Best of Thailand

A breakdown of our favorites!

Best Experiences to Do for Free

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

Walk out to Long Beach on Koh Phi Phi

Chill in a hammock on Koh Lanta

Wander the Chatuchak Sunday Market, Bangkok

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Walk around Chiang Mai's Old City

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Sunday Night Market, Chiang Mai

Best Experiences to Splurge On

Live-aboard diving trip to the Similion Islands

Blanco Beach Party Booze Cruise

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

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Renting kayaks in either Koh Phi Phi or Ao Nang Beach

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Rent a scooter to explore Koh Lanta

Rock climbing in Krabi

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Diving at Sail Rock, Koh Phangan

Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

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Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

Kata Beach, Phuket

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Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi

Long tail boats around Southern Thailand

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Unicorn Cafe, Bangkok

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Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Grand Canyon

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Silver Temple, Chiang Mai

Pai Canyon at sunset

Best Restaurants & Bars

Order a fruit smoothie on Phuket Beach

Banana Bar for rooftop drinks on Koh Phi Phi

Living Room Cafe & Restaurant, Koh Lanta

The Jungle Club, Koh Samui

SOHO, Koh Phangan

Shirlea, Had Yao, Koh Phangan

Iron Fairies Bar, Bangkok

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Skye 20, Bangkok

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Simple Natural Kitchen, Bangkok

25 Degrees, Bangkok

Iwane 1975, Bangkok

CRAFT Beer Bar, Bangkok

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Breakfast World, Chiang Mai

Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai

Rustic & Blue, Chiang Mai

Sunset Bar, Pai

Cafecito, Pai

Ganesha’s House, Pai

Earth Tone, Pai


Best Places to Stay on a Budget

Slumber Party Hostel, Phuket Beach

FIN Hostel, Kata Beach

Loro Loco 2, Koh Lanta

The Moment Hostel, Ao Nang Beach

Slumber Party Bangkok

Thunderbird Hostel, Chiang Mai

Jikko Harem, Pai

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

Parasailing off the beach

Viewpoint hike on Koh Phi Phi

Diving off Koh Phi Phi

Emerald Cave, Koh Lanta

Sa Phra Nang (Hidden Lagoon), Ao Nang Beach

Lady Boy Show, Bangkok

Floating Market, Bangkok

White Temple, Chiang Rai

A Complete Guide to Sri Lanka During Off-Season

Why Sri Lanka is Amazing

Sri Lanka might not seem like an obvious destination - but it should be! If you don’t have the time or opportunity to dig into the chaos of India (like we didn’t), Sri Lanka is a fantastic way to experience a very different kind of Asian culture than you would find in Southeast Asia. Hinduism is the dominant culture in Sri Lanka, so be sure to take advantage of all the opportunities you have to learn about it.

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Here’s a short list of why Sri Lanka should be one of your top travel priorities:

  • Stunning landscapes - the lush jungle landscapes are easy to experience by train or car, and the beaches are notorious for stellar surfing. The terrain is unique in topography; driving through rolling terraced central Sri Lanka is unlike any landscape we’ve ever seen.

  • Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations in Asia to see wild elephants!

  • If you love your tea time, central Sri Lanka is a main supplier for Lipton! Take a tea tour or two, the factories are a great way to learn about a quirky industry and enjoy a steaming array local flavors.

  • AMAZING FOOD. Curry, different curry, more curry, every kind of curry, samosas, the best bananas you’ll ever have (it’s not just hype), and coconut sambal. And lemon cookies! Notably, Sri Lanka is an awesome food heaven for vegetarians and vegans. They rarely use meat or dairy, so naturally there are a lot of options for the diet restricted. 

  • Extremely friendly Sri Lankans always make time to introduce you to their culture and customs.



