Cruising Ha Long Bay in Luxury

17-04-18

Ha long Bay in the northeast is one of the big hitters on the itinerary for most people visiting Vietnam and we’d been looking forward to it. We’d read many blogs and reviews advising that you get what you pay for when it comes to selecting a cruise so we decided to stretch the budget and go on a three day, two night cruise.

We found a great deal on a newly launched luxury cruiser called Era and once on board, we were lucky enough to be upgraded to their signature suite.

I guess they are trying to make a great impression because they are the new kids on the block and we were thankful to be their guinea pigs. The room was insanely plush.

At 74sqm, the cabin was bigger than any hotel room we’ve ever been in and featured a private sun terrace, a separate living space and a round bed. There were a total of 11 different places to sit in the cabin as we looked through the floor to ceiling windows.

The cherry on top was the beautiful bathroom with freestanding jacuzzi bathtub by the window.

We couldn’t believe our luck to be upgraded to a room that cost double what we paid. It was incredible to experience such luxury and we felt proper cheeky as we trundled in wearing shorts and flipflops with our massive backpacks on.

Hạ Long Bay, is known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests.

We cruised through the famous landscape and South to Lan Ha Bay which is a quieter area with less tourist boats and day tours.

On our first afternoon we went kayaking and swimming.

Only 4 people on the boat wanted to swim so we basically had the place to ourselves.

I felt incredibly small, immersed in the sea and surrounded by huge mountainous islands soaring up out of the water. Nothing but sea and islands as far as the eye can see. The water was incredibly deep and we were dots in the vast ocean.

We had enough time to clean up before cocktail hour and a cookery demonstration on the top deck. We finished the evening with a tasty dinner and a nightcap on our private terrace.

We were up at 6am the next day for a lesson in Tai Chi before breakfast. It was so peaceful to be on the top deck, taking in the morning air as sea eagles circled above us and the mountains reflected in the still, calm water.

We then took the day boat over to nearby Cat Ba island and cycled 6km to visit a local fishing village called Viet Hai.

Completely rugged and set in the middle of the sea, Viet Hai has a population of just 250. The locals are real grafters, producing and growing all their own food and are seemingly self sufficient.

We wandered through the lush fields and met some very cute friends on the farm.

It was completely tranquil and isolated, surrounded by clean air and wonderful views.

We managed to get back on the day boat before the heavens opened and scuppered our plans for an afternoon kayaking excursion. I think that the weather makes all the difference here, and whilst gloomy grey clouds are atmospheric, we’d have preferred warm sun and blue skies as a backdrop.

We’ve not had the best of luck with weather when it comes to standout destinations but the jacuzzi bath was a great consolation and warmed us up.

We had another wonderful dinner onboard before giving squid fishing a go at the back of the boat.

Unsuccessful in our attempts, we hit up the bar and partied with new found friends until they chucked us out.

The following morning we went for a quick trip to the nearby caves along with the most adorable local kid before heading back to shore.

The scenery at Ha Long Bay is truly breathtaking but is marred by the amount of rubbish and plastic in the sea. It’s a real problem and ruins the area’s gorgeous aesthetics. We weren’t sure if this is due to rubbish being dumped off boats or being washed up into the calm waters of the bay.

Whilst the government is incentivising locals to clear up, it’s not enough and the cruise companies don’t seem to be actively tackling the issue or taking responsibility for the part they play when operating in the area. There is plenty of debate online as to whether alternative destinations such as El Nido and Coron in the Philippines that boast similarly spectacular limestone formations will rise in popularity and supersede Ha Long Bay. Personally I feel as though the two destinations have enough differences to warrant separate visits but with the current pollution issue in Ha Long, I can understand why tourists may be seeking alternative spots. I guess this is a common theme we’ve seen whilst travelling, where natural spots are at risk of becoming victims of their own beauty. It’s interesting to reflect on the part we play in this. Whilst increased tourism is creating more jobs and investing money into an area, it is no doubt putting strain on resources and infrastructure.

That said, we had a blast in Ha Long Bay and thoroughly enjoyed being spoilt. Returning to our box room, budget hotel in Hanoi brought us back down to earth with a bump.

Cambodia and the Temples

A big shout out to the Phuket Airport hotel. They know their niche and they nailed it. Close to the airport, obvs, beaut of a pool, neat lush gardens, fast WiFi, cheap clean spacious room, free transfer to the airport at 4am!

We arrived at Siem Reap airport at 7am only to realise we had left our passport photos in checked baggage. “Not to worry you can avoid this necessity with a fee sir”. At least we got our visas, even if it did cost us a little extra.

