Chapter 5: Thailand

October 30, 2018

Sawadee Kah [sah-wah-dee-kah] Chiang Mai.

One hour later, and we found ourselves at the border of another country. Flying was the fastest, and yes unfortunately, most expensive route to take, but we were scarred from our night bus experience from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. There are a few different routes to get from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai: night bus, long boat, speed boat, and flying; we had no regrets about hopping on that plane.

We followed routine: acquire SIM cards (300 baht = 6GB for 30 days). Then, Ryley called Meena. What a hilarious experience.

 The one, the only, MEENA!

The one, the only, MEENA!

Meena: a middle aged, Thai woman whom Ryley made friends with when he stayed at the homestay she was working at during his last visit (take a deep breath after reading that). She calls Ryley “Lylee”, and would do anything for us to make our visit in Chiang Mai as pleasant as possible. This included: picking us up from the airport, and finding a reasonably priced guesthouse that was close to where she lived…so she could visit us. She’s a mile a minute kind of gal, and loves taking photos…especially with her yellow sunglasses. God bless Meena, you will never meet anyone like her.

She picked us up in her little hatchback and took us to her favourite place for lunch. We then drove around to two different guesthouses to find one that best suited our needs. For $14.00 CAD Meena found us a room at Bann Elephant House. After settling in and a quick nap, we found ourselves scouting the streets to find dinner. A small grandmotherly looking woman had a food stand with all things deep-fried. Two bags of sticky rice, two fried drum sticks, and two ice cold Chang beers. Beforehand, we had indulged in a bag of greasy meatballs, but they weren’t very satisfying. Back to the guesthouse we went, where we would inhale these culinary treats and be so fortunate to meet a wonderful British couple named Emily and George. George sounded like John Snow (if you don’t watch Game of Thrones, get your shit together), and we couldn’t help ourselves but to tell him. After chatting for a while, we found out that the newlyweds were travelling around Asia for seven months. We were heading to Chai Lai Orchid the next day, and would be staying overnight; we’d be back the following evening, and planned to get together before we parted ways to different countries.

I couldn’t wait until morning. It was the event I had been (not so) patiently waiting for since planning our trip to Asia.

October 31, 2018

The elephants were calling my name; I could hear them from forty-five minutes away. Containing myself turned out to be a real task. We signed up for the two days one night tour (Karen Tribe Homestay and march with the elephants).

A tuk tuk scooped us up, and took us to the place where the most peaceful beasts on earth get to roam free. Walk-slow jogging is the best way to describe my child like entrance. We crossed a long narrow bridge, where a group of sweet dogs were waiting at the end to greet us. The group we came in with were equally ecstatic, which made me feel like I wasn’t overreacting. As we were sitting down, a giant grey creature made her way over to us. A long grey nose poked around the corner, searching for all things banana. Overwhelmed is a nice way to describe how I was feeling. Ryley and I exchanged glances, and mouth open; I slowly approached the old woman. My hands ran up her thick-skinned sides, and caressed her large forehead. A group of friendly Mahouts (trained elephant minders) greeted us, and split us off into our groups for the day. Our first experience would be playing with the baby elephant, and then feeding the adult elephants. But before that could happen, we had to shuck bananas…a lot of bananas.

Chai Lai Orchid Fact: The baby elephants are always kept with their mothers. The whole time we were playing with the baby, Mama was very close. She was kept content with bananas and human interaction. At no point were they ever separated, or were they in any type of distress.

The elephant child was small, but mighty. She weighed 600 lbs, and acted like a small puppy. Ryley was playing with her, and she would lay on him with her full weight. I tried to follow suit, but was scared when she threw herself on top of me. Being crushed is one of the scariest feelings, but also adrenaline inducing when it’s by a baby elephant. The pure joy we received from this little trundling ball of energy was indescribable. After our play date, we headed to an open area where a group of six were grazing. I have never been so excited to feed another being in my entire life. So many noses poked and prodded you for a yummy snack. I danced around flinging bananas into the mouths of all near and far, and then our Mahout announced that it was time to split into even smaller groups; we had booked a private elephant tour, which was about to start.

 Into the forest we went, Ryley, myself, our Mahouts, and of course our elephant friends. It was time for a bareback ride. A running leap was what would get me on top of the gentle giant, as well as a hand from our Mahout. No saddles, no chains, and no hooks; bareback on top of six solid tons.

**Ethical Elephant Tourism Background: Elephants have been domesticated in Burma and Myanmar for over 4,000 years. Like horses, but slightly bigger, elephants were used for logging and hauling lumber. In recent times, exploitation has taken over as economies have shifted. You can point fingers at the treatment of Asian elephants in recent times, but I need not remind you of the abuse and exploitation of elephants all over the world (circuses, zoos, etc.). In Asia specifically, unethical elephant tourism has grown into an extremely lucrative industry; EVERYONE wants to see the elephants, and I don’t blame them. But do you know what you’re supporting? That’s why research is critical to ensuring you’re doing your part in supporting the ethical treatment of elephants. The human – elephant interaction is a beautiful thing, if it is done safely and with care and respect. This is why we chose to support Chai Lai Orchid. They home rescue elephants, who have experienced some sort of neglect or abuse. Chai Lai is transparent with the way they treat their elephants, and that is an organization I feel good about supporting. Knowing and seeing first hand that these wonderful creatures are fed, bathed, and rested properly is so important. Also, the elephants don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do… but to be honest they have a pretty sweet life. They have a routine feeding schedule, sometimes rest in the shade all day, and are never forced to do anything they aren’t feeling up to. The elephants go to elephant school to learn commands, as this is part of the domestication process. All wild animals who are domesticated need some sort of formal training to keep the peace, which is completely understandable. In a perfect world I would love for elephants to roam free in their natural habitat, but this isn’t always possible. As long as humans exist, elephants will continue to be poached for their ivory, mistreated, and used for unethical elephant tourism. The fight to spread awareness on behalf of the well-being of the elephants, and support ethical elephant tourism is all I can do. They are in a safe place, treated well, and have autonomy. Plus, the proceeds of Chai Lai Orchid go towards ending trafficking of the Karen Tribe women, as well as keeping Chai Lai running smoothly. Most Mahouts who work at Chai Lai Orchid are Burmese refugees or belong to the Karen Tribe. Everyone wins: jobs for refugees who are actually people with a genuine understanding for elephants engrained in their soul (historically), the elephants are living well, and humans get to interact, learn, and spread the love to the largest but most gentle creatures to roam this earth. You may agree with me, or you may disagree, but this is where I stand on the topic. Seeing things for yourself in real life is what’s important. Talk to the owner, like I did. Find out their story. Ask questions. 

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I sat close to the back of her head, with my legs nuzzling the sides of her neck. She was quiet, only stopping to gather leaves or grass; I was a mere 110 lb speck on the enormity of her six ton being. Not once did our Mahouts make physical contact with our elephants, but instead used guiding words; it was like something out of a movie. Towards the end, I laid my cheek on the top of her head, and listened to her constant breath. I wondered what she was thinking; our time together had come to an end. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the meeting area where we met a new friend. She was much younger than the Grandma I rode, and was quite energetic. Ryley and I guided her down into the river, and our Mahout followed with bananas. She stepped into the water, sat down and then happily laid on her side. We grabbed handfuls of mud and sand and rubbed her sides for a nice elephant exfoliation. She sprayed water all over us, and we took turns washing her off. A giant trunk came out of nowhere, and guided me to the front of her body for a hug; I’ve never felt so close or safe around such a large creature. After we had washed off most of the mud, we walked her back up to the common area where she was able to roam freely. Our elephant time for the day had come to an end, but the adventure had not. We were introduced to our tour guide for the rest of the evening, Zen, a former Buddhist monk with more pep in his step than anyone I’d ever met. He walked us to the back of the tuk tuk, and introduced us to the couple we’d be spending our Karen Tribe experience with; an American couple.

The first part of the experience was to go grocery shopping at the local store to pick up ingredients for our dinner. Zen recommended buying snacks just in case we wanted something to nibble on. Ryley and I went to town: a bag of roasted peanuts, two hard boiled eggs (Ryley not me), apples, and of course beer. We looked over at the couple and what did they buy? Lays chips and Mentos. Okay, maybe they had sensitive stomachs? Then we got back in the tuk tuk, and were listening to them tell us about their travels to the Middle East. They explained that EVERYONE was so rude, and that “those Muslims” have no manners; automatically, I stopped listening. My initial gut feeling towards the Lays and Mentos was correct; they continued to refer to the country the“Philippines” as the “Philippinos”, and it all went downhill from there. The girlfriend barely cracked a smile, and the boyfriend was quite obnoxious and needed to feel important at all times. The tipping point for me was after our Karen Tribe weaving experience.

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Second part of the experience, weaving; Zen directed us to some small open bamboo huts, and explained that only women are allowed to weave. It’s an ancient practice which has been passed down for hundreds of years. My weaving trainer strapped me into a contraption that supports your back while you weave. Not a word of English was spoken between us, only grunts and head nods. It was such a cathartic experience, and I sat there for nearly forty-five minutes, repeating the process over and over again. The weavers’ beautiful designs hung all around the hut; the precision, and unique patterns of each design were infatuating. I couldn’t help myself but to buy a scarf. #supportlocal

Back in the tuk tuk with the American couple, and off to our traditional homestay.

As Ryley and I chatted, I told him that I had bought a scarf from the weaver lady. We discussed what an incredible eye you would have to have in order to produce such work. Then, the dweeb of a boyfriend pipes up and asks the most ignorant rhetorical question.

“Why would anyone want to buy a scarf there, when you could just get one that’s mass produced and way cheaper”?

That set me off. I explained that the unique qualities of each scarf cannot be replicated, and that you’re supporting a local village by buying one of their scarves. Anything can be mass-produced these days, but that’s not what it’s about. I continued on about cultural insensitivity and ethnocentrism, at which point he shut his mouth very quickly. I was judging, and judging hard. I had no patience for this fool, or his wet blanket of a girlfriend. Ryley and I placed our tolerance caps on for the evening buckling them on extra tight.

 Our backyard.

Our backyard.

We reached a turnoff which took us down one of the bumpiest roads I’d ever been on; four wheel drive was a necessity in order to access the dirt road safely. After a jostling 15 minutes, we arrived to a peaceful scene: bamboo huts and a rushing river. Zen showed us to our hut, which backed onto the flowing water. There was only two hours of electricity in the evening and no cell service; we were camping, but Karen style. After supper, we sat by the fire and an older gentleman approached with an incredibly old looking instrument. He smiled, sat down, and started playing an old Karen folk song. The instrument he played was called the “Dana”; he sang and played the same song over and over again. We made a joke that we couldn’t leave until we knew the song off by heart. Zen offered beer to everyone, and both Ryley and I indulged; beer and a camp fire go hand in hand.

The night ended early, but Ryley and I took a moment to sit in the middle of the field and revel at the little dipper.

November 1, 2018

7:00 AM wake up call.

Breakfast! Then…

 LEAF HATS!

LEAF HATS!

Twenty minutes of yoga, and ten minutes of devout mediation was in order. I wanted to cleanse and prepare my mind for the hike we were about to endure. We said goodbye to our bamboo hut, and started into the forest. Zen proved to be a man of the land, and put most boy scouts to shame. He cleared through Banana spiders, and educated us on the flora and fauna we encountered or had questions about. He also warned us about land leeches. Yes, like the leeches we all know to live in the water and suck your blood but on land. Throughout the hike he pulled up his pant leg to reveal the sneaky suckers attached to his leg and ankle. I was so glad to be wearing long pants on this particular hike. At one point we crossed through a rocky stream, to be greeted by a magnificent praying mantis. Zen grabbed a stick, and the noble creature attached itself to it and showed off its slim and slightly strange figure. We continued on, until we reached the waterfall. It was tucked away near an arrangement of rocks. Zen had been collecting these large waxy leaves along the way, and as we ate lunch he made us little leaf hats. I didn’t want to take mine off, as it made me feel one with the forest. The whiny two watched as Ryley and I indulged in a quirky improve skit using our new hats for props. As we got up to leave, the boyfriend got weird about bringing the hat with him and didn’t know what to do with it. Zen calmly explained that he could leave his hat near the waterfall if he didn’t want to bring it with him. Ryley and I exchanged glances, and marched fast and forward with our leafy cone heads. Even though the hike was only 7 km, it felt much longer as the terrain was quite challenging to maneuver.

Thailand Fact: On the way back up towards civilization, we noticed a large strawberry plantation. This is one of many projects the King of Thailand has put in place to help stimulate the Thai economy.  

A sweaty yet satisfying trek. Back to Chai Lai Orchid. Back at Chai Lai, we were able to ditch the brats and spend some more quality time with our elephant friends.

Touring Tip (pardon the upcoming pun): If you embark on a tour, and are pleased with your experience…put aside a gratuity for your guide. Even though Zen asked for nothing, it was important to us that he know what a wonderful job he did; everyone’s trying to make a dollar out here. Gratuity in Asia is personal, but we like to gauge how much the person would make in a day and double it. It usually doesn’t come out to a lot, so by tipping one-two days worth of pay can make a huge difference.

We said our goodbyes to our beloved extra large friends, and hopped back in the tuk tuk to make our way back to Chiang Mai. Once back home, exhaustion took over. Dinner was noteworthy, as we stopped at a papaya salad stand. The salad man made everything in a large mortar and pestle. A young Thai girl had ordered her salad before us, and we watched him make it. One, two, four, then six peppers found their way into the mixing bowl.

Thai Spice Fact: “Spicy” versus “medium spicy” are two very different things in Thailand.  Ryley and I love spicy food, but when you ask for “spicy”, the person taking your order will give you “Thai spicy”. It’s a whole other caliber of spice that one may not be able to enjoy, even if they claim they dabble in the way of the spice. It’s a mouth burning, gastro nightmare. Don’t be a hero with your spice abilities whilst in Thailand, because you will be sorry.

Our turn.

Keep in mind: remnants of the six peppers he used in the previous salad still lingered in the mortar. With raised eyebrows of concern, he asked how many peppers we would like. Ryley held up two fingers, while I held up three. The man looked at me, and so did Ryley.

LET’S LIVE ON THE EDGE, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE.

What in the actual hell was I thinking? I knew it was going to be spicy, but this was next level. Precautions were taken by buying two large bottles of beer. No amounts of water could have saved us. The salad man came out from behind his stand to deliver cucumbers on a plate to us. It seemed that worry clouded the air, and for good reason. This was the spiciest meal I’d ever eaten, but my god it was delicious.

Papaya Salad Fact: Papaya salad is delicious when it’s fresh and made with the right amount of fish sauce. It doesn’t taste the same everywhere, so tread lightly. We had an unfortunate experience in Khao Lak, but I’ll share more about that later.

You’re probably getting to know that we are repeat customers when we really like something. So yes, you guessed it: we indulged in some fried chicken and sticky rice. There was no stopping us.

Back to the guesthouse, where we would meet up with Emily and George to play a few hands of cards and laugh way to hard. It was so much fun hanging out with such a quirky, and genuine couple.

November 2, 2018 (Chiang Mai - Phuket - Khao Lak)

You’ll never guess who picked us up to take us to the airport…

MEENA!

Chiang Mai is one of the largest cities in Northern Thailand, and traffic can be hectic, so it was very helpful that Meena found us a guesthouse so close to the airport. She dropped us off, and we said our goodbyes.

Off to Phuket we went. But not without a layover in Bangkok.

 Don’t fly with Nok Air if you can avoid it. Tickets appear to be cheap, but that’s because baggage isn’t included in the ticket price. The information about checked baggage given on the website is extremely vague, so I’d avoid booking with them at all costs.

Don’t fly with Nok Air if you can avoid it. Tickets appear to be cheap, but that’s because baggage isn’t included in the ticket price. The information about checked baggage given on the website is extremely vague, so I’d avoid booking with them at all costs.

Don Mueng Airport Fact: Dong Mueng is one of the most intimidating airports I have ever stepped foot in. If you have an hour layover, and think that you have lots of time, you’re wrong. Don’t get comfortable until you’ve found your gate, because it could be half way across the airport…which could turn into an easy thirty minute walk. 

Finally, we landed in Phuket but we had no intention of staying there. Our goal was to get to Khao Lak, because it was the closest and most efficient way to get to the Similan islands to go Scuba diving. Getting there was an absolute treat. Don’t trust airport taxis unless it is your last resort; you will, I repeat, you will get ripped off almost every time. We walked from stand to stand, as we didn’t have walking access to the road to hail a taxi. After a bit of research, we realized we could get a taxi to take us to the bus stop which shouldn’t be too expensive. Most taxi companies were asking 800 Baht ($32.00 CAD), just to take us onto the main road so we could catch our bus. It was a 4.5 km drive. No.

A taxi driver agreed to drive us to the bus stop for 300 Baht ($12.10 CAD), which was the lowest rate we were going to get. As soon as we got in the car, he asked us where we wanted to go. We told him Khao Lak. Most taxi companies were charging 1500-2000 Baht ($60.00-80.00 CAD) to take us there. It was an hour taxi ride, but a two and a half hour bus ride. He said he could take us to the city centre for 1000 Baht ($40.00 CAD). It was 30 degrees outside, and his car was air-conditioned. We decided that by biting the bullet, we would arrive before the sun went down and have more time to find a place to stay. A verbal agreement was made, and then he pulled into a gas station. He filled up his tank, got back in the car, and demanded 1,200 Baht. I have never been so infuriated. We had just made an agreement, but he said that because he had to fill up his tank we had to pay an extra 200 Baht for him to take us there.

With a burning rage simmering inside of me, I TOLD him that he was being dishonest, and by going back on his word was shady. He wouldn’t budge, so Ryley and I decided that we would go to the bus stop, and take our chances catching the bus to Khao Lak. At this point it wasn’t about the money, it was the principle of not going back on your word. This was his karma to deal with, not ours.

We waited at the bus stop, and with the help of a few locals caught the bus to Khao Lak. 100 Baht/person ($4.00 CAD), and the bus was air-conditioned. This was a much more economical choice, with a fixed price.

