Browsing Category: Asia

We are infinite: living it up at the Full Moon Party

I woke up with a mischievous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Today was the day of one of the best parties for a backpacker to attend, the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan island in Thailand. I had been looking forward to this hedonistic rite of passage since I first started planning my travels in Southeast Asia, and I couldn’t wait to experience it full on.

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We brought as little with us as possible and hopped on the ferry from Koh Tao that afternoon. Once we arrived at Koh Phangan about an hour later, we attempted to walk to Haad Rin Beach, the location of the party, until we realized just how big of an island Koh Phangan is. We split a taxi with a surfer/diver Swedish guy we came across on the path, and were dropped into party central before nightfall.

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There was neon everywhere, I was in heaven as I like shiny and brightly colored things. I like to claim that it’s due to my sunny California girl disposition. In fact, if you look inside my wardrobe it is a rainbow of every imaginable color…but I digress.

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Needless to say, the Full Moon Party was my kind of party. Hippie backpackers everywhere with paint splattered on their bodies, huge fire jump ropes and fire slides for partygoers to test their luck with, every imaginable greasy food lining the sidewalks, buckets of alcohol with your choice of mixer, neon clothing, a beautiful location.

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No judgements, no questions, everyone there for the sole purpose of having the best night possible, I call it “that festival feeling”. It was a night I’ll not soon forget, from the people we met along the way, to the variety of music, to that feeling of being infinite with the full moon looking down on us on that beautiful Thai island, with the sand between our toes and a bucket in each hand singing along to our favorite songs of twenty-something year olds.

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The following are my tips for having the best night possible under the Full Moon, and let me just say, it’s worth the slightly exploitive prices, copious amounts of DayGlo, and neon to experience this party firsthand at least once in your lifetime.

Getting There

I would recommend getting down to the islands at least a couple days before the party, especially if you go during high season and you’re staying on another island other than Koh Phangan, because accommodation and ferry tickets sell out fast. We came all the way from Bangkok on the night bus and it was a very long trip and extremely early ferry ride.

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Also, the night buses to and from the island are notorious for having thieves on them. Laura and I both had our money stolen on the way down, and on the way up, I caught a thief in action stealing from my neighboring bus mate. Watch your things like a hawk, and get down a system to keep everything of value very close to you while you’re trying to sleep.

Accommodation

We decided to stay on the neighboring island of Koh Tao, mainly because we heard that accommodation would be more expensive on the party island, there are usually more break-ins when people are at the party, and it’s nicer to have a quiet place to go back to and recover from the festivities.

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I actually wish that we had just stayed on Koh Phangan though, even just for the convenience. In terms of saving money, it would’ve been about the same anyway because of the jacked up ferry prices during the week of the full moon. And due to our lack of time, we had to pull a Cinderella and leave behind the Irish guys we were still partying with at 7am, and whom we had hung out with for most of the night, in order to catch our pre-booked ferry at the dock. Luckily, we were able to meet up with them again a week later in Chiang Mai before we left for Vietnam.

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With that said, I don’t regret staying on Koh Tao, because it was a lovely smaller island to explore that was gorgeous in its own right, and we probably wouldn’t have had time to see it if we had just gone straight to the party island.

What to Bring

Bring as little as possible. I almost didn’t bring my camera for fear of it getting lost or dropped, and although it still has DayGlo stains on it, I don’t regret for a second capturing the madness of the Full Moon Party. Other than that, everything I brought could all fit into my clothes: money, tissue for byo toilet paper, ferry ticket, two tiny jars of DayGlo paint, and that was it.

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Being Aware

The Full Moon Party gets a bad rap because it has been known as a place where girls easily get drugged, date raped, and taken advantage of. On top of that, there are always going to be drunk people doing stupid things at these types of events, and especially when you have fire batons and jump ropes around it can get out of hand quick, but I never once feared for my safety.

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To be fair, I don’t think I would’ve gone to the Full Moon Party by myself, but even with someone else with me, it just takes a bit of common sense, and my general rule when I’m abroad, or even when I’m at home, of not getting so drunk that I can’t take care of myself. It only leads to a bad time.

My general rules are the standard ones: to always keep an eye on your drink, use your good judgement if you’re going off somewhere with a stranger, and don’t get yourself into any situation that you can’t get yourself out of. Not only did I not have one bad experience at the Full Moon Party, but I also had the most fun out of all of my Asian nights.

Budget

There’s no way to get around it, the Full Moon Party is expensive. The islands and the people putting it on will extort as much money from you as possible because it is the biggest party in Southeast Asia. Between the ferry tickets to and from, the drinks, food, DayGlo paint, and Full Moon tank top, it came out to be one of the most expensive experiences I had in Asia. Budget accordingly and expect for everything to cost money, even using the toilet.

They’ve also started charging for “tickets” onto the beach after a certain time (generally after dark), but Laura and I were somehow able to find ways in that avoided the ticket takers.

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Lastly, don’t forget to have fun and to lose yourself in the festivities. It is one crazy neon glow ride that is worth experiencing, and it is one of those times in life that you’ll remember as the epitome of what it means to be young and free. Don’t lose that feeling.

