Monday, 31 August 2009

Phu Quoc Island – going back in time.

As a last jaunt to the beach before heading inland and then uultimately to the Himalayas we decided to take a short break on Phu Quoc island, off the south western edgae of Vietnam. Basically this place is in the bay of Thailand, in the same seas as Kho Tau, Kho Samui and Kho Phanang. It is a large island but has a small population, right now the tourist industry is still pretty underdeveloped, but the sealed roads and new ‘jet capable’ airport are on the way at which point things are likely to take off big time.

20090829_057873_DIG_VIE_RTW_9999_Z100_Phu Qouc Waves and Beach

Visiting Phu Quoc is a bit like going ‘back in traveller time’ as it feels the way thailands islands probably were like 20 years ago. The infrastructure is fairly limited and things are really still very innocent however the islands possesses the key ingredients for a memorable stay – amazing lan beauty, great beaches and a killer sunset. It is really breathtaking to watch the sun dip under the horizon and then set the whole sky alight in a show of colours that you just cant describe and shouldn’t even try!


We are all running out of time before the sights and sounds of our world get taken over, all we can do is see as much as we can now before the time runs out and all the uniqueness disappears from the world.


We were in Phu Quoc for 4 days and the overriding thought that i had as we travelled around and also spent time at the beach, was do the locals know about the tsunami of tourism thats on the way?? This is the first time i have been to a place before it has become developed, and i am glad we came. The lack of coffee shops, and pizza was really refreshing, all you got was fresh local food that gave you a sense of living like a local. The locals were so warm and friendly always waving and smiling at us, it was so nice. What will Phu Quoc be like in 10 or 20 years time, when our kids go on their world travels will they be overwhelmed by resorts and scuba diving joints everywhere? I amm sure the travellers to thailands islands felt the same way! Our kids will have to find their own piece of yet to be discovered paradise.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Saigon - War and Peace

20090821_057447_DIG_VIE_RTW_9999_A350_Saigon Reunification Palace

Just the cities name evokes intrigue and amazement. My generation have grown up just hearing about the war that the US should never have entered (why do they never learn!!) and the stories of the guerrilla warfare that took place in the villages and towns all across Vietnam. Saigon was in the middle of this and to be standing here now in the city less than 40 years after the bloodshed was a very strange but humbling experience.


I’ll say from the outset our visit to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City-HCMC) was affected by a few things that we don’t need to go into on the blog but for certain reasons my mind was rightfully elsewhere. Even writing this entry feels somewhat false. I suspect that one could say it is therapy.



The city is much busier than Hanoi, and for me lacks the immediate sense of intrigue and distant world feel that Hanoi had. However I guess there are two points on this. 1stly if I just stop for a second and think of the enormity of the conflict and the impact it would have had on the city; it is pretty amazing that things are so ‘normal’ even now 4 decades after the war. We visited the war museum here, and the stories and pictures just set things into context. If you get a chance, make sure you check out the pictures taken by Larry Burrows. Although he followed American troops in the war you see from his shots the senseless and catastrophic impact of the war all across Vietnam. So for the city to even be normal and unassuming is a major thing. I would say that HCMC is not normal or unassuming, there is a buzz and pulse to the city, people are everywhere and the noise is reassuringly ever-present!



The 2nd reason that I am probably wrong to come up with the conclusion that HCMC lacks something is that we saw a tiny bit of it. Flying in from Den Ang it was apparent that the place is a sprawling mass of humanity, and as with so many Lonely Planet led travellers, you see a bit of it and miss the majority of action. I have to accept this as I don’t think we are going to be able to change ourselves enough to bed down in one place for months on end! This short break syndrome results in only seeing a little wedge of the place and therefore I am sure I have come to the wrong conclusions on HCMC.


