We all have an image of Paris; long, leafy boulevards lined with expensive stores and restaurants and haughty, impossibly chic women walking designer dogs while chain smoking thin cigarettes as the Eiffel tower twinkles in the distance. And that’s exactly what you see wandering down the Champs-Elysées or around picture-perfect neighbourhoods like Montmartre and Saint Germain des Pres.
But, as locals will tell you, this is not the real Paris. Many Parisians live outside of the centre, in the eastern suburbs. Belleville is an arty, multicultural neighbourhood in the 19th arrondissement, which sounds horribly far away but is actually only a 10 minute metro ride from the Arc de Triomphe. Few tourists wander out this way so there are limited hotel options, but as always, Air B&B is your friend. We found an entire apartment for around 120 euros a night, which was slightly on the pricey side but was perfectly located and absolutely gorgeous, with it’s airy, loft-like feel and cosy mezzanine bedroom. Mathieu’s place is in the heart of bustling Belleville, next to the Metro station and located conveniently next door to a shiny Sephora. (Au revoir hard-earned euros…)
Belleville is a hub of activity on Friday afternoon with the market in full swing and bars are already full of people fuelling themselves for the day with an espresso or two. There is a thriving Asian community here and we pause to grab a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, or banh mi; a baguette filled with pork, salad, coriander and fresh chilli. Delicious, filling and less than 3 euros!
Belleville is arguably most famous for being the birth place of Édith Piaf; the tragic, yet iconic ‘little sparrow.’ On the main street, at 72 Rue de Belleville, a simple gold plaque sits above a nondescript doorway which reads; ‘On the steps of this house in December 1915, was born into poverty Edith Piaf, whose voice would later move the world.’ Well, that’s my rough translation anyway! She was buried in Belleville in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery along with many other iconic figures, including greats such as Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, whose grave is covered in lipstick kisses, not to mention French literary giants Moliere and Marcel Proust. You can take a guided tour of the cemetery, which is an interesting, if slightly morbid, way to spend an afternoon.
Homages to Piaf can be found dotted around the neighbourhood, a large, melancholy mural of her is painted on the wall of ‘Aux Folies’ where she used to sing in the 1920s, This infamous bar is always busy, crammed with coffee drinkers in the morning and, in the evening, the terrace is packed full of people chatting, smoking and enjoying a 4 euro beer or a couple of 6 euro cocktails. No outrageous Champs-Élysées prices here and the punters are mainly locals.
Immediately next to Aux Folies is Rue Denoyez, better known as Graffiti Alley, where the walls, street lamps, even the litter bins are entirely covered in bright street art. Tucked away down this colourful side street is Barbouquin, a little cafe filled with a jumble of books which you can leaf through as you while away an hour so with a coffee or a glass of wine.
We can’t leave Belleville without trying what is tipped as the trendiest new patisserie in Paris. Yann Couvreur is a celebrated pastry chef, and at his bright new bakery you can enjoy a 9 euro breakfast of coffee, fruit juice and something delicious like a Breton Kouign Amann or a Pistachio Chocolat Roule. This patisserie is famous for its classic ‘millefeuille’ which is whipped up fresh in front of you. Only 50 of these delicious French clsssics are made daily between 12 and 6, and its first come first served. At 10 euros its an expensive treat but one worth splashing out for, and this place gets top marks for decor and pretty packaging.
So if you’ve already seen the picture-perfect side to Paris and are looking for a new neighbourhood to explore, follow in Piaf’s footsteps and head to Belleville to spend a day like a true Parisian.
Before I visited Cambodia, I didn’t know a single thing about the country except that it was pretty close to Thailand and had a famous temple with a funny name. Ashamed as I am to admit it, that was the extent of my knowledge of the country that would soon become my favourite in South East Asia. Cambodia really does have it all. It is a country with a fascinating yet tragic history, beaches to rival those of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand and the hotspot cities of Siem Reap and Pnohm Penh are a must for culture junkies who aren’t afraid of a wild party or two. Not to mention Cambodia has one of the largest temple complexes in the world, the 400km expanse of Angkor, an ancient Khmer city filled to the brim with crumbling, Tombraider-esque temples slowly being taken over by the jungle. (Read on to the end for some top tips before you visit!)
