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.

The Two Day Slow Boat: Chiang Rai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos)

Days 18-19 in Southeast Asia (Feb 12-13, 2016)

Leaving Chiang Rai

5am, bright and early, we packed our bags and said goodbye to lovely Chiang Rai and Thailand (for now) as we began our journey to Laos.

Originally, our plan was to fly from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani (Thailand), cross into Vientiane over land, and from there head North to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. After shifting things around a bit we found that it worked out in our favour financially to take a different route through Laos. We decided to take the 2 day slow boat. The boat journey starts from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai (Chiang Rai is on the way there from Chiang Mai so it is a bit cheaper from there if you’re in town anyways), and ends up in Luang Prabang, so we are basically just reversing the order of the cities in Laos that we’re planning on visiting (heading North to South now instead).

You can book the bus/boat trip through pretty much any hostel, hotel or travel agency in Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, but we decided after doing some research to save money and do it independently. The nice thing about this route is that it is so popular that as you arrive at each stop, the next portion of the journey is basically spoon-fed to you anyways, so it really wasn’t rocket science to plan it out ourselves, but the two day journey takes several steps, so if you’re ever planning on doing the same trip, listen up!

First, get from your hostel to the bus station. For us, this was a 5 minute walk in Chiang Rai. Next is hopping on a Red Bus to Chiang Kong (North). The bus cost all of 100B ($4) to take us straight to the border crossing, and it didn’t require any advance booking, just show up anytime (it leaves every hour on the hour from Chiang Rai), and pay on board. We made sure to get on the 6am bus because we didn’t want to end up missing the slow boat (which leaves at 11:30am) and having to stay the night until the following morning (I think they only leave once, maybe twice a day but everyone seems to always end up on the 11:30 one anyways).

Crossing The Border into Laos & Getting Our Visas

The Red Bus took about 3 hours (arriving at around 9am) to get to Chiang Kong, where everyone gets off the bus, and heads to Thai Immigration. Make sure that you have your Thai Immigration paper (blue and white ticket-like thing that you would have filled out when you got to Thailand). They take the slip, stamp out your passport (and hopefully you haven’t stayed past your visa expiration date or I think this is where they’d make you pay up), and BOOM, you’re our of Thailand, easy peasy.

From the other side of the immigration station, a shuttle bus will be waiting to load everyone up and cross the Friendship Bridge into Laos (this was included in our initial bus fare). Next, was the painful process of obtaining our Laos Visas. It wasn’t HORRIBLE, I’m sure there are worse experiences at borders, but honestly this place lacked organization like you wouldn’t believe. As you approach the mob (yes, it’s a mob) of people, all trying to get visas and cross into Laos, You first have to grab the immigration papers from the desk at the front or from the tables around you. I’d suggest bringing a pen, because we saved a lot of time filling out the papers on chairs outside of the table area with our own pens. Once the papers are filled out, make sure you have one passport photo ready (you only need one) for them to staple to your papers at the desk.

Once you get to the front of the line, they take your papers, staple your photo to them, take your PASSPORT (yes, they actually take it away, and yes, it will make you nauseous), and point you to the next line over. Now, here’s the kicker; they never give you a number, or any way of getting your passport back in an organized way, so after they put it in the giant pile of passports, they are taken to the next desk (where you line up), the visa sticker is placed in the passports, all in an area not visible to you, and then they just HOLD UP YOUR PASSPORT for you to get it back… Basically it was just a mob of people all yelling out “Lady from China!” or, “Guy with long hair from the UK!”… to try to speed things along so that everyone at the back would know if theirs was ready. Some people waited 30 seconds, others for an hour. The passports aren’t dealt with in the order that they were received, they just seem to grab a pile and start. It is crazy, and frustrating, and you will 100% be freaking out the whole time until you have your precious passport back in your hands, but I assure you that I didn’t see ANYONE who didn’t actually get it back eventually. So, while it is frustrating and chaotic, rest assured that it seems rare if not impossible that a passport would get lost in the process, and just accept that you’re in Asia at a land border crossing, and things aren’t always seamelss.

Once they call your name for you to get your passport, this is where you bring up the cash for your visa as well. It has to be in USD from everything I’ve seen and heard, and if you try to do it another way it’ll probably just take you twice as long and you’ll end up using the ATM nearby so just bring USD in the first place and have it ready. For Canadians, it’s $42 USD exactly, for Americans $35, and it varies a bit for European and other countries in Asia etc., but most of the info for that is easily found online.

