Lois Andrews

Pharmacist on a career break - hoping to scratch my itchy feet
Living in: Torquay, United Kingdom
  • Day96

    Suasdey Siem Reap!

    July 5, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 88 °F

    I got the day bus to Siem Reap which took around 7 hours. Plenty of time to make friends with the only other tourist on the bus, Toni who was originally from the Philippines but has spent the last 20 years living in California (he jokingly kept pointing out that I was really the only tourist on the bus). We arrived in Siem Reap around 5pm and got a tuk tuk to our respective hostels. Unfortunately for me I found out that the pool at my hostel (which is the only reason I booked it) was empty (as in of water). And the WiFi wasn’t working. Oh, and I was the only guest. This is the downside of booking in advance and paying a deposit. I did complain and got a night for free and was promised that the WiFi would be fixed tomorrow. At least I got a private room. Anyway, after that shambles we went to Toni’s hostel to check him in (surprisingly he didn’t want to stay at mine...) and then went for dinner and planned our Angkor wat tour (as we got on so well on the bus we decided to see the temples together).

    Day 1
    We met at 8am and decided to try our luck with walking around asking the tuk tuk drivers for tours to get the best price. Well as it was off season we didn’t really have to approach any as each one pounced on us as we walked by. After three attempts I managed to negotiate down from $15 to $10 and got us a very nice tour guide called Mr Sopheap for the day. There are two main circuits at Angkor Wat so we decided to start with the small circuit. The three day ticket for the whole site costs $62 and you can visit all the temples in the complex. For the small circuit we started at Angkor Wat itself, the largest and most famous temple in the whole site (and the busiest). Mr Sopheap dropped us at the parking area and we crossed the bridge over the moat alone. We decided against getting an official tour guide and just explore the temple on our own taking it at our own pace. I’m glad we did this as it was so hot walking around after a while I don’t think my brain could’ve retained much of the guides information. Angkor wat is definitely a site to behold, but the huge crowds got a bit much after a while so we only spent about 45 minutes walking around before we headed back to our tuk tuk. After seeing Angkor Wat the temples got smaller and less crowded, but also more intricate and special (in my opinion). We went to Bayon (the temple with all the faces, and one of our favourites), Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda (twin temples on either side of the main road, very quiet and serene), Ta Prohm (aka the Tomb Raider Temple, aka the temple with loads of trees growing on it), Banteay Kdei and the view of the Srah Srang Lake. After reaching our temple saturation for the day we headed back to the town for a late lunch/early dinner and a browse around the market before calling it a day. We wanted to have an early night as tomorrow we would be getting up early to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

    Day 2

    Mr Sopheap picked us up bright and early (and very much still dark) at 4:15am and we headed back to Angkor Wat. The most popular place to watch the sunrise is in front of one of the pools in the West side of the temple. We were early enough that we managed to get a seat right on the bank of the pool (so no one could sit in front of us) and made ourselves comfortable. Over the next hour we watched as the sky brightened behind the ancient wonder. Notice how I said “brightened” though, due to the clouds the we didn’t exactly get the picturesque “sunrise” that we’d hoped for, to the point that after a while we looked at each other and said “is it done yet?...I think it’s just morning now”. It was still a lovely view and nice to experience the temple so early. After we were sure the sun had risen we headed back to Me Sopheap (who was napping in his tuk tuk) and started on the grand circuit, the second most popular circuit (and one which most tourists miss if they only do the one day tour). Today we saw Baphuon (the temple with the giant reclining Buddha along the whole width of the west wall ), the Terrace of the Elephants (self explanatory), Preah Khan (the labyrinth temple in a cross shape), Neak Preah (a really small fountain-like temple in the middle of a giant lake which itself was crystal clear and picturesque with the clouds reflecting in it), Ta Som (small temple with a giant tree growing out of the east archway), East Mebon, Pre Rup and Ta Keo (all of which were pyramid-style temples with each one bigger than the last. As we started so early today, even though we saw almost double the number of temples than the first day, we finished the circuit around 1pm. We had definitely reached our temple and tourist saturation for the day though so decided to head back to the town and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing before having another early dinner.

    Day 3
    Today we had arranged for Mr Sopheap to take us to one more temple, Banteay Srei which was further out of the main complex, and to the floating villages which he had recommended. We decided to go to the floating villages first. After a 30 minute drive we reached the port and we suddenly realised that the village was actually an hours boat tour there and back and not a drive to the actual village and a small tour when we got there (our mistake really). We hadn’t intended to do another tour like that as we were still paying for our third day of the Angkor Wat pass, but we followed Mr Sopheap into the ticket office to see how much it would be. Immediately I could see that there were no prices listed and just a sign saying “tickets are non refundable”. I asked Mr Sopheap how much the ticket was and he said the same price as the one day ticket for Angkor Wat. $35?! We told him we weren’t doing t pay that much. He said maybe he could make a deal with his friend. He came back with another price: $23. We both looked at each other and mentally said no. I said we were still paying that for the Angkor wat ticket so we can’t pay another $23 for a boat tour (on top of the $10 we were still paying for Mr Sopheaps services). I apologised for the misunderstanding and said we’d just rather go straight to the temple. He looked visibly annoyed but led the way back to his tuk tuk. As we drove away we both looked at each other and whispered “commission”. No we know why he kept recommending it to us. Our formerly happy and chatty tour guide was noticeably silent for the hours journey to Banteay Srei. Clearly we had annoyed him. We tried not to let it ruin our day though and enjoyed the drive through the countryside and villages. The temple itself is much smaller than any in the main complex but was situated within a large park-like area with a wooded area on one side and a small lake on the other, making for a very peaceful area to walk around. After enjoying the site for an hour we headed back to our sullen tour guide and returned to the town. He dropped us at our chosen lunch spot and after counting the money we gave him left with a very brief “bye”. Clearly we had not made a friend for life in him. Oh well, you can’t win them all. After lunch we had a final browse around the markets before spending the rest of the day relaxing in the hammocks at Toni’s hostel, planning our next destinations. Me to Laos and Toni to Bangkok.

    So there you have my three days in the largest historical religious site in the world, and one of the highlights of my trip so far.

    It’s time to move countries again. Next stop, Laos.

    Lia haeuy!
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  • Day92

    Suasdey Phnom Penh!

    July 1, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ⛅ 91 °F

    My first land border crossing in south east Asia went smoothly and I arrived in Cambodia’s capital city mid afternoon. I once again avoided the swarm of tuk tuk drivers and found my hostel easily on foot and checked in to the hottest room I’ve stayed in so far, a 16 bed dorm with only two ceiling fans on the top of a four storey building, but at $1.50 I couldn’t really complain (well I could, but only to myself). I had dinner in the hostel and planned the next days tour of the two most important, and upsetting things to see in Phnom Penh; Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. I decided to go to bed early (seriously I must be getting old) so that I’d be rested for tomorrow.

