Sunday 27 January 2013

Darwin to Adelaide (The Ghan), Australia

To complete the final leg of our 6 month journey, we decided to take Australia's most iconic train journey, from north to south across the continent. The Ghan is named after the Afghan workers who supplied the original construction of the line with their sturdy camels. In this case, train travel works out to be around the same price as flying (if you get the backpacker discount - available to anyone with a HI membership) and is much more comfortable, but obviously takes a great deal longer. We left Darwin at 10:30 in the morning on the once-a-fortnight service that occurs this time of year.

The Red Sleeper service was more comfortable than any carriage we have experienced on the trip, with seats that rotate for groups traveling in foursomes, and enough legroom for a 190cm person to stretch out.

Sunset and sunrise were particularly spectacular during the trip, with the wet-season clouds providing a stunning canvas for the vivid colours.

We had thought that sleeping would be extremely uncomfortable, as unlike almost all our other train journeys, we did not have a flat bed to sleep on (the price jump for seat to sleeper is triple). However, because we kept our bags with us instead of checking them, we were able to elevate our feet and recline enough that it was a tolerable night's sleep, though the lack of provided pillows and blankets was strange considering the cost.

Our preconceptions of the landscape turned out to be mostly incorrect, with vast areas of scrubby bush rather than the emptiness of the desert we expected. Certainly from Darwin to Alice Springs it was mostly bush, with a slow change from thicker and more tropical flora to that of the dry interior.

Alice Springs was a welcome stop, with 4 hours to stretch our legs, restock our supermarket supplies, and try to avoid burning to a crisp in the record-breaking heatwave they were experiencing. It was a mere 38 degrees centigrade when we arrived, but they had just experienced many consecutive days above 40. The rail-side gum trees provided some shade from the sun as we were locked out of the train until just before departure.

Not until rural South Australia did we experience the emptiness we had expected, though it was primarily agricultural land recently stripped bare by harvest.

Finally we arrived in Adelaide at 12:30pm two days after departing Darwin. In keeping with the beginning of the journey, we decided to catch public transportation to the house. Frustratingly, the train line that normally links the Ghan to my home in the southern suburbs is currently out of service, so we walked towards the city and took two buses to Seacliff. Once home we emptied everything from our bags and excitedly opened boxes we had sent from England and the road. Our traveling days are done... for now.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Darwin, Australia

From England to Singapore we were able to travel overland, but due to the Australian Government's condition requiring Dani to enter via an airport for her visa, we were forced to fly. The plane covered just over 3000 km in 4 hours, but was boring, uncomfortable, and hopefully the last flight we will take for the foreseeable future. After arriving in Darwin and relaxing for a couple of days at our couchsurfing place, we decided to explore nearby Litchfield National Park - a small but phenomenally beautiful area.

We were especially impressed with the quantity and variety of native animals. We saw Dingoes early in the morning, Wallabies and Wallaroos, and a Goanna crossing the road. Our couchsurf host was also an animal lover, so I was able to handle her (non-venomous) Black-headed Python.

One type of animal we were not so excited to come across was the Golden Orb spider, which loves to build it's gigantic webs across paths. As we were the first to visit one particular forest walk, I was constantly dismantling webs and trying to stay out of their way.

Litchfield National Park also boasts a number of swimming holes, usually at the base of waterfalls. Darwin is located in the tropics and is currently in a monsoon cycle (locally called The Wet). This means that the weather stays hot both during the day and at night, the humidity is almost unbearably high, and there is torrential rain almost every afternoon. We were extremely glad to find these peaceful swimming spots that are much quieter now than in the dry season.

Sunday 20 January 2013


We were expecting a futuristic city of glass and steel, and Singapore did not disappoint. The newly-opened Marina Bay Sands Resort is an interesting assortment of architecture, not least the 'boat building' we were vaguely aware of, but unprepared for how strange it appeared - like a cruise ship dumped on skyscrapers by a tsunami.

The interior was also impressive, and was a welcome respite from the overwhelming humidity we had so far escaped. Unfortunately Singapore's abundant opportunities for shopping were completely lost on us, and we merely used the building as a refreshingly cool path to the botanical garden.

The architects had also had a hand in designing the botanical gardens, which were free to walk around, but cost an exorbitant $20 / £15 to enter the raised walkway and biospheres. Needless to say we were happy to stroll around the public areas.

While the architecture was interesting to admire, I was much more excited by the prospect of sampling as much food as was possible in 48 hours. Not far from our couchsurfing host's home was a vegetarian hotpot restaurant. We did not visit a hotpot restaurant in China because they are very meat-centric and we would have struggled to communicate our desire to avoid pig penis and other such delicacies. Here though, there was a cornucopia of vegetables, fungi, dumplings and salads, all available to take back to our table and cook in one of two boiling hot broths.

