From the beach of El Quisco to the Atacama Desert

Having spent a few days in Valparaiso, and with a couple of weeks teaching for the English Opens Doors program approaching, we decided to get some much needed coastal time under our belts. Over the entirety of our travels, the surprising thing is that we haven’t seen more of the sea-so we headed to the Chilean coast and  El Quisco. Most famous for being home to another one of Pablo Neruda’s haunts, Isla Negra, El Quisco proved to be the perfect tonic to the concrete jungle that is Valpo, a few stunning sunsets perfect to massage the soul and move us forward to our next volunteer placement. Aimless meandering up and down the stunning coastline certainly didn’t disappoint, and we even managed to happen across a Pablo Neruda artistic reserve on the cliff tops-the kind of place that you would never find if you were actively looking for it!  Walking around this hidden gem you find a number of sculptures hidden amongst the foliage, most impressive were the eerie stone faces that look over the shores, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks far below-it’s easy to understand how an artist would use this place as a source of inspiration: 

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Stunning scenery, great seafood, a perfect little cabana just 5 minutes walk from the beach-you couldn’t really ask for much more-apart for time! Alas that wasn’t something that we could afford ourselves, and in the blink of an eye our lazy couple of days were over, and we were headed back to Santiago once again-over the following two weeks we would be teaching assistants for the English Opens Doors Summer Camps. Nothing too taxing, we would be working with Chilean teachers delivering a number of activities for students who had enrolled in a free summer English language program- they’re run over the whole of Chile, so deep down we were both kind of hoping to be sent to Patagonia, alas that was not to be. For my first week I was placed in Los Angeles (Chile, not California!), and Jo in Concepcion-then for the second week we were both back in Santiago. With little spare time to explore the respective cities there’s not a lot I can tell you about the districts; as for the camps themselves-we got to work with some great people in an extremely positive and enthusiastic summer camp environment-so more great teaching experiences under our belts. The only negative being that we had to comprise a lip dub to Justin Bieber’s Sorry, which still haunts my dreams now…If I never hear that song again it will be too soon!

Having loitered in the central region of Chile for long enough, we now had some time to be tourists for a while, and from the recommendations of many, we were headed North to San Pedro, before making our way into Peru. San Pedro is the gateway from which to explore the Atacama Desert, something that neither Jo or I had considered before our trip to South America-but it is thought to be the oldest desert on earth, the oldest continuously dry region on the planet, (it has experienced extreme hyper aridity for at least 3 million years!) and is the home of the other worldly terrain of the Chilean Valle de la Luna. Not surprisingly at one point NASA tested their Mars landing equipment there and looked for signs of life in the earth of the desert-finding none …..You could say that this place is barren!
First we had to get there though, and it turned out to be ‘one of those journeys’. I feel like I haven’t had a proper travel moan for ages, this trip certainly gave me fodder for a paddy of epic proportions. It was simple enough in theory-there was a direct bus from Santiago to San Pedro. It was a night bus so we would get some form of faux chair/bed, hop on, fall asleep, arrive in San Pedro-easy! Alas that wasn’t to be the case in this instance. The chain of events that followed can’t really be explained properly as no one explained anything to us during the whole journey! What I can tell you is that our simple one bus journey evolved into a mammoth four bus marathon! First up our bus just stopped at one station and was there for what seemed like an age, there appeared to be some problem with the door-so we had to wait until a mechanic could come and fix it. Fast forward an hour and a half and we were set to recommence our journey, off we go again all happy and relieved that things were sorted. At some point during my broken slumber we shuddered to a halt and informed that we would now be changing buses, on some random street at an ungodly hour in the morning. Ok, so a grumble and a little bit of a moan, but the other bus was there so we quickly changed and got ourselves comfortable again….For about ten minutes, when the new bus pulled into another bus station and kicked us off! We were simply told that we would need to catch another bus to San Pedro-as our bus was now out of service! With our extremely limited Spanish, and the help of a fellow traveller, it looked like we would have to wait at this bus station for three hours for the next bus to San Pedro, or take another two buses which would get us there sooner-so we opted for the latter, adding an unwelcome 4 hours onto the total journey time. Eventually we made it-30 hours later-but for sure my patience with people when I’m tired and travelling is limited, and it hasn’t gotten any better over the last year and a half!

