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For backpackers, Koh Phangan is known for one thing: full moons. Not that it is inhabited by a bunch of werewolves (although from stories I’ve heard, you wouldn’t be half wrong) but for the crazy parties that are held once a month when the moon is brightest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for one of these full moons, but we did arrive on the day of a half-moon party. After checking into another cute bungalow on the beach and exploring the full moon beach of Haad rin, we headed into the jungle for the party. Immediately we are bombarded by thai men and women armed with glowing body paint. It’s impossible to resist; Sarah gets a butterfly on her shoulder and I get a Canadian-UK flag on my arm (yes, I was feeling particularly patriotic that day!) The music wasn’t entirely mine and Sarah’s thing – heavy trance and house musi. But it was accompanied by some awesome firedancers and generally we had fun partying into the wee hours of the morning (although not as wee as Adam – at least we got some sleep!)  

We recovered the next morning back at Haadrin, where there is more action. Unfortunately there was also a lot of clouds, so we passed the time in a “Friends” bar (non-stop Friends episodes, feels like home!) and then by watching the movie “The Beach.” Having just read the book in NZ, I was keen to see the film. Certainly having been to Th Khao San I can say the portrayal is pretty much accurate, although we are staying in a nicer hostel! And as for the beach itself, it doesn’t exist…

Turtle Island

While Phangan might be famous for parties, Koh Tao is famous for diving. You couldn’t walk three steps without stumbling over yet another dive shop. While wandering the streets we were spotted by Katie (it also seems to work like that: completely random) and so we stayed with her at Crystal Dive Resort. There was no diving for me this time – I wanted to do it in the Similans but it is the wrong season.

It also happened to be Katie’s birthday! We had a chilled out night sitting on the beach at Lotus bar and almost got lost walking home. We walked home because we didn’t want to shell out 70Baht for a taxi… about the equivalent of $2! Needless to say, we are anxious not to get ripped off in Thailand, even though getting ripped off is still about a quarter of the price (or an eigth, if you’re English!) we would pay at home.

Our stay at Koh Tao was short but sweet. Sarah only has a few more days in Thailand and we had to make sure we arrived in Bangkok on time so we didn’t miss our flight. Ironically, after having heard so many stories of late buses and missed connections, our bus ended up arriving in Bangkok 2 and a half hours early! Wandering Th Kao San at 3:30am is an interesting experience… everyone is awake still – chatting in bars, drinking, wandering, shopping, eating – as if it were 3:30pm. We weren’t even charged for the extra night, even though we reached the hotel and crashed on the beds. We weren’t up for joining the much-too-alive Bangkok night scene after the long bus ride. Tonight may be different though!

We finished out our time in Singapore by visiting Kampur Glam, the Malay quarter, and Sentosa – an island off the Southern shore. Sentosa is – as Lonely Planet describes it – “plastic fantastic,” a whole island dedicated to leisure and pleasure. It’s got imported sand beaches, 5* resorts, Disney-esque water features and a giant merlion statue. We went up the Carlsberg skytower for some awesome rotating views of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

I ate chili crab, a traditional Singapore dish, and we went to see “Songs of the Sea” – a lights, laser and water show. It involved a cast representing a cross-section of Singapore’s diverse cultures lip synching to some truly awful music. The water show was cool and well-synchronized… it was an amusing way to pass an evening but nothing like MGM’s “Fantasmic!”

Koh Samui – The Last Leg Begins

I can hardly believe that our final leg is here already. Thailand is the last destination on our RTW ticket; the end is nigh! Even sooner for Sarah, who is leaving a couple of weeks before I do. It means these next two weeks are going to be jampacked with activity – and they’re going to disappear before we know it.

Koh Samui is an awesome place to begin our Thai adventure. There’s nothing remotely challenging about it – there’s 2 Starbucks and a McD’s! But Chaweng Beach is buzzing with energy and the beach is stunning. We booked into cheap fan bungalows right on the beach and went out to relax…

And there’s no better way to relax than with a Thai massage! Also know as “passive yoga,” a Thai massage involves being walked on by little Thai women who are incredibly strong for their size! Ours was performed right on the beach, with the cool sea breeze lulling us into the ultimate relaxed state for an hour… bliss! It was also on Chaweng Beach that we met up with our friends Adam and Dave. It was quite random as Sarah happened to spot them out of our taxi window as we were driving down the main strip! We all went out and hit up Samui’s biggest club, “Green Mango.” A good night in all.

