Sunday, 19 October 2014

For the Love of Singapore

The Travelling Series

If I had to describe Singapore in one word, it would have to be: wow.

Singapore is one hell of an amazing metropolis - the city is so clean and so so SHINY. I've heard people say that you can lick a bin and you wouldn't catch anything and now I fully understand why. 

Singapore is like a cross between America and England in many ways - there are American roads, signs and skyscrapers, combined with English streets, back alleys and buildings. Of course another bonus is that English is widely spoken as it's one of the country's official four languages. I think that's why I liked it so much as I love America and I'm also rather fond of England due to it being my home country. 

There's plenty to do as well - anyone who says you only need a few days in Singapore is LYING! There are the typical touristic activities, like slurping on a Singapore Sling in Raffles Hotel, but a variety of other things on offer as well - such as a trip to the zoo, a walk around Clarke Quay (a thriving hub of restaurants and bars) or you can visit one of the many shopping malls that the city inhabits.

Singapore seems to have tried very hard to put a shopping mall in every place imaginable. In the airport? Check. In each train station? Check. On the corner of every street? Check. I'm definitely not complaining though as everyone who reads this blog knows that shopping is my favourite hobby! (Come to think of it, perhaps this is another reason why I fell in love with Singapore.)

We were also incredibly lucky to stay in the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel for one night (Kane and I's birthday present to each other for this year). Now, Marina Bay Sands is something else entirely. It might have been the orchestra playing in the lobby upon arrival that has made me think so, or the view of the city from our room; it might have been the gigantic bath tub in the bathroom or the extra large double bed; it could even have been the spectacular sights of the surrounding skyscrapers from the observation deck. But, actually, it's more likely to have boiled down to the fact that we got to watch the sun go down from the incredible infinity pool that trickles off the edge of one of the towers. 

If you're ever fortunate enough to go there, make sure you also check out the helix bridge and the shopping mall surrounding the hotel. Our stay in the complex was outstanding and it's something that I'll never forget!

You might be wondering how much Marina Bay Sands set us back and the answer is TOO MUCH! Almost everybody comments on how expensive Singapore is but, the truth is, standard price rates are okay. They are practically the same as England. But it's the fact that they put GST on top - plus a service charge of 10% in bars and restaurants - that can make it rather sneaky and all the expense soon adds up. 

I do not regret going to Singapore at all though, even if we are on a bit of a tight budget, and would definitely recommend it to fellow travellers. It's one of my favourite places that I've ever been to and I hope to go back there one day! I think I could even live there if I really wanted to. We shall see!

But for now, next stop: New Zealand!


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Last of Vietnam: Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang

The Travelling Series

At the end of my previous post I briefly talked about how I was embarking upon a 13 hour train journey to Hue (which is halfway down the east coast of Vietnam).

At the time, there was no need to complain as I was sat comfortably staring out of the window at the beautiful Vietnamese countryside. However, when the sun went down and darkness hit, out came the mice and the cockroaches. I cannot tell you the pure terror I felt when I saw the shadow of a small creature shoot past my bag on the floor - and then when I realised what it actually was I just couldn't wait to get off!

I'd heard from a couple of friends who had already been there that Hue was worth stopping off at on the quest to Hoi An.

After being in the hustle and bustle of the capital city for so long, Hue was quite a refreshing change as there were less people, less traffic and less going on. However, this also meant that there was less of a vibe. At times and at certain places during the day it actually felt like a ghost town. This meant that companies and salesmen approached us even more than they did in Hanoi (and, dare I say it, Bangkok). But in Hue, because they are so desperate for business, they don't leave you alone or take no for an answer - which I didn't like. You can only be so polite for so long before you have to tell them where to go. It's brutal but it's the only way they will stop following and harassing you! Some of them are seriously borderline stalkers.

Other than seeing the Citadel, the place where the Royals used to live, there isn't much to do around Hue. There's a couple of cool restaurants and bars - including DMZ where you can sign the wall and play Jenga - but other than that, it's slim pickings! We got a really nice hotel on a deal so I think we actually ended up spending more time inside there than outside. (Sad I know!)