Khao Lak was filled with tons of tourists, which was surprising as it was low season. We made our way to our hotel, and settled in. Everything was much more expensive in Khao Lak, as it is a tourist town (we had no idea, we just wanted to go Scuba diving). After renting a motorbike, and scouring the area, the only place that wasn’t over priced and looked decent was a soup stop right beside our hotel. Super local, and super cheap.

Better luck tomorrow.

November 3, 2018 (Khao Lak)

Goal of the day: find out how much it would cost to get me Scuba certified and dive in the Similan Islands.

We went shopping around, but kept running into the same issue. Most people were in the middle of diving tours, or started Scuba certification training in the middle of week. We did not want to have to stay in Khao Lak until Tuesday. Finally, we came across Sea Turtle Divers. Not only could I complete the pool training the next day, but we could also make our way out to the Similan Islands on a liveaboard tour for the next three days. This would certify me for my open water dives, and offer an additional five dives, with a grand total of nine dives by the end of the liveaboard. Most places aren’t able to certify people in the Similan islands anymore, as it is a national park, and the laws have recently changed. We were lucky to be able to get out there when we did.

Background on Similan Islands: a group of islands off the West Coast of Southern Thailand, located in the Andaman Sea. The water surrounding these islands is crystal clear, and full of coral reefs and incredible marine life. National Geographic ranked it as “one of the top ten dive destinations to visit in the world” (insert link). In other words, one of Thailand’s Scuba diving hidden gems.

 Koh Bon, Similan Islands

Koh Bon, Similan Islands

My night was consumed with completing the online modules, as I would have my written test in the morning, accompanied by the hands on training in the afternoon. It was go time.

November 4, 2018 (Khao Lak)

My motorbike Uber driver: also known as Ryley, dropped me off at the dive shop. There, I met a German couple and solo travelling German man, who were also writing their tests. We all passed, and headed next door for a quick lunch. I ordered the Panang Curry, which was probably not the best idea before serious physical activity. It was so spicy, and did not sit well with me. Off to the pool for noon. Before we could suit up in Scuba gear, and learn the hands on skills, we had to swim. Katja (Cat-Tee-Yuh) our dive master, had us stay a float for 10 minutes. To me, this meant floating. No problem. Oh no, no, no. She wanted us to keep our heads above the water, so we could listen to her instructions. We were not allowed to touch the bottom, so this meant treading water for ten minutes. NEVER in my twenty-one years on this earth have I ever had to tread water for ten minutes straight. About five minutes in, I truly thought death was upon me. Only an hour earlier, I had ingested a seriously spicy curry… and it was starting to crawl its way back up my oesophagus. The heartburn was so real. Did I hear a word of the instructions she gave us? Nope.

The actual Scuba training went really well, except for one part. There were many different drills that we had to complete and master. Draining your mask is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced under water. You have to allow water to fill your mask, then blow out through your nose. I blew out through my mouth, and accidentally inhaled the water in my mask. What a twit. I bailed very quickly, and Katja dragged me up to the surface. After a few more tries I’d mastered the technique.

We were in the pool from 12:00-4:30 PM. Prune would have been a kind way to describe my waterlogged state. But I had officially completed my in-pool Scuba training; next stop, the ocean.

My Uber driver picked me up, and took me to the nearest food source. Ryley had an amazing day, which included: buying a fishing rod, going on a fishing adventure, touring around, and paddling around in a small random boat. His enthusiasm was almost tangible. It was nice to be able to share the day’s activities with each other. Half way through dinner my eyes started to get extremely heavy. My entire body felt like it had been put through a blender. After a hot shower, I put myself under the covers and was not heard from again until the following morning.

November 5, 2018 (Khao Lak - Koh Bon)

7:10 AM start.

Off to the pier , as that is where we would catch a speedboat to Koh Bon; our liveaboard tour was about to begin.

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A quick debriefing of what to expect, and before we knew it we had arrived at Koh Bon. We boarded the double decker “apartment’ boat that we would be living on for the next three days. An introduction to the dive leaders, crew, and captain, and within the hour we were suiting up for our first real dive. Well, three of us were. Everyone else on the boat was a veteran diver, including Ryley.

Dive 1.

Dive 2.

Dive 3.

*I’ve decided to spare you all the details of each dive.

 Our favourite Germans.

Our favourite Germans.

By the last dive, we were past the point of tired. The dynamics of the boat were split up into a family of five with teenagers, two single males, and the couple I met at my pool training session. We connected with them immediately, and became dinner and lunch mates. They’d only been dating for six months, but acted like an old married couple. We would really come to enjoy our evening conversations together.

During supper, the lead dive master announced the air conditioning wasn’t working in any of the cabins. It was twenty-nine degrees that evening. We had the option to sleep under the stars at the front of the boat. There was a leisure area with padded mattresses for lounging during the day, but would prove sufficient as something soft to sleep on rather than acquiring heat stroke half way through the night.

It was quite pleasant being out in the middle of the ocean, and watching the stars as the boat rocked us to sleep.

November 6, 2018 (Richelieu Rock)

6:30 am wake up call.

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 A light breakfast, and a water bottle packed with electrolytes to start the day on the right foot. We would be logging four dives, and would need as much energy and alertness as humanly possible.

After my first dive of the day I was officially open-water certified. I was finally able to dive with the big kids. Ryley’s dive master was the coolest out of the three on board. He was Thai, and had an incredible eye for spotting marine life. He was also the most relaxed out of all three, which made me want to dive with him even more. As soon as we hopped in the water, everything happened so much faster than it had been the day before.

November 7, 2018 (Boonsung Ship Wreck)

A bittersweet yet fulfilled feeling to end to our last day.

We’d gotten into the routine of, wake up – dive – eat – dive – eat again – dive – sleep – repeat. It was exhilarating yet consuming.

The first dive was great, but the second dive was beyond noteworthy.

We dove 18 m into an old shipwreck, and saw things that I had only ever seen on television: schools of Pufferfish, Trevally, Octopi, Honeycomb Eels, Moray Eels, Parrot Fish, Cuttle Fish and the list goes on. It was incredible watching such a complex underwater eco-system exist so magically. It wasn’t until we started ascending that I was really taken aback. Our dive group noticed that there were thousands of baby jellyfish surrounding us. Then Ryley pointed to the left, and there she was. Mama jellyfish. My breath became more rapid, as I watched her dance her graceful self over our heads. What a way to end our last dive.

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Scuba diving taught me a great respect for the ocean. The underwater world is one unto itself; a diverse ecosystem home to creatures we haven’t even discovered yet.

And just like that, our live aboard came to an end. We hadn’t planned past our Scuba diving adventure, so as we headed back to Khao Lak we decided to get back on the bus to Phuket and figure out which island we wanted to go to next. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. The last local bus stopped running at 3:00 PM, and it was 3:45 PM. We assumed that the buses ran all day, since it was a weekday… but an important lesson was learned: never assume. Ryley ran to the taxi station across the street to see how much it would cost to taxi back to Khao Lak. The look on his face spoke louder than words. Just as he was crossing the street, a familiar bus came honking down the street. The same conductor, who dropped us off, was flailing out the bus door. He yelled “Phuket” at us, and we jumped on as fast as we could. I’ve never been so grateful for a bus that was running behind schedule.

Our bus ride consisted of research.

Koh Yao Noi would be our next destination, as it was one of the quieter islands with a more mature crowd.

Thank you Ryley and Maps.Me for figuring out where to get off the bus. There were no signs or obvious landmarks, so you have to gauge your stop by tracking where you are. Our goal was to get to the pier, and take a ferry to Koh Yao Noi. As soon as we got off the bus, we debated what the best option would be. This can be the most stressful and anxiety producing part of travel, as you’re in an unfamiliar place and there is nobody to tell you what your next step is. Two Thai scooter taxi drivers approached us, and asked if we needed rides. They offered a great rate, and off to the pier we went. Again. Never make assumptions. We arrived at the pier only to find out that the last ferry left at 6:00 PM. It was now 7:30 PM. The lady at the dock explained we could come back in the morning as the ferry ran every hour.

Next issue to tackle: accommodation. Thank goodness there was an inn near by, and a nice one at that. We were in a very local area, and weren’t sure we would be able to find a place to stay.  Everything worked out in the end, but was quite frustrating at times.

If anyone tries to tell you that travelling is stress free, don’t believe them.

November 8, 2018 (Phuket - Koh Yao Noi)

9:00 AM long tail boat to Koh Yao Noi - 100 Baht/person ($4.06 CAD).

As soon as we arrived, there were tuk tuks lined up everywhere ready to take you wherever you needed to go. We hadn’t actually booked a place to stay, but thought that we might be able to score a room at a bungalow house that we found on Agoda.

Booking Fact: Agoda and Hostel World have been our bread and butter for finding accommodation. The apps are wonderful, and very easy to navigate. You have the ability to read reviews, and make a favourites list for the area that you are staying in. My only recommendation is to make sure that when booking or looking at different hostels/hotels that you’re searching in the correct currency. We have accidentally booked in USD and thought we were getting a deal, when we actually paid more than we intended.

We showed up at the bungalow house, and found out that they were fully booked. I looked on Agoda again, and found there was a property near by for even cheaper AND we were able to rent a motorbike for the duration of our stay for 200 Baht/day ($8.10 CAD). Our tuk tuk driver dropped us off, and it turned out to be in the middle of a swamp.

Namtok Bungalows was 500 Baht/night ($20.30 CAD), and the cheapest place on the island. Travelling with someone is way cheaper than travelling alone, because you can split the cost on accommodation. This helps conserve funds, and can make your trip last longer.  

 Our bungalow.

Our bungalow.

Our bungalow had so much personality. The porch consisted of a wonderful work area, accompanied by a hammock that turned into our favourite nap spot. Little crabs waddled around the property, which turned Ryley into a ten year old boy.

Lunch time consisted of a small restaurant on the side of the road. We ate our meal in a small bamboo open-faced hut, and watched the cars and scooters zoom by. Mid bite, an elephant in the back of a pickup truck went by; not something you see everyday.

Our goal was to stay away from the tourist strip, and eat at the local restaurants (this is usually where the best food is, for the most reasonable price). For dinner, we hit the jackpot. This was a pivotal moment in my journey of learning and loving Thai food. We would indulge in Massaman curry, and Tom Yum seafood soup, for the next three evenings.

November 9, 2018

We apply the same rule for all meals. Find the best local spot, eat, repeat. Not only are you enjoying your meals, but you grow a relationship with the people who work there.

Breakfast would be eaten every morning at a small restaurant beside our dinner spot. This was our first real cup of coffee since we’d been in Thailand. We’d been drinking nasty instant coffee every morning, which just doesn’t cut it. Our breakfast consisted of the same meal: chicken broth soup with cilantro, soup donuts (deep fried donuts that you can dip in soup = magic), curried chicken and yellow rice.

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We found a secret beach, where we roasted ourselves into crispy brown peanuts. The white sand and teal waters were a sight to see.

Lunch would consist of street food: two bags of sticky rice, chicken skewers, and a chicken cutlet. The lady behind the stand sold the food out of her house, which is very common in Asia; open to the street, with living quarters inside. She too, would get to know our faces very well.

We took our bags of food, stopped to fetch fried bananas on the way back, and picnic-ked on the beach stairs while watching the ocean. With a food coma coming on full force, we posted up on our porch. And to our surprise, a long dinosaur like creature crawled out of the water. A large monitor lizard slithered his way around the pond, and behind the bungalow into his swampy home. He would make an appearance everyday between 12:30-12:50 PM. We’d greet each other after we’d both had our fill of lunch.

Our bungalow community homed a variety of travellers, but one couple in particular stood out: a Spanish couple from Madrid, who always greeted us in passing with a warm smile. I’m so glad we stopped to chat, because they turned out to be the most down to earth humans. They’d just come from a month of trekking in Nepal. That was our next destination, and we were so excited to hear about their experience. It was nostalgic chatting with them about their life in Spain, as I spent time there five years ago. I left Spain enamoured with the culture, food, music, and people. Being able to share my love for Spain with two Spaniards in the South of Thailand truly was a memorable experience.

November 10, 2018

Did you know: you can drive across the entirety of Koh Yao Noi in exactly thirty five minutes?

The island is very small, but has so much to offer. We spent the day adventuring around, watching the water buffalo, and exploring the rubber plantations. Every other person on the island has a cat. We later found out that the cats help to keep the rat population under control.

Lunch: you know where. And we made an accidental discovery across the street… an ice cream shop, which made mango shakes for 30 Baht ($1.22 CAD) - we’re fiends for reasonably priced mango shakes.

Mango Shake (Fruit Shake) Fact: Do not buy a mango shake if it costs more than 40 Baht ($1.62 CAD). I know this sounds ridiculous, but if you’re on a budget, this is important. Also, know the cheapest price you can buy it for so you don’t get ripped off by tourist prices.

 It was just after sunset, and I was working away on my computer. All of a sudden, I hear an “arghhhhhh” from the bathroom.

*By the way our bathroom was a literal pit, which was attached to the bungalow after it was built. Full of ants, and creepy crawlers, but we learned to live with it.

 Bob.

Bob.

I assumed that Ryley was being silly, until I heard it again, and a little louder the second time. I ran to the bathroom, to find Ryley standing at the top of the stairs, staring down at a fat squeaking thing. An overweight rat had fallen from the rafters onto his head. The poor thing was disoriented and scared. It kept jumping around and throwing itself at the walls. Of course we wanted to free him, but we weren’t sure how to do it. Earlier in the day, Ryley had been washing some clothes in our garbage can (we are heathens), which was still full of detergent water. Out of nowhere, the rat accidentally jumped into the bucket and started drowning. Ryley bravely kicked the bucket over, and our rat friend started skidding around on the shower tiles. At that point in time, we deemed it appropriate to name him Bob. Bob had had a rough go at things, and was chilled to the bone. We needed to act fast. He continued hopping erratically, until he hopped into a bag. Ryley placed a piece of paper over the bag, and carefully carried him outside. Bob was safely released into the wild, and we all decided to stay in touch, especially during the holiday seasons.

November 11, 2018 (Remembrance Day)

Our last day in Koh Yao Noi.

At 11:00 AM Thai time, we took two minutes of silence. Always take time to remember, even if you are half way around the world. Shout out to our veterans, and thank you.

We spent the day driving around on our scooter trying to find the perfect spot to practice using a new tracking feature on Ryley’s drone.

I practiced driving around in the field, as the drone buzzed behind us. It was amazing watching this tiny piece of technology track our movements, and follow us in an intelligent pattern to capture the footage in a cinematic way. All of a sudden, the air got very heavy and little droplets started splashing onto our faces. We ducked under a little swing that was covered with a slanted roof. It came down in literal buckets. Staying dry was not an option, but we didn’t mind because the sun was back out within 10 minutes. I jumped on our soaked scooter, and drove us all the way back to our bungalow. This was my first time driving for more than five minutes, and with someone on the back of the bike, and on the opposite side of the road.

Overall: exhilarating experience. Would do again.  

November 12, 2018 (Koh Yao Noi - Krabi)

The last breakfast on Koh Yao Noi. We enjoyed every sip of that last cup of real coffee.

As we were returning our motorbike, the owner of the bungalow noticed our back tire had popped. He smiled at us, and told us not to worry. This was something that happened frequently, as the terrain around the island was quite uneven. He even went to the extent of offering us a new bike, so we could drive ourselves to the pier. The hospitality was REAL.  

Another long tail boat, but this time to Krabi.

As soon as we arrived at the pier in Krabi, we were bombarded by people offering us taxi rides. We’ve learned that if there is a local means of transportation, then we will take it.

Travel Tip: Try to take local buses anywhere you are. They will be way cheaper than any taxi ride,

and will get you to or very close to your destination all the same. It might take more time, but it will ultimately make less of a dent in your pocket.

A local bus (truck with an open backed bed) drove us into the heart of Krabi for 50 Baht/person ($4.06 CAD). The taxi drivers were offering rides for 1000 Baht/person ($40.00 CAD). #conservethedollar

As soon as we arrived close enough to our hotel, we hopped off our “bus”, and made the journey down the street. We wasted no time at all, as it was still early in the day.

We rented a motorbike from an external vendor, because the motorbike rental prices at our hotel were ridiculous.

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Went to Tiger Temple – strange yet incredible experience. There we met a monk, and he gave us woven bracelets that he had blessed. Tons of small caves surrounded the area, and we found one to sit in. It was pitch black, and quite unnerving. A walk through the forest, and listened to the loudest cicadas we’d ever heard.

The day started to catch up with us. We were staying as hydrated as we could, but headaches started to set in.

Next stop: the national park. Bad idea. We trekked through a small jungle like setting to get to a waterfall. We both weren’t wearing the proper footwear, and I was slowly becoming irritated. Ryley had a close call at the top of the waterfall, and almost lost his camera and bonked his head. It was time to venture back home. We’d had enough.

Energy Tip: When you’re tired, admit it to yourself. I highly recommend carrying around a few packets of electrolytes while travelling, especially if you’re travelling through hot and humid climates. You’re sweating more than your body is used to, and even if you’re drinking lots of water, you’re losing salts. Tossing a teaspoon of electrolytes into your water bottle can be a life saver/game changer (plus they’re really cheap).

Shout out to Krabi Pitta Hotel, which had a laundry machine that you could use by the load for 30 Baht ($1.22 CAD). They even provided detergent.

Our first tiring day in Krabi had come to an end, and we were about to watch a movie when Ryley realized that his speaker was missing. Every place we stay, we triple check the entire room before leaving. There is no time to lose things, as we are constantly on the move, and don’t have time to back track. This time we got lucky. There was only one place it could be, so I called Namtok Bungalows and asked the owner if they had found a speaker. They sure did. Since Koh Yao Noi was only thirty minutes away, we asked the owner if we paid him would he bring us our speaker. In broken English he arranged for one of his good friends to meet us at the pier the next day, gave us his name (Mr. Lan), and the time. He said he would bring it, and that it was no problem. What a guy.

November 13, 2018 (Railay Beach)

Everything happens for a reason.

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If we hadn’t forgotten the speaker, then we would have never been pressed to drive back to the pier and have been able to take in the stunning views. As soon as we reached the pier, we asked one of the local vendors if he knew where Mr. Lan was. Oh yes, he was eating some lunch right beside the pier. Perfect! He walked over to us, we retrieved the speaker (which he had kindly wrapped in plastic so it wouldn’t get wet), we paid him, thanked him, and walked away knowing that good people really do still exist.