Having finally arrived during the dark of night, we managed to get a taxi (a random 4X4) to take us out to our ‘desert base’ and soon we settled into our tent excited about what San Pedro had to offer; yes, that’s right, we were going to be braving some camping in the desert. The Atacama is also home to the imaginatively named Very Large Telescope (VLT), for the very reason that there is nowhere better on the planet to look at the midnight skies. Unfortunately my camera isn’t up to the job of demonstrating the displays of stars that we were treated to each night, so you’ll have to take my word for it-it was spectacular, and as we were camping outside of the town where there is zero light pollution-we were treated to a wondrous show each night. 

When we actually managed to get into San Pedro the next day we discovered the town itself to be quite the tourist haven, with dusty ‘Mad Max’ type streets and adobe buildings-you really feel as if you are experiencing a time gone by-all be it truth be told I think that nowadays it purely exists as a tourist destination. That doesn’t take anything away from being there though, it really is a funky little town. 

Like everyone else arriving in San Pedro, you walk around a few tourist shops, have some food, and then set about organising your activities for the next couple of days-there are loads of tour agencies doing various excursions, from sand boarding and quad biking, to nightly stargazing walks. Our focus was on a visit to the unique Valle de la Luna, and to go and visit the nearby geysers. After exploring a few  options with the local travel companies you soon work out that they’re all very similar and you just need to negotiate yourself the best deal. Having gotten what we thought was a great deal, the next day we were on our way to explore the moon like landscape that the desert presents-quite simply it was absolutely gorgeous, a myriad of colours and surreal rock formations melting and pouring into each other-it was a little like being in a lava lamp: 

The entire day was breath-taking, the only downside being that our tour guide quite simply didn’t speak any English-it ended up being quite comical and forced us to try to use what little Spanish we had acquired to decipher the general gist of his tour. After a full day in the desert, the evening held nothing more than a beer or two and early to bed in the sweltering pod of heat that was our tent-but not for long, for at 4.00AM we would be getting picked up for the following days visit to the geysers. Now, for what happened next I blame on tiredness, although others may point to stupidity, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. As is the very nature of the Atacama, it’s hot….Really hot. So, 4 AM one morning getting ready to go and visit some geysers, where we have been told there are hot springs, Jo and I promptly dressed some nice lightweight shorts and t-shirts. It didn’t really occur to us that we would be going to 5,300m above sea level at the crack of dawn, and at that time, at that height, it may be just a little bit Chile (pun intended!!). It didn’t really sink in until we were surrounded by people on our minibus dressed for winter, looking at us as if we were crazy fools-and as such we arrived at the geysers to the amusement of many….Little freezing gringo couple-how funny! Anyway, aside from that the geysers were, again, spectacular, other worldly, wonderful….I run out of original superlatives so forgive me for repeating myself! The amusing thing is that unlike the UK there is  no real health and safety, merely the casual observation:

if you see a hole in the ground, try not to stand on it….

Arid desert, bubbling volcanic pools and hot springs, but still San Pedro wasn’t quite finished-to complete our stay we grabbed some mountain bikes to go and explore Pukara de Quitor, a pre-Columbian stone fortress overlooking the San Pedro river. With Machu Picchu looming in our futures it was a great introduction to the wonders that lay ahead. The ruins date back to the 12th century, and were built initially as a defence against internal threats from neighbouring villages and communities-upon the Spanish invasion they took on a more significant role in the defence from  these foreign invaders. It was to no avail though, as signified by two huge stone heads, carved into the rock in memory of the Pukará de Quitor leaders beheaded by the Spanish when they sacked the town in 1540. A few hours walk in the sweltering heat would stand us in good stead for future excursions, and obviously provided some more camera fodder!

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And so it was that we prepared to leave Chile for Peru,  with a feeling of a fair amount of unfinished business-as with Argentina, we have barely scratched the surface!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scurrying into El Hormiguero…(The anthill)

From our first week in the bustling metropolis that is Santiago, we were ready to get ourselves back to volunteering in somewhat more sedate surroundings-and the El Hormiguero in El Monte proved to be just that! Another placement that we had found through the HelpX website, with the simple yet tantalising description:

In the midway between Santiago and the surf-paradise Pichilemu, we have our creative centre “El Hormiguero” (the anthill).