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Travel budgeting for Cambodia

I’ve recently moved to Sydney, Australia from Melbourne. I’ve spent the last few days going to countless interviews, trial runs, and house walkthroughs. I’m exhausted to say the least, running at full speed and head first into my new life here, but I am so excited for the day when everything comes together and I can breathe a little easier.

I’m no stranger to getting up and leaving everything behind, and starting over in a completely new place, it’s invigorating, it keeps me focused and on my feet. With that said, I’ve missed my blog and the peace writing brings me, so without further ado, here’s my third installation for Southeast Asia budgeting, Cambodia! In Cambodia I traveled to Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong Samloeum, and Siem Reap.

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Note: All prices are in US dollars, and I rounded when necessary to keep things nice and easy. 

The currency in Cambodia is technically the Cambodian Riel, but everyone uses US dollars for the most part, even the ATMs dispense money in US dollars.  You do sometimes get riel back as change, the conversion rate comes to about $1US = 4,128 Cambodian Riel.

Time spent = 11 nights, 12 days

Accommodation

Phnom Penh (2 nights) = $6/night ($12 total). A mixed dorm bed at Top Banana Guesthouse (Highly recommended).

Sihanoukville (2 nights) = $4/night ($8 total). Shared bungalow for two people at The Big Easy.

Koh Rong Samloeum (3 nights) = Accommodation included in my Open Water PADI Certification.

Siem Reap (3 nights) = $2.50/night ($7.50 total). A mixed dorm bed at Garden Village Guesthouse.

In Phnom Penh, I stayed at one of my favorite hostels of my whole trip at the Top Banana. And although we didn’t have the best roommates (stories to come soon), it didn’t change the fact that I loved this hostel. It’s a bit pricey for accommodation in Cambodia, but I think the set-up, cleanliness, and location of the hostel more than makes up for the slightly higher price.

In Sihanoukville, we were approached as soon as we jumped off the bus by a European looking surfer dude, who gave us a flyer for The Big Easy. We went to go look at the rooms, which were decent enough, the location was perfect (right next to the Dive Shop for my certification), and at $4 each for our own room, we were sold.

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In Koh Rong Samloeum, my accommodation was included in the price for my PADI Certification. At $330, I received free accommodation and transportation to the island, free breakfast and lunch, and one-on-one instruction for my 4 day Open Water PADI course.

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In Siem Reap, we found the cheapest accommodation of our trip at $2.50 a night. It was a huge dorm but actually not too bad in terms of noise and obnoxious roommates. Every bed had its own fan and reading light as well, which was very much appreciated.

Transport = $3/day ($37.50 total)

Most of our transportation costs consisted of tuk tuk rides from the bus stations and an overnight bus (which was a good way to save on accommodation if you don’t mind lack of sleep).

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Food = $9/day ($108.50)

Free breakfast wasn’t included in any of the accommodations (except for my certification), but it was easy enough to find inexpensive food, either in the budget hostels or surrounding streets. Siem Reap was the best in terms of cheap food, the street outside our hostel had breakfast and lunch menu items for $1-2.

Smoothies/juices = $8 total

I still dream about the passionfruit mango smoothie I had my first night in Phnom Penh.

Water (1500ml) = Around $0.50-$0.75 each/$5.60 total for 9 bottles

Alcohol = $7.25 (Cambodia, where $0.50 beer exists)

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Misc = $71.75 ($401.75 including my diving)

Breakdown of my miscellaneous purchases:

  • Killing Fields and Genocide Museum entry and tuk tuk driver for the day = $15.50
  • Postcard and stamps = $5
  • Doctor (to get a physical for my diving) = $10
  • Seasick medication = $3
  • Assorted toiletries = $6.50
  • Laundry = $3
  • Temple pants = $7.50 (never pay this much for temple pants, $5 is plenty)
  • Bracelet = $1
  • Cambodia sticker = $0.25
  • Angkor Temples Pass = $20
  • PADI Open Water Certification = $330

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Including everything, I spent about $22 a day, or $266 total ($596 including my diving).

Overall, Cambodia turned out to be one of the most affordable places I traveled to in Southeast Asia, and as an added bonus, it was also probably my favorite country. Siem Reap was the cheapest, with Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville coming out to about the same general prices. The island of Koh Rong Samloeum was relatively expensive compared to the rest of Cambodia, especially in terms of food. Luckily, most of my meals were included in my certification, but dinner was a bit costly at around $7- $9, which I guess is to be expected for an island with only two restaurants. In any case, I loved Cambodia.

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Angkor What? Exploring the Angkor temples in Cambodia

13. Watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Most people have heard of the Angkor temples either from the history books or perhaps from Tomb Raider, but unless you’ve seen the temples yourself, nothing can prepare you for the Khmer genius and intricate aesthetic details that you’ll find at the Angkor temples. Located about 4 miles north of Siem Reap, the Angkor temples are the top attraction to see in Cambodia, and one that I had been looking forward to seeing ever since I started planning my travels around Asia.

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We opted for the most popular time to visit Angkor Wat, watching the sunrise come up behind the iconic pillars. It was still dark when we set out for the Angkor temples on our tuk tuk ($15 total for 2 people), we made one stop before the temples to pick up our ID pass for the day. They they took our picture (at 5 in the morning, yikes!), and we were able to buy either a 1 day, 3 day, or 1 week pass. We bought the 1 day pass for $20 and continued on our way to our first stop, Angkor Wat.

