We’re one month back into life on the road and we though it’s time for an update on what we’ve been doing so far and what we’ve been up to.
So things are going well, and it already seems like we’ve been travelling for a long time. On the whole we’ve slotted well back into the travel lifestyle.
The big departure
Our departure was unfortunately chaotic as usual – we really did think we had more time up our sleeves and had organised ourselves better than last time. But those last few days are still an exhausted blur and there’s always so much to do. We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just part and parcel of packing your life up and you need to suck it up!
We moved out of our rental apartment two days before we left and it was hard work. Living on the top floor with no elevator made for lots of heavy lifting, even though we already had stuff stored from when we moved out of our house a few months earlier.
A huge thank you to family, grandparents and friends who helped with this and minding the kids, and also the storage company we are using called Mobistore – highly recommend them if you’re in Auckland, as they were super flexible with our changing requirements and really helped us out.
We also sold lots of our excess stuff before we left, so there was the co-ordination of selling our car, old sofa, clothes, toys and lots of things on Trade Me (our E-bay equivalent) to deal with and then admin things we should have dealt with way earlier like updating our will!
Anyway we made it to the airport and pretty much collapsed onto the plane for our flight to Taipei – lucky Mike got upgraded to business class so he was a happy chappy. The plane was only half full so there was plenty of space for the rest of us to spread out down the back.
We only had a couple of nights in Taipei initially as we decided that we needed a break by the beach to recover from packing up our lives, and it was a great decision.
We flew to the island of Phu Quoc in Vietnam and spent a week just chilling, spending time together, hours in the water swimming and snorkelling, and eating great Vietnamese food.
We stayed at an amazing place right on the beach called Free Beach Resort, located at Long Beach, the main beach on the island. The room was simple but clean and set in beautiful lush gardens literally steps from the water.
Free Beach had a great restaurant that jutted out into the sea, and we spent a lot of time here eating, drinking, relaxing, watching the beautiful sunset and doing some school work.
We highly recommend a stay at Free Beach Resort – check prices and book here.
The rest of the time we were in the water swimming, snorkelling and jumping off the jetty.
We ventured to the other side of the island one day to Bai Sao Beach – a white sand paradise. Unfortunately there is a LOT of rubbish and trash there, heartbreaking to see it all washed up on the beach. Once the tide turned we had to get out of the water, there was so much plastic and garbage washing in.
The beach on the other side of the island at Long Beach where we were staying was thankfully very clean and we didn’t encounter this problem there.
The only other thing we did was visit the night market a couple of times, and we really enjoyed it. Lots of yummy food stalls and vendors selling bits and pieces.
The highlight for the kids was the baby sharks and sea snakes on offer…they thought they were for aquariums or for people to set free, and we didn’t like to tell them people were buying them to eat!
Instead of following the tourist hordes eating by the river at expensive seafood restaurants, we went a few streets back and found a local joint where we had the most delicious dinner, all for the price of a couple of coffees back home.
The highlight was the ice-cream vendors who make the most incredible ice-cream on a cold stone. It involved pouring fresh cream, fruit and toppings of your choice onto the frozen stone, where they mix it at the speed of light and scrape it into delicious ice-cream rolls.
Taiwan – or not…when things went wrong!
After a week of total relaxation we were excited to be heading back to Taiwan to begin 3 weeks of exploration around this unique little country. Our flight was leaving that evening at 8pm and we had booked a hotel in Ho Chih Minh city overnight before our flight to Taipei at 1pm the next day.
We turned up to the airport just after 5pm but couldn’t see our flight on the departures board. We then saw a group of around 10 people huddled around the Vietjet Airline desk and our hearts sank.
Long story short – it turned out that our flight had supposedly been cancelled a week earlier, but the booking agency we used hadn’t passed the information on to us. Which was a good story, except for the other 10 passengers were all using different booking agencies and none of them had been advised either. We had already had this flight cancelled and had to be re-arranged, so this was the second time it had been cancelled.
The customer service staff at Vietjet were absolutely useless and this lead to probably the worst example of customer service we’ve ever witnessed. They refused to talk to us apart from telling us to ring their 24/7 Hotline helpline, which many of us did over the space of a couple of hours and no-one picked up.
One staff member finished his shift apparently mid-conversation with one of the other travellers and just picked up his bag and walked off home!
The remaining staff member continued to refuse to talk to anyone or even try to help sort the situation out. When we asked about re-booking to another flight he said the flights were all full because it was coming into Tet and the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays, so the next flight out of there wouldn’t be for 4 or 5 days. He then denied he actually worked for the company even though he was behind the desk and wearing a Vietjet uniform!
