Iceland 2013 – Arrival, The Golden Circle, & the Snaesfellsnes Peninsular

Iceland has long been on my wish list of places to visit and finally got the chance, together with my Mum and Sister (Katie), to visit for 10 days in May 2013.  Although rather than ticking it off the list the experience has left me wanting to return for more!

We arrived in Iceland on May 24th at the Keflavík international airport on a 2.5 hour flight from the UK with EasyJet.  From the airport it was very easy to take the FlyBus the 50km to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.  The took us along the Reykjanes peninsular, which has quite a barren landscape with pitted lava fields as far as the eye can see.  After checking into our basic but excellent value guesthouse near the city centre we had a walk through Reykjavik, which was quite lively as it was a Friday night.  Two thirds of Iceland’s population (circa. 300k) live in the capital, so this is unsurprisingly the busiest place in the country.  However, the world’s most northerly capital is a quaint place, set against a backdrop of snowy mountains it has colourful buildings and giving it something between a seaside town and a big city vibe.

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Getting around Iceland is tricky without your own vehicle, so the following day we picked up a hire car from the ominously named, but recommended, SADCar Rentals.  Car hire is very expensive in Iceland but SADCars offer older cars to their customers for reasonable prices – we had a slightly battered Toyota Carolla that gave us no problems.

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Despite having lived in Germany for a while this was my first time driving on the right, something that I was a little nervous about.  However, as Iceland’s roads and very quiet, with only Reykjavik having any sort of ‘traffic’, I found I soon picked it up and felt comfortable.  On our first full day in Iceland we drove around ‘The Golden Circle’, which is a popular tourist route looping around 300km from Reykjavik into the central highlands and back – taking in three of Iceland’s main sights along the way.

The first stop, only 30km from Reykjavik is Þingvellir, a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance.  The site marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.  There are some good views, where the fault lines can clearly be seen, at the lookout point at the visitor centre on the shore of the largest natural lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn.  It’s a special place and must have been for Iceland’s ancestors too, as they founded the world’s oldest Parliament (Alþingi) here in AD 930.  Though the site is no longer used for such purposes Þingvellir continues to play a central role in the history of the country today.  We had a little walk and came across a wooden house on the shores of the lake, which I later learned was the Prime Minister’s summer residence – I had just walked up to it and had a nose through the window!

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Next stop was at the site of Geysir, which is a Geyser that has given its name (derived from the Icelandic verb geysa, “to gush”), to all others in the world as it was the first one known to modern Europeans.  It has been know to erupt up to 70 meters in the air, but sadly this has been infrequent since rocks were put into the blow hole in the 1950’s by some tourists looking to trigger an eruption.  Thankfully there is a geyser nearby, Strokkur, that erupts every 5 mins or so up to 15-20m high.  As you can imagine it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but the reliable Strokkur makes for impressive viewing.

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The final stop on the Golden Circle was probably my favourite, the three-step waterfall ‘Gullfoss’ on the Hvítá river.  It is simple massive, with powerful flows of water pounding over it into a crevice below – on first approach it looks like it the water vanishes in into the depths of the earth!  There are easy walking trails that take you above and alongside the waterfall, although be careful of the spray blown up – we got absolutely soaked.  Nevertheless, it was an awe-inspiring view.

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Traditionally people have visited Gullfoss for a coffee as there has been a café here since the 1920’s.  We’d had a coffee earlier though, and being hungry opted for some hearty Lamb Stew to warm us up after getting cold in the chilly winds outside.

On our second day we leisurely drove about 170km north west from Reykjavik to the Snaesfellsnes Peninsular, which is crowned by the  glistening ice cap of the Snæfellsjökull.  We
didn’t leave Reykjavik though until we had fully enjoyed its lovely café culture and some delicious Danish pastries at the fantastic Bakarí Sandholt. Soon after leaving the city we went through a 6km tunnel under Hvalfjörður (“Whale fjord”), which went under a mountain and an estuary – for a while it felt like we were descending into the depths of the earth, a fantastic feat of engineering!  Once on the other side of the tunnel the scenery changed to big volcanic peaks, with long fields of lava flows, we stopped regularly to take it all in.

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We drove right around the peninsular and did a walk from the lighthouse at Malariff to some interesting lava formations.  Mum, as always, had her a binoculars out and spotted what we think was an Orca (Killer Whale) in the bay – we only saw the thin long fin but it certainly looked like an Orca to us.  Pretty cool to see 🙂

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On the peninsular we encountered our first gravel roads (Iceland has many!) and one is particular was a mountain pass with stunning views, gushing waterfalls, and dramatic bends.  We stayed at the little fishing community of Grundarfjörður in an apartment ran by the local hostel, right on the idyllic bay surrounded by sugar-loaf peaks.  The sun didn’t really go down during our stay in Iceland, but we did have some nice sunsets whilst in Grundarfjörður.   NB:  There’s a really cool hotdog van in Grundarfjörður that is very worth trying!

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It was pretty cold with some very strong icy winds whilst we were on the peninsula, but nevertheless we did several walks around it.  Including ascending the 73m holy peak of Helgafell, which, as legend has it, grants three wishes to those who reach the top.  The walk to the top starts at a small quaint church and in order for your wish to come true you must start at the grave of an ancient local heroine in its graveyard, then walk up to the top without muttering a single word or looking back along the way, at the chapel ruins at the top you must turn east while wishing and make your request with a pure heart.  This we all did, despite the strong wind making virtually impossible to stand up (the chapel made a good shelter, and the views were very impressive.

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To escape the relentless cold winds we also visited the harbour town of Stykkishólmur for a warming cup of coffee and a look round the Volcano museum (Eldfjallasafn), which offered some interesting info on Iceland’s volcanic eruptions – including the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.    Down the road at Bjarnarhöfn, with a taste for adventure (literally), we visited the region’s leading producer of Hákarl (putrid Greenland shark meat, aka. rotting shark meat) – a traditional Icelandic dish.  There’s a small museum where the friendly owner showed us the process of catching the sharks and fermenting the meat – basically hanging it in the wind to dry for four to five months.  We saw a recently caught (dead) shark, and the drying house at the back, and of course had a little nibble on the delicacy(?) – rubbery and fishy – washed down with some Rye bread.  An interesting experience.

