Tag Archives: solotravel

#bigstep

Disclaimer: After spending approximately six days on and off writing this latest (and very far behind) blog post, my delightful phone decided to erase the entire thing about 5 minutes before I was ready to publish it.  I think it was my best one yet so I’m really disappointed but here is my attempt at re-writing it! Hope you enjoy – sorry if it’s lazy! I’m over it….

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So the time had finally come for me to leave Hoi An and continue my trip north, flying solo again.  My next stop along the way was Hué and there is only one way to get from Hoi An to Hué properly and that is by motorbike.  Given my dramatically increased tendency for stupid accidents on this trip (and lack of ability to actually ride a motorbike), I decided against hiring my own bike to ride on a long, winding, remote mountain road by myself.  This is where I met Tué, my easy rider and all round legend.  He picked me up from my hostel and simply laughed at my enormous backpack.  I was worried for a split second that it wouldn’t fit on the bike with me as well, then I remembered that the Vietnamese have an unfathomable ability to cram obscene amounts of people and things onto 1 motorbike.  We left Hoi An early in the morning and made for our first stop along the way just outside Da Nang – Marble Mountain.    A beautiful mountain with lots of temples and caves and even more steps.  It is surrounded by shops selling huge marble statues although I’m told the marble is actually imported from China.

After an hour or so wandering around the mountain top and clambering through a few caves, we got back on the wrong side of the road to drive out of Da Nang as today just so happened to be the day half the road was closed for an Iron Man Race.  I was hot on the back of a motorbike yet these people were voluntarily running, biking and swimming in this ridiculous heat.  I became a one woman cheerleading squad on the back of the bike, shouting out for people as we drove past.  They must have thought I was completely bonkers!

Our next stop was a tiny temple on the beach, built in on an old fishing boat.  It is customary for the fishermen to come here each morning to pray and make offerings before heading out on the water for the day.  It was really beautiful and quite quirky too! 

 We left behind the temple to embark on the part of this journey that I was most excited about – The Hái Vân Pass. Made famous by the Top Gear Vietnam Special, this incredible stretch of road is one not to be missed.  Although relatively short compared to what I was expecting, the views and the road itself did not disappoint. Steep hills, hairpin bends and views to die for, literally and metaphorically if you’re not careful. Each time we stopped and locals would ask where I  was from, their response would be “Ahh – Top Gear!” 

Once we made it safely out of the Hái Vân Pass, Tué drove us to a beautiful lagoon with a perfect strip of sand against a mountain backdrop! Tué insisted on a selfie with “his queen” as he had been referring to me as all day!! I could get used to this! 😂 

Picture taking complete, out next stop was lunch – a local variation of Pho – which set me back all of 85p for both of us! 

We carried on our journey through a small fishing village and my chariot dropped me right to the door of my new hostel, The Lantern House Hotel in the ancient city of Hué. I wrote off the rest of the evening in preparation for adventures tomorrow at the now infamous “abandoned water park.” 

Shortly after (a really delicious) lunch I hopped on a bike and headed out to the waterpark.  I ended up getting ever so slightly lost and going in a side entrance but it actually worked in my favour as I managed to get in without having to pay! The water park is sat on the outskirts of town and around a beautiful lake.  It was somewhat eerie walking around the place as there were very few people there save for a bride and her photographer having wedding pictures taken and a few locals! The main attraction is the water dragon, out in the middle of the lake, housing a viewing platform at the top in the dragons mouth and an aquarium underneath. The aquarium has been smashed to pieces and now resembles what can only be described as a room full of broken coffins – it looks so creepy as it was so dark in there even though you can’t see it in the picture.  The only bits of glass that remained in tact was the aquarium tunnel where the fish would obviously swim over the top of you. In tact even though someone has clearly tried very hard to smash it as it is full of bullet holes!! 

Next we found the water slides and the kids pool – surrounded by a now entirely black lazy river rumoured to have crocodiles in it but we didn’t see any… The slides were somewhat questionable but I hoped for the best as I walked all the way down them anyway! 

Suitably creeped out, I headed back into town and treated myself to some of the best Mexican food I have had! Random but totally worth it! 

The following day (OK, afternoon) I dedicated to culture and headed over to the Imperial City, on the banks of The Perfume River.  It was the former imperial city of Vietnam and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I left that afternoon in the bus to Phong Na for some caving adventures! I got off the bus around 11pm and got straight into bed in my clothes to avoid being that dorm room douchebag as everyone else was already asleep! I had grand plans to do absolutely nothing tomorrow apart from chill out and make some plans for the following days! 

Whilst sat having breakfast I bumped into some people I had met back in Nha Trang and they were heading out to Phong Nha Caves in a boat. FOMO kicked in and within 20 minutes I was showered and ready to go.  We cruised down the river and into the cave itself and after about 30 mins we were kicked out of the boat to have a wander round. It was very beautiful but had absolutely nothing on tomorrows adventure! 

The following day we headed out into the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park to check out the infamous Paradise Cave & Dark Cave. 

