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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Landing in Laos: Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is an ideal starting point when coming to Laos. The Old Town has so many places to eat good food and shop for iconic Laotian crafts. LPB provides many opportunities to immerse yourself in local culture, whether it be cooking classes or a trip to the community art centers. The weather can be suffocatingly hot, so plan your days around the midday heat. Or better yet, head to nearby waterfalls to cool yourself down.

LPB is a great place to begin your journey into the northern jungle, or a quick 3-stop hop onwards to Vang Vieng and Vientienne. Nong Khiaw is a bumpy, but worthwhile trip to see northern Laos for a couple nights. Keep in mind, LPB is really far away from Southern Laos (Four Thousand Islands), and internal transport isn’t quite so easy. 

Lao Crafts

Laos is internationally known for beautiful handmade goods - especially textiles. Luang Prabang’s night market was one of our favorite spots in SE Asia to find funky, colorful pieces to bring home. Pillow shams, little pouches, metal jewelry, or even scorpions in moonshine bottles reminiscent of formaldehyde preservation (yes, you can drink it). The “Night Market Food District” is perpendicular to the crafts market, just down a small alley next to the Tourist Information Centre. The food is super cheap, and there’s a hell of a lot of it. So many noodles and veggies. It’s a great place to get a taste for Laotian food.

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Another great place to get some goodies is from one of the Ock Pop Tok (https://ockpoptok.com/) stores. A little bit pricier than the night markets, but the profits help OPT to train and support 500 Laotian artists. Part of the OPT mission is to train and provide ways for women in Laos to earn a sustainable income from weaving and handicrafts. Plus, they’re committed to environmental responsibility. All of their cafes minimize plastic consumption by replacing straws with bamboo alternatives, and unlike anywhere else in Asia, they offer *treated* water bottle refill stations. 

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Their Flagship Shop is on the bank of the Mekong River, and has an onsite tour with opportunities to meet some of the weavers! Their attached Silk Road Cafe overlooks the Mekong River for a wonderful lunch spot or evening drink. Their second cafe is a garden in front of the Heritage Shop location downtown. The Heritage Shop has beautiful displays on how the crafts are made, and some really unique gifts too.

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The Boutique Shop downtown also offers bigger home goods and more fine art type crafts. Their scarves are beautiful. It’s across from the Zurich Bread Artisan Bakery (great Western food, if you’re craving it). 

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Think you’ve got what it takes to be a weaver? Ock Pop Tok also offers classes (https://ockpoptok.com/classes/)! For half, one, two, or three days, learn how the masters work on looms and spinners. And if that’s not enough, they also do Moonlight Cinemas (https://ockpoptok.com/visit-us/silk-road-cafe/moonlight-cinema/#whatson) every Thursday night at the Silk Road Cafe.

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

Photo courtesy of Ock Pop Tok

If you can’t make it all the way out to Laos, but you love the idea of supporting Ock Pop Tok, they have an entire online store! Have a little peek… https://ockpoptok.com/shop-online/

Kuang Si Waterfalls

These picturesque swimming holes look like a filming location for scenes from the Little Mermaid. Any taxi service will take you there, but avoid tuk-tuks because the drive is long and very bumpy. Much easier in a van - even easier if you have some buddies to split the cost with.

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The icy blue water is a refreshing way to beat the Laotian heat. There are multiple swimming holes, and a few places to jump in from the edge. If anything, there are some beautiful off-limit areas to take nice pictures for those who prefer to stay dry.

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Mekong River

Luang Prabang is on the wide, winding Mekong river - perfect for sunset cruises. There are a lot of operators, so there are plenty of options depending on your budget.

Alternatively, you can sit at a riverside restaurant to watch the hazy pink sunset without going aboard. We opted for dinner at L.P.B. Restaurant instead of a cruise.

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Fun fact: if you’re trying to get to Thailand from Laos, or vice versa, there’s a party-boat that makes the journey along the Mekong River. There are lots of suggestions to go from Laos to Thailand, as it’s slightly faster and less crowded. It leaves/arrives in Huay Xai in Thailand, a few hours from Chiang Rai. The whole journey takes 2 days, and you’ll have a stopover in Pakbeng (not included). We didn’t have time to take the boat, but a lot of travelers say it’s a relaxing way to get to Thailand, and there are great views of more rural areas along the Mekong River.

