Top 5 Craziest Travel Stories

Since I’ve been back in the U.S. from backpacking around Southeast Asia and Australia for over a year, I have been asked countless times about the crazy stories I must have. Although I traveled by myself, as you can imagine, I met hundreds of incredible people along the way and I don’t want to ever forget the memories I made. This brings me to this list: *brace yourself* my top 5 craziest travel stories! Hopefully you can get an idea of the craziness that has been my life traveling these past 3.5 years, or if you were there for any of these experiences, it will bring back memories from wild times :).

 

 

  • #1- Trekking in Laos: In Laos, one of the top activities I wanted to do in SE Asia was the “Vang Vieng Challenge,” which ended up being the most physically and mentally challenging two days of my life. With my new friends, Katherine, Anna and Alex, from my hostel who I convinced to come with me, we got our food for two days at the local market with our guide before heading to the mountains. We got to try ant larvae and all kinds of Laotian food wrapped in banana leaves! Fast forward through hours of trekking through the jungle with a machete, zip lining into waterfalls, abseiling off wooden platforms hundreds of feet over the jungle floor, rock climbing up cliff faces, and crossing suspended bridges….. we had a major mishap. Alex was the first to cross the suspended bridge, which was slippery from the waterfall, and suddenly slipped on the rope (don’t worry, we were cabled in!) and dislocated his shoulder! It all happened so quickly and he was in a lot of pain, so our first reaction was to try to pop it back into place (probably not the best idea for people without any medical training) which didn’t work. Long story short, our two guides had to get him down the mountain to the hospital and left me, Katherine and Anna on the mountain to wait. As you can imagine, we had no idea how long it would be and went a little stir crazy for the afternoon. No one would ever be able to hear us, so we were yelling, singing, and going a little crazy because we couldn’t sit down due to the fire ants and spiders. We thought about trying to find our camp at the top of the mountain (we still had an hour of rock climbing and hiking left) in case the guide didn’t come back for us, but we decided to stay put. It was a good decision because he came back for us about 4 hours later! (Lots of happy tears!) We made it to our little hut we slept in, which had rat poop all over, rats on the rafters and a chewed up mosquito net, but we survived and woke up to incredible views above the clouds with butterflies everywhere. Our shower was jumping into a waterfall pool after rappelling down the 300 foot face of the falls. After we got back to the town after a crazy few days, we were bruised and bloodied from leeches, had fire ant and mosquito bites all over, and were down a person (sorry, Alex), I couldn’t walk for a few days, but it was totally worth it.

 

 

  • #2- Struck by lightning in the Philippines: Yup, you heard that right. I was on a boat in the Philippines that was struck by lightning. On an 8-hour boat journey from Coron to El Nido with my friend Lyndsay, we hit a major storm on what I would later find out is one of the most dangerous boat routes in the Philippines. We got put on a tiny boat (the kind with bamboo on the sides for balance), which was obviously not meant for an 8 hour ride, with about 25 Filipino people and one French backpacker (never got his name after going through such a crazy experience together!), and tried to ignore the pounding rain outside of the tarps that were pinned down to the sides of the otherwise open-air vessel. Out of nowhere, when I was chatting to the French guy about two feet from the mast (highest point of the boat), there was a HUGE explosion louder than anything I had ever heard before. Everything was silent and I saw nothing but white from what I thought was the engine exploding and what the French guy thought was a bomb. Who knows how long I blacked out for, but all I know is the next thing I knew I was standing up across the boat where Lyndsay was sitting with my day pack on my back (not sure why I packed it up or put it on thinking I would be going somewhere..) and trying to yell at Lyndsay but not being able to hear anything. Every single person on the boat already had a life vest on, including the crew. I immediately knew I must have ruptured both eardrums and may be deaf, but my first thought was “crap, now I won’t be able to dive anymore!” which seems kind of ridiculous looking back. Lyndsay is not a fan of the open ocean in the first place, so you can only imagine our reactions to this craziness. She was the only one who knew immediately that it was a lightning strike which struck the metal trash can that was touching the mast. Everyone on board was absolutely stunned and after trying to evaluate if there were any injuries, it looked like only one guy near us got electrocuted and couldn’t move his arm. I was most worried about the two babies on board though. The crew began lowering the life boats and everyone began grabbing their valuables, when suddenly the crew member who was in the boiler room below got the engine to work again. Thank God for that! Long story short, we ended up stopping at the next port and we made it back to El Nido safely eventually. My ears were ringing for a few days after that but my hearing eventually came back. I was paranoid about it for months though, so I actually got it checked while in Australia at a free hearing test truck. I am still within normal range- phew! What an insane story though.

