Travel Momentos: The Woman With The Inquisitive Eyes

I still remember the feeling as we stepped onto the train that night. We’d arrived to a train station just outside of Varanasi, in the North of India earlier that evening. It was dark already, the air sticky with humidity, the station lit with faint orange lights.

We shuffled through the throngs of people to the platform we thought might be ours. Stretched out in front of us was a patchwork quilt of families strewn across the platform. Each group huddled together on their own blanket with flasks of hot water for tea, various deep fried delicacies and carefully crafted boxes of rice and curry.

They were here for the long haul.

To one side, we spotted a solitary bench with one available seat, perched between two families. Laura sat down, squeezing between the two families and their haul of bags and boxes. I stood in front of her, and smiled at each of the families either side. They stared back relentlessly, a classic Indian mix of inquisition and intrigue. We’d grown accustomed to the staring by now, and I revelled in competing to see who could hold eye contact the longest between myself and a random family member.

I lost every time

I glanced up to the board to my left, the information board showing a train due to leave at 2pm. It was 10pm now and there was still no sign of it.

8 hours late I thought, this could be a very long night.

After a while of staring, I took a wander around the station. By now whatever food stands had been there were long closed, the remnants of food being hungrily eating by the biggest rats I’ve ever seen.

Suddenly there was a commotion, as a heave of people swarmed towards another platform. I watched as whole families hurriedly gathered up their belongings and headed to the platform. There had been no announcement as far as I could tell, and the information board was blank. Yet in the darkness, along the tracks, were two bright lights getting closer.

Someone’s train was arriving, but where was it going?

I moved closer to glean any info I could on what was happening. Suddenly through the noise and smells of the station, I heard two words above it all:

New Jalpaiguri

This was our destination! I bolted back around the corner where Laura was sitting patiently. I didn’t say anything, one look at my face and she was up and grabbing the bags. We bolted back around to the other platform.

Was this our train? There were no announcements, no signs, no one on the station platform.

We peered inside the carriages in front of us, a brightly lit space with wooden seats and a hundred Indian faces stared back.

This might be our train, but this was not our carriage. We moved down the platform at some pace, looking for the sleeper carriages. A conductor in a hat appeared from one of the carriages, took one look at us and motioned us forward a few more carriages and onto the train.

“New Jalpaiguri?”, I blurted. “Yes my friend!” He replied.

Incredibly, our train was on time.

We scrambled through the dark sleeper carriages until we found our bunks, a middle and upper bunk in a grouping of 6. I took the top and Laura the middle, as others slept soundly on the opposite bunks.

The relief was incredible. Our train was on time, we had our bunks, and we were on our way!

I slept soundly that night, waking around 7am with a jolt. I peered out of my top bunk to the bunk below, where Laura was still cocooned in her sheet and blanket, arms linked through her small backpack with valuables.

It was at this moment that I became aware of 6 pairs of eyes gazing intently from across the compartment.

A family of 6 were already awake, had folded away the middle bunk, and were now all sitting in a row on the bottom bunk, all eyes fixed intently on me in the top bunk.Good train etiquette means folding up the middle bunk so that people on the top and bottom bunk can sit up on the bottom bunk. Wary of this, I clambered down and woke Laura. She was not for getting up, so she clambered up to the top bunk for more sleep while I folded up the middle bunk and sat down on the bottom bunk, its inhabitant had seemingly already left.

I took a breath and looked up. I was now sitting at the same level as the family, on the seat facing opposite, about a metre across from me. All 6 of them squeezed on the bottom bunk, all in a row, gazing intently at me, analysing my features, my hair, my clothes.

Five members of the family, the husband, kids and one grandparent gazed and grinned from ear to ear at me. But there was one woman, I assumed the mother, who gazed intently at me, her face completely expressionless.

After much travelling across the world, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that even the smallest attempt at interacting in the local language, or adopting a local expression can go a long way.

After a few weeks in India, we’d learnt how to say hello, please, thank you, goodbye. But one expression that unlocked doors and resolved so many situations was the head wobble.

If you’re unsure what I’m talking about, just google it and more knowledgeable people can tell you all about it. What we learnt, from our experience, was that it can mean yes, no, maybe. It can mean almost anything, and that’s kind of the point.

So as I sat, gazing back at the family of six, I focused my attention on the woman with the inquisitive eyes, and ever so slightly, wobbled my head left and right, whilst staring at her.

Her reaction was one of the most incredible bursts of expression I’ve witnessed.

Her face suddenly burst into life. Her eyes widened so that the whites of her eyes were clear, a beaming smile burst onto her face, her hands came out towards me, palms to the ceiling, and then she began talking, the words and questions tumbling from her mouth as fast as she possibly could:

What is your name?
Where are you from?
Why are you in India?
What do you think of India?
Are you married?
Where is your wife?
Is that your wife?
Where are your children?
Why do you not have children?

All of these questions came from her mouth in the space of 30 seconds, after which she stopped and waited for my responses. For the next 2 hours, we talked, shared food between ourselves, showed the family pictures of our life in Scotland, some of our wedding photos. I even think I let them take a photo of our wedding photo on my phone so that they could show their friends.

Although only a tiny moment in our travels, I still remember it with fond memories. It’s these micro moments that can stay with you longer than even the grandest of adventures.

The ‘Travel Moments’ Series

‘Travel Moments’ is a brand new feature here at WorldlyNomads.Com! As much as we LOVE sharing our favourite photos and most exciting travel adventures, sometimes it’s the little unique moments that affect us the most.

Whether it was a fleeting but special interaction with a local, getting lost and discovering something we didn’t plan to, or a random experience we never imagined, these are the moments that will linger in our memories long after returning home and unpacking the bag packs.

So watch this space for many more ‘travel moments’ to come and feel free to share your own in the comment box below!


Inspiring Things To Do In Kyoto, Japan

Visiting Kyoto was high on our priority list when it came to planning our Japan adventure. We’d admired photos of its stunning pagodas and beautiful gardens, read stories about ancient traditional tea ceremonies and were intrigued by mysterious geisha. We couldn’t wait to explore!

As soon as we arrived to Kyoto, swiftly deposited by an incredibly punctual bullet train, we immediately felt a contrast to fast-paced Tokyo. It was remarkably more peaceful and had a relaxing atmosphere of calm in comparison. Ahhh. Although we’d enjoyed discovering the unique wonders of Tokyo city, the clear air and sense of tranquility was a welcome change.

Since we only had a short time in Kyoto (approximately 3 days), we didn’t delay in dropping off our trusty backpacks and getting out and about to explore. Little did we know how much we would discover in just a few days! Read on for our own personal highlights and inspiring things to do in dynamic Kyoto.

Inspiring Things To Do In Kyoto

1. Admire A Traditional Japanese Archery Ceremony

From the perfectly proportioned sushi and always on-time bullet trains, to the beautiful traditional Ryokans, meticulously laid out, the Japanese LOVE precision. So it was no surprise when this level of precision was taken to another level at a traditional Japanese archery ceremony.

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

We’d just arrived in Kyoto when we heard of a special archery ceremony taking place the next morning in the North of the city, at an important temple called the ‘Kamigamo Shrine’ on the banks of the Kamo River. We couldn’t believe our luck in getting the opportunity to witness a traditional Samurai Archery Ceremony!

However it wasn’t until we arrived that we realised how much of a big deal the ceremonies are. Television cameras and all, it was so exciting!

Luckily we arrived just in time for the archery area being set up, and took up our position alongside a large crowd of spectators that were eagerly waiting for the ceremony to begin. It wasn’t long before the archers arrived. Resplendent in beautiful, colourful outfits, they slowly emerged from the temple and made their way, calmly and gracefully, to the archery area. This was to be another lesson in patience, precision and attention to detail.

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

Slowly but surely, the archers made their way to the staging area where each archer prepared themselves with meticulous poise and grace. The detail in every movement was incredible. Before attending, we’d learned that the aim of Kyūdō (Japanese archery), is to train the mind and body through learning to focus on firing an arrow with the right ‘ma’ai’, or timing. We were captivated.

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

Slowly adjusting their robes to prepare for the bow and arrow and steadying themselves in preparation for action, we watched in anticipation as the arrows were presented to the archers as if they were a newborn child being given to their parents for the first time.

And then it came to the firing of the arrows. The first was a pair of men, who slowly adjusted their robes and steadied themselves for the spectacle. And then, finally, the release. Letting go of the arrow, the arrow travelled majestically through the air, emitting a low gentle hum as the crowd audibly gasped and crowed, and burst into applause.

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

We watched as other archers repeated the mantra, a meticulous routine which was in every way as interesting as the firing of the arrow. It was another fascinating insight into Japanese culture, amply demonstrating ancient rituals combined with absolute focus on detail.

After the ceremony, we explored the grounds of the temple, another victory in design and organisation, as streams and trees effortlessly coexist with the temple and its inhabitants.

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

Admiring the spectacle that is a traditional Japanese archery ceremony was an amazing experience and one we’ll never forget. We’d highly recommend seeking out this opportunity when visiting Kyoto.

2. Experience A Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony

Home to many traditional Japanese art forms, Kyoto is also a great place to experience and learn about the ancient custom of the Japanese tea ceremony. From the methodical preparation of the tea through to the principles and significance behind the ceremony, it’s another fascinating insight into Japanese culture. For the full story of our Japanese tea ceremony experience in Kyoto, click here.

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

3. Beautiful ‘Kinkaku-ji’, The Golden Pavilion

Kyoto is extremely blessed when it comes to beautiful pagodas and temples. You only have to walk around the city’s Geisha District to witness many of them, but it’s also worth jumping on a local bus to explore some of the city’s best, such as the magnificent and iconic Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji.

things to do in kyoto
Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavillion

We were lucky enough to witness the iconic temple on a lovely winter’s day with clear blue skies. The temple looked stunning with its beautiful golden reflection shimmering across the rippled surface of the pond before it. We could have easily admired it all day.

It’s also possible to explore the area around the temple, but we’d recommend visiting in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the large crowds.

4. Sushi & Ramen Food Heaven!

We arrived to Kyoto after spending a view days admiring magnificent Mount Fuji by quiet Lake Shoji, and were excited to explore the city’s many amazing restaurants. Little did we know that we’d discover some of the best sushi and ramen we’d had so far on our Japanese adventure!

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto

If you’re a food lover like us, then Kyoto’s main market, ‘Nikishi’, is also a great place to explore. Known as the best traditional food market in the city and open most days from 9-6pm, it’s a buzz of activity and a great place to see the locals stocking up on everything from delicate fish to traditional sweet treats from the many stalls. Simply grab some fresh sushi as you wander the more than one hundred shops and restaurants, it’s great fun!

So that’s it! A short journey through our Kyoto highlights. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and are feeling inspired to plan your own Japanese adventure. We can’t wait to return someday!

Where To Stay In Kyoto?

When it comes to Asia, we always recommend the hotel booking site Agoda.com. We usually book our accommodation in advance as you typically get a lower rate and the most popular spots get booked up quickly in Kyoto, especially during peak seasons and public holidays!

We like Agoda.com as it offers a wide range of accommodation, from cheap guesthouses to high end chain hotels, typically with free cancellation or the option to change your dates if needs be. Plus you can book most places for free!

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Japan Inspiration? Click here.

What Do You Think? We’d Love To Hear Your Feedback And Comments Below!


manila to boracay

Manila To Boracay - How To Get There & How To Plan Your Holiday!

Manila To Boracay – How To Get There & How To Plan Your Holiday!

Planning a holiday to the beautiful white sands of Boracay island but confused by the many plane, boat and shuttle bus options? You’ve come to the right place! Here you’ll find everything you need to know about how to get from Manila to Boracay, where to stay and what to do on Boracay island!

manila to boracay

manila to boracay

How To Get From Manila To Boracay

You may not realise it, but Boracay island doesn’t have its own airport. So the first step to getting there is to book a flight to its closest neighbouring island of Panay, where there are two main airport options. The closest of which is Caticlan Airport, otherwise known as Boracay Airport or Godofredo P. Ramos Airport.

From this airport, it’s only a short 10 minute land transfer to Caticlan jetty port, where there are speedboats and local outrigger boats to ferry you to Boracay. The boat journey takes approximately 15 minutes. Currently, the main airline options to Caticlan Airport are Cebu Pacific (otherwise known as ‘Cebgo’) or Philippine Airlines, both of which run various daily services.

manila to boracay

manila to boracay

The other main airport option is Kalibo, an approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes bus ride from Caticlan jetty port. Flights to here are usually cheaper, however you must factor in the cost of the transfer. In addition to Cebu Pacific and Philippines Airlines, Air Asia also provide daily flights to Kalibo.

As it’s much quicker and easier, we recommend flying to Caticlan Airport and transferring to Boracay Island from there. However to make the whole process even simpler, we also recommend booking a ‘door to door’ transfer service for when you arrive. This will make the process of getting from the airport to your accommodation so much simpler and less stressful!

As we booked our flights with Cebu Pacific, we were given the option to add a transfer service at a reasonable price which was great! The service was provided by Southwest Tours and we’d recommend them. If you don’t book with Cebu Pacific, then you can also book directly with them via their website.

manila to boracay

manila to boracay

What To Expect?

Firstly, our flight from Manila to Caticlan with Cebu Pacific was smooth and with no issues, unlike our planned return! Unfortunately our return flight was cancelled (due to plane scheduling issues) so we had to book a different flight with Philippines Airlines to ensure we arrived back to Manila in time. We’ve heard that it’s common for flights to be delayed or rescheduled to Boracay so we’d recommend allowing plenty of time for any onward flight connections!

Our boat and shuttle bus roundtrip transfers with Southwest Tours made both journeys so much easier. For the short boat crossing, they use a mixture of speedboats and more traditional local style boats known as outriggers, which we got to experience en route to the island. It was rustic but a great and authentic experience.

Where To Stay On Boracay?

Unless you plan on staying at one of the bigger resorts on Boracay, you have three main areas to choose from along Boracay’s famous ‘White Beach’. These are known as stations 1, 2 and 3.

We chose to stay at the south end of White Beach near to station 3. This was by far the quietest area but still had plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants to choose from. Station 2 is probably the liveliest area of the island, much more developed with an outdoor mall and lots of cafe, bar and restaurant choices. We didn’t spend much time at station 2 as we preferred the quieter and more rustic authenticity of station 3, but if you want to be near the ‘D’mall’, then this would be the place to stay. Station 1 was more mixed, but generally quieter than station 2. Station 1 would be our second choice behind our first choice of Station 3.

manila to boracay
Quiet Station 3, White Beach, Boracay Island

One advantage of staying near station 3 is that there are more budget accommodation options, particularly during the more expensive high season (October to May). So make sure to book your accommodation in advance!

Top Things To Do On Boracay!

manila to boracay

manila to boracay

If relaxing under a palm tree isn’t enough for you, there’s plenty of activities to keep you occupied on and around the island…here’s a list of the most popular:

  • Island Hopping
  • Stand Up Paddle Boarding
  • Parasailing
  • Kayaking
  • Snorkelling
  • Massage
  • Diving
  • Boat Trips

So that’s it! A quick round up of how to get to sunny Boracay including where to stay and what to do on the island. For more general information on how we planned our trip to the Philippines and details on ALL of the amazing places we visited (especially our wonderful El Nido Tours), check out our article Where To Go In The Philippines: Our Top 4 Destinations & Tips!

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Flight/Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer flight, train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

manila to boracay

Looking for more Philippines Inspiration? Click here.


where to go in the philippines

Where To Go In The Philippines: Our Top 4 Destinations & Tips!

As you know we’ve planned more than a few travel adventures over the last few years! So you would think that we’ve got our travel planning strategy nailed by now? Well we thought so, until it came to the Philippines…

It’s probably something to do with the 7,000 or so islands (!), but when it came to planning our first Philippines adventure, it proved to be much more challenging than expected.

We’d been inspired by an array of idyllic Instagram photos showing off its stunning crystal clear snorkelling waters, pristine beaches and dramatic island sunsets, but other than those, we didn’t really have much clue about where to go, when to go or how to travel around. All we knew was that we couldn’t wait to explore a new Asian country, so the planning began…

Planning Our Trip To The Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where To Start

We started in all of the usual places by ordering a Lonely Planet guide, consulting our trusty friend Trip Advisor, and of course various blogs and forums. As always, we checked our favourite Asian accommodation booking site too – Agoda.com to figure out a rough budget.

The result? An even longer ‘must visit’ list…argh!

When it comes to visiting a new country, the Lonely Planet guide is usually our initial ‘go to’ resource to get a broad overview of a place. We especially like the ‘Top Destinations’ and history and culture overviews, however when it came to deciding on where to go in the Philippines, we were left struggling to decide, especially on a sensible route. That’s where the book let us down.

“Thank goodness for blogs!” I remember blurting out one day when I finally got the information I was looking for and figured out a plan!

Of course we didn’t expect to have time to cover ALL of the ‘best’ places in our roughly 3-4 weeks. One thing we’ve learned over the years from our travels is not to rush around trying to fit everything in. We’d much rather fully enjoy a few places and experiences, than fleet from one place to another without having a chance to fully explore. And of course, some time to relax too!

Where to go in the Philippines
Chilling in El Nido, Palawan

When To Visit

It’s important to take into consideration time, budget and seasonality when it comes to planning a trip to the Philippines, as the ‘best’ time to visit can vary significantly from place to place. Especially given the country’s vast geography!

Thankfully we planned our adventure for the months of December and January, which is typically a good time to visit as it’s mostly dry and not too hot. If you plan to visit during the wet season (typically from May to October), then it’s recommended to allow extra travel time in case your journeys are disrupted by typhoons. As you’ll rely on air and boat travel to get around, it’s probably wise to avoid low season where possible.

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

How To Decide Where To Go

When it comes to the Philippines, there’s no obvious route or well-trodden backpacker path, like with say Vietnam or Cambodia, which is why it’s so tricky to decide. So instead we decided to focus on the places and more importantly, experiences that excited us the most.

Whether you’re passionate about hiking volcanoes, trekking through rice terraces, discovering local marine life, or simply kicking back under a palm tree with a fresh coconut (mm!), you’re spoiled for choice in the Philippines. Being a lover of lists, I decided to write down all of the places that excited us then work through each one to determine:

  • Is it the right time of year to visit?

  • Is it a unique natural wonder?

  • Is it more or less exciting than the previous place/experience?

  • Can it be worked into a sensible route?

Three and a half weeks sounds like a lot of time, but once you factor in travel time, it’s really not that long. You could literally spend months touring the country’s thousands of islands!

With an initial list of around 12 different places and experiences, it was a hard job whittling it down to my target of 3 or 4, but it had to be done! So here’s what we decided upon, including our route and timings…we hope it helps!

Where To Go In The Philippines: Our Top 4 Destinations!

Our route and itinerary may not be exactly for you, but we had a wonderful time and would highly recommend everywhere that we visited!

So in order of highlights, here’s our final destination list:

1 – El Nido, Palawan Island

El Nido is probably one of the most popular destinations in the Philippines, and for good reason. From beautiful white sand beaches and secret clear water lagoons, to stunning cliff-backed islands and spectacular sunsets, it’s a truly magical place. We spent a full week exploring and could have easily lingered longer. For a full account of our El Nido experience, including details of our favourite El Nido Tours, head over to our full article ‘Island Hopping In Paradise: Our Favourite El Nido Tours’.

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

2 – Bohol Island (Western Visayas)

It’s most famous for its unique ‘Chocolate Hills’ and small primates (namely the very cute ‘Tarsier’), but we discovered that Bohol island has a lot more to offer, especially around its beautiful Loboc River. We spent 4 days here with a mix of touring the island’s main sights and relaxing by the Loboc River, which was a great combination. We especially loved our first experience of stand up paddle boarding! For a full account, head over to our article ‘Top Things To Do In Bohol, The Philippines’.

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

We hit the jackpot with our accommodation choice in Bohol! Most of the photos above are from our time at the Loboc River Resort, so if you’re heading to Bohol, we’d recommend checking if its available on your dates on our favourite accommodation website, and get it booked as its very popular!

3 – Boracay Island (Eastern Visayas)

You can’t visit the Philippines without visiting one of its famous white sandy beaches, and although it’s cliche, we decided to see what the fuss was about at Boracay’s famous ‘White Beach’. We were wary about its booming tourism and busy ‘stations 1 & 2’, so we decided to stay near to ‘station 3’ hoping for a more quiet and relaxing time, which thankfully it delivered! You can easily fill your time with some of the various water sports, sailing or island hopping but after a busy time touring and hiking, relaxation was the name of the game for us. So that’s what we did.

For more information on how to get to Boracay, including tips on where to stay & what to do, visit our article ‘Manila To Boracay – How To Get There & How To Plan Your Holiday!’

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

There are so many great places to stay on Boracay, the island has a huge range of accommodation from budget to high end luxury! Check what’s available on your dates through agoda.com, its the site we use to book accommodation all over the world!

4 – Mount Pinatubo (South Luzon)

Our day hike to Mount Pinatubo was most definitely one of our most memorable experiences in the Philippines. Not only was the scenery unique and spectacular, it was a great adventure! Starting off with a bumpy jeep ride through amazing lunar like landscape, followed by a fairly easy but rewarding hike to the stunning crater of Mount Pinatubo. It was well worth the trip! For our full account and lots more photos, head over to ‘A Spectacular Mt Pinatubo Tour, Philippines’.

Note: It’s possible to do Mount Pinatubo as a day tour from Manila, however we’d highly recommend dedicating at least a couple of days to it. Depending on Manila traffic (which can be horrendous speaking from experience!), the travel time to get there can be quite long and tiring. So to fully enjoy this day hike, we recommend staying at Alvin’s Homestay in the nearby town of Santa Juliana before embarking on one of his brilliant day tours.

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

Where to go in the Philippines

With more time we would’ve loved to visit the famous Banaue Rice Terraces in North Luzon as they look spectacular!

Our Philippines Route

Here’s a summary of our chosen route and how we got around:

  • Manila -> Mount Pinatubo (via private car)
  • Manila -> Bohol (via flight to Tagbilaran airport)
  • Bohol -> Cebu (via fast ferry) -> Palawan (via flight to Puerto Princesa airport) -> El Nido (via pre-booked shuttle bus)
  • Manila -> Boracay (via flight to Caticlan Airport then pre-booked ferry & shuttle bus)

Notes & Tips:

  • We arranged a private car to Mount Pinatubo on the day we arrived to Manila due to the arrival time of our flight, however you can also travel by bus then jeepney or taxi to its nearby town of Santa Juliana, the starting point for Mount Pinatubo Tours.
  • We highly recommend booking your return shuttle bus journey from Puerto Princesa to El Nido in advance, as the best companies get booked up far in advance. Ask your accommodation for up-to-date advice on the most reliable companies to book, however we used Daytripper who were excellent.
Where to go in the Philippines
A Stunning El Nido Sunset

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Looking For Accommodation In The Philippines?

If you’re looking for some accommodation options in the Philippines, we recommend you use Agoda.com to check your accommodation options! Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas for the Philippines, check out the options here!

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

What Do You Think? Have you planned a trip to the Philippines? We’d love to hear your comments and experiences in the comments below!

Looking for more Philippines inspiration? Click here.


El Nido Tours

Island Hopping In Paradise: Our Favourite El Nido Tours

It’s easy to understand why people fall in love with El Nido, Palawan. Or rather, the stunning natural beauty that surrounds it known as The Bacuit Archipelago. It’s one of those special parts of the world that you really need to see to believe.

From beautiful white sand beaches and secret clear water lagoons, to stunning cliff-backed islands and spectacular sunsets, it’s a truly magical place.

el nido tours

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

We decided to dedicate a week of our time in the Philippines to El Nido, and we could have easily lingered a little longer. Not only are there plenty of amazing boat tours to occupy you, it’s a beautiful place just to relax and take some time out. So our advice? Don’t rush this place. Simply kick back, order a fresh coconut with rum (well it’s a local favourite so it would be rude not to!), and enjoy another spectacular sunset. You’ll think you’ve landed in paradise.

el nido tours
Coconut + Rum + El Nido Sunset = Paradise!

Whilst we could’ve easily sat around drinking fresh coconuts all day, we actually did go on some adventures during our time in El Nido, and we’ve been looking forward to sharing them!

Read on for our highlights including top tips on island hopping tours, how to get there, and where to stay!

El Nido Tours

After some basic research on El Nido, you’ll quickly learn that most of the island hopping tours on offer are to set destinations around the Bacuit Archipelago, and there are 4 main tours to choose from. Simply known as Tours A, B, C & D, each one offers a different experience to some of the 45 beautiful islands and islets of the Archipelago.

To give you an idea, here’s a summary of each tour:

Tour A – Lagoons & snorkelling

  • Small Lagoon
  • Big Lagoon
  • Shimizu Island
  • Secret Lagoon
  • Seven Commando Beach

Tour C – Secret beaches & shrines

  • Secret Beach
  • Hidden Beach
  • Shrine Island
  • Star Beach
  • Colasa Beach

Tour B – Pristine beaches, caves & snorkelling

  • Snake Island
  • Cathedral Cave
  • Lunch On Deserted Island
  • Lagen Beach Elis Island
  • Cudognon

Tour D – Exploring Cadlao Island

  • Helicopter Island
  • Pasandigan Cave
  • Ipil Beach
  • Cadlao Lagoon
  • Paradise Beach

If like us, you don’t have enough time (or budget!) to do all four tours, choosing which tour to take can be tricky. We looked into each one a little more and decided that we didn’t want to miss the famous lagoons and snorkelling from Tour A, and Snake Island looked incredible in the photos we’d seen, so Tour B was a must too. Luckily it turned out that these are the most popular tours too, so we secured the cheapest tour rate based on exceeding the minimum number of guests filling our boat – bonus!

As most companies and accommodations operating island hopping tours offer the same inclusions and type of boat, typically at similar standard prices (approximately 1,300 PHP/$28 USD per person as of December 2015), we didn’t feel the need to shop around for a change. For convenience, we simply booked through our accommodation in Corong Corong (Greenviews Resort) and the next day we were off on our first island hopping tour – we were so excited!

Tour B – Beaches, Caves & Snorkelling!

Following our long journey to El Nido, we decided to rest up for a day and book the next available day tour, which happened to be Tour B. So forget chronological order, we started with Tour B!

Packed and raring to go, we greeted our fellow travellers before wading our way out to our boat. As with most sailing and fishing boats in the Philippines, it was a beautiful traditional style outrigger boat, otherwise known as a ‘bangka’. It was cute but much smaller than we expected, so we prepared for a bumpy ride!

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

All aboard and greeted by our local tour guides for the day, we set sail for our first destination, Snake Island. Of all the places we were set to visit around the Archipelago, we were really excited about Snake Island! Imagine two islands, beautifully connected by one long and winding pristine beach, accompanied by crystal clear water on either side…yup, this is real!

El Nido Tours
Snake Island, The Bacuit Archipelago

Wandering barefoot along Snake Island is an experience to treasure, and if you feel like it, you can also take a short climb up to a beautiful outlook point. Just make sure you bring some decent walking sandals, it’s well worth it!

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

Having worked up an appetite from our small hike and time wandering Snake Island, we were excited when our guide told us we were heading to our lunch spot next…and what turned out to be our first experience of the Archipelago’s famously pristine and deserted beaches…

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

After a delicious lunch (freshly prepared by our tour guides!) and a wander along what felt like our own private beach, it was time to return to our bangka and cruise to our next destination – the aptly named Cathedral Cave.

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

After admiring Cathedral Cave, it was time for some snorkelling in the nearby waters. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any turtles as hoped, but there was plenty of other marine life to admire. It’s the crystal clear waters around the islands that make it extra special.

We’re not sure if it’s normally part of Tour B, but our lovely guides stopped by another beautiful island on our way back…it was the perfect end to our first tour of the Bay.

el nido tours
Relaxing by the beautiful Bacuit Archipelago

Safely back to our temporary home by Corong Corong bay, we took our positions to enjoy another amazing sunset while we reflected on a wonderful day, and got excited for the next…

el nido tours
Sunset by Corong Corong, El Nido

Tour A – Lagoons & Snorkelling!

Having got a taste of the sheer beauty of the Bacuit Archipelago from Tour B (and a relaxing day to recover in between!), we couldn’t wait for the adventure that awaited us on Tour A….secret lagoons, snorkelling and more deserted beach hopping!

And with a few more fellow travellers joining us this time, we were treated to a cruise on a slightly larger bangka!

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

Arriving to our first destination was no less than spectacular.

el nido tours

Unfortunately we don’t have an image of the small lagoon, as we had to swim through a small gap in the limestone to reach it, so you’ll just have to take our word for it that it’s beautiful! Completely surrounded by jagged limestone cliffs and deep crystal clear waters await you here.

It was enroute to our next stop that we got to admire some of the most beautiful limestone islets we’d seen so far…

el nido tours

el nido tours
Spectacular limestone islets of the Bacuit Archipelago

The Big Lagoon

el nido tours

That night we witnessed some of the best sunsets we’ve ever seen in our lives! The Philippines sure does spectacular sunsets!

el nido tours
El Nido Sunsets

And just when we thought they couldn’t get any better, the colours just kept changing…

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

Our Favourite Sunset…

el nido tours

So that was our El Nido Tours summary! If you haven’t been then hopefully we’ve inspired you to visit, and if you have, then hopefully this brings back special memories of an incredible place.

As usual, we’ve noted down some top tips to make your experience even more enjoyable!

El Nido Island Hopping Tips

  • Bring some dry bags to store cameras, smart phones and any other valuables. It can get pretty wet on the simple bangka style boats, especially if it’s a choppy day at sea!
  • Bring some rubber shoes to cover your feet to avoid cuts from the coral, though try to avoid stepping on any in the first place!
  • Bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat, especially for sailing between islands when you’re most exposed.

How To Get There

It’s a little bit of a trek to El Nido in the North of Palawan island, but it’s most definitely worth it, so try not to let the distance put you off going! Unless of course you don’t have enough time to allocate a few days to it once you arrive.

One of the cheapest and most common ways to get there is by shuttle bus from Puerto Princesa, which depending on stops, takes approximately 5-6 hours.

Puerto Princesa is the main town on the island and has a local airport hosting many budget airlines including Cebu Pacific, Air Asia etc which all operate regular flights from Manila and Cebu.

When it comes to arranging your shuttle bus transport from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, we highly recommend booking this well in advance, especially during peak season (public holidays and typically March to early June). We used the service Daytripper for our journey and would highly recommend them. Alternatively, book an online transfer with www.elnidoparadise.com.

Where To Stay In El Nido

We decided to avoid El Nido town itself as we’d heard it’s nothing special, and chose instead to stay round the coast by the bay of Corong Corong. Why? Well mainly because of the sunsets! Unfortunately El Nido town’s sunsets are obstructed by tall Cadlao Island, so if it’s sunsets you’re after then we’d highly recommend staying in the Corong Corong area instead. It’s also very peaceful and has a good selection of restaurants and accommodation options, most of which offer the standard island hopping tours. What more could you want?!

Greenviews Resort, Corong Corong

El Nido Tours

El Nido Tours

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Flight/Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer flight, train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

What Do You Think? Have you been to El Nido, Palawan? We’d love to hear your comments and experiences in the comments below!

el nido tour

 

Looking for more Philippines inspiration? Click here.


where to go in the philippines

Top Things To Do In Bohol, The Philippines

With over 7,000 islands, choosing your own adventure in the Philippines can be a tricky decision! Which are the best islands to visit? How long should you go for? We chose to visit the island of Bohol, and boy was that a good decision! There are so many things to do in Bohol, from stand up paddle boarding, to the epic chocolate hills, and of course the cutest animal of them all (the tarsier!), here’s our 7 top things to do in Bohol!

Top Things To Do In Bohol

1. Stand Up Paddle Boarding On The Loboc River

This is something we’ve always wanted to try, and with the promise of a calm river and beautiful scenery, we signed up for a half day paddle boarding adventure on the Loboc river! 

things to do in bohol
The stunning and serene Loboc River, Bohol

Early in the morning, we made our way down to the river’s edge, where our guide was waiting with our paddle boards. We clambered down the bank, and shuffled tentatively onto a floating bamboo raft attached to the river bank.

As I (Barry) moved towards my paddle board, the sides of the raft rose and fell as I adjusted my balance. This was meant to be the easy part – I hadn’t even got on the paddle board yet! As I steadied myself on the bamboo raft, our paddle board guide got onto his board, and motioned for me to step forward. It was my turn. Rather ungainly, I crawled onto the paddle board floating just off the jetty, and straight away I was pushed out into the river, with our guide shouting:

“Get up whilst you’re still moving!”

I was now floating away from the bamboo jetty and right into the middle of the river! How was I supposed to get up again? Where do I put my feet? It was now or never…

If I was going to fall in, it would be in front of our entire group, and the dozen men working on a building across the river. They all downed tools as they saw me float out onto the river…my masculinity was at stake, this was serious!

I checked my feet were in the correct position, either side of the small hole in the middle of the board, and hunkered up from my knees, and onto my feet. Now just to stand up. I raised my back and straightened my legs, wobbling ever so slightly as I adjusted to the uncertain footing underneath. I was up, and it felt awesome!

After a few seconds, I steadied my feet and legs, and began slowly paddling, bending my knees ever so slightly to give myself more control. The first few minutes were great, and it was far easier than I thought it would be. I watched as Laura got onto her board and stood up with minimum of fuss as well. Maybe we had found our calling in life! It turned out that everyone in our group of 6 got up first time, and for the entire duration of the tour, no-one fell in once, an impressive feat! We turned our boards around, left the jetty behind, and set a course for some waterfalls an hour or so upstream. We were off! 

things to do in bohol

things to do in bohol

Stand up paddle boarding is a fantastic experience, a serene way to see local life in action along the river bank. As we glided along the deep aqua green waters of the river, we saw locals planting mangroves along the rivers edge, mothers hunkered over the river bank, washing their clothes, and various boatmen tending to their small vessels. It felt far less intrusive than being on a motor powered boat, making the whole experience nice for us, and more importantly, nicer for the locals.

After 45 minutes, we reached a small inlet where a natural spring poured from the bedrock below our feet, and we slipped off our boards to enjoy a relaxing dip as local boys swung and somersaulted from a nearby tree. The whole experience was just so invigorating. As we paddled further upstream, we admired more local life until we reached our destination, a group of small waterfalls.

Here, the serene and calm green waters gave way to faster moving white water, as it gushed over the small waterfall ahead. We sat on a nearby rock and relaxed, taking in the peace and quiet and switching our minds off.

things to do in bohol

things to do in bohol

After a while, we climbed back onto our paddle boards, and made our way back to the jetty where we began our paddle boarding adventure. Our reward after a hard morning’s paddle boarding? A cold fresh coconut to quench our thirst, and a bowl of noodle soup! 

Paddle boarding on the Loboc river was an invigorating and enjoyable experience. It gives you time to be alone in your thoughts as you glide along the beautiful green waterways and we highly recommend it!

Tips:

– If you get tired standing, you can always kneel or sit down, and paddle from there. Or in Laura’s case, lie down and make me paddle for the both of us!

– Cover up your skin as much as possible – the sun is hot and relentless, even in the morning. I wore long shorts and a long sleeved diving top, and also wore a hat which protected me well (along with sunscreen).

– Take sunglasses!

2. The Chocolate Hills

Reaching the final step, we turned to look at the epic view stretching out in front of us. We’d made it to the viewing platform at the top of a hill, and stretched out in front of us were the magnificent chocolate hills, as far as the eye could see. It was a unique sight, each hill a uniform dome like the others around it, almost like they had been copied and pasted across the landscape to make up a surreal scene.

things to do in bohol

In truth you probably won’t spend much time at the chocolate hills, unless you take a 4×4 off-road experience as well. We opted to view them from the viewing platform, and spent around 30 minutes there before moving on. Don’t confuse this short time with disappointment, we were very impressed with them, we just felt after half an hour we were ready to move on.

Tips:

– Arrive in the morning for the best conditions. We were there at 9am and it was already hot and bright, so anytime towards lunchtime would be extremely bright and potentially very hot! 

– The viewing platform was being rebuilt at the time we visited (December 2015) making the best view slightly obstructed with a metal pole and fence, so if you have a zoom on your camera, use it!

3. The Tarsiers Of Bohol

As we moved further into the jungle, the signs around us were very clear.

“Be quiet, shhhh…”

It was late morning, and the Tarsiers we had come to visit were resting. Tarsiers are mostly nocturnal, therefore asleep during the day, but they wake up every now and again, as we luckily witnessed whilst we visited the sanctuary. As we walked through the jungle sanctuary, local guides were on hand to point out the tarsiers in the trees. If it wasn’t for these guides, we would never have spotted them ourselves, they are tiny and hide well!

Our first sighting was an amazing moment of revelation and intrigue. In a tree a few feet from us, the guide pointed through the leaves in front of us, to a branch further back. As we focused our eyes from the foreground to the background, suddenly this tiny, minuscule tarsier came into view. It really was an incredible moment, as our minds tried to process just how small it was. Tarsiers are one of the smallest primates in the world, and this little guy you’re looking at here was no bigger than my clenched fist.

things to do in bohol
The extraordinary Tarsiers of Bohol

They are intriguing little things, their large eyes burrowing into your own as you stare at them. As we gazed into the tarsiers eyes, we still couldn’t quite process this unique little creature. Everything about tarsiers was interesting to us, from the large eyes, to the long fingers wrapped around a branch as they sleep, and the long tail hanging down below the branch. They are one of the most alien animals we’ve ever come to face to face, and also the cutest as well.

As we travel, we’re always wary of visiting places where animals are an attraction. Some places are blatantly not good for the animals, others are better. This sanctuary was one of the better ones, we’re glad to say (as backed up by various guidebooks).

things to do in bohol
The Tarsier Sanctuary, Bohol
things to do in bohol
Tiny hiding Tarsiers in the forest branches!

We wandered further into the jungle, and saw 2 more tarsiers in the 45 minutes we were there. Each time we were blown away by their size and features! They are truly remarkable little things and well worth a visit! 

things to do in bohol
The sleepy nocturnal Tarsier
things to do in bohol
An extraordinary tree mammal and unique primate

Tips:

– Be quiet and respectful whilst touring the sanctuary as they get easily disturbed. 

– Take your time and let your eyes adjust. Some of the tarsiers were deep in the trees, and we had to squint and wait as our eyes adjusted to the darkness to see them.

4. Fireflies By The Loboc River

From one amazing little creature, to thousands of much smaller creatures!

Fireflies are beautiful to witness, tiny balls of light zooming around in the night sky. They normally congregate around a bush or tree, hundreds moving about in random directions. If you’re lucky, and the weather conditions are just right, you might see a swarm of fireflies lighting up a tree or bush nearby.

As a result of the darkness and their movement, they are nigh on impossible to take a photo of, but I did go one better and captured their movement over a few seconds, the yellow squiggly lines are the firefly trails as they move about in the sky.

things to do in bohol
Fireflies by the Loboc River

Tip:

– If you can’t find the fireflies by your Loboc river accommodation (we stayed at the Loboc River Resort where you can see them in the resort), you can take an evening boat tour where you’re more likely to find them in trees along the riverside. Apparently 8pm is the best time to see them, so long as it isn’t windy.

5. The Butterfly Sanctuary Of Bohol

As part of our day tour around the famous Chocolate Hills and Tarsiers of Bohol, we made an extra stop along the way at a charming and well kept butterfly sanctuary (the only one on the island we believe!). It was an unexpected highlight and made for an interesting and enjoyable short visit.

On arrival we were allocated a guide to take us around, who was very knowledgable of the butterflies, talking us through the various lifecycle exhibits before taking us into the enclosure.

things to do in bohol
The ‘pupa’ or ‘chrysalis’ stage of a butterfly’s development cycle
things to do in bohol
Learning about butterflies!

We were given time to wander around, as our guide excitedly pointed out various butterflies as they appeared all around us. They were many, of all different types and colours.

things to do in bohol

It’s a small place but worth a visit if you’re passing by from the Chocolate Hills as one of the more relaxing things to do in Bohol.

Tip:

There are many beautiful lush green rice fields on Bohol island and we came across these on our tour around the Chocolate hills and butterfly sanctuary, so be sure to look out for them along the way!

things to do in bohol
Bohol rice fields
things to do in bohol
Lush green rice fields
things to do in bohol
A beautiful stilted bridge over the lush green rice paddies of Bohol

6. Buffet Lunch Loboc River Cruise

Now this is not something us Worldly Nomads don’t normally sign up for, but as a listed highlight of things to do in Bohol we thought we’d give it a try, and to be honest we quite enjoyed it!

things to do in bohol

The premise is pretty simple, you get on a boat, where a buffet lunch is served, and you take a cruise up the river. As you cruise, there is live ‘soft rock’ music from a trio at the back of the boat, you’ll stop at a local village where a group of locals will play ukuleles and sing songs, inviting you to join in if you so wish.