Our Travel Plan

Our story starts with a disappointed arrival to our train platform as the train pulled out of the station. Slightly frazzled because this never happens to us, we sulked to the tourist office in search of help. Luckily, a very nice Sri Lankan tourism officer took us in, sat us down, pulled out a map, and taught us the real way to see the country. We had done some previous research and definitely recommend you do too before seeking help from a local, but their knowledge is always more in-depth than the internet. Our friendly officer originally tried to convince us to hire a driver for the entire week, but we already planned for the famous Kandy-Ella train ride (see below).

Although it’s not obvious, car hire is actually a great way to see Sri Lanka, especially central Sri Lanka. While the train is beautiful, you’ll miss out on what’s happening in the valleys you pass if you stick to the rails the entire way. A car hire is US$50 per day, which is much more manageable when you split between friends. We opted for a mix of both, which was ideal for us. Here’s what we booked:



Accommodation pickup from airport to our hotel in Negundi the night we arrived.

Hour-long tuk-tuk through city traffic to get to the Colombo train station, which caused us to miss our train. Take a car instead and account for traffic.

Train from Colombo to Kandy.

Train from Kandy to Ella.

Care hire for three days:

    Ella to Sigiriya

    Around Sigiriya and its attractions

    Sigiriya to Dambulla by car, to catch a bus onwards to Negundi


We booked all our transport at the tourism office at the Colombo train station. If you have a tighter budget, there are plenty of bus options all over Sri Lanka. They’re significantly cheaper than all other options, but they’re not always very direct or efficient. 


Colombo/Negundi

Colombo International (CMB) is the main airport for Sri Lanka. The name is fairly misleading, as the airport is actually in Negundi, an hour north of the chaotic city of Colombo. In our opinion, Colombo is an easy skip for Sri Lanka. It’s largely a metropolitan city, which is probably not why you come to Sri Lanka in the first place.

Negundi is much closer, and we found it much more enjoyable to stay in. The beach town is far more busy during peak season (December to March), as it’s known for wonderful weather and international surfing. During off-season, the weather is chilly, grey, and wet. That being said, if you’re interested in picking up Sri Lankan souvenirs, there is no better place or time of the year to get them. Shops cut their prices in half just to move products. The shop owners are really nice and willing to negotiate with you. We both picked up leather duffle bags - high quality and under 50 bucks! Magnets and keychains are abundant too.



The Famous Train from Kandy to Ella

Duh. This is Sri Lanka 101 here. The journey is consistently ranked as one of the best train rides in the world. Do. Not. Miss.

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The famous part of the train ride is between Kandy and Ella, but the railway system extends beyond both of those cities. Assuming you fly into Colombo International, start your trip by taking the train from Colombo to Kandy the day before your journey. An afternoon and a night in Kandy is a good amount of time to see the best parts of the city. There’s not a ton to do, but there are some pretty temples and a fun marketplace. Make sure you grab some Sri Lankan bananas for train snacks - they are LITERALLY the BEST tasting bananas in the WORLD.

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Our dear friend Emily found a cool AirBnB/hotel called Square Peg that we absolutely recommend. Here’s a link to check it out if you’re staying in Kandy!

Book your train ticket from Kandy to Ella while you’re in Colombo. If you’re having trouble, the tourism office can help you. Don’t underestimate how popular this train ride is, especially during peak season. 

Alternatively, off-season is much less chaotic. Not to say the trains won’t fill up, but you may get lucky like we did and have plenty of space to move around the car and hang out of the windows and doors. As per the fiasco in Colombo, the tourism guide booked us into a second class car which is usually only tourists and much less crowded than the regular cars. Bring water, snacks, and toilet paper.

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Get ready to take some incredible pictures. The railway follows the ridge-line separating valleys in central Sri Lanka. Some parts you’ll pass through mountain forests, some parts you’ll pass through farmland and tea terraces, and some parts you’ll have unobstructed views of the valleys and cities below.

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The train departs multiple times per day. Some people like sunrise, but we opted for a mid-morning departure. Thankfully, the weather gods granted us a gift that day. Check the weather before booking your tickets, but just remember that the weatherman is not always correct.

