Disclaimer: This blog post is referring to travels in July 2017.
Singapore (2 nights)
It felt like we were in Singapore much longer than we actually were. We really liked how walkable the city was which meant we could cram quite a lot in. Although it is more expensive, we actually managed to stay close to our backpacker budget by making the most of the free activities on offer and eating street food.
After travelling from Melaka in the morning, we had 1.5 days to explore before our flight to Bali. We stayed near Bugis Junction (a shopping centre) in a small backpacker guesthouse because it was the cheapest place we could find. It actually turned out to be a great location because we were within walking distance of most the things we wanted to see. The restaurant below the Guesthouse called Seng Huat Coffee House had great food, in fact there was often a queue down the street!
On our first evening we wandered down to the Gardens by the Bay to enjoy the light show which occurs most evenings. It is accompanied by music (this time it was musical theme). It looked very pretty.
Afterwards, we went to Boat Quay for drinks with Oonagh, a friend from Worthing now living in Singapore. Boat Quay – a popular outdoor eating/drinking spot, particularly with expats.
The next day, we were up early to explore but the heavens opened so we had to wait it out a while and decided to look at the free shark exhibition at Park House.
Once the rain had eased off, we wandered through the colourful houses and little shops on Haji Lane and Arab St.
Next on the list was Little India with the most colourful buildings. Mustafas, a department store, felt more of a bizarre with absolutely anything and everything inside from gadgets & gizmos to body lotions and potions. Not to mention every type of biscuit and chocolate you could want – it’s worth a peek inside.
The free light show at Marina Bay.
Our flight to Bali was at 5am the next morning, which meant we had to leave for the airport at 2am. Having been busy sightseeing, we’d not booked any accommodation for Bali so it was a bit of a last minute scramble and very little sleep!
Disclaimer: This blog post is referring to travels in July 2017.
George Town, Penang (4 nights) >> Kuala Lumpur (3 nights) >> Melaka (1 night)
It was a brief visit to Malaysia but we enjoyed every minute. After the night train from Thailand, we made our way to George Town.
George Town, Penang
A UNESCO heritage Town in Penang, George Town was such a good spot for travellers. The town itself is very walkable, making it ideal for those on a budget. We didn’t have much time to do our research before we arrived but just by wandering around we stumbled upon beautiful old Chinese architecture, endless cafes and incredible street art. This is a hipsters playground.
The Cat Cafe in George Town.
For something different, we visited the Tech Dome which had a laser maze, climbing wall and a vertical free fall drop.
Josh did so well on the climbing wall, Jonny needed some attention in the laser maze.
Food wise, the night hawker stalls were a good option with freshly made satay chicken skewers.
May I present to you Satay Chicken 😋
On our last day in George Town, we strolled through the free Botanical Gardens. The monkeys picked on unsuspecting tourists planning to eat in the gardens- not cool if you were said tourist but otherwise providing further free entertainment for us. Note: do not bring food into the Botanical Gardens.
The free botanical gardens near George Town, Penang.
Chew Jetty should probably get a shout out because it is entirely built upon handmade stilts, literally buckets of concrete. It reminded me of a smaller and much more authentic Pier 39 in San Francisco with all the little shops and stalls.
Exploring Chew Jetty. We decided to mark the occasion with henna tattoos.
We caught a bus to Kuala Lumpur and stayed near Central Market which had lots of shops and stalls (great for buying souvenirs/gifts) and food places.
On the outskirts of Kuala Lumpar was Batu Caves. They were easy to get to as they were situated at the end of the metro line, but remember to save all your energy for the steps!
Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur.
We visited the Petronas Towers at dusk to watch the transition from day to night when the towers light up. Then it was time for our last supper with Joshua before he sadly departed back to the UK.
The mighty high Petronas towers in KL.
We took the morning bus to Melaka so we had all afternoon to explore. Melaka is another UNESCO world heritage site in Malaysia due to beautiul old architecture. We really enjoyed this town; the quaint streets, boat ride down the river, the red square and street art made it a great place for an afternoon visit.
The colourful town of Melaka.
We ate at two really yummy places: Kocik Kitchen and Calanthe Art Cafe. I had a Laksa curry at both I loved the dish so much- a lovely coconut based soup with noodles. I had both a prawn and chicken one and both were great.
From Melaka, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Singapore.
Bangkok >> Krabi >> Ko Phi-Phi Don >> Khanom >> Ko Tao >> Ko Phangan
Brits get a 30-day visa exemption for Thailand which makes it a popular destination for holiday makers, gap-year students and travellers. Not to mention the cost of living is low, the weather is great almost all year round and Thailand hosts some of the best beaches in the world. So it’s no surprise that it can feel like half of Blighty are there with you. Safe to say we were a little apprehensive about visiting Thailand.
However, contrary to our initial apprehension we were left wanting more! As a self-confessed beach bum, the majority of our time was spent island-hopping in South Thailand. And boy, is there a lot of islands – some completely deserted. Even the secret paradise beach that Leonardo Dicaprio found in the film ‘The Beach’ can be located in South Thailand – though that beach admittedly is quite touristy now.
Here is a taster of what Thailand has to offer and that’s before even mentioning the food…
One month of travel distilled into nine photos. Tricky.
I couldn’t produce the usual Google map route because we visited islands in Thailand, so instead you have this amateur markup.
A) Bangkok – 6 nights (over two trips)
B) Krabi – 4 nights in Ao Nang and 1 night in Krabi Town
C) Phi-Phi island – 2 nights
D) Khanom – 5 nights
E) Ko Tao – 9 nights
F) Ko Phangan – 5 nights
Plus 1 night on the overnight train to get to the Thai/Malaysian border.
The Thai food had to be one of the cuisines we were looking forward to the most and on the whole it didn’t disappoint but watch the chili- it blew India out the water.
Thai food was very tasty as long as it was of a ‘Farang’ or foreigner spice level! Our favourites were the classic Green Thai curry, Massaman curry, Pad Thai and Mango sticky rice for dessert.
We actually went to Bangkok twice; the first time after India and the second time after Vietnam. On our first trip to Bangkok we visited the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.
Modelling the staple Thailand attire at Wat Phra Kraew and Wat Pho temples. Have you ever seen so much gold?
We stayed close to the notorious Khao San Road, a road famous (or infamous) for its bars and restaurants serving alcohol by the bucket. It was really fun, except for the fact I was still recovering from food poisoning in India so we didn’t hit the parties full force.
Khao San Road antics.
The second trip to Bangkok made up for that though with a lot of socialising and catching up with old friends.
Catching up with some old friends in Bangkok.
We checked out some of the humongous shopping centres complete with car showrooms and full gymnasiums. We also shamelessly went to Tesco Lotus just because it was like home. Terminal 21 was particularly cool with each level represented by a different country, at the top was San Francisco with delicious food court.
The Golden Gate Bridge… in a shopping mall.
We’d heard only good things about Krabi from other travellers so we decided to make this our next stop. Flights were really cheap too costing about £20 each. The main attraction of staying in Krabi is for island-hopping, aside from the bar crawls. It’s quite a big place and there are numerous places to stay- we chose Ao Nang which sounded like it would be lively and have lot of options for island-hopping.
June maybe wasn’t the best time of year for a visit because it was monsoon season. During our time in Krabi, I’d say 70 percent of the time it was overcast and 50 percent it just rained. A Thai massage became a great rainy day activity!
Singing in the rain.
Luckily, we did manage to get some breaks from the monsoon and enjoyed island hopping to Chicken Island (named after it’s shape) and Tup Island which connect by a sand bar at low tide.
The first deserted islands we visited via longboat. Pretty darn beautiful aren’t they?
We also went to Railay beach which you can only reach by boat. It had a beautiful cove (and monkeys!) and was popular with rock climbers. There were also nearby caves, one weird cave with penises in and one fairly normal cave (called Diamond Cave).
Railay beach and some strange caves.
Ko Phi-Phi Don
Ko Phi-Phi Don or Phi-Phi island was our next destination. Interesting fact, ‘Ko’ means ‘island’ in Thai.
We stayed for just two nights on the party island but managed to squeeze in a lot. The first afternoon, we got our bearings, stroked one hundred cats and lazed away on the beach with Chang beer and Jonny playing Ukelele.
Trippy snapchat filter.
The island-hopping boat trip from Phi-Phi was a full day stopping at the stunning Bamboo island, monkey beach, a gorgeous turquoise pool of water surrounded by rocks and Maya bay – famous because it was where the ‘The Beach’ was filmed. Getting to Maya bay was pretty funny as the water was too shallow for the boat to anchor so instead we had to rock climb and use a net to clamber up to gain access. We could then do the classic run through the palm trees, like Leonardo, to reveal the bay. Though it had got a little cloudy so it wasn’t quite the same beach.
Being like Leo and finding not-so-secret beaches (anymore) for the day.
Phi-Phi island although beautiful, did have a dark side: alcohol buckets at silly prices (£3.50 for a bucket of G&T), UV paint, beach and pool parties and even a bar with a boxing ring in the middle. As you can see in the photos below, we naturally stayed away from all this nonsense. This was also the night I lost my Thailand 7/11 toastie virginity – a staple most gap year students will mention.
Damn that toastie was worth it.
