It’s a wrap!

Around the World trip: FINAL THOUGHTS

by Xavier

It’s been a little over a week since we returned to the UK, and have rejoined the working masses already – though I am currently in Spain for a few days visiting my folks – and the last six months are quickly becoming a distant memory.

Map: trip's itinerary

map source: GPS Visualizer.

Back in early March we started the blog with a summary of the journey so far. By last Thursday, when we arrived home, we had clocked a grand total of – give or take – 66,000 kilometres (41,000 miles) over 24 weeks – roughly twice as long as it took Phileas Fogg, though of course he was in a hurry – having done about a fifth of that distance by land (Simon reckons that we have probably spent a good 200 hours just on buses alone).

On this trip we have been to 14 countries in South East Asia, Oceania, and South America; starting in Hong Kong and then travelling through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, France (French Polynesia), Chile (Easter Island), Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and finally Argentina.

Much to Simon’s credit and despite my very best efforts, we have managed to complete the whole trip under budget – which in hindsight means that we could have gone to Galápagos after all so it’s a mixed triumph – and with the exception of some nasty stomach bugs, a fair amount of sunburn, compulsory insect bites, and nearly drowning in the ocean (just me), we have come out of it all reasonably unscathed, if perhaps a little thinner.

Si emociona pensarlo, imagínate hacerlo.

If thinking about it is exciting, imagine doing it.” | photo: Acción Poética.

Travelling has always been my greatest passion, and one I share with Simon. After years of living and working in London, the thought of taking a long break from the latter to fully enjoy the former did eventually become a real possibility, and this trip has been the direct result of several years of planning and a very stressful final push to make it all happen. Simon – to give more credit where it’s due – spent a formidable amount of his time thinking up a plausible itinerary, reading guidebooks and travel blogs, working out routes and timetables, and coming up with a workable budget for which he built an Excel spreadsheet worthy of the Fields Medal. My contribution was far more modest in comparison, but there is just no one like Simon when planning a complex trip, let alone of such scale as this one. I have to say, the feeling when our first plane took off from Heathrow in November was the best thing in the world.

During the course of the last six months we have gone back to some of our favourite places and have discovered plenty more; we have seen many of our distant friends and have made a few more along the way, and I have spent some long overdue time with my family in Argentina. We have swum in the sea, and have stood at 5,000 metres – altitude is a bitch by the way. We have seen the sun rise and set in places where people live such different lives to ours that it makes things like a bad day at work here in London pretty meaningless in comparison – though ask me in a couple of weeks and I may give you a different answer. We have carried our lives on our backs from country to country – not the best look but does wonders for the legs – and when listening to our own music we have listened almost exclusively to The Killers, because the last weeks before leaving London were rather hectic and we just didn’t find the time to put much else in our various devices.

Best bit? Easter Island. We really hope to visit again one day.

And on the subject of backpacking, yes it is a great way of seeing the world if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone occasionally; but…

… HOSTELS OF THE WORLD (especially those in cities): it’s 2015, people; there is just no excuse for crap wifi and ratty 1970s bed linen (come on, how much does a pillow case cost) – and how can some of you charge extra for a private bathroom and only have cold water coming out of the tap?, seriously.

If this blog contributes somehow to encourage people – you? – to raise two fingers to the rat race and go see the world then that would be wonderful. After all these things that we have seen and done, my only regret is not having gone sooner, and for much longer.

What can I say. It has been amazing.

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

OUT OF THE OFFICE

video: stelakoul channel, YouTube.

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

A tale of two cities.

WEEKS 5 & 6

HONG KONG | BANGKOK – yes, again
香港 | กรุงเทพมหานคร

by Xavier

The days seem to fly by lately, and with Christmas, the New Year, and a million other things since the last post, we haven’t had much time (or inclination) to keep up with the blog, so this week it’s two for one!

IMG_0995.JPG

We returned to Hong Kong Island on 21 Dec, with just enough time to settle in before Christmas. Accommodation was a bit tricky to arrange for various reasons: one night at the LBP (which has become our default hotel when in HK), followed by an Airbnb rental nearby, and two more nights at the iclub Sheung Wan, now in my list of the coolest hotels I’ve ever stayed at!

Having already done the main sights in previous visits, and also knowing our way around, it was our chance to explore this amazing city in more depth. We did ask some of our friends who know HK what to do on the days we were there and essentially we got the same answer from each and all of them: go shopping. And so we jumped on the Star Ferry, crossed over to Kowloon, and wandered around the area between Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, walking along Nathan Road and the streets around it. Imagine London’s Oxford Street on Christmas Eve, then multiply that by several orders of magnitude, and you’ll get an approximate idea. An insane amount of people, crowding the streets and the myriad of shops of all sorts and for all pockets, everywhere. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

source: Sven Petermann channel, YouTube.

