A couple from London looking to experience new cities, landscapes, and cultures, Sarah and Dan have taken a career break to see the world together. Both working in the advertising industry, they saved off and on before feeling comfortable enough to take the leap in 2012.
Their travels have taken them through Namibia, China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. Since May they have been living and working in Melbourne in the hope to save enough to continue their travels in Australia and New Zealand, before heading home in March 2014.
Be sure to check out their adventure so far!
Your travels through Asia began in China almost a year ago. Tell us about the planning that was involved in organising this trip.
Funnily enough China was added to our plans as a last minute impulse and it was the best decision we could have made! It came about because I was starting this trip in Namibia volunteering with the Elephant - Human Relations Aid and had planned to join up with Dan in Vietnam. The cheapest flight to get me there would involve a transfer in Beijing, which made us stop in our tracks. Conjuring up images of The Great Wall, Chinese lanterns and pandas, we wondered why we hadn't thought of this before. There was no question about it, we had to go!
Given the limited time we had to plan we decided to use an organised tour company for the China section of our trip. This would ease us into travelling together, as well as give us support in a country that we had heard was hard to travel in without a grasp of the language. We knew we wanted to travel in a small group for a month, use local transport and experience some of the iconic landmarks China has to offer whilst immersing ourselves in the culture.
We took to the internet to research tour companies; RealGap provided the best option for us. It was a small group; cost effective including all accommodation, transport and most of our meals. We got to climb The Great Wall, see the Terracotta Army, cruise down the Li River in Guilin, teach English to the cutest kids and see pandas.
We were lucky to have a fantastic group to travel with, which makes all the difference. Our guides were incredible too! We met a new one in each place who passed on their knowledge on China's history and culture, as well as fun nights of Karaoke and teaching us how to make dumplings! I can honestly say that even a year on into our travels that China is still one of our favourite places that we have visited.
Rehabilitation and grassroots causes are an important part of your travels. How do you find the companies you choose to volunteer with?
As we were travelling for so long we were lucky to have the extra time to get involved in projects along the way. The only volunteering that was pre-planned was my month with the Elephant - Human Relations Aid. I knew I wanted to volunteer specifically with the Namibian desert elephant and fortunately came across EHRA whilst searching online. It is a fantastic conservation project where you really get stuck in with the project, from building rock walls to tracking wild elephants across stunning landscapes. I would highly recommend it and since I was there it won Best Volunteering Organisation at Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2012!
Everything else we found out about whilst we were on the road. Both the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia and Big Brother Mouse which promotes literacy in Laos came from recommendations from our Lonely Planet guide. Both were rewarding experiences.
Having access to the Internet played a huge part in finding what we were after. For example it was important to us that any elephant project we got involved in did not involve riding the elephants. To be able to double check this before committing to travelling to the project was important. It also helped us to liaise with projects so we could time our arrival in their area to coincide with when they needed our help. When we got involved with BBM they could not guarantee the exact date that the book party we had sponsored would take place, but through emails and our ability to be flexible we were able to go and deliver the books to the children ourselves, which was fantastic.
As well as checking out charity websites we would also look for any blogs relating to projects in the areas we were going to or even just putting the word out on Facebook for advice. When we were in Bali we found about the Bali Animal Welfare Association through a review on Trip Advisor which led us to looking further into the work they do. Once we heard more about the issues faced by the animals BAWA strives to help, we decided to stay a week longer in Ubud to do what we could too.
What I think was a good approach for us was that we didn't just go with the first thing we saw, we took time to research anything we found, try to get a steer of the organisation and whether we saw in it things we wanted to help with, did we believe in what they were doing and really that only comes with persevering and taking time to read up on them.
The only other thing we would say is be open to any situation and you might find something you wouldn't read about in a book or on the internet. We were approached out of the blue to join in a free dive trip to help clear up the rubbish around Gili Trawangan's reefs harbour, and learnt things we didn't know about issues with rubbish in the ocean. We also ended up helping at a charity event for Hearts4Heart in Melbourne, through meeting a friend of a friend who had suffered from heart disease and used her own experiences to set up a charity to help others.
None of it was planned and all of it added a unique opportunity which otherwise we wouldn't have known about. You could pick up the paper one day and be planting trees the next!
