The Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan

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The Full Moon Party in Thailand is one of the most famous all night beach parties in South East Asia, if not the world. Koh Phangan is not only famous thanks to the movie The Beach, but also for the monthly party hosted on Haad Rin beach. Nearly 30,000 people come to enjoy music, fire shows, neon everything, and of course buckets of booze.

When we realized we’d be arriving on the islands the day of the Full Moon Party, we decided we had to go. We looked into accommodations on Koh Phangan, but everything was either booked up, price hiked, or demanding a minimum five-day stay (which wasn’t in our plans). We did some quick research and asked a travel agent and quickly learned a really cool hack: you can stay on Koh Samui and take a $25 USD round-trip speed boat there and back. Perfect.

This catch was amazing for a number of reasons. Our bungalow on Koh Samui cost only $15 a night and we had it all to ourselves. The island wasn’t rammed with drunken partiers, but still had an exceptional music and club scene. The beaches were less packed, the food was amazing, and we could keep our distance from the craziness if we wanted to. It was an all-around way better option for us.

IMG_20150203_235238Our travel agent on Koh Samui got us a round trip speedboat trip for 800 baht, which was significantly cheaper than what was offered right at the dock. If you buy at the dock, they’re asking 1100 baht. So, try to shop around. This price included a bus from our hotel as well as the boat there, boat back, and the final bus home (note: in the early morning hours this bus ride can get pretty overloaded, so don’t rely on the ride home being straightforward). The speedboat takes about 15 minutes and everyone is cheering and stoked on life so it’s a fun trip. Oh, and skip any VIP tickets – they’re useless. Regardless of which route you pick, your ticket is good from 10pm till 7am the next day to get you home.

We had read a lot of horror stories about the Full Moon Party online. So many people say it’s not safe, it’s gross, it’s just a bunch of drunken backpackers, etc. etc. We weren’t sure what to expect and I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. Conversely, we had met two other couples that went to the Full Moon Party on a whim and loved it, so we were also hoping to be pleasantly surprised. We both grabbed some potent Thai Redbulls (Google it, they’re insane) and headed over around midnight.

We got to Haad Rin beach around midnight when everything was already in full swing. It was 100 baht entrance ($3 USD) and they weren’t checking any IDs (duh, it’s Thailand). We scored some free body paint that other partiers were sharing and Luke IMG_20150204_023617was the artist of the evening. We grabbed a flower headband, a bucket (200 baht, $6 USD for a pint of Thai rum, a Coke, and a classy plastic drinking bucket), and began to explore.

The party sprawls across the entire beach. Every little bar is selling buckets, food, and playing their own music. You can hear anything from Top 40, to electro bangers, to crazy deep psytrance, to bone-shaking drum and bass. If a song comes on that you don’t like, just walk 15 feet further and enjoy the music there. We settled in for some deep house at one place, and then ventured on to some crazy fist-pumping electro the next.

There is also fire everywhere. Fire dancers, fire signs, fire limbo, even fire jump rope. Luke gave that a try – the flaming 50’ rope would start swinging, people would join in and start jumping, and eventually someone would screw it all up and cause a wipeout. Untangle, clear the jump-rope area, repeat.

There was a water slide, dance stages on the beach, black lights and lasers everywhere, and endless opportunities for exploring. We really enjoyed just walking around, people watching, dancing, and seeing all of the stuff offered by the island. Black lights kept the neon glowing, and stores stayed open all night (in case you forgot to bring your own neon swag).

IMG_20150204_020847Yes, the Full Moon Party is a bit crazy. We saw drunkenness that can only be explained in terms of frosh week debauchery (including one guy dancing atop a billboard), and we saw some telltale signs of drugs. The large number of people and the short supply of public washrooms meant that hordes of bros were using the surf as a urinal. That was a bit grimy, but then again, when is a festival’s washroom setup not grimy? We just kept our heads about us, kept each other close, and kept our shoes on.

Overall the Full Moon Party is a blast and the basic safety rules apply: Watch your drink, watch your bucket, don’t accept drinks or party favors from strangers, take a buddy (and WATCH your buddy … too many girls were on the solo on the hunt for their lost BFF), don’t sleep on the beach, watch your stuff for pickpockets, try not to get blackout drunk, and WEAR SOMETHING GOOD ON YOUR FEET. Broken glass in the sand leaves a lot of backpackers hobbling for the rest of their trip.

