2015 in Review: A Year of Highs and Lows

2015: You’ve been both incredibly beautiful yet hideously brutal.

If you’ve been following my travelling journey from the beginning you’ll know I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs. I’ve been literally high as a kite by flying a plane over Sydney Harbour for my birthday, completing 5 weeks at a fitness camp and getting invited on an Indian wedding. But then there must be balance in the universe, so of course I sprained my ankle and was electrocuted whilst taking a shower. Yin and Yang! 🙂

Read on to see how my year panned out. Looking forward to a nice quiet 2016 with no dramas… I can only hope!

January: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

High point: A good friend’s wedding.
Low point: The stress of selling everything I owned.

January was all about getting ready for the epic trip due to start in February! I quit my job in London the previous October, so I was tying everything up at home including finding someone to replace me at work, moving out, selling everything I owned and making plans for the first part of the travels including flights, our route, travel insurance and LOADS more.

I also had my brother and sister in law visiting (they live in Sydney), found out I was going to be an auntie (yay!) and witnessed two wonderful friends tie the knot in a wondrous winter ceremony in the Cotswolds.

All things considered, it was a really stressful time. January was a crazy month in which I very nearly lost my shit, but keeping the eyes on the prize (the impending travels) was the only way to get through it.

February: I’m free!

High point: Stepping on the plane with the whole world ahead of me.
Low point: A nasty spider bite which stayed with me for months!

I spent the first week of February catching up with family before taking off on a one way flight to Trivandrum, south India on February 9th with my boyfriend Alex. The plan was to spend about 2 months working our way up the west coast of India to Delhi.

I had a soft landing, with 9 nights in Varkala, learning the basics of yoga and enjoying the serene beach vibe. From there I took the ferry through the backwaters to Alleppey, where I spent a couple of nights and met up with a friend of mine from back home for a tour of Kerala’s backwaters. A bit of an extravagance at around £30 per person, but it was worth it.

Kerala house boat

Munnar was a beautiful town set in the rolling hills of Kerala where I strolled through tea plantations and met an amazing Argentinian / Brazilian couple Maxi and Deia (check out their multi lingual travel blog here) along the way. I finished February in the port town of Kochi, going for random runs to work off all the curry and watching the sun blaze red in the sky.

munnar tea plantations

Munnar’s tea plantations

munnar mountains

Munnar’s beautiful mountains

kochi sunset

Kochi port at sunset

March: Poo problems, paint pains and getting zapped!

High point: Spending Holi Festival in Hampi with some really cute local kids.
Low point: Getting the runs and then being electrocuted in the shower.

March arrived like a baptism of fire. Almost literally. Alex and I were both struck down with a horrific case of food poisoning after eating at a disgusting looking place in Mysore for lunch. After a couple of days of being holed up in bed, puking my guts up and shitting through the eye of a needle, I was ready to face the world again.

Except the universe had other plans for me. As I showered off the funk of the previous few days, my left hand latched onto a live wire hanging down from the wall, and I received 220 volts right the way through my body. Shudder.

After that trauma, I spent Holi Festival in Hampi (YouTube video here), an adorable historical town filled with temples, out-of-this world boulders and an elephant which took a daily bath in the river. I loved Holi, but the pink paint totally ruined my blonde hair, and led to months of colouring mishaps!

holi festival hampi

holi festival hampi river

hampi after holi

Back to the coast, and the beaches of Palolem and Patnem in the south, Anjuna in the north and Goa’s capital Panaji provided a more than decent home for 2 weeks as we both licked our wounds from yet more food poisoning (thanks, India!).

anjuna beach goa

Anjuna Beach

April: Bollywood, intrepid journeys and local celebrations.

High point: A camel ride through the desert and sleeping under the stars. An Indian wedding.
Low point: Being scammed in Pushkar.

