South East Asia: Reflections On Six Months of Travel

Sunrise Over the South China Sea

After six months of travelling throughout South East Asia, we’ve come to the end of this leg of our journey. Where better to reflect on our experiences, and what we’ve learned, than relaxing in the heat of sun-kissed Perth for Christmas and the New Year before we set off again. 

First here are the crude numbers: 7 countries; 24,000+ miles; 50 hotels; 25 flights; 1000+ mosquito bites (Sam thinks that’s a conservative estimate!); 5 haircuts; 20 blogs; 100,000+ Chinese tourists (there may be some South Koreans in that estimate); 28 books read; 1000+ photos; and no arrests!

 Here are brief thoughts on each country we’ve visited 


To quote Frank S “if I can make it there…. I can make it anywhere”. Manic Vietnam is probably the best place to start a trip in S/E Asia –  it’s a complete shock to European sensibilities, especially the omnipresent motorbikes. But once you’ve adjusted to and embraced the mayhem, everywhere else will feel serene (except Phnom Penh and Jakarta). Sitting cheek by jowl with the vibrancy are gorgeous beaches, stunning scenery, a truly fascinating ancient and modern history, and welcoming people. For some reason Vietnam will always be a personal favourite for us, the wild child of S/E Asia, the tearaway younger sibling China can’t tame. Long may that continue. 

You need hands…Ba Na Hills


We only saw two cities in Laos and one of those was the dull capital Vientiane. So we have a lot more to see and learn about Laos. However, Luang Prabang was one of the stars of our journey, a beautiful town wedged between two great roaring rivers, with picturesque buildings and a calming atmosphere. We visited Luang Prabang out of season, which was probably a good thing as we hear it can be a bit overwhelmed at other times. We definitely need to return to Laos.

The Mighty Mekong flowing beside Luang Prabang


Like Laos we only managed two cities and again didn’t like the capital at all, but you have to go to learn first hand about the Killing Fields. Siem Reap on the other hand was another gem and not solely due to being the base for Angkor Wat explorations. It’s a lovely town and the people in Cambodia are incredibly friendly and warm. Of course Angkor Wat is astonishing – the range and beauty of the temples are unique, the crown jewels among the treasures of S/E Asia. It’s a must see and make sure you give it enough time. We spent five days exploring the temples and could have taken longer still.


Writing a blog on the experience of the Killing Fields was difficult: trying to find the right words and images to express anger and outrage alongside respect and humility.   Without question this was the most bewildering and upsetting experience of our trip so far. The sight of the tree where children were murdered will never leave us, nor should it. 



Good old Thailand – same same but different for us as we revisited some familiar haunts, but also discovered  new treats. In and around Bangkok has so much to offer, but the real surprises for us were the inexplicably low-profile ruins and temples at Sukothai, the jaw-dropping limestone karst scenery at Khao Sok National Park, and beach life at Krabi, all of which left us re-appraising our favourite Thai places. We also endured one night in the worst hotel of our trip, monkey-ridden Lopburi. Don’t go!

Ruins at Sukothai


Having briefly visited KL before we didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the country and were delighted with what we discovered. Multi-cultural, relaxed, great food and architecture. Plus you have the joy of the Peninsula (with another city highlight for us – GeorgeTown); and Malaysian Borneo which kind of feels like another country, but because it’s Malaysia is very accessible and manageable for travellers. Fantastic street art can be found in nearly every town and city. The wildlife and jungle is something else again. We’ve still got the central highlands and the east coast peninsula to explore, so we will definitely be returning. It’s a very relaxed place…..



We came to Singapore with a bit of a cynical “will it be clinical” mindset and left it starry-eyed. What an island! Take Hong Kong, stir in some Manhattan and add a dash of  Vegas with some great ethnic neighbourhoods and colonial charm thrown in. It’s not cheap but you can spend judiciously and have a great time. Soooo many highlights here but Gardens by the Bay is just remarkable. Anywhere that makes you wander around smiling like a wide-eyed kid has got to be great. 

Gardens by the Bay


We’ve visited three of the main islands (Sumatra, Java and Bali) and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of how to capture the essence of this country. I’m not sure the people do either. Maybe that’s its secret: the diversity of beliefs, peoples, languages, and the vast archipelago itself. It’s got it all, wild beauty, dense jungle, Borobudur, volcanic lakes, Balinese beaches and the most hospitable hosts. It has a horrible health and safety track record that can fray the nerves somewhat. Nevertheless it’s a really enigmatic place that has been fascinating to experience, and we didn’t make it to Komodo so we will be back to explore more.

Lake Toba

Mekong River

Okay it’s not a country but for several months it was a feature of our journey seeing it rolling alongside four of the countries we visited. From the deep red mud saturated delta in Can Tho, Vietnam to the bulging fast-flowing river crashing alongside Luang-Prabang, witnessing and boating along this mighty river fulfilled a lifetimes ambition. 

Dawn on the Floating Market on the Mekong, Can Tho

So, what have we learnt?

It would be easy to gush about all of wonderful experiences we have had – and there have been plenty. But we’ve always tried to balance the superlatives with some of the day to day realities of travelling in this region. Here are some random thoughts, compliments and complaints.

S/E Asians – the world’s friendliest people?

After you grow accustomed to the friendliness of the people of S/E Asia it is easy to take it for granted, but it’s such a warm welcome you get everywhere in this part of the world. Some of it is pure generosity, some of it is inquisitiveness, and at other times it’s amusement, but it’s always with goodwill and a smile on the face. Admittedly as travellers we encounter a lot of people in the service industry whose job it is to be welcoming – but just consider that proposition for a moment and apply it to London or Paris! 


Life’s a Beach

I’m not sure we are ever going to be able to hobble back onto the pebbled beach at home in Brighton and Hove after this trip. Talk about being spoilt!  The choice seems to be as endless as some of the stretches of beaches. Soft clean sand, warm crystal clear waters, and the sun beating down in what was often allegedly “rainy season”.  Having said that, it does pay to check whether you need to be on east or west coast of Thailand to avoid monsoon. The only cloud on this idyllic horizon? Litter. As the blog from Mui Ne (What a Waste) illustrated – when it’s bad, it’s appalling. Someone is making a lot of money from tourism and not re-investing in basic infrastructure. That needs to change.

Beautiful Quy Nhon

Travelling not Holidaying

A corollary to our beach time has been the understanding that we are travelling and not on holiday, which in turn means not feeling guilty about having downtime. Doing nothing is not only fine, it’s essential to avoid total exhaustion. Sleeping well and eating as healthily as we can has also been key to our wellbeing. We haven’t over-planned things, rarely booking flights or accommodation more than 3 weeks ahead. Occasionally that has left us nervously wondering where we will be sleeping next week, but wifi has improved out of all recognition here and its been very easy to get online, understand and sort visa’s and book hotels, flights etc with the minimum of fuss.

Borneo Sunset

Back-Packing or Flash-Packing?

When we meet people on our travels and tell them our plans they often say something along the lines of “how wonderful, backpacking through South-East Asia”. We haven’t corrected this assumption because it makes us sound very adventurous and hardy. However, backpacking we are not! The idea of spending one minute let alone a night in a hostel sharing the same bathroom and oxygen with a bunch of hairy arsed flatulent 20 somethings is totally out of the question! We are “mature” travellers and need some level of comfort and privacy. It turns out that as with everything in life there is a label for us – we are “flash-packers”.  And with the incredibly affordable cost of living in South-East Asia and a reasonable but not over-indulgent budget, it’s possible to lead a very comfortable “flash-pack” life here.  Back-packer or Flash-packer?

Travelling light

Japanese Occupation WWII and its Legacy

As we’ve worked our way through countries and cities, reading about their history the common thread of the impact of Japanese occupation has surfaced frequently. In some cases at high profile sites such as Kanchanburi, but also at the lesser known: the Sandakan Death Marches that was an act of mass murder. It’s made us realise how little we know about the WWII Pacific theatre of conflict. Inevitably what little we do know tends to focus on Allied forces, but time and again we discovered the brutality and terrible losses the indigenous populations suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism. Their departure created vacuums that nationalists tried to fill, but not before dreadful, misguided campaigns by the French, British, Dutch and USA caused further suffering and enmity. Seeing the work of COPE in Laos supporting victims of land mines was for us one of the most eye-opening experiences of this legacy, the effects of which continues today.


One Road, One Belt…..a big cheque book and a lot of debt.

Anyone who has (inexplicably) read a lot of our blogs will have noticed a recurrent theme: an antipathy towards China and Chinese tourists. This isn’t borne out of some irrational jingoistic prejudice. More a case of speaking as we find. It’s no secret that many third world countries have welcomed Chinese investment with open arms – why wouldn’t they? The problem is that many of these projects are destroying the environment and further harming endangered species, for example the Threat to Orang-Utans in Sumatra and the damming of the Mekong in Laos that will change the nature of the River downstream forever: Impact of Dams on the Mekong River. In addition to the environmental harm the Dam collapse in Laos in July killed 39 people and left thousands homeless. What is more, China’s huge One Road, One Belt project seems to have a canny knack of channelling its benefits back to the homeland.

Having invested so much in South East Asia it’s little wonder that the new Chinese middle classes who are now holidaying abroad in their millions treat it as if they own it – they kinda do!  Their graceless behaviour neatly leads us onto another gripe….

All Hail Insta-Culture!

Now we have no problem with Instagram, in fact if you go to  #samjohntravelogue on Instagram (shameless plug) you will find a thriving collection of some of our favourite travel images. There are no selfies. You won’t see a picture of Sam blocking out a perfect sunset or a gorgeous ancient temple with a vacant smile and two fingers in the air. Worse still you will not see a picture of one of us sitting crossed legged in a meditation pose in front of an image of Bhudda while out of shot hundreds of irritated sweating tourists mill around waiting to do the same. It seems to be a growing problem:  Instagram Snappers Hogging NZ Beauty Spot

“When you think you’ve gone too far…go farther”

Democracy – it’s so overrated

There is no denying that there are some dubious political practices and situations in this part of the world where there have been abuses of power. Men who were once freedom fighters have slipped easily into the role of dictators, holding onto power despite shocking levels of inequality and grinding poverty. It would be easy to point to a lack of true democracy in some countries. However, the recent pantomime performance of western-style democracy in the UK, USA, and Australia does leave you wondering who, if anyone, is getting it right.

We didn’t have any particular desire to visit Myanmar but would not do so on principal given the genocide that has taken place there over the past two years. It’s also been disturbing to see a serious shift towards some rabid homophobia – particularly in parts of Indonesia – in order to win votes. 

Books, Books, Glorious Books.

One of the unexpected joys of our trip has been having time to read and enjoy books in a way that we could never do when working. Biographies, crime thrillers, philosophy,  and spy novels have all been devoured. It’s interesting to see the path that we’ve followed in selecting books, where one novel has led us on to another.  Sam has been much more eclectic in her tastes, currently devouring Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming”, while I’ve become obsessed with George Smiley, enjoying the time we have to read every Le Carre book he appears in. 