Songkran

We happened to be in LPB during one of the biggest festivals of the year, Songkran! The traditional Sanskrit New Year is celebrated all over Asia when the sun moves into the Aries constellation of the astrological calendar. A lot of backpackers go to Thailand for the festival, but it’s also a lot of fun in Laos.

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This 3-day celebration is basically one giant water fight… to the next level. People drive around in pickup trucks with inflatable pools full of water, armed with water balloons and super soakers. Some people even use gallon buckets to drench vulnerable passers-by. Shops keep their hoses running for refills, and children will chase you down if you look any bit dry. It’s an awesome time to be in Laos, but don’t expect to get away anything less than drenched.

Digs

Utopia bar - one of the few spots for nightlife in LP.

Timeless Cafe - modern menu with outdoor seating - try the mango avocado salad!

Atsalin Restaurant - a local eatery with typical Laotian meals.

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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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Cameron Highlands

The Cameron highlands are best known for hidden hiking trails, expansive tea plantations, and abundant strawberry farms. The little mountain neighborhood is packed with shops and shacks serving cheap, authentic Malaysian food.

Getting to the Cameron Highlands

Kuala Lumpur has multiple buses per day heading in all directions - it’s easy to grab a taxi to the main bus terminal and book a ticket day of. The ride is a windy two hour journey through the mountains in a big comfy bus seat. Try to get a window seat to gaze out at the passing landscapes, they’re captivating. 

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You’ll arrive at the Tanah Rata bus station, which is where you can find the local bus or any onward travel. After our adventure in the highlands, we booked a comfortable van that brought us straight to our hostel up north in Georgetown, Penang.

There’s one main road that runs through the Cameron Highlands, connecting Tanah Rata, Brinchang, and Kampung Raja. The local bus runs between Tanah Rata and Kampung everyday - but since there’s only one bus, the times are pretty infrequent. 

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The bus doesn’t run on a rigid schedule, so make sure to be at the stop a bit early.

Hiking the Highlands

Just by coming to the highlands, you’re obligated to take at least one hike. There are tons of options, whether it be heading down to a waterfall for an hour or up to the top of a mountain for the afternoon. 

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Hiking in the Cameron Highlands is done by “paths” with numbers. Not all of the paths are well maintained, so it would be wise to check with your hosts as to whether your choice path is in good enough condition.

Path 10

The most popular option is Path 10 up Gunung Jasar. The beginning of the Path is straight through someone’s driveway, but they’ve curated a little garden for passing hikers to enjoy. 

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It takes about an hour to get to the power lines at the top, and the view is quite breathtaking. We opted to just return back down Path 10 since we only had the afternoon, but if you’ve got time, you can continue along Path 12 to Gunung Perdah. It takes another hour and a half to circle back around.

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Robinson Falls

An easier option, and very close to downtown Tanah Rata, is Path 9 to Robinson Waterfall. To get to the path, you walk through the town park and along the river. There are signs to guide you towards the path. You’ll pass right by some local homes before heading into the forest. It’s only about 10 minutes until you see the waterfall. 

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After that, you can either continue down the EXTREMELY STEEP path to the Robinson Power Station (which may or may not be trespassing?). At that point, you won’t want to backtrack back up the cliff you’ve descended, so just continue along the road you empty out on. It’s another half an hour to the main road. The walk is a great way to see what the “real” Cameron Highland farms look like.

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Once you get to the main road, you can either hike back for 10 kilometers, hitchhike with a friendly-looking passerby, or hail a taxi for a buck or two. We stumbled upon a taxi before we reached the main road, so we all just piled in.

Path 2

Path 2 is only for the true adventurers. We sort of stumbled into it without realizing what we signed up for, but apparently it’s the least maintained, most-wild trek of them all. 

It begins at the Sam Poh Temple, which is most easily reached by taking the local bus up to Brinchang in the morning. The walk from downtown to the temple is really enjoyable if you go for an early morning stroll. The neighborhoods are just waking up, and it’s a fun way to explore the less busy areas of the highlands. 

