Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok

New Years-eve in the UK usually consists of either a house party, paying an extortionate amount to drink at a bar you go each week or freezing to death outside whilst watching fireworks tumble into the sky as the clock strikes 12.

Pretty tame eh?

When I was travelling on my RTW trip, I was so excited to see that I would be in Bangkok during Thai New Year (Songkran). A few days prior I had holed up in a smart hostel in Silom, a place where I’d heard would be the centre of the action. I met a travel blogger friend at the hostel and on the first day of Songkran we walked outside the hostel totally unprepared for what was about to happen.

Cold water rushed up my nostrels and in my eyes the second I went outside. As soon as I gained my vision I could see three young Thai children all aiming at us with big, powerful supersoakers in their slender arms.

So this was how they celebrate New Years in Thailand?

Songkran is a three day holiday from April 13-15. It’s essentially one big water festival and the streets of Bangkok hault to a standstill for three days whilst young Thais have the ultimate water fight. The water represents  purification and the washing away of sins and bad luck.

However for many Thais and travellers it’s just three days of Chaos!

And no-one is safe! 

I saw a family check into a hotel across the road. As they struggled with heavy bags they were soaked from all angles and a cheeky boy even ran across and smeared thick clay across the fathers face.

I’ve never seen anyone look so angry!

Songkran is not the time to get pissed of at people soaking you with water. Be prepared to be soaked for three days straight so make sure you check in to your hostel at least the day before to avoid unwanted attention.

If you are prepared, you will have an incredible time. One you will never regret and a chance to bond with the funny, cheeky and smart Thai people.

Super soakers

The first thing to do is choose your weapon. We chose the biggest and most expensive super soakers we could find and I think It’s a sound investment. Having a big water gun means that you can soak people far away. Handy when people are squirting you from moving motorbikes, buses or pick up trucks! (Yes I don’t think there is any health and safety in Thailand!).

An adorable Thai boy with his massive super soaker!
An adorable Thai boy with his massive super soaker!

Clay

Many people in Thailand wear clay on their faces daily as a form of sun protection. During Songkran it’s tradition to wipe a small amount of clay on peoples cheek and wish them a ‘happy new year’. My first encounter with clay was when an extremely attractive Thai guy slowly smeared the cool clay across my cheek in Silom. After that I was hooked and would wipe clay on any attractive passers by!

Covered in clay and absolutely soaked = a sucessful day of celebrating Songkran
Covered in clay and absolutely soaked = a sucessful day of celebrating Songkran

Buckets

Oh the dreaded buckets! In Thailand buckets are usually associated with drinking large volumes of alcohol at night in Khao San road. During Songkran some cruel souls pour whole buckets of ice cold water over unsuspecting victims. In the heat of the day this can feel heavenly but as the sun sets it feels absolutely horrible. Just remember to get them back with either your supersoaker or clay bucket.

 

Khao San and Silom

Khao San Road and Silom are the epicentres of the celebration . The roads close and the areas become unrecognisable for three days as thousands of revellers pass through the streets. There is such a party atmosphere, loud dance music plays and there are stalls selling alcohol and water top ups at the side of the road. In Silom there were Thai girls in skimpy outfits performing on stage (They still got soaked!) and a Thai fire truck absolutely blasted gallons of water everywhere in the street.

It really was crazy!

Craziness on the streets of Khao San Road
Craziness on the streets of Khao San Road
The streets are absolutely packed!
The streets of Silom are absolutely packed!
Thais selling extra water, and also preying on unsuspecting victims!
Thais selling extra water, and also preying on unsuspecting victims!

What to wear

You will get absolutely soaked the moment you step outside so wear something that isn’t see through and that won’t fall down when wet. Buy a plastic dry bag for your phone and money and make sure that it’s always locked. I have very few photos of the celebration because water is thrown in your face literally every couple of metres. No-one is safe from the fun, even if you are holding your expensive camera in your hands.

Where to Stay

I would reccomend staying near the action in Silom or Khao San Road. The buses run infrequently during Songkran and it’s extremely hard to get a taxi or tuk tuk. If you do end up getting one you will pay an inflated price.

However it’s extremely fun to soak people from the safety of a bus or a tuk tuk, until you stop at a traffic light and everyone turns and soaks you (and the driver!).

Oh Thailand!

In the evening

As the sun sets, less water is thrown but you may still be someones target so still keep your valubles in a dry bag. As the sun set we headed to the Gay area of Bangkok to enjoy a few beers and a cheeky water fight with ladyboys and tourists. So much fun!

Songkran is a must see event for people travelling through Thailand. Although I had an amazing time celebrating it in Bangkok, I hear that Chiang Mai and some of the islands celebrate just as hard! Just remember to have fun and lighten up for three days. No matter what you are doing, you will be a target!

Our friends waving to us from across the street!
Our new friends waving to us from across the street!
Soaked, covered in clay and with my new Thai friend who wears balloons down his top, because, why not?
Soaked, covered in clay and with my new Thai friend who wears balloons down his top, because, why not?

 

 

Have you celebrated Songkran in Thailand? Is so what did you think? Did you celebrate in Bangkok? What’s your weapon of choice?

2015, the year I became an Expat

My hands shook as my fingers tapped on the keyboard, my knees crashed together nervously. Usually I`m never lost for words, however I now couldn`t remember what I was supposed to write. How does one hand in their notice on a job that you`ve done for over 5 years, a career no less? One that you`ve invested thousands of hours and thousands of pounds in?

 

The room started to spin and I felt dizzy. was it hot in here? Maybe I should open a window.

 

The words of my Father filled my thoughts. `You`ll rue the day you ever gave up your Podiatry job`, he had said the night before. I don`t really think he thought I would actually do it. Give up my career to go and live in Japan, a country I had never even visited with a language that bamboozled me and perplexed me.

 

Maybe I would rue the day, but this life isn`t for me. Not at this moment.

 

I finished the letter, printed it off and let out a sigh of relief. I was doing it.

 

I then marched upstairs and handed in my notice.

 

2015 was probably the scariest year of my life. The feelings I felt before I left the UK and moved to Japan were that of regret and anxiety. I was giving up everything I knew for a life I didn’t even know. would it be worth it? would i regret it? Would I rue the day? I guess I would just have to find out.

