The top 10 things we won’t miss about South East Asia

We had a blast in South East Asia. However there are definitely some benefits to being in a Western country. In this post we look at why travelling in South East Asia wasn’t all sunshine and sandcastles. Here are the top 10 things we won’t be missing…

1  Mosquitoes

Long sleeves, trousers, mosquito nets and bucketfuls of repellant. The little buggers will still find a way to get you. There have been far too many sleepless nights where we’ve been kept awake scratching. We are very glad to be leaving them behind. So long suckers!

2  Scary driving

It’s surprising how quickly you become accustomed to the haphazard road rules in SEA. You learn to cross the road by walking into oncoming traffic, and to not watch out of the front window of the bus as it hurtles down the wrong side of the road into the path of a lorry. I even managed to brush off being knocked off my bicycle by a scooter in Hoi An as no big deal. It feels good not to be taking our lives into our hands each time we board a vehicle.

 

3  Dirty public loos

We have stayed in all manner of budget accommodation but we didn’t compromise on cleanliness when it came to the bathroom. Unfortunately we didn’t have any control over outside facilities much less the timing of the younger Johnsons’ need to use them.

4  The children being centre of attention

They stuck out like sore thumbs and caused a stir. At times they were mobbed by interested parties. They had their cheeks pinched, their heads patted and were randomly picked up. They were most definitely over it.

5  Menus with half the dishes not available

I may have mentioned the drag that dining out had become in an earlier post. One of the most annoying parts of this were missing menu items. You’d spend ages trawling through the menu, looking at the photos (from Google image and bearing no relation to the food that would appear) only to be told you couldn’t have it. Grrrrr.

6  Having to haggle for everything

It may be fun to drive for a hard bargain over souvenirs but when you have to be alert to being ripped off over every little thing it gets tired.

 

7  The lack of pavements

The boys love to roam and I love to let them so its no fun for anyone when you have to hold hands as you walk down the street in the flow (and exhaust fumes) of traffic. On the rare occasion that you find yourself walking on a pavement, do not let your guard down; scooters trump pedestrians on sidewalks.

8  Rock solid beds and pillows

I love a firm mattress, really I do, but for some of the beds we slept on we may as well have been on the floor. This would have been easier to endure had the pillows been soft and fluffy. Alas, they may as well have been bricks for all the comfort they offered our weary heads at the end of a long day.

9  The weather

No more sweating just from sitting still. No more clothes drenched in sweat the minute you step outside. Goodbye humidity!

 

10  Chopsticks

Our chopstick wielding skills are much improved and we are happy to use them to slurp up our noodles. However we will not miss the chopsticks abundantly supplied on restaurant tables. The boys will just have to find something else to knock on the floor or use as a light sabre.

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The top 10 things we will miss about South East Asia

Another month has flown by. I enjoyed my trip back to Blighty while Nick and the boys got friendly with the animals of Borneo. Whether we’ll get more detail about their adventure remains to be seen because as the children have been taught to say “what happens on tour, stays on tour”. We were reunited in Singapore before boarding a flight to Sydney. Now that the South East Asian leg of our tour is over here are the 10 things we will miss the most!

 

1 Food

Mostly delicious, mostly cheap and mostly healthy – what’s not to love? Trying out new dishes (tarantula donut, anyone?) and getting re-aquainted with old favourites (Tom Yum!) was a big highlight.

2 Bum showers

Once the boys had got over the novelty of spraying each other and the bathroom the ‘bum shower’ became a welcome part of our ablutions. It makes so much more sense to have a good rinse than to send masses of loo paper down the u-bend. Not to mention it being more hygienic. I’m even thinking about installing one when we get home!

3 The weather

As much as we may have moaned about being hot and sweaty at the time, it’s been surprisingly chilly in Sydney and we’re more than a little worried about arriving back to UK winter!

4 Traveller camaraderie

The upside of sticking out like a sore thumb meant it was easy to meet fellow travellers and strike up a conversation. A casual chat can lead to weeks of shared travel.