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We stayed on the windswept peninsular for two nights before heading north on the windy gravel road along its northern shore.  I’ll cover the second half of our trip in Iceland in another post, but in the meantime you can view photos of our trip here.

We’ve been back a month already – time for some reflection!

Every blog post I seem to start by saying “time has flown by”, well it certainly has since we arrived back home from our 15 month trip exactly one month ago today. I have really noticed that working 5 days a week seems to make the clock spin faster! Just a few weeks ago we were free and travelling the world, now we find ourselves slapped back to reality in the ‘real world’. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind and I find myself wondering if I ever went away at all, and thus I thought it was time for a bit of reflection.

I was really looking forward to seeing the ‘green fields of England’ again and eagerly looked out of the window on the way into London’s Heathrow airport in anticipation. Unfortunately it was grey clouds with rain streaming down the windows all the way down to the runway, not the English summer I was hoping for! Optimistically, or stupidly, I was dressed in shorts and flip flops and without the heat and humidity of Asia that I had been used to for the past three months I felt pretty cold! Waiting for me at the airport were my Mum and sister, complete with a welcome home balloon, and it was great to see them again after so long. As a brucey bonus I found that Katie had even baked a belated birthday cake for me. ?

The first few days at home felt surreally normal, when you go away for so long you think things will have changed at home but I found it pretty much as I had left it. That said it is nice to return to a place you know, not having to search for a room, and generally not doing all the touristy things – which gets pretty tiresome! I had about 10 days back in the UK, during which I caught up with friends and family and despite it being a long time since we last saw each other it felt like old times.

I really enjoyed being back on ‘the island’, it was nice being in my own country for a change, but after 6 months without work my wallet was feeling pretty empty and in need of some refilling. So I flew out to Bonn, Germany, where I had been living before starting our trip, to rejoin my old team at Deutsche Telekom. We had stayed in touch whilst I was away and when they asked if I would like to come back I jumped at the chance – a real luxury in the present economic climate.

It was like seeing old friends when I met my former colleagues again and I felt really welcome back in the team. Straightaway I found I had some luxuries that I didn’t have in Australia – my own desk, a quiet office, and a big monitor – no view of the harbour bridge though! It is a bit of a shock to the system to be working again, sitting in the office for 8 hours a day has definitely been a bit strange.

Germany doesn’t feel totally foreign to me these days, and I was pleased my German language skills haven’t been totally lost whilst I was away. Bonn may not have the same buzz as Sydney, but it’s a nice place and, just to prove you don’t have to go to the otherside of the world for a good sunset, I was treated to this over the city with the Rhein in the foreground.

Lisa has been spending time with her family in friends in her home town, Fürth, in southern Germany – about 4 hours on the train from Bonn. Probably the strangest thing about being back is that Lisa and are apart – in 15 months we had just two nights apart, when I was at the Rugby World Cup in Auckland, and apart from our time in Sydney we were pretty much together 24 hours a day! Of course spending so much time with the same person isn’t particularly healthy and there were times when we got on each other nerves (me more than her I suspect!) but I am really pleased how great we got on. We always had something to laugh and talk about even during the stressful moments – such as trying to find the right bus or train to get on! It is great that we have shared this amazing experience together, photos are good but it’s even better to share a memory with someone. We are looking to move closer together in the near future though, which is good as I find myself really missing my little travel mate…

I haven’t had much time to dwell on the trip, but when people ask me things like “was it a good trip?” or “where was your favourite place?” – I find it a bit difficult to answer there’s a bit more to a 15 month trip than that – there was good, bad, and indifferent! It’s funny though, you don’t fully appreciate the experience until you are back at work! Of course I would rather be lazing on a Fijian beach or being attacked by sand flies on a Kiwi one! More than anything I find myself thinking of Sydney, which for me is one of the best cities in the world, the lifestyle, the nightlife, and our friends there – why does it have to be so far away?!? Naturally when we were there we were thinking about all the things we were missing back home – the human mind is cruel sometimes!

I’m not even going to try and pick a favourite place, we pretty much liked everywhere we visited, but New Zealand seems to crop up in my thoughts more than anywhere else – again why does it have to be so far away? I don’t miss those darn sand flies though! Also some of the best experiences were in the first 6 weeks of our trip when we took the Trans-Siberian express through Russia and then went down through Mongolia to China. Over 10’000km on the train may sound boring but it was one of the best travel experiences I have had. This photo taken at the station in Moscow just before we boarded the Trans-Siberian shows the final destination of Vladivostok, which is on the eastern end of Russia (7 days travel away!), really makes me remember the anticipation and excitement I had of what lay ahead…

Visting Tibet was another very special experience, a very spiritual place with some amazing people, and getting up to Everest Base camp was another experience I won’t forget. I could go on and on about all the amazing things we saw, the people we met, and the experiences we had but that would take a while and you can read through the previous posts for more details through the links on the right.

So the plan is to see how things go for the next 6 months or so, hopefully move together and enjoy Europe again. Summer seems to be picking up, the Olympics is on, and my friends and family are not to far away – happy days! After that who knows, Germany, the UK, or maybe even Sydney – can someone invent a quicker plane please! It goes without saying that there are future travel plans in my head – the worlds a big place…Europe (maybe with the kids!), South America, Canada, and before I really settle day I quite fancy a jaunt to one of the polar regions…just need to stay in the ‘real world’ for a while and save up some money!

Keep checking back as I am sure I’ll be blogging about another trip in the not to distant future…

Last but not least – Thailand!

After 15 months it has come to the point where I am writing about the last country of our amazing trip – Thailand. As you may know this is my third visit here, I previously came here in 2005 and 2006, but it’s Lisa’s first time. Entering the country overland from Laos, and having visited several other countries in South East Asia recently it is quite a different experience to my previous visits. I remember on my first visit, which was also my first visit to Asia, everything was strange and different, but this time it all feels quite familiar and normal. This may be because I recognise many things and am now used to the ‘way-things-work’ out here, but I also suspect that it may also be due to us being ready to come home.

