We arrived in Bohol by ferry after a night in nothing-to-write-home-about Cebu City. Although we'd be exploring Bohol Island, we opted to stay on Panglao, one of over 70 nearby smaller islands.
Panglao is most famous for Alona Beach, a hoppin' strip where we spent nearly every afternoon and night, drinking beers at reggae bars and eating taco after taco at one of the many local restaurants. (Are tacos a Philippine food? Probably not. Did we care? Definitely not.)
Cold beers and live music on the beach... never bad. Plus, there were more puppies (what's with the Philippines and puppies everywhere? I do not hate it.) and adorable kids goofing around on the beach.
From Alona Beach, we coordinated our day trip to Oslob to swim with whale sharks, which you can read about here.
For one action-packed day, we hired a driver to bring us to all of Bohol's famous sightseeing attractions. We fought through throngs of tourists at the iconic Chocolate Hills, approximately 1,200 symmetrical rock mounds nicknamed "chocolate" for their brown color during the Philippines' dry season. As you can see, when we visited, they were mostly green, but still beautiful!
Thankfully, our driver Eric took us far from tourists after that and we were able to see workers in rice fields the most brilliant shade of green. In the sunlight, the fields were nearly neon, that's how bright green it was.
We zipped across a line traversing a half-kilometer gap between mountains, looking straight down at the rocky river 200 m below. We stumbled across a rickety bamboo bridge before stopping to see butterflies and moths (that one's a letdown - skip it!). For lunch, we partook in a buffet of Philippine foods served on a slow moving riverboat.
The highlight of the day was the meatball monkeys, Bohol's beloved Tarsiers, which are literally no bigger than a man's fist with eyes the size of quarters. Although a few would have easily fit in my pack, unfortunately security was pretty tight and we had to leave them behind in the Tarsier Sanctuary. We'll come back for you, tiny monkeys!!
We spent one more night in Manila before it was time to say goodbye to Andy (finally! just kidding, we love you) and fly to a faraway corner of the South Pacific.
Imagine waking up every morning to the sound of waves breaking on soft sand, of birds chirping and cock-a-doodle-do-ing, and feeling warm island breezes rustling your bug net, which is all that separates you from a pristine, private beach. Your only task for the entire day is to board a boat. You don't know where it's headed and you don't know where you'll be sleeping that night. What you do know is that there will be three amazing meals, made with the freshest seafood and local ingredients, and that you're sharing the journey with 22 amazing people from around the world.
That's what it's like to travel with Tao Philippines.
I could go on and on praising Tao. The five days we spent with them were some of the most fun, most memorable experiences we've had in the last seven months.
The biggest "hats off" has to be for the way that Tao has figured out how to attract the right kinds of customers. A disclaimer on their website and brief application ensures that only free-spirited, fun-loving adventurers are welcome. What would have been a great experience anyway was even more incredible thanks to the company on board. We consider ourselves very lucky to have been among our group!
In summary, we boarded one of Tao's traditional-style boats in Coron and traveled to El Nido over the course of five days.
Each day, we'd stop at remote beaches and reefs to swim, explore and snorkel. Then, we'd gather together on the boat to eat a fabulous fresh seafood lunch and inevitably drink a few icy beers.
In the evenings, we'd drop anchor at a beach camp and bring our night bags to shore with us. We set up sleeping pads, pillows, a light sheet and bug net, then slept in open-air huts, usually looking out to the ocean.
Before going to sleep, we'd eat another delicious (and huge) meal and sit around drinking, chatting, playing cards or singing karaoke with local islanders.
The trip was planned by the crew as we went, choosing locations where we stopped and slept based on weather, timing and crowd requests.
On our favorite night, the third of four, we arrived at the Tao Farm, the company's home base, which sits on one of the small islands near El Nido. As we stepped onto the shore, we were told we'd be getting beachfront massages, the cost of which was already covered in what we'd paid. I laid there in a state of total bliss, listening to waves gently breaking on the sand and palm branches rustling against each other overhead.
After my massage, feeling as relaxed as is humanly possible without being dead, Andy walked up to me and asked, "did you see the puppies?"
I mean, come on. A beautiful beach with free massages and puppies?! What else could you want?? (For me, the answer is nothing.)
Another unique experience we had thanks to Tao was the traditional full pig roast on our final night. Although preparations began earlier in the trip, when we picked up the pig, alive and well, from another island. Some of the guys on the boat dubbed him Gunther. Screw what they say about not naming your food!
Once we arrived in El Nido, we took much needed showers, ate a lot of pizza and hung out some more with our new fellow boat people. We also took a break from taking photos.
Hopefully it goes without saying but, if you're going to be in Palawan, Philippines, go on a Tao trip. Just do it. You'll love it, we promise.
