How to Island Hop in Fiji

Fiji invokes images of picture perfect white sandy beaches, azure blue water, and chilled Island vibes. If you get out of Nadi, this is definitely the case.

How to get to the Islands

There is really only one company you can use to physically get between the various Islands – Awesome Adventures. They run the only daily boat from the Port at Denanru through the Yasawa island group. You can buy a pass for this boat which covers all your transfers between the Islands for the duration of your stay.  There are other options if you want to stay at just a few Islands rather than hop between.  

They also offer a Combo pass which includes all your accommodation in either 1 or 2 coconut rated resorts. If you book a 1 coconut pass, your food is also included. In the 2 coconut resorts you often pay an additional meal plan of up to 130 FJD per person per night. On balance, the 1 coconut options are absolutely fine for backpackers on an budget.

Sounds Awesome Right?

In theory, you can book your next resort when you get on the boat. In practise, you should do it a few days in advance, no matter what they say on the boat or via email – especially in high season. We were there in low season and twice there was no availability on the island we wanted to go to.  In the end we starting asking the resorts to book, or phoning ourselves.

So, not actually that awesome.  Because Awesome charge quite a bit more than the resort would direct for accommodation. They also do, at least in our case very little for the extra they charge you.  It seems they also take quite a bit in commission from the properties.

So, our recommendation would be to book your accommodation options directly.  The properties see more of your money this way. Given that the 1 Coconut resorts are all Fijian owned and mainly ran by families this an only be a good thing. – this can usually be done via Facebook.

Things to note re 1 coconut properties: 

  • Electricity: Is not 24 x 7 and not always in your room. Where there is 24 x 7 electricity, it is often in a shared place. If you have electricity in your room or dorm it will be at set times of the day
  • Water: Despite the fact that Fiji has the tastiest water in the world, there is really a water shortage in the Islands. You should expect to buy water in the resorts and you should expect it to cost more than it does on the mainland, because of the freight costs to get it to the Islands. We paid 8FJD in one resort for a 1.5l bottle of water. If you are going for a few days, then it is feasible to buy water on the mainland and take it with you. If you are going for longer than 4 days I’m not sure it is worth the extra hassle. They do sell water on the boat for less than 5FJD though if you need to buy some and aren’t willing to pay the higher prices in the resorts.
  • Dry season: If you go in the middle of dry season you should expect there to be water restrictions for showers etc. But fear not, because there is always an enormous swimming pool next to the beach.
  • Bugs: I don’t mean ants, mosquitos, and flies. If you have an issue with them you really should just entirely avoid the tropics. But, I am terrified in an entirely irrational way of spiders. Even the tiny ones. Fiji has Huntsman and Tarantulas, and we encountered both in unacceptable sizes for someone has terrified of them as I am. They are not poisonous. They did not attack me in my sleep. Everything was fine

About the 1 Coconut resorts

We had a 21 day Combo pass which covers food, travel and accommodation in an double room for 20 nights. In hindsight, 2 weeks would have been more than enough so the first piece of advice we’d give anyone is don’t Island hop for more than 2 weeks.

We had the opportunity to use all of the 5 of the 6 resorts in that time.

Waya LaiLai Ecohaven

This is a property owned and run by the local village. The Bure are spacious, you get towels, a furnished balcony and a decent shower. The food is plentiful, and reasonably varied. The people are really friendly.

Plus, you can snorkel with white tip reef sharks from here for the princely sum of 60FJD

Nabua Lodge

This is the biggest 1 coconut resort in the Yasawas and holds up 80 guests. There is entertainment each evening, the bar is open until 10pm, or whenever you stop drinking. They run a large number of different activities each day and the food is really good.  The bures are comfortable and spacious.

White Sandy Beach Resort

The beach is nice, the Bures are reasonably well furnished, which a cute outside shower area in each. The people are really nice & make an effort to get people involved so it has more of a social atmosphere. But, the food was bland, and there wasn’t enough of it. One morning for breakfast they put out cereal, but no milk. One lunch was boiled rice and vegetable super noodles. If you are a foodie, this is not the place for you.

