Hua Hin

Hua Hin beach

Keen to squeeze in some more beach time before coming home, after leaving Chiang Mai we headed down to Hua Hin, a beach resort South of Bangkok. Though the town itself is very built up and quite ugly, the beach is absolutely beautiful.

Me on SlideWe had 4 days in Hua Hin and didn’t want to leave. As well as a stunning beach with the warmest water I’ve ever been in, we also found a water park and a wakeboarding spot. The waterpark was a little disappointing, with only a few slides, but that was more than made up for by the complete lack of queues, there was barely anyone there. Although none of the rides were that scary, some of them had a helmet requirement, which was a little bit overkill. The wave machine was very impressive throwing everyone around like crazy.

Paul was really keen to try the wakeboarding, and at the bargain price of £6 for 2 hours, we signed ourselves up. Using a cable mechanism, you were free to stroll up, pick a board, and jump in. Or if you’re me, fall in on your face repeatedly. Paul was starting to get the hang of it by the end of our session, managing a couple of laps before losing his balance. Although there are staff there who were giving advice, this seemed to be optional, and so for the most part you were left to your own devices. Good fun, but tricky.

Me WakeboardingThe next day we woke up sore and achey, the usual after wakeboarding, so we had an easy day by the beach. For me, Hua Hin is up there with Rio for the beach, and definitely better than the islands we visited. The view is complimented by endless colourful kite surfers in the water. Hua Hin has the perfect weather for kitesurfing and so is a popular spot to learn. I would have loved to have tried it, but time and money meant I’ll save that for another day.

Night life in Hua Hin was quite a limited choice. Unless you were a middle aged Western man looking for a young Thai lady to hook up with, you were basically out of luck. All of the bars had ‘hostesses’ and walking by at night, the bars were full of young Thai women dressed to impress, welcoming any man to come in (including Paul). Our visit also coincided with the National Elections, which meant there was a 48 hour ban on the sale of alcohol, giving our livers plenty of time to recover.

Thai Boxing match leafletThroughout our time in Thailand we had been meaning to catch a Thai Boxing match, and we got our chance in Hua Hin. Not willing to pay the 800B entrance fee, we went to a nearby bar and waited until the first match had finished. We were then happy to pay the reduced price of 500B and watch the 4 remaining matches. Looking at the leaflet, we were confused by the weight categories. 27kg, too light for a person, maybe that’s the weight difference? Our questions were answered when we walked in to find 2 kids fighting, couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. Oh man, what did we just sign up for? Fortunately, the fighting was actually very professional, with a very active ref, and far less violent than I had been expecting. Gradually the weights increased and so did the ages of the competitors. The winner of each match would walk around the audience with a 100B note in his mouth, looking for donations, a bit uncomfortable. An interesting experience, but still not something I would rush back to.

Day 3, restored back to health, we decided to give wakeboarding another shot. I was keen to actually get on the water and hoped that another 2 hours would do it, and Paul wanted to perfect his technique. I was put in any number of different starting positions but they all ended up with me in the water, often with my board still on the starting block. Argh! Despite the blue skies there was definitely a dark cloud hanging over me, stay away! Paul, on the other hand, mastered setting out and enjoyed a much more successful session.

Hua Hin was the perfect stop for us. Now that our trip is coming to an end, we were even more appreciative of the sun, sand, and natural beauty. Although sad to leave, I’m also looking forward to exploring more of Bangkok in our final week.

Bangkok Part I

Wat Arun

I arrived in Bangkok a little doubtful of whether I’d like it, but as soon as we got off the bus I was taken in by the city. There is so much happening you don’t know where to look, with constant noise and bustle and life.

Our first night was a Saturday, and so we decided to go to nearby Khao San Road, which is the famous backpacker district. It’s basically a street taken over by fast food chains and pubs, bars, clubs, all claiming to offer ‘the strongest and cheapest cocktails’. In theory, it should have been horrible, but it is enchanting, and you could spend hours sitting out on the tiny chairs watching life go by. There are endless street hawkers dropping by, selling all kinds of tat, including ping pong shows, insects to eat, and most memorably, a variety of friendship bracelets with really vulgar statements stitched in. We couldn’t fathom who on earth would ever buy one, but they must sell, because they were all over the place.

