Ecuador & The Galapagos – Darwin was on to something…

Arriving in Quito, the capital of Ecuador we had just one thing on our minds – booking our trip to the Galapagos. After a day of visiting numerous travel agents, we found a deal onboard a luxury cataramen sailing around the island of Isabella (the biggest island in the Galapogas) for 5 days.

The Galapagos, 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, marked the most westward point in our journey. Landing on this volcanic archipelago felt really special. It is a totally unique environment. Straddling the equator, cut off from the rest of the world before sea travel, the environment has allowed some completely unique species to evolve here in perfect balance with each other. The growth in tourism and visitors to the islands have brought in non-endemic species of flora and fauna, which are threatening some of the endemic species. So much so, there is quite a strict search before you board the plane in Quito.

Our boat trip was simply breathtaking. The boat was a beautiful 12 berth catermaran, with a full crew, 3 very nice meals a day, our own cabin, sun deck and tenders to get us to land. Our guide Dario was born on the islands and has a true passion for the landscape and wildlife. We snorkelled and went for walks around islands which look like the surface of another planet. The ground was one big, brittle, hollow sounding dry lava flow. In time, the first plants decay and soil starts to develop, allowing secondary plants to take root. Over hundreds of thousands of years, soil and proper vegetation takes over. Seeing it at this early state felt like you could be at the dawn of time, when the world was all volcanoes, lava and sea.

Some of the animals we saw (that I can remember) are listed below, the ones with the asterisk are only found in the Galapagos.

Giant Galapagos Tortoises*

Blue footed boobies

Sally Lightfoot crabs*

Dolphins (swimming alongside out boat)

Sea horses (whilst snorkelling)

Fin whales (from the boat)

Frigate birds

Sea Turtles (whilst snorkelling and diving)

Starfish

Parrot fish

Flightless cormorants*

Sea lions (whilst snorkelling and diving)

Penguins

Finchs* (the large number of different breeds inspired Darwin's theory)

Pelicans

Marine Iguanas* (on land and feeding in the sea whilst snorkelling)

Eagle rays

Galapagos sharks*

Black tipped sharks

White tipped sharks

When a sailor in the Navy crosses the equator for the first time aboard a ship, they have a ceremony. In a re-creation of this, the crew of our boat dressed in their whites and presented us all with nicknames and a certificate commemorating our first crossing by sea. I was given the nickname 'Blue footed booby', a bird found in huge numbers around the islands.

After our boat ride finished, we stayed on the islands a few days before flying back to Quito.

Quito really surprised me as I really enjoyed it. It is a nice city and the airport is right in the middle – imagine an airport where Leicester square is in London and you are close. Landing there is an experience to say the least.

We visited the equator on land too (I was a little obsessed with it to be fair). Despite there being three claims to where the equator actually is – 1) the original one calculated by the French 300 years ago, 2) the actual museum of the equator which the army calculated to be the true equator after the museum had opened…how convenient, 3) a restaurant called 'Joys' which Google claim is the true equator. So we visited all three, had a meal on the equator and easily balanced an egg on its end, which I am told is a lot harder to do when not on the equator.

Quito seemed to be in full on party mode when we left, celebrating founders day. The whole city appeared to come out and party, with fashion shows and concerts in the main square, trucks with people dancing on the back and music pumping out driving round the city. The city had a great feel to it.

Having decided to travel north to Colombia, we said goodbye to our 19th country in 11 months and set off to Cali.

 

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Peru – Home of the Incas

From Chile, where we spent 6 days, to Peru where we spent 6 weeks – longer than any other country during our trip. It wasn't completely intentional, but I fell in love with the country.

From the colonial beauty of Arequipa in the south, to the beach resort of Mancora in the north. The Andes split the country in half; one side is the coastal region, the other the Amazon basin. And hidden up in the shadow of the Andes are Cuzco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

We did two main treks in Peru, one being the Colca Canyon in Arequipa and the other the classic Inca Trail in Cuzco. Colca Canyon was our first taste of trekking at altitude, having previously only been living at altitude in Bolivia. If walking up the stairs made me feel like an old man in La Paz, trekking in Peru made me feel 10 times worse. Lungs burning, throat as dry as the Atacama Desert, dehydrating every time you exhale, and legs feeling like they are going to fall off at times. It was hard, even without the intense sun trying to burn your skin. Our climb out of the canyon took us 3.5 hours, starting at 2000m above sea level (ASL), rising to 3200m. But that was just a warm up to the Inca Trail.

The success of the Inca empire was a result of a number of factors, but one of the major reasons was their communication network. Knowledge of each city, population, resources, military strength and the position in which they located their cities gave the Incas the ability to dominate their region. A highly civilised race, their empire spread through Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and parts of Argentina. Unfortunately infighting and the Spanish conquistadors put an end to them. But not before they advanced mankind's understanding of building techniques and architecture, agriculture (they bred over 20 different types of corn and developed the terrace system) and the solar system (they prayed to the sun and moon gods) . They also came up with a central rule to guide their lives and behaviour “don't steal, don't lie, don't be lazy.”Quite a good mantra to live by don't you think?

The classic Inca Trail follows one of the trails used by the Inca messengers who carried messages and status reports from city to city, over mountain passes and through valleys, passing the messages like a relay system allowing rapid communication over large distances hundreds of years before Edison, Bell and their telephone. They carried bits of string hanging from another string, all of different colours and with knots at various lengths. This was code only understood by the certain people in each city, so even if a messenger was caught it would make no sense to them. Our trail was 49km, rising from 2000m to 4200m ASL over four days, ending up in Machu Picchu on the morning of the fourth day. Perched on the top of a mountain, Machu Picchu is thought to be the ruins of a citadel built by the top Inca as a holiday home or country retreat and is shaped like a Condor (one of the Incas' sacred animals). The four days felt almost magical. If you want, you can get the train then bus up to Machi Picchu but the Inca Trail itself is only accessible on foot. Taking in numerous ruins on the way and walking through the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen, it was a very special journey. At times, the altitude is extreme – we walked up to nearly halfway up Mount Everest, and it takes it toll. But everytime you feel tired or like giving up, along comes a Quechua porter carrying a pack twice his size, wearing sandals and flying past you up the mountain. When you reach camp, they have a three course meal waiting for you, your tent has been pitched and your sleeping bag and mat have been laid out. Everyday they wake you up and deliver a cup of coca tea or coffee to you even before you get out of your sleeping bag. They were our heroes and everyday manage feats of superhuman abilities. The record for completing the 49km Inca Trail by a porter (unburdened) is 3hour 45mins, which is simply incredible. Get that man at sea level and put him in the Olympic marathon final!

We spent about 10 days in Cuzco before the Inca Trail…a little more than is needed to acclimatise but thankfully so as I loved the city. We spent the Day of the Dead there, which is celebrated all across South America and around the world. We went to the cemetery where people were making offerings and paying their respects to their dead relatives. Cleaning their sarcophaguses, having something to eat there with a spare place – the place was packed. Fascinating to watch. They turned it into a social space, rather than a spooky place that most people would rather avoid.

