5000m above sea level, 1200k travelled, 4 days in a jeep, hundreds of flamingoes and so much fun equals the Bolivian Salt Flat Tour

Our main reason for visiting Bolivia was the Salt Flat Tours. We had, just for a change, researched loads and read guide books and blogs aplenty. I was apprehensive about spending so much time, up to 10 hours some days, in a jeep on dirt roads and with horror stories of drunk drivers and awful food it was a bit of a gamble. It was however a gamble that paid off massive dividends and we had the most amazing four days. 

We had crossed the border from Argentina, the easiest yet, stamped out at one control, we walked the few hundred yards and suddenly we were in Bolivia, an hour behind and a new flag flying high. The border control just waved us through, no Bolivian stamp in our passports required, much to our disappointment. We were immediately aware of all the beautiful colours of Bolivia. The women in particular often wear the traditional outfit with full pleated skirts with masses of petticoats, two very long plaits and bowler hats. It is a very unusual yet quirky look with the colour of the ribbons in their hair indicating their marital status and the angle of the hat also. They come across as quite a sombre nation but once approached they are as friendly as can be. 

We walked to the station and caught a train to Tupiza, our starting point for our salt flats tour. The track winds through the mountains and the scenery was gorgeous pretty much all of the way of the 3 hour journey. As we alighted the train we were delighted to see the town had sent out a welcoming committee. A full procession was taking place with majorettes, drums, trumpets and a variety of other instruments. We stood and watched before another short walk to our hostel and finally relieved ourselves of those awful backpacks. I swear they get heavier each time we move! 

The hostel was run by a lovely family, the son Frankie holding fort at front desk, his mother helping with the cooking and his father running the attached shop. We went out on one of their “triathlon” tours with his father, a day of jeep, trek and horse riding. It was incredibly good fun and we were so well looked after, we booked the salt flat tours with them too.  

The night before the tour the town was shut down due to a protest by all the locals over their waters supplies. They literally blockaded all entrances to the town and lined up like picket lines at key junctions. A mixture of rocks, trees, barbed wire and anything else available was used to stop any vehicles including the train! It was incredible to witness this but also caused a problem with our tour. The jeep was not in town so we had to send all our bags the night before by motorbike to be loaded up and then trek to the jeep in the morning. We were joined by a lovely French couple who would be our partners in crime for the four days and young Frankie introduced us to our great driver Hector and amazing cook Julia who would look after the four of us. Alice, our new French friend did speak a lot more Spanish than the rest of us so became the translator a lot of the time. I definitely think my Spanish is improving gradually and each day we are learning new words by all this exposure. 

Travel bands on and all loaded up, we set off on our great adventure along with three other jeeps. We soon realised we had made the right choice with this bunch as he drove so well for all of the time I never felt ill once even cramped in the rear tiny seats. The views on the first day were just the start of even better scenery as the trip continued. It was all about llamas to begin with. These pretty creatures with their ribbon tags on their ears were everywhere along the route. We stopped many times for photos and even found local women selling llama wool accessories. I just had to buy a pair of llama gloves, they would come in handy as we climbed in elevation and temperatures fell! 

We stopped at a tiny mining village for lunch with local children greeting us enthusiastically. We were introduced to the first of lovely Julia’s cooking. It was different every day and so tasty and plentiful. Another difference to many accounts we had read, we had definitely chosen well. 

We visited an abandoned ancient mining town, an impressive selection of inca ruins, the whole town had fled when a mysterious lady had apparently arrived infected with disease. It was almost like it stood still in time. Even better it had proper toilets, these were very few and far between in the four days, probably the main negative but somewhat inevitable given the remoteness. 

Our first night was very basic as expected and we all huddled up eating our dinner in a very cold room. With no showers, once fed, it was a very early night. We shared our room with the other couple, our first experience of a dorm. Undressing was fun, wriggling in my sleeping bag but I soon got cozy with all the blankets provided. It was a somewhat restless night, a combination of cold and altitude but not the worst sleep by a long shot. 

Day 2 was all about lagoons and pink flamingos. It was brilliant blue skies but very cold and to see these beautiful birds on enormous lagoons seemed wrong at this altitude. We had fantastic walks round the lagoons and to see the flamingoes in their natural environment and especially in mid flight was amazing. They are so much bigger than I had imagined and so pink. It was a great spectacle and I even found two pink feathers as a special souvenir. The lagoons were mainly brilliant blue but we were also taken to a green and a black lagoon, the colours all stunning. Bolivia is certainly a country of many colours. We were also lucky enough to have a gorgeous dip in a thermal pool. Overlooking the lagoon and flamingos and with snow caped mountains it was pretty much perfect and the only downside was the hasty dressing afterwards in the cold. The final bonus of the day were sightings of the bubbling geysers, the smell reminding us of our days at Rotorua in New Zealand all those months ago. Alongside these were a strange spectacle of towering ice shards which made yet another great photo opportunity. 

