We landed in Colombo to a wave of heat. Thailand was 30-35 degrees but now I know when the locals refer to everything as "Sri Lankan hot" - they’re referring to spice AND the weather.
Once we left the airport gates we hit a hard wall of tuk-tuk drivers asking us the most common question we hear in Asia, “hello, where you going?" I feel like I’m in middle school and these drivers are my mother always wanting to know my exact plan. We played hard to get in the haggling game, so much so, that we haggled ourselves out of any tuk-tuks wanting to drive us! When they heard our first offer, they would all just laugh and wave us away, never to speak to us again...oops. So we walked a little further away from the airport gates and finally caught a nice cab driver who agreed on our price of 1200 Sri Lankan rupees (LKR) to get us to Mount Lavinia. Everyone else wanted to charge us 5000! ($1 CAD = 120LKR) Luckily Carter did some research and knew we were only 12kms out of the city center so we were so positive that paying that much would have been a classic scam, a ridiculous tourist price. Turns out the airport we flew into was a different one than we realized, so we were actually 50kms outside of Colombo and Mount Lavinia was ANOTHER 12kms away from that. Stupid Carter! Ultimately it worked out in our favour and we got a price you would call "cheap cheap!"
Be reminded, that we have just got off of an overnight flight, trying to sleep on the floor of an airport, and then catching a secondary early morning flight, straight to this 2 hour cab ride. So naturally, as anyone would be, I am exhausted and trying my best to keep my eyes open to take in the first glimpses of this new country... and, of course, Carter is wide eyed and bushy tailed ready to talk this guys ear off. And so, in the first five minutes Carter gets all this information from our cab driver: he is only 20 years old, his name is Shan, he's good at English because he was taught in school from a young age, his parents live in the next town over and he still lives with them, ardour ultimate connection is that he has a sister living in Toronto. Now that we’re so well acquainted, Shan asks if we’ve ate yet because he’s hungry and he’d like to bring us to his favourite lunch restaurant (which they call hotels here, I have yet to figure out the correlation or bad translation for that).
Shan-sies, (I can call him nicknames because he is now our friend) pulls up to his favourite hotel and we get out to head in for a table at the lunch time rush. After walking in, we get our first feeling of what we heard it's like being a foreigner in a country like Sri Lanka or India...All. Eyes. On. Us. As if we walked in naked or something... it is a strange feeling initially but then you just come to accept all the eyes and it makes you laugh. Shan orders for us, all vegetarian food because “that is what makes us healthy and not have to go to the doctors or dentist”. Shortly after, all the juicy curry dishes and no utensils arrive. We find out from Shan that Sri Lankans eat with their hands. As first timers, it’s messy, it’s uncomfortable and all my mind goes to is “where have my hands been, what have I touched, how am I going to get this curry out of my finger nails? Are people watching me? Am I doing it right? Should I be messier or more neat? Where’s the napkins!?” But it went well, and yes everyone was still watching us indulge. Now Carter is a finger-food eatin’ pro, he has taken on a few more rice & curry dishes, whereas I tend to stick to Kottu and Rotty which are drier/compacted meals, although equally as delicious as curry.
After lunch with Shan, we were driven the rest of the way to Mount Lavinia and dropped off at Evergreen Hostel.
When we arrived, people warmly greeted us but told us they didn’t work there... *question mark/confused emoji*. The guy who managed the hostel was at the beach... another *question mark/confused emoji*. But these nice Samaritans showed us to a room and we got ourselves settled. When we came back to the lobby, Carter introduced himself to a different guy who was now sitting at the front desk and his reaction back to Carter was very enthusiastic and excited. I thought this was strange since we didn’t know each other; I honestly thought he just really liked the name Carter...? Again, another *question mark/ confused emoji*. I also assumed this was now the hostel manager back from his beach break. Nope, this new guy was Wietse, not the manager of the hostel, but someone who worked in another part of the building he explained. Wietse introduced himself to me, "you pronounce my name like pizza with a w" (I already liked him because of this). He then immediately walked us outside to the driveway and asked me to sit in the driver's seat of one of the tuk-tuks sitting there. Now I am just down right confused. The confused emoji has escalated to the WTF face. Who is this guy? Why am in a tuk-tuk? And where’s the beach our hostel manager is at because that sounds much better than sitting in a tuk-tuk!
Wietse starts speaking with dramatic hand motions like he’s setting up a scene on a broadway stage. “Imagine. You and this tuk-tuk, cruising the open road...*hand motion*... seeing Sri Lanka the way YOU *hand motion* want to see it.... now. What do you think?”
Wietse : *grinning*
Wietse: well, I’m happy to say you’re driving this tuk-tuk across Sri Lanka!
I stare at Carter, who’s still laughing and now Wietse has joined in.
Apparently, what has happened is that my "lovely, adventurous, thrill seeking, speed demon" boyfriend had contacted Wietse prior to arriving in the country and rented us our very own tuk-tuk to drive around Sri Lanka for the next two weeks! In fact, the building attached to the hostel is where Wietse and a gentleman named Tom were operating a tuk-tuk rental company and that’s why we were even at that specific hostel in the first place! *WTF face* AGAIN. Only this time, it’s not just what I am thinking, it’s probably splattered all across my face.
To make matters worse, I am going to back track slightly, amongst all the chitchatting that Carter and Shan did for the two hour ride to our hostel, one of the only real fun facts about Sri Lanka that I retained through my grogginess was when Shan said tuk-tuks are dangerous because 4-5 people die in tuk-tuk related accidents daily. DAILY. Great. Now I am supposed to be in one for the next two weeks, I started doing quick math in my head to figure out what the probability is that 2 Canadians turn into a couple statistics over the two week span!
Fast forward a quick 15 minutes, the shock has warn off, Wietse and Carter have both now convinced me this is an opportunity of a lifetime (I mean, on top of already travelling the world). Tom started this tuk-tuk rental company (www.tuktukrental.com) and has been operating in Sri Lanka for 4 years and Wietse has lived in Sri Lanka for over 13 years, so he knows the routes we should take, the attractions to stop at, and most importantly, where to go to get off the beaten tourist track. It all sounded so impressive, we actually extended our trip before even starting it! We pushed back our flights to be able to cruise around what sounded like an amazing country for a full 21 days - there was just too much to do and see in a mere two weeks!
That day, Carter hands in his information to get his temporary “Sri Lankan” drivers license and the next, he got a driving lesson from the owner of our tuk-tuk. This company is pretty amazing, as to not take away economical opportunities of the locals by purchasing their own tuk-tuks, Tom & Wietse rent from local owners. They do a proper inspection of the entire three-wheeler, make sure it’s not older than a certain year, and give you an entire bible of know how’s and to dos, before you set off.
But back to Carters driving lesson. It was quite hilarious. A tuk-tuk is almost the exact mix of a motorcycle and manual car to drive. Three wheels, clutch, break, gears, throttle, everything you can name, is all in a tuk-tuk and all in the most inconvenient places to get to. Carters knees jammed right up against his chest and the “dashboard”, the break is in such a place he needs to hover his entire leg above it without resting his heel anywhere, and he’s too tall so he’s slouched over like Quasimodo just to see out the front window. Just picture an old wicked witch of the west driving a munchkin's bicycle furiously after Dorothy and her little dog too. I was replaying “dudundundunnnnndaaaa” in my head watching Carter try and drive this thing.
After a few failed attempts and a couple of stalls, Carter got the hang of it and was whipping down side streets like he was a pro. After a week on the back of a motorcycle on the crazy Vietnam roads, I trusted Carter's driving (plus, at least a tuk-tuk has walls for some "protection")
Monday, January 15th, Carter's license was approved and we were off! Actually not exactly. We took off and made a wrong turn right out of the gate. And then we recorrected ourselves to the proper road only to realize we left our power pack charging in the lobby. Then we were off! But first, we stopped for gas to make sure we were filled up... and then we needed oil. And then we stopped again for a water. Needless to say, it took us awhile to really get going and out of Colombo to our first destination of Kerbaula.
We rolled into town late at night, to be welcomed by a familiar bright red friendly hat... Pizza Hut. After driving all day, collecting dust on our bodies, faces and lips and having dirty hands, we didn’t feel like tackling rice & curry tonight. We DID, however, feel like tackling some butter chicken pizza. It was the BEST pizza, certainly that we’ve ever had from Pizza Hut (it's the small things we've learned to appreciate - like a good ole' North American style deep dish.)
The next morning, we drove up to the Big Buddha, said hi, got scared of the super active monkeys, so we left and made our way to our next destination, Sigiriya.
Sigiriya is where Sri Lanka’s famed Lion Rock sits. So naturally, instead of climbing Lion Rock, we climbed the rock formation directly across from it, Pidurangala Rock. Getting to the top was hard, but damn, was it worth it. Probably the most “worth it” climb we’ve ever done, next to the Pitons in St Lucia. Just before you reach the peak, there is a 12 meter reclined Buddha carved in the rock from the 11th century. From there, you rock climb up for another 10 minutes and you reach the most epic view of Sri Lanka and Lion Rock. Even though it may not have been the main tourist attraction, the rock we were on definitely should be as it was absolutely unbelievable. It felt like a planet on top of our planet. The rock face just kept going and going, we could have spent a couple hours up there walking around the entire thing! My absolutely favourite part, and where I just stood silently for thirty minutes, was a single spot on the back side of the rock that had a constant wind speeding up and past you. So, when you are standing there, the strength of the wind could actually pick up my arms somewhat. You’re looking out on the lushest green lands with different animals grazing about, palm tree forests and winding rivers; all you can hear is the wind speeding past your ears, and the smell of the fresh air reminded me of back home. It was so beautiful that I ALMOST teared. Okay fine, one single tear but that was it, I swear.
Carter and I agreed that this experience is probably in our top 3 travel experiences thus far. Also, one of the best parts was that we were almost all alone up there, most tourists climb Lion Rock which can be seen in the distance and is much more busy. Here are some photos we capture to help bring it to life for you:
Next we were onto Polonnaruwa and it’s ancient city. We opted not to go into the main archeological site for 5000LKR so we tuk-tuked around and stopped at all the free sites that are skewed across the city. Below: "The statue of Parakramabahu I was built presumably in the 12th century, during the reign of Parakramabahu I. The statue of Parakramabahu I is one of the best stone sculptures belonging to the Polonnaruwa period.The 11-foot-2-inch-hig hstatue is carved in high relief on a large boulder, with full use being made of its height." Ancient city in deed.
There is also a lake in the middle of Polonnaruwa and it’s absolutely gorgeous. We putted along the embankment... and then quite literally put-putted... and ran out of gas.
Let me tell you, Sri Lankan’s are the MOST helpful people. Almost to a fault. Carter and I could not pull over to enjoy the view, simply take a break, or whatever the reason without 4-6 Sri Lankans pulling over as well to ask if everything was alright. We couldn’t even pop a squat in peace without having to dodge people stopping to see if there was a problem! But of course, when we actually needed to take advantage of the help offered by the friendliest people on earth, no one stopped to check in on us. Until we flagged down another tuk-tuk driver, who immediately knew to play around with some hoses and wiring and voila, a reserve tank was tapped into and Carter and I were back on the road!
Wasgamuwa National Park
This national park was amazing. It was recommended to us by Wietse for the variety of wildlife you are almost guaranteed to see and for the lack of tourists who visit it (in comparison to the ever-popular Yala National Park). We decided to go for a sunset tour as there was more of a chance to see herds of elephants, and possibly, the elusive leopards. We paid for our entrance fee and was paired up with a volunteer guide to accompany us through the park in a jeep. Little did we know at the time, I would earn my new nickname as "Safari Britters" because I was spotting wildlife left, right and centre, before the guide could even see them. Though, thankfully he was there because he gave us the proper names and information on each animal and bird we saw. We learned and saw many of Sri Lanka's national bird, the jungle fowl. We saw a completely new animal to us, the mouse deer; it was literally a deer the size of an overgrown rabbit! The list goes on and on: dancing peacock, barking deer, spotted deer, huge common monitor lizards, eagles, hawks, and I am probably forgetting some of the more common animals that we saw as well. We then came across an elephant by herself. The guide told us when an elephant is solo and has detached themselves from the herd or been exiled/forced away (so sad), they are usually emotionally unstable because of past trauma or injury. This was the case for the elephant pictured below; her trunk had scarring on the end as if it had once been cut off...causing her not to be able to breath properly or use it as nimbly as she should have been able to. Our guide suggested that it was probably due to an interaction with poachers in the past or she could have had her trunk caught in the jaws of a crocodile while river side! So she is untrusting of anyone (animal or human) and that could be why she's alone. This must have been true because as we slowly started to drive away, I happened to look back (to watch the elephant for as long as I could because I absolutely adore them) and noticed that she had moved back into the trees and the trees coming toward us were moving and shaking. I hit guide and asked "is she running?" and not even a millisecond after I ended my question, the guide was on his feet and ran to the back of the jeep and yelled "DOLLIAH!!!" All of a sudden the elephant came back into view, running full-speed down the gravel path directly towards us! She must have felt threatened because she was now in full attack mode. The guide started to bang on the top of the roof to make loud noises and continued to yell "DOLLIAH!" (which means STOP!) Just as the elephant got closer and closer (close enough to ram her trunk right in side our jeep and toss us around) our guide yelled at the top of his lungs "DOLLIAH" one last time and stuck his hand out right in front of the elephants head and she stopped on a dime. She stared at us and let out a loud roar or trumpet type sound of an elephant, backed away slowly and disappeared back into the bushes. Due to the quick action and knowledge of our guide, instead of s******* our pants and being in serious danger, Carter and I had an amazing encounter and experience with the wildest of wildlife! We can never forget the power of these animals, even as fun loving and amazing as elephants are.
