Reeling in the Year:2014

Today marks one year since we pulled on our rucksacks and said goodbye to Lucy and Martin in Greenwich, London. We boarded the train to Heathrow with a one way ticket to Perth Australia via Delhi, Bangkok and Bali. Our tummies were tumbling, there was mixture of excitement, fear, sadness and nerves inside. Little did we know where our journey would take us or what we would learn along the way.

January 5th: Lift-off!

January 5th: Lift-off!

We arrived at a packed Heathrow airport and joined the massive Jet Airways queue, we had forgotten how busy it would be with families returning home after Christmas. In the end we had little time to reflect in the airport as we were through security, grabbed a coffee and a celeb photo before a last minute good bye call to our families. With hindsight it was probably best it was short- we were both emotional wrecks.

Soon we were on our way to India…

Our journey had many twists and turns throughout the year as we reached our destination Sydney, Australia in time to celebrate New year’s 2015. We have tried to summaries our amazing year with a few stories along the way.

January

We landed in Delhi after sharing a plane with Madness front-man Suggs and within the hour we were facing our first scam artists – selling us ‘Government Permission to stay in Hotel’. Waving them away we manoeuvred our way to the hotel via Delhi’s busy and noisy streets. The next two weeks were a bit of a blur as we raced against time to get down to Mumbai for the Deane – Parekh Bollywood Wedding. To get there we had to visit the Taj Mahal, the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur and the ‘indigo city’ of Jodhpur before finishing in the ‘white city’ of Udaipur.

In between we were co-opted into a Bishnoi Village, slept in a cow dung hut and smuggled Karen’s Ipad into Ranakpur Temple. We sampled some of the best food of the trip in this region. We will never forget the train stations in India!

 

The later half of January was given over to a 4 day Gujarati Wedding involving Henna, Sari’s, dancing in the streets and Kurtas , and a few days chilling on the beaches of Goa – where John turned 30 and JK got engaged. As Karen writes this almost a year on, she is still in shock.

After the break in Goa we headed back inland to explore the amazing temple city of Hampi – with it’s ruined temples and river. A quick stop off in Bangalore was followed by a great two weeks exploring the beautiful Kerala travelling by local bus. We cannot forgot to mention the story of Karen using John’s Pyjama trousers as a shield from the sun on the windowless bus journeys.

Sickness Counter: John 1 (Goa), Karen 1 (Hampi)

February

We began our visit to Kerala by staying with probably one of the greatest hosts we have ever met – Beena! Located in Kochi she did everything from cook us great meals, to booking us tickets to Kathkali Dancing and most importantly, allowed us to keep our big bags so that we could explore the rest of Kerala unencumbered.

Kochi is a bizarre mix of cultures. Portuguese Churches, Dutch Houses, an English fort, Chinese Fishing Nets, and Jewish Markets all serviced by an Indian work force. We took this all in from our vantage point in a small juice bar in the centre of town.

Our next stop was up in the hills of Munnar and it’s world famous tea plantations. To get there we had to ride on a local bus – a creation of rusted metal and old leather that uncompromisingly abandoned us on the mountainside many kilometres from our guesthouse. If India has some of the best food in the world it also has some of the worst and it was here, in Kunchitanny that we were subjected to it. You know it’s kind of suspicious when the owner is overexcited when ‘summoning’ you to dinner.

With 2 points of the square done it was off to Thekkady to visit the Periyar Wildlife Park and to engage in some clandestine ‘high tea’ and a live cooking demonstration in some randomer’s house. We also discovered the secret to the population’s heightened awareness in Kerala – they put sugar in everything!!

The last stop on our Kerala mystery tour was Allepey and the backwaters – but we almost didn’t make it here! A broken down bus and John having to go pee at the most inappropriate time almost stranded us! But we made it and stayed in the worst accommodation of the entire trip – Mandala’s Beach Hut on Allepey Beach! Karen still has nightmares.

But it was a bit of penance to make our boat trip worth it and it paid off. For two days we sailed through the backwaters, eating like kings and chilling on the sundeck while we passed other boat people, duck herders and stopped off at small villages. During one of our stops John decided to get his hair cut with disastrous consequences!