 

Here is where I travelled to in 2015

 

March

*Tokyo, Japan.  Before I started the intensive training for my job I spent a week in Tokyo, recovering from jet lag and acclimatising. I made the perfect decision. Japan is so different to any other country that I`ve travelled to and I really needed a week to find my feet. Nearly every day was spent exploring Tokyo, from the sakura in Ueno park to the bright lights and otaku culture of Akihabara, I wanted to see it all.

 

*Nasushiobara, Japan.

After my time in Tokyo and intensive teacher training, I was placed on a shinkansen heading to my new home, Nasushiobara in Tochigi, Japan. I only found out where I was placed a few weeks before I left the UK and I really didn`t know what to expect. I was only told that I would be placed in an Elementary school a few days before training. Usually I embrace change but I found it unnerving. It seemed so finite and serious. The first few days went by in a blur, there were things to buy, places to register and accounts to set up. I had no choice in my accommodation and it was a surreal feeling walking into my apartment (If you can call it that) and realising that this was my new home.

I spent my first few weeks exploring my local area and enjoying the Hanamis and spring festivals, my first introduction to Japanese culture.

Enjoying the sakura in Nasushiobara
Enjoying the sakura in Nasushiobara
My first festival (Matsuri) in Japan
My first festival (Matsuri) in Japan
Exploring temples in Shiobara
Exploring temples in Shiobara

May

Nikko, Tochigi. After a few weeks of living in Nasushiobara I was getting itchy feet again. Golden week is a 5 day long holiday in Japan and many Japanese vacation at this time. I wanted to travel but many of my fellow ALTs warned me against it. `It will be too busy` they said, `You`ll never find accomodation`, they said. naturally I ended up doing my own thing and booked a few days in local Nikko. Yes most places were booked up but I ended up staying in a quirky hostel far away from the tourist spots. In the day I could explore the temples of Nikko and in the evening I could relax by the river and talk to fellow travellers. It was just what I needed.

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By the relaxing river next to my hostel
By the relaxing river next to my hostel

July

*Gunma- I spent a great weekend in Gunma with a fellow expat. On the first day we hiked 31km in beautiful Oze national park and I lost my onsen virginity that night! The next day we travelled to a famous onsen town Kusatsu and I tried three more onsens, including my first outdoor one.

hiking

Beautiful Oze national park
Beautiful Oze national park
Cute Kusatsu
Cute Kusatsu
The traditional way to cool the water in the onsen
The traditional way to cool the water in the onsen

August

*Thailand.  Living in Japan started to get to me. It`s rare to read anything negative about Japan but it can be an extremely claustrophobic place to live and work. I needed to get out. I initially booked a flight to the Philipines but for some reason my card wasn`t accepted. I took this as a sign that I should go to a place that wouldn’t be a challenge, a place that I loved. I chose to go to Thailand.

Now, Thailand and me have always had a love/hate relationship. It was love from my side but Thailand had given me some of the most challenging days of my life (oh dengue fever…) I travelled from Bangkok to Phi Phi to Phuket and finally to Ao Nang. I had a great time in Thailand and spent most of the time with new friends that I met and a fellow English teacher but disaster seemed to strike at every opportunity, cumulating with the Bangkok bombings during my last days that left me too scared to leave the hostel.

Oh Thailand!
Oh Thailand!
At the Grand palace
At the Grand palace
At 'the beach' once again
At ‘the beach’ once again
A rein made of rope...yeah I should have guessed....
A rein made of rope…yeah I should have guessed….
Paradise in Railay
Paradise in Railay

*Mount Fuji- I had actually planned to climb Fuji in June but I had to cancel because I had a chest infection. In Thailand I managed to get a bad infection in both my legs from horse riding (long story…) and the doctor forbid me from climbing Fuji that weekend. The climbing season for mount Fuji was drawing to a close, so naturally I ignored his advice and climbed the highest mountain in Japan anyway. I climbed with a fellow teacher I met at training and met a great guy on te bus who was also new to japan. climbing Fuji at night was extremely challenging and the weather was atrocious. We made it to the last station before the summit and were told that the summit was closed. I was so disappointed. We then had to descend the mountain in darkness and we never saw the beautiful views that Fuji is famed for.

Looking triumphant before Fuji
Looking triumphant before Fuji
Just about alive halfway up!
Just about alive halfway up!

September

 

*Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, Himeji, Nara- Another long public holiday in Japan is the perfect excuse to travel around Japan. Once again people advised me not to travel but I easily found places to stay combining couchsurfing, air bnb and hostels. I had an absolutely amazing time and it reignited my love for Japan and Japanese culture. The highlight? Seeing real life geisha and maikos in Gion, Kyoto. Since I was a child I`ve been obsessed and entranced by geisha culture and history and it was surreal seeing them in the flesh, in their home.

Colourful China town in Kobe
Colourful China town in Kobe
In front of Osaka castle
In front of Osaka castle
The famous Glico man in Osaka
The famous Glico man in Osaka
Traditional Japanese architecture in Gion, Kyoto
Traditional Japanese architecture in Gion, Kyoto
My first Geisha spotting
My first Geisha spotting

October

*Kyushu, Japan- Years ago I met a fellow travel blogger in Japan. I finally made it to Kyushu to visit her! We had a great time causing all types of mischief in Fukuoka and I loved being able to laugh and chat. I went on a night out in Fukuoka, had a crazy night with Japanese salarymen, explored Kita-Kyushu and visited Japan’s first zen temple in Fukuoka.

Salary men, no idea what their actual jobs were...
Salary men, no idea what their actual jobs were…
At Japan's first zen temple
At Japan’s first zen temple
Lake in the centre of Fukuoka
Lake in the centre of Fukuoka

December

 

*England. Feeling burnout after a few months back in Japan, I decided to visit my family at home for Christmas. Since moving to Japan I`ve become an Auntie for the first time, It was amazing to finally hold my Niece in my arms. I spent an action packed three weeks back home and spent as much time as I could with my family and friends. I acted as joint tour guide and showed friends from down south (who I met in New Zealand!) around my city of Liverpool. It was great seeing my city through their eyes. I was also made Godmother for the first time for my Niece, a  gret honour and responsibility that I take seriously.