We are exploring in eco-building, natural pools, aquaponics crops, arts, music and any interesting expression of new lifestyles.

With our eagerness to find alternative lifestyles, building methods and my much coveted ‘life skill acquisition’, on the face of things this place looked like it could tick all of the boxes-and so we had three weeks or so to find out-El Monte here we come!

So then….where to start? Well as always, the adventure begins with a journey, in this case a mere 1 hour bus into the unknown. We managed to get on the right bus, we just had a little hiccup with getting off in the wrong spot-probably a twenty minute or so walk from where we should have been. In theory no problem, but with your backpacks on and the midday heat beating down on your head, that twenty minutes takes on a whole new significance! Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an empanada and fresh juice stop-and so our first introduction to the charm and friendliness of El Monte washed over us. Yes that’s right, you wouldn’t expect a vendor of empanadas and fresh juice to be a significant meeting, but the man in the square of El Monte was an absolute ray of sunshine and he would continue to shine for our entire time at the anthill! At this point it’s worth pointing out that El Monte is not exactly a destination for tourists, or for want of a better word, Gringos! As such we kinda stick out like a sore thumb, but that only served to encourage kindness and warmth from pretty much everyone we met over the following three weeks or so.
I digress, back to our journey…once we had located the main square, we had basic walking directions that would take us to the anthill and so we hit the road for another twenty minutes or so until we saw the palm trees-the significant landmark that would signify our arrival at our destination. You see, the anthill, aside from the description as given above, is a palm tree farm!

Well baked, slightly sweaty and reddened in the face, we negotiated our way to the entrance to find our hosts for the build up until Christmas, and for sure what we found was both intriguing and bewildering. Soon enough we were offered a beer and set about getting to know Vicente and Martina, some German guys that were already there volunteering, and also the various animals that we would find ourselves growing to know and love. Alpacas, emus, a donkey, a peacock, two peahens, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats-to say there was some variety is an understatement! And all of this in the setting of a traditional adobe farm, albeit it with some wonderfully quirky design features. Impossible to describe effectively with words, a montage seems most fitting to give you an impression of the location:

As I’m sure you can see, this place was quite special, and it would only get more magical. It turned out that our period of volunteering coincided with Martina and Vicente’s wedding, which they were going to be having at the farm! So it was up to us all to landscape and decorate the grounds in readiness for 400 guests to celebrate their union-and what a fantastic few weeks it turned out to be. Initially we had to clear the palm tree forest of all debris as that was where the ceremony and meal was to be-and this was the worst job of all! It may surprise you to know that palm tree leaves are pretty damn sharp, and all of us suffered greatly with significant punctures and lacerations caused by these pesky leaves! Fortunately for us we were there at the tail end of this job, the German guys had been pretty much focussed on the forest for their entire stay, and it was really starting to take its toll on their enthusiasm!
Still, once the forest was cleared there was more varied work to do, and luckily for us it was the period of time where you could really see the transformation taking place.
After a few days of us being there, we were also lucky enough to welcome the arrival of a couple from Leeds, Rob and Charlie, a couple who happen to have extremely similar ideals and plans as ourselves-albeit they are a little further down the line than us. This proved to be amazing, we shared so much, and I would say that they have became close friends. They were both extremely knowledgeable about various alternative farming methods and construction ideas, and it was fantastic to just sit and talk about hopes and plans (not dreams, plans!).

Back to the work, Martina and Vicente have a booming landscaping business work on projects throughout Santiago…reason that their business is booming? Well, they’re pretty damn creative, that’s why-and so we were tasked with the job of implementing their creative ideas, on their property, for their wedding…No pressure! Working with Rob and Charlie was brilliant, and in our time there we managed to build two beached areas, a water garden, some mighty fine gates, got involved with some adobe walling, and an immaculately decorated venue for the wedding-as well as Rob and Charlie getting to grips with a number of bridges, sprucing up a gypsy caravan, relocating the aquaponics and generally being open to our constant questioning!

In addition to all of the work at the farm, we were blessed with the wonder of El Monte, for here we would find warm and friendly folk who would fall over themselves to make us welcome. The daily Christmas market in the local plaza, and free capoeira lessons at the wonderful local community centre. Despite the fact that there was no common ground in terms of language-it turned out to be possibly one of the most friendly martial arts clubs I have ever been to, they even started having lessons in the town plaza for eveyone to watch. We loved it, and soon enough Rob and Charlie were hooked as well-a welcome distraction from the work at the farm for sure!

