The Climate Crisis - is it Over for Overlanding?
It’s been four years since we arrived back in the UK following 858 days of overlanding through 52 countries. Our original plan on returning was simple; get jobs, earn money, hit the road again. We did actually stay on-track for this plan, after 2.5 years we were in a position where we could have followed our dream of continuing our travels and sailed west to The Americas.
However, something changed both in the world and in us that meant at the very least we had to put our adventure ambitions on pause for a while longer. News of the escalating climate and ecological crisis was making headlines… the depressing facts were old news but the fact a new movement had put them in mainstream media and on the political agenda was exciting, motivating and filled us with the love and rage that Extinction Rebellion was fuelled on.
Having studied and worked in Environmental Science and Conservation for over 20 years, dealing with planet destruction was nothing new. In fact, the frustration and hopelessness was a huge motivation for getting out and seeing the world's wild places… while they were still there. The establishment of this new climate movement gave us something that we had both lost… hope.
In April 2019 we joined a movement that would replace overlanding as our focus and main objective in life. The science was terrifying and the urgency clear- act now or there simply wouldn’t be a world left to explore. There is no overlanding on a dead planet.
For the last 12 months we have dedicated our time and energy to climate activism; telling the truth about the severity of the climate and ecological crisis and putting our words into action.
So, the question still burns (along with Australia, the Amazon and now the Arctic)… can we ever justify a return to overlanding?
This isn’t a new concern for us. Almost 9 years ago I wrote a blog titled "The Carbon Cost of Adventuring" which, as an environmentalist, addressed many of these concerns (and criticisms that I faced). In conclusion, we predicted (through some carbon producing sums) that we would produce 62% less CO2 per day adventuring compared to our previous static lifestyle, indicating that our planned adventuring lifestyle was more sustainable than living in a house in the UK.
Sustainability choices have always been a priority for us. At the start of our relationship we both opted against having children, a decision that was primarily for environmental reasons (plus a few unconventional life choices!). Comparatively, although living car-free would save jointly 4.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, living child-free (based on a 2-child family) would save an average of 117.2tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year. This isn’t a game of trade-offs though, carbon budgets are not something to be played with - put simply, if we can reduce our carbon footprint then we have a moral duty to do so.
Living in a vehicle is actually a sustainable lifestyle; our power came from a combination of electricity generated by the engine and a solar panel, our food was always bought locally, we didn’t fly or commute to a job, we lived incredibly simply with very few possessions and couldn’t afford the money or space to acquire new things. Yes, the driving between our ‘home camps’ was fuelled by Diesel and we covered a LOT of miles in total over 4 years but we generally only drove an hour or two when we moved. Our transport was also our home, not just a means of getting around.
To further our climate commitment we both switched to a plant-based diet three years ago and for the last 13 months have undertaken a ‘no new clothing’ pledge. We strive to minimise our consumption of everything from minimising car use and re-using and mending to limiting laundry frequency and food waste. We have been truly fortunate that family, friends and fellow ‘rebels’ have loaned accommodation space or shared their homes with us throughout this period, generosity we will be eternally grateful for as it has allowed us to pursue our activist ambitions.
At the same time we have invested in upgrading Bee-bee (who is in storage and not a daily driver) to enable her to run slightly more efficiently. Andy has lovingly replaced old tyres and realigned the wheels, upgraded the cooling system (including an electric fan), repaired all the oil leaks and generally given the engine a major service and overhaul. Andy did extensive research when he wrote a blog on "Electric VS Diesel" in which he concluded that it was better for us to travel another 2 years in the vehicle we already had than buy a new electric vehicle - 50% of the carbon cost of a car is locked-in to the manufacturing and production - It wasn’t an option for us anyway due to the high cost. ‘Mend and make do’ in this instance was preferable to investing short-term in greener technology. Ultimately, we’ll be striving for a car-free existence in the future and our next house move will see us shift to complete reliance on public transport in the UK.
