Travel Blog

  • How to book Gorilla permits for Uganda from the UK (6/25/2018) - So I’ve just spent the last 2 weeks pulling my hair out stressing about booking our Uganda trip in September. If you just want the facts, go here. For those who follow mine and Pete’s adventures, you’ll know that we do not like to take tours or use travel agencies. Not that we have any… Continue reading How to book Gorilla permits for Uganda from the UK

    So I’ve just spent the last 2 weeks pulling my hair out stressing about booking our Uganda trip in September. If you just want the facts, go here.

    For those who follow mine and Pete’s adventures, you’ll know that we do not like to take tours or use travel agencies. Not that we have any problem against them, we just like to do it ourselves. For me, it’s the freedom and flexibility of doing it yourself, as well as the satisfaction of knowing you’ve accomplished everything through your own hard work. I also really enjoy researching the area and take great pride in organising the trip for other people. Pete also likes it when we do it ourselves, it gives us independence, no other annoying people around us and is generally miles cheaper.

    So how about Uganda? Is that the same?

    Well whilst browsing Google flights on my phone (one of my favourite ways to pass time), I stumbled across some pretty cheap flights to Entebbe in Uganda from Manchester with Brussels airlines. Relative to the area and considering the peak timing (in September) they were a steal at just under £350 each return with short (3 hour) stopovers. I confirmed holiday dates for work with Pete and within the day I had booked the flights. Perhaps slightly impulsively…

    Since booking, many people have asked where we’re going on our next holiday. To which they then reply “Why Uganda?”

    Why indeed…

    Well…

    Landlocked in Central-East Africa, Uganda has a rich (and at times difficult) history and culture. It borders Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake and the largest tropical lake. Waterfalls, vast rivers and the source of the Nile are also in Uganda. There are beaches (by the lake), grassland savannas holding the ‘big 5’ that people expect in places like Kenya and Tanzania. But tourism is far smaller in Uganda compared to it’s neighboring countries. But mainly, the significant feature of Uganda, for us, is that it falls within Africa’s Great Rift Valley. A dramatic region dotted with volcanoes and canyons. In Uganda the area is covered in a thick layer of tropical rainforest.

    Which brings us to possibly the main reason why most people visit Uganda; the Moutain Gorillas.

    Moutain Gorillas live only in 3 countries in the World; Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. Since the kidnapping of a group tracking Gorillas in DRC, this area is now off limits and Rwanda recently put the price of their Gorilla tracking permits up to $1500 each to attract high-end tourism…

    In Uganda, there are 5 places you can track Gorillas, 4 of these are located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and 1 is in Mgahinga National Park. In total over the 5 areas there are 120 permits available a day, since only 8 people are allowed to visit one Gorilla family a day. All gorilla permits are priced at $600 per person, and sadly I believe the UWA (Ugandan wildlife authority) no longer offers off-peak tickets for $450… so they’re all $600.

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    From what I read, Buhoma is the most accessible by road, which is apparently mostly tarmacked followed by Ruhija, Rushaga and then Nkuringo.

    Accommodation seems to vary in each of the 4 regions of Bwindi that I looked at. There are lots of mid to high-end options in Buhoma and Rushaga with low to high options in Ruhija and few options in Nkuringo. However, I also found that the drive time between the adjacent sites is only around 30-40 minutes. So it is possible to stay in Rushaga and trek in Nkuringo if you wake up early and make the journey in the morning before the trek starts for example.

    Generally, accommodation seems overpriced in this region, the cheaper places look to be £40-50 a night (Bwindi Backpackers Nkuringo and Hornbill Lodge Ruhija) but do look pretty tragic compared to all other places I’ve seen online… I saved up some hotels.com rewards so we could stay at more mid-range places (Ichumbi Lodge Rushaga (before) and Trackers Lodge Buhoma (after)) which were about £120-150 a night (but cost me only £15-50 with the reward).

    Accessibility of the Gorillas at each site also varies. I read many reports of the Buhoma groups being close to the gate generally, with an ‘easy’ (I guess easier) trek to see them. Ruhija is a little harder, but still ok. It seems the North of Bwindi is easier to traverse. On the converse, Rushaga and especially Nkuringo are difficult treks, with Nkuringo being the most physically demanding…

    All treks start at 8:30 – 9am, but you are required to be at the gate to meet the ranger at 8am for a briefing and to prepare.

    You do not need to be on a tour to join a Gorilla trek. All you need is your permit for the day you plan to track the Gorillas, and to turn up at the right time. A ranger for the park takes the group of 8 out into the forest. Local people also wait at the gate to offer assistance as a porter. I’m not sure how this works really, but apparently they are cheap and it does help the economy locally, since most of the $600 conservation fee isn’t seen by the communities displaced by tourism.

    So, in theory, it’s relatively easy to visit Uganda by yourself, not in a tour group. You can hire a car on arrival in Entebbe, drive the 8-9 hours to Bwindi (perhaps stopping mid-way at Mbale national park or Bunyonyi Lake – which is what we had initially planned to do), stay in Bwindi, visit the Gorillas with your permit and boom… experience of a lifetime…

    Only… it’s not that easy…

    The Facts:

