The Best Of Amsterdam

October 1-8, 2016

Once Upon A Time In Thailand…

This past January, while travelling around Southeast Asia, I had the pleasure of meeting several people whom I knew I would be friends with for years to come. Among that group were a couple of solo travellers; David (from Amsterdam, Holland), and Segev (from Haifa, Israel).

The 3 of us met in Chiang Mai very early on in all of our trips, and became very close, very quickly. It was clear to anyone who met David & Segev that the two of them had basically become brothers within a week of meeting, and that if you could count on any relationship lasting after our travels in Asia were over, it was theirs. Anyways… one night in Pai (Northern Thailand), the two made a bet over a game of pool. The loser would have to visit the winner back home as soon as possible after both had returned from Asia. I told them that while I couldn’t make any promises (mostly because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to afford it), I would get in on this bet, and that if at ALL possible, I’d come with the loser to visit the winner.

I had secretly hoped that David would win, only because I already travelled to Israel in 2014, and have never been to Amsterdam… so when that’s what ended up happening I was pretty excited at the thought of potentially joining Segev for a visit. A couple of months after I got back from Asia, Segev messaged me that he had booked his flight. I didn’t think I could make it happen, but after David offered for me to crash at his place, and I found an awesome flight deal online… how could I say no!?

So on Sept 30th I left for Amsterdam, where I stayed for the next week with Segev at David’s place, exploring the beautiful city. We saw & did a TON of stuff while we were there, so here are my top recommendations when it comes to travelling to Amsterdam! Scroll down for details & photos of each item on the list (which is in no particular order):

  • Getting To Amsterdam: Fly Cheap! 
  • Spending Down Time In Amsterdam At Vondel Park
  • The Moco Museum: Banksy & Warhol
  • The Stedelijk Museum
  • The Famous I amsterdam Letters
  • The Rijksmuseum: Do Not Miss!
  • The Van Gogh Museum
  • Walk/Bike Around The City: Canals, Shopping, Sightseeing, Markets & Coffee Shops!
  • Oude Kerk (The Old Church) Lookout Point
  • Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) & Albert Cuyp Market
  • Exploring The City At Night
  • Canal Cruise At Night
  • The Rembrandt House Museum
  • The Heineken Experience!
  • The Amsterdam Tulip Museum
  • Other Activity Ideas
  • Make Friends, And Food! 

Getting to Amsterdam: Fly Cheap!

Ok, so this isn’t really a thing to do IN Amsterdam, but if you’re travelling on a budget I cannot stress enough the importance of finding a good flight deal…

I have used Skyscanner to book nearly every flight over the past few years, and will continue to do so because it is AWESOME for finding the best deals. When booking to/from specific destinations, I’d suggest playing around with the dates to give yourself an idea of what the best prices are going to be. Plug in the destination and the potential flight options in winter, summer, fall, and spring, and then check the price variances for different days of the week. In some cases, you will find that staying an extra day actually pays for itself because you’ll be flying back on a cheaper day. In other instances, you may find that delaying your trip by a day or even a week can make a huge difference in price.

If you don’t have flexibility in your dates, there’s not a lot you can do, other than booking in advance. Usually when I’m booking flights, I tend to do so about 1-2 months in advance. Sometimes you can find awesome deals very far in advance (or last minute), but more often than not I’ve been able to find those same deals closer to the date (a few months in advance). That being said, if you see a deal that’s too good to pass up on, don’t wait! I have waited in the past, and when I went back a week/month later, the prices for the exact same flight had gone up by as much as $200… it broke my heart (and wallet). My advise: be flexible with your dates, book a couple of months ahead (usually), snatch a good deal when you see it, and play around with the dates on Skyscanner to make sure you’re getting the best deal. Also, make sure you clear your browser history, as some flight search engines actually don’t show as great of deals depending on what deals you’ve already found on other sites (so you won’t actually see the LOWEST price, unless you found it outside of that site already…not totally sure how it all works but I’ve almost always found cheaper prices on search engines after clearing my browser history).

Lastly, make sure you check what is included in the flight! I’m a pretty easy traveller, and I’ve dealt with a lot of crappy transport situations to save money… That being said, not everyone can deal with sleeping in an airport, or travelling with only carry-on baggage, or long-ass layovers that result in a 65 hour journey home from Bali (yes… it really happened, but saved me somewhere between 600-800 bucks & I’d do it again)… Always make sure you know what things are included, and what is important for you when it comes to flights. If you absolutely MUST have in-flight complimentary drinks and meals… you’re going to be paying for a better airline. If you want to sit first class, OBVIOUSLY it’s not going to be cheap. If you cannot handle layovers more than 2 hours (or at all), your cheap flight options may dwindle. Lastly, if you don’t think you can travel carry-on only, make sure that you didn’t book a flight that costs extra for checked baggage. These fees add up an insane amount, and are not fun to get stuck paying once you’re at the airport. Make sure you’ve checked the free baggage allowance BEFORE you book your flight, and only book if the total cost is still a good deal. 

On my flight to Amsterdam I booked with WOW Air, via Skyscanner for only $499CAD ROUND TRIP (INCLUDING TAXES & FEES) (YYZ-AMS)!!! AMAZING!!! My flight was about 10hrs total, with a 1.5-2hr stop in Iceland each way, not bad at all! The catch: this did NOT include checked baggage, and the free “carry-on” allowance was smaller than with almost every other airline I’ve ever travelled with. I packed super light, but my small suitcase was technically about 2cm too long according to what I saw online, so I decided to risk it and pay at the airport if I got caught. Out of my 4 flights in total (Toronto to Iceland, Iceland to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Iceland, and Iceland to Toronto), the airline only made me physically put my suitcase in the box ONCE, (on the way home, Iceland to Toronto) but that 2cm difference was what me and almost every other person in line got nailed for just before boarding. It cost me about $60CAD… which means that I would’ve been charged $240 total if I had gotten caught on all 4 of the flights with carry-on that was 2cm oversized. I would strongly recommend that if you know your bag is too big for carry on, you pay the fees online in advance for the “large carry on” or checked baggage, which costs about half of the price online vs. paying at the airport. I got very lucky this time, and of course even with the $60, my total flight cost at $560 round trip was still an amazing deal.

Please note: A lot of people use other sites such as Kayak, Expedia, etc. for booking flights. I have nothing against any of these sites at all, but in my experience, I have ended up booking through Skyscanner almost every single time, even after looking at the prices on those sites, because it happened to have the cheapest option… That being said, ALWAYS check on different sites, no matter how awesome of a deal you’re looking at, and make sure you’re booking based on the flight and price that best suits your needs, and not just based on a website that you’re blindly committed to using, or that someone (like me) recommended.

Spending Down Time In Amsterdam At Vondel Park

If you’re looking for some peace and quiet, or for a nice place to sit and read, or for a spot to lay in the grass (and maybe even smoke some…) then Vondel Park is perfect for you. Even if you don’t have a ton of time in Amsterdam, take a walk (or a quick bike ride) through at least some of the park, and enjoy the beautiful green space, ponds & gorgeous scenery. It is located right near the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum, and Van Gogh Museum (perfect for a moment of relaxation between the sometimes overwhelming museum visits), and it is the largest city park in Amsterdam.

After Segev picked me up at the airport, we took the bus to the museum area, and walked through a bit of the park. I was pretty tired after my flight, so it was the perfect way to spend the afternoon that required minimal energy, and it was absolutely beautiful.

The Moco Museum: Banksy & Warhol

When buying tickets for the museums & attractions in Amsterdam, make sure you go to the ticket booth in front of the Rijksmuseum, (click here for my estimation of where it was located, but it’s not hard to find), where most tickets can be purchased for €1-3 less than at the door, and include line bypass in many cases. For some museums (like Van Gogh) you can even make scheduled appointment times to visit, since that’s the only way to avoid the line. We purchased our tickets here for the Rijksmuseum €17.50, the Van Gogh Museum €17, the Moco Museum €11.50 and the Stedelijk Museum €15. You can also buy tickets for attractions like the Heineken Experience, Rembrandt House, etc. here or online. If you’re looking to visit the Anne Frank House though, please make note that you’ll have to book several months in advance, and even then you’ll have to wait in line for hours to get in. I didn’t realize this until too late, so sadly I didn’t get a chance to visit this time. You’ll also find free city maps available at the ticket stand, showing the locations and information regarding most major attractions in the city.

The Moco Museum was not one that I had looked into before my arrival (somehow slipping under my radar), but it very quickly jumped to the top of my priority list when we walked by it and saw the signs for the Banksy and Warhol exhibition going on.

I won’t go too much into the history of each artist, or how much of a hardcore Banksy fan I am, but if you’d like to learn more, or check the museum hours or ticket information (and also just to check if the exhibition has changed by the time you’re reading this), click here for the link to the Moco website.

The museum is fairly small, so I’d recommend giving yourself 1-2hrs max to wander around, unless you plan on sitting and watching the film “Exit Through The Gift Shop” which is playing downstairs, though it can easily be found online later to watch, so I’d suggest saving it for when you’re at home.

The Stedelijk Museum

This massive museum of modern art, contemporary art and design should absolutely be on your list if you’re an art lover like myself. Home to works by a long list of a variety of artists including Barnett Newman, Jean Tinguely, Roy Lichtenstein, Damien Hirst, Avery Singer, and many many more, the museum will surely have something for everyone.

Segev, David and myself spent a couple of hours walking around the museum, and I particularly enjoyed the digitally-inspired works of Avery Singer, as well as the kinetic (very fun, and often even scary & startling) sculptures of Jean Tinguely.

The museum is located right near the Rijksmuseum, beside the Van Gogh Museum, making it an easy trip to combine with another museum visit in the same day (though a small break in the park or out for lunch will definitely be necessary so you don’t get too overwhelmed).

For information on current exhibitions visit the Stedelijk website.

The Famous I amsterdam Letters

Of course no visit to Amsterdam would be complete without a visit to the famous I amsterdam letters.

There are actually a few different locations where you’ll find these letters (at the airport, in front of the Rijks, and the travelling letters), but the most famous/popular spot has to be the one in front of the Rijksmuseum. If you’re looking for the travelling letters, check on the I amsterdam website page where you’ll be able to find their current location.

The large metal sign attracts a TON of tourists, so the chances of you getting a pic all by yourself are slim to none, but the good news is that you won’t have a hard time finding someone else around to blindly trust with your camera to take your picture, which is exactly what Seg and I did.

The Rijksmuseum: Do Not Miss!

If you’ve got the time, there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for missing the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Get a map, take your time, and try not to get lost while you wander through the massive museum, which is architecturally a work of art in itself. Inside, you will find works by Van Gogh, Vermeer, and of course Rembrandt, among thousands of works by a vast array of artists throughout history.

The central hall featuring Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” was hands down the main attraction for myself, and probably most visitors. Segev and I stood by the painting for quite a while, in awe, just appreciating the work of such an incredible artist. If you’re ever looking to see me “fan girl”, stick me in front of a Rembrandt.

Museum information & hours can be found on their website, and you should definitely give yourself a solid 4 hours minimum if you’re planning on walking through most of the museum without feeling too rushed.

The Van Gogh Museum

While the Rijksmuseum wowed me in terms of size and collections, I would have to say that the Van Gogh Museum was my favourite out of all of the museums & galleries we visited. My only advise would be that if & when you go, to make sure you book an appointment in advance (to pass the line), and to try to get there on a quiet day with less of a crowd. Also, make sure you spend the €5 for the media tour (available in most languages) when you get in, which makes the entire experience that much more enjoyable.

The museum was fairly large (though nothing compared to the Rijks), and spread out over several floors, though it was organized chronologically and laid out in a way that had a nice flow to it and made a lot of sense. The media tour had both audio and visual aids on a touch screen dial, where you could simply spin the dial to the number that was displayed on the wall beside each painting for more information. Even better, it had an option that would take you only through the highlights of the museum if you’re pressed for time. Seg and I used the highlight feature of the tour mostly, but switched often & easily back to the main screen when we wanted to check out another painting that wasn’t part of that tour. It was so simple to figure out, and honestly made the entire experience so much better. Each audio clip was short & sweet, and showed how much time was remaining as well, which is really nice (and for some reason not very common with many audio tours) so you can actually SEE how much longer you’ll be standing in front of a painting for, or if you’ve got lots of time and should step to the side.

Of course, the paintings themselves were what really made the museum such a trip highlight for me, and the incredibly large collection of works from various stages of the artist’s life. Not only that, but the museum also had quite a bit of information about Van Gogh’s personal life as well, during all stages of his career. We spent about 2 hours at the museum, and loved every minute of it. The sunflowers, the self portraits, the almond blossoms… we got to see it all, and they were as magnificent in person as I could’ve ever hoped they’d be.

Visit the Van Gogh Museum website for more information on hours & tickets.

Walk/Bike Around The City: Canals, Shopping, Sightseeing, Markets & Coffee Shops!

If you’ve got limited time, or a limited budget, I can assure you that the best way to see Amsterdam is by foot or bike. Personally, I prefer walking, as it is completely FREE and allows you more freedom for stopping frequently & taking photos, though biking of course is faster for getting around. Bikes can be rented all over the city for around €14 per day on average (from what I saw), but we chose to travel by foot mostly since we had the time.

Regardless of which option you go with, make sure you’ve got a map, or (my favourite) MAPS.ME app on your phone (works offline with no data/wifi), so you can pin all the locations you’re planning on visiting, and easily visit them in whatever order makes sense. This app is also great for dropping a pin on your location so you won’t forget when you’ve found a great little shop, street vendor, or spot you parked your bike, which obviously won’t be on a regular map of the city. Also, please be careful when crossing the street! Look out for bikes, trams & cars, and don’t get caught walking in the bike lane… they’ve got the right of way, and they don’t take too kindly to dummy tourists (I learned this rule very quickly).

Take your time, and explore all around the city, from Vondel Park to Dam Square, and all the way to Central Station (Click here to see those key spots on Google Maps). You will find canals, churches, markets, buildings & shops all along the way that will have you reaching for your camera nonstop (if you’re anything like me).

Around Dam Square, you’ll see the Royal Palace, Madame Tussauds (Wax Museum), and the National Monument all side by side around the central square. Be sure to walk through the Red Light District (or “De Wallen”) of course, and check out the Old Church or “Oude Kerk” oddly situated in the centre as well (of course the church came long before the Red Light District, as it is the oldest building in Amsterdam). You can even take the walking tour to the top of the church tower if you like (more on that farther down). Walk past Westerkerk, the Central Station, and the main shopping areas on Kalverstraat (and be sure to stop at Segev’s favourite ice cream place, Banketbakkerij Van der Linde, for a scoop of vanilla with whipped cream that is TO DIE FOR. Just trust me on this).

 

If you’re interested in Coffee Shops (yes, I’m talking about the ones where you can buy Marijuana which is legal in the Netherlands), take your pick! There are a ton all around the city with crazy menus for whatever may suit your fancy from joints to space cakes to magic truffles. The most popular chain is probably The Bulldog, but you will find you’ve got ample options within the city to choose from, at literally any place that says “Coffee Shop.”

Oude Kerk (The Old Church) Lookout Point

The Old Church, located within the Red Light District, is the oldest building in Amsterdam, founded ca. 1213 (that’s over 800 years ago!). The church itself is quite beautiful to walk around, though the main attraction for me here was the tour to the top of the tower. The walking tour to the top cost €7.50, and took about 30 minutes in total. We climbed the winding staircases to the top of the tower, passing by the bells which are still used today. The largest bell in the building weighed a whopping 3700kg, and because of the strength of the vibrations can only be rung from the lower level (operated by a pulley system), so that the person ringing it won’t go deaf. It was a pretty neat tour, that ended all the way at the top, where one can walk around the outside of the tower for a 360 degree view of the city from above. There really weren’t a ton of spots like this, in the middle of the city, that offered a view from this perspective, so I’d definitely recommend paying a visit to the Oude Kerk during  your stay!

Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) & Albert Cuyp Market

If you’re looking for open market shopping for fresh foods, clothing, jewelry and souvenirs of all sorts, the markets around Amsterdam are great spots to find just about anything and everything you may be looking for. The Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) is perhaps the most famous market in the city, and the world’s only floating flower market. It is sited on Singel, between Muntplein and Koningsplein.

The market of course is most famous for selling flowers, mainly tulip bulbs which are prepared for easy export all over the world. This however is not the only thing you’ll find at the market, which is probably the best (and cheapest) place to find all sorts of souvenirs from keychains to magnets to cheese knives to christmas ornaments to wooden clogs. On the side of the street opposite to the market are a ton of cheese shops (with free samples, yes please!), clothing shops and other souvenir shops (though I wouldn’t recommend trying to bring home any souvenirs from the Magic Mushroom shop or you MAY have problems at customs…).

The Albert Cuyp Market is another market worth visiting in the city, located in De Pijp area, between Ferdinand Bolstraat and Van Woustraat. It is the busiest market in Amsterdam, open Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm. Here you will find a ton of food, clothing and souvenirs, whatever suits your fancy!

Exploring The City At Night

Quite possibly the only thing more beautiful than exploring the city of Amsterdam by day, is wandering the canals at night. The canal bridges (and tunnels underneath) light up the city, and the beautifully lit buildings above each canal are reflected in the water.

If you’ve got a few evenings to spend in the city, I’d suggest walking around Dam Square, the canals, and the museum area if it’s not too far. The Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) is also a nice spot to check out at night, which is a drawbridge over the Amstel river. I’d also recommend heading to De Pijp for some well priced drinks, and the Red Light District, where you’ll find a lot of bars and restaurants, and sex shows if you’re interested! Make sure you try some genever wherever you end up for a drink… but maybe don’t drink quite as much of it as we did…

The Red Light District is definitely a part of the Amsterdam experience if you haven’t been, just remember not to take any photos of the women in their windows or you just might get your phone/camera confiscated (I took one from far away without any women identifiable). In the district, female prostitutes stand behind windows lit up with red lights, usually in lingerie or partially nude, and if you’re interested in purchasing their services, it’s as easy as stepping up and speaking to them. The benefit of the legalization of prostitution here is that each woman is in a protected space, can refuse service to absolutely anyone for any reason, must charge the same amount as any other woman in the district (so nobody can try to underpay them), and has access to health care and regular check-ups for STI’s (condoms also MUST be worn with all of the women, no exceptions). Whether you’re someone who would say they agree with prostitution, or are against it, the fact of the matter is that it’s out there, and in this environment at least it is being done in a way that is safer for all parties involved.

 

While walking around the city at night was beautiful, the best way to see it all is definitely from the water, which brings me to my next point…

Canal Cruise At Night

One of my favourite experiences in Amsterdam, and the best way to view the city at night, is taking a canal cruise!

Cruises are available all around the canals, and you’ve got a ton of options, from the big boats with glass covers (to keep you warm), private boats, boat rentals so you can drive yourself, to guided tour boats. Seg, David and I decided to head over to Oude Kerk (The Old Church), where we had seen a sign for a “Booze Cruise” canal tour that leaves all day every hour or so from the canal behind the church. The tour was only €15, and included blankets and pillows to keep warm (it was an open boat), and an open bar for the hour long tour of the city. There were only about 10 people or so on our boat, and we had a couple of awesome tour guides who made the experience even more enjoyable for us, and pointed out the sights around the city as we made our way through the canals. It was the perfect way to spend our evening, and not even a bad price considering we each got a few beers out of it as well!

The Rembrandt House Museum

For €13, the Rembrandt House Museum entrance fee and audio tour was honestly a bit overpriced in my opinion, but still very much worth seeing if you’re a fan of the artist. Inside you will see his studio space, living space and teaching space, while learning a bit about his life, his art and his pupils. Upstairs in the main studio space you’ll also get to watch a demonstration on how he (well, his students really) made paint using pigments found in stone, crushed and mixed with oil. It was a very well put together demonstration, and the lady who was putting it on spoke English, Dutch and Spanish (after asking around the room what languages we all spoke) which was very impressive. I’d suggest giving yourself about 45 minutes to an hour to walk around, leaving plenty of time for other activities in the same day.

The Heineken Experience!

It should go without saying that you simply cannot call yourself a tourist in Amsterdam unless you’ve done The Heineken Experience.

It can be booked from all over the city, though we found that the online price of €16 (including two drinks) was the best option. David, Segev, myself, and Doc (one of David’s roommates) decided to all go together one afternoon. We spent about 1.5 hours on the tour altogether, and got to learn about the brewing process, the history of the founders, and most importantly, the taste! The tour included 2 drinks, as well as an interactive “Brew You” tour, which uses sound, light and movement to take you through the brewing process (I’d suggest skipping this part if you get motion sick). It was an awesome tour, and the guides along every step of the way were a lot of fun, which always helps to make the experience more enjoyable.

