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In Summary

So that's it. Our advensha is over. I'm writing this while sat in my mum's living-room back in my hometown of Liverpool. We have been back for exactly one week now and it still doesn't feel entirely real. Every time I pick up my phone to message or call someone I do a little calculation in my head to figure out the time difference and whenever I look at the price of anything I halve it (thanks Australia).
It is taking some time to get a 'normal' sleep pattern back - I'm averaging about 5-6 hours of sleep at the moment but it is increasing every night.
It actually feels like we've only been away for a long weekend - mainly because nothing has changed back in Manchester and Liverpool. Actually that's probably a bit unfair; 3 of our friends have had babies, but aside from that, everything else is just as we left it.

I think it's going to take a little bit of time for us to really appreciate what we've done and where we've been. It's all a bit of a blur at the moment.
I've just re-read my 'The night before' blog post and it feels like I wrote it a lifetime ago. I said I was feeling numb, and to be honest, that's kind of how we feel right now too. We're in limbo - tired, confused, apprehensive and lost. We've been going through boxes of our stuff with a fresh and ruthless eye. After all we've been living out of a bag for 6 months so our definition of NEED has narrowed greatly.

I'm afraid I don't feel able to write a comprehensible 'conclusion' to our advensha, so instead I've done what I do best, formulated a list...

Best and Worst

Favourite country:
Aisha - India
Lauren - India

Favourite place:
Aisha - Bagan, Myanmar or Penang, Malaysia
Lauren - Udaipur, India or Penang, Malaysia

Favourite street food:
Aisha - Poh piah (Malaysian)
Lauren - Gobi manchurian and bread pakora (both Indian)

Favourite restaurant/café food:
Aisha - Annen Hoi in Hội An, Vietnam did the most amazing tomato tofu. Hui Yuan vegetarian buffet in Melaka, Malaysia was by far the tastiest buffet I have ever had. Also Capitol Satay, again in Melaka was both delicious and fascinating.
Lauren - The first place we had Thali in Jaipur, India. Also Millets of Mewar café in Udaipur, India.

Favourite people:
Aisha - Myanmarese
Lauren - Myanmarese

Favourite activity:
Aisha - Being sat in the sand dunes of Pushkar, Rajistan while watching a dance show, magician and the setting sun.
Lauren - Trekking through the rainforest of the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.

Favourite swimming:
Aisha - In the crystal clear waters of the Andaman sea off Koh Ngai island in South Thailand.
Lauren - In the Arabian sea off Patnem, Goa, India.

Favourite accommodation:
Aisha - Jungle House in Vientiane, Laos followed closely by Tordi palace in Rajistan, India.
Lauren - Luna Villa Homestay in Hội An, Vietnam closely followed by Old Town Guesthouse in Melaka, Malaysia.

Favourite religious/spiritual site:
Aisha - Swedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar or Ta Prohm in Angkor Cambodia.
Lauren - Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where one of Buddha's eyebrow hairs lives (ahem).

Favourite journey:
Aisha - I loved the Indian sleeper train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai in India. It was cramped, dirty and public but it was a great experience.
Lauren - The private transfer from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (Thailand to Laos) in an air-conditioned, swish people carrier.

Favourite beach:
Aisha - Otres in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Lauren - Patnem in Goa, India

Worst experience:
Aisha - The scary stray dogs in Ayutthaya and my camera breaking for a second time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (it's still not fixed).
Lauren - Our experience in Mali Mali Guesthouse, Langkawi, Malaysia (pervy man).

Worst accommodation:
Aisha - Our hotel in Mumbai, India that had no windows, a toilet that didn't flush, a strong smell of petrol and there were ants everywhere. BTB Battambang hostel was pretty awful too - no security, really dirty and rude incompetent staff.
Lauren - Mali Mali Guesthouse in Langkawi - dirty (fungus growing in between tiles in bathroom) and unsafe (bedrooms were accessible from the main strip).

Worst food:
Aisha - Jaljeera juice in India - which was basically curry flavoured juice and the 'pork satay stick' on Vietnamese train which was covered in wiry hairs and was probably a week old.
Lauren - The poh piah in Kuala Lumpur mall food court that was drenched in sticky tamarind sauce.

Worst journey:
Aisha - The double-decker bus we took from Bangkok to Surathani with the crazy drunk lady and her boyfriend who ended up getting thrown off.
Lauren - The journey from Sihanoukville to Battambang on which poor Lauren was vomiting throughout.

What We've Learned

About ourselves:
One of the main things we've discovered is that we both love animals much more than we thought we did. Wherever we were in the world we always seemed to find a cat, dog or bird to cuddle and coo at.

That we love each other - a lot! We have spent 24/7 with each other for 6 whole months. We've not had to text/call one another for 6 months because we've always been beside each other. We've been together 2 years now so for a quarter of our relationship we've been travelling. And, aside from a handful of very insignificant arguments (usually due to hunger, exhaustion or being lost) we've loved every second with each other. And of course we've grown stronger as a couple as a result of all the experiences we've shared.

That although we do really enjoy architecture, history and art, we mostly love people - talking to them, learning about them and seeing things through their eyes if only for a short time. We definitely enjoy a good balance of high and low culture and there's also no denying that we appreciate our creature comforts and time to ourselves.

About each other:
Aisha - Lauren is far braver than she lets on and although she can be softly spoken and avoid confrontation, when she feels it's right she will stick up for herself and for me.
I already knew that a hungry Lauren was an angry Lauren but this has been cemented during the trip. Excessive heat also doesn't make for a happy Lauren; but to be fair sometimes the temperature was pretty unbearable even for the locals. Thanks a lot El Niño!

