Things I learned from getting sick in abroad

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If you are travelling for longer than a few weeks, the chances are that you will end up getting sick at some point in your travels. For most people, this is likely to be limited to some form of food poisoning or traveller’s diarrhoea. For an unlucky few however, it can be something more serious.

For me, sickness struck when I was travelling through Myanmar with my girlfriend’s parents. It started as a sore throat. Luckily we carry a decently stocked medical kit, so when the pain became nagging I took an ibuprofen and forgot about it. Over the next few days, the pain in my throat continued to get worse and I increased the dose of ibuprofen and bought myself some strepsils, not wanting to disrupt the family holiday or Emily’s time with her parents who hadn’t seen her in months.

Within the next day or so, the pain had gotten to the point that I had to brace myself each time I swallowed. Even at full doses of paracetamol combined with ibuprofen, it didn’t touch the pain. Solid food hurt too much to even consider, so I ate yoghurt and ice-cream and tried not to let on. I took myself off to see a local doctor. The clinic doctor looked in my mouth from a distance and quickly declared that I had tonsillitis and laryngitis. He prescribed me 3 separate antibiotics to take over the next 3 days and gave me some throat lozenges.

Over the next 2 days, I took my medication and waited to start feeling better. During this time  I hardly left my room, as speaking hurt too much to interact with anyone and eating was impossible. However, despite taking my medication as instructed, I continued to get worse. I even had to tap into the emergency supply of codeine that I had brought with me when the over the counter painkillers stopped working at all.

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 A few days later, when it became apparent that the antibiotic combination I had been prescribed was not working, I decided to see another doctor, this time in Inle Lake. This doctor gave me the same cursory examination, confirmed the initial diagnosis and changed my antibiotic regime. At no point in either appointment did anyone actually look at my throat.

By this point, the pain was so bad that I would wake up halfway through the night as soon as my painkillers had worn off. After another 3 or 4 days had passed, I was starting to become scared and a little desperate. By this time, we had arrived in Yangon and I had the opportunity to see a western standard doctor.

At the cost of $100, I was able to see an Australian doctor, employed by the Australian Embassy. It took him less than a minute to properly examine my throat and diagnose me with a particularly nasty peritonsillar abscess which required immediate treatment.

IMG_2521.JPGHe immediately booked me in with an ENT in Yangon, but he was unable to perform the necessary procedure with the equipment available to him. This meant that I had no other option but to book an emergency appointment with an ENT surgeon in Singapore the next day. This meant cutting my trip to Myanmar short by two days and leaving my girlfriends parents alone in Yangon. But alas, I had no choice. In the end, I required a surgical draining of the abscess and 3 days in hospital for IV antibiotics and a drip due to severe dehydration.

Having time to reflect on what happened from my hospital bed, I decided to write this article to pass on some of the lessons that I have learnt.

1. Get the best travel insurance you can afford.

In that exciting time before you start your travels, the last thing on your mind is travel insurance. With all of the costs of booking flights, buying new clothes and paying for your vaccinations, it can be tempting to buy a cheaper travel insurance policy in order to save money. After all, it would never happen to me.

Take it from me, there are an almost unlimited number of things that can go wrong when you travel. From unexpected falls to dodgy street food, worst case scenarios do happen and if things do go wrong, you will want the best care you can get because getting sick can get expensive. Fast.

Getting sick in Myanmar ended up costing me over £4000 after I was left with no other option but to fly to Singapore for emergency surgery. After the surgical procedure and three days in hospital, I was so glad that I had the gold standard insurance from World Nomad. Coming from the UK, the way that healthcare worked in Singapore was a shock. You are billed for every tablet, every cup of tea and every fleeting appointment with a consultant.

Tip: Get your insurance from a backpackers insurance company. such as World Nomad. These companies are often formed by people who travel and they have a better understanding of how things are different in different countries and tend to be a little more flexible in their approach to claims.

2. Trust your gut.

Remember to take any advice from locals with a pinch of salt. Whilst I was suffering from the early stages of my condition, I was advised to drink ginger tea. Then to drink warm water. Don’t take the old wives tales in place of medical advice.

Having said that, try and take any diagnosis from a local doctor or nurse with a pinch of salt. If you are giving you a diagnosis or explanation that doesn’t make sense, don’t feel scared to get a second opinion. I was misdiagnosed twice in Myanmar but medical staff who, in retrospect, did not complete a full examination of my throat and put me on wildly inappropriate antibiotic regimes.

