In September of 1944, a fleet of Japanese war ships were hit and sunk around Coron, the Philippines. Today, the ships remain underwater as some of the best wreck dive sites in the world.Read More
Why Sri Lanka is Amazing
Sri Lanka might not seem like an obvious destination - but it should be! If you don’t have the time or opportunity to dig into the chaos of India (like we didn’t), Sri Lanka is a fantastic way to experience a very different kind of Asian culture than you would find in Southeast Asia. Hinduism is the dominant culture in Sri Lanka, so be sure to take advantage of all the opportunities you have to learn about it.
Here’s a short list of why Sri Lanka should be one of your top travel priorities:
Stunning landscapes - the lush jungle landscapes are easy to experience by train or car, and the beaches are notorious for stellar surfing. The terrain is unique in topography; driving through rolling terraced central Sri Lanka is unlike any landscape we’ve ever seen.
Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations in Asia to see wild elephants!
If you love your tea time, central Sri Lanka is a main supplier for Lipton! Take a tea tour or two, the factories are a great way to learn about a quirky industry and enjoy a steaming array local flavors.
AMAZING FOOD. Curry, different curry, more curry, every kind of curry, samosas, the best bananas you’ll ever have (it’s not just hype), and coconut sambal. And lemon cookies! Notably, Sri Lanka is an awesome food heaven for vegetarians and vegans. They rarely use meat or dairy, so naturally there are a lot of options for the diet restricted.
Extremely friendly Sri Lankans always make time to introduce you to their culture and customs.
Our Travel Plan
Our story starts with a disappointed arrival to our train platform as the train pulled out of the station. Slightly frazzled because this never happens to us, we sulked to the tourist office in search of help. Luckily, a very nice Sri Lankan tourism officer took us in, sat us down, pulled out a map, and taught us the real way to see the country. We had done some previous research and definitely recommend you do too before seeking help from a local, but their knowledge is always more in-depth than the internet. Our friendly officer originally tried to convince us to hire a driver for the entire week, but we already planned for the famous Kandy-Ella train ride (see below).
Although it’s not obvious, car hire is actually a great way to see Sri Lanka, especially central Sri Lanka. While the train is beautiful, you’ll miss out on what’s happening in the valleys you pass if you stick to the rails the entire way. A car hire is US$50 per day, which is much more manageable when you split between friends. We opted for a mix of both, which was ideal for us. Here’s what we booked:
Accommodation pickup from airport to our hotel in Negundi the night we arrived.
Hour-long tuk-tuk through city traffic to get to the Colombo train station, which caused us to miss our train. Take a car instead and account for traffic.
Train from Colombo to Kandy.
Train from Kandy to Ella.
Care hire for three days:
Ella to Sigiriya
Around Sigiriya and its attractions
Sigiriya to Dambulla by car, to catch a bus onwards to Negundi
We booked all our transport at the tourism office at the Colombo train station. If you have a tighter budget, there are plenty of bus options all over Sri Lanka. They’re significantly cheaper than all other options, but they’re not always very direct or efficient.
Colombo International (CMB) is the main airport for Sri Lanka. The name is fairly misleading, as the airport is actually in Negundi, an hour north of the chaotic city of Colombo. In our opinion, Colombo is an easy skip for Sri Lanka. It’s largely a metropolitan city, which is probably not why you come to Sri Lanka in the first place.
Negundi is much closer, and we found it much more enjoyable to stay in. The beach town is far more busy during peak season (December to March), as it’s known for wonderful weather and international surfing. During off-season, the weather is chilly, grey, and wet. That being said, if you’re interested in picking up Sri Lankan souvenirs, there is no better place or time of the year to get them. Shops cut their prices in half just to move products. The shop owners are really nice and willing to negotiate with you. We both picked up leather duffle bags - high quality and under 50 bucks! Magnets and keychains are abundant too.
The Famous Train from Kandy to Ella
Duh. This is Sri Lanka 101 here. The journey is consistently ranked as one of the best train rides in the world. Do. Not. Miss.
The famous part of the train ride is between Kandy and Ella, but the railway system extends beyond both of those cities. Assuming you fly into Colombo International, start your trip by taking the train from Colombo to Kandy the day before your journey. An afternoon and a night in Kandy is a good amount of time to see the best parts of the city. There’s not a ton to do, but there are some pretty temples and a fun marketplace. Make sure you grab some Sri Lankan bananas for train snacks - they are LITERALLY the BEST tasting bananas in the WORLD.
Our dear friend Emily found a cool AirBnB/hotel called Square Peg that we absolutely recommend. Here’s a link to check it out if you’re staying in Kandy!
Book your train ticket from Kandy to Ella while you’re in Colombo. If you’re having trouble, the tourism office can help you. Don’t underestimate how popular this train ride is, especially during peak season.
Alternatively, off-season is much less chaotic. Not to say the trains won’t fill up, but you may get lucky like we did and have plenty of space to move around the car and hang out of the windows and doors. As per the fiasco in Colombo, the tourism guide booked us into a second class car which is usually only tourists and much less crowded than the regular cars. Bring water, snacks, and toilet paper.
Get ready to take some incredible pictures. The railway follows the ridge-line separating valleys in central Sri Lanka. Some parts you’ll pass through mountain forests, some parts you’ll pass through farmland and tea terraces, and some parts you’ll have unobstructed views of the valleys and cities below.
The train departs multiple times per day. Some people like sunrise, but we opted for a mid-morning departure. Thankfully, the weather gods granted us a gift that day. Check the weather before booking your tickets, but just remember that the weatherman is not always correct.
Ella is a famous destination in Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There are a lot of opportunities in the area to appreciate the stunning natural landscape. The trails range from short walks to half day hikes, so you can find an exciting adventure no matter your skill level.
You can’t miss Ella’s Rock. And by that we mean: you literally can’t not see it. It towers over Ella, and attracts hikers from around the world.
If you’re not up for the half day commitment (it’s a long hike), Little Adam’s Peak is a fantastic alternative. We spent two hours leisurely hiking the peak for an incredible view of Ella’s Rock across the valley. On the way up, you pass tea terraces and locals selling coconuts. If it’s a sunny day, bring plenty of water and wear sunblock.
While we don’t have first-hand experience with this, we’ve been told that locals hang around Ella’s Rock to give misleading directions in order to encourage hikers to hire guides. You don’t need to, but you might be more comfortable finding the way with a local - especially if you do it for sunrise.
Our favorite activity, as Girls Who Cuisine, was a 3-hour cooking class we took in Ella. There are a handful of options if you’re looking to take a class. Book well in advance as they tend to fill up quickly. We took our class with Ella Spice Garden, the first established cooking class in Ella. We highly recommend it! The class is small and taught right in the home kitchen of the chef, Chandika. It’s super authentic, and we had a really great experience. You even get a workbook to fill out during the class so you can bring the recipe home!
After wandering through the back driveways of Ella, up a few hills and around a couple corners, you’ll find Chandika’s home. You’ll quickly make friends with your fellow classmates and tour the backyard garden where all the spices are grown - it doesn’t get more local than that! Then you’ll have a cup of tea in the sitting room with Chandika talking about the history and local use of the different spices before heading to the kitchen.
Sri Lankan meals traditionally include 4-5 different curries, almost all vegetable based: potato, garlic, and daal curry. Plus coconut sambal (your new favorite base), and rice. Also the explosive and addictive papadams. These are the things you learn how to make in this class.
Do you know how many cloves of garlic are used in a typical serving of garlic curry? Over 50 cloves. And you’ll learn how to efficiently peel and slice them too - yay teamwork! Have you ever fleshed a coconut? The tool to do so looks a bit too much like a torture device, but this may be your only chance to use it… shredded coconut works just as well. We won’t share the recipes, you’ll just have to learn them for yourself! They’re all delicious and the class itself was a blast!
Valley Hopping Drive from Ella to Sigiriya
We were convinced to have a driver take us through this portion of the trip, and we’re glad we were talked into it. It may not come up immediately in your searches, but the valleys between Ella and Sigiriya are full of picturesque landscapes that you won’t get to experience the same way from a ridge-line train. Bus routes in this area are long and require more transfers than it’s worth, so a driver will give you the most out of your journey. There are wonderful stops characteristic to Sri Lanka that you may miss without a knowledgable driver.
Tea factories are stationed all throughout the valleys, as tea is the main export of Sri Lanka - they are the main providers for Lipton! Any of the factories will give you the inside scoop of how tea is harvested, processed, and sold. It’s also a great excuse to stop for afternoon tea!
Sri Lanka also produces an entire market of natural beauty products. Anything from hair products, skin care, to topical ointments and massage oils - you name it, they’ve made it from some sort of plant. We got a tour of the garden at the place we stopped, and were given detailed descriptions of how and why each plant provided the natural benefits for specific products. Were we prepared to buy one of everything? Yes. Luckily, our backpacks prevented us from overspending. However it is a fun and unexpected way to learn about Sri Lankan natural remedies.
It’s a very long drive. You will pass a lot of magnificent viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop so you can stretch your legs and snap a few photos. A lot of the smaller villages you pass through are charming and picturesque, so take it all in.
The roads are narrow, windy, and mountainous. If you’re prone to carsickness (I’m sorry), take a Dramamine and claim shotgun. Maybe bring a doggie bag.
There’s plenty to do in centrally located Sigiriya. Not only is Sigirya part of the cultural triangle so there are lots of opportunities to explore Hinduisum, but it’s also an outdoor adventure hotspot.
We stayed in a hammock haven hostel called Jungle Vista. We definitely recommend it - their adorable dog is reason enough. Apart from the little precious, the hostel organizes trips every day and makes home cooked dinners for everyone at night. The atmosphere is really laidback and you’re sure to meet some awesome people! The owners are super friendly too!
Dambulla Cave Temple
There’s a beautiful temple carved into a mountainside 10 minutes from the middle of town. You have to climb a lot of stairs to get to it, but the peaceful sanctuary at the top is breathtaking.
Hindu paintings spread across the cavernous space, and huge diety sculptures reach the ceiling. Golden buddhas fill each cave and glisten even in the dark. It’s quickly obvious why Dambulla Cave Temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As with any temple, you must cover your shoulders and knees - you can rent a coverup at the entrance if you need one.
Sunrise at Lion’s Rock should be at the top of your Sigiriya bucket list. Get up early, as in 4am early, to give yourself extra time to make it before the sun comes up - you might get a little lost at the beginning… the trail is not very obvious. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, bring your camera, and bring a flashlight. The hike is short, but steep and scrambly at some parts. Look for the white arrows when you get near the top, it’ll guide you over some big boulders and onto the top of the rock.
Technically, the hike is a viewpoint to see Lion’s Rock at sunrise. You’re not actually climbing Lion’s Rock itself. Similar to Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, we think this hike is more worthwhile because you get a view of the “main attraction” instead of standing on top of it. The panorama of the surrounding area is awe-inspiring, and it’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the pink and orange swirls in the sky as the sun comes up.
