Byron Bay

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to big Byron up to it’s full potential – the plan was to spend three maybe four nights here, two weeks later we still hadn’t left. This place has to be one of my favourite places so far due to it’s laid back attitude, colourful community, great night life and endless surf.

The past two weeks have consisted of surfing, bodyboarding, eating, drinking, and generally loving life. From the moment we arrived, checked in, ate the best falafel in the country (Orgasmic Falafel – along the street opposite Hogs Breath), bumped into the abundance of hippies who live here, grabbed our friends and headed down the road to watch some live music at Beach Hotel (see Dappled Cities), I have officially fallen in love with the bay.

The only place worth staying in Byron Bay is Aquarius – from $21 a night you get to stay in the most fun hostel in the area which is a mere 2 minutes walk from the Main Beach (a fantastic beach with some super hot surf spots offering swell for beginners right through to the pro’s), you can get a free meal every night if you buy a drink at the bar, plus free bodyboard rentals, plenty of communal space and a swimming pool.

There is also a little surf shop just over the road with the nicest owner and the cutest dog – he (the owner, not the dog) does pretty good deals on board, bike and wetsuit hire and if you keep going back the price will work its way down every time.

If you’re looking for a surf lesson in Byron and are finding yourself overwhelmed with offers from surf schools, I must reccommend Black Dog Surfing (ask for Bex specifically) as they do a cheap introductory rate – around $45-50 for beginners for a 3 hour lesson which will get you up to speed with the ins and outs, technique and lingo of surfing, and get you riding plenty of waves by the end of the sesh. If you check out Byron in Winter you’ll find that there are fewer people surfing so the lessons are far more personal.

If you don’t require a lesson the best surf spot on Byron Main Beach can be found at the lookout, head on to the beach from the car park and walk right as far as the land will take you, once you’ve reached the look out jump into the sea on your right and into the abundance of local and tourist surfers. Alternatively head to The Wreck for some pretty good bodyboarding, and if you happen to be around the look out on an evening try taking the visually stunning two hour walk upto the lighthouse to watch the sunset.

Not only is Byron perfect for water sports and diving, visiting it will immediately fill you with a sense of peace – on every corner you’ll find massage and therapy spa’s right next door to vegan, vegetarian or sushi places. For those not looking for inner peace, bottle-o’s can be found dotted all around the bay with nice cheap goon. Although drinking is not permitted in Aquarius (except for at the bar) you can get away with stashing goon in your rooms and downing a few mugs before heading out. Alternatively head to Nomads just around the corner where they have a huge communal drinking area, indoors and out (great for goon pong – see beer pong), and a jaccuzzi available until 9:00pm.
Note: Nomads is probably the newest hostel in Byron and offer rooms from around $30.
Once you’ve finished drinking in the hostels head out to either Beach Hotel for a young crowd and great live music or to Cheeky Monkeys for late night dancing on tables, terrible music and cheap drink deals. Occassionally they will charge a $5-$10 entrance fee but as we found out, if you head in during a police inspection you can sneak in for free. The Rails is a decent pub just down the road from Cheekys and looks great as it is an old converted railway station, you buy your beer through the ticket booth windows and they often have live folk music blasting into the open air – plenty of locals here and good deals on beer.
One vital tip, don’t forget the bakery on the corner down from Cheekys after a big night out, open 23 hours a day selling the best pastries around.

If you fancy a night in make it a Tuesday night where, as always, Cheap Tuesdays reigns. $2 movie rentals and $6.95 large Pizza’s from Eagle Boys (head up to Woolworths, it’s just past here on the right hand side) are an absolute must.

The shopping in Byron is another bonus – from big brands such as Rip Curl and Billabong right through to local skate and surf shops and of course, the classic Woolworths for all your cheap foody essentials. Byron’s markets are also a must see, head up past the railway tracks on a Thursday for the farmers market to pick up your meat and veg or check it out on a Sunday for the bigger market with live music, endless food stalls and tonnes of tye-dye.

If you fancy taking a day trip out of Byron (not sure why anyone would want to leave, but this is worth a few hours out) try the Magic Bus tour to Nimbin. I’ve never visited anywhere like Nimbin in my life – simply a huge stoner town where the locals are all screwed in the head and the only items for sale are hippy bracelets, tye dye clothing, weed, or cookies (the fun kind). The Magic Bus will ensure your trip to Nimbin is the best it can possibly be, Tim the bus driver (it’s his business) is the best guy and will even pop your ipod on the sound system if you ask nicely. He’ll give you good advice regarding what to buy and what not to buy when in Nimbin, he’ll take you for breakfast and even toast marshmallows over a campfire with you after rope swinging into a secluded lake.

Tip: Another bonus of the Magic Bus is that as soon as you hop off in Nimbin, the lady who owns the shop at the first bus stop will give you a few dollars discount on anything you buy as she’s good friends with Tim.

Before you leave Nimbin grab a slice of Hemp Cake and a coffee at the tiny shop next to The Hemp Embassy – you can’t miss it, and the cake is to die for.

