December 21st 2014: Left Jersey initially for Goa but the rest of the world was on the agenda.
December 22nd 2014: Arrive in Goa for the first day of my retirement.
March 25th 2015: Five day trip to Dubai for the
finale of the
horse race meeting which includes the richest horse race in the world.
Being the twentieth anniversary of what was originally called the Dubai Million (it was the first horse race to offer a million dollars in prize money back in 1996) it was a big celebration with a twenty minute firework display and Kylie Minogue as the after meeting entertainment. I stayed at the Regent Palace Hotel in the Burjaman area. It also has the advantage of being home to the Rock Bottom live music night club which is listed as one of the top ten night spots in Dubai.
May 6th 2015: Set off on the first of my six month travels.
Starting with a five day mini tour of the Golden Triangle of Indian culture. I stayed in Delhi with my next door neighbours from Goa. Major Mohit Malik and his lovely wife Jayne. Mohit took me to the Delhi Golf Club for dinner. A very grandiose place.
May 7th 2015: Take a bus to Agra which other than being the home of the Taj Mahal is a shit hole. The security at the Taj is totally over the top. My hotel was horrible.
May 8th 2015: Not able to get away from
fast enough I leave my hotel at six in the morning for
I bought a ticket a clear half an hour before the train was due to leave but was given the wrong information as to which platform it would leave from and consequently missed it. All the time I was waiting I had been looking at my train on the other side of the tracks. I eventually forfeited the cost of the ticket sooner than queue up again and took a bus. Jaipur totally lived up to my expectations. Full of wonder and colour and history and culture.
May 10th 2015: Return to
I was invited by Mohit and Jayne to a high society dinner party where I was introduced to, amongst others, the Indian High Commissioners to Mexico, Singapore and Nepal and the former CEO of British Airways Indian branch called Rommel somebody or another. A true and typical English gentleman of the traditional kind.
On the 25th of April (two weeks earlier) an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale had killed nearly 10,000 people. I went on the assumption that lightning doesn't strike twice. I was to be proved wrong.
May 12th 2015: Around mid-day I left my hotel and
within minutes, as I walked through a narrow street another earthquake hit.
This time measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale.
Ten minutes later I was in the middle of a road junction with hundreds of others simply seeking the safety of open ground should any buildings crumble. At that point there were Chinese Red Cross tents in every spare piece of land in Kathmandu being used for temporary shelter following the first quake. Some of the people living in the tents had lost their homes and some were simply too scared to go back into buildings as there had constantly been large aftershocks following the initial 25th of April quake. The count of aftershocks eventually rose to over four hundred and fifty.
In the immediate aftermath of the second quake shops, bars, restaurants and any building selling anything pulled their shutters down indefinitely. The tourist area of Thamel where my hotel was became a ghost town within hours, so with nowhere to go and nothing to do I felt I had to get away from there. But all the flights and buses were fully booked, and besides, I'd left India with only a few days left on my Indian Visa so it was not an option to return to Goa. A strange fact is that the average person doesn't experience an earthquake in their lifetime. To date I've experienced three.
Ironically, the epicenter of the first quake was actually closer to Pokhara than Kathmandu by far but in Pokhara the buildings are strongly built and are rarely more than two storeys high and the streets are wide. In Kathmandu the buildings are often four or five storeys high with no cement to hold them together, and the streets in the populated areas are very often no more than ten or fifteen feet wide. There was not a single death in Pokhara and all the buildings remained intact.
May 15th 2015: Crossed para-gliding off my bucket list. Basically it involved being driven 2,000 feet up a mountain and jumping off a cliff at the top with only the para-glider and my tandem partner as insurance that I didn't hit the ground in one big heap.
May 17th 2015: Set off on a trek to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) as my original plans to visit Everest Base Camp were thwarted after 19 people were killed as a result of an avalanche caused by the initial earthquake. In brief, at that point Everest Base Camp no longer existed. The trek up and down the Annapurna mountain range lasted nine nights. For the record, the Annapurna trek is allegedly a lot more scenic than the Everest one so I don't feel I missed anything.
