Follow Amanda & Rob around the world for a year. From 30 September 2005!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Travelling statistics, tips and 'Best and Worst of.....'

Days on the road: 330
Countries visited: 20
Nights spent apart: 9

Beds/places slept in: 139 (includes overnight buses, planes etc. and different places we stayed in our campervan!)

Nights spent free with friends/relatives/other random people: 55
(17% of the total, that's really not bad going is it!)

Hours spent travelling by:
Bus - 282 hours
Car - 238
Boat - 93
Plane - 78
Train - 31
Tuk tuk - 16
Bicycle - 12
Moped - 6
Rickshaw - 2
Hot air balloon - 1
Bamboo Raft - 0.5
Elephant - 0.5 (and a bloody long 0.5 at that)

Weight lost/gained: Amanda +/- 0 kg! Rob -6kg

Highlights and Lowlights:
Our highlights are always places where we stayed a little longer and did something more worthwhile than simply being a tourist - the week of living with a local family and learning Spanish in Guatemala, learning to dive in Belize, 12 days working on the sheep farm in New Zealand, trekking to the local village in Laos, and the cookery course we did in Thailand. Sleeping on the Great Wall was pretty amazing too! And getting all those clothes made in Vietnam was great fun. Could go on all day!

Honestly cannot think of any specific lowlights... coming home?

Top 3 Favourite places: Belize, New Zealand, Laos

Most disappointing place: Honduras

Most surprising place (in a good way): Nicaragua

Paradise: Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Best accomodation: Maison Souvannaphoum, Luang Prabang, Laos (it was posh but we needed a treat)

Worst accomodation: There was the place in Belize where we looked at a room, but bats flew out when he opened the door, so we opted against that. The worst place where we actually stayed, probably a windowless room in Malaysia.

Best cuisine: Indian in Laos, French in Vietnam, Cambodian (in Cambodia!)

Best drink: Amanda - Cappucino! Rob - Beer Lao (we couldn't agree on this one!)

Best walk: Tongariro Crossing, NZ

Best experience: Our 'perfect' day in Aitutaki - snorkelling in the amazing clear lagoon in the day time, and in the evening an island buffet followed by dancing and beautiful singing from the locals. Fantastic.
Loads more too -
skydiving, scuba diving, walking on glaciers, caving, trekking in Laos etc etc...

Scariest moments:
- The boat journey from Belize to Honduras when we thought we were going to drown
- Arriving home (!)
- and (for Amanda) whenever Rob let his facial hair grow for more than 3 days.

Person we saw most of: Our American friend Kevin, who we met in no less than 6 countries! Sinead comes a close second - we saw her in 3 different countries.

Tips and Pearls of Wisdom

  1. A head torch is a most useful thing
  2. Girls, pack a sports bra for those bumpy bus rides in eg. Central America & Asia. Trust me on this one!
  3. For travel in Asia, practise your squatting technique (yes, THAT squatting technique!)
  4. Get a raincover for your backpack. Not only does it keep your pack dry, but it protects it from all the dirt and scum in coach and aeroplane holds. Oh how I wish I had one, when my bag spent a long journey on a Greyhound bus swimming around in fishy smelling water. All my underwear stank of fish after this. Come to think of it, this may have been an improvement on the pre-journey smell. Another advantage of bag covers is that it makes you look like a tortoise.
  5. You will meet many Americans on your travels and they are a friendly bunch. However, feel free to slap them in the face every time they inappropriately use the word 'like'. Its the only way they'll learn and they will thank you for your efforts.
  6. Listen to an iPod sparingly. We witnessed so many backpackers get on to rickety old buses and put in their earphones for the entire journey. Part of the experience involves listening to arguments that you can't understand and hearing worrying clunking sounds from the rear of the bus. iPods do isolate backpackers from the locals in my opinion.
  7. If beer is laughably cheap, drink plenty of it. You will get home, got to the pub and regret every minute of the day when you weren't drinking the 8p a pint beer in Vietnam. It was good beer too.
  8. Eat at markets. We did, generally eating very tasty, very cheap food, most of the time not knowing exactly what it was. And ignore those scare stories about hygiene, we never once got the squirts. Well, not from market food anyway.
  9. Try to spend time living with locals - it is a much more rewarding experience.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Home and Dry

All good things have to come to an end and last Sunday (27th August) we flew into Heathrow after 330 days on the road. Very much mixed feelings. Lovely to see our parents again (armed with signs and balloons) but it has been difficult adjusting to the fact that it is all over. Looking back, it all seems a bit of a dream. But we did have an enjoyable last few days of travelling.