To learn more about the company and their wonderful mission, check out their website.
From Singapore, we flew to Manila and met up with our friend Andrew, who took two weeks of vacation to come meet us. He made a great choice, since the next two weeks we spent in the Philippines turned out to be some of the best of our entire trip so far!
We met Andy five years ago in Denver and have always had fun together, whether we were spearfishing in the Florida Keys or camping in Moab, so we knew we were going to have a blast.
After an airport reunion celebration catered by Cinnabon, we boarded an hour-long flight to Coron.
Coron is a province of Palawan, Philippines. The largest city is Coron Town, where we stayed in a lovely apartment for next to nothing. Hallelujah. Originally a small fishing village, Coron City now caters to the many tourists attracted by quiet beaches, island hopping and more.
The primary reason that we were drawn to Coron was scuba diving. Specifically, wreck diving in Japanese cargo ships, still laying where they sunk during an attack by the Americans during WWII.
Upon arrival, we found a local dive shop and signed up to go out the next morning.
Our first dive of six in Coron was Barracuda Lake, a brackish lake on Coron Island open to foreigners (many of Coron's lakes are only for natives). The coolest part about this dive was that you descend through about 5 meters of fresh water before hitting the thermocline, and then, because salt water is pumped into the lake by a thermal spring, the second layer of water is nearly 40 degrees celsius (that's 100 degrees F!).
Later, we found out that the dive was a test. The instructors were watching us to see if we were confident in the water and able to control our buoyancy before they took us into the wrecks.
Now, there are wreck dives and then there are real wreck dives. We had seen a wreck in Koh Tao but, as is common when you dive most wrecks as an Open Water or Advanced Open Water diver, we hadn't been allowed to go inside. We only swam around the outside of the ship and peered in through windows. Imagine our surprise and delight (for Mike; I was terrified at first) when they said we'd be swimming inside the massive ships.
It's hard to describe how insane the entire experience was. (Maybe not something you should write on your travel blog... but it's true!) All of the tops of the wrecks were between 5 and 15 meters deep, and then the bottoms sat anywhere from 20 to 40 meters. In groups of five to six people, including the guide, we'd enter the wreck single file and swim through rooms, hallways and other passageways before exiting back into open water.
At some points during the dive, the wreck became so dark we only had the tiny beam from our small flashlights to guide us. In other places, the entry or exit point was a hole 1-2 meters wide, usually where there was once a pipe or where a bomb went through a wall during the attack.
The reason wreck dives give some people anxiety is everything that could go wrong. You could get snagged on something. Your equipment or limb could get cut on a sharp piece of metal. You could panic. However, after a few wreck dives with our very skilled and attentive instructor, we realized that if you remain calm, swim slowly and trust your guide, wreck diving isn't as nerve-wracking as it can seem. That said, swimming inside a massive metal structure when you're relying on a small hose and single tank of oxygen to stay alive is still pretty intense.
In total, we went inside five wrecks, including the Okikawa Maru, Akitsushima, and Teru Kaze Maru.
Overall, it was insane, scary, amazing, adrenaline-inducing fun. Especially for Andy, who had only finished his open water certification course a mere five (yes, five) days earlier.
After three amazing days in Coron, we boarded a boat with 21 incredible strangers to set off on a four-night journey to El Nido. Read about that journey here.
After 30 days in Thailand, which rounded out 60 in Southeast Asia, we were ready for a little R&R. We already had plans to meet a friend from Denver in the Philippines the following week, so we had six days to spend. We chose to go to Singapore, and it ended up being exactly the change of pace we needed.
Right away, we were struck by the order, infrastructure and modern architecture. It was a far cry from the hectic, congested commotion of cities in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
Compared to other cities, Singapore really has its act together. The public transportation is easy to navigate, plentiful restaurants represent all of the world's cuisines, and everything is oh-so-clean. (You could probably eat off the sidewalks, although you may get arrested for doing it!)
The only downside is that nearly all of Singapore's splendors come with a hefty price tag. Fortunately, a friend of a friend hooked us up with a place to stay on the NUS campus, which meant we didn't have to drop hundreds on a hotel room. And, by riding the public buses and underground trains, we were able to spend less in Singapore by day than nearly any other place.
Clearly, Mike was able to stretch his architecture photography muscles and later found that many of the photos are even more striking in black and white.
Cloudy skies and a few particularly lackadaisical days meant that we left the camera at home (and by home, we mean dorm room) as we wandered around the "Red Dot" in search of art to admire (we loved the public installations peppered around the Bayfront area), quirky streets to explore (go straight to the Arab Quarter) and ethnic food to chow (thank you, Little India).
