Category Archives: Travel

Chiang Mai and Pai

After Luang Prabang, it was only a 23 hour bus trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Indeed, although the sleeper buses in Laos are truly terrible (there is a single size bed which they make two people share – I am travelling alone and had to share with a stranger. I am just so thankful it was a girl…), a lot of the time was spent waiting – waiting for a bus connection, waiting at the border etc. The important thing is that I got there in the end.

Chiang Mai’s old city is walled into a neat square. Inside the wall, there are some interesting temples and restaurants, but this town is undeniably sleepy and most of the activities are to be done away in the surrounding countryside.

One of the highlights of the trip so far was visiting an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. I was a little wary of this, given that a lot of elephants have been mistreated for entertainment in the past. However, the tour that I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, had good reviews.

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About an hour and a half drive out of Chiang Mai and down a particularly steep dirt track, there was a beautiful value where different families of elephants lived. We got to feed them and have mud baths and then bathe with them in the river. These animals are beautiful, docile and extremely precious and intelligent. It was a wonderful privilege to be able to get so close to them.

I also did a cooking class in Chiang Mai, which I loved. I did this with Grandma’s Home Cooking School, which I recommend as it is slightly cheaper than the rest when booked online, provided me with vegetarian options and was also done in the most beautiful setting; a farm outside the city. We got a tour around the farm and shown different herbs, and then we were given a class for soup, pad thai and a curry (I chose Thai Green Curry and it was delicious!)

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I then moved on to Pai, a 3-4 hour drive north from Chiang Mai on the windiest road in existence. Pai is a beautifully serene little town and I had fun renting a motorbike and seeing waterfalls, a bamboo bridge the Pai canyon and hot springs.

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From here, I head down to the Thai islands!

A Detour to Laos – Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

After spending a few days in Bangkok (more on this later), I treated myself by taking the overnight sleeper train to Nang Chai, a border town between Thailand and Laos. However, it turned out not to be the comfortable journey that I imagined and the spotlight bright lights were on the entire night, meaning the little sleep I got was of no good quality.

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Vientiane, Laos

Anyway, to stop complaining, I arrived in Vientiane (you have to pay $35 for the visa and the capital city is around a 20 min tuk tuk ride from the border) on the 25th October, which, as it so happens, was the day of a boat race festival to mark the end of Buddhist lent. Except there was no boat race, as far as me and the other people from my hostel could tell. The only boats on the Mekong were the usual rickety old motorboats. There was indeed some large street market, but if this was the festival, then it is the strangest festival I have ever attended.

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The “Boat Racing Festival”, Vientiane

I moved on from Vientiane quickly via a 4 hour minivan ride to Vang Vieng.

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Road just outside of Vang Vieng

I had not known what to expect of Vang Vieng. A quick google is enough to give one a sense of the history of the place as a backpacker destination: it was known for it’s partying, drug-taking and ominous “tubing” (where you sit in a rubber ring, float down a river, and stop off at bars along the way, inevitably getting shitfaced).

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People getting ready for Cave Tubing, Vang Vieng

However, nowadays the place is a little changed. There is still a small backpacker community, and tubing along the river is still offered by hostels, but the majority of activities revolve around outdoors and adventure, which, I must say, Vang Vieng is spectacularly placed far.

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Countryside in Vang Vieng

Just coming into Vang Vieng and going down to the riverside is breathtaking. There are huge, green mountains rising out of nowhere from lush, green fields, and they seem to stretch on for miles.

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Preparing the kayaks along the river

There is plenty to do here, and I was happy to go on a $13 tour for tubing through a cave (a bit of an odd experience where you sit in a rubber ring and pull yourself along by a rope with a headtorch through a dark, cavernous cave, and also for kayaking, which I enjoyed greatly.

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Blue Lagoon 3

A spent another day exploring the exquisite countryside on a scooter, hiking up to a spectacular viewpoint and going to Blue Lagoons 1 and 3, both of which have things to jump off and both of which I recommend.

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Me at the viewpoint

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Hot air balloon above Vang Vieng

An overnight bus, and I arrive at 4am in Luang Prabang, luckily being taken in by my hostel. I, again, wasn’t sure what to expect of Luang Prabang, but what greeted me was a quiet town along the Mekong. There is a hilltop temple, a busy place to go and see the sunset, and a night market with good “fill your plate with veggie food” buffets for 15.000 kip (~$2), but overall there isn’t much else to do, unless it’s through excursions.

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Blue Lagoon 1, Vang Vieng

But for me, there is no more room in my budget for more excursions in Laos, so it’s onwards and eastwards to the next destination.

