I’m writing this post on the second flight of my third long haul trip of 2019 and my second trip to south east Asia of 2019.
Currently, I’m sat on a plane somewhere above Hong Kong, flying from China’s Shenzhen to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. This is my final trip of the year that’s seen me spend 24 hours navigating my way around Shenzhen using a very basic version of Google Translate before heading to Phnom Penh for a couple of days and then Koh Rong Island for New Year’s Eve. Happy with that? I certainly am.
Much like every other year of my life, I had big travel plans for 2019. Also like every other year (or at least the years I’ve spent in full-time employment) I very carefully and painstakingly broke down my annual leave at the start of the year, in order to squeeze as many trips as possible in. And I think I succeeded – this year I’ve visited Scotland (twice), Colombia, Malta, Thailand, Vietnam and now China and Cambodia. Let’s focus on the cool things I’ve done in each place rather than the money spent on all of those flights (a figure I haven’t and probably won’t ever calculate) or the air miles I’ve travelled, 36,000 feet above ground.
February: Edinburgh, Scotland
Since 2014, I’ve travelled abroad for my birthday. Being born in January comes with very few positives, so I’ve tried to combat that by arranging the aptly named Birthday Travel since I was 18. But a trip to Belgium in November/December 2019 meant that my funds were low and my boyfriend at the time also didn’t have the cash either, so I think the furthest I actually traveled on my birthday was to south London. But instead we decided to go away in February instead after I found return flights to Edinburgh for the grand total of £19.99. Reader, those unfortunately weren’t the prices we paid once we actually booked the trip, but by that point the damage was done and the idea was in my head and, as many people close to me know, that usually suggests a done deal.
So off to Edinburgh we went. A short but sweet trip, we feasted upon Scottish delights like tablet (me), whisky (George) and anything else that we fancied. We briefly checked out the castle (expensive), ate lots and lots of Greek food (delicious) and went out for a delightfully fancy afternoon tea. It was cold, but so was anywhere in the UK at that point in the year, and I warmed up by getting drunk in some excellently traditional Scottish pubs and chasing literally any dog I came across.
I’d wanted to visit Colombia for as long as I could remember. I couldn’t even really explain why; it was just always somewhere at the top of my list for its beautiful scenery, exotic location and, of course, the fact it’s Spanish speaking. And it was an incredible trip. We started in Bogota, where we checked into our £7 a night private room that looked to essentially be the hostel’s shed. It had wooden beams, a barely lockable door and I spent the entire first night watching very cautiously for spiders, which fortunately never appeared. I was, as always, eager to show the world (i.e my 600ish Instagram followers) that I was abroad so I snapped my way through the colourful streets of La Candelaria on our first morning. Bogota is about 2600m above sea level, so we optimistically headed out for a walking tour without bothering to apply suncream.
This turned out to be a terrible mistake, and four hours in we were the colour of tomatoes. Just as we were adjusting to the fact that this skin colour would be life for the next few days at least, the heavens opened. And that was basically the pattern for our few days in Bogota. Blazing sunshine, torrential rain. Bogota itself wasn’t a beautiful city except for La Candelaria, which was filled with steep hills that we huffed and puffed up thanks to the lack of oxygen in the air (or so we told ourselves).
From Bogota we flew to Medellin – possibly my favourite city and somewhere I could see myself living in a couple of years. Medellin combined everything I needed – that ubiquitous heat rush that comes when stepping off the plane, palm-tree lined streets, districts with a busy, bustling atmosphere and restaurants with a penchant for cheap Sangria. I fell in love with Medellin, riding its cable cars, posing by the street art of Comuna 13 and chatting away to the locals in an incredibly broken Spanglish hybrid.
Medellin was also our landing point for a trip to Guatape, a place where I immediately put my Colombian SIM card to good use by googling apartment prices. Guatape was a mesmerising mish-mash of rainbow walls and almost childlike designs. The town itself is pretty small and could easily fit inside one of those mock up villages spotted inside theme parks. It’s also home to El Penol – roughly translated to The Rock. We climbed to the top (mercifully slowly, thanks to the crowds of people in front of us) and gazed at the manmade turquoise pools surrounding the rock. Beautiful.
Next up was a flight from Medellin to Cartagena – somewhere else I could see myself living for an extended period of time. We stayed in two hostels here, because I wanted to plan everything in advance and George forgot that we were travelling for a mere two-ish weeks rather than the 10 weeks he’d done previously. Of course, this meant our initial hostel was fully booked for half of our dates and so, two days into our exploration, we crossed the town in 33c blazing sunshine complete with two suitcases.
