Eating Our Way Through Xi’an, China’s Ancient Hub

When our long-term travels through Asia ended so abruptly in early 2015, I never quite finished documenting each of the places we visited. Despite it being nearly two years later, I've decided to continue writing about each of the destinations we visited - primarily for my own personal satisfaction and memories. This post about Xi'an has been sitting in my drafts for quite some time, so it is about time to press the publish button...hope you enjoy!

Xian China16It was a long five hours, the train from Luoyang to Xi’an.

We had opted to take the cheaper slow train instead of the high-speed train that can whip you between the cities in less than two hours.

Our seats were in different compartments and while Alan lucked out with a upper berth where he could relax with a couple of movies, I was on a lower berth where my blonde hair and fair skin meant I had plenty of company! 

I’d started doing some editing on my laptop but it wasn’t long before I had an audience viewing each and every photo on my computer, as well as a young boy being nudged over by his parents with a shy “hello” and nervously offering me his teddy. It was cute and funny the first time, after about the fifteenth time? I was more than ready to arrive in Xi’an!

It was late and dark when we disembarked, and after fending off overpriced taxis outside the train station we began to walk in the direction of our guesthouse. It didn’t take long before tiredness and hunger took over and we flagged a taxi, which turned out to be a wise decision. In the expansive maze that is the Muslim Quarter, our taxi driver had to ask for directions three times, so there really was little hope for us if we had of walked!

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The Muslim Quarter is an area that appears to have thrived since the 1st Century BC. As the starting point of the ancient Silk Road, Xi'an attracted traders from throughout Central Asia and the Middle East - during the 8th century it was the biggest city in the world with more than 1 million inhabitants, many of whom were foreigners. The age of this history just astounds me!

Popular among tourists, The Muslim Quarter is a great spot to be in for hearty street food, and although we arrived late at night there were still a few stalls open. We each grabbed a Rou Jia Mo (a Chinese Hamburger, of sorts), which were quickly demolished as we wandered the streets back to our guesthouse.

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Looking out our window early the next morning, vendors were already set up for the day displaying tables of their fresh fruits and vegetables. I was eager to explore and soak in the hive of activity in the Muslim Quarter!

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As we wandered down the street hunting for a hot breakfast, pots were steaming away and butchers were hard at work.

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Honking motorbikes wove in and out of pedestrians, while cats sniffed for forgotten crumbs.

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Nuts were being shelled and sweet, sticky candy was being hand-pulled.

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Warm aromas of freshly baked bread and sizzling pastries teased our senses.

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These pastries caught our eye and quickly became our go-to breakfast over the next few days. A fried flatbread of sorts, stuffed with what we decided was cabbage and minced meat - though I can't be entirely sure!

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The variety of food in the Muslim Quarter was incredible! Some was delicious, and some not so much - but a great opportunity to try lots of different things.

Xian China18Some kind of glutinous rice cake. It tasted like...rice!
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Xian China15 Xian China14Xian China53They might not be a Xi'an speciality...but they were delicious!

As is the norm across Asia, in Xi'an there are motorbikes everywhere. I loved the motorbike quilts throughout China that riders wore to protect themselves from the bitter cold.

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We spent some time wandering around the city sights including the Bell Tower and Drum Tower - two iconic symbols of X’ian built during the Ming dynasty way back in the 1300's. Historically, the Bell Tower would ring a bell at dawn and the Drum Tower would beat a drum at dusk to signal the end of the day, hence the names.

We didn’t go inside either because, honestly? They were a touch expensive and we were feeling a little over sightseeing.  Very pretty from the outside though!

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Also, we had other overpriced things to spend our money on! Like hot drinks at Pacific Coffee, which became quite a thing for us in X’ian. It was essential to stop every now and then somewhere warm to thaw out our fingers by wrapping them around a steaming hot drink. Not to mention, Pacific Coffee’s English Breakfast Tea Lattes are seriously addictive. I could barely go a day without.

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After some exploring on the first day we were ready to face what would be our most active afternoon since Muay Thai training in Thailand. I’d read about cycling around the city wall on Our Dream Adventure, and was looking forward to doing it myself! A total length of nearly 14km, though being flat is still quite the effort to zip around in a couple of hours (if you return your bikes after 2 hours, you have to pay extra!).

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Chinese New Year was coming up so there were plenty of grand, multicoloured decorations being assembled in preparation for celebrations!

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Xian China25But of course, no trip to X’ian is complete without visiting the famous Terracotta Warriors! Early the next day we made our way to the bus station and caught a local bus out to the site about 30km from Xi'an city.

It was a chilly winter's day so a hot cuppa was essential to warm up the insides for a day of exploring!

Xian China34 First up we visited the museum, which was really interesting and provided plenty of information and insight into the history behind the Terracotta Warriors.

They were created in the 3rd century BC as the burial site for Emporor Qin Shi Huang, presumably to protect him in the afterlife. We learnt about the detail of the statues, right down to their distinct hair texture and facial features. Incredibly, each was intricately different,  with uniforms and style depicting the statues' ranks.

The statues were so colourful! Though much of the colour has decayed over more than 2000 years (!!), there is a full display about the colours, how they were made and how they are being preserved. Which is especially fascinating, considering when the statues were created.

This kind of history just blows my mind.

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The Bronze Horsemen were also on display in the museum area.

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First discovered in 1974 by a local farmer digging a well, it is believed that only as much as 25-30% of the warriors have been uncovered so far - that is just over 2000 warriors from an estimated 8000+. There is still plenty of excavation more to be done!

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There are three pits open for public viewing, however Pit 1 is the most active and impressive. There are sites where excavation work is still being completed and other areas where pieces that are found are meticulously out back together, like a highly meticulous puzzle!

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It was a fascinating day at the Terracotta Warriors and I'm so pleased we made it to Xi'an to explore the area!

After another day of our favourite activities - wandering, street food and perhaps another cuppa from Pacific Coffee - it wasn't long before we were jammed amongst the crowds awaiting our overnight train to Beijing.

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With a 1200km journey ahead of us that night, we hoped we were going to be able to get some sleep on this train...

Stay tuned for Beijing and ticking one enormous wall off my bucket list in my next travel post!

