Posts tagged ‘Halong Bay’

An ode to Asia – our top ten experiences

In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.

Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the  most basic of things? Hardly.

As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.

10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.

9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.

8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…

7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.

6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.

5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves  by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.

4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.

3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.

2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.

1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!

All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery


April 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm 1 comment

Caught between a monkey and a snake. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

If you had asked me on January 1 2009 how I thought we would spend the following New Year I would probably have said that it would be some variation of the preceeding year – same people, same place, same promise at the start of the night and same vague disappointment at its close. I would have predicted that it would be harder to get a taxi maybe or that we would have slightly better jobs and slightly bigger budgets. What I would not have predicted is that we would start 2010 on a small island off the coast of Vietnam, singing, dancing, drinking and generally revelling with a bunch of Aussies who, having been introduced only the day beforehand, were quickly becoming our new best friends.

But that was how 2010 did start for us – first in a bar drinking rice wine; then perched on the steps of a pier watching oriental junks bobbing in the water; and finally, four of us squeezing into one bed for two hours kip before we set sail again in the morning.

Initially we had planned to hit Hanoi for the New Year but after spending two fruitless nights searching for any iota of nightlife, we decided to push forward our Ha Long Bay tour, shelling out a measley $80 for three day and two night tour what was once recognised as one of the natural wonders of the world. A flat expanse of emerald water punctured by almost 2,000 limestone karst mountains and islets, peppered with white sand beaches, floating civilisations and spectacular caves, the only surprise is that Ha Long Bay is no longer one of the Seven Wonders.

As great as New Year’s was though it was still only the cherry on the pie. Over the past two days we had cruised between soaring grey cliffs, navigated caves dripping with suggestive staligtites and kayaked into secluded coves. We had also been pretty lucky with shipmates, managing to bunk up with four fun-loving Aussies and two lovely British girls. After spending the day concocting elaborate stories to explain the presence of penguin-shaped bins in a Vietnamese cave, we spent our first evening in the bay stretched out on sun loungers on the top deck of our boat, downing just about everything the onboard bar stocked.

The next day, after a quick morning swim in the bay to cure our thumping hangovers, we headed for Cat Ba National Park where we rented some bicycles and made our way along the coast, through a village bursting with brightly coloured houses and into a jungle. En route we stopped for a rest and our enigmatic guide Tung (tour guide by day, heartbreaking dragon by night) introduced us to a local delicacy called Snake Whiskey – rice wine stored in a huge jar for a few years alongside several dead snakes, a dead bird and whatever else the maker happened to find on the side of the road. Delicious.

Next up was a trip to Monkey Island where a low tide meant we had to make our way between the boat and the island by swimming. Excited by the prospect of encountering primates in the wild, we ignores Tung’s advice that the monkeys were not to be trusted and made our way up the sharp karst mountain in our bare feet. After a few minutes of climbing over painfully jagged rocks we were just about to give up when we rounded a corner and came face to face with a big red-faced monkey who was perched on a rock near the top of the mountain, surveying his territory and protecting his women from western tourists and their probing cameras.

Unfortunately the monkey was not as happy to see us as we were to see him so he decided to escort us down the hill and, if needs be, swim us back to our boat himself. Hampered by bare feet and uncertainty, we started to stumble down the hill. Tantalisingly close to the bottom we met another adversary – a snake. Trapped between a serpant and a territorial monkey (who was now demanding randsoms of cameras and water bottles) we started to understand what Tung had been warning us about. Several bruised feet and a water bottle later we reached the beach again and headed for the safety of the water, only to be cut off by another dozen or so monkeys who fell from the sky, swinging through tree branches and lining up on the balcony of the island’s police headquarters.

After some sand throwing, sprinting, randsom negotiation and stick waving we did manage to make it to the boat though, where the captain (who was pretty drunk) let us take it in turns to steer our way to the touristy side of Cat Ba Island for our New Year’s celebrations.

All in all, not a bad deal for $80, don’t you think?

More pictures from Ha Long Bay are available in the gallery

January 12, 2010 at 3:30 am 5 comments


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