A Travellerspoint blog

The last leg

Mastering the art of becoming beach bums

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We decided a long time ago to spend our last two weeks on the beach. Before we came home, it was time to really unwind. No overnight buses, no dorm rooms and, as good as our time was at New Hope Cambodia was, no excitable children.

Before we could relax, though, we had to get to Koh Tao. A tuk-tuk, a plane, two taxis, a boat, a ride in a pick-up truck and 24 hours later, we arrived at Aminjirah Resort.

As we bounced down the steps and turned the final corner of the path, we weren't disappointed. In front of us lay the sumptuous cool waters of the infinity pool, which bled into the vast blue ocean in the distance. Paradise.

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Needless to say, there was very little that could drag us away from such serenity. Our days tended to follow a similar pattern: lazy morning, lazy afternoon, lazy evening. We became very lazy.

On a couple of occasions, we headed to Sairee beach and flopped in the shallow waters. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it was warm enough to imitate a bath.

As fun as it was be ludicrously lazy, we figured it'd be wasteful of us to miss out on a snorkelling trip on an island widely regarded as one of the world's best budget sites to see underwater creatures.

However, we were regretting our decision when our guide told us that reef sharks could be circling at our first snorkelling site (go on, take a look. Terrifying, aren't they?). I suppressed a minor panic attack and dived into the crystal clear waters, but soon forgot about the potential shark sightings as fish of all shapes, sizes and colours drifted in between the jungle of coral on the seabed.

We weren't content with being lazy on just one island though, so we moved on to Koh Phangan for more of the same. Except this time it was slightly different. We were pretty much on the beach. Well, if you want to be precise, we were 10 metres from it. A hop, skip and jump away from a gorgeous bay, flanked on either side by rainforest and backed by a smattering of restaurants, crepe stalls and cafes serving ice cream.

Our only venture away from Thong Nai Pan Noi was to join the throngs of neon-draped revellers at the infamous Full Moon Party. The last time I was there, the night ended in 24 stitches in my forehead. This time, it was a far less traumatic episode as we were happy to watch the world go by in a blur of fire ropes and strobe lights with a beer in hand.

The party marked the end of our time on the Thai islands and left us with just three days before we flew home. Over our final dinner in Thailand, it dawned on us that we'd soon be back and a horrible sinking feeling took hold as we realised that it would soon be all over. We asked each other what our three favourite moments of the trip were. Far too difficult, we concluded. We couldn't whittle it down to three.

How about five? Impossible. Even at 30, we figured that we would miss so many incredible memories off the list.

In the 139 days that we were away, we visited eight countries, saw a humpback whale, added 49 new beer labels to my collection, walked for four days to reach Machu Picchu, swam over a school of more than a million fish, sipped drinks at a 52nd-floor skybar and danced thousands of salsa steps in a Cusco courtyard.

You would think all these incredible experiences would satisfy the travel bug, but the list has just got bigger and bigger. Until next time...

Kristian and Sophie

Posted by kristian23 00:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged beach travel thailand backpacking koh_tao koh_phangan couples full_moon_party aminjirah sairee_beach thong_nai_pan_noi Comments (0)

New Hope Cambodia

The friendliest welcome in one of the world's poorest nations

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As we left Cambodia, we were searching for the reasons why we fell in love with the country. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are nice cities, but they certainly aren't spectacular in the way that Sydney and Cusco are. The scenery, too, is not as gorgeous as its neighbours Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. We became besotted with Cambodia for one reason alone: the people. They're the kindest, most friendly folk we've met on our trip without a doubt.

To say that the Cambodian population have endured a difficult recent history doesn't even begin to describe the torture they have had to endure. On a harrowing day at the Killing Fields and S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, we learned that three million citizens were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 & 1979. Almost half of Cambodia's population was wiped out in little more than four years. As the neighbouring Vietnam War raged on and Western access to Cambodia was severely limited, the murderous regime even gathered many global sympathisers. A number of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy are still awaiting trial for their roles in the genocide.

As we encountered more and more Cambodians, we were truly humbled by their hospitality. There are a vast number of social enterprises throughout the country aimed at getting the country and their people back on their feet. One of our favourite haunts was Epic Arts Cafe in Kampot, a sleepy riverside village in the south of Cambodia. The cafe is an inclusive working environment for deaf and disabled people, serving fantastic sandwiches and cakes.

From here, we moved to Otres Beach. Although only a few kilometres away from the thumping music of Sihanoukville, it's an entirely different world. For three days, we did nothing but sip ice-cold drinks on the white sandy beach and eat delicious amok and curry at the beachfront restaurants. It may not be quite as idyllic as the Thai beaches, but it's still a small strip of paradise.