If you have been following the news regarding the protests in HK in recent months you’ll know that while the issues continue, the main sites of Occupy Central have pretty much been cleared by the authorities in the last few weeks (as we mentioned in our first post) and very little remains now; however, the Umbrella Movement is still alive, and good luck to them!

Umbrella Movement poster

Our Airbnb hostess, a journalist I believe, recommended we took a look at the remains of the Lennon Wall in Central, which although had been cleared in the previous days, seemed to be happening again. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to go in the end, but here is a related website.

Political matters aside, Christmas was upon us and I’m glad we chose HK to spend it in. Simon found an English pub in Soho where we had our supper on Christmas Eve, followed by a few festive drinks in a couple of nice bars. Earlier that day we had missed a chance to top up our travel budget, but such is life. Then Christmas Day came, and still with no major plans, we decided to go to the service at St John’s Cathedral, for which we luckily managed to get front row seats. The service was officiated by the cheerfully Scottish Reverend Catherine Graham – who requested enthusiastically throughout the service that everyone looked as happy as we could. It was a lovely service, and we enjoyed ourselves so much that Simon even got congratulated by Reverend Graham at the end for how happy he had looked!

St Johns Cathedral

We then headed off to the shops to pick up some nice food and wine for our Christmas dinner, and were surprised to see hundreds of women (and some men) happily picnicking along the covered but cold pedestrian walkways around Central. We later found out that these women are domestic staff, helpers, mostly from the Philippines, who gather en masse in central HK on their days off because they don’t have enough money to do anything else. This practice has been causing a lot of friction with the residents, yet we also learnt that the treatment of these women by their Hong Kong employers is quite appalling, which beggars belief. The rest of the day was spent in the apartment, eating and drinking as it is customary, watching films, and chatting to our families via FaceTime, which was great as we really missed not being with them.

Merry Christmas

Our London friend Jemai was stopping in HK on his way to Manila and it was really cool to catch up with him on Boxing Day – or rather, St Stephen’s Day, as we ended up drinking pints in an Irish pub just off Nathan Road. We hung out with Jemai right until our last day. He travels frequently to HK and was happy to show us around places that we’d have never found by ourselves, like the amazing clothing shops on Granville Road and Granville Circuit, a very affordable Michelin starred Chinese dim sum restaurant, the stalls where you can grab an iced milk tea with grass jelly to take away (surprisingly nice), and of course some excellent nightlife spots!

Boxing Day at Delaneys

There is one thing I’d really been wanting to do but couldn’t convince Simon to do with me, which was watching the last part of The Hobbit trilogy at the cinema. So off I went by myself on a day when we weren’t doing much else. There was a moment of panic at the cinema when I thought I had booked the Chinese-dubbed version by mistake, but I hadn’t, and I LOVED it.

source: Warner Bros channel, YouTube.

I have to say that HK has made a great impression on both of us; to the point that we can see ourselves living there one day, we liked it that much. Who knows!

Hong Kong skyline

But I digress…

Our original plan to fly to the Philippines on 27 December and spend two weeks traveling around the islands was thwarted over Christmas when we realised that we hadn’t got ourselves organised at all, and while we could easily get to Manila and find somewhere to stay, everywhere else seemed fully booked because of the New Year, and the cost of any internal flights was also already too high. So we had a think and decided to stay two more days in HK and go back to Thailand afterwards. The Philippines (and the Pope) will have to wait.

Map of Thailand

We flew back to Bangkok on 29 December, to stay for one week. On Jemai’s recommendation, we decided to try a new part of Bangkok this time – we had only stayed in the centre before, in Silom – and so we got another Airbnb rental in Chatuchak, a district in the north of the city, quite far from the centre as it turned out. The taxi took an exhausting hour and a half to get there from the airport, after first getting stuck in the horrendous traffic of the evening’s rush hour, and then getting lost altogether – we had to ask the driver to phone for directions, but managed to get to the apartment in the end.

Chatuchak has a famous Weekend Market, a vast arrange of stalls selling all sorts of touristy things, clothing, knock-offs, etc. We arrived in BKK on a Monday and left early on Saturday morning, so we missed it all. Alas, we were rather shopped out after HK, so it wasn’t a great loss. Also, there were a few malls around the apartment (there wasn’t much else, to be honest, just malls and motorways) – so we spent most of our time in BKK hanging out in our new neighbourhood, with a few trips to Silom in the evenings, for food and drinks around the Night Market – the best in South East Asia if you ask me.