Cuzco is also the old capital of the Inca Empire, locate next to the sacred valley and the Incas named it the 'navel of the world'…sounds much better than 'bellybutton of the world'. It has some great examples of some of the advanced building techniques the Incas used. They would carve rock it to exact shapes that fitted together, building walls and structures without the need for cement or mortar. They look really beautiful and are still standing. Makes you wonder if modern house-builders could take a leaf out of the Incas book.

There are two countries in the world where raw fish is served as a delicacy, and plenty more through lack of proper cooking. One is obviously Japan, the other is Peru. Well, ceviche is not technically raw. It is 'cooked' in lime juice, chilli and salt, but no heat is applied to it. Slightly hesitantly, I tried it and was amazed, it is fantastic. Full of flavour, chilli, acid, fresh fish, sea food, finely chopped vegetables and the staple food of Peru, corn. In Mancora in northern Peru, we had it with shellfish straight from the shell, not even cleaned. That was incredible too. Strange I liked it really as I cannot bring myself to even eat a pickled whelk in Birmingham's Fish Market.

Another amazing discovery is the Pisco sour. Pisco is a grappa type drink made in Peru. When mixed with egg white, ice, sugar and lime is turns in to a delicious drink, the national drink of Peru in fact (I think). When you add passion fruit purée in to it, it transforms in to one of the finest cocktails known to man. I am going to try to recreate this at home, so be warned.

The three major geographic regions in South America are; the Andes, Patagonia and the Amazon river basin and jungle. Having been to the first two, we had to tick off the third, so we flew across the country to Pullcalpa. Set on the edge of Lake Yarinacocha in the Amazon basin the port was busy, bustling, hot and sticky. We met our guide, who turned out to be simply amazing. Called Gilber (with a sidekick called Segundo – second in Spanish), we had a fantastic time with him. The best way to describe him is the Peruvian Crocodile Dundee. He told us endless stories of his life growing up in the Amazon rainforest; like the time he shot a 12m Anaconda in the face with a shotgun when he was 10 years old. And the time he was sleeping in his fishing canoe and another Anaconda wrapped its body around his canoe (and his body) , leaving him no choice but to saw its head off to save his own life.

Another story he told us made me smile. Local legend has it there are body snatchers in the Amazon, who prefer to prey on children. They take out the eyes and other organs, and remove all the fat and oils from the body and sell them to NASA. The reason is human fat and oil is the best lubricant for the parts of Space Shuttles. I am sure it is a tale mothers and village elders tell kids to keep them close, but it just goes to show that the Bogey Man exists all over the world.

We had the best 4 days, starting with an 8 hour boat ride into the jungle, then piranha fishing, caiman spotting (at night), jungle walks (I accumulated 16 mozzie bits in 2 hours on my back alone), eating fresh catfish from the river (and the piranhas we caught – well, mainly caught by Harriet), along with coffee grown in his mothers garden and yucca from his garden. The wildlife and environment are stunningly beautiful. I know we should preserve the rainforest for the sheer biodiversity and the benefit it has on global CO2 levels, but we should also protect it as it is so Goddamn beautiful.

Gilber is the 'go to' man in the Pullcalpa region. He is consulted for every edition of the travellers handbook Lonely Planet, he consults and guides documentary makers from the BBC, Discovery and more and he also guides research parties from big global pharma companies. When we talked to him about this, he said there is a cure for almost every condition known to man (and some we are not aware of yet) in the Amazon rainforest. The problem is, if the pharma companies decided to start developing a cure for a major disease bases on ingredients found in the Amazon, he said you could kiss goodbye to huge swaths of the rainforest. Shareholders hunger for profits would drive the demand for these ingredients to unprecedented levels, threatening the forest and the fauna it supports. You have to ask yourself the question, how important is that cure? Once you destroy the forest, it will not grow back and our world will be much worse as a result.

When we left the jungle, we said goodbye to Harriet too after spending a wonderful 2 months together. It was great to spend more time with my 'little sister in law to be', getting to known each other better. As Harriet went off to a retreat, Gab and I made our way north to Ecuador.

Peru is an amazing country and I have yet to find someone to say they didn't like it. It reminds me of Thailand in so far as they have got the tourism 'thing' just right. It is the right mix of activities, stunning scenery, welcoming people and a comfortable public travel system combined with good weather. They have taken a smart approach and created a sustainable tourism trade. Peruvian cuisine is up and coming, so if you can find a Peruvian restaurant I would recommend you try it. It also has a cool logo, something a lot of countries find very difficult to get right.

 

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Chile – was quite warm actually

Chile didn't start out as I intended. Crossing the border, we had to put our bags through the usual X-ray machine. When mine went through, there appeared to be a commotion. Thinking I had nothing to hide, I moved to the side and answered all the customs officials questions. It appeared I had tried to unsuccessfully smuggle a satsuma into Chile. What seemed to stress the most was the fact that my form said that I had no satsumas about my person. So, they politely asked me to fill out a new form them surrender the said satsuma to their custody and proceed in to Chile. Bloody orange tape!

We spent the shortest amount of time of all the countries we visited in Chile, 6 days. It worked out quite convenient to end our Bolivian Salt Flats tour in San Pedro de Atacama, on the edge of the Atacama desert so we dropped in to do a little star gazing.

When you are told the Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world to look at stars, the bar is set pretty high. It far exceeded all of our expectations. When we got to the observatory centre out of town, the night sky looked like a black blanket that someone had spilt glitter all over; there were an astonishing amount of stars and planets visible to the naked eye.

After pointing out the constellations visible in the southern hemisphere and explaining to us the vastness and distance of some of the stars we could see, he took us inside to the motorised telescope. This was mind blowing. As the motor whirled the telescope round to preset positions to look deep into the universe, he showed us Mars, Uranus (it was a real blue green sphere, not just a twinkle) other galaxies and solar systems as well as nebula. All were bigger than any of us can comprehend, but to see them in through an eyepiece the size of a 10 pence piece was humbling. It is hard not to question how insignificant we are in the scheme of things when you see this with you own eyes.

Chile also marked another milestone in our journey, dipping our feet in the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean in the world. Reaching the Pacific marked us crossing another continent, east to west and was the fifth major ocean we encountered. We had also started our move north, crossing back through the Tropic of Capricorn (crossed in Namibia), our direction from now until we reach Los Angeles.

Our time in Chile was short and sweet, but from what I saw it is a beautiful country with one of the longest coastlines, when compared to its landmass, in the world. Maybe we will go back for a beach holiday sometime, and I am told the surfing is world class.

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Bolivia – High & Dry

So, from one of the most advanced and richest countries in South America to potentially the poorest. The difference is comparable to flying from London to Dehli, but a lot higher and colder.

Bolivia is the only landlocked country in the western hemisphere, after losing a coastal dispute with Chile – as if they don't have enough coastline. But, they still maintain a navy who train on Lake Titicaca in case, one day, northern Chile floods and they get a coastline again.

