We left our hearts on Koh Samui

IMG_5468

Getting to the islands in the South of Thailand was probably one of the most exciting parts of our trip. We had heard such great things about the beautiful beaches, the laid back atmosphere, and of course, the parties.

In our last blog entry we mentioned that we’re huge fans of techno and house music, and getting to the islands where we could feed our hunger for the music we love was beyond exciting. We spotted a flyer in Bangkok saying that the legendary Sven Väth was playing on Koh Samui, so we made sure to time our travels accordingly.

IMG_5483

Luke even made a new elephant friend.

We decided to opt for a private bungalow to enjoy the island life for six nights. We found a gorgeous place just off the main drag of Chaweng Beach for $15 a night (Pattara House, we highly recommend it), which by Samui standards was excellently priced. Shortly after checking in, we met a kind local lady who became our travel agent, bike rental dealer, restaurant recommender, and currency exchange all in one. We were set for the island!

I can’t help but gush when I talk about Koh Samui. My heart actually aches missing the island. I don’t even know where to begin with all the incredible things we did and memories we made. While prices are a tad bit higher on the island, as it’s a vacation destination for a lot of Europeans (it has its own airport, too), there are still so many markets and cheap restaurants available with amazing food. The beaches are also unique and plentiful, from busy central beaches to more secluded options.

The club scene was far more than we expected. Since there’s heavy European traffic, the music scene is proper and everywhere. The clubs are upscale but also free entry, due to the heavy competition, and I’d say they cater to a more mature crowd (which is a nice change). We visited Sound Hotel, as they were hosting a free deep house night with James Trystan, and for a grand total of $15 we got to smoke hookah in a fancy club by a pool bar. Later on in the week we visited many of the beachfront clubs offering excellent music and fire shows.

During the days, we enjoyed motorbiking around the island, exploring coffee shops, tanning on the beaches, and hiking to findIMG_5348 the most beautiful waterfall we’ve seen this trip. Hin Lad waterfall is majestic and easy to find. It’s a must see if you’re on the island and a great spot for bringing a packed lunch and going for a swim. We also visited the Big Buddha and the Wat on the hill, as well as the Bophut Fisherman Village’s market on Friday night. The Fisherman’s Village was notable for having the most original wares of all the night markets we’ve visited. We got to try sautéed garlic oysters for a dollar!

Finally, Saturday night rolled around and we left for Cha Cha Moon Beach Club to see Sven Väth. Nakadia opened with another perfectly deep set, and Sven Väth followed with an unbelievably rich four hours of sweet, sweet techno. We danced on the beach until our feet hurt, only taking a break to eat a Nutella-banana crepe that Luke snagged from a beach vendor. Being on this beautiful Thai island, dancing to some of the best techno I’ve heard in my life, with my feet half in the sand and half in the ocean… it was truly an evening we both will never forget.

With our time at Koh Samui coming to an end, we grudgingly packed up and made our way to the ferry. If you’re coming to Thailand and love beaches, music, and exploring, this island is absolutely perfect. Maybe we’ll even retire here one day…

IMG_6054

Travelling as a couple: What we’ve learned

IMG_4099

A few months ago, everyone was offering us words of wisdom and caution before embarking on our trip to South East Asia. I didn’t really take them all that seriously -Luke and I had spent almost three years as friends getting to know each other before choosing to date. We’d been through so much already and we had experienced being outside of our respective comfort zones – how different would things be?

Well, I thought wrong.

We couldn’t have imagined all the various things our relationship would be up against when we moved abroad. We dealt with culture shock, minor starvation while on long trips, heat stroke, having to sweat through our clothes as we walked in the muggy Asian weather, busy streets (the kind of busy that keeps timid people indoors), menus in other languages, bumpy bus rides that would leave you sore and angry at the countryside, gross hostels, and so many other not-fun travelling perks.

The bottom line was that we are all we had. We didn’t have friends, the comforts of home, or even our own space. We quickly learned that the most important thing was our relationship and above all, that you need to put the other person first at all times. I figured I’d share a bit of my wisdom, just in case anyone is thinking of putting his or her relationship to the ultimate travel test.

Open communication

IMG_4100Being totally and shamelessly honest with each other has saved us a ton of headaches. For me, I just had to be up front when something made me uncomfortable, like a long bus ride or a sketchy hotel. For him, he’d just tell me that he was feeling cranky for no reason to let me know that it wasn’t personal. It takes a lot of patience to do this and practice makes perfect. There’s no hiding the real you when you’re travelling together, so suck it up and let each other in.