This place was our retreat. A non-touristy town compared to the rest of the places we visited, with a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach.
Barely a soul around.
It is also home to pink albino dolphins and we were lucky enough to see two on a trip organised by our host.
Great 2 second capture by Mr Mansell of the speckled pink Dolphins.
We stayed at a really homely Homestay called Happy Resort and had a small bungalow all to ourselves with a kitchen so we could even make our own food- it was so nice to have cereal in the morning!
Our little bungalow complete with dog and hammock free of charge (and husband…just kidding).
Other highlights of our stay in Khanom were Hin Lat and Samet Chun waterfalls, the night market and Khanom Seafood restaurant which had an endless list of fresh seafood cooked in your preferred style. Scooters and motorbikes we £3 to rent all day so we took one each to get around.
Waterfalls, biking, hiking and eating- what else could you want?! Actually I could answer that, better roads would have been nice!
We made Ko Tao mainly a diving trip, planning to do our Advanced Open Water PADI certification. The diving (and snorkelling) was incredible seeing so much underwater life including turtles, rays, barracudas, groupers, parrot and bat fish and more. Sadly, we didn’t get to spot a Whale Shark which frequent the water around this area.
How to even begin to capture the diving and snorkelling to be had in Thailand.
We also went to Yuan Island which was gorgeous. The beaches and snorkelling around Ko Tao were great as well including Tanote Bay, Shark Bay, Freedom Beach and Mango Bay stopping at another view point.
Exploring Koh Tao on our non-diving days.
The home of the Full Moon Party! There wasn’t actually a full moon when we went but a half moon so instead we got tickets to the Half Moon party in the middle of the jungle! Josh, our third wheel, who had nothing better to do joyfully came out to meet us in Thailand. We had a lot of fun catching up and nursing his hangover the next day.
Half moon spectacular.
Besides partying, we enjoyed some of the beaches and waterfalls on the island.
Koh Phangan away from the parties.
Then it was onwards and upwards to Malaysia! The journey involved a boat, a long drive, one overnight train journey and a second train once we crossed the Malaysian border. It was long but actually didn’t feel too bad, the sleeper train had beds with curtains and all the transport ran very smoothly.
Ho Chi Minh City >> Hoi An >> Hue >> Hanoi >> Halong Bay
DAYUM, Vietnam was really good. I was excited to visit before we crossed the Cambodian border, then I had a bowl of pho from a street vendor who warmed my insides. Vietnam continued to warm my insides until we left 15 days later.
Get in ma belleh.
We were granted 15 days entry to ‘Nam without a visa as a UK citizen. In fact being a UK citizen in ‘Nam was great, I don’t think our empire did anything embarrassing over the years to mean we should be sheepish or coy wandering the streets. This feeling follows on from our Indian escapade.. “Where are you from?” “England… Sorry”
Where did 15 days go?
(A) Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) (Saigon) ~ 4 days
(B) Hoi An ~ 4 days
(C) Hue ~ 2 days
(D) Hanoi ~ 1 days
(E) Halong Bay ~ 3 days
(F) Hanoi ~ 1 day (stayed near Noi Bai International airport)
Our route through VietDAYUM.
HCMC is famously the set of The Avengers and the Iron Man films, Stark Tower is right here. Ok that might not be true, but I did read that the helipad is useless because the pressure pulsations from the chopper rotors would damage the glass sides. Tony Stark would never have designed it like that.
I. AM. IRON. MAN. Bitexco Financial Tower
HCMC was really walkable for a pair of relatively fit 20-somethings.
Vietnam life: coconuts, The Notre Dame (Who’d have thunk?!) and an unusually good looking Post Office.
The War Remenents Museum was really interesting, sobering, shocking, harrowing, I’m sure there are more adjectives.
The War Remnants Museum in HCMC.
The Vietnam War is a topic I find pretty difficult to think critically about, there is so much biased information out there. The museum is no exception, but it’s nigh on impossible to ponder on the politics when such horrific images are on display.
Nothing much held back in the museum exhibitions.
One small thing I noticed, (US) documentaries would call North Vietnam “communists”, the museum referred to the North as “patriots”. There were other small differences but ignoring the history, it is incredibly sad, particularly the multi-generational impact dioxin exposure (Agent Orange) has had. Let’s all just get along!
Photos of victims of Agent Orange in the War Remnants museum.
The place is worth a visit, as were the Cu Chi tunnels where most Westerners are too large to get into the original sized holes!
Gangly man problems
On a lighter note, I had a huge amount of hyperinflated Dong. We got around 30,000 dong for each Pound, so we were Vietnamese millionaires. What a feeling to have so much Dong.
We were lazy and paid a tour company to take us to the Mekong Delta for what I envisaged as a quiet afternoon, gliding through narrow jungle lined waterways. In reality that happened for about 5 minutes, followed by countless opportunities for us to relinquish our Dong at a thousand different souvenir shops. Lesson learnt!
Enjoying our 5 min ride on the Mekong Delta.
With our 15 day allowance depleting, we flew to our next stop Hoi An (We flew to a place called Da Nang 30 minutes away, there is a dragon bridge there that breathes fire, but it’s no Clifton Suspension Bridge).
Hoi An was very romantic and picturesque after sunset, with visitors cruising down the river along with candles placed in lanterns that light up the evening.
The lanterns in Hoi An make for great snaps.
The western girl that was working at one of the bars berating us for not wanting to drink all we can in exchange for my Dong just didn’t fit in here. I will keep hold of my Dong, thank you Missy.
We stayed at a super swish, super cheap guesthouse very close to a quiet, sandy, long stretch of beach.
The beach near Hoi An – An Bang Beach. Looking back, it doesn’t get much better than this!
Maybe it’s just me but before this trip, sandy beaches didn’t spring to mind when I thought of Vietnam. We were travelling during monsoon season, so we were thankful that our pad was close to the beach when the apocalyptic sky launched relentless bullets of water. Only afternoons were affected and it was quite therapeutic taking in the sounds of the rain from a sheltered balcony.
Hey Dog, I’m no storm chaser but I reckon you’re going the wrong way pal.
We begrudgingly caught a bus to Hue next, pronounced like ‘Way to go’, or “hoo-way to go”, “which hoo-way?” Hue.
We’re living in the future, freaking buses with lying down seats, incredible.
I’m partial to an amber ale, and here there was a beer called “Kuda” which was the closest thing I’ve tasted in Asia so far to an amber ale. It was properly cheap too, so thankfully I could hang on to the majority of my Dong.
The citadel in Hoo-way is the star attraction, and for good reason. We spent most of the day roaming around. It reminded us of the Forbidden City in Beijing. In terms of old stuff that we have seen on our travels, this didn’t feel particularly old or historic and possibly took away from the experience slightly – but then I’m English, we have pubs older than time itself.
Another flight, (hang on we’re supposed to be budget backpackers??) this time to Hanoi, pronounced Hanoi. Another very walkable city, but the underground train system that was under construction whilst we were there would’ve been appreciated a couple of times, it was freaking hot.
The gate to the old quarter and a few photos from the exclusive Mansell’s Wondering Walking Tour. No insurance provided to cover death by motorbike.
Lots of sights to take in; the old quarter, Ba Dinh square, pagodas.. We had a great time absorbing it all.
Hanoi City. The guys at the bottom thought I was gangly Jesus.
Our favourite sight was the train track that runs disturbingly close to houses and shops through the centre of Hanoi. It was awesome/slightly stupid to stand next to when one of the two daily trains cruised by. I’m surprised the locals have never accidentally derailed the train before with the fires, leftover barrels and building material we saw on the tracks during the day.
“I walk the line”
Last but not least we took a trip around Halong Bay with a dreaded tour company argh! A significant chunk of my Dong was handed over for this magical trip.
No one can hear you scream.
Our lucky stars must’ve aligned that day, we were upgraded to a higher class cruise boat! Our room was easily more swish than 90% of places we’d stayed on dry land.
We spent our time cruising through the bay, kayaking around, walking to a view point and eating nicely presented food (I’m more of a big dirty burger kinda guy but sure, the food looked great)
The upgrade felt like Titanic for us, not the end bit of the film just the first half
Does an anti sweat filter exist? Sweaty mess at the Ti Top viewpoint
After snoozing onboard, we stayed on a private island south of Halong Bay, it was a pretty sweet set up. The highlight was partying with a group of vacationing Vietnamese medical workers. They were incredibly keen for us to drink their seemingly infinite supply of beer as quickly as possible with them.. who are we to say no?! It took me much longer than it should to realise the female company in the group were in fact “hired in help”! Thinking back, it’s hilarious how much fun we all had given that we barely understood one another.. the universal language of getting wasted on cheap lager I guess.
Halong Haloooong will I slide, separate my siiiiiiiiiide. Red Hot Chili Peppers famous song inspired by Halong Bay (Absolutely not true)
We ended our trip back in Hanoi with rooftop drinks joined by our new Portuguese friends Diana and Pedro.
The day after the night before!
We could easily write another blog on the grub during our trip. The Vietnamese cuisine features pretty high on my list of favourites, especially bún chả (pork ribs with noodles and greens paired up with crispy spring rolls nomnomnom).