Another dorm room for night 2 but a lot better sleep meant we were fully refreshed for day 3. This was all about the stunning rock formations. Like Argentina they were incredible to see and we spent much of the day clamouring upon them for the best pictures and views. Hector came into his own that day jumping around and getting great shots of us all having great fun. It was definitely not for the faint hearted as we clamoured up to view an impressive canyon. We kept meeting up with the other tour groups and I can safely say we were by far the oldest but hopefully still agile and fit enough to enjoy it all.

Our final night was at a salt hostel. This was pretty special and so surreal. We crunched along the salt floors admiring the engravings on the salt walls. We slept on salt beds, ate on salt tables and sat on salt stools. It was so pretty and actually surprisingly warm. After a quick cup of tea we had our first drive onto the salt flats to see the sunset. It was as spectacular as sunsets usually are but the vast expanse of salt feels like you have somehow arrived at Antartica and I kept writing ice rather than salt in my daily journal. Our final dinner back at the salt hostel was as great as ever and we even got to share a bottle of wine. One glass at altitude certainly sent me to sleep with no trouble at all. 

It was a rude awakening at 4.30am on our final morning. Thirty minutes later we were all loaded up and back onto the salt flats. As we drove in darkness armed with lots of warm clothes ready the enormity of these really became apparent. There is no less than 10,000 square kilometres, that is half the size of Wales! Suddenly we appeared at an cacti covered island and as we hiked to the summit it really felt like an expanse of sea on all sides instead of salt. We had timed it to perfection thanks to Hector and it was not long before we watched the beautiful sunrise in this amazing setting. An outdoor breakfast at another salt table was somewhat chilly but the sun soon started to gain strength and we went for an early morning wander practicing a few photo shots and I even did some morning exercises and a slightly breathless jog, all to keep warm of course. It seemed a bit crazy but the craziness was definitely going to increase hundred fold as the morning continued. 
We drove further out onto the flats and Hector and Julia finally got to have lots of fun too. The poses and photos were all slightly mad but have all turned out so great thanks to their experience of props and angles. We all had so much fun on that morning even hauling ourselves up onto the jeep roof for group photos as a grand finale.  

A final very early lunch and a rather strange stop at a train cemetery, yes lots of old trains laid to rest, and we had arrived at Uyuni our dropping off point where we were looking forward to a well earned hot shower. 

It had been a truly amazing few days with fantastic company and incredible scenery and wildlife along every inch of the journey. It was certainly not just a salt flats tour, it had been so much more. It was time to say goodbye to the rest of the party as they were headed back to our starting point for their onward travels to Argentina and we have a lot more of Bolivia to discover yet.  

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Another 21 hour bus journey and a 650k road trip – Part 3 of our Argentinian travels

After finally dragging ourselves away from our Buenos Aires delights, we settled down for another long journey. Headed North West this time to the beautiful city of Salta it was a mere 21 hours drive but opting for front row seats again we had impressive views to keep us going. 

Opting for living in a private home this time we were greeted with open arms by the gorgeous young couple and their two very sweet children and cute labrador Rocky and soon felt completely at home. Their English was pretty perfect compared to our still basic but gradually improving Spanish. It was a perfect arrangement and meant we could prepare all our own meals for once. The climate here is amazing with hardly any rain all year and warm temperatures it could be my perfect home. Better sign up for those Spanish lessons though! 

Salta is a smallish but very pretty city with plenty of beautiful buildings to admire especially the main square and the cathedral and the surrounding mountains make for a very picturesque place. We walked, as usual miles including a trip to San Lorenzo and a hike up the hills, or were they mountains, and a pretty treacherous, at times, descent. I may not be running as much as fellow Bittonians but I am certainly wearing my trainers out nevertheless. 

After a few days enjoying the local delights, we hired a car and our mini road trip began. We had booked into two hostels along the way and were warned that the roads are pretty different where we were headed. After a few hours of normal roads, as we snaked round the mountains, we hit the dirt tracks and this was to be the last we saw of tarmac for a few days! I was so glad that I was not driving as I got to enjoy the amazing views without clinging onto the steering wheel for dear life. As we crawled round each corner climbing higher and higher I was so relieved that nothing much came the other way. We finally pulled over as did the car in front and all looked back at what we had just gone through. It was only about 20k but had felt so much further. The rest of the drive was somewhat bumpy and road conditions deteriorated dramatically at times and I was glad to get out when we finally reached our lunch stop.  

We unfortunately arrived in Cachi during siesta time so after our lunch in one of the few places still open, we wandered round the sleepy town (probably a village by British standards). It was a very pretty place and although very closed up, it was good to stretch our legs and admire the buildings. 

Our next leg of the journey continued along the same dusty dirt roads with equally picturesque scenery and it really felt like the real Wild West with giant cacti everywhere. By the time we finally arrived in the even smaller town of Molinos (probably a hamlet by our standards) the winds had picked up and the dust was blowing around constantly. It was such a tiny place we could not even find a restaurant the first night so made do with our meagre supplies we had. It was however not all bad news as our host in Buenos Aires had kindly given me a bottle of bubbles as a belated 50th birthday present. Now seemed the perfect time so we perched on our bed eating ham, cheese, olives and crackers drinking bubbles in recycled glasses made out of wine bottles. It was a perfect end to our first day on the road. 

We spent the next day in Molinos and in daylight discovered the one open restaurant so booked for that night ensuring we would not starve just yet. With the relentless wind and accompanying dust clouds it was difficult to walk about much but we explored the town as best we could. I think we were the only foreigners in town and the local dogs seemed to be fascinated by us but unlike Asia seemed friendly enough. We discovered a couple of shops, none of which resembled anything like a supermarket and stocked up on a few supplies. It is so refreshing that all these people make a living with these small independent shops. Let’s hope Tesco never come to Argentina and ruin it all! 

We drove up to a nearby vineyard to visit a museum that we had been recommended by our Salta family. Unfortunately it was closed so we had to make do with a short video and free glass of wine, not that bad a consolation price. It was worth it for the scenic drive up there in any event. 

Part 2 of our road trip took us to Cafayate, I had to see this place just for the name. I hear there are now more coffee shops than anything else in Yate so this place seemed very apt. It was certainly a lot bigger than the previous two places but equally as pretty. It is a big wine region and although we did not actually do a wine tour the views of the vineyards was very scenic on our drive into town. 

We did however sample the wine quite a few times and anyway when a bottle of water is the same price it seems rude not to! The best wine though was the most surprising – wine ice cream! Yes some brilliant entrepreneur has discovered this magical creation and I just had to try it. We had read about this place and were slightly sceptical but how wrong we were. We opted for a tub of half red and half white to share and it was truly amazing. You really felt like you were eating or was it drinking wine, the taste was sensational and I wish I knew the secret of this recipe as I feel sure it would go down a storm at home.  

Our day in Cafayate apart from the wine of course was spent driving along the valley admiring the astounding sandstone rock formations. Every corner you turned another magnificent view came into sight and we just had to keep stopping for more and more photos. The dazzling sun across the mountains created an array of colours which constantly changed. With no more wind and tarmac roads it was such a brilliant few hours spent in this very picturesque part of Argentina.  

We finally returned to Salta along yet more scenic roads enjoying yet more blue skies and very warm sunshine. It was a part of Argentina that we had known nothing about but are so very pleased we discovered. 

Our first introduction to South America has been so great, expensive at times but so so picturesque. From the beautiful city of Buenos Aires to the incredible Iguazu Falls (my favourite of course) to finally the stunning landscapes of the North West, we have only touched upon a small section of this vast country but have enjoyed it all immensely. 

So in a couple of days our time in Argentina, just over a month in all, will be over as we head up to the border and see what Bolivia has on offer. 

18 hour bus journey, 3 borders, 2 mind blowing days – our 5 day adventures at the Igazu Falls

I struggle to find the most appropriate words to describe what we have been so fortunate to experience over the last few days. A few things in life are so incredibly special you know you will treasure them for ever. The birth of your children and your wedding day (for some of us twice!) are given but just sometimes you see or do something that takes your breath away, brings tears to your eyes and no picture will ever capture what your senses feel at that precise moment in time. That is how I have felt not once or twice but continuously as we visited the magnificent Igazu Falls. 

We enjoyed more than endured our first South American long bus journey. It was more like a flight with meals, alcohol, movies and pretty comfy seats and so arrived feeling, for once, pretty refreshed. Our basic but perfectly adequate accommodation was run by a charming elderly lady who spoke no English at all but somehow we got by and managed to learn a few more Spanish words along the way. I think we were quite a novelty for her and when we checked out she insisted on taking a photo. 

We spent two days visiting the park with the great name of Caratacas, a quick and pretty inexpensive bus trip from the town. We instantly noticed that the north of the country is a lot more affordable so did not completely blow our budget. 

