The best way to travel solo from Perth to Exmouth

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After considering hitchiking, the Greyhound bus, sharing a trip with randoms from the hostel noticeboard, renting a campervan or buying a car and driving myself, I settled on the often least favourite option of the solo traveller to make the trip from Perth to Exmouth – the group tour. Turns out it was the best decision I made down under….

The west coast of Western Australia has an incredible mixture of stunning natural phenomena, world beating wildlife and bleak red dusty roads, which stretch for miles. There is so much to see, but with seriously long periods of nothingness in between. And, without someone to warn you off the often dangerous flora and fauna, a driver which knows the right turns to take to get you to a premium lookout point and a guide that gives you the full low down on gas stations and safe watering holes it’s easy to miss scenic hotspots, waste hours and find yourself in the blistering heat, 600km from the nearest petrol station.

So for value for money, expert guidance and a jam packed itinerary that even includes a trip to another country, I cannot recommend the Red Earth Safari eight day return tour from Perth to Exmouth highly enough.

By far the most reasonably priced package on offer after trawling through countless trips available (and trust me, in Australia bang for your buck is hard to come by) the Red Earth Safari minibus starts early o’clock on day one from the central bus station, picks up at a range of hostels along the way and takes you on an incredible journey through the most westerly points of Australia’s wild west coast.

Tour leader, driver, chef and host for the week, Terry (the Legend), makes sure you are fed and watered throughout – food and accommodation is included (except for bus snackage, ice creams and dinner to cover his one night off).  Although not great for the waistline, the range of hearty meals give you all the energy any explorer needs.

If its animal antics you’re after then you’ll be blown away by the chance to cuddle Kangaroos, coo over Koala’s, face up to your fears with slippery snakes and feed a host of four legged friends at the Grenough wildlife sanctuary. Plus at Coral Bay and Monkey Mia there are a range of options to get close to marine life, feeding dolphins, snorkelling with Manta Rays and even produce “turtle porn” – but that’s a whole different story!

Shell Bay, the Pinnacles, Nature’s Window and Z Bend Gorge are just awe inspiring and a true insight into the power of nature. Not to mention the Hamelin Pool Stromatalites in the world heritage Shark Bay area – boasting claim to the longest living natural creation on the planet.

For those more interested in the quirkiness of folk, a visit to the Principality of the Hutt River Province and an audience with Prince Leonard and Princess Shirley is not to be missed. Neither is a trip to the westerly most pub in Australia at Denham, where remoteness doesn’t hinder the progress of karaoke or a good old knees up – but beware a few stares.

Spectacular sunrises and sunsets, snorkelling in Ningaloo Reef, immaculate and deserted sandy beaches, crossing the equator, cooking fish and playing the didgeridoo with “Capes” on the beach under the moonlight, countless games of “who am I?” for bus entertainment, meeting royalty, sleeping under the stars at an outback sheep station, swimming in gorges, staying at a convent and, above all, making some fantastic friends – what a way to spend a week!

From bumping into a few (and very few) solo travellers who did the trip via the options I mentioned above, it seemed a long and lonely haul in sometimes often deserted digs. So a huge thank you to everyone who kept me company; Petra, Rebecca, Tommy, Fiona, Lee, Madoka, Ellen, David, Julie, Deb, Sam, Dunja, Judith and “Bush Tucker” Terry (did I mention he is a LEGEND!) for an unforgettable trip and one of the highlights of my year away.

A pedestrian in Perth

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The most isolated city in Australia, as well as possibly the most laid back, Perth is beautiful (or I should say “buuuudiful” like a real Western Australian). And, as I happened to arrive just after the Queen’s visit, it looked even more immaculate – beaches combed, lawns coiffured and flowers in full bloom.

It is an interesting city – more a large town really. Everyone’s friendly and welcoming, the pristine beaches beckon you to the ocean, the shopping malls pulsate with urbanites going about their business and Swan River, which runs through its heart, is a watersports playground.

Whether you are in Northbridge’s backpacker and cultural hub with its vintage boutiques and eclectic cuisine or you have bagged yourself a bed with an old friend in the ‘burbs (a million thank yous Anna), there is plenty to see and do (depending on your budget).

Getting around within the city is free (literally) and easy with a network of CAT buses and there are good transport links to the main destinations – however getting to them initially from outside the city is a bit of a mission on foot. And, if you do walk, don’t expect to see a single other soul and for those driving past you to look at you like you are crazy!