Gold Coast Inn

Set on a really windy beach, which is perfect when the sun is beating down. It is a really pretty resort. Small and very homely. There is no electricity in the rooms but there is 24 x 7 electricity in the main lounge. The bures are set above the beach so you have great views. The family who run this place are amazing. The food was the best we had. You can also walk across to the other side of the island and snorkel the famous blue lagoon for free. The owner even gave Steve a haircut whilst we were there. 

Long Beach Resort

Another family run resort – The people are really friendly. The food is really favourful. The bures are enormous. The kids are super cute. The reef around the back of the island is huge, and has great snorkelling which costs $15 each. It’s a very relaxed and chilled atmosphere but if the right group of people are staying it can be lively in the evenings as well.

Whichever of these Islands you go to, you can be assured of a warm Fijian welcome and the best hospitality you can imagine. Enjoy!

Swimming with Reef Sharks in Fiji

Swimming with Sharks sounds like a crazy thing to do right?  White Tip Reef Sharks are, well, friendly isn’t really the right word to use.  But they aren’t aggressive like the bigger, grumpy ones are.

Fiji has some of the most amazing reefs imaginable.  The water is crystal clear, and stunningly blue.  At Wayalailai in the Yasawa Islands you can swim with these Reef Sharks for 60 FJD.  Thats about £25.

Getting to the Yasawas from the mainland is pretty easy – Wayalailai is about 2 hours from the Mainland port.  Don’t book anything before you get to Fiji. There are loads of small companies that will get you to the Yasawas but they aren’t online.  Talk to locals and you’ll get a good deal.

Keep your arms inside the vehicle

It might sound obvious, but just because these aren’t man eating sharks doesn’t mean you can lower your guard.  They will tell you this, but its worth repeating.  If a shark comes near you, then cross your arms.  They do feed the sharks, and if said shark comes near you and sees an outstretched arm, it might take a little nibble.  Once the shark has gone past you, you can stroke it.  I definitely did not stroke the shark, but most other people did!

So basically try not to be shark bait. 

We’re still not sure how we feel about the whole feeding the shark thing, but it does kind of stop them from trying to eat you I guess.

As an aside, you can also dive with Bullsharks.  Only crazy people do this!!!

How to Island Hop in Palawan, The Philippines

 

Island Hopping is big business in the Philippines. Every town in Palawan will offer you a range of day tours ranging from Lagoons to wreck snorkelling. Instead of giving you a whole low down on the different ones available (you can google that!) we thought an overview of key things to note and how to make the best choice would be more useful.

Some basics

Can you swim? I know, it sounds like a stupid question. We went on a Lagoon tour in El Nido – this is essentially get on boat, go to 4 lagoons, go to a beach. It’s not an activity that you should do if you can’t swim. Three girls joined who not only could not swim, but were absolutely petrified of water. They freaked out when in a foot of water. They even kept their life jackets on when we stopped at a beach for an entire hour. I have no clue why they put themselves through the stress

Big Lagoon - El Nido

Sea Sickness

The boats get pretty rocky if the water isn’t calm. If you get motion sickness, get some tablets. The pharmacies in the Philippines are often out of these, so take some with you just in case. Incidentally, the ones you can by in the Philippines tend to be for vertigo as well as seasickness & they work really really well so if you can get some, buy some!

The dreaded tourist fee/Environment tax

The Philippines are big fans of tourist fees. You will pay fees ranging for 50 to 200 pesos in each town – in Palawan alone we paid 5 environment taxes (El Nido, Sibaltan, Nacpan, Coron, Port Barton). Bear these in mind when it comes to budgeting.

Don't Book in Advance

There are many tour operators to choose from in each town. Do not book before you go – they are all much cheaper to book when you get there. In El Nido and Coron there are multiple Island hopping itineraries. Its often cheaper to book more than one island hoping tour through the same operator as they keep a record of you tourist fee payment & deduct this from the 2nd trip cost. Otherwise you can end up paying the fee twice. If you choose to book a second trip with a different company, make sure you get proof of your tourist fee payment.