The food gods were on my side in ‘Nam, I didn’t get ill at all (Delhi belly FU) and it was cheap and freaking delish
So after 15 days in ‘Nam, I have no more use for my Dong. I exchanged my Dong quite a bit for goods and services in Vietnam but there is still Dong in my pocket. If anyone is interested in buying the remains of my Dong don’t hesitate to get in touch so you too can have a wonderful time using my Dong in Vietnam!
One week is not nearly enough to cover Cambodia so we debated whether to go at all. However, we decided some time was better than nothing at all. Especially for the temples of Angkor Wat which we distinctly remember topping the ‘Ultimate Travelist’ by Lonely Planet. The temples of Angkor Wat are the largest religious monument in the world and date back to the 12th Century, that’s around 900 years ago.
We made our trip to Cambodia part of a shoestring loop from Bangkok, visiting Vietnam as well. It made for a nice 3-week tour around South East Asia before returning back to Thailand and heading south towards our final destination of Bali for our return flight home.
Our itinerary for Cambodia:
29th May – Bangkok (Thailand) to Siem Reap via bus – booked tickets online via Thai Ticket Major
4 days in (A) Siem Reap for Angkor Wat temple complex
2nd June -Siem Reap to Phnom Penh via Cambodia post bus booked through Cambo Ticket
3 days in (B) Phnom Penh
5th June – Phnom Penh to (C) Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) via Kumho Samco bus booked through Cambo Ticket
Our route from Bangkok, through Cambodia and onward into Vietnam.
A little bit of useful travel info:
Currency: Cambodia uses US dollars which makes it very easy to get currency in advance and exchange any leftover.
Transport: Buses were certainly the easiest way to travel through Cambodia and were very easy to book online. Cambo ticket in particular shows a comparison of buses so you can pick your preferred choice. All the buses we booked were very efficient including the border crossings.
The Cambodian border.
Visas: For UK citizens, you need a visa for Cambodia which costs $30 (bring dollars with you) and you can get this at the border. You need 2 x passport photos (worst case they can do them for you there for an additional cost). We had read lots of stories about scams operating at the border and even the bus we were on dropped us off at an unofficial visa place. The people here immediately started to ask for our passports and passport photos. To be fair they were very efficient. However, they charged 1400 BAHT (about $41) and we could not pay in dollars so we immediately realised it wasn’t the official visa office. We paid it anyway as many other travellers were doing so. Once all the forms were prepared, we had to walk to the border to get our passport stamped and receive a departure card. We were a little sceptical that we were about to be charged again but in the end our visas did actually get processed very quickly. Quicker, in fact, than the few tourists who realised in time to go to the actual border to sort their visa out. For Vietnam, UK citizens can currently stay for 15 days visa free which is why we could take the bus – this option only works if you already have a visa or like us, you don’t need one. It’s better to fly if you need to get one.
Now for the good stuff, our actual experience…
Siem Reap & The Temples of Angkor Wat
We stayed at Villa Sweet Angkor Central, it was really cheap at £11 for both of us per night and our room even had two double beds! The hotel also had a small swimming pool which was great given we were nowhere near the sea.
Room to spread out in our accommodation in Siem Reap for only £11 a night!
Jonny doing his best seal impression in the pool.
It was a bit of a walk to Pub Street (the street is actually called ‘Pub Street’) which is where all the bars and a lot of restaurants are. This street was really good fun and beers were as cheap as $0.25!!
Pub Street in Siem Reap!
The next day we took it easy and had a wander around the town. We found a great bakery called Bloom Cafe which had the nicest coffee and cakes!
Beautifully presented coffee and yummy treats at Bloom cafe in Siem Reap.
For Angkor Wat, the temple complex is too big to walk around so you can either hire a tuk-tuk for the day, cycle or hire scooters/motorbikes. We found a place offering electric bikes which we thought might be fun (and more eco-friendly) costing $10 for 24-hours. The lady in the shop told us we could get tickets for Angkor Wat from 5pm the day before and see some temples that same evening. This worked out well as it made it easier for us to get to the temples for sunrise the next day which had been heavily recommended by everyone we met. As we rode to the ticket office, a monsoon from hell came down and we got absolutely soaked from head to toe. It was pretty hilarious walking up to the ticket counter leaving a puddle behind us.
The monstrous monsoon which came down whilst we were riding to the ticket office.
You can either get 1, 3 or 5 day tickets for the Angkor Temple complex. We decided on 1 day tickets and although we did not see everything on the site we felt it was enough for us – you can get a bit ‘templed’ out in the heat if not careful.
After we’d got our tickets, we decided to check out one of the temples that was open until 7.30pm, Pre Rup temple.
Testing the bikes out we went to see Pre Rup temple in the evening.
The way back was funny as we had to ride the bikes no more than 14 kph or risk the bike running out of charge and having to use the most ridiculous looking pedals! We made it back eventually haha.
After a quick shower, we went out for our first taste of Cambodian food at what became one of our favourite restaurants, Temple Design Bar, which was just a few streets back from Pub Street. We tried the Amok curry which was delicious.
Delicious amok curry & rice at Temple Design Bar. Not to mention the $1 beer 😉
Bright and early the next morning (a crazy 5.45am), we set off on our freshly charged bikes (we had to charge the batteries in our room overnight). We arrived at probably the most famous and well preserved temple, Angkor Wat, for sunrise. It was pretty spectacular, even if it was cloudy.
Angkor Wat bright and early.
Inside Angkor Wat Temple.
There was a monk giving prayers to tourists.
Monk blessing me (I think!).
We spent time looking around the temple and you could even go up one of the spire towers.
Around Angkor Wat temple.
Next we went to Bayon Temple which is known for the faces carved into the rock.
The faces carved into the rock at Bayon Temple.
Here, we witnessed the sun have a surreal ring around it which was really incredible.
Amazing rainbow ring around the sun above Bayon Temple… does it mean something perhaps?!
We had to stop to charge up the bikes, but used the time to have an early lunch. We tried Beef Lombok, another traditional Cambodian dish.
Cambodian Beef Lombok. To be honest, we preferred the Amok and Khmer Cambodian curries but it was still good!
Next we visited the main gates and a few more temples around the site.
The scale of the temple complex is difficult to comprehend until you are there! Even the butterfly in the photo needed a rest!
Ta Prohm temple (below) is famous for being used in the film Tomb Raider. It has trees literally growing through the temple walls.
Ta Prohm temple, best known for featuring in Tomb Raider.
Finally we watched Angkor Wat as the sun begin to set, before making our way back.
Angkor Wat as the sun was setting.
After a tiring day, we treated ourselves that evening to a BBQ plate on Pub Street and a few drinks after 🙂
Enjoying a big BBQ plate and beer after a long day at the temples.
For our final day in Siem Reap we decided to spend most of the day relaxing by the pool and having a bit of pampering. I got my nails done for $2 and we both had a fish foot massage with free beer!
Chill out and pamper day- Jonny loved getting his nails done 😉 The fish spa came with a free beer- result!
We had the best curries at Cambodia Tradional Chef – the fish Amok and beef Khmer curry were really good.
Fantastic Fish Amok curry (front) and Khmer curry (behind) 😊
Phnom Penh, S-21 & The Killing Fields (not the nicest title I’ll admit)
The bus to Phnom Penh was again very simple. It was a small minibus which departed from the main post office. The bus stopped for a break on the 6 hour journey at a beautiful location.
We have no idea where this was as the bus stopped us here for a break on the way to Phnom Penh, but isn’t it beautiful?
Sitting on the bus for so long enabled us to catch up with House of Cards on Netflix 😉 We also met fellow travellers Don and Adam on the bus, and decided to meet the next day to go to S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. If you haven’t heard of the Khmer Rouge regime or the history around this, I urge you to read up on it. It’s likened to the Holocaust. We didn’t take many photos of these places as they were extremely harrowing. I’d certainly recommend a visit and the audio guide was well-done.
The terrifying rules as S-21 prison, a former school, used during the Khmer Rouge regime. One of the rules reads ‘Whilst getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all’.
On the left is S-21 prison and on the right is the memorial for those that lost their lives at the Killing Fields.
That afternoon, we needed something much lighter so we did what many Brits do and went to the pub. We were still with Don and Adam and enjoyed a few rounds of pool, some drinking games and a lot of beer together!
A bit of light relief after the horrific stories from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.
Sensibly realising we needed to sober up, we decided a Khmer massage would be the best approach. The massage though, was actually really good and involved a lot of stretching (or the beer helped to mask the pain…).
Our accommodation (Longlin House) was in an area equivalent of pub street in Siem Reap. It was great for restaurants but it was a little seedy with many prostitutes outside the bars. We did find one great restaurant called Kabbas Restaurant which had really good Cambodian curries.
More Cambodian curry. Literally couldn’t get enough of this yummy stuff!
Our final day in Phnom Penh was spent wandering around the Royal Palace (it was closed so we didn’t go inside), the river, central market and the National Museum of Cambodia (personally we didn’t feel the museum was worth the $5 entrance fee).
A day in Phnom Penh.
We had a late lunch at David’s Handmade Noodes restaurant but the handmade dumplings were even better!
Handmade noodles and dumplings made right in front of us at David’s in Phnom Penh.
Then it was on to Ho Chi Minh city or Saigon in Vietnam. We were pretty chuffed when the seats we’d booked had extra leg room!
