A Travellerspoint blog

June 2012

Laos – 4000 Islands

One, Two, Three...... ok we take your word for it.

storm 28 °C

The island of Don Det was our intended destination amongst the other 3999 islands that sit in this part of the Mekong river. The journey from Thakhek was on a sleeper bus but what welcomed us at the bus station at 11pm was more of a freight bus than a passenger bus. It seemed like there were a few tonnes of goods being transported where humans should have been. The back of the bus was filled with a jumble of boxes and the aisle was completely full with more boxes and everyone’s bags. On the roof of the bus was a scooter, some whitegoods and more unidentifiable boxes.


Somehow we slept in between stops whereby the bus lights would come on and a bunch of the goods would be unloaded, many times requiring us to pass down a box or two from the back. James and Ruben left the bus a couple of hours before the end of the journey as they were heading somewhere else. At around 5am Tanya, Stevie, Paul, Niels and I were woken up as we pulled into Pakse. There was transport waiting at the bus station that was going over to the islands, but it left at 7am, so we packed our bags on it and then waited around. The journey to the Islands was going to be 3 hours so we expected a proper bus. Nope, just a big truck like tuk tuk for 3 hours!

It held around 20 people and we were at capacity when we left the bus station. Two and a half hours passed without any problems but then we heard a distinct metal on metal clash and it ground to a halt. We all got out to stretch our legs as the front seats were removed and the driver got to work trying to fix the problem. As we were waiting, we got out a ball and threw it around with one of the kids and entertained a younger one with a few games. We ended up waiting for an hour before another tuk tuk bus passed. We were told to hop on this one, but the problem was it was also at capacity itself. Never fear, this is Asia, nothing is ever at capacity! We ended up having 10 of us hanging from the back and everyone else squeezed inside.


We got to the end of the road and then hopped into a longboat for a quick ride over to Don Det. There were lots of islands around which obviously give the place its Western name of 4000 islands. We found a guesthouse right where the boat dropped us and after a quick shower we headed out for some food and some wifi. Afterwards we rented some bikes from our guesthouse to go for a ride over to one of the other islands to try and see some of the freshwater dolphins that are in the area. These bikes hardly had any brakes and wouldn’t have seen a drop of oil in their lives, but luckily the track was flat. Within a few minutes cycling through the town we bumped into Chris, Valentina, Claude, Freddie and Corinne from Konglor cave. They had been for the bike ride already and said that it was a fair distance away. We agreed to meet up for some drinks later and continued on. 2 minutes later Niels had a flat tyre! It was the motorbike ride all over again.

We decided to stop at the bridge between the two islands and meet Niels there while he went back to change bikes. We had a cheeky beverage and continued on again when he was back. Down at the end of the road we looked but didn’t see any of the river dolphins playing around in the water, there is only a group of 20 of them, so not surprising I guess. We headed back and got to the bridge again and decided to get some food there. It meant that we would be riding back to town in the dark, but we figured that would bring back some more fond memories from our motorbike loop. All that we had for a light was our mobile phones and we ended up back in town without any mishaps.


We met the others and ended up having a really drunken night until being kicked out of the bar after closing time. It turned out to be a great night with lots of laughs over a fair few BeerLaos

The boxing kangaroos

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The next day it lashed down rain all day, which was lucky as none of us had the energy to do anything anyway. Instead we recovered from the big night with greasy food and movies paying at one of the pubs. We had an afternoon sleep before staying up late to support Holland for Niels in the 1.45am kickoff in the last group game of Euro 2012. It started well but then went downhill from there.

These kids all know how to use an iphone

We got an early morning boat the following day to take us all to the Cambodian border.

Daniel – To be honest, there isn’t much to do in the 4000 islands. But if you are crossing to Cambodia by land, it makes a good enough stop off point for a day or two to break up the journey. Thankfully we were here with a good crew to make it memorable!

Tanya – Our little bike ride a great start to our enjoyment on the island, shame about the rain on the last day, but glad it held off till now.

Posted by dbgomes 00:15 Archived in Laos Tagged laos round_the_world Comments (0)

Laos – The Kong Lor Cave Loop

The Rice Paddy Crew

semi-overcast 33 °C

SEVEN people
SIX bikes
FIVE year old cave guide
FOUR nationalities
THREE days
TWO flat tyres
(ZERO accidents)

That pretty much sums up a great addition to our travel in Laos. By chance we saw a paragraph in the Lonely Planet which said about a 3 day motorcycle loop that includes visiting a 7.5km long cave that goes through the central Laos mountains. Intrigued by this, we investigated further and then restructured the planned travels to include the stop.

After the chilled couple of days in Vientiane we were excited to be doing something a bit more adventurous again. We were lucky that when we arrived at the bus station in Thakhek, there were some other guys who were planning on doing the loop and wanting to go to the same guesthouse. After the Tuk Tuk drivers initially offered us 70,000 kip ($8) per person to take the 6 of us the kilometre or so into town, they finally settled on 10,000 kip per person after we walked away from such a ridiculous offer.

The Travel Lodge is the place to go in town for those wanting to do the loop motorbike ride. They have a big red logbook where people write their stories and offer tips and advice for future travellers. Over the candlelight of a typical power cut here in Laos, we read the log book and decided that the 7 of us would head out in the morning as a group to tackle what the 3 days could throw at us. The log book offered plenty of good advice and we decided to head clockwise around the loop leaving the ‘treacherous’ roads till the end of the trip.

A planned early departure from Thakhek was delayed with our not so smooth bike hire. The night before, Tan and I read about a place down the road that rented bikes for 50,000 kip per day rather than the 120,000 at Mr Ku’s who is based on the site of the Travel Lodge. We got what seemed like a good bike, so the rest of the guys wanted to get theirs from the same place. I took 2 of the guys down (riding Asian style with 3 to a bike), but apart from 1 other ok bike, the rest of their stock was dodgy to say the least. Given the bloke was having to do repair works on two of the bikes before we even took them out the door, it didn’t bode well for 3 days of punishing dirt roads. So we found another place further down the road called Wang Wang Cafe Internet, and the man there said that the bikes that we had got were fake Honda bikes. Upon closer inspection he was right, they are Chinese brands with Honda body panels thrown on to them. He said that he doesn’t try to con tourists, so his bike stocks are all Shenzen and Korean bikes without fake Honda pannels but he has a warranty on any problems with the engines, electrics and brakes. And he only charged 45,000 kip per day. So we returned the current bikes and replaced our fleet. We were finally rolling out of town at 11:30am.

