Tag Archives: Laos

2008 Travel round up part 3: My Year in Photos

The final bit of my ’08 round-up is a quick photographic journey through the most memorable travel moments of the year. (In case you’re interested, you can see all my 2008 photos over at Flickr)

Wat Phou

January: Wat Phou

Wat Phou is an Angkor-era temple in southern Laos. It’s much less well-known than Laos’s other World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang, and hence gets much fewer tourists. It can’t compete in terms of size with Angkor Wat, but its beautiful hillside setting overlooking the Mekong and lack of crowds make it worth a detour.
Coffee beans drying

February: Coffee beans drying

Another Lao highlight was a visit to the Bolaven Plateau, home to most of the country’s coffee production. Everywhere we went we saw piles of coffee beans drying in the sun.
Crispy Frog

January: Crispy Frog

Moments later, I ate this crispy, deep-fried Mekong Frog, which is not something I ever expected to do. Surprisingly lovely. And no, it didn’t taste of chicken.
Stowe House

February: Stowe House

A beautiful, crisp, cold winter day walking through the grounds of Stowe House, some of the finest landscaped grounds in England.
Alpine view

March: Alpine view

I’d resisted skiing for years. Why did no-one tell me one of the best bits of the experience would be the breathtaking beauty of the mountains?

March: Bobsleigh!

1500 metres downhill on the 1994 Olympic track. Over 100kph, inches from the ice. The best 72 seconds of my life.

April: Bounce

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a bobsleigh run to have fun though: an afternoon bouncing on the trampoline at my sister’s house in Essex was nearly as fun.
Wet & windy Snowdon

June: Wet & windy Snowdon

Freezing rain and winds so strong you could barely stand up – but making it to the top of Wales’s highest mountain was worth it.
Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

June: Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

Before I did it, I thought 26 miles of hiking up and down three hills would be a bit tough. I ended up running the last few miles. And I even got a certificate to prove I’d done it too (I’m like a child when it comes to external validation).
My new favourite building

June: My new favourite building

The restored De La Warr pavilion is absolutely stunning, and utterly incongruous to find in town like Bexhill.
View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

June: View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

Even more fun than usual, thanks to the absence of mud and flooding. I’ll miss the madness in 2009.
the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

July: the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

Recovering from festivals by going on holiday straight after is totally the way ahead.
24 hours in Ibiza

August: 24 hours in Ibiza

…except it wasn’t even that. We spent nearly as long in Madrid airport as we did on the island.
Boat envy in Formentera

September: Boat envy in Formentera

Still, I made up for it by having a fantastic four days there the following month, seeing how the other half live. Although it did give me boat envy.
Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

October: Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos, one of my favourite photos of the year. The town is pretty great too.
Faro - ghost town

October: Faro - ghost town

Unlike Faro, which was just plain weird. Also: I assumed Pigeon-racing was one of those weird eccentric English things. Turns out the Portuguese do it too.
Krakow market square

November: Krakow market square

We kept being told it was the largest square of its kind in Europe. We never did find out what that meant exactly. Lovely place to spend my birthday (although I think Uluru in 2009 may just top it). Just don’t mention the borscht.
View over Windermere

December: View over Windermere

If there’s been one thing that’s really stood out from my travels this year, it’s been falling in love with the mountains, and it’s certainly something I’ll be doing a lot more of in 2009.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented in 2008. It’s been a bit of a dry run while I get the hang of writing (the only writing I’ve done for the last decade has been on Powerpoint slides, which is really quite different) and posting pictures. Hopefully 2009 and the start of my long-term travels will make this an even better read going forward!

Christmas in Laos

One year ago today I made the decision to quit my job and travel for a year. The desire for travel had been slowing growing for some time, accelerating ever since my first proper backpacking trip to Mexico & Guatemala in 2007. That desire had always remained in the realm of ‘some day’ though…until Laos. The first week of my trip was a revelation – I’d been nervous about my first solo trip, but from day one I began making friends, and I was lucky enough to be in a truly special country.

All my thoughts and feelings about travel crystallised into a firm decision thanks to Christmas day, which definitely goes down as one of the best days of my life. It wasn’t a day visiting historical sites. It wasn’t a day admiring beautiful scenery (although that was certainly a part of it). It certainly wasn’t a particularly culturally sensitive day.

Nope, what I did on Christmas day last year was float down a river on an inner-tube, wearing a santa hat, with a beer in my hand, and with a group of friends from around the world. And it was awesome. I’d started the week worrying about being alone and ended up exchanging secret santa gifts with a group of new friends with more sincerity than I’ve previously managed with colleagues I’ve known for years. This more than anything else is what really helped me make the decision. I love the way travel forces me to open up and meet new people, especially people from outside of the narrow circles I normally mix in. I love the way it challenges my preconceptions, takes me out of my comfort zone, and shows me why that’s a good thing. Sights, scenery, places are so often the focus of travel, but in my experience it’s the interaction with people that’s just as important, and can help create the most special memories.

I know next year I’ll see so many special places, and I’m really looking forward to that. What I can’t forecast, and what excites me most, is the unexpected experiences I’m going to have with people I haven’t even met yet.