In the end, it was one of the most memorable nights of our trip. Before we knew it, it was 4AM and we were grabbing chicken shwarma in preparation for battling the long line to get back on our speedboat. If you’re ever in Thailand around a Full Moon Party date, I cannot urge you enough to leave all of your inhibitions behind, grab a neon tank top, and just GO.

Watch our video recap of our night at the Full Moon Party:

See-ya later, Sihanoukville

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Sihanoukville is the backpacker’s beach of Cambodia. While some love it and other’s hate it, we truly enjoyed ourselves. We had heard that Sihanoukville was a bit of a pit, but we kept an open mind and enjoyed our first taste of ocean air.

Serendipity Beach is absolutely overloaded with backpackers, bars, and locals trying to sell everything under the sun. During the day, you can score a spot on a chair to tan, get a $2 pedicure, a $1 bag of mixed fresh fruit, a grilled squid on a stick, or just people watch. At night, the beach turns into a party haven for every kind of traveler.

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All of this for $1. How can you resist?

It’s important to note that Sihanoukville has hands down earned it’s reputation as somewhat grimy. Everything is so incredibly cheap, so backpackers who are low on funds flock here to party. Hostels and restaurants often trade work for room, board and booze, so it makes for an interesting staff. When we walked down the main strip at night, we were hounded by Aussie guys with dreadlocks and girls with cut up neon t-shirts handing out promo flyers. In the morning as we ate our breakfast, it wasn’t uncommon to see at least one drunk person being carried home by their friends (yes, even at 7-8 AM…)

That being said, it really depended on the area you’re in. We rented a bike, and after getting pulled over by a cop for having our headlight on (and having to bribe him $10 to let us go), we headed over to the more secluded Otres Beach. It’s a bit of a drive away from the main drag of Serendipity, but it was well worth the trek. The beach was almost empty, it was notably cleaner, and there were fewer locals peddling their wares. The distance from town gave us a little bit of tranquility.

The one thing we loved about Sihanoukville the most was how cheap everything was. We fell in love with an Italian place that offered a three course meal for $5.50 a person, and it was by far the best food we’ve had on our trip. It was fun to go from restaurant to restaurant trying such good food for so cheap. I still crave the delicious pasta, pizza, and meat trays from this place…

Luke celebrated his birthday in Sihanoukville and I surprised him with a snorkelling trip off of Koh Rong Samleum. It was $25 each for the full day (including breakfast and lunch) and about a 3 hour boat ride to the spot. He loved it and I got to snorkel for the first time in my life. The reefs were pretty but the water was a bit cloudy; overall I’d recommend  waiting until you get to Thailand if you want to splurge on a scuba dive trip. We ended his birthday off with a massage at Relax Massage (the best of our trip) and roman candle fireworks we bought for $1 to set off on the beach.

All in all, Sihanoukville is a classless place, but if you’re looking to relax on the beach, enjoy cheap food and lodging, or getting away to the nearby islands — have fun and keep an open mind.

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Motorbiking to Halong Bay in the winter

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Even though it was wintertime in Northern Vietnam, we didn’t want to leave the country without visiting Halong Bay. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a destination so popular, travellers flock there by the busload.

You can get a cheap trip there from any travel agent ranging from $40 for a day trip or $110 for a three day, two night boat and hotel trip. Luke loves motorbiking, however, so we decided to go out with a bang and enjoy the countryside by bike.

We swapped our Yamaha for a Honda Win from our trusty mechanic, Phung. We strapped our day pack on, put on our face masks, and filled up a water bottle of gas for the journey in classic Asia driving style.

Many people classified the drive as dangerous, but we didn’t find it dangerous at all. For about 12 km, you have to drive on the shoulder of the highway (as many other bikes also do) and it can be a bit daunting with trucks speeding past but in Vietnam, everyone tends to respect the space on the road.

After that, it’s perfect countryside to take in the sites and smells of Vietnam. It made us appreciate the country so much more than being in the city. We stopped for coffee in a small town and our bike wouldn’t start. A man happily came over and with some charades, fixed the starter and waved us on our way free of charge.

Honestly, the one thing I loved most about Vietnam is everyone’s willingness to help each other out. No one will leave you hanging and I love that about the culture.

It took us about four hours to reach Halong Bay. Since it was winter, it was cold and foggy but we were dressed properly and ready to see what all the fuss was about. We met another couple who helped us barter a cheap price for a four hour tour of the bay via boat for about $25, including a stop at the Sung Sot Cave.

Halong Bay is breathtaking, even amidst all the fog. The boats, the islands, and the calm water create such a picturesque backdrop. Being in the middle of all of it was impressive – everyone was silent while taking it all in. We made a quick stop at the Sung Sot Cave, which was also really cool. We didn’t even plan on seeing the cave, so for us it was a pleasant surprise.

