Location: Islington, London, UK
Well that's probably about it for us. Only took us about 3 weeks to sort out all the pics (clearly been in SE Asia too long).
It didn't take very long for our tans to fade and for the pounds to start piling back on over Christmas; or for the rain to start and Sules to catch her first cold. We've got our warm clothes and bus passes now, and are quite used to the nearly six hours of daylight a day.
Final thoughts on our travels? Two themes really. The first is leaving Sydney. The reality still hasn't sunk in about no longer living there, particularly while we're camping with family until our tenants vacate our flat. What are we going to do without Camp Cove, amazing sushi, fishing in the harbour, the moonlight cinema, drinking far too much wine on balmy evenings with our mates, taking the ferry into work, long weekends camping, and being able to go diving at the drop of a hat, to name but a few things?? (David, you've got your list by default)
The second is, of course, the previous four months. It's been really, really good fun. It's been hard work too sometimes . . . [cue new list of Things We Won't Miss About Travelling:
- oppressive humidity
- mosquitoes and all sorts of bitey and stingy things
- traipsing around an average of 3 hostels or guesthouses in every location before finding somewhere to stay
- not being able to flush paper down the toliet
- being woken at all times of the night by roosters
- SE Asian attitudes to phlegm]
. . .but it's been very rewarding, and we also feel we've learned quite a lot. It's impossible to distill it all here (hoping we're not contradicting previous musings here), but Papua New Guinea still stands out as the most amazing place we visited, both for the friendliness of the people, the volcanoes and diving, and the simplicity of life there. We definitely want to return sometime. Cambodia was also a highlight, again for the warmth, gentleness and helpfulness of the people - and we wish we'd spent more time there. Laos was fun, and very laid back, as expected. While we had a great time in Vietnam, with hindsight, we'd have probably spent a week or so less there in favour of Cambodia, given our time constraints.
The diving? Well, we loved our trip on the Andaman Sea and our daily commute to the reefs, so while we'd be happy to do again, there are a lot of places to dive in the world (although a return to PNG is a must). Having said that, I don't know how many outfits there are like the guys we used at Worldwide Dive & Sail, and if the chance arises in the future to join them for one of their sailing adventures around dive sites in Burma, Malaysia, Micronesia and the South Pacific, we'll be right on to it.
Thanks for reading and for all the messages and p*ss-taking while we've been between homes. We're happy to answer any questions or to give our ideas on places to go and things to see/avoid if you fancy it. In response to the requests we've received we'll also write up some retrospective notes on Papua New Guinea over the next few weeks .
All that remains for us now is to don our suits and to slip quietly back into the glamour of the rat race next week ... until next time.
Let us know when you're in London next
Happy New Year and cheers,
Jon & Sules
Location: Norton St. Philip, Bath, UK
OK, so we are still here. Should have killed this off ages ago, but we're still having a delay with the photos, so...
Christmas was fantastic: three families in three cottages on a farm out in the West Country. Our nephew James was of course the centre of attention from start to finish, and seemed to love his first Christmas (well, who wouldn't with us back in town). Plenty of fun, food (our first traditional Xmas meal in three years), wine (at last!), walks, pubs, trips into Bath, catching up with friends, and freezing weather. Luxury for a few days.
Anyway, to fill the gap while we get our final pics sorted, here's a list to end all lists that we compiled to while away the interminable hours on our worst ever flight (back from Singapore on Qantas). It's really far too long to post in all decency, but it kept us happy so we will.
- Most Clumsy Moment/ Best biff: Jon walking smack into a telegraph pole in Luang Prabang
- Most Drugs Offered While Walking Along Street: Sapa (choc a bloc full of granny opium dealers)
- Worst Music: karaoke bar with one singer (a fat ladyboy) and no punters in a quiet Chalong backstreet.
- Biggest Faff: a paralysing 4 days (new record?) wondering if we should sack the plan half way through and head to the Philippines
- Most Random Experience: being approached by a policeman to buy his badge at an obscure temple
- Favourite Creatures to Share a Room With: geckos
- Least Favourite Creatures to Share a Room With: bed bugs
- Best Injury: Jon cracking a rib falling off a zip wire in Vang Vieng
- Best Sunburn: Jon on Day 1 in Papua New Guinea; sore for 10 days.