Twice a week we would get our capoeira on, and the rest of the week was dedicated to graft, and the occasional two litre bottle of El Gato wine!! The work was full on, after all there was an immovable deadline to meet-so it wasn’t as if we could leave it to the next volunteers if we didn’t finish-so finish we did…Culminating in a spectacular wedding!

It was a fantastic ending to our time in El Monte, after three and a half weeks we had made some special friendships and enjoyed a magical time at the farm…Now Christmas was upon us, and the grafitti laden streets of Valpairiso awaited!

Cat Ba and the karsts of Halong Bay

Ha Long Bay…Wikipedia ‘facts’:

Hạ Long Bay has an area of around 1,553 km2, including 1,960–2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islets. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. The geo-diversity of the environment in the area has created biodiversity, including a tropical evergreen biosystem, oceanic and sea shore biosystem

Possibly the most iconic and well known of Vietnamese landscapes, we were set and excited to do our own exploration of Ha Long Bay. After Angkor Wat, this part of the trip was one of my most eagerly awaited sights-ever since my first encounter with Scaramanga’s Lair in The Man With The Golden Gun I have always dreamed of visiting these shored. Having perused countless blogs and travel magazines with their stories of wonder at this geological spectacle, it was now time for us to discover them for ourselves.
We had decided to go to the island of Cat Ba and explore the area from there, resisting the urge to simply organise a package trip from Hanoi and fly through someone else’s itinerary-we made our way to the superbly named Ali Baba’s and prepared for a few days of adventure.
Ali Baba’s was the top recommended guest house that we could find, with particular plaudits for the tours that were arranged by the owner. At just $5 a night with picture perfect views of the harbour from our room, initial reactions were positive to say the least , and soon we had arranged our boat trip for the next day-a tour of the islands, some kayaking, potential rock climbing and a cliff jump-it all sounded spectacular.

Not a bad view for $5 a night, I'm sure you'll agree?!

Not a bad view for $5 a night, I’m sure you’ll agree?!

Wandering around the town of Cat Ba, and it certainly seemed like we were there ‘off season’. Many of the restaurants and bars were closed, and the town had the feeling of a place treading water until the next deluge of tourists. For us this proved to be little problem, we weren’t here to party and there were enough places open to give us quite the choice on food options, but the atmosphere lacked a little.

Next morning prepped and ready for a day out on the boat, the weather was a little overcast, but nothing to grumble about, certainly considering what we’re used to in the UK! Before long we were on a bus with about another 10 people who were on the trip, everyone quite obviously keen for the off-within 30 minutes we were on the boat and away-cameras at the ready.

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Overcast conditions just add to the drama unfolding before us

Overcast conditions just add to the drama unfolding before us

First glimpses of the floating fishing village in the shadows of many karsts

First glimpses of the floating fishing village in the shadows of many karsts

The village sprawls much further than you would expect

The village sprawls much further than you would expect

First stop, the originally named Monkey Island. As you would expect, the clue is in the title and we eagerly disembarked to explore the island to see whether we could spot some of the resident primates. As is so often the case in Asia, don’t expect the route forward to be entirely clear, so we blindly followed our guide up a surprisingly challenging climb to the peak of the island. It may surprise you to know that neither Jo or I are blessed with the rock balancing ability of a mountain goat, quite the opposite. So as we took our time and made sure there were always three points of contact between the rocks and us-we were quite put to shame by those ‘more youthful’ teetering on the very summit for ‘edge of the world selfies’
Seemingly the weather had affected the monkeys, hidden away nowhere to be seen, but no bother given the stunning surrounding vistas to enjoy.

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From here a meandering tour through various karst structures dotted all around us-we were heading to an area where we could take some time out to immerse ourselves in the surrounding beauty on kayak. The views were stunning for the whole of the journey, as you’ll be able to judge from the photos:

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Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

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Excitedly we gallop down the gangplank to the platform where the kayaks were waiting for us-although the first thing that we encountered was something quite unexpected. the fishermen that also use the platform had caught an absolutely massive fish. I mean this thing was huge. It was being kept in a little area under the platform, looming to the surface of the water every now and again and eyeballing us-it wouldn’t surprise me if it was just mentally logging everyone’s faces for revenge purposes, with plans for an imminent escape.

