Around the World in 181 Days

It has been a while since I have written anything on this blog, a combination of writer’s block and an ever increasing backlog of things to possibly write about, which led instead to an effective abandonment of this site.

In my last post I was arriving in Northern Thailand from Laos after a two day river boat journey.

Since then there are countless things I could dedicate entire posts to; I have enjoyed the highlights of Chiang Mai, experienced a sleeper train to Bangkok (which included my first ever shower on a train), had sensory overload in Bangkok, been amazed by the beauty of Singapore, seen paradise in Indonesia, ticked off an item on my bucket list in Malaysia and finally returned to cold reality in Europe!

(click to zoom)

Back in June when I left on this incredible journey I had a vague idea of where I would like to go, but I could never have predicted the opportunities I would have, the extraordinary people I would meet, the spectacular sights I would see and the emotional impact it would all have on me.

Returning to the UK has been a mental shock to the system. Not least of which being the grey skies and cold weather!

It is a surreal feeling of being home but also not quite belonging.

As the map above shows there is a whole world out there and, despite my best efforts this year, there is a huge amount of it still to see.

I have tried to reduce the wanderlust feeling by cooking food from the places I loved. Although I think my attempts at Cambodian curry and Thai soup have only increased my desire to return and have the real thing.

I am not sure what the next step is for me. I am still trying to figure out if it is time to settle back into a routine at home or whether I should immediately find my way out the country again to continue exploring.

I fear my escape from custody may simply have been a release on bail.

Whatever happens next though, nothing will take away from the memories and connections that have been made over the last 6 months as I have travelled through 15 countries over 3 continents (or 4 depending on whether you count Indonesia in Australasia).

To anyone who has read or followed my travels on here on Instagram and has not yet been to South East Asia I hope my trip has inspired you. It is impossible to truly explain the experience and all I can do is to loudly repeat the unmissable opportunities such as breathtaking scenery, exceptionally friendly locals, ridiculously cheap prices and a whole community of fellow travellers who will support, encourage and improve the experience.

I cannot overstate the importance of those I met along the way. Including those from home I had the pleasure of meeting whilst away!

To those who kept me smiling and provided the enthusiasm to continue on during the bad days, those who made the mundane attractions special and turned average places into incredible memories, and to those who inspired me on where and how to travel.

There are too many to name but I hope you all know who you are and how much you mean to me.

If anyone has suggestions on where the next adventure should be all ideas are welcome!


The final stats in miles for this escape are:

Plane – 26,334
Car – 12,442
Bus/Taxi/TukTuk – 2,214
Motorbike – 1,259
Train/Subway – 809
Walk – 430
Boat – 323
Bicycle – 72

Total miles travelled: 43,883

Swimming miles not counted

Slow boat to Thailand from Laos – Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai, or Chiang Rai, on the Mekong River

There are many articles giving advice on how to travel from Thailand to Laos by slow boat but very few cover going the other way so I decided to write this short piece to help those who, like me, chose to do things backwards!

Mekong River from a slow boat

If the idea of paying over £100 for a flight, or sitting in a small sleeper bus designed for Asian-sized people for 16+ hours, doesn’t appeal then there is a cheaper, more comfortable and hopefully more enjoyable way to travel between Luang Prabang and northern Thailand, particularly Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai.

Every day a small fleet of boats travel along the Mekong River shuttling tourists and locals between towns and countries, and it is easier than you think to hop on board and relax as you float along the river passing between mountains and jungles whilst seeing a small part of local Laos life.

The trip involves two days on a slow boat, with an overnight stop on land on Day 1, before arriving at the Thai/Laos border in the evening of Day 2..

Once you’ve crossed the border you can either carry on by private transport (more on this later) or spend the night and catch a bus in the morning to your final stop.

The boats cost 110,000KIP each day and you can either book ahead with your hostel or tour company for a little extra, typical costs between 275-300,000 KIP (around £25 or $33 at time of writing) including hostel tuktuk pickup and transfer to the pier on the first day, or make your own way to the slow boat pier which is 5km out the city and get your ticket on the day.

In high season, or for those who like an easier life, I’d advise to book with someone before hand. It only adds 50-70,000 KIP (about £5) to the price and you get the guarantee of someone picking you and your luggage up from the hostel, taking you to the right place, tickets for the boats on both days and instructions on which boat to get on.

A private tuktuk will set you back around this anyway but you can save a few KIP if you’re on an extreme budget!