In the month which we were supposed to be finishing our India trip, Alex and I were barely halfway through! The first part of the month was spent in Mumbai, where we both had tons of work to catch up with, so we rented a room in Bandra through Airbnb for a couple of weeks.

street art bandra mumbai

Street art, Bandra

Mumbai was surprisingly awesome! We spent our days working, going out for street food (we would not be beaten by food poisoning!) and chilling in Bandra West by night. Bandra is the cool neighbourhood where the Bollywood elite hang out so I always felt so underdressed going out here. The women are immaculate!

I spent a fantastic few days in Udaipur which I absolutely adored. Our guest house overlooked the lake and had some of the best sunset views in the whole city. I also saw an elephant roaming the streets, took a cruise on the lake and bought tons of local artwork which I sent home to decorate my house with (when I get around to buying one)!

udaipur lake sunset

The view from our guest house, Udaipur

From Udaipur I went to Jaisalmer where I stayed in an incredible 5 star hotel called Suryagarh which I was reviewing for Tripzuki and then went out into the Thar Desert for a camel safari and a night under the stars, sleeping on a sand dune.

jaisalmer desert camel safari

jaisalmer camel funny

From Jaisalmer I skipped through Jaipur to Pushkar, where I stayed for about 10 days or so. At first I totally hated it, after being ripped off and scammed, but then I was invited to an Indian wedding and I got a taste of what it meant to be part of the culture and the community here, rather than just a walking wallet as you so often are in India. The tables quickly turned and all of a sudden I loved Pushkar, and I was back in love with India again.

indian wedding group

May: Mountains, monuments and mayhem

High point: Being in the mountains, away from the craziness of India.
Low point: A beyond-stupid girl in my hostel who behaved so terribly I had to write about her.

I took a 21 hour sleeper train (the longest so far) from Ajmer to Amritsar, in Punjab. I wasn’t expecting much from Amritsar as a city, but it totally blew me away. Instead of staying near the Golden Temple (backpacker area) I chose a hostel just out of town with not a westerner in sight.

The people were amazingly friendly, but didn’t speak much English so it made for some funny moments as Alex and I tried to navigate our way around the city, with every other person rushing up to help you, but none of them able to. I haven’t smiled and laughed so much in ages.

golden temple amritsar

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

The Golden Temple itself was incredible, and I highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in that neck of the woods. Also the daily ‘show of force’ in which members of the Indian army shout at and try to intimidate Pakistani troops just across the border near Wagah is worth seeing too. Really fun, and a symbol of national pride for India.

wagah border

Waving a sad goodbye to a really awesome city, I boarded the most banged up bus I’ve ever seen and weaved into the foothills of the Himalayas towards McCleod Ganj. The interesting thing about McCleod Ganj is its high population of Tibetan monks who live here in exile. The Dalai Lama also has his headquarters here and occasionally gives speeches (we didn’t see one, sadly).

mcleod ganj town

McLeod Ganj

dalai lama temple

Dali Lama HQ

It’s also a Mecca for yogis and has some of the most beautiful day hikes in the region, including one to the Triund (discover how to hike it properly here).

Loving the vibe of the mountains, I spent a couple of weeks in Manali, where I reviewed a gorgeous castle-like hotel and had some great adventures. My favourite experience was hiking overnight with a group of Israelis and a couple of Brits to a spectacular valley. I still haven’t written about that. Naughty Hayley.

manali hike top

manali hike valley

manali valley

I spent a day in the Parvati Valley too, which I absolutely adored, and I vowed to return to the Indian Himalayas again. There’s never enough time!

From the mountains, it was time to head south to Delhi. I didn’t much like Delhi, mainly thanks to the fact that it was 45 degrees and the men leered at me ALL the time, even though I was dressed modestly. I also had a rather crappy night when I attempted to see Alt-J in concert but it was spectacularly ruined by some idiot girl. Read the story if you haven’t already. It’s unbelievable.

delhi drunk girl

taj mahal alternative

Our last days in India were spent watching the sun rise and fall over the Taj Mahal, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. In late May we decided to call it quits and switch country. After the earthquake in Nepal I decided that now was not the time, and we decided to check out Vietnam.

