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

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Anda, Philippines

Anda is a delightful small town on the island of Bohol and despite being relatively undiscovered by tourists it has some of the most stunning white beaches i have ever seen. It felt like we had found a hidden gem and I have no doubt that Anda will have a tourism boom in the next few years. We arrived after taking a rather bumpy boat ride from Oslob to Bohol and then catching the public bus to Anda. There are no bus stops here, instead the bus stops whenever and wherever there are passengers. Consequently the bus stops every few minutes.. we stopped twice before we had even left the bus station complex!

We stayed at 1Peace Beach Resort which was a few minutes out of town but had a beautiful, almost private, beach. This is one of the best places we have stayed on our trip. We spent the days lazing on the beach, playing on the slackline and kayaking down the coast. At night there was a communal meal which was a great way to meet other travellers and it was usually followed by an impressive fire show (we even had a go too!)

Whilst in Anda we hired a scooter to explore the surround area. We visited Can-umantad waterfall and Bohol’s main attraction; the Chocolate Hills. There are over 1,200 mound shaped hills scattered along the horizon and they turn a chocolatey brown colour during the dry season (hence the name). The hills make quite an unusual view and it’s hard to imagine how they were formed naturally, it is still disputed by geologists.

Next stop: Sydney, Australia

Hanoi & Halong Bay, Vietnam

Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is a chaotic bustling city; the roads are overflowing with motorbikes and there appear to be no rules of the road. It’s an amazing sight to see so many bikes on a 5 way junction all travelling in different directions and miraculously avoiding collisions. It certainly makes crossing the road an interesting experience!

In Hanoi we met up with our friends from home, Beth and Claire, who have come to join us for 3 weeks in Vietnam. We stayed in the heart of the Old Quarter where each street is named after the product it sells e.g. ‘Shoe Lane’. The local restaurants have child-sized plastic tables and chairs which spill out onto the pavement and street corners. From here it’s great to sit and watch the weird and wonderful sights of the city pass by.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often listed as one of the natural wonders of the world. We booked on to the Golden Sun 3 day 2 night junk cruise which visited both Halong Bay and the less touristy area of Lan Ha Bay. After a 3 hour drive from Hanoi, we boarded our boat and sailed through the bay, soon surrounded by huge limestone karsts protruding out of the blue waters. In the afternoon we visited Hang Sung Sot cave which has 3 chambers, each one larger and more impressive than the previous one.

We also visited Ti Top viewpoint which has 360 degree views of the bay. Unfortunately it had started to drizzle which meant the views weren’t as impressive as we’d hoped, but it did make for a rather atmospheric setting. The evening meal aboard the ship was incredible and included lots of seafood such as shrimp, squid and oysters. The food was abundant and we were all very satisfied by the end of the meal.

The following morning we sailed to Lan Ha Bay which was a much quieter area with only a few other boats. We kayaked around the bay and through arches worn into the karsts before pulling up on a small beach to play frisbee. Tonight was New Years Eve and after another delicious meal we drank and danced the night away. It was a beautiful place to see in the New Year.

On the last day we decided to give the early morning kayaking a miss. Instead, we opted for a lie in and a more relaxed morning as we were all feeling slightly worse for wear after last night’s celebrations.

Next stop: Ninh Binh, Vietnam

3 Day Kayak – Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang can be reached in around 4 hours by minivan from Nong Khiaw. Instead we decided to take a much slower, but more scenic route, 3 days by kayak. We were joined by another English couple, Hannah and Ross who were great fun. Having only kayaked for 1 day before we knew this would be tough, but we were ready for the challenge. Until the rain started that is!

Just as we set off on the first morning the heavens opened and we endured 3 hours of torrential rain. The visibility was very poor and we were soaked, we had no choice but to keep on rowing and hope the weather would improve. Luckily the sun came out around lunch time and dried us out for a much more enjoyable afternoon. Now we could fully appreciate the beautiful scenery that surrounded us. We stopped by at a fisherman’s house to get our dinner, a fish, which was tied to the kayak and pulled along for the rest of the journey.