Bolivia is fascinating. To someone who has grown up at sea level, it is very inhospitable. We arrived in La Paz which, at 3640m above sea level (ABSL), is the highest capital city in the world. La Paz is probably the the most beautifully city setting I have ever seen. It literally hangs in a valley, with property prices increasing the lower you get toward the valley floor. Roads are steep. They don't have pavements here, they have staircases and everyone drives in first gear. Clutch control is the official pastime of La Paz. Due to transport issues, we visited La Paz three times. And I grew to love it. The best way to describe the experience of altitude…when you have the hiccups and you hold your breath. The only way to get rid of them is to hold it longer. It really hurts, and only gets worse. That is how it feels to walk up a single flight of stairs in La Paz. But the city is a long series of stairs and alpaca wool salesmen. La Paz was also where we met up with Gabby's younger sister (and my future sister in law) Harriet.

On the subject of altitude, the highest we experienced was 5000m ABSL during our trip to the Bolivian salt flats. This would take the world record holder Kenenisa Bekele 12mins 37seconds to run. From where you are sitting now, it is just under 5km straight up. 56% of the way up Everest. Up there, even sleeping was hard. The air is so dry and cold. Our guide told us to keep the door to our six bed dorm open as we may run out of oxygen during the night. Waking up with a split lip every morning was no joy, but worth it to see the extreme environment the altitude afforded us.

Up there it is only wind erosion; no water exists in a sufficient amount to erode anything. The whole landscape is a result of fast and consistently cold and dry wind. They call it the Dali desert as the rock erosion looks like it inspired Salvador Dali, minus the melting clocks.

One of our trips from La Paz was to Lake Titicaca, within which sits the Isla del Sol…where the original eight Incas emerged from three caves, later to found Cuzco, Machu Picchu and develop an empire that spanned Columbia, Equador, Peru, Bolivia and parts of Argentina until the Spanish quashed it. It sounded good on paper, but sampling the local delicacy (Lake Titicaca trout) left me in bed for two days whilst Gabby and Harriet explored.

On one of our returns to La Paz, we went mountain biking down Death Road…the world's most deadliest road. It has the highest number of recorded fatalities for any stretch of road in the world. Nowadays there is another safer road, so it is closed to the majority of traffic. The majority of coca leaves (the chewing of which is a national pastime in Bolivia, and the rest used in the production of cocaine) are grown in Bolivia. Over one third of this crop goes missing every year, probably ending up in the hands of the Tony Montanas of this world. In an effort to curb this trade, the Bolivian government installed a check point which examined the contents of every truck load up the world's most dangerous road, looking for coca leaves and chemicals destined for Tony's labs. But this checkpoint closes at midnight, only opening again at seven in the morning. Coincidentally, traffic increases exponentially during these hours…causing a lot of truck drivers to fall to their death under the cover of darkness and the production of cocaine to take a dip also.

Thankfully riding down this road on a full suspension bike was nowhere near as dangerous. Descending from 4700m ABSL to 1700m, we set off with layer upon layer of clothes and ended up sweating in just shorts and t-shirts. 60+km, all downhill. So much fun.

Bolivia is poor. The lack of coastline, high altitude, lack of legal exportable goods and limited tourism (compared to the rest of S America) all make their contribution. I am not sure how they did it, but Italy turned Tuscan peasant food into a worldwide success story with London restaurants charging a small fortune for what is; essentially, a poor Tuscan farmers subsistent diet. Heston, Gordon and Nigella can rest easy, I can't see Bolivian cuisine taking the world by storm any time soon.

Travel is cheap in Bolivia. A four hour bus ride, with reclining seats and a film was £2. I can't get a return to Birmingham from Moseley on the bus for that. A night train halfway across the country was no more than £15. In the morning, we sat in the freezing cold buffet carriage as we crossed the Altiplano and were treated to a thousand strong flock of flamingos flying alongside the train. The best you can hope for at home is a group of drunk kids throwing stones at the train as you head into Birmingham with copies of the Metro strewn around the carriage.

Whilst in southern Bolivia, we went horse riding in Tupiza, very close to the place where Butch Cassidy spent his last fateful hours. Given baseball helmets instead of riding helmets (TIB – This Is Bolivia), we set off for a ride around amazing landscapes that look like the backdrop to thousands of western films.

Our tour of the salt flats ended in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. But before we finished the tour, we visited some geysers and thermals baths. The geysers were the closest I have come to visiting another planet. The floor collapsed with every footstep, the air was thick with sulphur smell and the smoke/mist from them gave it a really eerie ambience. The sulphur gas bubbled through thick, plasticy mud and stuck to your clothes. It was surreally beautiful. It felt as if the floor could collapse at any point and the air was so thick, you couldn't see the person 2m in front of you. 7am in a 37c thermal spa at 5000m is an unforgettable experience. Getting out of breath taking your clothes off is a weird concept, but slipping into body temperature waters from near zero atmosphere was dreamlike. After drying off, we drove in a 4×4 to the Bolivian exit border post which resembled nothing more than a small shed in the middle of the desert.

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Argentina – Salt & Sweet

The size of India, Argentina was our first stop in South America, and surprisingly very un-South American. Let me explain…I was taken back at how European, not only the city and the weather was, but also the population. My perceptions of South American's were obviously formed by seeing the indigenous people of Bolivia and Peru, not by the European looking Argentinians of Buenos Aires. And as any self respecting Englishman, I was concerned with the weather. From a sunny and fresh Cape Town, an overcast and cold Buenos Aires was a shock to the system.

If I had to sum up Argentina in three words, they would be…steak, wine and football. We had a lot of meat and wine, but only went to one football match. However the passion we saw in that one match was enough to confirm, without a shadow of doubt, that football is second only to God in Argentina. I am not the worlds most experienced football fan, but I know human emotion when I see it. Imagine 50,000 men simultaneously seeing their first born for the first time, and you are nowhere near the emotional outpouring at the Boca Juniors ground when they scored…at our end. The fans, singing about 45 mins before kickoff, throughout half time and well after the final whistle, were amazing. The noise was deafening and the bouncing was something else. Rumour has it, but still unproven, the bouncing was inspired by the 'boing boing' of West Brom. The concrete stand was literally shaking. Don't just take my word for it, this is some research Nike did – http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/soccer-dirty-tackle/boca-juniors-goal-celebrations-hit-6-4-richter-194818594–sow.html

I had heard that the steak in Argentina is something else. Having been to some nice restaurants, I reckon I had tasted some damn fine meat. Sadly, I was wrong…and I have to admit, I doubted those that told me how good the steaks in Argentina really were. I mean, come on, how much better can they really be? Trust me, you have no idea. Comparing the best steak in the UK with the one I had at La Cabrera in Buenos Aires (BA) is like comparing a child's drawing of the Mona Lisa based on the description from a blind person, with seeing it in real life with the whole of the Louvre to yourself. 400 grams of fillet steak, with a slab of gorgonzola melting on top and a few bottles of Malbec. The single best meal of my life. Don't get me started on the BBQs.

