Hi Mum, I was in NYC, Venice and Switzerland (kind of)

More catching up on several years of travel.

Freiburg and Colmar

In September 2011 we impulsively booked a weekend in Basel, Switzerland. It was a cheap fare from London, what did it matter that we knew nothing about Basel and what there was to see? We realised that Basel isn’t the most charming Swiss city; it’s not nestled amongst snow-capped mountains, or situated on a beautiful lake. But it does have the wonderful advantage of being very, very close to the Black Forest in Germany and the Alsace region of France. So we decided to eschew Switzerland completely and spend our weekend in Germany and France.

First stop: Freiburg.

This idyllic town on the edge of the Black Forest in southern Germany is only about 45 minutes by train from Basel. We lucked into a wonderfully warm and sunny day, utter bliss after a frankly rubbish London summer.

Once we arrived, we noticed that things seemed a little bit… odd.

Lots of costumed people, lots of banners, plenty of roads closed and crowd barriers erected. What was going on?

We worked it out.

The motherflipping pope was in town.

We tried to go about the business of enjoying our visit regardless, but it made getting around the town a little bit tricky. We did see the pope go by in his little perspex popemobile – both of us quite underwhelmed. Who’d have thought that less than 2 years later he’d have quit the job?

Anyway, Freiburg is a delightful place. We sampled the beer and of course, the Black Forest Gateau. We walked in the woods and lazed in a clearing in the sunshine. It was lovely.

Second stop: Colmar

I’d never heard of Colmar. It’s a small town in the Alsace wine country, and is also about 45 minutes from Basel. All we knew is that it was a nice place, so we hopped on a train to visit for the day. People were right: Colmar is indeed a nice place.

In fact, it’s a downright gorgeous place.

It turned into yet another glorious sunny day of walking and exploring, eating great food (flammekuchen) and drinking lovely wine.

Definitely worth a visit.

So that was the weekend in Switzerland that we spent in Germany and France.


We also spent our second anniversary in Venice. You know, Venice is a stunning place. It’s so quaint and charming, and you get constantly lost, and every time you turn a corner you are faced with another arresting outlook.

It always looks like a painting.

So why not go and have a look through our Flickr feed, which has lots of such photos of Venice.

Just like every other weekend, we spent it walking, getting very lost, and finding good food. Before coming to Venice I’d read up about cichetti, or the little plates (like tapas) that can be found in small bars. I had a list of bars that reportedly did good cichetti, so we basically did a bar crawl, snacking our way from place to place. It was a great way to see the city, and mostly kept us out of the way of the well-trodden tourist paths.

This is one of the places we found, at about 11.30am on a Sunday morning.

Because of the small canals and alleyways, there weren’t many places (apart from the large squares with their overpriced cafes and restaurants) which enjoyed full sun. This little place, on an unusually wide canal, was bathed in sunlight. It was full of small and large groups, of families, friends, children and dogs, coming and going. Plates of food on every table, glasses of wine and Aperol being handed around, lots of laughter. It made me very much want to be Italian.

New York

One plan Alex and I had discussed before even leaving Australia was the possibility of visiting New York while we were living in London. It seemed wonderfully decadent, to leave one huge metropolis to visit another, but given the distance and the price, it was also a no-brainer. And when my sister and her husband were also up for it, then we made plans.

We spent a week there in October 2011.

It was my first experience of the United States, and even though everyone is at pains to reassure you that New York really isn’t America, you know it seemed pretty, you know, American. There was amazing food.

(That’s Alex devouring a reuben sandwich at Katz’s, by the way. It was like he’d come home.)

There was also that sort of food which you think should be really dire, and is, in a way, but is also completely great. I’m talking about food covered in goopy yellow cheese and accompanied by waffle fries.

And there were ridiculously kitschy cocktails at unbelievably pretentious bars.

And everything was super fun.

Alex and I did a lot of eating on this trip. We found some really great food, especially burgers.

Boy, Americans know how to make a good burger. London got a whole lot better recently when they opened a Shake Shack in Covent Garden.

We also hit many of the sights (while avoiding the museums). It was all great.

