Our guide to Tomorrowland

 

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Being able to go to Tomorrowland has been a huge dream of ours, one which we didn’t entirely expect to achieve. Being one of the largest and most popular festivals in the world, Tomorrowland often sells out in only seconds. Luckily for us, we were living in Vietnam and I was able to be one of the first five people to pre-register for tickets in the country, guaranteeing us four tickets. We got super lucky!

After Amsterdam, we headed for Belgium! We were lucky enough to be able to stay with a couple we met off of Couchsurfing just outside of Brussels for two days for some serious R&R. They were so friendly and had two super cute dogs. We had arrived just in time for National Belgium Day, so we all went to a beer festival, saw some fireworks, and ate some amazing European food (and cheese!). It was a great chance to experience some local life before we headed to Brussels to meet our friends Sam and Chris from back home.

The four of us took a train from Brussles to Boom. The train was packed exclusively with festival attendees, who were conspicuous in their neon tanktops, facepaint, and national flag capes. The ride was so exciting, as everyone was proudly wearing their flags from all over the world and were super friendly and chatty. We were so happy to see friends from home after being away for so long, the four of us couldn’t stop talking!

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Upon getting to the festival, we checked in and pushed through the crowd to try and score a good camping spot in Dreamville. This process was pretty stressful, as they just move a barrier rope bit by bit, forcing people to push and try and claim a spot to put down their tents. Lucky for us, we waited patiently and got a pretty good spot by an area where there were washrooms and showers.

Dreamville has absolutely anything you could imagine! Free outdoor showers, FLUSHABLE washrooms (mixed with normal ones(porta-potties? optional)), charcoal BBQ areas, a butcher, a bakery, a grocery store, as well as tons of amazing food and drink options. They even had a hair salon for girls wanting to get up-dos each day. We felt like we were camping in luxury!

The festival itself was obviously a dream come true. The production and the stages were something we’ve all never seen before and we got to hear a lot of our favorite DJs. We spent so much time walking around, eating, relaxing, and dancing that the time absolutely flew. We had a lot of fun, despite the fact that it rained a majority of our time there.

Some quick tips if you’re heading to Tomorrowland:

  • It’s not always as hot as you think, and it rains! Despite the sunny after-movies, Belgium is quite cold at night and feels a lot like Canadian summers. Bring warmer, dry clothes that you’ll actually want to wear. Sam and I were stuck with baggy sweaters and no rain gear, and we were not pleased when it rained. I think I only managed to wear shorts one day out of three.  Bring proper shoes for this as well, such as sandals that strap on.
  • Bring warm sleeping clothes. Again, it gets cold at night!
  • Bring a flag! You’ll feel left out without one, trust me.
  • Bring lots of things to share with those around you. This is such a great way to make friends from all over the world! Sam and I had glitter, stickers, face gems, and all sorts of fun stuff to share so we could make some lasting girl friends from different countries.
  • Bring earplugs to sleep at night – nothing ruins a festival mood quicker than being kept up until the sun rises by chanting drunk people 😉
  • Bring a bathing suit so you can shower in the FREE outdoor showers.
  • Take advantage of the grocery store and save on food costs.
  • Don’t plan your DJ schedule! The stages are far apart and running from one stage to another is just going to drive you crazy. Just pick one or two ‘must-see’ shows, and leave the rest up to chance.
  • Go to the festival early each day and make the most of it. One day we waited until about 5pm to go from Dreamville to Tomorrowland and by the time we walked there, stood in all the lines, and ate dinner, it was pretty late. As the festival ends at midnight, it felt like we really hadn’t gotten a proper day of fun in.
  • Go to Mainstage for the final set, even if it’s not your favorite type of music. We were told this and followed the advice (reluctantly), despite it not being our preferred genre of music. Tomorrowland puts ALL of their production value into Mainstage at the end of the night and the show cannot be beat. When everyone is singing, chanting, and putting up their lights, it really gives you an amazing perspective of how massive the crowd is. Plus, the fireworks at the end are incredible!