Having said all this, the one thing that hits me squarely between the eyes is just how much like India this place is. It is uncanny, the feel, the smells, even the crowds and definitely the noises!!! As I wrote in my previous post I am not sure if this continuous comparison is helpful or even fair on the country but I will just say, Vietnam really does feel like being in India (although Urvi completely disagrees with me on this)!!
Vietnam is a country growing up all over again and they have great hopes in HCMC, it is the Shanghai/Mumbai of Vietnam, and the financial centre for the country.

Because of the short time we spent here it is difficult to come up with any conclusions or thoughts. I will say that once again the people shone through for me, and you are again struck by how young the population is.
Vietnam is a place I can see myself coming back to in the future, and I think it would be fascinating to walk these same streets in say 20 years time. If and when we have kids and they go off on their world travels, I would be interested to see what they experience. I suspect that this jumbled city that a tad ugly but inspiring in just being there will have changed and the war and suffering will be even more distant in the past.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Is being an Indian traveller a help or a hindrance??

Let me start with the health warning – some people may not like this post and be a bit annoyed with my thoughts! If this is you, let’s start the dialogue, I would love to know your thoughts.

We have been travelling for nearly 4 months and as one would expect Urvi and I have regularly discussed what we feel about a place or how it compares to others places we have been. However I have started to form the opinion that because our major reference point is India, this sometimes clouds/impacts on our ability to appreciate things or observe places and communities. I don’t think that we can avoid this as the reference point is not going to change and nor should it, but I do think that we should be careful about it.

I’ll illustrate with a few examples;

Tokyo is reputed to be one of the most hectic places in the world, and I think it is, however because of the amazing infrastructure planning and the nature of the Japanese people the city flows smoothly despite the crowds. We arrived kind of looking forward to being blown away by the crowds and the mass of people, and came away being ‘underwhelmed’ at the relative normality of the place. This was because we compared it to Mumbai and the general manic feel you get with having over 1 billion people in the country! So I am not sure whether it was fair or not to come to the conclusion we did. On the other hand we met a few people from Europe before arriving in Tokyo and they were still in shock at “how busy and overcrowded they felt Tokyo was”. The point I am making is it is tough to park our reference points and see things just for what they are, but often I am not sure we do anything about.

We have sometimes lost the enormity of the history of some of the places we have been because I feel that we get caught up in the immediate state the place is in, this is a very Indian trait – the ‘what is there to see there now’ culture. It maybe just a city, and possibly a fairly bland one, but in the context of the world, and its history there is often major value. I think this happened in Saigon, where everything just made us feel that we were in a large Indian city. Maybe so, but the history of that place is what one should be bowled over by, not the high risers or malls.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that there are positives to our outlook, for example being about to get over the face of poverty as being ones overriding opinion of a place (and to see the actual beauty of the place and people). All too often people are unable to get that culture shock out of their heads and miss the rest of the experience, I don’t think we have that problem, as things are indeed the same and in many ways worse in India, it does not shock us so much.

The biggest thing for me (maybe we find this mainly with Asia, as there are so many perceived similarities and cultural connections) is that there are lots of little examples where I personally have admired other traveller’s innocence when experiencing things – sleeper trains, drinking coconut water, tuk tuks, crossing the road when you have 10,000 scooters aiming for you (!). These are all things we take for granted cos we have seen it, done it and bought the t-shirt. Again no way of getting over it but I am just intrigued by this. I love the newness of the experiences. I think this is why Japan was such a success for us, because it is so different in every way. I went to Japan a little bit like a kid, wide eyed and struggling to absorb everything. This is not an assessment on how ‘good’ or ‘better’ one place is to another, rather an illustration of that sense of innocence that I think is important to travel with – even if it is the same as back home, it is not the same and therefore we should approach things with a new eye.

We run the risk of falling into the ‘goodness gracious me’ (UK comedy about Indians) complex, that EVERYTHING is either Indian, made in India, invented in India or is better in India! In the show it even goes to the stage where India has the poorest people and this is some kind of status. Of course this is a comedy and is just for laughs, but is there some truth in stereotypes on which the humour is based, I think so. The whole ‘Buddhist world is Indian’, Tuk Tuks – Indian, Katsu Curry (dish with a totally Japanese history) – must be Indian, the whole of Thailand is Indian, and Malaysia/Singapore and Hong Kong are States in India! You get my point...

