Browsing Category: Asia

Sailing Halong Bay on a party boat

15. Sail Halong Bay 

I crossed another experience off my travel resolutions when I sailed Halong Bay last October. I had researched profusely on which tour and boat company would be the best. Wanting to not find myself on an elderly retirement cruise, I leaned more towards the party cruise scene with a tour I had been recommended from multiple backpackers.

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The Castaway Island Rock Long Rock Hard tour is offered through Hanoi Backpackers, the hostel we just happened to be staying at. Although I heard mostly good things about this particular tour, even that it was possibly the best one offered for Halong Bay, I also heard it really depended on who you lucked out on for the tour guides and your fellow group of travelers. I can definitely attest to the fact that it really depends on the group dynamic as to what kind of experience you’ll have, every tour seems to be different from the last.

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Our tour consisted of a mixed bag of characters, but in the end I think I still lucked out with the group I had. I made some great travel buddies on one hand, some of whom I would meet up with again in the course of my journey. There were a couple of English guys we met the night before on the hostel pub crawl, and who tried their best to turn us into Liverpool football fans. I met a group of Irish guys who kept me laughing the whole trip, and who I met again later in my Vietnam travels and even back in Melbourne. There was a German guy traveling by himself who I immediately hit it off with, bonding over the many commonalities we seemed to have between us, and the fact that he played American football back home in Germany. We also made friends with some fellow American women who had recently been teaching English in China, and some other English girls that had just traveled through India and had more than a few interesting and hilarious travel stories to tell.

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On the other side of the coin, we ended up with an obnoxious womanizing English chap as our head guide, who was more interested in bragging about his conquests than telling us any useful information about Halong Bay or Vietnamese culture. Luckily, our other guide was a funny, sarcastic, friendly English guy who could answer most questions we posed to him about our surroundings. We also had a large group of younger Germans on the tour that didn’t want to participate in any of the games or be social with anyone but themselves, and a group of Oxford guys who had been tricked by their friend into thinking they were going on a cultural tour. You can imagine how social they were once they found out that it was a party boat, they mostly kept to themselves and didn’t say much for the rest of the trip.

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I was unfortunately strapped for cash and time by the end of my Asia travels, so I only did one night and two days in Halong Bay. Most people chose to pay for two nights, which included going to Castaway Island, supposedly a paradise on Earth from what I’ve heard. If I had the resources, I definitely would’ve paid the extra to do the full trip. From the stories I heard from the other travelers, the night on the island was even crazier than the night on the boat.

There wasn’t much to complain about. The Castaway Tour, although a splurge for most attractions you would do in Asia, was well organized and set up nicely for the 20-3o something backpacker crowd. The rooms were clean and spacious for a boat, the food was decent and we were fed often, and there were cheap drinks abound. I went kayaking for the first time ever, and I couldn’t imagine a better place than in the beautiful Halong Bay. As the day went on and the sun started to set, people began jumping off from the top of the boat or shotgunning beers while they waited and made an effort to get to know one another. I somehow ended up in a circle of all guys racing to see who could shotgun a beer the fastest, I managed to hold my own.

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I truly think you need to do one of these party boats to get an idea of what it’s really like, but let’s just say it included two boats tied together, a bit of nudity, copious amounts of drinking, loud music, clothing swaps, an epic card game that usually included some form of public humiliation with each card drawn, and some good times that were some of my favorite memories from Asia, creepy English guide be damned. And of course, even if party boats can get a little much and over the top sometimes, it’s important to remember that you never have to do anything you’re not comfortable with, so you can make it what you will.

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The night ended with everyone shaking their thing on the dance floor, I was content to just sit in the corner with the German guy, swapping life stories and travel anecdotes. It was one of those moments you remember from time to time, and one I’m not soon to forget. It still baffles me, even with how much I’ve traveled, the closeness you can feel with a group of travelers you’ve just met when you experience something beautiful together. The limestone cliffs swallowed by shadows was our background, the stars shining bright above, our canopy, and in that moment, there was no place I would rather be.

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Have you ever been to Halong Bay? 

A Year to Remember

After many technical difficulties, I’ve finally been successful in uploading my video celebrating my one year travelversary!!