I am told that the pier used to be in the city centre but it was moved away to allow tuktuk drivers to make more money, I don’t know how true that is but it wouldn’t surprise me!

I stayed at the Chitlatda Central Bila House in Luang Prabang and they offered the slow boat ticket, including transfer, for 275,000 which was the cheapest price I saw.

Note you’ll see it advertised as slow boat to Huay Xai, this is the Laos border town which the boats will take you to. You then need to arrange your own onward transfer to your Thai destination but this is covered later in the article.

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Waterfalls, Elephants and a French Bakery; My week in Luang Prabang, Laos

Elephants walking in Mandalao Elephant Sancturary with mountain in the background

The only landlocked country in South East Asia, Laos was previously a French colony and gained independence in 1953 (after briefly attaining independence during World War 2 before the French came back and colonised it again). Despite being relatively lesser known in the West than the bordering countries it has the fourth highest GDP in the area after Thailand.

Map of South East Asia with Laos highlighted

Arriving in Luang Prabang the contrast between Cambodia and Laos, or at least this city, was striking. Gone were the gutters of streets filled with rubbish and lines of touts looking to sell you everything from a tuktuk ride to the chance to get high.

In their place were beautiful pavements with bins on every street and smiling locals by their stalls and shops, without any of the pressure selling that had been experienced up till now.

Another change you can’t avoid is the surrounding vista. Cambodia’s unbelievably flat countryside full of farm fields were no more and instead you could see the mountains and jungles that fill Laos. Every where you look is a spectacular view.

Temple at the Royal Palace, Luang Prabang, Laos

The old French colonial influence shines through in both the architecture and the businesses on offer, not the least the number of bakeries available to hungry tourists. Le Banneton was recommended on a blog and soon became my regular stop at the start of the day for a wake up coffee and sugary treat, skipping the free breakfast offered at my hostel in favour of the delicious pastries and baguettes from a (semi) authentic French bakery.

The first morning I sat here and stole their WiFi as I planned my time in Laos. This research led me to my first point of call, a small hill located in the middle of the town, Mount Phousi.

Only 100 metres high a few hundred steps take you up the hill, passing through various monuments and sacred points for the monks who live on their. The midday sun did little to help make the climb any easier though!

At the top you are treated to a fantastic view across the town and along the Mekong River and it is particularly popular at sunset, as evidenced when an entire army of tourists arrived behind me with an hour to go.

View from Mount Phousi

It costs 20,000 Laos Kip to get to the very top (about £1.75 at time of writing) and deciding that, with nothing else planned for the day and trying to be a frugal backpacker, I didn’t want to pay that twice I remained at the top for a few hours until sunset. I met various travellers here and swapped stories and tips before ensuring I had the best spot for the coming sunset.

The next day I joined a friend I had made in Cambodia and we set off to Kuang Si Falls. Around 30km outside Luang Prabang the falls are probably the number one attraction for visitors to the town.

Before you get to the falls themselves you pass a rescue centre for Asian sun and moon bears who were trapped with intention of, or actually rescued from, bear bile farms and other forms of abuse. The bears seemed to be well cared for with lots of things to play with, including the company of each other, and it is definitely better than the alternative they did have.

Bear in rescue centre at Kuang Si Falls

Past the bear sanctuary you reach the first set of falls and a small swimming area. But continue up the hill a little more and you find more fresh water pools with gorgeous rock formations and a setting out of a Herbal Essences advert.

I had read that it is worth reaching the top of the hill on a few blogs so set off on a, sometimes, risky climb next to the main drop. This included a section where the steps themselves are underneath the continual stream of water pouring off the top.

In all honesty the climb was not worth it and I should have stayed on the bottom. A view that became more true when I repeatedly slipped and stumbled climbing back down after!

Back on safer ground I found my friend in one of the pools and was excited to dive in and join them. It was at this point I learnt that this wonderful turquoise clear water was ice cold!

Kuang Si Falls

After the initial shock of the freezing water began to wear off I felt the second surprise as a school of fish began nibbling at the exposed parts of my body.

Having deliberately avoided the various massage shops across SE Asia offering fish massage services it became clear I would be getting the treatment for free here anyway!

Swimming at Kuang Si Falls

As I relaxed in the cool water, and provided a buffet lunch to the local wildlife, I enjoyed the experience of swimming in a natural river running through a tropical jungle as birds and butterflies flew above me and fish shoaled around me.

This was not to be the best animal experience in Laos though, as tomorrow I would be meeting a much bigger creature.