Then there is the wine. Malbec is a great wine in my opinion. But a decent bottle will set you back £10-15 minimum at home, and it escalates from there. It is Argentinas most popular wine, with 75% of it never leaving its shores. Finding a good bottle for £2-3 is very easy, trying not to drink too much is another thing.

BA is an interesting city. When most people back in the UK are half cut and thinking about a taxi home, the city is just coming to life. Bars are empty until 11pm, clubs don't see any custom before 1am and people don't eat their dinner till gone 10pm. I was always told eating late gave you heartburn and made you fat, but it appears no one told the residents of BA. A combination of jet lag and not being able to stay awake until dinner time made us feel very old. It is also very expensive. Not so much if you are prepared and are on a two week holiday, but if you are travelling it is a shock. You can spend more on one meal in BA than you could in a day in Asia. Hyperinflation has really rocked Argentina, with some commodity and service prices 50%+ higher now than they were in 2011, but without the equivalent rise in wages.

We took two trips from BA; one to Iguazu falls and the other to Puerto Madryn in Patagonia. The only other major waterfall I have seen is Victoria Falls, and anyone aware of recent events knows that they will always be very close to my heart. But Iguazu was amazing. It is moments like this that remind you (again) about the power of nature. There is nothing that we can do to overcome the power exercised by mother nature (or Pachamama in these parts). It is nothing but impressive; the continuous torrent of water, 24 hours a day for as long as anyone can remember.

Patagonia was completely different. Calm, relaxed and tranquil – a great contrast to Iguazu. Puerto Madryn is in Peninsular Valdez, where the cold South Atlantic current meets the warmer waters flowing off the coast of Brazil. With this mix of waters comes a lot of marine wildlife attracted by the abundant food. Driving through the Patagonia desert, surrounded by wild Llamas, we ventured out to the coast of the peninsula hoping to see Southern Wright whales and sea lions. The lack of whales was confusing, then it all made sense. About 20 metres from the beach we were on, we spotted a 4 strong pod of Orcas (Killer Whales – the number one predator of whales after man) patrolling the waters, coming within 5 metres of the beach. Truly amazing to see them in the wild. They are beautiful creatures, and a moment I will never forget – it is up there with the Serengeti to be honest. The guy running our hostel said we had a 3% chance of seeing one Orca from a distance, so we can count ourselves very very lucky.

Fuelled by a desire to see the elusive whales, we booked a trip on a whale watching boat for 1.5 hours. Within minutes we spotted an albino Southern Wright whale calf suckling it's mother. Then there were whales everywhere. I felt like a resident of Ludlow, with the constant presence of whales (Wales) everywhere I looked. Sorry! The most was 12 in my field of vision at any one time. One came within 2 metres of us, dwarfing our boat with over 50 people on it, and in the distance whales were breaching (belly flopping) left, right and centre. But the best feeling was the mist on your face from the spray out of their blowhole. I would hate to overuse this term, but it was a genuine privilege to be there and share their space with them.

Puerto Madryn in Patagonia also marked the most southern point of our trip, the 42nd parallel south of the equator. To attempt to put it into some context, the Antarctic circle is 66 degrees south and Puerto Madryn is level with Tasmania in Australia, and the rest is pretty much ocean.
I haven't felt home sick as much as I expected to, but listening to Argentinean radio made me feel both home sick and nostalgic. They seemed to be obsessed with 90s UK music – think Blur, Oasis, Pulp, UB40 et al during breakfast and much of the same throughout the day. Listening to Parklife in a taxi literally racing through BA, holding Gabbys hand fearing for our lives is an unforgettable experience.

We threw ourselves with vigour into learning Spanish and booked some lessons, only to become disheartened by the awful teacher we had. It is true what they say, you will always remember a good teacher from school. But I will always remember a bad Spanish teacher from Argentina. In fairness, we had two, and the second one was lovely. But the first was truly terrible. One of our lessons comprised of being interviewed for French radio on learning Spanish in BA. Every cloud and all that – we can now say we have been in a film in Bollywood and on French radio since leaving the UK. Although I am not sure what a Parisian can can dancer will think of two Brummies trying to speak Spanish playing through her radio, whilst she drags on a Gauloise on her balcony overlooking the Moulin Rouge. It was, in essence, an advert for her language classes. I secretly hope we did more damage than good.

Leaving BA with Becky (Gabby's best friend), we headed north to Argentina's second biggest wine region, Cafayate, surrounded by beautiful hills and desert. The wine was delicious, but more interesting were the tours of the vineyards and how they go about making such a wide variety of wine from what is quite a simple fruit really. Unknown to me, Argentina is famous for its ice cream too. This fits in well with their obsession of salt and sweet. The government have banned restaurants from leaving salt on their tables in an effort to curb the average Argentines daily intake…currently 13g versus the WHO advised level of less than five. Judging by their ice cream, they need to look at their sugar intake next. Somehow they have managed to combine wine and ice cream, and it works. Red and white wine ice cream is really very nice indeed. Just the thing you need to cool off after a days wine tasting or to compliment a stunning steak.

On the subject of sweet, Dulce de Leche (commonly known as 'the caramel stuff you get when you boil a tin of condensed milk') is everywhere in Argentina. They have it for breakfast, in coffee, in chocolate, in cakes, in and on biscuits, you name it they have put it on or in it. It is highly additive and if I had stayed in Argentina any longer I would have had to seek out Dulce de Leche Anonymous.

From Cafayate, we travelled north and into Bolivia. The border crossing was a little bizarre to say the least. With no visible border police, we literally wandered across the border into Bolivia without an resistance. Only then did we get shouted at and have to come back and complete the formalities. For a split second we were technically illegal aliens. I can tick that off the bucket list then.

 

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Thigh Land

It seems like a while ago now since we were there – well it was and I've gotten too far behind on the blog – but I absolutely love Thailand! This was our second trip there and I'd go back a third time for sure. From crazy Bangkok to beautiful Chang Mai, the country has a lot to offer and we only explored a smidgen of it.

After meeting up with Mr James Browne again in Seam Reap :) we crossed the boarder to Thailand and made our way to Bangkok. As soon as I started to see the tuk tuks, street vendors and the pink taxis it felt great to be back. The lovely Mr Browne had very kindly treated us to a luxury apartment (check out the views of the city from our apartments below) to stay in for a few days in Bangkok and it was brilliant – thank you James, we miss you! This travelling lark and being constantly on the move really makes you appreciate a good, warm shower and a comfy bed and we had both of these, plus a TV and our own kitchen; although the only thing we really made ourselves were gin or rum based drinks.

Bangkok is a great city; it has everything. It has been very westernised and there were Boots stores , Topshops and Starbucks etc everywhere (plus we couldn't resist the urge and went to the cinema to watch the Avengers, not very backpacker like but quite comforting after 4 months away from home). However, there are still the street vendors selling fresh fruit snacks, noodle soup and dried locusts which is what I love about Asian cities. Down the Kho San Road there are still the great tat shops to get your souvenirs from, clothes that are dirt cheap and pedicures for £3. The blaring music by Rhianna, Tinchy and Pitbull etc isn't particularly my cup of chai but you put up with it as nowhere else do you have anything like the mad chaos that is the Kho San Road and I love it!