What started out as a bit of an informal diary so that a few family and friends can keep track of us has turned into a monster! I’m a slave to it, constantly trying to source interesting stories, perspectives, and appropriate photos. It’s been great fun and it’s a brilliant way to keep track of what we’ve done. Comments and likes from readers is such a pleasant surprise. There have been times when I’ve got really frustrated with the limits of my vocabulary, and on one dreadful occasion I somehow lost nearly all of a blog I’d been writing for an hour or two. I crash out a rough copy then Sam patiently polishes it, correcting grammar, carefully editing and occasionally pointing out that “this paragraph makes absolutely no sense at all”. 

Working From Home

Jungle Wildlife

Last and most certainly not least we come to what we both agree is the highlight of our journey so far – wonderful wild animals. The sheer majestic beauty of lumbering Asian Elephants frolicking in rivers. Fireflies mysteriously lighting up a pitch black sky. Tree vipers lurking above our heads; Monitor Lizards scampering by our feet; Monkeys galore from the cute Dusky Leaf Monkey, ubiquitous long tailed macaques, and the downright bizarre Proboscis Monkey. Gibbons hollering and swinging through treetops. Sun and Moon Bears in their sanctuaries protected from poachers.


The highlight of the highlight? The moment after hours of trekking through the jungle we looked up and saw wild Orang-Utans just a few metres above us in the trees. It was overwhelming and very emotional.

Orangutan Mother and Child


Finally, we would like to say a bug thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read our thoughts, and send so much generous feedback. It really is appreciated and we look forward to resuming our musings in 2019 with blogs from our travels in Australia.

In the meantime Happy New Year and All The Best for 2019.

Sam & John xx




Enigmatic Indonesia: Our Week in Java

Borobudur – a place for quiet reflection

It’s been a strange time to be in Indonesia. Inevitably the local news has been dominated by the Lion Air crash into the Java Sea a few minutes after take-off from Jakarta. As more information emerges about the troubled history of the aircraft it does seem incredible that it was permitted to fly. We mentioned the Lake Toba ferry disaster in our previous blog – another local example of where safety seems to have taken second place to profit. Indonesia certainly presents travellers with food for thought. On the one hand this huge sprawling archipelago of islands offers the opportunity to visit unique, unspoilt and stunning scenery, incredible historical sites, jaw-dropping endangered wildlife, and meet the friendliest people imaginable. And it goes on and on and on….we still haven’t got our heads around the geography of thousands of islands that make up the country  – to explore Indonesia properly would probably take at least six months.

Indonesia: persevere and be rewarded with wonder

However, it’s the first place we’ve been to where we have been aware of heightened security – routine checks at hotel’s and shopping centres mean you get routinely screened walking into both whilst our taxis are stopped and the boot checked and the car scanned before being allowed to proceed to the the drop-off at the hotel lobby. Indonesia has been hit by numerous terrorist attacks over the years, many in areas popular with Western visitors, so these actions are both necessary and likely to remain in place. Meanwhile the road’s outside Cities can be horrendous, and certainly the worst we’ve encountered, with some hair-raising driving to boot. Add to this the seemingly slip-shod approach to safety, plus unavoidable natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami of recent months, and it leaves you thinking twice about where to go in Indonesia, how to get there, and how to travel on. We’ve moved from quite care-free planning to much more careful consideration of our itinerary.

A Glimpse of Bhuddism

Just a few days after the air disaster, we flew from a very small airfield in Sumatra to Jakarta. We are not overly nervous flyers, but on this occasion we both felt tense, and you could sense our fellow passengers unease by how quiet the plane was as we started to taxi for take-off. The mood wasn’t helped by an astonishing announcement from one of the cabin crew “Let us all take a moment to pray to god and wish for a safe flight.” We prefer to put our faith in having a plane and pilots that are fit for purpose  rather than putting our trust in some unspecified deity who – if you follow the logic of our steward – was untroubled about 190 people perishing in the sea a few days beforehand. The country and its people deserve better and need to find a way to ensure that Government and business delivers on promises of improved safety and accountability. I’m afraid that at the moment the reassurances all ring a bit hollow.


I Would Go Out Tonight But I Haven’t Got a Stitch To Wear

It’s not often you book a hotel solely on the basis of its name, but the Morrissey Hotel in Jakarta was too good to miss. We had visions of a bizarre boutique hotel inspired by the songs of The Smiths and all things Mozzer. Reviews were good and a hotel that provides an in-house laundrette warms the heart of bedraggled travellers – good times for a change.

Please, please, please let me get what I want.….but sadly, like the theme of most of his songs, heightened expectations were crushed, replaced with disappointment on arrival – no Smith’s knick-knacks, no pictures, no posters nor sign of Manchester (… much to answer for), not even Reel Around the Fountain piped through the sound system by the Pool. To be fair having a hotel located in the Southern Hemisphere but themed on lyrics of English northern misery probably isn’t the most brilliant marketing strategy. Loved the motorbike and sidecar on the forecourt though….

Nowhere Fast…#1

We were warned about Jakarta, but told to look beyond the mayhem to find its charms. So, on our first day we strolled to the striking National Monument celebrating the nation’s struggle for independence from the Dutch.

As we made our way to the monument tower we suddenly had a sense of deja vu – people smiling and staring at us. Before we knew it we were being asked to pose for photos with young and old alike.


It was a small taste of celebrity and we can confirm that the novelty wears off pretty quickly – just about as long as you can maintain a rictus grin on your face for shot after shot after shot….”just one more Mister”, “please Missus”. It’s impossible to refuse and flattering that anyone should take an interest.

That grin stayed stuck on my face for hours!

Inside the monument, circling a huge hall, was a series of really quite brilliant dioramas detailing Indonesia’s history and rebellions against colonialist oppression. Inevitably, the British managed to play yet another less than glorious role in this story after the departure of the Japanese from Java in 1945, so any hope we had of enjoying some moral superiority on the Dutch was short lived.

IMG_6447 3

National Monument

From our very lofty position on the tower viewing area, we spied Jakarta’s Mosque and Cathedral, conveniently located a few yards away from each other and we agreed to visit them the next day. On checking the map, I calculated that by hopping in a tuk-tuk we should take about 15 minutes to get there. What we hadn’t bargained for was a combination of Jakarta’s awful traffic – the worst we have encountered in the world – combined with a demonstration at the Mosque. So it was that we found ourselves in a tuk-tuk oven, slow cooking at about 40 degrees in seven lanes of standstill traffic,  breathing in horrendous fumes: the most uncomfortable experience of our trip so far. With nothing moving we agreed it was best to pay our driver and hop out, snaking our way between idling vehicles to the sanctuary of the pavement.

Nowhere Fast #2: Jakarta traffic

As we neared the Istiqlal Mosque, the crowds got bigger and we realised that it wasn’t going to be possible to see very much of anything, and we were feeling acutely “other”. In Indonesia the clothing is far more modest than in some parts of SE Asia and we always aim to respect the mode of dress, covering shoulders, long trousers rather than shorts etc, when the need takes. However, around the mosque this became more marked than in the rest of the city. Nobody was dressed in Western clothing and the few women we did see were wearing veils. Although we felt safe and nobody approached us, it was clear the demonstration was attracting large crowds, and today was not the day for two heat and traffic weary Westerners to request to take a look inside the mosque. We detoured to the neighbouring neo-gothic Cathedral which gave us a welcome respite from the stifling heat. The building has fascinating iron spires sitting on more traditional stone and some part of it is open to the elements as birds flutter around the roof space swooping over what was a growing congregation gathering for a mass. The proximity of the Mosque and Cathedral is no accident, being designed to highlight the Indonesian philosophy of harmony in diversity (the cannibals on Samosir Island didn’t get that memo!).

St Mary of the Assumption Cathedral

Two days in Jakarta was enough to get a bit of a feel for the Capital and a longing to be back out into the countryside for the highlight of our trip to Java – Borobudur. We flew to the pleasant town of Yogyakarta, or “Yogya” as its called locally and stayed in a lovely old colonial hotel in the town centre. Yogya is the base for trips to Borobudur and other local historical sites such as Prambanan.  On arrival we were asked an unexpected question: “Are you here to see Mariah Carey?” “No – we will never be anywhere to see Mariah Carey!” Mariah must be doing her “Ancient Monuments” tour (cue the take one to know one joke) as she was performing at Borobudur the day after our visit. Briefly I had unkind visions of her entourage descending on a windswept Stonehenge in November.


Borobudur is the largest Bhuddist Temple in SE Asia and is close to Angkor Wat in its beauty, if not on the same scale. Sitting on a hilltop overlooking lush jungle and distant mountains Borobudur was built in the 9th Century and remains in superb condition despite centuries surviving earthquakes, jungle and erupting volcanoes. Indeed it was lost to the jungle and covered in volcanic ash until being rediscovered in 1815.


What Borobudur manages to combine so brilliantly is a sense of impressive almost intimidating scale, combined with stunning intricacy, being adorned with kilometres of carvings telling the story of Bhudda that circle the temple layer upon layer. The detail of the carvings was remarkable – with a depth that made them truly three-dimensional….


…until you reach a higher level where Borobudur’s iconic bell-shaped Stupas sit:


..accompanied by over 500 Bhudda statues



It’s a remarkable monument that made the trip to Java so memorable.

From Borobudur we visited other local temples before heading to Prambanan, one of the world’s largest and most ancient Hindu temples. After Borobudur there is a risk that everything that follows will underwhelm, but Prambanan does not disappoint. Also built in the 9th century the temples celebrate the Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.


Like Borobudur, the shape and silhouette of Prambanan casts an iconic image over the landscape which is truly breathtaking.


Once again the detailed decorations have survived the passage of time and like its more famous neighbour it has been lost, found, restored and rightly granted Unesco Heritage status.

After the heat, pollution, hustle and bustle of Jakarta, the mystical and spiritual treasures of Yogya shed a beautiful light on the glorious ancient history of Java.

Detailed stone carving at Prambanan

Going Solo

Java enjoys an unexpectedly good rail system, which we took advantage of by hopping on the local service from Yogya to Solo – just over an hours journey for next to nothing.

We do like our train travel 

Apparently there is something of a rivalry between Yogya and Solo when it comes to claiming the status of true historical capital of Java. Solo (aka Surakarta) has the distinction of hosting two royal Palaces both of which can be visited. Our favourite was Manakunegaran where you can stroll with your guide quietly thrilled in the knowledge that members of the current royal family might pop out from the adjacent residential quarters. Our guide told us that on occasion the King has met and chatted with visitors and had a cup of tea with them! The King is now a ceremonial one only and as far as we could make out has a real job – a refreshing model of royalty that would not go amiss elsewhere.

Manakunegaran’s Main Ceremonial Area

While not as grand as Manakunegaran, Keraton Surakarta boasted some fine looking guards in traditional attire who seemed to take a particular delight in brandishing their  swords, well you would wouldn’t you!

Sam looking regal while I worry about the proximity of those swords..