The only person who knows how you feel is you. You also know your own pain threshold and past medical history. Not once in my travels did any local doctor take a medical history from me. If you believe you are seriously ill, don’t be afraid to find seek a second or even third opinion.

3. Roles don’t work like they do in the UK.

-Just because someone works in a local pharmacy doesn’t make them a pharmacist.

Just because someone is working in a clinic doesn’t make them a doctor.

Just because someone is a doctor doesn’t make their training up to date.

Make your own assessment of the situation.

4. If symptoms do not start to improve after a few days seek further help

If you have seen a local doctor and your condition is still getting worse, seek a western standard doctor’s medical opinion. Find a doctor who has qualified in Europe, Australia or the USA. You can usually look on the clinic’s website to look at the profiles of their doctors. I say this because it was only when I saw an Australian doctor that I was properly diagnosed and informed that I needed emergency surgery.

In south-east Asia, you will often see separate ‘tourist doctors’ or “international” hospitals. Whilst it seemed weird at first, having seen the public doctors in several countries, there is a real training and knowledge gap between of many doctors training in Europe, America or Australia and those in some of the less developed countries. Try and get to one of these places if your condition continues to deteriorate.

Tip: Google is a great place for finding out which is the best hospital / clinic in the area.

5. Be careful you are not just masking the symptoms of your condition with pain relief.

You can buy some pretty strong painkillers over the counter in some countries, such as Tramadol, Codeine etc. As such, it can be easy to relieve the symptoms of any underlying medical condition by simply increasing the dose of painkillers.

During the time I was repeatedly misdiagnosed in Myanmar, I was slowing increasing the doses painkillers due to the deterioration in my condition. Once I obtained codeine, however, this was enough to totally mask the pain. Had I had access to this before I was properly diagnosed, it could easily have led to a delay in seeking medical assistance.

If you are taking pain relief for more than a few days you need to seek medical help.

6. The best care may not be in the country you are in.

When it comes to medical care, you need to keep an open mind as to what the best option is. The standard of medical care is not equal in all countries. For example, the best hospital in Myanmar was like going back 20 years in the UK. I heard from friends we met travelling that the public hospital in Laos had cats and dogs wandering around the emergency room.

Yes, I know it sucks to cut a trip short, but serious complications from anything surgical suck way more. Another thing to consider is that if your condition deteriorates further, you may lose your window of opportunity to fly. If your condition is deteriorating, you need to make a decisive decision and act on it quickly.

7. Keep your insurance company up to date.

Obviously, this does not apply to anything potentially life changing or life threatening.IMG_2586.JPG In those situations, you need to seek urgent medical care and worry about insurance after the fact.

For anything less serious, you need to make sure that you keep your insurance company up to date. If you are intending to seek medical care in another country, you should always inform your insurance company before you fly. Find their emergency phone number on their website and call them. You can make skype phone calls for a few pennies if you do not have access to a mobile phone.

I know it is scary being ill and the last thing on your mind is insurance terms and conditions, but trust me, future you will thank you.

If you cannot call them, send your insurance company a short email setting out the details of what has happened and notify them that you will provide them with additional information in due course. Try and avoid giving specifics which may later change. It is ok to be vague at this stage, especially if a diagnosis is unknown.

This is especially important if you intend to seek treatment in another country. Most insurance providers require prior authorisation by them to justify seeking treatment in another country due to the increased cost of such measures. If you have been recommended this option by a doctor you have seen, try and get this in writing from them, or at least make sure you have their contact details so they can confirm this at a later date. In order to be safe, check the wording of your policy or contact your policy provider to clarify what is required.

8. Keep copies of everything.

And I mean everything. Medical notes, referral letters, admission letters, invoices, receipts for payment etc.IMG_2603.JPG Many insurance companies require original documents to be provided in order for your to make a claim.

Tip: Also, make sure you keep your boarding card stubs when you fly. I have been asked to provide these to my insurer when making a claim before. Also, we were oddly informed that a passport stamp would not be sufficient as proof of having entered the country.

 

NB: I would like to add this: I am not, in any way, saying that all doctors who practice abroad are bad doctors. Nor am I saying that all doctors who are western educated are superior.  The issue is one of study, standards and on-going training. Having worked in healthcare regulation in the UK, I am aware of the training standards in Europe, Australia and the USA. As such, this is why I recommend doctor’s with this background if you are seeking a second opinion.

