Tour de Cambodia and the Irrawaddy dolphins

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I love a leisurely bike ride, and we’ve done plenty of cycling while we’ve been travelling — but the 35km round trip from Kratie to Kampi was sheer physical exertion!

We hit the bumpy, dusty mud track on bicycles that’d seen better days at around 8am, hoping we’d be able to navigate our way to Kampi without a map. One thing I’ll never forget from that day is all of the smiley, happy children who were so excited to see barangs (white people); I can’t even count how many times I had to wave and shout hello during the journey. Children generally seem so much more grown up and perceptive in Cambodia, and sadly I think it’s because they’re thrown into labour at a young age by their families to try and make ends meet.

Anyway, many cans of coke and many miles later, and we finally arrived at the section of the Mekong where one of the largest pods of Irrawaddy dolphins live. We clambered onto a little brightly-coloured wooden boat and made our way to the centre of the river – and within minutes we could hear the sound of dolphins splashing in and out of the water. One was about three metres away from us at one point, and it was an incredible feeling to be so close to such a rare and beautiful creature. They’re little buggers to catch a photo of though… however after some perseverance, I did manage to get a couple of decent shots!

The Irrawaddy dolphin, or river dolphin, is now a critically endangered species and our guide told us that there are only around 55 left in the Mekong. That’s largely down to the locals who, up until recently, have been hunting them; pollution from China and Korea is another reason for their decline. The promising news is that we saw a calf during our visit, so hopefully the dolphins will continue to breed successfully, live freely and bring as much joy to others as they did to me.

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Christmas in Don Det

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I’ve never spent Christmas away from home, so I wanted to make this year’s as memorable and as special as possible. And the 4,000 Islands was the perfect place to do it. Don Det has the coolest most laid back air of a place I’ve experienced; very similar to Pai’s bohemian vibe.

The hot, midday sun was beating down on us when we arrived on the island a couple of days before the big day, and we found ourselves a little wooden shack for £1.30 a night with two hammocks and a gorgeous view of the Mekong. Don Det was awash with bars, restaurants and full of like-minded travellers, and I couldn’t wait to spend some time lapping it up.

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After a little exploring, we found what would be the destination for all of our dietary needs on the island – a restaurant run by an Aussie who adores his food! He sources the best meat from the local market, and prepares his customers’ meals with the same love and attention as he does with his own.

Christmas Day soon came around – not that the 30-plus degree heat made it feel particularly festive. I had a lovely Skype call with my family, lots of cocktails and games of Connect 4, and a not-so-traditional Christmas dinner of barbecued chicken and chips. Yum! I couldn’t have asked for a better and more relaxed day, but I can’t wait to spend Christmas 2013 back where I belong — at home with my family.

Tree-top fun

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After six hours of trekking up and down tricky terrain, zip lining over waterfalls and valleys, abseiling down trees and climbing the face of a mountain, I’m mentally and physically exhausted!

If you’re not particularly good with heights, like me, trusting that seemingly-thin wire while you’re zipping from mountain to mountain is something you have to quickly combat. And I’m glad to say, after a bit of a shaky start, I was well away after the first line and my inner adrenaline junkie was screaming out for more!

Because Laos is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, its countryside is largely untouched and the path we took through the jungle felt a lot less travelled than our trek in Thailand. As such, we got to see a lot more wildlife (including monkeys and yes, even a snake!) And the bird’s-eye view was the perfect way to be able to appreciate the area’s jaw-dropping scenery.

There were various zip-line routes, but most went over valleys and above the Bolaven Plateau, a huge waterfall. Typical me went a did a ‘Boris Johnson’ on the longest and highest line, and I was left dangling over a deep, vast valley for a good five minutes while one of the unlucky instructors came to rescue me from the middle of the line. I caught it all on video!

At the end of day one, the final task was to zip line to our 30-metre-high tree house in the dark. A little bit scary, but I was just relieved to get to my bed after an incredibly demanding day. Little did I know that the following day was going to require a heap-load more stamina and determination! Before I went to sleep, I moved my daypack into my bed to cover a small hole in the mosquito net. I woke in the morning to find an even bigger hole in the mosquito net and after moving my bag, discovered that one corner of it had been munched too, and found the remaining crumbs of a packet of biscuits that I’d brought with me in case my blood sugar level became too low during trekking. At first I thought it may have been ants … that was until I saw a mouse trying to drag the packet into its Tom & Jerry-style hole in the bathroom wall!! Of course, I got a photo of that too. Cheeky little beggar!