Lauren - Aisha was not as fussy or meticulous as I thought she would be. She was quite happy for me to make decisions about what we were doing or where we were going.
Aisha's also the best person in the world (besides my lovely mum Joan) at looking after me - my physical, emotional and mental well being.

About travelling:
We always managed to form some semblance of a base or 'home' for ourselves. I reckon this is part of our human survival instinct - to feel safe and secure. I (Aisha) was a little concerned that on days when I might be feeling down that I would struggle because I couldn't go 'home' to lock myself away, but thankfully this was never an issue. Our hostel/guesthouse/homestay always became our temporary 'home' wherever we were and, as such, we always felt snug.

Packing

Things we would have been lost without:

  • Keen sandals - Even though they gave us the most ridiculous Croc-style tan lines, these comfortable, waterproof and durable sandals were amazing and I must say, after a while we even grew to quite like their appearance too,
  • Stolen shampoo - If we were ever in a hostel that had shampoos in a dispenser in the bathroom we were straight in there with one of our empty tubs filling them up. I count it as a small victory that we didn't buy shampoo once in 6 months.
  • Pens - I found two mini biros before we left and put them in our passport wallets and they were invaluable.
  • Oats - Most of the breakfasts we had while we were away consisted of porridge oats with some local fruit and/or seeds and nuts that we made ourselves. Of course when free toast / pastries / yogurt was available we made the most of that too but we always made sure we had some oats and soya milk with us (neither of which were hard to find).
  • CEX laundry bag - The large drawstring plastic bag I got when I bought my mini laptop from CEX in India served as our dirty washing bag throughout the 6 months and, whenever we handed it over to launderers we always made sure we got it back.
  • Bench dress - Lauren brought a light cotton dress by Bench with her and it served as a brilliant nightie for when we were in private rooms without an en suite and needed to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. As it was so hot whenever we had the opportunity we slept naked which posed a bit of a problem when we were sharing a bathroom. This dress was the perfect throw-on item.
  • Tiger Balm - This wonderful potion (which was invented in Singapore) was an amazing for a whole host of skin ailments - insect bites, rashes, itchy bits, spots, blisters and even worked as a decongestant when we were bunged up.
  • Google Maps - As much as I hate to admit it, the internet, specifically Google Maps, saved us many times. Every traveller will tell you that getting lost is an inevitable and accepted eventuality and, without the help of Google Maps I'm positive we would have ended up stranded on more than one occasion.

Things we didn't end up using/needing:

  • The majority of the first aid kit - To be honest, this isn't exactly a bad thing, it just means we didn't have any major health issues. It's now going to live in my car.
  • Cable ties - I do think we used one or two of these along the way but, for the most part, they weren't that useful for us.
  • Pliable camera tripod - We should have realised that we weren't going to be attaching one of our expensive cameras to a random wall or pole away from us - we would have been asking for it to get stolen.
  • Travel notes - In the run up to the trip Lauren had handwritten some notes on places of interest and transit information for various countries we were visiting. Unfortunately these notes ended up packed deeply away in Lauren's backpack only to be found after we'd already visited the countries that the notes were on.

Things we wish we would have brought:

  • Sudocrem - The wonder-cream. Luckily we had Tiger Balm as a backup but I would have loved some Sudocrem too.
  • Dental floss - I did actually bring some of this but it ran out quite quickly. A lot of the foods we were eating had lots of 'bitty bits' in them - herbs, spices, veggies, fruit, meat etc so dental floss was a bit of a necessity to avoid tooth decay. I ended up buying a packet of toothpicks as dental floss was ridiculously expensive in Asia.
  • A proper hairbrush - We'd bought a small travel hairbrush that unfortunately broke after a few months leaving us with crap plastic combs we'd gotten free in a hotel. Thank god I'd had my hair cut short.

What We'd Do Differently
We wouldn't beat ourselves up as much about feeling fed up and bored sometimes. Losing momentum periodically is inevitable and not the end of the world. We've learned that it didn't make us ungrateful or dull - just human.
I (Aisha) do wish I'd have bothered to do some diving. We were in some of the most well-known diving spots and with hindsight I should have splurged on doing my PADI. The upside is that I'd now realised I'm interested in it and so can pursue it back at home and when I next go away.
There are also quite a few things I wish we could have done in Australia. We weren't really tourists in the country as we were mostly visiting people not places. If we'd have had more money (our budget only allowed $80 per day which is approx. £40) we'd have definitely visited the North of the country and seen the Great Barrier Reef. But this has at least given me a thirst to return and this time, in their summer!
Lauren wanted to add that if she could have, she would have gone around Southeast Asia when it was slightly cooler - but I do think it was a fluke that we were there while El Niño was throwing its weight around.

Stats

Have a look at our travel stats here: https://www.travellerspoint.com/stats/advensha/

Final Thoughts

As a final thought I want to express my thanks for everyone that had joined us on this journey by reading this blog and/or watching our videos on YouTube and looking at our photos on Facebook. I'm really proud of myself for starting and finishing this blog project. It has helped to build my confidence in pursuing a creative/media career in the near future.

I also hope that we have inspired one or more people to at least think about taking the leap to quit the job you hate and go see some of the world. We haven't regretted our decision for a second and as much as being unemployed for the first time in my adult life is fucking terrifying (especially for an overly sensible gal like me), I know in my gut that I've done the right thing - whatever happens.

For now we're going to give Bristol a try and see how it suits us. Thank you so much for reading and I hope you go on to have your own advensha!

