A Travellerspoint blog

Back in the UK

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So, we have finally made it back to the UK, after travelling 85,000 km around the world, I think we can safely say we pulled off having a trip of a lifetime travelling around the world. We are currently in Manchester having some quality time with my family after arriving in London 2 days ago. The jetlag is slowly getting better but what that means in reality is that I woke up at 6am instead of 4am, so small steps.

We really enjoyed Singapore, everything was all very easy. Interesting vegetarian food was easy for come by in Little India especially, which was a welcome contrast to our painful trips to find food we wanted to or could eat in China. The people were very friendly and the whole place was very civilised, clean, modern, but with touches of history and colonial architecture in every little district. We loved the skyline by Marina Bay, especially the Bay Gardens with the eerie looking fake trees lit up in purples and blues. That was where we spent our last night of the trip, in a rooftop bar with a great 360 degree view of the rest of Singapore. I think we'll always remember that night as a perfect way to end the trip.

Anyway, tomorrow reality kicks in. We're hiring a van to take us and the stuff we had left here before we went away with us back to London. That's when we move back in and consider ourselves properly at home. Getting our stuff back out of storage really isn't something we're looking forward to!

So, just a quick summing up of what we did on our year away:

Visited 15 countries

  • Ecuador
  • Peru
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Argentina
  • Chile
  • Australia
  • Thailand
  • Laos
  • Vietnam
  • Cambodia
  • Hong Kong
  • China
  • Sri Lanka
  • Singapore

Not too shabby for a year. It's not the end of our adventures though, we'll always have more trips planned, as well as other interests we want to develop but this trip has definitely given me the confidence to at least try and tackle more new things in the future. We have to keep life interesting somehow!

Posted by pixies 17.04.2013 23:50 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

From Sri Lanka to Singapore

Looking back at the six weeks we spent in Sri Lanka, and choosing which photos to upload I realised just how much we saw and did in this beautiful country. We have now made it over to Singapore for the last week of our year-long travel but Sri Lanka was definitely a highlight. Not all of it was spent sitting by the sea watching the waves and eating out bodyweight in poppadoms, rice and curry, but a fair bit was. The coast of this small island are deservedly praised

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with crystal blue water and white sandy beaches, we spent time in Tangalle, Bentota and finally our last week was in a fab beach cabana run by a local family in Unawatuna.

Before that though, we earned every minute of our beachbum status. We saw crazy coloured birds and animals in Bundala and Uda Walawe National Parks, and seeing a

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herd of wild elephants with some babies was amazing. We went to the hillside town of Ella for the most green scenery ever, surrounded by tea plantations, mountains to climb, scenic railways to walk along and various insects to befriend. Finding a praying mantis in the bathroom canoodling my green handled plastic razor was an experience I'll never forget! We had a great day visiting a local tea factory and saw the whole process from leaves being picked and brought to the factory, to the whole manufacturing process and tasting the different varieties. The fragrance of the tea was intense. I don't think we've drank as much tea in any other country as we have in Sri Lanka!

Then, we headed to Hatton to climb Adam's Peak, a huge mountain in the countryside which is sacred to buddhists. We started out at 2am and made it up the steep steps and bumpy path to the top in 3 hours, just in time for sunrise below:

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The colours were gorgeous and we were so pleased that they came out so well in the photos. The climb back down was the worst bit though, as the sun quickly got hot and the inconsistantly sized steps were hell on the knees. So worth it though!

We spent some time in Colombo to get our visa extended, and then headed over to Kandy to see Sigiriya, a famous royal palace built on a huge rock. Pretty impressive and beautiful place, with painted murals of heavenly royal concubines who are very well endowed and topless. We figured it meant the King was definitely a boob man. A group of school children also visiting at the time bypassed the paintings, I'm guessing in an attempt to preserve their innocence!

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We also had bought tickets to see Sri Lanka to play cricket against Bangladesh, and despite my reluctance, I had a good time watching and even understanding what was going on. I think it made up for Dave not being able to see Brazil or Argentina playing football when we were in those countries.

With so many things to see and do, we were sad to say goodbye to the country. We had made good friends with the family running our cabana in Unawatuna, so there was an emotional connection too. So now in Singapore, we have decided to put the flash in flashpacker and treat ourselves in our last week. Our 4 star hotel in Little India didn't match up to expectations so after rejecting 3 rooms, we've been upgraded to a suite with big screen TV, king size bed, bathtub, it's very nice to have a bit of luxury at the end of the trip. We're loving Singapore so far, but haven't ventured very far yet. Little India is full of the original colonial architecture which is lovely, and we've also been pleased with the food. So far, we've had great Indian veggie food, Indonesian meals and veggie Chinese food with mock meats. Our waistbands are rapidly expanding.

This time next week, it'll all be over and we'll be in sunny Manchester at my parents, so as excited as I am about seeing my family again, I'm also still really enjoying the last of our holiday. It's been the best and yet most challenging year of my life.

Posted by pixies 10.04.2013 00:57 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Sunny fun in Sri Lanka

We made it to Sri Lanka, and have now been here for a wonderfully warm and relaxing fortnight and are loving it so far. China feels like a long time ago, but the last couple of weeks there were certainly eventful, some of which for the wrong reasons. Our plans to visit Labrang Monastary in Xiahe were curtailed at the police checkpoint 20 minutes before arriving there, as we were informed that foreigners weren't allowed into Xiahe, due to unrest by the Tibetan monks there (we found out later). This was made worse after the 3 hour bus ride which sped through gorgeous desert landscapes escalated our excitement about going to Xiahe, on a day where we left the hotel at 5am. On the plus side, we got to ride in a cop car as we were escorted back to the bus going in the opposite direction to Lanzhou where we had started the day. Dave rather enjoyed sitting in the front, whilst I played the part of crook in the back.