We flew into Hanoi and were absolutely delighted with the change of pace. Being able to wear short sleeves and shorts was a blessing after so long covering myself, and I made the most of the new freedoms offered by the laid-back Vietnamese culture: Sitting at the roadside drinking 20p beer, going out to a bar without becoming the entertainment and eating bowl after bowl of steaming hot Pho – breakfast, lunch, dinner… It never mattered.

hanoi beer

June: A new country and a very big surprise.

High point: Hiking the mountains of Sapa.
Low point: Feeling 100% helpless.

A new month and a new country to explore! I started by finding a cool little alternative to those pricey Halong Bay Cruises (find out how to get a cheap Halong Bay Cruise here), and spent a few nights on Cat Ba Island, off the north coast of Vietnam. Cat Ba was a weird place, with plenty of loud Vietnamese tourists and lots of weird things to eat, including turtle, sea slug and spider. I didn’t go for any of them, of course!

Next stop, the mountains! After loving the Himalayas so much in May, I was excited to get back into the mountains, and so I spent a couple of weeks in Sapa in the northernmost corner of the country. Here I hiked with the world’s friendliest H’mong lady, Mao, to her village and stayed overnight in her lovely home. I really loved Mao and wished I could have stayed longer to get to know her more. Still, her tour of the area was beautiful and I felt so relaxed. I also fell in love with her pet piglet!

hmong lady sapa

sapa pig

sapa valley view

I got the bus (for the love of God, avoid the buses in Vietnam. Go by train or fly!) down the coast to Hue, the historical capital of Vietnam. Hue was a sobering experience as I started to learn more about the bloody war which crippled the country and killed millions in the 1960s and 70s. I would highly recommend taking an Easy Rider Tour to get a view of the country today versus what it was like for people living through this horror.

easy rider hue vietnam

easy rider bike hue

Danang was the next port of call, and although not too much to do here, I enjoyed eating Spanish and Italian food at one of the best (and friendliest) restaurants in town and zooming around on the back of Alex’s scooter. We visited the Lady Buddha, which overlooks the sweeping bay and was one of my favourite things about Danang. It’s also got a pretty rocking beach to chill out on.

danang lady buddha

Just down the coast, only about 45 minutes away was Hoi An. I was so excited about visiting Hoi An, as every traveller I met who had already been would rave about the cheap clothes made by tailors in less than a day, and the amazing beauty of the river surrounded by colourful lamps.

I absolutely loved Hoi An too, and for the first couple of days enjoyed its slow pace, amazing food and cool night scene. Then I had some shocking news from my brother which shook my world. My sister in law had gone into labour and would likely give birth any time, around 3 and a half months early.

Of course I was worried sick, for my sister in law and my new niece who I was looking forward to meeting in October for my birthday in Sydney. No one was ready to meet her so soon, but on 19th June little Charlie was born. Very small, very delicate and quite sick, but she was here all the same.

After I heard about the birth I was in pieces. I offered to go to Sydney to help out in any way I could, but there was really nothing for me to do. Charlie was in the very capable hands of the NICU in Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women, and my brother and his wife needed to adjust to their new life.

Before I left Hoi An I lowered a candle into the river and said a prayer for my niece. I knew she’d be a fighter, and you’ll be happy to know that today she’s beautiful, bouncing and doing brilliantly.

hoi an lanterns

My next stop was the weird seaside town of Nhatrang. Known by locals as ‘Little Russia’, within 5 minutes of arriving it was clear why… Russians, everywhere! Nhatrang is also home to a theme and water park, where I bashed my head on a water slide so hard I almost knocked myself out. No such thing as ‘health and safety’ there, for sure!

I spent a couple of nights recharging my batteries in Mui Ne at a fantastic hostel called Mui Ne Hills, which had a pool and a great social area where I met some nice people and had a few cheap beers. Nothing too strenuous but at the time, just what I needed.

The last stop on my 5 week trip through Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon). I met some really cool travellers and we spent a few days hanging out together and going on adventures, including a night food tour on the back of some locals’ motorbikes! I also headed out on a day trip to the Mekong Delta, which was delightful!