One thing is really clear, once you have lived/travelled or even transited through India EVERYWHERE else is easy, and maybe sometimes becomes underwhelming. We have met many people who concur with this thought. India is a tough travelling experience for new travellers, so once they conquer the sub continent, everywhere else must seem like a breeze. Maybe that’s what is happening to us. Maybe India has given us a good grounding for travel and generally being streetwise?

So it is a good thing or not, I don’t think there is an answer to that. I know it is a thing though! I do feel fortunate to have an India reference point, and this does help in other ways too (see below), but I think we must also maintain a conscious sense of respect for the new place that we are trying to experience, without it why are we doing this trip, and without it, we might as well have taken 17months off and gone to Las Vegas, where you can see the Eiffel tower, Venice and the pyramids all in one street.... the world is different, there are many shades, much looks the same, but it isn’t, and just because something is “just like India” doesn’t mean it should lose its identity in our minds...

Some lighter thoughts on why it is good to be Indian while travelling –

  • You can speak a language that most people have never heard, which helps when you want to bargain with people, but can’t agree a price between you! Or when you want to comment on the horrible t-shirt someone on the bus is wearing
  • Most people think you are not a proper tourist, so leave you alone on the ‘buy from me, I give you good price’ front
  • You come top of the ‘bargaining with people’ league and will fight for the last 2,000 VND (8p). Although in this case urvi is NOT INDIAN! She will be offered a shirt for 1000 and bargain the guy up to 1500!
  • You don’t take any rubbish from taxi drivers who try and fleece you
  • Asian toilets are not a challenge (well they are for me!)
  • The heat is easy to deal with (If I have AC)
  • Overnight sleeper trains are nothing new or tough to manage, and you easily fight with people for luggage space
  • You never have to worry about queues for anything, just push in like the rest of them – feels like being at home!

Conclusion – one can’t and shouldn’t change ones cultural heritage, but a trip around the world is exactly that, a trip to the countries of the world, I would like to see and experience things for what they are and not how they compare to India. The only losers in this will be us.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Hoi An – a town that fits like a finely tailored suit!

Following on from the North we left Hanoi and started making our way down the country. We took the train on what is romantically called the reunification railway. This is the line that runs from Hanoi to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City now). We took the train down to Den Ang, the coastal town about half way down the country. Out final destination – Hoi An.

20090817_057273_DIG_VIE_RTW_9999_A350_Hanoi to Hoi An train

The guide books tell you it’s an old and very important trading port, which again is a world heritage site, due the amazingly well preserved French, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish architecture. I would tell you that this is a most amazing little place that grows and grows on you, until you can’t shake it off. The old town is not that huge, but just step inside and you feel like you are on a movie set, the houses and cafes are wonderfully authentic and well preserved and the small streets accommodate foot and bike traffic only, therefore you feel so at ease while wandering the lanes. There is a river winding through the centre of town and 4km away Hoi An has an amazing and huge beach, which is totally pristine and best of all, used mainly by the locals for fun, rather than a few tourists as a sun bed.



At night Hoi An takes on an unearthly charm. the locals light religious pyres outside their shops and the streets are silent, apart from the buzz of people and the creaking of cycles.



I loved the feel of the town and the oldness of it. Of course there is an impact of the tourist trade, and on Hoi An it is that there are so many shops catering of the mainly European tourist market however I don’t think this has ruined the town and its atmosphere, in fact the busy cafes and up market eateries actually add to the allure of the town.



The other famous feature of Hoi An, are its tailors shops. The lonely planet is so right when it says travellers arrive to Hoi An looking like back packers, and they live looking like princes! Everyone seems to get something made in the town (often not needed, but hey!). The tailors have a reputation throughout Vietnam and looking at the quality of the finish it is easy to see why! Urvi was really tempted to buy a skirt, and a top and a dress and a....... !!! but in the end controlled her shopping urges and didn’t get anything, no doubt she is saving her shopping pennies for India and beyond!



