Kaikoura, New Zealand

Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. Just off the coast is a huge underwater canyon system and its nutrient-rich waters attract Sperm whales all year round. Humpback whales and occasionally Blue whales can also be spotted as they pass through the area during their annual migration.

We pulled up at a lovely beachfront campsite and after watching the sunset, we fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. The next morning we headed into town and walked along Kaikoura’s peninsular walkway. There were some fantastic cliff top views and tons of seals lazing on the beaches below.

Instead of whale watching, we opted for the more interactive experience of swimming with wild Dusky dolphins. Dusky dolphins are one of the most acrobatic species of dolphins and they are very sociable; often swimming in large pods of up to 500 dolphins. To attract the dolphins’ attention we were told to dive down, swim around in circles and make strange noises. We might have looked and sounded a bit odd, but it seemed to do the trick! We were surrounded by tons of inquisitive dolphins and even spotted a couple of dolphins mating. It was an amazing experience and it seemed like the dolphins enjoyed the interaction too!

Once we were back on dry land, we walked along Ohau Stream to a small, picturesque waterfall that becomes a sanctuary for young seal pups in the winter months. The pups spend the day playing in the stream while their mothers are busy hunting for fish in the sea. It was well worth the 5 minute walk to watch the adorable pups splashing around and waddling over the rocks.

Next stop: Wellington, New Zealand

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Abel Tasman, New Zealand

Abel Tasman National Park stretches from Tasman Bay to Golden Bay on the north coast of the South Island. We decided to explore the area by doing a 2 day self-guided kayak trip, spending the night in a hut on one of the secluded beaches. Aided with a map and a couple of flares (just in case we got into trouble) we paddled off into the distance.

We kayaked passed a few golden sand bays before we reached the northern tip of Adele Island. The island is home to a seal colony and we watched on as several young pups splashed around in the sea. The pups are definitely more playful and inquisitive than the adult seals who seem to prefer basking on top of the rocks. After getting our seal-fix, we kayaked back to the mainland and pulled up on one of the beaches for a quick lunch stop. We didn’t hang around for long though as a few pesky seagulls kept swooping in and trying to steal our dinner. After lunch, we kayaked further north along the lush coastline before we reached our hut at the beautiful Anchorage Bay.

We set off early the next morning, we were keen to make the most of our last day on the water and it wasn’t long before we spotted some unusual activity on the horizon. We quickly kayaked over to get a closer look and we were amazed to see a large pod of Bottlenose dolphins surrounding us. We couldn’t believe our luck; they swam so close to the kayak and often passed beneath us. It was incredible!

We kayaked alongside the dolphins up to Tonga Island Marine Reserve. I’d like to say they were trying to keep up with us, but it was definitely more the other way around. Two dolphins were particularly intrigued by the kayak (and gopro) and kept us company while we were lagging behind. At Tonga Island there were a few seal pups who swam along with the dolphins, occasionally they were flung into the air in what looked like a game of seal volleyball. I think the dolphins were definitely having the most fun at this point.

Just before we were due to head back to the mainland to catch our water taxi the dolphins treated us to a private acrobatic show. They were jumping out all over the place, doing tricks within meters of our kayak, and the more we cheered the higher they seemed to jump! It was an amazing way to end our kayaking adventure and it stands out as one of the most memorable moments of our entire trip.

Next stop: Kaikoura, New Zealand

Malapascua & Oslob, Philippines

Malapascua is a small island off the northern tip of Cebu and is a great place for scuba diving. It is one of the few places in the world where seeing Thresher Sharks is almost a guarantee. In one day alone James saw 3 types of sharks: Threshers, Hammerheads and White Tips. Not bad for a day’s diving! While James explored the underwater world, I enjoyed a few lazy days relaxing on the island’s beaches, often getting befriended by the local children.

After a few days in Malapascua, we headed back to Cebu and travelled south to Oslob. Oslob has become a popular destination due to the Whale Shark Tourism. Each morning the sharks are fed krill and plankton and the free meal means it’s pretty much guaranteed that they will show up. Whale Sharks are the largest fish in the world and can grow up to whopping 12 meters long!

It was an amazing experience to be able to snorkel alongside these magnificent creatures. They are so graceful and I was completely taken aback their size, especially being so close to them. Unfortunately the free food is affecting the whales’ migratory patterns and they are staying around the area for much longer than normal. So although this was a great day, I feel bad that the whales are being affected and are starting to rely upon the free food.

Next stop: Anda, Philippines

El Nido, Philippines

El Nido is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Philippines and for good reason too. The town itself isn’t the most attractive; it’s overdeveloped with buildings crammed into every inch of space, but the surrounding scenery is spectacular! The area is famed for its imposing limestone karsts, stunning islands and emerald lagoons.

We booked on to a boat tour (Tour A) to explore the surrounding islands and hidden lagoons. The area reminded me of Halong Bay in Vietnam, but was possibly even more impressive due to the jaw dropping colour of the water. The highlight was kayaking around one of the lagoons surrounded by towering cliffs and watching the small fish and jellyfish lurking beneath us.

The next day we hired a scooter a rode 45 minutes out of town to the beautiful Nacpan beach. The beach was surprisingly quiet, with barely another person in sight and the sweeping white sand was fronted with amazingly blue hues. This is without doubt our favourite beach of the entire trip, not something I expected to find so close to the tourist hub of El Nido.

Next stop: Malapascua, Philippines

Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon is Myanmar’s (formerly Burma’s) largest city with a population of over 5 million people. Although it is no longer the capital city, it remains both the cultural and financial heart of the country. The buildings are a mixture of high rise jam-packed flats and crumbling 19th century British colonial architecture. It has a very different feel to the other Asian city we have visited. The strong Indian influences were certainly a delight to our taste buds!

