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.

Navigating Kuala Lumpur

Of all of the countries we’ve visited in Asia so far, Malaysia has been my favorite, second only to Vietnam. It’s hard to explain exactly why that is, there’s no concrete reason, but between KL, the Cameron Highlands and Penang I absolutely fell in love with this country.

We started our adventure in Kuala Lumpur (KL), which is as easy and obvious a place to start as it gets. The biggest city in Malaysia, KL is known for food, incredible shopping, and fantastic city tours. If you’re spending some time in this metropolis, here are a few ideas to kick off your stay.

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The Food

This is just a reoccurring theme with our posts from Asia so far but we can’t help it - the food here is such a huge part of their culture and it’s so. damn. good. 

The classic hunting around until you find a restaurant you like will serve you well here - you’ve got endless options. But if you’re looking for cheap eats in KL, you’re going to want to check out one of two places: the street markets or the malls.

Sounds weird to say, but the malls in the major cities throughout Asia have absolutely bomb ass food. The food courts are enormous, relatively inexpensive, and you can find almost anything you want and chances are it’ll be delicious. If you’re like us and have a hard time with the daytime heat in Asia (shit is intense) then the mall is the perfect place to cool off, maybe swap a few items out of your backpack, and grab a delicious meal.

 

The mall we haunted was called Pavilion, but there’s also The Gardens Mall, Fahrenheit88, Suria KLCC and more. If you do take my rec and head over to Pavilion, you’ve got to go to Grandmama’s - Flavours of Malaysia. Order the hot pot, order the curry, order whatever you want and thank me later. It was SO good.

The other obvious choice for cheap, good eats is one of KL’s markets. Night market, morning market, daytime market if your brave and can handle the heat better than us. You can’t go wrong. Grab some fresh fruit off the street and wander until you’re tempted into one of the many stalls and restaurants lining the streets. 

At night, there’s the Connaught Night Market or the Alor Street Food Night Market (where we went). During the day, there’s Central Market, where you can shop for not only for food but for souvenirs too, or Lot 10 Hutong, which features 34 food stalls in the packed food court. Streets like Jalan Imbi, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Jalan Raja Chulan or Jalan Alor are all great places to start!

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The best part? Anywhere you could want to eat in KL is also where you can shop for those last minute souvenirs you promised everyone that you’ve forgotten about until now. 

One last thing. We are the queens of brunch, so I can't leave out our favorite brunch place that we found in KL - Merchant's Lane. You may have to wait but it is WORTH it. 

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Exploring the “7 Wonders of Kuala Lumpur”

This famous backpacker tour takes you on a whirlwind day tour of the most famous highlights of KL and can be booked through any hostel you’ll find yourself staying in.

On your tour, you’ll visit the following seven wonders:

  1. Thean Hou Temple: one of the oldest and largest temples in Southeast Asia to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu

  2. Little India Brickfields: a wide street with Indian stores and restaurants run by the country's Indian community

  3. Batu Caves: a limestone hill that has a stunning series of caves and cave temples

  4. National Palace: official residence of the monarch of Malaysia

  5. National Monument: a sculpture that commemorates those who died in Malaysia's struggle for freedom

  6. City Gallery: information hub with souvenirs & art for sale, maps, cultural exhibits & a gift-making workshop

  7. Selangor Pewter: the Royal Selangor pewter museum

The tour costs a grand total of RM85, roughly 21USD. The same company that offers this tour, Backpacking Malaysia, also offers tours to Taman Negara, Malaysia’s oldest rainforest, the cultural gem of Malacca, and boat trips on the Selangor River. 

Whatever kind of adventure you’re interested in, KL’s got something for you!

PS: They may or may not be a part of your tour, but you can’t miss (literally you can’t miss them, they’re enormous) the famous Petronas Twin Towers. Day or night, these two massive architectural masterpieces tower of Kuala Lumpur and are absolutely worth a visit, up close and personal.

