On the 7th of January, it was time to say goodbye to our friends from college and set off on our travels. With 20 scholars, we were all over the place! Over the two months, there were scholars in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Australia and various cities and villages in China. Some went home to see family, and some instead took the opportunity to see a little more of Asia.
I started off my travels in Harbin, to see the Snow and Ice Festival, which was so incredible we had to go twice! I was lucky enough to have my sister and friends from home visit me, and it was so much fun to take them to see such a beautiful place. After staying in Tianjin for a few days, I went with my sister and Scott to travel around the Shandong Province, which is the province south of Tianjin. We visited Jinan and saw the BaoTu Hot Springs and the Thousand Buddha Mountain, we climbed Mount Tai, one of China’s most sacred mountains situated in Taian, visited the famous Librarie Avant-Garde in university city Nanjing, and we ended in Shanghai, where we celebrated Chinese New Year with Molly, Sophie and Maeve. I said goodbye to my sister and Scott and left with the others to travel South East Asia for a month. First stop was South Thailand- we spent five days island hopping and visited Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. Ko Phi Phi was an unexpected stopover, as we missed our ferry to Koh Lanta, but it was hardly a disaster to be stranded on a tropical island with no cars and a lively atmosphere! On both islands it is required to pay a ‘clean-up’ fee, which is only 20p and helps the islanders ensure the conservation of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We went on to Bangkok, the country’s capital. The Thai king died on the 13th of October 2016, which is something we were already aware of because of our friends at college- the entire country was in mourning, they told us, and people were very upset. This was very evident when we got to Thailand, and nowhere more than Bangkok. There were shrines to the king everywhere and black banners decorating the gates of schools and official buildings. When we visited the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, there were two separate queues. One was for tourists and took a matter of minutes to get through. The second was for Thai citizens who had come to pay their respects to the king, who’s body had been laid to rest at the palace. Clad in black clothing, they waited 5 hours in blistering 35 degree temperatures and were there as part of family, school or friendship groups. It was impressive to see, but we did our best not to intrude!
From Bangkok we went on to Siem Reap, Cambodia. This is the location of the largest religious grounds in the world, the Angkor Wat. We visited six different temples and had the full day to explore. You are free to roam around as you like, and climb up and down various temples. It was most definitely one of the most incredible places I have ever been. We then went on to Phnom Penh and explored Cambodia’s capital. It was here that we visited the killing fields. The atrocities that took place there are unspeakable- we learnt a lot and have even more respect for the Cambodian people, who were some of the nicest we met and who have suffered a lot in relatively recent years. Before going to Vietnam, we sought out the south again and went to Kampot, a tranquil little village on a river. Our best evening was spent doing a boat cruise, which included swimming, watching the sunset and looking for fireflies!
Next stop was Vietnam, and we took a 10 hour bus to Ho Chi Minh City. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds! In Ho Chi Minh we went to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were underground routes created by the Vietnamese in the war with America. The Vietnamese employed ingenious methods to win the war; for example, they used to turn the soles on their shoes the wrong way around when it rained to give the Americans the impression that they had travelled in the opposite direction. We visited the War Museum (yes, the one in the Top Gear episode) which also taught us so much. From there it was on to Da Nang and Hoi An, which were costal/riverside towns. Hoi An has an ancient village and you can visit the homes of vietnamese residents, as well as going into any of the local restaurants to try some of the traditional food which is famous for all the right reasons! From Hoi An, we travelled to Halong Bay which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We went spent the day on a boat here, and had lunch, went kayaking and swam to a secluded beach, as well as visiting a floating fish market. Top tip- don’t forget your towels and wear warm clothes. The boat doesn’t have spare, as we discovered the hard way! Next it was time for our last stop, and we spent 4 days in the capital Hanoi. Here we were lucky enough to meet up with one of our friends from college, who brought her friend and showed us around the city. Meeting Lan Phuong forced us to dust our Chinese brains off as our common language is Mandarin, not English! We spent the last few days seeing as much of Hanoi as we could, and enjoying the last few days of our adventure.
Meeting Lan Phuong eased us back into studying when we got back to Tianjin, because it had been a matter of days since speaking Chinese instead of a matter of weeks! Classes start on the 9th of March and we have an exciting new start, as we are transferring from our college to Tianjin Foreign Studies University where we live. As much fun as it was travelling South East Asia, it is nice to have clean socks and some form of routine again! That’s not to say I won’t go back; South East Asia was the best month of my life, and has made an already incredible year even better. Yeah.