Thursday, 3 July 2014

Hello Again London

No that is not a typo, I am in fact back in good ol' London. A couple of weeks ago when I arrived in Malaysia, I got some really sad news about my grandad which meant I had to fly home. Needless to say, this was very unexpected and definitely not the best circumstances in which to travel home, but I didn't think twice about it. If anything, this year has already taught me to expect the unexpected. Cheers 2014, but can you stop teaching me things now please? Thank you kindly. Obviously I'm gutted to be taking a break from my travels too, but I'll be getting into backpacker mode again soon when I fly to Japan later this month. It's always been at the top of my travel list thanks to all the amazing sushi, karaoke and green tea on offer, and I can't wait to experience it all. To be honest, this wasn't part of my itinerary at all at first, but after hearing amazing things from fellow travellers and discovering how cheap Air Asia flights are, I just had to make it happen. I know it's super expensive over there though, so if anyone has any money-saving tips or recommedations please send them my way. I'm gonna need 'em. But, until then I'll be embracing the English vibes and stuffing my face with marmite, tea, gravy, pickle and Babybels. Oh, how I've missed you. 


 

       Khao San Road, Bangkok
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Saturday, 21 June 2014

Why My Chiang Mai Elephant Experience Left Me Heavy Hearted

Greetings from Bangkok everyone! I arrived here yesterday after getting an overnight bus from Chiang Mai (FYI the NCA bus company is the best in Thailand - I actually managed to sleep this time!) Now though, I'm curled up in my hostel bed feeling sorry for myself after getting ill from some somewhat questionable food. Not cool. So instead of laying here doing nothing, I thought I'd use this opportunity to write an important blog post about my elephant experience in Chiang Mai. It's a very honest post and I wasn't 100% sure whether I should even write it, but I thought it'd be useful for anyone who's going to Thailand and plans to spend time with elephants there. Before my trip to the elephant sanctuary though, I spent a few chilled out days in Chiang Mai at the Baan Kunt Hostel (yes, the name made me lol too). I met some lovely people and can't recommend the hostel enough, plus it's perfectly located near the Old Town and costs just £3.50 per night. Total bargain. During my stay I visited some beautiful temples and sampled the delights of the Night Bazaar, mainly the ice cream and mango sticky rice. Delicious!


                    Thaphae Gate


              Military On The Streets


             Night Bazaar Ice Cream


               Mango Sticky Rice 

Now, onto the elephant sanctuary. There are plenty here in Chiang Mai, some with better reputations than others. A lot of these places are extremely cruel to their elephants and are just out to make money from snap-happy tourists who want to be entertained by circus tricks and don't know any better. Having been aware of this before I arrived in Thailand, I made sure I did my research before choosing which place to visit and where to spend my money...or so I thought. I'm usually very careful about this sort of thing, recently refusing a group tour to Tiger Kingdom at the hostel as I was uncomfortable with the supposed drugging of the animals. I'm also a vegetarian for ethical reasons and refrain from using products tested on animals. But I let myself down here, and this experience taught me that the internet and word of mouth aren't always reliable sources, and sometimes mistakes are made and you just have to experience these things for yourself. 

In the end I choose to visit the Thai Elephant Home. I signed up for a two day experience, staying overnight at the camp. When I first arrived I felt very positive and couldn't wait to see the elephants and just be around them. All the staff were very friendly and I generally felt excited about the whole thing. But when they explained about the mahouts (elephant handlers) carrying bull-hooks, my heart sank. I was told it was for the 'safety of tourists' and they were only used when absolutely necessary. Still, I was unsure. We were then taken to feed the elephants and my heart sank again. In the distance I could see a young elephant rocking back and forth with a short chain attached to her foot. When I asked why she was chained up, I was told it was because she was new to the camp, having been rescued, and was just 'settling in'. Even if this was partly true and she was rescued from somewhere terrible, you couldn't deny that this beautiful creature looked lonely, traumatised and very sad. I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable. Later on in the day I was allowed to ride one of the elephants. To be honest, I wasn't worried about this at first because there were no seats involved, just bareback riding, which I naively thought would be OK. This was until I realised that there are a constant stream of tourists coming here and these poor animals have to do this every single day, sometimes twice a day. Needless to say, I was beginning to have second thoughts about my decision and felt guilty that I was funding their plight, but I carried on with the ride hoping that my thoughts would change somehow. On the ride I noticed that some of the mahouts didn't use their bull-hooks at all, but others were not so nice. They didn't use extreme force in any way, but there was still enough prodding to make me feel uneasy.