Our trip also coincided with Chinese New Year, which was in full celebratory swing when we arrived. While we can't take credit for the timing (we only realized the overlap one week before), we took full advantage of waived admission fees to museums in honor of the public holiday.
CNY also meant that we were able to see a side of Singapore that many visitors do not. Before arriving there, we had heard it had a sterile vibe, full of workaholics and few people actually enjoying the city. But we were able to see Singaporeans out and about with their families, since many people had a long weekend (with Monday and Tuesday off). In exchange, we dealt with crowds at a few museums and Gardens by the Bay. A small price to pay.
The city was decorated with thousands of red lanterns, banners and envelopes. Some more elaborate installations, particularly in and around Chinatown, were blooming trees and playful monkeys, all designed to look like they were made from paper, lining major avenues and lighting up at night to enhance their festive magic. (So sorry we didn't get any photos of these!)
Oh, and I almost forgot! On our first full day, we woke up at 6 a.m. to cheer on our hometown team, the Broncos, as they won the Super Bowl! It was the first time either of us ever drank coffee instead of beer during the game.
Feeling recharged after six relatively low-key days, we arrived at Singapore's ridiculously nice airport just before midnight to catch our red eye flight to Manila.
Next stop: paradise!
Mike, our new friend Laura and I took one of Thailand's famous long tail boats to go from Ao Nang to Railay Beach. Only 15 minutes by boat, Railay (sometimes also called Rai Leh) is a small peninsula between Krabi and Ao Nang. Because of high limestone cliffs that block mainland access, you can only get there by boat.
When we arrived, we were relieved to see that the beach was nowhere near as crowded as the Phi Phi islands we'd explored the previous day.
It was a perfectly nice beach, with nice views (duh, this is Thailand, after all), but we all wanted to explore the area a bit more. We started by walking down random sidewalks and through resorts until we reached the path to a viewpoint.
Calling it a "path" is pretty lame. It was more like a rock wall with tree roots snaking all over it and random holes in the rock. Oh, and everything was covered in red mud. So, with Mike leading, of course we took off climbing. We hung onto the ropes and rock handholds (smoothed and polished from frequent use) where we could find them as we scrambled up to where the steepness tapered off and we could move forwards instead of up.
Had it been raining, the climb/walk could have been treacherous. Luckily, it was pretty dry and we made it up and back without any tumbles. Once we were done monkeying around in the jungle, we arrived at Phra Nang Beach and immediately ran into the water to wash off all the mud.
Phra Nang is quieter than Railay and feels more secret, since it's tucked in to a cove with a few caves and rock overhangs. Rock climbers made use of carabiners drilled into the rock and went up and down as we hung out in the water and sat on the sand people watching.
One attraction at Phra Nang Beach is the Princess Cave, home to a shrine and spicy-smelling incense. According to local legend, Phra Nang was either a princess killed in a shipwreck or a fisherman's wife who was lost at sea. Whichever story you prefer, the ending is the same: Phra Nang lived out the rest of her life in the cave, waiting for her husband's rescue.
Around the shrine to Phra Nang are many wooden statues. It's apparent pretty quickly that they're penises. A plaque near the entrance to the cave explains that the statues, called Linga, are offerings left by fisherman in exchange for safe travels. These offerings are shaped phallic-shaped statues to represent the Hindu god Shiva. And there are a lot of them in there! Some look more realistic than others, some are adorned with cloth, some are smaller, some are bigger, but who knows if size matters to Phra Nang...
After taking a few photos of Princess Cave and the Linga, we walked down the beach to five long tail boats parked on the sand. With colorful fabric streamers tied to their bows blowing in the wind and the jungle-covered islands in the background, the long tail boats don't have to try very hard to look good. It's all incredibly picturesque.
The parked boats turned out to be Railay's version of food trucks. Each had a big menu propped up against their boat, as well as small grills and blenders onboard in order to heat up spring rolls and make the best mixed tropical fruit smoothies.
After hanging on the beach for a few hours and listening to podcasts, we headed back to Ao Nang for our last Thai dinner in Thailand.
Next stop: Singapore!
THE GOOD: It goes without saying, but southern Thailand is beautiful. In any given area, there are dozens of limestone islands with pristine beaches to marvel at and explore. Seeing Koh Phi Phi and the surrounding Phi Phi islands checked a box on our list, since Mike is a big fan of the book and movie The Beach, which used Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh as one filming location.
THE BAD: The best way to see the Phi Phi Islands efficiently and relatively cheaply from Ao Nang, where we stayed, is to join a one-day tour group, which is not our favorite way to travel. At all. Basically, we got herded around and had limited time in each place. (However, without going the group tour route we would have spent double the time and at least double the money. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and be a tourist for a day.)