With two weeks left in February it was time to move on from India. Our next stop was to be the mountainous Kingdom of Nepal…

Our first day brought our first room upgrade of the trip. We would be staying in SUPER DELUXE in Kathmandu.Our first few days were spent exploring the backstreets. We then travelled out to medieval Bhaktapur where we spent two days wandering around. This included a disastrous day-trip out to Dhulikhel in search of vistas of Everest and left us soaking wet eating crisps and drinking 7-up in a small shop on the side of the mountain.

One of our challenges on this trip was to do some hiking in the Himalayas and we decided to do this in the Annapurra Range. We had to get to Pokhara to do this so we jumped into the shakiest and smallest aircraft either of us had flown on for the hour long flight. Whilst waiting for our hiking trip to begin we did some white water rafting and visited a Tibetan Refugee camp.

With John feeling sick we needed a super guide to bring us up the mountain and we got that in Gunis. By day he was a ranger – picking the right paths and knowing the best places to stop. By night he was a bit of diva – singing and showing off his language skills. He used to sing “No Woman No Cry, No Dhal Bhat We Die!” in front of the fireplace at every tea house. On our last morning he managed to guide Karen to the summit at Poon Hill and with his disappointed looking eyes managed to sway John from giving up on many occasions.

After the high of climbing the mountain we had the low of spending a night in Bandipur – a one horse hilltop village with no reason to exist! We were so glad to leave the next morning that we overlooked the fact that our bus had no hand-brake save for two boys who would jump off the bus at a stop with concrete blocks

We finished up Nepal back where we started, in Kathmandu. Here we met an local alumni from Ayr College and visited the amazing Stupa at Boudhnath. We also had dinner with a girl called Frances (from Waterford) who we had met back up in the mountain.

March

We encountered our first land border crossing from Thailand in Cambodia on a mission to reach Sisophon in time for the big fat Khmer wedding of Charya and Michel without falling for any border scams. This crossing was after too many days spent around the Koh San Road in Bangkok sampling pad thai and tiger beers. We enjoyed a return to easy Asia after our Indian and Nepalese adventures. March is one of our favourite months of the trip as we spent almost the entire month in Cambodia.

The month included the craziness of partaking in a Khmer wedding, drinking stout with ice and straws with the locals, joining the processions and the dancing, not to mention several days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat on foot and by bicycle. These temples were amazing and are one of our true highlights of the trip.

Our trip also opened our eyes to Cambodian history as we knew very little about the Khmer Rouge regime. Visiting S21 prison and the killing fields of Cheong Ek were haunting and the images will stay with us forever. The fact that these places have been preserved and adapted as memorials and museums is testament to the Cambodian People’s willingless to not forget the past. After the emotional trip in Phnom Pehn we headed to the beautiful south coast for some reflection and quiet time.

Treating ourselves to the amazing Spring Valley resort in the sleepy town of Kep we spent the days walking the coast while enjoying great seafood at night at the crab markets. This was followed by an adventure in the nearby town of Kampot where we celebrated St Patrick’s Day and an excursion to the French hill station at Bokor Hill.

No trip to the coast would be complete without a visit to Otres beach – we spent a week here relaxing in our hammocks before jumping on a boat to the even sleepier place on the island of Koh Rong – palm resort. Here we made some new lovely friends James and Amy. All that was left was a return visit to Phnom Pehn to visit some locals,Charya and Michel. Oh and for John to get his tooth out!!

April

Good Morning Vietnam!!! Our first stop was Saigon and a deep dive into the history of the Vietnam War with a trip to the Vietcong Tunnels at Cu Chi as well as the War Museum. We also had our first introduction to Vietnamese food via a Motorbike tour of the city and joined in with the sidewalk bar scene.

Travelling up the coast we visited the desert in Mui Ne, tasted local wine and strawberries in Dalat before assimilating to the Russian culture in Nha Trang, where we also had our first mud bath!

Vietnam is such a long country and with a festival on at Hue we had no choice but to grab a flight, landing in Danang. Danang was only ok but we were immediately rewarded with a great stay in Hoi An. There was Everton playing on the tv which John watched with the hosts husband, great food, cycling around the rice paddy fields and lantern shows to keep us occupied. But the best was for last…

Motorcycling from Hoi An, over the famous Hui Van Pass to Hue. This was a once in a lifetime experience and we had such a great guide in Mr. Thong.