Fancy something different on Gili Meno? Why not visit the abandoned Bounty Hotel and Resort?

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Heading to the paradise island of Gili Meno and planning what to do? Or are you already here and need a break from the clear blue waters, beautiful beach bars and endless sunshine? Or maybe you are staying in Lombok and fancy a crazy adventure and doing something away totally different?

Whichever of these it is, I have found just the thing for you. Whilst exploring the beautiful coastal track around the island, we came across the derelict remains of the now abandoned Bounty Hotel on the islands East Side. This huge sprawling beachfront complex was once a high end hotel, but now its huge bungalows, restaurant, swimming pool, Hindu Temple and reception are slowly retuning to the jungle in which they were built.

Having spoken to locals on the island, and read around a little online, there seem to have been several popular myths about the Bounty Hotel that have developed over the years. My favourite is the tale that the hotel fell into disrepair after the owner mysteriously died and that his ghost is still haunting the now vacant premises.

In reality, I think the story runs a little more like this: Following the Bali bombings in 2002, the number of western tourists visiting Lombok and the Gili islands fell sharply. The owner of the hotel, a wealthy investor from Bali, closed the hotel due to the ongoing cost of staffing and running it without guests. Over the following 2 years, the tourist trade did not return to its former levels and the hotel was not reopened. Without proper maintenance, the it quickly began to suffer damage due to the hot and humid climate of Gili Meno. The local I met also told me the owner had subsequently bought his own private island and was investing heavily in developing this. As a result, he decided not to invest the money it would have taken to reopen the hotel, rather deciding to leave the property abandoned.

As such, the massive hotel grounds continue to deteriorate year on year. Many of the buildings are now little more than shells. But there are still eerie signs of life around the hotel. Many of the windows still have the curtains closed in them. Menus remain in the restaurant, and pathways are slowly being covered in plants. You can walk around the huge hotel complex, which has a distinct feel of a disaster or zombie movie to it. It feels a little like walking around Pompeii.

An interesting side note to this story is the famous shipwreck, which lies just in-front of the abandoned hotel, also used to belong to the same wealth business man, until it sank one night due to heavy storms. It to was apparently called the Bounty, and used to serve as a floating restaurant for the hotel. I just hope this guy had a good insurance broker!

The best beaches in Gili Meno

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Having fallen in love with Indonesia whilst travelling through the islands of Sumatra and Java, we decided to come back and explore the next few islands in the chain: starting with Bali before moving on to Lombok and the Gili islands.

The Gili Islands are a chain of three small islands off the north west coast of Lombok. Each island caters for a different crowd. Gili Trawangan is the party island, bustling with beach bars, mushroom milkshakes and a constant party vibe. Gili Meno is the middle island in the three island chain and is known locally as the “romance island.” It is much quieter than Gili Trawangan, and more affordable than the luxury island of Gili Air.

Having spent a few days on Gili Trawangan, we decided to escape the chaos and head to Gili Meno on one of the twice daily “hopper boats”. Much like Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno has no proper roads and is devoid of cars or motorbikes. The main form of transport around the island is horse and cart, but you can also hire a bicycle if you don’t fancy the walk.

The island is small enough to walk around in about an hour and a half. There is a costal track which takes you around the outside of the island, along miles of white sand and coral beaches surrounded by turquoise blue seas and stunning sand bars. Gili Meno is an island which looks like it was custom made for Instagram and there are a number of beaches to chose from, each with its own unique qualities.

Describing locations can be a bit tricky since none of the roads here have names, so I have made reference to the various businesses that operate in each of the locations. Check out the map at the bottom of the post for further details. Here are four of the best spots on the island:

1. The best overall beach

Having walked around the island a few times in the last few days, the nicest beach we found was on the South East side of the island and runs from Villa Nautilus down to Kontiki Cottages. This beach has soft white sand and stunningly blue seas. The waves are gentle enough to be fun and the tide is much weaker than at other points in the island.

There are also a number of swings, tress and rock piles to provide you with that perfect beach snap for your feed. Additionally, there are a number of restaurants just behind the beach making it a convenient place to spend the day.

The water here is pretty clear and the snorkelling is ok, but there is much better to be found at other points on the island. It is however, the nicest place for a relaxing beach day.

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2. The best beach for snorkelling:

Having snorkelled all around the island over the last week, my favourite spot was just off the white coral beach with the coral sand bar on the North East of the island. Look out for Ryan’s Cafe which is nearby.

