Lessons from 2016? Follow your heart.

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This time last year I was at an elephant sanctuary just south of Bangkok (WFFT), as far away from home as I’d ever been and with six whole months of barely planned travel ahead of me. Utter bliss.

Months before however, I’d gone through a strange, unexpected and terrifying phase of being scared of pretty much everything. OCD, they said. Which actually made perfect sense.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy teaches you how to realign your thoughts, but travel puts that theory into practice. The most important lesson I’ve learnt this year? To just bloody go with it. Like I always used to. To let go. To take things as they come. To trust in the order of events. Some things are beyond all control, and I’m so grateful I’ve learnt to believe that again.

Anyway, comfort zone well and truly out of sight, my dreams quite literally started to come true. The less I worried about all the stuff I couldn’t control, the happier and calmer I felt. My fears melted away one by one. With every new challenge I set, from white water rafting to trusting in perfect strangers, I remembered that risk-taking and relishing in fear makes you feel alive. Not checking the front door is locked 15 times a day. I went from hiding in my basement flat in Brixton to scuba diving with giant manta rays in Komodo.

I made myself vulnerable to the world, and it gave me everything I could wish for in return. Powdery beaches and crystal-blue water, magical sunsets, breathtaking views, powerful waterfalls, deliciously exciting food, new friendships, and being proposed to under the stars by the person I love. I swore to myself that I would never fear the world again.

And then halfway through our trip, I received the worst phone call of my life. My wonderful Grandad died. With hardly a week’s warning. We flew home for the funeral. Devastated in every way possible.

I could easily have reverted back to old habits. Blamed my grandad’s death on my “reckless” trust in life. When you have OCD you honestly feel like your thoughts have the power to affect reality. Like, if I’d just worried a little bit more, maybe nothing bad would have happened. But without the carefree living, none of the good stuff would have happened either. So I forced myself to carry on in my new-found frame of mind. To find the light in the dark. Life is nothing but a series of highs and lows, after all. You can’t have one without the other.

Whether it’s Trump, Brexit, the tragedies in Aleppo or the loss of yet another talented artist. 2016, like every year, has had its lows. I urge you to counter these awful things by being as actively positive as you can be, whether it’s persuing your goals, volunteering your time or loving someone unconditionally. Better yourself. That is the only way we can ever hope for a better world.

Flying back to Asia after the funeral was perhaps an even bigger turning point than travelling in the first place. Having faith in the face of heartbreak and grief is really bloody hard, but it will change how you feel about everything. Nothing can spur you on more than your own bravery, and nothing will reward you more. 2016, I will never forget you.

 

 

 

 

 

Indonesia in rainy season: the ups and downs

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Going from Thailand’s sunny peak season to Indonesia’s predicted thunderstorms sounds like a terrible idea, I know. In some ways it was, but in many respects I’m glad we did it. Exploring Indonesia during the rainy season came with plenty of challenges, but because of the low points – like having no clean, dry clothes, or being unable to leave our clammy little rooms because of flooding, we were so grateful when the sunshine decided to make an appearance. One morning we even woke up at 5:45am, climbed a big hill and watched the sunrise, just to see the sun in all its glory. In Thailand I’d already started to take it for granted.

I guess we thought that after 3 weeks of sticky heat and sunburn in the land of smiles we wouldn’t mind the odd thunderstorm in the heart of the tropics. Well, we were wrong in some ways. We missed the promise of sunshine almost immediately. We’d taken blue skies away from the equation, doubled the stickiness and added flooding and thunder. Not exactly the change of pace we had in mind. We had no idea it was going to rain quite that much, which is a shame when you’re visiting Ubud’s beautiful Tegenungan waterfall (pictured above) or hitting the reggae bars in Gili T. In some ways however, rainy season is a great time to explore Indonesia. And if it had been sunny all the time, the temptation to do nothing but sun myself on the beach would have been all too great. Plus, we were still able to fulfil our dream of seeing Komodo dragons and trekking across Rinca island, so nothing was lost. Here are a few things we learned about visiting Bali, The Gili islands, Labuan Bajo and the Komodo region during the low season.

