Global Hit Squad
Always tricky to start a “To be continued...” blog. It's not like I have a cliffhanger ending to pick up on. We are still home, the dream year of travel is definitely still over, and I guess all that's left to do is give a few little hints and tips I picked up along the way. Again, some of these will seem incredibly obvious to some of you, but for those who haven't yet caught the travel bug, here are a few little things to keep in mind.
Pack light. It's amazing how little you need to live when you cut it down to the basics. I probably took the most gear out of all of us, and there were plenty of times I regretted having to stand on my pack to get it shut. Next time, I'll pack what I think I need, then probably take out about of a third of what's in there...amazingly, there are washing machines the world over.
The internet is a wonderful thing – especially when planning back in New Zealand. Travel agents are a perfect place to start your preparations (and are particularly good for making sure your connecting flights and tickets all line up), but there are also a couple of websites out there that have saved us a heap of coin. Kayak.com was our usual go-to – it compares most airlines, and skyscanner.net was also pretty top notch for flight bookings. That said, there are a lot of webfared based airlines (like Ryan Air in Europe) that don't get picked up by those search engines. So, if you are really wanting to cover all bases, find out where you are going, Google/Wikipedia the "budget" airport (for example Gatwick in London), and find out what airlines fly through it. A Google search of “cheap airlines to blah blah” will probably also do the trick.
Don't be afraid to book accommodation the day before you arrive somewhere, or the day of. If you can't stand arriving in a place without accommodation, but still want flexibility, try booking.com the day or two before you arrive. We found that the last-minute room prices were pretty awesome. If you can hang off until you get to a place before booking (especially in Asia) then you can find a room, have a look at it, and make sure of the location all before you arrive. Either way, there probably isn't much need to book your accommodation months in advance unless you really want something in particular, or you want to secure a deal. If you are going on the cheap, hostelbookers.com and hostelworld.com are always worth comparing.
Airpoints programmes...aren't necessarily all they are cracked up to be. Do the math: before I left I figured out how many airpoints I would get flying with a particular airline, versus how much I'd save flying on another, and it was a no-brainer to take the cheaper flight with no airpoints. We flew a lot of airlines this year, and even the budget ones were absolutely fine. Of the cheaper flights, the top performer was probably Kingfisher Air (who were really cheap from the UK to Asia) and the worst was probably China Southern (who cut English movies short and played Chinese ones the rest of the flight!).
Whoa, that went way too quickly. As I unpacked my bags in Melbourne (which I'll call home for a while now), I couldn't help but think back to when I first stuffed clothes into them. Back in March I literally couldn't wait to get my pack full. I had it out on the bed a week in advance "prepacking", figuring out what would fit...and what wouldn't. I spent a week packing that bag, getting giddier with excitement at every item of clothing that went into it. It was brand new, shiny - embodying all the freshness and naivety I'm sure I held as I stepped on to that first plane. That was eight months ago, and while so much has happened since then, it really does feel like yesterday.
Now, we are back to real life. Our global adventure has finally tapered to an end and we have spent the last week easing our way back into the real world. I was expecting a huge crash down to reality, but after travelling for so long it is quite nice to be grounded for a while. It seems fitting to use these last blogs to reflect a little bit; talk about the some of our favourite places and things to do, and dish out a couple of "tips" we have picked up along the way. The other boys are scattered across Aussie and NZ, so these will be mainly my views – they might pipe up in the comments thread if they get the chance. This certainly won't be exhaustive, but everyone please, feel free to contribute – other people's advice helped us out so much on this trip.
I still think the one of the most beautiful beaches I saw on the whole trip was Tulum, Mexico. It is only just starting to get touristy, so currently is somewhat untouched, but still has the comforts you'd expect in a first world country. Further down the way, Nicaragua and in particular San Juan del Sur became my favourite little piece of Central America. Again, tourism is starting to take over, but the landscape is quite gorgeous and the locals are incredibly friendly and helpful.
The surprise of the trip for me was the States. Before leaving I thought I was going to hate America. The Americans I had met hadn't exactly endeared their country to me, and I just saw America as a way to get to Europe. Oh how wrong I was! I have fallen in love with the States. The Americans I met in America were great people. The landscape is hugely varied and often quite breathtaking. Most of all, though, America is one great, big ball of fun. Everything is bigger in Texas, New Orleans does party constantly, and Vegas is as tacky as you would think it is...but that is what makes America so much fun. Eat and drink until you burst in Texas, party all night in New Orleans and be the ultimate cheeseball in Vegas, you will have a ripper of a time. A special mention should go to New York here – it was a big call, but in terms of big cities, I have decided that New York takes the crown for my favourite big city in the world – no other city gets even close to the electric atmosphere the Big Apple holds.
