Europe Cycle Tour: Sweden (Part 1)

I was excited going into my cycle tour of Sweden because I had heard about their law that allows anyone to camp anywhere in nature for free. The law is called ‘Allemansvretten’ and roughly translates to ‘all man’s freedom’. It has certain conditions that are fairly obvious – you can’t camp on (or too near to) private property, you can only stay a few days and you must leave the area clean. Those making use of this law clearly abide by its conditions – because Sweden is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever seen.

However, having heard about a law and knowing how it works in practice are two different things, and I was a bit apprehensive about just how lenient this law is. Could I really just pull in and pitch up my tent wherever I wanted without being asked to move on? I was about to find out…

Day 1 – Stockholm to Soldetalje

I awoke in my overpriced Stockholm hostel ($30) ready to escape into the beautiful, and most importantly free, countryside. I spent the past week on a very expensive and boozy cruise through the Baltic peninsula and desperately needed a few cash-saving days of sobriety.

I had been raining heavily that weekend so I bought a rain suit and wrapped all my bags in plastic before heading out. However, by the time I got to the outskirts of the city, it was starting to clear. My first stop was a Decathlon just outside Stockholm where I hoped to get my bike serviced. Upon arrival, I proudly informed the store attendant that I had purchased my bicycle at a Decathlon in India over a year ago and ridden it through seven African countries. He looked disinterested and told me the bike mechanic wasn’t in yet.

Disheartened, I shopped around for a tent and some waterproof pannier bags, convinced I would be spending the next four months cycling in rain. Eventually, the bike mechanic arrived but told me they were booked up that entire week for services. He was equally disinterested in my global cross-country cycle expedition on a Decathlon-built bike that wasn’t designed to do more than collect groceries from the store.

I packed all my stuff into my new panniers and decided to see if any bike stores in the next town could help me out. Since rebuilding my bike in Stockholm after the flight it wasn’t changing gears properly and just needed a service in general after four months crossing Africa. I soon arrived in the next town of Soldetalje, following Sweden’s intricate but confusing bicycle paths all the way.

In Soldetalje I found a bike shop and the mechanic said he could have it done by tomorrow. I told him that would be fine and asked if there is anywhere to camp. People don’t usually camp in or around cities but Soldetalje benefited from a large forest on a hill right in the middle of it, so he told me that should be fine. I left the bike with him, took what I needed and headed into town to buy a simcard and grab some food. I got a simcard fairly easily at a small shop and topped up 3GB of data for 100 krona (€10).

I then checked out the town and ended settling at a familiar spot, a Subway sandwich shop, where I ate and used the wifi. I realised I was still wearing my cycling shorts so decided to change in the toilets. They only had a single toilet and stupidly I forgot to lock the door, so just as I had pulled down my cycle shorts and was bending over with my ass facing the door, somebody opened it! They must have gotten a terrible shock. Needless to say, I got the hell out of there pronto before someone called the police and reported me for indecent exposure.

I decided to check out the forest on the hill, called ‘Kussens Backe’, or Cousins Hill, and discovered its quite a popular after-work running area. I wondered if I would be able to find a quiet and hidden place to camp. The South African in me couldn’t shake the feeling that if somebody saw me setting up camp they may come back later in the night and try to rob me. Looking back now I realize I was more likely to get offered some coffee and cake than get robbed!

I decided to go work a bit at another nearby restaurant and wait until after dark. Little did I realize that the sun only sets at about 11pm in Sweden at this time of year, so I had a bit of waiting to do. Eventually, around 10pm I decided the park should be empty and I headed back. My suspicions were confirmed and the park was deserted, most likely because it was now freezing cold by this time. I quickly pitched my tent in a secluded area and turned in for the night.

Day 2: Soldetalje to somewhere in the countryside

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much sleep since the sun awoke me at 3am! I suddenly realized why the Decathlon had such a large stock of black-out tents. It never gets dark in this crazy country! I tried to get back to sleep but mostly just lay down for another two hours before packing up and heading down the hill to find coffee.

Nothing was open yet so I sat outside a cafe until they opened and then I promptly left upon discovering their coffee is €3.50 a cup! I sat on some benches at a nearby cafe advertising €1 coffee and did some work while waiting for it to open. Eventually, the owner arrived, opened up and promptly shouted at me to get away, even bringing out a hose for added intimidation. Clearly, he thought I was some kind of laptop-using homeless person with all my bags.

I packed my shit quickly, flipped him the bird and then continued on towards the shop where I had left my bike to get fixed. Fortunately, I found a nice cafe on the way which did bottomless coffee for €2 and had some cheap sandwiches, so I had breakfast and worked there for a few hours until it was time to get the bike.

Unfortunately, the bike shop turned out to be a dud, and they barely did anything to my bike. All they did was replace the gear cable and realign the gears – I was expecting a full service. He even forgot to fix my right brake which I told him was loose. So that was a waste of €30! Long story short, Soldetalje is a shithole, don’t go there.

I cycled off towards a nearby store to buy some camping gear and food and then cycled out of town, happy to see the last of that place. Town quickly gave way to the countryside and I enjoyed the decent roads with a wide shoulder and minimal traffic as lakes and forests passed beside me. Eventually, I had forgotten all about Soldetalje and as the evening drew near I began looking for a camping spot. This turned out to be easier said than done.

As I turned down a side road to find a lake I suddenly got a puncture on my front tyre. It was quite strange as my Schwalbe tyres are practically bulletproof and I couldn’t find any thorn in the tyre. I did find a small split in the side, though, and fixed it quickly enough with a patch and then headed off again. Unable to find any decent lake or grassy area I settled for hiding down a dirt path in small patch of forest.

As soon as I stopped, thousands of mosquitos surrounded me and started sucking the very lifeblood out of my tired soul. Wonderful. I carried mosquito spray 5000 kilometres across Africa and barely used it, and now I need it more than ever! I quickly set up the tent, jumped inside with my stuff and managed to get it closed with only one ill-fated mosquito sneaking inside. After splattering him, I cooked some tasteless tomato pasta and got to bed.