Off to Railay Beach.

Our research showed that Railay was one of the closest and most beautiful islands, which we could access from Krabi. Yes, it was beautiful. Did we enjoy it? No.

Tourist upon tourist laid elbow to elbow on the white sandy beach. People littered everywhere, which was constantly being cleaned up by the resort staff. The only redeeming quality of the island was the beautiful teal water. Everything was over priced, and there was a serious waft of entitlement that stunk up the air. We agreed that this was our least favourite island. Getting a cheap long tail boat back to the pier was also a pain. Due to tourism, the long tail drivers charge much more than normal, which made getting a deal incredibly frustrating. We were grateful to leave.

Krabi had been okay, but we wouldn’t recommend staying for any length of time. It’s a giant tourist hub, that didn’t have a great deal of personality; we were ready to make moves to Koh Lanta.

November 14, 2018 (Krabi - Koh Lanta)

There’s a notable theme here: don’t assume.

We assumed that since Krabi was such a big hub, and had a few different piers, that we would be able to catch a ferry to Koh Lanta without any issue.

Ha. Joke’s on us.

There was only one ferry leaving, and it was going to leave in the next five minutes. We also happened to be at the wrong pier, so we needed to get into the tuk tuk to transfer to the correct pier, where the ferry was patiently waiting for any last minute customers (us). 350 Baht/person – ($14.20 CAD), which we later found out was the running price for this particular ferry.

Two hours later, and we took port in Koh Lanta. Onboard, the ferry helpers arranged a taxi service for us for 150 Baht/person ($6.09 CAD). The staff at Lanta Sabai Hotel greeted us warmly, and made us feel welcome right away. For $16.00 CAD/night we had a wonderful room with air conditioning and a fairly comfortable bed.

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Lunch was almost too easy to find. Directly across the street from our hotel was a local restaurant, which was reasonably priced. The food was wonderful. It took about an hour, but was well worth the wait. Each dish was made from scratch and to order. There was one cook, and she was a very old Thai mama, whose children ran the restaurant. After lunch, we adventured to a beach about five minutes away. We landed in front of a Rasta bar, owned by a Canadian woman and a Thai man. We sipped mojitos on the beach, and watched the sunset.

Of course we had to find out where the cheapest mango shake was located, and lucky us, it was located down the street. 40 Baht my friends, 40 Baht. The mango shake lady would get to know us real well, as we would stop by up to two times a day.

Observations: Koh Lanta was quiet, reasonably priced, and the tourists were much older. It was safe to say that Koh Lanta was going to be enjoyable.

November 15, 2018

We spent most of the day lounging in front of the Rasta bar, and playing in the waves.

But the real highlight was dinner at Pinto.

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Pinto was located in old town, and backed onto a dock that overlooked the ocean. The views were incredibly romantic, but the food was even better. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself. We enjoyed deep fried garlic pepper soft shell crab, and herb crusted jack fish. Only the finest Chang beer to compliment the wonderful seafood we had just indulged in, followed by deep fried chocolate and white chocolate spring rolls.

Keeping date night real and alive even when traveling through another continent.

November 17, 2018

I took the full day to blog, while Ryley ventured off to film. There was a massage studio connected to our hotel, so after I finished blogging I decided to indulge. My massage therapist used tiger balm instead of oil, which helped relax my muscles faster than normal. I was feeling quite tired before the massage, and felt even more jarred afterwards. Thoughts of possible dehydration ran through my mind, but I had been drinking water and electrolytes all day. At dinner, I struggled to stay warm even though it was still thirty degrees outside. Goosebumps covered my entire body, and my joints started to ache. I thought I might be coming down with something. Violent shakes woke me up in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t get warm again. It felt as though my nerves were being ripped out of my body. A fever tore through my system, and refused to go away. I was finally able to get warm in the morning, but then my body began to over heat.

November 18 -19, 2018

Malaria?

Web MD will make anyone crazy, especially when you’re experiencing seven out of the ten symptoms listed for Malaria. I had been taking the preventative medication, but it doesn’t fully protect you from the virus.

This is where travel insurance comes in handy. I didn’t want to take a risk, as my symptoms were blatant, and matched up too closely with a virus I DID NOT want to mess around with. $120.00 later, I tested negative but the doctor noted that my platelets were a bit low. She suspected it was Dengue Fever, and explained that this is a very common virus spread by mosquitoes in South East Asia. There is no medication to cure it. You must let it run its course (two-seven days), and take Tylenol for the fever, and drink lots of fluids.

Great.

Travel Insurance Tip: If you think you’re invincible and don’t need travel insurance… then you’re playing with fire. Make sure you’re insured before you leave the country, and understand what you’re actually being insured for. Anything can happen at any time, and you want to make sure your covered.

It was a stay in bed for the rest of the day, kind of day. And I was grateful to have Ryley there beside me, feeding me a cocktail of Tylenol and Advil every few hours.

I ended up spending another full twenty four hours sweating out the fever, and letting the chills run its course.

Dengue Fever sucks. 

November 20, 2018

I woke up and tested out my body.

The aches were gone, my fever had fully subsided, and my head felt clear. Goodbye Dingus Fever (Ryley’s creative nickname).

It was our last day in Koh Lanta, and after being confined to bed for the last two days, I wanted to do a fun activity.

So we visited Lanta Animal Welfare.

On their website it stated that you could walk the dogs, which I assumed would be a fun activity. The volunteers run tours every hour, which I really had no interest in participating in. I just wanted to pet the dogs, and talk one on a walk. It turned into a whole ordeal of going on a guided tour, with a bunch of random people who had small children.

Finally, we were able to meet and socialize with the dogs! We were put into a group of six, us paired with two other couples. We were shown the route that we would be walking the dogs, and it looked simple enough. Unfortunately, half of the dogs did not know how to operate in such a large group setting and got frantic. I was walking a medium sized boy, and he couldn’t handle himself. I’ve never been so exhausted from walking a dog in my life.

On the flip side, Lanta Animal Welfare is doing a great thing for animal rescue. They’re a nonprofit rescue that relieves animals of suffering and pain by giving them the medical care they need, to help them later be adopted. They offer free sterilization services for all animals, and have sterilized over 90% of the island. Their “Kitty City” was also quite memorable. It’s a cat zen den, where over fifty cats roam free and can interact with visitors and live happily.

After our animal ordeal, we went back to the hotel to finish packing for our trip to Hua Hin in the morning. We had purchased our bus tickets a few days previously, and got them for a steal of a deal. 900 Baht/person ($36.52 CAD) for a 10 hour bus ride.

Our last dinner would be spent at our favourite dinner spot. It usually took one hour for meals to be prepared, so we invented a system: place the order, and go back to our room and watch a few YouTube videos until it was ready. We were fixed on the Massaman curry and fried morning glory.

We’d miss Koh Lanta, but it was time to move on.

November 21, 2018 (Koh Lanta – Hua Hin)

11:00 A.M. - on the dot, and the van picked us up and took us back to Krabi by car ferry.

We had a few hours to kill, so we took a leisurely lunch and picked up snacks for the ten hour ride.

4:00 P.M. - and our bus took us to a dilapidated bus station, where we were to be picked up at 6:00 P.M. Ryley and I passed the time by playing round after round of rummy.

7:30 P.M. and our bus rolls up, but it wasn’t clear which bus it was. The bus men were yelling random things, and we had to listen very closely to make sure we boarded the correct bus. We had to board the bus to Bangkok as Hua Hin was on the way.

10:00 P.M. – We stopped and have to transfer buses. Again, the instructions and communication were hazy, but we made it onto the next bus. When we boarded, we found out that since the other bus was running behind schedule, the bus we were boarding had been waiting for nearly two hours. The people already onboard were quite frustrated.

12:30 P.M.  – We stopped again, but this time on the side of the road. Another bus transferred more people onto our bus, and this time there wasn’t enough room. People came up the stairs huffing and puffing looking for somewhere to sit. A British woman, who looked as though she was a rugby player, asked if there were any seats in the back.

Side note: we were sitting in the very back row, on the top deck of the bus. The man on the opposite side was either on drugs or was very drunk. He smelled quite potent, and was making strange noises the entire ride.

The middle area was full of our carry-on bags, as we didn’t have a lot of legroom. The drunken man was half passed out, and we didn’t have enough time to answer her. Before we could open our mouths, she had slung her full body into the middle seat, knocking into Ryley and jostling me. It was late, everyone was tired, but there was absolutely no reason for her to act like that. The people transferring onto the bus had, had a hell of a night and made sure everyone else knew about it.

Everyone settled down, and we were on our way again. The bus stopped one last time, but this time for food. We were running two hours behind schedule, which was quite frustrating. Normally I wouldn’t mind if travel took a bit longer than predicted, but someone was meeting us to pick us up once we arrived in Hua Hin. Also, it was an ungodly hour to pick someone up, so I felt even worse that we were running behind.

November 22, 2018 - November 26, 2018 (Hua Hin)

You’re probably wondering who was picking us up in Hua Hin.

*Context: Gene and Noriko moved into the house beside us nearly thirteen years ago. I remember when their house was still under construction. Noriko was pregnant with twins, and had the girls shortly after they moved in. They had their hands full with two new babies, and we tried to help wherever we could. My sister and I quickly fell in love with their whole family. Noriko’s mom (Miako) came over from Japan to help with the girls, while Noriko gained her strength back. I don’t know how it happened, or if there was an exact moment when it became a “thing”, but we started going over every day after school. Extra hands to hold a baby, change a diaper, or eat Miako’s famous chicken teriyaki. They became our next-door family. Many people might not know this about me, but I had an obsession with any and all things Japanese. When kids were reading Judy Blume, I was reading manga. Their influence on my love for Japanese food, culture, and later language was life defining. They have hearts of gold, and always welcomed us into their home even when they were tired or didn’t actually need a helping hand. Addison and I just loved being around them. They are those kind of people. We stayed in contact on and off over the last thirteen-ish years, but it was difficult as they had moved away and were living on different continents. When Gene heard that I’d be travelling to Thailand, he invited us to come visit. Of course we were going to visit them. They were people I’d always kept near and dear to my heart, and I hoped to see them again one day. This would be my chance.

4:30 A.M. and Gene pulled up to two tired peasants sitting on the side of the road. He called us a Grab, and back to his house we went. Gene drives a scooter, so a car was needed for this part of the journey. He wanted to make sure we got to his place safely and without getting ripped off. I’ve never felt so welcomed, so quickly. I was a child the last time I saw him. It was so incredible walking into their home again – this time on a different continent – and feeling the same familiar feels. The best surprise… they had a dog. I’d been missing my furry chicken back home, and was craving a dog fix. And a dog fix I would get, because Sparkle was the biggest suck I had ever met. She lived to be cuddled.

Morning came, and I stepped out of our room to brush my teeth, but not before I made eye contact with Noriko. Her arms opened up, and she walked towards me with tears in her eyes. The little girl she used to know was now all grown up. It was so amazing hugging her again. She hadn’t changed a bit (the woman literally doesn’t age). The little girls I used to hold and cuddle stared at me with shy smiles as I hugged their mom. I almost fell over. Young, beautiful faces, each with the cutest sprinkle of freckles over their noses. Tall and slender, and with the poise of someone twice their age; who was I looking at? I was looking at thirteen year old Kokomi and Mizuki. It didn’t feel real.

 The United Nations.

The United Nations.

Over the course of the next four days, I would unravel small pieces of my neighbour’s lives. I would find out that the girls had a passion for art, specifically manga. They were obsessed with anime and manga, just like I was when I was their age. Gene and Noriko had been living in Qatar most recently, and it was fascinating listening to their experiences. To fit thirteen years of catching up in four days is not possible, but we reminisced and shared stories every day.

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Eating breakfast together every morning was unforgettable. Gene would make you as many cups of coffee as your heart desired (we could only drink one each, as he made them so strong a spoon could stand up straight in it). The girls would shock me a little more everyday. Their politeness was out of this world. Both Ryley and I were in awe at how softly spoken, kind, and caring they were. I didn’t realize the extent of their love for dogs, until I saw the way the family treated Sparkle (a little Havanese-Chihuahua mix). They lived to love her. Every morning, I would be greeted with so much love and tons of cuddles. It made my heart sing to know how that my family isn’t the only ones who spoil the crap out of their dog.

There aren’t enough words to describe our visit with Gene, Noriko, and the girls. I was ecstatic that Ryley got to meet a piece of me that most people don’t know about. I love them, and have decided that waiting every thirteen years to see each other is a thing of the past. 

The next morning we would say a sad, but loving goodbye to my beloved neighbours. Our visit was unforgettable, and it’ll always stay near and dear to my heart.

We had no idea what world we were about to step into.

See you later Thailand, bring it on Nepal.

Liv Review: Thailand, oh Thailand, what a wonderful place to travel to. We had an awesome time exploring a bit of the North and a lot of the South. It is an easy country to navigate, and is extremely welcoming to tourists as creature comforts are always within reach. The people are super friendly, and the food can be a total hit and also a total miss. Try to explore the places that you’ve never heard of. It’s so easy to go to the islands that everyone goes to, but guaranteed it’s going to be overrun with tourists. It all depends on your travel intentions. What kind of experience are you looking for? We were searching for quiet, relaxed, and easy to navigate. There are so many stunning temples, beaches, forests, and so much more to see. You won’t get bored in Thailand. Guaranteed.


“Ethical Elephant Tourism”, filmed and edited by Ryley.

Chapter 4: Laos

October 25, 2018 (Danang - Hanoi - Vientiane)

Country #4.

First step: an expensive entrance into Laos: $40 US/person ($110.00 CAD) for on arrival visas. Unfortunately, we had no control over how much the border wanted to charge us at that moment in time. Two people ahead of us: $25 US/person, the group behind us: $30 US/person. Yes, we got ripped off. No, you cannot fight with Laotian border control.

Next step: SIM cards.

 The most common and trustworthy carrier in Laos.

The most common and trustworthy carrier in Laos.

For 80,000 Kip ($12.30 CAD), our SIM cards included: 4G of high speed internet; a good investment for the both of us.

The last and most annoying step: find a taxi with a meter. Well, good luck because taxis in Laos do not have meters. We ordered a taxi inside of the airport (which we try to avoid at all costs, but Grab doesn’t exist in Laos so we didn’t have a choice). 60,000 Kip ($9.26 CAD) for a 20 minute taxi ride to our hostel. It felt like we got ripped off again, as google maps showed that our hostel was only 10 minutes away. What we didn’t know was that, ONCE AGAIN, we had arrived during a public holiday. The streets were packed, and it ended up taking our driver 25 minutes to deliver us to our hostel. He wasn’t bluffing, which is always a pleasant surprise. You always have to err on the side of skepticism, especially with taxi drivers.

Everywhere we looked people were partying on patios. We arrived at dinner time, but it seemed as though the fiesta had started in the early afternoon. To this day, I still don’t know which holiday was being celebrated.

We arrived at Dream Home Hostel which really wasn’t a dream at all, but it was $13.00 CAD/night, and breakfast was included in that price. Imagine: a place filled with travellers on their gap year (must say in a British or Australian accent), lots of bare feet, a soggy shared bathroom, and a giant pool table. In other words, we were living in a frat house, and it was actually a lot of fun. Our dinner consisted of street barbecue - which we would continue to take full advantage of during our stay in Luang Prabang.

Liv Observation: Vientiane seems to be a fairly progressive city. We saw two Laotian men openly holding hands, while walking down the street. There seemed to be an acceptance towards gender fluidity as well, which was incredible. Laos is still fairly conservative in terms of dress and presentation, so try to keep ass cheeks and boobies in their appropriate compartments.

Oh, and our hostel had free whiskey from 8:00 - 10:00 PM every night. Dangerous and disgusting, but free.

Our night ended up being quite social with the other hostel goers, and we stayed up well past our bed time.

October 26, 2018 (Vientiane - Luang Prabang)

Usually you hit a point during your hangover day, where things start to look up, but not for me.

 Buddha Park.

Buddha Park.

We only had one day to explore Vientiane, and we wanted to make the best out of it. We all know what a day after drinking feels like, but I knew I wasn’t feeling normal from the moment I woke up. I tried to ignore it, but the pain inside of me continued to grow. A stabbing sensation in my gut every 10-15 minutes would cripple me, and then subside. I was hoping that I was just having a bad reaction to the mix of alcohol from the night before, but deep down I knew it was a bug.

I pushed through the morning, and decided that I was going to make this adventure happen. We had limited motorbike options, and ended up with a ghetto, semi-automatic Honda. Not only was this bike a piece o’ shit, but we were also faced with the busiest traffic conditions since being in Asia. Looking back on it, we were the perfect recipe for an accident.

ONWARDS.

*Laos Motorbike Fact: renting a motorbike in Laos is a little bit different than in other countries. There is a scam where rental companies will steal your bike with a spare key from their shop. Then, they will charge you a ridiculous amount to replace it. You also have to be careful when handing over your passport as collateral, as these particular “rental” companies will steal it or refuse to give it back to you after they’ve stolen your bike/scooter. Take these tips into consideration if you are planning to rent a motorbike outside of your hostel, as it could save you a ton of money, time, and grief.

  • Lock your bike/scooter every time. It might seem like a lot of work, but taking the extra 2 minutes is worth it in the grand scheme of things. Legitimate rental shops will show you how to put the lock on the wheel, and how to lock the steering wheel.

  • Park the scooter in protected areas such as guarded parking areas where possible or park directly in the Wats (for foreigner this may be strange, but the Laotians do the same).

  • Give a piece of government issued I.D. as a deposit, and if you do choose to give your passport know where the closest Canadian embassy is located.

  • Do not rent bikes from Khamsay! They don’t rent bikes themselves, but use subcontractors and various agencies. At least these two agencies use Khamsay: All Lao Service Co Ltd (13/7 Sisavangvon Rd) and Luang Vi Lay Bicycles for rent.

  • Always refer to the rental agreement. If the name “Khamsay” is on it, leave and find another agency.