The Amsterdam Tulip Museum

Surprisingly enough, the Amsterdam Tulip Museum was actually a really fun visit for Seg and I. We mostly went for fun and since it was only €3 (for students), we found it well worth the money. Inside the museum you’ll find several displays and videos explaining the whole tulip craze known as Tulip Mania, during which time there were certain types of bulbs selling for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars! The best part about the museum for me was the fact that we were pretty much the only people in the place! We only spent about 20 minutes or so inside, and afterwards I decided to buy a few bulbs from the shop (all bulbs are prepared for export to different countries based on their climate), so we’ll see if they bloom next spring in my mom’s garden back home!

If you’ve got the time, the museum was a fun little stop to add in, costing us very little time and money, and if you’re looking to bring home flowers that you’d like to thrive outdoors, then this is probably the best place to get them!

Other Activity Ideas

Outside of the activities I listed above, are a TON of other things to do in Amsterdam, depending on your interests and how much time you have. Most of the things below are things we didn’t get around to, but worth looking into if you’re in the city:

  • The Holland Casino (right near Vondel Park, and if you’re lucky like I was, you just might come out a few bucks richer!) Entry is €5.
  • Cafe De Klos (Restaurant with the best ribs in the Netherlands, make sure you go early, and prepare to wait in line, or across the street at a bar… well worth the wait though!) €20-€30 per person.
  • Body Worlds Museum (plasticized bodies on display… looks incredibly cool!)
  • Chill Bar (Bar, interior made entirely of ice & snow)
  • Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
  • Sex Museum/Prostitution Museum
  • Sex Shows (if you’re looking for them, you’ll certainly find them!)
  • Anne Frank House (make sure you book months in advance and be prepared to wait in line even then).

Make Friends, and Food!

Okay so maybe I had it easy this time when it came to making friends, since David was letting me stay at his place with Segev, and his roommates were all absolutely amazing to us… but let me assure you that just about everything I did in the city was far more enjoyable because I had the right company for it. Big cities like this aren’t always the easiest places to meet people, but there are a ton of hostels and bars around that I’m sure would be excellent places to start.

Another tip if you’re staying with friends like I was, or at an Airbnb or hostel with a kitchen, is to make food! Groceries here are super affordable (just stop by an Albert Heijn Supermarket), and you will save a ton of money versus going out for every meal. Over our week in the city we made several meals with David and his roommates, from pasta to pancakes, and Segev even made us shakshuka one night, an Israeli dish with a tomato vegetable base, and eggs cooked on top. It was delicious, and gave us all a chance to sit down and get to know each other.

I was so lucky to get to spend so much time with David & Segev and we even met up with Johannes for a night, another friend of ours (from Germany) whom we met when we were all in Thailand! Thank you David for hosting us, and a big thank you to Doc, Koos, and Diederick as well for letting us stay with you… Travelling is the best way to learn about other countries, cultures & people… Sometimes you will find differences, but more often than not you will find that you’ve forgotten you’re in a different place to begin with, because you meet people who make you feel like you’re at home. Thank you guys for hosting Seg & I, and for all of the laughs. You will always have a couch to crash on in Canada.

 

To top off my experience in Amsterdam, my cousin Claus from Germany contacted me and decided that he was going to come to the city and meet up for an afternoon! It was an unexpected meeting, and the last time I met him I was too young to even remember, so it was really nice getting to see him again. We chatted for a few hours and made sure to take a photo together before parting ways, but I promised him that I’d visit the family sometime in Germany, I just had to figure out when (and start practising my German!). Thank you for making the trip, cousin.

Goodbye, Amsterdam!

Well, there you have it! My complete (ish) list of the best things to see/do in Amsterdam! As always, feel free to comment or e-mail me if you have any questions, and be sure to follow me on Facebook or Instagram for updates!

My time in Amsterdam was absolutely amazing, and it was much thanks to David and Segev for making it so much fun. While I could’ve certainly stayed for another week (or two, or three…), I felt like a week was just the right amount of time to see the city, and I got to do just about all of the things on my list. For now, I’ll have to say goodbye, until my next adventure, Cheers!

 

British Columbia, Canada: Coquitlam, Vancouver & Whistler

(Aug 18-29, 2016)

Welcome To Beautiful British Columbia!

For those of you who don’t know this about me, I’ve got an uncle that lives in Coquitlam, B.C. where he works for Westjet as a pilot! Alex and I have been wanting to visit him for a while now (I’ve been twice before with the family, and Alex has never been), but we just didn’t have the budget for it. However, since my uncle hooked us up with some flight deals and offered for for us to stay at his place for the 11 days we planned on being there, we couldn’t say no! Plus, I’ve got two other friends living in Vancouver and Whistler right now, so the timing worked out perfectly for a visit.

We arrived on Thursday, and spent the first night hanging out with Uncle Brian, who we haven’t seen since last Christmas, and Ginger & Snickers (his dog & cat), who I haven’t seen since my last visit.

Brian lives in Coquitlam, which is about an hour East of Vancouver, but has pretty easy and consistent buses & trains to get to Vancouver, which is where we planned on spending a lot of our time, exploring in & around the city! We planned a visit with my friend Brad in Vancouver for the next couple nights, and a visit with Derek & Ashley (living in Whistler) for later in the week.

Here are 15 of the things (in no particular order) that we got up to that I’d highly recommend if you’re in the area. This covers MOST of what we did, though of course there are endless activities in and around Vancouver, and countless hikes throughout Whistler and all over B.C. that we didn’t get to. Here is what WE did in our 11 days:


#1 Take The Sky Train

If you’re staying outside of Vancouver, the Sky Train is basically your best option for getting into the city. Not only that, but it is actually super cool! The first time I went on a sky train was in Bangkok, and I instantly loved the idea. There is nothing worse than being stuck commuting to/from work or school every day when you live outside of a city, and as someone who commuted for an hour by bus & subway in Toronto, I think that the worst part of it was just being stuck inside and underground for the subway ride. It feels dungeon-y, and you can’t look at anything other than your shoes or the people around you, and there’s just no air!

The sky train in Vancouver was the total opposite. We looked out the windows the entire time and felt the warmth of the sun, and fresh air that flooded the train every time the doors opened and closed at each stop. A very different experience from the transit system back home, and a much better one at that! Planning a route is easy once you’ve figured out the website here, but all of the information you need is on the Translink website. I’d suggest looking on a map for the train stop nearest to your destination first, and making sure you know the name of that stop, as well as the name of the stop closest to your starting point. All you do from there is plug in your information, and the time you’re looking to leave/arrive, and it’ll do the rest for you!

It even tells you how much the trip will cost, and if you need to transfer from a bus to get to the train (like we did from Coquitlam). Make sure you bring exact change (no bills) for the bus rides, but if you’re just taking the train you can pay at any station for a compass card (your ticket) by credit card. In total, it cost us about $7 to get to the city, which wasn’t too bad at all. The people working at the stations are also really helpful if you need it, and if all else fails, just ask someone else! Most people don’t bite, and they’re usually more than happy to help us dummy tourists out. Who knows, you may even make friends out of it!


#2 Sunset Beach!

The downtown area of Vancouver is basically a peninsula, with Stanley Park (North) and the surrounding areas all connecting through bridges and small land strips. On the South Western facing shoreline of Vancouver, you will find a rocky beach looking out over the English Bay, called Sunset Beach. (Click here for the location on Google Maps). On our second night in B.C., our friend Brad took us out to the beach with some of his friends in Vancouver. We brought some drinks, and hung out by the water to watch the sunset. A lot of people seem to come to this beach for the sunset, but when the group of us sat out on the rocks by the shore we were far enough away from every other group that it felt pretty secluded actually, and we got to chat for a few hours and enjoy each others company, with the English Bay sunset view as our backdrop. As far as vacations go, you can’t ask for a whole lot more than great sunsets with great people.

Brad was generous enough to let us crash at his place for a couple of nights, so that we could hang out with him and check out some of the city together for the next few days. He lives right downtown, which was ideal for sightseeing around the city… and check out this view!


#3 Granville Island: Brewery, Public Market, Food & Views!

South of downtown Vancouver, just under the bridge, (click for Google Maps) is one of my favourite little areas that I’ve been in B.C. so far. Granville Island is a tiny island that couldn’t take more than 30 minutes or so to walk around entirely, and it is an awesome spot for shopping, art, music and food! The island even has its own brewery, Granville Island Brewing, which distributes all over Canada, so you may have even tried it before. We made an appointment online in the morning for Brad, Vanessa, Alex & Myself to go for a brewery tour there, which only cost about $11 each for an hour-ish long tour, where we got to learn about the brewing process, the company, and of course (most importantly) the taste! We  had an awesome tour guide, and a great group of people with us who made the experience even better. Cheers!

The Granville Island Public Market is just around the corner from the brewery, and a top spot for shopping for basically all things food. Fish, meats, cheese, fresh fruit (even some I haven’t seen since Asia), sweets, snacks, drinks and all sorts of awesome lunch spots in the middle of it all. It’s a busy area, and easy to get lost in the middle of it all, but amazing to see, and a great place for all of your snacking needs.

The 4 of us met up with Brad’s friend Lena (on a working visa from Germany) for lunch after the brewery tour, and spent the rest of the day together sightseeing & exploring the area. For lunch we decided to get some fish on Granville Island. The fish & chips here are an absolute must, but watch out for the seagulls outside! They are relentless, and Alex learned pretty quickly that they’re also not shy. Eat quickly (which won’t be hard, since it’s so delicious) and keep on the lookout.

Make sure you take your time to walk around the outside edge of the island, looking out over False Creek and English Bay, with a view of Vancouver across the water. You will see hundreds of boats all around the island and marina, so sit, eat, watch & enjoy!


#4 Kitsilano Beach!

After lunch we decided to walk around Granville, and make our way West, all the way around to Kitsilano Beach, South of the downtown Vancouver peninsula, also facing the English Bay. This beach is one of the most recommended beaches in the area, and once we arrived we could see why. Everyone was barbecuing, laying in the sun and relaxing by the water with a view of the boats all over English Bay, yet another awesome sunset spot.

The houses nearby are all incredible, and as we walked we admired the view of the Bay to our right, as we passed by the rows of multi-million dollar homes, whose owners get to enjoy this view daily (only a little bit jealous). It’s an easy area to walk to from Granville, but if you’re coming from farther you may want to rent a bike, and if you’re coming from Vancouver I’d say take a taxi or use ride share to get across the main bridge first (the bridge is a massive highway bridge that would be a bit terrifying to bike over unless you’re a pro). There are a ton of bike rental places all around the Vancouver area, and I’d say it is one of the best (and fastest) ways to explore.


#5 Explore Downtown Vancouver!

The downtown area in Vancouver is extremely small, and super easy to walk all the way around and through if you’ve got a free day to explore. Brad took us on the grand tour of the area, and while our feet were sore by the end of the day, I will always stand by my belief that walking around a city by foot is one of the best things to do as a traveller.

We walked all the way around, stopping for photos at the A-maze-ing Laughter bronze sculptures in Morton Park (artist: Yue Minjun) in the West end, where we climbed around for a bit before checking out English Bay beach, which is basically just behind the sculptures. The beach is an awesome spot to hang out and relax, and there are a bunch of big logs all over it if you’re looking for a spot to sit and enjoy the view… and it’s right inside the city! We also checked out the olympic cauldron, and walked along the Vancouver harbour near Canada Place & the Vancouver Convention Centre. This city is absolutely stunning.

Later in the evening, we met up at an Earl’s restaurant right downtown on Robson Street (the main shopping street) for some rooftop Mojitos… The rooftop patio here was perfect, and the mojitos were the best I’ve had. Highly recommend.

Also, if you’re looking to shop during the day or party at night, the Robson Street area is what you’re looking for. Tons of bars, tons of restaurant, and way too many places to shop.


#6 Hike The Coquitlam Crunch!

If you’re like me, and not really feeling like you could handle the Grouse Grind in your current physical state, I’d definitely recommend the Coquitlam Crunch trail. It’s nothing too crazy, and of course the views won’t be anything like those from Whistler or Grouse Mountain, but since we spent a couple of days “taking it easy” in Coquitlam, we figured we’d make the most of them and go for a mini hike.

At the start point of the trail, you will find a small parking lot just past Scott Creek Middle School (on the left), when you’re heading West on Lansdowne Drive, off of Guilford Way. Parking is free, and the trail starts right there, easy peasy!

From the parking lot, you will head North on the trail to the top of the hill where the trail ends, at Eagle Mountain Dr. (about 2.3km from the parking lot, click here for the full route on Google Maps). The trail is only about 5km round trip, though of course the first half is uphill, so it’s a bit of a challenge (but it only took us 1hr 15min total, and we’re no athletes). There are lots of signs along the way marking the trail, and most of the steep spots on the hill have stairs on them, so it’s completely doable for pretty much anyone, and it’s up to you how challenging you want to make it and how fast you’d like to go. (Some of the people we saw were running all the way up and back down again several times in a row for their workout… maybe next time…). The view from the top wasn’t incredibly exciting, but if you’re in Coquitlam and looking for a nice little hike like we were, I’m sure you’ll find this fits your needs.

After our hike, we drove about 25 minutes to the Old Bavaria Haus (in New Westminster) for some schnitzel dinner with Uncle Brian. If you happen to be in the area and you like traditional Bavarian/German style food, I’d definitely recommend this spot. It’s a bit on the fancy side, and a little bit pricey (expect to spend $20-$30 per person at the end), but absolutely worth it. I tried the schnitzel with crab meat and hollandaise sauce on it and it was incredible. Massive portions, delicious food, it will not disappoint… Make sure you’ve worked up an appetite beforehand!


#7 Capilano Suspension Bridge!

The Capilano Suspension Bridge is located just North of Vancouver, and about an hour drive from Coquitlam with traffic (where we were staying), or just a quick 15-20 minutes from downtown Vancouver. Tickets can be purchased in advance online, or at the entrance. If you have a CAA card, make sure you bring it with you for a 10% discount (a nice surprise!), which meant our tickets cost us about $37, compared to the regular price of $40 per adult. It’s a fairly expensive attraction in the Vancouver area, but definitely worth checking out at least once.

The bridge itself is 140m long, and 70m above the river, and the surrounding areas are full of the famously massive trees that grow here in British Columbia. Once you’re in the park, all of the areas are free to explore. The treetop adventure will take you on miniature suspension bridges from tree to tree, and the cliff walk will take you out above the river on a walkway that hangs off of the side of the cliff for a pretty awesome view overlooking the area.

In total, I’d suggest giving yourself an hour and a half to 2 hours to explore the area, but probably no more than that. It’s super touristy and there are usually a lot of people there (try to go earlier rather than later in the day), but like I said it is worth checking out at least once in your life.

Dogs are also allowed in the park, and so we decided to bring Ginger with us! Please note though, if your dog is anything like Ginger, they may not be a huge fan of the bridge idea… be prepared to carry them like Brian did!


#8 Explore Stanley Park, By Foot & By Bike!

Since we had a decent amount of time in the area, Alex and I actually went to Stanley Park twice, once with Uncle Brian for a short walk with Ginger, and once by bike (which we rented just outside of the park).

The park is almost an island, connected to North Vancouver by the Lions Gate Bridge, and Downtown Vancouver from the south (here it is on the map). In total, the distance around Stanley Park is about 9km along the Seawall, which takes about 2-3hrs to walk, or an hour to bike around (depending on your speed or how often you stop for photos of course). The Seawall starts at the Convention Centre in downtown Vancouver, then continues around Stanley Park and the Southern shoreline of downtown all the way to Kits beach (22km in total) if you’re looking for a bigger route. Click here for a little map for reference.

We tried some Japadogs by the park entrance, which are Japanese hot dogs, so basically sushi-type ingredients on hot dogs. They’re interesting, and worth a try if you haven’t had them before, but nothing too exciting. For me they were more of a novelty item than anything.

When we went to the park for the second time by bike, we rented at Spokes, close to the park entrance, for only $20 each (for 2 hours). We biked all the way around the park, but decided not to continue to Kits beach since we had already walked that whole route with Brad earlier in the week. The loop took us a total of about an hour and a half, including our stops along the way for photos. We chose a great day for it in terms of weather, and enjoyed a nice relaxing bike ride around the park seawall, right next to the water the whole time. Awesome way to spend our afternoon.


#9 Check Out Vancouver Art Gallery!

If you’re into art & museums, you definitely cannot miss the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Click here for location and hours on Google Maps). At $24 admission ($18 for students) it’s not incredibly cheap, but generally speaking a lot of large art galleries I’ve been to are similarly priced so it’s what I expected. The layout of the gallery is really nice, 3 floors around an open round centre. When Alex & I went, the show “Picasso and His Muses” was up, which was absolutely amazing, and took a look at the artist in a way that I had not experienced up until then.

Throughout the rest of the gallery, we got to see some beautiful works by Emily Carr & Wolfgang Paalen (on the top floor I believe), among several other exhibits that were extremely well presented in a way that was very digestible and not overwhelming, which is sometimes hard to do in large gallery spaces with multiple exhibitions.

While the exhibitions of course are always changing throughout the year, the gallery space was beautiful, and I’m sure it will leave your art craving satisfied whenever you go.

Outside of the gallery we grabbed a bite at a food truck called “Tacofino,”  where we ate a fish burrito the size of my head that was to die for… There were a ton of food trucks in the area, and of course I have no idea what the others were like, but I’d highly recommend Tacofino. If you see the truck, do yourself a favour and get a fish burrito. You won’t regret it.


#10 Go Whale Watching!

While walking around Granville Island, we stumbled across the Prince of Whales Whale Watching company. We went in out of curiosity, sure that we wouldn’t be able to afford it, but figuring it was worth at least asking what options they had available.

As it turns out, their “Ocean Magic Whale Watching Adventures” tour was only $159, (but we paid $143.85, the student price), which actually isn’t too bad at all. Certainly it’s not a cheap activity, but it’s a pretty good deal considering that the tour was 4-5hrs, and the boat went as far South as Victoria & crossed the border into the waters alongside Washington state. We thought about it for a bit, and decided that since we had free accommodation (with my uncle), and we had been cooking a lot of our own meals, we could actually afford it in our budget, and that we had no real reason not to. We booked the tour for the following morning, where we met at their main office inside the lobby of the Westin Bayshore Hotel, Vancouver. Our tour left at 2:30pm, and we were back around 7pm.

This time of year (August) is great for Orcas, and we were lucky enough to see 4 or 5 different Resident Killer Whales. The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are the smallest of 4 communities within the Northwestern portion of the North America Pacific Ocean. They are sadly now listed as endangered, as there are only about 80 whales that make up the small population. These orcas are known as “fish-eating orcas” as their diet consists of mostly salmon and other fish, but they have been moving farther and father from the coast of British Columbia due to a declining fish population in the area, as well as pollution and contaminants in the water. The boats also disrupt them near the shore, though they are apparently very used to the whale watching boats, especially away from the busy harbour, and are far from shy when it comes to visiting the boats.

The whale population is built upon a matrilineal system (connected by their mothers), and the oldest female within each “pod” of 1-17 individuals, is in charge. We were lucky enough to even catch a peek at Granny, the oldest known killer whale, estimated to have been born around 1911 (about 105 years old), which is pretty spectacular. Apparently they were able to guess the date in part due to a small mark on her dorsal fin, which appears to have been made by a musket, when they (during the time) would use dorsal fins for shot practise.

My photos were taken using the GoPro, which unfortunately is great for just about everything except distance shots, so I grabbed one or two photos but mostly just enjoyed watching the whales (which actually came quite close to the boat). We saw each whale pop out of the water several times, as well as some sea lions, porpoises, and deer (on the land as we passed through a very quiet area) all along the way. It was honestly well worth the money for a half day of sightseeing from the boat, and our guides made the experience even more enjoyable. I’d definitely recommend it for anyone looking to see some whales while in B.C., and I’m pretty sure they have an office in Victoria as well as Vancouver (where we went) for booking. Bring some snacks if you don’t want to spend money on the snacks available on the boat, and make sure you bring a jacket (it gets pretty cold) as well as a good camera for distance shots… and have fun!


#11 Go To Whistler!

So this probably goes without saying, but Whistler is absolutely AMAZING. If you love mountains and hiking around from one spectacular view to another, this is the place for you (and if you don’t love mountains and spectacular views then what is wrong with you? Seriously…)

Getting to Whistler (especially from Coquitlam) is an expense of its own unfortunately, and a lot of the round trip options for trains and buses are very pricey, and not at all what we were hoping for. What we ended up doing to save a bunch of cash was taking the bus & sky train to Vancouver, where we got off at the Main St. Science Centre stop, and walked across the road to the Pacific Central Station, where the Greyhound leaves from. We booked our greyhound tickets in advance online, but remember that for Greyhound they unfortunately insist on a printed copy of your ticket as you board the bus, so take that into account when booking. Our round trip Greyhound tickets cost us each only about $50, which was less than half of what we had seen online with other bus services, so we were happy. From Vancouver, the bus left at 2:30pm, and arrived in Whistler at around 5pm (2.5hrs trip), with one stop in the middle.