The park is extremely well managed by the Argentinians with well marked trails, plentiful clean toilets and several water refill points all over. We started with the upper circuit and it was not long before the first big wow factor as the falls came into view. There are almost 280 waterfalls and I know I keep saying this but pictures really cannot do this justice but we have tried to capture the essence for you to enjoy too. 

They are simply the most magnificent natural water feature that I have ever seen and no waterfall will ever compare again. Every corner you turn, a different view is seen and the spectacle continues to amaze and delight you. We kept stopping and just staring, it was as if time had stopped still. You cannot believe what you are witnessing in front of your eyes. The noise is incredible yet as you walk away it instantly becomes silent. There was a wonderful calmness to the whole place even in the more crowded spots. Just watching everyone enjoying themselves and sharing this very special place was fantastic.  

The “Devils Throat” was the incredible sight of the waterfalls all meeting in a magnificent cascading slide into a massive cavernous hole. Must be thirsty work being that bad! 

The lower circuit brought yet more thrills and entirely different views and perspectives of the falls every which way you walked. We spent six hours the first day and we were still hungry for more so took advantage of the discounted half price second day entry fee. Many people go for the Brazil side as well but we saw no advantage in this and stayed in Argentina. 

The second day, seemingly an impossible task, actually exceeded the first. The first day had been warm enough but with thick clouds. We were rewarded with clear blue skies and full sun for our second visit and this meant the addition of the rainbows. An array of a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours turned an amazing spectacle into something pretty mind blowingly beautiful. They were everywhere you looked, peeking between the trees, single and double ones, stretching across the river towards Brazil. As one of nature’s incredible features they were the not the icing but the cherry on top of the cake. 

We also took advantage of the free ferry to the island in the middle of the park that hardly anyone seemed to be aware of as it was pretty deserted. Here you got even closer for even more spectacular views, standing in the spray was absolutely heavenly. We ate our picnic lunch on the little beach watching lizards scamper over the rocks gazing over at the falls. It was a pretty much picture perfect spot. 

We managed to spend even longer the second day enjoying the warm sun and soaking up every inch of the park. The wildlife is an additional bonus. So many butterflies of so so many colours together with beautiful birds, a few monkeys, enormous cat fish in the rivers, sunbathing turtles and lizards to name but a few. There were also a lot of native coatis which forage around the undergrowth or more commonly around the picnic tables knowing how they will no doubt be able to share in the leftovers. They were such funny little creatures with their long snouts everywhere you went. 

We finished where we started on the upper circuit and finally had to drag ourselves away. I know we are so very fortunate to be able to visit so many countries in this year away but anyone coming to South America must come to the Igazu Falls. Why it is not one of the worlds natural wonders is beyond me. We all want big houses, expensive cars, clothes and phones which are all so materialistic but this is nature performing at its best and it up there for me with crossing every marathon finishing line and the summit of Kilimanjaro. 

One final thing left to do before our long bus back to Buenos Aires was a short walk from our hostel to another unusual occurrence, the three frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. We stood on Argentinian soil, with Paraguay metres away to our left and Brazil metres away to our right. It was a fitting end to a very surreal and wonderful experience. As Gary said after reading this blog, I guess you really liked it! 

A 30 hour day, 26 hours on a plane and 10 days in Buenos Aires – the Latin American chapter begins

So I do not think we will forget the 4th September in a hurry. We arrived at Bangkok at midnight for our 2am flight. 6 hours later we touched down to the sun rising in Dubai. A very frantic dash through the terminal and just over an hour later we were air bound again. 20 hours this time so got to sample the in house movies, quite a few airplane meals and a couple of well earned vinos. Plenty of shut eye too but as we touched down in Rio to blinding sunshine my body was screaming nighttime to me, an impossible task it proved. A quick change of crew and a few passengers and our time on the Brazilian tarmac was over. The next portion was the shortest yet and we were rewarded by the most amazing sunset as we approached our final destination. We touched down and Gary pressed his stopwatch (he is a bit of a stats man) and we hit 30 hours of travelling and it was still the 4th. Not to be recommended but we had crossed all the time zones and for the first time in six months we were behind you guys at home, so let us know how the day is going please. 

We stayed in a gorgeous area of Buenos Aires in an old house with just 3 guest rooms and the incredible Elena holding fort. She welcomed us with open arms, bouncing around like an excitable child with so much information and helpfulness we instantly felt at home. It was the perfect place to chill (we had gone from hot and humid to late winter/early Spring and boy did we notice). The shorts and sun dresses and bikinis were stowed away and the coats and hoodies dragged out of the bottom of our bags.  

