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This is the end…

After over 70,000 blog views in 113 countries, visiting 21 countries over 15 months and quite a few memories along the way, the time has come and our travels have ended. We’ve now been back in London for about a month and we’re depressed, bemused and discombobulated. It’s cold…too cold…far too cold.

It’s hard to put into words how much fun we have had. It’s also hard to pick out specific highlights. Lots of people have already asked us ‘what’s your favourite country’, and it’s really difficult to choose one over another.

So we thought we would write a quick summary of everywhere we have been and talk about what we liked and didn’t like. So here goes…

Beijing Tapas

Beijing Tapas

01 – China

Our first stop and still one of our favourite countries, China was an amazing place to begin our trip. We found it an easy place to get around with a very good train network. The people can take some getting used to, especially the constant spitting and coughing but on the whole they were friendly and very interesting to watch. Probably the highlight of China was the food, specifically dumplings, hot and sour soup, Peking duck and schezuan food. The Drum and Gong on a tiny hutong in northern Beijing provided us with the best food of our whole trip, hands down.

Hong Kong Peak

Hong Kong Peak

02 – Hong Kong

In Hong Kong we were treated to some lavish accommodation and wild nights out courtesy of Dave, Shiona and friends. With Katy as my guide we squeezed a lot into our two weeks there. It’s probably not the most accessible place for a traveller due to the cost of everything, but we both really enjoyed our time there. Even though it is a fairly small space, there is so much to do there outside of Central. You definitely need to explore to get the best out of Hong Kong.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

03- Vietnam

Vietnam was by far the cheapest country we visited on our trip, and very easy to get around. Ha Long Bay was one of the highlights of our entire time away, and even though it is one of the ‘Wonders of the World’, it was peaceful and serene without hoards of people elbowing you out of the way. I was very ill in Saigon, and we had to miss out Hoi An and Huế due to flooding which was a shame. It was interesting to learn more about the ‘American War’ and visit the Cu Chi tunnels…especially when Katy got stuck in the hole.

Buddha heads, Bayon Temple

Buddha heads, Bayon Temple

04 – Cambodia

One of our favourite countries, and I’m still trying to persuade Katy to buy a hostel here. Hot, humid and packed with culture, great food and friendly people. The coast (if you avoid Sihanoukville) is idyllic and somewhere we would both love to visit again (to look for hostel locations). Bus journeys are an experience here, but we got what we paid for. We have mixed feelings over Angkor Wat, we loved climbing over all the ancient temples, playing with the local children and listening to them counting to 10 in about 5 different languages. It’s just a shame we couldn’t have had the place to ourselves for the day.

Road obstructions

Road obstructions

05 – Laos

Our most adventurous and unforgettable country of the trip saw us zip wiring through the jungle, tubing down rivers and motor biking for the very first time through the remote southern region. We had some travel partners in Seb and Sophie, who helped us see in the new year at a Laos bowling alley after bumping into them on a hellish bus journey. The transport and ‘Laos time’ was probably our biggest challenge but taught us how to be more patient. Our favourite Laos dish was the Laap, a spicy minced beef or lamb salad packed with fresh coriander and chilli…delicious. Laos is a fantastic country; cheap, beautiful and very friendly.

Bagan

Bagan

06 – Myanmar

Probably my favourite country of our trip, Myanmar is so different to everywhere else we visited. There is no western influence there at all, so no Coca Cola, Malboro etc…anywhere to be seen and that just added to it for me. It has a huge Indian influence, so eating biryani from a coconut leaf with your hands is all part of the experience. It’s a tiring place to travel around with a very bad and uncomfortable bus network, but it’s all worth the effort. Bagan is just the most amazing place I have ever been, and with so few tourists, visiting it almost feels like you have the place to yourself.

Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta

07 – Thailand

We spent just over 6 weeks in Thailand, 3 of which were spent on a beach on the beautiful island of Koh Lanta where we got to recharge our batteries. The food was a real highlight for us, especially the massaman, green and red curries. We liked the food so much that we took a second Thai cooking lessons whilst we were there. We learnt how to scuba dive which was amazing and also got to play with real life Tigers. Bangkok was hectic, expensive but great fun, especially when we met up with Dave and the HK football lads.