Don’t pay over the odds

Viewpoint at Coron

Even the budget tours generally include pick up & a really decent lunch (if you like fish). Drop off is often not included, but transport is easy to arrange & often not necessary. Basically there is very little reason to pay a whole lot extra for the standard Island Hopping tours. They are all very similar. The more expensive ones often include Snorkel gear but you can rent this easily from your hostel for less. Alternatively if you plan to do a lot of snorkelling whilst in the Philippines buying your own before you arrive will doubtless save you money. Be aware that in Coron they often won’t let you out on the boat unless you have water shoes, so its definitely worth having your own.

Get off the beaten track & go private

If you stay in some of the smaller towns in Palawan they often do very reasonable private island hopping tours. These generally take you to islands which are not on the commercial itineraries. We took one in Sibaltan which was about 400 pesos (£7) more than a tour from El Nido town for 2 of us. We got to spend all day going to completely deserted islands. In Port Barton, we were on a tour with one other couple, and again, there was no one around on any of the Islands we visited. The trade off? Off the beaten track in the Philippines is REALLY off the beaten track. Power for a few hours at night, limited or no internet, and generally a hot, bumpy, dusty journey to get there. Always worth it though.

Tours we'd recommend

Sibaltan: We stayed at Bayog Beach Campsite & their private Island Hopping tour was such good value for money.

Port Barton: Harmony Haven Hostel do a fixed price Island Hopping tour which takes you to some of the lesser known islands.

El Nido  – Tour A – which covers most of the Lagoons is amazing

Coron – Reefs and Wrecks, if the weather is good.  You need decent visibility to see the wrecks in particular.

Check out more of our 30 Photos from the Philippines here

How to swim with Whale sharks in the Philippines

Many people will tell you that Oslob is the place to go if you want to be guaranteed a swim with Whale Sharks. They are right, but there is an environmental impact which we didn’t feel comfortable with.

It is well documented that they feed the Whale Sharks at Oslob. This encourages them to stay in the area all year long, ignoring their normal migratory paths. This in turn affects their mating patterns and could eventually lead to no more baby whale sharks. In short, if you actually care about the survival of this species, don’t go to Oslob.

Happily there is another option. In Donsol you can swim with Whale sharks throughout their migratory season of November to April/May. They aren’t fed. There are rules about how many boats can go out & how many can surround a whale shark at any time. There are still people who don’t think this is an ethical way of seeing them, so do your own research. The main concerns seem to be how many boats are in the water and how close to the Whale Sharks people get. All we can say is that they stuck to the rules rigidly on both times we ventured out.

You aren’t guaranteed to see them. In fact on our first attempt the only thing we saw was a shadow below us – which could have been anything. But on our second attempt we saw 5 up pretty close.

How to maximise your chances of seeing them.

  • Get yourself 6 people. You are going to end up in a boat for 6 & they don’t tend to leave until there are 6 of you, so get it all sorted beforehand. We didn’t on our 1st try & ended up being the last boat out.
  • Go in the morning session not the afternoon. You have a much better chance of seeing them then.
  • Go & register the day before. This saves you time in the morning. We spent 20 minutes just waiting for a form on our 1st We were done with all our admin within 5 minutes on our 2nd attempt.
  • Get there early – doors open at 7.30am. Get there are 7:15. Be the 1st in the queue.

Why all this emphasis on being first?

You want to be on one of the 1st boats out & this will help you achieve that. They put their best spotters on the boats going out early. This is how they get so many sightings. On our 1st try we had a terrible spotter who just looked for people jumping into the water. We were always last to a sighting. Because there is a limit to how many people can be in the water at any one time we always missed it. Conversely, on our 2nd attempt our spotter was awesome. We saw 2 Whale Sharks before any other boats had even left the harbour.

However you get there, where ever you stay, it will be totally worth it.  

Costs:

The boat costs 3500 pesos, which is about £60. This should be split between 6 of you. The Administration fee (also covers Environment Fee) is 300 pesos / £5 each – this covers you if you choose to go out again a second or third time. Snorkel gear hire is around 300 pesos/ £5 each. You will need fins as the Whale Sharks are really fast! There are life jackets on the boats if you need them.