Don’t be afraid to stay a while, people usually leave right after the sun crosses the horizon. You’ll probably have the place to yourself if you stay a little bit longer. Pack some samosas and hot drinks if you’re game for a picnic breakfast in the sky.
Sri Lanka has the largest wild elephant population in Asia, around 4,000 individuals living in protected parts that cover a vast portion of northern and central Sri Lanka. There are a lot of easy options to ethically enjoy their presence. We went with Kalum Jeep Safari and had a top-notch experience. There are other guided safaris that run everyday in the Sigirya area, just do some research on a company’s reputation before booking.
There are three main protected parks in Sri Lanka. Your guides will take you to the best place depending on the weather and “status” of local elephant herds - trust in their ability to find the giant animals in the jungle.The elephants in the park are happy, protected, and not afraid of visitors. You won’t be able to leave your vehicle, but the driver will get you really close to the elephants anyway.
Our tour was just our party of three, which was lucky for us. We got to stand through the roof of the jeep and take photos while driving through the park. The whole tour lasted about three hours, and we saw easily over 20 elephants - including babies! Our tour costed US$15 per person, which was a fantastic deal. Book online or through your accommodation, it’s one of the most popular activities in Sri Lanka.
Keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife! The parks are home to tons of other amazing animals. We saw a beautiful peacock, snakes, and a crested hawk-eagle. Don’t miss out on the tour, it was one of the best things we did!
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Bagan is fairytale land where hot air balloons drift through the sky as the sun rises over hundreds of ancient temples… but not during off-season (May-September). We found out in the arrival hall of Mandalay airport.
The best part about Myanmar hot air balloons is the way they look floating above the temples. Riding in them won’t quite give you that picturesque perspective. If you’re interested in hopping in the basket, the price is over $350 per person. Out of your shoestring price range? Go to Vang Vieng, Laos for the cheapest ride in the world at around $80 per person.
If you can’t make it to Myanmar during peak season, do not despair. It’s always a beautiful place to visit, and you’ll appreciate the temples being less crowded than they would be otherwise.
Long story short, Myanmar public transport leaves something to be desired. Your best bet is to fly into Mandalay and take a bus or private hire to Bagan. DO NOT TAKE THE TRAIN. There are multiple reports of the train crashing or flipping. Nightmarish. The buses are much easier, but they only run at certain times. If you don’t want to wait, splitting a private hire from the airport is a reasonable option and the journey will only take 3 hours opposed to 5 on the bus.
PRO TIP: Get your visa before you leave. You can do it online, and you’ll need at least 24 hours to get it. Cheaper if you do it further in advance.
FREE PASTA SNACKS! Need we say more?
If you’re not convinced yet, here are some more reasons to go: cheap beer, chill vibes, great food, a/c in the dorms, friendly staff, organized day trips including free ones around Bagan!
There are two locations in Bagan. One has a pool, one has a more social atmosphere. We meant to stay at the pool one, but accidentally ended up at the chill one. We were happy about it anyway. Ostello Bello also has locations in Mandalay and Inle Lake if you’re continuing on to other spots in Myanmar.
Sunrise Temple Touring on an E-Bike
What’s an e-bike you ask? Basically just a tourist-friendly scooter. We wish every country in SE Asia gave these to tourists instead of regular motorbikes. They’re safer, cheaper, quiet, but only intended for short distance putting around. You just won’t need more than that in Bagan. You can rent them basically anywhere, but there’s a convenient place just outside Ostello Bello. It costs less than $2 per day.
So here’s how it goes:
Plan your route the night before. Consult someone who knows what they’re talking about (hostel employee, seasoned backpacker who’s been there, or a local). Pick your temples before you leave.
Wake up at 4am before the sunrises. Tear yourself from your pillow, you’ll get back in bed for a nap later.
Rent an e-bike. There will be someone there at 4am, they know what the deal is.
Caravan with fellow sunrisers to your temple of choice (make it a good one!)
Take your shoes off before entering any temple. Pick a spot along one of the top tiers to wait out the sunrise. Don’t climb on the temples, even if it’ll give you a better view. Be respectful, always.
Enjoy the sunrise and take cool pictures.
Go back to bed until it cools down:)
You will need respectful clothing. Cover your shoulders and cover your knees.
If you can’t decide on where to go (or if you get lost along the way), you’ll see locals out and about. Just ask someone for help and they’ll point you in the right direction.
There will be locals selling souvenirs at the temples, even at 4am. Bargain if you want to buy, but be respectful if you don’t. It’s their job and their home.
Don’t do stupid things and be on your best behavior. Don’t forget that you’re in an ancient temple, it’s not a playground.
Watch your step, watch your head, and bring a flashlight.
There will be other people there - you’ll have to get up earlier than 4am if you want the best spot at one of the more popular temples.
If you’re looking for something to do outside of the Bagan temples, Ostello Bello will organize it for you. We spent a day at Mount Popa, or more aptly called, Monkey Mountain. It’s a stunning view, if you’re willing to climb 777 steps while being harassed by monkeys. They are not friendly. They will steal your food. They will attack if provoked, or not provoked. Just breathing near them angers them. Look down. Don’t run. Be alert. Hide your belongings. Good luck.
The view of Mount Popa is better scene from the hill across from it. Tell your driver that you’d like to see a good view of the temple and he’ll know where to take you.
The lush green river valley of Vang Vieng is a less-frequented adventure hotspot for backpackers in Southeast Asia. Hello cheapest hot air balloon rides in the world!
Hot Air Ballooning
I said cheapest in the world. It’s somewhere between $80-90 each (as of 2018). You have the option to go in the early morning or later in the afternoon. We opted for the afternoon (golden hour baby)!
Make sure you book your flight for one of your first days in Vang Vieng, so you can reschedule in case of bad weather. They usually send two balloons up per session - get in the second balloon so you can take pictures of the first one going up!
Keep in mind, it’s not very easy to take pictures of each other while you're in the basket. Maybe bring a selfie stick? Otherwise you’ll have to awkwardly hang off the side… which is what we did.
Also it’s HOT in the basket. Like standing next to a flamethrower kind of hot. Wear short sleeves and don’t forget deodorant! The whole ride lasts about 45 minutes, plus a rough landing.
The Blue Lagoons outside of Vang Vieng are popular for lazy days in the heat. Blue Lagoon 1 is often pretty crowded, but Blue Lagoon 3 is slowly growing in popularity as well. All of them have entrance fees of about $1.20. We took a tuk-tuk 30 minutes out of town to #3 for a hungover float on the tubes. There’s also a zip-line and a rope swing for those with a bit more energy during their visit.
We missed out on this some classic Vang Vieng adventures, but our best friend Simona (@simonamusto, check her out on instagram!) filled in a few blanks for us:
At first glance, it seems quiet, kind of dirty and unexciting. On our first day, our hostel roomie recommended we rent a motorbike and discover the “real” Vang Vieng. So we did and ventured out to explore. It was definitely not the easiest journey, with construction sites and bumpy roads at times. But what we saw was beyond our expectations. There’s so much beauty and hidden wilderness; children playing in the river, animals eating the lush green grass, limestone cliffs, jungle paths leading to waterfalls (check out Kaeng Nyui Waterfall!) that make the journey worth it.
The next morning, we decided to go river tubbing. Groups of ‘tubbers’ stopped at the first of three bars, shyly ordered their first beer at 11am and it never really stopped till sunset… People got drunker by the hour, but it was fun to socialize, play some games and cruise down the river with a beer in hand, watching the sunset and hot air balloons pass above us. The friends we made that day were the same ones we went out with at night for drinks and dancing at the many bars/clubs in Vang Vieng- it gets as wild as you want.
x Mama Sim
The lazy river valley town may not seem like it, but Vang Vieng turns up. There’s a surprising number of bars and clubs, and I promise you can stay out until 4am if you want to. The dance floor at Sakura Bar gets sweaty. No matter what your reason for coming to Vang Vieng is, you can always find what you’re looking for.
One more thing from Sim…
*As a foodie, this post wouldn’t be complete without a few recommendations of places to eat. First, an Italian restaurant called ‘Il Tavolo’ that serves some pretty amazing authentic pizza. The other is the 1$ sandwiches from the wonderful vendors on the main road, that are packed with whatever you want and keep you full for hours, I think about how much I miss those often..
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and the largest city in the north, is the second largest city in the country and the northern equivalent of Saigon in the south. Almost anyone traveling throughout Vietnam will either begin or finish their tour in Hanoi, and it’s a fantastic place to do that.
Hanoi is ancient and no area better reflects its rich history than the Old Quarter. Chaotic and colorful, this area of the city somehow manages to make you feel like time has stopped - even though the thousands of motorbikes and people that clog its narrow streets never do.
It’s here, in this crazy little section of the city, that our bar crawl takes place.
Anna and I stayed in Hanoi for about a week, opting to stay behind when MJ took a motorbike tour north to do the Ha Giang Loop with the boys. To fill the time, we wandered all over the Old Quarter, explored the famous lakes, ate at pop up street restaurants, took a tour of an art gallery, and fashioned ourselves a self-guided bar crawl of some of Hanoi’s greatest bars.
If you’ve got a couple of free nights in Hanoi, or hell, even just one, check out some (or all?!) of these epic spots.
Mojito Bar & Lounge
Cocktail to try: The Pho Cocktail
This quirky venue is tucked off a small side street in the Old Quarter and is a great place to head for live music and the famous Pho Cocktail. I won’t spoil the surprise of how it’s made, but I will tell you that it tastes weirdly close to actual Pho and it’s delicious!
Bonus: Straight upstairs from Mojito Bar & Lounge is another cocktail bar called The Alchemist. It wasn’t open yet when we went up to check it out - but if you’re looking for an easy next location to try it doesn’t get much closer than one flight of stairs.
Cocktail to try: Anything with gin!
This gin bar has multiple floors, one of which is a swanky, jazz inspired cocktail lounge. Think white tuxedos and red velvet floors. The other is a rooftop space that looks out over St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Between the stunning view and the unique gin cocktails, this place is well worth a visit.
Pasteur Street Brewing Co.
Cocktail to try: just kidding! Get that beer flight, honey. Jasmine IPA all the way.
What bar crawl is incomplete without some fantastic craft beer? This craft beer company brews up some awesome beers that are sold throughout Vietnam. This location is particularly great due to an inviting outdoor space and the option of giving a bunch of their beers a try with a beer flight. Don’t miss out on this one!
Polite & Co.
Cocktail to try: Anything off their “Mixology Journey” menu.
This place is AMAZING. Polite & Co. has a super funky, modern design and the bartenders there mix up some truly unique creations. When we went, they were featuring drinks that were based off of Asian Street Foods. Anna tried the Tum Yum Sour and I tried the Indian Spices cocktail and both were admittedly odd but delicious. We loved the atmosphere here so much we stuck around for a second drink!
Cocktail to try: craft beer all the way!
While it’s not exactly in the Old Quarter, Standing Bar is a fun place near Truc Bach Lake that offers a great selection of craft beer and an even better view of the lake from the upstairs terrace!