- Most Exotic Food Eaten: snake (Jon)
- Most Exotic Food Almost Eaten: stir-fried maggots (Sules), a close call
- Hottest Food: Laos cooking class (add four birdseye chillies per person
- Worst Meal: "fish" in Ninh Binh
- Biggest Craving: wine & decent music
- Most Pork in a Vegetarian Dish: the whole of Vietnam
- Least Culturally Appropriate Breakfast: a pack of Oreos + packet of crisps each
- Most Decadent Evening: tapas on the balcony at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh
- Sules Dark Horse award for unexpectedly great food: Cambodia
- Best Sunrise: Angkor Wat obvious, but stunning
- Best Diving: Papua New Guinea
- Favourite Dive Site: Susans Reef (AKA Cover Shot Reef), Kimbe Bay, PNG
- Most Satisfying Diving Experience: being checked out by a huge manta ray, East of Eden reef, Similan Islands, Thailand
- Funniest Diving Moment: being completely incapacitated by the giggles 12m under water while doing a Rescue Diver exercise
- Most Over-Rated Destination: Hoi An, Vietnam nice, but not THAT nice
- Least Over-Rated Destination: Angkor Temples seen a thousand photos, still impressed
- Dark Horse Destination: Ninh Binh, Vietnam (excluding food see Worst Meal)
- Worst Weather: Thailand, no contest
- Best Individual Day: trip to the volcano in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea
- Favourite Transport: Vietnamese motorbike taxis
- Worst Journey: 11 hours on a bug-infested minibus in Thailand
- Scariest Traffic: Highway 1, Vietnam
- Scariest Looking People: New Britain, Papua New Guinea
- Most Friendly People: New Britain, Papua New Guinea
- Most Disappointed That Its All Over: US, damn it
Well, we're back! It all seems a bit surreal, really. One minute we were sitting on a beach on a small Malaysian Island, sipping coconut juice and eating rendang curry, the next we were on a ferry, yet another ******* bus, and suddenly in Singapore, via a fleeting 6 hour overnighter in KL. A quick, sleep-deprived day of pootling around Singapore later, and we found ourselves having our 'last supper' at a hawker stall, marvelling at how quickly it's all gone! And now we're writing this on a beautifully clear, cold, crisp morning in Islington, with cold ears and toes, and a warm cuppa.
So the Malaysia bit of the trip was a little superficial, if we're honest. It wasn't part of the original plan, and kind of got tacked on to the end when we found that we had a week to spare and were 'in the area'. It was certainly very scenic crossing the border from Thailand - lots of unfeasibly green rice paddies, fringed by rubber and palm oil plantations. (And the food was great too - Sules). But other than the bus travel, we didn't see much more than Pulau Pangkor (our little island, all of 9km x 3km), a tiny curry joint in KL (and our worst value accommodation to date), and some of the obvious bits of Singapore while we waited for the flight back.
"So what's it like to be back?", we hear you cry. Well, other than the relatively obvious FREEZING (the coldest winter in 10 years, we've been told with glee, more times than is decent), it all actually seems quite normal (with the exception of all the hair that I've been told I've lost since leaving). Fantastic of course to be back in with family, and in particular to be hanging with our nephew James - who has grown incredibly. Great to see all the mates - there are still plenty to catch up with, but we've at least managed to see quite a few during a few quiet drinks in Soho (turning into a massive bender on Friday night - who'd have thought it?). And we were back in time for the annual mates mince pie and mulled wine bash on Saturday night, fantastically hosted by Rach & Mark - our first in three years (and our first decent glasses of wine since leaving Sydney in September)
Of course it couldn't all be going smoothly. All of the stuff we shipped from Oz is still in customs, with little sign of being released before Xmas. For most of the stuff, that suits us just fine, but there is a small issue with the fact that we have no clothes other than what we have been carrying in our backpacks for the last four months (grimy t-shirts, baggy shorts, and knackered sandals, anyone?), and a few odds and ends we've blagged from my ever-patient family. It makes Christmas shopping even more fun when you have to throw in clothes shopping too, but at least we don't have many problems deciding what we're going to wear.
So now that's all off our chests, we're back off into town now, to reacquaint ourselves with the wilds of Oxford St. Bear with us while we get the final photos sorted (a minor technical glitch), and Merry Xmas everyone.
Location: Pulau Pangkor, Malaysia
We all went our separate ways after a hilarious first night back on land when Fred, Naomi and Frank took us out to a couple of bars, Frank finally driving us in his "car" - kind of like a Micra pick-up/ute to the Easy Rider bar. Here, among the Harleys parked inside, the photos of Angus Young, the confederate flag, and tables of old fat men sitting with young Thai girls, a Thai rock band was belting out cover songs. The lead singer's hair bore a passing resemblance to Jon Bon Jovi's (which is where the similarity ended), but the lead guitarist was surprisingly and amusingly good, pulling out all the stops: playing left handed, with his teeth, behind his head etc. You have to wonder how many years he'd spend practicing in his bedroom and just how chuffed he was to be live on stage! Just some of their varied playlist included Europe, Queen, the Stones, Pink Floyd ("we don't need no sort controw"), Debbie Harry, Motorhead and Judas Priest ("this song goes out to each and everybody one of everybody from the heart"). It was a very funny evening, which was just as well given our hangovers the next day.
With water bottles in hand the next morning, we traipsed over another dive shop to complete our Rescue Diver courses, and after that, we were on our way again. We couldn't get out of Phuket quickly enough, and with just a week left, we decided to chase some sun - not so easy given all the rains at the moment. So firstly we headed for a national park on an island in the far south of Thailand, near the border with Malaysia, and stupidly signed up for a 7 hour minibus ride down there. School boy error - after one and a half hours, the driver turned round to pick up some passengers he'd forgotten. Twice. Then he forgot to stop to drop some others off. And we finally pulled into our destination after 11 hours. We found out later that he'd also thrown in an insect infested interior, when we discovered scores of bites upon bites all over our feet and legs. So that was nice.
