Thursday, 25 December 2014

Home sweet home

The final month

My usual routine for writing this blog throughout the trip has been to update every fortnight for 2 reasons. 1 - no one wants to read about someone else travelling around the world every day for 19 months and 2 - my sanity. I broke my own rule with the last 4 weeks being combined into my Grand Finale, mainly because I did nothing other then sit on the beach or beside a pool relaxing, reflecting and running around doing the Christmas shopping for all the family. After leaving Nick in Nha Trang I flew via Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok to meet up with the Madventure crew who had been travelling throughout South East Asia also. We rendezvoused back up in the lively area of Khao San Rd in the middle of town and I spent the next few days catching up, swapping stories and seeing a ping pong show which was actually a bit of a let down despite James and myself hitting balls around the establishment into waiters and patrons alike.

My resort at Koh Samui

From here I was supposed to join back up with them and travel down to Singapore but I had had such a great time exploring by myself I decided to see out my last days flying solo. From Bangkok I took a flight to Surit Thani and caught the ferry over to Koh Samui where I got a full week in the 1 place which was a bit of a novelty. Here I just got to read, watch movies and eat out at nice restaurants whenever and wherever I liked.

The same went for Bali where I flew to next and spent my final 2 weeks. Not much to mention for the blog unless you want to know what I bought my nephews and my brother for his kk present.

My pool in Bali where I whittled away many hours

The Bali memorial

Final dinner for the Madventure group 

The night before my flight back to Australia I got a final catch up with the crazy Madventure bunch that had driven all the way from London over the last six months. I was lucky enough to spend 3 months with them from Tajikistan through to Thailand and had a blast. There were some tough times on this trip but many more great ones. To finish off we ordered some pizzas and had a pool party, listening and singing to music before I had to say my last goodbyes.

Reunited with Jess in Brisbane before heading home

Before flying back to Melbourne I had a very important stop to make. This little lady above who travelled around Africa with my last group had done quite the number on me. After 4½ months apart I was reunited with Jess and got to spend 2 nights catching up and checking out the sights of Brisbane. Although we had to say goodbye again I've got the feeling it wont be as long between visits this time.

Surprised by the whole family at the airport

On the 24th December I touched back down in Melbourne where this journey began 19 months and 53 countries earlier. Here I was surprised by my entire family and I must admit I got a bit emotional. An incredible journey. Hopefully I have learnt a few things throughout my travels that will make me a better person. The 1 thing I have learnt is how lucky I am and what a lucky country I live in to be able to do what I've just done.


Saturday, 22 November 2014

Cambodia & Vietnam

On the well trodden backpacker route

Nick and I continued our journey together and left Vientiane on a sleeper bus, a first for me and a very good bonding experience for the 2 of us. I was told to make sure you book with someone you know as the beds leave little room to the imagination and it was sound advice. The 5ft long by 3ft wide box was supposed to fit the both of us and for about 30 minutes it did. Fortunately the bed below us ended up being free so Nick dove into that at the first available opportunity and we had a relatively comfortable 12 hour ride until we got a flat tyre at 5:30 in the morning and had to swap busses. The ride took us down to an area known as the 4000 islands, an inland archipelago on the Mekong river. It was really relaxing there and hardly touched yet by the tourism stick, a nice way to break the journey up before entering Cambodia which we crossed into soon after and made our way down to Siem Reap.

Angkor Wat

Monkeys playing around the ruins

Monks are fairly new to tourism..... YOU'RE FACING THE WRONG WAY

Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat was probably one of the most amazing sites I've been to, right up there with my favourites for the trip, the Pyramids and the Grand Canyon. It lives up to the hype, the ruins are vast and majestic with tourists flooding everywhere but thanks to the size it was always easy to find a little nook or cranny to sit in quietly or grab a photo. We hired a tuk tuk driver around sunrise for the day and he drove us around to the main sites that we wanted to see. Ta Prohm was a personal favourite, the thick trees and jungle have almost won the battle of time here and I imagine if it wasn't for the restoration efforts you would barely know it was there.

Bayon Wat

Baphuon temple

Ta Prohm temple

The jungle here has reclaimed the land

We decided to spend 4 nights in Siem Reap as it provided us with amenities like we had both not had for a long time. Lines of restaurants and bars, a pool at our hostel and just general quality of life improvements made us very comfortable. From here we caught the bus down to Phnom Penh and stayed another 4 nights. There is a lot to do here and we both spent the mornings exploring the city before the heat kicked in. The main attractions here though were not the majestic or entertaining ones like past cities had offered but they were definitely powerful. The S-21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields just outside town at Choeung Ek are a reminder of a dark part of Cambodia's history when the Khmer Rouge was in power.