You will know when you get here because it sounds like you are walking on broken china. Rather than sand, the beach is made up entirely of bleached coral. There is a long coral bar stretching out into the ocean, where the water is only a foot or two deep. It really is an amazing place for snorkelling. In the shallow parts over the bar, we saw moray eels living amongst the coral and even a couple of smallish reef sharks. When the ocean got deeper on the other side of the bar there was a wealth of living coral and hundreds of colourful fish. The water here was crystal clear and on par with anywhere we have seen on our travels.

The beach itself isn’t that pretty, and there is no-where to sunbath due to the coral, but there is the cafe nearby to grab a drink and get out of the sun if you want.

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3. The best beach for relaxing:

Ok, so just about everywhere on Gili Meno is relaxing and beautiful. But if I had to pick a favourite spot, it would be the South West corner of the island, at a place called Cafe Gili.

Cafe Gili is a restaurant and beach bar and its own private section of the beach which looks over to Gili T.  It also has its own fresh water swimming pool, if you decide you have had enough of the sea and it is free to use, so long as you are eating or drinking at Cafe Gili.  Because of its secluded spot at the corner of the island, this place was quiet and peaceful. The staff here were friendly and we had an amazing day chilling out here.

Also, you are only slightly down the coast from the shipwreck, which you can snorkel on. You can swim and snorkel at this beach, but be careful, the current can be strong if you aren’t wearing  flippers.

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4. The best beach for seeing wild sea turtles 

So, there were a couple of spots around the island where we saw wild sea turtles, but the the easiest on was found on the east of the island, just off Karma Beach.

Karma Beach is within a hotel complex called Karma Bungalows. The same deal applies here in that if you eat or drink at the hotel, you can also use their beach. However, if you don’t want to do that, you can continue on past the hotel to a stretch of beach just past the old abandoned pier, which was what we did.

We snorkelled here for about half an hour and saw two wild hawksbill turtles in that time. It was amazing to see these creatures in the wild. There were totally not bothered by us and continued eating the plants and the sea grass whilst we watched. But if you do swim here, please don’t chase or pick up the turtles. Just enjoy them in their natural habitat.

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Map:

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Bonus: Best gym in Gili Meno?

So there is no public gym in Gili Meno. If you want to workout whilst on your holiday, there is some outdoor gym equipment at one spot on the island. You can read about it on my travel fitness blog Gyms of the World.

 

Thank for reading and let me know in the comments if you feel there is anywhere that I have missed!

10 things to do before you Quit.Pack.Go

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So, you have made the decision to travel and see the world. But before all the excitement starts there are some more mundane tasks that you need to attend to in order to make sure that you get off to a smooth start. Nothing kills that carefree travelling vibe more than having you card cancelled in your first destination or being turned back by immigration because you didn’t know you needed to apply for a visa before leaving your home country. Here are 11 of my top tips to help make sure that you have taken care off all the major things before you Quit.Pack.Go.

1. Inform your bank of where you will be going and for how long you are likely to be away.

There is nothing that puts you more in the mood to leave it all behind than dealing with the bureaucracy of modern living, but sadly this step is vital. These days there are a number of security measures that banks will take to protect us from fraudsters. One such measure is to block your card where unusual activity has taken place. Live in London, but suddenly withdrawn £200 in Bali? If you don’t give your bank a heads up, it will be last withdrawal you make until you convince the bank it was you.

The best way to avoid this is to call your banks customer support number. Let them know of your plans. Give them list of countries you will be visiting and any dates you know of. This can be difficult if you plan to take things as they come, but if you let them know you will be in south America or South East Asia that is usually enough to keep you safe.

Don’t forget to contact your bank again if you extend your trip, otherwise you might end up with your card blocked at the end of your original trip dates.

2. Open a travel account 

Many banks offer accounts specifically designed for travellers. Having a card that doesn’t charge you additional fees for foreign ATM withdrawals or purchases can save you a fortune over time.

It is also a very good idea to have at least 1 spare bank card with you. This secondary account can be a lifesaver if you lose you main ATM card or it gets stolen, blocked or swallowed by an ATM.  Remember not to keep these cards together. If you lose your wallet, you don’t want to lose your back up plan too. Try keeping your emergency card in your document wallet along with your passport. Yes, you will want to be getting a document wallet too.