The camping trip to the Great Wall was excellent. It was a bit of a trek up there due to the fact that the section of the wall was actually closed to the public and was completely overgrown. But we got to our tower with only a few cuts and scratches. We had paid a Chinese bloke to carry up firewood and beer and spent the rest of the evening drinking, eating a civilised picnic (thanks Rich and Carol), drinking warm beer and warmer wine from a carton, stoking the fire and plucking massive millipedes off the walls in order that they didn't enter our sleeping bags later in the night. Got, ooh, at least three hours sleep, and getting up at 5am for a misty sunrise was truly spectacular. We packed up, headed back down, had a hearty breakfast of rice and noodles and Si bought 40 Chinese fireworks and let them off next to the wall. Great fun. By midday we had taken a bread car (a little minibus in the shape of a loaf of bread - see the pic on flickr) back into the Jing and had a welcome shower and out in the evening for duck and deep-fried scorpions. Nice.

The flight from Beijing to Frankfurt was full and we ended up getting one seat in business class and one in cattle class. I spent the first four hours in business, with a slightly guilty feeling as I thought of Amanda squashed up in the back of the plane. The guilty feeling didn't prevent me tucking into a hearty steak and quaffing numerous glasses of excellent red wine and champagne. Unfortunately, I had said to Amanda that we would swap halfway through the flight and it was back to earth with a bump (not literally, thankfully) as I headed back to the soggy sandwich hell of economy class until we landed in Frankfurt.

We drove straight to Holland to see the Smits and were treated to more gastronomic delights and my red wine quaffing continued. How much of that bottle of port did we actually drink that first night, Erwin?! Then back to Frankfurt to see old friends and colleagues (sorry to those who we didn't get to see - it was a bit of a fleeting visit and we will be back soon). The first glass of Apfelwein was delightful, as was the Malepartus schnitzel on Friday night. Great to be back in our 'hometown' of the last few years.

So now we are home, back to reality and job hunting. And sadly, that is also the end of our blog. 'Cos, whilst some people may have been interested in our adventures around the world, sadly I fear that tales of my recent drive on the M5 won't be quite as rivetting. I am looking to buy a tuk-tuk to make things a little more exciting though. Hopefully it will be fun and it is quite exciting trying to work out what we are going to do now. We have vowed to explore the UK a bit more and who knows, one day we might head off again.

Thanks to all who have read the blog over the year. I am actually quite sad to log off for the last time. Just one last post after this of our highlights, tips and various statistics.

Rob and Amanda

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Winding down

Well I thought it was about time that I tried writing a blog entry again as Rob is getting far too many compliments on his writing :-)

We are currently in Beijing, staying with a friend of Rob’s and gradually preparing for our return home by buying up half the DVDs in China. In fact the total is at 250 right now...well at 40p a go, it's hard not to!

Since we last wrote, we have been up to quite a bit. We spent some time in Laos after Vietnam - Laos was a beautiful country. After Vientiane, the capital (where we learned to weave), we spent one week in Luang Prabang, spending two days trekking in the wonderful scenic hills, our overnight stay being in a small village where the people are pretty much self-sufficient, working in the rice fields and building their own houses. We were honoured to stay in the Chief’s house, Rob even managing a round of Laos wine with him (a bit like schnapps), which certainly helped sleeping on thin mattresses on a wooden floor. The houses were made of bamboo, the village shower was cold spring water coming out of a bamboo hose rigged up so it poured into the stream, and the land in amongst the houses resembled a clean(-ish), dry farmyard, with pigs, chickens and dogs running around causing us both much entertainment (yes, even though I grew up on a farm!).