    The next day I woke up early and had breakfast on the hostel before meeting my tuk tuk driver. I had organised for him to take me to the museum first where he’d wait while I walked around and then onto the killing fields, the standard route most people take. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also called S21, is a former school that was used by the Kmer Rouge as an interrogation prison during their regime. The museum, unlike the Củ Chi tunnels, was done very respectfully with each visitor given audio guides meaning the museum was almost completely silent as people walked around. I spent two hours following the recommended route and listening to the guide explain what each room and area was used for. It was a very somber experience, especially when I learnt that of the 20,000 prisoners sent there only 12 survived. As I was coming to the end of the audio tour I saw a poster of one of the survivors Chum Mey who had written a book about his experience, and sitting just to the side was the man himself behind a table of his books. I was so taken aback I didn’t know what to say so I just nodded to him and walked on. I then noticed another man on the other side of the path and the poster next to him showed that it was Bou Meng, another survivor who was also selling his book about his experience. As I was leaving I asked one of the staff if they were there every day and she said yes. I can’t imagine how hard that must be to go back to a place with such horrific memories regularly. I met my tuk tuk driver outside and we headed out of the city to the killing fields. The Killing fields, a term coined by the Cambodian journalist and survivor of the regime Dith Pran, are a number of sites across Cambodia where over a million people were executed. The site at Choeung Ek is the most well known and visited site. Just like in S21 visitors are given an audio guide when entering and follow a set route around the site. Most of the mass graves are overgrown with grass but a few have been surrounded by wooden fencing marking points in the tour. Most of the fencing is now covered in bracelets left by visitors as a mark of remembrance. Next to one such grave is a tree similarly covered in bracelets called the “killing tree” which I won’t describe but I found to be one of the most upsetting things in the site. I chose to leave a bracelet here. The last point on the tour is the memorial stupa which holds around 5,000 skulls exhumed from the site. The audio tour lasts just over an hour and is again a very somber experience but one which I found to be very respectfully handled by the Cambodian government. After finishing the tour I met my driver outside and geared back to the hostel.

    Although it’s never an easy or pleasant experience visiting these places I think it’s important that people do so that we are able to learn about all aspects of history, the good and the bad.

    Next stop in Cambodia is Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat.

    Lia haeuy!

    PS - I chose not to take any pictures during my visit to both sites as I personally found it to be disrespectful.
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  • Day90

    Xin Chào South Vietnam!

    June 29, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 93 °F

    Day 1 (Tam Coc)

    I arrived in Tam Coc that evening after a short two hour bus ride. It’s a small village in the greater Ninh Binh area and is a known as the “Halong Bay of the land” due to similar rock formations surrounded by fields. I was staying in Tam Coc Nature lodge which was located at the end of a dirt track through the fields. I was reminded of my journey to Nuts Huts in the Philippines. And like that journey the hostel was just as lovely. I was pretty tired after the long day so I checked in and went straight to bed.
    The next morning I woke up early so that I could enjoy as much of what Tam Coc had to offer as I was getting the sleeper bus that night to Phong Na (this pattern would repeat itself for the next week). I decided to start my day by getting the highly recommended boat trip along the river. As it was so early I had the boat to myself so I could fully enjoy the views and peaceful surroundings. The boat is just a small row boat steered by a single person, who start off rowing by hand but after a few minutes they swap over to rowing with their feet, kind of like peddling on a bike. The trip takes about two hours and goes through three limestone caves on the way up the river. We stopped briefly at a small gathering of ladies in boats selling drinks and snacks and then turned around and rowed back along the river to where we started. It was such a nice way to start the day. After the boat I stopped for an early lunch and then hires a bike to explore the rest of the area. I cycled to the base of Hang Mua Peak and proceeded to climb the 500 steps to the peak. Unfortunately I found myself doing this climb at mid day so was basically a puddle of water by the time I reached the top, but the view was definitely worth it. At the base of the peak there is also a cave to explore which most people seem to miss, so relieved they reached the top probably. After my cardio work out I headed to the north of Tam Coc to see the Bich Dong Pagoda which is a cluster of temples and caves in the side of a rock face. The pagoda is set over three levels accessed by stairs and caves (some with bats in residence) and makes for a pretty cool site. What was not cool was the guy at the entrance who decided to move my bike to his “parking” area after left it by a tree just to make me pay him 50p. Not a chance mate! I just walked up to it, saying that he moved it so I wasn’t paying and just peddled off. It’s the principle folks. After a busy day it was now time to head back to the lodge and pack for the night bus, next stop Phong Nha.

    Day 2 (Phong Nha)

    Apart from the addition of cockroaches this time the night bus was fairly uneventful and we arrived in Phong Nha at 4:30am. We where greeted off the bus by the guest house owner who picked me and two other girls up and drove us back to the house, where we checked in and went straight to our dorm to sleep the last few hours of the night. I woke up at 8am to the sound of Irene, the Italian girl from the bus, talking to another girl about how she didn’t want to rent a scooter but wanted to see the caves in the area. I got up and said I didn’t want to get a scooter either but maybe we could find another way to see them. We had breakfast and then headed to another hostel where we met some other people who wanted to take the boat trip to Phong Nha cave, from the pier in town. The cave was only accessible by boat and was only a short ride downstream. The cave itself was pretty impressive (and did remind me somewhat of the cave from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where Dumbledore drinks the water and goes mad). After the cave, with no luck convincing anyone in our group to join us in hiring a car to take us to Paradise cave, we went to plan B and started asking in the guest houses if anyone would be willing to drive us on two bikes. We managed to find a really nice hotel manager who got her Dad and a friend to drive us to the cave where they would wait and then take us back. The drive was so picturesque and went straight trough the National park. We passed a few other caves on the way to Paradise cave (one of which you can zip line into it in the pitch black - no thanks!). Our drivers dropped us at the car park and we continued on foot to the cave entrance (a good 10 minute climb!). Paradise cave is one of the longest caves in the world and boy did it not disappoint. It was huge! (And nice and cool in there). We walked through the cave, taking pictures of all the stalactites and stalagmites, marvelling at its size (definitely more impressive than Kent’s cavern...). After enjoying the sights, and the cooler temperature we headed back down to meet our drivers (relieved that they were still there) and headed back to the town. On the drive back they slowed and stopped a few times to let us take pictures. Pretty good tour guides for two people we commandeered without notice. Back in town it was an early night for me as I needed to get up in time for the 4am bus headed to Hoi An (The poor guest house owner does the pick up and drop off at 4am nearly every day! - much appreciated though!).

    Day 3 (Hoi An)

    The bus to Hoi An took about 8 hours and I was able to sleep most of the way. We arrived at the bus station at lunch time and as luck would have it I had booked a homestay just around the corner so was able to avoid the posse of taxi drivers. The homestay was very much like our version of a B&B, run by a sweet family. They let be borrow one of their bikes for free so my first stop was to cycle to the nearby beach. The 15 minute journey itself was very picturesque as it crossed through some rice fields. As luck would also have it I managed to find a very cool vegan cafe right on the beach, complete with bean bags and sun loungers, where I set up camp for the afternoon. I enjoyed a very relaxing three hours there, having a late lunch, reading and finally being able to swim in a clean ocean with the sun shining. That was until the heavens opened. The entire beach ran to their respective bars and cafes and took shelter for the next hour. I am clearly cursed with the beach. It finally subsided enough for me to cycle back to my homestay where I showered and had an early night.

    Day 4 (Hoi An)

    After a much needed lie in I got up at 10am and had a very nice breakfast of banana pancakes (there is clearly some guest house rule book that says all tourists want banana pancakes for breakfast. Not that I’m complaining!). After breakfast I walked into the old town centre and spent the rest of the morning and afternoon meandering around the old streets. The old ochre coloured buildings and shop fronts filled with plants gives the town a charming atmosphere (ignoring the crowds of tourists and repetition of souvenir shops of course). I stopped for lunch at the oldest Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) shop in town and joined the crowd of people enjoying the best banh mi in town (the crowds don’t lie). After enjoying the old town streets I headed back to the homestay to pack up my things and get ready for another night bus. This one heading to Nah Trang and then onto the mountain town of Dalat.