 

Going Out

All right. Before we even got to Malaysia, we met a couple of travelers who told us that we would have a really hard time going out in KL. That there wasn’t much to do at night and that we were probably going to be disappointed. In fact, they told us that the best place for us to go out in all of KL was going to be Reggae Mansion, the hostel we were staying at that does have a kickass rooftop. 

WRONG.

Granted, in those travelers defense, it’s definitely not obvious where to go out. We had an inside source (one of my best friends from college is from KL) who pointed us in the right direction and that direction was to…

Changkat! This street is lined with lively bars, restaurants, and small clubs that bump great music, offer terraced views of the street, and more happy hour deals than you have time for. You can’t go wrong, just duck in where the music sounds best and hop from one to the other. 

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Still looking for something more after that (we weren’t…)? Head down to TREC, where you’ll find Zouk, the biggest club in KL. This club goes from 5PM to 5AM Friday and Saturday nights and will stay open for you during the week until at least 3AM. 

So grab your pals, or just take your lovely self, order a hookah, hit a happy hour, and dance the night away.

If you’re still looking for a party at 5AM…I can’t help you. Go to Bangkok.

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Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island

Highlighting the best routes for the ultimate roadside views.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry red hyundai would be home.

Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

After a quick two weeks in the North Island, we hopped on the Interislander Ferry in Wellington for the beautiful cruise to Picton. It’s a very enjoyable cruise, with lots of available snacks on board and lots of opportunities to see stunning landscapes and maybe even some wildlife - especially going through the Marlborough Sounds when you get closer to Picton. If you’re planning a double-island road trip, make sure you look into prices and timetables for the ferry! It’s always easier to book in advance, especially during the busier months.

Once we landed in Picton, we headed dead south to Blenheim for a weekend of well-deserved wine tasting. Next we darted over to Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days of hiking and camping. After that, we zipped to Kaikoura for a day of whale-watching, and then up into Arthur's Pass for a night. Then we headed down to Tekapo for a night, and onwards to Wanaka for a few days. We ended up doubling back north to spend a night in Mount Cook National Park, and then looped south again to Queenstown. We spent the last week based out of Queenstown, venturing out to Glenorchy for a day, and to the Fiordlands a few times too.

 

Kaikoura

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Unfortunately, we drove this route at night and can’t provide any proof of the pretty views. BUT I’ve driven it before, and if you like winding through mountains and across river valleys, make sure to take SH 76 to Kaikoura. (Depending on when you visit, you might not have a choice… both main access roads to Kaikoura were heavily damaged in a recent earthquake…). Make sure to check road closings before you head out!

 

Arthur’s Pass

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Depending on whether or not you plan on going to the west coast, you can choose to go through Arthur’s Pass, or just into the village and back out. Both are great options, as there are plenty of viewpoints along the way. Just north of the main village, there’s a cool part of the road with a rock slide shelter and aqueduct that’s well worth a quick visit before leaving even if you’re not headed to the west coast!

 

Road to Wanaka

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Another beautiful pass through farmland and rolling hills. We went on a moody day, bringing out the exceptional rustic colors around us.

 

Road to Blue Pools (Haas Pass)

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Haast Pass is aa exceptional drive along the isthmus between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are plenty of lookouts to stretch your legs and snap a picture, or for the more adventurous, stop along the way for a day hike up to Isthmus Peak for even more incredible views. Continuing towards the west coast, you enter Mount Aspiring National Park with recreational pull-offs every few minutes. Plenty of things to do!

 

Road into Mount Cook National Park

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There’s only one way in, and one way out. The entire approach to the National Park will be one big tease of Mount Cook staring right at you, waiting for you.

 

Paradise Road

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The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy will put you in a trance, slowly meandering along the east side of long Lake Wakatipu. But, even better, if you continue north after Glenorchy you will find a secret backroad called Paradise

 

Queenstown to Fiordlands

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The first time we followed this road was on a big bus on our way to a Doubtful Sound Cruise. For the first part of the drive, you follow parallel to the Remarkables - which frankly, are quite Remarkable. Once you get into the Fiordlands, it’s all open spaces and distant peaks. Quite peaceful. 