In the last year, I visited 8 countries, moved to 3 new cities, volunteered at 3 music festivals, and went to an outdoor short film festival. I rode an elephant, learned how to cook Thai food, went to my first footy game, got my scuba certification, and kayaked in the beautiful Halong Bay. I tried more new flavors than my taste buds had ever known before, including the likes of kangaroo, snake blood, emu, and crocodile. I’ve had the most challenging and best time of my life. It’s hard to convey in words what this year has meant to me, so I thought instead I’d say it in pictures. Thank you to all of the people, places, and experiences that have had an impact on my year abroad. It has been one hell of a ride, may the journey continue… 😉

 

[vimeo 92379042 w=500 h=281]

 

Drinking snake blood in Hanoi

Eating Snake Blood in Hanoi, Vietnam

It was my first night out in Byron last night, we had a good crew going of Norwegians, an Italian, a few Kiwis and Aussies thrown in for good measure, and me as the token American as per usual. There was this Aussie at the trivia night at my hostel, he looked so familiar but I couldn’t place where I knew him from. A few beers later, I ran into him again at one of the local bars and it suddenly hit me, he was the tour guide that feasted on snake with me back in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the guy who was pouring me rice wine all night.

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He came back to Byron, his hometown, for a short trip before moving back to Hanoi. It’s moments like that where you realize how small the world really is (cliche epiphanies for the win). Anyway, it reminded me that I still haven’t written about my experience in Snake Village, and boy what an experience it was.

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If you’re faint of heart, a die-hard animal lover (no pun intended), or a PETA enthusiast, I recommend you pass by this post and try not to judge me too hard.

I read about Adventurous Kate’s experience going to Snake Village and drinking snake blood when I was planning my trip to Southeast Asia, so I put it in the memory bank for when I arrived in Hanoi to look up how to make that happen. It sounded like a once in a lifetime experience, not to mention, pretty badass.

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I talked to the Vietnamese chef at the bar I worked at back in Melbourne, to find out if it was really a cultural experience or more of a tourist gimmick. He said eating snake is common in Vietnam, drinking the blood is meant to make you strong and increase your virility, and being chosen to eat the heart is synonymous with sitting at the head of the table, it’s a sign of great respect. That’s not to say that Snake Village isn’t geared towards tourists, it 100% is, but it’s still a part of Vietnamese culture that I probably wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise unless I had been invited into a Vietnamese home.

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Hanoi Backpackers was known for doing good tours to Snake Village, and we just happened to be staying there. However, when we first arrived we kept hearing rumors that they hadn’t done a trip to Snake Village in over a year, something about tourists getting too drunk off the rice wine and falling into the ponds in the village. I was bummed, it was something I was looking forward to, and it didn’t seem like many other places we offering tours there either.

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But then we went down to pay for our Halong Bay tour, and on the front desk was a signup for a trip to Snake Village. The date landed on our last day in Hanoi, right after we arrived back from Halong Bay. I took it as a sign that it was meant to be and put my name down immediately and paid the equivalent of around $25US.

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When the day came, we all piled into a van and headed to Lệ Mật, commonly known as Snake Village and a bit of a rough place, about 7km northeast of Hanoi. We jumped out and were immediately greeted by an enthusiastic Vietnamese man who showed us to the snakes.

He was the snake charmer of the village, he did everything entertaining you could possibly do with snake, including sticking one all the way into his mouth and bringing it out alive again. Then it came time to hold the snakes, some of the girls in our group were deathly afraid of snakes, and the snake charmer made sure to keep sneaking up on those who had initially squealed and put a snake on them. He was a hoot.

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I happily volunteered to hold a couple different snakes, and trusted the snake charmer to wrap them around my neck and coil them on my head. It was a strange feeling though knowing that we were playing with the snakes that we were most likely going to kill and eat later.

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When it came down to the feast, there was a lot of rice wine involved and about 7 different snake dishes that came out, and you had to take a shot of rice wine between every dish. Before the feast came out, the killing of the snakes had to happen, something they do in front of everyone to show you exactly what you’ll be eating.

