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Travel Questions & Answers

travel questions and answers
temple in siem reap, cambodia
I’m going to warn you right now: this is a ridiculously long post. But I’ve taken all the travel questions from the comments, email, Facebook and Twitter and put them all here and answered them all… and lo and behold, one mammoth travel Q&A post! So thanks for the questions – and here are the answers I learned from our round-the-world trip!

How did you plan the trip? How much time did it take to pull together?
We planned this much more quickly than you might expect. We decided in the first week of November, and we left five weeks later. We actually wanted to leave in three weeks, but we needed four weeks to complete all our travel immunisations and I had a work obligation in December, so we left a few days after that. And that wasn’t five weeks of non-stop planning. It was more like a weekend of serious planning, a few different sessions of a couple hours to get all the best prices on flights and such (more on that later) and then the time of running around to get injections, backpacking gear and tie up loose ends. We were missing Christmas, so we did all of this around our regular December schedule, which included meeting up for as many Christmas get-togethers as possible, running Journal your Christmas, giving presents… all that stuff.

We actually only planned our trip outline: the flights were the biggest thing, so once we figured out where to go and when we would fly from A to B (and that decision was often made by ticket prices and availability) then we worried about filling in the gaps later.

How did you decide where to go?
The Boy had a few places he really wanted to go. I had a few places that fit with that, and then we went from there. I have to say this trip was led by his choices of destination rather than mine really – none of the countries we visited were in my top five places I really want to go next. But that was okay! Partly because I just like going somewhere new and partly because he has really endured my obsession countries and gone there just because I wanted to go there. We went to Japan on our honeymoon mostly because I am obsessed with Japan… and he happily drove us all around Iceland to follow a band… and last year all our travel was to visit my friends and my family – so I totally owed him his choice of destinations. I pretty much let him make a list and look at flights to see what was possible. He wanted to start in Thailand, because he had been there before and really enjoyed it (he went with his Dad, brother and uncle before I knew him) but he hadn’t been to the other countries in that corner of Asia. From there, we had a mix of countries that were new to just me or new to both of us. He lived in a few different countries when he was growing up – including Singapore – so he travelled a fair bit of Asia when he was young and wanted to go back to a few places. But neither of us had ever been to Australia or New Zealand, and that would be a big shift from the Asian section of the trip… and although he lived in Venezuela, both Chile and Argentina were new countries for both of us. For Asia in particular, our travel route was inspired by some itineraries posted on Travelfish. If you travel to that part of the world, Travelfish is a necessity. It’s a travel site specifically for Southeast Asia on a budget.

How much did you book beforehand vs when you were there?
Before we left, we had booked our flights that outlined the trip and one hotel. We were staying with a friend for our first stop, so we didn’t have to worry about transport or a hotel for those first few days and that was a huge help. The hotel we booked in advance was actually for February. I learned a few years back when I tried to book a hotel room for a work trip and couldn’t figure out why I was having so much trouble, only to realise my travel dates included Valentine’s Day. The one day when people will not uncommonly book a hotel room in their own city. Ever since, I have made it a rule to book rooms for the 14th of February as soon as I know I am travelling so I don’t end up in a panic or paying over the odds. (The Boy’s birthday is also that week, so it worked out well as something to look forward to – a few days in a nice hotel!) Everything else we booked as we went, including trains, buses, accommodation, excursions, meals and two additional flights. That sounds a little crazy but we never found ourselves on the street, lost, hungry or bored.

temple in phnom penh, cambodia
What about the financial side of things?
This is the part that I cannot emphasise enough: going around the world does not cost as much as you assume! Our biggest expense was actually something we were not using: our flat back in London. If you own your own home or you rent and your landlord is more flexible, you could eliminate the lost expense of rent/house payment by charging someone else to live there while you are away. We rent and couldn’t do that, and we did think seriously about packing up all our things, cancelling our lease and finding somewhere new when we came back… but it took us more than four months to find the place we have now and we really like it, so in the end we just swallowed hard on paying for almost four months of not using our home. We did work out one good thing, which was our landlord finally agreed to replace all the broken tiling in our bathroom while we were away, and we came back to that all shiny and refurbished… which was a big change.

Actual travel expenses vary depending on what you want to spend – of course it can be expensive if you want to splash out! But there are definitely ways to make things more affordable. Normally we book all our flights online and look for the best prices ourselves, but with a big itinerary of flights, we called a few travel agents who could see more information more efficiently than we could. We originally looked at the StarAlliance round the world site, because all our existing frequent flyer miles are on a StarAlliance airline. This site gave us a ridiculous price for our planned trip – but it let us know it was possible, so then we called a few travel agents and gave them the rough outline and asked them for quotes. They all came back considerably less than the website had quoted. But one travel agent came back with some suggested changes – like ‘if you leave London two days earlier, you can save £800 each’. Really? Done deal. That agent then looked at each flight like that for us and we took all the options we could to get the best prices, and in the end the price for the fare was less than 25% of the original quote from the website. Seriously. The only annoying thing was it was a Oneworld fare, which means our existing frequent flyer status meant nothing and our miles had to go on a new program with airlines we don’t really use. For the price, this was definitely the better option than collecting miles.

Then there are the expenses that vary from country to country. The pound, the euro and the dollar all go very, very far in SE Asia. I had the most amazing meal of my life at the fanciest restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and it cost me $8 – US dollars. True story. But after that, Australia was a shock to the system. The Aussie dollar is very strong right now after a long while of not being strong. So to the locals, the prices look like they always have. To an outsider, the exchange is crazy – like a standard sandwich and drink out of a chiller that would run you three or four pounds from M&S here is going to be the equivalent of ten pounds and change. And the same goes for hotels – cheap in SE Asia, ridiculously crazy in Australia right now. So we had to budget with that in mind and it was still hard to go a day in Sydney without spending a small fortune. It made me miss the all-you-can-eat-for-eighty-pence dinners in Laos, for sure.

It’s worth noting two things about how we managed to afford this: before The Boy’s job ended (the company he worked for closed its doors), he had been working up to a sabbatical, so we had been planning in some way for him to take a break and not have his regular income… we just thought he would be going back to a job at the end of it! And I never stopped working – I work for myself and carried on working as much as I could while we were on the road. We also met many people who took the same trip but much slower, knowing they would need to find work along the way in order to pay their way to the next stop. That’s a little too adventurous for me, but Australia aside, the entire trip was much more affordable than one might think. It was considerably cheaper than the same length of trip in Europe or North America, and in fact I have spent more on a roundtrip ticket from London to Kansas City than I did for my full round the world fare.

little girl in vietnam
I would love to know which places would be kid-friendly. My family and I are moving to Okinawa this summer. We are hoping to do a lot of traveling around Asia. Thanks!
In the weeks before we left, lots of people said the same thing to us about this trip: ‘Oh, it must be nice to be able to do things like that since you don’t have kids.’ And I have to say, the more I heard that, the more angry it made me. I really don’t believe that kids should prevent travel (though I totally get there are additional hassles and expenses) and The Boy traveled to more countries before he was ten than I have ever been to, and my passport has run out of pages. So he certainly doesn’t think travel is a thing you only do without kids. And all along our trip? We met families doing trips just like ours but with babies, toddlers, little kids, teenagers… and it made me so very happy.

As far as specific locations that stand out, Luang Prabang in Laos is very family friendly. This is where boys from the age of five study to become monks, and I found it so interesting to watch tourist kids watching these boys who are all at once calm and collected but also very much kids. Plus it’s just a very friendly town with lots to do. Hoi An in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia would both be pretty amazing. Most of Thailand is child-friendly, with the only immediate exception being central Bangkok, as it’s very busy and crowded and the air is full of fumes. But the same could be said for certain parts of London and I would definitely say London is child-friendly! The Boy had been to Bali as a child and loved it then. Although we didn’t go to Japan on this trip, I found Japan to be a very child-friendly culture.

Place I would skip with children would probably be Vientiane, Laos (just not so much for them to do or appreciate there), Hanoi, Vietnam (this is the only place where I didn’t feel safe) and probably Phnom Penh, Cambodia (because much of what’s to see here is too depressing really – this is where schools were turned into concentration camps). But all three of those are close to somewhere else that is child-friendly, so that works out well.

