Koh Samed: Full of Russian poseurs

Finally some beach time where it is warm enough to swim (although not as hot as you might think), the beaches in New Zealand were amazingly pretty but it was a bit too cold to swim. It has actually been about six months ago since we were at a warm beach at Costa Rica.

We arrived in Koh Samed after many, many delays. It took ages to get out of Bangkok due to congested traffic. We had to stop for petrol, which took about an hour and so on. Anyway, we arrived at about 3-ish and John rented a scooter to scout out a place to stay whilst I had lunch with the children. We lucked out and found a reasonably priced place, a hundred metres from the beach. We dumped our stuff and had a look at the beach whilst the sun was going down. Such luxury. It is a bit of a party beach but we are on the quiet end. The upside is that there is lots going on like fire shows and many places to eat and drink.

We soon found out that this place is very popular with Russians. It is full of romantic Russian couples and it goes like this: the girl poses provocatively in front of the the boy who is carrying the biggest camera you have ever seen and they take picture after picture after picture. The Chinese and Japanese are very good at doing this too. Tis very amusing.20140128-105107.jpg

So you can sit at the beach here and people watch. Many restaurants to pick from and many Thais coming around with fresh fruit and other foods. One time, we bought some fruit from one of these guys and found some Swiss people trying to negotiate the price of a coconut, which was 50 Baht (£1). The Swiss guy said: “Oh know that is too much, 30 Baht.” The Thai guy rightfully pointed at the weight he was carrying to bring this stuff to people and said: No, 50 Baht. The Swiss guy tried again: “40 Baht”. The Thai guy says no. The Swiss guy tried to lift all the gear of the Thai guy (and couldn’t) and said: “Fair enough, 50 Baht.” We got chatting to them and it turns out they were staying in The Marriott on the mainland and got here by speedboat on a day trip. Baffling. I mean, they are negotiating over 10p. Why try to be tight with the little guy doing back-breaking work in the heat whilst happily shelling out a fortune to stay at the Marriott?20140128-105359.jpg

All in all we stayed here for almost a week, just chilling out. We hired some scooters and toured around the island and had a look at some of the other beaches. It is a touristy place, but the beaches are beautiful and the island small so very easy to navigate on a scooter. Now up to the next island: Koh Chang.


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Four days in Bangkok

A day before the flight to Bangkok (with a transfer in Singapore) we received an email from Jetstar saying that due to the protests in Bangkok they would understand if we would want to change our flights and to give their Customer Service centre a ring to discuss possibilities. We did some research on the protests but couldn’t really find any news that worried us too much (it is all very contained in certain areas) but gave them a ring anyway. The only option they gave us was to change the date of our flight, we couldn’t change the destination (to Phuket for example) so didn’t think that would help us particularly and decided to go ahead. We booked a hotel near the airport with an airport pick-up as we were arriving at 8.30pm and didn’t want to risk being caught up in the closed roads of the protests in Bangkok late at night. Although we arrived a half hour late in Singapore (with a tight transfer time already) but the transfers at Singapore airport are so swift and efficient that it all went seamless.

When we woke up in the morning we had planned to go for a swim in the swimming pool but it was a bit too chilly in the morning (I know!) so after breakfast we decided to head into Bangkok city centre. We had a few delays in traffic because of closed roads and saw a protest going past but it was all very contained and peaceful.

We had a bit of a look around at Ko Saen Road and then decided to walk to the river and take a boat to one of the many temples. As it was, we got majorly delayed in a tuk-tuk scam. We were warned in the Lonely Planet book to not take any advice from a well-dressed Thai man as it is most likely to be a scam but we must have temporarily forgot (I blame the jetlag) and somehow ended up being taken around a few temples and a few ‘stops’ along the way in travel agents (I’m sure it used to be textile and gem shops?!?). Luckily we didn’t buy anything – we read later that usually the tickets are fake and you loose all your money – so although it wasted a lot of time, we didn’t get scammed. Lesson learned though, and we will now remember to be a bit more on our guard!

The next day we moved to a hotel in Ko Saen Road and visited the leaning buddha (where Obama was a few weeks ago) and the Royal Palace.


20140121-164633.jpgBoth beautiful and very interesting. In the evening we wandered around the area and ate the street foods and soaked up the atmosphere. Bangkok is hectic, but it is amazingly interesting.