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We soon moved on to Siem Reap though, which was to be our home for two-and-a-half weeks. Before we began volunteering at New Hope Cambodia, we squeezed in a three-day yoga retreat on the outskirts of the city (guess whose idea that was).

When we could drag ourselves away from the gorgeous swimming pool, we strained and stretched every sinew in one of the day's many classes. Doing a poor impression of the downward dog in 40 °C heat with no fans brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'dripping with sweat'.

The end of our yoga retreat didn't bring much respite though, as our two-week volunteering project at New Hope Cambodia meant cycling almost 20km a day. Each morning we woke bleary-eyed, but the first kilometre of our ride took us alongside an open sewer in scorching temperatures and the stench quickly forced us awake.

As we sat under the fans at school on our first morning, we soon forgot about our shirts sticking to our sweaty backs as the 300 children lined up to sing songs in both English and Khmer at the Monday morning assembly.

After a brief tour of the school and clinic, we were each assigned a class. Unlike classes in England, the children at New Hope Cambodia were distributed into groups dependent on their ability. This meant that the students in Sophie's Grade One class ranged from 6-13. I was in Grade Three, where kids aged 10 were taught alongside 20-year-olds.

The majority of our time at school was spent with small reading groups and although there was the odd tearaway, most of the children took such pride in their studies and tried really hard to improve their English.

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During our first week, the school was closed on the Friday for Rice Drop Day, when more than 300 sponsored families came to collect their monthly sacks of rice. Despite almost putting my back out carrying the 50kg bags to hundreds of scooters, bikes and tuk-tuks, the grateful faces of each and every person who attended meant that every excruciating lift was worthwhile.

With almost 30 other volunteers at New Hope Cambodia, it wasn't hard to keep ourselves entertained in the evenings. We went quad biking through the villages surrounding the city, watched a spectacular circus performance at Phare and made more than a few trips to taste the succulent ice cream at our second home, Blue Pumpkin.

However, no trip to Siem Reap is complete without a visit to Angkor Wat. We set our alarm for the scandalous time of 4:30am on a Saturday morning and set off into the dark. The iconic image of the temple is set against the backdrop of a radiant sunrise, but we arrived on an overcast day.

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Nonetheless, we were still treated to a spectacular view of the largest religious building in the world. The sheer size of the building, which was built almost 1000 years ago, cannot be comprehended until it's seen. We kept getting lost in the maze of tunnels and often stood gazing with our mouths wide open at the discovery of endless monumental buildings and sculptures.

The splendour didn't end at Angkor Wat though and it's easy to see how Bayon Temple, with its central peak, is still revered to this day. The most eerie and fascinating of the three temples we visited was Angkor Thom. The scene of Tomb Raider made us feel like intrepid explorers stumbling across a hidden gem, with giant sprawling trees twisting their way across the piles of crumbled ruins.

On our last day in Cambodia we were taken to see the family of a girl in Sophie's class who we have decided to sponsor. A short tuk-tuk ride took us closer to the city centre, where she lives with her mum, dad and younger brother.

Their house is a 2x3m room with a thin wall in the corner boxing off a tiny bathroom. The floor itself lies lower than the ground outside, so when it rains their home is often flooded with two or three inches of water. All four family members sleep in one bed. The family's sole income comes from the dad's job as a tuk-tuk driver.

Despite their obvious hardship, the family were so welcoming and willing to talk to us. The children at school, all of whom live in similarly harsh conditions, are bundles of joy and incredibly eager to learn. They are what made Cambodia such a highlight for us and are the reason why it will always have a special place in our hearts.

Kristian and Sophie x

Posted by kristian23 19:28 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temple travel cambodia kampot phnom_penh siem_reap angkor_wat volunteering backpacking sihanoukville couples south_east_asia voluntourism otres_beach Comments (0)

Kicking back in South East Asia

Languid Laos and familiar faces in Vietnam

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If you need to unwind, get yourself to Laos.

We had no expectations at all for the country, focussing our planning instead on the upcoming trips to neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However, with every passing day, every hour even, we could feel ourselves sinking slowly into the South East Asian pace of life. And let me tell you, it's pretty good.

After catching the sleeper train from Bangkok, we arrived in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. There wasn't a whole lot to do, so we contented ourselves with lounging around the pool, occasionally mustering up the strength to grab an ice cream from the adjacent shop.

We then moved up to Vang Vieng, the scene of the now infamous tubing - an activity advertised as an all-day booze cruise at bars dotted along the Nam Song river. There used to be 28 bars on its banks, but that number has reduced considerably to just five after a number of drug and drink-fuelled deaths.