This is not a fun blog to write. This is the blog I have been dreading writing all year. The penultimate. The last spiel I will give while still actively travelling. The blog that I am typing while sitting in Ho Chi Minh International Airport waiting to check in for the final flight of the trip with the boys. God I hope our flight gets waylaid.
This last couple of weeks have been spent roaming around the coast of Vietnam. From Mui Ne in the south of the country, to Nha Trang, we had our final "boys will be boys" moments of the journey. At US$4 a day, we couldn't resist the opportunity to get our hands on a few scooters and hightail it along the coast. Extreme protective cladding was donned (singlets and a helmet that broke in half if dropped from more than a foot above the ground), fears about insurance were pushed firmly to the back of our mind, and a Google map was memorised.
Nha Trang was only a couple of hundred kilometres up the coast, so using Kiwi average speeds we figured on a few hours of driving to get to our final destination. That was slightly ambitious. It turns out that not only are Vietnamese drivers slightly mental, they also drive at about 40kmh. We can only assume that those speeds mitigate complete body annihilation in the regular crashes that take place, so we weren't exactly going to go against the masses and floor it. After two days of weaving through scooters and dodging buses overtaking trucks on blind corners we made it to Nha Trang...and were completely underwhelmed. Nha Trang is a bit like the Surfers Paradise of South Vietnam. Towering apartment blocks, hawkers on most streets, and the inevitable offers of “you want marijuana”. We didn't love it, so hopped straight back on the scooters with the hopes of making it to Dalat, up in the Vietnamese highlands.
Dalat was... well, Dalat was a spot we never made it to. I got lost in Nha Trang, Si had to buy a new helmet, and by the time we got to the turnoff to Dalat we were running out of daylight and the mountains looked wet. Very wet. In the end it was back on the scooter, back to Mui Ne and back to more sunshine and relaxation admiring the hundreds of kite surfers and windsurfers doing their thing off the coast. Three-course meals became the norm, and we all just started believing that the trip wasn't actually ending - our tickets home were just one electronic bad dream. Alas, we aren't waking up from this dream, and all we can do is sit back and reflect on what an incredible place Vietnam really is.
I never expected the gorgeous beaches we found, nor did I think we would meet some of the friendliest locals we have encountered. The trip up the coast took us through classic Vietnamese countryside – rice paddies, picturesque mountains, and a dirty old highway bustling with scooters. The food was delicious, the beers were cheap and I'm fairly certain I'll be back to explore the North (which I'm told is even more beautiful). Every time I come to Asia I hop on the plane questioning why I am heading there...and every time I have left with a huge grin on my face after having an amazing time. It's close to home and it's incredibly cheap when you get here – the price of a flight to Southeast Asia is definitely worth it for the good times that are had.
Within the space of three days this week we have had our pride in New Zealand go from rock bottom to out of the stratosphere. From the tunnels of the Vietnam War, to the touchline of Eden Park...it has been a week of absolute contrasts.
Our first stop in Vietnam was the big city down South – formerly Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. During the Vietnam war Saigon was the symbolic home of the South. When Saigon fell, the North claimed victory, and so it only seemed right that we spent the majority of our time there delving into the war and how Vietnam views it. The first stop was the War Remnants Museum, where the Vietnamese have laid out America's involvement in the war pretty comprehensively. If I were to be brutally honest, the whole museum is hugely biased against America – so much so that you won't read anything about the Vietcong's role in the war. That said, it was deeply moving to read something from the perspective of a country that was effectively invaded. Everyone should experience the exhibit on Agent Orange and the effect its spraying has had on generations. I personally spent the whole morning reflecting on how any war can possibly be justified. There are reasons – the greater good, freedom from oppression – but when you see a child born with no limbs as a result of war...it makes you hope we have evolved beyond that sort of stupidity.
From the War Remnants Museum we moved on to the Cu Chi Tunnels – a set of Viet Cong rabbit holes about 60km out of Ho Chi Minh City. This tourist mecca is held with huge pride by the Viet Cong that defended it. Some of the tunnels have been restored (widened) for European viewing, and if you feel like shooting off a magazine or two of M-16 ammo, the firing range provides a constant reminder of the noise of war.
We were lucky enough to have one of those proud Vietnamese defenders take our tour. Strolling around the tunnels that he spent as long as a week at a time living in, our guide provided detailed insight into what he experienced. He recited the sound of the bombs that were dropped near him, the bullet that caused the wound on his shoulder - and the New Zealand artillery that pounded his hometown. It was at this point that we shrank into the shadows for the first time on this trip. I don't want to argue about the wrongs and rights of the Vietnam War and our involvement in it, but when a lovely old man pulls back his shirt, shows you his scars, and then explains New Zealand's involvement first hand – it really knocks you for six. It was one of the only times in my life I felt real, true shame at being a New Zealander (and I don't think that's a bad thing).