Our hotel, Sakmut Boutique, offered free airport transfer and true to form they greeted us at the arrival gate with a sign and they managed to spell my name right. Exceptional service for roughly £50 a night. They bill themselves as an “Affordable Luxury Hotel”. I think we would both go along with that. As we had arrived so early they offered us free breakfast. Pretty amazing given checkin is normally 2pm and that our room was ready for us to bag drop then chow down.

This bad boy was waisted on us #lazybones

We used the rest of the day to catch up on blogging and sort out accommodation for further down the line and work out our plans to explore Siem Reap.

We decided that the best way to visit the vast amount of temples was to spread it over two days with a pool day in between.

Small Circuit

Angkor Wat – Undisputedly the largest religious building in the world. A massive 3 level temple mountain style structure dominated by 5 central towers.

Two monks enjoying the lake at the entrance to Angkor Wat.

I know it looks empty but we got lucky with this shot before the crowds took over

This little one had enough temple action

Plenty of cheeky monkeys feasting on scraps

Ta Prohm – made famous by the film Tomb Raider.

This was one of my favourites as it was the most atmospheric. The jungle has definitely taken over in parts and has made it more beautiful than some of the restored parts.

Bayon – The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.

It’s funny when you visit a lot of temples in a day or two. You get to understand the saying “same same but different”. On the whole we enjoyed visiting so many as we did it at a leisurely pace and didn’t try and squeeze in too many. It was also nice to quench our thirst with a cold one at the end of a hot sticky day.

Khao Sok National Park

As we left our great Phuket digs the guy gave us a wonderfully tacky key ring with the name of the guesthouse “Glitter” embossed. I just looked at Emily and she smiled. If your called Gary and travelling around Thailand the last thing you want is a little label that says “Glitter”.

The journey from Phuket to Kao Sok National Park would take around 4 hours on a bus. I don’t really mind the bus journeys too much but they do eat into your day. We decided to get an early one so we could go on a canoe trip in the afternoon. Time for a little nap then.

The bus dropped us off at the side of the road and we managed to score a ride in an old jeep with no roof to the Paradise resort. Sure it was nice but Paradise was over egging it somewhat.

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Being the dry season the river was a little low but we climbed into our inflatable kayak and the guide paddled us down the river.

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As you can see I was still tired from the journey 😜

All along the route a local dog called Coffee followed us. At one point he even tried to get in the boat and I had to fend him off until he got the message. We saw lots of monkeys fooling around on branches over head. We even saw a snake in the water looking up in hope that one of the monkeys would fall in.

The scenery was stunning and at time reminded me of a summers day in a Welsh valley. So green and lush.

Halfway along the river we stopped and the guides heated up water in bamboo and made tea and coffee. A nice treat.

Four Days in Phuket

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Having enjoyed a wonderful few days on the peaceful island of Yao Noi, we took a speedboat over to Phuket to experience the ultimate contrast. Phuket is just 36km away but the two islands are worlds apart in terms of culture, vibe and footfall.
Phuket really is an ‘anything goes’ island that attracts huge numbers of package tourists with its dizzying array of attractions engineered to relieve you of your hard earned bhat. We’re talking anything from tiger ‘sanctuaries’ to snake shows, adrenalin sports and ladyboy cabarets. Whilst we’d read that the beaches have retained their tropical beauty, we were a little sceptical about whether we’d enjoy the rest of the island.

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We decided to base ourselves in Kata, a beach town located approx 20mins south of the infamous Patong. Patong is a party town, famed for its cheap booze, sleazy bars and all-round debauchery. Whilst Kata has a buzz and plenty of tourists, it’s much quieter than Patong and has a stunning beach.

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The sand is so fine and the sea is wonderfully calm and inviting and we happily whiled away most of our time at the beach, reading and listening to podcasts. We also discovered The Surfhouse, a cool beachside bar with a ‘double flowrider’ surf simulator as it’s centrepiece.

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Always keen for adventure and trying something new, Gary was keen to give it a go and by calling upon his snowboarding experience he got the hang of it immediately. It looked really tricky but so fun. The wipeouts were also pretty spectacular.

We rented a scooter on one of the days to visit Phuket Old Town on the east of the island which was great.

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The old town has a core of beautiful Sino-Portuguese architecture and many of the buildings have been lovingly restored to their former beauty.

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We wandered down lanes with wonderfully colourful shopfronts adorned with gorgeously ornate fresco work and decorative tiles.

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Phuket Town also has a neat collection of cool street art that is reminiscent of the talent we saw in Georgetown in Malaysia.