Red River Tea Room
Cocktail to try: Whiskey slaps anyone? Fancy a game of Cards Against Humanity?
Talk about a tucked away gem. Not near the Old Quarter, but worth the commute, Red River Tea Room is a little bit of whatever you want it to be. Want a great craft beer with a view of the West Lake from the roof? Fancy a round of cards or Cards Against Humanity? Want to cuddle the dog, pull a book from the shelf, and curl up with a glass of wine for an hour or so? Now you know where to go.
Still Going…? On to Beer Street!
The quintessential going out street in the Old Quarter, Bia Hoi Junction, or Beer Street, as it’s so aptly nicknamed, is the place to go if you’re looking to party all night with locals and travelers alike. Line your stomach before you go and see how long you can keep up with the $0.25 beer offerings.
A few more suggestions…
We didn’t make it to these, but you might!
Le Pub Hanoi
King Pirate’s Pub
Binh Minh’s Jazz Club
Ahh, the epic caves of Phong Nha National Park. The one adventure that got away from me.
MJ and I had planned since we left to do a multi-day tour of the legendary cave system (the largest in the world!) with Oxalis Tours. Unfortunately, my body was having none of it and due to some mysterious hip pain that I never really figured out, I had to miss out.
MJ and Anna set out on a 3D/2N tour of Hang Tien cave and had an epic time - check out her post!
SO. Because of this set back, I hung around the beautiful city of Phong Nha, right in the national park, for a few days to let my body get back to homeostasis.
I also took the opportunity to take a short day trip with two friends that took us kayaking deep into Phong Nha Cave. It was unbelievably cool.
Here’s a bit more about it.
Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Cave is one of the most accessible caves to tourists within Phong Nha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its entirety, this enormous cave, the namesake of the whole cave system, is 7729 m long. Tourists can only get about 1500 m, which was about how far we got on our kayak adventure.
The cave is famous for beautiful rock formations as well as its use as a hospital, storage place, and base throughout numerous military campaigns in Vietnam. There are relics and evidence that date as far back as the Cham civilization, but most recently, the cave was used by the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War against South Vietnam and the United States.
The cave served as an important link on the Ho Chi Minh trail, allowing soldiers to camp out and hide both themselves and supplies at a strategic location in central Vietnam.
There are a number of caves you can visit that are considered a part of the Phong Nha Cave. Some of the most famous of these are called Paradise Cave and the Dark Cave. Tours to all of these caves, as well as the kayak tour I took, can be booked locally at Phong Nha Caves Tour Center or through your hostel/hotel.
Kayaking in Phong Nha Cave
Why kayak over boat? Kayaking into this cave allows you to go about 1.5km into the cave, about 1km further than the boat tour. You’ll also get a chance to explore smaller caves off to the side of the main river, which is an amazing experience.
The tour is straightforward, informative, and a fantastic adventure. You’ll get picked up early in the morning (take a dry bag or ditch the valuables!) and hop into a kayak on the Son River to paddle into the cave.
The entrance to the cave is stunning, perhaps even more so going out than going in. Huge rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites, tower above and around you from all sides, gaining this cave the nickname “The Fairy Cave.” As you venture further into the cave, lit only by flashlights, you’ll reach your first stopping point.
This first side cave offers you a glimpse at some of the cave’s history. Scrawled across the walls of this cave, further back than you dare go, are charcoal messages from soldiers who hid in the caves back during the Vietnam War and even earlier campaigns. This was where they cooked, slept, and trafficked supplies across the country. It’s surreal to see the evidence of that so far into the cave.
After this brief stop, you’ll jump back into your kayak and continue as far as you can into the cave before getting out again. Then it gets rocky.
The hike to reach the underground lake is tricky, but definitely doable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Pay attention to your guides and watch where you put your feet (and hands, those cave spiders…).
After breaking about half-way for an amazing picnic lunch on a particularly large rock, we finally reached our destination - the underground lake.
We spent a little over an hour swimming, cliff jumping, and lazing about in the icy black water. It’s unbelievably quiet and peaceful this far back into the caves, something I’d imagine anyone who wasn’t scared of the dark would enjoy.
We finally paddled out of the cave, wet, tired, and happy, and slept about as well as you’d expect after our full day. The cost of the tour was roughly $70-$80 pp and if you’re interested in seeing the caves within this national park, but don’t feel quite up to a multi-day excursion, this is a wonderful alternative.
Interested in something a little more intense? Check out Oxalis’ legendary tours, including their famous 4D/3N expedition into Son Doong Cave, the largest cave in the world.
1. You can get from Hanoi to Ha Giang on an $8 overnight bus.
The bus leaves from My Dinh bus station in the morning and in the evening. The ride takes 8 hours, so opting for the sleeper bus is a good way to pass the time. However, they drop you off at 3 in the morning so you'll either have to stay awake until you can catch a local bus, or grab a cheap motel room if you can find one.
2. You can do the loop in 3 days and be back to Hanoi in no time.
The loop can be extended/shortened depending on how much time you have to complete it. The minimum time it should take is at least 3 days - 3 full days of riding. Our route was:
Day 1 - Ha Giang to Hung Ngai (near Dong Van) - this was our longest day.
Day 2 - Hung Ngai up to Lung Cu in the morning, then back-tracked down to Du Gia.
Day 3 - Du Gia to Ha Giang to finish the loop - some roads aren't safe depending on their seasonal conditions, so a longer route could potentially be better.
3. Renting a bike only costs $10 per day from QT Motors!
QT is absolutely amazing. They have great prices and lots of options for motorbikes. The owner briefs all customers individually, explaining the hazards and challenges of doing a motorbike road trip. QT also provides a clear map of the area with updated route conditions, plus a list of recommended food and accommodation stops!
QT also has an efficient roadside assistance team. My bike fell victim to a nail in the road only 20k into our trip, and they sent someone out immediately to change the tire. All included in the insurance!
4. The landscapes are breathtaking...
5. You’ll drive through authentic Vietnamese villages.
The Ha Giang Loop continually rises and falls between mountain passes and river valleys. Sometimes you get to ride along a ridge-line or through a pine grove, but you can always rely on descending into a valley with gorgeous terraced fields and homely villages.
Kids will scream and wave at you, hoping for a honk of your horn in return. Even along the mountain passes you'll see locals carrying crops in baskets, or a cheery cowherd herding his cows.
6. Staying in home stays is really, really fun!
Home stays are a much more intimate way to experience local life! They're owned by families who convert some of the rooms to house guests, with one big common room for everyone to hang out. Most home stays make family meals so everyone can eat together, so it's also a great way to try local food!
Ma Le Homestay is 10 minutes north off the main loop towards Lung Cu, and it was the BEST experience ever! We didn't arrive until after dark, but our hosts rushed us in and filled us with home-cooked food and rice wine - granny drank me under the table. Plus, the guest room we stayed in had our own fire pit! Careful not to smoke out the whole house though...
Du Gia Guest House (Du Gia Homestay) is another great place to stop for a night. Du Gia Guest House started as a local family hosting bikers on their way around the loop, but they became so popular that QT Motors helped fund a second location! Still run by the same family, but now there are two Du Gia Homestays. They're right on a beautiful river, and they have awesome backpacker vibes! A lot of people like to stay more than one night in Du Gia to explore the nearby areas if you're not rushing to get through the loop.
7. You can go to the northernmost town in Vietnam and look across China!
If you venture off the loop and head up to Lung Cu, there's a giant tower with the iconic red Vietnamese flag waving at China. There are a lot of stairs, but it's totally epic to stand in Vietnam looking into southern China.
8. You can sneak into China… or just look at it extremely legally from Vietnam.
I'm not the one who told you, but there's a spot on the border that you can grab a China selfie. ..
9. It's a great way to get the "Vietnam Motorcycle Experience."
A lot of travelers opt to travel the entire length of Vietnam on a motorcycle. For obvious reasons, this isn't everyone's choice. But if you're still itching for a taste of the biker life, spending a few days on the Ha Giang Loop will give it to you without having to commit to a cross-country road trip.
10. You look like a total badass.
With no competition, Dalat was my favorite city in Vietnam. The colonial style city is found north of Saigon up in the mountains and has a uniquely beautiful culture and climate that you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
The weather is cooler, the hostels incredible and dirt cheap (we stayed at Wolfpack and would highly recommend it), it’s not too crowded, and there’s no shortage of adventures you can go on to explore the surrounding wilderness.
I went up there with one of our friends while MJ caught a plane to Taipei with her friend Anna. Sim and I filled our days with jungle treks, canyoning, and family dinners at Wolfpack Hostel and had an absolute blast for four days. Here’s a taste of what it’s like exploring the more adventurous side of Dalat.
Canyoning has been on my bucket list for years. I’ve never had the opportunity to do it, either because of time or money, so I jumped at the chance to try it in Dalat. Our hostel recommended Dalat Adventure Tours, which had great reviews, and for only $50 per person for a whole day of canyoning, I wasn’t going to look elsewhere.
So what exactly is “canyoning”? The tour company explains it as “white water rafting without the raft,” which is actually a perfect way to describe it. We spent the whole day navigating an enormous river as it twisted and poured itself through the mountains in Dalat. Sometimes you swim, sometimes you hike, sometimes you rappel down a waterfall.
Sounds cool? You’re damn right it does.
The tour guides at Dalat Adventure Tours speak amazing English and were incredibly friendly throughout the whole day. They first teach everyone the basics, which, in this case, includes rappelling down the side of a small, slanted wall. It took some people (me..) a few tries to get it right, but they’re very patient and make sure everyone is comfortable before heading out.
We hit the trail and had the most epic day. In total, we rappelled three times (actually much easier to do down a cliff than down the wall), hiked a solid few miles, cliff jumped over a waterfall (the highest point is 11m - SO much fun), and even threw ourselves down a natural waterslide.
The guides are amazing. They work hard to make it an enjoyable, safe day for everyone and even take professional pictures for you all day, free of charge. Our day was wrapped up with a delicious picnic lunch of banh mi sandwiches on the side of the river.
It’s definitely a strenuous day, so be ready for that, but you can’t ask for a more adventurous experience in Dalat and I highly, highly recommend it.
Oh boy, my legs were hurting after this one.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a hiker. I occasionally will be seen making the odd attempt at hiking a reasonably sized mountain/hill, but that’s rare. For the most part I’m dragged/coerced up a mountain and halfway to the top, when it’s just a little too late to turn back, I curse myself, the nature, and whoever’s idea it was because it probably wasn’t mine.
Turns out jungle trekking is just hiking through a jungle. Go figure. So this was a long day for me, but absolutely worth it. Sim and I were the only ones booked to go on this tour on the day we went, so we got the chance to go at our own pace and grill the guides with all the questions we could think of.
This was my second tour with Dalat Adventure Tours and it was every bit as wonderful as the first. One of the guides who took me canyoning came again with us on this trek through the jungle. Both he and the other guide were patient, friendly, and funny.