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Stairs up to viewpoint, Luang Prabang

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View of the sunset over the Mekong river, Luang Prabang

Cambodia – Phnom Penh and Siem Reap

Moving on from Ho Chi Minh, I made it across the border with relative ease and only having to cough up $35 for a Cambodian visa.

My first stop was Phnom Penh, the capital city, which in all honesty I wasn’t too enthralled by. The most interesting part was visiting the S21 visit museum, detailing a prison of the Cambodian genocide. The exhibits are again emotive, but it is an important part to understand what went on in the region.

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The Grand Palace, Phnom Penh

There is also the Grand Palace (remember to cover shoulders and knees! Unlike¬† did and I had to return to the Guest House to get a scarf and change…), which is ok as palaces go and one of the things to see in town.

I moved on to the famed Siem Reap pretty quickly. The difference in the tourism scale between the two cities is immediately obvious, with the market, bars and street advertisments all geared towards the hoardes of tourists who visit here each year, all, seemingly, with a common purpose – Angkor Wat.

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Sunrise over Angkor Wat

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Another sunrise image

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Me, tiredly enjoying the sunrise

Following the crowd as is so usual of me, I went to Angkor Wat for the sunrise, which was quite spectacular in itself. Though I would impress here that a day pass ticket to the temple park costs $37! There was a good walk around the temples, carved beautifully and with interesting architecture. In the park, there are many temples to visit, including Angkor Thom – remnants of the ancient city that used to be there – and a temple with trees growing through it, giving it a weird, natural feel.

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Entrance to Angkor Thom

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Window at Angkor Thom

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Buddha figurine peaking out of an overgrown tree

I was excited also to see that there are monkeys in the park! But be careful though, they looked a little vicious when approaching tourists…

 

Despite the many, many tourists, this place is worth a visit. I even managed (after a quick nap back at the hostel – the 4am start had tired me out!) to get back for sunset on the hill temple. A bit before sunset, there was a bit of rain, but also an amazing rainbow which we could see in its entirety from our high viewpoint.

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Rainbow from the sunset spot

Beautiful sight, but somehow, like many places, the magic is dulled a little due to the booming tourism. I am part of the problem though, so can’t really complain…

Da Lat and Ho Chi Minh

I took what was supposedly supposed to be a 12 hour night bus from Hoi An to Dalat. It in fact turned out to be a ten hour night bus with a stopover in Nha Trang (also known as Little Russia… direct flight from Moscow apparently) for FOUR hours, from 4am to 8am. Eventually however, I did make it to Da Lat with an awful sore throat and lost voice, meaning that I was hauled up as an invalid for the rest of the day and night.

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Datanla Falls, 4km from Da Lat

The next day, when I had partially recovered and ignored the scooter renter’s comments about how it would be safer if I had a boyfriend who was driving (not the first sexist comment in my solo travels, admittedly), I took my scooter to Dalanta Waterfalls about 4km. A strange and very touristy place, it was necessary for me to take a mini “rollercoaster” down a hill to see the falls. This “rollercoaster” consisted of 1-2 person carts which could be accelerated and braked at your will, and seemed to rely mostly on gravity to get to the falls.

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Lake near Da Lat

After that and a quick look at the suitably picturesque lake, I boarded yet another night bus to Ho Chi Minh City (otherwise known as Saigon).

My bad luck with night buses continued and the service miraculously arrived 2 hours earlier than I was quoted – ordinarily a good situation, expect this was 4am on a Saturday morning and I had nowhere to stay. I eventually found a hostel to stay in and got some suitable sleep.

Ho Chi Minh City is a chaotic, but strangely likable city. It feels as though I might die or catch a disease every time, I walk out into the street, but once I got over this slightly rational feeling, I quite enjoyed my stay.

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The War Remnants Museum

A trip to the War Remnants Museum is a must, but visitors should perhaps be warned a little more thoroughly than I was about the distressing content on display. Indeed, I think that it is right that people like me are able to understand the atrocities and true horrors that occurred in the Vietnam war, but some pictures were extremely harrowing and saddening.

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The Reunification Palace (the guy who I asked to take the photo made me laugh “I know the lingo love” he said in a strong Welsh accent “Carl Pilkington can go shove it”…

Other landmarks include the Reunification Palace, the post office (where I was pleased to satisfy my geeky side and get some stamps), and also various pagodas and the city museum.

Ho Chi Minh is also situated in a good place for some interesting tours, including the Cu Chi tunnels and Mekong delta.