    1. You can’t book remotely – you can only book in person at a UWA site, with cash in USD. This means you will have to contact a person in Uganda to do this for you. Hotels in the Bwindi region should be able to help. But I contacted mine and they sent a lazy email back and didn’t follow up. The second option is to use the person who you are hiring your car from. Most will do this for free if you hire a car off them. This is what I did, I used Tristar Africa Skimmer Safaris.
    2. There are no live updates of which permits are available – the only way to find out what permits are available is to ask your Ugandan contact to physically visit or phone the UWA to find out. Most likely, by the time they get back to you, those permits are already gone… which brings me to my next fact…
    3. Gorilla permits are in HIGH DEMAND! As mentioned, there are literally only 80 permits available per day. In the high season these can sell out months in advance. I had 2 occasions with my contact in Uganda where he gave me the availability, I chose a date and site, he went to reserve the ticket and by that time, they had gone… 😦
    4. Transferring money to Uganda is HARD! Which leads me to my final point. Most agencies require the $600 to be transferred to their account BEFORE they book the permits. This is because permits are not refundable or exchangeable. Unlike transferring money throughout Europe or other parts of the World, most banks don’t even allow transfers to Uganda – mine wouldn’t, I tried on Nationwide and via my Starling app account. Uganda doesn’t use PayPal, it uses the PesaPal equivalent, but this comes with hefty fees. The other thing to consider is that the agent wants the money in their USD account (not UGX), because they need to buy the permit in dollars. Services like Western Union, MoneyCorp and MoneyGram, would allow transfers to Uganda, but only in Ugandan Shillings and also came with ridiculous fees… In the end, and after some hassle and cancellations using Azimo, I managed to do the transfer with HiFX and it was in my contact’s account within the hour!

    The advice would be to plan way in advance, and contact multiple agencies at the start. Work with the one you feel most comfortable or trusting of. I contacted 2 companies at the start, but one went above and beyond trying to find information on which permits were left available. So I transferred the money to them and booked my car with them.

    Conclusion

    Yes, booking a tour and getting them to organise everything would have alleviated the stress, worries and heartbreak (when at one point we thought we would not be able to see Gorillas at all, and even considered rearranging our flights)… BUT, this way we have saved the $500 or so extra that the tour group will charge and have the freedom and flexibility afterwards to drive where we want.

    We did have to make some small compromises…. I had initially planned to drive to Rushaga gate via stops in Mburo and Bunyonyi to break up the big journey. But because of availability, we had to book the permits for the second day of our holiday. Meaning we will start our 8 day trip with a 9 hour drive on the first day. Not ideal, but a small price to pay to see Gorillas, safe in the knowledge we have full control of our own holiday 🙂

    There’s just something so satisfying about self-drive holidays. I hope this guide helps others plan their own journies to Bwindi. 🙂

  • Business class planes to third class trains… (3/21/2018) - Since my time travelling South East Asia previously, I had the dream to visit Sri Lanka. The Pearl in the Indian Ocean, with lush jungles, stunning beaches, a variety of wildlife and especially delicious food, it seems like a Paradise island! I semi-planned a trip here last year but I waited too long to book… Continue reading Business class planes to third class trains…

    Since my time travelling South East Asia previously, I had the dream to visit Sri Lanka. The Pearl in the Indian Ocean, with lush jungles, stunning beaches, a variety of wildlife and especially delicious food, it seems like a Paradise island!

    I semi-planned a trip here last year but I waited too long to book the flights and they went uncomfortably high in price.

    So here we are this year, with flights booked to Colombo well in advance for a good price with Etihad airlines.

    This holiday was much needed for both Pete and I. Work, for both of us, had been increasingly demanding and stressful recently, we also had a house move, my knee operation and unfortunately, Pete also fractured his foot. We needed a break and an adventure in equal measure!

    A few days before the flight out, Etihad sent me an email which I almost ignored. It said that we could put a bid in to upgrade our flights to business class. Each leg of the flight was separated and each one required a separate bid. I checked out the link and looked at what to expect in business, and after this decided to place the minimum bid price, which I thought might not get accepted, but if it did, would be just about ok. I got an email the following day accepting my bid for the 2nd leg of the flight to Colombo from Abu Dhabi! We were excited!

    Our first leg of the flight wasn’t too bad, although it’s small, cramped and hard to sleep, in contrast, our second leg was… Incredible!

    We had access to the business lounge during our layover in Abu Dhabi, which was great and enabled us to have some free food and drinks. We boarded the plane first and were instantly offered champagne (which was a little embarrassing as everyone else in economy had to walk past us enviously). The electronic seats had almost full recline and a foot/leg rest which raised up. We slept a lot but also made sure we woke for food to enjoy this too. After alighting the plane, we got a separate bus to the terminal and our bags were also taken off first. It was stress-free and relaxing way to travel. We loved it so much that we have now made a bid for the way home!

    So, we made it to Colombo in style. I used the ‘PickMe’ app to book a taxi from the airport to our hotel and after arriving we had a little nap and shower to recover before going out to a little dumpling shop around the corner for food.

    We walked over to the old Dutch hospital, which has now been converted to shops and restaurants, be we found this very touristy and commercial, so we carried on exploring before returning to the hotel.

    The following day we woke up early and headed out for breakfast. We were recommended by the hotel to try a local food place. Upon arriving we saw they had paratha (parota or roti) with daal, which is one of our absolute favourites, so it was a great start to the day and nice to experience a proper local place.

    From here we took our first tuk tuk over to Galle Face Beach. The pickme app was a godsend, as we were hassled a lot by tuk tuk drivers and I think I would’ve found it quite stressful to constantly have to negotiate prices…

    From here we took another tuk tuk over to Gamgaramaya Temple and park, where we were treated to a fantastic display of Sri Lankan music and dance. A Japanese dignatory just happened to be visiting the site and the temple had put on a show for him. We were allowed to sneak in at the side and watch the traditional dancing. It was amazing!!

    Despite getting tuk tuks a lot, we had still done a lot of walking and Pete’s foot, still fractured, was starting to get sore, so we hired a tuk tuk and driver for 2 hours to take us between everywhere I wanted to go with minimal walking. He agreed to take us to Viharamahadevi park, Kelaniya Rajamaha Viharaya temple and the red mosque, but he also stopped at a few more pretty places along the way which was really nice and helped Pete’s foot a lot.