It is incredibly touristy and cheesy, but you know what? We enjoyed it! Sometimes it’s nice to just relax, and let an experience take over. It certainly won’t make it onto our highlights reel, but it was a pleasant cheery way to spend a couple of hours on the beautiful Loboc river!

7. Admiring Sunset By The Loboc River

Last but not least on our list of top things to do in Bohol is simply spending time admiring the incredible sunsets over the Loboc River. Since it’s not really an activity mentioned in any guidebook, this was probably our most unexpected highlight of our time on Bohol, but gave us some of our favourite moments!

We experienced many amazing sunsets in various parts of the Philippines (especially during our El Nido Tours on Palawan island), but the beautiful effect on the river and surrounding landscape in Bohol was something very special. Here’s a couple of our favourite views.

things to do in bohol
Watching locals on the river as the sky turned pink!
things to do in bohol
Amazing reflections on the Loboc river

The beauty didn’t end after sunset however. Bohol, and particularly by the Loboc river, is a great place to enjoy the night sky and stars. Again, here’s a couple of our favourite views!

things to do in bohol

things to do in bohol

So that’s it, a whirlwind tour of our top things to do in Bohol! We hope you have enjoyed them and feel free to share your experiences or questions in the comments box below!

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Flight/Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer flight, train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Tip:

If you’re looking for a recommendation on where to stay in Bohol, then we particularly enjoyed our 4 nights stay at the Loboc River Resort…

things to do in bohol
The view from the Loboc River Resort, Bohol

Looking for more Philippines inspiration? Click here.

What do you think? Have you been to Bohol? We’d love to hear your comments and experiences in the comments below!


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Living With The Locals Of Yen Duc Village Homestay Vietnam

It had only been 48 hours since we first arrived, but it felt like a mini-lifetime ago. Once again, travel had changed and inspired me. I was leaving with tears in my eyes and a huge imprint on my soul.

Waving goodbye to the people of Yen Duc Village, our wonderful new Vietnamese family and friends, was one of my most emotional travel experiences to date. So much so it’s taken me some time to actually write this article. Firstly because I want to give this incredible experience the justice it deserves, but secondly because I well up with emotion every time I think back to it. Yen Duc Village filled our souls with a mixture of joy, sadness and empathy that we’ll never forget. In just 48 hours, we met some of the most wonderfully hospitable and warm people. They welcomed us with open arms and treated us like extended family in their small close-knit community. 

And what a strong community they are, you can feel it as soon as you arrive. As we cycled around the village for the first time, we couldn’t go further than 20 metres without a friendly local waving hello to us or calling out “Xin Chao!” (a greeting in Vietnamese which phonetically sounds like ‘Tsin-chow’) even whilst working hard harvesting their rice, or sweeping their paths, or carrying their homegrown fruit and veg supplies to the market. It seemed that they were genuinely happy for our visit, and that the small number of tourists who visit the village were having a positive influence.

Vietnam Homestay
Touring the rice paddies of Yen Duc Village

Our wonderful local guide, Ms Huong, explained how the success of their homestay tours had afforded them the ‘luxury’ of 24 hours a day electricity to the village, of which they were very grateful. As well as being able to light up their homes in the evenings, it brought practical solutions for the local businesses and education. Especially during the winter time when it gets dark around 5.30pm. 

Yen Duc Village Homestay Vietnam
Local school girls of Yen Duc Village

Note: The village itself is a small community of around 5,000 people who live in the province of Quang Ninh near Dong Trieu town, in Northeast Vietnam, around 60 km south of Halong Bay, hence why it makes for an ideal visit on your way back to Hanoi from Halong Bay!

We visited various different family homes and local businesses during our time at the village, all of which were fascinating and a real eye-opener into rural life in Vietnam.

From living with our lovely and kind host ‘Mr Sans’, to learning to harvest rice and attending our first Vietnamese village-style wedding (including singing karaoke & dancing with the locals haha!), we loved every moment of our time at Yen Duc Village – so read on for some short stories of our highlights including our favourite photos and videos!

Yen Duc Village Homestay Vietnam – Day 1 In Short Stories…

Rice, The Staple And Core Of Rural Life 

Amazingly, our visit to Yen Duc Village happened to coincide with one of the most important times of the year. It was harvesting season, and given that it lasts for only 2-3 weeks and occurs just twice per year in the North (3 times per year in the South due to the warmer climate), we were especially lucky!

Before our visit, we knew that rice was an important part of life in Vietnam, but we hadn’t fully understood the impact of it and its fundamental role in community life, especially in this area where rice production is the main source of income. Rice harvesting dominates life here in the village, and almost everyone gets involved in some way. Whether it’s preparing the land for the next harvest, to carefully tending to it, followed by the rather arduous task of actually harvesting it, drying it and finally the long process of separating it from the husk. It’s an unending process and constant work, driving the ebb and flow of daily life in the village. 

Homestay Vietnam
A local rice harvester

It was on our first cycle around the village that our local guide taught us about the tools and techniques used for the job. From the old techniques and tools to the modern methods, we were shown how the harvested rice is gathered and separated from its husk. It didn’t take more than a minute of trying it out ourselves to appreciate how hard work it can be! 

vietnam homestay
Learning the rice production process
vietnam homestay
Rice husks and the separation process

It was amazing to learn that many local families still use these old techniques to this day, sharing the workload out amongst the whole family.

However modern day rice production has brought some newer machines to the village, speeding up the process and increasing efficiency, especially for the long process of separation from the husk. We saw locals operating these huge machines on our way around the village. 

It was fascinating to get up close and personal with the most important part of life here, and we left with a whole new appreciation of rice! 

Learning To Fish, The Local Way!

Following our rice harvesting, we tried our hand at some fishing at one of the many fish farms in the village. We’d been fishing before, but never like this. After being provided with our lovely ‘fishing suits’ (which consisted of knee-high welly boots connected to plastic trousers up to the waist!), we quickly realised that this was not going to be any sort of typically relaxing ‘sit-by-the-pond-style’ fishing with a rod, we were about to get knee deep in water, and as it turned out – knee deep in mud too! 

We laughed as we climbed into our long pants and boots, this was going to be fun! Next we were handed our special wooden baskets and shown the technique to apply, which mainly involved moving as quickly as possible around the pond whilst slamming our baskets open top downwards into the mud with every step…sounds easy right? No way! The mud was so thick and deep it was like trying to move around quicksand, except it was thicker and very sticky! However we gave it our best shot and despite my movements being significantly slower than Barry’s and our expert guide’s, amazingly I managed to catch one! Not wanting to slip my hands through the basket weave to grab the poor little fellow though, thankfully Barry was nearby and did the job for me…but then stole the glory for catching it – typical! 

homestay vietnam fishing
Fishing in Yen Duc Village

Our guide caught a few more fish, but we decided one was enough for our next meal, so we carefully released the others back into their pond and happily set off to cycle back home to Mr San’s house to enjoy our catch! 

Attending Our First Vietnamese Wedding!

If there was one thing we didn’t expect from our Yen Duc Village homestay experience, it was definitely this!

Getting to attend a local wedding obviously isn’t usually included in the 3 day/2 night itinerary for visitors to Yen Duc Village, but again we got lucky with our timing and were very kindly invited! Little did we know that it would be one of the best moments of ALL of our travels, and here’s the short-ish story…

Fresh from our fishing experience (well ‘fresh’ isn’t really true!), we had only been back on our bikes for around 5 minutes or so, navigating our way through the village’s brimming rice paddies when we spotted the beautiful multi-coloured marquee. Well, correction, we’d actually heard the loud party music blaring from it first! It stood out a lot in such a peaceful rural setting! And so our guide was just beginning to explain about it being a big local wedding celebration when we saw a beautifully dressed woman standing outside the entrance, cheerfully waving as if to usher us all over!

It turned out that this was Ms. Men – the mother of the bride no less! It was the pre-wedding celebration party of her daughter, Huyen and everyone in the village was invited, even us! We couldn’t believe it, including our guide Huong, who couldn’t wait to show us what a real village-style Vietnamese wedding was like. So we immediately peddled over and parked up our bikes, alongside what looked like around two or three hundred other motorbikes lining the pathway to the marquee! 

Eventually making our way over to our lovely host and mother of the bride Ms. Men, we were greeted with the most pleasing smile and hug, and were reassuringly told (thanks to an english translation by our guide), that we were warmly welcome and that in fact “everyone was waiting for us to join the party!” – we couldn’t believe it and for a moment we felt like foreign celebrities in the village! 

So, despite smelling a little fishy and in desperate need of a shower(!), she reassured us it was fine as tonight was the more informal ‘pre-wedding party’. It was the next day that the main wedding event would take place (and the one to dress smartly for) – phew we thought! So with the music already blasting out and lots of the local village already in attendance, we no longer felt like gate crashers and were ushered in to join the party. Oh and apparently we were just in time for the buffet dinner being served – result! 

vietnam homestay wedding
The beautifully colourful wedding marquee!
vietnam homestay wedding
…and amazing decorations inside too!

We’ll never forget the moment we entered the marquee. We were welcomed with open arms and smiles, it was a little overwhelming but totally amazing at the same time. Right in that moment, our love for the people of Yen Duc Village was cemented, forever.

Without wanting to dominate proceedings too much (it wasn’t OUR wedding after all!), we waved and greeted as many people as possible with our best pronunciation attempt at “xin chào” (greetings in Vietnamese) before searching out the bride amongst the sea of friendly faces. It didn’t take us long to find her. Surrounded by her close friends and female relatives, each taking turns to hug her in celebration of her impending wedding ceremony the next day, she was glowing and had a beautiful sparkle in her eyes. To be honest I was a little embarrassed to go over to her, given that I’d never met her in my life and we had just been invited to her pre-wedding party, garnering an unnecessary amount of attention already! This could be awkward I thought, letting my typically British social norms in. But of course it wasn’t. It was Vietnam and I was in a rural village where everyone was welcome (even foreigners!). So true to form, as she spotted me (kind of easy given that I was the only pasty white female amongst her guests), her face lit up and she greeted me with the most beautifully sweet smile, whilst all of my remaining nervous and awkward feelings totally washed away. She was delighted to have us there, thank goodness! After a mutually warm hug and lots of congratulations, best wishes and thank yous from Barry and I, she was quickly ushered away to greet more arriving guests. Luckily we managed to snap a quick picture with her. 

homestay vietnam wedding
The beautiful bride-to-be, Huyen

We learned from our local guide that this one of the most prestigious family weddings for the village and everyone had been invited (as is tradition in rural villages in Vietnam). It was the wedding of the beautiful daughter of the manager of the Yen Duc Village tourism programme and so we’d apparently become their ‘guests of honour’ (regardless of the fact we were just lucky enough to be visiting the village at the same time)!

Following our warm greetings by everyone, we were ushered to our table and sat alongside a number of wonderfully cheerful and friendly locals to enjoy our wedding feast. And what a feast it was! About 8 different delicious looking dishes were gradually delivered to our table for us to share. It was incredible and all home-cooked by the family and friends of the bride. 

homestay vietnam wedding

homestay vietnam food
The wedding feast!
homestay vietnam food
One of the many sharing dishes!
homestay vietnam food
Amazing prawns!

Next came the ‘important’ part of the meal. It wouldn’t be a proper Vietnamese party without copious amounts of rice wine! And so it began. Round after round our little designated shot glasses were topped up with special homemade wine by various different locals wanting to “cheers!” with the foreign celeb guests – haha!

homestay vietnam wedding
Rice wine shots with the bride & her local guests!

And so, it didn’t take long before we were feeling the effects and being unwittingly ushered towards the dance floor, and, oh dear, the karaoke mics…

The idea of the wedding guests hearing a popular English song sung by foreign native-English voices was apparently an exciting prospect! And so, not wanting to let our wonderfully kind hosts down, and as a sort of thank you for their incredible hospitality (maybe it wouldn’t be seen as a thank you after hearing us however!), we obligingly stepped up to the stage and took the mics. The joy and anticipation of our new Vietnamese family and friends was written all over their faces. We had to do this! Now it was just the small matter of picking a song…

The main sound system suddenly stopped blaring out its Vietnamese techno, and the karaoke screen set up whilst our new friends starting shouting requests. What to sing! Barry, a little over ambitious about the song availability, shouted over to request “anything by Oasis!” but was unsurprisingly greeted by confused faces. That clearly wasn’t an option! So we decided to leave the song choice up to our ‘fans’, and waited for the screen to load…

The first English song choice was then selected…grinning at each other, we cleared our throats and prepared to belt out ‘Hello’ by Lionel Ritchie, what a classic! 

If you’d like to hear our not so dulcet tones, and the 2 songs that followed (yes one song wasn’t enough apparently!), check out this go pro footage of our amazing experience and highlights from the wedding! 

homestay vietnam wedding
Vietnamese wedding karaoke!

Singing and teaching the local Vietnamese farmers the moves to the Bee Gees ‘Stayin’ Alive’ was a surreal but brilliant moment and one we’ll never forget! And so a little tipsy on rice wine and elated from such a wonderful and unique experience, we decided to leave on a high. After all, we knew it would take a while to say cheerio to all our new found friends and kind hosts, so we hugged, waved and thanked as many people as possible as we walked back through the marquee passed the long tables of guests, young and old, all having a great time.

What a memory and an experience we will never forget! 

homestay vietnam wedding
Mother-of-the-bride and our host, Ms. Men
homestay vietnam
Post-rice wine shots fun with our new local friends!

Yen Duc Village Homestay Vietnam – Day 2 In Short Stories…

After being invited by the mother of the bride again, we returned to the marquee the next day to see some of the formal wedding day. We only had a short time but were delighted to arrive just in time to see her beautiful daughter, Huyen, in the most amazing wedding dress and being whisked away by her handsome new husband. It was an emotional goodbye for the bride’s family and friends in the village as she was leaving to begin her new life living with her husband and his family, as is the tradition in rural Vietnam.

The party doesn’t stop once the bride has left however, apparently the drinking and eating goes on for the rest of the day! However we had lots of other activities organised for the day as part of our tour, so we bid the guests and our lovely host farewell for the last time and hopped back on our bicycles for our next adventure in Yen Duc Village. It was time to meet the wonderful Mrs Thai…

Learning The Sad Reality Of War, Through The Wonderful Mrs Thai

Homestay Vietnam

As it was our second visit to Vietnam, we had gotten all too familiar with the history and harsh reality of both the French Indochina war of the forties and fifties and the Vietnam War of the sixties and seventies. Through our visits to various museums and the fascinating Cu Chi tunnels of the Viet Cong in the South, we’d learned a lot about the country’s war-torn history. But it was meeting the inspiring and wonderfully strong Mrs Thai of Yen Duc Village, that gave us a whole new appreciation and empathy of the impact of the war. So much so that we decided to create a short documentary about her. 

At the tender age of just 23, Mrs Thai’s husband was assigned to join the southern resistance army to fight against the U.S. army in the Vietnam War, leaving Mrs Thai, only 21 at the time, to fend for herself and her 4-month old son. During what was an extremely hard time, Mrs Thai’s husband made 3 visits home over a period of 4 years but sadly then lost his life fighting in the war. He became a hero in his village. 

Homestay Vietnam
Mrs Thai’s war hero husband
Homestay Vietnam
Mrs Thai’s family portraits

During our visit to Mrs Thai’s humble home, we spent time talking with her whilst she cooked us lunch on her traditional firewood stove. Thanks to the translations of our guide Huong and with the use of various facial and hand gestures, we got to know Mrs Thai and learned of her emotional story and strong spirit. Despite being offered the hand of marriage of many other local bachelors (Mrs Thai was a popular young lady!) she’d decided to remain faithful to her beloved hero husband and to this day has remained in their first family home and worshipped his photo and spirit ever since. 

Homestay Vietnam
Chatting with Mrs Thai and our local guide, Huong

Meeting Mrs Thai first hand was an emotional experience, however our guide explained how much joy we had brought her that day. She’s barely travelled outside the village and therefore never had the opportunity to meet ‘foreigners’ before. We couldn’t believe that we were her first ever non-Vietnamese visitors. She was just as fascinated with us as we were with her, asking where we were from and about our lives and families back home. Her eyes actually sparkled with interest and joy at meeting us, we felt so touched. 

We didn’t want to leave and we’d been equally touched by our short but fascinating meeting. After cycling away from Mrs Thai’s beautifully shy and satisfied smile, we knew immediately that we had to return before leaving to thank her for such a special experience. We decided we would buy her a gift and return to surprise her with it. So the next morning, we headed to the local market and chose a beautiful hand-embroidered pillow, hoping she’d like it. We returned later that morning, taking her by surprise. Sweet as ever, she was embarrassed she hadn’t tidied the house and offered us to stay for lunch but we politely declined and said our final emotional goodbyes. 

Homestay Vietnam
Me, Mrs Thai & our lovely local guide, Ms Huong

As with all of our best travel experiences to date, it’s about the people you meet, and it’s safe to say we’ll never forget Mrs Thai. We gained a great deal of empathy and appreciation for Mrs Thai and the many other widows of the war that will now remain in our hearts forever. 

(Note: Meeting Mrs Thai isn’t part of the usual homestay itinerary at Yen Duc Village, we had simply requested to meet a member of the community and luckily for us she was kind enough to oblige as a favour to her neighbour and our lovely guide Huong, despite feeling very shy about it!) 

Sampling The Best Local Dishes & Learning To Cook Them!

There’s nothing better than a home-cooked meal, and that’s why our homestay experiences never fail to disappoint us when it comes to food. They’re usually healthy, made with freshly sourced local ingredients, delicious and totally authentic! 

Homestay Vietnam local market
Yen Duc Village Local Market

Having experienced a Vietnam homestay before, we had pretty high expectations for our meals at Yen Duc Village! But incredibly they managed to totally exceed them and surprised us with every meal, so here’s a sample of what we enjoyed. From homemade clam & pork soup (a delicious breakfast speciality for the area!), to grilled fish and fresh prawn spring rolls, it was a culinary adventure as well as a cultural one!

homestay vietnam
Fresh spring rolls
homestay vietnam
Clam & pork soup
homestay vietnam
Pork wrapped mushroom
homestay vietnam
Delicious egginess!
homestay vietnam
The table set for lunch in our homestay
homestay vietnam
Lunch the traditional way on day 2…on the floor!

Another experience we loved during our time at Yen Duc Village was being able to test our own culinary skills by learning how to make some traditional dishes, including this locally famous rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and some delicious sweet rice deserts! Including rice dough balls with green bean, sugar cane & sesame seeds inside which Huong then boiled with fresh ginger juice & coconut milk – it was soooo tasty! 

homestay vietnam cooking
Stage 1 – Pork, corn & rice ingredients
homestay vietnam cooking
Stage 2 – tightly wrapped & tied with banana leafs
homestay vietnam cooking
Stage 3 – cook then open & enjoy!

It’s no secret that Vietnamese food is our favourite cuisine, and was one of the driving forces in our decision to return to delicious Vietnam. We’re so glad that we did as its depth of flavours and fresh combinations continue to surprise us at every meal. We can’t get enough! 

Meeting Mr Te & His Historic Old House 

During our interactions with the local people of Yen Duc Village, we quickly discovered how highly they value tradition and family life. One of our visits in particular brought us to the fascinating home of Mr Te, owner and occupant of the oldest house in the village. 

homestay vietnam
Mr Te of Yen Duc Village

It was a pleasure to meet Mr Te and through translations by our patient guide Huong, we were able to enjoy an interesting conversation with him about his family and life in the village over some delicious cups of jasmine green tea (the most popular local tea and now my favourite!). We also answered his questions about our travels and life in Scotland. Amazingly, although he’d had many visitors, we were his first from Scotland so he was very interested to meet us and learn about Scottish culture. Luckily I had one of our wedding photos to hand so he’s now familiar with kilts! Though explaining Haggis was a little more difficult…

He told us fascinating stories about his life and in particular his important job during the war which involved managing the production and distribution of rice supplies from the village to Vietnamese troops in the South. He and his wife worked very hard during this tough time. 

Afterwards he gave us a tour around his beautiful old house. The main part, authentically decorated and adorned with many family portraits, was surrounded by intricately carved wood without the use a single nail, as he proudly told us!

homestay vietnam
The beautiful intricate wood carvings inside
homestay vietnam
Mr Te’s historical home

Mr Te is now retired and in addition to maintaining his old house and beautifully blooming garden, his other main passion is his family tree. Proudly displayed in the worshipping area annex to the house, it’s huge and takes up the whole wall! 

homestay vietnam
Mr Te’s Family Tree

Grabbing his pointer, he talked us through generation after generation of his family starting with his grandparents and finishing with his many beloved grandchildren. It was so impressive and especially fascinating to hear about the roles that he and his several brothers and sisters played during the wartime. 

As with everyone we’d met so far in Yen Duc Village, he was incredibly warm and friendly, and so kind to invite us into his beautiful home, a historical treasure of the village. 

We also got the opportunity to meet various different local people of the village during our short 2 day stay, so here are some of our other highlights. 

Meeting The Local Traditional Folk Musicians

We had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours visiting the home of one of the village’s well known local folk musicians and songwriters. Along with his group of singers and musicians, they played us various traditional local songs and even attempted to teach us one! That was a challenge! 

homestay vietnam
Tea with the traditional folk musicians of Yen Duc Village

Learning About Local Business – The Basket Weavers

Homestay Vietnam basket weaver
Local basket weaver

On day 2 of our Yen Duc Village tour, we made a stop off to meet this hard working couple and to witness their fascinating broom making process and basket weaving skills. Being the sole suppliers to the village and to other markets outside the village, they are very busy and spend long days crafting their products. It’s a long slow process but the results are amazing. Here’s some examples of their beautiful work and us attempting it ourselves! 

Homestay Vietnam basket weaver

Homestay Vietnam local basket weaver

Behind The Scenes Of The Water Puppet Theatre 

And finally, Yen Duc Village wouldn’t be the same without their water puppets! A strong tradition and unique talent only in the north of Vietnam, this is a fascinating old art form which is still learned and performed today. Yen Duc Village proudly puts on a show every day for tourists making a brief stop off on their way back from Halong Bay, so as guests of the village, we were invited backstage for a view of the show on our last day. It was amazing to see the skill and detail involved behind the scenes in making the show.

Homestay Vietnam, water puppet theatre

Homestay Vietnam water puppets

Suited up in plastic wellies and waist high trousers, we watched as the team plunged themselves into the pond behind the black screen and skilfully presented various traditional folklore stories to the audience with their handcrafted water puppets, perfectly in time to the soundtrack. Although the performance itself is a little bizarre, it’s a fascinating art form and was incredible to get a first hand glimpse at the skill involved in making the show. 

Homestay Vietnam water puppets
Behind the scenes of the water puppet show!

Final Thoughts… 

It might sound a little cheesy or cliché, but it’s experiences like this that reaffirm our love of travel. The people of Yen Duc Village truly touched our hearts and gave us memories we will never forget. This is without a doubt one of the greatest ‘homestay’ experiences we’ve ever had, and we’d recommend it to anyone looking for a genuinely authentic insight into real Vietnam. We left inspired by this friendly community and with a desire to share our stories. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about them. 

Homestay Vietnam
With special thanks to our wonderful homestay host, the legendary Mr Sans

Note: To arrange a 1 or 2 night stay at Yen Duc Village, contact them via their own website or through the Indochina Junk website. We were guests of Indochina Junk, but as always all our opinions are our own! 

Have you experienced an authentic homestay on your travels? We’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. Or, send us a private message via our Facebook page, Instagram account or email to laura@worldlynomads.com.

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.


Exploring The Mighty Mekong Delta, Vietnam

As we chugged along the river in our small engine powered boat, we sat amazed and fascinated by the sheer amount of activity going on around us.

From small rustic canoes, occupied by farmers transporting their freshly picked herbs or vegetables to market, to large wooden barge ships packed so full of rice they looked as though they were sinking(!), the river is a throng of activity and the lifeblood of the Mekong Delta.

Mekong river barge
A fully loaded rice barge on the Mekong

Our Mekong Delta Route 

There are so many routes and destinations to choose from in the Mekong Delta, and it can be tricky to decide where to go and how to get there. So before we delve into our highlights and experiences, here is some practical (and hopefully useful!) details about our route.

After lots of research and deliberation, we eventually decided on a route to the Mekong provinces of Ben Tre, Vinh Long and Can Tho. Why? Firstly because we felt that three destinations provided enough for roughly a week without being too busy, and secondly because we wanted variety! Each of these places offered a different experience along the way, both in terms of activities and environment.

We picked Ben Tre province for its abundance of fascinating coconut factories (as well as brick factories) and peaceful canals, Vinh Long province for an authentic homestay experience, and finally Can Tho city for its famous floating markets and picturesque rural canals. We were not disappointed!

Mekong Delta boat

Useful Tips:

  • This route can be done as a round-trip loop without repeating any journeys. It’s possible to travel overland (and/or by boat) through the Mekong from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) then either return to HCMC by direct flight from Phu Quoc island or fly directly to Hanoi from Can Tho.
  • There are plenty of cheap tours available from Ho Chi Minh City, however we’ve heard mixed reports about these such as large coaches going only to very touristy parts with poor accommodation included, so if you’d rather be ‘in control of your own destiny’ (like us!) then we’d recommend opting for a ‘DIY’ tour such as ours. Despite some initial apprehension in doing it this way, it turned out to be quite easy to arrange and a very rewarding experience so we’d highly recommend it! We’ve also included a full summary of how we got from place to place at the end of this article. 

Our Mekong Delta Experience In Short Stories

We covered quite a lot of ground (and water!) during our one week ‘DIY’ adventure in the Mekong Delta, so rather than detail every part of the journey, here are our highlights in a series of short photo essays and stories, we hope you enjoy!

1) Ben Tre Province – Coconuts & Canals

As Vietnam’s premier coconut growing region, Ben Tre is a quiet province in the Mekong most famous for its coconut production. Being a little ‘off-the-beaten’ tourist path, it’s quiet compared to some other destinations in the Mekong, making it a great place for a more peaceful and serene boat trip. During our visit there, we took a tour around its fascinating local factories, rivers and picturesque canals, and here are the highlights. 

Mekong delta coconut factory
Coconut factories by the river
Mekong Delta coconuts
Beautiful palm trees & coconuts galore!

It’s easy to understand why it’s nicknamed ‘The Land Of Coconuts’ (or ‘Xu Dua’ in Vietnamese)!

Putting aside our coconut passion for a moment however, the first stop on our half day boat tour was in fact to a local brick making factory. Little did we know this would be the most fascinating visit of the whole tour!

Touring The Local Brick Factory

mekong delta brick factory

Touring the local brick factory was a fascinating and humbling experience. As we walked around, meeting local workers along the way, our guide explained to us the long, hard and rather dangerous process involved.

From the collecting of the river clay and moulding/cutting of each individual brick, to the highly manual process of transferring every single brick (by hand!) into the massive 20,000 capacity hot kilns for a 2-week cook, it’s back-braking work. Never mind the constant shovelling of rice husks (every 15 minutes) to keep the kiln fires roaring at their 1,000 degree temperatures for 2 weeks at a time! It’s a relentless physical process.

Mekong Delta tour
Moulding and cutting of the clay
Mekong delta brick tour
Natural drying of the clay pre-cooking
Mekong Delta tour
Gathering of rice husks to feed the kiln fire
Mekong Delta tour
Manual extraction of the ‘cooked’ bricks from the kiln

Despite all of this hard work and the long hours (typically 12 hours a day we were told), the labourers are paid based on production rather than time, so the pressure is constantly on to work as hard as possible, despite the minimal pay.

It’s experiences like this on our travels that make us appreciate what we have and how hard life can be. We left the brick factory with the highest respect for these hard working people and of course, a whole new appreciation of bricks! 

Coconut Production In The Mekong

The next two stops on our tour brought us to the staple businesses of the local area, coconut production. With such a huge supply of coconuts, there are lots of factories in this area manufacturing coconut products. From coconut candy to savoury snacks, you can find all sorts here so we visited this riverside factory to see how it all worked.

Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

The simple factory, perched on stilts by the riverside, was intriguing. We watched in fascination as the men expertly cut the shells whilst the women carefully carved out the flesh of the inside. The speed and precision at which they hammered through each coconut was amazing. But it was all about speed, as again our guide explained how their wages were calculated based on their individual production volume/weight. Wow.

mekong delta

mekong delta

Although not as physically back-braking as the brick factory, it was clear how hard the locals had to work and usually for long hours. Yet despite this they never failed to raise a smile and say hello whilst we toured around to learn their processes. Once again we were grateful and humbled by our experience, and the resilience and friendliness of the Vietnamese people never failed to amaze us.

Mekong Delta locals

Mekong Delta tour

We also learned about the various uses of the coconut and sampled our first Vietnamese coconut candy, it was delicious! 

Mekong Delta Candy

Mekong Delta tour

Local Mekong Mat Weavers

The final place on our Mekong tour around Ben Tre province brought us to this small homemade weaving factory, where we were shown how the locals skilfully work their hand looms to produce all kinds of beautiful mats, hats and bed bases.

Mekong Delta weave factory
A local weaving factory in the Mekong

They worked so fast and expertly that we could hardly see each row being wound! Here are some of the highly skilled locals in action!

Mekong Delta weave factory

Mekong Delta weavers

After our visits to the various local factories, we finished our tour with a lunch in the jungle near the river and were treated to the local seafood speciality of elephant earfish. 

mekong delta fish
Elephant ear fish in the Mekong Delta
Mekong Delta food
Delicious fresh spring roll ingredients

Deep-fried and mixed with rice noodles, lettuce, cucumber and pineapple stuffed into a rice paper wrap and dipped in a typically fresh Vietnamese sauce, it was absolutely delicious.  

Afterwards, we took a short but slightly hair-raising jeep-ride back to our boat with our local guide and fellow travellers. Even Barry’s hair was out of place for once – wow!

Mekong delta jeep ride

Ben Tre to Vinh Long – Our Boat Adventure

A day on the Mekong starts very early, usually before dawn for most locals. So we decided to do the same when we took our early morning boat trip from Ben Tre to Vinh Long. We’d become adapted to early rises – they’re hard to avoid when the sun beams into your room at 5am! So a 6am start was no problem, especially since it’s a great time to witness life on the river while the locals make the most of the coolest part of the day.

Mekong Delta boat trip

Mekong Delta Vietnam

We loved all of the boat trips we ventured on during our week in the Mekong Delta, but this was one of our favourites…probably aided by the novelty of swinging on hammocks while we sailed! It’s these little surprises that make us love Vietnam!

Mekong Delta tour
Just chillin’, you know, on our hammocks 😉

It’s not cheap, but it is possible to charter your own boat to take you between destinations in the Mekong. We decided to do this for one of our journeys around the area, not only to avoid a hot local bus trip (though this was a bonus!), but to have the opportunity to see and experience more of the Mekong. After all, it’s all about the river and that’s where most of the interesting day to day life occurs!

Mekong Delta boat
Cruising from Ben Tre to Vinh Long in the Mekong

Instead of 2 or so hours in a hot and sweaty local bus, we spent 4 blissful hours chugging along the river in this lovely boat. From fully loaded rice barges to fruit and vegetable farmers transporting their goods to market, we chugged by all kinds of boats and ships going about their business on the river (even a floating petrol station!). There was always something happening!

Mekong Delta tour

Mekong Delta tour

Mekong Delta

Mekong delta boats

Mekong Delta Vietnam

mekong delta vietnam

With so much going on, it was fascinating just to sit back and observe river life all around us. Before we knew it we were almost 4 hours into our journey and getting closer to our next Mekong destination of Vinh Long.

2) Vinh Long Province – Homestays, Boat Trips & Cycling

Our arrival to our homestay in Vinh Long is an experience we’ll never forget…

After some 4 hours or so of sailing along the river, stopping off at a couple of floating fruit-sellers along the way, our boat finally left the expansive Mekong river to make its way along the more narrow ‘sông Cổ Chiên’ river for the final leg of our journey towards Vinh Long. 

Vinh Long Province. Mekong Delta Vietnam

Unable to communicate much with our boat driver due to our lack of Vietnamese and his lack of English, we had had no idea how long it would take to get to our homestay accommodation. So it was a great surprise when after around 4 and a half hours of chugging, our driver finally slowed the boat and manoeuvred us towards a tiny overgrown jetty by the side of the river.

For a moment we wondered if it was the wrong place due to the overgrown vegetation and lack of boats at the small jetty, but as we made our approach, we spotted a local man giving us a very enthusiastic double-handed wave in the distance. Standing beside his bicycle, his face broke into the warmest and most welcoming of smiles. We knew then this must be the right place, and this lovely looking gentleman must be our host!

Mekong Delta Vinh Long homestay

With our boat moored up, we thanked our driver and jumped onto the jetty where we were warmly greeted by Mr Truong. He was the owner of Ba Lình Homestay and kindly loaded our bags onto his bike before guiding us towards his house. It was only a short walk, but a fascinating one as we tried to take in our new surroundings whilst chatting along the way.

The route was initially along a lush forested path, shaded on both sides by a dense growth of coconut trees and healthy looking green papaya plants. After a few minutes as the path widened, we passed by a small local community hall where there was music blaring, apparently from a neighbour’s wedding celebration. Following that we passed what turned out to be our neighbour’s home, where children played in the garden and dogs ran around chasing after them, and finally arrived to the homestay.

It was beautiful and much larger than we expected! Two large wooden clad buildings, surrounded by beautifully lush garden teaming with fruit trees and fish ponds. It was simple and peaceful, and we immediately felt an air of calm about the place.

Other than the occasional motorcyclist riding passed, there were no cars and the neighbour’s chickens were the only source of ‘noise’. We immediately fell in love with the place and were delighted it was our new home for the next couple of days.

After being shown to our basic but pleasant room and a short tour of the house, we were welcomed with a pot of hot jasmine green tea, which we shared with Mr Truong as he spent time answering our questions and explaining his successful homestay business.  

As with our previous homestay experiences, it was more like a basic guesthouse with a host family. We like this because it means you’re not always in the main family home which gives you the choice to interact with your hosts and other guests as little or as much as you like, whilst still having some personal space in between times.

One of our favourite things about homestays, is not only getting to know the family and local customs, but also learning about the local cuisine and of course, getting to sample it! What we loved about Mr Truong’s homestay was that each night he welcomed all of his guests into his kitchen to help prepare the evening meal and learn a few local recipes. I was particularly happy when we got to make one of my favourite dishes, the famous Vietnamese Green Papaya salad with shrimp. It’s a simple but extremely delicious salad, which we usually ordered with most meals when we got the chance! 

mekong delta food
Green papaya salad ingredients
mekong delta homestay
Our wonderful host, Mr Truong
mekong delta food
A Vietnamese cooking lesson
mekong delta food
Excited to sample it!

During our stay, we took a wonderful half day boat tour around the area which gave us the opportunity to explore Vinh Long’s small floating market and some local factories including a coconut, rice and honey making factory. 

mekong delta fruit
The local floating fruit shop
mekong delta
Barry onboard the local fruit shop!
MEKONG DELTA BEE FACTORY
Barry inspecting the honey bees

Like a lot of the Mekong Delta, coconut production is a main source of income in Vinh Long, with many factories perched by the riverside. We visited this large one during our tour and found it to be another fascinating insight into local life. First we watched and learned how these coconut pancakes are all individually made by hand.

mekong delta vietnam coconut production

coconut production in the Mekong

coconut production in the mekong delta

coconut snacks from the mekong

Then it was onto the coconut candy process, where each mixture is stirred by hand then cut individually after being set in a mould. It was a time intensive process, but with delicious results!

Mekong Delta Coconut Candy Process
Mekong Delta coconut candy process
mekong delta candy production
Hand cutting of each individual piece

After our fascinating factory tours, we transferred onto a small rustic rowing boat to cruise through the quiet and narrow waterways around Vinh Long. Away from the hustle and bustle of the main river, it was a very peaceful way to fully appreciate the area’s stunning natural beauty.

Mekong delta

mekong delta

Mekong Delta boat ride

On our final day at the homestay in Vinh Long, along with some fellow travellers we’d become friends with at the homestay, we decided to explore the mainland area around, this time by bike. Despite the area being much more vast than we expected and having only a very basic map as our guide, we managed not to get (too) lost!

Along the way, we came across large farmlands and settlements occupied by friendly local families who waved as we cycled passed or sometimes ushered us in to take a closer look. They were as intrigued about our being there as we were about them!

That evening we spent more time learning to cook local Vietnamese dishes with the family, as well as getting to know our fellow guests from all parts of the world. It was another wonderful Vietnamese homestay experience. We’d learned about the local family culture, tried various local foods (we might not have otherwise tried on our own), made some great friends in our fellow guests, and got the opportunity to have local experiences we wouldn’t have otherwise had.

mekong delta homestay
Our lovely fellow homestay guests

(Click on these links to read about our previous Ba Be National Park and Sapa homestay experiences!)

3) Can Tho City – Floating Markets & Coconut Production

Our third and final destination on our ‘DIY’ tour through the Mekong Delta was to the bustling riverside city of Can Tho. Famous for its floating markets and university, there is a constant bustle of activity in Can Tho both in the streets and on the river! 

From locals making their way to stock up on supplies from the early morning markets, to late night gatherings around small plastic tables on the kerbside where families and friends tuck into shared steaming hotpots and barbecued pork skewers, the buzz of life seems endless here. Though that’s Vietnam for you and what we love about it! 

Can Tho Mekong Delta
Bustling morning markets
mekong delta ferry
A local ferry transfer on the Mekong

Cai Rang Floating Market

One of the most popular draws of Can Tho is its large wholesale floating market. Known as ‘Cai Rang’, it begins very early in the morning (typically immediately after sunrise around 5am) and lasts for the full morning until the day heats up around noon.

To avoid the crowds and larger tour boats, it’s best to get there as early as possible. So thankfully already adapted to the early rises of the Mekong, we signed up for a sunrise tour and we weren’t disappointed!

Mekong Delta Can Tho
Sunrise enroute to Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho

It was peaceful yet fascinating to be on the river at such an early hour. With coffee in one hand and our cameras in the other, our boat slowly chugged its way along the river while our local guide explained about local river life.

As usual the river was awash with early morning activity, and we loved witnessing this ancient fishing technique being used by local fishermen.

mekong delta fishing
Plunging the net into the water
mekong delta fishing
Checking for catches

It was an hour or so before we finally arrived to Cai Rang floating market, and we were excited and intrigued to see how it all worked. In the distance, we could already see lots of boats in position, waiting for customers to load up on their fresh goods.

Cai Rang floating market, mekong delta

As we got closer we could see the fully loaded boats, almost brimming with fresh produce!

cai rang market can tho

cai rang market can tho mekong delta

Cai Rang Floating Market

Cai Rang floating market

From potatoes, carrots and pumpkins to watermelon, coconuts, pineapples, and papayas, there’s a huge variety of fresh produce on offer, most of which comes from local farmland.

What was fascinating was the technique used by all of the sellers for advertising their goods. We noticed it straight away. Can you see the long poles sticking out of the boats in the photos above? These are bamboo sticks, adorned with a selection of the boat’s goods, designed to make it easier for buyers to find what they’re looking for. Want some carrots? Just look up and scan the horizon!

mekong delta floating market

Cai Rang is one of the largest floating markets in the Mekong Delta and well worth a visit. Many villagers come to sell their produce and it’s fascinating to observe everything happening on and around the river.

cai rang floating market

cai rang market mekong delta

cai rang floating market

cai rang floating market

It’s a unique way of life to us but just normal daily business for the locals, most of which even took the time to wave hello or give us a warm smile as we chugged by with intrigued eyes.

mekong delta vietnam

Cai Rang floating market tour

A Local Coconut Factory

Mekong Delta coconut factory
Locals busy as work in the coconut & noodle factory

Following our visit to the floating market, we continued further along the river until turning off along one of the many narrow canals. From here we chugged along until we reached our jumping off point for this coconut and rice noodle factory. It was another fascinating insight into local business. We learned the techniques of coconut pancake making and noodle manufacturing, all within a rather atmospheric family-run factory.

mekong delta coconut factory

Mekong Delta coconut production

mekong delta coconut production

mekong delta coconut

Riverside Village Life In The Mekong

The Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Lastly, our tour brought us to this quaint and quiet waterway. It was just one of the many picturesque rural canals in the area where it’s fascinating to observe riverside village life.

Mekong River Vietnam

mekong delta vietnam

It was great to step off the boat for a change and have a wander around the village. It was beautiful, thanks to its lush rice paddies, fresh growing fruit (everywhere!) and scenic narrow bridges connecting small canals.

