Best of Thailand

A breakdown of our favorites!

Best Experiences to Do for Free

Go to the beach - anywhere in Southern Thailand (day or night!)

Walk out to Long Beach on Koh Phi Phi

Chill in a hammock on Koh Lanta

Wander the Chatuchak Sunday Market, Bangkok

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Walk around Chiang Mai's Old City

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Sunday Night Market, Chiang Mai

Best Experiences to Splurge On

Live-aboard diving trip to the Similion Islands

Blanco Beach Party Booze Cruise

Hire a long tail boat to explore the Phi Phi Islands early in the morning

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Renting kayaks in either Koh Phi Phi or Ao Nang Beach

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Rent a scooter to explore Koh Lanta

Rock climbing in Krabi

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Diving at Sail Rock, Koh Phangan

Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

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Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

Kata Beach, Phuket

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Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi

Long tail boats around Southern Thailand

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Unicorn Cafe, Bangkok

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Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Grand Canyon

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Silver Temple, Chiang Mai

Pai Canyon at sunset

Best Restaurants & Bars

Order a fruit smoothie on Phuket Beach

Banana Bar for rooftop drinks on Koh Phi Phi

Living Room Cafe & Restaurant, Koh Lanta

The Jungle Club, Koh Samui

SOHO, Koh Phangan

Shirlea, Had Yao, Koh Phangan

Iron Fairies Bar, Bangkok

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Skye 20, Bangkok

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Simple Natural Kitchen, Bangkok

25 Degrees, Bangkok

Iwane 1975, Bangkok

CRAFT Beer Bar, Bangkok

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Breakfast World, Chiang Mai

Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai

Rustic & Blue, Chiang Mai

Sunset Bar, Pai

Cafecito, Pai

Ganesha’s House, Pai

Earth Tone, Pai


Best Places to Stay on a Budget

Slumber Party Hostel, Phuket Beach

FIN Hostel, Kata Beach

Loro Loco 2, Koh Lanta

The Moment Hostel, Ao Nang Beach

Slumber Party Bangkok

Thunderbird Hostel, Chiang Mai

Jikko Harem, Pai

Things We Didn’t Get To, But Wish We Did

Parasailing off the beach

Viewpoint hike on Koh Phi Phi

Diving off Koh Phi Phi

Emerald Cave, Koh Lanta

Sa Phra Nang (Hidden Lagoon), Ao Nang Beach

Lady Boy Show, Bangkok

Floating Market, Bangkok

White Temple, Chiang Rai

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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! 

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

50 Tips for Backpacking Southeast Asia

We’ve gone through many rounds of trial and error while traveling, especially during the time we spent in SE Asia. If you’re headed to this part of the world, check out our top 50 take aways from five months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

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Kayaking in Phong Nha Cave

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

10 Reasons to Do the Ha Giang Motobike Loop

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.

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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! 

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4. The landscapes are breathtaking...

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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.

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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. 

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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...

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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.

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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. ..

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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.

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10. You look like a total badass.

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Exploring Dalat with Dalat Adventure Tours

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.

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Canyoning

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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Jungle Trekking

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…

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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?”

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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.

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Other Options

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.

Happy exploring!

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. 

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Caves

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

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

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

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

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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

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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...

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More Pictures!

 

 

 

A Week in Saigon: Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat

Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh, is the 24/7 beating heart of southern Vietnam as well as the largest city in the entire country. Home to over 8.5 million people, Saigon has endless cultural and metropolitan attractions and serves as the starting or ending point for nearly every traveler passing through Vietnam. 

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Before I dive into a passionate description of the best pho in Saigon, I want to touch briefly on the history of the city. The reason I call this city Saigon rather than its actual name of Ho Chi Minh has a lot to do with the locals I met throughout southern Vietnam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the former Prime Minister of Vietnam who led the forces of Northern Vietnam against the south during the Vietnam War. 

While Ho Chi Minh is the recognized name of the city, I’ve met many Vietnamese people who don’t recognize the new name and still refer to the city as Saigon. In their words, “only someone who wasn’t from the south or who wasn’t Vietnamese at all would refer to that city as Ho Chi Minh, it’s still Saigon to those of us who are from there.” It’s because of this preference that I refer to it as Saigon.