    From here, we went over to Pettah market to eat at a ‘pure vegetarian’ restaurant. I learned that the majority of people on Sri Lanka are vegetarian. Usually it means to be vegan, but the western culture has meant that their word ‘vegetarian’ now includes eggs and some dairy. So ‘pure vegetarian’ often means without eggs or dairy… Although the man told us one of the dishes did contain milk… very confusing!

    After a big nap and a shower, that evening we decided to sample one of Colombo’s premium restaurants, so opted for the one with best vegetarian reviews; Chutney’s at Colombo’s famous Cinnamon Grand hotel. It was really nice food, but surprisingly, not the best we’ve had so far on our trip… Still, we were treated very well and it was nice to experience eating at a top-end restaurant which would have cost an arm and a leg in the UK!

    Overall, we liked Colombo. Most things we read said to stay clear, but both of us appreciate diversity. We like to experience as much variety as possible. Literally, business class one day and a 20p tuk tuk the next. Or eating in a local street food place and then a fancy hotel. It gives the holiday balance and we feel like we’ve experienced more with a sense of perspective.

    Our diverse holiday continues to the next stop as we boarded a train to Habarana in third class…

  • Sightseeing in Sintra (9/5/2017) - We picked up the car and headed off towards Sintra, it was a beautifully sunny day, so we decided to stop along the way at a couple of the beaches on the Atlantic coast; Praia do Guincho and Cresmina. They were incredibly windy and full of surfers, windsurfers and other active people, but they were… Continue reading Sightseeing in Sintra

    We picked up the car and headed off towards Sintra, it was a beautifully sunny day, so we decided to stop along the way at a couple of the beaches on the Atlantic coast; Praia do Guincho and Cresmina. They were incredibly windy and full of surfers, windsurfers and other active people, but they were also really pretty. We braved the water about up to our ankles, but the cold wind pushed us towards the man-made shelters on the beach.

    From here we turned back into the hills. Sintra on its own is such a pretty village, in the hills of Portugal with narrow lanes and amazing architecture. Hills on all sides of the villages are home to castles and huge holiday farms for royalty (Quintas). However, it was ridiculously touristy. Much more than I had imagined. The traffic was bad and there were people everywhere. The queue for the tourist circuit bus which takes you up and down the mountains to the castles was about 1 hour long! We were a little overwhelmed, so headed straight for our hostel just outside Sintra near the Quinta da Regaleira; the main place I wanted to visit here.

    Our hostel was a new experience for Pete. He has never stayed in one before so didn’t know what to expect. Hostels vary greatly in my opinion, even the same hostel can have a different atmosphere to it, depending on who is staying there at the time. Ours certainly had a hippie feeling to it, with people playing the guitar and singing in the common area. We also requested a ‘vegan breakfast’ from here, which we were told by the owner was ‘very good’, but unfortunately, it was literally just bread and jam… oh and some “vegan organic butter from some local cows” – so we were very confused…!

    The following morning we woke early (for holiday) and headed to the Quinta da Regaleira, there was a small queue when we got there and it took about 10 minutes to pay and get in, but the queue was massive by the time we got our tickets and headed out into the park, we must have timed it just right!

    The Quinta was strange and spectacular in equal measures. I read reviews that described it as ‘an adults theme park’ which was quite a good description actually. It’s essentially a big house and gardens which was built in 1910 and is now open to the public. It has secret caves and passageways which take you from different areas of the gardens and to a high inverted tower or initiation well, which is thought to have links to the Knights Templar. It was really interesting and fun to walk through, especially since by the time we got there, we were the only ones in the tunnels!

    The palace was also beautiful, with views up to the Moorish Castle, which we weren’t going to go to, but seeing it at the top of the mountain encouraged us to visit it!

    So from the Quinta, we grabbed an Uber up to the top of the hill to the Moorish Castle entrance, this helped us avoid the tourist bus, and was actually cheaper than taking the bus anyway!

    The castle was a great contrast to the Quinta, with spectacular views over the valley and Pena Palace. It was built in the 8th and 9th centuries but is clearly well maintained. Pete was especially fascinated with these circular holes which appeared everywhere. We read all the signs, and even googled it, but there are still multiple theories as to what they actually are and nobody knows for certain.

    After a very strenuous day of walking we had a few drinks in Sintra (sampling green wine and muscatel), a tasty indian curry and an early night!

    We liked the sights of Sintra, and we only scratched the surface of what there is to do! But the village was too busy for us to really enjoy and relax. We began to get worried about the rest of our holiday and how busy the Lagos region might be… Only time would tell!

  • New in Nakhon Si Thammarat (4/26/2017) - After a boat and taxi to Krabi bus depot, we boarded a local bus to Nakhon Si Thammarat City which took about 2 hours. I booked somewhere again on the way, but as soon as we arrived a huge thunderstorm began and we waited at the bus terminal for a while for things to calm… Continue reading New in Nakhon Si Thammarat

    After a boat and taxi to Krabi bus depot, we boarded a local bus to Nakhon Si Thammarat City which took about 2 hours. I booked somewhere again on the way, but as soon as we arrived a huge thunderstorm began and we waited at the bus terminal for a while for things to calm down a bit before heading out.