Mekong River rice paddies
Rice paddies by the Mekong River
mekong delta vietnam
Famous ‘monkey bridges’ in the Mekong

It was fun attempting to cross the ‘monkey bridges’ along the way, as their named by the locals due to the narrowness of the pieces of wood. Perfect for monkeys but not so much for us!

Mekong village life
A monkey bridge crossing in the Mekong

We also came across the largest jackfruit we’d ever seen growing on trees along the way, oh and of course more fresh coconuts. It’s no wonder there’s lots of butterflies around. 

mekong delta fruit
Huge fresh ‘jackfruit’
mekong delta fruit
Fresh grown coconuts!
mekong delta butterflies
Beautiful big butterflies

The Mekong Delta is a vast and incredible place to visit, and in our opinion the best way to see it is to organise your own DIY tour. There are many options from Ho Chi Minh City for day and overnight tours, but to get a better sense of the Mekong Delta, you need to take it slowly! Jump on that bus, hop onto that boat and get out and see a different side of Vietnam!

mekong river guide
Our local Mekong guides
mekong river tour
A worn out Barry a.k.a Mr Chief Photographer

Our Mekong Delta Route & Transport  

Our round-trip route through the Mekong from Ho Chi Minh City was as follows: 

Ben Tre ⇒ Vinh Long ⇒ Can Tho ⇒ Phu Quoc ⇒ Ho Chi Minh 

Here we explain how we travelled from place to place (mostly via public transport):

  • How To Get From Ho Chi Minh To Ben Tre

We’d recommend Thinh Phat bus company for this easy 2 and half hour journey from Ho Chi Minh City. They have regular buses (leaving every half an hour when we travelled with them) from ’25a Su Van Hanh Street P9 Q5 HCMC’ (not far from district one) and tickets are very reasonably priced (only a few pounds each when we travelled). On arrival to Ben Tre, we were seamlessly transferred to a shuttle bus to make the final journey to our hotel, which was included in the bargain price. 

  • How To Get From Ben Tre To Vinh Long

Instead of taking the public bus (which apparently takes around 2 hours), we opted to arrange a private boat transfer direct from our place in Ben Tre to our homestay in Vinh Long. Although this was a much more expensive option ($50 each), it turned out to be one of the highlights of our Mekong Delta trip and therefore was well worth the extra coin! Especially as we had a private boat with our own skipper, comfortable seats and our own hammocks to chill out on, it was worth every penny and we loved it! We were on the boat for around 4-5 hours and also stopped off at a floating market along the way too, so it was also like a tour rather than just getting from A to B. So if you can afford this we’d highly recommend it, however there is also a public bus option to Vinh Long if you’d rather save on this. 

  • How To Get From Vinh Long – Can Tho

From our homestay in Vinh Long, we followed our host’s guidance to catch the local ferry back to the main town where we very easily picked up one of the many public buses traveling to Can Tho city. They are both regular and cheap (we paid only 40,000 dong each, around $2!) for the roughly hour and a half journey. Obviously there was no A/C for this price and it’s a very local bus (I.e. It stops very often on the way to pick up absolutely anyone who waves their hand out on the road!) however it’s an amazing experience and one to have at least once on your travels in Vietnam! 

mekong delta local ferry
Riding the busy local ferry to Vinh Long

(Note: We travelled by cheap flights for the final leg of our tour from Can Tho to Phu Quoc island and then from Phu Quoc island back to Ho Chi Minh City.) 

Mekong Delta boat trip

Have you visited the Mekong Delta? Let us know where you’ve been in the comments below!

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.

Or interested in discovering other amazing boat tour experiences? Check out our top tips on the amazing paradise that is El Nido in the Philippines. Full info on El Nido Tours here!


where to go in the philippines

A Spectacular Mt Pinatubo Tour, Philippines

Rattling along the dusty, stone laced riverbed, our jeep suddenly skidded to a halt. After an hour of being bumped about in the back of the 4×4, our driver surveyed his options.

Directly in front of us, a flowing river cut across our route to the start of our Mt Pinatubo tour. The loose rocks and stones we’d been travelling over for the last hour slipped down into the flowing water below us. Revving his engine, our driver suddenly edged the jeep forwards, and splashed down into the river – there was no turning back now! 

The Beginning Of Our Mt Pinatubo Tour

We’d arrived a day earlier, heading North from Manila to the small village of Santa Juliana, a small town located near the base of Mt Pinatubo. It’s possible to take a day tour from Manila, but we would recommend getting out of the city for a couple of days, and taking the time to relax near Mt Pinatubo. We used Santa Juliana as our base for the next few days, as a starting point for our Mt Pinatubo tour. 

After a good night’s sleep, it was time for our Mt Pinatubo adventure!

We began our bumpy, bruise inducing Mt Pinatubo tour early, rising for breakfast at 6 before leaving our homestay at 7. After breakfast, we clambered onto the back of our open top jeep, and headed out along the village road towards the vast, dry bedrock of the nearby river. 

Mt Pinatubo tour

After a few minutes, we swung off the road and down the embankment to the riverbed, where we would spend the next 1.5 hours being jolted about, splattered with mud and covered in dust as we made our way to the start of our Mt Pinatubo tour. It was an exhilarating journey! 

Mt Pinatubo tour

Despite the uncomfortable ride, the landscape on our jeep ride was breathtaking. Magnificent rock formations jolted out of the ground around us, the dark grey stone brought to life by the lush green vegetation and trees that has somehow found a foothold in the crevices. We admired the scenery as we perched ourselves on the bench on the back of our jeep, hanging on by the metal frame around us. Luxury this was not!

After half an hour, we reached the first of what would be many river crossings. We clung on as the jeep jolted forward, and dipped down into the river. We were flung forward, and then back as the jeep levelled out in the river. 

mt pinatubo tour

Instead of going straight across and up the other side of the river, our driver swung the jeep to the right and started driving straight upstream! Surges of water splashed across the windscreen, and our backs splattered with mud as we made our way upstream. This was to become the norm as we made our way on our Mt Pinatubo tour. 

As we made our way closer to the base of the volcano, the landscape became more and more incredible. We had begun our journey surrounded by white and grey rocks, but as we got closer to the base of Mt Pinatubo, the grey gave way to lush green hills.  The green landscape rolled around us, punctured every now and then by sharp grey jagged peaks as the surrounding hills slowly eroded away. From the wide expanse of the river at the beginning of our journey, the valley narrowed as our driver navigated through the ancient lava flow/river bed.

mt pinatubo tour

Every now and then, we’d stop to let the engine cool down, and in the distance locals would appear from nowhere, eager to say hello and share a high five with us. As they approached us, the scale of our surroundings became apparent, our new friends a mere spec on the magnificent canvas laid out in front of us. This place was epic.  

mt pinatubo tour

mt pinatubo tour

After an hour, we rounded a bend and got our first glimpse of Mt Pinatubo, and what a sight it was! Layer upon layer of rock and stone gave way to rolling green hills and then, in the distance, Mt Pinatubo.

mt pinatubo tour

Finally, after an hour and half, our jeep pulled to a stop and we jumped out. After a few minutes of twisting our necks back into place and getting our bags organised, we began our trek. Ahead was a fairly leisurely 2 hour climb to the crater.

The trek itself was beautiful, again the landscape changing from grey valleys, to lush jungle as we closed in on the summit. We clambered over small rocks, and jumped across streams on our way. In our opinion you would only need a basic level of fitness to complete this trek.

mt pinatubo tour

mt pinatubo tour

mt pinatubo tour

After a couple of hours, we finally reached the crater, and what a view it was! We were blown away. The caldera of the volcano is huge, spanning 2.5km from one side to the other. The rugged, steep and unstable crater wall surrounds a deep blue lake. As we got closer, the lake stretched out into the distance in front of us. We sat down on the waters edge, and admired the view and tranquility. It was breathtaking.

mt pinatubo tour

mt pinatubo tour

mt pinatubo tour

mt pinatubo tour

As we ate our lunch, suddenly a huge explosion was heard to our right! If there’s one thing you don’t want to hear when you’re sitting in a volcanic crater, it’s the sound of an explosion! Thankfully, this noise was from a rock fall on the ridge and not the volcano ‘waking up’. Phew! Incidentally, the last eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991 resulted in it losing 260 metres from its summit!

mt pinatubo tour

After an hour relaxing and taking in the view, we began the leisurely descent back down the volcano. The scenery again was incredible!

mt pinatubo tour

mt pinatubo crater

mt pinatubo tour

We made it back to our jeep, and began the bumpy journey back to our homestay. Hanging out the back of our jeep, the views looking back towards Mt Pinatubo were just as incredible!

mt pinatubo tour

Later that evening, still tired from our trek, we took a short walk up the hill near our homestay to watch sunset. Again, the scenery was spectacular and we got a sunset to match! It was a spectacular end to our time at Mt Pinatubo.

mt pinatubo tour

mt pinatubo tour

Our Mt Pinatubo tour was one of our highlights from the Philippines, and easily one of the most epic things we saw there. Despite the bumpy jeep ride (which adds to the excitement), the scenery and landscapes on offer are incredible. The trek to the summit was easy for us, and well worth it for the views of Mt Pinatubo crater. If you’re visiting the Philippines, we’d highly recommend a visit if you have time!

Top Tips

  • A Mt Pinatubo tour from Santa Juliana begins at around 7am and depending on how long it takes you to trek and have lunch, you can expect to be back in Santa Juliana by around 2pm.
  • The sunset view above is from the top of the hill overlooking the same route you take to get to Mt Pinatubo by jeep. You can walk along the village road (passed the Air Force base checkpoint) and up the small hill for these views.
  • Stay for a night or two in Santa Juliana if you have time, it’s better than driving all the way from Manila early in the morning and trying to get back that same day. We stayed at Alvin’s homestay/Bognot Lodge.

Looking for more Philippines inspiration? Click here.


ba be national park

Ba Be National Park - Homestays & Trekking

Our boat chugged along the crystal calm waters of Ba Be national park, following the bends and turns in the river as we made our way back to our homestay for the evening.

As the sun began dropping behind the clouds, we rounded a bend to be met with layer upon layer of incredible towering limestone cliffs, stretching out into the distance. The view was epic and awe inspiring, as the day drew to a close, we sat back on our boat and reflected on the last 2 days in Ba Be national park.

ba be national park

Two days earlier, we’d arrived to Ba Be national park after an 8 hour journey from Hanoi, taking a detour to visit an ethnic museum en route. We’d booked a 4 day, 3 night private tour with Mr Linh’s Adventures, including trekking, homestays and a boat tour of the Ba Be lakes. We’d already completed our Sapa trekking experience, and taken on an epic volcanic Rinjani trekking adventure in Indonesia, so we ready for what Ba Be national park had in store for us!

We arrived in Ba Be national park just before sunset, and settled into our basic but clean wooden room on stilts. As the sun set, we took a walk along the track near our homestay, small fires lighting up around us in the small wooden structures along the path, as families began preparing dinner.

As darkness fell, we made our way back to our homestay, and watched as the sun set over the nearby lake, the sky turning dark as the lights flickered on in the village around us. As darkness fell across the lake and surrounding hills, and conscious we had a busy few days ahead, we ate a quick dinner, and hit the sack, ready for the day of trekking the following day. This was to be a very quiet night compared to the following night at our homestay, where a deluge of local rice wine with our host would form the basis of new friendship. And a sore head the following day!

But before that, we had some trekking to do.

As with most of our experiences of homestay and trekking, we awoke early and prepared for our trek. We left our main bags at the homestay and took a small backpack with a spare set of clothes, camera and waterproof jacket, and headed out on our first day of trekking.

After raining all night, the downpour finally relented just as we began trekking, the cool air leaving an early morning mist over the lakes and rivers around us. It was an atmospheric and moody start to our trek.

ba be national park
ba be national park

The first couple of hours of trekking were simple and easy. We left behind the small village where we had spent the previous night, and walked through lush green and yellow rice fields, across various rivers, and headed further into Ba Be national park. As with many treks in Vietnam, we met curious locals and many water buffalo along our way, a friendly “Xin Chao” (hello) as we passed by.

ba be national park
ba be national park tour

After a couple of hours, we snaked off the gentle, flat route we’d become accustomed to, and began trekking up a steep hill, covered in wet moss and vegetation. Whilst this wasn’t difficult, it did provide a bit more of a challenge, and you would require a basic level of fitness to scale it. An hour later we reached the top, rested and began our trek up and down the various hills towards our break for lunch, a small school house alone in the national park, where we stopped for lunch.

ba be national park

From our school house base to our stop for the evening was a further 2-3 hours of trekking, and this part would provide some of the most breathtaking views of the trek. Our advice? We were given a choice from our guide of whether to take the long or short route, we took the long route which involved trekking higher and longer, but it was worth it to see views like this:

ba be national park

As with most of our treks around the world, we were given a chance to interact with people whom we would never meet otherwise. Ba Be national park is still developing as a destination for travellers, and therefore you are still looked at with curious eyes as you walk passed. For the most part, local children may shout “Xin Chao” or hello at you, and carry on their merry way. Sometimes the interaction can be longer, like the family we met as we neared our homestay.

ba be tour

As we walked along a narrow dirt path, to the left just below us was an older lady beckoning us to come down the small hill and say hello. Our guide asked us if we wanted to, which of course we did, and we made our way down the hill.

As we neared, the whole family began filing out of the small wooden hut where the lady was standing, eager to welcome us to their home.

ba be tour

As with many places in Asia, the primary family unit is far more extended than what we are accustomed to. So behind our mother, came 8 younger siblings, all eager to catch a glimpse of us.

This is one of our favourite parts of travelling. We stood outside their home, said “Xin Chao” or hello (the only Vietnamese we knew) and then we sort of just stood there for a while. We’ve grown used to people just staring at us, we don’t find it intrusive. It’s more a case of people studying our facial features, how our noses are different, our skin colour and the colour of our eyes. We smiled at them, and they looked back at us with inquisitive, sheepish eyes.

After a couple of minutes, we remembered we had some gifts for any locals we might meet along the way. As a side note this is always a good idea. For the most part, these people will grow their own food and therefore they don’t operate on much cash to buy other things. As a result, any food you can bring that is different to normal will be welcomed. Just be careful what you bring, and avoid buying sweets and high sugar content foods. We brought some savoury crackers and our guide brought some bread, which we handed to the family. They devoured it in front of us.

After 15 minutes, we decided to leave and bid farewell to our family. Although we didn’t speak with them directly, there is a certain connection you gain between people just by looking clearly into their eyes. It’s something we very rarely do in our home countries, especially with strangers. Yet as we travel it becomes the norm, a cross cultural quirk that allows both parties to intently analyse the facial features of each other without fear of reproach or misunderstanding.

As we left, the mother of the family ran into her home and brought out a huge bunch of bananas for us to take. We initially refused, not wanting to take her food, but she was insistent that we have them, and that she did not receive anything in return. We accepted graciously and waved farewell to this wonderfully kind family.

Onwards we went, wandering along narrow dirt paths that wound around the hills of Ba Be national park, passing more homes and rice fields as we made our way to our homestay.

ba be national park

ba be national park tour

A leisurely hour or so later, we arrived at our homestay for the evening. We would be sharing a large room with 4 other trekkers for the evening, a group we bonded with as the evening progressed and the rice wine flowed.

ba be tour
ba be tour

That’s right, the infamous, ever present rice wine of Vietnam.

If you’ve not tried rice wine, it’s a spirit made by farmers which varies in strength from 20% to 60%. To be honest I don’t think even the farmers know how strong it is. Typically a family will make a large batch, and then decant it into small used water bottles.

If you spend anytime in the countryside of Vietnam, or stay with a family, it will be brought out, and you’ll feel the energy and excitement levels rise in the group.

In terms of etiquette, we’ve found locals to be keen and enthusiastic for you to share a rice wine with you, but they are never pushy. If you don’t drink alcohol, or you just don’t want one, we’ve never had a problem in saying no. Although to be honest we very rarely say no!

For us, sharing some rice wine with a local is a cultural highlight. It solidifies a burgeoning, if temporary friendship, and crosses the language barrier in a way smiles and hand gestures can’t. It’s a way for a local to demonstrate their happiness of you staying in their home.

ba be national park
ba be national park

As we sat down to dinner, the rice wine appeared, our host eager to share his concoction with us. What followed was an evening of food and rice wine, as we gradually finished the bottle between us. Slowly the other guests stopped taking the rice wine, but, excitable as I get, powered on with our host and another trekker until all the wine was gone. At this point I probably had had enough, and I thought this might spell an end to the fantastic evening. How wrong I was.

“I have a special drink for you! A private, special toast between the two of us!”

I had made it to the inner circle.

As I sat in the dimly-lit room, perched on my small plastic stool as the other guests talked around me, I saw our host returning through the darkness with a large plastic jar, filled with some liquid.

“More rice wine?” I asked, wondering what I was letting myself in for.

“No, better my friend! This will make you stronger!” Our enthused host returned.

I was passed the point of no return now, after the amount of rice wine I’d had, one more wouldn’t matter right?

On closer inspection of the jar, it was a light brown/orange colour, filled with various pieces of what I assumed to be bark or root from plants. I wasn’t sure, and despite by questions, our host was being very coy on the contents.

Either way, I wanted to try this new concoction, after all, when else would I get a chance? It was these moments that you travel half way round the world for. To sit on a small plastic stool in the middle of the Vietnamese countryside, sweating through my t shirt, with a local farmer drinking his home made alcohol.

A small shot glass was handed to me, and we knocked back our private friendship drink.

It was…alright.

Gone was the clear flavour and clarity of the rice wine. Instead this was a cacophony of alcohol, plant and roots, and who knows what else. There might have even been a dead snake or scorpion in there.

After this shot I called it a night, our host happy to stop there as well. I went to bed happy I’d experienced an authentic evening of rice wine drinking with a local farmer, and stood up to the test. Yes I could have been sensible, but after traveling halfway across the world, driving 8 hours and trekking for a day, it seems silly to give up on an experience like this. I will never forget my night or rice wine with new friends in Ba Be national park.

The next morning I awoke, groggy but no sore head. Perhaps our host was telling the truth when he promised no hangover!

We ate a basic breakfast of fried bananas and coffee, and bid farewell to our new traveller friends who were heading in the opposite direction.

Side story: Sometimes travelling provides strange coincidences. A few days later, as we walked down an alleyway in Ho Chi Minh City in the very south of Vietnam (hundreds of miles away) we bumped right into this very same group. The chances are mind boggling.

Our first stop this day was a visit to the local school where the wife of our host taught, followed by a 2 hour trek down the hill to the river where we would take a private boat for the remainder of the trek.

ba be national park
ba be national park school

This part of the trek was easy, and we casually walked along winding hill passes, squeezing passed groups of children heading home and water buffalos lumbering passed us. It was a pleasant and relaxing experience, but the best was yet to come.

ba be national park

We stopped for lunch on the river, and we were treated to an incredible feast of Vietnamese food! Roast pork, fresh fish, omelette, spring rolls, green beans and of course some chips! This was welcomed after our long day of trekking, and finally cured my rice wine inspired groggy head!

ba be national park

 ba be tour

 ba be national park

 ba be national park

 ba be tour

 ba be national park

After an incredible lunch, we clambered aboard our boat and sunk into our bench. Our trekking for the day was done, and we could sit back and enjoy the journey. The engine roared into action, and we headed off along the river, gliding passed locals washing their clothes in the river, water buffalos being bathed and cooled down, and all the interesting things that happen on the rivers of Vietnam.

After an hour, we arrived at Dong Puong cave, a magnificent, cavernous opening in one of the limestone cliffs. We wandered around, and listened as the thousands of bats above us squeaked and wined in the darkness. The cave was magnificent, towering above us as we wandered through it towards the opening in the other side. Aside from a group of young local boys hanging out in the cave, we had the place to ourselves.

ba be national park

ba be tour

Leaving here, we took the relaxing 2 hour boat journey back to Mr Linhs homestay, the place we stayed on the first night. It was during this journey that we witnessed some of the most incredible scenery of our time in Ba Be national park.

ba be national park

ba be national park

As the river flowed left and right, winding its way through the park, we glided passed the towering limestone cliffs, rich in vegetation. We were one of the only boats there, the water calm and still as a result. It’s safe to say this was our favourite part of our 3 day experience in Ba Be national park.

ba be national park

We arrived back at our homestay, tired but content with all that we had experienced in Ba Be national park. On our final morning before heading back to Hanoi, we visited the Hua Ma cave, and again we were the only people there. Hua Ma cave is a vast and cavernous caving system, and it was magnificent.

ba be tour

From the locals we met and the rice wine we drank, to the stunning vistas afforded to us, our trek around Ba Be national park had been a success. It’s far from a difficult trek, we found it easy but very enjoyable, and it allowed us to appreciate the views and scenery around us.

For a national park to still be as undeveloped as Ba Be is a unique situation, and this will inevitably change in the future. But for now, if you want an authentic experience of local life and trekking in Vietnam, Ba Be national park could be your place.

Top Tips:

– If you have the choice, choose to do the boat journey at the end of your trek. You’ll appreciate it more after a few days of trekking! 

– If you don’t want to drink rice wine, just say! The locals are keen for you to try it but not pushy in our experience.

– We took a tour with Mr Linh’s Adventures, and we highly recommend the service and trek with them!

– Take some good walking shoes as the trek does get steep and slippy in places.

– Leave bags at your first homestay if you can, as you don’t want to be carrying everything with you for 3 days!

Disclaimer: We received a discount from Mr Linh’s Adventures, however as usual all opinions are our own!

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.


The Dragon Legend Cruise With Indochina Junk

We’ve just returned from our second visit to the wondrous and beautiful Halong Bay with Indochina Junk, and it was just as special as the first time!

If you’re wondering what it’s like to cruise Halong Bay with Indochina Junk, then read this detailed review. From the ship facilities, to excursion experiences, we cover it all (including our best photos and videos)!

Please note, we were invited back to Halong Bay by Indochina Junk to work in partnership with them, but as with everything on Worldly Nomads, our opinions remain our own!

An Indochina Junk Cruise

When we researched our first trip to Halong Bay back in 2012, we were overwhelmed by the huge number of options available! How long should we spend on Halong Bay? What kind of tour? What type of boat? Which company is the best? With so many conflicting reports online, our next best option was to take advice from some fellow travellers. They were quite insistent that we go with Indochina Junk, and that we’d have an amazing experience. So of course we took their advice, and well, it was soooo good that we left desperately wanting to return some day. Luckily that dream came true last month, and we’re now reporting back on our second incredible trip with Indochina Junk!

Indochina Junk
Indochina Junk’s beautiful Dragon Legend cruise ship

From the extremely fresh and delicious food (some of the best we’ve ever had and that’s no exaggeration!), to the incredibly friendly and professional staff, we absolutely loved everything about our Indochina Junk tour and would highly recommend them to anyone.

So for more details and what to expect, covering everything from the ship accommodation, to the food and kayaking excursions, this is a full guide. However before delving in, have a quick look at our short documentary video from our recent 3 days/2 nights cruise on their newest and very beautiful Dragon Legend cruise ship!

 

What To Expect From Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend Cruise?

The Ship Accommodation & Facilities

Our room onboard the ‘Dragon Legend 2’ cruise ship was complete luxury and totally exceeded our expectations! We’d been told that this new ship was a class above the ‘Dragon Pearl’ ship (the one we chose for our first adventure to beautiful Halong Bay) but we didn’t expect it to be quite so opulent! With traditional wood panelling and carvings, the rooms (as well as the rest of the ship) are full of authentic and tasteful decorative detail. It’s no wonder the ship took 2 years to build!

We also had LOTS of space and even our own little living area with a great big window which was perfect for enjoying the beautiful views from the comfort of our room!

Indochina Junk's Dragon Pearl ship
Our big comfy bed!
Indochina Junk Ship Accommodation
Our cosy living area and big window!

We’d got used to the usually hard mattresses in Vietnam, so it was a very welcome change to have a luxuriously soft mattress! I also appreciated having a lovely dressing table with mirror for getting ready and plenty of wardrobe space (a luxury I wasn’t used to during our travels!). The rooms also have A/C, a minibar and TV (not that you’ll have much time to watch it!).

Then there’s the bathroom…wow. Again we had a lovely big window so that we wouldn’t miss the views, but what we didn’t expect was the large jacuzzi-style bath, complete with separate shower and a hot towel rack! Naturally I was desperate to get into the bath to enjoy the novelty of admiring the bay views from my bubbles…yep I was in heaven. In fact writing this now makes me wish I was there again!

Indochina Junk boat
The jacuzzi-style bath
Indochina Junk ship room
Enjoying the views from my bath!

Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of time for jacuzzi baths as there’s so much to enjoy elsewhere onboard the ship! Nevermind the amazing excursions including kayaking, rowing boat trips and swimming! (See more on these in the excursions section below.)

The ship also features a beautiful sundeck area complete with a small but lovely pool and spa.

Dragon Legend ship
The sundeck onboard the Dragon Legend
indochina junk tour
The pool and spa area

The Food

The standard of food on the ship is some of the best we have ever experienced, and that’s no exaggeration! It’s no secret how much we love our food when we travel, especially Vietnamese cuisine (hence why we returned for more!) however the food served on the Dragon Legend (and the Dragon Pearl on our previous trip), was really amazing!

Not only is it all absolutely delicious and freshly prepared, the variety is incredible. Expect to eat everything from fresh crab, clams, tiger prawns, deep fried oysters (our new favourite!), stewed pork in hotpot to traditional chicken noodle soup (Pho Ga). Here’s a sample of some of the most delicious dishes we were served!

Indochina Junk food
Chef’s green salad with lime dressing
Indochina Junk food
Grilled clams with onion & butter sauce
Indochina Junk food
Steamed prawn in hot salt, lemongrass & ginger
Deep-fried Vong Vieng oyster with herbs
Sauteed squid with pineapple sauce
Grilled Beef
‘Hue’ royal steamed sea bass with spring onion
Pan-fried fish with curry sauce
Stewed pork in claypot

Just be prepared for LOTS of courses so each meal takes some time! But you really won’t mind that when you’re being served the most delicious food whilst sailing passed awe-inspiring views of endless limestone karts and islets!

Indochina Junk dining
Dining with a view!
Indochina Junk cruise
Table setting and wine menu
Indochina Junk food
Sample lunch menu

There are 2 dining rooms on the Dragon Legend ship, outdoors and indoors. Providing you have good weather, you’ll be served most of your meals at the beautiful outside area where you have uninterrupted views, however the inside dining area has big windows also allowing good views.

The same goes for the bar which has both an outdoors and inside option. If you’re lucky you’ll be welcomed by ‘Harry Potter’, nickname of the witty and confident head barman on the Dragon Legend 2. Just like all the staff on the ship, he is eager to please and will make sure he makes you the ‘perfect’ cocktail!! The bar is also well stocked, so you’ll be sure to find your perfect sundowner tipple!

Indochina Junk cruise
The bar area

The Excursions

Indochina Junk Dragon Legend

Indochina Junk Kayaking

Sailing around beautiful Bai Tu Long Bay (the quieter part of Halong Bay) on the Dragon Legend ship is just one amazing aspect of the cruise, and would be reason enough to visit! However, it’s the excursions that really make your trip, as these are the moments you get to discover this incredible place for yourself, and also get a little closer to the amazing towering limestone karsts and islets!

Bai Tu Long Bay

We took several kayaking trips during our 3 day/2 night cruise with Indochina Junk, the highlight of which was visiting this secret lagoon which involved carefully navigating our way through a dark limestone cave…it was so exhilarating to get inside!

Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay
Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay
Kayaking Halong Bay
Kayaking in a secret lagoon!

Another amazing feature of the bay is the wildlife. Once you get up close to the karsts on your kayak, you can see lots of little crabs and sea creatures crawling over the rocks. Looking up, you’re likely to see the most beautiful eagles soaring above you, as well as many beautiful butterflies fluttering passed. It’s quite amazing!

We also got the chance to visit this beautiful floating village and tour around it on a little rustic rowing boat with a local guide. It was a very peaceful way to appreciate the stunning views and learn about the fascinating way of life on this part of the bay. Imagine living here!

Halong Bay floating village
The floating village of Vung Vieng

The sunsets over Halong Bay are like no other, and we enjoyed our excursion to this private Indochina Junk beach where you can swim and admire the amazing sunset!

indochina junk tours
Indochina Junk’s private beach
indochina junk tours
Sunset on Bai Tu Long Bay

Bai Tu Long Bay sunset

For more images and a video of our excursion highlights, take a look at our highlights video over in our full Bai Tu Long Bay experience article. As you’ll see from our video, the huge advantage of sailing with Indochina Junk is that you’ll hardly see any other boats on your journey, as they have private access to some of the most beautiful parts of the area, making the experience even more peaceful.

(You can find a detailed summary our 3 days/2 nights cruise itinerary over on the Dragon Legend website.)

The Transport

The journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay takes around 4 hours (sometimes longer depending on traffic), including a toilet break around halfway at a large factory where you can pick up a snack or souvenirs too.

Included in your tour price is pick up and drop directly from your hotel in Hanoi, and the air-conditioned vans used are very comfortable with free water provided. This was one of our transfer vehicles.

Indochina junk tour

Nothing will prepare you for the crazy traffic on the roads, but that’s normal for Vietnam! All our drivers drove very safely, putting us at ease on the journey. It’s amazing to watch what the locals transport on the back of their motorbikes along the way, so just sit back and enjoy the view. We even saw one guy carefully balancing 6 huge tree plants strapped around a sack of rice on the back of his – incredible!

Once you arrive to Halong Bay, you’ll be welcomed by the lovely Indochina Junk staff and ushered to a nice cafe style waiting area where you’ll meet your tour guide and the rest of your fellow travellers. There’s also free wifi, water and toilets there. After a brief introduction, it’s time to board the small transfer boat to the ship. This is where it gets exciting as you’re finally on the bay for the first time and about to get your first glimpse of the ship (and your home) for the next couple of days!

Indochina Junk harbour area
Halong Bay port area where you board your ‘transfer’ boat
Indochina Junk boat transfer
Our boat transfer to the ship

Our Guide & Staff

indochina junk cruise

Last but not least, here are some of the wonderful staff of the Dragon Legend Ship!

There’s no doubt that you’ll have a great guide to accompany you on your tour, and the rest of the staff are also fantastic. We couldn’t fault the service. From the food and drinks, to the excursions and cleaning of our room, everything was perfect and ran like a well-oiled ship (sorry for the pun!).

Final Thoughts

You may already be familiar with the negative stories about some Halong Bay cruises, such as rat-infested boats, boat traffic and polluted waters, however this is why we’ve shared our amazing experience in detail! Be assured that there are brilliant options for cruises on Halong Bay, especially those provided by Indochina Junk, who we highly recommend!

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.


Mrs Vu Thi Thai & The Vietnam War

Meet Mrs Vu Thi Thai, an extraordinary woman we met in Northern Vietnam.

Like many others in Vietnam, Mrs Thai was heavily affected by the American (Vietnam) War. She lost her husband to the conflict when her son was only 4 years old, and she has remained without a partner since. As we discovered from our time with her, she is fiercely loyal to the husband she lost such a long time ago.

It was during our homestay experience in Yen Duc village when we asked if there was someone in the village whom we could talk with more about village life in Vietnam. What we thought would be an interesting insight into life in Vietnam, became a captivating, emotional rollercoaster, as she talked frankly about her life, the husband she lost to the Vietnam War, and her life since then. 

As with most of our interactions with locals in Vietnam, our talk with Mrs Thai revolved around food, as she prepared a traditional dish of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) for us. 

This is her story. 

 

Mrs Thai’s story touched us in a deeply emotional way. Just like our experience at the War Remnants museum, where the atrocities of the American War were laid out in brutal, frank detail, the story of her short marriage and subsequent life filled us with sadness.

From her perspective, she tells the story in a perfunctory manner, without a hint of emotion. Perhaps the years have dulled the pain, or perhaps, as she said herself, she still feels her husband’s presence often, taking comfort from this.

Our first interaction with Mrs Thai was typical of her strength of character and independence. We turned the corner of the narrow alleyway in Yen Duc village, and pulled up alongside a metal gate on our bicycles. To our right, down the alleyway was a dead-end, nothing but a gate…and a rogue hen that had escaped Mrs Thai’s yard.

We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be our first interaction with Mrs Thai. She came out of her home, a wide smile on her face coupled with a steely determination. She poked her head into the alleyway to see what all the commotion was about. Spotting one of her hens there, she didn’t hesitate, and went after the hen with vigour. We looked on in intrigue, after all, we wouldn’t know where to start when it came to catching a rogue hen!

 travel blog

 travel blog

Her first attempt at capturing the hen ended in failure, flapping its wings vigorously, it flew above her and back down the alleyway. But she wasn’t done with it yet. She hobbled back down the alleyway to corner the hen again. Again it launched itself into the air, and as soon as it hit the ground, Mrs Thai was down low, scooping it up by its legs and carried it back into her yard, a wide smile across her face. She seemed to revel in the challenge. 

We were to learn this was typical of her attitude and resourcefulness, even at 70 years of age.

As she wandered back into her home, Huong, our guide motioned for us to enter the yard and home.

“This is Mrs Vu Thi Thai, my neighbour.” She said.

As we entered her home, we felt much warmth from Mrs Thai, a common theme with our interactions with the Vietnamese people we had met. She spoke no English, but her voice was so distinct we would recognise it anywhere. As we entered the home, our guide translated for us.

“She is very proud to welcome you into her home. You are the first foreigners to visit her home!”

A day earlier, we had asked our guide if there was anyone in the village who would like to be featured in a very short film about their lives, and Huong had asked her neighbour if she would be interested. She jumped at the opportunity, and apparently she had been telling everyone in the village she was going to be famous!

She led us into her tiny kitchen area, the walls blackened by decades of a wood burning fire in the corner of the room. Along one side of the kitchen were wooden logs and sticks, stacked high in preparation for winter. In the corner lay a small area of concrete, where Mrs Thai was gathering various small twigs and sticks into a pile. She lit the fire, and hobbled off to get the food we had brought for her to cook.

 travel blog

 

We sat there, crouched on the floor of the kitchen and waited. She returned with an array of vegetables, spices and herbs for our lunch, and without fanfare began cooking.

As she cooked, Huong, our guide (and her neighbour), asked Mrs Thai about her life, and she reeled off the story you heard in the short film above. This wonderful woman, crouched over her wooden fire, reliving the saddest moments of her life as she made our lunch. It was a truly humbling experience, one that really really touched us.

After she finished cooking, we sat and ate our soup in the living area. Above us on the wall, hung proudly just below a photo of Ho Chi Minh, was her husband, forever young in his military clothing. She was keen to point him out, and commented on how handsome he was! We agreed.

 travel blog

 travel blog

Although we felt sadness for her, she didn’t feel sorry for herself. She had made a good life for herself, she had her son (now 47) and his wife and children, and a brother in the village, as well as neighbours looking out for her.

travel blog

After a little while chatting, and many smiles between ourselves and Mrs Thai, it was time to bid her farewell. We felt sad to leave, but her neighbour told us we had made her year just spending time with her, and she’ll be telling everyone in the village about it for months to come! As much as she may have enjoyed her time with us, she probably had no idea how much of an effect she had on us. 

As we left, Laura burst into tears as we cycled back to our homestay for the evening. It had been an emotional afternoon.

We decided we would buy her a gift and return tomorrow to surprise her with it. The next morning, we headed to the local market in search of a scarf for her for the impending winter. We couldn’t find one, but settled on buying her a brand new pillow to sleep on as the ones she had looked very old.

We returned the following morning, taking her by surprise as we entered the yard. She smiled and said something as she hobbled quickly into the house.

“Have we upset her?” We asked her neighbour nervously.

“No! She has gone into the house to put her good clothes on!” 

We laughed, and waited for her to emerge. When she returned, we gave her the new pillow, and she offered us to stay for lunch, such was her generosity. 

Our time with Mrs Thai had been very special for us, and we hope for her as well. We had heard first hand the terrible impact the American War had on the local population, and how she had coped afterwards. But more importantly, it reminded us how lucky we are to live the lives we do. 

travel blog

As we waved goodbye to Mrs Thai, she shouted to our guide:

“Tell them they must come back when they have children!”

We laughed, and promised to do so. We rounded the corner of the alleyway, and headed back into the lanes of Yen Duc village, our heads full of emotion and thoughts as we cycled back to our homestay.

For all the epic adventures we have when we travel, there is nothing better than the impact of spending time with a local, listening and learning about their lives, hoping to understand even a little insight into the countries and cultures we visit. We might talk mostly about the epic treks we take on, or the famous monuments we visit, but it’s the people we meet who remain in our thoughts, and in our hearts. We will never forget our time with Mrs Thai. 

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.


Bai Tu Long Bay: A Heavenly Slice Of Halong Bay

Leaning on the wooden handrail of our boat, we looked out at the incredible view in front of us. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of towering limestone karsts protruded from the lush turquoise waters of Bai Tu Long Bay.

We were back in Bai Tu Long Bay, the magnificent World Heritage site in the North of Vietnam. This was our second trip on the bay, and it was just as spectacular and awe-inspiring as the first time! Take a glimpse by watching our epic highlights video below!

 

Halong Bay, or to be precise, Bai Tu Long Bay, the private area of the bay where our Dragon Legend cruise took us, is a place of outstanding natural beauty. Covering a total area of 1,500 km2, Halong Bay extends out as far as the eye can see, filled with beautiful islets and limestone karsts. Each totally unique in shape and colour, rich with bright green blooms of jungle vegetation.

Bai Tu Long Bay karsts

Bai Tu Long Bay cruise

It was a dream come true to return, especially because we were back with the same tour company who took us on our first adventure to Bai Tu Long Bay 3 years ago, the awesome Indochina Junk. But this time we were on the larger and rather grand new ‘Dragon Legend II’ cruise ship. It was so exciting!!

Bai Tu Long Bay ship
Our beautiful cruise ship, the Dragon Legend II

The scale of Halong Bay is hard to comprehend. With thousands of limestone karsts and islets stretching for an incredible 120km of coastline, it’s truly a sight of epic proportions. However, as you pass through the various islets and channels, it becomes hard to truly appreciate their scale, so the best way is to get up close with the karsts in a kayak!

Bai Tu Long Bay kayaking

Slipping into a small kayak, and paddling away from your ship, immediately gives you a much better sense of the scale and grandeur of Bai Tu Long Bay. The limestone karts are simply enormous, and dwarfed our tiny kayak as we paddled around them! Yes that is us in our kayak!

Bai Tu Long Bay bay video

Bai Tu Long Bay video

As the tide ebbs and flows, it reveals different colours on the karsts as the water gradually works its way into the base of each karst. The result is a spectacular top heavy rock, many of which you feel could push over given enough leverage.

Bai Tu Long Bay towering karsts

As you paddle close to the karsts, they come to life as thousands of small grey crabs cling to the sides, scuttling in and out of the various holes and crevices at the bases. Looking up, the lush green vegetation and bushes protrude from the sides of the karsts, demonstrating an uncanny knack for flourishing in the most unique of places.

For us, kayaking is the highlight of a visit to Bai Tu Long Bay especially when we get to paddle into secret lagoons…

Kayaking To A Secret Lagoon

Up ahead, lay a small entrance in the never ending karst’s wall which, amazingly, turned out to be the access point to a secret lagoon, only accessible at certain tide levels. Our luck was in today, as the tide was low enough to paddle through. So we slowed our kayak, and entered the darkness.

Bai Tu Long Bay video

Navigating in darkness through a cave is difficult as you can imagine, the various stalagmites hanging down threatening to hit our heads, whilst the shallow waters gave many opportunities for capsizing. However after 5 minutes or so of slow and not so steady paddling, we saw daylight up ahead!

Blinking as we entered back into the daylight, we looked to find ourselves in a large lagoon, surrounded on all sides by towering limestone cliffs, woah! The water here was calm and serene, and the lagoon almost silent with only the sound of swooping birds and the echo of our voices. We naturally stopped paddling to enjoy the moment, it was such a beautiful place.

Bai Tu Long Bay video Lagoon

It was a strange feeling being in the lagoon, knowing the only way out is back the way we came! So after some moments of tranquility, it was time to head back through the shallow waters of the cave and follow our guide back to our ship, before any major tidal changes! What an adventure it had been!

Bai Tu Long Bay cruising

Extremely satisfied from our amazing lagoon adventure, we returned to the ship to get ready for our next adventure to Thien Canh Son cave, the location for our dinner that evening. And what a setting it was!

Bai Tu Long Bay cave dinner
Beautiful Thien Canh Son Cave on Hon Co island, Bai Tu Long Bay

Bai Tu Long Bay cave dinner
Our amazing cave dinner setting!

