How To Sum Up A World Trip?
People are always asking us which countries we have visited and if we have a favourite place. Such a tough question! It is so difficult to pin-point an ultimate destination as we enjoyed different places around the world for very different reasons.
It’s great reminiscing about fantastic experiences we’ve had like washing and feeding elephants in Thailand, walking on a glacier in New Zealand, snorkelling in The Philippines, witnessing the grandeur of Yosemite National Park in the USA… But then other memorable moments take over, like the kindness of our tuk tuk driver in Cambodia and the tastiest Tandoori chicken ever in Malaysia… and a potential ‘Top 5’ list quickly becomes a ‘Top 50’ list!
Taking a cable car to Lantau Island, Hong Kong.
So recently, having really enjoyed reading Lily Leung’s travel post 13 Months of Travel in 30 Photos on her Explore For A Year blog, it has given us the nudge we needed for finally writing a summary post of our first ‘Round the World Trip’.
We cannot pick outright an ultimate destination, firstly as we would never agree – and secondly, because we haven’t been everywhere! There are still lots of amazing places we would love to visit; India, South Africa, Iceland, Hawaii to name a few… But what we can do is sum up what we thought was great about each of the countries visited on our RTW trip, share some memorable photographs and give you a little insight from a married couple’s perspective!
Holding Teddy the koala at Cooberrie Park Wildlife Sanctuary, Australia.
So Here Goes…
In August 2010, we departed England and started our trip in Morocco, North Africa. Then heading east, we circumnavigated the globe, over a 16 month period. We visited 18 countries in total, finishing in Los Angeles, USA, before surprising family and friends by flying home to England, in December 2011, just in time for Christmas celebrations! (Which helped to ease the blow and finality of our trip coming to an end).
Flying out of Coolangatta Airport and looking over The Gold Coast, Australia.
During those 16 months, and what a jam-packed, crazy, fun, hectic, unforgettable 16 months they were, we took 24 flights, 20 train rides, 37 bus journeys, 16 boat rides, hired 3 campervans, rode on 3 cable cars, paddled 3 kayaks, hired 4 pairs of bicycles, and went up in a hot air balloon!
Hiring kayaks and paddling from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, Laos.
We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn in Australia during our ‘East Coast Road Trip’, crossed the International Date Line flying from China to America, and crossed the Equator flying from Singapore to Jakarta. We drove over the Continental Divide of the Americas during our 5,000 mile east to west coast ‘USA Road Trip‘ (never got 1 parking ticket), had 1 flight cancellation in New Zealand (lucky, as we got a first class hotel for the night free of charge), travelled by K Class train for 17 hours on a hard seat through China (our longest bum-numbing train journey to date), bought our first pair of hiking boots (difficult to find in Kuala Lumpur), walked our first 19km trail in a day (exhausting), flew in a helicopter for the first time (expensive), witnessed 2 active volcanoes (scary) and visited 39 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (really)!
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing – Our first long day hike, New Zealand.
So how do we condense all that into one single post? With great difficulty! We took over 14,000 photographs during our trip, which we posted the best of to Wayne’s Flickr account and my personal Facebook account. With quality over quantity in mind here, these snap shots are what we have chosen to best epitomise our journey and experiences in each of the 18 countries. We hope you enjoy this round-up of our first world adventure! We certainly enjoyed looking back through our entire photo collection and making our selections.
August – September 2010: Morocco
September – October 2010: Spain, Italy, Greece, Eastern Turkey
October – November 2010: Northern Thailand
November – December 2010: Laos
December – January 2011: Vietnam
January 2011: Cambodia
January – February 2011: Southern Thailand
February – March 2011: Malaysia
March – April 2011: Australia
April 2011: New Zealand
April – May 2011: Singapore
May 2011: Indonesia (Java, Bali, Flores)
May – June 2011: The Philippines
June 2011 – Hong Kong
June – September 2011 – China
September 2011 – Canada
September – December 2011 – USA
North Africa – Morocco – Our starting point…
Stood at the ancient city gate ‘Bab Agnaou’, Marrakesh.