Wat Ounalom

The Royal Palace

Pictures of victims from S-21 Genocide museum

Cells they were kept in

Graves of the last 14 victims found dead in the prison when liberated
Formerly a high school S-21 or Tuol Sleng was used as a prison for enemies of the state and the Khmer seemed to have a lot of enemies. It was just one of 150 execution centres at the time and as many as 20,000 prisoners that passed through here were later killed. The killing fields is where they were transported just outside of town. I will not go into gruesome details here but the audio tour you get here is very moving and explains in depth how the whole process worked with narration from people involved on both sides.

Choeung Ek, aka the killing fields

We crossed the border into Vietnam and made our way to Ho Chi Minh City, still known locally as Saigon. With only 11 days in Vietnam and from speaking to other backpackers I quickly discovered that I had nowhere near enough time to visit even half of Vietnam. I have consciously made the decision here that this is going to be my beach holiday, the tourist pants have been packed away and the only thing I want to worry about is when I should go to the beach and how to get a cocktail delivered to me on said beach. I do plan to visit here again to explore it properly but for now its time to relax. After 18 months on the road I plan to use the last month in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Bali as a fair dinkum beach bum.

We are currently in Nha Trang after spending 3 nights in the cosy seaside town of Mui Ne. Nha Trang is a Russian dominated version of Surfers Paradise and just what I'm looking for at the moment. Booked into a nice hotel across the road from the beach I have 6 nights here before I fly back to meet up with the truck and my other travel buddies in Bangkok. Life is really, really tough at the moment.

My hotel pool in Nha Trang with Russian babe included

The main beach


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Beavis & Butthead do South East Asia

Leaving the truck for some more independent travel

After Yangon the group left Myanmar together and crossed the border into Thailand. A few of us had wanted to leave a bit earlier and do some travel on our own but the group visa we had for Myanmar stipulated that we had to leave as we entered, as one. We crossed and I was immediately blown away as to how modern Thailand was. I have never travelled to South East Asia and although I had been told Thailand was modern with good roads it never really hit home until I was looking at it. Shopping Centres, dual lane highways and plenty of brand names I'm familiar with. We spent 1 night in Tak before driving 300 or so km in just 4 hours to Chiang Mai. I'm fairly sure this would be the best mileage the truck would have got since it left Europe. Chiang Mai is a vibrant city and I had a good time exploring and an even better time in the pool at our hotel. It was quite weird to be amongst so many other tourists with our hotel being a stopover for G Adventure groups, quite a large company and there were always people coming and going.

Last shot of Myanmar before entering Thailand

One of the many temples I saw exploring Chiang Mai

From Chiang Mai I decided to fly to Luang Prabang, leaving the group to meet up with a friend, Nick. I have been having an amazing time with the truck but after almost 1 year continuous travel on an overland truck I was starting to get a bit of cabin fever and with SE Asia being so easy to travel and my friend just a 1 hour flight away it was an easy decision. Nick travelled with me on the entire Trans Africa trip and it was great to catch him in Luang Prabang. A few beers later and a trip to Utopia bar and it was like we had never missed a beat. We ended up staying in Luang Prabang as this was where we applied for our Vietnamese visas (over a weekend - not very good planning on my behalf). It was really nice to have 4 nights in one spot though and Luang Prabang is definitely a good place to chill out.
Nicks on the left

Overlooking Luang Prabang towards the Mekong River

Luang Prabang

Wat Mai

Wat Xieng Thong
Alms giving ceremony

The moment we had our passports back we hopped into a mini van driven by Michael Schumacher himself after what must have been a miraculous recovery and left Luang Prabang. We arrived in Vang Vieng that evening and had an early night in preparation for a huge day. Vang Vieng is famous for its tubing down the river Mekong, spotted with bars along the way and infamous for a few backpackers that have died in the last few years doing said tubing. Health and safety does not exist in Laos at all and our induction to the day was to be driven by a non English speaking local in a tuk tuk down to the river and left to our own devices to float downstream. Luckily the first bar was only 200m away so by lunchtime the festivities had begun. With every beer was a free shot of whiskey, there was volleyball, ping pong, boule, a basketball ring that spurted out water and of course girls in bikinis everywhere. The beers flowed all day and we floated back to town sometime in the evening in a misty purple haze. Somehow we made it home, most likely on the beer scooter, but the day was not without its drawbacks. I had a ton of great pictures from throughout the day but have no idea where my camera ended up so I'm just left with my SLR from now on. To add insult to injury I accidently left our bus ticket to Vientiane in my wallet which somehow got wet........

