New Orleans

I’m in love!

I don’t know what else to say. New Orleans is my new favourite place in the States.

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Although I wrote that after a few drinks and a busy day, it’s still true (apart from Bolinas of course, which will always hold a special place in my heart).

Waking up with a slight hangover after our first full day in New Orleans made me very grateful that breakfast was included at our hotel. I went down for breakfast as my best friend E was feeling more worse for wear than me, and brought her back a plate after I’d enjoyed my toasted bagel with cream cheese. Then it was back to bed for a little more recovering from the previous day’s escapades.

Every day so far has felt like a holiday. I know, I know, I am on holiday, but this place really puts you in the party spirit – whether that means fruity cocktails, delicious food, extravagant shopping, wandering the streets, meandering through various boutique stores, admiring the architecture, chilling out overlooking the river or a combination of everything. I swear I will have put on about 20kg by the time I get back to China!

What started out as a chill day on Monday ended up being just about as exciting as the first day (which I just realised I have yet to tell you about).

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So to go back to the beginning!

After arriving late Saturday evening and eventually finding each other in the airport, our first full day in New Orleans was on Sunday. We had a pretty good breakfast of toasted bagels with cream cheese at The Whitney Hotel where we’re staying. It’s in a great location on the corner of Poydras and Camp streets, only a few minutes’ walk from Canal Street and the French Quarter and the next street over from St Charles Avenue, which is one of the main parade routes. If you’re coming here for Mardi Gras make sure you book as far in advance as possible. I booked several months ago, as soon as I knew my holiday dates but before I booked my flights, just to make sure I got a hotel in the best location for the most reasonable price.

The French Quarter was our first port of call after breakfast where we had a good wander around looking at the stunning architecture and boutique shops. Lunch was at Bubba Gump Shrimp, accompanied by a Georgia peach iced tea cocktail each to celebrate the start of our holiday.

We then went to meet J, a friend of mine who I’d met last time I was in the States 4 years ago. She’s actually a good friend of my Aunt C who lives in California and I’ll be visiting in the third week of this holiday. The wonders of Facebook have meant that we’ve stayed (vaguely) in touch, so I sent her a message to ask about meeting up a couple of days before we arrived. I’m so glad I did! It made such a difference being shown around New Orleans by someone who lived here for 17 years (she doesn’t live here anymore but was back visiting for Mardi Gras). One gay bit of travel advice: always get a local to show you around if you can. It can make it break a trip and gives you a completely different view of the place from that of a tourist.

J showed us around various places and introduced us to various people in the French Quarter and Bywater, including a nice little bar with an art gallery attached to it, a street artist who wrote me a poem on the spot, and her hosts in NOLA, Z and C.

We spent a while with J, Z and C at their huge house, drinking wine, eating goat’s cheese and crackers and chatting about all kinds of things. They are really lovely people, and apart from welcoming us into their home, feeding us and giving us alcohol, they also furnished us with costumes to wear in one of the Mardi Gras parades and invited us to join them! Of course we said yes. It’s one thing to watch parades, it’s quite another to be in one! Needless to say we were both quite excited.

Around 8pm ish C gave us a lift to Frenchmen Street on the edge of the French Quarter so we could walk back to our hotel easily from there. This meant walking back along either Bourbon Street or Royal where – of course – we passed several bars and decided to pop into one for a couple of drinks and a bit of a dance, which was great fun and a perfect end to our first day in New Orleans.

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As I was saying earlier in this post, what started out as a chill day on Monday ended up being just about as exciting as the first day. I ended up going for breakfast by myself as E was still sleeping, which was fine as I read my book (Carol by …, in case you’re wondering), and I brought up a few breakfast bits for E when I was done. After going back to bed for a bit (We were both tired after the long day the day before, plus all the travelling to get to NOLA), we took a walk down to the Mississippi River. On the way we popped into an art gallery with some gorgeous photos and other random pieces of art, then had lunch (tater tot poutine for me) at a World of Beer, just because it was on the way and had veggie options.

