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Published: September 3rd 2016
All good things come to an end, and our incredible year of travelling is now one of them. After 13 countries, 93 different hotel rooms, 17,133 miles of overland travel, 48,127 miles of air travel, and 11.2 tonnes each of transport related CO2 emissions (sorry Planet Earth), we're now sat back in normal life, working 9 to 5, and looking back over a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to finish this blog off by reflecting on some of the highlights, amazing experiences, best bits - worst bits - and fond memories of our time in Asia.
Best country: India - always India. No country can possibly compare to the vibrancy, the zest for life, the sheer hectic, crazy, full-on experience of it all. From the slums of Mumbai, down through the otherworldly temples of Hampi, relaxing on houseboats in Kerala, seeing the whole cycle of human life and death in the utter madness of Varanasi, the beauty of Agra and Rajasthan, spotting wild tigers in Ranthambore, through the serenity of Amritsar, to being blown away by the scale and majesty of the Himalayas; this is a country that will always hold a very, very special place in our hearts. The
amazing people - the overly frequent photo requests from all the amazing people - and the incredibly colourful and lively religions providing non-stop texture to everyday life. The food, of course, endlessly delicious and rewarding. The thousands of years of human history, blending centuries-worth of stunning buildings in an effortless architectural melange. The awesome train journeys; making friends with Indian families over a hot cup of chai. The astonishing and ever-changing natural scenery. Just the best country - we'll be back again and again.
Worst country: ...also India. No other country was quite so filthy, quite so crowded or quite so challenging. We got used to washing our legs off every time we returned to the room, after combinations of mud and human waste were flicked up them every time we stood on a loose paving stone. In no other country did I become quite so ill (although Cambodia and Laos pushed it pretty close). Nowhere else did we get quite so much exposure to rats, cockroaches and bedbugs. The beggars lining the streets constantly yank at your heartstrings - and then make you question your humanity as you begin to filter the sight out. The craziness and crowds
are what make India amazing, but when you're not in the right mood to deal with it they can make it awful too. A massive contradiction of a country, all the highs and lows were at their greatest here. But have no doubt - the highs way outnumbered the lows.
Favourite place: Varanasi. The oldest continuously inhabited place on Earth, thousands of years of human history tangibly seep out of the walls of its tiny, crowded, twisting alleyways. Every part of human existence is played out in front of your eyes - where else can you sit and drink a lassi while watching corpses be taken down with great ceremony for cremation? - as you wind your way through crowds, cows, monkeys, motorbikes and funeral processions. I only dipped my feet in the Ganges, and I have to admit I didn't feel even slightly cleansed - in fact I felt significantly dirtier - but the swarms of people bathing on the ghats add a lot to the atmosphere as well. Chaotic, full-on, India condensed into an even more intense version; utterly wonderful.
Least favourite place: Jakarta. We'd been warned, to be fair, but we both love cities and
thought we'd enjoy it. If you ever feel the need to go, please don't. All the craziness and filth of India - the canal in central Jakarta that flows at about half a mile an hour and is quite literally just thick human sewage particularly stands out - but with none of the charm that makes India so wonderful. Stay away!
Best beach paradise: We stayed in many of the traditional beach paradises over the year, through Thailand and Indonesia, but none of them really lived up to the hype; overly touristy, way too expensive and full of drunken idiots. But in Burma we stumbled upon the perfect beach getaway, in Ngwe Saung, which we only visited because we happened to have a spare couple of days. The dirt cheap but lovely bamboo beach hut with hammocks strung outside, vast expanses of gleaming white sand, perfect coral reefs just off-shore, restaurants full of fresh and delicious seafood - and barely another tourist around to share it with. The absolute ideal of the isolated beach getaway, what you imagine Thailand must have been 40 years ago - amazing.
Best meal: Of course, I could never list just one. A
super-spicy chickpea curry with freshly made, perfectly flaky parotta for breakfast one morning in Kerala stands out from the many wonderful dishes in India. Singapore and Malaysia were full of incredible food - Penang most of all, with an oyster omelette there being truly special. Thailand was pretty amazing for every meal - most of all I miss the noodle soups, searingly spicy and filled with clean and zesty tastes. Fresh crab in Kep, Cambodia - yanked straight out of the sea, bopped on the head and then instantly steamed in seawater - was one of the best things I've ever tasted. In Laos, a rice congee on the island of Don Khon - thick, meaty and peppery - was fantastic, and kept us coming back to the same place for more. Indonesia was generally a let-down culinarily, but freshly caught fish in spicy tamarind soup in Labuan Bajo made up for a lot of bad meals before then. Bun bo Hue and Pho in Vietnam always hit the spot, and of all the many spectacular meals in Japan, one particular ramen in Kyoto was just incredible. A year of amazing eating - the food in South-East Asia is in
my opinion the best in the entire world, and was a big factor in choosing the region in the first place.
Most terrifying journey: A white knuckle ride on a bus down from Mussoorie in the Himalayan foothills. The driver was on his phone in one hand, arguing with the passenger behind him with the other, the brakes barely worked, the driver took up the oncoming lane whenever he felt like it and let cars in the that lane worry about swerving around us, and on all sides, inches away, sheer vertiginous drops fell away thousands of feet with often no crash barriers there. I've never been so scared in my life...
Most disgusting toilet: There were many good competitors for this one, to be fair, but Burma wins, by some way. In a beer station at Inle Lake, a trip to the bathroom brought you to a scene straight out of Trainspotting - a heavily blocked squat toilet that had kept being used, resulting in the whole room being flooded to a height of an inch or two with piss, complete with the odd turd floating around in it for good measure. One of those times where
I was very, very glad to be male and able to elect to pee up against the wall around the corner instead...
Best experience: Again, there were so many; top spot though has to go to the diving liveaboard we did in Komodo National Park. Living on a beautiful and luxurious boat, meeting lots of lovely people, and diving the most spectacular reefs you can imagine 3-4 times a day was amazing. Manta rays, sharks, dolphins, turtles, lionfish, seahorses, barracuda... pretty much anything you could ever want to see underwater, we saw it in those four days, and had a lot of fun playing in the famous Komodo currents as well. The other experience that really stands out is the trek we did in Burma from Kalaw to Inle Lake. From the very beginning - getting extremely drunk in a tiny bar with the locals and having a huge bilingual singalong, then being too hungover to actually start trekking the next day - the experience started brilliantly and just got better and better; making some good friends in the group we eventually started trekking with, staying in traditional homestays with tribal families and their water buffalo, eating great food,
wandering though fantastic scenery and drinking moonshine with the tribesmen. We did a number of treks over the year, but that one was pretty special.
All in all, the absolute best year of our lives; a truly incredible and life changing year that we'll never, ever forget. Amazing countries, fantastic food, lovely people - South-East Asia was everything we ever wanted it to be and so much more. There's so much more of the world we want to see, but the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this region hold a unique, hypnotic draw for us. Without doubt, the exotic lure of Asia will keep pulling us back - we'll see you again soon.
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