THE UGLY: How many people can fit on Maya Bay beach? I can't tell you the exact number but it's however many people were there when we were. Holy crowded. Are we on an only-accessible-by-boat Thai island or in Times Square?! Mike even took one photo that you'd have to study for a few minutes to find me, Where's Waldo style. There were almost enough people there to take away the amazing natural beauty... Almost.
Also, I was very sad to see a few pieces of trash, such as a plastic water bottle, floating in the water around Koh Phi Phi Leh. Clearly, the human impact resulting from tourists flooding the area has already had negative effects on what was once pristine, untouched nature. Hopefully Thailand will be able to protect its waters and islands so future generations can continue to enjoy them.
PS: for anyone who doesn't know, Phi Phi is pronounced like "pee pee" (hehe) #ifyoudontknownowyouknow
Since landing in South Africa back in October, time has gradually but continually gained momentum, moving by a bit faster with each passing day. Once we hit Thailand, it felt like time was flying, and we weren't quite sure how to decelerate.
Our first few weeks in what was possibly our most highly anticipated country whirred by. Thankfully, we found the solution to regaining control of time as soon as we hopped aboard the Dolphin Queen, a four night scuba diving liveaboard trip.
Finally, we got the diving fix we'd been craving. The visibility was near perfect, at times 30+ meters, meaning we could see straight through the water as if it were air. There were fish everywhere, from the tiny, bright neon dassies to massive brown groupers.
Note: the photos in this gallery were taken either from the boat as we sailed between islands or from the remote beaches where we stopped for hour-long breaks along the way. To see photos taken during dives, check out the gallery Pepe Suarez Underwater Photography.
Aside from the phenomenal scuba diving, one of our favorite elements of the liveaboard was the varied group of people bonding over a common love: scuba diving. We met couples from Brazil, Belgium and France, solo travelers from Chile, China and the good ol' USA, as well as brilliant dive instructors from all over the world - Switzerland, Mexico, Quebec, and even one who went to Rutgers in New Jersey (because those "it's a small world after all" reminders are always waiting to pop up)!
Life on the boat was blissfully simple. Our daily schedule looked like this:
6:00am: wake up call
7:00am: first divers geared up and in the water, directly followed by breakfast
Mid-morning dingy ride to the closest island beach
11:00am: back in the water for the second dive of the day, then lunch as soon as we're back on board
3:00pm: afternoon dive
7:00pm: night dive, followed up an evening snack, then down time
Yes, it was a lot of diving. (Four a day!) But the rest of the time was relaxed and relaxing. All our meals were fresh, flavorful Thai favorites, served family style. The people who didn't nap between dives could be found sunning on the roof or playing card games. We spent our nights on the boat's roof deck, gazing at the amazingly unobstructed starry sky above or sitting in a circle with new friends, chatting and laughing about everything from that day's dives to global politics.
It was as delightfully wholesome as it sounds. There was no wifi, no long list of landmarks and museums to see. By the time we disembarked, we were firmly planted in the moment, refreshed and reinvigorated.
Maybe what had been propelling time at supersonic speeds seemingly out of our control was, in fact, us.
The four days we spent on the Dolphin Queen were easily one of the best, most memorable parts of our journey so far. It was certainly a highlight for us in Thailand and we can't wait to go on more liveaboard trips in the future.
I suspect that the title of this album may have tipped you off, but I want to be clear: we did not take these photos. All of the fantastic underwater photography in this gallery is courtesy of Pepe Suarez, the photographer who was aboard the Dolphin Queen Liveaboard we did in Thailand's Similan and Surin islands. Pepe was on every dive with us capturing the most exciting moments, scenery and sea life.
We were extremely lucky to swim alongside an array of underwater life, from the tiniest baby clown fish to the largest barracuda we've ever seen. Sounds of glee bubbled out of our regulators when we saw sea turtles, a leopard shark, reef sharks, octopuses and cuttlefish. The faces of eels with their signature devilish grins poked through cracks in the coral, which was piled so high on top of itself, it looked more like a rainbow-colored, underwater mountain range. Soft corals and anenomes floated delicately in the current winds. On two dives, giant manta rays floated above us, casting down snow-angel-shaped shadows and momentarily blocking the sunlight like jet planes flying too low.
Epic diving, epic photos. Thanks again to Pepe for capturing it all!
To see more of Pepe's work, check out his Facebook page here.
To see more photos from our time on the Dolphin Queen, check out the Similan and Surin Islands gallery.
We said farewell to Chiang Mai and arrived in Koh Tao after more than eight hours of travel, which included a two hour flight and three hour ferry ride. Though a bit exhausted, we were excited to finally reach southern Thailand's tropical beaches.