All in all, Tomorrowland was a ton of fun but I wish we had prepared for the weather. It’s an expensive festival, packed with big name DJs — making it super busy and a bit too corporate. While it wasn’t my favorite festival we had been to, it was still exciting being part of such a global community of electronic music lovers from all over the world.

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Living the city life in Kuala Lumpur

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Going to Malaysia was sort of a last minute plan for the two of us. We wanted to get more out of our trip to South East Asia, rather than just the typical route, so we budgeted and made it happen.

Kuala Lumpur turned out to be a really incredible city, with tons of things to see and do. The East Indian presence made this country very unique from all the others we had been in so far. The food, customer service, and overall atmosphere was completely different. They also have a really amazing transit system that includes free bus routes. Once we mastered the routes, we were able to explore the entire city for free.

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Teh tarik, before being stirred.

We started off each morning with roti, and I fell in love with ‘teh tarik’, their signature milk tea. It was sort of like a chai tea latte. For $1 a meal, we were on cloud nine. The flavors and cost of the Malaysian food was a total highlight of our trip. But, more on that later.

The city is known for its obsession with shopping malls. In the downtown core there were almost a dozen megamalls that put most western malls to shame. Massive skylights, hundreds of stores, roller coasters inside, and arcades that stretch from one end to the other, it was the definition of excess. We were staying right by the iconic Bukit Bintang mall, and it didn’t disappoint. It had been months since we stepped inside any mall, let alone one this massive. We indulged in some shopping and got some phone cases, screen protectors, and a few other tech-necessities for super cheap.

Later, we headed to the hawker street and Central Market for some local food and souvenir shopping. We walked and walked until our feet couldn’t take any more. At sunset, we caught the bus to the Petronas Towers to enjoy the lights.

It felt really surreal to be at the bottom of the Petronas Towers. We were extremely excited and took probably 100 selfies. While there’s not much to do other than gawk at the height and beauty of them, it’s something that should not be missed. It’s hard to describe how beautiful the towers look when lit up at night – the pictures hardly do it justice. There was also a free light and water show at sundown.

On our way home, we stopped for some satay in Chinatown and revelled in the people watching and street-food smelling.

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Luke’s new best friend, Samie’s worst enemy.

The next day, we headed to Batu Cave. After a short ride on the subway, you can walk to the cave from the station. We lathered on the sunscreen and headed up the massive flight of stairs into the cave. While the cave itself isn’t too pretty, there are monkeys everywhere vying for food. Luke loved getting up close to them but they didn’t seem friendly, so I kept my space.

We have such fond memories of being in Kuala Lumpur and it was hands down one of our most favorite cities so far. The people, the food, and the incredible infrastructure really blew us away. If you haven’t done so already, make sure to put Kuala Lumpur on your list!

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Snorkelling on Koh Tao

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Koh Tao is a little island off of Thailand that’s known for its scuba diving schools and picturesque snorkelling. We were very excited to meet up with our two friends from Toronto, Brad and Karalee, who were taking a week-long PADI diving course on the island.

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How does it get much better than this?

Getting to Koh Tao from Phuket was a bit of a trek. We decided to take a bus from Phuket to Surat Thani and then the night boat from Surat to Koh Tao. You can do packaged travel options but this one allowed us to enjoy the night market in Surat Thani, relax, and then save on a night of accommodation while sleeping on the boat (rather than a 12-hour day drip via bus and boat to arrive at 8pm).

The night boat is about 500 baht ($15.50 USD) and left at 11pm and arrived at 6am the next morning. You sleep on these mats in rows next to strangers but there’s a bathroom and it’s all other backpackers so it was quite comfy.

We arrived groggy and walked to Koh Tao Garden Resort where we’d be staying. It was 7am now and the little old couple running the place let us in, turned on the TV, and sat us down and got us juice as they cleaned our room. Luckily, someone checked out early and they let us check in right away. We highly, highly recommend this place. We got our own bungalow for about $15 a night and it was just like a cottage. It was perfect.