As soon as we were actually out on the road, we could tell it was going to be a good few days! The wind in your hair (well helmet) and completely down to us as to what we want to do. So our crew consisted of the following
Niels & Ruben from Holland
Me, Paul and James from England
Tan from Australia
Stevie from Ireland


Any good biker group needs a name, and Stevie was trying to work something Irish into it because as he said, ‘Everyone likes the Irish’. After a day on the road we eventually came up with the name Rice Paddy Crew to satisfy Stevie’s request and give it a suitable Asian flavour!!

The ‘not necessarily to scale’ map that we were using

The scenery for the first couple of hours was actually rather boring. After the initial excitement of being on a motorbike, the mundane, long, straight highway road didn’t do much except cramp our hands and numb our butts. We had one variation as we passed a traffic holdup that turned out to be a crash involving 2 trucks. I think it was safe to say that the cab of one truck was destroyed and the driver was unlikely to be around any longer. Great introduction to the high safety standards on Lao roads. The stretch of road was a good way for everyone to get used to their bikes though, and also getting this over and done with now, meant it was all more exciting riding from here. The highway lasted 105km until we hit the junction to turn into the hills. We had gone through a tank of fuel by that point so a quick pit stop and we continued on.


Turning off the main road brought instant improvements, the road was narrower and had nice sweeping curves running along the plains and then climbing up the hillsides until we reached a vantage point overlooking the forest and the black hills. As soon as we got into the forest and started to climb there was a noticeable drop in the temperature which was not unwelcome. After the lookout point we rode down the fun sweeping curves of the hillside and then turned onto a long road that would take us the 40km to Konglor Cave. We stopped at the first place that looked like it served food. Sauce bottles on the table were the giveaway, but there was no menu, just a noodle soup that we were automatically served up. It was a welcome stop though to rest the bums.


The final ride of the day was very scenic as it took us another couple of hours of riding past flooded rice fields filled with people planting shoots of rice and rustic houses stood on stilts under the protection of a lone big tree in each field. All of this was framed by a big row of mountains on either side. When we finally got to the end of the road, it was too late in the day to take the tour through the mountain so we went looking for a place to stay. We saw a sign pointing down a dirt track for a guesthouse and we went to take a look. The dry dirt track soon turned into a muddy, boggy treacherous track along the sides of rice paddies. The exploration finished when Niels ended up in a rice paddy and we turned back to the safer guesthouses on the main road.

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The place we chose to stay at ended up being a good choice as we bartered the room to 40,000kip per double room and there were 5 other tourists staying here. This included Chris, Valentina, Claude, Freddie and Corinne who we ended up catching up with after the loop. We had a good night with plenty of beers and chatter as we recounted our days biking and past travel stories.


In the morning we left the guesthouse around 10am but when we got to the river for the boat through the cave, all the boats were already in the cave. The other guys from the guesthouse were already waiting too, so we spent an hour chatting some more before the boats finally came back and we headed off into the cave after a short boat trip across to the other side of the river

The entrance to middle earth...

Flip flop paddles, can do anything!

As we walked into the cave the light faded quickly behind us and we switched to our head torches before hopping into the motorised boats (3 to a boat) that would take us 7.5km under the mountains above us and out the other side. After 10minutes or so we hopped out the boats (as the boatmen had to carry the boats upstream with it not being full wet season yet) and walked a short way upstream and met the boat guides again. The cave was lit up through here and the massive cavern with stalactites and stalagmites was very impressive. Back in the boats we motored upstream for another 50 minutes just taking in the enormity of the cave by dim torchlight.


We saw daylight again as we approached the far side of the cave. We turned the boats around at a small village clearing before doing the reverse 1 hour trip downstream. The only difference on the way back was that we stayed in the boats and white water rafted down the low water sections.


Getting back to our bikes we gave the 5 others a lift back to the guesthouse so that they could get their bus back to Thakhek and then we had a bite to eat for lunch before hitting the road again. We had another 170km of road to pass and we knew that we had the ‘worst’ part of the road to tackle before our next planned guesthouse. It was already 2pm so we retraced the cave road back to the main road for 40km keeping the speeds up to try and make good time. We did squeeze in a stop or two for some shots of us in flying formation :-)


The 58km of main road had some scenic parts, exciting hilly parts, interesting sights and long straight dull parts (and not forgetting a friendly gibbon) so we opened the throttles and clocked 100+kmph out of the little 100cc engines before we got to the town of Laksao.


We made a right turn at Laksao and WOW!!! Talk about chalk and cheese! The smooth bitumen of the last 2 days gave way to a potholed, rocky, crevasse field track that they try to call a road. Riding through the town following trucks and cars you had to pick your lines while having dust blinding you. Leaving town didn’t improve the situation, rather the faint remnants of road that there was in town vanished completely giving way to muddy, rocky tracks showing the signs of recent rains. The track rose up through some hills and we all agreed that if it was raining this part of the road would be almost impossible to pass. We pulled into a little shack to buy some snacks and water. At this point it was near 6pm and we had been on this stretch of road for about an hour. At the stop we figured we were only about 1/3 of the way and night would be on us by 7pm!! We hopped back on the bikes and it was as we rode away that I noticed... We had a flat tyre! Great!! We had some unbelievable luck though, not more than 20meters down the road was a guy who fixed the tyre for us (after this point we didn’t see anyone else who would have been able to fix it for us for the next 2 hours).