From Ho Chi Minh City we have gunned it over to Mui Ne on the coast. With the memories of our Cu Chi Tunnel experience fading, we were hopeful at resurrecting our national pride with a little game of oval ball. After scouring the beach for a bar playing the RWC final we set up shop in a room crowded with French and felt that pride swelling back up. As Tony Woodcock pierced that lineout, Stephen Donald stroked across that penalty, and Craig Joubert blew that final whistle we were absolutely ecstatic. Since watching the game we have found YouTube footage of Party Central, and I can confidently say that those scenes were repeated the world over. The fingernail biting, the hand running through the hair as Cruden limped off, and the jubilation of Kiwis jumping into each other's arms took place in Vietnam - and I'm betting it happened at pubs in the UK, the States, hell anywhere there was a Kiwi. It's funny how 1 point can make a nation so proud.
I'm not sure I've quite figured out the allure of the lady boy just yet. I mean, there must be one - there is a thriving sex trade based around them over here - but I just can't quite make head nor tail of it. When I head to the greengrocer I'm pretty sure that I know if I want melons or carrots...its not very often that I get the craving for a melon-carrot salad all of a sudden.
Yep, we are in Thailand. We have been here for over a week now, splitting our time between the vastness of Bangkok and the serenity of our little beach resort on Koh Samui - two places that are hours away from each other, light years apart in terms of an experience, but so obviously connected in so many ways.
If you've been keeping up with the news at all (we get newspapers with breakfast, so for once we are media savvy), you'll have seen that the north of Thailand is getting walloped by floodwaters. Those floodwaters are fast approaching Bangkok (and probably will have got there by the time I write this), so we have been pretty lucky in our timing so far. When we flew in to Bangkok we got one day of sun, and one of a little bit of drizzle. Nothing too bad, and certainly no flooding. Instantly we fell in love with the food whipped up by street vendors and the brilliantly cheap cost of living compared to our last little foray in Europe. We roamed markets, cruised the pavements, and took in the sights, smells and sounds of a city that is hugely different from anything we have come across on our journey so far. Sure the people scream at you to buy their goods (and goodies), but when you know it's coming you quite enjoy the odd barter session. In fact we have it down to a fine art: head to your chosen market, barter for a while with the nearest stall (start low - 50 per cent at least), walk away in disgust at their prices, and if they don't yell out a cheaper price, go to the next stall and be happy paying the previous stall's low. Tried and tested. Remember...if you are happy with the price you are paying, and the vendor is happy with the price they are getting, everyone is a winner (even if you could have got it 100 baht cheaper). With the little time we had, that was pretty much our Bangkok experience – food, markets and a cheeky game of rugby down at Nana's Plaza - not a bad way to spend a couple of days.
Next stop was Koh Samui, one of the many islands Thailand has to offer. Unfortunately our time at the resort doesn't exactly make for a riveting blog. Sun, swim, eat, sun, swim, eat, sun, beer, sleep. That's about as adventurous as our days get here - but that's exactly how we want it. We know that there are plenty of more exciting and wordly things to do in Thailand, but with our yearlong holiday coming to an end, all we want is sun, sand and cheap, cheap food and drink. Luckily, Thailand provides all those things.
Of course it wouldn't be a trip to Asia by four guys clinging desperately to their youth without stopping in at a full moon party. We reluctantly headed along, expecting a beach crawling with Australian high schoolers waiting for us. Thankfully, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we geriatric mid-20s travellers were the norm and a lot of our preconceptions about full moon were way off the mark. After walking across the island past locals selling fluorescent paint, singlets and anything else that glows, we dropped down on to a nice wide beach, lined by bars and entertainment. In front of those bars sat booth after booth selling the infamous thai "buckets" (bucket plus mixer plus liquor), while on the beach itself thousands of revellers (from the young through to those pretending to be young) danced the night away. We definitely met plenty of Aussies, but they were in among Poms, Swedes, Spanish, Brazilians...it was one of the biggest gatherings of nationalities I have come across. Everyone goes to party, so everyone seems to have a fantastic time. After thinking we were going to absolutely hate the whole thing, we absolutely loved it. I can happily say that watching the sunrise in Thailand with fire pois to my right, a giant slide to my left, a bar behind me and Swedish sisters keeping me company will be something I won't be forgetting for a very, very, long time.
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