Paradise Cave was our first stop after a steep climb up some 300 odd steps. The cave is named so not only because it is so beautiful but because of the constant cool air that comes from it – like natures air conditioning and just what you need after that climb. Sadly I have no photos on my phone from inside the cave but suffice to say it was very beautiful. Our next stop for the day was Dark Cave. The name is as it says on the tin. Very dark, a lot less pretty and full of mud – which is great one one thing – mud baths! We kitted up and ziplined over the lake to get to the cave entrance. A short swim and a fairly dangerous climb over some rocks we arrived at the mud bath! One of the strangest and best experiences ever. As you step down into the water, your feet sink into the mud a good 12 inches and as soon as you let your body weight go, the water floats you up as if you were in the Dead Sea – and you have zero control over it! My new cave companion Ceri & I made sculptures in the walls and got suitably covered from head to toe in mud! On our way out of the cave, we slid down a mud slide and into the “clean” water to rinse off! We then had a kayak to get us back to the water park on the lake where we could zipline into the lake and various other things! 

After a good bucket shower we had a few runs and headed back to our hostel as I was leaving tonight! Ceri and I went for some delicious pizzas and beer before my night bus to Tam Coc.  I was dropped off by the bus at 4am in middle of nowhere and had to find my way to my hostel with no real idea where I was going as it was pitch dark, and i am still lugging round my excessively large backpack.  I walked down a long dark path to my hostel and arrived to find the owner sleeping outside awaiting my arrival.  I dived into bed as I had every intention of getting up at early to do the boat tour I had specifically come to do.  When my alarm went off at 8am, I was met with torrential rain.  Realising today was now a total write off, I switched off my alarm and allowed myself the day to do nothing.  Cabin fever soon set in so I ventured out to buy bus tickets for the morning and realised I lived in actual paradise. 

A lot of hostels in Vietnam offer a “Family Dinner” and although it was expensive I decided to get on board.  For 100,000VND i had more food than I could ever possibly eat and the owner kept insisting on us drinking his entire supply of “happy water” – AKA rice wine.  That stuff has a kick.  Feeling more drunk that I should be i took myself off to bed where i had a fight with the stupid woman in my room who refused to have the air con on despite the fact it was 12038345 degrees in there.  She slept with the remote under her pillow.  I wanted to punch her in her sleep but I resisted….

I left Tam Coc at 6am to head to our next island destination, Cat Ba, a small-ish island near Ha Long Bay.   We were on the bus for a couple of hours when we pulled over to the side of the road, each handed an envelope from the lady bus conductor and told to get off the bus.  We were in the middle of no where with no idea what was going on. I opened the envelop to discover it was full of cash and no explanation. Before I had time to question it further, a local bus pulled alongside us and we were unceremoniously dragged aboard the moving bus with our bags. The local bus drove us into Haiphong with several very near miss crashes where we were again dumped outside a cafe and told to wait for the next bus. No idea of how long or what bus it would be so we just had to wing it.  After multiple coffees, a bus pulled up and we got on hoping for the best. A ferry and another bus later we arrived in Cat Ba and checked into our hostel where we had treated ourselves to a private room with a queen size bed each. We changed and headed out for our first night in Cat Ba – little did we know what we were in for.  I had my first glass of wine in as long as I can remember at the Oasis Bar and then we moved onto to drinking rounds of 10 beers at a time 5,000VND each with the Canadian boys – who still have a lot to answer for….!  The first night ended in a lost pair of flip flops, lectures on littering in the sea (where said flip flops ended up), 1 failed skinny dipping attempt (because we couldn’t find the sea), a new Apple Music subscription thanks to my stolen fingerprint and a #bigstep.

The following morning I woke up with a blinding hangover and a missing pack of Oreos…  Ceri & I had a much needed beach day,  when we eventually found the beach about 15 minutes walk away from our hostel and no more than 5 minutes away from where we gave up looking last night.   Still failing to adult.  Lucky for us the beach was beautiful and pretty much empty.  For a lazy day at the beach it was eventful – Ceri punched a jellyfish and I shouted at a perv who was taking photos of Ceri on the beach.   We also tried unsuccessfully to rescue a dying frog we found.  After all that hard work, we walked back to our hostel to shower and reward ourselves with some more 5,000 VND beers.  The night ended in much the same state as the night before, only this time I was wearing my Hoi An special jumpsuit so required extensive assistance every time I needed a wee – less that ideal when ordering rounds of 10 drinks at a time…. 

Day 3 in Cat Ba was a total write off.  Lucky for us it was pouring with rain so we didn’t feel too guilty about staying in bed for most of the day, apart from venturing out once to eat carbonara.  A day indoors served us well as we had a long day the next day for our Ha Long Bay adventure.