Fuel in the countryside


A 30minute tyre change and we were on our way again but darkness was on us not more than 10 minutes later. Some of us made it even harder in the darkness by forgetting that they had sunglasses on (not naming anyone... James). In pitch darkness and a dead headlight on Pauls bike we had to negotiate probably the worst section of road where some logging work was going on. Consequently the track was churned up by the heavy vehicles, massive muddy puddles covered the whole track and I feared another flat tyre on the sharp exposed rocks as our scooters weren’t made for this type of terrain with their thin tyres and limited shock absorbers. After another hour of riding like this we finally hit some flattened gravel roads that actually meant that we could open the throttles again. Although in the darkness the gravel was a bit unnerving once you got some speed up. Another half hour later we crossed a bridge and sighted the signs for Sabadee Guesthouse!! What a day!! We only had a couple of beers with dinner before a relatively early night for us all.

Stevie is wiping away his tears, we were so happy to be here and not sleeping out in the hills :-)

The final day was welcomed with another clear looking day. We had been incredibly lucky to have had not a drop of rain over the last two days. We have not witnessed 2 straight days without rain the whole time we have been in South East Asia. Somehow asking for 3 dry days sounds like we are asking for the next lottery numbers to appear right in front of us. The road away from the guesthouse was the same gravel roads that we had on the last stretch the night before, but in daylight they were far less daunting. We were all at one with our bike by now so we had some fun cruising along the snaking gravel roads mindful of the passing vehicles every now and then.

A few puddles to contend with

We got back to bitumen roads and hit full speed making our first stop for the day in Tham AEN cave. A much smaller cave than Konglor but it was still interesting to explore the cave on foot. A quick shower came and went in minutes not hanging around long enough to soak the ground. Amazingly these were the only drops of rain we ended up seeing while out on the loop.


Next we pulled onto a small track in search for a landmark called Thafalang. Supposedly some rock formations in a river, we didn’t find anything that was overly impressive, however the track there was a blast. More muddy and slippery than anything we had seen on the trip, we just enjoyed biking down it for as far as we could go. It did result in mud going everywhere with the funniest bits being when Stevie slid out into a big puddle and Paul lost his helmet into the same puddle :-)

The wildlife don’t move until they are ready


The last stop of the trip was another cave called Xieng Liab. We rode through some long grass trying to find the cave but turned back around and some locals pointed in the direction that we needed to go. We parked the bikes and a 5 year old boy started indicating to follow him. He kept holding back the prickly tree branches to let us go through and then ran past again to the next obstacle. We wouldn’t have been able to find the cave without him to be fair, we had to cross some rivers and go through some thick forest. We got there and had a look around inside while the little boy was playing around in the trees, hiding behind rocks and calling out to us with no one else there but the 7 of us and the kid.


As we hopped onto the bikes to make our last ride back into Thakhek, the bike felt strange... Not another flat tyre! This time the front wheel. Our amazing luck continued again as the shack at the side of the track to the cave was another bike repair place. In fact this was the family shack of the boy who had shown us the way to the cave! We did consider that maybe they had let the tyre down while we were at the cave, but I think I ran over something in the long grass to be honest. We were soon on our way again and rolled into Thakhek after 3 awesome days with our bikes. We called into the bus station to book our bus tickets further south before going back to the Travel Lodge to shower and eat. While we were there it started to rain, and continued for a while. We tried to wait it out, but we had to return our bikes, so we rode them back to the rental place and got wetter in that short ride than we did on the whole 3 days of The Loop!!! Crazy!


We waited around at the Travel Lodge and filled in the log book with our tales of the 3 days for all future bikers to see. We got a tuk tuk out to the bus station and all continued south still as the Rice Paddy Crew, just without the bikes now.


Below is the video we managed to put together of the trip. It was for us all to have a laugh and remember the fun that we had. Have a watch!!

We also left some tips in the log book, but if you are reading this blog contemplating doing The Loop, i will put them here too:
• Name your crew!!
• Get your bikes the night before – saves a heap of time in the morning
• 2 people per bike = flat tyres. Get one each, they are not that hard to learn how to ride
• Try to find others to go with, as a group makes it safe if you have problems with a bike
• Do the loop clockwise, you end on a high with the fun roads and can practice riding on the long boring road
• Bottles of red fluid on the side of the road are fuel
• Check your helmet especially the visor before hiring – keeps bugs out of the eyes
• Try to leave relatively early every day
• Take sunglasses off after dark :-)
• The place we hired our bikes from was cheapest in town but gave guarantee on the bikes still – he was located down the bottom of the main road near a big square and was called Wang Wang Cafe Internet. He spoke really good English.

Daniel – This definitely goes up there with some of the best things we have done on the whole trip. Getting a great crew assembled just topped it off perfectly. Our bike ran like a dream the whole time except for the flat tyres, but the fact that flat tyres were the worst of the problems we had, we will happily take that! If you are looking for a bit of adventure, lot of fun and an experience different to the norm in South East Asia – The Loop is it!!!

Tanya – Sure, I probably should have had my own bike, but who would have been photographer/videographer? We had planned to stay at the Travel Lodge with the intention of finding some travel companions and everything fell into place all too easily, what a great crew! It was great to do something different to the norm and a real highlight!!

Posted by dbgomes 06:10 Archived in Laos Tagged laos round_the_world Comments (1)

Laos – Vientiane

Laid back with a Capital L

sunny 38 °C

Vientiane feels more like a rustic little town rather than the capital city of the country. You only need a couple of days to see the main sights and eat the good patisseries and baguettes that the French left behind.

From Luang Prabang, we first stopped in at Vang Vieng which is famous on the South East Asia circuit for its river tubing. Sitting in a tube, floating down the river whilst stopping at all the bars along the riverside is a tempting prospect, although not a very traditional Lao thing to do. There are horror stories floating around about people who die thanks to the mix of alcohol, drugs, waterslides, zip lines and shallow water. In fact when we were in Australia, we saw a 60 minutes feature on the ‘most deadly place in South East Asia’. Tanya wasn’t keen after all of this negative press, but I still wanted to give it a go, figuring that you have to take all of these things with a pinch of salt.