I was happy to be moving onto Hoi An via a half day bus tour where we got to go over the Hai Van Pass. This road is famous for it's views of mountains and beaches and I have to say - it didn't disappoint! I got some stunning photos before we cut through Da Nang and got to Hoi An itself.

Now what can I say about Hoi An, apart from it's absolutely wonderful. It's a town built on the river and made up of little streets and back alleys. It's so quaint and got a really nice feel to it - it reminded us of a holiday resort you might find in Spain or the Balearics. 

There are tons of cute independent shops, including hundreds of custom made tailors. It's a well known thing to backpackers travelling around Vietnam that the best (and cheapest) place to get clothes made is Hoi An. 

Kane and I went to a highly rated shop on Trip Advisor called Khoi Tailors to get me a cotton dress made that I could wear through the day then dress up with accessories to take it through to night. He ended up walking out a day later with a full cashmere suit. We couldn't believe the quality that they can give you in a short amount of time for the money you are paying - so it's well worth it! 

We also went to the beach, which is truly gorgeous; there's white sand that stretches out at each side as far as the eye can see - and then beautiful turquoise water that sparkles in the sun. 

The only negative I have is just how hot and humid it was. The temperature made it impossible to walk around outside for longer than 10 minutes. Sunbathing was also a no no unless you wanted to shower in your own sweat.

The night times were cooler though - it even rained once - and there were plenty of bars, restaurants and cafés that you could explore once the sun had retired for the day. 

The bridge over the river has lights and lanterns on it that illuminates it at night, which made the town even prettier than it was during the day. 

It was honestly an amazing 3 nights in a perfect place and in hindsight I wish we'd have stayed there for longer. It'd definitely be a good holiday destination for the future! 

We thought we'd spend a little time in Da Nang as it looked nice when we initially drove through it to get to Hoi An. However, on closer inspection, there's not a lot to do. We thought we could just have a series of beach days but it was too hot to sit out in the sun and you couldn't even swim in the sea to cool down as the waves were too strong. 

It's also very expensive compared to Hoi An, because it's classed as a major city. The only good thing about Da Nang was that I discovered my love for Highlands Coffee. 

This is a Vietnamese coffee shop chain that has a similar feel to Starbucks or Costa Coffee - and they do a special type of frapuccino called the 'Jelly Freeze' which is pretty awesome! You could also get the most amazing tuna panini for less than a quid that makes you feel like you're winning at life.

When it was time to fly to Singapore via Ho Chi Minh City, a sense of relief that we were leaving Da Nang washed over me. But then I realised that it would also mean we were leaving Vietnam and that thought made me feel incredibly sad.

Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited and it's a shame we couldn't spend longer there. I would have especially liked to have done Sapa in the North and then Ho Chi Minh City on the way out, but it wasn't meant to be! It's a good excuse to go back though!

We ran into a little trouble when we got to the airport and realised that the costs of our flights hadn't included check-in baggage, so we had to pay for it then and there at a higher expense. Moral of the story: if you're booking through Skyscanner, who use another third party agency to book your flights, then make sure the reason that they're advertising the cheapest flights isn't because they don't allow you to have check-in baggage unless you pay an add-on fee. I wasn't going to name the agency but people should be aware of this for future reference - Bravofly are sneaky you-know-whats!

Anyway, other than that, we got to Singapore without a hitch. 

More on the fabulous Singapore later...


Saturday, 27 September 2014

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay Epicness

The Travelling Series

We travelled to Hanoi last Saturday and had a couple of days exploring the city before going on a two night trip around Ha Long Bay. 

This is my first time in Vietnam and so far I think it's very effing cool. It's not as developed or commercialised as Thailand so it has a much more laid-back, authentic feel to it. The scenery is often hazy and washed out, like it has an Instagram filter, but still oh so pretty. 

There's a ridiculous amount of motorbikes though! You can't move for them (literally, as they're parked on the pavement if they're not being rode around) and I certainly wouldn't want to ride one myself as the roads are chaotic! Getting across the streets can be a chore, but I think I'm getting better at it. You just have to go and trust that you won't get run over or else you'll never get across!