Hmmm, I can honestly say that Morocco is the only country we wouldn’t go back to in a hurry. On arrival in Marrakesh, we were ripped off by our taxi driver, my trainers were stolen from our hotel room, the price of food was over inflated and poor in terms of quality, and we got a serious case of Delhi belly! It’s certainly not a place where you can rely on the kindness of strangers. We found that people wanted paying for absolutely everything. For example, when we thought a friendly local was helping us to cross the busy road outside our hotel, he actually wanted paying on the other side. Similarly, when we got lost in the souk and someone helped us with directions out, they also wanted paying for their trouble. I hate to generalise about a place, but for us it felt like the Moroccans are really just out for the tourist dollar. The good thing to come out of these bad experiences is that it made us quickly wise up and become far more travel savvy for the rest of the trip!
Europe – Sailing from North Africa to Spain
Looking across to Alhambra from Granada’s Old Town at sunset.
We took a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar from Tangier to Tarifa, where it was a welcome relief to reach Spanish soil and ‘fixed’ prices. We quickly realised we are not ones for haggling! We enjoyed a few days of café-culture and a flamenco ballet show in the capital city Madrid. We loved the fact that Madrid has so many parks and open spaces. However our favourite Spanish city by far was Granada. We liked it so much that we extended our stay and had an eventful week visiting much of what this intimate city has to offer; including Granada’s magnificent Cathedral, the bull ring Plaza de Toros, the Science Park & Museum, and of course, high up in the hills, the Alhambra – the last and greatest Moorish palace. If you want to experience true ‘Spanish culture’ then Granada is a must! Flamenco, red wine, tapas and paella – what more could you need? If you want to find out more about why we love Granada, then read our post: ‘On the Go in Granada – What Not To Miss!’ In the future, we’d love to return for a long weekend.
Italy – When in Rome…
Making a wish at the Trevi Fountain, Piazza di Trevi, Rome.
I didn’t enjoy Rome as much as I thought I would. We couldn’t find cheap accommodation in the city centre so we stayed on the outskirts and had to catch the train in each day. It is a busy place with hundreds of tourists milling around the popular spots such as Trevi Fountain, Piazza del Popolo, and the Colosseum, which was my particular favourite attraction. As a capital city we expected inflated prices, but what we weren’t prepared for was the number of eastern European beggars lining the streets, or the graffiti and general city grime. My romantic notion of Rome was well and truly burst. Wayne said I got the ‘Romotion feeling’ where I just didn’t want to visit another museum or walk around the city any more! A day visiting the Vatican City seemed to revive our spirits however. (Despite queuing for 3 hours to get in!)
Visiting the Trulli houses, traditional Apulian dry stone huts with conical roofs in Alberobello.
We also spent a week in San Vito, a little seaside town on Italy’s boot heel in the Puglia region. We were the only foreigners in town and struggled with the language barrier, but we found that locals really went out of their way to be friendly and to assist us. Whilst there we enjoyed the tastiest, authentic wood-fired pizza and Wayne had the best haircut from a traditional barber whose shop looked like it hadn’t changed from the 1960s! We also took a day trip to see the Trulli houses at Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was impressive to find out that people still live inside these curious round houses! We concluded that Italy is far nicer away from the big cities. That being said, we loved our day in Milan as the Duomo provided us with some great photographic opportunities.
Standing in front of Milan’s magnificent Duomo.
Greece – Historic Athens
Ancient ruins on the top of the Acropolis, Athens.
We were excited to reach Greece and finally make it to the Acropolis. After everything we had learnt about the ancient Greeks at school, this was a must-visit site! We had lovely weather for September, however away from the ancient ruins we were disappointed with Athens overall. We visited when there were mass protests going on in the city as the government had just imposed austerity measures, and we found that it was quite overrun with illegal immigrants begging or selling fake handbags. During our entire trip, Athens was also the only city where we saw people openly taking drugs on the streets. Yes we enjoyed the red wine, meat kebabs and delicious olives, but 4 nights was enough for us to fit in everything we wanted to see!
Turkey – The Istanbul Experience
Looking across the Bosphorus towards Galata Tower, Istanbul.
We only had a short stay in Istanbul, so we literally did a whistle-stop tour of the main sites. We visited the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque, the Hagia Sophia Museum, wandered around the Grand Bazaar and went to the top of the Galata Tower for panoramic views across the city. Highlights were also sailing on the Bosphorus and walking over the infamous Galata Bridge that connects the European side with the Asian side of Istanbul. What we loved most about Istanbul was the great food – tasty mezzes, buttery corn-on-the-cob and the freshest fish baps sold by the side of the river. Our opinion overall – there are some great buildings and interesting places to visit in Istanbul, but we found people to be quite rude and unfriendly at times. Plus alcohol is very expensive so we had a sober few days!