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They killed about 7-8 snakes, meaning that many people were able to eat the beating heart if they wanted to. I thought about it for half a second, and decided to decline, I guess even I have limits sometimes. For every snake, they would cut it open just below the throat where the heart was, and would have someone swallow the still beating heart. I heard you’re not supposed to chew the heart because it releases a small amount of venom that makes you pass out for a few minutes. After the heart was out, they squeezed all the blood and bile into two separate cups, and mixed both with rice wine.

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We all had a shot of the blood and then the bile, which wasn’t as bad as I expected because the rice wine flavor was so strong, and really I just tried not to think about it too much.

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And then it was on to the dishes, the guide at our table (who I ended up meeting again in Byron last night), was hilarious. There was a bit of a competition between the tables to who could drink the most rice wine, and for our table of four he was bent on us winning. And let me tell you, rice wine is very potent.

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We feasted on everything from crushed snake bones, to snake vertebrae (“snake ribs”), crispy snake skin, to a seasoned grilled snake. Literally, no part of the snake was left uneaten, including the blood and bile.

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When the feast was over we piled into the van, full of snake and all a bit tipsy, talking on our way back to the hostel about how we would not soon forget our time in Snake Village.  

Getting lost (a few times) in Hanoi, Vietnam

The motorbikes whiz past, missing me by an inch again. A woman walks by balancing food on either end of the bamboo stick across her shoulders. The overpowering smell of raw fish and meat wafts towards me as I walk through the local market. This is Vietnam, along with Cambodia, it’s my favorite place in Southeast Asia.

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After weighing cost vs. time, we cut Laos from our travel itinerary with a heavy heart and decided to fly straight to Hanoi, Vietnam from Bangkok. We already had a taste of Vietnam a month previous back in Ho Chi Minh City, before we bussed it to Cambodia and traveled through Thailand. Silly as it was, I was a bit nervous coming into Vietnam because of the nationality on my passport and my own American guilt over the relatively recent Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam). However, it’s a country that has been high on my list to visit for quite awhile now, and it did not disappoint.

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Sweaty and tired from the plane, we jumped off the bus full of Vietnamese people. Before arriving, I heard many a horror story about Hanoi and the notorious amount of scams on tourists (especially when it comes to taxis and cyclos –  the foot peddled taxis). I heard it was a place that was in your face, blunt, yet a fast paced unique beauty with its Colonial history. So, I wasn’t sure what we would be walking into when we tumbled out of the bus on the outskirts of town with our heavy backpacks on.

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It was quite the hike to make it to our backpacker glam hostel called Hanoi Backpackers. We decided to splurge a bit more than usual on accommodation in Hanoi, and it was money well spent. Hanoi Backpackers has everything a backpacker could pretty much desire, from themed nights, a relatively cheap bar, free walking tours, discounted day trips, and nice and clean rooms. Besides the “bro” staff vibe, it was one of my favorite hostels in Southeast Asia.

Even with the negative feedback I heard from other travellers, I loved Hanoi from the moment I stepped off the bus. Walking through town with the red sun setting over Hoan Kiem Lake and motorbikes trying to kill me from every direction, it was one of those travel moments where you feel a contented sort of bliss.

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The French Colonial city is a place most people either love or hate. Even though there are indeed scams galore to be found, two of which I came across in the few days I was in town, there’s still a lot to love about Hanoi. It was my base for exploring Halong Bay, it’s where I dined on a snake feast in snake village and drank snake blood and bile, it’s where I found some of the best baguettes and waffles, and where I learned more about a heartbreaking past.

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I explored the Old Quarter, got lost in the night market near our hostel, saw the Opera House in the French Quarter, walked around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (as it was closed), took a picture of the One Pillar Pagoda, and delved a bit deeper into the city’s history at Hoa Lo Prison (where John McCain was a prisoner of war). I also enjoyed a peaceful stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, walked to the scenic Long Bien Bridge, and had some delicious phở bò at Phở 24.