Given that we'd effectively lost a day, in addition to the state of the flooding in the area, we decided to sack that destination, and spent the next morning crossing into Malaysia and travelling down to an island on the west coast, called Pulau Pangkor. It's nice enough - we're at a quiet beach cove in the north west, and have been spending our time catching the few meagre rays of sun available, treating our allergic reactions to the volume of insect bites and and arranging our onward travel... only a few days left!
Location: Andaman Sea, Thailand
Aaaahh. The liveaboard - great stuff. We started out in Khao Lak, boarding a 20m ketch called the Sampai Jumpa with six other divers and immediately set off for the Similan Islands. The boat was lead by a laid back Swede called Fred, and a Brit called Naomi who was also a good laugh, and who happened to be deaf (never before have underwater hand signals been so understandable). The eight days was spent flitting around between different dive sites at the Similans, Surin Islands, Richelieu Rock (near the border with Burma) and two other islands called Ko Bon and Ko Tachai.
In addition to the scheduled 25 dives, we also crammed in a Rescue Diver course (at long last) between the surface intervals, so some days we were diving five times, and only seemed to be out of the water long enough to wolf down one of the feasts that the ship's cook served up every couple of hours. Our days typically began with a 6:45 / 7:00am dive, and finished with a twilight dive at around 5:30 / 6.00pm. Nice office, and not a bad commute either.
With one (anticipated) exception, I'd say that the visibility averaged about 30m+, often more, and the water temperature was consistently 28 C - lovely. We do think we'd been spoiled by the diving in Papua New Guinea, but we really enjoyed almost every dive site, most notably: Richelieu Rock for the sheer quantity and concentration of small marine life; Ko Bon West Ridge for the beauty and variety; and East of Eden for the lovely coral garden, the rare species, and our first encounter with a manta ray (just amazing, and my favourite dive experience to date, as a 4m+ wide gentle giant cruised past us during a safety stop, and then came by 3 or 4 more times to check us out.) Other crowd pleasers (photos to come) included turtles, several leopard sharks, black tip reef sharks, eagle rays, sea snakes, ghost pipe fish, cuttle fish, massive humphead parrotfish (very strange), napoleon wrasse, barracuda, tuna, blue fin trevally, all sorts of moray eels and a fantastic assortment of reef fish. Even the surface provided some great sights - dolphins, flying fish, and leaping marlin to name a few.
In addition to all that another favourite moment was when Sules and I, 12 metres underwater, and supposed to be searching for and recovering a "missing diver" for our Rescue training, caught uncontrollable giggles, and collapsed onto the ocean floor for five minutes, hooting through our regulators, wasting loads of air, flooding our masks with water every few seconds, and slapping our thighs until we could gather our strength. Guess you had to be there.
It was also interesting to see the effects of the tsunami, nearly a year on. Many dive sites had been closed because of the damage, while others were unscathed. Some were mainly intact, but with small sections of reef destroyed. Others had huge, deep holes gouged out at the bottom and between massive granite boulders by the force of the waves, and some of the big fan corals that remained at some sites had big holes punched through them - presumably from flying debris (Fred et al had been diving when the waves went through - apparently it was "a bit like being in a washing machine."
The best thing about the boat itself was the space on deck, and the areas to eat, mooch around and relax (no, it was the FOOD! - Sules). Once again, however, the weather wasn't perfect with massive rainstorms for at least two days. Didn't really matter as we were in the water so much, but there was at least one dive where we could see the rain on the surface as we ascended, and just really wanted to stay underwater. (Seems like the monsoon has come late this year - everywhere we have researched to go next is supposed to be 30 C with thunderstorms for the next 10 days. Doh).
We were also lucky with our fellow shipmates - most of whom were great company, and when we weren't all useless after so long in the water, and so much nitrogen in our blood, we whiled away plenty of evenings making and listening to music playlists, playing games, drinking vodka (well it was Finnish Independence Day while we were out there at least once, or so Sules claimed), and gabbing on. One night Fred also showed us a video clip of a party he and Naomi had held during a previous trip with all deaf guests - music blaring and everyone dancing for all they were worth on the deck. Hilarious and heart warming.
Unfortunately a couple of the guys picked up ear infections and had to sit out a few dives towards the latter part of the trip. I cleverly managed to pick mine up once we had returned, and am now nurturing it to peak just in time for the long flight home in a few days.
In fact the only downside to the trip was that we had to begin and end in Phuket - not our scene at all - I can confidently say that the only reason ever to return would be to take another trip out with these guys. (If only we'd had more time - Frank (the owner) offered us a ridiculously low price to join them for an eleven day trip to Burma - leaving today - to do some more adventurous diving in some places that are pretty unexplored so far. Gaaah!). I'm pretty sure we'll be back sometime (Craig & Emma - see you there).