We were picked up early in the morning and taken to our boat – The Red Coral.  We spent the morning cruising through Lan Ha Bay and stopped off in a quiet bay where we were turfed out in our kayaks to go exploring.  We kayaked around the bay, though the cave and out on the “open” ocean.  It was really beautiful and the views were incredible.  After lunch, Ceri and I spent an age jumping off the side of the boat whilst everyone else wandered around on the tiny beaches nearby.  Seems I have lost my ability for the perfect swan dive, but I’ll keep working on it.  We cruised around Ha Long Bay for the afternoon and visited the floating villages.  Our final stop for the day was Monkey Island, which as the name would suggest, has monkeys living there, although they appear to be horribly abused by ignorant tourists forcing them to drink beer out of cans and goodness only knows what else.  We did a spectacularly dangerous hike up to the highest point of the island  and the views were totally worth it.  Thankfully, no one died.  After another long day, we decided to treat ourselves the only way we know how – with our final night out in Cat Ba.  We ate, we drank, we got asked to be TV extras and said our final goodbyes to Oasis Bar.  Their takings will be significantly down now that both us and the Canadians have left.  Next stop – Hanoi

Another bus – ferry – bus combination and we arrived at our hostel in Hanoi – Downtown Vietnam Backpacker Hostel.  Probably one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in yet.  We ventured out for a coffee and ended up bumping into the Canadians (again) and going to get terrible and expensive massages together.  What followed was a surprisingly tame night, especially where this hostel is concerned.  I did, however, get another piercing, on a whim.  Sorry Mum!!

Our first day in Hanoi consisted of a slight detour to the Sheraton to collect my long awaited debit card and then trying to be cultural by going to the Hoa Lo Prison – known historically to be one of the biggest and highest security prisons in Indo-China. It was terrifying to walk through the cells and see where the prisoners were held, and also how they escaped through the sewage tunnels. 

History and culture done for the day, we headed back to the hostel for one of the infamous nights out….or in as it was for the most part. Covered in UV paint and glow stick necklaces we went hard on the happy hour espresso martinis and in true Johnson style we danced on the hostel bar.  This came in extra handy when the barman shouted “The floor is lava!!!” as we were already safe!  After being kicked out of the hostel, we ventured about 50 yards down the road to a club and things got messy in there too.  My Havaiannas broke (again) and I had to be carried home to the hostel because it was dirty outside and the floors were being cleaned inside. 

I woke up in the morning to find that Ceri had got married too – and I didn’t even get invited!!  #Bigstep without me Ceri – I’m disappointed!!

We did some life admin on our final day in Vietnam as we were both super sad to be leaving! We had our final Pho, changed up our money and generally mourned our soon-to-be loss of Vietnam.  We were also exceptionally sad about the fact we had a 23 hour bus ride to Laos ahead of us….

🏮Happiness in Hoi An🏮

So lots of people I’ve met along the way have said “Hoi An is so beautiful.” “You’ll love Hoi An – it’s so pretty.” My goodness were they right. Another torturous night bus dropped us into Hoi An at 7am and we couldn’t check in to our room until mid day – so another morning of sleeping on sun loungers! My hostel, The Sunflower Hotel was a bit of a party hostel which is great when you’re in the mood but God-awful when you’re not! Pay 100,000VND at the bar (the equivalent of £3.40) and it’s as much as you can drink for 2 hours. And believe me – it becomes somewhat of a competition! I don’t think I’ve seen so much carnage in one place! The first night literally disappeared in a blur of cheap beer, terrible music and debating whether or not it would be too indulgent to put a mars bar in the middle of a peanut butter & Nutella bahn mi! 🤷🏽‍♀️ I always did have a sweet tooth but decided to give the mars bar a miss on account of the already impending diabetes from the ladle full of Nutella she had already dumped in! 

The following morning was somewhat of a write off and I woke up minus 1 travel buddy so I headed for my “all you can eat” buffet breakfast. “You’ll lose so much weight when you go travelling” they said. Well I can tell you they lied! Feeling morbidly obese I decided to walk into Hoi An Ancient Town with my new partner in crime! We wandered around the beautiful ancient streets, surrounded by literally thousands of lanterns, one of the many things Hoi An is famous for, and almost being run off the road by tricycles – their drivers shouting “beeeeeeeeppp beeeeeeeeppp” as they go past you as they don’t have horns or bells. It all adds to the charm of the beautiful town. As we strolled along the river and through the night market we decided to hop on a wooden boat for a quick cruise up the river and the chance to release paper lanterns into the river to make all (OK, maybe just one) our wishes come true.  ​

I had fallen in love with this place almost immediately. Such a lovely feel to the place, beautiful architecture, wonderful food, endless tailoring shops and markets, but also sadly rammed with an unfathomably amount of selfie sticks shamelessly attached to Asian tourists of varying origins. Annoying and also somewhat of an obstacle course. So we decided to head back and come back super early in the morning to try to beat the crowds. 

Another obscene buffet breakfast later (on a side note, who knew it was possible to make a perfect omelette with chopsticks?!) Steph and I headed back into town in search of more beautiful things. First stop was to continue my love affair with Vietnamese coffee in a gorgeous coffee shop called CocoBox.  A bit more of a chain than I would normally choose out here but some of the best coffee and views in town.  So much for exploring.  We sat here for hours just watching the world go by, deciding what to do with our next few days and generally just chilling out! 