The accounts what we chose were from Nationwide. By taking a Premium Credit Card, we were also about to open FlexPlus accounts. The FlexPlus account came with a debit card which has zero fees for ATM use, whilst the Credit Card has zero fees on overseas purchases. You can read about these cards on Nationwide’s website.

3. Research any Visa requirements 

How tricky this turns out to be will depend on where you are from. Holding a British passport has meant that we have been able to get visas on arrival in almost every country that we have been to in South East Asia. There are however, some notable exceptions such as Myanmar. Emily’s parents were not allowed to board their flight due to a minor error on their pre-admission application.

Countries like Sri Lanka or the US also have procedures which need to be complied with in advance of your visit, so have a quick google before you leave home.

TIP: Before you leave home, get yourself 10 passport sized photos printed and keep these in your document wallet with your passport and backup ATM card. Nothing is worse that trying to find passport photo machines in a foreign country. Well not nothing, but its a pain. 

4. Get your vaccinations 

I do not kid you when I say there is some nasty stuff out there. Rabies is 99.9% fatal if not treated in time. Getting the vaccine buys you some extra time to get the necessary help you need. If you need any further encouragement, search the word rabies into Youtube and watch any of the videos that come up. You do not want any part of this. Find out what you need to get and get it. We had some of our jabs on the NHS and the rest from Nomad Travel in London.

I have personally seen GPs and hospitals in a third world country. Trust me. You don’t want any part of those either.

5. Purchase a decent first aid kit

Independent1417788179.jpgAre you going somewhere remote? Consider buying a first aid kit which also contains antibiotics. I can’t tell you the amount of times that having this kit has saved us. We bought this kit, from World Nomad. It contains just about everything you could want from rehydration sachets to burn and anti-fungal cream.

This medial kit also includes a sterile injection kit for use by medical professionals where sterile equipment is either in short supply or contaminated by reuse. Remember that such kids will needs to be in checked luggage when flying.

Is this overkill? Maybe. But I would rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

6. Pick your pack

farpoint70_side_volcanicgrey.jpgThe pack that you choose will depend on the length of your trip and your level of fitness. If you struggle to carry heavy bags, then you might want to consider a rucksack with wheels. If you need to pack tents and camping gear, you may want a 90L backpack.

One thing I do recommend is that you choose a pack with a detachable day sack. This has come in far more useful that I ever thought it could be. The bag that I chose is the Farpoint 70 by Osprey. This is one of the best investments that I made for this trip.  One of the best features of this bag is that it is side opening, like a suitcase. This means that you don’t end up with stuff rotting away at the bottom of your bag and it makes it much easier to pack and unpack.

Take a visit to your local outdoors store and speak to one of the staff to help find a pack which is right for you.

7. Do I need a guide book?

There are so many great travel books out there but do you need one? Sadly, there is no right answer to this question. But you might want to consider if the area you are going to is likely to have mobile phone signal or wifi connection. If so, then you might want to take the analog option.

If you decide you need a guide book there are a number of options. If you are taking a tablet or kindle then you might want to consider the option of taking an e-book version of the guide. Personally, I find these hard to use and prefer the  paperback option.

If you are going to multiple destination, you can often find a general book that deals with the area. This means that you will have less to carry, but it often means the guides are less detailed than the books which deal with a single destination.

8. Get the right travel insurance

If there is anything that makes banking administration seem like a good time, its talking about insurance. But TRUST me, the stakes are too high not to think about it now. I got a throat infection in Myanmar that turned into an abscess in my throat. In the end I needed to fly to Singapore for treatment and 3 days in hospital. The bill for this? Over £4000. If you break a leg or need serious surgery the bill could be tens of thousands of pounds.

  • Consider getting specialist backpackers insurance as they understand the realities of travel.
  • Remember to specifically declare any high value items you have, such as laptops or phones, or they may not be covered.
  • Be totally honest with you medical history. If it turns out you haven’t been honest, this could cost you in the long run.

9. Download the right apps

There are 100 of great apps out there but make travel so much easier than it used to be. From booking flights, to finding hotels or helping you order your dinners, apps have transformed the way we travel. Some basic ones to get you started are:

  1. Agoda / Booking.com
  2. Skyscanner
  3. Trip Advisor
  4. Banking apps
  5. Google translate

10) So what about your mobile phone contract?