Just One BeerAfter getting some delicious street food, for a laugh we opted for a pub whose USP was not asking for ID. Exactly what we needed, obviously, despite being nearly double the age of all the other customers. Paul then decided that it would be fun for us to get a 6 pint giant beer, and that was our first night in Bangkok complete.

Bangkok is an absolutely massive city. I’m usually a fan of walking, but when what looks like a short walk on the map turns out to be an hour long trek along motorways, you need to think again. One of the easiest public transport options is the express boat which travels up and down the Nam Chao Phraya river, which chops the city in two. Despite the fact it’s basically a bus on water, it is so much fun to travel on, with the added game of avoiding any river water getting on you, as it’s filthy. The drivers come flying up to the stops and then crash against the side, with passengers then getting a short window to hop on and off before it speeds off again. It also costs peanuts, with a one way ticket less than 20p, putting Scotrail to shame.

Tiny street catWe only had a couple of days in Bangkok on this stop, but as we knew we would be back to fly home, we didn’t try to cram too much in. We did visit a couple of temples, including Wat Pho, which has an impressive giant reclining Buddha on show, and one of the many huge shopping malls in the business district. At one of the temples we came across a stray kitten hiding underneath a street bench. It was absolutely tiny, and appeared to be on the edge of death. We tried to feed it milk but it was only interested in being close to us, in particular Paul’s foot, maybe it missed company. If we were at home, the kitten would have been coming with us, no question, but as it was we had to leave it to fend for itself. I’m not too optimistic about its chances.

As we were both so taken with the city, and had managed to find a lovely hotel/apartment with an outdoor pool, we decided to spend more time here at the end of the trip to enjoy more of what Bangkok had to offer. But for now, good bye Bangkok, we’ll be back.

Koh Kong

Boat to Koh Kong

Our journey around Cambodia was a bit messy as we were making it up on the hoof, and so our next stop, Koh Kong, took us all the way down to the Southern coast. We booked a VIP direct overnight bus from Siem Reap, which we were told would take 12 hours, not too bad. After setting off after midnight, already late, we managed to fold ourselves up into the Cambodian sized sleeping chairs for some sleep. This was harder for Paul, mainly because he was in the aisle seat and was worried he’d fall off the bed at any turn, eek.

At around 8am Paul woke me up to say that the bus had stopped and people were getting off. ‘I don’t care, I’m going back to sleep’ was my grumpy reply. If only. Turns out, they were turfing everyone’s luggage off, and next up it was me. Our ‘direct bus’ actually ended in Phnom Penh, where we were told that in 30 minutes our next ‘direct’ bus to Koh Kong would arrive. It didn’t, and soon enough we were put on a Tuk Tuk and driven to a local station. We were beginning to doubt the existence of this phantom direct bus, and were proved right when the man came back with 2 tickets and said ‘the bus leaves at 10.45’. Two hours wait! I was having none of it – after travelling for as long as we have, you start to get a sense for when you’re getting taken advantage of – so I argued back. After a quick phone call, another bus was located for us. Back on the Tuk Tuk, we were ferried to another station where we were put on the 8.45 bus, it felt like a victory! After driving around the city for approximately 2 hours, seemingly picking up at every and any street corner, we finally left the city. Deep breath required, not so victorious anymore, this was clearly a very local and not VIP bus. Argh.

Quiet Waters Koh Kong is a relatively small seaside town on the edge of the border with Thailand. We came for Koh Kong Island, an island 3 hours from the coast which we had read was as beautiful as the Thai Islands, but undeveloped. It definitely was that. Our little boat was the only one there, and with the exception of some stray dogs, there was no one else about. We were provided with snorkel sets which we tried out, but with nothing but sand to look at, we quickly gave up and relaxed on the beach. Lunch was a brilliant fresh barbeque cooked by our guides; three whole fish, with heads, were presented on the table. Not something I’d usually order, but great to try. Our trip back was broken up by a visit to a mangrove farm, after which we were dropped off back at the port. A very nice, chilled out day – definitely needed after the stress of the bus journey down.

