Thursday, 15 December 2016

Passports, visa issues, and other first world problems…

I’m pretty sure you must often think from reading my blog updates or seeing my Facebook travel posts that our life of nomadic world travel is all fun and adventure and frolicking on the beach – and it mostly is – except for when there are problems.

Problems can range from: delayed flights, missing flights, broken aeroplanes, feeling ill and wondering if you need a doctor, having toothache but no dentist, feeling sea-sick with no sight of land, getting hurt and wondering if you’ll ever get better, fleeing from a typhoon, being in the path of a hurricane, etc etc…. 

Those are just a few off the top of my head.

But some problems are really tricky to overcome – they are usually first world issues to do with having no fixed abode - and we have been dealing with some of these recently.

Like what to do when you have been travelling for a while and you want to continue travelling but you know that at the end of the month your bank debit card will expire and, in the tiny remote place you are in, your debit card is the only card that works at the only ATM?

Add to that, knowing that every month after, each one of the credit cards in your wallet is going to expire in turn (like a row of dominos falling down). 

Having no debit card means no access to our bank funds and no credit cards means no flights can be booked online leaving us pretty much penniless and stranded.

Do we have to go back to the UK just to visit our bank?

Then there is the visa issue. We are so lucky to have UK passports – one of the most powerful passports in the world (erm, well, right now at least) which allows you a visa and entry – often on arrival - to many wonderful countries. Recently we were in Malaysia were we were given a 90 day visa on arrival and Indonesia were it is a 30 day on arrival visa.

We are now in Thailand, where with a UK passport you get a 30 day visa on arrival. But what if we want to stay longer – and we do? 

This is a problem that can be both costly and exhausting. For example, to get a 60 day visa you need to apply outside of Thailand at a Thai Embassy or Consulate for that visa every time. This is what is known as a visa run.

I mentioned passports – and that brings me to the main topic of this post. 

Many countries insist that you have at least six months valid on your passport. We knew our passports were good for another eighteen months. Or so we thought - until we went on a visa run to the Thai Consulate in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia recently. The Thai visa takes up a whole page of a passport and then there are the additional in/out stamps too. It was pointed out to us that we had now run out of blank pages in our passports.

This was not so much a problem but an immediate crisis.

No pages – no visas – no stay – no travel – and the clock was ticking and the days counting down. Did we have to dash back to the UK to replace our passports?

Thankfully we found a way around having to take the hit of buying expensive holiday time air fares (our current visas expire a few days after New Year) and, after contacting Her Majesties Passport Office in Bangkok, we were told we could replace them as overseas citizens through their office. Hurray!

It took exactly three weeks from us sending off our current passports and all our paperwork to Bangkok, them checking it all and sending it onto London, for us to receive our brand new passports.

Out with the old and in with the new!

During that time I tracked our returning passports with DHL passing through their depots in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, New York, Hong Kong and back to the passport office in Bangkok for collection.

Our new passports have travelled far and wide without us!

We were saved the cost and inconvenience of having to go all the way to Bangkok by enlisting the help of a friend (thanks Mark) who lives in Bangkok and who did the drop off and pick up for us and posted our passports back to us on our tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand.

I have to point out that the Thai postal service is excellent and so we had no problems doing this. However, there are many places in the world that doing sensitive stuff like this by post would be inadvisable if not absolutely impossible. What do you do then? I have no idea.

And the credit and debit card problem? It wasn’t easy but again we had help. We had a family member to post out our new cards, once they’d been issued by the bank, to a friend in another country whom we planned to meet up with at some point. And, on another occasion, we had to time things perfectly so that we were in a country/place/address where we could rely on a courier getting to us. Making this all like a game of worldwide tag.

But now we are viable once again. We have our new bank cards, we have our new passports and we are once again prepared to take a boat and a bus and a plane and a train and then probably an Uber taxi - to get to the next place outside Thailand which has a Thai Consulate or a Thai Embassy - where we can get our next visa back into Thailand again. Which we don’t consider to be a problem at all!

Until next time,
Love, Janice xx

Friday, 9 December 2016

House hunting failure in Malaysia and other adventures...

After our amazing trip to Bali and the Gili Islands in Indonesia, which you can read about HERE, we headed back to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

We stayed two nights at the Intercontinental Hotel in KL city centre, then two days later, we flew with Air Asia over to the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

This was our second visit to this duty-free island. We stayed here for a week exactly one year ago during our Grand Asian Tour of 2015. We decided to come back here because we had been enthusing about Langkawi to our friends Mark and Rebecca, who live on the island of Koh Tao, in Thailand, and whom we met up with on Gili Air.