To say that our choices have been purely climate-based when it comes to returning to the road would be untrue; our niece Daisy was just 6 weeks old when we arrived back from SE Asia and the last 4 years have been amazing to spend time with her and the rest of our family. New work experiences, friends, festivals and gigs have also kept us sane amongst the reality of a planet heading for extinction.
With climate tipping points and feedback loops rapidly being reached, we really are within the last 12 months to make any real difference to the mass extinction we are currently hurtling towards. It’s hard to say how we’ll feel in a years’ time, we still have a strong desire to see South America but a major consideration for us will always be that our love for overlanding the planet… doesn’t cost the earth.
It’s difficult to believe that we have been back in the UK for two and a half years. The irony is that time moves faster when you are not moving. When we are travelling, time slows beautifully.
Why did we stop?
We simply ran out of adventure funds.
When did we decide that we wanted to get back on the road?
The exact same day we left it.
The bonuses of blighty (that's England for our international followers)
Family. A new baby niece has been one of the highlights of our rooted respite, sharing in parenting has been overwhelmingly cherished and an exciting, precious new experience for us both. Spending time with our close family including our 4 nieces has been wonderful.
Friends. Catching up with mates has been brilliant; birthdays, holidays, festivals, parties. We met some pretty special new friends too who have kept us sane in working towards our adventure goals.
Familiarity. After so much uncertainty and unpredictability on the road it was a relief and comfort to be in a country where we were accustomed to the people, food, language, culture and environment. Life in the UK where everything is recognisable and relatively straightforward is a welcome respite from the instability and irregularity of overlanding and gave us both chance to ‘re-charge’ our adventure batteries (and funds!).
Focus. Time ‘off the road’ instead of ‘off-road’ has allowed us to reflect on our travels and given us the opportunity to share our stories through presentations and talks. We have been privileged to impart our knowledge and travel tales to photography clubs, women’s groups, hiking clubs and at overland shows. Andy established ‘The Overlanding Podcast’, the first audio programme of its kind, as well as developing our website as both a documentation of our trip but also a resource for other adventurers. We have been able to spend time sorting our photographs and film footage ready for editing. Bee-bee has been well rested but we have a relaxed timeframe in which to get her adventure-ready. We have had the luxury of time to research our next route and plan without pressure.
The most difficult adjustments we had to make to a stationary existence?
Initial dependence. We journeyed until our last Malaysian Ringgit coin so gratefully and fortunately relied on my parents to house us while we initially got back on our feet, starting again from nothing; selling, working, earning and saving.
Employment. Working outside of our chosen careers and being confined within archaic structures of organisational incompetence was testing. Why are so many people in positions of authority such dicks? We are both far too free and feral after years on the road to integrate fully back into ‘jobsworth’ society. Fortunately we worked day to day with some incredible clients who gave us a whole new inspiring insight into life. Retiring again after 2 years of working for the ‘man’ has been euphoric.
Urban dwelling. The concrete, the grey, the lack of wildlife, the same kitchen sink window view. We both developed an extreme obsession with houseplants to the point our flat resembled a jungle obscuring most windows. Andy built a 2m high bed so we still had to comfortingly climb up into our ‘roof bed’ at night. New friends and wildlife volunteering gave me purpose and strength to keep a balance between a dishearteningly destructive world and my environmental values.
Depression. The demons returned armed with weapons of environmental anxiety, lost control, financial stress, and dark winter melancholy. Many people think we are crazy for what we do when we overland but static existence creates its own personal insanity for us.
What have we learnt from our time ‘home’?
Time with loved ones is precious, don’t take it for granted and make an effort to spend quality time with the people you love. The old cliché “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is not only true of people; we miss our homes and families when we’re away exploring but we also miss our wandering lifestyle when we stop. Time spent doing both allows you to fully appreciate what you have and not take anything for granted.
So a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has housed, fed, ‘watered’, encouraged, supported and helped us during both our travels and the interim period’s in-between. You are the people who truly keep our world turning.
We will be keeping our travel name ‘Around the World in 800 Days’, less so for camp-counting and more to emphasis our unhurried expedition style. The adventure continues.
Normal? No. Nomadic? Yes.