Christie xx


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It’s been a while

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Oh, hi there!

Gosh I’ve missed this place.

It’s been 18 months since I’ve written here. Sure, I’ve visited it from time to time, scrolling back through the archives with a sensation of faint familiarity. Sometimes I remember the things we got up to like it was yesterday, other times I wonder if this life we had was all but a dream.

I stopped writing for a few reasons. I was going through some tough stuff last year. I felt disillusioned with social media, with this social obsession of portraying this perfect online version of yourself. I took a step back.

I struggled with comparison and worried that my little piece of the internet looked like a platform just to boast about all these cool things I was doing, when all I wished was for it to be a place of inspiration.

And I felt like I’d failed - here I was set out on this incredible adventure, then suddenly I was home living with my parents - which was lovely, though generally living with your parents at 25 isn't perceived as the epitome of success!

But here we are. December 2016 is upon us (whaaaat!?!), I’ve just turned the ripe old age of 27 (whaaaat!?!) and decided now is the time to stop pondering and overthinking and actually do it. Blow off the dust if you will. Write it out.

I’ve become a consumer rather than a creator and that needs to change. I’m a little out of practice, but I love writing, creating, sharing and connecting - and I’ve really missed how the Butterfly Editions helped provide all of those things for me.

I’m not exactly sure about where we're going with the blog just yet. Let’s not worry too much and just see where we go, aye?

But hey, how about an update? Here’s a few fun things that have been happening.

Travel

On the travel front, I’m grateful that work has taken me a few places in the last year: San Diego, Los Angeles, Melbourne, NSW’s Hunter Valley and Adelaide.

Outside of work-related travel, my mum and I went on our dream girls’ trip to San Fransisco and New York, just last month!

Of course, there's always more adventures on the horizon, and Alan and I have a few ideas up our sleeve about where we'd like to head to next!

Home

However, home is now Nelson, New Zealand - my hometown. I lived away from Nelson for seven years and love living back here. It's small, it's (somewhat) relaxed, and it takes pretty much five minutes to go anywhere or do anything.

Speaking of home….we bought one! We’ve basically put our lives on hold to renovate - Alan’s been proving his worth and we know our way around our local hardware stores like the back of our hands. I’ll be sharing a fair few stories of this whole rewarding, exhausting, challenging, relationship-testing, crazy process on the blog.

Oh look, here we are on the very first evening we collected the keys to our house!

And this is how that same spot somewhat looks now (in progress!). Who knew those amazing wooden floors were lying beneath that circa 1960's orange and brown textured carpet?

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Fitness

If you followed along our adventure through Asia, do you remember how Alan and I trained Muay Thai on Koh Samui? I really wanted to train when we decided to stay in Nelson, but couldn’t find a local club here. However, I’ve been training boxing a couple of times a week for over a year now and love it. Perhaps there’ll be a fight in future….who knows?!

Alan manages an outdoor adventure shop here, so we’ve also been getting into a bit of mountain biking. Nelson is an epic place to live if you love mountain biking! Alan's pretty good and I’m slowly improving…it's a work in progress.

That's probably enough updates to go on with! It's strange, being back here, yet...comforting. I'm so pleased to be back.

A heartfelt thank you to those of you that followed our adventures, which came to an unexpectedly abrupt end early last year. I hope you'll follow along on this new adventure, too.

Christie xx


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Challenges and Changes – What’s Going On?

The Butterfly Editions Cable Bay - 1Oh hey there! How's it going? Good, I hope.

I guess its about time for a little update. If you have still been popping by, you might have noticed that I haven’t been hanging around here lately.

Where on earth am I? What happened? What's going on?

I really didn’t expect to ever have to write a post like this, and to be honest, I’ve been putting it off tremendously. But, I feel like these words simply have to come out before I can carry on.

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When you last heard from me, Alan and I were happily exploring Cambodia - then all of a sudden I seem to have fallen off the blogging radar. I haven’t posted on my blog, have barely looked at my Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and all those things we seem to think are so important - but that I’ve quickly come to realise at a time like this they are right at the very bottom of my priorities…and actually make me feel worse.

I had to return home for health reasons, requiring an unexpected and fairly major surgery. By the time I arrived home I remember saying that I’d cried so much that I’d literally run out of tears. I think most of the tears are for my travel dream, that now feels like its been shattered into a million pieces just out of my reach.

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I left my spirit in Asia. Thats the best way I’ve been able to describe how I feel right now.

I gave up so much to follow this dream and I guess I just feel cheated. I gave up a stable job, a decent income and my comfortable home to chase this dream I’d had for as long as I can remember - and to have returned this much earlier than planned feels like...failure.

Deep down, I know that I’m very lucky. I could have had long-term health implications. I could have had no “home” to return to. For goodness sake, I travelled through Asia for more than six months - a continent where many will never leave their own village, let alone their country. I’m indescribably privileged to be able to consider travel as an option, not to mention be freely on the move constantly for as long as Alan and I did.

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I’ve taken a long break from my blog. The honest truth? It's been too upsetting for me to reflect on our travels, too difficult to write these words, too many tears escaping every time my mind revisits my incomplete travels.

However, it's time to carry on with what I started. I'm digging deep into my dreams, adapting my plans, moving onwards and upwards. There are plenty of posts to come here on the Butterfly Editions, along with some exciting changes over the next few months.

So, there's the simplified version of the story. For the time being, Alan and I are living in my hometown of Nelson, New Zealand. It hasn’t been an easy few months, and I’m still not quite finished dealing with what happened yet. Fake it till you make it, right? But hey, we all get there in the end, don’t we!

Some life changes look negative and painful on the surface, but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new and beautiful to emerge.

- Eckhart Tolle

For those of you that continue to follow along with my journey - thank you. I sure hope you stick around for whats to come!

Christie xx



Six Months of Travel: The Numbers

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WOW. Today marks exactly six months since Alan and I packed up our little home in Christchurch, New Zealand, prepared to spend all our savings (eek!), and set off to travel through Asia. In many ways it feels like we have been gone for so long, though in other ways it feels like just yesterday that we left.

