I'm home! I have been back in the Netherlands for almost two weeks now, and it seems like the right time to let all of you know what I've been up to. Some of you I have met whilst working in Sydney, some on tours throughout Australia, some on random buses, trains and planes between Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Laos. Because of the wide variety of people addressed, I'll try to keep this e-mail short, but the people who've gotten to know me a little better will know that that will be a hard task for me. So much I have seen and experienced, so much have I enjoyed the last 9 months, that it is almost impossible to just describe everything in one short e-mail... I'll try!
My trip started at the beginning of September, in the capital of Australia, where I've lived for 4 months. After a long time of looking for nice (and worse) places to work, an seemingly endless amount of trials, jobs interview and a couple of the most horrible experiences I've had while working so far, I started working in the Wharf Restaurant. Next to the Sydney Theatre Company and with a brilliant view of Victoria Harbor, the bridge and Luna Park, the Wharf is where I spend most of my remaining time in Sydney. Although it was of course work (I worked as a waitress), I enjoyed it very, very much: staff, atmosphere, management, training, experience, not to mention tips, wine tasting, free theatre tickets and a chance to see Cate Blanchett pop in every once in a while. I lived in Newtown, mostly described as the funkiest suburb of Sydney, with secondhand clothing shops, cute little cafes where I could get my morning coffee and fruit salad, people who try to get you to sign all sorts of petitions, bookshops with names like 'Better read than dead', street performers and most importantly, a lot of very kind people.
When my boyfriend Yves came to visit me at the end of December, and we took off for a big road trip to Adelaide, I was both happy and sad. I had to leave all the lovely people I met in Sydney, this new life I'd just created, but I was with Yves once again and he was able to make me forget about everything that I left behind (for then). The trip was magnificent. To anyone who is still going to Australia, I can only say: go by campervan. Driving yourself (or let yourself be driven by your boyfriend) is definitely the best way to see the country. We had so much freedom: stop when we wanted, change directions when we wanted, eat when we wanted, skip some 'highlight' that didn't seem too interesting to us, take a surf lesson every now and then.. It was everything that I'd expected from kangaroo's on the beach at Pebbly Beach, to sunset over the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road. We saw the fireworks for New Year's at the Yarra River in Melbourne and visited the Grampians and Kangaroo Island before heading to the final destination, Adelaide.
After the most difficult 'goodbye' of my life, I tried to get myself together and have fun without Yves by my side. Adelaide's highlights and the Barossa Valley didn't take much time, so I took the Indian Pacific (train) to Perth. A couple of thousand kilometers over the vast 'nothing' of the Nullarbor Plain, where I saw the famous eagles and had a beer at a skimpy bar in Kalgoorlie. I think that after Sydney (and especially Newtown) I liked Perth best of the Australian cities. Although I didn't know anyone, I felt at home very soon in the quite neighborhoods, the parks with splendid views, Fremantle, Scarborough, and (as a little daytrip that was one of the best I've ever done) Rottnest Island. When I'd explored enough of Perth, I went on a tour with 'Planet Perth' to see something of the southwest of Australia. With the loveliest bunch of people we saw amazing beaches, beautiful forests, wineries and, of course (since Ozzies don't seem to get enough of them), a whole lot of rock formations. The aboriginal centre we visited was very interesting as well, and I loved watching the dolphins from the boat.
After a few surf lessons at Scarborough Beach, I was up for the next tour, a very long one, which was going to take me to Broome. In 9 days, we drove with our (very cool) 4WD-truck to Broome, while visiting the Pinnacles (weird standing rocks in a big yellow dessert), Kalbarri National Park, al sorts of breathtaking gorges, more dolphins at Monkey Mia, the amazing, wonderful, once in a lifetime experience of snorkeling at Ningaloo Reef (I can only say: wow! wow! wooow!), Turquoise Bay (that was truly turquoise), Karijini National Park (a must-see for everyone on the West-Coast) where I saw at least 2 dingo's, 7 falling stars, 1 snake and an incredible amount of red dust, the birth and first steps of a couple of turtles (there is now proof that I do indeed have a mother instinct) and eventually, the famous sunset over Broome beach.