If you visit this city, you’ll have many opportunities to learn about the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam War. I encourage you to take the chance while you’re there to learn as much as you can, especially if you come from the states.

Brief history aside over.

Some people fly through this city in just a few days, some stick around for weeks at a time. No matter how much time you have, here are a couple of highlights for your stay in Saigon.

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What to Do

Cu Chi Tunnels
Possibly the most popular tourist attraction in Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense system of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. These tunnels cover much of the country and were used extensively in the south for military purposes, providing everything from shelter, hospitals, dormitories, conference rooms, weapons stashes, kitchens, and strategic military positions to the North Vietnamese army. 

Certain sections of the tunnels are open to tourists and it’s extremely easy to arrange a tour to go out and see them. Visitors can enter sections of the tunnels, fire assault rifles, and get a taste of what life was like down in the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels provide a unique take on the Vietnam War and absolutely shouldn’t be missed!

Ben Thanh Market
Who doesn’t love a good market? The Ben Thanh Market is the largest market in Saigon and stands in one of the earliest surviving buildings in the city. If you’re looking to browse the local wares and feast on some fantastic treats all in the same location (or if you’re panicking because you’re about to fly home and haven’t gotten your mom the present that says “I saw this and knew you had to have it”) this is your one stop shop!

The market is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

War Remnants Museum
Brace yourself for this one. The War Remnants Museum is probably the best place in all of Saigon, to understand the impact of the Vietnam War in Vietnam. It's a heavy place, but absolutely worth doing.

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Bui Vien Walking Street
On a different note, if you’re looking to party and get to know some of your fellow travelers without breaking the bank, Bui Vien Walking Street is your place. This walking street is lined from end to end with cheap, rowdy, and colorful restaurants, bars and clubs, and makes for a great night out. 

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Tao Dan Park
If you’ve got a beautiful day in Saigon, Tao Dan Park is a wonderful place to spend it. Home to picturesque manicured gardens, temples, and charming cafes, this is the ideal way to laze away an afternoon before hitting the surrounding area for dinner and sundowners.

Where to Stay

Bui Vien Hostel
We all stayed in this hostel for a couple of nights in Saigon and absolutely loved it. It’s cheap, the beds are wonderfully comfortable, it’s perfectly located right off of Bui Vien walking street, and it sells beer for less than 75 cents. What more could you ask for?

The Like Hostel & Cafe
While in a slightly different part of the city, The Like Hostel & Cafe has a charming rooftop lounge area, is located close to a number of bars and restaurants, and has comfortable rooms and beds. 

The Common Room Project
The one that got away…We were so hoping to be able to stay at Common Room before we got to Saigon, but unfortunately it was completely sold out. Don’t be like us, book it early. Just look at the pictures, you’ll understand.

Where to Eat

The Hungry Pig
Awesome sandwiches, breakfasts, coffee, etc. Right off of Bui Vien walking street. I haunted this place so much they gave my a free sandwich after a week.

Great wifi, friendly staff, good food, and great, cheap coffee.

Secret Garden
Secret is right. This quirky little restaurant is notoriously tricky to find but an absolute gem. Don’t be discouraged by the many stairs or the strange little alley it lives on. When you’re thinking, “this can’t possibly be right,” you’re almost there. The fantastic Vietnamese food and charming atmosphere is worth the hike up those stairs I promise. 

Pho Hoa - The Family Dynasty One
Cheap, instantaneous service, as authentic as it gets, and absolutely delicious, you really can’t ask for more when it comes to a solid bowl of pho in Saigon. 

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The Workshop Coffee
If you’re looking for fantastic coffee, fast wifi, and an airy, bright space to hunker down and get some work done, then you’re heading to The Workshop. Get caffeinated and enjoy the productive atmosphere. 

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Where to Drink

Whiskey & Wares
Calling all whiskey lovers - this is the bar for you! Whiskey & Wares offers a laidback, comfortable atmosphere and a wide selection of whiskey drinks to get your night going. 