Happy travellers leaving one great country to another!
So there you have it; both breathtaking and unforgettable experiences, the tastiest food, good company and lots of fun. Safe to say we enjoyed our 1-week visit to Cambodia!
We flew from Delhi to Bangkok just over a month ago now, so what have we been doing since India?
Here is a quick update:
Starting with a few days in Bangkok, we headed over to Cambodia and Vietnam for 3 weeks before coming back to Bangkok and on to South Thailand.
A) Bangkok, Thailand – 3 days
B) Siem Reap, Cambodia – 4 days
C) Phnom Penh, Cambodia – 3 days
D) Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 4 days
E) Hoi An & Hue, Vietnam – 5 days
F) Hanoi & G) Ha Long Bay, Vietnam – 5 days
Our brief South East Asian loop using Google maps.
It’s been a whirlwind of a tour including highlights such as the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the beautiful town of Hoi An in Vietnam and the spectacular Ha Long Bay.
In South Thailand we began exploring the stunning beaches around Krabi such as Phi Phi island, Chicken island, Bamboo island and also Railay beach.
Currently, we are in Khanom on the east coast, where we were lucky enough to see some Albino Dolphins! Next, we will be taking a boat to the islands of Ko Toa and Ko Phangan. Then it is on to Malaysia, Indonesia and our last stop Hong Kong.
We’re in the process of writing blog posts for each country (and getting behind with them). So in the meantime, here is a small collection of photos from Cambodia and Vietnam.
Photos from Cambodia and Vietnam.
We already have so many memories and stories to share! Will post another blog soon…
We arrived in Delhi on 7th May 2017. I guess because South India is closer to the equator, we expected the north of India to be less hot, if not the same. How foolish.
At midday, Delhi and the surrounding area got to between 40-46 degrees celsius. So our schedule had to fit around what we thought we could realistically manage in the heat. We prioritised the Taj Mahal (obviously), seeing a Benghal Tiger (we’d not managed to see one in Periyar National Park in Kerala) and the three Rajasthan cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The three places that make up the classic ‘Golden Triangle’ of India consist of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Our itinerary looked like this:
A) Agra (for Taj Mahal) – 1 night
B) Jaipur – 3 nights
C) Ranthambore (for the National Park) – 2 nights
D) Jodhpur – 2 nights
E) Jaisalmer – 4 nights
F) Delhi – 2 nights
This portion of our trip was characterised by beautiful forts, palaces and desert land.
The best way to take long distances in this region is by train. Getting to Agra from Delhi would be much better if you purchased tickets in advance. We had tried using the website but the registration did not go through in time so if you plan to use the trains in India make sure you do this well in advance. This blog is amazing at spelling out the various train classes and how to book tickets.
Arriving at New Delhi train station was certainly an experience with lots of Indians sitting or sleeping on the floor, various different queues for the ticket office, beggars and lots and lots of touts. At the time I was too frazzled to take a photo but I found this blog which provides some pretty accurate photos!
Unfortunately, we weren’t entirely sure where to buy our tickets. A friendly staff member told us the next train to Agra was in two hours and we had to go to another building to purchase tourist tickets. Being none the wiser to the scam being played on us, off we went to this other building to get train tickets only to be told there were no trains available. This was when we realised something phishy was going on and quickly made our way back to the train station. As we entered the station, a train Security Officer asked to see our tickets. Since we didn’t have any he said we could not enter the station and must walk down the street to the ‘tourist train reservation office’. He was quite authoritative, even showing us his ID, and began escorting us down the road. We were naturally skeptical from the last scam. Thankfully, a foreigner happened to be walking down the street and told us quietly the tourist office was inside the main train station on the 1st floor. We immediately turned on our heel and marched back to the station, ignoring everyone until we got into the station. Eventually we found the tourist office which was very busy. There was a ticketing system and after a further painful two hour wait we finally had all our train tickets.
The train to Agra was pleasant enough, lasting about three and a half hours. We sat in the air-conditioned 3rd tier class (there are eight classes in total) and spoke to an Indian family along the way.
Our hotel, Sai Palace, was pretty impressive in terms of location and price for £11 per night! You could even see the silhouette of the famous Taj Mahal from the rooftop restaurant.
Very early the next morning we walked to the Taj Mahal for sunrise to beat the crowds and the heat. It was truly spectacular.
We ate breakfast back at the hotel and also managed to check out Agra Fort before catching the train to Jaipur.
This train ride was really comfortable in the air-conditioned chair class and we were even given food!
We arrived at our hotel Pandya Niwas about 10pm. The room was really modern and the staff friendly. The next morning I realised I had left my sunglasses in the hotel in Agra- oops. The hotel confirmed they had them but they would not post, only collect them in person. If these had been a cheap pair of sunglasses I would not have been bothered but Jonny had bought them for our honeymoon. So our first morning in Jaipur was spent booking train tickets back to Agra for the following day. We had a late breakfast and spent the rest of the day meandering through the streets. We saw Hawa Mahal at dusk, a high-walled palace built for the Royal women to watch the streetlife. We ate at a rooftop restaurant which overlooked Hawa Mahal.
The next day we caught the first train back to Agra. Fortunately, I retrieved my sunglasses and not wanting to waste the day, we took a look around the other sights of Agra including the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daula often referred to as the ‘Baby Taj’, the Jama Mosque (built in the 1600s) and the Mehtab Bagh gardens with a view of the Taj Mahal from across the river.
We also decided to spoil ourselves with a great Bon Barbecue lunch.
In the evening we travelled back to Jaipur. Jaipur is the capital of the Rajasthan state and is called the ‘pink city’ because the buildings were painted pink for a royal visit from Queen Victoria in 1876. The main sights are the City Palace, Jantar Mantar (an astronomical observation site built in the early 18th century) and Amer Fort. We managed to do all of these in one day.
Amer Fort is located 11km from Jaipur whereas the City Palace and Jantat Mantar are centrally located. Amer Fort was certainly worth the visit and made for some impressive views.
Talking food for a moment, we found a very authentic small street food vendor that many locals ate at. We were served a 50p meal consisting of chickpea curry and poori bread or rice – and if you weren’t full from your first plate they would keep on serving.
Ganeshi, a small restaurant recommended in lonely planet I believe, had really friendly staff and you could watch them cook your meal. It’s quite hard to spot though as the entrance is in between shops. The food was yummy and very cheap.
Another of our favourite restaurants in Jaipur was Natraj, the peshwari naan and potato bomb curry were the best! This time, I gobbled it all up without taking a photo.
On our last day in Jaipur, we decided to do something a little different. We’d heard there were elephant sanctuaries in the area but were slightly sceptical of how well the elephants were treated. After some research we decided to visit Elephant Joy. When we arrived we were greeted with three elephants: Rangoli, Moti and Gori. It was a relief to see they were not in chains and free to wander. The owner explained how Rangoli was rescued from a circus and Gori was an orphan. We fed and washed the elephants which was really fun.
We were also able to ride Moti bareback (because the wooden boxes hurt the elephants). The owner was also keen to ensure we weren’t too heavy for the elephant . To be honest although the ride was an experience, we both felt bad riding it. I know people ride horses and camels but an elephant just felt wrong somehow.
On the plus side, the elephants seemed to be treated really well and had vet care every month. They certainly seemed to enjoy being fed and washed! Overall, we had a really fun experience and it was amazing to be so intimate with these huge creatures.
Our next stop was Ranthambore for the Tiger Reserve. We really wanted to spot a wild Bengal tiger. We took the first train and arrived by lunchtime. In the afternoon, we managed to secure a safari after a lot of waiting and patience. The ticket office was home to a lot of touts and a long line. Someone said to Jonny “if you wait they will not come to you, you have to shout to be seen!“. By 3pm, we were in a jeep racing towards Ranthambore National Park. When I say racing, this was no word of a lie – the driver did not slow down for anything: herds of goats, pot-holes, bumps, bends and even the wildlife (which was the point of the Safari). We were bouncing around all over the place in the back of the jeep, it may as well have been a bouncy castle! It was also ridiculously hot with no shade so we bought emergency rags at the side of the road.
Amazingly, we did actually spot two tigers up close! Other wildlife we spotted were birds including kingfishers and peacocks, samba deer and monkeys. I just about managed to take photos whilst the driver raced on.
After a restful second day in Ranthambore town, we caught two trains to Jodhpur. We had a 2 hour wait in Jaipur so took a taxi to the Peacock rooftop cafe for breakfast. This place was really nice and relaxing.
The train ride took up the whole day and we arrived late to our homestay Suraj Haveli. We were welcomed by a lovely family. The Mum made us Thali which we ate with beer on the rooftop with an impressive view of Mehrangarh Fort.
The next morning, the family prepared a special breakfast with sweets because it was Jonny’s birthday. He even got a garland and a tikka on his forehead!
The Mehrangarh Fort was very impressive, followed by a visit to the Clock Tower in the middle of Sardar Market.
Cafe Royal was a little gem tucked into the little shops surrounding the market with a great view of the clock tower. The owners were really sweet and lent Jonny their guitar for a bit.
Around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, a friend of the homestay took us on a walking tour of Jodhpur. It was a very personal tour as he showed us his school and home, as well as a step well and some temples. Jodhpur is known as the blue city and it’s easy to see why.