Day 3: Random camp spot to Stavsjo

Cleverly using a thing to cover my eyes, I managed to sleep until about 6 am. I packed soon after a quick cup of coffee and headed off towards Norrkoping, my next destination where I had arranged to stay with someone from the cycle touring app Warmshowers (like Couchsurfing). The route was relatively uneventful as I cycled along back roads and through farms and fields. Towards the afternoon my left knee started to get quite sore so I slowed down and took it easy.

I reached the town of Stavsjo in the early afternoon and decided to get some lunch, rest my knee and do some work. After a few hours I tried to cycle again but my knee was still quite bad and the evening was approaching. I messaged the Warmshowers guy and said I’ll rather stop here the night and could hopefully still stay with him the following night.

Using ‘satellite’ view on Google maps, I managed to find a lovely spot next to a lake to camp for the night. Although it was on a walking track, I barely saw or heard anybody passing until late in the night when somebody ran very close by my tent but didn’t stop to bother me.

Day 4: Stavsjo to Norrkoping

Since it was only about 10km’s to Norrkoping I was in no hurry to rush off. I had a few coffees around my beautiful campsite and waited until the sun was quite high in the sky and morning cold had worn off. Eventually, I packed and headed off on a slow cycle. Along the way, I found an awesome viewpoint and took some pictures overlooking the ocean.

Arriving in Norrkoping around lunchtime, I found my host Emil’s house easily enough and met him, his wife and their toddler. After they kindly shared their lunch with me, we headed out to check out the town. Norrkoping is built upon a complex water system that was one of the oldest operating hydroelectric power stations in the country until it was recently upgraded. Lots of the old construction remains, making for a beautiful old town built around a canal system and man-made waterfalls.

I bought a few extra pieces of equipment I needed and then we headed back for dinner at theirs. Emil offered to introduce me to a Swedish sauna, which inexplicably every building in Sweden has included as default. We grabbed some cold beers and up to the stairs to his buildings roof-top sauna. The experience was actually really cool as I’m not usually a fan of public saunas, but having the whole space to ourselves to drink some beers and chat was a nice change.

This was actually my first time as a Warmshowers guest and I was amazed at how welcoming and hospitable complete strangers can be. That evening after a nice dinner, Emil and I went out to town for a few beers and chatted about football, cycling and my life growing up in Cape Town.

Day 5: An awkward day in Norrkoping

My knee was still hurting in the morning and the night before Emil had offered to let me stay another night, so I told him I would. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had expressly discussed this with his wife so I may have caused an expected exchange between them. I didn’t understand what they were saying but it seemed awkward, even though they both said it was fine. I probably should have just left then but then it may have made her feel like it was her fault, so, unsure what else to do, I just kept quiet and stayed.

We all visited a beautiful nearby lake together which they had probably planned to do alone as a family that day. Either way, everyone seemed happy enough so I just went along with it. We swam briefly in freezing cold water and then hiked a nearby mountain that is clearly very popular with rock climbers.

Feeling bad for overstaying my welcome I stupidly offered to cook everyone dinner, as if my cooking would somehow make things better. Foresight lacking, I headed out to the shops and bought some lasagna sheets, butter, CRAZY EXPENSIVE beef (€10), cheap low-alcohol beers (50c), normally priced cheese (€2) and tinned tomatoes.

Back at their apartment, I placed myself in front of the stove promising my poor hosts the best lasagne they’ve ever had. Within minutes I had burnt the butter and set off a fire alarm that automatically alerts the fire department, so they had to call and tell them it was just an idiot homeless cycle-tourist who had forgotten how kitchens work.

Crisis averted, my long-suffering hosts somehow allowed me to continue my rampage of destruction and I managed to cobble together a barely-passable form of Italian cuisine that I feel unqualified to call lasagne. They assured me it was lovely in that special way that only parents with children are able to do. Needless to say, we all got to bed early and I made my thanks/apologies and departed early the next morning.

Day 6: Norrkoping to Gamleby

I cycled southeast from Norrkoping towards Valdemarksvik, a small coastal town where I hoped to find a pub playing the Liverpool – Spurs Cup final that night. The route took me along some lovely forested lanes and a town bizarrely called Tindered where I would have stopped if they had a pub with a TV.

Arriving at Valdermarksvik by early afternoon I quickly discovered they wouldn’t be showing any football in this tiny fishing village. After some lunch and a nap in a park, I continued on to Gamelby which Google Maps promised had a bowling alley and sports bar. On arrival, however, Gamelby was a literal ghost town, with the bowling alley long-closed and dilapidated.

I realized my quest was doomed and resigned myself to following updates of the score on my phone. I found a lovely quiet little spot on the river mouth, set up camp and made dinner. I briefly attempted to fish with a fishing line and hook that Emil had kindly gifted me but without proper bait, I didn’t have any luck. I ended up eating pasta and tomato sauce again.

Day 7: Gamleby to Oskarshamn

Heading south from Gamleby I discovered a strange wooden troll outside the town of Vastervik and decided to cycle onto a small, dirt forest road to see what I could find. After about 20 kms this quickly turned into a disaster as the path degenerated into a sandy, overgrown scrub that was impossible to cycle on. Too far in to turn back, I pushed my bike for a few kms until a more cyclable terrain reappeared.

I passed a shooting range which inexplicably faced ON to the road but fortunately was empty and then managed to rejoin the main tar road. I got back on the highway and road along in the fairly decently sized shoulder until I was almost in a small town called Oskarshamn.

Once again, Google Maps’ satellite view showed me a nice, discreet bit of lakeside forest that I could reach via a side road. I cycled off down there and found a quiet spot to camp. It was quite early so I spent some time exploring the forest and watching some fishermen who actually knew what they were doing.

Day 8: Oskarshamn to Kalmar

After leaving Oskarshamn I managed to find a decent bicycle path that weaved through the forests along the main road, keeping cyclists away from traffic. Unfortunately, it was also quite difficult to follow and often just ended without notice, leaving the cyclist abandoned in a random town. At one point while I was resting a young cyclist passed by and offered me an energy bar – I must have looked tired!