Ahh, day two. Our first mission was to trek for two hours to the two mightiest zip lines. Over rocks, down steep muddy hills and yep, all done in my trusty Fred Perry plims. These zips offered, by far, the best views compared to the previous day (one line was 450 metres long; the one I managed to lose momentum on). After another two hours’ trekking back up hill and after a bite to eat, we were led to a rather fierce-looking mountain face (it was the highest point of the Bolaven Plateau – 4,430 ft above sea level, just to give you an idea of its magnitude). And the only way back to the mini-van was to climb it! I can’t even describe how tense I was during the climb – especially when I had to turn a corner – and I can’t tell you how relieved I felt when I reached the top. Phew! I think I’ll have arms and legs of steel by the time I come home..

Me after rock climbing - feeling very relieved!

Me after rock climbing – feeling very relieved!

Despite hating every second of rock climbing, I’m glad I at least tried it! The rest, I absolutely loved (even when momentarily flagging) and I’ll definitely be doing something similar again when I can.

Broken tablet, broken people

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Since my last post, I’m happy to say that things have got a lot better. The food poisoning eventually left me to enjoy my trip and although my BlackBerry tablet decided to give up the ghost, I since have a shiny new iPad Mini (a debt which needs to be paid when I’m back home!) I see it as a little Christmas present to myself..

We spent the last few days in northern Laos visiting a bear sanctuary and the COPE Centre. Seeing the sun bears was so cool and I managed to get some brilliant snaps. Unfortunately, the black bears that the sanctuary had recently taken in were still in quarantine. The visit to the COPE centre was a sobering experience to say the least, and a real eye opener.

I’ve never really known too much about the Vietnam war, and I certainly never knew how much it had impacted on Laos. Turns out that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world, and the aftermath is still affecting its people more than 40 years on. The COPE Centre has been set up to support those who have lost limbs due to UXOs (unexploded ordnance), and to support the families who’ve lost loved ones during explosions. It amazes me how many UXOs are still scattered across Laos and how little America, the country that put the bombs there, have contributed to the clear-up. It’s a sorry state of affairs when children are hunting for bombs because the value of the metal puts food on the table.

After Vientiane, we took the overnight ‘sleeper’ bus to Pakse so we could book onto the Tree Top Explorer. The bus was an experience! It was basically a 20-year-old coach converted to include completely horizontal beds (by beds, I mean a sun lounger cushion on the floor). Four people in each section … that was until the coach stopped and let more people on. And then there were five! As you can imagine, I managed to catch about 10 minutes’ sleep during the whole journey. And I’ll never complain about another pot-hole in England again!

Laos – a bit of a letdown

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Being stuck between four walls with food poisoning may have slightly tainted my view of Laos but so far, a dodgy meal’s not the only thing that’s cast a grey cloud over my time in the country.

Watching the sun and the silhouettes of mountains reflect off the calm waters of the Mekong was a sight to behold. My days on the boat were mostly spent listening to progressive house which sent me into a total trance, and I often had to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming. People-watching became a bit of a pastime too: the Croatian man who drank the bar dry and the American girl who performed an over-dramatic ‘athsma’ attack and threw herself onto the floor because someone was smoking made for an interesting journey! It was when we reached the Laos border that things started to go wrong…

Because we’ve been travelling for a month and a half now, we’ve become hardened to the various scams and ways that people will try to rip you off. Although in Laos, it’s a whole nother ball game! Every time they set eyes on a Westerner, I’m sure they’re calculating how much money they can make out of you. It’s made us extremely suspicious of anyone who speaks to us or even smiles at us and unfortunately, that rather puts a dampener on your overall experience. The argument with a woman in a bike hire shop is a story that I won’t even go into, but I can feel myself becoming more assertive the more I travel. She was almost reduced to tears!

Despite the less-than-friendly locals, Luang Prabang and Vientiane are very pretty and you can’t mistake the French influence of both cities. Needless to say I’ve been gorging on croissants and pancakes when I’ve felt up to it. Once I’m back to my usual self we’ll be moving on to Pakse to do another trek and spend a couple of days at the Tree-Top Adventure (zip lining through the jungle and camping in a tree house), then over to Don Det and the 4,000 Islands where we’ll spend Christmas.