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One of my favorite moments in Hanoi was when my friend Laura and I spent the day, a very long day, walking to the French Quarter. After getting a little lost and trying to find our way back to our hostel, we went down an alleyway lined with plastic picnic benches and little plastic chairs. No one spoke English, but you could smell how mouthwatering the street food was that the stalls were cooking. Although we were in the mood for phở (I mean, when would I ever not be in the mood for phở?), the place we sat down to was only cooking one dish. We ordered two bowls, and later found out it was a dish called Bun Cha, a local favorite in Hanoi. Let’s just say it was a dish that made our day and long walk worth it. If you’re ever in Vietnam, don’t miss out on the street food, it’s the cheapest, adventurous and most authentic way to go.

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Even with a map, Hanoi is a city that you’re meant to get lost in and that’s part of its charm and probably why I liked it, you never really know where you’ll end up. There are so many distinct, varied and historical parts of the city that it would be very hard to find yourself bored or indifferent.

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There were more than a few hilarious stories even just in the short time we were there. My friend went to go read by Hoan Kiem Lake at one point, and was approached by some Vietnamese adolescents doing a “survey” for school. They wanted to go into details about her *ahem* personal life and know exactly how many guys she had slept with, for research purposes, of course. Another time, I was walking down the street with my broken sandal (broken since Cambodia!), and I was followed by countless Vietnamese shoe repairmen who wouldn’t stop pointing at my feet and trying to grab the broken strap on my sandal. They also make beer towers (with cans of Heineken or Hanoi beer) as offerings in their temples, how cool is that? C’est la vie in Vietnam, it’s hard to beat the atmosphere.

Oh and did I mention the baguettes?

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Have you ever been to Hanoi? What’s your favorite city in Vietnam?

Travel budgeting for Thailand

Thailand was full of surprises, one of the biggest being that it wasn’t my favorite country of my trip as I thought it would be. In fact, it was one of the places I enjoyed the least in my travels through Asia. I owe this to not having enough time to see the “real” Thailand, and only spending time in the more tourist-centered areas of Bangkok and the Southern Thai islands. Don’t get me wrong, it was a gorgeous place full of beautiful sandy beaches, delicious food, and an intricate culture, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from this year, it’s that you cannot force yourself to love a place just because you think you should.

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Again, probably due to the places we traveled, but I felt time and time again that we were met with a deep rooted hostility and unfriendliness towards travelers, which I think surprised me the most. I still want to go back for a longer period someday and give Thailand another chance, because there are so many places I would like to see within the country. However, from the amount of scams we found in Bangkok to having my money stolen on an overnight bus to the islands, I did not have the best of luck in Thailand.

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Anyway, without further ado, my fourth installation for Southeast Asia budgeting is Thailand! In Thailand I traveled to Bangkok (3 times!), Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Chiang Mai.

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

The currency in Thailand is the Thai baht, and the conversion rate comes to about $1US = 33 baht

Time spent = 15 nights, 16 days

Accommodation = $67

Bangkok (round 1: 3 nights) = $6/night ($18 total) at Mom Guesthouse

Koh Tao (4 nights) =  $7/night ($28 total)

Bangkok (round 2: 1 day for sleeping) =$4.50 

Chiang Mai (5 nights) = $4.50 at Julie Guesthouse; $3/night ($12 total) at the guesthouse next door

We met an American woman on the bus ride to Bangkok from Siem Reap who was doing the Peace Core in the Phillipines, so we ended up all splitting a room between the three of us at a place called Mom Guesthouse since she was traveling by herself. Although cheap for Bangkok, I don’t think I would ever stay there again. It was right off Khao San Road, and you could literally feel the bass beats from the bar across the road vibrating your bed all night. Earplugs were of no use.

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We spent many a night “sleeping” (aka staring off into darkness listening to music for me as I can’t sleep on buses) on the sleeper buses. Almost every one we were on had a bus thief that stole everyone’s money while they were sleeping. I had my money stolen on my first sleeper bus in the country (and I was awake the whole time!), I caught a thief on my second bus and stopped him from stealing money from my neighbor. Note to anyone traveling on the buses in Thailand, never put your bags at your feet, even if you have blankets covering them. It is always wise to sleep with everything of value.

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In Koh Tao, we realized it was easiest to walk around from where the ferry lets you off, and try and find the cheapest place around. The taxi boats are expensive, and especially if you’re heading to the Full Moon Party from Koh Tao, it makes the most sense to stay near the docks. We opted to stay a little off the main road in a more hidden hotel, as we had heard that theft was quite common during the Full Moon Party when everyone was off the island for the night.