The thing we noticed about family travel through Asia, is just that the children that make good travellers are very aware and, of course, well-behaved. We ran into one family in Vietnam travelling with two boys, about eight and ten, and they were very disrespectful to the local culture. Hoi An is all about handmade things (fabrics, clothing, ornaments, boats) and these boys just ran through shops filled with fragile hand-carved things and they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves or stand still. The school teacher in me really wanted to say something but their parents just let them do whatever they wanted and never once warned them about how breakable things could be. The reason these two boys stood out from all the other kids we met was that they had no understanding of the different culture – no idea that people worked twenty hour days for pennies, no idea that school was something special rather than required, no concept of the importance of a memorial or a religious site. I know that sounds like a bunch of grown-up ideas, but the vast majority of the children we met really did understand all that – and I think that’s where they were gaining from the experience. The two boys who didn’t take anything in might as well have been dragged around their local shopping centre instead of a market in another country. But most children we met were exceedingly polite, listened with intent and took everything in. They carried their own bags, read travel guides, took pictures, kept journals and could introduce themselves and have a conversation with fellow travellers, even if they were the only kids around and they had to talk to adults. I guess that means it’s not for everybody and I know some families would find it such a challenge – and I certainly taught children who I think would have trouble falling in ‘respect other cultures’ category at eleven, much less five – but we definitely met families who did this well and I think the kids will have such a rich experience from their journeys. I wish you and your family very much fun in Okinawa and beyond!

bridge over the river kwai
I would love to know exactly what you packed!
You are in luck! You can see that here if you missed it earlier.

Did you take a picture of the backpack you lived out of? I love to travel light and I hope to see how/what you packed.
That post has a picture of both our backpacks. Both our bags were 22 litres. Mine was this bag from Deuter and his is a slightly older model of this bag from Osprey. I would really recommend being fitted for a bag at a shop rather than just buying online though, as it’s important that something like that be comfortable for your frame. I had a lot of trouble finding something narrow enough for my shoulders, but after almost an hour with a fitter in a shop, there was a clear winner. Remembering how awkward some of the first bags were for me, it was truly an hour well spent.

How did you manage with one bag? (I think that is amazing.)
Well, it was easier than it seemed. There just comes a point when you get over not being able to make choices about what to wear and it became easier to not buy souvenirs because there was nowhere to put them. As a scrapbooker, it was hard not to keep every piece of paper that crossed my path, but I did manage to keep some tickets and tokens without any trouble. I think much of it could be explained by looking in my bathroom cabinet. Inside, you’ll find everything for everything occasion, but I only use five or ten percent of it on a daily basis. So only that five to ten percent came with me, and the same applied to my wardrobe and so forth. Knowing that you will do laundry on the road makes a big difference to what I would normally pack – and also getting over the idea of wearing the same outfit twice even for pictures or in front of the same people. On a one week trip, I would want something different for every day. On a fourteen week trip, I was fine with doing laundry every second or third day. It’s all in the perspective!

The two backpacks were impressively small – where did they live during the day or did packs do a lot of sight seeing too?
I tried to avoid carrying my bag all day if I could. If we had already checked into our accommodation for that night, then we only took a few basics out with us during the day. But on days when we were moving from A to B, the bags went sight-seeing right along with us. We do have evidence of this, as my camera body looks as though it has been through a cycle in a tumble dryer (works fine though) and The Boy’s laptop has one corner thicker than the other where a seal was bashed at some point. For the time being, that is working fine too.

market boat on the mekong
How did you handle the “lots of currencies” problem/need for banknotes/small change etc with such a teeny purse?
I mostly only carried two currencies at a time. We carried US dollars at all times because in a jam, most countries will accept dollars as they are easy to change, plus several countries charge your entry visa in US dollars. Other than that, we tried to be very good about not ending up with extra cash when we left a country. So that helped… and it also helped that many countries don’t use coins! Paper money is so much lighter. When we did have change, we would pop all the leftovers into a charity collection at the airport for Unicef or the Red Cross. As a rule, we never get our currency before we travel. Instead, we go to an ATM machine in the airport when we arrive, and trust me – ATMs are pretty much everywhere. Though in some towns they are hidden and you’ll need to ask a local for their location, but you’ll always find several in even the tiniest of airports.

Was there anything you took & found you didn’t need or anything you wish you had taken?
We made one rookie error and had to pick up nail clippers on the road! It had honestly just slipped my mind because on a regular weeklong trip, a nail file would be just fine. There were other times when we bought something that we needed at the time but I wouldn’t have taken it with me for the whole trip. The only thing that we continually wished was perhaps that we had an iPad or a Macbook Air instead of a Macbook Pro, but we had decided from the beginning it wasn’t worth the spend just for the trip so we would take what we had. (The Boy has a 13” Macbook and that’s what we took with us. I have the same laptop but in the 15” size and now it seems huge and heavy!)

I’d also love to know your hairstyle tricks! lol
Awww. The biggest thing I found was that with long hair, it was easier to wear it up, so I piled it on my head in some way or another pretty much every day. Some days just a regular bun, or perhaps two. I have a funny obsession with watching hair style tutorials on youtube, so I often wear my hair like this, this, this or this and all of those worked on the road without fancy hairbrushes, straighteners or hair spray. They are really all quite similar! I also braided my hair a lot – either in a French braid or in all different braids piled up, a bit like this tutorial from Elsie. On the odd occasion where I thought I’d wear it down, I ended up stopping during the day to put it up again – it was just easier to have it up so it wouldn’t get in the way, plus it was one little creative thing to do each day really. Although I’m not so sure that the day I got fed up with my fringe and bought a cheapie pair of scissors and cut my hair using the wing mirror of the van is really in everyone’s safe zone of ‘little creative things’, but it worked out just fine.

longtail boats in ao nang thailand
I’m curious about how you found places to stay – did you do hostels? hotels? Any tips on finding not really really skeezy places!
Oh, all of the above! We stayed with friends, friends of friends, lovely hotels, plain budget hotels, hostels, b&bs, a camper van and a place that was pretty much a commune. Throughout Asia, Agoda was our friend and helped us get good deals on last minute rooms almost every day. Laterooms is good for big cities but not many small towns. For hostels, we booked through Hostelworld. And when we got to Australia, the hotels were so expensive that for the most part, we used Airbnb, which lets anyone list their spare room or their sofa (we didn’t stay on any sofas) – so it’s like a bed & breakfast, but it’s actually someone’s home and you just stay with them for a while. You can see all the reviews right there on the site and pictures of the places, and we had fab luck with those bookings. We used them three times in Australia, once in New Zealand and in Argentina we actually used the same site to book a private apartment for a full week, and all of those places were good experiences at better prices than hotels. As for avoiding somewhere skeezy, Tripadvisor is your friend. Tripadvisor will not steer you wrong! I always read reviews there no matter where I’m travelling, because even a good hotel will have info there that is useful to you – like rooms to avoid because they are near something loud or which floors to request when a hotel is partway through renovation. But if a place is skeezy, you will know from those reviews. No one will hold back if the place was smelly, dirty, dubious or different than the pictures on the website. I know because I don’t hold back when I leave reviews there either! We had one hotel that wasn’t itself unacceptable but their customer service was horrible and they refused to help us with something that was a very basic problem they could easily correct. After they were rude and refused to put it right, I sat down with the laptop right in front of them and wrote the review on TripAdvisor then and there. Emotional review? Indeed. But sheesh, if only they had been nice I would have left them something that said so – and most of the reviews I left on our trip were lovely.
The other thing to check for good hotel deals is your airline website if you are a frequent flyer. Even though we weren’t flying with the same airline as usual, I checked the frequent flyer offers to find us a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, just to see if there was anything good. They had a fab discount on a room at the Shangri-La, which made a standard room in a lovely hotel the same price as any other budget hotel in town. But then the airline gave us an upgrade for being frequent flyers. And when we checked into the hotel, they had upgraded us too. It was seriously amazing and because we had booked and paid in advance, I don’t think anyone there realised how crazy our good deal was… and I’m pretty sure they didn’t expect us to be backpackers who promptly did our laundry in the sink of their fancy corner suite either! (Though let me say this about frequent flyer programs: I live about five thousand air miles from where I grew up. My family all lives there. I have lived here for twelve years now. And it’s only in the past year or so that my miles actually racked up to a point where I’ve enjoyed a few perks. So I guess it was all about the long-term!)

Also – tips for doing laundry in sinks? lol. I have before, and I don’t know what I was doing, but it took waaaay too long to dry! :) Thanks, lovely!
We used Dr Bronner’s concentrated soap, which comes in about every scent imaginable, but it’s an all-purpose soap that is super concentrated, so a sink full of laundry only takes a couple drops. (You can also use it as shampoo but don’t try it on coloured hair! What a mess.) The easy part is the washing everything out – just fill up the sink, add the soap and slosh everything around as needed. Soak things if you’ve been out for some muddy adventure or whatever. Repeat the water and sloshing process as many times as needed until the water is clear, then just rinse everything a bit under plain water from the tap so you get all the soap out of the clothes. Wring and squeeze as much water out of each item as possible. Lay a towel down and take the squeezed clothes and pop them on the towel. Once everything is there, roll up the towel with the clothes all inside, then stand on it. Jump up and down, dance a little – whatever you can do to squeeze all the water out! Then hang everything with as much room in between as possible in a place with good ventilation and it will dry. Some things just take longer to dry than others, so you can get pretty good at feeling a fabric and knowing if it will dry quickly. And if you like to multi-task, some bathrooms make it easier to do the laundry while you’re in the shower rather than the sink.