5 Budget

South East Asia has long been a draw for budget backpackers. You really do get a lot of bang for your buck. You can cover long distances on local buses for a couple quid and feed a family of 4 for a fiver. In some countries beer is cheaper than water. Need I say more?

6 Warm sea

We spent hours in the warm waters of South East Asia, swimming, snorkelling and generally having a giggle. Fast forward to a spring day in Sydney and the boys were not happy. Tomas lasted about 10 seconds, George slightly longer. I hope they begain their hardiness by the time summer rolls round in Brighton.

 

7 Coffee

Vietnam is pretty well known for its coffee but when I was first offered one with condensed milk I turned my nose up. One day I got one by accident and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Served over ice with condensed milk Vietnamese coffee is like liquid caramel. Things will never be the same again.

8 Fruit

Mangos fresh off the tree. More pineapples and watermelons than you can shake a stick at. New delights such as mangosteen and rambutan. We were spoilt for choice. The tropical fruit back home cannot possibly compare and then there’s the bill.

9 The hospitality

With few exceptions we were welcomed in SE Asia with smiles and open arms. People went out of their way to help us by showing us the way or occupying the boys. We were given food and presents.

10 Language

We have loved learning a bit of local language along the way. And hearing the kids say thank you in Vietnamese or Thai always raised a smile. We’ll be in English speaking countries for the rest of the trip and we’ll miss trying to figure out the lingo. Mind you, Tom does still ask how to say things in Australian and is picking up his cousins’ accent. Fair dinkum mate.

Two weeks in Thailand

As much as intrepid is the name of our blog, it has also become a bar by which we measure ourselves. A reminder to be brave and do things out of the ordinary. Despite this, I just couldn’t get my head round the idea of the 30+ hour journey it would take us to reach Laos from Vietnam. And so we flew to Thailand.

We had a couple of pleasant days in Bangkok before heading North for our elephant rendezvous. Our hotel was on a quiet soi (lane) not too far from Khao San road. After securing our train tickets at the station we joined the backpacker throng on the infamous street. The boys tucked into scorpion and declared it much tastier than in Beijing. We partook in a fish spa but resisted the urge to get a tattoo or buy elephant pants.

The following day we had a date with a lovely Thai man, Earth, who we had met trekking to Annapurna Base Camp back in November. We enjoyed his narrative as we sped around Bangkok’s canals on a long tail boat. Afterwards, he took as to a local eatery that has been in the same location for 40 odd years. We left the ordering up to Earth and sampled a range of authentic Thai dishes – delicious!

After our wonderful visit to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary we headed to Sukhothai for a dose of ancient temples. We hired bikes and cycled round the historical park. This UNESCO world heritage site was built around 800 years ago and is similar in style to Angkor Wat. We had fun playing hide and seek amidst the ruins. That evening we enjoyed some tasty food near the market. Our food stall of choice shared their seating area with the local mechanic and we chowed down our noodle soup under the hydraulic lift.

We took a bus up to Chiang Mai. The five days we had there flew by and we could have easily spent longer. We had some wonderful food and met some wonderful people. The boys highlight was definitely our visit to the Siam Insect Zoo where we got up close and personal with all manner of bugs. George and I even held a scorpion! I decided to treat myself to some RnR and went for a Thai massage. Despite going for the ‘relaxing’ option, it was agony and I would hate to experience a ‘strong’ one! We really enjoyed walking around the old town and even dragged the children kicking and screaming persuaded the children to visit a temple or two.

We were thrilled with the sleeper train back to Bangkok. The bunks start the journey as seats and are converted about hour into journey, complete with sheets, blankets and comfy pillows. We were in lower bunks and they were pretty roomy, even sharing with a small wriggly child. It was best sleep on a night train we’ve ever had.

We split our last couple of days in Bangkok between doing something for the adults and something for the children. The grown ups chose a visit to see the massive golden Buddha at Wat Pho (My brain is still processing this as it would in Vietnam – what fer?). The boys were in a cooperative mood and we discussed the various merits of Wat Pho’s Buddha versus the giant one we’d seen at Leshan in China. We’d taken their sketch books and they were happy to sit by the pond drawing the fish.