Aside from enjoying all the delicious fresh seafood and our favourite Vietnamese dishes (have we mentioned how much we love Vietnamese food?!), the other highlight of our time on Bai Tu Long Bay was once again the incredible sunsets. Set against the hundreds of limestone cliffs, with the right mix of clear sky and cloud, they are truly magical and unique!

Bai Tu Long Bay sunset

There’s nowhere else quite like Bai Tu Long Bay and for us, it has a unique way of making us feel calm and relaxed. We also had time to chill out on a mini beach at the foot of a huge karst to watch another incredible sunset!

Bai Tu Long Bay sunset

With only miles and miles of beautiful karsts and the occasional boat slipping by, there’s no wonder it’s a great place to clear the mind and truly live in the moment.

Bai Tu Long Bay sunset

The sunrises weren’t too shabby either! We witnessed some rather atmospheric and moody clouds surrounding our boat over the bay…!

Bai Tu Long Bay sunrise

The last day of our 3 days, 2 nights tour was just as exciting and rewarding. Starting with an early morning visit to the floating fishing village of Vung Vieng, we got a fascinating glimpse into the floating lives of the local families who inhabit the area.

Bai Tu Long Bay
Vung Vieng fishing village, Bai Tu Long Bay

The village is beautifully surrounded by a spectacular wall of karsts, best viewed from a small boat, so once again we disembarked our ship and slipped into these small rustic rowing boats to tour the peaceful area.

Bai Tu Long Bay village
Rowing around Vung Vieng fishing village

Despite this being our second visit, we absolutely loved our time on Bai Tu Long Bay again, especially with the wonderful crew of the Dragon Legend cruise ship from Indochina Junk. We would highly recommend this cruise, or any of Indochina Junk’s tours. It’s not often that we make such bold recommendations about a company however based on both of our amazing Bai Tu Long Bay experiences (you can read about our first visit here!) and our incredible Yen Duc Village tour, we’ve always had awesome, authentic, professional and friendly experiences with them.

A cruise around Bai Tu Long Bay could be the highlight of your trip. It certainly was for us.

Bai Tu Long Bay Dragon Legend sunset
Sunset over the Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay

Top Tips For Visiting Bai Tu Long Bay (Halong Bay)

  • Choose your company wisely! Unfortunately many visitors to Halong Bay don’t have such a positive experience. Stories of rat infested boats, boat traffic and polluted waters are enough to put anyone off! However if you do your research properly and don’t take a super cheap option, you should have an amazing experience. As we’ve said, we highly recommend Indochina Junk based on our experience.
  • Loosen your budget and splurge a little! It can be tempting to cut costs and go for the cheaper option, but when it comes to this once in a lifetime experience, we recommend stretching your budget a little!
  • The time will fly by so go for at least 2 nights! It takes at least 4 hours to get to Bai Tu Long Bay by car from Hanoi, so going for just 1 night really makes for a flying visit. The last day of most itineraries (including a 2 day 1 night option) consists of an early morning breakfast, short morning excursion (final boat or kayaking trip) then return to Halong Bay port by lunchtime so if you only go for 1 night you will probably be on your boat for less than 24 hours which is just so short! We found that the time really flies by, especially including meals and excursions so we recommend booking at least 2 nights 3 days to make the the most of it! You can find the full detailed itinerary of what to expect on the 3 days 2 nights trip that we took over on the Dragon Legend website.

Disclaimer: we partnered with Indochina Junk for this trip, but as with everything on our blog, our opinions above are an honest account of what we experienced.

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here. Or, considering a trip to the similarly beautiful limestone karsts of El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines? Check our our experience and tips on El Nido Tours here.


Rudy Trekker camp

The Ultimate Rinjani Trekking Experience

Welcome to the ultimate Mount Rinjani trekking guide! This guide will give you a detailed account of the trek, which for us is one of our most epic adventures, with some of the most incredible landscapes we’ve ever witnessed!

A Mount Rinjani trek it is not for the faint-hearted, it’s gruelling and physically intense, but if you’re up to it, the rewards are breathtaking.

In this guide to Mount Rinjani trekking, we’ll cover:

1. Each day of the Mount Rinjani trekking experience

2. What to pack for trekking Mount Rinjani

3. Our top tips to help you through the trek

4. Where to go (with accommodation recommendation) to recover after you complete your trek

You can also click on any of these points to go directly to that section of the guide.

1. Daily review of the Mount Rinjani trekking experience

This is a full, no holds barred account of our 3 nights and 4 days on Mount Rinjani with Rudy Trekker. It’s a long read (over 7,000 words!), but if you want the most comprehensive write-up of the Rinjani trekking experience, alongside some essential top tips (all of which we’ve summarised at the end), then this is the article for you! For the record, some of the views on this trek are the best we have ever seen in all of our travels!

First, have a look at our documentary highlights video before you dive into the story of our trek (it’s only 2 minutes long)!

We began with clear blue skies. Ahead of us, dominating the skyline, and everything around it, was the epic and awe-inspiring Mount Rinjani. A simple sign pointed us in the right direction, a wooden stick and piece of cardboard stuck out of the ground in sharp contrast to the dominating sight of Mount Rinjani in the distance. This is where it all begins. 

Rinjani trekking

Rinjani trekking
Eyeing up our target!

There are few treks where the scale of the challenge is laid out so obviously. Ahead of us lay 4 days and 3 nights of Mount Rinjani trekking and hiking, culminating with a 2am summit attempt at 3,726 metres altitude. We didn’t know it then, but the next 4 days would be some of the most difficult and challenging trekking we have ever attempted. The next 4 days would also provide some of the most rewarding experiences and epic landscapes we have ever seen! And no, we’re not exaggerating.

Our Rinjani Trekking Experience

Rinjani Trekking Day 1 (Sembalun Village 1,150m – Sembalun Crater Rim 2,639m)

The day started innocently enough. A hearty buffet breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and tea at Rudy Trekker HQ (you can see all the food we ate in our practical trekking Rinjani review). We’d booked a private tour, not because we’re unsociable, but more as a tacit acknowledgement that we were more than likely to be slower than most people attempting the climb, so we wanted to go at our own pace and not annoy anyone who wanted to go faster. This decision would prove wise as the trek unfolded.

Mount Rinjani trek

Rinjani trekking

After signing in at the national park checkpoint, we lugged our backpacks onto our backs, and began our trek. It was 8.30am when we started, but already the sun was beating down on us, the temperature rising with every step.

The first couple of hours were simple and leisurely. We walked through a barren land, scorched in places by the intense heat of the sun as the path gently snaked up and down the hills, guiding us on our way. For these first few hours, the mighty Mount Rinjani towered above us, the deep blue morning sky punctured now by wisps of white cloud gathering around the summit. This was the easy part.

Trekking Mount Rinjani

Mount Rinjani trek

Mt Rinjani trek
Checkpoint 1, Day 1
Rinjani trekking
A STRONG porter!

After a couple of hours, we stopped for a hearty lunch. Our guide, Hans, pulled out two foldaway chairs to sit on as the porters prepared our lunch. We were the envy of many other groups as they sat on the floor without chairs! Lunch was magnificent, just what we needed to fuel our day of trekking. A salad to start with, followed by a large plate of chicken, rice, egg, fried noodles and tofu. To finish, some fresh watermelon, apples, pineapple and oranges. This lunch would set the tone for the rest of the trek, delicious and filling.

After lunch, we began the proper climbing. The first part was through wide open plains we’d grown accustomed to, but as we climbed higher we entered the forest. The temperature and mood changed significantly, the bright blue skies gave way to grey, miserable clouds above us. Our mood reflected this, as we went from cheery and excitable to quieter and more focused on getting up the side of the volcano before night fall.

Mount Rinjani trek day 1

Monkey on Mount Rinjani trek

After a further couple of hours, the temperature dropped even further as we left behind the baking hot sun drenched plains and began to move through the cloud line, and into the clouds themselves. Seeing clouds close in around you is an amazing experience, and it happened as we leaned against a tree having a break. To our left, small wisps of white and grey appeared, followed at great pace by the clouds rolling down the mountain and over us. In a matter of minutes, we went from blue skies and sunshine to grey, wet nothingness all around us. This trek just got serious!

Rinjani trek

For the next few hours, we continued to climb through the clouds, the water in the air occasionally ‘raining’ on us as we climbed higher. The wet conditions made the climb a little treacherous, as we avoided climbing on the thousands of tree roots that stood between us and the ridge. We kept our heads down, and pushed on.

Mount Rinjani trek

After 6-7 hours of climbing, our guide Hans called back to us:

“Almost there!” He shouted, with quiet indifference. 

We stopped to look up, and there it was! Perhaps 20 minutes above us, the top of the ‘ridge’ (our summit for the day) was in sight at last! With renewed vigour, we laboured on hoping for our first view of the Rinjani crater lake. However after 7 hours or so of climbing and much effort, we were rewarded with a view of…wait for it…NOTHING! 

Yep that’s right, visibility was limited to a few metres in front of us due to the incessant clouds we’d spent the last few hours climbing through. Dammit!

Mount Rinjani trek Sembalun crater rim
Sembalun Crater Rim (Pelawangan Sembalun) 2,639m altitude

We found our campsite and settled down, happy to have made it to base camp but disappointed with the cloud cover. It was cold now at the ridge summit, and we piled on our fleeces, waterproof jackets, gloves and woolly hats to stay warm. Perched on our foldaway seats, we looked straight out at what seemed like a white, black canvas in front of us, the clouds completely blocking out the sun and the view below. We ate our dinner and sat quietly for half an hour or so, and then, a gap in the clouds appeared!

Mount Rinjani trek Camp Night 1
Our night 1 campsite & Laura eating dinner with a view!

For the next couple of hours, the clouds swirled below us, occasionally giving us a glimpse of the lake and crater. At the time we were pretty disappointed with the weather, but looking back now, given that we had almost perfect weather the rest of our trek, we can’t really complain about the first night’s weather. 

RInjani trek crater lake
Our first view of Rinjani’s caldera lake (Segara Anak)

After dinner, we also got our first glimpse of our route to the summit, which we would be attempting in pitch darkness at 2am the following morning. Seeing this was not good for our motivation, the summit was still a long way away, and would take at least 4 hours for us, giving us an arrival time at the summit of 6am. Tomorrow morning was going to be rough!

Mount Rinjani trek summit view
The imposing summit view from Sembalun crater rim (night 1)

Sunset that evening was spectacular, made all the more epic by our camping location!

rinjani trek sembalun crater camp day 1

We went to bed around 8pm that night, readying ourselves for the 2am wake up call, and our night-time ascent attempt to the summit. We slept fitfully, nervous about what the next day would bring.

Rinjani Trekking Day 2 Morning (Sembalun Crater Rim 2,639m – Rinjani Summit 3,726m)

It was 01:45, and we could hear our porters and guide moving about outside their tent. It was still completely dark, aside from the millions of stars lighting up the night sky. If we weren’t so nervous about the climb, we may have stood in awe and quiet reflection of the beautiful night sky. It looked truly magnificent. Alas, we couldn’t enjoy it – our minds were elsewhere. We were mentally gearing up for our attack on the summit.

Hans (our patient guide) called for us from outside the tent, and we tentatively poked our heads out to receive our omelette and some tea. As we sat there, group after group trudged passed our tent, each beginning their own attempt at the summit. We pulled on every layer we had, flicked on our headlamps, grabbed our walking poles, and began.

At 02:30, it was time for us to leave.

This might all sound a bit dramatic. After all, we were hardly attempting the summit of Everest. But to us, with almost no sleep from the night before, and total darkness affording us no view of our path, it was nerve-wracking.

The next two hours would be gruelling. We began by ascending the steep side of the ridge, which would take 2 hours to reach the top of the ridge. From there, it would take another 2 hours to walk along the ridge and ascend the final section to the summit (3,726m).

The first 20 minutes or so were relatively comfortable, as we clambered up and down small peaks as we slowly made our way upwards. But after this trekking aperitif, it was time for the main course.

Beneath our feet, the rocks and mud we had grown accustomed to gave way to volcanic dust. Imagine trying to climb an incredibly steep sand dune, except it isn’t a sunny warm day, and you’re not even on a beach. On no, in fact, your trying to climb this sand dune at 03:00 in the morning, it’s dark, it’s cold, you’re 3,000 metres up the side of a volcano, and it’s going to take you 4 hours! Yeh, sounds great.

If you could put yourself in our dust covered shoes for a moment, your morale may have been as low as ours was at that point.

Hans reached into his bag at this point and handed us a dust mask each to wear over our mouths and noses. We wrapped these around us, and looked up. Although we could see nothing of the climb in the dark, in the distance we could see the twinkle of headlamps way up the ridge. Sometimes there would only be 2. Must be a pair of climbers. Sometimes there was a train of 5 or 6 lights, like a trail of fluorescent ants on a black canvas. Each light provided us with a guide marker in the distance of where we had to go. What we would have given to swap places with those climbers at that point!

We soldiered on, and as we climbed we were passed by a few faster groups making their way to the summit, each battling their own inner demons as they climbed. Every now and then, a pair of climbers would pass us coming down the ridge. Evidently deciding the task was too tough for them.

This brought with it conflicting emotions for us. In part it spurred us on to know there were others struggling worse than us, but in part it made us battle our own thoughts of turning back. But we didn’t, we pushed on.

Two steps forward, one step back. That was the routine in the volcanic dust. The route at our feet was relatively clear to us with our headlamps, but the darkness either side of the path worried us. All sorts of visions and questions were running through our heads:

“Are we clambering alongside steep edges into the volcano?”

“What if we slip now? Are we doomed?”

We had no idea, it was frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. But we trusted our guide and we trusted our tour company wouldn’t put us in great harm. Sure, trekking up a volcano is more dangerous than staying at home, but as we always do in these circumstances, we put our trust in the hands of the experts, they know what they’re doing.

It’s at these points on our adventures where we are reassured by our decisions to trek with local experts. We saw a few groups go up without a guide, and fair play to them, everyone has their own level of experience and confidence. But we always prefer to have a guide with us, and they have been critical to us a few times on our adventures, including when we were stranded in a Saharan sandstorm, or when we climbed Mount Toubkal in freezing temperatures. Our advice is clear, always research and pick your tour company and guide carefully. If things go wrong, they might just save your life.

Anyway, back to our Mount Rinjani summit attempt.

After around another hour or so, we stopped for a short break. We were 3/4 of the way up the ridge wall, and another 20 minutes would see us reach the top of the ridge. As we sat there, slumped on the sandy volcanic dust we had been battling for the last hour, way below us we could make out the twinkling of fires at our campsite below. It was one of those moments that seemed completely unreal both at the time, and looking back.

We’re not the most ardent trekkers or walkers, and I dare say we don’t enjoy every moment of a trek. But there is something about trekking that brings out the best in us, and our relationship. To go through a challenge so exhausting together, and to achieve something many people don’t, is the reason we take on these climbs. As was when we climbed Mount Toubkal in winter in Morocco, and Villarrica volcano in Chile, the most memorable of experiences come from the most trying of circumstances.

And these circumstances were certainly trying. As more campfires flickered into life below us, it was time to turn our backs on our temporary home and get ourselves to the ridge. We hustled ourselves up off the volcanic dust, and pushed ourselves on. One foot forward, slide back a bit. Other foot forward, slide back a bit. All the while the light of our head torches capturing the thousands of tiny dust particles kicked up with every step.

25 minutes later we made it to the top of the ridge. A cool gust of wind flowed over and around us. We stopped for a moment to get our bearings. In front of us, laid out in pitch darkness, was the crater lake of Mount Rinjani (Segara Anak), resplendent with its jewel in the crown, Gunung Barujari, a post-caldera cone that lies within it. Although it was pitch darkness, we could make out the caldera rim encircling the lake, and to our left we could see our route to the summit.

Hans (our guide) shouted above the wind:

“2.5 hours to the summit!”

He told us this partly as information, but probably mostly as a warning. Our interpretation of this statement?

The worst was yet to come.

We began walking along the ridge, tentatively putting one foot in front of the other. Some parts of the ridge were wide, some narrow with frighteningly steep slopes into the caldera. We proceeded with extreme caution.

After 30 minutes, a slow realisation began creeping over us. It was 04:30, and we had another 2 hours of climbing to complete to the summit. At this rate, we would be somewhere up the ridge as the sun rose. Basically we would miss the sunrise. I was also absolutely exhausted, and worried about the fact we still had 3 days of trekking to complete, even after this morning summit ascent (including a further 4 hours today).

Our attack on the summit was fading, but what to do? Sunrise was still an hour and a half away, and it was cold. Without any other real options, we decided to continue climbing, without any real plan in place. Perhaps we might find somewhere sheltered where we could hunker down for sunrise. Or find a rock to crouch behind. Either way, we ploughed on.

It was at this point that something remarkable happened. Something so perfectly fitting for our situation that it all made sense. One of those moments that occur when travelling where you can’t help but smile at the way the universe conspires to provide you with a solution.

mount rinjani trek night

Up ahead, perhaps 100 metres away, there was a small glow on the ridge. As we trekked closer, it became clear that there was a small campfire right on the ridge of the volcano! Sat next to it was an older guide, warming his hands in the darkness. This is going to sound cheesy, but at the time, it was one of the most beautiful things we have ever seen.

Imagine the emotions. We’ve just spent a day and a half climbing up a volcano, much of it in the middle of the night, in pitch darkness. We’re covered in dust, exhausted, and cold. We’re pretty sure we’re not going to achieve our goal of the summit, yet there seemingly isn’t any other option available to us.

And then, in front of us, is a kind old guide of 25 years experience, beckoning us over to join him by his fire. We looked at each other, and the decision was made. We would sit here, chat with our guides, and watch the sunrise from here. And so we sat, and munched on cookies on the rim of an active volcano, warming our hands by the fire as the sun rose.

It was truly one of our happiest travel moments.

Rinjani trek fire
Our kind and friendly guide companions

Sometimes in life you just have to be honest with yourself, and do what you feel is right at that moment. Yes of course we wanted to conquer Mount Rinjani, and we were so close. Another 2 hours and we would have our summit bagged. But sometimes you have to think about what you would enjoy and remember more.

We had a choice, endure the pain and frustration of clambering up a ridge as the sun rose out of sight from us, or sit by a fire with new friends and soak up the moment. For us there was no question. Egos left us, and we soaked up this once in a lifetime moment.

As we sat by our fire, the stars in the sky slowly disappeared, one by one being drowned out by the impending rise of the sun. Only the moon was still visible. In the distance, on the horizon, the darkness gave way to brilliant reds, yellows and oranges, as a thin line of colour punctured the darkness.

Mount Rinjani trek sunrise
First glimpse of sunrise over Rinjani

Then the sun rose behind Rinjani, and with a bed of clouds lying below us in the distance, the silhouette of Rinjani projected itself over the island of Lombok. It was remarkable to see, and reminded us of just how epic the mountain was. Can you see the shadow of Rinjani spread out in the distance?

Mount Rinjani trek shadow
Rinjani’s towering shadow over Segara Anak Lake

We huddled together and soaked it all in. The sky around us grew in colour as reds turned to oranges and yellows, and finally blues. We got our first glimpse of Gunung Barujari volcano, nestled in the caldera lake below.

Mount Rinjani trek caldera

It was incredible to witness. We left the guides by the fire and climbed a little further up the trail, and stood in awe of the view below us. We were completely alone, and stood for a few minutes as more and more of the crater was revealed to us.

We may not have made it to the summit, but spending an hour and a half sitting on the ridge of a volcano as the sun rose was pretty special for us.

At around 06:30, we began to make our way back to camp from the ridge. We bid our farewells to our camp fire friend, and walked back down the route we had come up. This was the first time we were able to see our route from earlier in the morning. With the crater rim snaking out in front of us, narrow parts gave way to shear drops in parts, but in general the route was clear and safe. Our darkness visions of what lay around us proved to be, for the most part, wildly exaggerated.

Heading down, we stopped for one last view of the caldera of the lake and volcano below. We may not have reached the summit, but we had a memory that will stay with us forever.

Rinjani trek caldera lake view

The journey back to base camp was easy and enjoyable, the loose volcanic dust that had been such a hindrance for us on the way up, became a fun and soft way to launch our way back down the ridge, and we took huge strides as the soft under footing allowed us to jog down in some places.

Descending Mount Rinjani

Within 45 minutes we were back at base camp, and our porters were ready with a hot cup of tea and our second breakfast of the day. This is where our porters really came into their own. Not only did they carry all our tents, food and cooking equipment, they were also experts at rustling up incredible meals for us.

So as we sat outside our tent at 08:00 in the morning, our guide Hans came over with our second breakfast, a burger with cheese, egg, salad and chips! How do they do it? From a small camping stove our porters created remarkable dishes. Never mind that it was the earliest we had ever eaten a burger, we scoffed it down in our tent. The hardest part of the four day trek was behind us, and we were relieved.

After an hour or so of resting, it was time to make our way down the side of the caldera and into the heart of the volcano. We packed up our bags, loaded up on water and biscuits, and left camp behind.

Rinjani Trekking Day 2 Late Morning (Sembalun Crater Rim 2,639m – Segara Anak Lake and Hot Springs 2,008m)

Our plan was simple. We were to spend the next 3.5 hours clambering down the side of the caldera, finishing up on the shore of the lake way below us, where we would camp for the evening. The lake looked tantalisingly close, but it was an onerous climb down the side of the volcano to make it there.

Rinjani trek caldera lake view
Descending 600m from Sembalun crater rim to Segara Anak lake, Day 2

This part of the trek was relatively simple, we stepped, jumped and clambered over huge boulders and rocks on our way down. 2.5 hours later we had reached the valley floor, and from here it was around 1 hour to the lake. It was 11:30 at this point, and getting very hot. We buckled down and moved across the valley without a word between us, stopping only to take on water and a biscuit every now and then.

Rinjani trek
Beautiful valley view on our descent

After a short pause to admire the beautiful valley view below, we kept moving. It had already been a very long day (2am to lunchtime) and we just wanted to reach the lake, and the fabled hot springs.

Yes, you read that correctly. Natural, volcanically heated hot springs awaited us at our destination!

If that didn’t spur us on, nothing would.

The last half an hour was really tough, with the intense heat and our now aching feet pushing our limits. However, we pushed on through the exhaustion and made it to the shore of the lake. And boy was it worth it!

Mount Rinjani trek lake view

For some reason, we both hadn’t really considered what it would be like to be down by the lake. We’d talked about what the views would be like at the summit and on the ridge, but neither of us had any thought to the view we would have from the lake.

Perhaps that’s why we were so blown away by the view in front of us.

Mount Rinjani trek lake
Rinjani’s caldera lake of Segara Anak (2,008m altitude)

It’s hard to really articulate how it felt to be there. We’d already trekked for 2 days to reach this point, but more than that was the fact we’d travelled halfway around the world in the first place, with the Mount Rinjani trek being one of the main reasons drawing us back to Indonesia. To finally be here, and witness this incredible view was so very special.

As we stood on the waters edge, it gently lapping against the shore, we watched the porters cast rudimentary fishing lines into the lake, which they had baited. And then they waited. It was a calming and serene scene.

Porters hunkered down in crouched positions, laughing and talking with each other on the shore. As we cast the focus of our eyes further into the distance, the lake spread out in front of us, a dark blue shimmering body which drew the eyes further away until the imposing shape of Gunung Barujari volcano appeared, quite literally growing out of the centre of the lake.

Rinjani trek post-caldera cone
Smoking hot Gunung Barujari volcano (inside Rinjani)

This volcano was truly remarkable, and it’s worth repeating that the small volcano you see here, sits in the middle of the caldera lake of another, larger volcano. Before we had heard of Mount Rinjani, we had no idea that a place so beautiful and awe-inspiring could exist!

Without wishing to sound dramatic, it was the most incredible natural landscape we have ever witnessed, above even the places we saw in Antarctica and South America.

It was truly mind blowing.

As we sat on the lake edge, our lunch was delivered to us, and we sat and ate as various gases and steam were slowly released from the volcano in front of us. It was almost like the volcano was resting just as we were, recovering and waiting before going again.

Gunung Barujari in Mount Rinjani

This beautiful vista was only tainted by one thing, the sheer exhaustion inside both of us. I (Barry) in particular was struggling, I felt incredibly dehydrated, dizzy, hot and tired. As we sat on the lake edge, I guzzled down various rehydration salts, ibuprofen and food to sort me out. It was a rough couple of hours by that lake as I tried to pull myself together.

After lunch and a rest, it was time to hit the hot springs and miraculously heal our aching muscles. We trekked the 10 minutes from the lake’s edge to the springs, and dipped ourselves in the hot waters.

RInjani trek Hot Springs

Mount Rinjani trek Hot Springs
Soaking away our aches and pains in the hot springs

We soaked our weary muscles for half an hour, before it was time to make our way to our tent.

We hauled our weary bodies back up the steep path we’d descended to reach the springs and hoped it wasn’t too far to reach our final resting place for the day. At this point, all we wanted was to collapse in our tent!  But alas it turned out that we had some more hiking to do yet. It was incredibly disheartening to walk passed tent after tent, every time hoping the next one would be ours.

We’ll admit that we quietly cursed under our breaths at our porters and guide’s decision on where to camp at this point. Why couldn’t they just camp nearby? We are exhausted!

“10 more minutes!”, Hans shouted from up ahead.

Just where the heck were we camping? All we wanted to do was stop walking, after all every other group was already relaxing by their tents. And we had to walk passed them all too. We were very frustrated! 

All our cursing abruptly ended a minute later however. Our guide and porters had arranged something very special for us.

We reached the lake edge, and in the distance, along the shore, we could see one solitary yellow tent pitched on the water’s edge. As we got closer, we realised the amazing effort our guides had gone to. They had raced to the lake to arrive before any other porters, and set us up on our own private beach with a direct view of the volcano. The emotions of it all were almost too much. We lay in our tent and couldn’t quite believe where we were.

Mount Rinjani trek caldera lake view
Camping with a view on night 2!

I just wish we felt better than we did at this point. We guzzled down various rehydration sachets and sugary drinks, and lay prone for most of the afternoon in the tent. Occasionally we would both sit up and admire the view again before laying back down. This view from our tent was incredibly special, and will remain with us for the rest of our lives.

That night, we wolfed down a bowl of noodle soup (again, delicious) and hit the sack around 7pm. It had been a rollercoaster day. We’d began trekking at 2am, attempted the summit which now towered above us, and made our way down and across the massive valley to where we were now. We were physically wrecked. 

Rinjani trek summit view
Mount Rinjani summit in the distance

Hans came over to our tent that evening:

“Hardest day done. Tomorrow, only 3 hours up to Senaru crater rim. Leave at 8.”

We slept deeply that night, and awoke around 6am. Gone was the exhaustion from the day before. We were well hydrated, we felt well and we were ready for our third day on our Mount Rinjani trek!

Rinjani Trek Day 3 (Segara Anak Lake 2,008m – Senaru Crater Rim 2,641m)

What a difference a day makes. Half a day of resting in our tent the day before, followed by a good night’s sleep, and we were ready to climb up the other side of the caldera. As we were on a 3 night/4 day trek, we were afforded the luxury of only a 3 hour climb up the caldera side today. If we were on a 2 night/3 day trek, we would have to climb the caldera and then descend the 5 hours back to Senaru village (601m) all in the same day. This is a big decision, and if you have time, take the 3 night option as it gives you more time to recover on the third day, plus you get to camp on the caldera rim again and enjoy the views rather than stop for a break and then leave it all behind! 

Hans and our porters gave us a choice of when to begin trekking, and we opted for an 8am start as we would usually wake around 6am anyway, and we didn’t want to trek in the midday sun.

So we ate breakfast, packed our bags and began our climb to the top of the Senaru crater rim.

Taking in our view of the lake one more time, we turned and began our climb, first through the forest which surrounded the lake, the shade of the trees providing respite from the already hot, beating sun. After an hour and a half, we left behind the forest and began the much harder, steeper ascent to the crater summit.

Mount Rinjani trek view day 3 trekking

This was where it became necessary in places to essentially climb up rocks and boulders, using our hands to pull ourselves up. In some places, there were rudimentary metal hand rails to pull ourselves up, but most of the time we basically found hand and footholds in the rock, and pulled ourselves up.

This part of the trek provides the most stunning views of the whole Mount Rinjani trek experience, so be sure to stop and take in the view at various points on the way up. 

Mount Rinjani trek Caldera Lake View Day 3
Mount Rinjani Caldera Lake Panoramic View, Day 3

If you’re a keen photographer, the views of the lake halfway up are much better than the view from the top, so don’t wait until the top to snap some iconic photos.

Rinjani trek Caldera Lake View
The best view we have ever witnessed!

After 3.5 hours, we reached the top of the crater, and boy were we happy!

It was almost midday at this point, and the sun was at its ferocious best, beating down on us. Our camp was once again perched in the best location, right on the crater rim and completely alone, but also completely exposed to the midday sun. There was literally nowhere to escape the intense heat.

The inside of our tent was like a furnace, outside was not much better. Now we could see why our guide offered to begin climbing after lunch, to avoid this intense heat at the top. But the way we saw it, we could either bare the brunt of the heat at the top, or climb up the volcano in the same heat. Either way we were going to be hot!

Our only solution was to lie just outside our tent, with our heads in the shade of our tent awning to avoid the sun on our faces. We lay there for an hour before all of a sudden the sun disappeared from above – the clouds were back!

Mount Rinjani trek clouds

This time, instead of being disappointed, we were elated! Over the next hour, the clouds whipped over us, bringing the temperature down, and then, from nowhere, the heavens opened and the rain lashed against the outside of our tent. Once again we were right in the middle of the clouds, the rain beating down on our tent.

We huddled inside our tent, thankful for the respite from the heat. After half an hour, the clouds partially cleared and the rain stopped.

By this point, Laura had fallen asleep, as had the porters and our guide. It was only 3pm, so the other groups coming up from Senaru hadn’t arrived at the crater summit yet. I clambered out of the tent, took my fold away seat and sat looking out on the lake below. I felt completely alone on the ridge, my only company was a handful of birds swooping around our tent, almost like they were playing a game of who could get close to the tent without hitting it.

The game quickly became, let’s see how close we can swoop onto Barry’s hat! Perhaps they thought it was a nest, perhaps they just saw the inherent fashionista styling of my hat and wanted it for themselves. Who knows. What I do know is that over the course of the next 15 minutes, they got more and more confident in swooping down on me, an almost silent whoosh accompanying the closest of fly bys.

It was a serene experience to sit atop the crater rim edge, and look out below. The volcano eerily silent, not even one other human to be seen. I sat there and pondered all that had occurred over the last couple of days, from our tough first day climb, to our failed summit attempt, to the campfire on the ridge, to the lake and our view from our tent, to the toughness of the trek and how ill I had felt the previous day.

All of this washed over me as I sat on the ridge.

After a while, Laura woke and joined me on the peak. We watched as our guide and porters stirred, and as the first groups who were only just beginning their treks began arriving from Senaru at their first night campsite. The groups we would share the ridge with that night were doing our route in the opposite direction.

We watched as they arrived after their first day, still clean and full of energy. We looked at ourselves, almost 4 days into our trek, covered head to toe in dust, bedraggled after all our trekking, the smiles on our faces beaming. Yes we were exhausted and dusty, but we were almost done! These guys still had it all to do.

Sunset that evening was a mixed occasion. For much of the early evening, the clouds covered the lake and our site, but every now and again, the clouds would clear, and the results were spectacular.

Mount Rinjani trek Camp Night 3

Our third campsite was just as epic as the previous two.

Mount Rinjani trek camp sunset
Night 3 camp sunset

As the sun dipped behind the horizon, the sky once again lit up around us.

Mount RInjani trek camp 3
Eating dinner with a view!

We sat and ate our fried rice, egg and crackers as the temperature plummeted around us, before retiring to our tent for the evening. We slept soundly again that evening, excited we had made it this far, and knowing the end of our trek was 4 hours away, down the outer side of the caldera and through the jungle tomorrow. All being well, we’d be back in Senaru village and our guesthouse by the early afternoon.

This was all the motivation we needed for our final push the next day.

Rinjani Trek Day 4 (Senaru Crater Rim 2,641m – Senaru Village 601m) 

After another deep sleep in our trusty tent, we awoke to our 5am alarm. We didn’t want to miss our final opportunity to witness sunrise over the mountain, especially from our favourite view so far. As usual our guide and dedicated porters were already up and busy preparing our final breakfast of eggs and toast. Not once did they let us down with our meals, what a team!

mount rinjani trek sunrise

The sunrise didn’t disappoint either.

rinjani trekking trek sunrise

It was a fittingly beautiful start to our final day on the mountain and we had a great sense of joy running through our bodies that day. We had a long descent ahead of us (2,000m in total!) but we were safe in the knowledge that there was a hot shower and thick mattress waiting for us at the end! It gave us all the motivation we needed to push through for a final 4 hours or so.

As always Hans briefed us on the route and difficulty for the day. We like expectations setting. He’d warned us that the first hour or so was the hardest consisting of a steep descent down volcanic ash and large rocks, but that we would be rewarded by an easier 3-4 hours of final descent through thick jungle. Jungle?! We were delighted to hear it. One of the hardest elements of the last 3 days had been the nature of the open plains often fully exposed to the intense heat of the sun, so to hear we would be protected by trees and jungle for a few hours today was music to our ears.

Mount Rinjani trek jungle section

Mount Rinjani trek Day 4

The jungle was a refreshing change and an extremely enjoyable way to end our Rinjani trek. We found ourselves with enough energy to practically skip through it, jumping over large tree roots all along the route. Our surprisingly fast descent afforded us with plenty time for mini-breaks along the way to enjoy our natural surroundings. We would just sit quietly appreciating the beautiful greenery, plants, fruits and grasshopper sounds of the jungle whilst sipping on our remaining water and cookie supplies.

It was during this time we realised and appreciated how wise our choice had been in choosing to trek the route from Sembalun to Senaru, rather than the other way around. Finishing our arduous 4 days of trekking in the cooler climate of the shaded jungle was great! And made all the more special and rewarding when we reached the famous Rinjani national park signpost in Senaru…

Mount Rinjani trek national park entrance
Our wonderful Rudy Trekker team!

We had finally completed our 4 day trek! We couldn’t believe it and a great sense of joy and relief washed over us as we were welcomed to celebratory high fives and hugs from our now close Indonesian trekking companions from Rudy Trekker, our wonderful guide Hans and his awesome team of porters. We couldn’t have done it without them!

All that was left was to make a final descent to Senaru village where our jeep awaited our pick up and transfer back to Rudy Trekker HQ where our long awaited hot shower waited for us. We couldn’t wait to get back now!

There’s no doubt it had been an extremely gruelling 4 days of trekking, exceeding our expectations in all kinds of ways. We’d challenged our bodies to their limits, suffered from all sorts of exhaustion, dehydration and mental doubts along the way, but we’d also been rewarded with some of the most stunning natural scenery we have ever witnessed and an experience we’d never forget. We were stronger for it and delighted we’d taken on the challenge. We just might not be signing up for another trek for a while however! It was time to recover and take stock on what had been an incredible adventure.

2. What to pack for trekking Mount Rinjani

  • We used our first aid kit a lot during our trek, especially rehydration sachets (to add to water), ibuprofen, paracetamol, bite relief cream (hydrocortisone), blister plasters and tiger balm to rub on our aching limbs each night.
  • Warm clothing layers for the evenings as it gets chilly at the high altitude locations of the campsites (we used thermal layers plus fleece, trousers, jacket, woolly hat & gloves).
  • We recommend wearing trekking trousers for all days as opposed to shorts to protect your legs from the rocks, sun, insect bites and just to save them from getting really dirty! (After all you can’t take a shower for 4 days!) Take plenty of clean socks too as your feet get REALLY dirty!
  • We used our Salomon walking shoes which were fine but high-sided walking boots would be better for ankle protection.
  • Ask for or rent walking poles. I had 2 and Barry had 1 and we found these extremely helpful especially for the steep and slippy or rocky descents (of which there are many!) and also for hauling ourselves up the steep climbing sections and the shifting volcanic ash near the summit!
  • High factor sunscreen and long-sleeved breathable trekking tops as the sun is very powerful up there and the last thing you need to worry about is sunburn (on top of potential heat exhaustion!).
  • A good sun hat with string band to keep it on in the wind!
  • Thin gloves – these were handy for the cold nights but also for trekking to avoid sunburnt hands and rubbing on walking poles.
  • Our earplugs were very useful when we wanted to get to sleep earlier than other groups(!) or for taking a nap on arrival to your campsite.
  • Good head torches & breathable face masks for the early morning ascent to the summit (important for the very dusty sections) – our company provided these but not all companies do!
  • Plenty of tissues and wet wipes!
  • Earphones to listen to music in the evening.
  • We liked having some juice sachets for an occasional change from water (as you drink so much!) however our company also provided the occasional coke, sprite or orange juice which was nice!

3. Our top tips to help you through the trek

  • Choose your route carefully. Starting in Sembalun and ending in Senaru is easier if you are aiming to bag the summit because you tackle the summit earlier when you have more energy! On this route you tackle it on the morning of day 2 rather than the morning of day 3 or 4 (depending on your trek length). It is also a little easier if you spread the trek over 4 days/3 nights rather than just 3 days/2 to reduce the distances to trek on days 3 & 4 (which is especially good when you’re tired and recovering from climbing the summit!)
  • The BEST view of the Crater Lake and Mount Rinjani peak is from the Senaru crater side! So if like us, you are more passionate about the view and capturing great photos rather than summit bagging (and perhaps don’t have time for the full 4 day trek), a good shorter option would be a 2 or 3 day trek from Senaru village up to the Senaru crater (and if time descending to the crater lake too) then returning by the same route to Senaru as you can enjoy the best view without needing to tackle the summit. Or, still trek the loop from Sembalun to Senaru but don’t stress about summiting for the best view! J
  • We captured our best photos around half way up the inside of the Senaru crater from the lake so make sure to stop on the way up (or the way down depending on your route) to get your best shots!
  • Do your research and pick a good company (even if you have to pay a little more!) We saw a huge difference in terms of quality of service, quality and volume of food/water supplies, tent quality and locations and level of English spoken by guides across the different companies along the way. We felt like we got 5 star service from the company we chose (Rudy Trekker) and would highly recommend them to anyone. (We even had a toilet tent which many other groups didn’t.)

4. Where to go (with accommodation recommendation) to recover after you complete your trek

FINALLY, and MOST IMPORTANTLY…make sure you budget in some time to do nothing and relax after your trek as your body will need it! It took us a couple of days to fully recover from our trek so we really appreciated having a few days booked on Gili Air to do this! We stayed here, but you can also search for other options using the search box below! We always use agoda.com to book accommodation in Asia, it has the best selection of accommodation and prices! Check out your options below and look forward to your reward!

rinjani trekking
rinjani trekking

So we’d highly recommend this, and a great bonus is that Rudy Trekker will provide transportation direct to the island from their office in Senaru (included in your tour price) which includes a ride in their private speed boat! Yes it’s very cool!

Disclaimer: We received a discount from Rudy Trekker, but all our opinions in this article remain our own!

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

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Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

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Mount Rinjani

Trekking Rinjani With Rudy Trekker!

Trekking Rinjani is no mean feat, and its not to be taken lightly! Which is why planning your route and choosing your tour company are two of the most important decisions to make before committing to trekking Rinjani. In our opinion, they are also the key factors to a successful and enjoyable trek, rather than simply an endurance test!

We’ve already shared the full story of our Rinjani trekking experience (including video and 45 photos!), and despite the gruelling challenge it presented us, it is without a doubt one of the most epic volcano treks of all! The scenery is simply some of the best we have EVER witnessed (and no we’re not exaggerating!), so if you’re up to the challenge, we’d highly recommend it!

rinjani trekking

Over in our ‘Top Tips For Trekking Mount Rinjani’ (see our full Rinjani trekking article), we recommend thoroughly researching and choosing your tour company wisely. Why? Well aside from the standard variables such as price and basic trek inclusions, there are a few more things to consider. From camp quality (and location), to food and drink (yes we talk about this a lot but it’s our passion!), we cover it all here…

Trekking Rinjani With Rudy Trekker

We saw a big difference in the quality of service between different companies on the trek, in particular with regards to food and camping equipment provided. Which is why we want to share our tour company experience with you in detail. Thankfully for us, choosing ‘Rudy Trekker‘ for our 4 days and 3 nights on the mountain turned out to be a GREAT decision!

rinjani trekking
Camp sunset on night 1!

