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.

Sunset yoga and cascading waterfalls in Luang Prabang

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After arriving in Laos, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Despite it being close neighbours to Thailand, we still experienced a bit of culture shock yet again.

We touched down from the slow boat and slugged it from guesthouse to guesthouse until we found one that was up to par. Lately, this has been our go-to method for finding a lodging, as booking online has proved to be more expensive and crappy. Going door to door is simple in most places, since most hostels are often clumped together. Owners are used to backpackers asking to see the rooms and haggling prices is not uncommon.

On our first day, Luke wasn’t feeling the best due to our malaria medication so I went solo to sunset yoga. Ock Pop Tok offered sunset yoga right on the Mekong River for 60,000 kip ($8.50 CAD). Jenn was my teacher and she was incredible. The hour and a half class was challenging, but the best part was being able to glance up and see the sun setting over the water. Being a huge yoga fan, it was a surreal moment — I never dreamed I’d be doing yoga on a river in Laos. I’d highly recommend yoga in the great outdoors, wherever you can experience it.

The next day, we headed to Tad Sae Waterfall. Brian and Jane caught back up to us sooner than we expected, which was awesome. We all split the cost of a tuk tuk to the waterfall, costing us about $2 each. He drove us 30 minutes to the falls and waited three hours for us to get back and drive us home.

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Tad Sae Waterfalls – well worth the trek!

The waterfalls were stunning. The aqua blue water was like nothing we’ve seen, and the way the water cascaded through the trees made it look like the jungle was flooded. We trekked up the falls until we found the perfect place to go swimming. There was a peaceful patch of water right after a bunch of falls that was refreshing as it was beautiful. We had brought Laos sandwiches (baguette with cucumber, carrot, lots of onion, tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese) for lunch.

There were elephant rides at the falls as well. We felt pretty bad for the animals, since they were chained up and had big wooden chairs on top of them so they could offer rides all day. It’s frustrating to see them abused for profit so often here in South East Asia. Nonetheless, getting a chance to see the herd swimming and walking through the falls was pretty fascinating.

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$1.75 = soup for two

The night market in town proved to be the best place to grab food. Luke and I bought a soup for $1.50 CAD and she split it into two filling bowls for us. The food is so fresh, you actually pick your veggies and they fry it right in front of you. There was also a buffet where you filled your plate for $1.75 CAD and the cook would fry everything together with some seasoning. In the morning, you can get smoothies, sandwiches, and crepes all for $1.50 CAD each. It’s insanely delicious and cheap.

We stayed for four nights in Luang Prabang. Overall, the city was definitely underwhelming. While the travel books glamorized the Luang Prabang as a world heritage site, the quaint city was overrun by Westerners both backpacking and on vacation. So, if you want to get a true taste of Laos, Luang Prabang isn’t the place to seek it. Also, it wasn’t very easy to get around. Tuk tuk’s were the priciest we’ve seen, and scooters cost five times the usual Thai rate to rent. There were a lot of packaged tours available, but the value seemed lacking.

If we did it again, we would have cut our trip in half. Regardless, we can’t wait to see what Laos has to offer.

– S & L

P.S The wifi is terrible in Laos. Sorry for the sporadic updates. We’re safe and loving life in Vang Vieng, so don’t worry!

How to: Two day slow boat from Thailand to Laos

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(An assortment of slow boats just like the one we took)

Reading online about the journey from Pai (or Chiang Mai), Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos was quite daunting. We had read many horror stories and began to dread our prospects. There were several options, and each had a long list of complaints and critiques. At the end of the day we chose the path most traveled, and we bought a ticket for the 3-day slow boat.

On Saturday, we headed down to aYa travel agency in Pai and grabbed a packaged journey to Luang Prabang. For a five hour bus ride to Chiang Khong, one night’s stay (breakfast included), and two days on the slow boat, it cost us 1750 baht ($61 CAD) each. On the second night, we would have to spend a night in Pak Bang on our own dime, which was not included in the price.

Sunday evening we left at 6:30 PM for our second round at the 762 curve drive to get out of Pai. It was pitch black and Samie was struggling a bit with the curves this time around (she hates night driving, let alone speeding around twists and turns). After about two hours, we finally mastered the hardest part and were on a straight away to Chiang Khong.