Later on we headed out to get food and find a place to stay. Some bargain hunting off the main drag led us to $10 a night guesthouses and when one showed us a soft mattress, we were sold (they’re rare over here).

All in all, Halong Bay is not to be missed. Preferably, head there in the summer and book a tour through the sweetest travel agent, Lily. But, if you’re caught in Vietnam in the winter just get out your sweater and take it all in with a cup hot of coffee.

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Getting a suit made in Hoi An

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Like many others before us, we traveled to Hoi An anticipating getting a suit custom made and tailored for a good price. We had planned this stop about a year ago when we were brainstorming Vietnam and let’s just say Luke was very excited.

Years ago, Hoi An only had a few tailor shops. Now, it has hundreds (depending on your source, it’s around the 600 mark). Walking through the streets of Hoi An, you see shop after shop making suits, dresses, leather bags, leather shoes, and everything in between. The city is a top tourist destination and it really shows. It’s almost a overwhelming how much this city thrives off of Westerners coming to get something hand made. The tailor market has become so popular that some shops are very aggressive when trying to get your business. More on that later.

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The interior of Luke’s suit jacket.

Finding a tailor was daunting, but after a friend’s recommendation and checking some things out online, Luke felt comfortable choosing Kimmy’s. Walking into the bustling shop full of other Westerners, the ladies at Kimmy’s know how to cater to a dude getting a suit. Jumping all over Luke the moment he walked in, they explained the materials, colours, silks, and designs. Nicer fabrics cost more but overall, a three piece suit starts as low as $79 USD or as much as $250 USD. A nice dress was about $50 USD, depending on the length, fabric, etc.

This price range wasn’t the absolute cheapest in Hoi An, as some shops offered suits in the $50-150 range, but the quality had been attested for by others. The women walked us through the ‘extra touches’ that they add to their clothes, such as double-stitching key areas, reinforcing stretch points, and using high-quality ‘guts’ for the suit, and we felt good about the slightly higher price point.

As I mentioned, the tailor market is extremely cut throat since it’s Hoi An’s bread and butter. While being able to get a cheap quality suit tailor made is exciting, there’s unfortunately quite a dark side to it as well.

While we were finalizing some details about Luke’s suit, we heard a smash outside. As Luke looked outside and the women rushed to the window, he could see a terra cotta pot had been thrown at the store front containing grey sludge and dead birds. It was a homemade stink bomb. Quickly, the putrid smell filled the shop leaving everyone gasping and flooding out. It left us pretty shook up.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Our tailor told us that this stuff happens from time to time and they have no idea who does it or why. Likely, it’s because someone was jealous of their success and wants to hurt their business. Either way, the stinkbomb was both scary and disgusting.

The next day, we went back for Luke’s first fitting. He had settled on a two piece Navy suit with three dress shirts. At the first fitting, everything was almost pretty much perfect. His tailor was great and took all of our suggestions with an encouraging nod. The next afternoon, the suit was complete.

All in all, the total cost to Luke for a two piece suit, two ties, and three custom made dress shirts: $220 USD.

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The final product.

My experience at Kimmy’s wasn’t as great. I wanted to join in on the experience and get two simple but dressy sleeveless shirts made. Since it was a low commission, my tailor couldn’t seem to care less about really taking care of it. Long story short, after a few disastrous fittings, we decided I should try somewhere else.

Thanks to our Irish friends’ recommendation, I headed over to BiBi Silk and the ladies there were so friendly and nice. In just three visits, the shirts were perfect without a hitch! We decided Luke will get his next suit made there on our way back through before leaving the country.

Overall, definitely try getting something custom made in Hoi An. The prices absolutely cannot be beat and if you find a good tailor, you’ll end up with a stunning product.

Hello, Hanoi

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Our original plan for the last year was to travel South East Asia and settle down in Vietnam to teach English. This week, we finally made it to the place we’ve been dying to see: Hanoi, Vietnam.

The city is more than we expected. Busy streets, incredible food, everything you could ever want or need being sold, and beautiful lakes.

Actually, when I said the streets were busy, I think that’s a tad bit untrue. The streets are insane. They’re more than insane — they’re bursting with people, motorbikes, cars, buses, vendors, bikes, cats and chickens. Our hotel had a notice that stated: “To cross the street, remain confident and walk at a steady pace”. Every street crossing is a brush with death, but I think we’re getting the hang of it.

