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la vida iberica

After bidding Asia farewell (not forever) and then spending a few weeks with our respective families and friends back home in June, Lucas and I reconvened and relocated to Europe for the next few months.

To kick off our new route, Lucas met me in London for a few days where I was able to give him a whistle-stop tour of the capital so he could experience a bit of British culture (i.e., drink a cider, eat fish & chips, and ride the Tube) before we flew onto Palma, Mallorca – our first port of call. Pardon the pun.

palma port

palma castle

Mallorca isn’t on your average European gringo trail, so to clarify, we weren’t in Palma to do any intrepid travelling or have any budget backpacker experiences – we were with my family and plus ones for a weeks holiday, sailing around the island. It’s also fair to say that we were eased in very gently, and very comfortably, to our stint in Europe. Thanks, Dad!

I shan’t gloat for too long, but our indulgently lazy days puttering around the island of Mallorca consisted of cala hopping, swimming in the bright blue waters, and paddle boarding in the bays. Interspersed with drinking, eating, and siesta-ing. It was all very continental.

By night we’d play beer pong, or card games sipping Spanish wine and Scottish whisky, before piling into the dingy and going on shore for a typically late Spanish dinner at 10pm.

It was a tough week, as you can tell, and certainly a unique way to experience this beautiful Balearic island. And hats off to Ferg who maneuvered the beast of a boat the whole time – especially during those nail-biting rough swells…

cala 1.jpg

cala 2

After exploring the coastline of Mallorca, luxuriating in idleness, and bonding en famille, it was time to say our goodbyes and Lucas and I set off on shaky sea legs – and about two stone heavier – for the next part of our journey.

We didn’t stray too far though, just into mainland Spain.

We’d been enjoying practicing our Spanish – which improved after a caña or two – and I’d always wanted to go to the Sierra Nevada, so we flew into the Moorish Andalusian city of Granada for a few days to get some work done post-hol, and to see the famous Alhambra, before heading into the vast mountain range for a few days of hiking.

Although we didn’t get to spend too long there, I really liked the vibe in Granada and would have stayed longer. It was different to the charming and polished nautical style of Palma; more authentic and rustic in its southern Spanish culture infused with Moorish history – and a little rougher round the edges in that cool grungy way.

alhambra

Unfortunately we only got to see the outside of the Alhambra – note: book tickets in advance. It was still beautiful from afar.

But, as Lucas is more the mountain guy, and I’d had my fair share of wide open blues in Mallorca, it was time we had a change of scene so our priority was to get up into the Sierra and out of the city.

Four hours by bus south of Granada, we chose a tiny village called Capileira to call home for the next few days; one of the highest mountain villages in the Alpujarra region of the Sierra Nevada.

We’d picked the Alpujarras because it had good hiking routes and we were keen to get some good walks in, then coincidentally Lucas read about local alternative living hippie communes in an EasyJet inflight magazine, which peaked our interest of the area even further.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any of said communes but we did see some pretty down-and-out junkies camped out on the streets of Orgiva on our way through…

capileira 2

capileira town

Capileira was a traditional little town of old white houses packed in along narrowed cobbled streets, tiered down the mountain.

It was hard not to fall in love with the place – Capileira was so picturesque and the location was perfect. We stayed in one of the traditional white cottage-style apartments with a stone terrace that looked onto the impressive ridges, where we sat drinking our morning coffees and in the evening €2 wine with local cheese and crusty bread.

The weather was cooler than the city heat of Granada, which was a welcome respite, and we spent hours exploring the surroundings of our little village before tackling the area’s big 18km hike on our last  day.

We rose early to make the most of the cold morning – or as the Spanish say, when it was fresquito – and began our hike: the Sendero Acequias de Poqueria.

It was a beautiful trail through the gorge, we were surrounded by huge mountains on all sides and a fresh water stream ran below as we followed the trail-marked stones and hiker’s cairns under the watchful eyes of circling hawks and mountain goats.

capileira 3

capileira 1

Six hours later and very dusty, but very satisfied, we finished the loop of the gorge and treated ourself to a few cañas and tapas to toast our efforts and the amazing Alpujarras.

We could have spent longer in Capileira – it was so beautiful and so peaceful – and it was great to experience local village life and breathe fresh air, but we were keen to move on so we could fit in a visit to Portugal before we flew to Amsterdam at the beginning of August. Time flies when you’re having fun.

To get to Lisbon we could get a bus from Seville, so we decided to have a quick stopover in the Andalusian capital, home of the famous flamenco dancing.

seville

Despite having literally 48 hours, we could only mooch at a slow and steady pace as the barometer hit a stifling 39degrees. Nevertheless, Seville was certainly one of the most architecturally beautiful cities I’ve been to, and the people were so coiffed and elegant.

We couldn’t leave without watching a flamenco show either, of course, so we bought tickets on our last night for an incredible hour-long performance set in the courtyard of an old building. Seriously, it sent chills down my spine.

It was on that note that we left Spain, and ventured into neighbouring Portugal. I was excited to go back and this time with Lucas as I’d been to Lisbon the year before and loved it – and ask any of my friends, they’re as obsessed as I am.

lisbon

lisbon 3

Again, endless sunshine and blue skies made exploring the city even better. 

By day we found a hipster coffee shop to work in called Hello, Kristoff – whose team uniform seemed to be beanies, skinny jeans, and beards – and after we would make the most of the long evenings and walk around the historic old town, the waterfront, up and down the steep cobbled hills with colourful street-art walls, and take in the views at the miradours overlooking the bay and lookalike Golden Gate Bridge.

We drank cold Portuguese beers and vinho verde, and supped on the speciality, bacalau, as well as Portuguese tapas.

Needless to say, Lisbon enchanted me for a second time and I could see parallels to what drew me to Granada with its cool understated rough-around-the-edges vibe.

After the capital we moved north, up to Porto, the second biggest city, and famous for not much else other than Port, the sweet fortified wine. The place had come recommended so I suggested we go there in the hope that it would be as good as Lisbon!

Firstly, if you think Lisbon is rough-around-the-edges, then go to Porto. But I don’t mean that in a bad way! Lisbon has its hipster ways but Porto is right behind it – just give it a few years…

For instance, you won’t find a Hello, Kristoff, but you will find a retro music shop-come-bar, or an old church converted into a restaurant, and even a craft beer pub run by a grey-whiskered old man.

Another thing that fascinated me about Porto – which I also saw noticed in Lisbon – were the crumbling abandoned townhouses, in their ruinous but romantic ways, calling out to be loved. You could still see their beautiful architecture beneath the peeling paint and boarded up windows.

Lucas can tell you how many times I made him stop and look as I lamented about the state of these wonderful but woebegone buildings, wondering about their history and how and why they were left as they were…

porto 1

porto 3

However, the conventional beauty of Porto, lay down by the river – where you’d also find all the tourists – with Gaia on the otherside of the old steel bridge.

And, like the tourists, we ticked the boxes: did the river thing, crossed the bridge, and drank a glass of Port at the end of it to round off our time in Portugal.

By this point, we’d experienced a fair amount of Iberia; we’d remastered conversational Spanish, nailed the siesta thing, struggled with our non-existent Portuguese but loved the country nonetheless, and finally decided that getting free food when you ordered a beer (aka tapas) was just the best.

But it was time for a culture change and our plans were to head further East, first to Amsterdam for a week in an Airbnb with a cat called Wallie, before a quick stop in Hamburg, a festival in Budapest, then on into Slovenia and the Balkans.

It’s all go – and as I said, time flies…

Oh, and in all the miles we’ve travelled in Europe so far, not once have we had to show our passports or go through immigration! The joy of travelling in the Schengen.

memories of myanmar

Back in May, Lucas and I spent three weeks in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Piecing it all together all these months later, I am reminded again why I loved it so much.

Myanmar was so different from anywhere else I’d been in South East Asia; not yet tainted by crazy tourism and over-westernisation. But much more authentic, with fascinating customs and traditions still much a part of everyday life.

The way of the Burmese people was something else and their kindness, eagerness, warmth, and generosity knew no bounds. No matter where we were; the busy city, ancient UNESCO town, rural mountain village, or lakeside, there was always an unspoken but unmistakable community feel.

We’d often see courtesy water containers left on the side of the street with communal cups for anyone and everyone to use (it was best not to dwell on the hygiene), and if you stopped at a local restaurant there would be pots of green tea on the tables, free to drink. Apparently, it was offensive to refuse a cup if anyone offered.

Another image I’ll never forget is that, despite the simplicity and poverty of the Burmese people’s lives, the locals always looked so turned out.

tanaka

The women would be dressed in fitted blouses with beautiful patterned wrap-round skirts, decorated with nothing but creamy tanaka paste, squared across their cheeks and foreheads.

They believed tanaka to have many beautifying properties which is why it was applied liberally. Even boys would indulge every so often, dabbing at a rogue spot or two.

The men also rocked the ‘smart casual’ look with their rolled up shirt sleeves and traditional floor-length longhis – but their elegance was slightly offset by their blood red mouths, stained by the addictive betel they chewed.

yangon neighbours

But back to May. We started off our Myanmar travels in Yangon where we stayed in a skinny townhouse, 7 floors up, near the city centre. You can see it was hard not to indulge in a bit of voyeurism.

One of the first things we did was visit the huge golden Shwedagon Pagoda, dating back over 2600 years; one of the country’s most famous religious buildings, by all accounts.