There are several hostels, hotels and Airbnb options inside Whistler town or the village area, but they’re definitely not cheap. Lucky for me though, my friend Derek and his girlfriend Ashley actually live in Whistler, and offered Alex & I their couch to crash on for 2 nights, which we will be eternally grateful for. Not only did they offer their couch, but they basically were our own private guides who even cooked for us and took us to their favourite spots while we were there, for which I seriously cannot thank them enough (locals always know best!).

From wherever you’re staying in Whistler, you’ve got a ton of options for hiking and exploring. If you’d like to stick to Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, it’s easy to buy lift tickets to the top from the village, though it ain’t cheap. I’ve been on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola here as well (a few years ago, that links Whistler & Blackcomb mountains from the top), which is a really amazing view, and definitely worth doing. However, since we’re on a tight budget, and since we had Derek & Ashley with us willing to take us to some of their favourite hikes (for free) we decided we were happy to skip the big tourist area at the main mountains this time, and go for some of the hikes that they recommended. The first hike was at Joffre Lake…


#12 Hike To Joffre Lake!

About an hour Northeast of Whistler, you’ll find Mount Currie, and Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. You’ll find a parking lot (free parking, yay!) at the bottom of the hike, just off of Duffey Lake Rd. I’d highly recommend going as early as possible, to avoid the crowds and to give you a chance to take some awesome photos without having to wait in a lineup. We left at about 5:30am after a quick breakfast, and drove for an hour up to the mountain. We saw a nasty car accident along the way, which wasn’t hard to imagine happening on such winding roads, so whatever you do, please drive safely and slowly.

From the parking lot, it’s only about a 2 minute walk down the trail until you’re at the bottom lake, where we put tiny bits of granola bars out on our hands as the Whiskey Jacks (birds) swooped down and landed on our hands. We laughed as we took turns, all of us squealing except for Derek who somehow was unfazed by the birds landing on him.

Within the area are 3 lakes: Upper Joffre Lake (the largest one at the top), a smaller lake in the middle, and Lower Joffre Lake (medium sized, at the beginning of the hike). The trail is extremely straight forward and well travelled, so there’s nothing to worry about in terms of getting lost or confused, and you can click here for a link to the Map of the whole area. It’s about 4km to the top, or 8km round trip, and it took us close to 3hrs, including the time we spent standing around admiring the view and taking photos along the way.

It was fairly challenging, and I definitely had to stop a few times along the way to catch my breath, but it was totally doable for most fitness levels I’d say, and just take your time if you need it. Whatever you do, just remember to GO EARLY. We had each lake entirely to ourselves on our way up, but passed by a TON of people on our way back down. The hike & the views along the way are ten times more enjoyable without a crowd.

The blue water in each lake is absolutely spectacular, but the best view is definitely at the top, where you’ll get an awesome view of the glacier and mountain top. Sit down for a bit, take some photos, and enjoy the view!


#13 Chill Out at Rainbow Park!

On the West side of Alta Lake in Whistler, is a gorgeous grass (and some sand) beach/park by the water called Rainbow Park! After our hike with Derek & Ashley, the 4 of us met up with a few of their other friends in the park for some beach volleyball and relaxation.

The park is an awesome little spot to hang out that seems to be pretty popular around here, but not too crazy busy. If you have the weather for it, bring some drinks, a beach blanket, a volleyball and some equally crappy volleyball players and enjoy!


#14 Check Out Brandywine Falls!

Just a 15 minute drive from Whistler, is Brandywine Falls Provincial Park. Just off of the sea to sky highway, you’ll find parking and a trail that leads you right to the top of the falls at a lookout point.

Apparently, the best view is not from the top, but the bottom, which unfortunately isn’t a part of the trail anymore. The rocky pathway leading down to the bottom of the falls is now marked by a “No Entry, $115 Fine” sign at the top, but it was pretty clear that just about everyone ignores this sign and goes to the bottom as long as there are no park rangers around. Of course, that’s exactly what we did.

The falls are 70m high, and actually one of the nicest waterfalls I’ve seen. It was a bit rainy when we went, but still an absolutely amazing sight from the bottom, and worth the wobbly walk down. It only took us about an hour in total to get down and back up again, including the time we spent taking photos of the crystal clear glacier water running from the top down to the river below.

Whatever you do please be careful! It’s a bit slippery down below, so watch your step when you’re trying to get that perfect photo!


#15 The Train Wreck!

Close to both the falls and Whistler, lies a train wreck that has since become a graffiti zone and bike park here in Whistler! To get there, you’ll want to park somewhere relatively close, and then walk to the site. We parked in a small area of shops (click here for our route), and walked about 1.5km along the train tracks to the site.

The cars from the train are spread out throughout the forested area, covered in different graffiti both inside & out, with ramps that have been built leading up to, or off of each section of the train. Cheakamus River runs through the area as well, making for an awesome little area to walk around. We took a few photos, explored the old cars, and left since it was starting to rain.


Until Next Time…

We left Whistler later that day on our Greyhound bus (7:45-9:45, 2hrs), back to Vancouver, where we caught the sky train and then the bus to take us back to Coquitlam. We met back up with my Uncle Brian back at his place for our final night in B.C.

We are so grateful to my Uncle Brian for helping us out with out flights and for letting us stay with him, as well as to Brad for letting us stay with him in Vancouver, and Derek & Ashley for letting us crash in Whistler. In every place we visited, we had friends showing us around and sharing their home with us, and we could not feel more lucky. Thanks again everyone for making this trip possible for us, and for giving us the best 11 days in B.C. we could have ever hoped for.

This certainly won’t be our last time out West, and we’ve come back home with plenty of ideas for our next visit. Until then, cheers to beautiful British Columbia, Canada! We love you!

 

Ontario Hikes: Dundas Peak, Scarborough Bluffs & ALMOST Elora Gorge

This summer, Alex & I decided to try to be tourists in our own backyard. We looked up a few fun & easy hikes to do in Ontario, and chose some that were close by. Here are 3 that we did that I’d recommend, each less than 2hrs from home (Aurora) and very budget-friendly!

1. Dundas Peak!

(June 28, 2016)

Just outside of Hamilton, Ontario, an amazing little hiking area exists along the Niagara Escarpment that will lead you to Dundas Peak, overlooking Dundas & Hamilton.

The peak overlooks Spencer Gorge, and along the way you will find Webster’s Falls & Tews Falls, both relatively small waterfalls, but equally beautiful & fairly quiet lookout spots and photo opportunities.

If you click here for the Google Maps link, you’ll see the small green area that includes Spencer Gorge (around Spencer Creek), Webster’s Falls (To the left), Tews Falls (a bit North), and Dundas Peak (to the right, East of everything else. There is a parking lot inside the park entrance off of Fallsview Road, right near Webster Falls. Parking here is $10, which is a bit pricey, but as we found out it is even more expensive if you park on the road and get a $60 parking ticket… so I’d recommend just paying for parking. The entrance fee is $5 per person on top of that, and both parking and entrance are cash only.

Once you enter the park, you’ll pass Webster’s Falls right near the beginning, a tiered waterfall surrounded by a lovely park area and bridge. From there, you can continue on the Spencer Adventure Trail (there are maps and signs all along the way) which runs through the park all the way to Dundas Peak. Tews falls is a bit off of the main path, but at 41m tall is actually a really neat lookout spot from the top. You also have the option of walking the Glen Ferguson Side Trail, but all of the trails loop around back to the main ones, so don’t be afraid to wander around, you’d have a tough time actually getting lost on these trails, and there are a ton of little signs and arrows everywhere you go.

Dundas Peak itself is the main attraction for most, and the best lookout point (though there are several others along the way that are pretty awesome too). This spot would be beautiful pretty much any time of year. We went in June and enjoyed a sea of green trees below us, but it’d definitely be a great spot for a fall hike as well, as the leaves begin to change colours.

If you walk along the main trail, it is about 4.5km, but adding in Tews Falls and the Glen Ferguson side trail I believe it’s a total of about 7-8km. We walked at a slow pace, stopped at a few of the lookout points along the way, and took lots of photos from the Peak and hung out for a while. In total, we spent about 3 hours there from the time we left the car, to the time we got back (to our parking ticket), which was more than enough time, and if you only had an hour you’d have no problem just quickly hiking through the main trail and taking a peek from the top.

It was an awesome hike, nothing too challenging, with a few steep stairs along the way but mostly just a slower inclining hill. Great for anyone looking for some outdoor fun and a bit of exercise but not necessarily wanting a crazy cardio mountain hike. Make sure you bring water (and a snack if you like) as there is nowhere to buy it there, and enjoy!

2. Scarborough Bluffs!

(September 11, 2016)

About a half an hour East of Toronto, lies an area that until this summer I had no idea existed, and that I thought looked like something I would’ve seen in Thailand, and barely believed it was so close to home until I went myself. The scarborough bluffs look like jagged rocks jutting out of the ground forming cliffs, but in actuality they are rounded cliffs at the top (bluffs are formed by meandering rivers). They are surrounded by a marina, and a couple of beach areas and parks as well, where you can lay by the bright blue and turquoise water and watch sailboats, and pretend you’re across the globe, because it does not feel like you’re in Ontario.

There are a bunch of hiking trails around the bluffs, and in the forested area above the beaches. We parked (for free) on Chine Drive (click here to see it on Google Maps), a residential street nearby, where we then walked to the end of the street and entered the forest. The trail leads through to the main trail entrance (through Scarborough Bluffs Park, off of Undercliff Drive & Cecil Cres.). The trails through the area & lookout point (East of the actual park) overlook the  main beach area and the marina. The trails are clearly marked, but are set back quite a bit from the cliff edge. They specifically are covered in signs saying not to climb over the fence, but it is pretty clear that climbing over the fence is exactly what everyone does for photos, and to get a better view over the shrubs.

Disclaimer: Several people have died here unfortunately, and it isn’t hard to see why… if you’re not careful, you could easily trip and slide down a cliff edge… If you’re going to climb over the fence, please be careful and make sure you are aware of your footing, and put away the selfie sticks for a minute… also make sure you’re wearing running shoes (please do not try to climb out in flip flops) and I’d say that under no circumstances should you go out if it’s raining or icy, or even really windy. When we went it was a beautiful day, and we were feeling pretty adventurous… so you can see that we clearly were not on the marked trail for some of these photos… Oops! We were, however, VERY careful.

If you continue along the waterfront trail, you will be able to climb down a steep area that comes out onto Brimley Road South, right where the road turns into Bluffers Park. Here, you can follow the road down past the parking lots and marina (and the bathrooms & ice cream truck that looks like it’s usually there), and to the main beach area. The best beach area is definitely the one that is West of the main peninsula (with the 2 loop-ish round land pieces coming out on the water). This beach is right below a huge cliff, with a spectacular view of the water in front of you and the bluffs behind you.

We chose to walk around the beach area and hang out for a bit, walking around the paths below the bluffs first, before heading back up to explore out on the bluffs and get the crazier photos, once we could see from the bottom exactly where they were (it’s hard when you’re on the trails to realize where the bluffs actually come out, because they’re so much farther below & in front of you, blocked by shrubs). The beaches & park areas below are absolutely stunning though, and we passed by a ton of people having picnics & beach days. Who could blame them on a day like this!?

After walking around the bottom, and checking out the water reservoirs by the bluffs, we decided to walk back up the road, up the steep hill trail to the main trail again that leads back to the park. This time, we climbed the fence, and went out towards the edges (carefully) to find the foot trails leading out through the shrubs onto the actual bluffs. If you click here, you’ll see a zoom in of the bluffs  (they are light grey patches) from above, and the trail directly above them, and you can get a bit of an idea as to how they’re set up. It’s pretty obvious though when you’re there, since the foot paths are clearly used frequently, and not hard to follow. We walked out, took some awesome photos of each other, and enjoyed the view. The best part was that we had gone on a quiet day, and other than the main beach area we were virtually alone for most of the walk.

The farther West we walked, the closer we got back to the actual Scarborough Bluffs Park, where we walked along towards the tourist-filled lookout point called Cathedral Bluffs Lookout. This spot was much less hidden, and obviously was open for people to check out and take photos from. It was probably one of the best views, but of course like most things was made a little less fun by the fact that you’re just waiting in a crowd for your turn to take a photo. It wasn’t too busy when we were there, but really anytime you’re waiting in a line to take a photo, you never feel as great about the images you took, and it didn’t feel even the slightest bit as adventurous as us climbing down the other bluffs for photos before. The view of the beach was spectacular though, and the water looked like something out of a travel magazine that couldn’t possibly have been so close to home.

The whole thing took us about 3.5hrs, and we took our sweet time walking around. It wasn’t physically challenging other than the trail going down to the road (which was really steep going back up and a took a bit of muscle), but other than that it was literally just a walk in the park! Definitely a top spot to check out in Ontario, and it’s absolutely free, so no excuses people, get out there!

3. Elora Gorge! (Almost…)

(October 19, 2016)

Incase you haven’t heard of it (like me), Elora is a beautiful and historic little town with a ton of old buildings and amazing scenery. It is relatively close to Waterloo (about a half an hour drive), and only about and hour and a half away from Toronto (or Aurora, where I live). The Elora Gorge brings a ton of visitors to the small town, with trails all around the Elora Quarry, and views overlooking the Grand River. The gorge itself even has tubing in the summer, but we planned on going for a nice fall hike (though the tubing is definitely on our list for next summer!) The drive there was honestly half the fun, and since we decided to go in October, we had a spectacular view the whole drive of the trees changing colour.

The only downside to choosing October, was the fact that we forgot to check that it was actually still OPEN… it wasn’t. The trail areas were all blocked off, and we couldn’t even park in the main parking area. We didn’t have a ton of time, so we drove down the road, parked in a free lot (most parking here is free) and then walked around a bit. We got a view of the river and walked along it for a bit, but couldn’t figure out how to get to the main trail, and the part of the path we were on was absolutely soaking wet and muddy. We decided that if the main hiking trails were closed, we’d just go for a walk through the town and across the bridge.

The View from the bridge actually was beautiful, looking out over the gorge. The surrounding area had several old buildings that were abandoned and half destroyed, but there was also a lot of construction. When we walked to try to find the other trail entrance we saw on our map, we realized it was also completely closed due to construction… oops.

We decided to go for a walk through the town instead, and we stopped at a sweets shop (Sweet Distractions) for some salt water taffy (amazing), and once we started walking down the main street we saw the sign for the Elora Brewing Company… Why not?! We sat and had a couple of beer samples and chatted with the server there. We told her about our failed hike plan, and she told us that we probably could’ve still gone in to the trail entrance… but at this point we didn’t have a ton of time left. She told us instead to check out Victoria Park, right around the corner, where there’s a great lookout point over the river, and is otherwise just a really nice spot to walk around.

By her recommendation, that was what we did. The view was pretty awesome actually, and we walked around the park for a bit, enjoying the fall colours before heading back to the car.

We were a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to go on our actual HIKE here, but we still got to explore a new place, and we had the perfect weather for it. Can’t complain too much about that! Next time we plan on going in the summer, for a real hike and some tubing! Until then, this trip of walking through the town and sampling beer will just have to do!

Algonquin Park: Canoe Trip On Little Joe Lake

June 13-15, 2016

Camp-iversarry Time!

Alex & I decided to do something fun together instead of exchanging gifts for our one year anniversary, here’s some info & pics of our 3 days (2 nights) on Little Joe Lake. Happy Camp-iversarry!

What To Pack

Okay, first things first, you’re going camping for 3 days in an area with no electricity/gas/cell phone signal… how do you pack? Well, for starters, you’ve got to make sure that whatever you bring can fit inside a canoe (if you’re portaging to your site), and that most/all of it is in waterproof bags/containers, just incase of capsize. If you’re lucky like us, you’ll have friends & family who have gone camping loads of times before and can lend you their equipment, but if not, be prepared to spend a bit of money on some of the must-have items on our list (Canadian Tire, Mountain Equipment Co-op & Walmart should all have a lot of these things).

Here’s our full list of everything we packed for 3 days & 2 nights of camping:

  • Tent: We brought a 4 person tent, very big, because we were worried it was going to rain, and decided we’d stay and play games inside if it happened, rather than go home… If you’re tight for space, just pack a tiny 1 or 2 person tent for sleeping.
  • Map: No matter what you do, make sure you bring an actual paper map, with your route drawn out. Your phone signal will likely be lost in Algonquin Park, and even the offline GPS might not work. If you’re going for a long time, you may want to invest in a professional satellite GPS, but if it’s only for a few days like us, just be careful with your directions and use a paper map (and make sure it’s in a Ziploc bag!)
  • Bear Spray & Whistle: Make sure that you have a whistle handy at all times on the lake. It is good in case you get lost, injured, and also for scaring away animals. It is also a good idea to bring a can of bear spray. We purchased one at Canadian Tire for $50, which is a bit pricey, but worth it in case of emergency.
  • Air Mattress: Depending on where you’re camping, it can save you the back breaking pain of sleeping on a rock or tree roots with nothing but a sleeping bag under you.
  • Bear Barrel: These barrels are great for storing all food/toiletries/scented items. To keep bears away from your site, hoist the barrel so that it is hanging at least 10 feet in the air from a tree, away from your site (not super far, but maybe 50-100m). They trap all scents inside, and are very difficult to open for bears & raccoons.
  • Hammock: If you have a small one, bring it! We didn’t use ours but they’re great for a lie down & to hang out with a book by the water.
  • Stove & Fuel: If you’re willing to only eat foods that can be cooked over a fire, or foods that don’t require cooking, no need for a stove, but if you’re like us, you may want a stove to give you more options for meals. It’s also a good back up plan incase it is too rainy to get a fire going with wet wood. (Don’t forget a couple containers of fuel!)
  • Hatchet: I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: BRING A HATCHET/AXE. You will not be allowed to bring wood from outside the park, and purchasing wood is expensive. Also, you might do something dumb like us and purchase a pack of wood since you’re only gone for a couple nights, but forget the wood at the store before you leave… a hatchet will be essential if you need to go out looking for firewood like we did!
  • Tarp: For under/over your stuff if it’s wet.
  • Rope: To tie up the bear barrel.
  • Headlamps/Flashlights: Headlamps are best because they allow you freedom with your hands to look for stuff in your bag, make meals, set up camp, or anything else in the dark. Make sure they’re fully charged & bring batteries!
  • Bug Jackets: Depending on when you go, you may want a bug jacket, or at least bring lots of bug spray & tiger balm!
  • Dry Bags: We brought 2 large, and 2 small dry bags, that are completely waterproof. They’re ideal for packing all of your clothes & sleeping gear, just incase your canoe tips or you get caught in the rain.
  • Dishes/Tools: We brought scissors, cutlery, plates, bowls, mugs, skewers, a pan, a pot, a spatula, a can opener, a sharp knife, and an oven glove for cooking with. We also brought water tablets and a pump incase we ran out of water. Make sure you bring a bucket to wash your dishes in, cloths, towels & biodegradable soap (and always dump it far from the site so you don’t attract critters!)
  • Matches: Bring a ton of matches (waterproof if you can), lighters, and newspaper/cardboard for starting fires.
  • Water Bottles: We packed our own water for the few days, and made sure to pack extra for cooking, but if you’re going for longer you may want to invest in a good water filtration pump or tablets.
  • First Aid Kit: Always have some of the essentials! Superglue, duct tape, bandages, polysporin, pepto (incase you get real sick) & advil (for fevers).
  • Toilet Paper: Unless you’re comfortable using leaves…
  • Purell: Better than soap for camping since you don’t have to rinse it off.
  • Sunscreen: I’ve had 2nd degree burn on my chest… please trust me when I say it can happen to anyone & it’s not fun.
  • Lawn Chairs: Only if you want them. There will be rocks near the fire to sit on, but they’re really not comfortable when you just want to relax, so if you have room, bring some folding chairs.
  • Towels: Pack small, quick drying travel towels for swimming.
  • Sleeping Bags: It gets a lot colder than you’d think at night, always bring a warm sleeping bag. It is better to bring too much than too little!
  • Pillows: Try to bring smaller ones, but make sure you’ll be comfortable.
  • Books & Cards/Games: Always bring a deck of cards or cribbage/board games that are small and easy to pull out on a rainy day or lazy afternoon!
  • Camera: I rarely leave on any adventure without my GoPro, ideal for travel and with a waterproof house, it’s perfect in every situation. If you’re not portaging though, bring a DSLR or other camera if you like!
  • Phone Chargers: Invest in a portable charger. I got one on amazon that was under $50 and has solar panels to recharge (charges 2-3 times when full). great for anything that plugs in with USB cables (phone/camera etc.)
  • Medical Supplies: If you’re a problem child like me, always remember to prepare for the worst case scenario! Keep medical essentials close at all times, in ziploc waterproof bags, and always pack extras of whatever you can!
  • Clothes/Shoes: Whatever you like, but make sure to bring some warm clothes & hats for at night, it really does get cold depending on what time of year you go. For shoes, runners & flip flops should have you covered, but bring hiking boots if you’re looking to go on a serious mission through the woods or up hills.
  • Cooler & Ice Pack: Pack as little food as possible that will go bad, and plan on eating it in the first day or so. Bring a small cooler with ice packs for the stuff you need to keep the coldest, but if you pull out chicken that feels warm by the time you get to it, don’t eat it. It’s better to have some back-up bread & peanut butter, or soup, rather than risk getting food poisoning while camping.