We then tried contacting the booking agency Kiwi.com who we’d booked the flights with originally and had already had a run in over rescheduling these exact flights (they refused to help until we blasted them all over TrustPilot and social media, then miraculously re-booked the flights for us). Their idea of an ’emergency contact number’ for problems at the airport is to send them an email that they will respond to within 2-4 hours. Absolutely ridiculous!
We then called our travel insurance company who asked us for evidence of the cancelled flight so we could make a claim, and we had to say they’re refusing to give it to us. So we put them on the phone to the Vietjet staff member who repeatedly said ‘I cannot talk to you’ and would not answer the travel insurance reps simple question ‘has the flight been cancelled’.
Luckily for us sanity prevailed and the insurance company rep understood what a ridiculous situation we were in, gave us a claim number and told us to re-book whatever flights we could get out of there, and to keep all receipts for the claim.
The other passengers were in a worse situation than us – one had a connecting flight to Dubai the next day and had only 2 days worth of heart medication left. Others were on the final day of their visa and had to leave the country.
Amongst us stranded travellers we began investigating options of how we could get off the island and to Ho Chi Minh City to all continue our onward journey. We ascertained there was a 5am ferry to another island, then a 7am one to the mainland, then a 6 hour car journey to Ho Chi Minh, so we could potentially rent a van and split the costs.
We had a think about it but in the end decided that we were better staying put on Phu Quoc. There was no guarantee we would get onto the 5am or 7am ferries, and even if we did, we would still be too late to get to Ho Chi Minh city to get our connecting flight to Taiwan.
If it was just the two of us we may have done it as there were more options going out of Ho Chi Minh than where we were, but it was too much to put the kids through and we were worried about the condition and safety of the ferries which we knew nothing about. We hope the others made it in time for their flights!
So we headed back to Free Beach Resort who luckily still had a room and spent the night on the internet looking up various options of how to get out of there. We eventually found an Air Asia flight for a couple of days time to Kuala Lumpur and an onward flight from there to Taipei.
After hours of re-organising the flights, hotel bookings, letting our AirBnB host in Taipei know we would be 2 days late and trying to cancel a couple of tours we’d already booked for Taipei, we decided to make the best of the situation and enjoy more time at the beach.
We had a great day swimming again and at dinner that night Jack said he didn’t want to eat anything because he wasn’t feeling well (unusual for a champion eater). We went back to our room where he promptly vomited, then spent the remainder of the night being sick.
Around 7am he stopped, and Sophie started. Talk about bad luck. We were super worried we would have to miss our flight AGAIN, but she was a little trooper holding it together in the taxi and while we checked in at the airport. We got onto the flight and were so relieved when the door closed and we took off. Finally we were on our way!!
As a footnote to this tale – eventually we got through the next day to the Vietjet hotline who gave us a random email address to send a request for cancellation notice to for travel insurance purposes. A week later another email saying it’s the wrong address, send it to this one instead. We have still heard nothing back nearly a month later.
Kiwi.com offered us a refund and compensation for the cancelled flight, which covered our costs so we didn’t need to make an insurance claim in the end. The refund was in our bank account within a week, we think they were sick and tired of us badmouthing them all over social media so made it happen pronto!
The lesson learnt: we wouldn’t fly Vietjet ever again, no matter how cheap the fare. They are fine when things go right but absolutely useless when things go wrong. We’ve anecdotally since heard of many cancelled flights – it seems if the plane isn’t full they have no hesitation in cancelling even at the last minute and just leaving people stranded.
We’re also never going to use a third party booking agency again either, for the same reason. Every person stranded along with us had used a third party agency like those advertised on the Skyscanner website.
Finally always make sure you have good backup travel insurance in case all other options fall through!
Finally we made it to Taiwan and had an incredible 3 weeks doing a complete loop around this amazing country. We have loads to write about in separate blog posts that are coming soon, but here’s a quick list of the top highlights:
–Eating the most incredible food.
Taipei is striving to achieve UNESCO heritage status as a City of Gastronomy and we can see why. Our favourite food related activity was a food tour through a local market eating ALL the things.
And of course we had to try the world-renowned Ding Tai Fung with their incredible xia longbao soup dumplings. Heaven in a mouthful.
–The National Palace Museum in Taiwan – home to 600,000 artefacts and a brilliant children’s audioguide that brings them to life through storytelling of mythical creatures and legends from hundreds of years ago. The kids were enraptured throughout.
–Experiencing Lunar New Year though special markets, people worshiping at temples and beautiful decorations everywhere.
Travelling in Lunar New Year also had its fair share of challenges – people everywhere at attractions and packed public transport!
–Riding to the top of the Taipei 101 building in the world’s fastest elevator for views as far as the eye can see.
-The stunning Rainbow Village of Taichung, so much vibrant colour everywhere.
-Experiencing the famous night markets, all the fun of the fair and more delicious food.
-The brilliant Chimei museum in Tainan, an incredible natural history section that the kids were buzzing about, Rodin sculptures and Western style art all housed in a beautiful building that would be at home in Europe.