I did come out with a tailored linen shirt, which I love. I have wanted to get a linen shirt for a while and to have it made to measure was really nice. It was pretty cheap too, which added to the experience. Once again we were a bit jealous of people just on vacation in Vietnam, as they could walk out with a while new wardrobe. We on the other hand had to settle for 1 item, or else risk over packing our bags to bursting point! It was nice to be able to get something ultra authentic from the town and I am sure I will remember Hoi An each time I wear my new shirt!!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

100 Day Budget Update

We have passed a 100 days and travelled to 8 ‘countries’ (i have counted Hong Kong and Tibet in this also – Sorry China!!!!) so i thought it would be interested to put a bit of a budget update for people.

The bottom line is that we are a bit over budget, but not by much. Mainly this is cos we loved and enjoyed our time in Japan too much! and because the Tibet trip was a big cost. To be honest though, if this trip was totally about travelling on a budget we would not get half of the enjoyment that we have had so far. Still reality should bite also!

So the scores so far are that our living costs total £5500. This is for eating, sleeping, travelling in the country, touring, laundry etc etc. It excludes the big travel spends (flights, intercity trains/buses), major activities – like Urvi’s Scuba, Tibet trekking etc, and also any things we have bought as gifts or for our world trip collection. By country this splits out as below, the second value is the daily spend


China - £452.69 / £26.63
Germany - £57.45 / £57.45 (day 1!!)
Hong Kong - £440.97 / £88.19 (we lived it up a little in HK)
Japan - £1626.01 / £73.91
Mongolia - £68.81 / £13.76
Russia - £253.14 / £42.19 (guess you need to combine with Trans Siberian)
Thailand - £563.96 / £29.68
Tibet - £838.96 / £59.93
Trans Siberian - £202.67 / £25.33
Vietnam - £147.55 / £14.75 (still going)

When set out like this, I think we are going quite well. Remember all the figures are for 2 of us, with big appetites!!!

Major travel totals £3000 so far including the Trans Siberian

Extra Activities account for £3300, including our Tibet tour, scuba diving and Urvi’s shopping!! (£3200 of it!!! Only joking)

This totals about £12,000, which sounds crazy, but to be honest the Trans Siberian and the Tibet tour takes up a huge chunk of that, and so the rest of the trip should balance this out (!) let’s hope.

Please drop me a note if you want any details on this. I have been keeping a detailed log, which might be helpful for other planning RTW trips.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay – different faces to Vietnam

Following on from Ha Noi we look 2 trips out to Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa, both are stunning but in different ways. It has become very quickly apparent to us that Vietnam possesses significant nature beauty.

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site located about three hours from Ha Noi. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes. The most popular way to enjoy this natural beauty and solitude is to join the 100s of ‘junk’ boats that go out every day. A Junk boat is actually a traditional Chinese sailing boat, similar to the ones you see in the pictures of Hong Kong Harbour. Staying overnight on the boat you get to experience the serenity and peacefulness of the bay even though there are many other junks out there with you. Despite the scare stories we managed to lose ourselves between the islands and we really got that feeling of isolation. We did 2 days and 1 night on the tour.

20090810_056974_DIG_VIE_RTW_9999_A350_Ha Long Bay Cruise

The weather was awesome for about 4 hours of the trip, and then the heavens opened big time for pretty much the rest of the time, however I must say being in the middle of a huge thunder storm had its own pleasure and it made the boat feel really cosy and atmospheric.



We met some awesome guys o the boat trip also, 2 of whom we then met up with later on our trip in Sa Pa and later Hoi An. Kim (from Denmark) and Julie from Germany (currently living in China).



