Sapphire Seas, Snow-white Beaches & Orangutans
Seeking soft sand, sparkling seas and adventure, our first stop in Southeast Asia was Malaysia. At the very heart lies Kuala Lumpur, an eclectic blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian culture, as well as a fusion of tradition and technology. This futuristic metropolis is the main travel hub for Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpar is affectionately nicknamed ‘KL’, and this city provided the perfect stop-off. We stayed for two nights at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, facing the sky-piercing, rocket-shaped Petronas Towers, which reach 452 metres in height. Not for the faint-hearted, once you reach the 86th floor of the Petronas Towers (370 metres), the views across the city are breath-taking. Once night falls, the towers are illuminated, providing a spectacular backdrop for when you’re sampling the tasty street food only a short walk away.
We had always wanted to see orangutans in their natural environment. From Kuala Lumpar, we flew to Sandakan, located in the northern part of Borneo and governed by Malaysia. Staying in a comfortable, low-key hotel at Sandakan, we booked a day trip to the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve. ‘Orang’ means ‘person’ and ‘utan’ is a term for ‘forest’ – therefore, ‘orangutan’ means ‘man of the forest’. Tragically, widespread deforestation has brought this beautiful ape to the brink of extinction. We loved our trip to Sepilok, where we were able to get up close to see these gentle giants feeding and swinging through the trees.
While we were in Borneo, we took another incredible, overnight trip staying in the heart of the jungle. Travelling by boat, we embarked from a floating village, skirting around the shoreline for a few hours until we met the mouth of a river, which then took us back inland. With jungle reaching as far as the eye could see, we docked at a small ‘jungle station’. After checking into our lodge and devouring a delicious Malaysian lunch of rice, fish and vegetables, we went back onto the river in large canoes and began our jungle safari. Soon enough, we saw the famous long-nosed proboscis monkeys, as well as a crocodile, snake, giant cranes, and a whole host of other exotic animals. After a wonderful evening getting to know the small group of fellow travellers also on the tour, we retreated to our lodge-room, admiring the huge, yet beautiful praying mantis nestled on one of the walkways nearby.
After Sandakan, we flew to Kota Kinabalu, further south on the island of Borneo. Although we didn’t get the chance while we were there, many people make the trek up to the famous Mount Kinabalu, which has great religious significance to local people – word of warning: dress decently, as tourists have been arrested for not wearing enough clothes and respecting local traditions. In Kota Kinabalu, there is a choice of accommodation from budget lodgings to 5-star luxury hotels. As we were only there a few nights, we stayed at the Hotel Shangri-La, which has a small man-made beach and landscaped gardens.
We travel-hopped around Southeast Asia using Air Asia – however, the number of air carriers offering economic flight services is still on the rise, making travel around this region very affordable. From Kota Kinabalu, we flew back to Kuala Lumpar, and then over to Denpasar Airport in Bali.
Staying for five days in Kuta, the largest town in Bali (only a short distance from the airport), we enjoyed beach-life, the huge choice of restaurants and the bustling nightlife. Many people use Kuta as a hub to travel up to Ubud, where there are a variety of yoga retreats and boutique hotels. Outside of Kuta, there are a wide number of reachable beach locations – you can take your pick. We enjoyed a mix of surfing and sun-worshipping before we headed to our final destination for the ultimate relaxation – the Gili Isles.
We took the fast boat to Gili Trawangan, which is the largest island of three that make up the Gili Isles (Gili Air and Gili Meno are the other two). Whether you are a backpacker, a family or a couple, there is a variety of different levels of accommodation available, as well as places to eat and various bars – there’s something to suit everyone. You can walk around Gili Trawangan in just a couple of hours. With scheduled party nights on Monday, Wednesday and Friday – you can choose to stay in the midst of it all, or further down the island in a luxury hotel. We stayed in a lovely, comfortable cabin, only a stone’s throw from the snow-white beaches and turquoise ocean. Scuba diving is plentiful here, so my husband took a few dive trips around the islands, while I kicked back and sunk into the soft, powdery sand with a good book.
Close friends of ours found Gili Trawangan a bit too lively for their honeymoon destination, so they chose nearby Gili Air, which is a much smaller island and far quieter. Wonderfully romantic – think Robinson Crusoe meets luxury.
Travelling back from Gili Trawangan, we opted to go via Lombok, which is a beautiful island and well worth seeing, even in transit. Interestingly, Lombok has more in common with Australia in terms of flora and fauna than Indonesia, as this is the area of the Lombok strait, famously known as the Wallace Line, creating a ‘faunal boundary’ between animal species.