We spoke to many fellow trekkers along the way and were occasionally shocked to hear about the vast difference in service received. For example, one group told us how they were having to ration water each day as their company didn’t have sufficient supplies. Another told us that they’d eaten the same meal of instant noodles with veg for every meal and many other groups arrived to their camps long before their porters, so had to wait a long time for meals. Certainly not what you want when you’re already very tired and hungry from trekking for around 7 hours at a time!

In stark contrast to this, we genuinely felt like we received 5 star service from the staff of Rudy Trekker and would highly recommend them to anyone! Before delving into the full details, find out more about the accommodation, food and camp sites in our video review here!

What To Expect From A Rudy Trekker Tour?

The Camp Accommodation

All 3 of our campsites whilst trekking Rinjani were fantastic, especially their locations! Each day our porters would speed ahead to ensure they were faster than most other groups in order arrive early and secure the best camping spots!

rinjani trekking Camp Night 1
Camp on night 1 (with our private toilet tent!)
rinjani trekking camp day 2
Camp on night 2 by the Caldera Lakeside!

Each time we arrived we were delighted with where they’d chosen for us to camp, and we were usually a good distance away from the other camps so that we could enjoy the amazing views in peace and quiet. We also appreciated the ‘luxury’ of having our own toilet tent too – no hiding under a bush required! I think we were also one of the only groups to have deck chairs to sit on at the end of the day and enjoy the views – amazing!

rinjani trekking rudy trekker camp
Camping with a view!

rinjani trekking Camp Senaru Crater
Night 3 camp sunset

The Food

What can we say? It was just amazing!! The porters managed to surprise us with every meal. From an incredible 3-course lunch on day 1 to our delicious burger & chips served up on day 2 morning (after our early morning summit attempt!), we were amazed by what they could produce on a mountain top at 2,600m altitude!

rinjani trekking

rinjani trekking

rinjani trekking

rinjani trekking

Every day our porters consistently delivered delicious and filling meals at every stop, and very efficiently too. Here’s a glimpse of the variety of meals we enjoyed over our 4 days on the mountain!

rinjani trekking

rinjani trekking

rinjani trekking

rinjani trekking

Having delicious meals to look forward to along the way definitely boosted our motivation and played a huge part in our trek survival/enjoyment! In fact this is the main reason that we would recommend choosing Rudy Trekker for your tour.

Our Guide & Porters

rinjani trekking with Rudy Trekker Guide
Our wonderful guide, Hans
rinjani trekking Porter
Our strong porter!

It’s safe to say that we loved our guide and he played a huge part in us succeeding to complete our trek! He was super patient (especially as we like to stop a lot for photography & video!) and he motivated us through the many tough parts of the trek. He made sure to stay close to us (despite our slow speed!) in order to show us the safest routes to manoeuvre ourselves up and down the steep sections, keeping us safe from taking any tumbles. His level of english was good and sufficient enough to talk us through the trek and encourage us when needed too.

Our porters were also fantastic the whole time, giving us friendly encouragement as they sped past us in order to get ahead and set up our next camp in time for us arriving. Not to mention their amazing cooking skills (already mentioned in the section above) – thank you guys!

rinjani trekking Guide & Porters
Our wonderful Rudy Trekker team!

The Transport

In total we took 4 car journeys with Rudy Trekker:
1) Pick up from our Lombok accommodation in south Kuta beach to bring us to the guesthouse in Senaru.
2) 1 hour transfer from Rudy Trekker guesthouse in Senaru to the starting point for our trek in Sembalun.
3) Pick up from end of the trek in Senaru back to the guesthouse.
4) Transfer by car then private speed boat to Gili Air after the trek.

All of our journeys were excellent in a comfortable 4×4 car with A/C and safe drivers (which is a relief when driving around Lombok!) This is the sort of transfer vehicle you can expect from Rudy Trekker.

Rudy Trekker car

Rudy Trekker Transport

Taking a ride in Rudy Trekker’s own speed boat however was an experience we’ll never forget! A very exciting ‘James Bond’ moment! 10 minutes or so and we were on the shores of Gili Air – amazing! (All of which was included in our tour cost!)

Rudy Trekker speedboat
Cruising to Gili Air in the Rudy Trekker speedboat!

What To Expect At Rudy Trekker Guesthouse?

The Accommodation

The Rudy Trekker guesthouse totally exceeded our expectations and was one of the nicest accommodations we stayed in on Lombok!

Rudy Trekker Guesthouse
Rudy Trekker Guesthouse

The Rooms

rinjani trekking Guesthouse Room
Our lovely room & balcony at Rudy Trekker guesthouse

Our excellent room was extremely spacious with a delightfully comfortable bed, providing us with a good night’s sleep the night before our trek! We also had a big bathroom with beautiful fittings including a big (HOT!) rain style shower which was just wonderful to soak in before and after our long hot 4 days of trekking!! The room also had A/C but we didn’t need to use it due to the nice cool evenings in Senaru (with its 600m altitude).

On a practical note, we also had about 8 different plug points (including different sockets & voltage options to cover a range of countries & adaptors!) which was very useful for charging up all our devices and camera equipment before our trek!

The Restaurant

The restaurant in the guesthouse is great with a large menu of lunch and dinner options.

rinjani trekking Rudy Trekker restaurant
The restaurant area in Rudy Trekker guesthouse

A full buffet breakfast is also included in your stay which was varied and plentiful with options including eggs, toast, omelette, fruit and tea/coffee. A good start to the day before setting off on your trek!

The Environment

Rudy Trekker
Rudy Trekker’s recycled water bottles put to good use!

Finally, Rudy Trekker are also a very environmental sustainability focused company and regularly run projects to send teams to pick up rubbish from the mountain. It’s a shame how many groups just leave their trash behind, but we noticed our porters and guide making sure that every single item they brought to the mountain was taken back for proper disposal or recycling. They actually marked each bottle with Rudy Trekker, so if one was left behind on the mountain, the company would know. In fact we were so impressed to see that they also put all this hard work to good use in their own guesthouse by using lots of empty plastic water bottles as decorative plant pots in the garden!

rinjani trekking
Making good use of recycled bottles from their mountain clean ups!

Final Thoughts

When you’re travelling around South East Asia, your biggest expense will probably be booking tours. It can be tempting to cut costs and go with the cheaper option, which might make sense when you’re on a half day tour around a city.

But when you’re attempting a 4 day trek up a volcano, you want to be well looked after with proper equipment and food. You will need to be well hydrated, you will need to sleep and eat well. So do your own research, read other reviews, but for us, we felt safe and well looked after by the team at Rudy Trekker and would highly recommend them.

Where To Go After A Mount Rinjani Trek

For us, after 4 days of hard trekking, the only option was to take a short 10 minute speedboat from Lombok to the Gili Islands, and chill out in paradise for a few days on a beach, sipping cocktails, cold beers and fresh seafood. We recommend Gili Air!

Disclaimer: we received a discount from Rudy Trekker, but as with everything on our blog, our opinions above are an honest account of what we experienced. 

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From Tokyo To Mt Fuji, A Perfect Escape From The City

Travelling through Japan taught us much about patience and respect. From the smart neat queues that organised themselves at regular intervals along train platforms, to their great patience as we grappled to articulate ourselves (sometimes resorting to complicated and creative hand gestures), we took guidance from locals and their behaviour in every day life in Japan.

We found that english is not commonly spoken, or more likely not confidently spoken, meaning asking for directions can be difficult. Even if you figure out where a place might be, most of the street names are incomprehensible symbols to us. So finding a restaurant with photos of food became our guiding light at times. What we lack in Japanese language skills however, was compensated by the helpful, friendly and patient people who were always offering to assist in any way they could, especially on our journey from Tokyo to Mt Fuji. That’s what we loved about Japan.

On announcing we would be going from Tokyo to Mt Fuji, the key word apparently would be patience. You see, a cloudless Mount Fuji can be elusive, and we weren’t to get our hopes up. There were, however, methods to improve our chances of seeing her.

Tokyo to Mt Fuji
A bath with a view!

Firstly, January is one of the best times to make a journey from Tokyo to Mt Fuji, especially to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji, which also coincides with low (cold) season. We didn’t, however, bank on practically having the entire place to ourselves.

Secondly, if you’re making the effort to visit, spend a couple of nights there at least, ideally in a Ryokan to get the traditional Japanese experience.

Thirdly, be prepared to stand on a freezing cold rooftop for an hour and a half from 05:30 in the morning to get a 3 minute glimpse of Mount Fuji. I did this on our first full day there, and was so glad as the top of Mount Fuji was revealed around whips of cloud as the sun rose.

Tokyo to Mt Fuji

Mount Fuji nestles itself in the ‘Fuji Five Lakes’ region, so if you’re making the journey from Tokyo to Mt Fuji and staying overnight, you’ll need to pick a lake to catch your glimpse of the mountain. Our decision was based on our usual criteria: find the least developed and quiet area. And so it was clear, we would be staying on Lake Shoji.

Tokyo to Mt Fuji
Relaxing in our traditional Ryokan
Tokyo to Mt Fuji
Day time set up in our Ryokan

Sitting in our Ryokan, a fresh steaming pot of green tea brewing on the table after our early start, we admired our vista. In front of us, the mostly frozen Lake Shoji glistened in the early morning light, as Mount Fuji remained completely covered by clouds. Perhaps today wasn’t to be our day.

After spending most of the morning under cloud cover, around lunchtime to the West, there was a break in the cloud and it was heading our way! The result was two hours of almost perfectly clear conditions. There she was in all her beautiful glory.

Tokyo to Mt Fuji
A crystal clear view of magnificent Mt Fuji

Sitting on the freezing cold sand and stones in front of the frozen lake, we admired the view as small wisps of cloud moved around the mountain. It was at this point that we noticed the peace and quiet bring interrupted by what I can only describe as some sort of sonic whoosh across the lake! It took us a few seconds to realise it, but these noises were coming from the lake as it thawed in the warmth of the afternoon sun.

A few minutes later and the sonic whoosh returned, this time forming huge cracks in the ice! Our attention was now focused on where the next crack would appear rather than Mt Fuji. Yes we are easily entertained, but we couldn’t help but be fascinated and excited by it! And so we sat for hours and enjoyed the magnificent show of nature. 

From Tokyo to Mt Fuji, a different taste of Japan

That evening brought another experience we’ll never forget, but for a different reason. Sitting in our Ryokan on the shore of Lake Shoji, we had our first truly authentic Japanese banquet. A table brimming with ‘unique’ locally sourced ingredients…the kind you never imagine eating or even consider to be edible!

To set the scene, we like to think we are pretty open-minded eaters, and are generally willing (and excited) to try almost anything, especially on our travels. In fact it’s one of the aspects of travelling that we love most and is usually a big factor in our decision-making on where to visit next. We especially love sushi and couldn’t wait to eat as much as possible on this trip. However from Tokyo to Mt Fuji and its lakes, we had no idea it would be such a different experience.

Starting with the positive, we couldn’t believe the attention to detail and incredible number of plates we were presented with for just the two of us! Another example of the patience and care inherent in the Japanese people that we’d already fallen in love with. Every single dish was beautifully presented in its own unique plate or bowl. In fact this table of dishes made it into our ‘The 20 Best Japanese Food Experiences’ article.

Tokyo to Mt Fuji
Our traditional Japanese meal

Without hesitation, we tucked into the delicious tempura and sushi that was beautifully presented in front of us. For the tempura, lots of colourful and varied vegetables and fish. Everything from courgettes, mushrooms and jalapeño pepper to fresh tiger prawns, each lightly battered and accompanied with a sweet dipping sauce.

Alongside the tempura were 3 deep pink slices of fresh tuna sashimi, sitting in their own delicate bowl accompanied by a generous helping of soy sauce, wasabi and fresh ginger. It was absolutely mouthwatering and by far the freshest and tastiest we’d had so far in Japan!

These two dishes were the highlights. Where we became a little unstuck was in the presentation of some of the other dishes on our table. There was one dish in particular that caught our eye (for all the wrong reasons). A large curled-shaped shell with a small piece of meat sticking out the top of it skewered by a toothpick. What the heck is that, I thought to myself as I gingerly picked up the shell and took a closer look. Without any instructions as to how to eat it, Laura grabbed the two ends of the toothpick and delicately began to pull the piece of meat out of the shell. And this is what happened next….

Oh. My. Goodness.

The more polite version of our reaction to its scarily long length and unappealing colour! I’ll never forget the look on Laura’s face. Ever the optimist, it was a hilarious mix of shock, confusion, anticipation and a little fear…

Unsurprisingly, “I think you should try it first” were her next words.

Well I wasn’t one to turn down a challenge. So after studying the creature for a little while, which I can only describe as some sort of unusual dark brown sea shell animal, I decided to try it. Eyes now closed, I took a small bite from the end and was instantly overcome the saltiest flavoured thing I had ever encountered in my life. It’s not often I say this about food from around the world, but it was disgusting. After an awfully loooong chew later, it was over.

(Later, one of our readers explained to us that our little brown urchin shell friend was in fact a species of sea snail known as a horned turban, or a ‘Sazae’ in Japanese. Apparently they are best in Winter and Spring (mm this was it at its best?), and apparently I wasn’t meant to eat the very bit I chose to eat as that is actually the snail’s intestine. Trust me to pick the worst part of the snail to try! Well at least that explains why I didn’t appreciate the ‘authentic’ taste!)

I was feeling a little less open-minded by now, and so was Laura.

“I’ll try ANYTHING else but that” she said.

I didn’t blame her!

It was at this point our waitress brought over the last dish for our table. A lovely big bowl of hot steaming fluffy rice. We’ve never felt so relieved and happy to see plain old rice!

From Tokyo to Mt Fuji, we’d now officially tried at least 4 or 5 new species including eel tail, squid arm, octopus and turbo cornutus. Wow! We were most definitely on a culinary adventure as well as a cultural one. We couldn’t wait for the rest, despite not particularly enjoying Mr ‘Sazae’!

Full and satisfied by what had been an extremely memorable day, we decided to retire and set our alarms for (hopefully) another exciting Mt Fuji sunrise. After all, she was worth waking up early for.

How To Get From Tokyo To Mt Fuji

We caught a morning train from Shinjuku station. To get to Kawagichiko station (the main station for the five lakes area), take the Azusa, Super Azusa or Kaiji trains on the Chuo line, and change in Otsuki for the Fuji Kyuko line to Kawagichiko station. From there, we caught a local bus to the Fuji Five Lakes area and our chosen quiet spot, Lake Shoji. The buses are less frequent in the low season (winter) so be sure to plan your timings ahead if you’re visiting at this time! Enjoy! (For up-to-date information, we recommend checking this website.)

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Cruising The Irrawaddy River From Mandalay To Bagan

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Still shrouded in darkness, our old taxi navigated its way through the quiet dusty streets of Mandalay. It was nearing 6am and sunrise was still a couple of hours away. We were a little tired after only landing in Myanmar the previous day, but despite the early start, we were curious and excited for the journey ahead. 9 hours of cruising down the Irrawaddy river from Mandalay to Bagan, Myanmar’s mecca of temples.

Our taxi soon reached the riverside, where despite the early hour, there was a buzz of activity in the shadows of the bare light bulbs. Men loading various baskets and large boxes of produce onto the boat, crew starting up the engine, and lots of fellow travellers eagerly queuing (or perhaps anxiously is a more appropriate word) to carefully walk the rather narrow gangplank to get onboard. As we got closer, I gave Barry a knowing look. The gangplank was only around 20-25 inches wide, it was going to require some very careful balancing with our heavy backpacks!

mandalay to bagan slow boat

mandalay to bagan slow boat

Like everyone else, we made it safely aboard and quickly found ourselves some comfortable seats to settle down for the long journey ahead. We hadn’t been sure of what to expect, but we certainly didn’t expect to have so much space and a whole bench to ourselves! I guess the boat wasn’t at maximum capacity that day. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was how chilly it was that early in the morning. As I looked around at my fellow passengers, a great mix of foreigners, I quickly spotted the locals as they snuggled under their big blankets. I wished I’d brought one too, or at least a fleece, but by now our backpacks were well buried beneath the teak floorboards in the lowest compartment of the boat. Oh well I thought, I knew it wasn’t long until sunrise so we got as comfortable as possible and patiently awaited the sunrise to heat us up.

It was almost 7am by the time we set off and got slowly on our way. I stared out into the darkness and pondered the next 9 hours on my bench. Backache and boredom seemed a strong possibility, despite my usual optimism.

slow boat myanmar

slow boat to bagan myanmar

But soon after we waved goodbye to the shores of Mandalay, the sun began to rise and a fresh cup of hot tea and bread with jam was on offer. Amazing! Things were looking up.

mandalay to bagan boat

mandalay to bagan boat sunrise

As we held onto our warm cups of tea, sipping them slowly in order to keep as much warm liquid in the cups as possible to heat our cold hands, I gave Barry another knowing glance. There was a lovely air of calm and peace. The boat was so quiet, its engine almost silent, incredible given how old it probably was. Though our very slow pace probably helped. As we gently sailed along, enjoying the changing light, we came across our first passing ‘traffic’ on the Irrawaddy river.

Irrawaddy river boat trip

mandalay to bagan

mandalay to bagan journey

From simple canoes, to little fishing boats and makeshift home rafts, it was fascinating to observe early morning local life on the river. And it wasn’t long before we witnessed our first beautiful Myanmar sunrise.

sunrise over the irrawaddy river

As if it was planned timing (maybe it was!), just as the sun rose, I smiled as we spotted the steeple of a striking gold-leafed pagoda in the distance.

Pagodas on the Irrawaddy river

And then there were more. What an incredible sight! We’d reached Sagaing, an important religious centre on the outskirts of Mandalay brimming full of Buddhist monasteries and beautiful pagodas.

Irrawaddy river pagodas

In fact the gold steeples just kept coming. And that’s when I lost all sense of time as I sat thinking, is 9 hours going to be enough? I don’t think I ever want to get off this boat.

Mandalay To Bagan Journey

mandalay to bagan boat trip

mandalay to bagan slow boat

As we passed by the distant temples, old stupas, basic bamboo houses and rustic canoes, it also occurred to me that I’ve never seen anything like this before. Despite lots of travel around other parts of Southeast Asia, this felt different, and almost like we’d been transported back to a completely different era.
irrawaddy river cruise

Back on onboard, the temperature had heated up nicely and we’d even looked out the sunscreen in preparation for our jaunt to the top deck.

mandalay to bagan slow boat

Slow boat to Bagan

However after enjoying the sunshine for a while, the sun and heat had turned up a level, and with so little shade available, we were relieved to retreat back to our shady bench position downstairs. Especially as there was a waft of lunch being prepared…!

It was a simple choice of fried egg with noodles or rice, and a little veg on the side so we opted for one of each and shared. Both were hot and delicious which was impressive given the basic kitchen facilities!

After lunch, we resumed our people watching, which was just as interesting as the landscape.

mandalay to bagan people

mandalay to bagan

mandalay to bagan

irrawaddy river life 
You may notice from these photos that most Burmese men and women wear long wrapped–like skirts knotted in front (known as ‘longyis’), usually accompanied with rubber flip-flops. And for woman, it’s also common to wear wrapped turban-like cloth around their heads. The most distinctive feature of all Burmese fashion however is the common use of ‘thanaka’, a pale yellow paste made from ground tree bark, that is painted on the face. We learned this is partly used for beauty purposes like a make–up and partly used as a sun block, and is applied in a variety of ways but often as square patches or designed like the impression of a leaf on the cheeks with a single dot on the nose. Other times it’s just smeared across the face in a haphazard fashion, but it’s been a strong Burmese feature for the past 2,000 years and is still a unique visual symbol of Myanmar today.

burmese thanaka

Burmese thanaka

We’ve mentioned it in our other Myanmar articles, the Burmese people are extremely welcoming and friendly, and eager to greet foreigners. We got this feeling immediately after arriving to the country and especially during this boat trip as we sailed onboard with some locals from Mandalay to Bagan. The tourists most definitely outweighed the locals, yet they were happy as always to engage in a friendly “mingalaba” (good day) or more if they were confident in english (which many were).

On route we also passed lots of local trade boats carrying logs or produce, a common sight on the river.

irrawaddy river cruise

mandalay to bagan

And further down the famous Irrawaddy river, we sailed under the huge arches of the impressive new Sagaing Bridge after waving to some friendly passing by crew!

mandalay to bagan bridge

mandalay to bagan cruise

It wasn’t long before the sun began to set on our long slow journey to Bagan, which was when I began to realise we’d been sailing for more than 10 hours by this point (already an hour longer than planned) with no final destination in sight just yet…

mandalay to bagan sunset

mandalay to bagan

mandalay to bagan

So with absolutely no idea about how much longer we had until our arrival to Bagan (and no inclination to try to find out!), we decided just to sit back, relax and enjoy the beautiful sunset views reflecting on the calm water of the Irrawaddy river. After all, when would we get this opportunity again.

irrawaddy river sunset

irrawaddy river sunset

The ‘golden hour’ seemed to last forever and the view just got better and better as we savoured the last few moments of the day’s sun. It was a fitting end to a magical journey.

mandalay to bagan sunset

It was dark again when we finally reached Nuang U, the port of Bagan. We could just see a faint glimpse of the silhouettes of bell-shaped temples. A reassuring comfort that we were in the right place. Our boat slowed and carefully manovered sideways to slip alongside the wooden dock. A group of around 20 people were waiting for us, ready to pounce as soon as our gangplank was in place (oh no I’d forgotten about that extra challenge), offering their taxi services or some bag carrying for a few extra kyat. It was a little chaotic, exaggerated by the darkness and late hour.

Our journey had ended up being almost 12 hours (as opposed to the expected 9) so we were a little weary by now and keen to get off and find our way to our guesthouse. Unfortunately we hadn’t planned ahead as we normally would by arranging a pick up from our guesthouse, so we had to go through the taxi negotiation process. Not ideal given the probably desperate look on our faces and ratio of fewer taxi drivers to tourists. Our bargaining was somewhat weakened so we probably got a little ripped off, but hey we didn’t care much at this point and just wanted to get safely to our guesthouse.

It was around a 20 minute drive through Nuang U and Old Bagan before we reached finally reached it and our long journey was over. Delighted, we tipped our overpriced taxi and made our way in for a warm Burmese welcome. It was just the start of an awesome adventure around The Captivating Bagan Temples Of Myanmar. We couldn’t wait to explore this magical sacred place, but not before some much needed rest.

We took this journey with a company called Malikha River Cruises and arranged our tickets through our hotel in Mandalay. I believe there are a number of ferry companies offering this route (as well as even slower government boat options which are probably a little cheaper if you’re on a tight budget) however despite our journey taking longer than expected, we would happily recommend Malikha. We had comfortable seats, friendly service, simple but decent food and good toilet facilities. The boat was extremely relaxing too!

Looking For Accommodation In Myanmar?

If you’re looking for some accommodation options in Mandalay, Bagan or elsewhere in Myanmar, we recommend you check out Agoda.com. Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas on Mandalay or Bagan, or anywhere else in Myanmar, check out the options below!

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Myanmar inspiration? Click here.

Or enjoy boat trips and looking to discover new inspiration? Take a look at our amazing experience cruising the stunning waters of the spectacular Bacuit Archipelago of El Nido in the Philippines and find out all our tips on El Nido Tours here.


The Day I Pooped My Pants In Myanmar

It’s not always rainbows and unicorns when it comes to travelling, especially adventure travel. This is a story about an awful journey in the North of Myanmar, where trains, soaring temperatures and a dodgy soup led to a now infamous incident at the side of a road in Myanmar. 

The day is to be forever known for the moment I turned to Laura, at the side of a dusty road, and blurted out the immortal words:

I think I’ve just s#*$ myself.

Perhaps we should rewind a little.

We’d just spent a few days in the Northern town of Hsipaw, a small town used as a base by travellers to explore the highlands and treks in the area. After a very memorable few days meeting locals, monks and nuns on our stay, it was time to bid farewell and make the journey back to Mandalay to catch our flight the following day. That morning we had our breakfast, pulled our backpacks onto our backs and trekked the short 15 minute walk to the train station.

Myanmar Story

As basic as you can imagine, we sat on the platform and waited for the train to roll in with a handful of other people. The train was basic but the seats seemed comfortable, and we settled in for the 6.5 hour journey south to Pyin Oo Lwin where we would search out a bus or taxi to take us the rest of the way to Mandalay.

What we didn’t realise as we waited for the train to pull away, was that these moments would be our last experience of comfort for another 24 hours.

myanmar travel
myanmar travel

Riding The No Suspension Express

With a jerk and crunch, our train pulled out of the station, and we slowly crawled out of Hsipaw and into the countryside. The views were incredible, as we passed through never ending rice fields occasionally punctuated by small villages and wooden buildings. After half an hour or so, the track began to twist and turn, and our carriage would heave to the left and then the right. It was at this point I began to feel a little queasy. Then the track became bumpy, with a lack of suspension not helping our cause.

I must have looked white, but Laura reassured me:

“It’ll pass, it can’t all be like this.”

It could, and it was. For the next 6 hours, we were constantly launched up off our seats and back down again. We were nudged left and right with each turn in the tracks. I tried all my tricks in my travel book: head out the window for fresh air (only worked for a bit as I had to keep sucking back inside to avoid various branches and trees), stare at the horizon (tough to do given the windows weren’t at eye level and much of the time the growth around the tracks blacked out the horizon). No, the only hope was to sit it out.

 

As we meandered through the Myanmar countryside, occasionally we would pull into a small town or village, or pull up alongside another train where various things were loaded and unloaded. Despite my sickness it was fascinating to watch, traders and sellers sometimes appearing literally out of the bushes, resplendent in their thanaka face paint and a head tray full of exotic goods for purchase. Everything from packaged fried snacks, to chicken kebabs, tea and fruits. It was truly a melting pot, makeshift markets created and dismantled in minutes.

myanmar story

 myanmar story

 myanmar story

myanmar story

After around 4 hours of being jolted about, the train slowed its speed and we came through a tunnel in the hill to a vast gorge. We’d arrived at the main event of the train journey, the Gokteik Viaduct with its spectacular railway bridge over 100 metres above the ground and nearly 700 metres long. We’d heard it was quite a sight and experience to travel across the bridge, and it was one of the main reasons we’d chosen to take the train.

myanmar story

myanmar train

I mustered up some energy and dragged myself to the gap between the carriages where we could get a better view. As was often the case on trains in Asia, the carriage door to the outside was nowhere to be seen, so we were extremely careful with our footing.

 myanmar story

 myanmar story

The view was spectacular and exhilarating, and for a brief few minutes as we crossed the bridge my nausea and headache dimmed as the suspension and turns were put on hold for this straight, slow stretch of the track. Eventually, our train reached the other side and we breathed a sigh of relief as the train began to pick up speed again and raced towards its next stop. Again the nausea hit, and I huddled down for the final hour of the journey.

The Moment We Both Shall Never Forget

Finally we arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin, and we grabbed our backpacks and got off the train. We had made it! Relief washed over me as we slowly walked the couple of kilometres from the train station to the town centre where we would arrange our next transport to Mandalay. We could have got a taxi or tuk tuk, but I couldn’t stomach another thing on wheels just yet. We walked for around 15 minutes until I became dizzy.

“I need to stop.”

I crumpled down onto the street, between two parked cars, and took a sip of water. I was dizzy, I was nauseous and I felt awful. Laura went off to get a bottle of coke for me, and I lay back on my backpack in the middle of the pavement as curious Burmese shop owners and locals looked on. I must have been the palest person they’d ever seen, given my pasty white skin at the best of times.

Laura returned a few minutes later with a plan of action. Apparently there was a makeshift taxi rank (read: some people who had cars who were willing to drive us somewhere) 10 minutes along the road. The problem was they only hung around there until 5pm, and it was 4.30pm now. We had to get moving.

I heaved myself back up and we began walking, but within a couple of minutes, the unspeakable, and quite unexpected occurred.

I pooped my pants.

Without giving you all the details, it’s safe to say I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. There was no prior warning, it just happened. Which probably explains why I just blurted out “I’ve just s#*! myself” to Laura without any prior warning.

The look on Laura’s face was priceless. A cross between surprise at my bluntness, confusion as to how I wasn’t better prepared, and worry as to how the heck we were meant to get back to Mandalay this evening. I suppose in retrospect I could have phrased it differently:

  • “I’ve had an accident and I need to find a toilet”
  • “You go on ahead, I’ll just pop in here and buy some coca cola”
  • “I’ve got a sore stomach and need to use a bathroom”

All of these may have lessened the impact somewhat, but given how shocked I was, I wasn’t even aware I was saying it until the phrase was out!

We quickly bundled into a nearby building, where a kind soul beckoned me through to the back garden where there was a squat toilet. It was there Laura gave me some new clothes and then had to leave to find the taxi rank to get a car to take us to Mandalay. I sorted myself out as best as I could, but as went to leave the toilet, one final kick in the teeth became apparent to me. My beloved headphones had found there way into the squat toilet, and there was no saving them.

In my dizzy state, and headache frazzled mind, all I wanted to do was leave them there. But I couldn’t. Knowing what the sanitation systems are like, those headphones could cause the owner of the building some problems down the line. It wasn’t fair on him. So in one final humiliating act, I bent down and retrieved the headphones from the mess, put them in a bag with my pants, tied it up and gingerly went back into the cafe.

Local Heroes Looking Out For Us

It was here we were reminded of the great hospitality and generosity of the Burmese people. This cafe owner, whom I barely acknowledged as I waddled to use his toilet, motioned for me to give him my plastic bag to put in his bin.

No, really no. I can’t have you deal with this.

In my best charade possible, I tried to explain to this kind Burmese man everything that had happened, using only hand signals and pointing. He smiled and insisted I give him the bag. I tried to leave some money behind, he refused. So in the end I bought some bottles of coke and left the change for him. What a hero.

At this point Laura had returned, and had found a kind man with his wife who was willing to take us to Mandalay that evening, around 1.5 hours away. But we had to get a move on, he was leaving in 15 minutes and we were still around 10 minutes away from the taxi rank.

I hoisted the bag on my back, and we headed along the street, passed the point where it had happened, a nod to the shop owners who had seen the whole thing. I didn’t care now, we had to get to the taxi.

We turned a corner and there it was. A solitary car in a gravel area around the back of some building. Standing there with his boot open was our driver, a beaming smile and a kindness that ran deep. We had hit the jackpot. I put my bag in the boot and motioned to him that I was unwell. He put his arm around me and sat me in the front seat. His wife sat in the back with Laura, and we were off on our final leg to Mandalay. 

Travelling Isn’t Always Rainbows & Unicorns

I never thought I would write a story like this on our blog, for the whole world to see. But, the truth of it is, travel blogs and adventures can be made to look glamorous and exciting. And for much of the time, life on the road is perfect, the adventures are amazing and it’s easy to just share those parts of the journey. But there are also down times, and it’s only fair that we share with you the positives and negatives of travel.

Did it put us off from travelling? Of course not! These things happen, and even at home we all get sick sometimes. The key to travelling is to not take yourself seriously. Things will go wrong, plans will change, you’ll get sick sometimes. You also need to learn to trust people, but that doesn’t mean you should lazily and naively trust everyone you meet. Rather, like we have on much of our travels, start your interaction with someone with a position of neutrality, not scepticism. For the vast majority of times, like our friend with the toilet, and like our driver, they are good people just like us.

And so now you (and the whole world knows): I pooped my pants on a street in Myanmar.

Looking for more Myanmar inspiration? Click here.


Hsipaw Trekking In Magical Myanmar

Northern Hsipaw may not be high up on your priority destination list for Myanmar, when compared with the ‘must visit’ spots such as Inle Lake and Bagan, however that’s why we wanted to share our reasons for loving it and why we think it should be included in your Myanmar itinerary! We’re sooo glad we went.

Though there are many, some of our warmest Myanmar memories are from our time in Hsipaw, and here we explain why…

1. The Lovely Locals

Trekking through the local ‘Shan’ villages around Hsipaw is an amazing way to meet the locals and to experience a little of their daily life. Here are some of the lovely people we met along the way.

Hsipaw Trekking

Hsipaw Trekking

Hsipaw Trekking

Across all of the places we visited in Myanmar, we found the people to be extremely genuine and friendly, however we left Hsipaw with the biggest feeling of warmth in our hearts of everywhere we visited. It might sound cliché, but looking back over all our travels, it’s always the people we meet that make a place and Hsipaw is definitely one of such places.

Hsipaw Trekking

On our day trek around the villages, we came across lots of local villagers who said hello and made us feel welcome. Though I think our legendary local guide (Mr Bean, yes I promise that was his name!) might have played a big part in our popularity!

On our way back towards town, we were lucky to see a procession of nuns making their way to a special ceremony…

Hsipaw Trekking
A local nuns procession near Hsipaw town

2. Stunning Scenery

You don’t have to trek far to witness some beautiful scenery!

Literally 10 minutes or so of ‘trekking’ out of town brought us to beautifully kept farmland and hill views such as this one. The whole area around Hsipaw is extremely ‘unspoilt’ and consists mainly of farmland, villages and green hills dotted with a few monasteries.

Hsipaw Trekking

One particular trip worth making at some point during your visit is to the Thein Daung Pagoda, otherwise known as ‘Sunset Hill’. It’s a little out of town (around 1 and a 1/2 miles south of Hsipaw) but can easily be reached by bicycle followed by a short hill hike (around 20 minutes). It’s worth it because you get rewarded with a beautiful sunset view over the whole town and river, and you’ll probably meet some friendly locals along the way!

Hsipaw Trekking
View from Sunset Hill

3. Learn About Local Work And Trade

Conveniently close to town are various workshops and mini factories where you can see locals carrying out all kinds of local speciality work such as noodle manufacturing, weaving, shoe and leather making and even popcorn popping! Your guesthouse (you can find details of ours in the info section at the end) will probably be able to provide you with a local map with each of them marked out, however some were easier to find than others!

Hsipaw Trekking
Rice noodles hanging out to dry post ‘stamping’

We were delighted when we came across this noodle manufacturing place. In fact we wanted to get inside and help the workers with their noodle ‘stamping’ – yes that’s how much we love noodles!

Hsipaw Trekking

Hsipaw Noodle Manufacturing

We also came across this rather well stocked bicycle shop, if that’s what you call it. I don’t know how she manages to stay balanced when stopped! Incredible.

Hsipaw Trekking
A well stocked ‘bicycle shop’

And you’ll find plenty of friendly local farmers. We learned from our guide how hard they work, but despite the long hours, they still found time to smile, wave and shout hello to us. Yep that’s Myanmar for you.

Hsipaw Trekking
Local farmland and farmers

4. Visit The Local Monasteries & Nunneries On A Local Tour

It was on our day trek with the lovely and extremely knowledgable ‘Mr Bean’ that we had our most interesting experience when he brought us to a local monastery and nunnery.

Hsipaw Trekking

Hsipaw Trekking

During our short visit to the local nunnery we had the pleasure of sitting and chatting with the young student nuns. We enjoyed answering questions from some of the more inquisitive students who were confident to communicate in English with us. We shared stories about where we were from and our travels around Myanmar. I think they were almost as pleased to meet us as we were to meet them.

Hsipaw Trekking
The lovely students of the local nunnery

We also met some young monks who were taking a break from their studies. We’ll never forget the moment however that their eyes lit up as soon as they heard the familiar sound of the local ice-cream van coming to the monastery! They all quickly turned on their heels and ran as fast they could to make sure they got one. We got the impression that this was not an every day occurrence!

Hsipaw Trekking
Local young monks

5. Tour The Architectural Remnants From The Shan Royal Era

The final highlight of our time in Hsipaw was a day spent exploring the local sights by bicycle!

Thanks to the compactness of the town and the fairly quiet roads and paths, it’s easy to get around the area and in particular to find some special sights. Due to its history as a Shan Royal City, there are few such architectural remnants to be discovered.

Not far from town (around only 15-20 minutes by bike) will bring you to the northern end of town where you’ll find two traditional wooden monasteries, ‘Madahya’ and the ‘Bamboo Buddha Monastery’. Both of which were worth a look around, especially to find the famous 150-year-old lacquered buddha inside the latter, but it was further along the route behind these where we discovered the real gem of the place, ‘Little Bagan’.

Hsipaw Trekking
The ruins of ‘little Bagan’ in Hsipaw

Some of the ancient brick stupas are overgrown with vegetation but this most definitely adds to the charm of this place and the feeling of adventure when you discover it, especially in its unassuming discrete setting. It’s no Angkor Wat but definitely makes for an enchanting visit, especially as you’ll most likely have it to yourself! Another advantage of venturing off the beaten path to Hsipaw.

Hsipaw Trekking

Note: Don’t miss a stop off at ‘Mrs Popcorn’s Garden’ on the path back! If she’s still there, you’re in for a real treat. Seriously, order ANYTHING from her menu and you’ll love it. We went for a couple of her deliciously fresh smoothies and Barry tucked into one of her homemade curries!

Hsipaw Trekking

Hsipaw Trekking

We loved our Hsipaw Trekking experience and consider it to be one of the highlights of our time in Myanmar. In addition to the reasons we’ve summarised above, we found Hsipaw and its local people to be very genuine and a beautifully non-touristy place to visit. We left feeling like we’d experienced the ‘real’ Myanmar.

NB: We stayed at the popular Mr Charles Guesthouse during our visit to Hsipaw and would recommend it, especially for their tours with excellent local guides.

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Myanmar inspiration? Click here.


The Captivating Bagan Temples Of Myanmar

To feel truly captivated is a rare moment. To stand somewhere, look across the horizon, and be genuinely stunned by what you see makes travelling the world all the more rewarding.

One such moment occurred just before sunset as we clambered up to the top of a temple on the plains of Bagan, Myanmar. There in front of us, around 3,000 temples were dotted across the vast plain, each its own unique shape. Many were leaning in one direction or the other, as the ravages of hundreds of years of rains and storms weighed heavy on their oft-times unstable foundations.

temples of bagan

We’d arrived a day earlier, sailing into Bagan in darkness after our 13 hour journey down the Irrawaddy river from Mandalay, and this was our first full view of the temples in all their sunsetting glory.

bagan temples sunset
Sunset view from Shwesandaw Paya

As the day drew to a close, the orange and red bricked temples began to grow into their colours, the low sun deepening and intensifying the already rich palate of bricks. Weaving their way around the temples were golden narrow strips of yellow dirt and lush green vegetation, incredible contrasts across the landscape.

Adding to the sense of mystery and intrigue were the horse and buffalo drawn carts which kicked up the dirt from the paths, hanging in the air and enveloping the temples. And as the evening drew in, and the fires from the locals lit up the plains, the smoke added a final layer of suspense to an already incredible vista.

bagan temples

We stood atop our chosen sunset temple (Shwesandaw Paya), and waited. As the sun finally dropped out of the sky, the light and colours changed minute by minute, providing a rich and varied set of colours throughout the sunset.  temples of bagan

Bagan, with its 3,000+ temples, is stunning, and in our opinion, even more impressive than the much more famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Yes, a bold statement we know and potentially a little controversial but why is this? Well it’s hard to quantity. Perhaps it’s the fact that you can so easily escape the crowds and find many of your own little private temple moments, like we did at this one when there was no-one else around…. bagan temples

Or perhaps it’s the way the sunsets so beautifully, providing the most incredible view over the vast complex. Or maybe it’s simply that there are many more exciting ways for getting around this amazing complex! Whether its bicycle, car, bus, horse and cart, all options are open to you. But there was only ever one option for us, once we decided to create some of our own ‘motorcycle diaries’ on the back of two electronic bikes! Forget your Harley Davidson’s, this is the real deal…

bagan temples

No-one can argue we don’t look cool on these bad boys. Um okay maybe not. But seeing Laura zooming around on her little e-scooter was, well, an absolute joy. I honestly don’t think she’s ever looked so happy, not even on our wedding day! So it wasn’t a surprise that for our 2 full days exploring the various Bagan temples, these became our preferred method of transport (after first struggling in the heat with a pedal bike!) so we highly recommend these!

In terms of planning your time in Bagan, it’s physically impossible to cover all the temples in a few days (let alone a few weeks or months probably), so our advice would be: other than planning a couple of good sunset viewing spots for each day, and ensuring you make it to a few of the most impressive temples, just GO WITH THE FLOW.