Compared to Cambodia and Laos the mass tourism of Thailand isn’t too appealing, but nevertheless we have enjoyed our two weeks in ‘the Land of Smiles’. We’ve been trying to take things easy and not rush around sight-seeing for the sake of it. Therefore our first week was very slow paced enjoying the culture of Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, which is in the far north of the country.

It’s a bustling city, but not so hectic that it’s too much, that is a mix of new and old. The old part of the city is a perfect square that is surrounded by a moat and medieval wall built 700 years ago to protect the city from Burmese invaders. The primary attraction of the city are its temples, and with over 200 of them they are not hard to find! Of course many are similar with plenty of gold paint and smiling Buddha statues taking centre stage, but our favourite was the ‘Wat Chedi Luang’ that dates from 1441 and features a massive brick ‘Chedi’ as its centrepiece.

Here they also offer ‘Monk Chat’, which is an opportunity to talk to the monks to learn about their culture and lifestyle. We had a really interesting chat with a friendly 20 year old monk, and we found out that many of the monks study Buddhism at a temple for a few years before returning to a normal life – kind of like us going to Uni! It was quite a humbling experience, he showed a level of maturity way above the 20 year old back home, and as much as we were interested in finding out about him he was equally interested to hear all about us too.

Perhaps even nicer than the temples is the food on offer in Chiang Mai, which has Burmese and Chinese influences. The curries are mild(ish!) and stew-like with herbs and vegetables taken from the surrounding jungle. My absolute favourite Thai meal is Khao Soi, a mild coconut based curry soup with pork or chicken and yellow noodles – since I first tried it here in 2005 I have been making it at home but it doesn’t match the real thing!

Like me northern Thai’s love pork and their favourite snack is Kaap Muu – deep fried pork crackling, which is a bit like pork scratchings but without the saltiness! They also prefer sticky rice with their meals, which Lisa really liked, particularly the dessert version of sweet sticky rice with coconut and fresh mango.

All that good food made us feel like we should do something to burn it off, and as Chiang Mai is a good place to embark on a trek to visit some of the hill-tribes that inhabit the surrounding areas we thought we should give it a go. We arranged a 2-day trek with one of the tour agencies in town that included an overnight stay in one of the villages, an Elephant ride, and white water rafting. After meeting up with our group, a friendly bunch of 10 tourists (including us) from Korea, Italy, Canada, and Brazil, our first day started early as we drove out of the city into the surrounding jungle covered hills. On the way we stopped at an Orchid farm and then at a ‘Long Neck Tribe’ village, which turned out to be more of a tourist souvenir market/trap. Although the women were friendly – allowing us to take photos of them with their staggeringly long-necks.

I’m not sure exactly why they want to extend their necks like this but I think it is because they believe it makes them more attractive. The rings are really heavy and must be uncomfortable, the lady in the photo above could hardly talk – I guess she is now reliant on the rings to support her neck.

The rest of the day was all about trekking and we walked for several hours, with our friendly guide through some villages and up into the misty mountains and through some dense jungle. Along the way we visited a cave that was home to lots of bats that didn’t seem too happy about us waking them up. Once at the top of the mountains we were greeted with some nice views over rice fields down into the valleys below.

We slept overnight on mats on the floor in a basic ‘tourist’ bamboo hut at the edge of a small village. The villagers were, unsurprisingly, used to tourists and barely acknowledged us, which didn’t make us feel too welcome. To be honest it was a meaningless experience apart from a place to stay for the night. That said we had a fun night with our fellow trekkers as we sat around a fire and drank a few ‘Changs’ – Thai beer.

Next morning after breakfast we trekked about an hour down the mountain to an elephant centre on the banks of a river. We weren’t too bothered about riding elephants ‘tourist style’ after the fantastic experience we had only a few days earlier in Laos (see previous post), especially when we noticed that the mahouts here used sticks with a metal spike on the end to control the elephants. Firstly we helped bath the elephants in the shallow river, which the baby Elephant was so appreciative of that he gave Lisa a kiss!

Later, despite our reservations, it was relaxing to sit in the seat on the elephants back as we meandered along the river – amusingly we stopped regularly whilst the elephant pulled up any bush in reach to chew on as she plodded along.

After the elephant ride we then boarded bamboo rafts and drifted peacefully a few KM’s along the river, a very tranquil experience.

Then the fun began as we swapped to a white water raft to undertake the rapids, which wasn’t so peaceful but a lot more exhilarating – thankfully the water wasn’t too cold (we got soaked) and we managed to stay in the boat all the way!

After the rafting it was an hour drive back to Chiang Mai, it had been a fun two days, mainly thanks to our fun group, albeit a very touristy experience. The next day was very lazy as we didn’t do much besides sitting in a cafe with a frothy coffee. However we did check out the night market which is setup every evening in along the ‘Th Chang Klan’ street. Here you can buy handicrafts, souvenirs, and plenty of fake designer goods from the traders who are eager to sell you anything you happen to look at!

We couldn’t leave Chiang Mai without learning how to cook some of the delicious food so we enrolled onto a cooking class with the ‘Asia Scenic’ cooking school. After meeting up with our tutor, ‘Maen’, the lesson started at a local market where we learnt about some of the important ingredients of Thai cooking and bought groceries to cook with later.

Then we (a group of 6 wannabie chef’s) drove out to a scenic farm on the outskirts of the city where we would do the cooking. The school try to grow as many of their own ingredients as possible at the farm so we had a little walk around and collected more ingredients for us to cook with – interesting to see how some of the plants look like. We liked this school because we could each choose, from a menu, what we wanted to cook. Lisa and I chose different things but I opted for spring rolls, a Pad Thai (Thai noodles), Tom Yum soup (a sour soup), red curry, and for a desert sticky rice with mango. We started with the Pad Thai as by this time it’s was lunch time and we were hungry!

