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.


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.

Khao Sok 2 day Lake Tour, & Travelling Through Ao Nang To Ton Sai

Days 75-77 in Southeast Asia (April 9-11, 2016)

2 Day Lake & Jungle Tour on Chiao Lan Lake

Saturday morning we packed up our things (again), stuck them in a locker at Jungle Huts, and waited in the lobby for our minivan to take us on a 2 day lake and jungle tour through Khao Sok National Park and Chiao Lan Lake.

The tour was recommended to us by Nils, who said it was one of the best things he’d done in Southern Thailand (and he spent 6 weeks here, so we trust his opinion). We had heard from a number of people that Phuket was unfortunately really touristy, and multiple people told us that it was actually the dirtiest place they’d been in the country… normally I try to make my own opinions of places, but when people tell us over and over that a place has been destroyed by tourism… it definitely is a turn off for me and since we’ve only got a couple of weeks in the area I would rather not waste 3 days in a tourist overrun area that I end up hating.

We also had planned 5 days in Koh Phangan at the end of our time here because for the full moon party most places require you to book for 5 whole days if you book in advance, so that they can suck out all of your money, but it is apparently not hard to just show up at places just off of the main beach (which we didn’t plan on staying at anyways), to stay for less than 5 days. Since that island is also supposed to be pretty overpopulated with tourists (which makes sense because of the full moon party, and we knew what we signed up for with that one), we decided to change our plans quite a bit… we’ve decided to stay 3 days at the end in Koh Phangan now instead of 5, and cut out Phuket altogether, making room for Khao Sok for a couple of nights now, as well as Ao Nang and Tonsai afterwards.

The 2 day tour in Khao Sok cost us each 2500THB ($93CAD), plus a 300B entrance fee ($11). It wasn’t cheap, but Nils told us we HAD to… and he said that he promised it’d be worth every penny, so we threw down our money and went for it. The minibus picked us up around 9 and drove us an hour or so to the pier, where we boarded a long tail boat and cruised through the lake for the next 30-45 minutes to take us to Smiley Lakehouse. The boat ride was the most beautiful boat ride I’ve ever been on in my life. Ever. Period…

Limestone karsts jutted out of the water all around us, in both jagged and rolling tall thin peaks, with white and red rocks towering overhead in every direction, each small ledge and peak painted lush green with bushes and tall jungle trees. It was like Halong Bay, but with better weather and visibility, and even more beautiful in my opinion because it was so quiet. For most of the time, our group of 15 or so were the only people we saw while we were out on the lake (other than at the lakehouse, which had several other groups staying there as well).

The Lakehouse area was peaceful and small, and was made up of one long thin walkway with small houses, and a boat dock in the middle, followed by a few other houses, and a main restaurant/bar area at the end. When we arrived on the dock, we were showed to our small rooms, each with 2 beds, a fan, glass windows (which was nice for keeping out the bugs), and a full bathroom.

It was lovely, and after settling in and unpacking our things, we were given some time to swim and hang out by the water before being served lunch in the restaurant (accommodation, as well as all meals and water were included in the tour price). After lunch, we hopped back on the boat for another beautiful ½ hour ride to take us closer to Namtalu Cave, where we’d spend the afternoon hiking. We hiked for about 30 minutes to the cave through the jungle, and then left all of our things in our bags outside of the cave other than our bathing suits and headlamps… this was not a dry cave.

Within a few minutes, we were waist deep in cold water, and it felt amazing after our hike in the crazy heat and humidity. The cave was narrow and tall, and full of small cracks and holes with giant frogs and spiders living inside… we tried to ignore the spiders (some were the size of my hand). We climbed up small waterfalls inside the cave and through tunnels before reaching the other side, where we hiked about an hour back to our belongings, and another 30 minutes back to the boat.

As we rode back, we watched the sun set over the karsts from the water, and stopped along the way to check out some beautiful tropical birds flying overhead and hanging out in the towering trees along the shore. It was a perfect sunset, and we sat and enjoyed the view of the lake and sky post-sunset from our room when we got back. We had a late dinner and then went back out to try to see/hear some more animals in the jungle from the boat. We heard some pigs, and saw some nocturnal monkeys using big flashlights that the drivers had, while they made noises calling the monkeys out of their trees. After our night tour we went off to bed, exhausted from the hike and ready for another one the following day.

Day 2 on Chiao Lan Lake

The next morning, we were up at 6am to hop back on the longtail boat at 6:40 for a sunrise boat ride before breakfast. We rode across the mist covered lake, weaving through the karsts as we watched the sky change colours around us, reflected in the crystal clear water… It was like something out of a dream. We stopped in a small enclosed area and moved around slowly as the boat drivers pointed out the different birds and monkeys in the trees around us. We must have seen well over 20 different monkeys, including 3 or 4 different species (I didn’t catch all the names), as well as several birds and a huge monitor lizard (in the same family as the kimodo dragon) that ran off the second we came into view, so quickly that none of us caught a photo.

After an hour or so of sightseeing and enjoying some of the best views of my life, we went back to the lakehouse for some breakfast to fuel up before our second day of hiking in the jungle. We packed up our things (we would not be coming back to the lakehouse after our hike), and made our way to another boat dock a half and hour or so away. Our group, which included a couple from England and their 3 daughters (ages 15, 7 and 4), hiked from the dock to the next cave entrance, about an hour or so up a mountain. We went down into the long dry cave, which was most memorable for its smell… thousands of bats filled the cave, and our shoes slipped and stuck as we walked through their… well, you know.

It smelled awful, but the cave itself was pretty cool, and the giant spiders we saw at the cave the day before were even more common in this one, plastering the walls and floor, visible to us as soon as our headlights reflected off of their single shining eye in the centre of their bodies… I tried not to notice.

On the way back, we spent a bit of time talking to the couple from England and their 3 daughters. The couple had both done a ton of travelling in their life, and had decided that it would be no different when they had kids. They had all already been to India already as well, and were currently finishing up the last few days of their 2 week vacation in Thailand. We definitely had to give them credit for taking their kids somewhere like Thailand, when most people wouldn’t dare take their kids somewhere that wasn’t a resort or a cottage. It’s just not as practical. It was definitely inspiring, and I hope that someday if I ever decide to become a parent I would do the same.

After hiking back from the cave, we sat by the water for some lunch, which was little wrapped up packages of fried rice with chicken and vegetables as well as bananas and chopped up pineapples. It was pretty delicious. Sadly, it was now time to go back to our place in Khao Sok, though Maddie and I both agreed that if it wasn’t so expensive, we’d easily have stayed a week on this beautiful lake.

Back To Jungle Huts, Leaving For Krabi & Ao Nang

When we got back to Jungle Huts hostel at around 2:30pm (where we booked our tour and stayed the night before it started), we grabbed our things from the locker, used the shower and booked a bus to take us to Krabi at 4:30pm that day. The 4 hour minibus cost us each 300THB ($11), and got us to Krabi at 8:30pm, where we hopped on a local bus for 60THB ($2) to take us to Ao Nang, about a half hour bus ride away, where we had booked ourselves in at Slumber Party 2 Hostel for 505THB each for a 12 bed dorm ($19CAD… we’re now farther South, and things are getting pricier). We grabbed some snacks at the 7/11, sat around in the lobby for a bit to use the WiFi, and called it a night pretty early, exhausted from our long day of hiking and travelling.

Ao Nang to Ton Sai

On Monday morning, we once again packed up our things and hit the road, and by road I mean water. We took a 15 minute longtail ride from Ao Nang to Ton Sai for 100THB ($4), where we had originally planned on going in the first place, but knew that the boats wouldn’t be able to get us there by the time we arrived in Ao Nang the night before.