For the children we went to KidZania the following day. A miniature city where the children get to dress up and role-play different jobs. They got to be firefighters, riding on a mini fire engine to put out a fire. They looked for a missing person whilst being police officers. They were vets, doctors, 7eleven cashiers and even took part in a stage production of the Little Mermaid. They earn kidzos for their endeavours and can spend them on other activities such as making a drink at the coca-cola bottling plant or having a good old boogie at the disco. There is also a department store where they are supposed to be able to by items with their hard earned kidzos but they all cost too much. A life lesson too far perhaps. The boys however had lots of fun. It is very clever marketing for the companies involved, an exercise in brand recognition and capitalist brain washing for the next generation of consumers.

This was not our first visit to Thailand and I’m pretty sure it will not be our last. The country is beautiful and the people friendly. It is easy to get around (apart from Bangkok where the traffic is awful) and the food, as you may have gathered, is amazing. We were happy and well fed for the long road to Cambodia.

Friends, fresh air and food in South Korea

Our time in South Korea could be summed up with three Fs: Friends, fresh air and food. Or, come to think of it, three Ms: mates, mountains and meals. Or maybe three C’s; chums, countryside and cuisine… Ahem. You get the idea.

The spring sunshine and blossom in Seoul was a delightful backdrop to our explorations of this vibrant city. We enjoyed the changing the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung palace.

Wandering along Cheong-gye-cheon, a stream that runs through the centre of the city. Riding the cable car up to Namsan Peak for love locks and city views. Visiting Insa-dong’s quirky shopping district. Seeing the beautiful blossom at Yeoido spring flower festival. And dancing on Gangnam Street’s  eponymous stage. For the children there were numerous museums and parks. But the real highlight was catching up with friends that we’d made whilst trekking in Nepal. Yuni and Jo were wonderful local guides and it was great to have their insight into Korean culture.

From Seoul we spent two nights in Busan but the wind and heavy rain meant it was hard to explore. We ended up succumbing to pester power and shelled out to visit the Busan Sealife centre. The boys enjoyed it but I cant help but think they got just as much enjoyment looking at the tanks of fish, eels and octopi in the seafood market.

Jeju Island was the destination for the second part of our trip. We arrived at our accommodation in Seogwipo by chance with the aid of a helpful coffeeshop manager. We had snuck in to use the wi-fi and having struck up a conversation he phoned his friend who worked in a hostel round the corner. Kenny the owner of Slow Citi hostel did us a great deal and we got a free night on the understanding that our boys would play with his son. Now thats a win:win. The sign on the reception wall reading ‘Don’t be inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’ was rather apt.

Jeju is a volcanic island to the South of the mainland. It is a big holiday destination for the Koreans. This is probably why there is a museum/theme park for everything. From sex to dinosaurs; teddy bears to chocolate. Happily we managed to avoid these and spent our time enjoying the fresh air whilst exploring Jeju’s stunning coastline. It was sunny but the sea was pretty chilly, that didn’t deter the boys from taking a dip at Jungmung & Hyeopjae’s beautiful beaches.

The football fans amongst you may recognise Jeju as one of the venues from the 2002 World Cup. Many of the islanders we met claimed to have met David Beckham et al and would let us know at the earliest opportunity in our conversation.

We used Jeju’s extensive bus service to get around and at a bus stop one day we met some Neuro surgeons who were on Jeju for a conference. They couldn’t figure out which bus to get and ended up hailing a taxi. It was a little complicated but certainly not brain surgery.

We spent a day climbing Mount Hallasan. The route up was not particularly scenic but the views across the island from the top made it worth it. Hiking is somewhat of a national past time in Korea. There are an abundance of outdoor clothing stores and people get kitted up in technical clothing for the shortest stroll. Even in Seoul we saw older people on the metro decked out in vibrant rain coats (we dubbed them the ‘Goretex grannies’). We must have looked woefully underprepared. As we learnt in Nepal, Koreans take a good supply of treats with them on a hike and the boys were kept happy by a steady stream of sweets and chocolate.