If you are like me and you have had the same number forever, you probably want to keep the same number whilst you travel. Many phone companies offer roaming plans, but in my experience it always works out cheaper to buy a local sim card once you get to your destination. These are usually sold in airport arrival lounges and sea ports and usually offer you the best way to get online. Data speeds in South East Asia have been largely comparable to the UK.

But there is no need to be paying for a phone contract you won’t be using. Try and move to cheapest plan you can. You won’t be using your phone, so you won’t be needing those anytime call minutes. Network won’t let you do this? Consider moving networks. You can always move back when you home.

Remember to get you phone unlocked if you intend to use local sim cards as you travel. I have managed to move to GiffGaff and select a £5 per month tariff, saving me £45 per month. And trust me, it goes a lot further once you get to where you are going!

You can follow my travels on Instagram at @Quit.Pack.Go

You can also check out my travel fitness blog and backpacker’s gym guide at Gyms of the World.

12 Tips for renting and riding mopeds in South East Asia

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Almost everyone who travels to South East Asia will rent a moped or motorbike during their travels. Sadly, many of them will end up have some kind of minor accident, or end up the victim of some kind of con. During our trip, we have seen plenty of other travellers with bandaged limbs, broken arms or sprained ankles. Some good friends of mine suffered a blow out of their back tire at about  70 km/ph and were lucky to walk away with only some nasty road rash. Even I lost my front wheel down a dusty track and ended up with a grazed leg and an angry girlfriend. She had been on the back at the time.

However, if you adhere to the tips below, you can vastly reduce your chances of being involved in an accident or having to end your trip early due to injury,

1) Consider doing a CBT, or equivalent, before you leave home.

The best piece of advice that I could give you is to get some experience of riding a moped or motorbike before you leave your home country. The roads and driving style in many foreign countries can be unpredictable and difficult for even experienced drivers. If you add to this the added pressure of learning how to ride then you are putting yourself at a much higher risk of having a crash, Getting a little experience beforehand can make all the difference.

If you have the time, consider getting your international drivers licence. This means that you will be able to drive legally in many of the countries that you go to and also that your insurance will cover you  should the worst happen.

You can find out about how to book a CBT, and what is required, by clicking here.

However, if you are reading this part way through your trip then there are still a number of things you can do to try and keep yourself safe.

2) Always rent through your hotel or Hostel.

Take the small island of Koh Tao in Thailand for example. There are guys on every street trying to rent you bikes and almost anywhere you turn you can find a rental shop not far away. In this environment there are always unscrupulous people who will try and take advantage of tourists, One of the most common scams involves false accusations of damage to the bike or the engine, leading to an inflated demand for repair costs.

I would highly recommend that you rent through your hotel, rather than using a random stall on the street. Yes, this might involve paying a little more for it, but it also means you are much less likely to have problems, Hotels want a good experience for their clients and they have often vetted the companies they use based on past experience. That extra £1 can save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

3) Check bike before you ride it and take photos of it.

DSC_0001_18This step should be followed regardless of who you rent the bike from. When the driver arrives to deliver the bike, you need to inspect it thoroughly. Point out any faults that it has to the renter before you take it. Take photographs of the bike in-front of the renter. This is often enough to deter any attempt to defraud you when you return it.

4) Don’t leave passport as a deposit. Ask if you can leave cash instead.

Many moped rental places will ask you to leave your passport as a deposit. This is another reason to rent through your hotel if you can as the moped rental place will often take the fact that the hotel has seen your passport as being sufficient to act as a deposit. Instead, ask if you can leave a cash deposit instead and make sure you get a signed and dated receipt.

If you leave your passport with the rental agency and something goes wrong, it means you have no leverage and the rental company has you by the balls.

5) Remember – no international licence, no insurance.

One of the realities of travelling in South East Asia is that most tourists, and locals, do not have the correct licences or insurance to drive moped or motorbikes on public roads and almost no rental place will ask to see a licence before renting you a bike. Neither will they take any responsibility if you are caught by the police or have an accident due to inexperience. It is on the rider to make sure that they have the necessary licences and insurance in place to cover them. Whilst this may be custom and practice in many countries there are some things you need to consider before you decide to rent a bike. I am not going to try and tell you what to do, but rather provide the information to allow you to make your own choices.

As mentioned above, if you are riding a moped without the proper licence and you have an accident, it is likely that your insurance company will refuse to pay out on any claim made. . This means that you will be liable for your own hospital bills and the bills resulting from any accident that you cause.

6) Petrol.