Welcome to Laos

Once you’ve got your passport back, you’re basically done. You just walk through the main gate, show them your passport with the new visa sticker, and you’re in Laos! As soon as you exit the area, you’ll find a load of tuk tuks willing to take you to Huai Xai, where the boat leaves from. Almost everything in Laos (especially near the border and for the boat etc., can be paid for in Thai Baht if that’s all you have, just double check with an app on your phone if you have one, to see if the exchange rate is alright to match what they ask for in kip). Since we had a big group, we haggled the driver to take us to Huai Xai for 80B each instead of 100. The tuk tuk will drop you off on the same street as the pier, by a bunch of shops and food stands. Make sure you get some water, snacks and sandwiches to last you for the next 7 hours of the trip, because it is a lot cheaper to buy it ahead than on the boat (it’s still pretty overpriced, but you don’t really have a choice unless you want to wander miles away and potentially miss your boat).

Here is also where you buy the slow boat ticket. They’re all pretty consistently priced, so it’s not easy to haggle much, but we got a bit of a deal and it cost us each 1050B for both trips, Huai Xai to Pakbeng, and Pakbeng to Luang Prabang the following day. In total, the trip up until this point cost us each 1230B ($49), rather than the 1650B ($66) it would’ve cost through a travel agency, and it took us the same amount of time, with minimal extra effort. The trip to Pakbeng was scheduled 11:30-6:30 (7hrs), but we actually left an hour late, and still arrived at 6, so the boat ride itself was only 5.5 hours, with a bunch of waiting around time before and after.

Day 1 on the 2-Day Slow Boat

The ride itself was actually really nice, a bit chilly but beautiful scenery the whole way as you boat down the river between mountains. The boat moves at a steady speed and doesn’t have much wind or anything, so it won’t make you as nauseous as a boat ride on choppy waters would. The seats are basically car seats on chair legs that aren’t bolted down, and the washroom on board was a squat toilet without any toilet paper (so make sure you bring purell and toilet paper galore). Water and beer are sold onboard, but aren’t incredibly cheap, so worth purchasing ahead of time if you can.

On arrival in Pakbeng at around 6pm, we were greeted by a swarm of guesthouse and hotel owners looking to take us to their place for the night. Accomodation isn’t included in the boat fee or tour fees, but most places including the one we chose, were around 200B each for the night ($8), so it wasn’t bad at all. We quickly chose a spot that looked clean in the pictures, and we piled into the back of an old pickup truck for the ride there. We drove about 15 minutes through the mountains until we arrived at the bungalows. The rooms were nice and big and clean, but the showers were very low pressure with minimal heat. There was no WiFi or restaraunt, but the rooms included transportation to and from a restaraunt in town where we all went to eat an hour later, and where we would go again in the morning to pick up our pre-ordered breakfast. The food was great, and we made sure to thank the chef by yelling “Korp Jay Lai Lai!” meaning “Thank you very much!”, our first words learned in Laos.

We went back to the rooms for a chilly night sleep, and were driven back to the docks the following morning to board the boat that left at 9am to Luang Prabang, scheduled to arrive at 6pm. This boat was a bit nicer than the last, with a real toilet, sink and even SOAP. It had some snacks on board as well to purchase, though we still stocked up on the streets before boarding.

Day 2 on the 2-Day Slow Boat

We arranged our seats on the boat to face each other, and played some card games and basically just hung out for the day. It was chilly in the morning, but by noon it had warmed up enough we were all back in our tank tops and shorts.
It was actually pretty nice to have a day where we had nowhere to be but here, just enjoying each other’s company. I’m so grateful that I’m not making this trip alone. Not that it wouldn’t be bearable or anything, but life’s just better with company sometimes.

Welcome to Luang Prabang!

The boat arrived in Luang Prabang at 4pm (2 hours early), making the trip today 7 hours rather than 9 which was a nice surprise. The only downside was that we still had no place to stay, and with spotty internet the past few days we were unable to book anything in advance or even look up places to stay. To make matters worse, everything was still booked up because of Chinese New Year, so we wandered around for quite a while after getting dropped off in the city centre, looking for a place to stay.