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Around Tauranga and Mt Maunganui, New Zealand

Having spent quite a bit of time in this area, staying with family, we have discovered a few favourite things to do as a family:

McLaren Falls
McLaren Falls is a small area with rocks and waterfalls just before the McClaren Park, about a 15 minute drive from Tauranga City Centre. It is a great place to sit in the sun or shade with a picnic, cool down in the rock pools (cold water though!) and watch the local daredevils jump from the bridge and rocks into the water far below. 20140109-131655.jpg

Mt Maunganui
Lots to do in and around Mt Maunganui. It is an easy walk around the Mount and there are lots of places to climb down and sit at the beach. One particular afternoon we had great fun with a bucket and a net, catching prawns, crabs, sea urchins and the like (we did put them back in the water soon after!), having a good look at them and their natural habitat. 20140109-131803.jpg

At the end of the high street in Mt Maunganui there is also a fab play park where our kids can spend hours. Bonus is the fish and chips (or fush and chups as they sometimes call it here) at the corner where you can pick up some cheap food when they get hungry.

Unsurprisingly, the beach is also a great place to hang out. Long stretches of sandy beaches on one side of the Mount. On the other, the beach is smaller but often less windy and has great scenery of boats, ships and cruise ships going past.

Tauranga waterfront
In the city of Tauranga at the Strand, there is again a great play park and water fountain to play in, overlooking the sea. It even has a little coffee shops that is made out of a shipping container (Boxed Coffee) so you can sit with your coffee and watch the kids, whilst having a stunning scenery in front of you. A real holiday feel for the whole family.

Hot Pools
They are everywhere around the area. The busiest one is at the bottom of the Mount at Mt Maunganui, but there are dozens of them around. Nice warm water, the kids love as do the adults.

Lollipops indoor play centre
Great on a rainy day, it is spacious and clean and they serve decent coffee. Oh and they have Wifi if you ask, I am writing this blog post here right now! It is about a 10 minute drive outside the centre. There is a Chipmunks indoor play centre nearer to the centre as well. We haven’t been there admittedly, as we went to a Chipmunks in Whangarei and didn’t like it very much so haven’t bothered here.

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Northland, New Zealand

We have been in New Zealand since the end of November and to be honest, we haven’t done a whole lot. We have been relaxing with family (big house with swimming pool helps!) and mainly made some day trips in the area. We did spend a week in the Northland (the peninsula north of Auckland) and hired a beach house for three days overlooking the water in Whangarei heads.
It was amazing although the weather was poor at times so couldn’t enjoy the surroundings as much as we had hoped. Whangarei was a nice enough city, with a lovely area near the water called The Basin.20140109-125612.jpg

The next part of the trip was a couple of nights in the Bay of Islands. We stayed in a cabin in a holiday park just outside Paihia, nice enough but very, very expensive compared with the sort of money we were used to spending for accommodation in Central and South America. The day trip to Russell on the other side of the bay in Paihia was very nice although Russell was much smaller than we had expected.

On our way around the peninsula we made a stop at the Sand Dunes in the North, apparently you can slide down these! We also made a quick stop at the biggest kauri tree known in New Zealand, Te Matua Ngahere. The last stop on our way back were the Hundertwasser public toilets in Kawakawa. Very funky and quirky!


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Santiago, Chile: not quite worth the expense

Our bus trip to Chile didn’t get off to a good start. A 6-hour trip turned into a long 12-hour one unfortunately. There were delays at the border. Apparently there were elections the next day and a lot of unhappy civil workers, which resulted in everything taking ages and long delays. Even the stunning scenery at the border didn’t help the boredom after a few hours. 20131209-201753.jpg

When we finally got through, after 10 minutes in the bus there was another hour delay because of roadworks. By this point we were really getting quite pissed off. Instead of arriving at 5pm in Santiago, we arrived at 11pm. Exhausting and infuriating, but luckily our last long bus trip for a while.

Santiago itself was nice enough. It is a capital city with all the facilities and attractions that comes with that. There is enough to do and see but Santiago is quite expensive. Not quite sure how the local population manages with the prices there (similar to UK) and a minimum wage of 400 pounds a month.

We only had a few days there and managed to squeeze in the ‘free’ guided walking tour around the town centre. This was very interesting and the first time we had a native English speaking guide and therefore nothing was lost in translation (or heavy accents). Lots of interesting facts regarding the political history of Chile and a few nice streets, squares and parks.

20131209-202238.jpgThe museum of Memoria was also incredibly interesting with a lot of human interest stories of life during the Pinochet regime. I had a quick peak on my own in the Museum del Bella Artes, which is worth a quick visit if you are in the area.

Of course, we also had to visit the famous winery Concha y Toro, the largest winery in Chile and one of the largest wineries in the world. The tour was very interesting although it felt at $18 per person it was a bit pricey for what it was (like most of Santiago).

