Blue Mountains – Australia

Hello!

We checked out early from our hostel in Sydney central, went to the station and headed for the Blue Mountains. There’s only one train an hour and by fluke we arrived in perfect time, 3 minutes before departure, winning! I’m still amazed how ridiculously easy and convenient it is to get right in to the heart of the blue mountains, in 2 hours, on a direct train from Sydney central!  We arrived in Katoomba, the main mountain town and were quite surprised by how big it was. There were quite a few coffee shops, 3 of the main big supermarkets and awesome street art. We weren’t able to check in till 1 so we just did a quick food shop and cooked lunch at the hostel, chilling in the lounge until we could put our stuff safely in the dorm. The hostel was honestly amazing, one of our favourites of all time I think. It was Blue Mountains YHA if you’re wondering, it was so relaxed and had a huge communal area with cosy sofas and real log fires which was so nice and homey in the cold mountain environment.

We went out in the afternoon for our first exploration of the Blue Mountains (apparently named because of the way we see them on the light spectrum, making them appear blue in the distance). We started by walking to Echo Point, the main viewing platform to get a good look at the area and specifically the Three Sisters (3 iconic rock structures). Legend has it that the three stones are actually 3 beautiful women who were turned to stone by the aboriginal village elder because they wanted to marry outside their tribe. Anyway, I digress, the view was absolutely spectacular. I mean really, put the Blue Mountains on your bucket list. It was already well into the afternoon so we didn’t want to risk getting caught in the dark on a hike so we just did a gentle one called the Prince Henry Cliff walk. This one goes from Echo point along the top of the cliffs towards a cable car that you can get up and down the valley. All along this path, you get to see the valley lined with what looks like a billion trees and the surrounding mountain landscape, one of the most scenic walks we’ve ever done.

The next day we got up and made a packed lunch for what would be the most intense hike either of us had ever done! Intense because it was marked as a “hard” level hike, there were a lot of parts where it was just a cliff drop edge, the walk was sandwiched by two waterfalls and though we only walked about 10 miles, it took us about 5 hours with all the ups and downs (and photo stops). We got the train down 2 stops to Wentworth falls where we started. We actually technically did two separate trails, the first was called the Charles Darwin walk (named because he visited in 1836). It was a beautiful walk following a stream that ran through a forest with little waterfalls dotted along the way. We also got to see some amazing wild Yellow-tailed black cockatoos. We could hear them squabbling well before we could spot any but we saw quite a few swooping over a steep hill covered in shrub land. Unfortunately, they were too far away for a good photo but they were beautiful! We came out of the forest at the picnic area for Wentworth falls. We followed the trail and came to the top of this huge 100 metre cascade. There’s a ridiculously steep stone staircase carved in to the side of the cliff to take you down to the bottom. Each stair was absolutely huge and both of our knees were so painful going down. Mine felt like they were going to pop or something! About 40% of the way down, I had a little panic and debated turning back because though the views of the valley and the mountains were spectacular, the steps were really terrifying! I mean there’s a flimsy railing and then you’re over a cliff. In the end, we persevered and got to the bottom. Wentworth falls looked a hundred times more impressive from the bottom up, rather than the top down. It was a spectacular site made even more impressive by the fact we could see the staircase we’d just come down on the side of the cliff.

We then began the proper hiking trail called the Scenic pass, established in 1908. This is basically a pathway cut out in the middle of the cliff for miles, you look down and you’re still hanging over a massive cliff, you look up and there are towering cliffs above and all around you. It was very surreal and a mountainous landscape neither of us had come close to seeing before. The trail itself varied quite a lot. Sometimes it was flat with railings, other times it was steep without any barriers, or we were ducking under rock paths and other times it was jumping across stepping stones under a waterfall! The entire walk was indisputably one of the most amazing things either of us had ever seen/done. We ended our walk at the Empress falls, another incredible site, but this time we had to walk up to get back to the top of the cliffs (less fun). I was absolutely shattered by the end of it and we still had to walk a few kilometres to the train station to get back. Overall, an amazing day that we will certainly remember forever! This is the route we did that day:

Scenic Pass Route

Sadly, we had to leave the Blue Mountains the next day but we decided to get up at 6am and walk to Echo Point again to watch the sunrise. It was bloody freezing and I ended up using my travel towel as a make shift scarf. When we got there, though it was still beautiful with a pale pink sky, we realised the sun probably wouldn’t rise directly over that specific view. So instead, we decided to squeeze in one more little trail called the Three Sisters walk that we hadn’t had the chance to do yet. You can actually walk onto one of the Three Sisters rocks I mentioned earlier. There were better sunrise viewing points along the way as the pathway curved us more towards the East, we could see all the trees starting to turn to life as the shade edged further away and the sunlight covered the valley. By the time we climbed down the staircase and crossed what’s called ‘The honeymoon bridge’ we were standing on one of the three sisters and we saw the sun just peek over the mountains. We sat down to watch and a little bird came and sat on my foot which completed the morning! So glad we did this at sunrise as we were the only ones on the rock and the walk at all really, I think it’s usually quite a squeeze with tourists. Not a bad accomplishment before breakfast!