Fun with friends
Fun with friends
Proud Godmother and Auntie!
Proud Godmother and Auntie!
The Poppy exhibit in Liverpool
The Poppy exhibit in Liverpool

 

2015 did not hold as much travel as I had hoped but I did what I could with the small amount of free time I had from my new job. Surprisingly I find being an expat a lot harder than travelling. in my heart I`m nomadic and there`s always the feeling that I should pack my bag and move to the next place if things become difficult or boring; but I can’t, my life`s here.

 

What will 2016 bring? Well at the moment I don`t know, but I do know that it will be a whole lot more exciting than 2015. The wanderlust is starting to affect me badly and I`m in need of some good old-fashioned adventure.

 

Do you have any recommendations on places to live or travel? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Hostel from hell: Oh Thailand, what are you doing to me? (Part 1)

When people ask me what my favourite country is, I always say Thailand. Thailand is such a diverse country and you just can’t compare the countryside in the North to the hedonistic partying that happens in the Southern Islands. It has something for everyone which was why I decided to visit it in my summer vacation.

I love living in Japan but it’s a very constricting culture. Most people try their best to be harmonious in all ways which is nice at first but after a while can feel a bit fake and oppressive. There’s so many unwritten rules to follow and it can get exhausting.

So I decided to visit crazy Thailand, land of not many rules!

The first few days in Thailand were everything I imagened them to be. I met a lovely French girl who lives in Tokyo on the plane and we spent the first day pampering ourselves with massages on the street and delicious street food. The second day her friends came and we explored the Grand palace and Wat Pho, places that I’ve never visited before despite staying in Bangkok three times in 2013!

It was bliss.

Just chilling at the absolutely beautiful Grand palace on a sunny day.
Just chilling at the absolutely beautiful Grand palace on a sunny day.
Having fun with my French friends!
Having fun with my French friends!

On the third day I left the blue skys and caught a plane to Krabi. On the way there turbulance rocked the plane and I was greeted by grey skies and rain drops sliding across the small oval windows of the plane.

Oh, did I mention that the plane was delayed for nearly 2 hours?

But oh no, this wasn’t going to get me down. I’m a strong independent traveller and it’s not the destination but the journey, right?

When I was on the plane I saw the clouds below me turn from fluffy white marshmallows to soddon, dirty dripping cloths. I knew the weather on the Southern islands was going to be bad but I wasn’t expecting this…

Dirty, wet dripping cloths...
Dirty, wet dripping cloths…

Lies, all lies

I hopped on a bus to take me to the pier, from my research I could make the 3pm ferry. ‘Sorry Madame, no 3pm ferry, only 4pm today’, the shifty man uttered when I tried to buy a boat ticket at a cafe that the bus company uses as a ‘holding house’ for backpackers like me. I immediatelly thought that he was lying and that he was telling me a later time to force me to buy food fron his cafe. I would not succumb, even if I starved!

I somehow managed to persuade the man to take me the pier for 3pm. I laughed inside as the mini bus drove away, thinking of how stupid my fellow travellers were to believe the creepy guys story. I’m an experienced traveller and no-one is going to trick me, haha!

Unfortunately I didn’t get the last laugh as the next ferry was actually at 3pm. Despite being majorly pissed off I made friends with some fellow English girls and ate a tuna sandwich.

The ferry ride from hell

I travelled on a boat many times during my 2013 sabbatical so I like to think of myself as a kind of expert. I chose a seat near the front of the boat to reduce the chance of sickness.

It made no difference.

The boat rocked from side to side so violently that there were sporadic screams from the passengers. The air changed from musky backpacker to acrid vomit within seconds and I was forced to seek refuge on the top of the boat. All was well until the rain started to pour down and I risked my life sliding across the slippy deck back into the safe but disgusting inside of the boat.

Koh Phi Phi?

Koh Phi Phi was a place of pilgrimage for me in 2013. When I was in my car visiting patients as a podiatrist I would listen to Pure Shores by All Saints on repeat and imagine I was on that beach. ‘One day, you will make it to that beach’, I whispered softly to myself.

Koh Phi Phi felt so far removed from the paradise I remembered. The rain was pouring down and salt from my sweat was stinging my eyes. I was not broken though, no. I was staying in the islands best party hostel and I wasn’t going to let a bit of rain get in the way of my fun.

The dark and dreary beach, a lot different to how I remembered it in 2013!
The dark and dreary beach, a lot different to how I remembered it in 2013!
Koh Phi Phi back to it's beautiful self after the storm
Koh Phi Phi back to it’s beautiful self after the storm

Hostel from hell

I finally found the hostel after trudging across the beach. I had to wait a good 20 minutes before being seen to (Solo travellers don’t seem that cool to hostel staff maybe…). I wish I could say that the room was worth the wait but it was a cramped and grubby room right next to the bar. I had a bottom bunk though so it wasn’t so bad I guess? The one window was blocked up and the pain was peeling from the walls. If there was going to be another ‘Hostel’ sequel I think that this hostel would be the perfect place!

I was ready to party the night away. Rain won’t stop me! I made my way to the shower, got undressed and turned the shower on. Rather than being greeted with a lucious stream of warm water I saw a barely visible dribble of water. It took me a good 20 minutes to rinse my hair but I wasn’t going to let it get me down! I then realised that there was no mirror in the dorm so I had to get ready in the corridor.

Oh no, I didn’t have a lock! I completely forgot to bring one, it’s been a while since I’ve been a backpacker you see. No worries I’ll buy one from the hostel.

‘Sorry, no have’. Hmmmm, no worries I’ll buy one when I’m out for dinner!

I had an amazing Italian meal and met a cool Dutch girl who kindly followed me around while I went on the search for an elusive padlock. I looked in every convenience store and couldn’t find one. The rain was so bad that I give up and decided to go to my jail cell for a rest.

The hostel staff kindly found me a lock, then made me pay 200baht for it, okay….