As we walked along the narrow street that runs parallel to Sairee Beach, we felt something click. We hadn't even seen Koh Tao "with the lights on," but we knew. We decided that the three days we had planned just wouldn't be enough and that we needed to extend the trip by three more days.
The next morning, the sun was shining, the palm branches rustled in the gentle ocean breeze and we could see the reef through pale turquoise water. We sank our toes into soft, white sand and stared out at the traditional, brightly painted longtail boats floating on the clear-as-glass water.
Yep, we had made the right decision.
Our first order of business was to complete an advanced open water certification course. We lucked out with amazing weather and a wonderful instructor, Steve at Simple Life Divers.
We practiced underwater navigation by compass at Mango Bay and played in the buoyancy park next to Koh Tao's popular Twins site. We were blown away by Shark Island, which we caught on a day with remarkable visibility, perfect for gazing at colorful, healthy corals and a plethora of fish. And then we finished things off with a wreck dive (Grace's first), going down to 100 feet!
After five dives in two days, we were advanced open water divers! ...Just in time for a storm to roll in, churning up sand and washing trash out into the water, making for horrible dive conditions.
Had we made the right decision? We didn't dwell too much on that question since it didn't matter - we found out that the water was so rough that ferries were cancelled for a few days. So, we hunkered down with thai food and our laptops to do some planning.
We also rented another motorbike and rode up some verrry steep hills to check out a few of the island's viewpoints. Although the inclement weather meant a lot of haze and sh*tty photos, we always appreciate seeing beautiful places from different vantage points.
Seven days in Koh Tao had gone by in a blink and before we knew it, we were leaving one island but heading for more... next up, our first-ever liveaboard dive trip through the Similan and Surin Islands.
Chiang Mai is like Bangkok's humble little sister. She sits 650+ km north of Thailand's capital city with a vibe and style all her own.
Almost anything would feel quaint coming from Bangkok, but Chiang Mai is actually the third largest city in Thailand (based on population).
We stayed in a lovely guesthouse in the old city and explored on foot, by bicycle and on a motorbike. Using different modes of transportation resulted in a well-rounded perspective of all the different neighborhoods that make up the city of Chiang Mai. We discovered some great little restaurants, window shopped, and listened to local musicians play at the Night Bazaar.
Chaing Mai's cool evenings and mornings were a welcome relief after sweating through many outfits in Cambodia and Bangkok.
We finally got to take a Thai cooking class in Thailand - something we've talked about doing for years! The class was very informative and so much fun. Before cooking, the small group went to the local market together to shop for ingredients and learn more about the Thai staples (Thai basil, fish sauce, etc.) Beyond learning to make (and then eat) yummy food, cooking classes are a great way to meet fellow travelers. We love taking cooking classes!
But by far the best part of our time in northern Thailand was the day we spent with the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary and rescue center. Walking alongside the gentle giants, feeding them by hand and splashing in the river with them was unforgettable.
Stay tuned for more about that as well as video!
Pai (pronounced "By") is a small mountain town three hours and change northwest of Chiang Mai. We decided to split our time in northern Thailand with a stay in Pai in the middle. We rode to and from on a rented motorbike, which was quite the adventure on its own. Thankfully, no accidents or injuries to report (other than a very sore butt).
Stories of an artsy, hippie-filled mountain town along a river drew us to Pai. We imagined it to be like Boulder, Colorado, and it sort of was. We found it to be full of just as many grungy travelers and hipsters as hippies, hence we coined the term "hippsties." Has a nice ring to it, dontcha think?
We had two full days here to explore the mountains and nearby waterfalls, canyons, etc. The aforementioned rented motorbike made it easy. We zipped around, stopping for quick hikes and cups of coffee.
At night, we strolled through the small town center and drank a few "big" Chang beers with fellow travelers at our hostel.
Not pictured: all the delicious street food we sampled. Although their night market was only a few blocks long, it was packed with a wide variety of vendors, each one more tempting and saliva-inducing than the next.
Also not pictured: the piercing, unrelenting screams ringing through the cold night air as pigs were slaughtered, one by one, less than 50 yards from the hostel where we slept. Yes, seriously. I don't even want to talk about it. (But if you don't believe me I can email you a recording.)
Disclaimer: we didn't have enough time in Thailand's capital city and we didn't do a great job documenting the time we did have.
Luckily, our few days fell on a weekend, so we got to spend the better part of one day at Chatuchak Weekend Market, Thailand's largest and one of the biggest, baddest markets in all of Asia.
What do you need to buy? Purse? Shoes? Custom denim? Bedazzled iPhone case? Sheets? Designer puppies? Squid on a stick? Yeah, they have that. They sell everything.
Then, because we're still in SE Asia, we visited, like, a dozen temples. Wat Pho, home to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (that huge gold one), is a particularly cool one.