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    Preparing our bags for the thunderstorm

    We got a short taxi to the accommodation which was pretty and headed straight out to get some food. We ended up stopping at a small street food vendor who didn’t speak any English. I tried pointing to the things we wanted and tried to communicate ‘no meat’, but our noodle soup that arrived was full of pork! We still ate it, and order extra crispy noodles as well! After we headed to a new small cafe which served the most ridiculous desserts!
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    Pete started feeling bad again that evening so we went to bed early, managing to arrange a scooter to hire the following day so we could go out to visit some of the local areas. The next day we took the (manual) scooter (good job Pete is a quick learner) over to a small town which was almost wiped out during a mudslide in 1988. Since then, the village rebuilt and is now an open village to go and learn about sustainable farming and organic fruit growing. The drive was great and the roads were nice (if a little jerky on the gear changes).
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    Along the road

    The village was beautiful and we ate at a little cafe before exploring the area and stumbling upon a popular swimming spot in the river upstream from the village. With Pete still not 100%, we chilled at the river for a while. It was nice and cool sitting in the water.
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    On the journey back to the city, the heavens once again opened and we were caught in a hailstone storm which forced us to stop because it was too painful with the hail hitting us! The wind as we drove got us very cold as well, so we stopped at a little cafe for hot drinks to warm up and to buy some ponchos for the rest of the journey back.

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    The weather stayed bad all night, as did Pete, so I rode a bike up to a local Maccies for takeout and we slobbed out in the room watching Muay Thai on TV!

    The next day had cleared slightly, so we headed out again on the moped. I had planned to visit a nearby waterfall which Google said was only 1 hour away. An hour later, we were only a third of the way there thanks to our low cc little moped, so we turned around and headed back to town. We took the moped back and decided to head out on the free bicycles instead, which was another error. We went over to a local food and fruit market – where I treated Pete to some rose apples… delish! But on the way back Pete’s bike got a puncture! We went to about 4 different bike shops before finding one with the tools to help us. As the fixed the bike, I got some food from a street food vendor who had a little som tam cart attached to a bike, he was riding through the streets stopping regularly. I ordered a som tam salad (spicy papaya salad with peanuts) and he showed me how to make it! I got some sticky rice to go with it, it was one of the best papaya salads I’ve had!

    Once the bike was fixed, we decided to return to the hostel and swap to the moped – we didn’t want to push our luck on the bikes! We headed back out to look at the temples in the town and attempted to go to Wat Phra Mahathat – supposedly the oldest Theravada Buddhist temple in Thailand – but unfortunately, it was closed when we arrived since by this time it was after 4pm.
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    Breakfast
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    We stayed out for a while until it started going dark, we headed to the central park of Nakhon where local people were exercising and playing sport. We watched a group of people playing with a rattan ball. There was also another group, also with a rattan ball, playing a game where they were trying to kick the ball into a very high basket. It was fascinating!
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    City Walls
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    Circle of people playing with a rattan ball
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    Trying to get the ball in a basket!

    The following morning we got up early to visit Wat Phra Mahathat whilst it was open. The temple was beautiful with a lot of monks about. In one of the leaflets at the temple it said that a lot of monks do a pilgrimage to the temple because it is so old.
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    Lots of monks
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    Golden Buddhas everywhere
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    From the temple, we headed back to pack and fly from Nakhon airport to Bangkok in time to catch our flight home… :(

    We had a great time in Nakhon Si Thammarat, there was lots to do here and it felt a little more ‘off the beaten track’. Overall I think I got the balance spot on for this holiday, we visited the capital, we experienced Songkran, played in waterfalls and in-land jungle, beautiful beaches, Thai islands and visited a traditional Thai town. A well-rounded holiday!

    My love for Thailand and Thai culture grew and I will definitely continue to visit here in the future. Pete also really enjoyed it, apart from the unbearable heat – and it was hot – insanely hot, but then it was the hottest time of the year that we chose to go. I am not sure if I convinced him to live here in the future… I guess I’ll have to keep working on it 😀

     

    UPDATE!

    It appears I did manage to convince Pete and we are now working on plans to move to Thailand!

     

    Post originally published on https://libbytesthailand.travellerspoint.com/

    View Thailand Trip on Libbytes’s travel map.

  • New Roads in Railay (4/23/2017) - From Koh Phangan, we decided to head to somewhere new for both Pete and I, since last time I travelled through Thailand I essentially ‘got stuck’ on Koh Phangan and couldn’t bring myself to leave. I never visited anywhere further South, places said to be amongst the most beautiful in Thailand. So we got the… Continue reading New Roads in Railay

    From Koh Phangan, we decided to head to somewhere new for both Pete and I, since last time I travelled through Thailand I essentially ‘got stuck’ on Koh Phangan and couldn’t bring myself to leave. I never visited anywhere further South, places said to be amongst the most beautiful in Thailand.

    So we got the ferry back to the mainland to get a minibus to Railay Beach, a collection of beaches in the Krabi area only accessible from the sea. As we neared the Krabi region giant karst features began to appear. Karst features dominate most of South East Asia, a mix of limestone rock and jungle that juts almost vertically from the flat ground. They are beautiful both on land and in the sea.

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    Arriving at the ferry port in Krabi to get the boat to Railay

    Once again, I used the journey to browse accommodation in the area last minute and decided on a place higher up in the mountains surrounding the beaches which had a pool and cool looking views. Booking last minute like this we got a steal of a deal for a private room with a/c!

    We arrived relatively late in the day and after a long day in a cramped minibus we decided to take advantage of the deserted pool area… for most of the afternoon/evening, we were the only ones in it!
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    View from the resort’s restaurant
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    The pool and view of the karst – along with rock climbers!
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    Infinity pool!
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    Pete messing about!

    We played like children in the pool until our fingers turned into prunes (perhaps another reason why we had the pool to ourselves!) and headed to bed early so we could have a full day activity the next day.