Broma Not a Bar
In a city full of expensive rooftop bars and clubs with entrance fees and dress codes, Broma is an absolute gem. This laidback rooftop bar has amazing views of Ho Chi Minh City Hall and the surrounding area as well as a delicious drink menu. 

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The Gin House
This one’s for the gin lovers, like me. The Gin House has an intimate and casual atmosphere and offers an incredible variety of gin cocktails as well as a number of infused gin & tonics. 

Bui Vien Street
ONE MORE TIME - this street is an awesome place to bar hop without breaking the bank, paying cover charges, or needing to dress to impress. Looking for a casual night out that has the potential to become a "casual night out"? Head to Bui Vien Street.

Wat to Do in Angkor

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.

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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.

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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.

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Getting Around

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.

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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

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.

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Watch as the setting sun casts a perfect golden glow across the 200+ faces of Bayon - Ankor’s most iconic temple.

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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.

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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.

Preah Khan

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.

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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.

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Neak Pean

The calm lake in the glistening morning light is reason enough to visit Neak Pean.

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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!

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Ta Som

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.

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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.

East Baray

The East Baray was built as a water retention system, used for either irrigation or religious purposes.

East Mebon

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! 

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Srah Srang

This reservoir still has water! It’s not full… but it’s still beautiful in the golden Cambodian glow.

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Ta Prohm

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. 

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Plus, it was featured in Angelina Jolie's Temple Raider.

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Being one of the most popular temples, it’s usually pretty touristy. Expect to queue for a photo with the big trees...

Further Adventures

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.

Phnom Kulen

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. 

Kbal Pean

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!

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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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

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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). 

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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.

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Catholic Church

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

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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. 

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

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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.

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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.  

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

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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. 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Railay Beach

Railay Beach, best known for its iconic karst cliffs, is an awesome spot to spend a few days before or after the southern Thai islands (i.e. Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, etc.). Railay’s got climbing, kayaking, swimming, caving, and just all around general exploring for any type of adventurer!

Getting to Railay

Contrary to popular belief, Railay beach isn’t that close to Krabi. We took a ferry from Koh Phi Phi to Krabi, which runs multiple times per day. However, Krabi is an expensive 30-minute drive from Ao Nang, which is where you want to be staying.

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Ao Nang is the beach just next to Railay. There are loads of accommodation options, and it’s easy to catch a long tail next-door for the day. Plus, most tours include pick up from your accommodation. We stayed in a chill hostel called The Moment, just a few minutes walk from the beach.

Rock Climbing

If you enjoy climbing even a little bit, or are looking for a good opportunity to start, THIS IS THE PLACE! The Krabi region is world renowned for its beautiful cliff landscapes, so grab a harness and get sendy.

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There are tons of companies that will take beginners and professionals alike to the best spots around Railay. DO some research before choosing what company to book with, and read their reviews. Experienced climbers have reported that not all routes in Railay are well-maintained, and some companies have been using worn-out, unsafe equipment. As such, we went with King Climbers, one of the oldest and most trusted companies in the area. We opted for a morning package, but there’s also an afternoon package, or full day for the brave-hearted.

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Beaches

Catching a long tail from Ao Nang beach is the easiest way to get to Railay. They will take you any time of the day, and all you have to do is buy a ticket at the window downtown. A boat driver will take you to his boat, fill it with other people, and zip you around the cliffs and onto West Railay beach.

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There are tons of activities to keep you occupied all day on Railay. We rented some kayaks and paddled around the cliffs for two hours.

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Check out Govinda’s at the Beach for some AMAZING veggie wraps! And stop by next door at Choop Coffee Break for some ice cream too!

Pranang Cave Shrine (Princess Cave)

It’s a penis shrine. A cave full of penises of all shapes, sizes, and colors. A penis shrine. Right at the end of the beach. You’ll see it.

Nearby Activities

We didn’t have enough time to really delve into the adventures in and around Railay, but here’s a list of recommendations we didn’t get to:

  • Sa Phra Nang (Hidden Lagoon), and the Railay Viewpoint on the way!

  • Tham Phra Nang Nai (Diamond Cave)

  • Monkey Trail - easy walk with great views and monkeys!