Posted by advensha 03:06 Tagged adventure best travellers scary backpacking backpackers worst favourites final_thoughts list summary unemployed its_over Comments (0)

Malaysia: Cameron Highlands

sunny 28 °C
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We kissed goodbye to our futuristic prison pods and got on a coach heading to Cameron Highlands. For the first time we had to jam our own bags into the luggage hold which, incidentally, we were crap at. We spotted two free seats near the back of the bus and quickly realised why they were unoccupied; the couple in front had fully-reclined meaning you had to limbo slide yourself into place. Our overheated, extra-stretchy muscles served us well and we managed to get seated. It didn't take Lauren long to start loudly huffing and puffing and aggressively kicking the chair in front. This woke the young Italian fellow quite abruptly but did cause him to adjust his recline by approximately 2°.

We stopped for a break after 2 hours and, starving, I stupidly picked a cup of buttery sweetcorn as a belated breakfast thinking it was healthier than a croissant. As we approached Cameron Highlands the roads got steeper and windier and the hot, salty butter in my largely empty stomach began to churn. Somehow I managed to refrain from vomiting but I've not been able to look at sweetcorn since.

We got to Brinchang town and managed to find our homestay using the vague directions we'd been given. We found a sign stating "Everything English Homestay", took and deep breath and knocked. Our hosts Fabian (from Harrogate) and his fiancée Lillian (from Malaysia) were incredibly welcoming and offered us cups of tea immediately (naturally). We were shown to our 'dorm room' but thanks to the cartoon stickers, plaid curtains and McDonalds height-measuring poster it felt more like a cosy children's bedroom, which made us feel warm and safe.
The apartment is littered with a plethora of Anglophilic ornaments; there are even pretty china teacups in the kitchen. Twee is an underestimation.

Soon enough, the other guest Julie, from Denmark, came back from her tour and we all chatted for a while while drinking Malaysian tea. She works as a social worker and was on holiday for a few weeks - a really nice girl.
I had a nap while Lauren watched the film Everest with her new best friend Fabian and, tummies rumbling, we followed the concrete stairway shortcut to Brinchang town in the search for sustenance. There are plenty of Chinese 'steamboat' (aka hot pot) restaurants in Cameron Highlands which are supposedly delicious but unfortunately they're not very cost-effective when there's only two of you eating. So instead we settled for a very average rice meal at a basic and overpriced Chinese restaurant.

Walking back to the homestay we eyed up the bashed up Landrovers everywhere along with rusted 'retro' cars like a 70s Fiat 131 or 80s Mercedes-Benz 230E taxis (or teksis as their known in Malay).
Taking full advantage of the box of copied DVDs, Lauren, Julie and I spent the evening watching Star Wars episode VII (Lauren's choice obv) which was actually quite entertaining; well done Disney.

For the first time in a while we both slept beautifully. Thanks to the perfect combination of no air-conditioning (the Brits originally came to Cameron Highlands to escape the heat - it's much cooler) and complete, natural darkness, we hibernated like baby chipmunks. Expectedly, we didn't want to get up, but we had booked a half day tour up Brinchang mountain to the cloud/mossy forest and so were quite happy to. Our guide was a chap called Navin and he was wise-cracking and knowledgeable like a good guide should be.

We were driven two thirds of the way up the mountain in a fairly modern Landrover and shown the BOH tea plantations; laid out in neat lines across hundreds of hectares of undulating hills. The tea 'trees' (kerala) are pruned every few months to keep them short; otherwise they can grow to be one hundred feet tall. As well, the younger leaves are the tasty ones and so only they get harvested anyway. The plantation is actually owned by a Scottish family and who started the BOH tea company in 1929.
The view was pretty spectacular; green for miles, and because of the well-formed lines, there was a scientific quality too. As if we could be looking through a microscope at an amazing geometric pattern created by nature.

We drove up to the summit of the mountain - 2032 metres high - and climbed the rusty watchtower along with many other tourists, some of whom were a little grumpy at the fact they had to wait to climb back down the narrow 1-person wide stairwell (Germans).
We then explored the estimated 230 million year old mossy/cloud forest which we learned serves an incredibly important purpose in keeping the entire ecological balance of Cameron Highlands in check. In the forest we watched a young Chinese girl (in flip flops I might add) drop her huge, sparkly smartphone into the spongey moist ground below the wooden walkway. We also got chatting to a lovely Canadian woman in her late forties who was travelling around SE Asia looking for good hikes and shopping destinations.

The last stop on the tour was a visit to the ridiculously busy BOH tea factory, shop and café. Luckily we squeezed in before the queue got too big to drink a pretty good cuppa, but the rest of our group weren't so lucky. In the café were lots of very adorable (and some obnoxious) children to pull faces at. There was one young male tourist with long curly blonde hair wearing only short shorts, wandering around pigeon-chested like he owned the place. The mere sight of this near-naked gentleman turned Lauren and I into middle-aged, conservative Texan women; of course we can acknowledge that it was quite hot but to be getting your little pink nipples out in the company of modest Muslim families is at best misguided and at worst fucking disrespectful. Oh well, a bit of shockery is always entertaining I guess. I've not been inspired to get my nipples out yet though - but there's still time.
That evening we found a grubby little Indian buffet where we both ate like queens, reminding ourselves as we do every so often, how much we love India and its food.

We got up early the next day to get a taxi to the biggest town in Cameron Highlands; Tanah Rata, the starting point of our guided 6 hour hike. As always were way too early but we used the extra time to get to know the resident dog known as 'Mum' (who ended up joining us on the hike) and have a proverbial cup of cha. We met Jason Chin, our AMAZING guide who in a previous life had been a conservationist and botanist. A Chinese-Malay, born and raised in Cameron Highlands, there was nothing he didn't know about the flora and fauna of Malaysia. Bizarrely, Jason has what we would describe as a 'posh' English accent, almost aristocratic, which he says he picked up while studying and working in London.
Our hike-buddies were a Dutch couple, an English girl (called Lauren) and a French girl. We secretly hoped they were as unfit as we are.