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We had to come back to Bangkok from the islands, as there wasn’t a direct bus to Chiang Mai in the North. We had a 12 hour layover, and we had both already had about enough of Bangkok, and were incredibly tired from not sleeping on the long journey from the Southern islands. We opted to splurge on a room, so we could get some sleep during the day before another sleeper bus that night. I would say it was the sketchiest place we’ve stayed as of yet, even in the daytime. Basically those places where only prostitutes go and people get murdered. Rooms just big enough to fit a creaky bed, no windows, and weird stains all over the creepy child cartoon sheets. But hey, it was cheap and a place to sleep, so we each took our own room and had a glorious nap.

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In Chiang Mai, we kept being recommended a place called Julie Guesthouse. It was the perfect backpacker hangout, with a cheap kitchen menu, day trips from the hostel, and decently sized and colorful rooms. However, since everyone recommends it, it is incredibly overcrowded and has some of the most unfriendly staff I’ve met in all of Asia. We only stayed there for a night, and opted to move to the quieter and cheaper place next door for our remaining time in Chiang Mai.

Transport = $144

Most of our transportation costs consisted of sleeper buses, ferries in the Southern islands, and a few taxis and tuk tuk rides around the town.

Food = $137

Free breakfast wasn’t included in any of the accommodations, and food ended up being pretty expensive in Thailand. Chiang Mai was the most affordable, but Khao San Road in Bangkok is so Westernized that it was hard to find authentic budget friendly food until we went over to Chinatown, and the islands were a bit pricey because most food is imported.

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Smoothies/juices = $29

I still kept my smoothie fiend reputation going in Thailand, although maybe a bit less so since they were more expensive and I spent far too much money on alcohol instead.

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Water (1500ml) = Around $0.50 each/$12.50 total for 25 bottles

Alcohol = $20? This amount could’ve been higher, but it was hard to keep track of expenses after your first bucket. Also, probably about half of my alcohol intake was bought for me, the plus side of going to as social a country as Thailand with so many fellow backpackers.

Thailand is the place to party, I will definitely give it that. From The Full Moon Party to endless buckets in Bangkok, it was a good time all around no matter where we traveled, and a very easy place to meet fellow travelers.

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Misc = $137.75

Breakdown of my miscellaneous purchases:

  • Cooking class = $30
  • Postcard and stamps = $3
  • Tiger Kingdom = $19
  • Elephant Sanctuary = $15
  • Toiletries = $0.25
  • Temples = $3
  • Insects to eat on Khao San Road = $1.50
  • Full Moon Party attire = $6
  • Money stolen = $60

Including everything, I spent about $34 a day, or $547 total

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Overall, Thailand turned out to be one of the more expensive countries, as to be expected with the increase of tourism. I splurged on a few things such as the Full Moon Party, Tiger Kingdom, a cooking class, and the Elephant Sanctuary, but I also saved money where I could. I would’ve loved to have gone diving while I was in Koh Tao, but with a few more weeks of my travels to go, I thought it would be best to save my money and go diving when I went up the coast of Australia. Especially after my money was stolen halfway through my Thailand travels, I was conscious of tracking my expenses and saving where I could, and my budgeting turned out better than expected.

Learning how to cook in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Growing up, I’ve always loved cooking, and besides that one time I accidentally used the garlic olive oil to make box brownies, I’ve been a fairly decent cook in the past. Making pies and holiday treats with my mom is one of my favorite parts of the holidays, I used to be that girl in school who would bring bags of homemade cookies for her friends every Friday, and I’m that girlfriend who goes all out for anniversary dinners and birthdays. Taking culinary classes and learning about food culture at Apicius Culinary School in Florence, Italy for a month a couple summers ago amplified my curiosity about cooking even more, and is one of my most cherished life experiences.

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I have a passion for creating things, cooking is no exception. Therefore, I knew when I was planning my trip to Thailand, a cooking class would be high on my list of things to do, and it also helps that Thai food is one of my favorite types of food. I heard that Chiang Mai was the best place to the learn the ways of Thai cooking, so I started researching different cooking schools that would be the most all encompassing and still within my price range. The cooking school I chose and would highly recommend is Basil Cookery School.