I couldn’t write about our time in Jeju without mentioning the incredible Haenyeo. These female free divers collect sea products by diving to depths of up to 20m. It is somewhat of a dying art as young women no longer want to take up the profession. Many of the remaining Haenyeo are in their sixties still diving to collect sea slug, sea weed and other such delicacies.

Which brings me round to the last F; food. Korean food is delicious and with the help of Yuni and Jo we managed to navigate some dishes that we may not have known about (or dared try) otherwise. Culinary highlights include: Naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in cold broth), Hotteok (pancakey thing with a sweet gooey middle), Pakeon (green onion pancake) Bindaettok (mungbean pancake), Jokbal (pig trotters), Modeumhoe (mixed raw fish/seafood platter – I’ll pass on the sea slug next time) and of course the famous Korean barbecue.

It had not been high on my list of countries to visit on our round the world trip. In fact I didn’t know much about South Korean apart from kimchi, Gangnam Style and the troublesome neighbours in the North. But I soon fell in love with the warm people, beautiful scenery and delicious cuisine. The one downside was that we only spent two weeks there. Annyeoghi gyeseyo Korea. I hope we meet again.

China

Due to the visa restrictions we didn’t have a whole lot of time for our China explorations. Now that we are out the other side it is safe to say we packed a lot into a short time.

 

On the whole we found China a really easy place to travel, despite the obvious language difficulties. There are super efficient trains, a great choice of hostels and Chinese curiosity about the children was unobtrusive (apart from one time an entire family invaded our hostel room to gawp).

  

Our first tick on the places-to-see-in-China list was the Forbidden City in Beijing. The palace’s buildings are imposing and beautiful. One can not help but imagine the fear and respect they would have commanded back when they were not surrounded by skyscrapers. 

 

Our visit to the Great Wall at Mùtiányù was fun if surreal. Surreal in part because it is such an iconic and familiar structure but more surreal because of the toboggan ride back down to the car park and the resident bi-lingual Mynah bird.

 

On the high speed train out of Beijing we hurtled past vast swathes of agricultural land with mile upon mile of fruit trees and poly tunnels interspersed with the odd town and/or power station. 

 

We spent a few chilled days in Pingyao exploring the ancient city walls and temples in between lots of lego time for the boys whilst we worked on the plan. The beauty of Pingyao is somewhat jaded by an ever-present layer of dust from the coal mines nearby. We particular enjoyed Ri Sheng Chang Old bank – the birthplace of modern banking. And Pingyao’s Newspaper museum which is a collection of front pages from around the world and we had fun playing guess the news story. 

  

The Army of Terracotta Warriors was next on the itinerary so we took a train to Xi’an. The three sites are housed in huge buildings and truly awe-inspiring. The statues are quite eerie, they so realistic one could imagine them coming to life any second.

  

We decided last minute to cut short our time in Xi’an so we could to fit in a Yangzi River cruise where we were able to be still for a couple of days as we sailed past the stunning scenery (read about it in Nick’s blog soon).

 

After noticing a dinosaur museum in our guide book it was just a matter of working out how we would fit in a detour to Zigong. The seven hours we subsequently spent on buses were well worth it and an added bonus were the beautiful landscapes we passed on the way, rolling hills and rice terraces. The dinosaur museum itself was a big hit with all of us, dinosaur models, skeletons, fossils and a real life excavation site! 

  

We enjoyed Chengdu not least for its most famous residents (pandas) and by far the biggest bed we’ve had so far! Nick took the opportunity of a DVD player in our room to introduce the boys to Star Wars. 

  

We took a day trip to Leshan to see the Big Buddha (it really is very big). And we loved wandering around People’s Park. Where we discovered a festival atmosphere with groups of couples ballroom dancing round sound systems. 

  

A storm in Shanghai gave us a long delay at Chengdu airport which although frustrating saved us the cost of a night’s accommodation. The weather system hung around and we had a wet and windy stay in Shanghai, exploring the city clad in down and goretex. 

 

Highlights include: a great day exploring the vast Science & Technology museum, seeing the cityscape lit up at night from the 87th floor of the Jinmào Tower, wandering round the French concession with its gorgeous Art Deco apartment blocks and the spectacular Acrobatic show we saw on our last night in China. 