    We got down to Railay West beach early(ish) that morning and it was spectacular…
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    Railay West

    We had breakfast on the beach at a little cafe and then hired a kayak to go off adventuring around the karsts in the sea. Needless to say, we took to the team kayaking like a dream, and as competitive as we both are, made sure we were the fasted kayak in the whole area (although I don’t think anyone else noticed!).

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    After kayaking around some of the karsts, we stopped at Ao Phra Nang, another secluded beach within the secluded beaches…. only it wasn’t so secluded, it was incredibly busy…. We did manage to find a relatively quiet spot at one end of the beach.
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    Ao Phra Nang

    After a chill in the shade, we headed back out on the kayaks, on the way out into the sea we spotted a small lizard swimming. We were curious so got as close as possible to see… Suddenly, the lizard ‘died’, it stopped swimming and began to sink a bit. Both a little worried, Pete scooped it up on his kayak paddle and carried it back to the shore, placing it in the shade of the jungle. It stayed dead for a while, I thought Pete might start doing CPR when, as suddenly as it had died, it sat up – definitely alive. We realised we had been tricked by the little lizard which was obviously playing dead… we probably ruined his nice afternoon swim!
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    Back on the water, we found some more wildlife to watch, as many birds live in the karsts as well as crabs and monkeys. We also found a small cave to kayak through which was nice and cool… literally… it was roasting in the sun, so we sat in the cave for a bit cooling off!
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    Cooling down in the cave
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    Back on land we had another chill in the pool, watching the climbers on the karsts – both humans and baboons, before heading out to a little cafe built on stilts over the water and with small treehouses. We expected it to be very busy, but we were the only ones there all night!

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    You can just about see the baboons on the cliff face
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    The treehouse seating was cool, but after a few cocktails, we decided that walking across a 1ft wide tree branch to get back to out seating area (with drinks in hand) was not the best idea so moved to a more accessible seat! We stayed at the bar to watch the sunset and eat delicious stonebaked pizza. On the way back to our hotel the steep walk up the hill takes you behind all the houses and basically through the jungle, which was a little scary in the pitch black – especially since both our phones had died (which we were using for torches), but then…. fireflies. They were amazing and everywhere, which made the walk back to the hotel magical and memorable.

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    My best sunset pic – with no filter! Honest!

    We loved Railay, it was beautiful, but everywhere we had been so far on our adventure was not as Pete had expected from my fond Thai memories. Places were busy and ‘touristy’, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but from my stories of previous adventures, Pete wanted to experience a quieter side of Thailand, less influenced by mass tourism. I also wanted to go somewhere new for me too. So we decided to take a trip to Nakhon Si Thammarat. A city in the South East of Thailand which I had wanted to visit previously….

     

    Post originally published on https://libbytesthailand.travellerspoint.com/

    View Thailand Trip on Libbytes’s travel map.

  • Motorbiking on Koh Phangan (4/21/2017) - After a noisy and bumpy overnight train to Surat Thani, we woke with the sun about 30 minutes from our destination. Tired Pete after only a few hours sleep Surat Thani is the city closest to Don Sak pier where you can get the regular boats and catamarans to and from the island Koh Samui… Continue reading Motorbiking on Koh Phangan

    After a noisy and bumpy overnight train to Surat Thani, we woke with the sun about 30 minutes from our destination.
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    Tired Pete after only a few hours sleep

    Surat Thani is the city closest to Don Sak pier where you can get the regular boats and catamarans to and from the island Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. In my last trip, Koh Phangan was one of my favourite places. I was there in the low season and the notorious party island instead had a laid-back community feel to it. I stayed on the island for about 3 weeks, settling in and making many friends who I am still in contact with. I was both excited and nervous to go back. My memories of the island are so fond, I hoped it had not changed too much…

    As soon as we disembarked the train, people were on us trying to sell us tickets to the islands and national parks. We signed ourselves up to the Lomprayah bus/cat combo and chilled for the next hour at a little cafe where we had breakfast and coffee. We were eventually herded onto the coach to take us to the pier and then on to Koh Phangan.
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    Waiting for the cat to get ready
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    The karsts at Don Sak
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    Relatively comfortable seats on the boat!

    A few hours later we arrived on Koh Phangan. We checked into our hotel and were able to order some tasty vegan food (one of the reasons we chose this place!).

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    Tofu massaman curry
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    View at lunch
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    The bungalows were right on the beach

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    Our bungalow being protected by one of the many dogs!
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    Our bungalow
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    Bungalow kittens!

    Once settled in (and after a mid-afternoon siesta to recover from our lack of sleep) we headed out on a motorbike we rented to Echo, the backpacker hostel I had stayed at last time, and where I had made all my friends. We spent the evening here chatting to old friends, playing pool and having a few drinks.

    The next morning we were up bright and early explore the beaches of the island. Pete got up even earlier than me and went down to the local outdoor gym for a training session first! We first headed out through the towns and then along the jungle road to the North of the island and out to Koh Ma, a small island off the North West of Koh Phangan, which is connected by a small beach. Just riding the little moped together was enough fun, we both really enjoyed it! The scenery and the views made it even better!
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    Our little moped
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    Spotting an Elephant camp
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    Mae Haad beach
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    Koh Ma

    The weather had been roasting, clear blue skies and 35 degree heat, but whilst at the beach the storm clouds began to roll in, people packed up and left, but we found it a nice relief from the heat!
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    Dark clouds coming in…

    After a quick pit stop back at the Bungalow to repair Pete’s sunglasses (it seems they couldn’t handle the heat) we headed out again, this time over to the North East of the island and Thong Nai Pan Yai beach.
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    Stunning views from the road
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    Thong Nai Pan Yai Beach
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    Biking it up!
    We headed back to the South of the island to watch the sunset, but unfortunately, it wasn’t so exciting with all the clouds. After which we returned to Echo to catch up with some old friends, Demon and Lin who coincidentally were also back visiting the island! It was a nice surprise and we spend much of the evening playing pool and chatting.
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    Pete’s head was a little worse for wear in the morning, so I breakfasted by myself and had an amazing Thai massage on the beach. Probably the best one I have had.
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    The beach at the bungalows