 

 

  • #3- Mountain motorbike trip in the rain: I would like to say that my first time riding a motorbike was an absolute dream, but unfortunately my motorbike ride with my Dutch friend, Michelle, ended up being more of a nightmare. Bokor Mountain is a famous landmark in Kampot, Cambodia (highly recommend visiting here and staying at Arcadia Hostel, it has a waterslide and blob off the hostel bar!) which many backpackers come to enjoy. What looked like a sunny day during rainy season in Cambodia ended up being quite the opposite once Michelle and I broke the cloud base on the way up. I have never experienced pelting rain as much as I did that day, with no poncho or protection of any kind (except a helmet) and not being able to see two feet in front of me at times because of the thick rain clouds. Not only did we go up the mountain in the freezing cold wearing shorts and tank tops, but my bike actually broke down on the side of the mountain in the pissing rain. There was a moment of sheer panic when I realized I had no idea how a motorbike even works, let alone how to fix one. Luckily, a local guy drove by and obviously felt bad for a girl looking like a sad puppy on the side of a mountain, and somehow jumped it for me! The best part about our day was that we spent at least 30 minutes looking for the famous creepy casino at the top of the mountain, and when we finally asked a woman we saw walking towards us through the clouds, she laughed and said we had been circling the parking lot the entire time. Now that is the worst visibility I have ever heard of! We couldn’t even see a giant casino right in front of us! We warmed up inside and had some laughs about our ridiculous day, then rode back down without seeing the waterfall or big Buddha we tried to find. Luckily, on the way down, the clouds opened up and we stopped for some incredible views of central Cambodia. Overall, it was one wild ride that I will never forget but definitely wouldn’t do again during rainy season!

 

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  • #4- Canceled flight to Croatia: On a Europe trip two years ago with my friend Courtney, we took a seemingly simple flight from Venice to Split, Croatia. Wrong. Our flight was delayed, then canceled hours later, we were led around the airport on a wild goose chase to try to collect our luggage, were not told what was going on other than that the next flight would be the following day. This was an obvious problem considering we began our 10-day boat trip the following morning out of Split. There was a lot of confusion with the airline and airport employees, who were yelling out for passengers on the Split flight all over the airport with about 50 of us in tow. They ended up putting us on an unmarked charter bus with a driver who didn’t speak a word of English without letting us get food or go to the bathroom. *imagine absolute chaos* All we were told was that it would take us “only four hours” to get to Split. So we said okay, we will make the best of it as long as we get there at some point today. Well, fast forward to the Slovenia border, where we were quite literally dropped off on the side of the road and told there would be another bus to pick us up soon. Yup, in an industrial area at the Slovenia border with no bathroom. Almost everyone on the bus went to the bathroom on the side of the road or behind a parked car. Luckily, to our relief, another bus actually did come for us to take us the rest of the way through Slovenia and Croatia to get to Split. We made lots of new friends on the bus, people decided to turn the ride into a drinking event, and we all complained together in a close bond of camaraderie. After a crazy 10 hours on the bus, we finally made it to Split! The best part is, Courtney and I ended up getting reimbursed for our flight in full a few months later (yay for travel insurance!).

 

 

  • #5 Attempted kidnapping in Cambodia: Warning to family members- maybe don’t read this one because it’s a little scary. It’s a pretty long story, but I ended up taking a local bus to Battambang, Cambodia from Phnom Penh, the capital later in the afternoon after all the regular buses left. I had come back to PP to pick up my passport which I had left at the Myanmar embassy to get my visa processed and wanted to get out of there as soon as possible to avoid staying another night there. After taking a few random motorbike rides from locals to get to a “travel agency”, I finally ended up on a bus in the late afternoon. Thank God I brought snacks and water because after a police raid on the bus (not sure what happened because no one spoke English, but we got held up for about 45 minutes) and tons of stops to let everyone else off the bus before me, it was 11:30 p.m. before we (me, the ticket collector and the bus driver) arrived to Battambang. When he suddenly pulled over on the side of the highway, I knew I was in trouble. I immediately remembered that in the chaos of the day taking a 4 hour bus to Phnom Penh to get my passport and trying to find a bus out of there, I never told anyone where I was going. I realized I could be entering a bad situation alone at night in the middle of rural Cambodia where no one knew where I was. As soon as they threw my backpack off the bus, I knew I had no choice but to get off to the scam they set me up for. A group of local men on motorbikes, who I presume were the bus driver’s friends who wanted some extra cash for an unnecessary taxi ride, was gathered right outside where the bus left me. After a deep breath, I put my innocent tourist smile on and mentally prepared to get ripped off from this motorbike ride into the city. My lucky driver took my day pack between his legs and I hopped on the back as we took off on the highway (no helmet, no worries, right?). After a few minutes of driving with my non-English speaking friend, I decided to check how far we were from my hostel on my offline map (download Maps.Me app right now if you travel abroad at all), and to my surprise, he had just taken a wrong turn. I alerted my driver by pointing at the map and he ignored me, continuing on a different road heading away from the city center. I double checked on the map, and confirmed there was no way we could be heading toward Battambang, so I considered my options….jump off the bike (not possible because he had my day pack with valuables between his legs), whack him in the head and take over the steering (totally realistic), or try to remain calm and friendly. I chose the latter, and unfortunately was ignored for what seemed like an eternity, but after getting a bit aggressive and yelling at him while grabbing his arm, he seemed to get the idea that I knew we weren’t going to my destination. He ended up eventually taking me to my hostel, where I was pretty shaken up for the night, and I still have no idea where he was planning on taking me. And I’d rather not.