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So, being stuck in Lanzhou for the few days we had planned to be in Xiahe was frustrating as well as particularly cold with fresh snowfall every day, but we brought our flight to Chengdu forward by a day and soon (but not soon enough) we were in Chengdu in the company of some adorable pandas of the Giant and Red varieties. Our visit to the Panda Breeding Research Centre was really interest from the scientific point of view but also to be able to see these illegally cute beasties which look like walking talking cuddly toys. The babies were especially my favourites but we easily spent hours watching the cubs climb trees, mock fight with each other and generally sit around nibbling bamboo and playing around.

We also spent our last day in China getting to know Chengdu, people watching in the park where the locals drank tea, played all sorts of card and board games, danced to music in the squares, drew chinese calligraphy on the pavements with wet sponges and generally did all they could to break the conception of Chinese people being cold and withdrawn. They defintiely have a sense of humour and know how to have fun! We also saw some great street art in the ancient alley ways on Chengdu, which showed a quirky and modern artistic side to the country.

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Definitely a good way to bookend our visit to this fantastic country.

Now though, Sri Lanka is wonderfully warm. The chilblains from the Chinese winter have been replaced by mosquito bites, but so far, that's the only downside. We took a train running down the coast to Tangalle on the southern coast, and have felt incredibly at home. The culture and food is similar to my Pakistani upbringing, which is really nice. The people are very friendly and are generally curious about me and why I'm hanging out with the white blonde haired surfer dude, when I look so obviously like one of them. It's fun here and so much like an island paradise, it reminds me of our honeymoon in Mauritius and Madagascar. We've also dragged ourselves away from the coast and today spent the day in Yala National Park for a jeep safari. We were lucky enough to see a leopard, elephants, crocodiles, eagles and more. We have more mini-safaris planned, and then the plan is vague. We have 4 weeks left here, before we jet off to Singapore for a week and then fly back home. The time is going fast but we're determined to make the most of our time, and Sri Lanka is definitely a good place to do that in.

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Posted by pixies 09.03.2013 07:07 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Celebrating Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year)

Today is officially the last day of the Spring Festival holiday in China, which began on the 10th February 2013, waving goodbye to the Dragon (of which I am one, welsh and chinese stylee), and ushering in the year of the Snake. Today also marks 10 months on the road for us, which means the countdown in weeks until we get home is now in single digits. My dad is especially happy about this, as when I speak to him on Skype, he's not interested in what we've been doing, but more about when he'll be seeing me again. 8 weeks is not long at all.

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Anyway, we arrived in the city of Pingyao a couple of days before the New Year began, hot off a very rickety sleeper train. Pingyao is a small city, popular with both international and local tourists in China for being the best ancient walled city on China, with the majority of buildings within the walls being built in the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is very pretty and like stepping back in time. What made it even nicer, if that's possible, is the rows of red lanterns hung across each historic street for the Spring festival. And then, on our last days there it snowed. Cue impossible levels of beauty. We were very lucky to be there.

On New Year's Eve, we vainly tried to find out what there was to do in Pingyao for the event, not finding much official activities we could join in with. We figured the Chinese probably only celebrated the day itself and headed to bed, only to be surrounded with a constant hum of firecrackers and fireworks at midnight. We tried venturing out with our coats and hats over our pyjamas, only to find that the hotel owners had locked us in for the night. Instead, we stood at the top of the stairs overlooking our hotel courtyard marvelling at the fireworks exploding from every side before we got too cold and headed inside.

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The next day was also a bit of an anti-climax, with fireworks being set off randomly through the day, something we had got used to in the run up to the day too. More people on the streets but not really much more to see. We still enjoyed being in Pingyao and due to the cold, spent most of the time sitting in cafes warming ourselves on cups of hot chocolate and looking outside and the pretty pretty snow. Not too bad. Now, we are in Xi'an, having visited the Terracotta Warriors and being suitably wowed by both the scale of it but also the beauty and craftmanship of each soldier.

So back to the cold. It is very tiring to be cold all the time. We had hoped to spend 2 months in China, and having just made it to 1 month here, we are exhausted. New Year has also made it more expensive than hoped, particularly transport-wise, so we've made the decision to get out early rather than make our way back to Hong Kong again. We have 9 more days to go here before we fly over to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, we weren't able to extend our trip to Tibet as foreigners aren't currently permitted in Tibet until April due to the Tibet New Year festivities. Next best thing is going to Labrang Monastary, a Tibetan monastary near the Tibet border on the mountain town of Xiahe, so that's our next stop. This will also be the last of our Chinese train journeys, as after that, we've opted to fly to save time and also because we couldn't get any train tickets out of that area to Chengdu. In Chengdu, the plan is to visit a Giant Panda conservation centre (baby pandas - yay!) before our flight to Colombo, via Kunming and Bangkok.

Bangkok airport will end up being our most visited place in the whole trip, as this will be our 3rd time there since we landed there from Australia in October. We figure we need some time to just laze around for a while so are heading for the Southern coast of Sri Lanka in a beach town called Tangalle. Not sure how long we'll spend on lazing, but with 5 weeks there, I'm sure we'll make it last. Can't help looking forward to the upcoming warmth more and more in Sri Lanka, especially since I'm currently suffering from chilblains and Dave has a sore throat and cold, but we want to make the most of the rest of the time in China, it's certainly been an amazing place for us so far.

Posted by pixies 15.02.2013 00:22 Archived in China Comments (0)

Ice Cold in China

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View RTW with the Pixies on pixies's travel map.