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Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Cambodia!

All good things must come to an end and sadly this includes my time in, what became my favourite country so far, Vietnam.

Vietnam is an incredible place and I will now make it my mission to get more people to visit.

After arriving in Saigon I had spent time exploring the city as well as trips to the surrounding Mekong Delta including a floating market, staying the night in a local Vietnamese family’s house and visiting a home grown chocolate factory with Innoviet. This was a great way to end my time in Vietnam and see a final part of this beautiful country.

Paddle boat on a small stream in the Mekong Delta

Trying to limit the amount of flying I was doing (over 16,000 miles this trip so far) I decided to get a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

There were lots of options available from local buses to luxury limousines and after reading many reviews (and fears about being able to fit in the seats!) I eventually settled with Giant Ibis. They cost a little bit more but the reviews promised a trouble free border crossing and enough leg room for Westerners.

Bright and early I set out to the bus station and, after watching carefully to make sure my bag went into the hold, I found my seat and stretched out enjoying the leg room which exceeded British Airways short haul business class! I even got a free snack.

The bus ride itself was relatively uneventful aside from being lucky enough to meet a fellow traveller who had ended up in the seat next to me.

Having experienced the pain of a 10 hour shift in a police car when conversation keeps stalling I know how time can drag if conversation is difficult. Fortunately my travel buddy and I seemed to click and the ride passed by quickly. I didn’t even get to listen to any podcasts.

The border crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia was much easier than expected. The extra cost to use Giant Ibis paying off as they shepherded everyone through the immigration procedures.

After passing through Vietnamese exit controls and arriving No Man’s Land before passing into Cambodia it was odd to find a service station with shops and food. Turns out the food in No Man’s Land is both cheap and tasty!

Entering Cambodia I realised that the roads in Vietnam were actually in a great condition. The road after the border was one of the worst I have experienced and I was so glad I picked a bus with decent suspension.

Thankfully it seemed to be only the first few miles with this issue. As the road improved and things settled down I looked out the window as the flat plains of Cambodia stretched into the distance. Only a few hours drive now to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Independence Monument, Phnom Penh at night

My new travel companion kindly invited me to join them and their group the next day visiting the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum. The names of these places don’t hide anything about what you’re going to see and the emotional toll it will take on you.

I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on the subject but for a quick briefing of Cambodian history:

In 1975 Pol Pot came to power with his party the Khmer Rouge.

The army began clearing cities and locking up political prisoners. Those not imprisoned were subject to famines, lack of medicines and severe repression.

Between 1975 and 1979 millions of Cambodians were killed by the ruling party, out of population of only 8 million. It didn’t matter if they were men, women, children or babies. I highly recommend reading more on the history if you have the time and I genuinely don’t know how this wasn’t taught in school.

It may be worth noting the following paragraphs contain some horrific details you may wish to skip

Rules of the prison

We started at the Genocide Museum, also known as S21 or Tuol Sleng. Originally a high school it was taken over and converted into a prison for political prisoners.

Here prisoners would be tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes were alleged against them. Once the confession had been achieved they would then be sentenced to death.

If a prisoner died before their confession and sentence could be achieved, either through suicide or just effects of torture, then the guard responsible was likely to end up alongside the other prisoners.

The guards were often children who were unable to read or write recruited from rural villages and some of the photos showed children who looked around 10 or 12 years old.

It is estimated that between 12 and 20 thousand people were imprisoned here. There are only 12 known survivors.

Monument in the prison to the victims

The museum audio guide was really well done and takes you around the grounds where you can see photos and displays of the prisoners and how the prison looked and operated. It was haunting and brought tears to my eyes.

Once a prisoner was sentenced to death they would be held until it was time to transfer them to an execution site.

There were various Killing Fields set up around the country and one of the largest was Choeung Ek, only 17km outside the city. Prisoners would be transferred in the middle of the night and initially killed within a day of their arrival.

Towards the end of the regime too many prisoners were arriving to keep up so they would be housed in communal rooms until their time.

Large speakers hung from trees would broadcast political propaganda songs to mask the sound of the killings from nearby residents.

To save money on bullets prisoners would be killed by whatever means available, including beating with farm tools and their bare hands.

Female prisoners with babies and children would have them taken from them. There was a particular tree, which is now adorned with various mementos and tributes, where babies and young children would be swung into the trunk until they were dead, or nearly dead, before being thrown into a pit. After seeing this the mother would then be killed.