In Hue it was festival time so there was plenty going on and we stayed in a great family run hotel. It was also in Hue where John started showing signs of Pho Bo delirium – it was all he would eat!

From Hue we went North and to a reunion with an old friend in Hanoi. It was great catching up with Linh and Long and they were a great help and hosts. In the city we took in the culture and went to see the Water Puppets (just like Karen and Paula had done all those years ago!). Vietnam was a great month so we needed to finish it on a massive high. We did this with 2 trips.

First we sailed around Ha Long Bay. Exploring caves, swimming, kayaking and sharing travel stories. Then it was onto Sa Pa (via the Rock n Roll Train). Sa Pa was 3 days of breathtaking mountainside country views and great hiking treks. It was annoying that we were only 5km from the Chinese border but couldn’t enter, well not until June anyways 🙂

May

May was a very busy month with 3 countries chalked up. First we moved west from North Vietnam into the Republic of Laos starting in the capital city Vientiane. Swiftly moving north, we stopped at Vang Vieng and indulged in a little tubing and met some good travel buddies in Anna and Leigh (who now live in Western Australia!). Before too long it was back on the bus and up to Luang Prabang where we took in the Alms procession and a boat trip to the Pak Ou Caves and it’s 10,000 Buddha statues. Our penultimate stop was in Nong Khiaw – a sleepy village further north and it was only torrential storms that hindered our further progress into the Laotian highlands.

In true backpacker fashion we opted for the 2 day slow boat to Thailand. This felt a lot longer as John was sick off of some dodgy tuna sandwiches.

Northern Thailand was such a contrast to the southern islands. The food was spicy and tasty and the people more laid back. Being Irish, John only had 15 days on his visa for a land crossing so we had a lot to fit it. We took in the spectacular temples in Chiang Rai to the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai, where we did our first cooking in nearly 5 months. We then finished our Thai trip with the ruined Kingdom of Sukhotai and the Elephant Sanctuary in Lampang.

A few more days in Chiang Mai and we were ready for the land of the Dragon.

Sometimes fate deals a great hand and as it so happens, Richard and Judit, friends from Greenwich, would be passing through Hong Kong about this time so we arranged to meet them there for a few days. The weather wasn’t always on our side but we still managed to check out the Chi Lin Nunnery, climb Victoria Peak and have some cocktails overlooking Victoria Harbour and a long awaited PT session with Judit.

After a great time in Hong Kong we took a deep breath and entered the mainland, entered the Dragon!!

Sickness Counter: John 3 (Goa, Nepal,Laos), Karen 1 (Hampi)

June

Our first experience of mainland China was the overnight train from Shenzhen to Guilin followed by some crazy bus driving and a taxi to reach Stone Bridge – our guesthouse.

3 fun filled days were spent on foot, by boat and bicycles as we climbed Moon Hill, took on the Li River and covered Yangshuo. The only time we stopped moving was to watch the Light Show (more info)

Another long train journey brought us to Hangzhou and it’s amazing lake. Although the menus were a bit cryptic. We purchased bus tickets in the post office using an iPhone app and soon wished we had asked Shirley to teach us Chinese writing!

By a stroke of luck we made it to Hangshuan and our host Steven. It was here we made friends with Sarah and Danielle who turned out to be our next hosts in Shanghai. Together us four musketeers conquered Hangshuan Mountain and explored heritage villages.

John had a bit of bother on the bus to Shanghai with her neighbour, a small Chinese boy being sick all the way! We hadn’t seen that many bags ‘filled’ since the Penang-Langkawi ferry back in 2011.

Shanghai was a great time. Drinking basil drops with the girls and getting some proper western food again. We also had opportunity to replenish our wardrobes in H&M.

At the half way point we took the bullet train to Beijing. As this was also the half way point of our journey we celebrated in style with a trip to the Great Wall of China – something that Karen had always wanted to do! We also went to Forbidden City, ate Peking Duck in Peking and explored this most ancient of cities.

With Karen achieving one of her lifelong dreams it was now John’s turn so we headed south to Xian and the Terracotta Warriors. We also managed to cycle around the entire walkway of Xian’s City walls on a tandem bicycle with no fighting.

As we made our way to Yunnan we fitted in a 24 hour stopover in Chengdu. Here we drank tea with the locals, had a mad tour of the city with a local guide Anna and oohed and aaahed at the Pandas, both giant and red!