After all this sunshine, Alex and I nearly got snowed in the night we were due to fly out. Crazy weather. Sally and Anthony, on the other hand, were almost stranded by Qantas’ decision to ground their entire fleet during industrial disputes. But in the end we all got where we needed to go. And we had a bloody good time in New York.

Time to polish off this old thing…

Good intentions, poorly executed.

Alex and I had such plans to keep this blog going while we lived in London and travelled through Europe. But life got in the way, as it tends to do, and so this place has languished like a million other indulgent travel blogs. How sad.

But! We’re soon to embark on another long(ish) trip and the time has come to get blogging again. Sure, our US roadtrip will be about as different from out Australia-London trip in 2011 as it could be (being only 5 weeks long, including a fair amount of flying and driving, and with a baby in tow) but we hope to have just as much fun.

Before we leave the UK, though, time to do a swift recap of some of the amazing travel we’ve done in the last 3.5 years. In no particular order…


Alex and I spent a long weekend here in 2011, several months after the revolution. We were a little bit cautious about going but found that most things had resolved by the time we arrived. It was a great trip, an interesting country, and I’d be keen to go back.

We enjoyed the bustle of the souks and the prevalence of that particular shade of blue.

We stayed in the coastal town of Sidi Bou Said, about 40 minutes from Tunis, a really delightful spot.

It was a little bit touristy but a very relaxing place to hang out.

Of course, the coolest part of this trip was exploring the ruins of Carthage, and the vestiges of the Roman occupation.

Most of the original Phoenician city of Carthage is gone, subsumed by the Roman and other settlements after it. Got a great view though

These Roman baths were seriously impressive – right on the waterfront and with hold and cold running water. They’ve erected one of the columns to show the scale of the place – the archways remaining are the underground passages where the water was managed.

In all, we had a great time in Tunisia.


Around the same time, in April/May 2011, we took off again for a long weekend in Bridport, Dorset. This is because the madness of the Royal Wedding had descended on Westminster, where we live, and it seems sanest to get the heck out of there.

Boy, we were glad we did.

Pretty idyllic. We did lots of walking.

We also visited the eerie village of Tyneham, a place which was ‘temporarily’ evacuated during WWII due to the nearby Army firing ranges. Everyone left, and nobody came back. The village is well preserved, but completely empty, and there are some disconcerting signs around every corner. It’s still an active military range and you need to check before walking in the area that the MoD hasn’t closed it.

We always thought we’d have another holiday down the south coast, probably to Devon and Cornwall, but it just hasn’t happened. Next time.

Stay tuned for lots more catching up…

Hi Mum, I’m in Tuscany


Not long after settling down in London and beginning to feel like normal members of society again, we stopped all that for a completely idyllic fortnight in Tuscany. Alex was turning the big 3-0 and his folks plus some friends from Melbourne and London came to Tuscany to live with us in a villa, laze around the pool, go wine-tasting and to fabulous markets and generally have a gorgeous and relaxing time. What good friends, to put up with such a lot.

We stayed in a villa in a tiny place outside San Casciano, in Tuscany. This was about a 35 minute drive or so south of Florence, so of course we had a few day trips there.


Florence was – is always – a glorious place, even when filled with tourists as far as the eye can see. We found some fantastic gelato (and some truly dire stuff, allegedly kiwifruit flavoured but it went into the rubbish after a few tastes) and an incredible cafe. I, the least enthusiastic coffee drinker to come out of Melbourne, fell in love with the stuff and eagerly joined Alex and the others in standing up at the bar for a quick espresso (though I haven’t yet joined Bjarne and his love of slamming down several doppio in a single sitting standing.)

We climbed the Duomo and admired the hideous depths of imagination to which people who believe in hell can descend.


We spent a lot of time in the garden of the villa and by the pool, playing Scrabble and cards, reading books, and trying not to get hit by the shot which occasionally cascaded over us (as the shooting season opened while we were there).


On the advice of our hosts, we visited a local winery called Villa Cigliano, on the outskirts of San Casciano. We weren’t anticipating much – a tour of the winery, and a light lunch while tasting some wines. We found a wonderfully welcoming owner, an outstanding and fascinating villa that had been in the family for over 500 years, a wonderful spread of food and some downright delicious wine and oil.