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Ella

Ella is a famous destination in Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There are a lot of opportunities in the area to appreciate the stunning natural landscape. The trails range from short walks to half day hikes, so you can find an exciting adventure no matter your skill level.

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You can’t miss Ella’s Rock. And by that we mean: you literally can’t not see it. It towers over Ella, and attracts hikers from around the world.

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If you’re not up for the half day commitment (it’s a long hike), Little Adam’s Peak is a fantastic alternative. We spent two hours leisurely hiking the peak for an incredible view of Ella’s Rock across the valley. On the way up, you pass tea terraces and locals selling coconuts. If it’s a sunny day, bring plenty of water and wear sunblock

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While we don’t have first-hand experience with this, we’ve been told that locals hang around Ella’s Rock to give misleading directions in order to encourage hikers to hire guides. You don’t need to, but you might be more comfortable finding the way with a local - especially if you do it for sunrise.


Cooking Class

Our favorite activity, as Girls Who Cuisine, was a 3-hour cooking class we took in Ella. There are a handful of options if you’re looking to take a class. Book well in advance as they tend to fill up quickly. We took our class with Ella Spice Garden, the first established cooking class in Ella. We highly recommend it! The class is small and taught right in the home kitchen of the chef, Chandika. It’s super authentic, and we had a really great experience. You even get a workbook to fill out during the class so you can bring the recipe home!

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After wandering through the back driveways of Ella, up a few hills and around a couple corners, you’ll find Chandika’s home. You’ll quickly make friends with your fellow classmates and tour the backyard garden where all the spices are grown - it doesn’t get more local than that! Then you’ll have a cup of tea in the sitting room with Chandika talking about the history and local use of the different spices before heading to the kitchen.

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Sri Lankan meals traditionally include 4-5 different curries, almost all vegetable based: potato, garlic, and daal curry. Plus coconut sambal (your new favorite base), and rice. Also the explosive and addictive papadams. These are the things you learn how to make in this class.

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Do you know how many cloves of garlic are used in a typical serving of garlic curry? Over 50 cloves. And you’ll learn how to efficiently peel and slice them too - yay teamwork! Have you ever fleshed a coconut? The tool to do so looks a bit too much like a torture device, but this may be your only chance to use it… shredded coconut works just as well. We won’t share the recipes, you’ll just have to learn them for yourself! They’re all delicious and the class itself was a blast! 

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Valley Hopping Drive from Ella to Sigiriya

We were convinced to have a driver take us through this portion of the trip, and we’re glad we were talked into it. It may not come up immediately in your searches, but the valleys between Ella and Sigiriya are full of picturesque landscapes that you won’t get to experience the same way from a ridge-line train. Bus routes in this area are long and require more transfers than it’s worth, so a driver will give you the most out of your journey. There are wonderful stops characteristic to Sri Lanka that you may miss without a knowledgable driver.

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Tea factories are stationed all throughout the valleys, as tea is the main export of Sri Lanka - they are the main providers for Lipton! Any of the factories will give you the inside scoop of how tea is harvested, processed, and sold. It’s also a great excuse to stop for afternoon tea!

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Sri Lanka also produces an entire market of natural beauty products. Anything from hair products, skin care, to topical ointments and massage oils - you name it, they’ve made it from some sort of plant. We got a tour of the garden at the place we stopped, and were given detailed descriptions of how and why each plant provided the natural benefits for specific products. Were we prepared to buy one of everything? Yes. Luckily, our backpacks prevented us from overspending. However it is a fun and unexpected way to learn about Sri Lankan natural remedies.

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It’s a very long drive. You will pass a lot of magnificent viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop so you can stretch your legs and snap a few photos. A lot of the smaller villages you pass through are charming and picturesque, so take it all in.

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The roads are narrow, windy, and mountainous. If you’re prone to carsickness (I’m sorry), take a Dramamine and claim shotgun. Maybe bring a doggie bag.

