For a long time, I had always seen friends of mine go off and travel to amazing places and do the unimaginable. I was once that girl who was sat in an office, jealous, feeling trapped in a job believing that I could never do any of those things.
Over time I became even more unhappy with my present day life and slowly began to realise just how wrong I had been. My mother’s wise words of “if you set your mind to it you can do anything” came back to me, sick and tired of feeling so depressed I went and quit my job and booked a trip away to Asia. My reasonings behind choosing to travel to this part of the world was simple. I had always dreamed of visiting.
On the 12th June 2017, my dreams finally came true, I was all packed and ready to embark on my adventure to Asia. I had booked a 27-day long tour with a travel company called Contiki, that would go across four countries, starting in Thailand and then onto Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I cannot shy away from admitting that I, like I am sure many solo travellers are, was absolutely terrified of what lay ahead, as I would be travelling for the first time, all alone, to alien territory.
As a sufferer of anxiety, getting on the plane and facing the fact that I had no idea of what lay ahead was a tough one. My mind was thinking up all the worst possible outcomes of being so far away from the comfort of home and familiar faces. Maybe I would be attacked or kidnapped or get lost. As far fetched as these thoughts seem now, my mind had no trouble believing that any of these could come true. Doing my absolute best to block these out, I eventually fell asleep and woke up as the plane landed in Bangkok, Thailand.
After a 14 hour journey that included two flights and a half way stop gap in Dubai, I was finally in Thailand. In complete disbelief that I was finally here, and trying to take in the culture shock of my weird and wonderful surroundings and embrace the sweltering heat, I soon found my taxi driver and headed to my hotel that was located in the heart of Bangkok.
Jet lagged and more exhausted than I have ever felt in my whole life I threw down my heavy bags and suitcase and collapsed onto my bed. After a short nap, I forced myself to wake up, remembering that I would be expecting a roommate. Imagining her entering the room with me tucked up in bed, loudly snoring away would hardly be the greatest of welcomes!!!
My roommate finally arrived and introduced herself as Lauren from America. With lots of time on our hands, we wandered around Bangkok, sightseeing and getting to know each other, already laughing about the differences between British and American phrases! Fully able to take in my surroundings, I was in utter amazement at just how different this part of the world was to my home in Manchester. The mass of power lines overhead, tangled and jam packed together, as well as the swarm of locals around every corner, trying to sell clothes, food or cheap tuk tuk rides, can only be described as chaotic.
Having done all the exploring we could possibly muster, Lauren and I retreated back to the hotel, preparing for the evening when we would be introduced to the rest of our group. Before meeting everyone I was so nervous and anxious, but thankfully these feelings vanished quickly. Everyone in the group was so welcoming and friendly, and it did not take me long to realise that every single person on this tour was as scared as each other to meet new faces, we were all in the same boat!
Travelling through Thailand was absolutely incredible. It was the first place I have ever been to that really opened my eyes to just how poor some parts of the world really are, and just how lucky I am to have been brought up in the UK. It was a place that included my first tuk tuk ride, where I ate more spring rolls than I have ever done in my whole life, where I witnessed fellow travellers eat fried scorpions, attended a ladyboy show (to my surprise), and I saw countless numbers of temples, but for me there are two main memories that really stand out!
The first was visiting an elephant sanctuary in the Mae Tang District in Chiang Mai, which was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. Many of the group did not attend as they were concerned about the general well-being of the elephants, as we had all heard horror stories of mistreatment and harm caused to these majestic creatures. Thankfully for those of us who decided to go, the sanctuary we visited was dedicated to making sure that their elephants were well looked after, and most importantly, protected. Having the chance to stroke, feed and also wash elephants was incredible, although I did nearly become phone less, as one of the older elephants nearly mistook my phone for a banana! Ultimately, I was astounded at just how kind natured these animals were. For a creature so big, they were so incredibly sweet. Fitting the stereotype of being a friendly giant is a massive understatement!
My second stand out experience was an evening spent in the floating jungle raft hotel in Khwae Noi. Hopping onto a small boat we sped down the river further into the heart of the jungle, with spectacular scenery surrounding us, just like something out of a David Attenborough documentary. Prior to our visit, we had been told that we would have no electricity, which for those who know me will understand that having no functioning phone or hairdryer was quite a big deal!!! The experience, however, really made me realise just how unimportant all of our material goods are. I had the best fun jumping into the river and racing my friends down it, as well as laughing with Lauren that our only light source happened to be a very dimly lit lantern. To her amusement, she also saw me attempt, and fail drastically at trying to embrace my insect phobia. In the evening, to my horror, massive moths joined us at the dinner table, and to my embarrassment, I happened to be that one girl who ran around screaming!!!
Laos was the second country that I had the opportunity to visit and I can say with absolute certainty, that it was one of the most rural and breathtaking places I have ever been. Stunning as it was, however, I completely unaware that this country is the most bombed nation in history, and that during the Vietnam war, eight bombs a minute were dropped on average resulting in thousands of deaths and casualties. I came to discover this when visiting the COPE center, a charity project that supports victims that have been struck by bombs, learn how to use their new prosthetic limbs and train them in new work skills.
Uncovering the knowledge that Laos had been so affected by the Vietnamese war was shocking as well as deeply saddening. Seeing all of the wooden, self-made prosthetic limbs that people had made before they had gotten proper support, highlighted to me just how strong human beings can be.
My time in Laos also gave me the chance to cycle through the world heritage town of Luang Prabang. The traditional architecture and gorgeous temples were breathtaking. I was in utter amazement of how a place like this had managed to hang on to its traditions so well and was even able to have a shot of snake whiskey, which as I expected was absolutely disgusting!!!