Ton Sai is famous for its weed-smoking, yoga-doing, rock climbing hippies and the very laid back and quiet atmosphere that comes with them. It is also one of the places that was hit hard by the tsunami on the Andaman coast several years back, and so the main “town” (2 streets), is now set about 500m back from the beach, and is blocked off by retaining walls. It was briefly unsettling, but the retaining walls are covered in really beautiful graffitti and paintings, and it’s hard to feel too paranoid about anything in a beautiful place like this. Besides; as a traveller there is always a risk vs reward factor that comes into play, and in this case, the beaches and view here are worth damn near any risk, especially one that was realistically fairly low. We were the only two passengers to get off on Ton Sai beach, the other passengers headed to Railay West (the beach neighbouring ours, and only a short hike/boat ride away, within view).

Tonsai & Railay West!

We were welcomed by a deserted beach and a beautiful view. We walked up the road past the main resort and through the retaining walls up the hill. We checked out several bungalows, all modest in both price and appearance. Finally, we decided to stay at Andaman Nature Resort, where we paid 350B ($13), so only $7 each/night for a 2 bed bungalow with a bathroom (cold water only and a bucket-flush toilet), a small fan, WiFi in the restaurant (when it’s open) and electricity that turns on at 6pm (sundown)… it wasn’t much, but we knew what we signed up for when we decided to come to a quieter beach and didn’t want to pay too much.

After putting our things in our room, we changed into our bathing suits and could not get to the water fast enough. Unfortunately, the beach here at Ton Sai isn’t super popular for swimming, and there was a lot of garbage near the shore (which surprised me for such a quiet spot), so most people go to Railay West, the neighbouring beach about a 20 minute hike away. The beaches actually are connected when the tide is low, though by midday the tide is high enough that your only option really is to climb up and over the jagged rocks and steps leading to Railay (don’t do it barefoot, you’ll regret it).

We arrived at Railay West, sweaty and ready for a swim in the bright blue water surrounded by limestone karsts. Every direction we looked in had a view that could have been stuck on a postcard, it was beautiful. By the time we walked back, the tide was so low that we could walk the whole way around without hiking over the path we had used on the way there (we were still on rocks for a portion but right by the water and mostly in the sand).

We watched the sun set behind the karsts on Ton Sai, and made our way back to the bungalow to clean up and relax. The restaurant for our bungalow has a lounge area with a tv that they play movies on all evening, and we sat and caught a portion of Skyfall, one of my favourite James Bond movies of all time.

Cockroaches & Mice…

Unfortunately, my enjoyment was interrupted by Maddie in a panic having just come from our room. Apparently she lifted her cothes off of the bed and two giant cockroaches hissed at her and scurried across the room. When we went back we also saw some little “presents” on one of the shelves, which looked like they were left by mice. We went to the front desk and they offered to switch us rooms for the night to a one bed bungalow on the opposite path to ours. We agreed and moved our things immediately (I had to pick up all of Maddie’s things from on the bed because she was traumatized).

Our new room was obviously still a bungalow outside, with holes in the walls and openings leading outside around the doors and from the bathroom, but it didn’t appear to have anyone living there except for us at the moment, so we took it. We kept everything closed in our bags from that point on, shook apart the new bed and tucked the mosquito net tightly around it (even for the following days), and tried to ignore the fact that we weren’t more than 100m from our last room, and were still very vulnerable to bugs/mice should they choose to visit.

Viking Bar

After we had moved into our new room we headed straight back out for a much needed drink. We walked past a few bars and decided to sit for a drink at Viking bar, right by our bungalow. This is where we quickly became friends with Tommy, the bartender (from Thailand), and two young female travellers who also worked there (from Germany and Finland). We chatted, drank, and played several games including Jenga and Connect 4, both of which I’m not particularly good at, but I had fun nonetheless. Tommy also brought out a few puzzles (those crazy wood 3D puzzles that nobody can ever figure out, and showed us how he could finish them all with his eyes closed (literally, I held my hands over his eyes and screamed in amazement as he spent no more than 10 seconds finishing the puzzle I had been playing with for 20 minutes).

It was a really fun, relaxing evening, and Tommy even made us a bucket for free, which we quit halfway through because he made it SO strong we couldn’t handle it, and were already sufficiently drunk. At the end of the night, Maddie and I grabbed a delicious chicken burger from a stall near the bar, and went back to the room so that we could sleep long enough to survive the following day, when we’d both be trying real life rock climbing for the first time (I’ve done it before on constructed walls but definitely never outside like this). We were nervous, but even though Tommy and the other bartender laughed and told us that we wouldn’t be able to finish the climbs, we felt pretty confident, and decided that it was just one more reason we had to make it to the top… Besides, we all know how much I love proving people wrong.

Siem Reap: Angkor Temples by Motorbike & The Journey to Khao Sok (Thailand)

Days 70-74 in Southeast Asia (April 4-8, 2016)

Historical Siem Reap: Some Facts

Monday began our first day in beautiful Siem Reap, the city most famously known, of course, because of Angkor Wat. The ancient capital of Cambodia, (before Phnom Penh, today’s capital) was ruled by 26 different kings who developed different temples and capitals in the area between the years 790-1327, the most famous one of course being Angkor Wat because of its official status as the largest religious monument in the world. Today, the entire area has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, and thousands upon thousands of tourists visit Cambodia each year to visit the incredible temples.

The religious influences in Cambodia came from India in the form of Hinduism and Buddhism. The central figures of worship throughout Angkor are Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction, though also the god of creation because of reincarnation through destruction), Vishnu (the Hindu god of protection, who preserves order and harmony in the universe), and Buddha (of course the central figure of Buddhism). Brahma (the third Hindu god, the creator) is less frequently worshipped, because he has less to do with life on earth, and is worshipped only as the original creator of life, without much involvement in life on earth, which is for the most part cyclical and ruled by Shiva.

Over the Khmer Empire, Hinduism dominated until the end of the 12th Century when Mahayana Buddhism became the primary focus (today, Mahayana Buddhism is more important in what is today’s Thailand than in Cambodia). Both Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodia were adopted but not changed much or broken into sects like in other areas of Asia, so the temples here are all fairly similar in both form and function. The temples are built of brick, laterite and sandstone for the most part. Brick was used as the main building material early on, and laterite was used as a foundation material for its hardness. Sandstone was usually the most expensive material to build with, unless a temple was built near a good local source, and it was regarded as the highest of the materials for its fine quality, resulting in all of the best and most impressive carvings throughout the temples.

The temples were built as palaces for gods, not as a meeting place for the faithful, and the prasats (towers) of each temple, made to resemble Mount Meru (the ancient centre of the universe, with the central prasat being the highest and often most decorated), were intended solely to house small statues of the gods (many of these statues and other relics from the temples now sit inside Phnom Penh National Museum to be kept safe and preserved).

The moat that surrounded many of the temples was also a religious symbol, meant to represent the primordial ocean. Within the structures, Shiva is often represented by a lingha (phallus), a cylindrical structure, the top 1/3 being visible most often, sitting on top of an octagonal mid section (a representation of Vishnu), and a square base (representing Brahma). The bottom two sections are most often hidden within a pedestal or slab that surrounds the lingha (representing a womb), together representing fertility and prosperity. Because of the structures’ important religious significance, they were the only buildings during the time to be made using the various stones/bricks. All other domestic structures and even palaces were made of wood and less durable materials, and therefore did not survive the test of time. Today, only the layout of the ancient city/streets is evident.

Our First Day Exploring the Temples: Banteay Srei

To begin our first day of exploring these incredible temples, Maddie and I walked down the road to find somewhere to rent a motorbike. We had heard that it was illegal/not permitted for tourists to rent motorbikes in Siem Reap, which is why most people tour the temples by tuk tuk, though we knew several people who had done it all by motorbike and said that it was a much more enjoyable experience and provided a nice little break from the heat of the day, zipping through the streets and feeling the breeze. We also heard that the rule wasn’t really enforced much, and even so, if you’re caught it was more of a “hey you shouldn’t be on a motorbike” warning, to which most tourists just say “oh okay sorry I didn’t know,” and they just let you go and tell you to return the bike.