The best part of visiting this incredible historic site is discovering your own ‘off-the-beaten’ track paths and pagodas where you can simply park up your bike and sit for a moment enjoying your beautiful surroundings in peace and quiet.

bagan temple

temple of bagan

Just make sure that you have enough power (in your e-bike or legs) AND some daylight left after sunset to find your way back to your accommodation, as navigating the main roads in the dark along with lots of cars can be a little daunting! Trust us we tried it!

bagan temples

In stark contrast to the more weather-beaten temples you’ll find around Bagan, we were surprised to come across this rather shiny gold leaf-gilded stupa on our travels to the nearby town, Nyaung-U. Despite its immaculate condition, this extremely grand stupa, otherwise known as Shwezigon Pagoda, actually dates back to 1102 AD, during the reign of King Kyansittha of the Pagan Dynasty, and was one of the first temples to be built.

temples of bagan

We found it incredible to learn that it was just less than a thousand years ago (in 1044) that Bagan’s wealthy rulers began building up this ancient city and spent 250 years in doing so. And at the height of it’s place in history as a seat of power in Southeast Asia, the city had more than 10,000 temples and 1,000 stupas! Today there are of course plenty of crumbling, pumpkin-coloured temples, but there are also a great many undergoing careful reconstruction (such as the one below) or have already been restored into modern places of worship with re-gilded exteriors, Buddha statues, and Nats.

bagan temple

It’s not often that the history of a place has such a huge impact on us, as our highlights are often about the people we meet or the new skills or ways of life that we learn about. But witnessing the living legacy of the Bagan Archaeological site was a totally unique experience and will forever stand out as a fascinating memory from our time in Myanmar.

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Myanmar inspiration? Click here.


bangkok to koh samui ferry

Bangkok To Koh Samui Ferry: Booking And Advice!

If you’ve done some research, you’ll quickly realise that there are a number of different ways to get from Bangkok to Koh Samui island, including train, ferry, bus, van or flight! Choosing your route can be a difficult decision, so let us make easier by sharing our top tips. Firstly however, check your specific dates and times by completing the box below and get your journey booked in advance!

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Bangkok to Koh Samui Ferry

You can of course take the flight option direct to Koh Samui, however if you’re looking for the cheapest way to get there then we recommend the Bangkok to Koh Samui ferry and bus option. Luckily we came across the Lomprayah company who offer a Bangkok to Koh Samui ferry and bus combo ticket for the complete journey! If you’re like us and prefer to avoid the stress of linking up individual journeys then this is a great solution. You can simply book one overall ticket (via their website or the 12go.asia box above) for the whole journey by coach and ‘high speed’ catamaran – easy!

Based on their latest prices, the full journey on the Bangkok to Koh Samui ferry and bus ticket costs around 1,400 bhat (£28) per person and there are two main timing options including either early morning departure (06:00) arriving in the afternoon (16:40) or the overnight option departing around 21:00 arriving late morning (11:20). Please note that prices and timings may change so be sure to check the websites for up-to-date information before you book! If you choose Lomprayah, their office is near Khao San Road in the backpacker hub of Bangkok, where your bus will also depart from. We found this pretty convenient for grabbing a cheap and filling dinner before getting on the overnight bus!

If you’re coming from the airport, allow around an hour to get to the office and an official airport taxi will cost around 600 baht (£12) based on current prices.

What To Expect?

We took a very similar journey from Bangkok to Koh Tao with Lomprayah so can safely say that the bus was very comfortable and even offered a clean toilet! Our bus also left 45 minutes ahead of schedule (I guess because everyone had arrived by then) so we definitely recommend arriving early for your journey just in case! Upon our arrival to Chumphon pier (which was quite early around 05:00), we had a couple of hours to wait prior to our catamaran departure, so we took advantage of some comfortable deck chairs by the pier and enjoyed watching the sunrise. We had to check-in again at the ticket office at Chumphon pier (using our original tickets) prior to boarding the catamaran for the final leg of the journey, however this was pretty hassle free. The journey from Chumphon pier to Koh Samui (Maenam Pier) is approximately 4 hours so we recommend packing a few snacks and perhaps some sea-sickness tablets as the journey can be a little choppy at times!

The Bangkok to Koh Samui ferry and bus option is a good cheap alternative to flying! We also recommend arranging your hotel and a pick up from your hotel in advance to make the arrival to the island a little easier and of course much more stress-free!

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Want to know how to get from Bangkok to Koh Tao? Or Bangkok to Koh Phangan? Check out our articles for more details!


How To Get From Bangkok To Koh Phangan!

There is a wealth of options available for travelling from Bangkok to Koh Phangan so after lots of research we wanted to share our experience to save you the hassle and make the planning of your trip from Bangkok to Koh Phangan a little easier!

Confused by the many train, plane, bus and boat options? We were too! So here’s our suggestion to provide a simple and affordable solution for the complete journey from Bangkok to Koh Phangan island. You can also check your specific dates and times, complete the box below and get your journey booked in advance!

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Bangkok to Koh Phangan

To avoid the hassle of booking separate tickets for each individual leg of the journey, we came across Lomprayah bus and ferry company, and you can book a combined bus and ferry ticket online (see end of this article for online booking options!). So for the complete journey from Bangkok to Koh Phangan island, you can book 1 ticket combining a bus and catamaran journey from around 1350 bhat (£27) per person. There are 2 main options including an overnight journey with an evening departure (9pm) due to arrive to Koh Phangan around 10.30am or an early morning departure (6am) getting you to Koh Phangan by around 4pm. (Please note that prices and timings may change so be sure to check for up-to-date information and advanced online bookings!) You can also book online which is great. The office is in the backpacker hub of Bangkok so you can get a taxi straight there from the airport, just have a note of the address. From our experience, the approximately 1 hour journey from the airport shouldn’t set you back much more than 600 baht (£12) in an official airport taxi.
bangkok to koh phangan 1
What to expect? On our journey from Bangkok to Koh Tao island (another of the beautiful south islands to explore close to Koh Phangan), our Lomprayah bus was very comfortable and clean with the added bonus of a rather odourless and well maintained on coach toilet! On our journey, our bus left 45 minutes ahead of schedule (probably because everyone had arrived by then) so we definitely recommend arriving early for your journey. Upon our arrival to Chumphon pier (around 5am), we had a couple of hours waiting time prior to our catamaran departure, however there were comfortable deck chairs and the bonus of watching sunrise to keep us entertained. We also had to check in again at the ticket office at Chumphon pier (using our original tickets) in order to board the catamaran for the final leg of the journey. The journey from Chumphon pier to Koh Phangan is approx. 3 hours so we recommend packing a few snacks to keep you going and to help fend off any potential sea-sickness! As with most of our trip planning, we recommend arranging your hotel and a pick up from your hotel in advance to make the arrival to your destination a whole lot easier and stress-free!

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Want to know how to get from Bangkok to Koh Tao? Or from Bangkok to Koh Samui? Check out our other articles!


india video

India

India is a country full of verve, energy and contradictions. It is a challenge to visit, but it leaves an indelible mark on your soul

When we think of India, the mere mention of the place conjures up a deep set of diverse and contradictory images and emotions. On the one hand, India for us is a mystical, magical place full of energy and ambition. It seems the absolute majority of people who actually go to India leave with a sense of connection with this wonderful country, its landscapes and its people. You see, India is a place that gets up in your face and then gets under your skin. It’s brash, abrasive, intrusive, energetic, exciting and heartbreaking all in one.

For all the highs it has to offer, from the landscapes and sights, to the people and their food, there is the inequality and poverty which are inescapable on your journey through this magnificent country. It is these elements that cause many to prejudge India, and as a result, will never even consider visiting. For all its positives, India’s image is a complex and unwieldily beast.

india video

india video

Our time there was full of highs, excitement and challenges. Through it all we were accompanied and caught up in the energy and passion of the people. We fell in love with India, a somewhat unexpected outcome for us. We went there for the challenge, because we thought it would take us way out of our comfort zone. And in some respects it did. People will stare, they will burrow their eyes deep into your soul, they will feel intrusive and uncouth. But below this energetic and pushy exterior lies a deep seated goodness. They’re not being intrusive, they’re simply intrigued by you. By your hair, your clothes, whether you are married, how many kids you have, why you don’t have any kids yet and what you do for jobs. Below it all is a strong sense of pride in their family and their country.

india video

india video

Some travellers say you have never truly travelled until you have visited India. Whilst we don’t agree with the sentiment entirely, we’re absolutely certain that it helps if you have had some experience of travelling before you visit this incredible country. India will shake the will of even the most hardened traveller, and we wouldn’t change that for a moment.

With India it is all or nothing. You either commit or you go home, there are no half measures in this diverse country. We had some fantastic adventures in our time there, some of our favourites you can find here, from camel treks in the desert, to boat trips on the ganges where public cremations take place, India packed quite a punch when it came to adventurous activities! We saw some of the most beautiful places in India in our time there.

Adventures don’t always have to be activities, we found almost every meal to be an adventure of its own. Disclaimer: we were already lovers of the Indian cuisine before we arrived, but nothing prepared us for what we experienced across India. Honesty is the best policy, and not all the activities we chose to do resulted in positive experiences. We didn’t enjoy the Kathakali dance in Kerala, and we explain why in our detailed article above. And then there was the magnificent Puja ceremony in Varanasi, a mystical and enriching evening on the Ganges. Wow, what a place.

India is blessed with some incredible places to visit, places where you just sit and soak it all in. From the world famous Taj Mahal, to the countless towns and cities in Rajasthan, some of our favourite experiences in India were wandering through alleyways and markets, getting lost and seeing what we found. We’ve hand picked some of our favourites above.

INDIAN ADVENTURES

Cruising The Backwaters Of Kerala On A Houseboat

Cruising the beautiful backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat was one of our highlights of all of India. Take a fascinating tour with our photos and story.

Camel Trekking Under The Stars, India

A camel trek into the desert was always something we wanted to do, so we jumped at the chance in Northern India. What followed was a day of bumpy trekking, a night under the stars with only a blanket and a million beetles to keep us company!

holi festival of colours

Holi Festival Of Colors, India

Holi festival in India can be intimidating, but don’t worry, use our tips to ensure you get an authentic and real experience of this celebration!

Life And Death In Varanasi, India

Varanasi was an absolute attack on the senses, and our experiences there will stay with us forever. Public cremations on the banks of the Ganges, processions of shrouded bodies through the narrow streets and sweltering heat all left an indelible mark on us.

The Mystical Puja Ceremony Of Varanasi

Beautiful photos of the mystical Puja Ceremony on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India.

Travel Momentos: The Woman With The Inquisitive Eyes

This is the story of a wonderful encounter with a family on a train in India. Sometimes it’s the little unique moments that create the best travel memories…

Delicious Indian Food Photos

Oh boy do we like Indian food, and you’ll find some mouthwatering photos of the best food we had in India! Enjoy!

The Blue City In The Desert Of India

Jodhpur is a city famed for its blue buildings, take a tour of this wonderful city in our Blue City India photo essay!

kathakali dance

Traditional Kathakali Dance, Cochin

It’s a must do in Cochin, and a famous tradition, but what should you expect from a Kathakali dance? We left with a headache and a sense of unease.

India’s Jewel – The Taj Mahal In Photos

A photo essay of the Taj Mahal, one of the most impressive sites in all of our travels.

india video

India

Watch our India Video and get inspired! India is a country full of verve, energy and contradictions. See why it left an indelible mark on our soul.


The Blue City In The Desert Of India

Clambering to the top of the fort, finally we were able to truly appreciate the incredible juxtaposition of the blue city of Jodhpur, India.

Stretching out into the distance, a mosaic of vibrant blue buildings punctured the barren orange and red Earth below them. It was quite a sight. We’d been in town for a few days, but this was the first time we’d been able to climb to the top of the fort due to the annual Holi festival of colours which had taken place the day before. For a city that is already vividly colourful, to see it covered in a multitude of other colours made our time there all the more special.

blue city india

The truth of it is, we spent our time in Jodhpur relaxing, wandering the maze of alleyways and markets, bumping into random characters along the way and eating lots of Thali, all with a backdrop of vivid blues. Sometimes the best experiences when travelling are to plan to do nothing, to sit back and watch this new and interesting world pass by around you. Without this attitude, how would we have experienced cows trying to eat out lunch as we hunched on plastic stools on the roadside as various scooters, tuk tuks and cows passed by? Or watching the locals try to scrub the colours from Holi from their buildings and roads?

We did, however, manage to climb to the top of Mehrangarh Fort at the heart of the city, and we were rewarded with panoramic views and some new friends as well. Our time in the fort was very special, not because of the fort itself (although it was impressive) but more for the people we met there. With it being the day after Holi, every person we met was still in high spirits from the celebration. We found people across India to be very friendly with us, but we met so many families in the fort that day all eager to talk to us and have their photo taken.

This was not an uncommon experience for us, but we’ve never had a queue of people waiting to have their photos taken by us. We felt so much love and happiness in the fort that day, every person we met was warm, friendly and engaging with us. A day we’ll never forget, or the people we met.

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

Anyway, enough of the words and more of the photos we hear you say! Enjoy our photo essay around the blue city of Jodhpur, a welcoming and enchanting place we would highly recommend!

The Blue City Of India In Photos

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

blue city india

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here.


Delicious Indian Food Photos

One of the absolute highlights of arriving in a new country is the inevitable gorging on the local cuisine. There is no doubt that the food we eat on our travels has a major bearing on how much we enjoy a country!

As you probably know by now, one of the main reasons we travel is to try new and exciting foods from across the world. Food really is a major part of the adventure, and there isn’t much we won’t try at least once. Turns out, pretty much everything we ate in India was delicious, and I mean everything. From fresh fish in the South, to heavy and hearty Thalis in the North, every meal passed by with ease and excitement. And the crowning glory of it all? Not once did we get sick in India.

indian food

The simplest piece of advice we give to travellers going to India is to seriously consider being a vegetarian whilst you are there. We are not vegetarians, and didn’t do it out of any moral or philosophical viewpoint. Our theory was by cutting meat from our diet (apart from fish), we would reduce the risk of getting sick in India. That was the theory, and in reality in our whole time in India, we didn’t once get sick, something we are very proud of! Maybe cutting meat had nothing to do with it, but it worked for us.

Going vegetarian had another unexpected advantage. For the first time, we appreciated the vegetables that go into Indian food, and the depth of flavour these options provided. In the past, we would always plump for chicken (Laura) or lamb (Barry), but a good vegetarian curry was always equal, if not better than some of the meat options we’re used to. We still seek out vegetable curry options and we suggest you do the same, like us you may be pleasantly surprised!

Anyway, enough words, let’s have a look at some tasty photos of some of our highlight meals in India! First up, a mouth-watering lassi in Varanasi. Lassi is a yoghurt based drink, great for cooling after a spicy curry, and whilst we’re used to plain and mango lassis, we had no idea of the options available in India. Take this little piece of heaven, a strawberry, chocolate, pomegranate and pistachio lassi. Sensational!

indian food

This delightful spread of dishes was rustled up in one of the smallest kitchens we’ve ever seen, squeezed into the back of our Kerala houseboat. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, an unbelievable feast was presented to us each time. What you’re seeing here is a mixture of vegetarian curries, a pachadi (beetroot yoghurt) and a green bean masala. Mouthwatering.

indian food

indian food

Breakfast on our boat was either a spicy masala omelette (look at those chillis!) or Goan coconut pancakes. Both delicious and washed down with mint tea and orange juice.

indian food

indian food

Another breakfast option in the South were these Kozhukkatta (Steamed Rice dumplings) with coconut filling. Or these pancakes stuffed with curried potatoes and coconut dip, what a way to start the day!

indian food

indian food

indian food

We began our Indian adventure in the south, so this was our first taste of real Indian food, and we were blown away by it. In retrospect, we grew to learn that we prefer the southern Indian food options. The prevalence of coconut and fruits in the food were a big positive for us, and we found the dishes lighter than the North. That’s not to take anything away from the food in the North, it was absolutely delicious, as you will find out. Let’s go North!

indian food

This beautifully presented buffet dish is ‘Thali’ style. Order a lunch or dinner, and you’ll be presented with a number of different curries and sides on your plate, with rice, chapatis or naan to accompany them. We ate so much Thali, but it really is the best way to try a number of dishes for a reasonable price.

indian food

indian food

indian food

indian food

indian food

indian food

Of course, we also treated ourselves to some more expensive (relatively anyway) meals, including some fantastic seafood in the South of India, including Cochin and Varkala. Take for example, this BBQ masala fish with a generous helping of Indian spiced calamari and jumbo prawns. This was in the beach town of Varkala.

indian food

indian food

I mean come on, even the food on the planes was outstanding!

indian food

So there you have it. A sweet (and savoury) tour of our food odyssey through India. We loved our time in India, in particular the people, the sights and the energy all intrigued us, but what sealed the deal for us with India was the food. It sits alongside Vietnamese food at the top of our food table!

Do you like Indian food? If you’ve been to India, what did you think of the food? Let us know in the comments below! For more India inspiration, click here!


The Mystical Puja Ceremony Of Varanasi

The Puja ceremony is a Hindu ritual full of colour, smoke and fire, and takes place on the banks of the river Ganges. It was by far one of the highlights of our time in Varanasi.

Whilst the Puja ceremony may have made the highlights list on its own merit, there is another reason why it was one of my most favourite experiences in Varanasi. One quick photo with some new friends descended quickly into a quite frankly ridiculous impromptu photoshoot, with a queue of women and babies stretching out into the darkness, all keen for a photo with yours truly.

It began, as with most things in India, with a smile and a slight wobble of the head.

puja ceremony

We’d seen the Puja ceremony the night before from the river Ganges, on a small boat as it gently bobbed on the river, and although it was a fantastic spectacle to witness, it had left me wanting more. I wanted to get closer and be right at the heart of it to appreciate it fully.

puja ceremony

I arrived early the next night and picked my spot, to the right of the final podium and just below it. Before long many more people began gathering, taking seats and crates behind the plinths, and the boats began arriving as we had experienced the night before.

It was at this point that three young guys sat down next to me, and in broken English, began the usual series of questions I’d come to expect from locals in India.

“What is your name? Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have any children? What do you think of my country?”

The questions spilled out of the mouths of my new friends in rapid succession, barely giving me a chance to respond and certainly no time to elaborate. Such was the way with many of the new friends we made in India, their line of questioning was inquisitive, friendly and direct. After a while, the conversation turned to that universal language I share with all males (and some females) across the world: football (or soccer if you must use the incorrect term).

Little did I know but these guys would become my bouncers for the evening.

puja ceremony

We talked for a while as the sunset, and as the ceremony was about to begin, they asked for a photo with me. This of course, was no problem, by this point I had grown accustomed to getting photos taken of me in India. They didn’t have their own camera, so they asked one of the professional photographers to take a picture and print it out. We stood up, got the photo, sat down and looked forward to the ceremony. The rest of the crowd, however, had other ideas; that photo opened the floodgates…

Note: There wasn’t a spare copy of the photo, but luckily I managed to get this rough photo of the photo for keepsake.

Barry at Puja Ceremony

Almost instantly after the first photo had been taken, a young boy had clambered over the people in front of me, stood next to me, and motioned to his father down near the water. Oh, I see, I’m getting a photo with you as well. Sure no problem. I sat back down, thinking that might be the end of it.

And then the babies came.

Out of the corner of my eye to my right, a woman had manouvered herself next to my friends, and was holding out her tiny newborn baby for me to hold. I smiled and shook my head (I’m not very good at holding babies), she did the Indian head wobble and smiled, I did the wobble back and all of a sudden I had a baby in my hand. I stood up with the lady and had my photo taken, and all of a sudden I realised that there was a queue of people now lining up to have their photo with me, stretched out into the darkness. Many with babies and young children. I was being papped India style. Sadly I don’t have a copy of any of the photos myself, but I assume there are quite a number of me adorned on the walls of various family homes in India. Perhaps I’m some sort of celebrity now, who knows.

puja ceremony

puja ceremony

I couldn’t help but smile at the scene. People were quite literally queueing up to have their photo taken with me. Where would these photos end up? Pride of place on a mantlepiece? Hanging above a fireplace? I had no idea, but I was a fair target. Secretly I was enjoying the spectacle, it was moments like these that make travelling the world special.

After about 10 minutes of this, I realised the crowd were getting restless. The Puja ceremony had begun already, and due to my impromptu photoshoot, their view was obscured because a) I was standing up, and b) the queue of people lining up to have their photo taken. It was surreal and hilarious, and I couldn’t help but grin at the situation as 1000 Indian eyes peered at me from out of the darkness.

At this point I had to disappoint the remaining people in the queue and sat down, back in the safety of my new friends who had spent the whole time organising the queue and laughing at me. All they needed were some suits and shades and they would have been my entourage and bouncers.

puja ceremony

puja ceremony

We watched the rest of the Puja ceremony in silence, and I beamed from the inside at what had just happened. I had come to watch the Puja ceremony, but as with most things about travel, it was the people whom I had met that had made it a special memory I would never forget.

India is an attack on the senses. It can be brash and direct and uncompromising, but if you can find a way to cope with that, you will be rewarded with interactions with people full of warmth, energy and intrigue. As I walked back to my guesthouse along the orange lit banks of the Ganges, I reflected on how I had probably made their night memorable, as they had for me as well. It was nights like these that reaffirmed why we travel.

puja ceremony

puja ceremony

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here.


Cruising The Backwaters Of Kerala On A Houseboat

It is difficult, but not impossible, to retreat from the frantic pace of life in India. At times it may seem difficult to escape the hustle and bustle, but rest assured it is possible.

We found one such place whilst in the South, where the trees were green and the waterways blue. We are of course, talking about Kerala, a place we spent some time relaxing and reflecting on our time in India.

As it turns out, Kerala is quite simply, beautiful.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

A lush green paradise sliced apart with rich blue veins of water. It is an age away from the desert forts of the North, and for us was a haven on our travels.

One of the very best ways to experience this part of India is by exploring the backwater waterways of Kerala by boat. Imagine hiring a boat all to yourself, with a couple of crew members to look after you for your cruise, and you start to get an idea of why we enjoyed this part of the world so much.

backwaters kerala

The Backwaters of Kerala

As for the experience, well there isn’t too much to write home about. Not that it was boring or a poor experience, but rather the pleasure is in gently gliding through green waterways, a book in hand, and admiring the scenery. Every now and then we’d float passed a small village where people were busy going about their daily activities, and often a small canoe would float by transporting some crops or people. Occasionally we’d come across a fisherman, but other than that it was a time for reflection and relaxation.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

We spent most of our time on the top deck, reflecting on all that we had seen and done in India, and all that was to come. It was a perfect place to take stock of our adventure in India. The very best thing about the houseboat? Hands down the incredible food that was delivered to our plates every meal from the tiniest of kitchens in the back of the boat.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

We were vegetarians for our time in India, not through any moral or philosophical viewpoint, but mostly because we felt avoiding meat would significantly reduce our chances of getting ill. And you know what? It worked for us! In our 7 weeks in India, neither of us were sick once. We’re very proud of that record!

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

As for choosing a houseboat, prices and quality vary dramatically. How many rooms you want and whether you need air con or not are the two main differentiators.

We plumped for a cheaper option (no surprises there) and booked through our guesthouse in advance. You can just wander down and try and book one at the harbour, but we liked what we saw online with our boat and preferred to book through a recommendation.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

Our boat was one of the most basic we saw, but we did have an upstairs deck to relax on which in retrospect turned out to be a massive advantage and something to look for when making your decision.

By having an upstairs, we had an area all to ourselves away from the crew (and the noise of the engine). We also were afforded much better views of the Keralan backwaters compared to being water level. Just our experience but well worth considering.

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

backwaters kerala

For a while in Kerala, the hectic pace of life in India slowed to a stroll, and it was a time to be cherished on our adventure through India. If India is an attack on the senses, then Kerala is the quiet spa you retreat too in preparation for your next adventure.

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here.


kathakali dance

Traditional Kathakali Dance, Cochin

We tend to think of ourselves as culturally aware. When we travel to a new country, we embrace the cultural idiosyncrasies that push against our senses, including the good and the bad. These cultural quirks are one of the main reasons we travel, to interact with the culture first hand and learn more about it. Our minds are always open to new and interesting cultural quirks.

Sometimes, however, we encounter something on our adventures that, despite trying our best to enjoy, we simply do not understand. One such instance occurred when we went to a ‘must see’ traditional Kathakali dance in Cochin, India. Not only were we left with two banging headaches, but also a sense of unease at the underlying messages of one of the dances. Perhaps we should explain.

kathakali dance

The Kathakali Dance

It all started innocuously enough. We bought some tickets from our homestay for a show nearby, and arrived early to watch the set up and make up of the Kathakali dance. This was by far the best part of the show.

For those who don’t know, a Kathakali dance is an incredibly detailed, intricate dance drama with elaborate costumes and make up. Traditionally the plays last all night, but we chose to see a reduced (2 -3 hours) excerpt of the overall story. Despite this edited version, it would still prove too much for us.

Firstly, the positives. The preparation and training for a traditional Cochin dance is incredible, and if you arrive early enough (at least an hour before it starts), you can observe the actors preparing themselves on the stage through a long process of make up application and various additions to the face. It is an amazing effort to create the look of the Kathakali dance.

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

Following this, a demonstration by one of the actors takes place which explains the various facial expressions, hand gestures and the meaning behind them. To try and explain them to you would take an inordinate amount of time, but below are a selection of the different expressions available to an actor, with training to reach this stage taking many years before their craft is refined. Even the shaping of their eyes and which they look, combined with a different facial expression and hand gesture creates a different emotion. A truly amazing level of detail.

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

Sadly the combination of eye movements, hand gestures and facial expressions was lost on us once the performance began, despite being explained in great detail prior. Each actors facial expression changed every few seconds, combined with a different hand gesture, made it almost impossible to keep up with the detailed narrative.

kathakali dance

There was however, a darker undertone to the show we witnessed, with the overarching narrative disconcerting. The story we were shown was between a man and a woman, a woman who constantly spurned the advances of the man. What followed was 2 – 3 hours of the man trying to woo the woman, through various dances, the show becoming increasingly aggressive as the male became more desperate to win the woman. It was strange to watch a man essentially forcing himself onto a woman, the music growing louder and aggressive as he kept making increasingly invasive moves.

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

Perhaps we’re just too uninformed on the intricacies of the dance, perhaps we’re being too sensitive. Although it is a traditional dance in Cochin, and we appreciate the effort the actors go to, we felt growing levels of unease as the show progressed, irrespective of whether it is tradition or not. There was a dark underbelly to the narrative that we didn’t appreciate. We wouldn’t say we enjoyed it either, quite the opposite actually.

The overarching storyline made us uncomfortable, and combined with the constant banging of a drum for 2.5 hours gave us a splitting headache. Perhaps if we understood the intricate movements better it may have helped, but it still wouldn’t change our unease at the overall spectacle.

kathakali dance

kathakali dance

Would we recommend it? Certainly not the part of the story we saw. Perhaps if a different part of the story was staged we would feel different, but based on our experience we would not recommend it. Our advice would be to ask more questions before going. How long is the show? What part of the story will be shown tonight? Are there other types of performance as part of the show? Perhaps then we would reconsider, but our experience of Kathakali left a bitter taste in our mouth, and sore head to match.

Have you been to a Kathakali dance? What did you think?

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here!


India's Jewel - The Taj Mahal In Photos

There isn’t much you can say about the Taj Mahal that hasn’t already been said. The ultimate show of love and exuberance with a sad tale behind it. Although the world is awash with millions of Taj Mahal photos, here are some of our personal favourites from our time wandering around this world famous landmark. Enjoy!

taj mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos
Taj Mahal photos

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here.


Camel Trekking Under The Stars, India

There are many romanticisms when it comes to travel. The thrill of arriving in a strange new land, the exotic fruits, or the intriguing new cultures and customs.

There are also times when you wonder what you might be letting yourself in for, whether it be the time we went snorkelling in the Galapagos, bracing for a polar plunge in Antarctica, going on an epic volcanic Rinjani trekking adventure in Indonesia, or a Sapa trekking experience in Vietnam, you never quite know whether the experience you’re about to have fits with the vision you have for it.

jaisalmer india

As we were about to clamber onto our camels in the dusty, hot desert of Northern India, it was becoming clear our expectations might not fit with the reality that lay ahead that day and night.

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

We’d arrived in Jaisalmer, and settled into our small Haveli, where we could watch the comings and goings of a real life fort. But we’d really come to Jaisalmer to do one thing, take on one of the oldest romantic notions of a camel trek through the desert. Any romantic vision we had for the trek quickly disappeared as the harsh reality of life in the desert became very real.

I suppose, with all stories, the warning signs were there from the beginning.

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

Packing a small backpack for our overnight trek, we made our way out of our haveli and into the blistering afternoon sun beating down on Jaisalmer. When it was time to leave, we walked down the winding red hot cobblestone streets of the fort to find our ride into the desert. Sitting in the afternoon sun, our battered and tired looking jeep sat proudly on the street, its dust covered frame spluttering as it waited for us, our driver obviously keen to get going.

We jumped in the back, grabbed onto whatever we could hold onto, and we were off, hurtling along the dusty and sandy roads outside Jaisalmer and into the desert. Destination unknown.

jaisalmer india

After an hour or so of hanging on for dear life, we arrived at a small brick/mud dwelling in the middle of absolutely nowhere. A young girl carrying her younger sister greeted us, her skin dark and cracked from the searing and unrelenting heat of the desert. Here we sat, and we waited.

jaisalmer india

After a while, in the distance we could make out the faint silhouette of two camels, our view obscured by the heat haze rising from the desert floor. As they approached, we noticed two men walking alongside our camels, evidently our guides for the day and night.

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

To see camels up close is still an exciting experience for us, their size overwhelming as we are reminded of the shear scale of these resilient animals. Arriving, they slumped themselves down in front of us, and waited as the saddles were padded out with various rugs, sheets and cooking utensils. After another while, it was time to get going.

jaisalmer india

Anyone who has taken a camel anywhere will know the absolute terror and fear of the camel standing up and sitting down. Laura was to go first, struggling to get into the saddle which was almost as high as her even when the camel was sitting down. As soon as she was on, the camel decided it was time to stand up, jerking forwards and then backwards like a real life, desert buckaroo. She was up, and she was still on the camel. So far so good.

Now it was my turn, I clambered on, grabbed hold of whatever I could, and braced for the launch. A jolt forwards, a bigger jolt backwards, and I was up and still in one piece. It was time to get on our way.

jaisalmer india

The ride was uncomfortable to say the least, constantly shifting in the saddle to allow the blood to return back to our feet as the sun beat down and the sand whipped up around us. After a couple of hours of slow progress, we began climbing sand dunes, hanging on again as the camels ascended. And then we stopped.

We’d arrived at Casa Sand Dune for the evening.

As the camels were liberated of their cargo, we had a chance to really admire them. Camels are some of the most incredible beasts we have had the privilege of getting up close and personal with. For us, it is simply their size that is so intriguing. Their mouths and heads are gigantic, with thick, wiry whiskers and hairs protruding from all areas. The way they sit is fascinating to look at, their legs seemingly contorting and bending in places where we assumed there were no joints.

jaisalmer india

It was at this point that my camel (Papaya) decided to relieve himself, a torrent released from his bladder into the sand dune we were to call home for an evening. Now we had a water feature as well, what’s not to like?

It was at this point that we got a better idea of our sleeping arrangements for the evening, and it was to be even more basic than the time we camped on Antarctica.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture what you imagine a desert accommodation would look like. Perhaps your picturing crisp, square white tents pitched into the sand, a small mattress inside with blankets. Or maybe just a basic tent. No such luck for us.

jaisalmer india

jaisalmer india

It became very clear to us very quickly that the dirty blankets that had been used to pad the saddle up were to double as both our mattress and blanket. The same blanket that had spent the last few hours, most probably the last few weeks rubbing up against the camel was now our bed.

What would you do? In the middle of the desert, the sun setting, there was no choice, we were sleeping rough tonight.

As we sat and watched our camel guides prepare dinner, the desert came alive. Alive with one little black bug to begin with, followed quickly by another, and another, until there were hundreds of them scuttling about in the sand dunes. And they were big. Did I mention we were sleeping out in the open?

jaisalmer india

It was survival time now, and after dinner we settled into our beds. Our strategy was simple, take our jackets, wrap them around our heads, tuck them into our blankets and hope no bugs found their way in. The only orifices available were our eyes, but it was better than nothing.

I’m probably painting a poor picture of our time in the desert, but honesty is the best policy when it comes to these things. This was not a romantic camel trek in the desert, it was an uncomfortable slog into the middle of nowhere with no comforts whatsoever. But this was normal for our guides, whom we assume did this almost every night.

And yet, despite all of this, there is absolutely no way that we can complain. This for us was one night in our entire lives. For the majority of our existence, we will sleep with a roof over our heads, with running water and heat available to us at all times. For those guides whom we met in the desert, and their families, a version of this experience is their life.

jaisalmer india

This is not to patronise our guides. I did feel for them, but I also had huge respect for them as well. They’ve taken the hand dealt to them and done their best, and I always wonder if I had been born into this life, how would I cope? The simple answer is I would just get on with it, just like they do. Sometimes travel teaches you things, sometimes it gives you an experience you’ll never forget, and sometimes it rises up, punches you in the face, and makes you stop and appreciate all that you have, and all that you will ever have.

jaisalmer india

And there were rewards from this experience, oh boy were there rewards.

Away from the light pollution of towns and villages, the stars came out in all their glory, puncturing the night sky with millions of tiny dots of light, many white, some blue, some red. Just looking at one point of the night sky for a few seconds would result in hundreds more becoming obvious to us. It was incredible.

Shooting stars dashed across the sky at regular intervals, and the silence was beautiful. It was an incredible thing to witness, and for most of the time we forgot about the bugs and snakes in the sand dunes, and our minds drifted away into the night sky. Lying down and staring at the stars in a place you will never return to is something everyone should experience once in their lifetime.

jaisalmer india

The rest of the evening passed without incident, we slept in fits and starts, and we were happy to get up early to watch the sunrise over the dunes. It was at this point that we glanced down to the sand dunes around us, shocked by what we saw.

Hundreds, if not thousands of tiny trails had been left in the sand around us, the fruits of the many hundreds of beetles that evidently scuttled around, and on us, throughout the evening. As I clambered out from under my blanket, two crawled out from under me, somehow finding their under me without getting crushed in the process. They’re resourceful little things l’ll give them that.

jaisalmer india

Following sunrise and a basic breakfast of bananas and nuts, it was time to head back to the relative comforts of Jaisalmer. Our guides rounded up the camels, we secured everything back on the saddles, and we made our way back to the mud huts where we’d catch a jeep back into Jaisalmer.

Our trek into the desert had been a short, uncomfortable one, but on arriving back to our Haveli, the experience had certainly given us a jolt to the system. Yes we had been uncomfortable, yes we worried about the snakes and bugs in the desert, yes everything was dirty, but it was only one day and night.

As we sat having dinner as the sun set over Jaisalmer fort, it was another stark reminder to appreciate all that we have, and all that we will ever see in our lives. Sometimes a memory of an experience fades, but we will never forget lying on the desert floor, looking up at the thousands of stars on display. It was a time we were taken away from Jaisalmer, from India, to a place of reflection, a place where we could truly appreciate all that we have.

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here!


Life And Death In Varanasi, India

It’s difficult to imagine a country with more extreme contrasts than India. It is a place that attacks your senses at every moment, a country full of energy, verve and intrigue.

From the calm, green backwaters of Kerala in the south, through to the all-action cities of Delhi and Mumbai, to the quiet and remote forts and castles in Rajasthan, the contrasts in India are there for all to see. Nowhere is the contrast so obvious and so extreme than in Varanasi, where you come literally face to face with life and death on the banks of the spiritual Ganges river.

varanasi india

varanasi india

You see, many Hindus come to Varanasi to die. It is considered one of the most holy places in all of India, and to be cremated and scattered in the Ganges is the highest honour for Hindus. The cremations are very public and, most of the time, very graphic.

Varanasi is not the prettiest place you will ever witness. It is a complex maze of narrow alleyways, crammed with people, shops, cows and frequently shrouded bodies held on the shoulders of loved ones as they make their way to the Ganges. Varanasi leaves an indelible mark on all that come here, for many it will change them forever.

varanasi india

varanasi india

Whether you are there for the cremation of a loved one, or as a visitor observing the rituals, it is impossible not to contemplate your own mortality, and indeed your own belief system. In the UK, we shy away from discussing the mechanics of death, of cremations and burials, we hide it away and we rarely talk about it. But as we’ve experienced in other cultures, from the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ to the Hindu approach in Varanasi, there are alternative, arguably healthier methods and viewpoints on death, where it can be witnessed and processed by those who choose to do so.

Spiritual Varanasi

For this reason, we consider Varanasi to be the most unique place we have ever visited. Varanasi changed our perspective and relationship with death, made us question the methods by which we deal with it in our home country, and left us with a sense of calm and acceptance of the inevitable cycle of life and death.

varanasi india

Imagine yourself, for a moment, sitting on the banks of the Ganges river on one of the numerous ghats that line it. Directly in front of you, a cow and a bull stand idly chewing on a huge pile of flowers left by worshippers, seemingly free to wander the lanes and ghats of Varanasi.

Behind you, a friendly game of cricket has been interrupted by a group of cows making their way from the Ganges up the ghats. Meanwhile, a woman searches through the trash and sewage that lines the shore of the Ganges, searching for anything of use.

The contrasts are everywhere to be seen.

varanasi india

varanasi india

On the steps down to the Ganges, worshippers strip down to their underwear and wade into the river, dunking their heads under the water 3 times in a ritual full of energy and concentration. Most will complete this ritual every morning at sunrise, before the beating sun and heat become intolerable. Everyone is here, from young children frolicking in the water to elderly couples helping each other into the Ganges. Each individual has their own personal relationship with Ganges, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch.

varanasi india

A group of boys swim nearby, surrounded by a group of 15 cows who have also made their way into the river to escape the intense heat. Some are playing with a ball, others taking turns to launch themselves into the Ganges. It’s a fun activity with a very serious goal.

varanasi india

varanasi india

varanasi india

To our right, open sewers run directly into the Ganges, sending its contents towards the various swimmers and bathers, but nobody cares.

Then the bells start to ring, and the men start to chant.

We glance up the steps leading away from the ghat. A group of men are making their way down the steps, carefully and methodically. On their shoulders rests the body of a loved one, carefully wrapped in yellow, white and red cloths. They bring their delicate swaddling down to the waters of the Ganges, and rest it on the bank.

And then they wait for their turn.

varanasi india

varanasi india

varanasi india

The cremation process on the Ganges is a carefully orchestrated ritual, and very public at that. As the men wait to begin the cremation, locals and foreigners alike begin to congregate near the ghat. Here it is perfectly acceptable to sit and watch, and the rules are simple: be respectful, quiet and do not take any photos or video. Quite frankly why you would want to take photos is beyond me, but people do, we saw them.

varanasi india

varanasi india

A pile of wood is assembled near the river, the type of of wood carefully chosen based on the price. If you’re rich, you can have sandalwood and your own private ghat. If you’re poor, it’s a cheap piece of wood and a shared ghat. Each piece is carefully weighed so that just the right amount of wood is used to completely cremate the body. It was fascinating to watch a process which is normally, in our culture at least, hidden away from us. It was a very calming experience.

varanasi india

varanasi india

As the pyres are assembled, the family take their loved one and immerse them in the Ganges, shroud and all. They are then taken to dry the water off in preparation for the cremation.

When the time is right, the body is placed in the wood pile and is set alight. Very quickly the cremation becomes graphic, the shrouds and materials wrapping the body quickly burn away, revealing the loved one through the flames. As the wood burns, the various men tasked with managing the cremation make various ‘adjustments’ to the body with sticks and pincers, to ensure full cremation. It was a graphic scene, but it’s amazing how quickly one can become accustomed to the sight.

varanasi india

For those who live and work in Varanasi, cremations are a 24 hour event, and over time it is obvious that people become accustomed to, and comfortable with the event. Of course if it is a loved one of your own I’m sure it would be a very different matter, but for the majority of the time, it is simply another shrouded body beginning the next stage of their Hindu existence.

varanasi india

We knew we would see burning bodies in Varanasi, and the first time we did it was a shock, a slow realisation that what we were looking at was not a stick of wood pointing out from the fire, but part of a person. I’ll never forget my reaction. As I realised what it was, I didn’t turn away, I didn’t feel sick, I became intrigued, inquisitive almost as my mind tried to process what it was I was looking at. After a few moments, a sense of calm came over me, and I began to think about who that person was, had they been happy? Did they have a good life? I felt sad for them, then I felt happy for them, then sad again.

varanasi india

varanasi india

varanasi india

As for the family of the loved one, the men stood on the ghats and watched with the other observers, all stood, arms folded, watching and waiting. There was a functionality about it, a purpose to what was happening and that they were achieving something. Just behind them, a man was selling ice creams to local children playing – talk about contrasts.

varanasi india
Nevertheless, as the children played in the waters metres away, and the bathers soaked away their sins, the pyres continued to burn. In a country full of contrasts, Varanasi amply demonstrated the incredible juxtaposition of life and death along the banks of the Holy Ganges. It is not often that we can say an experience or place changed us, but as we sat on the banks of the Ganges and watched all that took place, it is hard not to believe that those impressions, those indelible marks have been left on our consciousness.

