Singapore – How the other half live

The final stop on our epic adventure ended in Singapore and what an interesting ending it was. After months of travelling through some of the world’s poorest countries I couldn’t help but find it ironic that we would end our journey in one of the world’s richest!

As we stepped off the underground train that took us from the airport to the city, I felt a little uncomfortable in my surroundings. I guess we had gotten used wearing our baggy hippy pants, tank tops and flip flops for so long that we forgot we were entering a fashion Mecca. To say we stuck out like a pair of sore thumbs with our huge backpacks on would be an understatement!

Isn’t it funny how things can change? I remember the first day we landed in Bangkok, we both felt uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place. We felt like we stuck out from what we were wearing, to our personalities and the way we acted. Now five months on and we couldn’t feel more relaxed with who we are. Asia started to feel like home. Now at the end of our journey it was as if we had been thrown back in time, back to the modern world of materialism, greed and judgment.

I couldn’t help but laugh at my embarrassment trying to tame my frizzy hair and make myself look half presentable. You can try all you want Jess but until you get to a hostel, have a shower and take those blue floral genie trousers off, you’re a goner! We did however; enjoy playing ‘spot the traveller’. You could see them from a mile off and I bet they all had the same thing on their minds as us. “This doesn’t feel like the Asia we know”.

We were not surprised to find that Singapore was one of the most expensive places we had visited so far. We found a hostel that cost $50.00 a night (about £25) and believe me, compared to other countries we had been to that was expensive! But for Singapore it was cheap, enough to get us a private room with air-conditioning in a pretty strange hostel but it was in a good location and money was as tight as ever!

The first thing we had set our eyes on was a Starbucks just down the road but before we treated ourselves to a nice coffee, we were both in need of a shower and a change of clothes. I decided to go all out and do my hair and make-up for the first time in a few months. It was nice until we walked outside into the sweltering heat. It promptly reminded me why I hadn’t bothered for so long. Humidity and beauty do not mix but the Singaporeans didn’t let that stop them!

We must have looked like proper tourists taking a picture of ourselves with our mugs of coffee but it was a novelty these days for us! Later on we took a walk to ‘Little India’ but were disappointed to find it was a strange place with no atmosphere, much like China town in Kuala Lumpur. We stopped at an Indian restaurant for dinner and decided to order a mini platter of everything on the menu. I couldn’t tell you what any of it was but neither of us were too keen. I think we were expecting the kind of Indian we have in England!

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There was a lot to see in Singapore structure wise but not a great deal to do if you didn’t like shopping. We did decide to treat ourselves the next day and went on a bit of a shopping spree. In the evening we took a walk down a street known as ‘the rich street’. It had all the famous fashion labels like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vinton. We couldn’t help but gawp at the beautiful faces holding handfuls of bags containing thousands of dollars strutting down the high street in their Jimmy-Chews!

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Light up stairs

We only had two days in Singapore so we woke up early to make the most out of our second day. The city was a pleasant place to walk around. The streets were clean, the people were attractive and the architecture was magnificent. There was an abundance of shopping malls each with their own unique style. One even had a canal running through it that took you on a boat trip through the mall!

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Later we went to see a famous building called the Marina Bay sands. The bottom of the building is a huge shopping mall that is connected underground. Above it is three towers that are a hotel and casino. At the very top, covering all three buildings is a bizarre ship-shaped structure holding a restaurant, nightclub and an infinity pool. As usual you had to pay to go to the top of it. You were only able to access the lift but buying a ticket or if you were rich enough to be staying at the hotel.

Pete had the genius idea of sneaking into the lift in the hope that someone would come along and just so happen to be going to the top floor. I looked at him with disbelief as we waited. This could either be really embarrassing or we could be going aimlessly up and down for hours waiting for someone. To our luck just as we entered the lift a couple holding a room key card joined us. They slotted their card in and pressed the top floor button. Bingo, Cleaver boy! We also somehow managed to sneak past security without a ticket with a group of tourists. The view was great but unfortunately the weather had turned awful. We thought they were on to us so quickly dashed back into the lift after a few minutes but forgot to take a photo, but here’s the view from the bottom.

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We spent the second half of our day at a garden called the Marina south gardens. Similar to the Eden project, it is an eco friendly conservation project that educates the public on the effects of climate change. Outside the building were enormous, solar super tees that had plants growing up them and a walkway from tree to tree.

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Inside, there was a tropical flower house which had plants from all over the world and in another dome there was a second big structure with plants growing all through it. You could walk inside and out all the way to the top. The walk ended with an interactive studio and a short film on the effects of climate change over ten years and finally what we could do to resolve it. We spent a good three hours exploring the domes and it was a good thing to do on a rainy day!

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In the evening we went to Singapore’s version of China town. It was a step up from kuala Lumpur but still nothing to shout about. There were a few quirky little shops but to my dismay I didn’t fit very well into the tiny sizes catered for little Asian girls!

On our way home we noticed a group of old men on the street playing a game. I recognised it but I didn’t know where from. Then it clicked. I remembered when one of the boat crew on the Halong Bay trip in Vietnam was trying to teach me it. I couldn’t quite remember the rules, as when he taught me I was pretty intoxicated paired with the fact that he spoke not one word of English and attempted to teach me through sign language! It looked like the men were betting what little money they had left. It would seem not everyone in Singapore was rich.

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THE ENDING…..

We had come to the end of our journey through Southeast Asia. Although it felt like we had seen it all, in reality it barely scraps the surface of the huge list of things I want to do and see. However, we had done, felt, met, saw things that most people could only dream about. It was everything that I had expected and more.

Each place we visited will hold a deep meaning in our hearts but our journey wouldn’t have been half as great if it wasn’t for the extraordinary people we have met along the way. We have been overwhelmed with the kindness and generosity of locals who have such little in their own lives but always have the willingness to help you. We have met travellers from all walks of life and from all over the globe, each with an interesting story to tell about their own life.

