Bali and the Gilis

The Philippines didn’t seem to want to let us go – our flight to Indonesia was delayed and we had to spend a whole day and most of the night at Manila airport. Seventeen hours of joy. Luckily we blagged our way into the business lounge so had free food and vaguely comfortable sofas – and our first glass of wine for six months! And we were excited for our eighth country and sixth month of the trip. But fatigue was the main feeling as we landed in Bali, cleared immigration, found a taxi and sat like zombies through the morning traffic to our hotel down in Uluwatu.Bali is a large island with a teardrop peninsula at the bottom, where lies wave-battered cliffs, quiet country roads and scores of surfers. The path down from our hotel threaded steeply through restaurants (‘warungs’) and surf shops, with stunning views. We had a fun few days here, admiring from a safe distance those brave and experienced enough to ride the violent surf, and frequently discussing the idea of having some lessons but deciding ‘one of the most dangerous breaks in the world’ wasn’t the place to start. We explored the country lanes that sometimes felt almost like Cornwall, climbed down cliffpaths to hidden beaches, visited the tourist capital Kuta (which is great if you like heavy traffic, Starbucks, Topshop and Burger King), and watched the sun going down from Uluwatu temple as waves hammered below and monkeys chewed on sunglasses.

Uluwatu Temple

Kuta's crowded beach

Instead we headed to Ubud, a popular town, near the centre of Bali. Jam-packed with craft and clothes shops for us tourists, it manages to keep its identity despite the branches of Accessorise and Billabong (I knock it but I did finally replace my sole pair of shorts after six months of grime and dust. May they rest in pieces). I had been before years ago for a friend’s wedding and the place seemed to be much busier now, with more cappuccinos and fashion boutiques than I remembered. Its tightly-knit streets were fun to walk around though, full of stone statues and friendly people, and we indulged in the ancient art of shop browsing.Right in the centre of the town is the Monkey Forest, which is, well, a forest with monkeys in it. A lot of monkeys. That like to nick stuff. Already having encountered them in Uluwatu we were on our guard but these ones were especially adept – unzipping rucksacks and swiping sunglasses – so the pleasure of the stroll through the stunning woodland and around the beautifully-carved temples within was tempered by a constant concern we were about to be lept upon by a hairy cousin at any moment. Especially after one did jump up at Nina and then angrily chased me when I splashed it with our water bottle, at which point I ran away like a coward.

Nice bit of bat...

The temple at the Monkey Forest

We avoided the tour bus hordes that went to the music and dance shows every night and found plenty of fun places to spend the evenings. Food and music were everywhere here, with lots of local bands playing old western songs as well as the traditional gamelan sounds coming out of speakers and temples. And the food was really great, which, frankly, was a joy after the Philippines’ generally dull tastes. Gado gado and nasi campur are our new friends. However we weren’t so sure about some of the local fruits which we can’t see Innocent adding to their smoothie range anytime soon. We also treated ourselves each to an incredible local massage in one of the countless spas tucked away in the small lanes.

Tasted how they looked

Nasi Campur

Ubud Aretha

Regular customer

A day trip out to Gunung Kawi – an 11th century shrine in a deep river valley surrounded by rice terraces – was a welcome sample of the Bali countryside and it was tempting to explore the island further and do more of the bus rides and complex trips that characterised the earlier months of our trip. But with this being our last month, with a definite deadline of our flight home, we decided to keep things simple and our journeys limited. And so we put away our guide books for good and, after some more leisurely days strolling around Ubud, we headed on a boat to spend our remaining weeks on Nusa Lembongan and the Gilis, both nearby islands and both demanding little of visitors apart from relaxation.

Gunung Kawi

Lembongan was a bumpy boat ride of half an hour from Bali’s mainland and felt very different. A single quiet road ran the length of the main beach, dotted with homes, warungs and small bungalow hotels. Children played on the paths, cows and goats grazed in the woods and the adults who weren’t hotel workers or dive instructors laboured over the seaweed harvests they dragged in from the beds they planted in the harbour. This gave a refreshing local atmosphere to our stay but also a less refreshing atmosphere for our nostrils as the seaweed dried in the sun all over town.We scootered around the island which because of its tiny size should take about an hour although we stretched that out to about four by getting lost several times and by the road turning into a rubble-strewn footpath from time to time. The best part for me was driving over the rickity plank footbridge that connects to the neighbouring island; Nina very wisely walked that bit.We also had another dive day which was very different to the others so far. We jumped into a choppy sea (which left us both seasick) and descended into a colder and darker world than before, with the new sensation of waves buffeting us back and forth even at 15 metres down. After feasting our eyes on beautiful coral formations we heard the urgent signal of our guide tapping on their tank, and turning we saw the main attraction for this area – the giant Manta Ray, gliding gracefully out of the gloom. A creature of humbling size and bizarre appearance, it was a privilege to see and a memory to treasure. No photos, sorry! But here is one of Nina surfacing a good 30 minutes after my own air ran out, due to her having clearly grown gills.Lembongan was a charming place, where it was easy to let the days slide into each other, and we read books, Nina swam in the pool and I even did some yoga (or tried to at least). However, an even more mellow and peaceful destination awaited us, and so back on the boat we went, east to the Gilis.
Three islands off the top left of Bali’s neighbour, Lombok, the Gilis are now far from the remote backpacker secret they once were, and getting there is a simple case of jumping on one of many packed tourist fastboats. As we arrived on Gili Trawagan, and walked past bar after restaurant after upscale resort after ATM after trendy clothes shop in search of accommodation, and heard the usual suspects Bob Marley and Jack Johnson pumping from every other cafe (“Best espresso on the island”; “Happy Hour 5pm to midnight!”; “Big screen football matches live!”), it was obvious we were but a drop in the flood of people coming to these beach-encircled islands. However, even the most popular of the three, ‘party island’ Gili T (as everyone who wants an easy life calls it) is still in the relatively early days of development. Indonesians only started coming here, to fish, in the 1950’s and no cars or scooters, and sandy tracks instead of concrete, mean that, despite all my cynical descriptions, the Gilis are still worthy of tags such as ‘quiet’, ‘idyllic’ and, if you walked away from the crowds, squinted a bit and ignored the sounds of hotels being built, ‘castaway paradise’.Two days here and we began to get a feel of the island. We cycled around, which was a great plan till we realised deep sand and bikes don’t mix. So really we mainly walked around the island pushing two bikes. But a lovely place it is. The sky changes every few minutes on the Gilis, with clouds rolling over from Lombok’s and Bali’s volcanic mountains, adding variety to the deep blue skies (and stunning starscapes at night), and the sea goes from deep black-green to pale turquoise. The sound of the sea is never far, and inland the largely friendly and outgoing locals live connected but very different lives to those like us with our luxuries.We didn’t find the ‘party’ of this supposed party island, mainly as holiday season (dominated by Australians who we saw by the boat-load later on) hadn’t quite begun. Instead we often were alone at cafes and in the little shops we wandered around and there were more baby turtles in the sanctuary there than there were tourists. Our main destination of the three islands however is known to be even quieter. Gili Meno – which all the locals smilingly refer to as the ‘honeymoon island’ – is the middle and smallest of the trio and we arrived there for a ten day stay at a bungalow place run in the casual and friendly way we discovered to be the rule of thumb on Meno. No one was there when we turned up so a passing man sent his Man U shirt-wearing son running off to get the owner who strolled up smiling and continued to look after us in the same sleepy way for the rest of our stay. Sadly this meant the breakfasts he cooked were a bit rubbish but we liked him immensely, as we did all the cheerful people we met, all of whom, native or here for work from Lombok, embraced the island lifestyle as fully as any backpacker. Whether it was chatting to passers-by or playing dominos with staff at a deserted bar on the disused jetty, we felt very welcome here, and learnt more phrases than in almost any country of the trip.

The ferry to Meno

Our Meno home

Goats on graves

Taking on the locals

Our final stop was Gili Air, the closest to the mainland and a mix of the other two – with mellow deserted stretches and busy western-orientated restaurants – and was a peaceful end to a wonderful month. Except for a rather exciting five seconds when an earthquake hit with a loud boom. We spent more time chatting with locals, had one last dive to see our mates the turtles, snorkelled with fish of every colour, had as many milkshakes as is humanly possible to consume, whilst watching the waves and the blue skies, and the odd cocktail under some incredible sunsets.

School kids asking for autographs!

Our thoughts and conversations turned more and more to our return home, with all the positives – seeing all you lot after so long; brushing our teeth with tap water; mould-free pillows – battling it out with the downside of ending such an incredible six months. We feel immensely lucky, and grateful to all of you for helping, to be able to have done this in our lives and it will be a time we will never forget. Thank you to everyone for your kind and generous gifts which helped make our honeymoon trip so special.
As we flew home and the stewards brought us cake and champagne after I told them it was our honeymoon (I hope to ride that out til our tenth anniversary, at least), I wondered how best to finish this final post and sum up half a year of experiences. And then decided the following photos would do nicely… Thank you all for reading.

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Island hopping Filipino style

The Philippine Archipelago consists of over 2,000 inhabited islands and I’m not going to pretend it was an easy task deciding which of the areas were on our list to visit. A lot of them were, for one reason or another.. Some were crossed off due to weather (the rainy season would already be in parts) and some were crossed off due to the distance between the islands meaning long and expensive travel days. Eventually we decided to base the first half in the Visayas region and the second just in Palawan due to its size.


Our first port of call was the island of Bohol, a now touristy and fairly large island that would hopefully give us an idea of Filipino life before we braved it in the more local environment in Siquijor, an island rumoured to have mystical powers thanks to its resident witch doctors.

Arriving in Bohol after a quick stopover in Cebu, we were shocked at how touristy and expensive the main Alona Beach was. It certainly didn’t fit with the sleepy island life I had pictured with restaurants and resorts along most of the beach and the constant call of “Chocolate Hills”..”Tarsiers”.. “Whale shark.. guaranteed to see or your money back” that were relentless on the short walk down the hill from our garden hut to the beach. That said, once you looked past the resorts, the beach itself was a long arc of white sand and if you walked to the end you were rewarded with peace and a stretch of nearly boat free transparent water, so warm that you got washer woman’s fingers before realising how long you’d been in there for.


Our main draw to Bohol was to experience diving in emerald waters (as you see in all of the magazines), so we were excited to join a boat out to Balicasag Island to dive the Black Forest and Diver’s Heaven. I know it sounds cheesy, but diver’s heaven it certainly was! The sheer amount of fish literally everywhere you could see was astounding and with turtles gliding over the corals to feed and be cleaned, I was in my element. Our dive master took pictures for us (on our hopefully trusty underwater disposable Kodak) as we swam in the middle of a massive school of hundreds of big, silver Jackfish and I think it’s fair to say, at that moment I fell in love with diving. I wasn’t even fazed when the Titan Triggerfish took a bite out of my fin.. Okay, I was.. I screamed, but underwater that doesn’t mean much and our master quickly guided us away and back to the reef to “ohh” and “ahh” at the pretty colours.