The day started in a small village in Dalat called Lat Village, or Chicken Village. You’ll understand why they call it that when you get there. As you take a deceptively easy stroll through the picturesque coffee plantation, the guides will explain the local tribes and customs of the locals in Dalat, as well as how they make their famous weasel coffee. I’ll leave it to them to describe that delicious process…
After a while you start heading up into the jungle and the mountains. You’ll pass through an enormous pine forest that looks and smells exactly like Cape Cod, MA. You’ll make your way across rivers and up steep climbs into the thick of the forest. When you arrive, sweaty and out of breath, at the top of the climb, you’re treated to an amazing picnic lunch that’ll have you thinking, “they hiked this whole way with that in their packs?”
The climb down is always easier, I find, than the way I up. Maybe because the end is in sight? I told you, I’m not a hiker.
Here you start to see some really incredible views of Dalat and the surrounding landscape. We wound our way down through the jungle and even saw elephant prints deep in the mud as we crossed yet another river. The trail concludes near a private resort/camp that’s right on the water and, oh, what a beautiful place it is. The property has a number of horses stomping around and, if you’re lucky like we were, you’ll catch them as they go down to the water for a drink.
The trek costs around $30 per person, which, for what you get out of it, is nothing. We arrived back to Wolfpack, sweaty, exhausted, and grinning ear to ear.
While we only had enough time for a day of canyoning and another of trekking, but after those two days we were absolutely beat.
Dalat Adventure Tours offers a number of other itineraries, from white water rafting to bike tours to multi-day excursions. There’s no shortage of ways to explore this amazing city and countryside.
If you’re looking to hop around Dalat on your own, it’s easy to rent a scooter or bike and go from there! If you’re interested in hiking the jungle, however, you’re probably best off with a guide. Some of the trails are very narrow and tricky to follow and that would be an awful place to get lost.
Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Vietnam protected as one of the largest karst formation zones in the world. The park, situated in the middle of Vietnamese jungle, is known for its exceptionally high level of biodiversity. The intricate system of caves, grottos, and underground rivers that makes up the park continues to be majorly uncharted and unknown to the public.
Son Doong Cave, one of the parks many features, is regarded as the largest cave in the world. However any cave in the park is unique and worthwhile to experience. We chose to explore the park with Oxalis for a multi-night trek, but there are other options too! Check out our other post for ideas on how to explore the magnificent caves without sleeping among the creatures of the jungle.
Oxalis is an internationally accredited adventure company that receives glowing reviews year after year. The Oxalis team of local guides and international managers are very fluent in English, French, and even German. They offer a variety of tours ranging in intensity, from full day adventures to 4-day trekking expeditions.
We opted for the Hang Tien Exploration to enjoy multiple days in the jungle. It was nice to spend a couple of nights camping in the national park. Check out their website for info on their other tours!
Hang Tien Exploration
Rated as one of their Level 4 options, the Hang Tien tour is designed for active lovers of the outdoors to spend a few days immersed in the jungle of the park. We covered 22km in 3 days, with multiple river crossings and mountain climbs per day.
Secret Cave - cave pearls, sparkly curtains, great introduction to cave environments.
Hung Ton Cave - epic river swim through that empties into a beautiful lagoon for lunch.
Tien 1 Cave - massive cavernous opening, boundary lines, "flying fox” zipline across a dark canyon.
Tien 2 Cave - another massive cavern with a beautiful open space where you have the opportunity to experience the true darkness of a cave.
Gear to Bring
First we’ll start with things they provide for you, so don’t bother bringing:
a tent, a sleeping bag, or a sleeping mat
a special flashy red backpack for trekking during the day
protective gloves for when you climb sharp cave rocks
mess kits and food items
In terms of clothes, you’ll want to bring:
personal essentials (take the toothbrush, leave the face mask - you won’t even have access to showers)
2-3 long sleeve shirts even though it’s hot, there are a lot of thorny plants in the jungle
1-2 long pants, again, it’s thorny jungle
as many undies as you’ll want - that number’s up to you
at least 3 pairs of non-cotton socks - they will get wet and dirty from river crossings and muddy terrain. Do yourself a favor and pack a fresh pair for each day.
a swimsuit for floating through the river cave and relaxing at the camp watering hole
an extra layer for when the sun goes down
a raincoat - you might not need it, and if you do, it might not even help... bring it anyway
Things you might want to bring, but don’t need to
a lightweight, quick-dry towel
a book for down time at camp
flip flops, crocs, or birkenstocks for walking around camp
deodorant - plan on smelling bad no matter what you do
Hiking shoes, here’s the deal -
You will be crossing at least one river at the beginning of each day. You have to leave your shoes on, so they will be waterlogged for the rest of the trek. Plus, the terrain is unbelievably muddy. So much mud. Drowning in mud.
SO, if you opt to use your own shoes, make sure:
they are not gortex, waterproofed, special at all kind of boots, and
you don’t give a shit if they get absolutely destroyed
Otherwise, Oxalis lends out shoes you can guiltlessly destroy. They’re basically camouflaged converse high-tops with unnecessarily long shoestrings. They have exceptionally horrible support, so you may want to pluck the insoles from your own shoes and slip them into your combats for the trip. Just don’t forget to take them out before leaving Phong Nha.
You really only need to bring your personal essentials. If you’re already in the middle of Vietnam before you realize you don’t have enough socks or need an extra pair of pants, Oxalis offers last-minute gear you can buy before hitting the trailhead. Packing light is the name of the game. The porters take your gear for you, so don’t pack any bricks. Other than that, don’t worry about it! All your stuff will show up at camp before you do!
An expedition inherently requires sleeping in a tent, there's no getting around it. Oxalis has a series of camps throughout the national park, and depending on what tour you embark on, you’ll get to sleep in some really amazing places.
La Ken Camp - Right next to a little babling brook. You'll get there later in the day, so expect to be pretty exhausted. The chefs cook an amazing dinner, and you'll sit around the smoky fire all night waiting for your clothes to dry.
Tien Camp - This is a bigger camp, and it's next to a much bigger river. There's an unreal swimming hole next to a massive rock face where the water seeps out seemingly out of nowhere. You'll get into camp during the early afternoon, so you have the rest of the day to float around in the creamy blue water. Wake up early for a morning dip if you don’t mind hiking with wet hair.
Amazing. No chance of going hungry. Every meal is a feast.
Breakfast is a bowl of instant noodles with a fried egg on top. Plus pancakes and fruit! AND coffee! Instant coffee, but coffee.
Lunch comes from a massive bin of fried rice. Vegetarians have their own box, while everyone else gets some chicken or shrimp chopped up in theirs.
Dinner is where the feasting happens. Morning glory, potato carrot curry, barbecue chicken, tomato-y tofu, lots of rice, some kind of salty soup, garlicky green beans, salted peanuts, and of course - rice wine. Choco pies and oreos for dessert!
An Oxalis van will pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation in Phong Nha town. They even provide a congratulatory beer for the ride home! Be sure to tip your guides and porters before heading out if you appreciated their hard work! And don’t be afraid to drop them another glowing review on TripAdvisor...
Everyone calls it Angkor Wat. Technically Angkor Wat is just one of the famous temples, but there are over 70 others to be appreciated as well! As a Unesco World Heritage Site, Angkor is listed as one of the most important archeological sites in all of Southeast Asia, and the largest religious site in the world. The ruins provide a glimpse into what life was like in the ancient Khmer Empire from the 9th to 14th centuries.
If you’ve ever dreamed of climbing over tumbled stones and tiptoeing through cool, dark ruins, Angkor should be at the top of your bucket list. The sun glides over the ancient city with a tantalizing glow that makes you want to quit your job and become an archeologist. Dedicate at least 2-3 exploration days to give the surreal wonderland the time it deserves.
Planning your trip
The Angkor Archeological Area encompasses over 400 square kilometers. It would take weeks to see all of it. The ticket offices offer either one-day ($32) or three-day passes ($60). One day is not nearly enough.
Let me repeat that. One day is not nearly enough.
Opt for the three-day pass even if you’re only planning on going for two days. It’s still cheaper than buying two one-day passes. If you really only have one-day, try to hit the major must-see’s like Angkor Wat for sunrise, the many faces of the Bayon, semi-restored ruins of Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider), and at least one of the smaller temples on the East Baray.
Remember that Cambodia gets very hot, and the middle of the day is absolute murder. You WILL sweat through your pants. Plan to go in the morning, or just the afternoon. If you’re planning an all-day marathon, leave a few hours during peak heat to sit inside for lunch or sip a cold coconut in the shade.
An entire day in the sun will be extremely exhausting and you won’t be able to appreciate the legendary temples if you’re hot and cranky
We didn’t realize how enormous Ankor is. It can take 10-15 minutes to get from place to place, if not longer. Do your homework. Look at a map of Angkor, star your “must-sees,” and build your day based on regions around those sites. It’s much more manageable if you organize your day by groups.
We bought a guidebook for US$10, which made it very easy for us to pick our favorites. The book explains the history and original design of each site, and it also gives you a recommended route through them, pointing out key features along the way. It’s an easy way to avoid feeling cluelessly lost in an ancient world of stonework mazes.
Being that everything is so far apart, walking is not a realistic option. If you’re traveling solo and/or strapped for cash, at least rent yourself a bicycle. You’ll sweat yourself silly, but it won’t take as long as walking. Better yet, rent a scooter if you’re a competent driver.
The best option though, Ankor by tuk-tuk. If you can expend the cash to rent a tuk-tuk for even one of your days, you’ll be able to explore so many more regions. Make a new friend and split the cost. Tuk-tuks can take you to the further areas of Ankor, and with few people wandering around, you’ll get some amazing alone time in one of the most serene sites of the world. Plus, tuk-tuk time is AMAZING for resting your legs and getting out of the sun for a bit. You’ll just really optimize your time and energy if you rent a tuk-tuk.
Not to mention, most tuk-tuk drivers grew up in Angkor. Generations and generations (far more than you can honestly comprehend) have lived within these ancient walls. Their knowledge is unparalleled, and will greatly enhance your experience.
Try to avoid the time-wasting confusion that we had, and pick a time and place to meet up if you’re in a big group. Otherwise you’ll spend 45 minutes, like we did, waiting for each other at opposite ends of the temple. Also make sure you have your tuk-tuk driver’s name, license plate, and cell phone number if possible.
What We Did
We opted for the three-day pass, even though we only went for two days. As a group of 6, we were able to split the cost of two tuk-tuks, which ended up saving us time and energy, so we were able to pack in more sites per day. Plus, our guides were super informative and knew exactly where we should go, in what order, at what time of day.
We started our first day at about 1pm, so by the time we bought our tickets and really got into the grounds, the sun was low in the sky and people had already started to leave. It’s still hot, but it’s more manageable and way less crowded. Our second day was over by lunch. Albeit, we started before the day even began. By early afternoon, the high heat and exhaustion had us waving the white flag. We ended our day with lunch and went home for a well-deserved cat nap.
