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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.

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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Travel budgeting for Malaysia

I’ve kept a detailed tally of all of my expenses from country to country, my first installation for Southeast Asia budgeting is Malaysia! Or more specifically, Kuala Lumpur. Here’s the run down of my relatively budget friendly expenditures for our first stop in Asia.

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

The currency in Malaysia is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM for short) and the conversion is about 3.27RM to US$1. I already converted all the prices to approximate US dollars.

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Time spent = 3 nights, 4 days

Accommodation = $9/night (or $27 total)

I would definitely recommend staying in the Golden Triangle neighborhood, as it was my favorite in Kuala Lumpur. We were told most accommodations in this area were around $10/night for a dorm bed. We just walked in and out of places until we found a decent enough dorm for a few days at Anjung Guesthouse. It wasn’t anything special, the WiFi didn’t work half the time, and it wasn’t the cleanest we’ve stayed in, but it had a heavy duty air conditioner and fan in the dorm which was much appreciated. We landed on this guesthouse more out of pure exhaustion than anything else after a long travel day, if you look around a bit you could probably find an even better dorm/room for the same price in the Golden Triangle.

Transport = $2/day ($6-$7 total)

The monorail is extremely easy to use, we took it everywhere and used it often, and still it only came out to about $2 a day.

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Food = $7.50/day ($30 total)

There is a wide variety of prices you can find for food in Kuala Lumpur depending on if you’re on a main touristy road or a local hangout. My favorite cheap place to eat is called Blue Boy Vegetarian in the Golden Triangle, a full meal came out to about $1.50.

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Smoothies/juices = $5.50 total

These will always have their own category in my Asia budgeting because I’m such a smoothie fiend.

Water (1500ml) = Around $0.50 each/$2.75 total for 5 bottles

Misc = $13.50

Breakdown of my miscellaneous purchases:

  • Fish feet cleaning = $3
  • Earrings from Central Market = $1.50
  • Floss = $1.80
  • Donation at the Batu Caves for a Hindu blessing and bracelet = $1.50
  • Bug spray = $5.75

Including everything, I spent about $21.50 a day, or $86 total.

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Malaysia wasn’t the most expensive we’ve come across in Asia (hello, Bali), or the cheapest (Cambodia), but it came out to a nice low midrange if you know how to budget your money. Of course, there are things that I had to miss out on in order to stay on budget, such as a trip up to the viewing platform at the Petronas Towers or the neighboring Menara tower, and a Malaysian cooking class, but there are so many other things to do in Kuala Lumpur that don’t cost any money at all. In most cases, the free things I found to do in KL offered more cultural insight than any of the overpriced tourist attractions combined, so I consider my budget choices a win.

And the Petronas towers offer a breathtaking view from anywhere you stand in the city. A sparkling treat to the eyes, free of charge.

10 hours on a sleeper bus = my living hell

I hate to be one of those travel writers that resorts to rants and complaining, because even though long-term travel can be frustrating at times, when you look at the big picture, my life experiences at the moment are pretty damn good. However, I think it’s always beneficial to document the good, the bad, and the ugly, and my last 15 hours have been pretty hilarious, at least now in retrospect, so I thought I would share a story of my first sleeper bus experience in Asia.

It should come as no surprise that for sleeper buses in Asia, being a petite person is highly desirable. I love my lanky height, yet this was the first time I genuinely wished I was a foot shorter – I’m almost 5’10. I can’t even imagine what a 6’4 guy would go through on one of these buses.

I apologize ahead of time for the lack of pictures, at the time of this story I was miserable, sleep-deprived and in no mood to rummage through my pack for a camera, but the story still deserves to be told.

We bought the luxurious “hotel” bus in Sihanoukville for the 10 hour ride to Siem Reap, a whole 2 extra dollars than the standard night bus. When we were picked up from the store, we were crammed into a little van with more people than there were seats, and all of our luggage was surrounding us, taking up what little oxygen was left inside the vehicle.

When we arrived at the actual “hotel” bus, we knew that we had been slightly duped with what the transportation store had advertised to us. We were supposed to get extra amenities for the slightly higher price, including wi-fi, free water, a bathroom on board. There were none of these. The key selling point for the luxurious bus was that you had an actual bed to sleep on for the ride and not just a reclining seat.

