Pride comes before a fall, so after I excitedly announced that January had been one of my best months on the road, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that February sucked.
Maybe that’s not a fair assessment. There were some good parts and there were some wonderful parts, but there were a whole lot of sucky parts.
Let’s get stuck in.
I kicked off the month by fulfilling a childhood dream.
When I was 13 years old, I saw an alpaca for the first time at a theme park in Staines and burst into tears. And so began my love affair with all things wooly and spitty. Ever since, I’ve been brought to happy tears at the mere sight of a camelid, and so New Zealand is a country that has me forever reaching for the tissues.
There are alpacas everywhere! Dave even grew up close to an alpaca farm! Every time we drive around his homeland, we invariably end up pulling over multiple times so I can gaze at alpacas and cry with adoration.
Once I finally made it out of Tonga and back to New Zealand’s South Island, I used my powers of persuasion to convince Dave he should spend his money on walking alpacas outside one of the most boring towns in the country. For some reason, he agreed.
It was the best thing I’ve ever done in New Zealand. Yes, that does mean it tops walking on glaciers, paddle-boarding in the ocean, cruising on fjords, climbing an active volcano, and hiking amongst glowworms.
Alpacas trump everything.
We spent an afternoon with four of these perfect animals, leading them to a nearby stream for a swim, posing for photos with grins of joy plastered across our faces, and marvelling at how calm and peaceful the experience was. I only fell flat on my face once, when my alpaca, Ferrari, spotted the water and took off towards it, pulling me facefirst into the weeds.
The alpacas were so gentle and so wonderful that Dave and I have started discussing how we can buy a house with enough land for us to house a couple of our own.
I’ll come out and come clean: my trips to New Zealand are boring to read about. These trips are a time to reconnect with Dave’s family and spend as much time as possible with them. It’s all about slowing down and experiencing a typical Kiwi summer.
While this year’s itinerary featured lots of Ashburton and Hanmer Springs time, as usual, Dave and I also took time out from yet another nail-biting backyard cricket session to see my biggest South Island oversight.
Kaikoura! This laidback town is famous for its seals, beaches, and hikes, and I wanted to experience all three.
We spent our day snacking on mussel chowder, drinking New Zealand wines, hiking alongside the cliffs, squealing over baby seals on the beach, and falling in love with this chilled out part of the country.
Overall, this was one of my favourite trips to New Zealand and by the end of it, I found myself wishing we could stay in the country for even longer. Even though there isn’t any internet at Dave’s family’s home and I was falling SO BEHIND on work.
As our New Zealand trip drew to a close, Dave and I ventured into Christchurch — his former home for several years — to check on its progress post-earthquake. I’m always surprised to witness how much damage remains in this shaken-up city — after all, the earthquake was seven years ago! — but this time, it felt as though Christchurch was in full recovery mode and it was heartwarming to witness.
Next stop: Bangkok!
Dave and I based ourselves in Ari for our week-long stay, which is my favourite neighbourhood in the city. It’s hipster but Thai hipster rather than overrun with Westerners. There’s night markets and street food and Instagrammable cafes and meals for 30 THB (less than a dollar). In short, I came to this part of town to eat well, work hard, and take a break from playing tourist for a while.
When I wasn’t attempting to eat as much Thai food as possible, I was sipping smoothies in cafes, meeting up with friends, and holding a funeral for my lungs.
The air was particularly bad in Bangkok, and we spent a significant amount of time inside because of it. I was having problems breathing, I had continual chest pains, my throat was aching, and my eyes were stinging all day long.
When Valentine’s Day rolled around, Dave and I ventured out for a quick meal only to discover the Mexican restaurant we’d chosen was giving away free cricket tacos to couples! It took me a couple of minutes to work up the courage to taste one, but once I’d powered through the first mouthful, I thoroughly enjoyed the crunchy texture they added to the meal.
One thing I’ve long had on my Bangkok bucket list was watching a movie at Enigma at Paragon Cineplex. Bangkok has some incredible options when it comes to film-going, so I put my all into convincing Dave it would be worth the splurge. I may have only come clean about the cost ($120!) of tickets once they were booked and confirmed. It was a cinema experience like no other. We had a double bed to watch Black Panther from! We had a butler! In our private lounge, we were offered dinner and alcohol and soft drinks and popcorn. We even scored a 15-minute massage!
It’s rare that I splurge on experiences like these when I travel, which only served to make it all the more special.
I sadly had to cancel my planned tour of Bangkok’s best rooftop bars because spending just an hour outside was enough to have me feeling sick. In case you were wondering, yes, I do have very sensitive lungs.
I couldn’t sit still on the flight to Chiang Mai. It had been far too long since I’d spent time in my former home of nine months.
From my window seat, I squinted out at a vast expanse of grey and felt my heart sink. My research had shown the air quality in Chiang Mai was currently worse than in Bangkok, ranging between unhealthy and dangerous, many times above the safe limit for pollution. It was a disappointing reminder that I had chosen one of the worst times of year to visit, and my lungs were about to receive an even greater beating.
Dave and I chose to base ourselves in Nimmanhaemin — my favourite area in the city, and one that’s filled with my favourite restaurants, cafes, and bars, some of which I’d spent almost every day in for months on end.
I didn’t like it.
It had changed so much in the three years since I had last been in town. Every single restaurant I had on my list to return to had closed down. The streets were swarming with loud tourists and obnoxious tour groups and dozens of minivans. There were gelato bars everywhere. Another enormous shopping mall. Co-working spaces. A European-style food court. Fewer locals. Digital nomads in every establishment.
Whenever I spoke to locals about the changes to the city, they confessed they weren’t happy, and I found myself agreeing. In Chiang Mai, I felt embarrassed to be a digital nomad.
