And finally....

Trip Start Mar 30, 2003
Trip End Jan 30, 2004

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Sunday, February 8, 2004

So, it is over, finished, finito. I suppose there was a time in the middle of my trip when I couldn't imagine any life other than moving on to the next place after a couple of days. This has been the trip of a lifetime for me - a great opportunity to do and see so many things that have long been on my 'places I must go to' list. I already miss the complete sense of freedom that comes with being able to choose where and what to do next.

Obviously I chose the wrong time of year to arrive back in London and I had forgotten just how congested this city is. I have now moved back into my old flat, sorted out the 10 months of mail and recovered from the trauma of getting back to work. Amazingly, I could remember how to tie my tie.

Looking back over my travelogue entries, the first time I have re-read them, my initial impression is 'did I really do all that?' (The second impression was that I was just being too sarcastic a lot of the time). Inevitably, a lot of travelling involves just waiting around for transport to get from A to B and there were times in Asia where I was very frustrated with all the hassles and hawkers. Overall, India has left a lasting impression - the bustle of the cities, the people, the food, the pollution, the smells, the extreme poverty. What sort of country spends money to have nuclear weapons, but has many millions of people without basic shelter or access to clean water?

I am often asked which of the places I went to were my favourite. Here, therefore, are the top 10 highlights of my trip:

1. The Taj Mahal. I dont think I shall ever forget my first sight of it from the top of Agra's Red Fort, shimmering in the haze of heat (and pollution) around the river bank in the distance. A definite 'Wow' moment. Up close it really was inlaid with precious stones and it really did appear to change colour before sunset. The city of Agra itself is a complete dump, though. (Entry 3)

2. Trekking in the Annapurna region of the Himalaya, Nepal. A 10 day trek, not bad for someone of my level of fitness! I suppose what I remember most now was how remote I felt from the world, the remotest (and highest point) being the holy site of Muktinath up on the Tibetan plateau beyond the Himalayas. Altitude was 3,800 metres there and the air felt quite thin. It was several days walk towards the nearest paved road or car... (Entry 7).

3. Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim, Indian Himalaya. Nestling in the mountains, surrounded by a countryside in which orchids grow wild, is this former independent Buddhist kingdom. Rumtek is a haven for Tibetans monks who have been forced to flee their homeland by Chinese occupation. Many have escaped over the border (ie the Himalayas) on their own by foot. When I was there I watched inside a gloomy temple as around a hundred monks chanted, clashed cymbals or blew horns. It was an increadibily haunting and spiritual place and I was rooted to the spot for quite some time. (Entry 9)

4. Angkor temples, Cambodia. Zipping around on the back of a motorbike to see the temples scattered around the countryside, roots of huge trees growing through and around the buildings, the enigmatic faces of Bayon temple, sunset and sunrise views, the four imposing gateways of Angkor Tom, the splendour of the friezes at Angkor Wat, investiagting small dark rooms with my torch, Indiana Jones style....need I say more? (Entry 12, especially for pics)

5. Halong Bay, North Vietnam. This was an incredible landscape of limestone islands and caves. Its a bit touristy now, but for good reason. I wish I had booked more than a 2 day cruise to enjoy it. A highlight of my time in Vietnam, which in turn was one of my favourite countries. (Entry 16)

6. Luang Prabang, Laos. A jumble of Buddhist wats (many of which were being restored to former glories), the former royal palace and French colonial architecture on the banks of the mighty Mekong. The place simply has a great atmosphere and the monks were keen to chat to learn English, too. (Entry 16)

7. Rice terraces of Bali, Indonesia. Bali really was a stunningly beaustiful island, best appreciated by getting well away from the tackiness of Kuta and walking or cycling near Ubud. Balinese culture is certainly colourful, with some sort of festival going on in a village somewhere at any time. Seeing dolphins off the north coast was good, too. (Entries 17 and 18)

8. Learning to scuba dive in Bali, and then diving the Great Barrier Reef and Fiji. I've notched up 20 dives now and its a shame that I didn't do the Advanced PADI course when in Oz. There is something incredible about floating around watching the fish (including sharks) come and go and gazing at the coral formations. (Entry 18)

9. The red centre, Oz. Ayer's Rock/Uluru at sunrise or sunset is awesome, although the 9km walk around the base in the mid-day heat is a bit tedious. King's Canyon and Mount Olga (Kata Tjuta) are also impressive red rock edifices and good for walking between and around. A great 3 day camping trip out in the bush, sleeping under the stars. (Entry 22)

10. South Island, New Zealand. For Lord of the Rings countryside; the drive from Te Anau towards Milford Sound, probably one of the most scenic in the world; heli-hiking on glaciers; the Marlborough vineyards; sea kayaking and walking in Abel Tasman National Park; the Queen Charlotte Trek near Marlborough Sound; views of Mount Cook; the charm of Christchurch and adrenaline rushes around Queenstown. Did I really jump out of a plane at 15,000 feet at Wanaka? Why?? (Entries 28 and 29)

Top beaches visited, all with 'holiday brochure cover' white sand, palm trees and crystal clear water:

1. Caqelai island, Fiji. My piece of tropical paradise, think 'Castaway' and 'Blue Lagoon'. No option other than to chill out, really. Alas, not especially convenient for a weekend break from London. (Entry 30)

2. The Gilli islands, Lombok, Indonesia. This is where I would open my beach bar/restaurant/hotel! Developed enough to have a good time, but still tropical paradise. (Entry 19)

3. Mui Ne Beach, Vietnam. Where I would go every weekend if I were an ex-pat living in Saigon. Still very undeveloped. (Entry 14)

4. Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia. Getting there on a sailing trip is half the fun as nobody lives there and there is no development. The sand is pure-white silicon and quite dazzling in the sun. Often rated one of the best beaches in the world. (Entry 21)

OK, thats enough thinking of tropical beaches, time to start planning my next trip!
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