As I write this piece, I’m on my way back home after a mammoth 55,818km road trip across Asia, Europe and the top of Africa. My head is dizzy with memories. I can’t quite believe or fully comprehend all of the incredible things I’ve seen and done over the past year. The complete journey seemed to take a lifetime, but it’s also raced by like a hazy whirlwind.
I know the grand experiences will forever remain tattooed to my brain. It’s the precious details, the fleeting moments of bliss, which are already fading. So, before they ebb into oblivion or lose their lustre, I simply have to share them with you. I hope they inspire your future travels and, perhaps, encourage you to consider a familiar or little-known destination with newfound interest. Enjoy!
Lessons on Happiness in Bhutan
Bhutan has a lot to teach the world and any traveller who ventures across its rugged borders. During my weeklong visit, this pint-sized utopia literally restored my faith in humanity. The Bhutanese were so pure of heart and mind (government reps included) it was hard to accept them at face value; but, but the end of my time in their tiny mountain kingdom, I was completely sold and inspired. My highlight of the trip was the steep trek to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The journey, with its enchanting Himalayan flora and breathtaking views, was epic in its own right. When Ben and I were given the opportunity to interview an abbot monk about happiness, we couldn’t believe our luck. It’s a conversation I’ll never forget.
Yurt Stays & Wild Camping in Kyrgyzstan
As soon as we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, Ben and I felt like we were somewhere foreign. Completely enthralled by the barren backdrops, exquisite lakes, roving tribes and ageless traditions, we were suddenly off the tourist grid and in a land of genuine adventure. Our “camping crawl” delivered a mad series events, which fulfilled my insatiable desire for new and unexpected experiences.
Our first night of wild camping beside Chatyr Kul Lake, with wild horses cantering past our tent, was absolute bliss…until we attracted the attention of the police! The luxury yurt stay near Tash Rabat was absolutely delightful. Nestled at the base of a glorious mountain range, the yurts sat peacefully beside a freshwater stream – it was impossible to have a care in the world. I’ll never forget our weekend at Song Kul Lake, where we learnt about Buzkashi (“goat dragging”), turning a freshly slaughtered lamb into fresh momo stew, and the brutal lifestyle of the local villagers. Our final night of camping turned out to be the most bizarre. A group of vodka-infused Russians taught us how to fire kalashnikov guns and make a sauna out of a small bonfire plus a two-man tent (check out this video). There was never a dull moment in Kyrgyzstan!
Chaos and Culture Shock in Varanasi
Varanasi is one of the most exciting cities I came across in 2015. That’s not to say every moment was bliss. I saw, ate and smelt some seriously nasty things and had my head slumped over a toilet bowl for three days straight. While Varanasi was brutal, I loved the chaos, character, colour and complexity India’s “spiritual capital” had to offer. I was constantly on the edge of my tuk-tuk seat, eyes wide open trying to capture every exotic detail.
It was a thrilling place to explore, from the ever-burning crematorium ghats to the highly ornate Ganga Arti Ceremony, which spilled into a manic maze of markets. From the moment I stepped out of my hotel, I was wrapped up in bedlam. The sour smell of sun-baked urine assaulted my nostrils, car horns blared like mad just for the hell of it, and my body was enveloped in a hot cloud of dust. For some reason, I loved it! But, when I needed to escape the hurly-burly, I found respite in a gentle cruise along the River Ganges.
Full Moon Parties in Thailand
Full Moon parties certainly have a reputation for being wild, but that’s not to say they’re only for spring chickens. With the March Full Moon Party taking place at the perfect time and place during our expedition, my husband decided to celebrate his 40th birthday on Koh Phanagan, tearing up the beach with a bunch of fun-loving friends. To be honest, I found the big night a little overwhelming, with over 50,000 party goers getting in on the action. But, the after parties (which take place every other night of the month!) were right up my alley. Intimate groups of euphoric ravers danced for days on end. The scene was welcoming, free-spirited and unlike anything else I’d experienced.
A Dream Road Trip in Pakistan
Pakistan’s Karakorum Highway is, without a doubt, one of the best overland routes I’ve had the pleasure of completing. The winding road, flanked by mammoth eocene mountains, was relentless in its beauty. Around every corner stood yet another “Wow!” moment. One of the most spectacular was Attabad Lake, where our hefty Land Rover was strapped to a wooden boat and carried over the vivid water. The region of Hunza Valley was another stand out. Ben and I stayed in a humble home stay on the edge of Borrith Lake, with no phone signal or internet access, electricity for an hour a day (if we were lucky) and limited running water. It was brilliant! Every morning, we’d hike past the apricot and apple farms and pluck some fresh fruit for breakfast before hiking up one of the nearby glaciers. We felt so happy and free.