So far, China has been really coming up trumps and we have to pinch ourselves to believe we're really here. Every day we're learning about the history and culture, being delighted with the beauty of the landscapes and architecture, and dealing with the merging of old traditional styles of living with the brash modern skylines of the future. We bloody love it. I mean, it's hard work sometimes, don't get me wrong, it's just not as hard as I thought it would be. So the biggest hurdles we've had to deal with is transport - specifically the necessity of booking train tickets as soon as they become available 20 days in advance during the Chinese New Year period. Oh my god, we've still got 4 days before the event, but we've had to book hotels and train tickets and spent a lot more than we should have to secure transport around this time. We are the most organised we've ever been with transport and accomodation booked from now until near the end of the month. as we've had to be be. We're also not big fan of the hacking and spitting the locals seem to find necessary, or the smog or the smokers, but finding veggie dumplings has more than made up for it.

Ok, so after nearly 10 months on the road, we are also tired of being hard on ourselves, eating local, not splurging on food so much, keeping to a budget. We've actually gone down the slippery slope of eating at Pizza Hut. Then McDonalds followed, with a craving for a Fillet o Fish. Then Subway for a breakfast cheese and egg baguette. It's cheap, easy, wecan read the menu and we just want normal food for a while, especially when it's so bloody cold. We have also found some great dumpling places that have veggie options, and also treated ourselves to a vegetarian meal in Beijing where they had a mock meat Peking Duck option. All I can say is Nom.

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Suzhou was gorgeous with the style of traditional Chinese gardens that you see in photos and wish yourselves being in. Tranquil, serene, gorgeous. Beautiful historic areas by the canalside, with lovely bridges and so on. Shanghai was brilliant, a taste of the Jetsons - this is the future of China. You don't get a sense of feeling like an amoeba until you're at the foot of an insanely huge skyscraper on the Pudong skyline, and your neck can't quite crane enough to get all of it in one gulp. I wasn't a huge fan of Qufu, home of Confucius, but Dave loved it. Beijing, was an odd place. With only 4 days in the place, we managed to be enthralled with the Forbidden City, with echoes of The Last Emperor coming to us in every corner, the Summer Palace, the hutong areas but the highlight was undoubtedly the Great Wall.

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We visited the Mutianyu section, which was about 18K out of Beijing, with some great advice from Kacy who had been there 6 months previously in much sunnier conditions. With our visit, there was snow. A lot of snow, but that made it feel so magical, especially as the weather had put off visitors so a lot of the time, we had it all to ourselves. It is as Great as it sounds or looks on photos, it deserves a capital G. Winding like a dragon over the undulating hills, it's truly an insane proposition that this wall built centuries ago is still standing and goes on for so long. We kept looking at each other going 'we're really here!'. So much fun.

Anyway, currently in Luoyang, having visited the Shaolin Temple of martial arts fame. Off to the Longmen Grottoes tomorrow, and then to spend the Chinese New Year in Pingyao. Being here in the run up is pretty exciting, seeing as we missed having the anticipation of Christmas like back home, we're feeling like we're getting a piece of it back by seeing the bursts of activity going on here. I'll keep you posted next time.

Posted by pixies 06.02.2013 03:55 Archived in China Comments (0)

Hanging around in Hong Kong, Huangshan and Hangzhou

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It's now over a week since we left South East Asia, jetting off to Hong Kong from a short overnighter in Bangkok, and we really do feel like we're in somewhere completely different and special. The Hong Kong part of it was pretty functional, we couldn't afford to spend too much time (or money!) there, but it was the easiest way to get a Chinese visa in one day. That didn't mean we didn't enjoy it or weren't bowled over by the place. If we can, we're thinking we'll come back here for our flight to Sri Lanka and spend more than 2 days in the place. Otherwise, it's yet another place for the list for next time. It's a crazy place, incredibly efficient and high-tech, lots of rules and some very British nuances where the local people patiently queue for things - very different to the jostling in SE Asia!

We had a painful time getting train tickets for China, but we finally managed to get the last 2 bunks on an overnight train headed for our first destination in China - Huangshan. We bid a find farewell to HK and also to Facebook, Youtube and some elements of Google along the way. The highlight of this town is the hunking great mountain of the same name.

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Knowing that this was the plan, we knew our first task was to get kitted out for the winter climes. Yet again, we're facing winter after leaving winter behind in Bolivia in July, and the Patagonian glaciers in September, but this time we had optimistically sent home our winter coats and alpaca woolies from Bangkok in October. So, we finally managed to get some lovely warm coats, hats and gloves at a bargain price for back home - $50 each to sort us out. There's a good reason for that,a s we found out a few days later when the zips starting misbehaving on our coats and refusing to zip up or down. Oh well, at least they're working at keeping the cold out.

So back to Huangshan at an average of -3 in the day and -11 at night, so we're definitely not getting better weather than the UK at the moment, but the scenery does make up for it. We spent the day going up impossibly high cable cars, taking in the ethereal and misty views and even getting acquainted with mountain monkeys and squirrels. Stunning isn't a strong enough word to describe it.

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Next stop was Hangzhou, a huge city famous for its lakeside scenery. We've been here 3 days now and love the serenity of the landscapes. We even made a trip to the Tea Museum and plantations just outside the lake area which were beautiful and really interesting to see the importance of the tea trade historically and culturally here. Our plan is to head to Suzhou today, and spend a few days pottering around the traditional gardens there, before spending some time in Shanghai and Beijing. It's all going well so far, and despite my fears, we're muddling through with mimes and google translate when we can't communicate in English. It's definitely a breath of fresh (and icy) air being here and we don't regret our decision to come as we feel newly motivated about travelling again.