Maen first demonstrated how it should be done and then we all had a go under her expert supervision. Pad Thai is a very easy dish to cook – heat oil in Wok at medium temperature, put in garlic, diced chicken, and add fish sauce, oyster sauce, and a bit of sugar as to your taste, then add an egg and mix it all together, add bean sprouts and thinly sliced carrots, before adding the noodles (pre-softened in cold water) – do all this whilst constantly stirring. It only took a few minutes to do all of this and, even if I do say so myself, the result was delicious!

The spring rolls are made as above but without the noodles, the cooked mixture is then wrapped in the pre-made spring roll pastry – bought from Tesco, which we were surprised to find has quite a few stores in Thailand! The tricky bit is getting your spring rolls to look nice and even, it’s a bit like wrapping presents and I’m no good at that either!

After a bit of fiddling I finally got something resembling a spring roll, which was then fried in oil in a wok at high temperature, surprisingly easy and I was pleased with how they turned out – here they are next to Lisa’s papaya salad.

The tricky part of the curry is making the paste, which is a collection of herbs and spices including lots of the same colour of chillies as the curry you want to make (NB. Green curry is spicier as Green chillies are fresher!), pounded into a paste with a mortar and pestle. You then fry the resulting paste with chicken, add whatever veggies you like, and pour in coconut milk – jobs a good un!

I won’t bore you with how to make the soup and the sticky rice, but both were good and the mango we had was the best I have ever tasted – I’m not usually a big fan of it but this was sweet and juicy. It was an interesting and enjoyable day during which we had a lot of fun, and I look forward to trying out the recipes at home. I would definitely recommend doing a cooking class in Chiang Mai if you want to learn about Thai cuisine, and the ‘Asia Scenic’ cooking school is high recommended.

The next day, after one last Khao Soi, we left Chiang Mai in the afternoon on a train headed south overnight to the Thai capital, Bangkok. The Thai sleeper train had probably the most comfortable beds we have found on any train on the trip, but the air con was for some reason set to arctic temperatures! Wrapped up we slept well and arrived in Bangkok early the next morning, however we didn’t linger as we took a bus 3 hours south to the Ban Phe ferry terminal to take us to the island of Koh Samet. We chose this island as we wanted to spend a few days on a beach and it was the most accessible (and cheapest to get to) option. Besides as it’s not as popular as some of the islands further south it is much less touristy ?

It was a 20 minute cruise on the rickety old ferry from the mainland to reach the island, which is only a few KM’s long. Once we reached the island we took a pickup truck taxi and went to the east side of the island, along some very muddy roads, where we stayed in a bungalow at the ‘Samed Villa Resort’ at Ao Phai beach. This resort was a step up from our normal budget but we thought why not treat ourselves to a bit of luxury in our last few days! The food from the restaurant, particualry the BBQ seafood, was delicious and was served on the beach – it felt like being on a holiday from a holiday!

Whilst the beach may not be the nicest in Thailand its fine white sand and turquoise water make it appealing enough. As it is the rainy season we were a little concerned about the weather, but thankfully apart from a few showers it was mostly sunny during our stay. Therefore we were able to sit back and relax with a book – no sight-seeing necessary, lovely!

We really didn’t do much for four days, although it’s surprising how quickly time passes when you’re busy doing nothing! So we soon found ourselves taking the ferry back to the mainland and the bus back to Bangkok. Traffic in Bangkok, especially in the evening, is a real pain and it took us over an hour in a taxi to get across town to our hotel, which was near the infamous ‘Khao San Road’. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are fresh out of school/uni on a gap year and looking to go crazy! It’s packed out with young backpackers who cram into the pumping bars and it’s not our sort of place, but accommodation is cheap here and it is near the sights plus it’s a good place for buying some cheap stuff at the market that runs along it.

The easiest way to get around Bangkok is on the river ferries which plough along the busy Mae Nam River, and you get the added bonus of some sightseeing along the way. Numerous temples line the river bank, including ‘Wat Arun’ – one of Thailand’s most famous landmarks.

We disembarked the ferry at the ‘central pier’, which conveniently connects with the Bangkok Skytrain system – no underground here, the city train runs on an elevated track over the city. We took the Skytrain to the north of the city where we visited the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market. Pretty much everything is sold here including handicrafts, clothes, live animals, and plenty of souvenirs all at bargain prices. You have to battle through hordes of people in the tiny alleys between stalls, which is an exhausting but nevertheless fun experience!

The market spans a large area with thousands of stalls, which make it feel like you’re lost in a giant maze. A couple of hours at the market was plenty for us and we retreated back to the city where we met up with Lisa’s uncle, aunt, and cousin – Didi, Tik, and Marissa – who were in Bangkok visiting Tik’s family who live in the eastern suburbs. We were kindly invited to the family’s house for a delicious dinner, which was a lovely experience and an interesting insight into Thai culture outside the tourist domain. They even drove us across town back to our hotel, thanks guys it was much appreciated. 🙂

Today was our last day of the trip and we spent the morning looking at some of the sights of Bangkok’s old town. Firstly we had a walk past the Grand Palace, which is used by the popular Thai king for ceremonial purposes. It’s a lavish palace with grand golden buildings and stupas plus an imposing fort wall surrounding it. Nearby is the Wat Pho temple, which is the oldest temple in Bangkok and houses Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha – a 46m by 15m giant! Very impressive and a fitting ‘last temple of the trip’!

We had a ‘Pad Thai’ for lunch overlooking the river and then walked a loop around the old town and through Chinatown, which was full of gold traders. It’s was a very hot day and walking around Bangkok is quite tiring so we decided to spend the last few hours of the afternoon in our hotels roof-top pool – any excuse for Lisa to sunbath 😉

Tonight after some final souvenir shopping we have had one last penang curry, now a firm favourite, washed down with a bottle of Chang whilst reminiscing about our trip – where has the time gone! To be honest we won’t miss Bangkok too much, a couple of days in this throbbing monster is enough!

Nevertheless Thailand is a lovely country with some of the friendliest people in SE Asia, good food, exotic beaches, and a range of activities on offer – if you have never been to Asia then this is a great starting point. We have struggled a little with the mass tourism, especially after Laos, but then again we have enjoyed the hospitality that makes Thailand so appealing.

There’s a load of photos from our time in Thailand here.