Singapore is shopper’s paradise – and a twisted form of torture for two young travellers who are sick of absolutely every item of clothing in their backpacks. There is a shopping mall on every street corner, and even in the budget backpacker location of our hostel, retail opportunities abound. We’re exercising extreme restraint; any shopping we’re gonna do, we’re saving for Thailand. Still, I do have a pair of sunglasses to replace…

5th Ave? Oxford Street? Bloor Street?

Welcome to all-of-the-above combined, it’s Orchard Street! Our excuse for going shopping instead of being tourists? The rain! We stepped out of our hostel and into a monsoon. With borrowed umbrellas in hand, we ran into the plethora of shopping malls on Orchard, eventually straying from the Louis Vuitton and Gucci circles to the more affordable but still uber trendy shopping centres. It was here that I found a new pair of sunnies. Shopping done for the day, we set off to check out the sights of Singapore.

Chinatown & Colonial District

Now that we’ve left Australaisa and entered Asia proper, I am in culinary heaven. Cheap Asian food stalls are on every corner, and in Chinatown there is a dedicated “Food Street” where hawkers sell dim sum and fried rice and bbq pork for ridiculously cheap prices. Chinatown itself is pretty and clean, with pink paper lanterns strung across the main road and down the side streets. The rain seems to have stripped Chinatown of its normal hustle and bustle (at least according to the Rough Guide we borrowed from the hostel!) but it is still nice to walk around. Again, we have to resist the souvenirs – we can get trinkets for cheap cheap at the Bangkok markets.

We found our way into the Colonial District by happy accident of just walking and talking and ending up where our feet took us. This area epitomizes Singapore: sparkling clean streets and buildings, a jostle of cultures and languages and a mixture of people in business attire and traditional wear. The buildings here are ultra modern; we looked out over the new Arts centre which, with its similarity to the notorious (and smelly) durian fruit, is a paragon of modern architecture. Somehow in a bid to get up the famous Swissotel tower we ended up in yet another shopping mall. We both felt transported back to the UK: Top Shop, River Island and Marks & Spencer, oh my!

The rain finally stopped in the evening. We had dinner in the Little India arcade and strolled around the hundreds of jewelry stores and sari tailors. Little India is the world in technicolour overdrive. Eventually jet lag set in and we headed back to “the Inn Crowd” for some r&r… tomorrow is another day, and another mall awaits, I’m sure.

 

Some things in life define ‘counter-intuitive.’ Aqua-Trek’s Beqa Lagoon shark dive is one of those things. The brochure features a massive bull shark swimming atop a group of scuba divers. “Come and dive with seven different types of sharks… including tiger shark!” Sharks. They’ve been a constant fear, and I haven’t even seen Jaws. I remember being terrified of swimming in a freshwater cave in Bermuda, for fear of sharks. I remember rushing out of the water at Manly at the first siren of shark warning. And so I can’t believe the idea of diving with sharks appeals to me. But it does. I’ve developed a dangerous streak since being away.

The ‘danger’ begins even before I hit the water. To get to Pacific Harbour, where the shark dive takes place, I have to hitch a ride from the top of the Mango Bay driveway. Hitchhiking is one of those backpacking necessities I swore I would never do. Enough urban legends are firmly ingrained in my memory to frighten me off. But there I am, standing at the top of the road with my massive green backpack at my feet. The lady who dropped me at the top of the driveway gave me one word of advice: “Don’t mind the men walking past you with machetes.” Comforting. And the moment she pulls away, a group of young Fijian men corner the bend with huge long blades swinging in their hands. They smile and yell “Bula!” I tentatively wave back, trying to remember that they were on their way to work in the sugar cane plantations, not out murdering vulnerable backpackers. After a short interval (so easy!) I get picked up by an older Kiwi couple on vacation. We chat about the shark dive, and they drop me outside Pearl Resort, where Aqua-Trek is based. Hitchhiking box… check! I’m a real traveller now.