We took a trip down the river – which is great as you get to see the city from a different point of view, a lot more relaxing – to see the Grand Palace, the official residence of the King of Thailand. I have never seen anything like it and I have definitely never seen so much gold! Very bling. It is also huge. The palace is made up of numerous buildings surrounded by gardens and the 4 palace walls, a combined area of 218,400 sq mtrs. It was built in 1782 (originally made out of wood) and has been home to the Thai king for 150 years. We'd seen the reclining Budha last time we were there (which is just down the road) but is definitely worth a visit whilst you're there.

 

Getting about the city is so easy with their skytrain/MRT system and tuk tuks and cheap taxi rides, although it is nice to just wonder and get lost in it all sometimes. They have these Tea stalls everywhere within the MRT system selling different flavours of iced tea that are great; cheap, cold, thirst quenching, tasty and full of sugar. Bangkok is also where I got my first hair cut and I haven't been back to a hairdressers since, I walked out looking like one of the Hanson brothers :( .

We had a few nights out in the city, which we hadn't really done last time we we're there, so it was nice to see Bangkok at night; although unfortunately no cigarette smoking monkeys or partying with monks aka The Hangover 2:( . One night involved a good set from James Zabiela at a very odd club with a particularly scary Thai girl trying her hardest to start a fight with me!? The other involved a lot of Chang beer with Emma Lipscombe (a friend from back home…hi Emma and congrats on the engagement!)

After a few days there we caught an overnight train to Chang Mai. I was really looking forward to doing some trekking here as we'd heard it was a beautiful place with great people, and it was. It felt like quite a small city – especially coming from Bangkok – and it definitely felt nice to be in the country (it's also very easy to cycle around). It was quiet season so the city wasn't that busy, however one thing we did notice whilst walking around was the number of western men hanging around bars with Thai women outside inviting Ollie and James in for some fun time (oh and me for free, yay!) There are some stunning temples to go and view as well as great street food to sample.

 

We booked ourselves on to a 3 day trek which was what we needed after a few too many beers and far too much sugar. After the elepant trek, the first days trek was intense and all uphill but it was worthwhile as when we got to our accommodation it was so pretty and peaceful, plus it was nice to feel so far away from civilisation. We watched a great sunset, before having a delicious home cooked meal whilst getting bitten to death by the most pointless creatures on earth – mosquitos, pft. The following day was great, we walked and then cooled off in a beautiful waterfall, walked a bit further and bathed again in a waterfall. Our camp the second night was even more basic than the last, but a cold shower out of a pipe is quite refreshing in that humidity. It was also a bit more eventful as a venomous snake was about to crawl into our hut so out ran one of the locals with some sort of hammer and battered it to death. Apparently if any of us had been bitten we would have been a goner as the poison would have killed us before we'd have reached the nearest hospital! The third day we did some white water rafting, well water rafting as there wasn't that much white water but it was good fun. I'd definitely recommend heading to Chang Mai if in Thailand – although we also hear on route Chang Rai is great too.

So on to Kho Tao, an island we had heard was great for scuba diving and it was. Here we did our advanced certificate which meant going down to 30 metres, diving down to a shipwreck and doing a night dive. I have to admit I was friggin' scared about doing the night dive and it was quite eery. Especially when we got to the surface and the waves were quite rough and all we could see we're the lights from our boat which was about 500 metres away (Open Water moment!) No killer sharks though, just whale sharks now and again (unfortunately we didn't see any whilst diving).

 

One thing we did notice about Kho Tao is that there were a lot of dogs on the island. Most of which were stray, but some had been fortunate enough to acquire a home with some of the scuba diver instructors that were now living on the island. So we visited the animal rescue centre there (a charity that provides a veterinary service for all the animals on the island; whether stray or not). They do a lot of work to help with neutering to control the population of animals, mainly cats and dogs, on the island. But they also try to educate locals and tourists about how to control the feeding of animals and supporting a properly managed programme through the clinic. It was great to see some of the work they had done and to actually meet some of the animals they have rescued in the past, and to see how happy they are now.

www.kohtaoanimalclinic.org

After a few nights out meeting up with some friends that was it for us and thailand… on to Malaysia for our last few weeks in Asia!

 

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It started in Africacacacaca

How to write this blog post has been bugging me for a while, hence the delay.

Our time is Africa was immense. Not only in the distances we covered in such a short amount of time, but the cultures we experienced, the sights we saw, the animals we encountered in their natural environment, the range of landscapes we stared in awe at, the extremes of cold and the hot/wet and dry, the bush to the city and so on. I will never do it justice, but I can give you the faintest of ideas.

A good starting point is what I thought of Africa before we landed in Nairobi.

Watching the news for as long as I could remember, you could imagine that everyone in Africa is either a victim of famine, a refugee of war, living under a blood thirsty dictator or worse. Regardless of how it is portrayed in the press at home, Africa has always had an almost magical place in my mind. It is the birth place of humanity and it is one of the world's richest landmasses in terms of natural resources, precious and valuable minerals, flora and fauna. It is the home to some of the wonders of the world such as Victoria Falls, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Sahara Desert, the Nile river, the Pyramids and Table Mountain. It also has fascinating relationship with its people who live there. Nearly all of the people who we met said they were both African and Kenyan or Namibian, for example. The continent of Africa is actually something that people who live there identify with alongside their country of birth. I have not come across that anywhere else so far. People in Thailand are Thai, not Thai and Asian or South East Asian. Chinese are Chinese. I don't know too many people who regard themselves as European as strongly as people in Africa. There is definitely something special about this place.

We had 8 weeks in total in Africa, 6 of those were spent on a overland tour from Nairobi to Cape Town, taking in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. 11,000km, 42 days, 7 countries with 95% of the time spent under canvas.

Highlights…

Animals

'Mind blowing', 'awe inspiring', 'once in a lifetime' were a few of the phrases that came out of my mouth on just one morning on a game drive in the Serengeti. To see animals that I have only ever seen on TV or in a zoo, in their natural environment just wandering about was amazing. Not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the animals we saw; lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos (black and white), water buffalo (the big five), cheetahs, hyenas, zebra, wildebeest, giraffes, hippos, gazelle/impala/springbok, flamingos, ostriches, storks, baboons, monkeys, kudu, oryx, alligators. The Serengeti was the most amazing place to see animals. It is where the Lion King was based and is a vast expanse of savannah landscapes, where the great animals of Africa can roam free. You genuinely feel that you are the animals guests here; they are held in such high regard. The only signs of human intervention are the dirt roads carved through it allowing safari trucks to move about. The rest looks like I imagine it has since the dawn of time. Something else struck me whilst in the Serengeti. I remember the state of Montana being described as 'Big Sky' (it maybe their state slogan). Until now, I thought it was pointing out the obvious as of course the sky is big. On the plains of East Africa, when the horizon in every direction is as flat as the ocean, looking up in to clear blue skies all around you is staggering. It is hard to explain, but because of the lack of development and the inability to see a lot at ground level past your immediate vicinity, the sky becomes mesmerising. It's sheer scale and vastness is incredible. It is the biggest 'thing' you will ever see.