Medina Madness in the “Blue City”
Chefchaouen was the ultimate introduction to Morocco. From the outside, it looked like a humble village made up of snow-white dwellings. But, once I ventured into Chefchaouen’s beating heart (the medina), I suddenly found myself in a bustling, iridescent blue maze. It was like something out of a fairy tale, with the men dressed in hooded-cloaks, kittens running wild with kids chasing them around every corner, buckets of luscious olives spilling over onto the streets and a treasure trove of technicolour jewellery. It’s one place I was happy to get lost.
The Perfect Romantic Escape in Tuscany
This was one of those moments where Ben and I had to pinch ourselves to make sure it was actually real. Sleeping in an ancient castle, surrounded by hectares of prime vineyard was more magical than I can possibly describe. My afternoons were spent chilling out by the boutique pool – locally produced Rose in hand and the soft autumn wind drifting over my skin. As the Tuscan sun made its way towards the horizon it washed the sky with spellbinding pastel colours. Everything about this experience was completely lush.
A Communal Elephant Bath in Nepal
I’m usually against elephant riding, as it’s hard to find tourism operators that offer ethical encounters with these beautiful giants. During my time in Nepal, I managed to discover a peaceful resort on the cusp of Chitwan National Park which championed the well-being and humane treatment of its wildlife. So, when the opportunity to interact with its elephants popped up, I found the offer too tempting to resist. Once I climbed onto a big-eared beauty’s back, with only a rug between me and her bristly skin, we started to stroll through the national park past wild rhinos, crocodiles and a plethora of exotic wildlife. It was quite surreal. My face almost split open with delight when we arrived at a lake – it was bath time! The elephant slowly plodded into the water with me in tow; she then dipped her trunk into the water, curved her snout towards her back and sprayed everything (including me) clean. It was like something out of The Jungle Book – a childhood dream come true.
The Best Road Trip in the World in India
This experience needs to be on everyone’s bucket list – it’s one of the best things I’ve seen and done in my life (you can read more here)! The Leh-Manali Highway is the world’s highest and most dangerous road, and the 2-4 day road trip isn’t for the feint-hearted. Despite being a knuckle-biting adventure, the journey also cuts its way through the most beautiful landscapes you can possibly imagine. I’m convinced this spectacular part of the world is the playground of the gods. It took my breath away.
The Door to Hell in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan has to be the strangest country I’ve ever visited. For the most part, this Central Asian territory seemed eerily sterile and desolate. But, there was one experience, which really rocked my world – camping next to the Door to Hell. When Ben and I first laid eyes on the colossal burning crater, we were rendered speechless. Like moths to a flame, we couldn’t keep our gaze away from the flickering light. The earth looked like it was melting away towards its core.
Upon researching this wild phenomenon, we discovered the fiery pit was a natural gas reserve, which had been set alight by Russians in the 70s. It’s been burning furiously ever since. Free from any fencing or boundaries, Ben and I were able to walk about 2 metres out from the edge of “Hell” before our courage deserted us and our eyebrows started to get singed off. When we finally decided to call it a night and climb into bed, we felt the warmth of the flames licking at our tent. Who needs a campfire when you’re next to the Door to Hell, right?
The Ultimate Sunset Sessions in Cambodia
Before arriving in Cambodia, I had no idea it was home to such incredible beaches. Having lived in Australia and just travelled through Thailand, the bar had been set quite high. But when our Land Rover chugged up to Otres Beach, where icy coconut shakes, marihuana pizzas, and soft sand lined the shore, Ben and I were suddenly transported to a perfect piece of paradise. The sun looked close enough to touch and when its end-of-day rays glistened over the ocean, the water turned an alluring grey-green colour. Our front row seat to the spectacular sunset show was a hammock in the warm sea. Life couldn’t get any better!
A High Altitude Adventure in Nepal
Despite being pretty unfit at the time, I’m glad I tackled the gruelling 9-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. The experience made me realise what I’m capable of and how good it feels to test your physical limits. It also showed me how relaxing, nourishing and fulfilling the simple life can be, as our daily routine and living standards were blissfully basic: porridge at dawn with front row views of the Himalayas to stir us out of our zombie mode; a 6-9 hour trek through the ruthlessly steep mountains, with a chai break or two to keep us going strong; a little victory dance once we arrived at our rest destination; a mighty carb fest plus a post-dinner stroll through the village; a few rounds of cards with the locals followed by an early night’s sleep (our bedrooms rarely had electricity). What I once would’ve described as my nightmare had suddenly become a dream.