So this isn’t us, but it looked a little something like this:


Our usual plan of hiring a scooter to explore the island was scuppered by the world’s most ridiculously high hiring rates (I swear you could’ve bought a clapped out scooter for less) so we scaled down our plans and decided to hire a driver with a car for one day to take us to Bohol’s main landmarks – the Chocolate Hills and Tarsier sanctuary. Much to my disappointment, the Chocolate Hills aren’t made of chocolate, or even grow chocolate.. But are a collection of over a thousand small, round hills clumped together almost as if they’re man-made, that turn brown in the hot, arid conditions of the summer. I have to admit, driving through on a scooter probably would’ve been far more impressive as you could explore between them and get a sense of their scale, but it was still an impressive view from where we were:



On the way back we visited the Tarsier sanctuary where we managed to spot four of these tiny creatures hiding in the trees.


As cute as they look, they get even more so when you know they’re the size of a child’s fist at adult age (which these all were) This is probably the only time I’ll admit to liking anything remotely connected to Star Wars as these little guys were allegedly the inspiration behind Yoda.


Our second island, Siquijor (pronounced Sigihor), was only a short ferry ride away so we weren’t sure how different the islands would actually be. Tourism hasn’t really exploded in Siquijor yet though so although there are lots of places to stay, there isn’t that infrastructure where you can walk to bars on the beach front or have a choice of shops. Part of the reason that I personally liked it so much. Our backpackers place had a little bamboo restaurant on the beach where we wiled away many hours sharing stories with fellow travellers, as it seemed the day after we arrived in Siquijor, so did the rain. Luckily it tended to be fairly quick monsoon blasts so we were able to get in a bit of scooter exploring, finding picture perfect beaches and waterfalls ending in lagoons to wallow in.. But not the revered witch doctors who sadly remained elusive to us..


Our island hangout:

Epic sandcastling:




For a country where Adam and I are the average height, they sure do love their basketball. Who said short people can’t jump..

Free natural fish spa:

Adam taking the plunge:

Locals loving the arrival of the rain:

During our stay it was the election and we were surprised to hear (and see) such blatant bribery amongst parties. The owner of the place we were staying at showed us the envelope he’d been discreetly given containing notes of money with different people’s names stapled to each bribe – not sure you’d get away with this blatant bribery in England… Although my bank wishes you did!


After becoming a bit awed by the diving in Bohol, we decided we wanted to try out Apo Island which we’d heard is a bit of a dream. You can stay in one of the very few accommodations on this tiny island but it’s definitely an expensive option, so we decided to disembark our ferry early and have a quick two day detour in Dumaguete, a town in Negros that’s close enough that you can get dive boats to the island, which was much more in our price range.

Wasting no time, we booked in for the following day and headed out for three dives at various spots around the island. When the boat pulled up to the main beachfront, we were both glad we had chosen the route that we did – the tiny main strip was so cluttered with boats that there would have been nowhere to appreciate the stunning views out to the sea, with buildings seemingly squeezed into every available place. Not quite the Robinson Crusoe experience we had expected! Needless to say, the diving there had the biggest coral garden we had seen so far. There were definitely fewer fish here (perhaps as its a small island they haven’t any restrictions on fishing) but the colours and expanse of coral was worth it alone – and then of course there were our new friends, the turtles, and some of these were the biggest I’ve ever seen – one was nearly the same length of me as I swam over it. Such graceful creatures that seemed blissfully unaware we were even there.

That night, as sleep was starting to set in after the early start, we were given the much more interesting option of dinner with a couple we’d been diving with and a friend of theirs. They’d found a restaurant favoured for its crab and I can see why. Spurred on by super cheap rum cocktails we decided the only way to end the night was showing the Filipinos how to murder a few karaoke songs. Adam’s still being bribed not to disclose the video evidence but I can say with drunken assurance, that the guys were even worse than the girls!



Our final island hop was a flight away (being on the far western side of the Philippines) to Palawan and after one night in the capital, Puerto Princesa, we headed north to El Nido. We heard it’s all about the island hopping here and we’d planned maybe a weeks stay followed by a stopover in Port Barton (a very quiet beachside town) on our way back.. But two weeks later we were still there. Partly due to the rainy season catching up with us in full force meaning there was very little point moving on to a sleepy beachside town, but also partly because we were realising how nice it was to finally stop somewhere for a while. We really started to relax here despite it perhaps not normally having been the kind of place we would’ve spent so long in.


The sunsets were pretty epic:

On the few days that there wasn’t a river outside out front door, we took a boat trip island hopping, kayaked to a nearby island, had great feasts prepared for us by our guesthouse and scootered around on a friends bike. Sadly for the boat trip, although you have to pay a hefty environment fee, they don’t seem too keen on listening to their own advice about protecting the reef – throwing anchors into the coral and with boat after boat going to the same location, it meant most of the coral was dead and the fishes had chosen better homes, so there wasn’t much snorkelling to be had. Saying that, for me the ‘secret beach’ made up for it – swimming underwater through a small hole in a thin bit of cave to the rays of sun shining through the turquoise water was something pretty special.



Cave opening to the secret beach:




Our kayak trip took us exploring a few of the beaches on nearby Cadlao Island – before the amazing view of the karsts in the water disappeared in a blanket of mist and the heavens opened. After hiding out the storm under a makeshift cover of life jackets and branches, we decided it was best to cut it short, heading back to thunder still rumbling in the distance.


El Nido’s beach is pretty much just a boatyard, so with an urge to find a beautiful beach, we headed around the coast on a scooter. We’d been given the name of our destination and told it was worth the slightly dubious ‘road’ to get to it. An hour of bum-numbing, no suspension riding and we eventually discovered the most picture perfect deserted beach of Nacpan. I soon realised why it was so deserted however as I was eaten alive by over 80 sand flies..

Beautiful but deadly

The next day I wouldn’t even leave the house out of bug fear. Luckily Aiko, the daughter of the family we were staying with, had decided to start selling jewellery made out of shells (right up my street) so I happily wiled away the rainy/itchy hours helping her start up her empire. I think Adam got through about a hundred books in the hammock on the balcony in the meantime..


Although it doesn’t sound all that successful a trip to Palawan, we loved getting to know a local family and relax in one place for a while. We were definitely ready for our next adventure in Indonesia by the time we left although with mixed feelings as this would be our last destination before a brief stop off in Singapore on the way home.

The Philippines has been a bit of a mixed bag and not really what I thought it would be, but in a good way. I’ll miss the amazing mangoes for breakfast, the lovely local people and the new friends made along the way, the diving, the bad, bad karaoke (okay, that’s partly my fault so Indonesia beware!), discovering astoundingly beautiful yet deserted places and finding the few local dishes that were actually really tasty (amongst the rest that really were truly awful).

Lots of love, N&A xx







Life of Mai and Pai

Being back in a country we had already been in felt a little strange but also comforting, as we recognised some familiar things. These things were mainly the language, driving on the left and 7/11 shops, but added to that now was the feeling of being in a country far wealthier than the last three we’d seen.
After a couple of hours on a bus, we made a night stop in Chiang Rai, with a fun evening at a night market enjoying a hotpot of seafood noodles and an amusingly-awkward dance show. Next day we travelled on to Chiang Mai, the main city of the north. We are never particularly thrilled arriving in big cities, in this case at a smoky and crowded bus station, but once we entered the quieter historical centre (in a perfect square formed by the old city wall), the reasons so many recommend it started to appear. After hestitating at the higher prices of the hostels and hotels, we walked up to a door with ‘rooms for rent’ written outside. A couple of grannies, a grandad and a grey cat let us in and we booked into the largest room on our trip so far with a balcony view over the roofs.
The city was nearing 40 degrees and we spent a fair amount of the next few days moving pretty slowly and drinking water (I dread to think how many plastic bottles we have got through since January due to the need for cold water…). Our first night we found the local ‘walking street’ – a seemingly endless line of stalls selling tourist knickknacks and food – and had a look in one of the many temples dotted around.We travelled by scooter out to a temple up in the hills, which offered a great view over the city and a peaceful time watching worshippers praying (and monks texting). The site of the temple was apparently determined in the 1500’s when they put a holy relic on an elephant’s back and followed it until it collapsed. They were odd back then. One of the monks blessed us with water and tied string around our wrists for luck, to go with the one from Cambodia. Then a trip to an ‘authentic tribal village’ revealed it to be one long street market of ‘traditional arts and crafts’ stalls and not much in the way of authenticity or atmosphere.Also out of town are a cascade of small waterfalls which the locals use as their swimming pool (and, oddly, puppy washing bath). We had a picnic and a welcomingly-cold dip ourselves.One of the ‘must-do’s’ here is going on a course, apparently, and we went to a cooking school for the day (yoga classes in the heat or learning Thai a week before leaving were unappealing). Based out on a farm, we walked around the garden before chopping and frying our way through six dishes. By the end we were stuffed and I had to admit being a bit disappointed that clearly half the reason Thai food tastes so good is all the sugar! But it was a brilliant day, with a very wacky and funny teacher (catchphrases included “Chilli give you sexy lips, HA HAHAHAAAA!!” and “Stir til you smell it, HAHAHAHAAAAA!!!”).Chiang Mai had a laid back feel and we can see why it attracts so many expats. Further north is the small town of Pai which has an even more relaxed reputation and many people we have met on the way recommended it, so we set off on an occasionally stomach-churning minivan ride through the mountains.
Pai is one of those tourist-heavy places that is impossible to imagine before the arrival of outsiders. 98.5% of the shopfronts are art cafes, souvenir shops, Thai massage spas, restaurants, burger joints, cocktail bars playing Motown and Marley and more cafes. And in the blistering heat we were glad of this, stumbling from a cold fruit shake to an ice cream to just sitting under a fan and hoping the waitress didn’t ask us to leave.
We initially stayed in a quiet and cheap place on the edge of town before realising the edge of town was also the headquarters of all the ants in the world, and swiftly moved. Our next place was much better and was run by someone who clearly had gone to the Manhattan school of sarcastic camp transvestism. ‘Sarah’ enjoyed insulting you to see if you could take a joke and then rewarding you with a huge free meal whilst continuing to insult you. We also met up with a great couple we had met in Laos and generally had a pleasant and laid back time. Not a lot of photos because, well, we didn’t do much, which was great after all the bus rides and planning. Set in rolling hills with plenty to see and do (if it wasn’t 40 degrees and the river too low) and a very international style, we could see why some backpackers end up staying for weeks or even for good.With the end of the month arriving and our ticket to the Philippines booked, we headed to Bangkok. As we sat for ages in stationary traffic towards the airport, staring out at futuristic flashing skyscrapers and billboards with grinning models, we were again leaving Thailand with the sense of barely scratching the surface of a large, contrasting and interesting country.