The last days in Thailand

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We’ve been making the most of our last few days in Thailand, and don’t my legs know it! On Tuesday we visited the Chiang Mai Flower Gardens. They’re huge, so we hired out bikes – again! It was a lovely day and because it’s the ‘low season’, it was a retreat from the hustle and bustle we’ve become used to recently. It’s got nothing on the Eden Project, though.

The following day I became known as Thaigella – we booked ourselves onto a Thai cookery course. It was lots of fun and I can now successfully make pad Thai, spring rolls and green curry…sort of. I will definitely be buying the curry paste rather than using a pestle and mortar. My arms got tired after about two minutes! Pad Thai was easy and I’m sure it’s probably going to become my signature dish.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m quite particular about my beloved hair. After the cookery course, I reluctantly walked into a salon (if you could call it that). Glad to say that I’m still alive, I still have hair and all in all, it turned out rather well. And the best bit was that it cost me £2!

We dedicated the rest of the afternoon to the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre. What a disappointment that was! It was a mish-mash of random stories about the city – repeated over and over again, some broken pottery (with no explanation as to what it was and where it came from), and some ‘scenes from the city’, where I half expected one of the wax models from a market stall to try and sell me something I didn’t want. Needless to say, ‘the rest of the afternoon’ turned out to be about half an hour!

Our final day was spent touring the Doi Inthanon National Park. Our guide was really knowledgeable about the area and the history of northern Thailand (we learnt far more from her than we did at the museum!) We visited the Karen hill tribe and their village, took a trip to the highest peak in Thailand, perused the Royal Pergodas, looked at some more waterfalls and finished up at an eco-farming project. The day wasn’t as strenuous as I imagined it to be, and I wished we would’ve been able to explore some of the nature trails and see a little more of the park. It all felt a little too touristy!

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We’re embarking on a three-day boat journey to Laos next. Really looking forward to seeing more of south-east Asia. No-one would want to take the faster two-day boat after seeing the photo I’ve seen. It resembles a banana boat and you have to wear helmets!

One month in!

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Well, what a busy week! After leaving Pai last Monday (and Charlotte and Lorna, who we won’t see now till we’re in New Zealand) we moved on to Sappong for a spot of caving.

Shouldering heavy rucksacks in the midday heat, we settled for the first guest house we could find – called Jungle House. It was rather rustic and farm-like, but was run by a lovely little lady called Da who made us feel so welcome – and she turned out to be the most superb cook!

We planned our trip to the caves for late afternoon so that our visit would coincide with the thousands of swifts that swoop into the caves to roost at sunset. The caves were as interesting as they were a sight, although you wouldn’t be able to tell from my snaps. Think a new camera’s the first thing on the list when I’m back home and get a job! After lots of walking and climbing, the rest of the evening was extremely relaxed and we all retired to the barn soon after we’d eaten. The morning wasn’t so serene… We were awoken by cockerels, a mimicking mynah bird saying ‘morning’, and some strange country-style music that was typical of an American horror movie! Nonetheless, it was another great experience to add to the list – and despite feeling like I was the victim of another cliché murder scene, we made it out alive!

After Sappong, we took a bus to Mae Hong Son – the next significant place on the northern Thailand ‘loop’. We spent two days here: the first we trekked up a mountain to watch the sunset, and the second we spent enjoying the customs of a local festival. Lots of tasty street food!

Mae Hong Son didn’t have much to offer, so we made the Sukhothai Historical Park, a World Heritage Site, our next stop. And I’m so glad we did. We’ve seen lots of Buddhist temples since we’ve been in Thailand. And I mean lots! But Old Sukhothai, with its well-preserved 13th-century Wats, was truly wonderful. We spent two days cycling around the parks; they’re split into zones and some of them are up to four kilometres from the main, central site. There’s something about Buddhism that I find so fascinating and captivating, and visiting Sukhothai made my view of the religion even more beautiful. Don’t worry … I won’t be coming home wearing an orange robe!

Mountains and mopeds

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Mopeds. Never had the urge to ride on one before, and have been pretty persistent in trying to dissuade my little brother from getting one now he’s 17. Unfortunately, Pai’s a small village up in the mountains and not many people seem to own cars. That means the only way you can get around if you want to see the sights is by hiring a scooter!

