How would you spend 3 weeks in South East Asia?

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I don’t know about you, but before I went away, 3 weeks used to pass me by like that. Blink and it’s gone, with not an awful lot to show for it. Numerous hangovers and some new shoes from Zara. My break from the clock-distorting rat race has thankfully taught me this: I was wishing time away, and not really considering what I spent it on. Never, ever do this. Time is our greatest asset. The more we have the better. I’ve had the absolute priviledge of doing something amazing for the first half of this year. I turned all my money into time. 6 months away from my life. The result? I know full well how much you can do with your time if you spend it wisely.

Now, there’s the small fact that most of us have a job. This takes up a great deal of our time, I know. I really do. I might have been unemployed since January, but once upon a time I had a real job. Time and your weekends are literally the most precious things in the world. Which is why I struggle now more than ever to understand the relationship we have with our phones, the TV and the internet. Myself included. If time is so valuable, why do we spend hours scrolling through Instagram and watching ridiculous videos of things that may or may not be real pandas? We might not be able to hike to the nearest waterfall, but surely there’s still a whole world out there to explore? Even if it’s just a stroll along the river and dinner with friends.

So anyway, as you know, our time away was cut short when we sadly flew home for my dear Grandad’s funeral in May. Our weeks away suddenly felt finite and we realised that if we flew back to Asia (which we did) we could only afford to go for just under 4 weeks. Having already travelled for 4 months, we knew full well just how much you could see of the world in that short space of time, so we repacked our backpacks and flew back to Bangkok.

I’ve written this post to demonstrate how much you can see and do if you really put your mind to it, and to show that it is possible to ‘go travelling’ for less than a month, which is much more achievable for most people. Last year Joe and I spent close to £2000 on a week in Ibiza. This year we spent roughly the same on 10 days in Northern Thailand and 2 weeks in Vietnam. Here are some of the most memorable things we were able to do in that time.

Watch the sunset over Pai’s famous canyon

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After a night in Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai and then took the 3 hour bus to Pai. A notoriously chilled out, tourist-friendly town in the mountains. The scenery is incredibly beautiful and it was so easy to get back into the swing of things.

Look after the elephants

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After our day with Wildlife Friends Foundation at the very start of our travels, I was determined to visit a similar elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, one that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of actually caring for the animals. So many of the parks claim to be rehabilitation centres when in fact they still let ignorant tourists ride on the elephants’ backs, scaring them into submission. Elephant Nature Park provides a safe haven for rescued elephants, and does a huge amount to educate tourists on the painful and complicated history of elephant tourism in Thailand, particularly when it comes to elephant riding, trekking, logging and shows. None of which are OK.

Learn to cook Thai food

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I’m so glad I did a cookery class in Chiang Mai. I was worried it would be too complicated for someone as useless in the kitchen as me, but it was so easy and chilled. ‘A’, the teacher at Thai Orchid Cookery School made it really fun. We cooked a load of Thai classics: spring rolls, pad Thai, green curry, yellow curry, sweet and sour vegetables and tom yam soup. AND we got to eat everything we cooked.

Visit lots and lots of temples

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Chiang Mai is absolutely surrounded by temples. You can’t walk down the street without spying a looming golden Buddha, turret or passageway.

Drink cold beer after dark

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The thing about it being 40°C in the day is that it turns you into an even bigger night person. I’m not ashamed to say that my favourite part of the day was generally sundown with a beer in my hand.

Spend the night somewhere beautiful

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A must-do trip from Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, we stayed on a boat at Halong Bay with Viola Cruise. We had a really nice room, amazing food, trips to the floating village, beach and cave, lovely company on the boat and the most incredible view as far as the eye can see.

Cycle through rice fields

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You’re never far from scenic rice fields in Vietnam, and some tours include a spot of cycling if you’re after a dramatic backdrop for photos. We went to Ninh Binh from Hanoi, which took about 3 hours by bus.

Always take the scenic route, by boat

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Also in Nihn Binh are local people wanting to take you down the river in their boats. The scenery is astounding and it was a lovely tranquil ride but they did demand more money from us after we’d already paid so be prepared.

Help local students with their English

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We were approached by a group of students wanting to practice their English, but there are opportunities to volunteer with young adults if you’d like to lend a hand during your trip. These particular students study in Da Nang and have a drop in centre…

Find the best views

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Never exactly hard when you’re somewhere as scenic as Vietnam, but sometimes finding natural beauty when you’re staying in the heart of the city is hard. Bach Ma National Park is under 2 hours drive from Hue, and the view from the top of the 300 ft waterfall was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Trek through the jungle

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Whilst at Bach Ma we also trekked through the jungle, ticking off 5 different waterfalls, each filling a crystal-blue pool. The national park is 2km up in the mountains, so the air feels cool and clean  after the stifling heat and stickiness of the city.

Get caught in thunder storms

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Despite visiting during the start of the rainy season, we only saw a couple of storms. One of them trapped us under the bamboo roof of a beach bar and the other soaked us on an hour-long motorbike ride back down a mountain.

Explore ancient ruins

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We originally wanted to spend a week in Cambodia as I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Wat, so Vietnam’s Mỹ Sơn was a bit of a substitute. Nowhere near the same scale, but a really interesting architectural site none the less, particularly because it was bombed in the war.

Visit a local village

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On the way to Mỹ Sơn from Hoi An there’s a small local pottery village overlooking the mountains. Stop for a coffee and test your skills on the pottery wheel. I was terrible.

