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.

Lesson 14: looking forward

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About six weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of mobile phones in relation to properly communicating with the people you care about – the lesson being one about balance. We have become so heavily dependent on mobile phones that they trick us into thinking we’ve spent quality time with people, when in reality they prevent us from acknowledging the people right in front of us. Anyway, ironically, my phone was STOLEN the day after I posted this. One minute it was in my bag, then *poof* it was gone. And, for once in my life, I wasn’t even drunk when it happened.

We’ve probably all experienced that feeling by now – suddenly being cut off from the world, unfairly, without warning. Panic sets in, and then the sheer inconvenience of it becomes a reality. It’s horrible to think that being separated from a piece of technology can make us feel so sub-human.

No matter how many times you do it, losing a phone takes you on a little journey of self-discovery. At first you are beside yourself with grief and within a day or so you feel liberated. I went phoneless for a week and I came out the other side feeling even more convinced that we should all take a tiny break from our phones every now and again. It really, really doesn’t hurt. In the time it has taken for my insurance to kick in, I’ve been borrowing my sister’s boyfriend’s old phone. At first it felt clunky and alien, and now I love it like it was one of my own. We are very adjustable creatures when we have to be.

After countless phone calls and emails, I have finally received a lovely cheque for £479 from my insurance company. A few weeks ago, when my phone first got nicked, I would have given all my belongings for a replacement, let alone this money. Now I find myself wondering whether I ever needed an iPhone 5S in the first place. So, not only have I gained a greater perspective from this incident, I’ve potentially earned myself a couple of quid. It goes back to the same mantra I’ve mentioned before – who knows what’s good or bad?

Apply this little lesson to any hurdles life throws at you and you’ll be surprised what a difference it can make. Time and hindsight change everything, and bad luck gives us the opportunity to learn how to overcome something new. If you feel like the world isn’t on your side right now, give things a chance to unfurl and always look for the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long and twisted it may seem.

I’m not saying that everything happens for a reason, merely, that we can only learn to trust the world around us when we give it time to prove us wrong. We have no choice but to believe in the order of things; there is simply no other option.

Never be afraid to look back at what you’ve learned from something, and always believe that positive things are right around the corner. Positivity spreads positivity – the perfect excuse to remain in a constant, blissful state of hope.

Lesson 7: balancing work, love, family & friends

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‘Can you teach us how to balance work, family, friends and a relationship?’

I was so pleased when a close friend of mine suggested this theme for my next post. It’s something I’m naturally quite bad at, so I understand how hard it can be. I hope reading this brings you a bit closer to accommodating all the important things in your life.

My phone, like most, goes off about 10 times an hour. Email, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, eBay, phone calls, texts, Twitter etc etc. Buzz buzz buzz buzz.  It’s annoying, a tad invasive and yet essential for maintaining friendships, staying in the loop, and just generally being there for people without actually being there. I wonder though, do these forms of communication help us to facilitate our busy lives, or do our lives feel ridiculously busy because we have a never-ending string of notifications telling us how busy we are?

Ensuring we make time for absolutely everyone and everything we care about is bloody hard. Almost every piece of technology poses as a method of communication, when in actual fact it prevents us from having a proper conversation with somebody in the same room. In some ways, technology has the potential to do more harm than good. It tricks us into thinking we’ve spent time with more than one person at once, when in actual fact, both attempts were half-hearted. We all do it, I’ll be sitting on the sofa with Joe in the evening – the only two hours of the day we spend together – texting my friends and scrolling through Pinterest. When I’m with my friends, I’ll be messaging Joe and posting on Instagram. Something is quite wrong with this scenario, but it’s something that’s easily remedied. Perhaps, if we immersed ourselves in the moment, rather than constantly trying to speak to 12 different people at once, using 12 different apps on our phones, we might actually feel like we’ve done something well. When I’m at work and ignore my phone completely, my concentration soars. It works both ways. Quality over quantity always wins, so try to focus on one thing at a time.