We stayed in Central Backpackers hostel in Hoan Kiem which is a 5 minute walk to the lake. The area is made up of a series of back streets which are compact and extremely easy to get lost in! But you can also find some absolute gems of places in terms of shops and cafés. There was the cutest little coffee shop, called Joma Cafe, right next to our hostel so we spent quite a bit of time there! They do the best vanilla lattes that I've ever tasted - and I've had a lot of vanilla lattes in my time! 

The best thing about the Central Backpackers hostel is the free beer hour in the evening - nothing quite brings people together like free beer. We got chatting to quite a few randoms from all around the world which is always so fascinating to me. 

We'd heard that Ha Long Bay is a must do trip so we booked a 'party cruise' through the hostel. The whole thing, from start to finish, was so much fun!

Ha Long Bay, for those who don't know, is a series of rocks, islets and islands in the middle of the sea off the North East Coast of Vietnam. There are many travel companies that offer overnight boat trips for tourists and it's something that everybody should see if they get the chance because it's gorgeous.

The first day of our trip we went to the caves and then kayaking around a fishing village in the middle of the bay. This was only my third time kayaking so it took me a while to get into the flow of it but I thought it was so good!

We then watched the sun go down from our boat and some people were brave enough to jump off the top of it, five metres high, but I'm too much of a wuss and instead settled for a leisurely swim. This was a great bonding exercise for all of us on the boat before we headed into an evening of drinking games and debauchery. 

There were 14 of us in total - four Austrians, two Dutch men, a French couple, a couple from Singapore, a solo French man living in London, us and our fantastic Vietnamese tour guide. I'd never played an international version of Ring of Fire before but it's a moment that will stay with me forever! One of the Austrian boys, Victor, taught us how to play 'Jimmy, Jimmy' as well and it was pretty special as people kept forgetting the rules and their numbers. We were all quite drunk by then as well which made it even funnier! 

Everyone got on fairly well but there were only eight of us, and the tour guide, who stuck around for the second night - the Austrians, the 2 Dutch men, Kane and I.

We were all a bit hungover from the party on the second day so only a couple of people did the rock climbing that was on the schedule before we travelled to a private island just across from Cat Ba for our final night of drunkenness. 

The island was so stunning that I can't put it into words. We had a bungalow on the beach, which we shared with the two Dutch men, and the view was absolutely breathtaking.

Another slightly louder, wilder and generally more lairy tour group were also on our beach for the night. We found it amusing just watching them to begin with, as they clearly had been drinking way before us, but not before long we were joining in with their craziness!

It was a great laugh and us four Bungalow buddies ended the night with a cheeky little midnight swim. 

Then the next morning we had to wake up super early after 3 hours sleep, 7am to be exact, to travel back to Hanoi. Everyone felt like death and the final bus we were supposed to get on had a flat tire which made for an interesting day! 

The Dutch guys, Jan Willem and Sebastiaan, were staying in Central Backpackers 2 down the road so they came for the beer hour that night as a final hurrah before we all went our separate ways. 

Kane and I found that we were able to bond with these guys incredibly easily as they were funny, up for a good time and genuinely nice people. Just thinking of them now makes me sad - I'm going to miss them so much as we got to know them pretty well in the 3 days and spent a lot of time together.

But it's time for us to leave Hanoi onto our next adventure. We did want to go to Sapa, a village built by the French in the mountains, as we hear that's also fabulous. Unfortunately we don't have enough time though.

As we speak, I'm travelling to Hue on a 13 hour train journey as a pitstop before Hoi An. It's such a long trip but how can I complain when I'm sat next to the window watching the beautiful Vietnamese countryside fly past right before my eyes?

Talk soon!


Bangkok and the Craziness of the Capital

The Travelling Series

Hi, guys!

Apologies for not posting for a while but travelling can be super hectic - especially when you're doing a whistle stop tour of South East Asia in 5 weeks like we are!

Bangkok lives up to everything you expect it will be and more! It's a crazily busy city that doesn't really sleep and you can't walk down a road without being harassed for something. When you first step onto Khao San Road, the backpacker central, you'll be asked if you want a suit, a motorbike, a scorpion, laughing gas and/or a bucket of alcohol - all in the space of a minute. 