    When Pete surfaced we ventured out on the bike again. I asked Pete whether he wanted to visit a waterfall or a beach… his answer was “both”, but luckily there is such a place on Koh Phangan where you can see both together! So we visited Haad Than Sadet Waterfall and Beach!
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    The biggest tree on Koh Phangan – a tropical rubber tree
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    Negotiating a recent landslide-effected road
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    Pete going for a swim

    We found a quiet secluded spot on the beach with shade and watched the fish and crabs before heading back down to the West of the island this time to try and catch a better sunset.
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    On the way back we stopped at a little viewpoint cafe for a drink
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    Catching the sunset at Haad Son

    That evening we went to a Muay Thai fight which was very interesting. The line-up started with some kids that were training and for a couple of them it was one of the first staged fight. They were brutal and extremely skilful. This lead up to the main fight which was a rematch between two long-standing rivals. Again, the fighting was pretty brutal and was one of 3 fights on the night which ended in a KO!

    Overall, Koh Phangan was still beautiful, but perhaps because it was a high season with the Easter holidays and Songkran, it felt different and was much busier and more developed than I remember. Even Echo had expanded and grown since last time. Pete was surprised that I loved the island so much. Not that he didn’t like it, but just because of how commercial and busy it is. I guess I felt that last time I was here, but I embraced it and enjoyed the lifestyle and social life the island provides.

     

    Post originally published on https://libbytesthailand.travellerspoint.com/

    View Thailand Trip on Libbytes’s travel map.

  • Playing in Kanchanaburi (4/17/2017) - We woke up at 7am the next day to pack up and get the first train out to Kanchanaburi. However, the train station we needed was across town. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m not the best at being on time and about 5 minutes into our taxi ride to the station I declared to… Continue reading Playing in Kanchanaburi

    We woke up at 7am the next day to pack up and get the first train out to Kanchanaburi. However, the train station we needed was across town. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m not the best at being on time and about 5 minutes into our taxi ride to the station I declared to Pete that we were definitely not going to make it in time… fortunately there is also a bus station on that side of town which runs public buses to Kanchanaburi, so we committed to missing the train and asked our taxi driver to continue on and take us to Sai Tai Mai station. We got there and were able to board the next A/C bus for around £2 each. We only had to wait 10 minutes for the bus to fill up and depart – the bus was faster than the train, had aircon and stopped in the same place we needed to get our next bus! This was the beginning of Pete learning how lucky I am when travelling! To be honest, we should have done this in the first place! :)
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    Bus selfie!

    We arrived at the bus station in Kanchanaburi and hopped onto the next bus along which was going to Erawan National Park, home to the 7-tiered waterfall I had visited and loved in the past. We got on the bus with a minute to spare. The bus to Erawan was funny, it looked like a disco bus and struggled to get up the smallest of hills, my google tracker thought we cycled some of it, it was that slow! However, the journey is nice as the scenery is beautiful as you drive alongside the river and through small villages in the hills.
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    Disco bus
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    Along the way
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    Beautiful scenery all the way
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    Since we had the whole back row, Pete took the opportunity to get more rest!
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    Crossing the river to enter the park

    As soon as we arrived, we headed down to the park rangers office to try and rent out one of the small bungalows that are inside the national park. Fortunately, there was one the A/C available, but check-in was only from 2pm, so we ate and chilled at one of the restaurants nearby.
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    Som tam spicy papaya salad and sticky rice… mmmmm
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    Our little bungalow!

    By this point, it was getting late, as the park closes at 4pm, but we headed out any way to scout it out for the next day!
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    With it still being a thai holiday, the park was rammed!
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    Viewpoint
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    But we did manage to find some peace in the nibbly-fish pond!
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    Getting my feet nibbled

    It went dark fast that night and since we were in the middle of a national park with not much to do, we got an early night ready to get up early the next day to be first at the park… if only I had remembered to set an alarm… So we got to the park at about 10am in the end (oops), but it was still nice and quiet. We headed straight to tier 5 where the is a deep pool and some slippery rocks you can slide down. It was really fun just playing in the water and trying to avoid the massive fish!
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    Much quieter…
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    Massive fish!
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    Beautifully coloured, crystal clear water… and a pete

    Pete diving into the pool – very athletic :)

    Sliding in!

    From here we walked up to tier 6 for a chill looking out over the valley.
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    Big fishies in this one too!

    Conscious of the train we had to catch that evening, we then headed back down to tier 3 for a short while before we got a little overwhelmed with mossies. However, on the way out we saw a collection of butterflies which Pete managed to film in slow-mo, it was beautiful. Again, to save some time (and sweat) we grabbed one of the golf buggies that run to and from the ranger’s lodge and made it to the bus perfectly with about 1 minute to spare! :)
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    Tier 3

    Butterflies!
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    Riding the gold buggy!

    Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky on the bus out of Erawan, and it was packed to the max. Pete gave up his seat halfway through the journey, but ended up in the aisle getting slept on!
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    The initial plan was to get a bus from the park back to Kanchanaburi, then the bus back to Bangkok, then a taxi across Bangkok to the train station to board our overnight train to Surat Thani. However… Songkran hadn’t stopped for the people of Kanchanaburi and it took us almost 2 hours to drive at walking pace through the festivities of the town. This ate up our entire 90-minute buffer… we were going to miss the train. The only part of the holiday I had booked beforehand…. We were getting stressed out… So I did some research on my phone. Thank god we got a Thai sim card, and that we had a small portable charger. After about 5 minutes I found out that the train from Bangkok stops at a station in Nakhon Pathom, a town we were also due to drive through in about 20 minutes – we had the perfect solution! I ran to the front of the bus to ask if we could stop, and 20 minutes later we were dumped in the middle of Nakhon Pathom. A short taxi ride took us to the train station where we double checked the train times and our tickets before heading out to briefly explore the town in the 2 hours we had to wait.