Did you have a restless, “unsettled” feeling the entire time, being on the move so much? Or did you find a way to make each place a bit of home? I think the stress of that long on the road might do me in!
Neither of us felt unsettled for the entire time. We each had our moments. I had more trouble at the end of the trip – I think once we got to South America we were so tired that I was ready to be done, and because we had started lots of communication along the lines of ‘we’ll be back soon, so let’s arrange…’ so once that started it no longer felt like we had that same freedom. I am sure there is a personality element to it, as we both just like to go places and I know that’s not everyone’s feeling. When I was finishing my degree in Kansas and said I was moving to the UK for grad school, lots of people said it was a ‘brave’ thing and I found that a funny word. For me it was just a different school in a different place – ‘brave’ would have been actually getting into the real world, but I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do in the real world so I was just going to school again. The moving to a new country thing really didn’t phase me, so that has to be a personality thing, right? But really, since we were together it didn’t seem unsafe or foreign or unsettled because there was always that bit of normalcy for us. I don’t think I would want to do a solo round the world trip, though I do quite like solo trips to just one or two locations. And we did meet plenty of solo travellers doing similar journeys, so there you go: another personality difference that shows what is fine for one person is really stressful for another. It’s also easier in this day and age to not feel cut off from home, because there was always internet access (though often hit and miss) and a phone signal, so we could email or call if we wanted to. I sent lots of postcards. I liked that part of not feeling like we were on a different planet!

dolphins in kaikoura, new zealand
Where exactly you went and for how long in each place.
Oh goodness! We started in Thailand then went to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and back into Thailand but headed south this time. Then Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and home (with a few hours at the airport in Brazil, but that doesn’t count). The longest we stayed in one country was three weeks (New Zealand) and the shortest was two days (Singapore – we’ve been there before and it was really a plane stop), with the average around the ten day mark.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?
The language barrier was tough at times, but we got by with just knowing how to say ‘thank you’ in most languages and then miming anything else was fine. My Spanish is rusty but almost passable, which helped in South America. Many restaurants have English menus or you can see what you want and point to it. We bought a phrase dictionary in Vietnam but their language is so subtle that it did us more harm than good! (It’s a tonal language, so one word said with an an inflection going up at the end can mean ‘mother’ and with a falling inflection means ‘soup’. That makes ordering dinner a bit interesting.)
I would say my own biggest challenge was just getting up and going when I didn’t feel well. It was really exhausting to go somewhere every day, but then if I sat and did not much in the hotel, I felt it was a total waste of being in another country. Being able to get a decent night’s sleep made a huge difference to my mood from day to day.

Was there anything that surprised you in a “good” way?
So many things! Laos, as a entire country. It was a total surprise and I loved it so much. But also some personal lessons, like my own strength and ability. Some times you don’t know you can do something until you’re stuck between ‘communicate or go hungry’ or ‘cross the road or be run over by a million motorbikes’. I definitely came back more confident in little things like that but also very humbled by seeing the ways in which people thrive when they have what we would say is ‘very little’. Very little doesn’t mean things like cars, houses and clothes. We definitely met people with very rich lives and strong families who don’t have purpose-built houses, vehicles or more than one change of clothes. Family, community and hope all seem much more important now.

If you could revisit just three of the places you went to (could be a particular town, city, event, landmark etc…) which three would that be and why?
New Zealand was our very favourite country, and we would love to return there for much longer. Especially as the earthquake meant we spent most of our time in just half the country. The other two spots would be a challenge to choose – I adored Luang Prabang so very much. Melbourne was my favourite of all the cities (rather than towns) and Siem Reap was the most awe-inspiring. So I guess I’m cheating by one there!

spaceship camper van in new zealand
What did you get up to in New Zealand?
We started in Wellington, where we met up with Leah and Jason (Leah is a scrapbooker and they have just recently left NZ for their own year of travel), took the cable car up to the planetarium, visited Weta to see how they made the Lord of the Rings films and wandered around Te Papa and were very disappointed that its famous squid was off on holiday! We were touring the parliament building when the earthquake hit Christchurch, where we were headed the next morning. We already had our ferry and train tickets, so the next morning we still headed to the South Island but the trains were not running. We decided we would stay a few days in beautiful Kaikoura while things settled a bit, then popped in for a day with another scrapbooker, Cathy, and headed back north. We just felt we were taking up accommodation that was needed by those who had been displaced during the earthquake and we wanted to help but didn’t have any expertise that was useful, so it just seemed better to get out of the way. That put us in Auckland, where we picked up a spaceship and spent the rest of our time driving around in our bright orange camper van! It was such the highlight of our trip and I didn’t expect to like it because I really hate caravan trips – but with a camper van we mostly stayed at holiday parks with kitchens, clean bathrooms and even wifi. The weather was a bit hit and miss so we could just drive somewhere with a better forecast, which was awesome. We did the usual tourist loop that included Hamilton, Taupo, Rotorua, Waitomo and Hobbiton… then we tried to see the loveliness of Coromandel but the rain never stopped so we headed up to the Bay of Islands, where we stayed for a few days and The Boy went scuba diving on the ship wrecks and quickly proclaimed it to be his favourite place ever, I do believe. New Zealand was also were we did our craziest of adventures, including cave tubing and paragliding. Seriously, it is an amazing place.

children in cambodia
Any random cultural differences from various countries to share?
Cambodia probably has the most cultural differences. It was hard to get used to the idea of children selling things instead of going to school (and there are far more children than adults there, so those that do go to school only go for half a day). But it was one girl in particular who really caught us off guard. We walked into a temple and she was selling bottled water – which we didn’t need. We said no thank you several times but she continued to press and The Boy did something that would be very normal here – he said ‘Maybe later’. Here that is a polite way of saying no or probably not, right? Well, when we left the temple she spotted us and ran right over saying it was later and now we needed to buy our water. He tried to explain that he had said ‘maybe’ and that meant maybe yes, maybe no, but she went from sweet little girl to very angry woman in a flash. ‘In Cambodia, what may be, MAY BE.’ and goodness, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough! (And don’t worry – she’s not in the photo. But can you guess which of these three is currently happy because I bought some postcards?!)

And of course food is always a funny one – it never failed to make me giggle that at breakfast in Thailand, the porridge pretty much always has meat in it!

How you managed to stay on top of blogging etc. when you were away.
Oh goodness, I didn’t really. I struggled to keep going with a post or two a week most of the time. But in the two or three weeks before we left, I scrapbooked non-stop to meet as many of my deadlines as I would hit while I was away, so I continued to have layouts going live while I was away, which was a bit funny. Guest posters helped me have more crafty content while I was away from my supplies. And then whenever I had time to write and an internet connection, I would try to transfer thoughts from my notebook to my blog! Sometimes I stayed on top of it, but mostly I fell behind on that part. The funny part was internet connections were easy to find in some tiny towns in the middle of seemingly nowhere, but try to find free wifi in Sydney, Australia? You’ll be walking all day. In cities where everyone has internet at home and at work, it’s not such a big deal to have it in cafes and such. Though there is free wifi on the ferries in Sydney, so sometimes I blogged on a boat!

You favourite place and where you would like to emigrate to!!
Oh, definitely New Zealand – on that we agree. Not a permanent emigration, but we would quite happily live there for a few years if the opportunity presented itself.

kaikoura, new zealand
Did you do a scrapbooking journal as you went?
I had no craft supplies with me at all, but did carry a small journal and a pen, plus my camera. I took many, many pictures. Around nine thousand. And I wrote lots of notes in my journal. Sometimes just a list of what we did; other times more heartfelt. I know with the laptop I could have scrapped digitally, but I journal much better with a pen in my hand, and really we were hard pressed for hard-drive space as it was!

How will you record the trip?
I’m creating scrapbook pages just as I fancy them – no particular order, no overall game plan. Just flipping through photos, remembering stories and creating pages as I feel inspired. I have no deadline on this and no worry about it fitting into one album. I’ve done about twenty single page layouts so far, and those really only cover a couple different locations.

Then I’m also working on a big, hardbound photobook for our coffee table with a few hundred of the very best photos from the nine thousand. I’m hoping to have it finished in the next month or so.

paragliding in new zealand
I’m going to California in the summer (woo hoo!!) which I’m just a tad excited about, but it’ll be my first ever long haul flight – four hours has been my max so far! Any tips for surviving a long flight and adjusting quickly to a vastly different time zone?
Biggest tip: stay hydrated. You need far more water than they give you on a plane, and sometimes it seems like they give you water quite frequently! Take a bottle, refill it on the plane (most long-haul planes have fountains but if it doesn’t, a flight attendant can refill it for you) and the more hydrated you can stay, the less jet-lagged you will be when you arrive.
Then get yourself into a schedule as fast as possible. I always try to make concrete plans for the next morning after I arrive, so I can’t be tempted to just stay in bed on my old time zone. My favourite thing about flying from Europe to North America is that I suddenly end up a morning person, which never happens at home. I have more trouble coming back, and it can sometimes take a couple days to hit me and then suddenly I feel like jelly. I know many people who swear by sleeping pills on planes, but they cause me more trouble than they are worth – I think they need to be something that would work for you on the ground without side effects to consider taking them on a flight.
Enjoy California and have a fabulous time!