Here are some groupings of sites that we organized our trip by:
Angkor Thom is the famous walled city that remains to be the most recent location of the capital of the Khmer Empire, founded by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. Inside the epic walls are loads of magnificently restored temples, namely Angkor Wat and The Bayon. These inner temples are normally busiest in the morning, right after everyone watches the sunrise. The South entrance itself is a breathtaking preview of what lays just inside. Well worth a stop.
Angkor Wat, unless you want to see it immediately after sunrise with everyone and their mothers, is best explored in the afternoon.
Watch as the setting sun casts a perfect golden glow across the 200+ faces of Bayon - Ankor’s most iconic temple.
Afterwards, we drove past the Elephant Terraces to the East gate.
Angkor Wat Sunrise
Like most other visitors, we wanted to catch the blazing sunrise over of Angkor Wat. We were picked up at 5 in the morning, which gave us plenty of time to get comfy before the sky went alight. If you’re insistent on being right up at the water for your perfect shot, try leaving a bit earlier. It gets tightly packed up front.
Once the sun rises, everyone will rush to go inside. We opted to head straight for the farthest temples first, where there would be less visitors.
Baray of Preah Khan
The temples on the north side of the East Baray are generally smaller temples, and significantly less people in the morning.
This far-out temple is mostly unrestored, with walls crumbled in and tunnels blocked by rubble. What was once a city/temple/university is now a beautifully deconstructed work of art.
Walking around this temple in the early morning gives you a bit of scope as to how rigorous the creation of these buildings must have been, and how magnificent the architectural design is, down to the carved images in the crumbled stone.
The calm lake in the glistening morning light is reason enough to visit Neak Pean.
The temple is made up of four pools, representing the four elements, connected to one central source pool with a shrine in the middle. Originally built as a hospital, the pools were meant for sick visitors to bathe in healing waters. Look for the intricate animals sculpted on the central temple!
This small temple was built as a a dedication to Jayavarman VII’s father, Dharanindravarman II. One of the gopuras, or entranceways, is overgrown with an old strangler fig.
In opposite corners of the central sanctuary, there are late cavernous rooms that were once libraries. Around the outsides, there are big open pavilions to have a stroll around.
The East Baray was built as a water retention system, used for either irrigation or religious purposes.
This Hindu temple dedicated to Shivu is one of the older temples on the archeological grounds, built by Rajendravarman in the late 10th century. While it appears to be a temple-mountain, it was actually an temple-island back when the East Mebon was a filled. While it was once surrounded by water and only approachable by boat, it now stands as an obvious mountain among the flats of the dried reservoir. Look for the guardian elephants on each of the corners of the second tier!
This reservoir still has water! It’s not full… but it’s still beautiful in the golden Cambodian glow.
Ta Prohm was selected by the École française d’Extrême-Orient to be minimally repaired, in efforts to provide visitors with an authentic experience as to how many of the temples were rediscovered after being surrendered to the jungle for centuries. Wooden boardwalks guide you around the ruins, passing stoic fig trees and crumbling piles of stone.
Plus, it was featured in Angelina Jolie's Temple Raider.
Being one of the most popular temples, it’s usually pretty touristy. Expect to queue for a photo with the big trees...
We didn’t make it to the farthest temples on our third day, but that’s our first stop whenever we go back! These are among the least visited sites in the entire acrchaelogical area, but also some of the most worthwhile.
Banteay Srei is at the top of a hill, only accessible by a one-way road. Before noon, the road goes uphill. After 12pm, it switches and you can go downhill. Also, tuk-tuks can’t make it up the hill, so you have to rent a van or book a separate tour. It makes it a bit difficult planning-wise.
This requires an additional $20 entrance fee separate from your original ticket, because it’s not technically part of the archaeological site, but rather a part of Phnom Kulen National Park.
If you’re up at Phnom Kulen National Park, you can go see the sacred fertility waters nearby, Kbal Pean. Otherwise known as the “River of 1000 Lingas,” this Hindu shrine is unlike any of the other temples. The sandstone riverbed has been carved into motifs depicting an array of Hindu gods, including Shivu, Vishnu, and Brahma.
If you’ve got the time and are willing to shell out a bit more cash, you can make an entire day of venturing out to Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and Phnom Kulen for a day among the unspoiled sites!
Getting to Komodo
Getting to Komodo is as easy as a short flight from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo Airport (LBJ). The main downtown area is just 10 minutes away. You will be bombarded by eager taxi drivers upon exiting the airport - any driver is good, but don’t pay more than 50,000 rupiah.
The main road of Jl. Soekarno Hatta is right on the water. We stayed in Bajo Nature Backpackers, but there are loads of options. Take a walk along the main drag when you get there to browse some dive shops for packages you’re interested in.
Among the many reasons to fly out to Komodo, we were compelled by the marine wonders within the national park. We chose to go on a day trip with a company our friend recommended, Dive Komodo. In addition to day trips, they also offer overnights and multi-day trips for those who would like to spend more time underwater. When you book your trip, you'll also give them Rp 150,000 per person for the National Park entry fee (one-day general entry).
On certain days, they can also arrange for an afternoon “dragon trekking” adventure on one of the islands. It takes a considerable amount of time to get out to the national park from Labuan Bajo, so if you have a limited amount of time, consider opting to see the dragons on the same day you go diving.
As is usual with diving, expect to get on the boat around 7am. The ride out to the dive sites takes about two hours. The early morning makes for some beautiful lighting, so be sure to sit up top where you can watch the passing boats as your cruise among the islands.
Our first dive was at the Coral Gardens. You descend into an wide open sand field and work your way towards the coral on the far edge. Along the way, you’ll probably spot some camouflaged sea rays, rogue upside-down jellies, and maybe some ornate pipefish in the sand. Once you’re in the coral garden, keep your eye out for turtles munching on the patches of sea grass!
Diving with Manta Rays
Upon begging and pleading, our guides agreed to take us to Manta Point for our second dive. Like any creature of the natural world, you’re not guaranteed to see manta rays, but diving at one of their cleaning stations gives you a good chance. Lucky for us, there were four. We spent the entire dive parked on the sandy slope watching the mantas glide through the waters - a truly magical experience.
Expect to return ashore around 5pm. You’ll head back to the dive shop, log all your dives on paper, and maybe book a second day of diving if you’ve really been enchanted.
Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park was established in 1980, and soon became a World Heritage Site in 1986. The park is a total of 1,817 square kilometers, including both terrestrial habitats and a marine park. The five main islands of the park are Komodo, Rinca, Padar, Gili Mota, Nusa Kode.
The climate of Komodo is mainly hot and dry with less than 800mm of rainfall per year. November is the hottest month of the year, while most rain falls between December and March during the northwest monsoon season. As a result of the particularly dry conditions, over 70% of the park is open savanna habitat consisting of tall grasses, and twiggy shrubs. Other than Komodo dragons, the park is home to 276 other species.
Komodo National Park is the only place in the world where the dragons can be found, on the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang, and a small part of western Flores. Sadly, they recently went extinct on Padar. Most companies will take you to Komodo or Rinca to see the dragons.
Reminiscent of dragons from high school biology class, Komodo dragons are the largest living species of lizard on the planet. They have no natural predators, which allows for their huge size of up to 90kg, and lifespan of 50 years or more. Dragons are cold-blooded so they need to lay out in the sun to regulate their body temperature. They are most active during the morning and afternoons, but not during the peak heat of the day as they have no method to cool down (we can sweat, they cannot).
Individual dragons are typically solitary, only becoming social during mating and feeding. When Komodo dragons need to eat, which is about once a week, they use strategy to take down the perfect meal. One dragon will attack a chosen deer, water buffalo, or sweaty tourist. The prey will effectively make an escape after being bitten, but with little hope of survival. Dragon saliva has high levels of lethal bacteria that infiltrates the battle wound. A few days later, the prey will die of infection, exhaustion, starvation, or most likely: a combination of all three. The dragon, having stalked the prey since the attack, now has dinner on a silver platter. Most large prey species can feel multiple dragons. So in general, when a prey is felled, there is a jurassic-park-esque buffet-style feeding frenzy where a who pack of dragons tears into a sweaty tourist. KIDDING - it’s very safe to see the dragons.
Make sure you go with a park ranger. They know what they’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing, and this is their home to show you. It costs about Rp 80,000, which really isn’t much to ask. You can either add it onto a dive trip for the afternoon, or you can book and entire day adventuring one of the islands.
We opted for just an hour or two on Rinca, and we had more than enough time to observe the local dragons. The trekking loop brought us through some of the forested areas, across the shrubby plains, and up the main peak for a stunning view of the surrounding area.
Getting to Mount Batur
Sort of a touchy subject for us… but it's really not that bad!! Unlike most other backpackers, we were staying with family on the very north shore of Bali. As such, we had to take a very remote, very windy, very dangerous road through the mountains in the dark. We planned to leave a bit earlier than we need in order to account for rural driving conditions, so we left for the mountain at 1:30am. Long story short, we were rescued from a treacherous situation by some local guides who were actually on their way to Mount Batur. We trustingly followed them to the base of the mountain (which we never would’ve found on our own), and promptly requested our new friend Jordan to be our guide.
Important note: if you’re traveling from Ubud, Seminyak, or anywhere on the central/south part of the island, you will not have this much trouble getting there. You can also probably book a tour that includes your transport. We just had to drive ourselves and were coming from the less traveled side of the mountains.
If you have a car, you can actually drive the first third of the “hike” to a farther up parking lot. It cuts out about an hour, and doesn’t change your experience at all. Otherwise, park yo mopeds at the bottom and get walkin’.
Hiring a Guide
You don’t have to hire a guide, but keep this in mind - it’s dark, the trails aren’t always that clear, and if there was a heavy rain recently, the trails will be super washed out and unstable. The guides have hiked Mount Batur literally hundreds of times. They’re there every morning with enthusiasm, and bring lots of eager tourists to the top with a smile on their face. It’s their job, and their main source of income. Support the local tourism industry and hire a cheery guide! Otherwise, you’ll be heckled the whole way up anyway.
Climbing Mount Batur
It’s definitely not the Long Trail in Vermont. Expect unclear paths with multiple ways up, very loose, gravely ground, and very steep switchbacks all the way to the top. After about an hour and a half, you get to a little hut with a bench and some nice viewing platforms to watch the sunrise. There’s still another 20-30 minutes to the summit, but this is a great place to watch the magic unfold if you don’t feel compelled to continue the steep climb, or you just won’t make it in time.
Sunrise at the Summit
If you continue through the final push, you’ll be welcomed onto the the small summit with smiles from a bunch of other people who beat you up there. Given that we left unreasonably early, we were the first ones up there at 4:30am. The next folks showed up just before 5am, and then it started to get crowded around 5:30. If you’re waiting for a while, you can grab a hot drink from the hut at the very top. If you come with a tour, it will probably include a hot drink and breakfast (a hard-boiled egg and a piece of toast) at the top.