When we got to the Riverwalk Outlet Mall there was a small stage set up with a band playing for Lundi Gras (which I didn’t even know was a thing until I got here). After a quick stop in the mall we then headed back to the French Quarter along the river, and on the way found the Coyote Ugly Saloon bar. Of course, we had to stop in for a drink, and somehow I ended up doing a catwalk through the bar with Harlequinn’s cape on, along with a few other customers with various fancy dress items! Brilliant, and I definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

We spent the rest of the day looking around the French Market (where they were starting to pack up so we couldn’t have the crepes we wanted but had sangria instead), going for dinner at Pere Antoine, then walking back to Canal Street where we found the Krewe of Orpheus parade happening. We hadn’t realised how long the parades go on for and thought we’d missed them all for the day, so it was a nice surprise to come across this one. The floats were amazing! So much detail had gone into the decoration and costumes of people riding on them. And this is where we collected our first beads! Every float had people throwing beads, balls and various Mardi Gras-themed items into the crowd watching the procession. We ended up with loads of beads of all different colours and sizes. Even though everyone around us also had lots, there was a huge amount of beads (and rubbish) left on the ground once the parade finished. The parade was fantastic to watch; I’m so glad we saw it and it was a great end to the day.

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Tuesday was Mardi Gras! It was such a fantastic day. The whole city basically had a party! Everyone dressed up and some of the costumes were amazing; so much time and effort had obviously gone into them.

Unfortunately we missed meeting up with J in the morning because of traffic, but luckily Z spotted us a little later and then we found their house again where we said hi to C and tried King Cake for the first time (delicious). Our first drinks were bought for us by a lovely lady i was chatting to at the bar, as it was our first Mardi Gras – so kind!

We had a few more drinks (red wine and frangelico) with Z and C and their friends, and hung out with them for a bit meeting other people and watching the rest of the St Ann’s parade go by. Z and C invited us to walk with them as part of the parade to the French Quarter, which was so much fun. When we got there, there was a huge street party unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. And there was none of the aggression or violence you might get in other places at such an event. Everyone was so friendly and chilled out.

Around 3pm we decided it would be a good idea to go for lunch, so we said our goodbyes to Z and C and headed off to find the crepes in the French Market, which were very tasty. After a bit more exploring of the city we headed back to the hotel for a short rest and a change of clothes before heading out again about 6.30pm for dinner, drinks and a dance. We tried a few places for food but all of them either had too long a wait or very little in the way of veggie options, so we went back to the French quarter once more where we spotted the Hard Rock Cafe and decided this would be the best option as everywhere was so busy. They at least had veggie burgers! I have to say, I was quite disappointed with the lack of vegetarian options in the restaurants here, unless they were specifically veggie or vegan places.

After dinner we walked through the French quarter along Bourbon Street which was so busy! It reminded me of Lan Kwai Fong (the main area that people go out to bars and clubs in Hong Kong), only worse! After escaping to a slightly quieter street we found a club to have a dance for a while before calling it a night and walking back to our hotel.

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Wednesday was our last full day in New Orleans, and the city was much quieter. We began the day with a lie in as neither of us wanted breakfast then walked to Seed vegan restaurant for lunch, where I had an eggplant poboy (nice filling but the bread was stale) and E had a tofu poboy (which she loved). Lafayette Cemetery wasn’t far from the restaurant, so we went and looked round for a while. It’s interesting because everyone there is buried above ground due to the high water level, so there’s no regular graves just tombs. After a brief stop for coffee/frozen lemonade we got the street car along St Charles Avenue back to the French Quarter. We wandered round lots of shops along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and E bought a few bits; while she was in one shop I was given giant beads for taking a photo of a horse and carriage. Random! I then sat in the Market Cafe and had a glass of wine while E went on a hunt for t-shirts and gifts for her family as I’m doing my ‘No Shopping Challenge’.

A short walk brought us to Carmo for dinner – a restaurant that specialised in vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as having a few for the meat-eaters. The service was really bad and our main meals took an hour but when I spoke to the manager he gave us the whole meal for free, plus desserts! A pretty good ending to another great day in New Orleans.