Mark and Rebecca were looking for a place to relax and unwind for a week after their hectic final F1 destination and we were looking at Langkawi as a possible place to settle down for a couple of months.

I felt the need to stop travelling for a while and to find somewhere conducive to finishing the manuscript of my next romantic adventure novel. After which, in late December, we planned to head to Koh Tao Thailand for the start of high season – which had always been our plan for the end of 2016.

So the four of us arranged to meet up again in Langkawi.

We thought Langkawi might be a good choice for us as a place to settle for a while as it was just the start of the high season there (and still rainy season in Koh Tao) and we had three month visa, which is standard for UK Passport holders arriving in Malaysia. We also expected it to be relatively inexpensive to live there too. So we booked ourselves into a budget hotel for a week to give us enough time to find a small house or apartment to rent.

But even though we took lots of time to look for suitable accommodation in various places on the island, while Mark and Rebecca chilled out in their plush hotel, we discovered a complete lack of affordable availability and we were told over and over again that rental accommodations had been booked out for months in advance. So total house-hunting failure!

The Langkawi trip wasn’t a complete failure however, as we got to enjoy Mark and Rebecca’s company again. We had wall to wall sunshine for a week. And we got to eat the most amazing seafood – tiger shrimp and lobster - at the most incredibly affordable prices.

And we also got to throw away our worn-out clothing and buy new ones from the market on Langkawi, where they have the softest, lightest, coolest, cotton clothing we’ve ever found. I think I replaced my entire wardrobe (and by that I mean suitcase) for the equivalent of £60. We also stocked up on wine (£3 a bottle for good stuff) and bourbon (at £8 per litre).

So what and where next?

Well, to help us out of our house hunting dilemma, Rebecca and Mark generously offered us their place to housesit on Koh Tao, as they were planning to go back to the UK until just before Christmas. But as it was only the start of the rainy (monsoon) season on Koh Tao and we knew the island would be quiet, with most boats to the island on stand-by and many places closed, we weren’t sure it was the right place for us at this time.

So we headed back to Kuala Lumpur (we had a return ticket) and we went house hunting there instead. For five nights we stayed for free at a very nice Holiday Inn Golf and Country Resort just outside the city, using our hotel loyalty points. 

The lovely view from our room at the Holiday Inn Golf and Country Resort KL

The weather in KL was hot and sunny and the (a free stay on loyalty points) hotel was lovely

While in KL I went to the Malaysian version of Specsavers for some new reading glaases

We used public transport and uber taxis to get around and we searched for and viewed several apartments. Some of them were quite luxurious serviced apartments with outside balconies and swimming pool and gym facitities - yet affordable. However, they were all for long term rental only and not just a couple of months.

During this time, although we both love KL, I still wasn’t quite convinced that I actually wanted to live in a busy city and I worried what Trav would do with himself if he couldn’t go diving while I was busy writing? I mean, you can only go to the cinema so many times before it starts getting a bit repetitive, can’t you? 

KL Monorail - just one of the inexpensive and efficient ways to travel around KL

We viewed a rental apartment here in KLCC

Many apartments in KLCC are serviced apartments with a pool and gym

Coming to the conclusion that we were island people rather than city folk, and as we had been planning to go back to Koh Tao in another six weeks anyway, we decided to speak to Mark and Rebecca and take them up on their kind offer of house-sitting their place while they were away.

Except, that very soon after making our new plans, Trav was immediately offered a fantastic diving opportunity on the island of Koh Tao that would help him towards gaining his PADI Master Instructor certification (his goal for 2017) and which also included our accommodation during our stay.

So, it seems that whether it was still the rainy season or not, we were destined to be heading back to Koh Tao and suddenly I couldn’t wait!

We had a wonderful welcome back to the island and I was so delighted to find that our new home on Koh Tao was a modern studio villa with a lovely big covered porch that would be great for sitting outside whatever the weather. 

Our accommodation is on a huge diving resort here on Koh Tao - so we'll have access to all the resorts facilities including the shops, bars, restaurants and swimming pools - they have three pools and are in the process of building a fourth. The beach is just a ten minute walk away. Things really have turned out really well for us - we simply couldn't have planned it better.