Our first few days of wandering and exploring revealed so many contrasts to the previous four months. Aside from the climate, the language, the food and of course the people were so so different. Predominantly Italian restaurants were in the immediate area so there was a mixture of Spanish and Italian dialects. Friends and colleagues alike greet with hugs and kisses (no stiff handshakes or even limp ones here) and wow do they talk fast. My very very limited and Gary’s non existent Spanish will need a major boost to help us survive but fortunately we have not starved yet. 

The grid system of roads and one way streets make this an incredibly easy walking city which was such a pleasure after Asia. There are also buses and trains everywhere too as the city is extremely vast. The buses look so charmingly dated but were cheap and efficient as they zipped around the different neighbourhoods. Roads are named after cities and countries which is how you navigate and find anywhere.  

The architecture is again stunning here, we have certainly been so fortunate to visit such beautiful places. There is also such a contrast within the city boundaries and we sampled a mere few in our initial stay. We were next to the cobbled streets of St Telmo, a very bohemian area with tango bars and bookshops nestled asides cafes and restaurants. 

Every corner has an eatery of some description and we soon learnt the very different eating habits of Argentinians. Breakfast is very European, coffee and pastries and nothing else. Daytime snacks are more pastries or empanadas which are delicious pasty like snacks stuffed with various meats, cheeses and vegetables or a combination of all three. There are also street vendors selling what can only be described as a massive sausage sandwich smothered in sauce. These snacks are very cheap unlike most other food and drinks which is what probably most backpackers survive on.  

A lot of places close after the lunchtime rush for several hours and most locals do not consider entering one again for dinner until 10pm!! They then keep eating and drinking until the small hours. I am afraid we failed miserably on this front. I just can’t sleep on a full stomach and so we just ate when we could.  

Jet lag got the better of me this time around. Mid afternoons were the worst I kept needing to sleep but day by day we stayed out a bit longer to avoid this. I also kept waking at ridiculous times but I am sure I will eventually get into this new time zone or just continue to look like a frazzled zombie babbling away in very bad Spanish. 

We did manage to see a lot of the well known places including the colourful sights in Caminito where street art adorned the walls alongside vividly painted corrugated-metal buildings. We sat in the little plaza sipping coffee enjoying the spring sunshine whilst enjoying a free display of tango. The imposing stadium of La Boca football team dominated this neighbourhood and I can only imagine the deafening noise when they are playing at home. It was very calm as we wandered around soaking up the atmosphere. 

We also, maybe a little macabre for some, visited the Recoleta cemetery on a very chilly day. This impressive place is surrounded by imposing high walls and some of the wealthiest families have been laid to rest here, including ex presidents and the nation’s favourite Evita. The sculptures and decoration are stunning on these enormous family crypts. I was somewhat shocked to see the coffins are entirely in view and not buried. The chilly weather added to the sombre atmosphere and my over active imagination was picturing a scene out of Thriller and the stone angels from Doctor Who and I certainly would not wish to be here at night. We were also very surprised to see an actual funeral taking place as we left and big tour groups still entering. It did seem very inappropriate especially when witnessing different nationalities with their selfie sticks aloft. 

One of my favourite places we visited was a bookshop called El Ateneo which is set in a gorgeous old theatre and for a book lover like me it was pure paradise. We had to visit all the different levels and purchased an all important phrase book.  

We even managed a couple of runs in a beautiful setting of an enormous ecological reserve overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This would definitely be an impressive park run location if they come here. Hopefully this will the start of my return to some form of regular running. 

We walked miles most days and pretty much saw all the different neighbourhoods. The lovely Elena came out with several evenings so we got to witness some beautiful places. Some of the “notable” coffee houses were stunning buildings to enjoy a relaxing drink before pounding the streets again. 

We have discovered also one scarily massive difference from the previous 4 months, the hugely inflated prices which are changing so frequently. Travel costs both within a country and to others are vast and this coupled with ridiculous tour and entrance prices has meant a lot of hours of re-thinking our whole remaining time. It is disappointing as we are unable to see many areas that we had been hoping to visit but with the ever falling pound we have no option but to select very carefully. I am sure this will keep changing as we move around but it unfortunately has been a bitter pill to swallow. 

However that aside Buenos Aires is an incredible city and I definitely have loved our first experience of it. Now onwards and upwards for our first long bus journey, a mere 18 hours awaits us tonight. Hasta luego!! 

 6 months of travel

So as we hit the 6 months mark in our year on the road, reflective thoughts rush through my mind. It is also currently approaching 5am and I cannot sleep again. You would think by now I would have adjusted to a different bed every few nights but it would appear not! 

We have so far visited 9 countries, woken up in 66 different places and spent nearly four months travelling overland in South East Asia, stubbornly refusing to give in and book an internal flight. Sure sleeper trains, buses and boats may not be the most comfortable beds and certainly far slower but it has all been part of “our journey” and made for some far more interesting sights and sounds than a sterile airport lounge. 