 

Bonus road: Up to the Remarkables

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On the way back from hiking the Key Summit Track, just a few minutes outside of Queenstown, we found a very steep drive up to the Remarkables ski area. Do not do this drive in the winter. If the roads are clear, and you’re confident driving twisty, windy, switchbacks at high elevations - you will be rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the Remarkables and greater Queenstown area. 

 

Interested in the North Island? Check out our other road trip post!

A Wine Tour Through Marlborough

A Wine Tour Through Marlborough

Disclaimer: We are NOT wine people. We love wine, we do not know wine. This was a learning process. You probably won’t learn much about specific wines in this post. You’ll just have to go check it out for yourself ;)

Read More

Wai-O-Tapu: New Zealand's "Sacred Waters"

Wai-O-Tapu: New Zealand's "Sacred Waters"

Maori for “sacred waters,” this beautiful tourist hotspot is a geothermal area at the southern end of the Okataina Volcanic Centre. The area has a number of hot springs that are known for their dramatic colors (and seriously disgusting smell…mmmm sulphur). 

Read More

North Island, New Zealand Road Trip

Highlighting alternative routes for the ultimate vehicle-based experience.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear, and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry hyundai would be home.

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Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

Most people go the most direct route from Auckland to Wellington, stopping in Waitomo, Hamilton, Matamata, Rotorua, Taupo, Tongariro, and finally Wellington. That’s pretty much the most basic way to go through the North Island, hitting some of its top attractions.

However, we took a very different route, expanding out to other regions of the North Island and cruising roads less travelled. We started in Auckland, and immediately shot north to the Bay of Islands, where we stayed at a friend’s place in Russell. Then we revisited Auckland briefly before heading down to EcoQuest on the Firth of Thames, and around to the Coromandel Peninsula where we stopped along Hahei Beach and the town of Coromandel. Afterwards, we wandered around Waikato, Matamata, Tauranga/Maunganui, and Rotorua. After that, our plans got a little jumbled, but we headed down past Wai-o-tapu to Taupo, and then back up to Ohope to take the East Coast Road to Gisborne and Napier. Finally, we took route 2 through the mountains to the North Island’s southernmost city, Wellington.

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If you’re wondering why we doubled back from Taupo, read this post.

 

Road to Russell

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Dome Forest trail, off SH1 leaving Auckland

Dome Forest trail, off SH1 leaving Auckland

Rockman trail, off SH 1 leaving Auckland

Rockman trail, off SH 1 leaving Auckland

Kauri Grove Trail, Russell Whakapara Road

Kauri Grove Trail, Russell Whakapara Road

 

Coromandel Peninsula - the 309 Road and the Pacific Coast Highway

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Waiau Falls, the 309 Road

Waiau Falls, the 309 Road

Stuart and the Pigs, the 309 Road

Stuart and the Pigs, the 309 Road

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pohutukawa trees along the Pacific Coast Highway

Pohutukawa trees along the Pacific Coast Highway

 

Southern Waikato

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Limestone rocks poking out of farm hillsides in Southern Waikato

Limestone rocks poking out of farm hillsides in Southern Waikato

Surprise rainbow over the farms along the Waikato River

Surprise rainbow over the farms along the Waikato River

Rainbow over the limestone rocks

Rainbow over the limestone rocks

 

East Coast Road (Tauranga-Gisborne-Napier)

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The East Coast Road climbs and falls through the mountains right up against the ocean

The East Coast Road climbs and falls through the mountains right up against the ocean

Blue and purple rivers wander out to the ocean under the overpasses of the highway

Blue and purple rivers wander out to the ocean under the overpasses of the highway

The East Coast is known for the "old time" feel, where townspeople still ride horses from place to place

The East Coast is known for the "old time" feel, where townspeople still ride horses from place to place

Churches dot the coastline

Churches dot the coastline

 

And of course, no matter where you go:

Sheep

Sheep