When I stepped into the cramped bus aisle I could tell that I already regretted not just getting the reclining seats, if anything just for the leg room. The “beds” were less than the width of a single bed for two people, and a little over 5 feet long. I also had to carry my duffle with me into this sleeping space because it holds all of my valuables.

I’ve never really had an issue with claustrophobia, but I was so closed in and cramped I actually felt myself becoming more and more claustrophobic by the second. I couldn’t curl up my legs because then they would float over to Laura’s side of the single bed. I kind of just had to have them straight legged and extremely elevated the whole time for them to fit into the space, at times letting them curl when Laura was asleep and she wouldn’t notice me creeping into her space.

I’m not a person who gets homesick easily, I tend to try and make the best of any situation in which I find myself, and I’m a chameleon when it comes to new transitions. Spending 10 hours in this tiny space was the first time I genuinely wished with my whole heart to be home, and no longer on the road. I felt myself let out a shudder and a few tears in the pitch black, the first time I’ve cried in a long time, until I realized how pointless my tears were, I just had to bite the bullet to get to the other side of the bus ride. I took a deep breath and turned up my iPod to tune out the uneasiness I felt through my whole body.

I’m usually fine with dreaded travel times, I actually love tuning out with my music, my writing, my thoughts. But I felt helpless on the bus, unable to even move an inch, my legs spasming often from being in such a position. It was the bumpiest bus ride I’ve had in my life, it felt like the bus was going to tip over during some stretches it was so unstable.

Things took a turn for the worse when I realized, even by staying dehydrated as much as I could from the get-go, that I had to use the bathroom a few hours in, and yet there was the small problem of no toilet on the bus. At about 1am the bus stopped so the drivers could pee on the side of the road, I leapt at the chance. They didn’t speak any English, but I think they could tell from my desperation what it was I needed. It was pouring down rain, lightning in the sky, I had to run over some rough rocks in the pitch black completely bare foot to find a bush (we had to take off our shoes to get on the bus), all the while the three drivers were watching me in the darkness.

I was terrified the whole time that the bus would pull away and I would be stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the night in rural Cambodia. I ran back to the bus, the driver laughing at my situation, I laughed too, understanding how ridiculous I must seem to these Cambodian men, and laughing at the bad luck I seem to get myself into sometimes. I realized when I got back onto the bus that I had cut open my foot during my scramble in the dark Cambodian wilderness, my disinfectant of course was in my backpack at the bottom of the bus.

At about 3am we stopped for our one and only proper bathroom break, and the bus was suddenly stuck in a muddy ditch. It was still pouring down rain, everyone had to evacuate and they called a tow truck to help pull out the bus. Everyone cheered when the bus pulled through, we all groggily stumbled back on around 3:30am and kept traveling to Siem Reap for three more hours.

Needless to say, the only way I got through that bus ride from hell is music. I didn’t sleep a wink, but I had some solid moments by myself and Ben Howard consoling me through the experience.

But let’s be honest, this is all a daily part of backpacker life and sometimes you just have to suck it up, and find the humor in less than desirable situations. At the moment, I’m ecstatic to be in Siem Reap and to be exploring the ancient temple of Angkor Wat at sunrise tomorrow morning. At least now I know what to expect with my next sleeper bus in Asia.

Bring it.

I heart Cambodia

I have premonitions sometimes when it comes to relationships, people, places and things. It’s a different feeling than any I can describe, just that I know it’s bound to be something special, a feeling like we’ve met before, that I’m at home in a way. Perhaps it’s simply the ability to recognize a deep connection when I come across one.

I’ve only had a few of these in my life in terms of people, two of those turned out be the only two serious relationships I’ve had, my high school sweetheart I met at the age of 13, and my college boyfriend I met when I was 20.

It happens with places as well. The first time I stepped into the Tuscan atmosphere in Florence, I knew immediately how much I would fall in love with the city I would end up calling my second home.