Keen on exploring the area, I decided to give it a go. But I can safely say that after three hours of riding, I definitely won’t be doing it again!

Don’t get me wrong: admiring the scenery while you’re whizzing along the open roads is a wonderful feeling. But if you feel uncomfortable and lack confidence, you’ll never be able to completely relax and feel as free as you’d like to. I felt much safer during our journey through the countryside because no-one else was on the roads, and during that time we managed to visit a hilltop temple and the Memorial Bridge. After reading the history on it, they don’t seem to have much luck with that particular crossing…

Handing the moped back at the end of the day felt such a relief. The others decided to keep their bikes for the following day to do some more exploring. I was more than happy to spend the day reading and writing in the hammock!

Pai – a good ‘changover’ cure

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The trek was the first time that the four of us had met other travellers since we began our trip, so it was nice to get to know other like-minded people and enjoy their company. On our final day in Chiang Mai, two of the girls I bonded with during the trek, Charlotte and Lorna, turned up at our hostel while I was sitting in the bar. We ended up spending the whole day chatting and drinking – because we could! The day inevitably extended into the evening, and we finished up at a rooftop reggae bar drinking cocktails while watching the stars.

The thing I love about travelling is that you have all the time in the world, and I feel like I’ve been able to totally let go from the reality of life at home. Ironically, I’m writing this post on a hammock in another reggae bar!

I woke the next morning with quite a bad ‘changover’, as we call it (Chang is the Thai beer everyone drinks) and had to halfheartedly pack my rucksack ready for the next part of our trip to Pai, a small village up in the mountains. The minibus journey was hairy to say the least! But at the same time, the views during the ride were absolutely beautiful. It was also the first time in about five days that I’d had the chance to plug in my iPod. I love how music can transport you to another time or place and help you to overcome the hard times when you start to miss your family and friends.

So far, Pai seems really cool and very laidback, and our wooden bungalow has its own hammock on the veranda. I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of my time on it!

The mighty jungle

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I’m writing this blog with legs that feel like jelly and blistered feet – and at the same time, absolutely buzzing after our Thai jungle trek! There were nine of us in the tour group and we got to know them all pretty well on the journey to Mae Tang (we were practically sitting on each other’s laps in the truck!) We were with two fellow Brits, two Canadians and three Germans, and we couldn’t have trekked with a nicer bunch of people.

Our adventure began with an elephant ride through the jungle which was an incredible experience: the scenery was stunning and it’s the closest I’ve ever been to Dumbo! Poor Hanna drew the short straw and sat on its neck, and unlike the other elephants in the group ours wasn’t playing ball! We were dangled off the edge of cliffs a few times and we also took a detour into the river (yes, we were squirted with water and mud!)

The next leg of our journey was a four-hour trek up a mountain, where we passed through dense jungle and when we had the energy, admired views I never imagined I’d see in my lifetime. None of us were expecting the trek to be of this scale and magnitude, and we agreed that it blew last year’s Mount Snowdon climb out of the water! The sense of achievement we felt when we reached the top was as amazing as the ice-cold bottle of Chang waiting for us!

That evening, we camped in a bamboo hut with the Lamu hill tribe who cooked us some beautiful Thai food. It was great to get to know everyone in our group over a few drinks, and we were even treated to a guitar performance by our tour guide (we ended up singing along to Ronan Keating – they love him out here for some unbeknown reason). Staying in camp was totally out of my comfort zone, as was the shower which was a hose pipe surrounded by bamboo screening! We also had to share the toilet with a huge spider at one point…

The following day we went trekking again (downhill this time, and after it’d been raining) so the Fred Perry plimsolls I wore were obviously the perfect footwear for this type of activity. Although I did only fall on my backside once! We went to see two waterfalls and then that evening, we camped in another bamboo hut by the river and sat around a fire with the other guys in our group.

As incredible as the trek was, I was pining for the final day because I knew it was only an hour’s walk to the white-water rafting base. My legs couldn’t take much more! I was quite apprehensive about rafting at the start, especially as I’m not the biggest fan of water, but it was so much fun and it’s given me the urge to do it again – and somewhere a little more extreme next time.

All in all, the trek has been undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life so far. I feel proud of myself for putting myself in situations that were way beyond my limits, and I had some truly incredible experiences because of it.