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




Bustling Bangkok and Kool Krabi: A Perfect Thai Fortnight.


After our travels in Indonesia it felt odd travelling northwards to Bangkok, but we were very excited at the prospect of another visit from family, with Sam’s sisters, Tina and Sandra joining us for two weeks in Bangkok and Krabi.

To say that we had two contrasting weeks would be something of an understatement. Tina and Sandra arrived on Saturday afternoon and we agreed it was best to let them adjust to the heat and humidity for the remainder of the day before hitting the tourist trail with a vengeance.

Chatuchak Market

We decided to jump straight in at the deep end and head for the City’s legendary Chatuchak Market on Sunday. In what was to become a metaphor for the fortnight we enjoyed a relaxing ferry across the River Chao Phraya followed by a bustling trip on Bangkok’s excellent Skytrain service to get to the Market. Calling Chatuchak a “market” does it something of a dis-service. It’s one of the worlds largest markets covering nearly 30 acres hosting 15,000 stalls that attract 200,000 visitors each day. It’s like visiting a village that lies dormant during weekdays, only to spring into life on Saturday and Sunday.

 Shopping Sisters

It’s a fun and vibrant place to visit whether you are searching for unique fashion designs, sampling tasty street food and drinks, enjoying a much needed foot massage or simply people watching. Given the size of Chatuchak it will cater for whatever you are looking for. However if you are clothes shopping be warned – in temperatures climbing uncomfortably above 30 degrees there is a tendency to sweat profusely. Not surprisingly this makes trying on clothes very tricky and many stalls display the sign “no trying clothes on” – so its a question of making your best guess!

One of the main perimeter routes at Chatuchak

Sam and I visited Chatuchak ten years ago when it seemed a bit more ramshackle and we had the unfortunate experience of stumbling into a section where there was cock-fighting going on. A horrible sight but happily no repeat this time. In fact it felt like a very safe place to be – enhanced by the reassuring site of the Market Police….

Segway Tourist Cop!

Another thing that has changed since our last visit is the speed of Bangkok Tuk-Tuks which like the City itself seem to have been turbo-charged. Instead of taking the same route home from the market we decided to jump into a couple of Tuk-Tuks for what tuned out to be a high speed race / chase through the city. Thoroughly scary and entertaining!

Who needs F1 when you have Bangkok Tuk-Tuks!


The “planes, trains, automobiles” theme to our week continued the next day when we headed north out of the city to one of Thailand’s most celebrated ancient sites – Ayutthaya. We decided to catch the train for the ninety minute journey starting out from Bangkok’s lovely Hua Lamphong Railway Station


Ayutthaya dates back to the 1300’s and is a fascinating collection of ancient ruins dotted around the town. I had been reliably informed that the sites were in walking distance from the railway station, so when I manfully strode out into the blistering heat of Ayutthaya I imperiously waved away enthusiastic Tuk-Tuk drivers, indicating that we were British, we had a map, and we would find the sites on our own steam – thank you very much. You could see the collective reaction of the drivers on their faces: “…Really?”

Thankfully after we had walked about ten yards and were starting to wilt a persistent driver gave me the charitable chance to re-think my strategy and we gratefully bundled into a Tuk-Tuk, having completely lost face.

Some of the thousands’s of Bhudda images to be found in Ayutthaya….

We’ve really been spoilt visiting ancient UNESCO Heritage sites and the trip to Ayutthaya was another that did not disappoint, with fabulous statues of Bhudda, Stupas galore, and temples spread throughout the town. There was one site we were incredibly excited to see though: the remarkable image of Bhudda embedded in a tree. It exceeded our expectations.

…but only one Bhudda in a Tree 

Kanchanaburi and the Bridge over the River Kwai*

With all the riches that day trips in and around Bangkok brings its hard to pick a favourite, but the day we spent in Kanchanaburi visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai sites was very special indeed. Our first stop was the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery which is a beautifully maintained and moving memorial to the Allied soldiers who lost their lives in inhumane and brutal conditions. Over 7000 servicemen and women are commemorated at the Cemetery. Visiting just a few days after Remembrance Sunday it was a sad and humbling experience to quietly walk among the headstones and reflect on sacrifice and the lives stolen away.

