Just over 10 years ago I set off on a round-the-world trip that really started off my love of travel, and I’ve not stopped wanting to see the world since. Over 16 months I travelled through India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Australia. I travelled by plane, train, bus, boat, tuk tuk, motorbike and rickshaw. I slept in hostels, beach huts, boats, trains, tents and swags. I saw some of the world’s most famous sights, from the Taj Mahal and Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Mekong Delta and Uluru. But some of my favourite memories weren’t the big-name sights but the less-expected experiences where the combination of people and places made them unforgettable. Here are some of my top moments from the trip.
Celebrating Khmer New Year at Angkor Wat
New Year in Cambodia is one of the biggest events of the year… as well as the messiest. People across the country head home for three days of celebrations. The first day is for spring cleaning, the second is for making offerings, then it descends into chaos on the third day. We’d just arrived in Siem Reap to spend a few days at Angkor Wat, and emerged into a city-wide party. As we walked along the streets we ran a gauntlet of flour bombs and water pistols, ducking into the Angkor What? bar to escape another soaking. We ended up meeting a great group of people, singing and dancing into the night and even picking up a few Khmer dance moves (our attempt to return the favour and teach them some ‘English dancing’ ended up with us dredging up some primary school country dancing steps). Come 3am, we decided it was too late to go to sleep, so headed straight out to watch the sun come up over Angkor’s temples.
Cruising through the islands of Halong Bay
As two geography graduates, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the amazing geology of Halong Bay in northern Vietnam up close. Its name means ‘bay of descending dragons’, with the rocks that protrude from the water looking like spikes on a dragon’s back. There are nearly 2000 limestone islands dotted among the emerald waters, and the best way to see them is on a boat trip. So we splashed out for an overnight trip on a beautiful traditional wooden junk boat. We sailed between towering rocks, past floating villages to secluded beaches and climbed up to viewpoints for panoramic views across the bay. Then as the sun went down, we anchored in a deserted cove and our group of 10 gathered on deck to watch the light fade with a beer and a plate of fresh seafood, all lit by candlelight – a perfect evening.
Shipwrecks, sharks and ouzo on Fraser Island
The self-drive trip around Fraser Island is one of the classic backpacker experiences on Australia’s east coast. Over 120km long, Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island, with rainforest and freshwater lakes among the dunes. The usual way to see it is in groups – you’re kitted out with a 4WD and tent, made to watch a video about the dangers of dingoes, then left to explore. You do take your chance on who you get paired up with though, but we lucked out with Anglo-German Group C. There are no roads on the island, only sand tracks, so we drove along the beach, stopping to see the Maheno shipwreck, to swim in icy-cold Lake McKenzie and to spot sharks from the top of Indian Head. The Brits did the driving, the Germans supplied the ouzo, and we laughed our way around the island – all without seeing a single dingo.
A wilderness kayak adventure on the Ord River
A three-day kayaking trip well away from civilisation, without a bed or even a proper toilet – not the sort of thing I’d ever expected to see myself get talked into, let alone being the one to suggest it. But for some reason the trip down the Ord River drew me in and turned out to be one of my favourite Australian experiences. We set off in Canadian kayaks loaded up with food, bedding and a map, all secured in waterproof drums. The water is so clear you can drink it straight out of the river, and if you get too hot you can just jump in (though getting back in was a bit more of a challenge..). We barely saw another person except a daily boatload of day-trippers who took photos of us intrepid explorers! At night we stopped in a wilderness campsite with just a composting toilet and fire pit and slept under the stars (and a mosquito net for me due to my spider phobia). At the end of day three we arrived back in Kununurra with aching limbs and suntans, where a hot shower, a glass of wine and a real bed never felt so good.
Discovering the secrets of south Western Australia
Australia’s east coast tends to get all the attention – and the visitors. It might have the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsundays, Fraser Island, Byron Bay and Sydney, but there’s a whole other side to Australia… literally in this case. After taking the train across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Kalgoorlie, I met up with my sister to travel south around the coast of Western Australia on our way to Perth. Our first stop was Esperance, where I found some of the most perfect empty beaches I’d ever seen in Cape Le Grand National Park, complete with white sand and turquoise sea. From there the discoveries kept on coming – towering karri forests in Pemberton, huge caves in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, wineries and surfing in Margaret River. Every day we found something fantastic to see and do, which made me wonder why this part of the country wasn’t so well known, but feel glad to have it to ourselves.
So there you have it – some of the best experiences from my round-the-world trip. They were tough to choose, and I’m almost tempted to go back and change them already. Maybe New Year’s Eve in Sydney Harbour should’ve been on there, or sailing around the Whitsundays, or learning to cook Thai food in Chiang Mai? But long-term travels aren’t all gorgeous locations and fantastic experiences. So in the interests of fairness (and because disasters are usually the most interesting bits), later this week I’ll share my top misadventures on the road. But while we’re on the positives, what’s your top travel experience?