In Luang Prabang, I also took part in the alms giving ceremony. This ceremony is one of Laos’ most sacred traditions, and begins when the sun rises, which to my disappointment meant a very early start! Kneeling down and keeping quiet to respect the monks, we had to quickly make balls of rice to distribute into each monk’s basket as they passed by! To my amusement, the monks strolled by much faster than a lot of us expected, and we came to realise that rolling up sticky rice was far trickier than we had first thought, resulting in a few monks missing their share of rice! Oops!
Another beautiful part of Laos was the Kuang Si Waterfalls, that are located not far from Luang Prabang. With a 20 minute hike up the falls, you come across turquoise water and gorgeous scenery. Even though it was freezing, we all had a swim, and to our surprise were greeted by many fish below, which to many of my fellow travellers they seemed to find as terrifying as I had found the moths in Thailand!!!
Not knowing much of Cambodia and it’s terrifying history, I can quite easily say that my visit to this country shocked me to the core and even more so than Laos. Our stay was only for a few days, and our first stop was to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, a mass genocide site. The name basically says it all, it is a field where so many innocent people, including children, were killed, between the years of 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge.The reason was due to Pol Pot who was trying to enforce his communist ideologies onto the country. He became paranoid about anyone becoming a threat to his regime, and as a result murdered doctors, teachers, professors, lawyers, engineers and others who were educated. Very few educated people survived.
When you walk around this site, skulls, bones, and teeth surround you, and signs at each site tell the stories of the horrors that took place. Thousands of skulls are also stacked up in the Stupa, of the many who were slaughtered. During my visit, I was surprised at just how upset I got. Hearing each story teared me up, and the feel of the site is only what can be described as cold. It felt so strange to me that a place that is essentially a graveyard is now a tourist area. To me, it just does not sit well. Acknowledging that the history took place is one thing, but taking pictures of the dead I think is pretty disrespectful.
The sadness did not end there. We also visited the Tuol Sleng Prison. Tuol Sleng was actually Tuol Svay Prey High School until the Khmer Rouge took it over and turned it into a prison in 1975. Over 17,000 prisoners were taken here before being taken to the Killing Fields. The prison was full of pictures of the men, women, and children who had been brought here. It was another hard experience for me. I did not manage to go inside all of the buildings. The stories are horrific, and trying to understand that people can be so evil is almost inconceivable.
Although my time in Cambodia was the most difficult part of my trip. I am glad that I was able to learn about this country’s history, but also greatly saddened that I knew almost nothing about it before. It should be a part of history we should all learn about.
My final destination on my tour was Vietnam. It was the country I had been most excited about visiting and my main reason for booking the tour, so my expectations were high!
The first city we arrived in was Ho Chi Minh, and very much like Bangkok in Thailand, it was full of busy streets and very noisy, so noisy in fact that my first night I couldn’t get to sleep! My first impression of this country was sadly not a good one, but the Vietnamese sweet, cold coffee and local bread, Banh Mi, were both incredible and kept me optimistic of good things to come.
One of the first places we visited were the Cu Chi Tunnels, in order to learn about the history of the Vietnamese war. At the tunnels we were able to see the death traps and incredibly gruesome concoctions that the Viet Cong had been created to kill US soldiers, as well as have the incredible experience of fitting our bodies into a tunnel hiding place and climbing right down into the tunnels. It is unbelievable to think that Vietnamese people lived underground in the dark, in such tight knit, claustrophobic spaces in order to survive. For once my height came to an advantage as I was one of the few that did not have to crouch down when in the tunnels! I think it is safe to say that all of us in the group were a mixture of fascinated and shocked at just how these people had had to live.
After visiting the tunnels we travelled to the charming city of Hoi An, which was once a major port, and is one of the stand out destinations that I visited in Vietnam, and one that I had been told I would love. I was honestly not expecting it to be so beautiful! Lanterns hung from every building, whenever you turned you would see them, all different colours and designs, and the architecture is nothing like anywhere I had seen since being in Asia. I started understanding why everyone had raved about this place so much!
As beautiful as Hoi An was, an overnight stay on a boat in Halong Bay was the definite highlight for me. Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most famous and iconic areas and definitely lived up to expectations. On the boat we were able to eat a vast amount of very tasty sea food as well as canoe over to see monkeys that were sat on the small islands on the bay and singing karaoke until the early hours of the next morning. We all had a day and night to remember and to mine and my groups’ dismay my singing voice didn’t improve!!!
My trip to Sapa was also another favourite of mine. This frontier town which is only a few kilometres away from the border with China was a much-welcomed retreat.The cooler temperatures made it very pleasant to spend days walking outdoors and the scenery was truly breathtaking. Much of my time in Sapa was spent on an organized hike that would go through nearby villages. Many of the villagers joined us on the hike and we were able to see what rural Vietnamese tribes are like as well as the villagers. The hike itself was the trickiest terrain I had ever walked on. Mud everywhere and mostly downhill meant that we all fell over countless times! To my amazement, mothers were even carrying babies wrapped in cloth on their backs. I still have no idea how they could risk their babies, as it was so slippery!!!
In Vietnam, I saw and did incredible things and I could probably go on writing about them forever. From planting rice in paddy fields to snorkeling in the sea, I can happily say I saw it all! It was a beautiful country and a fantastic end to my travels!
Ultimately the people made the trip, not the places. I feel so lucky to have met everyone that I did on my travels. It is an experience that I will never forget and will always hold close to my heart as being one of the best things I have ever done in my life. I would actively encourage anyone out there who feels like travelling, to do it! If you don’t you will forever regret it, and who wants a lifetime of regrets? As Contiki’s slogan goes #noregrets !!!