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We stumbled across a cat cafe which I couldn’t resist. This is basically a place where you can grab a coffee and a slice of cake and pet a load of pampered pussycats that laze around.

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Such a strange concept but I loved it. I think these felines had been over pampered because they were very aloof when it came to tummy tickles and cuddles. Not sure Gary was particularly enthused by the whole experience but he did approve of them serving beer.

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Just enough time for Gary to get his hair cut in a supercool barbers before we headed for some dinner. Haircuts have tended to be nerve wracking affairs since we’ve come away, with a worry that Gary’s requests will be lost in translation and he’ll come away with a bubble perm or skinhead. Thankfully this place was pretty good (although painfully slow) and we left happy.

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We found a wonderful restaurant to have dinner in before heading back. I had my first taste of lamb since we’ve been away and Gary had the signature dish of steak and tempura prawn. It was delicious and made a lovely break from the usual Thai.

Big shout out to the awesome markets and street eats that we’ve indulged in since arriving in Phuket. There is a lovely little evening market close to our B&B that serves the most amazing pork ribs that we’ve become addicted to.

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Exploring food markets and gawping at all the fresh veggies and exotic fruits is my favourite thing to do in a new destination and makes for incredible people watching.

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We’ve really enjoyed our time over the last few days and we are so pleased we uncovered an alternative Phuket to the stereotype it’s become famed for.

Hiding out in Koh Yao Noi

Of all the forms of transport we have experienced on our travels I love the boats more than anything. I think it’s the freedom to set your own course, unencumbered by traffic through stunning scenery.

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Whilst waiting to set off from Railay to Koh Yao Noi we were treated to a little musical interlude from an Aussie with a face that looked like a bulldog chewing a nettle. I do hope he doesn’t read this 😬.


We had chosen Yao Noi because we had watched a film in Le Dream Boutique, back in Penang, that used it as a location. Predominantly Muslim population we knew it would be sleepy and rustic and that is just what we were after before the busy crowds of Phuket.

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These guys welcomed us with sweet sticky mango rice, banana fritters and freshly brewed coffee and tea.

The first afternoon we wandered along the road to Pasai beach and I made friends with a bull. Gently stroking its head and feeling the incredible power when it shook off a fly and a horn caught my arm. Wow, I can’t imagine the damage these things can do if they really want to hurt you.

We wanted to find out about a tour to one of the neighbouring islands but didn’t have the heart to rouse this sleepy man.

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Pasai beach had a great little vibe about it. Cool little bars and restaurants with lots of character. Rustic beach with swings and hammocks free for anyone to use.

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We spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening drinking Caiparinhia and Mai Tai’s, playing UNO and eating delicious masaman curry.The next day we sought some adventure and the only way around the island was to hire a moped. Cruising along the coastal road we stopped at various points of interest.

Up in the north west we came across some interesting chalet style buildings. Being cheeky I wandered  up the hill and took a closer look.

 

On the way back we came across these cute little fellow bikers.


Taking one of the back roads to explore a bit further we encountered a battered wooden sign “Restaurant and View Point”. The only problem was it was pointing up a dirt track. With the memory of the Duli beach puncture still fresh in our minds we were both reluctant. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The track wasn’t as bad as the Duli track but it was bad enough near the end that Emily got off and walked up the hill whilst I scrambled the bike over the rocks to go on ahead and make sure it was worth it. What a treat we received at the end of this dirt track.

Welcome to The Hideout

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This place was amazing. It was a very small resort with a restaurant and pool. Free to use provided you bought a drink. Two Mojitos then please.

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UNO score, Emily 0 – 4 Gary #unochamp

 

Motorcycle Diaries to Lanta Old Town

Keen to get out and about and see more of Lanta we rented another scooter and actually got to choose one this time. With the memory of the “El Nido puncture” still burnt into my brain I chose a Honda 125i Click with brand new back tyre.

“Check out my sweet ride”

Don’t worry Hawkins clan we don’t go over 40km/hr when Emily is riding pillion but I did see how fast it could go solo.

We decided to take the long way around to see what we can see on the way. One thing we have noticed all over Thailand is the “tapping” of trees.

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In order to collect the latex that is eventually turned into rubber, farmers make cuts across the tree, just deep enough to reach the vessels without harming the tree’s growth, in a process known as rubber tapping. The latex is then collected in small buckets.

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It’s quite pleasing to see row upon row of neatly planted rubber trees.

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A little further down the road and we saw an advert for Emily’s favourite show.

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The 40 minute journey was most pleasant. Pootiling along the decent roads surrounded by lush rural tropical plants. It is easy to forget how hot it is when the breeze is cooling you down. Arriving in the old town and walking the pretty main street we were drenched in sweat within minutes.