Our eyes are now fixed on the horizon in a westerly direction and we’re counting down the days…
It’s difficult to believe that we have been back in the UK for two and a half years. The irony is that time moves faster when you are not moving.
After selling, working, earning and saving we've decided to turn our world upside down again. We have resigned from our jobs, packed up our flat into a storage unit and made that liberating switch from ‘normal’ to ‘nomadic’.
As I write this Bee-bee is in the trusted hands of our good mechanic friends with a list of jobs as long (but hopefully not as challenging) as the Trans-Siberian highway. Andy will do the rest of the tweaks, repairs and modifications later in the summer.
We have based ourselves in Cyprus for a short time to focus on planning the next phase of our adventures which will see us head West to The Americas. The plan is very loose at the moment; ship to South America, then to Central America and the US, north into Canada and Alaska.
Andy is industriously dusting off all our un-viewed film footage from the latter part of our trip and will be editing, podcasting and familiarising himself with recent technologies, trips and car stuff. I have a lot to read and learn… and I can’t wait to release my inner map-geek which has been stifled for the last couple of years.
We will enjoy the summer in the UK with friends, family and festivals with a view to departing towards the end of the year. We are updating the website and firing up the blogging machine from now on to document all our preparations and plans. We’re looking forward to linking up with new adventurers on the road, visiting overland friends and allowing static adventurer-followers to join us on the next stage of our journey.
As travellers on a very tight budget we are always looking for ways to save money and extend our time travelling on limited funds. We stumbled across the website https://www.workaway.info/ by accident whilst in France in May 2013 during the second phase of our trip. The philosophy of Workaway is described as “a few hours honest help per day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community, with friendly hosts in varying situations and surroundings”. By joining the website community for a minimal annual fee ($38 for a couple, for a year) you have access to over 25,000 hosts in 155 countries worldwide. You can search within specific locations and narrow the kind of ‘work’ you would like to participate in through categories such as farming, gardening, eco projects, helping with tourists and art. You have your own profile with a description of your interests and skills, plus some photographs, and every host has a page where they describe what’s expected and some information and photos about themselves. The added bonus is that feedback can be left by ‘workawayers’ who stay with a host, and vice-versa about you as a volunteer, so the system is self-monitoring.
Throughout our 854 days on the road we have participated in 7 Workaway placements, all quite varied but all enjoyable experiences. In Spain Andy did some graphic design work while I helped out at a hostel, in Croatia we helped a couple realising their permaculture lifestyle dream and in Hungary demolished walls and painted hundreds of beams to restore an old mansion. In Greece we cleared land, fixed chicken fences and built a vegetable garden and in Armenia helped establish an eco-project and walking trail network. Two weeks in Montenegro was spent photographing the local beaches off-season for a hostel owner and in India we made environmental education videos and helped a local guy develop his sustainability project.
The advantage of a Workaway placement, which for us was generally from 10 days to a month, is that you get to pause in a place which after weeks and months on the road, constantly moving, is a welcome change. You get the opportunity to become part of a community rather than just passing through places and gain a real insight into what life is like for local people in the country that you are visiting. You can ask all those questions that have been mystifying you about a place to actual local people and enjoy traditional food, culture and hospitality in a welcoming home. By timing our Workaway in Mumbai with the time period we were waiting for our car shipment to arrive, we saved on accommodation and food costs for almost a month.
Through Workaway we have collected and pickled mushrooms in Croatia, wine-tasted in Hungary, milked goats in Greece and been invited to local festivals. We joined Bollywood dance classes in Mumbai, skipped with orphans at an orphanage in India and celebrated Easter at an ancient Armenian Monastery.
It is essential to be flexible with Workaway, most hosts are quite laid-back and sometimes there are issues with communication through the website- have a few back-ups… people not replying is not uncommon! Be clear about what the work arrangement is; 4-5 hours a day with 2 days off is the general rule and be happy about the accommodation offered which can range from a luxurious cabin to a patch of grass where you pitch your own tent. Generally, good communication from day one when you first contact a potential host, right the way through your placement, makes for a much more positive and happier experience for everyone.