The positives far outweigh the negatives and sometimes when I am feeling grumpy (normally following long travel days) I look back in awe and amazement at what we have seen along the way. It has not been easy and will continue no doubt to test us but as someone back home commented, it sure beats going to work everyday. 

The constant research into where next, how to get there and where to stay does sometimes become a chore rather than a joy. Trip Advisor, Travelfish, Lonely Planet and endless other fellow traveller blogs are my constant online companions. Even when 99 people all say the same thing, I just have to read one more, just in case! Us Brits it turns out are pretty accepting of most things, you would not believe what other nationalities complain about!  

It appears my original idea of running everywhere and entering random races was fine in theory but in practice this has definitely not been the case. Ok I have managed the odd jog (yes I have reverted back to a jogger rather than a runner) but I do miss my regular long runs and accompanying chats with fellow Bittonians. I see everyone else’s race reports and photos and then spot my Bitton vest, still hidden at the bottom of my backpack, unworn. Will I ever regain that pre-travel race fitness I wonder? Just in case I do I have a London marathon “good for age” place, think I may need some help from some divine intervention at this rate. 

So every day from now on is one closer to our homecoming. We will hopefully learn from any mistakes made so far and South America I am sure will bring new cultural, visual and culinary delights for us both to enjoy and certainly another whole collection of photos and blogs to share with all our deeply missed family and friends back home to also hopefully enjoy or is it endure? 

Now bed or Lonely Planet Guide, decisions, decisions!! 

3 destinations, 2 different currencies and 1 very special place – our Cambodian adventures

Cambodia, the final country in our journey through Indochina as was. 

We started in Phnom Phen after an effortless border crossing from Vietnam. I was extra pleased with this visa stamp in my passport as the expiry date is my birthday! Should not be so pleased really as it’s the big 50 but still a cool stamp nevertheless. 

Our first impression of the city were there was a lot of new development and someone is pouring money in here. Turns out it is a city of two halves. You drive past the glitzy signs of new hotels and shopping malls under construction and then hit the outskirts where you see real Cambodia. Poverty is far worse here than in other countries we have seen. They have to import everything and their infrastructure is very behind the times. The stench of rotting rubbish is horrendous just a few kilometres from the stylish riverfront area. 

We did a local tour of the city sights and visited the national museum, climbed the hill, “a mound really” for not so impressive views but an impressive stupa instead. We visited the central market rather than the tourist Russian market. It was an incredible maze of stalls selling anything and everything, countless hairdressers busy at work, nail bars, a whole room of jewellers displaying their golden wares and a whole lot more. 

The food section was enormous with fish wriggling away on trays, hoping for one last breath maybe from that drop of water. You could quite easy become a vegetarian seeing all the carcasses hanging around, I dread to think what some of them were.  

We did try some food at one stall, a tofu and rice combination that was edible and cheap. Locals ate next to us which we always take as a good sign. I nibbled at the tofu and vegetables leaving Gary the mound of rice. I am a bit “rice and noodled” out after so long in Asia and they certainly pile it up on every dish.  

Our next day was another harrowing but highly visited and also necessary part of our continuing education into local history. We drove out to the Killing Fields first and for those of you who have previously visited you will know how draining this visit is. It is a beautiful location now and the audio guide was incredible, so beautifully narrated and highly emotive and moving. As you move round the site listening and observing you imagine the horrific atrocities that took place at this very spot only 40 years ago. The lakeside walk has seats all along it and everyone is sat there with their headphones on in silence. You can almost read everyone’s mind, we were all thinking the same. Why and how could this have happened? We have visited lots of war museums and historical sites on our travels and each time I find it more and more horrific. The memorial in the centre is beautiful but very graphic, rows and rows of skulls looking out at you and piles of clothing and bones found in this mass killing field. It was all too much and as we sat in the tuk tuk on the drive back to the city, I felt emotionally drained. There was however still the prison to visit, the S21 museum where thousands were held in appalling conditions before being trucked out to the killing fields. The building had formerly been a school and was converted into masses of tiny cells. There were blood stains in many places and rows and rows of pictures of inmates added to the horrors. I am glad we went however and it does really make you think just how lucky we are who we are and have what we have. 

It was definitely time for a more relaxed and quieter time in our travels. After two back to back manic cities we escaped to the somewhat serene and sleepy town of Kampot, famous for its pepper and sea salt production. It was so calm here after the previous two cities that we extended our stay twice! We enjoyed the simplicity of it all along the river banks and walked, cycled and explored with no hassling or pressure to buy. Crazy statues on every roundabout and an impressive lily pond along with the riverfront made this such an enjoyable place to pass quite a few hours meandering. The locals were so friendly and welcoming and we almost felt part of the community frequenting the same great eating places time and time again.  