What To Eat

Plan each meal to the wire, and don’t forget condiments or cooking oils! Here’s how we planned our meals:

  • Day 1:
    • Lunch: Grilled cheese (4 slices bread, 2 cheese, ketchup), + 1 can soup to share.
    • Dinner: Stir fry (pre-made: mixed chopped beans, peppers, onion, garlic. Separate container with frozen sliced chicken.) + oil + teriyaki sauce + rice (1 cup to share)
  • Day 2:
    • Breakfast: 2 pieces toast each + 2 eggs each + 1 mango
    • Lunch: Mac & cheese (home-made ahead) + ketchup
    • Dinner: Hot dogs  (5x dogs + 5x buns) + mustard/condiments
  • Day 3:
    • Breakfast: 2 pieces toast each + 2 apples + peanut butter
    • Lunch: Tuna sandwiches, 2 pieces bread each + 1 can tuna + mayo, cut carrots on the side.
    • Dinner: On the way home at rest stop.
  • Snacks & Water:
    • 2L/person/day = 12L (1 case of 500ml water bottles), more than enough for drinking & cooking.
    • Liquor/Beer: If you want. We didn’t want to carry beer/glass so we brought a bottle of hard liquor to share & a mini baileys for hot chocolate!
    • Granola Bars: always a good idea. We brought 8.
    • Apples: easy snack. We brought 4.
    • Trail mix: grab something yummy to snack from the Bulk Barn!
    • S’mores Stuff: 1 chocolate bar + 1 sleeve graham crackers + marshmallows

How Much Is This Gonna Cost Me?

Not much, if you’re smart about it!

If you can, borrow as much equipment from friends & family as possible. You can even rent equipment from certain stores, or buy it used from Kijiji! Camping equipment itself is much more expensive than the sites and canoe rental, and unless you’re planning on doing this multiple times a year, it’s not worth investing hundreds (easily thousands) of dollars in top of the line supplies. Whatever you DO need, check to see if Walmart has it, or look on Amazon. They usually have the best deals.

Here’s a breakdown of what our costs were for our 3 days (2 nights) at Algonquin:

  • $61.00 Campsite (for 2 people, 2 nights)
  • $157.47 For 3 Days Kevlar Canoe & 2x Lifejacket rental ($40/day+tax for Canoe, $3.25/day +tax per Lifejacket)
  • $6.22 For 1 medium sized bundle of wood at the park entrance. Make sure you actually GET the wood before you leave, so you don’t end up on a canoe mission to chop down trees with a hatchet like we did.

In Total, that’s $224.69 for 3 days, 2 nights, 2 people, for a total of $112.35 each… not too shabby for a weekend away and anniversary gift! More nights & more people of course cost more, and some sites and different times of year can be more expensive too.

Booking: When & How

Make sure you call in advance and book a site (and pay a deposit) so that you know you’ll for sure be able to find a place once you get there.

Click HERE for more info & booking information for backcountry campsites at Algonquin.

We went in June, so it was pretty chilly still and still black fly & mosquito season (we were actually fine, loaded up on deet), so it was no problem to book, but at certain times of year, the sites book up pretty quickly so you’ll want to plan ahead if possible. Once you book & pay, you will have a guaranteed spot in that area (each lake usually), so once you arrive at the lake you just paddle around until you find a place without any other campers or that you like.

*TIP* If you’re like us and don’t mind a bit chillier weather and wearing lots of bug spray, go early in the season, or a bit later. We also chose to go Monday-Wednesday rather than on the weekend so it’d be less busy. We only saw about 4 or 5 other groups in the whole time, and most of them were at the entry point where you pick up your canoe, we had out lake pretty much to ourselves the whole time. Bonus, it makes it even more likely you’ll see some wild life!

Our Route: Canoe Lake to Little Joe Lake

For our first canoe trip EVER (I’ve been before, but I was much younger and had friends’ parents who were professionals) we decided not to bite off more than we could chew, so we went with a fairly easy route as far as canoe trips go. If you’re not into canoeing, or portaging, there are also plenty of drive-up locations for camping as well, but if you really want to be OUT there and “get away from it all” I’d highly recommend canoeing.

We started at Canoe Lake (Access Point 5 from the highway, click for a peek on Google Maps) where we parked our car (parking price & sticker included in the campsite rental) and unloaded our stuff onto the docks down the road by the water. This is where we also purchased the wood (which we forgot to pick up), and picked up & paid for our lifejackets and canoe. We went with the Kevlar canoe, which is a bit more expensive, but far lighter than the metal ones, so easier for portaging.

We packed up our stuff, got our map ready & lifejackets on, and started paddling North up Canoe Lake. Our route had one portage that was 295m (portage is when you have to cross an area of land, with your canoe & belongings, to reach the next lake/river). 295m was not too far, but believe me when I say it feels much farther when you’re carrying as much of your stuff in one trip as humanly possible. We made 3 round trips total on the way there (about 1.5km, carrying a heavy load) in order to get our stuff, and our canoe, to the other side, and we were VERY sweaty by the end.

The portage trail lead us to Joe Lake, where we paddled up to East Arm, and then to Little Joe Lake. The total canoe trip was somewhere close to 7km by water, but here’s the route on Google Maps, where you can see the route on the road to the right of the lakes.

Don’t forget: when you zoom out on the map link above, you’ll see the HUGE green area, filled with lakes. It is ALL Algonquin Provincial Park. We chose a route that was highly recommended, and not too far of a drive away, or too challenging. If you’re looking for something more or less challenging than what we did, there are a ton of options, just look them up on Algonquin’s website or online.

Once we arrived at Little Joe Lake, we paddled around and chose a campsite, set up our tent and our bed, and got back in the canoe to explore the area, and find firewood, since we forgot to pick ours up… Alex did an amazing job of chopping up fallen trees nearby, and I did an even better job of not killing him when he passed me 6 foot long “logs” to put into the canoe and climb over to get to my seat. In the end, it wasn’t too bad and just made us feel like we were being badass survivors, which clearly, we are now…

The Site & The Wildlife

Our site was absolutely beautiful, and a perfect spot to watch the sunset over the lake. While we sat and watched, we even saw an otter swim right up beside us, not even 10 feet away. We also saw a weasel-type animal crawling around behind us at our site, and a bunch of loons diving down into the water and coming back up again. On our way to the site we saw a great blue heron flying overhead.

Aside from that, we were surrounded by nothing but the sound of the birds and the wind in the trees. We didn’t have any bear encounters luckily, or even raccoons. We had hoped to see a moose, but unfortunately it didn’t happen this time for us. The best part was that we only saw two, maybe three other canoes go by between the first and second days, and the people inside were headed to campsites so far from us that we couldn’t even hear them in the evening. We were completely alone, and it was beautiful.

Since we chose to go in June, the first night actually got very cold. It dropped down to 3 degrees Celsius, and we went to the tent pretty early where we bundled up in our hats, mittens and sweaters, and drank our hot chocolate & baileys while we played a few games of cribbage. We also brought a reusable water bottle full of a pre-mixed gin & Fresca, which when opened, exploded all over my face… We had a fun night playing cards & drinking, and eventually went to sleep, cuddled up closer than ever to keep warm.

*Make note, though; we definitely wished we brought warmer sleeping gear, and the cuddling was less romantic, and much more “omg please hug me I’m actually so cold I can’t feel my hands”… luckily we were both good sports about it and laughed as we desperately clung to each other, putting our frozen hands on each other’s backs to warm up and making each other scream. Please learn from our mistakes: if you’re camping early/late in the season, pack extra blankets. It is better to bring too much than too little.

On our second day we went for a paddle around the lake, chopped up more firewood, hung out in the sun reading our books, and enjoyed the peace & quiet. We left just after noon on our final day and headed back to the Portage Store on Canoe Lake. We picked up our firewood and headed home. It was definitely a fun, cheap, and relaxing way to celebrate our one year anniversary, and I hope that we can do something similar next year, and maybe even make it a tradition!

Happy 1 year anniversary my Alex, cheers to being adventurous together and always making the best of things. You always know how to make me laugh and I don’t know what I’d do without you. You make my world a sun-shinier place. xo

The End (For Now): Bali Beaches & My 3 Day Journey Home…

THE END! Days 97-102 in Southeast Asia (May 1-6, 2016)

Motorbiking Seminyak & Beach Day

Sunday morning, Maddie, Michelle and myself decided to rent a couple of motorbikes for the day. We rented each for 50,000IDR from a place down the road, and filled up on gas for around 20,000IDR. We rode the bikes towards the beach area in Seminyak for a quick breakfast before heading to the beach. The beach was a bit hard to get to from where we were though, and once we got there it was really crowded and not particularly amazing.

We ended up farther down the beach towards Kuta, quite far from our hostel in the end, but lay in the sand and enjoyed the water nonetheless. The waves here are MASSIVE, and it’s not hard to see why people come to Bali to surf. The water is beautiful and the waves are perfect… and it’s cheap for both rentals and lessons. We swam a bit and laid in the sun reading and relaxing, but the wind started to pick up after not too long, and we were getting so much sand all over ourselves that it became more uncomfortable than anything, so we rinsed off in the water and went over to one of the beach restaurants for some lunch and shade.

Motorbiking South to Uluwatu Temple

After lunch, Maddie’s friend Lovi met up with us, an Indonesian girl from Jakarta who had moved to Bali a few months ago for work, and who Maddie met on a backpacker website a little while ago. She offered to guide us to Uluwatu temple in the South of Bali for the sunset, and to take us out for dinner after. After our introductions we hopped on our bikes and hit the road.

The drive took us close to an hour and a half, but there was only really traffic in a few spots, and we got to go on the highway which was pretty awesome…and fast. When we arrived at Pura Luhur Uluwatu, we paid the 30,000IDR entrance fee, and walked through swarms of monkeys (the temple is infamous for them), and down towards the walkway along the edge of the cliff. The entire cliffside is bordered by a retaining wall just low enough to peek over and see the crashing waves far below.

In one direction was the viewpoint overlooking the small temple on the farthest peak, and in the other direction was the temple (which you can’t really enter or get a good look at other things from across the cliff) and the performance area for the dance that takes place each night (if you pay). Every few feet in between the two ends are tons of monkeys ready to pick your pockets or snag your phone or water bottle if you’re not careful… In my experience though, as long as you keep your distance a bit and respect their space (and don’t have food or drinks with you) they’re pretty good and will leave you alone.

Eating Local With Lovi!

After the sunset (which unfortunately wasn’t much to see since it was cloudy all evening) the four of us returned to our motorbikes absolutely famished. Lovi said she’d be happy to take us somewhere cheap, delicious and local for dinner, so we followed her on our bikes and arrived at a little restaurant about 20 minutes or so later. It was somewhere that I probably wouldn’t have picked out on my own, and looked like every other small restaurant in Asia, nothing special. That’s the thing around here though, two restaurants side by side may look exactly the same to any tourist, though one might be the best spot in town and the other might be infamous for getting people sick.

Only the locals really know the difference, and without Lovi it surely would’ve felt like a gamble. The place was busy though, which is always a good sign, and we had faith that Lovi wouldn’t take us somewhere she wasn’t proud of. Once we opened the menu, it all made sense. Everything looked amazing and it was SO CHEAP. There wasn’t a single item over 30,000IDR ($3.00CAD), and most were closer to 10,000IDR ($1.00CAD). I ordered a soup with beef balls and noodles recommended by Lovi, while Maddie got the spicy tempe and tofu cakes with rice, and Michelle a fried rice dish with seafood.

Everything was delicious, so much in fact that we each ordered a second dinner, along with a homemade iced tea and a dessert, which was a fruit bowl sweetened with milk and sugar, and a frozen scoop of ice and frozen milk in the centre slowly melting, creating a sweet cold soup that I would never have tried or thought I’d enjoy had Lovi not been so insistent. She also insisted on helping us book a place in Kuta for the following two nights since she works for a booking agency, and got us a great deal on a hotel room right by the beach.

By the end of the meal I was stuffed, satisfied, and thrilled having spent a grand total of 37,000IDR ($3.70CAD) on the entire meal and drinks. We thanked Lovi for the amazing food experience and help finding us a hotel in Kuta, and got back on our bikes to head to our hostel, which was still about an hour away. When we arrived at our hostel, bellies full and hair a mess from our long day of beaching, temple-ing and motorbiking, we showered and went to bed, exhausted and ready to check out the famous Kuta beach the following day.

A Bitter Taste Leaving Seminyak

In the morning, we returned our motorbikes, grabbed breakfast, and checked out. Unfortunately I’ll have to say that I was not impressed with the customer service at the hostel (Capsule, New Seminyak). The day before I had woken up to find that my rental towel (which are 10,000IDR plus a 50,000IDR deposit) was not on the hook by my bed where I had left it… And after remembering that a really obnoxious girl had checked into the bed above mine the evening before (she left “personal” garbage everywhere and was so incredibly loud nobody could sleep), I noticed the corner of a towel hanging from her bunk and got curious… Sure enough, it was mine (they pin small tags on the towels with names on them so you know which is yours).

That day I went straight to the reception and explained what happened. They told me I had to pay another 10,000IDR for a fresh towel but after explaining again that I wouldn’t need a fresh towel had she not used mine, they said they’d charge the fee to her room key, and gave me a new towel. Now however, at check out, they were asking for the money saying that the girl checked out just before me and denied stealing my towel, so they did not charge her for my replacement. I told them that of course she would deny stealing it, but that I had no reason to lie and they already agreed to not charge me when I spoke with them the day before.

I asked if they really wanted to make a customer unhappy over the equivalent of one dollar, and the man at the desk was incredibly rude and told me either I paid or it would be deducted from his salary… so of course I paid, and got out of there as fast as possible. I also should mention that the girl had left her key card on my bed and I returned it to the front before all of this, which saved her from paying a 50,000IDR lost key fee… Karma messed this one up.

Kuta Beach, Please!

Anyways, I was annoyed but decided not to let it ruin my day, and we hopped in a taxi for about 30,000IDR to take us to Pop! Hotel on Kuta beach, the place Lovi had booked for us at dinner the night before, which was really nice and clean with aircon for only 9300IDR each per night ($9CAD),and we all would be sharing one big bed, but since we had good aircon we really didn’t mind. At 2pm, Maddie and Michelle’s friend Kara from Australia met up with us at the hotel and the 4 of us went to the beach for some relaxing time in the sun.

This time I opted for a chair, which kept me from being plastered in sand and made the perfect spot for an afternoon snooze.

Afterwards we went for dinner with Kara, and grabbed a few beers before heading back to our room to clean up and get ready to meet Lovi for drinks. The 5 of us went to Alleycat, a famous backpacker bar for a few cheap drinks before heading to another club in Kuta. It was fun, but a fairly quiet night in Kuta from what we had been told to expect.

On our way back towards the hotel at nearly 2am, we passed Sky Garden, one of the biggest and best clubs in Bali, but we knew it was expensive so hadn’t gone in earlier. When we went up now to see just how expensive, we were given free entry by a guy in front of us… I’m still not sure but I’m pretty confident that he worked there and heard us say that we weren’t going in when we found out it was 150,000IDR, ($15CAD). We went into the labyrinth of a club through several areas with different music and DJs before deciding that the rooftop seemed like the most fun. We danced and sang til 4am when the place started dying down, and eventually found our way back to the hotel.

My Final Beach Day & Surf Lessons!

The following morning I peeled myself out of bed early enough to get to the beach for a full day in the sun… Today would be my final day, not only in Bali, but of my entire trip before starting the journey home the next morning. Michelle joined me on the beach and we grabbed a couple of chairs and a couple of coconuts as we chatted with some local kids who were assigned to practice their English with tourists on the beach. They were so shy and far too sweet, we couldn’t say no. We talked, took photos with them and they thanked us for our time.

We also chatted for quite a bit with Jaya, or J as he prefers to be called, one of the young Balinese men running the surf lessons nearby. He made us promise to take lessons from him later on and we agreed since it was something we had planned on doing anyways. We also taught him how to speak Canadian… So now he knows the proper use of “eh?” in a sentence, as in “know what I mean?” or “right?” and we made him promise that the next time he met a Canadian in Bali he’d say, “It’s really hot today, eh?” We all laughed as he practised it with us.

After relaxing for most of the day in the sun, we met up with Maddie and grabbed lunch at the restaurant across from the beach before heading back to test the waves. The 3 of us agreed to pay 130,000IDR each ($13CAD) for an hour lesson, each with our own instructor and including rentals. J let me wear his shirt that said Let’s Go, and Maddie and Michelle suited up in bright yellow tops. We looked like superheroes… though we were all fairly confident we were about to make asses of ourselves.

We practised first on land getting up on the board and Mo, Amed and J laughed as they ordered us to do pushups on the boards until we got it right. Finally, we went out in the water. It was already around 4:30pm, and the waves were getting decently big for someone who has never surfed before. Maddie and Michelle had tried once before in Europe but claimed that they barely got up at all, and suspected that today would be no different. J reminded me of the steps as he helped push me out into the water, far more confident than I was in my abilities, but I figured I’d give it my best shot so at least I could say I tried…

I KILLED IT! J let go and said “UP!” and I stepped up on the board from my stomach into a low squat as the wave pushed me along. Maddie and Michelle cheered me on all the way to the beach until I stepped off of the board onto the sand, barely able to comprehend that I had ACTUALLY just surfed without injury. Not only that though, I was actually pretty good! It felt natural, and I swam back out on my board to J who told me how great I did… I told him it was only because I had such a good teacher.

I climbed back on and tried again, I stood up and made it once again the full way to the beach. Michelle and Maddie yelled a lot of “What the hell!?”s as I laughed, hardly believing it myself. Soon though, Maddie got up as well and by the end of our lesson Michelle was right there with us. I had only fallen 3 or 4 times (and taken one hard hit upside my chin after turning the board sideways in front of me accidentally) by the end of the lesson.

It actually lasted over an hour and a half even though we only paid for an hour, but the guys kept telling us “one more!” every time we fell, and as the sun began to set we made one last go, and called it quits, entirely exhausted. We thanked the guys, who invited us to come back to the beach for guitar, music and drinks later, but it was already getting late and I knew that I still had to pack for my flight and get some rest once we showered and had dinner.

We grabbed a bite nearby, shopped a bit, got some dessert to celebrate my last night in Bali and went back to the room. I packed, prepared and got some rest, knowing I had a long trip ahead of me.

Goodbye, (For Now)

In the morning I said my goodbyes to Michelle, who would be staying another 10 days or so in Bali before heading home, and Maddie, who I had spent the last 102 days with since Jan 23 when we left Toronto together. She would now be continuing her travels without me through some more of Asia and likely Australia, with an unknown return date as of yet.

It was a bittersweet goodbye as I tossed my luggage into the back of the taxi, though as sad as I was that my trip was over, I knew what I had waiting for me back home, and it was hard to feel anything but excitement for it. Besides, if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that this won’t be my last trip, and that going home was more of a refuelling period than an “end” to my travels. I think the goodbye might actually have been harder on Maddie than myself, only because she knew that once Michelle left, she’d be alone for real, but I told her she’d be okay, and to try not to lose or break anything without me around to look out for her. If there’s one thing she’s proven to me over our time together though, it is her independence, and I have the utmost confidence in her ability to survive, flourish even, as she continues on after we’re gone.

The taxi dropped me off at the airport some 30 minutes later (on the meter for only 30,000IDR) and I took a deep breath as I walked into the terminal, excited and terrified for the journey ahead of me. If you’re wondering what the terrified part is about, I can assure you I have no fear of flying, nor of being patted down at security (which is always very thorough after my insulin pump is brought into the mix).