  • Any of the day tours to islands off the coast!

Kickin it on Koh Phi Phi

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Young Leo’s secret has been blown. Made famous by thriller cult movie The Beach, the Phi Phi Islands in the Andaman Sea host thousands of beach-goers every year - no sketchy map necessary. 

Koh Phi Phi Don is the main island. A pedestrian-only matrix of brick pathways weave around the central part of the island, with most restaurants, hostels, tattoo shops, and souvenir shacks concentrated all in one place. If you’re not here to party, try to get away from this part of the island - head east towards the resort villas along Long Beach for a quieter escape. 

That being said, Koh Phi Phi is notorious for its party scene. Party party party. But if you’re looking for other things to tell your mom about, it also has unbeatable diving, brilliant blue beaches, and a lively international atmosphere. 

BE WARNED: Koh Phi Phi is notorious for people getting sick. I fell victim to the shockingly common bacterial infection that lots of visitors contract from eating on Koh Phi Phi. All food has to be shipped to KPP, and in the hot climate that is Southern Thailand, the food doesn’t always stay frozen for the entirety of the shipping line. Which means that some food might make you sick. We recommend staying away from meat, but even as a vegetarian, I ended up in the World Clinic. They took care of me extremely well. My room even had Netflix.

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Getting to Koh Phi Phi

Phuket has a pretty big international airport, so if you’re coming from far away, start there.

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Koh Phi Phi is part of at network of ferry stops, including Phuket, Koh Lanta, and Krabi. There are multiple trips per day, so you’ll have a couple of options to fit your schedule.

Partying on Koh Phi Phi

So many party hostels. Just head to the beach on the north side of the island, and take your pick. Some offer packages with boat cruises. You don’t necessarily have to be staying with them, but you get special drink options if you do. Ibiza House Pool Party, Slinky Hostel, Stones Bar Dorms, Phi Phi Bucket Hostel, and both Blanco locations.

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We stayed at one of the Blanco’s. There’s one on the beach and one just a hundred yards off the beach. If you’re planning on staying up all night, beachfront Blanco is your spot. We stayed off the beach, opting for longer “quiet" hours.

Boat Cruise

A.K.A. booze cruises. There are multiple options, all offering basically the same thing: half day cruise around the Phi Phi Islands, kayaks, snorkels, a beautiful sunset, and booze. Some of them are all you can drink, some of them you’ll have to pay for each drink. The price difference will only be helpful if you’re not going to drink at all, or you’re ACTUALLY only going to have one drink. Otherwise, open bar is worth it. Blanco does a great rate for the package that everyone offers. They’re also the only ones that were allowed to continue their tours for a while when Koh Phi Phi cracked down on all the monkey business.

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Speaking of which, your first stop out of the port will be monkey beach! Have fun, but respect the monkeys. You might not believe it, but they’re stronger than you. If you piss them off, they will lunge at you. They will also steal your food if you bring any. If you get close enough, they might climb up your leg, or arm, or up onto your head and shoulders. Get that monkey selfie.

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After the monkey beach, you get to crack some beers and get the party started. Blanco plays some great tunes and the group is young and fun. Make some friends and play some flip cup. The Blanco boat has a bunch of kayaks and snorkels and SUPs for you to play with. They make a stop at Pileh Lagoon in the afternoon for you to fool around with the toys and do backflips off the top deck.

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When you get to Maya Bay, Blanco party hosts will take you ashore to explore the white sandy beaches that Leo once walked in the year 2000. You’ll head towards the back of the island, learn all about “Blowjob Beach,” and climb around the wild island made famous by the movie. You’ll even get to replicate the jump photo from the movie with your new best friends!

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Blanco has a simple but filling buffet to fulfill your drunk munchies. After a beautiful sunset on the water, they’ll bring you back to the main docks and set you free. Have a shower and eat some more food, but make sure to head back to the Blanco on the beach for an afterparty! 

Long Tail Cruise

For the less boisterous bunch, you can still see all of Phi Phi’s best beaches without the boozy backpackers. Go to the main port in the morning (7-8ish) when the waters will be less crowded. Find yourself a friendly captain, asking price 180 baht for 3-4 people for 3 hours.