We started fairly gently with Jason stopping regularly to tell us about the native plants and trees we would be seeing a lot of. The warm up didn't last long though and we were soon well-away on trail number 10, scrambling up Gunang Jasar. After around 90 minutes we reached the top of the mountain; 1696 metres above sea level. Here both us humans and Mum the dog rested for a while. Jason pulled out some bread and Nutella and watched our Western faces light up with glee.
At this point we felt pretty good; we'd hiked up a pretty steep mountain within thick, lush jungle and over bare sandstone rocks and we hadn't passed out yet. Little did we know the next 4 or so hours were going to be much more intense.
The trail that used to be the one back down the mountain (trail 6) was permanently closed a few years ago because it became overgrown and too dangerous. The official way to go back down is to go exactly the same way you came up; along trail 10. Luckily (or unluckily depending on how you look at it), Jason doesn't give two shits about 'official' trails and as we approached the DANGER! THIS IS NOT TRAIL 6. DO NOT PROCEED THIS WAY. TURN BACK AROUND sign, we gulped and prayed.

The proceeding hike was a physical test; it turns out the descent was MUCH harder than the ascent. We were deep in the jungle with a floor of wet moss, spongy tree roots and wet leaves. Needless to say all of us fell over on average every 15 minutes. My main issue was stepping/jumping down off steep muddy and/or mossy ledges with nothing to hold onto except poisonous and/or horned branches. We battled on though, stopping periodically to take in the scenery and rehydrate. A saving grace was how cool the air was - we wouldn't have coped had it have been as hot as Penang. Along the way we saw a few different millipedes including a giant one and heard a variety of birds high up in the tree canopy.

After 3 hours or so we made it out of the jungle and into the Cameron Valley tea plantation where we walked along the sandbag paths and tried to avoid falling in the man-made stream. We walked through the plantation worker's village where Mum single-handedly saved us from a territorial pack of dogs. Jason told us that the workers are brought over from Bangladesh and Nepal as Malay people are rightfully reluctant to do the back-breaking work for very little pay.

Our legs felt like strings of spaghetti and we found ourselves walking in a rather unique fashion;

By the time we made it to Cameron Valley's tea shop and café our bodies were screaming for energy so we got some tea and ruined it with spoons and spoons of sugar. It turns out that tea was a mistake; hot caffeinated liquid sloshing around our empty bellies made us feel very nauseas very quickly. God we're hardcore.

Hike finished, we hopped in one of the vintage Merc taxis to Tanah Rata for some much-needed food. Jason's French wife Val joined us and the two solo girls from the hike for an amazing Indian buffet. We chatted for a couple of hours about Malaysia, Europe, government and culture. Jason even paid entire bill.

We returned to our homestay and were greeted by Fabian and Lillian long with a newly-arrived group of Singaporian women and a lovely young chap from Tajikistan who was sharing the room with us. We had made the mistake of thinking we would be back before anyone else and so had neglected to tidy up the mess of clothes on the floor in our room meaning Lillian and Fabian had had to do it. We were pretty embarrassed but chalked it up to not being given a proper time to follow. That and the fact we're lazy bastards.
A young Indian couple with a gorgeous little 2 year old girl turned up later on in the evening and we spent a few hours chatting about their homeland. I'm sure the last thing they wanted to do while on holiday was lament over India with some Brits but they very kindly humoured me.

Our brains very much awake but our bodies shutting down by the minute we retired early to bed, as did our roomie Yassin. We hoped our legs would wake up the next day for our onward journey to Kuala Lumpur.

Posted by advensha 02:28 Archived in Malaysia Tagged rainforest nature hiking trekking tea malaysia adventure backpacker tourists backpackers strawberries colony cameron_highlands tea_plantation mossy_forest cloud_forest Comments (0)

Vietnam: Hội An


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The morning of our departure from Huế was a little frazzling. I realised late in the evening that I'd left my camera repair receipt at the shop and without one I'd have no chance of claiming through my insurance. So after hurriedly getting ready and packing my bag, I ran down to head to the shop. In my wisdom I'd saved a paragraph I'd written through Google translate explaining that I needed a copy of my receipt to hopefully make things easy to the shop attendants. I happened to show this paragraph to Toan (the guesthouse guy) who then dashed all my hopes and dreams and said it was total gibberish and made no sense at all. Compassionate to my plight he very kindly escorted me to the shop, which was closed. He rang the number on the sign and explained to the owner what I needed and he said that someone would be there in 10 minutes. 20 minutes later the girl from the day before arrived with a smile and opened up. The message hadn't been passed on but after flailing my hands and arms around in a crazy game of charades she understood what I needed and wrote me a receipt. Success!

At this point I had no idea whether Lauren had already been collected by the bus and was on her merry way to Hội An. Luckily, she was still in our room. We clambered down the stairs with our ever-growing backpacks and Toan asked us to pay for our stay. We were a little confused as we thought for a second we'd already paid but we handed over the 490,000 dong anyway and waited for our lift. Then, when checking our emails for our accommodation in Hội An we realised we HAD in fact paid for Sunny Fine guesthouse. We showed Toan the email confirmation and he apologised profusely and explained that he thought we'd booked through booking.com (where you don't pay upfront) but we'd actually booked with Agoda (where you do pay upfront). He felt really bad but I made a joke out of telling him I was going to call him a thief on my TripAdvisor review and we all had a good laugh about it.