Angkor Wat is the superstar here, claiming the number one spot in Lonely Planet’s Ultimate travel List. (Grab a copy for your coffee table here.) The best time to visit the iconic temple is sunrise, so take it easy on the beer pong the night before, especially if you’re staying at the Downtown Hostel in Siem Reap which is notorious for it’s Pub Street bar crawls. Your hostel can arrange for a local guide to pick you up on a tuk-tuk in the dark at around 4.00am to arrive at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. Despite the early hoards of selfie-stick wielding tourists, there is an undeniably mystical, serene atmosphere here. The morning mist hangs heavy in the humid air and countless dragonflies dance around the crumbling stones. Try and wrestle your way to a spot right in front of the water so you can watch the sun slowly appear behind the magnificent temple and see its shimmering reflection. Or just do what this lady did and ignore the temple right in front of you to snap a picture of a postcard…strange.
There is far, far more to the temples of Angkor than Angkor Wat alone. There is a vast array of temples dotted around the ancient complex. You won’t be able to see everything in a day, your best bet is to buy a 3 day ticket and let your guide ferry you around the temples on a tuk-tuk. Just remember to tip your driver after the 3 days! Your other options include cycling, but the midday heat is seriously sweltering and the temples are spread widely apart. You could take an elephant too, but it’d take you a hell of a long time to see everything and, with all tourist attractions such as this, the welfare of the elephants is always questionable.
Bayon is a mind-boggling temple where 216 serene stone faces smile down at you from every angle. The entire temple is covered in bas-reliefs, figures etched into the stone, depicting mythological scenes and everyday life in 12th century Cambodia. Inside feels like a giant hall of mirrors with its endless, long hallways of crumbling stone and small shrines sit in silent corners adorned with flowers and incense.
Nowhere is the power of nature more apparent than at Ta Prohm temple, or ‘The Tombraider Temple’, where the jungle has literally taken over. Long tree roots have entwined themselves around the stones and grown around doorways, enveloping the temple which buckles under the force of nature. You can’t help but unleash your inner Lara Croft here, or picture yourself in an Indiana Jones movie. The temple itself is a maze of narrow hallways and you’ll find yourself at a twisting series of dead ends, the passage blocked by fallen stone blocks. The light filtering down through the trees and the sounds of the surrounding jungle add to the mysticism and other-worldliness of this place.
Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm are only the tip of the iceberg of temples to explore. Take your time and prepare to be enchanted by this truly incredible part of this beautiful country.
Things to be aware of before you visit:
Dress code: Although a tourist attraction, Angkor is still a religious site and therefore you should dress appropriately. This can be a struggle in the midday heat, as you can see from my photos I didn’t always follow my own advice. Your best bet is to keep your shoulders covered with a loose shirt or kimono to stay cool while dressing respectfully.
Child hawkers: You will be followed constantly by cute kids selling postcards and trinkets. Remember that the Angkor complex is enormous and there are populated villages scattered around so these children’s families live nearby. Although the constant hassling can be tedious, remember that these families often have no other option than to send their children out to make a living.
The heat: Oh god the heat. The temple complex is huge and you will spend full days walking around endless temples in the midday sun. Bring lots of water and suncream and try to stay in the shade as much as possible. Some temples have hundreds of steps, so take it easy!
Tourists: Try to visit the most popular temples mentioned above as early or late in the day as possible, to avoid the crowds. There are so many other temples to explore during the day that you’ll often find yourself the only person there!
I hadn’t planned on spending 10 days in Hanoi. The original idea had been to make our way leisurely up the coast of Vietnam and spend a couple of days here before flying home. But a pesky monsoon hit us hard in Ho Chi Minh and, being shameless sun-seekers, we decided to jump on a flight to the sunnier end of the country. This turned out to be a great decision (and not only because of the weather). From the unmissable views of serene Halong Bay to the chaotic, labyrinth-like lanes of the old quarter, there is so much to see and do in happening Hanoi. Here’s a list of the top things not to miss in this culturally rich capital, and they’re all budget friendly!.
1. Cruise your way through towering limestone islands in a junk boat.
Halong Bay had to be top of the list didn’t it really? It is a UNESCO world heritage site after all. Almost 2000 rainforest-topped islands make up this breathtaking place. These little limestone islands were formed by dragons according to legend and Ha Long literally translates from ancient vietnamese as descending dragon.