Their family tree, covering many centuries:

We’d recommend a visit in a heartbeat – it was a terrific day out.


The other recommended place for a visit has to be the village of Greve in Chianti, where the Saturday markets brought Alex’s favourite thing in the world – the porchetta van. Whole roasted pigs stuffed with thyme, garlic and rosemary, with thick slices served up in a panino. Completely delicious.

Greve is also home to the most wondrous place for pork fanatics – Macelleria Falorni.



This is the place for pork products. They practically literally hit you in the head when you walk in.


Alex and I stocked up on cheese, pancetta, salumi and more from this place. Their products are just amazing.

Finally, we couldn’t forget the reason for being in Italy in the first place – Alex’s birthday. We went out for a meal to a small town called Panzano, where a butcher opened a restaurant. It was a great night out and after everyone was done we all – everyone who had eaten that night – stood around on the streets of the village and drank grappa with our host. Good fun.



Ain’t nothing more romantic than posing in front of a meat locker.

So anyway – big thanks to Eileen and Bjarne for making the trip possible. It was a wonderful trip (and one that we may be replicating this year…)


Hi Mum, we’re… still travelling

Oh, our poor neglected travel blog! We used to be so close!

After a really fun weekend in Budapest I’ve felt compelled to revive this old thing, and use it to keep records of all the travelling we’re doing now that Alex and I are firmly into the European travelling scene. Look out for posts on the following:

– Italy
– the Cotswolds
– Stockholm
– Madrid
– skiing in Tignes, France
– Belgium
– Budapest

and more to come…

Hi Mum, we made it


Back when we used to actually update our blog, you might remember that we were on our way to London. When we last updated, we were enjoying our arrival in Europe proper: Moscow.

Since then, real life sort of got in the way. We hopped on yet another train, this time a mere day and a half trip across Belarus into Warsaw. Arriving in Warsaw was wonderful – we’d spent a couple of days there a few years ago, and just loved it. We’d have happily settled in for a few days of hanging out, but for the annoying fact that I had to get across Europe to Amsterdam for an appointment with the UK consulate to organise my entry permit. We got to spend only a single night in Warsaw, which we cleverly devoted to eating pierogi and drinking beer, and then it was another bloody train.

This one was a bit different. We accompanied each other as far as Berlin, but then I continued on to Amsterdam while Alex went to visit his cousin in Hamburg for a few days. After being in each others’ pockets for 3 months it was terribly weird being alone. Not bad, but just such a different feeling. It made me a bit antsy, to be honest.

Amsterdam is a great, charming and beautiful city, but unfortunately when you’re in a city because you have to, not because you want to, it colours your experiences a bit. Once Alex came to meet me we ventured down to the Hague to spend some time cluttering up the lovely house of our friends Skye and Peter. It was fantastic to see them, fantastic to be in a real home, and fantastic to co-opt their kitchen and do a bit of cooking. They took us to Delft to eat pancakes, and we did daytrips to Rotterdam and Haarlem – it was all quite idyllic. Unfortunately, we took entirely 0 photos of this part of the trip. Bad form.

After a terribly long time, the UK consulate finally issued my permit and it was off to London. We adhered to our original plan of ‘no planes!’ and caught the ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich.



Our first few weeks were a blur of becoming official people – we got bank accounts, tube passes, mobile phones, a flat. We live in East London, full of hipsters, curry houses, and endless supplies of fried chicken.

Oh, and (of course) pubs.

So all in all we both survived our pretty epic overland journey from Singapore to London. It was a brilliant experience, something we feel so lucky and privileged to have done. I regret almost none of it.

We don’t intend to abandon this blog, as we’re planning to do loads of travel while we’re living here. Look for the next instalment soon.

Hi Mum, I’m crossing 5 time zones

After our strange, challenging and wonderful 6 days with the Mongolian nomads (check back to our post about it; we’ve added more photos) we hightailed it back to the relative luxury of Ulaan Baator. Of course, being desperate for a shower, the powers that be decreed that we would have no hot water for a further 12 hours. Agony!