Despite the Government’s best public transportation intentions, outer Perth is a network of suburbs and sprawling retail parks built for the car owner. To escape the 40degree C daytime temperatures in the summer people do not walk outside, they go from air conditioned car to air conditioned shopping mall to air conditioned office and this behaviour carries on throughout the year.

Fortunately I had a phenomenal friend who ferried me around, fed and watered me and helped me find the best things to see and do – including a great day out at the micro-breweries and wineries of Swan Valley, the uber trendy tapas of Andaluz, finding cheap backpacker tour operators and the fresh and funky suburbs of Leederville and Beaufort Street in Embleton.

In the city (or CBD) there’s King’s Park, with stunning views over the Swan River, shopping galore including London Court (if you’re a little homesick from Dick van Dyke’s mockney London town!), the Bell Tower, Perth Mint (where I happen to be worth AUS$41,614,725 – my weight in gold!), the Zoo and so much more.

Along the coast there’s a whole host of stunning beaches with white sands and clear blue waters – Cottesloe and Scarborough among my favourites. Then there’s the quaint chilled vibe of Freemantle. The port city boasts an historic prison, great local markets, enviable harbour side eateries, including Little Creatures Micro Brewery – a must visit for pizza and a pint!

So, there’s more than enough to keep you occupied for a few weeks, especially if you take a trip to the Perth Hills, spend a night on Rottnest Island with the quokkas, visit the wineries of Margaret River or head even further south to Esperance. The only negative is the price, thanks to the resource boom in mining, Perth is one incredibly expensive place to play!

Singapore Champagne Slinging

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Hit by the humidity after 28hours on the air con bus from Koh Samui, Singapore was stifling, yet spotless – as everyone said it would be.

Concerned with only a shower and a solid meal, I was pleasantly surprised how helpful people were in finding my hostel for me! The subway was too confusing even for the eagerly assisting expats and recommended a cab after seeing the size of my luggage and the spreading sweat patches. The taxi driver gave me a “Singlish” guided tour on the way through the Little India, past Chinatown and toward Bugis Junction – destination of my digs, the super eco and highly recommended Tree Inn Lodge hostel  – as well as home to the Singapore’s tradition of hawker stalls and street food.

Refreshed and enthused by the exuberant hostel hosts (fellow back packers with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things ‘traveller’), I set out to see the many Singaporean sights – of which there are probably enough for four to five days at least.

I stumbled upon Raffles by accident – honest! Spending a Saturday night with a spot of live Jazz and a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar sounded like a real treat. Surrounded by fellow tourists sipping on said ‘Slings’, flashing their cameras for the souvenir shot and sitting amongst the peanut-shell strewn bar, I tried to blend in and not draw attention to my solo status. However, a misbalanced Champagne bottle flew from the tray of a passing waitress, hit the stone floor and within seconds I was the centre of attention, soaked in a Champagne shower and being stared at by the entire crowd! Ah well, drinks were on the house from an apologetic Maître De and a sympathetic drinking companion and the Jazz was a blast, so no harm done (and no real dent in the budget either!).

After a night on the tiles, a hostel buddy took me to Bugis food court for a mango smoothie and claypot rice brunch, which set me up nicely for a mammoth meander round the city, including the hustle and bustle of Chinatown, Little India – with the streets all beautifully dressed for Divali and the stunning Singapore Museum.

The Red Dot Design museum was a highlight, which has also cleverly teamed up with local like-minded arty types and can suggest full and half day tours of many places of interest in the surrounding area.

Bugis Junction is an enormous shopping plaza bursingt with the latest designer gear, whilst over the road Bugis Street food and clothing market is home to the less than original branded wares.  Hawker stalls provide a fascinating feeding experience, where literally hundreds of Singaporeans and expats alike spill out onto the pavements and chow down on a plethora of delicacies and drink cheap(ish) beer.

Once fed and watered for under a fiver, I headed to Marina Bay, which hosts even more high end retail and top notch bars. Every evening, to add to the waterfront ambiance of the lotus flower ArtScience museum and the stunning Singaporean skyline, an incredible light show provides even more entertainment with holograms projected onto droplets of water – quite amazing.

The last mention needs to go to the architecture. If you like colourful buildings, a bizarre blend of old Chinese temples in amongst glass skyscrapers or colonial style villas brightly painted in rainbow hues, then you will never tire of taking in the many and varied streets, alley ways and avenues which never fail to surprise in Singapore.