    Day 5 (Dalat)

    The bus arrived in Nah Trang (the seaside town favoured by rich Russian tourists) at 5am. Unfortunately the bus to Dalat wasn’t due to leave until 7am and there wasn’t anything open that early so me and three Scottish girls I met on the bus had to just sit on the pavement and wait for the next two hours. At least I had them for company and we could pass the time chatting. Finally the bus arrived and we were able to continue the journey. Unfortunately that particular stretch of road was quite windy, and half our bus was filled with Chinese tourists, which meant the last two hours was spent listening to the sound of people being sick into plastic bags. We counted five in total. The only good thing is we managed to pick the seats right at the back so didn’t have to deal with any of the smells (as the bus driver just kept driving). After that joyful experience we finally reached Dalat at 12 and I headed straight to my homestay. Surprisingly spending two hours surrounded by people being sick didn’t put me off eating so I headed to a nearby vegan cafe for lunch. Brew and Breakfast was actually a cafe and B&B which was run by a British expat couple and also had a few english guests there so I almost felt like I was back in the UK as I sat enjoying my smoothie and hummus plate. After my trip to hipster England I decided to explore what all tourists come to Dalat to see, not the coffee plantations or the lake, Hằng Nga Guesthouse also known as the “Crazy House”. This guest house is best described as what would happen if Salavador Dalì and Antoni Gaudì got together to design a hotel for the Vietnamese market. At first glance it looks like a huge tree with staircases weaving in and out of the building like branches. Then there’s an underwater themed section in the main trunk complete with a giant shell opening for a door. Overall it’s exactly what it says it is, a crazy house. It was pretty cool spending time getting lost in all the weird stairways and rooms. And then like clockwork it rained, cutting the adventure short (not much cover under the staircases) so I took shelter in a nearby coffee shop for what was left of the afternoon. It was then back to the homestay for another early night as I was heading to my final destination in Vietnam in the morning, Ho Chi Minh. Although my stay in Dalat was very short it was pretty sweet seeing something as unique as the crazy house (see what I did there).

    Day 6 (Ho Chi Minh)

    The bus picked me up at 7am and after a very uneventful journey (no vomiting Chinese this time) we arrived in Ho Chi Minh just after lunch. On first glance the city seemed much bigger and more modern that Hanoi, with noticeably more expats in residence (tourists don’t go for runs in the park). Tired from the bus ride I headed straight to my hostel and had a quick power nap before venturing out for some food. Thanks to the my trusted Happy Cow I found a vegan food stall in the Ben Thanh street food market (HCM’s version of Borough Market in London) and had a bizarre yet tasty vegan version of American chicken and waffles. I even got a free brownie from the stall lady (us vegans stick together). After dinner I headed back to the hostel for an early night (seems to be a pattern for me) as I was doing a day tour of the Củ Chi tunnels the next day.

    Day 7 (Ho Chi Minh)

    The Củ Chi tunnels are about two hours north of HCM so we (me and a German couple from my dorm) got picked up at 8am. The tour bus was mainly all backpackers so most of the journey was spent listening to the people around me talk about their travels (there’s only so many times you can say “hi where are you from, how long have you been travelling for and where have you been”). We finally arrived at the tunnels and followed our guide off the bus and into the museum area to start the tour. Now the Củ Chi tunnels are a significant part of Vietnam’s history. They are one of many networks of tunnels across the country used during the war. This particular network were used by the Viet Cong soldiers was hiding spots, hospitals, living quarters etc and were important in the resistance against American troops. Above and below ground people were fighting a war. Today the tunnels have been turned into one of south Vietnam’s biggest tourist attractions. During the tour we were encouraged to take photos in one of the tunnels entries with the lid above our heads, shown fake versions of all the booby traps the guerrillas set to impale and kill the enemy and got to crawl through one of the tunnels (which has been widened for western tourists) all while hearing the sound of gun fire, as the icing on the cake is you can also shoot an AK47 during the tour. We then finished the tour by watching an old propaganda film by the Viet Cong. I found the whole place really disturbing, how they’ve turned it into a big photo opportunity for tourists. It was really hard walking around to even believe that a war had actually happened there and the seriousness of what the people had to deal with back then. I even asked the tour guide why they let people shoot guns there and he just said that the tourists like it. Clearly they don’t see anything wrong with it. Maybe it’s just me but it was a very weird experience. After the tour we got the bus back to the city. I had planned to go to the War Remnants Museum but after seeing the tunnels I didn’t feel like it. In hind sight I wish I’d gone to the museum instead as it was supposed to be very good. I decided to just get some dinner and head back to the hostel and get ready for tomorrow, my first land border crossing in south east Asia.

    So there you have my second and final week in Vietnam, a country filled with history, beautiful places and friendly people.
    Next stop Cambodia.

    Tạm biệt!
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  • Day83

    Xin Chào North Vietnam!!

    June 22, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 93 °F

    (For the sake of being more concise I have decided to split my Vietnam entry into north and south, basically week one and week two of my stay).

    Day 1 (Hanoi)

    I arrived at my hostel in Hanoi at 2am (after a very uneventful two flights from Peurto Princessa) and luckily found that Daisy of “Daisy’s Hostel” was awake to let me in. She showed me straight to the dorm room and said I could check in properly in the morning. Luckily I was able to sleep pretty quickly and woke up at 9am in time to enjoy the free breakfast of banana pancakes (a hostel staple in these parts). I then spent the rest of the morning planning my vietnam trip with the welcome help of daisy. In two hours I had booked my bus ticket to Sapa, booked a three day boat trip around Halong and Lan Ha Bay, bought an open sleeper bus ticket for the rest of my trip in the country, got a SIM card, and organised for my clothes to be washed. Very productive indeed. After all that was sorted Daisy recommended a few museums for me to visit for the rest of the day. Before I visited the museums I took a walk alone part of the red river dyke system to see the Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural. The 4 mile long mural depicts some of the history of Vietnam and was made for the Millennial anniversary of Hanoi. After the mural I went for lunch in a nearby (hipster) vegan cafe had the most amazing smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel (cashew cream cheese and carrots for smoked salmon!). Refuelled I then headed to the Hỏa Lò Prison which was used by the French for political prisoners during their colonisation of Vietnam. It was later used by North Vietnam for the US POW captured during the Vietnam war (nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton during this time). During the visit it was apparent that the American prisoners were treated numb better than the prisoners kept by the French. After the prison I visited the nearby Women’s Museum, dedicated to the women of Vietnam. It depicts life for women in different tribes, their clothing and jewellery, marriage traditions, and working conditions they have. A very insightful and unique perspective on the life of the women in this country. After the museum I headed to the water puppet theatre near the Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the centre of Hanoi and watched the hour long performance. The show is a mixture of water puppetry accompanied by traditional music and singing. I spent most of the show trying to figure out how they puppets were moving as you couldn’t see the masters at all. After the show I managed to fine a vegan restaurant which served vegan Pho (traditionally beef and tripe) which was delicious. I then headed black to the hostel to get ready for my first night bus in Vietnam, this one to Sapa.