Eventually, suitably bathed and relieved (and supplied with beer), we embarked on the next phase of our trip – a two night train ride to Irkutsk, an hour or so from the immense Lake Baikal. We lucked into having the compartment to ourselves for the trip. However, this joy was curtailed by the discovery that there was no restaurant car on the train, no food vendors at most of the stations, and that we had brought just a few sweet snacks. Finally, at about 10pm on day 2 we found some food, but needless to say we spend most of the preceding day playing the “what would eat right now if you were at home?” game. (Again.)

Irkutsk is a pretty nice place. We also had a pleasant, comfy hostel which felt a little as though we were staying in someone’s home. And we met up with some travellers from the UK that we had bumped into intermittently since the train to UB, so got to spend some time with people other than each other. Hooray!


Of course, one of the biggest attractions of Irkutsk is Lake Baikal – a lake of many superlatives. It is the deepest, oldest and clearest lake in the world and the biggest freshwater lake. It’s immense. We spent a day visiting a town at the southern tip, but I imagine you could spend months exploring the lake and its environs.


Sadly, we were visiting the lake at an inconvenient time – close enough to summer that the ice had broken up and almost completely melted, but not summery enough for things like swimming or diving to be an attractive proposition. At least there was some ice left over for us to play with.


There’s a myth about the lake that if you submerge your hands, you’ll earn an extra year of life. Stick your feet in, and you get 5 years. Have a proper swim, and you get a bonus 25 years of life. While Alex and I weren’t brave enough to swim amongst the ice (although our newfound friends, Kath and Daniel, did grace us with a demonstration of the agony we could have expected if we did take the plunge), we at least doffed our shoes and socks for a pretty painful 30 seconds in the icy water. I think our faces say it all.



And it seems that Kath and Daniel weren’t the only ones taking the water here.


Anyway, we spent a very fun day exploring this small part of Lake Baikal. It’s definitely a place we’d both like to come back to sometime.

After a couple of days relaxing in Irkutsk (and eating great food – the supermarkets were full of delicious beetroot salad, cheese, ham and bread – things we haven’t really eaten since leaving Australia 3 months previously. Oh, and don’t forget the great vodka) it was time to head off.

Between Irkutsk in southern Siberia and Moscow in the European part of Russia lies 5152km of railway. We covered this immense distance in a single hop, departing on Monday afternoon around 4pm and arriving on Thursday at about 6pm. Given that we would be spending 3 days straight on the train (and that we’re on our honeymoon, lest we forget that important point) we opted for first class. We were very happy to see our cabin – a brand new refurbishment, and I didn’t have to sleep on the top bunk! (Also note the important addition of a bottle of Baikal vodka on the table).


Of course, after 3 days on the train, the tidiness had been completely banished.


Spending so much time on the train was quite soporific and very relaxing. We spent time listening to music, playing games, reading books, napping, and staring at the changing scenery out the window. It was definitely an enjoyable thing to do. We especially enjoyed watching the landscape slowly change from Siberian to European.

Arriving in Moscow was exciting. It felt very cosmopolitan after our time in Mongolia and Siberia and we regretted that we only had 3 days there. We checked out a couple of great museums, including the brilliantly bizarre Polytechnical Museum (documenting the history of industry in Russia) and the moving Sakharov Museum (with exhibits on life under Stalin and the gulags).



On our final afternoon in Moscow, we thought we’d engage in a fine Moscow tradition and go for Sunday brunch. Suitably attired in our most natty jeans and t-shirts (the effects of the long trip are starting to be seen on our wardrobe, sadly), we turned up at the Marriott, paid a relatively large sum of money, and sat down to eat and drink to our heart’s content. Alex binged on blinis and caviare, I relished the seafood station and we both sampled plenty of Russian champagne, vodka and desserts. After 4.5 hours we rolled out, having done our very best to imbibe our money’s worth. A fitting farewell to Russia.

Hi Mum, I’m in China and 197 other countries

One day, back in 2009, I read a newspaper article about the world-famous Little Mermaid statue, usually resident in Copenhagen harbour, being removed and sent to Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo. This immediately filled Alex and I with excitement. Who doesn’t love a World Expo?