May 26th 2015: Back to Pokhara
June 2nd 2015: Visited Chitwan National Park.
We saw several rhinos whilst riding on the back of an elephant and got within thirty feet of one of them. There are also tigers in the park but being nocturnal animals we didn't see any. Saw several crocodiles in the wild close up though.
June 4th 2015: Return to Pokhara.
June 9th 2015: Back to Kathmandu to get a visa
Aftershocks were still happening all the time and the Chinese Red Cross tents were still everywhere.
June 15th 2015: Get a Chinese Visa.
June 16th 2015: Day trip white water rafting in grade 4 rapids on Trisuli River.
June 18th 2015: Following an early morning call
(thanks to another really big after shock) I fly from Kathmandu to Beijing
in Tibet and Chengdu in China.
For the record the view from the plane between Kathmandu and Lhasa is the most spectacular I've ever witnessed from a plane.
At customs control in Lhasa I was not initially let in and told to sit on a bench while most of the other passengers were let through. I was eventually told to stand in a certain spot and take my hat off. The language barrier was a major issue as I had no idea what they wanted of me or the relevance of taking my hat off. I was eventually let through the metal detecting walkway as are at all airports and only then could I see the monitors showing in "Predator" movie type images of the entering passengers, and if anybody in the swarm of bodies had a head temperature too high a big red blotch came on the screen of the persons head. My head apparently had a red blotch on the screen. I wasn't to find out until weeks later the whole of the Far East was in the middle of a MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak so I was lucky to get through.
June 18th (late evening) 2015: Chengdu was a
comedy of errors if ever. I had to change planes and reclaim my
baggage before checking it in again. I went through the procedures whilst
being told "hurry hurry hurry, your late, your going to miss your flight". I
checked in my baggage and rushed to customs where I was informed that there
was a problem with my hold baggage and I had have to return to check-in to resolve
the situation. The situation being that I had initially said that there were
no batteries in my bag but in fact there was a power pack device for
mobile phones and the likes that I'd forgotten about but it had shown
up on the airport security screens.
I returned to the security check to go to my departure gate but was disorientated with being told again "hurry hurry hurry or you'll miss your flight". After being strip searched to the waist (for I don't know what) in public (it could only happen in China), and despite my protests, I then realised that the bag holding my credit/debit cards was missing , Eventually I proceeded to my departure gate minus my plastic money but upon arrival was advised that there was a two hour delay on my flight so all the "hurry hurry hurry" that had created the initial confusion was in vain. Nonetheless, in the waiting time I had time to think straight for the first time and came to the conclusion that maybe the bag containing my credit/debit cards had somehow dropped into my hold baggage when I had to return and re-check my bag.
June 19th 2015: Arrive in Beijing and check my hold luggage to find the missing bag is there. The trip can continue.
Trying to find my hotel in
Beijing was difficult to say the least. This was before the days that I
discovered GPS on my smart phone so I got as far as the closest subway
station but then drew a blank. Little did I know but early(ish) morning in
China you can't flag down a cab like you can in Europe or
America so I walked the streets aimlessly in the rain for a few
hours before finding my hotel. End of hard luck stories (almost) for this
By chance, as opposed to design, I was staying within walking distance of Lake Houhai which to put it into perspective is like living on the banks of the Serpentine in London.
Central Beijing like central London is very small and most of the tourist attractions were easily accessible by foot. Beijing was brilliant. I managed to see all the top ten tourist attractions including of course The Great Wall Of China, plus a few more and the icing on the cake was that Lake Houhai was a brilliant place to hang out at night. Door to door live music on the island in the middle of the lake.
June 25th 2015: Fly to Xi'an to see the site of the Terracotta Army.
My mobile phone and Kindle tablet are stolen from my apartment on the first night while they were charging. Luckily, having just arrived everything else was locked up.