Man-Made Wonders in Rome
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it certainly can’t be fully appreciated in 24 hours. I had four days to get lost in the magic of Italy’s capital and it still wasn’t enough time witness all of its treasures. Sure, I was able to visit most of Rome and Vatican City’s major tourist attractions – and they certainly didn’t disappoint (St Peter’s Basilica blew me away) – but, I needed a more time to explore the region’s charming backstreets and soak up the “La Dolce Vita” vibe. On a positive note, I was lucky enough to catch Pope Francis at his weekly sermon. Man, he knows how to pull a crowd!
The World’s Biggest Water Fight in Myanmar
My group tour through Myanmar coincided perfectly with the Thingyan Festival, a four-day water fight which celebrates the start of a new year. The mass drenching took place in every corner of the country, with kids, seniors, monks, police and everyone in between joining in the fun. The heart of the action was Yangon, where we danced and dodged water to techno music along with thousands of other locals. The main thoroughfare was lined with stages, all supporting hundreds of fire-brigade-style hoses. Their jets were practically powerful enough to rip people’s clothes off! The Thingyan Water Festival was the most fun I’d had in years – my husband and I felt like mischievous, carefree kids again (watch this video).
High Flying in Cappadocia
These days, it seems like a dawn balloon ride over Cappadocia has become a bit of a cliché. Images of a perfect sunrise sky, generously peppered with floating orbs, seem as commonplace on Insta as selfies with the Eiffel Tower (ok, not quite). But, when experiences manage to receive mass notoriety in cyberspace, there’s usually something pretty solid driving the hype. I absolutely loved my hot air balloon ride over the troglodyte towns of Cappadocia. It was completely dreamy and even better than I’d imagined. Strangely enough, there was something special about being part of a group tourism experience on this scale. It felt like we were all part of a perfectly choreographed dance – the sky was our stage and we enjoyed a collective sense of exhilaration.
A Garden City in Singapore
In 2015, I fell in love with Singapore. Sure, it’s practically 100% manmade; but the clever and super creative references to nature throughout the city-state have transformed it into an urban jungle of the ultimate kind. My favourite nightspot in Singapore was Gardens by the Bay, with its Avatar-style supertrees. I could’ve laid back in the soft grass and gazed up at them until dawn. Marina Bay Sands was another highlight, offering prime views of the city-scape below. Standing at the helm of this boat-shaped superstructure – lychee cocktail in hand, tangerine sunset on the horizon – I felt like I was on top of the world.
The Important Stuff in the UK
While I was in the UK, I had the chance to get back to basics in more ways than one. Firstly, I celebrated a traditional, cold climate Christmas surrounded by family, friends and a feast of British food. It was postcard perfect. Secondly, I explored the original home of my ancestors in Scotland. The Isle of Skye, with its beautifully barren landscapes, quaint villages and salt-of-the-earth locals, was a definite highlight. Despite the winter chill, Ben tried his hand at coasteering and loved it. Thirdly, I spent time with nature and enjoyed a lazy “holiday from my holiday” at the serene island of Inish Turk Beg. This little-known Irish hideaway is home to an adorable family of rescue animals (Shetland ponies, donkeys, pigs, dogs, horses, cats and beyond). I was in heaven.
The Living Root Bridges in Cherrapunji
Nothing beats the advice of locals. They have the keys to their country’s most authentic cultural experiences and clandestine gems. While Ben and I were in Guwahati, a friendly stranger encouraged us to divert our route to the remote region of Cherrapunji. Home to the Living Root Bridges, it also holds the title for being the wettest place on earth. Our curiosity got the better of us, so we jumped in our Landy and drove into the unknown. What we discovered was a peculiar cliffside village with rustic, pigmy-sized homes and jaw-dropping views over the plains of Bangladesh. It felt like we’d reached the ends of the earth. The next morning we tackled the vertical trek down to the Living Root Bridges. The lush forest, with its moving shadows and subtle traces of human impact, verified our view that Cherrapunji was indeed otherworldly.
Beauty and Pleasure in Italy
Amalfi Coast, Positano, Cinque Terra, Taormina, Tuscany, the Dolomites. Yes, they’re all cliché destinations. But, there’s a reason they make it to the top of many people’s bucket lists (including mine). They’re the stuff of dreams, and they inspire a desire for the good life amongst residents and visitors alike. Having the opportunity to enjoy all of these destinations during a road trip up Italy’s west coast was an unforgettable experience. Sipping wine, sampling local seafood and soaking up the picture-perfect views under the winter sun felt completely decadent. I’m so glad Ben and I took the time to do Italy properly.