What’s the best way to handle the “knackered at 3pm must have cup of tea” feeling whilst traipsing through cathedrals/temples/etc?
Give in or power through. We did a lot of afternoon stops for a drink. It just wasn’t always a cup of tea. We tried whatever local fare was on offer, which meant something that sounds a bit disgusting (like a watermelon milkshake or sweet beans on ice with condensed milk) actually turns out to be so amazing you seek it out later. Sometimes it’s not amazing and that’s okay too. We are not above afternoon naps, early nights, reading in parks or just looking at each other and knowing that we’ve had enough. Some of the most amazing things are the very quiet activities too – paragliding was cool, but I wouldn’t trade it for watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat. And I kinda have a reputation for falling asleep whenever I stop. Every time we went on a day trip that involved going somewhere in a van, they would have to wake me up when we were back to the hotel. On our honeymoon we sat down to read in a park in Tokyo, only to wake up a few hours later and find we had been joined by most of the neighbourhood’s homeless population. So yep: definitely feel that feeling and I’ll give in if it’s practical and if not, power through then have an early night! Is that the most unglam answer or what?

What would your #1 tip be for anyone thinking of doing something similar?
Treat every day as something unique. Don’t overplan from the beginning – because you’ll inevitably see something you haven’t planned and want to do that but then you can’t because you already have a booking with something else. Or the weather will be rubbish and you’ll wish you could wait it out or move ahead. Or you will misjudge the spots you love (and want to stay longer) or the spots you’ll hate (and you will want to get out). Flexibility was what made this all work for us – but I know some others who would really hate the idea of not having rooms booked or a set itinerary. But I wouldn’t trade that for seeing something and just saying ‘how about that?’ and heading there straight away. We literally spent Christmas Eve walking down a street wondering what to do for Christmas and an hour later we had decided on elephant trekking, a walk through caves and a waterfall hike, and someone would pick us up from our hotel on Christmas morning!

cycling in vietnam
Any regrets? Things you wish you had done or places you feel you perhaps wouldn’t have gone in hindsight?
We just wish we had spent more time. Fourteen weeks was too quick for all those places, and it meant sometimes we had to skip something or be exhausted. We met many people doing the same list of countries over five, six or twelve months. They seemed a bit more put-together than we did! But fourteen weeks was what we had on our schedule so we worked with that and don’t regret it. We wish we would have visited Sapa perhaps instead of Hanoi, but that’s a minor quibble. Neither of us can pinpoint anything we would change other than perhaps the fanciful idea of just leaving on a journey without so much as an end date in mind… maybe one day.

And so far, that’s everything! If you have another question, by all means ask and I’ll answer you by email or here on the blog. Thanks to all those who asked – it really made me think about a few things in particular and I am very glad I did. And if you managed to read all this, well frankly you deserve some frequent flyer miles yourself!


Outlook - scrapbooking travel photos

travel scrapbook page - outlook
scrapbook page
Sometimes it’s all about the outlook. Over the weekend, I was enjoying scrapping quickly, getting lots done and flitting to and from my desk as I mixed crafting in with all the other things that normally happen on a Saturday and Sunday in our little corner of the world. Choosing supplies helps me work quickly but it doesn’t always help me create my favourite pages. I always find if my outlook is to aim for speed, then I take the same shortcuts. It doesn’t mean the pages are bad… it just means I can look and know if I was working quickly or taking my time.

photo from scrapbook page
Then I came to this photo in the stack. Perhaps it’s a picture that could be overlooked – there’s nothing particularly vital in focus. It might be hard to recognise without knowing where I snapped that image. In a way, it’s nothing more than some neglected grass at the side of the road.

Except I remember taking that exact picture for a reason. For that tall grass grown to dried grain was something I very much remembered from growing up in the countryside. Of course that’s not what I called it then. I called it The Sticks. It’s only grown-up citygirl me who uses words like countryside. But for as many times as I have seen grain at the side of the road, it was not usually against a backdrop of sea and mountains. So that was what made me take the picture: capturing something familiar and something foreign, all in that little moment of scenery at the side of the road.

scrapbook page
So yesterday I scrapped that photo. Same supplies still out on my desk but no need to rush. A change of outlook while I stayed put at my desk and didn’t mind if I pondered for ten minutes over which flower or which punch. Making this page made me quite happy indeed. And that’s always a good outlook anyway.

Two little notes: Today is sketch day and it shall be online later today (and it’s not a single photo layout). And all the weekend challenges are still open until this Sunday, so do check them out if you have crafting time this week.
Getting started (just comment to enter)
Challenge one (patterned paper as a background)
Challenge two (create a triangle of embellishments)
Challenge three (add a border between two photos)
Challenge four (scrapbook a photo that needs an explanation)
Challenge five (try a photo edit – with or without the tutorial included)
and my challenge for Two Peas (to create an embellishment with bits and pieces) is open until Sunday too. All the challenges have prizes, so enter as many as you like.


How to travel light

how to travel light
how to travel light
When we were headed out of Laos and catching a plane to Hanoi, The Boy had this great idea to go via this old rickety bridge that a few people had mentioned and then catch a tuk-tuk to the airport from the other side. This was a lovely idea and I was actually quite excited about the bridge, because I love heights. Weird, I know. And the bridge truly was an adventure, as the footpath is in pretty bad condition and we crossed as school was getting out and dozens of children came running from the other side, despite it being very much a single-file bridge. But adventure accomplished and on we went.

Except there are not really any tourists on the other side of the bridge. So there are not really any tuk-tuks on the other side of the bridge. So we had to walk to the airport. It was only a few miles. And it was only something ridiculously hot. And at some point along the trek I may have said it was perhaps not his best decision that we should walk all this way, and as a compromise, he ended up carrying my stuff. So in this photo, you see everything both of us took for our fourteen week journey, with the only exception of the clothes I am wearing and the camera I used to take the picture. Right there in those two bags – that’s everything, right down to the book I was reading at the time.

how to travel light
Here is my share, and why it seemed so ridiculously hot. It was very cold that morning so I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and a cardigan. By lunchtime it was baking but we’d already checked out of our accommodation, so I was kinda stuck in all those bulky layers. But there we go.

I promised I would share how I lived out of that one little bag for all that time, so here is the play-by-play on what I packed!

how to travel light
The Overview
This is my bag and all the major stuff that lived inside for the entire trip. At the top is my camera, with the Black Rapid camera strap, which I really recommend. It’s a shoulder strap rather than a neck strap, so it takes the weight off your neck and it keeps your camera at your hip so you can grab and shoot really easily. I also took a GorillaPod as a smaller and lighter alternative to my full-sized tripod.

Carry on to the right and there’s a pink microfibre towel – useful for budget accommodation that doesn’t include towels as well as water activities. Below that, the black thing that is hard to make out is a black pashmina – like a big scarf. Bought for £2 from a London street vendor right before we left. I was worried this would be a waste of space because it’s a bit bulky, but I am so glad to have taken it. It served as a belt, a blanket and an air filter as well as being useful when we hit the odd day of unexpectedly cold weather. And I loaned it to a few girls who arrived at various temples with their shoulders bare – tank tops and temples do not mix. Also at the top right corner, I had a book on the go for all of the trip. I started with one book and when I finished it, I would just find a used book store that did trades or I would trade it with another traveler. Worked perfectly, aside from when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and really started to wish I was carrying a book that was smaller and thereby easier to pack!

Continuing clockwise, we each packed a silk sleeping bag liner even though we weren’t carrying sleeping bags. The liner was perfect for places that were cold or had too many mosquitos. And it weighs almost nothing. The pink thing is my rain jacket. For several weeks of our trip we had beautiful sunny weather and I started to think packing a rain jacket was a waste of space and money, but then we arrived in Bali where it did nothing but absolutely pour with rain the entire time we were there. Rain jacket – with a fitted hood – is a requirement, definitely.

Basic first-aid stuff included pain killers, stomach settlers, some bandages and some mild antibiotics, which we also took as anti-malarials for the part of our tour that went through mosquito trouble. We used everything we took but didn’t really need anything more, so that was just right.

The black rectangle is a small external hard-drive. We bought this along the way and used it to back up our photos as a just-in-case measure.

A red hairclip and a blue make-up bag – contents revealed later in this post! And my clear bag of liquids. Since we weren’t going to check any bags on any planes, we couldn’t take anything sharp nor any liquids over 100ml. I bought a bag and 100ml bottles from Muji, and that held shampoo, conditioner, perfume, toothpaste, lotion and sunblock.