Dinner was at On the Rocks- a restaurant complex with lots of choice and an actual bar (this was the first bar we’d come across in India with alcohol advertised).
On the way back there was a sandstorm from hell and we had to remain in the fetal position in the tuk-tuk!
To get to Jaisalmer we had to get up at 4am and arrived by train around midday.
The hotel we stayed in was the best yet- it was actually part of the Lal Garh fort wall. The balcony was awesome and we easily lost a good few hours sitting out watching the world go by.
The breakfasts were great too – banana and honey pancakes with chai tea on a rooftop with a view!
Jaisalmer is not too far from the Pakistan border and located very close to the Thar desert. The average temperature was 44-47 degrees celsius which limited the amount we could do in the day. The sights of Jaisalmer include a lake, the fort palace and the desert.
To get a break from curry, we found a fun cafe called ‘Cafe +’ which served western food and had lots of space to chill out.
We took a overnight trip into the desert which involved visiting a deserted village, an hour camel ride and sleeping out under the stars.
It was low season in Jaisalmer – there aren’t many tourists silly enough to come here in the heat. It worked in our favour though as we got really good deals on accommodation and for the desert tour it was just the two of us plus our guide so felt very much like a private tour.
After the camel ride, our guide cooked us dinner on an open fire.
Camping consisted of sleeping on a bed exposed to the elements. It’s difficult to put into words how surreal this was – we were in the middle of the desert, no signs of civilisation for miles, no toilet, no huts – just us, a campfire and some beds! The stars did look incredible though.
We were right next to a giant sand dune which was hilariously hard to walk on, particularly in the dark. You’d fall about everywhere and sand filled up your shoes instantly.
The next morning we had breakfast and then messed around with some fun ninja moves on the sand dunes.
On the way back I rode the camel myself which was both terrifying and satisfying. I survived nevertheless.
When we got back to Jaisalmer, feeling brave we thought we’d try something else pretty random – driving a tuk tuk! A friendly driver taught us how to operate the gears, clutch etc and then let us have a go! It was brilliant. We couldn’t stop laughing!
The next day we had an 18-hour train ride back to Delhi. We decided to fork out the extra money and get first class (which essentially means you pay for space). It was worth it because we actually got a decent night’s sleep.
In Delhi we stayed near the train station which had a good atmosphere and there were lots of restaurants. We saw the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, but we didn’t stay too long as before we knew it we had a queue of Indians wanting selfies with us.
The Red Fort nearby was closed so we wandered back through the streets full of people on the streets selling food, clothes or drinks. Some of the streets were pretty run down with lots cables dangling between buildings.
For our last night in India, we decided to stay somewhere nice and booked the Marriott in Gurugram, 30-minutes from the airport. The hotel had a pool and gym so we spent some time there and in the evening they had a drinks reception and food in the Executive Lounge (something I had access to with all my travel with IBM). My first glass of wine in a month! We went to bed feeling very satisfied.
Annoyingly, at 4am I woke up feeling completely shit. I threw up all morning. We’d done quite well to not get a serious dose of Delhi belly throughout our trip so getting so sick right at the end of our trip and at a nice hotel was a shame. In fact, I was so poorly we missed our flight to Bangkok but the Marriott were good and let us stay an extra night for free.
Needless to say, our time in India had its ups and downs- it is busy and chaotic, sometimes things don’t make sense and you can’t miss poverty. Yet on the other hand, there is such beautiful scenery, wonders of the world, fantastic forts and palaces and amazing wildlife. Overall, we’re really glad we went!
Next stop Bangkok followed by a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam 😊
You can read our other posts about travel in India here:
Thrissur – A city in the coconut-loving state of Kerela, southern India
Pooram – A Hindu temple festival; fiery processions, mesmerising music, adorned elephants, huge numbers of excited devotees
I think we may have covered every base on the emotional spectrum during the 36 hour festival. On the Asian stint of our sabbatical trip, the Pooram festival in India was pretty much the only event we’d reserved on our calendar. We wanted to get an experience of a local festival, one not particularly geared up for extracting tourist ruppees. I can report that an experience is what we got!
Thrissur Pooram, “the mother of all Poorams” is described as “a grand assembly of Gods and Godesses… 36-hours non-stop with no loss of energy” Elephants-a-plenty, and 4 hours of fireworks in the early hours of the morning. Sounded great to us – To Thrissur!
We booked an AirBnB well in advance anticipating the majority of beds to be taken up. Accommodation was a complete pain in the arse. (More in “Advice” at the end)
We arrived the day before to acclimatise. Within minutes, we saw an elephant being ridden on the road amongst the honking rickshaws, motorbikes and taxis. I hadn’t applied much thought before arriving in India about the condition of the elephants, but shit do I feel awful for them. The problem with tradition I guess, elephant welfare was probably even more of an afterthought 200+ years ago.
The main festival area is on the inside of a ring road housing a large temple. Taking in the sights and lights at night-time was a fairly pleasant way to spend time. Even better from the Friday morning when the road closes. Being fairly fresh in India, exposed to madly packed up roads with every single bike and rickshaw blaring their horns is enough to make you stop where you’re standing and immediately assume the fetal position. I’m about used to it now though, but I’m still suprised traffic seems to flow without making the roads look like a scene from Final Destination.
Trance Inducing Horn 😎
With the festival underway, you can expect to see huge gatherings of devotees around the temples, with adorened elephants parked outside. Performers in traditional wear stand atop the poor bastards, spinning colourful umbrellas, whilst musicians play trance inducing horn and percussion instruments. The music is quite good, in that the group change up the beats and rhythm quite frequently, and in-time. There was one performance around 5:30 on the Friday outside the main temple where the crowd would cheer ferociously and lose their minds each time the group changed the beat. People were partying and waving around colourful balloons, this was probably the highlight of the whole festival actually.
By the evening, we agreed the music to foreign ears is incredibly repetitive. I still have the beat of the piercing cymbals in my head now. I don’t think it will ever leave, I’m a changed man now.
One thing to note is that it is freaking hot. I’m talking 40 degrees celcius hot. It’s properly dangerous to be exposed to the sunlight for any extended period of time, which is an easy mistake to make when you’re an excited Westerner and the festival is a novelty. The daytime is taken up by the game “Hunt shade, or literally die”
Bhang for buck
One interesting point Mrs Mansell made was that the festival experience was slightly odd to us without alcohol.. I’m pretty sure that would sound crazy to a local, but we hit up many music festivals in Europe and getting boozed is commonplace. Alcohol is the second most consumed fluid after air. That said, “bhang” (edibal cannibis) is legal from government controlled shops, maybe that’s how the younger crowd found the repetitive music so mesmerising for so long..
Travelling before the age of front-facing camera equipped smartphones must’ve been bliss
“Selfie?” “Selfie?” As a Westerner, this is the most common interaction you’ll have with the locals. The frequency increases somewhat if you have blonde hair, or if you’re 6’4″. Top tip, take it in your stride and do it. If you don’t, a photo of your mush will end up on their phone anyway! The best selfies are when someone tries to stealthily get a picture with you without you noticing. If you notice, pull a stupid face. Another good tactic is to dodge them or run away (In a joking manner, don’t actually run for your life) the guys I did this to found it hilarious.
We had a bit of a downer when late into the main evening we found ourselves “Selfie-ing” (Yeah sure, why not) when a separate boystrous group of guys got involved too. I hadn’t realised at the time but lady Mansell was subjected to over-excited, touchy-feely hands belonging to this second group of young men. This was a real shame as I had read comments online before the festival about this sort of issue. Up until that point, we hadn’t had a problem, and this blog post would’ve wholly encouraged you to dismiss those comments. The way women are treated and regarded in India in general could be the topic of a separate blog post, and then some.. Anyway, we agreed the best step forward would be if I covered the rear in all future Selfies!
4 hours of fireworks*
The fireworks were a big draw for us. The appeal was the 4 hour duration, the odd timing from 2AM on the Saturday plus the general reputation online. The fireworks did not start at 2AM, we heard different times from all sorts of people. In fact this situation was a common occurance throughout the festival. We heard and partially saw a massive display from our nearby hotel room at around 3AM. This lasted about 3 minutes. After this a firework was set off every couple of minutes, probably for about 4 hours. There is a lesson here about managing expectations! In truth, the short display was impresive with an incredible noise. It sounded like a warzone, with the night being lit up to look as if the sun was shining. From memory there were two displays of this magnitude which both lasted about 3 minutes… So 6 minutes of the 240 minutes originally advertised were quality!
The humbling tale of Mr Loiterer
A vivid memory of mine.. we were speaking for quite some time to a local chap from Kerela whilst the processions ran into the night. He was well travelled, firmly middle class and genuinely a pleasant, interesting guy. Roughly halfway through our 45 minute chat, I began to notice a very old looking man lingering around. We’d gotten used to people staring at us intently, but this guy was loitering whilst we were deep in conversation. Once we parted ways with the friendly Kerela based chap, I could see in the corner of my eye the old boy was still hanging around. Mrs Mansell and I managed to lose each other (photo opportunities, large crowds…) As I was looking around for the top of her head, I spotted Mr Loiterer, who kindly pointed me in the direction of Mrs Mansell towards the elephants. Still he hung around, and it became clear that he wanted nothing, other than to just be around us. The most memorable point was when I offered him some of our water, he made a noise that I would liken to a young boy getting the exact gift they wanted on their birthday. I have a degree in Engineering, and therefore have no emotional intelligence, but if I did function like a normal human being I’m sure it would’ve pulled on my heart strings.