Our time in Solo wasn’t completely without incident as I managed to lose one of my bank cards. Unlike back home the ATM’s here give you the cash first, card second. As we withdrew some Rupiah from an ATM I was distracted by the promise of some rather tasty ice cream, took the cash and marched off in search of gelato. Presumably the ATM sat there with my card sticking out waiting for me to take it and after a short while duly swallowed it. On returning to the hotel I realised my mistake and ran back to the shopping centre where despite their best efforts the staff couldn’t locate my card. Given that we were leaving Solo the next morning I thought I wouldn’t get it back. However, the staff at the Mall checked the CCTV and confirmed that my card was in the ATM. The staff at our hotel then contacted the Bank and with just an hour to spare before we caught our train to the airport arrangements were made for me to pick up my card at the Bank. This was fantastic customer service from everyone involved who could not do more to help reunite me with my card. I know that in an ideal world this is how things should work – but let’s face it we rarely see things play out how we hope. It was another example of the fabulous hospitality and friendliness of Indonesian people. One of the many reasons that makes Indonesia a wonderful place to explore.

Rather than continue eastwards to Bali, our journey now takes us north and back to Thailand where we will spend two weeks with Sam’s holidaying sisters’s Tina and Sandra in Bangkok and Krabi. We plan to return to Indonesia in December….in search of Dragons!

Top Travelling Tips

We aren’t really ones for promoting particular products or services on our blog but its worth mentioning the incredibly convenient service Starling Bank provides to travellers. It’s an App only bank that offers the best rates in terms of charges and during the lost bank card dilemma rather than cancel the card, and trigger all sorts of logistical difficulties, I could simply press a button on the App that deactivates the card. Once I got the card back, I opened the App pressed the button to switch the card back on and hey presto everything was back to normal. Incredibly convenient and through the App the Bank provides loads of other features that are ideal for travellers. Plug over!


Next Up: Bangkok and Krabi




Calmer Sumatra: Indonesia’s Mystical Western Isle.


Here’s Looking At You Kid

Poor old Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, the western-most island of the Indonesian archipelago. Wherever followed Singapore had drawn the short straw. To be honest, even if we had hated Singapore we would struggle to take Medan to our heart – it’s such an unlovable city.

Things started badly when we jumped in our taxi for the hour’s drive from the Airport to the city centre. We don’t know when our driver last rested but about twenty minutes into the journey an alarmed Sam turned to me and said “I think he’s falling asleep John!”

Instead of panicking I maintained a David Niven like calm and undertook discreet inspection of his eyes in the rear view mirror which confirmed that he was driving with approximately 2mm of vision in his left eye, while his right eye, having satisfied itself that its partner could take the load,  was completely shut.

Thankfully at this point we turned off the “motorway” and ground to a halt in Medan’s crippling, choking traffic – never have I been so happy to be crawling along at a few miles an hour. The worst that could happen if our driver nodded off would be a gentle kiss on the bumper on  the vehicle in front.

Bizarrely this seemed to wake the driver up and he started completing his own facial…..while driving. Selecting from a small selection of tweezers stored in the driver door handle recess he gamely plucked away at offending hairs. Some of these were in quite an awkward spot necessitating him craning his head backwards so that his drowsy eye(s) were squinting at the interior roof, while continuing to negotiate Medan’s crazy traffic. I was directly behind our driver so couldn’t see exactly what was going on. Sam, however, had a front row seat and seemed to be mesmerised and appalled in equal measure. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t look away.

The upside of an unappealing, traffic choked city are the hotel rates where you can get 5 star accommodation for under £50 a night. On entering our plush new home for the next three days we turned to each other and without saying anything telepathically agreed it was best if we didn’t leave this oasis of calm until check out.

Regular readers will have noted that by paragraph four or five of our blog we would have inserted quite a few photos bringing to life our words. Well, in this case if a picture speaks a thousand words, no picture speaks far more about the grottiness of Medan!

However, apart from the hotel it did have two redeeming features. Firstly the people are fantastically friendly – probably astonished to see tourists in their city – calling out “Hello’s” and “where you from?” Surprisingly none asked “why the hell are you here?”. As we clambered up and down pavements resembling bomb sites, dodging cars as we were forced into roads, a gentleman in uniform sidled up to us and with an apologetic smile said “Welcome to Medan” in perfect sarcastic English. Heartwarming.

As our travels in Sumatra unfolded we have discovered that they are amongst the warmest people we have met on our travels – which is saying a lot given how friendly people are in S/E Asia.

The other positive thing to report is Medan’s only tourist attraction – the home of a benevolent Chinese businessman that has been maintained and restored beautifully. Records show how he invested in local schools, education and welfare to develop Medan. We are glad he can’t see what’s become of his philanthropy.

Tjong A Fie Mansion

Things worked out quite well really as Medan’s lack of attractions gave us an opportunity to rest up after our hectic Singapore schedule.

If we can’t make any recommendations about Medan (other than “don’t go”), the rest of Sumatra has been fantastic, swapping an uninspiring City for some of the most wonderful wildlife we have ever seen.

We took a three hour car journey north to the small town of Bukit Lawang which sits on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. It was here on a one day trek into the jungle that we hoped to fulfil a lifetimes ambition – to see Orang-Utans in the wild.

All smiles…little did we know

Our guide was optimistic, but reminded us that there were no guarantees of seeing any, regardless of how long we searched. The heat and hilly terrain meant that we were certainly going to earn our sighting.

Rickety Jungle Bridge

After about three hours trekking we had fleetingly seen a giant squirrel (think dog in a tree and you’re 90% there) and two dullard peacocks who didn’t have the fancy feather display thing going on.

We came across three German trekkers and their guide who said they had no luck spotting our ape cousins either. Hot, bothered and disappointed we sat down and had some fruit, when something remarkably bad happened. One of the German trekkers pulled out a ukulele from her bag and started singing “Me and Bobby McGee”. Who in God’s name thinks “what shall I pack for the trek in the jungle today?  I know I’ll take my ukulele!” 

This was the most toe-curling exhibition of backpacker conceitedness we had encountered in five months of travelling. As we sat there, opened mouthed in horror and barely able to conceal our loathing, we have to confess that Sam wanted to stick the ukulele… can guess the next bit….and in deference to my own German heritage I longed to burst into a hearty out-of-tune rendition of “Deutchland Uber Alles”. I know that is wrong, but we were tired and fed up…..and we cant stand that song unless it’s sung by Janis.

Maybe if we had, karma would have dealt us a bad hand and we wouldn’t have achieved our ambition. As it was after a further couple of energy sapping hours and just at the point when I thought Sam was going to drop from exhaustion we came across a group of Kiwi’s (san ukulele) who were staring upward in awe. There about 20 feet above us in the trees were three Orang-Utans: a mother and baby, and a youngster (about 8 years old our guide judged).

What a beauty

This was a moment when we wanted time to stand still and savour the amazing creatures in front of us. The grace, power, dexterity and those eyes staring back at us, indifferent to our astonishment. Then slowly moving, next branch, next tree, onwards, carefully clutching her baby.

I really don’t know how long we spent with our necks craned upward, with crazy smiles on our faces, just wanting to say thank you to the Orang-utans for letting us briefly share their world. Our guide knew how much this meant to us and was thrilled to see us so happy.  There was an element of sadness in the encounter though as our guide said that the mother was trying to leave her eight year old daughter behind so that she would become independent, but the daughter continued to gamely follow her mother and baby sibling a few yards behind.

Having walked so far it was time to have lunch, but before we could sit down there was more commotion in the trees and our guide beckoned us up yet another hill, pointing to a family of white faced Gibbons swinging about in the treetops. Being much lighter than the Orang-utans, they can go far higher, and being more nimble they easily leapt from tree to tree. Orang-utans are a tough act to follow, but they were splendid, striking wonderful shapes high above us.

Hanging Around

Incredible body shapes

White Face and Hands

After seeing these funkiest of gibbons we sat down and had our much delayed lunch, overwhelmed, exhausted and very, very happy. We were told that our trek would end with a rafting trip down the river rather than a long hike home – music to our ears. On exiting the jungle and approaching the river bed a man greeted us with our “raft” – three large inner tubes lashed together with rope:

Your transport has arrived Sir!

Our guide said that it usually took about 30 minutes to float downstream back to Bukit Lawang, but in view of the recent heavy rain, the river was full, fast and it would be far quicker – he said this with a manic grin that didn’t leave his face for the next fifteen minutes. What followed was great fun as we careered down river, kangarooing up, down and over rapids with our pilots using just bamboo rods to steer us between rocks.


Stuck on Repeat

Our travel bible warned us that when travelling any distance in Sumatra you will usually experience a spine shattering journey at some point. So it was when we made the EIGHT hour journey by car from Bukit Lawang to Samosir Island on Lake Toba. To give you an idea of how bad the roads are in Sumatra the distance between the two is about 150 miles. You would think that meant we pootled along at 20mph – if only! Allowing for a couple of breaks we spent over 7 hours alternating between hurtling head-long towards oncoming traffic or bouncing up and down at 2mph over the most potholed surfaces (I can’t dignify what we were driving on with the term “road”). It’s hard to say which was worse, but this was a journey I wouldn’t wish on anybody with the possible exception of Indonesia’s Minister for Transport.

After a couple of hours our driver popped a CD on – a funny eclectic mix. As The Foundations “Build Me Up Buttercup” came on Sam said “oh I like this tune” – “you won’t in six hours” I replied. And so it proved as the CD was left on repeat replaying, I think, seven times. Whenever we hear any of those songs again it will remind us of that day. But you know what they say – no pain, no gain and as we neared our destination of Parapat, we got our first glimpse of Lake Toba and Samosir Island:


Samosir Island and Lake Toba

When we planned our trip to Lake Toba we were excited about the prospect of the stunning beauty of the volcanic countryside. However, we learned that as recently as June of this year a ferry sank on the lake with 190 lives lost. An appalling tragedy caused by overloading of passengers and sailing in bad weather. It’s the sort of avoidable disaster that seems to be too common in Indonesia. It was a sombre feeling crossing the lake on water that gently rippled beneath us.

The Ferry from Parapet

Lake Toba has a remarkable history. 75,000 years ago it was the site of a super-volcanic eruption that caused a mini-ice age, with ash being deposited as far as Africa. Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world measuring a staggering 100km long, up to 30km wide and depths reaching 500 meters. Sitting in the middle of the lake is Samosir Island with its own claim to fame being the worlds largest island on an island.

Approaching Tuk-Tuk, Samosir Island

It’s created a stunning rugged landscape that constantly reminds you of the latent power rumbling away beneath our feet – brought home to us more prosaically by the advice on “what to do in the event of an earthquake” in our lodgings. In these parts it isn’t a question of “if” but of “when”.

The best way to get about the Island is to either hire a scooter for a day to investigate and look at the scenery from different angles, or get on the lake itself with a kayak – we spent a couple of days doing both.

Sam sporting her “Hello Kitty” crash helmet!

After a day whizzing around on a 125cc scooter, it was lovely to clamber into the kayak and enjoy the peace and quiet of the lake with only the sound of our paddles breaking the silence.


More often than not Lake Toba sits calmly reflecting all that looks down on it, while in contrast on its shoulders sit terrifically steep mountain-sides, dark and broody.