Finally we found a few rooms, David and James stayed in one hotel, and Nils, Maddie, Andrew and I shared a one bedroom guesthouse (Tanoy Guesthouse) with 2 big beds for what amounted to about $17 each because all the prices were so high from New Years. It was insane how expensive some of these places were, and it would’ve completely blown our budget had we not all decided to share a room. There are mostly guesthouses in Laos, rather than hostels from what I’ve seen and heard so far, so it might end up costing us a bit more than we hoped each night, but we’re hoping we can find places that won’t break our budget completely.

That evening we went out to the evening market, got some Lao food, and walked around for a bit. We heard about a bar called Utopia, and followed a maze of seemingly abandoned alleys through the city until all of a sudden we were in the middle of a beautiful outdoor garden bar/restaraunt that was awesome and super busy. It seemed to be placed in the strangest location but was really neat regardless. We hung out for a bit, drank a bit of Beer Laos, and met up with Steph and Sam to head over to the bowling alley, which is apparently what people do in Luang Prabang for fun nights out because they stay open late and serve alcohol, who knew?! Bowling was pretty fun and inexpensive, and after a couple of games we all headed back to our rooms for some much needed rest.

Looking forward to exploring the city tomorrow and finding out what Laos is all about!

Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai: The White Temple, The Waterfall & The Black House

Days 16-17 in Southeast Asia (Feb 10-11, 2016)

Heading to Chiang Rai

At 1:15, Maddie, Andrew, Nils and I caught a bus from Chiang Mai Central Bus Station (Green Bus) to head to Chiang Rai. It was 169B (about $7) and took us about 3 hours. We eventually made it to our hostel (Mercy Hostel, 250B/nt each or $10), where we quickly realized how much farther a dollar could get you in a small town with less tourism vs. a place like Bangkok. The hostel was by far the nicest we’ve stayed in so far. Great WiFi, clean and comfortable beds, huge bathrooms with individual big showers, and a full kitchen and common area with a pool table, right near the city centre and bus station.

We walked around a bit in the market, and grabbed some dinner when we finally found a place with familiar menus. There are far less tourist spots in Chiang Rai than in other cities like Chiang Mai and Pai. Originally I had heard that Pai was supposed to be the less tourist-y city of the three, but that was certainly not the case. I was actually really relieved to finally walk down a street where it felt like I wasn’t among JUST tourists. We looked around and saw nothing but locals just buying groceries and dinner in the market. It was refreshing to say the least.

Renting Scooters

After dinner, we rented scooters so that we’d have them for the following day of exploring. They were only 200B for the really fancy ones, which we split between two people of course, so each of us only paid 100B ($4), helmets included, for 24 hours, which was not bad at all. We originally planned on arriving in Chiang Rai and heading straight to the White Temple, and leaving the following morning to take the slow boat to Laos, but we realized once we got there that there was no way we were going to make it (the temple closes at 5pm), so we booked a second night, and decided it would be nice to have a full day and two nights to spend in the city and explore.

David and James arrived on a later bus and met up with us that evening at the same hostel. We played some pool and cards in the hostel and stayed in for the night.

The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)

The following morning the 6 of us grabbed some breakfast and headed to the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). The temple is pretty much the main reason that any tourists come through Chiang Rai, and why a lot of people had told us not to “waste” more than a day there, but I am so glad we did, because we got to walk through everything at our own pace, and finally get a taste of some REAL Thailand.

The temple was absolutely stunning, made of white concrete (I think concrete, maybe plaster), with tiny little pieces of mosaic mirrors covering nearly every surface in intricate patterns and decorations. The entire temple was surrounded by a pond, and beautiful bridges to cross. The temple is closed from 12-1pm, so we actually got there before anyone was allowed into the temple, which turned out to be a beautiful photo opportunity to capture the view from outside without the tourists and selfie sticks.

We walked around a bit before heading back to the scooters to check out a waterfall nearby that we had heard about. Before long, we had arrived at Khunkorn Waterfall, almost.

Khunkorn Waterfall

We parked the scooters, but still had quite a hike uphill to the falls. The walk was beautiful, and the landscape was different from those we had walked through up until this point. It was almost like we had entered a different country, walking through what felt like a tropical jungle. Gigantic trees with leaves the size of umbrellas, bamboo stretching up overhead and bending across to touch the trees on the other side of the path, and uneven rocks and steps in the soil leading us over small streams. By the time we reached the falls we were ready for a dip in the water.