In the hazy sun of the late morning, even as we approached it from afar you could see the pagoda’s 362 feet of (real!) gold like a beacon of light. Up close you could barely look at it.

Inside, the whole complex was dazzling, from the white marble floor, to the painted buddhas, not to mention the mini pagodas and shrines all around adorned with gold bells, diamonds, and other jazzy gems.

It was quite a sight.

We lasted all of fifteen minutes before searing our eyes to near blindness – but at least we were able to take some good photos.

swegadon.jpg

In search of some exotic ‘street food,’ that evening we went to Yangon’s so-called Chinatown to dine in the night market.

It was bustling with people, music, lights, and open-fronted eateries with plastic chairs and tables spilling onto the street and we feasted on countless delicious meaty sticks of (debatable) chicken heart, pig ears, spicy beef, and pork belly….

As an appetiser Lucas ate a whole bag of crickets, too, from a man wheeling a cart down the street. He didn’t need any encouragement to finish them all. I didn’t have the balls to try one…

crickets

The next day we decided to buy tickets (each at £0.40) for a three-hour round trip to see the city suburban sights on the Yangon Circular train.

Once you had your forty pence ticket you were effectively one of the locals and it was up to you to sit, stand, hover, or hang out the window for the duration of your journey.

Little did we know that the trains in Myanmar were notoriously slow – so slow that many people actually advise against using them – and the one we were on was no exception.

But speed aside, it was worth it – and quite the experience, not to mention the ultimate opportunity for indulgent people watching (I am not shy of a good stare).

What I also realised in those three hours was that the people of Myanmar are some of the most vocally expressive I have ever come across. They would raise the decibels of their voices as if they were running scales before an opera. Each following word was at least an octave higher or louder than the one before it. And those having the conversation would usually only be sat two feet away from each other.

There was certainly never a quiet moment throughout the journey.

Alongside Lucas and I were women on their way to the Sunday market with their ‘goods,’ selling everything from wooden side tables to hot steaming curries, and there was one guy roaming the carriages selling fresh ears of corn.

The route took us out of the city and through smaller suburban villages made up of simple shacks right on the railway, next to sad piles of rubbish heaped everywhere – and right on their doorstep. It really was an eye opener into the poverty of the country. Yet the children we saw seemed so content and innocent, happily playing with sticks in the mud with their friends.

train

train2

Although not the most conventional of experiences, it was a great insight into local life and the whole three-hour experience (averaging a speed of no more than 10km an hour) felt like a National Geographic documentary.

After the excitement of the city, our next planned stop was Bagan. I naively had assumed that getting from A to B in Myanmar would be much like our Sulawesi experience (ie: a challenge) and organising travel would be a torment of teeth pulling and misunderstandings.

Namely, I was recalling the frustration on Lucas’ birthday; irritably negotiating with the locals in the bus station.

But here it was so easy, you just had to go up to the desk at your hostel and they would make a call on their mobile and within five minutes you’d have two £3 tickets on a VIP air con bus for a 10-hour journey. It was that easy – and the ride was pretty luxurious.

Arriving the next day in dry and dusty Bagan was a total climate change from Yangon. I could feel an oncoming nosebleed as soon as I got off the bus. It was super arid and felt much like it would standing in an oven.

Note: for those planning on going to Bagan, get used to showering 2-3 times a day and bring a good book as you’ll want to hide out in the comfort of your airconditioned room for a decent part of the day.

We learnt quickly that if you wanted to do anything – mainly temple hop – you had to head out early morning or later in the evening otherwise you’d wilt in a heap on the side of the steaming tarmac.

So, adhering to the laws of the land, Lucas and I hired some bicycles and with a crumpled A4 paper map of Old Bagan went exploring the ancient temples that the UNESCO Heritage Site is so famous for. Apparently, there are 2,200, says Wikipedia.

Needless to say we got lost (not naming names) and by no means did/could we even try to see them all.

biking

sunset bagan

The highlight was watching the sun set behind the silhouettes of temples in the hazy heat of dusk.

We took a break from the bikes one day to rest our saddle sores (it was easy to rack up over 45k of cycling in a day alone) and left Bagan to visit Mount Popa, an extinct volcano with a precariously balanced temple atop its mound, for a change of scene.

The views both of this incredible feat of engineering and architecture and from it, the neighbouring valleys and Irrawaddy River, were equally as impressive, but the most entertaining thing about the place were the hordes of monkeys who about outnumbered the tourists.

Claiming their territory, they lay lazily but menacingly across the temple steps, nibbling at stolen half-empty crisp packets and cans of Mirinda from the rubbish.

mount popa

monkeys

After five days in Bagan and god knows how many bike rides and temples (it gets to a point when you think ‘seen one temple, seen them all’), we set off for the cooler climes of Lake Inle at the end of another typical journey of 7+hours by bus.

Our drive from Bagan to Lake Inle reminded me of the road to Pai in Thailand, as we drove up and around the mountains of Kalaw, holding onto our seats as we were flung from side to side as the driver navigated the sharp hair pin bends at speed. But we made it to Lake Inle with no nausea to report, and just in time for a refreshing thunderstorm which shook the windows and thrashed rain against the tin roof of our new room.

I say refreshing; we hadn’t seen rain in months so it felt quite the novel experience, not to mention the temperature dropped a good 5 degrees so that it felt (dare I say it) cold.

Lake Inle, we discovered, was much like Bagan when it came to transportation: the way to get about was to cycle. So the next day we rented some more bikes to explore the area and taking our two wheels up to the local vineyard to watch the sunset. Who knew Myanmar was a wine producer?

We ended up sharing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (which actually wasn’t that bad and at £1.12 a glass who could complain) and a table with a Canadian travel blogger and a Welshman who lived near my grandparents in Abergavenny. Such a small world.

We spent the rest of the night bonding over travel tales, along with our impressions of the local wine, and we found out the pair had also been on the cooking course we planned to do the following night.

They promised us we weren’t to be disappointed and advised us to arrive with empty bellies.

Nursing slightly sore heads the next day, we lay low and waited with rumbling stomachs for our Burmese cooking course at Bamboo Delight, later that afternoon.

Sue and Lesley, the owners, couldn’t have fed us better and we cooked up some of the best hangover cures ever.

bamboo delight

The space was simple with tables of makeshift cookers (coal-filled wooden buckets) and fresh ingredients bought that morning from the market.

Recipe-wise, it wasn’t that complicated. The hardest thing was choosing what to make.

We – us and 3 Brits – ended up with a feast to share with everything from spicy river fish curry and spring onion rice dumplings, to banana flower salad and chicken and lemongrass coconut curry.

There was so much we even boxed up what was left and took it for our lunch the next day. Waste not, want not.

Although we were in Lake Inle, we hadn’t actually seen the lake yet so anticipating the boat trip we’d booked for the next day, we cycled to a tiny village on the west side of the lake and found a local man who took us on his longboat across to the other side – with our bikes! – to get a glimpse of the water.

bikes boat

On our real boat tour, we were met by an enthusiastic guide called – or pronounced – Ee Ee, a bright eyed 19 year old who lived in one of the stilted villages on the lake. She wanted to be a tour guide so badly that, although she lived three hours south of where we were, and even though she had had to travel up the night before to meet us at 8am, she said it was worth it for all the practice she would get on these smaller ‘tourist’ boat tours.

I respected her enthusiasm and was keen to help her practice her English. You had to take your hat off to her – not many young Brits her age would be that driven…

We travelled up, down, and across the lake, admiring the fishermen using their ancient traditional techniques – very successfully, may I add – and puttered through villages and floating gardens of hyacinths and tomatoes, meeting the local people and drinking green tea at every available opportunity.

lake inle 1

lake inle 3

After four serene hours on the water and very burnt shoulders – alas even after months in Asia my fair Scottish skin was still susceptible to singeing – we called it a day and waved goodbye to our wonderful guide and packed up for our next adventure: a three-day trek across the mountains of Kalaw.

In hindsight, we planned this the wrong way round as we had to leave Lake Inle, only to hike back to it after 3 days of trekking through the surrounding mountains and valleys. But hey ho, that’s what you get for doing zero research.

We decided to brave the train again – knowing full well it could take twice as long – but we thought we’d get some good views, and if anything it could prove for a good anecdote.

We arrived at the local train station with half an hour to spare – ever the keen and punctual travellers – and were told by the only other 2 foreign people that they had been waiting since 8am for their train which had been cancelled without them knowing why and that our train was also delayed but by how long, no one knew.

An hour plus later, the train mercifully came chugging in and we piled into upper-class (which cost £0.67 a ticket and bought you a cushioned seat and not a wooden bench) and got settled in by the window. Credit where credit is due, the carriages were quite roomy and the seats very comfortable.

Twenty minutes later, we still hadn’t left the station due to some technical faults and we sat listening to the metallic screeches of plyers and hammers working at the underside of our carriage…

We didn’t want to jump to any conclusions but it didn’t seem like a good sign. And certainly didn’t sound it either.

We abruptly jolted to a start and crawled – literally, a crippled dog could have moved quicker than we did – about 30m down the track before shuddering to a stop and then jerking backwards, retracing our crawl all the way back to the station where some more banging of the mechanics ensued.