Eight of us are there for the dive, with four dive masters. The boat ride is short, maybe 15mins tops, and there is a very short briefing. So far, so good. Simple rules: don’t imitate the feeders, if a tiger shark comes, remain as a group. Nothing too hard to remember.

The first dive drops us down to 30m, the deepest I’ve been. We all grab hold of a rope strung along the ocean floor. Immediately there are sharks all around us. The predominant species is the tawny nurse shark, big 2 or 3 metre long monsters with small round mouths like the back of a hairdryer, more to crush than to rip and pull. They suck up the fish guts fed to them by the master feeder and press their flat noses against the big green rubbish bin carrying the carnage. They swarm all around each other, nine or ten of them crowding around. Silvertip sharks remain a little more aloof in the distance. And every so often, the shadow of a ‘big one,’ a bull shark, looms in the deep beyond.

It’s hard to look beyond when there is so much going on right in front. Apart from the nurse sharks, teems of huge groupers and scores of other fish circle and swirl in our faces. The water is thicker with fish than I’ve ever seen it. Suddenly, one of the dive masters calls me over. I swim over the rope tentatively, toward the group of nurse sharks. I am the first one. He gestures for me to touch one. I don’t even hesitate. I reach out and stroke it on top of the head. It feels like sandpaper and is looking at me like a puppy dog waiting for food. I smile and wave for the underwater camera. My shark experience caught on film! Another nurse shark comes at me from the side, almost bumping my hip. I stroke that one was well. Eventually I swim back, chuffed that I’ve swam and now touched the ocean’s most fearsome creatures (hardly!)

It’s been such an amazing experience that when it’s over and we swim over a massive ship wreck –something else I have never seen underwater – I hardly notice. There are reef sharks milling about the wreck. It looks like something out of an underwater horror movie, but I keep grinning.

The next dive, at 18m, is even more amazing, but how much more can I write about sharks? We don’t get pulled out of the line to touch them this time… but that’s because now there are three bull sharks around and they are swimming past us with terrifying proximity. They just look more menacing, with teeth sticking crudely out of their mouths like tiny spears. Someone needs to see a dentist! There are lemon sharks too, followed by gaggles of little yellow fish seeking protection. All kinds of reef sharks (silver tip, black tip, white tip). And nurse sharks too, of course. When we break the surface this time, everyone chatters about the sharks we’ve seen. No, there wasn’t a tiger shark this time… but it’s only an excuse to come back, I suppose!

It is the perfect way to end my week alone in Fiji. I’m now joined by Sarah and Isabel. We head out to Bounty Island. The beach is nice, but all in all it is a disappointment by way of islands. For the price, the facilities are bad, food is close to inedible and the customer service is awful. I say this as a warning; there are much better islands than this one. So we hightail it out of there and make our way back to Walu Beach, where I am somewhat of a local celeb – everyone recognizes me and asks after Lofty. We get upgraded and the hotel staff turn our somewhat sour Fiji experience upside down. The sun is shining, reflecting off the calm waters. Lying on a hammock, I smile a secret smile looking out at the ocean… only I know what’s lurking beneath those shimmering depths and I can safely say: I’m no longer afraid.

I wish there was more to report about my time in Mango Bay. I think bored stiff is the general consensus. It’s not the resort itself – I’m sure there’s nothing more frustrating for a hotel owner than to be blamed for bad weather. But to be fair, some board games might help, maybe a comfortable seating area… anything except movies. I have seen seven since arriving, ranging from good to weird to just plain awful.

There’s a good group of us here, and we have tried to make things more interesting. Last night there was the best Fiji dance display I have seen (but that’s not saying much). Every night they try to do something fun like a table tennis competition or killer pool. There can’t be bonfires on the beach because it’s too wet. The Feejee experience arrived last night, which about doubled the occupancy.

Just looked at the activities board. Again it is raining. The ordinary night time program has been replaced. Instead? Movie night. I think I might go to bed early!

Fiji. Just the word conjures up images of heaven. It’s a place that always seemed so exotic, a mystery on the other side of the planet. Somewhere I thought I’d never go, except maybe on a honeymoon. But I’m here, and for three weeks. Plenty of time to explore and get to know the real country behind the perfect postcard.