We changed into our suits and went for a swim, but it was pretty cold so it was more of a quick dip. Andrew ran ahead of us and decided to climb up the side of the cliff to try to get to the top of the falls, and that was the last we saw of him for about an hour. He’s always such a wildcard, but it keeps things interesting for sure. As we’ve gotten to know Andrew and Nils, we’ve definitely realized what rookies we are when it comes to travel, but they’ve got 2 years on us so we keep telling them we’ll catch up. Nils has more stamps in his passport than probably anyone I know back home, and Andrew went on a bike trip from Alaska to Central and South America, that took him just under two years to complete with a group of friends. To say I was impressed to find that out is an understatement. The two of them make quite a pair, and they compliment Maddie and I nicely as travel buddies. They’re pretty much up for anything, and they always keep us laughing.

After the falls (once Andrew decided to climb down and join us again, sweaty and muddy until he went for a swim), we all hiked back to the scooters, where the boys decided to trust Maddie and I to drive them to lunch. We rode around the parking lot for a little bit to warm up, and were feeling pretty good actually, especially since the bikes were so nice and new.

Andrew hopped on mine, and Nils on Maddie’s, while James and David stuck together to enjoy the show as Maddie and I excitedly struggled our way down the streets. We did really well all things considered, zero casualties or injuries, despite me making a turn really fast at one point and scaring the crap out of both Andrew and myself, but it was all fine. Before no time we had arrived at a small restaurant on the side of the road where we spent 30B on a full curry and rice lunch (just over $1). Can’t complain about that!

After lunch we swapped back to our original driver/passenger roles, where Andrew decided to pay me back for scaring him the previous drive. (Not really, but it sure felt like revenge). He went around a curve a bit too quickly, and the scooter went completely off the road. We were on the gravel and soil, hitting piles of garbage as we bumped along the side, Andrew swearing while slowly pulling us back on the road, and me calmly holding on for dear life saying “it’s ok it’s ok we’re fine we’re fine we’re fine.” Sure enough, we calmly kept it together and managed to keep balanced despite the bumpy ride, and Andrew ever so skillfully got us back on the roads. The others had thought we were going to wipe out for sure, which I’m sure would’ve resulted in some really excessive road rash (we were only going 40 or so, but it’s still enough to scrape you up quite a bit).

The Black House

We headed to the highway to drive in the opposite direction from the hostel, to try to make it to the Black House (another famous temple in Chiang Rai, made by the teacher architect to the one who constructed the White Temple). We got there 5 minutes after it closed, but still got a pretty neat view from the outside as the sun was setting.

The Local Cuisine

We headed back to the hostel, returned our bikes, picked up our laundry (which we dropped off earlier that day and paid about 60B ($2.40) each for a decent sized load), and went out to the market for some dinner. James hadn’t been feeling so great, so he stuck back at the hostel (he thinks he may have gotten food poisoning cause he was sick all night). We tried some local cuisine at the market, which consisted of whole fried sardines (head and all), crickets, and larvae. Maddie and I tried everything. I didn’t really find any of it bad at all, just different, while Maddie kicked and screamed a bit until we finally swayed her into trying them. After that, I kept popping crickets into my mouth just for fun to watch Maddie’s reaction. Sometimes she’s just so dramatic I can’t help but love to watch her squirm.

The Road Ahead to Laos

When we got back to the hostel, we figured out our plan for taking the slow boat to Laos the following morning, which we decided to do independently rather than through a tour company to save us a few bucks (and it seemed easy enough). It also helped that we knew we’d be with the boys. They definitely give us more confidence with trying new things since they’re so well travelled.

I forgot to mention but before travelling, Andrew was working construction and Nils had worked on a fishing boat in Alaska for months at a time which is pretty badass. They definitely bring out the ballsy side of Maddie and myself, in a good way. The world always seems scarier when you let yourself get in your own head about it. I’m quickly realizing that backpacking is pretty easy over here if you just allow yourself to roll with the punches and be open to changing your plans. Most importantly, just keep an open mind in general. You will find far more beauty in every place you go and every person you meet if you do.