I decided to stop going on adventures and just get back on the highway and head straight to Kalmar where I was meeting friends I had met in Vietnam the year before. My knee was getting really sore again but all the strange and bizarre objects along the roadside in Sweden managed to keep me distracted long enough to arrive in Kalmar safely.

I pulled into a Burger King and spent a few hours working while waiting for my friends to get home from work. Oskar and Maria are a young couple who live in a lovely 1-bed flat in Kalmar and kindly let me crash on their couch and do some washing. We also visited the amazing Kalmar castle and the nearby island of Oland, accessible by a crazy long bridge.

Cycling France, and falling in love with travel

How travel changed my life

This is the story of my first ever cycle tour in 2002. I was 19 years old and broke, but desperately wanted to see the world.

My friend Sean and I

A friend and I bought two second-hand mountain bikes for €40 each and planned to cycle from Paris to Rome. Neither of us had ever cycled further than 1 or 2 miles – to school and such.  We spent about two months working in London to save up a few hundred pounds, a large section of which went on the Eurostar ticket to Paris.

Putting a rack on the mountain bike

Day 1, Paris

Remember Mapbooks?

This was before mobile phones and GPS. Our only guidance was a map book and a compass. We got lost often, and it was awesome.  Eventually, we stopped using the map book for guidance and simply cycled into the wild.  We only looked back on it occasionally to track the route we had come.

Into the wild

Survival Food

We bought a tent, roll mats and a gas stove. In four weeks cycling we never once paid for accommodation and spent about €1 a day on food. Oats for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner.  We drank only water and black coffee, and invented some strange lunch options too, like bulk cheap croissants wrapped in budget salami.  I can still taste it…

Too much equipment!

No bike, no problem

Unfortunately, halfway to Rome, one bike was stolen while we slept on the beach in Cannes. Unable to afford a new one, we sold the other and continued on foot, hitch-hiking.  We crossed into Italy and walked for almost eight hours the first day without catching a single lift.

Sleeping outdoors on the French Riviera

After spending two nights sleeping at a truck stop and still with no luck, we asked a police officer if he could help.  He instructed us to hitch-hike on the freeway, and then promptly arrested us for doing so.  We had no money for a fine or bribe, so eventually, he let us go.

Hitching after the bike was stolen.

Penniless but free, we eventually caught a lift to Genoa, and continued from there by hopping trains to Pisa, Venice and Florence, sleeping in stations and on beaches.

Sleeping in a train station

Discover Life

That trip was the single greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It not only made me fall in love with cycling and travel, but it defined everything that I am as a person today. It imbued within me a confidence to achieve any goal I desire, to never give up, to see the beauty in the world and all the possibilities in life.

Cycle touring is not about the bike or the equipment. Travel is not about the route or the destination.

It’s about you.

Get out there and discover yourself.


 

Cycling India: Kerala

Continued from: Cycling India: Tamil Nadu

Day 8: How high can Munnar be?!

After the madness of yesterdays intense climbing, I passed out early and slept until 8 am – about 10 hours straight!  Then I had a proper big sit down breakfast for once involving some kind of Indian curry and rice rolled into a tube shape that cost about £1, which is a bit over my budget but I felt like spoiling myself.


The hotel owner explained that the “closed road” I took yesterday IS actually closed, but only just before Munnar! Guess I should have listened to it after all, as now I had to backtrack quite far. With this new information and after examining the incredibly complex route out of Munnar to the coast I decided I would get a bus from there to Kochi, otherwise, it’s going to take days and I was already behind schedule.

Bison Valley

Along the way, I realised that I had accidentally taken the key to my hotel room with me, but by that point, I was way down in the valley and there was no way I was cycling back up. Fortunately, they had my number so after about an hour they called asking about it. I offered to post it back but they told me just to leave it at a local shop and they will collect it – they were very nice and understanding about it.

I continued along some really beautiful roads flanking a river for a few kilometres and then the uphills started again. For some reason, the elevation lines on Google Maps are not accurate because it indicated a lot of downhill to Munnar but it was basically uphill all the way.  I stopped about five times for tea or coffee and about twenty times to take photos of the endless beautiful tea plantations, so by the time I got to Munnar it was already 3 pm.

Bus to Kochi

I briefly considered staying the night but it looked pretty dead except for rich French tourists, so I found a local bus that was willing to strap my bike on the roof and take me to Kochi for Rs200 (about £1.20).  The bus trip was quite nice and comfortable – they don’t have closed windows just holes you can lean out of and get a nice cooling breeze. Unfortunately, it did take about 5 hours so I only got to Kochi at 8 pm.  It also dropped me in the ass-end of nowhere miles from Kochi beach so I had to cycle 12km’s on the dark busy roads to a hostel on the beach.

I was hoping to grab a cold beer since it’s been a week since I’ve drunk anything and I’m taking the day off tomorrow, but the only places still open were super expensive hotel bars (Rs250), so I just had a coffee and called it a night. I’ll get a Rs100 beer from the wine shop tomorrow… and then, starting Wednesday, a mad race to Goa to make it for the weekend!

Cycled: 36km

Capture

 

Day 9 – Kochi Killed my Laptop

I didn’t do any cycling today just relaxed around Maritime Hostel with some of the other guests and rested my legs. Kochi has an area called Fort Kochi which is popular with tourists for some reason but in reality, there isn’t much to it. It has a quaint village feel to it which is nice but at the same time expensive compared with the rest of India. I briefly walked around exploring with an English guy looking for somewhere with decent wifi but we couldn’t find anything faster than the hostel, which was very slow.

Maritime Hostel

Strangely, on the return to the hostel, my laptop stopped working. No matter what I tried to do it wouldn’t switch on! Eventually, I decided to let it rest for a few days and went out to look for a bottle store to buy beer. Unfortunately, everything was closed due to some or other holiday, so I got some fried chicken instead to drown my sorrows and then headed back to the hostel. I was planning to meet up that evening with an Indian guy I had met on the road the previous day but he must have been busy as he didn’t end up coming, so I just wandered around the docks and beachfront on my own and bought something called a Mud Coffee, which is like a crazy chocolate ice-cream-milkshake-coffee combination thing. It was pretty awesome, to be honest.