I hit the bar and treated myself to a large Chang and made friends with a bunch of people. The drinks were flowing, the music was playing, it was a good night. Then I saw a sight from the corner of my eye, a naked man! In a bar! I looked around and saw the staff member who checked me in with no bra and another girl in just her illuninous thong. I like to party and have fun but I’ve never really experienced hedonism like this. I decided to keep an open mind and enjoy the day.

koh Phi Phi
Grainy selfie with a bottle of Chang! If you look behind me you can see people in varying states of nakedness…
Partying in Phi Phi, the night before the Italian incident...
Partying in Phi Phi, the night before the Italian incident…

The next day I went to the toilet and realised that there was writing all over the walls, most of it in red pen so it looked like blood. Creepy. The writing was quite rude with lots of people writing their conquests on the wall ect. ‘Dave fingered Jenny here 2015’….

I wanted another shower to freshen up, I thought I’d be clever this time and check all the showers. Two only dribbled water and the other two had the shower head ripped off! I asked a staff member if there was a shower I could use but he said they were all broken, ‘because you know what people are like then they have a drink eh’, what they cut off a hostels water supply?

That evening I had a beer with the Italian guys in my dorm. I normally stay in female dorms but decided to stay in a mixed dorm since that’s all the ‘best party hostel in Koh Phi Phi’ has. They seemed like nice guys though so I wasn’t worried.

I went out for the night with my friends and had a great night. I went back to the dorm and tried to get changed in the dark. The Italian guys burst in and turned the light on. I sheepishly pulled my nighty on and had a bit of a chat with them before turning over and trying to get asleep.

I was woken up a few minutes later by the smallest Italian screaming ‘I like big boobies’!’ and flinging himself in the bed next to me, trying to kiss me. I pushed him off and sternly told him to go back in his own bed. That’s the reason I try not to stay in mixed dorms…and the fact that men snore more than women.

The next day I demanded a refund. ‘oh is it not your scene?’ the guy said condescendingly.

No, I guess it’s not.

I checked out and moved to a lovely private room with actual orchids growing in the bathroom.

You’ll have to wait until part 2 to see what happened next in my favourite country….

orchids

 

Have you ever stayed at a dodgy hostel like this one? Did you tough it out or check out straight away? As always I love hearing your thoughts on this post!

 

 

 

 

 

Why I’m scared to go travelling after living in Japan

Travel, it’s something that consumes about 40% of my idle thoughts. Where will I go? What will I visit? Who will I meet?

It’s tiring to be infected with Wanderlust.

I have some travel news, I’m heading to Thailand this month! A country that is forever in my heart after spending 3.5 months there in 2013. It’s a country where I experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

It’s a country where I feel at home.

Now you would think I’d be happy to go back to a country I love, but there’s a slight feeling of apprehension that I can’t shake off. I think living in Japan has broke me!

The safety of living in Japan

Japan is an extremely safe country. I sometimes think that living in Japan has softenedme. I now feel like I’m wrapped in cotton wool, I feel safe. Japan is a country where you leave your iPhone on the table when you go to the toilet in a restaurant and a country where men leave wallets hanging out of their back pockets in bustling and metropolitan Tokyo.

Now compare this to South East Asia, yes it’s fairly safe but you do have to keep an eye onyour belongings, especially your bag.  Will I remember how to stay safe and avoid theft or will my guard be down after living in Japan for 4 months?

The street lighting where I live is atrocious but I think nothing of walking home alone in the pitch black at night. I feel perfectly safe here and I’ll often walk along using my iphone, something that I would never do back home in the UK!

The quality of the food in Japan

Every dish in Japan is made with delicacy and care. Food hygiene levels are through the roof in every restaurant and cases of food poisoning are extremely rare. Compare that to South East Asia and you can see what I’m worrying about!

After months of eating food so clean it could be certified sterile i’ll be eating food in places with a considerably lower level of food hygiene. Now I’ve always had a very strong stomach but I feel like after months of Japans extremely high hygiene levels, any bacteria in my gut has been killed off and I’ll fall victim to dreaded food poisoning. I hope not!

thai1

Clean streets in Japan

Nearly every blog post you read about Japan mentions the clean streets. It’s true, the streets here are extremely clean and it’s very rare to see rubbish on the pavement. There’s very few public bins but people just keep hold of the rubbish until they get home (and then recycle and even clean the rubbish but that’s a whole different blog post….).

What I love about Banglok is the vibrancy, the life. I actually like the fact that it’s a bit dirty. I’m just scared that I’ll suffer from a bit of culture shock at the thought of smelling pudrid garbage and seeing rats meander across the street…

Japan’s super toilets

Not every toilet in Japan is a super-duper robotic bidet machine but every toilet is usually clean and tidy, even the hated old style squat toilets. I don’t think I’ve ever faced the sight of an empty toilet roll holder in a toilet here or had to deal with a pile of discarded, used toilet roll at the side of the toilet. There’s public toilets everywhere here too which is great! In Izakayas you will usually find sanitary towels, cotton buds and even floss in the toilet, completely complimentary to use.

The toilets in Thailand are ok, well comapred to some of the sights that I’ve seen in Vietnam and Laos… Once again I’m just worried that I’ll accidentally flush the toilet paper or suffer from shock when I see the levels of cleanliness!

Japanese customer service

I was so shocked the first time I walked in 7-11, went to the counter to buy some gyoza and when the store assistant handed me the money she gave me a deep bow. I had read that bowing was common in Japan but not to the extent that store assistants would bow!

Japanese customer service is second to none. It’s attentive but not annoying like many waiters can be in the UK, asking if the ‘food is good’ as soon as you stuff the first bite of food into your mouth. At first Japanese service is overwhelming but after a while its quite comforting, it’s such a nice feeling to be respected when you are just going about your daily life.

I’m afraid that I will be bowing when I recieve money in Thailand and just stand there waiting for the assistant to bow. I’m scared I may throw the odd ‘sumimasen’ or ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ in too instead of Thai.

The reality is, I just can’t wait!

Despite all these minor worries i’m soooo excited for Thailand! I love nearly everything about Thailand and it will be good to take a break from the sometimes constricting and always confusing Japanese society! I’ll just have to keep my wits about me and remember the skills that I built up when I was taking my sabbatical in 2013.