    Reference: https://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/ShowTopic-g295415-i9321-k7065697-Again_scooter_scam_in_Luang_Prabang-Luang_Prabang_Luang_Prabang_Province.html

 Buddha Park.

Buddha Park.

It also happened to be 33 degrees, which didn’t add to the ambience of sweaty upper lips and stomach pains. Once again, bless Ryley’s beautiful heart. He drove us to our destination with confidence and as much grace as possible (our clutch was sticky, and every bump reverberated through the entire bike). We arrived at the Buddha Park mid afternoon, and slugged our way into the park. The monk who built it, in 1958, studied both Buddhism and Hinduism. This explained why there was a variety of Buddha images and Hindu gods. There was also a mix of both demons and animals from both beliefs.

There was a cylindrical stone building made up of 3 levels. You had to walk around in a complete circle to gain access to the next level, and at every level you could see inside of the middle of the structure. There were old pottery buddha statues, which represented an ancient scene. It was like peeking into a secret vignette. Each level had a set of uneven stone stairs, that vertically led you to the next level. It was tricky trying to get up the stairs, as there was no railing and I was wearing a giant backpack. When I reached the top, there was an observation area on the roof of the stone building, which stood 25 feet in the air and was built into the shape of a cone. Skinny at the top, with a flatter base to stand and view the park from an aerial perspective. It was a bit intimidating as there were no safety rails, and the area was full of tourists coming up and down, all whilst trying to maneuver as far away from the edges as possible.

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A quick bathroom stop before lunch, and quick it was. I still have PTSD from the size of the critter I saw on the ground. It had 6 long gnarly legs, and very large pinchers. It came across as a spider, but the pinchers gave it away as a beetle. I have never ran out of a bathroom so quickly in my entire life.

ROAD SIDE SOUP.

For 20,000 Kip ($3.09 CAD) we enjoyed 2 bowls of chicken noodle soup Laos style. Many families who run road side restaurants live out of the place they sell the food, as it isn’t cost efficient to own two establishments. I wanted to wash my hands (many public bathrooms have sinks, but do not have soap), and asked the chef if I could use theirs. She pointed me in the right direction, but little did I know I would be walking into her family bathroom. Toothbrushes and shampoo decorated the small wooden mantle, while the fresh water for the day sat in a large rubber garbage can. It humbled me to know that a family of 4 shared a rationed amount of clean water every day, and that the chef (Mom) allowed me (random foreigner) to use some of it. Clean water is a luxury, and many of us (not all of us) in the first world will never have to worry about not having enough clean drinking water, or having to ration the water we use to shower etc. It is important to take in moments like these, and take time to express your gratitude (let it be silently, or in my case with Ryley).

I thought lunch would help ease my stomach, but in fact it made it worse. We tried to check out another temple, but had to cut the adventure short. At this point, I had a fever and I was having trouble keeping upright. A nap would have been so wonderful, but we had checked out of our room all ready. We would only be staying for half of the day, and didn’t want to pay the price of another full night. Reception was nice enough to store our luggage until our shuttle came to pick us up to take us to our night bus. SO, no nap for me or Ry. After much deliberation, and some concerned persuasion from Ryley, I indulged in my oh so sacred antibiotics. It helped almost instantaneously, but to err on the side of caution I would take them for the prescribed 2 days, twice a day.

Time to eat again, and I really wasn’t sure if I was humanly capable of digesting anything ever again. But I mean you’re only young once, so TEST YOUR ENDURANCE AND EAT INDIAN FOOD FOR DINNER. I wish I hadn’t been so sick, because this was probably the best Indian food I’ve ever had.

Liv Observation: Vientiane is a busy hub, with a large population of Laotian locals, Indian, and Middle Eastern people. There are tons of authentic Indian restaurants all over the city, and it was really cool to eat authentic curry in the capital of Laos. Love the diversity.

We had an 11 hour night bus to Luang Prabang ahead of us, so of course we took samosas and rice to go.

It was a bit of a mess trying to figure out which shuttle was ours, and when it was coming. I ordered our tickets online through Baolau ahead of time, as I didn’t want to worry about booking them on the fly. Our hostel also sold the same tickets, but through a different company. The confirmation email stated the shuttle would be there to pick us up around 6-6:30 PM, but the other shuttle came first. The wonderful lady at reception called the company who was supposed to pick us up, and they confirmed that they were just running a bit late. The anxiety of having to stay another night, unwell, in a muggy hostel just didn’t sit well with me. I wanted us to get on that night bus, and head to Luang Prabang as fast as we could.

After a jostling tuk tuk ride to the bus station, everything started flowing much more smoothly. While waiting to board, a French group of travellers struck up a conversation with us. We commented on how tall the one guy was, and how uncomfortable the 11 hour journey was going to be. But little did we know, his 6’6 stature was going to end up being the least of his worries.

 Taken from the inside of my “pod”.

Taken from the inside of my “pod”.

Upon boarding the jam packed bus, everyone was given a plastic bag to put their shoes in. An immediate waft of B.O, stinky feet, and ass filled our nostrils, and turned our stomachs. Thankfully, our pods were towards the back of the bus, where the smell seemed to dissipate slightly. Everyone settled in rather quickly, and we thought we might be treated to an early departure. Try not to think like this, as you will get burnt 9.5 times out of 10. If it seems too good to be true, then it most likely is. Locals started pouring in, except there was a slight issue…all of the pods were full. The bus company had oversold the tickets. So, you guessed it! The remaining passengers had to sit on our laps. Just kidding. They ended up sitting in the tiny aisles, crammed in like puzzle pieces that naturally can fit together, but had never met before. The small bit of room we had on our right hand side, was now occupied for 1 1 hours. No room to stretch, or flail. Now. Since I had a new roommate, boundaries had to be set. As he was trying to get comfortable, his bare foot came up right by the bar that semi-enclosed me into my pod. Those toes were ALL up in my business, and uncomfortably close to the range of my nose. He proceeded to tuck his arm into my pod, and pushed his full weight down to shift himself to his side. I watched in awe, hoping he would feel my gaze and adjust himself accordingly. Unfortunately, this man caught my gaze and continued what he was doing without any hesitation. His foot then crept INSIDE of my pod and left the bar he had been resting it on before. That was your girls final straw. I promptly shifted my weight, grunted, and tossed his extremities back to him. He looked at me like I had just offended his entire family, viciously sucked his teeth, and shifted onto his other side. No strange feet or arms would enter my pod for the rest of the uncomfortable journey. The poor Frenchman behind us couldn’t fit his feet into the pod, as it was only built for a maximum height of 6’0. He sat with his knees up to his chin the entire ride.

I ended up sleeping for a solid 6 hours. My stomach had finally settled, and I was feeling semi-normal. I woke up suddenly, to a strange sound that I couldn’t put my finger on. Then came the smell, and it all became crystal clear. Someone at the very back of the bus was blowing chunks, and I didn’t have the heart to look back. The acidic smell coated the all ready putrid recycled bus air, and I have never tried so hard to focus on not throwing up.

3 hours later, and we arrived. The city was beginning to wake up, and I was beyond ready to get the hell off that bus. Later I found out that not only did the Frenchman have to sit with his knees to his chin, but the person who was puking was right behind him. Never feel sorry for yourself, because there is someone out there who is always having a worse experience.

Time to take on Luang Prabang!

October 27, 2018 (Luang Prabang)

Check in wasn’t until 2:00 PM, which wasn’t a problem. We were able to store our luggage behind the reception desk and have time to hunt for breakfast. Before we left, we asked how much it would be to rent a motorbike for the next 4 days. The owner’s rate was 100,000 Kip ($15.00 CAD)/day, and our eyes almost bugged out of our head. Coming from Vietnam, we struggled to comprehend the giant price jump. We wandered down the street to try to find a better deal, and ended up locking in at 85,000 Kip ($13.20 CAD)/day. We had been used to the heavier duty Honda scooters, but received its dinky cousin version: the “Scoopy” Even though it was a brand new bike, we felt as though the tires were too small. It rode like a city scooter, and that made us nervous as we wanted to go out to the waterfalls where the terrain was unpredictable.

Indeed, our gut feelings were correct. Later in the day we made our way out to see Tad Se Waterfall (which I would not recommend visiting, but I’ll get into that later). The terrain became more bumpy the farther rural we went. The bike drove differently (weird turning radius and crappier shock system). We arrived in the village where you have to park your bike in order to access Tad Se. The back tire had blown, and we were 25 km from the city. We had to put our thinking caps on real quick, as we needed this stupid scooter to take us back to the city. AMA and roadside assistance don’t exist in rural Laos. Ryley wheeled our liability through the small village, while I walked in front of him looking sad. We did the same thing with every villager we saw, pointed at our back tire and made exploding noises. Each person pointed us down the street to the same location. Apparently, there was a village mechanic with a 5 star word of mouth review. The last man we ran into walked us to the mechanic’s home, and even knocked on his door. No one answered, and our hearts dropped. A few other boys kept referencing a name, and shouting it down the street while pointing at us and our bike. No one showed up, and we weren’t sure what to do next.

 The village mechanic.

The village mechanic.

Ryley knocked on the shack door again, and this time an ancient woman appeared. She had blackened teeth and was bent in half from a severe case of, what looked like, scoliosis. We greeted her, and pointed at our bikes. She waved us away, and shook her head, but we persisted until she called a familiar name. A young man, covered in mud from a day of hard labour, came running towards us. He checked out our sad little situation, and without hesitation went right to work. A quick shout in Lao and a teenage boy came trundling out from behind the house on a motorbike. Our mechanic gave him instructions to retrieve a new tube for our tire. Off he went. He then sewed the replacement rim air seal, and tailored it to fit the bike. Yes, he HAND SEWED IT. He moved with muscle memory and poise. 15 minutes later, and our bike was up and running again. I’ve never been so impressed or grateful in my life. This man saved us from what could have turned into a giant headache. We paid him for his trouble, and he thanked us humbly.

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NOW. It was time to see the waterfall we had been trying to get to for the last 3 hours. We parked our doctored bike on a gravel area near the river. 10,000 Kip for parking, and another 50,000 for a round trip by canoe taxi to Tad Se. We had no idea that we’d have to take a boat in order to get there, but we’d come too far to go all the way back. What an ordeal.

Another 10,000 Kip to enter the park, which turned out to have more than just the waterfalls as an attraction.

*WARNING. This part sucks.

Flappy grey ears in the distance made my heart sing. Of course I was going to go say hello! If you know me, then you know that besides dogs elephants are my favourite animal. As I crept closer, the rose coloured lenses were yanked off my face and shoved down my throat. Before me stood a sad faced love, with 2 giant chains around her neck. 3 idiot children sat on her flailing, while the elephant abuser stabbed her in the side with a bull hook. The parents took pictures and cheered from the sidelines. I stood in shock, as I had never seen something so horrific happen right in front of me. The abuser took her ear and twisted it with all of his might, which caused her to cry out in pain. The abuser then took a hammer and started smacking her behind the legs to make her kneel. How fucking dare he. Tears started flowing out of my eyes uncontrollably, and a million thoughts began to run through my head.

How many years would I spend in a Laos prison if I took the hammer and beat him mercilessly with it?

How could someone do this to such a gentle giant?

What can I do? Can I do anything?

And that’s the worst part. I couldn’t do ANYTHING.

After 20 minutes of bawling and hyperventilating, I finally calmed down. We walked through the waterfalls, but I couldn’t enjoy them. To be honest, I didn’t care about the god damn waterfalls. All I could think about was the elephant slave.

Insult to injury is: this is very common in Asia.

We left with an awful taste in our mouths. Do not support Tad Se Waterfall, as they promote unethical animal tourism (elephants, and a white cheeked gibbon).

The sun was setting, and we were both mentally and physically exhausted. The 25 km trek back to the city would be chilly, and pitch black.

Besides the wonderful, life-saver mechanic, the only other redeeming bit of our first day in Luang Prabang was the accidental dinner we had. A well lit area off one of the main streets showcased a variety of baskets with delicious looking items. We quickly realized that this was STREET HOT POT AND BARBECUE. Ryley and I THRIVE off of hotpot, and we never say no to barbecued dishes.

Laos Street Hot Pot Fact: We would come to learn that you had to ask how much each item costs (40,000 Kip - $6.21 CAD for a full bowl of soup and side of 6 barbecued skewers), as there is a local price for hot pot and a foreign price. We quickly figured out where the local area to eat was, and where the suckers went. #suckstobeasucker

My head continued to swim with the sound of the poor creature’s cries well into the night; a sound you can’t just forget.

An expensive, and shocking first day in Luang Prabang that we could never have predicted.

October 28, 2018

Waterfall take 2.

A clear baby blue sky guided our way down the 30-minute path to the falls. We arrived to a tourist-infested parking lot. It’s our fault that we go to popular attractions on the busiest days of the week. We couldn’t imagine what it might be like in high season.

Lunch was necessary before making the trek around and up the falls. Barbecued chicken and sticky rice satisfied our souls. There’s nothing quite like the sticky rice in Laos. It’s incredibly dense, and has a wonderful mouth feel. 

Laos Modesty Fact: It’s respectful to cover yourself when wearing a bathing suit in Laos. Do not walk around with only your bikini top on, and certainly do not walk around with your butt cheeks hanging out. The culture in Laos is quite conservative this way. Revealing clothing is frowned upon, as it is not part of their cultural practices. No one will say anything to you, but you will receive dirty looks. I watched this happen with one too many tourists in sports bras, or walking around in revealing bathing suits.  Always do preliminary research before visiting a country, to make sure you have a basic understanding of their cultural practices. Respect goes a very long way.

 Kuang Si Falls.

Kuang Si Falls.

Bug spray and sunscreen was an absolute must, as you’re trekking through a rainforest like setting. The falls were breathtaking. The sun was at the highest point in the sky, and reflected off of the water like golden dust. To get a picture by the falls was mayhem. EVERYONE wanted a picture, and it was difficult as there were so many selfie sticks and tourists jeopardizing the best spots. We trekked on, all the way up to the peak of the falls. The stairs were quite vertical, and uneven. The uneven stairs we faced in Vietnam had primed us, so our pace was a little less embarrassing this time around. The peak greeted us with warm pools of natural water that people were swimming in. It’s not very often that you get to see the view from the top of the waterfall. The lush greenery that hugged the sides of waterfall looked like the set of Jurassic Park. We were waiting for a pterodactyl to come squawking through the sky.

 The top of the waterfall.

The top of the waterfall.

A quick splash in the spring, and back down we went. The hike down was so much more satisfying than the way up. Giant stone stairs were built very close to the waterfall, so with every step you took you would receive a gentle shower.  Our afternoon at Kuang Si came to an end, but that didn’t mean the adventure was over. On our way to the waterfall, I saw a sign for a water buffalo dairy farm. They’re so incredibly cute up close, so naturally I wanted to check it out. To my disappointment, it was a complete tourist grab. You were able to do a tour of the farm, feed and bathe the water buffalo, and then eat the ice cream or cheese of your choice. All I wanted to do was feed them, and possibly wash them. The small man who was adamant about selling me a tour said it was impossible to only do those two things. He told me I could only do it if I booked a tour. Well, goodbye small man.

We kept on, until I spotted a herd of water buffalo grazing. Ryley stopped the bike in front of a small acreage, and we crossed the street to say hello to them. They were coming closer, inch-by-inch, until two tourists saw what we were doing, stopped their motorbikes, and ruined OUR special conversation. They came trundling up, and scared them all away. I was so aggravated at how obnoxious their movements were. With my head hung low, disappointed that I had lost my best chance of meeting them, Ryley started gesturing at the acreage we were parked in front of. A man waved us over, and invited us in to sit at his table. There were 5 people at the table, and only he spoke a small amount of English. He wanted to welcome us, and share his beer and sausages. He saw our interest in the buffalo, and pointed to the man who owned them.

We sat around their small outdoor table, and learned about each other, glass after glass.

Laos Drinking Fact: Close friends and family are known to share beer out of one glass.

A line had to be drawn, because we still had quite a ways back to the city. It would have been easy to have sat there for the rest of the evening, laughing and drinking together.

These are the moments that are irreplaceable. This is what travel is all about.

October 29, 2018

What better way to spend our last night: catching the sunset. We thought that since it was low season Mount Phousi would be quiet. We thought wrong. The sun started setting as we walked up the tiresome staircase. A sweaty finish to what we assumed would be a romantic view, turned into dodging a ginormous group of tourists and selfie sticks. It seemed as though people weren’t actually enjoying the sunset, but instead only there to take pictures. Everyone’s hands were above their heads trying to get the perfect angle.

 Mount Phousi.

Mount Phousi.

People didn’t understand the concept of taking the picture for memorabilia, and then ACTUALLY enjoying the sunset. You miss so many important details when your phone or camera is constantly in front of your face. We’ve witnessed it numerous times. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many pictures you got of a freaken sunset, but how that sunset made you feel. What colours were you able to pick out? Who were you with? Which country were you in? Was it a thought provoking experience. There’s always going to be another sunset, but not another moment identical to the one you’re experiencing.

I try to keep this in the back of my mind at all times.

October 30, 2018

A quick farewell to Laos. We would miss the street hot pot, and smiling local faces.

It was time for another transition.

Next stop: Chiang Mai, Thailand.  

Liv Review: Laos is full of natural beauty. The people are wonderful, and the food is delicious. We found Laos to be a constant adventure of not knowing what might come around the corner next. If we could do it again, we would have skipped Vientiane. It was far too busy for our liking. We weren’t bummed about skipping the drunken river float in Van Vieng either. But Luang Prabang was a must see. It’s a small city, with a town like feel located next to the Mekong River. Street hot pot is highly recommended, and so are the giant fruit smoothies. If you can, I wouldn’t recommend flying into Vientiane if you don’t have to. Try flying into Luang Prabang, to save money and time.


Check out “Chasing Water Falls in Laos” filmed and edited by Ryley.

Chapter 3: Vietnam

October 15, 2018 (Hanoi - Mai Chau)

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Vietnam welcomed us bright and early, at 4:50 AM to be exact.

Everything lined up exactly how it was supposed to.

  • Early arrival.

  • Acquire Vietnamese SIM cards. Best decision we’ve made thus far.