Thanks for reading, join us next time for our last stop in Australia; Melbourne!

Sophie & Dave

Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane – Laos

We arrived in Laos for our shortest country trip yet, only 8 days. The one hour flight from Chiang Mai was honestly the worst flight either of us had ever been on. The turbulence was insane, we literally flew off our seats and the poor woman in front was in tears. Laos was the one of the places we were dubious about Visas on arrival. We were told it would be $35 each and to pay in USD. We exchanged our cash in Chiang Mai and I insisted we got a tiny bit extra in case. Thankfully we did as they charge an extra dollar per person for ‘processing’.  They also charge an extra dollar if you don’t have a passport photo, fortunately we’ve got a whole wad of mug shots in our bags. So those extra $2 made all the difference and we arrived smoothly.

We decided to visit the three main cities for our stay, starting in Luang Prabang and ending in the capital, Vientiane. We still only booked 2 nights for when we arrived and left the rest open. We stayed in the most amazing hotel, a welcomed change considering we now think of having hand soap as a luxury. The room (still less than £10pp a night) can only be described as regal; everything was made from beautiful wood and we had a gorgeous wooden balcony overlooking a tributary of the Mekong river. We loved it so much we decided to stay another night.

On our first day, we went to Kuang Si Falls. There’s also a bear sanctuary at the base that you have to walk through. The bears were all rescued from the Laos bile trade. Though we were assured it was a legitimate sanctuary and the bears were happy now, we still couldn’t help but think their enclosures were quite small. I suppose the better of two evils though. Anyway Kuang Si Falls was absolutely beautiful. I was in awe just at the tiny 1 metre falls and pools at the base but if you continue up a bit further you get to see the main waterfall which was spectacular. I was happy with that and just wanted to swim in the pools at the bottom but Dave insisted we hike up to the top instead. I very bitterly agreed and it was actually quite a hard ascent (well for me at least), the fact that it was 39 degrees didn’t help either! But we made it to the top and had a little swim in the icy pools alongside the little fish that inhabited the waters. We had quite an impressive view from the top looking down on the tree canopies and if we peered over the edge we could see the start of the water falling down. We’d had a great day but sadly when we came back down the waterfall, we saw a horrific accident where a man died of a heart attack and people were trying to resuscitate him.

On our final day in Luang Prabang we went to the UXO visitors centre. The UXO (unexploded ordinance) centre was created by a government charity that strives to educate villagers on the dangers of the bombs and to disable as many of them as they can. It was quite an educational trip; I had no idea Laos has more unexploded bombs than anywhere else in the world. One person dies every day from them.

In the afternoon, we just played in the river. From afar, the current didn’t look too strong but when we actually got close, it was a different story. We stayed quite close to the edge and were very wobbly walking through the river to cross over. As always, there was a bunch of local kids who made it look so easy! We were staying right next to the Bamboo bridge, which is self explanatory but interestingly is only there for a few months of the year during dry season and has to be rebuilt every year. You have to pay a small price (50p) to cross over to help fund the rebuilding. We crossed in the evening looking for a restaurant we’d seen on trip advisor but it was shut and instead we stumbled upon another popular local place. It’s speciality was Laos fondue. Your table opens up and you’re basically given a fire and a barbecue/pot combo to cook your own meal. They give you a basket of fresh raw veg and noodles to put in to the broth and raw seasoned chicken to grill on the barbecue part. An interesting concept and was nice to try something different. We also both said if we get food poisoning, we’ve only got ourselves to blame (fortunately we didn’t!).

The main mode of transport between places in Laos seemed to be minivans and my God, do they get their money’s worth! There would be 15 people packed in to these little mini vans, including 2 sitting next to the driver! Even though the roads were very bumpy and at one point my glasses literally flew off my face as we soared over a pot hole, the journeys were shorter than what we’ve been doing, so only 4 hours was bearable.

Even in Luang Prabang, our first impression of Laos was that it was the Magaluf of South East Asia. When we arrived in Vang Vieng, this impression was immediately solidified. It definitely has the biggest drinking culture (I’m still going well with my alcohol ban) and was full of rowdy tourists, and locals alike. On our first day we decided to get a tuk-tuk to the Blue Lagoon, which was apparently a top destination. I have to say it was not at all the idyllic haven we’d imagined. It was essentially a glorified out-door swimming pool with lots of drunk people partying. The best part of the Lagoon wasn’t the Lagoon at all but rather the half hour ride to get there. The landscape of Laos is truly beautiful. I grew up in Switzerland so I’m used to mountains, but these mountains were like nothing I’d ever seen, they were so tropical. They are what I call David Attenborough mountains.