The heat and humidity on arrival is a total shock after NZ’s end of summer weather. We are taken to Skylodge and explore the surrounding town. It reminds me in a lot of ways of the Caribbean, and also of Africa. Skylodge is nicely appointed but the $10 meal is ridiculously small. Alas, the first realization that budget tracvel might not be possible in Fiji.

We spend hours with the poor girl at the travel desk, trying to sort out our next move. The basics of what we want are simple: double accom, beach, cheap. The idea was maybe up the Yasawas – typical backpacker itinerary. But instead we settle on Mana Island and Malolo Island in the Mamanucas. They seem to fulfill most of our criteria.

Don’t Forget Mana Lagoon

We are warned about basic. The Mana Flyer unloads us on the beach and after a warm welcome singalong, we are shown to our room. Much bigger than I anticipate and not at all as bad. Definitely liveable after where I’ve slept in Africa. Lunch is served: an interesting mixture of daal, tuna sandwiches and baked bean pizza (exactly what it sounds like). Then we invade the Japanese super resort next door and sit on their loungers on the beach. Hey, when you’re a backpacker you have to compromise a little. Dinner is something or other curry served in the dark so I’m not quite sure.

The next day we take a walk over to Sunset Beach. Now this is a bit more like it… white sand beach and absolutely crystal clear waters. We are boiling after the half hour walk in the hot sun and there’s no respite like a dip in the ocean. We bake and get back in time for lunch. You guessed it, baked bean pizza.

After dark, we are treated to a grassroots South Pacific dance display, complete with some pretty impressive fire twirling.

One unwelcome Fijian reality are the mosquitos. I am thankfully spared most of the time. Others aren’t so lucky.

Unfortunately, I have to report that I met some people who did not enjoy Mana Lagoon so much. It turns out they don’t have a licence to run… and that they stole $400 out of the safe they use for guests. It is a police matter, rather than speculation. Just shows how careful you have to be.

I’ll give you Fish and Chips if you Shake your Hips
(typical Fijian song refrain)

The next morning, the Mana Flyer takes us to The Resort Walu Beach on Malolo. Walu Beach is a steal – beachfront bure with our own livingroom, bathroom and fridge. The view is stunning. We are right next to the ocean and only palm trees block the line of sight. That and our personal hammocks, of course. All this for the price of a regular double in the backpacker accom.

Food is included too and its a darn sight better than at Mana.

I think it’s best for me to write about our 5 nights in Walu as a whole. They are spent totally on Fiji time (shockingly similar to Africa time). Table tennis and swimming in the morning. Reading, lounging by the pool, kayaking to shipwrecks and private deserted islands or waterskiing (I suck!) fills the afternoon. At night, after live music, there’s scrabble and kava ceremonies and crab racing (my crab won). The resort is never crowded – although once or twice we lose out on loungers – so we have to move to hammocks, the hardship! The staff are lovely. All in all, the perfect holiday from a holiday.

Walu Beach also sees the last night I travel with Lofty – the amazing person whose brief appearances in my blogs aren’t nearly proportional to the 46 days we spent together. He’s off on the next stage of his travels: LA. The States might not hold a candle to NZ but I’m sure he’ll have a rockin’ trip.

After a couple of nights in Nadi, I’ve now moved to Mango Bay Resort on mainland Viti Levu. It’s fairly quiet here and it has rained all day. But after a few days here, I’ll be joined once again by the lovely Sarah and Isabel. It’s all moving rapidly toward the end now… just 2 months and a bit to go.

The past few weeks have passed by in a flurry. This is an exceedingly belated entry written by the poolside in Fiji. These are more notes to myself I suppose, notes so I don’t forget. I spent some of today reading the handwritten drafts that eventually become my blogs. It reminds me to get my ass back in gear and finish NZ – the blogs are always better when they’re fresh!

Lord of the Rings: Part Two

Of course my Middle-Earth adventure couldn’t end in the South Island.