There are a lot of different boat trips to choose from so take a bit of time to shop around and try to pick one that’s relevant to your age range and interests. (You don’t want to find yourself on a banana-boat booze cruise with a rowdy group of pimply 18 year olds, unless that’s your thing of course.) We opted for a 3 day, 2 night tour that included one night on the boat and one on pretty Cat Ba island. The itineraries tend to be very similar, mostly involving kayaking, floating villages and stop-offs at various picturesque islands to find the best photo ops. Our tour included on-board cooking lessons, cycling around Cat Ba island, cave exploring and kayaking trips into deep, hidden lagoons. No matter which tour you choose, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.
2. Pet a furry friend at Hanoi’s very own cat cafe.
I had heard through the backpacker grapevine that Hanoi had its very own cat cafe, but when I asked around I was met with blank looks. But after finding a vague address online and wandering around the city for hours we eventually found the Ailu cat house. To call it a cafe is generous, they don’t actually have a coffee machine or serve any food. But what they lack in beverage options, they make up for in cats. A lot of cats. The general idea: come in, sit down, wait for a cat to sit on you, relax! It’s meant to be pretty therapeutic apparently. If you’re a cat person anyway.
We spent an unnecessary amount of time here that afternoon, but it’s hard to leave when you’ve got a cute, little furry thing snoring peacefully on your lap…
3. Tickle your tastebuds with a walking food tour of the Old Quarter
(That’s you walking by the way, not the food. Though in Vietnam you can never be sure…)
There’s more to vietnamese food than just phở! The variety of dishes on offer here is huge, but for a truly authentic taste of Hanoi you’ll need avoid the lure of touristy restaurants. Your guide will take you to all the secret places that you’d have a hard time discovering on your own; down a side alley, through a non-descript store front, up several flights of rickety stairs into a hidden restaurant. Be prepared to try such delicacies as deep-fried duck tongue and Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. (So much nicer than it sounds.) Awesome travel offer a great food tour that takes you to 8 different places around the old quarter for around £10. The trip involves a lot of walking and takes around 3 hours. Make sure you go on an empty stomach, you’ll be absolutely stuffed by the end of the evening!
4. After tasting it, try making it in an authentic cooking class.
If you’re into the culinary side of things a cooking class is a great way to spend an evening. Blue Butterfly Cooking Class is one of the most popular choices, with the class beginning in the markets with your guide, who introduces you to the different spices and herbs before purchasing the fresh produce to bring back to the kitchen.
At the restaurant you’ll be shown how to make traditional dishes such as pork spring rolls and banana flower salad. Afterwards you’ll sit down and eat everything you’ve just cooked! At around £44 this is a bit on the pricey side, but it was my favourite experience in Hanoi and worth every penny!
5. Take a stroll through the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university
If history and architecture is your thing, you’ll love this temple/university. With the tranquil atmosphere and heady scent of incense in the air, it’s an escape from the hectic city surrounding it. Established as Vietnam’s very first university in 1076, this small temple complex is full of beautiful old architecture and shrines honouring Vietnam’s finest scholars. Entrance used to be reserved for those of noble birth only, but don’t worry, they let anyone in nowadays 😉
Look out for the bushes shaped like animals of the zodiac and the cute miniatures of Confucius and his students scattered around the well-pruned foliage. The temple is not just popular among tourists; often you’ll see recently gradated students in traditional dress having their photographs taken in front of the central pool, known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. Admission costs only 30 000VD.
6. Discover the ancient legend of Hoàn Kiếm, ‘Lake of the restored sword’
Hoàn Kiếm lake, the physical and symbolical centre of the city. You can’t miss this huge body of water at the heart of the city, its banks are popular with locals who enjoy a bit of tai chi at 6am and if you’re lucky you might spot a turtle popping up for a breath of air. Legend goes that in the 15th century Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God which helped him defeat the Chinese. After the victory, a large turtle swam up to the emperors boat and reclaimed the sword, disappearing into the depths of the lake to return it to it’s divine owner.
You can learn more about the legend at Ngoc Son Temple,( Temple of the Jade Mountain) which sits on a tiny island accessed by an ornate red bridge. It’s only 30,000VND to go inside, where you’ll find many locals come to worship and burn bank notes in a furnace as offerings. (Don’t risk burning yourself, the notes are fake…)
7. Gawp at the traffic mayhem from a safe distance at the City View Cafe
Crossing the street anywhere in Hanoi is pretty daunting, but this intersection by the old quarter is something else. It’s chaos. There are no lines on the road, no roundabout, no rules of who goes first. It’s every man for himself, you snooze you lose. Our food tour guide tried to teach us how to cross the road without getting squashed with his 3 golden rules:
Don’t stop! One you’ve started to cross just keep going, don’t hesitate, slow down or worst of all stop. The traffic will (hopefully) move around you.