Stars

We all known they are always there. Hiding somewhere behind the clouds, smog and light pollution of our cities. I have seen Professor Brian Cox encouraging us to get out in the garden at night and wonder at the night sky. The concept of what is out there in space is completely mind blowing, let alone what is visible to the naked eye. But when I looked up, sitting around the campfire in the Serengeti, I was transfixed. Never before had I seen so many stars, and so bright, in my life. You could see the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, and thanks to someone's iPhone app, we could identify most of the south hemispheres constellations.


Skydiving

Keeping the sky theme going for a little while longer, something I ticked off the bucket list was sky diving. We waited until Namibia to do this, in one of the oldest deserts in the world, where it meets the South Atlantic Ocean. I thought I would be a lot more nervous than I was. Only at the point where I was hanging out of the plane did the nerves kick in, then it was far too late to do anything about it. 0-220kph in 3 seconds was a blur, then the 30 seconds freefall felt about 10 seconds. The distance you are from the ground is too much to comprehend, and as you look down you don't seem to be getting any closer. Incomparable rush, followed by 7 minutes of parachute descent. As soon as we both hit the ground, we wanted to go straight back up in the plane.


Namibia

Probably my favourite country we visited in Africa, mainly due to the landscape. We spent a night at Spitzkope, a huge rock formation in the middle of the Namib desert. After watching the sunset and eating a campfire meal, we took our sleeping bags up on to the rocks and slept under the stars. The heat being released from the granite throughout the night felt like an electric blanket. The moonlight on my eyelids kept waking me up, then I would lie there for a few moments looking at the stars then fall back asleep. Probably the best night's sleep I had in the whole of Africa. Namibia has a very strong German influence, and parts feel very much like a frontier town in the pioneering days of the colonisation of mid west of America. It is a harsh, dry, arid environment that man is trying his best to make habitable. But it is a challenging environment, which attracts a certain sort of person. Especially Swakopmund. The whole place felt like it was out of a Malboro Country ad. Lots of great meat, beer, pickups, wide streets, single storey buildings and dust.

 
Tropic of Capricorn
As a geography student I obviously spent many a Friday night at uni salivating over maps. There are four major horizontal lines on the world map…the equator, the tropics of cancer and Capricorn and the Arctic circle. It is a very geeky thing, but as we didn't get to stand on the equator when crossing in to the southern hemisphere as we were in the air, standing on the tropic of Capricorn in the middle of the desert in Namibia marked a shift in zones in the world. After spending the first half of our trip in the tropics, we were heading in to the lower part of the southern hemisphere.
 
Wine tasting
On the way in to South Africa, we stopped at a camp site in the torrential rain. Once inside the bar, we got stuck in to a range of wines they produce at the vineyard a few miles down the road. The first taste of South African wine was one to remember. From Chenin Blanc through to South Africa's own Pinotage grape, and rooibus tea infused vermouth, it really cheered us up. An open fire, cheap wine, a roaring fire and a load of over landers on the last leg of their journey doing a truly international version of the okey-cokey. It was a memorable night.
 

Cape Town

This is the first place on our trip that we both have said we could realistically live. We arrived toward the end of their winter, and the days were sunnier and more consistent than our summer. The city is beautiful, a number of bays act as the suburbs of the main city, each with their own character, small community feel and beaches. A lot of the inhabitant lives are spent outside, enjoying the sea, the beach, the peaks and mountains in the same range as Table Mountain. In the surrounding areas of the cape, you have Cape Point/Cape of Good Hope (where we saw a humpback whale), Simons Town (home to a large colony of South African penguins), and the Garden Route heading east. Add to that great wines, food and a relaxed way of life, it really surprised me how much i liked Cape Town. Having not seen my parents for six months, it was great to spend two weeks with them, catching up, relaxing in the house they rented, cooking nice food (a treat having not been in a kitchen for six months) and sleeping in very comfortable beds.

Robben Island
This deserves it's own mention. Nelson Mandela is so highly regarded in South Africa it is amazing. Especially as he is still alive. This sort of praise is usually reserved for the dead. Robben Island was where the Apartheid regime kept their political prisoners, all of whom were regarded as the most dangerous prisoners possible. The conditions weren't inhumane, and it was nothing on S21 (in Cambodia), but the thing that moved me the most was the reason they were locked up in the first place. This is one of the major things I noticed in Africa. Moving from East Africa, through Central Africa to South Africa you noticed how the population changes. Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana are what I expected Africa to be like, mainly consisting of Black Africans. Moving in to Namibia and South Africa, it is very different. There are a lot more White Africans there and as a visitor it reminded me of the sad history of South Africa. Even though apartheid is over, we spoke to older people who would very happily go back to those times now. There is still a two tier society; most of the money is, from what I could see, held by the white population whilst the black population seem to work in the lower paid and less skilled jobs. I don't want to appear overly harsh. South Africa has come so far, but still has a long way to go. If only some people at home could be as forward thinking as the younger generation in South Africa.
 

Our overland tour

We had our tough moments like waking at 5am after five hours sleep to take your tent down, grab a quick coffee then jump in to a freezing truck to drive 600km on African roads for 12 hours. But, however cold the showers were, or however much sand you found in your tent after the sandstorm, nothing could taint the amazing experience of it all. Eating amazing food cooked over a campfire by our guides Jay and Helette (homemade pasta & lasagne, homemade bread, steaks, all the comfort food you would want) under the stars will always stick in my memory. The fancy dress party on the banks of Lake Malawi with clothes bought for a few dollars from a Malawian market was memorable. So thank you Everidiki, Gherder, Katie, Steve, Tilly, Lucy, Mia, Anka, Charlie, Mohammed, Vanessa, Tony, Rita, David, Gemma, Emma, Jay, Helette, Genevieve, Michelle, Lisa, Haide, Jen, Paul, Naomi, Becky, Pete, Emily, Hannah, Tim, Rosie, Louisa, Rainer, Johanna, Lady Jay, Richie, Belen and Itzy.

Having left Africa now, it has left a very strong impression on me. The first world in the west is a funny place. It teaches you all sorts of things. It reports the world in such a way. When you get out there, you realise how different it really is. Africa is beautiful, the people we encountered are wonderful. Their lives are not materially rich, but they are rich in so many other ways. In Malawi, there is the strongest sense of community I have ever seen. The villages we walked around, ate in, played football against have the sense of commune we have lost in the west. When people know more about others they have never met, but chat to online, than they do their neighbours who live their lives right next door, you have to wonder what went wrong. The villagers in Malawi really were only interested in the people that were physically close to them, strong blood and friendship bonds are the most important thing to them.