-Our amazing kid-friendly hotel room in Tainan – complete with in-room slide! You can check prices and book the same room here.
-The spooky An Ping Treehouse in Tainan – old abandoned sugar warehouses that have been overtaken by banyan trees and great for kids to run around in.
-The iconic Dragon and Tiger Pagodas of Kaohsiung. Tradition states that you must enter through the mouth of the dragon and out through the tiger’s mouth for good luck. Going the wrong way doesn’t bear thinking about!
-The beautiful southern coast of Taiwan and the white sand beaches of Kenting National Park, and panoramic views out over the North Pacific Ocean.
-The inland mountain roads of East Coast Taiwan, complete with monkeys and lush forest, and aboriginal tribes (who are related distantly to the
Māori of Aotearoa/New Zealand in our home country, you can absolutely see the resemblance!)
-The coastal highway of East Coast Taiwan, dramatic cliffs that plunge hundreds of meters into the ocean and rugged pebble beaches. We even saw orcas swimming in the sea from the highway.
-The Platform of the Three Immortals (Sanxiantai), a beautiful curving bridge that stretches over 300 meters into the rugged sea to a lush volcanic island.
-Stunning Taroko Gorge, which we were worried would be overhyped, but is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited. It’s on a par with New Zealand’s South Island and an absolute highlight of our whole Taiwan visit.
-Ending our time in Taiwan with a visit to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival in Shifen, which only happens once a year and happily co-incided with our travels. We got to write our wishes on a sky lantern and release it into the air along with hundreds of others on the final night of Lunar New Year.
It was a truly magical experience and if you ever get the chance to attend then grab it with both hands!
The tricky bits of Taiwan
We’re SO glad we got a bit more off-the-beaten track and out of Taipei to experience the rest of the country, but it wasn’t without its challenges.
It’s probably one of the more difficult places we’ve visited in recent years, mainly because of the language barrier. We didn’t realise how limited English would be outside of Taipei, and at times it was quite hard to get around and order food as everything is in Chinese.
Our phone was our lifeline – we used it constantly to show taxi drivers destination websites in Chinese, used it to navigate everywhere as English maps were non-existent, and even looked up pictures of food so we could show street vendors what it was we wanted to order.
The language barrier is particularly true in Eastern Taiwan. We got chatting to a police officer at a roadside stop who wanted to practice his English, and he said he had never met anyone from the Southern Hemisphere in that area before!
He asked us if we could come and meet the fruit vendor’s son at the stop, because he had never met a foreigner before (that may have been slightly lost in translation but we got the feeling there aren’t many Kiwis venturing around those parts).
We stayed one night in a tiny town and resorted to driving 20 minutes to a McDonald’s for dinner as the kids were super tired, the offerings in the town just weren’t appealing and we didn’t want to get sick.
We were sitting right by the playground and all the other kids there immediately stopped playing, came and stood about 2 meters away from our kids and just stared at them! Eventually the parents came over and basically told them to stop staring, but it was pretty funny and we could tell that we were a bit of an oddity for them!
On the whole though our kids took to the local food with gusto. We did need to break it up though with a mix of street food and eating at restaurants or department store food courts (which were brilliant).
The main difficulty though was with breakfast as it is on the whole street food and so different for what our two are used to. Sophie isn’t a great breakfast eater at the best of times, so finding things she wanted to eat was challenging, and hardly any of the hotels we stayed at included breakfast, it just doesn’t seem to be a thing with hotel stays in Taiwan.
Most days we just ate breakfast at the 7 Eleven or Family Mart which was a godsend. They’re everywhere and we could get yoghurt, bananas, sushi, hard-boiled eggs (albeit in soy sauce so they were black but Jack loved them), pork buns and sweet potatoes (that taste super similar to New Zealand orange kūmara) – quite an eclectic breakfast mix but it did the trick! The coffee was halfway decent too.
The trains down the West Coast of the country and from Hualien back to Taipei were fabulous and easy to use, although we did have to book two weeks in advance for a couple of the trips because of Lunar New Year.
However it’s very difficult to do the East Coast from Kenting to Hualien via public transport, so we ended up booking a rental car for three days for not much more than what public transport would have cost us.
We’re so glad we did as we got to stop and look at the stunning scenery whenever we wanted, and we would have missed half of it had we decided to attempt it via train or bus.
The driving was ok – not the worst we’ve encountered but not the best either and there were a couple of stressful moments along the way! Mike did a great job of getting us there all in one piece.
The one constant through all these challenges though were the wonderful people of Taiwan. They were SO friendly and always tried to help despite the language barriers. We felt incredibly safe everywhere we went.