Don’t make eye contact with drivers
Buses rule the road! A bus will not stop if you are in the way, if you see one coming, run…
If you can’t face crossing the road, watch the madness from above instead. You can’t miss the City View Cafe building overlooking the intersection next to the lake. Head all the way up to the top floor and grab a spot overlooking the chaos below with a cold drink.
8. Take in the french colonial architecture and shop til you drop in the labyrinthine old quarter .
Grab a bag of delicious, deep fried pastry ball things from a street vendor, search for the best phở in Hanoi or haggle over the price of a pointy hat that you’ll have to wear on the plane on the way home and which will probably end up in the attic…
9. Discover Hanoi’s secret nightlife
Hanoi has notoriously strict laws regarding bars and clubs and most places will be closed by midnight. A ‘night out’ in the city will usually consist of sipping bia hoi perched on a plastic stool down a bustling lane in the old quarter. But after one evening doing just that, we met a group of Israeli guys who were heading to one of Hanoi’s ‘underground’ clubs.
A 10 minute taxi ride from downtown brings us to the Hero Club, an industrial style nightclub with pulsing music, cage dancers and of course, a selection of fresh fruit on the tables. However we had only been inside for 5 minutes when the music turned off abruptly and the staff starting ushering everyone to the rear exit away from the police out front… we’d have to try our luck another night!
10. Cool off in the rooftop pool at the Apricot Hotel
It’s hard to find a swimming pool in the city. There are only a handful scattered about, mainly on the rooftops of the fancier hotels that are definitely not backpacker-budget friendly. But many hotels will let you use their pools for a fee, such as the ridiculously fancy Apricot Hotel. Just look at those chandeliers in the lobby…
The hotel charges around £10 to use the pool. However, if you’re really low on funds and feeling sneaky, it’s easy to come back free of charge another day. Just act natural and jump in the elevator!
My attempt at a New Zealand road trip didn’t start very well.
In the space of the first week we had unwittingly checked into a hippy commune, bought a car, had all our belongings stolen from said car and then been stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for the car to be repaired. To say the least, it had been an eventful start. I think I took the loss of my luggage pretty well, copious amounts of cheap wine certainly helped. Though admittedly I did mourn the loss of my hair straighteners for a good while. But eventually, with the car back in one piece we were ready to actually start our trip. So we bid farewell to the Fat Cat hippies(read about this amazing place here and here) and headed north through Waipu (got to love these Maori names) and on to Whangarei where we discover the Little Earth Lodge, a tucked away haven of a hostel nestled deep in a kauri filled forest. On the deck we meet a lean, bushy eye-browed guy with hair nicer than mine. ‘I slept in a tree last night,’ he says solemnly, before introducing himself as Ian, a trainee yoga instructor from Florida. Apparently its not a good idea to sleep in trees in New Zealand. You’re likely to be attacked by territorial possums. Ian is either the most zen guy I’ve ever met or the most stoned. Possibly both.
Little Earth Lodge’s best kept secret is the glow worm caves hiding in its back garden. Known as ‘the budget traveller’s answer to Waitomo’ the Abbey Caves can be explored for free, all you need is a head torch and a fondness for claustrophobic, dark spaces. The opening to the caves is literally a hole in the middle of the forest. After the recent rainfall the rocks down are slippery and we land in murky, waist-high water at the bottom. With no idea what might be lurking in the narrow tunnels ahead or swimming around us in the icy water, we head into the darkness. (Cue thoughts of Gollum and those weird things in ‘The Descent’.) After many twists and turns, sloshing around amid frequent cries of, ‘something touched my foot!’ we arrive at the end of the cave where we turn off our head torches to see the glowworms above us, carpeting the ceiling of the cave like a miniature milky way. It’s an amazing sight, and we didn’t have to pay $50 for it…
The next day after a morning yoga lesson with Ian, (it didn’t go down well, I can’t even touch my toes,) we take a walk around the forest where ancient kauri trees have stood for centuries. (These trees can grow up to 50 metres high!) A trail takes us down to Whangarei Falls, described by Lonely Planet as ‘the Kim Kardashian of New Zealand’s waterfalls, not the most impressive but definitely the most photographed.’ The falls look pretty impressive to me, with torrents of clear water tumbling over the edge of a sheer cliff face into a deep pool. This wouldn’t look out of place in a tropical jungle. I can imagine monkeys scampering about the rocks and swinging from vines. The only monkey I see however is Ian, who decides to strip completely naked (to the horror of an elderly German couple) and swim out to the falls where he perches on a rock and does a spot of yoga. Of course.
