A Complete Guide to Sri Lanka During Off-Season

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.

edit-0018.jpg

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/Negundi

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.

edit-2740.jpg
edit-9304.jpg

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.

edit-9327.jpg

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.

edit-2860.jpg
edit-9453.jpg

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.

edit-9530.jpg

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.

edit-9647.jpg






Ella

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.

edit-9787.jpg

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.

edit-9844.jpg

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

edit-9780.jpg
edit-9824.jpg

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.


Cooking Class

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!

edit-7308.jpg
edit-7335.jpg

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.

edit-7302.jpg
edit-7305.jpg

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.

edit-0867.jpg
edit-7316.jpg

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! 

edit-7327.jpg
edit-7310.jpg


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.

edit-0042.jpg

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!

edit-0060.jpg
edit-0116.jpg

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.

edit-0134.jpg

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.

edit-0024.jpg

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.

Sigiriya

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!

IMG_7389.jpg

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.

edit-0175.jpg
edit-0163.jpg

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.

edit-0168.jpg
edit-0169.jpg

As with any temple, you must cover your shoulders and knees - you can rent a coverup at the entrance if you need one.

edit-3101.jpg
edit-0189.jpg

Lion’s Rock

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.

edit-0535.jpg

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.

edit-0516.jpg

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.

edit-0486.jpg

Elephant Safari

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.

edit-0384.jpg
edit-0323.jpg

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.

edit-0312.jpg

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.

edit-0435.jpg
edit-0352.jpg

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!

edit-0447.jpg

A Self-Guided Bar Crawl in Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

CB6950D6-DDD5-4079-9288-33C7C8644C32.jpg
IMG_1849 3.jpg

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.

IMG_7685.jpg

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. 

Mad Botanist

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.

IMG_0077 2.jpg
IMG_0080 2.jpg

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!

IMG_0091.jpg
IMG_9982.jpg


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!

IMG_0098.jpg
IMG_0099.jpg

Standing Bar

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.

IMG_0112.jpg

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. 

DSC_0091.jpg

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

  • Rockshore Hanoi

  • Tadioto

  • Bar Beta

Exploring Phong-Nha National Park with Oxalis Adventures

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. 

edit-6426.jpg

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.

edit-6307.jpg

 

Oxalis

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!

Adventure-level.png

 

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.

IMG_5526.jpg

 

Caves

Secret Cave - cave pearls, sparkly curtains, great introduction to cave environments.

edit-6082.jpg

Hung Ton Cave - epic river swim through that empties into a beautiful lagoon for lunch.

edit-6227.jpg

Tien 1 Cave - massive cavernous opening, boundary lines, "flying fox” zipline across a dark canyon.

edit-6412.jpg

Tien 2 Cave - another massive cavern with a beautiful open space where you have the opportunity to experience the true darkness of a cave.

edit-6375.jpg

 

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

edit-6028.jpg

 

  • a headlamp

  • 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.

edit-5965.jpg

SO, if you opt to use your own shoes, make sure:

  1. they are not gortex, waterproofed, special at all kind of boots, and

  2. 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!

 

Camping

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.

edit-6151.jpg

 

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.

edit-6248.jpg

 

Food

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.

edit-6167.jpg
edit-6235.jpg

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!

edit-6320.jpg

 

Transport

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...

edit-6001.jpg

 

More Pictures!

 

 

 

Cambodia's Countryside

Kampot or Kep?

So you want to head to southern Cambodia and see a bit of the countryside, but which to choose? Kampot is a bigger town, feels a bit more alive. It’s still really chill though, with lots of artsy digs and good food on every street. It’s basically a low-key river town.Kep is smaller, more of a resort-y beach town. They have a really cool crabbing market worth checking out. The main draw of Kep is Rabbit Island - a deserted, lazy-day retreat. We chose Kampot, mostly because of the long list of food recommendations we’d been given. Plus, it’s easy to get to Kep for the day anyway. 