All in all, Vietnam was a mix of highs and lows, but a beautiful country which I’m very lucky to have experienced.

Ice cream on a food tour Ho Chi Minh City

Ice cream on a food tour Ho Chi Minh City

Meeting the locals in the Mekong Delta

Meeting the locals in the Mekong Delta

July: The excesses are catching up with me.

High point: A dazzling sunset across rice paddies in Battambang.
Low point: The Cambodian Killing Fields.

At the beginning of the month I hopped across the border to Cambodia for a couple of weeks of exploring. I started in Phnom Penh, where a few years earlier I had seen the disturbing Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng museum of genocide. I wasn’t keen to return but Alex hadn’t been there so we went to visit and learn about the horrific things which happened there just before our lifetimes.

killing fields cambodia

killing fields skulls

I didn’t really like Phnom Penh as a place. I found it very seedy and a little scary in places, although I have lots of friends who love it there, so I can’t help but think I missed something.

From the city to the beach, and my next port of call was Koh Rong. There was quite a lot ‘rong’ there actually. Lots of sanitation issues everywhere which filled the sea with sewage. I know they are doing a lot of work to help the local community to deal with this, so fingers crossed in a few years it will be a lot better.

koh rong beach

So far, you can tell I’m not loving Cambodia, right? Well, all that changed in Battambang, where I absolutely fell in love with the city and its hospitable people. I rode on a tacky ‘bamboo train’ which most people don’t ‘get’ but I really enjoyed, and saw millions of bats fly out from a cave just outside the city. But the highlight was the sunset across the miles of perfect rice paddies.

battambang sunset

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Battambang I can recommend Here Be Dragons, where the food is good, the staff friendly and the travellers chilled.

The final place on my whistle-stop tour of Cambodia was of course Siam Reap, where I took in the wonders of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and got royally rained on when the heavens opened in Ta Prohm. It was raining so hard that taking the camera out for one picture nearly destroyed it!

raining in cambodia

And so Cambodia came to a swift end, and it was time to head to Thailand for a completely new challenge: 5 weeks at a fitness camp!

August: Let’s get fit!

High point: Feeling great and comfortable in my body for the first time in years.
Low point: The first class where I worked so hard I got tunnel vision and nearly fell off a two foot step.

August was all about burning off the beer of Vietnam and Cambodia, and Alex and I threw ourselves in to a new routine of daily exercise and eating healthily with vigor.

The venue for our 5 week intensive training was Titan Fitness in Phuket, Thailand. It’s one of a string of fitness camps located in the town of Chalong, in the south of the island of Phuket, and everything here is geared towards getting yourself into the best shape possible.

titan flex pose

Smoothie bars serving delicious smoothies and shakes, simple ‘clean eating’ restaurants and only one bar serving alcohol in the whole town meant that I was forced onto the straight and narrow. If you haven’t read it, then you can check out how I did here, and if you’re interested in doing something like this yourself, then here’s everything you need to know about training at Titan Fitness.

At the end of the month, I moved on to Koh Lanta, which was absolute luxury and relaxation after weeks of pounding the pavements. I wrote about the amazing 5 star hotel I stayed in on The Travel Hack, a top UK blog where I’d recently been taken on as one of the contributing writers.

A quick jaunt to Railay Beach on Thailand’s Krabi coast and then a skip across the country to Koh Tao, one of the most beautiful islands in Thailand in my opinion.

The pool at my hotel in Railay Beach

The pool at my hotel in Railay Beach

September: A Whole World of Pain

High point: Earning my Advanced Adventurer diving certificate in Koh Tao
Low point: Spraining my ankle! Ouch!

I only visited 2 places in September: Koh Tao and Ubud in Bali. Why? Well, Koh Tao really got a hold of me, and my plan to visit Koh Samui and Koh Phangan (the two neighbouring islands) fell by the wayside when I realised just how amazing and addictive it is to scuba dive.