Southeast Asia – Bangkok to Northern Thailand
After a week soaking up the sights of the cultural phenomenon, shopping haven and tourist treasure that is Bangkok, we got on an old rickety train and headed north. Northern Thailand holds lots of wonderful memories for us. It is a place where we experienced a number of things for the very first time, so it will always be special.
Enjoying the views from the balcony of our home-stay, Chiang Dao.
Chiang Dao was absolutely beautiful! It was our first experience of ‘jungle trekking’ and we loved every minute of it. We enjoyed fantastic views from the balcony of our home-stay and it was slightly surreal meeting the village shaman who rolled Wayne a homemade cigarette! Ayutthaya, the second ancient capital of Siam, was another highlight. We hired bikes from our hostel and had an eventful cycling tour in monsoon showers around the ancient temples and ruins in the old city. Chang Mai, despite its reputation as a backpacker haven, was another of our favourite places in the north. Here we enjoyed our first Thai cookery class and visited The Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants. It was such a heart-warming experience seeing these majestic creatures up close for the first time. If you love shopping or people-watching, then the best place to go to in Chiang Mai is the famous Sunday Night Market, which sprawls out along the streets of the old city and sells anything and everything you could possibly wish for. It’s certainly full of surprises and entertainment and is high on our list of recommendations!
Laos – Cultural Luang Prabang to Culture Shock Vang Vieng
The beautiful Royal Palace, Luang Prabang.
Capturing the moment: A young monk strolls by.
We took the slow boat down the Mekong from Northern Thailand to Laos, arriving after 2 long days in the cultural centre Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is a lovely laid back place, with lots of architectural charm and character, perfect for photographing. A highlight was getting up at dawn to see monks swathed in their characteristic orange silk receiving alms donations from locals who lined the streets. Luang Prabang also has a fantastic night market that sets up along the main street each evening, selling barbecued fish straight from the Mekong. A point to note: We found that Luang Prabang was really popular with lots of older tourist groups with a lot of money to spend; hence it was much pricier than other places in Laos!
Vang Vieng was certainly one of the cheapest places we found throughout our entire trip. It is a tourist haven due to its ‘party central’ reputation, which it most definitely lived up to! A must-do experience: You can’t visit Vang Vieng without going ‘tubing’ – a pastime that involves floating down the river in a rubber tyre and stopping at various bars along the way. Needless to say we didn’t get very far – but that’s another story (to be told in a future post!)
Vietnam – Celebrating Christmas in the Land of Motorcycles
Wayne’s most interesting haircut to date on the streets of Hanoi.
We were a bit wary about travelling to Vietnam as we had heard a few horror stories about being ripped off by con men, but our experience was a completely different story. People were really friendly and went out of their way to help us. Arriving in Hanoi was a bit of a culture shock! Everywhere we went it was hectic, with hundreds of motorbikes clogging the streets. But we soon got ourselves accustomed to sitting on little plastic chairs like the locals, sipping cheap beers amidst the hustle and bustle, just watching the world go by. And we loved it! It is crazy how whole families cram themselves onto a single motorcycle. They are used to transport anything and everything around the city, from live pigs to refrigerators! Hanoi is definitely the perfect spot for people watching.
Another highlight of Vietnam was riding in the longest over-water cable car in the world from Nha Trang to Vinpearl Island. On the day we went across there were extremely high winds and it was a very scary experience! Vinpearl Island itself is one giant theme park with fairground rides, amusement arcades, aquarium and water park. Once you have paid your entrance fee then everything inside is completely free. It made for a great day out. Nha Trang itself had some of the cheapest accommodation we found on our whole trip. We stayed in a double ensuite room with air-conditioning and TV for £5 a night which is around $8. What a bargain!
Toasting ‘Christmas Day’ with traditional roast in Ho Chi Minh City, December 2010.
What is most memorable about Vietnam was spending Christmas in Ho Chi Minh City. We didn’t know what to expect but the whole city was decked out with the most amazing Christmas lights, displays and decorations, with the added touch of Santas on motorcycles riding around the streets carrying sacks of presents. We actually found it more festive than back home! Christmas Eve was fun in the city-centre as we watched fireworks alongside the crowds donning our santa hats. And to top it off our hotel even gave us a Christmas gift the next morning. In an Asian city we found it all quite strange, and it didn’t feel quite right it being ‘Christmas Day’ in 40 degree heat, but we totally loved Ho Chi Minh City’s efforts to get into the Christmas spirit and we were really glad we celebrated the festive season there.
