One thing that surprised us about Bali was its size. This is no teeny tropical island – like the other Indonesian islands we visited, it’s like a country in its own right. At nearly 100km across you could probably circumnavigate it in a day, but you’d better start early!
And like the other Indonesian islands, it’s sorely lacking in public transport. The options are limited, routes are non-obvious and schedules, in most cases, simply don’t exist. For the budget backpacker, it represents a quandary – the locals clearly get around somehow, but all you see is adverts for private cars or the (generally) overpriced tourist shuttle buses.
Bangkok is possibly the city I commuted through the most those past two years, yet I haven’t really talked about it here. I love Bangkok. And it was obvious from the first few times I went that it was a very vegan-friendly city – just search for the little red on yellow “jay” flag at the entrance of cafeteria-style Buddhist eateries. These are convenient and cheap and sometimes delicious, but their emphasis isn’t on health and great ingredients – most of the time you’ll find MSG-laden overcooked slop. What really started exciting me in Bangkok those past months however is the sheer quantity of hip, health-minded and vegan friendly or even vegan-only eateries that offer a slightly more upscale dining experience and deliver an extensive and exciting range of cuisine putting forth quality organic ingredients and innovative cooking styles.
While budget travel is generally my daily reality, I still have an appreciation for well-designed spaces and beautiful interiors. I do come from a fine arts and design background, after all. So when I found myself in a position to review Maduzi Hotel in Bangkok, a wonderful hotel that combines finesse, elegance and excellent design, I jumped on the opportunity to experience one last taste of luxury on the tail end of a whirlwind two year South East Asian adventure and visit one of the best hotels in Bangkok. I thought I deserved it! Here is the lowdown on this little gem.
I’m sitting in the departure lounge with tears rolling down my face, staring blankly at my telephone screen, knowing he is also online, right there at the other end. Part of me would like a few last comforting words, but I can’t seem to think of anything to write that won’t make me look like the desperate mess that I am. What is there to say anyway? We’ve said hello and goodbye briefly a few weeks ago – and perhaps that was all a huge mistake – but this really should not be what the magic of the journey of self-discovery I have been on those past months amounts to, in the wake of a 20-month South East Asian whirlwind adventure. Yet, here I am, balling my eyes out and feeling like I’m back to square one.
Remember Myst, the 90s computer game set in a beautiful fantasy world where you could get lost in the different “ages” and discover all sorts of magical stuff for hours on end? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to tell you that I have found the island of Myst: it is in Bangkok, Thailand, on the bank of the Chao Phraya River in what is dubbed “The Green Lungs of Bangkok”. Not only that, but it also has an enchanted tree house where I got to spend a few days – an eco-friendly project exquisitely crafted out of sustainable and reclaimed materials amidst the jungle, a mere seven or eight km away from the downtown core of Bangkok.
I am back with a cycling video again today, and picking things up where I last left them. Please come with me as I cycle from Koh Phangan to Bangkok and encounter a few technical difficulties! Things were not as exciting as I would have hoped as the landscape quickly got boring – palm oil plantations lining most of the road and no wildlife whatsoever… I still made the best of it though and had a blast! You can watch part one here, part two right over here, and my whole YouTube channel right here. Make sure you subscribe not to miss an update! 🙂
Koh Phangan swallowed me whole with its beautiful vistas, beaches, people, food and everything that comes with it. I was coming for one week and I stayed for one month. And I would have stayed longer, I tell you. You can read the story of how I fell in love with the place last year right here. For now though, let’s talk about the food!
Making a swift exit from Koh Phangan’s full moon party via longtail boat made me feel a little bit like the James Bond of all party pooper. And I liked it. #noregret
That is because I had a date with the divine at a yoga resort aptly called The Sanctuary, a health and wellbeing haven hidden in a gorgeous secluded cove a mere five minute boat ride (yet feeling like miles away) from the debauchery of the full moon party.There are some places you’d rather not tell anyone about. Places that feel sacred and unspoiled where a handful of people in the know, those who are vibrating on the same level, go to nurture their mind, body and soul. The Sanctuary is most definitely one of those.
1. THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS IS TOUCHING ME BEYOND WORDS AND HAS 100% RESTORED MY FAITH IN HUMANITY
I have not had to pay for accommodation in over a month and food has been provided for me along the way on several occasions. Whether it be friendly and generous Couchsurfing or Warmshowers hosts, friends met during or before the trip or people at private houses, police and gas stations or temples where I have clumsily asked permission to pitch my tent, the response has always been overwhelmingly positive. I am just blown away by the generosity of everyone that has crossed my path so far. Although I know this isn’t the reason why they are doing it, I cannot wait for the day I can pay it forward when I am in a situation to do so.