I was not sure about the Ha Long bay trip at first, and to me it came across as bit of a box to tick. Despite this I was the one who was pushing to go, so when we got taken a few tacky gift shops enroute I was even more disheartened, but by the end the natural beauty of the bay and the lovely company shone through and the trip was worth it. The company we had was really welcome as I think we missed the big group feel ever since the Trans Siberian and also to some extent Tibet. Being with a group of new people has a real charm to it, and despite spending most of the time swapping travelling stories there was a real variety of opinions and approaches. This always makes me stop and think about myself and how I come across to other people, so it was really interesting and refreshing to get the brain working again.




The second place that we went to in North Vietnam was Sa Pa. Sa Pa is so close to the Chinese border you can practical smell the noodles! It is an old French hill station and is bustling with coffee shops and wonderful restaurants. The countryside all around is amazing and is so much fun to explore. we travelled from Hanoi by train to a local town called Lao Cai and from there took a bus to Sa Pa. The trip through the hills that morning gave us a real taste of what was to come, it was soooo green and lush, rice paddy everywhere and small villages dotted along the hills. It reminded me a bit of Switzerland, but only with rice!

20090813_057098_DIG_VIE_RTW_9999_A350_Sa Pa Village Treks

One of the defining aspects of Sa Pa is the local village people who flock to the town to make a living from the travellers. There are of course the many sellers who were constantly looking to sell us traditional wares, but also there were many groups of young kids who would offer to take you back to their villages through the countryside for a taste of authentic life.



I was very sceptical about this to begin with, especially when I saw huge groups of tourists being led off by these local ‘tour guides’ however once you got talking to the kids you can understand the keenness to make some small amount of money and despite feeling there was some exploitation going on (not sure who was exploiting who) I felt that the locals did benefit and us travellers got a feel for the local cultures. Having said this we did some do it yourself treks, and hired a scooter for a day to check out the countryside and villages.



Sa Pa was great for the local culture but it was also great for the food. In particular there is one place called baguette and chocolate, which is a simple hotel/cafe/bistro. The staff are all being trained from the local communities and so when you go there you feel you are doing a bit for these guys. They also have the most amazing pastries and sandwiches and the best chocolate tart this side of Paris. In 3 days we ended up there 3 times, and even contemplated on getting a take out for the return train!


It is fair to say that we enjoyed North Vietnam a lot, but we are looking forward to getting down south even more. Hoi An has a great reputation, and the Mekong Delta evokes so many images in one’s mind.

Vietnam has grown on me over the last weeks, and I think that I would suggest that everyone try and make a trip here. Do this ASAP before the resorts and sanitisation takes places that kills off the real heart of this amazing country.

Vietnam – Hanoi

20090807_056788_DIG_HAN_RTW_9999_A350_Hanoi Old Quarter

Our route through south East Asia continued from Bangkok into Hanoi; the northern capital city of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I have to say this was the first time when I was totally not sure what to expect, but also really excited about being in the country. Both Vietnam and later Cambodia are countries really coming out of the shadows of bloody and terrible war and death; I am really interested to see how this emergence is taking shape. This feeling reminds me of my time in South Africa, when for different reason the country was coming out of its own shell.



We arrived by flight to Hanoi, and after a pleasant and totally uneventful flight we came out to the sticky and dark evening in Vietnam. The airport is actually 30kms from the main town, and as ever we were adamant to take the cheapest and more importantly the most local travel option to get to our hostel. In this case it involved a local bus to the town and then what I thought was a short walk to the hostel (you can see where this is going!!). The moment we stepped out of the airport we were besieged by a crowd of rogue taxi drivers who wanted to charge us stupid rates to go in totally the wrong directions. We had already been handed a leaflet warning us of these scam taxis from thee officials so we were not having any of it. I have to say it was a little worrying though! As we waited for the bus the hassling continued, until they say that we were really not going to go with them. The bus journey was traditionally rustic but really cheap – 5,000 Vietnamese Dong = 18p to get us the 30kms. That’s when the fun started, at the bus station the whole bus emptied and we were left in the middle of the town, totally not where I thought we were. The map I had was little help and to be honest if we would have persisted in trying to find our place we would have been walking targets for anyone to pick us off – it was 10:30 in the night!! Urvi gave me 10mins to try and find our route, in which time I succeeded in getting us lost and caked in mud in a vegetable market and no closer to our target! Finally I gave up and we got a cab. It pains me to say but we were 5mins from the hostel! - After all that!