I spend a few lazy days in Broome (normally, I'm not good with lying in the pool all day, but 'Broome time' certainly got to my watch) after having tried to walk in the scorching sun for a few hours. Three books later I arrived in Darwin by plane, unfortunately I couldn't see the Kimberley region because of the green season. Darwin itself I didn't enjoy very much, although I had a lot of fun eating free vegetarian lasagna everyday in a backpackers bar, after the Litchfield (beautiful region, very good for swimming under waterfalls) tour guide gave me some coupons. Kakadu National Park is still on my to do list, my tour got cancelled because there weren't enough people going...
My next stop was Alice Springs. Even to Dutch standards, this isn't really a city, but I understand that with the surrounding emptiness, these few scattered houses are like a metropolis to some. I went on a three day tour with a cool group of people and a real 'outback' guide, which included searching for wood, campfires, walks in the desert and through valleys, camel spotting, sleeping in swags under the stars, 4WD-driving and a lot of sunset and sunrise viewing. We concluded the tour with an evening of eating, drinking and dancing at a western bar in Alice Springs, which does, I have to admit, look like a big city once you've come back from the desert.
After my big 'tour de l'Australie', it was time to head back to Sydney, visit my friends once more, go to Tropfest and Mardi Gras, hit the waves at Manly Beach, stroll through Newtown one last time, and catch a plane to my next destination, Taiwan. In some kind of way, it was easier to say goodbye to everyone the second time, probably because I know that I'll go back to Australia anyway, and I haven't seen the last of them. I can't wait to see the East Coast and Tasmania, perhaps New Zealand as a little stopover?
Coming from Europe, and having been in Australia for so long, Taiwan was my first encounter with a very 'un-Western' country, and my introduction to Asia. It was extraordinary. During my travels I've met some of the nicest people I've ever met in my life, but the Taiwanese people are, as a people, the nicest nationality I've met so far. Everybody is helpful, giving and understanding. My lack of Chinese would've been a huge problem if the Taiwanese weren't so lovely. They try to explain to you where you're supposed to go, what time the bus leaves, what the major attractions are. I have been on so many scooters from people who -instead of pointing out the way on the map- drove me to where I wanted to go, that I've lost count. I have been given so many cookies, drinks and little souvenirs that I didn't know where to put it all. Of course the best help was a very lovely Taiwanese woman I met in Australia, who lives in Taipei. My visit to Taiwan wouldn't have been the same without her.
After a few days of cruising Taipei city, I took a train to Hualien, the city closest to mighty Taroko Gorge. Although I could've spend days exploring the area, I had to do the safe thing and go on a guided bus tour. Unfortunately, that evening in Hualien my wallet was stolen, or -we will never know- I just lost it myself, but I ended up crying in front of hotel management, the local police and random shop staff... Eventually, my wallet was retrieved without the cash, and my father had already blocked the ATM-card that was still in there. My friend from Taipei was able to calm me down, and the next day we took off for our trip down the coast to Taitung. A policeman who had heard about my wallet story, and who was traveling down the coast with his wife and little daughter anyway, offered us a lift. It was a very pleasant drive and the scenery was stunning. After a day of walking at Chihpen, my travel mate had to go back to Taipei, and I traveled on to Kenting, at the southern tip of the island. I was surprised by the surf culture that lingered around the area and after a few days of walking, taking buses, swimming and proper hiking in the park, it was time to go to Alishan. Ali Shan (Mount Ali) is a fantastic mountain area, where morning hikes to see the sunrise are one of the most popular things to do. I must say that scenery wise, this was the very best thing to do in Taiwan. I walked and walked and walked, and I was sorry that there where many hikes I couldn't do because you need to be a certified climber. Next up was Tainan, city of temples. In two days time, I saw over 15 temples, 3 museums, a couple of shrines, a bird watching area, 3 old forts and 1 karaoke bar. After Taipei, this is definitely the most beautiful city in Taiwan. My final stop before going back to the capital was Sun Moon Lake, a lovely area with -surprisingly- a huge lake in the middle. After a day of exploring the Lake and the temples around it, I planned to go for a walk up one of the surrounding mountains. Sadly, I had caught a cold, and I was better of taking a quick bus to Taipei and trying not to get too ill. My last days in Taiwan I spend walking through Taipei to see the last 'must-sees', meeting up with my friend and going up the currently highest building in the world, Taipei 101.
I can recommend Taiwan to anyone who is looking for a non-touristy, genuine experience of Asia. There are no scams, the scenery is stunning and the people are magical.