IMG_4733.jpg

Things to Do

Either way, whether you’re staying in Kampot or Kep, definitely try to make it out to the National Park for a day, and the countryside for a day. There are a handful of companies that run tours everyday. We went with Bison Tours and loved them. They’re a pretty basic company that shuttles you around for the day in a typical white sprinter van, but they include lunch and have a lot of activities packed into one day. Plus, it’s only $10-20 depending on which of their many options you choose.

edit-4820.jpg

You can also rent scooters, which is a cheaper, more self-led option. It will definitely take longer to drive on the roads, but hey, it’s cheaper. You can also hire a tuk-tuk all day, but it might be just as costly. Bison’s countryside tour operates out of tuk-tuks anyway.

Preah Monivong (Phnom Bokor) National Park

The windy mountain drive into the Dâmrei Mountains is exceptionally scenic. Plus, there are a bunch of unusual places to stop and explore scattered throughout the park, most notably the French Colonial Bokor Hill Station. Built in the 1920s as an escape from the sweltering Cambodian heat, the lofty settlement atop the regions highest peak was intended to replicate the cooler climate of France. 

edit-4643.jpg

There have been a number of recent development initiatives to encourage tourism in the park, including the renovation of the not-spooky-anymore “abandoned” Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino. Still, a worthwhile trip into the mountains for a taste of one of Cambodia’s most prized ecological landscapes! Depending on the weather, you’ll either experience incredible views of the far-off sea, or you’ll be enveloped by cozy grey clouds in every direction.  

Yeay Mao

This enormous Buddhist monument is impossible to miss on your way into the park. While there are various versions of the story of Yeay Mao, this particular statue represents her as the protector of travelers. If you know what’s good for you, make sure to pull over and pay her some respect…

She also acts as an obvious marker as to where you can find the Black Palace, just across the street.

Black Palace

This series of abandoned buildings just off the main road used to belong to King Sihanouk as his summer palace. You can just imagine what used to be an extravagant, mountain-view escape as you’re walking around the now eerie graffitied halls.

edit-4473.jpg

Walk towards the back and further into the jungle to find some truly sci-fi-y scenery… 

edit-4533.jpg

Buddhist Temple

Wat Sampov Pram, of the “Five Sailing Boats Monastery,” was built in 1924, at the same time as the Bokor Hill Station, by King Monivong (yes, it’s the same guy the National Park is named after). 

edit-4587.jpg

The temple grounds will make you feel like you aparated into an episode of Avatar the Last Airbender. The gold accents of the embellished pagoda sitting among the craggy rocks creates a true image of a mountaintop wonderland.

edit-4598.jpg

Catholic Church

Another eerie abandoned building tucked away in the misty grayness in the highlands of the park. 

edit-4628.jpg

If you scramble up the path over the rocks on the left, you’ll get to an incredible viewpoint. On a grey day, you’ll have reached the edge of the world.

Walking Trails and Waterfalls

As a National Park, there’s also a network of walking trails ranging in length. Check out the local resort for information on where to explore. In the wet season, there are plenty of waterfalls to discover around the park!

Sunset Cruise

There are loads of boats floating down the river at sunset. Hop on any boat for a picturesque evening under the bright pink sky as the sun falls behind the mountains. 

edit-4757.jpg

As you head out, wave to the cheery fishermen heading back in from their day on the water.

edit-4723.jpg

Countryside

A visit to Kampot would be pointless without venturing out to get a feel for the countryside. The passing scenes of rural Cambodia will fascinate and inspire as you zip down the dusty country roads by the sleeping cows and laughing children.

edit-4811.jpg

Bison Tours offers a morning visiting salt fields and pepper farms that you can combine with an afternoon on Rabbit Island, off of the beach in Kep. The only vehicle of true adventure is a tuk-tuk, so prepare for a bumpy ride.