Millions of years ago Lombok was connected to Australia and Bali was connected to Java, Indonesia. Lombok has an airport, so we were able to fly directly to Kuala Lumpar and connect with our main flight home to the U.K. Our adventure to Southeast Asia took less than three weeks, and yet it created memories which will last a lifetime.
India’s Golden Triangle is a famous route for travellers who want to experience the ‘real India’. A typical journey would start in Delhi, travelling to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and then onto Jaipur in the majestic state of Rajasthan. However, there are so many other places to add to this route. When I travelled around this incredible area of India with a close friend, we continued across Rajasthan and this is the first part of our experience…
When you arrive in Delhi, prepare for a sensory overload of sight, sound and smell. In this city, you will see every aspect of human life, from the very poor to the very rich, and you need to be prepared for this.
However, there is nothing more exciting than wandering through the busy, colourful marketplaces – visit Chandni Chowk, a market which has been running since the 17th century. You can literally find anything in an Indian market – from fabrics to phones, so if you’re away for a long duration, you can easily stock up in Delhi.
There some famous landmarks, which are worth a visit including The Red Fort near to Chandni Chowk. We took a taxi over to Connaught Place, which boasts interesting architecture, such as India Gate, and lots of restaurants to choose from. The National Museum is nearby, and we took an evening stroll around the Rajpath area, which has fantastic views across to India Gate. And don’t forget to visit a few of the magnificent temples dotted around the city – there are numerous places to choose from, I cannot even begin to list these!
From Delhi, our next destination was Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh; the location of the Taj Mahal. To travel across India, we utilised all manner of transport – trains, planes and automobiles! And you must travel by rickshaw at least once during your travels, an unforgettable experience – you will whizz through local streets, eye to eye with daily life. Flying across India is getting cheaper and cheaper, but don’t rule out the trains, which are improving, and there are First Class cabins available if you want some privacy. Nothing is more enlightening than watching the real India from a train or car window, so make sure you add a few overland trips to your itinerary. If you’re looking for luxury, there’s now a 5-star rail tour, which covers the Golden Triangle. Plus, hiring a driver is very common and affordable, and will enable you to go to locations not accessible by train or plane.
Nothing prepares you for the magnificent Taj Mahal. It is incredibly beautiful and greatly exceeded our expectations. It is advisable to visit before 9am, as the slabs surrounding the ivory-white marble mausoleum will be too hot to walk on during the warmer months. When you arrive at the Taj Mahal, a good tip is to keep your head down, unless you want to be bothered by ‘guides’ and street sellers – ‘hawkers’. Any eye contact may result in a lengthy bargaining process – unless you want to buy a souvenir, of course! The Taj Mahal is known to change colour depending on the daylight, so we took a rickshaw over to the back of the mausoleum (behind the river). Bathed in a stunning rose-pink, the evening sunlight tinted the marble of the Taj Mahal, creating fantastic photo opportunities.
From Agra, we travelled to Jaipur, a wonderful city full of ancient Indian architecture. Lying at the heart of Rajasthan, this area has traditional cultural identities, which have lasted for thousands of years.
A ‘must visit’ in Jaipur is Hawa Mahal – the famous Palace of the Winds – which boasts a high screen wall featuring the famous ‘jali’ work (intricate carved patterns and holes in stone). The purpose of the screen was to enable women of the royal household to sit privately and observe the street festivals taking place in the streets below. Another ‘must visit’ is the City Palace, which includes the Chandra Mahal and Mubarak Mahal palaces, as well as the nearby Jantar Mantar monument – an eccentric collection of architectural astronomical instruments. One evening, we visited the famous Indian cinema, Raj Mandir, to see a highly entertaining Bollywood Bond film. When you watch a film in India, everyone in the audience gets involved, cheering as the hero saves the day!
Whilst you’re in Rajasthan, if you’re lucky enough, you may just catch a glimpse of men wearing traditional styles, such as hooped earrings, shoes with curled toes, curly moustaches and colourful turbans. Plus, you are likely to see women wearing beautiful traditional saris, endless bangles and possibly sporting large nose hoops.
Our next destination was Jodhpur (yes, famous for those jockey trousers!). This ancient city has been used in numerous films across the decades due to the famous blue and white square buildings dotted across the landscape. Personally, I thought Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur was the most impressive fort I have seen in India, largely due to the fantastic views and the impressive portcullis as you enter the inner areas.
If you’d like to experience India’s Golden Triangle, please call Not Just Travel on 01455 240522 – we would love to help you with your trip.