My visit to Hong Kong was very short (just a few days), and frankly, I'm glad it was. Although I had loads of fun with the people I met, the city itself didn't real appeal to me. Fumes that made me cough, annoying scamming people who got to my inner 'don't let anybody bother you, they are just trying to make some money, you should pity them instead of want to hit them'-spot (I didn't hit anyone, but have wanted to many times) and a lot of shops I couldn't afford anyway. I enjoyed the 'symphony of lights' show and boat trip over the harbor, and Lantau Island was most definitely worth a visit, but other than that, I wouldn't recommend Hong Kong to anyone who doesn't have enough money to buy Rolexes and Chanel bags (or really wants to buy fake ones at the markets) or to stay in a fancy hotel (there is no, I repeat no, good hostel to be found in HK). Having said that, I wouldn't have wanted to miss the experience, because I have a lot of talking material about bad hostels and irritating salespeople now.
With less than 2 months left for my travels, I headed to the number one backpacker stopover, Thailand. Since I'm not much of a beach hopper, I decided to go for a big intake of culture, trekking and nature while there, instead of going to the beaches and just get sun burnt and hangover all the time. In Hong Kong I had met a British girl, who was looking for a travel buddy, since her friend whom she was supposed to travel with was ill and was trying to go home. We met up in Bangkok, en my plans appealed to her as well, and so we decided to travel together. It was nice to have one and the same person to travel with for a change. We went to the Kanchanaburi Province, with its famous 'Bridge over the River Kwai' and some very lovely surroundings. We petted tigers at a temple/park complex, I got attacked by a monkey at a park full of beautiful waterfalls: we had a great time. Next was Sukothai National Park and its little brother Sri Satchanalai, the most impressive historical remains I've seen in Asia (of course no one can make me stop loving the ancient Greek and Roman remains more). It was wonderful to cycle along 600 year-old temples and shrines, and to see the sun set over huge Buddha statues. After this much cultural intake, we head up north to Chiang Mai, known for the Songkram Festival (Thai new year) and good trekking. We were very happy that we could experience both. After 3 days of walking through forests and over plains, bathing under waterfalls and sleeping at local hill tribe villages, we got back to the city while being soaked with as much water as a person can be soaked with. While shouting 'swadipi mae ka' (happy new year), we spend the next two days celebrating the Songkram festival with the Thai people around the moat and in a temple and later on, with the farang, in a reggae joint en a weird club called 'Spicy'.
After a day of resting from all the festivities (and a failed attempt to stay dry for a whole day), we started making our way to the Lao border.
While I was in Bangkok, I had spoken to some people and decided that I wasn't just going to Thailand, but that I wanted to do 2 little trips in Laos and Cambodia as well. Eventually I didn't have time for Cambodia, but I am very. very glad I chose to go to Laos.
Laos is one of the poorest countries I've been to, and one of the most impressive once scenery wise. That Laos is a communist country, you couldn't really tell until you were in a city. That it is an agricultural country, and a very poor one at that, is evident from the moment you set foot into Huay Xai, the border town with Thailand. In Thailand, we had seen people were traditional clothing, but mostly only in the villages, when they wanted to sell you some handicrafts. In Laos, the tribes are much less accustomed to foreigners, and have not yet altered their culture as much as in its neighboring country. Everything is done by hand, especially cultivation of the land. It is hard to complain about the weight of your backpack (in other words, the stuff you own!) when you see a 60/70-year-old lady carry around a basket of wood that looks like it weighs at least 30 kilos. As transport is one of the most important things of traveling, a visitor of Laos has to get used to their 'way' of doing things. It is not exceptional to be waiting for a bus to some place for 4 or 5 hours, even when you have figured out the bus times and the bus was supposed to be there already. It is normal to spend 7 hours traveling no more than 200 kilometers. It is almost a rule of thumb that you will get a flat tire on any bus you get in (I haven't traveled on a bus in Laos without getting one). But all of this is part of 'the Lao experience' and together with the easy pace and 'relaxness' of the inhabitants, the breathtaking scenery, the traditional culture that is still visible and the great food, it makes Laos one of my favorite destinations.