Here are some pictures of our safari:
Liptons Seat & The Hill Stations
Sri Lanka is the third biggest exporter of tea in the world, coming in behind China and India. So for this relatively small country, it produces hundreds of million kilograms of tea each year and this is why the hill stations of Sri Lanka were so incredibly impressive. Carter and I drove through tea plantations for four entire days!!!! Not only is the entire country covered in tea plantations which makes the scenery so vibrant and beautiful but the leaves are still being hand picked by Sri Lankans as well. Driving through these fields and seeing the colourful dress of women amongst the vibrant green tea leaves... the sight should be made into a painting.
Horton's Plains & World's End
Horton's Plains is yet another national park of Sri Lanka but this one is probably the most unique. Horton's Plains is situated at 2300 metres above sea level, so this was our final destination after climbing up and up switch backs through lush green tea plantations and hill stations for four days. But when you finally get up to the top of the "mountain", you find this grassland plateau that stretches across miles and miles - not at all what you would expect at all from a four day mountain climb.
Not only is the landscape itself very unique, the park also is famed for it's Cloud Forest. This natural occurrence happens every single day at 10am. The first picture is at 9:45am, looking out to the second and third highest peaks of Sri Lanka.
This next picture is at 10:01am, when every single day clouds roll in to create the false feeling of "World's End" - Hortons Plains' main tourist attraction. This view was from another point of view so we could actually capture the clouds coming in like clock work and this saved us from not having pictures of a complete whiteout.
We woke up early and made the journey to Adam’s Peak. Locally, it’s known as Sri Pada and this is a sacred mountain to Sri Lankans. At the very top of the mountain it is said to have Buddha’s footprint imprinted and this marks the site for the religious pilgrimage. Historically, devotees must make it up the mountain before sunrise...(look up why). So, in true tourist takeover fashion, waking up at 2:30am to summit Sri Pada before sunrise is what everyone does. We read and heard that the line to get up to the very tiny platform at the summit can take hours because there are SO many people. So of course, we opted to do things a little differently and hike it for sunset. We started at 3pm with light feet and hopeful minds. After half hour of walking and about 1000 steps in, we asked a local how much further and he replied “the beginning, 1 more kilometre”. WHAT. We weren’t even at the base of the damn mountain yet!! After several breaks, 2 outrageously priced water bottles, 5500 steep steps, 1 drone session, 6 kilometres straight up and 2.5 hours later... we reached the peak. Just as we took off our shoes and I put on my sweater to be respectful of Buddha, an amazing surprise happened, the monks began a sunset ceremony. Other than their chants, the top of this 2235 metre mountain was silent. It was only us, 2 other foreigner groups, 3 local families, a few monks and one big Buddha footprint shrine. After the ceremony, which I can only assume was surrounding the Buddha’s footprint and saying their prayers to him, we were able to go up, give a donation, and pray at the foot of this shrine. We were told to get on our knees and put our forehead on the heel of the imprinted footprint, so we did. We were then guided along to an elephant god statue where another monk was chanting. We waited our turn, walked up to the statue and received a blessing from the monk and a tiny gold dot on our foreheads. As I was getting my blessed dot, bells started to ring... it was a call to the gods, we were to ring the big bell in accordance to the number of times we’ve summited the holy mountain. One local family was ahead of us and rang the bell four times each, Carter walks up (again, I am going back to his height and size because he’s actually massive in Asia compared to locals) and pulls on the bell string and completellllllly misses ringing the bell - he didn’t pull hard enough AT all!!! Then he gives it a quick retry and dings the bell but it’s too late, the local family, a monk and I are all failing at holding back our laughter and the ludicrous that the biggest man on the mountain (literally) couldn’t muster enough strength to ring the bell.
"Carter here! OKAY let's get this story straight here! While I was patiently awaiting my turn to ring the sacred bell a Dutch man with what must have been a severe case of small man's syndrome waltzed on up and smashed the bell so hard that Buddha himself probably cringed! To my defence I was trying to avoid rattling the bones of the local people around me and allow this beautifully peaceful ceremony to carry on without anymore hiccups! But yes, I was the laughing stock of Adam's Peak which I will forever cherish!"
After the good laugh, we watched the sun set over the next thirty minutes and braved the thought of going down all 5500 steps again..
For the last two nights we ended up in Hikkaduwa; a beach you can surf and see sea turtles on. We blew the budget at a whopping 5000rupiah a night hotel, that was a small family run place right on the beach with beautiful grass and a room with a view (and AC). We spent our days relaxing, shopping, eating and I caught up on This Is Us while on the beach. How I love 2018 and being able to get wifi almost anywhere!
Anghulla & The Sea Turtle Conservatory
On our way back up to Colombo on the 30th, we stopped by our beach for one last swim with the sea turtles. These were wild turtles, probably over 75 years old, who knew to come to this beach because locals and tourists would spoon feed them kelp. We said our goodbyes to these gentle giants and made our way north up the coast. In a few towns past Hikkaduwa, Carter noticed a turtle hatchery sign and a big cement turtle being constructed so we decided to stop and check it out. This was an unforeseen amazing decision. We are down to our last rupee so we didn’t necessarily want to pay, we just wanted to stick our heads around for a little peak. Before we knew it, Chalana came out to greet us, the project manager of this conservatory. He was a passionate 23 year old Sri Lankan who had turned his uncle's property on the beach into a save the turtles project. There were pools of one day old little turtles, another pool of 10 day olds, a couple months and bigger turtles which were 50years and older than were rescued and being rehabilitated. There was even a baby turtle that was 9 months that was blind; he’ll live in this center forever as he doesn’t have the natural means to survive in the ocean. After speaking with Chalana some more, he asked what we did back in Canada and we explained that I am a fundraiser but we have quit to travel for a year and Carter is a hobby filmmaker. We quickly offered our professional equipment to his cause. He was so excited to receive our help; especially because we had a “fly cam” to help him capture his beach front property in which he does most of his rescuing. He said more times than not, he will have to go out and troll the beaches to pay off fisherman for the eggs they’ve dug up (fisherman will eat the eggs as a delicacy or sell them). Then to our amazement, he comes out with a bucket of 4 small turtles... we were allowed to release them into the ocean!! Talk about a trip highlight. There was one little guy who flapped his flippers top speed right into the sea, and for a moment I was blown away at the inherent nature of turtles to know exactly where to go and how to survive right out of the hatchet egg. And then came Confused Charlie, I laid him on the sand and he just kept turning around and walking backwards, away from the sea. So we thought he wanted his friend to join him, so I released the third turtle and... it didn’t change a thing. In the end, I had to guide him closer to the water and as soon as the wave caught hold of him he was swimming away like a natural! It was incredible to see their little tiny heads popping up in the massive ocean and the waves that were crashing down on the beach.
After this unforgettable experience, we hopped back into our tuktuk, dodged some buses, haggled a few pineapples, and let a lot of old Sri Lankan women cross the street, as we made our way back to Colombo.
Sri Lanka was an absolutely amazing country, small but mighty. We enjoyed ourselves 125% more than we ever thought possible. The Sri Lankan people are incredible, the food is delicious, the variety of landscapes and activities to do from the hill station and mountains, to the coastal beaches, is mind blowing. We would recommend visiting Sri Lanka to anyone looking for a REAL "all inclusive" getaway - this country truly does have it all. Although we may not have included every single detail of our journey across Sri Lanka (as it would have been a days' worth of reading for you), we're including some of our highlights for you to hopefully enjoy as much as we did!
This following blog is written by Cam & Cathy Bender:
Cathy and I were happy to be asked to be guest writers of the Thailand portion of Carter and Brittany’s most excellent adventure, since we would be experiencing Thailand for the first time. It is our pleasure, after all, how many 60 year olds get asked to go travel with their son and his girlfriend on an adventure of a lifetime. But first, we’d like to say, how proud we are of the two of them, putting their careers on hold to take on this incredible journey. The drive they have every day to get up early and climb a mountain or spend hours travelling from country to country then to still find time to sit down and document their experiences, edit video and put it all together beautifully for all of us to enjoy back at home. It’s pretty awesome!
Day 1 - Getting to Bangkok
Anyway, here we go! As some of you readers may or may not know, Cathy and I have taken on a major project with our new home renovation in Southampton. So when the time came, we put down our hammers and grabbed our old backpacks from our travels to Europe in the 80s and started the 24-hour trek to meet Carter and Brittany in Bangkok.
After arriving on time at the airport we still somehow managed to be the last two people on each of our flights. (It’s not good when you hear “LAST CALL for passengers flying China Eastern Airlines to Shanghai” and you are still about 15 gates away from yours.) WE RAN!..And thankfully made it! The flights themselves were great, the layover less so, but we arrived in Bangkok and hopped into a cab (the driver kept speaking into a translator app on his phone then holding it for us to read. Most of the translation didn’t fit the context of the conversation we were, sort of having, about where we were from and how many children we have and so on... quite funny). We got to the hotel at about 4:30 am to find Carter and Brittany standing out on the street waiting for us. It was so great to see them! Surprised they were both awake. We went to our rooms, exchanged small Christmas gifts, caught up for a bit then got some much needed sleep.
Day 2 - Bangkok!
We got ourselves going in the morning and went out into the crazy streets of Bangkok looking for breakfast. Carter and Brit are already experts at everything Thai: the currency, the food, and the fast pace. So we just let them do all the thinking for us. It was nice to be in a place that was so different from what you are used to but not have to worry about being on your toes trying to figure everything out. We sat at their favorite restaurant around the corner from our place watching everything and enjoying a late morning breakfast.
After we were finished, we started walking though the narrow crazy streets (I mean crazy), motorbikes, scooters, bikes flying by you about two inches away, loaded with any where between 1 to 5 people, or piled with anything and everything possible. Food carts with people making things you don’t recognize and buildings and wires everywhere. It’s MADNESS! But pretty soon you get used to the whole crazy thing and you are just walking around risking your life at every turn just like everybody else. It quite fun and amazing!
We took a tuk-tuk to the Grand Palace, the largest Wot (temple) in Bangkok, but found we weren’t dressed appropriately (knees and shoulders must be covered). As we were leaving, a water-taxi tour guide approached us. Carter and Brit negotiated a cheap price for an hour river cruise and a trip to see the sleeping Buddha at a Wot on the river. So that guy waved over another guy who took us to the boat launch on the river. The boats on the river were almost as crazy as the bikes on the roads. Long thin boats with long propellers attached to car engines precariously balancing up on a swivel were flying in every direction. We sat there waiting on the pier while some lady screamed into a microphone at every boat that went by. We had no idea what she was saying or if anyone was even listening to her. But she seemed to feel that what she was doing was entirely necessary. Finally, the oldest boat and driver on the river came sputtering up to pick for us. He took us up and down a few of the canals, which had every type of building; modern condos then broken down wooden huts on stilts that didn’t look like they would last through a high wind.
Our boat driver didn’t speak any English and didn’t seem to know where he was supposed to take us so we got off at one of the Wot stops and started to search for the Wot with the sleeping Buddha. No one seemed to know where it was so we just walked around for a while longer, then gave up and jumped in another tuk-tuk and headed back for dinner. No one ever asked us to pay for the boat ride. I guess maybe we were supposed to get back on another boat and go back to the pier we started at. We weren’t really sure what happened there...
That night as we were walking past a crowded patio bar on Kho San Road, whom should we see, but Hayden Smith, who was still in Bangkok. We spent the evening having a few beers, searching for the best street cart Pad Thai, watching the girls shop for elephant pants and to top it off, some special male bonding. It was a really fun night but we had to say goodbye to Hayden since he was off at 4:00 am in the morning to Cambodia for some Dirty Dancing and a visit to Angkor Wot. It was great fun hanging out with him!
Day 3 - The Grand Palace
The next morning, dressed as required, we headed to the Grand Palace. But before we got there, Cathy insisted I go to the same barbershop that Carter just got his hair cut at the day before we arrived. Brittany showed us the way, and when I sat down, we told the barber to do exactly like he cut Carter's - moustache and all... but then I backed out before he started trimming.
After my cut, we arrived to the Grand Palace to find we were amongst hundreds of tourists, taking selfies, while many more carried parasails since it was about 100 degrees. The palace was amazing with all types of ornate Wots and ancient buildings that had housed the Kings of Siam (later Thailand) since 1782. Here we saw the Emerald Buddha but were not allowed to use cameras within the Wot. Here are some photos we did take on the grounds:
As we left the Grand Palace we split up and turned our heads away from the guy we had arranged to boat trip with us the day before. Cathy and I were just doing what Carter and Brit told us to do. They were just being budget continuous...
That night we headed off to the Bangkok train station to catch a sleeper train to the Gulf of Thailand. The sleeper trains were pretty cool with rows of berths for sleeping. The only issue was that we were near the bathroom car so all night long people kept opening the doors beside us to get to the other railcar. And for the first few hours every time the train stopped people would get on with food or something to sell.
Not very well rested we arrived at Chumphon at 5:30 am. For some reason the door of the train only opened half way. We had to basically throw Mama from the train. With backpacks on the front and back she got really lodged in the door. So we were pushing and pulling from both sides until she popped out. Similar to how this guy was stuck:
We had breakfast right beside the tracks while waiting for the bus to the pier for the ferry to Koh Tao. We spent most of the ferry trip sitting out on the deck at the front of the boat watching the sunrise and the island appear in the morning fog. That was a pretty special morning!
Day 4 - Koh Tao
Upon arrival in Koh Tao (meaning Turtle Island) Carter and Brit went into ‘search for accommodations that are in our budget but where Mom and Dad don’t have to sleep in a dorm’ mode. They found a nice little room for the four of us beside a pool and the beach. Perfect!