Salt fields

Cambodia produces heaps of salt every year by bringing salt water from the coast to dry out under the sun in the quilted fields across the countryside. The network of dry and wet fields creates a checkerboard of dirt orange and sky blue, especially during the rich morning light.  

edit-4787.jpg

Take a stroll along the edge of the fields or watch the workers shovel the sparkling white gems from the staggeringly enormous storage shed. 

edit-4780.jpg

Pepper Farms

Have you ever had gourmet pepper? Well, Kampot is the place for it! The vibrant green vines weave in and out of brick columns of the pepper fields. Learn about the red, black, and white peppercorn varieties and how they’re grown. You can even pluck them off the vine and give them a flavorful chomp. 

edit-4897.jpg

Our tour brought us to the Starling Ridge Plantation, which to our surprise, is also a luxury  resort. Now we know where to stay if we find ourselves back in Kampot.

Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple

On the way out, we stopped at the Phnom Chhngok Cave. The 17th century temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, with a mystic brick shrine incorporated into the stalactites of the cave.

The hike to the entrance brings you to a great vantage point to look across the fields in the valley. Descend into the cave and through an inconspicuous tunnel to wander through the cave and out the other side (obviously don’t do this if you don’t have a guide… caves can be tricky).

IMG_4791.jpg

Brateak Krola Lake

This beautiful countryside lake, also known as the Secret Lake, isn’t actually a lake but man-made reservoir. That’s the secret.

edit-4872.jpg

Kep

So you chose to stay in Kampot, but if you must satisfy your curiosity about Kep, it’s only a short 45 minute ride.

Rabbit Island

For a relaxing day, catch a ferry to Rabbit Island and laze about in the hammocks or enjoy a fruit shake on the sand. It’s rarely crowded, and all there is to do is eat, drink, and sleep in the sun. Island time, baby.

edit-4910.jpg

Crabbing Market

Before heading back to Kampot for the night, stop at the downtown Crabbing Market. Local fisherman (mostly women, actually) are busy weaving traps, untangling fish from nets, plucking crabs from basket, or wading in the glassy evening water for a last minute catch.

edit-4920.jpg

Even if you’re uninterested in a fishy snack, be sure to stop in and watch the goings-on of the local Cambodian coast lifestyle! 

Digs

  • Epic Arts Cafe - a cafe staffed by deaf or disabled individuals - support the community by enjoying their delicious treats!

  • Ecran - rent-a-room movie theatre with loads of options for a lazy night “in.”

  • Mad Monkey - hostel with a pool.

  • Monkey Republic - hostel we thought had the pool. Still a great place.

  • Simple Things - vegetarian restaurant! UHMAZING options!

  • KAMA (Kampot Arts & Music Association) - another great restaurant that supports the local creative community, run by women!

  • Kampot Night Market - the small local market has a handful of food stalls with cheap, simple dinner options… and kids’ carnival rides. Right next to the massive durian sculpture in the main roundabout.

More Pictures!

Your Guide to Bali On and Off the Beaten Track

I don’t think we’ve met anyone in Asia who hasn’t been or isn’t planning to go to Bali. It took only a couple of years for this small Indonesian island to become a top tourist attraction for vacationers from the North America, Australia, Europe and the rest of Asia.

From the tourist meccas of Seminyak and Ubud to the less explored north and east coast of the island, Bali is full of treasures on and off the beaten track.

edit-9995-3.jpg

Seminyak

I would bet half my backpack (literally half of my possessions right now) that no travelers visit Bali without at least one trip to Seminyak. The southeastern city is packed with unbelievable hotels, sunset bars, backpacker hostels, and enough shopping to leave you broke before you know it. You’ll find people from all over the world in this little corner of the island. 