Cambodia – Phnom Penh and the Temples of Angkor
Reflections at the entrance gates to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap.
This was our second trip to Cambodia after visiting in 2008 on a 2-week vacation. Back then it still seemed to be reeling from the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime. By no means is Cambodia healed, but we found in such a short space of time that rapid development has taken place, particularly around the Sisowath Quay area in Phnom Penh. As with all progress, it was inevitable that skyscrapers would begin to dominate the skyline, but for now there is still only a handful of them. Siem Reap has also seen its fair share of development due to the increase in tourism to the Angkor Temples. We still find it incredible how these giant structures built hundreds of years ago could be left abandoned and undiscovered for centuries. We feel lucky to have explored them back in 2008 when there were far less tour groups and we could photograph them minus any people! Our favourite spot for people watching in Siem Reap is Pub Street. There are lots of great little eateries and bars that line both sides of the strip. Our particular favourite was the ‘Temple Bar’ where we sampled barbecued frog and fish amok, whilst watching a traditional Apsara dancing performance in their large restaurant area upstairs.
South Thailand – Island Hopping
Snorkelling in the crystal clear waters around Koh Tao.
We re-visited Bangkok, then headed south to soak up some sun and enjoy a bit of beach relaxation on Thailand’s South Islands. We island hopped travelling to different places by ferry and stayed on Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Lanta where we enjoyed staying in cheap beach-side bungalows. We couldn’t go to Koh Phangan without joining in the fun at the infamous Full-Moon Party on Hadrin Beach, so hoping we weren’t the oldest swingers in town, we partied with the best of them into the early hours! We also went on a number of day trips to various outlying islands such as Koh Phi Phi, Hong Island, Railay and our favourite, Nang Yuan Island, which is close to Koh Tao. Snorkelling in pristine turquoise waters and sunbathing on the whitest sand – this tiny island was simply stunning. We would love to do a ‘Diver’s course’ there next time round! We also stayed on the mainland in Ao Nang, in the Krabi region. We tried hard to avoid heavily touristy areas and the over-inflated prices of Phuket. However as it was peak season, we found Ao Nang to be quite pricey too compared with other places we had stayed at in the north. That being said, I completely loved our time in the south. I am a beach person at heart. Wayne on the other hand was more than ready to get out of the sun and head back to exploring temples and more city sight-seeing.
Malaysia – Discovering the British Influence
Khoo Kongsi Temple, Georgetown, Penang.
We enjoyed a cultural week exploring historic Georgetown on the island of Penang. We devised our own walking tours to photograph the many religious sites including the Khoo Kongsi Temple and Kapitan Keling Mosque. We also headed to Chinatown and Little India to sample some tasty treats. We discovered fantastic food and friendly locals and enjoyed our best meal of the whole trip in terms of value for money, a tandoori naan platter at Kapitan Restaurant for $2! It was bustling with locals and travellers alike, and we loved it so much that we ate there every night! A must visit place if you’re heading to Malaysia is the Cameron Highlands. Set high in the hills and covered in lush green, it reminded me of home with its strawberries & tea. I have to admit that it was a hellish drive through the Malaysian countryside to get there though! Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, is another fab Asian city. Big and bustling, we loved the view from the top of the Petronas Towers, looking down on the sprawling metropolis of sky scrapers from the 86th floor! If you’ve got money to spend, KL also has some of the best shopping centres you could wish for, even rivalling our beloved MBK Centre in Bangkok.
Australia – East Coast Road Trip
Enjoying the view over Springbrook National Park, Queensland.
Capturing the iconic Sydney Opera House from The Rocks, Sydney Harbour.
We thought that the best way to see a lot of Australia in a short period of time would be to hire a little green and purple Jucy campervan! We had a fun trip down the east coast starting in Cape Tribulation and finishing in Sidney. The campervan was basic with a little cooking stove, sink and fold out beds that were perfectly comfortable for 3 weeks. The only thing missing was a toilet and shower, which meant we had to camp at places with proper facilities. We were lucky at the time as Jucy had done a deal with a number of backpacker hostels down the east coast where we could use their car park and facilities overnight for $10, which really helped our budget.