It can seem expensive compared to the likes of Thailand and Malaysia, but if you keep out the shops, eat like a local (leave Raffles as a one off) and use local transport with a tourist pass or hit the streets on foot, your budget can go far.

Thailand – Land of Smiles, Lemongrass and Corianger

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It’s reputation precedes it… Sexy, seedy, scorching. Thousands of travellers (young and old) flock there every year – the Land of smiles, Lady Boys, Ping-Pong shows, Thai Brides, Full Moon Parties and “The Islands”…To be honest, it all felt a bit daunting.

However, my first foray as a “Farang” helped me see a completely different side to the traveller stereotype and gave me a taste of Thai life as a local (well sort of). Thanks to the amazing volunteering organization Lemongrass, I spent an incredible two weeks teaching English at a Government school in Surin (a seven hour bus ride north east of Bangkok).

Possibly the most reasonably priced volunteering scheme around, Lemongrass provides its volunteers with a very comfortable home, full teaching support and the best tour guide in Thailand (thanks June) to see the local sights by scooter or local truck (or bike if you can ride one!).

Trip highlights included the Thasawang Silk Village where you can see intricate Thai silk being woven by hand; the Ta Klang Elephant Village in Tha Toom District with four-legged  film stars and footballers and the Khwao Sinarin silver making village, where it’s impossible not to be mesmorised by the hand made beads being fashioned from makeshift tools, under the shelter of a stilted, wooden house.  And, that’s without even mentioning the local markets, the odd Rice Convention (did you know there are over 120,000 types of rice?) and a Thai Country and Western Karaoke.

But we were there to actually teach…Every morning the Tuk Tuk rumbled and spluttered outside the house, we took the 15 minute ride to school to be met with the wide smiles and eagerly expectant eyes of our students. Having not experienced many native westerners before, the pupils were fascinated by our hair, skin, the way we spoke and the games they knew we’d be playing throughout the lessons – Bingo was a particular favourite!

Staying through rainy season we experienced floods, waded through knee deep water to get to the noodle shack across the road and watched the fish swim across the driveway. During downtime we’d wave to the local elephant as he made his daily walk by the house selling (and eating) sugar cane, got to grips with a great number of geckos and learnt to cook Thai food – June’s fish can salad has a mean kick!

Although I enjoyed learning to cook, Thai food was my stumbling block. Despite sampling a full range of Thai cuisine from roadside Pad Thai, Pork Satay, a plethora of noodle soups; the school canteen’s ground, minced and fried frog and super spicy papaya salad; plus hotel A la Carte curries, I am still not a Thai food convert. This is due to my absolute hatred of coriander – the standard ingredient of most Thai food. This menu translation for fried fish summed up my feelings and gave us a titter!

Anyway, apart from my food foibles, suburban and rural Thailand is beautiful and completely different from the decadent and debauched ditties of many a traveller. The Lemongrass experience was amazing. I have made some great friends, been humbled by the kindness and generosity of wonderful students and learnt to appreciate a totally different way of life.

Lemongrass are always looking for volunteers, so get involved and have yourself a unique Thai experience you’ll cherish forever…

What’s not to love about Laos?

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First off, Laos is stunning. I didn’t know too much about it before I visited and when I arrived I was blown away by the scenery. No-one mentioned that!

Landlocked Laos sits between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam within South East Asia. It’s 6.2million people are hugely ethnically diverse and are largely self-sustaining, through living off their land, earning an average wage of US$2-300 per year.

Arriving in Lac Sao, after crossing the Cambodian border, there was not much to see other than our hotel, the local market and “The Only One” restaurant (named for obvious reasons).  Reminiscent of a Cambodian market but even more sparse and with squirrel and lizard on offer, it was a sight for tired eyes. After sampling some deep fried donut style treats we retreated back to the hotel amidst the enquiring and curious stares of the locals.

For dinner we went to the only restaurant in town and received a bizarre dish of macaroni with beef that was supposed to have been broccoli stir fry, (minor menu mis-translation). Anyhow, washed down with a Beer Laos, it was all fine and set us up for our onward trip the following day.

Vientiene, Laos’ Capital, was destroyed by the Siamese (now Thailand) in the 1800s and the French returned it Laos some time later. It is now a thriving city, with a growing expat community and prosperous bar and restaurant scene. We happened to be around for the public holiday and a huge festival lined the banks of the river. The vibrant evening carnival had a great party atmosphere with floats, stalls, games, food stands and whiskey tasting.