    Day 2 (Sa Pa)

    After a surprisingly comfortable bus journey (the night buses here are three rows of bunk bed style seats which almost completely recline) I arrived in Sa Pa at 5:30am. I wasn’t due to meet my trekking guide until 8am but she told me that I could wait in one of the hotels until then. Surprisingly I managed to find a hotel cafe that was open and spent the next two hours using their WiFi to watch YouTube videos and having breakfast. Finally it was time to meet my guide, Shosho who I was recommended by someone on Facebook. I met her at the church in the centre of town and was greeted with a hug and then handed a very nice bamboo walking stick (this would become essential later). We then started the descent to the villages, stopping first to rent some wellie boots (another essential trekking gear, all the locals wear them). As it is rainy season here the path down was very muddy and as predicted I fell within the first 15 minutes. To which Shosho turned and said “I told you if you needed help to ask me!”. After that every time we got to a tricky bit she would turn around and offer her hand. Let me tell you, I’m not ashamed to say I held her a lot during that first day. During the next three hours we walked down further and further into the valley, past rice terraces and over streams and rivers. She explained all about village life and how they grew and harvested the rice. Eventually we made it to her house we’re her mum and auntie cooked a very nice lunch of rice (of course) and a variety of vegetables. I also met her nieces, nephews and one of her sisters, Gia, who would actually be my guide for the following day as Shosho had to start the trek with another group who had booked before me. After lunch we continued our trek to one of the next villages where I would be staying that night in one of the many homestays. Surprisingly this remote homestay had hot showers and WiFi. We arrived at around 3pm and Shosho, seeing that I was pretty tired, said I should have a nap before dinner. No telling me twice! I woke up feeling slightly less like a zombie and went to join Shosho and the family for dinner, yet another amazing meal. After dinner Shosho made me a plaited bracelet as a parting gift and headed back to her village saying Gia would meet me here the next morning.

    Day 3 (Sa Pa)

    The next morning I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed and headed out for my banana pancakes. Gia was already there waiting for me, so as soon as I was finished with breakfast we headed off. Gia is older than Shosho, and has kids of her own so her guiding style was much more mothering. After every difficult part she would say “ok we stop for two minutes”. And I definitely held her had for a good 90% of the trek (it was seriously muddy guys!). The second day was definitely harder than the first day with more mud and more hills but it was also much shorter, with only about three hours of walking. We walked through a few villages, then up into the bamboo forest (which was filled with butterflies), down a mud slide of a path and resting at a waterfall. After the waterfall we made the final descent to the last village and finished the trek in a local restaurant for lunch before getting a minivan back to Sa Pa town. There I bid a fond farewell to Gia and got the bus back to Hanoi, arriving at Daisy’s around 10pm.

    Day 4 (Halong Bay)

    The next morning I had just enough time for breakfast before I was picked up for my Halong Bay cruise. The bus took around three hours to get from Hanoi to the marina at Halong Bay, during which I met a nice American girl, Bethany, who was also travelling solo. When we arrived at the marina our bus was divided into two groups (luckily Bethany and I were in the same group) and we headed to our respective boats. The boat was very nice and had three floors, lower with the cabins, Middle with the dining room and an upper sun terrace. We were all given our room allocations on arrival and Bethany and I were once again together. We headed to our room and found that not only were we sharing a room but that it was also a double bed. We both looked at each other awkwardly and I jokingly said “so wifey what side of the bed do you want?” Luckily by that point we knew that we got on so it worked out fine, but yeah, still a bit awkward. We then headed back up to the dining area again to have lunch and socialise with the rest of our shipmates. Everyone else was really nice and we all got on well, sharing our travel stories. After lunch the boat made its was further into Halong Bay and we enjoyed the view on the sun terrace. The bay was lovely and the rock formations were very unique but it was a little sad to see how much rubbish was floating in the water (plastic bottles, polystyrene, crisp packets, plastic rain ponchos). It really made me think about all the plastic I use and where it ends up. Anyway. The first stop on the tour was to one of the many caves in the bay. Pretty cool, but I’d say Kent’s Cavern could give it a run for its money. After the cave the boat took us to a very odd and obviously man made beach on the base of one of the rock formations. Before enjoying the beach we climbed the stairs on the rock to get a view of the bay. A tough climb in the heat but worth it for the view. We then headed down into the beach for a quick dip. As I said, it’s not the cleanest of waters, bit it’s so hot outside we all were desperate for a cool down we got in regardless. Needless to say as soon as we were back on the boat we showered straight away. We had drinks on the terrace before heading down for dinner. After the dinner the crew tried to get us to do karaoke but as their screaming-singing to Vietnamese songs didn’t exactly entice anyone. I headed to bed soon after.

    Day 5 (Halong/Lan Ha Bay)

    After breakfast we headed to a local pearl farm in the middle of the bay and learnt how they made cultured pearls. We then got to go kayaking for an hour which was fun but tiring after a while. We then headed back to the main boat and packed our stuff as we were then transferring onto a second boat to continue the cruise into Lan Ha Bay. As we got onto the new boat other tourists got off and on our original boat. It was a bit of a logistical nightmare with people changing boats as there were some people doing 2 days and some doing 3 days. We also met the rest of the people from the bus on the first day. Once everyone was where they were meant to be we headed into Lan Ha Bay. It is basically the same as Halong Bay but it is much smaller so the rock formations are closer to each other. It is also much less polluted. Here was saw some of the floating fishing villages and were able to jump off the boat and swim near one (getting back on the boat was a bit more difficult). After swimming the boat headed to monkey island which we were meant to be able to visit but due to the weather and choppy water the boat couldn’t stop safely. Half the boat was actually staying on the other side of the island though so they were able to visit there safely. Wifey Bethany was staying there so we bid farewell for the night. The rest of the boat then headed to Cat Ba island where the logistical night mare continued as we were all taking in different hotels and hostels. I found myself in a hostel with a Finnish guy who was on another boat on the first day. I had a quick nap when we arrived and then we had dinner in the hostel and headed to one of the floating bars on the bay for a few drinks before calling it a night.

    Day 6 (Halong/Lan Ha Bay)

    We got picked up from our hostel early and headed back to the port where we got a small boat to the bigger boat where the rest of the tourists were waiting. We then headed back out to halong bay where we transferred back into our first boat, swapping with other tourists going to Lan Ha Bay (this relay of tourists clearly happens every day). We then had lunch on the boat before heading back through the bay to the marina to where our bus was waiting to take us back to Hanoi. All in all it was a good tour, and the only real way to see Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay, but it wasn’t exactly the best organised tour o had been one, with people swapping boats what felt like every five minutes and everyone being in different hotels etc on the second day. This is why I always think it’s better to do these things on your own if possible. Anyway, I still met wifey Bethany so it was a good trip nonetheless.

    Day 7 (Hanoi)

    I decided to wake up early this morning (at Daisy’s hostel of course) to visit the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, completing my trifecta of embalmed former world leaders. I was at the mausoleum at 7:30am, after walking for half an hour, and found to my great disappointment that it was closed for two months. Not that I exactly enjoy seeing embalmed bodies but still it would’ve been interesting to see the third one. Sadly it was not meant to be. As I was already up and out I headed to the nearby Temple of Literature and walked around the grounds for an hour. Unfortunately the early morning was catching up to me so I decided to head back to the hostel for a nap (being a tourist is tiring!). After feeling slightly more rested I decided to go back to my favourite vegan bagel cafe and spend the rest of the afternoon there but was once again disappointed to find that it was closed for cleaning. Today just wasn’t my day! Luckily I found another nearby vegetarian restaurant called the Hanoi Social Club (aka hipster central) and spent the afternoon there instead. It was then time to head back to Daisy’s to pack my things and say goodbye for the last time as I was finally starting my journey south.

    So there you have my first week on the beautiful country of Vietnam. Next stop Tam Cốc and south Vietnam.

    Tạm biệt!
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  • Day75

    Hello Palawan!