Maddie and I went to bed earlier that night while the boys stayed up a bit, and got ourselves rested knowing we’d have to be up in time to catch the 6am bus the next morning. Look out Laos, here we come!

Pai: Caves, Chills & Goodbyes

Days 14-15 in Southeast Asia (Feb 8-9, 2016)

Learning to Ride A Scooter!

On our second full day in Pai, Maddie and I decided we wanted to test out the scooters. I borrowed Segev’s, and Maddie borrowed Steph’s, and they took us out to a little dirt road where there wasn’t any traffic to try them out. I actually wasn’t too bad at it at all, though it definitely takes some getting used to with the balancing, especially when moving slowly and turning, which there is a lot of in Thailand. I felt comfortable enough after a bit of practice that I decided to drive Steph and I back to the hostel, while Maddie hopped on Seg’s scooter. It was tougher balancing 2 people, but I think I did pretty well all in all (just not well enough for a long drive or anything yet).

The Long Drive to Tam Lod (Cave)

After we got back, we all decided to brave the long drive to Tam Lod, a large cave up in the mountains. 13 of us went in total (on 7 bikes), which made us look like quite the motorcycle gang.

The drive was supposed to be about an hour and a half, but we heard from a lot of people that it was closer to an hour. Naturally, we made it there in 2…
It was definitely the most beautiful drive yet, and I was once again enjoying the lovely company of Segev as we drove up and down mountain after mountain. This time we made sure to fill up on gas first (the previous day Segev and I were low on gas, and our little bike couldn’t make it up one of the last hills so we had to get off and walk it for a couple hundred meters). The drive was full of sharp turns and beautiful scenery. The mountains here are gorgeous, and most of the land is almost completely untouched, so I honestly didn’t mind the long drive at all. At a pit stop we found a giant 4 person swing/windmill that the guys decided to try out and we all got a good laugh while we watched, praying that nobody would fall off.

Tam Lod

By the time we arrived at the cave, it was already almost 5pm, and we already knew that the ride home would be dark and cold. The cave was a really neat experience. We paid 140B each ($5.50), and got a few guides (which are mandatory) and a ride on a raft once we got part way through the cave. It was full of steep wooden staircases, and a ton of bats (and bat poop… gross). The cave seemed to stretch for miles in every direction, including up in some areas. We piled onto several bamboo rafts to go through the river part of the cave, and were absolutely surrounded by huge catfish for the entire trip. It was pretty amazing because we were on such a small and low raft, we could reach out and touch them if we wanted. Once we reached the opening on the other end, we saw thousands of bats flying in and around the entrance. It was pretty incredible… and maybe a bit terrifying.

When we got out of the cave, the sun had basically set, though it was still fairly light out. The route back was a lot easier than the way there in terms of directions, and we knew that nobody would get lost, but we were definitely worried about someone getting in an accident. Luckily, the roads were in good condition for most of the drive, and yellow reflective signs marked each turn, so we always knew what was ahead. We also made sure to stay in groups, always slowing down and looking back to do a headcount every 10 minutes or so.

Nobody had any falls or accidents, though we were in pretty rough shape by the time we got back to the hostel because we were FROZEN. In Pai, the evenings get down to as low as 10 degrees, and believe me when I say that it’s MUCH colder when you’re doing 80km/h on a scooter in clothes and shoes that were fine during the day when the sun was out, but not meant to hold back any cold or wind.

All I can say about the ride back is thank goodness for Segev. We talked for most of the ride back about life, travel and love, but mostly about how goddamn cold it was outside. Segev was leaving the following morning to head to the islands (South Thailand), and still had several months of travel afterwards before heading home to Israel, and I told him I was going to miss his company very much, and that he’d always be my scooter buddy. We agreed that one way or another we’d have to meet up again someday, and he told me to invite him to my wedding someday so he’ll have an excuse to have to come to Canada, so I said I gladly would.

By the time we arrived back, our muscles were literally frozen stiff around the bike, and it took us all a few minutes before we could straighten our legs out. It was a solid hour before we could feel our toes again (we were pretty much all in sandals). Once we changed into warmer clothes, we all walked through the street market for some food, and sat down for a beer at one of the bars. The nice thing about Pai is that a lot of the bars know how cold it is outside at night, so they have fire pits out front to stand around and warm up by while you’re out front (we really need some of those things during Canadian winters, just saying…).