I have to say that, although it was slightly far at 2 hours travelling time, I enjoyed Cu Chi a lot, and found the whole place very interesting. You have a chance to go down into one of the wartime tunnels yourself and crawl through – a claustrophobic, but also interesting experience. I managed to get to 100m, and was very dusty and sweaty as a result!

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Tunnel at Cu Chi

The Mekong delta tour was a more sober affair, but still interesting in itself. I enjoyed taking the row boats and sampling coconut candy. I only spent one day there, and it is advisable to spend more if you can – to visit the floating markets and get a feel for the place.

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Row Boats on the Mekong

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Me on the Mekong Delta

Overall, Ho Chi Minh City has been a fascinating place to visit and topped off my time in Vietnam nicely. On to Cambodia next, this time on a day bus…

Hue to Hoi An

 

I got a night bus down from Hanoi and was¬†meant to stop at Phong Nha, but overslept on the bus and so ended up in Hue. But it wasn’t all that bad. A day in Hue sampling the sights of the Citadel, but the place wasn’t all too special.

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Citadel in Hue

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Fishing Village on the road from Hue to Hoi An

What was very enjoyable was the trip down the coast from Hue to Hoi An. A Top Gear special goes along this road and the views are spectacular. Beautiful oceans, fishing villages, all very beautiful. I would definitely recommend taking a motorbike this way, whether by yourself or with a driver. I also made a stop and swim in Elephant Springs and the crazily overcrowded Marble Mountain. The latter was a bit strange and too full of coloured artificial lights.

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View along the road from Hue to Hoi An

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Me at Elephant Springs after a dip in the water

In any case, I made it to Hoi An, which comfortably tops the list as my favourite place so far. With it’s laterned lined streets and beautifully lit river, the place felt like I had been dropped into a mystic fairytale. There is a nightmarket, street food and plenty of good bars to enjoy yourself in.

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Lanterns in Hoi An

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Beach in Hoi An

Hoi An was also the first place I tried a scooter on my own. I, like may others, have heard horror stories involving tourists and scooters, but Hoi An, though slightly busy, was a good place to learn. Within 15 mins I was off on my own around the town. That very day I made the 40km ride to My Son, a small temple complex nearby. It turns out the fact that nobody follows road rules can work to your advantage; everyone is expecting you to fuck up, so it doesn’t matter if you end up on the wrong side of the road…

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Temples in My Son outside of Hoi An

But anyway, I made it there, and then the following day I made a similarly long drive to Ba Na Hills (on a hangover I might add).

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French Village in Ba Na Hills

Now Ba Na Hills is not the best place to go for a backpacker on a budget, and indeed the whole complex was not a particularly attractive one for my tastes. But I went here specifically to see the Golden Bridge, or as I more affectionately called it the “Bridge with Hands” to make my friends at home jealous. It is spectacular, and like something out of Lord of the Rings, but it took a hell of a lot of energy and money to get there.

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One hand of the Golden Bridge

Anyway, after hanging out on the beach, browsing cloth shops (Hoi An is a major place to get relatively cheap tailored clothing – if you were in need of a suit), being torrentially rained on, getting a token bracelet at the Night Market and getting too drunk out with other people from the hostel, I boarded what turned out to be a horrendous night bus to Da Lat. More on that later…

 

 

 

Starting in Asia – Hanoi, Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay

After a lengthy flight with a changeover from Tokyo, I finally arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam to start my long awaited travels in South East Asia.

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Vietnam immediately appears very different from Japan or South Korea. Catching a bus from the airport (probably the best way – it only cost about $0.50, and there are many warnings about being ripped off by airport taxis), I arrived at the bus stop nearest to the Old Quarter and made my way through the sometimes terrifyingly busy streets to my hostel.

Hanoi, as I had been warned, but never truly appreciated, has nightmarish traffic. The scooters and motorbikes seem to adhere to no rules and crossing the road each time felt as if I was parrying with death. But hey, I survived. My best advice about this is probably just to go – don’t second thought and dawdle because that just confuses them and will lead to even more ferocious tooting.

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Lake in Hanoi, best visited at night-time during the weekend for lively and eclectic entertainment

Hanoi is a lively and bustling town. A lot of good places to eat and drink lie in the Old Quarter, and I even managed to find a good vegan restaurant by chance here. There is also the lake Hoan Kiem, which is perfect for a stroll around and pedestrianised a weekends. I was very proud with the henna tattoo I got here one evening, and a lot of the locals are friendly and vying to practise their English.

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Military Museum, Hanoi

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Plane wreckage in the Military Museum

Hanoi has a number of museums too. I visited both the Military Museum and the old prison (or Hanoi Hilton as it is otherwise known). Although the military museum is perhaps a bit sparse on information, both were worth having a look at for historical purposes.

