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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Ultimate Adventures in Vang Vieng

The lush green river valley of Vang Vieng is a less-frequented adventure hotspot for backpackers in Southeast Asia. Hello cheapest hot air balloon rides in the world!

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Hot Air Ballooning

I said cheapest in the world. It’s somewhere between $80-90 each (as of 2018). You have the option to go in the early morning or later in the afternoon. We opted for the afternoon (golden hour baby)!

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Make sure you book your flight for one of your first days in Vang Vieng, so you can reschedule in case of bad weather. They usually send two balloons up per session - get in the second balloon so you can take pictures of the first one going up! 

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Keep in mind, it’s not very easy to take pictures of each other while you're in the basket. Maybe bring a selfie stick? Otherwise you’ll have to awkwardly hang off the side… which is what we did.

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Also it’s HOT in the basket. Like standing next to a flamethrower kind of hot. Wear short sleeves and don’t forget deodorant! The whole ride lasts about 45 minutes, plus a rough landing.

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Blue Lagoons 

The Blue Lagoons outside of Vang Vieng are popular for lazy days in the heat. Blue Lagoon 1 is often pretty crowded, but Blue Lagoon 3 is slowly growing in popularity as well. All of them have entrance fees of about $1.20. We took a tuk-tuk 30 minutes out of town to #3 for a hungover float on the tubes. There’s also a zip-line and a rope swing for those with a bit more energy during their visit.

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Sim’s Adventures

We missed out on this some classic Vang Vieng adventures, but our best friend Simona (@simonamusto, check her out on instagram!) filled in a few blanks for us:

At first glance, it seems quiet, kind of dirty and unexciting. On our first day, our hostel roomie recommended we rent a motorbike and discover the “real” Vang Vieng. So we did and ventured out to explore. It was definitely not the easiest journey, with construction sites and bumpy roads at times. But what we saw was beyond our expectations. There’s so much beauty and hidden wilderness; children playing in the river, animals eating the lush green grass, limestone cliffs, jungle paths leading to waterfalls (check out Kaeng Nyui Waterfall!) that make the journey worth it. 

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The next morning, we decided to go river tubbing. Groups of ‘tubbers’ stopped at the first of three bars, shyly ordered their first beer at 11am and it never really stopped till sunset… People got drunker by the hour, but it was fun to socialize, play some games and cruise down the river with a beer in hand, watching the sunset and hot air balloons pass above us. The friends we made that day were the same ones we went out with at night for drinks and dancing at the many bars/clubs in Vang Vieng- it gets as wild as you want.

x Mama Sim

Nightlife

The lazy river valley town may not seem like it, but Vang Vieng turns up. There’s a surprising number of bars and clubs, and I promise you can stay out until 4am if you want to. The dance floor at Sakura Bar gets sweaty. No matter what your reason for coming to Vang Vieng is, you can always find what you’re looking for.


One more thing from Sim…

*As a foodie, this post wouldn’t be complete without a few recommendations of places to eat. First, an Italian restaurant called ‘Il Tavolo’ that serves some pretty amazing authentic pizza. The other is the 1$ sandwiches from the wonderful vendors on the main road, that are packed with whatever you want and keep you full for hours, I think about how much I miss those often..

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More Pics!

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!

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

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!