Our beautiful villa on Koh Tao

When we settle anywhere for more than a week then the Trav and Janice's Hoose sign goes up!

This fabulous swimming pool is just a few minutes walk from our new home.

A lovely welcome back to the island from our lovely island friends

First week back on Koh Tao and Trav was diving with whale sharks again

It all sounds so blissful, right? It is EXCEPT for one wee glitch - and that was that at this time we only had 30 day arrival visa for Thailand.

SO, we knew that after just three weeks or thereabouts, we would have to leave Thailand again on a visa run. We decided to 'run' back to KL as it was the most affordable option to get a 60 day visa. You may wonder why we didn't get one to start with but at that time the Thai Consulate was closed for a few days and getting a 60 day visa is a two day process - meaning we would have had to stay in KL for almost another week. So before our 30 day visa expired, we took a three hour boat from Koh Tao to Surat Thani on the mainland. Then a bus for a hour or so to the airport. Then an Air Asia flight back to KL.

While we were in KL this time around we would also be celebrating Trav's birthday. His treats included birthday cake, chocolates and champagne and wine and cheese (ooops, okay, the last three items were for me - and you'll know how much I miss cheese when we are travelling and living on tiny cheese-free islands!) and of course there was lots of bourbon drinking for Trav - plus a trip to the cinema - to watch the new Magnificent Seven Movie.

Trav's Birthday Cake

My wine, champagne and cheese!

The trip to the Thai Consulate in KL to secure our new 60 day visas got a bit stressful because it is a two day exercise and the first day we arrived very early and before opening time to find there was already a huge queue around the building block. We waited in line and then we waited some more once inside and, after almost three hours, when we eventually get to see an immigration officer, he asked for additional documents to be produced, above and beyond what was stipulated - but of course it is at their discretion to do so - which had us running back to our hotel to get online and to print stuff out and to race back to the consulate again in an exhausted and overheated stress before they closed for the day. We made it with only ten mins to spare!

The following day, we did manage to collect our 60 day visas for entry back into Thailand. BUT it was pointed out to us that we don't have any space left in our passports for any more entry/exit stamps or visas.

Our passports are still valid but we have travelled so much we have now run out of empty pages - and this is something we need to address before our current visas expire OR our fabulous travel adventures will come to a grinding halt and we will have to leave our beautiful new home on Koh Tao and Trav's diving ambitions will all be on hold!

Don't panic though - we are dealing with the situation right now - and we have found that we are able to apply for new passports (the ones with extra pages!) as overseas UK Citizens through Her Majesty's Passport office in Bangkok and we should in fact have our new passports in our hands in the next week or so. *Fingers crossed*.

So now we are back on Koh Tao and we are finally able to settle down to the slower pace of island life after the excitement of all our recent travels and adventures and our visa/passport stresses. 

I have been able to focus on getting some writing done and to finish my novel Island in the Sun, which is now with my editor, and also meet my looming deadlines for travel magazine features. Meanwhile, Trav has been busy and happy in equal measures doing lots of new and amazing stuff to develop his diving career while we are here on Koh Tao.

Next time here on the blog – I'll be taking a look back at the highlights of 2016 month by month to recap on all the countries we have visited, the adventures we have had, and the lovely people we have met over what has been a truly amazing and fantastic year.

In early January, just after New Year, Trav and I hope to have our new passports with which to do yet another visa run. We plan to go to the Malaysian island of Penang next time around as we haven't been there before - so that will be another new adventure to tell you about.

Until next time, Happy Christmas to you all and all best wishes for 2017.
Love, Janice xx

Bali and beyond...

We arrived on the Indonesian island of Bali on a flight from Kuala Lumpur on the 20th September 2016. Knowing it would be both late and dark when we got there, I’d booked a hotel conveniently near to the airport in Denpasar, so that we would be well rested and ready to explore Bali first thing in the morning.

My first impressions of Bali was that it was hot and humid and very busy.

The first thing that impressed me was a huge modern sculpture that stands at the first intersection just outside the airport. I didn’t get a photo but the Satria Gatot Kaca statue is truly breath-taking, with larger than life gods and horses and chariots embroiled in a Balinese mythological battle scene.

For our first day on the island, we planned to venture inland to a town called Ubud. The owner of the homestead where I had booked our second night’s accommodation got in touch with us to offer his services as a taxi and apparently this is a common and much less-expensive way to travel in Bali. 