Of course, our excitement can be directly traced back to the heady days of 1988, Australia’s bicentenary year, and the year when Brisbane put itself in the world spotlight by hosting Expo ’88. We both attended and have individual memories of an awesome time. So when we heard that Shanghai would be hosting the Expo, and that we could squeeze in a visit on day 1 of its 6-month opening time if we reorganised our itinerary a bit, then by god, reorganise we did.

China seems to be in a weird place right now. Countries such as Australia and the US desperately want to be friends with it, and China equally desperately wants to show to its own citizens that it is one of the Big Kids on the world stage. Together with feeling like second best after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, this meant that the Shanghai Expo had to be big. Bigger than big. It had to show Beijing that it could do this ‘huge event’ thing, it had to show the rest of the world that China is here to stay, and most importantly, it had to show the Chinese that they are important.

What this all meant is that our expectations of a slightly daggy, very welcoming event (such as Expo ’88) didn’t match up with reality. Various estimates of the total cost of Expo 2010 are in the range of USD55 billion. 55 billion dollars! I can’t even conceive of so much money. But once you enter the site, you begin to see where the money went.


The site, built across two sites on either side of the Huangpu River, is apparently more immense than Monaco. Alex and I entered first thing at 9am, and left, footsore and incredibly weary at 10pm, and we hadn’t covered the whole thing. We maybe covered 2/3 of it. It’s just huge.

China proudly boasts that 198 countries came to the Expo and have a pavilion there, but in reality lots of the smaller, developing countries had a fancy-ish stall, but were empty inside. Many of these were in the enormous African and Carribean nations pavilions. As wandered through desolate and empty stalls purporting to glorify countries like Benin and Chad and Equatorial Guinea, the whole Expo thing seemed to be a bit of a sham.

So we hightailed it to a rich country’s pavilion. Parochially, we chose to queue up for the popular Danish pavilion. It glowed bright white in the sunshine, and from afar you could see happy visitors travelling down its spiral facade on pushbikes. Good fun.


The theme for Expo 2010 is ‘Better City, Better Life’, and the best pavilions discussed the issues of healthy urbanisation. Denmark did this really well, showing some great short films about life in Copenhagen, addressing the issue of transport (hence the bikes) and painting life in Denmark as quite idyllic.


We agree. They sold cold, cold beer there, which was very welcome after an hour queuing in the hot sun.


We also visited the Australian pavilion, which had tremendous queues and pretty good content, although the revolutionary circular rotating screen film thing was only in Chinese – early teething problems meant there were no English headsets available.


Still, this is an improvement from the teething problems of the trial opening, when people queuing for the Aussie pavilion were apparently getting into fistfights. Anyway, we enjoyed it and especially enjoyed that the people who put it together resisted the temptation to include any cute, furry animals in the pavilion (with the exception of the giftshop, of course). We left and visited the New Zealand pavilion just in time to see a burly Maori guy lead a few scrawny Chinese dudes through the haka.


The focal point of the whole site is the upside-down Lego structure that is the massive Chinese pavilion (see first photo). It is immense, visible from very far away, and, it seems, impossible to get into. We didn’t even try.

In total, the experience was just as China so often is – huge, frustrating, amusing, amazing, tiring, and with horrible queues. We’re very happy we went.

Hi Mum, I’m in Beijing

Gosh, China’s big, isn’t it?

That’s pretty much the feeling I had almost every second in Beijing.

But back to the start. We arrived early morning in Beijing and faced a horrendous queue at the train station for a taxi to our hostel. The Chinese, unlike the English, are not gifted at queuing, and it was a complete schmozzle. After getting kneecapped a few times (and reciprocating in turn) we finally made it out of the train station and to the youth hostel. We had a great time at the Peking International Youth Hostel and can recommend it. It’s located right next to the Forbidden City, in an old area filled with local food and only a couple of streets away from the insanity of Wanfujing, one of the main shopping streets in Beijing. On our first morning we set out for food, and ate like kings at a local eatery – 7 yuan (about a dollar) will get you a bowl of congee, a bowl of dumpling soup, three small and wonderfully juicy steamed buns and two you tiao, fresh deepfried doughsticks. Unsurprisingly, we ended up back there twice more for hearty and cheap breakfasts, this time getting stuck into the warm, sweetened soymilk.