This had been something I had dreamt about doing since I was a teenager and it feels so good to say I’ve finally done it! One journey is over for sure but I assure you that this my friends, is only the beginning!

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This concludes ‘A pair of nomads world adventure – Southeast Asia part one’. Thank you to those who have joined me on my adventure through reading my blog. I am currently sat on a beach in Australia two months later finishing my last post but already thinking about where I want to go next! I’ll keep you posted but for now goodbye and keep dreaming!

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Tourists gone wild – Koh Phi Phi

After a sad goodbye to Tonsai beach we hopped on another boat and made our way to the west side of south Thailand to a very well known Island called Koh Phi Phi. This particular area of Thailand was made famous after the hit film ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo Dicaprio was filmed there in the year 2000. Since then flocks of tourists in the thousands have descended upon this little area trying to catch a glimpse of this tiny Island portrayed in the film as pure, exotic paradise. You could say with this knowledge we should have felt prepared to see Thailand at its worst but it was still a shock when we squeezed off the boat into a sea of sweaty white bodies.

With no hostel booked as usual we inched our way through the narrow streets filled with the chatter of tourists and their screaming children along with the hassle of pushy locals trying to get us to buy something. It was defiantly not a good first impression of Koh Phi Phi but in the past first impressions had been deceiving.

We found somewhere to stay for an expensive price but due to the massive tourism boom, it seemed everything on the Island was pricey. We went for our usual walk to scope the place out. My first impressions were similar to Koh Phangan’s, trashy, tacky and touristy. We went to take a look at the beach and were disappointed with what we saw. It was scattered with boats and machinery, a far cry from the peaceful, emptiness of Tonsai beach.

In the evening the beach turned into a mini full moon party. It was fun but we had done the full moon thing and those few days were enough to last us a lifetime! There didn’t seem a whole lot to do in this place but shop, have a massage and get drunk. There wasn’t even a decent beach to lie on every day. Then we saw a sign with a rather old picture of Leonardo Dicaprio on it. It was advertising a boat trip that took you to the Island where the film was shot. We booked it for the following day.

Our boat trip started early in the morning and was jam packed with things to see, apparently. We were only really interested in seeing the Island where the film was shot. Although the boat trip claimed to include other things by this time we were aware of misleading advertisement in Asia and were not surprised when things didn’t quite pan out the way they said it would. Still it was a nice day out on the boat and we got to know some of the other tourists.

Our last stop was the ‘The Beach’ Island. We pulled up against some rocks along with about ten other boats (no surprise there) and were told we had half an hour. As we clambered off the tiny boat I looked up between the rocks at a spindly looking bamboo platform sticking out. Some old ropes had been made into a climbing net for us to use to get onto the platform. It looked like something off the film king kong in the scene where they first step onto the island. I was just waiting for a painted aboriginal to try and eat us!

We got onto the Island with no aboriginals in sight. It appeared to be uninhabited and untouched which was nice. We followed a small path that took us through a few trees and lead us to the other side of the island where the beach was.

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I was disappointed to see yet more tourists scattered on the beach along with huge boats in the water. I reminded myself that everyone else probably felt the same and that we in fact were tourists ourselves. Yet at the same time I wish I didn’t have to share the experience with everyone else!

The beach was nice all the same. It didn’t look quite how it was portrayed in the movie but that’s good camera angles for you. It was a cove with a small entrance but in the film they had made the entrance look smaller and a few other things adjusted. Our half an hour was soon up so we headed back to the boat to go back.

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To think I thought it was funny getting off the boat, you should have seen us attempt to get back on! The tide had gotten low so the boats couldn’t come in as far to pick us up so we all had to scramble over rocks with waves smashing us in the face, then swim to the boat! We all saw the funny side. After all this is Asia!

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Later on that evening we went for some food in a lovely place recommended by some other backpackers. It was British food but god did it taste good! Nothing was traditional about Koh Phi Phi but we just ended up embracing it and started enjoying what it had to offer.

After dinner we took a walk and started chatting to an instructor at one of the diving schools. We asked him if there were any beaches better than the main one. He told us it was about a thirty minute walk through some trees along a muddy path but it was worth a look.

The following day was our anniversary and we were desperate to spend it relaxing on the beach. We decided to check this beach out recommended by the instructor. So we packed our bag and made our way through the trees to find it hoping to not be disappointed. After about a half an hour walk just like the guy said, we found a steep mud path with a rope on the side that lead to some sand at the bottom.

When we got to the bottom we were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely long beach with hardly anyone on it! The sand was white and the sea was aqua blue. Maybe this Island wasn’t so bad after all. Sometimes you have to go out of your way to find what you’re looking for and this certainly was worth the walk. We spent the whole day there up until sunset.

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We spent our evening in the same restaurant having dinner which soon became our ‘local’. After the food poisoning incident on Tonsai we were wary of trying anywhere else so decided to stick to what we knew to avoid any further risks! Later on we treated ourselves to a manicure and pedicure. The ladies at the salon giggled as they filed Pete’s nails but he seemed to enjoy all the attention!

We spent the remainder of our time on Koh Phi Phi away from all of the hustle and bustle of the town. We preferred spending our days in the peace and quiet of our secret beach. It was coming near to the end of our travels and it gave us time to reflect on everything we had done. We wanted to soak up all the goodness of Asia before we had to leave and finding this beach defiantly left Thailand on a good note for us.

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Our last stop took us to Singapore where we were thrown back into the modern world with open arms. Mmmmmm Starbuck’s!

Climbing high on Tonsai!

After catching a short plane from Malaysia we arrived back in Thailand. We had landed on the southwest side in an area known as Krabi. This area holds a cluster of Islands to choose from but we already knew where we were heading next, Tonsai beach.