Ubud is considered to be the cultural heart of Bali - and if there is one thing I love just as much as tropical beaches then it’s interesting culture.

We drove for an hour past green and picturesque rice paddy fields and through the stone carving village of Batubulan. Stone carving is important in Bali it really is amazing to see a whole village full of stone carving studios and carvings of every subject you might imagine – from small and devilish deities to life size rearing horses – all lining the streets. Bali, it seemed to me, is full of artist and art!

I knew that the town of Ubud is famous for its markets, restaurants, temples and its monkey forest, and as we only planned to spend one night here, we knew we would have a full day ahead of us if we wanted to make the most of every minute and opportunity.

Stone carvings and beautiful architecture is everywhere on Bali

The market was colourful and noisy and crazy busy
. I loved it and took my time to browse the fabulous trinkets and fabrics and spices and shoes. I bought myself a beautiful pair of sandals after haggling the seller down to a reasonable (for both of us) price. Trav absolutely hated the market and trailed in my wake with his face set with misery. He hates crowds and people pushing and waving stuff in his face. After a while, I started to hate it too – especially when being spoken to by the locals (who for no fault of their own expect you to be Australian) with constant cries of ‘good’ay mate.'

After the market we roamed the street looking for one particular restaurant. It took us many wrong turns down narrow streets to find it – and when we did eventually stumble across it – both Trav and I were convinced we’d found it purely by accident. The restaurant is called Ibu Oka and it specialises in the Balinese culinary experience known as ‘Babi Guiling’ which is roasted suckling pig. You can get this traditional dish in lots of places on Bali but this particular restaurant is world-famous and is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of roasted pork. I have to say that it was delicious and worth the effort to find the original ‘Babi Guiling’.

A stone piggy welcome

The world famous Ibu Oka Restaurant in Ubud - for the original  Babi Guiling roasted sucking pig.

Next, it was a sightseeing trip
down the main streets and then a visit to the monkey forest. The monkeys, who you can see plenty of on the street too, are very cute especially with their babies – but they will steal from you and  they apparently have a penchant for handbags and cameras.

I saw a monkey grab a bottle of water from a woman stood right next to me. It then sat down in the middle of the road, unconcerned by the traffic whizzing around it, where it unscrewed the cap of the bottle and drank the water!

The Sacred Monkey Forest is a leafy nutmeg and banyan tree forest and monkey sanctuary close to Ubud town centre. In the forest, there are many old temples and statues, all covered in moss and monkeys. It’s a beautiful and ancient looking place and it’s perfect for photo opportunities but beware because many tourists report being ‘terrified’ ‘chased’ and ‘mugged’ by the monkeys!

A cute ticket collector
Old temples covered in moss and monkeys

We stayed overnight in Ubud
 and the next morning our homestead owner drove us back towards the coast and Bali’s primary resort town - a place called Kuta. Which we had been warned was the worst place in Bali. It was.

We hated Kuta. It is a touristy, dirty, sleazy, horrible mess of a place, with fast food restaurants and a noisy beach packed with hawkers and tourists. We couldn’t wait to leave – which is why we went there in the first place – we were being taken from Kuta to the ferry point where we would travel over to the Gili Islands.

The Gili’s are an archipelago of three picture perfect tropical islands.

The larger Indonesian island of Lombok as seen from Gili Air

Gili Trawangan (known as Gili T), Gili Air, and Gili Meno, are situated off the neighbouring island of Lombok, Indonesia. There are fast boats and slow boats to take you there from Bali and I highly recommend you do a bit of online research before you make your choice of sea transport, as there have been many recent incidents of sinking, near sinking, capsizing, on board blasts and explosions, that have resulted in tourist fatalities.

So heed the warning HERE and don’t just go for the cheapest boat tickets.

The Gili Islands are a vision of paradise that have white sand beaches and palm trees and no motorised transport. Gili T is the larger and most developed of the three and it has gained a reputation from backpackers as a party island. Trav and I like to beach party on occasion, but on this trip we were looking for quiet, relaxation, diving, snorkelling, great seafood, and a beach bar with a laid back ambience, so we stayed on the boat when it made its stop here and we went onto Gili Air.

We stayed on the boat while others disembarked at Gili Trawangan

Gili Air offers that laid-back vibe we were looking for but it also has a few good restaurants and bars and dive centres. Trav went diving with Manta Divers and I went along too for snorkelling on the reef. We stayed in homestead accommodation, which was clean and basic in a small garden villa with a nice bedroom and separate bathroom and very inexpensive at around £100 - that's the rent for the whole week not the night - and the local owners were very friendly. 

