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…
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!
I remember seeing a photo on Travelfish while researching our trip to South East Asia and thinking “I want to go to there!” (thank you, Liz Lemon!) With some further investigation I discovered that the island I was seeing was Phu Quoc Island, so far south and west of the bottom of Vietnam, that the Cambodians believe it should belong to them. I can see their point – when we arrived in Kep, on the Cambodian coast, a few days later, you can plainly see that Phu Quoc lies much closer to the Cambodian coastline than to Vietnam. But politics aside, it’s a gorgeous, undeveloped gem – an alternative to the busy Thai islands, and a great option for a weekend getaway in the Gulf of Thailand. Unfortunately I spent far too much time sleeping, reading and enjoying the warm water, so there are hardly any photos to share… but here’s just a couple.
We’re in seats 79 and 80.
Ok, up the front, next to driver. One sit up front, one on bench.
Realising that the rows of seats only made it to 78 at the back of the boat, we knew we were in for another interesting transport experience. We arrived early enough for this one – a boat ride from the east coast of Phu Quoc Island to Ha Tien, back on the mainland of Vietnam, right near the border of Cambodia – hoping that would give us priority seating for once, maybe even a window with fresh air. But alas, we were given the last two numbered seats on the boat… and someone was already sitting in one of our seats.
She looked pretty angry. She wasn’t going to move. The assistant didn’t even make an attempt to move her, or explain why she was in one of our seats. Perhaps she had also taken one look at this woman’s face and decided to leave her in peace. An hour later, while breathing deeply to avoid sea sickness, I’d be hoping that she would leave me in peace – the old witch kept falling asleep and collapsing on top of me, threatening to knock me from my precarious position at the front of the boat.
This seat wasn’t my first preference. I’d started out with a third of the captain’s seat all to myself. There were no other spare seats – in fact, I think they had sold seats 79 & 80 to at least fourteen different people, as evidenced by the overflowing cabin and plastic chairs being handed out for people in the aisle. The captain’s seat had some padding, but it was still uncomfortable. At least there was a view up front, so I could keep an eye on the horizon and try to settle my queasy stomach.
Twenty minutes into the ninety minute trip and Jamie felt queasy too. I switched seats with him, and became the human pillow for the old witch. How she was able to sleep while sitting sideways, on a hard wooden bench, in the turbulent conditions, I’ll never know. There were a few others that managed a nap as well – I was jealous.
Finally we made it to Ha Tien. We wait now for our Cambodian visas to be approved and completed, then we set off for Kep, on the coast of Cambodia. We’ve booked accommodation there for one night – for only $8. And with a now less queasy stomach, I am happy – for there will be no more boat trips in south east Asia.
After 3 weeks, it’s time to say goodbye to the coastal country of Vietnam and jump the border into Cambodia. We’ve covered most of the length of Vietnam – from Hanoi and Halong Bay to Saigon and Phu Quoc Island – and it seemed to get better the further south you went. Maybe because the weather improved, or because we had more beach time in the second and third weeks – either way I’m glad we had the time to see so much of the country.
Today we depart Phu Quoc Island for Kep, which is just over the border in Cambodia. To do this, we catch a taxi from our hotel on the western side of the island over to the eastern side, take a ninety minute boat ride to Ha Tien, a border town on the coast Vietnam, then get a minibus across the border, sign all the necessary paperwork, and arrive in Kep by mid afternoon.
With only 11 days left until we need to head back to Thailand for our next flight, it was time to make a decision about where to spend out time in Cambodia. After much deliberation, it was decided to focus our time mainly in Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, with 3 days at the beginning in Kep and Rabbit Island. Unfortunately we’ll miss Sihounakville and Battambang, two places that we’ve heard really good things about, but seeing the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat in Siam Reap get priority so we’ll just have to come back to Cambodia another time!
The Mekong Delta needs to be seen to be believed. In my mind, it was a quiet stretch of river, used by locals to buy and sell small portions of fruits and vegetables for their weekly groceries. In reality, it is a huge expanse of rivers and tributaries, home to thousands of people, and the portions of fruit and vegies aren’t small. Twenty kilograms are the standards, as we were advised, and I love apples, but I didn’t need that many! Besides the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables, the delta is where most of the rice in Vietnam is grown. And given that Vietnam is the biggest exporter of rice for two years running, that’s a lot more than a cup or two of rice for dinner!