Buy a custom-made suit

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We went to a wedding in the Cotswolds the day after we flew home, so it made sense for Joe to get a custom-made suit in Vietnam. Hoi An is famous for it, and it’s shockingly cheap. Joe’s was made by Yaly, and I was so impressed. You choose the colour, fit, fabric etc and they do the rest. £120 for a high-quality suit and shirt.

Eat incredible Vietnamese food

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In Hoi An, we stayed with a Vietnamese family who had just opened their homestay, Flame Flowers. We were their guinea pigs, and every day they served us a different Vietnamese breakfast to see what we liked best, usually consisting of coffee, noodle soup, green leafy vegetables and fruit. It was honestly some of the freshest, tastiest food I’ve ever eaten, along with the Pho, Com Ga, Bun Bo and Bahn Mi street food of course.

Fall in love with a city

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My favourite place in Vietnam, Hoi An is a beautiful, historial, ancient town. Every road is lined with flowering trees and decorated with lights and paper lanterns. French architecture in pretty pastel shades line the walking streets, with plenty of arty cafes, shops and restaurants overlooking the river. It is very touristy though, so we really enjoyed staying a short bicycle ride away from town with the locals.

End on a high

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Ho Chi Minh is either where you’ll start or where you’ll end up if you visit Vietnam. We ended our trip here in the chaos. Once you get over the insane traffic and noise you’ll notice the shopping, museums, bars and restaurants. We went to Pasteur Street Brewery for beer tasting, Hum Vegetarian Restaurant for a lovely last dinner, and Snuffbox Lounge 1920s themed bar for the best gin cocktails.

Whether you’re planning a trip of your own or thinking of ways to make this summer count, I hope this post puts into perspective just how long 3 weeks can be! Making every day count isn’t easy when you’re faced with an all-consuming job and daily routine, so remember to make time for the moments that will stay with you long after.

Beginning in Bangkok

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When I told people I’d be celebrating New Year’s Eve in Bangkok, I was either met with an unenthusiastic ‘oh cool’ or an even more worrying ‘oh god’. Bangkok seems to have a terrible reputation, and in all honestly I was expecting the worst. Maybe this was why I was actually pleasantly surprised. Sure it’s crowed and dirty, but so is London. And I love London. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I love Bangkok, but it’s lively energy and weakness for taking the world’s most interesting characters under it’s wing are enchanting. It’s also ridiculously cheap, the street food is incredible and you can buy 50 baht (£1) beers from cool boxes on the street. We all go crazy over Notting Hill Carnival, so why do we give Bangkok such a hard time? Here are a few things worth staying a little longer to see.

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As much as I enjoyed my time in Bangkok, I’m not sure how I would have fared arriving on my own. I usually walk around with my head in the clouds, so I’m lucky Joe’s a bit more streetwise. Some people are simply out to take you for a ride.  The tuk-tuk drivers definitely seem to be running the show when it comes to scamming tourists. Always agree the price upfront if you really need to get one, but I would stick to taxis with a meter.

Contrary to our original plan, we were in Bangkok for 4 days. 2 nights were spent in a hotel (Nouvo City) with a rooftop pool, and 2 nights in a slightly dodgy guesthouse. I think the bed was made from concrete, and we couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights off, but we survived. On our last day in Bangkok, we arranged to visit a wildlife sanctuary a 2-hours drive south, by which point I was desperate to get out of the city and into an open space, with oxygen and trees.

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to rescuing and rehabilitating animals previously used for entertainment. It was such an eye-opening day, and really explained the abuse that goes on behind the scenes of some of Thailand’s original tourist attractions, like elephants rides, tiger temples and dancing bears. The cost of the day trip (about £69) is currently going towards building a modern elephant hospital, and in return we were able to take one of the elephants for a walk around the park, feed her and give her a bath, which was pretty much a dream come true. We were also given a tour of the park, which is home to sun bears, gibbons, exotic birds and more. The day included lunch and transfers and I couldn’t recommend it enough.

The elephant trekking you see advertised in all Thai tourist offices should be avoided at all costs. Never ever ride an elephant. No matter how kind the mahouts seem to their elephants, the only reason you are able to ride them is because they are terrified and have been badly abused. They are trained with spikes and chains, babies separated from the mother far too young and forced to carry people until they are broken. YouTube it. In 5 years time we’ll be lucky if Thailand has elephants at all. I felt very lucky to be so close to these beautiful creatures in the right environment.

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I had the best time in Bangkok, and I was so sure I would hate it! Here are a few things you might want to squeeze in rather than getting shit-faced on Khaosan Road (which, admittedly, we did do):

  •  Amazing (and amazingly cheap) street food on Soi Rambuttri.
  • Thai and foot massages at Shewaspa – the same price as most places but definitely the best.
  • Wat Poh Temple – nowhere near as busy as The Grand Palace and shuts later.
  • The flower market – pretty surreal.
  • Chatuchak market (JJ market), where you’ll find everything from vintage Levis to good fake-designer shit to husky puppies. It is HUGE.
  • Ethos – incredible vegan restaurant down a backstreet and the best place for breakfast

It’s weird writing this now from Koh Lanta, which couldn’t be more different to Bangkok (and is fast becoming the best place I have ever been) but don’t knock Bangkok until you’ve tried it! It might just surprise you.