The people are very friendly here. We’ve taken to eating a lot of street food and almost every time we sit down with a new bowl of something, the staff will butt in to help us figure out how to eat it. I suppose we’re not fooling anyone here.

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Can you spot Samie?

We’re getting into eating Pho, which is a traditional Vietnamese soup with broth, noodles, meat, and herbs. Back in Toronto, we pronounce it “F-oh” but here, when you ask for it like that, people look at you like you have three heads. It’s pronounced “Fuh” here (thank you, Google).

We went in search of “The Best Pho in Hanoi”, which is next to impossible. Hanoi is renowned for Pho. It’s being sold nearly everywhere. You get it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can get it with beef, chicken, pork, or just tofu. You can dress it up any way you like it with sauces and chilis. It’s pretty damn good and for some reason, we never seem to get sick of it. The other plus? It usually costs about $1-2.

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Pho at 49 Bat Dan

Our favourite place so far was a small spot at 49 Bat Dan. It was packed full of people, and you got to see the entire soup-making process happen right in front of you. First came the butcher, who endlessly chopped and shaved her way through racks of salted beef. Next, a serving of white noodles was tossed into your bowl, the beef was added on top, and some raw beef was put on the other side. The man with the boiling broth came next, and he blanched the raw beef, then put a big handful of greens on top. It was an efficient chain – from the slab of meat to the finished product took about a minute flat.

Another great thingIMG_3352 about Hanoi is you can get anything you want (knockoffs, of course) for super cheap. Want fake Toms, Nikes, or Zara clothes? They’ve got that. Need a broom? Oh, there’s a woman with a cart walking past your house right now with 10 different kinds. Phone cases, suits, purses, sporting goods — they have it all. And before you go knocking knock-offs, it’s become a sport to try and ‘spot what’s missing/wrong’. With a lot of items, we’re hard-pressed to tell the difference.

The weekend night market is also jam packed. People line the streets selling just about anything, and on the side streets people cram in, sitting on small little stools frying up their dinner.

We decided that Hanoi is the place for us to settle down for at least six months, and we decided to find ourselves an apartment. We’ll save some pictures of our new place for once we’re all moved in! For now though, we’re heading south to Hoi An – be patient while we drop off the grid for a week or so!

Tubing in Vang Vieng – what it looks like today

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The tube launch – where the fun begins

This past week we visited the lovely town of Vang Vieng, halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The town was nestled among a picturesque range of limestone karsts, the Nam Song river, and colourful buildings.

The incredible scenery nearby has turned this small community into a backpacker’s haven, and you can see the effects everywhere. With bars lining the roads, shops selling neon shorts and tank tops, and restaurants playing endless reruns of Friends, South Park and Family Guy, it was a little disheartening to see. The town was still lively with local culture, but you definitely had to look past the drunk westerners to see it.

We had heard that Vang Vieng was famous for its parties and tubing. In 2011, the hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths and countless injuries that occurred in the river. People would tube down the river, stopping at each bar along the way to get drunk on free shots of whiskey, try a magic mushroom shake, or swing into the water on ropes. There were no safety standards, and the fluctuating river levels hid logs and rocks from view.

Nowadays, most of the bars are shut down and the ropes and swings are no where to be seen along the river. Despite the dark past of tubing, it’s still an extremely popular and fun thing to do. There are only three bars open on the water now (six total, but they alternate days). We decided to give it a try when some of our friends we’d met encouraged us to come with (and yes, after much reading and researching on the safety nowadays).

After renting a tube and signing a waiver, we were dropped off at the tube launch. This was also the location of the first bar, and the party was in full swing by the time we arrived. Electronic music was blasting, and people were playing drinking games like flip cup, beer pong, and shotgunning beers. Whiskey shots are free and plentiful in Vang Vieng, since it’s a cheap local product.

We decided to skip the first party and head right to the second bar. We got in our tubes and floated about two minutes down river until we were thrown a rope and pulled in by some locals. The bar was really fun. There was a basketball court with water blasting out of the backboard, hammocks aplenty, and the obligatory soundtrack that included every Western hit from 1990-2010. We played beach volleyball with a bunch of Canadians teaching English in Malaysia, which was a lot of fun. Most were from Toronto, and on was from Halifax. The sun was scorching hot, so when it was time for a break, we decided to trek to the Lom Cave.

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Partway in – eroded limestone caverns

After walking several hundred feet up bamboo stairs, we got to a rather unimpressive entrance.
The opening was about the size of a double door, and there was a set of stairs descending down into the wet limestone. Using the flashlights we had been given, we explored onwards. After about 200 feet, the cave tunnel suddenly opened up into a room that would easily fit the average high school gym. The locals had built a small Buddhist shrine here, and apparently the cave kept going much further, had we had the time the explore.