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As we were walking towards the temple, there were tons of hawkers and food stall owners that walked with us and told us to come to their stall after sunrise for breakfast. They all had catchy names like Lady Gaga, David Beckham, or our personal favorite, 007. There was already a crowd of people surrounding the pond in front of the temple, but we somehow found a spot with a clear view, and waited for the sunrise.

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Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, is thought to be the largest religious structure in the world. Originally a Hindu temple honoring the God Vishnu, it became a Buddhist temple in the 16th century after the capital moved to Phnom Penh and it was then cared for by Buddhist monks. “Wat” translates to “temple”, so it’s literally the Angkor Temple, the mother of all temples. It took 30-35 years to build, and it is truly a testament to human intellect, strength, and ingenuity.

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We stayed awhile in Angkor Wat, taking our time to walk around all the intricate bas-reliefs throughout the temple, and saying hello to the monkeys who like to hang out around the back.

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Once we had our fill of Angkor Wat, we hopped back in our tuk tuk and drove to the next stop, the temple complex of Angkor Thom. Once the capital city of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom’s most iconic structure is the Bayon, the Buddhist temple of King Jayavarman VII. The most unique aspect of the Bayon is the 216 huge stone faces throughout the temple, it’s also called the temple of the smiling Gods.

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We continued to walk around the huge complex that is Angkor Thom, and explored more than a fair share of ruins covered in moss, and smaller temples, including the notable Baphuon Temple and Phimeanakas Temple. 

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Our last stop of the day was the temple of Ta Prohm, or the temple that was in Tomb Raider. Unlike most of the other temples we had seen that day that had been extensively restored, Ta Prohm is a temple of ruins. Somehow, the ruins covered in dewy moss and soft sunlight made it one of the most beautiful structures we had seen all day. It is also considered the capital of the Kingdom of the Trees, due to it’s high volume of massive ancient tree roots that have taken over parts of the ruins.

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Although it would’ve been great to have viewed the temples with a tour guide, I actually enjoyed exploring the temples on my own and just taking it all in, reveling in the beauty of such ancient structures in the present, and doing a bit of research before and after to understand the history behind what I had seen. I’m also glad that we only bought the 1 day pass, because after a full day of temple exploring starting at sunrise, I can say for a fact that I was “templed-out” and ready to take a nap.

Seeing the Angkor temples was a travel dream come true and an experience, though more expensive than most you’ll have in Southeast Asia, that was well worth the pennies. It was a great day, taking a step back in time and walking through one of the most historic and religious testaments of the past, and a highlight of my overall time in Cambodia.

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Getting my scuba certification in paradise

9. Get my scuba certification

Since before I can remember, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the ocean. The ocean is one of my favorite things to live by, look at, go to, and I love the beach. I know whenever I settle down, it will have to be in a place near the ocean, as I’ve grown up my whole life with the salty ocean breeze as the air I breathe.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve always had trepidation when it comes to swimming in the ocean, the immensity of it, the unpredictability it represents. I think my main issue is with waves, and that fear I have in the back of my mind of drowning because I’m not a very strong swimmer. And, I have the added bonus of being prone to sea sickness on boats.

The only bad experience I can remember with the ocean is when I was 8 or 9, my dad took me out boogey boarding, to a spot further out than I had gone before. He turned his back for a minute to talk to my brother, and a wave crashed over me with no warning. I just remember not being able to pick myself up again, the ocean kept dragging me in, and I felt completely helpless and resigned, until my dad found me and helped me out of the ocean.

That experience is partly why I’m a walking oxymoron of a California girl who doesn’t surf.

A fear I’ve been wanting to tackle because to my core I really do love the ocean, I took my first steps of getting over my apprehension by diving head first (literally) into my fear and took a 4 day PADI Open Water course to get my scuba certification on the lesser known island of Koh Rong Samloem, off the coast of Cambodia.

I was originally thinking of getting my certification in Thailand or Vietnam, it’s where most people get their PADI, and there are some well renowned dive shops in those two countries. However, I wanted a different, more personal experience than a big dive company that just cycles through certifications, and when I found out that Cambodia came out to be slightly cheaper anyway, I was sold.

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After some research, I chose The Dive Shop Cambodia. I was equally dreadful and beyond excited when I booked my dates for my PADI course, knowing how big of an accomplishment it would be for me if I was able to complete the course. Most people have heard of the party island of Koh Rong, but the course was instead on the more untouched neighbor island of Koh Rong Samloem. The Dive Shop actually owns the side of the island I stayed on, so the only people on the island are the instructors, the local Cambodian chefs, and the PADI students. When I was there, it was about 15 people in total.

It is the closest I’ve had to a serene deserted island paradise. There are only two restaurants/bungalows, no Wi-Fi, electricity is used only four hours a day, and there’s a jungle reminiscent of the TV show LOST to explore right in the middle of it all. There’s also an unhealthy amount of hermit crabs that take over the beach at night, we learned quickly to bring a flashlight with us at night.