Despite being a big believer in shoestring travel and hostel life, (I spent the best part of 8 months in a sweaty communal dorm room and loved every minute,) every so often you crave a little luxury. Nothing too fancy. Maybe just a place where you don’t have to race everyone to the kitchen at 7am to get the last scrapings of free jam to put on your toast. Or somewhere I didn’t have to sleep on the bottom bunk with dead cockroaches smushed into the side of the mattress and a pissed Irish guy passed out on top of me. (On the top bunk that is, not actually on top of me. Usually.)
South East Asia is top of the list for backpackers looking for an exotic adventure on the cheap, the usual itinerary being the easy-to-navigate loop around Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. But as any Aussie will tell you, your SE Asia trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Bali. Not only is the country breathtakingly beautiful, it’s also a great budget destination for thrifty travellers looking for 5 star surroundings on a 1 star budget. Many standard hostels offer dorm beds for less than a fiver a night and if you’re travelling as a couple, a double room between 2 costs about the same. Since arriving in Bali I’d barely made a dent in my budget, choosing tasty street food over restaurants and staying in great value accommodation. (Click to discover some great Bali hostel options in Kuta and the Gili islands.)
Whatever Aussies may tell you, there’s more to this country than Kuta and it’s Magaluf’esque strip of party bars and cheap booze. Bali’s real beauty lays inland, away from the beaches. Winding jungle roads past crumbling Hindu temples will take you to the dreamy, cultural town of Ubud. The Puri Saran Agung palace dominates the main street, where traditional dances are held every evening. Down narrow lanes bustling markets are filled to the brim with exotic goodies; silver jewellery, pretty trinkets, colourful throws and countless spices. Make sure you grab a bag of the ultimate Balinese souvenir, some Kopi Luwak coffee. Considered a delicacy, this coffee is made from beans that have been swallowed, partially digested and then pooped out by a small animal called a civet, similar to a weasel. Sounds disgusting, but this is one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
Just outside of Ubud centre we check into the Sankara resort, a luxurious, spa style hotel tucked away in the midst of rice paddies and sprawling jungle. When we checked online at Booking.com the rooms in this hotel appeared very much outside our budget but after calling the hotel directly we were quoted half the price. Don’t be fooled by online prices! Often contacting a place directly or just walking in without a booking is the best way to get a cheap deal on an otherwise expensive room.
The hotel offers free activities, such as a guided walk around the neighbouring village. We have to edge around a few growling dogs who, we are informed casually by our guide, may or may not have rabies… We pass a dark, arena style area where the local villagers pay to watch cockfighting and our guide shows us some of the caged birds that are used to fight, huge birds with vicious looking claws and beaks. These birds can sell for millions of rupiah, just to be forced to fight to the death for people’s amusement. Poor things. On the way back we pass two men carrying a live pig tied to a pole, ready to be slaughtered and cooked. They’re not too concerned about animal welfare around here! The village is a stark contrast to the luxury lodgings just up the road and despite the strange customs and relative poverty, the locals seem happy and friendly, greeting us and our guide with smiles and waves. Balinese are very religious people, and as we head back to the hotel our guide tells us about the dvarapala, fearsome statues of warrior like creatures that guard temples and homes.
A short scooter ride from the hotel takes us to the Sacred Monkey Forest. This is a beautiful, open sanctuary filled with crumbling shrines and lush jungle where wild monkeys roam free and are fed unlimited bananas by eager tourists. It’s a pretty surreal experience if you’re not used to being surrounded by hungry monkeys. These guys aren’t shy. They’ll try to mug you (literally, they will go through your pockets and try to open your bags!) and will happily scramble on top of you and perch on your head for a banana. (Cute if it’s one of the little ones, terrifying if you’ve got a big, alpha male charging at you.) And don’t try and fool them by being stingy either. Holding out an empty banana peel will result in a very annoyed monkey. As one of the wardens says, laughing as a monkey bares its teeth and takes a swipe at me, they don’t like to be tricked!