The audio guide explained that in particularly rainy periods as the mud and ground shifts new bones and clothing fragments are exposed.

It was a surreal feeling walking around this place of unimaginable horror which today has been transformed into a calm and peaceful field with trees, birds and butterflies and a quiet lake. Buried beneath are the remains of approximately a million victims of the Khmer Rouge.

The lake and trees in the Killing Fields

I am very glad I visited these places and ashamed that I did not know enough about this recent atrocity beforehand.

“Never Again!” was a claim after the facts of the Nazis in Germany came to light and yet 30 years later not only did the world stand by as a dictator committed genocide against his people, the UK actively helped them.

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14 Days from Hanoi to Saigon – Riding a Motorbike across Vietnam (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1, the background to riding across Vietnam, it explains what convinced me to take the risk in hiring a bike and ride from the north to south of Vietnam. You may also be interested in my (semi-serious) guide to road laws in Vietnam.

Motorbike on a country road on the way from Hanoi to Mai Chau

I am very grateful to Style Motorbikes who assisted me during this trip. I have not been paid to recommend them, however I would happily encourage anyone looking to rent a bike in Vietnam to check them out. This route was mostly their recommendation with some personal touches along the way. Accommodation is everywhere so grab a bike and get exploring!

Finally you may be wondering why I use the names Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon interchangeably, I explain this at the end.

Day 1 – Hanoi to Mai Chau – 140km

Tip: Before leaving Hanoi make sure you have explored the sites in the city and Halong Bay. I recommend visiting Halong Bay on an organised tour rather than riding there. Most operators offer free, or low cost, hotel transfer to the boats. Having watched as my bus driver fought the traffic on some rather shabby roads it would be a long and stressful first ride to meet the boat on time on your own, especially if that was your first day riding in Vietnam.

Bike loaded with luggage in the shop before leaving

Picking up the bike and seeing my luggage strapped to the back for the very first time I felt a strange combination of the most excited, and most terrified, I had been during my whole trip so far. I hadn’t ridden in several years and the idea of being let loose on the crazy streets of Vietnam got the adrenaline pumping.

The first hurdle was finding petrol. As the bikes are all kept inside the shops overnight they have just enough fuel in them to get to the petrol station. Waving goodbye to the helpful staff I pulled onto the main road and immediately had to cross 4 lanes of traffic to get to an exit on the other side of the dual carriageway. Still wondering if I had made the right decision I quickly came across the petrol station and watched the cost tick up in the hundreds of thousands for a couple of litres of fuel, just like being at home!

Fully fuelled and having checked the map it was time for the hardest part of the next 2 weeks, escaping Hanoi. Traffic in the cities is hard to imagine. Lane markings, one way streets, traffic lights, all of these are advisory it seems as hundreds of mopeds and bikes fight for space amongst the cars, buses and trucks in an amazing ballet that leaves you mystified how there aren’t more crashes. Horns blare and lights flash as you’re passed on both sides with vehicles travelling in all directions. This is not for the faint hearted!

The best advice I heard too late is to find a Grab driver (think Uber on a bike) and ask them to lead the way out of the city so all you have to do is follow them.

Instead I slowly made my way from junction to junction, stopping every few hundred metres to check Google Maps, occasionally finding myself in a swarm of mopeds sitting perilously exposed across lanes of cross traffic and hoping the adage about safety in numbers was true.

Eventually the roads widened and the high rises fell away leaving only pot holes, the odd cow and an endless parade of street food vendors.

Here it started to become enjoyable. The average speed increased to a dizzying 40km/h (25mph!) and I was able to relax a little and appreciate the scenery.

View of limestone monolith and fields of rice en route to Mai Chau

The route to Mai Chau involves generally sticking to the main road and heading straight and there are plenty of road side huts providing food and drink if you need it.

As you get farther away from Hanoi the countryside begins to show its beauty with gigantic limestone monoliths, similar to those found in the waters of Halong Bay, surrounded by mountains and lush green forests. You could stop a hundred times to take photos on the way and still miss things.

About 100km in you’ll start heading up into the mountains themselves. The climb is quite impressive and there is a noticeable temperature drop as you rise higher and higher.

Avoid the massive diesel trucks hauling everything from coal to pigs either struggling up the steep inclines at 10km/h or barrelling down in the opposite direction hoping their brakes will work to stop them disappearing over the cliff edge.

Tip: When you stop to fill up with fuel at one of the petrol stations outside the main city grab a plastic poncho in case it rains. I had 12 days of brilliant sunshine, but the 2 days of rain really made me wish I had planned ahead!