The place was great with a beautiful view of the beach while you were sitting having lunch. We swam at the pool, had a few drinks at the swim up bar and did some walking up and down the beach for a very nice relaxing day.
That night we hired an off roading taxi to take us up to the top of the mountain to see the sunset from an amazing lookout perched on top. Carter and Brit had found a young couple from BC that would share the cab with us (Cathy- ‘they were so cute’). The road up was nothing more than a motorcycle path, but we bumped our way up getting thrown around the whole way. This was an experience in itself! The view from the top was spectacular! There was a little covered wooden lookout on stilts, with little pillows and low tables, and hammocks, and swings to sit and enjoy the view. We relaxed there, for a least an hour, had a beer (or two) watching the sunset while people took turns painting messages on the wooden planks of the look out (very bohemian). Then we piled into the truck and bumped our way down again in the pitch-black night. That was another really special night!
Day 5 - Around Koh Tao
The next morning we woke up early and headed out for an around the island snorkeling and sightseeing boat tour. It was a beautifully warm sunny day so we packed up or suits and sunscreen and headed for the port. The double-decker boat loaded with about 30 people started off on our adventure. The thing that you notice about Koh Tao that is different from the rest of the islands in Thailand is the huge round boulders along the coasts that makes the island look like something out of a Flintstones cartoon. These rocks are huge! And nestled beautifully in them are small resorts with cabins and decks all surrounded by lush greenery and palm trees.
We travelled along the southern coast enjoying the view for about 20 minutes before we made our first snorkeling stop in one of the large bays.
The boat had a closed under deck and an open upper deck with a light sun shade with a nice bench across the back so that is where we spent our time. It was also a great spot to jump from. Koh Tao is a popular driving destination so the snorkeling was some of the best we have seen anywhere. Carter and Britt were one of two couples to see a black finned shark here!
We made another stop in a cove that was surrounded by these mountainous boulders. The water was azure blue and the underwater life was amazing. The four of use had swam away from our boat and were all by ourselves. All of a sudden we noticed we were over a school of what must have been a few million small blue/green iridescent fish. Their changing directions made glistening colours of the huge school, which looked like an ameba changing shape before your eyes. It was an incredibly massive school that went as far as you could see in all directions about 10 feet below the surface. Carter, Brittany and I took turns swimming down into the school and watching the ameba shape change as the school parted to move away from us. Carter had the GoPro so I am looking forward to seeing that video footage. We all surfaced for a moment to talk about how we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Cathy said, “Okay, watch me! Film this”, so we all got ourselves under the water to watch as she attempted her dive down into the sea of fish. Well, she started to kick feverishly and pulling with her arms to go down, but it just wasn’t happening! The more she kicked and splashed, the more she didn’t go anywhere and her backside was fully out of the water. We all surfaced, pulled our snorkels out at exactly the same time and began laughing. It was so funny. Since we were in this cove with the huge rock surrounding us it made the laughter bounce back off the rocks. We laughed for a long time, (I think Brittany was actually crying laughing) and anyone near us must have wondered what was going on. Then Cathy tried to justify why she couldn’t go down. “It must be that I don’t have any flippers on or maybe it’s the salt water”, and we laughed some more about why those reasons probably weren't right. Side note: they don’t give out flippers to snorkelers in Thailand to protect the coral and underwater life.
We swam back to the boat and went on to the next snorkeling locations. The boat made 6 snorkeling stops in all.
I thought we were heading back to port when the tour guide starts talking about choosing between climbing the mountain or going to the beach at the island we were heading to next. The crazy thing about this was that this was now about 3:00pm and we’d been out here since early morning and this trip only cost 500Baht (about $20 CAD). After what we had seen that day, I thought we couldn’t possibly see anything more amazing. Well I was wrong, Nang Yuan Island was ridiculously beautiful, two mountains and three converging coral sand beaches. Carter, Brittany and I climbed the approximately 200 stairs, then some big rocks for the last 30 feet up. The view from the top was nothing short of spectacular. It looks so perfect it’s hard to believe it’s just there naturally.
(Below is a drone shot Carter took. The photo above was taken on top of the cone shaped island pictured on the right)
We met up with Cathy on the beach and had a swim in the beautiful blue water before we had to meet back at the boat at 5:00. What a trip!
Day 6 – Koh Yao Noi
This was the night they lied to me. Apparently, I had made a comment about how I didn’t sleep well when I have a very early morning ahead. So Carter and Britt thought they would spare me the anxiety by telling me we were leaving at a later time, but then actually waking me up earlier. We were planning to leave in the morning to begin the long haul to Koh Yao Noi. Carter and Britt organized the departure time with the tour company. They told us to meet for breakfast at 8:00 before heading to bed. Little did I know (Cathy was in on their plan) that we were schedule to be picked up at 5:30 am. Talk about a rude awakening. Stumbling out of bed and straight into a cab for a 6:00 am ferry to Surat Thani. Uugghh! The high-speed ferry got us there in a few hours. Then onto a 5-hour bus ride to Krabi and finally a long tail boat the Koh Yao Noi. That was a long morning of travel.
We took a cab to Holiday Resort, a place Carter and Britt had stayed in before on the East coast the year prior. We stayed in two little cabins right on the water with spectacular views of the Karst formations (giant rock islands) of Phang Nga Bay just rising up out of the water across the entire horizon.
Later that evening Carter rented a motorbike for about $4 for the night to ride us around the town to shop (of course) and for dinner. I suggested we all get on at the same time like the locals do (Cathy just gave me the look). However, she was eventually convinced to get on the back with Carter. Something she said she would never do. Here is the photo evidence:
Day 7 – Sunrise on Koh Yao Noi
They woke us up at 5:45 to see the sunrise and the amazing horizon of Phang Nga Bay right in front of our rooms. We Facetimed everyone we knew, to show them this incredible moment (it was dinner time at home).
While Cathy and I had breakfast, Carter and Britt found a local to take us on a tour of Phang Nga Bay. At 9:00 am he picked us up in his car (actually, I thought he must have borrowed it from a friend, since I have never seen an island driver drive more slowly and carefully. It was almost like he was driving it like a boat, that doesn’t have any brakes). When we finally got to his boat we jumped in and took off for the islands. You can’t really describe the beauty of this part of the world. In every direction the views are breathtaking. There are dozens of islands that just rise up 100 feet (30 meters) straight out of the water with sheer rock faces with trees and vegetation on top. And at the bottoms of many of them are beautiful sandy coral beaches.
Upon arriving at the first island, there were about 5 other long tail boats there and a few speedboats, everyone walking around enjoying the view or swimming. We stopped here for about 20 minutes then headed off to another island and beach. It seemed that around every corner of every one on these amazing islands was another beautiful beach. The next one we stopped at had a large cove beach with the rock face completely surrounding the beach. We slide in next to the two or three other long tail boats that were there before us. Here we went snorkeling. Again, the underwater life was unbelievable. Near the beach we actually saw a bomb from the Vietnam War lying on the bottom. I stood on it for a few moments while I adjusted my mask and tried to keep my feet away from all of the sea urchins in the rocks on the bottom. We saw bright pink and red fan coral growing on the side of the rock face as it went straight down into the darkness of the water. We were enjoying our snorkeling adventure when all of a sudden it seemed like we were surrounded by hundreds of Chinese tourists with underwater selfie sticks kicking and splashing and bumping off of us. We fought our way back to the shore to find that in the 20 minutes we had been snorkelling peacefully, about 8 speedboats loaded with tourist had arrived on our private beach, (how dare they take over our beach).
Our captain informed us the speed boats were coming from Krabi and Phuket, much further distances and tourist packed than our small near by island Koh Yao Noi. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when the moneymakers find ways to bring in the hoards of people. So we quickly left and went to an island where the speed boats don’t go, luckily there are still lots of those. We ended up on a nice secluded beach and sat down to eat the lunch that our tour guides wife had nicely prepared for us. The next stop was in a lagoon in the centre of Hong Island. The main island and largest island of Phang Nga Bay, Koh Hong is uninhabited, except for the birds, white-faced gibbons and giant monitor lizards that can be often spotted on the main white sand beach (at quiet times, at least). It’s interior is home to a large lagoon (the “chamber” to which its Thai name “Hong” refers). This is best accessed at low tide by kayak, as the diminishing water level makes its colour change drastically from a deep emerald green to a clear turquoise; during mid-tide which was what it was for us so our long tail boat could enter.
This was where Carter almost lost his drone. He had launched it from the boat outside the lagoon on our way in, he flew it around the island for awhile taking some shots like the one above. As he was flying it back, possibly because we were in the centre of a lagoon with a 100 ft wall around us, he lost the signal of the drone. It said on the screen that it was GOING HOME... well home was where the flight had started and that was on the outside of the lagoon, we were now on the inside! The drone had started flying on its on, and was already outside of the lagoon. Not good! As the drone began to lower towards the water. Carter panicked a bit then thought, I’ll un-plug my phone and plug it back in. He did that and a few seconds later it re-connected! He was able to fly higher, away from the water and fly it back to us, in the lagoon. Phew! Very close call.
After that excitement we continued on to a spot to snorkel where it was just the 4 of us. After this we headed back towards Koh Yao Noi but made one last stop on another climbing mountain. Carter and I did it while Cathy and Brit enjoyed the beach.
This one was a little more difficult than the previous climb since there were no steps and only a few ropes and branches to use to pull yourself up the rocks. It was quite exhilarating and satisfying for this old guy to get to the top but not quite as satisfying when on the way down we came across an Australian family with their 4 year old daughter, we watched as she descended the whole thing by herself (the Aussie mother said her daughter would not allow anyone to help her).
Day 8 - Phuket
The next day we headed about midday by ferry to the mainland. We found an amazing hostel near the airport. It had been opened for only a month so everything was brand new. Our own 4 bedroom dorm below, bunk beds!
We threw our stuff in our room and headed out to see Phuket. We walked to the market and saw all the local fare; there was a lot to see. At the end of that street was Sirinat National Park. We walked along the beach and through the park. It was a bit eerie seeing all of the huge trees laying down that would have been there since the tsunami on boxing day of 2004 that killed 8,100 people in Phuket. On our way back to the hostel it poured and poured. I think we got wetter than if we had been swimming (if that’s possible).
Day 9 - Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
This was the morning Brittany had been looking forward to for over a year. She and Carter had been to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary the year before and fell in love with the elephants, especially the baby named Choke. This is an ethical no riding elephant sanctuary that provides a safe, healthy environment, free from work and abuse. They have approximately 20 elephants ranging in age from 1.5 years to 77. Many of the older elephants have been rescued from situations where they were mistreated. So it was incredible to spend a few hours with them. We prepared food and took it to their feeding area and helped feed them. Brittany would actually grab food and put it right in their mouths, while saying “Boooon” or something like that (which is supposed to tell the elephant not to bite hard since your fingers are in there).
After the feeding, we then went to the pond where they get their mud bath. Some of the people got muddier than the elephants, throwing mud and whatever else was in the mud at each other (quickly looking like an out of control mud wrestling team). I didn’t want to get myself that dirty so I decided to be the videographer for this part of the adventure, avoiding the dung mud.
Then came the elephant car wash, which was a giant overhead sprinkler system to rinse the elephants and everyone off. After this the elephants headed back into the jungle and we went for a shower and an excellent meal.
If you ever get the opportunity to visit with elephants, be sure to visit a sanctuary and not a place where they ride the elephants, as they explained that over time it breaks down their back and causes irritation and sores. Carter mentioned that his first experience in Thailand was just that and he wished he had known how poorly they are treated.
After our last meal together, it was off to the airport to catch a flight with Carter and Brit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from there we thought we were catching connecting flights; us to Hanoi, Vietnam and Carter and Brit to Sri Lanka. Well it turned out that theirs was connecting with the same airline so they were able to stay in the airport. They found a comfy sort of area to sleep in a lounge for their 4-hour layover. But we on the other hand had to exit the airport and wait until the kiosk opened at 5:30 am. So Mom and Dad, just wandered around the departure area with no Malaysian money and hundreds of other people going different places. (Cathy says, “It was fine, the time flew by.”) We finally got in and found them and we curled up on the floor near them. Our flight was leaving earlier than theirs so we gave a big hug to each of them and we parted. It had been an incredible 10 days.
Thailand was wonderful; the people were so friendly and helpful. The accommodations were very reasonable some nights $8 for both of us and meals were great. Some of our lunches with a beer were $9 - $10 total and that was with an app.
It was a great experience, we think we kept up with them, had many laughs and we actually think they may ask us to join them again some time. We saw them having lots of fun, they really enjoy each other’s company and are best of friends for sure. Thanks again for this opportunity and good luck on the rest of your adventures!
After a week on the open road through Northern Vietnam, with the wind in our hair and the sun on our backs, we arrived back in Hanoi and boarded a cramped sleeper bus to Laos. Returning to a backpacker's reality. Not only would we be laying horizontally for the next 26-ish hours because the seats on this bus are permanently reclined and there is no head space to even sit up if you wanted to, but to top it all off, the back of the bus was jam-packed with boxes of chocolate chip cookies and fans...??? South East Asia randomness in full effect. So that means, the toilet was completely blocked for the next days' journey and we were at the complete mercy of the driver deciding when we could pee. In adding to this hopeless tunnel of 26 hour dreadfulness, there was at least 500lbs of cookies that we were quite literally laying on top of that we couldn’t eat (being hungry next to delicious food you can’t have... probably worse torture than holding your bladder.)
Hayden, Carter and I climbed up to claim the very last top-bunk seats and because of the boxes that were packed onto the bus, it felt like we had more room to sprawl out rather than being cramped into the single seat. This was definitely a bit of a bonus when Carter, a 6’4 Westerner, is trying fit into a 4ft Asian-made bed.