About a 20 minute scooter ride out of the town are the Tegalalang rice terraces, a giant, sloping valley of staggered rows upon rows of green rice paddies. Small walkways weave around the terraces, up and down like a crazy maze. Be prepared for a lot of steps and quite a long climb to get to the top, in the midday heat it can be a struggle. You’ll need to take some change too, as there are a couple of ‘donation points’ along the way (if ‘donation’ means compulsory payment or you’re not getting past…) Also, try not to slip into the actual paddy as you take photos, these things are like quicksand and you will lose a flipflop….
On the road back to the hotel we spot a sign for ‘Ketut Liyer’s House’ pointing down a side road. Ketut is the real life medicine man from ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and his house is where the famous scene with Julia Roberts was filmed. (See you later, alligator!) Though it’s late in the day we decide to pop in and are greeted by Ketut’s son who tells us that unfortunately Ketut is too tired for visitors. He is, after all, 100 years old. We take a look around the house grounds which have been made into a pretty guesthouse and take a few pictures in the same spot Julia sat.
It’s easy to lose track of time in Ubud. You’ll find yourself completely taken in by the serenity of the surrounding jungle, the mysticism of the ancient temples and the cultural hub at it’s centre. You may find that you never want to leave. And that’s OK. Relax, you’re on Ubud time!
Ubud Travel Guide
Where to stay:
Sankara Resort and Spa. It’s not hard to see why this stunning hotel has 5 star reviews, check it out here on trip advisor (but remember, book directly for the best prices!): https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g297701-d5279694-Reviews-Sankara_Resort-Ubud_Bali.html
What to do:
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Entry: 20,000 IDR Buy your bananas inside, but don’t be stingy!
Tegalalang Rice Terraces, Free Entry but there are compulsory ‘donation points’ along the way if you want to go higher up
Cultural Arts and Dance performances at the palace, 80,000 IDR, tickets are sold outside the palace
Visit Ketut Liyer, the medicine man, For a fee you can have a chat with Ketut and have him read your palm, if he’s awake! This guy is seriously old and may not be around much longer to entertain tourists…
Visit the markets dotted around the town, make sure you take home a penis keyring and a bag of Kopi Luwak!
Book a few nights in a luxury hotel, go on, treat yourself
Take a scooter and explore! The winding roads are beautiful and will take you past deep ravines filled with temples, shrines and vines for swinging monkeys! Immerse yourself in the jungle, just remember your mosquito repellent!
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of Cairns. In fact, for the first few weeks I actively despised it. In fairness, this was mainly due to me coping badly with Sydney withdrawal symptoms and working in an English school hopelessly stuck in the 90s (I’m talking tape cassettes, actual tape cassettes…) run by a troll faced, miniature dragon lady who hated my guts. Let me explain… Sydney is my home from home, imo the best city in the world. It has everything, gorgeous beaches a stone’s throw from the city centre, cheap and efficient transport, a varied cluster of interesting suburbs and with it’s happening nightlife and cheap hostels it’s a backpacker’s haven. But I couldn’t stay in Sydney forever (as much as I wanted to). I was still an impostor in this faraway land of barbies in the arvo and if I wanted to stay here I had to do it the hard way, which meant leaving the big city and venturing into the back of beyond to work on a banana farm where I could trade my sweat, tears and sanity for a second year visa. But, due to a bad bout of banana disease and a hellhole of a hostel this plan didn’t work out and so, penniless, I was forced to head to the nearest ‘big’ town and desperately search for work. This big town was Cairns.
Cairns is an odd place. It has the feel of a once promising town that tried to go all out to become party central but lost heart halfway and just gave up. And so there is a curious mix of rowdy backpackers, bored locals and a heavy aboriginal population. Most of the action in the town happens around the lagoon, a pretty, saltwater pool complete with artificial sand, that tries its hardest to make you ignore the vast expanse of muddy estuary beyond it. (Note: even at low-tide do not venture out onto the estuary, you’re in croc country now mate. And it’s probably stinger season too.) Along the esplanade are an array of overpriced restaurants and cafes geared at holiday makers rather than backpackers, the latter sticking to the hostel bars or backpacker faves, Woolshed and Down Under Bar.
The main attraction of Cairns is actually what lies all around it; the Great Barrier Reef on one side and the sprawling Atherton Tablelands and Daintree Rainforest on the other, which spreads all the way up to Cape Tribulation over 100km north of Cairns. (See here about some of the brilliant trips you can do around Cairns.) A cute day trip closer to the town is a visit to Kuranda, ‘The Village in the Rainforest’. The village is tiny, and very touristy, but it’s worth a visit just for the lush rainforest views and driving up by car is cheaper and just as scenic as taking the train or the cable car.
