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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Volunteering in San Rafael-wine country!

Following our injection of tourism, it was time to settle for a volunteer placement once again-this time spending 6 weeks in San Rafael, Mendoza region, wine country!
Quite the different proposition to Aldea Luna, here were volunteering at an Argentinian finca and boutique hotel-as we had arrived during low season there weren’t too many guests to tend to, and so we spent a lot of the time preparing the hotel for high season.

While we had the experience of organic farming in isolation in Northern Argentina, here we found ourselves tending to horses, llamas, chickens, dogs, cats and geese in the shadows of the Andes. Daily duties were simply to feed the animals and tend to any odd jobs around the hotel, and to sort out lunch for Nicole, the owner, and her parents, Hugo and Carmen. Once again we found ourselves in a predominantly vegetarian environment, and to be honest I thoroughly enjoyed adding a number of delicious vegetarian recipes to my repertoire…Including the taste sensation of beetroot, carrot, ginger and garlic gyoza!

Overall it was a super relaxed and thoroughly social placement-Nicole, Hugo and Carmen were absolutely brilliant, and we had many a laugh and good night!
As with all of our placements, even though the work didn’t exactly fall into the ‘life skills’ category-it was invaluable to work with someone like Nicole-who has an keen eye for detail and impeccably high standards. Not surprisingly there are a number of awards from TripAdvisor proudly displayed in the lobby of the hotel.

San Rafael itself is a quaint little town full of bodegas and, more importantly, delicious ice cream parlours. Obviously it wouldn’t be acceptable to be in Mendoza region without some wine tasting, and so we indulged in the local favourite of Jean Rivier to whet our appetites-an appetite that would be fed quite regularly during the remainder of our time in Argentina! Here we also finally broke our duck on Argentinian ice cream, and what an experience that was. Cheap and delicious gelato, with a list of flavours as long as your arm, ice cream is something of a passion in Argentina, and now we truly understood why!

Other highlights from our time here came from interaction with the guests and Nicole’s friends-particularly the opportunity to attend, and then conduct, Argentinian BBQs-or asados as they are known. Unlike the British equivalent, where you go to the shops grab as many burgers and sausages as possible before rushing to a gas powered BBQ to cook them before the sunshine disappeared, an asado is a much more considered event. Obviously the fact that you have glorious sunshine certainly helps-so great big hunks of meat would be slow cooked over a couple of hours on wood coals made from burning local hardwoods…Certainly no gas powered BBQs or bags of coal to be found here! Chorizos, morcillas (black pudding), chinchulines (cow small intestines), mollejas (sweetbread), and other organs, are served first while the larger cuts of beef are left to slow cook over the coals.
The result is a wonderfully tender and smoky beef sensation, including the salty deliciousness of small intestines (chinchulines), a delicacy that, prior to tasting, I would have definitely turned my nose up at!
Obviously it helps that you get to use Argentinian beef, regarded by some (mostly Argentinians, obviously!) to be the best beef in the world…Why? The beef’s quality apparently comes from the grass the cattle feed on. Unlike other countries, most Argentine cows are not fed on grains, but are raised eating grass in the pampas, the biggest beef producing region of the country where open flat plains dominate the landscape.
All of this washed down with wonderful red wine-obviously!

For sure it was an unexpected injection of some luxury into our volunteer journey-and we did get pretty comfortable there-but by the end of the 6 weeks we were ready to continue, a bus journey across the Andes awaited, Chile was calling!

 

Beautiful, and a bit barmy-Bagan

“If you are a real Myanmar, you must have been to Bagan.”

Having brought ourselves up to temperature in Yangon, we were set to explore the most symbolic of landscapes that Myanmar has to offer-the pagoda saturated plains of Bagan.
Bagan is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region, from the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed here. I would wager that when most people think of Myanmar (or Burma), then the vista of temples stretching out over Bagan’s plains would be the image that comes to the fore of their mind.
Today there are over 2000 temples remaining in the area, and not surprisingly is the main tourist hotspot for all those visiting Myanmar.