We chatted to a nice solo-traveller called Mike from St. Albans for a bit then got collected by crappy old van with two poor long-legged Europeans squashed in what used to be the boot. We got on the coach and did a double-take at the format; 3 rows of mauve double-decker leather dentist chairs. The bottom level is on the floor of the coach - you have to get on your hands and knees in the aisle and shuffle into the seat/bed. To get up to the top deck there is a little ladder - you have to climb it and contort yourself into the seat/bed without knocking someone out with your arse/legs or in our case, tits. Once in place, you slide your legs into a shallow 'slot' and you can then decide whether you want to sit upright or lay down almost flat. We also had a our very own brown puffy duvet decorated with paw prints that I thought probably had more skin on it than Leatherface - so I didn't use mine.

We then spent an hour parked at the Petrolimex; people were loading box after box and bag after bag onto the coach. Eventually we left and after a couple of hours we stopped at a truck stop for toilets and food. This stop was an undeniable tourist-trap, ran by a very assertive lady who shouted at all of the Caucasians on the bus to buy food and snacks. She then went round asking everyone for foreign coins and notes as she collects them. We were pretty hungry and ill-prepared so we gave in and bought some Pringles for £2 which brought tears to my eyes. We did enjoy the delicious MSG though.

As always, I managed to fit in a few naps while on the coach; if I'm in a moving vehicle for over 10 minutes I simply cannot fight the urge to snooze. Lauren was near to the toilet and became increasingly frustrated at the male users of the coach toilet who seemed unable to shut the door after their visit; which meant a lovely smell wafted to our noses. I feel this is becoming a bit of a theme.

Four hours on the coach and we arrived in Hội An where we were immediately touted by motorbike-taxis (xe ôm) who told us that there aren't any taxis in Hội An and so we must use them. Unconvinced, we walked for less than 2 minutes and flagged a fully-licensed taxi (on the meter) that took us the 4km to Luna Villa Homestay. Nice try suckers. We received a very warm welcome by Peanut (really) and her staff and we were blown away by our massive modern room fully equipped with kettle, flat-screen telly AND a fridge! We also had a peek at the infinity swimming pool, flanked either side by huge palm and banana trees and two lakes. We knew we were going to be very comfortable.

Peanut was eager for us to book tours with her and repeatedly recommended a particular tailor shop in town (Hội An is renowned for it's bespoke tailoring trade), but we politely resisted; keen to try and do things ourselves without forking out.
We chilled out in our room for a few hours; I even got electrocuted by a lamp and almost voided my bowels. Lauren thought it was the finniest moment of her life.

That evening we attempted to visit a nearby restaurant (apparently 400m from our homestay). We got the route up on Google Maps and started following it but as we were in a really rural area (Cam Thanh village) it was pitch black. We cautiously walked up a very dark lane and heard the sounds of various creatures and different unknown things we stepped on. We used Lauren's torch app on her phone but we quickly became very anxious. Then, just as we thought we were approaching the restaurant a group of dogs came out of a yard and started aggressively barking at us. Naturally we gave up and practically ran back to the homestay; where the lovely staff made us some noodles so we didn't starve. What are we like eh!? As if we weren't spooked enough we then made the wise decision to watch Final Destination 3 on TV.

We tossed and turned a bit through the night and realised the cups of tea at 11pm were probably a mistake - we got a little excited by the presence of a kettle. Despite this we were up early and after our breakfast we had a little swim then cycled into the town centre 6km away.
As we were nearing the town a lady on the back of a motorbike siddled up to me, while I was cycling on the road, and started asking me when I'd arrived in Hội An and where I was from. Immediately aware I was being scouted for business I asked her why she needed to know and she then asked whether I needed any tailored clothes. After a firm NO she signalled her driver to speed on. I give her kudos for her unique approach.

Smoothly following our interesting introductory sales-pitch, after we'd parked up, we were promptly punched in the face by many more pestering ladies offering tailoring, massages, nail art, sandwiches and even eyebrow plucking - which one woman was keen to sell to Lauren. We ducked and blocked as best we could, upping our pace so to not inadvertently stop in front of a shop. The town itself is very pretty; lots of leftover colonial features line the very symmetrical and colourful streets and many lanterns float above your head.

The relentless bothering was a little disheartening but we were even more disillusioned when we approached the ticket booth for visiting the 'ancient town' sights and were told it cost 120,000 dong (£4) per person for a book of 5 tickets to visit 5 of the 25 sights. We had read that we'd have to pay something for the ancient sights but we didn't think it's be so much and we also didn't think we'd be limited to 5. We didn't dwell however and used our first ticket on visiting an old Chinese Assembly Hall; Phuc Kien. We then moved onto Tan Ky House; a 200 year old traditional Vietnamese trading house which among other things, contains some beautiful ornate panelling and furniture with mother of pearl Chinese lettering.

Feeling deprived of raw nutrients, we found a local grocery market where I excitedly bought apples and carrots. We then had a look at the ancient Japanese bridge deciding not to use a ticket to walk on it *cough swizz cough*. After a bit more wandering we finally had enough of the accosting and moved on to our most beloved activity; eating.

We'd spotted vegan café Annen on the ride into Hội An town and were glad to find it open when we arrived. We were also glad to find that it was locally owned by an husband and wife as a lot of the veggie/vegan places we've found thus far have been Western-owned, overpriced and with a 'hipster' vibe. We did have to Google a few of the dishes and we also had to wait an hour for them to be served (only the wife was cooking and the place was full) but boy was it worth it. Lauren chose a dish that is specific to Hội An; Mi Quang soup made of flat yellow noodles, mushrooms, carrots and tofu.

After a brisk cycle back before it got dark we had another swim before bed and felt like jammy little bastards.

We went back to the town the next day not wanting to waste our tickets. After bumping into Sandy and Peter; the Australian couple we'd met in Vientiane, we visited the Sa Huynh cultural museum which was small but had some interesting artefacts relating to the area from history, Independence from the French and the Vietnam war.

