Land of smiles

Sawasdee kaa from Thailand! I arrived here after 18 hours and no sleep (thanks to crying children and really loud people on the plane) but it was definitely worth the trip!

My first stop was Bangkok – the densely populated and bustling capital city. The first thing that hits you when you step outside the airport is the heat and the high pollution levels in the air… it looks likes it’s always cloudy but it’s actually smog. Behind all that is a fascinating city with a lot of culture, fabulous food and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.

I spent a great couple of days in the city, exploring temples, pagodas and palaces and even managed to photograph a few monks (‘monk stalking’). The cultural highlights were Wat Poh where I got to see the huge reclining Buddha and the Grand Palace (it is pretty spectacular!) with the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It was interesting walking the streets of Bangkok, with stalls full of mouth-watering street food, people selling fake designer handbags/watches/scarves and crazy traffic everywhere… I managed to survive a tuk-tuk ride on the wild roads and even did a little bit of shopping (no surprises there!). It was also a lot of fun taking a long-tail boat ride along the canals of Bangkok and interesting to spot local fauna and see how some of the local people live in houses built on water and sell goods out of small boats.

Reclining Buddha and other Buddha statues at Wat Poh temple, Bangkok

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Vendor on a boat in one of Bangkok’s canals

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Water monitor in one of Bangkok’s canals

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I met up with my tour group in Bangkok, ready to explore new parts of Southeast Asia. Leaving Bangkok behind, we took an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. The sleeper train was a new experience for me… it was a lot cleaner that I expected and the meals served were pretty decent. Unfortunately my backpack wouldn’t fit below the seats so I had my entire luggage with me on the upper bunk bed… I looked like a hamster in a small cage!

Chiang Mai is a beautiful city and a nice change after bustling Bangkok. There are less people on the streets, less traffic and less pollution and the city has a beautiful mountain backdrop. We visited the Doi Suthep temple out on top of a mountain in the Chiang Mai countryside and saw the beautiful golden stupa that enshrines a Buddha relic. It was interesting just standing and watching people coming to pray and seeing some of their rituals as well as observing the chanting of the monks. We were lucky to be there at the right time to also watch a beautiful sunset over the mountains.

Golden stupa containing Buddha relic at Doi Suthep

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Monks praying and chanting at Doi Suthep

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Candle lit at Doi Suthep

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One of my favourite parts of Thailand is the food! I was fortunate to be able to participate in a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai where I got to learn how to make some of my favourite dishes – Thai Green Curry and Mango and Sticky rice. It was a lot of fun and the food even tasted pretty good… so friends and family beware… you will be subjected to my cooking when I’m back! 🙂

Shopping for fresh ingredients at a local market in Chiang Mai

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Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai

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Leaving Chiang Mai, we travelled along winding roads for 5 hours to a town called Chiang Khong, which is very close to the Mekong river and the border with Laos… so close that we could see Laos across the river while having dinner! En route we stopped off at Wat Rong Khun, which is a spectacular dazzling white temple… it’s a breathtaking sight and very fascinating to see… it’s different to any other temple I have seen and has interesting and very alternative artwork on the walls and some gothic elements around.

Wat Rong Khun – dazzling white temple

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Hanging heads at Wat Rong Khun

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After dinner in Chiang Khong, we had a treat in store for our last night in Thailand… it was a special moment that I’ll remember for a long time… we got to light lanterns, make a wish and release them up into the sky above the Mekong river. It was beautiful to see the orange lights floating up in the dark sky and a nice way to say goodbye to Thailand.

Lighting and releasing lanterns over the Mekong river in Chiang Khong

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Next stop… the Mekong River and Laos, which I’m told is a stunning gem of a country!

New year, new travels

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”  ~ Jawaharal Nehru

I started off my travels last August with a plan to go and see parts of South America, travel alone, meet some penguins and have an adventure… and what an adventure it was! When I set off from Heathrow, I was filled with part excitement, part anticipation and a whole lot of nervousness. There were so many questions/doubts in my mind… ‘would I enjoy it?’, ‘would I meet new people and make friends?’, ‘would it be safe to travel alone?’, ‘would I get lonely/homesick?’, ‘how would I get around?’, ‘what if I hated it?’ etc. etc.… it took me several weeks to get over the nervousness and really start enjoying the trip and having fun… and after that I never looked back. I discovered a whole lot about myself along the way and most of all I realised that I’m smitten with the world and I’ve been well and truly bitten by the travel bug! In the words of Michael Palin… ‘once the travel bug bites, there is no known antidote’… you just need to ride it out!

This blog started as a way for me to record my adventures in South America and my rendezvous with penguins (hence the blog name!). Since I’ve been back, I’ve been asked by people what my plans are and when I’m ‘settling down’ again… the short answer is ‘not just yet’… for now, I’m not done. My next trip, albeit shorter, takes me to the other side of the world – South East Asia. I’m planning to keep this blog and, if I haven’t bored you yet, continue sharing my travel stories and photos (although I’m sorry that they won’t be penguin related!).

One thing I really craved in South America (those of you that know me won’t be surprised) was spice! I tried various concoctions of chilli but nothing was fiery enough. That certainly won’t be a problem in South East Asia! So off I go, in search of spice and to greet some of my favourite animals in the whole world… elephants!

With a week to go before I set off again, I’m back to my passport, visas, packing, anti-malarials and the most important thing… my travelling companion… my trusty backpack!

I’ll end by wishing you all a very happy new year and I wish you good luck and courage to seek out and follow some of your dreams in 2015!