Having done a little research, we opted for the night train from Yangon to Bagan, the words of the Man in Seat 61 providing some comfort about the journey ahead:

Burma’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find the trains are a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level, avoiding unnecessary domestic flights and cramped buses. The journeys are as much an adventure as the country itself.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone who would like to travel to Bagan from Yangon, take a bus! For sure the train was an experience of sorts, but not the type of experience you expect outside of a roller-coaster at a theme park! The reassurance that we got from it being British built, was quickly dispelled when we realised that since the British built the railways, there has been next to no maintenance on the tracks. I kid you not when I say that the train felt like it was actually airborne at some points, and fellow travellers even experienced one of the carriages disconnecting during their journey. We had even opted for 1st class sleeper-but there was no chance of getting any sleep on this journey. While it was a giggle, and while the light lasted we were treated to some gorgeous countryside-it was also hard work, and so I would approach the journey with some caution!

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

Railway side footy

Railway side footy

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Shaken, rattled and rolled with the all too familiar bleary eyes, we thanked the travel gods upon our safe arrival at Bagan and looked forward to what should be another epic experience. The usual kerfuffle greeted us at the station, with the locals fully capitalising on your confusion and charging premium rates for your transportation. In addition to the taxi fee, you also get hit with a tourist tax on entry to the area, but there can be little complaint about paying to see such a magnificent spectacle.
The first thing that struck us as we ventured towards the town of Nyaung Oo was that the area was a lot more desolate than we had expected-with memories of the images of Bagan bringing up lush green pastures dotted with temples; the reality is that the trees are few and far between-especially noticeable with the temperatures once again hitting 46 degrees. It is worth noting that we arrived at the peak of the dry season though, and so perhaps the desert plains are transformed once the rainy season arrives.
On arrival we wasted little time and immediately hired one of the many electric motorbikes to get on with exploring. The heat was intense, the breeze on the bike offering little respite as it was more akin to being blasted in the face by a hairdryer! Still, we were in one of the most evocative landscapes in Asia-and so we had little cause for complaint.
There’s not really much that I can say about the plains of Bagan that cannot be communicated through the photos of the area, we spent 3 days bombing round these plains and exploring-quite superb!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Symmetry!

Symmetry!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Big Buddha....

Big Buddha….

Little Buddha

Little Buddha

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The intense heat definitely had its impact, we would be up and out of the hotel at 8.30AM, only to return for 11AM to hide from the sun before setting out once again to find various sunset spots. Even with our attempts at avoiding the high noon heat, the temperatures faced were still above 40 degrees each day, and with the fact that you need to remove your shoes at each temple-the soles of our feet were starting to show the impact of the blistering heat. After a while you settle into a certain style of ‘scuttle’ walk, much like someone walking over hot coals-I imagine that you could make quite a funny silent film watching people and their ungainly walks around the temples of Bagan!
After our three days of exploring it was time to move on to our next adventure, as with the experiences at Angkor and Ayutthaya, you definitely reach a certain saturation point when you see temple after temple after temple. Not that it stopped me from taking a whole load more photos….If you have the stomach for it, read on-otherwise I’ll hopefully see you again in my next post-The Road to Mandalay!

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Teaching in Taream

And so it began, our teaching placement had finally started and we were now living and working in a school in a small Cambodian town called Taream. We were 5 hours from Phnom Penh, 3 hours from Siem Reap-and we were the only ‘barang’ in the village! (Barang being the Khmer word for French-but commonly used to describe all foreigners)

