Lost Girl's Workaway tips (or 'Dear Hannah')

Dear Hannah,

Lovely to meet you in Rotorua. I was planning to write a blog on Workaway and thought after our Bangkok chat I could address it to you. Sorry if you already know some of this, I'm putting it up on my website so am starting at the beginning.

What is Workaway?

Workaway is a site that connects travellers to hosts all over the world. You work for them, normally for around 5 hours a day in return for room and board. Some may pay, some may charge you for food. Every host is different but the site makes it very clear what the deal will be.

There are other sites that do this, most notably Worldpacker. You have to pay a subscription for these sites (£30 a year for Workaway) and Workaway had some projects I was interested in, so I chose them.

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What can you do on it?

Pretty much anything. I created a website for a sustainable resort in Sri Lanka, looked after dogs in Bangkok and I'm going to help tend to an olive grove on New Zealand's South Island. There are a NGOs, lots and lots of teaching English roles, farming, social media stuff, animal care, work on ski resorts, housekeeping, all sorts.

How do you pick the right Workaway?

The reviews are key. Reading what other volunteers thought will help you get a clearer sense of what your stay will be like. Do bear in mind that most reviews are kind, after to staying with someone for a week or more it's tough to be overly negative, so assume things are a little less rosy than the reviews would imply.

Make sure you choose a mutually beneficial workaway, you’re committing your time and your energy to a project, you should get something out of it. Perhaps you’ll develop a new skill or an in-depth knowledge of a fascinating area or maybe you’ll get to play with some dogs… My friend Matt, who was also volunteering at Green Tails, was looking at workaways on Japanese ski resorts where you get access to their kit and the runs in return for a few hours housekeeping.

My advice would be to consider:

Location - Can you get to it? Is it near other activities you'd like to do in your down time? Will it fit into your itinerary or is it worth the detour?

Accommodation - Lots of workaways have shared accommodation, which can actually be a bonus as it mean there will be other volunteers to hang out with. If you’re in an expensive country it might also be a chance to sleep in your own room for a week or two without paying a fortune.

Type of work - There's a few hosts that rang alarm bells for me. Some places should obviously be hiring staff rather than trying to get volunteers. Other hosts include families who seem to want an au pair and are okay with it be an unqualified stranger who can only stay for a week. It's good to pin down exactly what you'll be doing before you arrive. You can also suggest projects you could do for them based on their profile. It’s definitely possible to do work you enjoy.

Hosts - I've been extremely lucky so far with two outstanding hosts. The reviews, including the host's reviews of their volunteers, gives you an insight to their attitude. Lots of hosts offer to show you the area and give advice on travel and this is a real bonus.

My workaways

I chose my workaways for similar reasons- they offered a break from routine and a chance to help with a 'worthy' venture.

Tilak's estate

My first workaway was on Tilak's estate in rural Sri Lanka. He is creating a sustainable resort on his working coconut plantation.

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The description, and the reviews, made the estate seem like paradise, a perfect place to repair body and soul after being on tour. It offered three meals a day, kayaks, hammocks and a chance to get to know the real Sri Lanka. In return I would spend five hours a day making and populating his website.

The estate certainly lived up to my expectations, the open house we stayed in was a strange experience as it was somehow comfortable and predominantly outside at the same time. I also enjoyed making a difference, I left Tilak with a site that can go live when he's ready.

The other volunteers did different jobs on the estate. Sahir taught English at one of the houses at the community and did some writing for the website, Kevin (a Doctor) organised the first aid supplies and then helped with jobs around the estate and Jean got involved with the day to day running of the plantation, including building paths, clearing trees and fixing machines.

It was a bit of a mission to get anywhere from the estate, but worth it when we made the effort. We (myself and three other volunteers) had to entertain ourselves in the evenings, but Tilak had some cards and I had bought Bananagrams with me. There were also SO MANY MOSQUITOES, the only safe place was inside our nets. If you’re going into the countryside in a warm country get the best repellent money can buy. One of the other volunteers had treated his clothes with repellent before coming too which made a huge difference.

Tilak's motivations were interesting. As well as the work we provided, Tilak also wanted the Puttalam community to get used to travellers of all different shapes, sizes and colours- especially female tourists. I can see why, this is one of the only places I've been where I've been openly starred at.

Green Tails - Paws B&B

The second workaway I chose because of the dogs.

Stevie.jpg

There were other reasons for my interest in working at Natsuko's place in Bangkok, my own room (although sometimes volunteers share with a human or a dog), a week in one place after a couple of months of backpacking, three meals a day, payment for overtime and a chance to revisit Bangkok. But mostly I wanted to play with some dogs.

It was a chance to give something back to the canine community. I had passed so many starving, miserable strays on my journey through Asia and, at Natsuko’s, we looked after dogs who had been rescued from the streets and were awaiting adoption.

Some of the dogs had really heartbreaking stories. One dog, Olive, had been attacked by a woman with a machete and another, a puppy called Mukki, had been pretty much bitten in half by another dog. I did learn that there are ‘rescuers’ all over Asia, so if you see a dog suffering you might be able to find someone in the area to ‘rescue’ them.

The work was easy - taking the groups of dogs out, cleaning up after them, playing with them and helping to feed them. Natsuko cooked for us or ordered really delicious takeaway. Her beautiful house was about 40 mins from central Bangkok, a perfect place to relax and still have access to the city.

Hannah (and everyone) you should definitely get in touch with Natsuko about volunteering at Green Tails.

(I'd say the same for Tilak but he wasn't taking volunteers last time I checked.)

The Olive Grove

Workaway number three, which I haven't done yet, is helping Helen with her olive grove in a gorgeous part of New Zealand. Primarily I was looking for a week to stay still in a great place and this ticked all the boxes. The area, Oamaru , has hikes, penguins and wine, three of my favourite things. Will let you know how it goes!

Things to look out for:

Hosts taking the piss. A friend escaped a workaway in the middle of the night after being treated like a slave and only fed bread. This was a brewery in Scotland who should know better. You're not a serf, you're a volunteer. Your time is valuable- it's certainly worth decent meals.

Enthusiastic overworking. I did this in Sri Lanka. I got so into my project for a while that I forgot to take time enjoy myself and explore. Another volunteer, and then Tilak, pointed this out and I redressed the balance. Again your time is valuable, if you've agreed to five hours a day don't do loads more for free.

Getting bored in your downtime. If you’re not likely to leave your estate/farm/resort/manor house/family home up a mountain take stuff to do. Books (like Afterlife for example) or games. My new favourite game is Monopoly Cards, it’s got all the capitalist viciousness of Monopoly but only takes fifteen minutes to play.

That's all I can think of for now. Let me know if you have any questions. Have a great time!

Love,

Helen xxx

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

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Lost Girl's Singapore tips (or 'Dear Donna')

Dear Donna,

Hi Mum! I'm writing this one to you because I think you'd really enjoy Singapore. It's very orderly and futuristic, it's got a bit of a Canary Wharf vibe. Also putting this on my blog so there will be a advice for backpackers included.

Gardens by the Bay.jpg

Travel

It was such a relief to get to Singapore after months of tuk tuks, taxis and scooters. It has an MRT (train). It's well worth getting the tourist pass, for however long you're going to be there, at the train station under the airport. Then get the lovely cheap, clean, public transport to your accommodation. Also Singapore has pavements that are for walking on as opposed to driving/parking your scooter on.

Money

Is the Singaporean dollar. If you're coming from the UK Singapore will feel like it's quite good value. If you're coming from Asia you're in for a shock (the bad kind). Everything costs more and alcohol is heavily taxed. A beer costs upwards of $10 (usd).

Language

I did not know that English was the main language in Singapore so that was a nice surprise. The Singaporeans also speak Singlish which is English with several other languages chucked in.

Dresscode

For the first time my foolproof travel combo of hiking boots, hiking sandals and flip flops let me down. The nicer bars in Singapore want you to wear actual shoes.

Accommodation

I stayed at Atlantis Pods (that’s a link to their site, but when I tried to book directly I got told the best deals are on the booking sites).

It's a hostel but instead of a bed you have a pod. In this case a pod is a bed with a blind that is neither soundproof nor lightproof (ie. pointless.) I don't recommend the place for you mother or any solo travellers. I might have just been unlucky but it had a terrible atmosphere. Lots of people were staying there for work and had no interest in chatting. It was in the Bugis area though which is a great place to stay. Wherever you stay, try and pick somewhere close to the MRT.

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Activities

Haw Par Villa: Oh boy, Haw Par Villa. It is described as Singapore's nightmare theme park which is accurate. It has dioramas depicting Chinese legends, designed to teach school children morality. It also has the ten courts of hell to show them what will happen if they ignore those teachings. In the ten courts of hell you can see little people being impaled on trees made of knives and crushed by rocks and booked alive and similar. Horrific. I had a great time. It's free and easy to get to as it has it's own MRT stop. Oh I almost forgot they also have a little Museum of Death there which is as morbid as it sounds. It looks at how death is treated in the different religions. Was great research for book 3 in my Afterlife Trilogy (shameless plug).

Southern Ridges walk: This is fabulous. It's a walk that starts near Haw Par Villa and goes through the city for miles without ever leaving parks. I started about halfway up for the Tree top walk. I highly recommend this and starting at this end to avoid climbing loads of stairs at the start (near Harbour MRT). As well as the Tree top walk you go across a beautiful bridge and up to Singapore's highest point. Take water and snacks.

Singapore Zoo: Was recommended to me as it has big trenches between you and the animal instead of fences. It has displays on climate change and conservation as well as lots of happy looking animals. I had a really lovely day here.

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Gardens by the Bay: The Supertrees! They are amazing. At 7.45pm and 8.45pm every night they do a light display to music which was brilliant. You can eat at a restaurant at the top of a tree or you can buy some chips and watch from the bottom (guess which I did). It was a life highlight. There's lots to see in the rest of the gardens too. Allow a couple of hours for wandering and get to the trees slightly early for the light show to find somewhere to sit.

Cloud Forest: The Cloud Forest is one of two paid gardens within the Gardens by the Bay. Its great, a lot like the Eden project. They have created their own mountain eco system and planted the trees and flowers you'd normally find at each level. They also make their own cloud at various points during the day. There's a great display on climate change here including a film on what will happen to the world as the temperature increases degree by degree ( basically we're all screwed #spoilers). Best get to Singapore before the environmental apocalypse.

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Singapore Botanical Gardens: Is both beautiful and free and has monthly free classical concerts. These are great, they get crowded so big groups should go early. You can take a picnic including your own champers.

Food and drink

Hood Bar.jpg

Hawker Centres: These are basically food courts and they are the place to go for cheap Singaporean eats. Most malls will have one nearby and there are a lot of malls. Try Hainese Chicken which is a very simple chicken and rice dish.

Hood Bar: I went for a drink here on my own to listen to a band and had a lovely time. Mostly because a local girl decided to be my friend and made the bar staff (her friends) give me free drinks, thanks again Eliza!

Prince of Wales: The boringness of my hostel got to me and I headed to this bar in search of friends. I pretty much immediately got chatting to some travellers at the bar and then someone I knew from Vietnam walked in! If you're a solo traveller and looking for company this is absolutely the place to go. The food is pretty good too.

Skybars: Going to a rooftop bar to see the sunset is an essential Singaporean experience. I went to Loof Bar it was not a particularly high roof and did not have a view of the sun, but it had a decent happy hour and I didn't have any nice shoes so I steered clear of the swankier places.

That's about it!

I didn't stay in Singapore very long and you probably won't need more than a few days. Maybe do it on your way somewhere else? Like Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Sri Lanka?

Hope that's helpful.

Love you Mum, see you soon.

Helen xxx

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)

Lost Girl's Bali tips (or 'Dear Travel Fatigue')

Dear Travel fatigue,

You're a f*cker aren't you?