Where to stay

The Woodland Beach Resort is less than a 5 minute walk from the Whale interaction centre. It has comfortable rooms & dorms. There is also a pool, and a bar. They serve fairly decent food at a reasonable price. You can book at www.agoda.com

How to get to Donsol

The nearest airport is Legaspi. You can then take a bus or taxi to Donsol. There is a Jeepney which goes once a day though we did not take this option. Buses stop before the last flight arrives. A taxi should cost no more than 1500 pesos & takes approximately 90 minutes. There is also an overnight bus from Manila though we did not take it. However It is by far the cheapest option if you have the time.

Why you should avoid the tourist buses in Thailand

The overnight buses in Thailand are genuinely a thing of beauty. Seats akin to an airline business class seat prior to full flat beds, with headrests, footrests, snacks, water, seat back screens, built in massage chairs, blankets, and often pillows.

Make the right choice

That is, if you book the right one. There are many options available, VIP buses, which have more room, include a meal, and often only have 3 seats across. Express buses which are still okay, but often don’t include the meal, and have a little less space, and the tourist bus options – targeted mainly at the backpacker market. A lot of Thais use the long distance buses, and some travellers don’t want to travel with locals or erroneously think that the Tourist version of the bus will be better. It is almost always not. It is almost always cheaper on the face of it. But be warned – scams and being dropped off in the middle of nowhere mean it almost always ends up more expensive, and often nowhere near as comfortable.

Here’s an example for you. 2 accounts of our many bus experiences.

VIP Bus to Bangkok from Krabi.
  • No Pick up included. The Bus Station was well serviced by local transport options for a small fee (circa 80 baht for 2 of us)
  • Our Bus was due to leave at 7pm from Krabi Bus Station. It left at 7pm.
  • On the Bus there were blankets, pillows, a snack & water. The chairs reclined. There was decent Leg room and seat back screens with English language movies.
  • The bus stopped at about 10.30pm for food at a large food court. This was included in the bus fare.
  • We got back on bus & went to sleep.
  • We both woke up as we arrived in Bangkok at 6am. The bus arrived on time, at a well known bus station.
Tourist Bus

Compare this to the combined Bus & Ferry ticket we bought from Koh Samui to Bangkok. When you book this separately you would book a Ferry to Surat Thani, and a bus from there to Bangkok. We figured buying a joint ticket would be easier – and we were very wrong!

  • 11am Pick up at Hotel did not arrive. We had to pay for taxi to take us to the Port.
Ferry
  • Ferry was late leaving (this is pretty standard though)
  • We arrived at a Port 20km away from Surat Thani where we boarded a bus
  • This Bus took us to an abandoned bus terminal where we waited for 3 hours another bus to arrive. Our food options were the Thai equivalent of a pot noodle and chocolate bars – all overpriced.
Bus Number 2
  • The bus arrived at 7pm. Seats reclined, there were blankets. Things look hopeful.
  • We then drove to Surat Thani where we waited for 45 minutes for a bunch of people to join us from a train.
  • We finally set off, at which point the driver decided he wanted to practise his formula one driving skills.
  • At 1.30am we stopped for food. Obviously that’s when everyone wants to eat their dinner. The food was in addition to the cost of the ticket and was really not that good ( I am being charitable.
Bus Number 3 (yes, really)
  • At 3am we pulled over at a Petrol station and are inexplicably transferred onto another bus. It’s like when the cabin crew run out of hours to fly. Except they transferred 40 people to another bus rather than swap the two drivers over. This bus had no leg room, and very little seat recline, and no blankets.
  • This, is when the baby on board decided to get grumpy. Given that we had passed grumpy at 90kmph on our way to raging mad a few hours prior, we couldn’t really blame him.
  • At 7am, 2 hours after we were supposed to arrive, we get dumped on the side of the road; near, but not actually on, Khao San Road. We had another bus to catch at 7.30am on Khao San Road so had to run to make it (though in typical fashion the next bus was late)

This bus was worse than our experience of the overnight bus we took with food poisoning where the porter burnt a hole in my backpack.

The moral of this story

Avoid the tourist bus. Aside from our own less than stellar experience, there are pages and pages on forums devoted to why these buses are awful. Including some real horror stories about crazy drivers and theft.  It best to avoid buses that take you to Khao San Road. Go to the bus station to buy your ticket.