Bemused, we wondered if we would ever end up in Kalaw, quietly calculating how much it would cost if we were to get a taxi there instead and at least be guaranteed to arrive. But no one else in the carriage seemed too perturbed, especially not the Burmese. Clearly this happened all the time…

To cut a very slow story short (Lucas even wondered aloud, ‘do you think this is the slowest train in the world?) we puttered down the track for four hours at 10km an hour – breakneck speed – and arrived in Kalaw in time to check in with our hiking guide for the next day and enjoy a cold beer in town.

The journey was worth it though and we soon forgot about the locomotive drama the day before as we set off into the beautiful hills straight after breakfast with our congenial guide, Hein (pronounced ‘Hey’ with an n at the end): a young twentysomething guy, born and bred in Kalaw. He couldn’t have been nicer or more open and honest, and we had some great chats as he answered my one and every question about life as a young person in Myanmar, the popular culture, and dating scene. (Some things you don’t read about in the guidebooks.)

Hein’s obsession with romantic Bollywood films and Indian women will be something I’ll never forget. He even had the hand movements and lyrics down to a t.

Our 3 day, two night hike would take us from Kalaw and down into the valleys ending up at the lake in Inle itself. Hein had managed our expectations very wisely the day before: day 1 we’d be hiking around 21km, day 2 about 25km, and day 3 about 16km, stopping at viewpoints, resting and recharging with cooked local lunches, and refreshing on plenty of green tea along the way before arriving at the homestays for the evening.

kalaw day 1

kalaw day 12

The first day consisted of a lovely green hike along rice paddies and a railway line, as well as a jungle forest. I even managed to find a leech stuck to my ankle within the first half hour. I suppose it wouldn’t be a jungle trek without one and it made me nostalgic for our selvatic explorations in Borneo.

For lunch, we stopped off at a lovely local hilltop ‘caf’ whose patron had a very affectionate bald little baby who I don’t think had seen many foreign people. She was all dribbles and grins and wanted to touch everything we had. It was probably the only baby that has ever warmed to me, not being much of the maternal type.

After Hein expertly rustled up a spicy Shan style chicken noodle soup with lots of exotic fresh fruit, we sped off extremely full, excited to see our homestay.

Lucas and I have quite a pace when we walk – we had been told this before by our guide at Mount Kinabalu and when we outpaced our group to the top of the Pinnacles. Poor Hein had to make excuses for us as we arrived at our homestay much too early and took the girls by surprise, sending them into the house in a flurry of activity, abandoning their work, to make our beds and set out our space for the night.

Hein had told us the homestays we would be staying with were true local Burmese families, who let trekkers stay in their home for free, in exchange for the trek chef cooking their breakfasts and dinners.

As every member of the family works from the crack of dawn to dusk at backbreaking work, not having to cook a meal at the end of a long day, or at the beginning of the next – let alone pay for it – could be seen as very much of a good deal.

Our homestay consisted of a one-room bungalow, an outdoor kitchen in a separate thatched hut, two outdoor hut toilets (beside the pigs), and an area of pegged tarp around a well of water with a bucket, which was the shower.

 

pigs

It was simple but it had everything you needed and just made you realise how lucky we were to have more – and did we need it?

All the land around their house was being farmed with mustard plants which the girls had been tirelessly dividing into little bags of soil for hours, then planting seed by seed into each one, lining them up meticulously in the front plot.

The little village and their house was the epitome of ‘rural:’ we even watched a huge black water buffalo walk right through their garden on a leash, with a farmer at the end of it. The scene was so in keeping with where we were that it was like watching someone cross the street walking a dog.

Lucas and I were staying in the family’s house, a very simple bungalow with a raised ledge to sleep on and a shrine in middle of the longest wall, with one light in the whole space.

Control of the light and the biggest ‘room’ was allocated to us, which was overwhelmingly generous as this family of five (all adults bar one young boy) squashed into the adjacent ‘room,’ which was merely the rest of the bungalow behind a partition and a scarf forming a makeshift door, who slept on a mattress on the floor.

homestay

The fact that they had sacrificed their space and their room for us was just another show of the hospitality of the Burmese.

Unfortunately, we were unable to fully express our gratitude in so many words, but I hope Hein was able to convey it for us.

The next day, we woke at 6am to set off  with 25km to go, heading to our second homestay a few mountains and valleys away….

The landscape on the second day was different to the first: we’d emerged out of the jungles and forests and into open wide farmland, with rolling hills and box hedges, much like a country scene in the UK.

It was surreal to be somewhere so familiar, but so different – it wasn’t the landscape I’d expected!

kalaw day 2

kalaw day 21

A local old woman showing us how to weave traditional Shan scarves.

Because we’d marched ahead so fast on day one, Hein told us we’d have a mandatory  2.5-hour lunch break so that we could a) nap and b) not finish as quickly yesterday. So after a lunch of steaming vegetable noodles, we happily lay down on the floor of an unused house on some straw mats for some well deserved shut-eye, before setting off through valleys of tall karst ridges and cliffs, getting in at the homestay at a slightly more acceptable time.

This homestay was a bit bigger than the last, and we didn’t have to turf the family out of their own bedroom, thankfully. Their livelihood also didn’t seem to be farming mustard seeds. We soon learnt what it was, after the family’s sons arrived half an hour later from their labour in the fields, with a truck full of potatoes which were brought in by the sack load.

By the looks of how strong they were, it seemed gruellingly hard work. And we thought the 25km we’d walked to get there that day was hard…

Needless to say, we dined like kings again and practically fell asleep in our plates at 7.30pm, barely able to keep our eyes open and function after nearly 50km of walking in 36 hours.

On the third and final day there was (only!) 16km left to reach Lake Inle – hurrah! – and we arrived back in time for lunch. I was knackered but overwhelmed with appreciation for the wonderful country we’d been able to explore more intimately and the people we’d been able to meet. Not to mention overwhelmed at the distance we’d walked in 35 degree heat. But the trekking had been great, shout out to Hein.

Because we’d already been in Inle for a week, we had pretty much seen and done everything we had set out to see and do, so we left the next day on a 12 hours bus back down to Yangon to splurge in a ‘fancy’ hotel with a pool, where the plan was to chill out and recoup (and not have a bucket shower) for our last 2 days in Myanmar before Lucas flew back to the US and I flew to Sri Lanka.

I remember even at the time thinking how quickly our visit to Myanmar seemed to have gone – and looking back over the three weeks, we did loads so it’s no wonder it flew by!

I can safely say that Myanmar is one of my favourite Asian countries and I’m so glad we went there before it got crazy commercialised and mega touristy. The beautiful culture and landscape has certainly made an indelible impression in my mind, but most of all I’ll remember the amazing people.

Writing all this makes me want to go back again so badly…

 

 

the land of smiles

Coming back to Thailand has been a lot of fun; confident in knowing the lay of the land, experiencing it through different eyes – more open since my first visit – and also with Lucas who had also already been to Thailand before, a few years ago.

We both had places we wanted to revisit and to show each other around from fond memory so we had plenty planned in for a 30 day visa.

We started our Thailand travels in Chiang Mai where Lucas had already been for a week, while I was being a miserable bastard in Sydney. It was good to be back (and in a private room with no bunkbeds, or 7 other people!) and we spent the first night earning ourselves a decidedly savage Changover for the next day – a brilliant word I can’t claim as my own.

We had booked to go up to Pai straight away, one of my favourite places from before, so I couldn’t wait. My mum wasn’t surprised at my wanting to return, asking, ‘is this party Pai?’ and whether I would end up getting a tattoo again…

Piled into a shared mini van, we sped off for 3 hours up the country and into the mountains, around hairpin bends and climbing 45degree inclines, all the while trying to find an unmoving horizon to control the waves of nausea from the previous night’s beer binge.

I hadn’t fully appreciated the effect of the change in season, it being 6 months later. Gone was all the green (I had a memory of lush verdant views) replaced instead with almost autumnal colours of reds and browns on stick-like, on-the-verge-of-dying trees, and gone was the humidity. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were hit with a wall of dry air, so dry it felt as if someone were blowing a hairdryer behind my face. (This would later lead to spontaneous nosebleeds at rather inopportune moments…)

pai canyon

buddha

But despite the sweltering heat and haze, I was adamant we would enjoy Pai. We climbed 353 steps up to a massive white Buddha on the mountain, we scooted to a waterfall (ok it was more like a stagnant pond), and we went to the dystopian-like canyon for sunset with its surreal landscape of tree skeletons, charred earth, and burning embers. Striking nonetheless.

I managed to resist getting another tattoo and we hadn’t really had the opportunity to indulge in ‘party Pai.’ Until….

One night after a particularly lethargic day struggling with the 40-degree heat, we shuffled into town for a ‘quiet night’ aka just a couple of beers. (Isn’t that how it always starts?)

Next thing we know we’re bundled into the back of a taxi-jeep with 8 other farang on our way to a ‘jungle rave’ called Therapy, playing ‘deep house and dark progressive psytrance’ – whatever that was. The barman should have got a commission on our tickets; he was very convincing, and he promised to meet up with us later to give us some glitter. We’d drank more than ‘just a couple’ beers so it didn’t take much to push us over the edge, and we nodded at each other and said ‘fuck it, sounds fun.’

Slight false advertisement in the ‘jungle’ part (there was sparse living vegetation remember) so it was more of a dusty field, but even so, the ‘rave’ vibe was unmistakably there with hypnotic lasers, strobes, neon lights, and glowing bonfires. It felt like a small festival and I was in my element.