Petronas twin towers

Petronas twin towers

08 – Malaysia

Our highlight of Malaysia has to be the food. From the amazing tikkas and curries in Penang to the cream teas in the Cameron Highlands. We definitely indulged. The Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur was a wash out but a great experience, and the music festival although fun was disappointing. We got to visit my Mum’s old school (now an army base) and found some photos of her in a local tea room. We didn’t have enough time in Malaysia which meant we missed the East coast…but there is always next time.

Central Mosque

Central Mosque

09 – Brunei

We had only two days in Brunei which to be honest was enough. Not a lot to do or see and it wasn’t helped that we couldn’t even have a drink to pass the time. We did however get see their National Park which involved a very funny boat ride in a coffin and a climb up on what can only be described as scaffolding to walk a series of bridges high above the trees…a fantastic sight but not very in keeping with the jungle. The food wasn’t very exciting which meant that we ordered in Pizza Hut on both nights we were there. Maybe the Sultan needs to invest a bit more into his restaurant scene.

El Nido sunset

El Nido sunset

10 – Philippines

With some of the best beaches and views I can remember, the Philippines will definitely be somewhere we will visit again. In fact we have already checked prices for 2014. EL Nido was simply stunning, and the diving in Malapascua out of this world. A definite highlight was diving with Thresher sharks and snorkeling with Whale sharks. The Philippines did see Katy have a mini breakdown though when she decided that she needed a holiday. It didn’t last long, especially once she had a beer in her hand and watched yet another amazing sunset.

Gili Air

Gili Air

11 – Indonesia

We have many highlights from Indonesia; the amazing diving, hunting for Komodo dragons in Flores, climbing the volcano Mt Bromo and relaxing on the beaches of the Gili islands. Bali was disappointing as it was far too touristy and Jakarta was just a massive concrete jungle. Some of the rooms we stayed in were basic to say the least, with sinks and throne toilets nowhere to be seen. It’s a big place and we barely touched the sides, so we’re definitely thinking of going back for another look some day.

Malaysian Tapir

Malaysian Tapir

12 – Singapore

Singapore was very expensive and saw us stay in our first dorm room of the trip. It’s a big city, pretty easy to get around but not really that much to see. We did venture to the zoo though where I got to see my favourite animal…a Malaysian tapir. Being on a budget we didn’t get to experience much of the glamorous side of Singapore and settled for street restaurants and the odd happy hour beer. It is a place that I could quite easily see us moving to, as there is a great expat community…and the weather is slightly better than the UK.

Sensoji Temple area, Asakusa

Sensoji Temple area, Asakusa

13 – Japan

So Japan beats Singapore hands down for being the most expensive country we visited…£12 for a pint of beer…enough said. The tube and rail network in Tokyo is immense and took some getting used to but we managed to take in most of the sights. The restaurant scene wasn’t that easy; secretive and expensive so we ate our fair share of pot noodles that week and of course squeezed in as much sushi as we could.

Sea lion

Sea lion

14 – Ecuador

Ecuador saw us swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos, climbing volcanoes, whale watching, learning Spanish (sort of) and watching a very uneventful European cup. We visited South America’s largest handicraft market which was the start of Katy’s alpaca addiction. We ate our fair share of almuerzos…a set 2 or 3 course lunch for $2-3 and tried our first of many empanadas. Our real low light of Ecuador was having our camera stolen on a bus near the Peru border.

Diving in Tayrona National Park

Diving in Tayrona National Park

15 – Colombia

Colombia was a nice surprise. We were expecting it to be bit dodgy but the people couldn’t have been friendlier and they couldn’t have put any more police on the streets if they tried. The big cities of Medillion and Bogota were average (we do tend to prefer places out of the city) but the real highlight for us was the Caribbean coast, particularly Cartagena and Tayrona National Park. We really enjoyed San Agustin where I rode a horse the first time and visited the ancient statues scattered across the countryside.