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Today is Thursday, and we left NOLA on a 10am flight. So now it’s goodbye New Orleans, hello Miami (for a day)!

Thailand for Christmas & New Year 2015

I went to Thailand for Christmas & New Year with my sister, who flew over from England. It was a brilliant holiday, equal parts exploring, adventure, relaxing and chilling out.

I arrived in Bangkok a day before my sister and did a bit of exploring as well as going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens as my sister hasn’t seen the other films and has no interest in seeing this one! In the process I found a free Star Wars exhibition, which was pretty cool.

Once my sister arrived we had a busy couple of days in Bangkok seeing the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Wat Po, the 45 foot tall Buddha, the reclining Buddha, Patpong night market, going on a cruise down the river, eating lots of delicious food, wandering along Khao San Road and generally exploring.

We also watched a little of a ping pong show and almost got ripped off for a lot of money. Luckily, I’ve lived in and travelled round Asia for over five years now and I’m not about to let myself be taken advantage of. We were approached by one of the many people walking around Patpong night market with a ‘menu’ showing what we could expect to see at the show. We were told that there was no cover charge, we just had to buy a drink. Upon being given a menu with no prices, we checked this again and were told that we just had to pay 100 baht (about £2) each for the soft drinks we ordered. The ‘show’ consisted of four ladies on a stage in the centre of the room, who took turns in displaying their ‘talents’ – blowing out candles on a fake cake, shooting gherkins across the room, ‘smoking’ two cigarettes and shooting ping pong balls across the room to be batted back by customers. In between these performances the ladies just stood on the stage and kind of swayed next to the poles, or ‘entertained’ the male customers. To be honest they all looked quite bored and unimpressed with the whole situation, and both myself and my sister found the whole show slow and slightly disturbing. Needless to say, we decided to leave as soon as we’d finished our drinks. We got our 200 baht ready to pay and went to the counter, only to be given a bill for over 8000 baht (£160)!

I immediately said to the staff that we were told there was no cover charge and drinks were only 100 baht each. The woman who was apparently in charge started making fun of me saying ‘We were told, we were told.’ At which I gave her the 200 baht, grabbed my sister’s hand and walked out. they let us leave, knowing that they were in the wrong for trying to scam us ‘stupid foreigners’.

If you decide to check out one of these shows, don’t let yourself get taken advantage of!

After the excitement of Bangkok my sister and I headed to Koh Samui for a bit of chill out and relaxation time. Koh Samui is lovely; lots of things to do and see such as tours of the island, Big Buddha, ziplining, ladyboy cabaret shows, elephant rides, and coconut farms; plus plenty of gorgeous beaches, massages and delicious food to help you relax.

We also enjoyed a delicious Christmas buffet dinner at the Anantara Bophut Hotel, whilst being serenaded by a fantastic singer from Estonia.

We ended our trip at the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan – an amazing end to a fantastic holiday.

Read my guide to the Koh Phangan Full Moon Party here!

Phnom Penh and The Killing Fields

Phnom Penh was emotional.  It covered the scars of the past well, with new buildings, friendly people and beautiful views.  But the pain was always just below the surface.

The first evening myself and my two friends spent in Phnom Penh was lovely.  We wandered down to the Mekong River, only a ten minute walk from where we were staying behind the Royal Palace, to find some food (mango shrimp stir-fry with butterfly-shaped rice) before taking a stroll along the riverfront and a look around the night market.  The atmosphere was calm, relaxed and happy.  People were selling various food products on little stalls and out of baskets; children were playing; a group of people were dancing.  To end the evening we had a cocktail at a rooftop bar overlooking the river; so many stairs to climb to get there, but the view was worth it.

Before visiting Cheoung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I had no idea the extent of the atrocities that had taken place in Cambodia.  I’d heard of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the Killing Fields of course, but I had only a vague inclination as to what had happened.  We spent about three hours at the Killing Fields, listening to and following the audio tour, as told by a survivor. It was so emotional, moving, heart-wrenching, to be there, listening to his words, seeing the remains, the place all that horror happened.  We followed this with an hour’s visit to Tuol Sleng, by the end of which I couldn’t face seeing any more information or photos of the horrific things that happened or the people who carried out those acts.