Despite my negative feelings, I enjoyed the bathing the elephants. Mainly because they were relaxed in the water and I was doing something for them rather than the other way around. Sadly though, the other parts of the experience just didn't feel right for me and ultimately I felt regret. I have no doubt that the elephants here are better treated than in many other places, but I was still uncomfortable. The second day of my visit was better though as I spent it planting bamboo in the forest. This was part of the reforestation project, and I found the experience very rewarding and it will definitely be a positive memory from my stay. I can't fault Thai Elephant Home for this and don't regret taking part. 


In hindsight, I would have visited the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai for my elephant experience. They don't use hooks, they don't do riding and the elephants are free to enjoy 250 acres of wilderness. Annoyingly, I thought about visiting here but changed my mind based on someone's recommendation. Note to self: don't listen to others! I should've known better.

Just to be clear, I can't say for sure that the elephants were being terribly mistreated here as I can only go from what I saw/felt, but overall something didn't feel right for me. So, there you go. That was my experience. I want this post to urge others to do their research thoroughly before signing up to these experiences, and please think twice before riding an elephant. I wish I had! 

In other news, I'm off to Malaysia on Tuesday so will write my next post from there. Hopefully a less serious one! Thank you for reading. 
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Friday, 13 June 2014

6 Days In Luang Prabang, Laos

Just a quick one from me here in Luang Prabang. I could easily write a long and detailed post about how beautiful this place is, but I'm up early tomorrow to catch a flight to Thailand. Next stop, Chiang Mai! I can't wait for another adventure but at the same time I'll really miss this place. It's been the perfect pitstop and a much-needed relaxing getaway. I've spent 6 days in this charming little town - cycling through the French-style streets, wandering around bustling night markets (haggling badly!), exploring beautiful temples and even climbing waterfalls! It's been wonderful. I even found some friends from the yoga retreat I went to in Cambodia, so I had amazing company too. If it couldn't get any better I stayed in a perfect little hotel (Indigo House Hotel). Hardly roughing it backpacker-style, but I thought I'd treat myself to the low season discount. After sharing a room for two months straight, it was kinda nice to have my own space. I even had a bath. An actual bath! What a treat. The all-important food recommendations are Joy's Restaurant, Le Banetton cafe and the Night Market buffet. The latter (pictured) costs the equivalent of 70p! Amazing. Until next time Laos! You will be missed. 











Follow me on Instagram @oohlalondon
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Monday, 9 June 2014

Cambodia Part Two: Sihanoukville, Koh Rong & Phnom Penh

Finally, it's time to catch up on the blog! I've been meaning to do this for ages as it seems like an eternity since my last post, but in reality it's only been a couple of weeks. In that short space of time I've visited Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and the capital city of Phnom Penh. Over the weekend I flew to Vientiane in Laos for two nights and now I'm in the sleepy city of Luang Prabang travelling solo. I really love it here, but more on that later. 


After a pretty horrible 18 hour bus journey (it was meant to be 12 but our bus broke down!) we eventually arrived in Sihanoukville and our first impressions weren't that great. It felt really quiet due to the low season, a bit tacky, and to top it all off I was the victim of an attempted moped mugging. I say attempted because I grabbed my bag back. Ha! Nice try thieves. I do surprise myself sometimes, I really do. So ladies, be careful if you're visiting this place. Or anywhere for that matter. Hold your bag close or don't take or one out at all. Thankfully, the next day was less stressful and we spent it lazing around on the picturesque Otres Beach. It's definitely worth a visit if you go here and probably the best place to stay in the area. We stayed at a basic hotel in town for a night, then hopped on a boat to the beautiful island of Koh Rong for 6 days at Palm Beach Bungalows Resort.