 

And finally…

Africa will always hold a special place in both our hearts as it is where we got engaged. Gabby has, for some reason beyond me, agreed to marry me. We got engaged on the top of Victoria Falls, literally overlooking the edge. The happiest day of my life so far, and looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together. Celebration drinks when we get back!

 

Categories: Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cambodia

Cambodia

 

I have to admit that our 2 weeks in Cambodia were a bit up and down for me. Firstly, I think we both found it hard to get used to the heat – this has definitely been the hottest country for us so far (I did read on the day we arrived that April was the “killer month” in Cambodia due to the heat and humidity). When its so hot its hard to walk around and see the sites. One day we tried to ride bikes and gave ourselves slight sun stroke. Then there was the history of Cambodia, dominated by the Khmer Rouge – Ollie’s post goes into details so have a read, but (although this may sound odd) I’ve never felt so close to a country’s pain and suffering as much as I did here, with it being so fresh and so recent it made things feel very real, unlike a lot of history which often feels so distant. And finally, it was where I came down with food poisoning and have now been put off one of my favourite dishes I’ve had since we’ve been travelling (fresh, steamed spring rolls) so I was feeling sorry for myself (and Ollie especially) whilst we were cooped up in a $5 a night room for a week in Kampot which doesn’t really have a lot going on :(

 

So many people had mentioned to us about how friendly Cambodians are and they really were. Always smiling and happy to see you and say hello, waving across the street, and always willing to help. The children especially. They will run after you or along side your bike/tuk tuk shouting hello or “sapadii falang” (hello tourist in Cambodian). Considering what the country has been through, it made me think about how preoccupied people are back home (me included of course), especially in big cities where people are walking around in their own little world not even acknowledging one another. Are the stresses we go through everyday back at home anything in comparison to what countries like Vietnam and Cambodia have been through and others are still going through? It’s hard to think about the bigger picture when you’re living your own life but I’m hoping this experience will help me deal with problems I face when back home a lot better than I have done in the past. Although cliched, I know for sure that this trip has made me really appreciate what I have.

 

Our trip to Cambodia started with a 2 day journey of bus, boat, bus again, floating hotel (sounds much more glamorous than it was, believe me) and another boat. We did get to see bits of the Mekong Delta, albeit very briefly – our bus from Saigon got stuck in the holiday traffic so our tour of the floating market was running late and involved about 10 minutes of being pushed around by a very bossy, slightly scary Vietnamese woman. We also stopped off at a Crocodile farm which, to be honest, was a bit odd. No one seemed to know that this was on the schedule and no one really wanted to get off the bus (which was already taking 3 hours longer than we were told) in the pouring rain to see a load of crocodiles cooped up, literally living on top of one another. Not one of my highlights to be honest. Anyway, we arrive in Phnom Penh to be greeted by a swarm of tuk tuk drivers holding up signs saying something along the lines of “Hello, welcome, I give you good price for tuk tuk, don’t worry be happy…” So, as I seem to have given one of them eye contact we are now automatically his customers, that seemed to be how it worked anyway. We got to our guesthouse where we dumped our stuff and went for a delicious curry and Beerlao :)

 

We visited both S21 (the school that was transformed into a prison and torture house by the Khmer Rouge) and the Killing Fields (where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were taken to be killed). Two sites you can’t really miss when in Phnom Penh, although you do need to be prepared to see some gruesome pictures and to hear some shocking stories. Although at first I thought that some things on show were a bit extreme and I wondered whether there was any need for showing such things (i.e showing pictures of the 14 tortured bodies that were found when the Vietnamese discovered S21), talking to locals and reading about the Cambodians it is clear that they want people to know exactly what happened and they don’t want people to forget what the country and its people have been through.

 

We then went from Phnom Penh to Kratie, a small town north east of the city about 4 hours away on the bus (if you go direct that is – this journey could take you up to 15 hours in some cases). The main attraction here are the Irrawady dolphins and it totally is worth the trip. We spent the first 15/20 minutes of the hour long boat trip trying to get photos of them, but in the end we gave up and just sat back to take it all in. Definitely one of my highlights so far. There isn’t much else to do in Kratie really. We caught the ferry across to the opposite island and rode around on bikes for a couple of hours which was nice; not much there just a few houses on stilts and a couple of temples but it’s worth it just to say hello to the local children who are always so happy to see you. We also had a tuk tuk driver persuade us to go on a food tour with him. This consisted of him driving us around in his tuk tuk, at about 5mph, pointing out fruit plants (half of which we’d seen in most of the countries we’ve been to so far) and taking us to the food stalls we’d seen the day before :) . On the plus side he did introduce us to Cambodian ice cream which was delicious; shavings of ice, coated in condensed milk, palm sugar and fruit syrup!

 

From Kratie we headed back through Phnom Penh and to Kampot, a very small, quiet, riverside town on the south west coast known for its great seafood. Before I came down with the dreaded food poisoning we took a scooter down to Kep, where they have a big crab market and you can pick your own crab (or other shell fish) fresh from the sea. The freshest seafood I’ve ever had and the tastiest, even though they we’re cooked on their own with no sauce or seasoning they were delicious!

 

And so to Siam Reap, somewhere you can’t not really go to whilst in Cambodia, home to the 8th wonder of the world Angkor Wat. It is worth the trip, although a day will do it, not the 3 days some guide books recommend, there are only so many temples you can see! The whole Angkor site is huge and you need a tuk tuk to take you from one temple to the other. My favourite was the Jungle temple which is slowly being taken over by trees – and it was the temple where tomb raider was filmed. Unfortunately we only had a day in Seam Reap, so we didn’t get to spend time exploring the city before we left for Thailand.

 

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Singapore

Singapore has always interested me. Geographically it is in a very fortunate position, at the oceanic gateway between Europe/India and S E Asia and beyond. Designed by Mr Raffles on behalf of Britain, the city is still laid out along the same lines. The genius move behind Singapore’s initial success was its ‘Freeport’ status, which along with Hong Kong gave rise to its global role in shipping and surface freight trading. With the profits of this, they invested heavily in services, industries and amenities to attract and retain global talent. Now they can add the highest number of households as millionaires and the forth major global financial capital to their list of accolades.

To keep all these millionaires entertained, you need places for them to spend their money. One of these places is Orchard Road. If 5th Avenue and Oxford Street had a child, and that child took steroids and every stimulant know to man, the result would not come close to Orchard Road. I lost count at around 10 huge 5-6 storey malls, each with a vast array of ultra high end stores like Cartier, Gucci, Prada, Pucci, Mont Blanc, Rolex, Bentley showrooms and on and on. Then there is all the restaurants in their, and the Bang & Olufson shops. You could blow a large lottery win in a long weekend here.

But all these millionaires mean Singapore is expensive. Around the corner from our hostel I had a pint of Asahi for £6 and Gab had a bottle of Brothers cider for £7. And this place was by no means expensive or posh by Singapore standards.