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Luke surrounded by his new friends.

Since Koh Tao is known for snorkelling and scuba diving, we opted for getting ourselves our very own snorkelling sets, renting a bike, and checking out all the recommended snorkelling points.

The snorkelling on Koh Tao is incredible. There are many spots where you can snorkel within ten or fifteen feet of the shore and already see hundreds of brightly coloured fish, sea urchins, and coral. At the northern tip of Koh Tao is the Sunset View Restaurant, with public access to an excellent dive site. As there is food from the restaurant hitting the water, there are schools of fish waiting in the shallow water where you jump in. It doesn’t get any easier to snorkel! This was also the site where Luke managed to spot a large blue triggerfish.

For those considering snorkelling, I think it’s well worth it to beach hop and see what each location has to offer. Some spots we visited were relatively empty one day, only to be filled with fish the next. All in all, it was great swimming and snorkelling pretty much wherever we went.

Here’s a beach guide: http://www.travelfish.org/feature/163

We also spent some time with Karalee on a secluded little beach called Freedom beach. A cute little beach that’s a bit off the beaten trail, it’s a perfect haven for getting in some snorkelling or taking a nap. Seashells hang in the streets and there’s an awesome lookout on the way there.

Overall, Koh Tao is a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of the other islands and it still has everything you need: beautiful beaches, nightlife, and just enough charm.

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A day on Railay Beach

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Railay Beach was one of the main reasons we decided to go to Krabi, so we rented a long tail boat for a day trip to the beach.

We opted for just a day trip rather than an overnight to save on money (both accommodations and food) and so we could explore the rest of Krabi. It was a decision we didn’t regret! We drove our motorbike 15 minutes from Krabi to Ao Nang beach (amazing ride!) to catch a long tail boat for 100 baht ($3 USD) each way. The boat leaves whenever it has enough people, which for us took less than five minutes.

It’s worth mentioning that the beach town of Ao Nang is worth checking out, even as a place to stay. Packed with beach stores, food options, and a good beach vacation vibe, we really wished we had known it was such a happening place. Compared to the somewhat underwhelming town of Krabi, it may have been a better home base for this leg of the trip.

The long tail boat ride was about 15 minutes and the ride itself was gorgeous. Sailing past all the rocks and peaks coming out of the water and getting to see the beach up ahead was truly breathtaking. Our anticipation to get to the beach grew and grew the closer we got.

Once we arrived, we didn’t set out our towels to relax just yet. There are many different beaches on Railay, all within walking distance, so we wanted to pick our favourite. We walked from Railay West to Railay East and then to Ao Pranang. On Ao Pranang, there are some really cool rock climbing setups and you can check out the Pranang Cave. Overall, Pranang beach was our favourite place to sunbathe.

The beaches didn’t get too busy while we were there and the water was perfect. We explored the island, met some monkeys, checked out the caves, and grabbed an incredible chicken shwarma from an expat who owns a little shack. It was the perfect day trip to take in another beautiful Thai beach.

With that, we figured only pictures could do the rest justice. Enjoy!

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Exploring the beautiful Ancient Town of Hoi An

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Hoi An is a beautiful Ancient Town nestled on both a river and the Pacific Ocean.

While it may be packed with tourists, it’s with good reason. Hoi An has a lot to offer. While our original plan was to head to Hoi An to get a suit made for Luke, we ended up staying in Hoi An for an entire week enjoying beaches, incredible food, and the friendly locals. Being recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the beauty of the town is tough to describe in words.

We stayed at the Han Thuyen Homestay in Hoi An and we loved the family feel of the place. A little toddler was running around during breakfast and always there to greet you with a huge smile when you came home. The homestay also offered free bikes to ride in town and really, it’s all we needed. We spent the entire week biking to and from wherever we wanted to go.

After getting Luke all dolled up in his handsome suit, we needed some shoes to go with it. We headed over to The Friendly Shoe for some custom made leather dress shoes for him and a pair of leather boots copied off of some I wore out back home in Toronto. For $60 a pair, our feet were measured and we picked out the colours and leather we liked. In just three fittings, they were perfect!