The awesome food expectations dissipated a bit when we went to investigate Wanfujing’s “Snack Street”, a dire tourist-fest of tacky shock-value foods on a stick. If you want some unhygienic-looking barbecued meat, some (still-wriggling) scorpions, centipedes or lizards, this is the place for you. This was not the place for us; we continued on and ate a late lunch at a restaurant on Donghuamen where the food was great (they served fried slow-roasted meat, similar to the cumin pork ribs at Dainty Sichuan) and the service ridiculously surly. I’ve not seen such sulky and grumpy behaviour since year 9.

That wasn’t the end of the great food, though. We had a delicious meal at an old family-run restaurant in the hutongs (apparently owned by the same family for more than 100 years) and – of course – hunted down some good old Peking Duck. We had this delicacy twice, about a week apart, and each time it was fantastic. Our first attempt was at a very local, middle-class restaurant in the burbs. We waited the requisite 50 minutes for our duck (given that we hadn’t ordered in advance) and the wait was definitely worth it. The skin was lacquered and the fat highly rendered – it reminded me of pork crackling. All the condiments were perfect and it left us feeling appropriately rotund. A great meal.

The following week, we tried the upper end of the scale and ordered the duck at Duck de Chine, a high end restaurant in the expat-heavy part of Beijing. This duck was similarly attractive to look at, and (embarrasingly) the waitress banged a small gong to announce its arrival at our table. This time, the duck sauce was heightened with garlic and sesame paste and the duck itself was surprisingly light. We left the restaurant well-fed but lacking the feeling of being suffused by duck fat that we’re so used to after a meal at Old Kingdom. Verdict: Peking Duck in Peking/Beijing is as good as you’d hope.

Anyway, getting back on track. The rest of our first day was consumed by mundane chores – queuing to submit paperwork for Mongolian visas, picking up train tickets, queuing to collect visas (man, I hate getting visas. The opportunity for a petty-minded bureaucrat to completely stuff up your plans is just too great for my liking). But with all that in order, it was time to hit the sights.


Wandering around Tianan’men Square was great fun (Alex wanted to change this to “it was a blast”, but I vetoed it). Given the massacre, is that inappropriate? That event did come to mind, but given that it is (unsurprisingly) completely ignored and unmarked by any kind of plaque or memorial, it was pretty easy to forget that this was the site of that event. We were in Beijing for the week leading up to May Day, the big public holiday celebrating the workers of the country, and the city was packed. Huge LED screens were being set up in the Square, plus a soft-focus portrait of this guy. Who is he?


People, including plenty of kids, carried Chinese flags around with them, and posed for photographs in front of the big Mao portrait, or in front of the huge Monument to the People’s Heroes, or Mao’s mausoleum.


Of course, this meant that we’re both now in plenty of candid family snaps too.



That guy on the end thought he was just so cool. And do you notice me sneakily hiding the can of beer I was drinking as I wandered around?

We also visited the immense Forbidden City. Given the impending national holiday, there were loads of domestic tourists and we were a bit worried that our experience of the place would be hampered. But in reality, the place is so bloody huge that it could swallow the thousands of tourists swarming around it and end up feeling relatively empty.


It’s really an astonishing place, but the word ‘cosy’ most definitely did not come to mind. We were feeling the effect of the Siberian winds that sweep Mongolia (often picking up sand and dust) and buffet Beijing regularly – it was icy out there. I wondered how the Imperial Chinese kept warm in amongst all that stone.


While in Beijing we thought we’d check out the old Olympic site. Given China’s ability to do things on a grand scale, we weren’t disappointed. The Bird’s Nest Stadium is pretty cool – the structure of the covering ‘Nest’ in intricate and interesting to see.


But even better stuff was hidden away from the track. We found a huge gift shop, still selling Bird’s Nest keyrings, tea mugs, posters, ornamental pen holders, “authentic” “genuine” Chinese vases, toys, statues… the selection was endless. And people were buying them! The Chinese tourists we came across really are into their souvenirs.