    Straight out of the train station you can see the famous chedi of Nakhon Pathom; the tallest stupa in the world apparently and one of the oldest in South East Asia, supposedly built in 193 BC. So we headed along the street to get a closer look. We grabbed a really tasty pad thai from a street food vendor for about 50p each on the way. Probably the nicest pad thai of the whole trip! I was actually really glad we got to stop here and spend a few hours in the town!
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    Stepping out of the station
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    Tasty pad thai vendor
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    Phra Pathom Chedi

    We headed back to the station to catch our train at 9pm and was shown to our modest first class cabin! We would arrive in Surat Thani the next morning at 7am!

     

    Post originally published on https://libbytesthailand.travellerspoint.com/

    View Thailand Trip on Libbytes’s travel map.

  • Songkran in Bangkok (4/16/2017) - The flight to Bangkok was fairly uneventful; my Grandad dropped us at the airport and we had a slight delay before boarding our 7.5-hour flight to Abu Dhabi. Pete was very impressed though as I prebooked him a vegan meal for the flight  and we also found a vegan coffee (almond milk) shop at the airport.… Continue reading Songkran in Bangkok

    The flight to Bangkok was fairly uneventful; my Grandad dropped us at the airport and we had a slight delay before boarding our 7.5-hour flight to Abu Dhabi. Pete was very impressed though as I prebooked him a vegan meal for the flight ;) and we also found a vegan coffee (almond milk) shop at the airport. I was off to a good start! Another 6 hours later and we landed in Bangkok! Woo!

    As I said in the last post, I have been to Bangkok several times before (read my previous posts on Bangkok hereherehere and here). I loved the city, but I had never been in Bangkok during Songkran; the Thai new year water festival where everyone takes to the streets in a giant water-fight!

    I booked 3 nights accommodation on the outskirts of the tourist district of Khaosan Road. Close enough to the action to walk there, but far enough away to be peaceful. To get there we got the airport rail link to Phaya Thai and hoped to get a taxi from the station to the hotel. However, it was slim pickings on the taxi front and we ended up settling on a relatively cheap tuk-tuk to out hotel… what a great introduction for Pete to Thai driving! The tuk-tuk driver was insane! We were weaving in and out of traffic, reaching speeds of about 50mph on the busy roads and braking far too late for everything. It was a white-knuckle ride, but we did eventually reach our beautiful hotel.

    After a small nap and a shower, we headed out towards the Songkran area, walking along Phra Sumen and Phra Athit. We stopped for food at a small restaurant along Phra Athit; Pete’s first taste of Thailand. I recommended the Pad Thai to start and I got a Penang Curry. I got the best compliment from Pete ever when he was shocked at how they both tasted like my home-cooked Thai meals! He now appreciates my cooking even more! 😀

    From here we walked over to Khaosan and Rambuttri Streets where most of the water fighting was taking place… Oh my god… I had experienced Songkran before in Chiang Mai. I thought it was crazy there, but this was another level! It’s hard to explain what it’s like but I did manage to capture a quick video with my phone in a plastic bag!

     

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    Jet-lag was still on us, so we headed back sodden for another nap and that evening my HappyCow app directed us to a vegan restaurant not far from our hotel called May Kaidee’s which was delicious!

    Back in the UK, Pete used to do a lot of Muay Thai, so one big desire for him was to visit a Thai boxing gym for some training, as well as to watch some Muay Thai at a stadium. We had a look at some of the local gyms and Pete decided to visit Sor Vorapin Gym which was close to Khaosan. I went with him as I thought it would be interesting to watch, and I wasn’t wrong! It was great watching… and Pete was really very good, I was so impressed! Even the trainer was impressed with him! It was especially impressive because of the intense heat; there was no aircon, just a single fan (which was in the seating area I was sat in!).
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    It was hard to take photos as the movements are so fast so I reverted to a video…

    The trainer seemed to like Pete and made him work really hard. They also had a few laughs which was nice!

    We also got chatting to an American couple, Libby and TJ, who live in the UK. They were both doing the training. Pete got paired with TJ in a few of the sessions.
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    After the session, Pete was very hot and very sweaty, so we walked back to the hotel for a quick shower and sit in the A/C. Once cool we headed out to a HappyCow favourite; Mango. The food here was really delicious and the staff were impressed with my (extremely basic) Thai when I asked for the bill with a simple “Gep dang”! :)

    From Mango we walked through the backstreets of Bangkok over to the Golden Mount, or Wat Saket. Half of the walk was beautiful amongst gardens and in the shade, whilst on the other side, it felt like we were baking alive!
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    The Royal Pavillion on the way to Golden Mount
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    It’s good luck to strike the bells and gongs along the way
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    The golden chedi on the top
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    Views of Bangkok from the top

    After a cooling-off session with some ice cold water and fruit, we then headed out on the canal boat service that runs through Bangkok. There are waterways everywhere and tourist and commuter boats continually run up and down them. This one was free and we caught it from Phanfa Bridge all the way down to Hua Chang, close to Siam Square.
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    I really love looking into peoples back gardens and houses that you can see from the canal, it’s so interesting!