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Lovely Laos – Sok Di Pi Mai

Adam – So much of Vietnam was left unexplored but we were excited to get to Laos. The bus from Danang (another big city with few attractions apart from a bridge with a massive dragon lying on it and a place with fantastic banana leaf-wrapped rice paper snacks) took us west through green mountains to the border. More US dollars handed over and another stamp in our passports, in chaotic and impatient queues, before back on the bus and its two DVDs of cheesy Vietnam pop concerts. Non-stop. And on repeat. For 15 hours. You know what to get us for Christmas now… Luckily our next two buses were music-free and they took us via two overnight stops down to the very bottom of Laos.

At the border of our old friend Cambodia, the Mekong River contains some islands, and, when the waters are low as they are in Spring, these number in the thousands. Hence the name of our destination – Si Phan Don, or ‘4000 Islands’. This sounds like a magical paradise from childhood tales; in reality it was nearly 40 degrees when we arrived and we were glad to just get to a room and collapse after nearly four days on the road. It was however a beautiful spot, with a fun journey out to Don Khone island on a small boat, where we found a friendly guesthouse by the water with our very own balcony. Unfortunately most of our time was spent recovering (in Nina’s case from some horrible heat exhaustion). But we had a good last day cycling around our island home, seeing the stunning waterfalls, ruins of French invaders, and getting caught on the way back in one of the biggest rainstorms so far.

Nina – It was nearly New Year – Laos and Thailand celebrate this at the same time and in the same way – a week long water fight (but we’ll get to that bit in a sec) and we knew we wanted to be in the North for this as they take celebrating it very seriously up there!

We did a quick stop off on the way in Vang Vieng, home to the dangerously drunken tubing that caused so many fatalities last year – in the past you floated down the river in a rubber tube, stopping at a bar every few metres (the drinks were often apparently spiked and nearly always served bucket-sized) and flew down zip lines into water that’s way too shallow, probably hitting rocks on the way.. But thankfully that’s all stopped now and everything’s been taken down. So these days you make a few cocktails to take with you, float down the river and admire the stunning views.


There are three bars remaining (although these said they were also closing) which were really fun stop-offs for a few drinking games, but you can see how easy it would’ve been to get carried away in the past, especially with them encouraging free shots (not that we complained about that..) We spent an entire day drifting downstream with a great couple we’d met in Cambodia and a few of their friends so it was such a chilled out experience and great to catch up and share travelling stories.



Adam – Leaving Vang Vieng through more stunning jungled hills, we set off to Luang Prabang, the ancient capital. This being Laos New Year, almost everywhere was full and expensive, the city known as one of the best places to celebrate.

We soon realised why. A town more than a city, Luang Prabang is appealing even without what was going on during our time there. Its centre is serene and full of beautiful architecture, gardens, cafes and Buddhist temples, all surrounded by the ever-present Mekong River, and with a giant templed hill in the middle.

Peaceful, right?

During the week of New Year (‘Pi Mai’), however, it looks like this :

Houses and temples are washed, and water is poured on the hands and head. The water traditionally is to wash away your bad luck or bad deeds from the year just gone, freeing you for the next.

This translates these days into a huge parade of costumed bands, Miss Laos contestants and hundreds of monks, massive water-pistol battles, insanely loud music, ecstatic kids, and a lot of adults drinking. It was with a mix of eagerness and fear that we headed out each day, our cameras in dry bags and our least-cherished clothing on, knowing we would be soaked and covered in flour by cackling kids within minutes. With tourists encouraged to join in, the party atmosphere was fantastic – smiles all around – and it was a great week to celebrate our six months of marriage in. Plus seeing each other getting drenched is obviously fun, and lucky for me Nina seemed to draw buckets and water pistols like a magnet.

It wasn’t all street parties for us though. We also visited a sanctuary for retired logging elephants, where they have been brought along with their handlers (‘mahouts’) from all over Laos to give rides in order to cover the cost of protetcing them. It was very different to the joy of seeing wild elephants protected in Sri Lanka, but these animals only knew captivity and logging, and would have died if tourism wasn’t there to pay. And any awkwardness over sitting on one of the graceful ladies (no males – as with humans, they are harder to train and less well-behaved) disappeared once we set off. We were clearly as much of an inconvenience as a butterfly, and the bond between driver and animal was mutual and tender. A short ride along a riverbed and back, followed by a feeding session, made for one of the best days of our trip so far.

Nina – Our final stop off in Laos was Luang Namtha, up in the hills and we went here to do a hefty hike as we’d missed out on being able to do this as originally planned in Northern Vietnam. Hardly on a Ben Nevis scale but for 6 hours in the tropical heat through nationally protected primary, secondary and bamboo forest, it was definitely another experience I won’t forget (my muscles didn’t for quite a few days after either).


We were promised Black Bear footprints, deers, monkeys and other forest animals.. None of which we saw, but we still had the jungle soundtrack from a distance to go along with the near rock climbing on lose soil and leaves (which was certainly a challenge), involving the odd bit of swinging from, or crawling under bamboo as we went.. And swinging on vines but that was for fun..



Ending in the Nam Tha and Nam Ha river confluence, we had a quick dip in the shallow waters to cool off before heading back to pack yet again.


Our next day ahead would lead us via bus and boat travel across the border to head into Northern Thailand.

Bugs for lunch anyone?


Just as it should be in Laos.. The most laid back border crossing ever:


Laos is such a beautiful and endlessly friendly place that we’d be glad to one day return to.

Lots of love, N&A xx

Hẹn gặp lại Vietnam

Arriving bleary eyed into Hoi An, we headed straight to a guesthouse on the river feeling the need for some home comforts after surviving the worst night bus yet. Many people had told us that Hoi An is a place to relax and slow down a little and that’s definitely what we needed, so we wasted no time heading out into the early morning food markets and having a mooch around the old town.



Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site meaning that the buildings are largely preserved and a reminder of ‘old Vietnam’. The town floods nearly every year, with many shops and restaurants keeping tally of the water heights on their crumbling walls.


For me, I felt we were finally seeing the real Vietnam surrounded in more of a small town charm than we’d previously come across. Yes, it’s still become hugely touristic with people flocking here for its well reputed tailoring, with the jewellery and pottery shops following suit, but ambling through the narrow streets and hunting down the best street food stalls, it was easy to get away from it all and lose yourself a little.








We were lucky enough to be there over a full moon which meant that after dark the whole town turns out its lights, replaced with lanterns cross-crossing the lanes and riverfront. Local women and children sell paper lanterns with candles in that you float down the river to bring you good luck – such a pretty sight seeing these floating away in the distance. Ours went out straight away..twice..not sure what that means..(!) So failing that we joined a game of musical pictorial bingo in the town square (as you do).. Lady Luck still wasn’t on our side as we narrowly missed out on the prize there too, so we decided to give the clay piñata a miss, instead just watching bemused at how excited the locals get about it all.


We spent a few lazy days here by the river being taught some key words and phrases, eating good food, drinking awesome chilli mojitos, and cycling around the nearby countryside, beach and villages – again met by excitable children everywhere shouting “hello” and trying to high five you whilst cycling (an art I’ve almost perfected without stacking it)




Our next stop was a big leap north to Hanoi which we were using as a stopover to Halong Bay. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to afford a night on one of the amazing junk ships here, Adam had done some research and discovered the cheats way – to head to Cat Ba island and do a day boat trip from there. Cat Ba itself looked like a bit of an adventurers dream with a National Park for trekking, huge limestone karsts jutting out of the water for rock climbing, boat trips and plenty of steep winding roads to explore by bike. Of course it started torrentially raining almost as soon as we arrived.. And didn’t stop for several days.. Which put a bit of a halt to most outdoor activities as it was just too dangerous.

A couple of days in (conveniently coinciding with Easter Day – which we traditionally celebrated with chocolate pancakes) the little town suddenly flooded with local people, mostly from Hanoi, facing the rain to celebrate the anniversary of Ho Chi Minh having visited the island. A soggy boat race and dubious variety show style waterfront concert later, we confirmed that Vietnamese people are definitely easier to please than your average X Factor viewer, but they sure can do a good firework display.



The next day brought a brief halt to the rain so we grabbed our chance to head out on a boat trip to Halong Bay and the surrounding islands. As we sheltered from the initial drizzle, we were soon rewarded with the amazing views of karsts suddenly appearing through the mist all around us.




We stopped a few times to visit one of the caves that used to be inhabited by tribesmen, kayak through more caves to secret lagoons and supposedly snorkel from one of the coves – everyone was a bit too cold by this point so Adam and I, along with one other couple, decided to climb to the peak to admire the view. We should’ve probably realised it wasn’t going to be easy once reaching a broken wooden bridge that we had to climb over, but spurred on by a few days trapped inside, the adventurers in us led us on to virtually rock climb over needle sharp spikes (not the easiest in flip flops!) to the pretty awesome views at the top.








Back to Hanoi the following day and we were greeted with sun and a much more refreshing view of the city than we’d seen before. Now not shrouded in rain and cloud, I could see why people we’d met along the way say they much prefer here to Saigon as there’s so much more history in the buildings, sprawling streets and Old Quarter. For me, it was still a bit too busy though so we heading for respite in a very cool multiple rooftop/balcony cafe called Nola’s that we had discovered on our first visit. We’ll keep the location a secret in the hope that it slightly remains one.


The following day was a quick flight back down south to cross the border by land over into our next country – after a hectic run around busy Vietnam we were very much looking forward to exploring laid back Laos..

Lots of love, N&A xx

Good Morning Vietnam…

The journey across the border past dusty villages and half-built casinos was trouble-free, save for little quirks like the Vietnamese border official suddenly taking our temperature electronically and then demanding a dollar for this ‘health check’. Despite it being about 40degrees outside, apparently being 35 degrees inside ourselves was fine and everyone else paid, but we managed a 50% discount and got back on the minibus to Ha Tien, a border town where we switched currencies, had our first (of many) streetside pho (clear noodle soup with whatever they have to hand lobbed in, pronounced ‘fer’), and got on a bus to Can Tho, our first port of call.