One day, we also visited the touristy Chinatown to have a look around. It was nothing like China, though the decorations for the upcoming Chinese New Year were interesting to see. Unfortunately most of the old colonial style buildings are hidden behind large signs and glitzy façades  but it is still possible to see some of the old charm if you look above street level.

At lunchtime, we found our way into a very local hawker centre, with at least 100 booths specialising in a few dishes. I had heard about a must-try dish called Carrot Cake, which contains no carrot, and is not a cake. I opted for the 'dark' Carrot Cake and was delighted to find it was a mixture of egg and a gelatinous mixture of daikon (a large radish) and rice flour. It was fried in dark soy sauce and was extremely delicious. My biggest problem was that I could not fit any more food into the short time we stayed.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Chiang Mai, Thailand

We arrived at Chiang Mai in need of a rest - our trip feeling like it was near it's end and instead of trying to pack a few more destinations in, we decided to spend a week relaxing and making the most of this traveller hub. The city is well-known as a fantastic place to take a course, and as I have always loved Thai food, but never gotten the knack of making it, I decided to enrol in a one-day course.

There are many different cooking courses available in Chiang Mai, but I saw an advertisement at a yoga centre and asked the owner if he recommended it. Based on that and the reasonable price, I rang the chef and found out it would only be me and one other student, which solidified my decision. The company was Red Chilli Cooking School and had no problems adapting the recipes to be vegetarian - even swapping fish sauce for soy, and oyster sauce for mushroom.

The food was spectacular - both in appearance and taste. The Tom Yum was perhaps my favourite dish with it's very strong yet balanced flavours: sweet; salty; spicy; and bitter.

Chiang Mai is also famous for it's second hand bookstores, with at least half a dozen large shops in the city centre, plus many smaller (and often even cheaper) selections like we found at the Free Bird Cafe - a restaurant set up as part of a charity for Burmese refugees.

In addition to educating ourselves, we spent a good deal of time at café's and restaurants, making the most of the very inexpensive food and drink, and giving us a chance to get into those books.

And as an antidote to all the sitting around, reading and getting the occasional massage, we frequented a nice little yoga studio as part of a long-held desire to do yoga each morning. The classes were very full, which may have been a result of post-NYE-resolutions, but we also know many people come to Chiang Mai specifically to attend courses and classes. It was very enjoyable, but difficult to reconcile that it was 25 per cent more expensive than massages for the same length of time.

Sunday 13 January 2013

North Mekhong, Laos

In order to get from Laos to Thailand, there are a number of routes available. Considering we were already in the north of Laos though, and wanted to use buses as sparsely as possible, we decided to take a boat trip from Luang Prabang to the Thai border at Chiang Kong (in Laos it is Huay Xai). By taking the slow boat, it involved 16 hours on the Mekhong over 2 days.

We arrived early in the morning (at 7.30 when the ticket office was supposed to open) and secured good seats away from the noisy engine, which was lucky, as the boat soon filled right up. It was much cheaper than buying a package tour with accommodation included, and we took all the details on how to do it and how much it should cost from this excellent blog.

We passed sublime scenery of thick jungle and admired the meanderings of one of the world's great rivers. It was especially interesting to see how local people interact with the river; using it as highway; supermarket; playground; and source of water for gardens, cleaning and washing. Some of the villages were incredibly picturesque, and appeared to be completely cut-off except for their river access.

The first night we arrived after dark, and stayed in a cheap guesthouse in Pak Beng. It was at the very edge of town, up the hill and where the houses involved in the tourist industry turned into houses for locals, with a stark difference in style and building materials.

The second morning was (relatively) cold and misty, and I regretted having given away my jumper in Vietnam. It made for a majestic scene though, the hills nestled under banks of cloud as we chugged along the river.

Our second boat was quite different from the first, as there were far fewer people - almost all tourists now instead of the equal mix of foreigners and Laotians. We managed to secure a bank of 5 seats so we were able to spread out and change our positions throughout the day, which made it much more comfortable. Yet again, this was due to our being early on the boat - at least an hour before departure.

We arrived in Huay Xai before dark and stayed at a guesthouse rather than trying to dash for the border before it closed. Had we succeeded in getting across to Thailand, we would have still had a 5 hour mini-bus to Chiang Mai, and we were sick of moving by that stage. The next morning we took the ferry across from Laos to Thailand, both borders taking less than 15 minutes each - a very dignified crossing.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Luang Prabang, Laos

We eventually arrived in the former King's residence of Luang Prabang after taking the ludicrously winding and vomit-inducing road up to the north of Laos. The World Heritage city sits amid the convergence of two rivers, which swells the already massive Mekhong and makes for an entertaining backdrop, especially while drinking the Corona of South-East Asia; Beerlao.