A room with a view

A room with a view

16 – Peru

Peru started badly with us getting mugged in Mancora. It took us a while to shake off the experience and probably ruined our time in Peru if we’re honest. It wasn’t all bad though as we enjoyed sand boarding in the desert, driving through the Andes, climbing Wanapicchu at the top of Machu Picchu. Our first half an hour on Machu Picchu was wonderfully quiet, serene and beautiful but it soon became overcrowded and just another disappointing tourist attraction. The food was pretty good and we became quite adventurous trying cuy (guinea pig), alpaca, Llama and ceviche.

Salt Flat Sunset

Salt Flat Sunset

17 – Bolivia

What a beautiful and extremely diverse country. We visited the highest city in the world, fished for piranhas and swam with pink dolphins in the Amazon, hunted for anacondas and capybaras in the jungle, rode horses across Bolivia’s wild-west and spent three days visiting the amazing salt flats. We had some of the best food in South America, especially the saltenas (empanadas) and enjoyed some very nice (and cheap) Bolivian red wine. The only downside was that we didn’t see a sloth.

View from Cerro Santa Lucía

View from Cerro Santa Lucía

18 – Chile

Arriving on a National holiday wasn’t the best start (you’d think we would have learnt by this point of the trip) and meant that we stayed in some very average hostels. Chile for us meant civilisation after being in basic Bolivia for a month so we took advantage of the wines (of course), being able to choose what and where to eat and paying for things with a credit card (a real novelty). We were there out of season so the snow had melted and the coast was just too cold.

Fitz Roy

Fitz Roy

19 – Argentina

What’s not to love about Argentina…amazing wines, steaks, beautiful scenery and the friendliest people we met in South America. A real highlight for us was of course the wines but Patagonia was simply stunning. Our walk across the Perito Mereno glazier was incredible and an experience we will never forget. Katy even enjoyed our trek to Fitz Roy. It’s another huge country with so much diversity. Patagonia although expensive was worth every penny. We had five weeks in Argentina, and that just wasn’t enough.

Just another beach

Just another beach

20 – Uruguay

Punta Del Diablo although out of season was a great place for us to chill out for a few days. We enjoyed walking in the national park and along the extremely long beaches (we won’t mention the cows as Katy is still having nightmares), some home cooked meals (not that we had a choice with all of the restaurants closed) and catching a little sun along the way. It was a place that I am glad we stopped in. We really enjoyed our time there, although I’m not sure we would go out of our way to visit there again.

Caipirinhas

Caipirinhas

21 – Brazil

As Brazil was our last stop, we treated ourselves to several nice hostels, meals and private transfers. The food was a real highlight, especially the rodizios (all you can eat meat buffets) and of course we drank our fair share of caipirinhas too. Florianopolis was beautiful and we really enjoyed chilling out there for a few days. Iguassu Falls was incredible and we especially enjoyed the Brazilian side. Rio was a great city to end our 15 months away and we celebrated with visits to the many sights including a very interesting Favella tour, a couple of Lapa street parties and of course many more caipirinhas along the way.


So there you have it. We want to thank everyone we met whilst away; you helped to make this an amazing trip for us and it wouldn’t have been the same without you. If any of you are ever in London, make sure you get in contact.

We also want to thank everyone at home for reading the blog and keeping up with our exploits. The blog has done really well with over 70,000 hits in over 115 countries. We even won a best photo of the week competition along the way.

World Blog Coverage

World Blog Coverage

So you don’t have to hear from us anymore. You’ll just have to buy us a drink when you next see us to welcome us home. I am still unemployed after all.

Until the next time…

In ‘Nido’ of a holiday

We’ve been travelling seven months now, and one thing we have learnt is that it’s tiring. I remember when we first left England and were in Beijing, we met someone who had been travelling for about six months. They were cutting their trip short because they were too tired. At the time I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, but now I appreciate it a bit more. The constant moving, the endless search for cheap but acceptable rooms, the long and uncomfortable bus journeys all add to it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for sympathy, and I wouldn’t change anything about our trip. It’s just been a learning experience.

What’s made me talk about it this week was a moment Katy had as we walked to a beach called Corong-Corong. After breaking her beloved flip-flops and having to walk bare-foot across rocks, she exclaimed “Sam, I’ve had enough of beaches and being hot. I just want some home comforts, like air-con and a swimming pool.” I did point out to her that we have neither air-con nor a swimming pool at home, but it didn’t seem to help the situation.