Wise advise on the bus

Can Tho is at the bottom of a delta caused by the Mekong river as it arrives in Vietnam. It’s a small city where we planned to get used to the new country and visit the famous floating markets.
Unfortunately first Nina had to deal with the result of a crate of fish being shoved next to her rucksack on the bus. Traveling makes your stuff a little whiffy at times but this was a bit too much. Hours of scrubbing by poor Nina later and leaving the bag to dry on the rooftop we ventured out of our ‘mini-hotel’ (all over Vietnam and almost always a tall thin building containing a family as staff and as many hotel rooms as they can build on top) and had late night noodles and a wander.

They build them thin here

Bustling Can-Tho riverfront, with its smartly-dressed student couples enjoying a sneaky handhold in the manicured gardens, was a change from struggling Cambodia, as was the massive statue of Ho Chi Minh, the revered father of modern Vietnam (smiling on every banknote and on every other cafe and shop wall). It felt confident, successful, but still with some things stuck in the past.

Rooftop revolution

Good luck with that

Following wikitravel’s advice, we spent an evening hunting down ‘Hot Pot Alley’. Every block in most cities in the country seem filled with narrow alleys or ‘Hem’, and this one features cafes all serving the local spin on hot pot – a Vietnamese fondue, basically. We had a great time popping noodles, seafood, herbs and vegetables in, surrounded by families enjoying a night out whilst smiling at our inexperienced eating methods. Then on to a nearby bar for milkshakes and watching karaoke (we know how to party). The local singers were actually pretty good. The Rowan Keating cover was particularly awesome.

Feeling every lyric

Our last morning there we were up at five to get a small longtail boat up the Mekong around 45 minutes to the nearest and largest of the many local markets which take place entirely on water. The journey upstream as the sun rose with our driver – who steered with one leg whilst making us bamboo creations -was almost worth the price alone, but the floating market was a sight to see. Houseboats weighed down with fruit and vegetables manoeuvered around each other, pineapples being thrown and deals being struck across the water.

Rower and bamboo artist

The early start followed by a long bus journey maybe wasn’t the smartest move in retrospect, but that’s how we headed off to Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City, but almost everyone uses the old name).
Arriving in the evening after a journey past flat plains of rice fields and dusty commercial towns, the shock of being in a BIG city hit us. Staying in the heart of town by the unofficial backpacker street was a good move, with most things in walking distance, but walking here involves a whole lot more the usual city shuffling. Scooters charge in packs down every street and don’t stop, so a walk across the road involves timing and trust – trust in their being as keen to hit you as you are to be hit. ‘Just keep walking slowly, look around constantly and don’t stop’, is the general advice. A bit different from the Green Cross Code but we survived. Saigon was a bit of a surprise to be honest – far more like London or Paris or Tokyo than anywhere we had been so far, with sculpture parks, ice cream parlours, smart restaurants, smarter malls and even a recently-opened Topshop, which was a surreal air-con retreat from the city heat. Other things we more in line with what you’d expect from what is still a Communist state in name at least – lots of flags, propaganda posters and more statues of Uncle Ho. And of course in most ways it was nothing like a European city (plenty of chicken feet, shouty ladies and sleeping men to remind you it was still S.E.A.). But this was as ‘modern’ or ‘western’ as we had seen so far.

Bling New World

Tuck in your feet at the juice stand

Our first morning we visited the War Remnants Museum. It opened right after the end of what they call the ‘American War’ in 1975 as the ‘Exhibition House for US and Puppet War Crimes’, before Clinton ‘normalised’ relations in the 90’s and it took on the less-provocative name it has today.There was a section on war photographers which showed what an insane job they have, documenting murder and doing nothing to stop it, educating the world but risking their lives. A recreation of a brutal P.O.W. prison showed how cruel western torture methods were adopted here. There was also a superb display on the international support for the Vietnamese, one on children during the war and, saddest of all in some ways, photos of the victims of Agent Orange, decades-on.

Agent Orange exhibit


Night bus to Nha Trang

We left on a night bus the next day after enjoying another display of night-time aerobics in the park, and headed north for Nha Trang, labelled as Vietnam’s main seaside holiday town. Arriving knackered in the morning, we staggered in the heat with our backpacks to find a room (our favourite past-time, as you may notice by now). We then explored the streets of a town seemingly created solely for tourists, full of giant high rise hotels and signs in English and Russian. And brilliantly-named clothes shops…
The beach was crowded and made us think of somewhere like Miami more than Vietnam, but the sea breeze and fresh air was great after the exhaust fumes of Saigon and the bus trips. We had a lazy time here, continuing our habit of bottles of green tea and ice creams to fend off the heat, and noodles and spring rolls in the evening. We also walked to the non-touristy half of the city, watching the fishing boats come in and out and wandering around the red brick ruins of the ancient Champa empire on a peaceful hill above the harbour.Our last day we had a fun kayak trip out in the hills. Billed as a white-water experience it turned out to be 50% kayaking down a very shallow river and 50% sitting by the water trying to work our way through the largest picnic I’ve ever seen with some delicious make-your-own rice paper rolls. And some sandwiches. And some kebabs. And some shrimp. And… You get the idea.

Nha Trang beach

Adam clearly slacking

Batteries recharged we booked a ticket with the same company as before to continue north. However they fobbed us off on to another group who Nina had already found out online were a nightmare, but we had no choice and after a two hour wait without explanation the full coach of tourists were joined by 16 drunk and loud local men who crammed elbow to elbow along the narrow aisle and spent the next 12 hours leaning on us and each other, talking and coughing loudly, peeing into bottles, staring at us and laughing rudely. From the reports of theft by locals we’d heard of, the night was spent with bag straps wrapped around our ankles, and trying to stay awake. Which was actually quite easy given the circumstances. I’ve never taken a phone out of a man’s hand and reset it to silent in Vietnamese before, nor grabbed a cigarette out of someone’s mouth. Dawn, and our destination of Hoi An, couldn’t come quickly enough.

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Cake On The Beach – Cambodia’s Coast

After the beautiful temples of Siem Reap we got a night bus (‘sleeper’ bus doesn’t mean you get to sleep much however) all the way down to Sihanoukville. Named after the king and Cambodia’s only seaside resort on its small coast, it has a bit of a tacky and seedy reputation but is surrounded by stunning beaches and tranquil islands.We arrived at our planned destination of Otres Beach, about 20 mins out of town, in the early morning. Shattered, we slept gratefully in sofas on the beach before the beach hut hotels opened for breakfast. The beach was fantastic, with soft sand and warm waves. After looking around (and making friends with local puppies) we found a very nice place run by a demanding but kind German expat which we discovered to have an amazing restaurant, friendly staff and a slight issue with flooding every time it rained. Which, surprisingly, it did, every night almost, and very heavily. They laughed, saying we should see it during monsoon. The nightly downpour
The next few days were very relaxed until, for me, the morning of Nina’s birthday. Sneaking out of our hut early, I realised not only was I still totally rubbish at blowing up balloons but the ones I had bought a couple of weeks earlier were the worst balloons in the world. Luckily the kitchen staff arrived and one of them was a balloon genius, and Nina (who by now was awake and had already sneaked a peek because of all the noise of course) was rewarded with a balloon display that I think put the Olympic opening ceremony to shame, frankly…When Nina sat down for her birthday breakfast she also received the cake ordered with the manager when we’d arrived. He’d whispered what flavour would she prefer and I whispered chocolate because, well, there is only one choice, right? But he had clearly misheard. It was green. Extremely green.Luckily it was also very good, and it came with us as we rushed off to catch a boat out to Ko Rong Samloem island, where we would be spending the day and night. Amazingly the cake survived the voyage intact, and we enjoyed it on the beach with a cocktail or two that afternoon. The island was beautiful. Once the tour boat we came on had left, we were alone with only a few other guests at the beach-hut resort to enjoy the white sand and turquoise water. The place (tackily called The Beach after the film) had great bamboo huts right by the water, and swing chairs and hammocks dotted around. We ate bbq seafood and invented a new cocktail for the barman (something involving grenadine, it’s a bit hazy now). Another, very violent rainstorm that night kept us awake a bit but didn’t dampen our spirits and it was all a great start to Nina’s 43rd year…Nina also added to her puppy love list with the bar puppy who is probably still relieved she wasn’t bundled into Nina’s rucksack. I was of course totally not interested and in no way grabbed a hug when Nina wasn’t looking…Not much else to say about Sihanoukville. the town itself is not appealing at all, full of cheap bars for tourists and traffic-filled streets. We liked Otres Beach itself, and hope it stays the quiet haven it is now.

After getting our Vietnam visas sorted out at the embassy in town we got a minivan on to Kampot and Kep, two towns 20 miles apart near the border.
The big highlight in Kampot was our accommodation – a fun wooden hut with a trapdoor entrance up a ladder. Nothing more than a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net, but it was right on the river, a serene location that charmed us into staying a few days. We met some fellow travelling people and ate some delicious local food. We also bicycled for four hours in 35 degree heat along a dusty, potholed highway in a misguided mission to go and see the ‘lovely secret lake’. Some very friendly village kids shouting “Hello-Ooo!!” every thirty seconds eased the pain a little, but after finally finding a murky reservoir and a lunch shack that happily served us what seemed like chicken neck for a hiked-up price, we were less than impressed. When we got back to Kampot someone asked if I was Irish as my hair looked ginger from all the dust.
Riverside home
Road to nowhere
In need of a bath

Kep was next. Advertised in all the guides and on websites as a ‘must-see’, it wasn’t quite the cultural charmer we expected but was peaceful and the small market by the sea did great grilled seafood, cooked and served on bamboo sticks with chilli sauce. We and and a Cornish couple we met in Kampot stayed at a friendly and great value place (with very cute huts like out of the Smurfs) run by a former cinema manager from Switzerland who eagerly screened a film for us in his outdoor makeshift cinema. We all politely sat as repeated powercuts made him more and more sweetly apologetic, not wanting to tell him the film we had chosen was actually a bit pants. We also took a walk up the steep hill and enjoyed sunset at an unlikely but excellent French crepe cafe called Led Zeppelin. Kep and Kampot were the perfect pause before our first land border crossing and our next country, Vietnam.
Kep hut

Cambodia had given in a short time a huge variety of experiences. There are so many problems there, and it is still not a democracy. We never saw the apparently horrific slums nor much sign of the corruption that is holding Cambodia back, but it is there. We loved the people and the amazing resilience they have shown after such hell, and the kids are brilliant, clearly treasured as hope for the future.
And there were a lot of cute animals.
Posters of the virtual dictator and his gang are everywhere.
Never tell a Cambodian boy you have Temple Run on your phone

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Faces In The Jungle

The bus north to Siem Reap, home to the ancient ruins of the Khmer Empire, turned into two buses north. The first had a slight mechanical failure. As Nina put it, you know it’s bad when the driver crawls under the bus with a spanner and starts whacking things, but we got there in the end.Our little guesthouse was tucked away down a sandy backroad away from the busy centre, and we found we could get to the ruins quickly from there by bike, so early the next day we cycled up in the dark, keen to get to Angkor Wat for its famous sunrise.

