Travelling Light

Travelling Light: The First Year

The anniversary of our departure from Australia has just ticked over! This is the selfie we took when we started travelling within Australia on September 11, 2013 – we were on our way from Sydney to Coffs Harbour.

Yes, we came back to Australia for a visit during our first year of travelling – we couldn’t miss out on learning Ro Tai – but we never put down roots or acquired additional stuff, or had an Australian address. In fact, we were officially registered as “no fixed address” with Centrelink while we were students!

We were very proud of the compact pile of all our worldly possessions when we left Australia the first time – now we have a lot less. Travelling teaches you how little stuff you really need.

Tom’s parents came to the airport to see us off on our first flight to Langkawi, via Kuala Lumpur.

Langkawi was the place where we first encountered the ubiquitous Malaysian iced Milo – they even sell it in KFC! It was also the first place we encountered cats with contorted tails.

We learned that cats are not having horrific accidents in large numbers – the shortened, bent, and knobby tails we were seeing were the result of a genetic abnormailty, which appears to be dominant. It is widespread through South East Asia.

We took a ferry from Langkawi to Penang, where we met some wonderful people at the Stardust Guesthouse, did a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, and helped deliver a litter of kittens.

The kittens were born at Line Clear, our favourite place for a roti cannai breakfast.

Jenny found the mother cat in labour, hissing at a half-grown kitten that has stumbled onto her hidey-hole behind a huge poster. She helped the kitten get out, then asked the restaurant saff for a cardboard box, so that mother cat could give birth away from the inch-deep rat droppings she was lying in.

One kitten was stillborn, but three survived, and the restaurant staff took great interest in the cat family. We were confident that they would at least be well-fed.

From Penang, we crossed the border into Thailand. Our first stop was Hat Yai (“Big City”), where Tom had his first Thai street food pad Thai.

And then it was off to Koh Lipe, and the wonderful Cafe Lipe, where we enjoyed beachfront views every day. We loved Koh Lipe so much that we stayed six weeks! We would have stayed longer, but our visas were expiring, and we needed to make a border run.

After staying in Hat Yai and making a quick trip back to Malaysia for five minutes, we were ready to explore Thailand further. We headed to a tiny coastal village recommended by the owners of Cafe Lipe – Bo Djet Luk (Seven Wells).

We spent Christmas in this tiny Muslim town in a Buddhist nation, and completely avoided any tinsel, Santa, or pressure to consume. It’s a fishing village, so there were a LOT of cats.

We were due in Chiang Mai for New Years Eve, so we reluctantly said farewell to all the kitties and headed back to Hat Yai, where we saw our first Siamese coloured cat in the former Siam. We also saw an impressive display of force from the local police and military, designed to discourage separatist guerrillas from doing anything violent over the holiday period.

We caught the overnight train from Hat Yai to Bangkok, and decided that next time we would get sleeper berths. In Bangkok, we found a travel agent who could get us sleeper tickets for the train to Chiang Mai, even though they were supposedly sold out. We just had to pay twice the price. We were so tired we agreed – and the berths were luxurious indeed!

At midnight on New Years Eve, it is traditional to release lanterns. Tom bought one, even though we had reservations about the environmental impact. What goes up, must come down …


We had a blast in Chiang Mai with our friends from Sydney, and then made a border run to Mayanmar near Chiang Rai.

We ended up getting the minibus to drop us at the hospital on the way back! It was a magical place, with big-screen TV (not that we watched any TV), wifi, and a minbar. The beds were wide enough for two, so we could snuggle up together and watch movies. Almost worth having the liver damage from an infection (Tom) and dengue fever (Jenny), just to stay in such luxurious surrounds.

Once we were released from hospital, it was time to head to Cambodia, via Bangkok, where we had our first stay at the glorious Bansabai Hostel. It has a rooftop swimming pool … hot water and air conditioning … hydroponic vegetables … fresh salads … swoon!

We met the lovely Pookie and her mother while we were staying at Bansabai, and they showed us around the area, and took us to the markets.


From Bangkok, we caught the bus along the coast, and made an unscheduled stop in Chanthaburi, the gem capital of Thailand, where we bought a 21st birthday present for Jenny’s daughter, Sam.


Finally, we crossed the border into Cambodia, and trekked our way to Phnom Penh, where we changed locations several nights in a row, trying to find decent accommodation at a reasonable price. We did manage to find a Western breakfast at a reasonable price, right on the Mekong.