Last year, I wrote a vegan food guide to Malacca in light of a week spent in this charming UNESCO World Heritage city. Malaysia is one of the easiest places in South East Asia to find vegan and vegetarian food, and I was thrilled to be back in Malacca this year to see what I had missed the first time around. As it turns out, I missed a lot! Below is a new and revised, more complete guide including restaurants and self-catering options. There are still a few places I failed to visit, so who knows, maybe there will be a take-three next year!
I hit the gym most evenings after work before I became a full time traveler. While this was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a few hours by myself and unwind at the end of a long day (especially on cold winter nights where exercising outside in the dark had absolutely no appeal), it quickly became either impossible or too expensive once I started traveling to far flung destinations. It also made no sense to trap myself in an air conditioned room with all this warm and wonderful tropical nature around me to use as a playground. The answer came organically: yoga.
I came to volunteer at a guesthouse in Malaysia as part of my rehabilitation into the single people club. I needed some time to pick up the pieces and to decide what my next move would be before starting to travel again. Things seemed like they were lining up for me without having to ask, so I took the opportunity that was presenting itself – all I had to do was to hit the reply button, say “I’m on my way”, pack my bags, and go start this brand new chapter of my adventure. Opportunities to volunteer at guesthouses like this are usually found through work exchange websites, but I was actually poached by a previous guesthouse owner where I had stayed a few months prior – so in my case it was just a matter of good timing. And as unable as I was to decide what was best for me – it was indeed the perfect timing.
Spending time in KL after backpacking through the rest of South East Asia is comparatively expensive. Of course nothing compares to Singapore, but food, accommodation and entertainment in the Malaysian capital are likely to leave a dent in your wallet if you are not careful. That is precisely what started to happen to me. I intended to spend only a few days in KL with a friend to try some vegan restaurants before moving on – but life had different plans for me and I found myself stranded in Kuala Lumpur for nearly three weeks with a rather empty bank account. I had to be crafty and come up with ways to make my stay cheaper. Turns out, it’s absolutely doable to stay in KL on the cheap! Here are a few things I discovered.
I felt I hit the vegan jackpot when I started researching restaurant options in KL. Unfortunately I was only supposed to stay a week, so I did some elimination and curated a list of the places that I thought sounded the best among the lot to make things easier. Even then, I was only able to visit a handful of restaurants, but since a few people have asked me if I was going to make a vegan food guide of KL, I thought I would share with you the list and hire the help of a few fellow bloggers to describe the places I unfortunately couldn’t visit. Those were in my mind the restaurants the most worthy of a visit, and I am dying to try all of them! Here they are, in no particular order.
“If there is no joy, ease, or lightness in what you are doing, it does not necessarily mean that you need to change what you are doing. It may be sufficient to change the how. “How” is always more important than “what”. See if you can give much more attention to the doing than to the result that you want to achieve through it.”
-Eckart Tolle, The Power of Now
It’s taken me realizing that the amount of money I have left in my bank account equals exactly what I owe on my credit card to ring the alarm. I am broke. The travel fund is empty.
Ashley’s is the more laid back sister of Living Food Bistro and Café, which I reviewed a few days ago. Located in KL’s trendy Bangsar neighborhood amongst lovely shops and cafes and a few minutes’ walk from the Bangsar Village 2 shopping mall, it has the unmistakable warmth of a passionate family-owned business. If Living Food felt like an oasis in the middle of the corporate world, Ashley’s is definitely its after hours, loosened-tie counterpart. Its cool interior, cool music, cool waiters (coincidentally my waiter was also Canadian!) and cool ambiance all lend themselves to lingering and feeling on holiday, even on a weekday.
The (vegan) cavewoman in me always worries about starvation. I worry there will not be enough food and never leave home without a gazillion snacks. As a health-minded person though, juice cleanses have always been on my radar, but thanks to the aforementioned, I’ve always been a little wary of them. I decided to give one a try anyway with the help of the good people at Lifestyle Juicery in Kuala Lumpur.