Mui Ne was another nice surprise. When we arrived, my immediate question to Jamie was ‘Why would anyone pay top dollar for Fiji, Vanuatu or another island resort when you can stay here, for a tenth of the price?’ For the thrill seeker, there is surfing of all different varieties – kite and wind included – or sand dunes to take yourself away to another land at sunrise. Hire a scooter and navigate the windy roads down the jagged Vietnam coastline, dodging locals and livestock alike. Or just stop, relax, and enjoy the sublime water, the warm breeze, the sun lounges, palm trees and cool cocktails. No matter what, two nights will not be enough. Make more time for Mui Ne.
I’ve seen a lot of postcards of Halong Bay but none of them do it justice. Hundreds, maybe thousands of huge limestone rocks, no two the same, popping up out of the clear green water for kilometres. Unfortunately, in the fog and mist that’s typical for this area, you can only see a few hundred metres in front of you – which is just enough to avoid kayaking straight into one.
Today we spent a full day in Halong Bay, out cruising in kayaks, visiting more caves and visiting a pearl farm. The moment we arrived in Halong Bay we knew we were glad to have booked the two night, 3 day cruise, rather than anything shorter – because without the second night, you only get two or three hours on two successive days to see anything, as the rest of our group was experiencing. With the extra day, we had a lot more time to relax and see the bay, and truly enjoyed the time off the boat.
In our group we were the only people to be spending an extra night at sea, so we were taken by a separate day boat out into a quieter part of the bay. There, we met another couple from a different junk that were doing the same thing. Unfortunately for them, but lucky for us, they weren’t interested in kayaking, so Jamie and I had a private kayak tour of the fishing villages, caves and bay with our lovely guide, Kiew. We spent about 2 hours on the water in the morning, paddling through the surreal, peacful waters of the bay, away from the crowded junks. We visited villages of over 300 people living out there on floating houses in the quiet areas of the bay – men shaving, girls gossiping, fishermen, and kids in school – imagine that, saying ‘I went to Halong Bay Floating Village Primary School!’. There were even local dogs, living on the water – mainly to protect the oyster/pearl farms set up. I asked our guide where they get their supplies – there are not backyards, no shops, just mountains of unfarmable limestone and cool, grey clouds covering the sky. It turns out that daily, the villages were brought foods, supplies and anything else they need from the markets. And they have electricity, phones, and satellite television, too! It was beautiful, but I’m not sure I could cope with living on a tiny floating house in Halong Bay for any longer than a week. Very quiet!
Kiaw took us through a ‘young persons adventure cave’ – which was a tiny opening in one of the limetone mountains that you couldn’t see through to the other side. At first we were a little concerned, because Kiaw couldn’t even locate the cave for a while! But he found it, handed us our head-torches, and we slowly, surely and quietly paddled our way through the pitch-black cave, about 75 metres through to the other side. And wow – we were in a private lagoon, all to ourselves. The water in there was even calmer than outside, and there was absolute silence. A huge, huge area, but unless you were paddling into it, or flying over it, you would have no idea the lagoon existed within the huge mountains.
After lunch back on the boat, we had a rest before taking off on our own adventure, just Jamie and I. We paddled for another 45 minutes and found a few caves for ourselves, and another pristine lagoon that was empty. Very calming and very quiet, and it was really nice to get some time to ourselves rather than being shipped around with 20 other people all day. We made our way back to the boat soon after for our trip to the pearl farm, on the way back to the main boat.
The pearl farm was, well, a real pearl of a time! I have never been interested in pearls as a stone/gem/jewellery option. But we got to see this entire section of Halong Bay dedicated to making some of the finest pearls in the world, and see how it’s done! Here’s some fun facts for you – the average pearl cultivation takes at least 4 years. Two years for the oyster to grow naturally, then the ‘pearl seed’ is placed within the oyster and grown for a further 18 months or more, depending on the size or type of pearl you are after. If you wait for a pearl to grow ‘naturally’ without the insemination of the pearl seed, then you will be waiting for a shocking 150 years! So four years doesn’t seem like much after you hear that! Depending on the oyster, you can sometimes implant more than one pearl seed and get more bang for your buck I guess. However, statistically only 30% of the oysters will end up making the pearl, and then only 10% of that group will create pearls considered suitable for jewellery. So it’s a lot of hard work for very little reward – unless you really like pearls, I guess!
Eventually we were on our way back to the boat, and we were knackered. It had been a while since either of us had kayaked, so that’s our exercise for the month! Back to the cruise to have dinner and drinks with the rest of the passengers on board, before an early night. Tomorrow, we’re back to Hanoi and straight onto an overnight train to Hoi An. Halong Bay was beautiful, but really rather cold. A chilly 15 degrees or less, I think. So bring on the sunshine as we head south down the coast of Vietnam!