We’d made some new friends from Minnesota on the journey, so Lucas was happy to have fellow countrymen to chew the fat with – I’m sure he was desperate for a break from my British colloquialisms – while I was dancing with my eyes closed like all the other loons around me, thrilled with how this spontaneous night was turning out.

To censor the story short (you never know who’s reading) we were still awake as people were eating breakfast the next morning, head to toe in dust, and rather worse for wear. It had been an epic night/morning and an experience that definitely lived up to ‘party Pai’s’ infamy.

pai hike

Redeeming ourselves (once we’d slept for 14hours) we decided we ought to sweat out the bad stuff and do the Mae Yen Waterfall Trek. Already a 30minute walk from our guesthouse, we set out with a backpack and two waters, our trainers on, and swimsuits packed for the refreshing waterfall at the end. I was praying there actually would be water as the ‘river’ we were supposed to be following along the way resembled more of a dribble.

Lucas had read that it would take around 2.5 hours there and the same back again, which was confirmed by someone else, scoffing in our faces at our stupidity setting off into the hottest part of the day. But hey, we love a challenge – gluttons for punishment, right?

We were already drenched in sweat by the time we actually started the trail into the barren jungle of dead trees and smoldering bark. (We had had to log our names in case there was a forest fire so the locals would know how many people to go back in for….)

I’d taken 2 bananas from the breakfast buffet for our ‘elevensies’ which were warm and liquid-like within minutes and that was all our food for the potential 6 hours we’d be out in nature’s oven. Not anticipating how tough the heat would be either, we greedily gulped down our water, forgetting to consider whether we’d have enough for the way back. Which, surprise surprise, we didn’t.

After an arduous, but somewhat meditative, trek for the whole 2.5 hours we made it to the waterfall and thank god there was water – and it was wonderful. There were only a few other hikers there, as crazy as we were, and we sat silently in the fresh pools sifting gold glinting sand through our fingers and soothing our burning skin, savouring the moment while trying to find some energy reserves before having to turn back around and do it all over again.

Thankfully going back felt shorter, probably because my slow and steady pace had turned into more of a quick and determined march, desperate to quench my insatiable thirst, made no more bearable due to the river which taunted us cruelly all the way.

We didn’t die of dehydration, obviously, and we left to go down to Bangkok for Songkran (Thai New Year) the following day.

Songkran fell over three days on 13th April so, as the biggest annual celebration in Thailand, everyone was in the party spirit. The festivities nowadays involve water fights in the street; everyone armed with a water pistol at all times and buckets (that are usually filled with alcohol) filled with water, thrown at passers-by. Lucas had been there for it two years ago so it was his turn to share the experience.

While we relaxed during the day (we managed to sneak into a posh hotel’s rooftop pool for free) by night we were out firing our XXL water gun, dodging squirts and hoses, and getting in the Songkran spirit – even finding the local mini Khao San Road slash red light district down a place called Cowboy Street, of all names.

cowboy st

rooftop

To balance out the damp debauchery, we also went unashamedly upmarket to enjoy some uber fancy rooftop bars, escaping the chaos 39 floors below, sipping wine and whisky, overlooking the hazy urban skyline. We didn’t blend in very well though, still dressed like backpackers in our crumpled t-shirts and shorts.

Our next stop after the capital was the Thai islands, which I had never been to. On our way down we stayed at the beautiful Railay, on the Krabi coast, where we would set off south from there. Spending just a day in Railay with Lucas, we befriended the Rasta barmen of the aptly named Why Not bar, a motto they also upheld openly in their recreational habits, and lazed about on the beach admiring the iconic scenery of limestone cliffs and greens seas, bookended by wooden longboats.

railay

I’d booked to go on a mini yoga retreat for the following few days, on a small island nearby called Koh Yao Noi – which in a nutshell was amazing. Not having practiced for 6 months, however, I was stiff as an old dog and nearly fell asleep in savasana at the end of my first class, which technically you’re not supposed to do.

Diligently, I followed a schedule of morning meditations, countless hours of  sweaty yoga, sunrise tai chi (just the once), and I even fit in some island hopping with a local fisherman called Pong – ‘like ping pong,’ he said – one of the smiliest and friendliest Thais I have ever met. He was also learning English and proudly showed me the phonetic scribbles in his notebook as we spoke about the correct usage of ‘decoration,’ of all words.

pong

After an intense but invigorating 4 days I left feeling re-balanced and re-energised, pumped full of endorphins as if on a high, and went to Phi Phi Island to meet back up with Lucas.

Ironically, you could say it was a fitting onward destination to undo the hard work and detox of my previous few days, as Phi Phi is much akin to Gili T: a tanked up tropical island, a hive of boozy tourists.

We stayed in a ‘boathouse,’ opposite a tattoo shop, right on the shore, down from the clubs and bars that were open from 9pm-3am every night. Adamant we’d go ‘out out’ on our first evening, we set into the garish lights and ear-throbbing music, surrendering to our environment, aided by buckets of vodka lemonade. When in Rome, as they say…

I’d laughed at a comment Lucas had made earlier, saying, ‘if it’s too loud, it means you’re too old.’ And despite the buckets, it rang true, or at least we felt it did, so we retreated from the neon painted people at the beach and found a karaoke-style bar instead where we were happy feeling more our age, belting out classics from Bon Jovi to Britney Spears.

When we finally straggled home we watched a woman drinking beer get a tattoo on her hip at 4am in the tattoo shop opposite our place. I would have loved to know what she got, or if she had any recollection of getting it done when she sobered up.

We enjoyed a few more days on Phi Phi, relaxing by the pool, renting a two-man kayak to explore the bay, and watching amazing sunsets outside our ‘boathouse,’ before heading to our final island in the Andaman Sea, Koh Lanta. I’d been excited to go for ages, hearing people rave about it, saying that it wasn’t like the other islands, so I had high hopes.

FullSizeRender

Staying at Klong Nin Beach – one of many beaches on the island – Koh Lanta couldn’t be more different to Phi Phi; we had a kilometre of sand to ourselves (or that’s what it felt like) and there wasn’t a flame thrower or loud-speaker in sight come nightfall.

The general vibe in Koh Lanta was super chill, for instance, our local was a laid-back Rasta Reggae Bar and Mong Bar*, down the road, had its own resident duck. By day you could lose yourself in the endless views of the ocean stretching out as far as the eye could see, save for a few hazy islands and passings ships on the horizon, and it felt much more isolated and secluded than it actually was. I understood why everyone loved it so much.

*Actually, Mong Bar deserves another anecdote. If you were brave enough to close your eyes, put your palm flat on the bar with your fingers spread wide, and let the barman stab a meat cleaver hurriedly between your digits without touching them (or cutting your finger off), you’d get a free drink. We saw one man offer up a shaky hand just to get a Chang ‘on the house.’ Thankfully the barman didn’t cock up.

island hopping

A highlight of Koh Lanta was an Island Hopping trip we did with a speedboat full of ‘white’ people, all in various shades of burn to brown, reflecting their efficacy (or lack of) at sun cream application. We spent the day exploring the neighbouring islands, snorkelling, indulging in a lazy 2 hour picnic on the beach under the shade of palm trees, and lastly swimming through the Emerald Cave.

Without really understanding what this Emerald Cave would entail – other than dodging the jellyfish drifting carelessly close to our boat (Lucas missed it by an inch) – we were asked nonchalantly whether we’d want lifejackets or not. We said no.

Then to our amusement, boatloads of Chinese tourists emptied into the water, seemingly by the hundreds. I curse myself for not having taken a photo of what we saw next.

A sinewy stronger-than-he-looked Thai held onto a solid life float, pulling a never-ending buoyant line of luminosity (over 30 Chinese tourists, strapped desperately into bright yellow lifejackets) through the water and into the depths of the cave, where more buoyant lines of luminosity had gone through just moments before. All you could hear, once you lost sight of them, was the splashing of water and thrilled (or terrified, we didn’t yet know) screeches.

In hindsight, a lifejacket might have been a good idea – even if we looked as foolish as the Chinese tourists did. In our case, lifejacketless, it was every man/woman for themselves. We had to swim 80m into a darkned cave, through swelling waves which pulled you back and forth as they crashed into the rocks around you, while your legs and arms fought for water among the other hundred submerged limbs. Gotta love Asian health and safety.

There was the threat of potential hysteria, without a doubt, and instinctively I wanted to get out of the cave and through to the other side as quickly as possible. (I think I actually forget to enjoy the ’emerald’ part of it, the sunlight shining through into the green water).

But emerging breathlessly into a pocket of bright green jungle with a tiny sunlit beach, it was at least worth the mild panic. And it was definitely worth seeing the swimming lines of luminous lifejackets to get there – that image won’t leave me for a very long time.

Alas, our time in Koh Lanta was too short, and our weeks in Thailand had flown by. But as with most things, it’s good to leave on a high. Plus Lucas’ 30 days of free visa were up so we had to be out of the country.

Excited for a new destination, and a fresh stamp in the passport, we set off for its neighbour, Myanmar, and with no real plan other than having Google Mapped a rough itinerary on our 6-hour layover to Yangon, we’re making it up as we go along.

More about Myanmar next time.

the immigration game

Looking back, the past month and a half has been an absolute whirlwind. In a nutshell, I’ve gone through three international passport controls – Indonesia, Australia, and Thailand – not to mention countless domestic bus, plane and ferry terminals too, racking up god knows how many carbon footprints and collecting enough ticket stubs to kindle a small fire. 