When we pulled into Vang Vieng the weather was pretty atrocious though and considering doing it by myself in torrential rain, I gave up on the idea and we set off the following day for the capital. For what it’s worth, everyone that we have spoken to afterwards had a great time doing it and said as long as you are sensible about where you are diving into the river (watch other people do it first) then you will be fine. The town itself is pretty funny too, with all the bars in town showing Family Guy and Friends episodes as people recover from their hangovers and injuries (it’s not as dangerous as they say, but it’s still not 100% safe either).

The river without tubers

In Vientiane we found ourselves a nice guesthouse for a really cheap price thanks to a tip from another tourist on the street. We just hung around the river area for the day and got another nice sunset over the river as the locals were all out enjoying the markets.

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Grabbing some bikes in the morning, we headed out to a couple of the main sites. First stop was the Arc de Triomphe of the south. After getting independence the Lao government built an arc in the style of the Parisian equivalent. Just to rub it in a bit more, they made sure this one was slightly bigger than its French forbearer.

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Next stop was the Pha That Luang which was very golden, and surrounded by other temples and Buddha images. This was a little further out of town than we were expecting, and consequently we were sweating more water than the Mekong and found some refuge in a coffee shop with airconditioning before heading back to the centre for some great baguettes.

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We left in the morning heading further south and initially was worried about the comfort of the journey after starting the first 40 minutes in a tuk tuk style van before finally changing to a bigger bus.

Daniel – There is a theme that we have found in Laos, everywhere and everyone is incredibly laid back and chilled out. That feeling is embodied perfectly in this capital city which is a world away from the hectic metropolis’ of Bangkok, Java and Phnom Penh.

Tanya – As Dan sais, an easygoing city but starting to feel like we need to do something a little different...

Posted by dbgomes 07:21 Archived in Laos Tagged laos round_the_world Comments (0)

Laos – Luang Prabang

Laidback Laos

storm 38 °C

Crossing the border to Laos has apparently slowed the earth’s rotations. Well that’s what it feels like in the extremely chilled out town of LP. The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and introduced us to the laid back nature of the Lao people.

After getting in on the slow boat in the evening, there were some hostel representatives waiting at the boat landing (this is common throughout all of Asia) and we went with one that was cheap but looked good. Toon, the lady who was at the boat landing, drove us around to the guesthouse and pointed out the sites on the way. The location was great as we were on the peninsular between two rivers and close enough to be able to walk everywhere in the centre of town. It’s a popular destination in Laos thanks to UNESCO, the fact that it was once the capital of Laos and is still considered to be its cultural heart. However because of the tourist dollar floating around the town, food and services aren’t as cheap as we had expected.

We managed to catch some of the sunset over the Mekong River in the afternoon before walking along the main road and through the good night markets. Laos was under French rule for much of the early 20th century and the buildings around LP have a French feel. All of the public buildings also have Lao and French signs on them.

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In the morning we planned to hire some bicycles to explore the town, although we figured everything that we wanted to see was in walking distance. So we decided to wait out the intense heat of the midday sun in the airconditioned comfort of the room before walking around the town and finishing up at the temple on the hill overlooking the Mekong for sunset. Unfortunately a lot of cloud rolled in just before sunset and we only just managed to make it back down the hill before the rain came down in typical monsoonal style.

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We set the alarm for 5am on the final morning to make sure we were down at the main road for the giving of alms. This is a daily ritual where the local monks walk down the road to receive offerings of food from the locals. They silently walk along in single file receiving the offerings in their little pots dressed in orange. It was definitely a worthwhile thing to watch with monks of all ages receiving their alms.

Waiting for the monks

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We got picked up from our guesthouse later on in the morning to head south through some winding roads over the mountains.

Daniel – Luang Prabang was a nice little stop, not much to do, just soak up the relaxed nature that the Lao people have.

Tanya – I might have said a few times before that this was a great stop to recharge the batteries, Asia has been like that and I’m getting all too used to it!

Posted by dbgomes 20:51 Archived in Laos Tagged laos round_the_world Comments (0)

Laos – Mekong Boat

Meandering on the Mighty Mekong

semi-overcast 33 °C

The Mekong is one of the big rivers. It starts up in the high plateau of Tibet and passing through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the sea via the Mekong Delta. We had a good experience on the Amazon slow boat last year so we were looking forward to something similar here.

Before we could meander our way down river we had to negotiate our first overland border crossing for a while. Overland crossings are more renowned for being at the mercy of officials who are looking for a small bribe to make your passing an easier process. As it turned out, getting into Laos was no problem. We did do a bit of internet research but couldn’t find much clear cut information about what to expect and even what we would need to do at the border. In case you are reading this wondering the same thing, we will outline the process below.

We started off in Chiang Rai in Thailand, we spent 2 nights there and had plans of getting out and seeing the sights (which all seem to be out of town) although once we were there, we just didn’t have the energy to drive around seeing more temples and Wats. Instead we had a weekend day. You need these every so often when on the road. A day to do nothing but a bit of admin work, watch a movie, have a few cool drinks and relax. We did make it out at night though to visit the local markets which were one of the better ones we have seen. They had a lot of market food including the odd plate of insects if that takes your fancy.


So onto the Thailand / Laos border crossing:
• Busses leave every hour, on the hour from the bus station in the centre of town heading to Chiang Kong at the border. The ride is 2 hrs long and costs 65THB each (advertised on the pillar at platform 4)
• At Chiang Kong, the bus stops on the roadside and from there you need to pay 30THB each for a tuktuk to take you a kilometre further up the road to the border crossing by the river
• Customs is on the left, make sure you have completed your departure card.
• Walk downhill a few meters then pay a lady under a tarpaulin 40THB each to take a rickety boat across the Mekong to Huay Xai.
• Up and on your right, you can apply for a ‘Visa on Arrival’. Pick up 2 forms for completion, hand them in with your passport and a passport photo then wait. Once your visas are ready (maybe 10 to 20mins) you will need to pay US$30 or $35 (depending on your nationality). There is a fee of $1 for weekends and evenings (4-6pm).