Vang Vieng is a place for outdoorsy activities so we booked an adventure day (only £7 all in with food) where we went Kayaking and Tubing in a cave. Spoiler alert, I hated the cave! Dave and I have only ever Kayaked on a flat body of water, never on a river with a current so that was quite fun.  Loads of people in our group capsized. We tried to help one pair by grabbing their lost oars except we weren’t paying attention and went straight in to a tree hanging over from the bank. We tried to duck but failed miserably and both got smacked in the face by the tree but fortunately we still didn’t capsize!

The cave. Oh the dreadful cave. We had naively assumed that cave tubing would be in a lit cave but we were given head torches as we prepared to get on our rubber tubes. As it got darker in the cave I realised my head torch was crap so Dave kindly swapped. There was a rope through the cave that you pulled yourself through floating on the tube; that was fine and quite enjoyable. The horrific part was when we got inside the cave and were told to dismount and that we were going to walk through. It was pitch black (apart from the shite head torches) and so unbelievably slippy. Absolutely zero health and safety standards. We were also in flip flops which made it so much worse. I ended up having a panic attack and still had to get out the cave whilst in a terrible state. You had to climb through jagged rock holes and I whacked my shoulder (which is now still bruised). Fortunately the walk in the cave wasn’t too long and I managed to get out okay. After I’d stopped hyperventilating, shaking and crying we rejoined the rest of our group for lunch and lazing in a hammock until it was time to kayak back to the town.

Our last city in Laos was Vientiane. We arrived for Lao New Year (Pi Mai)/ the water festival. New year basically means that most of the city shuts down for a three day bender with lots of water fights. There were loads of outdoor clubs blaring drum and bass with sprinklers and hoses everywhere. The streets were lined with people armed with water guns, hose pipes and buckets of water. It was impossible not to go out and get absolutely soaked. Fortunately we bought a water proof bag for wallets/phones.

Thanks for reading, quite a long one, sorry!

Sophie & Dave

Chiang Mai – Thailand

We were excited to arrive in Chiang Mai where we’d be spending a full five nights in one place, the longest stay we’ve had in the last 2 months! We stayed in a guesthouse just on the outside of Chiang Mai’s centre (a big square) near Chiang Mai Gate. There was an adorable little dog called Chanom (milk tea in Thai apparently). We were glad to be on the road just south of the main square as it was much quieter and more peaceful but within close walking distance to all the restaurants/night market etc. Unfortunately, when we left Myanmar, we said we hoped to be fighting fit. This certainly wasn’t the case. Dave had such bad food poisoning that he most definitely should have seen a doctor (but he is stubborn so obviously didn’t), I’m pretty sure he had salmonella. So for our first couple of days in Chiang Mai, Dave mostly just ran a high fever and slept (amongst other more unpleasant things). I only ventured out on my own for food rather than touristy things.

After a few days when Dave started to feel a bit better, we spent an afternoon at Chiang Mai’s Art in Paradise 3D exhibition. I have tried to drag Dave to numerous art galleries in London in vain but this one, he loved more than me. It was interactive where everything was a huge, 3D, realism painting where you became part of the art. Surprisingly we only saw about 2 kids in the whole place, it was mostly adults running around like toddlers (us included). Our favourite painting was a crocodile coming out the water and where you could lie on the ground and cling on to a branch, then rotate the photo sideways. Genius! (See below).

The next day, we woke up early and full of excitement for our day at the Elephant Nature Park. Though neither of us were 100%, we were determined not to miss this day. We were picked up from our home stay in a minivan with the other 8 people on our tour for the day. We were shown an absolutely harrowing video about the torture these rescued elephants had endured. Naturally, I spent most of the film trying to hold back tears (failing miserably and silently sobbing). Though this film was so hard to watch, it was undoubtedly partly what made the Elephant nature park so great; they really valued educating people. The film showed what they call ‘breaking the elephant’s spirit’ in order to tame them. A baby elephant is separated from their mother at about one year old and taken deep in to the jungle, away from tourists. They are chained, starved, beaten and tortured for a week and forced to obey the command of the Mahout. The Mahout must stay with the elephant 24/7 to stop the elephant trying to commit suicide by standing on its’ own trunk. This horrific process is also to make the baby forget it’s mother. Of course the torture does not end here, for the rest of their domesticated lives, they must always obey their Mahout and will be reprimanded if they don’t. So whether you ever consider going to a circus, an elephant show, or an elephant ride; consider what that elephant went through to turn it from a wild animal to a domesticated one. We will happily tell you we spent 12,000 Baht or £280  combined for this day; a hefty price tag that was worth every penny.