To recap from the last blog post, when we were back in Malaysia, our next stop was to be Indonesia. More precisely: Sulawesi.

‘Where?’

Exactly. That’s what I said.

Turns out, not many people know about Sulawesi – including backpackers. It wasn’t until Lucas showed me on a map, keen to go, that I had any idea a place with that name existed, or that it was in Indonesia…

Exploring such an unfamiliar and untrodden territory was both a blessing and a curse, and we threw ourselves into the (shallowest) deep end by flying into Makassar, Sulawesi’s capital, to get our bearings. 

We were welcomed back to Indonesia (both our second time) in clouds of clove smelling cigarettes, followed by curious wide-eyed stares and enthusiastic heckling by those intrigued by our otherness. We were quick to realise that Westerners were about as uncommon to see as flying pigs.

As big Asian cities go, Makassar was nothing to write home about; it was just another busy and noisy capital with not much on offer apart from places to eat, drink, and work. However, our plan was to base ourselves there while we set about planning ‘things to do’ for our 2 weeks in Sulawesi.

But planning these ‘things to do’ was a challenge in itself.

No one – or barely anyone – spoke English, so basic communication was a struggle; hurdle number one. 

Hurdle number two: there was hardly any information on the internet either to help us figure our shit out. 

It became apparent that Sulawesi was a relatively untraveled country – and safe to say far removed from the average backpacker’s radar – which meant there were barely any blogs or forums with tips on how to get around or where best to go on this huge Indonesian island. 

It didn’t take long before we began to feel frustrated and inept as travellers, while caged in the capital. 

Craving a change of scene ASAP, there was even more reason to get out of the city with Lucas’ birthday at the weekend. I was adamant that we were not going to be celebrating it in Makassar’s flamboyantly pink, conference-style Fave Hotel where we had been staying up til then. We could do better than that.

bara beach

I had seen photos of a beach in a place called Bira (a mere six hours east of Makassar) so I went on a Google frenzy to evacuate us from the capital, pronto.

In my haste and desperation, I accidentally (yes, accidentally) reserved a non-refundable beach hut on Bara Beach, in Bira, a quiet but beautiful sandy strip of coastline on the other side of South Sulawesi. So that was that – we would leave the capital for five days, in search of the Indonesia we’d been hoping for. 

Fingers crossed it would get better.

When I arrived with the birthday boy at the local bus terminal to get the coach to Bira, a shitstorm of chaos ensued.

It seemed that two white travellers asking for bus tickets to go as far as Bira was not the norm and we became prime targets, swarmed by touting drivers offering private rides galore. The one thing I had managed to read on a blog post was NOT to take a private ride to Bira, so I was instantly on the defense. 

Within seconds I was in my ‘don’t give me your shit’ zone, big time – probably embarrassingly so – refusing to be mugged off and scammed by opportunistic taxi drivers.

As we stood out in the sun, sweating with our backpacks on, overwhelmed and totally at a loss with the inability to communicate, the situation becoming increasingly more stressful, I was wondering ‘is Bira bloody worth it?’ Guilty that all this was happening on Lucas’ birthday… (but one to remember, surely?)

After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, bargaining and promising, we agreed on a fixed price in a shared car and off we went – trusting our driver, ignoring the blog post, and trying to chill out and hope for the best. There was no way they were going to sell us a ticket for the bus anyway, so it was the only way we’d get there.

Six hours later, we made it, and at first sight it already seemed to be bloody worth it. I was practically horizontal with relief that I hadn’t cocked everything up by sending us on a wild goose chase across the island at the last minute.

Bara Beach turned out to be everything I’d  hoped for – it had sunsets, pure white sand, turquoise water, and hardly anyone else around. It was dreamy. We happily spent the next five days swinging lazily in our hammock on the balcony of our little beach hut, playing frisbee in the sea, and walking along the wide empty stretches of beach in our new paradise, away from the city. 

hammock view

bira sunset

cats

We also spent many a merry evening at Cosmos, next door, where we befriended a nice Dutch couple and fell in love with a family of baby kittens.

Bar a few intense paparazzi-inclined Indos who had a habit of shoving their iPhone 6s in our face taking selfies and videos of us (as I said being white is a big thing there) we kept ourselves to ourselves and were able to enjoy Sulawesi properly for the first time since arriving.

After some R&R we reluctantly headed back to Makassar, begrudgingly swapping our beach hut for the flamboyantly pink Fave Hotel once again. Almost immediately, back in the mayhem, deafening calls to prayer searing our senses, Lucas turned to me and said ‘I think I’m done with Sulawesi, I’m ready to go to Bali now’. To which I replied, without even needing to think, ‘me, too.’

So that was our brief stint in Sulawesi. I’m sure the country has so much more to give, and is definitely one for the ambitious traveller, but strapped for time and strapped for patience, Bali’s comforting westernisation was calling a little too strongly. 

For anyone who’s spoken to me about Bali, you’ll know it’s not my favourite place (I won’t go on another rant about why) but for the sake of some home comforts, affordable luxury, and avocado-based meals, I was willing to give it another go. Also, I kind of had to as my (twice postponed) flight to Sydney left from Denpasar a few weeks later, so it was time to go back regardless – unless I was going to postpone it a third time. Which was tempting…

canggu pool

We stayed in Canggu first, the hipster/surfer hotspot, where nothing much had changed from before (rife with arrogance and ego, tattoos, tans, and beautiful bodies.) But in fairness we did stay in a beaut hotel overlooking the rice terraces, with a pool, and resident cat.

The majority of our days there were spent eating tofu and avocado variations while pikeying wifi in cafes packed full of resident ‘DN’s clacking away at keyboards. The nights we spent drinking and dining off even more fancy menus, truly making the most of these novel ingredients and western amenities.

Once we had exhausted Canggu’s restaurants, and a lot of our money, we booked ferry tickets to head to the Gilis to get back in touch with the ‘real’ Asia and cut our spending by half. We decided to stay a night in Gili T – the wilder of the three Gilis – with a reputation for drinks, drugs and debauchery. Having come from the quieter bar and cafe culture of Canggu, it was both a welcome and warisome adventure.

Gili T was reminiscent of any party town abroad where the sun is out: imagine a scene of extremely sunburnt, half naked people in their late teens to early twenties, in all states of disarray, who have been drinking since midday – some already completely shitfaced, hugging their knees in the sand trying not to be sick on themselves. 

It evoked a Magaluf-meets-Festival vibe, with a mixture of hippies and hotpants, dreadlocks and diamantés. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but if I were to generalise, I would say the majority of people there were Brits.

But hey, I was too, so god knows what people thought of me.

We tried to get into the Gili T party spirit, we really did. We even had some interesting commercial propositions involving some oregano-looking marijuana and soggy shrooms from the local lads. But having gone for a candle-lit dinner on the beach (there are some nicer areas, I suppose) we decided to call it a night after the Bintangs failed to boost morale.

gili meno

The next day we took a short ferry over to Gili Meno, literally across the water, where we would spend the next four days. Gili Meno was the complete opposite of Gili T – it was secluded, quiet – we practically had the beaches to ourselves – and there were no drunken dickheads. The island was so small you could walk it in a day (which we did) and the water was crazy clear with some of the best snorkelling ever. 

We spent about three hours in the water, one day, swimming with turtles, surrounded by shoals of glittering rainbow fish, and looking for sharks in the depths, being tossed and turned in the rolling currents all the way round the island. I say ‘we’, some other members of our snorkelling group did otherwise. Namely a super cringe forty-something-year-old Russian woman who was prone to throwing tantrums, one reason being that she claimed there weren’t enough fish in the sea and what a waste of time it was. The captain was near about ready to throw her overboard and leave her in the sea. I would have helped him, to be honest.

Sedated by a few lazy days in the sun, we headed back to Bali after Gili Meno, this time to spend just under a week amid the verdant views of Ubud where we had booked a private villa through airbnb (still affordable luxury) complete with our own rice terrace and an amazing outdoor shower.

ubud rice terrace

ubud shower

Ubud, again, hadn’t changed enough to alter my first impressions of it – and I doubt it ever will. Gone are the true spiritual journey seekers, replaced instead with hoards of travellers and tourists buying dream catchers and miniature buddhas. So we holed ourselves away in our private apartment playing house, drinking wine and eating cheese while bird-watching on the terrace. How very civilised it all was.

One morning, however, we woke with a start – and it wasn’t to do with one glass of Pinot too many the night before. At around 7am there was a huge shudder; a shudder that went on and on, growing stronger, until it felt like the walls were moving and the bed was jumping off the floor. 

In my sleepy haze, I tried to rationalise it as the vibrations of a helicopter, or a big lorry down the road…. Right?

Wrong. It was an earthquake, rocking the foundations from the stilts up, through the floor and the walls.

It lasted less than two minutes but it was long enough to set my heart racing. The look on Lucas’ face of wild excitement confirmed that yes, it was an earthquake, asking me, did I feel it? Which was perhaps a rhetorical question – it would have been hard not to.

Fuelling the drama, we went online and saw that a quake of 5.5 magnitude had struck just south of Bali, in the ocean, sending aftershocks all the way up to us in the mountains on the mainland and beyond.

