During the summer I headed home to the UK for a short while but it wasn't long until I started getting itchy feet, and I thought why not take advantage of Europe being right on my doorstep? Living in the UK, we are so lucky to have so many countries and cultures so close and accessible, it's important to take advantage of that EU passport while we still have it eh! I've travelled quite a lot of Europe over the years but there were still so many places I longed to visit and since making so many new international friends on the other side of the world, it seemed a perfect time to go and visit them all at home for the ultimate Eurotrip! One of the top places on my list was Amsterdam - I've wanted to visit for years and have planned trips several times but ended up never quite making it. I would only have about 48-72 hours in the city but it was the perfect opportunity to experience it for the first time and to visit a good friend of mine at her home - from Australia to Amsterdam.I flew in from Budapest and after a fairly chilled few days spent in the stunning baths and exploring the city at a gentle pace, I was ready to take things up a gear to cram in sightseeing and partying into just a few hours. I was staying just outside the city with my friend, Lisa, and I have to give a huge shoutout to her for not only putting me up at her amazing apartment, but for helping me to make the absolute most of my Amsterdam experience. As soon as I arrived we cycled into the city in true Amsterdam fashion to check out the parks which were filled with the scent of barbecue and the chatter of friends. We sat in the sunshine at a little man-made beach along the river having drinks and pizza with friends, and spent the evening bar hopping along the canals. It was a perfect first evening there and gave me a chance to meet a lot of people, we even stumbled across a fashion festival happening in the streets with all of the high class shops hosting DJ sets and bars.The next days, I headed into the city first thing to make the most of my sightseeing time by taking one of the brilliant free walking tours. I first heard about Sandeman's free walking tours from a friend when I was in Berlin and after experiencing one there and another in 'Dam, I would seriously recommend them to anyone visiting a European city. The tours are fantastic quality and are led by energetic, knowledgeable and passionate individuals who bring history and heritage to life through their delivery. The walks last just a few hours and take in the main sights of each city plus there are several specialised ones including tours of the Red Light District, beer tours, history tours, graffiti tours etc. The best thing about these tours? They're technically free despite being such amazing quality. The people giving the tours make their money through tips - they just ask that you pay what you feel the tour was worth at the end - you can give nothing or you show how much you value the experience. It calls for the tour leader to really work hard to show you the city and it calls for you to give an honest and fair review of the services. I can't fault the company or the system. The Amsterdam tour was fantastic and our guide was really friendly and knowledgeable.Once we'd spent a few hours wandering through the busy streets and along the canals for the tour, I headed back to the apartment for a quick change and glam up. Then Lisa and I were straight out the door and off to Magneet Festival - a bit of a trip affair, the festival would feature some of Lisa's friends who were DJing on the most amazing stage overlooking the whole festival. It was an incredible night, amazing music and a fantastic group of people made for a pretty special experience. We danced and partied our way around the festival, even checking out hardcore and rock tents and watching some entertaining karaoke. It was such a fun night and pretty epic to experience a festival in Amsterdam. After the gates closed, we headed into the city and ended up at De School - a converted school which has become a club where must-lovers can rave in a dark, smokey basement until the sun comes up. Such a good club, we had a fantastic night! The next day, dying of hangover, I packed up and headed out to catch my train up to the north where I was visiting another amazing friend for just one night before heading home.It was such a flying visit but my goodness I crammed a LOT in, Amsterdam is a fantastic city which makes it hard not to want to cram everything into the quickest visit. Before even leaving I knew I already wanted to return for another visit - there is still so much I didn't have time to do, like the Anne Frank House and the museums. And I would love a chance to spend more time exploring the city at a slower pace. I will definitely return in the future but I was so happy to not only get to experience the city for the first time but to share the experience with such amazing people. I'm a lucky girl and travelling the world definitely has opened me up to some incredible cross-continent friendships. Getting to reunite with friends in a completely new land is definitely one of my favourite things about travelling the world.
Have you been to Amsterdam - what was your favourite experience? Can you recommend any other walking tours?
Two of the most iconic images we hold of Australia are the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, the third? Ayers Rock, which I still have yet to see but am making my way towards slowly. Within five hours of my flight arriving in Sydney I had seen both of these and it was a pretty strange sight after a nine hour flight and no sleep. I couldn't believe I was finally standing there staring at two of these incredible landmarks that I had only ever seen on TV before now, but what a welcome to the city. I was lucky enough to see them on my first day both bathed in glorious sunlight which really made it special. I felt sorry for friends who I later saw had posted photos of the two on an overcast, cloudy day which just didn't have the same effect. I'm sorry to say that the Opera House just looks like a lump of concrete to me when it's not sunny, and the bridge is just a load of metal on a miserable day. They just look so much less impressive without sunlight glinting off them.