THE PROS

1. There is still sunshine, I promise
You will literally clap and cheer when it comes. It will generally either rain in the morning and brighten up, or the rain will come mid afternoon after a morning of sun. Plus it’s still hot, so your wardrobe is exactly the same, with the small factor of wearing a very stylish waterproof poncho on top.

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2. Low season means fewer tourists…
…and fewer tourists means cheap accommodation, less crowded attractions, better chances of seeing the wildlife and the opportunity to get to know the locals.

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3. You can party all year round in Gili T
There just tends to be one or two bars that everyone goes to depending on the night. The narrow streets aren’t full of drunk people, either.

4. Scuba diving trips are quieter…
…so you get a much more personal service. You can pretty much dive in any weather in Gili T because the dive sites are so close to the island. January/February time is also a great time for spotting the most marine life diving and snorkelling in Komodo. We were lucky enough to dive with 6m-wide manta rays (unbelievable), sharks, turtles and hundreds and hundreds of fish.

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5. You can still get a boat from Labuan Bajo to see the Komodo dragons!
When we booked our flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo, we thought our chances of getting a boat were slim, but as long as the seas aren’t too rough (and it’s down to you to judge) then there will be a captain willing to take you. The boat journey from Labuan Bajo to Rinca takes 2 hours (4 to Komodo) and is very sheltered by the many (staggeringly beautiful) neighbouring islands. I wouldn’t recommend taking the boat from Lombok, which is pretty much open sea and likely to be very rough and actually quite risky. Boats have been known to sink on this route in the past!

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THE CONS

1. Rough seas
Admittedly, some boat journeys were petty hairy. If you’re prone to seasickness or don’t fancy the idea of being on a little wooden boat in the rain, then maybe steer clear. Choose your boat wisely, especially if you’re diving in Komdo. Some dive sites will be off limits due to strong currents, but generally a bit of current means more fish and more fish means a higher chance of seeing sharks and mantas.

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2. You might be without electricity…
…and worst of all, WiFi. Most bars and restaurants will have generators just in case but it can be very annoying if your accommodation doesn’t. I’m so glad we took a good torch, and a power bar to charge our phones, but it feels pretty good just to embrace it.

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3. Say goodbye to your tan
It’s a sad fact of life that that hard-earned tan is likely to disappear when your sunbathing hours are limited.

4. You will dream of having dry feet
It’s far too hot for wellies, so your poor little feet will endure vast muddy puddles in nothing but trusty havaianas.

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5. It is quite hard work (kind of)
Add all the above together with lugging your huge backpack around in the rain, being stranded in the middle of nowhere on your moped whilst it floods, worrying incessantly about the safety of your phone/camera/laptop and being forced to eat at the nearest rather than the best places, and you get the gist. It was pretty fun though.

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I don’t regret exploring Indonesia in the rain, as much as I’ve always had a great time at water-logged British festivals. It was fun, a bit silly and I have so many memories of our hilarious hardships. No two days were the same. However, for future reference, I’m pretty sure we’ll appreciate the sun in peak season next time we visit.

Thailand: 15 things I wish I’d known

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Flying from London to Bangkok is often the easiest, cheapest way to reach South-East Asia, so many travellers begin their journey in the ever-popular Thailand. We had just 3 weeks to get a taste of Thailand’s diverse culture and, although we had the best time, there are a few small things I wish I known before we arrived.

As someone very new to this whole travelling thing, I’ve been torn between a desire to be spontaneous and see where the week takes me and the need to plan each step with extensive research. I think a combination is important, with an open mind being the most useful possession you can have. We researched where to visit enough to know they had very different things to offer, but we didn’t plan how long we would stay at each place until we arrived. We spent 4 days in Bangkok, 9 days in Koh Lanta, 2  days in Koh Jum, 2 days in Koh Phi Phi and 3 days in Phuket. Here are a few things we learned along the way, as I’m sure anyone who visits Thailand will relate to…

1. What you see isn’t always what you get
And I’m not just talking about ladyboys. Whilst your instinct might tell you that the nicest-looking restaurants will serve better food, and cheap street food will upset your stomach, the street food wins every time. It is generally tastier and cheaper. As long as its cooked fresh in front of you, you can’t go wrong.
 