We had first heard the mention of this little beach in a conversation about climbing. We’d always heard that Krabi held some of the best climbing spots in Asia but it wasn’t until we spoke to a few climbers who had been there, when we heard about Tonsai, the climbing mecca of Krabi.

So off we jumped into another little wooden boat heading for an Island but would it be paradise or just a bunch of big rocks? It wasn’t long before we met other fellow climbers heading the same way. In fact we had met a couple on the plane that were going to the same place.

As we pulled up I looked down at the water. It wasn’t crystal clear like on the Perhentians but a fascinating turquoise blue colour. I glanced up from the water to see shards of huge cliffs protruding out of the water, it was like Halong Bay. As we haled our bags out of the boats and dragged them onto the beach we both looked up with surprise to find that there was no one around but us. The island looked wild and uninhabited, a rare thing to see especially in Thailand. We hauled our backpacks on and split from the others in search of a hostel.

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We walked through the forest only to find empty wooden houses that looked dormant. Then we heard the voice of a girl.  It was another backpacker. We asked her what the deal was with the island and why it was so quiet. “Low season” she said. “It’s such a small island that most places shut for low season and re-open in high season. Only one boat a day comes to and from the island at the moment and they turn the electricity off during the day. There are few guesthouses open up there I think and a few restaurants/bars open down on the beach, that’s it.”

“Wow ok” we chuckled. “What is there to do then?”

“Climb of course!” With that she threw her harness and rope over her shoulder and wondered down the beach.

We managed to find a guesthouse to stay. It was pretty feral, just a brick shell in the forest but the options were limited and by this point we were old hands at ‘roughing it’. Feeling hungry we decided to head down to the beach to find civilisation and hopefully food.

It wasn’t a very developed Island that’s for sure. All the little bars and restaurants were made out of anything they could find it looked like. The whole place felt rugged, overgrown and uninhabited in and exiting kind of way. It was a comforting feeling after seeing the likes of Koh Panagan and Koh Tao. Tonsai had a completely different feel to it, made even more prominent by it being low season.

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After finding somewhere to eat we noticed a group of climbers on one of the cliffs on the beach. They were experienced, with their own gear attempting a really high grade. We got chatting to a few of them. We explained how Pete had climbed before but I was new to it. Because we didn’t have any gear with us and I was not yet confident in b-laying, they suggested we go to one of the climbing shops and hire some gear and a guide.

We went to a nearby shop and after having a chat with them they booked us in to climb the next day. We could do either half a day of climbing or a full day. We opted for the half day to see how our bodies would fair!

The next day we arrived at the shop a little before nine to start our climb. We were greeted by two girls from Germany who would be joining us for the day. As we were chatting we noticed a little figure leaping around in the background heading in our direction. This was the day we first met Maxi, one of the most memorable people we have met on our travels.

Rocking up in a half broken pair of flip flops and a pair of colourful Ray ban sunglasses, a tiny little Thai man appeared with a huge grin on his face. I would describe Maxi as a squirrel on ecstasy. Small, scatty and extremely happy! What made him even more humorous was his voice. We never worked out if he just never spoke long sentences or his English was limited but all the same he was hilarious! Maxi was our guide and instructor that also became our motivator and friend over the few days we were there.

I remember my first impressions of him. What a funny little man I thought. But I wonder how he is going to hold me up a rock being the size of my leg! After a brief introduction he stuck his hand out towards the direction we were heading. “Let’s go climbing” he sang as he danced his way down to the beach.

We reached our spot on Tonsai’s neighbouring beach, Railey. It was a completely different island. Very modern with heaps of tourists and not half as beautiful but the climbing spots were good. We were accompanied by other climbers of all abilities and there were lots of grades to choose from. We were all pretty novice so decided to start with the easiest one.

Because we were outdoor climbing, there was no top rope to tie onto. All there is are metal rings drilled into the cliff face. The first person has the sketchy task of ‘lead climbing’. They must free climb the wall and clip into every ring when they get to it whilst someone is b-laying them at the bottom. When they reach the top, they set a top rope up for the others and come back down. This is only done by experienced climbers which is why we had Maxi.

He began to climb the wall with Pete holding the rope at the bottom. I turned away to have a sip of water but by the time I had turned back he was almost at the top! I couldn’t believe it, we was a spider monkey! Later we took a closer look at his body and noticed that he in fact had muscles of steel. Small but extremely lean, the ideal candidate for climbing.

After spending half a day climbing, we were all feeling the burn accept Maxi of course. He would have gone all day! None of us had much experience climbing outdoors but by the end of the day we were hooked! Climbing outdoors on real rock faces was such a different experience to indoor climbing. Not only was it more challenging but and exiting but the beauty of the exotic island made it even more magical.

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Pete and I spent a total of five days on the island mainly climbing and we hired Maxi to take us out every day. We went to all different locations around the two islands and met so many climbers from all over the world. Thanks to Maxi and Pete I progressed from a grade 5a to a 6a in just a few days and became competent in b-laying meaning next time we wet climbing we could go on our own.

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We spent our days climbing with the rest of the island and our evenings relaxing in quirky, hippy bars drinking beer, messing around on slack lines and learning to do fire juggling. The Thai people on Tonsai beach were like no other. The locals wore fisherman pants, dreadlocks down to their bums and covered in tattoos but were the friendliest bunch of people we had ever met, along with the small community of climbers that were there for the duration of our stay.

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Maxi our instructor slack lining

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There was something about this particular place that drew us in more than ever. By the time we had to leave we really didn’t want to. Tonsai became our home from home. We loved everything from the amazing climbing, to the people to the adorable cats at our local restaurant!

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My favourite cat named Hitler!

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The only negative thing I have to say about our experience there was contracting food poisoning. The both of us missed climbing for a day along with half the island that ate at a particular restaurant! Nothing a day on the toilet can’t fix!

It was time to say our goodbyes. We vowed to come back in a few years and stay for a month of hardcore climbing. Hopefully the same faces will be there when we come back and the beach will still be as beautiful as when we left it.