Which brings us to that funny looking bag in the middle, which held all my clothes. While The Boy went with the option of three special shirts that would work for everything, be easy to wash and dry and wouldn’t wear out, I knew I would get sick of whatever I was repeatedly wearing and want to change it for something else, so I did that a few times, but the total contents of my clothing bag remained pretty consistent: two short-sleeved tops, one long-sleeved top, one cardigan, one pair of hiking trousers, two pairs of leggings and two skirts/dresses, basically. All that plus my pajamas and stuff would fit into this bag and then get seriously, seriously smooshed by pulling all the straps tight on the compression sack. Basically, without the compression sack, my clothes would have filled the entire backpack. But with the compression, they just took up the room you see here. I had never heard of these bags before but am now a total convert.

What’s not shown: whatever pair of shoes I wasn’t wearing – either sandals or Converse All-Stars. And hilariously, one of these because I cope well with neither disgusting public loos nor fifteen mile hikes in the middle of nowhere.

how to travel light
The Little Blue Bag of Looking Beautiful
Some girls can just stop wearing make-up when they travel, but I am not such a person. When I am in some place where I’m not settled, I can be really harsh on myself. I just feel I am in more control if I can pretend I have a lovely complexion even when I’m on the road. Plus, more layers of spf on my face are totally welcome. But I couldn’t take very much, so I narrowed it down to the contents of the little blue bag:
Eyeliner – the one thing I stopped wearing pretty quickly, as it was so hot it would run.
Foundation – I am still in a funk because my favourite foundation was discontinued and I haven’t found one I like yet. I’m not singing the praises of this mousse stuff but that is what I wore, so there we go.
Eyeshadow – one little pot in the most neutral colour imaginable.
Lip balm – my favourite lip balm is actually called My Favorite Lip Balm. Hilarious.
Lip gloss.
Plus an emery board, a teeny box for keeping bobby pins and hair bands from going astray and the most high-tech of all brush/comb hair implements in the world. Yes, I got that free on an airplane. Yes, it is the only thing I used to style my (nearly waist-length) hair for the entire trip. Yes, I am very proud of that but no, I do not care to see that brush again for the rest of my life really!

What’s not shown: nothing really for this one. I did pick up one big hair clip at a market, and it’s in the first photo.

how to travel light
The ‘It would be nice to SEE you’ collection
Let’s just say I do not have 20/20 eyesight. I’m also a little paranoid at being without my glasses. So this is my little bit of extra gear to take that into account. At the far right is my spare pair of glasses. I actually carry these with me all the time, pretty much. Not just when I’m on the road. It’s just an older pair of glasses and they fall off less than my everyday pair, so they are good for more active days. But really I just carry them in case my regular glasses break. Even though in twenty years of wearing glasses, I’ve never had a pair break. I think it might just be a paranoia I developed from too much Harry Potter exposure.

I also have a pair of prescription sunglasses. I very rarely need them here in England and I actually bought them a few years ago for skiing, because the glare on the snow is harsh, and that’s why they are pink. But they still work for sun – just not as well as a pair of dark lenses – and I wear sunnies so infrequently that I just couldn’t budget a different pair. These were fine in the end. And also some contact lenses. Contacts and I don’t really get along, but they are more sensible for things that involve the sea or running or whatever. I use the daily lenses so I don’t have to worry about jars and solutions and stuff. I took a whole box of lenses but only used one strip of each (oh – my eyes can’t even agree on being equally blind, so I have different lenses for right and left).

What’s not shown: the other set of glasses were on my face. I didn’t have to pack them. If they weren’t on my face, I wouldn’t be able to find them to pack them anyway.

how to travel light
The paperwork pile
Of course a passport is required for a trip like this. I actually have to travel with two passports – my current passport and an older passport which has my visa that explains that I’m a UK resident and I’m allowed to stay here as long as I like. (I’ve been in the UK for twelve years as of this week, but I keep leaving the country too many days in a year to apply for my UK passport.) So there are two passports in my passport case – and mine have stayed in quite good condition with a case. The Boy doesn’t carry a case and his passport looks like it’s been through the wringer!

The yellow booklet is a vaccination record. Partly for our own medical info so we would be able to show a doctor outside our own medical system in case of an emergency, and partly to show at immigration in some countries. We’ve now been through areas that have yellow fever, and some countries won’t let you in if you’ve been exposed but not vaccinated. But we had those jabs before we left, so we can just show the yellow book if needed. (By the way, vaccinations are probably the only thing that made us not be able to leave immediately – it’s a three to four week process to get the basics, so make sure you plan those ahead of time.)

And I packed a small moleskine notebook and an American Crafts precision pen (of course). I added all the contact details for everyone along our journey and a list of addresses for sending postcards so we wouldn’t have any extra bits of paper but we would also have a hard copy with some emergency numbers in case our phones or computer were stolen or something. Then I still had plenty of space to take notes along the journey and collect a few stamps, stickers and ticket stubs.

What’s not shown: my driver’s license and debit card, which were on me at all times via zip pockets in my clothes.

…And that is it. Since there were two of us, we split some things, like I carried the camera and the hard drive, but he carried a laptop and my other lens. He carried a Kindle with all our travel guides so we wouldn’t need paper copies. But otherwise, it was pretty much the same!

We did manage to pass the dress code at a few nice restaurants (I think I got away with more casual shoes because I could wear a dress) and we didn’t have any trouble with theft. We had to refuel a few consumables, namely shampoo, toothpaste and sunblock, but those things were easy to purchase everywhere. I may have even bought hair dye once or twice.

I had never packed lightly in my whole life so I didn’t really think this would work, but it did… and I was very grateful for that every time I saw someone trying to get somewhere with multiple wheeled suitcases in the middle of the jungle, the desert or the beach. I had days when I struggled with missing nail varnish and hair dryers, but really that was pretty minimal. It was much easier to just enjoy the moment without having to worry about having so much stuff to carry, plus it was always fast to pack and we couldn’t accidentally leave something in the hotel room, because we would notice any gap in our bags!

And just last week, the dress I posted home from Singapore in January? It arrived here in London when I had totally given up hope! When I sent it home I was positively sick of wearing it every second day, but now I’m thinking it looks quite cute again. Amazing what a little time apart can do.

For the record: there is no way I could pack this lightly for anything crafty. I carried this one bag for more than three months. Last weekend I took this, a suitcase and two shoulder bags on the train to go away for three days. One bag with these essentials and everything else? Craft supplies. Well, craft supplies and cake.



Notes from home

notes from home
travel notes :: homecoming
And just like that, we are home.

For the past fourteen weeks, I’ve lived out of a small backpack. The Boy and I have visited eleven countries on three continents. We stayed in hotels, hostels, short-term apartments, the spare rooms of friends and one bright orange camper van. Traveled by plane, train, bus, bicycle, boat, foot, rental car, elephant, taxi, tuk-tuk, back of a pick-up truck and one bright orange camper van. Completed so much visa paperwork that I have no empty pages in a passport that doesn’t expire until 2018. Coped with six languages we don’t speak at all and one I haven’t spoken for fifteen years. Earned qualifications in scuba diving and making coffee. Snapped around nine thousand photos. And still found we were smiling at the end.

And yet, now I write this sat on my very own chair in our very own flat in our very own neighbourhood in Londontown. Our Christmas decorations are still on the floor in the corner of the living room. There’s a stack of post that will take all week to read. So many ‘let’s catch up’ dates we want to make with friends. So many big announcements have been made while we were a bit off the grid. I keep feeling like this is the new year and then realising everyone else feels it’s a quarter over already.

scrapbook page
Right now, there’s a funny honeymoon feeling about our homecoming. Things I have missed seem shiny and new now. Laundry that involves neither a sink nor coins. Reliable hot water. Fluffy towels. My hair dryer and a hair brush that was not a courtesy gift on an airplane. When I open my wardrobe, it’s like all my clothes are brand new again and there’s so much choice! But at the same time, I can’t remember where anything is, even though I know there was some sort of system to what was grouped in each drawer and basket. Scrapbooking supplies are the same: almost like I’ve forgotten what I’ve collected, which is strange since I am used to using that stuff every day and knowing exactly where everything is even when it looks as though that’s completely impossible.

scrapbook page
I’ve been writing notes throughout our entire journey. I fell terribly behind at transferring them from notebook to blog when we hit the lands of less internet (which weren’t necessarily the places on the map you might expect!) and so my plan is carry on writing those posts, a bit at a time. I can even post some of them with coordinating scrapbook pages!

scrapbook page
Which brings us to the big question crafty girls ask about something like this: how are you going to scrapbook those nine thousand photos? And it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. I think I have a plan, and yet it seems so simple that perhaps something else will come about, but these are my intentions. At the moment, I’m in the process of editing out the rubbish photos and deleting things that are extraneous (in tricky lighting, I tend to take three or four exposures of the same thing, for example, and now that I can view them on my monitor, I don’t really need all the duplicates) and uploading them to Photobox. I’ll be ordering a huge amount of 4×6 prints. Not nine thousand, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I order close to two thousand, all told. Which sounds insane. But here’s how I scrapbook 90% of the time: I go to the drawers where I keep tons of 4×6 prints, choose something and start scrapbooking. I don’t scrap chronologically. I don’t feel a themed album has to be completed all in one session. I just go with whatever catches my eye on a given day and that means I’m still adding pages to the album from our trip in the summer of 2006 and our honeymoon album has about a zillion layouts in my head but only a dozen or so actually on paper. Plus I love divided page protectors for adding in more photos without creating more full pages. So I’m excited to get started scrapping those prints but I’m also happy to have lots of other pictures in the photo drawer so I can carry on that process of working with whatever seems right on a given day. That is what keeps scrapping from ever feeling like ‘work’ even when it is my actual job! And I planned from the beginning to use the journal entries and blog posts about each of the different spots as journaling for those pages. I may type it all out on the old typewriter, especially if I can find a ribbon that will give it a bit more ink.