Hearing that we were heading to Thailand the next day, the owner of the tour company sat down and went through all of the transport options, outlining the fair prices we should pay. Great! We thought, this’ll make life easier tomorrow. Not so. The journey to Koh Chang (a Thai Island and our next destination) was made up of a Tuk Tuk – mini van – pick-up truck/taxi – ferry – pick-up truck/taxi. It started off well, with the first two matching our expected prices. However, when sitting at Trin Station, the price quoted for our next leg was nearly double what we’d been advised. Thinking he was playing the negotiating game, we refused. He drove off. Hmm, we had a ferry to catch, and now no way of getting there. After stubbornly sitting there for 30 mins, we relented and paid what we believed to be an inflated price. The taxi dropped us off at a shop where we were directed to buy ferry tickets, the price offered again was far higher. Determined not to be ripped off twice, we tried to negotiate, and failed. Last resort, we decided to walk to the pier and buy the tickets direct, thinking we’d avoid the middle man fee. Lugging our massive bags in the midday Thai heat, we preceded to walk up to and along the entirely wrong pier, only to have to walk back with our tails between our legs and buy the tickets at the original price. But only one way! (convinced we were still getting ripped off, actually we weren’t).

Watching The Waters Go By A little ragged and tired, we eventually made it onto the ferry and decided to treat ourselves to a beer. Taking in the views, we started to relax, our destination in sight. Arriving on Koh Chang, there was a collection of taxis waiting. We then realised we didn’t have enough to pay the fare. We tried negotiating, but it seemed that Thais don’t negotiate, they don’t need to. For the second time that day, we watched our only form of transport drive off without us. The port was absolutely deserted, no cash machines, hardly any people. Oh dear, we shouldn’t have got that beer. Fortunately, after sitting around feeling a bit sorry for ourselves for 15 minutes, I met a lovely taxi driver who took us to another, busier, port for free, where another kind traveller agreed to lend us the money needed. After what felt like the longest journey, we finally made it to our final destination, Lonely Beach. What a day!

Mekong Delta

Mekong Sunset

The Mekong river has been a constant presence through our time in South East Asia, but it was the delta region we were keen to explore. The delta is a heavily populated area where life is lived on the water – houses, markets and restaurants float on the canals, interspersed with islands that have their own distinct communities and cultures. We booked a 3 day trip which promised to show us the highlights of the area, but at the risk of sounding like cynical travellers, it didn’t really live up to expectations. Whether it’s because we’ve been spoiled by what we’ve seen so far, or if the delta isn’t what it used to be, who knows.

Rice paper drying in the sunOur trip took as to a collection of islands and communities along the Mekong Delta. What I’m sure were once private and natural communities have become giant tourist traps. We were herded from one tradesman to another, being encouraged to buy something, try something, or just give a donation. The purpose of our whistestop tours of a honey farm, a rice paper workshop, and a coconut candy store felt like sales pitches, rather than to give us an authentic taste of life on the delta. Eating fresh mouse was a fun experience, though I’m not convinced the locals eat too much of that, it was more bone than anything else! At one point we were pushed onto some rickety old horse drawn carts, only to go on a pointless loop along the main road. Everyone looked a bit confused as to why. We never found out.

Day 2 started with a trip to the floating markets. I was really looking forward to this as it was the perfect excuse for me to buy ridiculous amounts of fruit and veg. This market is the biggest floating market in Cambodia, but unfortunately there were hardly any sellers, just lots of tourist boats. We had one opportunity to buy pineapples, and then we were off. I guess we got there after all the real action had taken place first thing, and we just saw the tourist dregs. Paul assures me the floating markets in Bangkok are much better, so we’ll have to give them a try.

