A Travellerspoint blog

Traversing Thailand

The 'Land of Smiles' delivers!

Having cancelled our ferry booking with Tigerline and stayed in a hotel overnight, we began our mammoth journey to the Thai island of Ko Lanta.
The first leg was by ferry where passenger safety wasn't top priority and all bags were propmptly dumped in a heap on the muster station and conveniently blocked our emergency exit door! After a safe and fairly easy crossing into Thailand we hopped on the back of a truck to a bus station, where we caught a bright pink double-decker bus. On arrival in Trang we were picked up in a 4x4 and taken to a nearby mini-bus terminal. Our mini-bus then drove north through wet conditions and via 2 ferries before we finally arrived at our island paradise, just 12 hours after we started!

Thankfully, the island of Ko Lanta was a great introduction to Thailand. With it's long white sand beaches, warm seas and friendly people it was a very relaxing island where we spent many a happy day sun-bathing, swimming, walking, shopping and dining out. Lucy also indulged in a Thai massage on the beach and we soon put our recent travel tribulations behind us!

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After a week of relaxation, we reluctantly moved on, and so caught a scenic ferry to the headland of Railay, which many refer to as an island because it is only accessible by long-boat. As you can imagine, this means that it is relatively unspoilt and very relaxed.
We stayed in a jungle bungalow set in beautiful surroundings where you could hear the high-pitched 'whooping' of gibbons throughout the day.

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We spent 5 blissful days in Railay, sunning ourselves on what have to be some of the best beaches in the world. After a tough morning sunbathing and swimming we would buy our lunch of Pad Thai noodles from a longboat anchored by the shore, and then relax until the sun went down over the horizon for a romantic end to the day!

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We also enjoyed watching the numerous cheeky monkeys that inhabit the island:

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We built up some seriously good tans here before deciding to move on once again, hoping to go to Khao Sok National Park.

Unfortunately, the journey was fraught with problems! First Lucy lost her balance when the pavement disappeared on the way to our longboat in the morning, and had some very nasty cuts and grazes to deal with. The locals were very kind, rushing to our aid with antiseptic and tissues!

We then had to contend with a 2 hour wait on the beach until there were enough people to fill a long-boat followed by a taxi into Krabi town. We then discovered that the local bus didn't stop at the National Park, as we'd been told, and so we would have to go to Surat Thani and then get another bus to the park. We later found out this is the worst place for scams and fake travel agents in the whole of Thailand!
After some very heated conversations with several 'agents' trying to over-charge us, it became clear that we couldn't get to Khao Sok without being ripped off!

In the end we got a hotel for the night, eventually made it to the train station the next morning (after jumping out of a taxi who wouldn't take us to the station as requested, but back to the dodgy travel agents again!) and after a 6-hour wait jumped on the 17:30 overnight train to Bangkok, where we would have an hours wait before boarding another 12 hour train up to Chiang Mai in the north. We plan to explore Bangkok just before we fly home!

We were very impressed on the train with the efficiency with which our seats were quickly converted into bunk beds for the evening, and by 8pm the whole carriage was quiet except for the vendors who joined at stations to sell food and drink.

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We both managed a surprisingly good nights sleep and arrived in Bangkok around 6am, where we had some breakfast and a cold shower before catching the 8am train to Chiang Mai. We spent several days exploring the delights of Chiang Mai, which we had been reliably informed was a friendly and relaxing city. It has some of the finest temples in the country as well as a huge Sunday night-market which has to be seen to be believed!

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It was here that we met an English couple Ruth and Liam, they were doing a 2-day trek north of Chiang Mai and asked us if we would be interested in joining them. Staying with one of the remote hill-tribe villages - the Karen people, Elephant riding and bamboo rafting - it all sounded great so we decided to sign up for the trek.

Our trek was quite an experience! On the first day, we drove to bathe in some impressive waterfalls and hot-springs before setting out on our 5-hour trek through hills and villages to our destination for the night.

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On the way, one of our party was taken ill and our progress was a little slow in the heat anyway (the hike was all either uphill or downhill - very hard on our unconditioned legs!) and so we descended the last hill in the twilight of evening, making it to our village for the evening just as darkness really began to take hold, and the stars came out in force.