We were all exhausted from the long day of driving, cave exploring and surviving the cold, so it wasn’t a very long night out. Maddie and I were the first to head back, so we said goodnight and I told Segev to come knock on our door in the morning before he left for the bus station. I can honestly say that I feel so much more love for all of these people than I ever thought I would. Steph and Sam are so sweet, and always a fun time. James is always looking out for everyone, Aleshia is well travelled and up for pretty much anything, Sabrina is always smiling and making friends, Nils and Andrew are possibly the most easy going people I’ve met (I can’t imagine them ever stressing over anything, and I feel more relaxed just being around them), David is a social butterfly, with an open heart and an open mind towards everyone he meets, and Segev is sarcastic and flustered most of the time, yet affectionate towards all of his friends and not afraid to tell people that he is going to miss them.

David and Segev have become like brothers it seems, and I don’t know if it broke my heart more to watch them hug goodbye, or to hug Segev goodbye myself. They made a bet on a few games of pool the night before, that the loser would have to fly to visit the winner after Asia (David is from Amsterdam, and Segev from Haifa, Israel). Segev won, and I told them to let me know when they plan their visit in Amsterdam, and that maybe I’d find myself in the same neighbourhood.

Saying Goodbye to Segev

In the morning, as promised, Segev came to our room and hugged us goodbye. Earlier in the week, we traded pens so I now have his (super intense looking) ruler/artist pen, while he has my crappy one from a hospital near home. I also helped him pick out a bracelet, and made sure it was one that he wouldn’t pick out for himself. It was a braid with a little bit of pink in among the other colours. After a bit of convincing, he agreed that if he wanted a bracelet to remind him of me, it was not going to be plain black or brown. We promised we’d see each other again, hugged for as long as we could, and just like that, he was gone.

My heart broke a little, knowing just how fond I had grown of him. I love all of these people so much, but I think simply because we had spent so many long days on the scooter together talking and laughing, Segev and I had grown especially close. I never thought I’d make such a great friend in such a short amount of time, and it reminded me of the hard lesson I learned during my meditation in India, and the tattoo I got afterwards. “Anicca” means impermanence in all things, good and bad. Take the bad things with a grain of salt, knowing that they won’t last, and enjoy the good things as they come, but let them go smilingly as they pass. I hope that we meet again, but even if we never do I know that our time together, and my time with each of these people, will always remain a perfect memory frozen in time.

Goodbyes are ineviteable, but this is backpacking, and nothing lasts forever.

Back to Chiang Mai

The following day, Maddie & I got on a bus to Chiang Mai, where we’d meet up with the others a bit later on in the day. The bus ride back was far worse than the way there, and Maddie was in rough shape. She kept it together though, while two other passengers ended up puking in plastic bags, which was pretty rough to listen to when you’re not feeling so great yourself, but we survived. A bunch of us from the group are headed the same direction, but on slightly different schedules. Maddie, Andrew, Nils and I met up first in Chiang Mai at AOI Hostel (small, nothing fancy, but just for one night and it was clean so we weren’t picky). We had dinner and drinks, and met up with Steph, Sam and Aleshia at Zoe’s bar for our official last night in Chiang Mai.

We grabbed some toasties from 7/11 afterwards (the perfect drinking snack), and went back to the hostel for bed, knowing we had to be up pretty early the next morning to get to the bus station and hopefully be on our way to Chiang Rai as soon as possible.

Chiang Rai on the map appears to be closer to Pai than Chiang Mai, but because of the mountains it is actually longer to drive, and there aren’t any buses that go directly to Chiang Rai without stopping in Chiang Mai first, so most people end up going back through Chiang Mai for a night to break up the trip before heading to Chiang Rai or catching a boat to Laos. We’re planning on spending one night in Chiang Rai to see the White Temple (and the Black one if we have time), before heading North to take the 3 day/2 night slow boat to get into Laos with Nils and Andrew. We’ll be back to Thailand near the end of our trip, but right now I can’t wait to get into another new country full of new places to see and people to meet!