It takes a long time for the sun to rise, but even from the very beginning of the orange streaks behind Lombok in the distance, it’s an unreal landscape to take in. If the lighting is right, you can even see the smoke coming out of the active volcano of Mount Agung across Lake Batur.
Snap as many pictures as you can - you’ll only want to do this once. Anyone on the summit will be happy to take some for you, so have a go at all your jumping, laughing, hand-standing, or straight-cheesin shots. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll even witness a heart-jerking proposal like we did!
On the way down, be sure to grab a pic of the cheeky monkeys hanging around. They’re cute, but be careful because they will try to snatch your snacks and shiny things!
A quick breakdown of our Aussie favorites:
Best Experiences to Do for Free
Pink Lake (Port Gregory, WA)
West Coast National Parks (Karijini, Katamutu)
Best Instagram-Worthy Spots
Bay of Fires (TAS)
Wineglass Bay (TAS)
Russell Falls (TAS)
Rottnest Island - get that Quokka selfie (WA)
Fremantle waterfront esplanade (WA)
Pink Lake (Port Gregory, WA)
The Pinnacles (Nambung National Park, WA)
Shell Beach (Shark Bay, WA)
Cable Beach (Broome, WA)
Lake Argyle infinity pool (Kununurra, NT)
Anywhere in the desert for sunrise (WA)
The entire Outback (NT)
Sydney Opera House (NSW)
Any mural in Byron Bay (NSW)
Great Sandy Dune National Park (Rainbow Beach, QLD)
Lake McKenzie (Fraser Island, QLD)
Whitehaven Beach (Whitsundays, QLD)
West Point for sunset (Magnetic Island, QLD)
Underwater on the GBR (Cairns, QLD)
Best Cities to Hit
Byron Bay, NSW
Airlie Beach, QLD
Best Restaurants & Bars
The Source at the MONA (Hobart, TAS)
Cascade Brewery (Hobart, TAS)
The Croft Institute (Melbourne, NSW)
The Swamp (Melbourne, NSW)
The Brass Monkey (Perth, WA)
Little Creatures Brewery (Fremantle, WA)
Pot Shot (Exmouth, WA)
Wisdom Bar (Darwin, NT)
Monsoon’s (Darwin, NT)
Elixiba (Byron Bay, NSW)
Legend Pizza (Byron Bay, NSW)
Woody’s (Byron Bay, NSW)
Malaya (Sydney, NSW)
Chin Chin (Sydney, NSW)
Doyle's on the Beach (Watson’s Bay, NSW)
Lumi (Sydney, NSW)
Chinese Laundry (Sydney, NSW)
The Jam Factory (Sydney, NSW)
The Rail Friendly Bar (Byron Bay, NSW)
The Bean Drop (Noosa Heads, QLD)
Lillipad Cafe (Cairns, QLD)
Rattle N Hum (Cairns, QLD)
Best Places to Stay on a Budget
The Nook Backpackers (Hobart, TAS)
The Art House (Launcester, TAS)
Bambu Backpackers (Perth, WA)
Linga Longa (Port Gregory, WA)
Pot Shot (Exmouth, WA)
Lake Argyle Resort and Holiday Park (WA)
YHA Darwin (NT)
Jump Inn Alice (Alice Springs, NT)
The Art Factory (Byron Bay, NSW)
Noosa Nomads (Noosa Heads, QLD)
BASE Magnetic Islands (QLD)
Gilligan’s (Cairns, QLD)
Best Things to Bring With You
A dry bag to keep your valuables dry and sand-free!!!!
Sleeping bag liner
A hat and sunnies
Multiple bathing suits
Two towels (one for salt and sand, one for suds and soap)
Ladies - hair oil… your hair will take a beating between the salt and the sun
Divers - your own mask and snorkel
LOTS of sunblock
maps.me for the West Coast drives
Things We Didn’t Get To, But Wish We Did
Cradle Mountain (TAS)
Great Ocean Road (NSW)
Cage diving with Great White Sharks (NSW)
Margaret River (WA)
Karijini National Park (WA)
Diving with whale sharks (Exmouth, WA)
Gold Coast (QLD)
Camping in the Whitsundays (QLD)
Daintree National Park (QLD)
Things to Remember in Australia
Drive on the left side of the road
Gas stations are few and far between
The heat is intense… like really fucking intense
HYRDRATE HYRDATRE HYDRATE
Humidity gets worse as you travel north
Australia is more expensive than you think
It’s a HUGE country. Give yourself more time than you think.
Marsupials are nocturnal, don’t look for them during the day and…
Drive slowly and carefully at night - you don’t want to kill anything
Wear close-toed shoes and bring a headlamp to the Outback
Book everything on the east coast in advance
New Years in Sydney is very chaotic, plan accordingly
If you miss whale shark season in Exmouth, you’ll still make it for turtle mating season:)
Go to the outer parts of the GBR if you can!
You will make some really amazing friends, especially on tours! <3
Magnetic Island is an exceptionally unique part of Australia’s east coast, and is a not-to-be-missed opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts! The small island is under formal conservation as Magnetic Island National Park, which means that all the flora and fauna on the island is under protection. Additionally, the island lays within the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which itself is listed as a World Heritage site! Double whammy!
Getting to Magnetic Island
As part of our Loka passes, our trains, buses, and ferries were booked ahead of time. You take the Queensland Rail into Townsville, a local bus to the ferry port, and the Sealink Ferry to Magnetic Island! Once you’re on the island, just ask someone at the port which local bus to hop on for transfer to your accommodation.
Before you leave the mainland, stock up on groceries and booze. Everything is more expensive on the island. Otherwise, the mojitos at the Island Bar are pretty rad.
Where to Stay
You have a ton of options for accommodation on the island. BASE hostel was an obvious choice for us, not only because we have the BASE Jump card, but also because it has the most popular bar on the island.
Apparently it used to be an aquarium, so the campus is spaciously spread out with stellar views of the ocean. It’s the perfect place to kick back and enjoy some island time. Be sure to visit our BFF Adam at the travel desk for kickass adventure ideas and sweet deals on bookings. Tell him Kim & MJ sent you.
Renting a 4x4
Absolutely, hands-down the best way to see Magnetic Island. Adam booked an Arcadia Beach Car Hire for us, and we were happy with the vehicle. It was an old standard transmission cruiser, but it got the job done. We rented it for just the two of us, but you can definitely split it among 4 people for a better deal and additional company.
The cars are heaps of fun. Topless is the way to go - it’s fun even just to drive around the island and enjoy the views from the road. You have the option to rent if for a few hours, 12-hours, or 24-hours. Definitely go for at least 12-hours so you can do all the activities. We opted for 24 hours literally just so we could drive out to West Point for sunset. Unbelievably worth it.
We started our day in the most northern part of the island at Nourish Cafe. Great iced coffee to get you going. Horseshoe Bay is the place to go if you’re interested in souvenirs and the classic tourist-ville main drag. Pretty beach too.
As part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the bays around Magnetic practically call your name. Hop in any of the bays around the northeast part of the island for some more secluded swimming, or check out the more southern spots like Geoffrey Bay for snorkeling*. But be sure to rent a stinger suit with your snorkeling gear, otherwise you risk a lethal sting from some of the world’s deadliest jellies. Not worth it. Take the sexy suit.
Koalas at The Forts
The iconic cuddly Koala of Australia roams freely around this National Park safe haven, and you can spot them anywhere along The Forts walk. Don’t make the mistake we did - a blazing hot midday walk is not a good choice. First of all, you won’t see any koalas because they’re smarter than you by avoiding the heat. Second of all, you’ll melt before you even get to the top. Take a hike in the morning or late afternoon when the koalas are more active. When you find one, stay a respectable distance away from them and do not feed them - they can be aggressive. You’re a visitor in their home, so don’t ruin their Eucalyptus high.
Feeding Rock Wallabies
For another, friendlier marsupial encounter, you have to go to Geoffrey Bay at sunset. Wild rock wallabies will emerge from their hiding places in exchange for a nibble on your snacks. It’s really important that you only feed them approved foods, otherwise they could get sick. We recommend carrots because they’re cheap, we already had them for our own snacking purposes, and it’s not sticky. The wallabies really like them, and chopping an entire carrot will give you a ton of little discs to share with the wallabies.
Nighttime on the Island
If you’re not afraid of the dark, take a midnight stroll to truly experience the wildlife. The island comes alive at night. Just take 5 minutes to listen to the bats swooping through the sky, or the possums wandering around the trees, or even the little unknowns rustling in the underbrush. It’s a truly amazing feeling to walk among the wild things in such magical place.
If you’re looking for a place to go for your midnight stroll, check out the Magnetic Island Bakery… it’s open 24/7 and the owner is an absolute sweetheart. He’ll hook you up with the best treats on the island.
*Ask Adam about the batfish, maybe he’ll clue you in.
When people ask us about our favorite things we did in Australia, few things come to mind quicker than Fraser Island. We booked this on a whim and strong recommendations and went into it with zero expectations. We came out of it, sick as dogs, with friends from all over that we’ll no doubt hold on to.
If you’re backpacking the East Coast of Australia, don’t miss out on Fraser Island.
We began and ended our tour at Noosa Nomads, the hostel company that plans the Nomads Tag-a-Long 4x4 Tour. They offer 3-day and 2-day tours. If you have time, take the 3-day.
Nomads also provides pre and post-night accommodation for you as part of your tour, which makes it easy to leave your heavy bag at home.
You’ll have a briefing the night before you leave, going over what to bring, what to expect, and your itinerary.
Here’s our briefing for you:
Don’t get caught up in the details. Maybe the meals and accommodation aren’t exactly to your liking. It’s just food and a place to sleep. It’s all about the people. The rest is extra. The tour is expensive and if you get caught up in the details you miss out on what you really pay for which is a kick ass experience.
Skip the make-up, it’ll melt off anyway.
Bring two swimsuits, you’ll swim every day.
Opt for the dorm over the tipi if you can (AC baby).
Bring 2-3 outfits tops, you’ll need to wash it all the you get back.
Download your playlists before you leave.
Be respectful of the guide and the wake-up/departure times. Don’t make people wait for you, it cuts into everyone’s day if you do!
If you aren’t a confident driver, don’t sign up to drive. Riding shotgun is honestly just as fun.
Many people don’t realize this, but Fraser Island is World Heritage listed because it’s the largest sand island in the world. The native community on the island has a rich history, which the guide will be sure to introduce you to as part of your tour.
It’s got unbelievable beaches, lakes, and jungles, and you’ll get to experience all of it! It also is home to a large number of dingos, Australia’s version of wild dogs. They may look cute, but dingos are wild animals. They’re pretty neat, but respect their distance.
Getting to the Island
This was easy peasy. Your guide will pick you up by bus at Noosa Nomads early in the morning. From there it’s a relatively easy bus ride up to Rainbow Beach where you pick up your 4x4’s and catch the ferry over to Fraser.