Always the overachieving straight-A student, I took to reading my PADI Open Water theory book before we even left for the island. Once on the island, the first day was simply watching videos and eating some delicious Cambodian curry. The next day involved multiple quizzes, and one big exam to pass my written component of the certification. And then it was on to my first taste of salt water, the confined dives were in the shallow part of the ocean, this was clearly not going to be a gradual course.

Doing my course in the off-season (read: wet season) was both good and bad. I had one-on-one instruction with my teacher, Jake, but it was also stormy for most of my dives. The ocean was choppy and at times the sky would open up to torrential rains. My first day in the ocean, we had to walk right into the choppy waves from the beach. I managed to stifle an oncoming panic attack, took a deep breath, walked right into the waves that were getting more violent by the minute, and I breathed for the first time underwater.

It is like no other experience I have ever had, I can see why diving hooks people and never let’s them go. You use your all of your senses in such a different way, it’s a completely new world under the sea, and for the first time in my life I was a part of it.

The next two days consisted of open water dives, four in total in the deep sea, and I loved it. My only issues were taking off my mask under the water as I wear contacts so I had to take off my mask, put it back on, and clear it all while not being able to see. Being blind in the ocean freaked me out, but I was definitely not going to let a little thing like that keep me from getting my certification.

And I realized shortly after that it was especially important to keep my eyes closed since I had forgotten my extra pairs of contacts back on the mainland. In other words, I had no room to screw it up, or else I would be blind for the rest of my certification.

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Buoyancy is another aspect that took getting used to under the water, it all amounts to how deeply you breathe in and out. It reminded me of yoga and how you have to pay attention to your controlled breathing in order to reap the benefits of your practice. By my last dive, I finally had it down and I could easily go up and around corals, avoid sea life on the bottom, and really enjoy diving without thinking too hard about the details.

Overall, getting my Open Water PADI Certification was a great experience, and I would recommend The Dive Shop Cambodia. The only issue I had with the company was that they were a little disorganized, especially at their office on the mainland in Sihanoukville. It took a lot of effort to get my paperwork from them on time in order to send away for my PADI card. Regardless, I had a wonderful few days on the island, learning the ways of diving with my instructor, and most importantly, taking the first step towards getting over a deep rooted anxiety.

Next up is learning how to surf, and then I can truly fulfill the cliché of a California surfer girl. I guess it’s a good thing that I’ll have a whole summer in Australia to tackle the waves.

Dark tourism in Phnom Penh: The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum

I’ve been to Birkenau and Auschwitz, I’ve visited the 9/11 Memorial, and now I’ve seen the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Cambodia. What all of these have in common is a remembrance of historic atrocities that are incredibly sad to visit, but important to learn about and experience first hand to pay due respect to all of those who have lost their lives.

The Khmer Rouge was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by a man named Pol Pot. In the span of those short 4 years of power, the Khmer Rouge party was responsible for the Cambodian genocide that killed almost 2 million people. The Khmer Rouge gained popularity in such a short amount of time, mainly because of the constant civil war going on at the time. In 1973, when the Khmer Republic government, with help from the US, dropped a million tons of bombs killing hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, many quickly gave their support to the Khmer Rouge, seeing them as a way out from the violence and loss.

Once they had complete power, the Khmer Rouge began their radical communist agenda of making Cambodia into a rural, classless society, avoiding capitalism at all costs. Everything about Cambodian culture changed, thousands of intellectuals, military officers, and soldiers were tortured and killed. Only when Vietnamese soldiers captured Phnom Penh in 1979, was the Khmer Rouge put to rest once and for all.

However, millions had already died by then at the hands of the regime in brutal and sadistic ways, millions of innocent lives were lost because of the deluded ideals of the party. Genocide, whether it be the Native Americans in the US, the Jews in Germany, or the Tutsis in Rwanda, has sadly been a repetitive part of our violent history. Cambodia is no different.

I knew it would be an intense and trying day as I made my way in a tuk tuk to Choeung Ek, or the “Killing Fields” on the outskirts of town. It was a very well done memorial to the people who had lost their lives at the compound, especially with the lack of buildings that still exist, most of them having been destroyed after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. I received my own audio set, and took my time going through all the spots around the compound, listening to survivor stories, trying to put myself in the shoes of the people living in terror within this place – impossible of course, since no one can truly understand what these people went through and the brutality with which they were met.

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One aspect that struck me was the ruthless ways in which these people were murdered in droves. Every genocide is horrible in its own way, but these people were murdered on a more personal level by those in power: beaten to death with hoes and shovels, throats slit, babies hit against a tree until they died in front of their crying mothers. Bullets were too expensive for the regime, so they relied on barbaric ways of disposing of thousands upon thousands of people. There were still huge pits where mass graves had been dug, there was one where everyone in the pit had been beheaded and left to rot.

At the end of the tour, I came to a glass shrine I saw when I walked in. However, on closer inspection, I realized that the shrine held 8,000 human skulls. Taking a moment of silence, I walked around the inside of the shrine trying my best to commemorate all of those who had given their lives, it was overwhelming.

In the Killing Fields alone, 1.7 million Cambodians were killed, or 21% of the population. 