Are you thinking “how the hell did you guys survive a 26 hour bus ride?!” Well, that was my exact thoughts boarding this thing. However, it ended up not being so bad (for me, who can sleep ANYWHERE). If it were Carter or Hayden writing this blog, it may be portrayed in a completely different way. The best part of this entire experience? No one expelled any bodily fluid on/in/ or around the bus (that we know of anyways)!
We arrived into Luang Prabang late at night and in the rain, so the first-impression experience was dampened (get the joke?) but we could still see how beautiful this city would be in the daylight. We could see the French-colonial inspired buildings, the bustling night market and street food vendors that were out and around the town square.
Luang Prabang has a very rich history as it was the old capital of Laos. It has since been replaced by Vientiane but Luang Prabang remains a world heritage site as per UNESCO. I think because of this there was an ease of navigating through the city. There were standardized signs with both Laos and English written on it and all the signs for the temples and important structures through out the city had an English explanation of it's history and significance (which we rarely came across in Vietnam). Only as recently as 2003, tourists were just allowed back into Laos after it became a communist country. Tourists were only permitted to visit the three major cities: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vieng Vang. Now, Luang Prabang is known as the spiritual heart of the country and even visiting it for a few days, you can definitely feel why.
In the morning, the views and city far exceeded our expectations. We wandered a little to find another hostel and got to see more of what the city had to offer. The streets are narrow and wind in and around the city with the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers joining one another at the centre. There are ancient temples and wats scattered through the city, in amongst the busy market street and on top of the Phou Si mountain across the river.
We came upon the main walking street during the day, this is where I truly saw the beauty of Laos. There was French colonial influence in many of the buildings and the Main Street reminded me a bit of the French quarter of New Orleans. Not only were the buildings themselves old and charmingly beautiful but so much beauty came from all of the merchants and their handcrafted artisan scarfs, tapestry’s, table runners, dresses, stuffed animals and trinkets made from retrieved bomb fragments, that filled these buildings and shops. Everything had a story behind it; what village made it, who made it, why it was special. This is when I fell in love with the city... and probably the entire country.
Onto my favourite topic, FOOD. There is a heavy Thai influence in Laos food(our favourite). Our first meal was from a local little hole in the wall place where the owners' 10 year old son took our order because he was the only one in the family who could speak English. We all had an amazing variation of a curry & rice dish (I am salivating right now writing about it.) I had a vegetable curry, on my plate came a huge portion of mixed *regular* vegetables, rather than a plate of sautéed green bitter lettuce I normally received in Vietnam anytime I ordered anything vegetable-related. But whether the restaurants are completely local or catered to tourists, you will find something you could eat your way into a food coma with.
There is also a pedestrian night market that shuts down the Main Street from 5pm to 10pm every single night that is simply INCREDIBLE. It’s the best night market I have seen based on the absolutely stunning and beautiful artistry that goes into these tapestry and crafts...and the food. The stalls and vendors went on for miles, you could easily spend the 5 hours it was open going from start to finish, wandering and browsing everything the market had to offer. But it didn’t stop there, the market also trickled down through side streets as well. We ended up turning into a crack in the wall (it was obviously bigger than a crack but definitely much smaller than a side street) and stumbled upon the best looking street food (and all you can eat stations) that we have seen and eaten to date. Vietnam has a good rep for street food but this has it beat 100%! To top it all of it was extremely cheap.
Here are some of the paintings, scarves, jewellery, etc, etc. You name it, Luang Prabang night market has it and I probably loved it:
On the morning of December 29th, we woke up before sunrise at 5:45am and got out to the Main Street to witness the daily Alms Giving Ceremony. This is where the local monks from 45 neighboring temples walk through town silently and collect offerings (food & money) from the locals (and some tourists). There is supposedly over 200 monks who participate daily in this ceremony. When we got to the Main Street, unfortunately big white tourist vans out numbered the monks that were lining the street. The night before, I read rules and etiquette of the ceremony for tourist and spectators: no showing your chest, shoulders or legs, be quiet and respectful, do NOT follow the progression, do NOT interrupt the monks or offerers, and if you are going to take photos have no flash, and keep a respectable distance away. Well, it seems as though we were the only one who read this because there were tourists right in the monks face and running along side them to get the “perfect” shot, squeezing in beside them with their stupid selfie sticks. It tainted the experience for us, it's tough to stand by and watch so many people ignore proper etiquette during cultural traditions in order to fulfill their own needs, but it's reality unfortunately. We then left and turned down a side street, as we did a we came across a hundred monks walking in silence, uninterrupted by little to no tourists, and for us, that was the beautifully peaceful moment definitely worth getting up for. The monks were not only collecting food in their baskets, but also giving back to the poor of the community and to the elementary schools for the kids to have lunch. If I understand correctly; the locals will give to monks for good karma and a good after life when they are reincarnated. And the monks will share with those who are in need, out of duty. I don't think we could have ever captured the essence of this ceremony, with the monks walking in precession, in silence, with the sun's light growing gradually around them but here are the two pictures we took to try...
We then climbed Mt Pousi right after sun rise, it was a beautiful 360 view of the entire city because of it's central location. When we were on top, I was surprised to see how LP sprawled much bigger than I thought it did on either side of the river. We were also lucky enough to see monks return back to their respective temples to have their one meal of the day, thanks to the alms ceremony and the giving locals of LP.
Since we were up at dawns crack, we had the rest of the day to travel to Nong Khiaw, a small village 3.5 hours north of LP. The village itself is settled on both sides of the Nam Ou river and is connected by a big beautiful bridge that was built during the war. The left side of the bridge is the original village, where the residents live and local businesses are. To the right of the bridge is more built up to accommodate the small portion of travellers, with river side bungalows, guest homes and restaurants. The village is in between two high mountains, both of which you can climb to view points. One is best for sunrise, which we climbed (more of that to follow). And the other for sunset. I am sure they have names but I didn't retain this information!
Our first full day in Nong Khiaw, we took a day tour with Mr Mang and NK Adventures. We took his riverboat and cruised up the river for 2 hours to his village known for making cotton and silk tapestries. I bought a big mustard yellow hand woven blanket and Carter bought a beautiful scarf from a little lady who was sitting outside of her house weaving more pieces. It was a great feeling to support these very real people, creating these pieces of art with their own hands, rather than buying it from much larger shops in the city who buy them in bulk from small villages like this one.
We also dropped in on a school, even though it was Saturday, there were many kids playing in the school yard. The boys had a super competitive game of pétanque (similar to bocci ball) going on! Our favourite was definitely the score keeper.
The next village, Muang Ngoi, was bigger than the last and also had some infrastructure to support little travellers. Still, their main road was only one kilometre, and was made entirely of dirt. Bombs from the war were laying around everywhere in this village. A devastating fact about Laos is that it's the most bombed country in the history of the world "From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years". Even today, there are foreign specialist teams who work in Laos teaching to safely deal with bombs if they come across any undetonated bombs (which are still being discovered today). In this village, they were using them as seats, garden decoration, and restaurant signage. The ones that gave me goosebumps had been painted by locals with flowers and peace signs. It was pretty surreal and saddening to see how normalized they have become.
We walked into a home, with a lady boiling rice to make the "Laos Laos". This is what this village is known for, their home-brewed rice whiskey. We were all given a sample shot and of course, the boys were sold, they bought a litre water bottle full for $3.00 and that was their alcohol for NYE the next day. Again, supporting the local community any way we can... ;)
New Years Eve Day. We did another hike to the highest viewpoint over the village right before sunset. It took us 45 minutes to reach the little wooden hut that sat above the entire lush landscape. This was one of the better climbs we have done thus far; the lush and vast landscape really helped us to understand how 'wild' and untamed Laos still is. If you are thinking about visiting Laos, I would really recommend going sooner than later before mass tourism really sets in. Carter got some incredible drone shots which almost captures what we were looking over:
After we got back down, we were invited to a big celebration hosted by the regions governor. This New Years celebration would be complete with a river boat float, ethnic beauty pageant and fireworks (even though Laos real New Years is in April). The ethnic beauty pageant with all local village girls from neighbouring districts coming together for a friendly competition. We arrived in the outdoor “stadium” (if you refer to the previous drone photos you can see the big dirt football pitch where it was hosted) at 7pm to grab our seats and some Beer Lao. We were joined by an Australian and Dutch couple and the show started. About 40 girls, dressed brilliantly in their tribe’s formal and or cultural wear, come out to the stage dancing. The crowd goes absolutely bonkers - all of a sudden hundreds of Laotians are on their feet dancing, drinking, screaming and hoisting up signs with different numbers on them, cheering for their village representative. Well, it didn’t take long for our table to get involved! As soon as Carter stood up and the locals beside us saw a tall white guy enjoying the show, they pushed one of their big signs into his hands and as quickly as that, we were cheering on our girl number 23! Carter's insert: "At one point I went closer to the stage to take a better photo of this hilariously awesome event as were were at a table near the back, people were so proud of their villages candidate, most women were very seriously screaming for their local girl and very focused on cheering, the men were more just drunk and having a blast with us and their buddies. So as I got close to the crowded front area I ran into a woman who was also carrying a #23 sign, I then realized there were about 10 other women with her cheering for #23, they saw me and all started laughing. They grabbed me and handed me a bouquet of flowers, pointed at the stage and gave me a push to start walking. I realized there was a huge open walk way where some people were giving gifts to their candidates. As I am heading up with ALL eyes on me from every angle, the commentator says a whole bunch of words in Laotian and it ends with 23 (because I'm now the massive white guy walking all alone towards stage holding the #23 sign and the flowers.) When I get to the stage #23 steps forward from the line of young ladies and crouches down to collect her gift, says "khob chai le lai" to which I say "bring it home 2-3!" It was a great moment I will never forget. Shortly after I work my way back through the huge crowed to our table of drunken friends and they're all standing on chairs in a circle laughing/holding beer lao and #23 signs. I proudly ask if they saw me get hand picked to deliver our girl her flowers, and they all died laughing because they weren't watching and didn't believe me. As far as I am concerned #23 and I will always remember the moment we had on NYE!!."
That's Carter's claim to fame in Laos, the moment he was essentially a druken Laotian flower girl! The contestants danced... and they danced... And they danced... we drank... and we drank... and we drank. They sang... and they sang... and they sang. We shared shots of the rice whiskey and tried to keep up with the enthusiasm and partying of the locals.
The hour was 11pm and the pageant was still going on. We didn’t really have any idea what was going on at that point... and then all of a sudden, a traditional dance broke out that we were invited up for. I WISH I captured Carter dancing up there alone for the first 2 minutes, he was a good 2 feet taller than everyone else, just bobbing around in a circle, snapping his fingers and two-stepping his feet; it took me the full few minutes to stop laughing and join him. Carter and I tried to mimic the moves of the locals as best we could but were probably making a fool of ourselves. Then at 10 seconds to midnight our table, and our table only, started yelling the countdown. Everyone stared at us and just watched as we yelled 3, 2, 1... I guess the actual countdown is just a western tradition?? We yelled Happy New Year to one another, kissed, hugged, and then to our surprise, the sky lit up with fireworks surrounding both sides of us and because of the lit up sky, you could see the huge mountains that towered over us and the stars peeking through the sky. It was spectacular! Happy 2018!!
We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend the last of 2017 in a remote village in northern Laos, what a life we are living! Cheers to more in 2018.
As we have been making our way up the coast of Vietnam we have encountered many travellers. In meeting so many it's nice to chat and discuss places they have been and recommend, as well as, give them our recommendations in return. In some of these discussions we discovered an increasingly popular way to see the whole country is to buy/rent a motorbike and drive from one side of the country to the other. Some of the people we met were on their journey from North to South Vietnam and told us how incredibly beautiful the most northern part of Vietnam is, and that we couldn't miss it. One dutch traveller, Martin, told us he motorcycles through Europe often and specifically came to Vietnam to make this trip on motorcycle; he recommended a few spots in the far north that were his highlight routes and even told us after motorcycling the north, he's not sure he will ever top that experience in his life. Another Aussie we met had been planning a motorbike trip to Vietnam for almost a year, his reason for being in Vietnam was entirety dedicated to tackling as many roads through the northern mountains stopping in little towns and villages along the way to rest his head. After hearing these stories we were obviously sold on doing something similar in the North, and made sure we allocated at least a week for this loop. The route would start in major northern city Hanoi and end back in Hanoi. After researching some local motorbike rental shops we ended up at one called Phung Motorcycles and they were more than helpful getting us set up to roll. We tested two bikes (Hayden on his own and Brittany and I on one) they even let us leave our huge 65L backpacks in a safe room above their shop. So we strapped only the essentials to the back of our respective rides and put on a few layers of our warmest clothes, as it was 16 degrees in Hanoi at the time. We had several conversations with some locals in Hanoi that we had planned to rip up north and do this loop and some of the feedback was "you must be very brave, north Vietnam very cold" and "I would not go up north this time of year because I'm already too cold in Hanoi" I took the comments with a grain of salt as I am a abnormally large Canadian man, right? Within two hours of our first leg of the trip up to Ha Giang, I had already pulled over on two separate occasions to buy wool gloves and a thick jacket fit for a harsh Canadian winter. All for 230,000 Vietnam Dong or $13.00 CAD. Britters being the smart woman she is bought a nice comfy knock off North Face in Hanoi before leaving for $18 CAD. We spent time on major express ways, smaller highways, two lane highways and one lane roads.. All filled with tour busses, local busses, 18 wheelers rigs, overloaded dump trucks, and cement trucks driving way to fast using the loudest/most frightening horns ever in which they ALWAYS use right as they blow past you or while they're overtaking another truck coming right at you...in your lane. Let's just say that a misty shit shower from a speedy tour bus (see previous blog post) was likely the least of my worries. These vehicles absolutely run the roads of Vietnam and you slow down/squeeze as far onto the shoulder as possible when they approach...or die. On top of this you also need to use what's left of your focus to avoid; stray dogs, chickens crossing the road (seriously why do the chickens need to cross the road, this age old joke still a complete mystery to me), water buffalo, tiny children on massive bicycles, tiny children running down the road unsupervised, sparatic roosters (I hit one), pot holes, people standing in the middle of traffic, loose gravel, wet spots (almost the death of Hayden) and pigs. Lastly, other motorbikes are weaving through traffic like bees; some filled with families of up to 5, strapped with massive living/dead pigs, overloaded boxes, living dogs, fruit baskets, and some (for some strange reason) with over 50 pigeons, ducks or chicken tied down.