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Our local restaurant where you could watch people climbing whilst you ate

 

Tama Nigara – The oldest rainforest in the world

After arriving back in KL from the Perhentian Islands we went straight to the ticket office to book the next bus to Tama Nigara, a rainforest just three hours away. Unfortunately as per usual we had arrived back on a public holiday that had two days left to go. The Asians take their public holidays very seriously and pretty much everything comes to a standstill until it’s over. To our disappointment it looked like we were stuck in KL for another two days so we had to find something to do.

Luckily we remembered a suggestion by our fellow traveller Barmy (the girl we went climbing with in Laos). She told us that KL had one of the biggest and most advanced indoor rock climbing centres in the world. That was sorted! We managed to book into the same hostel we had before and the next day we went out to hunt down this rock climbing place. We found it soon enough and spent the whole day there.

 

The morning of our bus journey to Tama Nigara we got up at 5:00am, packed our bags and headed back to the bus station. We ended up going to the wrong bus station and had to hurry to the right one in fear our bus would leave only to find it was three hours late! When it finally arrived it was a little tin can thing that looked like it was about to fall apart. It was a bumpy bus journey for the next four hours but we finally made it to, the middle of know where it would seem!

We had been dropped off in a tiny little village with just a few guesthouses. I was expecting some kind of town but it was very small and small in Asia means expensive! Just when all the guesthouses were looking full we managed to find one for a mid range price. We unpacked and went for our unusual walk to scope things out.

The walk lasted 10 minutes as there was hardly a thing there. The first thing we did after the walk was go to the only tourist office and find out about the different tours. We had just one day because time was tight meaning we could only do a one day tour. The tour we chose included a guided tour of the outskirts of the rainforest then after that we would take a walk along some high rope bridges that go through the forest. After lunch we would then take a boat trip to a minority tribe that live in the forest and learn about their lives.

After we booked our tour we went to look for something to eat. The cluster of guesthouses was situated next to a large river that had three floating restaurants on it. Only one was busy. We figured there was probably a reason for that so we decided to check it out. We sat down at the table and soon got talking to a French girl and an American guy.

Zach was from California but had been working in Korea teaching English for the past year. He was telling us about how much he loved spicy food and that Korean food is extremely hot. With that a man came over to take our orders. “What’s the hottest thing you have on the menu?” Zach asked.  The man laughed.

“The hottest thing is not on the menu, it is my special dish that only I eat” he replied. It turned out that this man was the owner of the restaurant and also enjoyed very spicy food. At first he refused to give Zach the dish as he said he had given it to fifteen other travellers and they all had failed to finish it. Then Pete came up with the idea that if he ate it all he could have it for free. The man smiled and agreed.

While the food was being made the owner was explaining why he is able to eat such spicy food. He said that when he was a child and would misbehave his mother would take a hand full of chillies and shove them down his mouth. Now he says that he can withstand any amount of spice and enjoys the taste and burning sensation!

When the food came out it looked innocent and delicious. I decided to try a small spoonful of the sauce and nearly ripped my tongue out! I like spicy food but that was ridiculously hot! I must admit Pete and I were convinced that he wouldn’t manage to finish the dish but to our astonishment he rather enjoyed it apparently! The programme ‘Man VS food’ entered my head as we watched him take every mouthful.

Shear shock is how I would describe the owners face when he saw that Zach had licked the plate clean! “Fifteen people have tried that dish and haven’t even come close to finishing. Even my family and friends won’t eat it and you have! I just can’t believe it!” He said. He kept his word and gave him the meal for free. He felt fine, all but a few stomach cramps but it made for an entertaining evening that’s for sure!

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The next day was the day of our tour. A group of us were met at the side of the river by our tour guide. We hopped in a boat and travelled to the other side where the entrance to the forest was.

As we walked along our guide started talking about the history of the rainforest and what treasures lay inside it. He was very knowledgeable and pointed out heaps of things we may have missed on our own or wouldn’t have a clue about. He spoke about how you can survive in the wild using natural resources like a tree branch that can hold a gallon of water, leaves that turned into soap and giant ants that you could eat.

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We didn’t go deep into the forest as it was only a day trip. We followed wooden paths that lead us up to a view point. We stopped to rest at the top before walking back down to do our next activity.

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The next part of our tour I had been really looking forward to. Tama Nigara is not only the oldest rainforest in the world but it holds the longest rope bridge, canopy walk in the world. The bridges are made out of strong rope and wood planks that hang 50 metres above the ground. I’m not particularly scared of heights but when you have Pete stomping along right behind you swinging the bridge in his usual cheeky fashion, I think anyone would freak out!

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After the canopy walk we stopped for lunch and then jumped back in the boat to float further down the river to the minority village. The boat trip was called river rapids which suggested that we might get a little wet. Our bags were placed in a larger waterproof bag and we set off down the river. There were a few rapids but nothing major. I was surprised at how dry we all were.

We clambered out of the little boat with the rest of our group and made our way up a little hill to the village. As we approached, our guide explained how these people became to be here. It turns out that the people living in these villages were not of Malaysian decent but in fact from Papua New Guinea.

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Papua New Guinea is a small island situated next to Australia. A few decades ago when slave trade was booming, these people fled their homes in search for a safe place to live. They first fled to Australia but were under threat again so they moved to Malaysia but not just and part of Malaysia, Tama Nigara.

He explained that they do not speak the native Malaysian tongue and still now decades later, they hardly have anything to do with the outside world. There are seven villages but only one allows tourists to enter and learn about their way of life. Apparently it is up to the village leader to decide to let others in but I could see as we walked around that the women especially felt uncomfortable with our presence.

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We were told not to enter the hunts as the guide explained that the women especially are very shy and still not used to visitors. I wondered why the leader had agreed to let us in but surely enough our guide explained why.