The new dam, built by China, has ground this section of the Nam Ou river to a halt. It was more like kayaking on a lake than a river, but it certainly made for a good upper body workout. After 6 hours kayaking our arms were starting to ache and we were very glad to arrive at our homestay in a traditional Khmu village. Thong, our guide, prepared our dinner of sticky rice, fish marinated in its own blood, rat and crickets. He also told us about his life in Laos, how the healthcare is almost non existent unless you have the money. His family tried to sell their home and belongings to get emergency medical treatment for his father, but they still couldn’t afford it. It certainly makes us appreciate the healthcare service we have back in England.

The village was holding a funeral ceremony that day which seemed more of a celebration than a sad occasion. The funerals are always held at the end of the year, regardless of when the person died. We were invited to join them for the occasion, the music was blasting out of the speakers while we drank and danced the night away with the villagers. The villagers were very welcoming and hospitable, continually offering us free Lao-Lao (Laos whisky) shots and sunflower seeds for nibbles. They even put on some western music for us. It was a great way of celebrating Sam’s birthday and he spent most of the night dancing with little old ladies, who were enjoying the ‘party’ just as much as we were. This is one of the best nights we’ve had on our trip, who knew funerals could be so fun.

After a very restless nights sleep (the music from the funeral party was blaring until dawn) we were driven for an hour down river past the Chinese dam. The dam was a monstrosity and has had a devastating impact. Villages and their farmlands have been flooded, forcing hundreds of families to move into more modern ‘flat pack Ikea’ looking villages. The dam also affects fish migration and is depleting the fish which are heavily relied on by the villagers for both food and income. Despite the devastation, Laos gets a mere 10% of the energy generated from the dam.

The second day of kayaking was much easier on the arms as the river was flowing faster. There were also some large rapids to contend with which made it more exciting and thankfully we managed to keep our kayak upright this time! We arrived in our second village homestay ready for a good nights sleep and were very grateful for a peaceful evening without the pumping party music.

The final day we kayaked down the last stretch of the Nam Ou river with huge limestone karsts towering over us. We then joined the Mekong and had a quick stop at Pak Ou caves which are filled with hundreds of tiny Buddha statues. We kayaked for another hour before reaching our destination, after a fantastic 3 days we were quite sad it was all over. Our arms were certainly ready for a good rest though.

Next stop: Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Namtha, Laos

Luang Namtha is a small town in the north east of Laos and is a great place for trekking and rafting. We arrived in Luang Namtha after a 7 hour direct bus from Chiang Rai, with a quick stop at the border to sort our visas. The differences between Thailand and Laos soon became apparent after crossing the border. Laos is much more rugged, and is significantly less developed both in terms of its housing and roads.

Luang Namtha and the surrounding villages are ideal for exploring by scooter or bicycle. We visited the That Phoum Pouk temple which was bombed during the Vietnam war, a new temple has now been built next to the ruins. We also visited That Luang Namtha temple as it has a path behind it, through a rubber plantation, up to a viewpoint which looked out over the town and rolling hills. In the afternoon we drove to the waterfall in Ban Nam Dee village and had it all to ourselves.

The following day we started a 2 day 1 night adventure in the Nam Ha National Protected Area. The first day we trekked through the jungle and spent the night in a Khmu ethnic village, staying with one of the families. The village was beautiful and very traditional; lots of animals running around, children playing and even helping with the daily chores such as collecting food and water from the pump. Life is simple here but the people seem very happy. That night we watched as our dinner, a duck, was bled, plucked and gutted. Not something we often see in the western world. We really enjoyed our stay in the village and would have happily stayed here a lot longer.

The next day we kayaked for 5 hours down the Nam Ha river with primary rainforest on either side of the river banks. The rapids were really fun and we were doing quite well avoiding the rocks until right near the end when we flipped our kayak! We both lost our sunglasses, but at least we had fun doing it.

Next stop: Nong Khiaw, Laos