Thirssur Pooram 2018?
The 2017 edition of Thrissur Pooram didn’t encourage me enough to consider visiting again in 2018.. But if you find yourself in the south of India at the right time, I would recommend the festival for the experience. I think your stories from Thrissur Pooram will be more interesting than your stories about sunbathing on the beaches of Goa!
A Naieve Westerner’s Summary The Good
A very “local” experience – I can recall seeing perhaps 10 – 20 other obvious Westerners.
Eye opening – I’d never been to a festival like this, I don’t know too many others that have. Everything was new.. that’s good right?!
Performance – The processions and performances are mesmorising, colourful and awe-inspiring.
Fireworks – Although brief, the displays made night look like day and sounded like a scene from an action film in a cinema with a world class sound system.. In fact, that multiplied by 10.
Price – Hey the festival is free too!
Elephant welfare – I can imagine this being a huge turn off for many people.
The Temperature – The date of the festival is dictated by a celestial event, which happens to be around April or May when it is frickin’ hot. Manageable by limiting sun exposure and making the most of the post sunset processions.
Timetable – Every experience was a chance encounter for us, which wasn’t really a bad thing.. Others may like to have a schedule. Information was available online but it’s really difficult to digest, probably because of my lack of knowledge of the history and Hinduism.
Touchy-feely-Selfie-hands – Every 3 seconds, someone is affected by Touchy-feely-Selfie-hands. That’s another one. And another. Whoops sorry that’s not useful. Ok, I reckon different people handle this risk differently. You could refuse all Selfies, run away or position ladies tactfully if you’re in a group. And another.
Location – Try to stay somewhere close to the main ring road for easy access/escape.
Accommodation – Book your bed early, and get in touch with your host or hotel in advance. If you really want, do as many Indian nationals do and sleep rough for the night (That wasn’t for us, we stumped up a relatively large sum for a room) From our accommodation experience, long story short, avoid the AirBnb host below, and prepare to be ripped off and/or shouted at by your friendly hosts at Raj Mahal Lodge.
Sunshine – Manage your time in direct sunlight, and carry a hat, sunscreen and water (easy to buy bottled)
Food – There were some decent restaurants on the south side main roads connecting to the main ring road. The breakfast buffet we had on Sunday at Pooram International Hotel made me a happy Westerner. I expected more street food vendors.. most were selling sweets.
Respite – Need a break from the noise, crowds and heat? Just do it.. find shade or an AC hotel restaurant and relax. There will still be processions, elephants and music when you’re finished, trust me!
Maps – Probably not needed so much, but download the Thrissur area on offline Google Maps.
Locals – Talk to people! The majority of people we spoke to were jubilant, happy to be there and curious as to why you’re there. You never know who you’ll meet.
Most importantly – Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, enjoy yourself, etc etc etc 😁
You can read our other blog posts about India here:
Kerala, a southern Indian state, literally translates to ‘land of coconut’. Coconuts grow everywhere and is the base of Keralan food, drink (from fresh coconut water to toddy – the alcoholic version!) and beauty products. Like Sri Lanka, Kerala has a diverse landscape from the lush green hill country to the interweaving backwaters, vast national parks and the pearly white sandy beaches.
We had just under two weeks in Kerala and one destination we were certain about was Thrissur because we wanted to experience a temple festival called Thrissur Pooram. The festival was one of the biggest in the whole of Kerala and would be held during the end of our two week stay. This dictated the other destinations we visited, not going any further south than Alappuzha (or Alleppey as it’s more commonly referred to). To give you an idea of the scale of Kerala, it takes about twelve hours to get from one end of the state to the other by train.
(A) Fort Kochi – 2 nights
(B) Alappuzha/Alleppey – 3 nights
(C) Kumily – 3 nights
(D) Munnar – 1 night
(E) Thrissur – 2 nights
(F) Cochin (close to airport) – 1 night
We flew into Cochin airport Kerala from Sri Lanka on 25th April 2017. This was our first trip to India and we were anticipating arriving to an exciting but somewhat chaotic atmosphere. When we arrived, we were surprised to see a very modern airport and an air-conditioned bus.
A lot of the guidebooks and people we had spoken to recommended spending some time in Fort Kochi so we decided to spend our first two nights here. Fort Kochi is a city on the coast, south-west of Cochin airport, and was a major port for trading spices from the 14th century.
As we got close, Fort Kochi looked more elegant than we expected with big houses and women in stunning saris, often lined with gold. It was really quiet when we arrived, the buses didn’t honk as much and there wasn’t the commotion and buzz we had seen in India on the TV or from what people had told us. We got the sense that this was a more well-to-do area. Kerala is one of the most educated Indian states so perhaps this should come as no surprise.
On our first night in Fort Kochi, we went to the Ginger House restaurant on the edge of the water which was tucked away behind a warehouse full of Indian antiques. You’ve probably guessed already but the items on the menu mostly featured ginger in them. The Ginger tea and curry were delicious!
We stayed at a place called Tree Loft. The owners were very nice people and we played uno with them in their upstairs hangout area. We tried to be cheap and got a small room with a fan but it was way too hot (think soggy clothes in just a few hours!). First lesson learnt in India: April/May is the hottest time of the year and air-conditioning is a must. The room also let us down further because in the middle of the night, I woke to find a cockroach crawling on me!! Nightmare! The little beast.
The next day, we got out the room as soon as possible. A tuk-tuk driver offered to take us around all the sights for 100 INR (less than £1.50) which sounded very reasonable! The sights included the Chinese Fishing nets, various churches around the town (we weren’t expecting to see so many churches) and the old Jewish town.
The tuk-tuk driver also wanted to take us to ten shops because he would then earn enough commission to cover his fuel. We’d heard about this but just thought it would be one or two shops, not ten! So you might want to be specific with the tuk-tuk driver if you visit. We actually bailed on the last few shops and although he did seem a little annoyed he let us off all the same.
We decided to chill out after our time exploring and found a cool hangout to spend the afternoon called Kashi Art Gallery & Cafe which served really tasty organic food and juices. It also had the most amazing chocolate cake which was very popular!
We also checked out the shop Anokhi which supplies East (a brand/shop you may have heard of which is also stocked in House of Fraser). In the evening, we watched a traditional Kathakali performance; a play conducted with facial expressions, particularly the eyes. We had a cut down version with English translation to make it easier for us to understand – a normal Kathakali can last over 3 hours! We saw this at Greenix Village if you are interested in the shorter version.
There was a small local cafe near our accommodation called Sanitha Hotel (we’re not sure why but often restaurants are called hotels) and we ended up eating there a few times because the food was really good and super cheap. They made good masala tea, masala dosa and parathas & curry. Each meal would cost us 50p each!
The next destination was Alappuzha or it’s less formal name of Alleppey. We got two crowded buses to get there (changing at New Bridge). Alleppey is best known for its backwaters, often referred to as the ‘Venice of India’. Large ‘houseboats’ float along the backwaters and have become popular with tourists. You can stay in a houseboat for between £60-£250 depending on the season, size of the boat and whether you share with others. We were told the best way to get a houseboat at a decent price was to go to Finishing point (where the houseboats dock) around 8am and negotiate a good deal for that day.
After doing some research, there seemed to be lots of other ways to explore the backwaters (this blog post is good) at a fraction of the cost and better for the environment. Unfortunately, the houseboats often have big diesel engines and generators for air-conditioning that pollute the water which you see the local women washing their clothes in.
We booked a homestay called Venice Castle (with a/c this time!). We were fortunate because this homestay was really nice and the host Thomas made us feel very welcome. In fact, we liked it so much here we ended up staying 3 nights!
Thomas, our host at Venice Castle homestay.
The breakfast made for us each morning was really yummy including more masala dosa with coconut chutney.
For lunch, we ate at the highly recommended Thaffs, a small bustling restaurant which was extremely popular with the locals. We ordered vegetable thali and were presented with more food than we could manage!
After lunch, we visited Finishing point to get a closer look at the houseboats. We were able to take a look around the ones for hire which was fun (they did have the hope of selling it to us but we just made our excuses and left).
The main shopping area in Alleppey definitely had more of the hustle and bustle we had been expecting in India. Every vehicle honking and lots of people – crossing the road here certainly tempted fate! We ventured into a sari shop but quickly retreated with the heat and hoards of people. Jonny had a successful shopping trip grabbing some fake Ray-Ban sunglasses for £1.50 which haven’t yet fallen apart.
Alleppey also has a small beach so we went to check it out. The beach had lovely white sand and an old pier like West Pier in Brighton. We watched the sunset and had dinner at Dreamers, a charming beachfront restaurant with lots of lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
The next day, Thomas helped arrange a canoe tour for us which meant we could go down the narrower canals (where the houseboats and ferry can’t go). The day trip with breakfast and lunch worked out under £20 for both of us and was organised by Oscar Cruise Alleppey. Joining us for the day was an Australian family, two Argentinian friends, one British guy living in South Africa and seven Indian friends from Chennai. We had a great laugh with the other tourists on this trip.
To get to our next stop, Kumily, we had to take a 5-hour bus ride up into the hill country which was an experience- read Jonny’s blog post to find out more!
Alleppey had been about 36 degrees Celsius so it was refreshing to feel the air cooling as we headed higher above sea level. This was the journey where we discovered the street shop samosas for about 8p each! Simply delicious!
When we arrived, we headed to Chrissie’s Hotel where we stayed for the next three nights. Our room was on the third floor and had a balcony which overlooked a forest. We spent the rest of the day chilling out on the balcony watching the wildlife. The monkeys especially were very sweet and liked to play!
In the evening, we took a really fun cooking class at Bar-B-Que. It was just the two of us and the tutor (who was hilarious and slightly crazy!). We made paratha bread, a fish masala curry, masala chips, pineapple curry and more! And best of all, we got to eat it all at the end! NOM NOM NOM.
The next morning we got up early to go bamboo rafting. This involved a 5km hike through Periyar National Park (or Periyar Tiger Reserve as it’s also known). We saw wild elephants, a giant squirrel, Indian bison and various birds.
When we reached the water, we had curry & appam. We had a very scenic and peaceful experience floating along on the bamboo rafts before taking the 5km hike back. We really enjoyed getting outdoors, away from the honking horns on the roads. We also met a nice guy who is a relative of the owner of Kayal restaurant in our hometown of Leicester- small world!
At the end of our tour, we were shown how to brew the perfect cup of tea (a funny concept for an English person!) and eventually taste the tea! We drank it black and it had a fresh and earthy flavour to it.
Our next stop was Munnar and there were only three morning buses. The 3-hour bus ride had incredible views for just £1! Though I was slightly unlucky as I was seated next to an Indian lady who proceeded to fall asleep on me!
It was 11am when we arrived in Munnar and thankfully we were able to check-in early to Aminas Cottage, our next accommodation. Munnar is even higher than Kumily so the air was cooler still- it was the first place we needed a jumper in the evening. It was also one of the few places where it rained. Our time in Munnar involved wandering around the town, walking up to a Mosque and a Hindu temple, a short visit to Hydel park and a short walk in the tea plantations.
Thrissur Pooram festival is the biggest temple festival in Kerala and lasts for 36 hours. We had planned to go months in advance, even pre-booking accommodation. Unfortunately though, when we contacted the booked AirBnb to let them know when we would arrive the owner claimed he didn’t have a booking! We managed to get our money back with AirBnb but we had to scramble to find another last minute booking.
We caught the 2.30pm bus from Munnar and arrived in Thrissur 6 hours later. We made it to Raj Mahal Lodge, where we’d booked a last minute room, but the staff tried to charge us double the price. This was hugely frustrating after the AirBnb issue earlier and a 6 hour bus ride to get to Thrissur. However, we had little choice with everywhere booked up for the festival. After debating with the Manager, we settled for the same price but a downgrade on the room. Annoying but at least we had a room!
The next day at 7.30am the 36 hour festival began: thousands of locals, colour, music, elephants, decorations and excitement! And zero alcohol – at least they wouldn’t have lots beer bottles to clear up at the end. We had come to the festival curious to see a local traditional festival and Thissur Pooram certainly ticked those boxes. Our favourite memory was the crowds cheering with brightly coloured balloons every time the rhythm of the music changed.
We were also constantly asked for ‘selfies’, I guess we looked out of place!
The only thing we struggled with, was seeing the elephants in the processions. You can’t but imagine what they must have gone through to be so calm amongst swarms of people, loud music, canons and fireworks 😔
In the early hours the next day, there were fireworks. The fireworks were punctuated with small explosions to make them sound even louder! Although by this point a lot of people were falling asleep – we’d had a nap in our room to stay awake!
If you’d like to read more about our experience of Thrissur Pooram festival, Jonny has written a full blog post on it. Everyone was in good spirits at the festival and it was certainly something different.
Thrissur was quite a way from Cochin Airport and our flight to Delhi was at 5.20am. To ensure we’d make our flight, we travelled the next day and stayed at Princess Residency which was right next to the airport. The owner was very nice and offered to give us a lift to the airport in the morning.
Overall, our trip to Kerela was so varied from experiencing our first Indian festival, the beautiful and calmer hill country, the captivating backwaters plus the amazing food (no Delhi belly here!), culture and people. We really loved this place.
One month ago, we started our trip in Sri Lanka, a country slightly smaller than Ireland and home to around 21 million people. We chose Sri Lanka as our first destination partly due to its smaller size (compared with India and Thailand), a few recommendations from friends and the appealing array of activities the island has to offer. For example, you can relax on the endless stretches of beautiful white sandy beaches on the south coast, walk amongst tea plantations in the hill country, spot wildlife such as elephants and leopards in some of the national parks and visit the many temples and ancient Buddhist relics in the cultural triangle in the middle of the country. Sri Lanka offered a bit of everything and would be an excellent start to our trip.
These photos show you some of the highlights of our trip! If you’re interested in hearing more, keep reading!
When we set out, we didn’t have an exact agenda other than we wanted to spend our first few days on a beach to completely zone out and relax. Other than a few European city breaks, we’d not had a holiday together for over a year, let alone a beach one – not since our honeymoon in 2015! Therefore we decided our first stop would be Hikkaduwa, which the guidebooks describe as a hippy beach town.
To get there from Colombo airport (where all the international flights fly into) we got the 187 bus from the airport to the city centre and then had a a very brisk walk with our backpacks to the train station to catch the last train to Galle at 7.30pm. Unfortunately, it was dark by this point to see out of the window but we could tell train hugged the coastline so I imagine if you did this in the day the views would be wonderful.
Jonny on the train from Colombo to Hikkaduwa. Although we could hear the sea and get occasional glimpses in the moonlight, most of the journey was darkness.
We arrived in Hikkaduwa about 11pm and took a tuk -tuk to our guesthouse- Why Not Guesthouse. Apart from a bar on the beach everything was pretty sleepy and we struggled to even find the owner to get into our room. Finally though, we got into our room for the night after a 14 hour flight, 1 hour bus journey and 3.5 hour train ride! We were shattered and fell asleep quickly to start afresh the next day.
We woke up to a stunning sandy coast line fringed with palm trees. Although there were a number of surfer-style beach cafes, it was fairly quiet – perhaps due to the time of year we were there. We took our time in Hikkaduwa and the laid-back surfer vibe perfectly suited us so we stayed for 3 nights.
We chose this cafe for breakfast and got a bed (owned by the cafe) free of charge for the rest of the day – perfect for relaxing and great for shade as it gets pretty hot!
Most of the beach cafes offered sun loungers and umbrellas free of charge so long as you bought a drink or food from the cafe. Prices were slightly more expensive than more northern areas of Sri Lanka but by English standards it was still pretty cheap with meals ranging from £2-6 on average.
A Sri Lankan curry we had in Hikkaduwa. Big plate of rice and lots of smaller dishes, costing roughly £4.
We also visited the tsunami centre as we were interested in how the Tsunami in Dec 2004 had affected people here. Nearby was a turtle sanctuary which helped to both breed endangered and take in injured turtles.
The very sobering and heartbreaking reality of the 2004 Tsunami. Many of the people we spoke to had been affected by the Tsunami but it was inspiring to hear how they had rebuilt their lives.
The turtle sanctuary in Hikkaduwa. In the evening we helped release 200 baby turtles back into the sea.
From Hikkaduwa, we created a rough 3-week itinerary; explore a little more of the south coast before heading inland to the national parks to spot wildlife and the hill country to explore the tea plantations. After the hill country, we would go to the cultural triangle in the middle of the country and then try and accommodate a little bit of beach time before heading to India. We pretty much stuck to this itinerary which involved us moving from place to place every 2-3 days.
We had just short of 3 weeks, at 19 nights. Our actual route panned out like this:
Our route through Sri Lanka (taken from Google maps).
We took a bus from Hikkaduwa to Galle, a Dutch colonial town within old fort walls.
We just spent one afternoon here and stayed in a homestay for one night where the family cooked us lunch (Sri Lanka rice and curry) and made us breakfast the next morning.
Our first home cooked Sri Lankan curry for lunch 👌
The lighthouse in Galle built by the Dutch in 1938.
Walking along the fort walls in Galle.
Our host at our first homestay.
Then we took the bus along the coast a bit further to Mirissa, another beach town with a particular attraction of whale watching. We bought a tour package for 4000rs each (roughly £20) and departed at 7am (all the boats depart early) and the trip in total was about 4 hours. We went pretty far out to sea and it took about 2 hours before we saw anything! The sea was rough so if you get sea sick easily, you may not enjoy this trip as much (I have never been sea sick, but even I was struggling!). In total we caught glimpses of three blue whales which was incredible – the largest mammal on the planet.
Getting tea before the ferry departs.
The beach was nice in Mirissa and we climbed up a rock to watch the gorgeous sunset.
We stayed in a tree house called Bird House in Mirissa for two nights. It was great to be amongst the trees listening to the birds and felt much more rural than the previous homes and guest houses. Though it was a wooden hut so we were a tiny bit scared of what insects could get in (Sara especially of spiders!!). We were lucky though and had a very pleasant stay.