    June 14, 2018 on the Philippines

    As I have learnt in my short time in the Philippines, getting from one island to another takes a long time. Well at least it does when you pick islands to visit that aren’t next to each other. Rookie mistake. Anyway getting from Loboc in Bohol to El Nido took 16 hours and involved getting a taxi to the port, a two hour ferry, a taxi to the airport, a two hour flight (delayed as usual), then a 5 hour minivan to El Nido town in the north of Palawan, an hours trike to Nacpan beach (which I paid three times as much as a should have) and finally a 5 minute walk along the beach in the pitch black greeted at the end by four people shouting “WELCOME TO MAD MONKEY!!”. The only good thing about the journey was that for most of it I was with three french girls I met at Nuts Huts on my last night. Unfortunately they made the smart decision to stay in El Nido town instead of on Nacpan beach (you’ll understand soon). Needless to say as soon as I got to Mad Monkey I admitted defeat and went straight to bed.

    Day 1
    Unfortunately I woke up to torrential rain, they type that if you stand outside for two seconds you’re drenched. I later found out we were on the edge of a typhoon. Well it is the “rainy” season. My four day break at the beach was not looking so good. I spent the morning in the bar area talking to a few people and slowly realising that this was very much a party hostel. I knew that before I booked it but bought I’d be spending my days relaxing on the beach. But when the weather is bad the only thing to do there is eat and drink in the bar. There’s one other bar a hundred meters up the beach and then a few little shack shops selling convenience food. Other than that there is nothing on this beach. Added to the fact that the nearest town (with the only ATM) is an hour away. It really is a honey trap there. Oh and by the way every hour between 12 and 12 a bell rings and two staff shout: “ladies and gentleman of mad monkey there are free shots at the bar” (watered down ones I’d like to add) and all the party goers flock like sheep. Needless to say I was very much in the wrong place. Oh and to top it off the place had no WiFi! Just very passive aggressive signs in the bar saying “No WiFi. Talk to each other.” The friends I had met were leaving that day so I decided to cut my losses and leave the next day. In the meantime the rain did stop long enough for a quick dip in the sea (though the current was pretty strong so you couldn’t do more than paddle) and take the obligatory picture. At least the food was nice (even though it was way over priced). Anyway let’s cut to the next day.

    Day 2
    I allowed myself to have a lie in (beach life and all that) and left the beach at 12. Luckily I had met an english couple who also wanted to head back to the town to get some money out (spending money on a trike there and back to get cash out is just madness but hey ho) so I could at least split the fair. Unlucky for me was that they were both very tall so I had to spend the hours journey crouched on the back of the drivers bike, uncomfortable doesn’t even do it justice. Back in civilisation I headed to the hostel that the three french girls were staying at as it was the only hostel I knew was there (thanks mad monkey for the no WiFi!). Unfortunately the girl at reception said they’d left after one night (never a good sign). I booked in anyway and then went to a nearby vegan cafe for lunch and had hummus for the first time in a month (hallelujah!). I managed to finally get WiFi and contacted one of the girls and arranged to meet for dinner. The rest of the afternoon I spent in an ice cream shop watching YouTube videos (I can feel the judgement but I don’t care!). I met the girls at a Greek restaurant and told them of my ordeal in not-so-paradise-beach. They had actually gone there that day and tried to look for me but I’d already left. Typical. They also told me they left their hostel because they found a cockroach in their room. I hadn’t seen any yet and their standards are a bit higher than mine so I decided to stay anyway (also mad monkey was pretty expensive so beggars can’t be choosers at this point!). They said they’d been trying to get on a boat tour but they’d all been cancelled because of the weather. I decided to give el Nido one more day and if the boat trip wasn’t running in the morning I’d leave and go to Puerto Princessa and just hang about there before my flight.

    Day 3
    Luckily when I woke up that morning I’d got a message from the girls that the boat trips were running again. We met on the beach and hopped on one of the 50 boats that were running. Unfortunately because this was the first day in about a week that the boat tours were running it meant nearly every tourist boat was out that day. The tour stopped at a small beach first where we could swim, but as there was so many people in the water it was more like treading water. We then went to a large lagoon and rented kayaks to go further in the lagoon. This was pretty nice until I jumped out of the kayak and landed on a rock slicing a chunk of skin off my big toe. At least I was in salt water I guess. The tour leader patched me up though and I was fine for the rest of the day. We then stopped at a small cove for lunch. It was pretty funny seeing all the guides carrying to food off the boats over their heads to stop getting wet. After lunch we went to our last stop which was another lagoon and this time snorkelled. We saw quite a few fish which was really cool but I was saddened by how much of the coral was dead. Global warming for you. After the snorkelling we headed back to the beach and back to the town. Aside from cutting my foot the day was pretty fun and definitely salvaged some positive vibes of El Nido. After the boat trip I decided to get the night bus back to Peurto Princessa so I could have a full day in the city before my flight the following day.

    Day 4
    I had already trip advisored the town to see what there was to do before I arrived and found that there wasn’t really much there. I decided to give myself a break from backpacking and spend the day in the mall (remember those American malls I told you about?). And boy did I have a good day. I went to the cinema (saw Jurassic World 2, was alright), spent a few hours in a cute cafe, surfed the net, and just basked in the wonderfulness that is air conditioning. It was so nice just having a day where I didn’t have to go a mile a minute and feel guilty for not sightseeing. I know that sounds ridiculous, I’m on holiday, why am I complaining? But seriously walking miles everyday and constantly being on the go is exhausting after a while. This day definitely recharges my batteries. Before I move on again tomorrow.

    So there you have my few days on Palawan island. Definitely a love-hate relationship. But as always I met some great people and that’s always a bonus.

    Next stop Vietnam!

    Paalam!
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  • Day69

    Hello Bohol!

    June 8, 2018 on the Philippines ⋅ ⛅ 88 °F

    Getting from Banaue to Loboc in Bohol was a mission and a half! First I had to get an overnight bus from Banaue to Manila arriving at 4am, then a grab taxi to Manila airport (with my taxi driver telling me I was “verrry prretty” ever few minutes) where I found out my 9am flight to Cebu was delayed by two hours. I finally arrived at Cebu airport eat 13:30, got a taxi to the ferry terminal, waited another two hours at the terminal until taking the two hour ferry to Bohol where I then found a trike driver to take me inland to the village of Loboc (during which he serenaded me with Bon Jovi songs). After 45 minutes I was finally dropped at the access road to my guest house where I then had to walk the last 10 minutes of my journey in the pitch black with only my iPhone torch to guide me. After 24hours and 6 different forms of transport I finally reached my home for the next few days, the jungle haven that is Nuts Huts. And boy was I not disappointed! Aside from having to descend about 100 steps to reach the property (all the while thinking “what does down must come up”) this place was a gem in the jungle. The reception and restaurant area was halfway down the stairs and was open on all sides to the jungle, like a giant tree house. I was greeted by the manager who gave me my key and told me to follow the stairs down to the bottom to the sleeping huts. My dorm was the first hut and was very simple wit four beds with mosquito nets and to my surprise each had its own light and plug socket. Next to the dorm hut was a small bathroom hut which was actually pretty nice considering it was in the middle of the jungle. I was pretty tired by this point (not surprising after 24hours of travelling) so I decided to have a quick dinner (yes i has to climb back up those stairs, the first time of many) and then head to bed.

    Day 1
    When I woke up the next morning and stepped outside I found that my little hut was right next to the river, and a proper jungle river at that (i.e. it was green). After a quick breakfast i decided to cross the river (by a boat rowed by one of the local guys) an walk along the river and river terraces to the town. From the town I then caught one of the jeepneys (fending off the ever present “trike, trike?” calls) to the nearby tarsier sanctuary. The tour of the sanctuary takes around 20 minutes and you are with a guide the whole time to ensure that people remain quiet and no one gets too close to the tarsiers. It’s probably one of the best sanctuaries i have been to for being respectful to the animals. After the sanctuary I followed the footpath through the woods to the nearby “tree park” (which turned out to just be a field surrounded by trees). After the park I headed back to the main road and caught the jeepney back to the town (during which we took a 20 minute detour to deliver some corrugated iron to a small farm house, even the locals were bemused). Back at the hostel I met two of the new guests, an English couple, and we decided to swim in the river down to the “spring” which was 600m away (something I definitely didn’t want to do alone!). After a pretty long swim (luckily the couple had a dry bag which I used as a float most of the way) we reached the “spring” aka a cold pool of water cut into the side of the river bank. Very underwhelmed and now tired and hungry we decided to walk back to the guest house for dinner.