What do we take away from our time in Varanasi? Life is short, or rather, the times when you are fit and healthy and free of worry are precious, so grab hold of them with both hands and take action. Whether it be grand plans to see the world, or learn a new skill, or try a new food, Varanasi provided us with the ultimate lesson in contrasts. Those shrouded loved ones we watched on the pyres reminded us that the time to take action is now.

Looking for more India inspiration? Click here!


japanese tea ceremony

Japanese Tea Ceremony Experience In Kyoto

Nothing sums up the careful and attentive approach of all things Japanese quite like the rituals of a Japanese tea ceremony.

In all our travels across Japan, we were constantly surprised at the attention to detail placed on many seemingly unimportant things. Whether it be the delicate and intricate preparation of all Japanese food, or the way everything just works, Japan constantly made us grin a little when we realised a solution had been designed for a problem we never knew existed.

A Japanese tea ceremony, however, took things to a whole new level.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

We’d always known about traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, how they formed an integral part of the Geisha experience, and that depending on the type of ceremony they can run for hours!

I mean, how long does it take to make a cup of tea? Boil the kettle, add a tea bag, wait a bit, remove said tea bag and drink. Alas, it seems, despite drinking on average 3.5 cups a day in the UK, we are all complete amateurs when it comes to tea making!

Anyway, onto the tea ceremony itself.

We arrived to a small, wooden room with a sliding Ryokan style door in front of us. Removing our shoes as is customary, we slid open the door and stepped up, and into, a beautifully decorated, calm and serene traditional ryokan.

japanese tea ceremony

We were greeted by one of the sweetest smiles we’d encountered during our time in Japan so far (and there had been many already). Welcomed by our host, we happily took our crossed legged positions on the bamboo mat floor with a small pillow to make us comfortable.

As our eyes adjusted to the light, we could see all of the instruments that would go into making one cup of tea.

Laid out before us was an intriguing set up consisting of a stove, a clay teapot, a small bowl, a spatula & a whisk made of delicate wood…interesting. We sat in quiet contemplation as our host prepared in a room behind us.

japanese tea ceremony

And then it was time for the ceremony to begin.

Our host, dressed delicately in a beautiful traditional dress, began proceedings by thoroughly cleaning all of the tea making utensils and positioning them ready to begin the actual tea making ceremony. Every move was delicate and purposeful – I honestly didn’t know such a simple process could be so fascinating and beautiful. Slowly and gently, we watched the intriguing hand movements, from traditional gestures including use of a special red hanker chief to simply placing and adjusting various bowls and utensils until they were in exactly the right position.

From this point, the bowl of tea was created. First, a small amount of green tea powder was lifted from its box on a small metal spoon, and placed in the bowl. Then it was time for the hot water, brewed to a specific temperature and taken from the pot that had been steaming away in front of us. Then the mixing of the water and tea, done with a small brush to stimulate the powder and water, creating a foamy and frothy green tea mixture.

japanese tea ceremony

After around 10 minutes or so, the bowl of green tea was ready to be sampled. The verdict? It was, of course, delicious. Green tea can be slightly bitter, but this was subtle, colourful and just perfect. And we’re not just saying that because it took half an hour to make!

japanese tea ceremony

Japan is famous for many things, from the highs of Japanese food, to onsen, karate, sumo, ryokans and Mount Fuji, there are a wealth of rich cultural traits and quirks. A Japanese tea ceremony for us is something that is quintessentially Japanese, but it also brings together some of the biggest themes in its culture: patience, respect, care and attention to detail. After our tea ceremony experience, we made our way back into the cold streets of Kyoto with a sense of tranquility, knowing we’d just witnessed something we had always wanted to experience.

Have you experienced a traditional Japanese tea ceremony? What did you think of the rituals and process? Let us know in the comments below, and check out some of our other articles from Japan!

Looking for more Japan inspiration? Click here.


The 20 Best Japanese Food Experiences

You’d be hard pressed to find a country in the world where the food splits opinion quite like the way Japanese food does.

We love Japanese food, in particular sushi and sashimi. We think it’s fresh, healthy and absolutely delicious. But we know not everyone feels the same way…

Japanese food creates the most extreme of views, and for many people, the idea of raw fish is a culinary step too far. From our travels around Japan, we know Japanese food is much more than just sushi and sashimi, from steaming bowls of ramen to deep fried octopus balls, and from our Japanese culinary odyssey, we present to you 20 of the very best food experiences in Japan.

Prepare those tastebuds…

1. Deep Fried Takoyaki Octopus balls

japanese food

We start with one of my all time favourite quick bites, a snack so good I’d make it mandatory in all restaurants (if I had the power). Takoyaki are balls of meat made from Octopus, deep fried in cheese and other delicious ingredients and they are especially good when accompanied with some chilli sauce and a beer. They are a snack fit for Kings (and Worldly Nomads).

2. Stand Up Sushi Bars

japanese food

Stand up sushi bars are something we stumbled across whilst in Tokyo, and we had one of our favourite evenings trying all manner of exotic treats. I mean, why sit down when you can crowd into a tiny space, lean against a counter and admire as the chefs a couple of feet away prepare each sushi dish with delicate and intricate fever.

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

This is a must do in Japan. The bonus is that no Japanese is required, you can simply point at the various creatures in the displays or on the menus, and watch the chefs work their magic. If you’re not sure, the chefs will be more than willing to ply you with the things they think you should try.

TIP: try the flame grilled baby squid, outstanding.

japanese food

japanese food

3. Risking It All At A Japanese Banquet

Our stay at Mount Fuji also coincided with our most adventurous encounter with Japanese food, and probably the most confusing meal we will ever eat.

japanese food
We’ll be honest, this is when we struggled most with Japanese food. Coupled with the fact that we were so remote that there was nowhere else to eat (in fact, there was nowhere else full stop), made meal times all the more ‘exciting’.

As part of our Ryokan experience, we had signed up for the traditional dinner and breakfast option, which we’d read online was a banquet with all manner of delicious treats. It was here that we experienced some foods that 1) we had no idea what they were, and 2) we were not sure which part of said thing we were meant to eat. A case in point:

japanese food

We still don’t know what this is (if you do please let us know in the comments below!).

In all seriousness, which piece of it would you eat? In the end, I nibbled off the dark bit at the end and ate it. It was, quite frankly, awful. And I do feel bad about saying that, but it was. It tasted like a pool of sea water that had collected in rocks on the beach, with said pool full of various crabs and shells. I don’t mean to sound uncultured about it, after all as you can tell I love Japanese food, but this was all a bit too much for me.

We also had some blockbuster dishes as well, like these morsels of goodness.

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

Much of what we were served was as expected: beautiful cuts of sushi and sashimi, delicious pieces of beef ready to be cooked in a hot broth on the table and vegetable tempura – all absolutely delicious.

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

The rest of the banquet went without too much of a hitch, each dish was meticulously prepared and presented, and we tried them all once. For some, we couldn’t figure out what we were eating, like these things:

japanese food

japanese food

And others we gobbled down with delight. Moral of the story? Be adventurous, try everything once, take on a Japanese banquet, but maybe do it somewhere where you can get something else in case it doesn’t quite fit your tastebuds!

japanese food

japanese food

4. Cook Your Own Sukiyaki Meat Soup

Picture the scene. You’re in a buffet style restaurant with all manner of heavenly salad options and dressings, all accompanied with a cacophony of condiments. You feel like you’ve landed in green heaven. But I’m a meat eater I hear you scream, never fear, meat is here.

japanese food

japanese food

The idea is pretty simple. Pick a couple of soup stocks, and wait as they are delivered to the centre of your table, bubbling away as the rich aromas tease your nostrils. Quickly following behind the soup stocks are three plates of raw meat: beef, chicken and pork, all thinly sliced and delicately laid on the plates. You’re halfway there. Head up to the buffet bars, and grab yourself some noodles, mushrooms, other vegetables, whatever you feel will go with the soup and meat. Head back to your table, pronto.

japanese food

japanese food

Now comes the biggest decision of all, which broth are you going to cook your meat in, and what are you going to cook it with? We must have looked like complete amateurs to begin with, the two local Japanese girls giggling quietly to our left as I put something unexpected into the broth.

For the next hour or so, we dipped our thin slices of raw meat into the bubbling hot soups, along with various combinations of noodles and vegetables before scooping them out and placing them in a bowl with chilli, soy and garlic all waiting. My goodness we ate well that day.

5. Okonomiyaki Fried Noodle Heaven

For most meals, the crescendo comes when the food arrives. After all, thats what you’ve come for, and what you’ve been sitting waiting patiently for, trying desperately to not eat another bread roll which sits in that bowl in the middle of the table. Anyway, I digress.

When you go for some Okonomiyaki noodles, the best part is the show that goes into the preparation of the meal. Teppanyaki plates are super heated, and then your meal is rapidly built in front of you. The expert ladies in our place threw down some paste onto the super heated plates, and added cabbage, noodles, various sauces, vegetables, maybe some prawns if you’re feeling flush. Bang, on goes the pan lid over the dish, allowing it cook and steam.

japanese food

japanese food

To your left, someone has made the incredible decision to order some mussels, and they suddenly come alive on the grill. Well, when I say alive, they are very much dead but making some serious sizzling noise. Again, the pan lid bangs down over the top to allow them to steam.

Everywhere we look things are happening. Another beer arrives, these ladies know what I want and when I want it. I sit mesmerised, and then my food arrives.

It’s best described as like a stack of pancakes, filled with vegetables, barbecue sauce, noodles and other herbs and spices. I’m given what looks like a paint brush, which I’m told to use to paste more BBQ sauce onto the top. After all, you can never have enough BBQ sauce. I enthusiastically slice my tower open and devour it.

The Japanese guy to my right who ordered the mussels offers one to me, I refuse at first out of embarrassment as I have nothing to offer him, but he insists. I take one, taste it and indadvertedly let out a wow. He laughs, his friend laughs, the ladies laugh, I’m glad I reacted the right way. It was delicious. If we’d found this place earlier, we would have been back every day. Go somewhere like this when you’re in Japan, you won’t regret it.

6. Conveyor Belt Sushi

japanese food
You’ve seen them, or at least heard about them. They are a rite of passage for visitors to Japan. Grab a seat, and then help yourself. Just remember to keep the bowls, the number you have helps them work out your bill. Try things out here you wouldn’t otherwise have.

7. Inadvertently Almost Eating Raw horse Meat

A confession, we didn’t actually try this, but we came close, completely by accident. We entered a lovely looking, small restaurant with a few tables. We sat down, our waiter provided us with hot towels and menus. We thankfully cleansed our hands and face with the hot towel and sat it down on the table. And then we looked at the menu.

The realisation came slowly at first.

The first thing that confused me was the outline of a cow with all the various cuts in Japanese, except it was a rather lean and tall cow, much like a horse shape. The penny didn’t drop.

Then the descriptions, translated into a version of English where the words were all clear individually, but together made up sentences which left us scratching our heads, ‘saddle cut’ being one that stands out.

And then it hit us, this was a horse meat bar. Not only that, a raw horse meat bar. We’ll try pretty much anything once, but we decided we didn’t quite fancy the idea of raw horsemeat. What to do though? I mean, we’ve already used their hot towels, that’s practically a signed contract in restaurant land. And, of course we don’t speak any Japanese.

We decided the best course of action was to feign sickness, and we headed back into the cold Tokyo night, in search of a steaming bowl of Ramen.

8.  Steaming Bowls Of Ramen Noodle Soup

Japan has some serious competition from Vietnam and its steaming bowls of Pho. As soup connoisseurs, Ramen was one of the main reasons we travelled halfway across the world. Our opinion? Whilst it doesn’t topple Pho from the soup podium top spot, it certainly comes close.

japanese food
What we didn’t expect from Ramen was just how hearty and filling it is, you’ve got to be hungry to tackle one of these bad boys. There is also so much choice, and normally you can order a set meal which comes with soup, some dumplings and maybe some pickled delicious treats. Dive in and try any one of the soups below!

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food
9. Sake

Enjoying a small bottle of sake with sushi is a pretty common occurrence in Japan. we’re sad to say we failed miserably at liking sake – trust us we tried it a few times but we just can’t get our tastebuds around it. Sorry, Japan.

10. Deep Fried Tempura Heaven

A pretty regular occurrence around the world, the style of tempura has made its way into everyday life in many places, with various non-Japanese restaurants offering it.

japanese food

japanese food

We’re big fans of it, obviously. I mean, who doesn’t like things deep fried? With most of the sushi banquets we had, tempura came part of the deal, but you’ll also find tempura prawns floating in your ramen sometimes as well, which we never quite got used to.

11. Edamame – Better Than It Sounds

japanese food

To describe Edamame to someone who has never tried it, you’d struggle to enthuse your audience.

“Well, it’s like peas still in their pods with a bit of salt. You kind of throw the whole thing in your mouth, squeeze the peas out and deposit the pod in the bowl”.

That sentence there is why we are not salespeople. Its not exactly complicated, but oh boy do we enjoy a hot bowl of Edamame as a pre cursor to our meals, and you should try it at least once!

12. Well Massaged Kobe Beef

This is meat romanticised. Cows fed the very best feed, massaged on a daily basis and allowed to roam free. I’d been told this made the meat the most tender and delicious on the planet, and as a meat eater I just had to try this.

The good news? The meat is absolutely delicious, I mean outstanding. The meat has a depth of flavour I’ve never experienced before, and it was as tender as can be. The downside is the size and the price.

japanese food

japanese food

On one evening in Kinosaki, I splashed out and ordered a steak, which was easily 6 times the price of a regular meal. What I failed to do was check the weight of the steak I was ordering. I’ve never felt more crestfallen when a steak arrived at a table, it had to be the smallest piece of meat I had ever seen. Perfectly cooked, aromas wafting from it, but small. I could have had a weeks worth of dinners for the price of this piece of meat! Nevertheless, I savoured every morsel and as I said, it was delicious. And yes, I did give Laura a bit.

13. Naughty Katsu Curry

japanese food

japanese food

So the sauce may come straight out of a plastic bag, what you gonna do about it? This is the treat of Japan, and isn’t anywhere near as healthy as sushi and sashimi, but when you need something to eat at a train station before a long journey, get yourself a bit of Katsu curry action. Salty curry sauce with salty, deep fried chicken and pickled radishes. You’ll be healthy most of the time eating raw fish, so allow yourself this little treat.

14. Nikuman Meat Doughballs On The Go

What a treat these bundles of joy were.

japanese food

japanese food

I picked the brown and white bundle from a van on the street in Kinosaki, and devoured it en route to yet another onsen. It’s a sweet tasting outside with a meat and onion filling, or even better how about the deep fried meat and cheese morsel I picked up at a train station on the right?

Both amazing snacks when you’re on the move.

15. Japanese Beer

If you’ve followed my previous Worldly Beer adventures, you’ll know I have a soft spot for the amber nectar. Japan has a lot of beer to choose from, from national brands to smaller local microbreweries, and the stuff is pretty good as well. The Yebisu brewery in Tokyo is worth a visit.

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

16. Traditional Ryokan Dining

A stay in a traditional Ryokan is a must in Japan, especially when you can stay in your room and have the food delivered straight to your table. Your hosts will also make up your beds for you in the evening and remove them in the morning.

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

17. Go To A Weird Themed Restaurant

We like our culture and unique experiences, but we also like to act like normal tourists as well. Do yourself a favour, if you ever find yourself in Tokyo, go to one of the multitude of themed restaurants in the city. We went to some sort of Asylum themed place, the food wasn’t great but the experience was, well, interesting I guess. You get to meet people like this as well:

japanese food

japanese food
What’s not to like? And yes that is a beer in a bedpan.

18. Wait, No Ketchup?

Take a moment to think about what is typically on a table in restaurants in your country. If you’re from the UK (as we are) you can almost guarantee on a table you’ll find salt, pepper and probably tomato ketchup. Standard, boring condiments to supplement our meals. Not so in Japan, in fact it got to the point that we were excited to see what else we could add to our already amazing meals!

japanese food

japanese food

Not only did we have access to lovely chillis, garlic, ginger, soy and fish sauce, lots of places had cold green tea by the tap! Imagine that?

19. See Where All That Sushi Comes From

If you’re wondering how they keep the fish so fresh for the sushi, you’ve got to head along to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo to get to the source of all things sushi. It’s not for the faint hearted though, and it is a working market where deals are done and all manner of creatures from the deep are hooked, filleted and thrown away in front of your very eyes.

japanese food

japanese food

japanese food

We wrote more about this place in our article: The Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo! We still can’t believe they let tourists in to just wander about!

20. What Did We Miss Out On?

We tried as much as we could in the time we had in Japan, but alas there is always something new to try everywhere you go! Have you been to Japan before? Do you have any experiences that we missed? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!

And so to our challenge for you.

We travel to see things we’d never see at home, to experience highs and lows which are more extreme than those in our normal lives. We travel to meet new people, to experience new cultures, to see the world.

We also travel to eat foods completely alien to us, and Japan fit the bill perfectly for us. So what one food are you going to try THIS WEEK that you’ve never had before? Go ahead and do it, try something new once, you never know, you might just like it. Let us know how you get on in the comments below!

Looking for more Japan inspiration? Click here.


holi festival of colours

Holi Festival Of Colors, India

As the sun set and darkness fell on the blue city, it was time for a very special celebration. Throughout the narrow alleyways and streets that make up the city of Jodhpur, people were excitedly milling around and smiling.

On the cobblestone streets, pieces of wood were being piled high; flowers and colourful powders were being delicately placed along the streets. As we stood on our rooftop, we surveyed the beautiful scene. From the darkness of the alleyways came light. Small orange glows began to pop up across the city, growing as the Holika bonfires were lit in the alleyways to signal the beginning of the Holi celebrations.

holi india
The Holi festival is an ancient Hindu spring celebration also known as the festival of love, or more appropriately, the festival of colours. And it was only just beginning.

Morning came, and it was time to enter the fray. Staying in a predominantly residential area away from the main square, whatever experience I was likely to have would be genuine. I made my way down the steps of the haveli and into the streets.

holi india

Almost instantly, a group of young boys, resplendent in a cacophony of colours spotted me. I was a prize target, clearly a tourist with blond hair and my completely clean appearance made me all the more alluring. Instantly I was set on, 10 pairs of hands rubbing the multitude of colours into my face, my hair, my back, arms and legs. Their excitement grew and the noise levels rose, attracting more boys to the fray to add their own imprint on me.

holi india

Before I could react, I was dragged along the street by my hands and around the corner to a dead end alleyway. I will never forget the scene in front of me.

Hanging 8 feet above the alleyway was a series of make shift plastic pipes, arranged into a grid like system. Crude holes had been punched into the pipes, creating a number of shower like spouts from above. Underneath, around 20 boys and girls were dancing under the showers, the music pumping out of a nearby window.

The entire alleyway was a blitz of colour.

And then the group spotted me. 40 Indian eyes fixed a delighted stare on me, the whites of their eyes and teeth grinning at me through the colours etched into their faces. The group erupted, launching themselves towards me with hands filled with yellow, red and green powder, and once again I was engulfed in the group. It was exciting and innocent fun, and the group delighted in coating me in yet another layer.

holi india

After a few moments, the original boys dragged me under the shower to rinse off, the colours streaming into my eyes and clothes. Now I was soaking wet, blind and covered in paint. Great.

A older man took pity on me and motioned for me to come to him, where he wiped the colours from my eyes with a damp cloth and told the group to give me a break, I needed it! After a few moments, I noticed a small boy sitting next to him, quietly and intently staring at me with inquisitive eyes. I could see he wanted to add his own impression on me, and motioned for him to come over. Carefully, he took two scoops of yellow powder from his bag, and gently brushed them across my cheeks; happy Holi, he whispered. It was the calm within the storm.

holi india

holi india

For a moment, I had zoned out of the party, but very quickly I was back into it, in the middle of 20 young boys and girls, all covered head to toe in colours and soaking through from the water from above. Apparently it was time to dance.

Those who know me personally know I have some choice dance moves, and it was time India was introduced to them. For the next 15 minutes it must have looked like the strangest dance off ever witnessed on planet Earth. On one side, a white, blond man from the UK, soaked through, stands under a make shift shower in an alleyway in Rajasthan, covered in various colours of paint. On the other side, 20 young Indians were in a state of hyperactivity, baying for some new dance moves. I duly obliged, pulling out some of my finest moves to the delight (I think) of the group.

holi india

holi india

holi india

Either way it didn’t matter, this group had made my first Holi experience spectacular and real, and I’m thankful for the memories. For many people, Holi can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience, and many choose not to participate for fear of the unknown. My advice to you is to avoid the large gatherings in the centre of towns and cities, and seek out an authentic experience in a neighbourhood nearby.

If you can find a place where families and children are playing, you get the authentic real experience of Holi, rather than a mass organised, tourist focussed celebration. Take the time to research and seek out these smaller, intimate gatherings.

In a country as energetic as India is, Holi seems to magically increase those energy levels to fever pitch, whole towns and cities dancing and celebrating to an unseen beat. To see Holi is to witness India in all its glory.

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Living With Monks In The Mountains Of Koyasan, Japan

As the snow fell and the mercury dropped on the thermometers, we ascended the mountain on the steep funicular railway, its old gears and winches creaking and groaning as it dragged us to our destination.

We were on the final leg of our journey to a temple retreat, nestled in the heart of the mountains near Koyasan, an area home to some of the most important religious sites in all of Japan and we’d arrived to a beautiful scene.

koyasan japan

koyasan japan

Perfectly manicured trees perched delicately around a small pond, a layer of snow resting lightly on each branch. Above us, to our left, a large temple was only accessible by some steep stone steps, and to our right lay the entrance. The temple was beautiful. Inside, its wooden floorboards stretched out along perfectly straight corridors, flanked on either side by the thin white sliding doors to various ryokan accommodation. It was quiet, and it was cold.

koyasan japan

Our ryokan style room was simple and sparsely furnished, decorated lightly with tatami mats across the floor. A small table sat in the middle, adorned with a fresh flask of hot water, two cups, some green tea and two sweets. The room was ‘heated’ by a small kerosene heater, fighting a losing battle against the harsh conditions outside. The smell of kerosene was intoxicating. We’d chosen to spend a few days here to do, well, nothing really. And that was just as well, given the heavy snow falling outside, coating the temple and surrounding areas in a thick white blanket. We sipped our tea and requested another heater for the room to avoid having to wear all our clothes, all of the time.

Our first morning required an early start, awakening before the sun rose to witness one of the ancient rituals carried out on a daily basis in the temple. This morning fire ritual turned out to be the highlight of our time in Koyasan.

Throughout the ritual, each task was given fervent attention and focus, with every move purposeful and precise. From the blessing of the various instruments, to the careful and methodical building of the fire. Prayers were made for various people, the papers briefly exposed to the fire. The constant beating of a drum provided routine and rhythm to the ritual, and as the fire rose in front of us, finally began to warm us in the freezing dawn air. It was a fascinating insight into the lives of these monks.

koyasan japan

Warmed slightly from the fire ritual, we trudged through the snow to the nearby mausoleum of Okunoin, an important and respected religious site, where we wandered for a couple of hours through the 200,000 shrines, tombstones and temples as the snow once again fell on Koyasan.

koyasan japan

koyasan japan

Seeking shelter in one of the many temples, we sat and watched a group of monks go about their daily rituals inside the temple. After spending time carefully and methodically closing a large wooden chest, it was taken outside into the cold air and quietly and solemnly taken away from the temple.

koyasan japan

As the snowstorm whipped up into a frenzy, we sought the shelter of a nearby soup restaurant, and the warmth of a hot bowl of ramen to reheat us. Koyasan was an intriguing experience, one we were glad to have sought out despite the freezing conditions. Sitting in quiet contemplation alongside monks in a temple in the mountains was something we had come to Japan to experience. As the mercury dropped once again into the night, our second heater arrived to fight the battle against the cold night, and we settled in for another evening of green tea and books.

koyasan japan

koyasan japan

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From Japan With Love

A chorus of “Irrashaimase” loudly welcomed us as we slid open the patio door and stepped into the cramped and humble food stall.

The place was a buzz of activity. Businessmen perched on wooden stools, lunching on steaming bowls of ramen noodles as the trio of kitchen staff strained noodles, blowtorched slices of pork and effortlessly built up various bowls of rich broth and noodles. We’d arrived in Japan, and thrown ourselves head first into it.

Barely two hours earlier, we landed at Tokyo Narita airport, jumped on a train to the city centre, hopped on the metro and dumped our bags at our hotel. Standing in the food stall, we clearly looked tired, hungry and slightly bewildered. We stood patiently for 2 seats to become available, sat down and waited to order. Ah, the first of many mistakes.

first time japan

Our friendly and energetic waiter took one look at us, a wide grin forming across his face, and motioned for me to follow him. Led to what looked like a cigarette vending machine, the system (which we instantly fell in love with) seemed pretty simple. Put your money in the machine, press the image you want to order, hand the waiter the receipt. Simple, efficient and perfect for us non-Japanese speakers.

Two bowls of pork ramen noodle soup ordered, we relaxed and took in our new surroundings. The place was a hive of excitement, everywhere we looked there was another new food to try, all accompanied by a symphony of slurps, sucking and talking in a language completely indecipherable to us. It was the Tokyo we had dreamt about.

first time japan

We sat there both seriously jet lagged and began day dreaming about our upcoming adventure in Japan, until a jolt awoke us from our sidetrack. Two HUGE steaming bowls of ramen landed in front of us. Our eyes widened, it was time to try our first bowl of soup in Japan.

Despite all of our adventures across the world, Japan provided us with some of the most unique cultural quirks and traits we’ve encountered, especially given the subtlety involved in them.

You see, with Japan, it’s the little things that count.

first time japan

Arrival at the airport was smooth, and without incident, and we cleared immigration quickly. In the arrivals hall we were confronted with a scene of quiet serenity. No hustling taxi drivers trying to get us into their cars.

The train to the city was clean, quiet and on time. On our way to the train we had to use a set of escalators, which were managed by two ladies. One at the top giving advice and guidance to users about to use the escalator, and one at the bottom to help us off.

first time japan

From the outside looking in, Japanese culture seems extremely alien to us, from its minor, almost imperceptible quirks to its grander, cultural points of view. In our few weeks there, we didn’t even scratch the surface of this unique culture, but what we saw, we liked.

first time japan

There are the little things that make the big differences. Being handed something with two hands instead of one meant more to us. The toilets with the ‘shower’ option or the more exciting ‘jet’ option provide a bit of additional fun where none normally exists. And the fact they flush a little fresh water when you sit down is nice as well, or play running water noises if you don’t want anyone to hear what you’re up to. Oh and the toilet seats are heated too.

first time japan

Whilst we don’t speak any Japanese, there have been many people who have helped us on our way. From the young student on the streets of electric city who stopped to help us with directions, we thank you. To the lady at the metro who approached us at the machine as we tried our best to buy a ticket, we thank you too. To all our servers and chefs in restaurants, we thank you as well, especially the guys at the raw horse meat bar who graciously guided us on our way after we had sat down, washed our hands with their hot towel, and then realised all they offered were variations on raw horse meat. We thank you too.

Would we recommend a visit to Japan? That really depends on what you want, but we’ve never felt more safe and welcomed in a country so quickly. We came to experience the culture and the food, as well as see some sights. If you’re interested in sushi, sashimi, ramen, noodles, sake, tea ceremonies, temples, interesting toilets, sumo, karate, karaoke and geishas, Japan is the place for you.

We fell in love with Japan, and we have no doubt that we’ll be back again in the future.

Looking For Accommodation In Japan?

If you’re looking for some accommodation options in Japan or elsewhere in Asia, we recommend you check out Agoda. Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas on Japan, or anywhere else in Asia, check out the options below!

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Japan inspiration? Click here.


The Chaotic Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Bewildered and disorientated, we stood on the sidelines studying our map of the market intently. A mere metre in front of us, a mixture of motorbikes, vans and strange little stand up driven machines weaved and swerved around the two of us.

We were slap bang in the middle of a busy fish market, wondering why we’d ever been allowed in in the first place. We’d arrived at the entrance to Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, ready to see one of the world’s largest fish markets in action. Over 2,000 tonnes a day pass through the market, as restaurants and merchants battle to satisfy the Japanese thirst for sushi and sashimi.

tsukiji fish market

We knew it was a working market, but we had no idea just how seemingly inappropriate it was to have tourists visit. We were shocked at being allowed to simply wander around, although all the guidance was pretty clear, be aware of yourself and don’t get in the way. Easier said than done when the walkways are only one person wide, and various huge carcasses are carried through the narrow polystyrene alleyways.

tsukiji fish market

We gingerly dodged the various vans and lorries ferrying the days catch back and forth to enter the wholesale market where the main action happens. Instantly we were disorientated by the spectacle. A fishy polystyrene maze stretched out in every direction, each full of things we had never seen before. Some routes were brightly lit, others less so and some seemed impassable as eager merchants completed deals with various buyers.

tsukiji fish market

We made our way further in. Huge carcasses from various unfortunate sea life littered the walkways, one man using a huge hook with great skill to slop huge fish heads into his van, destination unknown.

tsukiji fish market

Tentatively, we picked a narrow walkway and proceeded with caution. It was a mesmerising experience, everywhere we looked there was something interesting to observe; the old man filleting a huge tuna with tender care, a man using an electric saw to cut up a huge frozen tuna, another trying to persuade us to buy an octopus arm. I think it was anyway, it’s hard to tell when it’s been detached from its owner.

tsukiji fish market

The market is incredible, with some of the strangest things we’ve ever seen all sat in ice waiting for the buyers to take them to their final homes. Eels, huge starfish like things and various crustaceans littered the alleyways.

tsukiji fish market

And then the various characters that made up this place, from Mr fish hook head who took great delight in collecting all the unwanted bits and pieces, to the drivers of the quirky one man cylinder trucks, to the ladies in the tiny offices who dealt with the money.

tsukiji fish market

tsukiji fish market

tsukiji fish market

Each had their own job in a unique ecosystem, and despite the chaotic nature of the market, it all worked with fantastic Japanese precision and efficiency. We spent two hours in those cramped alleyways, and tired of asking each other “any idea what that is?” as another polystyrene box presented itself with an unknown being.

The Tsukiji fish market was an incredible experience, one we would happily see again given the chance. We dodged the final challenge of vans and lorries scurrying to various restaurants and made our way back into Tokyo in search of some breakfast sushi.

Looking For Accommodation In Japan?

If you’re looking for some accommodation options in Japan or elsewhere in Asia, we recommend you check out Agoda. Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas on Japan, or anywhere else in Asia, check out the options below!

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Japan inspiration? Click here.


Gili Meno Island: A glimpse of what could have been...

When you think about seeing the world, what image do you conjure in your mind?

What one experience would you like to have above all others? For us, when we first started travelling, we were obsessed with finding a small island to call home for however short a period of time, our own slice of paradise.

gili meno island

We found our piece of island paradise when we visited Indonesia, opting to spend a week on the island of Gili Meno, nestled just off the coast of Bali. The reasons for this were numerous: we could walk around it in a couple of hours, it has some of the best snorkelling around Bali, and despite some developments, it is still rustic and barren in places. Fancy a fruit juice? You might need to walk 15 minutes along a dirt track to get to the next wooden shack facing out onto the turquoise waters.

Whilst on the island we did stumble upon a reminder of what Gili Meno could have become, or more worryingly, a vision of what the future holds. Most of the developments on the island are small and unobtrusive. Away from the main port, you will come across a few single storey wooden buildings, but aside from them there remains a stark lack of larger developments. This hasn’t always been the case, as we discovered when we stumbled upon an abandoned larger resort on the island.

Gili meno island

We first noticed one of the old bungalows, set alone amongst the barren grey dirt ground. Some poorly looking trees and growth remained around it, but where we assume was once vegetation and grass there was nothing. Catching our eye behind this bungalow was another, and then another, and another. Each empty and abandoned, each in a state of disarray. We left the dirt path running alongside the beach to investigate further. When were these bungalows built? When were they abandoned?

We felt like we were in an episode of ‘Lost’ as we peeked inside these rooms.

And then we saw the main building, which must have been the main lobby and common areas. In front of the old building was the once sparkling pool, resplendent with a swim up bar and stools.

Gili meno island

Gili meno island

We couldn’t quite believe this kind of place ever existed on Gili Meno, the island just seems too small to support something as big as this. Perhaps it is too small and thus the failure of this resort.

Gili meno island

We wandered into the old reception area, watching where we put each foot. The floor was cambered and twisted, structure and design fighting against nature. The roof was fighting and losing the battle as well.

Gili meno island

We stumbled across a table where an open book was lain prone, one of its pages fluttering in the quiet breeze. This was a bit weird, had someone come here to read and left it there?

Gili meno island

We peered inside the old locked office, an old computer still sat there. It was a peculiar and unexpected site for us, and after a while we left the building and carried on our walk along the beach.

It did remind us of how lucky we were to be somewhere where developments were growing in a slower, more sustainable manner than the one we had just witnessed. But it also showed us just how quickly things can change, and what the future may have in store for other smaller islands as tourism increases. Is it possible to protect a paradise if it isn’t a designated national park?

We left the crumbling wreck to continue our walk, once again happy to be on Gili Meno and a place where, at least for a short period of time, we could escape the modern world and live a more simpler life.

Looking for more Indonesia inspiration? Click here.


Smoke Filled Food Markets of Luang Prabang

Tired and hungry after our 2 day boat journey down the Mekong river, we had finally arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos and were desperate for some comfort food, Laos style! Boy were we in for a treat.

luang prabang

We made our way to the heart of the action, the central market where all manner of Laos style trinkets and garments could be bartered over with the enthusiastic and insistent sellers.

luang prabang

Nearby, a small lane cuts away from the main street, leading you down an alleyway which is an attack on the senses. On the corner of the main street and the lane, two small stands cloud the entrance in smoke, as the fat and juices from kebabs cooking on the BBQs obscure the lane. The smell is intoxicating, spices and aromas attacking us as we pass through the smoke.

In front of us, a veritable delight of culinary delights lay in wait. Eager locals stand prepared with a plastic plate as you push and shove your way down the alley. “Fill this plate with as much food as you can! All for one set price!” one eager chef barks. Across from him an energetic old lady is currently grilling whole fish, which for a small add on charge is yours to have.

luang prabang

Overwhelmed, we carry on through the throng of locals and travellers alike, all hunched around small plastic tables, perched on plastic stools eagerly shovelling the assortment of vegetables, noodles, rices and meats with varying degrees of chopstick accuracy. All washed down with a litre bottle of Beer Lao. Old and new friendships are formed as you battle to grab a seat as we continue down the lane.

Reaching the end of the lane, we take stock and try to figure out which stall to go too. The old woman with the whole fish option is deemed the best, and we squeeze our way back towards the beginning of the lane to load up our plates with mounds of Laotian food.

luang prabang

We reach our host, plate thrust into our hands and with our fish chosen, we’re free to fill our plates with all the wonders of Lao food. I step up to the table, on goes a pile of noodles, some spring rolls, perhaps some green beans in some sort of sauce, a sausage might go down well, ah there’s some dumplings. And prawn crackers! The choice is incredible, my plate not capable of supporting all that I wish to take.

luang prabang

With a plate full of food in one hand, a plate of fish in the other, Laura grabs the beer and her food and we crush into a corner where two others are already sitting. Time to taste our haul, and we’ve made the right decision it seems! The spring rolls are delicious, perhaps owed to the fat and grease that surrounds them. The noodles incredible, the fish succulent and fresh. Our plates are devoured in minutes, and then we’re off, out of the madness of the lane and back into the main streets.

We’d waited two days for a decent meal, but boy had it been worth it. Our Laos odyssey had begun.

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Castaway On The Gili Islands, Indonesia

One of our goals of travelling is to find our own piece of paradise, one of those Robinson Crusoe moments if you will. Whilst planning our journey to the Gili islands, and in particular Gili Meno, and realising there were no boats going directly there, we knew this could be our chance.

After a journey which involved taking a speedboat from Bali to Lombok, and then hopping across each of the Gili islands from Lombok to Gili Air and then Gili Trawangan, our boat had taken us as far as it could.  We were on our own now for the last leg of the journey to Gili Meno. Finding some locals on the beach, and a quick negotiation, we had our ‘longtail’ boat that would take us to Gili Meno! We couldn’t wait.

Gili islands

As we approached Gili Meno, we were in awe of what we could see. Gili Meno is a tiny mound of land that just about creeps up from the depths of the ocean, surrounding itself with beautiful reefs and creating a beautiful mosaic of turquoise green waters and dark blue waters, all crystal clear. If you wanted to explore the entire coastline it would only take a couple of hours, and you could walk straight across the island in about 20 minutes. It’s small and perfectly formed.

Gili islands

Jumping off our longtail boat with the locals into the water and grabbing our bags, we had arrived on our desert island!

Doing Nothing On The Gili Islands

Gili Meno is laid back, and it’s hard to get going when you could just sit on the beach all day! We spent our week there walking along its deserted beaches, marvelling at the crystal clear light green and dark blue waters. We’d walk for an hour along the beach and not see another person, or take a stroll along the dusty track to a shack on the beach 10 minutes away, grab a fruit juice and read on the bamboo deck. We’d sit in one of the covered bamboo huts next to our hut and read, talk and listen to music.

Gili islands

Gili islands
Our home on Gili Meno

It was absolute paradise, and might possibly be the closest we’ll get to our Robinson Crusoe experience.  The island has no native fresh water, no roads, no cars, and no motorbikes. In fact, if you want to go anywhere and not walk, a horse and cart is your only option.

Gili islands

Along the coastline, bamboo shacks puncture the natural vegetation every 15 minutes or so, connected to each other via the beach or a small dirt track. Power cuts are frequent, and there are no hawkers on the beach pushing their wares, save for a few laid back friendly people offering a bracelet or fresh coconut/pineapple. There is no police force, there doesn’t really seem the need for one. You won’t find a bar blaring out music, but you’ll find Bob Marley playing out from almost every bamboo shack along the coastline.

Gili islands

Gili Meno is famous for its snorkelling, and with just cause. So good in fact that every morning we’d see a few small boats anchor offshore carrying people from the neighbouring Gili islands of Gili Air and Gili Trawangan to snorkel above our reefs.

We snorkelled once, and as we floated above the reef, Laura suddenly nudged me and gestured to look ahead. Could it be? Out of the green darkness the faint outline of a large turtle, moving effortlessly and graciously towards us, the swell of the ocean drifting it left, then right but always moving forwards, edging itself ever closer to us.

Gili islands

We couldn’t believe our luck! We lay perfectly still on the surface of the water as it came closer and closer. What should we do? We didn’t want to startle it so we stayed perfectly still as it glided underneath us on its journey. We turned around and followed it for a few minutes, in awe of what we were witnessing. And then, slowly, it turned to go into deeper waters. We stopped and watched it move slowly from the shallow turquoise waters to the deeper, darker blue waters. Slowly fading into the darkness until it was gone. Unable to top that, we swam back to our hut to reflect on a perfect snorkelling experience.

Other than snorkelling, there aren’t that many ‘attractions’ on the island. You could go diving, visit the turtle sanctuary on the east coast of the island, or take a stroll to the salt lake in the middle of the island. Otherwise, the sunsets are pretty spectacular.

Gili islands
Sunset on Gili Meno

Departing Gili Meno on our boat, we looked back as the island we’d called home for a week came into view in full, and we realised how lucky we had been to have experienced such a wonderful place. Landing back on the largest of the Gili islands, Trawangan, felt like moving from a small cottage in the highlands to the centre of London, and we were glad we made the effort to travel to Gili Meno.

Gili Meno is one of our most favourite places in the world. We loved its rustic feel, its lack of things to do, the lack of developments. We loved the people that worked there, the chilled out feeling they provided. But most of all we loved having no pressure to do anything, to go anywhere. Even though we didn’t have much choice in the matter.

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The Choeung Ek Killing Fields Cambodia

Following on from our experience at the Phnom Penh S-21 prison, our tuk tuk driver took us to our second destination of the day, the infamous Cambodian killing fields. Located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, this place has become synonymous with the Khmer Rouge regime.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Of Cambodia

Whilst it’s hard to decide what is appropriate to talk about when discussing the killing fields, we take guidance on how we write about the Khmer Rouge regime from the Cambodians themselves. They are transparent, they provide a non-sanitised account of their recent history, and are active even in broadcasting all that happened in the hope that it will never happen again anywhere in the world. It is with this guidance that we write about our experience of the killing fields.