Solemnly, I walked back to the tuk tuk, knowing the next stop was going to be just as difficult.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21, used to be a high school, before it was turned into a torture camp. Mainly it was used to imprison those thought to threaten the regime, they would torture prisoners until they gave false confessions, and then they would be sent to the Killing Fields to be disposed of. Similar to Auschwitz, a big part of the memorial is the walls of pictures of prisoners’ faces, of the many who died there. It gives you the ability to look each one in the eye and imagine what they had been thinking when their picture was taken at the camp. Some are defiant, some are scared, some ambivalent as if already resigned to their fate, each one had their own personality, their own story.

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It was a heavy day in Phnom Penh, but what strikes me about the city and Cambodia as a country in general, is that even though having witnessed such atrocities in relatively recent years, Cambodians are still some of the friendliest and happiest people I have met in my travels. Phnom Penh is still a beautiful city, residual signs of the old regime are all but nonexistent except for the dark tourism museums. I can’t help but admire and respect the Cambodian people who have been through so much in not much more than a generation ago.

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Although a sad experience to endure, I don’t regret for a minute paying my respects to the darker side of Cambodian history at the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, and I would recommend it to anyone who has some time in Phnom Penh. When we’re traveling or on holiday it’s easier to ignore such places, because you don’t necessarily want to think about the heavier parts of history that have happened there, but I think to really understand a culture, you have to experience all of it, the good and the bad.

And I think we’re all better travelers for it.

18 hours in Singapore

When I found out that it would be cheaper to fly through Singapore to get to Vietnam from Indonesia, I jumped at the chance to see another country and add another stamp to my passport. With 18 hours to explore one of the most modern, unique, and aesthetically pleasing countries in the world, I had a lot to do in a short span of time.

One aspect that struck me as soon as I arrived, even just at the airport, was how immaculately clean and well thought out everything is. When I was taking the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) from the airport to the city, the first sign I saw was a S$500 fine for eating or drinking in the station. One Singapore Dollar is almost equivalent to the US Dollar. Yeah, I was definitely in Singapore now.

Some other interesting laws that I came across in Singapore:

It’s against the law to not flush the toilet after use

If you litter, the fine can be as high as $1000

Selling chewing gum at a local store is against the law

It’s illegal to walk around your house naked because it’s considered a form of pornography

Spitting is banned, significant fines are involved if you spit on the street

There’s a mandatory caning if you graffiti public property

Those are just a few, but let’s just say that I was worried to even jaywalk, not sure what legal repercussions I could be walking into. With that said, the laws, although seemingly ridiculous at times, have done wonders for the cleanest, most respectable, and architecturally intriguing city that I have been to.

When I arrived in the city, I walked from the MRT station to find my hostel, the most expensive one I’ve paid for in Southeast Asia at $20 a night, it was the cheapest one I could find in Singapore. Oh, did I mention that Singapore is almost as expensive as Australia? The hostel was the only disappointing part of Singapore, as even though it was the most expensive, it was also probably the smelliest and dirtiest one I’ve stayed at in Asia. Other than the hostel, I loved Singapore with a passion. I have a thing for organization and well planned out cities, it makes me happy.

After checking in, I hit the streets to see what my one and only night in Singapore had to offer. Since I was so short on time, I did some research ahead of time for a perfect night out in Singapore. I started by going to Makansutra Gluttons Bay Food Court. It was one of my favorite food experiences in Asia, offering a variety of Asian specialties on the beautiful esplanade, it’s an upscale outdoor food court that has budget friendly dinner options. I grabbed some pad thai and went to sit on the esplanade overlooking the bay, Singapore is one of the most gorgeous cities at night. 

After dinner, I walked along the esplanade, there was some live music playing in front of the water, there was a fireworks show over the bay, and tons of people laughing, having a good time, couples getting cozy under the beautiful view, families eating cheap eats together. I walked for awhile just taking in the sights of the city, my end goal was a little place called Gardens by the Bay.

I’m not going to lie, it was a task trying to find this place, but I was determined, from my research it looked like a real life Avatar-esque world. To get to Gardens by the Bay, I had to go through a hotel that looks like a boat, you can’t miss it, it’s called the Marina Bay Sands. I took the elevator from just outside the hotel to the second floor, and walked through the hotel – and its beautiful inside architecture. The path eventually lead me to Gardens by the Bay, which is a treat to the eyes and senses.

Gardens by the Bay is one of the coolest places I have been to, and it’s quite hard to describe unless you’ve been there in person. Sadly, I was only able to go at night, but I think it would be gorgeous during the day as well. Basically, it involves multiple towers in the shape of flowers aligned in a whimsical way, they light up in different colors, while an instrumental soundtrack plays in the background.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but once you go you’ll see how unique of an experience Gardens by the Bay is. I especially loved the fact that they used color and music in sync to make you feel different moods and emotions. All I can say is go there if you have any time in Singapore, you will not be disappointed.

At this point, I was exhausted from the escapades of the day and headed back to the hostel. The next morning, before my flight, I went to go see the iconic Merlion statue, a mermaid lion which became the national mascot of Singapore in the 1960s, and which is supposed to represent Singapore’s origins as a fishing village. It is one of the weirdest statues I have come across, and a perfect way to end my short stop over in Singapore.