As exhilarating and surreal as it was, thankfully there was no damage (except to my nervous system) and when we emerged from the villa later that morning, triumphant that we’d lived to tell the tale as earthquake survivors, the locals were already going about their normal lives and couldn’t care less. I guess these things happen all the time in Indonesia, a bit like when it rains in Scotland. It’s not national news unless a road is closed.

After the quake we enjoyed a few more aftershock-free days in Bali, lolling about a fancy pool in a jungle in Ubud one day, and watching the sunset against the stormy sea back in Canggu the next, before getting ready to head off on our separate ways for a while. I had to catch my flight to Sydney to get my visa activated before it expired (remember when moving to Australia in December was the original plan….) while Lucas was going to northern Thailand, before we would rendezvous in a few weeks back in Bangkok.

If I’m honest, I didn’t really want to go back to Australia. I was hesitant. Or perhaps reluctant is more the word. I spent hours ummming and ahhhhing about whether or not I should postpone my flight to Sydney again – or just not get on the plane at all and spontaneously fly somewhere else, Cambodia, perhaps – adamant that I didn’t want to live there anymore having changed my mind along the way, so what was the point. 

(Reading that back I know I sound like a spoilt brat.)

But being in Bali and being close enough to be able to ‘just pop over to make sure’ made it seem silly not to go and try and remind myself why I loved it in the first place.

australia window

After the red-eye from Bali and domestic connection from Sydney, I arrived in Byron Bay, which was where my love affair with Aus started back in NYE 2015. I thought if anywhere Byron would be able to trigger my old feelings and turn my head around again. Alas – and to cut a long(er) blog post short – it didn’t. 

I spent five days in Byron Bay chilling on the beach (before the tail-end of cyclone Debbie hit), visiting old haunts, and hanging out with my cousin and his girlfriend who were mercifully there on holiday, too. We spent many an hour drinking wine and catching up on months of gossip and banter, but I just couldn’t acculturate to Australia and felt disenchanted with it all.

Sticking to my guns, I went down to Sydney for the next few days to see if I could coax myself out of my Asian obsession and realise that yes, Sydney is meant to be, it is my calling, stick to the bloody script, and stop putting it off! 

It didn’t work though.

Don’t get me wrong – Sydney was a great city, it had beautiful beaches (I stayed in Bondi which – when it was sunny – was wonderful), great food, and it reminded me a lot of London. I got the insider scoop by my friend, Judith, who I met in Vietnam, taking me to the Opera House, Newtown and Manly, and I went for drinks in the CBD with a babysitter I had when we lived in Argentina, way back when. But despite having fun, it wasn’t enough to keep me there. 

bondi 2

bondi

It’s funny to think that it was only last October when Sydney was the ‘be all and end all,’ driving me to pack up my life in London and fly to the antipodes to start afresh, with a minor detour in Asia to let my hair down for a bit along the way. Who could have guessed that the ‘minor’ detour would become a ‘major’ one, now six months in (and counting) with no sign of stopping, or a moving date to anywhere else….

Call it a culture shock, or what you will, but when I was in Australia I missed all those things I’d come to look on with comforting affection in Asia, like the insane humidity, bum guns, and stray cats. And I suppose, Lucas, too.

So I booked a flight to Thailand a week early and in all honesty, I couldn’t wait to get back.

Now we’re looking forward to celebrating Songkran with buckets of water and squirt guns, as you do. But I’ll wait to divulge our Thai adventures in the next blog post…

top of the rocks

Since our immersive Bornean jungle experience, we have become intrepid mountain climbers, conquering peaks and pinnacles you wouldn’t believe. Hold the applause.

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It all started with the ambition to climb the Everest that was Mount Kinabalu; the symbol of Sabah and highest mountain in Borneo at 13,425 ft. Not to mention the proud claim among travellers who dared to undertake the physical demands of its summit, and who’d lived to tell the tale.

For those who read my last post, I think it’s fair to say that in the run up, I was dreading it.

We left the jungle and arrived in KK after enduring a 7 hour bus ride from Sandakan with the last two tickets on the back row, right beside the toilet. You could say it was a small mercy there even was a toilet for a 7 hour bus journey, but when it smelt like a port-a-loo at a festival during a heatwave, I would rather have suffered appendicitis than ammonia intoxication.

Our ‘preparation’ for the epic Kinabalu climb consisted of consuming an obscene amount of peanut butter sandwiches and Oreos (nothing screams a balanced diet like a refined sugar combo) and a glass of red wine the night before, you know, for the antioxidants… slash anxiety, on my part.

On the day of, having woken up 6am, we were feeling fairly confident. The weather was ok and our assigned packed lunches looked alright (ie, we wouldn’t starve) – so we had that on our side, at least. After filling out the ‘Who Do We Call in Case of Emergency’ forms, we set off in strong strides, making it to the 3k point (there were 6k in total to reach the mountain lodge) in an hour and a half, having sweat through all of our clothes. It was pretty good going, time wise, considering the trail.

porters-resized

Props to the porters whose job it was to carry all manner of bags, food supplies and even gas bottles strapped to their backs. They had calves of steel and barely stopped to rest, whistling tunes from their earphones and casually smoking cigarettes, totally at ease.

Our confidence in how fast we’d make it up the rest of the way was misjudged and we were far too cocky – what was to come was much (much) more challenging as the altitude hit harder on every step. It became more and more difficult to get lungfuls of air and oxygen to our muscles, exhausted through the incessant clambering up and over boulders.

But despite the struggle, we kept good pace – even though I had to stop every 10m to clutch my sides – and we made it to the mountain lodge by 1.30pm, both freezing and sweating. We had left our guide, Margaret, and the other Japanese girl in our group way behind.

After a well deserved nap and having eaten for an army, everyone drifted back to their beds at 7pm for a wake up at 2am to get going for the 4k morning climb to the summit for sunrise. The pièce de resistance. Having a distinct lack of warm (and now dry) clothes, I had to borrow a very fetching eighties-style retro ski jacket, wearing every other piece of clothing I’d brought with me underneath. (I think it’s fair to say that I officially own nothing practical for these adventures).

Like little head-torched moles, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we headed up the mountain in the pitch black, legs unsteady from the day before, barely able to see even a foot ahead, trusting the footing of our blind steps and grip on the never-ending trail of rope. I’m not afraid of heights usually, but to look back at the lights below (and I mean 3000m below) was unnerving and would give anyone a sense of vertigo.

But up was the only option.

The wind was whipping around us, the temperature had dropped to 5 degrees Celsius and I was not having fun. Not in any way, shape or form.

I was glaring at the back of Lucas’ head (or should I say hoodie – not even he escaped the cold) cursing him for letting me think this would be ‘a good experience.’ I was hating every second of it, wishing I was back in my warm bed at the lodge.

mount-k-2-resized
mount-k-3-resized

Well, I got over it and made it to the top (and immediately scarfed a Snickers bar for a much needed sugar hit) with only mild frost bite. Shivering, we watched the sun rise over the horizon, turning the sky all shades of pinks and purples. Fair play, it was pretty spectacular and, yes, it was worth the hellish climb and is something I’ll never forget.

But was it worth the hellish descent? Now that’s another story. After going back down the 4k to the mountain lodge for breakfast and then having to do the last 6k back down again to the Main Gate, I had turned into Bambi, loosing all power and control of my legs. I could barely put one foot in front of the other without feeling like my knees were going to give way and I was going to have to forward-roll all the way to the bottom. I was nearly crying in frustration and about to have a very real – and very embarrassing – tantrum.

I was also wondering to myself whether this would class as an emergency situation, and would I be justified to call an ambulance to the helipad? Who doesn’t love a bit of drama.

Triumphant, we arrived back to KK crippled but in one piece and with our printed certificates to show for it. The wonderful manager at Halo Hostel put us in a room on the first floor, knowing that we’d be suffering the notorious jelly legs for days after. Shout out to you, Mr Lee.

To treat ourselves after the ordeal of Mt K, we headed to Mantanani Island for some much needed R&R, with the aim to be either horizontal and/or asleep for the next few days. This piece of paradise with its crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches was an idyllic place to reenergise and regain the mobility in our legs.

mantanani-1-resized

Apart from a very soggy pack of UNO cards (which, to my delight, was one of the very few games that I am actually better at than Lucas) there wasn’t much else to do there apart from chill out, read, or mooch about the beach. It was wonderfully indulgent.

mantanani-2-resized
The photo above was from when I was finally able to bend my knees, unassisted.

Whilst we were unwinding in our paradise, we decided our next ‘activity’ would be to climb the Pinnacles of Gunung Mulu National Park, once we had recovered. That’s how keen we were – peg legged but still thinking about mountains….

How hard could it be, we survived Mount Kinabalu, so this should be fine, right?

So with this in mind, and after an eventful boat ride back to the mainland (we were pretty much the only people not being violently sick into plastic bags) we packed up to head to Brunei, a pit stop on the way down to Mulu.

I’m not going to dedicate more than a paragraph to Brunei, no offense, Mr Sultan. Not that you’ll be reading this anyway…. Brunei was a NO FUN zone. None at all. It was a pocket of Sharia law Middle East, but in Asia, which was bizarre enough. And the country is dry which means alcohol is ILLEGAL. So the vibe was just not the same. We lasted all of two and a half days (most of which we spent in a coffee shop stealing wifi) before getting on another bus and heading back to the familiarity of Malaysian Borneo.