In summary, despite not earning any money while on a Workaway, the fact that you are not spending any is equally as valuable when trying to maintain a long-term trip. In the future we plan to build our own sustainable home and have learnt many new skills through our placements which will help enormously when that time comes. We have made life-long friends with our hosts and some of our best memories of a country have come the through Workaway experiences.
Small, steaming stalls surround a central area of Formica tables and plastic chairs, quickly filling up as evening approaches with groups of friends and families. Buckets of ice with bottles of beer are ordered and brought to the tables from the drinks stalls by waitresses, then dishes are selected and paid for from your vendor of choice and your table number given. Simple, no-fuss, fast, delicious, sociable and great value… welcome to hawker food eating in Malaysia.
Hawker centres in Malaysia are essentially permanent collections of street-food stalls, normally in an open-air complex, with communal tables. A wonderful diversity of nationalities, culture and religions in Malaysia has resulted in a fusion cuisine which boasts some of the world’s best street food.
Extensive menus seem to defy the limited space and basic set-up of each makeshift food outlet, staff whirl round in a cramped space; barbequing meat, draining steaming noodles, tossing unidentified morsels in sizzling woks and stirring huge vats of bubbling soup. Bowls of raw ingredients are lined up and meticulously displayed on the stall fronts; cubed tofu, black mushrooms, sliced raw vegetables, squid rings, dumplings, prawns, shellfish, gelatinous noodles and chopped crab sticks.
Our big, empty table at the CF night food court in George Town, Penang Island, was soon filled with a laughing group of local friends, who quickly included us in their beer-top-ups as bottles of cold Tiger flowed continuously. Chatting to them, they said they came to the food court every week, preferring the laid-back atmosphere and bustle to more formal restaurants. The beers washed down plates of Char Kuey Teow; greasy, thin stir-fried noodles topped with egg, prawns, spring onions and beansprouts and wrestled with chopsticks. Three young cabaret singers belted out pop covers from a round, glittery central stage, pausing every time the electricity cut out then starting each tinny, rhythmical ballad from the start once the power surged back.
On another evening in George Town at the Red Garden night food court we tried Penang’s signature dish of Assam Laksa, a pleasantly pungent, fish-based soup with sour Tamarind and noodles, chilli, cucumber, lemongrass and prawn paste.
In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, we sampled Nasi Kandar, an Indian-influenced rice dish topped with different meat, seafood, vegetables, with a speciality being fish head curry. An array of oily, spectacularly spicy, chilli-infused dishes are laid out to choose from, then added to light, fragrant rice.
For breakfast, find a small space on a street bench for Roti Canai, delicious fresh, puffed flatbread served with a dish of spicy lentil Dhal and a mug of sweet, milky chai.
In the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur the street of Jalan Alor heaves on both sides with bustling restaurants, stalls and pop-up eateries. Crowds of locals and tourists perch on plastic stools around pavement tables. Sticky jack fruit is sliced into finger-licking pieces, tiny stalls crammed with piles of Kuih Kosui banana-leaf wrapped sweet coconut dough parcels and no-nonsense menus of dim sum and fried fishcakes line the walkways.
From our shared table at Wong Ah Wah eatery we people-watched and picked at Batu Maung Satay, a selection of different grilled meats on thin bamboo sticks dripping with a rich, thick peanut sauce. Not just a means of satisfying your hunger, Hawker centres are an entire experience of food and friends as you rub shoulders with fellow diners and enjoy a whole menu of weird and wonderful new snacks and dishes.
Arriving into Thailand after a full-on, hectic four and a half months in India followed by a strict two week Myanmar guided tour we spent our first night camped in Taksin Maharat National Park near the Northwest border. The immediate quiet and organisation of the place was a shock to the system! Off season, the camp site was empty so we had an entire site for us and our French family friends in their motorhome who we’d travelled across Myanmar with. A basic yet sufficient wash block meant we had clean water, shower and toilet facilities and a huge open, flat space to clean, hand-wash, re-order (and relax) after our Indian odyssey.