Christmas morning in the pool with my travel buddy Chris, with the beautiful limestone mountains of Vang Vieng in the background

Christmas morning in the pool with my travel buddy Chris, with the beautiful limestone mountains of Vang Vieng in the background

(and no, I’m not sad enough to be posting on Christmas day. I’m probably slumped in front of Christmas Top of the Pops right now, as it should be. This is a post-dated post, obviously)

Top 5 Favourite Islands

I’ve got no more travels planned for a few weeks, so time to return to a few more lists of my favourite places. This one’s a bit short – because I really haven’t been to that many islands*. This is therefore the one I expect to change most over next year, as I’m planning to visit the Bay Islands of Honduras, Easter Island, and lots of islands in Indonesia and the Philippines, and probably in mainland South-East Asia too.

1. Ibiza / Eivissa

Ibiza Town by night

Ibiza Town by night

First place will be no surprise to anyone who knows me, or even people who only know me through this blog. No other place I know has such a great mixture of natural beauty, fantastic beaches, insane nightlife, fascinating history and mouthwatering restaurants (actually, it’s almost worth its first place for the allioli alone). It’s one place I’ll never get bored of.

2. Formentera

Platja de ses Illetes, Formentera

Platja de ses Illetes, Formentera

It’s a straight one-two for the Illes Pitiüses (Pine Islands): I love Formentera nearly as much as it’s much more famous northern neighbour. Formentera scores so highly for two things: it has some of the finest beaches I’ve ever been to (and certainly the best in Europe), and it’s incredibly quiet and unspoilt, not to mention beuatiful. The perfect place to relax.

3. Don Det & Don Khon

Lao kids at a school on Don Khon

Lao kids at a school on Don Khon

Two of the (so-called) 4,000 islands in the Mekong, just before it crosses the border from Laos into Cambodia. They’re linked together by an old French railway bridge that was used to bypass the spectacular waterfalls on either side of the islands. Aside from the hostels and bars looking after travellers, the rest of the islands are taken up by paddy fields, forest and Lao villages. It’s an incredibly laid-back and peaceful way of life, and was the perfect spot to bring in 2008 for me.

4. Koh Samui

The only one of Thailand’s islands I’ve been to, and my first trip to Asia back in 1998. Staying in shack right on the beach was an awesome experience. I’ve heard Chaweng beach (where I stayed) has changed an awful lot since then, to the extent I’d barely recognise it. I’m happy to let it stay as it is in my memories.

5. Mykonos

Windmill in Mykonos

Windmill in Mykonos

The only one of the Greek islands I’ve been to so far – but it hopefully won’t be the last. The stereotype of white-walled villages was as beautiful as I could have hoped for, and the confusingly maze-like warren of streets that make up Mykonos town are charming, and full of fantastic little restaurants and bars.

*I’m not counting Hong Kong or Manhattan – because I think of them both more as cities than islands. And sadly, Thanet doesn’t really count. I may have many happy childhood memories of Birchington & Margate, but it’s not really an island any more.

Top 10 Favourite UNESCO World Heritage Sites

1. Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Temple I, Tikal

Temple I, Tikal

Probably the single best travel experience I’ve had. Vast temples, surrounded by thick jungle full of roaring howler monkeys (and shy panthers), hours and hours away from the nearest civilisation. Worth every bit of the struggle it was to get there.

2. Greater Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains

The day we arrived was not very promising: we walked down the hill from the station to the viewing point over the whole valley…and the fog was so thick we couldn’t see a single thing. Luckily the next day it cleared up, and the walk down to the valley floor was sensational. I want to go back and do a multi-day trek now, it’s the most incredible landscape.

3. Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada, Spain

The Alhmabra is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen, and I think I’d struggle to find any finer. On my visit, the atmosphere was incredibly sombre – it was the day after 9/11, and it felt like everyone was wandering around in near silence unable to comprehend how people could have used the religion that inspired such beauty to justify something so utterly evil.

4. Town of Luang Prabang, Laos

Sunset over the Mekong from Phu Si hill

Sunset over the Mekong from Phu Si hill

Crumbling French colonial buildings, beautiful Buddhist temples, and a perfect location on a peninsular sandwiched between the Mekong and one of its tributaries. Tourism has taken over – and I hope we don’t end up ruining it. It seems that the UNESCO listing it helping though – two hotel building projects have just fallen through after UNESCO warned the government that the listing was in danger if they proceeded.

5. Wat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape, Laos

Wat Phou, Champasak

Wat Phou, Champasak

From the same period as the mighty Angkor Wat, this is like a mini version, perched on a hill looking out towards the Mekong. Probably not as impressive as its more famous contemporary, but it does mean it’s a hell of a lot quieter.

6. Historic Fortified City of Carcassone, France

I’m a sucker for a medieval walled city, especially when it’s perched on top of a hill flaunting its beauty to villages for miles around. And for £35 return on Ryanair, it was an obscenely cheap visit too.