As this six month milestone whizzes by, I'm feeling reflective on whats changed in my life over the past half year. It's been an absolute whirlwind - I have learnt a lot about the world, about myself, my values, my hopes and dreams, about the kind of life I want to lead. In many ways I have gained a lot of clarity, but in other ways I'm more confused than ever.

Especially travelling in Asia where many people live on so little, it makes you question a lot about humanity, your morals and what you truly need in order to be happy. I'm not going to get into that today, though - I'll stew that one up and get all deep and meaningful on you another time!

I love a good list (who doesn't?) so I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the past six months of travel with a list of the numbers. Ready? Here we go!

Days on the road: 182  (exactly 26 weeks!)

Countries visited: 7

Beds slept in: 41

Flights: 8

Inter-city busses: 30. Including 2 overnight busses, we've managed to avoid more than that!

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Waiting at the bus station in Pangandaran for our bus to Jakarta

Local busses: too many to count!

Cheating taxi drivers: 1 (though let's be honest, probably more that we didn't realise!)

Scooters hired: 10

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Exploring Kep, Cambodia

Inter-city trains: 4

Metro/subway/MRT rides: dozens!

Boat trips: 18

Arguments between Alan and I: 1,000+

Dentists visited: 1 (Alan)

Bouts of food poisoning: just 1 so far! (me)

Crickets consumed: 2 for me and 4 for Alan...yep, I'm talking about the insects!

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Yes, there's a cricket in my mouth. Mildly terrifying.

Theme parks visited: 2 - Universal Studios in Singapore and Vinpearl Island in Vietnam.

Jandals (flip-flops) replaced: 1 pair each.

Mango smoothies consumed: A fair estimate would be 100 each...

Dollars spent: Let's just say my savings are looking a little dry...take a look at my country budget breakdowns if you want to do the maths for yourself.

Tears cried: Enough. Most notably during week 1 of Muay Thai training in Thailand, and when I realised that I completely sucked at surfing that day in Pangandaran, Indonesia.

Panic/stress meltdowns: Christie - approximately 1,000. Alan - zero (how is he so damn chilled out?).

Where we stayed the longest time: Koh Samui, Thailand, where we trained Muay Thai for one month.

Where we stayed the shortest time: Probolinggo, Indonesia, where we arrived at 3am in the morning to experience the Mount Bromo sunrise and left later that afternoon.

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Incredible views from Mount Bromo

Three Highlights:

1. Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam. And zooming down waterslides on Vinpearl Island in Vietnam. And slow mornings in Hoi An, Vietnam. Let's just say Vietnam in general, okay? I love Vietnam.

2. Attending my friends' wedding in Huangshi, China.

3. Learning the art of Muay Thai on Koh Samui, Thailand.

But also because three is far too few: Splurging at Universal Studios Singapore. Playing with puppies in Ubud, Bali. Relaxing in waterfalls on Langkawi, Malaysia. And SO many more!

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Vinpearl Waterpark in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Best. Day. Ever.

Three Lowlights

1. Packing. I swear it gets worse and worse every single time.

2. Being tricked into eating dried rat (yep, rat) in Da Lat, Vietnam, only to be told afterwards what it actually was! Though admittedly, until I was told it was rat I was nodding and thinking this wouldn't be too bad mixed in with a bit of rice...

3. The biggest lowlight of them all? Realising that this can't last forever.


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The Awe-Inspiring Longmen Grottoes

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Don't you love it when you have little expectation for something and it turns out to be AMAZING? That's what happened to us when we visited the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, China.

To be fair, it wasn't so much that we had low expectations - more that we didn't really know anything about them. We had planned to stay in Luoyang so that we could visit the nearby Shaolin Temple, so after our research what else to do in the area kept popping up with the nearby Longmen Grottoes we figured we should make some time to visit. And I'm so glad we did!

The Longmen Grottoes are located on either side of the Yi River, and are essentially a series of 1,400 caves excavated in limestone rock-wall, housing tens of thousands of Buddha statues. With mind-blowing history tracing back to the Northern Wei Dynasty when Luoyang was one of China's four ancient capitals, it is believed that many of the grottoes were excavated as long ago as 493 AD. These kind of dates I still find it hard to wrap my head around - we're talking more than 1500 years old!

We braved the freezing weather for a day to explore this fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site. I hope you enjoy the photos!

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At the entrance: temperature reading 3.1 degrees C. Freezing!

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Xiangshan Temple from across the Yi River

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Fengxian Temple

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Each of those dots on the left wall is a Buddha!

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Binyang North Cave

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Breathtaking view from Xiangshan Temple

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Xiangshan Temple

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Bai Garden

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Do it yourself:

At the time of writing, the entrance fee is 120 yuan (approx NZ$25). Your ticket includes entry to the Longmen Grottoes on the west and east hills, Xiangshan Temple and the Bai Garden.

You can catch the 81, 53 or 60 bus there and will cost between 1 and 2 yuan. Make sure you have small money for the bus as you will not receive change! We paid 4 yuan for both of us to get there and back from our hostel in Luoyang Longmen (thats just 80 cents total!).

Allow at least 2 hours to look around, though we had plenty of time and spent almost 4 hours there. During warmer times of year, the Bai Garden would be lovely to spend some time exploring. We were frozen solid by then so whizzed around them quite quickly!

Have you ever visited somewhere that you hadn't heard of, and ended up totally loving it?


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A Day Trip to Shaolin Monastery from Luoyang

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"It's not here," I panicked. "The hostel isn't here!"

It was pitch black at night and after arriving into Luoyang an hour ago we had already missed our bus stop, backtracked in a taxi for ten minutes to the address of our hostel, and anxiously walked up three flights of stairs in an abandoned building with broken tiles, dust and glass fragments strewn everywhere - at the exact address our hostel was supposed to be. This building seemed like no one had graced it's stairs for a number of years.

My heart was racing. "No, no, there's no way this can be a scam - it's got good reviews online!" Alan assured me.

We traipsed back down the stairs in the dark with our heads hung low, each mentally contemplating what our next move would be and how we would find somewhere else to stay this late at night. At the bottom of the stairs we noticed a dim crack of light peeping through a gap from behind a very thick, quilted curtain, something we both hadn't noticed as we'd entered the building earlier.