What are some of the challenges you've had to deal with on your journey?
Would you say a 29 hour local bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in a bus that looked like it was on its last legs, full to the brim with passengers who didn't take too well to winding roads, classes as a challenge? That was possibly up there with some of the hardest parts of our travel but oddly, you feel more like an adventurer when you are in those situations and you look back on it with a smile.
The other experiences that we haven't enjoyed so much are when someone takes advantage and exploits your limited knowledge to earn an extra buck. This only happened once or twice, one of which was in China when a guy in the Tourist Information Office ripped us off just because he knew he could. We hadn't been able to research the area and knew we had little time to find our way from the train station to the bus stop before our scheduled bus would leave. You would think tourist information would be the best place to ask, right? Wrong! Here is a lesson, try to research the area before you get there because the 40 minute drive you have been advised is necessary may turn out to be a 5 minute drop off around the corner, setting you back £30!
That was a challenge for us because we wanted to make a complaint about it but you can't do that because the culture and language is different. You just have to suck it up, because in the grand scheme of things it's really not that big of a deal.
We also struggled with flagging when we had been on the road for five or six months. Trying to organise and be on the go all the time to see the next thing became a drag. Each being unwell during this time didn't help the situation but regardless of that we just needed to stop and gather ourselves. A quick decision to go to Perhentian Islands was the perfect solution. The beach was white, the water was clear and we did absolutely nothing for a week except sunbathe, watch movies at the local cinema-cum-bar, and enjoyed just being in the moment.
Remember not to worry about making the wrong decision; there isn't one, it's all part of the adventure.
Do you have any tips for travelling as a couple?
Take it in turns who makes the decisions. This is a great tip we were given by a friend before we left. It means you avoid going around in circles trying to work out what to do next, where to eat, where to stay etc. Remember not to worry about making the wrong decision; there isn't one, it's all part of the adventure.
Don't let the little things become big things, keep talking! This was optimised on Gili Air when everything Dan did was winding me up, even him asking me if I was ok was annoying. On the third time of him asking I turned to him and said 'I don't know why but sometimes I just want to punch you in the face!'. It was such a ridiculous outburst that after a few stunned seconds we both burst into laughter! Tension released, we headed to the beach and had one of the funniest conversations, telling each other every little thing that had been annoying us about the other, no matter how silly it sounded.
It's ok not to be with each other all the time. Sometimes you just need your own space, or you will want to do something the other doesn't. This is totally fine, just go your separate ways that day. It may even be for a couple of days like when Dan went to climb Mt Rinjani in Lombok, I travelled back to Bali on my own to do some yoga and we were apart for three days. You'll have great fun sharing your adventures over a cocktail when you meet up again.
Encourage each other to step out of their comfort zone. I would still be stuck in a 60 ft treehouse if Dan hadn't talked me into trusting the zip wire and taking that leap, and Dan wouldn't have rescued a puppy from a drain if I had not coaxed him into putting his concerns aside about volunteering in an animal shelter. You'll surprise yourself and each other at what you can achieve and create memories that will last a life time!
What's next? Any places you will visit again?
We've just decided that the next leg of our adventure will be to drive across Australia from Melbourne to Perth which will include crossing the vast expanse of the Nullarbor Plain. We've heard so many great things about the west coast that we can't miss out on taking a look for ourselves. We were given a great tip that car rental companies need people to drive their rental cars/vans back to their depot of origin, for free! This helps them to save on the transporter costs that they would otherwise incur and is great for us as we get to have an Australian roadtrip without the rental cost. We used Transfercar to find a company that needed drivers and fortunately we found one that matches exactly what we need. We'll be heading off on 21st November so keep checking our blog to see how we get on!
We would love to one day go back to China, Laos and Indonesia again. We had such amazing experiences in these places. China is so vast and culturally different from anywhere else we have been, there is just so much to try and take in that one trip is not enough. Laos is simply beautiful and the people are as intrigued to find out about you as we were to find out about them and I would go back for their smiles alone. What can I say about Indonesia, it is stunning! With our new passion for diving we definitely want to return there to check out more of the amazing dives it has to offer.