From my limited knowledge of Australia (most of it had come from watching ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Home & Away’ as a child) I didn’t expect Australia to have a tropical climate. But we loved Cape Tribulation, in Daintree National Park, Northern Queensland and Springbrook National Park, inland from the Gold Coast. They provided us with some great scenery and lots of interesting creatures to photograph, minus the leeches errrghhh! It is true to say that on our Road Trip we saw some of the loveliest coastline, except that it was really frustrating not being able to swim at a lot of beaches due to the presence of stinger jelly fish and salt water crocodiles! We visited some of the most famous like Surfer’s Paradise, Airlie Beach and Byron Bay, however Coolangatta and Ballina were our favourites. What stands out for me as one of the best aspects of our time in Australia was encountering a whole host of different wildlife. It was amazing to see kangaroos and spot a real-life cassowary out in the wild. It was also brilliant visiting a wildlife sanctuary and feeding kangaroos, holding a python and cuddling a koala.
A point to note if you are planning on visiting ‘Down Under’: Out of all of the countries we went to on our RTW Trip, Australia was definitely the MOST EXPENSIVE place for food, alcohol, goods and services. You need a really good budget, especially if you plan on including excursions such as snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef or sailing out to stay on the Whitsunday Islands, which we chose not to do.
New Zealand – The South Island Experience
Walking on Franz Josef Glacier, Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
The only way to describe New Zealand is ‘Wow’! Every corner you turn there is something amazing to see – mountains, lakes, coastline… New Zealand has it all within a very short distance. With such beautiful scenery, it has made us really appreciate the great outdoors! The only thing that spoiled it for us on occasions were the pesky sand flies. They were an incessant nuisance when all we wanted to do was sit by a stunning lake and enjoy a cup of tea! Instead we had to flee inside the van and wait for the temperature to drop until they would disappear.
One of our best excursions on the South Island was taking a ‘Heli-Hike’ and walking on the Franz Josef Glacier. It was the most AMAZING experience flying in a helicopter for the first time, then putting on crampons and stepping on to the ice. It was an expensive splurge, but well worth every penny!
New Zealand – Exploring the North Island
Tentatively crossing one of New Zealand’s many swing bridges.
We didn’t spend as long travelling on the North Island, but we were able to complete some fantastic walking trails in a variety of settings. Highlights included visiting Egmont National Park for great views of Mount Taranaki covered in snow. We also completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a must-do day trek on every hiker’s list.
Just as we had done in Australia, we opted to hire a Jucy camper for our stay. If you can afford to hire a campervan, we think it’s the best way to experience a lot of what New Zealand has to offer in a short space of time. We were able to reach must-see destinations and camp at some beautifully scenic spots on both the South and North Islands within a 3-week timescale. And the Kiwis drive on the left like us Brits so it made it feel a lot more like home! Hiring a campervan was not as expensive as you might think, especially as we visited New Zealand in off-peak season, which meant that National Park campsites were as little as (NZ) $6 per night. It allowed our route to be flexible and gave us the freedom to really explore this beautiful country!
Singapore – City Sight-seeing in 48 Hours
Night-time reflections of Singapore’s skyline.
We had originally booked 3 nights in Singapore between flying from New Zealand to Jakarta. However, this was reduced to just 2 nights after our departure flight from New Zealand was cancelled. We didn’t mind being put up in a swanky hotel for the night free of charge after spending 21 nights in a campervan. But it meant we only had 48 hours to see the main sites of Singapore. Due to our limited timescale, we went a little over budget by taking a tour using the city-sightseeing bus (whereas we usually devise our own walking tours). However this allowed us to enjoy a jam-packed, rapid couple of days to explore and photograph the popular spots, such as the Raffles Hotel, the Merlion and The Merina Bays Sands Hotel with its distinctive shaped roof. We found Singapore to be a very modern city, great for shopping and spending money! But what made it stand out in comparison with the rest of Southeast Asia is Singapore’s efforts to reduce pollution by limiting the number of cars allowed in the city, and by imposing a complete ban on chewing gum to keep the city free from litter. A welcome relief!
Indonesia – Island Hopping – Java, Bali & Flores
Sunrise trek to see a very active Mount Bromo, Java.