From here, it’s and easy ride to Ubud and the Gili Islands, both of which can be easily booked through your accommodation. Grab some sundowners on the beach at Potato Head and party into the night with fellow backpackers at La Favela. Take a surf lesson from the Bali Cowboys or take a day trip up to the Tanah Lot temple. No matter your schedule, you’re in for a good time. 

edit-0306.jpg

What you WON’T find in Seminyak is almost any trace of authentic Indonesian culture and ways of life. While there are locals everywhere and they’re typically incredibly friendly and helpful, they are very much there as a part of the enormous tourism industry the island relies on. If you want to get to know the real Bali, you’re going to have to catch a moped out of Seminyak. 

BUT, before you leave, here are few places we definitely recommend you check out:

  • La Favela: a backpacker favorite, two story bar/club that gets going around 11 p.m. each night. Make sure you take another place up on happy hour first, drinks here are $$.

  • Potato Head: we won’t be the first or last person to tell you to go to this amazing restaurant/bar. Just do it.

  • Mamasan: absolutely delicious Asian-fusion food

  • Shopping in the town center

  • Late night massages on your way home from dinner (or ear candling if you’re into that kind of thing *side-eye at MJ*)

IMG_4810.JPG

 

  • Sundowners on the beach at The W Hotel’s Woo Bar or La Plancha

  • Catch a ferry up to the Gili Islands. We didn’t get to, but everyone we’ve met who’s done it would do it again. The three islands are very different, so do some research before you pick your location!

Ubud

Ubud is the tourism industry’s answer to authentic Bali, and that’s not a bad thing. The city itself is packed with delicious restaurants, a wide range of shopping, and hole in the wall places to stay. It’s very walkable and a little less intimidating than Seminyak at night. It’s also conveniently close to places like the unbelievable Tegalalang Rice Terrace, which comes with a convenient walking path.

edit-0072.jpg

You will immediately feel the difference going from Seminyak to Ubud in the sense that there is some real Indonesian culture here. The presence and popularity of the rice terraces, the typical food on the streets, and the surrounding areas all speak to the real Bali. 

edit-9866.jpg

Ubud is also a great place to base yourself if you want to explore the rest of the island. Unlike Seminyak, Ubud is relatively central, making it easier to reach far off attractions like the Mount Batur sunrise hike (get up, it’s worth it) or the instagram-famous Pura Lempuyang temple. 

IMG_0191.JPG

Take our and everyone else’s recommendation and visit Ubud while in Bali. Take a yoga class, a cooking class, or just get more in touch with your inner zen if that’s your thing. You’re in for a treat.

Singaraja & Northern Bali

NOW we’re talking authentic Bali. If you commit to zig-zagging your way to Bali’s northern coast you will encounter the kind of beauty and culture that put the island on the map in the first place. 

edit-9999.jpg

Rural villages, enormous open air markets, jungle paths that are only accessibly by moped, and the constant need for Google translate await you. Here, hostels and hotels are fewer and far between, but a popular way to stay and enjoy this quieter side of the island is to rent a villa. 

This may sound extravagant. That’s because it is. However, if you can get a big group together it’s easy to make this stay both possible and worth it. We did this and it was some of the most relaxing time we’ve had on the road thus far. 

edit-9631.jpg

Ask one of the local staff (almost every villa will have staff that come to help you out) to take you on a tour of the early morning market. Take a drive across the northern coast or dive into the jungle in search of hidden rice Terrances or Bali’s famous waterfalls. 

edit-9664.jpg

Visiting northern Bali is an extremely different adventure than southern Bali. It’s unorganized and almost entirely DIY but it’s also worth it. If you’re interested in getting to know and experience authentic Bali culture and way of life, you’ve got to head north.

Exploring Bali’s East Coast

If you’ve got a car or moped, exploring Bali’s east coast is a must. The countryside and roads are dotted with unexplored rice terraces, local villages, and unbelievable temples. MJ and I took this drive after we descended from our sunrise hike up Mt. Batur and spent the whole day getting lost on this side of the island. 

Our favorite highlights of this day, other than the unnamed treasures we passed throughout the day were the Pura Lempuyang temple and the Tirtagangga Water Palace (bring a swimsuit!). 