There's no wifi whatsoever and no electricity here during the day, which makes it the ultimate desert island getaway. We shared a bamboo bungalow for $10 each per night which was comfortable, despite the bugs and sand flies! But, this was to be expected on a tropical island. As were the HUGE storms that happened over the last couple of days. I've never seem anything like it! Palm Beach also has its own bar and restaurant where everyone socialises (there's nowhere else to go as it's so secluded!). The food is tasty too, which meant I spent the whole week lying in a hammock in between periods of eating and boozing. Ah, bliss. Oh, and I must mention the fluorescent plankton when swimming at night! This was incredible and feels like you're floating around in neon glitter. Really, it's amazing. It's hard to explain how great it is though because it's totally un-filmmable (if that's even a word. Probably not). All in all, an amazing week with some great people and unforgettable surroundings. Next stop was Phnom Penh, Cambodia's lively capital city. 


I'm a bit short of photos from my time in Phnom Penh and I'm not sure why. This is my only one. I just seem to forget to photograph important things lately. D'oh. Actually, it's probably a good thing that I'm not attached to my iPhone all the time out here, but my memory is so awful I'm worried I'll forget what I've done. If that's possible. So while I remember, I'm at the Royal Palace in this photo, which is a pretty spectacular place to visit if you're in town. We also spent one morning at S21 and The Killing Fields - both very important things to see for anyone who visits Phnom Penh. A harrowing experience but humbling too. Restaurant recommendations would be Friends for dinner and Le Croisette for lunch.


Right now though, I'm in Luang Prabang after a quick stay in Vientiane. The latter is great if you like temples but I felt a day or two was enough here so jumped on a flight to Luang Prabang. I'm loving it here so far, mainly for the chilled out vibes and cheap but delicious food. Always a winner with me. I'm also travelling solo now and enjoying it so far. Everyone needs a bit of solitude sometimes and I'm staying at a cute hotel right by the Night Market, which is the perfect retreat for a few days on my own. I got a low season discount too and my room is amazing. Couldn't be happier. Anyway, it's time I got some sleep but I'll be blogging again in a few days about my stay in Luang Prabang. I won't forget or blame wifi this time. I'll write it down. I promise. 
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Saturday, 24 May 2014

Hariharalaya 10 Day Retreat & Angkor Wat

Oh my goodness it feels so good to have wifi! Wonderful, amazing wifi. Not to mention wine, chocolate, cheese and air con. After spending 10 days at the Hariharalaya yoga and meditation retreat in the sleepy Siem Reap countryside, I have been craving all these things. Saying that, it was really nice to have a break from normal life to focus on myself, be healthy and re-energise. It turned out to be just what I needed I would definitely recommend Hariharalaya to anyone who's interested in yoga and meditation. I stayed in a little bamboo dorm hut, ate delicious vegan meals every day, practiced yoga, chanting and meditation at scheduled classes, enjoyed relaxing massages, read lots of books in hammocks, had movie nights and took part in various workshops like Thai massage.








In hindsight I wish I'd taken more photos, but it was a technology-free zone so I put my iPhone away for most of the time. I didn't feel too lonely though as this was the perfect place for social interaction,  so I got to know a lot of great people who I'll stay in touch with along my travels. But 10 days was enough for me and I was glad to get back to my adventures on Thursday. So yesterday my friend Natasha and I headed to the beautiful Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples - must-see's if you're in Siem Reap. 







It was an early start at 4.30am but definitely worth it to see the sunrise. Tickets cost $20 for the day and we spent around $20 on top of that for the tuk tuk ride, tour guide and lunch. I would 100% recommend getting a guide as you learn a lot more, beat the crowds and won't miss any good stuff. We booked everything through our B&B (Phrom Roth)  which was a whole lot easier too. Also, take snacks and drink lots of water. It's 38 degrees here so I needed both! Aside from Angkor Wat, my favourite temple was the one where Tomb Raider was filmed which had lots of beautiful trees that looked like something out of a fairytale. In fact, all the temples had a magical feel to them due to their history (many were built as far back as the 11th century) and connections with spirituality. 

After all that templing, today was spent hanging out in Siem Reap town with my original travelling pal, James. It's so nice to be reunited after 10 days and we plan to head down South to Sihanoukville and Koh Rong next week for some beach time. Until then we intend to make the most of our last few days in Siem Reap by going to some of our favourite eating/drinking spots - Sister Srey cafe, Central Cafe, Temple bar, Angkor What bar, Charlie's bar, Il Forno Italian and The Blue Pumpkin (best ice cream ever). Be sure to check them out if you're ever in town.