For those that don’t know, Tuol Sleng was a school that was turned into prison S21 during the Pol Pot regime where ‘enemies’ of the Khmer Rouge were tortured before being taken to Cheoung Ek to be executed.  Around 14,000 people were held there during this time, of which only 12 people survived.  129 mass graves were discovered at Cheoung Ek, with almost 9000 bodies being found in the 86 graves that have been excavated, including soldiers, teachers, farmers, women and children, to name a few. Cheoung Ek is only one of around 300 killing fields across Cambodia. Nearly two million people, mostly Cambodians, were killed in the three years, eight months and 20 days of the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Cheoung Ek is now a memorial and site of remembrance, where they hope that as many people as possible learn about this great atrocity to try and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Click here or here for more information about the history of the Khmer Rouge.  The trial of two of the top ranking leaders of the Khmer Rouge began in October 2014 – you can read more about that here.  Pol Pot himself died in his sleep aged 73 while under house arrest in 1998.  He never went to trial for his crimes.

After a late lunch, we had a quick look around the Russian Market before heading back to our hotel.  There we ended up in an argument with the tour organiser as he had forgotten to book our bus tickets to Siem Reap and now they were sold out for the day and time we wanted.  He eventually managed to find a bus at the right time and on the right day, but only after we kept pestering him to phone other places and get us the tickets we wanted.  We decided that we needed to do something relaxing after such an emotional and stressful day, so we all got pedicures before having cocktails and dinner.

The next day, and our last full day in Phnom Penh, was a busy one but much less emotional.  We began with a visit to Wat Phnom, the oldest temple which is stood on the only hill in the city.

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Wat Phnom

Our next stop was to Central Market, where underneath central dome are many stalls glittering with gemstones and jewellery.  I bargained successfully for a lovely pair of amethyst earrings; time living in China paying off in my haggling skills!

Central Market, Phnom Penh

Central Market, Phnom Penh

A visit to the National Museum followed: a gorgeous building full of statues and sculptures from various periods in Cambodia’s history. Amazing really that so much survived after the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of anything historical.

National Museum, Phnom Penh

National Museum, Phnom Penh

I had a traditional lunch of Khmer Amok, a dish made with fish, coconut and various spices and served in a coconut.  It was delicious.  We ate at a little place called David’s Restaurant, the owner of which also runs a project to raise money for the school in his home village.

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Khmer Amok

The afternoon was spent at the Royal Palace being given a guided tour by a local man named Rits.  He was very informative and as well as telling us all about the palace and all the different buildings within the complex, including the Silver Pagoda (so named because the floor is tiled with over 5,000 solid silver tiles, each weighing one kilogram), he also told us a little of what it was like when he was young and the Khmer Rouge came to power.  Everyone was evacuated from the cities; Phnom Penh was like a ghost town.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

After a tea break at Costa (yes, I found Costa in Cambodia, which all my friends will find hilarious, I’m sure!) we headed back to the National Museum to watch a show of traditional dances.  These were performed by a company called Children of Bassac which is part of Cambodian Living Arts, an NGO that is trying to ensure that the traditional arts in Cambodia are not forgotten or lost after the Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out anything to do with the arts, history or education.  They performed eight different dances and gave a little information about each one.  Each dance was very different and very impressive.  I would definitely recommend going to see them if you get a chance.

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Our final meal in Phnom Penh was at The Latin Quarter where we had sangria and tapas, all delicious.  We didn’t have a late night though as we had to get up at 6am to get ready for our pick up at 8am and our long (7and a half hours) mini-bus ride along the bumpiest road ever (there were several times that I felt air between me and the seat as we went over a particularly large bump).  Next stop: Siem Reap…

27 Hours in Hanoi

At the start of our Christmas holiday myself and the two friends I was travelling with decided to stop in Hanoi on our way to Laos, and I’m very glad we did.