Pai: Buddha, Hot Springs & Sunsets

Day 13 in Southeast Asia (Feb 7, 2016)

The Big Buddha in Pai

After our morning wake up call (which in Pai, is always a bunch of roosters… who knew?), Maddie and I packed our bags and moved to Common Grounds hostel. It is very open and has a really nice atmosphere, and a few of our friends are staying here as well.

Once we had moved in and met up with the rest of the group, we all paired up on scooters again for a day of exploring in Pai. Our first stop was the Big Buddha, which sits in the middle of a smaller mountain just outside of town. I figured that since I survived the days before on Segev’s scooter, that I might as well stick with him. He’s started to refer to it as “driving miss Daisy”, and we spend most of the day laughing and making fun of each other on the scooter rides. If I’m lucky he even starts singing… So far I think Britney Spears is my favourite. I can’t take anything he says (in anger) seriously with the combination of his accent and facial expressions, even when he’s legitimately pissed off about traffic or directions. He keeps me laughing all day.

After climbing about a thousand and a half stairs to the Big Buddha, we took a few group photos and enjoyed the view of Pai from the top. Pai is a cute little town, even smaller in size than Chiang Mai, with only a couple of main streets. It has a very hippie vibe, lots of yoga, a relaxed atmosphere, and brightly coloured bars and decorations everywhere.

The “Secret” Hot Spring

From Big Buddha, we drove to a natural hot spring called Sai Ngam, that is referred to as “secret” because it’s smaller than the one that is advertised throughout Pai, and doesn’t cost a dime to enter. We swam, got muddy, relaxed for a bit, and enjoyed each others’ company. There were quite a few of us: Myself and Maddie of course, Sam, Steph, Sabrina, Segev, David, Nils, Andrew and Aleshia.

After the springs, we met up with James who had just arrived from Chiang Mai, and we all sat down for a family lunch. We’re such a big group we basically take over any restaurant we walk into and push together all the tables and chairs, and then wait for EVER for all the food to come out, since most resaurants have one or two people in the kitchen only.

As we waited for our food, Segev started to panic because he REALLY wanted to make it to Pai Canyon to watch the sunset, but it was a far drive, and it was getting late. The rest of us were pretty confident that we would make it in time, and we laughed as Segev rambled on about how “if we miss this goddamn sunset I’m going to F$%&*@# kill you guys…”, which was especially funny when his food arrived last, and we all watched him eat as fast as humanly possible, cursing the whole time, before hitting the road.

Sure enough, we reached the canyon with just enough time to explore it a bit before the sunset.

Pai Canyon

The canyon was MASSIVE. A skinny trail of orange rocks with a sharp drop off of either side, wound through the entire area in every direction. We climbed, slid, crawled and jumped through the rocks to get to different view points, and broke off into smaller groups to see the sunset from different spots that suited our fancy. The canyon was free, and it was the best view I’ve seen so far this trip. Sometimes the best things while you’re travelling don’t cost a penny.

There’s something special about sunsets. They’re beautiful, yes, but I think that the reason we like sunsets so much are because they’re so much bigger than ourselves. We can’t slow it down, or control it, and it happens inevitably, every day. Still, they somehow never lose their novelty, and remain a perfectly beautiful reminder that nothing lasts forever and that another day has slipped by ever so quietly, sometimes without us even noticing, and other times with us watching every moment of it. This was one of those times, each second sinking in, where I knew how lucky I was just to bear witness and to be alive in the company of such great friends.

That evening, we went out for a few drinks down the road, where Segev and I made a bet for the night. He kept saying he wanted to smoke a cigarette through my spacer (earring with a hole in it)… But I told him that I hated smoking so the only way I’d let him do it is if he had ONE puff of a cigarette, early in the night, and then couldn’t smoke anything until the next day. We shook on it, took a video and made quite a scene at the bar. I think everyone got a good laugh, and I somehow managed to not get burned. Afterwards we went to Sunset bar, had some drinks, shared a lot of laughs, and finally after a painfully cold and not so wonderful walk home, hit the hay.