Back at the hostel, I got chatting to an Argentinian girl who was born in Germany but now lives in Isreal. She was travelling to South East Asia, where I had recently been, and had just come from Goa, so we chatted for awhile about various travel related things before I headed off to bed.

 

India Day 10: The Kerala Coastline

I headed off about 8 am after the free hostel breakfast and cycled around the bay because the ferry wouldn’t let me take my bike on it – so that added an unnecessary 20 km’s to my trip. Then I followed some very wet and sandy roads along the beachfront for a while in an area they call the backwaters. At one point the road was literally just a beach!

I stopped for a swim around 11 am as it was already boiling hot and I was covered in sweat – it’s definitely more humid on the coast! The beaches around this area are completely deserted and very beautiful, and I can only guess they aren’t more overrun by hotels and tourists because the area must flood a lot during monsoon season.

I stopped after about 70km for lunch of some samosas and fruit for around Rs30 (33p) and then had to catch a short ferry across a river mouth that cost Rs4 (about 5p). The locals on the ferry were very interested in my bicycle and we chatted about my trip. They all found it very odd that someone would travel by bicycle when motorbikes are so cheap, which certainly feels true after 100 km’s on a loaded bike!

I had another swim about 3 pm at a small beach and then headed inland onto the main motorway so I could cover some ground before sunset. I was planning to stop at a town called Ponanni but it turned out to be really tiny and didn’t have any accommodation, so I had to continue on in the dark for two hours! I was hoping to find a quiet dark spot to camp but there were just buildings and people everywhere!  I kept seeing signs for ‘Hotels’ but when I stopped to ask about rooms it turned out they were just restaurants, not hotels. Apparently, in this part of India, a restaurant is called a ‘hotel’!?

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Finally, at about 8:30 pm I reached a town called Tirur, which looked a bit more like it might have an actual hotel, possibly even with rooms! After looking around for a bit I finally found a dirty backstreet motel near the train station with a room for Rs650 (£7). It was a bit more than I’d usually spend but I didn’t have much choice – I had already cycled 141km and I was exhausted!


I had a quick, cheap dinner at a nearby restaurant, then got some snacks and watched a bit of Netflix before crashing out for the night.


India Day 11: Kannur

I left my rubbish hotel room early and cycled north towards Goa. I stopped a few times for food and drink and to catch another ferry but mostly just pushed on through all day to a town called Kannur, which turned out to be surprisingly big and even a bit touristy. Upon arrival, I found the train station and a nearby hotel which actually had two other travellers in it – the first I’d seen since Kochi.

That evening I walked around exploring the town and looking for beer but didn’t find any. I also priced some phones because I desperately need a new one, and almost bought a Samsung J7 for 10,000 rupees but didn’t have cash at the time. I eventually ended up just getting some snacks and watching more Netflix in the hotel room before sleeping early.

(That time is obviously for a car, not bicycle)

 

India Day 12: To Goa

For some reason, I was in a hurry to get to Goa and felt that cycling these roads would just be more of the same for days, so I went to the train station and found a train that was going to the main Goa station within the hour. I checked in my bike to the parcel carriage and then bought a ticket and got some snacks for the journey.

I only had a normal ticket so was expecting to be crushed into the carriage like before, but when I got on there were quite a few seats empty. I sat in one but within a few minutes somebody told me it was their seat, so I moved to another only to be told the same. I realised I must be in the pre-booked seating carriage, so I went and sat in the passageway against a door, trying to be as out-of-the-way as possible. However, within a few minutes, a conductor came and told me I had to move. He looked at my ticket and explained I was in the wrong carriage and either had to walk right to the back of the train to the crush area, or I could pay about Rs200 extra (about £2.30) and get a seat.  I was initially annoyed to have to pay extra but on reflection, it was way better than standing again the crush area again for 6 hours, and I was actually really lucky some seats were empty as usually the trains are fully booked.

As a result, my journey was quite comfortable and for most of the journey I had an entire sleeper bed to myself (They book some of the sleeper beds out as seats so sometimes there are four people to a bed and sometimes it’s completely empty).  I put in my headphones, ate snacks and stared out the window for most of the journey.

Upon arrival in Goa, I collected my bike and headed off on the 10km ride to the only nearby hostel called River’s Edge. On the way, I saw a bottle store so stopped and bought two big 650ml beers for an amazing Rs150 (less than £2). The hostel was amazing, more like a fancy hotel – with swimming pool and all –  and not even expensive at only Rs600 a night.  The only problem is that it’s far from the main area of Goa, so the next day I would head to the coast.

I sat by the pool and enjoyed my first beer in about 2 weeks, reminiscing on the trip and looking forward to some relaxing time in Goa…

 

Outstanding Beauty in Central Sri Lanka

While the beaches and coastline are undeniably incredible, Sri Lanka also has a huge amount to offer inland – from the famous Sigiriya Rock to a multitude of national parks. Being from Africa and growing up around similar animals I wasn’t particularly interested in the wildlife parks, but my friend Anna and I did spend a week exploring Ella, Kandy and Sigiriya.


Ella Rock
Ella Rock

Getting Inland

We travelled to Ella from Hikkaduwa via a train, bus and tuk-tuk, starting with the 20 rupees (10p) train from Hikkaduwa to Matara, which is the end of the line. From there we took a short tuk-tuk to the bus station, but if you really want to save it’s a walkable 1km. There is no direct bus to Ella but we quickly found a bus to nearby Waliwaya for 120 rupees (60p) and soon we were off on a crazy 5-hour bus ride through winding mountain roads. Buses in Sri Lanka are not for the faint-hearted, but despite the speed and traffic, I think the drivers know what they’re doing and it’s relatively safe.


View from Ella Rock
View from Ella Rock

At Weliwaya we had the option to wait an hour for another cheap bus that then takes a further 2.5 hours to Ella, but instead opted for a much faster 2000 rupee (£10) tuk-tuk as we had had enough of buses for the day. If you really want to save money you could do the entire trip for about £1.