At first when we started travelling, I felt a lot of pressure being on this “once in a lifetime trip”. Not only was it my big trip, it was Luke’s too and I didn’t want to ruin it by skipping an activity, staying in, or sleeping early. I held back my real feelings. Finally, I told him how I felt and realized that my mindset was completely incorrect. The only way we would ruin anything was if we held back what we really felt or wanted.

Learn to let go

Things happen and people get mad—It’s inevitable. After a long day and a few too many snide remarks, it’s not hard for two people to become enemies. Emotions run extremely high when you’re travelling since you’re constantly out of your comfort zone. It’s important to accept and be prepared for that.
DCIM102GOPRO

We allowed ourselves to fight, since it’s healthy to let off steam and say what’s on your mind, but we both learned to back down. If I wanted to hold a grudge against Luke, I would be alone here. Also, I would ruin our entire day if I decided to stay angry. What’s the point? What fight could possibly be worth ruining a day in the mountains of Asia with the person you love? Hopefully, the answer is always: Nothing.

We learned to say sorry quickly and also to let bygones be bygones. We realized that asking ourselves, “What is this actually worth?” made a huge difference. Although we had some close calls (Read: Hunger-induced issues – pack snacks, people!), not a single day was a total write-off and this lesson is something that benefits our relationship every day, travelling or not.

Don’t shy away from big talks 

When we were planning this trip, I wasn’t up front about what I wanted. We got to Asia and I was holding on to a lot of resentment towards Luke, feeling as if this was “his” trip and not mine. It all came to a head in Bangkok and we finally had a much-needed, long, open discussion about what I wanted as well. We wrote a list. We talked about our plans. We made some changes. Most importantly, he listened to me and I realized I should have done this way earlier.

It’s not always easy asking for something, at least not for me. And for some, it’s not always easy listening to someone else or compromising on your dreams. As a couple, you are responsible for two lives, two sets of dreams, and two peoples’ happiness. In our final years together, I hope that I can say I’ve given Luke the absolute best life he could have had. At the same time, I need to say that for myself as well. Check in with each other, have the talk, reevaluate a million times, compromise, and make it work.

You don’t always have to like each other

There have been days where we have woken up and said, “I don’t like you today”. Although we always say it with a massive grin on our face, it still feels very real. When you’re together 24/7, sometimes you just don’t want to have to think about the other person. Sometimes you want a break.

IMG_20141111_164103Being around Luke is like having an annoying brother – he puts bugs in my food, throws me into cold water, takes the last slurp (and by slurp, I mean the entire last half) of my smoothie, and messes up my hair. He drives me nuts some days. I’m not innocent either! I hide his cell phone so he thinks he lost it and tell him we overslept when we didn’t, causing a mini heart attack for him as many times as possible in one day.

The reality is, when you’re together all of the time you need a break. Honor this and take time for yourselves. Read a book, lounge on the beach, go for coffee and catch-up on e-mails. Trips can often be non-stop exploring or activities so be mindful of the fact that it’s okay to take a break and enjoy each other’s company in silence.

Embrace it

Before this trip, I thought I knew Luke inside and out but I can safely say that there are things I’ve now seen that I can never unsee. We’ve become inseparable and one benefit of travelling is that it’s brought us even closer together. If you’re in a relationship and aren’t sure you’re ready for the next big step, take a serious trip together and it’ll be pretty telling.

In the end, I believe that coming on this trip has made us so much stronger as a couple. I think the main benefit is that we’ve always been challenged as a couple and we’ve never stopped working to make the changes we’ve needed to make. I’m glad we pushed ourselves and we’ve made memories to stay with us for the rest of our lives. While travelling with someone isn’t for everyone, it’s an experience that will bring some serious change into your life.

Vientiane – Amazing food and infinite Buddhas

IMG_20141022_140633

I’m happy to report that we have safely completed our last van trip in Laos. After another bumpy and windy ride, we arrived four hours later in the Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

For the record, the roads in Laos are absolutely terrible. You’re either nearly losing a tire due to deep pot holes, or about to fall off the side of a mountain. Not to mention the many offenders on the Laos roadways:

Worst of Laos road offenders (in order):

  1. Cows – Crossing the road, just hanging out and staring at you in the middle of the road, or giving you the stink eye as they walk straight down the middle of the road – they really are the true owners of Laos roads.
  2. Goats – A step below cows, we’ve actually seen them nonchalantly napping in the middle of the road. Our van changed lanes, they didn’t blink.
  3. Dogs – They happily jog along the side of the road, and make calculated dodges across/through traffic. Frogger would be proud.
  4. Toddlers – New walkers, these children have yet to learn how to use their peripheral vision. A quick honk can usually do the trick to guide them back to safety.
  5. We have a general tie for last place: potbellied pigs, roosters, drunks, and anything else not bolted down.