Next to the giftshop was a bizarre little display – wax figures of all the IOC presidents. Now I know where to go when I need a plastic-looking, creepy version of Jacques Rogge or Pierre de Coubertin. It was wonderfully odd.


Here is a photo of a photo of Juan Antonio Samaranch looking decidedly startled upon meeting Wax Juan Antonio Samaranch.


We also enjoyed the ‘Do not walk on the grass’ signs outside. How wonderfully twee.


No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Many cities have ‘must-see’ destinations, but this would have to be one of the most ‘must-see’ places I’ve been.


The wall, segmented as it is, can be accessed from a few different places on day-trips from Beijing, and the most common is the Disneyland of Badaling. We opted instead to head further out of the city and spent a day hiking the ruined and partially-restored wall at Simatai, its most lofty point. The wall curled around the mountains to the west “like a dragon’s tail” (as per the sign) and gave constantly entrancing views. We climbed and climbed, passing about 12 watchtowers and feeling the strain in muscles we hadn’t used for a while. The steps were uneven and often very narrow, necessitating a weird sideways approach.


We planned to reach the highest accessible point and then catch the chairlift part of the way down the mountain, thrilled that we didn’t have to negotiate the stairs back down (with gravity ever eager to make the descent more rapid). But – bugger it, due to the high winds the chairlift was closed. We carefully crept back down the wall and made it, safe and sound. All along the trip, we stopped constantly to marvel at the sights. After the heavy smog of Beijing we were thrilled by the endless views.


Finally, when I said at the start that everything is bigger in China, I meant everything. Check out this magnificent mullet.



Hi Mum, I’m in Hoi An

Another country, another UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Yawn.


Except not. Hoi An, the 18th-19th century village that served as a hub for Vietnamese/Chinese/Japanese trading, managed to escape the ravages of the Vietnam War and of the rampant growth which seems prominent in other cities in Vietnam. Its small streets, picturesque river and tiny alleys serve as a reminder of what the town used to be like, long before the tailors and the tourists moved in.


There must be thousands of tailors in Hoi An. As soon as you mention that you’re passing through Hoi An, everyone has something to say about the tailoring. It’s great! So cheap! Really shoddy quality! Not as good as you’d get in Bangkok/Hong Kong/Saigon/Melbourne/Mumbai! Overpriced! Not worth it! Absolutely worth it!

Something that gets as many polarised views as this can’t be all bad. (See: Vang Vieng.) We’re moving to London and need a new wardrobe anyway, so why not? We ended up spending four days in Hoi An (having planned to spend a lot of that time at nearby China Beach, but the grey skies and low 20s weather put paid to that idea) and end up buying clothes from four tailors. We spend amazing amounts of time getting fittings, being carted around town on the back of a moped, often wearing bits of the suit being made, to visit ‘my uncle’, the head tailor, who’ll fix this lapel or that shirt. We make very good friends with the young, bored, vain girls who work in their family’s shop and spend their spare time looking in the mirror and buying cool, commercially made stuff. (Bespoke clothes? How old-fashioned!) We fend off continual cries of ‘Hello, you want something? Come into my shop!” In the end, we ship 15kg of suits, jackets, shirts and dresses to London, having paid a relatively tiny amount for what we think is really good work. (One of our tailors, Mr Xe, was only “90% happy” with one of Alex’s suits, and has promised to make him another one gratis and send it to London.) And we have a lot of fun doing it.

In the down time, we cook (a bit).


We did a morning class at Morning Glory restaurant’s cooking school. It’s more of an exercise in assembling ingredients than really cooking, because (as you can see) there is absolutely no prep work to be done. Luckily, the food we make is delicious and we’ll be using these recipes again.


We also spend a lot of time just wandering the streets and enjoying the sights.




And of course, we eat. We have the local speciality, cau lau, a spicy broth with chewy wheat noodles, ‘croutons’ (deep fried squares of the same noodles) and herbs, down in the bustling market. It’s wonderful. The woman in the stall next door orders us to come and sample her banh xeo, small crispy mungbean flour crepes with pork and prawns, eaten with a handful of herbs and wrapped in rice paper. We are very obedient.