Ella

Ella is a small but surprisingly beautiful mountain village that’s very popular with travellers. Despite being very small it has quite a few bars, coffee shops and western restaurants. It has many cheap guesthouses and few hostels, including the centrally-located Hangover Hostel, and Tomorrowland – which is a bit out of town but is a popular party hostel with an alternative hippy/trance vibe to it and some communal mattresses to crash on if you stay too late.


Walking the tracks
Walking the tracks

On our first day, we headed off on a walk along the train tracks to Ella Rock. This I can’t recommend highly enough! The trains only run very seldom so it’s fairly safe and if one did come we knew we would hear it with more than enough time to avoid it.  With each corner that we took, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the stunning Ella Valley. After crossing a rickety iron bridge, we eventually reached a big Boa tree and a small tea hut where we had been instructed to take a left turn off the tracks and follow a small path to a beautiful waterfall.

After the waterfall, there is an option to continue up to Ella Rock viewpoint, but we were told not to accept an offer of a guide from one of the locals, or they will try stiff you for 1000 rupees at the end of it!  Sure enough, a local emerged from the forest and offered to show us the way.  When I said I had no money, he quickly disappeared again.  We didn’t go all the way to the top but managed to find a nice place to relax and watch the steam train chugging along across the valley.


26229469_10159958891990220_8884308501645148706_nNine Arches Bridge

After that we went back to the station and caught the 3:15 pm train to Demodera which crosses the famous Nine Arches Bridge – I would suggest doing this rather than going to the bridge on foot as most people do (or possibly do both if you have time). It’s a really beautiful bridge with great photo opportunities and it gives that extra special feeling to be on the train. On the way back we stopped at a really cool bar called One Love and had a few beers with a nice couple from India and Switzerland, while listening to psy-trance and building a small bonfire.


Kandy

Kandy was up next and I would suggest going there just for the beautiful train ride alone because Kandy itself is actually a big, noisy city and neither of us enjoyed it much. The train is only about 100 rupees and takes about 5 hours but is a never-ending stream of beautiful mountainous scenery the entire way. We spent a night in Kandy and had a fairly nice time at the Victoria hotel bar chatting to a group of Danish travellers, but from my impression, Kandy is mostly over-priced and there is very little to see or do. We decided to skip the popular botanical gardens, which is fortunate because a friend of mine said it’s not really worthwhile.


Dambulla

We headed north to Dambulla first thing in the morning on a local bus that was a few rupees and took about two hours. It’s also quite a nice drive except for the incessant hooting, so when travelling by bus always bring some in-ear headphones to block it out with music.

At the pool
Anna by the pool at Rangiri Dambulla Resort

Anna had decided she wanted to splash out on a fancy place with a pool for one night, so we stayed in Rangiri Dambulla Resort which is just outside of town and close to the Dambulla Cave Temple. It has some proper glamping tent accomodation with air-con and satellite TV, but unfortunately doesn’t have an alcohol licence. Luckily they can organise delivery from the town wine store at a decent price.

Rangiri tent
Rangiri Dambulla Resort ‘glamping’ tents

That evening we went to the cave temple, which turned out to be 1500 rupee entrance! Between us, we didn’t even have enough for one person but luckily they took pity on us and let us both in anyway. I’m glad because if I’m honest I don’t think it’s worth that much – if you’ve never been to a buddhist cave temple before it might be interesting, but the one’s I saw in Thailand and Vietnam are a bit better and cheaper. Afterwards, a nice Dutch guy who had rented a tuk-tuk gave us a free lift to town so we could draw more cash, and then we grabbed dinner at a place in Dambulla called Mango which does great fried chicken!

Sigiriya

Sigiriya was our next port of call and is home to arguably Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attraction, the ancient Sigiriya Rock fortress, which dates back thousands of years. It’s very impressive but for $25 entrance and a huge queue of people to climb up it, we decided against going in. Fortunately, there is a much cheaper rock nearby called Pidurangala which has just as good views and is only 500 rupees, but is fairly difficult to climb – the last bit requires a certain amount of fitness and bouldering skills!

View of Sigiriya

We hired bicycles the next day for 300 rupees (£1.50) and cycled into the wilderness around Sigiriya, along beautiful dirt roads and pathways that winded off in various directions and got smaller and smaller until they were just single tracks going through thick jungle with no people or buildings in sight. We eventually reached a stunning lake with a view of Sigiriya and Pidurangala rocks in the distance, reflecting off the still water with an eerie dead tree in the middle populated by white long-necked storks. On the way back we were stopped by three local girls, the youngest of which offered Anna a small bouquet of flowers she had picked from the surrounding nature. 26804600_10159966079535220_4402602553823377998_n

We almost felt bad accepting them with nothing to offer in return, but I think they had picked them especially for us as a gift because they had seen us come past and knew we would have to return that way. We finished off the day relaxing by the pool at our accommodation, Flower Garden Eco Village, and drinking our own cocktail invention the “Pinacolanka” – local coconut rum (Arrack) with fresh pineapple juice.


If you are visiting Sri Lanka I highly suggest not missing out on Ella and Sigiriya – they were definitely in my top 3 favourite things of the country, and even if you only have a week you’ll have enough time to see them and get a bit of beach time. From Colombo, there are buses direct to Sigiriya and trains to Kandy, where you can change and go to Ella by train or Sigiriya by bus.

Read more on Sri Lanka:  Sri Lankan South Coast

 

Vang Vieng

Arrival

I quickly located my hostel, Real Vang Vieng Backpackers Hostel 2 (lol, what a ridiculous name), and checked in.  As soon as I had dropped off my bag I heard the unmistakeable Scottish accent of Alex drunkenly shouting nearby in the bathrooms.  I quickly found him and Conor and we all headed out to the nearby Milan pizza place that has a rather interesting menu.  We proceeded to get fairly wasted there and at the Rasta bar across the road, and then ended up another place called Viva Bar that does free drinks from 10-11pm.  I can’t remember but I think we were there until quite late.