Someone can be in the most beautiful place in the planet and unwilling to get out of bed because of you.

Mango the kitten at Waterborn.jpg

You; the long drain on the traveller caused by poor sleep, lack of routine, planes, trains and automobiles, annoying lads, a questionable diet and a myriad of other things. Anyway I just wanted to tell you how I defeated you with the power of Bali.

Also this is going on my blog so there will be lots of helpful information too. A note for readers I only visited Bingin Beach, Ubud and Canguu, I've got a lot to say, but if you need info on Bali's other attractions try the Bali Bible (after reading this of course).

Money

The currency in Bali is the Indonesian rupiah. It is roughly 20,000 rupiah to £1 (GBP) and 15,000 to the US dollar at present. Do not become attached to your rupiah, you will not have it for long. Bali is expensive compared to the rest of Asia.

ATMs

ATMs can be a little dodgy or have low limits per withdrawal. If you're heading somewhere a bit more remote definitely take some money out at the airport.

SIMs

Likewise the airport is probably the best place to get a SIM.

There's all sorts of scams if you get them from the street. One lady tried to sell me a 2GB SIM for 500k (extortionate). I ended up getting a 7GB SIM for 300k (fair) BUT after about 2GB that SIM stopped working because, apparently, that 7GB is split between 3G, 4G and YouTube (why?). Get the phone guys at the airport to explain what you're getting so you don't get an unpleasant surprise.

Transport from the airport

I booked a transfer through my hostel. This is probably your best bet, at the very least find out the normal rate for your journey from your hostel. The taxis will probably try and rip you off and Grab won't work. On that-

The Taxi mafia

The local taxis in Bali have banded together to stop Grab (Asian Uber) from working and have been pretty successful. It does not work at all in Bingin (Uluwatu) or Ubud, but you can get some Grabs in Canguu. Bluebird taxis are metered and generally pretty good. There are also fake bluebird taxis. Watch out for these and negotiate a price up front. The motorbike taxis are pretty reasonable as long as you know how much you should be paying, a short trip in your local area shouldn’t cost more than 30k.

Scooters

I got on a scooter briefly in Bali. It did not go well. No one got hurt but I swore off them after that and I am really glad I did. Scootering in Bali is dangerous. Someone dies almost everyday, I saw someone come off their bike in Canguu and it was terrifying. If you've been on a scooter before go for it, carefully, and with a helmet. People, especially the tourists, drive like idiots.

Tips

Tips are included with tax and added on to bills at bars and restaurants.

Bingin Beach

Lovely Bingin. There's a lot of expats in Bingin, lots of them are very friendly. It's got a very chilled vibe. Go to relax.

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Accommodation: I stayed at Warung Stiky 2 after reading about it in a blog. It is a beautiful hotel and cafe set in the cliff above Bingin beach. The rooms are upstairs overlooking the sea with a seating area and hammocks outside. The private rooms were 250k a night and the mezzanine room, an open attic with a mattress and bug net, was 150k. I stayed in the mezzanine and it was great.

You have to walk down some steep stairs to get there, and some steep stairs to get back up, and if you're going to the beach there's some steep stairs involved. Basically wherever you go there will be stairs. This is legs and bums toning heaven.

I would classify Stiky 2 as advanced traveller accommodation (welcome to South East Asia level 2). They don't have WIFI, they are nowhere near an ATM and if you ask a question like 'Where can I get a SIM' you're going to get shrugs. If you want to go beyond Bingin, or to the ATM, you'll need a scooter or a taxi or really good walking shoes. Stiky 2 is not on booking sites, but you can message them on Facebook to book a room. It’s worth the hassle.

Things to do: I'm not going to lie, I 100% crashed out in Bingin and achieved very little, but I think that's part of the magic.

There are yoga classes at the Temple Lodge, Cashew Tree and Morning Light, none of which I went to.

There's the Pura Luhur Temple in Uluwatu, missed that.

And you can rent boards (50k) or get surf lessons (300k) on the beach, neither of which I did.

I did go for a walk along the beach at low tide which was stunning. Bingin beach can get quite busy but a few metres down the sand and you can find your own private cove- although something really creepy did happen whilst I was sitting doing some writing:

***Creepy story***

I was on my own in a little cove and a local guy walks by. Some other tourists pass, I do some more writing and the same guy comes back. Then a few minutes later he walks past and back again, slowly.

The tide starts to come in and I decide to head back. An English couple arrive and I take a picture for them. I then head back along the beach alone. I pass the same guy, now completely naked, heading back to where I had been sitting.

I look down a keep walking, but not before I see him clock me and hesitate.

I pass his clothes on the top of a rock and consider throwing them in the sea. I do not.

Batu beach.jpg

It was very creepy.

Dear men, speaking for all women who have been flashed, it's not a powerful look, don't do it. Both you and your penis look ridiculous.

***Creepy story ends***

Eurgh. You should be able to go on a walk on your own without that happening. Maybe if you're going to chill out off the beaten track take a buddy.

Anyway.

The beach; great for lounging. The rocks are covered in moss which put me off going in the water a little. The waves get crowded with surfers. It’s fun to watch them falling off.

Surf competitions: I was lucky to see a competition at Bingin while I was there, but I think they're a pretty regular occurrence in Uluwatu so be sure to have a Google.

Ecstatic dance: About ten minutes after I arrived my friend, and Bali guru, Claire took me to an Ecstatic dance session at Sannyas. This was intense. The teacher plays different music for each of the four elements and you just dance any way you like. It can release something primal in you. Give it a go. Rosanne does classes every Tuesday.

Sunset: You can watch the sunset from pretty much anywhere in Bingin but the cliffs round to the right (if you're facing the sea) are an especially lovely place.

Food: I ate at Kelly's Warung more than I should of. Didi's next door does amazing salads and young coconuts. And there is a fresh fish grill every evening on the beach. Away from the beach the Cashew Tree is 'the place to be with live music and great health food. The Italian restaurant, Casa Asia, was also great. It is best to book ahead for both of these places.

Ubud

Accommodation: I stayed at Sayong House in a dorm room. It was cheap, had a pool, was in a great location and clean enough. But breakfast was pathetic and there was no communal area so I only met one other traveller there. The wifi was rubbish too, but I think that's an Ubud wide issue.

Things to do:

Yoga: Oh yoga. I got a three session pass for Yoga Barn for 330k. They have gentle yoga and beginners yoga, great if you're trying it for the first time. I went to another class which was packed and the teacher started getting a little stressed because people didn't know what they were doing. The best class I have done EVER was also there, it's was Myofascular release and Yin yoga where the teacher showed us how to give ourselves a massage with tennis balls before going into the yin poses. (Yin is also good for beginners as it's super slow).

Monkey Forest: You will hear people telling you not to take anything into the monkey forest. Listen to them. Do not take anything with you to the Monkey Forest.

Wait that needs to be bigger-

Ubud Monkey Forest.jpg

Do not take anything with you to the Monkey Forest

I took my bag because I went on a whim and one of those little c*nts jumped on me, opened the top of my bag and stole my headphones and my antihistamines (why?) I was lucky they didn't find the zip to the main bit of my bag. I lived in London for ten years and that is the first time I've been mugged. Monkeys are the actual worst.

The Monkey Forest has some cool temples and sculptures though. That and monkeys, hundreds and hundreds of monkeys. Picture the monkey scene in the second Hunger Games, it's basically like that.

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Campuhan Ridge walk: This is a lovely and short walk out of Ubud to the rice paddies. I did it in the early morning which was fun, but next time I would try and time it to reach the restaurants by the paddies for sunset. Probably starting the walk at 4.30pm.

The Laughing Buddha: is a bar which has live music every evening. You need to buy drinks (Sangria is 80k) or food to watch or they'll charge you 100k. I went and saw a blues band on a Monday and they were outstanding.

Food:

Oh boy. The food in Ubud is exceptional. You have food of the highest standard at almost Asian prices.

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Locavore to go: YUM this is the cafe attached to Michelin starred Locavore. You can get lunch and breakfast here for an average Bali price (around 100k per meal). I had duck eggs and crispy bacon on waffle and it was the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Room 4 dessert: Chef Goldfarb set up this restaurant after reaching the top of his game in New York and burning out. It is a dining experience. If you book ahead you can get a tasting menu at one of their tables inside. We just had a la carte desserts in their beautiful garden. The ambience is great, it was really friendly staff and a fab playlist. They match cocktails with the desserts or they have prosecco that's so lovely it made me a little bit emotional. There’s an episode on ‘Chef’s Table’ on Netflix about the Chef.

Bollero: Gets a special mention because I ate here almost everyday, it was right next to our hotel. It was inexpensive and friendly, the spaghetti carbonara was especially good.

Canguu

This is the place travel fatigue. The place where I took my sword of energy and my shield of napping and I defeated you once and for all!

Canguu is bigger than Bingin and everything is in walking distance.

Accommodation: I stayed at wonderful wonderful Waterborn. The only dorm had five single beds and one of the nicest bathrooms I've ever seen. There were some private rooms, a beautiful pool and communal area and kittens! It also attracted a slightly older crowd. I ended up having dinner with four ladies all over the age of thirty! It was great! Cost for a dorm bed was 300k per night, but you can get a discount if you’re a genius on booking.com. If you're going to Canguu book Waterborn and book it right now. Stop reading and book Waterborn. It fills up fast.

Things to do:

Yoga: I did classes at Serenity Eco lodge (110k) and the Practise (140k). The Practise is a better venue but Serenity has more classes. Teachers at both were excellent. There's also Samadi studio which I didnt get to, bit is supposed to be even prettier.

Surfing: There's surf classes here, morning is probably best before it gets crowded. My friend hired a guy for private lessons and said it worked out cheaper than a surfcamp. I can get the number for you if you like. DM me on Facebook.

Beach: The beach has black volcanic sand and more stones covered in moss. There are so many surf shacks and bars where you can sit and chill or watch the sunset. There's also live music at sunset at Sand Bar .

Canguu party list.jpg

Party: Here's a list passed to me from another traveller of the places to party on any given day. I visited Old Man's on the beach which is huge and very clubby, Deus which had a superb live band and Luigis which had brilliant pizza and a table tennis table.

Be careful when you're out and about late at night. Lots of people drive drunk. I even heard a guy trying to convince a girl it was fine to keep driving when she wanted to walk. He was British. British lads on tour are the absolute worst. If I could wave a magic wand and give them all an STI I would save my energy because they probably already have one.

(You may notice whilst my energy is back, my patience with lads is not. Now I just have the energy to get more annoyed.)

Food:

Moana Restaurant: Unfortunately this has nothing to do with the Disney Princess. It’s still good though. Incredible fish dishes, average prices and popular with locals as well as tourists. Booking is recommended but we chanced it and were fine.

Betelnut cafe: Was my favourite. They have the perfect menu. You can get super massive salads or Mexican or even a delicious burger.

Warung Bu Mi: Very cheap and tasty Indonesian food. You can get a huge plate of food for 30k.

Overall: I mostly napped, ate and did yoga in Bali, but it I also started writing my next book which I'm really excited about. A girl I met at Ecstatic Dance told me that Bali is a spiritual power centre and that it will always give you what you need. In my case she was 100% right.

Have fun in Bali and f*ck you travel fatigue!

Helen xxx

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)

Lost Girl's Vietnam tips (or 'Dear Kirsty')

Dear Kirsty,

You haven't told me you're going to Vietnam yet but I'm pretty certain you'll end up here soon. Vietnam has everything you love, climbing, kayaking, trekking, caves, scooters, views, interesting food and some excellent bars.

I have had a love hate relationship with Vietnam, probably because I had a bit of travel fatigue and less resilience to the rudeness/scams/hoking spit sound people kept making/rats, so keep that in mind while you're reading.