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Our accommodation for the evening was a large bamboo hut which was pretty much open-air. We slept on bamboo floors on roll-out fabric mattresses underneath mosquito nights. Hardly luxurious but we've learnt along the way that we can cope with most conditions just so long as it's only for one night!

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After some much-needed food cooked by our friendly guide, we all hit the sack (literally) by 8pm and managed to get enough sleep to prepare us for an exciting day ahead!

Day 2 of our trek was where the fun really began - elephant riding and bamboo-rafting down the river!

First up was elephant riding, as our mahout (elephant teacher) positioned our elephant next to some high wooden steps which we climbed carefully before gingerly stepping on our young females neck and swung around to plonk down on the wooden seat positioned behind our mahout.

Little did we know just how spirited our young female elephant would turn out to be! Somewhat of a teenage delinquent, she followed the other elephants as we set off along and across the river but then proceeded to take as many detours along the way as she saw fit, tearing branches off trees and having a good sniff of any interesting items along the way.

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However, things got a little out of hand when a large group of children white-water rafting down the river began to make too much noise and passed too close to our elephant. Emanating a booming, deep growl, she turned to the passing rafts in the water and flapped her ears in warning before raising her trunk to release a loud, angry roar of power! As we peered over the elephant towards the steep bank below, we began to wonder just what the protocol was if you happened to find yourself astride an angry, charging elephant!

Luckily, another older elephant approached and used its trunk to make reassuring stroking gestures on the face of our elephant, blowing gently to calm it down. A really touching and sweet moment, despite the rising panic we both felt!

We then began to cross the river again, only to be faced with a similar scenario as the rafters insisted upon encroaching upon our elephants company! This time our young lady turned right around to face the rafters, who were by this point all wearing faces of real fear as our elephant roared at them once more.

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Thankfully, they heeded our warnings to be quiet and we eventually crossed the river before enjoying the rest of the journey without incident!
Although it was a little unnerving at times we admired her spirit and character and it made the ride that little more exciting too!

After alighting our elephant on a steep bank further down the river, we said goodbye and held our hands for the elephant to once again sniff with her trunk before she returned to her village back up the river. Next up for us was bamboo-rafting!

With Richard, Liam and a very hungover guide steering the back of the raft, we managed to make it back to the mini-van in one piece, but not entirely dry! We felt pleased with our effort, having navigated some fast and rocky stretches using nothing more than large bamboo poles and our tired arms!

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The next few days were spent relaxing and taking in the sights of Chiang Mai, especially the walled 'Old Quarter' where we were staying. We also picked up a parcel from home, containing a few luxuries and our Christmas present, which were very welcome as we were soon to be leaving for Laos, where we would be spending the Yuletide in Luang Prabang.

Departing Chiang Mai, we caught a bus to Chiang Khong, jumped on a tuk-tuk and after going through Thai immigration we headed down to the shores of the Mekong, where we caught a long-boat for the 500m journey to the other side and stepped onto Laos land!

After going through immigration, we found a hotel for the evening in Houay Xai and bought some cushions in preparation for the hard wooden seats of the 2-day slow-boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.

Our Laos travels will follow in the next post.

Hope you're all well back home and have weathered the winter storms. Looking forward to seeing you all very soon!

Love Lucy and Richard.

PS As always, photos for those who don't like reading are here!

Posted by rioandlucy 19:07 Archived in Thailand Comments (4)

Malaysian Memoirs!

Beaches, buses and bogus boats!

We arrived into Kuala Lumpur station and queued for a ticket for a cab to the hotel we'd booked online.
Upon arriving at the hotel, they informed us that they didn't have a booking for us, and that we'd been taken to the wrong place. Our taxi had left by this point. Great!
Another taxi driver wanted twice the original fair to take us to the other hotel, so in true Yorkshire style we declined his kind offer and, fully loaded with our rucksacks, trawled through the heaving Indian quarter of the city to the correct hotel.
After many complications and heated conversations, we finally got into our room and collapsed on the bed!

Kuala Lumpur holds limited appeal for tourists, the highlight of our stay was the Petronas Twin Towers Skybridge.