We left Chiang Rai at 8am considering that after the bus ride we would be at the border by 10am and have an hour then to cross and get on a slow boat. However the visa processing and crossing time meant that we were finally walking up the road away from Laos customs at 11am. We thought that we had probably missed the boat by that stage as the boat should be leaving around 11am as it takes around 6 hours to get to the first stop, and the boats don’t travel on the river at night. We asked at a ticket office and after phoning to see if the boat was still in town, we got the all clear and were taken to the slow boat departure point (quite a distance up river – not walkable as we had expected). The slow boat was 950THB each and a little cheaper if paid for in Lao Kips, but we were only carrying baht at that point.


It turned out that we weren’t in that much of a hurry because it wasn’t until just after 12 that the boat finally set off. Our first impressions of the slow boat weren’t as we had hoped. Whereas the Amazon was relaxing in a hammock all day long, the Mekong was perched on seats. And the Amazon was a local transport option where we were the rarity on board, the Mekong is a tourist transport option with the odd Lao on board. Overhearing conversations about peoples Full Moon parties in Koh Pha-Ngan and drunken scooter riding it was clear that we were definitely on the Gap Year trail. Although this was the first time we really felt like this since getting to South East Asia, despite having been to many a popular destination already.


It wasn’t too bad though, and the Northern Laos landscape around the Mekong was impressive scenery as the boat chugged down the chocolaty waters. In fact looking down on the river, it looked more like the river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I half expected to see a fat kid float by! We watched as Thai children swam in the water on one side of the boat and Lao children the other as we snaked along the border before the Mekong swings further inland to Laos.

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Our safety in the hands of our 13yr old captain

It was 5 and a half hours before we pulled into PakBeng, a small little river town apparently only there to service the river travellers as every place in town was a guesthouse and restaurant. We got a place for a cheap price of 150THB for the night (food on the boat and everything in PakBeng can be paid in Baht at a very reasonable exchange rate – only about 1% over the official rate) and had dinner overlooking the Mekong.


The boat left again at 9.30am and we returned to 9 hours of reading and watching the world go by. So many times we got to see everyday life on the river. Children are always playing and splashing around, fishermen trying to catch their dinner in bamboo fish traps and women washing the family clothes.

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We finally arrived at Luang Prabang and immediately felt the laid back atmosphere of the town.

Daniel – Given the choice between the boat and a bus, the slow boat was the right move as we did get to see daily life ticking by on the river. However don’t expect the boat journey to be as much of a cultural experience as the sights on the river.

Tanya – The car seats fitted into the slow boat made the long journey bearable. We had a lovely stay at the half way point. The guesthouse did some great takeaway food for us which helped us get thought the following 9 hour day.

Posted by dbgomes 01:09 Archived in Laos Tagged laos round_the_world Comments (1)

Thailand – Chiang Mai

Cooking with Elephants

sunny 35 °C

Chiang Mai is a Thai city at heart. Despite plenty of tour operators and traditional massage shops, it has a distinctly Thai feel. With plenty of traditional northern Thai food, even the Bangkok residents come to up here to sample it. The old town is a precise square full of alley ways and temples with a moat surrounding it and the remains of the old city walls at various sections. It is a gateway to lots of trekking, elephant adventures and getting amongst Thai people.

We arrived into the bus station and quickly secured our tuktuk into the old town. We hadn’t booked any accommodation but arrived at one we had looked into earlier. It was fine enough so we checked in and headed out for a walk through the streets to get a feel for the place.


In the morning we once again opted for our weapon of choice for exploring, the trusty scooter! This time we headed out of town to the hills overlooking the city. This turned out to be a great decision, simply for the ride alone. The road was a curvy, well paved road (apart from the little bit that had fallen down the cliff) that snaked up the mountain allowing for some fun biking. I started to cop a bit of abuse from Tanya for going too fast and joking around about sticking my knee out to scrape round the corners though.


We stopped off at a waterfall halfway up the road which was nice, but not really worth the 100THB entry fee each. We continued upward until we reached the temple that sit high on the hill overlooking Chiang Mai below. The temple was very gold and very Buddhalicios. We stayed for a little while before getting back on the scooter and enjoying the ride back downhill.

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As we had the scooter for 24hrs, we went back out again at night to find the night markets to the east of the old town. We parked the scooter up (undercover) just a minute before the night sky opened up and sent the stall owners running to get their awnings up and water tight. We took refuge in the closest building which happened to be a McDonalds. An hour passed and the rain finally eased off. We ventured back out through the markets crossing streets which now resembled fjords. After a successful night at the markets, Tanya was now the owner of some happy pants and a hippy bag. We biked back to the guesthouse through the big puddles that covered the streets.


In the morning we were picked up from the guesthouse and driven 1 and a half hours out to the Mae Taeng Valley where we were going to be lucky enough to spend a day with elephants. The Elephant Nature Park was set up by a little Thai lady called Lek in the 1990’s and rescues injured, abused and distressed domesticated elephants. There are 34 elephants currently in the herd all with a story that pulls at the heart strings.

To understand elephants in Thailand, you need to be aware of a couple of things. The elephant is so deeply rooted in Thai culture that it is a symbol of luck and revered in many statues at sacred sites. However, the elephant has been a working animal in the building of the Thai kingdom. At the turn of the 20th century there were 100,000 elephants (domestic and wild) in Thailand, now that number is down to 5,000. Having had 95% of the population wiped out in just 100 years, it’s hard to see there being much of a future for them. Elephants were the principle vehicle of the logging industry, but a ban on logging literally sent the elephants onto the streets without a job any more. As they are considered working animals no different to a buffalo or ox, they have no protection against cruelty or abuse as the laws do not prevent this for working animals. Finally, the training methods for elephants are shackled by the traditional methods where pain, hurt and a good dose of black magic are what break the elephant into obedience.

We learnt these facts on the drive out to the elephant park on a DVD that was played as well as more information about Lek and the Park. Before long we were driving down a dusty track and could easily spot elephants down by the river on our left. We pulled into the park and were shown into the giant gazebo that houses the staff and visitors. You can pay to visit the park for a day (as we were doing) or stay for longer with overnight and weeklong volunteer projects on offer. There are no basket rides, elephant shows and tricks here, this park is solely for the elephants to have an easy life after many years of hard knocks.