At this point it’s worth describing the school, the schedule, and the accommodation-I’ll try to cover this off now so as not to constantly repeat myself throughout the post:
Classrooms – Two classrooms upstairs, one downstairs, one outside the school at the front…Then later we built one at the back of the house next to the kitchen.
Lessons – The provincial Sols 24/7lessons at Sols from schools are additional schooling options, somewhere where children attend voluntarily to further their English language speech. During the day those of school age go to state school, then they attend Sols English lessons at 5-6PM and 6-7PM. After a couple of weeks we introduced advanced lessons for the trainee teachers throughout the day, but this was outside of the norm for the school-and was just a good use of what was a lot of free time. There were a number of additional lessons throughout the day for the younger local kids to get a head start on their English speaking development.
Sleeping – We had a private room at the front of the school, our ‘bed’ was a wooden platform with no mattress and no pillows. We hung our own mosquito net, had one power point and a single light bulb
The trainees slept in a dorm, on the floor. Never have a group of people made a hardwood floor look so comfortable. (We slept on the wooden platform ‘as is’ for just two nights before seeking out some form of cushioning to appease our cravings for comfort-we eventually found a thin duvet in Kampong Thom market and its modicum of padding sufficed!)
Bed time was around 9PM as we were up at 5.30AM every day, from day two we started kickboxing lessons at 6AM, this would continue throughout our time at the school.
Washing – there was a well at the front of the house which was the source for all of our water, as well as where we washed ourselves and our clothes.

The morning 'shower'

The morning ‘shower’


Eating – the trainees cooked all of the meals over a fire in a small kitchen at the back of the house. We had rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner-with various different sauces to flavour the rice. (My favourite was green mango, garlic, chilli and fish sauce…My ‘nemesis’ was the various assorted dried fish!) The garden was a plentiful source of much of what we ate-there were mango and coconut trees, a mushroom growing bed, and an assortment of unknown vegetable and fruits. The array of meals that the trainees managed to produce was staggering, and a huge relief following our experience at main centre.
Every meal would be eaten together, and no-one would begin their meal until everyone was sat at the table-it was wonderful.
Imagine cooking all of your meals here every day!

Imagine cooking all of your meals here every day!


Toilet – a squat toilet at the back of the school, not a place to be after dark!
Play – a well-kept garden at the side of the house for volleyball and football-when the heat of the sun wasn’t too searing!

Rewinding to our arrival, we were presented with our first task; the following day the school was putting on a concert and so they needed to build a stage-our inaugural lesson in Cambodian practicalities and building skills was upon us immediately. The construction was simple enough, a couple of felled palm trees, some wooden planks, a shed load of bamboo from the garden and some graft. Wanting to prove our usefulness we both threw ourselves into things, much to the amusement of the trainees that we had just met, before long the sweat was pouring off us as we struggled to adapt to the high noon heat of the Cambodian dry season.
It was a great way to break the ice with our living companions for the next two months (Veshna and his wife Chantan-the centre leaders, Heng, Meng Kong, Lida and Sopheak-the trainee teachers; and a number of ‘second home’ students who live at the school because their homes are too far away to travel each day) and before too long we had something that actually resembled a stage, although the finishing touches would take us well into the next day.

Sawing bamboo is a two man job!

Sawing bamboo is a two man job!

Jo using her stick fighting skills to good effect!

Jo using her stick fighting skills to good effect!

Bamboo prep-the 'wonder' construction material!

Bamboo prep-the ‘wonder’ construction material!

Introducing Heng-something of an inspirational character and someone who taught me a lot!

Introducing Heng-something of an inspirational character and someone who taught me a lot!

It was a great first couple of days, we didn’t do any teaching-but we were learning ourselves and relishing the opportunity to gain some practical skills in helping to prepare for whatever event they were planning. Little did we know what the evenings’ concert was to have in store. It turns out that they were expecting around 100 kids from the local area, and they would be hosting an extravaganza of entertainment from dance troupes, singers and drama productions, all to be followed by a bit of a party. If we were in any doubt as to their serious intent, it was soon dispelled when we saw the truck arrive with the sound system. That’s right-the sound system was MASSIVE, more like something you would have seen in a disused quarry in the 90’s at an illegal rave! Having had the security of our fillings tested during the sound check, we were soon informed that we were expected to be central to proceedings for the evening-Jo was to be Mistress of Ceremonies with Teacher Heng, and I was expected to sing….On stage, in front of loads of kids. Gobsmacked, gutted, petrified, terrified and nervous are all words that spring to mind-I don’t mind being centre of attention every now and again, but generally I do so under my own terms!

The completed stage, and the accompanying sound system!

The completed stage, and the accompanying sound system!