We rented our bike for the next 3 days for $10USD/day, so $5 each, and it was actually one of the nicest bikes we’ve rented so far, with a pretty comfortable seat, nice mirrors and good brakes (yes, really…actual good brakes). After renting our bike, we went to the ticketing office up to road to buy our all access ticket to the temples of Angkor, which is $20USD for a 1 day pass, or $40USD for a 3 day pass. We opted for the 3 day pass since we had the time, and also had heard that the temples were much better enjoyed at a slightly slower pace than by trying to rush through the entirety of the area in one day.

After we had our tickets sorted out, we headed to our first stop, Banteay Srei, which is about a 20km/40 minute drive North of the city, and by far the most out of the way from the temple area near Angkor Wat. We had heard that it was worth a visit, and since we had the motorbike we didn’t mind a bit of a drive. In fact, we both found that it had the most beautiful sandstone carvings out of all the temples we would see over the next couple of days. Made entirely of sandstone, the “Citadel of the Women”, as it is often called, impressed us with delicate pink relief carvings, certainly some of the finest in all of Khmer art. Also unique to this temple is its size, almost miniature, with doorways much smaller than other temples, and walls that barely reached above eye level. It was very unique in both scale and decoration, and well worth the drive.

Cambodia Land mine Museum

On our way back from the temple, we decided to visit the Cambodia Land mine Museum that was recommended to us by Andrew and Nils, who had just come from Siem Reap when they met us in Phnom Penh. The museum was $5USD to get in, but $3 of that goes to the children who live at and are supported by the museum, as well as the staff who earn a fair salary. $1 then goes to help clear mines, and the other $1 to support other programs in rural villages, so it’s hard to feel bad about paying for entry when you’re helping a cause just by visiting. The museum is set up similar to S-21 and the Killing Fields in that it is full of rooms with numbered signs, and you are free to rent an audiobook (included with admission) that explains each of the areas and displays in the museum.

The layout and order of the rooms was slightly confusing, and certainly smaller and less well-organized than the exhibits in Phnom Penh, but still very much worth the time and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has time for more than just temples in Siem Reap.

The museum holds thousands of disarmed mines, almost entirely found by one man named Aki Ra, who has received various awards worldwide now for his efforts in making Cambodia a safer place. As a child, Aki Ra’s parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and he was made a soldier at age 10 when he was given his first gun, an AK47. Over the next several years, he fought for the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese army, and the Cambodian Army, through which he and his friends were ordered to lay thousands of land mines throughout the country. He did as he was told, without any say in the matter, and at one point almost accidentally killed his own uncle, who was fighting for the other side at the time.

He pretended to miss once he saw who it was, and they both survived the war. When the war ended, and Aki Ra was a free man, he began retracing his steps and uncovering land mines he had laid under orders. He uncovered mines from all over the world, and dedicated his life to defusing them with little more than a stick and a pair of pliers. Before his efforts, the land mine-related injury count of Cambodia was in the thousands per year. As of 2014, there were 157. The mines are now most dominant in remote areas in NorthWestern Cambodia, but the rest of the country has been cleared almost entirely.

In 1997, Canada created the Mine Ban Treaty, which was signed in Ottawa by 122 countries, to prevent the unnecessary use of mines in warfare in the future, which have proven to do little more than cause problems for civilians even after a war has ended. When the US bombed Cambodia in excess in 1965 trying to clear the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an estimated 600,000 civilians were killed, and it only helped the Khmer Rouge gain power. In 1973 the bombing finally stopped, though many of these bombs never exploded. In 1998, after Pol Pot’s death, Cambodia found some peace.

Today, 6 groups are working to clear Cambodia of the remaining mines, funded by several other countries as well as worldwide organizations. The Cambodian Self Help De-mining, founded by Aki Ra in 2008, is the newest addition to these groups, and is made up of entirely Cambodians who were affected by and involved in the war. In 2006, Aki Ra’s old way of doing things was declared unsafe by international standards, and a new way with proper tools and protection has been adopted by the group. Today, the centre (this museum) supports children who were victims of land mines exploding, as well as orphans whose parents were victims, or children who just needed a home and a better life.

It is hard to realize the impact that the land mines have had on this country. 1 in every 300 Cambodians today are land mine victims, and while Aki Ra and his team continue to work tirelessly to make Cambodia mine-free, it takes a lot of money and time to do so, and many people in remote areas still live in fear of UXOs where they live and sleep. Aki Ra has single handedly defused an estimated 50,000 land mines of various makes and models, mostly before the modern way of doing things, using a stick and pliers. As far as real life superheroes go, I think he makes the cut.

If you’ve got the time, definitely check out the museum in Siem Reap, I guarantee you will learn something, and like I said before, just showing up is supporting the cause. There is also art made by the children, and other souvenirs for sale at the museum that help support the cause, and I bought a few bars of “Clean Up Soap”, that gives 50% of its profits straight to the centre to care for the children living here. It was an afternoon well spent.

East Mebon & Night Market

After the museum, we figured we had a bit of time to zip over to one more temple before the end of the day. We drove to East Mebon, a larger temple, and enjoyed the beautiful view as the sun began to go down. When we got back to our room, Maddie went for a swim on the rooftop and I ran out to the nightmarket for some sunglasses (and of course ended up with a new Angkor Wat tank top to add to my collection of Asia tops). We went to bed fairly early, exhausted from the long day, but ready for an early start the following morning for sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

At 4:30am, we were up and ready for action. We left at about 5:15, and got to Angkor at around 5:40ish, where we joined the masses to watch the sunrise from the left side of the bridge, by the lotus water (because it is the tourist thing to do, of course). It was very pretty, as sunrises are, and Angkor Wat was incredible to finally see in real life, it’s colossal size simply incomparable to any other temple or church I’ve seen, even the Taj Mahal.

Honestly though, I didn’t feel the “magic”… it was beautiful, and I certainly appreciated it, but it’s one of those things that looks better on a postcard than in real life, and the colours are never as bright and beautiful as you’ve seen in photos and online, and your photos are sure to be from too far away or with other peoples’ heads in them as you peer through the crowd. Even the pressure of getting a good photo of it was reason enough to feel stressed out. I ended up far off to the side, crouching down in a squat over a rock to get a good photo, and then just sat in the dirt so that I’d be out of the way and could just enjoy the view, despite the crazy crowds. It was nice, and of course I don’t regret doing it, because you HAVE to do it… but I find that sometimes things like this are just so famous and hyped up that you end up just going into it with crazy high expectations, and a lot of pressure to take a perfect photo, and it kinda just feels forced.

We went inside Angkor afterwards, though we weren’t allowed up to the very top since all we had were scarves around our shoulders (and you have to wear an ACTUAL T shirt to get in), so we explored around the temple for a bit, appreciating its beautiful decorations and sheer size, and then we left.

Ta Prohm (The Tomb Raider Temple), Bayon & Preah Khan

Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple) was our next stop, most famous for the trees growing wildly inside, on top of, and straight through the temple walls. This may have been my favourite of all the temples, only because of how truly jaw dropping it was to see the roots of trees making their way down into the walls and through the rubble of the temple.

Next was Bayon, known for its many faces visible in the bricks of the pillars, facing in each direction in every spot you look from both inside and out. Aside from the trees at Ta Prohm, these faces were definitely my favourite temple feature of all.

When we finished up at Bayon, we checked out the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrance of the Leper King, and Baphuon (though we were turned down at Baphuon because again, it was one of the few temples that required an ACTUAL T shirt and our scarves were not enough).

Our final stop was Preah Khan, with more beautiful trees as well as impressive relief carvings, before we decided to call it a day at around 3pm (after 9.5 hours of temple-ing).