The weather was cloudy and a bit chilly and feeling hungry and fed up with Hội An's ancient town we went back to Annen café where we got chatting to a lovely young Vietnamese woman called Linh. After some initial small talk we discovered we were all part of the same club; the lezzies. It was so great to chat with a local person from our generation who was gay and hear about her experiences. Linh was thrilled to hear from us too and we spent the next hour sharing stories and asking questions. We swapped details and encouraged Linh to visit the UK and come stay with us if she did.

That evening, after a lovely long catch up with Mum until midnight neither of us could sleep and so our last day in Hội An was a very lazy one as we were knackered. We swam, ate, read and lay around.

We would have liked to use our remaining two tickets but we left them for the next guests instead. Hội An was a beautiful town with a very diverse and rich history. The constant product and service peddling did dampen things a bit, but if you look beyond this there's plenty to see. We also didn't manage to see the town at night but apparently it's a wonderful sight to behold; multicoloured lanterns are lit all over and a night market opens.

We think we hit a bit of lull in Hội An and so used the time to veg out. But thanks to the swish surroundings our batteries were well and truly recharged ready for our last stop in Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh city.

Posted by advensha 06:11 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam cycling travelling backpackers hoi_an scared vegetarian ancient_town infinity_pool eco_village annen luna_homestay cam_thanh_village Comments (0)

Laos: Vientiane

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Our onward journey to the capital of Laos Vientiane started off somewhat higgledy piggledy. We dutifully arose at 5am to be ready for our 6am pick up to Luang Prabang bus station. On arrival we learned that the VIP bus we'd paid for and booked onto through our hostel that departed at 7am didn't actually exist. There was a 7am bus but it was the 'public' one; i.e. more of a people-carrier containing 20 locals and their animals - not what we'd paid for. After some wrangling with the ticket office we managed to secure a place on the actual VIP bus which was leaving at 8am; so we had to wait around for 90 minutes. This wouldn't have been so bad had we have not run out of kip. We tried another 2 cash machines but they still weren't coughing up so we bought some Oreos and a baguette with some American dollars we had and got ourselves comfy on the outdoor benches of the bus station. As we waited, we saw what we think was either a shooting star or some sort of comet/meteor. Unfortunately, neither of us had the speed or energy to photograph it but it certainly wasn't something either of us had ever seen before. We've since tried in vain to find something on Google to back up our sighting.

Anyway, after cooing at some babies and consuming far too many biscuits far too early in the morning we embarked the VIP monster of a double decker coach. The side of the coach was emblazoned with the words "King of Buses" and was brightly decorated with illustrations of crowns and the like. Without too much inspection you could find clever engineering hacks on and around the coach; the front bumper had been taped back on and the wheel rims were attached with cable-ties. In addition, the driver (who looked about 17) had to kick the door a number of times for it to close properly. We found our seats on the top deck and quickly discovered that mine was broken; in a permanent recline position. We had plenty of time so I went to tell one of the bus station workers. The gentleman's response to my predicament was to say yes, turn his head, then walk away from me, trying his best to ignore me completely. I tried again but evidently he'd gone deaf and blind. I then tried the driver and another guy who was putting everyone's baggage in the hold. I got the same reaction. You're not really supposed to show strong emotion in Laos, especially not anger, but I refused to be ignored and so raised my volume slightly, harnessing my German genealogy and said "I paid for VIP and my seat is broken!". Finally, the man from the ticket booth said he would come onto the bus before it left and try to sort something out for me. As the bus filled up another kerfuffle manifested; a number of passengers had been given a seat number that didn't exist (the seats ended at 48 but people had tickets up to 52). By this point I was just happy to be in a seat, permanent recline or not, so I decided not to speak up again and hoped the guy checking wouldn't mention my query - which he didn't.

The 10 hour bus ride was, as expected, rather bumpy. We were only travelling 210 miles in total; achievable in probably 4 hours on a clear-ish, straight-ish road, but this was not that. The condition of the bus coupled with the appalling state of the roads meant every lump vibrated through our bodies. This meant that any attempted snooze was brief and somewhat dangerous. It didn't matter too much though as we were travelling in the day. The bus snaked wildly around and through the Laos mountain range, steadily climbing in altitude making our ears pop. Looking out of the window was jaw-dropping; the views of the awe-inspiring Laotian landscape were truly indescribable, but they were also terrifying as we were often clutching to the edge of a sheer drop. The highway connecting Luang Prabang to Vientiane is the biggest and most important in Laos. It has no road markings and no lights (hence our daytime journey) and is very narrow. It's quite aptly called Route 13 and it connects all the way through to Cambodia. Lauren described the journey as a white knuckle ride.

During the ride we befriended a young Lao girl (approx. 4 years old) who was sat behind us. She incessantly popped her head through the gap between our seats (mine on recline and Lauren's upright) in an effort to interact with us. As much as it was mildly annoying we had little else to entertain us and so we were quite happy to act as clowns for a while. She was a great mimic; copying everything we said and did. We taught her 1-5 in English and a few funny gurns (I'm sure her parents will thank us for that on the next school photo). She was a real darling and I hope she was old enough to remember the two weird white girls on the bus. Here she is;

We had one stop for lunch at an entirely Lao truck-stop. Even though we didn't have a food-voucher Lauren managed to swindle herself a bowl of unknown soup (we think it was meat-free). I was still feeling under the weather so I stuck to a yoghurt pot. The co-driver who I'd previously moaned to about my broken seat was now kitted out with a bullet-proof vest and a large, semi-automatic gun. We had read something in one of the travel guides that there was a very small risk of American war legacy guerillas who have, a handful of times over the last decade, come out of the mountains and held up tourist-heavy coaches. Bearing this in mind we were fairly comfortable with our weapon-brandishing ally.