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The Temple is not crowded at all. It’s a nice way to start the day before trekking through the jungle. From Sam Poh, you go back down the main drive and make the first right. Follow that road until there’s a dirt driveway on your left, and a pinkish apartment building on your right. It’ll seem really strange, but the trailhead is up through the lower level of the apartment building on the right.

The beginning is a crazy scramble up a steep hillside until you get to the first trail sign. Fellow hikers have written warnings of steepness, and they’re not wrong. The rest of the trail is a series of ups and downs through some pretty authentic jungle highlands. Expect to cross over riverbeds, duck under fallen trees, and wonder for a few moments which way the path goes. 

That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Path 2 the most. It’s not so much of a hike up a mountain as it is a wander through the woods. There were so many moments that we stopped to sit and listen to the jungle around us. The sounds of water trickling through the rocks, or birds calling in the canopy. It really is a peaceful way to experience how alive Malaysia is.

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Near the end of Path 2, you can empty out near the golf course, or fork back into the jungle for a shot at Path 3. Both will take you south towards Tanah Rata, but the path will take much longer. We headed out towards the road and walked along the golf course and through the outskirts of town. Again, a fun way to see the area! 

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Mossy Forest

The Mossy Forest was by far my favorite activity. At the very top of a rolling, tea-covered hill, an elevated boardwalk wanders through native highland forest. The dripping wet leaves, glossy palms, moss-coated trees, and drenched brown boardwalk planks will make you feel like you’re in the middle of one big raindrop. 

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It’s like you can hear the moisture among the silence of the forest. This is what the very highest of the Cameron Highlands were like before the tea plantations.

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For a surreal experience, go in the morning before the clouds lift and the crowds arrive. Catch the 8:30 bus and let the driver know you want to get off at the Cameron Square Shopping Centre. He’ll drop you off at the bottom of the very long hill. We originally planned to walk up, but decided it would be way easier and faster to hitchhike up. The couple that picked us up were visiting the Highlands on their honeymoon! Less romantically, there are a number of tour companies in town that offer trips to the Forest as part of a larger package.

There are some areas at the back of the forest that are not a part of the main boardwalk. They are usually muddy, slippery, and dangerous. We chose to stick to the in-bounds boardwalk, but if you choose to go rogue, remember that the rangers will not be able to help you. And if they find you, you might get in trouble. That being said, we bumped into a girl who wandered back there and said it was cool - pretty much the same as the regular forest area, but muddier. 

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Head up to the top of the lookout tower to really get your head in the clouds. It’s beyond peaceful to be surrounded by the grey, windy, morning forest air up there. Apparently if it’s a clear day, the views of the surrounding plantations are incredible.

But if the wispy clouds are all you get up there, just take a slow meander back down to the bottom of the hill to really appreciate the plantations. It’s a two-hour descent back to the bus stop without stopping. But of course, we stopped at each of the roadside viewpoints to snap pics and get the drone in the air.

Only after landing did an officer scoot up to inform us that it is indeed against the rules to fly drones above the plantations. Oops.

Boh Tea Plantation

If you have the time to pitstop at the Boh Sungai Palas Tea Centre. You walk past the fields on your way up or down. It’s a bit of a ways of the road, but if you opt to go into the plantation, there’s a restaurant/tea house overlooking fields. 

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Sit for a quick snack or tea. If you can snag a seat outside, there’s a great view off the balcony. We got the blackberry iced tea - worth the walk!

Strawberry Farms

There are a couple of options around Brinchang. We didn’t have time to get to any of them, but it’s a fun activity for an afternoon if you’re already up there! Check out one of the butterfly farms while you’re at it!

Digs in Cameron Highlands

  • Map Travelodge - Awesome travel-themed hostel with amazing photos lining the entrance stairwell. Plus an entire wall of postcards for sale, all taken by the owner of the hostel! We seized this opportunity to write some hellos to friends back home - reception will even postage and send them out for you!

  • Cameron Curry House - uh-mazing Indian food on the corner of the main street. Went there 3 times.

  • Jungle Bar - at the very far end of a small street off the main road. Chill vibes, good old pool table, cheap liquor and even an outdoor fire pit!

  • Travellers Bistro & Pub - near our hostel, sells Tiger beer towers. And fries.

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