Pub Street, Night Market & Fish Pedicures

We dragged our sweaty butts upstairs to the rooftop pool, and I think I could have cried with relief at how good it felt to get in that water. I think we counted that between the two of us we had bought 4 large water bottles that day (1.5L), totalling 6L (3L each), and still felt insanely dehydrated. We hung out in the pool for a couple hours and chatted with some Swedish girls before changing and heading to the market for some food.

We walked along Pub Street and through the giant Night Market, and got our feet nibbled on by some fish for $2USD, which was a really fun and cheap way to end the day. The workers laughed as we screamed, not realizing just how ticklish we were until we had a hundred little mouthes nibbling at our toes. Eventually we got used to it a bit more, and while I’m still not sure how much they actually DID in terms of improving my feet, it was a fun activity and I’m glad we did it.

Third Day Temple-ing: Pre Rup Sunrise

On our third and final day of temple-ing, we decided to get up early (yes, again), for another sunrise. This time, we went to Pre Rup, which has 3 peaks visible over the outside wall much like at Angkor Wat, but it is obviously far quieter since everyone else is watching the sunrise that makes it on the postcards. We bought some raisin bread and peanut butter the night before and sat behind Pre Rup making ourselves some sandwiches (dipping the bread in the jar), and watched as the sun began to rise.

We were the only people outside of the temple, and I decided to go up top to watch the sunrise, while Maddie stayed behind the temple. There were only 3 other people up top, and I sat off to one side and watched as the beautiful bright red and orange Cambodian sun lit up the ruins below. It was the best sunrise I’ve seen, and the magic that I missed out on at Angkor Wat the morning before was bubbling up inside me. Trees stretched out as far as I could see past the temple area, and it was all just perfect. Best of all… it was quiet.

Ta Keo & Neak Pean

After sunrise, we visited Ta Keo and Neak Pean, which is a smaller monument surrounded by a large shallow lake area with bare trees and bushes coming up out of the water… it had a very swampy Lord of the Rings feel to it, and it was really a really cool setting, though the monument itself wasn’t much to look at.

Neak Pean was also where we met Preston and Brian, two guys travelling together since they met a couple weeks ago in Vietnam. Brian is from New York, and is only away for a few weeks before starting a new job, and Preston is from Texas, travelling for a couple of months in similar areas to us after finishing his Master’s. We chatted a bit by the temple and they invited us out for dinner and drinks at the market that night. We happily agreed and wrote down their names so we’d find them on Facebook once we got WiFi again.

Baphuon & Angkor Wat

After making our new friends, we went back to Baphuon (where we were rejected for not having T-shirts the day before, we brought some in our bag today). I couldn’t tell you how many stairs there were, but it was a lot, and I was very sweaty by the time we left, but it was a pretty cool temple so I cant complain.

Afterwards, we went BACK to Angkor Wat, with our T shirts ready, so that we could get up top… but they’re apparently only open in the morning. We decided it clearly wasn’t meant to be, enjoyed a quick view of the area in the mid day light, and left. We went out for lunch at a restaurant with air conditioning where I tried some fish lok lak, a coconut curry-type dish with fish and veggies served with rice (delicious), and had some ice cream to top it off. It was a well deserved meal after what was already a very long day of temple-ing, soon to be longer.

Bakong & Lolei

We continued on past our hostel area and on the highway heading East for about half an hour to get to Bakong and Lolei temples. Bakong was quite beautiful, and seemed very old, and Lolei was really nothing much to look at, but had a small school behind/inside the temple where we met a teacher there, who showed us around and introduced us to the children, most of whom were monks who were learning English and taking computer classes. We saw their library and classroom, and spoke with several students eager to practice their English with us. It wasn’t at all what I expected when we got to the temple, and I think that might be why I enjoyed it so much.

Night Market & Dinner With New Friends

After conquering our final stop on our list of temples to see here in Siem Reap, we went back to our hostel area to buy our bus tickets to get us to Bangkok the following morning. We booked them through Hang Tep Travel, and it cost us $10USD each for the “8 hour” trip that would leave at 8am the next morning. We then returned our beloved motorbike, and after showering and cleaning ourselves up, we dragged our exhausted selves out to the market area where we met up with Preston and Brian (who we met at Neak Pean).

They were both really nice, and very interesting gentlemen. Preston lived and worked in the Congo for 2 years, and had some really awesome stories from his travels. We all talked about life and travel, and how much easier it is to make friends out here than back home, where everyone already has groups of friends and isn’t really looking to make new ones so much, a big reason we had all fallen in love with backpacking. We grabbed some beers, got the guys to try the fish foot bath, which they forced us to join in on, and went to “Angkor What?” bar for some drinks and a bit of dancing (Preston is from Texas and has got some great moves, that basically require his partner to just trust him and relax while he twirls and spins you around… Maddie and I were both laughing and impressed as he danced with us so incredibly well, especially given our own lack of abilities).

He also told us that he was going to meet up with us for the Full Moon Party this month in Koh Phangan, which I can’t wait for. After Maddie and Preston tried to jump rope at the bar (it was a crazy long rope with huge crowds gathered around), and Maddie took a decently hard fall, we decided to call it a night and head back, knowing that we had to be up in time for our bus to Bangkok, and would then be finding a way South from there to Khao Sok.

The Journey to Khao Sok via Bangkok

Our tuk tuk picked us up at 7:30am on Thursday morning to bring us to the bus station, where we left at 8am to get to Bangkok. We stopped a few times along the way, once at a place where we were forced to BUY something from a food store if we wanted to use the squat toilet… which is really cruel to do to a bus full of tourists who all have to pee. The ladies running the shop were so rude to everyone I was in shock, and it definitely left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth as we left… but other than that the bus ride was pretty standard.

At Poipet we stopped for about an hour where we exited Cambodia and entered Thailand (we got a free 30 day Visa on Arrival at the border). At the crossing we met Zoe and Caitlyn, two other young travellers from England, and Maddie saw a sticker on Caitlyn’s bag for diabetes. We bonded briefly over our diabetes sisterhood, but she was on injections rather than the pump, so we definitely have very different routines and struggles. Still, it is always nice to see other travellers with diseases like mine who don’t let it get in the way of doing fun things.

Our bus arrived in Bangkok 3 hours late, at 7pm, where we grabbed some McDonald’s quickly before going to a booking office nearby to try to get ourselves to Khao Sok, hoping to grab an overnight train. The office told us they couldn’t book anything this late, but to head straight to the train station. We haggled for a 100THB ($4) taxi to take us to the station, about 30 minutes away, only to find out that the overnight train to Surat Thani was fully booked not only for tonight, but for tomorrow night as well. Not ready to waste 2 days in Bangkok, we grabbed another taxi and headed to the bus station (a less comfortable option, but still an option), that took another 40 minutes to get to and cost us 200THB ($8). The bus was fully booked as well, and it was 9:30pm… we were running out of options, and not at all wanting to book a flight.

Maddie ran in and found out that there was a minibus that would be leaving at 10:30pm to get to Surat Thani for 800THB ($30), arriving around 7:30am, where we’d grab another bus to get us to Khao Sok. Sold. We waited for an hour and after running around the bus station, completely sweaty and exhausted from an already long day of travel, we got on our minibus. It was actually really nice, with air conditioning, WiFi and comfortable seats, and Maddie and I laid across the 3 seats in the back with our legs in each others’ faces, in what ended up being not the worst sleeping position in the world. Mostly we were just happy to be moving in the right direction, and not stuck in Bangkok for 2 days… 9 hours later, we arrived in Surrat Thani, booked our 250THB ($10) bus to take us to Khao Sok, waited another hour for the bus, and 2.5 hours later, after approximately 27.5 hours in transit, we arrived in Khao Sok.