Having been distracted enough, we got presented with our two person kayak only to realise that we would be having to accommodate one more. Don’t you just hate that in Asia, always room for one more?! Fortunately this time the plus one was a crab ‘happily’ tucked away by my feet. As long as he didn’t have any desires on my toes, we’d get along just fine.

'Captain-we have a stowaway'

‘Captain-we have a stowaway’

Time to get where the big boats canny

Time to get where the big boats canny

Born to be on the water, the powerhouse of the operation

Born to be on the water, the powerhouse of the operation

More of a figurehead, happy to take photos...!

More of a figurehead, happy to take photos…!

A good couple of hours on the water, and the acquisition of another one of them old life skills! Our guide teaching us how to fish off the side of his canoe with a line and hook, using locally sourced mussels as bate to effortlessly pluck a fish for lunch from the waters. First time was great, but then we jinxed him-with all future efforts ending with failure. Still, 30% of the time it works every time….
Lunch was served back on the boat and it was a delight-as so often on these excursions it’s the meals where you expect very little, that you discover a lot-and this was one of those occasions.
Next port of call was a small deserted beach-and time for Jo and I to prove our metal as the only passengers willing to jump off the boat and swim over to the shore. The water was fresh, invigorating, made my skin tingle like I was in a bath full of Tiger Balm. as we looked round us we truly appreciated a special moment. The deep green water giving birth to the jagged rock outcrops around us, seeing the surroundings from a different perspective-it was an exhilarating feeling.
The next challenge proved to be something beyond us, the rock climb and cliff jump. I was quite bullish about the idea, and Jo was pretty pre-determined too-but when it came down to it I simply did not have the skills or guts to attempt the ‘climb and jump’! In fact the only person to do it was Ali Baba himself, treating us to a wonderful exhibition of his skills-scaling the side of the rock effortlessly, gecko like in his movement-before taking a moment, and leaping off-to our obvious glee!

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By this point we had formed friendships with others on the boat, particularly a Canadian guy called George and a Norwegian lady called Ulla. Both had been travelling extensively, with some colourful and insightful tales to share, so the rest of the journey we enjoyed engaging conversation, blessed with the most picturesque of backdrops.

Somewhat exhausted we returned to shore, found ourselves a suitable spring roll vendor, and wrapped up the evening quick time. It was once again time to take to two wheels and explore our locale, we had found an easy hike that we could do, and the sights of ‘Hospital Cave’ and the Cat Ba Cannon Station-offering the most spectacular views on the island they say. I say ‘easy hike’, but like most things in Asia, nothing is easy in this heat. It was an odd entrance into the Cat Ba National Park, you enter down an avenue which eventually reveals that it is the home of a semi abandoned village-some people still there trying to sell you a drink, or a t-shirt, but, on the whole, deserted.

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As we made our way towards the start of the hike, we intermittently passed by people on the way down….Who I have to say were a pretty grumpy and negative bunch! Most of them advised us to turn back, warning us how difficult and slippery the trail was. Usually I find that people are more encouraging and tell you how it’s worth the effort! No putting us off, and we increased pace a little to see what would be in store for us. As it turns out, it was absolutely fine-I do not know what ell the other people were on about! By good fortune we bumped into George once again on our way up-and promptly made dinner plans, always good to share your experiences with people. At the top and were once again bathing in views of misty mountains and jungle stretching out into the distance.

The goal!

The goal!

The 'achievement' pose

The ‘achievement’ pose

'Top of the World' pose!

‘Top of the World’ pose!

Misty mountains

Misty mountains

One of the locals

One of the locals

We descended from the peak like veritable mountain goats and mounted our trusty steed to hit the coastal road on our return to Cat Ba. Prompted by the recommendation of views that were quite spectacular, and that it was well worth going a little out of the way. Off we set with camera at the ready and high hopes for further enchantment from Ha Long Bay…..until we found the road to be blocked by a landslide-talk about anti-climax! Not that we’re complaining, we were still lucky enough to be scooting around a gorgeous Vietnamese island after all.

ONWARDS I tell thee!

ONWARDS I tell thee!