I was very lucky while I was in Sydney and picked up some good weather despite it being a bit chilly on some days. So a lot of my days there were spent walking miles and miles around the city - at one point I was using an app which told me I was walking an average of 10k a day as I made my way round the city running errands and sightseeing. One of my favourite walks was down through the CBD until I reached the harbour, then walking either towards the bridge and across The Rocks, or heading the opposite way towards the Opera House and Royal Botanical Gardens. Anyone who follows me on Instagram will know that I spent quite a lot of time in the gardens, reading, contemplating my travels and making plans for the next few months in Australia. I have now been to botanical gardens all over the world and I can definitely say that I have never seen any as beautiful, well-maintained and idyllic as those in Sydney. They were a natural haven on the edge of the city - often it caught me by surprise as I lay on the grass facing the water to turn around and see skyscrapers not far from where I lay.The gardens are filled with walks that take you around the lakes and through smaller sections of the beautiful layout. I would recommend to anyone who finds themselves with spare and sunny day to make their way to the gardens with a picnic, a book and time to walk to their hearts content. I found my favourite spot in the gardens pretty early on and it was somewhere I headed back to again and again to enjoy. I was even lucky enough to share it with someone special when Mark came out to join me travelling for two months and we had a sunny day of travel planning ahead of us. Our East Coast trip was actually the result of a day spent at my favourite spot and pouring over books and websites for the best possible trip. I think perhaps this is one of the things that made me love Sydney so much - the fact that it had so much green and natural space as well as the shiny buildings and concrete - it never felt stifling because you were always need open space and water.I've noticed since being in Australia that every Australian, and most travellers, seem to have a strict preference for either Sydney or Melbourne. It's one of the first things they state and one of the first things they question me on when they realise I have been to both, but they are always baffled by my answer. I went to Melbourne for a few days with a friend at the end of May for my birthday and absolutely loved the city - I had already planned to move there in January when the weather improves but going there confirmed for me even more that I would live living there. But Sydney well and truly provided me with an amazing home I still miss even though I'm all the way up the East Coast - it's such a great city and I completely fell in love with it but for totally different reasons. I can understand why many people seem to prefer one city over the other. But I just can't see why people don't seem to I've both, like I do, for different reasons. Both cities are fabulous and have so much to offer - I've been describing them to people back at home and my only way of comparing them is to say that Sydney is very much the mainstream, international sister of quirky Melbourne which has so much character is reminds me of Camden at home. Both offer a totally different experience but one that every traveller should experience for themselves.
Have you visited the Royal Botanical Gardens? What do you prefer - Melbourne or Sydney - and why?
After spending a few days exploring Ayutthaya, I was ready to move on and see how Sukhothai compared in grandeur. I wasn't disappointed, it had its own beauty that separated sightseers from the main roads and invited then into a beautiful natural park with temples set around a lake. Being much smaller than Ayutthaya, it didn't take long to get my bearings and after my first night relaxing in the guest house, I headed into the park to grab my bike and a map ready for a day of exploring history. Thanks to the smart woman at the Thai Tourism Agency, who organised this section of my trip, I was staying at a guest house right opposite the entrance to the park which was really helpful as I know that many of them are further away in the newer town. It was really helpful being so close, and I just felt you had a different experience when you slept with that much history on your doorstep.I stayed at Vitoon Guest House which has two halves, it has a slightly newer section that offers air conditioned rooms and slightly better facilities or the cheaper rooms I stayed in which to be quite honest were more than adequate for me. I had my own double bed, a fan and ensuite, which although wasn't luxury served a purpose and was pretty nice for a backpacker who is used to hostels. Those on holiday or travelling as a couple may have been less than impressed, but would also have more to spend on fancy accommodation even if you spend no time in the room. The family who ran it were friendly and helpful, there were a row of restaurants right next door and the guest house rented out better quality bikes than I had used in Aytthyaya. What more could a girl need?By this point I was getting pretty used to cycling everywhere and was loving it, I loved how free you felt cycling around the park by yourself and it was definitely one of those times where I was grateful to be travelling solo just to have some well-deserved time to myself. It was so peaceful exploring the park and I made the smart decision to get up super early and have breakfast as the sun came up so I could be in the park before the crowds arrived. There are about four or five sections to the park and the first one you come to is the middle section, this gets really busy late morning when the buses of tourists pull up and they end up pretty crowded. I hate crowded temples, this is why I like sightseeing by myself, I love to walk around in quiet places and really get a feel for a place - it's impossible to do this with hundreds of tourists jostling for the best photo opportunity and failing to appreciate the beauty of what they are seeing firsthand.If you're the same as me, I would recommend heading into the park by 9am at the latest so you have time to enjoy the centre, this way you can move further into the park and explore the other sections around midday and into the afternoon. Make sure you take snacks as out in these sections there is nowhere to buy food or water, I always took peanuts and water which I found were good for an energy boost. It is also worth taking a guide book as well as your map - I had the Lonely Planet Thailand book which gave some really good background on the temples I was visiting and recommended the most spectacular ones. I actually found that the route I had chosen to take around the temples was one that a group from my bus were paying for as a cycling tour so I saved myself a few quid there. They were also pretty impressed I seemed to know more about the temples than they were learning as well - definitely worth a quick trip to the museum before visiting the temples, although you can also find a lot of information online as well - it really helps to contextualise what you are seeing.It depends on what you go there for, but I definitely preferred having three days of exploring completely new sections of the kingdom like I had in Ayutthaya. I still had an amazing time and I can't recommend visiting enough - I would say that if you have two or three days you should definitely go for Ayutthaya, but if you have just the one day it is better spent at Sukhothai. If you have enough time, please do go to both like I did - trust me, you gain a completely different experience from each. My favourite moment while I was there, had to be when I cycled back into the park at sunset to watch the last rays of the day cast over the still waters of the lakefront Wat Maha That as the sun dipped behind another temple across the lake. I had the whole place to myself but I couldn't understand why - it was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen while travelling. Don't miss out.