Posted by pixies 20.01.2013 19:22 Archived in China Comments (0)

Falling for Cambodia

Happy new year from Cambodia! We've been here for the last 2 or so weeks, having been lucky enough to spend a wonderful New Year's Eve in Phnom Penh with my friend Avisa. It was great to get a more local view of the city, as Avisa has been living in PP since October so we got to experience the city in more detail than other places we've been to. It's yet another South East Asian country with a tragic history, with the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid-70s and finding out more about that explained why Cambodia is still playing catch up economically and skills-wise compared to its neighbours.

After our bout of misery in the last blog, we took our friend Zoom's advice and sat on a beach for a few days. Thanks Zoom, it worked! We had some time chilling out in the seaside town of Kep, mainly to recharge the batteries and to work out what comes next. We finalised our decision to go to China, and booked our flights to Hong Kong where it is much simpler to get a visa for China than it is in Bangkok or Phnom Penh. The more we research the places we can see in China, the more excited we get. Limited or no access to Facebook or blogging sites may make us quiet on this front for a while though!

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Currently, we're in Siem Reap, former capital for the ancient Khmers. We've spent 3 days visiting the many many beautiful and interesting temple ruins in the Angkor area. We saved Angkor Wat until today, the last day and cycled over to it at 5am in the pitch black with no lights just in time to see the sun rise about its legendary domes. There were still crowds even at that time of day, but they soon disappeared and it felt we had the whole place to ourselves. I've really enjoyed seeing the craftmanship of the stone carvings in the temples we've been to and being impressed with the sheer scale (height and space) of the various temples. Every place seems to have something different about it making it worth visiting. Dave has been amused by my attempts at being cultural by comparing different things we've seen to Honey Monster, Jabba the Hutt's tail and counting Naga (mythical snake creatures pictured all over the various temples) to the tune of Born Slippy by Underworld (Lager, lager lager lager!). You can take the girl out of Manchester....

Anyway, we're bidding farewell to Cambodia, having really enjoyed the beauty of the place despite the huge litter problems, but for the most part, enjoying the friendliness of the people here. Vietnam and Thailand seemed harder and edgier, but this felt more like Laos in the genuine niceness of the people. Next step is getting a bus to Bangkok first thing tomorrow, before our flight to Hong Kong the day after. 3 months to go before we head back and we're determined to make the most of it and see it off with a big bang.

Posted by pixies 11.01.2013 06:47 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Sitting pretty in Saigon

We've reached a really tough part of travelling, and to be honest, it's been hard to feel motivated. South Vietnam hasn't wowed us, we're tired and not feeling inspired by what we've seen so far in the last few weeks. Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hoi An were beautiful, but Hue and Danang were just okay. We figured we'd spend Christmas on a sunny beach somewhere, and the beach town of Mui Ne was out of our price league for that time of year, so we made our way to Nha Trang. Big mistake.

Within an hour of being in the place, we witnessed a full on fist fight with a couple of burly Russians over a local prostitute. This was while we were having breakfast at 8am, as we were killing time until our hotel room was ready. Headed to the beach and saw large groups of guys necking vodka from the bottle and we just looked at each other after realising that the number of nightclubs seemed to outnumber the hotels, and there were a lot of hotels, and decided to get out. According to the Lonely Planet, Dalat was a lovely mountain town that looks as if it's drawn by Disney. In reality, it's a cold town full of dodgy overpriced hotels and construction sites. The lake's a bit pretty if you have your back to the centre of town. That's where we ended up for Christmas, and it was thoroughly depressing.

So, we figured we've had enough of SE Asia, and we need to be somewhere different, we need more of a change. The plan is to head over to Cambodia, maybe chill out on a beach there for a few days, potter in Phnom Penh and Ankhor Watt, and then get the next flight out of Bangkok to Hong Kong. We're getting excited about travelling again just reading about what we can see in China so hopefully that'll give us our mojo back. For a moment, we were so homesick that we were tempted to just go home to the UK for a week for some home comforts, but the thought of getting out of this part of the world is keeping us going. After that, we're thinking, we count down the days to coming home in Sri Lanka. Just over 3 months to go and we don't want to feel like we're filling up our days in places we don't want to be, so hopefully the plan will work and get us enjoying it again. Fingers crossed.

Posted by pixies 28.12.2012 03:13 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Viva Vietnam

We're in a whole other country since my last update, and crucially 8 months since we left grey old London town. 4 months to go, which feels like a nice amount of time to enjoy but also not too long until the home stretch and we get to see our loved ones again. So, since visiting Vientiane, we moved to Luang Prabang, a picturesque town in Laos with a thriving and hard to resist night market. It also is the home of the Disco Elephant. Now, that's not in any of the Rough Guides or Lonely Planets for Laos, but he should be.

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We were wowed by this particular beast in the Golden City Temple, which was ultra bling in all respects. I kickstarted a debate on Facebook on whether Disco Elephant was the best or Disco Peacock, and the consensus was Disco Elephant, and as you see the photo of him, I'm sure you'll agree.

But that's not all we've been doing. We moved on to Phonsavan, to learn more about the Secret War in Laos. This trip has been an immense learning experience, especially in the bits of history not taught at schools in the UK. What happened when the world had turned its attention to the Vietnam in the early 60s was that the US started attacking Laos, the small country next door to try and eliminate the communist threat there and to prevent Laos from helping Vietnam out. This was after US had signed a Geneva agreement to recognise Laos as being neutral.

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What was most shocking to us was the fact that for 9 years, between 1964-1973, the US dropped big plane loads of bombs onto Laos every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day. Now this tiny but beautiful country is littered with unexploded bombs, with barely any money to clear it up and this also being a major cause of death and injuries to people in Laos over 40 years later. So much so, that the people cannot farm in uncleared areas which then causes more poverty. We rented a motorbike to explore the Plain of Jars area nearby and were lucky enough to see a Mag International team in action, neutralising a bomb that was found in a village very close to the Plain of Jars area.