Corong-Corong Beach

Corong-Corong Beach

The Philippines has been a hard place to get around; probably the hardest out of all the countries we have visited. It’s something I didn’t really expect as I thought countries like Laos and Cambodia would be more difficult, but it was quite the opposite. Anyway, this is what I think led to Katy’s mini meltdown. To be fair it didn’t last for long, as after a long walk in the blistering heat we eventually got to the amazing beach that is Corong-Corong. We spent the afternoon relaxing in hammocks, swimming in the crystal clear sea and playing frisbee on the on the white sandy beaches. Then we watched the sun set whilst enjoying a few beers with fellow travellers.

It was a great day that was finished with another Katy treat. We had pizza and white wine for dinner. This may not sound like much of a treat, but wine is something that we really can’t afford on our budget, and pizza is…well pizza. It was more like a shot of wine than a glass to be honest, but it was nice to have a change.

We decided to change rooms as after having no electricity on the first night, we then had no water on the second night. So after a few hours walking around and checking prices, we settled for the Nido Bay Inn; slightly more expensive, but with hot water and WIFI. El Nido itself only has power between 14:00 and 06:00, which takes a bit of getting used to. It can make the morning quite hot in the room when there is no fan blowing. But it’s the price you pay for staying somewhere like this.

Taking the plunge

Taking the plunge

After spending a couple of days doing very little, we booked two more dives. We were the only people on the boat other than the dive master and the captain, and we headed off to the island of Miniloc. It was a beautiful day, and we were really looking forward to our first fun dive, with no tests, skills or exercises to do. We didn’t even have to set up our equipment, so we just sat back and relaxed as we headed to the first dive site on South Miniloc.

The first dive was almost like diving in an aquarium, with thousands of different types of fish everywhere. We saw enormous schools of yellow snapper and jack fish, some massive puffer fish along with countless others that we didn’t know. It was a great dive, and very different from our last dive in Malapascua with the sharks.

We got back on the boat and had a break, with coffee and cake served by the captain. We talked about what we had seen and enjoyed the sun before heading to our next dive site, Twin Rocks. This was a very different dive from the first one, but one that made Katy very happy. We saw our first turtles here, and they were huge. We had been hoping to see some for a while now, and they are so nice to watch under the water. We also saw some sting rays and other fish, but the turtles were the main attraction. It was another great afternoon diving, which only makes us want to do it more. It’s very addictive, but sadly the one thing stopping us from doing it more is the cost. It’s very cheap to dive here in the Philippines (£18 per dive including all equipment and boat etc), but that can quickly eat into a budget.

Our deserted island

Our deserted island

For the next few days we did very little other than a bit of exploring. We walked around the coast to see what beaches there were on offer. They were quite nice, and deserted, but not a touch on Corong-Corong. So we decided that we would explore some of the islands by kayak to see what we could find.

The last time we went kayaking (in Vang Vieng, Laos), we spent the first ten minutes bickering about getting in rhythm and who should steer. It wasn’t any different this time either, but once we got going it was ok.

We didn’t really know where we should head to first, so we chose a beach that was just in sight on an island called Cadlao. We were quite relieved to get there as it was hot and tiring, and we cooled off in the sea to relieve our slowly fatiguing limbs. I even managed to find and open a fresh coconut for Katy to drink.

Frisbo

Frisbo

Once we got some of our energy back, we continued on around the island, until we found a nicer beach. Again it was quite hard work getting around there with the currents (and Katy’s steering), but once we did it was worth it. It was a lovely beach that was totally deserted. We spent a few hours there, and literally didn’t see another soul. This is how I pictured the Philippines before we arrived here, and it was great.

The area actually reminded me a bit of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, with its limestone cliffs strutting out from the water. The big difference here is the beaches. Beaches like the one we found are common, and it’s easy to find your own private beach for the afternoon if you venture out by boat or kayak.  There are over 7000 islands in the Philippines, with over 1500 just off Palawan.