In the morning I managed to awake in time for free breakfast and then signed up to go tubing with some other people from the slowboat.  I bought a waterproof phone wallet to keep my phone and money dry in, then relaxed at the hostel until time for tubing.  They took us up the river to the starting point in a tuk-tuk and then we proceeded to float down to the first bar, which rather stupidly is only about 10 meters away.  After having some free very watered down shots of cheap whiskey some of us played volleyball for a bit .
The weather was crap and there didn’t seem to be much of a vibe but we had a few drinks anyway and watched some people play beer pong with the staff.  Then we all jumped back in our tubes and floated off again.  Along the edge of the riverbank is the remnants of old bars and various slides and ziplines that were taken down in 2012 after a string of deaths on the river.  It gives the whole place a kind of sad, abandoned feel and as much as I tried to have fun to be honest the whole tubing experience was fairly rubbish.
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The volleyball at the first bar and basketball that we played at the next bar were about the only fun things.  You could tell everyone else felt the same, as they just sat around drinking boredly and waiting to get back in the tubes so we could finish.  I fell asleep in the tube for a bit after the second bar and when I awoke the sun was setting and it was cold.  We hadn’t reached the end yet but the river was flowing slowly and it was late so we all climbed out and got a tuk-tuk back.

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After that we spent the rest of the day chilling in hammocks on the riverside which was really nice and relaxing.  I swam, had a few beers and wrote quite a lot of my blog. In the evening we got chatting to some crazy Australian guys and ended up going out with them to the pizza place, again!  They told us a hilarious story about these Koreans they met in Sakura bar, where they were the previous night. The Koreans taught them some rude slur that translates to ‘Your mothers c*nt’ or something like that, so they got up and starting shouting it until they had the whole bar chanting it along to the music, much to the shock of the Koreans.
So after some food and drinks we moved on to Sakura, where you can pay £5 and drink all night.  I remember very little after arriving, but I somehow woke up in bed with a Sakura vest on and covered in crisps.

Work

Apparently I had applied for it while drunk?  Anyway I stupidly accepted because I thought it might be a fun experience and if nothing else save me some money.  It was from 7pm-3am and included free food and board, and $10 a day pay (a fair amount of money in Laos).  At first it sounded like a good idea but in the end I kinda regretted it because I just ended spending too much time in Vang Vieng.  It was a good experience though and I ended up getting an insight into how business works in Laos, which is to say it doesn’t work since they ended up not paying me.  I still got free food and board though.
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Since I only had to work at 7pm that day and had nothing else to do I hired a bicycle and cycled to the Blue Lagoon, a popular tourist attraction in Vang Vieng.  There are actually three “Blue Lagoons” but the 2nd and 3rd one are far away so I just went to the first one. It was really nice being on a bike again and the road to the blue lagoon is beautiful – completely rural dirt road through local villages and incredible scenery.  Once there I paid the 10,000 kip entrance, locked up my bike and went in.
Essentially it’s just a riverside area with some wooden shade areas, a restaurant and a river with a rope swing and tree with a platform to jump off.  Unfortunately there was nowhere to leave my phone and wallet and I was on my own, but I asked some people who were sitting on the riverside if I could leave my stuff with them while I had a quick swim.  Then I got a beer and some fried rice, sat in the sun and spoke to some Swedish girls for a bit.  After they left I got speaking to a group of Americans on a package tour but they seemed boring so I went to bum a smoke off an old looking guy nearby.
Turns out he was South African, from George – a town near Cape Town.  I ended up having a very long conversation with him about his life which was incredible – he had lived in Tanzania and run a few businesses there and a hotel, and was now living in Cambodia and doing some ‘business’ there.  He was in his 60’s, been married twice, had two kids and was now just living and travelling in South East Asia on a motorbike.  I think I saw a bit of my future in him, minus the kids and wives.

As the sun set I had to head back for work, so I said goodbye and cycled back to town.


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I had a quick shower and food and then started my first shift.  It was obviously very simple and I liked how basic they ran things.  Just a cardboard box for the money, and a book that they wrote the bookings, names and room numbers in.  It was pretty boring work but it afforded me good time to write and compile the second part of my blog.
Nothing particularly interesting happened the first night, but it turned out he had kind of lied about the hours. Although he said I only had to work until 3am, he actually wanted me to sleep in the reception of the hostel until 6:30am when the morning person came in.  I agreed when he first told me because it seemed pointless arguing, but as soon as 3am came I realised this was a mistake.  It was impossible to sleep on the hard bench in reception and all these drunk young Americans kept coming and going and waking me up.
Eventually the morning person showed up so I went to bed and tried to get a few hours sleep, but being that I was in a 8 bed hostel this didn’t work so well either.

Meeting The Irish

Needless to say the next day I was feeling rough and not very happy with life, so I went on a walk away from town looking for something chilled and relaxing to do.  Right at the far end of a small road that ran along the river I found a hostel called Easy Go and by some serendipitous luck bumped into a group of awesome Irish guys (well, one was actually English but we’ll call them the Irish guys from here on for simplicity).  They had been biking through Vietnam and had come into Laos for a visa run.
I ended up spending the afternoon with them and some of their friends down at Smile Bar, just chilling in hammocks and drinking until I had to head back to work at 7pm.
When I got to work I told Tom, the hostel owner, that I couldn’t work until 6:30am again and I that we had agreed 3am so if he wants me to work I have to go sleep at 3am.  He told me that’s fine, I must just lock everything up and turn the lights off, but leave the door open so people can come and go.
That evening was also fairly uneventful, except for some guy who was tripping on shrooms and his friends kept asking to change the temperature in the room, and a Brazilian girl who was crying because she lost her phone.  I let her use my laptop to check her Facebook and she left it logged in so I added myself as a friend, and then wrote a rude post about people crying over lost phones.  I locked up and went home at 3am and luckily got to sleep quite quickly as I was exhausted.