I stumbled on Living Food Bistro & Cafe by accident as it is located in the same building as the Canadian Embassy in Menara Tan & Tan on Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur. I immediately felt compelled to look at the menu – “living food” to me is food that hasn’t been killed by over cooking and that still brims with enzymes, nutrients and, well, life! That is how I ate back in Montreal when I had a kitchen and how I strive – but not always succeed – to eat on the road. I am so glad I got to sample some of the menu at Living Food and put a little mojo back in my diet, even just for one meal.
Kuala Lumpur is one of those places where, in the midst of a meat-eating nation, you barely have to scratch the surface to unveil an exciting health-minded paradise ripe for exploration. This week is all about #CleanEatingKL! A few days ago, I was able to visit Simple Life, a little chain of vegetarian restaurants who has healthy eating as its core value and is making Kuala Lumpur all the more exciting for me to explore.
I’d been toying with the idea of swapping my backpacking life for bike touring since becoming single. Life had put so many cyclists on my path after the breakup that I took it as a sign for me to “convert” and begin a new journey, figuratively and literally. So when my friend Jochen asked if I’d like to tag along to cycle a few hundred kilometers with him in Laos, a country I absolutely love, I jumped on the opportunity to test the water under the safe wing of a well-seasoned cyclist and see for myself if this way of traveling was for me.
I always enjoy reading packing list posts when other travel bloggers do them. It gives me the same satisfaction as digging through my granny’s handbag as a kid or looking through the drug cabinet in a stranger’s bathroom. I’m a little bit of a nosy parker. I also enjoy the sight of neatly organized things, and I know that’s not just me.
I nearly quit everything to go home two months ago. And when I say nearly, I mean that I actually purchased a flight from Bangkok to Montreal and I was two days away from boarding the plane when I came to my senses and aborted this crazy plan. I was about to give up my current life I’ve worked so hard for, my dreams of becoming location independent and this blog I have put all this work into but has given me more than I could imagine in return. I just could not sit on my own with my pain in this crappy hotel room in the middle of Thailand any longer. I was lost. Becoming a solo traveler was not something I had ever anticipated or wished for… and obviously neither was letting go of my ten year relationship. Thus went my brutal return from a magical six weeks in India, leaving an empty shell of me.
I revisited Koh Tao with absolutely no intention to create a vegan food guide for the blog. I was there to wrap up and try to come to terms with the remainder of a ten year relationship. Hell in paradise you could say. How ironic. But as a result of a broken heart, I ended up stuffing my face with all of the food and then some (mind you though – I ate mostly Oreo’s). So I thought I might as well put my hard work to use and write about the food I ingested.
I’m very much a budget traveler, and this is what I strive to promote here on this blog. But sometimes family members come for a visit and, well, what better excuse is there to splurge on a little luxury – especially when they are the ones paying? (insert evil laughter) That being said, high end accommodations can be a tremendous value for money in South East Asia and so I thought I would share with you my recent experience staying at the U Sukhumvit Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand.
Yangon is not a particularly cheap or convenient city for a quick visa run from Thailand, but if you’re looking for a single-entry Thai tourist visa and have the time to spare, you can combine your embassy visit with a trip to one of the most interesting countries in South East Asia.
Mark Weins covers a lot of the details in this post from 2011, but some of the details have changed so I thought there was worth in sharing my experience.
First there was the idea that I was perhaps going to hate India. Then there was the planning to cram as much of India into ten days to decide whether or not I liked it. Following that was the realization that, if I was going to decide if I liked India, a manic 10 day tour of Varanasi, Delhi, the whole of Rajasthan and Mumbai was possibly not going to be the thing to convince me. And finally there was the cancellation of all flights or plans and the sitting down in the Goan sand with the smug look of an expert procrastinator.
I randomly met a friend in Chiang Mai last November who told me about this yoga teacher training she’d signed up for in India in February. “I’d love to go to India to do yoga”, I sighed absentmindedly. I’d been practicing yoga most days since leaving Canada in January 2014, but it never occurred to me that my practice was strong enough to consider a teacher training, and this was not part of my plan anyway (in hindsight I realize that I did not actually have a plan – and I still don’t), so my words didn’t really mean much.
The city of Bagan is located in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a country not yet fully opened to mass tourism that is changing fast.
In Bagan, footwear and socks are prohibited in all temples. The entrance to several of these temples is littered with shops selling trinkets and counterfeit CK One perfumes, Revlon lippies and what have you. One would wonder which one of disobeying the shoe and sock rule or purchasing counterfeit knick knacks at the door of a holy temple is really sinful. Or if Buddha simply just enjoyed shopping barefoot.