We strolled through the old town again, I designed and had a bikini made (in less than an hour and for less than £20), we booked a cookery course and a sunset river cruise. I love Hoi An. Our sunset cruise was perfect – a great bunch of people, a somewhat questionable tin roof to sit on, cheap beers and stunning views. What more could you need? We all got on so well we went for a family dinner together afterwards and we’re somewhat proficient in the Vietnamese for “Cheers” by the end of the evening. “Môt. Hai. Ba. Zo!” When you shout it loud enough in a restaurant or bar, you can get into competitions with other tables as to who can be the loudest! We tried – but no one was interested in playing! But thanks Emily & Chris for the tip – I carried that with me from there on in! 🍻

The following morning we embarked on our “Ms Vy’s Cooking Class” – one of the most famous in Hoi An and connected to an excellent and also very famous restaurant, “Morning Glory.” We didn’t eat there but only because we ate so much in the cooking class and tasting sessions. We were given a tour of the local markets, finally finding out what all the weird and wonderful things are that you see but have no idea what they are. Then we headed backwards to the kitchens for some history lessons on the origins of Vietnamese traditional dishes, tasting opportunities for silk worm salad, jellyfish salad, spicy lemongrass frog and my worst nightmare of all, Balut. A boiled, partially developed chicken embryo. So basically half chick, half egg. We’re talking egg yolk, but also feathers, bones and a face. An actual face. The single most stomach churning thing I have ever witnessed in my life. I will try most things and this is a Vietnamese delicacy but just no!! 

Sorry if you’ve just eaten or were about to but this blog is all about the sharing! Our cooking class with Bo, our chef was up next and he was fab. We learned how to make spicy mango salad, Vietnamese BBQ chicken skewers, pork dumplings in vegetable broth and Hoi An Pancakes. The class was excellent and I would highly recommend. I also recommend you don’t eat before as you will be so stuffed when you leave. 

Doing nothing to help the onset of obesity I chilled out the following day, went and had some clothes designed/made by a lovely lady down the road from my hostel, almost got a tattoo (sorry Mum!) but bottled it and booked into another hostel nearer the beach to chill out for a few more days before continuing my journey north. 

My new squad came and collected me from the hostel and it took 2 bikes to cart all my crap out to the beach! A 15 minute drive and we arrive at “Under the Coconut Tree”  – a beautiful complex of bamboo huts in lush surroundings, about 5 minutes walk from An Bang Beach. It was paradise!  

What was meant to be my time to chill out at the beach rapidly descended into chaos on the first night. 2 bottles of rhum and a bottle of vodka later we were swimming totally sans swimwear but completely surrounded by phosphorescence! So beautiful. Thankfully we had left all our stuff back at the hostel so when people started rifling through all our stuff on the beach when we were far enough away to do anything about it –  all we had to do was shout abuse at them because the joke was on them. There was nothing to steal! At what felt like about 3am we walked back to the hostel totally drunk and starving. Thankfully for us we had started drinking super early so it was in fact only 9pm and the kitchen hadn’t shut yet so we all nailed the biggest (and one of the best) burgers I’ve ever had and all passed out.

My one night stay at the beach has now turned into 4. I love this place and never want to leave! My fruit bowl family are ace and this place is so beautiful. The only thing we had to worry about was getting into town for John to get his final suit fitting for this custom made beauty….

The next few days were very lazy indeed – laying on the beach having food and drinks delivered to our sun loungers! I also indulged in an hour long full body Vietnamese massage (foot wash included?) and facial for a princely sum of £6! This is what travelling is all about! 

I spent 10 days in Hoi An in total and happily could have stayed longer. I met some beautiful people who I already have plans to hang out with again in the not too distant future and saw some of my favourite ever things so far in Vietnam! Not only did I make wishes on paper lanterns but friends for life! 💜🧀

Next stop – Hué via the epic Hai Van Pass a la Top Gear Vietnam Special!  🏍

My Perfect Paradise – Port Barton 🌴

I have fallen in love. Not with a person (yet), or a thing, or an idea, but a place. It’s happened before, yes, but never quite like this. Port Barton. On the western coast of Palawan and about 3 hours south of El Nido, I stumbled into this idyllic little town with no idea what to expect, except that everyone I have met along the way said I had to go. I was unceremoniously dumped at the bus station with one night booked in a home stay somewhere and 20kgs of crap to carry with me to find it. And 20kgs of crap is not easy to carry at the best of times, let alone when walking on soft sand, but the legs got a good workout so every cloud! I arrived at my hostel, choosing at this time to ignore how horrific it was, stuck my bikini on and headed back to the beach! 