After that, we moved on to Viang Xai, where the communist forces in Laos hid in a network of caves whilst they fought against the US attacking them. Stunning place and such an great sense of history visiting the place. We crossed over to Vietnam from Sam Neua, and made it to Hanoi quite late at night after experiencing the hideousness of the Vietnamese roads and the crazy homicidal bus drivers. Hanoi is such a contrast. Serene lakes with locals performing Tai Chi, couples decked out in wedding gear having their photos taken, gorgeous French colonial buildings, and then you have the roaring traffic.

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Hanoi traffic has to be experienced to be believed. Crossing the road is an art form in itself, approach the oncoming traffic slowly and edge your way across. No sudden moves, the traffic will move around you. Every time you make it across safely, you breath a sign of relief, thanking whatever deity you can think of. We loved the insane, vibrant, buzzy feel of Hanoi. You really feel alive in a place like this. And then you start noticing what makes Vietnam different. It's incredibly stylish. From the elegance of the shops selling the traditional Ao Dai dresses, to the beflowered scooter helmets and vintage vespa scooters threading through both roads and pavements, it's a joy to observe. These people don't follow trends, they set them.

We took a break from Hanoi and spend 3 days in Ha Long Bay on the one bit of luxury we've indulged in so far. On the Dragon's Pearl Junk boat, we met a very lovely group of people and spent time in the amazing setting of Ha Long and Bai Tu Long bays. We kayaked and cruised and most of all, we ate very well indeed.

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On our last night, we even enjoyed dinner in a cave, which was a gorgeous way to end the cruise. We felt thoroughly relaxed so coming back to Hanoi was a real shock to the system after the serenity we'd just had.

We are currently in Hue, having taken a sleeper train over from Hanoi, planning to make our way southwards through Vietnam. The plan is to spend both Christmas and New Year's Eve in Vietnam, before heading over to Cambodia. From then, we're thinking we spend some time in China, possibly flying to Beijing from Bangkok. Any advice on what not to miss in China will be gratefully received, as we're figuring that out as we go along too.

Posted by pixies 13.12.2012 06:34 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Doing the Loop in Laos

We finally bid a sad farewell to Don Det, after dragging our heels for a very lovely 12 days, ready for the next adventure. It took 13 hours in total from getting on a boat at our guesthouse to arriving at Thakhek Travel Lodge. Arriving at 11pm, we were lucky to find someone at the hotel reception to check us into a room, and we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Day 1 - Thakhek - Tha Lang

We sorted out breakfast, and also a packed lunch at the guesthouse, whilst Dave rented a pretty new 110cc Zongshen motorbike for us both, from Mr Ku next door. We prompted christened the bike 'Mortimer', had no champers in hand to make the name official, but selected a rather pink Penelope Pitstop helmet for myself, and a Power Ranger/Darth Vader black stylee one for Dave. Having left the bulk of our luggage at the Travel Lodge, we embarked with a trimmed down small backpack which I wore during whilst on Morty.

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At about 10am, we set off for the 5 hour ride to Tha Lang village, via Tha Pha Fa Cave (aka Buddha Cave), Xieng Liab Cave, Tha Fa Lang river, Tham Aen Cave before getting to Sabaidee Guesthouse in Tha Lang just before it got dark. Within an hour of travelling, we felt that travelling by motorbike was worth it to be able to see the gorgeous landscapes of Laos. Funny shaped mountains, the like of which we hadn't seen since we were in Brazil, amazing clear and brightly coloured waters, some emerald green reflecting the jungle palms and the dark red hills, and some turquoise blues. Every corner was another photo opportunity, and we fell in love with the country in the same way as so many people we know who had visited Laos had told us we would.

The various caves were full of strangely shaped rocks and stalactites and stalagmites, almost looking like folded material, and depending on the light hitting them, making the places feel quite eerie. None of the caves felt claustrophobic, the tops of them being so high it felt like we were in a very dark cathedral at times. Tham Aen in particular, has been developed with stairs and banisters cut into the cave in the same colour of the rocks inside, so the end result looking like an Escher painting.

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The road had been ok to begin with, the little roads leading to the smaller caves being full of dust and gravel, but the main road was tarmac and in reasonable condition. As we got closer to Tha Lang, the road got pretty steep with potholes to boot, so going up and down required a lot of concentration on Dave's part, as well as mine to be ready for the potholes and rough terrain and grip harder to the seat so I wouldn't fall off. We went past a big dam along the way, which was constructed for the power station we went past. The river there had been dammed, but what it had resulted in was a drowned forest between Nakai and Tha Lang. The photo shown doesn't do justice to the view we had. The strange white tree trunks looked as if they were painted by Dali, and the colours of the water contrasted with the weird turtle shaped green land around it was spectacular. We arrived in Tha Lang tired, but excited by what we'd seen so far and what was to come.

Day 2 - Tha Lang - Lak Sao

Whilst we were having breakfast at Sabaidee guesthouse, we overheard an Aussie who was also doing the loop with another group asking the hostelier the state of the road to Lak Sao. His comment of the road being 'Not too terrible' made us giggle. So just terrible enough then? Pretty much the case. After a few km on good tarmac, suddenly the road divided into a dirt path ahead, and a lovely smooth tarmac to the left. We asked a local which way to Lak Sao, and we were told it was the dirt path. Oh great. That road was the worst road I've ever travelled on. Pot holes, gravel, thick red dust, no shade against the heat, big rocks, Mortimer battled through it all, but not without the suspension or lack of juddering our skulls, spines and saddles along the way. Eventually made the 60km journey in 3 hours but I couldn't take anymore and we made the decision to do the Loop in 4 days rather than 3 and stay overnight in Lak Sao. We stayed at the very lovely and almost luxurious Souriya guesthouse for 90,000 kip ($11), which wasa lot more than the 50,000 kip we had been paying in Don Det and Sabaidee. Totally worth it to have a comfy bed and hot shower, plus wifi!