I've started with some general stuff and then gone on to what I loved/hated about various places.

Money

Vietnam uses the dong (tehehe). It's around 23,000 to 1usd and 30,000 to 1gbp. I have had so many issues with the ATMs here. There are some reliable ones in the bigger cities - MBK is good and has no fees. Keep yourself an emergency stash in case you end up in a place where no ATM will accept your card.

Scams

We did Cambodia together so you know the drill, however Vietnam is next level. It’s basically the Boss Level when it comes to scams in South East Asia. There's a motorbike taxi scam which almost everyone I met in Vietnam had experienced:

You arrive somewhere after a long, often overnight, bus, and someone helps you with your bag and offers to take you to your hostel. It's probably 5am and you're tired, so you go with it. If you have the presence of mind to ask 'How much?' you don't get a proper response. You get on the back of a bike and what should be a 5 minute journey takes 20. The bike pulls up near, but not at, your hostel. The driver charges you 500,000vnd ($25) for what should be a 50,000vnd ($2.50) journey. Almost everyone argues it down but still end up paying far too much. These guys prey on tired, confused travellers.

Assume something like this will happen at every border, every airport and after every night bus. Don't try and 'wing it' with travel in Vietnam. That's how they get you. A friend got in a car taxi that took her money and then stopped on the motorway to put her on a night bus (going the wrong way). Another friend was convinced to get on a bike when she should have just been changing buses. Only the bus driver noticing and shouting saved her from being driven off into the night by this unscrupulous c*nt.

Other, less terrifying things, have happened like my hotel bill magically increasing. motorbike tour guides telling me that the attraction I am heading to is shut so I’ll go on his tour and restaurants producing a special tourist menu that is significantly more expensive than the first one we had.

Don't be put off visiting, just get prices in writing, do your research on how much stuff should cost and how to get places and NEVER take a motorbike taxi. I really hate those guys.

Download Grab (Asian Uber) and use that, most bus offices have wifi. Or pre-arrage a transfer with your hostel who should give you a reasonable price. Also do a quick search for the names of reliable taxi companies in the area you are going to.

SIM card

I bought a 30 day Vinaphone Tourist SIM with way more internet than I could use for 300k from a Post Office. Access to Google is a godsend in Vietnam when you’re not sure if you can trust what people are telling you. It’s well worth getting a sim.

Route

I did South to North, starting in Ho Chi Minh and ending in Hanoi. Lots of people do this, but if I'd known then what I know now I'd have done things differently, especially as I ran out of time/energy before getting to the north north (Sapa and Haigang).

Hoi An.jpg

I would have started in Hanoi, done the Haigang loop and Sapa, headed to Cat Ba, then Ninh Binh, then Phong Nha, then Hue then biked the Hai Van pass to Hoi An. I would have allowed three weeks to a month for this. After Hoi An I'd have flown to another country. You'll see this misses Dalat (which admittedly was fun), Mui Ne (meh) and Ho Chi Minh (boooo!). Obviously you'll make your own mind up on what you think you can miss. Either way give way more time to the north.

Motorbikes

You were talking about getting your bike license and, if you do, biking Vietnam is something lots of people do. If you're not going to bike the whole thing (there are some very long journeys) there's a company called Motorvina who hire bikes which you can pick up somewhere and leave somewhere else. Practice before you get to Vietnam if you can. The cities in Vietnam are not the place to get on a bike for the first time. You can practice places like Cat Ba and Ninh Binh though. Scootering around places made the difference between having an average time and an excellent time. I got on a scooter btw! On Cat Ba, my lovely friends Melissa and Patrick taught me and I scooted all the way to an attraction, quite slowly.

A tip from the guy who rented our bikes in Cat Ba was if the police try and stop you, you should just keep going and they won't chase you(?!) Also there's a police scam near Mui Ne that targets tourists on bikes.

***Get your international driver's license before you come. It's cheap and fast and you can get it from the Post Office. I regret not getting one.***

Tipping

Apparently tipping is only customary for massages and excellent service in a restaurant or similar. Everyone seems disappointed when you don't tip though.

Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Eurgh. Ho Chi Minh is literally the worst. Here I fell prey to the motorbike taxi scam AND I got really bad food poisoning and ended up on bed for two full days.

Good things about Ho Chi Minh...

Good things...

Well I didn't die crossing its stupid roads so that's probably something.

Oh yes, crossing roads, there are no crossings and generally no breaks in the traffic, you just have to walk into the road at a steady pace and trust the scooters not to hit you. Try not to cross in front of a car or bus though, they can’t swerve round you. Ho Chi Minh is by far the worst for this, although you also have to do dodgy crossing in Hanoi. God Speed.

Accommodation: I stayed at Vietnam Guide Home which was fine. I did their food tour which I don't think was the source of my food poisoning. The hostel has amazing reviews and I'm not too sure why. It's pretty standard, clean, nice staff although they did keep coming to have naps in the room I was in. I have one of their keys, could you take it back for me if you do go? If you do ignore all my advice and head to (terrible) Ho Chi Minh try and stay close to but not on Walking Street, the backpackers area. Friends stayed here and enjoyed themselves.

Activities: I went to the Cu Chi War Tunnels on a tour with guide Mr Bing. Mr Bing was a character, talked for pretty much the whole two hours to the tunnels with a slightly annoying habit of asking 'can I tell you?' or 'do you understand?' every minute, which was exhausting. He was a veteran though so he had some fascinating stories. The war tunnels were interesting but the 'Come and shoot a gun where loads of people died' approach was slightly jarring following the excellently sad and horrific museum at S21 in Phnom Phen.

I also visited the Reunification Palace. This is a big house with state rooms decorated in the 70s. Go if you like 70s decor.

The Water Puppets show was probably my highlight of Ho Chi Minh. It’s a bizarre and brilliant production unique to Vietnam. It depicts several Vietnamese folktales in Vietnamese so it was a little hard to follow. I did have a lot of fun trying to figure out how they did everything though. They also do shows in Hanoi. Tickets were 250k from their ticket booth.

Food: Pizza4ps is an excellent pizza chain it probably has the best pizza in Asia, but it's also has a restaurant in Hanoi so just go there and skip terrible terrible Ho Chi Minh. Don’t pay for a street food tour have a look and see if your hostel does one for free. Don’t go to a posh looking noodle place near Vietnam Guide Home, I’m pretty sure they poisoned me.

Ho Chi Minh to Mui Me

I bought an open ticket with Hanh Cafe to Dalat for 250,000 vnd. Open tickets save money in theory but I met a lot of people who hadn't been able to use parts of theirs. Hanh Cafe's buses were nice enough but their staff were really rude. If you book through the hostel make sure you can pick your ticket up from the Hang Cafe office. I met a girl who got told to pick hers up on the bus and this caused a lot of confusion (and some shoving from the staff). The journey was a few hours and surprisingly pleasant for me considering I had been throwing up for the two days previously.

Mui Ne

Missable.

Fairy Stream.jpg

Accommodation: I stayed at Mui Ne Hills Backpackers. The dorm rooms here were silly cheap and really lovely. There were three pools and various games and theme nights put on. That said I'm pretty sure it’s evil. My theory is that it's pricing the other hostels in the area out of the market. They warn you not to visit places outside the resort at night - did I mention they have a bar on site? And the staff were the most miserable I've seen. Also the food was overpriced and sub-par. You'll probably have to stay here when you travel as they'll have destroyed all their competition. (Not linking to them, don’t like them).

Activities: I convalesced by their pool which was nice and tried to eat solid food. I also went on their dawn tour of the sand dunes (interesting), the Fairy Stream (highlight) and the fishing village (I couldn't tell you why this is on the tour.) If you have the option, visit the dunes and the Fairy Stream on your own. We didn't have enough time to finish the Fairy Stream hike on the tour which was disappointing.

Mui Ne has other beaches which are apparently nice. It is also the kite surfing capital of Vietnam. I was too sick to try this but some friends did and had a lovely time.

Mui Me to Dalat

The Hanh Cafe staff unnecessarily made me go to their office to get the next part of the open ticket. They were rude and the Mui Ne Hills staff were rude. I was 100% losing the will by this point.

The journey to Dalat was four hours up into the mountains. Our driver was good so it didn't feel too dangerous.

Dalat

The beginning of the good times.

Accommodation: One quick horror story before the good times roll. I booked the private room at Dalat Friendly Fun Homestay and woke up at 1am with burning bites and bed bugs crawling on me. As you might imagine I was less than pleased about this. The owner, Lan, was lovely though. She convinced me not to leave and to take a dorm bed and then took my things and got them washed. The dorm bed was actually much nicer than the private so I stayed there - for free. I also saw them taking away the infested bed the next day so they were definitely dealing with the problem. They have good communal meals here which are a great way to get to know the other travellers. I can recommend the dorm as they're really comfy, but check for bugs before you settle in.

You can tell there might be bugs if there's blood spots on the sheets or what looks like then black biro marks on the mattress (this is their poo). There seem to be a lot of bed bugs in Vietnam, apparently Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (VBH) is notorious for them. Side note- VBH are all party hostels anyway so I avoided them.

Activities: Here we go, the actual beginning of the good times. I went on the hostel run 'countryside tour' for $15 which was very fun. It included a trip to a waterfall (wet), a weasel farm where they make weasel coffee (sad) and a cricket farm (crunchy).

Crazy House Dalat.jpg

I visited the Crazy House which was brilliant. You climb up and down stairs and round this gaudi-esque work of architecture. The Maze Bar is a must do, it was created by Đặng Việt Nga,the same woman who designed the Crazy House. It has five floors (I think) and it is a super fun health and safety nightmare. You climb up stairs and through holes and drink wine with new friends in various nooks and crannies.

We drank a beer at the Escape Bar. The Lonely Planet recommends it as a blues bar but it’s actually a dank little hotel bar with a band performing pop covers. Not great.

Dalat to Hoi An

Night bus booked by the hostel. It had a toilet! Which smelt! But it waylaid the normal pee anxiety I suffer on long bus journeys. Uneventful journey, arrived really early, motorbike taxis tried to scam my new friends Patrick and Melissa. In a twist from the normal end to the scam story Patrick and Melissa turned round and told the drivers off, telling them it wasn't nice and demanding a fair price. Strong work guys.

Hoi An

Beautiful, wonderful Hoi An!

Accommodation: I stayed in Tribee Cotu and it was excellent. Perfect location, great beds in a three bed dorm, lovely and quiet because this was the designated 'quiet hostel' in the Tribee family. There’s also a Tribee 'party hostel' and a Tribee 'swimming pool hostel'. They're all close together and you can use all the facilities.

Activities: Hoi An is a great place for a wander. The beautiful, lantern-decked old town is pedestrianised 9am -11am and 3pm -9.30pm. Wandering early is good as in the afternoon the tour groups arrive. Wandering in the evening is also excellent, it's crowded but when the lanterns along the river get lit it is gorgeous.

Other than wandering I also visited Hidden Beach. I highly recommend a day here. It's quiet and the beach chairs and restaurants are still run by the locals, rather than massive resorts. The chairs are free if you’re buying stuff from their bar as well. The beer is cheap and I had a very delicious shrimp curry there. You can swim, but be warned a jellyfish did float past me in the sea. You can also get a massage.

I could have stayed longer in Hoi An, this is the perfect place for a beach break if you're getting tired of travelling.

The Hai Van Pass

Hai Van Pass.jpg

The Hai Van pass is the incredibly scenic road between Hoi An and Hue. You go through mountains and alongside the sea. They did it on Top Gear apparently. Off topic - but isn’t Jeremy Clarkson just the Saigon of people? (Using Saigon rather than Ho Chi Minh here as Ho Chi Minh actually was a person and is still revered in Vietnam…Unlike Jeremy Clarkson…Aren’t jokes funnier after a long winded explanation?)