We have mixed feelings about Indonesia. When we arrived in Jakarta it was a little nervy to find out on the news that Osama Bin Laden had just been killed and there were mass protests going on in the city. Needless to say we spent a few days in our hotel room catching up with the internet and keeping a low profile as we seemed to be the only westerners in the area. When we ventured out to the Monas National Monument in the city centre and were approached by two police officers, we were quite anxious. But all they wanted was to have their photograph taken with us! Whilst queuing to go to the top of the monument we enjoyed chatting with a class of pupils on a school trip who wanted to practise their English skills. This became a regular occurrence whilst visiting Borobudur, Prambanan Temple and Yogyakarta Palace as students made a bee-line for us so they could practise speaking English with real life English people!
Visiting Mount Bromo on Java, an active volcano at the time, is high up there in our most memorable moments. What an amazing experience to feel the rumblings and see it so close. Our friends who had visited the previous year were lucky enough to walk around the crater rim and take some spectacular photographs looking into the caldera. However, as Bromo was so active during our visit spewing out plumes of ash, we were restricted by a safety perimeter. Too bad. But we did get some awesome shots of our own during sunrise.
Heading into the Balinese countryside: The rice terraces in Ubud.
We were looking forward to Bali as a week of luxury to rejuvenate us from a bout of travel weariness. It depends where you stay on the island, but our impressions of Bali were that it’s not all ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Our hotel was in the Legian area, close to Kuta, which is party central. We loved the great night-life, but we didn’t like being constantly offered Viagra, or being hassled by time-share touts, or that the place was full of holidaying Australians donning their Bintang t-shirts. Bali is to the Australians what Benidorm is to the Brits – hopefully you get the picture! We were also disappointed with the amount of litter that was washed up onto Kuta beach. Hundreds of toothpaste tubes and plastic bottles littered the shoreline after simply being thrown into the sea from tour boats sailing between islands. Such a shame. What we did love about Bali however is that it’s completely different to the rest of Indonesia due to its Hindu outlook, and once you get out into the countryside in the Ubud regions there is some stunning scenery.
Our overland tour of the island of Flores holds some memorable moments for us but ones that you would not expect. One of our hotels was actually a convent, complete with nuns making breakfast, choir practice in the early hours and a crucifix over the bed. We also found that little shack type shops became places of worship in the evenings. On the last day our vehicle broke down, not good when the nearest town is a 2 hour drive away. Then when the mechanic arrived to fix the problem he had brought the wrong part. We were sat around waiting for about 8 hours to get on the road again, not a great experience to remember a place by!
The Philippines – Pristine Palawan & the capital Manila
A traditional Filipino outrigger boat in El Nido Bay.
We are really pleased that we kept the Philippines on our itinerary as many travellers seem to miss it off their route through Southeast Asia. We found Filipinos to be very friendly and the best English speakers out of any country we visited on our RTW trip! Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan boasted that it was ‘The cleanest place in South East Asia!’ With its strict laws against dropping litter, it was certainly free of all the rubbish we had seen in Indonesia. The island was beautiful, locals were friendly and tourists were not ripped-off with inflated prices. We simply paid the same as a local so it was unbelievably cheap.
One of our favourite places was El Nido in the north of the island. This little gem of a seaside town was an amazing find! It showcased some of the clearest waters, stunning beaches and amazing coral we have ever seen. Let’s hope it doesn’t get ruined by over-development in the future.
We also headed to the capital city Manila. It was quite scary sitting in the back of a taxi travelling from the airport to our hostel. The roads were crazily busy, just as we had witnessed in Vietnam with traffic zipping in and out of each other. But once accustomed to catching a jeepney we were less anxious! Our sight-seeing in manila was quite limited – we visited the historic walled city of Intramuros, but spent a lot of time in shopping malls just to access the air-conditioning as it was so hot! What we did love about Manila was the great many pastry shops selling the most fantastic selections of cakes!
