In every way, 2011 was an amazing year. Jamie Talbot and I travelled the world, visited 15 countries, and met countless inspiring people. We spent time with our families and friends in Australia and England, and made new friends everywhere else. Eight months on the road was revitalising yet tiring, but we’ll never forget the opportunity we had to take the such a huge chunk of time off work, pack up our lives and travel, free of worry, debt and responsibility. The trip brought us even closer together, too – so we got married at the end of it! And now, we start 2012 with a new home in San Francisco – overjoyed at what 2011 brought us and excited to see what’s ahead in 2012. Here are my favourite memories from the year on the road.
Four countries, eighteen stops, fifty-three days, seven boat trips, two overnight buses, four flights, and an unknown amount number of tuk-tuks, buses, and taxis. The people we’ve met have been Thai, German, Canadian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, American, Australian, English, Welsh, Dutch, Irish and Kiwi.The nicest locals we’ve met were from Cambodia. The worst traffic was in Vietnam. The best weather was in Thailand. The most secluded spot was in Laos.The most expensive dinner was steak and red wine in Hanoi for my birthday, and the cheapest was actually last night – two serves of rice with chicken or duck and mixed greens with two drinks for only 87 Baht, or $3. The most expensive flight was from Bangkok to Hanoi – because we never used it. The worst boat ride was from Thaton to Chiang Rai. The best was Halong Bay. The most beautiful spot we visited… well that, I can’t decide.
Each country has had it’s real highlights and lowlights. When I try to think where my favourite place has been, I come up with no answer. It’s only when I break it down to each country that I can choose spots that I loved more than others. It may be the weather, the people, the food, or the comfort of the bed – each place has had something to define it.
In Thailand, Chiang Mai was outstanding. Laid back, plenty to do, with lovely people to meet. The air was clear, the mountains were cool, and the sights were amazing. Our accommodation here was a highlight – Sawasdee Guesthouse, if you’re ever in the area. Down south, Bangkok had fantastic food, ease of transport, but terrible humidity and pollution. The days were hot and long, but you could find great and inexpensive food right outside your front door. Accommodation here was great, too – Udee Bangkok, with clean, cool rooms to escape the hot concrete city outside.
Laos was mostly unexplored, but absolutely beautiful. Some of the best indian food you could get was in Nong Khiaw, as well as some of the cheapest beers and accommodation. The people were lovely, if not a little shy of the tourists that have discovered their tiny village amongst the limestone cliffs. In Luang Prabang the streets were filled with people, markets and crepes – Nutella ones, of course! Again the people were lovely and the city was quiet – but the mosquitoes weren’t.
Vietnam was surprisingly the most expensive country on the list. We went from Hanoi to Halong Bay, through Hoi An, Mui Ne, Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc Island. Admittedly these are all tourist spots along the coast – but Vietnam is so narrow, there wasn’t much more to visit if you went west! The beef curry pho was delicious, the chicken and cashew nut stirfry fresh, and the rice fields were endless. The people were lovely, as were the sights. Halong Bay, Cham Island, sand dunes in Mui Ne and the Mekong Delta – all beautiful. But Vietnam is where the unlucky turtle literally reared its ugly head and resulted in my phone being stolen, so I’m still a little sour about that!
Cambodia. I wish we’d had more time in Cambodia. With only 10 days we managed to see Kep, Rabbit Island, Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, along with countless monkeys, temples and sights. Cambodia has been, as expected, the cheapest country we visited in Asia. Accommodation for as little as $7 a night on an island would be unheard of anywhere else, but on Rabbit Island it was ‘top dollar’. The people in Cambodia were the kindest and most helpful we met. Tuk tuk drivers helped us cross busy roads by blocking traffic for us, and hoteliers recommended full day tours for no commission, and encouraged us to move on to the next city to see more sights, knowing full well that they were losing another nights room fee. Speaking of which, the absolute best hotels we stayed in, in the second half of this Asian leg, were here. Campus Guesthouse in Phnom Penh – speak to Tepy Ban, the abovementioned hotelier. Her brand new hotel is perfect, for only $20 a night. And in Siam Reap, try Motherhome Guesthouse. Five star service, unbeatable for $18 a night. Also n Siam Reap, a man named Long offered to drive me around town while I looked for a store to buy a replacement iPod. We found one after 6 stops, then he waited patiently while I picked up groceries as well. All to be helpful, because they know no other way. Absolutely heart warming.
It has been almost two months since I left home in Brisbane for this massive around-the-world adventure, and already a third of the trip is finished. I’ve managed to keep myself out of harms way for this whole time, handling only a few short instances of colds, flus, stomach upsets and mood swings. I’ve discovered that Magnum’s taste the same everywhere, but they are heaps cheaper than in Australia. Bottled water ranges from 25 cents to a dollar, and Coke is the same. The cheapest beer was 20 cents, but it tasted best after you’ve already had a few. We discovered that eating street food will always be cheapest, and often it will be the tastiest, too. Unless it is chicken necks – those things are foul…
Next up is Jordan. We fly tonight at midnight, arriving in Amman at 0515 local time. Amman is seven hours behind everyone back in Australia, should anyone be interested. We’ll be there for 8 days to see the city, Jerash, Dead Sea and of course Petra. Then onto Egypt for the pyramids, the Nile, and maybe an oasis in the middle of nowhere.