I swam, I read my book, I lazed around, I had a few drinks, I met some people – it was just what I needed. It’s what I thought this travelling lark was all about but it is in fact a rarity! I loved the peace and quiet it offered after a really crazy few weeks!   We watched the sunset then went for dinner at a local place just one street back from the beach and I’d love to tell you what it was called but I never did find out! All I know is that everyone referred to it as the place with all the flags! 🤷🏽‍♀️ They had the most amazing and ridiculously cheap food. The lomi noodle soup was something else! We made a plan to walk to White Beach the following day and agreed to meet at mid day then headed back to our shoebox hostel for a night of so called sleep in what can only be described as the worlds smallest sauna for 8 people. 🤦🏽‍♀️ There was also no power after midnight so not even a fan to circulate the air. Based on that, I can’t think for the life of me why I agreed to stay there for another 2 nights but I did. Even at £4 a night it seemed extortionatly expensive for what we were actually getting – which was mostly being eaten alive by mosquitos, sweating your tits off all night and very little actual sleep. But I digress – I still maintain this place was paradise. 

The following day we headed back into town for breakfast at Besaga Beach Cottages – £2.50 for pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon and fresh fruit. Just the way to start off a hard day at the beach! 😌  After meeting the others, we set off for what was meant to be a 40 minute walk through them palm tree forest to White Beach. But of course that would be too easy! We went the wrong way and ended up walking along the road instead of the short cut. It was mid day, meltingly hot and waaaaayy further to walk this way. Thankfully my Irish knight in shining armour drove past on his bike so I hopped on the back with Debbie ’cause I couldn’t be bothered to walk anymore. Arriving at White Beach was like nothing I could have ever imagined. I know for a lot of people a beach is just a beach, and I have seen a lot of beautiful beaches over the last few weeks. But the beach always has and always will be my happy place. Generally any beach anywhere but this beach stole my heart.  Quiet. Empty (save for a handful of people). The most crystal clear, flat calm, turquoise water you have ever seen. Pristine white sand lined perfectly with palm trees and woven hammocks. It doesn’t get better than this…..and then Irish turns up with coconuts and, like a caveman, rips them open so we can have fresh coconut water and a snack. 😍 We lazed away the afternoon with a few beers and watched the sunset! Patrick, our new friend, had agreed to come back after sunset in his boat to pick us up and take us back to Port Barton! The boat dropped us off and we decided in meeting for dinner at Gorgonzola, an amazing pizza place in town! We ate more pizza than was probably necessary and generally had a great night with great company! The next day I was due to do another island hopping tour but I already knew I didn’t want to – I needed to get back to that beach. 

I headed back to Gorgonzola for breakfast (eggs and avocado on toast – never been so happy!!)  with a few girls from my hostel and decided to try again on the shortcut walk to White Beach. Success. 40 minutes through the palm tree forest with a little dog to guide us the entire way. He led us all through the forest, along Coconut Beach on the way, over the rocks and when we got to White Beach he curled up in the shade under my hammock and spent the whole day with us. Another day in paradise doing not a great deal! This is definitely what I signed up for! 🙋🏽 Sadly though, tonight would be my last night as I had to travel down to Puerto Princesa tomorrow to get my flight to Cebu. That said – what a last night it was.  We went for dinner again at the flag place and then went and met the boys back at their hostel for a few drinks on their balcony. It turned into a massive showdown between man and giant beetle. Despite the boys best attempts – the beetles won, flying at your face and generally scaring the shit out of everyone! After a few drinks we headed down to the beach as we had heard rumours of phosphorescence. We were not disappointed. We spent the best part of 2 hours paddling around in the sea in the middle of the night, all being utterly amazed by the glowing plankton. I’ve never seen it before and despite my best efforts to video it, all I got was a pitch black video of me splashing around going “woooooowwwww!” 😂 We were also treated to some pretty incredible night skies and more shooting stars than I have ever seen in my life. It’s kind of hard to put into words just how amazing this night was but everyone I was with felt exactly the same. It’s one of those nights that I will never ever forget and I feel so lucky to have been in that exact place at that exact time. It’s moment like this that are exactly why I wanted to take this trip. It makes me so grateful for every person and every thing I have in my life – I just wish all my favourites could have been there with me to see it! 💕

Paradise in Palawan

So I’ve been a little off the grid for the past week or so be it due to the fact I have been on a boat cruising the the Bacuit Archipeligo in Northern Palawan, staying in a hostel with no electricity except for between 6pm and midnight or the simple fact that numb nuts dropped her phone in the sea on day one of said island hopping adventures! 🤦🏽‍♀️ Thankfully I’m in Asia so bucket loads of rice are on hand and I’m, for the most part, back online….ish. A 5 day digital detox is really quite liberating! The only reason I got so excited about being able to share pictures is because I want everyone to see what I have seen and realise just how stunningly beautiful these islands are! I have been so spoilt this past week! 