Many women and children (occasionally men too) wear Thanaka which is a yellow paste, made from tree bark, that is painted on the face. It is mainly used for cosmetic purposes, but also has sun protection and anti bacterial qualities.

One of the first things we noticed about Myanmar is the exceptionally friendly people. Countless smiles have been exchanged and several people have greeted us in the street,  not to try to sell us anything, but simply to say hello. Whilst walking around the city we saw a group of men stirring a huge bowl of sticky rice with oars, yes rowing oars. We watched on intrigued and it wasn’t long before they came over to offer us a taste and even gave us a free meal to take away.

In the evening we visited Shwedagon pagoda which is thought to be the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. The gold plated pagoda stands at 99 meters tall and is topped with over 7,000 diamonds and rubies. It is certainly quite dazzling up close, but I personally thought it looked more impressive from a distance.

The following day we took Yangon’s circle train which costs 12p for a 3 hour loop of the city. It was a great way to get an insight into the daily life of the locals and to see some of the surrounding countryside. The train even waited while James had a quick pit stop at one of the stations..not the kind of thing I can imagine a train back in England doing!

Next stop: Bagan, Myanmar

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The ancient city of Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th century. It covers a huge area over 400 square kilometers and contains the remains of the many temples, including the famous Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, it was originally built as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century but was later converted to a Buddhist temple.

We bought a 3 day pass temple pass which actually allowed us to enter the temples from 5pm the evening before our first official day. We used this time to explore Angkor Wat and watch the sunset. At 6:30pm the guards started kicking everyone out, which turned into a several people (us included) playing a little game of hide and seek. Eventually the guards won.

On the first morning our tuk tuk driver, Mr Rai, picked us up at 5:30am. The main reason for getting up so early was to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We were accompanied by a few hundred other tourists, but the colours in the sky were spectacular. Well worth the early get up!

As soon as the sun had risen we drove to Ta Prohm which is one of the most popular temples and was used as Tomb Raider’s film set. We were the first people to arrive at the temple and for the first hour of exploring it was only us and a handful of other tourists. Perfect! My favourite thing has to be the large trees which are growing out of the temple. Their huge roots are beautifully intertwined with doorways and walls, the temple wouldn’t quite be the same without them.

There is also an Echo Chamber within Ta Prohm which was used for praying. As you beat your hand against your chest the sound reverberates through the incense infused chamber. As the coach loads of tourists started to filter in, we decided it was time to move on.

We visited Banteay Kdei, Pre Rup and Ta Som, followed by our favourite temple of the day, Preah Khan. This temple is huge and also has some intricate carvings that are still in good condition. We loved exploring this temple, not knowing what would be around the next corner.

On our second day we cycled around the temples of Angkor Thom city. We started at Bayon, one of the most popular temples, which has 54 towers each carved with 4 large faces. That makes a grand total of 216 smiling faces. A very impressive temple, which soon got too busy for our liking. After Bayon we visited Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King and Victory Gate. It was a good day, but rather exhausting cycling and climbing around the temples in the 35 degree heat.

On our last day we headed further afield to Beng Mealea which is 40km away from the main Angkor temples. We set off at 5:45am and drove through the countryside as young, often shoe-less, children walked and cycled to school. On arrival at the temple gates we were glad to see only a few other visitors. This temple has a real jungle feel; as we climbed around the temple and over the fallen rocks, we could hear the squawks of parrots and several other exotic birds overhead. Exploring this temple was a real adventure and we found some fantastic vantage points that looked out over the temple walls. This has to be our favourite Angkor temple.

In the afternoon we visited Banteay Srei, a petite temple, which is built out of red sandstone and has some of the most beautiful carvings. We had three very tiring but enjoyable days exploring Angkor’s temples. The size, variety and intricacies of the temples is really impressive. It is certainly one of our highlights of South East Asia.

Next stop: Yangon, Myanmar

Koh Rong & Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia

Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are beautiful tropical islands off Cambodia’s coast. They are around a one hour ferry ride from the mainland party town of Sianoukesville. Koh Rong is the more well known of the two islands, it is a popular destination for backpackers and we decided to stay here first.

Initially we stayed on Sok San beach which is on the opposite side of the island to the ‘party beach’ of Koh Tuich. We stayed in a simple bungalow only a few steps away from the stunning 7km long stretch of white sand. The evenings were quiet, possibly even too quiet for us. After a couple of days of peaceful relaxation we moved to Koh Tuich beach, which was much livelier at night with live bands and fire shows.

Koh Rong Samloem

On Koh Rong Samloem we stayed at Mr Kun’s bungalows, one of the few budget accommodation options on Saracen Bay. It certainly seemed a bit more upmarket (and pricier) than Koh Rong. The beach was lovely though and after lunchtime the sea was so calm it felt more like swimming in a lake. We loved our first paddle boarding session in Kampot so decided to give it another go.. this time on the sea!

The following day we took the 1 hour trek, through the jungle, to a lighthouse which sits on the southern most tip of the island. The views from the top of the lighthouse were impressive, looking out over both bays. After a few lazy beach days it was great to go exploring in the jungle, listening to the sounds of the exotic birds and looking out for little critters.

On our last day on Koh Rong Samloem we walked over to Lazy Beach which is on the opposite side of the island. The beach was lovely, with some of the most crystal clear water I have ever seen. We even spotted a few monkeys playing in the trees nearby.

We stayed on the islands for just over a week and they were a perfect place for some relaxation and a little exploring!

Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia