My hopes of blogging throughout our journey quickly diminished as the wifi connections got weaker and the time it took me to write one post seemed to keep getting longer and longer. I applaud all the travel bloggers who are able to accomplish so many posts while on the road. I think someday I’ll be able to get there but for now, I will catch everyone up on the highlights of our trip. Most of these places happened to be some of the most touristy places, but they are touristy for a reason, right? Of course, there are countless other places, people, and sights that we encountered that I will never forget, but these places will hold a special place in my memory forever.
Six days after we flew into Southeast Asia we found ourselves in Siem Reap, the small yet lively city filled with thousands of people all there for the same reason — to marvel at the ancient temples and ruins of Angkor Wat. A few acquittances recommended that we should hire a guide for Angkor Wat and since we knew very little information about Cambodian history, we did just that.
Our guide arrived at our hostel at 4:30 AM so we could see sunrise at the main temple. Sunrise, for us, was disappointing due to the massive crowds and the cloud cover on the day we chose to go. (Side note: I have heard it is better at the Pink Temple, Banteay Srei, which is about an hour and a half away from Siem Reap). After the clouds cleared and the sun began to shine upon us, we spent the rest of the day touring with our lovely guide, Janny, who gave us endless amounts of information on ancient and modern Cambodian history. The best moments were not those at the busy Angkor Thom (where they filmed Tomb Raider), but those when we found ourselves alone somehow in the midst of ancient ruins and jungle with no one else around.
Here are my top recommendations if you are planning a trip to Angkor Wat: (1) Research before you go. Take some time to learn something about Angkor Wat prior to your trip. If you are going to Cambodia, I also highly recommend learning about their more recent history to enrich your experience in the country; (2) Hire a guide and tuk-tuk. It will be worth every penny; (3) Wear comfortable shoes. We walked almost 30 miles in the two days we explored Angkor; (4) Prepare for the heat and the massive crowds.
We walked out of our sleeper bus weary eyed and exhausted, barley being able to feel the excitement that we had finally arrived in Hoi An. All backpackers know that as soon as you get off a bus, you are bombarded with taxi drivers (and con artists 🙂 ) who try to get you to take a ride with them. At this hour neither of us felt like dealing with an over-priced taxi ride and we believed our home stay was only a ten minute walk, easy right? Within twenty minutes we quickly realized our map was incorrect. Although people were happy to help, they all seemed to be pointing in opposite directions. We decided to stop for coffee and tea and hopefully get some wi-fi to get our bearings. It must have been apparent that we were both exhausted and totally lost. The owner of the shop spoke with us and made it his mission to help us. He drove Raul on his motorbike until they found the home stay and negotiated a cheap cab ride for us ($1.50 USD).
This genuine kindness and incredible hospitality became a theme throughout our visit to Hoi An. We stayed with a lovely family who opened their home and their culture to us (Mongolia Homestay, we love you). We got suits and dresses made and the girls happily catered to our every request. The service at the restaurants was impeccable and the best we encountered all throughout Asia. We ended up going to the same restaurant three times because the friendly manager would spoil us with tea and discounts on food. Although we usually tell people Hoi An was our favorite place because of the food, there was something unequivocally special about this small ancient city and its people.
The further north we traveled in Vietnam, the more things we heard about Ha Long Bay. Most of things we heard were good things but once we got to Hanoi, it seemed like everyone we met wasn’t going to Ha Long Bay. They said it was “too touristy,” but how did they know if they had never been there? We went to decided for ourselves and booked a 3 day, 2 night cruise trip with Royal Palace Cruises. Our boat first took us Bai Tu Long Bay, which is supposed to be less crowded than Ha Long Bay. There were still a lot of boats around but it did not bother us at all. It is easy to get lost in your own world amongst this almost 2000 island and islet archipelago. We spent the day exploring a cave, kayaking, squid fishing, making new friends, and Raul even was bartending for some of the night.
The next day some people were brought back to the harbor while we joined another boat to go to an island resort just south of Cat Ba Island. We saw no other tourist boats on our way to the island, just small fishing boats and villages floating on the turquoise sea. Whatever expectations we had were completely surpassed as we approached the twenty-something bungalows lining the beach. We quickly realized that the only people here were the people on our boat. Since everyone on our boat had quickly developed friendships, we were happy to share what felt like our own private island with them. The boys played soccer with the Vietnamese boys, “Vietnam vs. the World.” Since “the World” won, the beer was flowing all night along with countless games of pool and good conversation.
We didn’t want to leave our private little island but the next morning we got on the boat to make our way back to the harbor. We cruised through Lan Ha Bay and once again we saw no other tourist boats. We let ourselves get lost in the immense beauty of the bay.