It began with the Tongariro Crossing. The crossing slithers its way past three volcanoes – including Mount Doom itself. The hike took six and a half hours. Mount Doom loomed over most of the track, enough to fire up images of Frodo and Sam struggling to reach the fires of Mordor. I didn’t climb the mountain itself. Adding another 5 hours to the already grueling journey did not seem like fun! In truth, it was actually less difficult than I imagined (I thought another Livingstonia… see Malawi entries). The toughest part was the middle, where the aptly named “Devil’s Staircase” is, and an interesting downhill section which involved half-skiing, half-sliding down a rocky slope. But the rest was fine and the views spectacular, especially of the red crater and the emerald lakes. The arid, volcanic plains. Definitely worth the effort.

The Tongariro Crossing was our last major activity (except gumboot throwing) on the Stray Bus. The next day, we dropped Lofty’s friend Wendy off at the airport and headed back down to Rotorua.

But not before stopping in Matamata, aka Hobbiton. If you though LotR tourism must have died out so long after the movies were released, this place proves its alive and well. On a farm a few k’s out of town is the only set left standing in all NZ. The famous hobbit holes of Hobbiton, left there because a fluke rainstorm prevented their deconstruction. The countryside had a vague brown tint to it, a result of a long drought. As it was the last tour of the day, there were only five of us. One was an animation director straight out of a Hollywood stereotype.

The Hobbiton set was by far the most elaborate tour I’ve been on. Huge photoboards displayed stills from the movie, to aid visualization. The tour guide knew exactly what she was talking about and filled us in on the little details. You had to be under 5’4″ to be a hobbit. They chopped down and then rebuilt an entire oak tree from a neighbouring farm. The farmers who owned the property looked at the location scout and asked: “Lord of the what?”

Classic.

It certainly filled my LotR quota!

My Birthday

I spent the weekend of my birthday in the beautiful 300 Lake Terrace Apartment complex in Taupo. The morning broke clear and bright over the lake. I was treated by Lofty to an awe-inspiring eight-piece fry-up, incorporating every fried breakfast food you could imagine. Pure decadence. Then Sarah arrived in time to drive out for our skydive – my third! A paltry 12000 ft this time, but who’s counting? Next time has got to be a solo jump… There’s no better way to turn 22 than to throw yourself out of a plane. Trust me on that! We capped off an awesome day with molten lava cake (my fave) and Canadian Club and L&P (NZ’s drink of choice – even I liked it, despite its fizziness!)

The next few days in Taupo were spent productively at Killer Prawn golf ( a hole in one challenge we were thisclose to making), the Honey Hive (where we gorged on free honey samples) and wandering around Taupo itself. A fun town, now forever associated with some pretty amazing memories.

Storming it up in NZ.

…but before the storm, the quiet. We headed up to stunning Hahei Beach in the Coromandel peninsular. The drive was particularly interesting; bad gravel roads made our journey much longer than we planned, but we did get to see a square kauri tree.

We spent the next day just lying on the beach, reading. Bliss.

The perfect way to prepare for the night of mayhem that was my birthday night out in Auckland – and a huge Oasis reunion to boot. My amazing friend Isabel came over from Oz (well from the UK, but recently from Oz) and it was great to see her. We hit up the bars along Auckland’s waterfront after cheap drinks at the hostel bar… we met celebrities (okay, Brandon from Strictly Come Dancing) and wore cowboy hats and after that it gets a bit hazy! Suffice to say it was a good time.

The Oasis reunion continued the next afternoon, when we met up with “Driver Stu” for a rugby match, Blues vs. Bulls. Stu’s sister was one of the cheerleaders and it was fun to watch her warm up the crowd. We had really good seats and the game picked up in the second half. By the end of it, I think I had a basic understanding of the game… at least I could cheer in all the right places!

The next day was our last in NZ. Hard to believe after all this time! We did some last minute shoping and said goodbye to people in Auckland, met up with my parent’s friends in Parnell and spent our last night at Mike’s house in Pukekohe. It was hard to say goodbye to Sunny, and to Castle II, and to the camping equipment that had become our lives. But as it always happens in this travelling game, we had to keep moving.

New Zealand is amazing. I loved every moment of it. I loved driving its twisted roads, over one lane bridges and through mountains. I loved sailing its fjords and its islands, swimming with its incredible aquatic life. It is a country with so much to offer, whose few inhabitants care so much for the land they live on. It is a backpacker’s haven. A place of drama. And of solitude. And of perfect starry nights – the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world!

I wouldn’t hesitate to go back in a second.

And now? It’s on to paradise…