At the age of 61 Catherine Galaska won the chance to travel the world. In the second part of her travelogue she heads off to the Far East and offers her tips for wannabe travellers
After five months exploring North and South America I couldn’t resist a brief visit to the UK to meet my new granddaughter before setting off for South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
I had already been back to the UK briefly a few weeks earlier, after receiving a distressing text message while I was in a remote area of Peru with the news that Mia had arrived but due to complications during the birth she was very poorly.
She had been transferred to intensive care and we were all extremely worried about her. Without hesitation I travelled home as quickly as I could to be with my family, and stayed until she was much better and it felt right to resume my travels. She is now five months old, healthy and an absolute delight.
For the first time on my trip a friend accompanied me to Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. I had become used to my solo nomadic lifestyle, but it was great to share the travel and sightseeing experience with a fellow like-minded traveller.
Singapore was a complete contrast to South America as everywhere was well ordered, calm and spotlessly clean. I felt like I was witnessing a computer graphic layout rather than a real place, and I craved a bit of chaos. I warmed to it after a while and marvelled at the fabulous architecture.
The chaos returned in abundance when we arrived in Bangkok, a bustling and vibrant city, very different to anything I had experienced previously. I enjoyed Thailand and the activities that I got involved in there. I improved my Thai cookery skills (just a little!) on a day’s course and friends and family (the brave ones!) will be subjected to sampling my culinary creations now that I’m back home.
My favourite activity was spending a day helping to care for four elephants at a sanctuary in Chiang Mai. They had been rescued from a logging business in northern Thailand. I found it quite therapeutic feeding and walking with the elephants, bathing them in a mud bath and rinsing and playing with them in the river.
They were very gentle animals and extremely well cared for at the sanctuary. A first for me in Hong Kong was an evening watching horse racing at the Happy Valley racecourse. I had help to place a couple of bets and came away £50 better off – beginner’s luck!
My solo travels continued in Vietnam and Cambodia, travelling by bus, train, plane, boat, bicycle, tuk tuk and cyclo. I am amazed that I only witnessed one minor road accident as the traffic is manic. The population of Vietnam is around 92m and there are 45m registered motorbikes.
In the towns and cities there is very heavy traffic, and I felt like I was taking my life in my hands every time I crossed the road or went on a bike ride. You just have to keep going and trust the traffic to move round you.
The Vietnamese and Cambodian people were very welcoming and it was both fascinating and saddening listening to their perspectives on well-documented events of the 20th century. I found a tour of the Killing Fields particularly moving.
My sightseeing highlight was watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I spent the final 10 weeks of my gap year touring Australia and New Zealand. I found it easier getting my travel, accommodation and activities organised in English speaking countries. I had company for part of this leg of the trip too.
One of my sons, Miles, joined me in Australia for Christmas and New Year. We had a picnic on the beach on Christmas Day, went to the Boxing Day Test Match at Melbourne Cricket Ground, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and watched the New Year’s Eve fireworks from the Sydney Botanic Gardens.
We also went walking in the Blue Mountains and wine tasting in the Hunter Valley. I was worn out when he went home! I travelled up the east coast to Cairns with another friend and then ventured solo once again further north to the Daintree Tropical Rainforest, where I went zip lining in the rainforest and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.
I felt like I needed to pack as much activity as I could into the last few weeks of my amazing journey. I visited Ayers Rock and Alice Springs before moving on to New Zealand, where I hired a camper van for four weeks, driving more than 4,000 kilometres to see as much as I could of both islands before returning home at the end of February.
I had an amazing time for the whole of the nine months I was away. I would never have contemplated going on such an extended solo trip if I hadn’t won the Compare the Market Senior Gap Year competition, but would encourage anyone to do it if they get the opportunity. Inevitably I encountered some problems along the way, but they all got sorted.
I had a minor accident in the USA and needed 16 stitches; I had visa problems in Vietnam and Cambodia but local guides helped me to sort them; I had issues occasionally with my mobile phone that had all my travel and accommodation bookings stored on it, but managed to work round it.
I learned a lot from the experience and my top tips to anyone considering doing something similar would be:
* Don’t pack too much – you have to carry it – a lot! Apart from in the remotest areas there are adequate laundry facilities and shops.
* Talk to locals and fellow travellers. They are great company, prevent you feeling isolated and often have great advice about all sorts of things.
* If you are over 60, check out senior rates when you book anything. You can save lots of money.
* I found I used credit cards rather than cash in most places. Get the cards with the best rates to use abroad before you set off.