Unless you like suicidal driving, eating what might be rat at 1.30am and being herded from bus to bus with no explanation, in which, case, this is the bus for you. It might look like the cheap option, but the money you think you save you will undoubtedly be spent on overpriced food during the journey. If, like us you are in Koh Samui, or one of the Islands and there isn’t a bus station to visit, then you can buy tickets online at https://12go.asia/en for a relatively small fee Avoid buying joint tickets, and if an agent tells you that the bus will be full of tourists, smile politely and leave without booking.

Ten Things you don’t need to take on your Round the World Trip

There are a bunch of guides out there on what you really, really, need to take on your next trip. We read them all before we left and we listened to a lot of the advice. Some of it was awesome – some of it less so! So, here’s a list of the things you absolutely don’t need to take if you are going round the world for a year. These are mainly designed to save your back and your pocket, as well as your sanity.

More than 1 going ‘out out’ outfit.

There are a few places where you do need to look like you’ve made an effort. Sky Bars tend to have dress codes, but you can’t afford Sky bars very often on a budget so there is really no need to take more than 1 outfit to cater for this. Travelling is very definitely not a fashion show. If you are on a budget you will likely frequent places where you will feel out of place dressed up.

 

Us in Our one and only going out outfit. Can you tell?

 

 

 

A Backpack larger than 55 litres

If you can get away with smaller – do.  We bought the Osprey Farpoint 70 (in the above picture) – this has a 15 litre day pack and if you buy the smaller framed one, the main backpack is 50 litres instead of 55 litres.  I’m a little on the large side, so my clothes don’t fit into the smallest possible packs, but even I cope with a 50 litre.   Invest in some good compression bags – these help keep stuff small & organised.  I should point out that previously I was a 2 suitcases and a suit carrier kinda gal  for 4 days at a conference. If I can pack light, anyone can.

A year’s supply of toiletries.

They do wash in other countries too!  In fact, in Thailand you can buy most of you every day essentials in a local 7-Eleven.  These, are like rats in New York or London, in that you are never far away from them.  We h

ave yet to go to a country where we couldn’t find something.  DO NOT LISTEN TO YOUR MUM!  You do not need to take the largest bottle of shower gel in the world with you.

Passport Photos

We’ve been to 16 countries so far this year, with another 4 planned. Only Laos expected us to have a passport photo when we got our visa on arrival, and even then you could pay them a dollar to do it for you.  Most countries do online visa applications now so you can take photo on your phone and upload it.

NB: Visa rules change all the time. Check Visa requirements regularly to not get caught out! For example when we left the UK, you couldn’t get an E-Visa for Vietnam & you were limited to 90 days in total over 3 stays in Thailand without buying a Visa  The combined Visa for Zambia/Zimbabwe/Botswana had also been suspended. These things had changed by the time we went to these countries.

Every gadget charger you own

Most hostels don’t have more than 1 plug socket available anyway in your dorm or room. You are best off taking a power strip and 1 multi adapter with you. This way you get access to multiple power sockets, and don’t need to carry around a bunch of adapters. If you plan to be in South East Asia for any length of time, grab one there.   You can even get them with built in usb ports. You will, incidentally, probably be the most popular person in your dorm if you possess one of these.

A Water proof coat.  ​​

In the last 8 months my coat has been used a grand total of twice….In Africa….In the winter.  If you plan to spend most of your trip in sunny climates, a coat is a waste of money, space and weight.  You can buy a poncho, which will roll up super small, and not make you boiling hot when it is chucking it down but still 30 degrees. Unless you want to look like you’ve donned giant condom, we’d suggest investing a decent one, not the kind you get for $1 in 7-Eleven. You don’t even have to do much research on this as the Tiki Touring Kiwi has done that for you.  Check our his review of Travel Ponchos here.

If your plans change, or you will be spending some of your time in a country where it will be cold, you can always buy a coat on route. We managed to get sleeping bags designed for African winter in Manila.​

 

Condom Alert – NEVER look like this in public

Travel wash

It is so super cheap to get laundry done in SE Asia – Less than £1 a kilo in most places. It’s more expensive in Africa, but its also cheaper to buy laundry soap there than take it with you.