So that’s it, after 15 months (456 days) away, tomorrow we will board a flight to take us home. Sadly Lisa and I are taking separate flights to our respective countries, and after so long together it will be strange to be apart again – albeit not for too long! We’re sad that our big adventure has come to an end, but are very excited about seeing friends and family again, having a ‘home’, and even going back to work! I can’t wait for a decent cup of tea, a bacon sarnie, and a roast dinner – Mum are you listening?! No doubt on the plane back I will reflect a bit on our amazing journey, through 17 countries, the experiences we have had, and the lovely people we have met – but I’ll leave the reflecting for another post in a few weeks.

All journeys end somewhere…and now it’s time to come home.

Laid-Back Laos

It may have been only a bus ride from Vietnam but laid-back Laos feels a world away from its hectic neighbour. It’s a country of golden temples, tangerine-robed monks, jungle clad mountains, and some reserved but very friendly people. It almost feels like the earth spins a bit slower in Laos and, for us, it has been the perfect place to change down a gear as we approach the end of our trip – we’ll be home in a couple of weeks!

We spent our first couple of days in Laos in its capital – Vientiane, which could possibly be the quietest capital city in the world. There are lots of examples of its French colonial history with wide boulevards, cafes, and architectural refinement. There’s even an ‘Arc de Triomphe’, albeit a concretely replica built in the 1960’s!

Pride of place though is a the ‘Pha That Luang’ (Great Sacred Stupa), which is the most important national monument in Laos, a symbol of Buddism and the country’s sovereignty. Images of the stupa appear on all official documents and bank notes. It’s about 4km out of the city so we rented bicycles and leisurely pedalled out to it, and to be fair it is pretty impressive.

They must use a lot of gold paint as nearly every Buddist monument is covered in it, as was demonstrated by numerous statues and buildings that surrounded the stupa – including the architecturally impressive national history museum (we didn’t go in). Besides the Budist monuments and the Arch there’s not too much to see in Vientiane, but nevertheless we enjoyed lazily cycling around its quiet streets and enjoying a coffee or two in some of the cafes.

With the Euro 2012 footy tournament on at the moment we have to plan our long distance bus trips carefully. For example we wanted to take an overnight but to the northern town of Luang Prabang about 12 hours away, but because England were playing France that evening we decided to break up the journey and stop in the infamous town of Vang Vieng (about 150km north) to watch the game. We didn’t really want to go to Vang Vieng, it has a reputation as a place where young backpackers go to indulge in booze and drugs. Sadly this is exactly what we discovered. Having said that when we first arrived we were pleasantly surprised as the view of the surrounding misty mountains from our guesthouse, at the quiet end of the town, was lovely.

Most people are here to go tubing, which is floating down the river in an inflatable ring stopping at the numerous bars along the river bank to down shots of Whisky or indulge in magic mushroom shakes. Of course taking getting totally wasted whilst playing in a fast-flowing river is not a good mix and on average 40 backpackers a year drown here – an incredible statistic that had us wondering why the place hasn’t been shut down, this newspaper article sums it all up if you want to know.

We went into the town to have some food, a very big and tasty burger, and watch the game. It wasn’t a great atmosphere, but watching it with my drunken compatriots was painful and we couldn’t wait to get back to the tranquil hotel. Unfortunately this tranquillity was ruined when we realised that we were sharing our bed with a load of bed bugs. Thus, first thing in the morning we were on the bus travelling north to Luang Prabang. Lesson learnt – if somewhere has a bad reputation, give it a miss!

It was only a few hundred KM’s but the journey took six hours on a very bendy road up and down mountain passes, which gave us some fantastic views although there were some pretty scary drop offs!

Thankfully we arrived safely in timeless Luang Prabang, which we liked immediately. Lying on the banks of the Mekong River surrounded by mountains the town has a scenic setting, which coupled with some lovely colonial buildings, Buddhist temples, and a easy-going atmosphere make it a lovely place.

Of course this hasn’t gone unnoticed and the town is firmly on the tourist trail, but unlike Vang Vieng it hasn’t had a negative impact. There are numerous guesthouses, restaurants, and European style cafes – you can get a good coffee here – but it all somehow seems to fit in with the vibe of the town. We stayed at the cheap but nice Mao Pha Shok guest house, which had a room with a balcony overlooking the river.

This was a contributing factor that has seen us stay in Luang Prabang for 6 days, which we have taken at gentle pace, this is not a place to rush about, mainly due to late nights watching the football! There are numerous temples dotted around the town, which are all similar, but it was interesting to see what the monks (there are lots of them in Luang Prabang) get up to at the towns main temple, Wat Xieng Thong – pretty much anything that needs doing it seems, including a bit of decorating.

There were other interesting temples across the river, which we crossed in a long thin ferry boat, and it’s fair to say that there’s quite a difference on the opposite back from the town. In Luang Prabang you can get a cappuccino and a croissant in a French style cafe, whilst over the river people live in simple huts on dirt roads – I guess you could say this is the ‘real’ Laos.

We walked a couple of KM’s along the river bank through villages and found several simple temples along the way. Again there were several monks resident and we learnt that parents (especially those from poor backgrounds) send their sons to be educated in Buddism as they cannot provide for them. The monks live a simple life with few possessions but they are highly respected. The most interesting temple was surprisingly in a big limestone cave, Wat Tham Xieng Maen, which we found with the help of a young girl (approx. 10) with a torch who unlocked the entrance doors set in the hillside.

Once inside we were surprised by how large the cave was – the girl couldn’t speak much English but it seemed like they worshipped it as Buddha’s burial site, and we saw lots of broken Buddha statues lying around. It was quite a bizarre experience walking around a dark cave with a child as a guide – of course she insisted on a tip! Another temple, Wat Chom Phet, was set at the top of a step staircase up the hillside, and on climbing it we had a good view back over the river towards Luang Prabang.

The ferry driver picked us up and took us on cruise along the river for the sunset, which was a leisurely trip during which we saw several fishermen working with their nets. We enjoyed the sunset whilst sipping on a can of the local Beer – Beerlao – very relaxing.