I must admit, Singapore, you’ve stolen my heart a bit. Until next time.

Besakih Temple, the worst side of Bali tourism

Never have I had as horrible of an experience with tourist exploitation as I did at the Besakih Temple in Bali, Indonesia. Although it is considered one of the top sites to see just outside of Ubud, also known as the “Mother Temple”, I’m telling you right now, it is not worth the hassle you will find there. I’m not one to dismiss tourist attractions simply because they may be a bit more difficult or prone to scams than others, but this place should sadly be passed up, it displays the worst side of Bali tourism.

For a place that’s supposed to be one of the largest and holiest temples in Bali, it doesn’t feel like anything more than a place to exploit tourists out of their money every step of the way, it is out of control.

We went to the Besakih Temple as one of the many stops on a tour we booked in Ubud. Other stops included the Goa Gajah (more popularly known as the Elephant Cave), the active volcano Mt. Batur, and a lookout over the rice paddies, all of which I would recommend. However, when we arrived at the Besakih Temple, we realized that we probably should have kept going. I had read in my guidebook to watch out for the numerous amount of scams at the Besakih Temple, our tour guide, a local Balinese man, even warned us that you shouldn’t pay anything extra than the entrance fee, and yet we were still not prepared for what we would encounter; one of my most frustrating days on the road that I have ever had.

After paying the entrance fee, we walked to the main entrance. There was a booth set up with men in uniforms, supposedly to check your tickets. However, when we approached they grabbed our tickets, and started aggressively telling us that we had to make a mandatory donation, something around 150,000 IDR (about $13), which is a lot in Bali and more than the entrance fee itself. When we told them we didn’t have that kind of money and that we were told there was no mandatory donation, they told us to just give them whatever was in our wallet. I refused and asked for my ticket back. They reluctantly agreed, and that’s when I realized this wasn’t a stop to check your ticket, it was just one of the many scams that the temple had to offer us that day.

After I told them there was no way I was going to make a donation, they told us we needed a “temple guardian”, someone to show us around the temples because there was a special ceremony that day and we couldn’t go into certain parts of the temple. They tell the same lie to tourists every day. I knew from reading up ahead of time that there wasn’t such a thing as “temple guardians”, it was just another scam. The other couple we were with paid them some Indonesian Rupiah to rent a sarong they didn’t need, and to rent a “guardian” simply to appease them. Even still, there was no guardian assigned to them, so we just started walking up the long hill towards the temple.

When we made it to the foot of the temple, there were three sets of stairs, one main one that led to a gate. There were “guardians” everywhere dressed in white. We walked up to the gate and there were children blocking our way telling us we needed a guardian. Already irritated with how many times they had attempted to trick us, I walked through quickly before they could say anything else. Unfortunately, the other three people in my group hung back, unsure of what the correct protocol was when we knew we were being scammed, but at the same time not wanting to offend the local Balinese. I walked back to the other side of the gate, not wanting to continue without my group, and that’s when the leader of the guardians, an older brother I would assume, came over to make his presence known.

Wearing a Harley Davidson shirt and smoking a cigarette on the entrance to the temple with a bandana around his head, he tried to claim that he was in charge and we weren’t getting past without paying an extortinate amount for a “guardian”. We argued with him for what seemed like ages, telling him he couldn’t legally block our way because we knew the “guardians” were just a scam, and we had already paid the entrance fee. At one point, looking into his eyes I could feel his hatred towards us exuding out of his whole body. When my friend told him that all we wanted was to see their beautiful temple, he made a racist slur about not wanting us white people in his country anyway. Ironic being that he makes his money off extorting tourists.

When we asked him if he had a boss or someone in charge we could talk to, he suddenly pretended that he didn’t understand us, even though he had been speaking in perfect english to us this whole time. He was getting angrier and he slammed the gate on us, not letting us past. We went to one of the other staircases and walked up no problem, but there were still “guardians” everywhere inside leading tourists around. We were stopped more than once by these “guardians” telling us we couldn’t go into certain areas, and then watched as they proceeded to bring a group of people into the very area they just told us we couldn’t go.

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We were so infuriated at this point, that we just decided to leave, not even having the chance to walk into the main sanctuary yet, we realized it wasn’t worth it anymore.

I try and understand the perspective of the Balinese who run this scam, that they do this out of desperation and need, that they feel validated because the tourists who come to their temple are so much more well off. Still, I couldn’t believe the disrespect they showed to one of their most sacred monuments, a place meant for reflection, prayer, and spirituality. I couldn’t believe they would treat other human beings with such disdain, making preconceived judgments and practicing reverse racism because of the color of our skin. I couldn’t believe how horrible of an experience the Besakih Temple was, and how  unregulated the scams are.

Similar to not supporting the young children in Cambodia selling souvenirs to tourists because you don’t want to encourage the bad side effects of tourism, the Besakih Temple isn’t worth going to because it’s supporting the worst side of Bali tourism. I’d like to believe that Bali is better place than that.

Moments from the road

“To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was to let it be.” – Cheryl Strayed (excerpt from Wild)

It’s strange, that passing feeling you get while traveling, the amount of different types of people you meet on a daily basis, the deep or not so deep connections you can make with people in the matter of a few days. It’s one of the many reasons why I love traveling.