Thankfully, this curtain hid the doorway to our hostel and we both heaved a sigh of relief after those brief moments of panic, that we had found what would be our home for the next few nights.

Luoyang Longmen Youth Hostel was nothing fancy, but it did the trick. Coming from our luxurious five-star experience at the Tonino Lamborghini the previous night, I'll admit it took me a few minutes to reacquaint myself with hostel life and all that comes with it. Here, it was the sewerage pipe running through our bathroom from the level above that wafted unpleasant smells through the air - though as long as we kept the door closed and held our breath as long as possible while in there it was no problem, we got on with it. Our room was warm, and that was the main thing because now that we had traveled further north the temperatures were dropping and we were looking at days of between 0-5 degrees Celsius.

One thing about hostels is China that is different to what we had experienced in Southeast Asia is that in SEA breakfast is usually included with your room, whereas the opposite tends to be true in China. Not to worry, we Alan had been carrying around a half pack of rolled oats since we'd been living on Koh Samui that my frugal self couldn't bear to part with - I knew we would eat them some day! Well, what do you know. All we needed was to buy a few bananas and a pack of instant coffee to feed my addiction and we were set for breakfasts for the next few days.

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We had three days to spend in Luoyang, and with a couple of full days ahead we decided to spend day one doing a bit of planning, a bit of exploring and a bit of shopping - despite stocking up on a few winter woollies in Chiang Mai we were still short of gloves and a beanie - items we had quickly realised were a necessity!

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Defrosting with a hot drink

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Dumplings and beer in Luoyang - is there any better combination?

Feeling refreshed after a fairly straightforward day and organised with enough warm clothes to keep us toasty, we were up early on our second day for an independent day trip to the Shaolin Monastery. Located on the Shaoshi Mountain (hence the name) in the Songshan Mountain range, Shaolin Monastery and its associated temple were established during the Northern Wei Dynasty in the year 495 A.D. It is one of China's four holy Buddhist temples and the birthplace of Chan Buddhism.

Though, perhaps Shaolin Temple is best known as the home of Kung Fu! There is a Chinese saying that "all martial arts under heaven arose out of Shaolin," so with a boyfriend who is right into his martial arts it seemed only fitting that we visit while we were nearby.

We had decided against an organised tour to Shaolin Temple. According to our research, we could catch a series of public busses to get there and, as is usually the case with tours, doing it independently would be significantly cheaper. It was going to take a couple of hours each way, but why worry, we had all day! Famous last words...

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Firstly we took a twenty-minute bus into the central city of Luoyang, where we located the central bus station and, despite some language difficulties, were eventually loaded onto a bus that we were told was going to take us to Shaolin. Alan and I were the only passengers waiting on the us to begin with, so the driver kindly put an English movie on for us to pass the time while we waited. By the time we had watched The Fast and the Furious 1 in its entirety, the bus was finally full and we set off in the direction of the Shaolin Temple.

It was nearing the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious when we pulled into the bus station in Dengfeng and were herded off our bus onto a smaller bus, that would take us the rest of the way to the temple, which was another twenty minutes or so. Despite getting an early start, we had completely underestimated the time it would take to get to Shaolin Temple. I was quickly mentally planning our route for the afternoon so that we could be sure to see all the best bits of this enormous temple complex!

At last, we arrived at the entrance, eagerly paid the 100 yuan entry fee (NZ$20), and raced through the gates to begin exploring.

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I'd seen some photos of how busy Shaolin Temple can be in the summer months - so despite the freezing cold it was incredible to have a place like this just about all to ourselves. We could explore and soak in the rich history without being shoulder to shoulder with other tourists all day.

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Our first stop in the complex was visiting the Shaolin Temple itself. It is enormous and you could easily spend hours here, wandering around and exploring every corner. But due to our, uh, transport delays of the morning, we were now on a rather tight schedule so as to not miss the last bus back! We spent about 45 minutes looking around.

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After we had finished exploring the temple, we walked through the Pagoda Forest which is the resting place for revered monks. It is said to be one of China's largest pagoda forests, consisting of more than 200 pagodas. It was pretty, though not particularly lush during winter, so we quickly ticked that one off in order to make it in time to the Kung Fu show!

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Kungfu continues to be practiced and studied at Shaolin Temple, as it has been for more than 1500 years. As we walked in the direction of the performance centre we saw hundreds and hundreds of students training out in the chilly winter air.

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But of course the highlight of our visit was the Kung Fu demonstration! We watched a group of monks performing a series of Kung Fu techniques, followed by a breathtaking showcase of qigong - where all of one's inner energy is focussed into a certain exercise. We witnessed a monk bending a spear with his neck, and another who threw a small needle at a sheet of glass, piercing the glass and popping a balloon held behind it. Very impressive!

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After our journey from Luoyang to Shaolin Temple took over three hours, I was more than a little worried about getting back. I was feeling antsy the entire time we were exploring the temple that we would miss the last bus back. We were directed to board a bus and - after apparent road closures, a couple of hours of navigating rugged farm roads, a bus breakdown, a woman on our bus that insisted on numerous photoshoots with me, waiting in the middle of nowhere for a new bus and then elbowing our way through a mob where we managed to snap up the last two seats on the new bus - STRESS! - we finally saw the lights of Luoyang ahead. I'm pretty sure I melted with relief.

Our journey to and from the Shaolin Temple was the kind of day where we just had to put our faith in people and trust that we would end up in the right place! Although I wish we had more time to explore - there was SO much more to see! - with the beauty of hindsight, it was still a pretty amazing day. Amazing because of the  incredible history, but equally amazing because we made it there and back - there were plenty of moments I was sure we wouldn't! So with that said...

...if you are going to visit the Shaolin Temple yourself, here's some tips.

Yes, it is totally possible to do an independent day trip from Luoyang - though from my experience if you don't speak the language it is likely be a rather stressful day! It is a lot cheaper (transport there and back cost us all up about $11 each) but also a lot more difficult. You may also be tight on time like we were and have to miss out on exploring certain areas of the complex.

My recommendation would be if you want to enjoy the day fully and you're staying in Luoyang, fork out for an organised tour. You'll not only spend the day worry-free but also get a lot more information out of it with a local guide.