Ahhhh, a roadblock you say?!

Ahhhh, a roadblock you say?!

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During the Indochina wars Cat Ba was a strategic look-out point, and as such was targeted by heavy bombing. Local residents were often forced into hiding among the Island’s many caves, and one such cave was to be our next stop on our route home. Hospital Cave was a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the Vietnam War and was also used as a safe house for VC commanders. I wasn’t really prepared for what we eventually found-I was expecting a cave with a few rooms carved out-what we actually encountered was a three story fortified hospital inside a mountain…No slap dash construction here-this place was extremely impressive.

The main chamber inside Hospital Cave-apparently it was used for screening films

The main chamber inside Hospital Cave-apparently it was used for screening films

It would be foolish to claim to fully understand the conditions that people had to cope with-but for sure here you get an idea of the ingenuity and adaptability of people in the most testing of times.
From the hospital we set about heading to Cannon Fort, quite the opposite in terms of function. Strategic watch point with four old bunkers, a helicopter landing station, a number of big ground-to-air munitions, as well stunning views from a peak 177 meters above Cat Ba town. From here you could get a 360 degree view of the island, a bird’s eye view of the town and the harbours, and of course the many limestone karsts that form the unique landscape found in Lan Ha Bay. It was the perfect way to draw our visit here to a conclusion. Now a hop, skip, jump (or bus, boat, bus, bus, taxi!) back to Hanoi, and then to make our return to Nha Trang to attempt our PADI Open Water Diving qualifications.

Cannon Fort offers the best vantage point on the island

Cannon Fort offers the best vantage point on the island

360 degrees of WOW!

360 degrees of WOW!

The pathways for the fort are all hidden away-secret squirrel stylee

The pathways for the fort are all hidden away-secret squirrel stylee

Munitions tracks run throughout the fort

Munitions tracks run throughout the fort

Jo really looking the part at one of the cannons

Jo really looking the part at one of the cannons

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4000 Islands & Don Det for birthday business

Foolishly we thought that the terrifying bus journeys were behind us, after all, the roads in Southern Laos are pretty much flat and straight. Unfortunately for us this means that minibus drivers are more akin to kamikaze pilots-although with less concern for their personal safety! We thought that we had toughened up to the terrors of road travel, but this journey was something a bit special-it certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that the driver had his phone tucked into his sun visor, and was checking Facebook as we hurtled down the wrong side of the road!
But, as per, things worked out! We got to our destination in one piece and on time-albeit a little shaken and stirred. What better way to begin your birthday week than a six hour minibus ride where you get to see your life flash in front of your eyes on a number of occasions?!

Our travels had taken us South of Pakse to the Mekong Delta, and the area of Laos known as Si Phan Don, or 4000 Islands-a beautiful riverine archipelago set in a lazy winding section of the Mekong river.
There are three main islands that travellers visit, Don Khong, Don Khon and our destination of Don Det.
On arrival in Don Det we were both a little disappointed at first impressions-thinking that this was going to be an island paradise similar to the joys of Koh Jum, our boat arrived in a little harbour and we found ourselves in quite a busy backpacker village. Feeling a little disillusioned, we set about finding somewhere to stay, and the first thing that we started to note as we walked through the village was everyone was smiling at us….People were saying hello, locals and fellow travellers, nods and smiles all round. This is something of an oddity, sometimes you find yourself bumping into other travellers and they will do everything that they can to avoid making eye contact, possibly wanting to avoid the standard introductory chat that you end up sharing with so many (are you travelling or on holiday, how long have you been travelling, where have you been, where are you going, etc.) Don Det was the first place where it seemed that everyone was looking for the eye contact, happy to make a connection. Still being a little shell shocked from the journey, laden with our rucksacks, and in need to finding accommodation, we kept the social engagements mostly cursory and continued our search for a room for the night.
As soon as we had walked about ten minutes from the drop off point, things started to change. There are no roads on Don Det, only a dusty path that circles the island, and a couple of off branches where you can cross sides-and as you walk along this path you find quaint little guesthouses and restaurants dotted around the banks of the Mekong.
Within about twenty minutes, with the heat beating down on us, we had found a hut overlooking the river for us to spend the night. What we would realise in retrospect is that we were a little hasty, but for sure there are times when you’re travelling that you just need to settle quickly-and this was one of those times!
Still, it wasn’t a bad spot for our first night, we had the standard essential hammock on the balcony, and a pretty sweet view!