Well, I’ve been in Cambodia less than 24 hrs and I’ve only seen Phnom Penh, but I can tell you already that I feel something special for this country.IMG_3459

In the past two weeks, I’ve come to terms with surviving hours upon hours on sweaty suffocating buses, I’ve learned how to cross a road full of thousands of mopeds, and thus have had at least three near-death experiences. I’ve grown to appreciate a nice ice cold shower, and how to deal with street hawkers of all sorts. I’ve been groped, I’ve been eaten by mosquitos, I’ve spent more than enough hours in airport waiting halls.

We’ve had one tiny travel breakdown in Singapore, and Laura was almost robbed by a wannabe moped thief in Ho Chi Minh. I’ve drank my weight in fresh fruit smoothies in every place I’ve been, I’m averaging reading about one book per week. I’ve had sleepless nights due to noisy dorm mates and stray dogs barking, I’ve had the best nights sleeping in run down $5 dorm beds, and I’ve had more than a few vivid Malaria pill induced dreams. I’ve been lost more times than I can count, but I always seem to find my way again.

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Although I liked Kuala Lumpur, I was constantly worried about attracting too much attention to myself due to its slightly conservative nature, especially in certain areas. I was still aggressively groped by a man on a moped, and still sexually harassed by local men the majority of the time I was there.

Much to my surprise (since I thought this would actually be my favorite country) , no matter how much I tried to force it, Bali and I just didn’t get along, with one exception – yay Ubud! More to be written about my time in Bali soon.

I loved how modern and forward-thinking of a city Singapore turned out to be, but it was more expensive than any other country I’ll be visiting on my trip.

I think I will grow to absolutely love Vietnam when I come back in October for a couple weeks. I’ve only spent a few days there so far, but I even liked the crazy energy of Ho Chi Minh City, to an extent.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Cambodia. When we first arrived, we stumbled off in the searing heat, tired from a 6 hour bus ride. A ride that consisted of a combination of a John Hughes movie, a Chinese gangster movie, and a kung fu movie dubbed in Vietnamese…oh, and of course, the important part, our first legit land border crossing. It turned out to be a piece of cake (with American dollars), thank god. I had heard more than a few horror stories of the border crossings in Southeast Asia.

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We had to take a tuk tuk to get to the main part of town from where the bus dropped us, but there was the small issue of having no local money. The first ATM we went to wouldn’t accept our cards, and we thought for a good 15 minutes while we were roaming the streets with our heavy backpacks, that we were going to be penniless in Cambodia, until we found another one that worked. The ATMs here give you US dollars, and most restaurants and stores put their prices in the same, US currency. It’s so strange seeing my own money again, it has been so long.

Even with our initial hiccup, after we got into our first tuk tuk, I had this overwhelming good feeling about the city of Phnom Penh, before I had even begun to explore it.

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The rest of the afternoon and evening just proved my initial feelings right. I love the buildings, adorned in gold and intricate patterns. There are Buddhist monks in their classic orange attire everywhere. The people here (and in Vietnam) are the friendliest strangers I think I have ever met in my life. Even the street hawkers seem nicer (although the children are a bit cheeky), constantly asking me if I want a tuk tuk ride, or telling me that I have a beautiful smile, but not in a gross way.

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I don’t feel like I have to be paranoid about my belongings as I did, constantly on edge, in Ho Chi Minh City. The pace is a bit slower here, the Mekong river is beautiful, and I feel at home. There was even a huge group of people doing Cambodian style Zumba across the street from us in a main square while we were grabbing coffee and smoothies.

I love our guesthouse, it’s my favorite of the places we’ve stayed so far, and it’s only $5 a night! Our dorm is incredibly clean, roommates friendly, it has a rooftop bar, and an adorable puppy the runs around everywhere.

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Tomorrow we’re going to see a harsher, but important side to Cambodian history, the destruction left behind by the Khmer Rouge at the Killing Fields, and I’ll explore a bit more of Phnom Penh. From there, I’ll be heading south to Sihanoukville to face one of my fears (the ocean), and get my scuba certification on the tiny island paradise that is Koh Rong. A few days after that, we’ll be heading up to Siem Reap to dive into the local delicacies (grilled tarantula, cricket, duck embryo, etc), and explore the ancient sites of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

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The truth is that I already know I heart Cambodia, and I can’t wait to explore more of it <3