We discovered the river ferries as a wonderful way to get around when we weren't taking advantage of BTS, Bangkok's delightful public transit system. (That's not facetious, it really is delightful! Punctual, clean and it has AC. That's more than we can say for some of the hostels we've experienced.)
Then we decided we had to go to one of Bangkok's notorious red light districts and chose Patpong, the most well known and touristy (since when you're doing such a thing, it's go big or go home). We started our evening at the bustling night market on Silom St. and then made our way over.
Patpong is two small side streets lined with go go bars and a few restaurant/bars, with vendors selling all the typical crap* in the middle of the road. We decided to not spend the money on a "ping pong" or "banana" show and were perfectly happy to keep those dollars in our pocket. I'm not just saying that for any future employers who may be reading, or for our moms (please do not Google to find out what those shows are!)
And of course, in between all of that we could be found indulging in what felt like more than our fair share of Thai food. *sigh* we finally made it. The food here is SOFREAKINGGOOD.
Like I said, we barely scratched the surface, and even before we left we were already looking forward to returning to Bangkok again someday.
But it was time to catch an overnight train heading north to Chiang Mai...
*All the typical crap is, in no particular order: baggy pants with elephants on them, knockoff designer jewelry and watches, knockoff Haviannas flip flops, touristy tank tops, small buddha statues (for when you need a lil buddha in yo pocket), paper fans, and a bunch of other stuff I can't remember right now.
Siem Reap is all about the temples. So, before the main event, I'll tell you what we did in Siem Reap when we weren't off exploring ancient temple ruins. We ate Mexican food, shopped at night markets, and had our feet nibbled on by sucker fish.
Also, before checking out the temples, we went to the Angkor National Museum. A few people had recommended this as a way to get perspective and understand the history of the region and temples before going to see them in person. I'm so glad we did and would definitely recommend that anyone going to Siem Reap do the same! We spent about 3 hours at the museum but could have spent even more time. There is so much to see, read and learn.
Finally, the next day, we embarked on our full day of temple hopping. All the Angkorian temples are located just outside the city, so visitors can take a car, tuk-tuk, motorbike or bicycle (it's too far to walk). We decided to see them all and get a bit of exercise by riding bikes with a guide. Although it was supposed to be a small group, Mike and I were the only people that day, so we had the wonderful guide all to ourselves and got to set the pace for the day. Score! In total, we rode 28 km. (Confession: our legs were sore the next day.)
Starting with Angkor Wat in the morning, we explored the most famous temple in Cambodia and then continued on to the South Gate, through the wall to the "death gate," the Bayon, Ta Keo, the terrace of elephants and then Ta Prohm.
It was a HOT day but oh, so worth it. The temples are magical - you walk around imagining what they looked like in their prime and marveling at what people (okay, let's be real for a sec, slaves) were able to do before modern machinery. I mean, they used elephants to move all that stone! Impressive is an understatement.
Even though we only had one week in Cambodia, experiencing Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was enough to feel we had a solid introduction to the country.
In the same way that people go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, many travelers go to Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields. In case you've never heard of the Killing Fields before (I hadn't before I started reading up on Cambodia), they're areas where, between 1975 and 1978, hundreds of thousands of men, women and even children were brutally killed. This genocide happened during the Pol Pot regime, also known as the Khmer Rouge. The most famous of the Killing Fields, the one that we visited, are the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 7.5km outside the city.
It sounds weird to say you're "going to the Killing Fields" and feels weird to talk about wanting to go somewhere to see something so horrible. But then, you realize it's the same as walking around a concentration camp in Poland or visiting Ground Zero in New York City. Travel isn't all about happy places and people, it's about seeing the world as it is and learning about its history. It's important to know about what has happened and that innocent victims won’t be forgotten.
It's also always inspiring to see people coming together in the wake of hateful, unthinkable violence. At one of the mass graves, people started leaving their bracelets behind. Now, there are thousands of them. Small, colorful symbols of respect and reminders that all who visit the Killing Fields will never forget the people who lost their lives there.
In addition to learning about Cambodia's dark past at the Killing Fields, we also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly the S21 prison. Here, we learned more about the horrific time period during which an estimated 2-3 million people (one quarter of the country's population) lost their lives, either at the Killing Fields or due to disease or starvation.
Those experiences were upsetting, but the whole visit wasn't so somber. We found ourselves unexpectedly excited about the city of Phnom Penh. For a country that was in such turmoil as recently as 17 years ago, the capital is actually a really cool place.
It's not that we expected not to like it, it's just that we had no real expectations, which made it easier to love it.
Hmm.. not having expectations might be the key to successful, happy travel! (And maybe life?!)