Day 3 - Lak Sao - Kong Lo Village

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We had 100km journey ahead of us, but the road was much better than what we had the day before, we scooted across to Kong Lo in about 4.5 hours. The cool springs and waterfall to see along the way had dried up as a result of the hot weather so weren't worth going to, so we just made it to Saylomyen guesthouse in Kong Lo village by 2pm. Had some lunch and then headed straight for the highlight of our trip - Kong Lo Cave. This is a cave that is 7.5km long and takes 45 minutes to travel through - some of it you can walk, but the majority is a boat trip. We had rented head torches to be able to see the cave properly, which was a great idea as they were much better than our own torches. I can only describe the cave as being almost like the best ghost train you'll ever go on. The shapes and twists and turns of the cave with the torch light on felt so spine tingling, and as we moved under huge stalactites in the motorboat, it was like monsters were leaping out of the dark. Then, we saw (literally!) the light at the end of the tunnel, which was a beautiful view of mountains and idyllic forest. We got out there to visit the village there and have a cold drink, before returning back through the cave again.

We loved it. Made all the tooth loosening bumps on Mortimer so worth it. As we were leaving, the sun was about to set, so we roade on past our guesthouse to see the sunset over the mountains nearby. Dave then said the worst thing he could have said. He said "At least we haven't had a problem with the bike, I've heard of so many people having damaged their bike or had problems with it along the way". A few minutes later, I don't know why, I saw that the ignition switch on the bike had a switch with 'open/close' on it. Because I like buttons, I pressed it. Dave looked at me in horror, as we saw that the ignition switch where you insert the key to start it had closed over and the switch wouldn't return to its original position to open. Oh shit, I was in trouble. Dave was livid. I was contrite. We couldn't work out how to undo my mistake and we couldn't wheel the bike back as the steering was locked. Crap.

Dave walked back to the guesthouse, thankfully, only 10 minutes from where we were, whilst I quietly prayed that we could get the bike working again so Dave wouldn't kill me and stash my body in the cave. Thankfully, the solution was easy, the key had a hexagon shaped protusion which was used as a spanner to unlock the ignition safety lock. I was saved by the amused guesthouse staff and luckily Dave forgave me, after kicking me on the rear end as my punishment for pressing buttons. Phew.

So, after that, we chilled out with another British couple staying at the guesthouse, had a lovely evening. Day 4 was a 200km very boring ride back to Thakhek, on reasonable roads. Took 6 hours and my knees and back were suffering after so long on the bike. So glad to return the bike and be bikeless once again.

We are now in Vientiane, the Laos capital, pottering around for a while. Heading to Luang Prabang tomorrow to enjoy the town whilst waiting for our Vietnam visa, in readiness to leave Laos and go to Hanoi. Loving what we've seen so far and we still have a week before we go so looking forward to that too.

Posted by pixies 23.11.2012 19:28 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Lazing in Laos

Since my last update, we sped up our activities in Thailand as we got closer to our 30 day visa running out. Things got pretty hectic as we got up close and personal with the vagaries of the Thai transport system and lack of air conditioning on the buses. Rainy season may be at an end, but it's still mostly been hot, especially before midday, and after midday, and then in the evening... After leaving Chiang Rai, we headed for Phayao. It's a town that is possibly up and coming tourism-wise, but really is more down and not there yet, which was nice but also difficult. The tourism authorities have tried amping it up with tales of it being the 'Venice of Thailand' but apart from a pleasant lake and a pretty looking temple, there's not much to see.

Being more off the tourist trail also meant that the level of English isn't great, and we've both been hideously bad at picking up the lingo, so miming and pointing has been our core communication tool so far. This proves hard when you're trying to find out whether the hotel breakfast will be vegetarian or not, so we've had to resort to Google Translate, which is handy when you've got wifi access. What did make Phayao special was the beautiful sunset on the afore-mentioned lake. After taking a walk by the water after it got properly dark, we were pleased to see locals picnicking on the lakeside grass and lighting paper lanterns which floated up into the night sky, reaching effortless heights. So pretty. We had hoped to be in the Chiang Mai area for the paper lantern festival (I forget the name in Thai), but unfortunately it's in late November so we had to move on before that. I can't imagine how amazing the city would look all lit up with candles and lanterns.

After Phayao, we moved on to Nakon Ratchasima, otherwise known as Khorat. Big transport hub, but not much else to see or do there. We wearily turned up after many hours on a stuffy and uncomfortable bus at 9pm. The hotel we booked had given our room away, so we spent the best part of our first hour in the city looking for a hotel room in the stifling heat with our heavy backpacks on. Seeing as we had not eaten all day, food was our next priority. Fancying a bit of stodge after finally having had enough of curries and spice, we wandered into a cafe nearby which was thankfully still open. Not having much hope of being able to communicate with the cafe owner, we were surprised to be greeted by the Thai owner in a broad Nottingham accent. He'd lived in the UK for years but decided to move back to his non-touristy hometown to sell delicacies such as macaroons, chocolate cake, steak and kidney pies, pizzas and veggie samosas. Pizzas were fab, really hit the spot. I think Thailand is bringing the worst of 'The Brits abroad' in us, must have got conditioned to the months of pasta and pizza in South America.