Otherwise, and this is what I would do next time, stay in Dengfeng where you are much closer to the temple to begin with (only 13km away). This option would allow you to spend all day at the temple as you don't need to worry about missing the last bus back to Luoyang. Also there is tonnes of cool stuff to do around the mountains too that we missed out on, if you have a full day or two you will get to see and do so much more!

In my next post I'll be writing about our final day in Luoyang, where we visited a place that we had never even heard of...and turned out to be an absolute highlight of our time in China!


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Five Travel Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

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We all make mistakes, and when you're on the road it is easy to make a lot - I know I sure have! But as the saying goes, we learn from our mistakes, so in this post I am going to share with you five travel lessons I have learned the hard way.

Travel Lesson 1// Pack a (mostly) neutral wardrobe

The mistake: I made some questionable decisions when I packed my luggage, and brought with me so many different colours and prints. I have too many tops and bottoms that just cannot be worn together! Not such a problem when all of my clothes are freshly laundered, but definitely a big problem when I'm down to the animal print shorts and green patterned singlet that, when worn together, look like I've been dressed by a five-year-old.

Lesson learned: Select your clothes in a careful and planned way, sticking with neutral colours and adding in just a couple of key pieces with colours and patterns. Colourful scarves are a great way to add some life to an otherwise plain outfit.

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Scarves are a great way to add a pop of colour to an outfit

Travel Lesson 2// Don't pack clothes that must be hand-washed

The mistake: Also on the subject of clothing, I packed too many items that require hand-washing. Laundry across Asia is so cheap (and comes back smelling so good!) that it is usually a waste of time and energy to hand-wash clothes. I packed a couple of pairs of brightly coloured underwear that bleed dye every time they are washed, so I can't get them laundered with my other clothes or they will all come back with a pink tinge. It is such a pain, I don't know why I don't just get rid of them already! I also had a dress that was made of delicate fabric that I sent off to be washed and it came back all stretched and unwearable.

Lesson learned: Don't pack clothes that bleed colour, be sure to wash everything at home before you leave to double-check. Likewise, go for durable fabrics over delicate, pretty ones.

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RIP, pretty dress

Travel Lesson 3// Book in advance during peak seasons and public holidays

The mistake: I like to be flexible with our plans so usually we end up booking just a day or two in advance of moving to our next destination. This is fine when travelling during off-peak seasons, in fact you can often not book at all and simply take your pick of accommodation once you arrive. But peak season, along with holidays like Chinese New Year can affect your travel in many countries across Asia. We tried to book a guesthouse in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, a few nights ago and Agoda had ZERO rooms left out of more than 100 hotels. Luckily we managed to reserve one of the last rooms on another booking engine, but then we struggled to book a bus - they were also just about completely booked!

Lesson learned: During peak seasons and public holidays try to plan ahead as best as you can. If you want to be organised but still retain flexibility, try booking a room with free cancellation. Or better yet, travel during off-peak season! I much prefer travelling outside of peak seasons where room prices tend to be cheaper and you're not sharing the sights with hundreds of other people.

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When its busy, try to book in advance

Travel Lesson 4// Screenshot some maps on your phone before you arrive

The mistake: Especially when you're arriving by bus into a new city, you often have absolutely no idea where you are when you are dropped off. In Asia, you will quickly be approached by clever taxi/tuk-tuk drivers eager to take you to your accommodation. When I was in Vietnam a couple of years ago I made the mistake of arriving somewhere new and hopping in the first taxi I saw to take me to my guesthouse. 20 minutes and about $20 later, I arrived there. The mistake was only realised when I walked around the corner later that day and discovered that was exactly where the bus has dropped us off - that cunning taxi driver had taken me on a very expensive joyride!

Lesson learned: By mapping your accommodation and taking some screenshots, along with some zoomed out screenshots that show the layout of the city and a few key street names, you will be more easily able to locate yourself on your arrival. Then you can decide to walk if your accommodation is nearby, or you can barter a fair price with the taxi driver because you have an idea of the distance.

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Rickshaws in Melaka, Malaysia

Travel Lesson 5// You don't have to see everything

The mistake: I am the type of person that feels like I have to see and do everything, everywhere I go. I would plan our days so that we could fit in as much as possible, and I'd feel guilty if we spent a whole morning (let alone a whole day!) doing, well, nothing. But by the time we reached Chiang Mai I was feeling run down and over it - I had lost my travel mojo. Being too 'on-the-go' for too long had taken its toll.

Lesson learned: Although travelling is amazing and fun, it can also be very exhausting, especially when you are on the road for months at a time. Just like you sometimes blob out on the couch at home, it is important to have downtime while travelling too. Don't feel guilty for taking a whole day off, for watching hours of TV, or for missing a couple of the sights. As long as you enjoyed your time there, that is 100% the most important thing!

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It's okay to take a nap during the day

Have you also made some silly mistakes while travelling, that you have later learned from? Please share in the comments below!


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Love and Luxury in Huangshi, China

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China was added to our itinerary months ago because we had a wedding to attend! We decided to make the most of it while we were in the country and take a three week tangent from our route through Southeast Asia - an interlude from the heat and instead layer on the winter woolies to beat China's glacial mid-winter temperatures.

To be perfectly honest, I was a little nervous about travelling in China. Of course I had heard plenty of good things, but on the flipside, I had also heard that the language barrier can make it a particularly tough country to travel. I’m always up for a challenge but after spending four months in the well-trodden tourist paths of Southeast Asia, China was beginning to feel particularly scary. Southeast Asia was so easy (well, most of the time), what on earth was ahead of me?

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We flew bright and early from Bangkok to Wuhan, where we surprisingly quickly managed to score the last two seats on a stuffed - and stuffy! - bus to Huangshi, my friend’s hometown and where we would be staying the next five nights to spend time with her family and attend her wedding.

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Wuhan airport impressed me with its unexpected, Singapore-esque cleanliness. Get this: the bathrooms had a sensor you would hover your hand over as you entered the cubicle, which would automatically activate a new plastic seat cover that slid onto the seat - without you having to touch a thing! Can I just say - hooray for not having to hover, and hooray for western toilets! Unfortunately over the next three weeks we learnt dirty squatters tend to be the norm - but hey, I appreciated it while it lasted.

