Travelling as a couple: What we’ve learned

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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.
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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.

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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The Buffalo Run part 1: Monkeys, caves, and rowboats

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We stumbled upon a group tour called The Buffalo Run, a 7 day haul from Hanoi to Hoi An, and decided it would be a good idea to let someone else do the planning for a change. We did a TON over the 7 days, so we’re going to have to split this post up into two episodes!

Oh, and we also uploaded a whole bunch of pictures from Vietnam to our Flickr, so you can check them out here.

Day one

We got up a bit too early and headed to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel for pickup at 6 AM, excited to meet the other people on our tour. We were greeted by Tom, our tour guide, another Tom from the UK, and a Scottish couple, Ryan and Amanda, before hopping into the van.

IMG_20141031_105403The first stop was Cuc Phuong National Park, where we got to see a bunch of endangered monkeys at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, and turtles at the Turtle Conservation Program. It was feeding time at the centre, so the primates were flying around their cages, stoked on life. Little baby gibbons played with their families and the langurs groomed their friends.

The centre has over 150 primates, which they breed and try to reintegrate into the wild. For some critically endangered species, they don’t reintegrate them as their numbers are so drastically low. Of the critically endangered species, they have the grey-shanked douc langur, Delacour’s langur, Cat Ba langur, as well as the “Endangered” Hatinh langur, black langur and Laos langur. It was really sad to see some beautiful species which were so close to extinction.

After we had lunch we biked an extremely hot 20km, stopping to see the cave of the prehistoric man. This guy’s remains were found and his bones are dated at roughly 7,000+ years old. Truth be told, the cave he was settled in would have made an incredible home.

In Cuc Phyong, there were bugs everywhere – in our room, on the paths, at the dinner area, and in the bathrooms. I suppose it was to be expected, since we were in the middle of the jungle, but it’s definitely not ideal for a person who hates being outdoors. Luke got two nice big kisses from leeches on his foot, leaving quite the murder scene in our room. We made the best of this wilderness insanity, however, by doing a midnight safari into the jungle. With our flashlights and headlamps, we tried to see how much disgusting insect and animal life we could stumble upon. Due to the season, it was mainly stick bugs, massive spiders and assorted oversized crawlers.

Day two

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Up nice and early, we started with breakfast and a trek around the park to see the 1,000 year old tree. It’s important to note that it’s been the 1,000 year old tree for years, so we’re not sure how accurate its name is anymore. The tree was somewhat anticlimactic, but the scenery leading up to it was well worth the hike.

Once we were dripping in sweat once again, we hopped back into the van PANO_20141101_095936to head to Trang An in Ninh Binh. Here, we took a beautiful row boat up a clear river, through caves and between mountains (see top photo). A journey lasting almost three hours, this one local woman rowed the entire time, sometimes switching things up by rowing with her feet! Quite impressive. Navigating through dark caves where we had to bend right down to get through, it was a really gorgeous (and sometimes scary!) boat ride. Some of the best views on this tour were, not surprisingly, adorned with picturesque temples. All in all, it made for a very relaxing and beautiful journey with tons of photo ops.

Not long after that, we were off again for a 10 hour overnight bus to Phong Nha National Park. I wasn’t mentally prepared for such a long bus journey, but it was fairly manageable. You get seats that recline almost entirely down, with places for your feet, plus pillows and blankets. Luke, unfortunately being 6’3″ and size 14 feet, couldn’t really fit… but of course, he still slept like a baby.

Day three

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Up nice and early once again, we were off to Paradise Cave. The cave is 31 km long and can reach up to 100m high and 150 wide at some points. While we were only allowed to enter one of the chambers (not the record setting areas), what we got to see was breathtaking. In Luke’s words, it seemed like we were in the dwarven cities you see in Lord of the Rings. Standing inside something so big, damp, and cold was surreal. The colourful rock formations grew up from the floor like creepy alien spires. We took pictures, but they didn’t do justice to what we saw.