Khao Sok At Last

A gentleman who works at one of the hostels here drove us for free to his sister’s bungalow first, and then to his. We decided to stay at his place, Jungle Huts, for 300B ($12) for the night for both of us ($6 each) for a small bungalow with a fan and cold showers (which in this heat was more of a selling point than a compromise). After putting our things in our room, we walked around the small street that makes up the entire tourist area here in the middle of the jungle, sat by the river for a bit, and relaxed for the rest of the day, happy to be away from a bus.

Final Thoughts on Cambodia

I’m very excited to be back in Thailand and headed for the islands, though I honestly feel like I could have spent so much longer in Cambodia. We had 16 days there, and I didn’t expect to love it nearly as much as I did leading up to it from what other people had told me. I had met several travellers before getting there who spoke fairly lowly of Cambodia… “It’s filthy,” “I can’t believe you’re going for over 2 weeks,” “I would not want to spend a long time there,” and “Cambodia is a S*** hole,” are all things I’ve heard on several occasions now, and tried very hard to ignore.

It broke my heart to hear it because I try so hard to accept a country for what it is, and to prepare myself going into it so that I’m not overly shocked or horrified, and won’t come across as ignorant or rude towards another culture especially as a guest in that country. Now, after learning about Cambodia’s history in Phnom Penh and now Siem Reap, it actually makes me mad about what I’ve heard from other people. No, it’s not particularly clean… and yes, there are a lot of beggars and poor people, and the businesspeople here are desperate and frustrating to deal with, but what people seem to forget is that this is a country that has been through so much so recently, and is actually doing really well considering the circumstances. Still, most of these people make less in a month than many of us make in a day back home.

Sure, it gets hard to say no politely after 5000 “no thank you’s” and being chased down the street being offered books or bracelets, and it’s not fun to have to drive 15-20 minutes if you want to find a restaurant that looks nice enough that it might have toilet paper AND soap, let alone a western toilet… but I guarantee you it’s a lot harder for them than it is for us.

Personally, I have loved my time in Cambodia, and actually wish I had more of it. The people have been so kind in nearly every place we’ve been (other than that final bus stop), and the cities are actually far more developed in a lot of areas than I expected, almost even to standards back home, which is really impressive all things considered. I guess all I’m trying to say is that before you go travelling to another country, please leave your privileged life and opinions at the door, and humble yourself a little. If you can do that, I promise you that the not-so-lovely toilets, pushy drivers/businesspeople and dirty streets are a small price to pay for the beauty you will certainly appreciate more once you overlook the rest, and accept a country for what it is.

Cambodia, I’ll miss you, and you can be sure that I’ve left a piece of my heart here… If you look hard enough, you’ll probably find it (sweating) somewhere between Koh Rong and Kampot.

Kampot: Mountains, Motorbikes and Goodbyes

Days 66-69 in Southeast Asia (March 31-April 3, 2016)

Leaving Koh Rong to Sihanoukville & Kampot

Thursday morning was rough for me… I was still having really bad stomach cramps and nausea, and while I was grateful that I wasn’t puking or running to the toilet, the last thing I wanted to do was pack up all of my stuff and carry it down the beach to get on a boat… Luckily, Nils had already run to the pier to get our tickets stamped for the speed ferry at 12pm to Sihanoukville, and bought our bus tickets to get us from there to our next stop in Kampot (which were $6USD each). After accepting the fact that we were simply never going to wear our diva hats that we had bought in Hoi An, Maddie left hers in the room, where one of the hostel workers picked it up and wore it out to the bar area where we were sitting and saw his friend laughing. I gave him mine as well and said that they now had a set of them to wear together. They laughed and said thank you, and we left.

Once we got to the pier, we were told that the ferry would be late, and wouldn’t be arriving until about 2pm. We sat and read (and I tried no to puke) as we waited for the next 2 hours at the restaurant on the pier, until finally our speed ferry arrived. Not only was it late, but it also dropped off/picked up passengers on the other Island on the way to Sihanoukville after picking us up… The 3:30pm bus to Kampot was definitely not happening. Nils said that the lady who sold him the bus ticket said that if we missed the 3:30pm one, there would be another at 5:30 that we could take no problem.

We arrived at Sihanoukville at around 4:30, and the second I left the comfort of the cool breeze on the boat, I was overwhelmed with nausea. I couldn’t understand how I had continued to feel more and more sick, and yet NOTHING was happening… I was praying to puke only so that I could feel some sort of relief, but instead I sat by the pier holding a cold can of pop on my face while Nils ran off to figure out the bus situation. He came running back and said that we could go right now, so we all grabbed our things and hopped on the bus to Kampot.

It was a small minivan, and there were about 8 passengers in total, each of whom I quickly warned about the fact that I very well may puke on the bus. I opened the side window, and for the next hour and a half I hung my head out, feeling the cool breeze and enjoying the beautiful view the whole way, both of which helped distract me from how I was feeling.

Kampot & Mad Monkey Hostel

When we arrived in Kampot, we shared a $2USD tuk tuk to get to Mad Monkey Hostel, which was more of a hotel/resort than a hostel, with beautiful rooms and bathrooms, a full bar/restaurant, a rooftop bar, a gorgeous swimming pool and balconies overlooking the pool and river. Not too shabby for $8USD/night. We grabbed some food at the hostel, though I didn’t eat much of it since I was still feeling sick, and after a nice shower I basically crashed in bed for the night while the others hung out a bit later.

I was pretty sick throughout the night, but was so grateful that I was in a nice room with a clean bathroom and air conditioning rather than our tiny sand-and-mosquito-filled, bucket-flushing, dark bathroom at Koh Rong, and honestly by the morning I was feeling a lot better. I think I had in fact gotten mild food poisoning, or maybe it was just from swallowing some sea water like I originally thought. I can’t be sure. It certainly wasn’t as bad as my Laos episode, but it definitely wasn’t something I enjoyed. I guess despite my best efforts, Koh Rong’s infamous illness still got to me.

Motorbiking to Bokor Mountain

After managing to actually consume an entire meal at breakfast (a big step in the right direction for me), Maddie and I grabbed our helmets that we bought in Vietnam and finally put them to use as we hopped on the backs of the motorbikes that Andrew and Nils had rented for the day. We spent most of our day at Bokor Mountain, an abandoned/half-constructed/not-fully-deserted resort/hotel/casino MEGA tourism zone at the top of the mountain, that had been built and apparently never completed. It covers a massive amount of the land, and it isn’t fully clear whether or not there is still a plan to complete the project.

In several areas we did see some construction, though it is rumoured that it was just too big of a project and that development was stopped once they realized they’d never make back their investment. After driving close to an hour up the mountain on the beautifully smooth paved roads (built with the intention of having many tourists driving on them), We visited the top of the mountain, some abandoned church/temple areas, the resort area, and the main hotel/casino, which was probably the strangest of all the attractions. It had a very Chernobyl-esque abandoned feel to it from the outside, but once we got in there were staff standing in the lobby, sitting inside the casino at empty tables ready to deal cards, waiting at the front of the empty seating area at the restaraunt, standing in the kichen ready to cook…but with nothing to do, and no one to serve.

The strangest part was that none of it was just for show! The place was fully functional, I think you can even stay there… but nobody was there, and it just felt creepy. We walked around but didn’t stay long, and let me just say that it is not the kind of place I’d like to get caught wandering through at night. We also visited the partially-constructed palace, which is basically just concrete, but it was equally eirie and hollow, though with a much prettier view from the top and lots of open windows which made it more fun.

After enjoying the spectacular scenery (it really was one of my favourite spots so far), Andrew let me drive back and test out the roads down the mountain. I think I only genuinely terrified him once or twice making the big turns, but I did pretty well, and I’m continuing to get better the more I practice. Even Andrew said so (since the last time I drove him was in Laos… my first actual drive, when I almost ran us into a road divider… sorry).