We were also lucky enough to be staying at the same time as a great bunch of semi-retired Australians who were volunteering at a local school. We shared a few great evenings with them and they even took us to the school one day where we helped or hindered in a some classes. 

We did hire a tuk tuk one day to go to neighbouring Kep which has a beach, the sand of which they get from Kampot which has no beach but sand! It was very pretty by the sea but we were there to explore the national park which was a gorgeous quiet trek observing the wildlife and admiring the sea views. We even saw some monkeys, it’s been quite a few weeks since our last viewing of these mischievous creatures.

We also visited a pepper plantation and cycled past the salt fields. We now have some of each to hopefully spice up our home cooking when we finally do some again. I never realised how many stages it takes to make salt and pepper and how many kinds of peppers exist. The plantation was set in beautiful surroundings overlooking the not so Secret Lake. 

We kept delaying leaving as we were both feeling so relaxed, it was a case of why leave. Our guesthouse was run by a charming Irish guy who said he found the place while travelling 12 years ago and never left. I was beginning to see why. It was a true gem of a find amongst the hustle and bustle of recent visited places. However we obviously had to go eventually and finally dragged ourselves away to visit the most iconic site in Cambodia and one of the worlds most visited sites, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat! 

We decided to try cycling round the temples instead of using a tuk tuk like the majority do. We started with the longest distance and visited all the smaller outlying temples avoiding the big two. It was a great idea as these were all very quiet adding to the tranquil, atmospheric feel. They were absolutely stunning, each slightly different but all equally beautiful. Some overlooked lakes, others were hidden away and others were set in woodlands with trees becoming part of the crumbling temple ruins and adding to the overall effect and showing that nature will conquer all. Cycling along the often shaded roads was gorgeous and cooled you down after soaring temperatures amongst the ruins. 

We avoided actually seeing Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom until day 2. The 4.15am alarm was a very rude awakening and we dragged our sleepy bodies out of our guesthouse and back on the bikes for a very dark ride. It was just before 5.30 when we found a perfect spot next to the moat and waited for daylight to break. As the sun appeared so did the majestic temple that is Angkor Wat. It was so silent apart from the constant click of cameras and it was certainly a perfect way to begin the day. The joy of an early start means cooler temperatures although even at 7am we were starting to melt but also we were ahead of the massive, usually Japanese tour groups. They come in droves armed with selfie sticks and insist on barging past you and blocking the views at every opportunity. There was none of that and at times, due to the massive expanse that this temple complex covers, you felt quite alone. After a cold drink we were on the bikes again off to Angkor Thom and the many enigmatic faces of the Bayon. I am sure our photos in no way do this enormous complex justice but we felt this was definitely the most impressive of the two. By 10am we were pretty exhausted and it was a relief to cycle back to town for a refreshing dip in the guesthouse pool. 

We finished our Cambodian stay with a trip to the Phare circus. The amazing group of disadvantaged children wowed us all with their acrobatic skills and it was a fitting way to end our stay. 

So Cambodia has been same, same but different to its neighbours. Two very different historical sights, one of horror and one of beauty. Gorgeously friendly people with adorable smiling children. Delicious food again but oh so very very sugary drinks (dentists would have a field day with all the inevitable extractions and fillings). We have seen your very many sides and nearly stayed longer but it’s time to cross the border back to Thailand. With only 3 weeks left until South America beckons it’s time for an entirely different experience. More to follow!! 

2339km travelled, 25 hours on one train, 3 stops and millions of mopeds – our 2 weeks on the railways of Vietnam

Our Vietnam adventures began in manic Hanoi in the North. We arrived early morning only to be told we had been moved to a sister guesthouse. With our backpacks we were transported individually by motorbike. To say I was petrified is an understatement but luckily 6am is probably the quietest we ever experienced on the streets. Suffice to say I survived and a few hours of sleep later we finally ventured out to full blown Hanoi. I thought Bangkok was crazy for mopeds but here is something else. You pretty much saw anything and everything being carried from suitcases to barrels to doors to huge piles of ceramic tiles and everything else imaginable. We sat in cafes just moped watching instead of the normal people watching. They beeped,weaved and hurtled round corners but all looked totally relaxed in doing so. Crossing roads was a case of hoping for the best. My green code man was not going to help me here. You do eventually adjust although the constant beeping does prove quite irritating at times. 