It's an exciting place because there's a lot of people and a lot going on, but I actually found it a little bit too claustrophobic at times. The pavements on the streets are narrow and windy and you have to navigate around hundreds of food and clothing stalls. We spent about a week there in total, but you only need a few days really just to do the city centre.

It was also insanely hot and humid. We (when I say 'we', I mean Kane, Katie and I) experienced a bit of culture one of the days and went to the Grand Palace which had the temple of the Emerald Buddha in it. It was very interesting but we spent most of the time flocking to the air con in the museums because being outside was like being stuck in a giant sweat box!

Everyone says that you should experience the street food in Thailand but I found it difficult to eat outside directly next to where the food was being cooked when it was THAT hot, even at night! We did find this awesome little stall though right outside the main McDonalds on Khao San which has the best Pad Thai I've ever tasted in my life.

In contrast to these samples of local culture, we also did some incredibly touristy things like going to see a Ping Pong show. I saw things during this show that I'm fairly certain will scar me for life. But it made for an extremely amusing evening and had to be done! 

Kane and I booked a day tour for the last day which is definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip thus far. In the morning we went to a massive food market and sampled some of the local fruits. Some of them have a really gross texture, like raw chicken, but tasted pretty good! Then we went onto a farm where we got to ride in an ox-drawn cart and have a Thai food cooking class. After helping to prepare the food, we then got to eat it (one of my favourite pass times) and it was very yummy! 

After lunch we went onto Khao Yai National Park and drove up the mountain where we saw deer and monkeys. We also got to visit the waterfall that features in the film 'The Beach' with Leonardo Di Caprio (swit swoo), which was very picturesque.

Then - the best bit of the day - we got to ride on an elephant! An actual elephant! They're one of my favourite animals so I've always wanted to do it, and I couldn't quite believe I was doing it while it was happening. It felt AMAZING. I feel lucky that I'm able to tick these things off my bucket list while I'm out here. 

Speaking of bucket lists, I always wanted to get a traditional Thai massage if I was ever in Thailand. What I didn't realise is that a traditional Thai massage involves an hour of what feels like slow torture - they really pull at every muscle in your body and there's no point trying to fight it as it only feels worse. It took everything I have in me not to cry out at certain points, but I didn't want to show my Masseuse that she won. I'm glad I experienced it but I'm comfortable with the fact that I'll probably never have one again!

For our last couple of nights in Bangkok we stayed with Katie in her hostel which was fun, as it was like one giant sleepover. But it made it even more difficult to leave her! She was moving onto Koh Chang and we had to get a shifty on to Hanoi, so it was bye bye Katie and hello Vietnam! 

I'm so happy that we got to catch up with Katie and spend some time travelling with her as I think it made us all closer. We already miss her lots as she was like a mother hen to us - being a pro at travelling and still going at the 8 months mark, she could tell us what to do and how to carry on from her own experiences. But it was fun while it lasted! Hopefully we will all get to meet again soon.

Coming up after the break: Vietnam!


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and a Whole Lot of Mischief

The Travelling Series

After spending a night in the lovely Lime N Soda Resort in Koh Phangan (mentioned in this previous blog post), it was time to secure some longer term accommodation in preparation for some partying! 

We actually moved down the beach to Coco Gardens, which consisted of a number of cosy bungalows complete with a porch, hammock and sea views. The resort had it's own restaurant, bar and chill out areas and it was an ideal base for the remainder of our time on the island.

The best party we went to was the Jungle Experience; it's basically what it says on the tin - a party in a jungle - with a few cool extras such as Fire Breathers, Thai Boxers and international DJ's. We ended up meeting our friend from Uni, Katie, and her travelling buddies there which was absolutely insane. It's weird how you can live less than an hour away from someone in England and not have the chance to meet up, yet somehow find them halfway around the world! Kane and I both loved seeing her again and her buddies were all awesome which made the experience even more enjoyable!