The best of our recent adventures was a trip to Phanom Rung, in North Eastern Thailand. This is sympathetic restoration of a very old Khmer Hindu temple, in the style of what we hear Angkhor Wat will be like. It is made of brick red stone and every inch seems to be covered in stunningly intricate carvings of Hindu folklore, with 5 headed snakes bridging the steps and walkways to more carvings of gods and goddesses everywhere. Incredible that such a structure still existed and the museum beside it demonstrated how the original temple from the 10th century was built, but also how the restoration was conducted. Each stone and section of the temple was labelled and taken apart, restored and then put back together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Amazing work.

We then made our way to the Laos border, via Ubon Ratchathani. Having had a busy few days scuttling around the Northeast, we finally figured it would be good to slow down a little. So now, we're on the island of Don Det, one of the 4000 islands of Si Phan Don. We found a lovely bungalow by the river side on the South end of the island, and can't quite motivate ourselves to leave. Life is slow, easy and pretty cheap. $6 a night for our bungalow with a balcony, 2 hammocks facing the old French bridge, it's not a shabby place to chill out.

We're making plans for the rest of our Laos time though. In the next day or so, we'll shake off our lethargy and have some motorbike adventures in Tha Khaek and Kong Lo. The plan is to then move north via Vientiane and Luang Prabang, before crossing the border over to Vietnam. But for now, the hammock is calling and it's nice to be lazy for a while.

Posted by pixies 13.11.2012 06:01 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Moving up in Thailand

We are currently in Chiang Rai, in Northern Thailand, not far from the border with Burma/Myanmar. It's been nearly 3 weeks since we got to Thailand and our plans keep evolving/changing as we go along. So far, we've adapted to the end of rainy season and the incredible humidity, and are now enjoying the cooler climes of the north due to a slightly higher altitude.

We spent more days than we intended to in Bangkok dithering about what to do during our 6 months here. After going to and fro and encountering lots of obstacles, we've finally taken India off the itinerary. It was a hard decision as we've both really looked forward to visiting India, but in the current political climate, my Pakistani background made it too difficult. It's not all bad news though, as we've been making the most of Thailand while we're here. I took a day course at a May Kaidee vegetarian thai cooking school, which I thoroughly enjoyed, having made and tasted 10 different delicious thai dishes. Dave went off and spent the day cycling through the backstreets and outskirts of Bangkok with a local guide, and came back well informed about Thailand and its background.

We then headed over to the real life inspiration behind the film 'Bridge on the River Kwai' in Kanchanaburi. Stepping into the graveyard to see thousands of graves of the Allied POWs there was heartbreaking, especially when the headstones showed how young most of the dead were, as well as the messages from loved ones on there. It's a beautiful place, but still pretty much knee deep on the gringo trail. We're finding Thailand a lot more touristy than South America was, with short term holiday goer type of tourists too, rather than backpackers like us. It has its benefits in that we can get by speaking English in most places, but it also means it's pretty cheesy and fake most places we go.

Our trip to Sangkhlaburi by the Burmese border was a nice relief from the tourist trap. It's a lovely location of a quiet town surrounded by mountain scenery by a reservoir. There are a lot of NGOs based there due to the number of Burmese refugees, so the westerners you tend to meet there are more likely to be there due to aid work rather than just straight up tourism.

After a lovely day or so cycling around Ayutthaya, with a lot of visits to various temples, a few days of the same in Chiang Mai, which we enjoyed a lot more than Bangkok, we travelled by boat to Chiang Rai from a tiny little place called Tha Ton. Overall, we're enjoying Thailand, especially the food but are concerned that Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia may not offer enough contrast as we saw in the different countries in South America. So far, we're thinking we'll spend the next 3 months wandering around these places, but might opt for something completely different for our last few months. Africa is on the cards, as is China. As long as we carry on as we are financially, we might be able to do it, but we'll see how it goes.

Posted by pixies 31.10.2012 02:11 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

A land down under

We are currently in Bangkok, having spent a full week in the beautiful city of Sydney in a great little house we rented through airbnb. We landed in Bangkok a couple days ago, but the transition from nearly 6 months in South America to Australia was pretty big for us to begin with. I guess switching from doing everything in Spanish mode formally ended as we boarded our Qantas flight from Santiago. We were like kids in a sweet shop having so much choice in films, I finally got a chance to watch 'The Avengers' which I loved, as there wasn't much chance to watch a non-dubbed Spanish version of 'Los Vengadors' whilst in South America. Also, Loki is gorgeous so that helped. ;)

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We also got a huge surprise partway through the flight, as when we peeked out of the plane window, we realised that we were flying over Antartica. We double checked on the interactive flight map and it was true, it seems as the Southern hemisphere moved from winter to spring, the Antartic ice had spread out quite far out so we were able to see part of it during our flight. It's definitely the furthest south we've ever been.

So Australia has almost been like home, being able to speak English everywhere, access to treats such as real Cadbury's chocolate, Quorn sausages, Heinz baked beans, all the kind of stuff we won't get access to for the next 6 months has been nice. Also, being able to catch up with some old friends has been really nice. Sydney has definitely been a winner on the social side.

We had great weather for most of our time, even got some fab shots of the sunset over the opera house and harbour bridge. I took a trip to Kiama to see my Norwegian friend Alex and his lovely Aussie wife and family, where I was treated to a funpacked guided tour around the delights of Kiama in the fog and drizzle. We also had a fantastic meal at my friend Dave's Greek restaurant in central Sydney before meeting up with yet more friends Kerrie, James and their respective families in Epping for a lovely BBQ in the park. I really could see myself living in Sydney one day, it's a great place.