After Laos we headed back to Thailand, to it's 2nd largest city, Chiang Mai, where we went to 3 days' worth of cooking classes at a fantastic school, which we thoroughly enjoyed. It wasn’t only cooking, but also presentation and the fine art of vegetable carving. This provided much entertainment for me as I watched while Rob aggressively gouged his leaves from a piece of cucumber instead of daintily carving them (as I did, of course). In any case, we really hope to cook ‘proper’ Thai food for our families and friends as soon as we can when we’re home. Which, as many of you already know, is not far off now….

As well as learning whilst travelling, we have also developed certain habits… well I have anyway. You may even call them addictions…

Scarves. And cappuccino.

The scarf thing came about only recently when in Luang Prabang – having learned to weave and seen scarves being woven, I became suddenly interested in buying as many as I could carry in all sorts of designs and colours. Rob even talked about getting a second job to fund my new obsession…
But the cappuccino thing, well anyone who knows me will know that I am a tea-lover and have never drunk a cup of coffee in my life… but now I can admit that I am fully fledged coffee lover as well (well Rob claims that cappuccino isn’t as ‘manly’ as coffee, but it’s the best I can do right now). In fact, because you can’t really get a proper (by my standards) cup of tea here, I search the menus instead for coffee. And I cannot believe what I have been missing out on all my life! No Nescafe for me though, only the proper stuff ;-)

We are in Beijing for a little while, going camping at the Great Wall of China this weekend. Completely illegal apparently but will be a fantastic way to see the wall, although I’ll have to go without the luxuries of a bathroom, bed etc. Soon we fly to Frankfurt to see our old offices and colleagues, before finally returning home….. and I’ll be in touch with everyone as soon as possible!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Close Shaves in South East Asia

Well it has been a while, and it is peeing it down with rain here in Luang Prabang in Laos, as it does most afternoons here, so I am a sorry, soggy figure typing another blog entry.

Our last update involving anything not on wheels was from Thailand. Since then we have been through Cambodia, Vietnam and we are now in Laos, heading back into northern Thailand next weekend. We have seen many many temples, often accompanied by monks wearing bright orange, which makes for great photos. Angkor Wat in Cambodia was truly spectacular, great fun to explore the ruins a la Indiana Jones.

Cambodia is still a very poor country, still recovering from the atrocities of the seventies and eighties. It is frankly unbelievable that the trials of the leaders are only just starting – at a time when most of them are dead or on their last legs. Most of the country lives on less than a dollar a day. Despite this though, they are really a friendly bunch. I know one shouldn’t generalize, but we were much more comfortable in Cambodia than in Vietnam, where we found people to be pushy and aggressive, and on many occasions they would actually tell us bare-faced lies.

But traveling through such poor countries can be tough. Obviously, it makes us realize again how lucky we are to be born when and where we were, but there is also the question of what you can do to help these people. Giving money to every child begging is not going to help, and actually makes the problem worse because, if kids can make money from begging then there is no long-term incentive to get off the streets. In Phnom Penh, and elsewhere, there are plenty of restaurants which take kids off the streets and teach them to cook or be waiters and give them a chance for a new life. So we were more than happy to help out by eating at these places. We have had some excellent food here – some great French restaurants in Vietnam, and some curry houses in Laos which, dare I say it, are on a par with Bradford (and cheaper!).

One moment that really hit me hard was when we were in Hoi An, having a vastly overpriced coffee and a cake in a café catering to Westerners. A little boy appeared trying to sell a newspaper to each customer, but each customer politely refused. No surprise really as you are approached every five minutes by someone wanting to sell you a newspaper, and once you have bought one, you don’t really need another. Anyway, this kid was ushered out of the café by a waitress and when I next looked up he was stood in the doorway crying his eyes out. Not fake tears, but you could see they were tears of absolute desperation. It must be so hard for an 8-year-old to see all these white people with so much money, and not one of them wants to buy a paper so that he could buy a baguette to eat. However, when I tried to buy a paper from the same lad the next day, he ignored me and rode off on his bike. There’s just no pleasing some people.