Driving from the airport into the city of Hanoi, we saw our first sunset for – what we then realised – months.  Living in Shenzhen you are surrounded by many skyscrapers and various other tall buildings, which means you never see the sunrise or sunset and it is often difficult to see the stars, even if the sky is clear.  The first sunset of our holiday was beautiful, and a very welcome sight.  Sometimes you don’t notice you’ve missed something until you see it again.

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We stayed in a lovely hotel called Rising Dragon Villa Hotel in the Old Quarter, where we were greeted with a cup of tea, a map of Hanoi and a very useful explanation of what’s best to see, where to go and what to do in the short time we had. After a bit of freshening up (although it’s only a two hour flight to Hanoi from Hong Kong), we set off to explore the Old Quarter. I really liked Hanoi. It was lovely to wander around; lots of little side streets lined with cafes, shops and eateries. We were told (by friends that have/do live in Vietnam) to be careful with our bags as bag-snatching and pick-pocketing can be a common problem, especially in the more touristy areas, however it felt quite safe to walk around (unless you were trying to cross the road!) and as long as you’re sensible about such things it should be fine. The traffic is another matter entirely. Motorbikes outnumber cars hugely and crossing even the smallest side road can be taking your life in your hands. Luckily I’ve lived in China for almost three and a half years, so I’m much more used to crossing busy roads when there’s the tiniest gap and assuming that the other vehicles will go around you. Having said that, I still found the number and noise of bikes on the road (and sometimes the path) slightly off putting.

After manoeuvring our way around the streets for a while, during which we of course had a tea break in a little cafe, we found a nice restaurant to have dinner and cocktails in. We later realised it was a tourist haunt because there wasn’t a single Vietnamese person in there who wasn’t staff. Ah well, it was still really good food at a reasonable price. Talking of price, another thing we had to get our heads round was the currency – 33,000 Vietnamese Dongs to the pound. Have you ever tried dividing by 33,000 in your head? It’s not easy!

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Anyway, after some much needed sustenance we had a wander around the fairly substantial night market. Some good things – I bought a woolly bobble hat and a belt, and we saw some lovely cut out pop-up cards – but it was very busy and got a bit claustrophobic. This was very much the kind of place where a bag or purse could disappear easily if you weren’t paying attention for a moment. We managed to find our way back to the hotel with no problems (due to my amazing map reading skills!) and turned in to our free-upgrade, rose-petal strewn beds for a lovely night’s sleep.

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The next day our airport pickup wasn’t until 4pm, which gave us most of the day to explore. After a good breakfast of pancakes and fruit, we headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The guards are quite strict – hats and sunglasses must be removed, no talking inside (all fair enough), but also make sure you keep up with the people in front of you! Basically you walk in, up some stairs, through the room Ho Chi Minh is displayed in and around the glass sarcophagus he lies in, lit up and surrounded by more guards in white formal uniform, then back out. It was quite odd to think that that was a dead person lying there; he didn’t look quite real, especially as the combination of the yellowy-orange lights and his white skin made it look like his face and hands were glowing.

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Following the mausoleum we walked round the presidential gardens and saw the mansion that Ho Chi Minh refused to live in and the two quite simple houses that he did live in (consecutively, not at the same time!). It was very close to closing time for lunch by this point, so we got a taxi to the Temple of Literature – the Confucian university and the first university in Vietnam, built in 1070. A lovely place and definitely worth seeing, although it was full of young men and women dressed to the nines having graduation photos taken.

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Our last stop was at the Museum of Ethnology. I had no idea that Vietnam had so many different ethnic groups – 54 to be precise. The museum is an excellent showcase of the traditions, culture, clothes, music, livelihoods and housing of many of these people. They even have actual houses from different villages and in different styles in the grounds of the museum that you can go inside and look round. Unfortunately we missed a water puppet show while we were having a late lunch at the small restaurant in the museum (good food, good deserts, all prepared by students from the local cookery college); if/when I go back to Vietnam, that is definitely something I would like to see.

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That was the end of our time in Hanoi. Next stop: Luang Prabang, Laos.