It's hard work taking pictures

It's hard work taking pictures

For the last couple of days we have done very little, again. Tomorrow morning we leave on a rather epic journey to get to Bali. First we have a five-hour journey to Puerto Princesa and then after a couple of hours break we have a flight from Puerto Princesa to Manila.

We have about four hours to amuse ourselves in Manila airport before another flight to Singapore that gets in at about 01:00. We then have six hours waiting at Singapore for our flight to Bali. It will be quite a testing day I’m guessing, but we should be used to them by now.

El Nido sunset

El Nido sunset

The Philippines has been a combination of ups and downs. Very bad travel days combined with amazing diving, beaches and surroundings. Overall I think it is worth the effort because there is nowhere we’ve been so far that has had the wow factor that we’ve found here. Hopefully Indonesia will give it a good shot.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

Diving, sharks and early starts

Those of you that know me will know that I’m not normally a grumpy, moody person. Our start to the Philippines however wasn’t the best, and I found myself getting slightly disappointed…and grumpy. We had really been looking forward to the Philippines, with images of picture perfect beaches, crystal clear water and plenty of sun. This was quickly forgotten when we arrived in Cebu City to start planning the details of our visit. We knew where we wanted to go in the Philippines, and roughly the dates we wanted go there. This however was all thrown out of the window because of ‘Holy Week’ or Easter as we know it.

All of the hostels, hotels and guesthouses we found were fully booked for Easter weekend. All of the flights to places we wanted to visit were booked out, and we were desperate not to have to spend the entire first week in Cebu City. We didn’t realise what a big thing Easter is here. Just to highlight how serious it is, that weekend over 50 people across the country were nailed to a cross. And I mean they were actually nailed to it. Anyway after hours of searching the web and calling around we eventually found a place to stay in Dalaguete, in the South of Cebu.

Church in Dalaguete

Church in Dalaguete

The next day after a four-hour ride to Dalaguete, we arrived at our hotel to be told that they didn’t have our room available. Thankfully they offered to upgrade us to ‘the captain’s room. The room itself was good, with cable TV, air-con and a spa bath. We were a bit disappointed as there was no beach there, and very little to do in the area. But the weather was great, and we started to relax and enjoy ourselves. We had booked four nights, but ended up only staying there for two because we had found another place to stay in Dumaguete, one of the places we wanted to go initially. So after walking around the very small village on Good Friday, and a couple of nights chatting to other people in the bar, we made our way to Dumaguete on the island of Negros.

Apo Island

Apo Island

Dumaguete is a nice little town, with loads of bars and restaurants along the seafront. There are quite a few day trips you can do here, but unfortunately as it was still Easter weekend, most of the tour shops were closed. We did manage to make our own way to Apo Island for a lovely day on the beach. The boat over was expensive (about £30), and the sea was very choppy. It was only a small boat, and by the time we arrived there we were very wet and feeling a bit sea-sick. We were hoping to snorkel while we were there, but we decided against it because of the conditions. So instead we sat on the beach and enjoyed the sun.

On our way back to Dumaguete, we had another rough boat journey back to port, followed by a trip in a jeepney. Jeepneys are basically pimped up, stretched jeeps usually with neon lights and big soundsystems, and we were squeezed in the back with 40 people, two chickens and some fish. It made for an interesting ride home. For the rest of our time in Dumaguete, we just enjoyed some nice food and a very relaxed atmosphere. I tried adobo, which is a local pork and chicken stew, and Katy tried Bangus which is a de-boned and fried milk fish.

Whale shark

Whale shark

The next morning we had a very early start at 05:30. On our way to our next main stop Malapascua, we decided to make a quick stop in Oslob in the South of Cebu to swim with whale sharks. This is something I have wanted to do for years, and we weren’t disappointed. Our boat dropped us off, and as soon as we got in the water with our snorkelling gear, we were face-to-face with an 8m long whale shark. It was so close to us, it was a bit of a shock. In total we saw four whale sharks, each of them coming within about a metre from us. One of them got so close that its tail brushed me as it glided past. We were holding onto some small boats and there was nothing we could do but hold our breath as it went past. It was an amazing experience, and one that we will never forget.