My 63hr 55min Journey Home

I was terrified because once my flight left at 12pm, I would be beginning the 63 hour 55 minute journey to Toronto… Yes, that’s right. I would spend the next 3 full days almost between flights and airports… and no this has nothing to do with time changes, this is based on actual hours counted. Trust me, I checked three times. Of course I have no one to blame but myself for the madness ahead of me, since I alone made the decision to book a round trip ticket to Bangkok initially, and fly now from Bali to Bangkok the day before so that I’d make my flight with plenty of time to spare.

The strategy was purely because of money of course, and I would plan it the same way again in a heartbeat knowing that I saved nearly a thousand dollars by doing so. Still, 64 hours to Toronto is a damn long time for someone who has self diagnosed mild A.D.D. (I actually have been told by my mother that several teachers throughout my youth had mentioned that I seemed to have trouble paying attention, keeping focus and sitting still, but that there was no reason to seek help or medication since my grades never suffered… Which seemed to require hours and hours more than other students to complete the same tasks, possibly making me the hard worker I am today, and resulting in my task-oriented nature in art, photography and writing… You’ll never find me bored or truly relaxing. If i am, I’ll find a book.)

Anyways… Like I was saying, 64 hours.

First was my flight from Bali to Bangkok (DMK, the smaller airport in Bangkok, not the one I’d be leaving from the next day). The flight was only about 3 hours 15 minutes and I arrived at DMK at 2:15pm, Bangkok time (an hour behind Bali time). My next flight would leave the following morning at 8:55am, giving me  18hrs and 40mins to get to BKK airport and sleep. I ended up stuck in line at arrivals at DMK until nearly 5pm, and luckily had the company of Isabel, a girl around my age from Amsterdam who was heading home after 10 months of travel. Her company was the only thing stopping me from ripping my hair out in the time we spent in line.

Afterwards, we grabbed our bags and went to the shuttle bus, which leaves every 30 minutes-1 hour from DMK to BKK and is completely free with proof of another flight. The shuttle took almost 2 hours in traffic, and finally at nearly 8pm we found ourselves sitting in BKK eating some overpriced and much needed dinner. Afterwards, we slept in a quieter area of the first floor across some benches until Isabel left to check in for her flight at 11pm.

I said goodbye, thanked her for her company, and went back to sleep under my sarong until around 5:30am. When I got up, I waited in line for 2 hours, checked in,  went through security and border control and finally got into my gate, just in time for the first leg of my flight to Helsinki, Finland. The flight would be 10h 10min, followed by a 16h 55min layover overnight. Next would be my flight to London Heathrow Airport which would take only 3h 10mins, followed by a 4h 5min layover and a final flight to Toronto for 7h 40min… for a grand total of 63h 55min. I would then arrive at the airport in Toronto at 3:55pm, May 6 (I will have slept 3 nights basically but gained a day because of the 12hr difference from Bali).

Realistically, the flights were all nice and I don’t have much to complain about. I spent most of the time sleeping, reading, writing or watching movies, and a small portion getting excited to arrive in Toronto, but I tried to cut that off quickly so I didn’t make the flights feel even longer for myself. Call me Viktor Novorski, because I feel like my home is now between airports (that’s a reference to Tom Hanks’ role in The Terminal, one of my favourite movies, where a guy is stuck living in an airport for months… Watch it if you haven’t).

Home Sweet Home

Getting home was bittersweet. I have missed my family, my friends, my Alex and my dog Marley more than I can put into words, and I have even missed my Jobs, both as an artist as well as my part time gig at The Beer Store, where I have a boss whom I love like a big brother and awesome people I have the pleasure of calling both my coworkers and my friends. I’m sad to leave Asia, but I’ve definitely got unfinished business here and I know I’ll be back in no time. For now it’s time to recharge (mentally, physically and financially) before I hit the road on my next adventure.

Never Have I Ever…

So here I am, 104 days later after spending 101 days backpacking my way through Southeast Asia, looking back at how much I’ve seen, done and felt, so much of which I had never experienced before… Have you ever played the drinking game “Never Have I Ever”?… Here’s how it works: The verbal game is started with players getting into a circle. The first player says a simple statement starting with “Never have I ever”… anyone who HAS done what the first player stated they have not done, has a drink… My mission if you will, is to have to drink for just about everything… I want to have done it all! I used to live in a very small world, as most kids do, unaware of how much more there is to life than what we see on a day to day basis, and there were a lot of things I could say “never have I ever” about. Today, that list is shorter than ever, and still shrinking. Here it is, the good the bad and the ugly, every major new experience of my trip through Southeast Asia.

Today I can no longer say, “Never have I ever…”

Partied on the famous Khao San Road in Bangkok drinking booze from a bucket.
Eaten scorpions, crickets, entire fried fish (including the head and skeleton) and larvae.
Gotten a massage for $6.
Taken the sky train in Bangkok.
Seen the city of Bangkok from one of the highest points at a skybar.
Cliff jumped at the Grand Canyon in Chiang Mai.
Watched a Thai boxing match.
Played with elephants in a rescue centre.
Climbed a “Sticky Waterfall” with my bare hands.
Taken a Thai cooking class.
Swam in natural hot springs and played in the mud.
Watched the sunset from the Grand Canyon in Pai.
Had a friend smoke a cigarette out of my spacer (earring) hole on a bet.
Survived a two hour freezing cold bike ride in the mountains of Northern Thailand after dark.
Learned to ride a motorbike and driven hundreds upon hundreds of km by the end in almost every country we visited.
Spent the night in a Laos hospital after a nearly lethal food poisoning & low blood sugar combo.
Seen countless caves and waterfalls that were unlike anything back home.
Visited probably hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu temples boasting incredible architecture and artwork.
Taken a two day slow boat trip across a border.
Gone tubing down a winding river between the mountains in Vang Vieng.
Been in a hot air balloon in Vang Vieng above limestone karsts.
Dealt with the backpacker nightmare that is bedbugs.
Haggled my way through tons of markets and shops for the best deal.
Hiked for two days through rice terrace-covered mountains in Sa Pa.
Caught a peeping tom using a camera through a window in our bathroom.
Jumped off of the second story of a boat on the Castaways Tour in Halong Bay.
Gone tubing between the karsts in Halong Bay.
Helped several friends through awful food poisoning episodes.
Taken a paddle boat ride through Trang An Grottoes under low caves and between giant mountains.
Walked up thousands of stairs and rocks collectively to see the best temples, waterfalls, caves and viewpoints.
Walked through part of the longest dry cave in Asia and floated in the mud in one of the longest wet caves.
Went down the longest zipline in Vietnam.
Gotten clothes tailor made in Hoi An.
Trusted total strangers and new friends with my most valuable possessions (which never backfired).
Learned about the history of different countries from locals and tours.
Accepted free motorbike rides from strangers.
Went canyoning (waterfall repelling) in Da Lat.
Watched a movie at a cinema in Ho Chi Minh City.
Got my debit card swallowed by an ATM, and then got it back from a bank in Cambodia.
Educated myself on the tragic history of Cambodia at S-21 and The Killing Fields.
Suffered a sand fly attack in Koh Rong.
Driven a motorbike through an abandoned resort on a mountain.
Stood in awe before the Temples at Angkor in Siem Reap.
Watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
Slept in countless rooms with no air conditioning, flushing toilets, toilet paper or soap… And one with cockroackes.
Watched the sun rise and set over the karsts on Chiao Lan lake (Khao Sok National Park) from a boat.
Rock climbed on natural rocks/cliffs in Ton Sai.
Celebrated Thai New Year (Songkran) in a country-wide water fight.
Stood on Maya Beach from Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach.”
Completed my PADI Open Water course, and went diving 6 times including 2 fun dives after the course.
Got a bamboo tattoo on Koh Tao.
Survived the Full Moon Party In Koh Phangan.
Celebrated Passover with a Jewish friend.
Learned to speak a bit of Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Khmer, Indonesian and even Hebrew.
Climbed a mountain/volcano in Bali before breakfast.
Navigated my way alone by motorbike through Bali in the dark.
Successfully tried surfing the famous waves of Kuta, Bali.
Survived a 64 hour journey home to Toronto.
& made a ton of lifelong friends from all over the world who I hope to see again someday…

Looking Back

In the end, my most fond memories aren’t the ones you’d expect. Not watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, the view from on top of the Mount Batur at sunrise, or the gorgeous beaches of Thailand, Cambodia and Bali… What I’ll remember the most from this trip are the people I’ve met, and the in-between moments in which I felt myself growing and changing into a smarter, stronger version of myself, trying something I hadn’t before or taking risks and putting my faith in the unknown.

To me, the trip meant a lot of things. It proved to me that after a year of saving and pinching pennies on a lower income than most of the people I know, even I was able to make this dream a reality, something that I knew was possible but had heard so many people say they could “never afford” that it seemed like it may be beyond my reach. It also proved to me that wherever you go in the world, you will never be truly alone, and that if you’re open to it, you’ll find that friends are all around you. I can say today that I have friends from all around the world… In Alaska, Israel, Texas, Germany, Scotland, England, Wales, Amsterdam, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, The Czech Republic, New York, Romania, Bali, and all over Canada… Each of whom I met while travelling, and has stolen a small piece of my heart… You all know who you are.

Some of my best days were spent playing cards or sitting in restaurants chatting with people I never would have met had we not all been travelling, learning not only about the country we were both travelling through, but also about their home country as well.

The trip also confirmed to me that even as a diabetic, long term travel is possible. I haven’t yet worked out the logistics for timeframes exceeding 3-4 months, but I now know that even with nothing but my backpack, I can make it happen for at least that long, which isn’t something many people would try to do with a preexisting condition that requires so many supplies and so much work. Lastly, it confirmed something that I had already learned in meditation back in India, and have continued to grow from since… The fact that once we accept impermanence in all things and work towards breaking down our egos, happiness will follow. Happiness is not a big mission, checklist, dollar amount or “thing,” it is predominantly a matter of the mind.

Outside The Palace

One of my friends whom I met in Thailand sat beside me one day and introduced me to a simple concept that changed the way I thought about travel. He looked at me and said “Would you rather live inside the Palace, or across from it?” At first I didn’t understand the question… And with a puzzled look on my face he elaborated (and I am paraphrasing), “The people inside the Palace never really get to appreciate the beauty of where they live, they’re stuck inside most of the time without any reason to leave, and when they look out the window they look down upon the other people of the city, from the middle class to those living in poverty… But the people across from the Palace would wake up every day with a million dollar view that cost them nothing. They are surrounded by other people, often unaware of the “poverty” around them from up close, living happy lives outside of the Palace walls.”

As I have travelled, I’ve heard the words repeating in my mind daily. I have stayed in places that cost me an average of $10 per night, some that felt like luxury suites, others with cockroaches.

In the end, I spent more time outside than anywhere else, especially when our rooms were “modest”… It’s easy to believe that the more we have, the happier we’ll be, but it’s simply not the case. I’ve seen kids running around with nothing but a few makeshift toy cars made of water bottles, caps and string, laughing and smiling far more than any kid I’ve seen with an ipad back home. I’ve seen people celebrate their faith in the most modest ways possible, having little more than a shrine of flowers and a small statue in place of a grand temple, happy as can be… and I’ve spent some of the best days of my trip in modest bungalows without air conditioning or flushing toilets, playing cards and talking to some of the best people I’ve ever known, truly as happy as I’ve ever been.

Once we remove the idea that MORE stuff will make us MORE happy, we realize that once you’ve got the essentials, the rest is gravy. Sure, some extra above what you need is nice, but you must always know when you’re crossing from need to want. Somehow, awareness alone of how much we have that we WANT vs. NEED is already something that changes one’s view of the world for the better. Suddenly the pressure for a better job, bigger house, nicer car, better clothes, bigger paychecks, fancier hotel… It fades away, and what is left is a life in which you are free to live without constant fear that NOT having these things will damage your reputation/status/ego, making others believe you to be less happy because of it, and also leading you to believe that you’re unhappy because of the things you lack that others have and believe you should want too.

Only once we remove our desire for the undefinable and never ending “more” from the equation, knowing that the only thing that matters is each present moment, can we find contentment and peace. No ego, no attachment to the past or future, just pure present joy… from outside of the Palace.

I can’t begin to explain how much I’ve learned in the past 104 days about myself and others, individuals and countries, old friends and new friends… but I have grown immensely, and this trip won’t be something I’ll ever forget. Even more importantly… It won’t be my last.

Where to next, you might ask?… I guess I’d better start dreaming!

Nusa Lembongan: Diving & Sunsets & Meeting Michellle in Seminyak

Days 94-96 in Southeast Asia (April 28-30, 2016)

Ubud to Nusa Lembongan Island

After finally getting a full night of much needed sleep since our mountain climb, Maddie and I were ready to leave Ubud (well, as ready as anyone ever is, so not at all…) and head to Nusa Lembongan, a small island to the East of Bali (still part of Bali), just off the coast near Sanur. We booked a shuttle bus to take us to Sanur (through our hostel) for 60,000IDR ($6), and we arrived an hour or so later at around 1:30pm. When we got to Sanur, we went to a booking agency nearby and booked the ferry that would take us from Sanur to Nusa Lembongan.

The ferry cost us each 515,000IDR ($50) for an open ticket, round trip to the pier at Jungutbatu (the village/beach area where we wanted to stay). At 3pm the ferry left, and only took about 30 minutes to get us to the island. When we arrived, we were provided with “free” transportation to the home stay we had looked at ahead of time online, however when we were dropped off, the driver was insistent that we pay him 50,000IDR each, which was not what we were told. We were prepared to walk the 1 and a half km or so to the home stay, but the man running the booking office at the pier told us that our ticket included a taxi to our accommodation, and to hop in.

Normally I wouldn’t make a huge fuss over a matter of $5, but honestly we had very little money on us, and weren’t sure if there were ATMs anywhere nearby. Plus, we had made it clear that we were going to walk if the taxi wasn’t free. Eventually, the driver gave up after asking us one final time to pay him, to which we replied “Sorry, no. The man at the office must have made a mistake and told us it was free. We are not paying.” I felt bad, but also frustrated at the situation, especially since the ticket for the ferry was so insanely expensive (all of the ferries around Bali are).

Booking A Dive & Sunset On The Beach

After we settled into our accommodation for the night (at Surya Home Stay, which cost us each 105,000IDR ($10) per night for a private air con room for the next two nights), we walked just across the street and down the road to Blue Corner Dive, a dive shop that had been highly recommended to us, run by Canadians apparently. We booked ourselves for two fun dives the following morning with a guide. We were really excited to put our new PADI Open Water Certification to use, and to hopefully see some sea turtles or manta rays, which are very common here.

Unfortunately, the dive shop said that because the swells were so high in the water at the moment, there were no mantas and very few turtles, but that the reef and fish were still beautiful, and more than  enough reason to go diving… We didn’t take much convincing. We grabbed a bite to eat at the dive shop after booking, walked along the beach for a beautiful sunset overlooking Bali and Mount Agung in the distance, and called it a night, enjoying the Wifi and air con back at our room and resting up.

Diving With Blue Corner Dive

The following morning we went to the dive shop at around 10, and got our equipment together and ready to go. The boat left at 11am and was back around 3, and it cost us a total of 1,165,000IDR ($110CAD) including equipment rental, for two dives (about 45 minutes each), and lunch. We excitedly hopped on the boat with Eka, our guide, and a few other groups of divers and instructors.

Eka would be guiding us as well as a couple of other divers, one who we quickly realized had little experience or natural talent for it. Our first dive site was Buyuk, near Nusa Pedina (a larger island, right beside Nusa Lembongan), where we saw incredible sloping reef and magnificently coloured fish for the entirety of the dive. We even saw a lion fish, and several “Nemo” fish.

I also saw a trigger fish, huge colourful fish that are extremely territorial and will swim at you quickly and aggressively, even bite you if you appear to be getting too close… I was. Eka swam up behind me as I started kicking to swim backwards away from the fish as it charged towards me, and signalled to me to stop kicking. He slowly pulled me back, and the fish backed away. My heart was pounding, but after a few minutes I shook it off and continued to enjoy the dive.

The only part about the dive that wasn’t spectacular (because it really was spectacular) was the other pair of divers with us. The woman diver was extremely inexperienced, and I think it may have even been her first dive, so Eka spent the entire dive following her where she drifted (the current was strong), and signalling for us to follow him, so we basically spent the dive following her and Eka, and cringing as we watched her kick the reef with her fins and stir up tons of debris, scaring away the fish and damaging the aquatic life below. It was painful to watch. The first dive was 45 minutes, and our maximum depth was 16m.

Afterwards, we went for a boat ride and sat around for an hour enjoying lunch before suiting up for our second dive at Mangrove Point, off of Nusa Lembongan. The second dive was even more beautiful than the first, and while we didn’t see any sea turtles or manta rays, we did see a moray eel and a massive puffer fish, along with several beautiful sea anemones, and reef that just cannot be captured properly with a photograph. We stayed down for 40 minutes at a maximum depth of 15m and then made our way back to the boat, impressed,  amazed and wishing we had enough time and money to do it again every day for the next week.

An Evening At The Beach

After cleaning up back at our room, we walked down the beach for dinner and watched the sunset from a nice restaurant we found nearby. We relaxed and listened to the music for a bit before walking back towards Blue Corner, where we stopped at another restaurant that had cheaper beers, and sat to enjoy a few.

Not long after, a couple of guys joined us at our table and introduced themselves. Janes (from Germany) and Alex (from Maryland, USA, but also with a German speaking family) had met on the road and been travelling together for the past little while. We chatted and drank, and made our way over to Blue Corner Dive, where everyone seems to go on Fridays on the island.  We grabbed a few more Bintangs and enjoyed chatting until fairly late. Eventually though, Maddie and I were crashing after such a long day in the sun and water, and we decided to say our goodbyes and head back.

Mission to Seminyak

The next morning, we packed up our bags and arranged our return ticket to Sanur. The 30 minute ferry left at 9:30 and arrived not long after 10. I’ve honestly really grown fond of ferries/speedboats.  I have learned that relaxing up top (when it’s allowed), listening to my ipod and feeling the warm sun and cool breeze has proven to make for a very peaceful ride.

Today was no different, other than a Chinese couple who were so obnoxious they had everyone on the upper deck infuriated. For the first half of the boat ride they sat across from each other (about 10 feet apart), each on one side of the boat, taking photos of each other… hundreds in the same pose, with the camera volume so loud it was audible even over the wind and waves… but whatever, who am I to judge? Take your photos, do your thing… Then the ride got bumpy.

The girl started yelling and screaming, scared of the waves, and honestly looked like someone out of an old school horror movie; hands on her face, crying and screaming and laying dramatically on the deck. Her presumed boyfriend decided to walk across the boat to comfort her. I had just turned up my ipod and closed my eyes again, and he stood up, started walking across the deck, and FLEW across to the other side because of the waves, landing with one foot forward… all of his body weight… straight on my foot.

I screamed and grabbed my foot as it throbbed, praying that it wouldn’t debilitate me for the last few days of my trip, and saw that he had actually landed so hard that he ripped off the top layer of skin from several spots on my foot. He apologized as the crew members ran over to ask if I was okay, and they then screamed at him that this is exactly why there is no standing on boats while they’re moving.

I was pissed… and within 5 minutes the dramatic girlfriend was smiling again and posing up on the railing for more photos as her boyfriend stood up, AGAIN, to walk back to the other side. I just about lost it as he stumbled back over, and the crew members along with every other passenger yelled for him to sit down. Finally, he did, and I could not get off of that boat fast enough when we reached the pier at Sanur.

Seminyak!

Once we got there, we haggled for a taxi to take us to Seminyak for 50,000IDR each, and just under an hour later we arrived at our hostel, Capsule Hostel (118,000IDR/$11CAD per night for a mixed dorm), dropped off our bags, and went out for lunch and to hang out somewhere until check in opened at 3pm. We sat at a bar/restaurant, ate lunch, read and relaxed all afternoon and finally made our way back to the hostel where we checked in, cleaned up, and waited patiently for the arrival of our friend from back home, Michelle. She would be visiting Bali for the next 2 Weeks from Canada, though of course I’d only be spending a few days with her before I headed back home on my own, and her and Maddie carried on.

We were all thrilled when she walked into the dorm room, and quickly got ready and settled before taking her out to the main street for some dinner and drinks to celebrate. It wasn’t long before the jet lag kicked in though, and Maddie and I were feeling tired as well, so we decided to save our partying energy for another night, and went back to bed at a reasonable time. Maddie and I were very excited for the latest addition to our team, and couldn’t wait to check out the gorgeous beaches around here the following day and to give Michelle her first real taste of Bali.