We didn't really want to party - happy instead to simply float down the river - and after just a couple of drinks in the first bar, we soon escaped the crowds to join a handful of other tubers in meandering along the water at a snail's pace, drifting in and out of the shade of the limestone cliffs to our left and passing monks bathing in the river.

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Going north meant we had saved the best until last though. Ask anyone who's been to Laos and their face will light up at the mention of Luang Prabang, where dozens of French cafes serve oven-fresh pains au chocolat and every evening the main street is closed to accommodate the intimate night market. Then there's the unforgettable experience of the alm-giving ritual at 5am in the morning, when the town's inhabitants donate food to the 200 or so monks who live in the temples littered throughout Luang Prabang.

A short drive outside the town lies Kuang Si waterfalls, a place so beautiful that the sulphur-infused bright blue waters of the umpteen serene pools are scarcely believable.

Although we felt a tinge of sadness leaving Laos, it didn't match the excitement of meeting Jodie, Lianne and Rosie in Vietnam the next day. I'm sure that the most giddy Sophie has been on the entire trip is when we waited at Hanoi airport for the girls to arrive, with a makeshift 'Devonish' sign in hand!

We spent a day in the scorching heat of Hanoi before taking an overnight trip to Halong Bay. The idyllic images of the limestone karsts didn't quite reveal themselves immediately as we were caught in the midst of a tropical downpour as the boat chugged out of the harbour, but when the clouds parted we lowered ourselves into kayaks and paddled around the jungle-strewn islands, which stretched as far as the eye could see. That evening, after a quick dip in the sea, we sipped ice-cold drinks on the deck of the boat with the jet black silhouettes of the islands looming large above us.

That very same darkness engulfed us a couple of days later in the Phong Na-Ke Bang National Park. We'd already marvelled at the giant structures inside the 7km long Paradise Cave in the morning before arriving at the rather ominously named Dark Cave come the afternoon.

To reach it, we had to whizz across a river on a 120m zipline. A pretty classy entry. Within minutes though, we were guided only by the narrow beam of our headtorch as we ventured deeper into the cave. Before long we were knee-deep in thick, gloopy mud feeling like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In fact, the sludge was so thick that we were able to sit cross-legged with our body floating somewhere between the floor and the surface of the mud!

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Our next stop was Hoi An, which is spoken about in the same revered tones as Luang Prabang. It's easy to see why.

We stayed at the incredible Thanh Luan homestay where the owner, Trinh, acted like our mum for three days, taking special breakfast requests the evening before and heading into town on her scooter to get us pineapple, eggs, coffee, baguettes and much, much more.

A 3km bike ride to the right was the beach, where powder white sand runs into the azure waters. A shorter ride to the left lay the Old Town, where the magic of Hoi An really takes shape, with hundreds of delicate lanterns peeking through the low trees to form a mysterious glow over the narrow streets.

It was here that the most magnificent ladies in the world tailor made a suit for me. Despite the fact that they were closing their shop as we arrived, they stayed open an extra hour, plied us with ice-cold water and talked me through a plethora of options. Just two days later, my suit had been nipped and tucked to fit perfectly. Not only did they throw in a tie for free, but they refused to take any more money from me when I then asked them to sew a dozen badges onto my backpack at short notice. To the wonderful staff at Tuong Tailors, I salute you!

After a few weeks in the blistering heat, the cool 20 °C temperature of Dalat were certainly welcome - we didn't have showers of sweat running down our face and we could even wear jeans!

The real highlight of Dalat, though, was canyoning. Once we'd arrived at the river following a mad scramble down a 100m muddy bank, we thought we'd be slowly immersed into the activities. We thought wrong. One by one, the guides flung us backwards and head first down a natural water slide and into the pool below.

Soon after, we were abseiling off a 25m waterfall, the river thrashing down on top of us as we struggled to make a steady descent.

"When you're three metres from the bottom," our guide told us, "just let go and drop into the water".

Yeah, just like that. It wasn't terrifying in the slightest...

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We'd only just recovered from this when we came upon two platforms above a pool from where we could free jump. One was seven metres high, the other 11. Everyone started at seven metres, but even this was at our limit. When you have time to think in mid-air, it's a long drop.

Once I'd splashed into the pool below, I was adamant that I was going nowhere near the 11 metre jump. That was until the guide bullied me into doing it (and I stand by that description). This free fall required a run up to clear the seven metre platform below. I'd seen people dilly dally and panic, so I didn't allow myself time to think and flung myself off the edge and plummeted into the muddy waters. The adrenaline left my legs shaking for minutes afterwards.