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I chose to attend the morning class, but there’s also an evening class offered if you’re short on time or it works better for your schedule. The morning class includes transportation from your accommodation, 7 dishes (curry paste is one of those), and costs approximately US$30 or 1000 baht. The class goes from about 9am to 3pm, including a 1 hour break between the starters and the main course, and at the end you take away your own cookbook of the dishes you made for the day.

The instructor spoke perfect English, and was the right amount of sass and professionalism. The class size was small, manageable and everyone was friendly. The actual school, located in her home, is clean and well set-up, and it was cool to walk around a local Chiang Mai neighborhood that was void of tourists during our break.

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I was picked up by a tuk tuk from my hostel around 8:30am, there was one other girl already in the back from Taiwan, and we preceded to pick up a couple more people, including an English girl and a German, and traded our respective back stories on the bumpy ride. We were all handed a sheet of paper with the possible dishes we could make for the day, and were asked to circle one from each of the categories: curry, soup, stir-fried, appetizers, and desserts.

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After we made our selections, our first stop was a local market near the school, to grab fresh ingredients for our dishes. And when I say local market, I mean one where no one speaks English and you can pick your own live fish from a tub to take home. Our instructor gave us a run down of the ingredients we would be using for the day, and explained the major differences between Thai vegetables and their well known western counterparts. And let me tell you, Thai baby eggplant, looks and tastes nothing like western eggplant. Mind blown.

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After some time spent at the market, we all jumped back in the tuk tuk and made our way to the cooking school and got to work, the smells from the kitchen were already incredible. Throughout the day I made drunken noodles, panang curry paste and curry, hot and sour prawn soup, stir-fried minced pork with holy basil, fried spring rolls, and sweet sticky rice with mango. Everything was delicious, especially the panang curry and drunken noodles, two of my recent obsessions while in Thailand.

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The school is very much geared towards beginner cooks so it’s not a problem if you have no experience in the kitchen. One of the aspects I didn’t like as much about Basil, was the fact that all of the ingredients were already pretty much measured out and chopped up for us at the start of each dish, meaning we just had to cook it, add the right amount of spice,and we were done. Although, I do understand why this was so with time constraints and the amount of dishes we made. The only “hard work” we had to do was making the curry paste with a mortar and pestle by hand, but even that was actually pretty fun.

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I haven’t had a chance to make any of the dishes since arriving back in Australia, but I hope to start cooking again soon once I have some more free time, and I’ll have to report back if the dishes are just as good when made at home. Regardless, taking a cooking class in Chiang Mai was definitely one of my favorite and most delicious experiences in Thailand, and my travel companion was happy about the leftovers I brought back to our hostel later that night, so really, it was a win-win day.

Have you ever taken a cooking class in a foreign country? Image

2013, a year to remember

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” – Miriam Adeney

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My favorite quote from 2013, and one that I find pretty relevant to my life these days as a hopeless wanderer. 2013 was a year of change, new beginnings, and a lot of falling headfirst outside of my comfort zone. I traveled to 7 new countries, attended 4 festivals, moved to two different cities, said more goodbyes than I’d like to remember, yet have made countless more friends and opened a variety of new doors in the process. 2013 was in a word, epic. I don’t think I’ve grown more in a year previously than I did in 2013, I have a feeling 2014 is going to be even better and more adventurous. Here’s a glance at what my year of travel and spontaneity included.

January – New York, Oregon, California

I started this travel blog just before the New Year, my first posts consisted of my travels around the States for the holidays and reminiscent anecdotes from my summer in Tuscany. I started the New Year off with a bang partying under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City for New Year’s Eve.

View of the Chrysler Building at night

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“Last June, I walked across the stage at my college graduation with the words the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams“ glued to my cap. I found the quote appropriate, not only because my college at UC San Diego is called Eleanor Roosevelt, but because those words are what I hope to live by as a recent graduate.” – The Future Belongs to those who Believe in the Beauty of their Dreams

February – California

The month of the most change for me in 2013, this was one of my final months in San Diego before moving to Oz. I pierced my belly button, donated most of my belongings, cut off a foot of my hair, and broke things off with my longterm boyfriend.