It’s the people I meet on my travels that keep me trekking on and grounded when I feel lost, disillusioned with what I find in certain places. A chance connection on a night bus with a Welsh guy, having an enlightening conversation at midnight about our lives on the opposite sides of the world we grew up on. A friendly English girl who became our roommate in Chiang Mai. The fun groups of guys we met at the Full Moon Party. And of course my travel companion and partner in crime who has been with me since the beginning of Asia.

I’ve come to the point in my travels where I feel exhausted at times, I’ve been on the road for so long now, or at least it seems. I’m fortunate to be on this journey, but I would be lying if I didn’t say some days are harder than others. Thailand has been more challenging than I thought it would be, from having my money stolen to the unfriendliness we’ve been met with in more than a few instances. Of course, it probably comes down to moving too fast. For when you move too fast in any capacity, it’s hard to appreciate the little things that make life so worth it.

Although I love spontaneity, I’m a creature of habit to my core. I love having a relaxed routine, a local coffee shop that considers me a regular, my favorite market, rituals of sorts that bring me comfort. In San Diego, it was a place called Black’s Cliffs. I would go there at least once a month if not more, just to look out at the ocean, listen to music and write lyrics.

The gentle give and take of the waves reminds me that life is the same, always taking things away but also bringing in new beginnings. No matter what happens, the waves will continue their cycle, life moves on, everything moves on with time whether you like it or not. It’s the place I always ended up, because it reminds me that this feeling will pass whether bad or good, that everything is fleeting in the scheme of things, and that’s why you should never take anything for granted.

I have a little more than a couple weeks in Asia, and then I’ll be heading back to Australia. I’ve gone back and forth so many times over where I’ll be going back to exactly, I am quite the nomad these days. For the last 6 months I’ve been thinking it would be Melbourne, it seemed to fit perfectly with my personality, and it would definitely be the easiest place to return to with the roots I’ve made there in the last four months.

Yet, I’ve somehow made the executive decision that I’ll be buying a one way Greyhound ticket to Sydney after a week back in Melbourne, and seeing where life takes me from there. I guess I’ve never been one to take the easy road anyway.

Maybe it’s due to my need for a constant sense of adventure, maybe it’s simply something new to focus on, maybe I just have a good feeling about it. Maybe it doesn’t really matter the reasons why, just that I’m moving forward and letting it be.

And there’s always Brisbane if Sydney and I don’t work out…

Whatever happens I always remember one of my favorite lyrics, “What we found down these roads that wander as lost as the heart is a chance to breathe again, a chance for a fresh start.”

How wild it is to just let it be.

Travel Budgeting for Bali

I think I’ve finally recovered from the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan island and I have the energy once again to blog!  My second installation for Southeast Asia budgeting is Indonesia! Or more specifically, Bali. Here’s the run down of my expenses:

Note: All prices are in US dollars, and I rounded when necessary to keep things nice and easy. 

The currency in Indonesia is the Indonesian Rupiah (IDR for short) and the conversion is about 11,350 IDR to US$1. I already converted all the prices to approximate US dollars.

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Time spent = 7 nights, 8 days

Accommodation

North Kuta (4 nights) = $13.25/night ($53 total)

Ubud = (3 nights) = $9/night ($27 total)

My accommodation in North Kuta was extremely far from the main part of Bali’s beaches, it was about a 2 hour walk to the beach or a $5 taxi ride, which gets expensive fast. The only benefit was the free breakfast and having our own bungalow, but I don’t know if it was worth it for it was the most expensive place we’ve stayed at besides Singapore. Seminyak is a bit more upscale, so I work recommend checking out Legian or Kuta for cheaper accommodation that’s close to all the action, and make sure to double check the location!

In Ubud, I stayed at a guesthouse called Nyuh Gading on Monkey Forest Road, which I would recommend simply for the location and free breakfast, and $9-$10 seems about standard for Ubud accommodation. For breakfast you had the choice of a banana pancake or toast, both came with a fresh platter of fruit. The only issue I had was that it was right across from the football field, which meant hearing the local school’s gym class at 7am with a teacher that had a megaphone.

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Transport = $3.50/day ($28 total)

Most of our transportation costs were around North Kuta for taxi rides to and from the beach, and keep in mind that was sharing a taxi between two people, so if you’re traveling by yourself it’ll be twice as much. Other transportation costs included a shuttle from Kuta to Ubud ($8) and one from Ubud to the airport ($5.50).

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Food = $8.25/day ($66 total)

Luckily free breakfast is included in most accommodations in Bali, so we saved a bit on food in that capacity. You could find pretty cheap meals away from the touristy beach areas and/or in Ubud for around $2. If you are near the beach resorts in Seminyak, it’s hard to find meals under $4.

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Smoothies/juices = $6.00 total

Bali had some of the best smoothies.