The pictures below I've pulled from Google to give you an idea of how the day went

Tubing on the Mekong, fairly sensible start to the day
One of the usual bar stops, warming up

Getting interesting

Just a bunch of girls me and Nick partied with
And their other friends, this is where things go hazy

I woke up the next day in a fairly decent state, mostly due to the fact that we had got home at about 8. Nick was not so fortunate but once he had emptied his stomach of its contents he was good to go and we made our way to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. There is actually not too much to do here, a few temples and a good cafĂ©/bar/restaurant scene. The only thing I found half interesting to take a photo of was the Presidential Palace although their is some nice French colonial architecture if that's your thing. We are about to hop on a 15 hour sleeper bus down to the 4000 islands in Southern Laos and then into Cambodia.

The Presidential Palace


Saturday, 25 October 2014

Escaping India & into Myanmar

Sneaking away from India, great food and thinning the motorcyclist population

India was a challenging experience, a good experience but most of us were ready to move on and excited to get into Myanmar. The country had in fact grown quite fond of us though and didn't want to let us go. Endless traffic jams full of overloaded trucks, the worst section of sealed road I’ve ever driven on and tight bridges with hairpin bend entrances that required a 20 point turn combined with the overtaking prowess of our truck made for a long and frustrating drive. What we planned to drive in 1 day, Shillong to Impale, took two 14 hour days and a lot of patients. To rub salt into the wound both nights we were unable to find accommodation due to all the hotels being full so had the pleasure of sleeping on the truck with bushcamping just not being possible. Despite India's crazy ex-girlfriend type affection we managed to slip out of town in the early hours of the morning, only to be discovered down the road in the form of 3 police checks within 400m, each one taking half an hour as they wrote out everybody's details by hand at each point. With a 4-5 hour exit on top India certainly used every trick in the book but we made it across and into Myanmar.
Hanging out on the railroads, as Indians do

Constant traffic

More great roads

The dangers of driving in India
 Our arrival into Myanmar was something special, not just because of the fact that we had been able to break the vice like grip of India but because we became the first overland truck to enter Myanmar from India. Our euphoria was short lived however when we smashed our front viewing window on a low hanging branch the next day, showering the people in front with broken glass. Fortunately no one was hurt and the windscreen has since been replaced.
A tight squeeze

Our entourage of followers we always manage to attract

Carlos cleaning up the broken window

Our first major stop in Myanmar was in Mandalay. I spent my time here eating great food, checking out the palace and eating more great food. I’m not much of a foodie but the cooking here is amazing as well as being cheap. From what I’ve heard most of South East Asia is going to be a holiday for my taste buds and Myanmar is the first course.

Mandalay Palace
From Mandalay we drove down to the World Heritage site of Bagan. Here we hired scooters and I rode around with Will and Ally all day checking out the temples. With around 2200 temples spread over 104 square km’s we never had far to ride between stops, picking our favourites and relishing the freedom of the bikes.

Hells Angels chapter has opened in Bagan

The temples of Bagan

Shwezigon temple
Our fun with motorcycles did not finish in Bagan with a local rider managing to take a corner far too wide, leaving a nice imprint of himself on the side of our truck just out of town. The rider and passenger came off at about 60km p/h and were extremely lucky to not go under the truck and get killed. 1 had some nasty grazes to his legs and wrists but it turned out they both worked at a nearby bone hospital so were able to continue on after the shock passed to get themselves checked up.


The Burmese countryside

After our little incident we continued on to Lake Inle, famous for its fishermen who fish with nets whilst rowing with their legs at the same time. The lake is central to their lifestyle, feeding both themselves with its fish and its economy with tourism. I hired a boat and guide for myself and spent half a day exploring the area, getting quite sunburnt in the process and enjoying more great food in the evenings. Next stop, Yangon.

Fisherman on Lake Inle

Their housing

A stilt village is not complete without a pub