We got into Chiang Khong late at around 2 AM and checked into a less-than-ideal hotel. We were exhausted, so it didn’t matter that much to us. A lot of reviews online complained about the hotel but really, for a few hours it’s not bad at all. We had our own room with an en suite bathroom. It wasn’t entirely cleanly, but we closed our eyes and pretended we were at the Hard Rock Hotel and drifted off.

The Laos border

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(The shuttle bus at the Laos border)

In the morning at 7 AM, we got free scrambled eggs and toast and took some passport photos for 100 baht ($3.50 CAD) before jumping into the back of a truck and heading to the border. At the border, we needed to pay 20 baht for the shuttle to cross the friendship bridge into Laos.

Once at the border, it was pretty painless. Again, we’ve heard that the visa process can be a nightmare but luckily it wasn’t busy at all when we arrived at 8:30 am. We had to go to a counter, get our visa ($42 USD for Canadians — we’re the only country that had to pay that much!), and give them our passport. After about 10 minutes, they called our name and we got our passports back. I can see how easily this could be a big mess, but again we were lucky.

The slow boat – Day one

After we had our visas, we headed to the slow boats 10 minutes away. Once there, we grabbed some sandwiches from a local café and boarded the slow boat. The guy running the tour told a few fibs, such as ‘the boat wasn’t even at the dock yet’ (when it was, and already almost full 20 minutes prior), and that he had booked reserved seats for us at the front of the boat (it’s actually impossible to reserve seats). Thanks to him, we were all pushed to the back of the boat right next to the engine, which was extremely loud.

Luckily, there was a lot of floor space at the front of the boat, and we went up for fresh air and sat on the floor with a bunch of other travellers. The view was spectacular and the breeze was perfect. The locals on board had cute toddlers playing with everyone and the captain let some people sit at the bow of the boat outside.

The boat had old van/bus seats throughout for passengers to sit on, which was nicer than other boats which have wooden seats. We heard most of them are being upgraded to these sort of seats.

For a five hour journey, it was a really nice way to go. The views were unbeatable, and we got to see water buffalo, stray dogs, goats, and locals clear-cutting and farming the mountainous hillside. The Mekong River winds through some incredibly lush, dense jungle forest – the kind of stuff you expect to only see while watching Jurassic Park.

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(Sitting on the bow – the view was alright…)

Pakbang

When we arrived in Pakbang, we stuck with some travellers we met and walked up to the town. Avoid the tuk tuk offers — you won’t need them! It’s a short 5-10 minute walk into the city where there are tons of guest houses to choose from, ranging from about 30,000-50,000 kip/person ($4.25-6.25 CAD).

We found a private room for 50,000 kip called Vassana. It was clean with wifi and cold showers. For the price and location, we were happy. The power went out a few times (but we heard this is normal for Laos), only lasting for about 20 minutes. We went to dinner with some American friends we made and went to bed early since the boat was leaving at 9 AM.

Slow boat – Day two

The boat was scheduled to leave at 9 am, but it didn’t leave till 10 am (but, we’re on Laos time, so this is to be expected). We got to the pier at 8:30 am to get a nice seat right up front. Once we got moving, it was an eight hour trip to Luang Prabang.

A note to anyone thinking of taking the slow boat: bring food! We only brought a few sandwiches and were pretty hungry by the end of it. They sell ramen noodles, beer, pop, and chips on board, but nothing of substance.

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(A village on the Mekong River)

We arrived in Luang Prabang around 5 PM, and the boat didn’t take us to the proper pier. We had heard this was a common scam happening these days. There is a pier downtown, but the boat instead takes you to a shoreline 10km outside of the city claiming that the downtown pier doesn’t allow for passenger boats to dock. A woman on our boat was getting pretty mad with the captain, but he didn’t seem to care.

This part sucked a bit, but we had expected it. We walked up a huge sandbank to the road where the tuk tuk’s were offering obscene prices (20,000 kip/person, or $2.50 CAD) for a ride into town. Considering tuk tuks usually charged no more than $1.50 total for a ride, and these tuk tuks were filling up with 6 people at a time, it was a pretty clear cash grab. Some friends and us decided to walk a few minutes before we finally found one we were comfortable paying. We payed about 10,000 kip each, 60,000 total ($7.50 CAD) to get into town. We wouldn’t advise walking all the way into town, since it was definitely a hike.

Overall, we really enjoyed the experience. If you come into it with no expectations, it’s really not that bad. Yes, the sleeping arrangements weren’t five star, but who cares? On a shoestring budget, the slow boat provided the best views, time to relax, and opportunity to meet some new friends.

– L & S

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