It’s such an under-touristed part of the world (by this we stereotypically mean Western tourists, there are lots of Chinese, Korean and Japanese tourists), so if you want to visit somewhere completely different that’s stunningly beautiful and has interesting culture and incredible food, then we’d highly recommend Taiwan in a heartbeat.
Penang in Malaysia
From Taiwan we’ve headed to the island of Penang in Malaysia, which is going to be our home for the next six weeks.
We’re staying in the suburb of Batu Ferringhi, which is in the northern part of the island and right beside the beach.
We’ve rented a wonderful condo/apartment for the time we’re here and it’s only been a couple of days but we love it so far.
The apartment is fairly new and we have long-awaited space – two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a great living room and kitchen, cable TV, good air conditioning (a must as it’s 32 plus degrees – feels like 38 degrees every day) plus a washing machine and dryer! After a month of living in one room together in hotels and pokey AirBnBs we are loving it!
The condo complex is fabulous with a beautiful infinity pool that overlooks the beach, lush palm tree gardens, a great kids playground, really good gym with modern equipment and we literally step outside the back gate onto the beach.
Before you think we’ve robbed a bank or won Lotto – we’re getting all of this for six weeks for the same cost of what we are receiving for a week and a half worth of our house rental in Auckland. That includes all the extras like electricity, water, and super-fast internet. Honestly, more people need to do this!
We have a simple restaurant next door that serves great food – we can get a delicious plate of noodles for around $2USD / $3NZD, a plate of beautiful chicken satay sticks for $3USD / $5.50 USD and beef rendang and rice for $7USD / $10USD. We are a short walk to the local night market which is renowned for its food and that will be even cheaper.
Yesterday we got a Grab (Malaysia’s Uber equivalent) to our closest supermarket, a giant Tesco about 15 minutes away. We had a delicious Indian lunch before we did our shopping, some chicken curry and melt-in-your-mouth naan bread that fed all of us for $10 USD / $14 NZD. The kids declared that Indian is now their favourite food which we’re ecstatic about as we can now go hard out on it!
The style of Indian food here is predominately Southern Indian food which is great as it’s similar to the cuisine Kylie learned about in-depth on her Indian trip a couple of years ago. So we know what everything is!
It seemed to take FOREVER to get around the supermarket but we’re now stocked up with all the basics for our time here.
So we’re looking forward to the next six weeks here, there’s lots to see and do here in Penang but we’re also focusing on getting a school and work routine together, as it’s not just a jolly!
Homeschool and work
The kids are going well with homeschool so far. We are knuckling down even more now we’re staying put in one place and working through the excellent curriculum that they’re really enjoying.
In all honesty we failed pretty miserably at homeschooling last time around – largely because the kids were still young (Jack was still at kindergarten and Sophie in Year 1) and we were winging it. It didn’t really work.
So this time around we’re a lot more serious about it now the kids are older and have purchased an Australian-based curriculum which is fabulous.
They have a great big thick workbook with all the lessons outlined in it and where they do their work. Their writing, reading, maths, spelling, science, and art activities for the week are all there which takes any guess work out of it for the parents! Sophie’s curriculum this term is based around ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and Jack is doing ‘Mr Popper’s Penguins’.
To complement this, we also do online literacy and maths-based learning using the programmes ‘Reading Eggs/Reading Eggspress’ and ‘Mathletics’, both of which they heavily used at school in New Zealand anyway, so we have picked up from where they left off with that and are progressing. We also have a new one as part of our curriculum package called ‘Literacy Planet’ which they like and as a family we are doing online French lessons using a Babbel subscription.
Mike is taking the lead with the teaching, while Kylie is working. We are very lucky in that Kylie is able to keep doing freelance work for a New Zealand company while we are travelling, and I’m grateful that the nature of my work is online and I have such a flexible client, so I can essentially work from any location. Meetings and catch-ups are done via Skype – it still blows my mind that I’m able to be here in Malaysia and talk to my boss in Auckland as if we were in the next room.
Lots of people are curious how we can afford to do this and how we make money while travelling, so we’ll write a blog post on this soon with more details.
But in a nutshell it’s a combination of savings, a small amount of rental income from our house in New Zealand, the freelance work and we also make some income from this website via advertising and commissions from when people buy products or book accommodation based on our recommendations.
We also are occasionally hosted or sponsored for accommodation, experiences and products in return for reviews on this website and/or promotion via our social media channels.
Look out for the blog post if you’re interested in living a location independent lifestyle, as we’ll share more of the details on how we’re able to do it, what we’ve learned along the way, exactly how we make money online – and how you could too!
So more of the same as we ease into life here in Penang. In a few weeks we’re going to do a short trip to Langkawi, another Malaysian island close by to celebrate Jack’s birthday.
From here we head to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand in early April.
Have you got any questions for us about our travels or lifestyle? We’d love to hear from you – leave us a comment below and we’ll happily answer them if we can!