So yeah, to say our first 310km trip was mentally taxing would be an understatement. However, equally fasincating to see this type of lifestyle and take part in it as safely as possible (this part is for all the moms reading this)
It wouldn't be a true South East Asian motorbike experience without any sort of motorbike trouble so, of course, we spent about 3 hours in local mechanic shops on the first day. Hayden's bike was first to give when the back tire popped and required a new one.
Almost an hour before sunset Ruby's back spokes began to snap causing our tire to wobble more and more until we were unable to drive any further. Luckily we pulled over beside a small house where a lady was outside, we used Google Translate to get the point across we needed a mechanic, she calls her husband outside and he opens his garage, sure enough he's the small village's mechanic, wild luck. He fixed the spokes well enough to get to Ha Giang and we paid him for his help.
Although we had to ride in the dark for the last two hours, in roughly 7 degrees Celsius, we made it to Ha Giang. First day taking on the wild north: departed Hanoi at 0930 and arrived Ha Giang at 1945. The next morning we had roughly 150km to get to the neighbouring big town of Dong Van. Doesn't seem too bad compared to the day before, however, when the roads look like this...
150km can quikly turn into a full day adventure. We put on every layer of clothing we brought with us and hit the road. Sorry wait, Ruby decided to act up again and 5 more spokes had snapped off, so we took her into the shop in the early morning.
This is actually a great segway into why we named her Ruby. She was a Red Yahmaha Sirius and this being our second time with her in the shop on our second day...I dropped a "Yeah, more like a Yahmaha R U Sirius?!" so, came to be, Ruby Ursula Sirius. Ha Giang to Dong Van was an unbelievable cruise, the roads up there are a lot more secluded and less travelled. We would still come across trucks and smaller busses, typically transferring locals through some of the northern towns and villages. However, completely peaceful and worry free in comparison to the roads to Ha Giang. We were able to not only take our time and pull over for the occasional photo but we were able to have the narrow road to ourselves, for sometimes 10km at a time. Making it easy to enjoy the surrounding mountain views and wave to the villagers.
One point during the trip we hit a beautiful winding road that curved up the mountain. We pulled over to fly the drone and capture a birds eye view and were immediately greeted by local children from a nearby village. Kids love drones regardless of where you are but these kids were seeing one for the first time. We had a great time meeting them and laughed as they just played and giggled, we even posed for a few photos together. After that the remaining ride to Dong Van was up and down mountains, the scenery was hard to believe.
The next morning was the portion of the journey I was most looking forward to, based on our conversations with other travellers. The first 20km from Dong Van to Bao Lac, the Ma Pi Leng Pass. As soon as we climbed the mountain leaving Dong Van we turned the corner to one of, if not, the most beautiful place I've ever been in my life. An absolutely massive canyon tearing through the middle of a mountain range with sharp & rolling peaks, with the most carefully constructed little road winding through it all. This 20km stretch took us about an hour and a half since every corner we rounded involved pulling over to truly absorb it all. And I mean let's be real, to snap some of the hottest profile pics ever seized! Photo shoot was 'lit' as the young kids would say. This was definitely the most beautiful road I've ever been on, uncontested.
Over the next few days the views changed drastically, but were all equally mind blowing. The further we went north east the smaller the villages and the roads became. Huge smiles and waves from the hardworking farmers we passed and all the giggles from the curious children we stopped to play with. We ate the best Pho we've ever eaten (and we had a lot to compare) in a tiny village where water buffalo roamed the dirt roads and the man & woman who made it for us sat by and watched us eat to ensure we enjoyed it. We came across a tiny elementary school with maybe 4 classrooms amongst another mountain range and decided to make a pit stop. We were welcomed with smiles by the teacher into one classroom where they seemed to be doing arts and crafts, math and language all within the same classroom. Not even 5 minutes had passed before children from all classrooms had run over and eventually the entire school was surrounding the classroom we were in. We laughed and high fived some kids while others hid behind friends...laughed, nervously ran over to slap Britt's or Hayden's hand and then ran away again laughing. One teacher spoke enough English to inform us we were 7km from China and that the students don't learn English, because there are no teachers nearby who know enough English. This was just another stop that made this trip so special.
One of our final stops was a full day trip out to Thac Ban Giac Waterfall, on the boarder of Vietnam and China. This is the 4th largest waterfall on an international boarder in the world, behind Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls and Iguazu Falls... such a incredible spot that had once again blown us away.
I even got the drone out and flew it across to China just to capture this photo from this angle. I will admit there were brief moments of anxiety thinking it may get shot down or have some sort of short circuit crossing a barrier into China. All went according to plan however.
From Cao Bang we made our last trip down to Hanoi which was another impressive push, but made it happen with an early start at 0700, arriving at 1500.
The three of us were not entirely sure what to expect from this northern loop adventure. We heard beautiful views, "motorcycle heaven", amazing people, cheap local food, rustic accommodations, rural Vietnam, scary/dangerous driving at times, rough roads at times, and one thing for sure was cold weather and horrific rain. After our experience we encountered every single one of those things except for the horrific rain thankfully, we went for it well knowing it could have been miserable driving in 5-15'C wet conditions, and it blew away our expectations. Aside from the early morning chill, we spent a week driving in the sunshine. We collectively agree that this journey from Hanoi around the north of Vietnam back to Hanoi, was the greatest week of our lives. I will sign off with some more photos, hope you enjoy.
After a hot 48 hours in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia (which was amazing despite why we ended up there), a 3 hour flight to Da Nang, and a 1 hour wait at our hostel, we were finally reunited with Hayden!
I laid down some rules after the boys had their warm embrace. Rule 1: you have 48 hours free rein (aka drinking) after that, we’re real people getting down to the travelling thing we are here for! Rule 2: I am cutting either the hair or beard. Rule 3: I am the boss... (I am still trying to get them to adhere to that one).
And so the drinking began... we quickly learned the Vietnamese word for cheers, and it’s an easy one, “zooooooo!”
Da Nang is a city in central Vietnam, its mostly only used as a pass through to Hoi An and that’s exactly what we did. The next morning (the boys moving a bit more slowly), we taxied to Hoi An, the ancient town famed for being an UNESCO heritage site. We were dropped off at the door of Miss Ly’s restaurant; the oldest and most well known family-ran restaurant in Hoi An. The original Miss Ly was over 90 years old, she sat right outside the kitchen peeling sweet potatoes. Her daughter was now running the restaurant and cooking for the guests.
Hoi An is BEAUTIFUL! There is something magical about the small town; it is covered in colourful lanterns, European influence on top of ancient Chinese architecture, and the pedestrian streets filled with people along the canal. The town itself dates back to the 15th century with some of the original wooden structures still in tact and so it all comes together to create an unique charming little town.
Here are are some pictures of Hoi An, although I could write 1000 words to describe it:
But the most important picture of all, is this quintessential photo of Hoi An which showcases the two besties modeling their new matching yellow watermelon shirts:
Hoi An is also the starting point to motorbike the Hai Van Pass through to Hue. We were fortunate to find a company that would take our big bags and we jumped on our first motorbike tour of Vietnam! (For those who may not know, Vietnam is a cyclists/motorcyclists dream - many, many tourists come to Vietnam specifically to ride the entire coast of the country.)
The total trip was 123 kms and took 4 hours from start to finish.
At the end of the Hai Van Pass we got onto Highway 1 to get the rest of the way into Hue. This wasn’t at scenic and peaceful as climbing the coastal mountain. Let me paint you a little picture... going from winding roads, switch backs to climb up the mountain range, pine trees that made the air smell so vibrant and fresh, descending into little coastal towns with white beaches... to a big highway, full of big dump trucks, cargo trucks, trucks carrying obese pigs, local buses, tourist buses, cars and motorbikes speeding past you.
*Reminder: this is our first time on motorbikes in Vietnam, especially on a highway. We (as in Carter because I am certainly not driving one of these things) don’t know the local road etiquette yet. Does a honk mean “Hi there, coming around the corner, just want to give you a heads up!” Like it does in St Lucia? Does it mean “I don’t want to startle you but I am coming up behind you!” Like it does in the Philippines or does it mean “MOVE!!!!!” As it means in Vietnam, which we were about to learn. So when a transport truck is coming toward us and a tourist bus is coming up behind us honking, where does that leave us? Carter pulled to the side of the road but maybe not quickly enough for the bus driver’s liking (or EXTREMELY bad timing) because as the completely-packed-with-tourists bus drove past us, the toilet trap door was released out onto the road... and out BLASTED all the *god knows what* for the on board toilet RIGHT onto the ENTIRE front of Carter (yep, face included). The shitter ain’t full anymore, Cousin Eddie. I have never seen someone pull over so quickly and have certainly never heard the high-pitched screaming that was coming from Carter before... “Ahhhh!! What is that.... Ahhh!! OMG! It’s S***!! It’s S***!! Hayden! Haaaaaydeeeen, pull over, pull over!!!!” I couldn’t stop laughing ONLY because he blocked it all from hitting me so I came away unscathed, thank the freaking lord!!!
Shortly after that debacle, we drove into the city of Hue. Hue was much less beautiful than Hoi An but just as interesting. We spent an entire afternoon walking around the Imperial City which was formed in the 1800s and used to house Emperors and Dynastys until the mid 1945 when the last Vietnamese emperor abdicated and the communist government was established. Other than learning some interesting historical facts about Hue and Vietnam as a whole, we didn’t spend much more time here.
Phong Nha was next on the list, so we hopped on our first sleeper bus and made our way North! We claimed the back of the bus which was private, spacious and unfortunately right beside the washroom where a local lady ended up puking all over. Yay. (Side note: Asians do NOT care about bodily movements, if you have to puke all over the toilet, or spit onto the ground, or continue to puke into a bag and leave it in the aisle - you go glen coco, you do what you gotta do!) If you haven’t noticed, we’re on a pretty great bodily fluid hot streak... =|
Phong Nha is a small town on the outskirts of Phong Nha Ke-Bằng National Park. This stop was all about nature and getting into the mountainous landscape. We decided to forego an organized tour (as we try and do whenever and wherever we can). Our plan was to get to Son Doong Cave, the biggest cave in the world! So much so that it has its own climate, river system and and jungle within it! We were ready to take on this beast! Wrong. Apparently only a certain number of tourists can do expeditions within the cave; it’s a cool $3000USD for a 5 day trip and oh ya, it’s already fully booked for the next year! A little deflated but also optimistic that maybe we’d be back to take on Son Doong, we rented motorbikes and we were off the our first stop! Here are some of the views we saw along the way:
Our first stop was Paradise Cave. Okay,, so it’s a little less impressive than Son Doong but still, Paradise Cave has been the biggest cave we’ve ever been in to date. We climbed down 100-ish steps to the bottom of this massive 31 km cave! This cave holds the record for longest dry cave in Asia, and so, we walked... and walked... and walked. We were fortunate to get there before any tour busses or other tourists got there so other than a couple locals, we had the cave all to ourselves. This is amazing for two reasons: the first, getting a tourist attraction to yourselves almost never happens so we cherish it when it does, and two, if we weren’t walking and/or talking the silence within the entire cave was almost as beautiful as the cave itself!
We made our way to Ninh Binh, next, another town known for the amazing landscape and natural attractions around it.
And just like that came December 15th, what a glorious day! As the birthday girl, I woke up to breakfast in bed (it was already included with our hotel room but the in bed part was pretty nice & thoughtful!) Carter had somehow managed to sneak away and buy me a present. This is extremely hard to do when we have literally been spending 24/7 together. So I was really surprised to unwrap (aka open a plastic bag) to a pair of socks and slippers! I know what you’re all probably thinking..”so romantic???...” Well, in our next blog you’ll know how useful they came in!
Also, a super big heartfelt thank you to all of those who signed a birthday card for me in advance! It was so nice to wake up and be able to read all the wishes from my friends and family back at home xo A bigger thank you to Jen for knowing my love of cards and thinking of this idea!
After breakfast we hopped onto our motor bikes and went to Trang An to do a river boat cruise. This was an amazing experience, we got into a private paddle boat with just us three and a guide. Our guide took us up the river through beautiful scenery, through 8 caves and around the river for 3 kms, all of which took 2.5 hours.
We maybe would have been quicker to finish but Carter took the reigns on paddling for a bit, and well, let’s just say he wasn’t as efficient as the guide..
After that we went to climb Mua Cave & Dragon Mountain. It was a fairly easy climb compared to some of the ones we’ve done but nonetheless, the view of Tam Coc River and the rice fields were breathtaking. It was a bit overcast so the pictures don’t do it justice but here they are:
After the days adventures, we boarded our first train of Vietnam towards Hanoi!
Well. Things didn’t quite go according to plan after our last blog.