Where was I? Oh, right. We ate at many eclectic restaurants, hung out at a rooftop bar overlooking the river, walked around the awesome royal palace and also spent an hour at the Central Market, which is massive and sells everything from bedding to dishes to fake watches, purses, shoes, luggage, etc.
We walked down aisle after packed aisle looking at all the cliche traveler pants (loose, with elephants on them) and Cambodia t-shirts and tank tops that you see everywhere. (Not hating! I am now the proud owner of an elephant tank and I have to say, it feels so good to wear something different after three months in the same four shirts.)
Looking back, we're very glad we decided to check out Phnom Penh for a few nights before heading to Siem Reap.
With more than 500 restaurants, Hoi An is a foodie paradise. So, naturally it was one of my favorite stops so far!
We ate our faces off (and even tried our hand at cooking a few Vietnamese favorites!), but saved enough time between meals to have some clothes made (a ridiculous story coming soon to a blog near you), visit the My Son temples and celebrate New Year's Eve with some crazy kids from around the globe.
At night, Hoi An comes alive in color, illuminated by hundreds and hundreds of colorful paper lanterns. The city is known for the beautiful decorations, found hanging from trees, strung over streets and spilling out of night market stalls. It's quite magical.
Since we were there over the New Year holiday (our New Year, that is. The Vietnamese celebrate Tet, the Chinese New Year, which is in early February this year), there were even more lights to check out at night, including dragons and turtles along the river.
There's a reason most people say Hoi An is their favorite stop in Vietnam! It is not to be missed.
Ahhh, Phu Quoc. Where to begin?
You know when you arrive somewhere new and you say, "okay, what is there to do here?"
(I suppose some more organized travelers ask this before they arrive...)
Well, we usually make a list of things we want to do/see and then try to do as many as we can, starting with our top choices.
In Phu Quoc, we did the entire list. We seriously got after it.
Our six days on the island included touring a pepper farm, where we bit into peppercorns right off the vine, and a fish sauce factory, where we had to breathe through our mouths to avoid passing out. We checked out the beaches and the temples. Another stop was the Coconut Prison, turned into a museum after the end of the war.
At night, we ate $1 chicken and rice with new friends and walked through the lively night market, stopping to check out the crazy variety of live seafood in fish tanks, awaiting a firey death by BBQ.
We spent Christmas Eve scuba diving and capped off the night with a bonfire on the beach. Then, for Christmas Day, we rented an old Jeep and explored the north of the island. We ate fresh seafood, walked around a remote fishing village and spent an hour floating in the salty ocean water. It was the most un-Christmasy Christmas day ever, but totally awesome in its own way.
We try to stick to our budget. Really, we do. But sometimes, we can't resist a little luxury. And then there are other times. Times when we stumble into an extravagant situation purely by accident. Maybe it's a four star hotel that was deceptively cheap on Agoda. Maybe it's a unique dining experience we couldn't not try. Or maybe it's a two night cruise in a private boat on the Mekong River.
So, we admit, this didn't fit in with our backpacker, budget traveler style. Was it too nice for us? Probably. Did that stop us from enjoying it? Not at all.
We lived like the kind of people who rent private boats. (I mean, it wasn't a yacht or anything, but still.) From the sundeck, we waved to children and read books while the captain maneuvered around local fishing boats and huge barges carrying rice.
We walked through villages and explored their market offerings, even buying fruits we'd never heard of before (with some help from our guide).
We toured a brick factory and learned how to make rice paper. (And Mike drank disgusting dead snake alcohol.)
We enjoyed meals that could have easily fed four people but were served only to two (Vietnamese people love to over-feed you...).
To cap things off, we watched the sky change from blue to purple to pink to bright orange to a faint red - sunset colors that were reflected off the glimmering river water. It was easily the most extraordinary sunset I've ever seen. The photos barely do it justice.
While some elements of the Mekong River weren't exactly what we had expected*, it was still very interesting to observe how vital it is for trade and transportation.
Spending nights on a boat floating in southeast Asia's most famous river was an experience we (and our wallets) won't soon forget.
* in case you can't see it in these photos, the boiled-down version of our perception vs. reality is that the river is huuuge, with more factories and industrial buildings than jungle-y villages along its banks.
At first glance, Ho Chi Minh City is a lot like Hanoi. Motorbikes whizz down every street, food vendors with their tiny red plastic chairs set up on every corner, night markets generate one undistinguishable smell after another....
But as soon as we started exploring, it was clear that Ho Chi Minh City - more commonly referred to by its previous name, Saigon - is very different from its northern sister. While it has more than twice the population, Ho Chi Minh's square milage (809) is less than Hanoi's (1,200+). And yet it still feels less crowded, thanks to wider, European-style streets and city squares.