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me and aaron

“There has been a lot to think about with my departure date coming up so soon, and my whole trip itself becoming more real than it has ever felt before. I’m proud of myself for embarking on such an endeavor, one which I wouldn’t of had the confidence or the bravery to pull off as little as four years ago when I first started college. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling selfish and even guilty sometimes for leaving certain people behind to chase my own dreams of traveling, knowing that I’ll miss out on so much in the process of fulfilling what I want to do with my life.” – Walkabout: La Jolla Edition

March – California

My final month in San Diego, I left two jobs and an internship behind and said my final goodbyes to my friends and my life in the beloved place I called home. Even though bittersweet, I was also extremely excited to take on my Aussie adventure, knowing how much it would benefit me in the long run. I lived in the moment, appreciating all those who had touched my time in San Diego, and enjoyed all that the seaside city had to offer. I also made sure to eat as much Mexican food as possible, I even had a burrito on the way to the airport.

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“I’ve realized the only way to love the life I live is through passion, optimism, and spontaneity. So, this year my travel resolutions will revolve around just those things, letting go of the negative aspects in my life in the process.” – Travel Resolutions 2013

April – California, Melbourne

My big move to Melbourne and my first month in Australia was a whirlwind of new experiences, tram rides, footy games, new friends, the best coffee, and learning how to live like an Aussie and adapt to colder weather.

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“The sun is gleaming through the palm trees, I’m riding alongside the ocean, the orange sky as my canopy. What a way to say goodbye to this cherished place I’ve taken for my own, a place I call home even with these restless bones.” – On leaving everything behind to follow you dreams

May – Melbourne

I celebrated my 23rd birthday and bundled up to settle in for the long hall for my first Aussie winter and my second consecutive winter coming from California with opposite seasons. I explored what Melba had to offer during the winter months… it was heaps. From museums, to hidden coffee shops, to live gigs and warm dumplings, I loved spending winter in Melbourne.

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“There are few things I love more than layering up in a warm sweater, finding a cozy cafe, and getting lost in a good book while sipping on my daily caffeine intake. Especially, when the coffee is as good as it is in Melbourne, and the cafe atmosphere just as phenomenal. I try and hit a different cafe every day because there are too many good ones to choose from.” – 7 ways to spend the winter months in the city

June – Melbourne

In June, I moved across the city to a new apartment and met my new roommate, someone who would become one of my best friends in Australia. I found a second job to help save for Southeast Asia, started volunteering at a yoga studio, and used my rusty culinary skills from my time in Florence to improve my cooking. I basically lived at the Queen Vic Market and the Carlton Gardens, my two favorite spots in the city.

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“Moving abroad is something I’ve always dreamed of doing, and I’m actually doing exactly what I want to do with my life right now, which is a feeling I’ve never completely felt before with all the pressures of adolescence, and the “correct” path of going to a 4 year university instilled in my American mindset since I was little. It’s the first time I’ve broken off the path of what society deems to be the ‘American Dream’, expanded my perspective of what my life could encompass, besides just worrying about hitting all the generic milestones at the appropriate ages. That in itself is an invigorating realization. And as long as I keep living a balanced life, no matter where I might call home today or tomorrow, I’m going to be just fine.” – Be Free

July – Melbourne

My favorite month in Melbourne. I had been there long enough that it finally felt like home, I loved my job as a bartender in the city, one of my best friends from back home came to visit, I had a solid group of friends, and a couple winter romances as the cherry on top. Perhaps it’s proof that the most fleeting moments in life are usually the most beautiful as my departure to Southeast Asia in August was coming up soon.

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“Comparing where I was when I arrived and only had two friends in the city, to where I am today just a few months later, the changes are extraordinary. I’ve somehow built up my own friend base, a support system from scratch in a completely foreign place. I must say, that is one of the most reassuring realizations you can make in life; that you can start over anywhere and be more than okay, you can be genuinely happy.” – Life is a journey, not a destination

August – Melbourne, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam

My last couple weeks in Melbourne before heading over to Southeast Asia. I drove the Great Ocean Road, went wine tasting in the Yarra Valley, said my round of goodbyes for the second time this year to a city that I had begun to call home, and visited Sydney for the first time. In Southeast Asia, I traveled around to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam with my British friend I met in Europe a couple summers ago. We had our feet cleaned by fish in Malaysia, laid on the beaches of Bali for a week, explored modern Singapore, and fell into the hectic pace of Ho Chi Minh City.