On topic - I let myself be convinced that I would be able to scooter the Hai Van Pass having never been on a scooter before. Luckily the man from motorvina told me I was an idiot and I hitched a ride on the back of a friend's scooter instead, thank god! The ride was incredible but it included negotiating cities, dirt tracks off mountains and parking in a crystal shop (literally). The Hai Van pass is probably not the place to get on a scooter for the first time. I was team photographer and navigator though so it all worked out alright.

I highly recommend doing the pass, even if you book an easy rider (local driver). Use Motorvina who charge 350k for the bike and transporting your luggage. Leave early as there are lots of great places to stop on the way and driving in Hue in the dark is not easy.

Hue

Fuuuuun.

Accommodation: I stayed at Why Not Hostel which had excellent beds and (for some reason) a cowboy theme. It was a quiet hostel even though the dorm was really big. The bar was fun and the food was fine, but expensive. It was recommended by a my Laos pal Esther and I enjoyed it too so it’s a safe bet.

Abandoned theme park Hue.jpg

Activities: I slightly failed at Hue and did not see the Imperial City, which is the thing to see (oops!). However I did see AN ABANDONED WATER PARK!!! We scootered to Ho Thuy Tien, the park, and reached a barricade where we were turned away, but we looked so sad the guard mumbled ‘out and left and left again’ to us. We found another entrance and another guard who we bribed a 20k each to get in. It was the most South East Asian day ever! There were abandoned slides and cows and an abandoned aquarium! The aquarium was the best bit. It’s well worth the journey and not that hard, we followed google maps and then went round the left hand edge. My friend got a Grab bike, she still had to pay 20k at the park but the driver took her around the park and waited while she took pictures.

Hue to Phong Nha

Short bus journey, uneventful.

Phong Nha

Where my patience ran out.

Accommodation: Easy Tiger in Phong Nha was recommend by everyone and I don't know why. It has average dorms, a nice pool, a live band that are fun the first time you hear them, a cute puppy and some average food. It is also full of lads. Most of the good things about Easy Tiger (ie. the puppy) you can access without staying there.

I had another incident of someone keeping everyone else awake by having sex in the dorm. I stupidly didn't say anything before it started and felt too awkward to say something during. After lying with my pillow over my head for a shuffly, squealy hour I was furious with both myself and this lad, this epitome of the British lad who thinks he can act however he wants abroad and not suffer any consequences. So when I heard him and his lady friend leave the room I locked them out…

... When he kicked the door a couple of hours later I let him in... and we had a little argument where the excuse 'but it's a party hostel' was used, the exclamation 'Its not okay to act like that.' was used and we parted as friends. That is to say he apologised and avoided me until he left.

For every three people who recommend Easy Tiger I vehemently unrecommend it unless you're under the age of 22.

Activities: Accommodation aside, Phong Nha is really good fun. Getting places on a scooter is better than booking a tour.

Phong Nha cave: In the town, walking distance. You split 350k for a boat between up to 12 of you (make some friends) and go on a journey into a cave. It's a lovely trip down the river to a quiet cave that had barely anyone there when we went in the afternoon. There's also the cave entrance fee which is 150k.

Paradise Cave Phong Nha.jpg

Paradise Cave: Arrive early. Tickets cost 250k. It’s about 45 minutes from the town to the national park and the drive is beautiful. We got to the cave at 11am and it was already very busy. There were some massive tour groups with their leaders on megaphones. There’s fun, quite steep hike up and you walk through this cave for an hour. I’d lost all patience with big tour groups a while before (remember Angkor Wat?) so for this reason alone I preferred Phong Nha Cave to Paradise.

Dark Cave: Arrive REALLY early. We tried to go at 2pm and there was over an hours wait with no guarantee we'd get in. We came back as it opened the next morning and were the first people in. We had a group of seven (a great number for the tour), saw a snake (it was still asleep) and had the cave to ourselves for the swimming and mud-bath. We then played on the super dangerous obstacle course and zipline. Well worth the 450k entry fee if you get there early.

The restaurants in the national park (near Dark and Paradise) are mediocre and expensive. Try and take lunch with you.

Duck Stop: An utterly bizarre and really fun duck related experience. For 150k you hang out with the ducks, get a drink and some food. You definitely should go.

Sunset at the Farmstay: It’s near the Duck Stop and you get a really lovely view of the sun setting over the fields. It's possible to stay at the Farmstay too. If I ever go back I'll stay there and not at stupid stupid Easy Tiger, the Saigon of hostels.

The Indian restaurant in Phong Nah is expensive but nice. Was a lovely change to get an Indian curry!

My suggestion for Phong Nha in a day- 7am Dark Cave, lunch in town, Phong Nah Cave, Duck Stop and Farmstay for sunset. If you’ve got more time spread those activities out and check out the others, there lots to do, most of it cave related.

Phong Nha to Ninh Binh

Agreed amongst my Vietnam pals as one of the worst journeys ever. There were no seats left on the night buses due to a holiday so we got the train. There were no beds left on the train so we got seats. It was long and hot and uncomfortable and more expensive than the shorter bus journey. Don't bother with the train if you have a choice.

Ninh Binh

Captivating but you probably only need a day.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Riverview homestay, the dorms were average but the view was outstanding. Not much atmosphere but lovely for a day. They also let us go to bed when we arrived at 6am after the night train for which I'm eternally grateful.

Ninh Binh.jpg

Activities: the boat trip in Trang An is great. You get three options with varying numbers of caves. We chose route three which took us through three caves, to some pagodas and to the set of King Kong Skull Island (which none of us had seen). Trang An is stunning and we got involved in paddling our little boat too. We (four women and our driver) also had a race with a boat full of guys and destroyed them which was enjoyable.

Phong Nha to Cat Ba

The hostel booked the Cat Ba express for us which was lovely. 330k for pickup, ferry and drop off at our hotel in Cat Ba. Comfy bus with USB chargers, the bus comes onto the ferry so you don't need to worry about your bag and a friendly host/guide gave us lots of Cat Ba information.

Cat Ba Island.

Also known as Rat Ba.

Accommodation: We started at the Cat Ba Island Hotel where I had sprung for a private (£8pn). The beds were rock hard, there was construction going on in the room next to mine and the builder was smoking which seeped into my room, probably through the holes he was drilling in the connecting wall. Otherwise it was okay.

Over the weekend we ended up somewhere which was probably called Thang Truan. It seemed to have a different name on the blackboard every day. This is probably to stop people destroying them on Tripadvisor as the hotel is pretty bad. I was quoted 200k a night and then charged more when I checked out, the bed was probably made of concrete and, AND we saw a huge black rat do a swan dive from a high cupboard to the ground and then scurry away.

The hotels on Cat Ba all seemed to have fake reviews, or at least testimonials by apparently native English speakers that aren't written properly. The Cat Ba Island Hotel was fine if you need a recommendation.

Lan Ha Bay kayaking.jpg

Activities: Accommodation aside, I had a marvellous time in Rat Ba. We did the kayak and climbing day in Lan Ha Bay run by Asia Outdoors (the people you should work for) which was superb. It was £44 which sounds like a lot compared to other things in Vietnam but is actually really cheap for kayaking, lunch and climbing with all the safety equipment. It all felt very safe too. Highly recommended.

***You can do Cat Ba instead of Halong Bay*** Lan Ha Bay is apparently the same as Halong Bay but with less tourists and less plastic. We did have a plastic pick up competition whilst we kayaked which I am claiming I won as I picked up a welly boot.

Cat Ba is good to scooter around, I even had a go. The hike to the viewpoint in Cat Ba National Park is fun and the Hospital Cave is a short, but interesting trip. And Cannon Fort is great for sunset,

Beaches: Cat Co 1 is terrible and Cat Co 2 is also terrible. They are expensive, crowded resort beaches. However there is a walk between the two of them around the edge of the island that is stunning. You may see Cat Co 3 on your way round. I did not, I think it was underwater. For a brilliant beach day you may want to hire a kayak and go find one amongst the crasts, not on your own though okay?!

Food: Casa Bonita has a the best breakfast I had in Vietnam. A little pricey but the wake-up smoothie is epic. Mona cafe has an excellent view of the bay and is a good place to watch sunset. And the restaurant to the right of Asia Outdoors (if you're facing it) does spicy garlic beef that is so good we went back to have it for breakfast.

Cat Ba Island to Hanoi

We booked with Good Morning Cat Ba through Asia Outdoors for 250k. They picked us up from Asia Outdoors and do a few stops in Hanoi so will get you pretty close to your accommodation. This option was bus – speed boat – bus. It was quick, around three hours in total. You do have to lug your bag around between buses and boat but it was still pretty good.

Hanoi

I loved Hanoi which was surprising.

Accommodation: I stayed at the Babylon Garden Inn. It was fine. The pool looked a bit grim so I didn’t go swimming and the rooftop bar plays aggressively loud music from about 5pm. I’m holding a minor grudge because they wouldn’t let me get cashback when my debit card stopped working. They also wouldn’t let me use their phone to make a reverse charge call to my bank, so when they said stuff like ‘If you need anything just ask’ it felt a little fake. That said the beds were fine, the breakfast was excellent and it’s in a great location. It attracts a young crowd so maybe pay for a smaller dorm. Also check out Cocoon Inn which was highly recommended. I sort of wish I stayed there.

Activities: I read a blog on Hanoi which said that the people who enjoy it most are the ones that take it easy and I 100% agree with this. Hanoi is hot, busy and the traffic is insane. A couple of times I napped through the hottest part of the day and I regret nothing!

The Lake: It’s a lake. It’s pretty. There are lots of expensive bars and restaurants around it. We visited the Note Coffee, a café covered in post-its. It was very cute, lots of the notes people left were hilarious (I censored one that said ‘Make money/f*ck bitches/live life’ by sticking my own positive note over the top). The coffee there is also very good and reasonably priced. I tried egg coffee here, it’s really good!

Hanoi Social Club Tiny Music Club.jpg

Hanoi Social Club: We happened to be in Hanoi on a Tuesday which is when Hanoi Social Club have their Tiny Music Club. We saw an acoustic guitar gig in their tiny rooftop venue but apparently it changes. It’s worth the 70k entrance fee for the setting alone. They do good (pricey) food, get there early for food as they fill up. There’s other arts events on there too, check out their schedule.

Vietnam Fine Arts Museum: Enjoyable activity if it’s raining or too hot which are Hanoi’s two main states. It’s only 40k to get in and the art is organised in a timeline from prehistoric pottery to modern art. There’s some spectacular lacquer art too if you’re into it.

Hỏa Lò Prison: An ex-prison and state memorial to revolutionaries confined by the French. It is pure propaganda. It is a very interesting mix of ‘look how barbaric the French were’, ‘look how brave our revolutionary fathers were’ and ‘look how nice we were to captured Americans when we were in charge’. Lots of it is true, of course, but I found the way they used the facts more interesting than the place itself. It’s 40k and takes around an hour to wander round.

The Old Quarter: Try and stay here. It has topsy-turvy streets each dedicated to selling a particular item – like tape or metallic household goods or plastic toys. Fun to wander around with competitive prices from bars selling beer and western food. Keep an eye out for Leu Coffee, a circus themed bar with a lantern lit balcony overlooking the chaos.

Friends went and saw the Water Puppets in Hanoi and enjoyed it.

My bad

Totally missed Sapa (trekking) and the Haigang Loop (three day motorbike tour) which are supposed to be incredible. Learn from my mistakes and get these in early.

There we go.

I hope you love Vietnam when you go and I hope you’re having a lovely time in London just now.

See you soon xx

Ps. And always remember - Make money/ f*ck bitches/ live life.