    Hot again (it really was hot today) we headed towards the A/C paradise of some of Bangkok’s best malls, including Siam Discovery and Paragon. We stopped for another vegan meal before Pete started to feel exhausted – it appeared he had pushed himself too hard at the gym in the morning, so we headed back to the hotel for a short nap before heading out in the evening to meet Ben on Phra Athit.
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    Tasty meal at Veganerie Soul
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    Ready for a night out!
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    Drinks on Phra Athit

    Unfortunately, Pete felt much worse the following day, I think it was a bit of heat exhaustion, probably cause by the Muay Thai… so I played nurse for a bit until he felt well enough to venture outside. We took a taxi over to Phra Athit Boat station on the Chao Phraya river, but not before stopping at a little roti shack which Ben told us about. Roti’s were one of my faves during my last trip and these were delish!
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    Mmmmm…

    So we grabbed the boat from Phra Athit over to Wat Arun, one of the oldest temples in Bangkok where Buddhism is merged with Hinduism. It is a Buddhist temple really, but the Khmer architecture and scary Hindu style figures stand out as different from other Buddhist temples in the region. It’s really interesting to look at and is simply beautiful.
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    Pete not feeling very well :(
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    Wat Arun
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    Hindu-style figures
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    Buddhist shape temple
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    Chinese lion
    It really is a mesh of different cultures and religions!

    We had then planned to go over to Lumpini Park to chill for a bit, but on the way, Pete started to fade again so we looped back around and headed back to the hotel. Although on the way we stopped at one the BTS stations in the Silom district of Bangkok and witnessed one of the craziest Songkran sites we saw… the street was packed full of people and the noise and atmosphere was immense. Again, it’s hard to explain, and even the video I took doesn’t do it justice, but still… incredible.

    Songkran in Silom

    Back at the hotel and Pete wanting to recover for the rest of the holiday, we decided to have an early night ready to get up for an early train to Kanchanaburi the next morning.

     

    Post originally published on https://libbytesthailand.travellerspoint.com/

    View Thailand Trip on Libbytes’s travel map.

     

  • Thailand Planning and Preparation (1/25/2017) - Ever since I got home from my 8 month trip in South East Asia in 2014 I have been dreaming of returning. It’s usually tough to choose to revisit places I’ve been before over visiting new and unexplored places, but with Thailand, it wasn’t… It was a country and culture I had fallen in love… Continue reading Thailand Planning and Preparation

    Ever since I got home from my 8 month trip in South East Asia in 2014 I have been dreaming of returning. It’s usually tough to choose to revisit places I’ve been before over visiting new and unexplored places, but with Thailand, it wasn’t… It was a country and culture I had fallen in love with previously. I had some incredible experiences and visited what I thought were some of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. I wanted to share these experiences with Pete, who has never been to Asia.

    But then where should I take him?

    I spent almost 3 months in Thailand during my previous travelling adventure, Pete and I shall just over 2 weeks for this trip. We are going over Easter, taking advantage of the multiple bank holidays during April to make sure we maximize our time abroad whilst taking only 10 days of work holidays. The coincides with Songkran in Thailand – one of the best experiences I had during my trip. So that’s a big tick!

    Learning from our past 2 holidays we have at least decided 2 things:
    1. Not to book accommodation and to instead go where we feel when we feel once we are there.
    2. Not to try and go to too many places in too short a time.

    Which I guess means I shouldn’t worry about where we go and what we do and just go with the flow! :)

  • Learning to Lova Bali in Padang Bai (10/2/2014) - After not really feeling like we saw the ‘real’ Bali so far, we headed out on a bus East to Padang Bai. We checked in to a room with the most beautiful carved door in a homestay, but with very little atmosphere, and no interaction with the homeowner (who left the key under the mat… Continue reading Learning to Lova Bali in Padang Bai

    After not really feeling like we saw the ‘real’ Bali so far, we headed out on a bus East to Padang Bai. We checked in to a room with the most beautiful carved door in a homestay, but with very little atmosphere, and no interaction with the homeowner (who left the key under the mat for us!) we moved over to Topi Inn and then Billabong Cottages. After a slow, albeit short, journey on the bus, we spent the evening on the beach and then in the local reggae bar with some drinks.

    For the first full day, we walked up the steep hill to the Blue Lagoon beach and spent most of the morning here watching the strong waves of the relatively cool ocean. Again, we hired a motorbike and decided to head out of town. We headed to Candidasa’s white sand beach, which had an insanely steep road down from the main road to the beach which was quite scary on the bike! From here we headed over to Pura Goa Lawah or bat cave temple to watch the bats leave their cave just after dusk. It was incredible, there were literally so many streaming out of the cave. We sat and watched for nearly half an hour, and they were still flowing out, so we headed back before it got too dark.

    The following day we took the bike up towards Sideman and closer towards the dominating Mt Agung – an active volcano in the East. You can see the mountain from almost anywhere on Bali, and even further afield as we were soon to learn.

    The countryside of Sideman was lush and beautiful, we stopped frequently to admire the views and take photos. We continued on towards Mt Agung with a visit to probably the most beautiful temple I saw in Bali, Besakih Temple.

    The countryside around this area was beautiful and the tourism seemed more sustainable here as well, probably thanks to fewer mass holidaymakers and tour groups – it seemed there was less impact on the local culture. It’s where I finally started to fall in love with Bali and Indonesia as a whole. The religion and culture are so unique, there were just flowers and small offerings everywhere. The Balinese seemed to take great pride in keeping their country clean and pristine, from the streets to their homes. The vibrant colours and sweet smells of incense are everywhere.

    Ironically, despite falling in love with Bali in Padang Bai, we used it as an opportunity to leave… on the fast boat to Lombok, specifically, the Gili Islands. But we planned to come back for sure and continue to learn more about this unique island.