I’ll leave Byron on that ‘high’ note, all I can say is this may be the first time I visit the bay but it certainly will not be the last.

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Newcastle & Coffs Harbour

I have decided to include both of these locations in the same post due to the fact that, as lovely as they both are, they are relatively small and we only spent a short amount of time in both places.

Firstly Newcastle – we hopped on the Greyhound from Sydney Central and arrived 3 hours later at the bus station in Newcastle. If you jump off and walk a few minutes around the corner up Watt Street onto Hunter Street you’ll come across Backpackers By The Beach which, in my opinion, the ONLY place anyone should stay in Newcastle. Run by the friendliest couple, you can grab a comfy dorm bed for $29 a night which by all accounts is a little steep but there is literally only this lovely homely place or a YHA in the little town. This price will get you into a super clean ensuite dorm with internet access, free tea and coffee, free BBQ and bingo on Tuesdays, a pasta night at The Great Northern hotel on Wednesdays, another free BBQ on Thursdays, $4 Pizza on Fridays and Poker on Monday nights. They also have a cute communal kitchen and lounge area and a great selection of films, books and magazines to choose from if you fancy a bit of R&R which was what we used Newcastle for.

For a day or two out and around Newcastle you can wander down to Nobbys Beach which is a nice little walk, or check out the shops in the Hunter Mall – other than this we did little else other than hang out with the hostel owners, eating and watching films. If you go to Newcastle for one reason, let it be Backpackers By The Beach.

Moving onto Coffs Harbour – we stayed at a hostel called Aussietel where for $25 per night you get cosy dorms, a swimming pool, laundry and free pancakes on a Wednesday (backpacking is all about getting things for free).
A couple of tips when staying at Aussietel – do not arrive before 8:30am, saving money on accommodation by getting the overnight Greyhound may seem like a good idea until you’re sat outside a gas station at 3:00am waiting for your hostel to open, and be aware that check out here is a harsh 9:30am so avoid drinking too much the night before you leave.
A bonus however, is that if you arrive or leave at reasonable hours you can grab a lift to and from the Greyhound stop from the guys who work at Aussietel.

Coffs is a pretty decent place to spend a couple of nights, you can rent bikes from Aussietel for $5 a day and tour the entire harbour – make sure you take a ride past Park and Jetty Beach, and perhaps go and visit the Big Banana even if only to grab a delicious banana milkshake and take a peek at the plantation.

There is plenty of diving available in Coffs – Aussietel has their own dive center right out the back and offers Peter Pan travel deals so you can get your PADI Open Water and Advanced for around $300 each.

If diving isn’t your thing Coffs has an excellent market on a Sunday and pretty great shopping overall – for super cheap second hand books check out Readmore Books on the main street just down from Coles. Alternatively we checked out the Botanic Gardens which, although the gardens themselves are not overly impressive, a picnic on a sunny day can really lift your spirits.

That’s all I have on Newcastle and Coffs, next stop Byron Bay!

Sydney

We chose to fly from Melbourne to Sydney with Tiger Airways as we decided that there was no where between the two cities that we needed to visit, these guys do pretty cheap flights too and it’s only an hour long journey. Once we landed in Sydney airport we bought a My Multi (train, bus and ferry ticket in one) for the week, this was around $40-$50 but it is definitely worth it for getting around Sydney. We took the City Circle train from the airport and hopped off at Circular Quay so we could get the ferry to Manly for a couple of days free accommodation with friends.

Manly is a gorgeous part of Sydney with an amazing beach rivaling Bondi, great shops, restaurants and bars (not a huge night scene but it’s still worth a visit – it has a bit more class than the city center). The surfing is red hot here, very popular indeed and there’s alot of surf shops and centers that will do you a pretty good deal if you’re after lessons or rentals. The only downside to Manly for us was the fact that if we were spending time in the city we had to take a half hour ferry ride to and from Manly, and we had to keep track of time to ensure we didn’t miss the last ferry.

For the rest of our Sydney experience we stayed at Maze Backpackers, on Pitt Street just off George Street, which is currently part of Nomads however I believe it’s trying to branch away from this – regardless, don’t stay here. We paid $19 a night for an 8 bed dorm and then switched to a 3 bed private for $20 a night (I personally prefer staying in dorms). They advertise free internet when you book which you don’t get, it’s a listed building so there are no plugs or mirrors in the rooms, the hostel its self is old and could do with a re-vamp, the “free breakfast” is only between 8am and 9am (realistically, who gets up at this time?) and consists of beef stew on toast, or so we heard. They also advertise free dinner on a Monday and a Wednesday which is not the case, the only upside is the location.

Instead of staying here, hop over the road to Westend Backpackers (another Nomads) which is directly opposite Maze and where it is only $17 a night in a dorm, it is very similar to the Nomads in Melbourne – much more modern and welcoming than Maze. I’d advise staying around this area, it’s very central and bustling – rumour has it that Kings Cross is a pretty unpleasant place to stay in Sydney even though there’s alot of cheap accommodation there, instead of staying at Kings Cross take a stroll up to Hyde Park, take Liverpool Street along to Victoria Street and stop for a coffee and a browse in the abundance of vintage shops along the way.