One of the beautiful beaches of Koh Tao

One of the beautiful beaches of Koh Tao

I’d planned to stay for 5 days to get my Open Water certificate, but ended up staying for nearly two weeks to take my Advanced Adventurer so I could dive to 30 metres. It was one of the best things I’ve done this year, and I loved every second. I even took a fun dive after qualifying which saw us being chased by a particularly territorial and furious Titan Trigger Fish. Seriously terrifying.

I’m still to write about my favourite things about Koh Tao, including the amazing restaurants, laid-back bars and incredibly clear seas to snorkel in, but I’ll be sure to share these with you in 2016.

My scuba instructor, Minty

My scuba instructor, Minty

In mid September we were on our way to Bali to explore Indonesia for a month. The plan was to start in Ubud in Bali, and work our way across to the Gili Islands, Lombok and Komodo Island to see the famous (and almost extinct) Komodo Dragon, the largest lizard in the world.

Sadly the universe had other ideas and on my first day in Ubud I was practically skipping along and telling Alex just how much I love the town, when I turned my ankle over in the most excruciatingly painful moment of my entire existence. And I’ve done some pretty big mischiefs to myself over time.

swollen ankle 2

The ankle swelled to the size of a cricket ball and I spent the next two weeks in my guest house or in coffee shops with my leg up, hobbling to the toilet on crutches and drinking more coffee than is healthy for grown woman. Perhaps an Asian elephant could have tolerated the hit of caffeine I was delivering to my body on a daily basis, but not a 29 year old woman.

Luwak Coffee, made from Civit poo

Luwak Coffee, made from Civit poo

ubud luwak coffee

The rice paddies of Ubud

The rice paddies of Ubud

October: Britain, Bangkok, Birthday.

High point: Surprising my mum at work in the UK with a quick return. My 30th birthday.
Low point: It’s worse than I thought.

In October, after being told by the doctor in Bali that my ankle would take around 2 weeks to heal, I realised that it was a lot worse than I’d originally thought. Nearly 3 weeks after the fall, I was still no closer to feeling better and could only limp a little.

Alex had some family stuff to sort out at home and had to go back to the UK at short notice, so my options were to stay in Bali for another couple of weeks on my own with a sprained ankle, or take a plane back with him to visit my family. My mum and dad had split up whilst I was away and both parents were feeling the strain, so I decided to surprise them with a short trip back home.

I landed on a drizzly Monday morning and headed straight for my home town and the hospital where my mum works as a nurse to give her the shock of her life. Here’s the video of the moment we met after 8 months apart.

I spent a blissful week in the UK catching up with family, friends and food. Actually I ate a whole block of Cathedral City cheddar cheese within 3 days, I missed it so much.

I also had time to reconsider my ability to write for The Travel Hack, and decided that with everything going on I didn’t have space in my head for anything else at the moment and needed to concentrate on myself, my blog and my personal circumstances. I sadly quit the team.

From Britain I flew to Bangkok to attend TBEX Asia travel blogging conference. I stayed in a wonderful hotel called the Maduzi with fellow blogger and all-round legend Rachel from Hippie in Heels. If you’re not familiar with her blog you should definitely check it out. It’s glorious, it’s girly and it’s everything you’ll ever need to know about India.

A couple of days battling the hazy air in Kuala Lumpur and I was on my way to Sydney to celebrate my 30th birthday with family. I finally met my niece and she was beyond tiny! A delicate little bundle with the biggest blue eyes. I was hooked!

charlie hand

On my 30th birthday Al gave me one of the best presents I’ve ever received… The chance to fly a light aircraft over Sydney Harbour

! On the day I was so nervous, I almost bottled out at the last minute, but thank god I didn’t as it was an absolute treat! Check out these incredible views!

aerial view sydney harbour plane

plane sydney harbour controls

family sydney harbour

Me, my mum and my brother at Sydney Harbour

mum with charlie

My mum with Charlie on Bondi Beach

November: Discovering the Philippines!