Walking boots

This one is entirely subjective and absolutely dependent on your plans. If you plan to spend a lot of time trekking, take your boots. But bear in mind that in some areas, those boots will be useless. Within 10 minutes of meeting us, our guide in Borneo had recommended a pair of rubber shoes for trekking which cost about $2. They were infinitely better for trekking than my boots!

If you don’t plan to do much, or any trekking, then I guarantee your boots will spend the vast majority of the time tied to your backpack like mine did, or taking up space in your backpack. A pair of walking shoes is a better bet, or a decent pair of trainers.

 

Me & My backpack week one  – my boots stayed tied to my bag for 2 months before I used them for 1 day

More than 3 pairs of shoes.

Yes ladies, this means you too. Your trainers/walking shoes. A pair of Flip flops and a pair of shoes that you can get into nice places in. At a push, add a pair of walking sandals. You can actually get some nice ones which you can double up as your ‘going out’ shoes. You do not need, High heels, your loafers, jewelled sandals or anything else. Your shoes will come off as you enter most places anyway!

Bike lock.

It was on most travel packing lists we read. We have NEVER USED IT. You bag is either with you, or in one of the following places;

  • A luggage hold
  • A bus hold
  • Under a pile of other bags at the back of a mini bus
  • Under a pile of other bags at the back of a boat
  • In a luggage store

A Bike lock is of no use in any of these circumstances. There is nothing you can do about the most determined of thieves, so get a decent TSA approved lock for your bag and PLEASE don’t put your valuables in your main bag.

The world is actually a much smaller place than we realise.  It’s easy to get most, if not all, of what you need in most countries. My glasses broke in Thailand, and I had a new pair in about 1 hour. We got antibiotics over the counter for a chest infection in Nairobi and when we need a Yellow Fever vaccination, we went to a hospital in Chiang Mai and paid about 25% of the cost of the same vaccination in the UK. You really don’t need to pack the kitchen sink and if your plans change it is not that difficult to get what you need on the road.

PARADISE ON EARTH :THE PHILIPPINES

Okay, so I’m going to get all the bad bits of the Philippines out of the way first and then….prepare for a gushing blog post…

The Bad

It’s the only country we’ve been to so far where I have actually googled ‘how big is a prison cell’ when I opened the door to a room (seriously, you couldn’t even fit the cat in it, let alone swing it), there is no electricity at least for a few hours a day even in the places that have electricity 24 x 7, the bathrooms are generally terrible, and Manila, like many big cities is dirty and crowded and full of poverty.   They have some problems with terrorism.  This can make traveling a bit hairy as you can be in a safe part and suddenly you aren’t. But that’s really no different from anywhere else. The roads are generally awful. The driving is certifiable lunacy and I’ve spent as much money on travel sickness tablets as rum since we’ve been here (though rum is actually only about £1.50 a bottle).

The Good

BUT – all of those things are worth it. The Philippines is an outstandingly beautiful country full of beaches that take your breath away, picture postcard views, landscapes that remind you of Jurassic park, and some of the most friendly people we have met on our travels.

So whilst it’s the only place that’s made me google how big is a prison cell, its also the only country where the view from my beach hut has actually made me cry. I’ve taken photos with my phone camera thinking I will need to edit them, and then looked and realised they are perfect just as they are. No filters needed.

Tourism is still in its infancy in some parts of the Philippines. This is a good thing for people who want to travel rather than be tourists (though in truth no matter where you go the locals tend to view you as a tourists even if you don’t). For example, in Sibaltan, on the North East coast of Palawan we stayed in a beach hut that in Thailand would have cost us 10 times as much just for the view. In Nacpan beach, we stayed at a homestay and slept on mattress outside with just a mosquito net. We sat and had beers whilst watching the sunset with the owner, drank rum with the other guests, and just had the most chilled out 2 days on one of the most stunning beaches we’ve ever seen.

So much to see

In a month, we barely scratched the surface of this country, it is vast, and nothing is near anything, so it involves some planning, and patience. We travelled over 4,500 km in a mix of planes, vans, boats, tricycles, and buses. Thankfully I’m good at the planning and Steve is good at the patience – its needed our combined efforts to get places here and we still have a list of 10 places we want to go at a later date. 