We were doing excellently until we arrived at the entrance, where we were told I’d taken us totally the wrong way and we would have to turn back to get tickets. Knowing we would therefore miss the sunrise, the enterprising couple of guys there whispered in Khmer to each other before offering to whizz us round to buy tickets on their two motorbikes. A dodgy proposal but they seemed honest and we felt we had little choice. Nina had never been on a motorbike before, and as we were raced off she had to ask her driver who was no more than 18 to drive slower. “I will drive like with my little sister”, he replied.
Tickets in our hands – and “four dollar” in theirs for their hair-raising help – we cycled on to one of the world’s most famous sights. Even as the vast crowds around us (that of course we were contributing to) took away from the atmosphere a tiny bit, it was easy to see the appeal as a fiery globe rose up between the 900 year old towers. We snapped away eagerly on our cameras and I had to admit I was pretty blown away by it.We decided on a small circuit around the main attactions there – Angkor Wat itself, Ta Prohm (where the jungle has been spectacularly left to continue growing over the ruins) and the massive complex of temples of Angkor Thom. Nina snapped the monkey below grumpily staring out at the daily tourist invasion it has to put up with, and at times it was tricky to not agree with it, as noisy tour groups filled each site. We were lucky to have our bikes, which meant we could escape the tour bus circuit and were at times totally alone. And the awe-inspiring temples were stunning. It is easy to see how this has become one of the biggest tourist attractions on the planet. The trees vs bricks of Ta Prohm were probably our joint favourite, and it was thrilling to see the famous faces of Angkor Thom smiling knowingly out from the Bayon tower.
There we were also invited into a Buddhist altar, deep within Bayon, and given red string bracelets for luck, a reminder that these sites are holy to many and not just faded monuments built by slaves for mighty kings. It was also a joy to spot the hidden image of a reclining Buddha in the brickwork of Baphuon temple (only just opened to the public). The sites are all being constantly restored, with trucks and scaffold a common sight, and many more temples lie hidden in the jungle (some off limits, partly due to the danger of landmines and unexploded bombs from the war). It must be hard to know what to fully rebuild to look how it did a milleneum ago, what to leave how history has altered it and what to allow visitors like us to trample all over…

Ta Prohm

Useful sign

Baphuon Temple, Angkor Thom

Spot the face…

Bayon at Angkor Thom

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Phnom Penh

All we knew of Cambodia and its capital – where we arrived early in the morning from Bangkok – was from books about its tragic history and my childhood memories of tearfully watching The Killing Fields. So we were both aware of some of the pain the people had gone through since before we were born.
But as we sped into the city with a tuktuk driver, and were surrounded on every side by motorbikes and large office buildings, this felt like a very new and forward-looking place, so I begin to think I was wrong to see it through the filter of the past.As we wandered vaguely south from our hostel through busy streets of stalls and scooter traffic, we soon found the Royal Palace looming ahead. Its strangely pristine and modern feel wasn’t appealing but the giant images of the recently-deceased king and various tributes around the grounds gave it an imposing feel. He’d been monarch on and off since the 50’s so a big deal was made for his funeral.We also had our first Khmer curry (Fish Amok – mmm!) at a great place nearby, with friendly staff who, on our return trip, delighted in adding our note to their wall of guests’ happy comments.The next day we found a tuktuk driver/guide with the frankly brilliant name of Phanny who agreed with a smile to take us to what are very sadly the biggest tourist ‘attractions’ for Phnom Penh – the Tuel Sleng prison and the ‘killing fields’ at Choeng Ek.
Now, it’s difficult to sum up places like this, with so many emotions from sorrow to disgust to anger jostling for position afterwards. And part of me wants to not say anything at all; I don’t want to trivialise such places as something to tick off the sightseeing list (‘Adam said you simply HAVE to go’). But they were the heart of our Phnom Penh time, and what happened there from 1975 to 1979 have changed the country forever, so I’ll try. There are pictures of Nina with small animals to cheer you up in the next post.

For more on the history, go to
But, in brief, a fanatical group of communist rebels seized power in 1975 and took advantage of a people weakened by years of Western bombing and terrible government to totally transform the country. The Khmer Rouge weren’t the first leaders to scar Cambodia, nor the last, but they were on a new scale of evil. For their fellow Cambodians it was the start of a nightmare that would kill a quarter to a third (estimates vary) of the population and destroy their world. Imagine one in 4 of the UK being killed by the state in under four years.The museum of Tuel Sleng (“poison hill” or “hill of guilt” in Khmer) was once a school but the Khmer Rouge turned this into S-21, one of hundreds of prisons where imagined enemies of the state were tortured into confessions that would be their death sentence. Of an estimated 17,000 to go there, less than 20 are known to have survived.
We walked quietly around with other tourists and came across displays of hundreds of arrest portraits of the prisoners.
The photos of face after face held my gaze and gave a tangible individuality to the unimaginable scale of the killing. But I could barely glance at the unflinching horror of photos displayed in other rooms. This was a place of complete cruelty. The school exercise bars in the yard were turned into gallows. No talk was allowed. All prisoners were brutally tortured and killed, by their fellow Cambodians (some driven mad by years of suffering, some having to follow orders or die). And when the body count grew too large, the place we went to next was created.In a newspaper article or something they would stick to the topic, but real life isn’t like that, and instead of wandering in gloom we had a really nice lunch near the Choeng Ek memorial which is outside of the city, joked with Phanny and practised our dodgy Khmer (“orrkoon”-thanks, “soursdye”-hi) to the amusement of the laidback restaurant staff, some of whom were old enough to remember the terror of the 1970’s. A relief to see life goes on.

Once inside the gates, and with the excellent audio guide plugged in, however, the feeling of walking with ghosts returned. There isn’t a lot to tell you without this becoming little more than a list of barbarity, and you can find it all out yourself if you visit. Which we recommend. As the gentle voice of a survivor guided us around in our headphones, we saw the place where thousands upon thousands, adults and infants, were murdered and buried. That human can do this to human over and over is impossible to understand, and terrifying to know has happened before and since, and probably will again. We left there a couple of hours later a little numb, and as the present day reappeared outside, my astonishment at how Cambodia has even tried to carry on grew.
Here are a few images, none of which need description really, except that the coloured bracelets are left by visitors to honour those killed here.Phnom Penh was far more than this day of sorrow. We had chocolate shakes in our hotel’s rooftop cafe and bought some stuff from a fantastic shop that helps street kids. It also suffers from too many dodgy bars and shouting tuktuk drivers. One we met vividly told us how he still has nightmares from his childhood, before happily showing us how to write our names in Khmer – on his and Nina’s hands. Which to me sort of summed up the sadness and the joy of the place.

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Same same, but different

With so many Thai islands to chose from, it could have been hard to decide between them. Instead we did a quick Lonely Planet summary of each, the things we could do/see, and worked out which were easiest to get to.. and decided on Koh Lanta on the west (Andaman) coast and Koh Phangan and Koh Tao on the east coast (Gulf of Thailand).

A Thai’s favourite phrase

Flying into Bangkok, we transferred straight down to Krabi which seemed to have easy links to the west coast islands. I know a few people who’ve been here and loved it but with quite a few islands on the agenda, we only stayed two nights and kept to the town, enjoying our first taste of proper Thai street food (probably the best you’ll ever taste), having a wander around the super modern temple and enduring a mix of dubious karaoke and impressive breakdancing kids in honour of Chinese New Year (not forgetting the early morning firecrackers that then barely stopped all day).




Our first island, Koh Lanta, was mainly on the list due to its location on the Andaman coast (which we guessed meant similarly transparent seas to the Andaman Islands), the good times people we know have had there, and the boat trips on offer to other islands meaning we could explore more.

Arriving, we knew there was one long beach, called Long Beach (see what they did there?) where most of the accommodation lies and another smaller below called Khlong Khong so we were sure finding a little hut to call home would be no problem. You’d think we might have learnt by now. With every hut full on both beaches bar one on Khlong Khong that was double our budget (maybe a Chinese New Year thing?), we took solace in a beach bar, watching yet another amazing sun go down.


The next morning we were up early and our hunt was thankfully much more rewarding. We soon settled in and were glad we’d ended up on the smaller of the two beaches – it came with a very relaxed vibe, crystal clear, still water and selection of lantern and driftwood clad beachside hang outs.


We spent a couple of days soaking up the chilled atmosphere and hiring a scooter to explore the island – including a mini trek through a jungle (complete with epic jungle noises) to a waterfall (we’ve had more impressive hostel showers, but it is their dry season after all), stopping to watch elephants at work. One minor accident later, we decided to give the off-roading a break for a while..


photo (15)
Befriending the locals..

We were keen to visit other nearby islands and with tourism now rife, there are a few main trips to chose from. Vetoing the safe looking speedboat/ferry boat options, we decided to rough the sea on a longtail (long wooden boat), much to the tour operators annoyance as it meant a third of the price. We were used to these from scuba diving, although not on an über busy Thai scale, but we thought it would add to the adventure, which it certainly did. Torn between Koh Phi Phi – the ‘must see’ set location of the Beach film, and a four island tour (including a hidden beach in a cave) we decided again to avoid the crowds and try something new. A very good choice as we’ve since seen a video of the Oxford Street at Christmas rammed Phi Phi ‘beach’ – not that you can really see it for the people..

Our four island tour allowed us to snorkel at Ko Ma, Ko Chuek, grab some lunch on Koh Ngai (beautiful if anyone’s thinking of going) and by far my favourite – swim through the Emerald Cave. Pulling up aside one of the large cliff rocks that you often see jutting out of the sea in Thailand, we were pointed towards a small cave peaking out of the water. It was quite a small gap to get under but once into the pitch black we swam along for a few minutes to our guides torchlight bouncing off the cave walls, listening to the echoes, until we got through to the opening – a little hidden oasis of a small beach backed by jungle and cliffs towering around probably 20 metres high. Floating on my back, it started to rain, making the experience all the more surreal – by far one of the points I’ll remember!

The translucent waters of Koh Ngai, even on a cloudy, rainy day.

Our mental circus performing boat driver.