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Maison Centrale – a prison first used for revolutionist against the French colonists, then otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton” when used as a POW prison during the Vietnam War

After a few days in Hanoi, I made the 6 hour journey up to Sa Pa, which strikingly reminded me of some places I had been in Peru and Guatemala. I spent three days trekking here through the countryside with a local guide. The scenery is beautiful, though I would recommend going earlier in the year than I did as most of the famous rice paddies had been harvested.

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Rice fields and buffalo in Sa Pa

Next was to another famous site, three hours away from Hanoi; Ha Long Bay. Made famous for its appearances in films and the Top Gear special one year, Ha Long Bay is a stunning area of natural scenery where towering sheer rock faces emerge strikingly from the sea. I was told that “Ha Long” translates as “Landing Dragon”, as apparently this was a place chosen by a dragon to settle some years ago when they still roamed the Earth.

As it was my birthday, I chose a mid-range cruise to go on which included activities such as visiting caves, walking up one of the sheer faces, swimming, making spring rolls, visiting a pearl farm and kayaking. The staff were nice and I even got my own special birthday cocktail.

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Me on the cruise boat – a very happy 24th birthday

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Sunset over Ha Long Bay

Overall, though the start to this long-travelling session has been a bit hectic, it has also been enjoyable. Completely different from other areas of the world I have visited, I am sure Vietnam and the rest of South East Asia has a lot to offer…

Moving to a new country with a mental illness

I posted recently about moving to Tokyo. And since the move I have been having a lot of good times, but also a lot of down ones.

Moving to a new country is tough even without a mental illness. But when you have a history of depression, anxiety and eating disorders (not to mention some self-harm scars still visible on your arm), the whole process can be even more traumatic.

I moved to Tokyo whilst still on antidepressants which, despite what anyone says about this type of medication, did help. An SSRI can sometimes feel like an anti-shyness pill, and this was certainly helpful for me, as one of the main things I was worried about was making friends.

I brought a six month supply of Fluoxetine from the UK and it is important to remember the following points;

  • bringing drugs of any kind abroad, especially to Asia, can be problematic. It is legal to take a three month supply of Fluoxetine abroad with only a pharmaceutical letter as proof.
  • bringing a larger supply of any medication, such as I did, means you have to check with the embassy and possibly get a certificate. I did have to get a certificate for entering Japan, but overall there were no issues.
  • Think about possible contingencies for getting medication if you run out/lose it. This is important as some countries might not have favourable health insurance schemes.

 

But medication wasn’t the only thing that made moving to another country slightly easier. Here are the main points I advise:

  • plan in advance and know what to expect; I was ready for the cultural shift to Japan because I had done a lot of research and I knew roughly what would be appropriate and inappropriate.
  • This includes food – other countries and cultures can have very different types of food, though western alternatives are also available nowadays. The variety of food is a big part of what makes moving to a new country exciting, but remember to research into dishes that are healthy and you will like so, unlike me, you don’t end up eating junk food for the first couple of weeks because you are unsure what everything is. (I would like to point out here that my reservedness was mainly due to being a vegetarian, and had I been sure that some things did not contain meat, I would have gone for it).
  • Likewise, eat well and healthily as this well always contribute to both your physical and mental wellbeing.
  • plan where you want to live; this is a very important part of moving anywhere. Make sure you pick an area you will like that has your amenities, and consider if a flat share, single apartment or share house is the right way of living for you. Personally, I chose a sharehouse, where I also share a room. Despite my concerns about sleeping in a room with two other girls, I haven’t had any major issues and it means I can live in an area near my work for much cheaper. A sharehouse also gave me the opportunity to make friends, something which I would have found very difficult otherwise. I’m not sure if I will spend my whole time here, but as a transition it is alright.
  • Make sure you have a routine and exercise. When moving to a new country it is easy to feel as if you are on a permanent holiday. But settling into a routine and getting the necessary exercise you need for the endorphins rush is very important for keeping your mental health balanced.
  • Try new clubs and social situations to make friends. Believe me, I am shy, and this was one of the biggest things I was worried about. But you will find that a lot of people are friendly to you and it is important to accept or suggest hanging out. Also consider “MeetUp”. I was skeptical of this beforehand, but the site is actually good for meeting other people in a similar situation as you. And in Japan, most events are free for foreigners.
  • But most importantly, keep in contact with home. I am not prone to feeling homesick, but keeping the relationships with family and friends alive is important for keeping yourself stable and realizing that there is still support in the world if you need it, no matter how far away!