Phnom Penh to Bangkok in under $50

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On this trip, it’s been important for us to find the most cost-conscious ways of getting from point A to point B. In South East Asia,  it’s pretty easy to cut costs if you’re willing to put in the work. From walking from travel agent to travel agent, to researching extensively online and knowing every way possible, to taking the less direct route, you can always make your budget work.

Flights in South East Asia are usually cheap, but sometimes when booking last minute the prices will suddenly be unaffordable. We missed our chance to get a plane ticket from Phnom Penh to Bangkok as planned and we weren’t about to opt for the extremely badly reviewed bus company offering $30 overnight “VIP” buses. There were far too many stories of drivers falling asleep and landing their buses in a ditch.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed using one website called The Man In Seat 61 for cross-checking all of our transportation options before we make a final decision. The site is basically a hub for anything you need to know about train and bus travel in most countries. So, we decided to take a route we found on his site but added a few of our own preferences.

IMG_5069Here’s our step by step guide for how we got from Phnom Penh to Bankok for less than $50:

Step 1: We jumped on a 10:30 PM night bus with Giant Ibis (great bus company that you can book online, choose your seat seats, and it has wifi!) from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap for $15. It was a 6.5 hour overnight drive on a”hotel bus” where you get a full lie down bed, as opposed to traditional sleepers with recliners. The one half of the bus was double beds, so my boyfriend and I got to sleep side by side with plenty of room.

Step 2: After arriving safely in Siem Reap at 6AM, we hailed a $2 tuk tuk to take us to the bus station for a $9 bus (as suggested by Seat61). Our driver told us the buses get really full (who knows if this is the truth) and suggested a private taxi instead. We asked how much, and he said $30 to get us to Poipet where we would cross the boarder. So at $15 each, we were totally cool with that. He drove us to some guys he knew and they tried to get us for $35. A little haggling and the threat of walking away, and they caved for $30. It took two hours to get to the border in a nice car.

Step 3: At 8:30 AM we walked across the boarder into Thailand! No lines, just some quick passport stamping and then we walked into Aranyaprathet. Note that the visa rules have changed and you can now get a free 30 day visa when you arrive by land, instead of just two weeks as it was previously.

Step 4: We got food and hung out in a cafe before taking a $3 tuk tuk ride to the train station to grab the 1:55 PM train to Bangkok. We waited at the train station and bought our $1.50 train tickets from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok (6 hours). The only option is a 3rd class seat, which is bench seating. The 3rd class soft seats filled up quickly, so we were stuck with the leftover hard seats in 4th class. The windows come right down so the ride is really breezy and nice. The only issue we had was with the food, as we couldn’t tell what it was they were selling. My advice would be to take the time and get some snacks for the trip, or be ready to try some unusual Thai food.

And with that, we arrived safely in Bangkok. A little bit hungry but no worse for the wear. All in all, our trip cost us (per person):
$15 bus from Pnom Penh to Siem Reap
$2 Tuk tuk in Siem Reap to car
$30 Car from Siem Reap to Poipet
$1.55 Train from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok
Total cost: $48.55 (USD)

It’s a bit of a journey but if you’re mentally prepared for it, it’s really easy and not too bad since it’s all broken up into steps. All in all, it was really cool to figure it out for ourselves and we’d recommend the trip for the adventurous souls.

Unwinding in the sleepy town of Kampot

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Before we had finished the paperwork required to check in to Ganesha Riverside Eco Resort, our host Billy suggested we take a moment to go see the sunset. We walked past huts on bamboo stilts and stood at the edge of a rice field just in time to see a deep orange sun set over the Elephant Mountains. It felt like the perfect response to bustling, chaotic and unsafe Phnom Penh experience.

The town of Kampot is a quaint fishing village with a French colonial twist. The surrounding farms grow world famous Kampot pepper and there are large salt farms lining the ocean coast. Ganesha is hidden twenty minutes away, off a couple of dirt side roads. It really doesn’t get any more idyllic. We didn’t get up to too much in Kampot, as it’s more of a place to sit back and relax with nature. We spent time in our hammock and played cards in the evening to deep house music — our favourite way to kill time.

The one thing we enjoyed most about Kampot was how seriously everyone took the sunset. Every evening, right at 5 p.m, locals lined the riverside to watch the sun set over the mountains. Watching (and joining) everyone as they stopped to take in the natural beauty of the landscape before dinner was our favourite part of the evenings. Little things like that are uncommon in the western world.

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Our view driving through Kep.

We decided to take one day to see all there was to see in Kampot and its sister town, Kep. We rented a $5/day motorbike and drove out to get our very own Kampot pepper, straight from the organic farm. They sold three varieties of pepper: white, red, and black. Each has a distinct flavour – white was for fish, red for poultry and beef, and black was used on everything.