Our last week was the longest as it was rural China in some of wettest weather yet. We spent time in the Lijiang region before making our way to Dali and finally to Kunming.

Wow that was a tough month. Time for some relaxation in a familiar place… Kuala Lumpur

We had barely landed and we ran to get some decent food as our earlier dinner in Kunming was a magnum ice cream as everything else was closed. We lucked out with an airbnb apartment right in the centre. We spent the day by the pool and the night time to go shopping and get our hair cut. By day two we looked the part and headed to Traders for cocktails overlooking the Petronas Towers.

Ever wonder what happened to those monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. Well they have taken up residence in the Batu Caves and scared the bejesus out of Karen.

We bused it to Singapore (in style) as the train was too expensive and spent our first night in Raffles Long Bar. Armed with a few recommendations we ate some of the best Indian and Chinese food and managed to secure some lunch dates with a new friend Jane, from Lijiang, and an old friend Shiva, from Glasgow! Cocktails on the rooftops of Marina Sands Hotel rounded off the trip.

July

We entered the jungle (literally) with a few weeks in Malaysian Borneo. In Kota Kinabalu we visited the islands and swam with the fishes. Then we headed east towards Sepilok and were monkeying around with some of our cousins – the Orangutans, Proboscis and Macaque Monkeys. While walking through a car park we stumbled upon an eccentric character called Mr. Ajit. Taking a huge gamble we signed up for his 3 day safari and had the best time of our lives. Even when our boat broke down we were captivated by the wildlife that came just that little bit nearer.

We would be denied another mountain climb by freakish weather and flooding in Mount Kinabalu and this put a dampener on the end of our Borneo trip. Of everywhere we had been we still feel today that we could have stayed for longer.

With only a few weeks left before that ominous flight to Australia, we headed south to Indonesia. We started in eastern Bali working our way north from Padang Bai to Amed via a cup of tea with royalty at the Water Temple. A hectic boat crossing brought us to the three Gili Sisters – Air, Meno and T. Two weeks were spent slumping it on the beach while going to different bars to get slightly different sunset photos. During the day Karen stretched her body at Yoga while John stretched his mind(and kept up the blog) at the Internet cafe. A short side trip to Senggigi proved fruitless so we looked further west to the island of Java for our next advance.

August

We began our last stretch in Asia with a few nights in Yogyakarta Unfortunately it was rammed due to the holiday season so Borobodur was just a little bit crowded.

A royal mess up on the hotel’s behalf left us with a 13 hour journey to Malang before a mixture of boredom and recklessness made us sign up for a non- stop 2 day trip to Mount Bromo and the Ijen Crater. Covered in sulphur and wrecked (after a near death experience) we took the local ferry back to where it all began in Bali and prepared for Australia from the comfortable surrounds of Seminyak!

On 8th August after just over 7 months travelling in Asia, we landed in Perth, Western Australia. It was a cold dark evening when we walked to our hostel from the centre of the city. John would have to trade in his shorts!

After exploring what Perth had to offer (King’s Park, Scarborough Beach and the Mint) we headed to Fremantle and met up with a childhood friend of Karen’s, Eilidh Graham and got acquainted with the Little Creatures brewery. Over drinks and food we formulated our next move. Rents car and drive around the south west of Australia.

We really enjoyed the wine, cheese and chocolates in Margaret River and the Jewel Caves and lighthouse in Augusta. Driving inland we took in the amazing Land of Giants with it’s tall Kari Trees and the discovery centre in Walpole. From here it was an overnight stop in Denmark before some fun filled excursions around Albany.

 

On our last leg of the driving we decided to go much further inland and check out Wave Rock at Hyden – a natural rock formation that looks like crashing waves. To get there we drove through the Stirling Mountain Ranges and then stayed in a deserted motel courtesy of John’s Irish accent in Lake Grace. Taking our time to take on the Tin Horse Highway and dodging the traffic at the Beverly Fair we arrived in York and had a wild saturday night there! We needed it as Karen had a close encounter with a Kangaroo on the road. On the Sunday we headed back to Fremantle and some catchup time with Eilidh – involving trashy tv and trampoline dodgeball before we headed north to Exmouth via tour.