IMG_0245.jpg

Diving in Bali

We chose of dive in Komodo National Park instead of Bali and wished we could’ve done both. Though we didn’t get to explore them, here are some dive highlights of Bali we recommend you check out if you’re looking to dive there:

  • Nusa Penida

  • USS Liberty Wreck

  • Gili islands

  • Catch a quick flight to Flores to dive in Komodo National Park, it was unbelievable!

edit-3179.jpg

 

Getting Around Bali

I feel obligated to say a few things about navigating Bali because it truly is a different beast than most places and somehow everyone leaves that out. I’ll keep it simple.

Driving a car in Bali:

edit-0026.jpg
  • DO NOT rent a car in Bali with intention of exploring the whole island unless you are a VERY competent manual driver.

  • The whole island is incredibly hilly and mountainous, it will take a LONG time to get from one place to another.

  • Streets and roads are designed for mopeds, not cars, and it is near impossible that you will return your car in perfect condition. Take photos before you leave with your rental.

  • Keep an eye on that gas tank, as you head north or east they will be fewer and farther between.

  • Don’t even think about trying to find places like hidden waterfalls with a car, there’s no where to park and no, you won’t be able to get it back up that hill.

Renting a moped in Bali:

edit-0406.jpg

*Note that we didn’t do this, this is what we’ve heard/observed*

  • If you’ve never ridden moped before, this may not be the place to learn. It is crowded, especially in southern Bali, and you do not have right of way, cars do, because they're bigger.

  • ALWAYS wear a helmet. We met a girl whose helmet saved her life but didn't spare her a trip to the hospital.

  • Locals know what they’re doing better than you, follow their lead.

  • Have an International drivers license. If you’re pulled over without one you WILL be fined.

  • Ask a local at your hostel/hotel about what to do if you’re stopped by the police on the road. They will advise how best to deal with an altercation without getting into more trouble, or paying more, than you need to.

Taxi:

  • Negotiate the rate before you go anywhere if there’s no meter.

  • Bluebird taxis are the best as a rule, try and avoid the others.

  • If there’s a meter (there are in all the Bluebird cabs), make them run it and MAKE SURE THEY DON’T TURN IT OFF.

Swimming in the Pink Lake of Port Gregory

The glistening Pink Lake is the Instagram-worthy spot of the West Coast. The Halobacteria in the water produces a compound called b-carotene, which is used in food coloring - that’s what gives it the unique bubblegum color.

edit-6310.jpg

Beware, the water is extremely salty - which means that any and all cuts or scrapes will make themselves known! Bring fresh water and antibacterial if you need to clean things up afterwards.

The entire bottom of the lake is covered in crystallized salt. If you plan on walking out into the water, make sure to wear some thick-bottomed shoes to avoid getting cut up. 

edit-6344.jpg

If you wade out into the water, try reaching down to pluck out a nugget of salt! Or walk along the edge and marvel at the psychedelic patterns of the salt along the shore.

edit-6325.jpg

It’s definitely worth the quick stop to appreciate the magical water of the Pink Lake! 

Doubtful Sound: The Most Remote Corner of New Zealand's Wilderness

An absolute must if you’re exploring the Southern Island of New Zealand is stopping for a cruise in the Fiordland National Park. This park is enormous, bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, and most of its wilderness isn’t accessible by anything other than a helicopter. Cruises are the exception.

The most popular cruise is the famous Milford Sound, which can be done in a day or an overnight trip and is the most accessible of the fiords. Following Milford is Doubtful Sound, which is slightly more remote and nearly double the size. 

edit-4375.jpg

 

This is the cruise we opted for after some gentle peer pressuring from the travel desk at Base Queenstown. Despite a substantial price difference, we figured doing a longer, more secluded cruise might give us a chance to both wind down and really experience the fiordlands in a more intimate way. MJ had already cruised through Milford and after a couple of nights out in Queenstown we decided the quiet overnight cruise sounded like exactly what we wanted. 