Lake Toba

The indigenous Batak people have a history as interesting as the geology on which they live. Isolated from other communities for centuries they practised animism: the belief in spirits in flora, fauna, land and humans. The real elephant in the room when it comes to the Bataks culture was their practice of ritual cannibalism. We visited a place called the “Stone Chairs” where Batak elders had sat in judgement on wrong-doers, some of whom would be killed and eaten for punishment. In more recent centuries condescending Missionaries of various faiths became a staple in the Batak Cookbook, until Dutch Colonialism brought it to an end. Booo!

Batak Wood Carvings


Distinctive wood carvings can be found throughout the Island, as can the unique Batak houses with their striking roofs, which are still in use today.

Batak Village Green Preservation

There was something quite “Wicker Man” about Samosir Island – and we liked it all the more for that. After the excitement of orang-utans, gibbons, rafting and spine shattering car journeys, it was an oasis of calm, quiet reflection –  watching the mood of the lake change with the weather.

Reflections on Lake Toba


Top Travelling Tips – Talc

In the five months we have been travelling, with the exception of our time in the Vietnamese highlands of Dalat, there have probably been only a small hand full of days when the temperature hasn’t topped 30 degrees. The heat and humidity finally got to Sam in Singapore when she complained of an unpleasant and unrelenting chaffing sensation. She stomped into a pharmacy (as far as one can stomp while chaffing) and asked for talc. I was initially perplexed by this having not used talc for as long as I can remember – but I didn’t dare question Sam’s motivation. What a revelation talc has been in our daily battle to manage the perspiration that springs from our pores, and of course reduce chaffing! Now, we begin our day with a liberal dousing of talc, that produces small clouds as we walk through the streets. We have no idea what people must think, but we don’t care – it provides some small but lovely respite. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next Up: Our next Indonesian Island: Java




Singapore: A Sensational Assault on the Senses

Gardens By The Bay At Sunset

Singapore was always going to feel like a very different stop on our travels through South East Asia. After the relatively chaotic nature of cities like Hanoi, Chiang Mai and to a lesser extent Kuala Lumpur, would it be too cold and clinical compared to the hospitality and warmth of its neighbours? Happily, our five days in Singapore was a really good balance: enjoying its creature comforts – something as simple as walking on pavements unencumbered by mopeds or craters – stunning architecture and gardens; and vibrant ethnic neighbourhoods.

As you would expect, Downtown Singapore is very built up, resembling a clean-cut cross between Hong Kong and Manhattan.


One of the striking features of the modern skyscrapers is how much greenery has been incorporated into the design. As a result “vertical gardens” complement the glass and concrete beautifully throughout the downtown area. Combined with bays and rivers it makes for an engrossing built environment that demands attention and appreciation.

Vertical Gardens Galore

Dotted among the modernism are colonial style buildings that act as a reminder of an evocative past when the streets were full of rickshaws, opium dens flourished in China Town, and the Singapore Sling had just been concocted. Sadly one of the best known colonial buildings, Raffles Hotel, is currently being renovated so we didn’t get a chance to see much of it beyond glimpses  above construction hoardings.

Nowhere is the City’s commitment to greening more beautiful and stunning than Gardens by the Bay. This was one of the “must sees” on our travel to do list and it lived up to our very high expectations. Covering a huge area, the Gardens are dominated by the Supertree Grove and two huge glasshouses.

Looking down on Gardens By The Bay and the Shipping Lanes Beyond

The Supertrees are straight out of a sci-fi film, towering over the gardens, the “trunks” covered in flowers and foliage, while the “branches” stretch out carrying illuminations. You take an elevator inside the “tree” to get to the “Observation Deck” (how very Star Trek!) where you can get up close to the trees and survey the “forest”.

Super Tree Walkway

The best time to visit the Grove is late afternoon early evening as the sun is going down and the lights on the trees begin to glow, the colours constantly changing with the sunset. It makes for a magical sight, another experience we will treasure, but unlike the many natural wonders we have seen, this is man made ingenuity, a wonderful marriage of design and horticulture at its very best.

Lighting Up

Local families and sightseers gather for the Supertree Light Show that takes place twice in the evenings, when the trees light up in harmony to a soundtrack. “Tonight’s show” a voice sounding a bit like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey “will be on the theme of musical theatre”. On hearing this a little part of me died inside, but to be fair the show was fantastic, a symphony of lights and colour that made the Grove flash out against the nights backdrop. I even managed to appreciate a few seconds of Phantom of the Opera……just a few. Sharing this experience with hundreds of people gathered round on the grass was a delight and Sam captured a bit of great footage..


The two giant glasshouses comprise a Flower Dome and a Cloud Forest. The former is impressive, but the Cloud Forest really is jaw-dropping.

Cloud Forest Waterfall

Waterfalls cascade down a mini-mountain of flora creating a fine mist, among lovely orchids and rare plants.

A Forest Under Glass

Every effort is made to create a superb visitor experience and even though you are one of hundreds slowly wending their way through the forest it never felt crowded or hurried.

Misty Mountain Top

Towards the Bay Area sits the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, quite unlike any other building in the city centre. Sam thinks the design of the top section is based on a surfboard, while it reminded me of something far more mundane, an ironing board. Judge for yourself….


Stonehenge maybe?

The plateau roof boasts a remarkable infinity pool, but it looks horribly crowded as hotel guests elbow each other for a bit of space to claim their perfect Insta shot. Like all tall buildings these days the hotel has a viewing deck (top right in the pic above) that has great views of Gardens by the Bay on one side and the city on the other.

Above The Flyer

It even manages to look down on the Singapore Flyer – largest wheel of its kind in the world providing more views of the city, sitting above the Singapore’s F1 track that hosts a night time Grand Prix. We took a spin on the Wheel – although at 30 minutes to rotate you hardly feel any movement.

As night falls the City lights up beautifully.

Up-lit Downtown


If this all sounds as though it does confirm the modern Singapore stereotype that would be a bit unfair as there are three neighbourhoods that literally bring you back down to earth with their age, authenticity, colour and vibrancy.

Street Art by Arab Street

I have to confess a real ignorance about Singapore: I had no idea about its ethnicity or language (I actually asked Sam “do they speak Singaporean”?) No, the ethnic mix of Chinese (76%), Indian (7%), and the indigenous Malay (15%), with a few others thrown in, means there is a mix of languages, although its colonial history  means that everyone seems to be able to speak English.

With this mix comes the three neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India, and the Arab Quarter. We saw some of Chinatown where it borders the Downtown area so we decided to spend more time in the other two.

Looking Cool in the Arab Quarter – it was about 35 degrees!

The Arab Quarter is relatively small but boasts a lot of tourist activity along the busy and pretty roads around Arab Street, the local Mosque and Malay Heritage Centre.


Colourful street art sits alongside buzzing cafes, independent shops, and cool bars. It’s the ideal spot to window shop and given the heat, regularly stop at cafes for refreshments and people watching.

Little India on the other hand is a much bigger area where the large Tamil population are based, in crowded streets where the noise, shops and stalls engulf you.

Shoppers Paradise


Little India Market

The indoor market is fabulous fun, drawing you in and saturating you with colour, fragrances and warm welcoming smiles.

Friendly Little India

This area feels nothing like the Singapore we expected, and it’s all the better for that, reminding visitors of the diversity of the City and an environment that feels a million miles from its high-tech neighbour just a mile or two Downtown.

The Double Helix Bridge

..and amid that modernity there is fun as well. On passing one of Singapore’s huge shopping malls a glittering chandelier caught our eyes. Further investigation revealed a giant sparkling light set above a digitally interactive dance floor where children cavorted about gleefully, seeing their footsteps create patterns on the floor. A joyful scene that made Singapore more endearing than we ever imagined it could be. It’s not typical South-East Asia, and it’s certainly not cheap, but it’s worth the effort and expense – there really is no place like it.

Not Your Usual Mall

Top Travelling Tips – Embracing the Bum Gun

South East Asia doesn’t have the most robust sewerage systems in the world and in most countries there will be a polite message by the toilet reminding you not to put paper down the loo but rather in the bin. Before you recoil at this, that paper should have been used for a gentle pat dry after deploying the Bum Gun. Plumbed into nearly every loo is a sort of hand-held bidet that shoots out jets of water to clean what needs to be cleaned. After overcoming my usual British reserve I have learnt to embrace the Bum Gun – metaphorically and literally. However, a word to the wise, care should be taken. Somewhere in Thailand I had become a bit Bum Gun “trigger happy” and rather gung-ho when I came across one that had its water pressure set so high I nearly shot off the pedestal. That one really made the eyes water – got the job done though!


Next Up: Orang-utans & Bataks in Volcanic Sumatra





Marvellous Malaysia on The Straits of Malacca

Dusky Leaf Monkeys

As part of our travels Sam and I agreed to look out for a spot, where at some point in the future, we might want to stay for a month or two, away from the English winter. We’ve seen many beautiful places but nowhere with the right balance of things to do, see, experience and enjoy for an extended period…..until we came to George Town on Penang Island, sitting on the north-west coast of Malaysia. On entering Malaysia you get a three-month visa free of charge – a great start – then you meet the wonderful multi-cultural people, eat the fabulous food, and of course bask in the tropical climate.

Tucked at the top of the Straits of Malacca, Penang had an important strategic position in the development of trade in the 1700 – 1800’s, which saw colonial powers impose themselves along the Straits – British in Penang and the Dutch in Malacca. Both cities now enjoy UNESCO Heritage site status largely due to the incredibly well preserved and diverse architecture of their respective old towns.

George Town Dispensary 1923

However, the architectural heritage is not limited to colonial style buildings. One of the most striking features of Penang and to some extent Malaysia, is the evidence of its multi-cultural history and presence. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the “Street of Harmony” where in the space of a mile you can walk from the Anglican Church of St George’s,


to the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple, which contains remarkable stories about the warring Chinese Clans in the 1840’s…


on to Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple,


and to Kapitan Keling Mosque in the space of half a mile.


The history is fascinating. Captain Francis Light is credited with the development of George Town (hence the colonial name) in 1786, serving the interests of the British East India Company. Through some typically duplicitous colonial dealings he secured a lease on the land. If ever there was an example of history being written by the victorious it can be found on his monument in St George’s.


Judging by the reaction we got when we asked a local guide about the veracity of the epitaph it would probably be labelled “fake news” these days!

One of the endearing features of George Town is the plethora of ramshackle trading stores adorned with vintage signage. I particularly liked this one with the old Raleigh sign (Robin Hood included)…


..and ancient seemingly decrepit workshops that still showed signs of activity, although quite what they produce…well, who knows..”housing materials” apparently.

Truly a Man Cave!

Complementing the architecture is a wonderful array of street art. Tracking these down becomes something of an adventure in itself with unexpected delights popping up all over town. There are three particular popular ones which use real bikes to make the art even more remarkable.

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However, this is just the tip of the iceberg and George Town has rightly become famous for its burgeoning street art scene. Here is selection of some of our favourites..

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More Monkey Business

As well as the pleasures of George Town, Penang Island has lots of other attractions, including Penang Hills, where the temperature drops and a lush tropical forest sits towering above the town. We jumped on a bus and enjoyed a ride through the Island for a few pence before reaching the Hills. A swift cable car journey up and before we knew it we found ourselves gazing at beautiful and striking Dusky Leaf Monkeys. They look unreal and you find yourself staring at them in amazement. By monkey standards they are shy, so we were delighted to see them and their striking features close up.