We had a flight booked from Surabaya to Ho Chi Minh City, with a short stop over in Singapore. Everything went great; we stopped in Singapore, got our foot massages, used the incredibly connected WIFI, and ate Western food (although Carter did not get his McDonalds). We boarded the plane to Ho Chi Minh and we were off to Vietnam! Added bonus was that we were finally meeting up with our friend Hayden who we hadn’t seen in 15 months as he was living in Australia this past year.
So, we have a great flight, we land in HCMC and the only thing we need to figure out is how we’re going to get USD money out for our Vietnamese visa on arrival. There’s been ATMs and Money Exchange booths everywhere in other airports though, it’ll be easy! As we get up to immigration, we have to fill out an entry application but regardless of this, we are now armed with the money, our 2 properly sized passport pictures and valid Canadian passports, we are set!
We are called up to the immigration desk. The officers are dressed in what I can only attribute to formal military outfits, looking super official and stern. We smiled (as the nice Canadians we are) and politely said “hello, we’re here to apply for the Visa on Arrival - here is absolutely everything you need because we are SO prepared”. He shuffled our documents and quickly said “where’s your letter?”... “what letter?”... “you need letter of approval to enter this country” Carter and I look at each other confused. “Sir, this is what we’re here for. An approval letter for the visa on arrival. We have all the documents for the visa”
“Sit down” the officer said and took our passports.
Carter and I sit, looking around at others to see what kind of documents they have. There are people getting passport photos... we have those, check. There are people getting out money... easy fix, ATM and or credit card, check. And then we start seeing people with prestine letters in a protective sleeve with an official looking red stamp. Shit. What the heck are those?!
Not even 15 minutes later he calls us back up and with absolutely no remorse or hesitation says “you have no letter of approval. You cannot enter Vietnam. We send you back where you came from. I will get the airline. Sit down”
WHAT?!?! IN. THE. FRIG?!!?
Now panic sets in. We have done all our research, talked to so many people, HOW did we miss this?! There’s no way they can send us back, we’re polite Canadians, there must be a mistake. So I get on our only working device and connect to the internet. Yes, we have 4 devices between the two of us but my cell phone was the ONLY one with battery life.... and it was at a whopping 3%. (Note to self: charge EVERYTHING to the MAX when it comes to a travel day. Another lesson learned.)
I get onto the Vietnamese government website and see that we can pay extra to expedite the visa application, 4 hours. Done! We will just apply for the visa as we sit and wait in immigration, easy peasy. They’ll understand that and let us in!
Next thing we know, 2 airline representatives, a security guard and immigration officer come to get us. They have paperwork with the same official red stamps we saw on the other travellers documents. Yay! They’ve decided to give us the approval letter! WRONG. They ask us to sign the papers, which are all in Vietnamese, so we just simply asked “what are these for?” The immigration officer holding them, violently pulls the papers out of Carter’s hand and walks away with them... and then the next thing we know, we are being escorted through security to a plane because we were now officially DEPORTEES of the country of Vietnam.
Carter. Is. Rattled. And I’m in shock. If any of you know me, I try to always stay positive, looking at the siliver lining. So as we’re getting escorted by 5 airport personnel, I am saying “it’s okay, just a slight set back... we are paying for the story... this is a good experience... live and learn... it will be an easy fix. We will get back to Singapore,get on wifi and just wait out the 4 hours it takes to get a visa. We’ll be back on a flight to Vietnam to see our good friend Hayden in less than 8 hours!”
How many times in a day can I be so WRONG?!
No one will speak English to us, although we know ALL of these officials can. No one will look at us, they just keep rushing us on and yelling at each other. We get to a gate and finally one of the airline representatives says “you are flying back to Singapore” so I respond “how long until the plane comes? We can buy our visa now and stay in Vietnam!” Apparently, the plane was being delayed soley for us to board. It is the exact same plane we JUST arrived on. Great, back to Singapore... where we just came from. Just like the immigration officer had said.
So we were now on a plane BACK to Singapore. I asked the stewardess for our passports back and she said she’s keeping them until we land. Okay... (another moment we were completely helpless. Sure - keep our MOST important documentation hostage. Seems right since NOTHING has been explained to us so far.)
So, we land in Singapore and we exit the airplane like normal tourists... until we see yet another airport official holding our passports waiting for us in the tunnel. To our surprise, she was holding 4 passports, another couple had been deported for the same reason! (Sweet, we aren’t ignorant in not knowing the visa process, there are others in the same boat... or plane, so to speak). We are again escorted to the immigration office by 4 officials in the Singapore airport. Again, everyone is speaking in a different language which we can’t understand. All of a sudden, the immigration officer says “Back to Indonesia or Canada, which one”. My stomach sank. WHAT?! Canada?! That didn’t even enter our minds!! No. No. No.
Finally, a grounds control representative came up to the desk in order to help us. The first nice person we encountered that actually gave us the time of day and spoke English to us. She explained that because our original port was Indonesia and our final destination was Vietnam, that we were being denied entry into Singapore. Great. Meanwhile, the other couple who were also deported asked us why we didn’t just pay the $180USD fee to get the visa within an hour. SAY WHAT! That was NEVER an option for us, even though we asked (slash begged) to do that! Cue: anger.
The grounds control rep talked with the immigration officer and got him to agree that if we booked a flight elsewhere, could we go there and he agreed but he said “if they are not allowed in that country they MUST go back to Canada.” So, we decided that we would apply for our visa to Vietnam, pay extra for the 4 hour emergency rush, and book the next flight out to Ho Chi Minh City... again. WRONG. The immigration officer totally shut that down because we were deportees and they would not allow us to fly back. Okay... so now we’ve spent our 15 day tourist visa limit in Indonesia and because we haven’t been officially stamped in to enter another country, we didn’t want to go back to Indonesia and be deported (yet again) and sent to Canada. So we booked a flight to Kaula Lampur, Malaysia because you did not need a visa to enter. Perfect. The grounds control lady looked up the flights, there was one at 7am but it was full - the next one out was at 7pm. That’s fine we thought, Singapore airport was great for shopping, eating, wifi. We could fill our tim as we waited...
And then we get hit with it. We are in transit limbo as deportees, they have our passports, we are technically air-fugitives. She tells us that we will have to spend the entire time until our flight out in immigration holding! Being escorted and under surveillance 24/7! And on TOP of being in airport prison, we have to PAY to be locked up!!! $80USD per hour!!! Again, f^*%!!!!
So, GET US ON THAT EARLY FLIGHT.
We are escorted to the “holding room” - the Singapore Airport security calls it this. It is airport jail, let’s not get that twisted. We walked into one door, it locks behind us and now we’re in the middle of two steel doors. The security official scans his badge, the next door opens. Welcome to jail! We are stripped of our bags and belongings, made to read a sheet of our rights. “No cellphone use, only to call out. No pictures. No use of personal items. No this. No that.” We signed the paper saying we understood the terms and conditions (because we had a choice right?!) We were shown the “accommodations” we would be sleeping in - one male and one female dorm room with at least 20 bunk beds and blue lights so the surveillance cameras could capture you the entire time. Cool. Most comfortable and warm environment we’ve ever stayed in, that’s for sure! We were given noodles in a cup and crackers to eat. I went right to bed so the nightmare would be over quicker.
I was woken up to a phone in my face at 6am. I took out my ear plugs and my raspy voice mustered together a hello. On the other side was a LOUD voice “you on 7am flight, you pay $998 dollars now! What your credit card number?” Oh my good god. So I clarified, $998 for what?!”... So when they originally said our flight back to Singapore was free, it most certainly WAS NOT. So now we are stuck paying for the flight back and onward to Kuala Lampur. We had no choice. I asked the officer to have access to my bags (yes, we had to ask permission to use our own stuff, #jaillife) I gave over my credit card number and woke Carter up. At least we were getting out of there! We were in the holding room over night which meant we owed a LOT of money for our “accommodations” (that’s also what they refer to the jail as to make it sound better). Our first break: the officer explained that it’s the airline that collects that payment and because we were on such an early flight, we wouldn’t need to pay the “accommodation” fee. Woo Hoo! But this was still a $1000+ mistake and set back. Definitely not in our budget.
We are again escorted to the gate. Again, we ask for our passports back because now we’re just two Canadian travellers wanting to visit KL! “You’ll get them back on the flight”, cool!
We get on the plane with our spirits lifted because we’re getting the heck out of Singapore and we didn’t have to pay the jail fee!
Fast forward two hours. We land in KL, exit the plane, ask a stewardess for the passports back as the Singapore officer said we should. WRONG. Our passports were STILL being held hostage, so yet again, we were escorted to the Malaysian immigration offices. Cue: hearts pounding and fingers crossing.
We were behind a man from India who has been freshly deported from KL. Lovely! This immigration officer was on a deportation hot streak. We get up to the front, and again, the two officials are talking back and forth in a language we don’t understand. The Malaysian officer asks “why were you not allowed into Singapore?”... well this is going to be hard to explain with the language barrier. We *tried* to explain that we were deported from Vietnam, the officials there didn’t give us the proper paperwork explaining that, we couldn’t get into Singapore because it wasn’t our original or final destination, so we want to visit Malaysia to wait the 3 days to get the Vietnamese visa. Well, I don’t know if was offended that we were only using KL as a lay over to Vietnam or he didn’t understand but he threw our passports back to the airline rep, started YELLING at the poor guy, and started talking to another immigration officer and told us to sit down.
This is is where my mind went back to Canada. Holy friggin gah. We are going back to Canada. Do we go to Vancouver so it’s closer to fly back? Do we go to Toronto to see our parents? Do I even have it in me to fly back to SEA after being deported 3 times?! Is this it?! We quit our jobs to travel for ONE MONTH. Cue: one single tear drop.
Carter went out to speak with the airline rep guy who was yelled at, thrown out of the immigration office, but was still holding our passports. He was on the phone with the airline to find out why we were denied entry into Singapore because all the documentation he had was one flipping sheet that said one sentence “unfit to enter Singapore”. So he was just as much in the dark as Carter and I were.
So Carter and I sat in immigrations for another hour, not knowing the fate of our deportee future.
We have now now been in holding/escorted/passport hostage for 24 hours. No one knows where we are in the world. No one knows what happened except for the one text I sent to Hayden “they are forcing us on a plane” 12 hours prior in HCMC. None of our devices are charged yet. We are at the end of our patience and wits.
Carter gets up again to talk to the airline rep. He does his best to explain our situation and how and why we came to Malaysia. He said if it wasn’t for this ONE piece of paper, we would be able to walk into Malaysia like regular tourists and we should be allowed to do that because we booked a flight from Singapore to Malaysia and this was our end destination, it has really nothing to do with being deported from Vietnam. The man got up and left to a customs desk. He came back to Carter and said “this piece of paper is a problem for you. Here are your passports, make sure you don’t show anyone this paper again” Carter replied with “sir, I will gladly BURN this paper right now if you want, thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Carter is now finally in possession of our passports after 26 hours, he comes to get me “BAGS, LETS GO!” It was truly the best START THE CAR moment. We walked through customs, with the stupid sheet in our pocket, handed over our passports, boom, stamped, and we walked into Malaysia! Never in our lives did we think we would be ecstatic to be in Malaysia!
We got through customs and the last security check and gave each other the biggest bear hug ever!! Hopped on the closest monorail to Kuala Lumpur feeling like escaped fugitives!
Here are some photos of our 48 hours in Kuala Lampur:
Update: we are now successfully in Vietnam with Hayden. We decided to forego Ho Chi Minh City and flew right into Da Nang which is central Vietnam. We truly believe that if we flew here the first time, NONE of this would have happened because they were SO helpful and patient with all the tourists! Once again, lesson learned. Travel is definitely the best life learning experiences you could ever get. Wish us luck!!
This will be a quick(er) read than the rest!
Our first destination in East Java was Probolinggo, just a night layover before catching a mini bus to Cemara Lawang. However, this sounds like a much more easy process than it really is. Cemara Lawang is the last, and highest, village before entering Mt Bromo National Park to see the active volcano so it hosts many, many tourists throughout the year. Because it’s situated at such a high altitude and the road from Probolinggo is literally straight up the mountain side for an hour, a normal public bus cannot make the journey. So, que entrepreneurial locals who own their own minibuses and take advantage of tourism because there is no other budget-friendly way to get up. Now the process of catching one of these minibuses... you show up to the bus terminal, an old man directing traffic sees that you are a tourist and automatically assumes you’re going to see Mt Bromo (in which case he is probably right 9 out of 10 times), he walks you past the legitimate bus station to the front of a random side-market restaurant. Here, there is a local Javanese man and his van sitting out front. They tell you it’s 30k IDR each and they don’t leave until the bus is full (15 people). When Carter and I got there, there was only one other couple... great. So we sat at the restaurant and had our “favourite” Nasi Gorgeng (fried rice) and waited... and waited.... and waited. The couple who was there first had already been waiting for THREE hours! Thankfully, we had only waited an hour before another couple came and we told the driver we’d split the total cost of 500k IDR we could just leave NOW. Once again, I would have personally paid the full 500k IDR for the journey that was ahead!
In Probolinggo, Carter and I were sweating (that’s nothing new for Carter, but for me to sweat just sitting is letting you know how hot it was out!) and as we rode the bus, I had all the windows open, practically hanging out side to catch some breeze. As we drove up, and up, and up, one by one the windows closed; it got SO cold as we climbed into and above the clouds!
After an hour and a half straight up this mountain face, we arrived in cloud-covered Cemara Lawang.
Immediately changing into our ONLY semi-warm attire, we explored the village. We didn’t last long because it was only 12 degrees and rainy, but it was refreshing to finally feel cold! *sorry for those at home currently experiencing winter!