scrapbook page
But I also realise that my scrapbooks are a ‘me’ thing. I love scrapbooking. If you read this, you probably understand scrapbooking. Not everyone does – not even all our family and friends. So I also want to make something more accessible, that takes little to no explanation, and that will come in the form of a chunky photobook. I’ve done photobooks of various events over the years, but they are mostly small in format. Ever since Liz of Paislee Press posted about this book she created with pictures of her daughter, I have kept the idea of a proper coffee table photobook in mind. I’m going to go through and select the very best images and create a book with lots of full page photos and very little text. And in chronological order. So I can look at it on the table and think ‘oh yeah, remember that year when we decided to just drop everything and travel around the world? that’s in that book.’ So I’ll keep you posted on that too. Interestingly, I was convinced in my head that such a big book would be far more than it is, but you can print 200 pages of pretty in hardcover for under £50, which although certainly not crazycheap is about a quarter of what I had imagined.

street signs
But other than those rambled plans, I’m in a little bit of a haze as to where to go from here. Is it worth doing a travel Q&A post? I don’t know if anyone is really interested in how to live from a ridiculously small backpack or how to find out if your spider bite is going to kill you or eleven ways to wear your hair with no more than nine bobby pins. Or if the more curious part is the planning or the budgeting or figuring out what to eat. So if you have questions, please ask away. I can even persuade The Boy to write some answers if you want to hear his perspective. He is far more well-travelled than I, having grown up in three different countries just for starters. And while I am quite excited to come back to different choices of ‘stuff’, he was actually quite happy to continue living from his selection of three shirts indefinitely. He is also more adventurous, so he did some things that I didn’t do, like deep sea diving and eating spiders for dinner. (Well, I ate femur of spider. That’s all I could manage. He ate entire spider for starters and then followed it up with a main course of tree ants. Call it adventure or call it crazy; I won’t argue.) So yes, go ahead and ask what you like in the comments and we’ll put together some answers!

And now that I’m back to my own computer and my paper and scissors, I’m excited for some lovely things here on the blog. The weekly sketch will continue, giveaways every weekend but then some other non-scheduled things too. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that means I am very fond of home and pretty paper right now. Very fond indeed.


Travel Notes from Hanoi, Vietnam

hanoi vietnam travel notes
hanoi, vietnam
After five quite blissful days in lovely Luang Prabang, the most laid-back place I have ever ventured in my life, it was time to move on. How exactly does one move on from the calm of monks, the beauty of waterfalls, the peace of elephants and an overwhelming quiet? Basically with one big slap in the face.

hanoi, vietnam
hanoi, vietnam
We left one extreme behind in Laos and came through immigration to the other end of the spectrum in Hanoi, Vietnam. For all the quiet zen of Luang Prabang, Hanoi is the loudest place I have ever been, hands down. It’s a crowded city with everything seeming to lean on whatever is next door. It’s a city where hard sales are the only sales. A city that gives an entirely new definition to the term ‘street smart’.

hanoi, vietnam
We had only been in the country minutes when we happened upon our first attempted con: a taxi driver who cornered us at the currency window to give us a ‘good price – cheap price’ to our hotel. This is forty-five kilometres away, he told us and quoted us a price. It will take an hour, at least. Except we knew it wasn’t and it wouldn’t and we finally managed to walk further away than he was willing to follow. The metered taxi outside took half the time and cost less than half the original quote. Oh, hurrah.

hanoi, vietnam
We found ourselves at our hotel in the old quarter, a place with teeny-tiny streets and towering buildings that seem to hang a bit over the road in some death-defying stunt of architecture. And once we checked in, we found ourselves shouting to each other. Because even nine floors up, with the windows closed, the noise from the street level was so loud we couldn’t hear a darned thing we said. Things got even better around 3am, when full-fledged building work started up across the road, complete with bulldozers, sledgehammers and assorted things I can only describe as a full tabernacle chorus of banging pots and pans together. Trust me, there are no ear plugs in the world that would have equipped me for the shock of going from peace to chaos in just one day.

hanoi, vietnam
hanoi, vietnam
The next day we explored Hanoi on foot. We walked through the citadel (if only for my love of official world heritage sites), wandered through a history museum that documented the early history of Vietnam and its links to China, admired the lovely opera house. We talked to a group of university students preparing a debate about a local problem with people setting their pet turtles free in the city’s lake — they would be debating in English and wanted to chat to native speakers for some rehearsal. That was lovely fun. But so often, we would turn to walk down a street and each one just seemed to assault us a little more – more traffic, more noise, more things crammed into a tiny space. Eventually all I was craving was somewhere that wouldn’t make my heart race with the stress of it all.

hanoi, vietnam
I am terrible at finding things (or remembering where they are) and The Boy has a knack for this. As he likes to say, I know where your stuff’s at. And yes, he says it that way just to annoy my inner English teacher for ending a phrase with a wholly unnecessary preposition, because that is the sort of thing he finds hilarious. But presto: he found us a somewhat abandoned park on the edge of a lake with no cars, no shops and very few people. Indeed, he knew where this stuff was at.

hanoi, vietnam
hanoi, vietnam
I’m still not quite sure if this is a working fun fair or an old fun fair that has just been left to rust. It looks abandoned to me, but we did have to pay an entry fee (albeit not much) so I’m not too sure. Earlier that day we had been talking about how traditional illustrations of animals like lions and tigers in very old Asian pictures don’t look anything like the actual animals, and how this is because the artists had never seen a lion or a tiger, but instead had taken a description from someone who had taken a description from someone who had taken a description from someone who claimed they had seen a lion or a tiger, and thus sometimes lions look a bit like dragons or poodles or goat-people as a result. I think the ferris wheel cars are what happens when someone who has never seen Mickey Mouse or 101 Dalmatians paints Mickey Mouse or 101 Dalmatians, based a description from someone who had taken a description from someone who had taken a description from someone who claimed they had seen Mickey Mouse or 101 Dalmatians. In that case, it’s pretty darn good. (In any other case, I’m not sure why Mickey has multiple sets of ears, so there we go.)

hanoi, vietnam
Everywhere we walked that day, we saw brides having their photos taken. At first I thought it was a fashion shoot for a magazine or something. Then I thought maybe it was like Japan, where having your photo taken in a Western-style white wedding dress is a bit of a trendy form of playing dress-up, and often has nothing to do with an actual wedding. But later it all became clear: here, the wedding portraits are taken before the wedding. The bride and groom in Western dress and tux, photographed a week or two before the big day and the photographs all go on display at the actual wedding, where they may wear traditional dress, modern dress or a combination. We were in Hanoi in the few days right before the new year and January is the luckiest month to getting married in the Vietnamese calendar, so seeing brides everywhere turned out to have more to do with the date than anything else. It was exciting to spot them though – I wish we saw more of this back home, just because it is hard to not be happy when you pass a couple getting ready to get married. Or perhaps that is just because I am a romantic sap, which is okay too.

hanoi, vietnam
There came a time when we had to depart the quiet precinct of the park (because while I can’t be sure if the ferris wheel had been abandoned, I am sure the ladies’ room was abandoned a very long time ago) and so we were back to the traffic. Only we were back to the traffic at about half-past five in the afternoon. We were suddenly pedestrians in rush hour, in a place where the traffic will take any available surface to move forward, even if it’s on the pedestrian path and even if it’s a lane heading the other direction. It is sheer insanity that goes against all your survival instincts. Instead of the green cross code, the rule for crossing the road on foot is look straight ahead (not at the traffic) and move at an even pace. Traffic will move around you, provided you don’t freak the heck out and start to run through an open gap or turn around and go back. But every single bit of my insides really, really wanted to freak out. Every single time. Getting to the other side of the road was always a victory! But indeed the traffic always went around us, and the worst problem we had was discovering that a word we had heard from several motorbike drivers was perhaps a bit colourful in nature. Pedestrians are really not their favourite thing, it would seem.

hanoi, vietnam
hanoi, vietnam
I don’t want to be unfair, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t love Hanoi. I found the air hard to breathe from all that traffic and I felt lucky to have all ten toes still intact when we crossed the street for the last time to board our train. We’ve seen quite a few sad things that have made me gasp along this journey, but crossing paths with a dog-catcher was the worst of them all and I completely lost it right there in the street, with all the locals wondering what the heck was wrong with me. I was worried that much of Vietnam would be just like this and I would spend the next two weeks in a permanent state of migraine-inducing panic, and I wondered how on earth the locals coped with this as a permanent state of affairs. But I promise: it got much, much better as we continued. Just consider yourself warned: Hanoi is really not the sort of place you want to wake up if you’ve become acclimated to an entire town that has the general ambiance of a day spa. Unless, you know, you just love a full assault on the senses. Then it’s totally the place for you.