A quick explore and we decided to quench our thirst in lovely restaurant called “Fresh”. This one even had a swing with picturesque views.

After a couple of shandy’s and a few games of our new favourite, UNO, we set off to find a new beach.

As luck seems to have it we drove passed a dirt track with a hand made sign saying “Beautiful Beach this way”.

The sunset wasn’t bad either.

Exploring Wonderful Ko Lanta

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Having thoroughly enjoyed 3 days of unfeasibly picturesque views and peaceful poolside relaxation in Ngai, it was time to move on to our next island as we headed north on the Andaman coast.

Ko Lanta is a short, 30 minute hop from Ngai by speedboat. True to form, travel days are never quite as simple as they sound. Along with 10 other guests and a couple of babies, we waited in the blistering midday heat at our resort for a boat to pick us up and take us 10 mins along the beach to ‘check-in’ at the speedboat office – this place was basically a bar / minimart / beach shack with a travel desk. We pulled all the luggage off that boat and waited for someone to slap a destination sticker on our bags before loading it all onto another boat. Everyone got back on board this new boat, shuffling from side to side in a vain attempt to steady the uncomfortable swaying as people clambered up the side ladder.

Another 10 min journey to the pier before we all disembarked with all our luggage again and waited for the speedboat, ensuring we identified the right boat from the 3 others that came and went in a confusing mass of bags, tourists and transport. All loaded up for the final time we were on our way, speeding happily along as incredible views of limestone islands and mangroves passed us by. That’s until the boat grinds to a halt and the two Thai captains (no older than 18) hurriedly rush back and forth trying to identify the cause of the boat meltdown. After much shouting and meddling at the engines and under the boat floorboards we were back on our way with no explanation whatsoever.

Our new digs in Ko Lanta are located at the end of Long Beach which stretches 3km along the west coast. We are in a garden bungalow which is modern, spacious, clean and most importantly features aircon which is an absolute must in this heat. We are also located behind a 7-11 which is dangerously convenient for cheap beers, a host of maize based snacks and chocolate treats. Our host Kim is super friendly and helped us with laundry and recommendations for food and activities.

Ko Lanta has a couple of main roads that run the 22km length of the coast. We read that they are in pretty good condition, making the island a great place to explore by scooter. With the flat tyre tribulations of the Philippines fresh in our memory, we did our best to select the healthiest looking bike from a paltry selection before heading for breakfast.

The food out here is incredible but sometimes you fancy home comforts and Gary has been missing his full English with real pork sausages. He was thrilled to see that ‘Patty’s Secret Garden’ brekkie featured proper English bangers, thick bacon and baked beans.

Full and content, we returned to our bike to realise that we’d stupidly left it in the direct sun for an hour. Needless to say, the seat was a raging fireball ready to sear our bare flesh.

We hit the road and headed south, keeping the coast to our right. The trees and buildings gave way every now and again to reward us with gorgeous views out to sea and we stopped at the odd lookout point for photos.

With the sun beating down and the wind in our hair we had a great day of exploring at a leisurely pace. We really enjoy the freedom that having your own transport affords and we like to get away from the crowds and discover things that we may not see if we were in a tour group.

We pulled over whenever we saw anything interesting which included wonderfully exotic flowers, rubber tree plantations and the odd elephant.

Sadly these guys were chained up and kept in a very small enclosure. The sign said that they were retired working elephants but I’m not sure they were very happy. I’ve read a bit on elephant tourism and there are a few parks that specialise in looking after retired elephants in sanctuaries where you can feed and help bathe them in the river but there are also less ethical attractions specialising in elephant treks with cumbersome and uncomfortable saddles for two or three tourists at a time. I hope to have some sort of elephant encounter at some point on the trip but selecting the right outfit will be key.

We drove south to Mu Ko Lanta National Park. This marine park protects 16 small islands off the coast and includes the southern tip of Ko Lanta Island. The area is wonderfully scenic with two twin beaches and a gorgeously shabby lighthouse.

We explored the paths before heading to the beach for a well needed rest.

The sea was so refreshing and inviting that we couldn’t resist a dip. It’s only as we got in the sea that we spotted a team of monkeys eyeing up our bags and towels, edging ever closer to our stuff. A lovely Danish couple chased them away and we legged it out to stake our territory. For the rest of the afternoon we stayed on high alert as we watched gangs of cheeky monkeys scope out weak tourists and their precious goods. You genuinely can see the mischief and scheming in their eyes as they approach you, seemingly innocent and inquisitive.