We decided that we would take on Mount Penanjakan the next morning to watch the sunrise over the Sea of Sand and Mt Bromo. This meant getting to bed early and waking up at 2:30am to start the hike. Again, Carter and I only had one pair of pants and one long sleeve each which got wet in the rain so we had to compromise when it came to going to bed & keeping warm so please enjoy this picture of my little babooskah:
Our alarm went off at 2:30am, you could already hear the sounds of dirt bikes roaring and the hustle and bustle of this village. We layered up with almost everything we owned, exhibit a:
We headed out to Mt Penanjakan. It took a full hour to get up to the main viewpoint but it was getting a little crowded with Balinese and Javanese tourists so we climbed above that to get a more serene view and experience as the sun rose. We had to wait another hour before the sun started to really come up but it was well worth the tough climb and was another surreal moment of our first month of travel!
When the sun has fully risen, we made our way back for a well deserved banana pancake. After that, we started on the trek towards Mt Bromo’s active volcano crater. We found a side entrance in so we didn’t have to pay the National Park fee and walked across the Sea of Sand.
It truly looked like we were in a land before time based on Mars. The landscape was breath taking!
But above all, the actual volcanic crater was the most mesmerizing for us. It was SO enormous, powerful, loud, hot, angry looking. It was truly like looking into the depths of the earths core because the crater was SO deep. And no, other than a little fence that was damaged by so much sulphuric acid and didn’t even go all the way around the craters edge, there was absolutely no safety measures here. Although, we found it to be better this way because it was a piece of nature that was essentially untouched and in its natural formation which was amazing to be a part of.
And yes, I swore at Carter to be safe and careful because we were on the edge of a f****** volcano!
As we headed down the volcano, we got stopped multiple times by people to take our pictures. We should really start charging for photos! It could very well fund the rest of our trip! Here are some of the few we snapped as well:
We then hit the road back down to Probolinggo, same method as last time but we were fortunate enough to be the last couple to arrive so we just jumped in and left as oppose to waiting hours for the bus to fill up!
When we got back to Probolinggo we decided to keep on traveling toward our next destination, the big city of Surabaya. So, once again, as we got to the bus terminal, the old man directing traffic started yelling at us “Jakarta, Surabaya?!” And lead us to a bus which we boarded.
Only this time, another bus driver came on to explain to us that this bus is direct o Surabaya, 2 hours nonstop, don’t sleep here because pick pocketers, and offered us some water. We agreed to all the above and then he asked for the bus fare which was 35k IDR ($7CA/each) so we paid him, he ripped off the ticket and went to the front of the bus. As we started driving away, 15 minutes out of the bus terminal, the bus attendant comes down the lane to collect fares. When he got to us we explained that we had already paid and he just kept shaking his head no, no, no. He handed us the tickets for the bus route we were on and Carter realized we had been scammed. The man who took our money at the beginning must have been a bus driver for another bus who was out for some extra cash because he was wearing the bus attendant outfit, had the real bus fare tickets, but gave us the wrong route tickets! Thankfully, our bus attendant was kind enough to not put up a fight and let us continue riding without paying the fare (again). It actually worked out because the fare for the bus we were on was 20k IDR more expensive than the one we were scammed for! But now we know to double check the tickets and to not pay before the bus takes off, lesson learned.
We were able to hang out in the city for 3 full days, recharging, getting laundry done and getting caught up before heading to Vietnam. We even had time for a date night - sushi and Justice League movie!
And that’s the end of Indo!
Before diving into Bali, quick shout out to the Singapore airport for having FREE foot massage chairs & McDonalds! Woot woot. Looking forward to our next layover there on route to Vietnam!
Now, onto the surfer’s paradise! From Manila we flew into Denpasar, Bali... taxied to Sanur Beach... ferried to Nusa Penida... and then taxied again to Atuh Beach to round out our 48 hours of commute. The last taxi almost did us in though. We haggled the driver down from 500,000 Indonesia Rupiah ($47CA) to 250,000IDR ($21CA) thinking Nusa Penida was a small island and no way would a taxi cost $47CAD. Well, let me tell you I would have paid the full $47 and considered this trip worth every dollar! There is one main “road” all the way around Nusa, it’s the size of ONE normal Canadian lane, cut in half for two-way traffic. Big tourist vans, work trucks, cars, motor bikes, pedestrians, dogs - all use this one little road. And then we started weaving up, and up, and up. Cliffs edges, no railings and coming head on with a big cement truck, who of course does not stop but simply pushes his side view mirror in and SQUEEZES by us as our van is on the outer edge of the cliff. Carter and I both just hung on to the “holy shit bars” and continued to watch the drama of the road unfold. And then, when we think it could not get any worse, we turn off the main road and continue up the bumpiest, windiest... I can’t even call it a road, so I am going to call it a path. After an hour and a half, we roll up to a parking lot that looks like it’s on the edge of the world. Needless to say, after 48 hours of commute, I haven’t changed my clothes, I’ve only brushed my teeth once and I am ready for a GOOD shower.
To my surprise, Carter had booked us accommodation in a tree house for two nights looking over the most surreal landscape! This is something I have always said I wanted to do! My spirits were lifted.
Until we were shown to our room. The process of checking into a room is fairly easy, everyone knows the drill: walk up to reception, give your name, go up an elevator, and voila your room awaits. This was a little more challenging...
Carter gave his name to a random man who said he worked there, he grabbed a blank note pad with just “Carter” written on it, nothing else, and said “ah, ok.” And he offered to take our bags (we each have 60L backpacks on our back and one day bag on our front), we declined and then he motioned for us to follow him. We started walking down a dirt path and then get to the edge of what seems to resemble a stairway down the cliff so, we start our descent on dirt, gravel, and loose rock with a piece of string to help guide us along the sideline. After 2 minutes of trying to see over my day bag and to not fall or slip, I give my bag to our guide. I still slipped. It took a solid 10 minutes to HIKE down this cliff side to get to our tree house. Immediately I could see that the beauty of this place will make up for the steep climb down, an outhouse as a washroom and the very real let down that I wasn’t going to have the good scrub-clean warm shower I was looking forward to (slash probably needed).
The tree house was AMAZING. I simply cant put it into words, so here are a few photos to help you put into perspective what we were looking at:
What we were looking out to from our balcony:
And a little glimpse of where we were situated to get prespective... (thank goodness for the Drone):
We stood on the balcony of our tree house, taking in the view and nature... and also mentally preparing. If it took 10 minutes to get DOWN the cliff, how long and hard would it be to get UP the dang thing where the food and water was! (Update: the first time up we had to stop 2-3 times for a break, by the end of the 3rd day we could go up with a lot of sweat but no breaks :) )
The next morning we had our first sleep in! Aside from some monkeys, we were the only ones on the cliff side. Finally, no roosters to wake us up. We made our way to Atuh Beach, a 15 minute walk away and 500 stairs down to a picturesque beach.
We spent the day here; you’d find our names under the definition of beach bums.
When we got back to our tree house, we had found that the resident lizard that we thought was so cute the night before, had took a big poop right on our bed! Needless to say, Carter was on his way back up the cliff to get the keys to the other tree house as I was packing our bags up!
The next day we made our way to Crystal Bay, which was on the other side of Nusa Penida. Our bungalow owner had informed us that tourists didn’t start coming over to the island until 2014. Just like the Philippines, Nusa is full of construction and ready to take on more and more tourists who want to get away from Australian-ridden Bali. The beach here was nice but nothing compared to the privacy and landscape of Atuh Beach.
Our third day, we made our way back to the main island of Bali and up to Bingin Beach. This entire coast is known for the surf: Uluwatu, Pedang Pedang, The Impossibles, Bingin Beach, Dreamland, Jimbaran and Kuta.
We checked into Suara Ombak Homestay through Thrifty Visuals and headed straight for the beach to test our skills on the waves. We got a lesson from a local surfer and beginner boards (big, buoyant and long) and headed out to catch our first wave. Sorry, there is no photo evidence that we got up, but we did! We were out there for just over an hour and closer to the end of our lesson, the waves were getting bigger and bigger. So much so that the good surfers, surfing behind us, were riding IN the barrel of the wave!
We had a WELL deserved meal at my favourite restaurant in Bingin Beach, Cashew Tree. It was an Australian owned healthy restaurant that also ran kickboxing, Maui Thai and yoga classes throughout the day! After coming from bread & rice fuelled Philippines, I had all the fruits and veg my body could take on while in Bingin!
The next day we rented a motor bike and headed down the coast to Uluwatu, the surfing capital of Bali. It was SUCH a cool spot, a fusion between Australia and Balinese culture, food and love for surfing.
Next we were off to Ubud! Getting to Ubud was an experience in itself... we drove through four villages in a row, each were known for a different art or skill: stone carving, silver & gold, wood working and painting.
Ubud is our favourite city in Indonesia. It immediately has a different feel than all the rest of Bali. It’s a chill vibe, hippy-ish, and there are SO many shops!! The town itself it’s made up of intersecting roads, mazes of market streets, and the monkey forest.
When we arrived in Ubud, we found a little homestay and headed out in the rain to get our bearings. Apparently in Ubud, it rains everyday at 2-3pm, and this day was no different! We went in and out of all the different shops that had hundreds of Balinese wood carved masks, paintings, stone statues, and silver jewelry. I’ve made a promise to myself that I will be back to Bali, more specifically to Ubud, with the agenda to SHOP. Shop for clothes, shop for the really cool wicker purses they have everywhere here, shop for silver, shop for home decor, just shop!
We wander through the Ubud art market and I found these bull hand carved heads I am OBSESSED with! Also, the amazingly talent Balinese men who were hand-carving custom doors right before our eyes were pretty spectacular too:
When we woke up the next morning, I was delighted to find that this was our first sleep in Indonesia where no lizards came in to visit us! We rented a motor bike and got to the Terrangang rice terraces early. They were beautiful! So pristinely cut out of the land and harvested:
We then went rogue and motor biked through the country sides and small villages as we made our way to Lehib Waterfall. Here are some pics we took through out the day:
Next up: Ubud’s enchanted Monkey Forest. This was a surreal experience. It was like a real-life version of Planet of the Apes, except these apes were much smaller and couldn’t give a damn about you (unless you had food!) We walked through the park for an hour with monkeys left, right and center of us. Some came too close for my comfort, as you can probably tell by my facial expressions:
After 3 days in Ubud, we were shortly closing the chapter on Bali. We took a taxi to the main X bus terminal just north of Denpasar to make our way east to Java, one of three main islands that make up Indonesia. Our taxi driver was great! He taught us a lot about Indonesia and Balinese culture and religion.
When we got to the terminal, a man without even talking to us, waved us over and wanted to put us on a random bus that was sitting in the middle of the parking lot. We tried to make sure as well as we could with the language barrier that this bus was going to where we needed it too. So we just listened to the man and the bus was off! We ended up at Medewi, a small surf town down the coast, right where we intended. Sometimes, you gotta learn to just trust the system.
We stayed at Medewi Inn, and it was great timing because the owners were also staying there as they were in town from Australia. The owners are Eddie and his Wife (I actually couldn’t understand her name so we will call her Alice the Aussie). Eddie is Javanese and grew up in Medewi, his family is one of the biggest in the village. The morning after, we caught a free ride from Alice the Aussie to the bus terminal in the next town over and headed toward Gilimanuk and the ferry terminal to get across to Java.
Because of Mt Agung, the ferry was MUCH busier than we anticipated, with travelers rerouting themselves to Sarabaya to fly out. Here is a picture of Mt Agung the day before it erupted from one of the ferries we took:
We were SO close to making the 1:50pm train to Probolinggo but missed it by 30 minutes, now we had to wait until 9pm for the next train out.
We went straight to the train station to scoop out the exact times of the next train and buy our tickets in advance. Little did we know... there is an hour time change between Bali and Java so we made the 1:50pm train with plenty of time to spare! The travel to Java was amazing because everything was just coming up roses for us. What made it even sweeter was that on the train, we were sat in a car with 2 of the funniest, sassiest sisters who I’ve ever met - they loved eavesdropping, talking crap, and laughing - my spirit animals. Also, 2 of the sweetest men, who thankfully studied in the US so was able to translate all the sassy comments the sisters were making. And of course, the real reason I loved them so much, was that they made it their duty to feed me. And I was HUNGRY, Carter and I got on the train with only eating breakfast 3 hours prior and not realizing this was a 4 hour train ride. The ladies said they were frequent riders of the train for their business but this was the most special trip for them because they were talking like family with strangers and friendly foreigners.
Here are all of us at the end of the ride:
Another highlight were two siblings sitting in front of us, a 5 year old girl and her 3 year old brother, who were soaking up everything Carter and I did like sponge! By the end of the train ride the girl was giving the peace sign, winking, blowing kisses, etc.
And that's the end of our Bali chapter, until next time friends!
Warning: this will be a long read (playing catch up for lack of wifi in the Philippines & having too much fun with Dan & Kelly to write!)
Our first ferry in the Philippines, from Oslob to Siquijor Island, was a great experience (ferry horror stories to come). We were lucky enough to have a pod of wild dolphins swimming and jumping beside us at one point. One even did a few barrel rolls in the air, almost as if he was putting on a show for us.