We had about 8 of us in our group and no sooner had we put our bags down, our guide took us strolling through a gate and elephants started to come towards us! Just before this we had gone over the rules for being around the elephants. As much as elephants sound cute, as the biggest walking animal on the planet, they are pretty bloody intimidating when they come walking towards you. The guide had grabbed a few bananas for us and the elephants were keen for some of the fruit. We stood there for 10 minutes with most people a bit afraid to get close to the elephants. I was really enjoying the closeness that you get standing right in front of these mammals and even started to feed one female elephant by putting the bananas straight into her mouth rather than just giving it to her trunk. Although touching her huge slimy tongue wasn’t the best part of this experience.

Elephants need a lot of food!

Covering itself in mud

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We walked a bit further into the field where the veterinary clinic is and one of the elephants was having its nails buffed by one of the volunteers. As we stood there two other elephants came over to see us. One of them (Medo) was blind in one eye and had a broken back leg and dislocated backbone. Seeing the poor old lady moving along slowly really tugs at your heartstrings. The guide said that she broke her leg in a logging accident, and because she couldn’t work any longer, she was sent to a breeding farm where her back was dislocated after forced mating with a big bull. The amazing thing though is the other elephant that came over (Mae Mai) had adopted her when she first came to the park and now isn’t more than a few feet away from her as she slowly walks around the park. We stood there as this pair received their lunch baskets and fed them their fruit. Being this close to an elephant you realise that they are sparsely covered in log thick hairs all over their body. Stroking their trunk, the skin is really rough and prickly with shorter hairs.

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Poor Medo with her broken back leg

We then got to go over to the feeding area for the herd of elephants that have got the young calves with them. There were two elephants born at the park 3 years ago within months of each other (1 boy and 1 girl) and this herd are separated at feeding time for the safety of the little guys. Another great experience to be able to feed the baby elephants with their cute little faces.


Next, our group visited two elephants who were victims of land mines. A lot of illegal logging goes on around the borders where there is the danger of unexploded land mines, and to see these two with mangled feet was another difficult thing to see. At least they both have a much better way to see out the rest of their life, than being forced to continue working or left to die.

We went back to the building where our own lunch was being served. As we sat their eating our food we watched as elephants were walking past and having an inquisitive look at what the humans were doing before continuing on their way to another part of the park.

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They don’t just rescue elephants at this park


Our final treat of the day was spending time with the elephants in the river bathing them. Armed with a bucket to splash water over the backs of the elephants, we washed them clean of their mud as they stood there or got down into the water. Another great experience to share with the animals. No sooner where they clean, they headed back out and started gathering mud to sling all over their backs again!

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After washing a few elephants, we went onto the raised boardwalk as the herd with the young elephants were coming for their wash. They might get protective of the young ones if we were in the water so it’s safer to watch from a distance. We then had our final up close and personal time with the big herd once they were out of the water. We left the park feeling incredibly privileged to have spent the day with these gentle giants and glad that in some small way our fee will hopefully go towards helping future generations of elephants. You can see the elephant herd here at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/herd/index.htm

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Found the love of my life

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We had another full day activity the following day and were picked up from our hotel again by Mam from Asia Scenic cooking school. Now Tanya and I wouldn’t exactly call ourselves the greatest of cooks going around, but if we can learn a few Thai dishes then we would be leaving Thailand with a good souvenir. With the cooking school, you have the option of doing it in the city restaurant or at their farm. We chose the farm, and this was a good choice by far in the end. Mam first took us to the local markets to pick up some ingredients for our meals. She explained to us the various types of rice and the different pricing based on age and origin. We then got told about noodles, tofu, cane sugar, coconuts and what we can use to substitute in our country. As it turned out there were only 4 of us doing the classes today with the other couple from Queensland in Australia.


Once we drove out to the farm, we donned our traditional hats and then walked around the garden being told about all the herbs, vegetables and fruits that were there and how they are used in Thai cooking. Mam was very good at picking off the herbs for us and giving us a lot of information.

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We sat down to have a traditional welcome snack which is a few ingredients all put in a leaf to be eaten as once. I wasn’t too sure about it at first, but as soon as I tried one, wow!! We will be doing this as a snack when we have friends over once we have a house again in Australia!


We had a 5 course menu to cook over the day and we started off firstly with a stir fry then followed by an appetiser. I chose to cook Pad Thai (as I haven’t been able to get enough of them here in Thailand) and Tanya did a chicken and cashew nut dish. We followed that up with Tanya cooking a glass noodle salad and me preparing spring rolls from scratch, rolled, fried and served up on a plate.

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I think the pink apron just completes this scene along with Chicken and Cashew Nut and Pad Thai

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We got to eat our stir fry and then our appetisers as soon as we had cooked them. To be honest, they weren’t small portions so we were glad we had skipped breakfast to have room for 3 more courses.

We started on the rest of the meals firstly by preparing our curry pastes. Tanya was doing a green curry and I was doing a traditional northern Thai curry called a Khaw Soi. The thing about doing the curry pastes is that the base for each paste is the same, it’s just the different type of chilli for green and red curry, and for Panang and Khaw Soi you just add peanuts or chilli powder to the red chilli paste. Simple really. We started bashing all the spices in the mortar until we ended up with our respective curry paste ready to go before cutting up our vegetables ready for our soup dishes.

Curry and Soup ready to go

We then paused with the main meals to prepare the desert. I went for coconut battered deep fried banana and Tanya made Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango. Once we had them done, it was back to our curry and soup. I made a Prawn Tom Yum and Tanya made a local style Tom Sab soup. A few minutes slaving over the hot stove and we had a curry, soup and desert ready to eat. They all tasted great, and with the dishes that the other 2 prepared, we had almost covered off all the options that the school offers.

Final servings

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Being absolutely stuffed full from all the food we were taken back into the city and didn’t need much more for the rest of the day. We were heading further east in the morning to Chiang Rai before making the border crossing into Laos. Lets hope that goes smoothly.

Daniel – Chiang Mai turned out to be a fantastic stop on the trip. I really liked the feel of the city, much more authentic than Bangkok and the islands down south. The time spent at the elephant farm was unforgettable and really rewarding. I think that Chiang Mai had the best Pad Thai I’ve tasted, and best of all I COOKED IT!!!