We headed back to the bike around 4.30pm to discover that a slow leak on the back had left us with another flat tyre. We seem to have all the luck with scooters. Nursing it back up the coast we eventually found a garage and a friendly man who pumped it back up for 20p. It was cool to get a slice of local life and appreciate the differences of how we do things back home. Selling petrol on the road side is one for instance.

We returned home with just enough time to drop the bike back and find a beach restaurant for dinner as we watched the sun set.

A Pool with a View

Ko Ngai was a 3 hour speedboat ride from Ko Lipe.

The first hour was brutal. Heading directly into the wind and choppy swell, the powerful engines screamed. Rising up over the cresting waves then crashing into the front of the next. Many people laughed about it for about 5 minutes then slowly they started to feel a little sea sick. One by one people began to lay down and close their eyes. Especially those near the bow. Luckily we had seats near the stern and despite the roar of the engines the impact was lessened. Luckily the wind died and the sea calmed to provide a pleasant smooth ride for the remainder of the trip.

Arriving in Ko Ngai we had no idea that it was a road free island so we had to either walk 3k to our Cliff Top resort or get a long tail.

Option 2 it was then.

We had chosen cheaper accommodation because it had a pool with a great view. Trip advisor reviewers had said the hotel was dated but clean and they were right. We didn’t mind dated as it felt very spacious and the food was great.

Here is a photo that sums up the hotel.

The 70’s called

They want their gas powered shower back!

To get hot water we had to open up the gas valve, light the pilot light, turn the knob to 🔥🔥🔥, turn the water temp to 4 then open up the water valve. It was the hottest shower I’ve ever had just not the most user friendly. Sometimes if you turned the temp down the pilot light would go out and you would smell gas. Turning the temp up would light it again and small baby dragon would send a puff of black smoke out the top of the housing. Made me chuckle every time and I would think of all the health and safety nuts that would be complaining if this were a hotel in the UK. Here it just seems normal to have an explosive device in the bathroom along with plug sockets within reach of the sink…

“All we need to do is not die”

This is all we did most days.

The colour transition of the sea shows the change from shallow to deep water. At this point there was an amazing coral reef and we snorkelled it only to find the visibility was too poor to appreciate the abundance of marine life we could just about make out. The shallow waters actually dried out during low tide so the long tails had to expertly navigate a small channel to ferry people to and from the speed boats.

The three highlights for me from the beautiful island of Ngai were.

1 – Watching the sunrise in silence and being grateful for every moment

2 – Eating freshly caught sea bass

3 – Watching Emily try to perfect her starfish

Ko Lipe Beach Bums

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We’ve totally fallen in love with Ko Lipe and we are so chuffed that we included it on our route. I’m not sure it makes the cut on many of the ‘standard’ Thailand itineraries given it’s extremely southern location but coming from Malaysia, it was a perfect stop off for us.

As soon as we dumped our bags and headed out for some dinner we got a great vibe about the island. There is a pedestrianised lane, unsurprisingly called ‘Walking Street’ that runs across the island and features plenty of shops, traditional massage places and cute bars. In the evenings walking street is flanked by bbq’s billowing out smoke and yummy smells and buzzing with staff trying to entice us into their restaurants.

Having both been feeling a little rough for a number of days (poor Gary is on his third bout of severe Delhi belly and we’ve both had a nasty cough), we finally relented and went to a doctor. He prescribed us both antibiotics for chest infections and loaded us up with a myriad of other medication which, touch wood, seem to be doing the trick, albeit slowly.

We’ve happily idled away the last four days exploring the various beaches on the island, all of which are close by and accessible on foot.

Our efforts to wake early and catch a sunrise were handsomely rewarded on our second day.

Other than that we’ve favoured lazy mornings followed by sand, sea, sun and reading.

The beaches are just stunning, with bleached white powder sand and unbelievably aqua seas. The temperature is wonderful and the vibe is so laidback.

Majestic sea eagles circle and soar above us as we lie on the sand and Longtail boats putt along the coast. It’s just so idyllic.

There are plenty of tourists and travellers here which creates a lively atmosphere but with 3 main beaches there is still lots of room and we have found gorgeous little bays and enclaves that are less busy.

I think the other major influencing factor in our favourable reviews of Koh Lipe is the incredible food here. Delicious Pad Thai, insanely tasty massaman curry, fragrant coconut based soups and wonderfully exotic fresh fruits for stupidly low prices.

We’ve eaten so well here for so little. The traditional Thai pancakes flipped and served by street vendors cost less than a pound and are worryingly addictive. A Penang curry is less than two pounds and beats any efforts back home.

It’s safe to say that we are currently two happy travellers.