We took a guided tour through the jungle high across a walkway and were able to view the jungle close up, with the sound of cicadas (and mimicking Drongo birds) for a soundtrack.

Jungle Walkway

Our guide spotted something quite unique, a crab that lives in the foliage in the mountains – the Highland Vampire Crab. I don’t know what you think, but a creature called a Vampire Crab isn’t ideal! Here is a picture of one modelled rather bravely by Sam….


It wasn’t all trekking and animal spotting. I had time for a jungle canopy swing. Turn the volume up to get the full Cicada soundtrack at 10 secs…..

Before we finished our visit on a canopy walkway looking down the jungle treetops

Sam on top of the Jungle Canopy

Malaysian Nom Nom

Whether you go away for a long trip or a long weekend you can’t help wondering if you are going to be okay on the food front in a foreign land. The scales we occasionally come across in our hotel rooms provide an unambiguous answer and are a testament to the fact that we are having absolutely no difficulty filling our faces. With a small handful of exceptions, the food has been excellent, and George Town with its multi-cultural offerings tops the list for cuisine. Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia and rightly so. The Little India neighbourhood was full of lovely restaurants with great veggie dishes. We also indulged in a lot of pancake eating having discovered a superb place on the Street of Harmony serving up the best pancakes we have ever eaten – and as pancake/crepe aficionados that is high praise. Their speciality one included beansprouts and sultanas – an odd mix but it was delicious. Here is a sample of their wonderful wares..


Penang and George Town have made a really great impression on us and it’s definitely a place we want to return to. We scratched the surface on our visit and there is a lot more to see on this wonderful Malaysian Island. Getting on the ferry across the Straits of Malacca, to get the train south to Kuala Lumpur, we felt excited but a bit sad to leave. Sam caught me looking like a wistful traveller on the ferry looking back at Penang.

Wherever I lay my hat..

Kuala Lumpur

We visited KL as recently as three years ago, and enjoyed seeing the main sites such as the Petronas Towers and the Batu Caves on that trip. So we took the opportunity to have a bit of a relax and have some down time. That didn’t stop us popping up the KL Tower for some great views of the city and to test our nerve by walking in the glass sky box that is appended to the Tower. Given the popularity of the sky box you queue for at least 20 minutes and then you are allowed a maximum of two minutes in the box before you are asked to leave and let the next group in.  Most people abused this rule, staying in there for far longer until a burly Malaysian security man insisted they leave. When our turn came we gingerly stepped out onto the glass, looked down very briefly, adopted suitable poses for pics and after about 40 seconds I suggested to Sam that we had seen all we needed to see and should really leave and let the next people in the queue have their moment.

KL Tower Sky Box

We also visited a few night markets, enjoying the food and atmosphere, but not so much the rain. I don’t know what it is about KL but it rains more regularly than any place we have ever been to, with every day delivering huge downpours with violent thunder and lightning.



We continued our journey down the west coast on Malaysia’s excellent railway system – the best we have experienced so far. Clean, comfortable and punctual, the ideal way to see the countryside unfolding. Malacca is another interesting town with an important trading history that was primarily developed by the Dutch and Portuguese, with a bit of British interference at some point. Although not quite as interesting as George Town (to us at least) it has its charm including the pink Christ Church dating from 1753.


…and a great riverside walk where there is more evidence of the Malaysian enthusiasm for street art and murals.


The town is also famed for its colourful street market on Jonker Walk which gets jam-packed at the weekend and is perfect for people watching from the respite of a bar stool.

Herbs, spices & all sorts on a Jonker Walk stall

The Malacca Tourist Board won’t thank us for saying this, but two of our abiding memories from the town are firstly the bizarre and quite frankly horrendous pimped up “rickshaws” that cycle about the town decorated with venerable historical characters such as Hello Kitty and Pokemon while pumping out deafening cheesy music. We were told that they are one of the local traditions. Well quite frankly they are an abomination to a town claiming heritage status. Your Honour, I present “Exhibit A” for the prosecution….

Get Lost Kitty!

Secondly, we found our way into what looked like a British Pub – our suspicions confirmed when we looked at the menu and my eyes immediately alighted on the words “Branston Pickle” while Sam spotted “Pie and Mash”. Absence really can make the heart grow fonder when it comes to HP sauce, Branston Pickle and mashed potato with gravy! We both love South East Asian food and didn’t really think we were hankering after any food from home. That is until we saw the menu and scoffed down our meals in record time. We were two very happy campers after that meal…..until we ran into some more of the blasted rickshaw contraptions again!

Home Comforts


Up Next:

From Malacca we took another train south to head into our sixth country – Singapore. However, we will be returning to Malaysia in November when we go to Borneo in search of more jungle wildlife. In the meantime, there is a lot of travelling to be done including the next stages in our adventure which are going to present us with a real contrast: spotless Singapore, followed by the wild Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.








Island Hopping and a Jungle Treehouse in Southern Thailand

Beats Halong Bay – Chiew Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park

After our busy trek southwards from Northern Thailand, the last couple of weeks have been a real contrast: lazing around on beautiful island beaches and living in a jungle treehouse in Thailand’s premier National Park, Khao Sok.

We’ve been reflecting on the difference between holidaying and travelling. The most obvious one to us is the ability to have lots of downtime where we do next to nothing. Our holidays are usually organised with military precision, making the most of nearly every minute. Whereas now doing nothing is not only fine, it’s essential to avoid total exhaustion. If we were in holiday mode Sam would have quite rightly throttled me by now. It felt a bit odd initially, but we both really value the time where we just rest, read or float about listlessly in the sea knowing that we have days lined up where we will be busy, followed by doing absolutely nothing…or maybe thinking about material for the blog!

Heading to the south of Thailand we decided it was time for some island life, opting for the east coast and the Gulf of Thailand before the rains set in. The beaches are beautiful and quiet at this time of year, ideal for recharging the batteries.

We spent five horizontal days on the south coast of Ko Phangan looking across the water to the north coast of Koh Samui. These beaches are really popular and very busy in high season, but we had some of them virtually to ourselves – a real island paradise.

Away from the numbers

Then after a short ferry ride, we then spent a week on the north coast of Samui gazing at the south coast of Phangan. Obviously we did a little bit more than that….but not much more!

Mae Nam Beach, Samui

Both islands have their party reputations, especially Ko Phangan and its legendary full moon party (although in truth there appears to be a party arranged for every phase of the lunar cycle). However, that is definitely not our scene (anymore!) and there are more than enough quiet beaches to be found on both islands to escape the booze-filled hedonistic madness.


We haven’t been completely idle: another joy of having time on our side is the chance to plough through books old, new, and varied that we would never normally get the opportunity to read in just a few sittings. I’ve also got my head down and done some real work – a desk, good wifi and laptop enabling me to get on with some projects. Okay, it’s not work in the traditional sense but I’m enjoying the idea of being a nomadic worker and the “office” isn’t too shabby either….

Never had a view like this at Worthing Town Hall

Khao Sok National Park

When Sam left her job in Crawley, her colleagues bought her an excellent Lonely Planet coffee table travel book, containing the top 500 places to visit in the world. Tucked away somewhere in the 400’s was a short paragraph extolling the virtues of Khao Sok National Park in south west of Thailand. We decided this would make for a great change from the beach and researched accommodations options, of which they turned out to be plenty. We opted for a treehouse experience – how often are you going to get that opportunity?

Our jungle home

This was going to be four days and nights of rustic living, among the sights, sounds and smells of the jungle. You know you’re in for the real deal when the guide book in your room provides advice on how to deal with the variety of animals you might come across in the jungle and (more alarmingly) in your treehouse. For example, you and I know that leeches are harmless…………..but that doesn’t mean I want the little bleeders (see what I did there) anywhere near me! There was also friendly but firm instruction on not leaving doors or windows open, otherwise you might find a troop of long tailed macaque monkeys squatting in your home. Although none got into our lodgings they did make themselves very comfortable on our “verandah”.

Cheeky Monkey

Rejuvenated from our island break we launched ourselves into a series of jungle tours and activities starting with a night safari into the National Park, where our eagle eyed guide was able to point out stick insects, various lizards, frogs, a mouse deer (or was it a deer mouse?) and a sinister looking tree viper hanging high above our heads. Sam was his match though spotting the amazing sight of fire-flys lighting up the darkness and bringing our attention to the presence of a large bat by deploying a high pitch scream as it flew in front of her face. When we turned our torches off we were plunged into pitch blackness and the sounds and smells of the jungle were heightened. Tramping into the dark jungle was a unique experience and great fun. We felt proper adventurous!

The next day we took an hours drive to Chiew Lan Lake to see the beautiful limestone karsts that are studded throughout brilliant blue green water. This is breath taking scenery – as good as the far more famous Halong Bay in Vietnam, but without thousands of tourists cramming the waters.

Vertical karsts

….we could easily fill the blog with pictures of this gorgeous scenery, but here is a bit of footage instead..

On getting to shore we had a short trek before a bamboo raft took us to some caves, before a bit of downtime swimming and kayaking in the lake.  During the trek we found the hidey-hole of a tarantula with its legs peeping out….(note camera shake)….


….and by way of contrast signage warning of larger beasts…


After our exertions we took a canoe trip down the River Sok, which started inauspiciously when a frail bamboo bridge I was crossing, gave way with a loud crack, under my burgeoning weight, much to Sam’s delight. Karma immediately saw to it that while failing to control her hilarity her left leg disappeared into river mud sinking her knee deep. Having abandoned our dignity on shore we sailed gracefully downstream with our guide. Strangely the trip included stopping for a cuppa boiled on a campfire…. all we longed for in the sweltering heat was ice cold water, but after all the trouble the guide went to, we felt obliged to drink the hot tea.

More tea vicar?

It did give us another chance to stop and look at the incredible limestone rock formations that never fail to impress:


On our last day Sam wisely ducked out of a walk that was billed as a trek into deeper jungle. Our guide wanted to show me his village and take me off the beaten track. He advised that I regularly rub in bug repellant as the jungle would be full of leeches. My heart sank a bit further when I observed he was armed with a machete to help clear the path we were to take. Twenty minutes in my clothes were drenched in sweat, breathing heavily and thinking I wouldn’t last much longer! Leeches kept attaching themselves to my shoes so I had to keep vigilant, brushing them off before they made it to my skin. Yuk! Thankfully the heat, humidity and machete hacking got to my guide and he started to slow down. We certainly were off the beaten track, in fact there was no track for large parts of the trek. As we faced another section of dense jungle with no obvious route ahead I asked “….er… when was the last time you came on this trek exactly?” My guide stopped and thought for a moment “over two years ago” came his reply! No wonder there was no path to follow. Here is a pic of the typical view of our trek….

A path less travelled..