Bums numb and eyes heavy, we arrived at the bus station at around 7pm. After putting a taxi driver on the phone to our home-stay host to give directions, we eventually arrived (1 hour later) at Jungle House. We rolled up to our home for the next 4 days and did our best to take in the amazing palatial bamboo building set amongst a jungle garden. We entered into the massive open plan reception / dining room with mezzanine second floor and were very warmly welcomed by Mike Boddington (great-grandson of THE Mr. Henry Boddington who started the infamous Mancunian beer and brewery) and his Lao wife Xoukiet, their Chinese intern Angela along with the other guests; a French and American couple. Everyone was sat round the dining table and had just finished eating and we were immediately seated and fed with home-cooked Lao delights (with plenty of veggie options for Loz).

At first we were a little overwhelmed; tired, scruffy, dirty and ill-equipped to engage in deep and meaningfuls with the older, well-cultured dinner guests and hosts. We did however take the opportunity to lubricate ourselves with the wine on the table - which helped a little. After a few hours of first impressions we were happy to be escorted to our room; which was across from the main house, past the swimming pool, through a wooded garden and in a cottage. The cottage had bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms on each side and a large communal kitchen / dining room in the middle. The French couple Nicole and Alain were in the twin room and we were in the double (take THAT heteros). Soon enough the resident geckos appeared to introduce themselves but quickly disappeared again when they realised we hadn't brought a load of insects with us.

Our first morning in Vientiane was a sobering one. After a great sleep and a picturesque breakfast sat on the veranda overlooking the lake, Mike gave us a guided tour of the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre. The centre was actually set up by Mike in 1997 and does amazing work for disabled people in Lao. The visitor centre brilliantly outlines the 9 year 'Secret War' that the US waged on Laos. I can't begin to express the inhumanity of America's actions - we were truly shocked and appalled when we understood the gravity of it all. But let's not dwell on the negative, here's a 15 minute video that goes some way to illustrating the good work COPE does;

Sufficiently crushed, we then went for an independent stroll around Vientiane town. After a couple of hours we were hot, bothered and lost, so we called Mike on the mobile phone he'd given us and got collected. As Mike had just picked up a new couple (Australian) from the airport, we had to climb into the back of the pick up for an open-top ride back to Jungle House. The wind in our hair and sun on our shoulders, we got plenty of looks from fellow road-users; presumably less shocked by the riding arrangement than our nationality.

For the rest of the day we flopped about the house and grounds; taking a dip in the pool, reading our books and generally enjoying a chill out. This time we felt more prepared for our dinnertime socialising - again making the most of the complementary wine... We had some great conversations; learning about each other and Laos and we really started to feel like one of the family.

On our second day we did nothing but lay around like lazy bums, and we fucking loved it. I tell a lie, we spent a few hours sorting our onward plans

The third day we went to visit one of Mike's friends; Mac and his wife La. Mac and La head up an NGO organisation called Soap4Life which teaches poor Lao women how to make soap (sustainably) to sell. La gave us a live demonstration and it's amazing how easy the process is. We have since learned that Soap4Life has won a contract with Crowne Plaza hotels in Laos for 50,000 pieces of soap which is a great start to the project.
At the house we also met Mac and La's menagerie of pets; 2 squirrels, a bamboo rat, 4 budgies, 2 pugs, 1 shitzu and one other dog. The bamboo rat was particularly cute (and pregnant).

That evening was our final communal dinner and we made the most of it; staying up until midnight waxing lyrical about all the forbidden subjects: politics, culture and religion.
We really didn't want to leave Jungle House; the stars aligned and gave us an amazingly relaxing yet stimulating stay. We both feel incredibly inspired to firstly, read more about modern history (specifically the atrocities of war), secondly, encourage others to do the same and thirdly, commit to some sort of genuinely helpful volunteering.
Ask me again in 6 months to see whether we've followed this through!

BAN THE CLUSTER BOMB!

Posted by advensha 03:08 Archived in Laos Tagged laos vientiane swimming travelling backpackers dinner_party uxo disability jungle_house cope_centre mike_boddington soap4life secret_war cluster_bombs Comments (1)

Laos: Luang Prabang

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Eventually we arrived at Sa Sa Lao; a hostel-style accommodation set right on the Nam Khan riverside and overflowing with luscious tropical foliage and vegetables. We had our very own hut (we're getting pretty accustomed to bamboo boxes by now) complete with a netted double bed, en suite bathroom, fan and plenty of geckos, ants and mozzies.

The cloudy and comparatively chilly weather we'd been introduced to on the Mekong was hanging around and so we were still wrapped up in long pants and hoodies. Still feeling like shit I was in no state to eat dinner so Lauren ate something at the hostel's little bar/cafe and not long after we went to bed.

One of the interesting things about staying in a hut is the orchestra of multifarious noises you're serenaded with of an evening. Geckos are common culprits; making sounds ranging from squeaks right up to loud high-pitched meows. Here at Sa Sa Lao, the familiar geckos were joined by the resident dogs (who were actually very cute and friendly), the occasional cat, a smattering of birds and the eternally open karaoke bar opposite. So each night at around 7pm, all of the dogs within a 10 mile radius would start shouting at each other and a Lao gentleman with a hugely inflated sense of talent would start screaming into a microphone. This was our lullaby. Although mildly annoyed by our aural experience, it didn't for the most part affect our sleep; either our tolerance is increasing or we're going deaf.