We spent a few days in Miri to reacclimatise to the fun zone and get our mojos back. Like rebellious teenagers, the reaction to our sinless stint in Brunei was to do all the fun things we were banned from doing immediately upon arrival, which was mainly to head straight to a bar.

Once we’d got that out of our system, we flew into Mulu, our second World Heritage Site in Borneo, to spend four days exploring caves and scaling mountains at the National Park.

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The runway at Mulu Airport was a tiny strip in the middle of the jungle – it made for a pretty cool landing.

Mulu is not only a huge protected rainforest and World Heritage Site, but it’s home to the world’s largest cave system, which was a pretty difficult thing to appreciate without context – I’d never been in a cave before. But they were bloody enormous. It was like stepping onto another planet (or how I imagine another planet to be from the outdated sci-fi films I’ve seen), or stumbling onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie. But in this real life version, the air was tinged with a rancid smell, which at first I took to be a bad case of BO – sadly not uncommon – that was in fact the smell of guano. Bat shit, to you and me. And there was tonnes of the stuff, over a metre deep in some parts, and falling invisibly from the ceiling like tiny poo dust…

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Once we’d seen enough guano-covered stalagmites and ‘tites – I’ve only just learned which is which, thanks Lucas – we set off on a 9k trek into the jungle towards a very military sounding Camp 5, nestled on the bank of a river, under an imposing cliff face. The trek was a warm up for the next day’s undertaking, separating the wheat from the chaff, giving you a fair idea of those who would make it and who wouldn’t.

For anyone who has seen a 100 Malaysian Ringgit note (safe to say it’s not something I come across often) its sharp, dagger-like decorative mountain ridges are in fact the Pinnacles of Mulu. So that was a pretty cool fact to learn. And it was to see these symbolic jagged blades of rock that we scrambled up the cliff at 6.30am the morning after, bellies full of an attempt at an English breakfast – the whole beans, egg and sausage – to pull ourselves up 2000m on a natural assault course of tree roots and rocks.

Encouraged by our guide, we were told we would be fine, as he sized us up from the shape of our legs. ‘You guys will have no problem,’ he said, ‘but the others in the group…’ and he tailed off. So with that little ego boost, and emboldened by our victorious Kinabalu climb, we powered up the mountain.

Although the altitude was nowhere near as tough as Mount Kinabalu, the climb to the Pinnacles was far more technically challenging. They were only 2.4k up, but by ‘up’ I’m talking an incline of 45 degree angles at best, even up to 60 degrees at points, and 90 if you count the vertical ladders right at the top.

Using all our limbs, we pulled, pushed, and dragged our bodies up the rocky mountain. I could understand the warning on the brochure which advised to only attempt the climb if you are fit, and really fit, quote unquote. Which is a category I would usually never lump myself into, so I was quite chuffed I could do it and surprised at how much enjoyment I was getting out of it compared to the breathless, never-ending purgatory that was Mount Kinabalu.

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Lucas and I made it up to the Pinnacles first out of the whole group – which perhaps isn’t that impressive considering we left behind a bunch of men who were knocking on sixty and probably hadn’t seen a gym in half as many years. But still, I’ll take the small victory.

But as with most things, what goes up has to come down.

(Is there masochism in our enjoyment of self-inflicted pain and struggle? I can’t understand why we do it sometimes…)

Going up 90 degree angles using ropes and step ladders is much easier than going the other way. It was no wonder they said it takes on average 3 hours to climb and 5 hours to descend.

I’m not going to lie, there were points when I did fleetingly wonder what would happen if I lost my grip on the not-health-and-safety-approved rungs and plunged down onto the shards of rock – would I die on impact, or just be left severely paralysed? I also thought, in a Sensible Susan moment, ‘if we did this in the UK, there would be harnesses, helmets, carabiners’…. None of this ‘I’ll just send you off into the mountains with nothing but a soggy sandwich and an apple. Good luck!’

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But we made it back to camp safe and sound, bar a few scrapes and scratches.

In all fairness, the aftermath of the Pinnacles was less painful in terms of recovery. We were still comatose from the physical exertion and, ok, we may have been peg legged for a day or two after, but nothing compared to the complete crippling debilitation like before.

Another bucket list moment and another peak conquered, there’s no stopping us now.

But unlike last time, sadly there’s no respite on island paradise this week. Gutted, I know. We’re in Kuching, our final stop in Borneo, before we fly to Sulawesi. Once again zero planning or research has been done. All I know is that it’s a star-shaped island and it’s famous for funerals. So that should be interesting…

Borneo’s been a blast and I’ll be sad to go, I’ve done things I would never have dreamed I would (and actually enjoyed them!) but on the other hand I have encountered enough creepy crawlies to last me a lifetime. I will NOT miss the leeches.

So I’m ready to move on, roll on Indo – I’m especially looking forward to the tofu and tempeh.

jungle fever

It’s fair to say that the last two weeks have been polar opposite from the last two, swapping beaches for leeches, sunburn for mosquito bites and flip flops for trainers.

Leaving the beautiful Philippines behind, where everything had become so familiar, we touched down, with little to no preparation, on the third biggest island in the world; Borneo.

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Borneo was the promise of green jungles, endangered Orangutans and – from what Lucas had read at least – some of the deadliest animals.

Actually, I’d like to start by congratulating us both for even getting off the plane after learning what lay within. His book had put the fear in us from the first page.

We arrived in Tawau, Malaysia, the cheapest AirAsia fare, where we spent the first few days acclimatising to the local language, hypnotic muezzin, new cuisine and lack of watering holes, but we soon began to get a feel for the Malay way of life.

Before we moved on, we were able to dip our toes into the Bornean experience at Bukit Gemok, just down the road. We went for a mooch in the jungle as casually as you would go for a dog walk at home.

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As we stood at the entrance, I watched everyone walk past in full jungle gear (we were in tshirts and shorts) wearing Lycra long sleeves, khakis, knee length socks, boots… it seemed to be quite the fashion show – and highly unnecessary. And given that it was 30+ degree heat and even higher humidity, what I really thought was ‘fuck that, the keenos.’

How wrong was I. There was method in the madness as I was soon to learn.

On our third minute into the trek, I felt something on my ankle and assuming it was probably mud, I tried to brush it off.

Nope. It was my first leech.

Rather than deal with the situation in an adult and calm way, my immediate reaction was to shriek hysterically with uncontrollable limb spasms to match.

I lost my shit. And looked like a right dickhead.

I also frightened half the wildlife with my sudden outburst, as well as those unlucky enough to be within range – sorry, Lucas.

So this is what Bornean jungle trekking entailed – and this was Kindergarten grade. The book was true. And I was very unprepared.

I reluctantly got over the fact that there were leeches on pretty much EVERY leaf, stick or plant, and towards the end I (nearly) became indifferent to their vampiric tendencies, flicking them off, one by one, hour after after. Little did I know this would be great training for Danum Valley, our next destination.

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A few days later, we headed deep into the rainforest to stay in a research centre that I had read about on a blog post some weeks before.

Everything about it screamed ‘school trip’ – from the minibus there, to the 48 person bunk-bed dorms, boys in one and girls in the other. We were issued (after high recommendation) branded leech socks, we had a timetable to follow, and were encouraged to mingle with the geeks, ie, the onsite researchers.

But in all seriousness, Danum Valley was great and a proper introduction to the Borneo we’d come to experience. Lush green trees as far as the eye could see and wildlife that would make Sir David Attenborough proud.

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[Credit where credit is due, Lucas took half these photos. Sharing is caring.]

Using what I could from my bag of beachwear and inappropriate jungle clothes, I dressed – to give you a mental image of the hilarity of my outfit – in Nikes, multi-coloured yoga pants and a fake Adidas sports top from a street market, topped off with a poncho. And the leech socks, of course. Photographic proof available on request.

Our first night, we set off on the back of a truck – proper safari style – and headed out in search of the nocturnal wildlife. Within 50m down the drive we saw a snake, slithering its way along the track, as commonplace as if you were to see a pigeon in a big city. It was incredible seeing everything just as it was, in its natural habitat. We went on to see, without much effort, flying squirrels, a beautiful leopard cat, a civet and some samba deer, among other selvatic creatures.

The second day was the real jungle trek, into real leech territory. Leaving at 9am we went to explore the ‘primary rainforest’ on the Rhino Trail (despite there not being any rhinos) with a rewarding waterfall at the three hour interval. I lost count of how many leeches I had to remove along the way – I even found one under my boob and later down the waistband of my leggings. Stealthy bastards.

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As if that wasn’t enough, when we went back after lunch to change out of our sweat-drenched clothes before our next trek, we were greeted by a tarantula chilling on the rafters by our dorms. Definitely the most unique hostel experience to date.

Later that night, we set out into the jungle again but this time in the pitch black, armed only with a friendly ranger and a few torches (mine was especially pathetic).

Within seconds of stepping into the depths of the jungle, as the darkness swallowed us up, the most terrifying thing wasn’t the spiders or the insects, but our vulnerability as we became prey, not predator, in a territory that wasn’t ours. Needless to say all senses were heightened to the max.

A mile in we were stopped dead in our tracks by a low grumbling roar and instantly fight or flight kicked in.

Adrenaline soared through our bodies and we scanned the dimly lit path for an escape route. Terrified, we were glued to the spot, save for our ranger guide who advanced, calling back in louder roars to scare whatever it was away.