We stayed very central for our couple of days and it is quite a pretty place. The stunning St Joseph’s Cathedral was a peaceful haven in amongst the chaos and the little cafes around the square were the perfect place to sample the gorgeous Vietnamese coffee. 

We also visited Hanoi Prison Museum, jokingly named Hanoi Hilton by the American POWs held here in the Vietnam war. The treatment of the Americans was pure luxury, a complete contrast to the Vietnamese revolutionaries held when the French invaded. It was a highly interesting and worthwhile experience and surprisingly no mopeds.  

Vietnamese food was on the whole excellent and in particular the spring rolls, guess a Chinese back home now will never taste as good. There is, like Laos a massive French influence and baguettes for breakfast is pretty much standard. I am craving my bowl of cereal, a huge hunk of bread is not for me. Luckily eggs were my saviour. 

We then had the delights of a 17 hour train journey to Hoi An, central and coastal Vietnam. The sleeper train was great, four comfortable bunks in a carriage which we shared with a lovely young couple from the Netherlands. The journey was not quite so great. We believe a storm hit during the journey and we awoke at daylight to discover we had hardly moved at all since falling asleep. We crawled agonisingly slowly along the tracks and unsurprisingly were given no information as to why. Food for sale was awful and I declined most of it. We would definitely know to stock up on snacks for the next leg! I was so envious when the other couple reached their stop and departed and then finally 25 hours after boarding we arrived. It was certainly a momentous introduction to Vietnamese railways.  

Hoi An, our home for 5 nights was beautiful. We had opted to stay close to the beach and either cycle or taxi into the old town a few kilometres away. We were well overdue some sunshine after weeks of rain and the first morning we saw that big yellow thing everyone back home has been talking about for ages now. The long journey had wiped me out and our first day we just chilled. The cycle into the old town was a bit hairy at times especially at junctions when anything goes it seems. The walking streets of the Old Town were worth it though with rows of old buildings, cafes and pretty lantern shops.  

Sad to leave the sun and beach but days running out so another long train journey (only 20 hours!!) to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) was next. Proper locals train this time and even the locals do not like train food, one lady offering hers to me! 

We arrived in one piece and encountered Hanoi again in bigger scale. Scooters everywhere, apparently there are 6 million here and rush hour is literally 24/7. The quirky bit about our stay was our guesthouse, down a back alley, away from the noise, a little laundry with four rooms above. Staff were fantastic and the comings and goings of their customers was highly entertaining, never realised watching washing machines could be quite so mesmerising! The bonus was we got our washing done for free. 

Our main reason to finish Vietnam here was the Cu Chi tunnels, a trip that was surprisingly inexpensive. Driving through the traffic was entertaining in its own right, the people and their cargo loaded high on this mass of scooters weaving in and out, driving across pavements to dodge cars and with no apparent fear at all. It’s a crazy world! We finally reached the tunnels and the tour was very enjoyable if not a little rushed at times. With a large group we were herded along past the treacherous traps used during the Vietnam war and the air holes of the tunnels, tiny holes which a few people, Gary included, squeezed in and out of for pictures. Saving myself for the tunnels I was not disappointed. We ducked down and crawled along keeping close to the person in front and hoping no-one would freeze half way. It was great fun and being small meant I only crouched whereas the guy in front bunny hopped the whole length. I can’t imagine it was anything like fun for the Vietnamese stuck there for hours on end in the dark. 

Our final days we spent walking the streets and taking in the sights of Ho Chi Minh, pretty similar to Hanoi, the highlights for me was the gorgeous Notre Dame Cathedral (yes they do love Paris!) and the very ornate Post Office. It was here that a group of students asked if we would be interviewed for an educational video. We warily agreed and I was then asked a series of bizarre questions on who I had a crush on and what I would do to meet this person, etc. Not quite what I expected but I went along with it. Pretty easy even with your other half watching, he knows he is history if a certain Brad Pitt did materialise. 

The war remnants museum was a somewhat harrowing experience. No sooner had we entered we were pounced on by a “war veteran” with amputated arms and leg selling books and maps. He was pretty abrupt and somewhat rude but the guilt trip worked and we bought a map. He soon moved onto the next tourist without a word of thanks! The museum itself produced some graphic, sometimes a bit too much, displays of the Vietnam war. The Agent Orange exhibition was the most disturbing seeing masses of pictures of second, third and fourth generations still being born affected by the toxic chemicals their parents and grandparents experienced. It was a somewhat sobering couple of hours but the American war correspondents photographs were simply incredible. 

So another country ticked off, one more of the former Indochina to see. There are definite similarities with all these South East Asian countries but each does have their own little identity and so it’s Good Morning Vietnam and Au Revoir and now it’s time to see your neighbour, Cambodia.