Don’t get me wrong, Cairns has got its fair share of tourist trips and activities, and is definitely worth a spot on any Aussie road trip itinerary. But it is a town to pass through, not to linger in. Friends came and went, heading north to Darwin or south to the Sunshine Coast, or taking advantage of a cheap flight and heading straight to Bali. I had exhausted all the activities on offer and was now extremely bored, lonely and trapped working here in the sticky, tropical heat of a Queensland summer. (All while trying to teach hyperactive Japanese teenagers how to conjugate verb phrases when all they wanted to do was play volleyball and go off for a BBQ in the sunshine. I feel your pain guys.)
But then a strange thing began to happen. The more time I spent here I started to notice a secret side to Cairns, a low-key, quirky vibe away from the touristy bits. And I liked what I saw. Art exhibitions, market stalls selling homemade oddities, stands serving spicy curries in the enormous Botanic Gardens in North Cairns. I hadn’t even realised Cairns had a Botanic Garden, or a market, until my housemate took me with her to go garden gnome hunting. (A hobby of hers, she gives old gnomes a bit of well-needed TLC and restores them to their former glory. I guess it’s one way to keep yourself entertained in Cairns.)
One sweltering afternoon I found myself at the entrance to Graffiti Lane, a tucked away alley that wouldn’t look out of place in Melbourne. Here I found one of Cairn’s ‘secret’ coffee shops. Caffiend is a funky little spot filled with an eclectic mix of furnishings; think skateboards on the wall, a graffiti covered coffee machine and various art works for sale on the walls. The colourful alley wall serves as a backdrop to the outside seating area. You can even buy a t-shirt with the Caffiend logo splashed across the front. The place is pretty teeny and, despite its out of the way location, is constantly buzzing with locals. Unsurprising though, given the cool setup and the amazing menu. ‘European frittata on rocket salad’, ‘Balsamic, strawberry and goat’s cheese bruschetta’, ‘Poached eggs with wilted spinach, bacon and chili jam’ are just some of the options on offer here.
Further up the alley, what appears to be a dead end is actually the courtyard and back entrance to La Creperie. This French inspired cafe serves up a great selection of sweet and savoury crepes and unmissable milkshakes. As for the evenings, tired of the same old bar crawl along the ‘strip’ I ventured beyond the brightly lit lagoon and found Salthouse perched at the end of the boardwalk by a little harbour. This became my favourite spot, drinking coffee, marking homework and looking out over the harbour on sunny afternoons and working my way through the cocktail menu in the evenings. It seems that the backpacking crowds haven’t descended onto this spot yet and it retains a chilled, chic vibe that is one of a kind in Cairns.
4 months later, and a year after arriving in Australia, I was finally able to leave my shitty job and fly off to the sunny shores of Bali for a much needed holiday. But I realised that I would miss the strange little bubble that is Cairns and all it’s tucked away places waiting to be discovered. Look hard enough and you might just find them…
Thailand has always had a special place in my heart. For years I had dreamed of visiting this enchanting land of elephants, jungle fringed beaches and spicy noodles and when I finally did visit, it was my first taste of somewhere truly ‘exotic’. The first time I had ventured, completely alone, into the unknown. I was 22, fresh out of uni and keen to start teacher training. I knew I wanted to take a course in teaching English as a foreign language. I also knew I didn’t want to do that at home when there were so many CELTA courses on offer in countries all over the world.. Of course, I chose Thailand but instead of flying off to bustling Bangkok I chose a school in Phuket where, I reasoned, I could island hop and bum around on the beach on my days off.
This was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Upon arriving in Phuket, I coincidentally connected with a French friend who was working on a nearby island. Ignoring my jetlag, we met up and immediately hired mopeds to explore historic Phuket Town and some nearby beaches. Sitting on the sand, watching the sun set with my first ice cold Chang and a bowl of something spicy and delicious I had a pinch me moment. Here I was, finally, in this beautiful, otherworldly country that had been on my wish list for so long. And I was here for 5 weeks.