The next time you see me I’ll have no bones left in my body after hours of painful yet amazing Thai massage. I’ll also be a pecuilar shade of orange after eating far too much mango sticky rice!

Thailand, I’m coming home!

soi

 

 

 

 

First impressions of Thailand

Thailand‘Miss Stephanie, Miss Stephanie. Border time. Get off!’.

I woke up from my deep sleep, still tired from the 5am wake up call. Dazed I made my way to the back of the mini bus and heaved my heavy backpack on to my shoulders.

The border was swarming with people selling strong smelling food and drinks in plastic bags, thick smoke filled the air with a cloying scent. I looked around at the various signs dotted around. ‘Penalty of death for drugs’ etc; I felt a pang of panic that someone had slipped something in my bag when I was asleep but I realised that it was highly unlikely.

I got the coveted Thai stamp in my passport and struggled to find my white minibus in the swarms of badly parked white minibuses at the other side. I needn’t have worried because my driver recognised me, after all I was the only lady falang on his bus.

I got a seat at the front of the bus, feeling pleased because I thought it would mean more leg room. As the bus rolled through suburban Thai streets the bus gradually started to fill up and I shared the three front seats with three Thai women. They were only tiny though which made me feel self conscious of my Western bulk.

I was engrossed reading ‘The Beach’ on my kindle when I felt a tap from the guy sat behind. ‘It’s weird isn’t it? The writing looks like hieroglyphics. Don’t worry you will get used to it’. I shared that I had travelled to Sri Lanka and that their writing was also in symbols. The guy told me that this was his third time to Thailand and that he spoke moderate Thai. He couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. I felt embarrassed at being such a travel rookie and gazed out of the window for the remainder of the journey.

The floor seemed dry and arid and there was a food stall every couple of feet. A few cows roamed the streets freely, drivers of the many scooters seemed unperturbed. What shocked me the most was large pick up trucks with a roof and benches that sat up to 14 people in the back. ‘What are they?’ I asked the guy. ‘Oh they are songthaews, they have them all over Thailand. You will be getting very accustomed to them in the coming weeks’. I tried to hide the horror in my eyes. They didn’t look safe at all, there must be a safer alternative?

A songtheaw in all of it’s dangerous glory.

The mini bus stopped in an extremely busy place. ‘Miss Stephanie, off now!’ I looked around and couldn’t see the train station anywhere. I told the guy that I paid to get to the train station and his nice demeanor vanished. ‘Train station down street, you get off now, I very busy. Now!!!’. Not wanting to make a scene I got off, heaved my backpack on to my shoulders and set off in the direction of the station.

10 minutes later I reached the station and ordered a sleeper train to Bangkok where I was going to celebrate Songkran with a fellow travel blogger. ‘Next train at 6, here is your ticket, next please’, the ticket guy said. ‘But its 1pm! There must be a train before that? ‘No, that’s only train, next please’.

By now I was feeling quite wound up. When I read about Thailand I heard it was the land of smiles. This seemed to be the land of moodiness. I found a place to store my bag at the station and I felt a weight literally lifted off the shoulders. The helpful assistant even helped me with my bag and smiled at me!

I decided to make the best of a bad situation. I was stuck in Hat Yai for 5 hours so decided to have a look in the shops. I decided to treat myself to a McDonald’s for the first time in two months and ordered a ‘tuna pie’ as a little treat. It was a mix between a dessert and a savoury pie, quite peculiar.

I spent a good hour people watching and I started to understand why they call it the land of smiles. Most Thais seemed very merry, without a care in the world.

My back was akeing so when I heard the cry of ‘You wan massaaage?’ I knew I hat to try one. I had read a lot about Thai massages but noting prepared me for it. I was ushered in to a small room upstairs and sat on a foam mattress on the floor. The lady had the smallest handbag known to mankind, to this day I still wonder what she had inside it.

What came next was basically torture, every joint in my body was cracked. The lady would not relent until she heard that satisfying pop and she would swing me around until she heard it. She stood on my back too with was peculiar and did a kind of assisted forward roll. At the end I paid my 200baht and literally felt no pain in my entire body! It was a miracle!

I was at that moment when I started to love Thailand. A place where no day is the same. Despite the rocky start Thailand became one of my favorite countries in the world and I spent 3.5 months of my trip there!

 

Have you ever travelled to Thailand? What were your first impressions?

Celebrating Songkran in…..England?

monks_edited

Today I attended Songkran celebrations at a local Buddhist temple. The experience was very different to when I experienced Songkran in crazy Bangkok with fellow travel blogger George on the go!

In Thailand Songkran is a crazy celebration. People of all ages take the streets by storm and cause havoc soaking passers by with super soakers, buckets of water and smear their faces with clay. It’s a very special celebration and it shows how highly the Thais value ‘Sanuk’ in their everyday lives. I had recently read an article online that said that scores of people were injured during the Songkran celebrations and that over 200 people had actually died. It is chaos on the streets during Songkran in Thailand, no one is exempt from a soaking, even people riding scooters! The article I read seemed to be spreading fear and had many other links stating ‘why Australians shouldn’t travel to Thailand’ so the figures may have been exaggerated…

I knew that there was a Buddhist temple in the next town to where I lived but I had never summoned up the courage to go. After seeing an advert in a local newspaer I decided to see what the temple would do for Songkran so I could compare my experience from last year.

I knew that the temple had a number of Thai monks from the original Wat Pra Singh  situated in Chiang Mai; Northern Thailand.

I actually visited the sister temple when I was in Chiang Mai!

As I pulled in to the car park I was atounded to see a car park attendant. I had thought that Songkran would be a fairly small celebration in Runcorn because very few people are Buddhist. I arrived ten minutes early and the car park was heaving, luckily I got the last space.

 

As soon as I exited my car throngs of giggling Thai girls in traditional dress scurried past me. The car park displayed both the Thai and British flags side by side. As I walked in to the temple it was full of Thai men, women and children giving alms to the monks on the stage. It was totally not what I was expecting and was a pleasant surprise. I never knew that so many Thais lived in my local area! I live in a working class Northern town that sees very little immigration.