So now we're in Bangkok, recovering from yet another bout of jetlag but tripping over gringos, food stalls and temples at every step. Unsure about the next steps as it depends on the visa situation with India. Hopefully, we'll get an Indian visa within a week and then we'll head straight over there, and come back to Thailand later on. Otherwise, we'll make it up as we go along. It's worked for us so far!

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Posted by pixies 11.10.2012 18:12 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Summing up South America

It's our last night in Santiago tonight, and actually our last night in South America, for this trip at least. We've loved it so much that we're already adding places we didn't have time and budget to do for 'next time'. In the last 5 and a half months, we have clocked up nearly 20,000 miles of travel from lift off in London Heathrow in April to September in sunny Santiago now. Pretty damn impressive. Considering that once we were in South America, the majority of our travel has been overland in buses of variable quality, I think we've really got under the skin of this part of the world.

I'm going to miss it, I really am. I was incredibly nervous about coming to South America, dealing with the risks of travelling in some very poor countries, having a small grasp of the language, figuring out a plan for where to sleep and how much to spend on the road. All that gave me more than a few sleepless nights to be honest, but be able to not only overcome those obstacles but to actually enjoy them, and to build the kind of memories that will be with me for the rest of my life is something I'll always be proud of.

I never thought I'd be making this kind of trip. I'd always wanted to, but was too scared but also too worried about things like my family disapproving and talking me out of it, or my career suffering. I couldn't have been more wrong. My mum is constantly googling the place names of where I've been and where I'm going and being fantastically supportive and excited for us both. She's asked my brother to buy a map of the world so she can pin up our route. She's telling all her friends and family back in Pakistan where we are and what we've been doing. I get excited talking to my mother, as she inspires me to do more.

So, nearly halfway through and it's also been hard. Apart from our wonderful support network of family and friends, there are a lot of things we miss about home. So, here's a quick list:

1. My wedding rings. I have a simple silver ring that I bought quite cheaply on etsy, but I miss my beautiful wedding and engagement rings.

2. My wardrobe. It's hard to feel feminine or pretty when you wear the same few items day in and day out. Hopefully in Thailand, I'll get a cheap dress that will help me feel summery and happy rather the very dull and shapeless Craghopper trousers...

3. My kitchen. I love the variety of eating out back home, but in South America, there's not much variety in vegetarian food when you eat out. I'm *really* looking forward to interesting food in Sydney and South East Asia, especially my favourite Thai food.

4. Being able to relax and just splurge out rather than keeping an eye on our budget all the time. Seeing as the whole trip is a treat, other than paying for exciting tours, we don't really have treats like back home of expensive meals, shopping for funky clothes and so on.

5. Feeling like we can actually have some time to just chill out and slob for a while without feeling like we're wasting valuable time. We're actually getting a bit better at this recently, but the first few months were all go, with no excuse of a 'weekend' to waste.

So, that's not too bad really. The main things I miss is hanging out with my friends. Facebook helps but it's no real substitute for being there in person. So there's a lot to look forward to in the next 6 months but also afterwards when we get home and can get together with our friends again. It's all good so far, and I hope it carries on that way for the next exciting half of our trip.

Posted by pixies 30.09.2012 17:46 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Pieces of Patagonia

We thought hard about the best way to spend our time in Argentina, bearing in mind that it's now coming to the very end of the Southern Hemisphere winter season. The timings for our visit could lend itself to visiting Patagonia at the beginning of the tourist season (literally by a day), so we booked ourselves flights in and out of El Calafate from Buenos Aires to spend a week with the glaciars and mountains.

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The view above is what we were lucky enough to see on our first trip to the Perito Moreno National Park, the glaciar itself standing 60 metres tall in all its impossibly blue glory. The backdrop of black rugged mountains frosted with snow made the blue and serrated glaciar look even more unreal. The length of it drawing back for miles looked as if it was the entrance to Antartica, seriously impressive. What made it even better was the creaks and groans of pieces of the glaciar cracking off in the sunshine. When we were lucky enough to see a portion fall off, the sound was like a firework and the sight was as if we were watching a huge chuck of ice fall in slow motion into the water, with a huge amount of water from the lake rising up in a tsunami of miniature proportions. It felt like we were in another world, such a contrast from the deserts, jungles, salt plains and seascapes we've enjoyed in South America so far.

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We spent a few days in the El Calafate area, some easy days just enjoying the town and the landscape around, and some boat trips to the other glaciars in the lake as well as Dave going on an Ice Trek on the Perito Moreno glaciar itself. We then took a trip to the El Chalten area 3 hours north, and spent a few exhausting but gorgeous days hiking by the mountains in the area. The fact I was voluntarily walking for 7 hours in the cold meant it had to be worth it, but after being rewarded with views of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy as shown, it really was.

Unfortunately, at the very end of the trip to Patagonia, we had news of a death in the family, which is the worst news to get whilst travelling. We got back to Buenos Aires as soon as possible, so we could get Dave on a plane back to the UK as soon as possible for the funeral. It made the remainder of our time in Argentina really stressful and incredibly sad. Dave came back from the funeral a couple days ago, but the week we had planned to spend getting to know Buenos Aires and going out to see folk music and tango shows were spent just indulging in home comforts, recovering from the stress and just grieving. We figure, we've enjoyed Argentina so much that we'll save Buenos Aires for another time, when we can really enjoy it properly.

Tomorrow, we're flying off to Santiago Chile, for our last few days in South America. Hopefully, we'll be in a better place emotionally to enjoy the city, but either way, we're looking forward to being in Sydney and catching up with friends, so the social aspect of that trip should help.

Posted by pixies 25.09.2012 15:09 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

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