Chiang Mai: Temples, Parking Tickets & Time Travel

Day 12 in Southeast Asia (Feb 6, 2016)

The “Amazing” Flower Festival

Over the past couple of days we’ve heard a bunch of people talking about the Flower Festival in Chiang Mai. Supposedly it is going to be a big parade and displays of flowers marking Chiang Mai’s (720th? i think) anniversary. We walked a half hour or so to the South corner of the city, and eventually found ourselves by the parade. The floats were beautiful and colourful, each with meticulous patterns and decorations made entirely of small flowers. The Thai people were dressed in colourful clothes, with loud music filling the streets. The parade itself wasn’t all that exciting, but I think mostly we were just really hot, and the long gaps between each float made us painfully aware of how sweaty we were getting.
After the parade we visited the gardens, got some food, and walked around the market a bit. It was definitely cool to see, but I’d be lying if I said it was the most fun and exciting experience of my life.

Chiang Mai Temples & Parking Tickets

When we got back to the hostel we still had a few hours to kill before the bus to Pai would pick up Maddie and I. In the meantime, James had heard me talking about a few more temples I had hoped to see before leaving Chiang Mai. He rented a scooter and said he’d take me for a zip around town to see them. We saw Wat Chedi Luang, Sri Saket, and Srisuphan, also known as the silver temple. It was made entirely of silver sheets that bad been bent/shaped into beautiful shapes and carved and etched with patterns and drawings. The amount of time that must have gone into decorating the temple was simply unfathomable to me.

The temples were great to see, but the most eventful part of the day was what happened when we left. As we approached our parked scooter, we realized it was chained up, along with the 7 or 8 beside it and it had a ticket stuck to the handle, written completely in Thai of course. We quickly ran into the 7/11 nearest to us and asked them what to do. They said to take a tuk tuk to the Police station, pay the ticket, and that the bike would be unlocked.

When we walked back to the bike, there was another young couple from China looking just as confused as we did. Using broken english and hand gestures, we explained to them what to do, and we hailed a tuk tuk. The driver said that it would be fast, and for the girls to stay put, while the drivers went to pay the ticket. Praying that all would go well, the young Chinese lady and myself sat down at the nearest coffee shop and had a nice conversation, also using broken english and hand gestures. She was so sweet, and kept putting her hands on her face and saying “Ah! So Crazy!” … it was really cute.

Sure enough, 20 minutes or so later, the boys returned from the station, and the bikes were unlocked.

Apparently there was no parking on the street today, even though there were no signs indicating it. Luckily it was only 400B ($16), which is a lot for Thailand, but it could have been far worse. The only frustrating part was knowing that the tickets were an easy way to make money off of dumb tourists who aren’t going to dispute it, even though there was no sign saying we couldn’t park in a spot that was perfectly legal every day but today.

At the end of the day we were just happy that the situation was dealt with quickly and of course most importantly that nobody was hurt in any way. Plus, we got in trouble (barely) with the Police in Thailand… which I think boosts my coolness level.

Leaving for Pai

We made it back to the hostel just in time for Maddie and I to catch our bus to Pai. The bus left at 3:30, and was scheduled to arrive at 6:30, but it didn’t get us there until closer to 8. The roads up the mountains were windy and bumpy, and it’s a miracle we weren’t sick at all, because we had heard that a lot of people threw up when making this trip.

We checked into Circus School Hostel in Pai, where we would stay just for one night (before heading to Common Grounds where our other friends from Chiang Mai were staying). They overbooked, so we were upgraded to a private room with our own bathroom and everything (but still no toilet paper, naturally). It was nice to have a night without 10-20 others in the room, where we could just leave our stuff out and breathe a bit.

A Phone Call Home

We went out to the market, grabbed some food, and met up with the rest of the gang. We had some drinks at the hostel, and when midnight came around it was officially Alex’s birthday in Thailand, even though back home he still had 12 hours to wait. I decided to hunt down some WiFi, and call him from the future to wish him a happy birthday. We talked for a bit before some of my friends ran up and demanded that we go on speaker phone. Everyone I was with wished him a happy birthday, and then David sang him Happy Birthday in Indonesian. Segev chimed in seconds after and sang it in Hebrew, and the rest of us didn’t miss a beat afterwards and sang it in English.

It was so sweet, and actually such a beautiful experience that reminded me of how far from home we all were, but that love knows no distance. I knew it would be hard to be away for my boyfriend’s birthday, but I also knew what I had signed up for long before now. I wish I could be home, just for a day to wish Alex a happy birthday, but I guess a call from the future will have to be enough. Happy Birthday to the most kind, positive and supportive individual I know. Sending all my love from Pai, xo -Krista