*The airport offers a variety of combo SIM packages, which fit our needs perfectly. Ryley got the internet & phone package (18GB high speed internet, 70 minutes local & international calling, and 30 free international & local phone MMS messaging) $11.00 USD or 250,000 VND. I got the internet only package (60 GB high speed internet for 15 days, 4 GB usage/day), and free incoming calls) $10.00 USD or 225,000 VND.

  • Download Grab (the equivalent of Vietnamese Uber - you can see how much your trip will cost, and how long it will take to get to your destination), so we could avoid getting ripped off by a taxi driver. Our driver arrived quickly, and there was no room for communication errors.

 May, September, and October are rice harvesting months.

May, September, and October are rice harvesting months.

We had decided that we did not want to stay in Hanoi, because we wanted to avoid the bustle of the big city. We had already received a heavy dose of that in Hong Kong. Instead, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the mountainous farming district of Mai Chau. Located 4.5 hours southwest of Hanoi, Mai Chau is situated in a picturesque valley like town surrounded by rice fields and dirt roads. There are different methods of getting there from Hanoi, but we’re on a budget, and are always in search of the cheapest modes of transportation.

After extensive research, I came across a blog which turned into our holy grail while travelling to Mai Chau. The author, Liz Deacle, gave a detailed description of how to get there while travelling on a budget (bussing = most economical option).

The best route: Hanoi Airport — My Dinh Bus Station — Mai Chau

My Dinh was full of locals travelling to their next destination. It was still quite early, and the hustle and grind of the day had already begun.

We followed the instructions from the blog:

  • We went to ticket window #7 that read “Mai Chau”. It was 5:30 AM, and the bus wasn’t scheduled to leave until 6:30 AM. Tickets wouldn’t go on sale until 30 minutes before the buses departure time.

  • Asked/confirmed how much the tickets were (we knew they should only be 70,000 VND - $3.95 CAD/person)

  • Ignored aggressive “helpers” who kept asking us to follow them. A strange man came in HOT while we were sitting in the waiting area. He got a little too close to Ryley, and caressed his thigh, all while chanting “Mai Chau” and pointing towards the bus terminal. Liz’s blog said that we might encounter people trying to sell us tickets or “help” us, but to pay them no mind. Ryley kept trying to shoo them away, but they were incredibly persistent. We later found out that the two men who kept pestering Ryley and I were the bus conductors. Yikes.

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Seats towards the back were calling our names, and we boarded without issue. I’m not going to sugar coat it, the bus was ghetto. It was more like an oversized van, that hadn’t been serviced in a long time. We were getting the real $3.95 experience. One of the strange men disappeared to the front to drive the van, but the leg poker floated to the back to flirt with Ryley. My poor man. The creepy gremlin left him alone after the tenth bout of ignoring, and “go away” hand motions.

I was packed into my seat like a sardine, and mildly stressed out about how fast and reckless the bus was being driven. I would later find out this is how all bus drivers drive in Vietnam. Horns are used every 2-5 minutes, to warn scooters and smaller vehicles, to get the hell out of the way. I quickly learned to accept this.

Vietnam Bus Fact: Sometimes the bus driver’s assistant will demand more money for your bags, but do not give in. They might pester you, and tell you it’s mandatory, but do not give in. Eventually, you will be left alone. Also, bus drivers may not actually stop at designated bus stops. It is common for the conductor’s assistant to yell out the window to ask if anyone will be boarding.

Half way through our journey, we stopped at a gas station in a small village. After a bathroom break, and a quick bowl of pho we were back on the road. We arrived in Mai Chau shortly after 10:45 AM. The positive side to early flights/bus rides is that you don’t lose a day during travel.

I had booked a homestay in Lac Village, which I found off of Liz’s blog. When we got to Lac Village (15 minutes from the town centre) we realized there was a vast selection of homestays. I hadn’t paid for the homestay I booked before we got to Vietnam, so we decided to shop around to find a place we liked in person. The other homestay had a flexible cancelation policy, which allowed us to cancel for free on less than 24 hours notice.

*By the way, it was 33 degrees when we arrived in Mai Chau. We walked from the town centre to Lac Village and nearly melted into little brown puddles. I thought I knew humidity, but Vietnam is next level.

We ended up staying in the first place we walked in to: Countryside Homestay. As soon as we saw the traditional stilt houses, and magical koi pond, we were sold. We did our due diligence and asked other homestays, but for the price, location, and vibe, Countryside couldn’t be beaten.

 Our traditional homestay built on bamboo stilts, overtop of a beautiful koi pond.

Our traditional homestay built on bamboo stilts, overtop of a beautiful koi pond.

A warm greeting by the owner’s son, Tuan, and he showed us the private room that he had available. A double bed with mosquito net canopy, fan, full toilet and shower set, fresh towels, extra blankets, and free WiFi for 250,000 VND ($14.00 CAD)/night. Plus, Tuan’s Mother refreshed our room every morning (made the bed, emptied the garbage, and gave us fresh towels). I don’t think I’ve ever stayed anywhere so lovely, yet so inexpensive.

After getting settled, we wasted no time, a quick Vietnamese coffee was in order. Next stop, rent scooters (500,000 VND - $28.00 CAD for 4 days). Ryley and I spent some time practicing in the quieter areas off the main road, so I could get comfortable with my scooter. It was only appropriate to share a lunch of pho and beer afterwards. A proper welcome to Vietnam.

The rest of our time was spent posting up in the common area. Tuan’s Father always brought us tea whenever he spotted us on our laptops. He also brought our scooters inside right before it rained. The homey and familial touch was what made our stay so noteworthy.

Kindness needn’t be expressed through the same tongue, but through one’s actions. This is universal.

If you’d like to read Liz Deacle’s full blog “Hanoi to Mai Chau. 10 Things to Know Before Making the Trip”, follow this link: https://itsadrama.com/hanoi-to-mai-chau-vietnam-travel-blog/

October 16, 2018

Sweet Jesus our bed was hard.

I myself appreciate a firmer mattress, but this was like padded concrete. Hunger and back spasms took us into the town for breakfast (we opted out of our homestays breakfast so we could explore). We perused many of the street vendors, until we came across a man selling barbecued quail and traditional homemade Vietnamese spring rolls. He spoke some English, and was able to guide us through the ordering process. A hearty breakfast of 6 spring rolls, one quail, a giant bowl of steamed rice, and a plateful of stir fried veggies started our day off on the right foot. The amount we paid for all that food almost felt like WE were robbing the vendor. 90,000 VND ($5.08) for everything, including a Vietnamese coffee.

Before a day of adventure, a heavy carb and protein breakfast is a necessity. We followed the map the owner of our homestay gave us, and began the 20 km trek to Go Lao Waterfall. We passed through a few small villages full of roaming livestock and dogs. A terrace of rice fields and a river caught our eyes, so we took a moment to explore. There are so many amazing places you can discover along your journey to one destination. Lush greenery surrounded us, and so did a a small village…up the side of mud hill.

A woman in her late 60’s, dressed in farming regalia, summoned me to follow her up into her village. Along the way she told me a story, but not through words. 10 fingers counted the age of the bamboo trees around us. A hand to her heart explained this was where she grew up. A humble village comprised of bamboo homes with one giant main floor where families slept together. We walked up a muddy path, and mud stairs in order to get there. She didn’t break a sweat and seemed to be 10 times more agile than I was. Her feet remembered the exact places to step, and I tried my best to mimic the epic uphill foot dance. The higher we went, the more bamboo homes appeared. Everyone we passed greeted us with a friendly head nod, and a kind wave.  

We hopped back on the bike, and continued our journey to the falls. On the way, there were babies of all species: chicks, puppies, and humans. I was overwhelmed with cuteness, and had to control myself. Ryley’s scooter driving skills continued to impress me. A downward slope of moguls taunted us as we made our way down an unpaved road. The man behind us didn’t even flinch as he trundled through the bumps with an empty water cylinder twice the size of him and his scooter, buckled on with a single zap strap, and with his music blaring.

The signs pointed us in the right direction towards the waterfall, but we couldn’t figure out how to get down to see it. We stopped by a little store, where a man was washing his bike. He told us we could pay him 10,000 VND ($0.56 CAD) to park on his property.

 Parking Fact: Most places that connect to an attraction will have parking lots manned by locals. You will have to pay to park there, but it isn’t expensive, usually between $0.30-$0.75 CAD.

 Gò Lào Waterfall

Gò Lào Waterfall

A set of stairs guided us down to the falls, which were full of other tourists. They left shortly after we arrived, and we had the area to ourselves. Any chance you have to see a waterfall, do. Some yoga on a slippery rock accompanied by jumping in and out of the falls made us hungry. We brought mango and oranges, which held us over until we could get back to Mai Chau.

On our way back I saw something I cannot unsee. A dog roasting on the side of the road on an open flame. Ryley tried to shield me from it, but it was too late.

*Context: I love dogs. I love them. If you know me, I would do anything for my dog. Dogs are my friend. Dogs are love.

Non-First World Perspective: (objective stance) We were travelling through a fairly remote area of Northern Vietnam, where wild dogs are plentiful. I’ve learned that eating dog is a common practice in the North. Meat is expensive, and there’s no such thing as Costco or local super markets. Farmer’s raise the animals, feed them, and either sell or butcher them. It’s a lengthly process, and can be an expensive one. There was an overpopulation of dogs in this particular area, and they raise themselves. Most dogs live off of scraps, so nobody has to pay to feed or home them. From an objective and logical perspective: when you don’t have a lot of money, and you can’t afford to eat your own live stock, you find the next best protein. In this case: dog. I had to put my ethnocentric, and privileged views aside to try to understand this from an empathetic point of view. This doesn’t mean that Vietnamese people don’t like dogs, or want to keep them as pets too. Depending on your circumstances, where you are living in the world, protein is protein. We’re all out here trying to survive. Now, do I agree with the practice of eating dog? Absolutely not. Would I eat dog? NO! But I am still an omnivore. I eat meat. But I was born into Canadian culture, where we grow up with dogs who become our best friends. Who am I to say that another culture is less than, or wrong for eating dog. Not my place. I can only control my choices, and nobody else’s. It’s okay to agree to disagree, and I can confidently say that is where I stand on the topic.

I knew I was going to face this at some point during our trip, and I’m glad it happened the way it did. It was raw, and sobering. It gave me a lot to think and reflect about, and I am still on an emotional rollercoaster in regards to animal ethics/welfare.

Back in Mai Chau, we stopped at a tiny squat spot “restaurant”. These places are comprised of plastic mini chairs, tables, and a variety of food. The family of cooks show up in the morning, and pack everything up at the end of the day. This spot had THE best deep fried chicken wings, sweet bananas, and burritos packed with sweet onions, skinny carrots, and minced pieces of marinated pork. The most impressive part was the lady behind the 5 deep friers managed to cook everything to perfection. Her rhythm was impressive.

It was time to recharge with a massage. 200,000 VND ($11.30 CAD)/person for 60 minutes. It was not the type of massage I was expecting. The room was low lit with 6 beds, pillows and towels. It smelled lovely, like coconut and oranges. Normally, your massage therapist will leave the room while you get changed, and tuck yourself under the sheets. Nope. Our two “massage therapists” queued us to take off our clothes, but stood around and chatted while we undressed.

BE FREE.

The massages commenced, and I don’t know what the hell this woman was doing to me… but I let it happen anyways. At one point, she hopped on the bed with me, sat on my butt, and went to town on my back. These ladies were 5"0 on a good day, and 100 lbs soaking wet. Your arms can only stretch so far when you’re that small. It was comical. I felt a little beat up afterwards, but relaxed at the same time. It can be a gamble to get a massage in a Vietnamese village, but for $11.30 that was a risk we were willing to take.

October 17, 2018

Off to the rice terraces we went! But not without stopping at our favourite fruit stand to grab some mangos and oranges. We had been buying fruit from the same lady for the last 2 days. She would pick out the ripest ones, AND cut it up for us. Absolutely spoiled. It was the cheapest and tastiest snack we could find.

10 kms further than the day before, and what a ride.

Motorbike Fact: Many locals will wear face masks while operating their scooters/motorbikes to prevent the inhalation of dust and exhaust.

For the most part our ride was pleasant, until we drove through a village that did not have paved roads. It had rained earlier in the day, causing our path to be dangerously muddy. We got through it holding our breath. Not only were we trying not to wipe out, but Ryley was also dodging giant lumber trucks. It was a proper gong show.

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The rice terraces were worth the terrifying ride. Kilometres of terrace dominated the area, and harvesters worked diligently alongside their water buffalos. Ryley showed me how to fly the drone, and I was able to practice over the open area. We spotted two women herding their water buffalos, and they were quite striking. 70 years old, black teeth, and a face sprinkled with incredibly expressive laugh lines. Ryley asked if he could take her picture, and she instantaneously straightened her wrap and posed for the camera.

We continued along, and found another herd of water buffalo, also known as Carabao. They’re native to the Philippines, but can be found all over South East Asia. Carabao are stout, and have horns that curve back towards their neck. I don’t know what it is about them, but they truly are majestic beasts. The sun had started to go down, so we made our way back to Mai Chau. The road we struggled on the first time, nearly injured us the second time around. We trundled down a hill, to get back onto the main road, but the mud was caking around our wheels. Ryley had control of the bike until we started slipping, and we almost fell off. Normally, I keep my feet and legs tightly glued to the sides of the bike. I never put my feet down until we’ve stopped. This time I had to put my feet down, in order to help keep us up right. It was a quick order of events, and thankfully neither of us got hurt. He got us back on track, and we pretended like we didn’t almost get into an accident.

Exhaustion and hunger got the best of us. There was a rowdy local restaurant near by, and we decided to check it out. Turns out this place did not have a menu, and everyone was W-A-S-T-E-D. We were so confused, because it was the middle of the week. Was it a holiday? Someone’s birthday? Didn’t people have to work in the morning? Who cares! It was just fun to be apart of. The locals were shooting a light brown liquid while they ate, and we couldn’t figure out what it was. We had seen this mysterious liquid being drunk in shooters the night before, and were determined to try some before we left Mai Chau. But not yet. Pho was the only thing that was on the menu that evening.

October 18, 2018

A day to relax.

Our batteries would need to be fully charged for the evening to come.

Dinner consisted of ordering a bottle of the local rice whiskey for $1.50 CAD. Apparently you don’t order single shots, you order the whole bottle.

 29% alcohol if you were wondering.

29% alcohol if you were wondering.

In order to be like the locals, you must drink like the locals.

7:00 PM - There was some sort of party going on in the back room. The restaurant was buzzing with people, and EVERY table was drinking. People we’re stumbling in and out of that back room, laughing and hiccuping all the while. The table next to us, a group of teenage boys, were indulging in a giant bowl of hotpot and shooting rice whiskey…which they scooped out of a plastic bag that sat in bowl (what does this even mean?) We noticed that people drank while they ate, so we thought we’d try to do the same. It wasn’t until our third round, that we stopped making scrunchy faces every time we tossed one back. About 1/4 of the way through our bottle, warmth crept into our cheeks. Sharing is caring, so we thought we’d pour our neighbours a shot and learn how to say cheers in Vietnamese. Then, a few locals across the restaurant saw what we were doing and waved “hello”. Before we knew it we had 1,2,3,6,8 people at our table drinking with us. I’ve never had so much fun drinking with strangers. One of the men was a tour guide, and gave us a history lesson of Mai Chau.

Mai Chau Fact: Mai Chau is comprised of 7 ethnic minority groups - White Thai, Kinh, Hmong, Zao, Muong, Tay, Hoa a Viet.

8:15 PM - Our history lesson was enlightening, and the man thanked us for practicing English with him. Our bottle was nearly empty at this point, but our new friends left to sober up over a “late” night coffee. We ended up donating the rest of our bottle to a few French guys, who kept looking over at our bottle with inquisitive eyes.

Liv Hypothesis: People drink earlier in the evening during the week, so they can get up on time in the morning. There is no rhyme or reason for drinking hard throughout the week, other than people like to party and enjoy themselves.

Off to Ninh Binh bright and early the next morning!

October 19, 2018 (Mai Chau - Ninh Binh - Trang An)

 Saying goodbye to our little koi friends was so hard. They brought us so much joy during our stay.

Saying goodbye to our little koi friends was so hard. They brought us so much joy during our stay.

7:00 AM wake up call.

Within the hour we had to eat breakfast, return our scooter, and walk back to our homestay to meet our taxi. There is only one bus a day that goes from Mai Chau to Ninh Binh, and we didn’t want to miss it.

The best route to Ninh Binh from Mai Chau:

  • Take a taxi from your homestay to the bus stop (120,000 VND - $6.78 CAD)

  • Catch the local bus, it only comes once a day at 9:00 AM (150,000 VND - $8.47). It’s a 3.5 hour bus ride.

  • Ninh Binh is the capital city of Ninh Binh province, but the hidden gems are in small countryside towns nearby: Trang An or Tam Coc.

  • Once you get to Ninh Binh, head to one of the quieter towns. We chose to go to Trang An, as it was only 7 km outside of Ninh Binh city. Again, I would highly recommend using Grab Taxi, so you don’t get ripped off. We paid 120,000 VND ($6.68 CAD), which was reasonable.

As soon as we arrived in Trang An, we found out it was a holiday. Spoiled with cheap accommodation and food in Mai Chau, our expectations were interrupted by the holiday/tourist prices that we were running into. Accommodation was $21.00 CAD/night (I know, I know, you’re probably thinking this is cheap…but you have to be nit picky about staying on budget when you’re travelling for 6 months). Everywhere else was ridiculously priced, or full. Our room was fully loaded with: hot water, ensuite bathroom, towels, complimentary water, and a comfortable queen sized bed. We felt as though we were getting our monies worth. We loved the room at Trang An Homestay, but not the vibe or the owners. They were quite pushy about asking how many nights we were going to stay, and if we wanted to stay another night we’d have to stay in the dormitory. They were fully booked the next day, and got frustrated with us when we told them we needed some time to think about what we wanted to do. The receptionist told us that her friend 1.5 kms down the street had a room available for the next evening, so we ventured down the way to check it out. I won’t deny that this was helpful, but we weren’t able to get this kind of help until we said we wanted to stay for 3 more days.