June 27th 2015: Arrive in Shanghai.
For the first time in over fifty years when I was a schoolboy member of the Youth Hostel Association I stayed in a hostel. On saying that though, I took a double room to myself as opposed to a dormitory. The benefits being privacy and safety plus the opportunity of meeting people in the communal area. Hotels, whilst being luxurious and safe are not the best places to meet people so I have no qualms about mixing with backpackers!
June 29th 2015: Fly to Seoul in South Korea.
The only place I've ever visited where it's frowned upon to leave a tip. Bar and restaurant staff are insulted if you tip on the grounds that you maybe think they are poor. With the exception of getting ripped off in the taxi from the airport to my hotel I loved South Korea. Along with Japan it's one of the safest places on the planet (if you can ignore the fact that North Korea has the bomb) and everything's so squeaky clean. Oh, and all the malls, metros and anything underground doubles up as bomb shelters. Kind've weird seeing gas masks in "smash the glass" cases as you enter a supermarket.
July 7th 2015 Fly to Tokyo.
July 9th 2015: Take the bullet train to Hiroshima.
You can walk around the city in half a day. Like Kyoto it is very small. The memories of the atomic bomb are everywhere in the city with statues and monuments such as The (Gembaku) Atomic Bomb Dome and a lot of the monuments and parks have names such as Peace Pagoda and Peace Memorial Park.
July 10th 2015: Take the bullet train to Nara. Again a small city.
July 11th 2015: Take the bullet train to Osaka.
Caught unawares expecting it to be another small city. It's really big so I didn't get to do too much there except see and walk around Osaka Castle.
July 12th 2015: Back to Tokyo for one last night.
July 13th 2015. Back to Shanghai for another five
Took a double room at the same hostel. Better the devil you know!
July 18th 2015: Fly to Hanoi via Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was originally to be my next stop but on
the basis of been
there seen it I gave it a miss.
Whilst in Hanoi I stayed in a hotel in the tourist area just North of Hoan Kiem Lake where my spacious room had the added bonus of a personal jacuzzi. If your ever in the neighborhood it's the Hanoi Legacy on the corner of Hang Gia and Nguyen Sieu streets and room 3 is the only one with a jacuzzi.
July 22nd 2015: From Hanoi I took a three day (two night) trip around Halong Bay including Sung Sot Cave which was one of the most wonderful experiences of my travelling life. First night we sleep on the boat.
July 23rd 2015: We stay at a hotel on Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay.
July 24th 2015: Back to Hanoi.
July 26th 2015: Travel to Ventienne in Laos on an overnight coach.
Laos was eventually to be the one place that turned me off coach travel forever. Coaches in Laos are noisy, uncomfortable, unclean and unsafe.
July 28th 2015: Take a bus to Vang Vieng with a Chinese girl I'd met back in Hanoi. As we both had basically the same plans it seemed like a good idea to do them together.
My hotel was was on the banks of the Mekhon River which isn't so picturesque with it's brown muddy water. Reminded me of my childhood on the banks of the River Usk.
August 3rd 2015: Travel to Phonsavan which is somewhere near the arsehole end of the world. It's only claim to fame is the Plain of Jars but as it was mid way between Luang Prabang and my next stop Vinh in Viet-Nam I basically had to go there unless I flew.
August 5th 2015: Travel by bus to Vinh in
In the no mans land which was the border between Laos and Viet-Nam I was initially refused entry due to inconsistencies with my visa. I had a single entry visa for both countries so could not return to either. In the interview room a local guy from my bus was marched in by the authorities and sat next to me. As the customs guy emptied the contents of his rucksack onto the table in front of us both I noted the stash of dope which was followed by (what had been a few minutes earlier a loaded) revolver. Ninety minutes later I rejoined the bus which had, much to my surprise (especially after my bags had been taken off the bus and given to me in the interview room) waited. The local drug smuggler was never to been seen again.
August 6th mid-day 2015: I arrive in Vinh.