    Day 2
    On my second day I decided to walk back along the access road (pretty different in daylight I can tell you) and catch the local bus in the opposite direction to the tarsier sanctuary to the Chocolate hills, the main attraction on the island. Although the bus was a coach and so more modern than the jeepney, I spent most of the journey sitting on the floor of the aisle right at the front next to the driver. The only plus side of which was that I had a pretty great view of our drive. Plus the driver kept turning to me every few minutes to say “chocolate hills not chocolate mills” which I found quite amusing. The chocolate hills are a so far unexplained geological formation of over 1200 hills over a 50 square kilometre area, which when looked at from the top of one such hill makes for a pretty impressive sight. After taking in the 360 degree view for a while I took the bus back to my little haven and spent the afternoon reading in one of the hammocks before deciding to venture to the “waterfall” 800m in the opposite direction of the spring. As I was on my own this time I decided to swim across to the other side of the river and walk to the waterfall. The short walk took me past quite a few locals’ huts, slightly comical as I was just wearing a bikini (they were very nice and smiled at me though). When I got to the end of the path I saw that I was about 20 meters away from the waterfall (which in true Bohol fashion was pretty small and underwhelming) and would have to swim the rest of the way. As I was on my own I decided not to risk it (see Mum I am sensible!) so I just had a quick dip and headed back to the guest house. As it was my last night in my little jungle paradise I decided to treat myself to a massage. It was so good I nearly fell asleep on the table.

    So there you have my few days in Bohol.
    Next up is the island of Palawan for a few days on the beach!

    Paalam!
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  • Day66

    Hello Banaue!

    June 5, 2018 on the Philippines ⋅ ⛅ 73 °F

    Day 1
    I took a let morning flight to Manila and arrived around 12:30. I had been advised by fellow travellers to avoid Manila and spend my time elsewhere in the Philippines so I booked a bus ticket for that afternoon to the north of Luzon island to Banaue, home to a UNESCO world heritage rice terrace (yes another one). My bus wasn’t until 8pm but I decided to just get a grab taxi (Asia’s version of Uber) to the bus station anyway and find somewhere nearby to wait (hopefully find WiFi and food). My first impression of Manila during that taxi ride was it is BUSY! So many people and cars everywhere! When i got to the “bus station”, aka parking lot in random suburb (all bus companies have their own bus depots so there’s not just one main bus station in the city) I picked up my ticket and asked if there was anywhere I could wait. I was then given directions to a nearby mall. That first afternoon I learnt that although the Philippines is a developing country, and the streets are what you’d expect from that, if you go into any mall in any city here you could be in any city in America. Outside it’s all run down buildings and street markets, and inside the mall it’s Starbucks, sketchers and a cinema. It’s very bizarre. I also learnt in my few hours waiting for the bus that pretty much everyone in the Philippines speaks English (also due to the large American influence in the country). It was finally time to get the bus to Banaue (no more nice train journeys for me). The bus ride was overnight and for the first two hours they played Skyfall (though the volume was so low no one could really hear it). I managed to sleep most of the way which was good.

    Day 2
    I arrived in Banaue at 5am and was met off the bus by a driver from the hostel I had booked. Before I got on his trike I had to pay a small fee to the Banaue tourism board for conservation of the area. We then took the short 30 second journey to my hostel (seriously I could’ve walked it in 2 minutes) where my very kind host let me go straight to sleep and said I could check in later. After a very welcome three hour nap I was ready to start exploring Banaue. I decided to ignore all the waiting trike drivers offering to drive me to the various view points of the rice terraces and walk to the route myself. And boy I am so glad I did. It took me about two hours to walk to all the way to the main view point along the main road, but on the way I passed 6 other view points all with amazing views. This was nothing like the Longji rice terraces. It was so green it was like a feast for the eyes. Even the views between the official view points were stunning. I spent the whole two hour walk thinking how amazing it was and taking photo after photo. Halfway up I met two lovely Philippino girls (Arielle and Daniela) who helped me take my staple jumping shot (thanks girls!). When I got to the main viewpoint I had a much needed drink break and consulted my trusted Maps.me app to see what to do next. I saw that there was a footpath that went down into the rice terrace and up the other side that looped back to the village. I asked the owner of the shop I was in if it was ok for me to walk the track and she said absolutely, just ask the locals I pass which way to go. Sounded good to me! I followed the steps all the way down to the bottom of the terrace, crossed over a small bride and started following the path along and up the irrigation of the various rice pools (not sure what the technical term is). After about 20 minutes I came across a small farm house and a local man came out and greeted me. I said “Banaue?” And he said “yes mam you follow the path, when you get to the bottom you see two paths, you go up, not flat, you go up”. I thanked him and went on my way. At the bottom I did indeed see two paths and I took the left one which ”went up”. Let me tell you that path was pretty damn steep! I was practically rock climbing up it instead of walking. At this point I thought maybe doing this walk alone wasn’t the best idea, but I was too far in to turn back now (and there was no way I could climb back down this section!). Finally I reached the top and the path became wider and started to follow the irrigation. For the next hour and a half I followed the path through varying widths of irrigation (trying not to fall into the rice pools). At one point it started to rain and again I questioned why I was doing this. But I had my raincoat and soldiered on. And the views were pretty stunning. Eventually I started to see more houses, asking each person that I saw “banaue?” And getting nods of encouragement as I went. Finally after a 5 hour round trip I reached the village again, pretty hungry but also pretty chuffed that I had completed my trek. I found a local cafe for dinner and then headed back to my quiet hostel for an early night.

    Day 3
    I woke up early to the sound of voices outside my room. It looked like my quiet hostel had some more guests. I went out and said hello to the four new people, two English guys a french guy and a french girl. We spent the morning swapping travel stories and trying to decided what to do today. The two english boys wanted to rent bikes and drove around the area. I wasn’t so keen as they had only learnt to drive bikes while travelling. We went into the village anyway to see if we could find anything. Unfortunately for them (fortunately for me) this wasn’t really the place to rent bikes, well at least not the automatic ones the guy were used to. Instead we decided to follow the main road in the other direction from the main rice terrace to a small natural pool we were told we could swim in. It took almost an hour to walk there and I’m not going to lie it was a bit of a disappointment. It was a very small rock pool in the middle of a small river. We also discovered that the water was absolutely freezing! And unfortunately by this point it was overcast so it wasn’t even that hot outside to make the pool a nice place to cool down. Nevertheless we had walked all the way there so we manned up and got in. It took me at least 10 minutes linger than the others to work myself up to getting in, and when I did I nearly died of shock it was that cold. And unlike most places you swim the initial shock or cold took a good 2 minutes to wear off. We stayed in the pool for around 20 minutes until it started to rain (on queue at 2pm). Luckily for us there was a small cafe right next to the pool where we took shelter and had a pretty tasty meal of noodles and vegetables. After the rain died down we headed back to the village where I got some snacks for my bus journey that evening. It was then back to the hostel to pack and wait for my bus back to Manila.

    So there you have my first three days in the Philippines.

    Next stop Bohol island.

    Paalam!
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  • Day63

    Nǐ Hǎo Taiwan!