We had initially thought Laos’s food was similar to Thai, but this is because many restaurants serve Thai food to tourists as it’s more popular. Traditional Laos food is based on sticky rice, which is served up anytime of the day. We found a restaurant called Tamarind, which specialised in introducing tourists to local food with a menu full of detailed descriptions it really aided our understanding. We tried the tasting platter, which consisted of river seaweed, stewed bamboo shoots, spicy jungle vegetables, a Luang Prabang sausage, buffalo rind chilli paste, and of course sticky rice. An interesting experience with some pretty intense, and new, flavours!

We had a look around the Royal Palace, which was built relatively recently in 1904 for the Laos king and his family. The palace served as the residence for three successive kings until 1975 when a revolution saw the royal family exiled to a cave in Northern Laos, since then the palace has been a museum. As you might imagine it’s grand building with large airy rooms and a golden decor, and includes the Pha Bang Buddha statue that gives the town its name.

For another sunset we climbed the 400 steps up to the summit of Mt. Phu Si where a golden stupa, That Chomsi, sits high overlookinig the town – at night it’s lit up and looks very spiritual from below. In the humidity it’s a sweat inducing climb but the views over the town and river are well worth the effort.

At the top we met some local teenagers who wanted to practise their English and we enjoyed talking with them and learning about their culture whilst taking in the views. After climbing down the steps we had a wander through the picturesque night market, which is setup every evening on the main road through the town outside the Royal Palace. Friendly traders sell some delightful souvenirs, and because in Laos the people aren’t pushy, as is common elsewhere in Asia, there’s a really nice atmosphere. The market is surprisingly long and it’s hard to walk through it all without being tempted to buy something!

After another late, and frustrating, night watching England at Euro 2012, we decided to stay up to watch the Morning Alms ceremony at 5:30am. This is a centuries old tradition where the monks walk through the town to receive food offerings, normally sticky rice, from the town’s residents. For the residents it’s a sign of respect to the monks and for the monks it’s an important source of food. There’s a lot of etiquette involved, such as you should never be higher than a monk (everyone kneels down), which makes it hard for tourists to get involved without causing offence. After much debate we bought some sticky rice from our guesthouse, which Lisa joined in with the locals to hand out (literally) to the Monks who carry a large pot for receiving the donations. It was all over really quickly, twenty or so monks walked past single file and received the rice without speaking or any eye contact – quite a strange experience.

Things happen early in Luang Prabang and at 6am a morning market starts where people from rural areas come into the town to sell their produce. There are no supermarkets in Laos so this is where the locals go to do their grocery shopping, by 9am it’s all finished. Despite it being a rainy morning the market was colourful and vibrant – albeit in the laid-back Laos way!

After the market we were gasping for some sleep so slept for the rest of the morning, suitably refreshed, in the afternoon we visited the nearby Kuang Si waterfall. The waterfall is tiered over several levels with turquoise pools at each level that are ideal for a refreshing swim – although the water was surprisingly cold!

The following day was my birthday and Lisa’s present to me (and herself!) was a 2-day ‘Mahout’ (the driver and keeper of an elephant) experience. There are several companies that offer these experiences near Luang Prabang so she did some research to find one that cares for the wellbeing of elephants and settled on the ‘Elephant Village’ who focus on rehabilitating elephants from the logging industry. Laos’s is described as ‘the Land of a million elephants’ so it seemed only right that we spend some time with them whilst we were here. It’s located about 15km out of Luang Prabang, down some bumpy dirt roads, on the banks of the Nam Khan River.

Our day started by learning the basic commands of driving the elephants “Song” commands the elephant to lift its leg to help you get on, “Bei” is go, “Hau” is stop, “Si” is right, and “Huay” is left. Of course this went in one ear and out the other, but thankfully we had a real mahout on the elephants with us (most of the time!). Next we learnt how to get up on to the elephants neck – use the elephant’s left leg as a step up and grab hold of her left ear and pull yourself up – easy? No, to the unitiated it’s an undignified scramble up and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the elephant as I yanked at her ear!

Thankfully the elephant, ‘Me Wah’, was patient and didn’t seem to mind – they only use female elephants as they are more gentle. Once up on the neck you then have to fight a bit of vertigo as it’s very high up there! You move as far forward as possible and wedge your knees in behind the elephant’s ears to grip on, and then before you know it you’re off ambling around the field.

After this short practice ride we feed ‘Me Wah’ a load of bananas, which she eagerly reached up for with her trunk.

Later, on a different elephant with a seat strapped to its back, Lisa and I, with a friendly mahout walking alongside, rode out through a village down to the river taking it in turns to ‘play mahout’ along the way. I have to say it was more comfortable riding in the padded seat rather than on the prickly (they have lots of sharp hairs) neck but hey that’s not what we were here for!

It looks like I know what I’m doing eh? Looks are deceiving as I felt the elephant did exactly what it wanted, usually stopping to pull up a bush to chew on, except when the mahout gave her some commands. It was fun though and we had a lot of laughs as the elephants, thankfully, plodded along at a relaxing pace.

After a bit of lunch we checked into a lodge on the banks of the river in a very scenic spot where we would stay overnight. Then we rode an elephant each up into the mountains where they are left to their own devices, on a long chain, in the jungle until the next morning.

Afterwards we visited a waterfall up river, not too exciting as it was pretty much dry, and then cooled off in the lovely swimming pool at the lodge, which had quite a view.

We then relaxed the evening away with a few Beerlaos’s whilst overlooking the river – it had been a very different but fantastic birthday! Next morning we were up early as we had to trek up the mountain to help the mahouts collect the elephants, which we then rode down to the river for a bath – I’m not sure what they had been doing all night but they were filthy! To say the elephants liked the water is an understatement – they couldn’t wait to get in! I have to say I was a little apprehensive going into the water on the back of a several ton animal – the river was fast-flowing, chocolate brown, and pretty high thanks to a load of overnight rain – but you grip on and get on with it!

The elephants were splashing water all over the place and ducking under the water so naturally we got totally soaked, thankfully the water wasn’t too cold, but it was a load of fun. We brushed them off, which they seemed to like especially behind their ears, and after 15 mins or so the elephants emerged looking lovely and clean – what an amazing experience!