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“It was one of those surprisingly sunny days in Winter that Melbourne is fond of having every now and then. My friend and I decided to spend the day exploring more of the Royal Botanic Gardens in the city, because it was just one of those days you had to be outside for. We had a picnic at a place I deemed my own ‘500 Days of Summer’ spot, it was truly a perfect day in Aussie land.” – The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, a way to spend an afternoon

September – Cambodia, Thailand

In September I fell in love with Cambodia and the Khmer way of life, went through scuba certification on a deserted island in Cambodia, ate some bugs in Bangkok, rode an elephant, played with baby tigers, learned how to cook authentic Thai food, and had an amazing time in the southern Thai Islands at the Full Moon Party.

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“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.” – Moments from the road

October – Vietnam, Melbourne, Sydney

The last stretch of Southeast Asia consisted of traveling down the coast of Vietnam. I loved the old way of life in Hanoi, immersed myself in the beauty of the limestone cliffs in Halong Bay, traveled to Hue, and lovely Hoi An, and found myself in Ho Chi Minh city again before flying back to Melbourne.

I spent a bittersweet week in Melbourne, doing all of my favorite things in the city and seeing all the friends I had missed for the past two months, before I moved for the 2nd time to a new city. My first couple weeks in Sydney weren’t the easiest and I didn’t feel quite at home as quickly as I did when I first arrived in Melbourne, but I found a job my first day, made heaps of new friends, and have since meshed much better into the Sydneysider way of life.

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“There’s no magic place where all the bad aspects of life go away, but, of course, there can’t be the good without the bad as comparison. That’s what makes life so complex and interesting, the hurdles you come across, make your best days just that much sweeter. There is no such thing as a new beginning. Even when you start over in a new place, you’re still going to be you, you’re still going to have the same baggage that has made you into the person you are today, there is no escaping who you are to your core. I’m finally understanding who I am as a person, and what I want out of my life now, and even that alone has made my time in Australia worth it.” – Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy

November – Sydney

I took this month to explore Sydney as much as possible on my days off, going to a lot of festivals and art exhibits around the city, and simply enjoying the raw beauty Sydney has to offer on any given day.

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“There are two things I’ve noticed about Sydney since moving here: There are a lot of people jogging everywhere and doing group exercises in one of the many parks, and there’s always some sort of festival or event going on in the city. In other words, it’s basically LA without the famous people. I’ve particularly been enjoying the latter – although I’m hoping to join the former with the communal exercise (yoga!) as I’m settling into my life here and now have a more manageable work schedule.” – Celebrating inspiration at Sculpture by the Sea

December – Sydney, Byron Bay

December whizzed by in a matter of minutes it seems. Between countless out-of-town music festivals I was volunteering at, to the realization that my time in Australia may be coming to a close in April, sooner than I’d like to think, I kept myself overly busy with work, creativity, and hanging out with as many friends as possible. It was perfect to end the month disconnecting from all things social media and camping in Byron Bay to ring in the New Year at Falls Fest.

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“When I was walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I thought back to when I was 13 and walking across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time with my dad at one of my many basketball tournaments in San Francisco. When I think back to where I was at that age, a decade ago now, it’s remarkable the changes I have gone through. From an anxious, hesitant little girl who had no idea what was ahead of her, to where I am today, I hardly recognize that person anymore.” – Walkabout across the Sydney Harbour Bridge

I’m still brewing up some solid goals for 2014, but I do know that I want to travel to at least 3 new countries: New Zealand, Fiji, and probably either Canada, Japan or Mexico…(suggestions welcome). I also want to see Hawaii this year to sleep on the beach, hike a volcano, and surf at sunrise.

Happy 2014, I’m ready for you.

Watch me –> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDSazU1fvsg

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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