To see the best bits of Sydney just jump on the city circle train, most of the main attractions such as the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, The Rocks, the Museum of Modern Art and the Botanical Gardens are located at Circular Quay. The Opera House was smaller than I expected but looks great at night when lit up, they often project images onto the roof which is quite impressive. The Harbour Bridge is a great sight either during the day or in the evening, you can walk across it for free and take some impressive snap shots of Circular Quay, this gives you a perfect view of the Opera House too. Ensure you walk through The Rocks to get to the bridge, the buildings here are so quaint, and you can stumble across a variety of markets, especially on a Saturday. I believe it costs a couple of hundred dollars to actually climb the Harbour Bridge – needless to say we skipped this option and went for the free entry into the Museum of Modern Art which should only take you a couple of hours to walk around but it’s still very impressive and has some fantastic exhibitions on. The Botanical Gardens are in my top 3 favourite parts of Sydney along with Manly and Bondi beaches – take an hour to wander around the whole place on a sunny day and take a picnic, they encourage you to walk on the grass, smell the roses and touch the trees (be aware, many have bats hanging from them) – it’s beautiful, and far superior to Hyde Park.

Another great sight to see in Sydney is Darling Harbour where you’ll find the worlds largest IMAX cinema (8 stories high – prepare for neck strain) where we watched Avatar in 3D, pretty impressive! Darling Harbour also offers some of Sydney’s finest dining, especially when it comes to seafood, there is also the Aquarium, Wildlife World and the Powerhouse Museum which we visited to take advantage of the 1980s exhibition they had running – plus this only costs $5 with a student card. Darling Harbour also had the FIFA Fan Fest up and running whilst we were in Sydney which is basically a huge screen set up on the harbour where crowds can gather and watch the World Cup for free. Staying up until 4:00am to watch football is something I will only do once in my life.

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As I previously mentioned, Bondi is one of the nicer parts of Sydney. Catch the 333 bus from Circular Quay (included in My Multi) and this will drop you off at Bondi beach within half an hour. Go on a nice day and pick up some fish and chips or an icecream and sit yourself on the beach to check out the surfing, even in Winter when the weather is a little chilly, if the sun is out the surf will also be out. There’s also quite a few nice surf shops and vintage shops dotted around Bondi if you don’t fancy getting sandy.

Staying on the subject of shopping – hop off the city circle train at the City Hall where you’ll find the majority of Sydney’s best shops. Try the QVB (Queen Victoria Building) and The Strand if you’re into flashy shopping centers, or wander down George Street and Oxford Road – especially to check out the huge glass fronted Apple Store (packed full of brand spanking new iPads for me to play on!) The General Pants Co. is a pretty cool shop which I think is specific to Australia, it resembles Urban Outfitters, and we also stumbled across an American Apparel on Oxford Road. Sorry Topshop fans, it hasn’t made it across the pond yet.

A couple more tips for Sydney, grab a chinese in China Town if you’ve got the cash (a set meal should only set you back $18) or head to Paddy’s Markets any day of the week for bargains and a very impressive food court. If you’re not feeling so flush I’d advise shopping at Woolworths (not the same as our Woolworths before you get excited) or Coles and eating out of your hostel for the entire duration as Sydney is pretty pricey when it comes to eating out.
When it comes to drinking grab some Goon before heading out (standard), or you may find your hostel has some deals going on with free wine and snacks, and then take a trip to either Maloney’s for a British pub feel, Scubar (next to Central YHA) which is pretty cool and underground and is great for a game of pool, and finally Sidebar which is next to Wake Up Hostel on the corner of George Street and Pitt Street and is very popular on a Friday night.

One final tip – we organised the rest of our trip from Wicked Travel in Sydney, apparently these guys are the cheapest and it’s also pretty good value if you’re looking to either just travel up the coast, or even if you want to add in a couple of trips such as Fraser Island and Whitsundays. We booked these along with a hop on, hop off Greyhound bus ticket which set us back around $600 for the whole lot.

That’s it for Sydney at the moment, on to Newcastle and further up the coast!

Melbourne

Melbourne has to be one of my favourite cities on the planet. Upon arrival I wasn’t overly impressed which was probably just due to the weather (it’s winter here) and the fact that I’d had around 3 hours sleep on the flight over from Singapore, as luxurious as it was, but Melbourne has captured my heart. It is officially Australia’s most artsy city – full of students (check out the impressive University) and fun loving people, you’ll find everything but a sun tan here.