There are 127 National Parks in Thailand, varying from quiet, low-key areas with basic camping facilities to tourist-tastic parks complete with Hornbill keyrings and Deer tame enough to take a selfie with. They are excellent places to plan your route around as the facilities are perfect for overlanders and the cost minimal- with incredible jungle, mountains and coastline they are perfect places for relaxing in nature and spotting (surprisingly easily) many of the hundreds of species of animal, birds, reptiles and insects.
Mae Surin National Park offered an escape from the steep tarmac roads, as beautiful, sedate sand tracks weave along the edges of unspoiled forest. Wild camping was easy with viewpoints and picnic spots overlooking an undulating, tree-covered horizon.
Our next stop was Khao Yai National Park, in the East of Thailand, where we stayed 3 nights at Lumtakong Campsite where the less-than-shy resident Sambar Deer outnumbered campers several to one. Drinking tea with the beating of Hornbills wings flying overhead and jumping as a huge water monitor lizard strides past you, slipping into the nearby river and gliding across.
Dawn hikes through swaying, orange sunlit grassland with wild elephants crashing through the undergrowth nearby and gibbons howling and acrobatically swinging through the jungle canopy above. This is the gem of Thailands Parks, with a modern visitor’s centre and over 50km of marked, extensive, beautiful hiking trails.
Southwest of Bangkok, we visited Kaeng Krachan National Park, staying in Ban Krang campsite where salt licks attract huge aggregations of colourful butterflies (over 300 species!) at the camps entrance. A stream flows through, with Malabar squirrels hanging from tree branches above and stump-tailed Macaques chattering in the tree tops.
Smaller, low-key reserves dot the Thai coastline, our first experience of this was at Hat Wanakon on the East coast. With our hammock slung between two beachside pine trees we watched a stunning sunset over the water as fishing boats bobbed past. In the morning we wandered through pine groves, large vivid lizards diving for their burrows, on our way to the outdoor showers.
Crossing the narrow band of Southern Thailand to the West coast we camped at Laem Son National Park, fringing an idyllic stretch of beach with forested outcrops. Khao Lampi Hat Thai National Park further south boasted a completely empty campsite, beautiful solitude right on the beach- coastal wilderness with the luxury of toilets and showers in a scenic pine forest. Karst limestone islands loom from the waves in Krabi province, creating a surreal landscape around Hat Chao Mai National Park. Along this deserted stretch of beach on the Andaman coastline we saw no one but the odd curious cockle collector and were able to swim and sunbathe in peace with the tide lapping all the way to our table and chairs.
Timing is key when visiting Thailand’s National Parks; they are far more enjoyable when quiet so try and visit off-season if possible and during the week. The bigger parks have a reasonably budget-denting entrance fee (eg- Khao Yai is £8/$10 each) but this covers your entire stay, no matter if you visit for an afternoon or four days. We chose fewer parks but stayed longer to make visits more economical and give ourselves enough time to relax and hike the surrounding area. Camping is extra but only around 60p each a night and the facilities are basic but generally well-maintained. In contrast the smaller coastal parks charge only £2/$3 entrance so you can afford to stay in several for single nights. The security of patrolling rangers on campsites means you can stay ‘set-up’ and wander off into the wilds and sleep better without that ‘on-guard’ feeling when wild camping. Of all the countries we have travelled in, Thailand’s National Parks are by far the best, managing to maintain that wonderful wilderness feel while providing fantastic, affordable facilities across the entire country. It’s a great way of seeing wildlife while contributing directly to its protection.
No visit to Cambodia, and in fact SE Asia, would be complete without a visit to magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world with 150 square miles containing more than 100 beautifully carved temples and shrines.
Despite a restless night in a humid roof tent with an all-night deafening amphibian chorus (how can frogs be that loud!) we stumbled down the ladder at 4.30am, determined to make the most of our budget-extravagant $40 3-day passes.
Our first dawn stop was the show stopper of the ancient site itself; Angkor Wat. As the sun rises over this centrepiece of the vast Khmer Empire capital, reflected in an orange glow in the surrounding moat, your breath is simply taken away. No matter how many times you’ve glanced the iconic silhouette on postcards and guide books, it’s still a guaranteed jaw-dropper.