Our final stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh, where the world passes by in a whirlwind of an estimated two million scooters.

While there, we visited the War Museum. Without going into too much detail, the damage caused not just to Vietnam, but to South East Asia as a whole, is staggering. The effects are still being felt strongly today.

But with just one night left, we couldn't afford to be gloomy so we glammed ourselves up and went for drinks at a 51st floor bar overlooking the city. It was brilliant to travel in a group of five and we crammed so much into such a short space of time. Thanks for joining us girls!

Kristian and Sophie x

Posted by kristian23 08:44 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beaches beach travel vietnam laos saigon hanoi couple backpacking caving backpackers hoi_an ho_chi_minh canyoning Comments (0)

Poms Down Under

G'day Oz!

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We weren't planning on coming to Sydney. The original idea had been to fly straight from Chile to South East Asia, but from the minute we were introduced to the possibility of a short visit to Australia, we'd been dreaming of the infamous harbour.

After almost 20 hours on a plane, we were remarkably energetic as we left our bags at the hostel and immediately walked down George Street to Circular Quay.

When we arrived, it couldn't have been more perfect. The sun was glistening on the water as we gawped at the spectacular Opera House and the equally formidable Harbour Bridge. Dumbstruck and exhausted, we slumped on a bench and soaked in the beauty of it all.

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We finally pulled ourselves away from the steps of the Opera House and, as we were only in Sydney for a week, came up with a packed action plan over a lunch of fish and chips.

Famed for its weird and wonderful wildlife, we ventured into Sea Life Sydney where we found ourselves in an underwater world of clown fish and Japanese spider crabs before walking underneath sawsharks, dugongs and sting rays.

As fascinating as this was, we couldn't resist the temptation to see humpback whales in the natural habitat, rather than in a tank. Our boat set off into the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean and we were all told to scan the water for the whales. An hour passed and we had seen nothing, but just as our enthusiasm was waning, up popped a juvenile male, spraying water from his blowhole and gracefully sweeping his tail into the water.

"This little fella's heading north for the mating season," said our guide. "He's like a 13-year-old boy. All he's thinking about is girls. At the moment, he has no idea what to do if he meets a girl, but he knows he's got to meet one."

Back on dry land, we met up with Tom Inglis, a friend of mine from university, who took us to a great restaurant in Chinatown. It's not what you'd call fancy - plastic cups for our $9 wine from the bottle shop and flimsy stools to perch on - but the dumplings were spectacular and the beef soup outrageously spicy!

Shaking off a red wine hangover, the next day we went to watch Greater Western Sydney Giants vs Adelaide Crows in AFL, or 'Aussie Rules' to you and I. We tried to research the rules before going and we knew the very basics, but in truth it was absolute carnage. There's no doubting the fitness of the players, who charge around the gigantic pitch at a frenetic pace, but it just looked like one big game of hoof-ball to us!

There aren't many cities in the world that can boast an abundance of gorgeous beaches, but Sydney's certainly one of them. We were only able to visit Bondi and Manly, but neither would look out of place in a luxury holiday brochure, with their curved bays of golden sand running into the blue waters of the sea. Keeping to our British image - we often walked around in shorts and t-shirts while the locals were wrapped up in jumpers and coats - we were practically the only people in the sea without wetsuits. And some people have the cheek to say I'm a soft southerner!

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Without a doubt one of the highlights of the entire trip so far was a sunset dinner cruise around Sydney Harbour. Apparently a 23-hour bus ride and takeaway pizza in Chile was a rather lame celebration of our three-year anniversary (I couldn't see anything wrong with it myself), so we belatedly treated ourselves. It was certainly worth the wait.

We were the youngest on the boat by a good 40 years and wondered just how luxurious the meal was going to be when they handed us a glass on champagne on arrival. As we set off from Darling Harbour, the sun was beginning to set behind the distant skyscrapers, but by the time our main course of veal ravioli (I told you it was posh!) had been cleared away, we found ourselves bobbing in darkness in between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.

To get a better view, we climbed the stairs to the top deck and right on cue, the whole harbour was suddenly bathed in colourful lights as part of Vivid Sydney. Animations danced off the walls of the Contemporary Art Museum while the high-rise buildings of the CBD were awash with blue, purple and green light.

We had high hopes for Sydney and it's safe to say that it did not disappoint in any way, shape or form. For now though, it's time to embrace the next chapter in South East Asia!