After the short tour, we headed through Kep to dip our toes into the ocean and experience the oceanside crab market. The crab market in Kep was bustling with locals selling any kind of seafood you could imagine. Every restaurant sold crab, making it hard to choose one spot. Eventually we settled on a place called Holy Crab, encouraged by some online reviews.  The view was amazing and the crab dishes were even better. We chose a crab salad with two crabs ($6) and a green Kampot pepper baked crab ($8). They were hands down some of the best dishes we’ve had during our travels!

A nice break from the bustling cities of Cambodia, Kampot was delightfully understated and hopefully it stays that way to preserve the beauty and simplicity of it. A city untouched by tourists, the food and people made it one of our favourite destinations in Cambodia.

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A riverside hut at Ganesha

Getting robbed in Phnom Penh

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The last picture of Luke and his “murse” together in Vietnam.

While travelling South East Asia, we’ve felt safe most of the time. We had read and heard some of the horror stories of Phnom Penh — bag snatching, muggings, and scams — but we felt that our general cautiousness and not cutting corners on safety was all that was necessary. Those stories can be heard from almost any country you visit, after all.

When we arrived in Phnom Penh, we checked into our guesthouse and headed towards the night market. We were starving, so we just dumped our bags and headed out. As we stopped to check directions on our phones, Luke suddenly got shoved and a guy on a motorbike ripped his side bag off of him and drove off. Luke was okay and luckily his bag was cheap and it was a clean break of the strap. He had his wallet in his pocket, his passport at the front desk, and his cell was in his hands — thank goodness. It was definitely a fluke since he normally keeps everything in the bag. But, we soon realized that we had forgotten to take out my passport. Just like that, my passport was gone.

We went back to the guesthouse and the front desk staff gave us a “meh, it happens” sort of reply. We went to the police station, which was a hole in the wall that had zero actual cops in it. Someone called the police, and two eventually showed up. An officer took our statement, stopping us constantly to ask the most redundant questions. Things like, ‘so have you been to the musuem? Where were you headed? Which shoulder was the bag on?’. We knew enough about Cambodia to know the cops weren’t going to be much help, but for insurance purposes, we needed the statement. We didn’t sleep all night.

The next morning, we went to the Australian embassy (the closest Canadian embassy to us was in Bangkok) and began the process. The costs and hassles we were facing were insane. I was informed that I’d need to buy an exit visa, since my Cambodian visa was in the passport, which would take about four days in Phnom Penh. Then, I needed an emergency travel document (a one-time passport, essentially), which would take me to one place — either home or Bangkok. In Bangkok, I would then need to apply for a whole new passport at full cost and wait a month for it to come, since I needed it to continue our travel plans. All in all, this was starting to look like a month and a half ordeal plus about $1000, when we factored in the accommodations in places we hadn’t intended on staying in, the unplanned flight to Bangkok and so on. We were devastated. The silver lining was that thankfully it was just one passport and no cell phones, cash, or cards.

As we got back to the guesthouse after many tears, I checked my phone and had four emails from people commenting on my personal website. Three foreigners told me that a local guy posted on a Facebook group that he had my passport and left a number. They had Googled my name and found my website and Twitter. We quickly called the embassy, cancelled the paperwork, and got a tuk tuk driver to call the guy and arrange for us to meet him. We waited for an hour in the tuk tuk for the guy to finally call us again. Finally, we get a call and head down a sketchy alley way. We had read online about cases of extortion when passports had been stolen, so we came empty-handed other than a small bit of cash. We were still a bit nervous about  to what to expect.

Finally, we found the right house in the heart of a Cambodian slum, and the man came out with his entire family. He was the sweetest guy and he told the tuk tuk driver that he had found my passport scattered on the ground with a few papers. He just wanted to make sure it was me before giving it back, which he promptly handed right over. We offered him $40 as a thank-you and he humbly accepted it and offered us a ride back on his motorbike. It was an extremely emotional day for me to say the least.

The kindness of strangers was overwhelming. Our trip got to go on completely uninterrupted (other than some shaken nerves) and to this day, I can’t believe it worked out the way it did.

We got lucky, but honestly if you’re visiting Phnom Penh, please be extra careful. On the Phnom Penh Facebook group, there were three additional posts about people being robbed in the same way as us that week. Our friends commented similar feelings towards the city – it’s normal to see motorbikes drive by slowly while conspicuously checking out what you have on you. You can never be too careful anywhere — wear a money belt (uncomfortable and not stylish, I know) and hold your purse/backpack while you’re walking. Lastly, always keep your passport locked up at your hotel and never get too comfortable.

With that, we take a massive sigh of relief and thank the kind locals of Cambodia for showing how great this country can be, despite a few bad seeds.

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.

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

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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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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Falling in love with Pai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Pambok Waterfall and Luke about to jump in)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– S & L

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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.

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