‘I’m going to get devoured in the jungle by a huge human-eating beast!’ I screamed, inside my head, an irrational – but understandable – fear of the unknown overpowering any common sense or self control (again).

‘It’s ok,’ the ranger said, ‘don’t be afraid.’

‘So what was it?’ we asked timidly.

‘Don’t worry, it was just a bearded pig,’ he laughed, in the face of danger.

We breathed a collective sigh of relief as we tried to trust him, cringing at how much of a pussy we were, and tried to laugh it off with him. But we were unable to shake the feeling we were being watched for the rest of the trek. Pig or no pig, it was bloody terrifying.

Then, no joke, not even ten minutes later, we practically fell onto a 2m long hungry python stalking across the path to hunt for mouse deer.

Ok, time out, get me out of here! Enough jungle vibes for now; Danum Valley, it’s been emotional.

We headed back into civilisation just for a few days, mainly to do a lot of laundry and soothe our bites, before embarking on our second immersive jungle experience, this time on the Kinabatangan River.

Joining with a fun group of Antipodeans, we stayed at Uncle Tan’s, along the swollen river – 4m higher than in drier months. ‘It’s the rainy season,’ our guide explained in our briefing, so we were told to expect a flooded campsite, welly-wearing and limited activities due to the water level, scaremongering us to be prepared for a very (very) wet and swampy experience.

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We were pleasantly surprised. Swampy and damp yes; waist high water, ok; but floating mattresses, not quite.

Our camp was elevated, made up of a network of boardwalks and stilted huts standing over the water. It was amazing, a proper swampy jungle experience. That said, the water wasn’t enough to deter the jungle rats and we were advised to put all of our toiletries and perishables in a bucket outside the hut where we slept in case the they got at them in the night. I put the thought of nocturnal rodent roommates out of my mind pretty quickly.

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Our guide, Lan, probably one of the most enthusiastic nature lovers I have ever met, took us out on boats to explore the dense jungle lining the Kinabatangan River. If we thought we were spoilt for wildlife in Danum Valley, this place took the biscuit. Even on the way to the camp on the first afternoon we saw a crocodile and three different kinds of monkeys, not to mention countless species of birds.

Waking up at the crack of dawn the next day we went on a search for the elusive, wild and endangered Orangutan, who came out to feed every morning between 7-9am at the fruiting trees. Unfortunately, and despite the guide’s best efforts, we weren’t able to see any (we saw fugly proboscis monkeys and ‘jungle mafia’ macaques instead) but Lucas and I had lucked out and seen a baby one and his mama a few days before in the Sepilok jungle.

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He was right up close, swinging on branches and acting up like an attention seeking toddler. He even stared us right in the eye, dangling, legs akimbo, and peed straight into the canopy  😂 Unfortunately we didn’t get that bit on camera.

Due to the swampiness of the jungle there were no leeches (hurray!) but who knew what was lurking beneath the murky brown water that surrounded us. Lucas’ book had taught us to expect everything and anything harmful. So much so, after lunch we even saw a monitor lizard swim right past us in the flooded campsite. Five minutes later – and totally unperturbed by it – the guides jumped in and challenged the boys to a game of water volley ball. I guess that’s how you roll with nature in the jungle… Kudos to the boys, I didn’t get in.

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On our last evening boat trip, Lan took us out onto the river to watch the flying foxes (think fox-faced bats with a 1.5m wingspan) take to the skies, jungle-bound for their evening meal. ‘They will come out at 6.23pm’, he said confidently.

We killed the engine halfway down the river, drifting with the current, and turned our heads to watch huge silhouettes appear as if from thin air, in the hundreds. It was like something out of a CGI Dracula film and right on cue; 6.23pm.

It was incredible. We watched until our necks ached, mesmerised by these majestic creatures flying through the sky as the sun was setting behind them. Definitely one of the coolest things we did and what a way to end our Kinabatangan jungle experience.

Right now, we’re de-jungling for a while and we’re prepping – more mentally than physically* – for our next adventure: climbing Mount Kinabalu at 13,000+ feet. Apparently the sunrise is ‘totally worth it.’

*I would say physically but it’s a struggle to motivate when cigarettes are £0.53 a packet and there’s Tiger beer in every fridge.

A quick Google couples the summit with words like ‘challenge,’ ‘feat,’ and ‘tackle,’ and the official site advises a fitness level of 3.5/5. So combined with potential altitude sickness and my aforementioned unpractical Nikes, I’m not feeling so confident. But no one likes a moaning Myrtle.

If it was the jungle that gave me the fear before, it’s now Mount Kinabalu. Oh, may the mountain gods help me. I think I’d prefer a leech instead….

the highs and lows of island life

In spite of my last blog post – it’s not all been turquoise seas and sunshine when travelling in the Philippines. While it’s fun to post envy inducing ‘island life’ photos – #nofilter – I’m not immune to grey and rainy days, either. And, let’s be honest, I’ve experienced my fair share of shitty hostels, run multiple trips to the hospital and suffered long and uncomfortable modes of public transport, too. But posting about them doesn’t make me feel as smug…

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I actually haven’t seen the sun since my last Instagram (the photo above) and that was 7 days ago. It’s not always picture perfect and yes it sucks when you are stuck inside because of the weather (without wifi) knowing there is so much to explore outside of your wooden hut. I didn’t leave the UK for more rain, come on now.

We’re in Siargao Island, famous for its surfing, crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches, but it’s the sixth day of grey skies and torrential rain and we have already been out of power for 3 full days and nights. So island paradise seems a distant memory right now. I even started writing this huddled miserably over a bowl of hot soup with a hoodie on.

Four days ago we were hit by Auring. We woke up from a crazy night of storms and lashing rain to a near flooded bungalow and a swampy garden. We waded through five inches of water (ponchos and all) to check out the damage, en route to getting our morning coffee – as was our routine. Was being the operative word.

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Lo and behold, the storm had killed all the power on the island, which meant no coffee. And this was just the beginning, day 1 of 3. Cue the chaos.

‘It’s a typhoon!’ we cried, in wild excitement. No, just a tropical depression. Gallons of rain, howling winds, upturned roofs, flooding, no power… and it barely scraped a scale 1 weather warning by Filipino standards.

But living without power did have its larger grievances. While candle light makes everything seem far more romantic, it was a pain when you needed to navigate your way to pee at 3am in the dark.

Water (including the toilet) also ran on power so ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ became our unabashed rule as we mastered the Filipino flush method. Washing with a bucket, the Pinoy way, also made me really appreciate a hot shower when it came back.

One night when the power was out, we sat near blind in our pitch black room at 6pm, plunged into total darkness until sunrise with just one little torch, and we wondered ‘what did people used to do when there was no electricity? Did people just go to sleep?’ 

We decided that clearly there was nothing to do (how did people cope?) and that the best – and only – option was to get drunk on red wine. We figured you didn’t need a fridge for that.

Courageously we adapted to and wisened our ways with no power over 72 hours; we embraced a damper and darker waking life, we found generator-run coffee suppliers and survived on limited wifi spots. We made it through.

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Before soggy Siargao, we spent about a week on Malapascua, a tiny island just north of Cebu. It was another of the hidden gems in the Philippines. No cars, no roads, just sandy lanes and beach front cafes with beanbags to while away the happy hours. It was dreamy and a welcome respite after 24 hours of travelling from Zambales – via Manila, then via Cebu, by coach, plane, bus and boat.

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It was dreamy, until our third day, shall I say.

We decided (perhaps one more keen than the other) to go cliff jumping, one of the ‘top things to do in Malapascua’ according to a blog we’d read. Off a craggy cliff at the head of the island by the lighthouse, was a vertiginous rock face which, for 25 pesos (41 pence), you could climb up 10m and jump off into the sea as many times as you wanted. Great, sounds fun 😳

Watching Lucas do it immediately and (almost) expertly – with a video to prove – I thought, how hard could it be? So I took my turn at the edge of the cliff, peering over uncertainly, willing mind over matter as my heart raced with adrenaline.

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Encouraged by the patient bobbing heads down below me in the water who had already done their leap of faith, I decided it was another YOLO moment.
‘Jump!’ they said,

‘You’ll love it!’ they said,

‘Ok!’ I said.

More fool me.

45 minutes of extreme procrastination and mild sunburn later, I lept in on the count of three with an adrenaline-junkie German. It was his 8th successive jump. He made it look so easy.

One, two, three… I barely remember leaping off, all I do have is a flashback of the searing pain up my legs and back, crashing into the water (which felt like concrete) straight on my arse. No expletive or superlative is strong enough to describe the pain I felt.

This happened on the 30th December. Barely able to walk or breathe, I spent New Year’s Eve tucked in at 9pm, with Lucas who was bed bound with his own bout of ailments. This was travelling at its finest – and what a way to bring in the new year on one of the best islands in the Philippines… Rock and roll 🎉

I was out of action for a solid week with limited mobility (even laughing hurt, how sad) and murder-scene looking bruises down my thighs. I’m still taking painkillers now, but on the positive, I do have a lovely souvenir of an X-ray taken to double check I didn’t break my spine.

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So from the highs of 10ms and the lows of tropical depressions, most recently (and ashamedly) I’ve been hobbling around the Philippines like a crippled old woman and getting trench foot in the puddles. It’s not all been plain sailing, this island life.

It’s still paradise, really – despite the pain, rain and power outages. But don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to see the sun again. And I really should start weaning myself off Ibuprofen…