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Needing a change from the rain and over-crowding within the city, we booked another train north - this time to the island state of Penang (or Georgetown), an old colonial strong-hold for the East India Trading Company and many ambitious Dutch and English businessmen.

In Penang, we bought our visas for Thailand whilst exploring the old settlements within the city. We also booked some tickets to sail to the island of Langkawi, where we could stay for a few days before heading into Thailand by sea.

Fort Cornwallis was a well preserved relic from the Britain's colonial past, and there were many fine temples and interesting side-streets to explore.

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While getting the ferry to Langkawi, we were somewhat alarmed by the local safety 'procedures', which included creating a huge pile of travellers' luggage right in front of the exits and the muster station. We prayed for an uneventful crossing!

Arriving on the island of Langkawi, we headed to Pantai Cenang - a popular travellers destination due to its gorgeous beaches and affordable accommodation.

We spent a few days relaxing on the beach and topping up our tans, also visiting a night market to sample some of the local food. We also visited the local paddy field museum and gained an insight into the history of the local agriculture and all things rice from a personal guide!

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From Langkawi, we booked our ferry tickets to the Thai island of Ko Lanta and readied ourselves to depart on the 09:00 ferry.
Unfortunately, the ferry company we booked with (Tigerline Ferries) weren't as honest as they could have been, and sent us to the wrong harbour despite our numerous calls to their call centre to check our details. As it turned out, our ferry left from a different harbour and we had to take a taxi to a Starbucks on the other end of the island, where we then had to fight tooth and claw to get our money back off a dodgy representative of Tigerline called 'Mr Adam', who turned out to be a pathological liar!

We ended up staying an extra night on the island and then catching a ferry to Satun, where we crossed into Thailand and caught numerous buses and minibuses to reach Ko Lanta.

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A twelve hour journey later, and we'd arrived at Thip House, ready to start our Thai adventure!

By the way, if you want to see lots more photos from our whole trip, you can view our full photo gallery here!

Posted by rioandlucy 01:41 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Seasons Greetings!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Luang Prabang, Laos

Hi everyone,

We hope you've all had a great Yuletide and aren't too sick of turkey leftovers by now!

We had a lovely Christmas staying in luxury courtesy of Lucy's Folks (thanks M&G), we even indulged in a few gifts to open on Christmas morning, as well as a Christmas classic to watch in the evening! You can't beat an Indiana Jones movie accompanied by copious amounts of Christmas chocolate to finish the day off properly!

Here's a photo of us enjoying our Christmas dinner, thanks to Abigail and David (well, the nearest we could find to one!) in Luang Prabang, one of the most beautiful and peaceful cities in the whole of South East Asia.

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We're working on a new update, covering Thailand and Laos, so have a great new year and we look forward to seeing you all in 2010!

Lots of love
Lucy and Richard

Posted by rioandlucy 02:04 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

A Singapore Fling

Shopping, Slings and Shiny Things!

After a relatively short flight from Darwin (just 4 hours thankfully) we arrived in Singapore by early evening and were reminded of our first night in New York as we travelled through the city to our hotel, sky-scrapers and shopping centres impressive in stature and colour as the city geared up for Christmas in a big way!

The next morning was muggy and wet as we headed on the MRT (the length of the trains has to be seen to believed, and they positively rocket through the stations!) into Singapore to hunt for a bargain camera.
Our old Sony camera had almost given up the ghost (having taken 11,000 pictures during our trip to date and done plenty of sand-boarding and mountain-climbing with us!) and we didn’t want to get caught in Cambodia or Laos without anything to take photos with or anywhere to buy a new one!
After a little frustration and much haggling, we managed to strike a deal for the model we wanted and were now ready to explore and photograph the city!

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The following morning we headed into the Chinatown district, where market stalls for tourists, Buddhist temples and red lanterns bobbing above our heads were the order of the day!
The streets of Chinatown themselves are a visual treat, despite the best efforts of the government in the 1970’s to level the area and build concrete monstrosities in misguided modernisation attempts. The area still thankfully retains a lot of its original character and many a happy moment can be spent browsing the market stalls.