This is the first thing you should think about after the rental process is complete. What kind of fuel does it take? How much in currently in the tank? Where are you going? Where is the nearest petrol station? Do they have petrol stations or are you going to have to refile from one of the small stores selling petrol from glass coke bottles at the side of the road? Check these things with the rental agency before you drive off!

Almost every time that I have rented a moped it has come with an empty or near empty petrol tank. Petrol stations can be rare outside of big cities, so it pays to think ahead. Also, make sure you get a contact number for the rental place, just incase something goes wrong.  Oh, and make sure you have money to buy petrol.

7) Remember the roads in south east Asia can be deceptive.

Things are not always as they appear. Roads which appear to be new can have sudden deep potholes in them. For example, the roads near Phonsavan were perfect, save for the occasional huge deep potholes every half a mile or so. This means that just as you gain confidence in the quality of the road and speed up because you end up having to break hard, or hit a pothole at speed and hope for the best. This is really dangerous as you can either end up skidding, or totally losing control of the bike. Stay alert and focused on the road conditions at all times.

Another factor that can make driving perilous is the local wildlife. Animals just don’t react  in the same way that they do in the UK. Cows, dogs aDSC_0046_8nd even chicken will just lay in the middle of the road and expect you to drive around them. Even sounding the horn will only buy you a look of mild discontent before they rest their heads back onto the tarmac and go back to not giving a crap. Keep your eyes open, especially in the small villages where livestock is likely to be left loose to roam.

8) Don’t expect other road users to drive as they would in the UK.

The rules of the road are not universally observed. Even things like traffic lights seem to be merely advisory in some countries. In Vietnam, moped and motorbikes often drive the wrong way in traffic, or even ride on the pavements. But do not try and drive like the locals. They are used to this style of driving and know their cities or towns well. We have seen a number of people crash their bikes trying to emulate the driving style in question.

I would advise you to drive defensively and pay attention to the roads. Maintain central road position if you can and avoid undertaking other vehicles. Particular care is needed around the local busses which drive like madmen, and the huge trucks used in the endless construction works currently underway all over south east asia.

We have been told in almost every country that you should drive how you would back home and the locals will try and avoid you. They can see a tourist from a mile off and they know that most of them are not skilled riders.

9) Use your horn.

In England and most of Europe, the use of the horn is reserved for letting someone know they have pissed you off. In South East Asia, it is used in a wholly different way, namely to alert other road users to your presence. This means that other vehicles will often honk their horn before they overtake you  to let you know they are there. So don’t panic if someone beeps their horn at you, they aren’t being rude and you probably haven’t done anything wrong. And remember to use your horn before you overtake other bikes to let them know you are there.

10) Bring your sunglasses

Keep the dust out of your eyes by wearing decent sunglasses when you ride. Preferably wrap-around shaped or with large lenses, Personally, I like Oakley Turbines with the polarised lenses. Many, if not most, of the roads in Asia are very dusty, especially when its hot and dry during the day. Protecting you from some of the huge insects that slam into your face when driving through rural areas is also a secondary bonus.

11) Helmets 

I can’t believe that I have to say this but wear your helmet, Your head didn’t get magically impervious to tarmac simply because you are on the other side of the world. Also, not wearing your helmet is the quickest way to get pulled over by the police. Once they have an excuse to pull you over, this leaves you open to extortion for real or imaginary infractions. This happened to me in Sinoukville, Cambodia, where my “fine” for some non-existent indiscretion was to be stuffed into a leather bag on the table whilst the office bent over to tie his shoe. The best way to avoid these situations is to not give them a reason to single you you.

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It doesn’t matter if locals are wearing helmets either. Wear yours. Put your safety ahead of your pride, It really doesn’t matter if you don’t look cool,  you really don’t want a brain injury as a holiday souvenir.

12) Watch out for the exhaust pipe.

Many of the bikes or moped that you will rent will be man years old and some will have the old fashioned metal exhaust pipes. These tend to get very hot when the bike is in use, especially if you have been on the bike for more than 30 mins. One moments lack of attention can lead to a nasty contact burn and a horrible scar known to some as a “travellers tattoo.” These are a common sight in the hostels of SEA, Take a few moments when you rent the bike to get to know where the exhaust pipe is and which side you need to get off the bike to avoid it.

You can check out some more shots of my travels on my instagram here.