Mekong BoatsThe highlight of the trip was a row boat trip on Unicorn Island. Because of the jungle like greenery and seclusion, this really did feel like a hidden gem – if you ignored the long queues of tourists to get a boat and being told ‘tip tip tip’ for the final 20 minutes of the ride. Taking a moment to zone out and take in the scenery, it really was pretty beautiful. This was the Mekong Delta experience that I had been expecting, and probably what it was like 10 years ago, before tourism went crazy.

We’ve learnt over the past 5 months that organised trips generally aren’t for us. The fact that the Mekong trip got us into Cambodia was it’s saving grace, and arriving into Phnom Penh, we were happy to be free to explore at our own pace.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh (or as the locals all call it, Saigon), is a great city. Compared to Hanoi, it felt far more developed, with skyscrapers and shopping malls greeting us on the way in. Despite being more Westernised, the local way of life was still dominant, with endless street sellers and markets, street bars on tiny seats, and the roads covered by Tuk tuks and motorcyclists. It felt like the city had found a happy medium.

VC TunnelOur first trip was to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Used by the Viet Cong in the war to avoid the US, the tunnels are now open to the public. Although you can only go in with a registered guide, this actually helps, as they explain the many booby traps dotted around and give you a better insight into how the Viet Cong avoided the US, and their dogs. It was amazing to get a better understanding of the planning that went into the design of the tunnels, and the extreme lengths both sides went to avoid defeat. The tunnels themselves were brilliant, getting into a Vietnamese sized one (some have been widened for Westerners) was a tight fit, and very claustrophobic when the lid was down. After volunteering to go in first, the tour guide thought it would be funny to put her foot on the lid and lock me in, quite scary. Overall it was an excellent tour, and really gave you a better understanding of how vicious the war became as the US tried to flush the Viet Cong out.

Part of the tour package was stopping at the nearby shooting range to try some of the weapons used at that time. Paul had had his eye on this for a while, and so quickly signed up to shoot an AK47. The noise coming from the range was unbelievable, and with the bullet casings pinging all over the place, I was keen to move on. Paul enjoyed his 10 bullets and then we were off.

On the way back to the bus, walking back through the tunnel area, we heard singing and music, interspersed with the gun fire. Our guide told us it was a wedding. At a shooting range/war tunnels?! Seemed an odd place to be celebrating, but it sounded like they were having a good time.

Saigon by nightWe were staying in the backpacker area of Saigon, which by day was busy, but by night was absolutely packed. Through the evening street side bars would gradually add more and more tiny little chairs and tables to accommodate the crowds. By the end of the night, entire roads were blocked as bars on either side of the street grew and met in the middle. A street that we, and normal traffic, had easily passed through at 7pm became an absolute battle by midnight, crazy stuff.

We spent a few days soaking up the city before we started making tracks to Cambodia. Aware that we were running out of time, and with 2 countries still to see, we booked ourselves onto a 3 day Mekong Delta trip as the final part of our Vietnam adventure.

Hanoi to Hue

Hanoi is a city to be experienced outside. Shops, restaurants and bars don’t bother with buildings and base themselves on the street, and even museums spill out into the gardens. Scenic lakes and temples are dotted around the city, to be experienced in the fresh air. Which made it difficult for us to enjoy, as the horrible weather in Sapa had followed us to Hanoi. We had hoped that moving South would bring us sun, but we arrived in Hanoi to find rain, clouds, and lots of grey.

Water Puppet ShowTrying to stay optimistic, we spent our first couple of days visiting museums, trying street food, and generally getting lost wandering the streets of the Old Quarter. We met Paul’s friends, Lisa and Paul, and they introduced us to Bia Hoi; super cheap beer brewed and sold in ‘pop up bars’ (read tiny seats on the pavement). At about 11p a glass, I liked it. I thought it tasted a bit like Brewdog, Paul disagreed…

One thing I didn’t want to miss was a Water Puppet Show. Based on traditional Vietnamese song and dance from the rice fields, it’s been transferred into theatres for tourists to enjoy. It is cleverly done, the stage is totally submerged in water, with the band perched on the side. The puppeteers are waist deep in water the whole show, hidden by the set. The fables were lost on us, as they were sung in Vietnamese, but it was interesting to see.