We spent 3 weeks in Palawan alone, spending our time between sleepy little villages where electricity only comes on at dusk for a few hours, and the more built up (by Filipino standards) towns of Coron and El Nido, where there are still no pavements, very few cars, and very few high rise buildings. Most days were spent Island hopping, finding beautiful lagoons, snorkelling Japanese shipwrecks, and chilling on deserted beaches. This place is truly paradise on earth.

Party time

For those of you looking for a party the Island of Boracay is definitely the place to go. Yes, its touristy, yes its built up comparatively, and yes, there are some of the well know chains there, but it doesn’t really matter, because even with all that, its beauty, the Filipino peoples friendliness and the lack of any scamming makes it an easy place to spend a few days. Granted if you’re over 30 we can’t recommend the hostel we stayed in as it really was full of much younger people who looked as us little like we were aliens, but really, you don’t need to seek out a party hostel on a party island anyway. There is always a party somewhere.

Whale Sharks

And just when we thought that the Philippines couldn’t get any better, we were fortunate enough to get to swim with Whale Sharks in Donsol, a very small town which only gets tourists because of the Whale Sharks. You can do this all year in Oslob, though they feed the Whale Sharks which is questionable and generates a whole bunch of issues environmentally. In Donsol you can only do this for the time that Whale Sharks naturally migrate there, and there as some hefty restrictions on how many boats, and how many people can be near a Whale Shark at any one time. Seeing one of these enormous beasts coming towards you in the water is just an awe inspiring sight. They are truly beautiful and amazing creatures.

Weird Karaoke

Even Manila, which I couldn’t recommend as anything more than a stopover is an interesting city – Karaoke bar here means something different to the UK. You pay to have unlimited drinks for a set time period, and then you can buy the ladies who work there drinks, and when its quiet, the group of ladies dance for you all. You can sing, but you don’t get up to sing. You just stay sat down. Its not quite a strip club with Karaoke, but its pretty close!

Fair warning though, if you do decide to go to Manila please remember that like many cities in second and third world countries it has some areas of abject poverty of the kind you only ever see on Comic Relief videos with Lenny Henry. Be prepared (I wasn’t, and it was heart breaking)

Get there soon

So, our month in the Philippines is over. I’ll admit it was a country I wasn’t totally sure about before we came but I am happy to admit I was totally wrong. For all of the hassle getting places involves, it is worth every bumpy van ride, cramped tricycle trip and 8 hour boat journey sat on a plastic patio bench. It’s a truly amazing place. Go before the rest of the world find this out and ruins it!!!

Elephants & Water Fights

In our attempt to avoid paying Visa fees on this trip we have three 30 day trips to Thailand planned. The second of which included spending nearly a month in the Northern part of Thailand. After few days in the South catching up with some friends from which I’m not too sure I’ve actually recovered, we made our way to Chiang Mai the slow way.

By this I mean, mini van from Ko Lanta to Krabi. Overnight bus from Krabi to Bangkok, 17 hours to kill in Bangkok before finally getting a 14 hour overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. It saved us 2 night accommodation, and was about £20 cheaper than the 2 hour flight would have been. Plus it’s all part of the experience. At least that what I told myself as I rolled around in a top bunk at 4am convinced the train was about to go off the track…..

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai itself is our most favourite city so far. Its compact, there is loads to do, and its really cheap. The people are really friendly, and did I mention it’s cheap? There are also about 200 temples in Chiang Mai and for the most part, they don’t charge entrance fees. Though you can give a donation if you wish. Often the donation goes to something specific, like medical care for elderly monks, or to feed the monks in a particular template. We actually only spent one day going round temples because we got a bit way laid by a city wide water fight that went on for 4 days (more of that in a bit). The temples we saw were all different, but all absolutely stunning. You can see a whole load of photos that Steve took on our Facebook page.

Pai

We also took the 4 hour van trip (complete with 200 odd hairpin turns) to Pai, a northern town up in the hills. This is a true hippy town, where lots of 18 year old gap year kids flock to drink Mushroom Shakes, and talk like a) they are the first people to do Mushroom shakes and b) they have the first clue about anything – think Ben from the Inbetweeners 2 film and you have a fair idea of the way they are.