I left Manila to fly south to Coron with the much criticised Cebu Pacific airline. They were actually great – no delays, no issues so can’t be too annoyed at paying £40 odd for my flight including 20kg of luggage which is already tortuous to carry around every where I go! I would legitimately have been happy if they had lost it! 😂 I arrived in Coron and had that horrific “Inbetweeners” movie moment of pulling up outside a shockingly shit looking hostel and being told this was where I was staying. Note to self – when booking hostels, check google earth before agreeing that it seems like a really great price for a private room. For the next 2 nights I now lived in what I can only describe as a swamp/rubbish dump/entirely unsafe- looking paper house on stilts.  The hostel itself, RB Transient, turned out to be fine in the grand scheme of things but the walk to get to it was what made me want to cry every time I had to do it. I was also less of a fan of the giant cockroach that had taken up residence on the wall. Give me Lucky the flea riddled cat any day! (Update – Lucky now has her flea collar!) 

Day 1 in Coron I decided to do an island hopping tour which would take me to the famous Kayangan Lake (allegedly the cleanest lake in Asia) Twin Lagoon, Coral Gardens, Siete Pecados, Atwayan Beach, Smith Beach and Hidden Lagoon. The snorkelling at the Coral Gardens was some of the best I have ever seen. So colourful and full of fish! And I saw Nemo! Perfect way to start the day!  We cruised around some more on our bangkha before mooring up alongside a rickety old wooden walkway clinging precariously to the jagged cliffs.  We off loaded and embarked on a short but surprisingly tough trek almost directly up and over the cliffs.  There below us was the glimmer of turquoise green through the trees – Kayangan Lake. Dubbed the cleanest lake in Asia and perfect for a swim after a hike in the Philippine sun! Crystal clear waters, jagged limestone cliffs, bamboo rafts. Sadly just a few too many tourists for my liking but unavoidable! Also no photos to share as I left my phone on the boat! If only I was always that sensible! 😑 

My second day in Coron I clearly decided I had not had enough sun (or had had too much and wasn’t thinking straight) and decided to walk to the top of Mount Tapyas. 700 odd steps to the top which I now find out is only 190m above sea level. Let me tell you, in 35 degree heat and flip flops it felt like 10 times that! And I didn’t even have my Fitbit on! What a waste. The view from the top, however was far from a waste. Despite a storm threatening all afternoon, I made it to the top before the rain and it really was beautiful. I was also a fan of Coron’s attempt at their own Hollywood sign! 

At 5pm I had to head to the TAO Office in town for the briefing before my 5-day boat trip to El Nido left in the morning. I sat down at the table with the others and knew I had made the right decision in booking this trip. A rum cocktail appeared in front of me as if by magic. 🙌🏼 We were briefed and preordered our booze for the week which proved to be way more stressful than it needed to be! First world problems! 

At 8am the next morning we arrived at the Port Authority to start our 220km, 5 day, 4 night cruise through paradise to El Nido on their custom built TAO Bangkha boat.  I literally couldn’t have dreamt how amazing this 5 days would be! We cruised around islands, we snorkelled, we ate, we swam, we kayaked, we ate some more, we drank (a lot), we laughed, we celebrated an engagement, we ate and drank even more. We were quite literally in paradise. Our on board chef “Magic Mike” cooked us breakfast, lunch and dinner every day along with copious amounts of snacks and iced tea. The food was a combination of “Filipino Power” also known as rice and fresh caught jack fish & sweet lips (or whatever other fish they could catch or buy from local fisherman) pumpkin & coconut curry and cucumber salads. On one day we caught a tuna fishing off the back of the boat and within less than 10 minutes we had the freshest tuna sashimi you could possible ever hope to eat.  Each night we were lead to an incredible TAO base camp where we slept in beautifully hand crafted “tuka huts” on the beach. Whilst we washed away the days stresses with a refreshingly cold bucket shower, the TAO Lost Boys were setting up our beds and mosquito nets for us. 5* luxury beach accommodation just does not get better than this if you ask me. This is an island we stopped off at on the day my phone first came out of the rice again. Just to give you an idea of the type of paradise I’m talking about. 😍

I fell in love with each island we visited – each time thinking there was no way the TAO Lost Boys would be able to better it the next night – and each night we were treated to an island base camp more beautiful than the last! On our 3rd night we stayed at the TAO main base camp. It is actually mainland Palawan but inaccessible by road and so secluded you just wouldn’t know. This is also the location of their TAO farm, where they grow all their own organic produce which is used for all our meals. They have pigs, ducks, chickens, an organic vegetable garden, their own rice paddy, palm trees with hundreds of coconuts. This place is entirely self sufficient. But not only this this, they make products to sell also! Hand pressed virgin coconut oil, coconut and lemon grass shampoo and soap, clothes, jewellery. This place and this company are just so incredible there are no words. A travel company yes, but so much more than that. Their TAO Foundation builds school for local communities. They provide education regarding sustainable fishing and farming techniques. They offered humanitarian support following Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 – providing over 150 fishing boats to replace those lost in the storm, food and building materials. They encourage local children to keep the beaches clean with the promise of a new pair of slippers (flipflops). They provide jobs for the family members of the Tao Lost Boys sewing the bed sheets and pillow cases, massage therapy and sewing the TAO uniforms. I can vouch for how amazing the massages are – I had 2! I could go on for days about how amazing Tao are but instead I shall just urge you to book a flight and come and experience it for yourself! 