I removed my shoes, sat down in the altar room and found a space amongst the bustling bodies. I was astonished to see only four other ‘falangs’ in the room and the room was full of Thais! The service was completely in Thai and I was transported back to Asia when I meditated. It felt so familiar and comforting in a weird way.

It’s hard to think that South East Asia was my home for seven whole months last year.

thai children

 

After the chanting we poured out of the temple and ate some very authentic Thai food. Eating that Thai food brought back so many memories of when I lived in Thailand: The time I lived with an ex monk, the time I trekked in the Thai jungle and my first time eating Thai food on a street corner in Bangkok. There were a few stalls selling traditional Thai food and it was nice to see people eating their food communally on the floor, the Thai way! There was also a bouncy castle for the children.

 

Sogkran was more of a family celebration and I felt quite alone strolling through the crowds solo. I occupied myself by taking photographs of the hustle and bustle and admiring the Thai girls all dressed up in traditional dress ready for the ‘Miss Songkran’ beauty contest.

 

 

 

In a nearby social club there were displays of traditional Thai dancing. It was so nice seeing everyone getting their elaborate costumes ready at the side of the stage and the children dancing enthusiastically to the acts. I had to pinch myself once or twice and remind myself that I was in a working mens pub in a Northern town and not Bangkok!

After the dancing there was the Miss Songkran competitions; both Thai and English girls were both encouraged to enter, It would be hard to beat the exotic Thais at their own game though!

thai beauty

 

I’ve been feeling quite down about being back in the UK recently, It’s been five months now since the end of my RTW trip. ‘Normal’ life is very different to nomadic life. This little slice of Thailand made me feel a little less homesick for South East Asia.

It was just what I needed.

Have you ever celebrated Songkran in Thailand or your hometown?

Ask Stephanie Anything: Flights

 

plane

I get many emails each week where wannabe travellers ask me various questions about travel. Here is an email that I recieved this week;

Hi Stephanie,

Hello!  I came across your blog this week and have really enjoyed reading some of your posts about your fascinating adventures!  Thank you!  I have a huge interest in taking a big Asia trip to many of the places you visited, but I am not sure where to begin!  I was wondering how you knew how much money to save prior to traveling to all of these amazing countries.  I have been doing the “9-5” so to speak for only three years now and would love to plan a big solo trip without the fear of having to book many overpriced flights.  Any insight would be so greatly appreciated.  Thank you for sharing your stories and inspiring me!

Best, Nina

Hi Nina! Thanks for reading my blog.

Safety and cost

Asia is an amazing place to travel too. Many people thought I was crazy for wanting to travel around Asia long term. I’m glad I never listened to the haters, travelling around Asia was the best experience of my life. It’s very exotic, historical, safe, easy to get around and most importantly cheap!

If you are worried about safety I wrote a detailed article on ytravel blog about staying safe in South East Asia, read about how to stay safe here.

I too worked the 9-5 before I set off on my ten month trip around the world. The main way I saved up was working overtime and living on an extreme budget. I go through saving up for a big trip in more detail here.

Overland travel vs flights

I love to travel without plans and luckily South East Asia is very easy and cheap to travel around last minute. I travelled overland around South East Asia. It wasn’t glamorous or comfortable and it sometimes took days but it gave me a unique insight into the workings of the different cultures in the countries I was travelling through.  Overnight trains in Thailand are surprisingly luxurious (If you choose the bottom bunk!) but overnight buses in all countries are very basic and you may be sharing a ‘bed’ with an Asian businessman who tries to spoon you in your sleep. Even the hard times are unique experiences where you get to discover different country’s quirks, (Even though you don’t think it at the time!).

Air Asia sell very cheap flights around Asia and there are a few other local budget airlines if you don’t fancy overland travel.

As for the main flights it depends what you want. There are three main ways to buy a flight ticket for a big trip.

Basic return ticket

These are perfect if you want to visit one country or continent. You can sometimes return from a different airport or country from the one you landed in and sometimes you can extend the layovers so you can experience more countries in the one trip.

One way ticket

Many long term travellers advocate the one way ticket. They are perfect if you have no idea where you want to go yet and it sounds pretty badass to say that you have bought ‘a one way ticket to Bangkok’ on your Facebook status! Beware that last minute flights once you are travelling can cost a lot! Only book a one way ticket if you have near enough open ended time to travel and have a flexible timetable to avoid having to pay for a very expensive flight home.

Round the world ticket

Round the world tickets are multiple tickets included in one price/ticket. They are usually an E ticket which means that you do not have to print off information for your flight, just turn up at the airport with your passport!

Many long term travellers will tell you to avoid these because you are stuck to an itinerary and plans change. I think that if you plan your basic trip that these tickets can be the cheapest and most convenient way to fly. Try to buy a ticket with a ‘multiflex’ pass so you can change the date of your flights as many times as you want. If you need to get home urgently many RTW tickets will fly you home asap for no extra cost. That’s priceless peace of mind.

I bought a round the world ticket from STA and it was undoubtedly the best choice for me. I got multiple quotes of the same itinerary from various agencies and the STA ticket was the cheapest and most convenient. STA sell a multiflex pass which means that you can change your flight date as much as you want if there are seats available. I bought one and certainly made use of it thanks to being the most indecisive traveller ever! I must have changed my flight dates at least 20 time throughout my trip due to plans changing and meeting friends. Beware that RTW tickets will charge you more to fly home at peak times like Christmas. I changed my plans and decided to travel home for Christmas. It was the best £150 I’ve ever spent!

 

I hope this information helps, let me know if you need any more information. Enjoy travelling around beautiful Asia, I miss it!

 

Please email me at stephanie@pearlsandpassports.com if you have any travel related questions 🙂

 

 

Eight months of Travel: Summary and review

8months

Month eight was the month where I had to say goodbye to my beloved Asia in Exchange for a new country and a new continent, Australia on the other side of the world!

I started my month in Koh Phi Phi after a last minute decision less than 2 hours before the night boat departed. It was probably one of the best decisions of my travel and let me say goodbye to Thailand in style, in the one and only Maya bay from the film ‘The beach’!

 

 

The sight of Maya bay got me through hours of overtime at work as I was saving for this trip. When I arrived in the bay it made my life feel complete. It was a surreal experience. I had dreamed about this place and this moment and now it was happening. I felt so happy and so proud of how far I have come in my many months of solo travel.