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He’ll know where to take you: Monkey Beach, Maya Bay, Loh Samah, Pileh Lagoon, and Viking Cave. It’s a great way to see all the hotspots at your own pace and with fewer people. 

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It’s a National Park, so you can’t technically fly your drone (we waited to fly it once we were back at Phi Phi Don). Also, if you step foot on the beach at Maya Bay, you’ll have to pay a park entrance fee. But snorkeling in the water is free! Bring a floaty and a speaker, maybe some food and drinks too! 

Kayaking

One of the best activities on Koh Phi Phi is renting a couple of kayaks off the main beach and heading out into the bay to explore the island's stunning coast. Prices can range from $3-$6 per hour (single vs double kayak) to $20 for the whole day. You can rent them on Tonsai Beach or from Loh Dalam Bay.

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Depending on how ambitious you are, you can use them to explore some of the more popular areas, like Monkey Beach, or just to get off the crowded beach and into the crystal clear waters around the bay. Bring a speaker, some water, SUNBLOCK, and find an empty buoy in the middle of the bay to tie up your kayaks and go for a dip. It's a fantastic way to explore Koh Phi Phi and work off some of those questionable decisions you made last night.

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Long Beach

Long walk to the Beach is more like it... if you go towards the main docks, and make a left along the beach (eastwards), just follow it all the way until the walkway ends. You’ll start to follow a path with cute villas along the way. There are small handwritten signs pointing you in the right direction. Once you eventually get to Long Beach, you’ll realize why it has that name.

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Pick any spot on the beach and just kick back for the afternoon. Pencil your name in a time slot for a coconut oil massage if you’re keen. Grab an ice cream or a fruity shake from one of the beachfront stands. If the walk is too far for your unavoidably dehydrated body, hop in a longboat back to town for only $3.

The Viewpoint

Take the long hike up to the Viewpoint for some killer views of the island. Make sure you go down to the second viewing platform for a little more space and fewer people in your shot! The earlier you go, the fewer people you’ll find at the top - and it won’t be as hot as later in the day.

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Diving

In addition to being one of the best islands to party on in Southeast Asia, Koh Phi Phi is also one of the best places to dive! The crystal blue waters are picture perfect, making for great visibility under the surface. When arriving on Koh Phi Phi, you have to pay an "environmental fee," which covers the costs of maintaining trash-free beaches and underwater ecosystems. Plus, the vibrant reefs are home to big fish, turtles, and even reef sharks!

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There are loads of dive shops to choose from. Anna finished off her PADI open water course with Sea Frogs Diving. She reported back with nothing but good things, praising the instructors for their professionalism, and good food on the boat! Veg-head options available :)

Digs on Koh Phi Phi

  • Banana Bar - mexican rooftop restaurant and bar with amazing sunset views, conveniently around happy hour!

  • Patcharee French Bakery - delicious pastry breakfasts for before a morning longboat tour!

  • Papaya - great local cuisine!

  • Anna’s - another great local option!

Best of Malaysia

A breakdown of our favorites

Best Experiences to Do for Free

  • See the towers in Kuala Lumpur

  • Mossy Forest in Cameron Highlands

  • Hiking paths in Cameron Highlands

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  • Wandering around the Unesco Heritage Site of Georgetown on Penang

  • Visit the tea plantations in Cameron Highlands

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Best Experiences to Splurge On

  • Slowboat to monkey beach and turtle beach in Penang National Park

  • Shopping in KL malls

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  • A weekend on Langkawi

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Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

  • Tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands

  • Towers of KL

  • Batu Caves in KL

  • Street art of Georgetown

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  • Piers and jetties of Georgetown at sunset

  • SkyBridge on Langkawi

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Best Restaurants & Bars

  • Changkat Street in KL - great area for going out

  • Zouk - biggest club in KL

  • Grandmama’s in KL mall

  • Night market in KL

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  • Geographer Kuala Lumpur

  • Merchant's Lane Cafe in KL

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  • Cameron Curry House in Tanah Rata - we went three times