7. Historic Centre of Mexico City & Xochimilco, Mexico

Trajineras in Xochimilco

Trajineras in Xochimilco

This is here for Xochimilco in particular – it’s such a contrast to the rest of the city, and is a great day out from the city. Xochimilco was built by a pre-hispanic tribe, who drained the lake for agriculture. The canals formed as part of this process are still there today, and you can travel round them on a trajinera (colourful punt).

8. Works of Antoni Gaudi

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Quite magical and definitely unique – each of Gaudi’s Barcelona buildings stands out by a mile. I’m not overly keen on the work they’re doing on the Sagrada Famila though – I think they should have left it as it was when he died.

9. Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey & St Martin’s Church, Canterbury, UK

The only one of these I’ve lived in – for 5 years I woke up every morning with a view over St Augustine’s abbey, and with the Cathedral outside my front door. I pretty much took it for granted back then; having visited lots more cathedrals since then I realise quite how lucky I was.

10. Cultural Landscape of Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace, Sintra

Pena Palace, Sintra

The train from Lisbon to Sintra is an absolute bargain – as far as I remember it’s less than €2, and the contrast is huge. The Palace is beautiful, with views out towards the Ocean and the beach resort of Estoril, while the Moorish castle is great fun, because you can clamber over and all around the walls.

And the most disappointing? None. I’ve loved every one I’ve been too. That’s not to say it’s a perfect system – there are plenty of equally cool places that haven’t been listed – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile. And if listing helps to protect them, then surely that’s a good thing.

UPDATE: You can now see the full list of the 87 sites that I have now visited (many of which are new since writing this list) over at this page

Top 10 Favourite Countries

I have no plans to make lists a regular feature here (even if people do love them apparently), but I thought it’d be worthwhile to list my favourite places over the next few days, so that I can revisit them when I get back in 18 months’ time, to see how these have changed. So welcome to ‘top tens week’. And if you find lists boring, normal service will resume next week.

1. Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas

My trip to Mexico in 2007 first got me thinking seriously about taking a year off to see more of the world. I only saw a small portion of the country (the Yucatan Pensinsular, Chiapas, and Mexico City) but it was more than enough to make me fall in love with the place. Aside from the obvious bits – beautiful scenery, stunning beaches, Mayan temples – two things in particular help seal Mexico’s spot at the top of this list: the friendliest locals of anywhere I’ve ever visited, and best of all, the food. I don’t think I had a bad meal the whole time I was there. The only downside being that Mexican food in the UK now tastes like a very, very poor imitation (other than the terrific Mestizo). As I wrote in one of my earliest postshere, it’ll be the first stop on my trip, and I can’t wait.

2. Laos

Wat Ho Pha Bang, Luang Prabang

Wat Ho Pha Bang, Luang Prabang

Only narrowly beaten by Mexico, it was in Laos at Christmas that I decided for certain that I was going to head round the world in 2009. Everyone I met whilst there agreed it was the surprise highlight of South East Asia. Easily the most laidback country I’ve been to, it’s another place I’m heading back to, but this time for longer, so I can enjoy the relaxed pace of life for a while longer without having to rush.

3. Spain

I’ve had more holidays in Spain than any other country, and it hasn’t let me down once, and (along with the next country on the list) is one the only countries in Europe I can imagine living in. The Spanish lifestyle seems so much more civilised than ours back home.

4. Germany

I’m a little biased here – six years living there have left a special place in my heart for Germany (and the Germans). It’s pretty sad that a combination of history and stereotypes dominate the British perception of the country (although I suppose it could be a blessing in disguise…Germany is unlikely to ever end of overrun by the types of British tourists who have ruined large chunks of meditteranean Europe)

5. France

Beaches, mountains, great cities, fantastic food…France has just about everything you could want out of a holiday destination. What’s not to love? (Well, apart from the French themselves…)

6. Portugal

It’s remarkable how few tourists you come across when you get away from the obvious bits (Lisbon, the Algarve). They’re missing out.

7. Australia

The country is so vast, and I’ve only scratched the surface so far. If & when I get to explore the interior more, I can see Australia working it’s way further up my list. Although that won’t be next year – other than a brief stop in Melbourne, I’ve decided not to spend too much time there, as it costs a a fair bit more than everywhere else I’m going.

8. USA

Very similar to the above, there’s so much I still want to do in the US. But what I’ve seen so far, I love. The strangest thing about visiting is that it all seems so instantly familiar, thanks to a million Hollywood movies and TV shows.

9. Georgia

The highlight of my school trip to the then-USSR back when I was 13, which makes recent events all the sadder for me. It’s a truly beautiful little country, and I long to go back to see how much it’s changed in the last 20 years.

10. Azerbaijan

When I visited back in 1988, the combination of modern, brutalist Soviet & older Islamic architecture with deserts full of oil wells, made Azerbaijan feel a world apart from the other Soviet republics I visited, and far more exotic than anywhere else I’d been.

And the biggest disappointment? Well, mentioning this to most people in the UK appears to be tantamount to sacrilege, however my two trips to Italy have not overly impressed me so far. I think I’ve been unlucky, and missed the best bits to be honest, but on both visits I’ve found the locals to be less than friendly, and the cities lacking atmosphere.