Oh, also Kirsty-

Mukki.jpg

(Context: One way or another I managed to make Kirsty, my long time friend and Cambodia travel mate, look at this picture of Mukki, the puppy, every single day of our Cambodia adventure. Hilarious right?!) Explaining jokes really is half the fun.

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Lost Girl's Laos tips (or 'Dear Melissa and Patrick')

Dear Melissa and Patrick,

I’m currently sitting next to you on the Mona Rooftop bar overlooking a rainy Cat Ba Bay in Northern Vietnam. The cocktails are half price, it’s pretty chill.

So, here is everything I remember from Laos. It’s been over a month ago and two full countries since I left Vientiane but I can still remember the excellent and the awful…

I’ve split my experiences into sections with some general stuff first, I’m also putting this on my blog.

Money

Laos is the first place I was a millionaire. You get 10,000 Laos kip to $1.17 (the dollar is freakishly strong right now) or 91p (GBP). I didn’t have trouble finding or using any ATMs but I stayed on the main tourist trail as you will see… Also try not to take Laos kip out of the country, no one will change it for you.

Crossing the border from Thailand

We stayed a night in Chiang Rai and took the local bus to the border. It could not have been easier, buses run from Chiang Rai bus station every half an hour. We crossed on a weekend and the border was deserted. Take the usual for a visa on arrival (double check this is still available before you travel) – passport photo and the current fee (35USD for UK and USA at time of writing).

After checking out of Thailand you take a shuttle bus to Laos (check when this bus is leaving before going to the loo or similar as there aren’t that many on a weekend). You then check in to Laos and get your visa, easy, there’s ATMs and money exchanges if you need them. The most boring part of the journey for us was waiting for the shuttle bus into to town to have enough people in it to leave.

All I can really remember is that this was a super simple border crossing. There’s a very thorough blog, with pictures, by TietoThailand if you need more info.

Huay Xai

Sunset in Huay Xai.jpg

Loads of People slag off Huay Xai, the phrase ‘dusty border town’ has been used, but we had a great time here,

Accommodation: We stayed at the Gateway Hostel for the night before and after the Gibbon Experience. First we stayed in the dorm, then a twin as it was the same price (£10/$13pn). You can also have a go at haggling here. The private was nice enough. Not spectacular but cheap and in a very good location.

(Gateway hostel was also rat-free. I’m adding this after we watched a rat leap from a high cupboard to the floor in our current hotel. A new low bar for hotels has just been created.)

Food and Activities: We ate at Sensabay Restaurant a few times, it was pleasant, there’s a very friendly baby wandering around. We also ate ate Daauw Home, an excellent social enterprise, with an excellent balcony. Daauw Home is on the way up the hill to Wat Chomkao Manilat which is a beautiful temple. It is free to wander around and has a fantastic view of the sunset. We also helped the trainee monks practise their English here. Prepare answers for - ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Do you like football’ and ‘How is the weather?’

I had an excellent massage in Huay Xai at a shop with no name on the opposite side of the road to hotel. I think it might be the only place in Huay Xai. They just had a few mattresses on the floor but it was probably the best massage I’ve had in Asia.

The Gibbon Experience

Oh boy. The Gibbon Experience. It’s up there with Climbodia in Kampot, Cambodia and the Asia Outdoors Kayak/Climb day on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam as one of my favourite South East Asia experiences. It’s not cheap. I did the two day express option which had 21 ziplines, an overnight stay in one of the world’s tallest tree houses and jungle trekking and it cost £144/$185. Note that if you choose the two day option you don’t go deep enough into the jungle to see any gibbons.

Treehouse at the Gibbon Experience.jpg

The website says you need to be in ‘good physical shape’ to do the two day tour. What this means is if you are in ‘average physical shape’, or, if you were in ‘good physical shape but you sort of let yourself go whilst travelling’, the initial trek will almost kill you. It’s hot, it’s uphill and they go fast. I don’t want to put you off. Patrick and Melissa you’ll be fine. Everyone fitter than me, you’ll be fine. Everyone else… start training now or check out the other options where you don’t hike uphill for what feels like an eternity.

The ziplines are incredible, the jungle is beautiful, the tree houses are awesome and the Gibbon Experience is super ethical, your money is going into the national park and the local community. Do take a book for downtime in the tree house. The guides (who are great) give you some rice whiskey but you could BYOB if you can handle carrying it. Highly recommended. Check the weather before you book it.

The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

Slow Boat to Luang Prabang.jpg

You have the option, when travelling to Luang Prabang from the north, to take the two day trip down the Mekong River. You can book this in Huay Xai, ask for a seat near the front (away from the noisy engine) and they’ll try their best. Also check what time the boat will actually leave, we sat on it for an unnecessary hour, thinking we were waiting for it to fill up, but it had always been scheduled to leave at 11.30am.

The slow boat is slow and scenic (and a boat) take a book and podcasts and have motion sickness pills on standby. And take lunch and snacks.

The biggest piece of advice I have is book your overnight accommodation in Pak Beng.

Wait, that needs to be bigger-

BOOK YOUR OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATION IN PAK BENG

Pak Beng is the overnight stop the slow boat makes and it is terrible. It is an airport departure lounge of a town. You can’t leave and the hotel owners know it. They crowd on the dock as you arrive to offer ridiculously cheap rooms. We took a cheap room, it was mouldy. Someone else took a cheap room and the hotel owner PULLED A KNIFE ON THEM when they said they didn’t want to have breakfast there. It’s not worth the hassle. Do some research and book yourself a decent room with good (genuine) reviews.

Weirdly the food in Pak Beng is really nice. We went to Hive Bar and got Indian food delivered, it was delicious. Our hotel made us a packed lunch – fried, rice, cashews and pineapple – and I can reveal that this is a meal that travels well.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is my favourite place in Laos.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Sunrise Riverside Hostel, it was nice enough, good breakfast, $6pn and a sociable common area, but no private rooms I’m afraid. It was near Utopia bar which is just awesome, I visited the deck overlooking the Mekong in the evening, but apparently during the day there’s yoga and lots of digital nomad/creative types getting on with their projects there. Try and stay near here.

Activities: We went and saw the monks collecting food at dawn here – you’ll probably see this in Cambodia. We also visited Icon Klub. You’ll love this place Melissa, its like a little Parisian cafe, its run by an artist and has a box of uplifting quotes from inspirational people.

UXO Luang Prabang.jpg

Kuang Si Waterfalls was big and brown when I went, but it’s normally turquoise. It’s fun to walk around, you can swim if it hasn’t been raining and it has a bear sanctuary within the park.

The UXO (Unexploded Ordinances) is the place to go to learn more about the Secret War and how its debris is still crippling Laos. Warning, America is 100% the bad guy here, but you’re probably used to that after Vietnam... It’s a short but powerful trip, it does also make a point of showing how much money the USA now gives t o help Laos clear the bombs.

My other recommendation for Luang Prabang is the Garavex Storytelling theatre which is 50,000kip a ticket. It’s an hour of Laos folktales (in English) with traditional music. It’s a small theatre so it’s worth trying to pick up tickets before the show. Their site says tickets from 6pm but we swung by at 5pm and there was someone there selling them.

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng

We took a minibus organised by the hostel. It’s not that far and I don’t really remember the journey so it’s not one to worry about.

Vang Vieng

Oh Vang Vieng. To say I loathed Vang Vieng is probably too strong, I think I just hated it.

Accommodation: We stayed two nights at Jenin Backpackers in a private room that cost £8/$10 per night. It was dull. There was no atmosphere but it was clean and the staff were nice enough. Nana Backpackers might get recommended to you, this is a party hostel and I think their pool gave everyone pink eye.

Activities: The main road is full of bars giving away free alcohol. The main activity there is river tubing from bar to bar down the Mekong, which is apparently awesome. I didn’t go because first Vang Vieng made my friend really sick, then it made me really sick, so I didn’t really do anything fun at all. I’m sure you’ll have a better time.

Vang Vieng to Vientiane

See Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. I do remember that this minibus was especially nice. I don’t remember how much it cost. Probably around $7… #yourwelcome.

Vientiane

I’d heard a lot of bad things about Vientiane but we stayed for a day and really enjoyed it.

Accommodation: We treated ourselves to the New Usouk Boutique Hotel which was the relatively expensive price of £15/$19pn. It was lovely, great location, nice rooms, highly recommended.

Buddah Park.jpg

Activities: The best activity in Vientiane was not in Vientiane, it’s the Buddah Park. You can get the local bus (14) there for 6,000kip each way. For me it was a great mix of beautiful and amusing. I really enjoyed the one reclining Buddah which looks like its face is melting (it’s an art exhibition so I think I’m allowed to say that).

I also really enjoyed Earth Bar which had a good vibe, board games and reggae music.

Vientiane airport

A quick one on Vientiane airport if you’re passing through. Don’t expect to find ANYTHING beyond security because all there is is Pringles. Eat before you go through. Also don’t be too early, I think my check in/bag drop only opened two hours before my flight.

Have an excellent time guys! Hopefully see you in the Philippines! x

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)

Lost Girl's Cambodia tips (or 'Dear Esther')

Dear Esther,

So nice to see you in Vietnam! What are the chances we'd book the same hostel in Ho Chi Minh?! Anyway, below are my tips for Cambodia which I'm also putting on my blog, I've got some general stuff first and then what I did/enjoyed/despised listed by place.

Money

The main currency in Cambodia is the American dollar. They also use their own currency (the Riel) although mostly as change. 4000 riel is a dollar so if you want to pay for something that's $2.50 you could pay $2 and 2000 riel. It's surprisingly easy to pick up. ***WARNING*** There is a ridiculous system in Cambodia where shops won't accept old, damaged or torn notes. Check your money when it's handed to you. Also the ATMs give out $100 bills try and break these before going to the islands or anywhere rural.

Siem Reap

We stayed at Lub-d in Siem Reap in a ten bed female dorm. It had new a beautiful facilities, solid, comfy beds with stairs instead of ladders so being on the top bunk was fine. The dorm was silent at night, which was lovely. It has a pool and a nice bar. It did feel more like a hotel and it was perhaps the least social place we stayed although there are events and the staff are very friendly.

We chose the three day option for Angkor Wat and were really glad we did. It's $62 for the pass and we ended up spending another $90 for a tuk tuk for three days. We arranged this with one of Lub-d's drivers and could had probably got it cheaper if we'd asked elsewhere. He did have free water on board through which was very useful!

Kbal Spean.jpg

You'll have already read about the temples I'm sure so I shall limit myself to a couple of sentences here. On the first two days we started super early which worked as it gets really hot and/or rainy around midday. My favourite day was the river carvings at Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei, the gorgeous pink ladies temple, which are a drive out of Siem Reap.

I'd recommend getting lunch from a bakery before going to the temples as your driver will try and take you to the more expensive restaurants where they get free food. The Scandinavian Bakery is close to Lub-d, we got lunch there.

Siem Reap to Battambang

Lub-d booked us on the Mekong Express to Battambang which was one of the nicest buses I've been on. Really easy journey which only takes three hours. I didn't take the boat between Siem Reap and Battambang but I heard that it is horrible.

Battambang 

We stayed at Pomme hostel in Battambang and loved it. It has little cubicle style single rooms, a funky bar that attracts locals and expats and very friendly staff. We did the hostel run afternoon tour to the (original) Bamboo train and bat caves which was very enjoyable. It cost $8 for the tour and $5 for the train. 

We also kayaked down the river in Battambang booked through Green Orange Kayaks which was very exciting. Although, due to some slightly dodgy directions, we left the boat in the wrong place and they thought we'd drowned... Using MapsMe and a waterproof phone cover and getting our hostel to ring them when we got back would have prevented this...