There ended our training and we were then told we could now consider ourselves ‘Mahouts’! It was then our turn to have a wash (not in the river!) followed by a nice breakfast before we went back to Luang Prabang. I would thoroughly recommend the ‘Elephant Village’ if you are looking to spend some time with elephants whilst in Laos.

We spent the rest of the day chilling out in a cafe by the river, where I enjoyed a gorgeous ‘Cookie Sundae’ as a belated birthday ‘cake’.

In the late afternoon we sadly, we didn’t want to leave, boarded a bus that would take us overnight out to the Thai border. It was an arduous and bumpy 12–hour trip in a cramped mini-bus along some very bumpy dirt roads – not the best overnight bus trip we have taken – but arrived at the border around 6am. Laos and Thailand are separated by the Khong river, so we got stamped out of Laos and then took a little boat across the river and got stamped into Thailand – as far as border crossings go quite cool!

It was then a nice and smooth, it was obvious immediately that Thailand is much more developed, four hour bus ride from the border to the city of Chiang Mai where we arrived late yesterday afternoon. We were shattered so after a bit of Khao Soi, a delicious noodle soup with coconut milk that is a speciality here, we went to bed. I set an alarm and forced myself to watch the England v Ukraine game last night, which thankfully England won!

So now we are in Thailand, the last, and no means least, country of our 15 month trip – we’ll spend two weeks here. We were pretty sad to leave Laos, it’s a lovely peaceful country with some really lovely people – there’s so much more to it than ‘tubing’ and we would definitely go back there again.

There’s a load of photos from our trip through Laos here.

Vietnam – Sapa, Halong Bay, and on to Laos

We have spent our last week in Vietnam in the north of this fantastic country, which has continued to impress us. We spent the first half of the week in the northern highlands at the town of Sapa, which lies near the Chinese border. To get to there we took an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai and from there it was a windy 40 minute bus ride up into the mountains to the town. Ascending through valleys of cascading rice terraces we had some glorious views.

Sapa was founded as a French hill station in 1909 and is a quaint place with some grand colonial architecture and a spectacular setting. The town is also a great place from which to visit some of the hill-tribe communities, such as the Black H’Mong and Red Dzao tribes, which inhabit some of the surrounding hills. To get out to these remote villages you have to do some trekking and we had pre-booked a tour with a homestay through the Sapa Summit Hotel. It was handy booking through the hotel as we could have a shower and breakfast before setting off on our trek. We were pleased that our friendly guide, Xing, was from one of the communities – the Black H’Mong. Xing’s spoke good and dressed in the traditional way for her tribe. She also carried her baby on her back, wrapped in a basic sling, throughout our tour.

As we walked through Sapa we were joined by many friendly, a bit of a sales ploy, ladies from the Black H’Mong community. All were dressed in the same way with an indigo blue long gown (embroidered with colourful patterns to distinguish age and skill), leggings, a tall hat, and if they are married large heavy earrings.

Owing to the altitude of 1650m it is no surprise that Sapa is regularly shrouded in cloud, and it was misty and damp as we walked along the trails of the Muong Hoa Valley. We passed through several villages along the way, which given their setting and colourfully dressed residents were very picturesque.

With the damp conditions the trails were muddy and slippery, despite us wearing trekking shoes, however the locals in their sandals they seemed to have no problem and regularly had to give us a hand!

To get to our lunch stop at the Lao Chai village we had to cross a river on a rickety old suspension bridge, it didn’t feel particularly safe but it made for a good photo opportunity!

Our homestay was in the Ta Van Village, which is inhabited by the Dzay people. Five of us (Lisa and I, Lawrence from the UK, Naja from Canada, and Jay from Korea) stayed with a lovely family in their wooden house in the centre of the village. The villagers seemed to be used to tourists (there were lots of homestays and even a tourist pub!) and very friendly. It was raining so we relaxed with muddy and sweet Vietnamese coffee overlooking the rice terraces – you don’t get this at Starbucks!

Whilst our hosts couldn’t speak much English we could have a basic conversation and they seemed to like having us around. They cooked us a banquet of a meal, food is very important to the Vietnamese, that we all sat down and ate together. After the meal our hosts insisted on sharing a bottle of rice wine with us, which whilst tasting a bit like paint thinner our hosts seems rather partial to!

It was the homestay experience we were hoping for and we had a lot of fun and really enjoyed the small insight we had into their lives. Here’s a photo of us with the family, on the left, and our guide Xing at the front – the photos wonky as I don’t think the H’Mong lady who took it had ever used a camera before!

After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and coffee we trekked out through the rice terraces where workers were laboriously tending to their crops. After crossing another dodgy suspension bridge we stopped at a waterfall for another photo opportunity.

Further up the mountain we had lunch at a H’Mong village where we were harangued one last time by the savvy (sales) ladies – “buy something from me?”cheap price”. Their sales pitches were quite humorous and with many of their souvenirs the result of their own handy work we happily bought a few things from them – once we had negotiated a sensible price!

After lunch we took a bus back up the windy road to Sapa. It had been a really great couple of days, trekking through the fantastic scenery and meeting the tribes is one of our favourite Vietnam experiences. We had the rest of the day to ourselves in Sapa so we had a walk around the town, which has a small catholic church at its centre.

By now our legs were feeling a little tired so we relaxed a while in a nice French cafe that sold good coffee and cake! Dinner was included at our hotel and we were served up pumpkin soup, spring rolls, and chicken curry. Unfortunately, we think, something in this meal gave us food poisoning as we spent most of the night and next day running to the toilet 🙁

We had planned our tour around a visit to the vibrant weekly Bac Ha market, which is a gathering for people from the various communities every Sunday. Sadly we were in no condition to visit the market so we had to miss out – it gives us a reason to come back!

Instead we stayed at the hotel most of the day, whose manager wasn’t too sympathetic and made us pay a fee to stay longer in our room! It wasn’t a great day but thankfully we felt well enough to take the overnight sleeper train back to Hanoi in the evening. We slept like logs for the whole journey and arrived in Hanoi feeling much better.