Thailand has always been a popular destination for travellers. This country has so much to offer, which is why we set off on a round-country tour to experience the very best of Thailand including tropical beaches, temples and jungle treks.
Most people start off in Bangkok. A city full of culture, nightlife and colourful marketplaces. Bangkok was our hub when we travelled around Thailand;
Khoa San Road Market – Bangkok, Thailand we always enjoyed returning to this bustling, vibrant city. Make sure you spend a couple of nights here to see the sights before you travel onto other destinations. The famous backpacking area of Khao San Road is now more of a commercialised street, but it’s still worth a stroll.
If you want to catch a glimpse of the ‘old Khao San Road’, head to the Soi Rambuttri area. Turn right at the Temple end of Khao San Road, and you’ll see a lane over to your left, about two streets down. Full of restaurants, bars and eclectic stalls, selling clothing, jewellery and souvenirs, wander down leafy, beautifully decorated streets and you’ll soon forget you’re in a big city.
While you’re in Bangkok, take a tut tut or walk down to The Grand Palace area to see incredibly ornate temples including the famous Wat Pho, home of the Reclining Buddha statue. Did you know that to qualify as a massage therapist in Thailand, masseuses must train at Wat Pho? We had a great, albeit ‘vigorous’, massage when we visited.
The masseuses are on hand (literally!) to try out their techniques on willing tourists for a good price. Another ‘must see’ is one of the floating villages. As most of these are now very touristy, make sure you allow enough time to visit the most authentic, unspoiled floating market, Amphawa, which is 90kms from the city.
From Bangkok, we headed to Thailand’s northern capital, Chiang Mai, travelling overnight on a good value, air-conditioned tourist bus with reclining seats. However, flights are increasingly cheap and you can now fly from Bangkok to multiple destinations across the country. On reaching Chiang Mai, you immediately experience a more temperate climate; it is still very warm but the hilly, jungle landscape offers fresh, clean air as opposed to the stifling atmosphere of Bangkok. If you’re interested in trekking or seeing elephants, always do your research before you book. Find an ethical company or sanctuary (www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com), as both tribes and elephants have been exploited by unscrupulous companies. We found a trek guide, who was a member of the Karen tribe (one of the largest communities in Thailand) and took a 3-day/2-night trek into the heart of the jungle. Our trek guide, Joe, showed us different plants they used to make blowpipes, natural washing methods using crushed leaves that create a soap-like lather, and pointed out lots of bird species and insects. We rode an elephant from an ethical, nearby sanctuary, and sailed downstream on a bamboo raft. We stayed one night in a jungle hut and another night in a Karen village where we met local people. All in all, it was an unforgettable experience that I will remember for a lifetime.
From Chiang Mai, we took another tourist bus back to Bangkok, and then over to Kanchanaburi in the Central Western area of Thailand (3 hours or you can go by train). Here you will find the famous Bridge Over the River Kwai and the sobering World War II and
JEATH Museum, located fifty metres away and well worth a visit. In Kanchanaburi, you will also find the location of one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen,
Erawan Falls. It is worth spending a day here, as you can walk up to several cascading levels of the waterfall, following a trail, and you can take a dip in one of the many idyllic pools. Watch out for the ‘free fish pedicure’ – the fish are harmless, but they will nip the dead skin off your feet!
For the next part of our adventure, we visited Southern Thailand, island hopping from the port of Krabi to the coral-fringed beaches of beautiful Koh Lanta, and then over to the party island of Koh Phi Phi – from here you can take boat trips over to see ‘James Bond Island’ where ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ was filmed. Striking, limestone rock formations protrude from the sea around these islands. Travelling by ferry in Thailand is really easy, but you can always pre-book your journey for a stress-free holiday.
Once we were back on land, we travelled by road to the port of Surat Thani. We took a ferry to Koh Phangan, the neighbouring island to the popular package holiday destination, Koh Samui. We stayed on
Bottle Beach in Koh Phangan, one of my favourite beaches in the world: turquoise clear water and white sand. While I was here, I witnessed tiny iridescent sea creatures just off the shore. As well as an array of high quality huts and low-key restaurants, creating a very chilled-out experience for the weary traveller, there are a number of boutique hotels, villas, resorts and yoga retreats on Koh Phangan. This island is the perfect getaway for people wanting to escape from it all. And, if you enjoy diving, Koh Tao is only a one hour boat journey across the sea and is a very popular hub for scuba divers.
If you would like to experience Thailand and take a cross-country tour, please call Not Just Travel on 01455 240522 – we would love to help you with your trip.