UntitledWe had planned on visiting Halong Bay, but the clouds refused to budge, and keen to avoid another Sapa situation, we decided not to take the risk and save our days for the sunny south. Before leaving Hanoi, we signed up for a day trip to Tam Coc, which translates to three caves. You hop on a row boat and row through endless paddy fields and then the caves themselves. I think in sunshine it would have been beautiful. As it was, half our attention was on trying to keep warm – maybe we should have offered to row and work up a sweat! Saying that, I don’t think we’d have been up to the challenge, their strength and technique (some use their feet, others their hands) is impressive. And the ladies are just as strong, one even ended up giving a tow to another boat when their oar snapped. A tiny Vietnamese woman hauling 2 boats and 4 big Westerners along was a sight to be seen.

Our next stop was Dong Hoi, and for a break from buses, we took the night train from Hanoi instead. This was definitely a step up, as we went for a 6 berth room and managed to get a decent night’s sleep. The cheapest option is hard seats – think park bench comfort level -, but for an 8 hour journey, that wasn’t going to happen!

Dong Hoi was picked due to its proximity to Paradise Cave. Yet another cave that I dragged Paul to, this is one of the biggest dry caves in the world. Instead of taking an expensive tour, we decided to hire a motorbike and travel the 70km ourselves. For 180,000 dong (under £6) we got a decent bike for the day. After answering our very novice questions – how do you start the engine? How do you change gear? – I think the bike owner might have twigged we weren’t experienced bikers. Any doubts were confirmed when, after finally managing to get the bike to start, we watched Paul wobble and jutter off on a practise ride. The owner turned to me and said ‘If he can’t ride, it’s not safe’ Yep, thanks for that.

But all was well! We quickly became expert riders, or at least competent, though I think I may have given Paul a few more grey hairs when accidentally driving towards oncoming traffic on a couple of occasions. After Paul navigated the city and the crazy drivers that come with it, we had a lovely ride out on country roads. The cave itself was amazing; absolutely massive and brilliantly lit. They’ve set up excellent wooden walkways in the cave that take you 1km in. We were lucky enough to have the cave to ourselves when we arrived, and the silence was eery. Definitely a highlight.

The next day, after a nightmare trip on a local bus, we found ourselves on a bike again, but in slightly less happy circumstances. We were dumped off the bus 10km away from our destination – the city of Hue – and in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to pay the amount taxi drivers were demanding, we ended up taking the option of getting a lift on one motorbike between us, mainly out of curiosity as to how it would work. Paul’s big bag went between the driver’s legs, then me with our two small rucksacks, and then Paul clinging on at the back, with my big backpack on. The fact the driver only had 2 helmets was a clue that this wasn’t right, another being that we only made it halfway before the driver gave up. Not the most effective means of travel, but an interesting experience. What a memory, I’m just disappointed we didn’t take a photo!

Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang

Mekong River Winding Through Vang Vieng

Leaving Vientiane, our final destination was Luang Prabang, but we decided to stop off en route at Vang Vieng. VV is well known as a backpacker haven, attracting the crowds due to drinks, drugs, and a brilliant tubing/pub crawl route. It’s a strange place, because in theory I should hate it – hundreds of early 20s backpackers (making me feel old) getting drunk in one of the many similar bars and restaurants -, but actually it had a charm, with a lovely laid back feel; it lives in its own little bubble, with no relation to the rest of Laos. Plus, Friends was on 24 hours in many of the restaurants, which I loved (Paul, not so much). We ended up spending 4 days in VV, and by the time we left we were ready to escape the madness.

Tubing Down The Mekong On day 1 we got involved in the main attraction – tubing down the Mekong. We hired our tubes from town, jumped in a Tuk Tuk for a 3km ride and were left at the side of the river. Before we started the tubing, we went to a lovely garden bar for our first drink and free shot of Lao Lao Whisky – made from rice, it tastes as horrible as our stuff. It was here we discovered that there were only 4 bars on the river, before a 2 hour ride on the tube all the way into town. Because it’s dry season, what would take 1 hour when the water was high took over 3 hours, and so most people chose to skip the end section and get a Tuk Tuk from the final bar. It was slightly disappointing; although the scenery was beautiful, we did very little actual tubing as the current was so slow, and the water level so low. So while tubing was what everyone came for, it was much more about the pubs…so we got involved in that instead. Hula hooping, basketball under hoses, boules, flaming limbo, cliff jumping, beer pong, and lots and lots of free whisky shots, there was lots of fun to be had.