Feeling hot, sweaty and extremely sunburned (I had the most crisp red line ever below the bottom of my shorts), the 4 of us sat down near the river for a few beers and some pizza. We then went back to the beautiful pool at our hostel, played some cards outside, and hung out at the rooftop bar for a bit (though I didn’t drink much since I was still not feeling the best). I even met a guy from Maine, who said he had a friend who lived near Toronto who he went to school with in Halifax.. and when I said I lived in Aurora he told me his friend’s name, who actually went to school with my cousin and high school boyfriend, and who I hung out in the same circles with for quite a while… It really is a small world.

Maddie and I had planned on leaving the following morning to Siem Reap, but Andrew and Nils looked SO SAD to see us go that we just didn’t have the heart to book our bus ticket yet (actually we just waited too long and it was fully booked, but that doesn’t make the rest any less true). We decided to spend one more day exploring what was now one of my favourite stops in Cambodia so far, Kampot.

Kampot Salt Fields, Caves & Dirt Roads

Saturday morning we began our second day of Kampot motorbike exploring. We started off at the salt fields near our hostel. I had seen photos of salt fields before and understood the general idea, but I didn’t expect to see them on this trip, and I was very pleasantly surprised. As we drove down the orange dirt road, we could see salt fields for miles all around us. They are laid out similarly to rice fields, with small narrow manmade barriers surrounding each square that act as a walkway while holding the water within that square. The salt water here is pumped in from the river, and is then left to settle and dry. As the water evaporates, the salt settles into the soil, and eventually is raked, scooped, iodized, and packaged. The salt water was very reflective, and made for some beautiful photos that I was pretty excited about.

After the fields, we set off to find the Phnom Ch’nork Caves, which were supposed to be worth a visit. We got lost along the way on the dusty Cambodian roads, but I think I actually enjoyed getting lost and riding around on the motorbike more than the caves. Once we got there, we paid the $1USD entry fee, decided NOT to pay another $1 for a guide, and went into the caves. About 3 seconds in, I was ready for a guide as Andrew and Nils climbed down the most awkward narrow entryway ever to get into the cave, but then they saw another way in, so we climbed back out and went in the other way.

I was fairly confident that we were going to get lost in the cave, but let the boys convince me that it’d be just fine… of course it was… and about 10 minutes later (if that), we could see daylight peeking out from the other end. It was a cool cave, but it wasn’t anything spectacular, and basically we just ended up sweaty and covered in dirt (which is orange, so we all looked like we had horrible spray tans in streaks and splotches all over our bodies and clothes). Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun, and I think had I not been feeling so dehydrated (which I attribute to being sick the past couple days) I probably wouldn’t have minded it at all…but I was pretty exhausted and feeling a bit dizzy afterwards.

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated motorbiking so much as I have here in this heat… Standing in the sun is unbearable, and it has been a sticky 37-38 degrees almost every day we’ve been in Cambodia. Sightseeing with enthusiasm feels impossible, and I am quite sure that I sweat at a faster rate than I could possibly consume water if I tried. My days here can be split up into two parts: sweating, and showering. There is no middle ground. Either I am clean, in the shower, or I am sweating the second I get out. It has become a topic of recent discussion that Andrew (who has previously been the sweatiest of us everywhere we’ve been, and is notorious for taking his shirt off and finding somewhere he can swim), has become contagious, and that I am now becoming as sweaty of a person as he is… At this point I’d believe anything. I’m gross. Anyways, my point is that it’s hot here, and feeling the (slightly cooler) wind in my hair and shirt as we zip through the dusty roads here is absolute heaven.

We stopped at “Secret Lake”, which was actually really beautiful, but more of just a quick stop for some photos of the long, shallow lake/field and surrounding mountains. Afterwards, we continued down the road to Starling Resort Kampot Peppers, where we thought about looking around at the pepper fields, but ended up spending 20 minutes in the bathroom rinsing off our faces from all the dust, and then gasping at the outrageous prices of Kampot Pepper in the gift shop (it is a dry peppercorn grown here, for those of you who didn’t know), that cost between $10 and $70USD for a package. We decided we were too hungry and hot to hang around and actually see the fields, and got back on our bikes to find some dinner.

Evening Boat Cruise

We got back to the restaurant area near our hostel and grabbed some burgers and beer, and booked a boat cruise for that evening. We wanted to see the sunset from the boat, but missed the departure time, so we booked a “firefly” cruise instead from 6-8pm for $5USD each. After freshening up at the hostel, we went for our cruise down the river just after sunset. It was honestly a really beautiful ride, and I quite enjoyed the view, but we were 4 of maybe 7-8 tourists on the boat in total and the rest of the people were locals. Normally, this would be a good thing and I’d be grateful to not be a part of the tourist crowd, but unfortunately I’ve begun to find that when you take a tour with locals around here, a lot of them will be on their phones or making noise the whole time, and not really seeming to enjoy the tour much.

I wish it wasn’t the case, because I love the people here and don’t want to talk smack in any way, but between the 2 kids playing with balloons (making fart noises as they let air out), their mother not caring and talking loudly to her friend, a guy beside us chainsmoking and horking into the water while answering several long phone calls, and 3 or 4 other guys who had the biggest brightest phone screens I’ve ever seen that they kept their eyes glued to for the entire ride, I was pretty annoyed. At one point a guy was shining his phone light ON the trees, as we were looking for fireflies in them (there actually were lots), and was drowning their limited visibility out with the light. I think that all of us had a hard time biting our tongues.

Nevertheless, we did get to see some beautiful stars and view of the river, as well as fireflies as we cruised along, and we got a couple of free beers out of it too which wasn’t bad.

That night (our last night together), Maddie was feeling pretty sick (maybe still from Koh Rong, we’re not totally sure), so we played some card games together for as long as she could, and then her and Nils called it a night. Andrew and I decided to stay up a bit, and we went to the rooftop bar after they shut down the restaraunt bar, and then the lobby after they shut down the rooftop bar (we’re not as crazy as that makes us sound, everything was closed before midnight). It was our last night travelling together, and today marked the 30th day (between the two separate times we met up with them) that we had spent with the guys since we first met in Chiang Mai (and yes… I know this because I make notes of things like that, I’m a sentimental loser don’t judge me).

We talked about how in a really crazy way we had become best friends, and how I never imagined that I’d spend 30 days of my 102 day trip with the same people, but I’m so glad I did. I was dreading our final farewell in the morning, but Andrew reminded me that it was a good thing we were so sad to leave each other, because it meant we had found something worth missing. We were all smiles that night, just appreciating how lucky we were to have found such great friendship so far from home, in what realistically was still a very limited amount of time.

Goodbyes & Heading to Siem Reap

The next morning, Maddie and I said our goodbyes to Andrew and Nils, not knowing when the next time we’d see our favourite Alaskans would be, and hopped on our minibus at 7:45am to take us to Phnom Penh, and then Siem Reap. We booked the Kim Seng Express through our hostel for $16USD, and it was a 3 hour ride to Phnom Penh, a 2h 45m break, and a 5.5 hour ride to Siem Reap, arriving finally at 7pm, where we took a quick tuk tuk ride to Hi Siem Reap Deluxe Hostel where we would be staying for the next 4 nights for $7USD/night including breakfast.

Arrival in Siem Reap

It was a long day, and we were exhausted and sweaty by the time we got to our room, so we stayed in for the night. I was honestly feeling pretty bummed about having left the guys in the morning. Of course, we knew it’d happen, and I was so grateful that we had as much time with them as we did, but the heartbreak of saying goodbye to people you’ve grown to love so much is definitely not something I’m great at. Of course I do it, I survive, and life goes on. Nothing lasts forever… but travelling with those two has resulted in some of my favourite memories of the trip. They make me laugh nonstop, and they bring out a side in me that is bolder and braver, and also more comfortable in who I am. I feel more myself. We’ve been together for the fun stuff, the crappy stuff and even the boring stuff, and I wouldn’t change any of it. They’re both just great people, and I really can’t say much else about it that I probably haven’t already. The point is that I love them, and I sincerely hope that this isn’t the last I’ll see of those two.