I am also trying to support the locals by never shaving myself, but paying barbers to shave me instead. OK, it is more about me being lazy than helping the locals but at 30p a go, it is worth every penny. Ten months ago before we left, my Mum told me to take care of Amanda, to not drink so much as to make myself ill (this is her advice on most occasions when I leave the house) and to be careful and avoid tricky situations. And I realized the other day that maybe I have got a bit lax, as I am now sitting down in a chair and trusting a stranger who I have never met and cannot speak my language, and has seen my money belt bulging under my shirt, to hold a very sharp blade in very close proximity to my throat. My first shave was interesting as after doing a good job on my chin and neck area he proceeded to shave my forehead. I wasn’t aware that my upper face had become hairy but it is now as smooth as a baby’s bottom. After successfully de-fluffing my entire face, my barber said ,”Ears?”, to which I foolishly replied ,”Errr, yes”. Next thing I know he is sticking metal rods and small toilet brushes into my ears and pulling out dead flies and bits of chewing gum. A very strange feeling, but when he started prodding rods into the corners of my eyes, I called it a day.

We watched the world cup final from our hotel room in South Cambodia in the wee small hours. We will remember it not for Zidane’s headbutt, but for very different reasons, as Amanda woke up in a whole world of pain just before the game. We thought she had been bitten on her arm by a particularly viscious mosquito, but about an hour later spotted a small scorpion on the wall who had obviously decided it might be nice to cuddle up with us in bed. We caught it in a glass and gave it to the guesthouse owner the next morning who informed us that it wasn’t poisonous, and probably popped it into a curry for lunch. I am pleased to report that the pain finally subsided about 12 hours after the bite, and Amanda is fully recovered and still has both arms fully-functioning.

In Hoi An, the tailoring capital of Vietnam, we had whole new wardrobes made. It got a little out of control actually, but at 5 pounds a shirt and 25 pounds for a suit it was rude not to. Such good customers were we at one tailor, that we were invited to her daughter's wedding party, which was fantastic. A much more basic affair than in Europe, in a kind of covered car park with plastic chairs and tables for 400 people and a crate of beer under each one. And so we drank and we ate and they played incredibly loud europop techno music and the happy couple appeared and said something and we drank and then the karaoke started, and guests of varying musical ability sang (complete with a dry ice machine - now that is classy) and we drank some more. Now, we had read of one tailor on the internet (I won't write his name just in case he 'googles' himself and finds my tale), who is apparently a little shoddy and is a bit of a legend because, well, let's just say his favourite part of the job is probably the inside leg measurement of his male customers. We decided to avoid that tailor, awarding our multi-billion dong clothes manufacturing contract to two other tailors. So imagine my joy when, out of the four hundred people at the wedding, I introduced myself to my neighbour and it was none other than the afore-mentioned tailor. But, we had a pleasant evening. He seemed to quite like me in fact, and offered me a lift back into town on his moped. It would have been impolite to refuse, so I clung on to him, looking straight ahead, avoiding the knowing winks of the crowds of Westerners lining the streets.

We spent a day in Vientiane learning to weave on a traditional Lao Heath-Robinson-esque weaving machine. Was interesting, but hard work and was the most we have had to concentrate in months. By the end of the day, we were proud to have produced a couple of truly magnificent, if not very sizeable, works of art. When we get them home, we hope to sew them together to make a drinks coaster.

Anyway, I realise that, again, I haven't written too much of what we have seen and done, but hey, it won't be long now until you all get the 3 hour long multi-media photomatasmical phonofantastical show with knobs on. So there is something to look forward to......

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Wheely Strange Things

Well we have done and seen an awful lot recently (out of Thailand, through Cambodia and into Vietnam) and we will blog all of that stuff in the near future, but this week, I will mostly be blabbing on about mopeds, tuk-tuks and other vehicles.