We arrived on Christmas Eve, which was evidenced only by fancy hotels attempting to cash in on homesick foreigners. Had it felt anything like Christmas we may have succumbed to homesickness, but the absence of everything we usually associate with the celebration precluded us from feeling that we were missing out.

On Christmas Day we decided to splurge financially, in an attempt to make it different from any other exciting day of traveling. We decided to visit an Elephant Camp that attempts to buy elephants from the logging industry, saving them from a situation where normal life expectancy drops from 80 years to around 40, and elephants are subjected to harsh and dangerous working conditions. We hoped that our feeding them sugar cane and scrubbing them in the river was a good trade for carrying our miniscule weight (equivalent to less than 2% of their bodyweight, or less than carrying a mouse for a human).

We can confirm that these elephants appeared to be well looked-after, and there was a veterinarian on site to care for them. Some had suffered injuries as a result of logging accidents - holes in ears from infections and a missing eye for one, but they seemed relatively happy and free from neuroses, which is not always the case for elephants in the tourist trade.

During our relaxing time in Luang Prabang we also visited some of the numerous waterfalls in the area, the most impressive of which was the Kuang Si falls. We rented a scooter at more than twice the cost of Vang Vieng, and drove the 27 km during a (relatively) chilly morning. There were a number of cascades, all tinted with the cloudy aqua blue that I now associate with Laos.

The fall at the beginning of the series was the most impressive, and it was also possible to hike to the top for a view over the surrounding forests.

Aside from magnificent surroundings, Luang Prabang is also well-known for it's large number of monks. We would see them everywhere in their bright saffron robes, though did not take part in the famous gifting of food, which some argue has made an ancient tradition into a tourist spectacle. We did watch and listen as they made their evening prayers, chanting in the deep rumble that is as pleasant as it is transcendental.

Friday 4 January 2013

Vang Vieng, Laos

Before our time at Saelao we only spent 20 minutes in Vang Vieng, thinking it would be the worst kind of tourist trap based on what we read and people had told us. But the stories we had heard were all based on Vang Vieng pre-September 2012, when binge-drinking and making stupid, dangerous decisions were the two main activities. For a history of the debauchery, see here. Happily, the stunning surroundings and brilliant activities remain, while the bars along the river have been closed, which has correspondingly led to a reduction in the number of idiots present and no more deaths! We went tubing through an underground cave around 20 km north of the town, pulling ourselves along ropes and unsuccessfully trying to keep our bodies out of the frigid water.

It was an amazing experience, with the illumination of headlamps the only visible light in the cylindrical tunnel. At one point, we had to pick up our tubes and walk through shallows to reach deeper water.

While still around 10 km north of town, we started kayaking along the popular tubing route of the Nam Song river, which took us just over an hour compared to an extremely languid three. It was strange to see vast numbers of steps leading to now non-existent bars, and the sites of slides and ziplines that were the cause of so many deaths.

Aside from water-based activities, there are also a number of spectacular loops radiating out from town, going through epic limestone landscapes and poor rural villages. We hired scooters for small change, as competition is extremely strong since tourist numbers have dwindled.

The main sight of our loop was the Yui waterfall, which we inexplicably had to ourselves. It is now the dry season, but the fall was still impressive and very powerful.

In addition to the falls, there were a number of lagoons that were packed with butterflies drinking the water that had lapped onto the rocks. We sat and watched them in between refreshing dips.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Vang Vieng (Saelao), Laos

From Siem Reap, we took a bus to the Thai border and a train to Bangkok. The next evening we yet again rejoiced in train travel and took the overnight service to Nong Khai, crossed into Laos and stayed one night in the capital - Vientiane. Finally, after a minibus to Vang Vieng and a motorbike ride into the countryside, we arrived at the Saelao project.

The peaceful location and idyllic surroundings were to be our home for the next two weeks.

The project has multitudinous objectives, and while volunteering there we were involved in a great variety of them. A major goal for the project is to become self-sufficient in organic food for the on-site restaurant, volunteers, and staff. This will require a great deal of work and the supervision of someone throughout the seasons. Dani lent a hand by resurrecting this garden that had been taken over by weeds.

All the buildings on site are made from locally sourced, renewable materials. We were enlisted to help make mud bricks for a bungalow to be built for housing future volunteers. Clay earth was dug and mixed with water, then vigorously stomped underfoot to acheive an even consistency. The outer husk from rice was added to thicken the mix and make it more robust.