One of the main sights in Vientiene is the “Vertical Runway” – a replica of the Arch de Triomphe, so called because it was built with money given to Laos by the US Government to extend the airport runway. Instead, in a two fingered salute to their American pals, they built a huge monument for the people. I liked Laos’ sense of humour.

Vang Vieng was the next stop after a very long and bumpy bus ride. A water front resort home to the infamous “Tubing” i.e. going down the river from bar to bar on a rubber inner tube drinking buckets of vodka and covering yourself in fluorescent spray paint.  Immensely popular, great fun and the reason most people visit. There are also loads of other activities including trekking, caving, kayaking and cave tubing from as little as US$15 which are all worth a go.

Luang Prabang was the last main stop before the two day slow boat to Thailand. Absolutely beautiful, quaint and had a lovely vibe. We were lucky enough to join a Laos family for a traditional feast and full blessing from the elders too. There are also plenty of worthwhile projects to get involved with, particularly the book donation scheme which ensures the children of the river boats get a regular supply of educational materials and schooling.

Travelling from A to B is a mission in Laos as the roads are little more than dirt tracks and the major roads wind up and around the many mountains. It takes about 7-8 hours to travel 150km by road and there are no trains, but the scenery more than compensates for the bone shaking.

Laos people are shrewd yet friendly, embracing tourism possibly to the detriment of some towns such as Vang Vieng. Plus, large areas of landscape are being destroyed through logging to provide much needed income. However, without a doubt worth a visit and an unexpected trip highlight.

Cambodian Culture Shock

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Cambodia has become a trendy, almost cliché, destination for gap yahs and travellers – but don’t let that put you off – as it’s as grateful for the tourist dollar as you can get and it is certainly an experience you will never forget.

Films like “The Killing Fields” and books including’ “First they killed my father” and “When Broken Glass Floats” have highlighted the plight of Cambodians under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. I’d watched the film in communist China (where incidentally it is banned) and read enough to be moved into visiting this country that has lived through unspeakable horrors during my lifetime.

Cambodia is an incredibly interesting, uncomfortable and humbling country. It also offered my first taste of complete culture shock…

The usual things are different and, like anywhere, take a bit of getting used to – there’s the language with its flowery and ornate alphabet; the food – unique, flavoursome curries with delicacies borne out of extreme poverty such as grilled cockroaches, fried crickets and ants, snake bacon as well as the ‘medicinal’ tarantula rice wine (not for the weak of stomach)!

But there is a whole new level of culture shock in Cambodia found amongst the lack of roads (mainly dirt tracks), crumbled infrastructure, the seriously depleted public amenities (everything from basic electricity and water supplies to inadequate hospitals and school buildings).

And that’s even before the rainy season hits and washes away and entire year’s rice crop and turns the muddy streets into a waist high, brown rivers. Or, before one of the estimated 50,000 orphaned street children surrounds you – tugging at your arms (and your heart strings) to buy postcards, bracelets and other wares for “one dollar mister” so they can afford to go to school and avoid becoming  sex workers or child slaves.

In contrast to this are the cash-bought Lexus’ that cruise the streets of Phnom Penn, where the disparity between rich and poor are a stark reminder of the country’s corruption.

And, if that isn’t mind blowing enough, there’s the average age of the population…21years old. Only 3% of the country is over 65. Every single generation of every family has been affected by Year Zero and the maiming and killing of completely innocent citizens –sometimes for something as normal as wearing glasses or coming from a city.

But from Siem Reap and the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat or the extreme tuk-tuk rides through dark and flooded back alleys, to the beaches of Sihanoukville and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penn, nowhere else (yet) have I found more genuine, warm and hard working people, always smiling and would share with you anything they can, including their stories.

Gone are the days where you are greeted a your hostel with a welcome bag of weed but yes, there are psychedelic aging hippies and more than the ideal quota of Trustafarians which give it the great unwashed traveller stereotype, but it is an incredible, resilient place that should be given its dues on any travellers itinerary.

More visa chaos…I hate to say I told you so!

I was woken up at 8am on my day off by my teaching assistant banging impatiently on my apartment door (anyone who knows how much I like my sleep, will know that this is starting badly!). “We need to leave urgently, you have to go to Son Yuan to get a new visa. Today!”.

So after the last debacle (where there was opportunity to extend the visa for the length of my contract, but no), I was less than surprised that this had been left to the last minute, but even I had not anticipated what a convoluted and chaotic 48hours I was in for.