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Decades ago these minority people would hunt for their food in the jungle using blow pipes. They stuck to many old traditions such as being nomads moving from place to place (apparently if a person died in the village they would all have to leave for fear of bad luck) and many other things. Now with the influence of the modern world, they have become lazy.

They no longer hunt for food in the same fashion and use the money that they make from tourism to buy their food. If someone is suspected to die, they will be taken out of the village and far into the forest so that they won’t have to move the village. When women are in labour they are taken into the forest also, in case of death. They still stick to some traditions though, like bizarrely placing the bodies of the dead in huge treetop nests. That being said, this was the only village that had slightly modernised their practices, the others remain the same.

They showed us how they made fire out of wood and we got to have a go with the blowpipe using a teddy bear as a target. Traditionally, the darts are covered in natural venom to kill the animal. We were told that depending on what they were hunting e.g. a monkey, they would have to aim for the hand or foot. This is because the venomous part cannot be consumed so they would chop it off.

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I loved the pipe so much that when I saw that they were selling mini ones, I snapped one up for a small price only to have it confiscated in the airport when entering Australia! They only took the pipe as they didn’t see the darts so at least I got to keep one part of it!

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We got back in our boat to head back when suddenly the speed picked up. The driver started plummeting through water rapids at speed, laughing to himself. One of the men put their hand in the water and drenched us all. That’s when the battle started! We and another boat were head to head trying to soak the other one. The drivers were using their propellers to spray the other. It was hilarious! We all ended up completely wet through and cramping with laughter. What a way to end a lovely day!

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Later that night after a shower we went back down to the floating restaurant to meet Tim and the French girl Isabella again for dinner. Tim opted for a different meal this time and after a few drinks and a long chat we all called it a night. We said our goodbyes as we were leaving the next day to make our way back to Kuala Lumpur and hop on a plane back to Thailand for the next leg of our journey.

Get your climbing gear and your fisherman pants on, we’re heading to climbers paradise on Tonsi Island!

Finding paradise on the Perhentian Islands

After another night bus we arrived early in the morning on the east side of Malaysia to catch a boat to the Perhentian Islands. It was only a few weeks before that we had heard of this illusive group of islands said to be one of Southeast Asia’s hidden gems.

We were sitting in a coffee shop in Pai when we got chatting to an Irish couple. They were heading the opposite way to us so in the usual traveller fashion we were swapping stories and tips about the places we had been to.  One of the most beautiful places they said they had visited was the Perhentian Islands. They described the cluster of exotic beaches as the old Thailand before the whole world discovered it. Since backpackers recommendations rarely cease to disappoint we decided to visit this mini Thailand for ourselves.

As we soared through the turquoise water on a speed boat I gazed out into the distance at the small dot we were heading for. The fresh sea air and the wind in our hair seemed to wake us up and lit a spark of excitement in our stomachs as we approached the island. When we reached the jetty and the boat stopped I noticed my eyes bulge out with shock along with everyone else’s.

We looked down into the water below the boat to find a huge scool of tiny fish jumping out of the crystal clear water. We could see everything below us, from the array of multi coloured fish to the coral on the sea bed. The water looked so pure and inviting as it softly edged its way onto a white sandy beach by the jetty. We looked at each other, huge grins forming on our faces. Looked like paradise all right!

There were a few different Islands we could have chosen to go to but we decided to stick to our friend’s recommendation of staying on long beach. We jumped out of the boat and walked along the small beach to ask some for directions. It turned out we were on a small beach called coral bay and the beach we were looking for was on the other side of the island. We were directed to take a path through the forest which was a ten minute walk (easy enough when you’re not walking in 30 degree heat with a 65 litre backpack on!).

After scoping out the rather pricey accommodation we finally found somewhere to stay that was within our budget. As usual it was up a few hundred flights of steps and not totally bug proof but you learn to somewhat embrace the wildlife that share your bed when you’re a backpacker. The view from the hostel certainly made up for it though!

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We couldn’t wait to get in the water so wacked our swimwear on and ran down to the beach like little kids! The island looked like something out of a photo shopped magazine, the difference being it wasn’t photo shopped! It was genuine natural beauty at its greatest. As I looked around I could count the number of buildings on one hand and the number of people wasn’t much more! The island was yet to have been affected by tourism making it feel all the more exotic. I felt privileged to be one of the few backpackers in the ‘secret club’ and subconsciously thanked the couple that recommended it to us. We spent the whole day soaking up the sun and enjoying the peace and energy the Island gave us.

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After two days of long beach therapy we headed to coral bay to go snorkelling for a day. We had been on a few crappy snorkelling trips but after seeing how amazingly clear the water was from the day we stepped off the boat, we decided to give it another go.

We spent the whole day snorkelling in six different locations around the island. We saw coral reefs, baby sharks, fish of all shapes and colours, but the best of all was being up close to a turtle to the point where we could touch it. To be in the presence of one of the oceans most wondrous creatures in the wild where it belongs was something I will never forget.

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After our day of snorkelling we had a shower and headed back to coral bay to eat some delicious barbecued dinner whilst watching the sunset in our usual spot. Everyone goes to coral bay for dinner on the beach. It’s the perfect setting to enjoy your meal under the stars whilst watching the sun fade under the water. Am I making you want to go there? You should! It was turning out to be one of the best places we had visited.

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The following day we were setting up our gear to go diving! This was another recommendation from our lovely Irish couple. They told us if we wanted to go diving then the Perhentian Islands were our best bet for good visibility. They recommended the dive company they went out with and a particular dive called ‘The sugar wreck’. We had already dove a shipwreck before in Koh Tao but it was only small and we were told this one was huge and full of interesting things!

This time there was only five of us on a tiny boat scooting across the water with our gear in place. A much calmer experience then being packed into a big boat full of people throwing gear around everywhere as it rocked side to side for half an hour! The boat was so tiny this time that we had to exit into the water a different way. Rather than stepping out into the water (they call it the giant step), we had to sit on the edge of the boat with our legs in and backwards roll into the water. Out group was then split into two and we descended under with our guide.