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We visited the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple where we allowed to take photos of the opulent, gleaming main hall of worship in which monks and worshippers were chanting and singing while banging drums and burning incense, quite a heady mix.

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We had our first taste of real Asian fare with a plateful of tasty noodles for next to nothing at the hawker centre across the road, after which we hopped into a cab and headed for the iconic Raffles hotel, driving into the main entrance where the Indian concierge dressed in old colonial uniform opened our door and welcomed us to the establishment!

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Having arrived in style, the one place all non-residents want to visit is the Long Bar, which serves up the finest Singapore Slings in town for a mere $27 (around £13!). Lucy indulged while Richard polished off the free peanuts, scattering his empty shells on the floor, at that price we were making as much mess as possible!

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In the evening, we visited the main shopping area on Orchard Road, which was visually astonishing - much akin to Times Square but cleaner and more modern.
The Christmas lights were a real spectacle, with lights and baubles hanging from every tree and lamp stand along the road. All the shopping centres were also decked out with some amazing shop front displays. Apparently there is a yearly competition for the best decorated frontage and it really shows, putting Oxford Street to shame!

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The following day we headed for Merlion Park. This is one of the iconic sights of the city. The Merlion is an imaginary creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. Its name combines "mer" meaning the sea from Singapore's ancient name back when it was a fishing village — Temasek — meaning "sea town" in Javanese, and "lion" which represents Singapore's original name — Singapura — meaning "lion city" or "kota singa" (thanks Wikipedia!).

It’s a sight best taken in by night - the cityscape back-drop impressively illuminated as water flows from the mouth of the Merlion in the foreground!

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The next morning it was time to leave Singapore, and so we headed to the station to purchase a couple of tickets to Kuala Lumpur with our debit card. Little did we know that they only took American Express or Diners Club (of course!) and our train left in half hour - oh yeah did we mention that we didn’t have enough cash on us (since we were leaving the country) and that there wasn’t a cash point in the train station?!
Richard made dash to an ATM a 10 minute sprint away, a hasty cash withdrawal and a sprint back to the station to buy the tickets and get through immigration before the train left!
So a slightly sweaty and stressful end to our time in Singapore as we pulled out of the station - Malaysian immigration awaited at the next stop (everybody off!) and Kuala Lumpur beckoned far in the distance…

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Posted by rioandlucy 06:53 Archived in Singapore Comments (1)

Journey to the Red Centre

Roadtrains, Roos and a big red Rock!

We set off from Townsville on the east coast, eagerly anticipating our road-trip across the geographical and cultural heart of the country.
We weren't to be disappointed.

It was one of the best experiences either of us have ever had. In just 2 weeks we covered a distance of 5031 kilometres!

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Driving through the outback is amazing, in terms of the sheer scale and inhospitable nature of the place as well as the sights you see (9 foot anthills, swarms of huge grasshoppers, birds of prey, lizards and kangaroos everywhere!). At times it was so hot that when you stepped out of the car, you could only bear it for 30 seconds before you had to get back in and turn on the air-conditioning!

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When it's almost 40 degrees, what might be a nice cooling breeze elsewhere actually feels like someone has turned on the fan of an industrial heater and aimed it at your face! It actually makes you feel a little nauseous as it's so unpleasantly hot! Couple that with the multitude of flies that instantly attack you (literally - you run around waving your arms like a maniac!) and you can see why we decided to take 20 litres of water and the same amount of fuel with us. Just in case. You don't want to get caught short on anything in this part of the world, in case you get a flat tyre or break down.

We did actually come across 2 Swiss girls who'd crashed and rolled their car about 100 yards into the bush - it looked like it had been there a long time as the car was an absolute wreck and covered in dirt, but the crash had only just happened.

Luckily, some off-duty cops had already stopped and were helping the shocked and bleeding girls away from the wreckage. We were very wary about stopping when first flagged down and kept the car rolling with the window only slightly down (Richard had his foot on the gas!) but it soon became clear as we slowed that there was a genuine problem.

The girls were okay in the end, we helped put their stuff in the back of a pick-up and they were taken to a medical centre a couple of hundred kilometres away.