My birthday was approaching and we thought the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai would be the perfect place to celebrate it. Well that, and getting a massage at a luxury spa, of course. The Elephant Nature Park is not a place to go if you want to ride elephants or watch them do tricks. If you are planning on doing that on your trip to Thailand, I highly recommend reconsidering and checking out the Elephant Nature Park. We literally spent the whole day hanging out with elephants. Do I really need to continue? We fed the elephants, bathed the elephants, and got to know the elephants.
Lek Chailert‘s has made it her life’s work to rescue elephants from mistreatment and create a safe and healthy environment for them. Hearing the stories of elephant mistreatment and exploitation in Asia were heartbreaking. Most of the elephants were rescued from timber logging in Myanmar, land mine explosions, illegal poaching, or abuse for tourist entertainment purposes. Although all of this sounds rather grim, this sanctuary in the jungle provides an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the elephants. For us, being so close to the elephants was a truly unforgettable experience.
If you are considering a visit to the Elephant Nature Park, be sure to book well in advanced. Do not be put off by the number of visitors they accept a day. Visitors are broken into smaller groups so that everyone can get the most out of the experience. Be sure to check out their options such as an overnight visit or volunteering options as well!
We quickly developed a love-hate relationship with Singapore. We loved the malls. There is basically a mall around every corner in Singapore, some being incredibly high-end, filled with hundreds of designer stores. Others were more reasonable like our favorite “bargain” mall filled with hundreds of stalls and small booths selling the most unusual and funky clothes, hats, and sunglasses we have ever seen. We hated the food, our only reasonable priced options seemed to be McDonalds, Dominos, or Burger King and even those seemed overpriced. We loved the cleanliness and efficiency of the city — their public transportation is on point. We disliked the place we stayed.
The things that Singapore prides itself most on, its gardens, made up for any and all of the things we disliked. Because of Singapore’s small size, it is almost inevitable that you eventually find yourself wandering around one of the magnificent gardens. We went to the Botanic Gardens, National Orchid Garden, and the Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay. The Botanic Gardens were filled with locals, tourists, tai-chi and yoga do-ers, and couples all taking a break from the day to enjoy the sun. We spent the day lounging in the grass, taking pictures of the hundreds of turtles in the lake, and admiring the surreal scenery. At one point we even saw a komodo dragon wandering around!
The Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay was my favorite. As soon as you enter the misty and humid glass dome, you are greeted by a 115 ft waterfall. It was like stepping into another world. The Cloud Forest is said to contain some of the rarest tropical plants in the world and the diversity of colorful flora and fauna will keep you entertained the whole way to the top. The glass dome allows you to see the entire city and although we were enjoying this tropical oasis in the middle of Singapore, it also really made us want to jump on a plane to South America to see some of this tropical plant life for ourselves!
We were planning on getting our diving certificates in Koh Tao, but totally blowing our budgeting and running out time we decided to save it for next time and use it as an excuse to come back to Thailand. We met Raul’s brother in Phuket and spent the next two weeks exploring the beaches and islands on the Andaman side of Thailand: Phuket, Krabi (Railay Beach), Koh Lanta, and Koh Phi Phi. Already two weeks into our month long Thai islands portion of the trip, we were running out of things to do. Our options usually included going to the beach, going for a sweaty hike to a viewpoint, partying all night, or doing basically nothing. Our hotel in Koh Lanta was offering an excursion for “the best snorkeling in Thailand,” so we decided to give it a try.
We went on a boat trip to an island off the coast of Koh Lanta, Koh Rok, and had our minds totally blown away! The snorkeling in this area is said to be the best in Thailand because of the huge variety of coral. Snorkeling in these amazing coral reefs did not disappoint. Once we arrived on Koh Rok, the beach was crowded with other snorkelers and divers but it didn’t matter. The beach had some of the most clear and pristine water either of us had ever seen. When I think about this beach, I don’t remember the crowds, I remember feeling so lucky that I even got to see a beach this beautiful.
On the other side of Thailand, in the Gulf of Siam, we went on a snorkeling excursion around the island of Koh Tao. We were generally unimpressed until we went to a little island of the coast of Koh Tao, Nangyuan. While the Andaman side is generally known for its rich variety of coral, the Gulf of Siam offers a wider variety of fish. We became observers to their the world and didn’t take our masks off until it was time to leave.
Have you been to any of these places and had similar experiences?
Or did you try to avoid these very touristy places?
Share your stories with me!
Also, if you are planning a trip to any of these places,
feel free to ask me any questions and I’d be happy to help!