I think Hanoi is a beautiful place. It is pretty scruffy and unkempt but I think there is a real sense of history there. We stayed in the old quarter, which is full of lovely old French colonial buildings. Don’t expect it to look like New Orleans or something, but it has its own atmosphere. The city felt small to me, it has all the required components of a capital but has a small town look. There are none of the international brands that one may expect, and that only adds to its charm. I think we really fell in love with the place.



The people have a lovely way about them and again no one seems to be pushy or arrogant or have the big city mentality, a couple of examples of this were the railway station and strolling around the old quarter on the weekend evenings.

We went to the main train station to book some tickets, and it’s safe to say that for the capital the station was tiny and totally deserted. Admittedly it’s totally wrong to compare Hanoi’s station to Beijing or Mumbai, but still I expected there to be a lot going on around the station. There was zip! But when we went to the ticket office all ready for a fight (like we were used to in China) we were so pleasantly surprised with the kind, polite and friendly staff, they were bordering on being as nice as the Japanese (I know that’s not possible though!!!!) the lady we were served by was so nice she even gave us some watermelon that she had just received in the office! Tickets and fruit!! Beat that Japan!!!!!



The other example of the great Vietnamese approach to life was the way the place came to life in the evenings the weekend. We were so taken back by the family and relaxed atmosphere that greeted us when we went for a stroll around the lake in the old quarter. People of all ages chilling out together, mothers playing football with their teenage sons, college guys and gals on their scooters gossiping, older people playing cards and board games, and so many toddlers and young kids just running around and playing with their parents. I think it was just such a beautiful sight.

In one square (where Ho Chi Minh made some really important speeches) we went to, the whole place was just full of toddlers and babies running about, parents chasing after them trying to feed them and fanning them at the same time. Weaving careful but speedy routes between the babies were older kids on roller blades, whizzing around and enjoying the evening’s warmth. It was such a lovely atmosphere. I think that that it was even more poignant given the history that would have passed in that place. These kids are growing up in the new Vietnam. I hope they never see firsthand the struggles their predecessors had seen.

People simply living life. No race to get anywhere. Where did that go? I trust that I may be able to take this learning into my own future...

Sunday, 9 August 2009

100 days review – People make the world go round

Not really meant to be a blog entry – rather an advert for the photo set that I have being compiling as we have been travelling! The set is called People and Faces, but it could just as well have been called the cast of our world trip story. Knowingly or unknowingly we have met and interacted with so many people and so many of them have played a part in making the trip the amazing spectacle it has been and I am sure will continue to be. The thing that amazes me most are the people who have no idea how inspiring they are, there have been so many:

The pilgrims in Tibet – showing me what dedication and devoting really looks like.
The street dancers in Russia – who are just doing their thing, and expressing themselves without any sense of embarrassment
All the children we have met and played with – they prove to me that we are all born the SAME, it’s the way we live life that changes us for good and bad.
The police officers in china – who don’t want to be that way
Every fisherman and farmer – they know what real hard work is.

Each of these people and more have inspired and moved me. I wish I could thanks them, but maybe the only way I can do this is to show these pictures and tell you about them!

Check it out – http://www.flickr.com/photos/uashah/sets/72157621945025530/

As ever comments welcome and sought!

100 days review - Wherever I lay my head – that’s my home

As the famous songs goes, where ever we have laid our head, that’s been our home for the night, or 2 or 7! It’s strange being of no fixed abode for over 16 months, but in many ways that’s been one of the really interesting parts of the trip. There are a plethora of amazing hostels, guesthouses, and hotels that we have stayed in. Amazingly in the 100 days of this trip we have stayed in nearly 30 different places, ranging from Hostels to Ger tents, Boats to temples, and the occasional 5 star hotel thrown in too!