 

Food references littered my posts from India but my taste buds were not set alight in China. We tried lots of street food and local delicacies; Peking duck and xiaolongbao were our favourites but I definitely didn’t fall in love with Chinese cuisine. 

   

The boys enjoyed the food more than us. They couldn’t get enough noodles and dumplings. And at Dōnghuámén Night Market they even tried snake and scorpion. G should have been on commission from the stall drumming up quite a bit of business with his proclamation that the scorpion was delicious!

 

We enjoyed China but we weren’t blown away. We didn’t experience the great highs and lows of our travels in India and Nepal. Where getting a train was an adventure in itself. With everything so easy the journey was, dare I say it, a little dull. Maybe we just didn’t have the time to appreciate it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hong Kong (or how to blow the budget)

Our flight from Calcutta was at 12.40am (aka ridiculous o’clock when travelling with children). And in keeping with the chaos of the city the journey to the airport was rather, well, chaotic. A tram had broken down in the middle of a crossroad causing major gridlock. Happily we had left plenty of time so enjoyed the drama without the worry of a missed flight.

 

Check in was also eventful. Our first experience of Air Asia’s dubious fine print and a hefty pay out for onward baggage transfer. Also the algorithm’s of the booking system are idiotic as 3 year old T was allocated a seat on his own. The journey itself was fine and we even managed to (finally) purchase a Lonely Planet for China.


Arrival in Hong Kong was like a dream. So clean, so efficient and so easy. We were certainly dazzled by the bright lights and after checking into our teeny room we made a bee-line for the familiarity of M&S food hall. 

Our guesthouse was in the backpacker destination of Chunking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. An old tenement block packed with ‘budget’ lodgings. Accommodation in Hong Kong is notoriously expensive and you really don’t get much bang for your buck. Whereas a double room had always been ample for the four of us in India the double bed we were presented with was akin to a large single in a broom cupboard so we shelled out for a (not much) bigger ‘family’ room complete with shower over toilet. But it was comfortable and oh so clean.

 

After five months on the road most of our clothes were falling apart. We were due some serious retail therapy and that is something Hong Kong dishes out in (Gucci emblazoned) bucket loads. We wandered round the many shining shopping malls in open-mouthed wonderment. And we spent. New outfits. New lego. New shoes for the boys. We were the definition of shop ’til you drop. 

We managed to shake free of the consumer trance we were under and venture past the bright lights and shopping malls to see what else Hong Kong had on offer. We visited the Tian Tan Buddha (tallest seated bronze Buddha in the world) and Po Lin monastery at Ngong Ping on Lan Tau  Island. It was a steep climb up to the ‘big Buddha’ and sadly low cloud blocked the apparently stunning views but it was impressive nonetheless.


The weather was kinder to us when we rode the MTR out to the New Territories to follow the Peng Shan Heritage Trail. Where we had a glimpse of pre-colonial Hong Hong with fascinating ancestral halls and walled villages.


The kids enjoyed sampling Hong Kong’s many playgrounds and we enjoyed sitting back watching them play, safe in the knowledge there wouldn’t be a gaping rusty hole in the slide. They loved Disneyland and Ocean Park. I was less enamoured by the latter finding the layout hard to navigate but the aquarium was spectacular.


Temple street night market was a real highlight. We really enjoyed perusing all the wares on offer albeit whilst shielding the boys from some of the more adult stalls. There was a great atmosphere and the fresh seafood (straight from a bucket on the pavement) was delicious.


Hong Kong had us; hook, line and sinker. Our week there flew by in a blur of socialising and fine dining. We loved the ease of the metro and the fun of the Star Ferry. We ate some amazing pan Asian food. We rekindled friendships we’d made long ago and far away with people who now call Hong Kong home. And even had childcare for a night out on the town. 


It was a great place to recharge the batteries (and empty the wallet). And we consumed enough wine and cheese to fortify us through the next chapter of our adventure. Watch out China, the Johnsons are coming.