Sunday, 8 September 2019

Laos: 4000 islands - a photo diary


As I've mentioned before, we did our six month SE Asia travel adventure back in 2016 - yup, what feels like a million years ago! But for the sake of completing this 'series' of posts, and having an online journal of the best six months of our lives (thus far!), I'm still posting about it three years later. Three years! Gah, when did that happen. So, please allow me some time to reminisce on this lacklustre Sunday. I wont go in to details of the logistics of travel / accommodation, as these will undoubtedly have changed in recent years, but instead I want to share some of our snaps of 4000 islands and our memories of a few days spent here. 

Where is it?
4000 islands - or Si Phan Don - is a riverine archipelago located right at the bottom of Laos, in the Mekong river. Of course, not all of the 4000 islands are actual inhabited islands; many are submerged by the Mekong at various points in the year. We were headed to Don Det, along with a load of other backpackers seeking rest and relaxation. 

How did we get there?
As I said, I wont go into details as I imagine a lot has changed! That said, the route was well trodden back in 2016 - it was no hidden paradise! We started our journey to 4000 islands from Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We arrived in Vientiane by minivan (standard) from Vang Vieng; the journey took about six hours. When arriving in Vientiane we walked to Green Discovery where we were able to book our VIP sleeper bus ticket (sounds nicer than it was) to Pakse. We were picked up from central Vientiane at 6pm and arrived in Pakse at 6am the following day. We then got another minivan to Nakasan followed by a boat to Don Det arriving later in the afternoon! Not the quickest of journeys, but pretty smooth sailing.

What we did in Don Det
Chilled out! There are loads of cafes and bars (weirdly many with a Friends theme...) where you can relax with a beer and watch the world go by. 

Hired bikes. We cycled down to the bottom of the island to see the old French bridge - there was a toll on the other side of the bridge which cost 3x the cost of the bikes (per person!) so hastily turned around and cycled back. Cool story bro. 

Ate lots of laab. Chicken laab, pork laab - both were delicious! Sort of minced meat (not the festive kind) in a soy, ginger and fish sauce served with a basket of super stick rice. So tasty and so cheap.

See Irrawaddy dolphins! Listed as an endangered species, if you are lucky you might be able to catch a glimpse off the bottom of the island. In a rather hilarious twist of fate, we happened to take to the water just as a tropical storm hit - leaving us clinging on to our tiny, rickety boat for dear life, while our tour guide decided that it was not safe to continue after approx 3 minutes in to our journey and the awning had been ripped off in the wind. We did, however, see 4 or 5 dolphins about 100m from our boat, hurrah! We returned to land completely soaked through, before taking a tuk tuk back to our hotel and basically being laughed at by every local we passed! 

Thoughts?
I have to say, Don Det / 4000 islands didn't blow us away. That said, it was a beautiful setting - those sunsets! insane - and mega relaxing. 

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Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Laos: Luang Prabang


Oh Luang Prabang, you totally captured my heart.

Luang Prabang - once the royal capital of Laos - had real Penang vibes for me. I think it was the traces of old French colonial architecture alongside the modern fast moving tuk tuks and beautiful scenery which won me over. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is really an indicator of how beautiful Luang Prabang is. 

We spent four days here, but could easily have stayed longer. Be sure to spend time wandering - see where the pavements take you... but look out for snakes! We saw a huge python just chilling in the road which sprung to life just as we passed it, much to the passing Monks' amusement when we screamed with shock! 

Getting there
We arrived in LP by means of boat - a slow boat cruise to be exact. You can see about our journey here; how we bought our tickets, how to get to the starting point (Huay Xai) and how much it all cost. 

