods, but eating over ripe and verging on rotten papaya won’t ever make it to the top of my list I can confirm that!


The architecture is fascinating across the city. You can really tell that British colonial rule played a huge part in the design of the area and the influence over so many areas. The fascinating thing out around the city is the mash of classic British design, with to be honest a total mess of building designs, many that  aren’t even remotely attractive. One thing I didn’t notice in Kolkata was any new buildings that looked even a little exciting. Shame really.


We were fortunate to see most of the sites in our 3 days here. We walked over 18miles in two days alone exploring the areas around Victoria park and the Eden Gardens, New Market and Park Street, eating all the street food along the way (see next section) and even managed to to get tickets to the Indios New Zealand 2nd test (for all of a quid a ticket. Bonus!). 



Whilst Kolkata isn’t known necessarily for its sights and attractions, it does have some amazing things to see and some lovely areas. The real thing though, is the food!

The food

Now for any of you who know me, you’ll know I LOVE food, experimenting with new food, and learning new techniques. For me, this was half the reason for starting out trip where we did. Kolkata is known as the Western Bengali capital of street food, and it certainly didn’t disappoint! We literally tried everything we could get our hands on. The majority of the street food was vegetarian and it was without a doubt the most flavoursome and colourful vegetarian food I’ve ever eaten, whilst actually being rather simple. I tried to get recipes along the way but it was rather challenging with the language barrier in most places. What I can say though is the food makes full use of mustard oil (and PROPER mustard oil, not like the limp crap we get in the UK), with citrus used to marinade everything (the local citrus fruit is a perfect mix between lemon and lime), and regardless of the lack of food safety, of health and hygiene regulations, the food on the streets is outstanding. We were living off street food for about £4 a day and nothing was short of excellent. My top food was an egg Kati Roll, a roti heated on a solid top with an egg scrambled on top. Chicken Tikka with fresh onion, chilli and sauce is then fried off and rolled like a burrito; delicious! Definitely something I’ll be playing around with at home in a years time. 


I have missed fruit though. Every time I tried to eat any it was either tasting vile from being close to rotten, or I’ve had to avoid because everything is covered in flies. Everything I wanted to eat fell into these categories and I’m doing my best to avoid Delhi belly so had to give fruits a miss. 

Basically, street food was amazing, and  a great start to what I expected of PROPER Indian cuisine.

The people 

There are many things that can be said here. To keep it simple though, I met some absolutely amazing people and some total arse holes. It was tough to remember some things that so many people had said to me about the culture, namely 

  1. People will stare
  2. They’ll stare a bit more 
  3. They’ll probably try and rip you off
  4. You’ll hear yes a lot when actually they don’t have a clue what you’re saying
  5. You’ll find the blatant poverty around difficult to deal with 

All of these things happened on at least one occasion..

Kelly had a particularly hard time as she currently has pink hair! I don’t think we ever got further than 100m without some kind of comment either directly or indirectly, and  EVERYONE WAS STARING AT US, ALL THE TIME or asking to take photos with us, we were at times like celebrities. In the four days we were in Kolkata, I think I only saw about 5 other white westerners, so it’s fair to say we were the minority, and seeing someone with pink hair certainly isn’t commonplace!


But when we met decent people, they were truly awesome! From the 80 year old at the station today helping reassure us about our tickets and bought us chai even though he could barely speak English, to the Chelsea fan who helped us look for alternative trains at the station, to the wonderful family we sat next to on the sleeper train who fed us. A special shout out goes to Shekhar who we met on couchsurfing, who took us out for dinner and drinks: he was overwhelmingly hospitable and later drove us around the city giving us our own private tour! This kind of genuine hospitality for no personal gain is so alien in England and no natural here, it really makes you think. To all of those I’ve met on this trip so far, thank you.

Like a duck to water

I am writing this whilst on a sleeper train to Varanasi, after a particularly hectic day trying to find an alternative train (first one was delayed by TEN HOURS). This trip has already been a huge eye opener and to be frank, a smack in the face (hence the title), but we’ve got on with it well. Kelly in particular hasn’t let anything phase her at all, and is actually trying to talk me away from taking the opulent route on anything we do (like staying in the station for 15hours to avoid paying a tenner for a hotel, f*** that). Now we have 3-4 days in the holy city over Ghandhi’s birthday, which should be quite amazing.  This part of the trip will be equally as difficult though, with the city renowned for its public cremations and poverty. We shall see how we cope!