And then things got worse.
I got sick, guys. My health deteriorated to the point where I was seriously considering a flight back to the U.K.
Day after day, I rose with new ailments. At this time of year in Chiang Mai, farmers burn off their crops, which makes for a valley full of smog in the city.
I had chest pains, burning eyes, a migraine, stomach cramps, vomiting, what felt like an asthma attack, and an infection. I tried to work out in my apartment’s gym, but felt as though I’d choked my way through 20 cigarettes with virgin lungs by the end of it. I developed a cough, my fingers were tingling with pins and needles, and my chronic pain intensified.
Back on antibiotics for the first time in years, I was depressed, disheartened, and wondering if this was a sign to stop travelling. I felt as though my body was falling apart. I was in Chiang Mai to catch up with some close friends but spending more time in bed than seeing the people I love.
On previous trips to Chiang Mai, I’ve almost always extended my stay from days to months within moments of arriving, but after one week, I needed to get out. I needed to relocate to a place that wasn’t trying to kill me.
Chiang Mai had changed and I had changed. I couldn’t believe I couldn’t wait to leave.
It took several modes of transport to start functioning again: an hour-long flight to Bangkok, a five-hour minivan to Trat, an hour-long ferry to Koh Chang, and a thirty-minute Songthaew to Klong Prao Beach.
After falling in love with Koh Chang back in 2012 — it was the first Thai island I ever visited — I finally made it back, almost five years to the day! Dave and I chose to base ourselves on the quieter Klong Prao Beach instead of the party-centric Lonely Beach, and were overjoyed to find a spot with crystal-clear ocean and powder-soft sand. Most importantly, I stopped feeling like I was on the verge of dying within a day of arriving.
It’s good to be back.
Countries Visited: 3
New Zealand, Thailand, Tonga
Places Visited: 9
Ashburton, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Christchurch, Geraldine, Hanmer Springs, Kaikoura, Koh Chang, Tongatapu
Distance Travelled: 8,760 miles
Number of flights: 6
Number of buses: 1
Number of boats: 1
Incidents of the Month
I lost feeling in half my face: On the minivan from Bangkok to Trat, I took a nap in such an awkward position that I managed to compress a nerve in my face. I woke up to a loss of sensation in half of my face and announced to Dave that unfortunately, I was having a stroke.
I spent the next five hours scratching continuously at my face to see if the feeling came back, filled with a mixture of panic and relief when it didn’t. It couldn’t be a stroke if I was still alive and functional, but if it wasn’t a stroke then what the hell was it?!
Fortunately, it disappeared 72 hours later and my best guess from researching online is that I compressed a nerve while I was sleeping and it lead to a whole lot of numbness.
I didn’t have an onward ticket: I usually advise travellers not to worry with buying onward tickets. I’ve only been asked for one once in seven years of travel, and while that was stressful to deal with, the situation was easily resolved. Find some Wi-Fi, buy a ticket out of your next destination, and get on the plane. You’ll never be asked for proof of onward travel once you arrive in the country — it’s always the check-in desk agents you’ll need to plead your case to.
It was 5 a.m. in Christchurch airport when we were informed we needed an onward ticket out of Thailand in order to board the plane. Ugh. In a panic, we began researching cheap flights only to score nothing We tried finding refundable tickets only to come up empty-handed. In the end we threw $50 at a flight out of Thailand to make the situation go away.
Having to deal with the ordeal at such an early time definitely only served to make the situation more stressful.
I was pulled over by an alpaca: It had been seven months since I’d last tripped over my awkward feet, so it wasn’t an enormous surprise when it finally happened again in New Zealand.
My alpaca lost its mind when it realised we were heading for water and with its neck flailing in wild circles, it made a run for it before I could even realise what was happening.
As I felt a hard yank on the leash, I stumbled forwards into the grass, slipped down into a ditch, and then face-planted into the weeds ahead of me.
My Next Steps
So February was a bit of a bummer, but that’s okay because the lows have the power to make the highs feel even more potent. Excitingly, March is shaping up to be wonderful!
One thing I wanted to do with this Southeast Asia trip was see parts of the region that aren’t yet overdone by travel bloggers. The world doesn’t need another blog post about Koh Phi Phi, so I’ll be heading to Koh Wai instead. Where?
I’ll be focusing my Thai island-hopping on the Koh Chang island chain, snuggled up alongside the Cambodia border. I’ve been to Koh Chang before — and loved it — but I’ll be heading further afield on this trip. The plan is to ferry my way south to check out some new Thai islands that aren’t on the backpacking hall of fame. On the cards are Koh Wai (a beautiful island that doesn’t have 24 hours of power!), Koh Mak (an island with some incredible beaches and viewpoints), and Koh Kood/Koh Kut (an island that’s regularly voted one of the prettiest in all of Thailand)!
From Koh Kood, I’ll slowly make my way out of Thailand before my visa runs out, most likely via a day of beach-hopping in Trat and a day of street-food eating in Bangkok, and then I’ll be hitting up a brand new country and region as I make my way over to Brunei! Many travellers pass through this teeny-tiny country in less than a day, using it to rack up their country count before declaring it boring and quickly leaving. I’ll be spending four days there to take a deeper look. I’ll be exploring the country’s food scene in the capital, going on the prowl for proboscis monkeys in the mangroves, and heading out on a day trip to Ulu Temburong National Park to get up high above the jungle canopy in search of wildlife and beautiful views.
Then Sabah! I’ll be heading into Malaysian Borneo for the very first time to get my jungle on! We’ll likely spend a week in Kota Kinabalu to catch up on work after so much island time, then set off around Borneo to see as much as we can cram into our action-packed itinerary.