Starting our trip we soon discovered that the most important thing to bring for such a journey is time. While 13 months might seem a long time, this becomes relative when visiting countries like India, Mongolia or Indonesia, which each would merit months and months of exploration.
Our journey took us from the beaches of Thailand past the green hills of Laos to the amazing temples of Cambodia. Moving on, we ventured through exotic Tamil Nadu and Kerala in south India all the way north to the Ganges and the Himalaya Mountains, before crossing to Nepal and Yunnan province in China. Through Sichuan province we continued to Xi’an and finally Beijing, from where Mongolia was a close and wonderful one-month adventure. Passing through Shanghai, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, we spent two months in Java, Sulawesi and other islands in Indonesia before arriving at our last major stop, New Zealand..
March and April 2011: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
We started our trip in March 2011 in southern Thailand after arriving in Phuket by plane. Reaching Ko Lanta by ferry boat we spent one week on this island which helped us to recover from our stressful preparations.
With renewed energy, we booked a flight from Hat Yai to explore the charming city of Chiang Mai, where we learned how to prepare tasty Thai food and had a motorbike accident. Halfway recovered, we decided to cross the border to Laos in the north and headed down the Mekong River by slow boat.
After two rainy days on the boat, our new destination was beautiful Luang Prabang that hosted us for some days. A minibus drove us through scenic and breathtaking mountains and villages to the tourist hotspot Vang Vieng, where we tried to escape from the city crowded with party backpackers and enjoyed nature, kayaking, trekking and cycling.
Our next stop, Laos’ capital Vientiane, was a very short one and soon we made our way further south.
A goat on the roof of a local bus accompanied us to Savannaketh, from where we travelled to Si Phan Don, meaning 4000 islands.
We entered Cambodia by bus and roamed the crowded and unpleasant capital Phnom Penh before relaxing and celebrating the Khmer New Year in southern Kampot. From there, we also made a quick dash to the beaches of Sihanoukville, where we got terrible sunburn and had an exhausting motorbike night ride back to Kampot.
We reached the city of Siem Reap and were fascinated by the impressive Angkor temples. Our last stop after two months in Southeast Asia was Thailand’s capital Bangkok, a splendid and modern metropolis that never sleeps. We visited the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, went to the cinema and enjoyed the feeling of being cosmopolitan .
May to July 2011: India and Nepal
Heading out of Bangkok we took a flight to Kuala Lumpur, where we spent a night at the airport before continuing our trip to Chennai, the former Madras, in southern India.
After a few days in Chennai a couple of friends gave us a lift to Mammalapuram, home of Krishna’s Butter Ball and the famous stonemasons.
From there it was a short bus ride to Pondicherry, allegedly a town with French flavour, which however left us rather uninspired.
Leaving Pondy late in the evening it was a tough night bus ride to Madurai, one of India’s oldest and liveliest cities and home of the Sri Meenakshi’s and many other colourful temples. After a nice city tour we already left after less than 24 hours, taking another bus at 4 am to the tip of the Indian subcontinent, Kanyakumari.
We continued along the west coast to relaxing Varkala beach, only passing through the capital city of Kerala, Trivandrum. Our next stop were the scenic Backwaters close to Alleppey, and then the harbour town Kochi, famous for its Chinese-style fishing nets and last station of our stay in Kerala before moving on to Mumbai.
The capital of Maharashtra surprised us with its cultural diversity, modern lifestyle and comparably uncomplicated way, given its size. Having spent three very interesting days in Mumbai we moved on to Aurangabad, an unpleasant city but hub for excursions to the magnificent caves of Ajanta and Ellora.
Another night bus ride took us to the only town of our journey in the state of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, an industrial city with a long history in textile production and home of Indo-Saracenic architectural style.
From there it was just another night train to romantic Udaipur in Rajastan, where we enjoyed a few touristy days. Next stops were Jaipur, capital of Rajastan, and Agra, capital of Indian tourism.
Having visited both Taj Mahal and Fort in the otherwise unattractive Agra we ventured on to Delhi, India’s capital, where we spent almost a week. After so much sightseeing we needed some inspiration and headed for the capital of yoga, Rishikesh, to retreat into an Ashram for two weeks.
Fully enlightened now, we were hungry for the mountains, and quickly passing through unpleasant Shimla, made a scenic journey through the Spiti Valley. Eventually, after a quick stopover in Manali, we made it to Leh, our final destination in India. This cosy place had us for a week, until we boarded a flight to Kathmandu via Delhi.
Being in the monsoon season, Nepal greeted us with lots of rain which got even worse when we made our way to Pokhara, a city close to the Annapurna mountain range. Unfortunately the mountains of 8,000m all stayed behind the clouds. Impressed by Hindu cremation rituals along the banks of the Bagmati in Pashupatinath, we returned to Kathmandu, where our visa for China was waiting.
August to mid October 2011: China and Mongolia
We fled the monsoon and took a plane from Kathmandu to Kunming, capital of south-western Yunnan. This green province is full of rice terraces, corn and tobacco plantations, has most of Chinese ethnic minority groups, and is dream destination for Chinese tourists.
Kunming is very modern and consume-oriented, so we continued our journey towards more ancient Chinese towns, Dali and Lijiang. Both were scenic but fully tourist-centric.