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In the morning I met the Irish guys again and we had some breakfast and chatted about their motorbike trip.  They told me about their plans to go back into Vietnam and bike down to Ho Chi Min City, and since I showed interest they invited me to join.  I had only ridden a motorbike briefly for about an hour when I was 19, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard so I agreed to join them.
I went with two of them to book rock climbing the next day and then we had a few drinks at Gary’s Irish pub and played ‘killer’ pool.
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Holly and Ali from the Pai crew messaged to say they had just arrived in town, so I went to meet them and we had some drinks and watched the sunset at Smile Bar before I had to go work again.
The job was getting boring and I didn’t really need the money so I told Tom I could only do one more night after this.  I was also feeling quite sick and think staying up late in the cold reception area wasn’t helping.  By 2am that night everything was very quiet so I locked up and went to sleep so I could be up early for rock climbing.  After I went to sleep I heard some people playing pool, which you’re not supposed to after midnight, but I couldn’t be bothered to go tell them to stop.
The next morning the other women working there scolded me for not putting the lights off.  I told her I did but I guess the assholes playing pool must have put them back on and left them on. Bloody kids.

Blue Lagoon

I hurried over to the climbing place and waited but the Irish guys never showed, so I told the guy running it to hang on to my deposit as I might come back at lunch to do a half day.  I walked over to where Ali and Holly were staying and chatted with them a bit.  By mid day I still hadn’t heard anything so I decided to go with Ali and Holly to the Blue Lagoon.
They got a scooter and I decided it would be a good idea to hire a motorbike and learn how to ride. Fortunately there was a really old clapped out bike for rent literally right next to their bungalow, and it was only £4 for the day.  It took a bit of getting used to the gears and kick starting it, but after about half an hour I had it figured out.  Along the way it stalled a few times but we made it eventually.
After having a swim to cool down, we chilled in a funky little wooden hut-like shade thing and had some food and beer. Then we did some jumps and flips off the rickety wooden tree platform thing that was about 5 metres high and went to explore a nearby cave.  There are loads of caves in the area and they go really deep into the mountains, but they aren’t spoilt with lights and safety barriers like other popular tourists caves I had been to.  They are just empty, natural caves so you have to have your own light and if you get lost inside you’re on your own.  We didn’t have lights though other than our phones, so we just explored the entrance bit and the first cavern which is lit by natural sunlight through a hole in the roof. It had a cool Buddha shrine in the middle of the first cavern but other than that was fairly boring.
Then we drove back and I quickly dropped off the bike before heading to work.  On the way I bumped into the Irish lads and they explained they had not been able to find the climbing place in the morning so had just ended up going in the afternoon.  It was a pity as I’d liked to have joined them but I wasn’t too bothered about climbing so decided I’ll get my deposit back the next day.  That night at work there was a new English guy working with me who was going to take my position when I leave. We chatted a bit but I was still feeling sick so I mostly just wrote and sat on the internet.

Easy Go Hostel

The next day I packed up and left Real Backpackers.  I asked the owner for my money for 16730361_10158351878480220_9033012241937063942_nthe four days I had worked but he said I only get paid if I work the whole month, which was bullshit obviously but what can you do.  It’s not like I had a contract, and I was a foreigner.
So I left Real Backpackers, got my climbing deposit back luckily and went to check into Easy Go Hostel.  I met up with Ali, Holly and another girl Benny who works for Viva Bar.  We all went to get some food, a joint at Jaidee’s Bar and then went and chilled the rest of the day in the floating tubes at Island Bar.
Towards evening Benny had to go to work and me and Ali wanted to go to the Jungle Party.  Holly wasn’t keen though so she headed back to chill at her bungalow and me and Ali went to the Rasta Bar first to get energy for the Jungle Party and then got the free tuk-tuk from the pizza place to the Jungle Party.
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The Jungle Party was pretty awesome, I was quite wasted already when we arrived and was chatting to loads of people. They did a fire limbo which I attempted but failed quite badly at.  I’ve really got quite unfit on this trip.  Towards 1 or 2am a girl asked if I wanted to get a balloon, but then expected me to pay when we got them. I was like, no you offered, you gotta pay.  We had a bit of banter but she ended up buying them, but ofcourse I bought her another one later.  We danced and flirted for the next hour or so and shared a few drinks and cigarettes. At some point I lost Ali and he headed home on his own.
I had a feeling this girl was quite young so I asked her and she said she was only 21, which was a bit of a bummer cos that’s even below my threshold.  We shared a kiss anyway and she paid for my tuk-tuk home because I was out of money.  Then we kissed a bit more before she had to go into her hostel, and I can’t remember if we made plans to meet again or not but it’s probably for the best that I forgot.

New Crew

I had also met a cool crew of two American guys, a Canadian and a German girl the night before who were sharing my dorm.  The next morning we all made plans to go tubing together.  I had already done it twice but hey, they seemed like a fun group to go with. A kiwi guy from our dorm checked out that morning and left us a bottle of whiskey and a bag of rice, so me and Kendall, the one American, drank the bottle of whiskey for breakfast.  Ali and Holly joined us and the seven of us all went to rent tubes and get a tuk-tuk to the river.  I was so wasted before we even got to the first bar I barely remember anything.  I do vaguely remember playing the most ridiculous game of beer pong where we were literally just throwing ping-pong balls at each other and randomly drinking.  At one point I gave Kendall a ball and said ‘You either mexi-can or mexi-can’t” – meaning for him to try get a ball in, and because earlier I had given him my yellow cap and when he put it on he looked just like a Mexican.  It was funny. You had to be there.
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Anyway I assume at some point we floated to the next bar which is where shit really got messy.  I was proper wasted and was shouting at Ali who was dancing to take his pants off, and then broke my thumb trying to pull them down.  Then I bought some food and went to drown my sorrows on my own at a little picnic table in the river.  After eating I fell asleep in my tube floating in the river but got stuck on some rocks.  Eventually the others came down and pushed me off so I just floated down the river sleeping.
I must have woken at some point as it was getting cold.  Some girls were floating nearby and I told them we should get out as it gets really cold down the river.  We all got out and arranged to get a tuk-tuk together.  I was obviously trying to pick one or both of them up but I’m sure I was too drunk to even talk, but I walked them back to their hostel anyway and made plans to meet later.
That never happened as I fell asleep as soon as I got back to the hostel.  I also realised I had left my flip-flops and shirt at the bar on the river, so after my nap I went out barefoot to Viva bar with some people, but I can’t even remember who.  All I remember is waking up at 3am asleep on the sofa in the hostel, with very dirty feet and a slight hangover.