Before we arrived, I had the impression of a police state despite other people telling me different. I can confirm it is not a police state and what seems like strict rules do have their benefits. The pavements are devoid of the small black blops that community service attendees remove back in the UK due to the fact that chewing gum is completely banned. There are more types of mint than I have seen in my entire life here, even though chewing gum is illegal millionaires still need fresh breath.

I can’t put my finger on why, but I got the sense that Singapore was slightly sterile. Maybe it is because it was the last stop on our trip through SE Asia. It is not lacking in character, but in comparison to the likes of Saigon and Bangkok it is very western…but without the charm and history of London, Paris or Berlin for example. Of all the places in SE Asia, it is the most western culturally I experienced, which has without doubt been a massive contributor to its global business success story. You can even drink the tap water, unheard of since we left the UK way back in January.

We spent a day walking around Singapore’s Botanical Gardens, a stunning space in the middle of the city devoted to plants from all over the world and more varieties of Bamboo than you can shake a stick at. Whilst hiding from the almost equatorial midday sun in a cafe, we started chatting to a elderly Chinese couple. After hearing about their four children’s lives and them trying to flog us some flats in Singapore, they told us they were very good friends with Wing Yip, the owner of the biggest and most famous Chinese supermarket in Birmingham. You go all the way to Singapore and bump in to someone who is friends with the owner of a shop in Digbeth. Along with meeting the guy from Stourbridge up in the hills of Koh Tao, this reminded me how small this world really is.

Named after Thomas Raffles, Raffles hotel and more specifically their Long Bar was the birth place of the famous Singapore Sling. Approaching the hotel you would be forgiven if you think you were in Monaco or Monte Carlo; the hotel is beautiful. But not as beautiful as the collection of cars out the front. Top of the range Ferrari’s, Lamborghini’s, Maserati’s and classic Porsche’s took up all the parking spaces, polished within an inch of their lives. I suddenly felt very scruffy walking up to the entrance of Raffles. Inside the Long Bar it reminded me of Harry’s Bar in Venice-lots of tourist drinking the signature drink (the Bellini in the case of Harry’s Bar) and taking photos. It was nice to be fair, but I could only drink the one (and at £15 each we could only afford the one each). It is tradition to eat the monkey nuts off the bar and chuck the shells on the floor. Quite a strange feeling paying £45 for three drinks in somewhere that actively encourages you to litter.

All that was left to do in Singapore was say goodbye to Mr Browne, our companion for the last few months as he headed off to the Philippines and we flew out to Africa.

We had mixed feelings, sadness of leaving Asia mixed with excitement of heading to Africa. So much so, we forgot to claim the tax back in the airport on our shopping which is another benefit visiting Singapore…

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Malaysia

Malaysia is split roughly in two; the peninsula between Thailand and Singapore and Sarawak, the northern edge of the Indonesian island of Borneo which also contains Brunei. The population of Malaysia consist of people of Malay, Indian and Chinese origin and the two halves are very different. The Malay peninsula is more developed, with the capital Kuala Lumpar (everyone shortens it to KL) and has a different ethnic make up to the east of Malaysia (mainly Malays) whereas the peninsula is a richer mix of the other ethnicities.

Our journey took us down the peninsula from Thailand to Singapore. First stop was the Pehenthian Islands off the north east coast, just south of the Thai border. The best word to describe these islands is paradise. There are no cars on the islands, or ATMs and electricity is intermittent at the best of times, but the sea is crystal clear, the beaches quiet with palms trees and beach huts, the sea is teeming with coral and masses of marine life and diving was cheap. Paying about £12 for a dive, it was the cheapest we have found so far. Shooting off the beach in a small boat, then dropping down in to beautifully clear waters to explore underwater tunnels, shipwrecks and pinnacles is a great way to spend 10 days.

It was on one of these dives I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The dive started off a little boring to be honest, then our guide pointed upwards and we saw the outline of a sea turtle above us. We instantly stopped and floated there to take it in. As we did, he decided he wanted to check us out so swam down amongst us, heading straight for me. He swam right up to me, even though I was sinking down to avoid him, he looked like he was going to kiss me. Then he turned his attention to Gab, and as she swam away he tried to nip at her oxygen tube. He kept trying to nip all of us, as we were rapidly using up oxygen laughing so much and frantically trying to get out of his way. He swam around us for 5-10 mins, then needing air he rose up to the surface and left us alone. I have to admit, I was glad when he left us as he couldn’t attack us anymore but it was magical to be literally face to face with such a graceful and beautiful creature. Now I need to find that elusive Whale Shark to complete my wish list.

The Pehenthians also have something in common with Dudley and Glasgow, as they all offer the delicacy known locally as ‘deep fried Mars Bar’. In fact, they offer Snickers and M&Ms too, in rotis (fried, folded pancakes), smoothies and shakes. The peanut M&M shakes my favourite, but the Mars Bar wasn’t far behind.

On the subject of food, it was quite disappointing on the islands. In contrast to all the great food we had in SE Asia up until arriving there, it was a real let down. But we didn’t go there for the culinary delights, that is what Kuala Lumpar is for.

Kuala Lumpar

The second of the large modern SE Asian cities we visited and the capital of Malaysia. It was particularly interesting for me as I have always admired the Petronas Towers, once the world’s tallest buildings until Taipai 101 in Taiwan took the title, with the trophy currently residing in Dubai.

The Towers didn’t disappoint. They are elegant and beautiful. I could star at them all day which is lucky as you can see them from pretty much everywhere in KL. But at RM80 (£16) to go up to the top was as steep as the towers themselves. But for the same price you can go up a telecommunications tower right next to the Towers, sit in a revolving restaurant with an unrivalled view of them along with the rest of KL and have a delicious all you can eat buffet in air conditioned heaven. That is my top tip for KL, and they have a Japanese style toilet that washes and dries you bits whilst you sit on the toilet seat set to your desired temperature.

KL is an electronic shoppers heaven. Real and fakes sit next to each other, but there are plenty of bargains to be had. I bought a Canon case and spare battery (for Africa) for my camera for less than half the price in the UK. And both were real. If you are heading to Asia, get a layover in KL for a few days and pick up a few bargains.

Malaysia is aiming to be a ‘developed’ country by 2020, but what that means is probably up for discussion at the moment given the state of some of the developed economies around the world. Regardless of that, it is a city on the move. Development is happening all over the place, they have for a real drive to achieve their objective, it is one of Air Aisa’s major hubs increasing awareness internationally. All this whilst it retains a real charm of its past. Culturally it is very diverse, which is reflected in the food. Whole streets are closed off to traffic at night and cars are replaced by tables, chairs, tourists and Tiger Beer bottles. Night markets cram the streets too, with literally space for one person at a time to walk between the stalls. Selling everything under the sun, hot, sticky, intense and English catchphrases being quoted at you from the vendors, it is something I will really miss about a Asia.

Another benefit to KL is its proximity to Singapore. The same distance between London and Leeds separates two of the major SE Asia cities, but they are really a world apart from each other.

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