Another evening we find this woman plying her wares down by the waterfront.


She was making banh can tiny little fried crepes filled with a single quail egg in each, eaten with lettuce, herbs, papaya salad, a vinegar dressing and a dollop of the local chili jam.



It’s so delicious that we return the next day, and make friends with the little girls who were eating here as a treat, because it was the 35th anniversary of the liberation of Hoi An.


It also coincided with Earth Day, when all (well, almost all) electrical items were switched off in the town for an hour. The townsfolk sold paper lanterns with small candles for people to float down the river while the power was out. It was a beautiful night.


Despite the inevitable carnage.


Hi Mum, I’m in Phnom Penh

Southeast Asia is obviously not the wealthiest part of the world. After spending time in the affluence of Singapore and KL, and the relative affluence of Thailand, both Laos and what we’d seen so far in Cambodia were marked by poverty – small, scrappy villages with a single communal water source, not much sign of kids being in school and plenty of touting and begging (especially by particularly persistent kids). Arriving in Phnom Penh was then a pleasant surprise.

I had no real image in mind for Phnom Penh, so it was a happy discovery to find a pleasant city, bordered by the river and full of parks, gardens, elegant boulevards and other open spaces. On our first evening in Phnom Penh we wandered down Sisowath Quay by the river and found … people enjoying themselves. There were some food vendors but they didn’t seem desperate to close a deal, and all the children we saw were just playing – chasing each other, falling over us when we got in their way, squabbling over their nifty pedal cars and snacking on fruit and popcorn. It was refreshing to see. We also saw a new development – public dance groups. A big speaker and some kind of sound system were set up, and a group of people would spontaneously form in front of it. A ‘leader’ would then demonstrate some choreography and the crowd would soon follow. Rival groups of 30-40 people would spring up, trying to drown out each others’ music. All very festive. (Choreography was a bit lame, though.)

This feeling of joy and abandon made more sense after our visit the following day to Tuol Sleng, or S (Security) 21. This used to be a high school in suburban Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge used it for the detention and torture of high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials fallen from favour and other members of the population who came to the attention of the regime as potential dissidents.


Only a handful of people ever survived S21 (most inmates were taken to the Killing Fields about 20km from the city and murdered, if they managed to survive the torture and starvation).


The school is kept much as it was, with some horrific exhibits (photos of inmates, even deceased, and some skulls) and very informative ones. Part of the reason why photos of victims are displayed so openly is to show visitors the incontrovertible evidence of the genocide that occurred, because while some Khmer Rouge officials are in custody (including the head of S21), trials have not yet commenced.


Given our short time in Cambodia it would be inappropriate to think we understood the effect of the genocide on Cambodians, but we did wonder whether the carefree vibe we noticed in PP had something to do with the survival of these amazing people. Tuol Sleng is well worth a visit – it’s one of the most horrific places I’ve ever been, and it was a difficult place to be, but I’m very glad we went.


After a gut-wrenching day, we decided we needed some levity – colour and movement. Where better than the nearest market?


We ended up going to three of the main markets in PP – the Central Market (amazing architecture, but undergoing renovation, and not that interesting as markets go), the Russian market (so named because they used to be the only people in town with any money; this one was pretty cramped and crowded, but good fun) and finally O’Russey market, our favourite.



We enjoyed watching the inventive ways they could pack vehicles.


And of course sat down for a snack. This place was great – little fried bundles of vegetables and tofu. The vendor also gave us some nuts, similar to chestnuts, to try. Delicious.


While we were there, we also spent a couple of hours at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, or FCC. It’s in a beautiful old building on the Quay, great views over the town, and with a very decent Happy Hour.



(This photo is just for show. We mostly stuck to martinis at AUD3 each).

And so that was Phnom Penh – an unexpectedly great place.

From here we had planned to head south and stay on a remote little island off the tourist beach hub of Sihanoukville. However, after poking around on the internet we found reports that the area had become pretty inundated by rubbish on the beach, and was no longer the idyllic beach paradise we’d hoped for. So, enjoying our flexibility, we ditched that idea and headed straight for Saigon…