Approaching Gili Air by boat
Pony taxi - there is no motorised transport on the Gili Islands
Main Street in rush hour on Gili Air

Our homestead villa for the week on Gili Air

The first few hours that we were on Gili Air, totally by coincidence, we bumped into two friends on the street (I use the term street but as you can see from our photos it was actually a sand path along the beach). Mark and Rebecca run Sunshine Divers on the Thai island of Koh Tao and we had enjoyed socialising with them during our six weeks on Koh Tao back in January. They had been travelling in Malaysia and Indonesia following the F1 Grand Prix and were taking some time out in the Gili Islands. What an amazingly small world it really is when you meet people totally by chance like that!

It was so great to see Mark and Rebecca again!

It was so great to see Mark and Rebecca again
 and we got to spend the next few days in their lovely company, going out diving, Rebecca and I relaxed at the spa and we all enjoying lunches and dinners and some really fun evenings together.

Mark and Trav's bar bill while Rebecca and I were at the spa....

Gili Air is a great place to go scuba diving

We went out with Manta Divers

Pony and cart transport for the dive tanks - poor pony!

Mark and Rebecca

Me and Trav

Getting ready to go diving!

Going in - Trav is ready to dive...

We had a great day out on the dive boat

Goodbye Gili Air

After a week,
Trav and I moved on to the smallest and least developed of these islands, Gili Meno. I was really looking forward to this non-commercial, wild and peaceful and tropical experience of this island, which boasts the best white sand beaches and peaceful romantic setting. On this island, I found a gorgeous little boutique hotel and eco-resort in the middle of an old coconut plantation and tropical garden. It also had a swimming pool and the most beautiful villas. So we decided to treat ourselves and make this place our home for the next few days and nights. 

Our paradise hotel on Gili Meno
Our room on Gili Meno - a bit of luxury

Friends we met on Gili Meno Patrick and Michelle from the Netherlands

What an amazing and totally relaxing experience we had on Gili Meno – our kind of tropical island – so no apologies for all the photos of the island!

Pony and trap taxi on Gili Meno
Main Street Gili Meno

The most beautiful white sand beaches
Fun in the sun

On the beach. Gili Air in the background
Taking a walk around the entire island and snapping away

The art shop
Fruit seller

The harbour on Gili Meno - Lombok in the background
My fav photo - a cure for the blues...

Next week's accommodation, perhaps?
Turtle sanctuary

It felt so good to eat dinner on the beach every night on Gili Meno
Romantic dinner and sunset
Another romantic dinner and a sunset - bliss.

The only downside to this part of our trip was that on our last day on Gili Meno I suffered from sunstroke. I’d spend most of the day lounging around the pool in the hot sun, drinking a few (to be fair, only two) gin cocktails when by evening I felt really very sick indeed. Not having eaten since breakfast, I made the effort to go out to dinner with Trav. We had planned a lovely last night and we had a reservation for a sunset dinner on the beach.

As it was, it wasn’t a great night, as I ended up being sick and passing out. I felt to ill too be embarrassed about it and was escorted back to our villa by a very concerned Trav. Thankfully, as we had two boats to catch and flight from Bali to Kuala Lumpur the following day, I was happy to be more or less recovered by morning.

We used Blue Water Express again for our boat transfers back to Bali and once again we had a very good sea crossing with them on their fast, safe, and comfortable boats. Then we flew with the wonderfully efficient and inexpensive airline Air Asia back to KL.

Next time here on the blog I'll be telling you about our need to settle down somewhere for a while and how that led us to house hunting on the island of Langkawi in Malaysia. Being on Langkawi also brought us back in touch with Mark and Rebecca and we had a great week with them on the island although we never did find somewhere to live. Our house hunting failure led us back to Kuala Lumpur again, where we viewed some amazing city centre serviced apartments with their own swimming pools.

We also celebrated Trav's birthday in KL and then we got TWO fantastic offers that would take us back to the island of Koh Tao in Thailand - but only after a rather stressful albeit successful visit to the Thai Consulate in KL - where we went to get our Thai entry visas. To Trav and I, it feels like a wonderful fate that we are going full circle and back to the island where we began this year.

Until next time,
Love, Janice xx