MC Heng and I having a 'shirt off'

MC Heng and I having a ‘shirt off’

Heng and Jo get the show started, I am skulking around nervous about my upcoming performance

Heng and Jo get the show started, I am skulking around nervous about my upcoming performance

It was amazing to see the confidence in these kids getting up on stage and performing

It was amazing to see the confidence in these kids getting up on stage and performing

Two of the 'second home' girls who lived at the school with us

Two of the ‘second home’ girls who lived at the school with us

The evening was a fantastic introduction for us, they partied and danced from six until about half nine(obviously all without any alcohol) and we did not get a moment to sit still. Unfortunately they didn’t have time for me to sing my song, I was due to close the show-but hey ho….I can’t say that I was too disappointed! After the performances finished they carried on with some booming basslines, people from all around the village came to join in and enjoy the festivities-as we would learn over and over again, Cambodians absolutely love a good knees up!

This was just the start of what would be a wonderful, but tough, couple of months at the school. The evening classes that we were teaching proved to be quite challenging, we don’t speak Khmer and the students were level 1 English students-so we had to get creative in our approach. (Especially when the senior teachers went to Phnom Penh for a meeting and didn’t return for over a week-without letting us know their plans!)
Often we would find ourselves having to teach in the dark because of the oh-so-regular power cuts.
The classes throughout the day weren’t without their challenges either-with the searing heat of the daytime sun, and the multitude of daily chores that had to be completed around our teaching timetable.
The kickboxing classes that we ran every day went down a storm with the lads. Meng Kong, Rathenor and Heng proving to be naturals-and their eagerness to learn was an absolute joy. When the ladies of the school did join us they too demonstrated a natural ability, our challenge with them was to overcome their shyness-which is much easier said than done.

We remained a constant source of intrigue and amusement for the locals-every day at the market they would ask the trainee teachers how we were doing and what were we eating. They found it hard to believe that we were eating rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner-they thought that we needed to have bread and milk in our diets! We couldn’t walk down the road without a cacophony of hellos, goodbyes, blown kisses and general wonderment from kids, adults and grandparents alike-for a couple of months we felt like we were celebrities!
One evening we were invited to go and see a wedding celebration, little did we know that this would cause so much of a fuss as people clamoured to dance with us; we featured alarmingly frequently in the viewfinder of the official wedding video-although I fear more for comic effect than anything else.

Over the weeks that we were there, as you would expect, we formed really close friendships with the trainees that we were living with-they taught us so much about Cambodian life. If you were to compare a 19 year old Cambodian with a 19 Year old from the UK, you would initially notice how young the Cambodians appear in respects to their emotional maturity-they are really playful, very shy, and have an air of innocence. However, when it comes to real life living, they soon show their maturity as they catch, kill, butcher and prepare your dinner; or they build a table that seats 16 people out of bamboo; or they just lower themselves into the well to dig it out because it’s gone dry and there is no available water. Their resourcefulness and adaptability was astounding, and displayed a very different type of maturity-one which exceeds mine.

It was an absolute privilege to live with these guys, and there are so many stories that we have to share that this blog post could go on and on and on.
I fear that would bore somewhat-so instead I shall share a few annotated photos-after all each one is worth a thousand words!

Perren-one of the second home students-displaying his grasp of English

Perren-one of the second home students-displaying his grasp of English

Transport to and from the school wasn't exactly 'conventional'...Often just the back of a truck!

Transport to and from the school wasn’t exactly ‘conventional’…Often just the back of a truck!

Our next door neighbour was a 4 year old football genius, he would play at the school on his own from 6AM every day

Our next door neighbour was a 4 year old football genius, he would play at the school on his own from 6AM every day

From left to right: Sopheak, Lida, Jo and Heng

From left to right: Sopheak, Lida, Jo and Heng

One of our other 'housemates'

One of our other ‘housemates’

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Watching the football match, the crowd was gripped!!!

Watching the football match, the crowd was gripped!!!

The local hairdressers...Not I had any need to pay a visit!

The local hairdressers…Not I had any need to pay a visit!

The always smiling Rathenor

The always smiling Rathenor

Examples of my new found handiness-new wall and bamboo table!

Examples of my new found handiness-new wall and bamboo table!