I decided on Myanmar on a bit of a whim with a few days to spare in between two trips. I was guilty again of not having fully done my homework when I landed in Yangon Airport. But never was I expecting a country that encompassed all that South East Asia evoked in me prior to visiting it as perfectly as Myanmar did. Far more than all the other South East Asian countries I had already visited. Myanmar was simply magical and, to this day, I am still oscillating between spilling the beans or keeping them all to myself.
After having spent over a month in the vegan food mecca that is Chiang Mai, Pai felt a little restrictive food-wise. I was however ecstatic to swap the pollution and traffic hubbub for the crisp mountain air after suffering from bad allergies and a sore throat seemingly exacerbated by tuk tuk smog for most of our time in Chiang Mai.
There are many places in South East Asia that have become synonymous with the ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle – ditching the regular nine-to-five to work remotely or bootstrap a new business from a warmer climate, with a much lower cost of living and even better quality of life. We visited Chiang Mai last year and loved the city for its culture and easy way of life, and it always stayed in the back of our minds that if there was one place in Asia we’d be happy to put down some roots and live, this was the it.
One reason we were so keen to return to Chiang Mai is the food. We visited about a year ago and, for some weird reason, didn’t take full advantage of the variety of vegan options. This time around, however, we made it our mission to visit as many restaurants as we could, taste the rainbow, and present you with a comprehensive guide.
In long-term travel, things sometimes don’t go according to plan. And that’s fine: if you have the luxury of time, you should also have the openness of mind to assess that a destination is not right for you and do something about it. And that is how I am typing this on an impromptu flight to Chiang Mai three weeks after settling down in Ao Nang for what was supposed to be the duration of Richard’s divemaster training – 6 to 8 weeks. This is our first massive change of plan and I think we were a little slow at dealing with it, which resulted in us spending over two weeks in a place that, in hindsight, I was not all that into.
Since I have been blabbering about laksa non-stop for about a month straight, I thought it would be appropriate to provide you with a recipe. Laksa is a mix of Malay and Chinese cuisine, a noodle soup that is traditionally made with fish. It is widely available in Malaysia, Singapore and in some parts of Indonesia. We have sampled several variations on the laksa, most of them made with a creamy coconut broth, but my favorite was the sour broth variant we found on Penang Island: the Penang Asam laksa, a unique and complex blend of spicy, sweet and sour flavors.
We returned to Georgetown like to an old friend, happy to soak in familiar faces and places, but also excited to revisit some of our favorite restaurants and eager to try the ones we had missed the last time.
Penang is possibly the #1 foodie destination in Malaysia, and fortunately vegans and vegetarians are not left aside – Happy Cow has 111 listings for vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants on Penang Island! We’ve compiled a list of the ones we have visited and enjoyed. You can read about our first visit to Georgetown here.
One year ago today, on January 1st 2014 at 8am, we locked the door of our flat in Montreal for the last time, leaving behind an empty shell of what was our life of the previous seven years, and dropped the key through the mail slot. As it resonated loudly in the dark empty box, I felt an excitingly familiar feeling in my stomach: we were homeless, the unknown awaited us. It was amazing to ring in the New Year in such a drastic, life changing, exciting way, and the feeling hasn’t left me since.
If you are an animal lover and a traveler like us, volunteering at a dog shelter abroad can be a fantastic experience, either just for a day or for an extended period of time. Not only will you get to play with hundreds of puppies and meet new people, you will also make a huge difference both for the shelter and for the life of these animals.
edit. Please visit my revised vegan food guide of Malacca here.
We returned to Malaysia with one goal in mind: eating all the laksa. Malacca was the only major city we had yet to visit in peninsular Malaysia and it fitted perfectly into our planned itinerary: we took a short flight from Bali to Singapore and hopped on a few buses that took us to Malacca with surprising ease, all within the same day.
The plan from there on was to spend a few days on the west coast of Malaysia as we slowly made our ascent towards Southern Thailand.
Ubud was one of those places I was almost certain I was going to dislike. I kept thinking that Eat, Pray, Love would have ruined it for all of us and couldn’t help but wonder if the whole town was going to be full of Elizabeth Gilbert wannabes on a quest to spiritual healing and shakra alignment. Was I going to find myself too “off the beaten path” for a city so taken by the mainstream public’s imagination? Was I going to HATE IT? I was honestly skeptical as our 9th minibus of the day finally drove us into town.