After the mix was just right, we packed it into a vinyl-lined mould and released the bricks to air-dry for the next week. It was very labour intensive but used no energy apart from our own, and made incredibly tough bricks.

While at Saelao, I apprenticed myself to the immensely practical Ham (rhymes with palm). It seemed to me he was born wielding a hammer and machete, and I learned a great deal about the simplest and most economical way to do many things. Amongst other things, we built furniture for the restaurant together from timbers we cut using a table saw attached to a tractor engine, and re-used bamboo and nails from tables no longer fit for purpose.

Of all our jobs however, perhaps the most beneficial was the teaching of English on school nights to local children. The restaurant became the classroom and a flock of eager teenagers cycled from the nearby village to voluntarily attend, even after a day spent at school.

When asked what they wanted to learn, they surprisingly said 'grammar', so Dani created tables, games and competitions to teach irregular verbs (which we ourselves had to learn about), past participles, and when to use 'in, on, and at'.

By far the biggest undertaking during our fortnight at Saelao was the peanut field. The day after we arrived work began to convert a rice field over to peanut production, and first job on the list was digging post holes by hand in the heavy clay. Many blisters were created before the wise decided to don gloves.

As the next day was a saturday, we asked if the kids that attend English classes could come help for a couple of hours in the morning. All the holes had been dug and poles inserted, so it was time to 'clean' the field, by removing weeds and the remnants of the rice plants. It was not easy work, but the kids were used to working in the fields and chatted and joked as if they were doing something much more fun.

Later in the day a few of us went to cut bamboo in the forest, selecting a few poles per grove to cut down, removing the side branches with machetes, and launching the poles into a lagoon for later collection.

This bamboo was to become the binding element in the fence, erected primarily to keep cows away from the succulent peanut bushes. It proved to be an amazing material - flexible but incredibly strong. Once two rows of bamboo had joined the fence poles together we strung barbed wire in a further two rows, then interwove short bamboo stakes between the barbed wire and horizontal poles, creating a rigid lattice of materials that I felt confident would deter even a very persistent cow.

The next step was to use a hand-operated tractor to plough the area that the kids were unable to clean (95% of the field). It was incredibly hard work, wrestling with a machine that was continually fighting to wander. Four of us took turns in operating the beast, but all were physically wrecked by the time the field was satisfactorily ploughed and tilled.

The next job was by far the most tedious - that of hand-shelling thousands of peanuts for planting. I am sure I must have shelled a few hundred, but admit I would often find other jobs that needed doing, desperate to escape the monotony of a task that could be achieved in minutes by a machine.

Finally the time came for planting, the field pre-flooded to make the soil soft and ensure an initial water supply in the dry conditions of this season. At first a logical and somewhat rigid system was developed by us volunteers to ensure the peanuts were evenly spaced in straight lines.

This system was quite slow though, and we struggled to maintain order once the local kids arrived and set about punching holes and filling them with peanuts in a way we couldn't control. In the end, one side of the field was done the Western way, while the other was completed in less time by fewer people in the Laos style.

For us, volunteering was only one aspect of what we enjoyed during our stay. It was a pleasure to eat comunally, though the lack of chairs did take some getting used to. The food was always delicious and rarely repeated, with a talented local chef providing the meals for us and the restaurant during the day, and a guy with a particular skill for making one of our favourite dishes - wood-fired pizza, in the evenings.

A couple of children lived at the project, the founder providing a home for them and sending them to school. With so many English speaking volunteers around they spoke very good English, and always lent a hand with preparing food, fishing, planting and anything else they could help with. They especially loved to watch movies that a fellow volunteer had on his laptop.

We volunteered 6 days a week, with one free, or 'buddha day' falling on a Thursday or Friday while we were there - depending on the lunar cycle. We worked as much as we needed to though, either helping with various projects or in the restaurant, but also had a good amount of free time, especially in the middle of the day when heat prevented much outdoor activity.

We were also just a kilometer away from the famous 'Blue Lagoon' and a very impressive cave. As volunteers, we did not have to pay each time we wanted to enter, and tried to go swimming in the cool waters whenever possible. We would even wear our clothes while swimming sometimes, in a very lazy version of laundry.

One contribution I thought I could make was to teach spoon carving to people that wanted to learn. In mid-October I ordered the necessary knives online and had them despatched to Saelao, and they thankfully arrived on my third day there - 40 days after Royal Mail had estimated. The locals were very skilled with blades, having played with knives and machetes since they were small children, so my apprentice Boun was able to produce a quality rice-spoon with very little instruction, and in a quarter of the time it took for me to produce my first decent spoon.

Above all, the volunteers and staff made our stay there, and we found it difficult to leave. We will remember it as a highlight of our trip, and a place we may return to some day.