My train was not until ten that night so I just sat around the railway station area eating and drinking until the time to get onto my train arrived. All else aside, there is nothing in Vinh. My original plan was to travel first class on the sleeper but there were no seats so I had to settle for the better of the normal classes sitting through the 26 hour journey that stopped at I'm guessing every station on the way. The total trip from Phonsavan to Saigon took just short of 48 hours.
August 7th 2015: Arrive in Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon as I still refer to it as).
I headed straight for the backpacker area in District 1 where I rented a room in a house for the duration of my stay. I chose the backpacker area purely because it's where all the action is. Saigon's answer to Bangkok's Kho San Road.
August 18th 2015: Take a coach to Pnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
August 20th 2015: Travel to Siem Reap in Cambodia by bus.
Siem Reap is where all the temple scenes in the Angelina Jolie flik Tomb Raider were filmed. It's also home to Angkor Wat, which is UNESCO protected as well as being the worlds largest religious monument. The main street for the nightlife in Siem Reap is actually called Pub Street.
August 25th 2015: Take the overnight coach from Pnom
Penh to Bangkok.
I stayed in a flea pit of a shit hole hotel, but it was in Kho San Road which is the centre of everything so what the hell?.
Thais are very good at manipulating a situation to make it into a money spinner. The fact of the matter is that Bridge Over The River Quai was a work of fiction about the Burmese Railways. The big give away is that in the film one of the closing scenes is of the bridge being blown up and it crumbling into the river below with the train that was on it at the time. In brief there is no bridge as was in the film. The real Bridge Over The River Quai can still be seen along with the train carriages in the river below where the scene was shot just outside a place called Kandy in Sri Lanka which was coincidentally, the next country on my agenda.
August 28th 2015: On the way back to Bangkok from River Quai visit Tiger Temple which is where the photo's of me with the tigers were taken.
August 30th 2015: Take the overnight train to Surat
Thani where I pick up a bus connection to
which remains to this day my favourite holiday destination anywhere in the world.
Being off season it rained a lot, but then again the only places I was spared the monsoon wetness were in China, South Korea and Japan. At first I stayed in a nice hotel with a rooftop pool but I moved to a luxurious place closer to the centre after four or five nights. By this point of my travels I had an excess of money and decided to push the financial boat out so eventually moved into The Phuket Graceland Hotel on the front overlooking the sea. The hotel had the largest hotel pool I've seen in my life. This extravagance was to flow over to my next but one destination, The Maldives.
Because my passport had almost ran out of space (I only had three pages left) I had to ensure that none were wasted which would thereby invalidate it. I still had to return to India which required two blank pages and also wanted to return to Dubai the following March. The space required for visas in some of my planned destinations was sketchy in my mind so I decided to play safe by going to Sri Lanka and finish up in The Maldives which required no visa.
September 8th 2015: Take a one way boat to Phe Phe Island where I stayed for two nights.
September 10th 2015: Take a boat to from Phe Phe Island Krabi.
Krabi is a major tourist destination in Southern Thailand especially for backpackers, but I'd never made it there before. I stayed two nights but couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
September 12th 2015: Take a coach from Krabi back to Phuket.
It was on my arrival that I checked into the Phuket Graceland.
September 22nd 2015: Fly from Phuket to Bangkok where
I stay for one night before leaving the country.
To this day that flight deal remains the best I've had. £11.00 all in for a 100 minute flight. On saying that, I've had a few similar deals since. Asian airlines never fail to amaze me with their generosity.
September 23rd 2015: Fly to
in Sri Lanka.
Prior to travelling I received an email whereby I am informed that should I wish I could be upgraded to business class at no extra cost. All I had to do was respond. I replied and accordingly flew business class. Still to this day I have no idea why I was offered the f.o.c. upgrade option.
Upon arrival I immediately took a train to Unawatuna which was to be my home for the next five and a half weeks.
September 28th 2015: Moved to another hotel in the same group as my previous one until I discovered I was being fleeced.