Travel Notes from Luang Prabang, Laos

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
travel notes from luang prabang, laos
I remember being of an age when politics seemed really simple to grasp, because everything was in pure concept form. Textbooks have an amazing way of summing up entire political systems in just ten words or so that we would copy from the glossary as part of our homework. Democracy: a government decided by the vote of the people. Socialism: a government that provided systems of education, medicine and welfare for its people. Capitalism: a market in which things are freely bought and sold at various costs. Communism: a system in which all people are paid equally. And so on, right? It all sounded so pure and simple.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
Please keep in mind, I am indeed talking about a time when I was about twelve. It wasn’t exactly sophisticated academic discussion of world politics: it was a mimeographed worksheet from sixth grade social studies class. But I grew up in middle America and started school when Ronald Reagan was in office. In England, I get lots of questions about what it’s like to start the day by pledging allegiance to the flag. England doesn’t have this same form of patriotism (and in fact, there is much controversy surrounding the various flags of Britain these days, something that is as difficult to explain to outsiders as it is to explain to Brits that pledging allegiance was just part of the day) and a school that displays the flag or a picture of the queen (or the prime minister?!) in every room is the realm of the highly elite, if it exists at all. In the past decade, patriotism has taken on a new awareness in the states, but when I was very young, patriotism meant reassurance. I specifically remember full school assemblies – well before age twelve – that talked about world politics and used phrases like ‘America has its finger on the button’ and there was very much a Space Invaders feel to how this would all work. I would sit and listen to these sorts of discussions and think that if there were to be a World War III in my youth, the presidents of assorted nations would get out their Atari 2600s and use awkward joysticks to decide the fate of the world, just like my friends and I would decide who got the best piece of candy from the dish by the high score on Pac-Man.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
Yes, perhaps I watched War Games one too many times. But such was my outlook on the world from the perspective of one little girl who was eager but naive. And so I copied out definitions from the glossary of the textbook and turned in my homework on time most days. Nothing worth noting in the memoirs of life.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
There is something the authors of such textbooks really never bargained for, and that is the well-meaning side of youth. It doesn’t take a political genius to infer that the textbooks I was reading at the end of the cold war would be a bit biased against oh, say, the Soviet Union. Or communism in general. Right? And yet there was this magical idea written right there in the textbook: everyone would be treated the same. Oh, if you take the political context away and look just at that phrase, isn’t it an amazing idea? Wouldn’t twelve-year-old you want to live there? Wouldn’t you look at whatever differences you saw in society at that age and think Yes: this is the way we can make the world better and no one will be homeless and no one will be hungry and no one will be greedy because everyone will have exactly what they need and we will all be equal and we will all just get along?

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
So before I had learned much else about the rest of the concept, before I had learned about dictatorship, before I had read Animal Farm and very much all the rest, there was this part of me that just didn’t understand why everyone wasn’t falling in love with the idea of communism. Does that sound ridiculous or what? There I am, pledging allegiance every morning and being as American as apple pie at the state fair whilst secretly thinking if this were a communist nation, everyone would find exactly what they wanted under the Christmas tree.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
Of course, the Soviet Union fell long before I even had a passport. The closest I have been to China is Hong Kong, which thrives on the free market to an extreme. And so, visiting Laos became my first up-close-and-personal experience with communism. And that inner twelve year old, though long ago re-educated with a broader picture of how communism in practice wasn’t so much peace and gumdrops and gold-medal olympic tap-dancing as that original idea, she was a little bit curious to see how all this would play out.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
Laos didn’t hesitate to provide reminders, and nearly everywhere we saw a Laos flag, there would be a red flag with a hammer to beg the question: where is all this equality? One place we visited in Luang Prabang was the former royal palace, which is now a museum. You have to check all your bags, cameras and shoes at the door, so we walked around barefoot on polished floors with a temporary lightness and took the time to read all the caption cards to the exhibits. Much of what is highlighted is about three generations of kings who led the country though some of its most stable times. And from room to room, there is a mix of things made in Laos over the years, but there are also so many gifts from the rest of the world. In one room, a stereo console was a gift from the Americans. In the next room, a case of history books from China. A television from East Germany. And then the space race: a piece of something Sputnik, a Laos flag that orbited the planet with a Mercury astronaut, a badge from a cosmonaut’s jacket, a tiny piece of moon rock brought back from Apollo 11. All over from room to room, evidence of political courting from two very different parts of the world. Like Laos was the girl they both wanted to take to the prom and they were leaving presents by her locker every morning.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
And yet, looking around the two towns we visited and the few villages we walked through on days out, there was no evidence of everyone is the same, everyone is equal. In tourist hotspots, successful innkeepers, tour guides and restaurant owners thrive. On other streets, not so much. There is an amazing market of handmade things in Luang Prabang every night, and these sellers come every day of the week to set up, hope for sales, and go home in the wee hours of the morning. I bought one tiny souvenir at the market – a little cross-stitched heart with a pin on the back. It was about thirteen pence (and I am sure there are some who would try to bargain down that price, but you have got to be kidding me) and when I said yes and handed over my money, well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a celebration of thanks. There were thank yous in several languages, there was holding of my hands and bowing of the head and some more thank yous, then as I stepped away, she took the money and touched it to every other handmade item on her stall, hoping more good luck would come from this sale. Do you know how much I wished I could figure out a way to set this lady up with an Etsy store? The size of the market compared to the number of shoppers is enough to tell you at a glance that there will always be nights when some vendors make no sales at all.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
And there we go: I’m back to total confusion as to how this system can be called communism if so much of the population’s survival is based on selling and buying? I ask about that sixth grade social studies explanation that in a communist society, brain surgeons and janitors make the same wage, and all I get back is nervous laughter. No. Of course they don’t. Sorry, I just had to know.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
It turns out I am quite late to see full-fledged communism in action here. After all that courting, Laos never really had a date to the prom at all, and her loveliness was eclipsed by the next girl who caught the boys’ attention. It’s still a country that considers itself communist. It’s a place where the people would never say anything negative about their own land. But it’s a place where if they can make a sale and bring something home to their family, they will. Which isn’t any different to anywhere I’ve been so far in my life. All the complicated politics aside, some things really are so simple.

travel notes from luang prabang, laos
And one other thing made Luang Prabang positively hilarious for us. The guidebook we had downloaded at this point in our trip was perhaps a few years old. It was perhaps much, much cheaper from Amazon and as we were mostly interested in maps and things that wouldn’t have changed much, we figured that was fine. That book described Luang Prabang in a way that it was essentially an old, forgotten village that wasn’t Westernised in the slightest. At one point, we were actually nervous that we had booked too many nights in this town, as surely there wouldn’t be enough to actually fill five whole days as there would be no other tourists we could talk to and possibly nowhere to grab a coffee or check our email. This old, forgotten village that wasn’t Westernised in the slightest.

We walked into that ‘village’ and were welcomed by street vendors selling Oreo milkshakes to queues of tourists who had just come from a variety of coffee shops, all with free wifi.

It turns out, sometime between the writing of our guidebook and our visit, the New York Times named Luang Prabang the number one location in the entire world to get away from it all. And as such, you can now get away from it all, accompanied by a thousand others doing exactly the same thing, and you can do all that without having to give up Oreos, cappuccino or the Wall Street Journal if you really want.

My inner twelve year old suggests saying yes to Oreos and no to newspapers, for the record.


The winner from this weekend’s giveaway will be posted later today! Have a great week.

Travel Notes on Crossing Laos by bus

Travel Notes on Crossing Laos by bus
Travel Notes on Crossing Laos by bus
I suppose it is inevitable that a journey through a dozen countries would include transportation from a variety of planes, trains and automobiles. Including days where the itinerary reads something like spend all waking hours on a bus. All part of the adventure! Our first long bus ride was the journey to cross Laos, from Vientiane to Luang Prabang – from the new capital to the old capital. And from the last two updates, you might think I’m ready to whinge about being completely uncomfortable, worried about a million species of small insects and really wishing I was one of those lucky people who have never experienced travel sickness. But I promise you right now: I shall not be saying any such thing. For I may have left a bit more of my heart in Laos than I ever left in San Francisco.

Travel Notes on Crossing Laos by bus
There are those who love to research every little detail of a place before they arrive, so they can be fully aware and recognise what they see, almost as if they have been there before and are just visiting home after many years. I’ve been that person sometimes. On this trip, I really am not. I’m reading a lot as we go, and I have a big habit of jotting down the names of various places we might see during the day then plugging them into Wikipedia the next time we grab some wi-fi access. (It’s a little different but I’m actually quite enjoying that system!) Of all the countries we’re visiting, Laos was the biggest unknown quantity. Neither of us had been there before and neither of us read much about it. I think it was mentioned in one single lesson of my high school history classes. I’m not sure how many Westerners could point to it on a map, much less tell me what to expect there.