Kayaking on the Mekong Our second attempt at tubing was slightly more successful, when we signed up for a trip into a cave, on tubes, and then kayaking. After a frustrating 1.5 hour wait while our guides tried to find us head torches (that’s what you get when you go cheapy), we were eventually led into the cave. With ropes to pull yourself along, you go right into the depths of the cave, with only your head torches giving you any light. Add into the mix the fact that the water was absolutely freezing, it was an exhilarating trip.

The afternoon involved as kayaking back into town. Our second attempt of the trip, Paul and I were much more coordinated, and managed to navigate a few rapids without capsizing.

Luang Prabang offered everything VV didn’t: a real taste of Laos culture, temples, architecture, things to do that didn’t involve alcohol, and history. And most importantly, lots of old American tourists to make us feel young again, yay! It’s the little things.

Luang Prabang Market LP was all about the food. Street-side juice bars, baguette stalls, Laotian BBQs you cook at the table yourself, and crepes. Yum yum yum. After the limitations of South America (fried chicken anyone?), it was a welcome change. With this is mind, we spent our first full day doing a Laotian cookery class. First up, we went to the local market to get our produce. Fortunately neither the grilled rats nor dried buffalo skin on display were on the menu. After our tutors demonstrated the dishes, we were set free to do our best. Apart from burning the garlic (many times) and getting our oyster/soy sauces mixed up, we managed to pull together 5 tasty dishes. We were given recipe books to take away and we’ve kept our favourite recipes to try at home.

After all that eating, we had energy to burn, so we hired bikes and cycled out to the Kuang Si waterfalls. These were a beautiful 32km ride away. Apart from the ridiculously steep final 5km, which nearly killed us, there were lovely gentle rolling hills through local villages, and we got out early enough to beat the midday heat. Since arriving in Laos we had seen nothing but blue skies and sunshine, which is lovely, until you want to do anything mildly physical, and then you feel like you’re going to die.

WaterfallOn the walk up to the falls we passed by a Sun Bear sanctuary. Sun Bears are endangered, and the ones we saw had mostly been saved from poachers (who want their bile for Chinese medicine) or from dancing in the streets. Safe to say they looked like they were enjoying life now, lounging in hammocks in the sun.

The falls themselves were beautiful, with cloudy blue water and lots of natural pools. Before jumping in for a swim, we clambered up to the top, where you can stand at the lip and look down. It was a little bit daunting trying to get your footing on the slippery rocks, knowing that there was a sharp 60 foot drop if things went wrong.

What started off as a brilliant day took a horrible turn of events when we saw a young Korean man drown. In one of the pools there was a rope swing which everyone was jumping in from. What happened exactly remains unclear, but standing waiting for our turn, we noticed a distressed Korean guy in the water – we now know he was looking for his friend. The language barrier was a massive problem, and though a group of us jumped in to try and help find the man, it was no good. Visibility was non-existent, the water was freezing, and none of us were entirely sure what or who we were looking for. Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the man’s tour group were filming the incident or taking photos, with only one lady showing any signs of distress. After around 20 minutes of uncertainty, locals with a diving mask eventually pulled out the body. Throughout this, tour groups were arriving, unaware of what had happened and were trying to get in the water. One older lady in a tour group by us, despite being informed that she couldn’t swim because of what had happened, was complaining to her guide that they wouldn’t let her in the water. Paul challenged her on her behaviour and she quickly shut up. Unbelievable.

We came to LP to organise our Vietnamese visas, and happily we did this without hassle or hitch. We were now ready to plot our route into Vietnam, just a few weeks after originally planned.

Kuala Lumpur

Visa? What visa?!