Between warnings of leeches, poisonous plants, wild pigs and spiky bamboo I vaguely recalled him mentioning that the second part of he trek would involve walking beside and through a river. So I was thrilled to hear the sound of a river babbling away after 90 minutes of deep jungle experience. I did briefly here the call of the Gibbon (probably warning me about the leeches), but didn’t spot any wildlife. My guide was as good as his word and we spent the next hour walking through fast cool waters that refreshed my tired feet and made the whole experience well worth the effort. I felt quite triumphant that I hard done it and was coming out alive.

Bear Grylls….not

However, the leeches had the final say, despite my running battle with them one had made its way onto the back of my leg and was happily sucking away. No pain, but it turned out to be quite hard to staunch the flow of blood once I’d got it off me. By way of consolation I finished the trek with a spot of tubing down the River Sok – great fun and a brilliant way to see the river and its wildlife (inc a mangrove snake) from a different angle. Apologies for the pincer legs and knobbly knees that swing into shot…..

During our last night when we were settled in our bed, when there was a noisy commotion near our heads, something quite large was in our room and far too close for comfort. As is the way when these things happen, I was despatched by Sam to leave the safety of our mosquito net cocoon and with iPhone torch set to stun, identify and presumably deal with the cause. As I gingerly stepped into the bathroom I found a very large lizard staring back at me with four eyes. “That’s unusual” I thought to myself, until I realised that two of the eyes belonged to a creature in the lizards mouth, which I think was a frog, but could have been a large cockroach. Sadly this pic doesn’t do it justice, but it was a real monster..


We loved our jungle adventures and it is incredibly exciting and humbling being so near to so much untarnished beauty. We can’t speak highly enough of Khao Sok – it’s turned out to be a really unexpected gem in our journey. Having said that after five days up in our treehouse we were ready for a return to creature comforts, air-con and a really hot powerful shower.

Oh Phuket

With a trip to Penang in northern Malaysia planned, we drove south from the jungle to Phuket where a short flight over the border would take us to our next country. We weren’t particularly keen on the idea of Phuket – another Thai island that comes laced with pre-conceptions and a dodgy reputation. However, we didn’t realise just how big the island is and how easy it was to find a hotel sitting next to a deserted beach and a small forest. With no desire to see the islands lowlights, we took root and enjoyed a few more days of island snoozing.

Nai Yang Beach fringed by Sirinart National Park

Top Travelling Tip

If you follow the Thai courtesy of leaving your footwear outside your home, it pays to be vigilant. One morning while putting on my trainers I could feel my toe pushing against a rolled up sock. “That’s odd…..both my socks are on the floor” followed by a rapid realisation that something else was pressing against my toe in my shoe. After a panicky withdrawal of my foot a rather disgruntled and crumpled frog hopped out, obviously enjoying the damp and clammy home it had made for itself until I launched my size 10 at it. I’m pleased to report no damage was done to the frog or myself. However, Sam was less than happy as I burst into a full length version of “Froggie went a Courting”  for the next hour.

Evicted from home, sweet home


Next Time: Mmmmmmmmm…..Malaysia!!


Suki and the Elephant AirBnB in Chiang Mai



We spent last year running an AirBnB from our home in Brighton, letting our spare bedrooms to travellers from all over the world. As a result, we regularly received an AirBnB magazine that highlighted some of the most unusual and exotic AirBnB accommodation across the world. One in particular caught our eye: a set of rustic villas located in an elephant sanctuary in the jungle an hour west from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The article promised living among the elephants, and the chance to meet and interact with them close up. We duly checked the letting details – at about £30.00 a night it looked a great deal and a unique visit. As we don’t plan out itinerary much more than 2/3 weeks ahead at a time we couldn’t make an immediate booking, but we knew when we planned to go to Chiang Mai so we checked again once we were approaching Thailand and found there were rooms still available for a couple of nights. More messing around with elephants beckoned!

On arrival we discovered to get to the camp we had to drag our luggage across a long, rickety and bouncy bridge that swayed worryingly with each step and looked straight out of the set of “I’m a Celebrity….” but this was much more a case of “get me in there” as we viewed the idyllic  river running alongside the villas with elephants dotted about.


After checking into our Villa – a wonderfully ramshackle timber building – we were pointed in the direction of baby elephant Suki and invited to introduce ourselves to her. What a beauty Suki is, 3 months old and just about mastering coordination of her strong ungainly limbs and inquisitive trunk.


We booked ourselves on to a day’s tour at the sanctuary: a jungle trek, followed by rafting down the river, the highlight of feeding Suki and her mother, and bathing another one of the herd in the flowing river.

When you book onto something called a jungle trek you kind of expect a fairly long but pleasant stroll through a rainforest for an hour or so, taking in a waterfall or two. If that option existed we didn’t get it!! Along with three fellow trekkers from France and Brazil we headed off in our songthaew (an open-air taxi with minimal suspension) for a drive deep into the jungle where we were deposited with our two guides, one of whom was clearly worried about my age and fitness as she kept checking “John, you okay?” She had good reason. The heat was draining, but what made it exhausting was the regular disappearance of anything resembling a horizontal path to follow, which meant that we had to spend a lot of the trek head down working out where to place each foot. The terrain was uneven to say the least and obstructed by jagged rocks, fallen trees and swamps. Steep vertical drops started appearing on one side of the route with the only thing preventing us slipping being up grasping overhanging branches and vines for support. I was going to jokingly ask our guides how many tourists they had lost over the years but thought better of it in case they gave me an honest answer. My long legs gave me some advantage but poor Sam had to clamber over all sorts. We eventually reached a waterfall in one piece and went for a dip in rather bracing water – a blessed if short-lived relief from the heat.


While we swam in the river our guides decided that in the interests of health and safety we should each have a stick to help us through the jungle. Ten minutes later five bamboo sticks roughly hewn from the jungle were issued to us. They were a great help although I nearly speared myself on mine, pole vault style. Crossing narrow bamboo bridges over rapids soon followed (along with a sense of deja vu after our Luang Prabang bridge nightmare), until wet slippery undergrowth mercifully gave way to flat wide paths, allowing our travel insurance policy to slip back into its hammock and rest easy again. (I’ve come to think of our Travel Insurance Policy as a real entity that looks down on us frowning as we embark on some of our adventures).


After trekking, sailing down the Wang River on a bamboo raft of dubious construction was relaxing and serene, the waters rushing past us as we veered between rocks and overhanging trees skilfully steered by our skipper with his bamboo rod. Another magical experience when your senses drink in the jungle floating by and you are immersed in the moment, not a care in the world. Priceless.

However, the best was yet to come. Having scrambled off our raft we met up with our elephant guide and went off to feed Suki and mum: “you go ahead, they will follow you – they can smell the bananas!” Being eagerly pursued by several tons of elephant who are very keen to relieve you of all the bananas stored in the basket on your shoulder is quite a feeling, like having a London bus relentlessly homing in on you. Suki, who hasn’t yet graduated to banana feeding, added to the chaos by careering between her mums’ legs and nearly knocking me and Sam flat on our faces. Terrific fun and all the time being up close to these remarkable creatures.


After feeding time was over, we headed back down to the river to bathe another elephant who is one of the most delightfully tactile creatures, wrapping its trunk around us playfully as we did our best to exfoliate her tough hide.


As we sat in the bar area in the evenings and mornings elephants would wander up looking for a treat, sniffing out any sign of a banana going spare. We agreed that this remarkable AirBnB had exceeded the expectations that had whetted our appetite in the glossy magazine we read months ago whilst still in the UK.


However, the constant presence of glorious elephants is only half the story at Chai Lai Orchard. It also runs a social enterprise called Daughter’s Rising that rescues women and young girls from the ever growing sex trafficking industry. Their remarkable work not only allows a route for these women to escape this dreadful industry, but provides training and education. All of the young women working at this sanctuary have escaped and are being given opportunities to learn English, train in hospitality and have a future free from fear and exploitation. A brilliant short film explains more at this link:

Daughters Rising Film


Chiang Mai – same same, but different..

Ten years ago we we stayed in Chiang Mai and we were looking forward to returning to the city. We chose to stay close to the vibrant Night Market, which seems to have grown even bigger as have the food courts that accompany it, selling cheap and delicious meals. We happily overdosed on fabulous fresh veggie Pad Thai, cooked in seconds for a couple of quid and a refreshing bottle of Leo to accompany it.

The old town with its historic walls hasn’t changed much, but the Wat’s and Temples seemed to be grander, with more gold leaf decoration than when we last visited.


In one temple a young monk sat meditating and praying with fellow Bhuddists, while further across the room about a dozen elderly monks sat quietly, cross legged and as still as stone, a picture of tranquility in deep meditation……… took us five minutes to realise they weren’t real, but astonishingly life like wax replicas.


Rather than head off straight to Bangkok, and onward to the islands in the south, we thought we would meander down on the train and spend a few days stopping off at some interesting towns en route, starting with Lampang. While the town itself was unremarkable the surrounding countryside offered beautiful hilltop panorama’s to view the paddy fields, plains and mountains of the area.


After a two day stopover we took the train to Sukothai where the ancient town was a real find. Temples, Wats, and statues of Bhudda in a lovely historical park area that was beautifully conserved. We took a couple of bikes from the hotel and happily cycled around the ancient sites for several hours.


Remarkably there was hardly anyone there, a handful of visitors wandering around the large site in virtual solitude. Sukothai really deserves more attention.


Sukothai also provided us with our best hotel infinity pool experience yet, which is saying something given the ones we’ve enjoyed to date…..


Our third stop was less enthralling. It started badly with a four hour journey on a train carriage with no air/con in 30 degrees+ temperature. Everyone in the train carriage appeared to be struggling to manage the sweltering heat and we were so glad we’d  decided to break the journey up and could escape before Bangkok. When we passed through Lopburi 10 years ago, the station was covered with monkeys scurrying around the station. On arrival there was no sign of any monkeys, other than ornamental ones, so we decided to head straight to the hotel and looked for a taxi, of which there were none. Instead two old fellas on 3-wheel bikes leapt up, crammed our bags, and us, into each of their tricycles and began to cycle….very slowly. In fact my cycling chauffeur was considerably older than Sam’s (who had overtaken us immediately) and after a short downhill stretch he had to hop off and push. Now I know I’m carrying a few extra pounds and could lose a bit of weight but I thought that this was a bit much. As he struggled to push the combined weight of his bike, bag and passenger guilt got the better of me and I hopped out and helped him push as well, much to the amusement of a passing van load of children, laughing at the sweaty westerner paying to push his own luggage on a tricycle.


After checking in we took the precaution of booking a taxi with a combustion engine and headed into town in search of Lopburi’s famous monkeys and oh my we found them! It was like stumbling on the set of Planet of the Apes. The ground was alive with the movement of wild monkeys eating, fighting, chasing each other through traffic, adorning buildings left, right and centre, and having the most blatant in your face sex!



Now we like our little simian ancestral cousins but quite frankly this was unpleasant, it was really clear who bossed Lopburi town! By a monument we met a man with dark glasses and a big white stick – we incorrectly assumed he was blind. In fact the big white stick was for beating monkeys that came too close. He gestured wildly to Sam speaking rapidly in Thai, but we were unable to get the gist of what he meant. A few more frantic gestures and it became clear he was indicating for her to take the sunglasses off her head, before the monkeys did it for her!! Looking at the numbers I couldn’t help feeling that his luck was going to run out soon and that stick was going to be appropriated by a pack of marauding monkeys and shoved in a place where the sun doesn’t shine ………sideways.