  • Food stalls in Tanah Rata

  • Travellers Bistro & Pub in Tanah Rata

  • Jungle Bar in Tanah Rata

  • Teksen Restaurant in Penang

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  • Mr Shwarma in Penang

  • Tipsy Tiger Bar in Penang - great for their cheap liquor, bar crawls, and free body shots;)

  • China House in Penang

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  • Scarsdale’s Fish Restaurant on Langkawi

  • The Kasbah on Langkawi - amazing burgers, outdoor lounge seating, and all around chill vibes

 

Best Places to Stay on a Budget

  • Reggae Mansion in KL

  • Map Travelodge in Tanah Rata

  • The Frame Guesthouse in Penang - for a quieter, more minimalist stay in Georgetown

  • Honey Badger Hut Hostel on Langkawi - they have cool huts for private rooms and resident cows to keep you company on the patio at night

  • Vila Thai - huge hostel with big dorms, and they have scooter rentals and massages available even if you’re not staying there

  • Tipsy Tiger in Penang - if you wanna parttyyyy, otherwise you’ll be up all night anyway

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Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

  • All of the east coast beaches!

  • Sabah region of Borneo, but more specifically:

    • Orangutan Conservation Centre

    • Sun Bear Conservation Centre

    • Rainforest Discovery Centre

    • Mount Kinabalu in Kota Kinabalu

    • Pom Pom Island off the East Coast

Yogyakarta: an Exciting Alternative to Jakarta

Getting to Yogyakarta

Coming from Denpasar, Bali, we flew into the Yogyakarta regional airport. The airport is an hour’s drive from the main downtown area, so contact your accommodation to arrange for pickup when you land. There’s also a railway connecting most main cities between Yogyakarta and Jakarta. We took the train out of town, and it took about eight hours to get to Jakarta.

We stayed four nights at a hostel called Ostic House, and we cannot recommend them enough. They offer beautiful dorm rooms for cheap. They’re very clean, the beds are pretty big, and you have plenty of room in the dorms.

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The downstairs hangout area is super welcoming with bean bag chairs, a big couch, a long family dining table, a zen outdoor patio, and even a TV for those football games you just can’t miss. The walls are happily decorated with colorful murals and positive vibes, only to be out-shined by the smiling faces of the amazing staff. They even make you an authentic Javanese breakfast every morning - not just toasted white bread!

Things to do in Yogyakarta

If Jakarta is the commercial, corporate city of Indonesia, think of Yogyakarta as the cultural, artsy sibling. The city’s main area is called the sultan’s palace, where you can find a couple of fun things to fill your day with. 

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We spent a whole afternoon wandering around the Malioboro market. You can find anything from street meats and local vegetables to cheap Louis Vuitons and colorful t-shirts. Grab a snack at one of the sidewalk stalls, or work your way through the maze of textiles for an adventure among the merchants. On your way back, stop at the Alun-Alun park to have your hand with fate. They say that if you can walk straight between the two banyan trees with your eyes closed, you will have good luck and prosperity in the future.

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The Water Temple

The Water Temple is a magnificent playground to stroll around among soft hues of pinks and blues. Just try not to get swindled into a tour once you get there - many of the “guides” have fake badges and are not authentic staff of the temple.

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The King built the temple for his children and wives to cool off in, but make sure you go through the building to the back to see the King’s private pool. He made it to enjoy with one of his wives when he was really feeling the heat ;) 

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The Underground Mosque

The Underground Mosque is another unmissable attraction of Yogyakarta. Keep walking through the charming alleyways after the Water Temple - you may have to ask for directions, the entrance is not so obvious.

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Descend down to the dark passageway and enter the lower level of the mosque. Climb any of the four stairways up to the landing for an epic shot in the middle of the mosque. Depending on the time of day, you may have to wait in line for a solo pic.

Around Yogyakarta

Surrounding the city, you’ll find the awe-inspiring cultural experiences that draw people to Yogyakarta: Prahmbanan and Borobudur… and the Chicken Church, kind of.. There are a couple options for organizing your trip to go see these places. 