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So many sunsets-so many memories

So many sunsets-so many memories

Perren, Anna, Lisa and Uwe

Perren, Anna, Lisa and Uwe

The school!

The school!

One day I mentioned how it would be nice to have a fire pit-that evening they organised one!

One day I mentioned how it would be nice to have a fire pit-that evening they organised one!

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If this were 'heat cam' EVERYTHING would be red!

If this were ‘heat cam’ EVERYTHING would be red!

See these ants in the mango tree?! These ants are the ones that you put in a mango salad....

See these ants in the mango tree?! These ants are the ones that you put in a mango salad….

Big pineapple?

Big pineapple?

One of the classes hard at work!

One of the classes hard at work!

The 6-7 classes always had to contend with their lessons finishing in the dark!

The 6-7 classes always had to contend with their lessons finishing in the dark!

Man on a bike, great big engine-what is it for?

Man on a bike, great big engine-what is it for?

Oh, so you just put some rice and sugar in it....Why?

Oh, so you just put some rice and sugar in it….Why?

...Because that's how you make rice cakes!!! Of course!

…Because that’s how you make rice cakes!!! Of course!

Music, cheering, people waiting on the roadside with offerings and water....Can only mean one thing...

Music, cheering, people waiting on the roadside with offerings and water….Can only mean one thing…

The monks are coming and they're blessing the new road....As well as those who wish to be blessed!

The monks are coming and they’re blessing the new road….As well as those who wish to be blessed!

The first rain of the rainy season-a joyous football moment

The first rain of the rainy season-a joyous football moment

After the unforgiving heat of the previous weeks-everyone is overjoyed at the arrival of the rains

After the unforgiving heat of the previous weeks-everyone is overjoyed at the arrival of the rains

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On our final evening everyone grouped together to present a banquet in the garden, an opportunity for us to sit together and feast one last time. Everyone contributed something to the final meal, the general attitude of sharing and caring is profoundly humbling-these are people who have comparatively little, but give so much. Considering that we went to Taream to be teachers, it seems ironic that we came away having learned a huge amount from these couple of months, I hope that the guys we were with learned something too-certainly we will not be forgetting our most magical of times in Cambodia anytime soon.

And so the sun sets on our time in Taream

And so the sun sets on our time in Taream

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!

Va va…Vang Vieng

As traveling continually proves to demonstrate extremes, from Phonsavan and the historic Plain of Jars we travelled to Vang Vieng, a riverside town made famous for its tubing scene. Famous that is, until it became somewhat infamous for hedonistic parties and danger on the river. The problem was that people were mixing heavy partying with fast flowing water-not a fantastic combination in anyone’s book.
The Laos authorities recently addressed the issues that were facing Vang Vieng after a large number of fatalities on the river, and have clamped down on the riverside bars that were causing much of the mayhem. Now it is attracting plaudits for the right reasons once again, and is establishing itself as a destination for mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, caving, swimming, rock climbing, and much more reserved river tubing. Did I mention how beautiful this place is? No? Well Vang Vieng is little more than a few streets lining the one side of the Nam Song river, while on the ‘other side’ you have a backdrop of spectacular cliffs and a patchwork of vivid green paddy fields. It really is stunning!

On arrival in the town we set about finding somewhere to stay, a task royally cocked up by my good self when I found somewhere online-only to book it for the following week. Thanks to the good folks at Agoda, this was a booking that couldn’t be amended, and so we were left wandering the riverside looking for somewhere else to stay. This wandering took far too long, either the guesthouses were full, or they were too expensive for our liking, and frustration was beginning to show in my ever reddening face! It’s at this point that we fell upon some ‘accommodation Karma’, one of the guesthouses that declared themselves full to me was actually showing availability on Agoda, and so thinking that they may have reserved huts for online bookings we booked online and rocked up to secure our hut. As it turns out their standard rooms were fully booked-and they just hadn’t gotten round to updating their account on Agoda-so with some quite obvious disdain to the manager, they had to concede and honour our booking with one of their ‘executive huts’….Thank you very much!!

Oooooh yes.....

Oooooh yes…..

Preeeeetty happy I can tell thee!!