The following day was a ferry, minibus and more ferries to Koh Phangan. Lesson learnt from Koh Lanta, we’d followed Lulu’s advice (thanks Lulu!) and decided on Haad Salad beach and found somewhere to stay, but true to form when you risk reserving in advance, it was a mould filled box on stilts. Being late, we headed out for food, stumbling on someone who said they’d have a little hut for us the next night and the most random but amazing Thai/Japanese restaurant made out of a graffiti clad converted garage. With a completely crazy handbag making Thai chef trained by a Michelin starred Japanese chef, the result had to be good! With only one other group of people in there as he selectively turned down other customers deciding that he didn’t want to cook for them, we were advised not to chose from the menu but to let him create something and the result was not only super cheap but delicious. As his Japanese friend told us stories of his drug cartel business (a little odd), we got a free lesson watching him meticulously make up sushi rolls.


Neither of us got the restaurant name but we’re kind of glad as this hidden gem may stay secret for a while yet.

Most of our time on Koh Phangan was spent swimming, snorkelling, treating ourselves to our first massage, and tentatively scootering to Mae Head and Koh Mae (an island joined to the beach by secret sandbank) and Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi thanks to suggestions from friends and family. Our favourite place had to be Haad Salad though – still retaining a fairly peaceful and relaxed vibe whilst others are sadly becoming hidden in resort central.

If we have to..

Sand bank revealed at low-tide joining Koh Mae to Mae Head

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Babysitting the locals..

Our last island hop was to Koh Tao – something we were looking forward to as it meant we could get some more diving in. This time we were much more organised. Having contacted a diving school, they sorted us out with some cheap places nearby and we booked some dive sites through them for the following day. I’d heard of Japanese Gardens and the Twins, which were both supposed to have excellent visibility as they’re fairly shallow (we’re not allowed below 18 metres) and described as hundreds of hard and soft coral making up a backdrop of colourful ornamental garden formations teaming with various types of fish. Our luck was in as they had planned those sites for the afternoon. It was as if they knew!

The next day, however, they changed their schedule heading to Mango Bay and White Rock. Oh well. Although deeper sites and further out from the coastline, the visibility was still pretty good and we saw loads of fish that we’re now becoming more than familiar with.

I still wanted to visit the Japanese Gardens though so we found out that you can hire a longtail to ‘taxi’ you to it – off Nangyuan Island. We were, of course, then scammed – as is obligatory every now and then whilst travelling – with our boat not turning up to collect us, but a bit of sweet talking meant we worked our way onto another one for free.

This beautiful set of three islands joined by small sandbank strips is now privately owned by a resort so completely wooden cladded with sponsored umbrellas everywhere.. Such a shame. Positioned in front of them looking out to the sea banked on both sides by different islands though, you can easily block it all out, and we’d come for what was under the water anyway.


This was by far the best snorkelling I’ve ever done. With the sun overhead, light poured into the water making the bright yellows and purples of the massive boulders of brain coral and the luminous colours of the fish darting amongst them really ‘pop’. I’m glad we didn’t scuba here as although the dive site would have been deeper, the water was so clear even to over 10 metres, that you really didn’t need it.. And it meant that I was snorkelling on the surface well away from the baby reef shark that I then saw gliding along at the sandy bottom! What an amazing sight! Somehow I managed not to scream and choke on a mouthful of seawater. I really should invest in an underwater camera!

As is the norm, on an overcast day, we then explored the island, by foot this time as Koh Tao is pretty small – cove jumping along the south coast, which on a cloudy day with choppy surf, really reminded me of a tropical coloured Cornwall :) Perfect mix!

Ao Leuk Bay with Shark Island in the distance.

And not forgetting that Koh Tao has the best fire performers so far – martial artists with fire sticks/chains. Sorry Goa, but these guys were hard to beat..

Our last port of call on the way to Cambodia was Bangkok. Having barely set foot in it on our way down south, we wanted to stop off here as we felt it had to be experienced.. and although we’d filled up on the beaches, we were still lacking on the Buddhas part, and they’re certainly there in abundance!


Arriving by bus, we figured we’d head towards the infamous Khoa San road in the hope that it would have some (albeit grubby) accommodation, being a renowned backpacker pub street.. Oh joy. What we actually stumbled on though was Rambutan st which, although similarly hectic to start with, leads to a small courtyard of stalls, cosy restaurants and a few guesthouses. It was still Bangkok though so the little leafy image you have is far from reality. Saying that, we managed to find a non-mouldy, non-bug infested, non-budget tripling room that didn’t back onto an all-night bar, and with plenty of local stalls kicking around, we knew cheap food at least wouldn’t be a problem.

With only one day here, our tick list included the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, the Temple of Dawn, or Wat Arun, a floating market and a quick bit of retail therapy due to the various deaths of Adam’s multiple camera devices..

I’d seen Marc and Leah’s pictures of the Reclining Buddha but the sheer size doesn’t quite come across until you’re there, squeezing into the furthest corner you possibly can to try and fit head to toe in one photo. We just about made it..


The grounds of Wat Pho are pretty impressive too with literally thousands of Buddhas dotted around the intricate pagodas and shrines, which were again mirrored at Wat Arun amongst its distinctive and perilously climbable spires.


photo (13)

After finding out that the only floating market on that day had been pretty much man-made just so that you can get a good photo, we decided to give it a miss, knowing that we’d come across authentic ones again on our travels.

Tomorrow, our adventures start in Cambodia!

Lots of love, N&A xx

Stunning Serendib

Nina – The flight to Sri Lanka was so quick it was initially hard to comprehend that we had landed in a different country, but after being scammed on an AC minivan to the station instead of a bus (after waiting forever for one), we boarded a train to Kandy – our stop off point to visit areas in the ‘Cultural Triangle’, and the differences soon became clear. I think it’s fair to say, I almost fell in love with this country from the very first views. Stunning scenery, mild weather (a welcome respite from the previous shadeless heat), friendly people and an altogether relaxed and ‘at peace’ vibe.


We were only able to spend a week in Sri Lanka and already knew that this would not nearly be enough in this beautiful country, so had done a bit more forward planning than usual and knew our route around. Starting in Kandy, we’d catch up on some culture as we were feeling a little lacking, then take the train down to the small town, Ella, and from there head south to Yala to do a mini safari. Little did we know what breathtaking scenery we were about to see from the first train ride – I must be getting old in thinking this but the views were seriously worth coming for all on their own.



Being the start of the train’s journey, we ran to get seats amongst the hoards of people and managed to get window seats (which are massive and open – almost as if they’re asking you to enjoy the scenery). Winding through the Hill Country (the height of English mountains), I can’t really describe the awesome views (and the few pictures we took on dying phones definitely don’t do it justice!) The train perched along an almost sheer drop track for a lot of the journey with an unending forest making up the lush valleys below nestled between the hills – so far up you felt like you were on top of the world overlooking the vast expanse of a million greens below. The fearless locals of course, hanging off the outsides of the trains.. as you do.. and screaming as they passed through tunnels, laughing at the echoes they made.




Adam – In Kandy it was a refreshing change to carry out our now habitual trek to find a place to stay in the cool mountain air, but the dark town was a little hard to navigate. As we passed the gloom of the large artificial lake that dominates Kandy, we found that all the guesthouses (‘hotel’ means restaurant here, and guesthouse can be anything from a business hotel to someone’s two bedroom house) lay on a road so steep I felt like I was in San Francisco. A nice room find and a not nice plate of food later, we got an early night after a verrry long day.

We were up at 6 to get a bus out to Sigiriya. A long journey past endless fields, roadside shops with giant adverts above, steep hills with deep copper rivers, and more bumps in the road than my bum was happy with, led us to a small entrance to the ancient site. As we walked through we were struck first by the bumped-up tourist entrance fee but then by the awesome sight of a 200m red rock tower of a hill, jutting up out of the lush jungle plain. We trekked with many others up through water gardens and giant boulders and then a steep and spectacular ancient staircase, past some 2000 year-old (and rather fruity) paintings.



Sigiriya was built in 477 A.D. by Kashyapa, the illegitimate son of the king. Angry that his half-brother was chosen as heir, Kashyapa did the obvious thing of entombing his father and exiling his brother, and then spent all the royal treasure on a pleasure palace/fortress atop the rock, with a giant lion statue to guard it. The evil King then lived the high life in both senses before Big Bro returned, where-upon Evil King charged him with an elephant before killing himself. As you do. All that remains of this madness are two giant lion paws that act as the gateway to a rickety staircase to the summit where lie ruins of walls and ancient bathing pools built by monks in the centuries since.

The views from the top were superb – an enormous plain of forest, with more shades of green than could be counted, interrupted by occasional giant rocks and a distant giant modern Buddha statue.



The next day we got back on the train and set out for the mountain town of Ella, six hours south-west. The views on this journey are acclaimed but for the first five hours we had to take the guide book’s word for it, standing painfully in a cramped carriage (mainly caused by our and others’ rucksacks to be honest), unable to see out the window. But in the last hour the crowds got off and we finally sat to gaze out at the vast valley below and tea plantations in mountain mists.

Ella itself is a one-street town of cafes and B&Bs, between the summits of Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock. The latter has supposedly some of the best views in Sri Lanka but the other has my name in it and takes half the time so we did that. Strolling up past fields of tea and workers eager to charge for a photo (and Nina making friends with local pets), the landscape opened up for us at the top, rewarding our efforts on the not-flip-flop-friendly trek with panoramic views of cloudy peaks and distant lakes.



It was Independence Day but little sign of it apart from the yellow lion national flag on many a tuk-tuk and porch as we walked back into the town. Pausing at a cafe for an attempt at wifi to plan our next move, we found ourselves trapped in a sudden and torrential downpour. Spending the afternoon sharing a pot of tea, watching the rain and reading, we could almost have been back in England.

One very un-English experience here was the fantastic local dish Koththu Roti, our favourite meal so far. A roti bread is sliced and diced with fresh vegetables in the loudest possible manner- with two giant metal cleavers banging repeatedly on a hot plate. After weeks of often bland curry for the tourists, ‘yum’ was my one-word review.


Ella was the sort of place we could have happily whiled a week away in, but, with no time to linger, we took the fastest bus trip yet down precipitous roads south, to Tissamaharama, or just ‘Tissa’ if you’re in a hurry.

Nina – We’d hunted online and discovered that Tissa was a good base to visit Yala National Park (as understandably it’s in the middle of nowhere) and lucked out finding a guesthouse owned by husband and wife (Ranjeet and Nila), with Ranjeet doing jeep tours around Yala. Negotiating hard on a discount (which Nila liked to remind us of constantly by grasping our hands and telling us she does what she can to help), we were glad we had something in mind when faced with the barrage of jeep drivers that hang out at every bus stop. We couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome as we were invited into their home and immediately asked what we’d like for supper (Nila turned out to be a very good cook with portion sizes to suit a king that she was keen to keep topping up..) It seemed if you managed to accept the challenge and finish off one of the many dishes, you’d get more the next time as she presumably thought you’d therefore left hungry. With traditional Sri Lankan curries on the menu both nights, Marc, you would’ve been in your element!

