Our original plan was to head on up to Nepal as our final destination of our six-month adventure. Back in October, however, we realised that we needed to plan our itinerary from Delhi and make a decision about whether to head north to Dehradun and Amritsar, or fly to Kathmandu. It was then that we decided we really should be home for Christmas, much as we have loved every step of our journey.
We have been to Kathmandu and Pokhara twice before and we were going to revisit – and, of course, they will still be there ‘next time’. So we have shortened our journey by one month and one country.
We managed to get all the way home without my daughter knowing. She walked in the house, and we were just sitting there on the sofa!
So we have been home a week already and I have been trying to round things up by writing a final blog post. But where do you start when you reflect on an remarkable five months? Our journey has included all of these:
Looking after disabled dogs in an elephant sanctuary, taking a slow boat down the Mekong, getting soaked at the most amazing flooded waterfalls in Luang Prabang, getting to Hanoi on a 24-hour sleeper bus but nearly not getting into Vietnam at the border, shuddering when we felt the thunder in Halong Bat ay 1 am, cycling in Hoi An, Jaipur and Delhi, riding on the back of a Vespa in Saigon, learning how to drive our own tuk-tuk in Thailand, climbing Lion Rock in Sri Lanka, paddling with a giant turtle in Hikkaduwa, camping out under the stars in the Thar desert, making friends with a water buffalo in Udaipur, sitting with dying cows and disabled dogs in Rajasthan, exploring the alleyways of Mumbai’s biggest slum, meeting the seven-year-old girl that my daughter befriended two years ago, sitting and chatting nearly every day for a couple of weeks with the humble owner of a tea shack in Kerala, collecting rubbish from Alleppey beach, dancing at the India-Pakistan border ceremony, seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise (with the sun shining through at just the right moment), trying not to panic when our speedboat to Cat Ba Island conked out halfway across Halong Bay.
I have always believed that travel can provide the best education, and it turns out that it is true for any age. Having been away for five months doing a backpacker route around South East Asia, I have found that I have learned so much… Not least about myself, of course.
Having got away from the routines of the household and the workplace, you find yourself settling into a traveller’s way of life, living only out of a suitcase, the joy of no make-up, no ironing, no washing-up, and it is blissful to find that your mind can finally rest up.
I like to see it as life in a snow-globe. Before, it was all shaken up. Now, all that distracting fake snow has settled on the ground and my mind is clear. I have time to read and time to think. And one thing that has come to the fore has been animal rights.
We had already decided that we were going to be vegetarian. That was easy to keep to throughout our journey. But we have started to look at being vegan.
In India you couldn’t help but notice the dogs and the cows on the streets. Cows are supposed to be sacred but they were often tethered with only a foot of rope, often in blazing sunshine, with no shade or water nearby. We stopped by what was supposed to be a cow sanctuary in Delhi but the calves were on short ropes and there was a stable jam-packed with cattle. There was no room for them to move around – and this was supposed to be a sanctuary.
Having spent a couple of weeks with Animal Aid Unlimited in Udaipur, we knew that street dogs are largely happy where they are. They stay with their packs, they scavenge for food, and some people look out for those nearby their homes or shops. But many people are wary of them, and not just wary, but scared of them, which will lead them to shoo them away aggressively.
But I didn’t get used to hearing dogs barking at night, as they defended their territory or saw off a nasty human. And it was distressing to see how close to busy roads they lived. Every day you would see dogs crossing the road. Some didn’t make it.
So all that remains now is to go through our photos, choose some favourites and make some albums. And bore our family and friends to tears with our stories.
You get back into the routine of life back home so fast. Food shopping is expensive, and the weather is cold and wet, but on the plus side the shower is hot and I can drink the water from the tap.
We said in a recent post that we would list our most dangerous moments, so here goes…
1. David walking a plank to get on the boat on the Mekong. He had his heavy suitcase and the plank was not fully balanced. I tried pointing it out and the staff member agreed – don’t go on it until we straighten it up – but David carried on.
2. David falling backwards off a chair in slow motion at breakfast in Fort Kochi, in front of four other people.
3. Getting down from the top bunk in a train in India, David put his weight on my curtain pole, letting him land heavily, and bringing it down on my head. It was 4.40 am.
4. The sleepy taxi driver in Sri Lanka was terrifying. I watched him like a hawk, and at one point poked him in the back when I realised his head nodded. I opened windows, I asked him questions, all to keep him more alert. Turned out he had got up early and already driven for six hours to get to our departure point.