2. Cheese and Ham toasties from 7/11 are totally acceptable
A pre-made toastie in a packet from the corner shop should be so wrong, but it’s so, so right. I let my usual eating habits go completely out the window and ate whatever I felt like, at whatever time of day. It’s liberating to let go of old routines.

3. You don’t have to book accommodation in advance
It is perfectly fine to just rock up and ask for a room. 9 times out of 10 there will be a vacancy in the first place you try. Ask to see the room before you pay and don’t let anyone organise accommodation and taxis for you – chances are they are working on commission and you will end up paying more to cover it.

4. Leo is better than Chang
I love beer, but a few days drinking Chang left me feeling horrible – Leo is the one. Also, SangSom isn’t as bad as it should be. Cheap rum disguised as whiskey isn’t exactly my bag, but when it costs £5 a bottle and doesn’t give you a hangover then I’ll take it.

5. Elephant trekking and tiger temples are never OK
I already knew this before visiting Thailand, but the reality of the cruelty hits you harder when you actually see the poor animals and investigate for yourself.

6. Your laundry will come back half the size
I had no idea whether to take good-quality clothes or old stuff I can chuck if needed. Definitely take the old stuff and buy cheap essentials when you arrive. Clothes become far more disposable when you’re travelling

7. Phi Phi isn’t paradise (unless you’re willing to pay)
5 years ago I would probably have loved to party in Phi Phi, but it turns out I grew out of it before I had the chance. However, there are beautiful places on the other side of the island if you have a bigger budget. Also, you have to pay for Maya Bay (‘The Beach’) now, and it was very beautiful, but very busy.

8. Lanta actually is paradise
I never wanted to leave! Read my post on Lanta for the many reasons why.

9. There is another side to Phuket without the bad reputation
When most people think of Phuket, they have the image of party town Patong. We stayed in Phuket town with Joe’s sister, who lives in Thailand. It was great to go out with some locals to a Thai nightclub, and visit quieter beaches and traditional Muslim restaurants.

10. There are still some untouched islands
I’m so pleased we took the boat from Koh Lanta and went to Koh Jum (pictured above) for a couple of days. The island has only had electricity since 2014 and is so peaceful. We stayed in a bungalow nestled between the jungle and the beach and I literally spent my time reading, writing and swimming in the sea. Pure bliss. I think we saw about 10 other people the whole time we were there.

11. It’s the perfect opportunity to scuba dive
Thailand has a great reputation for learning to scuba dive. Courses are cheap and you’re guaranteed to see some exciting things. My first ever dive was mind blowing, and Lanta  is quiet with plenty of dive centres, so you get a great service. Read my post on learning to scuba dive for more info.

12. Every night you get drunk and manage not to get a tattoo is a miracle
There are tattoo parlours everywhere. Lots of my friends swear by bamboo tattooing, and it’s cheaper than the UK, too. Just be careful you don’t wake up with mysterious Thai writing on your white bits.

13. Beware beauty products with whitening agents
The last thing you need when you’re enjoying your new tan is a facial wash that bleaches your skin.

14. The cockroaches are massive, and terrifying
Insects don’t bother me, but cockroaches that leap out of your bag and into your face do. Also, make sure your insect repellent has deet in, as it’s the only thing that keeps the mozzies away.

15. Air-conditioning is overrated
I’m a big fan of the fan. Air-con gave me a cold after just one night, and fan rooms are cheaper!

There are so many other things I’ve learned in just 3 weeks in Thailand, but it’s funny how quickly the little things become the most useful. It’s a great place to find your feet before you move on to other countries, or simply have the holiday of a lifetime.

If you’re planning a trip to Thailand and would like any more information about how we went about ours, please don’t hestitate to get in touch.