After Jungle, we also did the Full Moon Party. This was the one I'd been waiting for and, in all honesty, I'd have to say that I was disappointed overall. It didn't quite live up to the hype - it was okay, just not as amazing as it's made out to be. I suppose it didn't help that I was extremely drunk by the time that we got there and peaked too soon, which meant I couldn't last until sunrise! Doh. 

We also ran into a bit of trouble on this island when my feet decided to swell like balloons. After a panicked visit to the doctor, it turned out that my feet and ankles had swollen due to long haul flying. Apparently it's something to do with the air compression in the cabin, so the blood pools around your feet instead of circulating normally. The doc said it would clear up in a few days and to elevate my feet as much as possible, but they still look like elephant feet at the moment! Lesson learnt: always wear compression socks on future flights. 

After Koh Phangan, we hopped on the ferry to Koh Tao. I actually preferred Koh Tao to Koh Phangan as soon as we stepped off the boat, as it has more of a community feel and everything is much more compact and closer together. We had Katie with us too which was good as she's visited Koh Tao twice before, so she could show us what to do and where to go.

We had a bit of trouble finding good value accommodation in Koh Tao - the first night we went to a basic guesthouse but I didn't like the fact that there wasn't a sink and the toilet didn't even have a flush on it. One thing that people never tell you about Thailand is that having a toilet with a flush is a luxury! Then the second place we went to had an ant infestation - not ideal! We didn't stay there in the end because I thought my Mum would kill me if she realised how much of a dive the place was. However, we struck third time lucky with the hotel we ended up staying in. Samatha B&B was a few minutes' walk from Sairee Beach and one of the cutest places I've ever stayed in. 

Speaking of Sairee Beach, we got to spend some time on the actual beach there and it's so gorgeous! It has the softest sand I've ever felt in my life and sea that feels like you're stepping into a lukewarm bath. 

I've always wanted to try diving and Koh Tao is the perfect place to go as it's well known for it. I went with one of the bigger companies on the island but didn't have the best experience. I had a lot of trouble trying to adapt to breathing underwater - because the air comes from a nitrogen tank, it feels odd and not at all natural. We only did one of these 'try dive' day things, which was tough as there is so much to learn and cramming it all into a few hours just doesn't work (in my opinion). After learning the theory, you don't have much time to practice before you're thrown in at the deep end (literally). I was nine and a half meters deep in the open water at one point with barely any training and I just panicked, so unfortunately my diving experience had to be cut short. I suppose these things aren't for everyone so I'm glad I tried it - but I'll stick to dry land in future, thank you very much. 

After the day of the 'try dive', I felt like I needed a drink (or five) so we followed around the famous Koh Tao Pub Crawl. It was such a good night - I particularly enjoyed Choppers with the live music, Lotus with the Fire Breathers and Fishbowl with the incredible vodka and passionfruit buckets.

The three of us got a ferry this morning to Chumphon and now I'm on a 7 and a half hour bus journey back to Bangkok to explore the delights of the capital. 

That's all for now until my next instalment! 

Take care, Katie-xo

Saturday, 6 September 2014

One Hell of a Journey

The Travelling Series

Hi, all!

I'm currently writing this while sat in a beach hut on the lovely Thailand Island of Koh Phangan - this is the life!

However, the journey so far hasn't been the smoothest.

We began our journey on Wednesday 3rd September with a flight to Dubai from Manchester. It was our very first leg of journey and we had such bad luck! The flight was delayed by two and a half hours due to the front carriage door not being able to close properly. This was fixed fairly quickly, but then the back carriage door decided it didn't want to close either! Typical.

Once we had finally taken off, the delay resulted in Kane and I panicking for rest of the six and a half hour flight that we wouldn't make our connecting flight to Bangkok. We originally had 2 hours and 50 minutes in transit in Dubai airport - but, because of the delay, it only gave us 20 minutes to go through security checks and then get on the plane.

Unbelievably, we managed to do it (with the help of the airport staff) and we arrived in Bangkok on Thursday 4th September at the local time of 12.45pm. We were chuffed that we'd got there in time, according to plan - wahoo, we'd made it! Unfortunately what we didn't realise at the time is that our baggage hadn't. 