The top ten of our favourites are:

6) The Ger camps in Mongolia – this was as much to do with the people we were with as the location and scenery that we were amid. The Ger tents were basically large round shaped tents for 6 people, with a fire in the middle. The tents were part of a home stay, so you stay with a local farming family. This was really special and so much fun. As I say we must thanks Sharon, Julie, Miranda and Nic for this, as they were the guys we were with. They were all so much fun and really made the Ger tents fun! Oh and the dogs who barked endlessly added to the atmosphere but did not add to our ability to sleep!! (That’s for you Sharon)

2) The Guesthouses we stayed in Prayang - during our Tibet trip, where Urvi learnt the traditional card game called landlord! We cooked together and had endless amounts of yak butter tea. The accommodation was nothing more than a shed with beds, but it was warm and wonderful.

4) Our Beijing Hostel – ‘sitting on the city walls’. It was the most perfect haven from the Beijing hustle and heat. A calm place with amazing hospitality and a lovely atmosphere.

1) Sandalwood Hostel – Kyoto. Easily the best place we have stayed in during the whole trip so far. The guys running it were soooo nice, we loved staying with them. Fresh fruit each evening, great conversation, and really lovely hospitality. On our first night (also our first night in Japan) we wanted to have some food. Ordinarily you would be grateful if the hostel people suggest some good places, at sandalwood they suggested the place, walked us there, ordered the veggie food, and waited to make sure all was well. Just awesome. Endless superlatives about Sandalwood. Oh and they were in a band too, who we saw play, our first taste of J-Rock LOUD!!!!!

5) Temple in Koya-san (Muryoko-in) – a real haven of calm and reflection. The food was great and the morning Buddhist prayers were even more special.

7) Our capsule hotel in Osaka – the closest thing to a prison cell I have been!! But really fun, really a different experience of deconstructing a hotel room, and reordering all the bits. So what you end up with is a group of beds in capsules located together, a huge traditional Japanese public baths, communal lounge areas and lockers t put your stuff in. It actually works really well, and the capsule is comfortable and clean. So comfortable in fact that I got up really late for our flight and ended flying in my PJs!!!!

3) Metropark Hotel Hong Kong – goes without saying this makes the special list for the views. Getting up each morning and seeing Hong Kong lsland and Kowloon warm up for another frantic day was really amazing. Looking down you could see the guys doing their exercise laps before they dash off to the office. The trams rolling along take you back to a bygone era, the sunshine burning through the haze revealing the inspiring harbour and glistening water. Then I would go up to the roof top fitness suite for a rare run!! But wow what sight! Even I could run for ½ hour encapsulated by that vista. Finally and best of all a quick dip in the roof top pool, where again the harbour was the star of the show!

Oh and then I do it all again before the day’s end once the twinkling lights of the tall skyscrapers take centre stage. Perfect! Thanks Urvi!

9) Coral view resort, Koh Tao – sometimes all you need is to do nothing, and in Coral view that is pretty much what we did. An occasional swing in the Hammock, a late lunch in the restaurant overlooking a beautiful bay, full of pristine corals. Sure coral view didn’t have a beach with white sands, but it had ‘chill’! Oh and it was soooo cheap! We really chilled during these 7 days, our little bungalow was nestled in the hillside, and we could see the blue of the sky and the blue of the ocean all day. At night we were treated to the most amazing and unreal star show I have ever seen. Honestly it felt like we were n some kind of IMAX theatre, but only that this time it was 100% real! Encapsulating.

8) Sam Sen Sam place, Bangkok – an old hospital, now converted into a family home and boutique hostel. It was like going back in time. The wooden floors, the light colour scheme, and the wooden shutters, it I was just being in a colonial mansion! The location was a small leafy side street that each day when we walked back from the hot dusty Bangkok, felt like we were coming home. It was really relaxing. Oh and soooo clean. I tell you China needs to learn from Thailand on this front!