It was interesting to get back into city life after spending so much time hanging out in the smaller towns. Vientiane reminded us a lot of Montreal, Canada. Lots of French bakeries, architecture, and tactfulness. The cost of living in Vientiane was the highest of anywhere on our trip. Sleeping, eating, and getting around was double the price we’ve spent anywhere else in Laos and most of Thailand.

A highlight of our trip was the food. We quickly made ourselves at home at Noy’s Fruit Heaven. She’s an absolute sweetheart and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone smile so big all the time. If you have the chance, stop in for a fruit smoothie. They’re delicious.

We had a date night at Lao Kitchen as well, which hands down had some of the best food we’ve had on our trip. It’s a local restaurant that served all of the authentic Laos dishes with a tourist twist. For example, if a normal Laos dish includes fermented fish and ‘organ meat’, they thoughtfully leave that out for you. One night, we went back late for mango sticky rice (mango, sticky rice, coconut milk … yummmm) and they stayed open just to make us some for take out. Yes, we were ‘those people’. We were extremely grateful, though.

To top off the date night, we went for a two hour full body sugar scrub and massage at Mandarina Massage. It was a splurge for us, at $20 (USD) for the two hours, but it was well worth it. The spa was classy, relaxing, and the service was excellent.

Buddha Park

IMG_20141022_142015

The pumpkin’s charming entrance

One of the things I was extremely excited about was the Buddha Park just outside of Vientiane. Also known as Xieng Khuan, the park is a strange blend of religion, sculpture, insanity, and lots of concrete. Bunleua Sulilat, the creator, was a priest-shaman who fused Buddhism and Hinduism in a way the conservative Laos government was not overly fond of. He eventually fled the country, leaving behind a garden filled with grotesque demons, gods, and animals. There were many buddhas, as well as a massive pumpkin. The pumpkin, three stories in height, represented heaven, earth and hell (the three floors). Each floor was filled with small statues and scenes, and was entered through the mouth of a 10′ tall gorilla-demon head (picture an Indiana Jones movie).

We rented a motorbike ($10 CAD) and hit the road to drive 25 km to the park. Entry was 10,000 kip ($1.50 CAD) each to get in, and a bit for parking too.

The statues were fascinating and well designed. It’s crazy to think someone put so much time and effort into making these all happen. We can go into describing each one, but we figured some pictures would best do the job. For more pictures, check out our photo stream.

IMG_20141022_135211

IMG_20141022_141716

Vang Vieng’s Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham Cave

IMG_3178

Luke gearing up for a flip in the Blue Lagoon.

Coming to Laos, the one thing we were most excited for was finding the tranquil blue lagoons pictured by so many travellers before us. When we planned our trip, we didn’t even know where they were. Upon arriving in Vang Vieng, we discovered that it was home to the simply named Blue Lagoon.

The road to the Blue Lagoon is bumpy, so we were told by some friends that either riding a bicycle or taking a tuk tuk ride was the best way to go. It’s hot enough in Laos to fry an egg on your back — I swear — so we opted for the tuk tuk. Tuk tuks were charging 150,000 ($21 CAD) kip for the trip, since they take you all the way there and wait as long as you want before taking you home. We rounded up a total of 6 friends, and haggled it down to only 20,000 kip ($3) each.

To say the ride was bumpy is the understatement of the year. It was a knock your head on the roof, feel your organs slosh together, be thankful you’re still alive at the end kinda bumpy. The ride even includes a “are we going to make it through this?” puddle partway through. Just don’t eat lunch before you go, or you may need to eat again once you get there.

Once there, it took a few minutes for the beauty of the lagoon to set in.

This. Place. Was. GORGEOUS.

IMG_20141020_152804

Me and Jane, enjoying the day.

The water was a thick aqua blue that I’ve never seen in my life. There were these shiny fish swimming in such a way as to make the water look magical. There was a perfectly placed tree with rope swings, ladders, and a high and low branch perfect for diving. There were places to lounge, tubes to float in, and venders selling food.

People were doing backflips, front flips, and dives off the tallest branch. There were people (like me), scared out of their minds to jump, but were encouraged by everyone with clapping, countdowns, and cheers. With some encouragement, I got over my fear of jumping and made it off the lower branch twice. Luke, on the other hand, was jumping and flipping all day off the highest branch.

