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.

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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.

Hey, and if you look to your right you can sign up to my mailing list…

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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.

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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

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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 .

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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 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

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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.

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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)