From Wuhan it was a couple of hours on the highway with a view that seemed like boom town - in every direction we could see a countless number of cranes assisting the build of skyscrapers and apartment blocks. The province of Hubei, that is home to both Wuhan and Huangshi, has a staggering population of 57 million - so I can't really be surprised, can I!

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On arrival in Huangshi, despite doing the very best planning we could, we had absolutely zero idea where we were when we were dropped off by our bus at the final stop. However, the friendliness and desire to help from the locals came to our aid immediately. One young guy about my age got chatting to Alan in broken english and asked the bus driver if he could drop us directly at our hotel - despite the bus journey being over and our hotel being a further 10 minutes drive down the road! That was the first of many experiences we had in China where, despite language difficulties, people generously went out of their way to help us hopeless foreigners.

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Huangshi is not on the tourist trail - even when we were looking for accommodation in advance it was difficult to find more than a few options on any english-language website. No hostels or budget guesthouses set up for backpackers here! We decided to splurge a little and booked the hotel that the wedding was at - a plush four-star - which was especially welcome following our budget guesthouse accommodations of the last four months.

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Because the city is not on the tourist trail, in terms of western visitors the numbers Huangshi sees are few. A handful of the hotels may see perhaps a handful of western businessmen over the course of a year, but certainly young tourists like us (especially a young, blonde one like me!) are an absolute oddity. Therefore we were stared at constantly, wherever we went - some people even came right up to us for a closer look. We may have been the first westerners some of the local children had ever seen!

Huangshi is a city of beautiful lakes, and by China's standards is really just a small town of 650,000. We spent five nights in Huangshi, exploring the city with my friend and her family by whom we were also generously treated to a number of delicious, banquet-style meals. Of course, plenty of time was also spent lounging in our room (I’m still convinced the bed was a cloud sent from heaven), and ended on a high with the most EPIC buffet breakfast of all time on our final day. I may or may not have indulged in two helpings of bread and butter pudding before 10am in the morning.

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But we weren’t in Huangshi to talk about bread and butter pudding, we were there for a wedding! As it was not my special day I won’t go into too much detail, but I will note that the bride looked incredibly beautiful, I caught the bouquet (in fact I think my friend’s cousin and I both caught it together and I over-enthusiastically tugged it out of her hands…sorry!), and post-wedding we celebrated with karaoke until the place closed at 3am. Good times were had by all.

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Other notable highlights of our time in Huangshi included:

  • A $6 gel french manicure (what a bargain!), though this could be argued as a lowlight for Alan as he had to sit and watch the whole thing.
  • Trying stinky tofu, wasn’t my favourite but try anything once, right?
  • Catching public busses, because our poor receptionist was horrified when we mentioned we were going to catch the bus and encouraged us to take a taxi instead. She probably thought we would get lost and never found again - ha, we proved her wrong! Well, we did get a bit lost, but…
  • New Years eve dumplings, cooked by my friend’s mum (who makes the best Chinese food ever), and eaten by us in the hope of prosperity and wealth in the year ahead…YUM.
  • Our final night we splurged on the fancy five-star Tonino Lamborghini Lakeside Hotel to stay with our friends after the wedding. So lush!

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It was so wonderful to see a couple of our friends from home after months on the road. But all must come to an end and before we knew it we were back on our own again. We had a series of trains booked to take us north to our next destination and had to collect our tickets at the station a couple of hours beforehand.

Naturally, there were a couple of momentary episodes of pre-train panic - once when our taxi driver nearly took us to the wrong train station, followed by a few drawn out minutes when the ticket lady insisted we did not have any tickets booked and there were no seats left today...uh-oh. Turns out we did have tickets booked after all, phew! It simply took a bit of convincing because the ticket lady had just never seen a booking confirmation from an english website before...we were probably the first westerners in the history of time to catch a train from this station!

Tickets tightly in hand and panicked moments behind us, we entered the station and waited patiently for our train. One of the guards came over to us and started speaking to us in Chinese, of course it was very clear that we didn’t understand. This happened about three more times and we were beginning to wonder what was going on, then he managed to recruit an english-speaking passenger to translate - the guard wanted us to follow him with our luggage. We were led past the giant queue that was forming for our train, bypassed security, and shown to our seats on the empty train - all at least 15 minutes before anyone else was allowed to board! It was such a generous and welcome gesture, he must have been so worried about us!

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If only all our train experiences were that easy…

Stay tuned for some stories from our next destination in China, Luoyang, where we checked out some breathtaking history!


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A Helpful Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia

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Although the internet has many posts about renting a scooter in Southeast Asia,  I still feel compelled to write a comprehensive guide of my own as we have learnt so much about this topic along the way!

This post is not trying to convince you to give up on renting a scooter, in fact my intentions are quite the opposite. We have rented scooters a number of times now in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, and will no doubt rent many more as we continue our travels through Asia. Our favourite destinations seem to consistently be when we have the independence of a scooter.

This guide is written in regards to the automatic scooters we have been renting, though many of the points are also applicable to semi-automatic and manual motorbikes. It was also written with plenty of input from Alan, my Chief Scooter Driver - because I trust his driving way more than mine!

Tips for renting a scooter in Southeast Asia

Before you hire

  • Before you leave home, ensure to get your International Driver’s License. In New Zealand you just need to pop into the AA with a passport photo and your regular driver’s license, pay $20, and you’ll be given a little booklet with your photo stuck inside that is valid for 1 year. This is your International Driver’s License, which you legally need to drive in most (if not all?) Southeast Asian countries. If you’re stopped and asked to show your license you need to show both your regular license AND your International License. That said, many people do drive without an International Drivers’ License and if stopped by police simply pay a bribe instead, but if you want to avoid all possibility of being on the wrong side of the law then it makes total sense to just hand over the $20 before you leave - the whole process took us both less than 10 minutes, its worth it!
  • If you want to rent a manual motorbike you obviously need to know how to manually change gears (duh) and also hold a valid motorbike license. If you have a regular drivers license you can legally drive a moped/scooter.
  • Expect that you will have to hand over your passport or a big bond (for example on Koh Samui we handed over a 5000 baht bond, NZ$210), which we got back on return). It is a much better idea to leave a deposit, I know I'd rather lose 5000 baht than have my passport held ransom for way more $$!
  • Find a reputable company to rent from or rent from your guesthouse. Take a business card with their name and number on it so you can call should you need to. You'll also usually have to sign a document stating that you're liable for any damage, etc. Make sure you know what you are signing and that you are comfortable with it. There are some dodgy companies out there that have been known to follow you and steal your scooter back after you park it somewhere, then you have to pay them reparation for the missing scooter. If it feels dodgy, it probably is, so use your common sense.