Preeeeetty happy I can tell thee!!

Settled and happy, we turned our attentions to immersing ourselves in the surrounding landscape-literally! We had found a couple of nearby caves that we could explore, as well as a small vantage point to climb from which we could view the town-and so it was a simple case of following the signs through the rice fields..

The 'signposts' here had a much more rustic feel...

The ‘signposts’ here had a much more rustic feel…

There was no real clear pathway-it was just 'that way'

There was no real clear pathway-it was just ‘that way’

A shrews eye view...

A shrews eye view…

The mountains that set the backdrop for this riverside town

The mountains that set the backdrop for this riverside town

Difficult not to be blown away with the surrounding environment...

Difficult not to be blown away with the surrounding environment…

Jumping for joy!

Jumping for joy!

The walk took a little longer than expected-but eventually we found our way to the first challenge of the day-the climb up to the vantage point. No health and safety risk assessment here, just a makeshift ladder that starts you off on your climb-before all obvious direction disappears and you’re left to ‘follow your nose’ and climb for the top. The climb was so much more challenging than we were expecting, but it was absolutely worth it as we stood at the top with shaky legs, and took a moment to soak in the views:

The view starting to materialise as we climbed through the tree canopy

The view starting to materialise as we climbed through the tree canopy

Slowly but surely we made our way to the summit

Slowly but surely we made our way to the summit

Despite the fearful climb, it was more than worth it!

Despite the fearful climb, it was more than worth it!

As gravity dictates, the climb down was very much quicker than our ascent and we continued on to the caves. A little more reassuringly we were advised that the caves weren’t accessible without the accompaniment of a guide, and so we ventured into the cave while trying to keep up with a ‘gazelle like’ local vaulting effortlessly between the stones through the entrance. Inside we were met with stunning rock formations and a myriad of ‘musical’ stone that our guide drummed and played with glee.

Into the darkness....

Into the darkness….

Some alien like rock formations

Some alien like rock formations

Caves-fun for all the family!

Caves-fun for all the family!

If you look closely you'll see that this is 'disco stone'!

If you look cosely you’ll see that this is ‘disco stone’!

Stone snakes....

Stone snakes….

Musical stone

Musical stone

Feeling like quite the intrepid travellers, we retired back to the town to enjoy one of the other magnificent sights that Vang Vieng has to offer-outstanding sunsets with hot air balloons floating by, adding to the drama.
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Having thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vang Vieng, once again we were ready to hit the road-next stop the capital, Vientiane, where we planned to secure our Visa for Vietnam before heading to the South of Laos. As usual, the prospect of boarding another bus filled Jo with joy, but at least this journey was ‘just’ five hours..

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See you later Leicester, it’s been emotional!!

Final sunset

It seemed fitting that as I left my old flat for the last time, I looked up to see this fabulous sunset. Almost like Leicester was reminding me that there is always beauty in your surroundings, you just need to open your eyes to see it!

It feels really strange today having no home, no job, and quite bizarrely, no keys. The ritual of checking wallet, phone, keys is now incomplete, but already I have passport panic alarmingly frequently!

Tomorrow I say goodbye to Leicester, and boy what memories do we share. I have met many of the most brilliant people on this planet during my time here, and some of the most useless too! Every single one of these people comes with me, good and bad I have learned from every one of you, and you have shaped my personality. So truly I owe you all for everything that I have, and all that I look forward to experiencing.

There are just so many stories from so many places: Leicester University; Junction 21; Bubblelove; Flaming Colossus; Nomad; IKON; Tudor Rose; British Gas; Westleigh Avenue; Western Boulevard; Urban Martial Arts; The Muscle Machine; Assassins; Nine Bar; Matishe; The Clock Tower; Goodbye Cruel World; Wistow Maize Maze; College Avenue; Club 147; The Exchange; Hazel Street… I could go on, and on, and on….

A week from now I’ll be on the plane to Thailand, and soon I shall be looking upon the sunset in Angkor Wat, and after that who knows what sunsets lie in store-but for sure with every new sunset I see, I’ll smile to myself and think of my last sunset in the Shire….thank you Leicester, it’s been an absolute blast!!