Bounty Beach, Malapascua

Bounty Beach, Malapascua

As it took about nine hours to get to the north of Cebu, we had to stay on the mainland as we missed the last ferry. So we found a cheap place not far from the port to spend the night. The next morning we headed to Malapascua. It’s a great island with some lovely beaches, but the main draw here is the diving. We didn’t have any accommodation booked, so we spent some time walking around looking for something within our price range. As we walked through the village which is slightly inland, a woman came up to us in the street as asked if we were looking for somewhere to stay. I expected her to direct us to a guesthouse nearby, but instead she asked us if we wanted to stay in her house. It was actually a room attached to her house and very basic, but it was clean and dirt cheap (500 pesos or £7.50).

We had decided to do our Advanced Open Water PADI course while we were there, so we had a walk around a few of the dive shops, and chose Sea Explorers. The course involves five adventure dives, which included a deep dive and a night dive. We were only there three nights, so it was a bit of a squeeze to fit it all in. So the next morning we had a 04:00 start for our first dive, a deep dive with thresher sharks. Once we had eventually woken up slightly and made our way to the boat, we had a stunning view of the sunrise as we made the 25 minute journey to the dive site.

Sunrise before our dive

Sunrise before our dive

We began our dive, and it felt good to be in the water again. Then it got even better when a thresher shark swam towards us. We’d seen whale sharks already, but this is the first shark that looks like a proper shark. In total we saw four thresher sharks on the dive, but they were about 10m metres away. We also saw a devil ray and loads of other fish, but the sharks were definitely the main attraction.

We got back to shore at about 07:30, and enjoyed a much-needed breakfast at a great restaurant we found called Isla Bonita. After a nap, we had the rest of the day free, so we went on a walk around the island in search of some deserted beaches. It was a really hot day, so it was good to stop off every now and then to have a swim in the sea to cool off. The people on the island are so friendly, and we found ourselves saying hello to almost everyone we walked past. It was nice to see some of the quieter parts of the island, and some of the villages away from all of the tourists. That evening we had a very quiet night as the next day we had three dives.

Thankfully our first dive wasn’t until 09:00 so we had a bit of a lie in. Throughout the day we had a buoyancy dive, where we had to swim through a mini assault course underwater, then a navigation dive using an underwater compass and we ended the day with a night dive. We saw some great fish during the day including seahorses, hermit crabs, seagrass ghost pipefish, demon stingers and mandarin fish mating. Until I started diving, I didn’t realise how tiring it can be, and let’s just say after our three dives we were feeling it somewhat. So after another lovely meal at Isla Bonita (Beef Calderita and Barracuda), we wearily made our way to bed.

Thresher shark

Thresher shark

The next morning we were up again at 04:00 for our final dive. It was a sunken island with a big drop-off. As we were swimming along the edge, a big 6m thresher shark came right up to us, within about 3 metres. Katy grabbed hold of me slightly panicked, but it was amazing to see them so close up. It even opened its mouth as it faced us, and then circled back around. We saw four different sharks again, but it seemed like more as they were constantly circling. It was a great way to finish our stay in Malapascua, and become qualified advanced divers. This will now allow us to do some of the better sites in Indonesia and the Galapagos (if we can afford them).

After the boat back to the mainland, we then had a six-hour bus journey back to Cebu City. We’d booked somewhere that had internet and cable so we could catch up on some emails and watch the football. Unfortunately when we got there the internet was down, and they only had local TV channels showing what looked like their version of Home and Away.
Yesterday after a short flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa, we arrived in Palawan. The plan was to get up to El Nido in the north of the island as soon as we could. After various negotiations with one of the tour companies, we managed to find a shared minivan to take us that day. It was a pretty hideous journey that took another six hours, but we were pleased that we hadn’t taken a normal bus. We arrived in El Nido when it was already dark, and managed to find a cheap guesthouse right on the beach. It had no power at the time, but we were just pleased to have finished our journey. We had a drink and some dinner before heading to bed.

View from our room in El Nido

View from our room in El Nido

I woke up this morning to an amazing view out of our window, the sound of the sea and Katy snoring in my ear. El Nido is a great place, and definitely worth the effort to get here. We’re not really sure what we’re going to do here yet, but today we’ve been looking around today for options. Our first priority is to relax and get some sun.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

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