Have you been to Sukhothai - what did you think? What was your highlight of the visit? How did it compare to Ayutthaya?
Growing up, I loved the Indiana Jones movies and the Jurassic Park trilogy - I can't imagine there are many people my age who didn't do exactly the same. So I feel really lucky to have been able to explore incredible places on my travels in Thailand that have instantly transported me to those childhood favourites. You might remember my posts on Khao Sok and the stunning landscape that looked exactly like a scene out of Jurassic Park? At any moment I half expected a dinosaur to loom out of the bushes while canoeing and trekking through the lush green rainforest. I loved that being in this place as an adult could still capture the imagination as it did when I was a child. So you can imagine how excited I was to arrive in Ayutthaya - one of the old Kingdoms of Thailand as Bangkok is now. All my reading up on this amazing piece of Thai history revealed incredible pictures of crumbling ruins and huge temples that could have come straight out of The Temple of Doom! I couldn't wait to arrive, get myself a bike and get out exploring.I arrived at the train station after an hour on the train and was taken straight to my guest house by a pre-arranged tuk tuk driver. After checking in, and finding my room was huge, cosy and with its own bathroom, I headed to Tesco Lotus for water and phone top-up - and this was one of the best moves I made while in Ayutthaya. It was there that I met a wonderful Thai woman who quickly adopted me and became a good friend in just three short days. Filo, who moved to Ayutthaya after her home in Bangkok burned down, has two daughters around my age and is just a little bit older than my mum. She spoke great English, and with a teeny bit of Thai I had learnt and good old Google Translate, we managed to tell each other quite a lot about our lives. After spending some time at her home with her and her sister, plus their collection of seriously cute dogs, she decided to take me out on a little scooter ride around all of the best temples in the historical park. She took me to Wat Phra Mahathat which is where a sandstone Buddha head lies entangled in a tree's roots, then on to Wat Phra Si Sanphet which was pretty damn spectacular, Wat Phanan Choeng, Wat Chai Wattanaram and several others including one with a huge reclining Buddha. All were beautiful and so grand, it was pretty amazing to think how long they had been stood there.After a lovely afternoon of sightseeing, chatting to Filo's friends and eating fried chicken with sticky rice, we parted ways as Filo had to travel to Bangkok to visit one of her daughters, but we made a plan to meet two days later for more sight seeing. I headed out that night to dinner at a fabulous little restaurant called Sai Thong which was just one street from where I was staying - it promised choice from over 180 dishes plus live music, and all with a river view and cheap prices. Perfect - it was a lovely evening and I tried some delicious dishes including one with wild boar and another with river fish. It was so refreshing to have an evening alone to eat, read and relax after a busy few weeks. I planned my activities for the next day and had an early night. The next morning I hired a cute little bike that I can only describe as seriously vintage - as in no gears, 100 years old and heavy. I actually have an admission that I hadn't been on a bike for about 10 years at this point so was rather dreading falling off an embarrassing myself, but I did pretty damn well! It really is like riding a bike!That day I spent cycling around the rest of the temples and sights, they will give you a map in your guest house and it is easily signposted to find all of them. Cycling is by far the best way to get around as tuk tuks are expensive and a scooter is just a bit too fast to take it all in. The temples are all stunning and all worth a look, a two full days should be about enough to fit everything in, but make early starts to avoid the serious heat of the day and to beat any crowds. Avoid the elephant kraal if, like me, you are a bit sensitive to the mistreatment of animals as these poor elephants are chained and forced to dance for audiences of tourists - the sight made me feel sick to my stomach and I will be posting on this again later on. I would really recommend getting to as many of the temples as possible and hiring a scooter to get to the floating market, which Filo and I did the following day. It is also definitely worth going to the museum and tourism centre - both offer useful insight into the history behind these amazing landmarks are will really help to contextualise everything without needing an audio guide. I skipped the audio guide and preferred to cycle round and explore by myself so the museums were great for learning more. If you have the time, I would definitely say two full days and three nights is a perfect amount of time to explore at a leisurely pace as things are a little spread out here and you may want to indulge in a few extra cycle rides like I did.
Have you been to Ayutthaya? Which was your favourite temple and how did you enjoy exploring? Would you stop off here on your way to the north?