I loved the malls by our nearest metro (MRT) station, Phahon Yothin. Very busy with locals (I think I only saw two or three other Westerners in the whole time we were there) and full of cheap, quirky shops and places to eat. We also found a courier desk there, which was a godsend, as I had reached a point where the contents of my backpack had far outgrown its actual capacity, so I’m hoping the parcel I sent to London arrives safely (about today, in fact).

New Year’s Eve was a lot of fun. We made our way to Silom and chose to shun the glitz and pretentiousness of the rooftop bars for the trashy fun and friendliness of the bars at ground level. It was actually one of the best NYE’s I remember, though we did miss the fireworks – here is a video I’ve found online:

source: JackLiu’s channel, YouTube.

The remaining days in BKK were very chilled. The Central Plaza Lad Phrao complex was only a few minutes walk from the apartment and had nice restaurants and a Major Cineplex in it, where we went to see Night at the Museum 3 (yes, I know… but it was the only film in English on offer). It was of course a terrible film, but strangely watchable. It was also very odd to see Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney in what turned out to be their last film. Way to go. More of a shame was to see Ben Kingsley playing a character a few steps down from an amdram panto dame – the man had been Gandhi, for goodness sake! The rest of the cast were perfectly suited for this nonsense, and totally outperformed by a CGI monkey, which sums it all up.

Wat Arun Bangkok

We will be back in BKK for one last night on this trip soon, but as much as we had enjoyed this amazing two-week two-city break (which was a lot) we were rather itching to get back on the road, and have now been traveling in the North of Thailand for the last week – hence the blue dot on the maps. Today we are back in Chiang Mai, where you’ll be pleased to know it has been bucketing down for two days solid – so it looks like another afternoon at the cinema (Simon is reading out loud the reviews of Seventh Son on IMDB, so probably not that one).

Off to the South tomorrow. Oh, and Happy New Year. It hasn’t started terribly well…

je suis Charlie

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

The long, dusty, fun road.

WEEK 4

CAMBODIA | VIETNAM
Preăh Réachéanachâk Kâmpŭchéa | Cộng hòa Xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam

by Xavier

There is a risk that this blog might read like Great Bus Journeys of Southeast Asia – of interest to any other transport consultants reading but probably nobody else. However, we have spent a considerable amount of this trip on buses, and some of them have been quite memorable, generally not for the right reasons.

We left Don Det, the most chilled out of places, to set off on another mammoth journey. Out of Laos and into Cambodia, heading to its capital city: Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh

This particular journey started with a short boat transfer to the mainland, then a two hour wait, and a short bus ride to the Cambodian border, where you pay US$2 for Lao officials to stamp you out of the country, US$1 for a derisory “medical check”, US$30 for the Cambodian visa, and an extra US$5 which the border guards charge, apparently, for being stationed at such a remote crossing with only one daily bus load to process. The bus company offered – in fact were very insistent – to handle all this for us for a small fee, but we didn’t see the point in that so we did it all ourselves. Once all the paperwork was sorted out, we crossed into Cambodia.

We thought the road ahead couldn’t be worse than those we’d left behind. Oh, how foolish of us. It took another ten dusty, boneshaking hours to cover the mere 400km to Phnom Penh, with a brief stop along the way for people heading to Siem Reap to change buses. Here we said goodbye to our kayaking buddies, who’d come on the same bus. We wish them all the best!

kayakers

photo © Samantha Bill.

And so we arrived in Phnom Penh, and what a surprise it was to find our backpacks – which had traveled in the hold – covered in a layer of dust from the road, so thick we couldn’t recognise them at first. Even the tuk tuk driver we hired to take us to the hotel wouldn’t put the backpacks on his old and rusty vehicle without beating some of the dust off first.

In a moment of budget-waiving weakness brought on by the nasty stomach bug he got in Don Det, Simon had booked us into a very comfortable looking hotel for our stay in the Cambodian capital. It turned out to be a very nice hotel indeed. The lovely staff managed not to look too horrified when we fell off the tuk tuk looking rather bedraggled and with our filthy backpacks in tow. A hot shower and a few cold drinks later we felt much, much better, and in keeping with our new surroundings.

Next day we ventured out to see the sights of Phnom Penh. These tend to be focused on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, one of the most brutal, genocidal regimes the world has ever known, killing more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population in the less than four years they were in power in the 70’s before they were overthrown by the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge, led by the monstrous Pol Pot, closed all the schools, the hospitals, and the factories, and forced the entire urban populations to leave the cities and become agricultural labourers. One school in Phnom Penh became the infamous S21 detention centre, where the “enemies” of the regime, mostly Cambodians, were held and tortured before being sent in trucks to sites outside the city (known as The Killing Fields) for extermination. Both the S21 prison and The Killing Fields are now haunting museums and memorials. We visited some of these sites over a couple of days, the sickening horror of what happened there will stay with us for a long time. Here is a brief video:

source: HistoryUnshelved channel, Youtube.