Kirsty at Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus.jpg

My other top tip for Battambang is the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus. My circus loving friend Kirsty was desperate to go and she was not disappointed. It was excellent and imaginative. TBH I don't really like circus that much and I loved it.

Battambang to Kampot

***WARNING*** We got the Rith Mony night bus (booked by the hostel) and it was a nightmare.  There were cockroaches and other bugs everywhere. The second leg was in a minibus which the driver had jammed full of stuff he was delivering so there was no leg room. Don't let anyone book you on this company. Worst. Journey. Ever.

Kampot

Despite my distrust of this infamous chain of party hostels we stayed at the Mad Monkeys in Kampot. It turned out to be very fun, although we went for a private room rather than risking the dorms. Also our first private room stank of paint and didn't have a door handle so we got a free upgrade. 

On our first night there we did Captain Chim's sunset tour. It was $5 with one free beer which is not the best deal you'll see on the promenade. It also had no toilet or bar. But, we had it to ourselves and it took us much further up the river than the pub boats and we actually saw a fire fly! Just the one though. Captain Chim's rickety old boat is great, maybe take a couple of extra beers and a she-we.

We did the hostel run jungle trek which was $8, quite muddy, but enjoyable. I did fall in a river and almost get washed away... will tell you about it over a beer.

Our big activity there was Climbodia which was EPIC! It's a bit pricey at $40 for half a day but well worth it, it's been described by several friends as the best thing they did in Asia. You do climbing, ab- sailing and traversing and then a climbing session in the caves.

Kampot had my favourite bar and favourite burger place in Cambodia. 'Oh Neils' the Irish bar has great music and the Burger Shack is cheap and excellent and has a MacDonalds sign outside which is pretty funny.

Kampot to Koh Rong Samleom 

Mad Monkeys booked this for us with Kep Travel. The journey was fine, it's not too long, bus, shuttle bus, boat... it's only about a three hour journey in total.

Koh Rong Samleom 

We initially stayed at Dragonfly in M'Pai Bay, also known as 'The Village'. The Village was great, there was still lots of Cambodian life happening, kids, schools and midnight beach cows.

The Dragonfly dorm was nice enough, single beds, mosy nets, did get a bit hot. The bar there was fun, it has a good spot for watching the sunset (you'll need to get someone to show you). Have a look what you think, there's also an Easy Tiger there which is next to Dragonfly and highly recommended.

***WARNING*** There are no proper showers in M'Pai and lots of signs saying to save water. There's also no ATMs. They also hate it if you take $100 bills so try and break big notes.

We did the walk from M'Pai to Driftwood which takes about an hour, along beaches and through the jungle. Wear decent shoes. That was fun. Driftwood was cute (and vegetarian Esther!) And we could get a boat back for $5 each.

There was also a boat tour with snorkelling with a guy called Clayton who hangs out in the town in the morning before the tour leaves at 11.30. This was a brilliant day.

For our last night we moved to Saracen Bay to a hostel that was possibly called Yuvo??? I can't really recommend it. Saracen Bay's beach is much nicer and very resorty, fun for a night as there was also a party at Blue Dog hostel.

Koh Ring Samleom to Phnom Phen 

We got the boat back to Sihkanouvile (which looked a bit dull) and, because the boat was an hour and a half late, just made our Giant Ibis bus to Phnom Phen. That bus was long but pleasant. If you're short of money try and go to an ATM before you get on board as it stops at quite a pricey restaurant half way.

Phnom Phen 

Phnom Phen smells. You'll see. 

We stayed at the Mad Monkey again, again in a private room ($15). It was directly above the bar so super noisy until midnight. They do have a quiet side though so you could maybe request that. Despite my deep distrust of Mad Monkey pub crawls we went on theirs and it was really fun.

Activities-wise we did S21 (the prison camp) which was horrific and then the Killing Fields (which was also horrific). This is the best order to visit them in. I think the tuk cost us $18 for the day. These are heartbreaking attractions but must-dos. Just prepare yourself for the horror and take some tissues.

... there we go! Hope that is helpful. . 

Have a great time! 

Xxx

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)

Lost Girl's Sri Lanka tips (or 'Dear Dario')

Dear Dario,

Hope you're very well and having a lovely London summer. Here are my tips for Sri Lanka. I'm also putting this on my blog so I've written everything I know and split it all into sections, general advice first and specific places after, just read the bits you need.

Money

Sri Lanka has a closed currency so you have to exchange it, or get it out of an ATM, when you're there. The best ATMs to use are Commercial Bank (charges a Rs 400 fee) and Hatton National Bank (which I don't think charges). There's also HSBCs about. It's about 200 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs) to the pound.

IMPORTANT: You need a receipt for a withdrawal/ exchange of rupees in order to change your money back when you leave, so hang onto one.

Only big places take credit cards it's good to have cash, preferably small change on you at all times.

Transport

Sri Lanka train station.jpg

There are tuk tuks everywhere which are generally the cheapest way to get around. If they have a meter get them to put it on. The buses are great, very cheap but can get busy. It's best to ask your hotel/hostel for times as there's not much online. 

The trains are also great but some routes get very crowded especially in second class. Of the three classes I did first class once which gives you a guaranteed seat and air con, it cost Rs1000 and was very pleasant. I did unreserved second class once, which has fans and open windows and cost Rs260 (for 7 hours). Second class was a lot more fun. If you want a second class seat book as early as possible in any Sri Lankan train station ESPECIALLY the Kandy to Ella train as that books up weeks in advance. You can buy tickets for any journey at any train station.

Drivers will try and sell their services by telling you that journeys between Sri Lankan cities are horrible. They're not. The bus didn't let me down and was super cheap. Towards the end of my trip though I did find a Facebook group called Sri Lanka taxi share, might be worth joining this to see if you can share longer journeys to save on travel time.

Toilets and toiletries

I wrote a blog about the toilets. There's lots of squat toilets so be prepared for that. Take tissues, anti-bac and warn Liv to take any feminine products she needs as it's super hard to get hold of those. Sun cream is also very expensive so take plenty. THERE ARE SO MANY MOSQUITOES, especially in rural areas, take the strongest repellent you can find. Roll on repellent lasts way longer than sprays and if you’re going really rural it may also be worth treating your clothes.

Full moon festival

Whenever there's a full moon the religious places and transport get very crowded and nowhere serves alcohol. There's also parades and people give out free food on the street which is lovely.

Alcohol

Actually, on alcohol, there's a strange (to me) drinking culture in Sri Lanka. Alcohol is banned in sacred areas and not available at lots of restaurants. Most hotels do have a bar though. You can buy booze but from a bottle shop rather than a supermarket. Local women don't drink, men do, but in a secret, slightly shameful way. Never buy alcohol as a gift for a local. 

Accommodation

I've listed all the places I stayed and what I thought of them. I guess you guys will be doing more hotels and guesthouse than hostels. You'll be able to get something nice for around £20pn.

Jaffna

The main city in the north.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Theresa Inn which was average. Nice room, lovely food, very helpful owners (and dachshunds!) but not very clean. So far no one that worked on the project I did has found a really good guesthouse or hostel in Jaffna.

Nallur Kovil.jpg

Things to do: We visited the Nallur Kovil (massive Hindu temple) at 4pm, ceremony time, which was incredible. Dario you have to go in topless, because you're Irish.* Near there are some places of interest, including the Mantiri Manai which is a really beautiful derelict building. We attempted to visit the Library and failed to get in because it only lets in visitors 4-6pm each day. We went for a walk around the fort which was big and fort-like.

We spent a day visiting the island Delft. You need to get a bus to the port to go to Delft, you want to be on a bus around 6.30am to be able to get the 8am boat. The journey to the port is beautiful. I also got seasick on the way over so take pills if you suffer from motion sickness. There's places to but food and drink near the port and on the island, but perhaps take a picnic. Delft is lovely, go if you want to see ruins, a baobab tree, wild horses and pretty beaches. We got a tuk for half a day to take us on a tour of the island which cost Rs2000.

Food: Had some ice cream at Rios (near the Nallur Kovil) which was lovely and a Mango Special Dosai at Mangos Restaurant which was BRILLIANT I highly recommend this restaurant and this dish. Mangos is also near the Nallur Kovil so you could go after visiting the temple and sites.

Anuradhapura

Ancient city. From my experience I would recommend spending and afternoon and night in Anuradhapura and then moving on (possibly to Sigiriya).

Accommodation:  We stayed at the Milano Tourist Rest which was a little pricey (double room Rs4500pn) but had great facilities and a lovely garden restaurant. 

Things to do: Our evening there we visited the Sri Maha Boodhi Temple (Rs200) and then walked up to the Dagoba, which was beautiful, lots of candles. The we visited the Isurumuniya Temple (Rs200) which stays open until 8pm. These temples in the evening were magical, one of my Sri Lanka highlights. There are ceremonies at 6pm (check with your hotel). We paid a tuk Rs 800 to take us round. If you start around 3/4pm you could possibly get some other free sites in like the free Royal Gardens.

To be honest I really didn’t enjoy  touring the ruins of Anuradhapura in the day, it was expensive (Rs4000 for the ticket and Rs2000 for the tuk) and very very hot. You also have to keep taking your shoes and hat off. The museum was boring and I reached my dagoba threshold about twenty minutes in. I'd say skip the cultural ticket in Anuradhapura, save your money for Sigiriya.

Travel: When we left Anuradhapura for the west we went to the Old bus station where the bus starts. If you're travelling from here check if you can do that as it went on to call at the New bus station and completely filled up.

Sigiriya

Ancient city. Mountain top ruins. Sigiriya was very fun.

Sigiriya Rock.jpg

Accommodation: I stayed at the Rainbow Lodge which was nice, although both I and someone else had issues with our bill. Probably worth getting their quote in writing.

Things to do: I did Pidurangala rock in the late afternoon, which involved some scrambling so wearing sensible shoes and practical trousers/ shorts is a must. Short wearers should also take a sarong as you go through a temple.  

As advised I did Sigiriya rock itself early and I’m so glad I did, it was getting very crowded as I left. It's expensive Rs4700 but worth it, the gardens are lovely and the hike to the top is rewarding. The museum there is excellent, although it should be saved for after the climb to the summit.

Food: I had lunch at the Croissant Hut which i enjoyed a lot, although that might be because it was the first time I'd had chips in a couple of weeks. I recommend it if it's not too busy, the chef is great but service can be slow.

Travel: If you happen to do this route travel from Sigiriya to Kandy is easy. I got a tuk to Dambula for Rs800, although there is a bus which takes slightly longer, and then got a bus straight to Kandy at around 2pm.

Kandy

The cultural capital. It's fine.

Accommodation: I stayed at the Clock Inn hostel which was fine, a bit cramped but very clean and social. I think they do private rooms. 

Things to do: I shared a tuk tour of Kandy with another girl which cost Rs2000 and took us to the big Buddah, a tea factory, a gem museum, the botanical gardens, a batik factory and a viewpoint. I would advise people to skip the batik factory, it’s just people trying to sell you stuff. I went to a cultural show (Rs1000) which is quite fun but you should skip if you have any other options. We went to the Tooth Temple at 6pm on a full moon day which was a massive error. We basically stood in a queue for  an hour and a half. A friend suggested visiting at 6am so perhaps try that.

Food: I had dosai at Bolagi, a kind of fast food Indian restaurant, which was really nice and really cheap.

Train Kandy to Ella

So good it gets it's own section,

Described as the most scenic train journey in the world, it's pretty frickin' scenic. We went to Peradeniya, the station before Kandy to get a seat, the train was due to arrive at 8.32 (it was late), we managed to get seats the left facing backwards which meant we were on the right facing forwards when it backed out of Kandy and got the best views. We did second class, unreserved and bought our ticket on the day (Rs 260). There's some great blogs about this journey and how to get a seat.