It’s pretty easy to get from Melbourne airport into the city center, we took the Sky bus directly to the central bus station which was around $14 and then wandered out into the city in hopes of finding our hostel, Nomads. After around 5 minutes we realised we were decidedly lost, so took a seat outside a building and leafed through the Lonely Planet Australia guide looking very confused in the hopes that a stranger might take pity on us and point us in the right direction. Fortunately for us, this is exactly what happened, and a few minutes later we came across Nomads on A’Beckett Street. It’s called a flash packers hostel, but it’s not overly fancy, it’s simply the perfect place to stay in Melbourne offering friendly staff and loads of lovely clean dorm rooms ranging from roughly 6 beds to 10 beds. You can also work 21 hours a week and get the accommodation free of charge, and getting things for free in Melbourne is something you’ll pick up if you ever travel through – Nomads gives you free pasta, rice, tea and coffee, free Goon (cheap boxed wine) after 8pm every evening, for the ladies free champagne on Friday nights, and it also has a free Cinema lounge if you fancy renting a few movies. If you meet friends who have jobs in high places (i.e. working behind the bar, or at the bowling alley) you can also get either a few drinks or a few games of bowling for free, and there’s a free city tram which takes you the whole way around Melbourne, so you can spend a few days in the city without actually spending a penny. We found that eating in a large group helps keep budgets down, and with the free pasta and rice at Nomads you can’t really go wrong – try making stir fry or Pad Thai for 10-12 people, should work out at under $2 per person! There’s also a great selection of cheap Asian eateries down Swanson Street (just down from The Central – see below, and the Library), you can pick up a pack of Sushi for around $5-$6 from any Sushi place, try the popular Sushi Sushi, or get a huge chinese takeaway for $6 from Don Don in a cute little bento box.

We spent the first couple of days making friends, working and planning our weekly activities. The first night we stayed we were immediately adopted by a group of travelers who took it upon themselves to very kindly take us for a night out – we had dinner, drank some Goon in the dorm and headed out to Turf bar where we spent the night dancing and drinking before heading back for a McDonald’s and bed. If you head to Turf bar on a Wednesday it’s a pretty fun night and the drinks are only around $5 – needless to say the day after was spent nursing hangovers and watching films whilst eating copious amounts of free pasta. Just down from Nomads you’ll find The Workshop, another bustling club and great place to drink, excellent on a Friday night after you’ve tanked yourself up on goon and champagne (fizzy goon) at the hostel.

For shopping and entertainment purposes, Melbourne has it all. Take a walk to The Central where you’ll find dozens of exciting stores, two Nandos restaurants, a Coles (cheap Australian supermarket) and a cinema – also check out Hi Fi club just down the road for amazing gigs. We went to see Strung Out and The Loved Ones at Hi Fi which absolutely blew my mind, not only were the bands outstanding, the venue its self is perfect, it’s tiered so where ever you stand you’ll be able to see the stage.
Another highlight in Melbourne is The Lanes – we took a stroll down here, it’s basically dozens of tiny streets hidden away in the CBD where you can find gorgeous little restaurants, quirky vintage shops and very impressive graffiti.

The Queen Victoria Market is one of Melbourne’s main tourist attractions – a huge open air market, open 5 days a week from Tuesday to Sunday generally between the hours of 6:00am and 2:00pm. Here you can find over 600 traders selling everything from cheese, meat, fruit and veg to clothing and didgeridoos, definately worth a stroll. Also – try and check out The Docklands, near the rear of Southern Cross Station (you can catch the free tram here, hop on behind Queen Vic Market) which has an icerink if you fancy a quick skate, some good shops and plenty of restaurants, it also boasts the Melbourne equivalent of the London Eye if you’re into that sort of thing.
Southbank is another popular area of Melbourne just across the Yarra River from the city center where you can find the ever popular Crown Casino which is just good fun on an average night, and even more fun when they’re showing the World Cup.

We didn’t do things like the Aquarium and the Cricket Grounds but I’ve heard they are pretty impressive. We simply spent our time working, drinking with friends, wandering around the city center and heading to the library for free internet and games. This is definite must for backpackers on a shoestring, the library provides free internet access and has an entire room packed with Playstations, Wii’s, and iMacs if you feel like feeding your inner geek. We also took a day trip to St Kilda, which I’m sure is delightfully bustling and pleasant in the summer, but in the winter it’s simply a cold run down beach resort – perhaps head here in the warmer weather and take a stroll down the beach and onto the pier. Luna Park can be found here, an old fashioned theme park with Australia’s oldest rollercoaster made entirely out of wood – you won’t miss the maniacal face of Mr Moon on the parks facade. Another popular pasttime in Melbourne is the Neighbours tour, if you’re a fan of the show check out the tour and the trivia night where you can visit Ramsay street and meet the cast – Dr Karl Kennedy is a bit of a pervert we heard.

The thing I love most about Melbourne is that instead of feeling like a tourist I genuinely felt at home, and fell into living there very easily. All I can say is visit this city, it’s officially one of my favourite places on the planet and we WILL be making a month long stop off before we jet back to the UK so watch this space for further updates!