After a lazy morning in Hanoi we decided we had had enough of being in hotel rooms so visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is a holy site for many Vietnamese as his embalmed corpse is on display here. We didn’t go in as it is closed in the afternoons but its grand dimensions make it a very imposing sight from the outside.

Also in the complex is HCM’s former stilt house residence, the presidential palace, and the icon of Hanoi the ‘One Pillar Pagoda’, which was built to represent a lotus blossom, which to the Vietnamese is a symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.

By this time we hadn’t eaten much for nearly 36 hours and our bellies were rumbling. Noodle soup is good when you’re ill, and as luck would have it the staple meal of Vietnam is beef noodle soup – Pho Bo. The Vietnamese eat Pho Bo for Breakfast, and despite initial reservations we actually enjoyed having it for breakfast once or twice.

The noodles must have helped as we felt back to normal again the next morning, which was good as we set off early on a three day tour to one of Vietnam’s most famous sights – Halong Bay. This majestic and mysterious natural spectacle is a World Heritage listed site that features thousands of limestone pillars/islands formed over 20 million years into various shapes and sizes.

There are lots of tour companies who will take you to Halong Bay all seemingly offering a similar experience, so after a bit of research and recommendation from fellow travellers we plumped for ‘Christina Cruises’. They picked us up at our Hanoi hotel in their minibus for the four hour journey to Halong City. We then boarded a traditional wooden Junk that would take us on a cruise around the bay. In recent years tourists have drowned as a result of poorly maintained boats sinking so I was relieved that ours looked in a seaworthy condition!

There were about twenty of us in the group, which included Vietnamese as well as Western tourists – notably a large group of friendly Israelis. Firstly we had lunch, which was a bit of a feast with fish, squid, chicken, spring rolls, and some battered deep fried sweet corn that was surprisingly nice!

As we ate lunch we cruised out to into the bay and from a distance it looks like the pillars are all one but as you get closer you realise they are all individual rocks jutting out of the sea. Our first stop was at the Thien Cung grotto that is a gigantic cave hollowed out of one of the pillars. We were told we were visiting a cave but we didn’t expect it to be so impressive, it took quite a while to walk through all the chambers and it was so expansive I wondered how the rock above us was supported.

After the cave we went out in a kayak, Lisa in the front and me ‘the engine’ in the back, which allowed us to get up close to some of the formations and explore some of the hidden lagoons. It was good fun, although we had to be careful to avoid the numerous cruise boats that either didn’t notice us or didn’t care if they hit us! We paddled around a floating fishing village where the residents cheerfully waved at us and took in the views of the formations towering above us.

Our tour guide was quite disappointing as he didn’t give us any info except telling us quite aggressively what time we should be where. We visited what he described as a beach but it was more of a mud bath, thankfully we didn’t have to hang out on ‘the beach’ as we found a staircase up to a lookout point at the top of the pillar. Whilst a bit of an effort to get up there the views overlooking the bay were spectacular.

We slept over night on the junk, which was anchored in a calm lagoon between several pillars and in our cabin it was hard to tell we were even on a boat. It was scenic spot to spend the night and we watched a glorious sunset from the top deck.

When darkness fell we tried our hand at squid fishing, a bright light at the front of the boat was used to attract the squid to the lures we dangled from our cane rods. We gave it a go for an hour or so but didn’t get a bite, but nevertheless it was a relaxing and fun way to spend the evening.

We slept well on the Junk and next morning as we ate breakfast we cruised through the bay past countless pillars to the large island of Cat Ba where we disembarked. Jungle clad Cat Ba is the only populated island in the bay and has surprisingly large town at its southern tip. We did a trek up to a high point on the island which gave us a view across it. It was a steep and slippery trail to the top and we were soon sweaty profusely and attacked by swarms of mossies as we trekked through the jungle. When we reached the top the view was OK but I wouldn’t do it again!

After lunch at a restaurant in Cat Ba town we had the afternoon to ourselves and whilst most of the tourists stayed in a hotel there we were glad we had opted to pay more to stay in a bungalow on remote Nam Cat Island. To get there we took a bouncy little boat, piloted by a kindly old man, about 30 minutes along the bay. As soon as we arrived we loved the tranquillity of the place and the view from our bungalow, which stood on 3m stilts above the water, gave us one of the best bedroom views we have had in 14 months of travelling.

It was a great place to relax and enjoy some peace (not easy to find in Vietnam!), and when we got too hot we jumped into the appealing water to cool off.

In the evening we enjoyed a nice BBQ dinner and went to sleep listening to the water lapping at the legs of our bungalow. If you do a tour to Halong, it is well worth the extra cost to stay at these bungalows.

Next morning we took the same boat back to Cat Ba and then after picking up the other tourists from the town took a bus back to the port where we boarded our Junk. We then cruised back out through the ever impressive formations back to the mainland.

Then it was a four hour bus ride back to Hanoi, which was slightly ruined when our guide handed out review forms and then didn’t like the feedback we gave him – not very professional! But nevertheless we had thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Halong Bay, it is a lovely place.

Back in Hanoi we enjoyed some more Bun Bo Nam Bo (see the previous post) for dinner, and took it easy. Whilst we enjoyed the buzz of the city we found it a Hanoi’ng (pardon the pun) place to walk around as it’s a constant battle to weave your way through small streets full of scooters.

Yesterday, after one last Pho Bo we boarded a sleeper bus for a gruelling 20 hour journey to Vientiane in Laos. We had debated whether to fly (1 hour but $190) or take the bus ($25), and in the end opted for the cheaper option and actually it wasn’t that bad.

We slept much of the way and when not sleeping I found the Stieg Larsson ‘Millenium’ book I am reading very engrossing. There wasn’t a toilet on board so the bus stopped every few hours, including a few hours for the border formalities, which meant we could stretch our legs.

We arrived in Vientiane, which is Laos capital city, around 15:00 this afternoon and we were immediately struck by how quiet it is compared to a Hanoi – it looks like Laos is much more chilled that bustling ‘Nam!

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vietnam, a place where anything is possible, and you can see some of the photos from our time there here.