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Kicking back in South East Asia

Languid Laos and familiar faces in Vietnam

sunny 35 °C

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!

sunny 20 °C

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

sunny 20 °C

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)

From Southam to South America

Machu Picchu, Spanish, salsa and salt flats

semi-overcast 15 °C

We'd been planning this trip for over a year and saving for the best part of 12 months. So what's the first thing we did when we arrived in Lima at 6am on a Sunday morning? Yep, that's right - join up with Liverpool Reds Peru supporters group and watch the football. As you can imagine, Sophie was thrilled!

Following the excitement of the football, our first few days were spent lapping up the sunshine and wandering around the city. We often stumbled upon the bizarre Park Kennedy, which is littered with cats, much to Sophie's bemusement.

After a few days, we hopped on a bus down to Huacachina. It may well be a funky sounding name, but it's an even funkier place. The tiny town is perched in the middle of sand dunes, with hostels and restaurants clustered around a small, tranquil oasis.

The tranquility didn't last for long though. Lurking nearby were a group of dune buggies, growling and roaring at the prospect of careering into the desert. After a quick safety check (which involved violently shaking the front wheel a few times) the driver began to launch us off the top of dunes and fling us around tight corners. When we eventually stopped and regained our composure, it was time to throw ourselves down the dunes on sandboards.

Not wanting to risk broken ankles, both Sophie and I decided it'd be better to lie down on the boards. On one of my attempts, I still somehow found a way to make a fool of myself though, and in true Laurel and Hardy fashion the sandboard slipped from my grasp, crept up behind me and knocked me on the head as I lay prone at 45 degrees on the dune.

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Nursing a sore head, we went back to Lima to join up with our G Adventures group in preparation for the Inca Trail. However, in the week before the hard slog began, we sipped beers on rooftop terraces in Arequipa, lounged in thermal springs in the tiny village of Chilvay and gawped at condors in Colca Canyon as they swooped above the click of camera shutters.

Then we arrived in Cusco - a full 3400m above sea level. The city, which was the main hub of the Inca Empire, is beautiful during the day with it's countless grand squares and tiny cobbled streets, but just as dazzling at night as the houses dotted on the hillsides all around the city centre illuminate the night sky.

I'd only been in the city for two hours before I was frantically paddling along a ferocious river on a white-water rafting trip. The initial panic soon subsided into pure adrenalin as the dingy crashed into countless waves.

The whirlwind tour was only just gearing up though, as we then went to Ccaccaccollo to stay the night with a local family. Within minutes of arriving, the girls were carrying heavy pots of mashed potato, quinoa and guinea pigs up a steep hill, while the guys hacked away at the land with huge hoes. Thankfully, the hard labour didn't last long and after a massive picnic, we were soon singing and dancing with all the families in the village.

Finally, the main event dawned on us - a four-day trek along the Inca Trail, which would lead us to Machu Picchu. The scale of the climb was magnified at the main gate, where almost 100 porters carrying in excess of 20kg each were hoisting their heavy bags onto their backs.

The first day was relatively simple, bar a steep ascent for roughly 30 minutes, but it was made slightly easier by a swig of corn beer at the top! It must have been hell for the porters with their weighty bags, but can you believe that they applauded us upon reaching the campsite?! If that's the welcome we receive, then they deserve a five-star holiday!

Before we went to sleep that night, we were warned about the next day.

"There will be five hours of continuous climbing up steps tomorrow," said our guide, Alexis. "Be prepared."

You can only prepare so much. By the third hour, with grey, drizzly rain spitting in my face, I began to feel the effects of altitude. I was dizzy, light-headed and weak. But with the help of my glamorous assisstant Sophie, I struggled to Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point of the trek at 4,200m.

Despite the miserable weather, everybody's spirits lifted after Dead Woman's Pass. The third day was a stroll in comparison and the appearance of a cake at lunchtime went a long way to cheering everybody up. Quite how our cook managed to bake a cake in a tent on the third day of a trek still baffles me!

Our final day began at 2:30am. We stumbled out of our tents, trying not to disturb the sleeping llamas just a few feet away. We thought this would be the easy part, but the steep descent in the dark took lots of concentration. For hours, we continued downhill in silence until the sun finally revealed the 400m drop to the river below.

By 7am, everyone was beginning to tire, but then we saw it.

At the top of a five-minute climb, we appeared at the Sun Gate and saw the majestic Machu Picchu in the distance. A small, whispy cloud floated over the lost city of the Incas, adding to its mystery.

Exhausted, we all collapsed on the floor, trying to muster a smile to enhance the inevitable new Facebook profile picture. After a while, we picked ourselves up and bounced down the remaining 40 minutes of the walk and spent the next few hours gawping at the sheer scale of the site, which was built more than 500 years ago.

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After a couple of days of rest and relaxation in Cusco, we finally said goodbye to our amazing G Adventures group and joined up with our host family, where we stayed for two weeks while we learned Spanish and salsa. Americo, Laura and their two-year-old son Juan Diego were fantastic, laying on gargantuan Peruvian feasts every lunchtime and looking after me through my two bouts of illness. As they spoke very little English, our American friend Eric proved an invaluable translator, particularly during the first week!

Learning Spanish for four hours daily is slightly overwhelming, but after a short break we were soon racking our brains again as we tried to remember our salsa steps. After two weeks, we reckon our salsa is better than our Spanish! Just don't expect us to pull out the moves in Banbury or Bury...

Following a fortnight with our brilliant family in Cusco, we hopped over the border to Bolivia, stopping briefly at the bizarre floating islands in Puno and the idyllic Isla del Sol.

When we arrived in La Paz, the hustle and bustle was a little overwhelming after the quaint streets of Cusco.

I wasn't there for long though, as I headed out of the city to bike down the infamous Death Road. The first 60km saw us speed down tarmac roads, with the path sweeping down the valley in front of us. However, the rest of the ride was a bone-rattling decline down gravel paths.

To make matters worse, our guide said: "We're going to ride on the left-hand side of the road. That's the side with the 500m vertical drop."

His reasoning was that this would prevent us from being run over by drivers coming up the hill. Not much of a choice, eh?

With my hands gripped tightly to the handebars, I barely blinked for four hours as the misty abyss to my left loomed ominously, but I eventually made it to the bottom and quickly sank a well-earned beer or two.

We were only in La Paz briefly and soon headed out to Uyuni, the starting point for dozens of daily salt flats tours.

Now, you've all seen the pictures. The 'giant' duck chasing us, tiny people cowering from the dinosaur. Due to the number of photos I had seen online beforehand, I was a little worried that it might disappoint, but I had absolutely no reason to be concerned.

The brilliant white salt flats stretch as far as the eye can see. Imagine this eery landscape and magnify it a thousand times over as the sun sets. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

Before we left Bolivia, we still had a day left and things only got better. We stopped at a number of lagoons, filled with thousands of flamingoes paddling in the shallow, blood-red waters while the indominatable Andes mountain range lurked in the background.

Our final night was spent slupring beers in a 40 °C natural hot spring under a full moon in the middle of a desert and it's at moments such as these that I wish I could pause time.

Chile, you've got a hell of a lot to live up to!

Kristian and Sophie x

Posted by kristian23 10:40 Archived in Peru Tagged landscapes mountains desert peru trek trekking machu_picchu lima lagoon couple backpacking bolivia cusco paz salt_flats inca_trail couples flamingoes death_road peru_hop Comments (0)

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