    June 2, 2018 in Taiwan ⋅ 🌬 81 °F

    Day 1
    For the first time on this trip (and in any trip I’ve taken come to think about it) I make a slight mistake with my planning. I thought I had booked a flight from Hong Kong to Taipei (the capital of Taiwan), but I had actually booked a flight to Taichung (a city two hours south of Taipei)... Luckily I realised my mistake the day before my flight, it would’ve been a bit of a shock when I got to the airport otherwise, trying to look for a flight that doesn’t exist. Well as it turns out i was planning to visit Taichung anyway and this mistake actually meant that it saved me having to bug a return train ticket from Taipei. When I landed in Taichung airport (by the way I was the only foreign tourist in that flight...) I got the airport bus to the central train station and left my bag in one of the lockers. The main reason I wanted to visit Taichung was to see the famous “Rainbow Grandpa Village”, a collection of small buildings owned by an armed veteran who decided to paint his house when he found out it was going to be demolished. He started with his own house and then moved onto the neighbouring buildings and it became a tourist attraction, resulting in it being saved from demolition. The “village” was quite far from the station, and as my locker was only available for three hours I decided to forgo a long bus ride in favour of a taxi. When I got to the village I found I wasn’t the only visitor to this quirky site and joined a group of chinese tourists getting their Instagram worthy snaps in. It’s a very small collection of buildings (you can walk around the whole place in a minute) but the rainbow colours and quirky pictures and designs on each wall make it quite an impressive sight. Rainbow Grandpa still lives there and adds to his gallery all the time. The other buildings house a souvenir shop, a museum and a small drink kiosk. Definitely worth a visit if you are passing by. After walking around the site for about half an hour (seriously it’s tiny!) I got a taxi back to the centre to a vegan cafe and had a very yummy black “squid” ink pasta (no idea how they made it). On the way back to the station I stopped at another art installation area, this time “Cartoon Street”, which you’ve guessed correctly is a street with cartoon murals. Very cool. I then headed to the station and took the two hour train north to Taipei, changed to the metro and finally reached my hostel in for my Taiwan stay.

    Day 2
    As I mentioned in my Guilin post, Liza the French girl i met was going the same route as me so we decided to meet up in Taipei as we were there at the same time and had nothing planned out. For our first day we headed to the National Palace Museum which houses one of the largest collection Chinese artefacts in the world, all of which were moved from mainland China during the civil war to save them from being destroyed. We spent around two hours in the museum walking around most of the exhibits which included many items of made of jade, porcelain and bronze. The two main artefacts in the museum were a stone in the shape of meat aptly named “Meat-shaped Stone” and a piece of jade carved into the shape of a piece of bok choy called “Jadeite Cabbage” (I kid you not...). After the museum we headed to the the centre and had lunch in a vegan cafe before wondering around the local market streets. We then headed to the east of the city to take the free Modern Walking tour of the city, highlights include a haunted hotel and an apartment complex with apartments reportedly costing in the region of $60m (insanity!). The main highlight though was the gem of Taipei’s skyline, Taipei 101. This 101 storey building was the tallest in the world from 2004-2010 when it was succeeded by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It now holds the title of the largest Green building in the world due to its energy efficiency and low carbon footprint. After the tour it was back to our hostels for an early night as tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

    Day 3
    We met early in the morning at the central train station and caught the local train to Ruifang in the north. We then changed to the scenic tourist train to Shifen and Pingxi, two small villages. We stopped at Shifen first, where the train track runs straight through the main street. We walked back along the track (the train only runs once an hour), passing many tourists releasing large paper lanterns (very bas for the environment by the way) to the Shifen Waterfall. It’s not a large waterfall by any means, but the walk along the side of the river and the waterfall itself were very picturesque. After taking in the view we headed back to the village and caught the train to the next village along the track, Pingxi. Highlights of this village include a small cave, a wooden bridge to nowhere and a very small bell in a disproportionately large bell tower in the middle of the woods. After we took in these impressive sights we caught the train back to Ruifang where we changed to a local bus to Juifen, Taiwan’s answer to Santorini. The old town is built on the side of a hill and it’s winding old street is lit up by many Chinese lanterns, making for a very picturesque sight. While there we stopped in a Greek style tavern and had pizza for dinner (because why not?). After seeing all that Juifen had to offer we headed back to Taipei, pretty tired after our packed day.

    Day 3
    For our last day we started by joining the free Historic Walking tour of the city (same company as the Modern tour), which highlights included the Longshan temple and Ximen Red house, a building in the shape of the cross which interestingly shields the cities oldest Gay bar from unwanted attention and as a result is now the location of the annual Taipei Pride event. The most interesting thing we learnt about on the tour was about the relationship between Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) and China (officially the People’s Republic of China). In a nutshell Taiwan is the home of the former government of China which was pushed out by Mao and the communist movement after WW2. Both countries feel that they are the real “China”. However as China (PROC) is now a powerful country they want Taiwan back and as a result have convinced most UN nations to accept it as the only ”China” meaning only 20 countries in the world accept Taiwan as an official country. Very complicated stuff. Basically China wants Taiwan and Taiwan hates China. After the tour we headed back to Taipei 101 to visit the tallest Starbucks in the world. As it’s cheaper to visit the Starbucks on the 35th floor than it is to visit the top of the building the cafe has gotten so popular you can now only visit by making a reservation 24h in advance. You are given a 90 minute slot and have to spend a minimum of 200 Taiwan dollars (around £5). It is a pretty nice view of the city though. After lunch me and Liza parted ways as she was catching an early flight to Japan. I then walked the short distance to Elephant Peak where for a small effort in climbing a few hundred stairs you get a pretty impressive view of the city, including the gem of Taipei 101 itself. After my hike it was back to the hostel to pack my bag once again.

    So there you have my few days in Taiwan, the Republic of China, one of the most understated countries I’ve been to.

    Next stop, the Philippines!

    Zàijiàn!
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  • Day59

    Néih Hóu Hong Kong!

    May 29, 2018 in Hong Kong ⋅ ☀️ 91 °F

    Day 1

    Getting the train to Hong Kong from mainland China was quite like getting a flight. You had to go through security and passport control and get your official exit stamp from China before you board the train. This is because Hong Kong is one of China’s “Special Administrative Regions” as it used to be a British territory, so it has different visa regulations (at least for the next 40 years). The train itself was then just like any other train I got in China and took just two hours to reach Hong Kong. As you exit the train you again have to go through passport control before you officially enter Hong Kong. Sadly they don’t stamp your passport here, you are just given a small receipt for your stay.
    Hong Kong is made up 261 islands and the Kowloon peninsula which is attached to mainland China. As my main purpose for visiting HK is to be reunited with Candy I chose to stay in the Kowloon side nearer to her. Our reunion would have to wait til the evening as she was working during the day. I made my way from the train station to my hostel, walking most of the 20 minute journey under covered walkways between buildings (found all over HK to help people avoid the blazing sun). My hostel was right in the centre of the main tourist hub of Tsim Sha Tsui, next to the metro, which I would become very familiar with. My hostel in HK is the most expensive one I’ve stayed in (standard for HK) but it did come with Netflix in the common area. It’s the small things. After I checked in I joined some fellow travellers who were going for lunch in a cheap Michelin starred restaurant and then on a free walking tour. The food at the restaurant was all dim sum (small dishes) and was quite good, but it took us so long to find the restaurant, having to navigate all the malls and walkways, that we ended up getting to the walking tour 5 minutes late and missing it. We spent the next hour just walking around the market streets before I headed back to the hostel to meet Candy.
    Candy and Sunny (Candy’s now fiancé) met me at the nearest metro station and then took me to a nearby Italian restaurant for dinner (we went through so many buildings to get there I couldn’t tell you where it was). Over dinner we caught up on the last year and a half of each other’s lives that we missed since she moved back to HK. It’s lovely to be able to meet new people while travelling, but it’s also so nice to be able to talk to your friends that you already know what their name, age, where they’re from/travelling to (standard travel chat). After dinner we walked around the harbour and took pictures of the night skyline. They then walked me back to my hostel and we arranged to meet the next morning to go sightseeing.

