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.

So long, Asia!

WEEKS 7 & 8

THAILAND
ราชอาณาจักรไทย

by Xavier

We seem to be getting a little behind with the blog, so here is another “two-for-one”, about the end of the first leg of our trip.

With only two weeks left in Asia we were determined to make the most of it. From Bangkok we flew to the north of Thailand and landed in Chiang Mai, which we really liked when we first visited about 15 months ago.

map: Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s main destinations, with plenty of things to see and do. We thought we’d use it as a base from where to explore other parts of the north we hadn’t been to before. For the first two nights we found a very basic but ok tiny guesthouse a short walk from the Old Town. Most of the sightseeing there is to do in and around Chiang Mai – over 300 temples, just to start with – had been done in our previous trip; still, one of the first things we did was to visit Wat Phan Tao again; a beautiful little temple in the Old Town, with stunning grounds which are decorated around the various religious festivals in the year, most notably during Yi Peng, the amazing Full Moon festival that takes place in mid to late November – which we have sadly managed to miss by a matter of days on the two occasions we have been here; maybe next time!

source: Christine Gilbert channel, YouTube.

The decorations from the recent New Year celebrations were still up; it is really one of the most joyful places I’ve ever visited.

Wat Phan Tao

Wat Phan Tao

Unfortunately we didn’t have the time nor the weather in the end to visit another favourite of mine, an extraordinary temple which I particularly fell in love with the first time we came to Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a few kilometres from the city, sits at the top of a mountain since allegedly the late XIV century and is one of Thailand’s holiest and most striking sites. The White Elephant legend is one of the many versions on the original foundation of the temple.

We did however, pay £2 each to pop by the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders, a grand name for what is essentially a small three-story house which hosts a private collection of old display cabinets full of assorted dead creepy crawlies (some truly stunning beetles and butterflies there), as well as some interesting information on malaria research. There is another larger insect museum a short distance away (the museum is larger, the insects are presumably of the same sizes) but we were beetled out after this one so we didn’t go.

Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders

We also visited two of the three main museums, on the history of the region and its peoples, quite interesting but it was horrendously hot that day and walking around became a bit too much after a couple of hours. Later on, the ubiquitous weekend market was crowded and uninspired, so we focused instead in finding somewhere nice to go for dinner and a cold drink. Simon, always the researcher, found a great restaurant very close to our guesthouse, a beautiful open teak house with indoor/outdoor seating, delicious yet ridiculously cheap food and live music, where we ended up having dinner every of the four nights we spent in Chiang Mai in total – partly out of convenience, but mainly out of how much we liked the place. On the last night, the owner herself (a fabulous woman) looked after us, and even gave us a bigger helping of her home made apple crumble (to die for). Honestly, if you’re ever in Chiang Mai eat there.

Looking at our options, Simon suggested a little trip further north, to the small town of Pai, near the border with Burma. The idea was to get there and either travel part of the Mae Hong Song loop, or stay in Pai if we liked it enough.

map: Northern Thailand

You can get to Pai by regular bus or slightly quicker mini van. Either option is very cheap, about £3 for a three to four hour journey. The guide book warned us that the mini van may not be suitable for those prone to car sickness (ie, both of us) so we jumped on a ratty yet extortionate tuk-tuk to the bus station to find there is only one company that operates the regular bus service to Pai, its ticket booth somewhat hidden in the terminal across the road from the main building. We were told the buses have no air con (and when we got to take a look at said bus while in Pai we realised that it couldn’t possibly have had air con on account of very likely having been built during the Industrial Revolution), so we headed back to town and bought two tickets for the mini van the next morning and hoped for the best.

It turned out the journey wasn’t too bad after all. The van was a little cosy but reasonably comfortable, it sneaked its way up and down (mainly up) the sinuous road fairly smoothly through some stunning countryside, and once in Pai, dropped us a short walk to our guesthouse – which was actually very nice for the price, very close to everything, and had a lovely pool.

In the last couple of weeks we have been asked a few times what are the highlights of our trip so far. Pai is definitely one of them. With a name so apt for puns (up to and including “Strawberry Pai Forever” at a fruit stall), it’s a quaint little town set in a beautiful mountain valley, very popular with both foreign and Thai tourists, with a chilled atmosphere (many hippies about), nice people, plenty of cool laid back bars and restaurants, dozens of street food and market stalls (of course), and with a range of outdoors activities, one of which we’d always said we’d like to do each time we’d been to Thailand, but we never got around to actually do it: ride an elephant.

And ride an elephant we did. Well, Simon for about 15 minutes, after which he decided that balancing precariously nine feet above uneven terrain on a three ton beast with a temper wasn’t really for him and got off, whereas I stayed on for the duration and it was great fun, except perhaps not the bit where one gets playfully thrown off the elephant into shallow water where said elephant has just had a big poo.

at Tom's Elephants

bathing time

elephant ride

the king of the jungle

All in all, a memorable experience. We ended up staying in Pai for a few days. The return journey to Chiang Mai, by mini van again, was this time a test to how firmly we could hold on to the contents of our stomachs, courtesy of our Thai driver who clearly detested his job, the road, and everyone on it.

Our second guesthouse in Chiang Mai was an excellent find. Good location, surprisingly modern, cool design, awesome service, and great price. And just as well, because the weather had begun to turn during our last night in Pai and by the time we arrived back in Chiang Mai the skies had truly opened and it was rain, rain, and more rain for the rest of our stay. Not ideal at all to be out and about so yes, we went to the cinema again, watched Taken 3, no comment.

All that rain wasn’t going to do at all, so from Chaing Mai we flew to the south and returned to sunny Bang Niang Beach via Phuket. It was great to end our Asian adventure where it had started, back in November. Even better was to see Phylippa again and have one more chance to hang out at Green Pepper with its really cool Swedish owners Andy and Dunk, and meet other Swedes and assorted locals. We sure are taking some excellent memories with us!

Khao Lak nights

making friends

making friends

We did spend one more night in Bangkok, from where we were flying to our next destination. And with one more trip to the cinema, a nice dinner, and one last visit to the Night Market, we put an end to the first leg of our trip.

We’ve loved every bit of Hong Kong and South East Asia (maybe not the stomach bugs so much), hope to visit again some time soon!

As we continue traveling eastward into Oceania and on to Australia, we have had a few really nice days in Melbourne and are now visiting all our friends in Sydney. More of that on the next post.

Oh, I did mention a debut on the Thai stage, didn’t I…

at Moo Moos Cabaret, such fun 🙂

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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.

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.

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.