October 7th 2015: Moved into an apartment close to the beach.
October 26th 2015: Make the three hour trip on
to Columbo to submit my application for an Indian Visa.
I was told to return on the 3rd of November to submit my passport which I actually had with me but they would not take it from me until the application had been accepted. The three hour return to Unawatuna as with the morning trip saw me standing a lot of the way. There are only two classes of train seats in Sri Lanka. Working class and peasant class so you pay your money and take your chance on getting a seat or take a private car as the richer classes do.
November 1st 2015: After vowing never to do the commuter trip again I moved to a guest house in the middle of nowhere close to Columbo Airport. I'm not sure which was the worst of the two evils.
November 2nd 2015: Whilst in the area I take a train to Kandy
where a temple is the home to one of Buddha's teeth.
On the way back to Columbo I visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which is home to about ninety elephants. At any given time you can have a photo taken within touching distance and nothing between you and upwards of thirty of them.
November 3rd 2015: Move into an equally undesirable place closer to the action just North of Colombo.
November 3rd 2015: Submit my passport to the Indian Visa Office and am told to return the next day to collect it along with my Indian Visa.
November 4th 2015: Return to the Indian
My appointment time is 15:30 The day is Friday and my flight is the early hours of the next morning so if there are any irregularities I know there won't be time to have it sent back to the Indian High Commission and then be returned to the Visa Office. I eventually get everything back intact at 18:00 (ten hours before my check in time). I had initially been advised that the processing time for the visa would be 5 to 7 working days so I gave myself 10 to be on the safe side. It was only upon submission of my form I was told the actual turnaround time would be 7-10 working days.
November 5th 2015. Fly from Colombo to Male in the Maldives.
For my final moment of excess before returning to Goa) I initially stay in the capital of Male which is in reality a shit hole. Nothing there nowhere to go, no alcohol. Squat.
November 7th 2015: I move to an island called Ras Fushi which is an all expenses paid spa and resort in the middle of the ocean.
Because it was off season I was to be the only person in my block of chalets
so (on the basis of don't ask don't get) I suggested that I be
upgraded to a vacant suite on stilts in the ocean where most of the other
people seemed to be. That way the staff such as maids wouldn't have to make
an extra journey to my place. They agreed, I moved, and was given an iPad on
entry for my use during the course of my stay. How the other half live!
November 9th 2015: Move to another island more accessible to Male in preparation for my departure.
November 10th 2015: Move back to Male which is the next island to the airport
The Maldives is a place of
contradiction whereby no alcohol is allowed on Male, the main public 100% Muslim
island. If you're caught trying to import duty free or otherwise it is
confiscated and you can be prosecuted and even imprisoned. Flying out is exactly the opposite
with the most expensive wines and champagnes and vintage whiskeys for sale
in the duty free shop. The privately owned islands where all the resorts are
are is a free for all (in every way). Whatever liquor you want you can have,
and it's all included in the package.
The rain pissed down all the time I was there. That aside though I'd still never return. For that kind of holiday The Seychelles (pics) beats it hands down on every count.
November 11th 2015: Six months to the day since
leaving India I was returning.
I flew from Male to Bangalore with the intention of getting a connection to Goa but because of some mix up I had to stay in Bangalore overnight despite there being alternative flights with the same airline that weren't full.
November 12th 2015: Back in Goa.
Summary: With the exception of the earthquake in Nepal and being robbed in Xi'an everything from leaving India up to my arrival in Thailand was perfect. The only other lows were the bus/train trip from Phonsavan in Laos to Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam and the stopover at Bangalore which wasn't a real inconvenience. As for Evanston, I had no options as there's not an airport there. Thailand was wonderful but I've been there before. Sri Lanka and The Maldives were basically destinations to finish the trip off and whilst I enjoyed both it's unlikely that I'll return to either. Funnily, apart from the actual experience, the one thing that stands out in my mind was the constant rain everywhere but if I will travel in monsoon season!