Ella

Hill country. Ella was my favourite.

Accommodation: I stayed at the Hungover Hostel which was really lovely, you need to book in advance though as it fills up. It attracts a nice crowd (hikers) and it does have a private room.

Things to do: Lipton’s Seat, a tea plantation, factory and viewpoint, was outstanding although we went too late. Arriving there before midday is generally best to get the views before the clouds set in. This is a bit of a journey from Ella, we hired scooters but you can also get a train and a tuk.

We also hiked Little Adam’s Peak and the Nine Arch Bridge which were awesome. I ran out of time before I did Ella Rock. You could easily spend three full days here.

Food: The food highlight in Ella was the Matey Hut, Dreams cafe was also very good. The service at the Chill Cafe was awful and the food at 360 was sub-par.

Travel: Ella to Galle: I ended up getting a bus to Wellawaya, then a bus to Matara, then to Galle, which took a little over six hours. It was long but pretty.

Galle

Fortress city, feels Mediterranean. 

Transport: In Galle don’t take a tuk from the bus station into the fort, it’s walkable and they’ll overcharge you. 

Accommodation: I stayed in the Pilgrims Hostel which had cramped dorms but a lovely restaurant area. Pretty sure there are no privates so maybe just drop by for food or drinks. Has a really nice owner called Nadia (Irish).

Things to do: Exploring the fort and watching sunset from the walls as the local families are out with their kites is awesome. There are lots of amazing beaches nearby if you have the weather, the South was out of season when I was there so I didn't spend long in Galle.

Food: Lots of restaurants are shut on a Sunday. I ate at Crepeology which was really tasty and takes credit card. 

Travel: Travel from Galle to Colombo if you're going that way... I took the highway bus which took and hour and a half, was very comfortable and cost Rs450. It drops you in outer Colombo which was good for our Airbnb, but if you're going to central Colombo it might be better to take the train. This train can get really crowded apparently so choose your travel time wisely or try and reserve a seat or try and sit in the door with your legs hanging out.

Colombo

The Capital. If you are wondering where Sri Lanka's money is, it's here.

Ministry of Crab.jpg

Accommodation: My friends booked an Airbnb  which was £44 a night and really lovely. I tried and failed to find it for you, can ask my friend if you really want it, but the airbnbs in Colombo look amazing!

Things to do: I didn't give Colombo much time but I did go to the Ministry of Crab which was another Sri Lanka highlight, it’s expensive (comparatively) but truly excellent. Book in advance. It's in the Old Dutch Hospital and there's a Spa Ceylon there too. Tell Liv to go here, it has gorgeous creams and balms and perfumes, which are pretty cheap. Also visited the House of Fashion which is in all the guide books but is basically Debenhams, don't bother unless you need a pretty skirt.

Hope some or all of that was useful! Get in touch if you have any questions and I'll do my best to answer (you too blog reader!)

 Have a great time! 

See you soon. Xx

 

*All men have to go into the Nallur Kovil bare-chested

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)

Lost Girl's guide to Sri Lanka's toilets

So you're off to Sri Lanka? Congratulations you're going to have a wonderful time. It's a beautiful country with incredible food, friendly people, it's adjective, adjective, adjective, basically you've made the right choice.

Let's get down to business.

The toilet situation in Sri Lanka may come as a surprise to many visitors. Do not let it put you off, just be prepared.

The traditional Sri Lankan toilet is a hole in the ground, some nicer ones have ceramic tiles surrounding said hole, some have elevated places to put your feet when you squat to do your business. As in every country the standard of facilities will vary from place to place, my advice is for the most... surprising... 

No more eating with your feet.

There is no flush. Generally there is a tap with a small bucket. You fill the bucket from the tap and use it to rinse the hole and sometimes the surrounding area.

This means that sometimes the surrounding area is wet. You'll usually be going in in sandals or bare foot if it's a toilet in a temple or a Kovil. The water is probably clean, but lots of toilets also have a little tap outside you can use to rinse your feet after.

Take toilet paper or have a small pack of tissues on you.

There is no toilet paper. In lots of toilets there's a little hose that people use as a douche, or there will be the aforementioned small bucket that you can fill from the tap to have a rinse. Traditionally, people use their left hand for cleaning which is why you only eat with your right.

Take antibacterial hand gel.

For whilst there will be a tap there will almost never be soap. And, just a reminder, you eat with your hands in Sri Lanka.

Take mosquito repellent.

And use it on your bum. Depending on how rural you are the toilet is likely to be in an outhouse. These small shed-like structures are no match for Sri Lanka's millions of mosquitoes.

There are no bins.

A ladies' worst nightmare. If you're using feminine hygiene products and you're staying in a rural area, there will be a place where they burn hygiene products and nappies and similar, try and ask a local lady. If you're on the road you can take a little plastic bag to transport your product to a bin. Before you visit Sri Lanka might be a great time to try a mooncup and cut out the search for and disposal of feminine products.

Also while we're on this topic I haven't seen ANY tampons on sale, although apparently you can buy them in the capital Colombo. There are campaigners in Sri Lanka working to make women's health and hygiene a priority, but, ladies take supplies with you.

There are no locks.

I walked in on an elderly Sri Lankan lady on the loo on my flight over to Sri Lanka. I apologised profusely (and in English, which I don't think she understood), then I spent a while having an internal rant about people who don't lock the door and then seem surprised when you walk in on them. I now know that locking the door probably wasn't second nature to her as lots of toilet doors in Sri Lanka have no locks. Some won't even stay shut on their own. But, because you're squatting, the door is a useful hand hold for balance. If the door is swinging open an embarrassed smile and point at the door is normally enough to get the next lady to hold it shut for you.

Look for Rest Houses and Supermarkets.

Government run rest houses are dotted about towns, cities and on main roads. These are likely to have pleasant, sit down toilets, but charge a small fee (50rupees). If the supermarket has a toilet it's usually a sit down one and you can use it for free.

Train stations and hotels also have sit down loos, you normally have to be travelling/staying to use them, but as previously mentioned the Sri Lankans are (sorry to generalise) really lovely, so it's probably worth an ask.

In conclusion:

Take tissue paper.

Take anti-bac gel.

Take tampons or try out a mooncup.

Be prepared to stand in questionable liquid.

Don't barge in to an unlocked loo as it might be occupied.

And perhaps start toning up those thighs in preparation for your trip. Fingers crossed with all that squatting you'll end up with a kardshibum.

 

Ps. Also if it helps, despite drinking copious amounts of water, I need the bathroom way less than at home, probably because I'm sweating so much! So you probably won't need to face those loos that often...

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)

Travel gear

Here is a 'living list' of what I've bought for my travels and how it's working out for me. I'll keep updating it as I travel and use everything. The links below are to Amazon, mostly because I make money if you click on them, BUT before I buy anything I do a product search on Google to make sure Amazon is currently the cheapest.

My bag: 

The Ospery Fairview 55 Women's Backpack, Amazon around £120

bag.jpg

Pros: I LOVE my bag. When I was researching I found the main thing travellers liked was a bag that opened like a suitcase. This bag does that, it's really comfortable to wear as it's been designed specifically for ladies. Also it's a pretty colour. It has a day bag attached to it so you could reattach that for air travel and get away with travelling with an extra bag.

Cons: After asking for this bag as my family Christmas present a friend told me that the one thing she wished she'd had while she was travelling was a bag with wheels. Ospery also do bags with wheels that incorporate everything I love about my own wheel-less sack.

Travel fears and how to conquer them

In twenty-four hours I will be in the air on my way to Bangkok. However, because I am a human, I am having a few fluttery butterflies floating around the old tum-tum and bouncing off my pelvis like leaden yo-yos.

I mean to say I'm a little lot worried about some huge and insignificant things. So I am writing this blog entirely for me. If you happen to share some of my 'Oh my god I'm leaving my home for several months' fears, then keep reading, my words of wisdom may help you too.

I am worried about the following-

I am worried I might get bitten by a rabid monkey.

I am worried I might die in a plane crash. I booked a very cheap flight with Air Asia X which had a great safety rating, however Air Asia has a terrible safety rating and apparently they're the same thing.

I am worried I might get a STD or a STB (sexually transmitted baby).

I am more worried there will be no one I fancy on the two continents I am visiting and I will reach a significant celibacy benchmark (I'm not saying which) and I'll be visiting a monastery and they'll look at me as purity personified and they'll trap me in a tower so pilgrims can travel from miles around to marvel at me.

I am worried I'll be eaten by a shark.

I am worried I'll be eaten by a crocodile.

I am worried I'll be eaten by a dragon. They're actual things in Indonesia.

I am worried I won't make any friends.

I am worried I'll make too many friends and they'll all invite me to different places and I won't be able to choose and I'll end up sitting, starring at a wall, paralysed by indecision.

I am worried by the phrase 'Trip of a lifetime'. It's everywhere. I don't want this to be my final adventure.

I am worried my travels will change me so completely I won't be able to return to normal life in January.

I am worried I'll come back exactly the same.

I am worried I won't have fun.

I am worried I'll run out of money.

I am worried I'll drink or take something silly, including medical drugs, and die.

I am worried everything at home will change, my friends, my family, my work situation.

I am worried that nowhere will feel like home.

Yes. I am worried. Imagine my brain as a shoreline. The 'I'm so excited I could pee' is the wave rushing up the sand, the 'but I'll probably die' worry is the water being sucked back into the sea.

So I shall build a sea wall out of logic and optimism to trap all my excitement and keep my worries at bay! (Don't think too hard about that metaphor, it doesn't make sense).

Let's conquer those fears!

I am worried I might get bitten by a rabid monkey.

When's the last time you got bitten by an animal? (Cat's don't count because they're arseholes). If you're worried about rabies have the shot for extra protection. £150 is quite a lot, but worth it for peace of mind and avoiding certain death.

I will point out that you (me, not you, lovely reader) have very recently had your shots which is why your arm is currently dead.

I am worried I might die in a plane crash. I booked a very cheap flight with Air Asia X which had a great safety rating, however Air Asia has a terrible safety rating and apparently they're the same thing.

You'd have to be REALLY unlucky. Statistically you're far safer in a plane than a car. Also Air Asia doesn't crash that often, it just catches fire and has to land early, so you'll be fine.

I am worried I might get a STD or a STB (sexually transmitted baby).

Use protection. Dingbat.

I am more worried there will be no one I fancy on the two continents I am visiting and I will reach a significant celibacy benchmark (I'm not saying which) and I'll be visiting a monastery and they'll look at me as purity personified and they'll trap me in a tower so pilgrims can travel from miles around to marvel at me.

Pack a grappling hook and rope and/or stop being ridiculous. Your choice.

I am worried I'll be eaten by a shark.

When's the last time you went deep enough to be anywhere near a shark? Also, statistically, you're safer in a shark than you are in a car.

I am worried I'll be eaten by a crocodile.

This is legit. Sensible, logical brain approves of this fear. Don't go to the bit of Australia where crocodiles hide in all water (sea, lakes, ponds, puddles) and if you do, don't go near water, including the shower, until you leave.

I am worried I'll be eaten by a dragon. They're actual things in Indonesia.

Logical brain has looked into this and they probably couldn't eat you, there's guards everywhere. But their bite will poison you. Just give them a wide berth.

I am worried I won't make any friends.

Travelling is like Freshers week. Everyone wants you to like them and after a week you'll never see them again. Except for the few you really connect with. There's a lot of people in the world, someone's bound to take to you.

I am worried I'll make too many friends and they'll all invite me to different places and I won't be able to choose and I'll end up sitting, starring at a wall, paralysed by indecision.

Flip a coin. If you don't like the result do the other thing. If you have more than two options create a coin flipping knock out tournament or similar.