Once you’ve reached the peak and begin descending on the other side you’ll be able to look down into the valley where endless rice fields and jungle extend into the distance. That is Mai Chau, the first overnight stop.

View of sun setting over rice field in Mai Chau

Coming back down the other side of the mountains I was very conscious of the unknown history of the bike I was on and the constant warnings about 10%+ declines. Rather than risk falling off a mountain on my first day I erred on the side of caution and made steady progress in 2nd gear engine braking all the way down! Eventually I made it to the valley floor and the beautiful village of Mai Chau, a place I imagine that is only going to get more popular with tourists but for now is just hard enough to get to that it limits the numbers, helping it retain the authentic feel.

Day 2 – Mai Chau to Pu Luong – 110km

Waking up early I first set off in the wrong direction. Just north of Mai Chau is a tiny village and hidden behind some houses is Go Lao Waterfall.

Go Lao waterfall - three distinct streams can be seen cascading over the ridge down a rock face to a pool below

Surprisingly busy with a steady stream of visitors, despite the early hour, it has avoided most of the commercialisation that other waterfalls, especially those further south in Da Lat, have suffered.

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How to get to MONKEY ISLAND from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City

If you’re in Ho Chi Minh City (also still known as Saigon) and looking for something a little different to the normal historical and cultural tours then let me recommend a day trip to MONKEY ISLAND!

Located in Can Gio, Monkey Island is only a couple of hours away from District 1 in Saigon. You can pay private tour guides to take you there, but you can save your money and get a taste of being a local by using the public buses instead.

On a budget you can get to Monkey Island for only £0.50 ($0.65 at time of writing) each way plus £2.40 ($3) entry fee.

A bargain compared to the $50 being charged for a private tour!

View the video guide below to getting to Monkey Island from Ho Chi Minh City or keep reading for more detailed instructions.

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Riding a Motorbike across Vietnam – Part 1 – The Background

Over 10 years ago Top Gear broadcast their travels across Vietnam and the amazing beauty and thrill of doing this by motorbike. Watching their journey along with millions around the world a dream formed in me to experience this myself one day. Like most, though, I never actually imaged I would achieve that dream.

Having arrived in Hanoi only a few days before any desire to drive on their roads, which have questionable adherence of traffic laws, quickly disappeared.

First impressions of Vietnamese traffic are fear and confusion. You see tourists standing for several minutes at the roadside, hoping that a break in the constant stream of two wheeled vehicles will occur to let them cross. A symphony of horns join with the whine of hundreds of 50cc mopeds as riders criss-cross through junctions ignoring red lights, one way signs and any other impediment to their intended direction of travel.

It doesn’t help when you learn that road crashes in Vietnam are responsible for nearly 1 death per hour, with over 8,200 deaths in 2018. For comparison in Great Britain in 2018 there were only 1,782 fatalities, despite faster roads and only a third less population.

It is funny though how quickly you adjust to local conditions. After only a couple of days of dodging beeping bikes and the sirens of buses and trucks (they have siren like warnings when indicators are on to help avoid collisions with the swarms of motorcyclists that scramble around them) I began to feel at home on the streets of Hanoi.

Appreciating the fact that traffic laws in Vietnam are like the Pirate’s Code I felt confident enough that I considered again living the Top Gear dream.

I spent some time researching various companies and finally settled on Style Motorbikes. I liked the fact that they had shops across the country so if you got into difficulty en route assistance would be a little bit closer, as well as the fact they have a 24 hour WhatsApp helpline. Thanks to Vietnam’s awesome mobile phone coverage this meant assistance was always a phone call away. They also had some brilliant reviews which reassured me.

Unlike the Top Gear guys who had an entire support crew of 30+ people I would be on my own and this connection to a helpline that could offer assistance in Vietnamese and English was really appreciated.

I went to the Style Bikes shop in Hanoi intending to just look around and without even taking my name I was being given the opportunity to test drive my bike of choice. A beautiful red Honda CB 150.

It had been a few years since I last rode a bike and it showed when I stalled twice going round the block! Never one to be put off by minor set backs though I felt happy with the bike itself and before I could stop and properly think about the risk I was taking I found myself putting down a deposit for the next day.

The staff were incredibly helpful, providing a map and guidance on which routes to take, where to sleep and where to avoid. In particular I was warned about the police I may meet on the trip, as there is a small issue when renting a bike in Vietnam, especially for those from the UK and other European countries…

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