Inside, the religious site is still very much active with saffron-clad monks placing smoking incense and offerings at the feet of Buddha statues. Shady, green lawns surround the central temple complex of colonnaded walkways, carved stone towers and steps into grey courtyards surrounded by sculpted Hindu gods, the huge, iconic lotus-bud towers rising above.
Away from the crowds and the manicured lawns, it was the semi-ruined temples that encapsulated the true lost-city feel of Angkor Wat. Preah Khan was the perfect example of a crumbling fusion of Hindu and Buddhist ancient architecture, hidden amongst dense jungle with huge tree roots penetrating the mighty stone walls to a point you weren’t sure which was supporting which. Amongst the dark corridors, sunlight peacefully infiltrating where the ceilings had collapsed, were glimpses of a violent recent history where many Vishnu and Krishna statues had been ‘decapitated’ by Khmer Rouge forces.
For me, the feeling of nature taking back many of the temples across the site is what gives Angkor it’s mystical beauty; roots and vines so intertwined with temple walls it’s difficult to see where one ends and another begins. Man-made history merging seamlessly with present natural structures. Intricately carved patterns on walls are thinly shrouded with beautiful pale-green lichen, this slow-growing, dry algal fungus as delicate as the statues they gracefully envelope.
Our second eye-watering early start was a climb to the less-visited Pre-Rup for sunrise, sat silently among the rock-carved upper terrace as the changing dawn light turned the stone through a myriad of orange and red hues.
The incredible Ta Prohm was another magical example of ancient ruins intertwined with nature, a few Angelina-esque jumps through root-twisted archways as we ventured through the original jungle ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, with lichen-covered relics and giant tree roots both destroying and holding ancient stone structures together.
“If Pre-rup is lego, with its small, tightly packed brickwork then Ta Keo, with its enormous bulkly blockwork is Duplo” Andy, 2016. The early mornings clearly getting to him.
A short distance away from the main Angkor site, we visited Banteay Srei Hindhu Temple, containing some of the finest, most intricate stone carvings on earth. Beautiful, fine carvings in rose-coloured stone grace the walls and archways of this very delicately different small temple.
Early on our third morning, Bee-bee paused underneath the huge stone archway of the Victory Gate entering Angkor Thom, last great capital of the Khmer empire, with Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara staring down commandingly.
We rubbed shoulders with hordes of colourfully-dressed, selfie-obsessed Chinese tourists entering the incredible Bayon temple; 54 stone towers graced with 216 huge carved stone faces of Buddha staring both contemplatively yet domineeringly down on us.
The first level of the temple contains an enormous walkway with carved Bas-reliefs depicting life in 12th Century Cambodia; elephant processions, hunting, fishing, dolphins, turtles, deer, lions and underwater pond scenes. The upper terrace boasts huge, stone towers four-sided with the giant carved faces of Avalokiteśvara amidst a labyrinth of shaded, vaulted walkways.
An afternoon hot, sweaty climb to the top of the Baphuon, in the 12th-century royal Buddhist city of Angkor Thom was rewarded with spectacular views across the temple courtyard and gardens. Bee-bee posed in front of the splendour of the carved wall ‘terrace of the elephants’ and we rounded off our final Angkor adventures with a sunset climb back up to the Bayon. Eeerily devoid of the earlier tourist crowds, a light monsoon shower fell amidst the many stone faces of Buddha making them look serene, like closing their eyes into the sunset and our time here.
The entire, epic site is breath-taking and worth every cent of the budget-denting 3-day pass. I think even Andy considered walking through ancient history to be worthy of 3 consecutive pre-dawn wake-up calls, a must for any travel to the region and one of our finest SE Asian memories.
With all the planning, spreadsheets and lists in the world it is impossible to always climatically be in the right place at the right time. We found ourselves in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos for the onset of the monsoon; a time of heat, humidity and torrential downpours. However, we overlanders are/should be predisposed to enduring the elements and despite the climatic and logistical challenges presented by monsoon travel we found enormous benefits to touring during this season.