Sigiriya

There’s plenty to do in centrally located Sigiriya. Not only is Sigirya part of the cultural triangle so there are lots of opportunities to explore Hinduisum, but it’s also an outdoor adventure hotspot.

We stayed in a hammock haven hostel called Jungle Vista. We definitely recommend it - their adorable dog is reason enough. Apart from the little precious, the hostel organizes trips every day and makes home cooked dinners for everyone at night. The atmosphere is really laidback and you’re sure to meet some awesome people! The owners are super friendly too!

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Dambulla Cave Temple

There’s a beautiful temple carved into a mountainside 10 minutes from the middle of town. You have to climb a lot of stairs to get to it, but the peaceful sanctuary at the top is breathtaking.

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Hindu paintings spread across the cavernous space, and huge diety sculptures reach the ceiling. Golden buddhas fill each cave and glisten even in the dark. It’s quickly obvious why Dambulla Cave Temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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

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Lion’s Rock

Sunrise at Lion’s Rock should be at the top of your Sigiriya bucket list. Get up early, as in 4am early, to give yourself extra time to make it before the sun comes up - you might get a little lost at the beginning… the trail is not very obvious. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, bring your camera, and bring a flashlight. The hike is short, but steep and scrambly at some parts. Look for the white arrows when you get near the top, it’ll guide you over some big boulders and onto the top of the rock.

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Technically, the hike is a viewpoint to see Lion’s Rock at sunrise. You’re not actually climbing Lion’s Rock itself. Similar to Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, we think this hike is more worthwhile because you get a view of the “main attraction” instead of standing on top of it. The panorama of the surrounding area is awe-inspiring, and it’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the pink and orange swirls in the sky as the sun comes up.

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Don’t be afraid to stay a while, people usually leave right after the sun crosses the horizon. You’ll probably have the place to yourself if you stay a little bit longer. Pack some samosas and hot drinks if you’re game for a picnic breakfast in the sky.

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Elephant Safari

Sri Lanka has the largest wild elephant population in Asia, around 4,000 individuals living in protected parts that cover a vast portion of northern and central Sri Lanka. There are a lot of easy options to ethically enjoy their presence. We went with Kalum Jeep Safari and had a top-notch experience. There are other guided safaris that run everyday in the Sigirya area, just do some research on a company’s reputation before booking.

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There are three main protected parks in Sri Lanka. Your guides will take you to the best place depending on the weather and “status” of local elephant herds - trust in their ability to find the giant animals in the jungle.The elephants in the park are happy, protected, and not afraid of visitors. You won’t be able to leave your vehicle, but the driver will get you really close to the elephants anyway.

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Our tour was just our party of three, which was lucky for us. We got to stand through the roof of the jeep and take photos while driving through the park. The whole tour lasted about three hours, and we saw easily over 20 elephants - including babies! Our tour costed US$15 per person, which was a fantastic deal. Book online or through your accommodation, it’s one of the most popular activities in Sri Lanka.

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Keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife! The parks are home to tons of other amazing animals. We saw a beautiful peacock, snakes, and a crested hawk-eagle. Don’t miss out on the tour, it was one of the best things we did!

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Exploring Bagan During Off Season

Bagan is fairytale land where hot air balloons drift through the sky as the sun rises over hundreds of ancient temples… but not during off-season (May-September). We found out in the arrival hall of Mandalay airport. 

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The best part about Myanmar hot air balloons is the way they look floating above the temples. Riding in them won’t quite give you that picturesque perspective. If you’re interested in hopping in the basket, the price is over $350 per person. Out of your shoestring price range? Go to Vang Vieng, Laos for the cheapest ride in the world at around $80 per person.

If you can’t make it to Myanmar during peak season, do not despair. It’s always a beautiful place to visit, and you’ll appreciate the temples being less crowded than they would be otherwise. 