Until next time…
We arrived in Siem Reap late from Phnom Penh, and after a 6 hour bus ride we were exhausted. Fortunately we had arranged to be collected by our hotel, Motherhome Guesthouse, and we were greeted by Mr Michael and his shiny new tuk tuk. Off to the hotel we go!
The hotel was fantastic. Number 1 on TripAdvisor and with good reason. It is the same price as most of the others around it – only $18 – but far better value. And I can say that with confidence, because when they ran out of rooms for us after two nights, we checked out three other options all within the same price bracket, but none of them came close to the service, hospitality and inclusions offered by Motherhome. But enough of that, I’ll save my gushing for Trip Advisor!
Before bed we felt energetic enough to book 3 days of temple trekking, based on a detailed itinerary offered by the hotel. Jamie Talbot has been waiting to visit Angkor Wat for almost 2 decades. Yes, he is that old! A game he played as a little tyke had Angkor Wat in the background, and ever since then he wanted to visit this historic site. NOT because of Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, or so he says…
Over the three days we visited as much of Angkor Archaeological Park as we could possibly handle. Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Pre Rup – to be honest I can’t remember which one is which anymore, but Jamie Talbot does, so check with him! It’s not that they weren’t all very different – in fact they each had something unique about them, whether it was the Buddism or Brahmism influences, the size, the shape, or the number of towers. But in seeing maybe 20 temples in 3 days, I should be forgiven for forgetting the names!
The temples themselves were magnificent. It is really unbelievable that these buildings of sandstone, rock and laterite were built as early as the 9th century and have lasted over 1000 years. Even more surprising is that many of these temples, including the one we visited today, were only discovered within the past 100 years. The work that has been done to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site is outstanding, with many of the temples delicately restored to some of their natural glory, painting a clear picture of what awe-inspiring structures they must have been so many years ago.
This is where Jamie Talbot will probably excel – his written words are often far better than mine, and he’ll be able to use his words to convey just how beautiful and awe inspiring Angkor Wat was. Considering I can’t even remember the names of most of the temples we’ve seen, I think I best stick to photos and let them tell the story of our 3 days of temple trekking in Siem Reap. You can see what I saw here.
Now we have a day of rest in Siem Reap, where I might try to buy an iPod and we’ll get massages before a long bus ride to Bangkok. Then, two more sleeps in Thailand before we fly to Jordan on the 8th April. No more pho, khmer spices, spicy green curries and morning glory (minds out of the gutter people, morning glory is stir-fried water spinach!). Let’s see if my stomach can handle what the middle east is offering!
Three days battling the humidity through Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap left us tired, dehydrated but fulfilled. Finally, Monkey could check this World Wonder off his list, and I could quickly add it to my list and check it off as well. Unbelievable temples and cities spanning kilometres in lush green settings, and only discovered again in the last 100 years. No wonder it is a popular spots for tourists and movie makers alike!
Words fail me as I try to describe the stupa of skulls at the Killing Fields, marking tribute to the tens of thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge reign in the seventies. With every rainy season, more skulls, bone fragments and even teeth appear through the dirt, with just over half the discovered mass graves having been excavated over the years. Thirty-two years on, there are only 5 people being put to trial over these atrocities, following their arrests made many years after they committed these crimes. And now, the Killing Fields are a popular site for both national and international tourists to visit and show their respects for the many deceased.
We only had a day and a half in Phnom Penh, with the lure of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap being too great. That, and our lovely hotel manager suggested that we could see everything we needed to see in less than two days. We took that into account and made the most of our time here, with a few nice memories of monkeys and temples to show for it. S-21 Jail and the Killing Fields deserve their own entries.
During the Khmer Rouge reign in Phnom Penh, from 1975-1979, a school was turned into a prison. Over the years, almost 10,000 people were imprisoned here, arrested for sometimes just assumed opposition to the new government. Very few made it out alive – more often they were put to death here, or at the Killing Fields. When the soldiers in charge fled the prison in 1979, the bodies of fourteen people (13 men and one woman) were found here, and have been buried on site. Today, the jail is open to the public, allowing visitors from all over the world to visit and understand just some of the atrocities that occurred here just over thirty years ago.
When Jamie Talbot suggested we skip Sihounakville in favour of lesser known Kep, and Rabbit Island, I was concerned. The first blog I read suggested the island was tiny, with hardly any people on it, and all it offered was cheap bungalows and a nice walk around the island. That’s exactly the point, he exclaimed! I slept on it though, and that was a good decision. While Kep is small, possibly even smaller than anywhere else I’ve visited so far, it is a beautiful, relaxing and inexpensive spot right over the border in Cambodia. There might not be a lot to do here, except to drink beer with the locals, eat fresh crab, and visit Rabbit Island for the aforementioned bungalows and beach walks, but still – highly recommended.
Seeing as the internet is so so fast here at our beautiful hotel in Phnom Penh, I thought I might share a few recent photos of us that haven’t made it onto the main page. Hopefully you will all note that the skies are (mostly) blue, the delta was green, the water is crystal clear, and that our tans are developing nicely!