Despite Paul being in arcade heaven, we arrived at Tokyo airport keen to leave Japan, and ready to start our South East Asia adventure. When doing self check-in, we were asked if we had visas for Vietnam. Nope. Ever the optimists, we thought we’d just have to go to a check-in lady to do her magic. Nope. Turns out, ‘visa on arrival’ means ‘you must have a pre-arranged visa on arrival’. Shit. After a little bit of panic research we discovered that we’d have to go to the Vietnamese embassy in Tokyo, which was now closed for the weekend, it being Friday afternoon. So we were left with the option of staying in Tokyo for another 3 nights (something we wanted to avoid, if possible, as we’d intentionally cut down our time in Tokyo because of the cost of accommodation) or source alternative flights. We went with the latter, and after the ever-helpful Japanese Airlines lady did some research we were offered Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Jakarta (the only 3 destinations available that didn’t require visas). We went with KL, mainly because we thought that would be the easiest starting point to reach Asia from. So the next day, completely unplanned and unexpected, we found ourselves a good bit poorer and on a flight to KL.

We had 2 days in KL, during which I had a taster, and Paul had a reminder, of Malaysian culture. The highlight was definitely the food, it was amazing. We started on a low – Nandos – and then things got much, much better, Our hostel (the cheapest and also grottiest place in the world) was near Chinatown, and so one evening we had the best Chinese meal I’ve ever had. It was just a street side cafe, but the food was fresh, delicious, and cheap. We finished off with an Indian from a Banana Leaf restaurant, where we once again ordered way too much food and spent the rest of the night with rice belly.

Monkey & Coconut We spent a day on a hop on, hop off tourist bus, visiting mosques, palaces, and a butterfly farm. We also took a trip out to Batu Caves, a Hindu place of worship nestled in giant caves. Paul had been before and had warned me about the super vicious monkeys stealing food, which left me suitably panicky about removing any trace of nuts from my bag. However, Paul must have caught them on a bad day, as this time they were super cute, running around with babies clinging to their bellies, politely accepting any food offered to them.

The caves themselves were pretty impressive, though we couldn’t understand why there was so much rubbish and dirt (as well as dead chickens) lying about. Surely if it’s a sacred spot, they would want to keep it tidy?

After 4 months of travelling we were ready for a little bit of pampering, and so we went to a fish pedicure place. I know these are illegal at home now, but I like them. The fish here were unlike any I’ve seen before – they were HUGE! It took courage, and a lot of encouragement from the owner that we’d be okay, to put our feet in, the fish were so vicious. The session lasted 15 minutes, but after 10 I was done, I wanted some feet left!

Soon our little detour was over and it was time to go back to Plan A. Personally, I was happy to leave, as the men in KL seemed to think it was their right to stare at women as much as they wanted, and it did make me feel uncomfortable, especially when I was on my own. After checking and double checking the visa requirements of various Asian countries, we picked Laos as our next destination. We headed off for our early flight with fingers crossed. Second time lucky!

Hawaii

Ala Wai CanalChoosing to visit Hawaii had been an impulse decision made in Trailfinders. We had a free flight and were passing over that way, so thought we’d take the opportunity to visit somewhere we might never be again. We had originally planned to stay 5 days, but after doing some research on accommodation, we decided to cut it down, to save costs.

Waikiki BeachWe landed on the island of Oahu and stayed in Waikiki, a beach district of Honolulu. Making the most of this, we hit the beach both days, which was only a 5 minute walk away. Although beautiful, the sea itself wasn’t great for swimming, or much else, as nearly all of the ground was rocks and/or reef. To beat this, on day two, Paul hired a paddle board and I used it as a taxi, hopping on for a relaxing ride with Paul paddling the way. Once we got far enough out to pass the rocks, I had a swim whilst Paul touched up his paddle boarding skills.