Where we stayed
We stayed at the beautiful heritage style Villa Maydou. We had a big double room with seating on a terrace outside, and the hotel had a pool and great bar and breakfast options. The hotel began as two existing listed heritage houses which were restored before more added to create a village feel. I think we paid ~£40 a night which was well worth the money - it really reminded us of our stay in Love Lane, Penang

What we did 
Kaung Si Waterfalls - we hired a motorbike for the day and drove the thirty minute journey to the most spectacular waterfalls I have ever seen! The journey itself was pretty stunning, through gorgeous countryside - Laos is just so lush and green. The waterfalls themselves are by no means a secret; there is a pretty well established tourist scene there, so get there early in the day if you want to avoid crowds. There is also a bear sanctuary in the waterfall 'park' area, which we popped in to see!

Night market - sprawling and interesting, this wasn't just loads of souvenir tat (although there was some of that). Definitely worth browsing.

Trekking - clearly not scarred from our trekking experience in Myanmar, we decided to book on to a half day trek after being wooed by the incredible scenery in and around LP. We booked a half day trek through the hill tribes with Phone Travel - this cost us 200,000 kip for us both (around £15 when we travelled). There were many more options for longer treks with kayaking or waterfalls included, but we wanted to keep it shorter on this occassion. We were collected from our accommodation in a van and taken to the starting point of our trek via a small boat over the river. We were the only ones on our trek, with two lovely guides, which comprised of about 2 hours trekking to start, then lunch, then approx 1.5 hours after lunch. Perfect! We saw fresh elephant trails in the jungle, and were quite literally dripping with sweat by the end of the afternoon!

Where we ate and drank
Khai Phaen - a small chain which offers training to underprivileged local teens, offering modern local cuisine and a beautiful setting. (Trip Advisor)
Tangor - we just stopped for a coffee here, but the food looked delicious! Great decor. (Trip Advisor)
Dyen Sabai - do it yourself  Lao BBQ with buffalo, broth and noodles - worth crossing the river on a rickety bamboo bridge for! (Trip Advisor)
Viewpoint restaurant - again, just a drink for us again here but great views as you'd expect with that name. (Trip Advisor)
Coconut garden - good local food. (Trip Advisor)
3 Nagas - we had a drink in this fancy boutique hotel, just 'cos it looked so beautiful and we wanted to have a nosey inside! (Trip Advisor)
Utopia - the only western food we ate in LP, but it was good! Pizza, burgers etc. (Trip Advisor)

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Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Lunch at The Castle Inn, Farnham


You've probably heard me professing my love for the Red Mist pubs before - especially my favourite central Farnham pub The Wheatsheaf. But it's all change in town, with The Wheatsheaf changing hands and a new Red Mist offering opening on Castle Street. 

Introducing, The Castle Inn.

Sitting proudly within sight of Farnham Castle, it is everything you'd expect from a Red Mist pub - top quality locally sourced food, a relaxed yet lively atmosphere and an excellent interior. And this time, in the perfect central location, nestled among other Farnham favourites like Castle Street Flowers and Gail's Bakery. 

I was invited to come along and see it for myself, and try the new menu. Please note, this meal was gifted but, as ever, all views my own. I took my food photographer pal Milly - it's always good to have someone with impeccable taste alongside, keeping you in check!

To start, Milly went for the pan seared scallops with pancetta, celeriac puree and Crondall truffle oil, and me the chicken and apricot terrine. The perfect combination of sweet and savoury with a spiced chutney; it was absolutely delicious. Milly's scallops were juicy and perfectly cooked - a real winner.

Aside from these, the whole baked Camembert was making eyes at me (side note, it's baked inside a rustic loaf... sold) and the deli or mezze boards would make the perfect sharing starter. My idea of a perfect Saturday is walking in to town for a beer and lunch - The Castle has so many great sharing and lunch options which fills me with joy... Saturday afternoon drinking ahoy!

We moved on to steak and fish respectively, with Milly opting for the Surrey Farm rump steak with chunky chips and bearnaise sauce, cooked perfectly to her taste (as it should be, medium rare). I made good use of the specials board and went for the halibut with prawns - absolutely delicious and again perfectly cooked. I can honestly say I don't think I've ever had a bad meal at a Red Mist pub - I can totally rely on their first-rate chefs to conjure up something special.