After negotiations, we were able to lock in at 600,000 VND ($33.89 CAD) for 3 nights, with breakfast included. The owners were super relaxed, and very kind. I was excited to move in the morning.

October 20, 2018

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[Read in Forrest Gump Voice]

“One day it started raining, and it didn't quit for four months [the whole day]. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin' rain, and big ol' fat rain, rain that flew in sideways, and sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night.”

- Forrest Gump

Beyond accurate. We woke up to a pitter patter of rain on our roof, which turned into a small storm. The receptionist said a taxi wouldn’t come to pick us up, because he would have to come in from the city to drive us 1.5 km. So off we went on foot, slipping and sloshing in the giant puddles on the uneven and unpaved road. It was a character building experience. Along our wet walking journey, we rented a motorbike. Ryley dropped of his bag, first, and picked me up on the second trip. It saved us from having to walk another half kilometre in the down pour.

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After getting settled, we decided that the rain wasn’t going to stop us.

Off to a nearby temple, and then to the Mua Caves. Thank goodness it was only misting at this point, as we climbed 400 steps. Old uneven concrete, turned slippery from the day long precipitation.

 Strange lifelike roasted goat for sale.

Strange lifelike roasted goat for sale.

Trang An Sighting: When we arrived in Trang An, we passed by street vendors selling goat…except the goat they were selling was on display in its entire form…just cooked. It was quite alarming at first sight, and made us feel strange every time we drove past it.

The end of a long, wet, day. The sun had gone down, and we were damp to the bone. I have never been more thankful for a waterproof windbreaker, and waterproof pants. They are a must pack if you are travelling through Asia during the rainy season.

October 21, 2018

Our last day in Trang An, and we wanted to spend it exploring the Trang An Grottoes.

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For 100,000 VND ($5.00 CAD)/person we enjoyed a 2.5 hour boat ride. It was packed with foreign Vietnamese tourists, as we were there during a public holiday. I highly recommend checking to make sure your stay does not fall during a holiday, because you will face surge prices for accommodation and have to fight large crowds while sight seeing.

We adventured through multiple caves, some so low that we had to duck while floating through. Every 15 minutes we would stop at an on land site: a pagoda or miniature island with ancient structures to tour through. At one point we stopped at the famous Kong Island where Kong: Skull Island was filmed. Having seen the movie helped, because I was able to pin-point certain areas where specific scenes were filmed, like the famous T-Rex vs. Kong battle.

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Trang An Fact: The Trang An Landscape Complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

Not only were we surrounded by stunning structures, water, lush flora and fauna, but we were lucky enough to witness a live traditional performance in a lonesome pagoda in the middle of the water. It was magical to see everyone float by in silence to take in the woman’s captivating voice. After our tour ended, we headed back to our homestay and planned our next steps to Hoi An.

A full day of travel was ahead of us in the morning.

October 22, 2018 (Ninh Binh - Hanoi - Danang - Hoi An)

Packed and ready to go, but not without the help of the Grandma from the main level of our homestay.

 85 years old, and not a single word of English. Bless her.

85 years old, and not a single word of English. Bless her.

Ryley returned our motorbike, and I was doing a final sweep of our room. We had an ongoing joke that the Grandma (who was a very sweet old lady), would come up the stairs one day and scare us when we weren’t expecting it. Sometimes you just shouldn’t say things, because once they are out into the universe you cannot take them back. I had left the door to our room open, as we had been doing this for the last few days undisturbed. I was bending down to zip up my backpack when a small hand landed on my shoulder, accompanied by a stream of high pitched Vietnamese. Never have I been so close to peeing my pants. I thought I was being accosted and that this was the end of me, but as soon as I turned around it was GRANDMA. She just wanted to come upstairs and say hello, and keep me company while I was packing. She apologized for scaring me, with hand motions and bowing. Once we got over her scary little entrance, she made herself right at home, sat on the bed, and chatted with me while I continued double checking everything. I had noticed over the last few days that she did not really have anyone to talk to, except her sons and Ryley and I when we visited her on the main floor every morning/evening. I’m sure she was bored out of her skull, and was craving company. Grandmothers seem to share a universal love of wanting to make sure you’re taken care of. She paced the room, and kept pointing at things to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. She proceeded to look out the window, and point at things. A few minutes later and Ryley came trundling back into the room only to see Grandma had joined me. We looked at each other and laughed at the fact that our innocent joke had come true. We weren’t sure she could even climb the stairs, but she proved us wrong. It was a hilarious and incredibly cute end to our stay in Ninh Binh.

Off to the train station, where we thought we would be catching a train to Hanoi. An announcement was made that our train had been delayed 45 minutes, and then delayed another hour. The reason why we chose to train to Hanoi was because it would give us enough time to taxi to the airport, and have a moment to eat before boarding our plane to Danang. Thankfully, a local bus conductor heard the news and told us we could get a refund from the train station and take his bus. The train would have been 1.5 hours, whereas the bus was a 2.5 hour ride. Turns out, the local bus was cheaper than our train tickets (120,000 VND - $6.75/person) and got us to Hanoi just in time. A 45 minute taxi ride to Hanoi Airport, and off to Danang we went.

Booking Fact: When booking a train or bus, it is usually cheaper to do it at the station than online. You may be charged additional “taxes” or a booking fee.

Shout out to Dichungtaxi for picking us up from Danang airport and dropping us off in Hoi An. For 240,000 VND ($13.50 CAD) you can pre-order your taxi to the airport (we did this online the night before), and your driver will be there with a name sign upon your arrival. There is a sharing option which is the cheaper alternative than a private taxi (we chose this). You pay less, but may have to share your ride with other travellers who are going to the same or nearby destinations. It’s a cost efficient way to travel from city to city, and there is more than enough room in the mini van your driver picks you up in.

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We arrived at Cloudy Homestay and Hostel, and were greeted by the sweetest lady who overloaded us with information and hospitality. We told her we wanted to catch the tail end of the lamp lighting festival, and she gave us a map with explicit details, all whilst shooing us out the door so we wouldn’t miss it. Into the city centre we went, and just in time. On our walk towards the lamp lighting festival, I stepped off of the sidewalk momentarily and got slapped by a scooter coming around the corner. It all happened so fast, and the person driving did not stop. I was slightly traumatized afterwards, but the show must go on.

 Our paper “lamps”.

Our paper “lamps”.

Note to self: pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way in Asia. Ever. Don’t kid yourself.

By 7 PM the sky and river were pitch black, but colourful lamps lit the back drop. Small flickering wishes in the shades of red, yellow, orange, pink, and blue drifted down the canals. We hopped into a long gondola like boat, and glided through the water until we found the perfect place to release our lamps. After having been moving all day, trying to get to each destination efficiently and on time, it was the most peaceful ending we could have hoped for.

A dinner of Vietnamese seafood hotpot and beer coaxed us into a brooding food coma that we could not escape. About 5 minutes into our 25 minute walk back to our homestay, an older gentleman offered us a taxi service on his scooter for 100,000 VND ($5.50 CAD - $2.75/person). WHY NOT. I hopped on first, and Ryley second. The three of us went scooting down the street, and I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. Sandwiched between our 50 year old scooter taxi driver, and my boyfriend.

What a day.

October 23, 2018

OUR FIRST BEACH DAY. I’d been waiting so patiently to hop into the ocean, and finally the day had arrived.

 10/10 recommend yoga on the beach.

10/10 recommend yoga on the beach.

Ang Bang Beach (7 km from city): quiet, very clean, and great lounge chairs. If you come by motorbike you will have to pay a parking fee of 10,000 VND ($0.56 CAD). Upon entering the beach, expect locals to try to “sell” you lounge chairs for the day. DO NOT pay to sit on a lounge chair. The beach is not attached to a resort, so there is no fee to lay on them. We walked further down the beach, and made ourselves comfortable under a cabana. The waves were fantastic, and we splashed around for hours. Other vendors will ask you if you’d like to purchase drinks, which lots of tourists do, but I wouldn’t recommend buying drinks on the beach if you’re on a tight budget. Buy your own beverages from the corner store and bring them with you, as they are half the price of what you would pay on the beach.

 Hoành Thánh Chiên - Fried Wonton

Hoành Thánh Chiên - Fried Wonton

Hunger struck at 12:00 PM, and the food hunt commenced. There were tons of restaurants near the beach, but they were tourist traps. Many of these restaurants catered to Western pallets, and we have been trying to avoid eating food we can eat back home. Down the road there was a tiny restaurant called 339. It looked dingy on the outside, but was clean and quaint on the inside. From the moment we walked in we were treated like VIP guests. The food was exceptional, so exceptional that by the end of our meal we were already thinking about going back for lunch the next day. We found out that Vu, the owner, had only one chef who made the meals in his kitchen: his Mother. This might sound sappy, but it all made sense when he told us this, because the food tasted like it was made with love. Vietnamese soul food, made from the heart of a Mama.

Our evening turned into scoping out clothing shops, as we both wanted to get a few custom made pieces. The last time Ryley was in Vietnam, he had a few dress shirts hand made. He seemed to be dreading the experience ever since we started talking about it. He knew it was going to be a stressful event, but I could not have imagined what an unpleasant shopping experience it was actually going to be. Every shop we walked into, we were bombarded by the shop employees.

“Come, sit down”.

Never, I repeat never, sit down unless you are actually going to buy something. Once you sit down, you’ve committed. I learned that the hard way. Everyone wants to make the perfect outfit for you, but it’s hard when you’re not sure what you want. We went to 5 different shops, and each visit became increasingly frustrating. We had almost given up, when we came across a quiet shop with mannequins dressed in stylish one pieces. I didn’t know it, but this was exactly what I had been looking for. I tried on the one piece in two difference designs, and fell in love. Ryley played an integral role in helping me pick the right one. The seamstress measured me, and pinned the places that needed to be taken in. My tailored piece would be ready in the morning.

An entire evening dedicated to shopping, and we almost came back empty handed. I’ve never been so exhausted from window shopping in my life (what a first world problem, Jesus).

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Our last stop was meant to be enjoyable, but turned out to be disappointing. We were told to try “Chicken Rice”, a Hoi An delicacy. It turned out to be rice with cold chicken, some sprouts and a bowl of soup. Instead of spending energy on being sad, we sought out a delicious banh mi from a hole in the wall. It was incredibly flavourful, packed with spicy pork, cilantro, skinny carrots, and a secret sauce.

We knew where we’d be getting dinner the next evening.

October 24, 2018

Our last day in Hoi An.

 FREE lounge chairs.

FREE lounge chairs.

We magically found ourselves back at the beach. And we magically found ourselves back at 339 for lunch. There’s nothing wrong with a little repetition. When you find something or somewhere you like, be a proud repeat customer.

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Ryley’s neck had been bothering him, so we decided to get massages in the evening. The night before I had researched the top massage spots in Hoi An, and it turned out the second highest rated on Trip Advisor was only 6 minutes away from where we were staying. Aaron Spa was an absolute treat, from start to finish. We each paid 400,000 VND ($22.00 CAD), and received a mind blasting experience. To start, a foot soak in warm herbal water accompanied by a cup of hot tea. Then, we were taken upstairs to the massage room. Ryley requested the Swedish Massage (deep pressure), and I requested the Hot Stone Massage. They incorporated aroma therapy as well, which was a pleasant surprise. Our massages were only supposed to be 60 minutes, but our massage therapists added on an extra 15 minutes each. We left the table feeling refreshed, and incredibly relaxed. Yes, we paid a higher price but received extremely high quality service.

Sometimes you just have to treat cho self.

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All pampered and content, we scootered back to the shop to pick up my one piece from the seamstress. Then, off to the banh mi restaurant. Spicy pork banh mi, with spring rolls, mixed vegetables with garlic, and beer.

Our last night in Vietnam, and we wanted to go out with a bang. Our stay in Vietnam was such an adventure, and we didn’t want it to end.

Liv Review: Home to the most incredible comfort soup, and best hangover cure known to man: pho. Green onion cakes don’t exist in Vietnam, because they’re not Vietnamese; they’re a Western invention. So don’t ask for them. You don’t want to be that foreigner. It is worth visiting both the North and the South. Depending what you would like to see, and what kind of vibe you are on the hunt for. Inland or coastal, Vietnam has so much to offer. If you have the chance, go during the months of the rice harvest. The rice terraces are absolutely stunning, and a sight I never got sick of. Next time, I would allot 2-3 weeks for Vietnam, as 10 days felt like a tease. Vietnam is the most affordable, culture packed, and friendly country to visit. You’d be silly to skip it.


Check out “A Farmer’s Tale”, filmed and edited by Ryley.

Chapter 2: Ni Hao, Guangzhou

October 6-7, 2018

“Won’t have to drive too far, just ‘cross the border and into the city”.

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And that’s how we got to Guangzhou. Well to be completely honest, we took a high speed train. Travel time from HK to GZ was jut under two hours, and we saved about $200 CAD/person by taking a train instead of flying. Two adult tickets cost $39 USD ($50.52 CAD)/person, which came to a total of $78 USD ($101.05 CAD). There are a few perks to taking the train: you don’t have to check your bags (you can take them directly onto the train), noteworthy leg room (this helps when you’re traveling with long-legged individuals), the train is quiet, and there are two outlets for you to charge any electronics you may have. Getting to China was very easy, and I would recommend traveling by high speed train over flying to anyone who enjoys their comfort, and wants to save a buck. You can book your train tickets online, which makes life so much easier.

Background context of why we wanted to go to China:

Originally, Ryley and I were not certain about stopping over in China. What would we do? How far in to the country would we go? Ryley had a friend living in Guangzhou (Ashley), and they had been in communication since January. Part of our travels were going to include stopping in at Colliers International branches around Asia (the commercial real estate firm Ryley works for), and uncover similarities and differences between the Asian commercial market and the North American commercial market. What a great way to learn about the Chinese market, plus Ashley was willing to host us in her apartment during our stay. SOLD.

Before you enter China you should:

  • Get a Chinese voltage converter

  • Download a reliable VPN (Virtual Private Network). Most apps/sites are banned, so you will need a VPN to create your own private network to access to Google, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, etc. I would highly recommend ExpressVPN. It does cost $12 USD, but it is so worth it. The most reliable locations are HongKong-2, and Los Angeles-3.

  • Download WeChat, and get a Chinese SIM card upon arrival. This will be a game changer.

 The view from our balcony.

The view from our balcony.

Upon arriving in GZ, Ashley had arranged a driver to pick us up and take us directly to Clifford Estates (about 45 minutes outside of the city centre). Her apartment is situated in the cutest suburb full of a healthy mix of locals and expats. She left us colour coaded instructions to everything we would need to know about staying at her apartment. AND! Ashley made us a list of recommendations for activities we should tackle during our stay. What a treat.

We were on our way to being hangry after a morning of intense travel, so we plopped down our bags and ventured outside. Buses run in and out of Clifford Estates (it’s a gated compound) constantly, and there are tons of local and americanized restaurants within walking distance. The buses in the area are free for residents, which makes getting around so much easier.

After a bunch of stumbling around trying to figure out where the best place to eat lunch might be, we found this tiny hole in the wall on the side of the street. No english menu, and no spoken english. No problem. Our server had no idea what we were trying to say, and we were so hungry that we didn’t care what we ate…we just needed food. There was a couple sitting at a table close to us, and they were munching on two different noodle bowls. I pointed to their bowls, and said “that one”. She nodded her head, and we sat and waited to see what was going to be put in front of us. It ended up being one of the best hangry experiences I’ve ever had. She placed two giant bowls of noodles in front of us. My bowl consisted of thin noodles with a firm consistency, ground beef, fresh cucumber, ginger, minced garlic, skinny carrots, and tiny spicy peppers in a noninvasive sauce. Ryley had thick, lasagna like noodles, cubes of beef, and tofu in a light sesame sauce. We inhaled our meals in silence, and agreed that it was the best noodle bowls we’d ever had. The fresh ingredients exploded pockets of flavour onto our taste buds with every bite.

We nearly pooped ourselves when we got the bill: 34 Yuan ($6.40 CAD). $3.20/person to eat a delicious lunch. We were mind blasted. Your dollar goes so much further here with food, than back home.

GZ Culture Fact: When eating out, don’t tip. Tipping is not part of Chinese culture. We come from a culture where the quality of your service can depend on how much you are spending or willing to tip. It is the complete opposite in China. You may be charged for “dabao [dah-bow]”, also known as take-away. There can be a service charge for packing the food to go, but it will only ever be 1-2 Yuan ($0.20-$0.30 CAD).

The rest of the day was spent scoping out the markets, window shopping, and becoming familiar with our surroundings.

The next morning, cappuccinos were calling our names, so we invested in an americanized cafe experience, and spent 115 Yuan ($21.66 CAD). Even though it was only $10.50 CAD/person, we knew we could make our dollar stretch even further. Ashley’s apartment had a full kitchen, so why not use it.

Where do the locals get their food? The wet market (a market that sells fresh meat and produce).

 From catch of the day, to market tank, to chopping board, to table. Chinese culture places an emphasis on freshness, and on using all parts of the animal.

From catch of the day, to market tank, to chopping board, to table. Chinese culture places an emphasis on freshness, and on using all parts of the animal.

Overwhelming, exhilarating, and sobering are just a few adjectives to describe the sensory overload of what we experienced from foreign perspectives. Stands full of vibrant fruits lined the entrance to the market, and the further back you went, vegetables began to appear. Every vegetable you might know the name of, plus Chinese vegetables covered a great amount of square footage of the market. And everyone wanted to sell you something. The far right back corner was where the egg lady resided. Her entire stand was dedicated solely to eggs, and I wish I had taken a picture of it because it was an incredible sight. Over 30 types of eggs (6 types of chicken eggs, quail, duck, goose, turkey, and the list goes on). Move back even further, and the entire back wall was coated with tanks upon tanks of fresh seafood (10 different types of fish, eel, crab, shrimp, jumbo shrimp, squillas, muscles, clams, oysters, and unfortunately soft shell turtles).