Ubud: Temples & Rice Fields & Climbing Mount Batur

Days 91-93 in Southeast Asia (April 25-27, 2016)

Motorbiking From Ubud

After sleeping in until close to noon and finally feeling like we had recovered from our long journey to Bali, Maddie and I decided to head down the street to find a motorbike to rent. We had originally planned on renting a car/jeep in Bali for something new and fun to try, but after getting into Ubud, we realized that the traffic here is pretty terrible, and not in the fun way that it can be on a motorbike sometimes weaving around cars, but in a sit-still-in-a-taxi-for-20-minutes and then slowly crawl through traffic and narrow streets kind of way… plus, they drive on the left side of the road here, which is something we’re not particularly used to.

We decided that we would start with a motorbike in Ubud to get used to the driving here, and that maybe later on in the week when we went South we’d re-evaluate and consider getting a car. We rented a bike for the following 24hrs from just around the corner from our hostel for 50,000IDR ($5), and headed North about 45km for our first bike ride through Bali on our way to Pura Ulun Danu Bratan (a beautiful temple by lake Danau up in the mountains). The driving here is gorgeous, lush bright green rice fields on either side of the road for most of the drive, and towering trees filled with massive leaves and vines hanging down over the streets.

On our way headed North, a Balinese man drove up beside us on his motorbike and started waving and smiling at us. We smiled and waved back, and he saw that I had a GoPro and signalled for me to take a photo of him from the back of the bike, I did and he smiled and gave thumbs up, and then proceeded to take a photo of us giving thumbs up as well as we drove by. He asked us where we were going, and I yelled over the name of the temple. He waved for us to follow him, so we did.

As we climbed higher up the mountain, the sky began to cloud over and get quite dark. Soon enough, we could feel a bit of rain. We pulled over at a lookout point that the man stopped at, and got some photos of the view from up on the mountain, not completely sure if we should continue since the rain was picking up and didn’t look like it’d be getting better anytime soon. The man took us to a small stand near the top where he sat with us, bought us each a cup of hot tea and took some photos with us. He even added me on facebook and had uploaded the photos within a few minutes of us sitting down, smiling and laughing the whole time (he spoke extremely limited English).

One of the gentlemen running the stand came out and began speaking to us in English, translating a bit for us as we talked to him and the other gentleman about where we were from and how we were liking Bali so far. We sat for about half an hour and asked him if he thought that the rain would let up anytime soon, to which he replied that it might be a better idea to come back tomorrow… we were disappointed after driving so far (it took us close to an hour and a half to get there) to hear that we might have to turn back. We decided to sit and wait a few minutes, and sure enough the rain started to slow down a bit. We decided we had gotten so close that we might as well try to make it to the temple today, and even if we still had to turn back because it was raining it wouldn’t have cost us much more time than we’d already lost.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan (Temple)

By the time we got to the temple, the sun was peeking out and the rain had stopped. We paid 25,000IDR ($2.50) to get in, and it did not disappoint. The beautiful temple sat on the water perfectly peacefully, surrounded by mountains in the distance around the calm lake, with incredible gardens and trees leading up to the temple that were fit for a palace, perfectly maintained and trimmed with astounding symmetry and attention to detail.

The entire area felt peaceful and beautiful… up until the paparazzi found us. As we took photos of the temple, we were interrupted by groups of young male tourists from Indonesia wanting to take photos with us and ask us where we were from. One of them even asked for Maddie’s name on Facebook, which resulted in about 15 friend requests for each of us the following day… We didn’t mind much though and found it more funny/flattering than anything, though I will still never understand fully why this is a thing around Asia.

As the sun began to set, we decided we’d better hurry back to the bike so we wouldn’t be biking back too long in the dark. It was a chilly ride back without the warmth of the sun, in our shorts and tank tops that were still damp from the ride there. By the time we got back to the main road in Ubud, we rushed to drop our bike off at the hostel and went straight out for a nice dinner and hot tea.

A Night Out In Ubud With New Friends

Afterwards, we sat and had a few beers back at our hostel bar, where we met Ryan (from England) and Christian (from Romania), who had both been travelling for a while (separately) and recently became friends on the road. The four of us decided to walk to Chillout Bar, a 20 minute walk down the road and around the corner, where we had heard they played great music and had decent drinks (and a free shot with every cocktail purchase). We sat and chatted for several hours about travel, life, home and friends. It was a pretty awesome night, and we told the guys about our plan to hike up the mountain in a couple of days, and they said they planned on doing the same, and would hopefully be joining us.

Pura Tirta Empul (Temple) & Tegallalang Rice Terraces

The following morning, Maddie and I headed out to Pura Tirta Empul (the famous temple in Ubud with the holy fountains for bathing) about half an hour by bike from our hostel. We paid 15,000IDR entry, though we decided not to bathe and just to watch, knowing that we had a lot we wanted to see that day and not a ton of time to do it.

Our second stop was Tegallalang rice terraces, some of the most famous in the area, only about 15 minutes away by motorbike. We drove to the street that my map said the terraces were on, and ended up walking down a little dirt path to try to find them behind some houses. Sure enough, when we came out the other end of the path we could see them, though I think we may have entered through someone’s actual backyard and maybe missed the real entry point. Regardless, we walked into the fields and along the edges of the terraces, enjoying the view and taking photographs.

The terraces here were a much different experience than those in Sa Pa. They were smaller, on hills rather than mountains, and lush green with rice in all stages of growth (whereas Sa Pa wasn’t peak season while we were there, so the rice had either not yet been planted, or only small buds were visible). Also, the terraces here were surrounded by jungle and palm trees, and the sound of cicadas and other wildlife filled the air. This is the Bali from the postcards.

Solo Mission to Pura Taman Ayun (Temple)

After the rice terrace, Maddie was feeling pretty tired, and it was almost time to return our motorbike, but I still really wanted to see some other temples. I renewed the bike on my own for another 24hrs, dropped Maddie off back at our hostel, filled up on gas and zipped off towards Pura Taman Ayun, a temple just under 20km West of Ubud. I was fine to ride the bike on my own, and actually enjoyed having a bit of time to myself, though it got a bit difficult at times when I wasn’t sure where I was going and had to pull over every 5 minutes to check my MAPS.ME app (offline maps… a traveller must-have app that saves my butt on the daily).

I think it probably took me about an hour to get to the temple, much longer than expected, but it was still a beautiful drive and gorgeous weather, so it was hard to be mad about it. The temple cost 20,000IDR entry, and was filled with gorgeous tiered structures throughout the enclosed area. The garden area in front of the temple was full of beautifully set up tables and chairs as hundreds of women dressed in white walked around rehearsing for a ceremony that would be taking place that evening. It was interesting and beautiful to watch the preparations, and had I not been dressed in shorts and a tank top and completely covered in sweat by the time I was leaving, I might have been inclined to stay a while and watch, or even participate in the event if I could.

Almost everyone visiting the temple was accompanied by a guide, including a Canadian couple I met who asked if I’d like a few photos in front of the temple to which I said yes. They were from Toronto, and we chatted for a bit before I went on my way, passing several other tourists and guides along the way.

Several guides stopped and commented as I got on my bike that I was “brave” to be motorbiking by myself through Bali, though I hardly consider it brave so much as something I’ve found essential to travelling if you’re on a budget and want to see as much as possible without paying for a tour guide and transportation. Plus, it allows for flexibility in your plans when you’ve rented your own bike as opposed to hiring a guide/taxi for the day, and I truly believe it to be a much better experience than any other form of transportation as far as sightseeing goes, removing any temptation to fall asleep in a comfy air conditioned van between destinations.

After leaving Taman Ayun, I realized that it was already about 4:30pm, and that I had told Maddie I would aim to be back between 6-6:30 for dinner. I told her not to worry and to just go without me if I wasn’t back in time, knowing how much longer drives take around here than you’d expect, with traffic and winding roads up and down seep hills for much of the drive, not to mention my stopping time to check my map. I had to decide at that time whether I wanted to continue West another 20km or so to see the other temple I was dying to check out, knowing I’d be later than 6:30, or if I wanted to go back to the hostel. I chose the former.

Continuing My Solo Mission to Tanah Lot For Sunset

At nearly 5:30pm I arrived at Tanah Lot (on the West coast, 35km or so from Ubud) as the sun was beginning to set, knowing already that it would be dark by the time I was back. Still, I planned on getting to the temple, taking some photos quickly, and hopefully getting back not too much later than I had originally anticipated. After paying the 30,000IDR entry fee and walking through the main entryway, however, I realized that it wasn’t gong to happen.

The temple was beautiful, parked up on a cliff on the West coast of Bali, surrounded by rocks, both low and high with waves crashing up along the shore, and hundreds of people standing on different dry spots or rocks enjoying the view as the sun lowered in the sky, painting the clouds and the water with light pinks and oranges and blues… taking a few quick photos and running out of there simply wasn’t an option. I accepted that my ride back would be a painfully long and dark one, and I began walking around the temple.

The temple itself is not for entry, but the area surrounding the temple is the main attraction, and visitors may line up beneath the temple to be blessed with holy water and receive a small flower and some rice (I think) pressed onto their forehead if they wish. I had been chatting with a couple of young German travellers by the water and we decided to join the line, originally thinking it was a line to get up inside the temple.

It was still a neat experience though, and we were surrounded by many Indian people who I’m sure travelled to Bali specifically to see the magnificent world famous temples of the predominantly Hindu island (while Indonesia is mostly Muslim population, the island of Bali is unique in that it is almost completely Hindu, making it a popular destination for many Hindus from around the world, and anyone with an appreciation for spectacular temples in general…like me. I chatted for a while with the German gentlemen, and watched as the sun set over the rocks. I took some more photos, watched as thousands of crabs scurried up along the walls of the rocks, almost unnoticed unless you knew to look for them, and finally decided to hit the road at about 6:30pm, when it was already almost completely dark, dreading my journey back.

It took me almost 2 hours to get back, and since I had about 5% battery left on my phone I was basically just slowing down by groups of people and yelling “Ubud?!”, and driving off in the direction they pointed me in, yelling “Sook suma!” (“Thank you!”) as I zipped away, stopping every 20 minutes or so just to make sure I was going in the right general direction… I usually was.

Back to Ubud

Finally, at nearly 8:30, I was back and heard Maddie yell “Oh My God you’re alive!” from the bar, the second I walked into our lobby area… By then she had left and come back from a restaurant where she had sat for some tea and tried to message me, and was getting pretty worried, though she knew I was a pretty good driver and that I DID say it might take me longer and not to worry if it did. Still, we were both equally happy that I had survived the journey back, and went out for some food at a restaurant nearby to celebrate.

Booking Our Tour To Climb Mount Batur

After dinner we hung out at the hostel for a quiet evening since we had booked our mountain climb for the following morning. Climbing Mount Batur in Bali was something I had been planning on doing since before we left Canada, though I’ve honestly been just as terrified about the idea as I have been excited. After my second knee surgery on my left knee in October (and third in total… I’ve also had one on my right knee), it would be really easy (and understandable) to say I couldn’t/wouldn’t do it. However, I know that it really is just a bit more challenging and slightly more painful for me because of it, and that realistically I wouldn’t be messing up my knees much more than they already were.

As for the physical challenge aspect of the climb, I obviously haven’t been training for it, though I do consider myself to be in decent physical shape, and it’s not exactly Everest here… I figured that regardless of what the outcome might be, it was something I wanted to do, and I had to say I tried.

The mountain climb is a popular tour for adventure-seekers in Bali, so it was easy to book it through our hostel. The tour costs 300,000IDR ($30), which is about the same anywhere, and it left at 2am. I was so excited about the hike that I couldn’t really sleep early, and got to bed at about 11:30pm… and was back up at 1:30am to get dressed and ready to go.

Climbing Mount Batur For Sunrise

We left just after 2am from the hostel, and drove North to the base of the mountain, where we arrived at around 3:30am. We were handed our breakfast (which we would eat at the summit), water and a flashlight, and were introduced to our guides: Dede (17 years old), Yuka (19 years old) and another whose name I unfortunately can’t remember because our group was split up a bit. We began the hike shortly after, walking in the cool morning air (though we warmed up pretty quickly) up the gradually inclining path leading up to the mountain.

Christian was also in our group (who we had met a couple nights before, who was lively and provided us with plenty of commentary during both the ascent and descent). At first, it felt like any other walk uphill: slightly tiring, definitely a workout, totally doable. 20 minutes or so later, things got steeper, and 10 minutes after that, it was serious. The path became rocky, and rather than walking uphill we were now actually stepping up, like you would a staircase. We took breaks often for water and to catch our breath, and for the group to all catch up to each other. I was in the middle of the pack for most of the climb, though I’ll admit I struggled during the final third or so, and my knee was in a decent amount of pain.

Yuka could tell at one point that I was struggling, silently stepping up, breathing heavily and looking up ahead at the others who were pulling ahead. He reached down from the step above me, grabbed my hand, and pulled me up a few steps and asked if I was okay… honestly it is something I’ve had to remind myself to do sometimes for others, ask if they’re okay. It sounds silly, but even when you’re not, or maybe you are OKAY but you’re definitely not GREAT, sometimes it is just so nice to be asked if you’re okay and know that someone cares, that it makes the not-being-fully-okay thing seem like it’s not so bad. I smiled and said I was okay, just tired. Yuka held my hand and said “Okay we are past half way there now,” and he continued to update me and the rest of our group on how many more minutes to the top as we went, and held my hand for pretty much the entirety of the second half of the climb, which really helped me out when my knee became so sore that I couldn’t keep my balance while pushing upwards on some of the steeper steps.

As with many of the challenges I’ve had to face in life, I remembered what I learned in Vipassana, “Anicca” (Impermanence)…nothing lasts forever. It wasn’t about how many more miles until we were finished, it was just a matter of hours/minutes, and if there’s one thing  that I learned from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (awesome show on Netflix if you haven’t seen it), it’s that all you have to do is survive the next ten seconds. If you can make it through the next ten seconds, you can do anything. Then you just start on another ten seconds… I counted to 10 a lot during the climb.

When we reached the first peak of the mountain at a stopping place, we sat and watched as a few clouds rolled in above us, blocking our view of the summit. The guides asked us if we wanted to continue to the top for a better view (but only if the sky cleared up for sunrise), or if we waned to stay. A few of the people in our group stayed below with the third guide whose name I couldn’t remember, and the rest of us went on with Dede and Yuka to the top. I’ve always enjoyed gambling, and I figured we had come this far so why not? Volcanic ash…that’s why. The final stretch took us close to 30 minutes of hiking what was basically a vertical cliff covered in ash (the volcano last erupted in 2000) with the odd rock mixed in.

Two steps forward, one step back. Thank god for Yuka, he grabbed my hand again and smiled, and gave me a second wind. I think that my biggest struggle with the climb wasn’t being out of breath, sweaty, in pain or exhausted, it was being okay with the fact that I did need Yuka’s help, and accepting it openly without letting my ego get in the way. I think that sometimes as we struggle we get so caught up in overcoming something alone to prove a point that we forget that it’s okay and even healthy  to ask for help sometimes, and in many cases (including mine) you’ll only make friends by doing so.

Finally Reaching The Summit

After around 2 hours of climbing, at close to 5:30am, we reached the summit. We sat, drank hot tea (served at the top), ate our breakfasts, and enjoyed the view of the lights below us dotting the area around the lake like stars in the darkness, and a small thin trail of twinkling flashlights leading all the way down to the bottom from other groups of tourists making the same climb. Soon enough, the clouds had cleared and the sun was beginning to rise. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and it was made better by the sense of accomplishment we all felt having completed such a tough climb to 1717m. The sun slowly rose in the distance over the clouds, revealing the towering silhouete of Mt. Agung, the highes peak in Bali, and a few distant mountains on the island of Lombok. It was incredible.

The way down was much more enjoyable. Dede and Yuka both helped us as we literally slid (for sometimes several feet at a time) down the volcanic ash, to the crater in the middle of the mountain. I can’t even begin to explain how different the view was from the climb up and at the top. The way down looked like something from New Zealand, rolling green hills for miles around Lake Batur in between the mountains. The crater was massive, and we were surrounded by clouds up at the top. Monkeys followed us along the way and climbed up on Dede who had some treats for them, and we could see the the huge area of land beneath the mountain still completely black from the last time the volcano erupted.

We also made friends with another Canadian on the way down names Kristopher, and the group of us chatted quite a bit over the hour and a half or so it took to get back down, smiling the whole way because we knew that the hardest part was behind us. When we got back to the bottom we took a group photo together in front of the mountain, and thanked Dede and Yuka for being such great guides. I gave them both huge hugs, and told Yuka I was so grateful for his help.

We each took a photo of us together, and I knew that he could tell how much his help had saved me. When we got back in the minivan, we were given banana pancakes and driven back to the hostel (just over an hour).

Post-Climb, Exploring Ubud!

When we got back we were completely exhausted, but after a quick shower I decided that I wanted to go explore some more, since today would be our last chance in Ubud. Maddie slept and I hopped on the motorbike to drive to Goa Gajah (only about 15 mins away). I paid 15,000IDR entry  and walked through the area, which was more of a garden in the jungle than a temple it seemed, but it was beautiful and quiet, which was all I needed.

Afterwards I went to the “Botanical Garden” that I had seen on the map about 20 minutes from Goa Gajah. The last time I went to an actual pay-to-visit Botanical Garden was in Ein Gedi, Israel, and it was one of the most beautiful gardens and walks I’ve ever been on, so I figured I’d check it out. After driving the length of the street it was on twice without luck, I pulled over and looked at my MAPS.ME app…supposedly I was there.

I looked to my left and saw an old farmhouse/shed with a for sale sign… I figured I’d go in anyways to see. The lady inside was as surprised as I was that I had found the place, and I paid the 25,000IDR entry fee, which was actually only 17,000IDR since I didn’t have enough in small bills and she didn’t have enough change for big bills. After paying, she explained to me that the garden had been destroyed a few years ago, and she appreciated my donation to help restore the garden to its former glory… There was no garden.

She said I could still walk back, but to put on some mosquito repellent. I walked back into the incredible jungle behind the building, down the stairs onto the path between the towering overgrown trees and vines, looking up at the lush green that blocked out the daylight… and then I looked down. My entire body was covered in mosquitoes… small and barely noticeable as they bit me, but EVERYWHERE. I swatted them away and within seconds was covered again. I flaled around like a maniac and ran back up the stairs to the building. I told the lady that I was sorry but I couldn’t go in, there were too many mosquitoes.

She apologized and said that I could have my money back if i wanted, but i told her to keep it. She thanked me and said that next time I came to Bali there would be a beautiful garden here… I will certainly hold her to it when I come back.

Ubud Market

After leaving the garden, I returned the motorbike at around 3pm and met Maddie for some late lunch. Afterwards, we walked down to Ubud Market, where I went a little bit shopping-crazy, picking up souvenirs for some of my family. It felt like splurging and still I only spent around $50.

At one of the stands selling coconut oil, I looked up and saw Jess! (Alex’s friend from back home who I had met briefly at the airport). We chatted for a few minutes, and Maddie and I tagged along with them for dinner at a raw vegan restaurant called Alchemy, a 30 minute walk from the market (I was exhausted by this point). It was delicious but a bit pricey, though it finally gave me the chance to meet up with Jess, her boyfriend and her friend who she had been travelling with for the past few months.

We had a great evening and swapped stories for hours before heading back to the hostel and calling it a night. I was very proud of myself, and amazed at the fact that I had made it until past 10pm on 2 hours of sleep after hiking a 1717m mountain for sunrise, visiting a temple and “garden,” motorbiking for over an hour, walking all around Ubud for several hours, and managing to keep myself awake and energized long enough to enjoy dinner with some new friends…
If that’s not a successful day then I’m not quite sure what is.

Full Moon Party In Koh Phangan & Mission To Bali

Days 87-90 in Southeast Asia (April 21-24, 2016)

Preparing For The Full Moon Party

“Today is the day,” I thought to myself, rolling out of bed, sweaty as ever and wishing that air con wasn’t so expensive around here. In less than 12 hours, Segev, David, Maddie and myself would find ourselves a part of one of the biggest and most famous parties on earth… The Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. The party happens every month (during the full moon), and tens of thousands of travellers flood the beach, listen to the DJ’s, drink buckets of cheap Thai booze, dress themselves in brightly coloured clothing accompanied by neon paint… and dance.