High point: A 5 day sailing trip in Palawan.
Low point: Still having ankle trouble.

Early November I touched down in the Philippines and the first point of call was brazen, bonkers Boracay. A place where people strive for the perfect selfie on the beach and you can eat out of a toilet. Very tacky and a little insane, but it was kind of fun in a strange way.

boracay sunset beer

Next up was the island of Bohol, with its magical Chocolate Hills and sanctuary housing the bug-eyed Philippine Tarsier. Our group tiptoed through the sanctuary to avoid disturbing the little beasts who, if feeling threatened will Kamikaze-smash their heads against a tree. Not the best survival technique, so you can see why these little buggers are nearly extinct!

tarsier sanctuary bohol

We also got a chance to use our diving skills for the first time just off the coast of Alona Beach in Bohol at a dive site called Balicasag. It was a really top notch site, with a sloping sand bank which dropped off into a huge coral wall, and plenty of sea grass to attract the nearby turtles. There were LOADS of them!

bohol diving turtle

The final part of my trip to the Philippines was to Palawan, in the west of the archipelago. Despite still having a dodgy ankle, I managed to survive a 5 day sailing trip with 22 other adventurers, one of the best things I’ve done this year.

tao camp philippines

We camped on islands and snorkelled amazing coral reefs. We ate fish freshly caught from the sea and an entire suckling pig which we picked up on one of the islands. It was wild, it was free and I loved every second. Read more about the trip here.

As well as the sailing trip, I stayed in a cottage on its own private beach in Port Barton, where the electricity only runs for 3 hours a day and your only air conditioning is the gentle breeze from the ocean. I also stayed in a cool hostel in El Nido and celebrated Alex’s birthday with a relaxing massage and some tapas with a view of a blazing red sunset.

philippines sunset

December: Finding family

High point: Fireworks at Sydney Harbour for New Year’s Eve.
Low point: Really none.

I spent a few days wandering around Bangkok and actually liking it this time, filling my face with street food and probably many beers. I think I have now undone all of the good work from the fitness camp, thanks to amazing Thai food, lots of booze and not being able to exercise properly. Bugger.

We decided to spend a few weeks basing ourselves in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand to catch up on work and to see if we like the vibe (scoping it out as a possible place to live next year). It turns out that Chiang Mai is one of the places we’d feel most comfortable living. The community of other people who have chosen to work remotely just like us, is amazing. We found a great coworking space called Punspace, and it felt just like going into ‘the office’ each day.

I totally understand the irony of this, as we left our jobs in the UK to escape ‘office life’, but it’s just such a better way to work, rather than tapping away at your laptop on a hotel bed. And everyone’s got to make a living, right?

The plan for next year is to settle somewhere for a while to top up the depleting funds and really focus on building this website. I’ve got some exciting changes planned for Spring, and I can’t wait to share them with you when everything’s all ready!

The final weeks of 2015 were spent how they should be. With family. I flew back to Australia to see my brother, sis in law and niece who is such a little chubber now and growing every day. We lazed on the beach, drank chilled mulled wine (as Christmassy as it gets in Oz), had long lazy lunches and just relaxed.

family christmas coogee beach

charlie coogee beach

As the final few seconds of the year ticked by, I was sitting on a bank at the edge of Sydney Harbour with Alex, talking about the future and looking up towards the sky in anticipation of what a new year will bring.

sydney harbour new year fireworks

There will be some changes next year as we slow down the pace a little and find a base. 2016 will kick off with 6 weeks exploring New Zealand, and then we fly back to Bali to enjoy the easy-going lifestyle of yoga and digital nomadism. From there? Who knows. But I’ve got a feeling 2016 is going to be one hell of a new chapter!

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

Comments 5

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  2. Nam

    I definitely understand about feeling helpless – but I guess there won’t be as much travel ups if you don’t have some down sometimes!
    I did a solo trip and volunteering for 2 months and it got a little lonely and hard, but the amazing experiences definitely made up for it 🙂
    Hope you have an amazing 2016 ahead!

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