Otres Beach & Koh Rong Island

Days 61-65 in Southeast Asia (March 26-30, 2016)

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville & Otres Beach

Saturday morning, the 4 of us (Maddie, Andrew, Nils and I) packed up our bags and got on a bus to Sihanoukville. We booked through our hostel with Sorya Bus since it was the cheapest option ($8USD), and it was scheduled to take 4 hours (arriving at 1pm)… But we’re in Cambodia, and booking a big bus means you’re not exactly ripping down the highway… so 6 and a half hours later at around 3:30pm, we arrived in Sihanoukville. We only wanted to spend one night in the area mainly because the last ferry leaves at 3pm to head to Koh Rong Island and since we knew the chances of us making it there in time were slim, we planned a night in Sihanoukville.

After talking to Callum the other night though, we changed our plans to head to Otres Beach, about 8km or so from Sihanoukville. We had heard that it was one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and Callum had just come from the area and said that Sihanoukville was very dirty and cheap and basically good for cheap partying and not much more, whereas Otres Beach was far less crazy, but still an awesome place to party if you wanted, and much more beautiful. We were sold.

When we arrived in Sihanoukville, we hopped on a tuk tuk and paid $1USD each to get to Otres Beach. The driver dropped us off in a spot close to a lot of hotels and restaurants, so we wandered around for a bit before choosing a place to stay. We knew we’d only be there for one night, so we really weren’t feeling too picky and mostly just wanted somewhere close to the beach where we could stay for a decent price. We finally settled on Relax Bungalows, where the 4 of us shared 1 large room with a fan for $12USD ($3USD each). The hotel was under construction and the staff weren’t exactly inviting, but the room was clean and had 2 big beds and a functioning bathroom so for one night we weren’t going to make a fuss.

As soon as we chose the room, we changed into our bathing suits and went straight to the beach. We hung out at a restaurant on the beach, swam out into the beautiful blue water, and walked along the soft white sanded beach while we watched the sunset. There aren’t many things quite like watching the sun set in a place you could’ve only dreamed about travelling, surrounded by people you love with all your heart. This is paradise.

Otres Saturday Night Market

After the sunset, we went back to the room to shower off and change, and we took a tuk tuk to Otres Saturday Night Market, which is basically a big bar with a stage and live music, and a bunch of little food and handmade craft stands throughout the area. The music was amazing, and we sat and listened for a couple hours while enjoying some cheap beers and delicious treats from the food stalls. It had a very hippie-esque feel to it, which sometimes feels a bit overdone and more like a costume party than a travelling experience, but it was still really cool.

Throughout the night there were a few power outages, which are really common here, but it just added to the fun hippie vibe when everyone cheered and the live music continued with nothing but drums and singing. At  the end of the night Andrew decided to hang out with some new friends by the beach, and the rest of us went back to our steaming hot room with a fan.

Sihanoukville to Koh Rong Island

The following morning we were woken up by construction on the bungalow property… and a tree falling on the roof of our room. Good morning to you too, Cambodia. After finding Andrew right about where we left him on the beach, we had some breakfast and went swimming again, naturally.

At 2pm, we were picked up by a tuk tuk outside of our bungalow to take us to the pier in Sihanoukville. We had purchased boat tickets to Koh Rong Island from a stand by our bungalow that cost us $20USD each for a round trip ticket (that expires in 30 days and otherwise is completely open) and it included the tuk tuk ride to get us to Sihanoukville pier.

The speed ferry left at around 3pm and took just about an hour to get us to the island. In the meantime, Andrew and I decided to climb up to the upper level of the boat, where the captain and a small group of passengers were sitting. As we looked out on the water and took photos, trying to find a spot for a good view among the people leaning over the railing, the captain waved me over and told me to climb down to the first level, and climb around the side to sit on the front of the boat, right over the water with nothing but a railing, away from all the other passengers. We joined two crew members and another passenger and sat with our legs hanging over the front of the boat, getting our feet wet as the boat cut through giant swells and waves like it was nothing. I could’ve stayed on that boat and watched that view all day long.

Welcome to Koh Rong!

When we arrived at Port Koh Rong, we all piled off the boat onto the narrow dock, as the bags of every passenger were thrown beside us into one big heap… it was chaos, but eventually the 4 of us found our bags and squeezed our way through the crowd and to the end of the dock, where a guy named Niels who works at Skybar (a bar/restaurant/hotel by the pier) met us and gave us a quick safety briefing for the island. He told us that there was no hospital, but that if we had any emergencies to head to Coco’s, another bar/restaurant/hostel that had a small medical stand.

He told us that if we were bitten by snakes at all, to make sure we got a good look at it so we could describe it to the medics, and to watch out for sand flies, and buy coconut oil to prevent bites if we were going to spend a lot of time on the beach. He also talked to us a bit about food poisoning, something that just about every traveller experiences on Koh Rong Island, and that I was planning on avoiding at all costs after my incident in Laos.

He said that it could be the water, the meat, the veggies being washed in the water, basically anything… especially since power outages here are a regular occurrence. While a lot of restaurants have ice boxes to put meats etc. into so that they don’t go bad during power outs, it is equally common that they’d just sit in a fridge that slowly warmed up, causing some of the food to go bad, and it doesn’t always get thrown out here. He recommended that we eat from the more Westernized sit down places if we wanted to be safe only because they’re more likely to stay on top of proper food care.

My plan was to eat vegetarian for the next 4 days, and avoid any and all meats that might not have been kept properly. I also tried to only eat things that were cooked (even veggies, so that any bacteria from the water would be killed before I ate it) and I brushed my teeth with bottled water and kept my mouth shut in the shower… There’s no guarantees, and even I ended up with stomach cramps and not-so-pleasant bathroom trips after leaving the island that I’m fairly sure were from swallowing about a litre of water from the ocean on one of the days (huge wave got me), but it very well may have been food poisoning…it’s just everywhere.

Neils walked us to Skybar, where we checked out the rooms but weren’t overly impressed. We did, however, love the view from the top, and promised him that we’d be back for drinks later that night. We grabbed our bags and continued along the beach in the blazing heat looking for a place to stay. I had heard great reviews on Monkey Island, so we settled on a bungalow with 3 beds, a bathroom and two wall fans for the 4 of us. The total cost was $30USD/night, so $7.50USD per person. It was right on the beach, close enough to the pier but far enough to be a bit away from the busy area, and also very close to 4k beach which was even less busy (and where we ended up swimming most of the time, since the beach near our bungalow and by the pier was sadly very polluted with garbage.

Late Night Swim At The Pier

After unpacking our things and having some dinner, the 4 of us walked down to the pier after dark for a late night swim. We jumped in and swam around a bit, but Maddie and I were pretty freaked out every time a bit of seaweed touched us, and we climbed onto the pier screaming and squirming after freaking ourselves out. In the rush of getting out, I banged up my knee and shin a bit, adding to my injury list.

When we finished swimming, we walked along the beach and sat in the sand for a while before going back to the room where we rinsed off and headed out to skybar for some pool and drinks. On our walk, we noticed what looked like a fire on the other side of the island, bright red glowing and smoke, but we thought it was some kind of jungle party on the top of the hill… it wasn’t until later that night that we found out it actually WAS a fire, and that tons of locals and visitors were carrying buckets of water up the hill to help put it out. Had we known we probably would have joined their efforts. Luckily, the fire was extinguished eventually and as far as we know everyone was okay.

Happy Easter From Koh Rong Island

The next morning, I was up at around 6 so that I could skype my family back home at 7am (8pm for them) during their Easter family get together. I was so sad that I was missing it, and would have loved to be home for Easter, but at the same time it felt really awesome to skype them and see their faces, knowing that they were my family and would always be there for me, even when I’m on the other side of the globe. It was made even more special by Alex, who decided to take my mom up on her invite to join them. He baked two pies and drove about 2 hours to go to my house and join my family for dinner. It was so sweet, and if I didn’t miss home before skyping everyone, I sure did after.