After 5 days we arrived in El Nido and desperate for anything that wasn’t fish or rice, we arranged to met for dinner at Trattoria Altrove in the town to treat ourselves to pizza. Never in my life has pizza and wine felt like such a luxury. The following day was spent by the beach recovering before getting the bus to Port Barton – but she has a special place in my heart so will get her very own blog post! 💚

Mountain Mayhem

So overnight buses are fun…..said no person ever!! After turning up at a very questionable bus station in Manila at 9pm, we boarded our bus headed for Banaue, about 215 miles north of Manila. 215 miles doesn’t sound like that much, right? Wrong. 9 hours of unpaved roads, mountain switchbacks, bone chilling air-con and a bus so full that people were sitting down the aisle on little stools they had brought with them just so they had a seat! Despite my best efforts, I didn’t manage so much as a wink of sleep but did headbut the window about 10 times! 😑 At around 6:30am we were turfed off the bus into another queue to register our presence in the town because it is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Banaue and Batad Rice Terraces – known in the Philippines as the 8th Wonder of the World. We waited and watched the sun rise before heading off to our hostel, the brand new and very beautiful Pink Banaue Hostel. 

We had about an hour to kill at the hostel but no real time for sleep, so dosed up on a couple of coffees, we jumped in a mini bus to head up to Sagada for the day – home to the unique yet world famous “Hanging Coffins.” The drive was a relatively easy 40 miles compared to last night and we made a few stops along the way to take in some incredible views! Also met this absolute legend on the way – who, when we arrived, insisted on a selfie.  He then proceeded to pull a digital camera from his loin cloth and take photos of himself with everyone. He absolutely loved it!! He made me hold the spear – I swear! 🙄

When we arrived in Sagada, we commandeered two locals at the tourist office and shared the cost of a guide between us! We hopped in their car and drove up to the Sumaging Caves for our first adventure. What I though was going to be a quick tour of the start of the cave turned into a 2 hour full on caving expedition, down the natural pools at the very bottom the cave! Getting out was somewhat more of a challenge and I had to use the guide as a ladder because I’m short! My first proper caving experience which was ace until I got outside and realised I was covered in bat poo! Bad times!After having a bit of a wash (as best I could in a tiny sink) we got back on the road to head to another cave – but this time is was a local burial cave called Lumiang Burial Cave.  A really beautiful place where the locals believed that by leaving the coffins at the entrance to the cave, the light would protect the deceased from bad spirits. There was over 100 coffins stacked at the entrance, some of which are thought to be about 500 years old! They look alarmingly small – one could be forgiven for thinking there was a lot of children buried there but this is not the case. The coffins are so small because they bury their loved ones in the foetal position. It is believed that one should exit this life in the same way in which you entered it.  For this same reason, you see chairs nearby which were used, after death, to help shape the body into the right position for burial. It all sounds pretty awful but it was in fact a really beautiful and peaceful place. The hanging coffins in the Echo Valley had a similar peace about them. A bit of a trek to get there but once you arrive there is something pretty amazing about seeing coffins literally hanging on the cliff side.  The belief here is that the higher up your are “buried” the closer you are to God. It also helps stop wild animals from eating you but we’ll stick with the first reason for now! 

At the end of the day we headed back to our lovely hostel and lovely hostess, had my first hot shower since I left home which was nice because it was actually pretty chilly in the mountains. The following day was another long one as we were headed out to the Batad Rice Terraces and Tappia Falls. Our jeepney picked us up at 9 and on a lovely sunny day, where else would you sit but on the roof – obviously. Safety first as always! 🙄

We wound our way through the mountains again up to Batad, past more villages, rice terraces and a frightening number of landslides. I saw my life flash before my eyes when we nearly had a head on collision on a blind bend with another jeepney and immediately regretted my selection of roof seating! But hey – ‘YOLO’ and all that! When we arrived (in one piece) at Batad, a short-ish walk down through the forest and I was met with this: 
Such an incredible view – I could literally have sat there for hours but there was walking to do and waterfalls to swim in! So we walked. Along and down. Along and down. To the tiny hut you can just about see at the bottom of the rockslide. Along the way I found myself humming a particular country song, unsure of why that one had sprung to mind given my surroundings. Then, I snapped out of my daze and realised that the reason I was humming it was in fact because some local villager was literally blaring it out on loud speaker from one of their huts, right across the whole valley! 🤷🏼‍♀️ Once we reached the hut we were only half way. We then disappeared down the back of the mountain even further to get to the Tappia Waterfall. An absolute treat after about 2 hours of walking in 30 degree heat! The waterfall was stunning, if not a little treacherous. Super slippery rocks, really fast strong currents and the thousands of litres of water crashing down the 21 metre drop! That said, nothing in the world would have kept me out of that water. Just a shame the lovely refreshing dip was someone ruined by the horrific walk all the way back to the top of the mountain again! Met some really lovely people on this part of the trip so it was a shame to have to head back to Manila on another night bus after just 2 short days. I could have spent ages in the mountains but for now, the beaches are calling me! 🌴 Coron – I’m coming for you!! 