The next day we all decided to go get breakfast and then hire scooters to go to Blue Lagoon 3, which was apparently the better Blue Lagoon and quite far away.  I bought some £2 flip-flops and then we hired some scooters for £6 and headed off across the rickety wooden bridge and towards the lagoons.  For some reason we ended up going around the long way and took about an hour driving through tiny villages and awesome scenery.  Me, Ali and Holly were going a bit slower so we lost the others, and then realised we had passed it so turned and went back.
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Eventually we found it thanks to Holly looking for directions on her phone.  Unfortunately the lagoon is actually just a man made pool with some zip-lines and a rope swing, and is built right up next to a mountain that blocks out the sun in the afternoon.  I don’t really know why people say it’s better.  Anyway, I got a beer and then we wandered along a path into the jungle and found Kendall and Verena near a cave mouth.  It had a very small entrance and Holly is claustrophobic so her and Ali stayed behind while me, Kendall and Verena ventured in with only our phones for lights.
The cave went really deep and soon got pitch black, with tiny holes you need to sneak through to get to the next caverns.  They had built some very dodgy looking wooden ladders to get up and down and we precariously navigated these in the pitch black.  I put on a brave face in front of Kendall and Verena but I won’t lie, I was shitting myself the entire time.  For a start we weren’t really keeping track of where we going so could have easily gotten lost, plus there was no phone reception ofcourse and Verena’s battery was dying on her phone.  Luckily we managed to find the way out after getting slightly lost for a bit, and I’ve never been so happy to see sunlight and breathe fresh air.
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We went swimming for a bit after that as we were covered in sweat and dirt from the humidity in the cave, and did the rope swing and zipline a few times before heading home.  On the drive back we saw quite a bad scooter accident but it didn’t look like anyone was seriously hurt, even though the scooter was in bits.  That evening I went to Sakura bar again with Verena and Shenaz and then to Viva again, but we didn’t stay late.  I could tell I was done with Vang Vieng.  I’ve had a lot of fun here because of the people I’ve hung out with, but essentially Vang Vieng is a shit hole and I wouldn’t bother going if I were you.

Vientiane

The next morning I woke up with a strong resolve to get back on the road.  Kendall wanted to stay another night and I think he was a bit disappointed because I had said I would too so we could hitch hike together with Gus to Don Det, but I just couldn’t do another day in Vang Vieng. I was thinking of hitching but I was hot and tired and the bus to Vientiane was only £5 so decided to take that.  Verena, and Gus also decided to leave so we all got the four hour bus together. In Vientiane Gus left to get a sleeper bus to Don Det and Verena met up with some other people and got a hostel with them, so I headed off to find the Irish guys who were staying at a hostel nearby, with a German girl Sammy who had joined them.

I found them and checked in and then we all went to get food together at a really good Indian place nearby, and then went to play ‘killer’ pool at a hostel nearby.  By midnight the others were drunk and headed home but me and Craig wanted to party so we went to this club nearby that the hostel told us about.
It turned out be a huge super club with massive sound system, lights and thousands of people.  We bumped into two Irish girls who I had met in Vang Vieng and flirted with them all night, but just as it was time to leave they both jumped on a scooter with some pro-footballer to go with him to an ‘after-party’.  I’m pretty sure the ‘after-party’ was his hotel room.  Anyway it was 4am and we were wasted so I got a tuk-tuk back and Craig wandered off to find god-knows-what.

16865078_10158374667280220_2343736100689780706_nThe next day I got a lift with them on their bikes to the bus station so we could all get a sleeper bus to Da Nang in Vietnam.  They had decided to rather try get their bikes on a bus because they had come on the road in to Vientiane and said it’s terrible.  We haggled for a bit and eventually got them to take all 3 bikes for $200 and about $30 each per person.
We had a few hours to hang about until the bus so we went for a very weird lunch in a strange place with huge soups, I took a picture on a tiny pink bike, and then got down to the job of dismantling the bikes to put on the bus.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to help so I sat on the curb in the bus station and wrote my blog and drank beer.  Then me, Craig and Dave walked about half a mile to find an ATM as we all had no money to buy snacks for the trip, and luckily we managed to hitch hike back.  16681619_10158374667265220_6655118628413821313_n
Eventually it was time to go so we got some supplies and found some spots at the back of the bus where there was 5 beds next to each other to make one huge bed.  We settled in and started drinking and listening to music and generally causing chaos.
I wanted to sleep so I took a Zanax and passed out pretty quickly, not knowing that we were gonna stop in 3 hours for dinner.  Apparently I got out and ate dinner with everyone but I have zero memory of doing so, and they said I fell asleep with my eyes open. Next thing I remember is waking up at 3am and moving to another bed as I was passed out next to Dave and Sammy.

16997890_10155841426367564_8839966731476434505_nSleeper Bus

At about 6am we were all woken up to get off the bus and go through customs, but most of the others had only just fallen asleep and were a mixture of very tired and feeling the effects of sleeping pills, so as you can imagine going through customs was rather interesting.
Protocol required that we all disembark the bus a few hundred metres from the Vietnam border and then walk through this elaborate gateway to where the visa formalities are dealt with.  This hundred metre or so walk took us about an hour, and involved numerous stops and a few extra-strength South East Asian red bulls.  I had already organised my Visa in Luang Prabang, so I was sorted and had my stamp in about 10 minutes.
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The others unfortunately had a number of issues involving the bikes and incorrect Visa approval letters, one of which only approved a visa if flying into Hanoi airport.  Couple this with extreme tiredness, a general inability to write or talk and an extreme language barrier, and you can imagine a rather hilarious experience that took about 3 hours to complete.
Fortunately in the end the right amount of money and bullshit insured we all got through, and to their credit the poor bus drivers and other passengers actually waited for us.  Luckily there was a shop in the border gate selling beer so I had something to do while I waited.  And then we all boarded the bus again and drove into Vietnam…. which is when shit gets real…. stay tuned!