10) Chalet in the woods, Listvyanka – set in the middle of the woods, not a sounds but the bleating of sheep and cow bells. Our chalet in Listvyanka (Lake Baikal) was a real treasure. Made of the local wood, and full of character this was our stopping place for a few days while we worked off the excesses of the transiberian railway. The shower was paltry, but we got a shower!! That was good enough, to get it into the top ten so far!

100 Days – reflections

We have made it! Not quite round the world in 80 days, but we have survived the first 100. Loads more to go and loads more to see (you are bored of me saying this I am sure!)

Not going to do a big post of reflections, rather I have done 2 separate posts about the places we have stayed and the people who have been part of our journey so far. See you on day 150!!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Does the internet make travellers lazy??

Simple answer is yes yes yes.

The days have gone when backpackers just relied on their own wits and the experiences of other travellers to get them through. Now we are booking everything online, months in advance, and checking out every hostel before we are even in the country!

However I think we heard the worst example of internet laziness and plain stupidity today! When walking around the royal palace in Bangkok, we overheard a conversation between a couple of American tourists. Just before going into the Jade Buddha temple (an amazing sight in anyone’s eyes) one of the guys asked the other if he wanted to go into the temple. The second guy responded ‘Na, I can’t be bothered, why would I bother going inside when I can get better pics off Flickr’

I was stunned

If all we do is travel the world to collect pictures and worse still download pics off the net, it is a complete waste of time in my opinion. I have taken over 5000 pictures in the 3 months we have been away but I would hope to say that we have collected infinitely more memories and experiences.

Surely the net is there to support what we want to do, as opposed to being an alternative to real life!!!

Bangkok – it is fun and it isn’t ugly

From the beaches of south Thailand we moved up by boat and bus to Bangkok. I think it is fair to say that this was the first time that I felt any sense of apprehension on arriving into a town or place. This apprehension I guess was fuelled by the numerous stories about Bangkok. Not just that you have to be careful and vigilant at all times but also that its dirty, a bit ugly in places and generally has a reputation of being a bit difficult to get on with. However despite all of this being a little bit true, we loved Bangkok!

20090801_056398_DIG_BKK_RTW_9999_A350_Bangkok Royal Palace

It is a wonderfully rugged city. By that I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to try and be anything it is isn’t. I didn’t think it was at all beautiful but there was a wonderfully endearing spirit about the place. This I think can be illustrated by the sights of Lumphini Park – This is the main park in Bangkok and although pretty it’s not much to write home about. However each evening (and particularly on the weekends) the place comes alive with people jogging, playing games, rollerblading and most fun of all – mass aerobics. I don’t think that this would happen in the UK, not least because the weather would be rubbish! But more importantly, people are just so free and unreserved in Thailand. There is such a sense of ‘chill’, I was so impressed that young and old, unfit and super-fit, people all were joining in.



We came away from Bangkok thinking that all the negative stories mask the fun and enjoyment the city has to offer. I think that it gets a mixed and fairly negative write-up despite being classed as one of the worlds backpacking Mecca’s. If I am being honest I think that backpackers need to get away from the clich├ęd and fixed haunts in Bangkok and spend time trying to understand the real city. A prime example of this was Khao San Road. Touted as THE place to go for cheap eats and even cheaper shopping, we were really looking forward to what the centre of Bangkok’s backpacking world had to offer. All that we found when we got there, was a road full of tacky shops feeding the backpackers urge to buy trash because it was cheap. Also the place was overrun by young travellers, feeling their way in this new world and looking distinctly out of place. I am sure I will be shot down for saying this, but we were soooo glad we were day visitors to Khao San, and weren’t staying in one of the hostels there. Our place was authentic and Thai, rather than being a few dorm beds stacked in a hostel within striking distance of the Khao San road sellers.





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