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Safety

  • Wear a helmet. Yes, I realise this is the most repeated tip of all time. One thing I’ve noticed from our journey so far is that some places it is the norm to wear a helmet (Malaysia springs to mind), and other places no-one wears a helmet (Bali, Koh Samui, and plenty more). Buck the trend and wear a helmet! Just do it. Also, police are way more likely to target foreigners who aren't following the 'rules' because we are known to have, uh, fat wallets. It is also important to note than a helmet should be included for free with your rental, if they make you pay for it rent from somewhere else!
  • Drive safely. You may be the greatest driver out there, but at the end of the day everybody on the road is not under your control. Be as aware and defensive as you can.
  • Don't be in a rush. Come on, you're on holiday! No need to be speeding and rushing around just to create more danger for yourself and others on the road.

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Helmets

  • Again, please wear one! You'll be surprised how many people (locals and foreigners) drive around with their helmets in their basket, or anywhere on their bike other than their head! This is so they can put it on quickly in case stopped by police. But still, the best and only place for it is on your head.
  • When you park the scooter and your helmet won't fit under the seat, the best way to store it is open up the seat, then close the seat with the strap inside and helmet hanging out. That way there is no chance of it getting stolen, plus you don't have to carry it around when you're out and about. Here's a picture of what I'm talking about...

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Picking your scooter

  • What power to get? Depends on how hilly the terrain is and if its just you or if there will be two of you on the scooter. We had a 110cc scooter on Koh Samui which was fine for generally driving around but when we ventured inland into the very hilly areas there were a few times I had to get off and walk up the hill instead, ha!
  • Don't rent a brand new scooter. The natural inclination is to rent the flashest, coolest-looking one. But, chances are you may drop it or scratch something, so if you go for a less fancy scooter that already has a few light scratches here and there they are less likely to notice if you also add a scratch or two.
  • Before you commit, take it for a quick drive down the road. Check the brakes work, the light works, the indicators, the horn, the speedo (we have had a couple of rentals where the speedo hasn't worked which isn't a big problem, it is just important to make sure the rental company are aware it doesn't go before you drive away, otherwise you may get blamed and made to cough up for fixing it when you return).
  • If there are some minor scrapes or damage to your scooter, make sure you point it out to the dealership AND take some photos as evidence before you drive away, just in case they question it upon your return.
  • Make sure you ask how to open the seat up and unlock the ignition as this can vary between models.

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Filling up the tank

  • Ask how much petrol is per litre and how many litres it will need to fill up. Petrol stations sometimes rip you off so be careful (we got ripped of at a petrol station in Hoi An and have been super cautious about this ever since!). Think about how much driving around you're going to do before returning the scooter, you may only need half a tank.
  • Ask where the nearest petrol station is. Often your scooter will come with an empty tank of gas and your first stop is going to be to fill it up!
  • Are you expected to return your scooter empty or full? Obviously, if you hired it with an empty tank you should never be expected to return it full - go hire somewhere else! But if it comes with a full tank when you rent it, you are usually expected to return it full.

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On the road

  • Always park your scooter with the wheel locked. Just the other day on parking our scooter in Mui Ne, we came across some concerned travellers whose scooter had been stolen (literally, wheeled away like a push bike!) when they forgot to lock the wheel. Locking the wheel makes it a lot harder for someone to steal your scooter.
  • Don't be afraid to use the horn! When overtaking someone is the most common, but some local drivers are known to just speed down the road absuing their horn non-stop. Don't go overboard, but do use it when you need to.
  • You're in Asia, meaning there are more hazards on the road than just cars and an overload of motorbikes. Also watch out for dogs, cows, snakes...you name it! We had two near-misses with snakes in Thailand already! Slow down, beep your horn and gently swerve around them.

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If something goes wrong

  • Usually, you'll have to pay out of pocket if you get a flat tyre - it should't cost more than a few dollars. This has only happened to us once, but one of the friendly guys from our guesthouse in Ubud, Bali, took it to get it fixed and wouldn't accept any of our money to pay for it!
  • Accidents happen - this is where you are going to want to make sure you have comprehensive travel insurance that covers mopeds. You don't want to end up paying for an unexpected hospital visit out of pocket...

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If you haven't driven a scooter before

  • Don't learn in a busy area. Start somewhere quiet and empty (like a parking lot, or I learnt on an empty basketball court!) and practice starting, stopping, corners, indicating, and parking. I wouldn't recommend learning anywhere like Koh Samui or Kuta, Bali.
  • Remember that road rules barely exist in much of Southeast Asia. Don't expect for people to look out for you, give way for you and make sure you know what side of the road you're meant to be driving on (e.g. in Thailand its on the left but in Vietnam its on the right). If you are not very confident, slow and steady is best.
  • Always keep your left hand over the brake - this is the back brake and obviously the one you want to be using the most pressure on. A good guide is 90% of the braking should come from the rear and 10% from the front.
  • Especially if you're on the back of the bike, make sure your leg doesn't touch the scalding exhaust pipe or you will quickly end up with a nasty burn.
  • Adjust your mirrors before you drive - seems obvious but don't forget! As you will have traffic swerving around you constantly, its very important you can see whats coming up behind you and either side of you.

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Phew!

Some of those tips may make hiring a scooter sound scary, but it is truly so much fun! There is nothing better than streaming along with the wind flowing through your hair and the independence of driving wherever you like that day. Many of our favourite travel days have been when we have hired scooters and explored the area we were in. We have seen so much more of so many places than we would have otherwise!

 Have you hired a scooter in Southeast Asia? Any further tips you can share?