We applied for our new 60-day Thai visas, paid the “corruption tax”, and eventually we were ready to move on.

Our first stop was an island called Koh Rong, which is quite lovely. The main beach is crowded, polluted, and noisy (sleep is almost impossible anywhere on the main beach), but if you go farther afield you can still find white sand and serenity.

Tom’s blood test, which we managed to get done on Koh Rong, came back looking dodgy, so we headed back to the mainland and straight into hospital. We were collected from the wharf by the “Club Wrecker Mania” ambulance. It turned out that Tom had gallstones, and Jenny had a GI infection.

The hospital didn’t have a food service, so Jenny had to go out several times each day to find food. Fortunately, there was a fruit stall right across the road, complete with kitten.

When Tom was pronounced fit to travel, we headed back to the islands, this time to Koh Ta Kiev. We spent a delightful week doing not much at all, except that Tom attempted a natural gallstone flush, and we did a lot of yoga and swimming.

We would have stayed longer, but we were due in Mass’ village. We met Mass on Koh Lipe, and he told us that we just had to visit his home village. He wanted help setting up a homestay business, and we had arranged to meet him at the village in early February.

We got a bus from Sihanoukville to Bangkok, and flew from Bangkok to Ranong, where we got another bus south to Huaey Sap.

We stayed for two nights with a lovely family, visiting Pra Pat beach, Talae Nok (Bird Beach), and Ton Kloi swimming hole. Then we walked up the river and camped for a night, before returning to stay in “the Habsoh house” – the house where the mother’s name was Habsoh.

The visit was a success, and we agreed that we would all return to Ton Kloi in October to make a start on the homestay project.

From Ton Kloi, we made our way to Koh Phangan to do a month of intensive yoga. Our first stop was Khao Lak, the place Mass said we had to see, because this was how he saw Ton Kloi developing.

The beach at Khao Lak was beautiful, but completely built up with fancy expensive resorts. We weren’t sure this was the direction we really wanted to go with the tranquil Ton Kloi village!

From Khao Lak, we travelled to Koh Samui, where we were meeting some of Tom’s family to celebrate the birthdays of Tom, his aunt and his cousin. A great time was had by all, and many mohitos were had by some.

And then it was time to take the short ferry trip to Koh Phangan.

We had a wonderful time on Koh Phangan, met so many amazing people with whom we had so much in common, and enjoyed wonderful yoga experiences in a gorgeous, gorgeous setting. We found a bungalow right on the beach for a very reasonable price, and went swimming almost every day between classes.

Reluctantly, because our visas were again running out, we left the beautiful Koh Phangan after almost five weeks of bliss. We proceeded to Surat Thani, where we had scheduled a day for Tom to try to find someone to replace the screen on his tablet.

We were blown away by the Chic Hotel in Surat Thani. Not only did it have air conditioning and hot water, it had sparkling clean white bedlinen, white swan towels, and it even supplied white fluffy bathrobes! After a month of cold water bucket bathing, it was Heaven on Earth.

We are going back there for our anniversary in November!

We flew from Surat Thani to Kuala Lumpur, and spent a night in the Malaysian capital. We love Malaysia! Vast arrays of really tasty vegetarian food are freely available everywhere.

And from KL, we flew back to our former home town, Sydney, into the arms of our friends and family. We spent a few days staying with Jenny’s family before heading out to Penrith to learn Ro Tai.

Jimi and Lindy had organised a house-sit for us in Penrith, which lasted until mid-May. It so happened that a dear friend of Jenny’s found himself alone in a three-bedroom house in Riverwood at that time, so we relocated to Riverwood for two more months of Ro Tai and all the domestic bliss.

Finally, we had our Ro Tai Practitioner certification, and it was time to head off and explore the world some more. It’s always sad to say goodbye to all the wonderful people everywhere we go, but it is especially hard in Sydney, where there are so many people we love so much.

We did another road trip, visiting friends in Newcastle, Bellingen and Coffs Harbour, before boarding our next flight – the first of a series of five flights that would ultimately deposit us in Budapest, Hungary.

The first flight to Singapore was delayed, causing us to miss all the others, so we rerouted through Doha, Qatar, and actually arrived in Budapest four hours earlier than originally scheduled! Yay for travel insurance.

We visited family in Budapest, Szeged and Pécs, went to Lake Balaton with one branch of the family, and fell in love with Hungary.