Find a gym along the backpacker’s trail on my travel fitness blog: Gyms of the World

48 hours in Phonsavan, Laos

After an amazing few days in sleepy Luang Prabang in  Laos, we decided to head to Phonsavan on our way towards our boarder crossing in central Vietnam. Phonsavan is famous for the mysterious Plane of Jars, a series of huge limestone jars whose origins, age and makers are still unknown.

Internal flights in Laos are prohibitively expensive, which meant that had to book tickets for an 8 hours bus ride between the two towns. We waited in the lobby of our hotel at 9am, until an 8 seater SUV arrived to pick us up. We then drove around picking up passengers to other hotels until we had twelve passengers and their backpacks crammed into this space. The boot was so full that as we rounded the corner into the bus station, it burst open, spilling backpacks out onto the dirty road behind it.

As it happened, the actual bus we would be taking adopted a one person, one seat rule, which is kind of rare for Asia. I remember the busses we took across Sumatra, in Indonesia, where they crammed so many people in to the bus that you could hardly move. It reminds me of the joke I heard from someone along my travels – Q: How many people can you fit on an Asian Bus? A: One more.”

Whilst Email and I waited for our bus to depart, we got chatting to the other passengers who were all fellow backpackers. This group was made up of a slightly older German couple, a younger Dutch guy travelling on his own and an english couple around the same age as us. The journey was an epic 8 hours of constant twists, sharp corners and great conversation. It turned out that most of our group was booked into the same guest house, Keo Kong’s guesthouse. Typically for us, we had no accommodation booked and were just planning to wing it when it arrived. As our new tribe seemed to be gelling so well, we decided to book a room in this place too. This turned out to be a great decision.

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The guesthouse is run by the eccentric Mr Kong. With half an unexploded bomb as a bonfire in the middle of his guesthouse, this place was special. As it gets very cold in Phonsavan at night, his guests gather around this fire, drink cheap local beer and listen to Mr Kong’s stories. He is incredibly knowledgable about the plane of jars, Laos’ history and his own interpretation of Buddhist stories. I won’t ruin these for you, but it is safe to say that you will not find his stories in any guidebook. His bar is self service, and you keep track of your own tab. This truly is a guesthouse like no other.

Near the guesthouse there is an amazing Indian restaurant near to the hostel. I highly recommend this place if you are in the area. Head down to the main street and head left. Its about 50m down the road. We ate here on both night we were in Phonsavan. The owner is lovely and his 2 year old son is adorable.

The next day, we all rented mopeds and went to explore the mysteriousScreen Shot 2016-12-11 at 22.16.01 plane of jars. These jars stretch across three sites and take about 45 mins to drive to, through stunning scenery and along a pretty decent road, which is also rare for Laos. The plane of jars were amazing. The first site also contains a museum was interesting, and detailed  the little that is known about the history of the plane of jars and highlighting those items that had been recovered during the exploration of the site by various research teams. In this day and age it is so rare to come across a question to which we do not have an answer. The who, how and why of these jars remains largely a mystery.

Whilst out and about, we also saw several bomb disposal units, searching for an marking Unexploded ordnance or UXOs. Laos has an estimated 8,000,000 unexploded bombs, bomblets or other explosives, relics of the Indochina war, or the Vietnam War was as it is known to us. The sheer scale of the American bombing of Laos is mind boggling. Following a tip from Mr Kong, we returned to this site at 3pm and were able to watch. from a safe distance, as the UXOs team blew up the bombs they had found that day. From our position on a nearby hill, we heard a number of huge explosions and saw plumes of smoke rising into the sky. 

The UXO’s that they had found in this location were located no more than 20m from the road. We also heard several other explosions from other UXO teams in the surrounding area. It is estimated that as many as 25% of villages in Laos remain contaminated by UXO’s. Through education programmes and raised awareness, casualty rates from UXO’s have dropped in recent years, but many people, mostly children continue to be killed by them each year. You can read more about this on the website of COPE, a NGO which works with UXO survivors to provide prosthetic limbs. You can read about them here. They do truly amazing work.

But Phonsavan was not finished yet. As part of my trip, I have set up the blog, Gyms of the World, detailing the weird and wonderful gyms that IIMG_20161211_080700 (1) have found across south east Asia. Following the advice of Mr Kong, I head out to find the local bowling alley which I was promised contained the only gym in the area, As it turns out, this was right and turned out to be one of the strangest gym experiences that I have had on my travels. It looked like this. 

You can read the full article about this crazy gym on my blog Gyms of the World.