Then we had a flight to catch to New Zealand! The end of an era for us as we are leaving the Spanish speaking part of our trip. Can’t believe we are over half way (and effectively on our way back).

We almost didn’t get on the flight as you need an exit ticket to enter New Zealand on a tourist visa. Of course, we didn’t have one because we weren’t quite sure where we wanted to fly to in Asia and on exactly what date. However, our only option at check-in was to book something right there and then otherwise they wouldn’t let us on the plane. We are still not quite sure we made the right decision but we are booked to go to Thailand mid January.

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Cordoba, Buenos Aires and Mendoza

Cordoba is the second largest city in Argentina (Buenos Aires being the biggest) and it is certainly quite sizeable. There is plenty to see and do and lots of lovely cafes, restaurants and bars everywhere. We did a tour in the Jesuit Quarter which is the number one of Tripadvisor but it was the dullest tour we have ever done. Not sure if it was the girl’s bad English or it just wasn’t that interesting but we considered walking off because it was so dull (but we didn’t, we’re British after all, it would be too rude). The Museum of Memoria which remembers all the people went ‘missing’ in the 70s and 80s during the dictatorial regime was depressing but interesting and led to very many interesting discussions with the children trying to explain why things like this happen. The Museo the Che in Alta Gracia (a cute town an hour away from Cordoba) was interesting, mainly because we didn’t know much about Che Guavarra. We knew he is famous, we knew he was a communist and that he travelled a lot around South America but not much more than that. We know a lot now, won’t bore you with it as I am sure you all know how to use google if you are interested.20131117-211257.jpg

After Cordoba it was Buenos Aires. We weren’t planning to stay too long as we find big cities sometimes hard work with children. Too much walking usually, too many adult things and not enough opportunities for them to play and run around. We needn’t have worried. Buenos Aires has lots of parks, interesting and relatively quite neighbourhoods with safe, wide pavements. It made it a very pleasant city. It is interesting, affordable and creative. 20131117-211516.jpg

We liked it a lot. We didn’t visit any specific landmarks but visited the different neighbourhoods, some bohemian, some touristy and some (very) affluent.

From Buenos Aires it was a 15 hour night bus journey to Mendoza. We arrived on a rainy Sunday and it didn’t look very nice at all. It looked dead and dull. How mistaken were we! The next day the sun shone, everything was open and what a different that made. It can get very hot in Mendoza (it is a wine growing district) but there are big, shady trees everywhere and it is a dry heat so it makes it very enjoyable. We ended up staying a week here, a couple of days we spent just walking around town, the kids playing in the play parks around town and having lots of coffee and wine in the many, many cafes and eateries. We had a deal with the kids, one day we were going to have an adult day (i.e. doing what WE wanted to do) and the next day a kids day. On our day we went to a winery in a little town an hour away.


20131117-211929.jpgWe splashed out on a 4-course lunch (with selected wines of course), followed by a tour around the winery. It was great, the food and wine amazing and the kids very well behaved throughout. On the day for the kids we went to a thermal baths park, with multiple pools (some specific for children) in various temperatures. And they could pick the food (burgers and chips anyone?) and they loved it. In fact we all thoroughly enjoyed adults and kids day.


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Tilcara, Salta and Cafayate in Argentina

Bolivia was a bit of a mixed bag for us, we had some great times but it was tough travelling in parts. The roads can be bad, facilities very basic and the people not so outgoing. We weren’t planning to go to Argentina at first, we thought we would only have time to do Chile. Somewhere along the way we changed our minds though and decided that Argentina was preferable to Chile and we were happy to forego some of our time in Chile in favour of Argentina. Mostly this was a decision based on money, we had heard that Argentina was cheap and Chile expensive.

Well, so far I can only say that it was definitely a good decision. We are finally out of the Andes and have arrived in Latin America. The difference is quite staggering, the music, the weather, the people and the facilities are all pretty amazing (so far). As soon as we came of the bus in Tilcara (a town about three hours south of the border) the heat hit us like an oven. Swelteringly hot. And we loved it.

After checking in the hostel, we went for a bite to eat and were shocked at the prices, we thought it was supposed to be cheap here? We are obviously very naive and didn’t do our research properly as we soon found out that there is the official exchange rate from the banks (which gets you about 10 pesos for a pound) and the unofficial exchange rate on the streets, shops and anyone that is willing to change money (which gets you about 15 pesos to the pound). That is a big difference. I can’t quite get my head around how a country can operate like that and what the consequences are of such a wide scale black market in pounds, dollars and euros. Basically Argentineans save in any other currency than their own (as it inflates too much) and therefore are willing to pay more than the banks to exchange it. It’s weird.