When you pick up the 4x4’s you’ll be split into cars that you’ll be with the rest of the weekend. You’ll get to stick with the people you’re traveling with but that’s about it. The rest is random, depending on how big the group is, whether or not the cars are manual or automatic, and depending on how many people want to drive.
We had an absolute blast with the people in our car. They became some of the best friends we’ve made on our trip and we’ve all made plans to meet up again in our respective countries (the U.S., Canada, and Sweden). However, if you don’t automatically love the group you’re with, a. give it time and, b. don’t panic, usually everyone is together as a larger group anyways.
Food & Accommodation
It’s basic, but everyone is covered. Whether you’re vegetarian or gluten free, there’s food for you and enough of it. Sandwiches, pasta dishes, etc. It’s easy food that everyone can be happy with - trust me, you won’t go hungry!
With the Nomads tour, you stay at Eurong, which has a bar and pool and is right on the beach. Your choice of accommodation is either dorms or tipis. Both are good, you really only are there to sleep, but the dorms have AC, so if that’s a priority get the dorms!
Driving Around Fraser Island...
…is not for the faint hearted. The 4x4’s can and do handle a lot on this island and they need a firm and confident hand behind the wheel, especially in manual. When you’re driving through the jungle and on the beach you’re going to need to keep up with the car(s) in front of you, so if you’re nervous, don’t offer to drive.
You do have the option of trying a drive on the easier sections of the beach and switching when it gets too much. No matter how many people want to drive, everyone who wants a turn will get one, so don’t stress about it!
What You’re in For
You mean other than the time of your life?
You’ll be journeying around the island to some of its most beautiful locations, including:
The Maheno Wreck
At each location, you’ll have plenty of time to explore, relax, swim, or play a game of beach volleyball with your crew. You’ll picnic each lunch and head back to Eurong each night to party at the bar and break into the pool after its been locked up at 8pm.
Fraser Island is picturesque and chances are you’ll sign up to explore it with a group of kickass people from around the world. We had an absolute blast and if you relax and go with the flow of each day there’s no way you won’t as well.
WTF is a Mulgas?
A mulga is a small shrubby tree that is indigenous to the Outback, and will cause infection and swelling if you are scratched by its wood.
But if you’re looking for an Uluru Tour, Mulgas is also an adventure tour company for daring thrill-seekers looking to explore the Outback! As a budget-friendly option, we opted for their 3-Day Rock Trip, a.k.a. the best way for backpackers to see everything Central Australia has to offer:
Depending on the weather, your guide may mix up the order in which you do all three, but you’ll have a great time no matter what!
Getting to the Outback
For the brave-hearted, a desert road trip from Darwin to Alice Springs may be in order. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and very few petrol stops - so fill up every time. Every single time.
For my fellow jetsetters, you can catch a flight into Alice Springs from most major cities in AUS. Fly in the day before your tour begins, and fly out the day after it ends. If you’re willing to shell out for a flight into Yulara, you’ll have some more flexibility with your flight schedule. You can fly in the same day your tour starts, and your new Mulgas family will pick you at the airport! Plus, you’ll cut out a couple hours on the bus.
Give Mulgas a ring after you make your travel plans to confirm your pick-up!
What to Pack
Space is LIMITED, so only bring what you need. Use a backpack for your clothes, toiletries, and camp stuff, then a tote bag for things you’ll need during the day. Lock everything else in luggage storage at your accommodation in Alice Springs.
Mulgas will give you a full list, but here are some essentials:
A water bottle - you can refill it at camp
Snacks for in-between meals
Cash to buy more water and snacks at rest stops, or artwork at the aboriginal culture center
Headlamp - to avoid lethal critters during the night
Close-toed shoes - to further avoid lethal critters during the night
Sunscreen and bug spray - reapply OFTEN
Chap stick with SPF, or your lips will fall off
Watch - to make sure you’re back at the bus when you’re supposed to be
Fly net if you’re going in the summer
Sleeping bag liner - you’ll be given “swags” to sleep in, but it’s nice to have something else inside. They recommend sleeping bags (and you can rent one for $20), but we were comfortable with just our silk liners.
Book to read during down time
What to Expect
Head to the Mulgas office after you land in Alice Springs to go over the details of your trip. They’ll prep you with important information, your schedule, and what to pack.
Sometime between 6-6:30am, the bus will swing by your Alice Springs accommodation. You’ll want to lock up your luggage until you get back, so make sure that you’ll have access to storage at 6 in the morning - otherwise, toss it in the night before!
You’ll be staying at two different camps, both with similar amenities. Most other tours use the same grounds, but they’re big so you’ll have plenty of room. The kitchens have big tables for eating, but since it’s the only place to escape the blazing sun, you’ll also end up hanging out there during midday downtime. The bathrooms are better than expected! Limit your showers to 2 minutes for water conservation, but you can comfortably shower to rid yourself of sweaty stickiness.
You’ll be sleeping in swags [“a waterproof canvas sleeping compartment,” as defined by Wikipedia]!!!!!! Consider bringing a sleeping bag, or even just a liner to make yourself more comfortable. Otherwise just rent one from Mulgas for $20. They’re not tempurpedics, so bring extra padding if you have a bad back, but you’ll never have a better view of the night sky!
Great stuff. Sandwiches and salads are typical lunches, mostly deli meats and chopped veggies. Dinner is prepared by your guide (thank you Scruffy), and is usually burgers or sausages with side dishes like pasta salad or roasted potatoes. You’ll even have the opportunity to try kangaroo (spoiler alert: it tastes like a well done, gamey steak).
Vegetarians, vegans, and celiacs: Mulgas has got you covered! They do an AMAZING job of providing alternative food options, but LET THEM KNOW IN ADVANCE. They will bring GF bread, veggie burgers, and even meatless sausage for you.
The Mulgas guides are amazing. Special shout out to Scruffy who made our Outback adventure absolutely incredible. They’re all extremely knowledgable and enthusiastic about aboriginal culture, local history, the geology and ecology of all the sites you go to. When you first get to a site, your guide will give you a short intro on the significance of the area and then let you explore at your own pace. Just pay attention to your time schedule and be respectful of the rules - you’re a visitor!
On that note, don’t climb Uluru. Technically, you’re allowed to climb it if the conditions are right, but the local aboriginal communities have formally requested multiple times for visitors not to climb. Never in the entire history of their culture has climbing Uluru been supported. Please respect their land, their sacred sites, and their requests. Don’t climb it.
And remember, you are going to the desert. It is f*cking hot. You do not want to be melting in the heat. Be prepared to wake up at 4 in the morning so you can hike before it gets miserable. There’s no way around it, you have to wake up early. Do yourself a favor and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Skip the late night tequila shots.
You’ll have plenty of down time in between activities. Bus rides are long, and you’ll be spending the middle of the day doing nothing to avoid the heat. Bring some headphones, a deck of cards, or your mom’s copy of 50 Shades.
Every tour is unique, so you may do things in a different order than we did - point being, look at all these amazing activities you'll get to do!
Day 1 -
Pick up from hostel at 6am
Stop for free camel rides
Aboriginal culture center - opportunity to buy beautiful, locally crafted artwork
Champagne celebration overlooking Uluru
Day 2 -
Sunrise at Uluru
Hike around Uluru base ~2 hours
Informative guided tour of Uluru’s sacred sites
Day 3 -
King’s Canyon sunrise hike
Ecology and geologic history of King’s Canyon
Look out for the pygmy koala!
Head back to Alice Springs after lunch!
Choosing Your Adventure
The Outback is one of the wildest places I’ve ever been, and you will never experience anything quite like it. If you’re coming all the way to the Land Down Under, you just can’t miss it. There are loads of options for the length/type of tour to take. For a full list of Mulgas’ options, check out their website!
It was part of our Australian itinerary from the get-go: an epic west coast road trip via campervan up the country’s less explored coastline.
We were ready for deserts sunsets, endless rust colored highway, deserted beaches, and sleeping in the back of a car for three weeks. We weren’t ready for the lack of gas stations, sweltering heat, or the monumental distance between Perth to Darwin.
Many people travel to Australia to embark on this very road trip, and every journey is different. Ours went a little like this.
Finding a Car or Campervan
Where We Rented: Traveller’s Autobarn
Would We Recommend: Yes, but you get what you pay for. The vans are OK, but old, and we had a few customer service issues. We mostly recommend them because when we dropped it off the representative was extremely understanding about the issues we had with the camper and gave us a smaller car for a few days, free of charge, to make up for it.
This is arguably the easy part. Because the west coast is almost exclusively explored via car or campervan, there are many options.
We opted for a campervan because we figured it would be a fun experience. Many people choose a car simply because you can save a lot of money on the rental and gas. The cheapest way to do it is definitely by car, provided you’re using a tent instead of paying for hostels or hotels every night. It depends on your budget and what kind of experience you want.
We rented a campervan from Traveller’s Autobarn, a budget rental company, and opted for their most popular Kuga campervan. For two people, this was perfect. It says it sleeps/seats 3, but from experience that would be crowded unless that third person is a child.
Regardless of what you choose, here are a couple of things to keep in mind regarding your car/campervan:
Gas is EXPENSIVE and gas stations are few and far between. Fill up every chance you get, no matter how full your tank is. You can use the app maps.me to help you find gas stations along your route (it will work without service so long as the maps are downloaded). Keep in mind: the bigger the vehicle the pricier the gas.
Most rentals are MANUAL. We learned this the hard way when we got dealt an old school ’08 manual camper when we expected an automatic. Luckily, MJ is a champ with manual and I knew enough to get the hang of it, but if you need an automatic make sure you’ve signed up for one.
Insurance doesn’t cover idiots who get stuck in the sand. You will be hard pressed to find someone to help you if you drive off road and get bogged down because you wanted that perfect shot of the sunrise (yes, we were those idiots). We ended up taking an hour to get our heavy camper out of the sand after multiple calls to tow companies and roadside assistance told us we were on our own. Do yourself a favor and stay on the pavement.
If you opt for a camper, you will need to charge it, refill the water, and refill the gas. Ask where the hose/charging cables are in your camper BEFORE you leave…(we didn’t find our hose the whole time and had to get creative).
Take the insurance, just don’t get bogged.
Drive during the day whenever possible. Driving at night might be your favorite thing to do (me) but you will never forgive yourself if you add to the roadkill death toll on Australia’s west coast highway. MARSUPIALS ARE NOCTURNAL. You would be too if you lived in the desert, let’s be real.
Knowing how to change a tire is a life skill that’s great to have before you make this journey.
Bring your own charging cable and aux chord and DOWNLOAD your music (a lot of it) before you leave. Maybe even some audiobooks if that’s your thing. You’re in for a lot of driving and not a lot of service.
If they offer you a fan, TAKE IT. This was a lifesaver during the night.
Whether you start in the north or the south, stock up on supplies in the biggest city you’re starting in. Once you hit the road, all the prices go up as the average population goes down. Supply and demand baby.
Stock up on:
Food. Try and stick to the easy stuff. Also a plus if it doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Unless you’re opting for a big camper, you’re going to be very tight on fridge space.