A look to the left....

A look to the left….

And a look to the right!

And a look to the right!

Having spent some time ‘chillaxing’, we headed out to explore the rest of Don Det, and discovered a little piece of heaven in the Mekong Delta. The island is only 3km long, has a sum total of three ‘roads’ and at the one end you have a bridge that joins to the adjacent Don Khong. On our exploration we discovered a hut on a more isolated part of the island that was just £2.50 per night, and had the equivalent of rocking horse manure-a double hammock veranda overlooking the river! Not to mention en suite-what followed was a number of funny negotiations with a very little old Laotian lady who spoke absolutely no English (but hey, how much Laos can we speak!!)-but would speak at length to us in Laos. She didn’t know what we were saying, we had no idea what she was saying, but as is typical of the helpfulness of the Laos people eventually someone turned up with a phone with an English speaker on the other end to mediate our transaction, we eventually managed to confirm this as our home for the next week!
It would have been given 10/10…If it weren’t for me having a bit of an ‘incident’ with the toilet! Yes, that’s right, I blocked the toilet…and it was a nightmare! I guess that it’s probably too much information for this blog, but these things happen and I’m not going to cover it up like our very own ‘Poogate’! What made it worse was that there was a French couple staying in the adjoining bungalow, and they did not leave the hammocks for the whole time that we were there, thus making it difficult to smuggle in various unblocking tools…OK I’ve said enough, but just so you know it’s not all roses and it took a couple of days to eventually sort it out-with much hilarity and nonsense in between!

What followed was a extremely sedate and relaxed few days where we took something of a holiday from our travels. The value of just stopping for a while is something that we have realised over the last few weeks of travelling, and so we took the opportunity just to settle for a while. We did some sightseeing of another fabulous waterfall, and I celebrated my birthday in this little haven of tranquillity. Jo decided to commandeer the camera for my birthday and document it for all of you that would have liked to celebrate with me…Everyone needs a good montage eh?!
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Needless to say I had a great birthday! So the remaining time in Don Det was a continuation of finding our preferred restaurants, bars and photo spots-and you certainly find some gems for all tastes! Amongst our favourites were a place set up by some hippies called Shangri La where you could get involved with some form of art project; a restaurant called King Kong, run by a rock and roll Liverpudlian with great conversation and some classic music; the Reggae Bar, which delivered on all the name would suggest; and the Beach Bar near the waterfalls on Don Khong-where you happen upon one of the many hidden beaches around the islands on the Mekong. It was a wonderful week of rest and relaxation, be warned that if you visit-you may not want to leave!

Don Khong 'waterfalls'...or boody great big rapids?!

Don Khong ‘waterfalls’…or boody great big rapids?!

Water buffalos-serious bits of kit!!

Water buffalos-serious bits of kit!!

Not averse to land travel either!

Not averse to land travel either!

Think that the rubber ducky t-shirt sets off the falls nicely :-)

Think that the rubber ducky t-shirt sets off the falls nicely 🙂

Amazing sounds and sights

Amazing sounds and sights

Just watching village life pass you by

Just watching village life pass you by

Even the derelict buildings are beautiful!

Even the derelict buildings are beautiful!

Little Piiiiiiiiig!!

Little Piiiiiiiiig!!

Getting 'artistic' from the balcony!

Getting ‘artistic’ from the balcony!

A trip into town...No Tesco's here!!

A trip into town…No Tesco’s here!!

One Love Reggae Bar

One Love Reggae Bar

Show me the way too Shangri La...Just follow the signs you say?!

Show me the way too Shangri La…Just follow the signs you say?!

Every day is a lazy Sunday on Don Det!

Every day is a lazy Sunday on Don Det!

Positively soaked in good vibes, our time in Laos had come to and end-Vietnam beckons!