In another last minute decision I decided to travel all day and night to Kuala Lumpur to spend time with a good friend that I met at the retreat in Cambodia. It was well worth it and I had one of the best days of my travels going shopping, gossiping, eating  Nando’s and sipping cocktails overlooking the imposing Petronas towers.

 

It was lovely acting like a normal girl again!

I then travelling on the most luxurious bus ever to Singapore. It had complimentary food, a blanket and a console in the chair where I could watch films! After travelling on the back of pick up trucks in Asia I appreciated this small luxury!

My last days in Singapore were spent chilling at the amazing happy snail hostel. I feel so at home there and I love the comfy beds with quilts. I went shopping in Orchard and ate as much Singaporean food as I could fit inside me.

On the 30th September I arrived in Australia. Initially I was excited but then spent a few days suffering from reverse culture shock.

 

I soon picked myself up and recovered a bit when I moved to a more sociable hostel with a pool. I spent my first week in Brisbane due to a lack of planning. I even had to buy a guide book because I had no idea about anywhere in Australia and unlike Asia, you had to book in advance and not decide two hours before….

I love Australian marsupials and visited the amazing Australia zoo, home of my idol Steve Irwin. Whilst there I held a croc and was amazed at the croc show in the crocoseum. I had to hold back my tears when I read the many tributes to Steve that were dotted around the park. He was a man of passion who loved what he did.

 

I hope to find my passion one day. Something that makes me spring out of bed everyday and where I make a real difference to the world.

I visited the Lone Pine koala sanctuary where I cuddled a koala, fed kangaroos and met many of Australia’s wildlife population. I also walked around Brisbane’s clean city streets.

After a week in a city it was time to move on so I travelled North to Noosa and spent a night at a flashpackers hostel and travelled to the countryside to spend three nights at the Gagaju bushcamp where I discovered my talent in life, canoeing!

 

I spent a few days with a friend in Labrador and it was so nice to live a normal life and sleep in my own room. Small luxuries like privacy and just relaxing on the sofa with a cup of tea are hard to come by when staying in hostels!

Surfers paradise was a little taste of home, it reminded me of Blackpool! I had my first big night out in Surfers paradise and tried to bodyboard in the massive waves,I’m glad that I survived… It made me vow to do a surfing lesson whilst I’m in Australia though.

 

I decided to give the small resort town of Coolangatta a shot after Surfers Paradise and I’m so glad that I did! I loved the relaxed town centre and the beautiful beach. I saw a whale breach in the ocean whilst I was having a coffee in a cafe, it was such a unique experience. I would love to see these beautiful creatures up close one day!

 

After Coolangatta it was time to head to the busy Byron bay….

Modes of transport= Night bus from Sihanoukville to Bangkok then a variety of buses and ferrys as I island hopped.

Number of cuddly toys bought= 1, a crocodile to remind me of my time in Australia Zoo.

Number of times someone has said ‘G’day!’ to me= 262

Bucket list item ticked off= 1, holding a koala!

Lessons I have Learned= You need change to grow as a person. Accept it.

Number of cool bags bought= 1, food is so expensive here in Australia so I’m having to cook for myself for the first time in 7 months!

Number of times I have gawped, open mouthed at the crazy creatures in Oz= 3736

So there it is, my summary after 8 months of travel! Travel is amazing but not always easy as I realised when I suffered from reverse culture shock when I arrived in Australia. I no longer suffer from culture shock but I’m travelling quite fast in Australia which means that it’s harder to meet people to travel with. It’s worth it though because I get to see as much as I can of this vast country.

Have you ever visited Australia or South East Asia?

Have you ever cuddled a koala or fed a kangaroo?

 

 

 

 

 

Seven months of Travel: Summary and Review

kohrong

My Seventh month of travel was a very different month for me, I travelled very fast compared to normal but it was one of my best months yet!

My month kicked of in the gritty seaside resort Sihanoukville. Despite looking worn out Sihanoukville has a hidden charm. It’s extremely cheap and you could easily live off $5 a day if you budgeted very hard!

I stayed at Utopia, little did I know that It’s known as the scuzziest place in Sihanoukville. You can get dorms for as little as $1 a night if you don’t mind sleeping on a mat on the floor in a line with other people. I opted for the ‘deluxe’ dorm that had air com and a private bathroom. I think it’s called the deluxe dorm because it’s the only one without bedbugs though….

The nightlife in Sihanoukville is amazing! You can get free drinks from most bars, cheap beer and ‘buckets’ for as little as $1! (They are cut open Sprite bottles instead of actual buckets though). They also sell laughing gas, something that I had never seen before. I loved my nights in ‘Snooky’ but there wasn’t much to do in the day.

One day I took a ferry to Koh Rong where a French child projectile vomited all over himself. This was quite a scary sight, not dissimilar to the exorcist. Luckily as soon as I stepped off the ferry all my worries went away.

Koh Rong was my idea of paradise!

A handful of bars, guesthouses and restaurants are dotted along the pristine beach. The sand is white and so fine it looks like talc. I spent three very content days and nights in Koh Rong.

My Cambodian visa was running out so I took the overnight bus to Bangkok. As always the bus ride was very eventful and I was spooned by an Asian man and nearly fainted at the border because I was suffering from severe food poisoning. No one helped me even though I made it clear that I was struggling. Traveling solo makes you realise that no one really cares about you and you have to be strong and look after yourself.

Bangkok was heaven after months in poorer Asian countries. I spent my days buying a whole new travel wardrobe and drooling at all of the beautiful makeup and toiletries that I could buy! I was also in heaven thanks to my beloved 7-Eleven! I went on a day trip to the floating markets, the bridge over the river Kwai and I also visited tiger temple where I got to stroke actual tigers!

It was then time to experience the Thai islands, something that I had been looking forward to for all of my trip! My first island was Koh Samui, despite being quite touristy and full of couples and families I had a fantastic time thanks to meeting a great group of friends! The nightlife in Koh Samui is legendary!