After arriving we arranged to go on 'the Gibbon Experience' (3 days of jungle exploring with local guides, zip wires a couple of hundred meters above the ground -or so it seemed-, waking up to the singing of the gibbons, a childhood dream come true to me), where I had some of the most memorable experiences of my whole trip, my whole life even. We didn't get to actually see gibbons, but I did cuddle a baby bear they'd rescued and I enjoyed just walking through the jungle and -even more- flying over it with tremendous speed. After the jungling in the Bokeo province, we went to Luang Nam Tha. We rented bicycles and explored the surrounding area, which turned out to be wonderful. We even visited four tribal villages and saw a little waterfall. After that, we went to Nong Khiaw, a cute little town next to the river, where we took a boat trip to Luang Prabang the next day. It was -again, I'm sorry but I can't stop using this word- very scenic. We saw fisherman from the boat, woman washing their clothes and hair and children playing. After a very beautiful sunset, we arrived at Luang Prabang, which seemed like the big smoke after more than a week in 'Lao countryside' (I think everything is countryside except for Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane). I loved this city because it is so atmospheric or what the Dutch call 'gezellig', with all the lights and nice markets. I bought too many earrings (again), and ate lovely fresh baguettes everyday (long live the French). I was glad we had some proper sightseeing in Luang Prabang (temples and French colonial buildings), because our next destination, Vang Vieng, was not so 'genuine'. The whole town seemed to be (very Thailand like) for tourists. There were bars where you could watch episodes of Friends or the Simpsons all day long, western food everywhere, and tours that take you to the river, put you in an old tire and then you can 'tube' down the river, while stopping for beer and Lao Lao (whiskey) on the way. I have to admit that although I don't really like these sorts of places, I enjoyed watching Friends all night, and the tubing wasn't bad either. I'm glad we saw some other stuff as well though, and that we didn't stay for longer than two nights. Our final stop in Laos was the capital, Vientiane. We expected much from this city, since there were even ATMs, a luxury which we hadn't had for over 2 weeks. I liked Vientiane, it is definitely the most relaxed, and smallest capital I've ever seen. No high buildings, no traffic jams, no tourist traps: I was at ease. Our last days in Laos we spend mostly by looking for stuff we hadn't bought elsewhere because we were running low on cash and by visiting temples and other city highlights.
Thailand once more
After two and a half week Laos, it was weird being back in such a 'western' country. Of course Thailand isn't western at all in the Europe/Australia/USA-way, but at that moment, it did seem like it. There were cash machines on every corner, there was a SevenEleven, even a McDonalds! Unfortunately, more westernized means more tourists, and more tourists means more annoying tuk-tuk drivers who shout 'where you go'iiing!' all the time. We proponed reaching my final traveling destination Bangkok by going to Ayuthaya, which is a historical park a little like Sukothai as I've described before. Again we saw beautiful ancient temple complexes and huge Buddha statues, but this time we had to look for them by foot through all the modern buildings and cars instead of peacefully cycle alongside them. It was a nice little stopover, and certainly a good idea to get used to Thailand again before going back to Bangkok. In Bangkok, we met up with a guy we'd met during the Gibbon Experience in Laos, and together we hired a room right in the touristy centre, which was cheap and quite convenient (minus the tuk-tuk drivers). I spend my last baht, enjoyed my last sticky rice with mango, fried rice with egg, pad thai and banana roti, bought more earrings and some gifts for people at home. and prepared to fly to Amsterdam.
It was really weird when I knew I was going home. On one hand I was really looking forward to it, to see all my friends, to kiss Yves, to hug my sister and my parents, to start setting up 'a real life' (room in Amsterdam, applying for uni, looking into the student associations and all that). On the other hand, I really didn't want to go home and stop traveling: there was (still is) so much a want to see and do! (First ones on my big list: India, China, Cambodia, Nepal, Cuba, Russia, South America.. I can go on and on)
I'm glad that now that I'm home, that double feeling is gone. I am very much enjoying being back in Maastricht, where my parents just bought a house closer to the centre. I love having a couch to chill on, not having to worry about hostels or guesthouses, being able to leave stuff in the fridge without it getting stolen, having my boyfriend close to me, seeing all my friends and family, eating Gouda cheese and Quorn and just feeling like I'm home.
Of course I still want travel, but first there are others things that I'd like to do. I am really looking forward to starting with classical languages and culture (ancient Greek and Latin) this September, and setting up a new 'life' in Amsterdam. Next year I want to do politics as well, or perhaps sociology, I'm not sure yet. If I've learned one thing during my travels it is that you should do what you want to do, and that is exactly what I'm doing.
Apart from studying I'm sure there will be opportunities to visit some places, and I hope to see some of you in the process! Of course when you visit the Netherlands, I would very much like it to have a drink in Amsterdam or Maastricht.
See you soon!
Thanks for all the fun, the stories, the advice, the help, the beer, the jokes and everything that I have forgotten.