Singapore

Once you’ve arrived in Singapore airport you’ll feel an instant wave of relief come over you. One of the cleanest and safest places I’ve ever visited, Singapore is quite possibly the world’s most helpful city, and it’s so easy to get around. Visit Customer Services in the airport for advice on how to get to your hostel (they’ll even find the address for you and point it out on a map), hop on the MRT (Singapore’s answer to the underground, Mass Rapid Transit) and sail straight into the city center. We booked 5 nights in Footprints Hostel, which is an absolute gem splat bang in the center of Little India, $18 per night for a 12 bedroom mixed dorm including breakfast, free internet, television, laundry and insanely helpful staff. Little India is described as chaotic and pungent by many, and it is, but not as much as Vietnam or Cambodia, so don’t worry.

Most of the cheap guesthouses are located around here, and you can grab a curry for as little as $4. If Indian isn’t your thing head a few minutes outside of Little India and you’re back in Asian terroritory again, check out Albert Center located near Bugis station for traditional Asian dishes as little as $2! For those hankering for Western food, there’s an abundance of McDonalds, KFC’s, Subways and even Nandos. Our first night in Singapore we went for a curry just a few minutes from Footprints, wandered around Little India and it’s outskirts, sat down outside an art gallery for some iced chocolate milk, bought a couple of beers from the 7/11 before heading back to Footprints to watch a few DVD’s. The nightlife is pretty good in Singapore, the Muslim Quarter is especially nice for eating, drinking and shopping, but beware of the drinks prices; a beer should set you back around $9 and a cocktail will be over $15, if you’re shoestringing try the 24 hour convenience stores for $1.20 cans of lager.

The next day we discovered that there was a Pixar Animation exhibition showing at the Science Center, so we hopped on the MRT and found our way there. The exhibition cost $24 per persona and celebrated the last 20 years of Pixar’s work, displaying over 60,000 storyboards and many more sketches, paintings and sculptures. We also caught a 3D showing of Toy Story which made me very excited for the upcoming 3rd movie!

After this little delight we headed to Raffles for a Singapore Sling ($29, oh my life) and to have a look around the shopping center before taking the high speed lift all the way to the top of the Swissotel The Stamford for the best birds eye view of Singapore you can find. Hop off the MRT at City Hall for Raffles and The Stamford.
Tip: For second hand books, book swaps and trading check out the Bras Basah Complex, just North of Raffles shopping center.

The next day we took a trip to the Singapore Zoo, easily accessible by shuttle bus from the 7/11 on Serangoon Road ($4 one way) and the entry is $49 for both the Zoo, Night Safari and trams around the parks. (The shuttle bus runs at 9:25am, 10:25am and 13:25pm, but check with your hostel for exact times, you can book the tickets on the bus, it works out a little cheaper. The bus back starts at 9pm after the Night Safari).
Tip: Take your own food to the Zoo as the snacks and meals there are at least $12, drinks are $4.

You only need a few hours at the Zoo as it’s not too huge, but if you want to experience the elephant bath get there early, it starts at 9:30am. Avoid public holidays and weekends if you can. We sauntered around in the scorching heat snapping pictures of every single animal we could find (except Pandas), laughing at the tourists taking elephant rides, and also watching some animals being fed before checking out the Splash Show (a must-see) featuring Carlos the Sealion, where our friend Steve actually had the opportunity to play frisbee with him.

The next two days in Singapore were spent running around Universal Studios which had just opened in March as far as I’m aware. The biggest and best ride in the park is the Battlestar Galactica rollercoaster which, probably would have blown our minds if it had been open, alot like a few other rides which were closed due to the park being so new. Regardless, we had gorgeous weather on the first day which meant we could hit the Jurassic Park rapids and get soaked, we also did the Mummy Returns ride a few times which was amazing! We bought way too much food, novelty head gear and merchandise, but you get a 10$ food voucher and a $5 merch voucher as soon as you enter the park so that helped our budget a little. The Water World show was also pretty impressive, and another great way to cool down, and you can meet the entire cast of Madagascar and watch them “move it, move it”.

Our final few hours in Singapore were spent sauntering down Orchard Road, where you will find every shop you could ever dream of, and endless department stores, which, with us being on a budget, was relatively difficult to experience. A definite must see, the culture and architecture (as with most of Singapore) around Orchard Road mean that it is much more than a shoppers paradise, and you should only need an afternoon here to see all there is to see.

Our lengthy flight to Australia from Singapore (quite an expensive job, search around for cheap offers) was made much more comfortable thanks to Emirates, THE flashiest airline we’ve experienced so far. You get a choice of over 200 films (this flight is blatantly not long enough), drinks, food and snacks at your disposal, star-imitation lights in the ceiling on night flights, and due to our flight being majorly empty, an entire row of seats to sleep on. Needless to say we arrived in Oz feeling pretty refreshed, for once.

Keep posted, I have a feeling a lengthy post on Melbourne won’t be far away.