On the way to Uluru, we stayed at some strange little villages where there was one high street, a couple of residential roads, a petrol station, spit and sawdust (literally) pub and very little else. We kept ourselves to ourselves and moved on early in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat and to just be on our way!

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On average, we drove around 500km a day, setting off around 7am and usually arriving at our destination by 2 or 3pm. Driving in the afternoon in that sort of heat is no fun, air conditioning or not. It can be very tiring and the straight roads can hypnotise you quite easily, so we made a point of swapping drivers every 90 minutes or so.

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Having driven through the ‘interesting’ outback towns of Hughendon, Mount Isa, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, we covered 2512 kilometres and made it to Yulara, the resort outside of Uluru National Park (Ayers Rock) in less than a week. After all that driving there was only one thing left to do, so we set about making sure we had the best seats in the house for the sunset viewing that evening!

We were not disappointed by the experience, it was breathtaking. It was incredible to see how the colour of the rock seemed to change from second to second, warm pink to orange then cool brown back to earthy red, all in the matter of a few minutes. We sat on the edge of Maggie’s open boot, drank warm coke and enjoyed the magical display for well over an hour and long after darkness had fallen. We both had a feeling that we’d finally experienced a little of what Australia is really about.

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Eager for more we set our alarm for 4.30am the following morning in order to see the sunrise. It was surprising chilly as we watched Uluru, and waited for her colours to come alive. Just after 6am the first rays of sunlight hit the rock and it lit up, we watched intently as the colours intensified, getting warmer with every second.

It appeared almost alive as it pulsated as every new ray of sunlight passed over it’s surface, just as with the sunset Uluru seemed to glow. It was a spectacular display and a very humbling experience, it’s easy to see why people have been inspired by this very spiritual place for tens of thousands of years.

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Everyone is asked NOT to climb Uluru, due to its spiritual and cultural significance, but still many people choose to ignore this request and put their lives in danger, it’s a perilously steep hike. Unfortunately those people who do climb often are ‘caught short’ at the top and thanks to them the watering holes that surround this area have now been poisoned so badly that it will take years of work to undo the damage caused. The traditional owners are hopeful that the climb will be closed in the next 18 months, maybe animals will in time return to this area.

We decided that rather than climb we would walk the 10 kilometres around the base of the rock, starting with a Ranger guided walk along the Mala track. We met our guide at 8am, he was able to share with us some of the stories of how the land was created, how the park was returned to the people and is now jointly managed with the traditional owners.

He also showed us some of the rock art sites and told us about some of the plants and their uses. We finished this part of the walk at the stunning Kantju Gorge and enjoyed a brief moment of cool shade before we continued along the base walk.

As the morning wore on the colours of the rock changed again, from bright orange to almost peach, in places where the rock had weathered away it appeared like rusting metal. Every corner we turned provided another wonderful perspective of this awe-inspiring place, caves, boulders, colours, contours all there for the eye to explore. It really is so much more than just a big red rock once you get up close and personal.

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As the midday sun beat down we were glad to reach the end of the walk and the wonderful air-conditioned sanctuary of Maggie.

Our short time exploring this wonderful part of the country was well worth each and every kilometre driven to get here, next stop Kings Canyon!

The drive to the scenic Kings Canyon area was around 400km, a short journey by this trips standards! Here you could walk through the canyon on various routes and also visit Kathleen Springs.

On our first evening, we took a little picnic to the viewing platform at the back of our accommodation and watched the sunset over Kings Canyon.

It was a more subtle experience than sunset over Uluru, and while the canyon looked great, the evening sky was also impressive. We could see for miles and the subtle changes in the colour of the sky as the sun went down were really lovely - hues of pink, purple and blue over the canyon and orange rays of evening sunshine lighting up huge cloud formations - as the photos below illustrate:

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Early the next morning (to avoid the worst of the heat) we walked through the deep valley of the Kings Canyon. Huge cliffs on either side were decorated with massive red boulders as we stepped through dried-up river beds lined with trees, some flourishing and others burnt-out.

It was good to see that Aboriginals’ beliefs in the area were being well respected with sacred areas being fenced off. Having reached the end of the walk, we came to a huge natural amphitheatre with a fantastic echo and fascinating cliff faces with over-hangs that seemed to defy gravity!