As I sank lower into the water I felt more relaxed than I ever had felt when diving. I think stress was a big factor with my ears not being able to equalise as this time I had no trouble at all. We descended a good twenty metres before the silhouette of a large objet began to emerge.

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It was incredible! Although I knew that thousands of people had already seen what we were seeing, it still felt like we were all discovering this lost treasure for the very first time. It felt so mysterious swimming through its chambers imagining what it must have looked like before the ocean swallowed it.

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The ship was home to an array of interesting sea life. There were sea creatures hiding in every rusty gap imaginable. Our guide had talked about what we might see in our briefing and when we were under the water we were lucky enough to see everything. We had our gopro on us but the photos just didn’t do what we saw justice. We came out of the water with beaming grins at what we had just seen.

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We spent the rest of our time on the Island simply soaking up the sun, beauty and atmosphere all around us. It was defiantly the TLC we were both in need of. Some may think travelling is one big holiday but I can assure you it’s not! It’s certainly an adventure but a tiring adventure at that! We fully recharged our bodies in preparation to head back to KL and then on to a rather different place to anywhere we had been before. Our next stop would take us to Tama Nigara, the oldest rainforest in the world.

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A taste of city life – Kulala Lumper

Our visa was coming to an end after our time on the South-east side of Thailand. We needed to do one more border jump before entering the country again to explore the South-west side. Since we had planned to go to Malaysia anyway and it was the closest border to us, we thought we may as well spend a few weeks there before re-entering Thailand again.

By this point we were sick of overnight busses, so we decided to treat ourselves and book a flight from Thailand to Malaysia. Before we could catch our flight though, we had to get from Koh Tao to the mainland which sadly required an overnight boat. We booked our ticket a few days before we left and were optimistic that a boat couldn’t possibly be as bad as a bus right?

When booking the ticket in the travel office the lady reassured me that we would have a bed, but just encase it was first come first serve (like most Southeast Asian countries are) we decided to get there an hour early to be first in the queue! When we started bordering we gave the lady our ticket and she squiggled an ‘M’ on the both of them. We both glanced at each other with slight confusion but followed the crowd into the boat.

We were ushered onto the second level of two levels and saw a row of small beds (skinny bits of foam) lining either side of the boat with a thin, wooden bit of flooring separating the two sides. Above each bed was a number. As the boat filled up we stood in the middle, scanning our tickets wondering where bed ‘M’ was. We decided to lie on any bed but as we kept being moved by people who had that bed number it became apparent that there weren’t enough beds for everyone.

As masses (and I mean masses!) of backpackers crammed into the boat, filled all the beds then started squeezing themselves onto the wooden floor in the middle, it suddenly dawned on me that we didn’t have a bed. I asked everyone in the middle what number they were. With that they all held up their tickets marked with an ‘M’. “Shit” I muttered.

It turns out that everyone had paid the same price for the boat but it was pot luck whether you were given a bed or not. The lady marking the tickets gave everyone random numbers as they boarded and the unlucky ones were marked with an ‘M’. So unlucky were we that there wasn’t even enough room on the wooden floor in the middle to sleep.

The boat was so overcrowded, I feared that we would actually sink, but hey we’re in Thailand where there are no rules on how many people you can squeeze into one tiny boat. It reminded me of a slave ship in the olden days just with no shackles on our feet. There were people sleeping here, there and everywhere. Outside on the edge of the boat, cramped up against the wall sitting with their knees pressing on their chest and others practically standing. For ten hours! Not to mention the fact that it was piping hot with sweaty bodies strewn all over the place and the sound of the waves echoing behind vomit noises from seasick travellers. I don’t need to tell you how we slept because we didn’t. Needles to say our flight to Malaysia felt like luxury compared to that!

NOTE: Pictures do not do it justice. This was before it got busy!

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We arrived in the hustle and bustle of Kulala Lumper, Malaysia’s capital city. After figuring out where we were, we caught the train to the backpacker area which was called Chinatown. After asking around a few guesthouses, we soon noticed that Malaysia was considerably more expensive than Thailand or any of the other countries we had been to.

In the end we managed to get the cheapest room in Chinatown for fifty ringgit a night (about ten pounds, which trust me in SEA that’s expensive!) but had to sacrifice the comfort of an air conditioner for it. Normally for us we had found that a fan works just fine but KL was a piping hot city and extremely humid so the air conditioning was greatly missed!

After settling in as best we could, we went for a wonder around to get our bearings. Chinatown was a strange place. With old derelict buildings lining the litter filled, empty streets it hardly felt like a backpacker area. As we walked along the street it felt as though the life and soul had been sucked out of our surroundings. The only thing that resembled ‘China Town’ was a few tatty, red lanterns hanging over the road. It wasn’t the best impression of Kulala Lumper I must admit.

Not letting our walk dampen our spirits, we decided to get out of Chinatown and see what the centre had to offer. We went to see the famous twin towers in the evening and took a stroll in the shopping mall underneath, gawping through the windows at designer brands we couldn’t afford.

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Later we found a reggae bar in Chinatown that turned out to be the only bar, but a good one at that. We met a couple of newlyweds from England who had just arrived in Malaysia the previous day to mark the start of their one year backpacking trip. What a honeymoon! We spent the night chatting with them and giving them some tips for travelling before heading to bed.

One thing Chinatown did have to offer was its afternoon/evening market that marked a huge cross in the street, filled with all the fakes you could imagine. It is a famous market that I had previously read about in my travel book. The Chinatown market is apparently one of the most expensive markets in Southeast Asia due to its good quality products. ‘Don’t let the fakes fool you. They may not be real but their quality is’ – Lonely planet. With that in mind we made a few purchases over the few days we were there including a Mont Blonk watch and Nike trainers for just a fraction of their real price.

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The next day we caught the train into town again to have a walk around. It turns out there isn’t much to do in KL but shop. So we decided, sod it we need some new clothes! The centre was very attractive and clean with lots of art pieces and water features to interest us. It was a taste of the modern world once again which was a pleasant surprise for the both of us.

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As the evening drew in we started to make our way back. Throughout the day my left foot started to feel uncomfortable. By the time it was evening I couldn’t put any weight on it and was fighting back tears until we arrived at our hostel. I had no idea what it was. At first I thought it was just my foot hurting from walking a lot that day. When we took a look at my foot and investigated however, it became apparent that an old cut on my foot that I got a few weeks back had become very painful for some reason.

The next day I was adamant I was fine so convinced Pete to let me go sightseeing with him. We went for a walk to find some gardens but I could hardly put pressure on my foot. We bought tickets to a butterfly farm but as I hobbled around the place I started to feel spaced out. My temperature rose quite rapidly. Pete was worried so he called for a taxi to take us straight to the hospital. By this time I was in tears because I felt so ill with a high fever and a headache.

I sat in the waiting room with my head in my hands wondering what the hell was going on with me whilst Pete spoke to the receptionist. By this point we were worried that I might have contracted malaria. The receptionist was most unhelpful to put it lightly. Despite the fact that I was clearly not well, she refused to have a doctor see me unless I had my passport. We didn’t have it with us since we were out for the day and a taxi across town and back would cost more than we could afford.  Looking back it was probably silly that we decided to leave and take our chances. But that’s what we did.

After inspecting my foot the following day for ourselves and receiving advice from Pete’s mum who’s a nurse, we diagnosed the problem. I had an infected cut that had caused me to develop feverish symptoms (apparently that can happen!).  Pete’s mum advised me to take some antibiotics that we had, clean it, rest and keep an eye on it. So that’s what I did. I rested the whole of the day in preparation for a ten hour night bus that we were due to catch the following night.

The next day I felt considerably better. I still couldn’t walk very well on my foot but still managed to limp my way across town with a massive backpack on to catch our bus to the Perhentian Islands on the east coast of Malaysia.

Little did we know we were heading for the perfect setting for resting and recovering in pure paradise!

Full moon fun on Koh Phangan

There is one activity that is a must for any young traveller in Southeast Asia and that is to attend the famous Full Moon party. This monthly event used to be nothing more than a small gathering on the beach put together by locals for each full moon. Now thirty years on, it has become one of the biggest and well known parties in the world with people travelling from across the globe to be a part of it. Attending the Full moon party is almost like an initiation into the ‘club’ of the travelling community.

Our travelling trip was pretty much planned around the dates of the Full moon party, since it was only a monthly occasion. We had heard that accommodation goes pretty quick around these dates and were advised by others to book even months in advance. With this in mind we booked our accommodation for the party when we were in Cambodia to make sure we had somewhere to stay.

When looking online we realised that the prices for a room were very expensive. We managed to find a room considerably cheaper on the east side of the Island. It was a little further away but we were confident we could rent a motorbike and get around that way. Oh how wrong we were!

We arrived at the port on Koh Phangan with a heap of other backpackers there for one thing only, a dam good party! As usual there were a load of Tuk, Tuks and motos waiting to take us to our accommodation. As everyone bundled into the taxis a driver asked us where we needed to go. “Sea View Thansadet” we replied. With that a surprised look came over his face. “Oh err just wait here; I’ll see if anyone else is going that way”.

Confused by his reaction, we waited a while as we watched everyone drive off towards town. Eventually the man came back over. “There’s no one else going to that side of the Island. If you want to go in the Tuk, Tuk it’s going to cost you 2000 Baht”.

“2000 Baht!” we yelped. “That’s about £50! Why will it cost so much?”

“The place where you are staying is very far away and hard to reach. It has been raining heavily so the roads are very dangerous”.

We decided to ask a moto driver how much he would charge because they tend to be cheaper. “Sea View Thansadet, why are you going there?” the driver asked.

“Because that is where we have booked a room” we said.

“Ok me and my friend will do it for 400 hundred each but no less, the roads are very bad”. We had no choice but to agree or we would be stuck with nowhere to sleep. We were adamant there would be nowhere else available on such short notice and as it was getting dark, we didn’t want to be walking the streets at night.

We hoisted our massive bags on one moto each. They were just little scooters that could barely take the weight of two people on them let alone a 20 kilogram bag as well! Off we set perching on the back of these little scooters filled with apprehension about the journey ahead.

As we were driving along my moto driver was explaining that the place we had booked is very far away and that if we wanted to go into town it would cost us a minimum of 300 baht each time. He said we couldn’t rent a moto because it would be too dangerous. He then told me that we are only the second people he has taken there in three months because no one ever stays there. Apparently there are no shops and no restaurants accept their own but the food costs a lot. I started to wonder why we were bothering going all this way but at the same time, I wasn’t sure that the moto driver was telling the truth.

Well he certainly wasn’t lying about the poor road conditions that’s for sure! Days of heavy rain had created massive landslides across the road covering it with mud. This would be bad enough on a flat road surface with no hills but we were driving on pot hole scattered dirt paths up and down the steepest hills you could imagine on the side of a mountain! Just as I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the heavens opened! Pete and his driver fell off three times as they struggled behind us. I was clinging on for dear life hoping we would get there soon.

We finally got there two whole hours after setting off! The both of us got off the motos, took one look at the place and got back on! It didn’t look bad but it was miles away from any civilisation. We knew if we stayed there we wouldn’t be able to leave or it would cost us a fortune to.

We told the drivers that we didn’t want to stay there. My driver replied “Well why didn’t you tell me earlier, I told you that I know places to stay”. It turned out that the whole time we were on the motos my driver was trying to tell me that he knew of better and cheaper places to stay in Koh Phangan but I couldn’t hear him because the motorbike was so loud! That would have saved a massive and costly journey!

In the end we ended up paying the drivers almost double to then take us back! They were very nice guys though and would have taken us back for free but it was so much of a struggle getting us there with our bags that we had to bribe them with money to take us back as they weren’t too keen!

They took us around a few places and kindly waited while we asked if they had a room. Finally we found somewhere to stay on the outskirts of the main town. The room cost 550 baht. It was way over our budget but it became apparent that Koh Phangan is an expensive place, especially on full moon. We were just thankful that we managed to find somewhere to stay. It would still require us to rent a moto to get into town but at least the roads were safe this time and it would only take fifteen minutes!

After all of the drama we got changed and went out for some food. We had heard that there were themed parties leading up to the actual Full Moon party and soon enough we saw posters advertising a ‘Jungle Party’ starting at 9:00pm that night. After eating we walked around and noticed the place was empty. We asked a local man where everyone was. He told us everyone was at the jungle party so we decided to go and check it out. With that we caught a tuk, tuk full of drunken backpacks and made our way there.

We were dropped off literally on the edge of the jungle and had to walk a few minutes through the trees to find the place. As we walked around the corner, the darkness lit up in a luminous colourful shapes and patterns. The clearing was filled with fire dancers and alcohol fuelled ravers stomping to techno house tunes. The music wasn’t our scene but the atmosphere and funky UV decor made up for it

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We stayed there for a few hours but waking up the day before at 5am to catch our flight finally caught up with us. We decided to get to bed and preserve our bodies for the real party.

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The next day we rented a moto and headed for the main town to check it out. There was something so beautiful about Koh Phangan but yet something so ugly. Since the rise in popularity of the Full Moon party, I can imagine it’s changed over the years. What was once and uncharted tropical Island has since changed into a young tourist hotspot.

The setting was nice, a mountainous foreground lined with a rich blue coastline but as we walked around town we felt like we were in Magalouf! The network of small streets was lined with a multitude of western bars playing family guy and friends so loud that you could hear it from just about anywhere. Next to them were beauty salons, tattoo shops and clothes shops selling nothing but fluorescent Full Moon part attire. That was about it.

We decided to make use of what was available to us. I went and got my hair dyed and cut while Pete got his tattoo finished off. I must admit it was nice to finally have my hair styled after going so long with it looking a mess. Although I was a little nervous about having my hair snipped, she did a really good job. Pete was happy that his tattoo was finally finished so all in all it was a good pamper day for the both of us.

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On our way back we noticed that there was a Mauy Thai boxing competition going on. We had wanted to see the boxing for real since our lesson in Chiang Mai so we decided to pull over and check it out. We stepped into this floodlight lit shed and squeezed in among the sweaty crowd. The place was full of ruckus travellers cheering for their side along with Thai men waving wads of cash praying that they didn’t lose their bet. It was like something off a movie. After a while we started joining in. The atmosphere was so infectious; who knew boxing could be so entertaining!

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Bored already of the main town, the following day we decided to go exploring somewhere else. Koh Phangan is pretty big but most people don’t venture to the other side. We found a nice, quiet beach and spent the day there relaxing. It wasn’t clear skies but at least we were away from all the madness.

In thrilled by the Mauy Thai boxing the previous night, we decided to go to it again. We managed to get front row seats this time since we were early and I even managed to get a picture with one of the fighters! After the boxing was over we left a little tipsy with some friends we made, to the beach. We ended up going to the pre-Full Moon party which was apparently exactly the same as the main one, just a little smaller. This would later be something we’d regret, as the next day was a write off!

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After a whole day recovering, it was time for the Full Moon party. I must admit our stomachs were still a little unsettled from the previous night but we were determined not to miss this party. It was the whole reason why we came! We slipped on our glad rags, I worked a little magic with a paint brush and off we went.

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As soon as we arrived who better to bump into but our crazy Mexican friend Efren! We knew he would be there but amongst the thousands of multi-colour dressed backpackers, we thought the chances of seeing him were slim. He certainly looked the part anyway; can you guess which one he is?

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The party stretched from either side of the beach with each bar competing against the next, trying to entice you in. It was like a mad circus. There were fire jugglers, dancers, colourful lights illuminating the bars pumping music. But the madness would be nothing without hare-brained clowns filling their guts with spirits and their minds with ecstasy.

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As we networked through the crowds seeking our taste in music, the beach floor was already scattered in its first victims. It was barely 12:00pm but the Full Moon party had already claimed its early peekers who were in too much of a rush to get wasted. After hearing stories of buckets being spiked, we decided to stick to bottled beverages only and keep it to a minimum.

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We finally stumbled across some decent Drum and Bass and spent most of the night stomping to the beat. Later on we bumped into our Swedish friends who we met at Halong Bay. Again what are the chances of that!? I even had a picture with another Mauy Thai boxer that I spotted on the dance floor. I spent the night socialising with all sorts of weird and wonderful characters and Pete spent the night fixed to the dance floor, entranced in the bass in typical Pete fashion.

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As the sun rose I looked around at the last remaining party goers. We had survived the Full Moon party and literally danced until the sun came up. What a party. You can imagine how we spent the day. Four days of non-stop partying had finally caught up on us and it was time for some rest and recuperation. I need at least a month to detox from this, I thought to myself as my face sunk further and further into my pillow.

The following day we left to catch a ferry to Koh Tao along with the whole island it would seem. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the white faces of hung-over backpackers sleeping on the side of the road and holding back their sick! Koh Phangan had been a nonstop, fun filled few days and reinforced the fact that we were still young and could still party hard. But at the same time we were glad to leave and get back to seeing amazing things and appreciating the world for its better qualities.

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Goodbye Koh Phangan. We will never forget you but I don’t think we’re in a hurry to come back. I don’t think our liver’s could take it!