Thailand Part 2

Upon arrival, we were a little disappointed with Koh Phangan, I blame this partially on lack of sleep and the poor quality of the first hostel we booked into as the island perked up a few days into our stay. We dumped our gear in Same Same guesthouse in Had Rin, which is apparently party central before Full Moon parties, but we didn’t see any action here. The rooms were overpriced and none of the luxuries were in working order i.e. fan, running water, doors. They’ll also try and rip you off by not re-stocking the mini bar in your room, or as we discovered leaving a packet of open peanuts in there and demanding that you pay for them the next day. We spent one sleepless night here before storming out and checking into Delight Resort, just a few minutes down the road. This resort was recommended to us by a couple from the Netherlands that we bumped into and went to Half Moon with, and it was in fact a delight. 500B gave us air conditioning for the first time since Japan, a powerful hot and cold shower, and a gorgeous swimming pool to cool down in.

There’s also a lovely restaurant straight opposite which offers delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner at reasonable prices. A bunch of our friends that we met in Cambodia had booked in at Coral Bungalows where they paid the same price as us for the same sort of luxury and also had the extra added bonus of organised pool parties, but their accommodation was a good 5-10 minute walk from the center of Had Rid and the beach, regardless, we spent most of the week around their pool because it was bigger.

First couple of days in Koh Phangan we spent relaxing and recovering from Phi Phi (much needed), we met a few people around our pool so in the evenings we had a few drinks with them on the beach, and then Half Moon came around. Turns out it’s 500B entry and it’s held in the jungle which means it’ll cost you 200B return in a taxi but despite these two setbacks it’s well worth the pennies. Get yourselves a few buckets on Had Rid beach first (this is an eyeopener, as soon as you set foot on the beach dozens of beach vendors shout and beg for your business, see if you can get buckets for 75B – 100B, anything more than this and you’re being ripped off, they’ll also offer you free jewellery made from plastic straws and flowers, cute) before hopping in a taxi into the jungle.

There will be plenty of adverts for taxi’s to take you to Half Moon, barter down and try and get a big group together, it helps save money. Memories of Half Moon are a little blurry but if you ignore the heavy trance music, don’t overpay for the expensive drinks and just have fun with the people you’re with you’ll have the best time, and we did, glow in the dark body paint and all.

As previously mentioned the next few days consisted of curing our hangovers by a dip in Coral Bungalows swimming pool with our friends, before heading back to Delight for showers and naps, back out again with the guys for dinner then off for more buckets on the beach. Very much like Phi Phi there are always fire displays and if you saunter down the beach to Drop In bar they often have foam parties going on (watch your eyes, this stuff stings) so it’s a good laugh if you’re with a group of people. Bumped into a few familiar faces from Phi Phi (few guys from Sweden and some girls from Norway) who informed us they were staying for the Full Moon party and that their accommodation at Coral was setting them back 1500B per night instead of 500B, simply as it was peak time for Full Moon.

With smug smiles on our faces, the big group of us booked our boat tickets across to Koh Samui to get away from the overpricing of Full Moon. This cost us about 200B each, booked through Coral Bungalows, you get picked up in a taxi from the resort and ferried down to the port where you jump on a relatively small boat that, 45 minutes later, will deliver you smoothly on beautiful Koh Samui. This island has the cleanest beach I’ve seen so far, not much of a night life but still worth seeing (see Koh Tao if you want some peace and quiet and superb diving). Prices were a little more expensive here but nothing in the 1500B range, we checked into The Loft which is the main backpacker haunt on Koh Samui, offering a restaurant, travel agency and a pool table. We managed to haggle 650 for air conditioned rooms for all 8 of us, including hot and cold showers, breakfast and a TV which made our American friend very happy. The loft is a 5 minute walk to the beach and is right on the main strip, head out left of The Loft and continue a few minutes down the road for cheap eats and relatively cheap drinks (try happy hour for 50B Chang). The shopping in Koh Samui is also quite handy if this is the last place in Thailand you’re visiting, plenty of knock offs to keep the folks at home happy and also some traditional Thai merch if you’re interested. After a few nights on Koh Samui drinking, playing pool, sizzling on the beach and playing extreme Jenga (see below) the group had to part, two left and headed back to the UK, one made their way down Malaysia for some diving, and the remaining 5 of us booked a bus to Kuala Lumpur followed by a flight down to Singapore.

This is a long and painful trip, setting you back around 1200B and is especially unpleasant if you’re crammed into a sauna of a minibus for 4 hours. However, the border crossing into Malaysia is quick and simple and before we knew it we’d left two more in KL and the last 3 of us were jetting out of the airport to Singapore. This is a one hour flight, book it with Air Asia for very cheap rates as low as $8.

Thailand Part 1

We began our travels in Thailand in the lovely city of Chiang Mai. After landing in Bankok airport (no trouble whatsoever, and if you’re flying with Bankok Airways make sure you take full advantage of the free food and drink in the departure lounge!) we took a short transfer to Chiang Mai airport and a taxi ride to the Little Bird Guesthouse where we had booked a few nights to stay. This is a gorgeous little guesthouse splat bang in the backpacker area of Chiang Mai with same and mixed sex dorms, comfy beds, clean bathrooms and a lovely communal area with internet access.