The second hostel was far nicer than the first and was also home to beautiful sunset views and equally beautiful air conditioning. A very good decision to move. Cartagena sits on the Caribbean coast and feels sort of like a mix up of Barcelona-esque carefree beach living and… London’s financial district. You can sit back on the sand and feel the waves washing your toes while staring up at the Colombian equivalent of Canary Wharf. It was very odd. We also did a day trip in Cartagena to the famed Playa Blanca beach, which turned out to be slightly more difficult than anticipated. We didn’t take into account Colombian timings, which saw us getting up at the crack of dawn and waiting a couple of hours for our coach to move. Still, another fun day where I eventually managed to tan rather than burn.
Finally we headed to San Andres island, where everything should have been excellent but started to go wrong. The island itself was lovely; a two hour flight north of Colombia and far closer to neighbouring Nicaragua. There are very few cars on the island and most people drive around on golf carts. We told ourselves we’d spend a day doing something similar. Alas, George suffered from food poisoning for the first three (of four) days we were there, so I spent my time in the hotel pool sunbathing and reading. We’d stayed in hostels for the other cities of the trip, but a fancy (and still relatively cheap) hotel was a sort of compromise to George for dragging him around various south American cities for a fortnight when all he really wanted was a nice relaxing break.
That was maybe my best decision to date, because on our final evening after what we thought was a nice, safe meal in a touristy restaurant, I was struck down with the most severe food poisoning I’ve ever experienced in my life (so far). I woke up at 4am feeling a little queasy and ended up having to pay £100 for new flights back to Bogota as I was too unwell to even stand. And it all went downhill from there! I’m an avid fan of solo travel but I’ve never been more grateful for having someone there to literally and metaphorically stroke my hair and get me from A to B when I felt that rough. There’s no way I would have managed it on my own. From there, we eventually made it to Bogota, where our passports were stolen at the airport and we had to spend the next four days arranging new documents, new visas and everything else that comes with having your passport stolen abroad. A really sad end to what was otherwise an amazing trip. But I’d still say Colombia is one of my favourite countries and I’d love to return again at some point.
May was a very….stressful month. Firstly, I had to cancel a trip to Spain for my mum’s birthday as I didn’t have a new passport in time. Then my longterm relationship ended. So what did I do? I flew to Malta. I wrote a whole post on this trip as it came at exactly the right time. I spent my first two days dragging myself around various Maltese cities and crying whenever something reminded my of my relationship and the few days after that feeling ever so slightly better, Turns out sunglasses are a great disguise when you find yourself sobbing in public, much to the barely-concealed distress of the woman sitting on the bench near me. I didn’t really anticipate it, but Malta was the best spot for just thinking. The landscapes are nothing short of stunning and everyone I met worked as the best sort of tonic to initially distract me and then help me through all of my thoughts. And there were certainly a lot of them. I came home from that trip feeling very grateful and also feeling infinitely calmer.
July: Scotland (again)
I didn’t have any international travel plans for summer, which was somewhat intentional and somewhat related to money (or rather, my lack of it). But I got the chance to visit Islay island in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland on a press trip via work. It was with The Botanist gin and I spent three days eating and drinking my way around the island. I wrote a post afterwards for work about it (read it here) and it was another brilliant trip. It was only a small group of us, so I made friends with everyone there and we all enjoyed a few gin-fuelled days with the freshest air I’ve ever experienced.
August/September: Thailand, Vietnam
Oh hello, another sadness-inspired trip. Well, that’s a bit much, because I was always planning on taking the trip. But it was one I was possibly going to take not by myself, but I ended up going solo after all. I actually booked this trip back in May shortly after my relationship ended (are we seeing a theme here?). I hadn’t arranged anything in advance other than my return flights to Bangkok, which almost fell through too. After spending an accidental extra few days in Colombia sorting out an emergency passport, I’d joked with my team at work that I’d make sure the same thing didn’t happen on this trip too.
So it was verging on hilarious when I woke up to an email from British Airways telling me my return flight home had been cancelled in advance. I basically flew to Asia on a one-way ticket. Fortunately they sorted my flight before I was due to come home. This was my longest flight to date but with the help of a sleeping pill, 13 hours flew by. I spent a few days in Bangkok, eating Pad Thai, making friends with ex-Buddhist monks and drinking miniature, fluorescent coloured buckets of alcohol. My hangover on the second day was so severe that I told myself I wouldn’t drink heavily for the rest of the trip. A promise that lasted approximately three days. Bangkok was spent flitting from one friendship group to another, as I seemed to have accidentally timed my arrival for when everyone else was leaving. So after a few days, I booked a flight to Hanoi.