The following morning we set off before sunrise for a full day’s safari. We’d planned to do only a half day as this was all we could afford, but with three other people at the guesthouse also keen to go, it actually worked out cheaper and meant me were more likely to see the elusive leopards that live there. With only 35 in the whole National Park, we’d be lucky but with Ranjeet having an impressive record over his 25 years experience, we were ever hopeful. I’ve never been on an type of safari before so couldn’t wait for the experience.


With one of the guys bring an avid bird watcher, we were becoming a bit restless when the first hour consisted of constant stopping to capture what felt like a hundred different birds (which also meant researching them in a book and debating hard with Ranjeet about which type of Fantail Flycatcher etc it actually was).


Suddenly, we turned a corner and hiding in the bushes were a mummy and baby elephant happily munching on breakfast. Although quite hard to see through the thick greenery, it was amazing to see them in their homes and instantly left us wanting more. From then on, it seemed the elephants were everywhere and it amazed me how calm they were with vehicle presence, often choosing to dine on the dirt track side rather than in the dense forest or lakes where they could be well hidden.


Jerking to a sudden halt, with Ranjeet excitedly pointing into the trees, a solitary leopard was happily mixing snoozing on a branch with sporadic glances at the potential prey below (luckily not in our direction). For me at least, it took a while for the fact that this was a real live hunting (albeit lazily) leopard – not in a zoo, not being fed daily by humans, and that came with a warning not to get out of the jeep.


Adam’s arty version!

Yala National Park is the second largest in Sri Lanka – nearly 1,000 square kilometres – and safari trips are only allowed in two thirds of it. I really like this fact as it means that the animals have a lot if freedom to escape from people if they chose to. The tracks are also far from the trees meaning the ones that do chose to stay have a lot of hiding spots. We were very surprised therefore to later spot another leopard hiding further in the undergrowth in another tree. Although these are beautiful creatures and so impressive to see them in real life without a zoo setting, my favourite sight has to be the elephants. I loved watching these graceful giants strolling around as if without a care in the world, playing in the watering holes and having some food. Watching them kick up the grass with their foot, shake it around and roll it up their legs to get the dust out and then scoop it up with their trunks is a sight that has to be seen. Who knew they were so fussy.



Of course there were other animals too – plenty of water buffalo, monkeys, deer, warthogs, jackals, eagles (not forgetting the birds of course), to name but a few..







The next day began our trek back to Colombo via the little beach town of Negombo (a much prettier option than staying by the airport for anyone who has an early flight), and then onto Thailand island hopping!

We absolutely loved our dash through stunning Sri Lanka and will definitely be back!


Lots of love, N&A xx

Finding Nemo

The Andaman Islands lie off the coast of Thailand but are actually part of India, and one of the first to make it to the short list of places we wanted to go. We’d heard stories of stretches of never-ending crystal clear waters, breathtaking diving opportunities amongst the corals and secret unobtainable lands that tribesmen still live on. You have to get a permit to visit the select islands (issued at the airport on arrival) and this states which areas you can, and most importantly can’t go to. We soon learnt what happens when this isn’t obeyed, but more about that later..


If you want to visit paradise, you have to work for it.. Arriving in Port Blair, we headed straight to the port where ferries leave for the various islands. We’d heard we would be lucky to get a seated ticket for the Government run ferry to Havelock Island that day, but that standing tickets would hopefully be available. Unfortunately, you can’t reserve any until you’ve got your permit so we’d got our fingers crossed and had high hopes.. As did the other 50 people who had failed to get seats by the time we arrived.. Adam braved the rugby scrum that was the ‘queue’ to get the incredibly limited standing tickets. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everyone was crammed together, pleading and desperately scrabbling to buy as many tickets as they could, which only managed to challenge the tolerance of the ticket man even more. Nearly losing a limb and being crushed in the midday heat for half an hour, we came away empty handed. A night in Port Blair and the incredibly expensive (but bookable) private ferry the next morning was the only option.

It’s amazing how quickly all of the stresses and strains can melt away when you’re shown your beach hut, wriggled your way out of your rucksack, and looked out at your view..



Now that’s what paradise is made of.. Suddenly it was all worth it!

We’d decided on Havelock Island as both Adam and I were keen to learn to dive and the calm, shallow waters mean that the reefs around the East coast of the island are supposed to be outstanding.


After a half an hour paddle through transparent knee high water and still not reaching swimmable depths (incredibly shallow waters means this coast is unfortunately not good for swimming at low-tide), we wasted no time with a stroll along the beach to check out the dive centres. Settling on Dive India, we booked in for the SSI Open Water 4 day dive course. Due to the delays in getting here and the short time we’d allowed on the island, we were to start bright and early the next morning.

After a day of theory, day 2 took us out in a longboat to Nemo Reef where we practised the skills in shallow sea – so much nicer than the usual pool setting as you’re immediately introduced to the fish and environment around you. Facing two fears (small boats and deep water) in one day whilst remembering I had to breathe underwater was going to be a challenge and I’m not ashamed to say I was absolutely bricking it!! Adam and I had an instructor (Vikram) to ourselves which was a godsend as he went over the moves time and time again with the patience of a saint – It certainly does take a while getting used to essentially having a lifejacket, air-tank and a couple of hoses strapped to you – and that these are what’s going to keep you breathing! And then it was time for our first proper dive. “What do you want to see?” he asked. “Nemo, of course, we replied.”


Diving down to 6.5 metres, it felt fairly shallow and the light from the sun created amazing rays that bounced off the ripples of the water. Vikram pointed out fish after fish with various hand signals whilst tormenting me with the skills he knew I hated and hadn’t yet grasped (namely flooding your mask underwater and clearing it by blowing through your nose – something that my brain would not let me do) Then we came across the picture perfect image I’ve always had in my head when thinking of diving – clownfish (AKA Nemo) swimming in and around an anemone – and suddenly I felt like I was diving!



(Admittedly these photos weren’t taken by us but another woman on our course)

We’ve heard that the 2004 tsunami, excess fishing and climate changes have affected the coral and certainly you can notice this through the brown coral dotted about the shoreline, however being novice divers, the colours underwater still seemed pretty vibrant to us and if anything it enhances the seemingly florescent, bright flashes as the fish darted around us and amongst the coral reefs.

The next day I woke with a cold and knew this could be a problem. On the first dive that day, I couldn’t equalise my ears (make them pop as you go underwater) which meant I wasn’t allowed to dive so Adam braved The Lighthouse (14.5 metres) on his own. Seeing more new fish and him ever gaining in confidence, I was determined to join them in the afternoon at The Slope (9 metres) and luckily could. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best idea as that night I had a raging fever and had to call off the next day.

Feeling much better after a night of husband TLC and a lie-in, we decided to hire a scooter and head to the west coast for our day off. I’d seen pictures of elephants that swim in the sea however we were disappointed to find out that there is only one left and this is now owned by one of the resorts who charge extortionate fees to tourists who want to swim with the now shackled elephant.. Not exactly what we had envisaged and very off putting. Needless to say, the never ending stretch of sand backed by forest was beautiful and we (well Adam) climbed the enormous tress and we strolled along to the next cove as the sun set into the most amazing purple-red bathed sky.




Our final day of diving and we joined another group for certification day, which took us to the NV Mars shipwreck (16 metres). Definitely more of a boys thing, and maybe with a few nerves leftover from not having been well, I didn’t enjoy this much, but the guys all loved it and they carried on swimming around as us girls headed back to the boat for some biscuits and much needed Chai to warm up (it gets v cold underwater!) I loved the afternoon at The Wall (18 metres) and finally felt that I had learnt to forget about breathing and just enjoy the dive and surroundings. A quick ‘exam’ later (taken whilst relaxing at the beach bar with lassis in hand) and we’re both proud qualified Open Water divers to 30 metres.


I don’t think either of us have quite got the bug yet but with plenty more opportunities to practise over the next 5 months, who knows.

Sadly, the next day was back to Port Blair to spend the night before our flight to Sri Lanka. Some may think having spent a week on paradise island, yet being underwater for most of it seems a bit of a waste of the surroundings, but actually not at all – the crystal clear waters meant excellent visibility and I couldn’t have imagined a more chilled out, friendly place to have learnt.


Heading back to the same room in the same ‘hotel’ as we stayed in before Havelock (that they now term the honeymoon suite), we bumped back into a guy we’d met on our way out. He’s on bail fighting the legal system to be set free from India after having been told incorrectly by both tourist and government officials that he could go to an area previously denied to tourists. Needless to say, his story certainly seems to be one of injustice and we hope he’s been allowed to go home. After a decade of loving and repeatedly returning to India, he now never wants to go back and it’s sad that one event (albeit a very traumatic one) can change your opinion of a whole country so quickly – especially one as varied as India. I personally don’t feel I caught the magic of it as much as many have, but I think that’s as we were easing ourselves into travelling with a very basic tourist route that I think limited our exploring and experience of the real culture. I certainly have a lot of great memories of the amazing food, the chai, the vibrant colours, the smells, the friendly people (and the ‘eccentric’ people at stations), the sleeper trains, the tuk tuk races, the huts, the beaches, the reddest sunsets and of course the fish!











I’d definitely like to return and explore the hundreds of areas left. One country down and onto our next adventure – a hopefully not too quick dash around Sri Lanka..

Lots of love, N&A xx

Kerala – Beauty and the Beasties

It was a pity to leave our easy Palolem beach life behind… and for me to again have the wrestling match of packing my rucksack, the inside of which looks (and indeed smells) a bit like a charity clothes shop crushed into a sardine tin. Nina’s is of course neatly folded, and packed in half the time.

Waiting at the station in Margao for our sleeper train to Kerala, we had an interesting card ‘game’ with an eccentric and entertaining elderly bearded pilgrim/homeless (not sure which) man who demanded we ‘GO NORTH, NO SOUTH INDIA!’ before kissing my hand. Then a run through crowds to find our carriage, before a more normal card game and India’s version of Bourbon Biscuits on our tiny bunks on the train (minus the old man by now, I should add) and the usual half-sleep through shouts of ‘Chai, Chai’ etc. The next morning we arrived bleary-eyed in Cochin.