To the beach-Sihanoukville & Koh Rong Samloem

Having tackled the madness of Bangkok, wowed ourselves with the wonder of Siam Reap & Angkor, and immersed ourselves in the history of Phnom Penh, we both felt the need to get involved in some serious R&R!
Our research had lead us to Sihanoukville, the most popular coastal destination for tourists in Cambodia. The area boasts a number of beaches, and as with everywhere else in Cambodia the accommodation was extremely affordable! However, one evening in Phnom Penh we met a couple who were also heading to Sihanoukville, but they were actually just using it as a stop gap before they set sail to one of the islands off the coast. They recommended an island called Koh Rong, Cambodia’s largest island and, apparently, paradise! From their descriptions and a little bit of research we were sold, onwards to Sihanoukville before, hopefully, finding our own little slice of island paradise.

Again the preferred mode of transport is a bus, and 6 hours later we found ourselves at the familiar stage of batting off tuk tuk drivers while trying to unload our baggage from the bus. Here things were slightly different, apparently all of the drivers in Sihanoukville have made a pact and they charge a flat $5 fee from the bus station into the town-rather overpriced for the region, but there simply was no haggling.
It did come as some surprise when the driver that we did choose lead us to a car-honestly travelling in a car is something that felt quite alien after the last couple of weeks of various motorbike based transport or buses. Still, after a long bus journey we weren’t complaining and we set off for our guesthouse in the town, at this stage you get the usual sales patter from the driver-everyone gets a commission for everything over here.

Upon arriving at the guesthouse we were happy to find that it was very nice-free pool, free Wi-Fi, nice restaurant and fantastic beetroot smoothies! Settled and fed, we set off to try and find some accommodation for Koh Rong. It’s at this point that once again our plans changed, it would seem that Koh Rong is no longer the semi-deserted paradise that it once was, while it is still supposed to be gorgeous, it became apparent that Koh Rong is now a party island, and the desired R&R sanctuary may not be found here. Instead we were directed towards Koh Rong Samloem, an island which is pretty much next to Koh Rong, however with only a few guesthouses on the entire island it seemed to be the only choice for our retreat. Accommodation booked, hi speed ferry tickets bought, it was just down to us to pack our stuff again and get ready for our island adventure.

We ended up staying in a jungle hut about 20 meters from our own private beach, with no hot water, no wifi, no phone signal and electricity only between the hours of 6-11PM…..We’d found it, bliss!!!
Needless to say there isn’t much more to say about our four days here-I’ll just share some photos instead 🙂

That's right....It's OUR beach!

That’s right….It’s OUR beach!

Niiiiiiiice view from the reception

Niiiiiiiice view from the reception

A demonstration of success in adversity!

A demonstration of success in adversity!

Dusk approaches!

Dusk approaches!

Snorkelling action shot!

Snorkelling action shot!

....Coral

….Coral

Bit more underwater SHRUBBERY!

Bit more underwater SHRUBBERY!

Coral?

Coral?

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This is our mate Hermon, a fine example of some of the native life :-)

This is our mate Hermon, a fine example of some of the native life 🙂

Ahhhhh the lovely gecko, mosquito killer!!! :-)

Ahhhhh the lovely gecko, mosquito killer!!! 🙂

Seriously, this place was gorgeous!

Seriously, this place was gorgeous!

Duuuuuuh duh duh duh, duh duh,  duh duh,  Hammocktime!

Duuuuuuh duh duh duh,
duh duh,
duh duh,
Hammocktime!

It would seem that tourism is on the up here though, with more developments on the island planned and the local village being somewhat impacted by the current influx of divers, it remains to be seen how long Koh Rong Samloem will stay as it is. There are initiatives which are being put in place to protect the coastline, so hopefully these will prove effective and the island will offer the same sanctuary to others in the future!

During our time on the island we had become friends with the team of diving instructors that had arrived the day after us. They were a group of guys from a diving school in Cyprus, and were going to be running the school on the island for the next four months. What a life, following the sun and working in amazing places around the world!
On leaving the island and setting off for Sihanoukville again, the guys from the diving school were also taking a trip to the mainland to get some supplies and go out for some beachside local seafood, so we organised to meet up with them so they could show us the local way of dining out! Queue the most amazing feast of crab, tom yam, clams and prawns on the beachfront with the locals-seriously the best seafood of the trip so far. If I’m to be honest I probably wouldn’t have eaten at the venue if it weren’t for the guidance of our new friends, it was all a bit confusing, daunting and a little bit crazy-but it was absolutely delicious! The evening continued with something of an over-indulgence on cocktails and laughter, a fantastic end to our Cambodian beach and island chapter!