Tanya – Some amazing highlights. As a city, I really liked Chiang Mai, it has a walled old town which just added to the charm. In many ways it is set up for tourists but the competition means that you wont find many cheaper cooking classes elsewhere in Thailand. Our experience with the elephants was such an incredible day.

Posted by dbgomes 06:25 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand round_the_world Comments (0)

Thailand – Sukhothai

Lots of Wat's

semi-overcast 29 °C

We headed further north for another historic site at Sukhothai. The guesthouse here had a great restaurant area with a pool table where we relaxed for the evening. Dan could smell inviting aromas coming from the kitchen and decided he was very hungry. Our host at the guesthouse appeared shortly after and showed us the snack she had made for her family.

Yep, those are crickets!

I asked for a photo and we were offered some. Dan, as always, jumped at the opportunity.

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He describes them as delicious and crispy, but would prefer them without the wings which are a little hard to swallow! It’s worth a note that the local Sukhothai dishes (with chicken) are really good, if you get here, try them!

The historic park/old town here is located about 14km from the new town so the obvious choice as usual was scooter rental. We were very impressed with Sukhothai, the whole historic area has been made into one big park scattered with old temples.

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Having come here after Ayutthaya, the ruins here are actually better preserved and in a nicer setting. This made the photo taking a lot easier!

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We had the scooter so were able to go further for some sightseeing. I wasn’t too concerned about getting lost with the retro colour scheme today!


We may have taken a detour as we often do and found ourselves exploring dirt tracks possibly unnecessarily. But we found a few more photographic sights.


With some time to spare in the afternoon we thought it was finally time for a traditional Thai massage. I (Tanya) had been putting this off for a long time, you see, I have this disability – I hate massages! Anyway Dan and I sat back for a pleasant foot rub, well pleasant until my toes were being pulled out of their sockets! Then the rest was pretty well a disaster for me, either too ticklish or painful, I found it hard to sit still. Our massuist’s found my disability quite entertaining saying something like ticka-ticka (meaning ticklish) and decided to swap, so that the firm lady went to Dan to work him over while I tried to restrain my laughter. My massage finished 10 minutes early being an obvious lost cause. Well I’ve tried it now!

We were taken back to the local bus station by the local form of transport where we hopped on another bus for a few hours ride further north


Final thoughts:
Tanya – Sukhothai was a great little town. I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Daniel – I liked it here even more than Ayutthaya. Maybe having a scooter rather than the bicycles was the saving grace... Nah, this place would have been better even on bikes!

Posted by dbgomes 23:37 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand round_the_world Comments (1)

Thailand – Ayutthaya

Ruined by the heat

sunny 33 °C

Famed as the ancient capital of Thailand, there is plenty of history on offer just a short distance north of Bangkok. Ayutthaya is a city, but felt quiet enough compared to bustling Bangkok. The centre of town is an island, with 3 rivers coming together to form a natural moat. This gave it the feel of a walled city without the brick and mortar.

We managed to get some admin done in Bangkok while we had access to speedy wifi and international consulates for arranging advance visas for later in the trip. We had an easy minivan ride from Bangkok to Ayutthaya given that we were staying right near victory monument which is where the vans originate.

Dan and I found a cozy little home stay and hardly wanted to venture out of the safety of the air-conditioning! But we managed to brave the scorching and muggy conditions to find the brand new tourist information office. The staff were incredibly helpful and loaded us up with maps and brochures before suggesting we visit the free exhibition on Ayutthaya. Well , an air-conditioned exhibition was a very exciting prospect in itself and turned out to be very worthwhile. It gave us a good understanding of the city and its place in Thai history.

The following day armed with our maps, brochures and hired bicycles we set out to explore the historic ruins. First we decided to make a detour to book some onwards bus tickets. Over 2 hours later and some scary freeway cycling we had our bus tickets sorted. It would have been handy to know that our maps turned out to be not quite to scale once you leave the old town area.

Fairly tired by now, we started at the Wat Mahathat ruins. These were spread over quite a large area, so we wandered around through the ruins. There was quite a bit of restoration going on and you could see places where Buddha’s had been propped up against old walls ready to be fixed into place again. The most impressive feature in these ruins was the image of the Buddha head entwined in the tree roots.

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We summoned up enough energy to do some more exploring. We passed a number of Wat’s and historic ruins and escaped the traffic for a break in the park.

Just what you want for 1.5 hour bus rides, karaoke the whole way!

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Pimp my ride, Tuk Tuk style

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Offerings of favourite softdrink is very common

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Wat Phra Si Sanphet was an impressive sight with the 3 aligned chedis.

We had seen an elephant walking along the street when we arrived. While cycling around we found where they had come from. We cycled along the back of this place, and found these poor little guys putting on a show. I assume the rest of the audience had paid although we just cycled past on the road.


We kept pushing on fitting in a final few temples, Buddhas and ice cream breaks into the day

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We set off again heading further north in search of what would hopefully be some cooler conditions.

Tanya – Despite being hot and tiring work seeing Ayutthaya by bicycle, it was an interesting little stop none the less. It was incredible how the modern city is built right in amongst so many historic sites.

Daniel – It’s good to see some ruins that show the power that was in these parts of the world! I was really interested to read that a lot of the European powers had consulates here on the island during the height of the Siam power in the 1600’s and Europe tried to find a foothold in South East Asia.

Posted by dbgomes 20:25 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand round_the_world Comments (0)

Indonesia – Komodo Boat Trip


sunny 30 °C

Komodos most famous resident, the Komodo Dragon has remained pretty much unchanged since the days that the dinosaurs were roaming around eating Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum’s ancestors. As the guides told us on the trip, they have 57 different types of bacteria in their saliva which has been responsible for 4 deaths on Komodo in recent times. Just what you want hiding in the bush as you are walking through in your flip flops!