Should only set you back about 200B per night, and the staff will bend over backwards for you – carrying your luggage to your dorm, offering you a map of the local area with tourist spots already circled. From here we booked a one day cooking course and one day trek with elephant riding and white water rafting to take up the next couple of days before we jetted off for Phuket.

Chiang Mai is a great stop off in Thailand, definately worth seeing – just around the corner you can locate a street vendor offering the best Pad Thai for 35B, deal yourself in on this and a couple of 23B beers from the 7/11 opposite and you’ll be laughing as the meals and drinks in the bars around are typical of Thailand and will set you back at least 160B. If you don’t fancy spending dollar in expensive bars in Chaing Mai then the guesthouse is a perfect place to chill out with cheap beers and meet fellow backpackers. If you are in the mood for some authentic Thai grub then the Lazy Dog cafe just around the corner (ask for directions) is a beautiful organic cafe which serves anything you could want including an extensive vegetarian menu, and they have their own gigantic compost heap in the back garden, which they utilize to grow their own fruit and veg. The owner is the biggest hippy and will hippy on to you about everything that is wrong with the world and how distressed he is about the lack of trees – a little odd but so friendly, and if you leave anything there he’ll keep hold of it until you return, whether it be in a few hours or a few years.

Try not to be put off by Starbucks and McDonalds and such like in Chiang Mai – it’s one of the less Westernised areas in Thailand, the locals are very friendly, the food is amazing and you can trawl through dozens of cute book shops and pick up paper backs for around 50B.

We booked through a place called the Thai Scening Cooking School which offers you 7 dishes to prepare, cook and eat yourself, should set you back about 900B maximum. The girls that teach you how to cook the dishes are amazing, so friendly, helpful and funny. They’ll take you around the market in Chiang Mai and teach you which rice and noodles are the best to use.

We made green curry paste from scratch, made from the herbs and vegetables in the organic garden out the back of the Cooking school. For the rest of the day we made Thai Green Curry, Coconut Milk Soup, Pad Thai, Hot Basil Stir Fry, Spring Rolls, and Bananas in Coconut Milk for pudding – delicious. Also, if you want a vegetarian option, let them know before you start cooking and they’ll replace any chicken in the dishes with Tofu and more vegetables. By the end of the day you won’t be able to move, thankfully these guys offer you a chill out zone with fans and cooling mist so you can sit and digest for a few hours before slumping off.

The next day we hopped on our Trek with Panda Tours, 800B for the full day, they’ll advise you’ll get back to Chiang Mai around 5pm… You won’t. They’ll drive you in a small truck with the rest of your group to the Orchid Orchard so you can wander around and look at the butterflies they have fluttering around, very boring, don’t spend too long here. From this destination they ship you up the hillside where you jump off and trek for around 20 minutes through dirt tracks and villages, picking fresh Lychees as you go. We reached the Chiang Mai Elephant Camp after this very warm walk and met the elephants who had kindly agreed to taxi us around for an hour. If there’s too many people to sit on the elephant’s back, they’ll throw you onto the neck to ride them like a real Mahout – this gets pretty uncomfortable, smelly and dirty but it is certainly an experience. Especially when the elephant in front lets one rip.

Luckily for us, the camp had just been blessed with a baby elephant, it was only 8 months old when we met it, and was the cutest little thing – Please note, don’t waste your memory cards on this one day, these won’t be the only elephants you will meet in Thailand; they pretty much roam the streets like Taxi’s.

After the elephant ride and lunch they take you for an icy cold dip in a waterfall nearby, very refreshing. Savour this, as after the watefall it’s a 45 minute drive to the White Water Rapids. As it was low season when we went they were not too extreme, but it was a pretty fun experience clashing against the rocks and rolling around on top of each other, unable to manouvre in stiff life jackets and helmets. The locals all crowd around the riverside (i’m sure they must pay for this) and laugh and splash you all the way down.

Oh, also make sure you wear quick drying clothing for this portion of the expedition as after the (very wet) rapids, you’ll move onto the bamboo “rafts”. I say “rafts”, they are long flat platforms made of bamboo which, quite simply, do not float. You might as well swim downt the river, but the locals who take you on the rafts seem pretty pleased to meet you so it’s worth doing if you don’t mind getting even more wet, thankfully this country is so hot you dry off in less than a minute. You can grab a beer at the drop off point whilst you’re drying before you head back to Chiang Mai (approximately 8pm).

That night we grabbed our oh-so-favourite Pad Thai for 35B and headed to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar which, if you can’t be bothered with Bankok or Phuket town, is your next best spot. Wall to wall fakes and knock offs, you can pick up anything here from Ray Ban to Tiffanys for no more than 200B, be cafeful taking fakes back to your country – it’s sometimes frowned upon.