Tham Phu Kham cave

Another great part about the Blue Lagoon was that you could trek about 10 minutes (200m up) to the Tham Phu Kham cave. Definitely bring some good hiking sandals for this part, since the walk up was pretty steep and rocky. There were some bamboo railings to help, but it can be a bit nerve-wracking at times.

At the cave, we needed our phones’ flashlights to see. If you have head lanterns or more powerful flashlights, try and remember them! You’ll need your hands to brace yourself against rocks as you go. Slowly but surely, we made our way down into the cave on some slippery rocks. Once deep inside, the depth and height of the cave left us speechless.

PANO_20141020_145536

The air was damp but fresh, and there was a bronze reclining Buddha fittingly basking in the sunlight that shone through an opening. I stopped and let Luke carry on further inside of the cave. He said that as he went through some more tunnels, he popped up into another chamber about the size of a small stadium. The size of these caverns made us realize how small and fragile we really are compared to nature. And on a side-note, it also made Luke want to go camping inside a cave system some day.

We uploaded a whole bunch of pictures on our Flickr, so make sure to check them out here.

Falling in love with Pai

IMG_2919

We’ve spent the last five days in Pai and we’ve absolutely fallen in love with this little town. A short three hour van ride around 762 curves up the mountain from Chiang Mai to Pai was well worth it. It’s been such a welcomed change of pace from the two cities; since arriving, we’ve mostly just been relaxing by the pool and enjoying the mountain’s cooler weather.

On a quick side note, we’ve been updating our Flickr account with all the pictures we’ve been taking, whether they made it onto our blog posts or not. Feel free to peruse here!

Touching down in Pai, we rented a motorbike right away (140 baht a day, $4.50 CAD) so we could drive around and find a nice hostel. We usually only spend We stumbled upon Chang Pai Resort, a bunch of little bamboo bungalows with a pool, tucked away just one minute from the town center. A bungalow to ourselves cost 350 baht ($12 CAD) a night with AC.

It’s safe to say that the view in Pai is absolutely stunning. You can get to waterfalls, canyons, caves, and temples all in under 20 minutes by bike, and you can walk everywhere in town. At night, there’s a market lining the main streets with the cheapest and best street food we’ve encountered. Everyone in Pai takes life slowly, so we spent most of our days swimming and sunbathing with our Irish friends, Jane and Brian (hi guys!).

IMG_0818

(Pai Canyon. Click the picture to see it full size!)

The Pai Canyon was a 10 minute drive out of town and was both scary and breathtaking. Luke and Brian had fun hiking atop the narrow canyon ridges, while Jane and I tried not to watch nervously. The sun was absolutely scorching on the canyon but you really couldn’t beat the view.

IMG_2883

(Pambok Waterfall and Luke about to jump in)

 

After that, we all headed to the Pembok Waterfall. Although it was the furthest drive from town that we took, it was only a small hike after you park your motorcycle. We explored the waterfall that was nestled inside of the rock cliffs, creating a half cave. The water was refreshing after nearly baking in the canyon. Luke and Brian got excited about climbing the rocks and doing back flips into the water while Jane and I watched on.

By now we felt fairly hungry, so we biked back down to ‘the land split’. This split is a piece of land on a farm where the farmer says that one day in 2008 he woke up to a massive fissure running through his property. Each year the crack grows, and new ones are created. He’s placed year markers atop each ridge and crevice, showing the progression.

Since most of his land is no longer useful for farming, it has become a tourist spot, where the woman serve roselle juice and a spread of snacks. Luke and I tried a passionfruit for the first time! It was delicious, and so was the juice. They also provided peanuts, lady finger bananas, boiled potatoes with salt, and a small bottle of roselle wine. They worked only on a donation system, so if you stop by make sure to give what you think is fair. Given that a small lunch in town would have cost us 30-40 baht, we gave accordingly.

On our way back to town, we stopped by the famous Pai coffee house, Coffee In Love, for an iced latte and a piece of cheesecake. You can’t beat the view from the patio, so if you’re ever in Pai make sure to take a second to stop and have a coffee.

IMG_2945

(I think we managed to get 100% of our sunburn attempting to take this photo)

Since everything in Pai was so close, we had time for one more stop at the Buddha on a hill. The sun was still out in full force, so walking up all the stairs to get to the Buddha nearly melted us. Once at the top however, it was well worth it. As we’ve been finding with Buddhist temples, they’re almost always located on real estate with incredible views of the city.