Cua Dai beach was a quick 10 minute bike ride along the river ’til you hit the white sand beaches and the kiss of the Pacific Ocean. Almost as warm as bath water, it was still refreshing to bob in the ocean before lounging on one of the many beach chairs local restaurants have set up. It was a great way to get a tan, relax, and spend some much needed time off from the always-on-the-go travelling we had been doing.IMG_3623

Every night when it gets dark, Hoi An has lanterns you can light and drop into the river. We were there on the full moon, however, so the city was extra special. They turn out all of the power and lights near the river, relying solely on lantern lighting. The Japanese Covered Bridge glows, as does the river and all of the boats. For $1 USD, you get two to let into the river for good luck.

We absolutely loved spending time by the river in Hoi An. Enjoying a coffee, browsing the many shops, and people watching was the perfect way to spend a vacation. You can fly right into Da Nang for $30 USD from Hanoi, making Hoi An an up and coming holiday destination and we’d highly recommend it.

Hoi An is known for its quality silk, so it only seemed fitting to visit the Hoi An Silk Village. It ended up being surprisingly interesting and fun. At only $8 USD a person, we were greeted by the sweetest guide with a mulberry drink. Then, she showed a sampling of the more than 100 traditional silk costumes worn by Vietnamese tribes. Following that, she showed us the mulberry gardens while talking about the history of silk.

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You could hear the silkworms chewing!

We got to see the full silk worm life cycle, which is actually only about a month long. We saw big and small silkworms munching on cut mulberry leaves and also big trays of silk cocoons. Then, we went into the hut where the cocoons are boiled in hot water to dissolve the silk glue so that the women could pull it apart and wind it on a spindle. Luke and Bryan actually ate the the silkworm that had been boiled out of the cocoon. Very gross, but they claim it tasted pretty good.

Next we got to watch silk scarfs being made in the traditional Champa weaving style. The process looked extremely tedious with the result being a stunning robe, scarf, or bag.  Ending the tour, our guide showed us one final and useful fact. Have you ever wondered how to tell whether your silk souvenir is actually 100% silk? The answer is to light it on fire. Take a small flyaway thread, light it, and smell. Silk smells like burnt hair, and goes out the instant you take the flame away. Cotton and polyester keep burning after you remove the flame, and lack the signature scent. Polyester smells notably of plastic. We tried testing it in the market afterwards – as our guide told us, vendors did not mind a thread being tested to verify the material.

All in all, Hoi An is a perfect place for shopping, good food, getting a serious tan, and enjoying the local feel of Vietnam. A short plane trip or cheap overnight train ride from Hanoi, we have plans to get back as soon as we can.

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Hoi An traffic

Buffalo Run part 2: Explosions, hot springs, and Top Gear

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On Day four of the Buffalo Run, it was time for us to do some serious reflection on the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s named here). We arrived at Vinh Moc, a deep tunnel complex in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The tunnels were dug right at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and the waves crashing onto the shore created an eery feel. Looking around, it was surprisingly easy to imagine thousands of bombs being dropped as families hid inside the tunnel system during the war. There were still craters left in the ground and black on mountain sides to remind you where the missiles and bombs had hit.

The cramped, damp, dark tunnels were home to over 600 people, and 17 babies were welcomed into the world down there between 1965 and 1972. Barely able to stand up inside, families lived in cramped alcoves that left you wondering how they could even lie down to sleep. When the Americans found out about the tunnels, they created bombs designed to penetrate deeper. The Vietnamese’ response was to simply tunnel deeper. At its deepest point, the colony was living about 30 meters below the surface. Talk about resilience.

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The explosives we detonated.

After lunch, we visited the Mine Action Visitors Centre in Dong Ha, which housed Project RENEW. This was a nonprofit organization dedicated to clearing up explosives from the American War days that still remain scattered around the countryside. During the war, the US barraged Vietnam with an estimated 15 million pounds of explosives, and roughly 10% of it never exploded. That 1.5 million pounds has been killing farmers, livestock and children ever since.