The boating trip started off with a few hours on a bus as we headed for the east coast of Lombok. We picked up some snacks on the way before arriving at the port and boarding the vessel that would be home for the next 4 days. This trip is a very basic budget option, with the only luxuries being the coral filled waters that we would be swimming in. We had 14 of us on our boat which had an upper deck housing mattresses as thick as a newspaper and pillows only slightly thicker. This open air sleeping area was protected from the elements by a tarpaulin strung up over the top. The deck at the front of the boat was just an open space covered by more tarpaulin with a small sun deck at the bow of the boat. As simple as she was she ran like a dream, albeit like a loud wartime gun battle of a dream.

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We started off to sea as the sun was setting behind Lombok. As we continued, we witnessed another great sunset followed by a sky full of bright stars as all other light pollution vanished. A thunder cloud flashed away in the distance and whilst we all sat on the sundeck getting to know each other satellites and shooting stars darted overhead. This was a great first impression as to what to expect over the coming 4 days. We moored up in a bay around 10pm and enjoyed the silence with the engine being off. We were warned though that we had some distance to cover the next day, so the boat would head off at 2am. Nicely into a deep sleep, the whole boat was awaken when the engine roared into life and we set off.


The call for breakfast got us up in time to see the sun rising as we pulled into a bay at Moyo Island with some amazingly clear water around the boat. We abandoned ship to swim over to the shore of the island to walk inland to a waterfall. This was the only bit of fresh water we would be getting for the coming days so people were keen to have a final shower

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A natural infinity pool


We left the bay and sailed further around the island to a spot that was supposed to be great for some snorkelling. This lived up to the reputation with more crystal clear water and abundant coral and fish.


When the boat fired up the engines after the swim, she would not stop until we got to another swimming spot the next day. Needless to say getting to sleep on a rocking boat with a less than finely tuned engine wasn’t the easiest and staying asleep was even harder.

Another sunset on a day at sea

First stop after the long night was a completely deserted island somewhere along the Indonesian islands. We dropped anchor in the bay and went for an early morning hike up the hill to overlook the islands. Stunning views over the water greeted us at the top! It’s hard to believe that there is all this untouched paradise down here.


Next stop was pink beach with its red coral sands. We had some more snorkelling time here and before heading around to the landing jetty at Komodo ready to see some dragons


Arriving on Komodo Island, we got a safety briefing from the park rangers who would be showing us around. Basically, watch out for dragons and snakes. Fair enough. On the way to the watering hole the guide gave us the facts about these prehistoric reptiles
• They are now only found on 3 Islands, Komodo, Rinca and Padar in the wild
• Grow to 3 meters weighing up to 70kgs (130kg if full from a meal)
• They can run at 18km/hr
• They can smell blood from 3kms away
• The 57 different types of bacteria in their saliva will kill its prey (usually deer) over a few days
• There have been 9 incidents on Komodo island – 5 people survived and 4 died including a Swiss tourist who was never found except for his camera
Good to see that we basically have a 50% chance of surviving then! As we approached the watering hole, there were two large adult males just lying around. One of them got up and started to move towards our group. The guides kept us at a safe distance before we got some photos of them from only a few meters away.


A couple of people got a bit spooked by the dragons and needed to go back to the boat. Admittedly, they do seem rather fearsome at first. However while the rest of us waited for the second guide to return after taking the others back, the dragons just seemed to laze about more than anything else. We left them in peace and walked further inland for some views before going back to the peak entrance where there were deer and more dragons hanging about.

Deep into dragon territory


We anchored in a bay a short distance away and swam around the boat as another beautiful sunset closed out the day.


The following morning started off with a great sunrise before we headed around to Rinca Island for some more dragon hunting. The dragons on Rinca are supposed to be more aggressive than the ones on Komodo. Jeff spotted a lone dragon out in the tall grass along the walk that we did, but when we came through the village at the end of the walk, there were a lot of them hanging around there warming up in the morning sun.


To complete the 4 days experience, we pulled up to one final small island with a little hill and a sandbar beach on the south side. It was a beautiful deserted island that we enjoyed along with the sister boat that had been following us around the whole way. We got out our ball to throw around in the water and make the most of the final hour around these amazing waters.


Goes Up

What a catch...


The port of Labuan Bajo on Flores Island was our finishing point of the trip but we could stay for free on the boat as it was staying in Port that night. After a few drinks with everyone at a nice place overlooking the bay we all loaded up on the free buffet (free if you purchased a drink) and continued well into the night. I was in an especially happy mood having seen that Chelsea FC had won the champions league whilst we had been out on the boat!

Everyone went their separate ways the following morning but us three had decided to stay an extra night. We didn’t do much except go for a bit of a walk to find a beach, however it didn’t compare to the beaches we had been swimming at on the past few days.

Avocado and Chocolate shake, not as crazy as it sounds



A short plane ride took us back to Bali where we spent our final night as a threesome indulging in a fish feast down at Jimbaran Bay. An appropriate way to end another great few weeks with Jeff. In the morning we headed up to Singapore and then on to Bangkok. Breakfast in Bali, Lunch in Singapore and Dinner in Bangkok – such is the life of a backpacker!!!


Jeff – As if Gili Air was not relaxing enough. I was a little apprehensive about the sleeping on deck and lack of showers and limited rations of fresh water, but I needn´t have been. Magical sunsets, superb snorkelling and of course the Komodo dragons made for an excellent four days. Hard to see how the Komodo dragons are that dangerous when they just sloth about like giant lazy lizards?

Tanya – Sure the amenities were basic, but regardless we remained much cleaner than we would have done at Glastonbury and all in all had a fantastic trip. There was plenty of time to relax and read and when we needed a stretch, there was always a hike or snorkelling on offer. The komodo dragons were incredible to see!
Thanks for the awesome photos Jeff, especially underwater!

Daniel – Someone else said this, that so many people are looking for deserted idyllic islands around Thailand all the time and rarely find it, yet you come down here to Indonesia and you don’t even have to look for it, it’s just waiting for you everywhere. Being as though Indonesia is our closest destination from Perth, this will not be our last time around these amazing waters. I hope they stay relatively undiscovered for some time to come as everyone sticks with what they know in Bali.

Posted by dbgomes 08:46 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia round_the_world Comments (1)

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