Siquijor is a small island known for a few beautiful waterfalls, caves, cliff jumping and witchcraft. We stayed in San Juan, a smaller town on the southern side of the island. As we got settled, we realized there was a tiny fishing village in between Dan/Kelly’s resort and ours, so Dan and I asked some locals if they would take us out fishing. Tom & Paul, two local fisherman, told us they would take us the next morning if we gave them some money for gas which costed us 1200Pesos, only $32CA for an experience we will probably never forget. They asked if we prefer to fish with nets or with hooks, we told them we would do whatever they do to fish. The next morning Dan, Paul & I hit the water in their traditional bamboo fishing boat (that somehow had an in board motor rigged onto the back of it.) Paul equipped us each with an empty water bottle that had fishing line wrapped around it and a tiny hook on the end. After Paul took us a few kilometres off the coast we ended up dropping lines in with water bottles in hand. The technique was quite straight forward but a lot more challenging than fishing in Canada... and for those of you who know me would say my fishing skills in Canada are mediocre at best (I still think it’s tough luck). So, you put some bait on the hook, lower the line into the crystal clear water, hold your water bottle in your left hand and hold your line with your right hand, lean over the side of the boat and when you can spot a fish interested you’ll feel the slight tug, rip the line up with your right hand to set the hook. After 2 hours scorching in the sun, the fish count was: Dan 2, myself 1 and Paul 6 or so. My favourite part was when I asked Paul why he was wearing a long sleeve hoodie while Dan and I were in tank tops roasting/sweating. My first guess was safety from long exposure to the sun, but Paul informed us he’s still single and Filipino women don’t like tanned skin Filipino men!
Here’s Danny with the prize catch Lapu-Lapu:
After fishing we took motor bikes and set off to explore some of the nearby waterfalls, with the plan to ultimately circle the entire island. We came across two amazing waterfall areas that resembled natural playgrounds. Rope swings, cliff jumps, waterfall slides and hidden coves.
Realizing we were on the opposite side of the island as our resort and had only a few hours until sunset we quickly hopped on our motor bikes and made moves through local villages and towns on the only road home. We were just about back at the resort, when Britt hit me to pull over to look at the sky. What we didn’t realize is that it was the beginning of the most beautiful sunset we’ve likely ever see (and had our first taste of local lumpia - Filipino spring rolls).
One piece of advice to anyone considering travelling to the Philippines, especially Siquijor, is to BRING money with you! There was only 2 ATMs on the whole island and when we finally made it to one, it didn’t work (thanks goes out to Dan & Kelly for funding this portion of our trip until we finally made it to the working ATM!)
Also, if you ever go to Siquijor you need to hit up Baha Bar, the most welcoming tree house style restaurant/bar with some dynamite food and cocktails! We had one of the funnier dinners thanks to our boy San Miguel (Filipino beer)!
Carter signing off. Britt’s taking over...
Our next destination was the island of Bohol. We stayed in Alona Beach, which must be the equivalent to Wasaga Beach for the Philippines. This was the first time we were actually somewhere touristy, with restaurants, menus, locals trying to sell you handmade jewelry and a hundred tour boats lining the shore. We immediately wished we were back in Siquijor, where the locals were happy to see us, kids waved, and it was super authentic. Dan quickly reminded us that “this is what we asked for”... because for the first time, we were able to look over a menu and all order what we felt like - not what was cooked up by the owner and left in the pots and pans for us to dish up for ourselves. That night we enjoyed a great meal, watched a beach fire show, and Ti-guy (cheers) a couple San Miguel’s.
The next day we woke up and enjoyed a local delicacy... cat-shit coffee (but I think the Filipinos refers to it as Civet Coffee). This wild cat-like animal hunts down and eats the most ripest berries, and like all animals do, they digest it and poo it out. That’s how the beans are made, and yes, it was a great cup of coffee. After that, rented motor bikes and visited a cave, which luckily enough was empty aside from us! This was a great experience... however, I think we all enjoyed the eating food off menu part more.
Our next stop (and my personal favourite): El Nido, Palawan! After a gruelling 6 hour bus ride through the mountains (that’s what I was told anyways, as both Kelly and I were passed out for the majority of the trip) we made it to El Nido! Carter had booked The Outpost Hostel through Thrifty Visuals, so that was our homestead for the next 3 nights. It’s a cool little spot right on the beach, that’s perfect for younger backpackers looking for a very friendly, welcoming, good time! The best part is the sunset deck looking out over the ocean:
We used the first day to get our bearings, walked around the small town filled with souvenir shops, shake shacks and beachfront restaurants. We ending up eating dinner at Big Bad Thai, the same owners of Outpost Hostel who opened this new restaurant only a day before we got there. It was DELICIOUS Thai food, I would know as I accidentally ordered 2 servings of veggie and chicken pad Thai.
The next morning we, yes - you guessed it, we rented motor bikes to explore! We ended up at Nacpan beach: the most beautiful, miles long, soft white sand beach, ever. What wasn’t beautiful, nor easy, but was miles long was the craziest ride in, ever. I’ll let the pictures do the explaining:
This beach could only be topped by the adventures of the next day, which was Island hopping boat tour A. But before we get into the details of our tour, I will let Carter get into what happened that night...
So there Dan and I are minding our own business at our hostel. We finish up dinner with the girls and we decided it’s probably best we pack it in early, maybe some lite reading in bed, get up early and mix in some morning stretching before the big boat tour. When all of a sudden our Filipino buddy working at the hostel points to a sign that reads “Wednesday night: Beer Pong Tournament!” He say’s “2 players, 100php buy in, winner takes the pot!” Well...wouldn’t you know it, moments later Dan and I have a record of 2-0 after beating teams from England and Germany. We’re feeling good heading into the quarter finals of what we were calling “The El Nido Open 2017” playing with Red Horse Beer (6.9%) laying it all out on the line for our country. Long story short we beat two British blokes the finals and humbly collected our winnings of 1,800php. Needless to say we’ll never forget the night we went 6-0 at the Outpost Hostel and won it all for Canada! Anyways, we won, paid for half of all our Tour A and held our heads high for a few days (BW correction: he’s still talking about it)
Tour A included the Big Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon, Beach, Small Lagoon and 7 Commando Beach. Everything was so beautiful - but we’re not fooling any of you, there were hoards of tourists at each stop which hindered the beauty of it all, only slightly.
Our last and final destination of the Philippines was Coron. Booking a fast ferry was easy they said.. it would be great they said. No one told us that we should be booking this fast ferry in advance, so behold, an actual photo of the 8 hour slow ferry (from hell) that we had to take to Coron:
I won’t bog you down with the gory details of the “bathroom” facilities, or the “lunch” they served, or the storm we passed through which made seasickness a reality, or the sunburn slash probably heat stroke Carter got from spending the entire journey on the top deck... but you get that it was a pleasant journey, right?
But we finally made it to our last stop of the trip! Kelly and Dan were absolute sweethearts and treated us to our last two nights together in an amazing resort that overlooked the ocean.
Also, as our last time together, we rented motor bikes to explore. This time didn’t go as smoothly as the rest. We were about an hour out of town when Carter and I started to feel the bike shaking, I looked down to discover that we were riding on a completely flat back tire! I ended up hopping on Dan & Kelly’s bike with them and they took me into the next town to search for someone to help. Meanwhile, Carter looked like Dumb & Dumber driving the flat-tired bike slowly down the road to get closer to the next town. Little did we know, “town” on the map was actually just a village - with one school and one bakeshop and nothing more. A local teenage girl ran up to Carter when she saw him rolling in and told us to wait there, she would get her Dad. A Filipino man came out of a hut, inspected the tire and started to work on the bike. We were a bit nervous if this random man should be working on a rental bike we were responsible for, so I asked the girl, what does your dad do? Can he help us? And she responded with “yes! He’s the village motorbike repair man!” So to our dumb luck, we ended up literally on the front door steps of the most perfect man in this seaming less empty village.
Dan and Kelly made sure we were in capable hands and then we urged them continued on to the waterfall we had all planned to visit. Carter and I ended up spending 2 hours in this village, talking and playing with all the kids who came out to see us. There was an older man, who was the grandfather of all the kids that were present. It turns out that they were all relatives in this small village! The grandpa (which is what I called him to his face as well) was very good at English but when I said that, the teenage girls giggled and said “he’s only good because he’s drunk!” And that made us and Grandpa laugh out loud as well. Carter saw a young boy with a Golden State Warriors jersey on, so he asked if he wanted to play basketball. (Side note: basketball is the country’s favourite sport and is a huge reason why so many Filipinos know about Toronto because Demar Derozen on Raptors is a favourited athlete)
After 2 hours, our bike was good to go! We hit the road and not even 2 seconds of heading back to Coron, Dan and Kelly pulled up beside us. This time, they drove behind us, juuust in case anything happened again.
The next morning, Carter and I woke up at 5am to climb 740 steps up Mt Tapyas to catch the sunrise over Coron.
We were at the top of the above mountain with the Hollywood-like Coron sign!
After climbing down, we traded in our bike for a working one and headed wake up Dan & Kelly to go to the hot springs! We had to make the most out of the day because Carter and I had to head out on an overnight ferry to Manila at 2pm and because of this, we got to the hot springs at 8am, we were the first and only ones there which was completely relaxing.
After leaving the hot springs, we had our last lunch together, said our final goodbyes to the last bit of Home we had, and made way for the Port.
Overnight ferry 101: pay the extra $8 for tourist Aircon room, bring ear plugs & sleep mask & toilet paper, be ready to smell things you don’t necessarily want to smell when you’re trying to sleep, don’t look too close for long black hairs on your bed because you’ll most definitely find them, and whatever you do, try and avoid getting sick - which of course, is what a both ended up doing.
Upside: ending up at the Mall of Asia in Manila which is the 4th biggest mall in Asia and 11th in the world. Where there was ample westernize food chains to choose from. So when Carter saw the glow of the Golden Arches, he headed there for breakfast.... lunch..... and dinner. And ample amount of bathrooms with plenty of stalls to choose from too ;)
All in all, the Philippines with Dan and Kelly was a great way to kick off our year-long adventure around the world. The country has so much to offer: picturesque landscapes, hidden waterfalls, paint-like sunsets, and turquoise blue waters. Filipinos are happy, helpful and trustworthy people; the children are always smiling, playing and excited to see you. We feel like the Philippines have yet to really figure out, and capitalize on, tourism because it’s still so authentic and untouched. This was the best part of the Philippines for us. Aside from a few locations like Alona Beach and El Nido, seeing another tourist was few and far between. Just like the restaurants. If you’re looking to check it off your bucket list, I would so sooner rather than later before everywhere is built up. Trust us, it’s coming...
Next time you’ll hear from us, we’ll be in Indonesia!! XO
Sunday morning of our fifth day in the Philippines but it feels like our tenth, in a good way!
The Philippines are relatively untouched, beautifully rural and authentic. The locals are excited to see us pass their huts in a tricycle, giggly when we wave and are even more ecstatic when we yell HELLO to them. They are helpful, kind and so willing to go out of their way to ensure your stay in their village is a pleasant one.
Our first couple days have been jammed packed from the moment we met up with Dan & Kelly. Unfortunately, they are jammed packed because these islands are actually so much bigger than we anticipated and getting around via trike, bus or ferry is much longer than we originally thought. What we are quickly realizing, which also doesn’t help, is that there is a definite difference of Filipino time and real time. But hey, does it really matter how long it takes to get around when the views from our transportation are absolutely breathtaking and remarkable?!
Dan & Kelly arrived in Alegria at 9am and we met with our guide for the Canyoneering & Kawasan Falls for 1500pesos each ($37CA). We were off to an already adventurous start when our guide wanted to fit himself, Carter and I on one small motorbike and the second guide, Dan and Kelly on the other.
Cayoneering was absolutely amazing. Yes, it was touristy. Yes, there were hoards of people all wearing life vests and helmets. Yes, it was completely worth every peso!
Fortunately because we didn’t stay in the “touristy” area of Moalboal where all the tours start from, we were able to go on a private tour with just us four and our two some-what responsible guides. We walked down a step rocky trail for 15 minutes, easily working up a sweat in the 30degree weather, so when we got to our first jump into the blue canyon water below there were no hesitations (okay, fine, maybe slightly by me...and Kel). There were 7 jumps (from 5-17metres), 2 slides, 4 waterfalls and no injuries! We leaped off cliffs and waterfalls plummeting into the blue flowing river that sits at the bottom of the huge canyon walls, it was like out of the movie avatar! The cliff walls were like mountains, and in the cavernous parts of the canyon there were 20 ft long stalactites hanging above. We kept discussing how the whole place looked man made aka unbelievable sights.
Sliding off a waterfall backwards!
Taking a 8 meter leap!
After the four-hour Canyoneering expedition, we made our way to Oslob for our next adventure.
When we got to Oslob we (and our stomachs) were pleastantly surprised to find an ACTUAL restaurant - patio, seating, menus! By this point, Carter and I have survived off of $0.45 noodles in a cup, the bake shops, and one egg breakfast our hostel made us.
We ended up staying at a newly built homestead, Anglers Hub, outside of the main village-center. This is where we met our first Filipino friend, Ken, who was so sweet and helpful.
Not only did we have Dan & Kelly visit us here but throughout the night we were woken up by some unexpected visitors. A lizard in our room (completely normal in the Philippines... I think), a crab knocking at our door (again, not unheard of) and the roosters starting to cockadoodle at 3am, the dogs barking at 4am and the fisherman banter at 5am.
At 6am we were on the beach, hopping into a fishermen boat to go swimming with the whale sharks! As we were being paddled deeper, you could see the fins of these sharks and bubbles in the water from where they were eating *insert Kelly sweating from anxiety*.
We slid into the water with the sharks. Slid, because making waves and splashing around disturbing the sharks could get you jail time... that, or wearing sunscreen in the water with them. Gangster stuff right there, doing some hard time for SPF.
This was the most amazing experience! There must have been 20 whale sharks swimming in such close proximity to us. So close, that one swam right underneath all four of us and it’s fin skidded across all of our stomachs *insert Kelly’s anxiety, again*
There were sharks ranging from 5m to over 20m long, just massive, beautiful, dosile sea monsters!
After 30 minutes in the water with our new “friends”, we said our goodbyes and made our way to the witchcraft island of Siquijor.
We’ll be exploring waterfalls and the magical island of Siquijor, until next time friends!
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!