As you might have guessed from the quantity of blog posts that are already piling up here about Bali, we absolutely loved it. A LOT. And for many reasons. The one I’ll be discussing today is jamu, this traditional Indonesian medicinal drink that looks a bit like mango juice and that you might have seen popping up on several warung menus or in baskets on the head of the Jamu Gendong, these women roaming the streets selling their precious potions to the locals every morning.
With its abundance of wellness centers, spas and yoga studios, it’s no wonder Ubud has such a vibrant healthy, raw/vegan, and organic restaurant scene. And if you’ve been following us for some time, you’ll know that this is right up our alley! It is, in fact, one of the many reasons why we lingered around Ubud for so long.
I mentioned in yesterday’s post that we took a freediving class in beautiful Amed, Bali a few weeks ago. Today I wanted to share a little more about Eastern Bali since we loved it so much and spent a fair chunk of time there. I think it’s such a shame that some people come to Bali and see only Kuta. Bali is a lot more than surf and Bintang and I wanted to share with you my little guide to this piece of Eastern Bali that is widely known as Amed.
Would you believe me if I told you that ten years ago, I was a chain smoker. I drank my fair share and took the least interest in what I was ingesting, so long as it had a good quantity of butter, sugar and caffeine. Which is all a bit strange because I lived my teenagehood as a dreadlock-sporting, health-conscious, non-smoking vegetarian treehugger. I guess my early and mid-twenties were just a big careless party where I lost sight of myself a little. Don’t get me wrong, it was freaking awesome and I regret nothing.
One thing anyone who is even mildly technology dependant should do before travelling anywhere for an extended period of time is to have their smart phone unlocked. Having 3G in South East Asia (in fact in any foreign country!) opens up so many possibilities. All of a sudden you are not dependant on tuktuk drivers telling you that your hotel is miles away, you can look up this nice hotel you just stumbled upon on Tripadvisor to see what other people thought of it and you can pretty much just hop on a scooter and go get lost anywhere, knowing that your trusty GPS will always bring you back home at the end of the day. 3G in South East Asia is extremely cheap and surprisingly very fast and reliable in most places.
We went to sea as sailors, but only maybe for my dirty mouth, swearing through my teeth that Gili Air was probably going to suck. Given we seemed to have developed a way to enjoy places others don’t and hate places others love as of late, this was the only logical conclusion. I thought of the Gilis as a place people bookend their 2 week holiday on Bali, just to tick the tropical island checkbox off of their list. They go to Trawangan to drink themselves silly, Air as newlyweds, and Meno, well, I still don’t know. All we knew was, you can’t really go wrong with a $1 boat ticket and we don’t really drink – so Gili Air it was. Off we went to check out this bunch of clueless red skin honeymooners and see what all the flap was about, hoping to prove my cynical little mind wrong.
Upon leaving the disappointment of Kuta Lombok behind, we set out in search of something a little more authentic. We’d heard of Tetebatu, a small village located at the southern base of Mount Rinjani, but found scant information online and in our travel guide about it. Still we took the chance, hired a driver, left our dysfunctional family behind and blindly booked a room at Kembang Kuning Cottages, crossing our fingers and hoping our hurried decision would once again turn in our favour.
We arrived in Kuta, Lombok full of expectations, after hearing so many tales of unspoiled paradise from friends and trusted acquaintances. When we go somewhere I’m this hyped up about, reality doesn’t always match the expectations: it happened in the Perhentian Islands, it happened in Hawaii and it nearly happened in Koh Phangan. Unfortunately, it also happened in Kuta. We stuck around for a few days to explore the surrounding areas with a scooter, in search of the magic we’d heard so much about.
The island crossing adventure starts at the bus station. If you’re lucky, it might be an actual station, with classes and prices clearly posted. But it’s just as likely to be a dusty field with a complete free-for-all – in which case, I hope you’re ready to bargain because there’s nothing the locals love more than fleecing backpackers for a ride in a packed, smoke-filled bus. Because yes – smoking is openly permitted on Indonesian buses.
A few months ago, I wrote about Richard’s beginnings in scuba diving off the shores of beautiful Koh Tao, Thailand. Despite what I may have said or written at the time, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I would not in a million years try it for myself. The thought of letting myself deflate towards the bottom of the dark ocean sent shivers down my spine that clutched me at the ribs and left me panting for air. Being of the mildly anxious variety, I struggle for air well above sea level from time to time, so having a pressurized whip cream canister and a sippy straw for my only supply did not sound like a cool idea. Couple that with the fact that I am an overall well rounded wimp – count me out of any extreme sport or anything involving heights, suspended walkways, speed, fast moving water or narrow spaces – and you can very well assume that scuba diving and I were never meant to be.