I was both excited and also terrified. I’ve seen the photos. I’ve heard the stories… “Wear closed shoes, half of the people there end up with broken toes or stomped on feet…” “Watch the bartenders make your buckets so they don’t spike it with drugs.” “Stick with a buddy, and even then, make a meeting point because you WILL get separated…” “Don’t bring anything other than a bit of cash shoved in your shoe/bra/underwear, half of the people there will have things stolen. Don’t even bring your phone…” “If you take your eyes off of your drink even for a second, get a new one, there are probably drugs in it…” WHAT THE HELL DID I SIGN UP FOR!?…

I’m not typically someone who goes to raves or crazy clubs other than the occasional birthday celebration of a friend, and generally speaking I’m the kind of drunk who just really wants pizza and drinking games with friends. Tonight would be the exception, but I was actually pretty excited. I was slightly worried that Maddie and I would get separated if it was just the two of us, and was so glad that we had the guys to double our odds of not being alone in the crowd. Plus, I’d trust both Seg and David in a heartbeat with my life, my firstborn or my secrets, and I knew that they wouldn’t be they types to lose us or each other and just say “oh well”… They’d want to know I made it home okay, and I think they know I would do the same for them.

We spent the day preparing ourselves, mentally and physically, for the night that would follow. We slept in, had naps, ate, played cards, and made plans to meet up with Preston (who we met in Siem Reap), who said he’d love to come drink with us before the party for a bit, but that he was going with a few of his other friends to the beach, so it wasn’t realistic to try to go as a group of 8-10 people in total, which is totally fair.

By the time Preston met us at our bungalow, the only thing left to do was eat some dinner and grab some glow paint and bright coloured clothes. We ran to the store near our bungalow, suited up, painted ourselves in the lobby while drinking a bunch of cheap booze we grabbed from the 7 Eleven next door, and played some games to get things started.

Full Moon Party!

At close to 11, we walked up the beach a bit towards the hostel Preston was staying at, and met up with his other friends. We continued drinking for a bit, chatted and eventually decided it was time to go. Lucky for us, the hostel was giving out taxi vouchers to the party, and we each grabbed one.

We hopped in the taxi with about 8 other people heading to the party and sang and talked the whole 20 minute ride there through the winding roads and checkpoints leading up to Haad Rin beach, just one taxi in a lineup of hundreds headed the same way. We paid 100B entry, chose a meeting point for 3am for if and when we got separated, grabbed some buckets… and went into the crowd.

It took 5 minutes for me to realize I was the first Full Moon Party scam victim… the bucket I got with sang som whiskey, diet coke and redbull (the ingredients are all sealed in the bucket and the bartenders just mix them together with ice), was actually just redbull and regular coke… you can always trust a diabetic to know when their drink isn’t diet, plus my blood sugar felt high and I wasn’t getting at all drunk which is absurd with a bucket… it doesn’t take long to get you there (they have about 12 ounces of hard liquor in each… I rarely get through one in a night and usually share with someone or ditch it). I was kinda pissed, but it was early and the drinks are cheap enough its hard to be TOO mad.

Seg and I grabbed a new bucket, watched them mix it this time, and started drinking. By the time we got back to the stage we had been dancing on with Maddie and David, they were gone. We didn’t mind though, and knew we had a plan to meet them at 3 by the entrance. We walked along the beach to Kangaroo Bar, where we got a view from above of the whole party… it was like nothing I’ve ever seen, people and lights and colours as far as I could see… I wish I could tell you exactly how the night went from there, but the sang som caught up with me and I’ll have to admit that a lot of the night is a blur for me, and most of the following story is known thanks to Segev’s less foggy memory.

Getting Split Up…

We danced and sang a lot, drank, poked a few bodies we found on the beach to check that they were okay and didn’t need help and eventually, after realizing we were already 15 minutes late, headed to our 3am meeting spot. By then, Maddie had already been sick and David and her were looking for Segev and I. Either we all missed each other somehow, or David and Maddie had left just seconds before we got there. We never met up at our meeting point.

Our backup plan if that happened was to meet back at the same spot at 5am, or just go back to the rooms. Seg and I grabbed food (which I don’t remember at all, but apparently I was the happiest person with a kebab Seg had ever seen), and danced a bit more apparently before hopping in a taxi home, where I fell asleep on Seg and kept waking up and smacking my head on the back of the taxi, giving a few kiwi’s who were sharing our taxi a good laugh. Seg was laughing a lot telling me about it the next day and about my drunk commentary throughout the night.

When we got back, Maddie and David were in the room, both a little annoyed that we missed our meeting time, and very drunk. Things escalated pretty quickly and Maddie went from annoyed to angry real quick. I don’t remember the fight in its entirety, but the guys left to sit in the restaurant, and Maddie lost it on me. A lot of things were said, and hopefully few were truly meant. Eventually, I left the room and Maddie went to sleep. I met the guys in the restaurant, slept in a chair until sunrise when Seg woke me up and put me to bed in the room, and woke up several hours later feeling like I’d been hit by a bus, and extremely hurt by the fight between Maddie and I the night before.

We’ve had our differences throughout the trip, which is fine and even expected when you’re travelling for this long with someone. We’ve even had a few fights that ended in tears, but always decided to stay together in the end. This time I wasn’t so sure what was going to happen. Once Maddie was up though, David told her what had happened, and that she needed to have a talk with me. She did.
Not remembering the things that were said, Maddie apologized, and I cried (which shouldn’t come as a shocker to anyone who knows how I handle confrontation of any sort). We talked for a long time, and it was made clear to me that Maddie is ready to be on her own, which I’ve already known for some time, but now it was said out loud.

Making up & Moving on

We both apologized for the times we had butted heads, and agreed that we still cared about each other, but that it was probably for the best that we’d be parting ways in 12 days, when I’d be leaving her and heading back to Canada, we were getting to that point of travelling with someone else (that happens more often that not), where you grow apart. After talking it through, we decided we both still wanted to spend the last couple weeks together and make it count, putting aside any old arguments or annoyances and just enjoying ourselves. We are still friends and we still care about each other of course, all things aside. We also decided that this probably just meant that we had done the Full Moon Party properly, since our night ended a mess, pretty typical to the stories we had heard leading up to it.

We hugged and made up, joined the guys back at the restaurant, and played cards all day by the beach, relaxing and recovering from the night before, enjoying each other’s company, all agreeing that while the party was crazy and fun to start, it was honestly very overrated, and most of the people there were puking before 1am or passed out on the beach alone, which is more sad/scary than fun.

For dinner, we all went out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate Passover with Segev (who is a Jew from Israel if you didn’t know). It was the last night that the 4 of us would have together before Segev and David left for Koh Phi Phi the next morning at 6:30am, and Maddie and I would leave shortly after to Bangkok (en route to Bali). Seg taught us a bit about Passover, Israel and Judaism, and we chatted for hours before leaving the restaurant.

 

Finally we went back to the bungalow, packed our bags, and played cards by the beach for hours despite our exhaustion from the night before. Eventually Maddie went off to bed, followed by David, and finally Segev and myself, after staying up a bit longer and talking until we couldn’t keep ourselves awake anymore.

Saying Goodbye To David & Segev

Saying goodbye for the second time was no easier than the first, and after only 15 collective days together, I had a best friend who I would love always, from wherever we both were in the world. Seg made me promise that I’d get married asap, and invite him to the wedding so that he’d have to come to Canada, and I also promised that I’d come visit him in Israel when I could, a country that I loved the first time I went and would undoubtedly love the second time even more, especially with Segev as my local guide.

Seg had taught me several words in Hebrew over the past week together, including how to say “I’m sweating,” (pronounced Ani Mezia), which I used most frequently of all. He also taught me how to say hello, mother, thank you, backpack, small bag, sorry, party, farewell, princess and love (Ahava). Whether he knows it or not (though I’m sure he does) he left quite an impression on me, and taught me a lot more than a few Hebrew phrases, which he continues to teach me daily over WhatsApp.

In the morning, we all said our goodbyes still half asleep, and I hugged the guys for what felt like hours before finally letting them leave. Though I had personally spent the most time talking with Segev, I have grown just about as attached to David, who at 21 has seen twice as much of the world as I will have by 25. He is what we call a “social butterfly”, making friends wherever he goes with admirable ease, giving his full attention and affection to anyone he calls his friend, and there are many of us.

He is a hopeless romantic, much like myself, and wears his heart on his sleeve, unafraid to let those he cares about know how he’s feeling. A beautiful quality, though a dangerous one, leaving one open to hurt and rejection, which doesn’t seem to have phased him even after countless backpacker ties and goodbyes. He is like a little brother to me, one whom I admire fully, and who has taught me to continue to live openly and lovingly, without fear of hurt or heartbreak, knowing that the world always has been, and will continue to be a beautiful place, full of incredible people and places no matter what. I will miss them both until we meet again.

Leaving Koh Phangan for Bangkok & Bali

At 10:30am, Maddie and I hopped in a taxi and paid 100THB each to take us to the pier, where we’d catch a ferry for 300THB with Lomprayah at 12pm to Koh Samui (a half hour trip). We then stayed on the same ferry using a ticket we had bought ahead of time for around $70CAD (including a ferry, bus and flight) that continued to Don Sak Pier on the mainland, where we caught a bus from 2-3:30pm to Suratthani Airport, and a flight to Bangkok from 7:30-8:30pm with Thai Smile.

When we arrived in Bangkok, we took the skytrain from BKK to get to Viktoria’s place (Maddie’s friend in Bangkok who we had met up with at the beginning of our trip). The train cost us 87THB each including one transfer, and we arrived at Viktoria’s at around 11pm.

We chatted a bit and showered off before catching a few much needed hours of rest. We slept no more than 2 hours though, up and out the door before 3am in a taxi to take us to DMK airport where we’d catch our flight to Bali which we had booked quite a while back. The taxi was 100THB each, and took about an hour. At 4am, we arrived at the airport, got some breakfast, and checked our bags (which cost us each $41.50CAD… our ticket didn’t include a checked bag).

Finally, at 6:15am, we left DMK on our flight with Air Asia for Denpasar, Bali, (Indonesia). I tried to sleep, despite the couple beside me keeping the window open for the entire 4 hour and 15 minute flight, so I spent much of the flight awake and reading. At 11:30am local time (one hour ahead of Thailand, making us once again an even 12hrs ahead of Toronto time), we arrived at the airport, excited and exhausted for the final chapter of our trip together in Bali.

Getting to Ubud & Making Friends

At the airport, I ran into my boyfriend Alex’s friend from home, who up until now I had only spoken with online. Jess had been travelling the same areas as me for quite a while now, but we always seemed to be missing each other or heading in different directions. Not until I walked up to a “stranger” at the airport to ask if she and her friends wanted to share a cab with us to Ubud, did I get the response “Are you Krista? I’m Jess!”… Sadly, she was headed to Kuta, but is actually going to be in Ubud soon, so I’m hoping we’ll meet up then and finally have that drink we had planned on in Vietnam months ago. Small world.

The next strangers I approached, two Canadian girls from Halifax, agreed to share a taxi with us to Ubud for 100,000IDR (about $10) each for the 1.5hour ride, which took quite a bit of haggling after an initial quote of 300,000IDR (the standard rate for two to Ubud city center). We finally got to our hostel at around 2pm, In Da Lodge, which would cost us 110,000IDR (just over $10) per night for the next 3 nights at least.

The hostel is beautiful, with a pool, a bar and a restaurant, and gardens and trees everywhere. We spent most of the day napping and relaxing, absolutely exhausted from the journey, and went for a bit of a walk around town for some dinner and a beer to celebrate our first night of our long awaited travels in Bali. It is the last country I’ll be travelling through this trip, and I absolutely can’t wait to see more of it. Already I am finding that the people, landscape and food here are easy to fall in love with. Here’s hoping it only gets better.

Koh Tao: Scuba Diving, Bamboo Tattoos & Old Friends

Days 82-86 in Southeast Asia (April 16-20, 2016)

Koh Phi Phi to Koh Tao (Ferry, Bus, Ferry)

At 8am on Saturday morning, despite all three of us forgetting to set our alarms in our drunken state the night before, Segev woke up (by some miracle of fate) just after 8am… we had to be at the pier at 8:40am with all of our bags to catch a ferry. We dragged ourselves up and out of bed, threw our clothes (half of them still wet from the beach) into our bags, and made a run for it. We made it to the pier with moments to spare, and went straight to the bottom floor of the ferry, where the a/c was blasting and the lights were dim.

The ferry from 9am-10:30am took us to Krabi, where we caught a connecting bus to Suratthani. When we arrived at 3pm, we caught a final ferry that took us to Koh Tao (first stopping at Koh Samui and Koh Phangan). Finally, at 6pm after a full 9 hours of hungover travel, we arrived a the pier in Koh Tao, completely exhausted and still hungover. The joint ferry/bus/ferry ticket cost us each a total of 900THB/$33CAD, and all in all it wasn’t such a bad trip, and there were washrooms, a/c and snacks along the way, so we survived.

Ban’s Diving Resort!

When we got to Koh Tao, we hopped on the back of a pick-up truck taxi to take us to Ban’s Diving Resort, where we’d be spending the next 4 nights, hoping to take the PADI Open Water Diving Course to become certified scuba divers. Since Segev is a divemaster, which means he took his PADI open water course, advanced diver course, and divemaster course (in Israel), logging over 250 dives now (several at Ban’s diving for fun when he was in Koh Tao a couple months ago), he is somewhat of an expert on diving, and Maddie and I decided to trust him when he recommended Ban’s diving. He said they had the best instructors, equipment and accommodation, located right on the beach.

Normally, the resort costs about 1500THB per night ($60CAD) for a room, and if you sign up for a course you get it at a discounted rate. However, Segev decided to call the resort ahead of time and use his “Israeli connections” as he likes to call them, and ask that since he recommended Ban’s to both Maddie and I that we all get a room to share for free for the 4 nights that we’d be on the island, saving us each a total of about $80… They said yes. Thank. You. Segev.

The course at Ban’s cost us each 9800THB ($363CAD including the visa charge), and began the following evening at 5pm for orientation, followed by a full day of practice in the pool as well as in-class learning, the third day of 2 ocean dives and more in-class learning, and the fourth day of 2 more ocean dives, finishing just after noon.

After we settled into our new (free) accommodation, (which consisted of one giant bed, plus a small extra mattress that we ended up not even using, because it was so small and pathetic, in a fairly small room with both a/c and a fan), we went out for dinner to a place that Segev recommended that specialized in duck. 90% of the menu was duck with different rice, noodles or soup. Maddie and Segev got duck and rice, and I got it with noodles. The cooked meat had a melt-in-your-mouth texture, like butter, complimented by a sweet sauce that went perfectly with both the duck and the noodles… it was delicious, and not long after our late dinner and a drink on the beach we went off to bed, excited to start our course the following evening.

First Day on Koh Tao & Day 1 of our PADI Open Water Course

The next day was quiet and relaxed. We found a spot right on the beach to sit, drink tea, and use the WiFi to blog/e-mail/chat, and just hang out… the view here is spectacular, and it’s actually really quiet on the island right now. We went for a swim, walked on the beach a bit, and went back to the room to clean up before our orientation for the course started at 5pm.

Of course, since Segev is a divemaster, he would not be joining us for the course, and would instead just be doing some “fun dives” through Ban’s the following two days on his own, which are less expensive than courses, and obviously more fun for those with experience who don’t need all the lessons in underwater safety and how to use the equipment. For our 3 hour orientation, we met our instructor (Poli, from Israel), our assistant instructor (Frank), and our soon-to-be-divemaster (Ryan). We were introduced to the other students in our course (9 of us in total), filled out the mandatory paperwork, and after a brief explanation of how the course worked, we sat for 2 hours to watch the videos of chapters 1-3 in our dive book, for which we had an accompanying multiple choice quiz on paper.

As we watched the videos, we filled out the answers we thought were right, and the next day we’d review the quiz, and then write an actual test later on for the same material. The videos were boring, but not as painful as just reading would have been, and of course included important information for safety, and to help new divers understand how everything works, and the risks and dangers associated with it if it is done in an unsafe way.

Getting A Doctor’s Note to Dive

Finally, at 8pm, we were finished with the videos, at which point myself and another girl from the class were sent to see the doctor for approval to go diving because we had pre-existing medical conditions. The other girl had mild asthma, and of course I have type 1 diabetes. I had read online months ago that many places won’t allow you to dive if you’re a diabetic, primarily because of the risk of a low blood sugar happening while underwater, and of course if I’m 15m below the surface and a ten minute swim to the boat and I have a low blood sugar, I might not be able to make it back to the boat in time, and would risk having a seizure or going unconscious underwater… not ideal.

A lot of places recommend that you bring a letter from your doctor approving you to dive, but most doctors (including mine) won’t do that, simply because it’s their license on the line if something does happen to go wrong. However, my doctor had confidence in my experience with my diabetes and my blood sugar control, and said that he didn’t think I’d have a problem working around it. I felt the same, and planned on going into the water only with a high blood sugar, to ensure that I wouldn’t go low in the hour until we were back on the boat. Still, I had been mentally preparing myself for the past few months that while I’ve been DREAMING of diving here, and hopefully other places in the future, it might be something that I simply can’t do because of my diabetes. I have a few real limits because of my condition, and this may be one of them. As devastated as I’d be to hear that I simply couldn’t dive, I was preparing myself that I might have to accept it.

We went to the doctors office around the corner, and they sent us to a “specialist” even farther down the road. We sat and waited, and Emma went first. 5 minutes later, she came out with her stamp of approval and a smile. My turn. I went in, sweating and shaking I was so nervous, as the doctor asked me about my condition. The exam went as follows: I sat down. He asked, “You have diabetes?” I replied, “Yes.” He asked, “Are you taking injections?” to which I replied, “No, I am on an insulin pump.” He pointed to the table for me to take a seat. I sat on the table, he listened to my breathing for a collective 4 seconds, asked if I had good blood sugar control, to which I replied, “Yes, very,” and he sent me out of the room. I had my blood pressure checked by the nurse at the front, paid 200THB, and received a stamped letter approving me for diving…

Are. You. Joking?!…

I had been mentally preparing myself that I might not be able to dive, when THAT was the physical exam I needed to pass?! Now, I know I should’ve been happy at that point, and I was because it meant I could dive, but in all honesty there are a lot of diabetics (some that I know personally) who would not know how to manage their blood sugars in this type of situation and don’t have as good of control as I do, and knowing that pretty much anyone, good control or not, could basically just pay a 200THB ($7CAD) BRIBE (which is what it felt like) to get approval pissed me off. It took me a couple of hours to shake off the feeling that I had been taken advantage of, and that my health was of no real consideration when it came to the approval letter, but eventually I realized that it was up to me regardless of an approval letter, and that even though it meant nothing really, I had confidence in my own experience with my diabetes to know how to handle my blood sugars for diving. I just had to be extra careful to not mess it up now.

Bang Burgers

To help me de-stress, Segev took us to another place he had been to the last time he was in Koh Tao, Bang Burgers, where we enjoyed some AMAZING cheeseburgers and fries, and a couple of beers.

To top it off, Seg and I went out afterwards (Maddie was too tired) for some Thai Massages for 300THB each for an hour. It definitely took my mind off of the stress I had earlier, and although it was painful, I felt like a million bucks afterwards, and my masseuse told me that I was a “strong woman”, after bending me into positions I guess most people can’t handle, and digging into me pretty hard. She also said I had a “beautiful body” as I was getting dressed afterwards, which was really just icing on the cake. I slept like a baby that night, relaxed and ready for the following day, when we’d get to try out the diving equipment in the pool for the first time.

Practicing Using Our Scuba Gear In The Pool

At 7:30am, we met our group at the pool where we learned how to set up our equipment, and got in the water for the first time. We practiced breathing underwater and several emergency scenarios for the next few hours until 12:30pm, when we we had a shower/lunch break before more classroom time. At 2pm, we met in class, reviewed chapters 1-3, wrote our tests, and watched the videos for chapters 4 and 5. At 5pm, we finished up just in time for Segev to meet up with Maddie and I for a BBQ dinner on the beach and to watch the sunset, which is apparently only more and more beautiful here every single night. I love this island.

Shopping Area & Tattoo Shops in Koh Tao

We walked through the shopping area (Segev and I bought matching bracelets), and checked out the bamboo tattoo shops around here, which I’ve been admiring since I first saw the artists at work in Koh Phi Phi…I had decided a long time ago that if I found a place that I trusted was safe, and felt strongly enough about a tattoo while I was travelling, that I’d get one with bamboo, the traditional Thai style of tattooing, using no machines and only a long sliver of bamboo dipped in ink, done entirely by hand.

To me (as an artist), regardless of the tattoo itself, the process was beautiful enough on its own to carry meaning for me, but of course I wouldn’t get something unless I really loved it. I had seen some lotus flower tattoos on Koh Phi Phi that were stunning, and after spending some time in Zoko Tattoo here in Koh Tao, I decided to ask the owner about drawing one up for me. He told me to come back the next day when he’d have a drawing, and if I liked it and he had time that he could tattoo me the next night. I was feeling pretty excited even just at the idea of some new beautiful artwork on me, and couldn’t wait to go back the next night to see what he had drawn up.