We booked our overnight through a company called Real Journeys. Fun fact about them is that they’re the first tourism company to begin operating in Fiordland National Park. Safe to say, we were in good hands for our journey. We debated Queenstown on a sunny Monday morning for the 2+ hour bus ride that would take us deep into the national park. 

Getting to Doubtful Sound is no piece of cake. After our length bus ride, we hopped on a smaller ferry to cruise across Lake Manapouri, which separates Doubtful Sound from the town of Manapouri. We then boarded a second bus that took us over the Wilmot Pass, an incredible stretch of rain forest that is so dense you can barely see through all the trees. 

What’s amazing about the Fiordland National Park is that there isn’t very strong or deep soil for trees and other vegetation to grow, but it’s absolutely covered in flora. The reason for this is because it rains in the National Park over two thirds of the days in the year. This makes for a seriously outstanding landscape covered in trees, moss, undergrowth, and waterfalls that can last all year or only for a few hours before it rains again. 

So after making our way through this intense forest, we finally arrived in Deep Cove and boarded our home for the night: an old school sailboat called The Navigator. After claiming our two bottom bunks in our otherwise empty room and raiding the brownie tray in the saloon (yeah, they call it a saloon), we set off.  

edit-4409.jpg

 

Doubtful Sound is enormous. One of the reasons we decided to do the overnight, and why it’s the primary choice for those trying to see this particular area, is because you get to see all of it. 

During our first day, we cruised down Doubtful Sound, down into Crooked Arm, and out into the open sea. We managed to catch a glimpse of at least three Fiordland Crested Penguins and visit the New Zealand Fur Seal colony. Thanks to incredible weather, we were also able to take two of the boats 20+ kayaks out for a paddle on the sound to get up close and personal with the shoreline. It was absolutely fantastic. 

edit-4381.jpg
edit-4309.jpg

 

Dinner was served buffet style in the Main Saloon and it was delicious. We’d been told by our friends over at the Queenstown hostel that it would be but even we were surprised and impressed with the quality. MJ even broke her vegetarian rule to sample some lamb (seconds, please and thank you). We even got our hands on a bottle of wine from Framingham’s, which was one of the wineries we had visited when we were staying in the Marlborough region. 

IMG_4629.JPG
IMG_4632.JPG

 

After dinner we were treated to a nature presentation from the boat’s resident nature guide. New Zealand’s only native species are birds, and before the Maori arrived there were many more than there are today. Now, conservationists work year round to try and eradicate pests introduced to New Zealand, such as the possum and the rat, in an effort to preserve their amazing bird species, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. 

To learn more about New Zealand’s native species and what’s being done to protect them, check out this link.

The boat anchored in Bradshaw Sound for the night, which is a little off to the right of Doubtful Sound, and we were woken up at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast at 7 in order to explore Hall Arm, the “jewel” of Doubtful Sound, before making it back to Deep Cove by 10 a.m. 

IMG_1020.JPG

 

Hall Arm is everything that it’s talked up to be. We had a fairly misty and rainy morning, which we ended up loving because it gave us a chance to see many of the temporary waterfalls the Fiordland is known for as well as see the park in its most natural state. 

We cruised as far into the arm as we could and finally came to a stop in the final bend. The crew silenced the boat and allowed us ten minutes of complete silence to enjoy the sounds of the waterfalls and the few birds we could hear throughout the surrounding mountains. It was breathtaking. 

After a quick break to go in to a waterfall (like actually in the waterfall) to capture some of that fresh mountain dew (all rights reserved), we headed back to Deep Cove to make our way home to Queenstown. 

IMG_1096.jpg

 

Despite our best efforts, it’s truly impossible to explain with words or pictures the beauty of the Fiordland National Park. It’s something that must be experienced. If you get the chance to visit this area of the world, taking a day or overnight cruise to see this park cannot be missed.