In any case, we didn’t have any euros, pounds or dollars on us so were faced with a dilemma. Pay 50% more for everything or one of us has to go back to Bolivia and get dollars out and exchange them for pesos. So off John went…and Argentina is now very affordable!

Tilcara was small, hot and quite nice but not that much there. We had already booked a hostel in Salta before John went back to Bolivia, so we decided that we would meet in Salta at the other hostel. I travelled there with the kids, arrived at 7pm when it turned out it was an over 18 place. Not very suitable for the children! Luckily they were understanding, let us stay for two nights and we actually had a great time there and the staff and people were very nice to us. John also showed up at 10pm and we were all together again. Salta itself was amazing, a beautiful colonial (again) town with great restaurants, bars, coffee shops and shops. It is almost like being in Spain. Which makes for a great holiday feel.

20131107-154712.jpgIn Salta, we did the city bus tour (is recommended) and visited a couple of museums. One in particular was very interesting, it showcased the finding of three children that were sacrificed 500 years ago. The mummies are almost intact because they froze high in the mountains. Fascinating.

From Salta we moved on to Cafayate, one of the main wine regions of Argentina. The town is lovely and sleepy with a fantastic town square with lovely little bars and restaurants surrounding it. The first night we had great fun trying all the different empanadas and rating the different fillings (the basic meat, tomato and onion filling was the most popular). We also managed to visit the wine museum, goat cheese museum, a winery and taught Amy how to ride a bike on the town square!


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Sucre, Potosi and Salar de Uyuni

We took a night bus from Cochabamba to Sucre, which dropped us at the bus station at 5am, it was raining and still dark outside. We decided to hang around the bus station for a bit before taking a taxi to the hostal. We arrived at the hostal at 6am and it was still closed. At 7am the cleaner showed up and kindly showed us in and finally at 8am we could have some breakfast. Sunday morning 5am is not a good time to arrive in Sucre (or anywhere for that matter)!

Kultur Berlin Hostel - very nice. The owners had 3 kids of similar age which was a bonus.

Kultur Berlin Hostel – very nice. The owners had 3 kids of similar age which was a bonus.

Sucre is a lovely colonial town, where we enjoyed strolling around, visiting the Artisan museum and generally looking around the shops. We spent an awful lot of time feeding pigeons, which seems a national pastime and the kids took to it immediately.

Feeding the pigeons in Sucre, Bolivia.

Feeding the pigeons in Sucre, Bolivia.

We also visited the Dinosaur museum, based on a site where they found dinosaur foot prints in a quarry. There are over 5,000 tracks, the largest amount ever found.

Dinosaur museum - adjacent the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in the world.

Dinosaur museum – adjacent the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in the world.

After Sucre, we moved on to Potosi. Potosi is famous for its silver mining industry. You can visit the working mines and see the men at work but apart from it not being suitable for children, we felt it wasn’t for us to see people work in appalling conditions. Potosi itself was a cute town, although somewhat rundown.

Parque Central, Potosi. The pigeons are very well fed in Bolivia.

Parque Central, Potosi. The pigeons are very well fed in Bolivia.

Onwards to the salt flats of Uyuni (Salar de Uyuni), for many people the highlight of their visit to Bolivia. And also for us, as it turns out. Many people do this on a 3-day tour on their way to Chile. We felt it would be better suited for us to do a one day tour, which turned out to be sufficient. It took us to the train cemetery, with loads of old (including the oldest) trains of Bolivia, quite a sight. We then drove onto the salt flat. It is basically a dried-up lake where only the salt is left. It is a huge stretched out piece of land where the only thing you can see is blue sky and white salt. It really is quite unreal and it looks like snow. We had great fun trying all the camera tricks with funny perspectives that this landscape provides. We also stopped at the Salt Hotel (where everything is made of salt, including the building and furniture) and the Isla de Pescado (Cactus Island). It was a fantastic trip and another highlight.

Salar de Uyuni. Family pic with Bernado our driver for the day (with a mouth full of coco leaves).

Salar de Uyuni. Family pic with Bernado our driver for the day (with a mouth full of coco leaves).

Playing with perspectives - almost worked.

Playing with perspectives – almost worked.

The same evening, we took the night bus (10 hours) to Argentina. We arrived at the border at 6am and without too many problems, crossed over. We then learnt about the potentially costly and funny monetary system in Argentina…. It took John back to Bolivia, whilst I waited with the children in Argentina. More about that in the next post!

Just arrived in Argentina. It's not all glamorous!

Just arrived in Argentina. It’s not all glamorous!