From Hungary, we did a whistle-stop tour of all the neighbouring places that were once part of Hungary, or at least part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In Serbia, we visited Palić, Subotića and Beograd, before taking a bus to Kotor, on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. From Kotor,  we took a day trip to the historic walled city of Dubrovnik, which has recovered well from the damage inflicted during the wars of independence when the former federation of Yugoslavia collapsed.

We went from Kotor to Kosovo, where we found that the Kosovar Albanians were lovely, lovely people. We moved on to Skopje, where we discovered that Macedonian Albanians are lovely, lovely people. We are now very keen to visit Albania some time in the future!

The next stop was Sofia, where we were wowed by the history, particularly the Roman buildings and burial grounds which have been preserved and then brought to light by various accidents of history. We even got to touch a Roman mosaic!

Then it was time to head into Romania, where we planned to spend at least ten days. Our first port of call was Bucharest, where our couchsurfing hosts came to the railway station to collect us at five AM on a Saturday. Greater love hath no man.

We admired the Communist era monumental buildings, and the lovely parks, and then headed north to Transylvania, which has perfected the art of pretty buildings.

Sinaia is the location of Peleș Castle, one of the most lovely castles in Romania. It is surrounded by mountains, perfect for trekking in summer and skiing in winter.

We would have liked to stay longer in Sinaia, but Brașov was calling.

In Brașov, the old town is almost completely preserved. The buildings have been modernised, with electricity and plumbing, but they are the original mediaeval buildings. The entire area that was once walled still feels like a mediaeval town, even though two of the walls have been mostly taken down.

Tom was a bit under the weather, so we decided to skip Prague and stay a few days longer in Brașov. Even so, we didn’t quite get to do all the touristy things we would have liked to do. We’re definitely going back to Brașov.

We took an overnight sleeper train from Brașov to Cluj, where we were staying at The Permanent Culture Club, an alternative lifestyle commune that used to be a guesthouse, while taking a day trip to Turda. There is a salt mine in Turda that is a must-see for anyone going to Transylania. It even had a lake for boating, 26 storeys underground!

It was an epic journey from Cluj to Linz, where we were to visit a yoga friend from Koh Phangan. The bus on the first leg to Budapest was three hours late, so we couldn’t get the train we had planned to get. We managed to get the last two seats on a coach from Budapest to Vienna, which arrived before the train, and we were able to catch the train from Vienna to Linz.

Charly and his girlfriend showed us around Linz, and we had a wonderful time.

We would have liked to stay longer (this seems to be a bit of a theme for us!) but we had people to meet in Croatia, so we caught a train from Linz to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and caught a bus from there to Croatia. It was fantastic to be back on the coast again.

We were staying with a friend in Medulin, Croatia, which is very close to Pula, so we did a day trip to see the Roman ruins in Pula. Spectacular! Apparently, this is the sixth biggest Roman arena anywhere.

We hitchhiked from Medulin to Ljubljana, where we sent a few days falling in love with the beautiful, walkable city centre, and the lovely, open-hearted Slovenes. They say theirs is the only country with “love” in its name.
We had the train journey of all train journeys from Ljubljana to Baja, where we visited one more relative before heading to Budapest to fly to Thailand. We stayed one night in a fabulous hostel in Budapest, and had a final lángos breakfast, and saw three cousins one last time.

We were staying in Bangkok for a few days, so we went first to the lovely Bansabai Hostel to see Pookie and her mother. They actually came to the airport to pick us up! Given Bangkok traffic, that is very much above and beyond the call. We were blown away.

After a couple of nights at Bansabai, we relocated to Green House, near Khao San Road. We met up with a couple of Tom’s friends from Sydney, who are now living in Bangkok and teaching English.

We posted our winter clothes to Tom’s parents to Australia, extended our visas for an extra 30 days, and bought Tom a harmonica – all in one day, before boarding the sleeper train to places south.

Tom did a ten-day silent meditation retreat, while Jenny went directly to the village in Ton Kloi. Habsoh had a house full – her sister and brother-in-law were staying with them while he went to rehab at the local hospital (he appeared to have had a stroke), and her son was visiting with his wife, three-year-old, and newborn twins. Her daughter and her husband were also staying.

By the time Tom finished his retreat, the extra people had all gone home, so he had a gentle re-introduction to the real world.

And we are still in Ton Kloi as the anniversary of our departure from Australia rolls around. It has been a fascinating year, full of new discoveries, new skills, new languages, and new friends. Not to mention all of Tom’s new hair …

We look forward to many more years like this one!