In Mirissa we found Dewani Roti shop, a wonderful little cafe tucked away. It also had puppies so we were sold (we even went back the next morning for breakfast!).
We also spent a lot of time deliberating whether our next stop would be a safari in Udawalawe National Park or Yala National Park. Yala seemed bigger and had more wildlife to see but was more out of our way and potentially more touristy with people often saying they saw more jeeps than wildlife. In the end, this blog post helped us decide on Udawalawe National Park.
By now we’d started to get used to the buses: emergency braking, lots of honking and no seat belts! 😱
To get to Udawalawa, the journey was a bit more complicated with three buses which took about 4-5 hours. In general, the buses don’t tend to leave until they are full but that doesn’t seem to take very long! We stayed at Ruwanpura homestay in Udawalawa and the family were lovely. Janaka and his wife Udari cooked us lovely meals and their son was also very sweet to play with.
Our host family at Ruwanpura homestay.
Ruwanpura organised a safari by the owner’s nephew, at a very reasonable price of 4000rs including breakfast and entrance to Udawalawe National Park. You need a jeep to enter so the cost goes down depending on how full the jeep is (they seat 6, 7 if someone sits in the front). We had to get up very early for the Safari as this is the best time to catch the wildlife (later on it is too hot and they tend to become less active, seeking shade!). We were very lucky and saw lots of elephants, monkeys, deer, crocodiles, buffalo and a great variety of birds including peacocks, eagles, parrots, kingfishers and painted stork.
Some of the beautiful animals we were lucky enough to spot in Udawalawa National Park.
We stayed at this place during the Sri Lankan New Year April 13th-15th, the biggest national holiday of the year. The children were off school and fire cracker fireworks could be heard all throughout this period. The children at our homestay were very excited by them and always invited us to watch when they got set off. It was really fun to celebrate the Sri Lankan New Year, however the only downside is that most tourist sights will close during this period, buses stop running and restaurants close. The family made us a lovely New Year themed breakfast with Kokis, milk rice and Kevum.
Our New Year Srilankan breakfast.
Our next journey was to Ella up in the hills amongst tea plantations. We got a little caught out by the New Year as there were no buses leaving Udawalawa. A tuk-tuk driver offered to take us and so we took a 2.5 hour trip up into the hills. The drive was spectacular and you could feel the cold air as we climbed higher.
Jonny in the tuk-tuk – a 2 hour drive up to Ella.
The views started to become very impressive from the tuk-tuk ride up! Even the monkeys were impressed!
We checked in to our accommodation, where we received more traditional Sri Lankan New Year sweets. There was a monsoon shower so we chilled on our balcony for a bit before walking to Ella Spice Garden to see if we could do a cooking course. As it was New Year, sadly the cooking course was not being offered but the owner was happy to give us a tour around his spice garden for 100 LKR each. Although the garden small, it was worth the money with the kind man talking us through his homegrown cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, vanilla, cardamom, assortment of chillis and more. It was interesting to hear the process of how they are turned into the herbs & spices we see in the shops.
In the spice garden – here you can see a ginger plant.
A lot of the restaurants were closed in Ella due to the New Year period but we managed to find one that served us Sri Lanka curry. We decided to have a fairly early night as we planned to get up at 5am to climb little Adam’s peak for sunrise. Upon getting back to our room, we met our neighbour, a girl called Felicity and she decided to join us for the early morning walk. The sunrise was beautiful and there were two puppies at the top of the peak who were eager to see hello! One even fell asleep on my lap!
Watching the sunrise from Little Adam’s peak.
One of the puppies getting a little too close to the edge!
Climbing Little Adam’s peak with Felicity, our room neighbour!
We made it!
On our way down we went to 98 acres hotel which was an incredible place overlooking the tea plantations. We decided to reward ourself with breakfast, it wasn’t cheap at 1900 LKR but the breakfast was fabulous, buffet style wth both western and Sri Lankan food and egg hoppers which were made right in front of you!
The view from 98 Acres Resort where we had breakfast after climbing Little Adam’s peak for sunrise.
Later the same day, we checked out the nine arch bridge which is an impressive viaduct still in use. It was a fair walk down to it in the heat (including walking along the railway tracks!) but we were lucky as when we arrived we were able to witness a train going over it.
The nine arch bridge in Ella.
As well as the bridge, we’d hoped to check out Uva Halpawette Tea Factory but unfortunately it was closed due to the Sri Lankan new year.
The next day, we headed to Kandy via the classic train ride through the hills- they say it is the world’s most scenic train ride. The first class tickets had sold out so we decided to get up super early and go to Badulla station which was the first stop. We got to Badulla train station an hour before the train left the station and managed to bag two seats. By the time the train stopped at Ella, the carriages were packed out. The train ride took about 7 hours but the scenery was stunning throughout the journey. The train carriage we were in was completely packed out and with many people standing so I can imagine this could hinder the experience a bit for the people without seats.
The most scenic train ride in the world between Ella and Kandy.
If you don’t manage to book a 1st class carriage then you’ll likely be in overcrowded 2nd class. We were so lucky we had seats!
In Kandy, we were lucky enough to stay with friends who were based close to Peradeniya University. After being wonderful hosts and great company, we owe them big time!
We stayed for two nights in Kandy with Matt and Leonie.
We did the touristy activities such as the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and strolled along the lake. We took respite near the temple at the Old Empire Cafe, built in the British colonial era.
The Temple of the Tooth by the lake in Kandy.
We spent the next morning in Peradeniya Botanic Gardens where we saw lots of fruit bats and monkeys.
Our next destination was to probably the most distinctive landmark in Sri Lanka- Sigiriya Rock. We stayed at ‘Homly Guesthouse’ in Habarana which was situated between Sigiriya, Dambulla and Polonawura. We planned to climb Pidurangala rock (another rock which overlooked Sigiriya rock) and see the Dambulla Cave Temples in one day. We got a bus to Sigirya, a tuk tuk to Sigiriya rock and then walked the 1.5 kilometers to the base of Pidurangala rock. You have to pay to climb up Pidurangala ($3.50 USD) but it is a fraction of the cost of Sigiriya rock ($30 USD). The views were stunning at the top.
Larking about on top of Pidurangala rock.
Once we had descended, we assumed we’d just walk to the main road and catch a bus or a tuk-tuk to the Dambulla Cave Temples. However, the road was really quiet, no shops and not much traffic so we proceeded to walk all the way back to Sigiriya rock in the heat. A tuk-tuk offered us 1000 LKR but that was far more than we had ever paid so we declined. We quickly learnt that this was the going rate as every tuk-tuk quoted us the same (I guess because it is a touristy area) so we bit the bullet and went for it.
The Dambulla caves are ancient Buddhist temples with 153 Buddhist statues inside and paintings all over the ceiling. It is a world heritage site, with the caves dating back to the first century BC. The entrance is frustratingly round the back of the hill near the car park so we had to walk all the way up and over the hill to get there and back up again once we had got tickets (after climbing Pidurangala rock in the morning!). It really wasn’t clear and we saw a lot of people complaining because there are no signs to tell you.
Once inside though, the 5 caves were mesmerising- buddhist statues all lined one-by-one and the intiricate paintings were beautiful. The only thing that could have made this better is if there was some information about the caves and their significance (we used the limited information in the Lonely planet guide book as a reference).
Jonny inside one of the caves.
The following day we spent in and around Polonnawura and cycled around the old city. This is where you can find huge Buddha statues (and it is disrespectful to turn your back on Bhuddha so definitely no selfies allowed!!). It was also my birthday so we treated ourselves to an evening dinner at the Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana which had a huge choice of fresh food and a room full of all-you-can-eat dessert (plus wine which we’d struggled to find anywhere).
The ancient ruins in Polonnawura.
A few birthday treats for Sara in Polonnawura and Habarana.
We had been thinking our next stop would be Kalpityia for the kite-surfing and dolphin watching. However, upon researching how to get there, it became obvious that it would take a very long time with the route not entirely clear. We would also have to take another long journey back to Colombo for our flight to India.
Therefore we bailed on Kalpitiya and chose Negombo, the closest beach to Colombo. We were a little scared this would be an overcrowded touristy resort town but when we arrived we were pleased to see it wasn’t so bad at all. It worked out well because we lucked out with a whole apartment at a reasonable price, with breakfast included. It meant we could do all our laundry and even did some baking as there was an oven! (Jonny became very excited finding out if you whisked egg whites they become stiff 😂).
With so much coconut available, we made coconut macaroons and offered them to our hosts at Eco Green Villa.
The beach was very sandy and we bought a day pass from a hotel resort for 1000 LKR (about £5) to use their towels, sun loungers, wifi, pool and toilets. It was such a nice way to relax at then end of a busy three weeks and before the next stretch of our journey in India!
Negombo – our last stop in Sri Lanka!
There was also a beach park that was popular with the locals and offered cheap local food. The egg hoppers were particularly tasty!
Jonny getting an egg hopper in Negombo beach park for around 50p!
In summary, we loved every minute of our time in Sri Lanka and the diversity of the country made us feel like we had been there for ages. We’d definitely recommend a visit!
Also read our other blog post on ’15 things you should know about Sri Lanka’ 😊