I arrived in Hanoi absolutely overwhelmed by the noise of beeping motorbikes and cars dodging from lane to lane. I wasn’t sure what to think when I arrived, so I planned to get settled into my hostel room, charge my phone and give myself a bit of time to de-stress. That clearly wasn’t meant to be, as I arrived and immediately got chatting to some very international friends from Clapham, Elephant & Castle and Leicester. They invited me on a night out so off I went in very un-Georgie fashion with 13% battery and 5000 Vietnamese dong to my name. I had no idea how much that equalled in GBP but the large number made me optimistic. Turns out that 5000 dong is about 20p, which was exactly the price of one beer at Beer Corner in Hanoi. I’m not a beer drinker whatsoever but I was also accidentally the only girl in a group of about 13 guys, so when they ordered me a beer I had no choice but to hand over my 20p note and sip my beer with a grimace.
From Hanoi I went to Ha Long Bay. I’d planned to visit overnight a day earlier with a guy I’d got chatting to in my hostel, but I’d gone out the night before and woke up a) very hungover and b) too late for the bus. So I went a day after him and, as luck would have it, experienced much better weather. It was the first time in Asia that I got the chance to burn and I spent an afternoon on a boat with a handful of other people listening to music, drinking home-pour cocktails and floating around in the sea. We spent a night on Castaway Island where we found yet more drinking games, two gorgeous puppies and a monkey.
One particular memory: the next morning we were due to go kayaking. You’ve probably seen all those shots on Instagram of people wearing bikinis, skillfully manoeuvring their kayaks around the bay. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. At least, in my time. I was very fortunately paired with an English guy who not only had experience kayaking, but also actively enjoyed it. This was SO beneficial because I couldn’t even steer the thing in a straight line. He steered from the back and took a couple of photos where you can see my back, lifejacket and huge Hawaiian shirt on, drenched from the rain with my hair spiralling out from my head. Not quite as glamorous as Instagram would suggest and, given the chance, probably not an experience I’d repeat.
I got the five-hour coach home from Hanoi and quickly washed my hair, grabbed some snacks from the nearby store and got on my 18-hour bus to Hoi An. I’d considered flying but thought it’d be more authentic (read: cheaper) to get the bus. I was told it was 12 hours, which was 100% a blessing, because I might have considered ending it all if I’d known it was 18. A lovely Dutch girl I’d met on Castaway Island had given me a sleeping pill on the promise that I’d only take half – a lie, which allowed me an impossible feat: a glorious night’s sleep on the bus.
I loved Hoi An but couldn’t hack the weather, which consisted of rain, more rain and even more rain. And we’re not talking the odd droplet: this was torrential rain that would soak you through in a matter of seconds. I gave it a few days and then accepted defeat and booked a flight to Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Here I was faced with yet more rain, but also the chance to go and stroke some elephants. In a scenario that I could have almost guaranteed was inevitable, I managed to slice my finger open with a machete while cutting sugarcane for the elephants to eat.
My terrible aim meant that I drove the knife down and hit my hand rather than the sugar cane and I’ll admit I was fairly concerned with the depth of the cut and the amount of blood coming out of it. Very, very fortunately, a Dutch guy on the trip had an entire medical kit with him, so he bandaged and cleaned my heavily bleeding finger and on the day went. I wrote separately about elephant excursion as it was brilliant (find it here) and that pretty much concluded my trip to Chiang Mai. Finally, I flew back to Bangkok and then on to Heathrow.
December: China, Cambodia
And that brings us to here! I flew with my sister to Shenzhen, China, where we had a 17 hour layover before flying on to Cambodia (which is where I’m writing this post now). China was somehow a huge culture shock but also very familiar in a way that I can’t really explain. It’s very strange seeing McDonald’s and 7/11 on every corner but not being able to use my card to pay there. We arrived in Shenzhen and went out for dinner, which turned into a sort of Guess Who? on the inevitably Chinese menu. The remainder of this trip shall be Phnom Penh, Sihoukville, Koh Rong Island (for NYE) and Siem Reap for my sister and I. Then she’ll fly back to London and I’ve got a week to explore somewhere else. I’m thinking possibly Laos or possibly Malaysia but I haven’t decided which yet.
And next year? I’m moving to Bali on January 18; a decision which was maybe my most spontaneous to date but also maybe the most exciting. After talking about moving abroad and working for myself for years and years, I’m finally actually doing it. It doesn’t quite feel real yet. And who knows after that. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll stick around in Bali until mid-July when my work contract ends. I like to think I’ll spend another few months around the rest of SE Asia (definitely back to Vietnam, more of southern Thailand, possibly Cambodia and Laos depending on this December trip and anywhere else that takes my fancy) before exploring The Philippines and then heading over to Australia for a bit. In my head I’ve got lofty ambitions to spend a year or two exploring Aus before heading to Hawaii, LA, down through Mexico and eventually back to central/South America for a year or so. But who know where I’ll end up?