Temperatures were a sweltering +40°C in the lead up to the start of the monsoon but once the rains actually arrived, showers reduced the temperature often by 10°C. Humidity was high but the accompanying monsoon breeze made the stickiness bearable and by 8pm the temperature had fallen to below 30°C, which was the crucial difference between a good and a sweaty, restless night’s sleep in the roof tent.
Rain itself presents obvious challenges when you are overlanding in a 4x4 and live outdoors. We learned to read the skies and approaching cloud formations when deciding if we had the necessary 45 minutes dry period necessary to rustle up and eat a stir fry for dinner. Our awning has attachable sides which are perfect if the rain is not accompanied by strong winds, in which situation the awning is more hassle than it is worth with sides flapping towards the stove and water being blasted by gale-force winds through the many gaps. On this occasion we take comfort that our fridge still delivered our beers at a refreshing 3°C and that SE Asian countries sell an amazing array of beer snacks- dried squid and pea crisps for tea-time in a steamed-up, front of the car, substituted dinner on more than one occasion.
An unavoidable downside to monsoon conditions is the surge in blood-sucking critters, particularly mosquitoes (everywhere) and leeches in the jungle. It’s never a pleasure to have to smear thick, pungent insect repellent on when your skin is already sticky with sweat and covered in sand and salt but it does work. Camping away from swamps and long grass reduced the numbers dramatically.
The last thing you want to do when the day eventually cools off slightly is to put clothing layers on, but this is when the worst aerial assault begins. Generally long sleeves and trousers kept the biters at bay. A small price to pay when watching the evening illuminated dance displays of emerging fireflies, which also increase in numbers during this season and gracefully light up the night sky.
Persistent precipitation leaves clothing, blankets and towels damp for days but the sun does eventually come out and then everything is dry within an hour. Rainfall is typically short and sweet and only lasts for a few hours of each day.
There is something beautifully wild and romantic about sitting on a deserted beach with waves crashing on the shore and dark storm clouds swirling in the sky. We witnessed some incredible lightning storms from the (relative) safety of our roof tent and the gentle pitter-patter of early morning raindrops can be as soothing as a lullaby when there is no work to get out of bed for.
We adventured through Cambodia and South Thailand in June, described by travel guides as the ‘low season when visitors melt’. The plus side of visiting at this time is that most tourists are far more sensible than us and follow this advice, leading to an empty Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat early in the morning. The surrounding beaches of Krabi and Phuket region, with sands crawling with tourists in the high season of November to February, were abandoned. We could wild camp undisturbed and wander endless stretches of empty sand gazing at an uninterrupted horizon of waves and karst limestone rock islands.
National Parks were deserted so we could enjoy wildlife trails all to ourselves, with numerous sightings of normally crowd-shy animals and birds. Camp sites were uninhabited and in many we were the only occupants, with the exception of sharing the site with wild deer and the shower block with the odd water monitor lizard. Paradise. Most chalet and beach-hut resorts are closed but now and again they let us camp there for free and use the facilities. On one occasion we were invited to join the builders for sundowner beers and fresh crab and shrimps after a day of cabana restoration preparing for the next season. If it’s peace and not parties you’re after, off-peak travel in Thailand is bliss.
The first thing that hits you when you wander into one of Laos markets is the smell; the pungent aroma of fish sauce, for me, will forever be synonymous with Southeast Asian bazaars. Added to this, an olfactory fusion of garlic, frying shrimp paste, spices, chilli, mango, coconut, honey and fresh herbs and your senses are overwhelmed.
Meat and fish form a large part of Laotians diet, in the market your dinner couldn’t get much fresher (if a tad unhappy) with cages full of ducks and chickens. Plastic sinks and concrete tanks writhe with Catfish and Tilapia, traders dipping nets in and trying to contain the flapping, protesting catch on archaic weighing scales before tipping the ill-fated fish into a plastic bag. Breathing purchases are not just limited to everyday livestock; frogs, lizards, crickets, cicadas and even some very unlucky rodents are lined up in boxes for the more exotic Lao tea-times. No part of an animal is wasted in Laos, women meticulously pick the meat from a pig’s ribcage while the trotters and snouts are piled high. Piles of tripe are folded carefully for sale alongside severed buffalo hooves and entire pig’s heads. A woman cuts slices from a huge plastic bowl containing bright red congealed blood, as always the butchers section is not for those with weak stomachs!