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Bar #2 – volleyball, flipcup and water-basketball

Once we got back down, the party was in full swing as everyone from the first bar had now made their way here. Our friends from the hostel had also arrived, and we joined them for some lunch. We spent a total of $3 CAD for a plate of sautéed vegetables and a sandwich. Girls were dancing on tables in bikinis and taking selfies. Buckets of booze flowed freely and everyone was in high spirits. It felt like a freshman spring break, in the middle of the jungle.

The whole tubing trip takes a total of two hours to get downriver, and since we were only five minutes in and the sun was moving behind the mountains, we decided to hop back into the water.

The last bar was a bit dead, probably because the rest of the party was still behind us. So, decided to finish out our tubing journey. The view from the river is stunning and drifting slowly in a tube has got to be the best way to take it all in. We saw men working in rice fields, kids throwing fishing nets, and a cow swim across the river to join his family.

At one point we came upon little local boys jumping off a small bridge into the water. As we got closer, they spotted me and raced towards my tube. Luke pushed me closer to them, and once they caught me, they hung on for dear life as I floated towards the bridge. Laughing and splashing, they were ecstatic until they eventually hopped off to climb back up on the bridge. I guess in Laos it’s the little things, like commandeering a stranger’s tube for a few minutes!

Finally our journey came to an end, and the last stop had a gorgeous bar with hammocks and cabanas situated to watch the sun set over the mountains. Snagging a cabana with two hammocks, we dried off and watched the view while drinking smoothies. At $1.25 for a banana chocolate smoothie, with relaxing music playing in the background, we were finally at a venue where we fit in.

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Sun View Bar – this is how we party 🙂

 

Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai

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It’s not every day that you get to feed, bathe, and play with a herd of elephants. In Thailand though, there are tons of opportunities. We knew that hanging out with some massive, grey teddy bears was on our Asia bucket list, and when we found an elephant retirement home in Chiang Mai, we knew we were in the right place.

It was important to us that we find a place where we felt comfortable with how the elephants were treated, as unethical tourist traps are everywhere here. It’s quite common for the companies to use abusive training or to sell endless rides (which is hard on them) at the animals’ expense.

We had heard nothing but good things about the Elephant Retirement Park, so we signed up.

At 9 AM, we met our guide Yui. We drove in a van with eight other people to the market where we grabbed bananas and sugar cane to feed the herd. It was an hour out of the city, but we had Yui to crack jokes, sing, and tell his life stories in broken English to pass time.

Once we got to the park, we hopped into the back of a pick-up truck and went out to meet the six elephants. As we drove up, we could hear them trumpeting out to each other. It was quite surreal. As we rounded the final jungle hill, we saw all six of them eagerly waiting to be fed.IMG_0750

The herd consisted of two matriarchs, one older male, two adolescent girls (6 years old), and a six month old baby girl. The first command we learned was “bon” – which was what we said to make them open wide for treats. It was important for us to feed each elephant individually, as they had to learn our scent before we joined their play time.

The baby by far was the cutest. She acted like a rambunctious puppy dog, ignoring commands and horsing around. She would constantly head butt people, trying to get them to push back as hard as possible.

The whole group was incredibly playful. Each elephant had their own owner (mahut), who lived and played with them.

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(Luke wrestling with the 6 month old baby girl)

A girl volunteering at the park told us that elephants in Thailand are no longer for sale (unless by black market), so all of these magical animals had been passed down within their respective families, always going to the eldest son. The bond between the mahut and elephant was fascinating to see. You could really see the love between them all as they tugged on the elephants ears, wrestled, and worked with them.

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(Luke before he got stepped on!)

After lunch, we went back to give the elephants a mud bath. The mahuts quickly escalated things to an all out mud-war (which was understandable… they probably didn’t get out much) and the elephants happily flopped around, getting covered in clay and cooling down.

Luke was a bit too eager and got underfoot one of the biggest elephants as she slipped in the mud. The result was a pretty big scratch and bruise, which made any more muddy horseplay off limits. I happily sat on the sidelines watching with him, since I’m not a “get muddy” kind of person anyway.

Overall, it was a great experience hanging out with elephants all day. The guys running the place were so friendly and loving, and the opportunity to spend a day with the gentle giants was priceless. We would highly recommend picking their elephant home if you’re considering something like this in Thailand.