If you’ve looked up Borobudur online, you’ve probably seen photos of the pink morning sun rising over the hazy stoopas. Keep in mind that it takes almost two hours to get to Borobudur, so if you want to see it at sunrise, you’ll be leaving around 4am. Prambanan is also about 2 hours from downtown Yogyakarta. Being that both places are so far away, riding a scooter might be a bit uncomfortable, and arguably a bit unsafe.

Our hostel organized a private car rental for us. We split the cost for a driver between 5 people. We had 12 hours to adventure the surroundings of Yogyakarta, which ended up being just the right amount of time to see Borobudur for sunrise, the Chicken Church on the way out, and Prambahnan for a late lunch. By the end of it all, 12 hours was more than enough. We could’ve spent more time at either Borobudur or Prambahnan, so if you’re keen on digging deep into the Hindu and Buddhist cultures in either location, it may be worth spending a full day at each.

Sunrise at Borobudur

The Hill is where you’ll go to watch the sunrise if you buy the ticket bundle. It only takes 5-10 minutes to climb up to the platform, but it is pretty steep. At the top, you’ll find a handful of other tourists patiently awaiting the sunrise. It’s likely that the fog will be too dense to see the actual sun, but the lighting softly illuminates the clouds rolling around the hills, making for a stunning landscape. 

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The temple is actually pretty far away, so make sure to bring a strong zoom lens if you want to capture it. There are also some set-ups for cute pictures along the edge of the platform. And don’t worry, there’s plenty of room at the top for you yogis to get your vinyasa on.

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Chicken Church

On your way down from The Hill, you can opt for a stop at the Chicken Church - a church shaped like a chicken, believe it or not. The hike up there is short but steep, making for a stellar view from the very top of the chicken. Take note of the anti-drug images on the inside of the chicken’s head.

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Included with your entry ticket is a free breakfast! Go to outdoor patio at the back of the church  for a cone of delicious fried potatoes. The flakey bites are perfect for a post-sunrise snack.

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Stupas of Borobudur

The grounds of Borobudur are pretty big, so you have the option to rent some bicycles or take a little tram to the base of the temple. Otherwise, it’s a short 5-10 minute walk from the entrance.

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There will be plenty of guides offering to walk you through each level of the temple for a reasonable price. Lucky for us, a couple of local students offered us a free tour to practice speaking English. Even without guides, be sure to wander around a few of the lower levels to appreciate the ancient stonework along each tier.

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Prambanan 

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The grounds of Prahmbanan are like an Indonesian amusement park with a beautiful Hindu temple section. There are tons of activities to fill your afternoon with if you’re all templed-out. Have your hand at the archery station, or take a horse ride through one of the sandy rinks. 

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Otherwise, you could spent plenty of time getting lost among the crumbling rock piles around Prambanan temple. Hop up the steps into the cold dark rooms to contemplate life, or just gaze up towards the peaks in the sky.

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Digs in Yogya

  • SS (Special Sambal) - for the most authentic Javanese experience of your life, sit at one of the low tables and get your fingers dirty with family-style dining - the first order of rice is free!

  • Yam Yam - classically delicious Thai food with a pretty open-air dining area - number one restaurant on TripAdvisor!

  • Move On Gelato - just some really great gelato with a cool mural on the wall.

If you do go to Jakarta

Head up to Kota, the old Dutch quarter, for some beautiful streets and lunch spots! The colonial architecture will give you a glimpse into the past of what Jakarta used to look like.

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The picturesque square is the perfect place to hop on a neon bicycle and glide around. We had lunch at Cafe Batavia, seated next to the big shuttered windows with a beautiful view of the square. It’s a great place to enjoy both local Javanese cuisine and homey western options while taking in the bustling scene below.

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More Pictures!

Hiking Mount Batur for Sunrise

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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! 

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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! 

Fraser Island with Nomads Tag-a-Long 4x4 Tour

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.

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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:

  • Sunblock.

  • 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.

 

Fraser Island

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. 

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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.

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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! 

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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:

  • Lake McKenzie

  • Champagne Pools

  • The Maheno Wreck

  • Indian Head

  • Eli Creek

  • Lake Wabby

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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.