Hong Kong – Exploring the City
Sunset reflected in a skyscraper whilst flying into Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was amazing! Just flying over the city into the airport was a fabulous experience in itself as it is so built up and the skyscrapers look like lego bricks from the plane window! We stayed for over a week in in the city as we waited for our Chinese Visa application to be processed and that was plenty of time to enjoy what Hong Kong had to offer. We took a tram up to Victoria Peak for panoramic views, rode on a cable car to Lantau Island to see the Tian Tan Buddha, enjoyed a ferry ride in Victoria Harbour and watched the ‘Light & Sound Show’ at night, which is a must-see that is free! We also went up in a hot air balloon for the first time, which offered us fantastic views of the Hong Kong skyline and West Kowloon. The downside about Hong Kong is that good, cheap accommodation is hard to find. We stayed in Kowloon in a high-rise called Chungking Mansions. The building has a market on the ground floor, restaurants dotted around on various other floors, and the rest of it is divided into hotels/ hostels. Our room was clean but absolutely tiny, with the only space for our rucksacks being under the bed. It was also covered floor to ceiling in tiles, which didn’t allow any moisture to escape. So not only did it look like it, but it felt like we were living in a bathroom! We plan on trying to find better accommodation the next time we visit Hong Kong in 2014.
China – Highlights of Our 3 Month Stay
Peeking out of The Great Wall at Badaling, Beijing.
A peaceful moment at one of Suzhou’s ‘Classical Gardens’.
It was our second visit to China and we are already planning to return again in 2014, so that should tell you how much we love this interesting and quirky place. Yes it was tiring at times as the country is so big to travel across from place to place, and the language barrier did cause some issues. However China is such an amazing country in many, many ways and we experienced so many new things there. We found one of the friendliest and inquisitive set of people you could ever meet, who are so different to us in many ways, but that’s what made the whole experience interesting and fun. We also discovered that China has some absolutely stunning gardens and scenery when you go off the beaten track and avoid the big cities, sometimes difficult when China has 1.35 billion people living there! Three months just went by so fast and out of all of the places we visited on our RTW trip, China was the cheapest country by far. We spent 3 and a half thousand pounds in 3 months which included good accommodation, food, drink, transport across the country and entrance fees to tourist attractions. We really didn’t scrimp in China! It is sad to think that when working full-time we have spent that much on a 2 week holiday before – crazy!
Climbing Hua Shan, one of China’s ‘Five Great Mountains’ is one of our greatest achievements to date. We have never seen so many steps! It was a hard slog heading up the mountain in such intense heat, but well worth it once we got to the top of the West Peak for sunset and toasted it with a beer. Another highlight was staying in Souzhou in the Jiangsu province in Eastern China. Famous for its canal waterway system and classical gardens that have been given UNESCO World Heritage status, Suzhou is often referred to as ‘The Venice of the East’. We also enjoyed a great day out, in spite of the rain, trekking through the rice terraces at Longji, known as ‘The Dragon’s Backbone’. This was a particularly important trip for us as we missed out on seeing the famous rice terraces in the Philippines at Banaue. It was an incredible sight looking down on the terraces from above. You just need to see it to believe it as they are all completely dug out and planted by hand!
Other memorable moments include seeing the terracotta warriors at Xi’an, watching giant pandas at the Research & Breeding Centre in Chengdu, learning how to make Chinese dumplings at a cookery class and taking a raft down the Li River in Yangshuo, where we also hired bikes and cycled through the beautiful Chinese countryside. Our top tip: China really has so much to offer. If you are planning to visit, make sure you venture further than the tourist hot-spots in Beijing!
Canada – Niagara Falls & Toronto
Looking down onto Niagara Falls from the top of the Skylon Tower, Ontario.
We took an organised coach trip from New York to Niagara Falls which was for 3 days/ 2 nights. It was with a company based in Chinatown, and having read a lot of negative comments on TripAdvisor after booking it, we have to say that these were completely unfounded. The trip was extremely well structured, with a good knowledgeable tour guide and helpful bus driver. The majority of passengers were Chinese and Filipino but that made for a good eclectic mix! It is ironic that having spent 3 months in China we now found ourselves as part of a Chinese tour group! The journey to Buffalo, and then across the border into Ontario took around 8 hours but it was well worth it to experience the Falls in all their glory. They are really spectacular, especially from the Canadian side, which offered us the best view. You can’t really comprehend the scale of them until you are there! We viewed them lit up at night, experienced them up close on the ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat tour, and saw them from above whilst dining in the revolving restaurant of the Skylon Tower.
From Ontario we headed to Toronto where we did a brief city tour, enjoyed a boat cruise in the harbour and went to the top of the CN Tower for panoramic views. Standing on the famous glass floor and looking down at the city below was a leg shaking experience! In spite of how limited it was, we really enjoyed our time in Ontario and would love to explore more of Canada in the future. We are particularly keen to visit some Canadian National Parks, as from what we have seen in photographs they are truly spectacular!