Having spent a relatively quiet few days in Phnom Penh, our next stop was – yes, after a six hour bus journey and yet another border crossing – Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the commercial capital of Vietnam and hands down one of my favourite places on Earth.

We had first visited Saigon a couple of years ago, and spent a most memorable Christmas there. The traffic is still as insane as we remembered, merely crossing the road is a truly exhilarating experience though oddly it is illegal for foreigners to drive. There are great places to discover, a million things to do (and buy), and the people are great. In short, it was good to be back in this fun, crazy, amazing city.

Saigon

Our time in Saigon was spent mostly chilling out, doing the odd sight-seeing, and generally soaking up the sensory overload that is this city. On our last night, after an unsuccessful attempt to go to the cinema (all films were in Vietnamese, except the last instalment of The Hobbit, which Simon refuses point blank to sit through) we were walking back to where we were staying when we got pulled over by a group of local University students who, as we found out, gather in the evenings in the same area several times a week, and ask passing foreign visitors to sit down and chat with them, for language practice. We ended up spending over an hour chatting with a lovely bunch of 18 year old boys and girls; many of them seemed very ambitious for their futures in booming Vietnam, wanting to work in finance or become Company CEOs (and why not). Some were also keen to talk about Vietnam’s politics and government – to the evident discomfort of others. As in China, the abandonment of communist economic ideology has not meant abandonment of the absolute rule of the Party. At one point one of the boys said he had difficulty pronouncing words that begin with “tw”, like “twelve” and “twirl” (sic.), and was keen in overcoming this handicap – to which I agreed, since there are other words in the English language that also begin with “tw” which he should find very handy to learn, especially if he wished to pursue a career in finance.

When the time came for us to make our excuses they surprised us with an amazing parting gift: an awesome “survival” guide for foreigners, and a set of shuttlecocks – đá cầu is a very popular game in Vietnam. We declined an offer to play, though we may give it a go at some point!

Saigon students gift

We seem to have some trouble uploading a couple of videos we took in Saigon, so here is a brief one we’ve found on the web instead. It sums it all up quite well, even shows some foot-shuttlecock (1:15):

source: Jan Kalserud channel, YouTube.

It was with great sadness (especially from my part) that we left Saigon, after one last drink at one of its rooftop bars, and we are now back in Hong Kong, for the festive season.

More on that on the next post, Merry Christmas for now!.

Hong Kong

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

So, here it starts.

WEEK 1

HONG KONG | THAILAND
香港 | ราชอาณาจักรไทย

by Xavier

The last few months in London have been exhausting, so this first week is being spent doing as little as possible, well, with the exception of my unexpected debut on the Thai stage this evening, but more of that story later.

Our first, brief stop on our way to Southern Thailand was Hong Kong, the Fragrant Harbour (the Chinese have an exquisite sense of humour). We arrived aboard a magnificent Airbus A380, courtesy of British Airways, a very pleasant first time for both of us – it reminded me a bit of the USS Enterprise, but I digress. We did spend a few days in HK on the back end of our trip to Indonesia earlier this year, and loved every minute of it. This time was no different, despite only staying one night.

HK is awesome. A sensory overload. We stayed in a cute little hotel in HK Island, near Central (by little I mean they upgraded us to a suite – which was the size of a coffee table), a short walk to Hollywood Road, where we know some places to go to for food and drinks.

That same lovely and warm night, security forces came down hard on some of the still-going protest sites and arrested a shitload of people. We didn’t see a thing, but social unrest in HK is very sadly far from over.

Our next stop was Bangkok. Big, hot, dirty, crazy, fun Bangkok.

We stayed two nights, in the same hotel of previous visits, right by the world famous Night Market in Silom, ok, which is also a world famous red light district, but it’s the shopping we’re more interested in. The shopping, and the fact that Le Mèridien has an excellent and very affordable hotel there that we really like – hotels in BKK are very reasonable in comparison to hotels in big cities everywhere else.

A spot of, yes, shopping on the first night, followed by a couple of drinks at one of the local nightspots, and somewhat bizarrely, by Weißbier und Wurst – no, seriously, Simon found a very good German restaurant right in the middle of the Night Market, cheap and cheerful too, it was a great find.

The next day we got on a boat and went to see Wat Arun, Buddhist temple and one of BKK’s main sites, though not as exciting as Wat Pho or the Grand Palace, which we know from previous visits.

More drinks in the evening, and a quiet night in at the hotel, and then we made our merry way to Bang Niang Beach, in Khao Lak, just North of Phuket, where we are at the moment, chilling out and catching up with friends for a few days.

So far, so good.

Khao Lak sunset

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.