Honouring the Fallen

At a local Museum we learnt more about the horrendous conditions in which prisoners were kept. Over 15,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 civilians died of died of sickness, mistreatment, malnutrition and exhaustion as as result of the building the “Death Railway”. 

One of the many moving Memorial Plaques

We travelled by boat up to the infamous bridge itself. As with many of these sites (the Killing Fields and 9-11 spring to mind) there is part of you excited about seeing and photographing such a famous landmark, but another voice reminds you that this is the place where people lost their lives. It’s a delicate balance between the demands of tourism and showing respect.

The Bridge

Train services continue to run over the bridge and several miles up the line so we took the opportunity see the railway and countryside, including the remarkable viaduct that snakes its way along part of the line.

Viaduct heading west toward Burma

Jumping on an old-fashioned train and rolling along the tracks is one of the best ways to view S/E Asia, but this trip and route had an extra resonance.


Our day was made even more memorable by having the most wonderful guide called Vanda who as well as being incredibly informative, was the funniest and most sociable guide possible. Before we set off Vanda disappeared into the bathroom for a very long time. She then reappeared bouncing into our van apologising for the delay explaining that she had needed the toilet very badly but everything was okay and we would be pleased to know that she had washed her hands thoroughly! A case of a bit too much information first thing in the morning, but delivered with such frank glee that we couldn’t help but laugh. Vanda made sure we had perfect seats on the train and became our unofficial photographer. We think she is the best guide in Thailand!

Moments after the pic the train started to move almost leaving our guide behind

* A little known and rather inconvenient fact is that the Bridge does go not over the River Kwai – this was an error by Pierre Boulle the author of the book. The Bridge actually crosses the Mae Klong River but there are proposals to rename it Kwai!

As luck would have it good friends of  Tina’s – Veronica and Ray – were also in Bangkok and we enjoyed a great night out with them and over a meal and a few beers learnt more about their journey through S/E Asia. Veronica gives us lovely feedback on the blog so it was extra special to meet up.

The Grand Palace and the Reclining Bhudda

No trip to Bangkok would be complete without a visit to these two amazing sites (three if you include the short hop across the River to Wat Arun). Both always attract big crowds but the masses thin out remarkable quickly when you get inside given the sheer size of the sites.

Picture Perfect Palace’s

And what a greeting you get, glorious almost garish colours bask in the sunlight depicting tales of ancient creatures, monsters and demons, alongside beautiful temples and golden images of Bhudda.

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The detail is astonishing and the almost overwhelming assault on your sense leaves you wondering where to look next. It’s a spectacle that you can never tire of and when you have had your fill at the Palace, the Reclining Bhudda awaits.

Endless Treasures

Space is at more of a premium when you get to the Reclining Bhudda (in Wat Pho) and it can feel a bit more like a scrum than the Palace. It doesn’t really breed an atmosphere for reflection or spirituality – it’s more a case of sharpening elbows and getting stuck in, and just when you think you’ve made it to the ideal vantage point, the ultimate challenge totters into your viewfinder: a selfie-obsessed Chinese tourist. Why anyone thinks a picture of the world’s most beautiful Bhudda will be enhanced with an incongruous Churchill V sign and vacant smile in the foreground of the shot is beyond me – forget Bhudda it’s all about worshipping the 21st Century social media god: Insta.

Astonishing: the Reclining Bhudda

Hypocritical grumbles about fellow tourists aside, if you are patient gaps open up and you can stand in awe at this incredible sight, okay…it helps to be 6 ft+ ….and what you cant see in the two photos of the Reclining Bhudda are the hordes of 5ft something Chinese tourists buzzing about below me. A quick detour across the river to the striking Wat Arun completed the day and our sightseeing – we were well and truly pooped.

Wat Arun


Tina and Sandra’s trip really was a game of two halves, with the hyper-activity of our Bangkok days replaced with a much more sedate pace in Krabi where we arrived at a picture perfect resort on Tubkaak beach. Having visited Ko Phang Nga and Koh Samui earlier in our trip it was really interesting to compare west vs east coasts. Our conclusion was that beaches around Krabi win it by a short head on account of the huge limestone castes that sit brooding in the sea to create a dramatic backdrop against a clean, warm sea that laps on to beautiful sandy beaches. Heaven.