USA – Highlights from our East to West Coast Road Trip
A tram heading through the city in San Francisco.
Reflections in ‘The Bean’, Millennium Park, Chicago.
As the USA has so much to offer, we decided to spend the last part of our trip fulfilling a life-long dream by embarking on a ‘Road Trip’ across America. We hired an RV and although it was stressful at times driving something so big, we can conclude that it was definitely the best way for us to see lots of the USA in a relatively short amount of time. The RV was our home for the best part of 3 months and I can honestly say we loved it! If you want to read more about our USA Road Trip, click here.
Travelling from East to West, we tried to visit as many cities and National Parks on our route as possible. San Francisco was a completely unexpected gem of a city and a real highlight! It is much less crowded and far more intimate than New York. It has a great vibe being next to the sea with lots of cafes and bars and a fantastic array of fresh seafood on offer at the local market. Plus there are so many reminders of movies with the Golden Gate Bridge and historic streetcars that run through the city, how could you not love San Francisco? A particular highlight was sailing to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The knowledge and stories told by the Park Rangers there made it a really interesting and memorable day trip. Our other favourite city was Chicago. We enjoyed walking along the shores of Lake Michigan to Navy Pier and photographing the sculptures and artwork in Millennium Park, such as the famous mirrored ‘Bean’. We also had a fun day visiting the world’s largest indoor aquarium known as the ‘Shedd’.
I was disappointed with New York the first time round on our visit in 2007. I think it didn’t live up to my expectations from what I had seen on TV! But this time, we found it much more enjoyable despite having less money to spend. Highlights included visiting the Statue of Liberty, wandering through Central Park, and going to the ‘Top of the Rock’ for great views of the city. Just a point to note about New York: Watch out for the tax and service tip added onto prices when you go to pay. We had a bit of a love/ hate relationship with Las Vegas. The bright lights and huge casinos are a major attraction, but away from the glitz and glamour of the big-name places, we found the actual streets to be quite seedy. We made the most of the cheap drinks and had some fun with a little gambling on the slot machines. But apart from some Stag Do’s being frivolous at the tables, we saw lots of desperadoes spending their last dollar hoping for that big win. Quite sad really! Our last stop was Los Angeles. All I’ve ever wanted is to have my photograph taken with the Hollywood sign in the background! It was fun seeing who was on the ‘Walk of fame’ on Hollywood Boulevard and Madame Tussauds was a great interactive experience, but I’m going to shatter some people’s dreams here when I say that the rest of Hollywood was a bit of a dive, very run down, and not the least bit how we expected. And to top it off we didn’t see any real life celebrities!
Enjoying sunset at Sand Flats Campground, Moab, Utah.
By far, visiting America’s National Parks is our most memorable aspect from our three months in the USA. We spent a large portion of our time exploring the Canyonlands in Utah and completed some amazing walks. Who would have expected America to offer such fantastic scenery and stunning vistas, because I certainly didn’t? We would love to visit some of the National Parks again but next time round during a different season to photograph them in a different light and from an alternate perspective.
Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota quickly established itself as one of our favourites. It was totally unexpected but this lesser-known National Park has really beautiful scenery showcasing the best of what the Prairielands has to offer and it was our first experience of being up close and personal with a bison, actually very scary as they are so huge! Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park is a fantastic and totally surreal place. It is just how I imagine walking on the moon would be with craters and steaming vents. Jenny Lake in the Grand Teton mountain range was just as stunning. Without a doubt, the National Parks far-exceeded my expectations.
One of the best experiences we had in the USA happened by chance as the Arches National Park Campground in Moab was full. Luckily we found a spot at a lesser-known state campground nearby, called Sand Flats, famous for the Slick Rock Trail. The scenery was just amazing and so different to where we had been before. What made our time there really special was meeting a lovely American family who invited us to join them around their campfire to share drinks and tales from across the pond. They also introduced us to our first s’mores! It was great fun and one of our best weekends in the USA.
16 Months All Summed Up…
So there you have it, a summary of our first RTW Trip put as succinctly as I can make it (and that was very difficult) without doing an injustice to the places we have visited. By no means does it cover every city, town, village or island we have visited, or excursions we have taken, within each particular country. Neither does our round-up give enough detail on many aspects, but if you have any questions or would like to know some more, then please ask!