5. Absolute muppet of a taxi driver Sanjay on the windy hilly Dehradun – Mussoorie road. He obviously has never had a driving lesson in his life, overtook in odd places and was easily distracted picking his ears or smiling inanely at his music player. Any time he wanted to use his phone I ordered him to pull over.
6. When we went whale watching in Sri Lanka, the boat sailed into a rain storm. We were miles from the coast. David went silent as he thought we were going to die. I was silent because I thought I was going to chuck. But I felt safe enough!
7. The most dangerous moment was when we were on a safari in Jaipur. Having spotted leopards, we were driven at a ridiculously high speed to another area where they had been seen. We wouldn’t have stood a chance if the jeep had turned over. It was entirely unnecessary and we complained to the company afterwards that it was not responsible tourism, and we gave them a bad review on TripAdviser.
Top 10 sights (though I can’t decide the order)
Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm
Royal Palace, Bangkok
Hawa Mahal, Jaipur
Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka
Golden Temple, Amritsar
Killing Fields and S21 prison, Phnom Penh
Kuang Si waterfalls, Luang Prabang
Top 10 moments
Animal Aid Unlimited – the joy of cuddling dogs, cows, sheep and water buffalo
Learning to drive our own tuk-tuk
Rooftop sunsets in Udaipur at our favourite homestay (and chai with Samvit and his St Bernards)
Night-time ride on a Vespa in Saigon
Meeting Mansi and her grandmother in Dehradun
Thunderstorm in Halong Bay at 1 am
Night under the stars in the Thar Desert
Seeing thousands of birds on the Yamuna River at sunrise
‘Monkey man’ on Cat Ba island
Being treated as guests of honour at a celebration of social reformer Sree Narayana Guru in the middle of nowhere in Kerala
It has been amusing observing other travellers. It is easy to spot travellers, rather than tourists. Many would not acknowledge us, as they would pass us with the air of ‘I’m cool, I’ve been here longer than you, I’m not just a tourist’.
You could spot them in their baggy trousers, vest top, long hair tied up (that was just the men). The men would always have a beard, and a scarf around their neck. Girls would likely have nose piercings and tattoos.
And they would all have a certain swagger, a laidback lollop.
But then I noticed that we were morphing into those people. We had a smugness from being in India three months, especially when we saw white people getting off coaches, being ferried straight to the sightseeing point, ignoring all the vibrancy of the street because they are too scared to stop and look and interact.
I was in loose baggy trousers simply because they are cool (as in temperature) and practical. My bare white middle-aged legs weren’t going to offend anyone, temple or not. The laid-back lollop develops from the need to conserve energy in the heat as well as the wonderful realisation that, actually, you are not in a hurry like you are back home.
We loved the internationality of travelling, meeting people from Mexico, Israel, Australia, Spain, Germany. Talking to interesting and articulate young people made us feel young again, and I think we got a bit of respect when they realised that we too were longer-term travellers.
At one point we considered the future of tourism, and whether technology like virtual reality will change the way we travel.
Maybe in future you won’t take a plane to India, but you will visit from the comfort of your own settee with a VR headset on. We hypothesised over the things that you would have to do to get a more authentic experience. So here is our ‘Visit India VR Kit’:
Half an hour before pressing ‘start’, take two laxatives.
Turn up the heating as far as it will go.
Add some itching powder to your trousers. (Or, as David put it, source the fleas of 1,000 camels.)
Remove toilet paper from your bathroom.
Once you have been to the toilet, don’t flush, leave the door open a while.
Get the VR set to buffer a while (teaches you patience).
Burn some incense sticks.
Keep a curry on simmer.
But then we decided that VR is all very well for the sights but India, and anywhere else for that matter, but travelling really is all about who you meet along the way. And it’s the people (and animals) we will remember long after the photos of temples and beaches have faded.
Hopefully, some might be reading this. If so, thank you for being part of our journey. It was a pleasure to meet you along the way and we wish you, our new friends, as well as our old friends we have returned to, a very happy Christmas.
Chiang Khong, slow boat to LAOS Luang Prabang
Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island
Ho Chi Minh City
CAMBODIA Phnom Penh
Flight Siem Reap to Bangkok + flight Bangkok to Colombo
SRI LANKA Colombo
Flight Colombo to Madurai
Via Delhi to Dehradun
TOTAL (including international flights) 19,764 miles
FURTHEST NORTH – Amritsar, India 31.6340° N, 74.8723° E
SOUTH – Mirissa, Sri Lanka 5.9483° N, 80.4716° E
EAST – Hoi An, Vietnam 15.8801° N, 108.3380° E
WEST – Mumbai, India 19.0760° N, 72.8777° E
HIGHEST – Jakhu Temple, Shimla, India 2,453 m (8,050 ft)