I never really write about the big cities we visit. I feel that we never stay long enough for a blog post to be of any valuable interest and that I would just be chewing back what’s already been written too many a time anyway. There’s also the fact that big cities have their way with making me restless, unable to concentrate and staring at all the shiny things in amazement. Richard has been calling me a magpie for years. I blame Sephora and H&M. However, I still felt like regurgitating a line or two about KL, if you’ll humor me one instant.
Jeez! I was not expecting such a small island and so little time to turn into such an adventure. Georgetown was amazing, but the real reason we had come to Penang was to visit the Bao Sheng Durian Farm on the opposite side of the island. In order to have better access to the farm, we moved our living quarter to Miss Loh’s guesthouse in Teluk Bahang, an adventure in and of itself.
We had just set foot in Malaysia when I declared Georgeown to possibly be the most exciting place I have ever been to. A melting pot of cultures, Georgetown is like Europe, Asia, India and Islam all wrapped up in a neat little bundle adorned with incredible street art; a wonder for all the senses.
The eclectic crowd of Malays and tourist-fraught trishaws roam the streets past colonial buildings, old Chinese shophouses, mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples and churches, dodging the traffic in seemingly perfect symbiosis.
Out of any possible travel destinations, I chose Koh Tao to do a work-a-thon, redesigning and migrating my blog and catching up on a backlog of blog posts from Laos. All the while Richard was completing his open water and advanced PADI diving certifications. But I wasn’t. I was sat on the balcony of our hotel room staring at a computer screen. I had chosen to do that. The crazy things you end up doing on long term travels.
Finding a place to stay in South East Asia is hard. It’s not difficult to find accommodation, in fact the plethora of options is completely overwhelming and makes advance booking unnecessary and expensive. What is really difficult however is finding those diamonds in the rough, and steering clear of problems like bed bugs, noisy neighbours and hostile staff – problems that often don’t become apparent until you’re already payed up and settled in. It’s no good being precious, and some of the roughest places can also turn out to be some of the best places, but that’s no reason not to try!
Travelling to South East Asia doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with following a vegan diet in many people’s eyes. And with good reason : walk around Bangkok or Hanoi and you are likely going to see big cauldrons of pig’s rectum soup and duck beak stew simmering on the road side with sides of congealed blood and fried goat stomach. And unfortunately I am not actually joking. But take a bit of a better look past the grotty and grim, and you’ll soon find that there is a wide selection of food for the vegan and health conscious all around. Happy Cow is a great place to start your hunt for healthy grub, but just a poke around the market will reveal delicious and unexpected surprises.
Nong Khiaw sucks you in like soft, oozing, relaxing quicksand. The memory of the border crossing that took you from Sapa, to Dien Bien Phu, to Muang Khua aboard cargo buses overstuffed with teeth-sucking chumps seems to be fading away into the distance, despite the fact that it was, hum… well it was yesterday. You flop into a hammock and feel your pulse rate drop as you take in the river and karst views from your balcony at Sunrise Bungalows, a beer Lao in hand, and realize that you have arrived somewhere truly special.
The Ha Long Bay circus starts long before boarding the boat, or even setting off for Ha Long city itself. Our plans to travel independently to Cat Ba island and visit the bay from there were scuppered by the week-long reunification day holiday and thousands of vacationing Vietnamese. In the words of one emailed guesthouse proprietor: “Don’t come this week, the room too expensive!”. So after a quick change of plans, we pressed on to Hanoi and started scouring travel agents.
The best travel advice seem to often times come from words of mouth from other travellers rather than from a guidebook. Hence, when my friend Fanny said to me that we HAD TO go to Phong Nha, I trusted that we did indeed have to go, and the seemingly extravagant expenses (that is, in comparison to our $45 USD a day budget) attached to the trip were overweighted by the appeal of walking through some of the biggest and most recently discovered caves in the world. And so we hopped on the train from Danang heading to Đồng Hới, and I’d say that the train ride alone made the journey worthwhile. The scenery between Danang and Huế is straight out of a game is Myst and I was a little sad that we were not able to stop and explore all these beautiful rural coastal areas along the Hải Vân Pass.