Due to the manic rush in between flights, our baggage hadn't been put on the connecting flight. We were frustrated, to say the least, but we were told by Emirates that our baggage would be delivered to our hotel that night, no problem. 

This was reassuring until we realised at the hotel later on that night that our baggage wasn't coming, as originally promised. We had another flight booked early the next day to Koh Samui, another one of Thailand's Islands, but it soon became clear that we couldn't get on that flight without our baggage or else we might have never got it back! 

After phoning Emirates several times and getting no answer, we went back to the airport so we could speak face to face with a representative. She wasn't entirely helpful, telling us that we should get on our flight to Koh Samui regardless and then phone Emirates to request to have our baggage delivered to Koh Samui instead. This seemed ridiculous, like it would be a wild goose chase with our backpacks. Plus, I had medication and all my stuff in there - I desperately needed my baggage!

We had no choice but to go back to the hotel, cancel our Koh Samui flight and then go back to the airport again in the morning.

Luckily, when we arrived at the airport the next day, we were taken back through Baggage Claim where our gorgeous little backpacks were going around and around on the Dubai conveyor belts. Well, I've never been so happy to see anything before in my life EVER! By this point, it was over 24 hours later and I was convinced that our baggage was never going to arrive. 

We soon discovered that our backpacks actually arrived at 6pm the day before, after we arrived at 12:45pm, but Emirates hadn't bothered to let us know or deliver them to our hotel like originally promised. We were offered one day's compensation of $50 per person, but we'd actually lost a lot more than that due to having to cancel our Koh Samui flight and buy toiletries in the mean time to tide us over. I'm still fuming with them, as they're supposed to be one of the best airlines around, and if we hadn't shown up to the airport again on that day to chase our baggage then we may have never got it! It's shocking and I will be putting in a formal complaint about it!

Anyway, we had to spend an extra night in the hotel in Bangkok and book another flight to Koh Samui for today (Saturday 6th) which was more expensive than the price we originally bought the flight for. 

The flight to Koh Samui went fine without a hitch; I was a little dubious about having to hand over my backpack to go in the hold after only just getting it back, but I needn't have worried. The flight and overall experience with Bangkok Airways was pleasant! Good job, guys!

After arriving in Koh Samui, we hopped on a ferry to Koh Phangan. The sea was super choppy on the ride over - I'm not usually bothered by boat rides but my stomach was doing backflips on this one, it was so bad! But it was only for half an hour, then we arrived! 

The baggage system was a bit bizarre as they made everyone dump their stuff at the front of the ferry and sit down to start with, then they made everyone get off before taking baggage off and making a massive pile of bags on the pier. It was like feeding time at the zoo as people rushed forward to claim their backpacks before other people touched them! 

We then had a short walk to our accommodation for the night, Lime N Soda Resort, which basically consists of little beach hut bungalows on the cheap. They are super cute with a pool and bar - it would be heaven if it wasn't for the fact that it keeps raining on and off!

We are hoping to meet up with our Uni friend tomorrow before heading to Haad Rin for the Full Moon Party - wish us luck!

(Speak soon! Katie-xo)

Friday, 29 August 2014

Packing To Go Travelling

The Travelling Series

Hello, everybody!

The time is almost upon us; in a few days I will be jetting off on my travelling adventure with my other half.

I've spent the last month struggling to figure out what I'm going to take and how on earth I'm going to make these few possessions last for the entire three month trip. I wanted to show you what it has all boiled down to.

My backpack contents:

My airport attire and daypack contents:

Now I just need to figure out the packing part!

I'm so pleased with my backpack though. I spent a good couple of weeks researching the highest quality backpacks at the lowest possible price and I managed to stumble across this 60 litre Berghaus beauty from the Millets website.

It's big, it's sturdy and it's purple - a bit like Barney the dinosaur. It's also made specially for a woman's body with shape and comfort in mind - I can't ask for more than that!

Wish me luck with packing!

Whilst I'm away I will try and keep you updated on what I'm getting up to, which means this will turn into more of a travel blog over the next few months - I hope that's okay!

Now all that's left for me to say is adios and I will see you on the other side!

First stop: Thailand.

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