I am worried by the phrase 'Trip of a lifetime' it's everywhere. I don't want this to be my final adventure. 

Come on. It's a thing people say. If you want to go on another trip you'll make it happen. Relax and enjoy this one, no pressure to make it spectacular, it'll probably happen on it's own. It is a stupid phrase though.

I am worried my travels will change me so completely I won't be able to return to normal life in January.

I am worried I'll come back exactly the same.

For those two - again stop putting pressure on yourself. There's not going to be some kind of incredible metamorphosis. You are not a caterpillar. You are already the type of person who has organised the trip of a life time (sorry). Know you'll have fun and see what happens.

I am worried I won't have fun.

Remember when you walked past a bus by the side of the road and thought it was hilarious? (Or another finding hilarity in something mundane example) You have fun at home, you'll have fun abroad.

Context- the bus had a big poster by the local council saying 'Don't blame the bus for your child not getting to school on time #getagrip' on it. 

I am worried I'll run out of money.

Budget. Dingbat. Make an effort to do volunteering and save on accommodation (and make friends) or earn some money online doing writing or something.

I am worried I'll drink or take something silly, including medical drugs, and die.

Don't. Know when to institute the 'dodgy London bar' rules- Bottled beer only/ handbag on you at all times. No recreational drugs (expensive anyway) and seek actual medical advice if you get sick.

I am worried everything at home will change, my friends, my family, my work situation.

When's the last time anything changed? Think about what you were all doing this time six months ago, or a year ago, or two years ago. We chug along and if it's going to happen, it'll happen regardless of where you are. There's not many places you couldn't get home from in less than a day.

Also maybe the change will be entertaining, like Cornwall, which in a Brexit fuelled haze decides to declare its own independence and shears away the earth that attaches it to the rest of the UK and floats off into the Atlantic. 

'Darling shall we go to Cornwall for our Summer holiday?'

'Where is it now?'

'Near Barbados'

'No let's go to Bognor Regis'

I am worried that nowhere will feel like home.

Isn't that the point? And there will always be cities and in those cities there will be cinemas and in those cinemas there will be Marvel films and isn't that what home really is?

There we go, feeling better? If my sarcasm to hand-holding ratio is a bit off for you remember the following-

You are good at staying alive, you've done a great job up to this point.

Change is healthy and inevitable and often REALLY slow. If you have WiFi you're never that far from home.

Plan, have fun, be mindful of your safety.

These are all wise words I shall attempt to live by. 

I'll let you know how I go...

 

Ps. If you wanted a physical action for conquering your fears try the following-

Camomile tea with honey.

16 star jumps facing east.

Bake a cake and stir your worries into the batter, then give the cake to your sworn enemy.

Yoga.

Stroke a dog. Not a rabid one.

 

You're welcome.

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)

6 months to go, my budget woe(s)

Six months to go until I leave the UK to do… something… somewhere… Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Where am I going?

At this point I have bought a ticket to Bangkok in June and planned a tour of the Red Centre in Australia in October. Everything else is up for grabs. I'm hoping to stay in South East Asia until October, then head to Australia, then New Zealand and see how much money I have left.

I am VERY aware of the weather. British Summer Time means Monsoon Season for most of South East Asia. I know that I am going to steer well clear of the Philippines and their Typhoon Season, that I need to go to Cambodia sooner rather than later, that Thailand and Vietnam are still okay during their wet seasons and that Indonesia is completely different and supposed to have great weather for the whole time I’m out. I organise stuff for a living so it’s very tempting to plan my entire trip, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to “live in the moment” and “stay places as long as I “need to.”” It’s going to be all spiritual and spontaneous and stuff, you just wait.

Money!

Louise Delphine Caroline Therese Comerford was an incredible woman, she was born in the South of France in 1926. The Italian side of her family attempted to kidnap her when she was four. She travelled on a boat from France to England through the U-boat infested Straits of Gibraltar during World War Two. In 1944 the British Army would not accept her application, because of her Italian mother, so she joined the Free French instead. She was taken out to dinner by Charles De Gaulle. She was also my Nana.

Nana passed away a few years ago. The above is the tip of a Nana shaped iceberg of stories, but I couldn’t just say ‘a relative left me some money and now I’m going travelling’. Nana left me some money, £5k to be exact, it went into my housing deposit fund and now it’s coming back out and I’m going travelling. I feel like Nana would approve, and probably worry quite a lot, but all she wanted was for her family to be happy. I think about her every day and feel like she’s with me as I plan the incredible adventure she has made possible.

Touching tributes aside, I will also be saving like crazy for the next six months. I will pay my 2017-2018 tax before I leave the country, six months earlier than I normally would (ouch) but hopefully I’ll still have an extra grand or so to go into the travel pot.

Flights

Flights are a big cost, but I know how many I am likely to take, can make an educated guess at how much they’ll be...

London to Bangkok- £320 (I saved some money on here, there’ll be a blog about this)

*Possibly* Bangkok to Sri Lanka, round trip - £250

*Probably* Kuala Lumpur to Sydney – I’ve found flights for £130 in October… it’s SO CHEAP for an eight hour flight that I’m tempted to buy it now and make it work.

Sydney to Ayers Rock, round trip - £322ish I should really book that soon, and I should look at it as £160 each way and I should stop thinking ‘Oh my god Australia is so expensive! How is that the most expensive thing I’ve done so far?! Stupid, beautiful, massive, expensive, interesting country that I really want to see more of!’

*Probably* Sydney to Auckland – So, I’ve found a flight for £127 in late October 2018, BUT I won’t book this one until close to the time I want to travel, probably around the time my friend Kate tells me to bugger off. However if I booked the flight for a fortnight’s time it’s still only £250. So I’ll budget £300 for that.

And then… if I’m out of money I’ll probably come back.

Auckland to London- That’s an entire day in the air, probably more! Anyway, if I booked a fortnight in advance, at this time of year, which it is likely to be, the average price is £715. So let’s say £800 set aside for actually getting home.

Flights budget- £2,122

I just worked that out for the first time. That’s quite a lot isn’t it? If I go to Sri Lanka my outgoings will be next to nothing, (I'll write a blog about that), so that £250 can come out of my accommodation and food budget… even so.. £2k on flights… okay! Good to know.

Budget

With that in mind I’m going to stop my ‘But South East Asia’s really cheap right?’ train of thought and do some actual maths.

Most of the blogs out there suggest $35 a day for a solo traveller. I can recommend Goats on the Road, which had a brilliant article, it broke down the expected daily budget by country. 

$35 a day is $1050 a month or £780 once converted to GBP.

So… I have enough to travel for three months.

Okay then.

I’ll add another cheeky month in there because of my Sri Lanka plans. But still I have a problem. My money gets me to expensive, expensive Australia and then that’s it. And beautiful, expensive, picturesque, expensive New Zealand will be so tantalisingly close!

I’m not going to decimate my savings, I’m not going to decimate my savings (she says, rocking backwards and forwards) so I need to make my money go further. Or I need to save more. Or I need to earn more? Six months to go... CLIFFHANGER!!!!

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)

What's my motivation? Or 'My Life as a Lost Girl'


An Actor is told by a director to move a chair.

The Actor asks, ‘But what’s my motivation? Why would I move that chair?’

The Director responds, ‘You are rearranging the room as a metaphor for your inner turmoil.’

The Actor nods and moves the chair.

The Director turns to the Stage Manager and whispers, ‘I just need that chair there for the next scene.’

The Stage Manager nods because she already knows.

That story has very little to do with the rest of my blog, I just enjoyed writing it, sorry.

It does, however, sum up pretty succinctly what it’s like as a Stage Manager in a rehearsal room, maybe when I’m writing about my life in the theatre you can give that another read.

I’m in my early thirties and I’m about to put my life on hold, and eat into my savings, by going travelling. Why? What’s my motivation? I feel self-indulgent writing a blog post purely about what’s going on in my head, but, maybe if you’re in a similar place it’ll help. If not, skip to the travel planning.

My motivation is threefold; career, home and love.

Career

Right now I’m on a train, the engine runs on offers of amazing jobs, one after another are consumed, powering me through years of my life. Every now and again I pass a station.

‘Alight here for academia’ a cheery voice announces.

I can’t. The engine can’t be stopped.

‘Next station Writer.’

I’d like to stop here, I’d like to live here actually, but I only have the time for the odd weekend trip.

‘Alight here for a job where you don’t work every evening and weekend and you can go to life events like your friends weddings…’

Not a chance. I’ve just fed a 6 month tour to my engine.

‘You have reached your final destination.’

I know, “whinge whinge whinge” I’m lucky to have a job I love, but I have made sacrifices for it. It has consumed almost every other aspect of my life. See, there they go, social events, love-life and occasionally my mental health all sacrificed to the hungry god of theatre.  

So, Career is motivation number one. Maybe I need to do something else with my life, or maybe giving my life to theatre is the right decision, the main thing here is I am claiming that decision and I want to take my time to make it. 

Home

Me two years ago: ‘I have a new life plan! I’m going to move to Hastings!’

Me a year ago: ‘I have a new life plan! I’m going to move to Cardiff!’

Me four months ago: ‘Bristol’s nice isn’t it? Hi Bristol Old Vic, here’s my CV.’

Me two months ago: ‘I have a new life plan! I’m going to move to Edinburgh!’

I probably don’t need to explain much more about motivation number two. I live in London, I don’t really want to but that’s where I can get the best jobs.

It’s the London paradox- I live in London because I can earn enough money to buy property anywhere but in London.

I’d like to own my home and have saved up enough for a deposit (I know, I know, let’s see how long THAT lasts) but I have no idea where I want to live, mostly because I don’t know what I want to do…

A little part of me thinks that I might not come back to Britain for a while. It’s my country and I do love it, but fuck the Tories, fuck austerity and fuck fucking Brexit, I’m off on an adventure.

Love

Love is all you need eh?

Not me! I’ve been busy!

It’s hard to date when you work in theatre, you mostly rely on meeting people at work. That’s happened a few times for me, it did not end well…

It’s hard to date in London. People are busy, people say things like ‘Oh I can’t go out on a school night and I’ve got plans for weekends for the next three months.’ Or they say ‘Want to go out tonight?’ and you respond ‘Are you mental? It’s a school night.’

But not holiday Helen! No! Holiday Helen is open to love, although it’s not her priority because she’s having a wonderful time making friends and exploring new places. Holiday Helen never looks for love and apparently that makes her way more attractive than Regular Helen. I really enjoy being Holiday Helen. We’re going to have a great time in 2018.  

So, motivation three, I am single, I don’t have a child, but if I do want one that’ll have to happen within the next few years. THE TIME IS NOW! This is my window. I’m not expecting to meet Mr Right as I wander round South East Asia, but stranger things have happened.

Also, in a Frozen-esque twist, one of the my great loves, is my friend Kate who returned to Australia at the start of the year. I don't like not seeing her, so I'm going to fix that and visit her and her family during her holidays.

And number four…

In conclusion, because you always have to have a conclusion, I don’t know what I’m doing with my life and if I continue without change I’ll end up a sixty year old bitter spinster, living in a house share in North London, who ran out of patience with actors way before her menopause.

And to conclude my conclusion with my most compelling argument-

Why put your life on hold to travel? I'm not. Travel may not solve all my problems, it may not answer all my questions, but it's going to be on hell of an adventure.

Admin

If you think my writing is interesting why don’t you check out my first book ‘Afterlife’? It’s like a really long blog with chapters and a thrilling storyline…

Also have you tried booking.com? I use them pretty much exclusively now as my ‘genius’ discount makes them cheaper than everyone else. Here is a link that gets you £15 off the first time you use them* Try booking.com.

*This is a genuine recommendation, but an affiliate link (I’ll make a little money)