Colourful canopies of overlapping parasols and awnings shade the piles of fruit and vegetables from the strong Laos sunshine, creating a rainbow of light over an already vibrant display of lychees, passion fruit, strawberries, cherries, oranges and apples. The midday heat starts to hit the stall holders busy since dawn and women doze head-down on piles of cabbages or snooze stretched-out on loungers next to their flapping fish stand.
The Laos snack-of-choice, fried pigskin, is portioned in bags sitting alongside rows of mystery powders, dried plants, obscure berries and roots and clear bottles of unidentified liquids and oils.
The market is not just a practical place for supply purchase, it’s the pulsating hub of the community, a place where livelihoods are made and the rewards of hard work are earnt. Families work together and friends catch up over coffee and noodles, children run between the stalls and young people meet on scooters.
If all the browsing makes you hungry, every market has snack stalls serving endless portions of the ubiquitous noodle soup- a steaming bowl of clear chicken broth into which additions are ladled from plastic containers under the bench; fish balls, shredded chicken, spring onions, bean-sprouts, rice noodles, cabbage, fried garlic, chilli and fish sauce. It takes some skill to work the small ladle/chopstick combo but once mastered this dish is a delicious shop-stop and a healthy fast-food bargain at less than £1 a bowl.
We spent most of our time in Laos driving the small mountain roads, particularly in the north of the country. Remote and rural, at times we found ourselves bumping along pot-holed surfaces or driving in billowing clouds of dust on half-finished tracks. The scenery was magnificent and often the roads followed the routes of Laos’ many rivers, climbing high into the hilltops, then dropping down through lush jungle fringing the watercourse. One of the highlights of taking such minor roads was the chance to experience life in the hill tribe villages. At times it was like driving through a National Geographic article; men in traditional tribal dress, women weaving bright patterned cloth on ancestral wooden looms, timber houses balanced on carved stilts and children chasing chickens and piglets.
Old ladies gossip under the shade of Hibiscus trees while men in woven bamboo hats herd lumbering black water buffalo uphill along the road. Hammocks swing in the stifling midday summer heat, gently swaying snoozing occupants in the shade under wooden stilted houses.
Self-sufficiency is vital, villagers trek back to the village from the surrounding fields, straps round their foreheads balancing bamboo-woven baskets piled high with vegetables and green leaves on their backs. Small, terraced paddy fields fringe the valleys, bare-footed rice collectors paddling through the bright green swathes.
Freshwater fish is the Laotians main source of protein and fine nets are thrown from dug-out canoes on the rivers, while youngsters wait patiently with handmade rod and lines. Small fish are neatly tied in lines on sticks, fried and sold from small roadside stalls, while live catfish and snakehead fish squirm in buckets hours away from a spicy sauce and sticky rice.
A menagerie of livestock pecks, waddles and lounges beneath the timber homes; ducks, chickens, geese, boar, buffalo, cows and goats wander through every village. Without mains water, families gather around communal taps, women modestly washing under sarongs while children scream naked, splashing each other.
Sadly, it’s not all romantic crafts and cute kids, the villagers face very real threats from logging operations in the surrounding hills- deforestation is a massive problem and on a few occasions while driving the road was filled with acrid smoke from ‘slash and burn’ land clearance as entire hillsides smouldered. The US bombing campaign in the 60’s and 70’s has left an ugly legacy with unexploded ordnance still a risk to villages, particularly children who find the deadly, small cluster bombs. Water shortages are frequent and water quality is often poor, access to education and health care is also a problem in the smaller, more remote villages.
Despite the poverty and struggles of a rural existence, the villages have a warm and welcoming atmosphere; betel-stained mouths smile and wave as you drive into each settlement, people filled with both curiosity and warm hospitality.