As the Futa overnight bus rolled into Danang at 6am, it’s safe to say we were a little the worse for wear. Locating the local bus to Hoi An was straightforward, but the blaring horn, aggressive conductor and sloth like pace were not exactly soothing. A short walk into the old city and we were too early to check into our guesthouse. Breakfast was called for, and with a life changing bowl of mushroom rice porridge at a vegetarian joint called “Mild” and this naughty face, things were already looking better.
Dalat. What to say. I am unsure as to why we added Dalat to our itinerary in the first place and I can’t quite decide in retrospect if I’m glad we did or not. People we meet seemed to have either adored Dalat or to have been left completely indifferent. I leave you to guess at which end of the spectrum we stand.
Mui Ne was something of an enigma on our arrival – we rolled into town after dark, having taken the afternoon bus from Saigon. The ever excellent Futa bus staff dropped us right at the Duc Thao Guest House – the good reviews on TripAdvisor were promising, and when Duc himself had swiftly answered our emails the previous day, we knew it would be a good bet. The family welcomed us into a spacious, clean double room and Mui Ne would have to wait until morning.
We left Phnom Penh by boat, at once heart broken to say goodbye to such an amazing country and relieved not to have to sit through another karaoke infused Cambodian bus ride. A few hours into our journey along the Mekong, everything became suddenly vividly green and people in pointy hats started popping up amidst the lush background. We had arrived in Vietnam.
Four hours east of Kampong Cham was the lovely town of Kratie, so lovely that it left me wondering if perhaps we should have broken down our time in Cambodia differently? Had we spent too much time in Otres Beach? I tentatively suggested that perhaps we should come back to explore more of the Cambodian countryside at a later time of our trip? Oh, the meagerness of the one-month tourist visa.
As the last few days of our Cambodian visa quickly trickled down, we sat through several bus journeys only to 1. Ride on a flimsy bamboo bridge before it collapses, 2. Take the chance to see some of the 80 or so critically endangered irrawady dolphins living in the Mekong in Kratie and 3. Backtrack past Kampong Cham and all the way to Phnom Penh. Whether that was going to be worth the 20 or so back breaking bus hours or not, we did not know.
The food in Cambodia was nowhere near as good as the food in Thailand, and the vegan options were also a lot more sparse. We had our fair share of rice and noodles with vegetables, and quite a few incidents of unsolicited eggs. One thing I realized early on in Cambodia is that, no matter how vegan something appears to be on the menu, always specify no egg or you might end up with a surprise. That being said, we did have some amazing food in Cambodia. From baguette, to durian, to tofu amok (a mildly spicy, coconut-heavy curry), to mango salad, we had some lovely exotic food – most of the time 😉
I had not heard all that much of Siem Reap, apart from the fact that it is the city that serves Angkor Wat. Yet I discovered a surprisingly charming riverfront town, full of markets, cafes and healthy restaurants, and we decided to linger around even after being done with our Angkor 3-day tickets. Yes, it is largely westernized and tourist oriented, but what are two frazzled, sleep-deprived, sunburnt people to do in such case? Go play mini putt, is what!
I am just in Phnom Penh reading First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung and the pre-Khmer Rouge city she portrays is way too similar to the Phnom Penh I am seeing now: young boys chasing each other through back alleys, schoolgirls in uniform playing hopscotch, ladies being pushed around through the incessant traffic on cyclos, food carts surrounded by people snacking at every corner and the usual cornucopia of market goods overflowing onto the street. Was that ill-fated day of 1975 when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and expelled everyone from the city a day like today? The extent of the atrocities that are unfolding before me as I visit Phnom Penh’s main memorial sights make it to hard to believe. Alas.
Saying that we were reluctant to leave the beach would be a slight lie. Upon returning from our remote paradise in Koh Rong Samloem, we arrived in the mayhem that is Serendipity: aggressive tuk tuk drivers, pushy street vendors and beauticians, and drunken half-naked westerners – my newfound zen was being rubbed the wrong way. The next morning, we were almost relieved to leave beaches and sandy buttcracks behind to experience a somewhat more cultural side of Cambodia.
Having only seen beaches and paradise islands since arriving in Cambodia, we felt it was only natural to go forth with the theme and to crash one more island before moving along to the ‘real’ Cambodia. There are several islands around Sihanoukville where one can stay overnight, the main ones we were interested in being Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, both located just a few hours off shore from Sihanoukville.