GZ Food Fact: I have seen live seafood swimming in tanks before. But what really caught me off guard were the turtles. My western self recognizes turtles as a pet or a wild intelligent animal, but so do the Chinese. The only difference is they eat them. Of course I had to do some research on this topic to gain a better understanding. The Chinese associate turtles with longevity, and good health. Throughout history, and still in practice today, turtle soup has been a delicacy in China and Singapore. Other countries within Asia eat turtle soup too. In the early 1800’s, Europeans and American colonists also indulged in turtle stew and turtle soup. They indulged to the point of gluttony, resulting in many species of turtles being endangered today. Parts of the Orient, North America, and Europe have all had their fill of turtle soup at one point throughout history. Not my cup of tea, or should I say my cup of soup.

2 bagfuls of vegetables, two fillets, a dozen hand-picked eggs from the egg lady, and a bag of rice later, we were on our way to our apartment to cook our first meal. In total we spent about 300 Yuan ($56.00 CAD), but went home with a weeks worth of groceries. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that total price included our beer.

Two great things about beer in China:

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1.) Domestic beer is CHEAP. A 600 mL bottle of Tsingtao (which became our favourite very quickly) was 5 Yuan ($0.94 CAD). We bought these bad boys in bulk. Sometimes they’ll go on sale, and be offered at the price of 3 for 10 Yuan. So when that happened, we bought 8. Another domestic brand called Harbin sells beer by the can for 3 Yuan, so before we discovered Tsingtao we bought a 12 pack for 36 Yuan ($6.75 CAD). Thank you beer Gods, and China.

2.) It is quenching as hell. After a 33 degree day that is mostly humidity, there’s nothing like a cold beer to help cool you down. The alcohol content is quite low, so drinking a few of these with dinner, or after dinner won’t make a mark on you.

Eating out has its perks, but being able to cook your own meals at home is a game changer. Especially breakfast. Breakfast around the world differs, and having the option to be able to cook what you enjoy at home is very satisfying. I do believe in trying local breakfasts to find out what you like, and to explore what other cultures eat in the morning. Many delicious meals were to come from our little apartment kitchen, during our 10 day stay in Guangzhou.

October 8, 2018

A day dedicated to preparations.

 This is the face of a man who has no idea if being bald may be in his near future.  *Men’s haircut: 63 Yuan ($11.86)

This is the face of a man who has no idea if being bald may be in his near future.

*Men’s haircut: 63 Yuan ($11.86)

After breakfast, we headed down with intentions to pick up a slab of meat for our Friends Giving dinner. But first, Ryley would get a hair cut from the local barber. Our visit to Colliers was only a couple days away, so a fresh haircut was due. Ryley presented the barber with a picture of what he wanted. The man gave it a good look, and began to snip snip snip away. Everything seemed to be going well, until he started to shave through the beautiful fade he had just created. THEN he took a straight razor to Ryley’s hairline, and I nearly peed my pants. My man came in with a normal hairline, and left with a widow’s peak. Ryley looked fresh, this was just a new and much shorter haircut then he would usually get. #egglife

 “Sakura Blossom” (still not sure what was in this drink, but it was unique), and a mango green tea with fresh mango chunks. Yum.

“Sakura Blossom” (still not sure what was in this drink, but it was unique), and a mango green tea with fresh mango chunks. Yum.

It was time to get bubble tea and laugh off what the hell just happened.

 We boiled the crab in tom yum paste, salt, and tons of garlic. 10/10 would recommend.

We boiled the crab in tom yum paste, salt, and tons of garlic. 10/10 would recommend.

Again, we found ourselves at our favourite place: the wet market. We decided for dinner we wanted to try cooking something we’ve never cooked before. A few strips of sirloin, and 6 fresh crabs. The fishmonger cut up the crab for us into manageable pieces, which helped during the boiling process. The rest of the menu would consist of roasted asparagus, coated in a thin layer of salt and lemon juice, and homemade fries. It was such a treat feeding our amazing host Ashley, and her boyfriend Chris. We shared multiple Tsingtaos, and when we ran out they took us to the convenience store to buy more (yes, you can buy beer, spirits, and wine at your local Chinese convenience store). Whilst at the store, Chris asked us if we had ever tried a Pomello (cross between a grapefruit and an orange), and we hadn’t so we threw that into the cart to add to our after supper libations. He showed us how to peel it, and we were pleasantly surprised at how the citrusy flavour explodes in your mouth, but you aren’t left with a messy aftermath. The night ended by planning our next dinner: traditional Chinese hotpot. We couldn’t wait for supper to come the next evening.

October 9, 2018

The amount of food and beer we consumed the night before called for a much needed sleep in.

Ryley and I worked and strategized our next steps to Vietnam, and planned what we wanted to see/how we were going to get there.

Later in the afternoon, we took one of Ashley’s recommended activities and tackled Dafu Mountain Park. Let me tell you, I was not mentally prepared for the amount of stairs we were going to have to confront. It was a cardio work out, but the views were absolutely worth it. Ponds fully of lily pads, shrines, and lush greenery surrounded the area. It really opened my eyes to how beautiful Guangzhou is, and how freaken out of shape I am.

 Dafu Mountain Park

Dafu Mountain Park

5:30 PM came rather quickly, and we all know what happens next.

HOTPOT.

Jesus take the wheel.

We scootered over to Wonderland, which is where the new shopping/entertainment district in Clifford is located. A few of Ashley’s expat teacher friends came too, and we ordered food like it was going out of style. A giant pot arrived separating the 3 broths we chose: tomato, bone, and spicy Szechuan. The boiling pot taunted us, as we patiently awaited the arrival of our 10 plates of to-be-cooked food. Overall, it was a fantastic experience.

Ryley and I LOVE hotpot back home, but there are some distinct differences. Instead of choosing from 14 sauces, you are given a bowl of minced garlic, cilantro, and green onions. A bottle of hoisin is readily available, which I really appreciated because I love dipping my meat in it. We both preferred being given our flavouring ingredients, because it keeps things simple, delicious, and fresh. The three ingredients act as a wonderful base, and this way you have a lower probability of messing up your hotpot experience.

One warning, the spicy Szechuan broth is ridiculously spicy and quite oily. Szechuan style cooking originates from Sichuan province. Spicy numbing peppers are a staple in the cuisine, and can be an assault to the senses if you have never experienced it before. I love spicy food, but I did not enjoy the way the broth numbed my lips.

GZ Restaurant/Bathroom Fact: Most restaurants don’t have napkins, or they will charge you extra for them. As well, most public bathrooms don’t have toilet paper. So, save yourself and bring a package of napkins for wherever you go…just in case.

After supper, Ashley showed us around the rest of Wonderland and explained our bus route for our adventure the next day.

October 10, 2018

The day that everyone had been hyping up for us: The Canton Bike Tour.

We met our guide Andrew, and rounded up 10 others for the tour. I am not exaggerating when I say every moment of the tour was memorable and enjoyable. I did not know what an important role Guangzhou played in the historical development of China. The architecture told a story of 3 different eras (pre-cultural revolution, cultural revolution, post Mao) all politically influenced. I had to put my democratic biases aside, and open-mindedly dive into understanding the historical effects and functions of communism. From architecture, to censorship, to the ban of Wing Chun kung fu. The things that Canadians just don’t know, unless you visit the country or do extensive research.

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My favourite part of the entire tour was visiting Ip Mans granddaughter’s Kung Fu studio, where he taught as well at one point. I love martial arts movies, and to be in the same studio that a close descendant of The Ip Man was so powerful. Bruce Lee was one of Ip Man’s most famous students, and he also practiced in this studio. I fan-girled way to hard.

GZ Martial Arts Fact: During the Chinese cultural revolution (1969-1976), the practice of traditional martial arts was discouraged. Martial arts were to be regulated to the rules of the Maoist revolutionary doctrine. Wing Chun was banned, and instead the Wushu (a Chinese martial art, and full contact sport) Association was created to regulate the practice and teaching of martial arts. #control

Also: Wing Chun was invented by a woman.

 Different species of turtles packed tightly together, alongside bucketfuls of mini scorpions and baby sting rays.

Different species of turtles packed tightly together, alongside bucketfuls of mini scorpions and baby sting rays.

Another eye-opening highlight on the tour was the authentic wet market. Ashley and her friends had mentally prepared me for what I was going to see, which helped to take some of the edge off. It was numbing to see so many dead animals splayed on chopping boards, along with live animals waiting in unfriendly conditions to be butchered and sold. Authentic experiences aren’t always comfortable.

Halfway through our tour, our guide stopped at a few street vendors to purchase snacks. Star fruit, dragon fruit, flakey Chinese pastries filled with sweet yam and green bean paste, peanut cookies, and a banana flavoured mochi like treat (I can’t remember the name of it). We ate a big breakfast on purpose, and had a small snack before our tour started. Eating large meals helps to keep your blood sugar level, which helps to keep hanger outbreaks to a minimum. Those can be scary.

 If you’re on a budget, don’t bother going inside the Canton Tower. It is a money grab.

If you’re on a budget, don’t bother going inside the Canton Tower. It is a money grab.

The tour was supposed to end at 5:30 PM, but we ended up finishing at 7:00 PM. One of our last stops was on the Pearl River, with a great view of the Canton Tower. We were glad the tour went longer than expected, because we didn’t want it to end.

An exhausting hour long trek back to our apartment, and off to sleep we went. We would need our rest for the next day, as it was going to be a busy one.

October 11, 2018

Another adventure downtown, but this time for our meeting at Colliers International, Guangzhou. We left early, because we wanted to give ourselves enough time to get downtown and have lunch. Time flies when you’re trying to navigate a new area, and decide on a place to eat lunch that wasn’t over priced. Finally, we found a restaurant that resembled a Chinese version of Sunterra Market. Panic started to set in AFTER we ordered, because we knew we were running low on time. Silly move on our part.

 Chilled soba noodles in a sesame sauce, peaches, shrimp, and lettuce in a salted vinaigrette sauce, garnished with fresh green onions.

Chilled soba noodles in a sesame sauce, peaches, shrimp, and lettuce in a salted vinaigrette sauce, garnished with fresh green onions.

BUT. It was all worth it in the end. The food was delicious, and it came out quickly. It was too bad that we had to scarf such an enjoyable lunch, but we did it to ourselves.

Off to hunt down the Colliers office, which was right beside the mall we ate lunch at. The building was quite intimidating. Over 100 floors, and security armed every entrance and elevator. Nothing like back home.

The meeting went very well. A lack of English between the Director and us created a wall of shyness, but was broken down with words of affirmation and an explanation of how awful our Cantonese and Mandarin abilities were.

 At Colliers International, Guangzhou.

At Colliers International, Guangzhou.

Chinese Business Etiquette Fact: When exchanging business cards, present and receive with both hands. Make sure the writing is facing the participant. I noticed this almost immediately, upon my first business card exchange.

Ryley interviewed and filmed for an hour, while I assisted. During the interviews, I took notes and built a question template to use for the next Colliers office we visit.

The business-y part of the day was over, and now it was time to adventure. We spent some time walking through local neighbourhoods, and ended up in a park very close to the Canton Tower.

It was time for dinner, and we had decided to take a recommendation from one of the expat teachers we met at hotpot: 13 Factories. Creole cuisine takes China. Up until this point, we had been eating mostly authentic Chinese cuisine. Why not stray off the beaten path. Plus, this place received glowing reviews.

First of all, trying to find this restaurant was an absolute nightmare. Our Maps.Me - this is a lifesaving app that lets you pre-download any map in the world on wifi, and use it offline - could not locate it, and we felt as though we were walking around in circles. I had screen shotted vague directions off of a trip advisor forum, but they ended up not being helpful at all. After some serious frustration, and our hunger levels rising, we found it. I was in the process of trying to latch onto some free wifi, and in the list of available wifis 13 Factories appeared. We turned around and it was hidden behind the corner. Both of us were hoping this restaurant was amazing after all the bullshit we had to go through to find it.

DISSAPOINTMENT.

Man, douchey restaurant owners seem to exist everywhere you go in the world. What a shame. The owner: a Chinese-American man from Texas, bringing Creole food and hand crafted cocktails to Guangzhou. It was a unique idea, but catered to the expat crowd. The food was mediocre, and the owner’s attitude was cringe-worthy. Nose high up in the air, giving the most expensive recommendations on the menu, and then debating what “real” gumbo actually was. Just an overall entitled and slightly creepy dude. 1/10 would recommend; the 1 accounts for how tasty the cocktails were.

No thanks.

We couldn’t wait to get home, and hop into bed. It had been a long, but eventful day. We would need our energy for the morning, because we were about to jump into a room full of bite sized, busy body, humans.

October 12, 2018

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What a better way to start your day than with smiling Kindergarten children. Except these little ones were extra itty bitty at 3 years old. Ashley teaches at the Clifford International, and works specifically in the Kindergarten branch. Most of her children would be considered “Pre-K”. They start them between the ages of 3 going on 4, and freshly 4. She invited us to meet her littles, and to hang out in her classroom.

GZ Kindergarten Classroom Fact: Ashley is the teacher in the classroom, but she has a teacher aide and a life care worker as well. The teacher aide helps with activities, and explains things further in Mandarin when they are tackling a complex topic. The life care worker, is in charge of all meals, naps, and bathroom care. There are 3 adults in the classroom at all times, except during lunch and nap time (that’s when Ashley takes her lunch #3hourlunches).

It was incredible to see Ashley in action. She speaks to the kids in English, and places an emphasis on reading interactive stories and playing interactive song videos (which the kids eat right up).

After our adorable morning, we enjoyed a lunch of sushi, pork tonkatsu, and salmon fried rice. We dilly-dallied our way through our meal, and enjoyed a cup of coffee afterwards. Ashley showed us where we would catch our bus to our next adventure: Chimelong Safari Park. The park is 1,333,340 square meters, and is the largest wildlife park in China. Of course we wanted to check it out.

 1/3 of the panda triplets.

1/3 of the panda triplets.

The habitat that has been built for these animals is quite impressive. Most of the animals roam freely, and their living conditions are very well kempt. The park is famous for the Panda exhibit. There are 6 pandas that live at Chimelong, three of them being the famous panda triplets. Their sanctuary is filled with tons of bamboo, and forrest play toys. It was really cute to watch them play, and munch on their panda snacks.

If you plan on going to Chimelong Safari Park or any of the Chimelong Parks, know that it is a full day event. Put on your walking shoes, and bring snacks with you. Also be ready for the wild amount of screaming children.

Perks of the park:

 Pygmy hippos. Probably the cutest water blobs I’ve ever seen.

Pygmy hippos. Probably the cutest water blobs I’ve ever seen.

  • Animal protection and conservation is the core value of the park, which is evident.

  • It is a base for science and ecological education for youth in Guangzhou.

  • It does not have a zoo-like feel. The animals are able to roam free and enjoy their habitat.

  • There is an aerial cable car that will take you from one end of the park to where the exits are (this was a lifesaver at the end of our visit).

  • The safari on wheels option is so much fun, as you get to see the wild animals roam free up close and personal.

Our park tour came to an end, and the struggle of getting home began. We took a bus to Chimelong, but couldn’t figure out how to get to the other side of the road to take the bus in the opposite direction. There weren’t any cross walks, only underground subway transfers. We knew that a taxi from Chimelong to Wonderland should only cost 20-30 Yuan ($3.00-$5.00 CAD). After hailing a taxi, and struggling to explain where we were trying to go, our taxi driver nodded and confirmed he would take us to our destination. He started driving, but didn’t start the meter.

HOLD THE PHONE.

GZ Taxi Fact (Advice From Ashley): DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT get into a taxi with someone who refuses to run the meter whilst driving you to your destination. Also, DO NOT accept a set fare from a taxi driver. They will rip you off. Foreigners can be an easy target for an overpriced cab ride

Ryley motioned twice for our driver to start the meter, and he promptly pulled over to the side of the road and told us it would be 50 Yuan for the ride. We knew he was trying to rip us off, because we had taxi’d from the same location, and it was 27 yuan WITH the meter running. He tried to explain there was a surge charge, which was absolute bullshit. I saw the bus we took going to Chimelong (10B), and it was going the opposite direction. I realized there was a bus stop right behind where the silly taxi driver had pulled over.

We slammed our taxi doors, and hopped out with a little bit of anger pumping through our veins. Even though he was trying to charge us $9.40 CAD, it was the principle that mattered the most. We knew how much our taxi should have cost, and him not wanting to run the meter was deceitful.

Our bus came shortly after. 4 Yuan/person ($0.75 CAD), and we were taken straight to Wonderland.

Lesson learned: don’t ever be shy to speak up, especially when you’re not sure about something or you feel as though you may be put into a compromising situation. Protect yourself, your travel partner, and your money.

October 14, 2018

10:30 AM - Ashley and I went for coffee and pedicures. My toes and feet were in need of a little TLC from all of the walking we had been doing. It was so nice to hang out with Ashley, and have a girls date.

Ash went to soccer, and I went to fetch a hungry Ryley. We walked down the strip one last time, and enjoyed our accumulation of lunch items from our favourite street vendors.

A quick nap later, and the packing commenced.

We enjoyed our last supper with Ashley and Chris, picked up some bubble teas for dessert, and made our way back to the apartment.

Click, zip, crunch. The final straps and buckles were secured, and we said goodbye to our little pad. Ashley lives with Chris in his suite next door, which is how she was able to host us in her suite for our entire stay. We hobbled over to their suite, and relaxed before we had to go to the airport.

Our flight was at an ungodly hour…3:25 AM. We wanted to save money by taking the metro instead of taxiing. It would have costed us $56.00 CAD to take a taxi to the airport, and only 9 Yuan/person ($1.75 CAD) to take the metro. The downside to taking the metro on a Sunday, was that the train only ran until 10:00 PM. It was a straight shot, and it took us directly to the terminal we needed to wait at. Unfortunately, we would be at the airport for 5 hours. All in the name of the all mighty dollar.

5 hours went by very quickly, as we devoured 3 episodes of Game of Thrones (we started watching it in China, and are on Season 3 - we’re binge pigs). Everything went smoothly, until we were ready to check in our bags.