Getting There

Long story short, Myanmar public transport leaves something to be desired. Your best bet is to fly into Mandalay and take a bus or private hire to Bagan. DO NOT TAKE THE TRAIN. There are multiple reports of the train crashing or flipping. Nightmarish. The buses are much easier, but they only run at certain times. If you don’t want to wait, splitting a private hire from the airport is a reasonable option and the journey will only take 3 hours opposed to 5 on the bus.

PRO TIP: Get your visa before you leave. You can do it online, and you’ll need at least 24 hours to get it. Cheaper if you do it further in advance.

Ostello Bello

FREE PASTA SNACKS! Need we say more?

If you’re not convinced yet, here are some more reasons to go: cheap beer, chill vibes, great food, a/c in the dorms, friendly staff, organized day trips including free ones around Bagan! 

There are two locations in Bagan. One has a pool, one has a more social atmosphere. We meant to stay at the pool one, but accidentally ended up at the chill one. We were happy about it anyway. Ostello Bello also has locations in Mandalay and Inle Lake if you’re continuing on to other spots in Myanmar. 

Sunrise Temple Touring on an E-Bike

What’s an e-bike you ask? Basically just a tourist-friendly scooter. We wish every country in SE Asia gave these to tourists instead of regular motorbikes. They’re safer, cheaper, quiet, but only intended for short distance putting around. You just won’t need more than that in Bagan. You can rent them basically anywhere, but there’s a convenient place just outside Ostello Bello. It costs less than $2 per day.

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So here’s how it goes:

  1. Plan your route the night before. Consult someone who knows what they’re talking about (hostel employee, seasoned backpacker who’s been there, or a local). Pick your temples before you leave.

  2. Wake up at 4am before the sunrises. Tear yourself from your pillow, you’ll get back in bed for a nap later.

  3. Rent an e-bike. There will be someone there at 4am, they know what the deal is.

  4. Caravan with fellow sunrisers to your temple of choice (make it a good one!)

  5. Take your shoes off before entering any temple. Pick a spot along one of the top tiers to wait out the sunrise. Don’t climb on the temples, even if it’ll give you a better view. Be respectful, always.

  6. Enjoy the sunrise and take cool pictures.

  7. Go back to bed until it cools down:)

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Tips -

  • You will need respectful clothing. Cover your shoulders and cover your knees.

  • If you can’t decide on where to go (or if you get lost along the way), you’ll see locals out and about. Just ask someone for help and they’ll point you in the right direction.

  • There will be locals selling souvenirs at the temples, even at 4am. Bargain if you want to buy, but be respectful if you don’t. It’s their job and their home.

  • Don’t do stupid things and be on your best behavior. Don’t forget that you’re in an ancient temple, it’s not a playground.

  • Watch your step, watch your head, and bring a flashlight.

  • There will be other people there - you’ll have to get up earlier than 4am if you want the best spot at one of the more popular temples.

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Monkey Mountain

If you’re looking for something to do outside of the Bagan temples, Ostello Bello will organize it for you. We spent a day at Mount Popa, or more aptly called, Monkey Mountain. It’s a stunning view, if you’re willing to climb 777 steps while being harassed by monkeys. They are not friendly. They will steal your food. They will attack if provoked, or not provoked. Just breathing near them angers them. Look down. Don’t run. Be alert. Hide your belongings. Good luck.

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The view of Mount Popa is better scene from the hill across from it. Tell your driver that you’d like to see a good view of the temple and he’ll know where to take you. 

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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.

More Pics!

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 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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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!

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Yogyakarta: an Exciting Alternative to Jakarta

Getting to Yogyakarta

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

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

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

Things to do in Yogyakarta

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

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

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The Water Temple

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

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

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The Underground Mosque

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

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

Around Yogyakarta

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

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

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

Sunrise at Borobudur

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

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

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Chicken Church

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

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

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Stupas of Borobudur

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

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

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Prambanan 

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

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

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Digs in Yogya

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

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

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

If you do go to Jakarta

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

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

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