Sand Flies…

After my skype session from the restaurant of my bungalow overlooking the beach (the only place I have wifi here), I noticed how bad the “mosquito bites” on my legs were from the night before… and realized pretty quickly that there were far too many bites for them to be from mosquitoes. I asked the bartender here, and he told me that it was probably sandflies, and to head to the pharmacy to get some cream for the itching, but not to worry because they’re not really dangerous, just annoying and itchy. Maddie unfortunately had them even worse than me, and somehow the boys seemed to avoid getting bitten altogether (we theorized that their leg hair had protected them somehow).

4k Beach

Before heading to the pharmacy though, Maddie went back to bed for a bit (after also skyping her family for easter), and Andrew and I decided to go for a walk to 4k beach. We walked for probably close to 45 minutes to get to the far end of the beach, which was beautifully quiet and clean. The wind was so strong that morning and the waves were huge. We even saw several small boats that had been anchored near the shore and had sunk overnight. We swam in the waves and at one point I even lost my balance and got spun around in the undertow, swallowing several gulps of saltwater. I was amazed at the strength of the waves, but luckily I’m a strong swimmer and was able to enjoy the swim without being too worried.

Police Beach & Lunch

After walking back to our bungalow, we met up with Maddie and Nils and went for a walk past the pier and over to Police Beach, where we saw a small Cambodian man trying to pull his boat off of the beach and out onto the water. The first thought that came to mind was “Andrew is definitely about to go try to help him”, and sure enough before I could even finish my thought, without even saying a word, Andrew was headed over to the boat, followed by Nils, to help get the boat on the water. Not long after, 4 other guys from the beach joined in.

Eventually, the group was able to haul the boat out onto the water, and push it through the waves until the man could climb on board and start paddling. It was crazy to us that he had been trying to do it alone, and even crazier as we watched him wrestle through the waves, paddling like crazy for the next half hour that we were there, and seeming to get nowhere farther onto the water, but slightly farther down the beach. It was impressive and painful to watch him work so hard. After our walk along Police Beach, we headed to the pier for lunch, where we shared some veggie pizza.

While we sat, a little girl climbed up across the chairs and onto my back without me even noticing until I felt her tap me on the shoulder. I turned around surprised and said “Oh Hello!”, to which she smiled, climbed on my lap, and handed me a hair pin. I saw that it must have fallen out of her hair by her face, and fixed it as she played with my phone, and took some pictures with my GoPro. She was adorable, and when she asked me for some ice cream I naturally caved and went with her to find some. She insisted that I carry her, and pointed out of the restaurant across the sand to a store.

I carried her out and over to the stand, where she picked out a frozen milk carton of all things, and asked for one for her sister to. I happily grabbed the two frozen milks, and brought her back to the restaurant. I’m sure her mother was somewhere around, she wasn’t homeless or anything, and anywhere else in the world it would have been seen as a crime to do what I just did, but seeing her face light up holding the frozen milk sure didn’t feel like a crime, and she ran off excitedly to her sister when we got back to the restaurant. It was a dollar well spent.

Sand Flies & Food Poisoning

After lunch, the 4 of us went back out into the water and swam for quite a while in the waves, watching the sun set over the hill from the water. This place is paradise, and I don’t think I could ever get sick of these sunsets.

Because of the fact that Maddie blamed Nils for making her stay outside and talk late the night before (when we got sandflies), she decided that the only fair thing to do was to make him shave his legs and sit in the sand tonight… Nils being the incredibly good sport that he is, took her up on it and shaved his legs all the way to the top. We laughed as Maddie sent him to sit in the sand, knowing that there was no way she’d actually leave him there. She’s not THAT cruel, and after a few minutes in the sand she brought him back in and we proceeded to make fun of him for his beautiful shaved legs.

We grabbed a late dinner at Coco’s, and some drinks back at Skybar, before walking along the beach (only for a little while this time, fearing the sandflies would attack us again).

That night was rough for all of us… Andrew got hit by food poisoning, and spent most of the early hours of the morning running to the bathroom and puking… while Maddie and I were up scratching our sand fly bites furiously (literally, to the point of drawing blood), and applying cream under flashlight to try to make it stop. Nils was complaining about razor burn… but we had a hard time feeling too bad for him about that one.

Back To 4K Beach & Finding Steph and Sean AGAIN

In the morning, we left Andrew with some medicine and a bucket by his bed, and headed to 4k beach where Nils, Maddie and I watched as huge waves once again crashed out in the water. As we walked along the beach, I head he familiar sound of Steph’s voice, shouting “KRISTAAA!” and I went running up to her and Sean, ecstatic to see them again. I had no doubt that I would, and we had made a promise back in Da Lat to make it happen, but of course when you’re travelling (especially in areas with terrible WiFi like Koh Rong), it is easier said than done… regardless, I had a feeling I’d run into them again. Sometimes you just know these things, the way you know about a good melon.

They walked farther down the beach with us to an area with more chairs, where we all hung out in the sun and went swimming. Steph and Sean had brought materials for making bracelets/necklaces, cause they’re cute like that, and they made Maddie and I a couple of new bracelets to add to our collection while we sat on the beach. We hung out by the water for hours before deciding to head back for dinner.

The Koh Rong Pub Crawl

After checking on Andrew, who had managed to survive the day and was starting to feel a bit better, we grabbed some dinner at the Bungalow restaurant, and heard that the Koh Rong Island Pub Crawl would be starting here at 8:30 tonight. It cost $8USD to join, and came with drinks at all 4 of the bars along the way as well as a tank top. Plus, a portion of the proceeds go to the local school on the Island, so I mean, how could I say no? Maddie and I paid, while the others just decided to join the party without the shirts or free drinks. Andrew stayed in, but Nils, Steph and Sean all joined us as we had more than our fair share of free drinks at the bars, and played drinking games with some new friends we made along the way. At the end of the night, we said our goodbyes to Steph and Sean and headed back to the bungalow.

Hiking Across the Island to Long Beach

The following morning, we decided to brave he heat and head up the hill to the other side of the island to visit the famous Long Beach, which is supposed to be very quiet, and very beautiful. The only catch is that it’s about an hour hike through the jungle, and not exactly a perfect walking trail. We stocked up on water bottles, and headed up the hill (which starts at Skybar). It wouldn’t have been SO treacherous of a walk were it not for the heat, but within about 20 minutes Maddie was dizzy and nearly fainted and we had to stop for a bit.

I was dripping more sweat than ever in my life, and felt like I might faint as well at a few points, but we kept on drinking water, and eventually made it down the other side to the beach. Oddly enough, our first view of the “beach” was a dock area under construction… followed by a bunch of other newly started buildings being built along the water. Aside from the construction though, the beach was BEAUTIFUL, and once we walked a bit farther down, we were in a secluded beautiful strip of paradise.

The beach stretched on for miles and had the whitest sand and clearest blue water I’ve ever seen in my life. We swam, laid on the beach, read a bit, and finally headed back so that we’d be done the hike before dark.

Maddie and I both started getting stomach cramps at the beginning of the walk back, and by the time we climbed to the top of the hill I was nearly vomiting, and absolutely dripping sweat. We chugged water, pushed through, and eventually made it back to the room. I couldn’t even eat my dinner because my stomach was so upset, and we were all so exhausted that we ended up calling it a night very early. I knew we’d be leaving tomorrow, and took comfort in the fact that if I WAS getting really sick, we’d be back on mainland soon, but it was hard to sleep much without having flashbacks of my food poisoning incident in Laos that nearly killed me. The only thing that I took comfort in was knowing that I had Maddie, Nils and Andrew to take care of me, and I knew that no matter what Cambodia had in store for me, I’d be alright as long as I had them by my side.