I will only preface what I am about to tell you with NO-ONE TOLD ME ANYTHING and, as you know, I don’t speak Chinese. So, here’s how it went:

Jumped in a taxi to Tanggu station at 9am on Thursday with as much stuff as I could shove into a bag (and the emergency Snickers my flat mate threw at me as I was running out the door), for the train to Beijing. No train. Taxi to the Chingway in Tianjin, 45 minutes away (which I could have caught from my apartment at 9.30am and been there for 10am).

Arrived in Tianjin at 11.15am. Another taxi, this time with an incredibly dodgy driver and some other random old man with intensely bad breath. To Tianjin Railway Station for Beijing train. Stuck in traffic due to a burst water main.

Got to the station, purchased tickets and unsubstantial snacks for lunch and transfered to Beijing South. Caught another two metro trains to Beijing main station and made the 1.15pm train to Chang Chun by the skin of my teeth (with a sneaky MacDonalds to boot – which is a blessing as it turned out to be an eight hour journey!).

Late night arrival in Chang Chun to meet my boss (grateful for the deserted train station experiences of the Trans Siberian to stop me from freaking out). No boss. Instead, a nice Chinese lady who lived in St Helen’s, but was visiting family in Chang Chun, collected me in her brother in law’s car and drove me to a hotel which wouldn’t accept foreigners, so drove me to another dodgy looking backstreet hotel which was Korean and “safer”.

At 10pm I lay on my bed, in the hotel I didn’t even know I was going to be staying in, starving but too scared to go out (as even St Helen’s lady said it wasn’t safe and she used to live there), a little bemused and grateful for the Snickers!

At 6.45am Friday morning, I flagged a taxi (using the Chinese instructions given to me by the nice St Helen’s lady) to a Lake in the middle of nowhere, where she would pick me up again. Ding Ding (yes, as in bell), my bosses driver turned up out of nowhere, as did St Helen’s Lady and her sister, Meow (yes, like a cat), with a picnic breakfast. The four of us set off on the three hour journey to Son Yuan.

Approaching 11am, after passing fields of sunflowers (singular trip highlight) we arrived at the toll near to our final destination only to get stopped by police for not having any registration papers (bearing in mind we are in the brother in laws car, with a random driver). After several frantic phone-calls we abandoned Ding Ding with the car and got picked up by the school minibus.

At the school my boss didn’t even say hello, just told me to go “with him” (a guy I’d never seen before) to the Police Security Bureau (PSB), where I had two photos taken, handed over my passport (despite much resistance), all the while being interrogated by an aging and partly deaf American who wanted to quiz me about working for my boss’s school. To say I was a little fractious would be an understatement.

Back to the school for 3pm where I was accosted into taking PR shots to publicise the school. I was then left to my own devices for three hours with nothing to do except be invited out to dinner by a Chinese Army Major who showed me his thesis on Ancient Greek Military Strategy – “It is in English”… I was rescued from this surreal scenario by the nice St Helen’s Lady, Meow and Ding Ding with the car released from police custody and another three hour drive, back to Chang Chun.

Following an inspirational and insightful conversation with Meow, Ding Ding and I were abandoned at a petrol station, got into another cab which drove us into the dodgiest place I have EVER been, to get me a ticket to the overnight train from a guy in a thick gold chain and a blacked out Audi. Money and tickets exchanged, just enough time for a  McDonalds (yes another one)with Ding Ding – eaten in the painfully uncomfortable, yet polite, silence that only two people who don’t speak each other’s language can achieve.

I got on the 10pm train without a passport (knowing that I couldn’t get through Beijing without one) to be met at 8am on Saturday morning in Beijing by the over-friendly Frank (another friend of my boss), who was meant to buy me a ticket with his ID, but he didn’t bring it. He did however buy me a KFC breakfast (savoury porridge) and offer to take me back to his house so I could shower, rest and spend weekends with him whenever I wanted…er…no thanks, Frank.

To cut a marathon 48 hours short…I politely declined Frank’s further offer of lunch and an afternoon at his apartment, waited until 6pm to get a train ticket that didn’t require my passport to purchase, returned to my apartment at 9pm on Saturday evening to a frantic flatmate – exhausted but safe and having seen another part of China (albeit one that I could have probably lived without and could have been avoided!).

Moral of the story…sort out your own visas in advance and always expect the unexpected!