I wasn't feeling much brighter the following morning but I could still muster up the energy to do some exploring of our new destination. With the help of the French hotel manager and a badly photocopied map, we found our way to Luang Prabang centre. Getting to the centre meant crossing the bamboo bridge which, shockingly, is a walking bridge that crosses over the Nam Khan river made entirely of bamboo. This bridge is built, maintained and dismantled by a local family every year who charge 5000 kip (approx. 45p) per person for a return journey across it. It only exists in the dry season and in the wet season, it is either removed in advance or washed away. The bridge is rudimentary to say the least, but it functions perfectly well and makes the journey to town much quicker for those on the 'wrong' side of the river. Here's some moving pictures of our first bamboo bridge expedition. If you listen carefully you'll hear Lauren berating me for taking 'deep steps'...

After a crap, overpriced breakfast, we stomped about the town a bit, taking in the colonial buildings, the tourist-centric souvenir and craft shops and enjoying the mild temperature and chilled-out atmosphere. The town actually felt a little Wild Wild West in terms of its layout and aesthetic. There is a thriving tourist industry in Luang Prabang and this is very apparent. The majority of the people we walked past weren't Lao, and the streets were overrun with travel agencies, European cafés and shops. We didn't mind this too much as the demographic seemed to be older than your average backpacker (25+) and a little more middle class. Not completely our crowd but the placidity was both enjoyable and infectious.
On our way back to the hotel we stumbled past a well-reviewed little pizza restaurant owned by a Lao-American couple (called Pizza Phan Lung). It was literally in their back garden with a handful of tables around a proper outdoor stone pizza-oven. A small amount of shame washed over us for buying Italian food on our first proper day in Laos but we quickly forgave ourselves as by this point I just really couldn't stomach Asian food.

The next day, a Sunday, we had another disappointing and expensive breakfast in town, redeemed by a great visit to the Laos Ethnology Centre. We also hopped on a mini bus to KouangXi waterfall 30km away. The waterfalls were incredibly beautiful; bright turquoise water surrounded by the green of huge trees and plants, decorated with hundreds of colourful butterflies. Unfortunately we hadn't packed our swimming costumes so we couldn't jump in but we did a little bit of paddling and that was enough for us. The water was too bloody cold anyway. There were lots of tourists of all ages splashing around in the water, mostly taking selfies, and a few were back-flipping off high rocks into the pools.

At the bottom of the falls is a bear sanctuary that rescues Asian black bears and sun bears from poachers (their gall bladders are used in Chinese medicine) and animal shows. The bears were gorgeous and seemed to have been provided a brilliant habitat. We were a little irked by the fact the WIRE fence protecting us from these bears (or vice versa) was only about 5 foot high. We didn't hang around too long.

On the drive back I started to feel really dodgy again so when we got back to town Lauren had a quick (and crap) plate of fried rice in the first restaurant we found, followed by a street crepe and we hurried back so I could climb into bed. That evening I felt really ill. I couldn't regulate my temperature and I had a horrible throbbing nausea and banging head ache. Although nothing was coming out of me I had all the symptoms of a stomach bug or food poisoning. As I'd gradually gotten worse over the last week we decided it would be best if I spent a day in bed, starving and feeling incredibly sorry for myself. So nothing to report on this day except Lauren having to go out on her own for lunch only to find the bamboo bridge closed off because of fast running water - ha. Luckily there were a handful of cafés on our side of the river she could make-do with.

The day of abstinence really did help and the next morning I felt super-perky (and hungry) so we headed to town but this time had to take the long-route across the motorbike bridge as the bamboo bridge was still closed. This motorbike bridge is as described but has a narrow pedestrian walkway tacked on the side of it with only crude wooden floorboards separating walkers from the river 300 feet below. We finally had a decent (but still pricey) breakfast at Novelty Café and then burnt it off by walking the 300 steps up Phousi mountain to see all of the Buddha images, temples and, most notably, the Buddha's footprint. It turns out Buddha was an actual giant as his footprint was 7 foot long... An interesting part of being up there was that we got talking to a very charismatic 19 year old monk who was soon to be leaving the monkhood after 8 years. He was very excited at the prospect of drinking and being with women and was asking us falangs (foreigners) all about our life experiences. We didn't tell him we were a couple as we thought his head might explode. This was the first time we'd had a one-on-one conversation with a Buddhist monk and it was great. Turns out (as we suspected) they're pretty normal guys. And, contrary to what I though, they're not all vegetarians. They eat whatever they're given (with most of the time is meat).

Back down at ground level we made our way to Big Brother Mouse; a charity centre where Lao children can go (for free) to learn English from both educated Laotians and foreign volunteers. Unfortunately we arrived at the wrong time and so couldn't get involved in the storytelling session we'd hoped to. Instead we bought some books that were written by students and published at the centre and I also poked my head into a Lao sign language class and showed the deaf students some BSL signs. This amazing spontaneous interaction really made my day and also brought a little tear to my eye (I'm a wet fish I know).

Clearly a little concerned that we weren't being selfish enough we then went for a hand and foot massage at a nearby centre which apparently gives 20% of its profits to local villages. During the massage (which was very good), one of the ladies asked Lauren "do you have a baby?" and pointed to her stomach. Upon hearing that Lauren was carrying a food baby and not a human baby the girl was very apologetic but luckily neither of us are easily offended. If anything it gave me a good laugh for the rest of the evening. Later that evening, in an effort to diminish said faux-foetus, Lauren demolished a burger and french fries at a local trendy joint called Utopia. We're kings of weight loss.

High on MSG and feeling brave we walked the 30 minutes back to our hostel in the dark (but we had a torch) and tried not to get mowed down/eaten by dogs/kidnapped by guerillas. You'll be glad to hear dear reader that we made it back without even a mosquito bite and were greeted by our favourite little puppy too. The rest of the night was spent packing up our things and preparing for our early morning bus to Vientiane.

Posted by advensha 03:11 Archived in Laos Tagged monk laos luang_prabang travellers bears backpackers mekong_river utopia big_brother_mouse stomach_bug kuang_si_waterfall Comments (1)

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