Did everyone see that quote going round about Beyonce having the same number of hours in the day as us? It’s horribly true. Time is a universal tool we’ve all be given to use, but some people are naturally better at using it than others. Even the most privileged people in life will get nowhere without focus, motivation and good time management. I hate the fact I’m naturally such a time waster. I could spend hours in the shower thinking and singing, it takes me an age to get ready in the morning and I’ll happily spend an entire evening flicking through old photos or trying on clothes. To combat this, I write lists upon lists of everything I need to achieve that week and make sure to tick things off. Over time, I’ve programmed my brain to feel incredibly guilty when I’m doing nothing. Which isn’t particularly healthy either, I know. There’s that word again, balance.

I cannot express how much our lives constitute one gigantic balancing act. The key isn’t just to balance out everything equally either, it’s about measuring everything out by its level of importance, and then weighing up what you want to do, what you need to do, and what you should be doing. Our lives make up a pretty complicated equation, it’s no wonder we get it wrong sometimes. Willpower plays a pretty big part, as does the formation of your own personal set of values. What one person calls a necessity, another will deem as excessive. That’s just how it is. My biggest piece of advice? Don’t waste your time on people who don’t deserve it. We have a finite amount – use it wisely.

Another crucial factor when divvying up your time – what makes you happy? Because if you’ve got a successful job, you cuddle up with your partner every evening, you spend time with your friends every Friday night, you make a roast dinner every Sunday for your family and you’re UNHAPPY, then your so-called balanced life isn’t working. Maybe you need more time to yourself? Maybe you wish you had that hobby still? Maybe you want to travel? Maybe you’re just tired? If you have to shift your priorities for a while, the people who truly care about you will be more concerned about your wellbeing than the fact they get to see you less. My friends and family understand why I moved to London, and that is something I am so grateful for. Life is too short to spend it trying to please everyone. You really can’t. Realizing that is a small step to happiness in itself.

This time last year I felt like I was too busy to start a blog. Looking back, I wasn’t busy at all, just focussing my energy on the wrong things. Here are a few little tricks I’ve adopted to make sure I squeeze the most out of every day:

1. Only watch TV shows you’re genuinely interested in. It’s quite easy to discover that 5 hours has gone by and you’ve been watching utter shit. 5 hours you could have spent reading, writing, painting, running, cooking, catching up with friends etc.

2. If you’re alone on the train, the bus, the dinner table, the loo or whatever, this is the perfect time to go crazy messaging everyone on your phone. Rather than reply to messages instantaneously (unless they’re important), I often reserve a 30-minute slot and do the whole lot in one. That way, I’m much more focused on what’s going on in front of me, and it prevents me from constantly scrolling through Facebook. Or, why not try giving yourself a phone detox every now and again. It’s not right to rely on something so much that it feels like your arm has fallen off when you lose it.

3. Unless you love your job more than life itself, use the idea of ‘working 9 ‘til 5’ as an actual guideline. At busy times, try to go in early rather than staying late. It will feel like it’s eating into your spare time a little less. There is a whole lot more to life than success and money. The future might never come, so don’t forget to appreciate the moment sometimes. You have one life, one youth. Don’t spend it working your arse off only to look back and wish you’d had fun while you still could. On the other hand, don’t take the piss. Everyone has to work. It makes the world go round.

4. Think about introducing your friends to your other friends. Chances are they’ll all get along and it means you can potentially spend time with lots of people over the course of one night, rather than organizing three separate nights out. I’m so happy I brought a few of my close friends together – they now see each other more than I see them!

5. If you are hungover, force yourself to get out of bed. I’m being a bit hypocritical saying this, but if I knew the amount of hours I’ve spent nursing a headache and hugging my pillow, I think it would scare me. You know that when you get up and have a sit-down shower you eventually feel fine. So suck it up and don’t waste the day after a night out. Even if you just read a book, tidy the house and bake some cakes. People in their 80s can do that.

I hope this post puts you in the right frame of mind to organise, detox and stay focused on what’s important. If you have any time-keeping tips that work for you, please do leave a comment below – this is something I’m always looking to improve on.