Water and booze. Both get more expensive as you head out of town.
Bug spray and sunscreen. Both are necessary and, again, prices go up.
Here are a couple things we were really happy we had:
Headlamps. Can’t stress enough how many times we’ve been happy to have headlamps on this trip. Endlessly useful.
Ziplock containers (for leftovers) and garbage bags.
Sleeping bags. They provided sheets for us but having to make the bed every night was super annoying. These were just easier.
Table and chairs. We rented these from the rental company. They were great to have when we wanted to get out of the camper for dinner or just to enjoy our beach reads in the shade.
A speaker. I always carry at least two on me because there’s nothing worse than listening to music from an iPhone speaker. Our campervan was so old we didn’t even have an aux plug, so we ended up using a speaker the whole time.
Cameras. We each have one and carry it with us everywhere. If you’re thinking of investing in a better one or are unsure whether or not you want to bring yours, this is the sign you’re looking for. BRING IT. You will see so many beautiful things and it’s worth documenting properly.
Planning Your Route
It’s a little more than 4000km from Perth to Darwin on the shortest route. That’s about 43 hours of driving, which doesn’t cover the driving you do to get to the actual highlights of your road trip. We had an amazing time, but not enough of it. Our last three days of driving averaged about 10-12 hours of driving per day. BE BETTER THAN US.
Give yourself the time to enjoy the west coast properly. Opt for a shorter route, like Darwin to Broome or Perth to Broome, or, if you’re in it for the long haul, give yourself 4-6 weeks to enjoy the trip from Perth to Darwin.
Our Highlight Reel from the West Coast
Many of these stops we’ve written about in more detail, but here is the short list of what we loved about our 3 week adventure.
Perth, Fremantle and Rottnest Island
Where We Stayed: Bambu Backpackers Hostel
Would We Recommend: Yes
Can’t stress this enough. This city and the surrounding areas are beautiful and absolutely worth starting or ending with. Perth is a vibrant city with unbelievable beaches, a great and cheap transportation system, and so much to do.
Where We Stayed: RAC Cervantes Holiday Park
Would We Recommend: Yes
No one is entirely sure how this natural wonder happened, but boy is it beautiful. Just off the road near Cervantes, the Pinnacles are a must stop for those looking to get that perfect sunset picture. Drive your car through the park or get out and walk among the thousands of stone pillars.
Where We Stayed: Linga Longa at Lynton Station
Would We Recommend: Yes
Instagrammers - DON’T MISS THIS ONE. I saw pictures of Australia’s pink lakes years ago when planning and knew this wasn’t something we could skip. We had a blast doing our cheesy little photo shoot at the pink lake near Hutt Lagoon. Definitely worth the stop (you’ll be happy you packed that camera).
This was so cool. A 45minute drive in from the coastal town of Kalbarri, Nature’s Window is one of the main attractions in Kalbarri National Park. This iconic attraction is a literal “window” in the rock that perfectly frames the river behind it. It’s a short 1km walk into the Loop, which is a larger walk you can opt for to see more of the beautiful national park.
Sharkbay World Heritage Site
Where We Stayed: Denham Seaside Tourist Village
Would We Recommend: Yes
We camped out here for a few days because we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave this little slice of heaven. Perfect beaches, natural wonders everywhere and a great place to take your first break on your crazy road trip. Enjoy a trip to Monkey Mia to visit the dolphins, stop at Shell Beach for a quick dip in crystal clear water, and take in the Hamelin Pool Stromatolites that give Shark Bay its World Heritage title.
While you’re in Shark Bay, take the time to learn about the community’s fascinating initiative to combat community waste.
Where We Stayed: Potshot
Would We Recommend: Yes (in high season, BOOK EARLY. The town triples in size.)
Divers! You already know you need to stop here. We missed the whale shark season (March-Sept), but we were just in time for sea turtle mating season, which definitely made up for it. The diving here is out of this world, so if that’s your thing DON’T MISS IT. Navy Pier alone was worth the extended stop.
We dove with a company called Dive Ningaloo and they were EPIC. Definitely recommend.
Broome & Cable Beach
Where We Stayed: Tarangua Caravan Park
Would We Recommend: Yes
Broome is amazing coastal city. Unfortunately, when we went it was hot and so, so humid that we spend our entire time there doing one thing and one thing only: Cable Beach. This beach is worth the trip alone. It’s massive and is perfect for lounging the day away or watching the camels walk buy with some sundowners.
Tip: Skip the camel ride, they smell bad and the pictures you’ll get with the camels in it are cooler than the ones you’ll get from the camel’s back.
Tip: If you have a car (NOT a camper), you can drive it down to the beach! It’s very flat and the sand is packed down, very low risk of getting bogged.
Where We Stayed: Lake Argyle Resort & Holiday Park
Would We Recommend: SO MUCH.
Our final stop before Darwin, this resort of Lake Argyle was everything we could’ve hoped for. Not only is a lush and green, a welcome break after weeks in the dust and sand, but it has an unbelievable infinity pool looking out over the lake. We camped out here until they literally had to kick us out when it got dark. You can take a tour of the lake by boat as well, but we didn’t have time.
Where We Stayed: Darwin YHA aka Melaleuca on Mitchell
Would We Recommend: Yes, if you’re looking to party
We weren’t prepared for how much we would love Darwin. It’s not a huge city, but if you’re a backpacker looking to meet some cool people and party/celebrate the end of your insane three-week road trip, it’s everything you need. Don’t miss out on this hostel, we had the time of our lives during our weekend in Darwin.
Get Up for Sunrise, Make Time for Sunset
It doesn’t get more beautiful than it does on the west coast of Australia. We started our longer driving days at 4am so we could enjoy sunrise out in the middle of the desert. Highly recommend it.
What We Wish We’d Had Time For (AKA Our Regrets)
No trip is perfect (unless you have 6-7 weeks to do it), so here are some places we’re going to have to come back for (and some super fun ideas for you when you go cause we’ve totally sold you on this road trip!!).
Karijini National Park
More Time at Lake Argyle
Diving with Whale Sharks in Exmouth
Diving in Coral Bay
Gibb River-Wyndham Road (southwest of Darwin)
Emma Gorge (southwest of Darwin)
Kununurra (near Darwin)
Kakadu National Park (near Darwin)
Wine Tasting at Margaret River (south of Perth)
Serpentine National Park (near Perth)
Lancelin Sand Dunes (near Perth)
There were many things that inspired us to road trip Australia’s western coast, including the remoteness, the national parks, and the romantic idea of driving an empty road in the desert. No single motivator was quite as strong as the desire to dive Ningaloo Reef in Exmouth.
Exmouth is a tiny, tiny town about 13 hours and 1,247 kilometers north of Perth. It originated as a United States Communication Station in the 1960’s and while the base has since been turned over to the Australian government, the town has been there ever since. Now, Exmouth is famous for one thing and one thing only: some of the best diving in all of Australia, maybe even in the world.
The area garnered this reputation from two key attractions: Ningaloo Reef and the persistent opportunity to dive with whale sharks, which migrate up Australia’s coast through Ningaloo every year between March and September. While we were disappointed to have just missed the chance to see these fantastic giants, we did manage to arrive just in time for sea turtle mating season, which kind of made up for it.
On our way in to town we stopped at our chosen dive shop: Dive Ningaloo. We cannot recommend this company enough - we did a total of five dives with them over the course of three days and loved the experience. We also got the chance to dive Navy Pier with these guys, which is listed as one of the world’s top 10 dive sites (totally deserved).
Navy Pier is a dive site that is directly under and around the jetty on the active military base in Exmouth. Dive Ningaloo has exclusive rights to dive on these premises, another key reason we chose to dive with them. There are many rules and regulations in place due to the nature of the base, so if you choose to do this dive make sure you listen to what they have to say!
The dive is shallow and easy, only about 15 meters, and there isn’t much current. Typically, visibility can be quite low on this shore dive, but we got extremely lucky and had unusually high vis. Before we even could jump in the water we were watching dolphins play around just under the jetty. Then we got to jump in…
No fishing and lack of human visitors has made this dive site truly remarkable in its diversity. In the 45 minutes we were underwater we saw everything from grey reef sharks, sting rays, enormous groupers, fantastically colorful nudibranchs, flat worms, wobbegong sharks, and the largest hawksbill sea turtle any of us, including our guide, had ever seen.
We both agreed it was one of the best dives we had ever done. If you get the chance to dive in Exmouth, DO NOT miss this dive. YOU WILL REGRET IT AND FEEL FOOLISH IF YOU MISS THE CHANCE TO DIVE THIS DIVE. Friendly advice.
Also, keep your eyes open for the BFG (big friendly grouper) who lives under the jetty. This is the single largest fish I have ever seen in my life and he’ll come right up and say hello if you let him.
Our first day trip with Dive Ningaloo was to the Murion Islands. These two deserted islands offer an unbelievable amount of coral, micro life (like our friends the nudibranchs), and tropical fish. We didn’t catch a glimpse of any when we went, but you can also spot big rays and whale sharks out there when it’s the right time of year!
One thing we did manage to see is a ton of turtles. You couldn’t miss them because they were everywhere. Remember how I said it was sea turtle mating season when we went in October/November? The Murion Islands seem to be a personal favorite of theirs. We stopped for lunch and were able to snorkel to the beach to get a glimpse of them up close and it became a game of who could see the most. There must have been over 25 around that beach alone.
Take away: if you visit Exmouth and are bummed that you’ve also just managed to miss whale shark season, stick around for the turtles and they’ll more than make up for it. On our last night in town I managed to get up close and personal with a female digging her nest on the beach near the Jurabi Turtle Centre - it was sensational!
If you do decide to pay the ladies a visit during this season, be respectful and keep noise to a minimum and white lights off. It disturbs them and then you’re that asshole who ruined it for everyone else trying to catch a glimpse of the magic. Don’t be that guy. RED LIGHTS ONLY!!
Aside from the whale sharks cruising through during the winter season, the main diving attraction of Exmouth is definitely Ningaloo Reef. The entire Ningaloo Coast is listed as a protected World Heritage Site and is both the largest fringing coral reef in Australia and the only large reef in the world found so close to land. You can snorkel or dive this reef right from the beach if you want!
The most popular way to see the reef is to hop on a boat for a day (or two) from either Coral Bay or Exmouth. You see slightly different sides to the reef and we were told that you’re more likely to see big mantas from Coral Bay.
We didn’t get to see any of these gentle giants since we got our first stroke of bad luck and had a particularly windy day that made diving too far out in the reef impossible, but we still got an eyeful with sharks, rays, an octopus (!!), and even a sea snake streaking towards the surface above us.
Exmouth is a sensational place to dive and to stay. The town absolutely explodes with activity during peak season, so if you’re interested in heading there during whale shark season make sure you book in advance - it does fill up! As for us, I think it’s safe to say that the only thing we can do, since we missed them this time around, is find our way back to the west coast another time.