 

 

On the tour we met some really good people and stopped at some of the best places on earth – The Pinnacles, Shark Bay, Monkey Mia and Coral Bay. While on tour John acted up in order to be picked to feed the dolphins, Karen snorkelled with sharks and we joined the ‘Sign-in’ Club (Aussie’s know what we mean!). We finished up in Exmouth in the far north of Western Australia where we could not drive two minutes without braking for Kangaroos and Karen got to drive an Automatic Car for the first time – that was an interesting event!

 

At the end of our trip we flew back to Perth and stayed with Eilidh (again!) – she really should have charged us rent!

September

It was time to head east but we had a cheeky stopover in Melbourne. Basing ourselves in the funky district of Fitzroy we got lost amongst all the street-art alleyways and ducked into coffee shops and boutique shops before lunching in Queen Victoria Market.

 

Between museums, galleries, trams and St. Kilda beach we filled up a few days worth of activities and dined out in a different district each night – our favourite was haggling with the maitre d’s along Lygon Street in Melbourne’s Little Italy.

Arriving in Sydney we had set ourselves up in an attic converted apartment over a garden shed in Maroubra. Feeling that we needed some more formal attire for our hopeful future interviews, we headed to Eastgardens to get suited and booted. Being the lucky duckling that she is, Karen had a contract business analyst role snapped up in a week so it was out of the backpacks and straight into a wee flat of our own on the North Shore of Sydney in a lovely little area called Kirribilli.

Our introduction to Sydney was made so much easier as John had quite a few pals from school and university and they welcomed us into the fold and helped show us around the great city of Sydney.

 

October

With Karen working it was up to John to become the house husband as he waited for that elusive contract of his own and visiting temples and museums were temporarily replaced with recruitment agents and Aldi. On his days off John explored some of the excellent Art Museums in Sydney – The National Art Gallery, MCA and the White Rabbit Gallery just to name three. We also went to an Indian festival called Paramasala and put a bit of effort into costumes for Halloween at the Argyle in the Rocks.

 

When Karen wasn’t working we explored Manly, Bondi & Coogee and did the Cremorne Point to Mosman Bay walk. We also went to the Opera House to see Cirque Eloise perform and enjoyed the Night Noodle Market in Hyde Park.

November

JKRoaming was back in business with a weekend trip down the capital city of Canberra. We really enjoyed the War Memorial Museum and the tour of the Parliament Buildings as well as the National Portrait Gallery. But we really enjoyed our steak at the Capitol Grill!!

One of our London Pals made a visit – Portia. On her travels around Australia she broke up tours by enjoying guided tours by John in the day time and speak-easy bars and fancy dinners at night!

As the month drew to a close John finally managed to get a job! Karen gave a big sigh of relief!

December

So it’s Christmas Time in Sunshine-y Sydney and the threat of sunburn instead of snowstorms is a bit hard to get used to. Portia returned from her trip up the East Coast for another few days in Sydney where we took in a rainy sunset at Watson’s Bay over a massive portion of fish and chips. We had joined the workforce in time to get invited to our respective work drinks but Karen got one up with an extra treat in the form of a christmas lunch paid for by her work. The only task she had that day was to show the Indian boys that she worked with what the Christmas crackers were for!

Christmas Eve started great with dinner and drinks with Millie and Alec before a very pious Midnight Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral. We were not alone on Christmas Day and shared it with all the other orphans in the group. With christmas games, drinks, a surprise visit by santa and 8 chefs it was a great day.

Boxing day was spent doing lengths at Milson’s Point Olympic Pool before sunset drinks at the Opera Bar.

2014 was ended in style with front row seats for Sydney’s Fireworks for New Years Eve.

Woah! That was a crazy year!!

We have had the best year of our lives and are very grateful for the opportunities we have been given, the friends we have met (new and old) and the support we have received. It has been challenging at time, being so far away from our families and friends, missing key milestones including: John’s dad’s 60th Birthday, Karen’s sister Laura’s Graduate fashion show and Graduation, John’s little brother’s Cameron’s birthday, Colin and Megan’s wedding, the birth of Olivia- John and Clair’s little girl, Christmas with our families and the famous Filippi Clan party on the 1st Jan.

Thanks for following our adventure and don’t worry the journey continues in 2015 with a planned road trip to Tasmania, a visit to Melbourne for the Grand Prix and a trip home :-).

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