After crossing the border from Thailand into Cambodia we took a taxi for the 4 hour journey to Siam Reap. It was back to the old ploughed field type roads we had come to love in Central America. At one point, we stopped for 40 minutes as a slightly overweight lorry had caused the bridge in front of us to break, and we waited patiently while men with hammers, nails and planks of wood banged the bridge together again. On this journey, we encountered many mopeds carrying varying loads. One had a cage of live chicks on the back, one had dead chickens hung all over it and was actually stopped as a couple of unfortunate chucks had fallen off and were lying in the middle of the road. We saw a moped with two dead pigs on the back. Then as we traveled through Phnom Penh in a tuk-tuk, we saw a bloke sat on the back of a moped carrying a door. That’s right a full size door. See photo below, and you can also spot the guy on another moped carrying a big gas canister who I didn’t notice at the time as I was too busy saying to Amanda, ‘Well I never, that man is carrying a door on his moped’ or words to that effect.

But the best one (yet) happened on the way to Phnom Penh when our bus slowed down to pass a wide load. As we passed it, I realized that we were overtaking a bloke who was moving house on his moped. But when I say moving house, he wasn’t carrying items of furniture and tea chests full of crockery and kangaroo scrotum bottle openers, he was moving his actual house. I kid you not, there was a wooden shack (sadly all that Cambodian houses are) nearly the size of a double garage, on a trailer, attached to a moped and being towed along at a snail’s pace. So either he was moving house or he was Dutch and was going around Cambodia in a primitive wooden caravan. It was tremendous though, had me chuckling for a good while.

We have experience of mopeds ourselves. In Thailand, having got stuck in the usual evening Bangkok gridlock and with 10 minutes to spare before our dinner cruise departed, we abandoned our taxi and flagged down two motorbike taxis. With Amanda and me on one and John and Laura on the other, we raced through the streets in a kind of mad dash ‘Anneka Rice on Treasure Hunt’ style and arrived with time to spare. Similarly, upon arrival in Vietnam two days ago, due to us crossing at the wrong border point (that’s another story), the only option from the border to the nearest town 20km away were moped taxis. So we got one each, our rucksacks going between the drivers' legs and we cruised all the way into town. Whilst I clung on in a petrified state, particularly at the moment when my driver went for a daring ‘take-your-helmet-off-and-replace-with-a-baseball-cap-whilst-negotiating-a-corner’ maneuver, Amanda actually still managed to look good in her shades and helmet. In fact if she had been facing the other way, she’d have looked like a London Marathon cameraman.

We have also been cruising around in tuk-tuks a great deal and in Cambodia it only costs around 10USD to hire one with a driver for the whole day. Makes you feel a bit like royalty when you ask the driver to stop at a market and wait for you for an hour and then hop back in and say ‘Drive on Jeeves’. Generally people drive on the right hand side of the road here, except when making a left turn. At least 200m before attempting a left turn, the tuk-tuk driver will switch to the left hand side of the road and weave courageously against the current in a sea of mopeds and tuk-tuks. When he reaches the actual turning, some minutes later, he will wait for a point in the traffic flow which is particularly treacherous, and swerve out in front of a large truck to make the turn, with his passengers whimpering quietly behind him. I intend to adopt a similar driving style in the Tesco car park on my return, always being sure to toot my horn frantically as I believe this is what provides you with an invisible shield of steel.

I actually saw an article on the news about some tuk-tuks they are introducing in Brighton. And they spent 4,000 pounds on each one to make it safe, adding unnecessary extras like seat-belts, indicators and driving licences for the drivers. Not going to be half as much fun in those I can tell you.

One final note, as I realise I am writing far too much about nothing, this time on cars. I was in a car park today and had to laugh when I saw a car reversing. Now, in Europe buses or trucks make that annoying ‘beep beep beep’ sound when they reverse. This car was reversing, but was playing the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’, a very flat version thereof which sounded akin to something you may have found on a 1996 Nokia phone. I definitely need to invest in such a device. I also now know that when I was woken the other night by a beeped version of ‘The Lambada’, must have actually been a Toyota Camry going backwards outside my window. Ah, the joys of Asia……