Ihop All You Can Eat PancakesHonolulu was also host to our Ihop challenge. They had an all you can eat offer that we decided to take up. We worked up our appetites with a very hot 12km run in the morning sun and then went to work. I had (optimistically) set the bar at 12 pancakes, but only managed 6 and a bite. I was still the champion, though, as Paul only squeezed in 4 measly pancakes [excuse me, and the eggs/hash brown! – Paul]. I absolutely love pancakes, but after that, even the thought of eating another made me feel a little bit queasy.

We had hoped to get out and about a bit more, as Oahu is meant to be beautiful, and is also home to the Pearl Harbour museum. However, due to flight times and our complete inability to master the bus stop system, we didn’t manage to get any further afield. It was a nice taster though, and a lovely beach stop before Tokyo.

Mexico

Teotihuacan

Arriving in Mexico City at 6 am, our first impression was ‘holy cow, it’s cold!’. Having left the high 30s of Rio in shorts and t-shirt, the 9c in Mexico City reminded us what it was to be cold (and home). The hoodies were back with vengeance.

It was my insistence that lead us to Mexico, based on a gut feeling that it would be cool. Despite its reputation as dangerous, everyone we had met whilst travelling raved about the city and reassured us we’d love it. It didn’t disappoint. Mexico City is great; easy to navigate, lots of culture, beautiful architecture, and it felt safe. Saying that, there are police everywhere. On the streets, in the shops, directing traffic, on the metro – even following you down canals in ugly modern speedboats, totally killing the mood. We never actually saw them do any crime fighting, but their presence alone was reassuring.

We had 1 week in Mexico City, during which we tried to squeeze in as many of the sites as possible. First up was main plaza, which had the biggest flag I have ever seen, and is home to the Metropolitan Cathedral. The city is sinking, and this is most clearly seen in the sloping floors and leaning brickwork of it’s cathedrals.

Annie in traditional Mariachi costumeMexico City is packed with museums, but two that jumped out were the Memory & Tolerance Museum and the Tequila and Mezcal Museum. Two completely different experiences; whilst the first covered genocides throughout the 20th century in quite vivid detail, the second taught us about the history and processing of Mexico’s national drinks.

I think the Memory & Tolerance museum is probably one of the best I’ve ever been in. The hours quickly passed by thanks to the amazing (and often harrowing) interactive displays, and it is definitely something I would recommend to anyone visiting the city. On the otherhand, the Tequila museum gave us free shots (hooray!) and also let us dress up in traditional mariachi clothes as part of their brief history of Mexico’s traditional music.

Xochimilco CanalsAs well as museums, we visited parks, pyramids, a city amusement park, and the Xochimilco canals. For this, we hired a trajinera (kind of like a massive gondola) and took a tour of the waterways, during which passing boats offered us food, gifts, and musical entertainment. It was a very surreal experience, especially coming from the crowds of the city, and a lovely escape for a few hours.

Paul’s highlight was our evening of Lucho Libre. I went in to this not knowing what to expect other than fake fighting and over-acting, which is pretty much exactly what we got. Despite the arena only being half full, the atmosphere was brilliant, with the crowd really getting into the spirit.

The sun in Brazil had meant we had only been able to run crazy early in the morning before the heat kicked in. Mexico, being much cooler, resolved this problem, and so were were happy to take advantage of the Sunday tradition of closing the main roads to vehicles so that pedestrians, runners, and cyclists can take over. Given that the city is usually overrun with cars, it is quite amazing that this happens, and it was a great feeling running down the main avenue without having to worry about traffic lights or cars.

Paul and a TlayudaBefore arriving, the one thing we had been confident of was that we would love the food here, but it turns out, real Mexican food isn’t anything like what we get at home. Whilst Paul quickly became a fan of the bargain basement taco stalls, I struggled with mystery meats and corn tortillas. My saviour came in 2 forms: street stalls selling corn on the cob covered in chilli and cheese, and the most amazing patisserie I have ever been in. Our visit coincided with La Rosca de Reyes, a tradition to celebrate epiphany. This day (6 January) is celebrated with huge ring cakes. It meant eating cake, so we got involved (albeit a day late, hoping to get knock-down prices). Yum. They also love their spice, in everything. Even guacamole was a silent killer, quietly burning your lips off after a few bites.