The Elephant Nature park is home to around 70 elephants who have been rescued from the logging trade, circuses, street begging and tourist riding, some elephants are blind and disabled. All of these elephants have been bought; each costs between 1.5 and 2 million Baht (depending on their age) which equates to around £35-50k. We chose to do the day called “Sunshine for Elephants” which entailed spending most of the day with a neighbouring park’s elephants. Lek (the founder) had educated the family who owned these elephants about how to treat them properly and convinced them to follow the lead of the Elephant nature park where there is no riding, no hooks, no chains and freedom. So these elephants are a sort of sub-family to Elephant nature park. Once we’d arrived, we washed our hands thoroughly (suncream/bug spray can contaminate their food) and waited for the elephants to arrive for feeding time. Then four huge, incredible, beautiful elephants slowly trundled over to us. I literally had my jaw to the floor and was in absolute awe. I’d never seen an elephant that close and was completely gob smacked. I’ve only just taken the photos off the memory card and as I was looking through them, I realised how embarrassing the majority of me are; I look like such a dweeb just grinning and staring at the elephants. It was amazing to be in such a small group and spend such intimate time with the elephants. We fed them watermelon and sugar cane; it was mesmerising to watch them curl their trunks gently around the food we handed them and then not so gracefully stuff it into their mouths and chomp it. Some of the elephants didn’t have teeth either – did you know elephants, unlike humans, lose and get new teeth 6 times in their lives – who knew?!

After their breakfast, it was time for a hike/walk through the jungle towards where we would stop for lunch. Now, if there’s ever motivation to keep up with a group, its definitely a 1 tonne elephant on your heels. Maybe we should adopt an elephant and I’d be better at hiking… Dave and I were at the back of the group, funnily enough everyone seemed to be pushing ahead to walk with our guide. We were given a bag of bananas each to walk with and to feed them again during the break. Two of the elephants blocked Dave’s path and wouldn’t let him walk on. The Mahout’s couldn’t really speak English so they didn’t reply to Dave when he asked what he should do (I just filmed him and laughed from a distance). Dave gave most of his bananas to the two and managed to squeeze out between them.

Their second feeding time was even better because we saw their personalities and how fussy they were. They’d only eat the sugar cane once they were sure there were no bananas left in our bags. A couple of the elephants also wandered off at this point to do their own thing; either throw dirt on their backs or rub their arses against trees, all very fascinating to watch. We walked on with the elephants to our lunch spot; where we had a lovely veggie buffet. After lunch, our guide said he had a surprise for us. 2 adults and a baby elephant joined us! We got to feed them more bananas and watch them interact and play with the water from the hand tap. We headed the way we came and then went in to the river to bathe the elephants. We were an even smaller group at this point because half our group didn’t want to get wet?! Basically it was just us and another couple and the elephants’ Mahouts bathing about five of them! I was tragically poor with my water bucket aim but the Mahouts were insanely good at it. It just turned in to a massive water fight where everyone was going for human and elephant alike. After a quick change, we then ended our day at the main Elephant Nature Park, meeting many more of the 70 elephants, watching them play in the mud, or eating (again) and hearing all their different heart breaking stories. Overall, it was an incredible day and we are so glad we chose to go to this genuine sanctuary and meet these fantastic creatures.

On our last full day in Chiang Mai we got a Songthaews (red pickup truck) up the mountain to visit the temple Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We technically got 2 different Songthaews as we decided to stop off and do a little hike to the Huay Keaw waterfall. We didn’t have high hopes because we’re in the peak of dry season (but we both secretly were hoping there was a decent trickle for us to swim). Definitely not. After a steep climb, there were just lots of rocks… We came back to the main road and drove up to the top. The road had so many hairpin bends whilst we went at full speed in an open back pickup truck that I very nearly vommitted on the poor boy sat next to me, fortunately I held it in. Wat Doi Suthep had two beautiful snake designs guarding each side of the steps leading up to the temple. We enjoyed looking round the temple and its surrounding area where you could look down over Chiang Mai from the mountain top. We headed back to our homestay but got dropped off at the nearby Saturday Night Market because the road was closed. It was the biggest market I’ve ever been to. It was a tourist’s paradise and even I (who has done SO well at not buying things) succumbed to a little bag I liked.

It’s soon Songkran in Thailand, the annual water festival celebrating the start of the new year. Unfortunately due to timings, we couldn’t stay for it. Chiang Mai is meant to be one of the biggest places to celebrate in all of South East Asia. Perhaps a blessing in disguise with all of our electronics, apparently everywhere you go, you’ll get water thrown on you by unsuspecting passers by. But they still celebrate it in Laos (called Pii Mai), our next stop. So we’ll let you know how that goes!

Thanks for reading,

Sophie & Dave