Two hours on from Lopburi we crawled into Bangkok for a one night stop before flying south. After the mixed comforts of our train journeys south we came across the complete opposite. Standing regally at the next platform was the Eastern Oriental Express that runs from Bangkok via Kuala Lumper to Singapore. An absolute beauty and thankfully not a monkey in sight!



Top Travelling Tips
Carrying travel books around for a year is not a practical option in the battle to keep luggage weight down. There are loads of good online travel sites that provide great up to date advice, maps, itineraries and recommendations. For S/E Asia we would recommend Travelfish for its detailed and excellent guides. Cheap to boot and well worth the investment. The other must have for train travel (anywhere in the world) is the superb Man in Seat 61. A brilliant source of information, timetables and advice.


Next Up: Island Life and a Treehouse in Southern Thailand

Laos: A Tale of Two Cities


Of all the locations on our itinerary, Laos is probably the one we knew least about and had done nearly no advance reading on.  The only land-locked country in S/E Asia, Laos doesn’t have an obvious wow factor to poach tourists from its neighbours. No Bangkok or Saigon, and while it certainly doesn’t lack interesting ancient temples, it has nothing in the scale of Angkor in Cambodia.

However, therein lies some of its charm. Laos feels calm, relaxed and is certainly less hectic than its Vietnamese neighbour. On arriving it had more in common with Cambodia – although the capital Vientiane is much smaller than its Cambodian counterpart Phnom Penh, which is no bad thing.

Vientiane has to be the smallest and quietest capital city we have ever visited. Sitting on the banks of the Mekong, you can view the northeast border of Thailan. The river was high when we visited, but in the dry season we were told there are numerous mud flats meaning you can actually make the journey across on foot for part of the year. Being so compact it’s quite easy to visit several of the main tourist attractions of Vientiane in a few days: a smattering of temples; a beautiful reclining Bhudda;


French colonial architecture; a rather endearing but tired version of the Arc de Triomphe; and a very grand Presidential Palace which seems strangely incongruous in what is one of the only Marxist-Leninist Socialist Republics in the world…


Nice pad comrade!

Sam and I are trying to avoid the travellers affliction of getting “templed-out” on our trip by visiting other sites, museums and attractions. In Vientiane this led us to a fascinating but shocking discovery about the legacy of the Vietnam War that Laos continues to live with over 40 years after the last shots were fired.


While we knew that the USA had bombed Laos and Cambodia as part of their efforts to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, we didn’t appreciate the scale of the bombardment or its nature. We discovered more when we visited a medical centre that provides artificial limbs and treatment for the victims of land mines in Laos.

Incredibly, the USAF dropped more bombs on Laos than was dropped by the allies in Europe in WWII – 2 million tonnes of ordnance between 1964 and 1973; 580,000 missions, equivalent to a bombing raid every eight minutes 24 hours a day for nine years. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam war, despite having nothing to do with the war, than Vietnam itself.  As a result, Laos continues to hold the unwanted record of being the most bombed country in the world per capita.

If that wasn’t bad enough the “bombs” contained millions of small bombs known as “bombies” – the size of a tennis ball. 30% of these failed to detonate, leaving 80 million bombies scattered throughout the country at the end of the war. In turn this led to over 20,000 people being killed or injured by the unexploded bombs between 1975 and 2011.


A model of “bombies” at the COPE Centre

These bombies, which lie dormant for decades, are still being detonated today by farmers digging their land, the heat of an adjacent cooking pot, or commonly children discovering and playing with one. Having swathes of agricultural land, where farming can kill or maim you, prolongs the deadly legacy and poverty in Laos. Poverty also leads some to hunt for the scrap metal left from the war – a dangerous game of Russian roulette. The good news is that real progress is being made on bomb clearance making areas safe again, although this work can be undone in rainy season when mudslides and landslips mean that areas already declared safe once again become dangerous and need to be surveyed once again. It is a thoroughly depressing story that continues to create casualties today. The devastation caused by the USAs so called ‘Secret War’ is an epitaph to the war crimes of LBJ and Nixon.

Our visit to the COPE centre in Vientiane displayed not only the terrible consequences of the bombing, but the remarkable rehabilitation work to supply victims with new limbs and physiotherapy – a really inspiring effort in the face of what must seem like insurmountable odds.  If you are interested in reading more about their work it can be found at:


A short flight took us north to Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage site. On landing we immediately knew we had arrived somewhere special, with jungle and mountains bordering a gorgeous town that sits as a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Both rivers were high, topped up by rainy season and full of mud gorged from the fields and plantations that usually form their embankments. The speed of the rivers, especially at their confluence was an amazing sight.


Go on, push him in..

Despite the surrounding geography, the centre of Luang Prabang is pancake flat – perfect for pottering around on bicycles, especially ones that have no brakes, gears or lights (though they did come with baskets). We spent our first day gently rolling around the town, getting our bearings and making several pit stops for delicious homegrown banana smoothies.

Beside the Nam Khan River we came across a sign inviting us to a lovely riverside cafe – one catch: it’s on the other side of the river only accessible by a small boat. We parked the bikes and gingerly stepped onto the boat, sitting down among the liberally distributed life jackets. Off we went battling the current when suddenly the engine stalled and for a moment we thought we might be making another unscheduled trip to the Mekong Delta.


Happily after a few moments the engine spluttered back into life and we made it to the other side, rewarding ourselves with sublime crepes while perched precariously above the river.


Luang Prabang as well as being wonderful to pronounce is a delight, certainly comparable to Hoi An in Vietnam. The night  market is full of stalls selling local goods – (no fake designer tat like the other markets) and totally hassle-free – Laotians don’t do hassle; fab street food, excellent restaurants in beautiful wooden French colonial buildings, temples with bhudda’s galore, and the two stunning rivers regularly popping into view as you glance down a street one way or the other.


During one of our cycle trips we came across an old iron bridge only accessible for  motorbikes. We weren’t entirely sure if it was meant for cycles but decided to go for it. The wooden slats wobbled as we peddled our way nervously across facing the oncoming motorbikes just inches from our wheels.  We became increasingly aware of the queue of motorbikes patiently building up behind us as we pootled our way across, as illustrated by the stubborn tricyclist below…


On returning we found a narrow section of bridge which we thought might be intended for pedestrian access and thought it might be a safer option to push our bikes along this quieter, but considerably narrower route….so began the terror. This part of the bridge was made up of planks of wood, most of which were loose, and in one or two spots had disappeared altogether into the Nam Khan River below which was a long way down, very deep and fast flowing. Every now and then the front wheels of our bikes would slip down a gap between the planks, and we had to yank the wheel out causing the wood to creak and shake. Neither of us uttered a word during the crossing, a sure sign we were both properly scared and just wanted it to be over. It probably took us 10 minutes to cross, but it felt an awful lot longer.


When we eventually stepped back onto terra firma an elderly gentleman stood looking at us bewildered by our antics. “Good afternoon” I said in my best Hugh Grant voice, while Sam plonked herself down in the kerb and tried to regain some composure. I don’t know why but at no point, not even a few yards in did we ever consider stopping and going back, as if forward was our only option.


Smiling through gritted teeth

Luang Prabang is also a great base to visit the surrounding countryside that offers waterfalls, caves and elephant treks. We adore elephants (who doesn’t) and took a trip to a sanctuary where they have been spared a life of logging. Being with an elephant up close never fails to be a jaw dropping experience, their size, strength, and beauty overwhelming the senses.


After feeding them bananas we hopped on their necks for a ride through the jungle to a watering hole. It’s a strange sensation feeling yourself rock from side to side as your elephant lumbers forward, with nothing to hold on to. Despite being given some basic instructions (forward, left, right, stop….stop, PLEASE STOP!!) they regularly wander off the route to find whatever food they can forage to feed their voracious appetite.


You just have to hope that you aren’t going to be decapitated by overhanging branches or launched into the mud head first several feet below! Riding an elephant into a watering hole is exhilarating and terrifying, watching your elephant slowly disappear into the water leaving you marooned on her head and back, trunk sloshing about joyfully. We can’t get enough of elephants and will be staying in an AirBnB located in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand next week – can’t wait!


Another must see is Kuang Si waterfalls – famed for their bright blue water. However in rainy season the falls are a gushing torrent, milky coffee in colour, and are an absolutely drenching spectacle.


With waters high and wild lots of the paths and viewing platforms are closed or actually under water.


In the park area we unexpectedly came across a sanctuary for Moon Bears – much smaller than black bears, but looking equally adorable. These bears have been rescued from farms where their bile is extracted for “health benefits”. Sadly many have spent years in cages and can’t be released into the wild, unable to fed themselves and at the mercy of poachers. The sanctuary they are in is spacious, but it is sad to see fences keeping them in. The lesser of two evils.


On our last day in Laos we found that the Mekong had calmed and we took the opportunity to take a boat trip out to see it close up – beautiful and serene. When we set off we didn’t think about how often we would meet the Mekong and what an incredible river it is, sustaining so many communities and lives on its path from the mountains in the north, right through to the Delta.



The River isn’t without controversy, with Laos building dams along its course with the aim of being the hydro-electricity powerhouse of the region. However there are real concerns about how that will affect the rivers’ ecology and sustainability downstream, particularly for Cambodia and Vietnam.


Laos, the quiet relation of S/E Asia has been a very relaxing leg on our journey, and Luang Prabang will be one of our highlights of our travels.

Next Week – 10 years on we return to Chiang Mai in Thailand: same same but different.

In Memory Of The Killing Fields


Three years, eight months and twenty days” this is a timeframe etched on the Khmer people and it’s a phrase often quoted here when referring to the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot. It coldly quantifies Cambodia’s darkest time, the period when over 2 million Khmer were murdered – a quarter of the country’s population.

In our previous blog we struggled to find the superlatives to justify the astonishing beauty to be found in Cambodia. This week having visited the Killing Fields it’s equally hard, if not harder to find the words to adequately convey the horror inflicted on the innocent victims who are commemorated in Phnom Penh.

We should begin by addressing the question of writing on this subject and sharing photos. We had mixed feelings about what was appropriate and in some locations quite rightly photography isn’t allowed.

However, visitors are thanked, welcomed and movingly told that by paying their respects at the Killing Fields they become holders of the memory of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide; encouraged to share the story of what happened and to remember the victims so that such atrocities can be avoided in the future. So we will share with you our experience.

Memorial at S-21:


The Khmer people had suffered in the years prior to Khmer Rouge – a bloody civil war and the USA bombing campaigns in Kampuchea. Indeed, many initially celebrated the victory of the Khmer Rouge and the end of Civil War, but that was short lived. Within hours of entering Phnom Penh its inhabitants were told to leave for the countryside immediately on the pretence that the US were about to bomb the city. Incredibly the capital city, Phnom Penh, was emptied in 3 days – a ghost town.