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Travel Budget & Summary: Thailand

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Money, money, money! Wanna know how much baht I spent during my two months in Thailand? Read on for a little insight into my wallet...

Thailand: Our Itinerary

Before we left New Zealand we got 60-day Thailand tourist visas (we sent our passports to the Thailand Embassy in Wellington). We squeezed out nearly every day of those visas, staying a total of 58 nights.

Though we had our visas before we left, we didn't have a plan of what we would do in Thailand at the beginning. It was while we were in Singapore that we took the plunge and booked in a month at Superpro Samui. I was also keen to see some of the north as I had never visited that part of the country before and heard amazing things (yup, its true!).

I loved having an entire month in one place - we had a little studio apartment of our own on Koh Samui and did normal things like go grocery shopping and go to the movies and other fun stuff like that. I love travelling but its no secret that this little island has become dear to my heart and I'm already dreaming of going back!

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Thailand: Travel Budget Breakdown

Please note these costs are in New Zealand dollars (NZD), unless otherwise stated.

Total we spent over 59 days for two people: $5,025 ($2,512.50 per person)

Daily average per person: $42.60 (we try to average less than $50 each overall)

Category Breakdown (Note these costs are for two people and I have rounded to the nearest dollar):
  • Accommodation: $1,907
  • Food and drink: $1690
  • Transport: $688
  • Entertainment/attractions: $181
  • Visas: $50 each*
  • Shopping: $495 (most of it was Muay Thai essentials!)
  • Massage: $59
  • Laundry: $5 (surprisingly low! We mostly hand-washed our clothes on Koh Samui so they were clean for training the next day)

*Not included in the cost summary as we got these before we departed New Zealand. Most nationalities get a visa-free 30 day entry, so if you're travelling for less than a month in Thailand you don't need to worry!

Summary

Accommodation

Our accommodation in Koh Samui was by far our biggest cost as it included training - we paid 1000 baht a night (about $40, or $20 each). We were meant to have a standard double room at Superpro but due to some plumbing issues we scored a free upgrade to a studio apartment which was amazing! We were really happy with the value of this, especially as it included our training, plus had facilities like a gym, swimming pool, yoga classes and more.

With our 30 nights at Superpro taken out of the equation, over the remaining 28 nights we spent an average of $26 per night ($13 each). We continued to use Agoda for most of our bookings because not only do we love a good deal, we love to pay in New Zealand dollars (no conversion fees, hooray!). As always, we stay in private double rooms of varying quality - though overall in Thailand I felt the standard was pretty good.

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Our digs at Superpro Samui

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...through to our modest bungalow in Pai

Food

We spent about $29 a day on food and drink for both of us. I love Thai food to bits but because we were there for so long we definitely ate western food quite often, which is often a bit pricier. I usually try and find highly rated western restaurants on TripAdvisor first so that I know we'll be getting a good meal for your buck!

Of course, I can't go past a good Pad Thai, but I'm also very, very fond of a creamy Panang Curry. Lip-smackingly good! I also had a favourite place on Koh Samui where I felt very virtuous ordering their delicious tofu and cashew stir-fry on brown rice. Alan cursed me whenever I wanted to go there for lunch as it was a good half hour drive away on the far side of Lamai - but it was worth the effort! I still think my favourite meal in Thailand was the one we cooked in Ao Nang, followed a close second by Kalasea on Koh Samui - they get bonus points for ambience!

Naturally, mango smoothies continue to be a common occurrence. I'm addicted - even now, as I write this in Vietnam, I'm still sipping on one! Though admittedly, I did cheat on my love of mango smoothies with the BEST vanilla milkshake of my life at Cheeseburger Cheeseburger on Samui, so...my heart is torn!

Our apartment on Superpro had a big fridge but no cooking facilities, so when we wanted to eat in we chowed down on plenty of filled rolls and peanut butter sandwiches. We always made breakfast in our apartment and it was so nice to put together my own muesli, fruit and yoghurt just the way I like it! I enjoyed being able to grocery shop at Tescos, but in fact eating out is often cheaper so we did plenty of both.

I should have been focussing on my fitness, but hey, you only live once so a few fun nights were thrown in there! Probably the most memorable were my 25th birthday where I was surprised with a cake and sung happy birthday at the Lamai Kickboxing, and the other highlight being our final night where we had a bit of a leaving shindig - I may have enjoyed a few too many wine coolers and come *this* close to getting my upper-ear pierced...hey at least it wasn't a tattoo! Alan hasn't let me live that one down yet.

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One of many times at Kalasea Cafe

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Doing normal things like grocery shopping!

Transport

We came from Langkawi in Malaysia, and simply took a ferry from Langkawi to Satun on the Thai mainland where we checked through very basic immigration point, then took a shuttle onwards to Krabi. We travelled overland by bus for the rest of our journeys (except by ferry to and between the islands, of course!), bar one flight we splurged on between Surat Thani and Chiang Mai. An hour in a place versus two overnight busses/trains? Yeah...

We rented a Scoopy-i 110cc scooter on Koh Samui, which cost us 3000 baht for the month (about NZ$4 a day). Originally we got a pink one because it was all they had available, they told us to come back the next day to switch. I didn't mind the pink but since Alan was mostly driving it probably wasn't that great for his image haha. We went back most days for nearly two weeks until we were able to switch to a blue one!

We also rented scooters on Koh Tao and in Pai, both places I think its pretty essential to have some wheels in order to explore. Not that we were really in the mood to do so while we were in Chiang Mai, but I think having a scooter there would have made a big difference in the way we were feeling - unfortunately we didn't have our passports (they were at the Consulate getting our China visas) which are used as your 'deposit' for rental. So we used our feet mainly, I don't know about yours but my feet prefer scooters.

And how could I forget - we also cycled plenty around Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai!

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Cycling Si Satchanalai

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Alan modelling our scooter, complete with exceptionally flattering helmet, in Pai

We loved our time in Thailand and I'm comfortable with the amount we spent (you could easily travel way cheaper by staying in dorms, fan rooms and eating less western food and more street food). I'm already hatching a plan to go back - wait and see if we are able to make a second round at Koh Samui happen this year!

Have you travelled to Thailand? Did you visit on a backpackers budget, or go all out?


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