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La Paz and Cochabamba

After the very expensive but lovely experience in Machu Picchu we decided to move swiftly on to Bolivia where everything is much cheaper. We went straight from Cusco to La Paz on a night bus, a 15-hour journey. As it was, it was an easy and fairly pleasant journey. Bit of queueing at a hectic border where nothing is signposted and you end up having to ask about 10 people where you’re meant to go and what you’re meant to do. Got there in the end though and arrived in La Paz at mid day. The hostel we ended up in was a bit pokey, La Paz was hectic with not many redeeming features so we decided to swiftly move on and take another 8-hour journey the next day to Cochabamba. Where the climate was warmer and the town was meant to be pretty.

The big JC overlooking Cochobamba.

The big JC overlooking Cochabamba.

We certainly lucked out with the hostel we picked. Although it was out of town (and very hard to find, no taxi driver knows where it is) it had a lovely big garden, a separate cabin with two bed rooms (a double and a triple) and…..a huge play frame! And similar aged kids. We ended up staying a week as the children enjoyed it so much and got to practice their Spanish with the owner’s children.

The kids had great fun with the children at Las Lilas Hostel near Cochabamba.

The kids had great fun with the children at Las Lilas Hostel near Cochabamba.

We did a couple of day trips, one to San Cristobal, allegedly the largest statue of Jesus Christ in South America (larger than the famous one in Rio de Janeiro). We took the cable cart up and had a great view of the city. On another day, we went to the Santa Teresa convent, a nice tour and building but nothing earth shattering.

It was a great week, recharging our batteries and we were sad to move on.

Adios Amigas!

Adios Amigas!

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Cusco and Machu Picchu

Having realised it was a 21-hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco (the main gateway to Machu Picchu), we decided to fly instead. The flights aren’t outrageously expensive and we really couldn’t face 21-hours on a bus with three children. A mistake, as it turned out. It all started reasonably well, we were 1.5 hours delayed but we were on our way. The flight was non-eventful, the views amazing and so far so good. Unfortunately, just before Cusco we were told we were turning around and returning to Lima. A ‘maintenance issue’, apparently. And so, at about 16.30 we landed back in Lima.

Amazing views on the flight from Lima to Cusco

Amazing views on the flight from Lima to Cusco

We were told to collect our luggage and go to desk number 29 where we were going to be told what was happening next.

But we weren’t told very much. Through other people we found out that they were going to put us up in a hotel and a new flight at 6am was going to be arranged. Which means a very early start, we booked an early afternoon flight to avoid just that! It can’t be helped, we waited patiently, put our names on a list and waited, waited, waited… At some point the people behind desk 29 disappeared altogether. For two hours. Some customer service girl appears to get our email addresses for a survey. At this point some people are getting VERY annoyed. Turns out, the list has disappeared, they can’t find hotels and it is all a big problem. We ended up waiting for five hours before taken to a hotel (it is 21.30 by this point, with not much food or drink available) and are told that pick-up is 3.30am the next morning. In the end, we couldn’t help but feeling that the bus would have been cheaper, just as fast and we would have slept more!!

When we finally arrived at the hostel (a charity for girls that end up as house helps and are mistreated) and the welcome couldn’t have been nicer. Our room was ready from the night before, we were offered breakfast and afterwards all had a kip to catch up on some sleep. (I will gloss over the complete meltdowns we had from the children the rest of the day as they were so tired.)

Cusco itself is beautiful, with great restaurants and bars.

Pretty views from the Plaza de las Armas in Cusco, Peru

Pretty views from the Plaza de las Armas in Cusco, Peru

We tried to investigate an affordable way to see Machu Picchu but although possible, it involves 8 hours in a van on windy roads and a 2-hour hike on train tracks which we didn’t consider to be suitable for small children. So the expensive – but relaxing and enjoyable it has to be said – way it was. The train ride to Aguas Calientes (the town near Machu Picchu) was beautiful and very relaxing. We had read that Aguas Calientes is awful so were expecting the worst but were pleasantly surprised.

Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town).

Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town).

Yes, it is touristy and higgletypigglety but it is quite charming and most importantly of all: no cars. It is so relaxing to be somewhere with children and not having to worry about traffic.

We stayed overnight and went up to Machu Picchu early the next morning. We organised a guide when we got there and he took us around for two hours and explaining the different buildings around the site. The site is amazing, the setting is just absolutely unlike anything we have ever seen before. We were worried that Machu Picchu wouldn’t live up to its expectation and expense. But it did. Easily.

The famous view at Machu Picchu

The famous view at Machu Picchu

Next stop: La Paz, Bolivia.

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