Photo essay: A glance at Kuala Lumpur

The cheapest and best local breakfast in town

Discovering Hindu temples at the Batu Caves

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Fish feet cleaning in the Central Market

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A quick bite to eat at one of the many fruit stands

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Merdeka Square, Muslim roots, and the Old Quarter

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Wearing a burka and exploring the National Mosque

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The crazy atmosphere that is Chinatown

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Petronas Towers – Day and Night

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Favorite place in Kuala Lumpur, The Golden Triangle

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First taste of Southeast Asia, Malaysia

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My tips on staying cheap in Sydney

It’s no surprise to anyone who has followed my journey so far that Australia is expensive, I knew that coming over, and I still can’t believe how expensive it is sometimes. I found Sydney to be even worse than Melbourne in terms of high prices, and I came away after a week of trial and error spending much more than I had originally intended. To prevent this happening to future travelers, and even as a reminder to myself when I go back, here are my tips for staying cheap in the popular city that is Sydney.

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Use discount airlines or Greyhound if traveling within Australia

Tigerair and Jetstar are two of the most popular budget airlines when traveling within Australia, just make sure to check your luggage weight before arriving at the airport. Because the tickets are so cheap, they usually get you with additional baggage fees. They also weigh your carry-on luggage, so look on their websites and see what the restrictions are. My friend had to pay more than what her ticket was worth because she was over the weight limit for her checked baggage. Also, budget airlines don’t tend to serve free meals onboard, so make sure to pack a lunch to avoid inflated airplane food prices.

Greyhound is another viable option depending on where you’re traveling to within Australia – especially if you’re traveling up the East Coast. From Melbourne to Sydney it’s about a 12-hour bus ride, and the prices are usually slightly cheaper than flying. And on the plus side, the luggage restrictions are a lot more lax, you can check two pieces, and also have two carry-ons.

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Couchsurfing

It was my first time truly couchsurfing my week in Sydney, that is, staying at a complete stranger’s house whom I had never met before, and it turned out to be a great experience. I felt a lot more comfortable, at least for my first time, doing it with a friend, and my couchsurfing host, Chris, turned out to be one of the friendliest and most helpful people I met in Sydney. Although he lived a bit outside the city, it was only a 25 minute bus ride, and once we got the bus schedule down it was super simple to get to and from the city.

We had our own room, he let us borrow his towels for the beach, he was always a phone call away if we got lost, he even went out with us and made us breakfast one morning. I’ll definitely be looking into doing more couchsurfing when I’m traveling from now on, it’s a great way to stay within budget when accommodations are so expensive, and also a great way to meet people along your travels.

Buy a bus pass or walk everywhere

Whether you buy a bus pass or decide to walk really depends on where you’re staying in Sydney. Clearly, living a 25 minute bus ride outside the city, walking wasn’t a viable option for me. However, if I had been right in the CBD I probably wouldn’t have even bought a bus pass (except to maybe go to the beaches and surrounding neighborhoods), because I found the Sydney CBD actually more manageable than the one in Melbourne. Of course, I’m a huge walker and walk everywhere in general whether I’m home or abroad, so it may not be the most efficient way to get around for others.

Transportation is a bit expensive in Sydney, but taking a bus around the city is the best way to go, and you really can’t justify using taxis when there are so many bus options to get you to where you need to go. Also, the buses run a lot later than most other cities I’ve been to.

For my week in Sydney, I bought the MyBus2 TravelTen for $28.80 which gives you 10 rides around the CBD and the further zones such as where I was staying – it’s cheaper if you just get one that takes you around the main parts of the CBD (only $17.60). Because I was commuting so much in and out of the city, I bought 2 of these passes for the week I was there, coming out to a total of $57 .60.

There are monthly passes for the MyMulti Pass (buses, trains, light rail, ferries, you name it), so that is a more viable option if you’re staying longterm in Sydney. Again, it just takes a bit of research to figure of the transportation system in Sydney, but once you do, it’s not too bad for getting around.

Stick to cheaper food options around the city

Chinatown dumplings are a great cheap meal to start out your time in Sydney, and most of the Asian restaurants in the city are BYO. So, if you’re looking for a big night out on the town and you want to save money, head to your local discount liquor store (my choice is BWS), and buy a $5-$10 bottle of wine to have with your feast. I also was able to find some of the most delicious Thai and Malaysian food around the city for about AUS$10, which is pretty good for going out for dinner in Australia.