So began ‘Year Zero’ and the implementation of ‘Brother 1’ Pol Pot’s regime that sent everyone to farms to create a peasant society. Professional people, the educated, monks, priests were all viewed with suspicion and would perish. Even wearing glasses marked you out as the enemy as this indicated an ability to read – no longer necessary and certainly enough reason to be executed.

There are two key sites in Phnom Penh that commemorate the genocide that took place from April 1975 to January 1979. We first visited Tuol Sleng Prison – simply known as S-21. A converted school, S-21 became the notorious centre of interrogation and torture of anyone suspected of being a traitor to Khmer Rouge, which in an increasingly paranoid regime became just about anyone.


Treatment of prisoners was barbaric with guards instructed not to kill prisoners but to prolong torture ensuring ‘confessions’ were obtained. The confessions typically involved admitting to spying for the enemy and naming fellow ‘conspirators’; which in turn led to more arrests and torture. Such was the madness of the regime that having killed all of the qualified doctors and nurses, Prison Guards had to learn rudimentary medical skills to try to keep prisoners alive to continue their torture. Some prisoners tried to end their misery by committing suicide by jumping off the high balconies at S-21, which led to barbed wire being put up to stop them.


The Prison Guards themselves were often imprisoned if they failed to extract confessions or killed a prisoner before he or she had signed their confession. It was a system built on fear and brutality.

The prison cells are small, basic and bleak. In many of the communal cell areas there are displays showing row upon row of photos of prisoners faces who look scared and bewildered. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge maintained detailed records of their victims much of which they failed to destroy when they eventually fled Phnom Penh.

A very small handful of prisoners survived S-21 & we were privileged to meet two of them on site. They promote the work to remember the genocide and gave evidence in some of the War Crime trials that belatedly took place almost 30 years after the
Khmer Rouge were defeated. Not surprisingly they are haunted by the experience, grieving for the family, friends and fellow Khmer who lost their lives.




Choeung Ek

Following S-21 we made the trip to Choeung Ek, about 10 miles south of the city.  There are a number of Killing Fields throughout Cambodia and Choeung Ek is the main memorial site. After obtaining confessions at S-21, prisoners were transported here along with others who had been rounded up – their final journey.  In order to save ammunition prisoners were usually beaten to death, had their throats cut and were thrown into mass graves. After the war ended almost 9000 bodies were discovered at the site, although many more have been left undisturbed.

Bones and scraps of clothes regularly rise to the surface of the fields, especially during rainy season, revealing further chilling evidence of the scale of the Killing Field. In fact, we saw a small pile of bones which had been collected and were waiting proper commemoration.


The site includes the Killing Tree, a site of unimaginable terror where shards of bone and flesh were found in its trunk when Choeung Ek was discovered after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge. Next to the tree a mass grave of children and infants was found. The Khmer Rouge’s twisted logic was that they did not want children avenging the death of their murdered parents, so they were bludgeoned to death against the tree, their feet held in the hands of the aggressors, their skulls smashed against the tree and dropped into the grave. It is a terrible shock to learn of these atrocities and then to find the same tree still standing there overhanging the excavated grave. Of all the atrocities we learned of at the Killing Fields, this particular spot was a place which jolted both of us. We had to take time to reflect as we stood besides this tree that had witnessed such unimaginable horrors.

At the centre of the Killing Field is the Choeung Ek Monument, a glass-walled Bhuddist Stupa that contains over 5000 skulls, many displaying their final injury. The monument along with the site in general is overwhelming.


We visited Auschwitz a couple of years ago and walking around Choeung Ek, trying to imagine the fear and desperation of its victims led to very similar feelings –  anger and disbelief giving way to a sense of respectful tranquility and sadness at the most appalling injustice meted out to innocent people. It is an incredibly moving and upsetting experience.


Visiting these sites and writing about it is difficult, but we both wanted to better understand what happened, how and why; and most importantly to reflect and pay our respects.

We wish we could finish on a positive note, describing how Cambodia has flourished since ridding itself of the tyranny of Pol Pot – unfortunately we can’t. When we first arrived in Siem Reap the national elections were taking place. However,  it became clear quickly that these were not open and fair. The Government and Prime Minister has remained in power since 1979 when Khmer rebels fighting the Khmer Rouge were supported by the Vietnamese to topple Pol Pot. Sadly, it seems the leaders of that revolt have made the familiar journey from freedom fighters to dictators over the course of the following decades. Political opponents are imprisoned or exiled, a free press closed down, and the electorate intimidated into voting (or face reprisals).

It feels as though in trying to recover from and never revisit the fear of the genocide of Khmer Rouge, current generations of Khmer people are being subjugated, unable to create independence from a Government influenced by Vietnam and an economy increasingly controlled by China.

Our time in Cambodia has been a mixed one. The stunning beauty of Angkor Watt and the surrounding temples, contrasting with the legacy of Khmer Rouge. The lovely relaxed feeling of Siem Reap compared with a more seedy and edgy Phnom Penh. Throughout it all have been the wonderful Khmer people who are so warm, friendly and welcoming; deserving so much more than their recent history and current government gives them.


Next Week: A Return to Vietnam to see family & friends.




Angkor Wat – A Wonderful World!


We’ve made our way to our second country, flying from Sai Gon to a quiet and modern airport in Siem Reap, Cambodia. First impressions were very positive, after the traffic mayhem of Vietnam, Cambodia feels calm & the Khmer people are so very warm & friendly. Although in use for a number of years now “Cambodia” doesn’t register as the name of the country with the local people who’ve experienced more name changes than most – they think of themselves as Khmer, & reference to Kampuchea is more likely to be acknowledged than ‘Cambodia’.

We will return to the Country’s troubled history in the next blog, but our first week was to focus on the Angkor Park area. Thanks to a great tip from our friend Jerry we hooked up with a local guide (Kheleur) a few weeks before we arrived. He set up 5 days of visits for us in the Angkor area, with a number of dawn starts. We haven’t had such an intense tourist schedule since we left home so we wisely slotted in a ‘rest day’ in the middle of the programme. As he was booked up Kheleur organised a guide, car & driver for us.

The week that followed was fabulous. It becomes apparent very quickly why Angkor Wat and the surrounding area is a Unesco World Heritage site that always crops up in the top 5 listings of “must see” places to visit in the world.


We don’t have the vocabulary to do anything like justice to the raw beauty of Angkor, it’s tempting to stop writing now & let lots of pictures do the talking. We will endeavour though, trying to point out our highlights & for what it’s worth our advice should you visit (you should – there is nowhere quite like this).


The first thing to say is that Angkor Wat itself is just one of a vast series of temples and if you want to experience the area it’s worth spending at least 2/3 days exploring – but the more you can manage, the better. A guide will enhance the experience enormously. You can hire a Tuk Tuk & use a map/guide, but you won’t get the rich detail a good guide can provide or see some of the less visited temples that are off the beaten track. Having travelled so far to see Angkor it’s worth shelling out a bit more as it’s likely to be a once in a lifetime experience that you will never forget. Our guide Buntheoun was wonderful company, his passion for Angkor, its history, and the Khmer people shone through, bringing to life the astonishing temples and the beautiful carvings that adorn them.


Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th Centuries, becoming the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The scale of the buildings, their complexity and the carvings are reminiscent of the skills and ingenuity it must have taken to build the Pyramids.


What adds to the wild beauty of the temples is their co-existence with trees and jungle that at many sites are as much a feature as the buildings themselves. None more so than Ta Prohm (also known as the Tomb Raider Temple as this is where some of the film was shot) where giant trees have taken root & wrap themselves around the temples – it’s hard to tell if the trees are holding up the temples or vice-versa.


Despite the best efforts of conservation & restoration there are crumbling walls & large blocks of sandstone strewn about the sites, but this adds to the sense of unworldliness at Angkor, you really do feel that you’ve stepped back in time into a lost jungle empire.


Many of the carvings relate to Hindu folklore or Bhuddas, none more so than at Bayon one of the few sites where Bhuddist imagery hasn’t been removed in favour of Shiva, Vishnu & Brahma. Here we found dozens of Bhudda faces staring out at us benignly as the clouds opened & we enjoyed a rainy season downpour that eased the heat & humidity.


Bunthoeun guided us to sites off the tourist trail that we shared with just a handful of other gobsmacked visitors – so special.

We were up at 4.30 the next day to watch sunrise at Angkor Wat – far more company for this event but the temple is large & not overcrowded in rainy season. It’s tempting to focus on the lotus flower shaped towers at Angkor Wat, the archetypal image that has been replicated in the national flag. However, there is real treasure to be found in the gallery that runs around parts of the building, where intricate carvings depict images of life, heaven & hell. The quality and detail of a section completed in the 12th century is incredible. Many walked past these without giving them much of a glance. Happily for us Bunthoeun talked us through the galleries remarkable stories, that are still being told 800 years later – what a fitting tribute to the craftsmen and women who created them.

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After a rest day we visited Banteay Srei, known as the Woman’s Temple that has beautiful decoration in sandstone. A few local people had mentioned this as their favourite in Angkor, in part due to the detail and depth of the decoration which are amazing

We then took a jungle trek into the hills to discover ancient Hindu carvings in streams and waterfalls. How these have survived erosion & remain so vivid is a mystery. As we trekked back down the hill we could hear gibbons calling to each other, a wonderful sound but no sighting.

Close to Siem Reap is Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in S/E Asia. The lake supports a large proportion of the Country’s population, growing with the lake in rainy season. Our boat took us alongside the eerie flooded forests..


and the fishing villages built on stilts alongside the river. Although they looked ramshackle on first appearance, they are really quite substantial and built to survive what the weather throws at them. We briefly sailed into the main body of the lake which is so large you would think you are at sea – a bit intimidating.


On our last day we visited a Bhuddist monastery, another dawn start, and met one of its monks, spending time listening to his prayers and chants. Sitting quietly cross-legged with the monk should have been a time of deep reflection, maybe enlightenment. Instead we found our minds drifting to the increasingly excruciating pain in our knees, and in my case a growing horror that a bit of a dodgy tummy was about to announce itself in the most inappropriate way imaginable. No matter how serene the monk was, I don’t think he would have forgiven me that!

By way of complete contrast we finished the week at Siem Reap’s local market, where a wide variety of fruit, veg & other unusual delicacies are available. This included ants & ant eggs which became a necessary part of the diet during the starvation years of Khmer Rouge. Bunthoeun told us how these, along with many other foods which were eaten out of pure necessity, have become part of the regular diet of locals nowadays.


There was meat, OMG, so much meat & blood & guts &  heads & limbs & beaks & claws & eyeballs & axes & cleavers & chopping – a stark reminder that behind the sanitised packaging of supermarkets there is still traditional butchery….here on graphic display in the market in front of two nervous veggies.

And so our week came to an end, fascinating, breathtaking and wonderful. This will be one of our trip highlights. Siem Reap really is a lovely city with such welcoming people. As you’ll have gathered from our gushing comments we can’t recommend Angkor highly enough. Although there is no direct flight from the UK, tying in a visit with a trip to Bangkok, Saigon or Hanoi (all direct flights) would be perfect.


In our next blog we reflect on a very different aspect of Cambodia’s past as we visit The Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and learn of the terror of the Khmer Rouge.