    Day 2
    We met on the platform of the Admiral metro station in the morning and then took the metro to Lantau island home of the Tian Tan bronze Buddha statue (as seen on Travel Man with Richard Ayoade and Jon Hamm). To get to the Buddha we took a thirty minute cable car ride over the island which in itself was pretty cool (though queuing for an hour to get it not so much). Before we climbed the final stairs to reach the Buddha we stopped at the neighbouring monastery for a vegan feast for lunch. We then had a quick look around the monestary before climbing the 268 steps up to the main event. From the Buddha’s perch you have a pretty great view of the island, definitely worth the trip. After visiting the Buddha we took the local bus to Tai O village, home to the Tanka people whoa houses are built on stilts above the tidal flats. Walking around this quiet fishing village was probably one of my favourite things I have done so far. Such a unique and peaceful place. After the village we got the bus back to the metro station and headed back to Kowloon for dinner in a hipster vegan restaurant (great bean burger) and then for a wonder around the night street markets where you can buy anything and everything and also witness some questionable street karaoke.

    Day 3
    Today it was just me and Candy as Sunny had to work. As yesterday was so jam packed we decided to meet later in the morning so we could have a lie in. We met at the metro station again and took the train to Hong Kong Island (the main business hub of the city). Our first stop of the day was to ride the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator which is the longest covered escalator system in the world (and was also featured in Travel Man). The system covers 800 meters from the central to the mid level area of Hong Kong island and is 135 meters high from bottom to top. I’m not even going to lie this was one of my favourite things in the city. Such a random experience. When we reached the top we turned around and walked back down to the central area (there’s nothing to see in the mid levels area) through the fruit and vegetable stalls. We then got the local bus up to The Peak (aka Victoria Peak, though not the highest peak on HK island) to see the view of the city. For $5 you can go up to the viewing platform, or you can walk round the side of the building and see pretty much the same view for free. We chose the free option. Obviously. After taking in the view we them took the funicular railway (aka the steepest funicular railway I’ve ever been on - 48% incline!) back down to the central area. We then had dinner in a 1950s American themed vegan diner (hidden in a high rise building as with ever shop and restaurant in HK) where I had the best vegan burger and ice cream shake ever! After dinner we got the ferry back to the Kowloon Side and walked along the river side again where we had to say our final goodbyes as Candy would be working the next day. Even though we were only reunited for a short time it was so nice to be able to see her again, especially on her home turf.

    Day 4 - Macau
    Macau, the other SAR of China, and former Portuguese colony, is only a short ferry ride from Hong Kong, so I decided to take a day trip to visit the Vegas of Asia. When you get off the ferry (after going through passport control again) you are greeted by dozens of dolled up ladies holding signs offering free shuttle busses for the various hotels on the island. As most of the hotels have their own casinos and malls you don’t have to have a reservation to use them, you simple pick the hotel you want to go to and get on. I picked the Venetian as I wanted to see the indoor canal network weaving through the hotel. I’m sure the original hotel in Vegas is more impressive, but seeing a canal on the middle of a hotel (on the second floor!) is still pretty cool. No match for the real Venice though, but a sight nonetheless. After wondering around the hotels mall and canal system for an hour, trying not to get lost (its seriously huge) I then popped over to the adjoining Parisian hotel to see their replica of the Eiffel tower. Again, no match for the real thing? But still pretty cool. I had a quick lunch in the food court (seriously you’d never have to leave the hotel if you didn’t want to) and then made my way back to the bus, through the main casino floor (definitely a sight in itself watching people betting thousands of dollars). I got the shuttle bus back to the port and then hopped on another free shuttle to the Grand Lisboa which was conveniently located near the old Portuguese area of Macau. Although the casinos are the main draw to Macau, walking through the old Portuguese street up to ruins of St Paul’s and to the neighbouring Fortaleza de Monte is definitely more enjoyable and picturesque. You honestly feel like you’re in Portugal. After sampling China’s Portuguese heritage I headed back to the port and caught the ferry back to Hong Kong where I made a last visit to the American diner (seriously the food was amazing!) before calling an end to my Hong Kong visit.

    So there you have my few days in Hong Kong and Macau. My holiday with friends, a nice break from the travelling pace I’ve been on up til now.

    Next stop Taiwan.

    Bāaibaai!
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  • Day55

    Nǐ Hǎo Guangzhuo!

    May 25, 2018 in China ⋅ ⛅ 84 °F

    I am afraid to say that due to lack of energy and money, and the fact that I only had half a day anyway, the only thing I saw in Guangzhou was my hostel. To be honest i feel that i have seen enough cities in China that i don't think i missed out on much. So instead of talking about Guangzhou i will give you the ten things i have learned about China.

    1. There are A LOT of people in China, roughly 1.5 billion. This means that no matter where you go there are crowds.
    2. The Chinese LOVE a tour group. Every tourist site i went to (even night food markets) was filled with groups of Chinese tourists, sometimes with matching hats or t-shirts, following a guide with a giant flag or plastic fish on a stick.
    3. The Chinese also LOVE taking pictures with westeners, sometimes they ask, sometimes they grab you, sometimes they try to stealthily do it. Unless its a child, it is always annoying (in my opinion). If you want to feel like a celebrity though, come to China.
    4. The concept is "queueing" is foreign to the Chinese. you could be standing right behind the person at the counter and somewone will just walk right infront of you. I learnt very quickly that if you don't push you won't get served anywhere. Chivalry is dead here.
    5. Recycling is not a thing here, even though there is recuycling bins everywhere. Every recycling bin i saw, which was next to a general waste bin, was filled with general waste. Seriously what is the point of the bins??!
    6. There is no respect for nature or space in general. Even though there are bins everywhere (even on the Great Wall), there is litter everywhere, in parks, in the street. I have seen on more than one occasion people throw litter on the floor RIGHT NEXT TO THE BIN! I actually called one guy out who did it on the Great Wall. Just no respect.
    7. If you want to do anything in China you have to pay. Visit a museum, go to a park, climb a mountain, see a view! With a population of 1.5billion people though i do get it, as if they didn't these places would get destroyed in a few years (see point 6).
    8. Everyone is constantly on their phones. If you think it's bad in the UK you have no idea. If you look down the train on the metro, every single person is staring at their phones. And with that they are also constantly taking pictures of themselves. They photograph everything. And not just one picture infront of X building, they have a whole photo shoot. Oh and EVERYONE as a selfie stick...
    9. The air pollution here is seriously bad. I have never seen visible smog until here. The first time i saw blue sky was in Guilin! If i was going to be here for more than a couple weeks i would definitely start to feel the effect.
    10. And last but not least... the hands down worse thing about China... brace yourselves people... you will hear and see people hoiking and spitting every five minutes. Seriously. If i never hear that sound again it will be too soon.

    ** Bonus point - on the way to the train station in Xi-an in the morning I actually saw a man peeing on the side of a parked car! #CHINA

    So there you have the 10 things i have learnt while in China. I have had a great time here but am very ready to move on.
    Next stop is Hong Kong, I cannot wait!!

    Zài jiàn!
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