It really is that beautiful..

Hong Islands Hopping 

One of the attractions in the area is to hire a long tail boat and view the uninhabited Hong Islands close up. Setting off early we met our skipper for the day who was the living definition of the phrase “salty sea dog”. A lovely friendly fella who looked after us.

Our Skipper and his Boat

We headed out to the islands cutting through turquoise waters that revealed huge pink jellyfish that mercifully don’t venture into shallow waters. Our first stop was a hidden lagoon where after negotiating a narrow entrance it opens up into a bay with waters that invite you to jump in – which we did with no hesitation.

Secret Lagoon

Then we navigated our way to a lovely stretch of beach on another island which is part of a National Park. Your boatman drops you off and for a small fee you can stay on the beach for two hours before you get collected. It did feel and look a little bit like “The Beach” albeit without Leonardo Di Caprio and Tilda Swinton, but with a supporting cast of dozens of extras – you can’t expect to have these spots to yourself. The waters were full of fish making it ideal for snorkelling.

Hong Island Beach

After our allotted time we rejoined our boat and made for another unspoilt beach where if you time it right you can see the see separate at low tide – how very biblical! Sadly we didn’t catch low tide and missed out out on the chance to impersonate Moses. However the beach did have one of the ultimate Insta-magnets: a swing upon which we witnessed some remarkable posing and pouting. Of course we yielded to temptation and went for a nice family shot before we headed home through darkening skies and threatening cloud.

Swinging Sisters

Busy Doing Nothing

It’s quite hard to summon up the creative juices to describe the several hours we spent crashed out on big bean bags that begged you to firmly plant your backside into them and move no further, occasionally beckoning drinks from the bar-staff.

Sunset on Tubkaak Beach

But to be fair we weren’t totally idle as there were complementary Paddle-Boards and Kayaks to try out. The calm sea conditions were perfect to try these out, especially as Sam and I had practised Paddle -Boarding on Hove Lagoon and Kayaking on the River Adur in anticipation of exactly this opportunity. The Paddle-Boarding was great fun although as anyone who has tried it will know, it’s not as easy as it looks. Sam & I definitely benefited from our sessions earlier in the year, and after a bit of coaxing and a lot of wobbling both Sandra and Tina managed to assume the perpendicular…before heading for the horizontal! Fair play for having a go though.

..and when he was up he was up, and when he was down he was…..wet

Energised by a hitherto unknown passion for water sports Sandra decided to have a crack at kayaking next. As I nervously sat waiting in the kayak Sandra braced herself by sitting on its the edge promptly catapulting me out into the sea swiftly followed by the kayak itself. After this rather undignified start we managed to re-board successfully and paddled off without further incident. Sandra assures us that her maiden voyage wont be her last: something the Harbour Master in Christchurch should probably be made aware of. 

Pampering Krabi Elephants

Just an hours drive from our beachside reverie was an elephant sanctuary and the chance to share with Tina and Sandra the wonder of getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures. During the hours we were with them we made them food, fed them tons of bananas, helped give them an exfoliating mud bath and then scrubbed them clean in a lake. It was an elephantine pampering session. But after a tough life of logging if anyone deserves to be spoilt it is these wonderful animals.

Glorious Mud

By chance the morning we went to the see the elephants the heavens had opened but by the time we were heading back the clouds had cleared and we could hear the siren call of the beach bean bags summoning us back to that gorgeous strip of sandy shore and stunning views of the Andaman Sea.

A reluctant goodbye to Krabi

Before we knew it our wonderful fortnight was over and Sandra and Tine were heading home, while we set ourselves for Borneo. Travelling for so long we have really missed family and friends (and Ruby!), so it’s been great having our journey punctuated by visits from home, and less than a month after waving Tina and Sandra goodbye, we shall be arriving in Perth to stay with my sister Sue and her family for Christmas. 

Next up: Wild Borneo!


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