GZ Airport Sightings: Carts upon carts of brown boxes were lined up in neat rows. Off to the side were the most beautiful and unique looking people - families, couples, old and young. High cheek bones, warm brown skin, African meets Asian islander fusion. Both Ryley and I had no idea where these people may have come from, or what their ethnic background might be. What was most mysterious was that it was 1:00 AM, and there was a long chain of these unknown boxes. We were both so curious. What Ryley discovered was that these people happened to be Malagasy (natives of Madagascar), and were buying bulk goods in Guangzhou for resale back home.

The first issue arose when the lady at the Jetstar counter asked us if we had outbound flights out of Vietnam. Of course we didn’t. We knew that all we needed were Vietnamese visas to enter the country, but no proof of outbound flights were needed. On the other hand, you MUST have proof of an outbound flight out of China or else they won’t approve your visa (#communistthings). She looked at her screen a few more times, and said it was fine.

The second issue: this other woman behind the counter asked us how much money we were bringing into the country. NONE YO BUSINESS. Legally, you are not required to answer such a question. All we said was “we have sufficient funds in Vietnamese dollars, thank you”. She then tried listing off numbers of how much she thought we had in our pockets, and we respectfully told her to fly a kite.

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Vietnamese Currency Fact: The Vietnamese dong is highly inflated. The notes come in much larger denominations, so take your time and familiarize yourself with how much you’re working with.

The third and final issue: overweight checked baggage. Again, where airlines get you. JetStar only allows up to 7kg for checked bags, and ours were a solid 10 kgs over. $101 CAD later, and we FINALLY were able to check in. Always double check the airline you book with, as they may allow you to add additional weight onto your checked bags before you take your flight. You don’t want to be caught with surprise overweight baggage fees like we did.

Finally, we were able to make our way through security and find our gate.

LIV REVIEW: Guangzhou was a dream. Having a personal fixer (huge shout out to Ashley) made our experience very comfortable. Knowing the inside scoop was super helpful, and made us feel like we were a step ahead of the game. Huge acknowledgement to the food. You have constant access to fresh ingredients, and your dollar goes a lot farther at the grocery store than back home. The only thing I would do differently next time is get a SIM card. It is uncommon to use cash in Guangzhou, because everyone uses WeChat. Guangzhou is a great city to experience a taste of what China has to offer, and at a comfortable pace.

Next stop: Mai Chau, Vietnam!

*If a day is omitted from the day-to-day timeline, it’s because it was a lazy day. Nothing to report, and I don’t want to bore you with the amount of nothing we did/beer we drank.

Chapter 1: Hong Kong

October 2, 2018

One continent, sixteen hours, and 10,409 kilometres later, we arrived in Hong Kong. Everything was smooth sailing, up until our AirBnB host decided not to respond to any of my messages. I had the address to our apartment, but no other details. Sometimes when booking an international AirBnB the time difference can effect response time, but in this case our host was simply unorganized.

After a bunch of back and forth, our host finally disclosed the codes to access our apartment. He had to clean our room, which is why he was unresponsive at first. There was confusion as to our date of arrival, and he was behind schedule. In the end it all worked out. Our AirBnB was located in the heart of downtown Kowloon on Nathan Road. It is the oldest road in Hong Kong, and offers a plethora of restaurants and shopping choices. The amount of options can be overwhelming at first glance. We were extremely tired, and ended up succumbing to a tourist trap restaurant that looked authentic, but was actually over priced. Hong Kong is not cheap. It’s important to make sure you are converting your native currency to HK dollars ($1 CAD Dollar = $6 HK), before you make a purchase. You may end up paying equivalent, or more than what you would pay at home.

 Nighttime in Kowloon is lively. Shops and restaurants are packed, and everyone is out enjoying themselves.

Nighttime in Kowloon is lively. Shops and restaurants are packed, and everyone is out enjoying themselves.

We walked through the neon lit streets, and admired our surroundings in awe.

Thoughts: everyone moves quickly, and pedestrians do not have the right away. A total of 25 hours awake, and the over stimulation of the day marinated into heads flopping onto pillows.

October 3, 2018

I violently awoke at 2:30 AM, and there was no negotiating going back to sleep. At 4:30 AM, I selfishly decided that the day needed to start. We quickly realized that our South East Asian converters were not compatible with the Hong Kong outlets, as they are British sockets (Hong Kong was a British colony for over 100 years, so this makes sense). Shops in Hong Kong don’t open until 10:00 AM, so we had a solid six hours to kill. What did we do? We went to McDonalds, partially out of curiosity, but mostly because it is one of the few places open for breakfast at 6:00 AM.

 Egg & Cheese Hamburger + Chicken and Egg McMuffin

Egg & Cheese Hamburger + Chicken and Egg McMuffin

*HK McDonalds Fact: you can order a cup of corn, milk tea, and a jumbo bucket of chicken wings (whoever thought of this deserves a hug).

After our McDonalds adventure, we came across an oasis, also known as Kowloon Park. It’s located in Tsim Sha Tsui, and is one of the largest parks in Kowloon. Large trees embraced the entire park with their giant trunks, and leafy branches. There are a variety of small and large ponds, which are home to fish and turtles. There is a great feeling of peace within the park; a giant ecosystem of greenery and serenity. Locals can be found practicing Tai Chi, stretching, or reading the morning paper. We decided to participate in our own morning routine at Kowloon park, by practicing yoga, meditating and naming the birds.

All that bird naming made us hungry again. Restaurants began to wake up, and we explored up and down the streets to figure out where we would indulge in a second breakfast. The best part about Nathan Road is that you can eat at five different places if your heart desires. Food is served quickly, and efficiently. Restaurant servers do not beat around the bush with niceties, but do get your food out to you in a timely manner. We ate at two different restaurants for lunch, and English was not spoken at either of them. Pointing to pictures, and using fingers to demonstrate how much of an item you would like works just as well.

*HK Restaurant Fact: in casual restaurants, you may be directed to sit at a table that someone or a group of people are already sitting at. It is normal to sit with a stranger if all other seats are taken. We experienced this more than once. At first it might feel like you are being forced into an experience, but once you settle at your table you quickly realize that there isn’t an obligation to talk or share your experience with the strangers at your table (this can be a Canadian expectation we may subconsciously apply to a situation like this). The people sitting at your table may smile, or nod their head, but do not expect conversation.

The next stop of the day was Victoria Peak, which is the highest point on the western half of Hong Kong Island. You can bus, but we took a taxi from Kowloon, which normally costs $160 HK ($26 CAD). We hiked the nature trail, viewed the Hong Kong skyline, and Victoria Harbour (separates Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula). The Sky Terrace is a lookout option, but we opted out because it was swarming with hundreds of tourists. You can get the exact same view, maybe even better, on the trail and minus the crazy crowd. The best part about Victoria Peak is that it is free!

 Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

Instead of spending another $160 HK, we decided to bus back to Kowloon…or so we thought. We rode for over forty minutes back into Hong Kong Island, and ended up at the Central bus terminal. To get back to Kowloon we realized we would either need to take a taxi, or hop on the ferry. The Star Ferry fare is $2.70 HK ($0.45 CAD) for adults, which is much more reasonable than the set taxi fare from Central Hong Kong to Kowloon. Taking the ferry at night is a lot of fun, because you get to admire all of the high rises that have lights specially designed to dance across the windows.

*HK Transportation Fact: Upon arriving in Hong Kong, you can purchase an Octopus Pass (we purchased ours at the airport). It is a reloadable card, which allows you to pay for most public transportation (taxis being the exception, cash is the more reliable option). Some restaurants and stores will accept it as well. If you plan on riding public transportation while staying in Hong Kong, I would highly recommend buying an Octopus pass. It saves you from having to fiddle with change, and you won’t be that foreigner who is holding up bus lines or train turnstiles.

A dinner of dumplings and vegetables rounded off our night, and off to sleep we went at 8:30 PM.

October 4, 2018

Only to wake up again at 4:45 AM. An improvement from the day before. Our day started with soup noodles with pork and fried egg, and a crustless fried egg sandwich. The weather forecasted 31 degrees, and it did not lie. I almost left the apartment wearing jeans and a tank top, but was coerced to change into shorts by my wonderful partner. I would have been so sorry had I tried to be a hero in my jeans. The itinerary was comprised of HK Disney, Tian Tan Buddha, and Tai O Fishing Village, but we were only able to visit two out of the three places.

 Hong Kong Disneyland, Lantau Island, Hong Kong

Hong Kong Disneyland, Lantau Island, Hong Kong

We started at Kowloon Station, took the MTR (Mass Transit Rail, like the LRT, but consists of heavy rail, light rail and a feeder bus service - it is centred on an 11 rapid transit network) to Sunny Bay Station, and hopped on the Disney Resort Line, which took us directly to HK Disney. I had never been to a Disney park before, but knew going into it that it was not comparable to the American Disney parks. The park was absolute mayhem, full of tourists and Hong Kong residents. We had so much fun running around, and seeing all of the sites. The rides were great, but the lines were aggressively long. Mystic Manor is a must ride, that is all I will say.

 Tai O Island, Hong Kong

Tai O Island, Hong Kong

Hanger slowly crept in, and we needed to fix it… FAST. Back onto the MTR we went, all the way to Tung Chun station this time. We inhaled our lunch, and headed to Ngong Ping 360 to find out how much it would be to ride the cable cars to see the Tian Tan Buddha. $160 HK one way ($26 CAD), which is a complete tourist grab. Back to the bus we went. Originally, we wanted to see the Buddha, but did not want to wait 25 minutes for the next bus. The bus for Tai O had just arrived, and we made a split decision to go there instead. Best decision ever. $11.70 HK ($1.93 CAD). We weighed the options and decided that Tai O would be much more interesting, as it is one of the last remaining Chinese fishing villages with traditional stilt houses. We ended up spending 4 hours walking through the village. For one of those hours we rented bikes, and cruised through the village and around the island. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Small houses with no windows, made of tin. Boats scattered everywhere. Locals selling fresh catch out of plastic buckets. From busy body metropolis to quiet island living; it was a day filled with juxtaposing environments.

*HK Culture Fact: Culturally Canadians are almost too polite, and we expect EVERYONE to be polite back to us (hello ethnocentrism). In Hong Kong, people can be quite abrasive and short with you. In regards to proxemics, people walk very close to each other, and very quickly. It is common for people to step in front of you and nudge you as they are trying to get past. The phrases  “excuse me” and “sorry” are not second nature either, which can be disheartening, but don’t take it personally.

As we were leaving Tai O, we thought we might’ve been able to have caught the bus that could take us to see the Tian Tan Buddha. Unfortunately, that specific bus route had stopped running for the day. It just wasn’t meant to be. Back to Kowloon we went. Almost 9 hours in the blazing sun and aggressive humidity, and fatigue finally started to set in.

Another night ended with copious amounts of pan-fried dumplings, steamed veggies, and a new addition that has become one of our shared favorites: soy milk tea with tapioca. Yum.

Off to sleep again, with the hopes of waking up a little later than the morning before.

October 5, 2018

6:00 AM! We woke up and high fived each other for finally sleeping a full eight uninterrupted hours. Our bodies are almost fully acclimated to the 14-hour time difference. This was the day where we wanted to take a moment to decompress from the last two days. Walking an average of 12-15 km a day really takes a toll on your body, and energy levels. A morning of meditation and yoga left us revitalized, and ready to tackle the day.

 Kowloon Park, Hong Kong - A little piece of peace.

Kowloon Park, Hong Kong - A little piece of peace.

A solid morning and early afternoon was spent catching up on work, friends, family, and strategizing our upcoming journey to Guangzhou, China.

China Travel Fact: you already know from The Preamble that you need a visa in order to enter China. You also need to know a few important details: you cannot use certain apps like Whatsapp, Facebook, or Instagram, as they are blocked. In order to access these apps, you will need a VPN (Virtual Private Network). The VPN our host in China recommended was Express VPN. I would also recommend downloading WeChat as well, as it is the messenger app that everyone uses in China.

We ate way too much for lunch: beef congee, soup donuts, Chinese lettuce, pan-fried pork dumplings (again), and steamed pork dumplings. We were not sorry.

 Jade Market, Hong Kong

Jade Market, Hong Kong

After a quick food coma induced nap, we headed down to the famous Jade Market. Sweet Jesus, what an experience. Rows and rows of vendors with tables full of brilliantly coloured bracelets, necklaces, and jade bangles. Everyone wants to sell you something, and at the “best price for you”. I knew exactly what I wanted to purchase while I was there, but there were so many things to choose from. As well, you have to be careful with what you purchase. A lot of it is plastic or glass, rather than real jade. The vendors are quite bold, and will tug at your arm or get in your bubble trying to find you the “perfect” piece.

HK Jade Market Fact: You need to negotiate. I struggled with this, as I don’t have a lot of experience with price negotiating. I also didn’t know how much things were actually worth. I learned most items can be negotiated down to around 33% of the asking price. It can seem intimidating, but at the end of the day you want to get the best bang for your buck. Rather than asking “how much”, start by naming your price and work from there. Ask yourself what you would realistically pay for the item. If the vendor says no, then begin to walk away. Usually they’ll agree to your price, and you may even be able to work the price down further from there - depends how bold you are or what you are purchasing.

 The negotiation process. No smiles. Business only.

The negotiation process. No smiles. Business only.

Example: I wanted to purchase a bangle, and the vendor originally asked $500 HK ($82.50 CAD). I told him I wanted it for $100 HK ($16.50 CAD), and he said no. He then said he could sell it for $300 HK ($50 CAD). I told him I’d buy it for $150 HK, and no more. He shook his head multiple times, and I ended up putting the bangle down, and slowly started walking away. He then agreed, "$150, fine, ok”. I saved nearly $60 CAD on my purchase, and got what I wanted. It can be a super uncomfortable process, but it is totally worth it. Definitely builds character. If you are visiting Hong Kong, and staying in the Kowloon area, you should go on a day adventure to the Jade Market!

For dinner, we trundled over to Tim Ho Wan, a super affordable Michelin Star dim sum restaurant located on the western side of Kowloon. This recommendation was given to us by our friend Brandon Imada, who is probably our favourite person to receive food recommendations from (Canadian and internationally). We tried a variety of items: steamed spare rib in black bean sauce, steamed fish dumpling, beef on rice with egg, shrimp spring rolls, and barbecue pork bun. 10/10 would recommend to anyone who loves dim sum.

Our last full day in Hong Kong had officially come to an end, and it couldn’t have ended on a better note.

LIV REVIEW - Hong Kong has so much to offer: incredible cuisine, great shopping, gorgeous site seeing, and noteworthy nightlife. I think 3.5 days was just enough for us. It was too busy for our liking, and the quick-paced energy can be draining to be around for long periods of time. If your passions lie within high end shopping, and eating, you should mark Hong Kong down on your bucket list.

Next stop: Guangzhou, China!

 

 

Preamble: The Laundry List

Planning a six month trip is much more romantic when said out loud, than it looks on paper. The planning process has been a learning curve in itself. Depending on the length of the trip you are taking, there is a laundry list of “little things” that must be taken care of before you hop continents.

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The Itinerary

Insert your dreams into what you are going to make your reality. Take into consideration that your itinerary is going to evolve, not once, not twice, but possibly up to five times. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, it is all part of the process. Flexibility is key when building your itinerary. Your plans are subject to change once you get to your destination(s), so don’t be heartbroken if something changes last minute (this is all part of the adventure).

*Liv tip: personalize your itinerary on Google Maps by creating your own map. You can save your map, create a timeline, and share it with anyone.

Immunizations

Do your research! There are so many local resources, that can help guide you through the immunization process. It can seem pretty daunting, but it is 110% worth it. Vaccinations for international travel can be expensive, but some of the cost can be subsidized if you have secondary health insurance. I visited my family physician and told him about the countries I was traveling to. I had done some preliminary research of which diseases I would need to be immunized for, which helped speed up the visit. He double checked the areas I was going to be traveling in and confirmed the immunizations needed. I filled the prescription at the pharmacy and was completely covered, minus the pharmacy injection fee ($20.00 CAD - this may depend on what kind of extra coverage you have).

You also have the option to book an appointment at a travel clinic. This can be more costly, as international travel immunizations are not covered by Alberta health care.

Visas

Dear lord.

Apply in advance, but not too far in advance. I would suggest giving yourself a 2-3 month window to apply and to give yourself time for the visa to arrive. Applying too far in advance can be a potentially expensive error. Your travel plans may change, and for entry into certain countries, you may not be able to modify your visa entry or departure dates.

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Do yourself a favour, and really read the fine print.

Fun example: I thought I was being meticulous while filling out my partner and I’s Chinese visa applications. I thought wrong. We went to Calgary to have a face-to-face appointment at the Chinese visa office, and I am so glad we did. In order to enter the country, you must have proof of booked accommodation, an outbound flight, and your complete itinerary while visiting. None of those important details were to be found on the Chinese visa application website.

**Side note: if you plan on driving on your trip, you should cover your bases by getting an IDP (International Driver’s Permit). This document is proof that you possess a valid driver’s license in your country of residence. Getting pulled over by foreign police sucks, and by having the proper documentation you can save yourself an explanation.

Pre-Pack

Whether you are traveling with regular luggage or a traveler’s backpack, I would highly suggest doing a pre-pack a few weeks before your departure date. Having an idea of what you need and don’t need helps to ease the anxiety and stress attached to packing. If you haven’t traveled for a long period of time before, it can be overwhelming to have to stuff your life in a bag and leap into the abyss of uncertainty.

Budget

The word “budget” makes my toes curl just as much as yours, but let me tell you… it’s necessary. A few glasses of wine may ease the initial angst (10/10 would recommend). But really, the theme of this entire post is: “try your hardest to not screw yourself over, health-wise, and financially”. You don’t have to be a broke ass traveler. It’s all about balance.

Ask yourself a few honest questions:

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1.) How long do I want to travel for?

2.) How much can I, and am I willing to save for my trip?

3.) What kind of lifestyle do I want to live while I travel, and am I able to compromise?

4.) How much disposable cash do I really need while traveling (be realistic)?

5.) How much money will I need to save additionally for when I come home?

Put your data into a spreadsheet or download a budgeting app. Having a visual representation of what you are working with will make your trips financial details much clearer, and highlight possible limitations or possible opportunities.

Everyone’s planning process is different.

Thank you for taking the time to read about mine.

Stay tuned for Chapter 1: Hong Kong.


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