Thriller in Manila 

So, what was meant to be about 24 hours in Manila has now turned into 3 days! I arrived late Monday evening after the travel gods failed me and I sat next to a child who literally screamed for the entire 14 hours flight! I now know why they use sleep deprivation as a form of torture but suppose I’d better used to long journeys with little or no sleep! 

I’m staying at the Pink Manila Hostel and I have to say they have been great! The location is a little random, if not a little scary when you’re on your own, but the staff are super helpful and I’ve meet some pretty awesome people here already, hence the reason for staying! I mean, who would want to stay when your view looks like this? For £9 a night. 

Lucky, the hostel cat, has never ventured far from my side since I’ve been here. She must know I’m not so keen on cats because as soon as I sit anywhere she comes and curls up in my lap! Kind of cute until you realise you can literally see the fleas crawling over her! So she is currently rocking my bug repellant bracelet as a collar in the vague hope it may help! 😂 If anyone wants to post out a flea collar I’m sure she’d love it! 

Tuesday I barely made it out of the hostel as not only was I completely melting in the heat (it’s about 32 degrees – bit of a shock from the 8 degrees in London when I left) but I was also completely shattered!   This was only my second ever night in a dorm room after that one dreadful night in Australia 2 years ago with Louise where I swore I would never do it again. Turns out it could get worse! 3am. Door opens. Lights on. Rather (very) large, 50something man crashes in. Seemingly with every item in his possession wrapped individually in its own rustly carrier bag. Then out comes the breathing machine!  Turns out said man can’t breathe by himself in his sleep. Which is ace when you’re sharing a room with 5 other people! 🤦🏽‍♀️

Met some lovely people at this hostel and we ventured out in the afternoon to get some food and just see what’s around! Talk about taking your life in your hands walking around the street of Manila! Traffic is beyond crazy, pavements that disappear for no reason (or have speedbumps?), streets littered with things I don’t care to mention! The smell resembles what can only be described as “hot bin juice”….less than ideal when you’re not feeling 100% anyway! The alarming tangle of wires overhead is also one to watch out for….when they snap and hang down to street level – someone will just come along and wrap a plastic bag around it and leave it there! Safety first and all that! 😂 

Wednesday night lead us a little more astray, shall we say! We ended up at Ringside Bar, known in Manila for its “midget boxing.” An experience to say the least. One girl I met, Tessa, had just flown in from Auckland and was in Manila for one night so we thought why not! Between the midget boxing and the lady boy bar next door called Mixed Nuts it made for an evening of great banter, strong beers and too many photos! 

Tonight I’m heading up north to the Banaue Rice Terraces and Hanging Coffins at Sagada. Although I’m not much looking forward to the 10 hour overnight bus, it’ll be nice to get out of the city! 

“Out of Office”

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

And so here I am. Sitting in the Number 1 Lounge at Heathrow (courtesy of Stevie) at the very start of my grandest adventure yet. Marginally (OK massively) terrified and occasionally questioning why on earth I am doing this by myself, but here nonetheless.   In keeping with airport tradition, I have my glass of Sauvignon Blanc (it’s 5 o’clock somewhere right?), I have checked at least a thousand times that I still have my passport and boarding pass and I’m praying to the travel Gods (assuming there is one) that I’m not in the middle seat or stuck next to some screaming child for he next 14 hours.

My bags are packed after multiple attempts and asking myself a thousand times “how am I going to pack 9 months worth of stuff into one backpack, that I can carry?”  I am, after all, that girl who packs 27 outfits and wildly inappropriate footwear for one weekend away – just in case.  Even I can’t believe I’ve not packed a single pair of heels. Must be getting sensible in my old age!!
My “Out of Office” has been set for 12 whole months and there really is no greater feeling….for me or Blue Squad who are probably sick to death of hearing me counting down my shifts or what flight or adventure I have booked this week.  Thanks for always having my back guys and being great people to work with.  I’ll be back in a year but  I shall miss our squad dos, late night Disney quizzes, diet debates and pizza runs.  In other news, I hear Tina has a grandson and Mike a new bathroom? 🙂

As I sit here waiting to leave, I wonder what I have done to be so fortunate to be in this position to be able to realise my lifelong dream of travelling the world. Sure, this past year has been a shitty one, but also one of the best! And if I’ve learned just one thing from it, it’s that I can make it through anything.  So, with that in mind – I’m off.  For 9 months. On my own. Eeeek! But hey, isn’t that what life is all about? Being present, living every moment, taking these opportunities while we can?  People often ask me why I’m doing this or if I’m terrified and the answer is yes – I am. Completely and utterly terrified. I’ve stressed, I’ve lost sleep and I’ve considered not going.  Then I’ve had a word with myself and realised that the thought of not doing this and missing out on the opportunity is far worse.

Stop 1: The Philippines 🇵🇭

28 days of sun, sea and magical island adventures.  The Philippines has long been at the top of my bucket list for no other reason than that it looks like one of the most beautiful places I have ever…Googled.