Whether we fancy a pub classic - ham, egg and chips, if you're asking - or a restaurant quality meal made with local ingredients, we know Red Mist will deliver. For us, it is that go-to that you need within walking distance of  your house. 

Oh, I almost forgot. Pudding. As if - we all know it's what we're holding out for.

It took next to no time for me to decide. The pecan pie, naturally. Served with ice cream and fresh honeycomb, I was in heaven. Crunch, warm, cold, salt, sweet. Perfection! Milly was, as ever, far more sensible and went for the affogato. Sourcing local ice cream from Petersfield - in fact right next to my auntie and uncle's house - you're safe in the knowledge they're supporting local business and not clocking up the mileage. 

Would I recommend The Castle Inn? Without a doubt! We're lucky to have so may great pubs in and around Farnham, but having another 10/10 on the highstreet is so great to see. Perhaps not so great for my bank balance, but ya know - swings and roundabouts! 

Be sure to get hold of a Red Card if you do visit - it works a bit like a Boots Advantage card, where you can accrue points and money off vouchers. Win win!

The Castle Inn (website).
5 Castle Street, Farnham, GU9 7HR.

Meal gifted for review purposes. All views and thoughts my own. Thank you Red Mist for inviting me to visit!

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Thursday, 21 March 2019

Indonesia: visiting Gili T in your thirties


Ask any backpacker doing the SE Asia route, and Gili T will be on their list.
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Friday, 22 February 2019

Indonesia: Yogyakarta


Oh Yogyakarta, what an absolute dream!

If you've read my thoughts on Nusa Lembongan then you'll know that it was a good 2.5 years since we were in Indonesia. But, as I said in that post, I am determined to complete my round up of our trip! Predominantly so I have a personal record of the best trip of my life on my site... but also to perhaps inspire others to do the same. 

So, Yogya. 

We visited Indonesia as the last stop on our six month trip round SE Asia and whilst we wanted to prioritise chill time before returning home, we couldn't miss the opportunity to travel to some less-visited parts of the tourist trail. Step in, Yogyakarta. See also: Ijen and Bromo.

Getting there
We travelled to Yogya from Probolinggo by train, after our Ijen and Bromo adventures. The train was a memorable experience to say the least; we booked tickets online... but arrived on the train to find a family sat in our reserved seats, and they wouldn't move. Cue awkward-Brits-on-local-train-in-middle-of-Java scenario! So, we sat elsewhere... before having to move when the ticket holders of those seats arrived! Hilariously, the family in our seats wouldn't move even when the transport police guy turned up, but thankfully a couple of nice ladies took pity on us and let us sit with them. The train journey from Probolinggo to Yogyakarta took a mighty 8.5 hours - take snacks!

Where we stayed
We stayed in Abrakadabra Hostel - super basic room with no air con and a cold water shower... we were skint by this point in our trip! We stayed three nights and the room cost £10 a night. 

What we did
Taman Sari - the water castle
Beautiful architecture and something a little different from the hundreds of temples we visited during our trip! Once the royal garden of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, it is made up of pools and an impressive system of alleyways and tunnels, leading to an underground mosque. In part destroyed by the British invasion of 1812 and a later earthquake in 1867, some areas have been restored but it keeps its authentic feel. We were approached by a local student who offered us a free tour to help him practice his English. Win win! 

Borobudur
Topping our must-see list was Borobudur, which we decided to visit at sunrise. We booked this through our hostel and were picked up at 4.30am and driven to the world's largest Buddhist temple which dates back to the 9th century. Of course, we were not the only ones doing this - it is a well oiled machine! We walked up the steps of the temple in the dark, alongside hundreds of others. Scroll down to have a look at my pictures to see the crowds joining us to see the sun rise. It really was something to behold though, with seventy-two bell shaped stupas at the top around one large stupa. Inside each houses a statue of the Buddha. Completely stunning and a definite bucket list moment!

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