Thanks for reading,

Kristian and Sophie x

Posted by kristian23 03:32 Archived in Australia Tagged opera_house sydney harbour travel australia harbour_bridge whales bondi couple backpacking backpackers manly couples afl whale_watching Comments (0)

Viva Chile

Empanadas galore, churros and fancy wine

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Don't get me wrong, Bolivia was great, but it was also cold. Really cold. As in -5 °C, with the wind feeling as though it's tearing your face off.

Imagine our relief, then, as a van took us across the border into Chile and down almost 2000m in little more than an hour to the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. Stepping out of the van and into our hostel still in five layers confirmed that it was most definitely shorts and t-shirt weather.

After a little swing in the hammocks, we set off to explore the rustic streets of this tiny town, tucked away in the north of Chile. Having visited just six years ago, it was reassuringly familiar - the wooden signs, dusty narrow streets and the domineering presence of Licancabur volcano all remain.

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The sun was almost too much of a temptation, but we pulled ourselves away from the suntrap of the main square for long enough to join a tour to the Valley of the Moon. If the landscapes of the salt flats were surreal, then the Valley of the Moon was otherworldly. Jagged rocks jut out from the valley floor and all around red sand lays on the ground. Watching the sun set over the desert was on a par with the salt flats of Bolivia, which is high praise indeed.

We'd just about got settled in San Pedro de Atacama when we had to head south to Santiago. A quick glance at a map of Chile tells you it's an incredibly long, narrow country. Travelling anywhere takes a long time. However, in order to travel less than a third of the length of Chile meant taking a 23-hour bus. To top things off, we'd booked it on the day of our three-year anniversary. I'm such a romantic...

In all honesty it wasn't that bad. We passed the time by gorging ourselves on crisps and empanadas, dozing and trying to translate the Spanish films.

The romance wasn't over yet though. When we finally arrived in Santiago, I whisked Sophie off to get a takeaway pizza. We shared, of course - I'm not made of money!

We stayed in Santiago for a couple of days and tagged along on a tour of the city. Much of Chile's capital has a distinctly European feel, but Felipe's Local Pulse Walking Tour takes tourists slightly off the beaten track.

He led us through the huge fish market, where gawping fish heads the size of melons stare at you from icy shelves, before taking us into the Old Town of Santiago. He saved the best until last, though.

At first glance, La Piojera looks like a subway tunnel, with graffiti adorning the walls. For those familiar with Sheffield's West Street Live, it's similar, but even more rough around the edges.

Felipe told us to try an Earthquake, so we thought we'd give it a go. When he brought the drinks over, we were a little concerned.
"Don't worry," he said. "It's white wine, grenadine and ice cream."

Let's just say it's an acquired taste, but despite the dodgy drink it was a really fun bar and a must-see place for any visitors to the city.

The next stop was Valparaiso, a port city just two hours west of Santiago that has been bestowed the honour of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The neighbourhoods of Cerro Alegre and Concepcion are the very definition of bohemian. Incredible graffiti paintings brighten up pretty much every external wall and one afternoon we spent an hour or so reading on the clifftop next to a guy playing the didgeridoo - he wouldn't have been out of place in The Inbetweeners 2.

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We've been yearning for a beach since we left England, so we thought we'd try out Viña del Mar, Valparaiso's more polished and orderly neighbour.

Except we hadn't quite done enough research. After a half-hour walk from the metro station, we found ourselves at the seafront, but the beach was nowhere to be seen. We trudged along the promenade, but when we eventually found the beach it was just a small strip of sand in front of tired-looking apartment blocks.

For our return to Santiago, we'd booked an incredible apartment through Airbnb for little more than £20 a night. This meant we could save money by cooking ourselves, as Chile is quite a pricey country.

Along with whipping up culinary sensations, we visited a number of museums and art galleries and visited Concha y Torro vineyard, the home of Casillero del Diablo wine. I know, how sophisticated are we?!

Amidst our cultural experiences, we squeezed in a visit to the zoo. For £1.50, I expected a couple of llamas and a rabbit. Much to our surprise, there were elephants, flamingoes, penguins, giraffes and white tigers! All of this was in the most incredible setting, perched on the side of Cerro San Cristobel, with views overlooking the whole city.

After two months in South America, it's time to leave. We've had a blast in Peru, Bolivia and Chile and all three countries have quite comfortably exceeded our expectations.

We're incredibly sad to be leaving, but with a week in Sydney next, it's not all that bad!

Kristian and Sophie x

Posted by kristian23 14:39 Archived in Chile Tagged travel chile santiago couple backpacking south_america valparaiso san_pedro_de_atacama couples Comments (2)

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