Our First Day Diving in the Ocean!

The next morning, we met our diving group in the restaurant of the resort at 7:15am, where we’d leave at 7:30 with our gear to head to our first actual dive site in the water. 25 minutes later by boat, we arrived at Mango Bay, where we dove to a depth of 10m for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, my buddy (Maddie) couldn’t equalize her ears properly, and she went back up with Frank, our assistant instructor, who spent some time with her working on it, and they ended up diving in another spot after the rest of us had kept going, and I was now buddied up with Ryan (our divemaster) and Katie (another student).

Diving was awesome. Just breathing underwater and being able to see so far (visibility was amazing) was an entirely new and wonderful experience for me. I felt completely absorbed in this new world, and felt completely natural underwater, as strange as it sounds, like I had found something that came naturally to me as I focused on my breathing, floating still near the coral in order to see the fish without scaring them off.

Ryan told me it was refreshing to see someone so new, so absorbed in what they were looking at, rather than just focusing on what they’d been taught and how to swim and breathe, which is a lot to focus on by itself.. which is probably why I cut my finger on a bit of coral, not paying attention to my hands as I followed a few fish I was watching, but it was a small cut, and it stopped bleeding very quickly even under water.

Our second dive was at Twin Rocks, where we dove to 12m for 45 minutes, this time with my buddy (Maddie) back in the group. The dive was awesome, and we saw one puffer fish and a bunch of other small fish that were brightly coloured and beautiful. I wished I had my GoPro the first day, though Poli told me to wait until the second day to bring it with me, only because he wanted to make sure I was comfortable with everything I HAD to do, before letting me add something else into the mix, which was completely fair.

After the second dive, we went back to the restaurant where we had an hour lunch break, followed by another hour of practice in the pool with some emergency scenarios. At 2:30, we went over chapters 4 and 5 in the classroom, and wrote our tests on the chapters, as well as our final exam, which we’d go over the following afternoon. We finished at about 4:30, at which time we met up wih Seg at the room and went back to the same spot as the night before for dinner and the sunset. It really is just incredibly beautiful here every single night.

Getting a Bamboo Tattoo At Zoko Tattoo!!!

After dinner, we went back to Zoko tattoo, where Zoko showed me the lotus flower he drew up for me. It was beautiful, but I honestly wanted something a bit differrent. I told him what I had in mind, showed him one of the drawings on the wall, and he drew it up for me an hour later exactly as I imagined it. We changed the sizing, held the drawing up to my arm, and I was sold. Ed, the “master” at the shop, stenciled it out for me and sat me down in his chair. They told me it’d be about an hour and a half (bamboo tattoos take far longer than machine ones), but after 20 years of experience with bamboo tattoos, Ed was finished mine in under 40 minutes.

Now, I’m not going to say it wasn’t painful. It was, much more than my other tattoo that I got a year or so ago back home by machine, but it was bearable, and it didn’t even bleed at all. I paid 4500THB ($164CAD) in the end, which was an absolute deal for the beautiful new artwork that I’d carry forever.

Aside from being a beautiful piece of artwork on my forearm, the lotus flower is a popular symbol in Buddhism. It grows beautifully in the mud, and is therefore seen by buddhists as a symbol of the overcoming of suffering to achieve enlightenment. It is also a very symmetrical flower, that is often used as a symbol of balance and peace. Most importantly though, I loved it, and it was something that I decided to do without anyone else’s opinion or advise, which is something I’ve been trying to do more of in my life, especially in my travels. I felt empowered.

I sent a snapchat to Alex and my parents afterwards to let them know what I did… which maybe wasn’t the BEST idea, but after the initial shock they all seemed to agree (I think) that it was beautiful, and certainly a memorable souvenir.

Second Day of Diving in the Ocean!

The next morning, our final day in Koh Tao (and of the diving course) we met back in the restaurant of the resort at 7:15 to head out on the boat again. Our first dive was 49mins at 13m at Hin Nham (Beautiful Rock), where I had the foggiest mask I’ve ever dealt with in my life, and could barely see anything the entire dive. Not only that, but we kept doing exercises that involved flooding our masks, and removing them entirely underwater, while breathing at the bottom, and remaining calm as we put them back on, blew water out of our nose to clear them, and continued on. We did it about 5 or 6 times over the three days in the water, and ever time ended with me having water up my nose that I was trying to blow out (into my mask) for the rest of the dive, and my eyes burning from the salt. I was glad we were taught to do it, and of course I never would’ve tried to do it had I not been forced, but it was my least favourite part of the course hands down.

After our first dive, we went to Shark Island (named for its shape, like a dorsal fin, not its aquatic life), for our final dive of the course. I switched masks and made sure to soap mine up plenty to prevent it from fogging up this time. Visibility wasn’t incredible, but the site was.

We went to 18m (our maximum depth allowed at this level of diving), for 45mins, and saw an amazing amount of aquatic life below the surface. There were beautiful plants and fish, as well as a bit of metal frames etc. underwater that looked like wreckage, where we saw a giant puffer fish and tons of beautiful brightly coloured small fish. I took so many pictures with my GoPro that I know won’t accurately express just how beautiful it was down there, but trust me when I say that it was incredible.

When we got to the top, we were given our official diver logbooks, which we filled out for the 4 dives during the past 2 days, and Poli congratulated us on our awesome work. We went back to the restaurant, marked our final exams, which we all passed, and celebrated the fact that we were all officially certified scuba divers now. We said our goodbyes to our new friends, thanked our instructors, especially Poli who was incredible, and went back to our room to shower and pack.

Leaving By Ferry For Koh Pangan

We finished getting ready with just enough time for lunch before heading out to catch our ferry to Koh Phangan at 3:30. We took a taxi (included in our 350THB/$12 ticket price) from Ban’s to the pier, where we walked about 10 minutes with our bags to Songserm Ferry and waited in the crowd of sweaty backpackers for our ferry, which left 20/30 minutes late at around 4. The inside was actually pretty comfortable and had air con, which was nice, and we arrived in Koh Phangan at 5:30pm.

Pink’s Bungalow & Finding David!

We hopped in a taxi for 100THB each to take us to Pink’s Bungalow, where we had booked ourselves in for the next 3 nights in a “family room” which fits up to 5, giving us plenty of space for the three of us, plus our good friend David, who we had travelled with back in Thailand and Laos. He and Segev (who are essentially brothers) are travelling to the Philippines together soon after Maddie and I leave for Bali, and after finding out that Seg, Maddie and I, as well as a few of his other friends that he had met while travelling, would be in Koh Phangan for the full moon party this month, he decided to make it a part of his plan to join us.

Our bungalow at Pink’s was ON the beach, less than 20m from the water, with an incredible sunset view from Baan Tai Beach (the full moon party on April 21st, tomorrow, is on Haad Rin beach, but we decided to stay a bit farther from the madness on Baan Tai, where it was quieter and much cheaper, and take a quick taxi ride, about 10 minutes/8km, to Haad Rin for the party). The room cost us each 427THB/night, or $15.50CAD, which is nothing compared to the prices on Haad Rin for bungalows during the party.

We watched the sunset from our private room, grabbed some dinner, and sat on our porch and hammock while we waited for David. Finally he arrived, and the four of us chatted and caught up for several hours on the porch before calling it a night. It feels so good to have him back, and I’m thrilled that we get to spend the next few days, including the full moon party, together again. I fell asleep to the faint sound of the ocean just outside our window… It doesn’t get much better than this.

Ton Sai: Rock Climbing & Songkran, & Meeting Segev/Leo in Koh Phi Phi

Days 78-81 in Southeast Asia (April 12-15, 2016)

Beach Day

I don’t think anyone could ever get sick of this view. It’s no wonder to me why we’ve heard so many stories and already met several people who came to Ton Sai on vacation and never left. The atmosphere here is so relaxed and the people are so friendly… and don’t even get me started on these beaches… peaceful perfection.

As we walked across Ton Sai towards Railay West (the tide was low enough we could walk around the side without hiking over the rocks), we noticed the tiny little holes in the sand all around us, with small beads of sand piled around each of the holes… as we walked along we realized that scurrying around the holes were tiny little crabs popping in and out as we got closer, grey/brown in colour to match the sand, and no bigger than my thumbnail (some even as small as a pin head). They danced along the sand and fought with each other, ducking into their tiny holes as soon as we walked close enough. We stood on small rocks and watched as they poured out of the sand, covering the beach by the thousands. It was fascinating.

Alongside the crabs were a couple of jellyfish… HUGE jellyfish the size of my head (not joking) that had washed up on the shore with the tide. We almost didn’t believe that they were real at first, but after seeing around 10 or so by the time we left Ton Sai I can say with confidence that they were definitely real, and I tried not to think about them every time I went for a swim. We hung out on the beach at Railay West for a couple of hours, reading and relaxing before our busy afternoon of rock climbing that we had booked for 1:30pm through Basecamp.

Rock Climbing With Basecamp

The half day of climbing would take place on Railay East, and was around 4 hours in total, costing us each 800THB ($30CAD). We met our guide Milan at the shop in Ton Sai, got geared up in shoes and harnesses and walked to the beach to catch a longtail boat to Railay West, where we walked across to Railay East. There were 4 people in our group (including Maddie and I), and when we arrived at the spot where we’d be climbing, there were two other groups there as well that we got to watch for a bit and chat with while Milan set up our climbs. The first climb was about 15m I believe, and we learned pretty quickly why everyone on this beach is in incredible shape… they climb, and it is exhausting.

I went first, followed by Maddie and the others, and we actually impressed ourselves quite a bit considering our lack of experience. The climbing walls here are all natural of course, with no foot holes or steps added along the way to help you get up, so several areas of the rock seemed impossible to climb, and required quite a bit of balance and strength to maneuver around. Of course, we had Milan at the bottom holding onto our ropes, so even if (and when) we did fall off of the wall or lose our balance, we’d be fine.

The second climb was the hardest, 30m to the top and with what looked like a completely flat vertical wall for the final stretch. Though we didn’t realize it until after we had come down, apparently half of the people in the other groups beside us had already tried and given up halfway through, because it was just plain crazy. In several spots, your only hope was to push all of your weight up on one of your tiptoes, and pray that when you let go and reached up, your hand would land somewhere with a place to hang on to. I went first again, and when I finally reached the top, drenched in sweat and muscles shaking, I could hear (barely) the sound of the other climbers and Milan cheering me on. I looked behind me at the beautiful view of the beach and water, realizing only then exactly how high up I was, and I felt pretty accomplished.

Our final climb was about 10m, and though it was small, it was awkward, and after the second climb we were all struggling quite a bit to get to the top, our muscles shaking, hands sore (we had chalk on them but no gloves), and legs barely able to push us up anymore. Once again, I reached the top, as did the others in the group, which meant that both Maddie and I had completed all 3 climbs, and had proven Tommy and the other bartender from the night before wrong.. mission accomplished.

We walked back across Railay East over to Railay West, where Milan told us that the water was too rough (and it definitely was) for the longtail boat to pick us back up, so we had to hike back across to Ton Sai. We didn’t mind too much, but we were pretty exhausted, and it wasn’t exactly ideal. After returning our equipment to Basecamp with Milan, we thanked him and headed back to our room. We ate a nice dinner and hung out in the restaurant area for a bit before heading to bed early, completely beat, but feeling pretty proud of ourselves. It was a good day.

Hiking At Railay West & Phra Nang Beach

The following morning we were up early and ready to hike to some viewpoints nearby, despite the fact that our bodies were already completely sore from climbing the day before. We peeled ourselves up and walked through the decorated retaining walls once again, appreciating the artwork as always (I also have now found out that the walls are NOT there because of the tsunami as I said in my last post, and were actually built by a company who bought most of the beach and built the wall, soon planning on building a resort covering the entire main beach… I had assumed they were for tsunamis because of the tsunami evacuation route signs leading up to, and following the wall).

We ate a quick breakfast and walked back across Tonsai Beach, across Railay West, over to Railay East, and finally to Phra Nang beach (between Railay East and West). We crossed to the far side of the beach (closest to Railay West), and walked into the bushes and up a bit of a hill, to get to the tallest rock at the end that has a giant cave entrance visible from Phra Nang beach.

We walked up into the cave and put on our headlamps as we climbed up several long steep bamboo ladders spread out along the path, and used ropes to pull ourselves up along the paths between the ladders. We were feeling a bit uneasy about the path and climbing in the dark, but there was a guide with a couple of other tourists who was heading the same way, so we stayed relatively close to them to make sure we didn’t get lost. The path actually wasn’t too long or crazy, and after about 15 minutes in the cave we could see the light from the opening on the other side. It was a fairly small opening but with a stunning view of both Railay West and Ton Sai from quite high up (probably just over halfway up the mountain).

The tourists with the guide met us at the top, where we watched as they set up and repelled down to the bottom, which was pretty cool and something I definitely would’ve loved to try. After conquering our first viewpoint, already sweaty and tired, we went back down and out of the cave, and crossed Phra Nang beach to the other side, where we walked down the concrete path (on the way to Railay East) to the beginning of the path to get us to the lagoon and second viewpoint.

This path was the one we were dreading… Nils had told us about these viewpoints, and said that the lagoon was a pretty crazy hike up the side of the mountain (the viewpoint was at the top) followed by an even crazier descent into the lagoon using ropes and tree roots to hold onto while you basically rock climb down without harnesses (the lagoon is deep inside the mountain, completely enclosed around the sides and only open from the top). It took us close to an hour to get to the lagoon, including time spent waiting for other people going down/climbing up the vertical parts of the path that only have one rope and enough space for one person to move through.

Our arrival at the Lagoon itself was anticlimactic to say the least. The water was shallow and murky, surrounded by slippery mud that we walked through to get a few good photos of the perfectly round opening to the sky (which was pretty cool, and worth seeing). Maddie and I both agreed that our sense of accomplishment after climbing back to the top was more rewarding than the view at the Lagoon, and by the time we reached the second viewpoint up top we were feeling very proud of ourselves for spending the day hiking and not just laying on the beach (which is always nice, but not the only reason we wanted to come to Southern Thailand).


We got back to Ton Sai at about 3:30pm, and headed straight to Papa’s Chicken, a restaraunt that we passed by the day before and were dying to check out. We got huge crispy chicken burgers, french fries and cold diet cokes, and enjoyed every last bite after our crazy day of hiking and eating only the small snacks in our bags along the way.

Happy Songkran!

After lunch/dinner, we cleaned up back at our room, and got ourselves ready for Songkran, Thai New Year. It actually started this morning (on April 13), and is celebrated all day (and sometimes for several days following) with water fighting on the streets pretty much everywhere you go. We already got a taste of it after our hike, when some kids ran by and sprayed us with water guns by Railay West.

We grabbed our stuff (only what we knew could get wet and not damaged) and went over to Chill Out Bar, where we sat and drank, chatting with the bartender who proceeded to spray us with her water gun and put the white paste used at Songkran (talcum powder and water) on our face. The whole bar was full of water balloons that hung from the ceiling, and one of the bartenders had a long stick with a nail on the end that he’d use to spear the balloons and make them drop on people’s heads when they were least expecting it… people like me.

It was a lot of fun, and Maddie and I were completely soaked by the time we went to Viking bar. We hung out with some new friends until pretty late and eventually made our way back to the room for some rest after setting our alarms for 7am, when we’d have to be up to sort out our tickets to get to Koh Phi Phi.

Ton Sai to Koh Phi Phi

At 7am, hungover and exhausted, I walked to the nearest tour office and booked Maddie and myself a ticket on the first (and only) boat from Ton Sai to Koh Phi Phi at 9:30am for 400THB ($15). We packed our things, grabbed some breakfast, and headed to the pier where we waited until about 10 (the boat was late) for a longtail to take us to a speedboat. We sat up top and enjoyed the breeze for the next hour and a half, making a new friend along the way with Milos, who was from England and travelling the islands for about a week vacation after being sent to Phuket for a work conference. He asked us to meet him for a drink later, and we exchanged contact info.

Arriving in Koh Phi Phi & Finding a Place to Stay

At the pier, we paid the 20THB entry fee, grabbed our bags, and stopped at a tour agency to try to find a place to stay. The agency had several posters of places and prices, and we settled on Scenery Guesthouse, for 1200THB/night for a 3 bed private room with air conditioning (400THB/$15 each per night). The third bed, since I’m sure you’re wondering, was for our Israeli friend Segev who we had met in Chiang Mai and travelled with for a week after (with Andrew, Nils and the others), before he left us for New Zealand, where he spent the past 2 months hiking in the mountains.

We found out about a month or so ago that he decided to come back to Thailand after New Zealand to meet up with us, partly because he loved the islands so much he wanted to come back, but mostly because he missed us of course. Unfortunately, after waiting for his arrival in our room for a couple hours, we received a message from a very angry Segev, who was cursing Cathay Pacific for losing his luggage… The airline apologized and sent Segev to Phuket from Bangkok on another flight, where he had to stay the night and then head back to the airport the next morning to pick up his luggage that they would hopefully have ready for him. Apparently, his luggage never made it on the last leg of his flight, and it spent the night in Hong Kong.

Maddie and I stared at his empty bed and laughed as he cursed and yelled on the phone with us (if you knew him, you’d know that listening to Segev pissed off is possibly the best form of entertainment that money can’t buy). After wishing Segev luck, we went to the beach to watch the sunset.

We met Milos for a beer, and told him to join us the following night to party with Segev. That night, I went shopping a bit, watched some people get Thai bamboo tattoos (which is really cool to watch), and picked up a couple of beautiful sarongs (I couldn’t choose just one colour), which was apparently a wise decision, since someone either stole or accidentally took my towel from the drying rack outside of the guesthouse that night.

Finding Segev!

The next morning at 11am we decided to walk towards the pier to meet Segev with a nice cold Chang beer, and along the way we spotted him walking towards us and ran up to him yelling, welcoming him to the island after his lost bag fiasco and delay. We barely recognized him after 2 months of hiking; a skinnier, hairier version of himself now than back in Chiang Mai. We showed him to our room, and went right back out for some food, and to book a boat tour for that day. The morning tours (for the full day) had already left, but we still had time to catch a half day tour of Phi Phi Leh (the smaller island next to Koh Phi Phi Don (the island we were staying on). We booked a 4 hour tour from 2-6pm for 350THB, plus 200THB entry fee at Maya beach (the beach from Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie called “The Beach”) for a total of 550THB/$21CAD, including a small snack and our equipment for snorkelling.

Half Day Tour of Phi Phi Don & Phi Phi Leh

Our first stop was Monkey Beach, on Phi Phi Don, where our boat pulled up to the narrow crowded beach covered in both monkeys and tourists. It was really cool to get up close to the monkeys, but a lot of people were trying to touch them and fed them/gave them drinks, which you’re not supposed to do, and it made a lot of the monkeys aggressive towards each other, and sometimes towards the people. One guy from another tour was literally picking a fight with a monkey when we walked by, and when we were leaving we saw him getting bandaged up because he had been bitten, and would likely be getting a rabies shot as well. The people not respecting the animals’ space and feeding them honestly soured the experience for me, and though I did enjoy taking pictures from a safe distance, I think I would have rather skipped the stop had I known what the tourists were like there (and how garbage-covered it was).

Our second stop was Maya beach, equally packed with tourists, but incredibly beautiful nonetheless, and now we can say we were on The Beach from the movie, which is pretty cool. We walked to the back of the island facing Ah Loh Samah (a small bay) where people were swimming and climbing up a net to the viewpoint ledge, but the water was insanely rough and we were actually concerned for a moment that some of the tourists swimming looked like they were in danger… we refrained from swimming there.

After an hour at the beach we went back to the boat, where we rode around the island to the same bay we had just been looking out on, but in the middle (not the side where the water was so rough) for some snorkelling. The water was crystal clear and the lightest blue I’ve ever seen, and we were amazed by the hundreds of brightly coloured fish within our reach. It was my first snorkelling experience here, and it did not disappoint.

After that bay, we rode farther around the island to Ao Pileh for a beautiful (and more quiet) swim. These islands are truly paradise. After a quick ride by Viking Cave on our way back, the tour ended and we rode back to the pier. It wasn’t the MOST incredible tour I’ve ever been on in my life, but for about 20 bucks we got to see some amazing views, and spent the day together having an absolute blast because we were just so happy to all be reunited.

That evening, we went out for a late dinner and met up with Milos again for drinks. We spent hours just talking, drinking and dancing on the beach, and made it back to our room at around 3am… it was a great night, and I’m sure there will only be more like it now that we’re on the islands and reunited with our favourite crazy Israeli, Segev.