After that, we went for another lunch by a clear, fresh river, which rumour has it originates all the way from Laos. Probably the coldest water we’ve felt, but it was a perfect aqua blue and a nice refresher on a hot day.

Vientiane – Amazing food and infinite Buddhas

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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

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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.

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6 Most Common Scams in Bangkok (and how to avoid them)

Welcome to Bangkok, the land of the most persistent scam artists.

In the one week we spent in Bangkok, there were at least half a dozen scams attempted on us. The first scam we fell for within hours of landing. The sad part for us was hearing the exact same lines being used and reused with most people having no idea how easy it is to spot and avoid these common mistakes. Here is a quick list of the scams, and how to avoid them.

1. Tuk tuk prices

Tuk TukOne of the cheapest forms of transportation around Bangkok are these glorified motorcycles. Tuk Tuk’s are something every traveler should try at some point on their trip to Thailand. They’re cheaper than taxis and fun to zip in and out of traffic. Bear in mind, however, that they have no taxi meter. Locals are familiar with the ‘going rate’ of getting from point A to point B, but tourists are asked for exorbitant rates, hoping they’ll simply agree since tourists don’t know their way around. Our hosts told us that most locals pay 10-20 baht, and never any more than 50. Tourists should expect to pay between 50 and 100 baht for anything under a 20 minute drive (give or take).

Our first tuk tuk ride: 400 baht.

2. Taxi meters

You can spot an available taxi with ease in Bangkok — a cotton-candy pink car with a red digital sign in their windshield. They operate exactly like every other taxi driver you’re used to, except they prefer not to activate their meter. If you make it all the way to your destination without the price having been discussed, you’ll be at their mercy of whatever they ask. If you insist on them turning it on partway through, they’ll begin the haggling then. If you want a fair taxi fee, always insist the taxi meter be used before you get in. If they won’t agree, find another.

3. 20 Baht ‘Tours’

A tuk tuk driver approaches you and asks you if you’d like a tour of the palaces for only 20 baht. It seems like a great deal, but before you know it, you’re in a high-pressure sales pitch at some place you may or may not have wanted to go to. Tuk tuks like to deliver tourists to certain shops and tourist attractions in exchange for a commission, which is why they’ll offer you the cheap ride. While it’s not the end of the world for the tourist, it can get uncomfortable, or you can end up buying things you never intended to.

As a rule: don’t go on cheap tuk tuk tours. When it seems too good to be true, it typically is.

4. Temple is closed

You get in a tuk tuk and ask to head to the Grand Palace, but partway there you are informed that the Grand Palace is closed. Have no fear however, he can send you to a riverboat cruise instead, or to a more interesting destination. This happened to us on the way to Wat Pho, but we called his bluff and arrived at a temple which was (not surprisingly) open. When a driver tries to divert you from your destination, don’t buy it. Stick to your guns – temples don’t close for lunch. Note that guides out front of the temple may attempt this line as well, since they too can get commission for taking you to a nearby ‘travel agency’ to book other tours while you wait for the temple to ‘open’.

5. Commission Scalpers

Friendly strangers or drivers approach you with the same line, “Where are you from, where are you going?” While there’s nothing wrong with chatting, this line of conversation often turns to them suggesting someone for your next tour, or the best railway line, or someone who can hook you up with a cheap bus pass. The reality is that almost every shopkeeper, tour company and travel agent will pay a referral fee. If you need a suggestion for who to book with, feel free to take their advice. However, if you think their suggestions are unbiased and honest, think again. They’re simply recommending the routes which have the highest kickbacks lined up for them.

6. Pickpockets

While a lot of the downtown area has a bit of a pickpocketing problem, the major tourist attractions are where you need to be careful. Some temples have put up signs warning tourists, and several of our tuk tuk drivers took it upon themselves to educate us on the dangers of being careless. When gazing upwards and snapping pictures, bags should be securely zipped up and held close. Back pockets are no place for valuables and make sure to not rest your bag down without keeping a close eye on it.

-Luke