While I was at Hariharalaya, James volunteered to teach English at a school nearby and loved it. It's for children who can't afford an education and there's no fee, no experience needed and you can volunteer both long-term and short-term. Or even for just for one afternoon! I thought this would be worth mentioning on here as it's a great thing to do if you're interested in teaching, or if you can't afford to join a program or have limited time in Cambodia. Here's the website for more info - http://www.humanitycambodia.org
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Sunday, 11 May 2014

Cambodia Part One: Siem Reap

This is just a quick post summing up my first two days in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I absolutely love it here, I think it might even be my favourite place so far! I had high hopes for Vietnam and it was great, but this place has definitely exceeded my expectations. It has an incredibly relaxed atmosphere, all contained in a small town with a beautiful central pagoda, lively bars, a bustling market and traditional restaurants serving amazing food - especially on Pub Street. FYI Khmer Kitchen is a must. I feel like I could stay here for a long time. I'm currently staying at Siem Reap Guestrooms which is a 3 minute tuk tuk ride away from the Old Market. It's quiet, friendly and even has a little rooftop pool which is perfect for cooling down in the evenings. Tomorrow I'm going solo to the Hariharalaya retreat for 10 days. It's a vegan meditation and yoga retreat and I'm really looking forward to relaxing, improving my yoga skills, getting healthy and meeting some new people. There's no wifi though (which will be hard to adjust to!) but I'm hoping to get back in balance and just chilllll. I'll be sure to report back in 10 days if I can remember how to use an iPhone! Here are a few snaps of my trip so far: 








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Friday, 9 May 2014

Exploring Ho Chi Minh & The Mekong Delta

So, my friend and I have finally completed the last leg of our Vietnam adventure, ending in the boiling hot and bustling Southern city of Ho Chi Minh. Like I've said before, there's a stark contrast here between the North and South cities, with the former being more traditional and the latter very lively and modern. For example, bars, shops and restaurants were all closed at 11pm sharp in Hanoi, but here in Ho Chi Minh people party every day of the week and stay out until the early hours - a bit like Bangkok but without the seediness! Even though we've only had a couple of days here, we crammed a lot into our schedule with a Mekong Delta tour, museum visits and eating lots of amazing food. 


We stayed in District 1 (also known as the backpackers district) at the Bizu Mini Saigon Hotel right in the centre of the Bui Vien street, which is full of bars and restaurants. It's a pretty loud place to stay but a great location for nightlife. Top tip: ask for a high floor room and you'll hardly hear a thing! All the bars are good on this street so I've got nothing specific to recommend, but in terms of food we loved Baba's Indian (it was so good I inhaled it all and forgot to take any pictures) and Hum Vegetarian restaurant which is in District 3. Hum has one of the best veggie menus I've ever seen, full of healthy dishes and really delicious too. I could've eaten here every day! It was lunchtime so we opted for some summer rolls, a young ivory bamboo soup, crispy tofu sticks with a coriander dip and a salad to share. All washed down with a fresh lemongrass and ginger tea. 




In terms of museums, we visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants museum. Out of the two though, the War Remnants museum had the most impact for me. The majority of the museum is made up of photo galleries telling stories about what happened to the Vietnamese people during the war and how badly they were affected. A lot of the images and stories were quite graphic and disturbing, but nonetheless very important to see. 



Today, our last day, was spent on a full day Mekong Delta tour. Tours like this are very cheap (about £5pp!) and we even got our lunch included. The day was spent on a rowing boat ride down the delta, stopping at an island to sample fresh honey, a visit to a coconut candy workshop, listening some live Vietnamese music and I even got to hold a python and meet a water buffalo along the way.






It was a long, hot day but definitely worth it - although tonight we're both completely done in so have headed straight to bed after dinner! Wild. Tomorrow though, we fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia for a couple of days then I'm doing a solo visit to a vegan yoga and meditation retreat for 10 days. With no internet. How will I cope?? Saying that, I can't wait to chill out after a crazy few weeks and give my body and liver a much-needed rest.
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