Water (1500ml) = Around $0.50 each/$4.50 total for 9 bottles

Alcohol = $1.75 (for 1 Bintang)

Misc = $55.00

Breakdown of my miscellaneous purchases:

  • Massage on the beach = $4.50
  • Bintang sticker = $0.50
  • Stamps and postcards = $5.50
  • Day tour around Ubud sites and temple entry fees = $21
  • Yoga class = $10
  • Bracelet = $0.50
  • Departure tax at airport = $13

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Including everything, I spent about $30 a day, or $237 total.

Overall, Bali turned out to be one of the most expensive places we went to in Southeast Asia, besides Singapore which is as expensive as Australia. We did the bare minimum in terms of sightseeing and nice meals to stay within budget, and we still went over budget because literally everything costs money in Bali. So, even though cheaper than say Europe or Australia, be prepared to spend more than you would normally expect for Southeast Asia since Bali has become much more touristy in the past decade.

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How Ubud restored my faith in Bali

I’ve been reluctant to write about my time in Bali because, besides Ubud, I have to admit that I didn’t really enjoy it all the much. It’s shocking, I know, it was shocking to me. I thought Bali would be my favorite place in my travels through Southeast Asia.

I find it difficult to write about my feelings toward places I travel if they harbor any negativity. Mainly, I don’t want to influence others to not go to a place simply because I didn’t have the best time there, because everyone’s experiences are going to be different, and it’s always good to check out that experience for yourself. In retrospect, I saw very little of what Bali, and for that matter, what Indonesia had to offer. I only spent time in Kuta, Legian, Seminyak, and Ubud. Other travelers I’ve talked to who have traveled more off the beaten path, have come back with great stories of their time in Bali and other parts of Indonesia.

For me, no matter how hard I tried to make it work, Bali and I were not meant to be best buds. 

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If I had a more flexible budget there is a better chance that I would’ve enjoyed Bali. I didn’t see that many backpackers to begin with, it was mainly couples and families. With the initial demographic, I shouldn’t have been that surprised, but I found the famous beaches of Bali to be based around resorts and upscale pool clubs that were reminiscent of something out of Las Vegas, not the bohemian beachy paradise I was hoping for.

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If I had the money to afford one of the all inclusive resorts overlooking the beach, I would’ve had a completely different trip. Alas, I’ve been on a tight backpacker’s budget from the beginning, and I was astounded with how much Bali broke the bank compared to everywhere else that I’ve traveled in Southeast Asia, besides maybe Singapore. I continuously underestimated how much things would cost in the week I was there that I had to take out money three different times, not the best situation for the accruing amount of international ATM fees my bank account has already been bombarded with.

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Another aspect that took me completely by surprise was the beaches themselves. I hope this doesn’t come off as too pretentious, but compared to the beaches I’ve seen in California, Australia, and now even Cambodia and Thailand, the beaches of Kuta, Seminyak, and Legian, paled greatly in comparison. Not only were the beaches not quite as spectacular or as clean as I was expecting, but you couldn’t lie on the beach, or walk anywhere for that matter without constantly being harassed.

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I get harassed by hawkers no matter where I’ve traveled in Asia, but in Bali you can’t lie on the beach for more than 5 minutes without being asked if you want to buy something. There was no escaping the constant stream of hawkers when all I wanted was to be left alone to my book or my music and lay in the sand. I tried sitting in the sun, in the shade, behind a tree, but without fail I wouldn’t have more than a few minutes to myself. My solitary activities are one of my favorite things about going to the beach, besides maybe a game of beach volleyball. I try to understand the point of view from the hawkers, needing to make a living and always coming up short, but even still, with the excessiveness of it all, it just ended up rubbing me the wrong way.

The taxi drivers were another story all together. It was our fault that we had booked a bungalow so far away from the beach, a two hour walk from Seminyak. This left us no choice but to deal with the Blue Bird Group taxi drivers every day. Even though our guesthouse was off a main street, we got lost with a different cabbie every single night, and almost had more than a few mental breakdowns and unnecessarily inflated prices that they would add on to our initial agreed (and haggled) price. In none of the cabs we rode in did the driver know the street names, and this is when we would write them out in Balinese as well. They pretty much just knew the touristy bits of the main beaches but not anywhere in town.

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The one place that made me reevaluate my initial perception of Bali was Ubud. Ubud is what I was expecting Bali to be: a bit more laid back, hippie, healthy, yoga-centered, with a slower (and kinder) pace to life. I admit, I’m one of those fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and maybe that built up my perceptions in the wrong way, but at least Ubud was what I had imagined when I read Gilbert’s memoir way back when in high school, and multiple times since. It overflowed with the feeling of happiness and connectivity, it reminded me a lot of my hometown of Santa Cruz, California.

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I love Ubud. It’s easy to maneuver, the market is alive and colorful yet not too pushy, the people friendlier. You can find the most delicious (and affordable) traditional Balinese dishes around town, or indulge in one of the many healthy cafe menu items, such as wheatgrass shots or tempeh, depending on your mood. It showed me that there are other sides to Bali besides the in-your-face tourism-centered side that I experienced in the Kuta area.

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Still, after being to every country on my travel list in Southeast Asia, I can say that even though beautiful, Indonesia was not my favorite country, but I look forward to exploring more sides that may suit my personality in a better way – perhaps Lombok and the Gili Islands for my next trip?

Have you ever been to Bali? Was it what you expected?

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