We were able to join them on a bomb disposal run, as there had been a report of explosives found in a farmer’s field the night before. When we arrived, the team had unearthed two M33 grenades, two 61mm mortar shells, and two 37mm anti-air projectiles. All of this had been lying in the farmer’s field since the war, buried deep in the mud. Cows roamed all around, farmers were working, and children were in the schoolyard next door laughing. It was an unsettling sight to see.

The reason these bombs didn’t go off forty years ago is not that they were duds. Rather, their trigger mechanisms didn’t activate properly. Bombs that needed to spin a certain amount of times before detonating landed several spins shy. When a child finds it and tosses it to a friend, they can end up dead. Or a bomb that needed impact to detonate might be waiting for a farmer’s plow.

While the realities of the post-war plight are sad, the act of disposing of the explosives can be a little fun. After the team herded the cows away and signalled an alarm for the children, Luke was given instructions and the detonator switch. Rather than describing what happened next, see for yourself (spoiler – the look on his face after is the BEST):

Day five

We arrived in the lovely town of Hue (pronounced hway) with storm clouds that really didn’t want to let up. Luckily, we stayed at Hue Backpackers. It was a busy party hostel with lots of things to do. We got to fight off the rain with a trivia night and a two-for-one pizza special. Ourselves and our Scottish friends (with a little bit of cheater’s luck) won trivia night! Woohoo.

IMG_20141104_144309Since it was still cloudy and rainy long after arrival, we changed plans from the original beach activity to zip-lining and the natural hot springs at Alba Thanh Tan. While the zip-lining was a tad anti-climactic (but, still fun) and the rope course was geared more towards teenagers, the hot springs were perfect. We floated around all day, even in the rain, in pools up to 45 degrees Celsius. They had built a lazy river leading away from the source, and each segment was progressively cooler.

Day six

It was the moment Luke had most been waiting for: the Top Gear motorbike journey through the Hoi Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An. If you haven’t seen the episode, you should! It perfectly describes our new life here in Vietnam and shows the beautiful scenery and crazy roads we travelled.

We biked through fishing villages, mountains, farmland, cityscape, and beaches; the journey was much more than we expected. Children waved at us as we drove by and dogs moved out of our way. We even had to swerve around massive water buffalo that wandered across the middle of the road! They’re beautiful creatures, to say the least. And in spite of their size, they seem quite unthreatening to be around.

Overall, the bike trip took us about six hours. It started with a cruise down to Cua Tu Hien first thing in the morning, followed by the Phuoc Tuong Pass for 20km before hitting the Phu Gia Pass. Then, after driving through Lang Co we stopped for some lunch (if all the names are confusing, don’t worry – we didn’t get it either… we just followed our tour guide down the coast). Our tour guide had heard tell of a waterfall/swimming spot that the locals went to, so he asked our waiter.

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Fifteen minutes back up the road, followed by ten minutes of navigating a dirt path through the thick forest, we reached a
house with an old lady who waved us in. We stepped out onto a stunning series of waterfalls that originated from way, way upin the mountains. The water was crystal clear and crisp, and the views incredible. It’s gems like these that make hiring a tour guide worth every penny! The group swam and explored for an hour or so before it was time to hit the road again.

Getting to the Hai Van Pass was simply icing on the cake at this point. The views just kept getting better. Swerving back and forth across the mountain roads, you could look down and see beaches and a skyline the seemed endless. We pretty much had the road to ourselves as well, so we could take all the time we needed before finally cruising into Da Nang.

Finally, with sore bums and a slight sunburn, we reached DK’s House in Hoi An and settled in for some BBQ burgers. Saying goodbye to our tour guide, we were happy to have made some new friends and see some things we definitely wouldn’t have been able to on our own.

– Samie & Luke

P.S – Photos from the trip can be all be seen right here. 

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