The western influence is obvious, from the young people sporting crop tops and platform sneakers to the McDonald's on the corner. (There are only three McDonald's in all of Vietnam and all three are in Saigon. I looked it up.)
Only when we went up to the 52nd floor of Bitexco Financial Tower, one of the tallest skyscrapers in the city, did we fully grasp just how massive the city really is. 360-degree views are the only reason to go up to the helipad restaurant, which has a 10+ page menu of outrageously priced cocktails. We paid 140,000 dong for two beers (only $6.20 but unacceptable compared to the low prices we're already used to). But, watching the sun set and the city lights gradually grow brighter and brighter from above was a bit magical.
We spent every day wandering from restaurant to museum to market to restaurant, just taking it all in. The Ben Thanh Market was a bigger, badder version of the street markets we'd seen thus far, with all the clothes, jewelry, flowers, dried seafood, fresh pigs feet and live squid you could want!
The War Remnants Museum was a powerful, somber experience that left us asking "why?" for days to come. We also continued our education about the "American War" by visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels an hour outside the city.
Not pictured are many great meals (including Noir) and spa treatments (crazy cheap in Vietnam).
Our hotel was a block away from Ho Chi Minh Square, a pedestrian area that starts at the massive statue of Ho Chi Minh adjacent to City Hall and stretches for about four blocks to the river. At night, Ho Chi Minh Square comes alive with break dancers, drum circles, kids running around and selfie sticks everywhere you look... and it's all surrounded by towering buildings outlined in neon lights. It has an almost futuristic feel, an observation that I'd expect the forward-thinking city to take as a compliment.
Off the beaten tourist track in world-famous Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay is far less crowded and polluted than its big sister. The untouched bay actually occupies about three quarters of the Halong Bay World Heritage Site, made up of thousands of small limestone islands (or "islets").
We spent three days cruising around Bai Tu Long Bay on a large junk. Admittedly, it was definitely too luxury for us, two "budget travel backpackers." But, that didn't stop us for a second. We lived it up in Bai Tu Long Bay!
When we weren't enjoying six course gourmet meals or kayaking our butts off, we were staring in amazement at the rock islands of various sizes jutting out of warm, jade-colored water for as far as our eyes could see.
Oh, and meeting a bunch of nice people from all around the world was a wonderful bonus!
Sapa (or Sa Pa) is a town in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains about 315km northwest of Hanoi. With terraced rice fields covering the walls of Muong Hoa Valley, the area is a visual delight. The views put Sapa on the map and it's now a well-known tourist destination.
The most popular thing to do is trek, or hike, to nearby villages, both to take in the scenery and experience hill tribal cultures. While the first two of our three days there were super cold and so foggy that you couldn't see more than a few meters in front of you (let alone see the views...), our luck changed on the final day. We met a local guide and hiked to her village, Lao Chai, home only to people of the Hmong tribe.
The youngest of nine children, she was born there and still lives there, now with her husband and baby, although all of her family members are still right next door.
We loved seeing how people in that region live. Particularly intriguing to us were the rice farmers and their tools, the foods being cooked on the side of the road and the way they construct new buildings. The misty/foggy weather also ended up giving us some interesting views along our hike and a few really awesome photographs.
Because the rice harvest season is mid-May through mid-September, there were no rice plants growing while we were there. However, the terraced fields are still stunning - they're basically giant staircases covered in bright green grasses and algae. I can't even imagine how beautiful they would be during the season! I guess we'll have to go back someday to find out...
And, while the town of Sapa is definitely touristy, there were some cool things to see and do there as well, such as eating local foods (we did plenty of that those first two days) and walking around checking out tourist trinkets and the crazy, makeshift power hubs with hundreds of cables sticking out of them.
Our first stop in Vietnam was the bustling capital city, Hanoi.
Known for its centuries-old architecture, Hanoi's rich culture is a blend of Southeast Asian, Chinese and French influences. We stayed in the lively Old Quarter, which is packed with one-room-wide hotels, tourist shops, bars and hundreds of street food vendors. The Old Quarter's narrow, zig-zagging streets seem even narrower thanks to the street food vendors and hundreds of parked motorbikes taking up all the space on the sidewalk. You have to walk in the road, being careful to not step in the way of the many motorbikes whizzing past.
Of course, we don't have photos of any of that, since we walked around without our camera most of the time. Hope my description is illustrative enough to give you an idea. If not, sorry!
We did bring the camera to visit the Ngoc Son Temple, a Confucian temple in the middle of the Hoan Kiem Lake, which was only two blocks from our hotel. We went back to Hoan Kiem Lake at night and marveled in the reflection of the neon city lights off the still, dark water.