Arriving in Otres Beach, we spent a good hour combing up and down the two dozen or so guesthouses that lined the sand and beach road, comparing rooms and prices. With no 3G or WiFi to check Tripadvisor, and with the Lonely Planet recommendation of the Koh Kong Guesthouse still fresh in our minds, we were understandably taking our time to have a close look.
We arrived in Cambodia via the Hat Lek / Koh Kong border with surprising ease, having seemingly avoided the scams and touts we were worried about. I guess we had gotten a little comfy in our travellers flipflops, as we didn’t really do any research into where we were going to stay, nor did we get a sim card to investigate hotel reviews before venturing in, just wishfully thinking we’d wing it as we had successfully done before. Upon Lonely Planet’s recommendation, we were taken to the Koh Kong Guesthouse and checked in for the bargain price of US $6 a night!
We briefly backtracked towards Bangkok as we made our way to Khao Yai National Park and its adjacent town called Pak Chong. We had purchased a two and a half day tour and accomodation with GreenLeaf guesthouse and they offered free pickup from the bus station, which was great. The guesthouse was very basic but spacious and clean, however we did find a giant spider the size of a fist in the bathroom on the night we arrived, but hey, we were here to see critters after all, no? In fact I kinda threw a tantrum (or a strop, as Richard would call it), tried to get him to dispose of it for me, which he refused. I then had to go get one of the guys at the restaurant to come and do something about it for me, while Richard sat and gave me scornful looks and the guy giggled at us. This made us wonder how I would be coping with the critter encounters ahead of us…
We arrived in Bangkok at a time where the protests were at their all time low. I was very reluctant to come altogether, seeing as two children had died in bombing the previous day and it felt very unsafe to venture in. Fortunately, we had this map made by Richard Barrow depicting the main rally sites and areas to avoid and this, along with his Twitter account, allowed us to find a safe place to stay and to somewhat enjoy a slice of the city, albeit a very limited one. Our guesthouse was in Hua Lamphong and these photos were all taken in Chinatown. Hopefully tensions will have cooled down and we will be able to visit about more freely when we return in a few months.
Hi! A few weeks ago, we took a cooking class at The Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. The main reasons why we picked this specific school over all the other ones is because they offered the opportunity to veganized everything on the menu and because their farm is fully organic. We truly had an amazing day and met tons of other fun, food-loving travellers! I can’t recommend this day out enough if you happen to be in Chiang Mai.
It’s been nearly three weeks now since we were in Pai. It seems I have finally settled into a travel routine, and photo and video editing have not been on top of my priority list… I think that Pai itself had a lot to do with slowing my pace down and teaching me again how to do sweet nothing. In short, it was absolutely worth the bus ride from hell. I think Pai may appear a little raucous at first if you’re not 22 and in party mode, but walking 10 minutes just outside of the city, we found a little slice of paradise called Yawning Fields where we settled for a week.
In the course of the last week, we went around the Golden Triangle, the northernmost point of Thailand. We visited the towns of Mae Salong, Mae Sai, Chiang Saen and Chiang Rai by bus and sorngtaaou (pickup trucks) and took a longtail boat from Chiang Rai to Thaton. So much scenery in so little time, I’m glad I’m taking the time to document everything because my mind is already full to the brim with images of landscapes and faces I don’t want to forget. Thank god for the long bus rides, I guess!
We hopped on a bus from Bangkok towards Chiang Mai with a two-day stop over in Sukhothai. Our first land travel experience was an easy one with a first class ride equipped with a/c, toilet and a pretty baby blue and orange outfitted bus attendant feeding us biscuits and instant coffee.
Sukhothai was a great pit stop on route with its historical park containing ancient Khmer ruins (my first temples sighting!), a bustling night market (although still no durian in sight), slightly scary back-to-front tuk-tuk rides and a family-run guesthouse set amidst the dense forest inhabited by what seemed like hundreds of howling stray dogs and off-key roosters. I can definitely feel far from home now and it feels amazing! We stayed here 2 nights before setting off for Chiang Mai.
We had a wonderfully relaxing two weeks in England catching up with friends and family. A bit of a holiday from the holiday really! We spent the first four days at a couple of friends’ flat in North London who were gracious enough to let us use their sofa bed. We (and by “we” I mostly mean Richard…) paid them back by cooking them some food at night and taking them out to Wagamama on our last night. I have to say that I could very much see ourselves returning to the UK and living in London in a near future and it was great experiencing life there from an apartment rather than an hotel room. Thanks Tara and Will! We love you!