Later that evening, we did our nightly tradition of street food and walking through the market. Luke and Brian tried baked locust, crickets, grasshoppers, and larvae, which didn’t go over so well. After about two each, they gave up on the rest. Jane and I walked from store to store trying to find the perfect postcards to send home. There are a bunch of shops in Pai that allow you to buy a post-card and stamp right there, sit down to write the postcard, and mail it, all in-store. Very cute! We developed a bit of a postcard addiction…

We managed to squeeze so much into our visit to Pai that at this point, I’m going to have to summarize most of it. Some highlights: tea in bamboo shoot cups at the market (30 baht for the cup and tea, then 10 baht for every refill), thai massages, sunbathing, more iced coffee, finding the best pizza in Thailand, and playing Jenga while sipping Mojitos and Mai Thais in a little deep-house lounge.

It’s with a heavy heart that we split up with our travel companions Brian and Jane. They’re staying behind in Pai to finish a Thai massage course while Luke and I move on to Laos by slow boat. With plans to meet up again, I guess it’s just goodbye for now to our “savage” friends from Ireland. It’s been a gas!

– S & L

IMG_2887

 

 

 

Backpackers, Buddhas, and bold street food in Bangkok

IMG_2610

Our week in Bangkok has flown by. We finally got our bearings and decided to try some street food, check out a temple, and meet some other backpackers.

We felt a bit lost in Bangkok, so our hostel host mentioned we should check out the backpackers’ street, Khao San Road. It was a 10 minute walk from our hostel and when we got there, we could tell why it was aptly named. Almost everything was in English, Thai locals were selling everything under the sun, Lady Gaga music was blasting from open bars, and there was a sea of other backpackers.

Luke decided he needed some lighter shorts, so we haggled with some venders to get him two pairs for $12 CAD. We sat down and had some Pad Thai and garlic chicken, watching all sorts of backpackers walk past. While it was a welcome change to the confusion that Bangkok had been thus far, it still left a bad taste in our mouths. Seeing hordes of loud, obnoxious and predominantly very white pedestrians from our restaurant table was at first amusing, then disheartening. Is this how we looked to the Thai locals? Our bar had a band of overly vocal Aussies draining draft beer from a tower, and the bar across the street wasn’t faring much better. Still, we were eating something that had an English label on it, so we took the good with the bad.

After that, we headed back to our hostel to meet up with some friends so we could head to the vegetarian food festival in Chinatown. The seven of us piled into two Tuk Tuks and swerved through rush hour traffic before hitting the busy Chinatown festival. The streets were packed and there were food venders everywhere.

IMG_2629

At long last it was time to dig into Thai street food in earnest. We ate veggie fried noodles, roasted chestnuts, and a delicious cashew fruit slushie. If you’re not sure what to picture when we say cashew fruit slushie, don’t worry – neither did we. It looked like a Sunny D concoction, but tasted like they had added butter and some subtle herbs. We tried imitation sausage, which was tofu seasoned and seared just right. For sweets, we had coconut griddle dumplings and pure frozen coconut ice cream.

There was a man selling Durian fruit, which could be described as a mix between avocado, mango, a spike ball and a stink bomb. Our American friend told us that it’s illegal to transport fresh Durian on public transit in the United States on account of the smell. IMG_2633To get to the edible part, you have to crack open and discard nearly 80% of the fruit matter to get to the heart of it. Our verdict: It tasted pretty gross. It had the texture of foam but had a sweeter taste with a sulphur finish.

The next day, we woke up nice and early to check out of our hostel. After I made sure Luke didn’t forget anything, we wandered towards our first temple in Thailand. We had decided on Wat Pho so we could see the Reclining Buddha. This Buddha is 43 metres long and fully ensconced in gold leaf; the feet have over 100 symbols of Buddha engraved on it. To say impressive and ornate would be an understatement. The entire chamber seemed unable to fully showcase the beauty and overwhelming size.

IMG_2684

The entire area was awe-inspiring. Beautiful gardens, many little Buddha’s, all wrapped in gold-leaf, mini-waterfalls, and decorative bonsai trees, all littered the grounds. Since it’s Thailand’s rainy season, we got caught in the daily monsoon-style rain at the end of our tour. We took cover in one of the shrines while the water absolutely beat down for an hour, but we didn’t mind.

When the rain let up, we headed back to our hostel and collected our bags and headed to the train station. Up next, our overnight trip on the Oriental Express.