17,000 people are estimated to have been murdered at the Choeung Ek killing field, many of which came from the S-21 prison in nearby Phnom Penh. After a morning at the S-21 prison, it was time to see where many of those prisoners found their final resting place.

On arrival at the fields, we were given a set of headphones and audio commentary to listen to as we walked around the site. Straight away we were drawn to the memorial tower, built to remember all of those who died here. Its glass facades towering over the green fields of the area, we were to return to this at the end of the tour.

choeung ek killing fields

The killing fields still feel very raw in situ. As we walked around the site, we were gently reminded not to pick up or disturb any bone fragments or clothing that may be laying on the path. As the killings are still recent history, when it rains on the site, pieces of bone and clothing come to the surface, and are delicately collected by the site supervisors. We couldn’t quite comprehend this as we started walking round, but quickly became accustomed to watching where we walked out of respect.

Walking from one ditch in the ground to another, we were told the story of what occurred here. Prisoners from S-21 were driven here during the night, made to stand in the back of covered trucks for the 17 km journey to the fields. To keep the prisoners calm, they were told they were being moved to another institution as S-21 was full. On arrival, they were placed in a wooden shed, manacled to the floor. As electricity was unreliable, the site was powered by large, and noisy, generators which masked the screams of people who were being murdered in the fields adjacent to the holding huts. When it was their turn, inmates were led out in small groups, made to kneel by the side of a ditch and were hit by a machete or hammer. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to use up precious bullets.

Our stomachs wretched at this, as we walked passed ditch after ditch after ditch. For a while we sat on a bench to compose ourselves. After S-21, this was hard to stomach, but there was much worse. We were about to learn about the Killing Tree.

choeung ek killing fields

As we approached it, we were intrigued by all the colourful bracelets hanging off the tree. What was this all about? We hit play on our handsets, and learnt the awful truth. The shortest possible way to explain it is to say it was used to kill babies and small children, with graphic details of the methods used. You can google for more details should you wish, but this was the part of the killing fields that hit us the hardest. Why kill the babies and small children? The Khmer Rouge did not want anyone seeking revenge for what they had done, so decided to wipe out the children of families as well. The bracelets had been left as some sort of memorial, a small recognition of what had occurred here.

We left and made our way back to the memorial tower we had been so drawn to as we arrived. Towering over the site, with glass panes all around the perimeter, the tower was created as a simple monument to all of those lost.

As we moved inside the tower, we already knew what to expect on entering, but again we were left speechless. When the site had been discovered following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, the liberators went about documenting all the graves and victims in the fields. Their remains were left stored for a number of years before the memorial was built, and it was decided that much of the remains of those who died here should be put on display as a reminder of all who was lost.

choeung ek killing fields

The first few shelves contain 5000 skulls of those who perished, stacked on top of each other. Looking closely, you can see how many of those people perished by the damage to their skulls. The following shelves containing other remains. It’s a startling exhibit, and we didn’t know what to make of it. Wasn’t it all a bit grotesque? What about giving them a proper burial? As we said at the start of the article, the Cambodians do not sanitise what happened here, and this is a classic example.

The killing fields are an awful place to visit, but again an unavoidable reminder of the recent history of Cambodia. The site itself is large, and took us 3 hours to get around by foot, as we listened to every piece of audio commentary on offer. Following a morning at Tuol Sleng S-21 prison, and an afternoon at the killing fields, we were ready for home. Our tuk tuk driver Paulie took us back to our guesthouse, this time without a comment on what had occurred here.

Looking for more Cambodia inspiration? Click here.


Mui Ne Beach & The Fairy Springs Of Vietnam

Mui Ne, Vietnam

Moving further down the coast of Vietnam from charming Hoi An and Nha Trang, we arrived in Mui Ne beach unsure quite what to expect from the place. Billed as a kite surfing/wind surfing/anything to do with wind mecca, we were intrigued to see what it was like. Our first mistake was to think we could walk from the bus station to the guesthouse, big mistake. What followed was a 45 minute walk with our backpacks on in searing heat, along a seemingly abandoned/unfinished coastline with huge waves and winds constantly wipping against the sea wall. Get a taxi from the bus station, it wasn’t the best start to our Mui Ne experience!

Despite not being wind surfers, there were plenty of things for us to do in Mui Ne, and in our brief two day visit we embarked on a tour by jeep to the fairy springs at the red canyon, and took a slow walk along the spring admiring the amazingly coloured canyon.

mui ne beach
Mui Ne Fairy Springs, Red Canyon

We also took a trip to the local sand dunes, and whilst we loved the yellow sand dunes, the red sand dunes just off the road were very disappointing and we would skip the red ones if we were recommending things to do in Mui Ne! These sand dunes were far more relaxing than the time we went sand dune surfing in Peru!

Mui Ne Sand Dunes
Mui Ne Sand Dunes

We also visited the old fishing port of Doi Cat Trang and spent a short time there.

Mui Ne Beach
Mui Ne Beach & Fishing Port

We were still tired from our Sapa trekking experience, so two days was more than enough time to for us to see the main sights of Mui Ne. Unless you’re into kite surfing you may struggle for things to do after a couple of days!

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Vietnam Inspiration? Check out more articles here.


things to do in nha trang

Things to do in Nha Trang, Vietnam

If you’re heading down the coast of Vietnam, you’ll probably be thinking about whether to make a stop in Nha Trang or not! We spent a few days in Nha Trang, and found that there are lots of really interesting things to do in Nha Trang! We instantly liked the feeling of this holiday resort town.

Things To Do In Nha Trang, Vietnam

Whilst it has none of the quaint, artistic character of Hoi An, we found it had a fun and relaxed atmosphere with a choice of classy beach bars with their own pools and sunbeds to chill out in the day. At night there are plenty of things to do in Nha Trang, with lots of vibrant bars and an amazing choice of restaurants in the heart of the town only a few streets from the beach.

The Louisiane Brewhouse

We particularly loved spending our days chilling out at the brilliant Louisiane Brewhouse on a quiet area of the beach with very comfy sunbeds, swimming pool and fresh cold micro-brewed beer, we thought we landed in heaven here!

things to do in nha trang

Vinpearl Land

We decided to take the 3.3km gondola ride to the town’s top tourist attraction for the day – Vinpearl world! After a dramatic and exciting arrival on the gondola, we had a brilliant day exploring the many sights and attractions. From sliding down the steep alpine mountain face in our self drive tobogan, taking a dip in the beautiful man-made beach cove, to marvelling at the huge sting-rays, turtles and sharks which swam over our heads in the giant aquarium! All topped off nicely by a stunning musical fountain light show! All of this was well worth the day ticket!

things to do in nha trang

Diving & Snorkelling

There are some great spots for diving and snorkelling in the nearby Hon Mun Marine Protected Area. If you can tear yourself away from the beach and pool that is!

Thap Ba Hot Springs

After a busy day of activities at Vinpearl world, we decided to chill out by having a hot thermal mud bath at the famous Thap Ba Hot Springs – a lovely way to rest our tired bodies and have a good clean…well, it was our first bath in 3 months! It was one of our favourite things to do in Nha Trang!

things to do in nha trang

A Seafood Feast On The Beach

Definitely a highlight of our trip to Nha Trang was our sunset seafood feast on the beach! Marinated to perfection and freshly barbecued in front of us, we enjoyed cracking into fresh crabs, langoustines and fresh lobster! Normally on a tight budget we never look at Lobster on the menu, but after a little haggling with the local hawkers on the beach it was a bargain – result!

things to do in nha trang

things to do in nha trang

We spent around 5 days in Nha Trang which seemed like a good amount of time to both relax and explore a few of the main attractions.

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Looking For Accommodation In Nha Trang?

If you’re looking for some accommodation options in Nha Trang or elsewhere in Vietnam, we recommend you use Agoda.com to check your accommodation options! Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas in Nha Trang, or anywhere else in Vietnam, check out the options here!

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.


phnom penh prison

Phnom Penh Prison S-21, Tuol Sleng

Continuing with our Cambodian experience, it is almost impossible to avoid learning more about the atrocities that took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. At the same time that the first Star Wars movie was released, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK, and North and South Vietnam joined to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Cambodia experienced a horrific period which saw between 1.4 and 2.2 million, or 25% of the population murdered by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime.

phnom penh prison

The consequences of this period of time are inescapable and there are many much better placed websites to learn more about the Khmer Rouge, however the book ‘First they killed my father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers’ by Loung Ung is the real life account of a young girl who experienced the murderous regime first hand.

What follows are our thoughts and experience of visiting the S-21 prison, an infamous institution where between 17,000 and 20,000 people were incarcerated and tortured before being murdered in the nearby Killing Fields between 1969 and 1975.

The Phnom Penh Prison & Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Arriving at the prison, we were instantly shocked by its location and close proximity to Cambodian suburbia. It’s hard to imagine the horror of what occurred here, within feet of nearby residential streets. But then the location makes sense when you realise that the prison originally was a school.

phnom penh prison

Cambodia doesn’t hold back from explaining the horrors of its recent history. There is no sanitisation of what occurred here, no dumbing it down. As we walked through the prison, we entered each room silently, unable to skip a room. We had to look in all of them, after what occurred here it seemed wrong not to.

phnom penh prison

As we entered the first building, we entered the first door on the ground floor. A small room, it was bare and decrepit save for a rusty old bed frame, a bucket and some tools lying aimlessly on the floor. We glanced to our left, and quickly realised what occurred here. On the wall to the left hangs a photo of the room when it was first liberated. The room in the photo looked as it does now, save for the body lying half on the bed and half on the floor.

The day the prison was liberated, there were 7 survivors out of the 17,000 – 20,000 that entered the prison. Sadly for the occupant in this room, the liberators arrived only hours too late for the poor soul.

Glancing back from the image to the room, we could see the bed frame was the original frame from the photo. The bucket, first assumed to be a toilet, is quickly revealed to be a vessel to carry bodily fluids and organs from the room as they were removed during torture. The ‘tools’ lying on the floor the main weapons to achieve the goals of the Khmer Rouge.

phnom penh prison

As we wandered to its neighbouring room, a growing sense of unease came over us. We felt hot and nauseous, and entering the second room was much like entering the first. A solitary rusty bed frame, a bucket and some tools. Again the image on the wall to our left revealed the state of the room upon liberation, the same story as the previous room. And so on to the next room and the next. After going through the ground floor rooms, we went up to the first floor to the next set of rooms. And up again to the next floor, and this was only building one.

The first rooms we visited were torture rooms, the second floor was more of a holding cell for the ‘guilty’, with guilty meaning anyone the regime didn’t trust: educated people, intellectuals, members of the previous government and police force. The Khmer Rouge wanted to eradicate intellectuals, turn the population into an agrarian society and control the poor and uneducated.

phnom penh prison

The conditions these people were subject to were horrendous. Chained and manacled to the floor in long rows, inmates would lie there all day and night, unless they were asked to stand for whatever reason the guards deemed.

We knew what happened in Cambodia was horrific, but to walk through a building which played host to these atrocities barely 40 years previously disgusted us. But yet we had to see the rest of the prison.

phnom penh prison

The second building was much of the same, the larger rooms showed us the faces of the victims. The Khmer Rouge, much like the Nazis, had been meticulous in documenting their killing. Every person that entered the prison was photographed and documented, and here they were, staring back at us. Hundreds of photos lined up in rows, many of them children.All with different expressions; some were fearful, some confused, some unaware of what was taking place, and those who were resigned to what was about to happen. Horrifying to see, but as we mentioned earlier, there is no sanitising the story of what happened here. The faces of the guards of the prison were also revealed to us, very young individuals given the brutal task of torturing and murdering fellow countrymen.

phnom penh prison

We stayed at S-21 for a couple of hours, looking at and reading every last morsel of information on offer.  And then we left, back into suburbia of Phnom Penh. Back to our friendly tuk tuk driver who muttered “not a nice place yes?” before taking us away from S-21. It was a harrowing experience, but also an unavoidable one on a journey through Cambodia.

Looking for more Cambodia inspiration? Click here.


Things To Do In Hoi An, Vietnam

Looking for things to do in Hoi An? You’ve come to the right place! We spent 4 days in this charming town and would highly recommend a stop here to anyone touring Vietnam’s coastal delights!

Things To Do In Hoi An

things to do in hoi an
A beautifully quaint street in Hoi An, Vietnam

Beautiful, colourful, quaint and artistic are words that spring to mind when we think back to Hoi An. A truly charming little coastal town, pretty by day with its multi-coloured street facades, markets and boats, which at night become fairytale like lit up by many colourful lanterns and lights.

things to do in Hoi An
Hoi An river canals

The town is divided by a small river containing many colourful boats and one main pedestrian bridge also lit beautifully by night. We loved sitting in the little cafes, bars and restaurants lining either side of the river, relaxing and sipping a coffee, cheap cocktail or enjoying a pint of locally brewed beer for only 4,000 dong (approximately 14p!).

things to do in Hoi An
Local street vendors

things to do in Hoi An
Hoi An’s vibrant market

The other great thing about Hoi An is that you only have to travel around 10 km out of the town to reach the coastline and its beautiful long stretch of beach! So after spending a couple of days exploring the town, we decided to hop on our free hotel bikes and cycled the flat road to the beach! Thankfully the roads were much quieter than the crazy traffic we were used to in Hanoi so we were able to leisurely peddle our way through the local villages, enjoying the scenery along the way.

things to do in Hoi An

things to do in Hoi An

We learned that it’s best to hit the beach in the morning as the clouds and wind tend to roll into Hoi An mid afternoon.  It was during a short stormy spell that we discovered the many amazing seafood restaurants lining the beach where you can literally choose your food from the fish tanks!  Check out our ‘Food heaven in Vietnam’ post for examples and pictures of the delicious local delicacies served up in Hoi An!

things to do in Hoi An

things to do in Hoi An
Hoi An Riverfront by night

Our first stop on our coastal tour was fantastic, and we loved every moment of our time in Hoi An! Take a look through our summaries of alternative coastal destinations Nha Trang and Mui Ne, both of which boasted very different atmospheres and highlights!

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

things to do in hoi an

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.


The Khmer Temples Of Angkor, Cambodia

Day 2 of our Angkor Wat adventure was sunrise day! A must do apparently, watching the sun rise over the back of Angkor Wat, its five lotus leaf towers revealing themselves through the haze of the morning. Up and out at 5am, we zoomed through the dark on our tuk tuk towards Angkor Wat. Day 1 at Angkor Wat had been fantastic, day 2 had much to live up too!

Unlike our experience of sunrise over Machu Picchu, today wasn’t our day. It was cloudy, it was cold and it was raining! Luckily this meant for the rest of the day the temples were relatively quiet, a result for us!

Into The Famous Khmer Temples Of Angkor

First up was the famous Angkor Wat temple, the pinnacle of temples in Cambodia and arguably South East Asia.

khmer temples of angkor

We were blown away by the size of it, and the level of intricate detail that had gone into every stone, of every corridor throughout the complex. The outer wall alone is 3.6 kilometres long, with an inner moat running round the entire complex, Angkor Wat is incredibly impressive.

khmer temples of angkor

We spent three hours in the temple, climbing up to the various different levels of the temple, from ground level (above) to the first level courtyard (below). 

khmer temples of angkor

We then climbed to the top of Angkor Wat and spent some time looking around the upper gallery at the centre of the temple.

khmer temples of angkor

khmer temples of angkor

After three hours at Angkor Wat, it was time to move onto the temple we were most excited about seeing: the Bayon temple. With 37 gothic towers and approximately 200 faces staring into the jungle, the Bayon temple was intended to intimidate those who came across it. We were fascinated by the huge faces carved into stone, and as we walked through the temple the knowing smile of the carvings loomed over us. No matter where we looked, there was one looking back at us, we loved it.

khmer temples of angkor

khmer temples of angkor

After marvelling at the Bayon temple, it was time to visit the largest 3D jigsaw puzzle we’ve ever encountered: the pyramid shaped temple of Baphuon.

khmer temples of angkor

By the 20th century, the temple was largely in ruins, and a restoration programme was started to restore it to its former glory. The temple was taken apart, and the stones documented in preparation for the rebuild. Unfortunately, with the rise of the Khmer Rouge, all records of the stones and their location were destroyed, and it wasn’t until 1995 that the restoration was able to begin from scratch, without a guide on where any of the 300,00 stones were to go. Puts my annual Christmas jigsaw efforts to shame really.

khmer temples of angkor

Ta Keo was next on our plan (above) and we stopped briefly to admire the temple and its restoration work before moving onto the final temple of our trip, the Tomb Raider temple of Ta Prohm.

khmer temples of angkor

Ta Prohm is the temple featured in the Tomb Raider movie; the all conquering roots battling against the ancient Angkor buildings. This was a much smaller temple, and we spent an hour walking through the ruins and roots.

After hour seven of day 2, melting in extreme heat, we had had enough! The temples are incredibly interesting but we were exhausted after two full days of wandering through the temples of the complex. Just after lunch, we called it a day and headed back to Siem Reap for a shower and out for some well earned food and drinks!

A recap of our itinerary for Day 2:

  • Angkor Wat
  • Angkor Thom
  • Bayon
  • Baphuon
  • Phimeanakas
  • Ta Keo
  • Ta Prohm

Angkor Wat is an incredible place, and you will need at least two days to see the sights. The majority of tour operators will recommend three days to see Angkor Wat, and whilst we agree it takes that long, we didn’t want to do a third day there as we were ‘templed out’ by the end of the second day! For those who are making a special visit to Angkor Wat, three days would be perfect. For those travelling through South East Asia who have already seen a few temples before Cambodia, two days is probably enough! Either way don’t miss it.

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Cambodia inspiration? Click here.


Food Heaven in Vietnam

So far in all our travels, Vietnam has come out on top as our favourite foodie place, so we’ve decided to share some of our best Vietnamese culinary experiences with all of you!  Enjoy looking at these pictures and apologies in advance if we make you hungry!

First up the most famous dish of Vietnam, ‘Pho Bo’ (noodle soup with beef). We had many bowls of this on our journey North to South of Vietnam, but this one from Nha Trang was the best!  They don’t always add in extra vegetables such as tomato and this made it even tastier!

food in vietnam
‘Pho Bo’ (Beef Noodle Soup)

The Vietnamese do all kinds of fish very well, but we particularly loved this steamed coconut shrimp in banana leaves – yum!

food in vietnam
Steamed coconut shrimp in banana leaves

Like the Pho soup, the spring rolls varied slightly from one city to the next as we travelled through Vietnam.  We particularly loved the Hoi An spring rolls….and served with cold beer made them even tastier!

food in vietnam
Hoi An Spring Rolls

‘Cao Lau’ is a local speciality in Hoi An and consisted of doughy flat noodles mixed with croutons, bean sprouts and herbs topped with pork slices and served in a savoury broth.

food in vietnam
Cao Lou

As I was not so keen on the pork Cau Lao above, I was delighted to find another version of this local speciality served with shrimp instead of pork – very tasty indeed!

food in vietnam
Prawn noodles

These little parcels were another local delight of Hoi An called ‘banh bao’ consisting of steamed dumplings stuffed with minced shrimp topped with crispy fried garlic. They made a lovely starter!

food of vietnam
Banh Bao

Now for a speciality from Sapa in North Vietnam – ‘Bo Nuong La Lot’ (Vietnamese Grilled Beef with Wild Betel Leaves), a delicious twist on the traditional spring roll.

food of vietnam
Bo Nuong La Lot

As you’ve probably gathered by now, healthy soup is very popular in Vietnam and we particularly loved this Vegetable noodle soup served up as part of our Sapa trekking experience!

food of vietnam
Homestay food

Whilst in Sapa, we also had the opportunity to taste some real home cooked food during our homestay with a local family from the Hmong village. They served up these delicious stir fry dishes with chicken and pork, and of course the usual favourite of spring rolls (which I helped to make!) Check out more about this in my post Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam.

food of vietnam
Sapa homestay dishes

Another great meal served up in Hanoi pictured below. The dish in the middle is the famous Vietnamese papaya salad served with horseradish, cabbage and carrot vinegar topped with cashews.

food in vietnam

Being savoury lovers, we didn’t try too many deserts in Vietnam but this desert soup was particularly tasty consisting of deep fried banana in sweet coconut milk with tapioca pearls and jelly shavings.

food in vietnam

This is the inside of the famous ‘banh bao’ fresh white pancake stuffed with delicious marinated minced shrimp – oh how I miss Vietnamese food!

food of vietnam

This delightful plate consisted of minced chicken skewers grilled over fresh lemongrass. Simply peel the chicken off, roll it into fresh pancakes stuff with noodles, cucumber, fresh lettuce and herbs and peanut sauce – a fab combo!

food of vietnam

Not only did these vegetable springs taste good, but they were probably the biggest portion we had!

food in vietnam

We couldn’t finish this picture post without also displaying my favourite Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, the ‘Pho Ga’.  This became our hearty and healthy breakfast of choice and we are certainly going to try and recreate it when we get home!

Food of Vietnam
Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup)

Looking For Accommodation In Vietnam?

If you’re looking for some accommodation options in Vietnam, we recommend you check out Agoda.com. Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas in Vietnam, check out the options here!


Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.


Amazing Angkor Wat: Day 1

The pinnacle of the great civilisation of the Khmers, Angkor Wat is a beacon of achievement in a region fraught with conflict.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world, with the main set of temples spread out 11 kilometres North to South and 15 kilometres West to East.  Other temples sit further afield, Banteay Srei a further 20 kilometres form the main set of temples.  There was a lot to see, so we set aside two days to explore these ancient ruins.

How to get around Angkor Wat

A mere 5.5 kilometres from Siem Reap, the city is a perfect launchpad to explore the remnants of the Khmer empire.  We decided to hire a tuk tuk for two days, shunning the self propelled bicycle option due to the incessant heat and the desire for us to complete Angkor in two days instead of the recommended three.

where is angkor wat

Up at 0630, we were picked up in our tuk tuk and began the 20 minute journey out of Siem reap to the complex of Angkor. After passing through a checkpoint, our driver Mr Lim began the tour of the complex. As we motored along the road in our open tuk tuk, we got our first glimpse of the main event in Cambodia, Angkor Wat itself. Its towering lotus flower shaped towers guarded behind a 3.6 km long moat and ancient wall. We were desperate to visit it, but we were recommended to save the best until last!

First up was the largely unrestored Preah Khan.

where is angkor wat

This was a great introduction to the temples of the complex, with towering trees and roots taking over ruined buildings of the Khmers. We spent about an hour at Preah Khan, wandering through the tree infested ruins and loved every minute of it. After Preah Khan, we were off to Neak Pean.

where is angkor wat

Once a hospital for the Khmers, the four connected pools representing Earth, Wind, Water and Fire were thought to cure all illnesses. Now dried out and in ruins, we only stayed a few minutes as there wasn’t much to see. Hopping back into our tuk tuk, we were off to Ta Som.

where is angkor wat

where is angkor wat

We loved Ta Som temple, and more or less had the place to ourselves as we wandered around that morning. After a quick stop for lunch, we hit the road for the long drive to Banteay Srei, 20 km north of the main temples. We say a long drive, but try spending 45 minutes in a tuk tuk along bumpy roads! It was worth it though.

where is angkor wat

Many of the carvings in stone were incredibly delicate and intricate.

where is angkor wat

where is angkor wat

Our final stop of the day was the beautiful Pre Rup temple, where it is believed funerals were carried out. This was one of our favourite temples of the trip, even if the sun was searing down on us at this point!

where is angkor wat

where is angkor wat

And so our first day at the Angkor Wat complex was complete. For those thinking of visiting Angkor Wat, we would highly recommend it!

A reminder of our Day 1 route:

  • Preah Kahn
  • Neak Pean
  • Ta Som
  • Bantay Srei
  • Pre Rup

After day 1 we were exhausted, but in awe of all that was achieved by the Khmer empire, and the level of preservation of some of the buildings despite natures best attempts. Our second day at Angkor Wat was equally as spectacular!

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

Powered by 12Go Asia system

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Cambodia Inspiration? Click here.


The Best Sapa Trekking Tours, Vietnam

So you’re looking for the best Sapa trekking experience? Well you’ve come to the right place!

It can be quite a daunting challenge when planning a Sapa trekking tour, given the huge amount of information and advice online! In this guide, we’ve simplified the planning process, making it as easy as possible for you to book the best Sapa trekking tour for you!

So whether you need information on how to get from Hanoi to Sapa, how long to go to Sapa for or what type of trek to choose, we’ve got you covered. In this guide to trekking in Sapa, you’ll find:

1. How to get from Hanoi to Sapa

2. Our Sapa trekking experience

3. How to pick the right Sapa trekking tour for you

You can also click on any of those headlines to take you directly to that section in the guide.

1. How to get from Hanoi to Sapa

There are two options for you: take the train or go by car/bus. And you can book these independently or book them as part of a tour.

The train to Sapa. Taking the train is the romantic option, slowly trundling your way to Lao Cai from Sapa overnight as you sleep. We chose this option and loved it, and the great thing is you can travel in first class for a very reasonable price! The other major bonus is there is an overnight service in both directions, which means:

Taking the overnight train saves you two nights accommodation!

The other major bonus is you can book your train online, and more importantly, in advance instead of waiting until you get there. This saves you having to go to the station booking office and trying to book something last minute there! To book your train online, the best website by far is 12go.asia. There you can book your Sapa train, as well as any other journeys you may have in Vietnam, and the rest of South East Asia!

sapa trekking

Remember, the train will only get you as far as Lao Cai, from there you’ll then need to get a bus/minivan/taxi to Sapa. There will be plenty of minivans leaving the station that you can jump into for a small fee, but if you prefer to book it in advance, choose the ticket option on 12go.asia where you have the taxi transfer included as well. You can check the exact times for your dates here:

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sapa trekking
You can also take a bus direct to Sapa from Hanoi, with a number of operators. This takes around 6 hours, with most services departing early in the morning. Again you can book these advance through 12go.asia.

The other option available to you is to book a tour that includes the train/bus option, but each tour provider will provide different options for this service and you’ll need to check with each of these operators separately.

2. Our Sapa trekking experience

In this section we’ll give you some advice on how to pick the best Sapa trekking for you, including how many nights to go for (and why), a detailed breakdown of each of our days trekking, and how to pick the right tour company for you. If you just want to skip ahead and review the best Sapa trekking companies for you, then click here to book your Sapa trek!

sapa trekking

If you want more details, including our top tips, read on!

There are a wealth of Sapa trekking tour options available to you, from short one day treks to multi-day treks and homestays. Our advice is to take at least a 2 night trek, for one very important reason…

Sapa is a small town, nestled deep within the rolling green highlands of Vietnam, and as such offers some incredible scenery. However, Sapa is a very popular destination for travellers, with many only coming for a one day trek before returning to Hanoi. This means there are many groups leaving at the same time as you from Sapa, so the longer the trek you take, the further you’ll go from Sapa, the quieter it’ll be and the more impressive the scenery will become!

So don’t scrimp on this, if you’re coming all the way to Sapa, spend at least 2 nights on the trek at the very minimum! You’ll thank us later.

sapa trekking

sapa trekking
The first 2 hours of our trek involved mainly a steep descent through muddy hills which curved and cut through many farm houses, rice paddies and villages. We welcomed our stops along the way to take in the stunning scenery of the many mountains, valleys and local villages. At our first village we observed a local woman dying clothes for local families. Having never witnessed clothes being dyed using natural flowers and techniques before, it was fascinating to learn the process they use and watch the weaving process using this old device. Despite being humble and shy about her skills, she was keen to highlight their local traditions.

sapa trekking
We encountered numerous obstacles on our trek: boulders, fallen trees, muddy ditches, and quite a few (very large) water buffalo! You can imagine who had right of way…

sapa trekking
sapa trekking

In the afternoon, we passed through more villages and met many local people chopping bamboo to build homes and market stalls, making handicrafts such as incense sticks and sometimes negotiating the sale of a water buffalo to another village family. Water buffalo are very expensive animals due to the many roles they adopt on the farm including towing the rice plough, carrying supplies from one village to another, guarding the other farm yard animals and of course providing high protein meat to sell to markets.

sapa trekking

After around 6 hours of trekking, the last hour was really tough (as it always seems to be!). With tired legs and steep terrain, we felt the intense heat of the sun beating down on us and struggled to avoid losing our footing and landing in many deep muddy ditches!

sapa trekking

We later found out that many local people have to trek this tough terrain on a daily basis to make their way home from work or school, as there aren’t many paths or direct roads. As many can’t afford a car or motorbike, trekking by foot is the only option. With typically a 2 hour trek to most schools in the area, it’s no wonder that many children don’t go at all and would rather spend the day helping their family on the farm or selling handicrafts to passing tourists. After realising this, I decided not to complain about my tired legs and mud covered trainers! I’m not sure I could make this long journey on a daily basis, but this was normality for the strong and resilient village people we met.

sapa trekking

After a long day we were relieved to arrive at our final destination. Our home for the night was set deep in a lush green valley next to a large gushing waterfall. After a warm welcome from our lovely host family and a much needed cup of herbal tea, we helped prepare our feast for dinner (well I rolled some spring rolls!) and relaxed our tired limbs with the help of the favourite local drink of choice – homemade rice wine! Some other friendly locals joined us and delighted in leading the consumption of shot after shot, getting progressively more merry. Thankfully for us though, there were no sore heads the next day due to the purity of the homemade liquor process – ideal for our new farmer friends too with a 4am start!

sapa trekking

The next morning we woke to heavy rain and flooding in the valley. On came the waterproofs and we set off on another day of trekking. The heavy rain was incessant throughout the morning, and got progressively worse by the afternoon. It didn’t dampen our spirits, as we really enjoyed the coolness of the rain compared to the intense sun we’d experienced the previous day. After a couple of hours we were soaked through to our skin, and decided to embrace the mud! After trying to avoid every mud ditch the previous day, we found ourselves just getting stuck in and got as muddy as we liked as we knew the rain would wash it quickly away! Keen to get to our final destination towards the end of the day, we decided to take as many short cuts as possible and no longer cared about following paths or roads, sometimes finding ourselves almost knee deep in mud sliding down the side of hills and celebrating when we managed to avoid falling down head first! Our second homestay was even nicer than our first and thankfully had the luxury of a much needed hot shower – result! So after a long soak to heat us up, we were treated to the best tasting hot garlic chips and homemade prawn crackers, followed by a beautiful meal of chicken and pork stir fry with rice and an ice cold Tiger beer – heaven.

sapa trekking

The following morning, after another night of solid rain, almost every item of clothing we had with us was damp – yuk! We just couldn’t face putting on damp clothes again so decided on the only rational course of action left to us, to put on our only dry clothes left. Sadly for us, the only dry clothes we had left were our pyjamas! Imagine the sight, each of us walking with backpacks on through the mud to our mini van for a ride we’ll never forget. The heavy rain of the previous 36 hours caused flash floods from the top of the mountains, crashing across many of the roads we needed to use to get back to Sapa. Our driver had to navigate us along roads that had become rivers, one of which was running so fast we had to drive as close to the cliff edge as possible to avoid the torrent. It was at this moment I closed my eyes and held my breath, too scared to look at Barry! Relieved to be safely back in the town of Sapa, we wandered around for an hour or so (still in our pyjamas) before the rain returned and we sought refuge in a coffee shop to dry off, relax and reflect upon our amazing adventure of the last three days, an experience we’ll never forget.

3. How to pick the right Sapa trekking tour for you

As we said at the beginning of this guide, some of our best experiences occurred as we travelled further into the region, away from the hustle and bustle of Sapa, and we absolutely recommend you set aside at 3 – 4 days for this experience!

For anyone thinking of visiting Vietnam, we’d highly recommend a trip to Sapa if you’d like to experience rural life, awesome landscapes and savour a taste of the true culture and traditions of the Vietnamese countryside and its amazing people. To research your tour company options and book in advance, we recommend you use the TripAdvisor tour booking page, where there are 20+ tour companies on there, each with different packages and tours available. So click on this link to be taken directly to the top 10 tour companies list and get your adventure booked!

For those wishing to travel to Sapa independently, you can book your train/bus/taxi tickets online in advance using the search form below!

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Looking for more Vietnam inspiration? Click here.

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!


things to do in phnom penh

Welcome to Cambodia! Things To Do In Phnom Penh...

Stepping off our bus from Ho Chi Minh City, we had arrived. Instantly surrounded and bombarded by a group of eager and excitable tuk tuk drivers, we battled through the group as they eagerly competed with each other to take us to our hostel. It was swelteringly hot, noisy and exciting. Welcome to Cambodia.

things to do in phnom penh

As usual, we did our trick of walking a couple of blocks away from the pandemonium, knowing fine well there’d be some tuk tuk drivers hanging about on most corners who would give us a reasonable price. We found a quiet and unassuming driver who gave us a fair price, hopped into his tuk tuk and off we went to our hostel.

things to do in phnom penh

Speeding through the streets of Phnom Penh, we felt instantly comfortable and excited by our new country. The people seemed genuine and friendly (if overly keen) and the city was interesting and alluring to us. Countless street food vendors, markets and tuk tuks wizzed by, expats and locals blending seamlessly together.

things to do in phnom penh

After dropping our bags off at the hostel, we were keen to get out and experience the best things to do in Phnom Penh as the sunset. We took a walk alongside our old friend the Mekong river, before grabbing our first Cambodian beers of the trip! Ice anyone?

things to do in phnom penh

We’d heard of a great food market where the locals ate, and headed there to sample some of the new local delicacies for dinner.

things to do in phnom penh

A large square of sitting rugs are surrounded by food stalls selling all sorts of delicious food; chicken, beef, pork and seafood skewers, noodle soup, rice porridge, spicy noodle salads, the options seemed endless. The market idea is pretty simple, grab some food and find a place on the mats to relax and eat.

things to do in phnom penh

We were excited. One of the main reasons we went travelling was to try new food, and tonight would be no exception. We opted for pork rice porridge soup, a spicy noodle salad and chicken skewers.

things to do in phnom penh

things to do in phnom penh

things to do in phnom penh

To finish off our meal, we decided on sharing a fresh sugar cane drink. Watching the vendors make it was incredibly therapeutic – grab a couple of long canes, feed them through a automated mangle five or six times and watch the sugary liquid ooze out. Drain it off, pop it in a cup with ice and away you go.

And so to bed, in preparation for what was to become an emotional few days as we learnt much more about a poor country still suffering the consequences of the horrific Khmer Rouge period as we visited the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields.

Cambodia had welcomed us with open arms, and we were ready for the new adventure.

Get Your Trip Organised!

Book Your Train/Bus/Ferry Tickets Online!

We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!

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Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!

Looking for more Cambodia Inspiration? Click here.


The bombs of Laos: UXOs & COPE

As you may have read in our Luang Prabang Trekking & Homestay and Mighty Mekong River Cruise: Thailand to Laos posts, Laos is a country we fell in love with. Its stunning landscapes combined with its friendly, humble people made our time there very special. Laos is also a country that many of us know very little about, and its troubled recent history continues to affect the people of this beautiful country.

For anyone that has visited Laos and spent some time there, you begin to understand that behind the stunning country and genuine smiles lies a population that is still suffering the effects of the neighbouring war in Vietnam.

lao history uxo laos

By the time we arrived in the capital Vientiane, we had learnt much about the country’s recent history. Some of the shocking stats of the country include:

  • Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world
  • On average, Laos was hit with one B-52 bombload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years
  • During the Vietnam war, more bombs were dropped on the country than were dropped by all sides in World War 2
  • 260 million bombs were dropped, 80 million of which failed to explode
  • 25% of Laos villages have UXO contamination
  • Between 1999 and 2008, there were 2,184 casualties (including 834 deaths) from UXO incidents
  • More than 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents since 1964.

If those stats shock you, then we’d highly recommend reading the following to learn more about what this beautiful country has gone through in the last 50 years: The secret bombing of Laos & Cambodia and Recent history of Laos. Disclaimer: we know Wikipedia isn’t always accurate, but these articles are a good place to begin.

Having learned this as we travelled the country, we also learned that the country still suffers at the hands of Unexploded Ordinances (UXOs or bombs). As a country reliant on agriculture and rice, it’s shocking to think that hundreds of people a year are injured or killed when they accidentally dig up a bomb whilst plowing, or killed growing crops to feed their families.

And we’re not talking about small bombs, we mean huge bombs like these:

lao history uxo laos

The worst part of it all is that the metal is actually very valuable, which for the poor of Laos provides a tantalising but deadly incentive. Find a bomb, successfully disarm it and you can feed your family for 6 months. More and more are attempting to find and sell the metal, with deadly consequences.

When we finally arrived in Vientiane, we were keen to learn more about what was being done to combat these deadly UXOs. We visited a small but incredibly inspiring charity which works with those affected by UXOs: the ‘Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise’, or COPE.

lao history uxo laos

COPE works with the National Rehabilitation Center (NRC) and has five provincial rehabilitation centres across Laos, primarily providing prosthetics and mobility devices for those affected by UXOs free of charge if they cannot afford to pay for them. It also supports a multi-disciplinary rehabilitation program that includes physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Unfortunately, COPE and the NRC are the only provider of prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services in Laos.

The visitor centre is a small building which you can easily devote half a day to, reading about the work of COPE, and also learning about other organisations engaged in eradicating UXOs in Laos. They also screen a number of documentaries at the centre which provide further information on the other organisations, in particular we were drawn to the work of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). MAG work tirelessly in training local Laos people on how to dispose of bombs, as well as teaching the local population of the dangers of UXOs.

lao history uxo laos

Sadly, the dangers from UXOs don’t just lie in untouched jungle areas or unused rice fields. Many UXOs are only a few inches underground in villages, and many people are killed or injured when, by a twist of fate, they decide to build a fire in their back yard in a slightly different place to cook dinner, and inadvertently heat a bomb up.

Writing about these organisations is one way we’d like to spread the word to those who may have no clue of the history and suffering in this country. And with the visit of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton four days before we visited, we hope the profile of UXOs in Laos will be subsequently raised. We were so moved by the centre that when we return to the UK, we have chosen COPE as one of five charities we will support. Should you wish to do the same, you can ‘buy a leg’ and other prosthetics for COPE here and contribute to UXO clearance with MAG here.

Looking for more Laos inspiration? Click here.


Remnants of the Vietnam War

Mention Vietnam and the majority of people’s minds will drift towards the ‘American War’ as the Vietnamese call it. Vietnam versus the US, communism versus capitalism. As we travelled south through Vietnam, we were reminded of the war along our journey. From the demilitarised zone near the old capital of Hue in Vietnam, the atrocious impact of the war spilling over the borders into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, and the after affects of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) we wrote about in The bombs of Laos.

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

war remnants museum ho chi minh

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is a no holds barred account of the war from the Vietnamese point of view. The images are graphic, the video clips horrific and the accounts of those who experienced it harrowing to read. The museum puts a heavy emphasis on imagery, including the stories behind the photographers, the majority of whom perished in the war. Photo evidence of the after affects of agent orange and napalm are also evident, with shocking photos of deformed foetuses and children.

Some have called the museum propaganda, and whilst the language used is aggressive, as outsiders to the war we saw it as a strong and graphic account of the terrible events of those years in a country ripped apart by conflict. Without wanting to wade into controversy, we found the museum very useful to understand the main points of the Vietnamese point of view regarding the war. It was also interesting to track the subsequent impact on the US political system, its relationship with the media and the transparency of war. We’d absolutely recommend a visit to the museum, but be prepared to be shocked by some of the imagery.

The Cu Chi Tunnels

We also visited the Cu Chi tunnels, a couple of hours from the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. This was an area where the Viet Cong were in their element. An elaborate system of underground tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to move around undetected, moving underneath US forces, disappearing from view and appearing later behind the enemy, ambushing them.

cu chi tunnels, things to do in Ho Chi Minh City

cu chi tunnels, things to do in ho chi minh

things to do in ho chi minh city

cu chi tunnels, ho chi minh city

A small section of the tunnels have been restored here, and you have the opportunity to experience a part of what it was like for the Viet Cong. As you can imagine, conditions were atrocious. It is estimated at any given time half of the troops would have had malaria and almost 100% would have some form of ‘intestinal parasites of significance’. The tunnel we experienced had been enlarged, but as we descended the steps into the tunnel, a dizzying feeling of claustrophobia swept over us.

Imagine crouching inside a tunnel around a metre in height and you get a sense of what the Viet Cong experienced. It was dark and damp and the goal was to walk 100 metres underground. As we entered the tunnel, we knew instantly we wouldn’t make it to the end. Knowing there are exits every 20 metres was reassuring, and Laura and I bailed out at 40 metres. We probably could have gone further, but we’d seen enough. It is genuinely unimaginable having to live down there for months, and fight a guerilla war at the same time.

We also saw some of the other methods they used to kill and maim the enemy, including spike pits.