Other than Asian food, I would recommend grabbing some groceries at discount bulk stores like Aldi, to make your own lunches for the week, or dinner (I made some bomb risotto for Chris and our other housemate).

Another option is to check out the must read Cheap Eats book when you get to Australia, the Melbourne one was my bible for my first month in the city when I was broke, and I believe they have a Sydney edition as well. It gives you affordable recommendations for any cuisine, in every neighborhood around the city.

Take advantage of the free outdoor activities

One of my favorite experiences was doing the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. What better way to see the beauty of Sydney and its beaches on a nice day, as well as get some fresh air and outdoor exercise?

Other free activities at your fingertips are checking out all the markets around town, there are more than a few. I only had time to check out the Paddington Markets during my stay, but it was a great way to peruse some merchandise and see a new neighborhood I would’ve otherwise probably not explored.

And of course, why not just spend a day at Circular Quay walking around the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or exploring the Rocks with its cool little boutique shops and gelato places. Circular Quay, although overly touristy at times, is still a lovely way to spend an afternoon in Sydney.

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The Royal Botanic Gardens, as in Melbourne are also worth exploring, and they’re right next to Circular Quay so it’s a perfect place to grab a book and unwind from all the tourists.

Go to the beach!

Sydney has some of the best beaches in the world, I had the pleasure of seeing quite a few due to the nice weather throughout my whole week. Catch a bus to Bondi, Bronte, or Coogee, or a relatively cheap ferry to Manly, and spend a day soaking up the sunshine and waves. The ferry to Manly is also a gorgeous way to see the Sydney harbor up close and personal, without paying for one of the extortionate harbor cruises, and it gives one of the best views of the Sydney skyline.

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Free Museums

Although I didn’t have a chance to visit these museums myself while I was there due to time constraints, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sydney Observatory, and the NSW National Art Gallery are all free admission, and they’re all located around the same area in the Rocks. To get an idea of even more free museums around the city, I would recommend checking out this website.

Of course these are my tips after only spending a week in the city, so any other recommendations are more than appreciated from any of you Sydneysiders or expats!

Sydney is also known for having a great many free festivals in the summer which I plan on taking full advantage of. No matter if you’re staying cheap or you’re on a more cushy budget, it’s hard not to have a good time in Sydney.

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Walkabout: Sydney edition

I heard about the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk before I even left California, thanks to the extensive collection of travel bloggers I follow. It was one of the first things I wanted to do whenever I made it to Sydney, and I did just that on a perfect day during my week in Sydney. It’s 6km in distance and it took me about 2 hours to complete, including taking a lot of pictures along the way. There are heaps of cafes, swimming pools, and benches on which to rest your weary legs and take in the view.

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I plan on walking it many more times when I go back to Sydney, it was simply beautiful. I love walks that overload you with daily doses of beauty, and the Bondi to Coogee Walk is one of the most gorgeous I have been on.

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I’ll even go so far as to say that during this walk is when I first started to appreciate how much I love Sydney, partly because it reminded me of my weekly walks to the cliffs in La Jolla, San Diego, partly because of the perfect temperature of the day, and partly because I was grateful to feel right at home in a place across the world from everything I know.

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I don’t think I can truly put into words the impact my year of travel has had on my life as of yet, but it is something profound. I left San Diego a bit bruised and directionless, and I’m not saying that I’ve “found myself” because I believe that’s a lifelong journey in itself, but I am such a stronger and more confident person now than I can ever remember being in the past.

Perhaps that’s what growing up is supposed to feel like, all I know is that the realization of your inner strength is one of the most important discoveries you can make about yourself.

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These were the thoughts that were running through my head as I took in the views on my walkabout from Bondi to Coogee, and mused about my journey around the world this year, and maybe even a more permanent life in Australia. I guess time will only tell if my nomadic heart will ever rest in one place for good, right now I’m happy soaring above all the expectations and judgements, both from myself and others. As always, it’s important sometimes to just be free

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I think my favorite artist, Bon Iver, said it best, “Ain’t this just like the present to be showing up like this?“.

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