Travel Notes on Crossing Laos by bus
Which makes it the perfect place to cross by bus, during the day, to get an idea of exactly what lies on the line between those two points. Small villages set by the road, happy to make a few sales to the buses that pass a few times a day. Homes made from grass but accompanied by satellite dishes. Scenery that includes mountains and valleys, blue skies and moody clouds, jungle and prairie.

Travel Notes on Crossing Laos by bus
As much as my poor head can’t fathom why I would want to sit on a vehicle that continues to zig and zag around tight corners and climb and descend enough that my ears don’t know whether to pop or unpop, my more sentimental side was amazed to see little mountain scenes like this that reminded me of Iceland but with an entirely different climate. That alone may explain why I fell in love with Laos. Oh how I can wax lyrical about Iceland all the livelong day, I promise.

Travel Notes on Crossing Laos by bus
But also because there is a sheer happiness here that does what this kind of travel should do: refresh the soul and put things into perspective. Once the bus rounded this corner, this little girl turned and ran to our windows with the biggest smile, just waving as fast as her hands could. That smile is one we saw all over this country. Especially from children – children who don’t have a toy box filled with gizmos or the latest pair of shoes. There’s a great deal of imperfection here for children too. So much. Please don’t think that my go-first-read-second approach to this place left me with that much naivete. But there is just this little bit of something right to see happiness in simplicity. Something much sweeter than many things we have seen elsewhere along our journey. For this bus ride, anyway, it was a little contagious. I found I was still smiling even when our bus broke down at the side of the road and we had an hour or so of sitting still while the driver bashed at some whatsits with a hammer until we could drive again.

Travel Notes on Crossing Laos by bus
Plus, it’s not so often that when you break down at the side of the road, this is the view from your window. My head was happy for the chance to stop moving for a little while anyway.

More about what we found when our bus eventually arrived soon. But crafty stuff first.


Travel Notes from Vientiane, Laos

travel notes from vientiane laos
travel notes from vientiane laos
Just like that, we woke up one morning on the northeast border of Thailand and made our way to the Friendship Bridge. It looks like nothing more than the standard way to make a motorway cross a river, but the idea of a bridge of friendship, you have to be pretty cynical to not see some bit of sweetness in such a name. Cross the bridge, fill in some paperwork, present your passport and presto: welcome to Laos.

Everyone says you’re crossing from Nong Khai to Vientiane, which is roughly true. True in the sense that those are the nearest towns, but you’ll need a tuk-tuk to get you from the town of Nong Khai to the border, a bus to cross the bridge and your choice of tuk, taxi or another bus to take you from the border to Vientiane itself. After an hour or so comprised of tuk-tuk transportation, a bus piled with people and their chickens and a bit of an adventure in the back of a pick-up truck (something I have relatively little experience with, considering I grew up in Kansas), we are finally in Vientiane. And we have been taken to the road of our hotel, and our driver roughly points ahead and says it must be somewhere down there. ‘This is the road but I no know that hotel.’ Looking down a street that doesn’t seem like it will end until it falls into the sea, we start walking, trying to figure out the numbering system in this particular locale.

travel notes from vientiane laos
Laos Cable: A house with a bunch of satellite dishes in the front garden. Of course.

Oh, street numbering. Some towns are pure bliss, with odd numbers on one side and evens on the other, and everything ascending by one or five, so very simple to decipher. Alas, somewhere along the line, that system required forward planning. Not all towns have embraced such a radical idea. Other towns have numbered the buildings on a given street in the order they were built, regardless of their location on the road, meaning number 17 is quite possibly next to number 342 then followed by 57. Still other towns have more mystical numerical systems, with the owner of each property consulting a priest to find which number his house is destined to be, meaning that number 17 is quite possibly next to another number 17, since it’s quite unlikely that the priest was keeping any sort of list of which numbers he had already allocated on any given road. And to think I once had a lengthy conversation trying to explain how if the street where I grew up only had about ten houses on each side, our house number could be in the 17000s. That system pales in comparison to auspicious apartment numbers, I tell you.

travel notes from vientiane laos
Anyway, we figure out the numbering of this street – or at least some pattern that seems to be working – and realise we have been walking the wrong direction. We should probably go in the opposite way to what we were told by the truck driver. Of course, when we do, we see the name of our hotel in gigantic lighted letters, high above anything else in our field of vision. Well, at least we are now sure we are not lost.

travel notes from vientiane laos
Vientiane is the capital city of Laos. The official buildings are mostly in a French colonial style, though the only other French influence that still seems evident is in the cooking (never a bad thing). This town has become to southeast Asia what Brussels is to Europe – so there are diplomats here and plenty of embassies and meeting halls and the occasional unbelievably expensive car, like a shiny Aston-Martin or Rolls Royce, rolling down the road with thirty year old sedans that really wish their upholstery was still made with something other than duct tape. Calling it Brussels makes it sound like a significantly sized place. It isn’t. One can walk all of Vientiane in a day or two. Almost everyone seems to do this by bicycle, which might make it possible to see everything by lunchtime, perhaps. It’s a bit like a capital town rather than a city, and that is quite sweet really.

But there are things here that are not sweet. Like the street we nicknamed ‘Open Sewer Avenue’, for the sidewalk is paved there, but every so often there’s an entire section of paving missing and absolutely nothing – except the open sewer system – to catch you if you’re not looking at the ground. I have to admit we quickly learned another way to get from A to B to bypass Open Sewer Avenue completely, and I would suggest anyone who wants to keep their head up do the same frankly.

Our overnight stop in Nong Khai was my introduction to backpacker lodging. The sort of place where everyone is friendly and happy to talk about their journey and doesn’t really care where you come from or where you live. But also the sort of place where you need a flashlight to unlock the door to your room, where the mosquito netting is for practical reasons rather than to make your room feel aesthetically exotic and where the air-conditioned rooms are pretty much always available rather than being the first rooms to be booked. Oh, and when you check in? You don’t give a check-out date. You just decide when you’re going to leave and let them know that day, be it one night or ninety. It’s a whole other world to Howard Johnson’s, for sure.

travel notes from vientiane laos
Between sleeper trains, backpacker central and all that communal transportation in the heat, I managed to hit my threshold of OH MY GOODNESS I AM NEARLY NOT HUMAN right about the time we checked into our hotel in Vientiane. A hotel with a perfumed lobby. And check out dates. And hot showers. A blow-dryer, a kettle and laundry service. It wasn’t what anyone back home would define as a fancy hotel, but I was ready to rate it right up there with the Ritz. I do believe I danced with the hair-dryer like something out of a chick flick, celebrating the first time in a bit over a week that I had been able to do something somewhat respectable with my hair.

Wait. A bit over a week? Nine days into this trip and I’m already freaking out about the hairdryer? Goodness me, how am I going to make it to Argentina at this rate?

Taking a deep breath (and joyfully, it was a deep breath of steam from the hot shower!) I made some sort of decision: I will take what I can get when I can get it. And I will agree to just get over the rest. Exhale.

I resolve that it is okay to dance with the hairdryer when one appears, and spend the extra ten minutes constructing some hilariously inappropriate-for-backpacking hairdo as a result. I resolve that it is okay to indulge in the cheapest manicures I’ve ever seen when I find one and have time (so far, that has meant a £4 mani/pedi in Vientiane and a £1 manicure in a Saigon market). I resolve to not let it phase me when yet another backpacker asks me ‘really, you’re doing this trip in a dress?’ and to not feel ashamed of the glory of a hot shower, the smallest bit of make up, chick lit to read on the bus, window shopping and the occasional pink cocktail.

At the same time, I accept these things will not be available every day. I accept the entire world does not share my need for pristine public toilets. I will learn to check my food for bugs before I dig in. I will not whine excessively about how my feet have more blisters than when I wore pointe shoes every day.* I will understand that sometimes you have to step just a tiny bit into the unknown in order to get anything from an adventure. Without the unknown, there is no adventure at all.

travel notes from vientiane laos
Vientiane is a small place. The most obvious tourist spot is a sort of Laotian Arc de Triumph that was never finished with a sign that describes it as a ‘monster of concrete’. There’s that, a few temples, a few government buildings, a pretty view of the Mekong and Open Sewer Avenue. It’s nice enough, but not exactly the sort of place where you need to stay ages to get a feel for everything.

Just long enough to catch that deep breath. Then onto the next stop with an entirely new outlook.


*To those of you with a special concern for my health and well-being, I promise at the time of writing my feet are a bit blistered, but perfectly fine, I have only eaten bugs once that I know of and it ended up not being a problem (and The Boy has actually ordered bugs on purpose!), and I have mostly perfected a system to cope with scary toilets. Oh, and I have only had one pink cocktail too, actually. You can sleep without worry.