Drinking buckets on a night out in Koh Samui

I travelled to Koh Tao with a group of friends that I met in Koh Samui. I fell in love with the island instantly, it’s so chilled out. The town area is small and pedestrianised. I spent the first few days eating delicious food (They sold Spanish omelette! yay) and relaxing on the pristine beach.

On September the 9th it was my birthday! I normally hate my birthday, It’s a day of reflection for me and I hate getting older. Luckily I have so much to be thankful for at this time in my life. I spent the day sunbathing in my new bikini, I had a massage and enjoyed Mexican food and cocktails in the evening!

Life is good!

It was then time to face my fears and complete my PADI qualification! I’m normally such a wimp when it comes to the sea but I challenged myself, faced my fears and gained my PADI open water certificate! I will write more about scuba diving in a future blog post.

It was then time to head to Koh Phangan and tick the full moon party off my bucket list! I spent my time there in a 40 bed dorm and once again met some lovely friends. It was amazing to see the population of the town swell as the full moon party neared. The pre parties really put me in the mood for the main night, the full moon party!

The actual full moon party could not be more different to how I celebrated the last full moon. At the last full moon I was at the retreat and spent the evening chanting around a fire and throwing rice in to it. This month I was partying in neon on the beach with over 20,000 other people! There were skipping ropes of fire, ‘death slides’ and loads of crazy sights to behold. The pre parties were such good fun too. The mood was amazing and watching the sunrise was one of the most beautiful moments in my life.

 

 

I rounded up my seventh month of travel by taking a night boat, bus and ferry to the beautiful island of Koh Phi Phi where I got to tick another item off my bucket list!, I will tell you more about my time there in my next monthly round up!

In conclusion month seven was one of my easiest months of travel. I made amazing friends which really does enhance the travel experience. I spent the month doing what I like to do best, partying and lazing on the beach. I also spent most of the month in my favorite Asian country, Thailand. It’s so easy to travel here and the food is amazing!

Next month I will be leaving my beloved Asia and heading to a whole new continent, AUSTRALIA! I’m kind of scared and apprehensive about leaving Asia, it’s been my home for seven months after all!

Total countries visited=2, Cambodia and Thailand

New travel wardrobes bought= 1, I replaced nearly every item of clothing during a crazy shopping spree in Bangkok! I had actually forgotten how to shop believe it or not…

Number of times I was spooned by an Asian man on a night bus= 1, on the night bus from Sihanoukville to Bangkok.

Modes of transport= Night bus from Sihanoukville to Bangkok then a variety of buses and ferrys as I island hopped.

Night ferry’s taken= 1, from Koh Phagnan to Surathani. We had to sleep on tiny thin mattresses lined up on each side of the boat (It actually reminded me of the dorms in Utopia…). The guy next to me actually put his leg over me as I was sleeping…

Number of buckets imbibed= 13, I had a very fun time on the islands, the hostel owner even gave us one free because it was his birthday!

Bucket list item ticked off= 2, to attend the full moon party and visit the beautiful Maya bay in Koh Phi Phi.

Lessons I have Learned= Have fun and enjoy the friends you make on your travels whilst you can. You never know when you will meet a group of like minded people again.

Number of 7-Eleven toasties consumed= 36

Number of 7-Eleven iced lattes imbibed= 10, I had to give them up because they started giving me heart palpitations, so tasty though!

 

 

 

Four months of Travel: Summary and Review

waterfall

This month has been the hardest in terms of homesickness and loneliness on the road. Despite meeting many great people on my travels It’s sometimes hard travelling solo. (Read about my tips for combating loneliness on the road here).

I found it especially hard travelling solo as a female through Laos. Many Laotians are lovely, friendly people but a few of the men seem to treat women with disrespect and I was treated harshly a few times in this beautiful country.

I missed Thailand.

It also surprised me to see women take on the majority of the hard labour here. I saw mostly women tending to the many rice paddies and old ladies carrying really heavy loads on their backs and heads.

This is a country where chivalry is certainly dead!

 

Nevertheless I had an amazing time in this diverse country. I took the slow boat to Luang Prabang and met some amazing people who I ended up travelling with for a week.

 

 

I then set up home in backpackers utopia, Vang Vieng. I spent my days enjoying Western comforts and pushing myself out of my comfort zone by trying new things.

 

 

After spending far too long in Vang Vieng and feeling quite lonely the travel bug bit me again. I love history and wanted to learn more about the atrocious ‘Secret War’ that occurred during the Vietnam war.

I travelled to Phonsavan, the most bombed place in history where there are more un-exploded bombs than anywhere in the world. (Sorry Mum). Whilst there I also visited the Stone Henge of Asia; the mysterious Plain of Jars.

 

 

I then visited Sam Neua, a town on the border of Vietnam where they eat Dog. (Urgh!) A town where I spotted just 4 other ‘Falangs’ and I enjoyed the stares of the curious locals.

The reality of life during the secret war was brought to life in the Vieng Xay caves where the Lao PDR operated during the war and where 20,000 people lived during the incessant carpet bombing from the Americans.

I then experienced small town life in Lao after the 12 hour local bus ride from hell. Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi were breathtakingly beautiful and enabled me to de-stress and prepare for the next part of my journey….

Vietnam!

So month four has definitely been a rollercoaster month. Many ups and downs but I have had some of the best experiences of my life in Laos and I learned how to travel with a purpose and learn about the history of the places I visit.

 

 

Total countries visited= 2,  Thailand and Laos

Hammocks used= 1 in Muang Ngoi, Laos where I had a riverside bungalow and spent the day reading about the Khmer Rouge whilst relaxing on my hammock

Boxes sent home= 1, full of sarongs from Laos which is going to be my new look when I get home; Vintage Asian 🙂

Modes of transport= Overnight bus,12 hour local bus, minibus and the slow boat to Laos.

Number of times I went tubing= 2, It’s the thing to do in Vang Vieng! Oh and once in a cave too…

Lessons I have Learned= Travel is not always easy but I need to remember the good times when I’m going through the hard times. I’m so lucky to be travelling Asia and I have become so strong by making this trip alone.

Number of Massages= Just 3 this month.

Free drinks consumed= 8

Number of herbal steam baths shared with ladyboys= 1, I am in South East Asia after all, not everything is how it seems….