Moving north-west we also got closer to Tibetan culture and mountainous landscape. Passing through the Leaping Tiger Gorge we advanced to the famous Shangri-La, which is already on 3,200 meters altitude and where you begin to breathe in the Tibetan world.
Leaving Shangri-La towards the west meant climbing up onto the Tibetan Plateau. Passing through Xiangcheng to get to Litang (4,000m), we left the province of Yunnan and arrived in Sichuan, more precisely in the Wild West of Sichuan, where yaks, dusty roads and cowboys rule everyday life.
The journey eastwards back into civilization was scenic, but meant spending long hours on the bus. Via Kangding we arrived in Chengdu, one of the biggest cities in China, and enjoyed watching the giant pandas in this quite laid-back place.
A night train took us from there to Xi’an, ancient capital of Shaanxi province and China’s heartland. We spent some days at museums, cycling the city walls, and watching the Terracotta Army, that depicted the warriors of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Our next stop and stepping stone into Mongolia is Beijing.
Beijing kept us for a week. We hiked along the Great Wall, walked through the Forbidden City, and observed the marriage market, where parents try to get rid of their still unmarried but grown-up kids. From Beijing we took different paths into Mongolia and eastern China.
In Mongolia, the highlights were horse riding at the scenic Lake Khuvsgul and camel riding in dunes of the Gobi. Climbing up the 7,000 steps of the holy mountain in Tai’an, strolling around the harbour city of Qindao and partying in Shanghai were the best moments of travelling along the eastern Chinese coast.
October to the end of 2011: Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia
We both made our way to white beaches and red sunset skies on Boracay Island on the Philippines, one coming from Shanghai, the other from Mongolia via Hong Kong. Our second destination on the Philippines was Palawan Island where we did island hopping around El Nido and in general just wasted time
From the Philippines we continued on to Singapore, got our dose of city life and our visas for Indonesia, and off we were for Jakarta. The busy Indonesian capital had us for a couple of days, we prepared for our onward journey and took yet another flight to Makassar on Sulawesi Island.
We made our way north to the funeral ceremonies at Tana Toraja and visited houses with boat-shaped roofs and tombs hanging in cliffs. After a quick stop at Tentena on Lake Poso we headed for the coast and took a ferry to the Togian Inslands.
After more than one week of snorkelling, swimming, sunbathing and eating great fish we continued to Gorontalo and further to our last stop on Sulawesi, Manado, where bats, dogs and rats are on the menu. From Manado we took a plane to Surabaya, a major town on Java, Indonesia’s most populated island and visited a cigarette factory.
A train took us to colourful Yogyakarta, cultural capital and home of the Borobudur temple and two million pushy becak drivers. Our next stop on the way to the Bromo volcano was Malang. After climbing Bromo we hiked up with sulfur miners to the largest acid lake on Earth in another volcano, Kawah Ijen, one of the most incredible and surreal places we’ve ever seen.
We left Java and visited the beaches of Lombok and Sumbawa. In Lombok we passed through Senggigi and visited Kuta, a true surfer spot, before heading on to Sumbawa, where we paid a visit to Maluk, another place with great waves. Running out of time, we turned back westwards to the Gilis off the Lombok coast where we celebrated X-mas on Gili Meno and New Year’s on Gili Trawangan.
January to March 2012: New Zealand
We arrived in Auckland at the beginning of January after a long journey from Indonesia via Singapore. In the course of a week we had found a suitable van, 23 years old and with a lot of mileage and several minor issues we learned about on the road, but very reliable. Having the van gave us the fantastic freedom to stop for the night wherever we wanted, with the limits being the fact that almost all land in this country is private property and many suitable places now have signs forbidding overnight stays. Still we had several very scenic overnight spots at the sea, lakeshores, or on hilltops. Plus we enjoyed cooking our own meals on our portable gas cooker, and eat all the stuff we could not get during ten months in Asia.
Touring the North Island, our first stop was the excellent Kauri Museum close to Matakohe. From there we traversed the Kauri forest and Northland all the way to Cape Reinga. On the way back south we passed through Whangarei and Leigh before finding another beautiful and a bit remote area, the Coromandel peninsula.
The beaches at the Bay of Plenty were sandy, but the water cold, so we moved inland towards Rotorua and Lake Taupo. Driving back north through Raglan and Port Waikato towards the Kaipara Harbour closed a first loop which had already added almost 3,000 km to the mileage
While Kate did a 10-day Vipassana meditation, Randy cruised around the North Island, having great stops in the Bay of Islands, Waitakere, and other great spots. We continued south towards Wellington, stopping for the Tongariro crossing, an impressive one-day hike.
A four-hour ferry ride took us across the Cook Strait to the South Island, where we explored the Marlborough Sounds before heading on along the western shoreline. We made our way south via limestone rocks and glaciers down to Milford Sound and Queenstown, where ceaseless rain chased us away quickly. Our next stop was on a sheep farm close to Invercargill on the very windy south coast.
After a couple of days in Riverton and a short dash to the Catlins National Park, we went on towards Dunedin, the principal city of the Otago Region, where we watched seals and caught some nice sized fish for dinner. The Mount Cook National Park impressed us with its spectacular Mueller Hut ascent, snow avalanches and a breathtaking view on valleys and NZ’s highest mountain. Our last stop before flying home was Christchurch. While advertising our van we made a quick trip to the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve close to Arthur’s Pass, where we fought our way through the pitch-black, cold and wet cave – amazing.