But it also has the best burger stall in the whole of Thailand, and thankfully there are enough normals around that we could avoid them for the most part. Pai also have one of the most talented bamboo tattoo artists, who has won awards internationally. Steve got a seriously good tattoo done for a bargain price. The nightlife is Pai is also really good, with some excellent live music.

Water Fights

Anyway, back to this water fight. In a case of sheer serendipity we happened to be in Chiang Mai for Song Kran – Thai New Year. Song Kran is a big deal. Its basically the only time people get off all year in Thailand, so they make the most of it. It’s a time for seeing family, catching up with friends, and having a good time by throwing water around. Chiang Mai is widely regarded as having the BEST water fight. I don’t think we could argue with them on that one.

Originally the festival was a very sedate go and wash the Buddha in the temple and has evolved into a 4 day water where the streets are not a safe place to be if you want to stay dry. We had the best time wandering around with super soakers and standing with the owners and staff of our hotel chucking buckets of ice water at passersby and all moving vehicles.

Its taken so seriously that when Steve saw a prison van go past he thought he probably shouldn’t spray any of the inmates. Until they all pulled out their water guns and started firing at him through the bars. In the evenings, it got totally crazy, with the local bars outing out stages, and the local fire brigade providing a truck with water for them to drench all the partygoers. Chiang Mai is also the place where we heard one of the best reggae bands on our travels

Bucket List Entry Number 2

Having spent a few weeks in water fights and avoiding Gap yearers in Pai it was finally time for Bucket List Entry number 2. Elephant Nature Park or for the rest of this post, ENP. This was such a special part of our trip it probably deserves its own post, but we get charged for each post we put on the site, so for the moment, this is just an extra long one 🙂

ENP is a sanctuary for Elephants who have been abused in the tourist and logging trade. Unfortunately there are far too many of them in need of help. The Park tries to let them live as much as possible in family groups, and without lots of human interaction. There is absolutely no riding of Elephants, and the keepers are not allowed to use violence against the Elephants. This is sadly, a very different state of affairs than almost all other Elephants in captivity in Thailand, where riding Elephants is big business, and they are almost universally badly treated. Just in case it wasn’t clear, please don’t ride elephants. We shared a blog post that was written by one of the ladies in our group on why this practise is so cruel.

 

During our week at the sanctuary we volunteered to help feed and muck out the Elephants. This involved

  • cutting a corn field down for food,
  • mucking out every day,
  • washing an endless supply of watermelons and pumpkins,
  • unloading food trucks as they were delivered.

We also got to be able to see these amazing animals close up as we were often out in the park cleaning up after them. We were also taken round one day to see all the different elephant family groups, including a couple of unintended babies (possibly the cutest thing ever).

People Make Trips

We met some very cool people as well, and we had a great laugh, though we were definitely the naughty kids of the group. As anyone who’s met Steve will know, he’s definitely a bit of rebel, so when I saw that we were not getting ANY meat or dairy for the whole week (and they wanted you quiet by 9pm), I expected that he would want to sneak out, and get meat.

What I didn’t expect was for there to be a group of us. Or that our sedate 4pm visit to the local BBQ place would descend into beer, moonshine, and the weirdest game of Simon says I’ve ever played. My sides hurt for a week afterward from laughing so much, and Steve still has the scar from his epic commando roll/fall off 1 foot high ledge into massive puddle. He wasn’t the only casualty – someone slept in a dog bed.

Steve in Dog Heaven

ENP also runs a dog sanctuary which houses over 500 dogs at present. Sadly Thailand has a real problem with stray dogs, and also puppy farms. The dogs at the Sanctuary are adopted to the US, Canada and Europe, having been fully quarantined, neutered and vaccinated. We were able to spend time socialising and walking the dogs. This was was the highlight of my day, other than the beautiful cat that came to see us every morning for cuddles (they also have a cat sanctuary as well). There were at least 4 dogs that we would have adopted in a shot if we had a place to live. I think Steve would have happily lived there if they’d let him eat meat.

Next Stop

So, Northern Thailand is done for the moment. We’ll be back later on in the year. There are still some temples we haven’t seen, and we’d both like to revisit Pai before we finally leave Thailand. Next stop is the Philippines, which we really haven’t got the first clue what to expect. Should be fun….

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