Falling for Koh Lanta

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A couple of days ago, my best friend asked over the phone, “So, how do you know where to go?” Which was actually a very good question. It is quite hard planning a 3-week trip to Thailand. So many people have been for so many different reasons: partying in Koh Phi Phi, slowing down the pace in Pai, trying to beat the crowds to Koh Lipe etc etc. What happens if you want a bit of everything? Or if someone tells you the place you had in mind is rubbish? Trying to figure out which islands and areas might suit you best via your own research is problematic when every other person you speak to claims to be an expert. How much of the hype do you believe? The reason I’m saying this is because some websites and people warned us away from Koh Lanta, and it was somewhere we’d always wanted to visit. We read it had become crowded and touristy, and we almost didn’t go. Fortunately, we trusted our instincts and gave it a chance because a lot of what we read online was wrong. The island is beautiful. With maybe 10 people to share the beach with. At high season. Here are a few reasons we loved Lanta so much.

THE BEACH BARS

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We arrived at night, and every other path from the road (Lanta South Island is basically one really long road) was lined with lanterns and candles leading down to the beach. We followed one on Khlong Dao and came out to a row of relaxed, beautifully lit beach-side bars and restaurants, each with its own personality and each very chilled. It was actual heaven after our 12-hour stint from Bangkok. Drinking a cold beer with hundreds of stars above, the sand under your feet and candles everywhere does a lot for the soul.

THE FOOD

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I was so surprised to discover the price of the food is pretty similar to Bangkok – averaging at about 120 baht (£2.40) for all the Thai classics. The food is so good. I don’t think I will ever get bored of rotating papaya salad, massaman curry and tom yam soup. Beer and cocktails are slightly more expensive but still not a scratch on London – about 60 baht (£1.20) for a beer and 160 baht for a cocktail (£3.20). Quick tip: the more traditonal places up on the road usually serve better food than the expensive-looking places on the beach, plus they’re cheaper and quieter.

THE SUNSETS

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The sun starts to set at 6pm in Lanta and was pretty impressive every night. The best viewing place we found was the Diamond Cliff Restaurant at the very south of the island, which has its own beach and huge horizon. We shared the experience with about 15 others, which cast a bit of a shadow on my once-loved crowded spot at Ibiza’s Cafe Mambo. But maybe that’s just me getting old.

THE SCUBA DIVING

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I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but in Lanta I decided to do my open-water scuba-diving course at a dive centre called Dive & Relax. Paying just a little bit extra meant only having one other person in my group, doing my theory in a luxury resort and generally having the best service. I was pretty nervous so this was really important to me and now I can see why Dive & Relax come so highly recommended on Trip Advisor.

THE CAVES

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On our last day we trekked to one of Lanta’s caves, avoiding the cave you can trek to riding an elephant. Read ‘Beginning in Bangkok‘ if you want to know why elephant trekking is cruel. Anyway, we trekked by foot to a cave and went inside with a guide. Let’s just say I was glad I wore my hiking boots, and have never felt happier to be a small person. I would not have wanted to squeeze through those gaps if I was Joe! We also got to see hundreds of bats all fast asleep. A great 3-hour trip if you’re quite outdoorsy.

THE NATIONAL PARK

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This was an embarrassingly big moment for me because I’d never seen monkeys just wandering around. I was so excited. Shame they went around in mobs, terrorising everyone. The national park is beautiful and not at all busy. It’s at the very bottom of the island and we drove there on a moped in about an hour from Klong Dao. You can rent a moped for about 250 baht (£5) for 24 hours.

THE TRAVEL LINKS

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Koh Lanta is a very practical island to visit. You can get their easily from Phi Phi and Krabi by boat, and then to smaller islands like Koh Jum and Koh Mook if that takes your fancy.

We originally planned to stay in Lanta for 4 nights and stayed a whopping 9! Partly because I did a 4-day course and partly because it just had a bit of everything. You can party at Pangea or Mushroom bar, learn to cook Thai food, practice yoga or simply soak up the sun. Let’s just hope it stays exactly as it is.