My French friend assured me that the place to party in Phuket was Pattaya, an infamous party province. By this point I was ready to crash, my jet lag well and truly set in, but not wanting to miss a chance to party we took the mopeds along the winding coastal road to Pattaya. 10 hours later, after a blur of buckets, ladyboys and promises of ping pong shows, not to mention almost hammering a nail through my hand and a moped crash which involved a smashed set of front teeth (luckily not mine) I finally staggered into my hotel room and passed out. I had survived my first night. I managed to behave myself for the next month, settling for a couple of cold Changs in the evenings with my fellow trainees. But at the end of the course there was still a week left until Christmas and I was in no hurry to rush back home. And so, with my straight talking, Californian classmate Sara, we took a boat to the island on every backpackers itinerary, Koh Phi Phi.
Phi Phi was my ultimate destination of choice. I too wanted to follow in the footsteps of so many over-excited teenage girls and find the exact patch of sand where Leo DiCaprio had sat in The Beach. I wanted a piece of the paradise. I also wanted to party and had been informed that Phi Phi was the place to do it.
The island did not disappoint. From the moment I jumped out of the boat into the crystal clear water I was in love. The narrow streets were hectic, backpackers fresh off the boat hauling their luggage through throngs of people. A guy cycled past with a monkey dressed in a suit on his shoulder. Vendors called out to us, beckoning and smiling. I had never been anywhere like it. We spent the day exploring the island, taking in the lush scenery and lazing on the beach. A longboat trip took us to neighbouring Phi Phi Leh where I finally visited Maya Bay, snorkelled with turtles, fed wild monkeys, had a beach party in a private cove and swam with bioluminescent plankton. I was drunk on sensations (and a copious amount of cheap alcohol) and convinced that this island was paradise.
Pattaya had somewhat prepared me for the party scene of Phi Phi, but I hadn’t quite become hardened to the buckets. (Basically a small slug of energy drink mixed with an entire bottle of vodka in a bucket with a party straw.) And so it came to be that on my last night on the island we made our way to Slinky’s beach bar and from that point on the night became a blur. When I eventually sobered up enough to realise where I was, I found I was sitting waist deep in the sea with a South African guy talking about the meaning of life and watching the sun come up. I had a nasty gash on my foot. I had also lost my bag, (which I later found empty and discarded on the beach) and, undoubtedly, my dignity. I managed to drag myself up to our hilltop hostel where I found Sara asleep on a pool lounger. I had managed to lock us out and lose the keys. After breaking into our room we passed out and woke up with the worst hangovers known to man. I still don’t know what I got up to that night, and thats probably a good thing. But I was young and wild and if you can’t be stupid and irresponsible when you’re 22 then when can you? I’m still eternally thankful to Sarah for lending me money for a hotel room and cab to the airport the next day, not to mention some weird medicinal powder for my bloody, infected foot. And so I bid farewell to paradise and fly home for Christmas, dazed, hungover and with a doctor’s appointment for my foot (and probably my liver.)
4 years later, I come back to Koh Phi Phi. This time I am older, wiser and I’m not going anywhere near a bucket. I’m excited to show my boyfriend this crazy island eden where the waters are clear turquoise, the beaches beautiful, the people friendly and the nightlife wild. But the island is not as I remember it. Far from being an unspoilt backpacker’s haven, the beaches and streets are strewn with rubbish and evidence of last night’s debauchery. It is pouring with rain and the locals glare at us, not a hint of the famous Thai smile here. I locate the notorious Slinky’s beach bar which had been the starting point of our wild escapades, where I first saw a tattooed teenager walk a tightrope while juggling flaming batons, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer simultaneously. The relentless rain has put a stop to the fire shows and the bar sits, dark and dingy, on the polluted beach. I realise that the island probably hasn’t changed that much at all, but that the younger me was seeing everything through rose tinted glasses, not to mention bucket goggles.
We leave the beach and hike up to the famous viewpoint, passing a sour faced woman at the bottom who snatches our proffered money as we pass. Giant, ugly hotel complexes have popped up around the island, large areas of bush bulldozed to make room for these monstrosities trying hard to ruin the once breathtaking views. I am confused and saddened. It seems Phi Phi really has lost its charm. Maybe, as many will tell you, it lost it decades ago. We don’t linger on the island, heading instead to Koh Lanta which, we are told, is still truly unspoilt. But as the boat speeds away from Phi Phi I still feel a familiar pang in my chest as I watch the island recede into the distance. It may not be what it once was, but the island will always remain special to me as my first taste of paradise, of reckless abandon and, when I’m old and grey, a reminder of what it felt like to be young, free and completely, wonderfully irresponsible.