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Later that afternoon, we took a trip to Kathleen Springs, which is a smaller valley than that of Kings Canyon but just as interesting. The end of this trek brought us to a small green oasis at the bottom of a cliff face, the cliffs and trees there offering welcome respite from the unrelenting heat of the sun.

The water hole here is a sacred area, believed to be inhabited by a Rainbow Serpent (a universal Aboriginal figure, regardless of area or tribe, who appears in many ancient stories and is believed to have helped shape the landscape in this area) who must not be disturbed or disrespected, lest he becomes angry and wrathful! Luckily, we did neither!

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Kakadu National Park was also an extraordinary place, we went on a boat trip down the East Alligator River where freshwater crocodiles could be seen in their dozens as we sailed through amazing tropical scenery towards sacred Aboriginal areas.
Our Aboriginal guide steering the boat shared his knowledge of the wildlife and cultural history of the local area as he steered us round the crocs!

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We also visited the Bowali Visitors Centre to find out about walks in the area and watch a video about the wildlife of a nearby billabong.

One of the areas of interest that was recommended to us was the Nourlangie Rock. Here we found amazing lookouts and also ancient cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. The rock art really is incredible. Some consist of block colours, others have fine detailing and many are still vibrant in colour, astonishing when you consider the thousands of years that have passed since they were painted.

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The nearby Anbangbang shelter has provided local people with refuge from the elements for the last 20,000 years. Evidence of this can be seen on the rocks, which have been used to grind seeds. Take a look at the picture below - you can clearly see the round indentations carved out over the years.

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Not far from here was the Nawurlandja Lookout, a huge sloping rocky outcrop which seemed to go on forever (we gave up trying to find its summit under the relentless mid-morning sun!) and provided stunning views of the vast bush land wilderness which extends further than the eye can see! Being there made us feel really lucky, and also quite insignificant in the face of such overwhelming and untamed natural beauty.

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So we feel like we've really seen some of the history and heritage of Australia now, especially regarding the Aboriginal people. The injustices, prejudices and crimes committed against these people are hard to believe. It's another story of genocide that's been neatly swept under the carpet but is at least slowly being recognised today.

We'd left ourselves 2 weeks to sell the car in Darwin, and true to form (we sold our car in NZ in double-quick time) we sold it on our first evening here to some likeable European lads, who offered us the right money there and then (well, after 2 test drives and some phone calls back to Dads in Germany!).

So our budget for SE Asia is looking quite healthy, meaning we can afford to stay in reasonable accommodation and avoid the budget buses (where many Westerners have their baggage rifled through and the drivers work 23 hours straight in one shift!).

Darwin is extremely hot and humid (though not quite as hot as Kakadu, where it was in the high 30's/low 40's on some days), meaning that when we've not been in the lovely air-conditioned library using the free wi-fi, we've been sunbathing by the hostel pool or swimming in the outdoor pool near the amusingly named 'Fannie Bay'!

We went to an excellent evening market last week which was on Mindil beach. It had live bands, stalls selling every kind of international food imaginable, arts and craft stalls and cheap clothes too. We bought delicious curry, then ate it on the beach as the sun set over the sea and the band played in the background. It made us feel really privileged just to be there, soaking up the carnival atmosphere! We enjoyed it so much that we went back the following Thursday for the last market of the season, which ended with a bang! We sat on the dark beach with hundreds of others and enjoyed a spectacular firework display.

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We also went to a fantastic open-air cinema on Saturday night, watching Balibo and the Stone Brothers under the stars while sitting on deck chairs and spotting the occasional bat fly across the full moon above (it was Halloween after all!).

We've booked our hotel in Singapore, it's a little more expensive than our daily budget allows for, but we've got a surplus now and wanted to ease our way gently into our Asian experience - it's going to be a little more challenging than the countries we've visited so far (except perhaps Fiji) and so didn't want to start off staying somewhere that wasn't a sanctuary when we need to get away from all the hustle and bustle!

So it's next stop Singapore!

Posted by rioandlucy 17:34 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

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