The next day our flight took us straight to Phuket, we jumped onto a mini bus from the airport (150B if you share) and decided to choose Patong beach as our first resort – mistake. Patong Beach is basically Magaluf for Australians. Every male looks like a female and every female looks like a hooker. People drag their children around the streets, unexpectedly stumbling across strip clubs and peep shows wherever you turn, they literally shove the industry in your face, and even if your curiosity gets the better of you and you fancy a peek, a drink will set you back at least 900B and you’ll see cigarettes being smoked from places cigarettes should never be smoked from. Considering Patong was one of the worst areas hit in the Tsunami, and during the recovery the local authorities decided to curb businesses and street vendors on the main strip, this is not so apparent. The only thing you can do in Patong is drink through it and simply watch the circus from any small, relatively clean looking bar you can find. I could have lived my entire life without visiting Patong.

We swiftly checked out the next morning and took a Tuk Tuk down the coast to Kata Beach which is absolutely stunning. Very quiet and peaceful with picturesque beaches, Kata is the perfect hangover cure. Not an awful lot to do if you’re looking to spend more than 2 days here, but to top up your tan and take a break from the chaotic Thai partying Kata hits the nail on the head. We stayed in the Lucky Guesthouse, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide, which is a cute group of beach bungalows and rooms for about 450B a night, clean rooms with fans and tidy bathrooms, and a 5 minute walk to the beach down the main strip of restaurants and bars.

Don’t expect any night life in Kata but certainly check out the beach and there are a couple of islands nearby which are perfect for diving and snorkelling. Be prepared to spend 100B for a sunbed on the beach, and if you see a few dark grey clouds approaching, leave for shelter immediately, as Thai rain storms are a little more extreme than the rest of South East Asia.
After a couple of relaxing days at Kata we booked transport by minibus and boat to Koh Phi Phi after hearing it’s endless praise, and my my is it worth every Baht. Should only cost you 300B to get here from Phuket, and believe me it’s worth it, considering this little beauty was almost completely destroyed in the December 2004 Tsunami you’d never guess, it’s stunning. Accommodation varies all over the island from as little as 200B to a hefty 1200B plus for air conditioned rooms and a pool. We checked into The Rock in the center of the backpacker area, a 2 minute walk to the beach and right splat bang in the middle of all the restaurants and bars, but we’ve head great things about P&P Guesthouse and Phi Phi Charlie, just wander around and enquire into prices.

Phi Phi is one of Thailand’s absolute gems, you can spend the day sizzling on the beach or take some time out of the blistering sunshine and pearly sands and check out the abundance of top class diving that Phi Phi has to offer, you can do a full course, a day or night dive or even just a half a day’s snorkelling for very reasonable prices. The beach is swarmed with backpackers either sunning themselves or running around playing beach sports, you can rent a kayak for the day if you fancy a bit of time in the sea but bare in mind that the tide comes in and out pretty randomly, you’ll have to walk a good few KM to even reach ankle depth at some points in the day so be prepared to carry your kayak back to shore!

The shopping in Phi Phi is also top notch with dozens of vintage boutiques for you to pick up a different outfit for each night you’re there, and it won’t even break the bank. The food on Phi Phi is in abundance, ranging from 10B Spring Rolls to 300B luxury meals (check out the Viking Restaurant) – but for decent, well priced food and lovely service check out Garlic, a stones throw from the beach with a few more joints dotted around the town. The internet is also readily available, don’t pay more than 2B per minute.

The nightlife in Phi Phi is the best I have come across so far, this island is top on my list of places to visit as the atmosphere is perfect. Every night you are hounded by promotors with drinks offers from all the bars – check out Tiger Bar between 11pm and 11:30pm for a free bucket (80% Thai Whiskey, 20% mixer, served in a beach bucket – lethal)

Pick up 3 buckets for 300B from the Irish Bar then head down to the beach (the drinks at the beach bar are way overpriced so pick up some from the 7/11 or a local bar before you go down) and party at either Slinky, Apache or Ibiza Bar before finally heading a little further down the beach and hopping into a hammock at the very chill Stoned Bar – open until 6am. If you’re into it, the Reggae Bar offers live Thai Boxing matches every night, and if you volunteer you get a free bucket… just don’t do this AFTER a bucket.

We met a bunch of amazing people on Phi Phi ranging from the off-their-head Swedish lot, the young but friendly Cornish lot, our lovely little Norwegian girls who we celebrated Norwegian Constitution Day with (see pictures) and finally some familiar faces from Nha Trang which made Phi Phi double the fun but very difficult to leave.

Phi Phi holds black moon parties whenever the moon is not visible and they’re some of the best parties in Thailand, although pretty much every night in Phi Phi is the best party you’ll have in Thailand. Fire throwing, free beach BBQ’s, cheap buckets and loud music every night means that you’ll never be bored, and you’ll never be in bed before 3am.

Sitting right at the top of my list of favourite places in the world so far meant that leaving Phi Phi was pretty emotional, we booked transport from here to Kho Pha Ngan via Krabi through one of the local tour agencies and after a few emotional goodbyes whilst nursing a hangover we hopped back onto the ferry and back to reality.

Keep your eyes here for Thailand Part 2!