Now some of you know my work has involved going abroad with everything all planned and free accommodation and food, so, having stayed in a 5-star converted mansion by the sea and eating fresh seafood in the monsoon breeze, I had fond memories of our next stop… But after a fun ferry ride across the harbour to Fort Cochin, my memories clashed with the hot, dusty and weirdly empty place we found. Finally found a hotel (arriving the same day as an England cricket match and during high tourist season meant everywhere full or v expensive) and had a wander past the Chinese fishing nets, filthy shoreline, closed old colonial buildings, faded churches and drab streets in the baking heat, the place failing to excite us like I’d hoped.


Fort Cochin’s Chinese Fishing Nets

Keen to move on to the famous backwaters and short on time we set off the next day. Two buses later and we were in Alleppey, or Alappuzha if you live there, or ‘Venice of the East’ if you are trying to sell it to tourists. Not for the first or last time, our awesome plan of ignoring the five thousand shouting rickshaw drivers and trusting in our guidebook meant we had a not entirely brilliant two hour trudge in the midday heat to try to find a room.


But what a great room! Miles from town and way over budget, but, built from local teak wood in the traditional style, our cosy pad overlooked the waterway at the heart of the backwaters and had all the atmosphere Cochin lacked. It also sadly had all the mosquitos. And in the morning it was like someone had told every crow on the planet to audition for X Factor on our roof. Which did not get our vote.

But the boat ride we had that morning did. The guesthouse had a retired fisherman who lived across the river come collect us and take us for an hour around the small channels nearby on his longtail paddle boat. It was a peaceful contrast to all the ‘houseboats’ that motored noisily past, oil and exhaust in their wake. As pretty as they look in travel guides, they felt fake to me and very expensive to hire, and we were glad to be floating down tiny waterways they couldn’t squeeze down. We enjoyed helping to paddle our little vessel, past small homes and over thick clumps of lillies.


The excellent and kind Mr B.J., as he was called, showed us the sights in his own quirky style (Points at mango. Says ‘Mango’. Points at chicken. Says ‘Chicken’. Talks to lady on the shore for a bit. Says ‘Wife’). He showed us the rice fields, a magic trick with a leaf and then his impossibly calloused hands, before inspecting mine, frowning and asking ‘You work?’. Nina however got given a flower for her hair. The old smoothie…

We had a great time and after heading into Alleppey for a much cheaper hotel and having some lazy days in their great courtyard cafe (including finally getting to call home and an awesome Trivial Pursuit victory against some fellow backpackers) we headed out on a canoe again. This time with one of the waiters called Lall who led us out at dawn and took us to meet his family, have a curry breakfast by the water, see the peaceful villages and their farms and lakeside houses. All the locals own their own land and share the rice and fishing profits, Kerala being a Communist state (lots of Che Guevara posters too). He was a great guide with the basic but useful catchphrase of ‘You like?’ and it was a pleasure from start to finish (well, after he had hastily bailed-out the badly leaking boat).





We also took a quick bus trip to the stunning and undeveloped beach north of town which was a real contrast to Goa – almost deserted except for families strolling home –  but mainly we relaxed at our guesthouse, reading, drinking banana lassis and trying to avoid yet more bites from the flying beasties.

A dawn train took us to Varkala, a town on the coast two hours south. Despite staying in a place full of European retired ladies talking about what Ayurvedic treatment to have, with more of Kerala’s flying friends to torment us, we enjoyed the cliffside beachtown, with warm water and good food.

Our flight leaving Kerala came too soon, and was very early in the morning. So rather than stay at a dull and pricey airport hotel we took the sensible option – drinking cocktails with three of our Trivial Pursuit friends from Alleppey (who we had bumped into) at a bar with an impressive laser dancefloor, before realising the time and sprinting back along the beach to grab a taxi at midnight.

Dozing outside an airport waiting for it to open and a breakfast of biscuits is never fun but we had the adventure of the Andaman Islands ahead of us which we will tell you about next…

Promises, promises my friend..

After some lovely, but laid back days in North Goa, including a freestyle music night on the sand mixing beat-boxing with umm.. wailing (it was actually really good although I’m fully aware it doesn’t sound it!), we were ready to go in search of a bit more life in South Goa. So the chain of transport began to get down to Palolem. Absolutely shattered from what seemed like an endless day of travelling for what is actually a relatively short distance, we trawled the beach looking for a nice hut off the waters edge behind the forest of palm trees that line it, to no avail.. Settling for somewhere temporary, we were glad to wake up anew the next day and find an awesome little collection of huts at Manfredi’s with some lovely neighbours (obviously the ‘Christmas tree’ was the main draw..)


Although we knew Palolem would be busier than we’d seen in North Goa, I wasn’t quite expecting how touristy it’s become from what I’d heard of it beforehand and although we’d come for the more busier vibe, it was a bit of a shame to see the whole beach lined with stalls, bars and restaurants pumping out western music. That said, the beach and view to the sea is beautiful, a lot of the food was awesome (I’d especially recommend the Shahi Korma from the Banyan Tree), and yet again, more amazing red sunsets like I’ve never seen before.


Table for 2


Cows on the beach are a regular occurrence


Super cheap fireworks on sale everywhere means it’s like New Year’s Eve every night and beach performers like to join in with the pyrotechnics too..

photo 4

From here, you can walk along the coast to Patnem (often termed Palolem’s quieter equivalent) where I narrowly avoided catching fleas after falling in love with one of the many stray dogs (in this case Pino the puppy) that are semi-looked after by the restaurants, and had many more lazy days getting out of ‘holiday’ mode and into ‘travelling’ with the odd day hiring kayaks to go to Butterfly Island, and road-tripping on a scooter to Cotiago Wildlife Sanctuary – containing the grand total of six monkeys, some cows and butterflies.. (wildlife? really?) but that meant some awesome off-road scootering (if there was ever suspension on that bike, there definitely wasn’t afterwards!)

Puppy love


The ‘Wildlife’


Beautiful, vibrant colours everywhere – from the houses to the spice stalls


We’ve also brushed up on our haggling skills through every shop calling after you as you walk past – in every stall, you’re everyone’s friend and have to promise to come back to be able to leave..

After a lack of wifi, this post is a little late and we’ve arrived at our next stops of Cochin and the Backwaters already. Adam will take over the blog and update you just before we head off to the Andaman Islands for our ‘honeymoon’ week (hopefully) in paradise!

N&A xx

Mumbai madness

We made it!

Going travelling still feels like such a scary thing, but it’s only day 1 so I figure that’s to be expected – I personally am hoping we’ll get away from the stresses of London, drizzy, cold weather, learn more about other countries, traditions and cultures, and get to actually spend some time together.. and have a bloody good holiday!

Flying into Mumbai, or Bombay as everyone still seems to call it, has made me realise a few things – Dubai from the air is an OCD’s dream with it’s clustered super-neatness, and Mumbai from the air shows how crazy the other extreme can be. Shanty towns and hundreds of shacks are literally piled on top of each other with seemingly nothing in between. I wish I’d taken a picture as it can’t properly be described without seeing it. Indians literally will build on anything. Mumbai itself is crazy – it’s such a random mixture of well-off penthouses and beautiful old colonial style buildings and then tower upon tower of run down high rises, poverty like I’ve never really seen, scattered with leftover Diwali and New Year lanterns dotting the skyline. The streets are filled with black and yellow tuck-tucks and taxis and everyone seems to think honking is a way of life – there never seems to be a second of silence from it here.


Meeting up with Amit, a friend of Adam’s, we had our first awesome curry and collected train tickets for the Sleeper down to Goa. I was surprised by the lack of westerners in such a big city and definitely felt we were being stared at, so was glad to get on the train that night. Absolutely shattered from moving house and the usual Rinagl-Toy lateness meaning we had to run for the plane, we were hoping for some sleep in the bunk beds to the constant calls of the Chai wallahs.. Galub Jamun sweet.. chicken lollipop.. tomato soup.. chai, chai.. but that was probably off the cards..


After a pretty sleepless night we arrived in Pernem and got a taxi with a couple to Mandrem after our first (and not very successful) bargaining attempt. After checking out a few, we found a set of cool bamboo beach huts and more successfully haggled down the price. You can walk from here to Arambol (north along the beach) which is a lot more busy than Mandrem, but still has the same laid back vibe. Heading up there in the afternoon, the beach was crowded with performers learning their thing, crowds dancing to bongo drums and yoga bunnies creating impressive silhouettes in an awesome red sunset (Gem, you would’ve loved it!)


We’re now sitting in our beach bar overlooking the sea wondering what to do tonight. We’ll probably spend a week or so in North Goa, then South Goa, before working our way down the West Coast.. hopefully loads more adventures to come..

Loads of love, Nina and Adam xx

1 day to go!

With 1 day to go, our lives have been stored away (thanks massively to Rosemary and John!) and for the next 6 months we’re living out of scarily small (but very, very heavy) backpacks! It’s weird to think how many things you collect and depend on throughout your life and yet we’ll be living out of just these.. (I’m not sure how Adam gets away with having the small bag..)Image

Thanks so much to everyone for all of the lovely messages and good wishes and a very belated THANK YOU to all for making our wedding day as amazing as it was!! The next 6 months definitely have something to live up to..

We’ll try to keep you posted as much as possible, but please keep emailing with all of the news and have an awesome 2013!

Lots of love, Nina and Adam xx

5 days to go!!


Busy as we have been preparing for the big day itself, the travelling plans feel a long way off. However, just as the wedding has sped towards us so quickly, January will be on us before we know it, and we are very grateful indeed for the kind wedding gifts you have given, some of which will go towards exciting stuff like  and, most glamorously, malaria tablets. Thank you so much and keep an eye on here for more details of where we are going and what we will be up to in the months ahead.

See you all on Saturday and can’t wait to celebrate with everyone !

Wedding Gift List

As many of you have been very kindly asking about wedding presents or a wedding list, we’ve set up this page to let you know a little secret…

From January 2013, we’re accomplishing one of our dreams by having a postponed honeymoon and spending six months travelling around the Far East – going through India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and finally Indonesia. This is something we’ve both wanted to do for a very long time, and since we met, it’s become a shared dream.

On this blog over the coming weeks, you’ll see a few suggestions and ideas of things we’ll need before going and would love to do once out there, with a link to our travelling account to transfer a wedding donation to. This will go towards anything from hostel rooms to plane tickets, Thai cooking classes to elephant adventures, or mosquito nets to diving lessons, to name but a few..

If you wish to make a wedding donation, please make a transfer to our HSBC bank account in either maiden name – Nina Rinagl or Adam Toy.

Account number: 51771523

Sort code: 40-38-18

This blog will become our travel diary once we’re out there so keep the address and you can share in our adventure!

Lots of love,

Adam and Nina xx