 

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Congratulations, you’ve (almost) made it through a ridiculously long blog post!

Here are a few bonus crazy stories that almost made the cut:

  • Did I ever tell you about that one time I did a homestay on the Mekong Delta of Vietnam with my new friends from my hostel, Jackie, Silke and Matthijs, when we got dropped off on the side of a river at night in the pouring rain and were directed to a random man who took us on his boat to get to his house an hour down the river. No English spoken, just a handoff of a two-person motorbike poncho Jackie and I shared to keep the rain out. Epic!

 

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  • Or the time I did a homestay with a family on a rural island in the Philippines- no running water, cell service, internet or electricity before 8pm! I went island hopping, ate unlimited fresh scallops and crab prepared by my host family, and met the whole village who acted like I was a celebrity because most had not ever met a foreigner. I will never forget Gigantes Sur!

 

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  • Or the time I went on a road trip with four random guys from the internet in Australia. While working in Melbourne, I had a week off and was determined to see the Great Ocean Road, which is a few hours southeast of Melbourne. All of my friends either had to work or had already been, so I was left with three choices: wait until friends could go at a later time, pay $100 to go on a day tour on a bus, or try to find some random people to hitch a ride with. I’m sure you can imagine which one I chose. After the five of us strangers (Patrick, Patrick, Kyle, Erik and me) met at a train station outside of the city ready for our spontaneous camping trip, we had an amazing time, minus constantly swatting those annoying Aussie cattle flies!

 

 

  • Or that one time I met Ella and Jeremiah at the airport and went on a three day trekking/homestay trip in Sapa the next morning in Vietnam. That first night in Hanoi, my phone was stolen by a guy who swiped it from me on a motorbike, and after one hour of sleep, I got on our six hour bus ride to Sapa. We had to trek four hours through the mountains just to get to the Hmong village we stayed in! We saw wild water buffalo with kids atop, hundreds of acres of hemp, tons of rice paddies, local homes and schools and even a waterfall. Our tour guide was 17 and had two kids already- she was amazing! Most girls in the Hmong village we stayed in get married between 13 and 15 and have kids soon after. The family we stayed with cooked for us, made us drink way too much homemade rice wine, and were so hospitable even with the little that they had. Even though we went three days without a shower and were absolutely exhausted, it was an experience I will never forget.

 

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Do you have any crazy travel stories?! Share them in the comments section!

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Backpacker Guide to the Perhentian Islands: Malaysia’s Hidden Paradise

Ummm…what is the Perhentian Islands?!

That’s a great question, considering most people who visit Malaysia haven’t even heard of it! The Perhentian Islands consist of two islands, Perhentian Besar (big) and Perhentian Kecil (small) and are off the east coast of mainland Malaysia. Not only do the Perhentians have the cheapest diving (seriously, cheaper than Koh Tao aka $18USD for a fun dive including all gear), but it’s also amazing! The visibility is typically excellent (I saw 20+ meters vis at some sites), and I have seen everything from sharks to turtles to octopi to Humphead Parrotfish to Trigger fish. The Perhentians are a hidden diver’s oasis, but are also great for relaxing on the beach with crystal clear water and white sand. I have a feeling this place will become a lot more popular once more people start finding out about it :).

 

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When to go:

The Perhentian Islands are open from March through mid-October and completely close from November to March during monsoon season. Peak season is June-August but you can find great weather and diving conditions throughout the season.

 

What to do:

Diving is definitely the number one thing to do on the Perhentians, but snorkeling is also popular and even cheaper. Relax in a hammock or on the beach, explore the viewpoints and different bays, go to the beach parties at night on Long Beach, or watch a movie at the multiple places who offer free movie nights. I recommend heading to Ombok Hotel/Restaurant at Coral Bay for their nightly big-screen movie 7:30, which is an awesome way to relax with some popcorn or dinner.

 

 

How to get there:

Part of what makes the Perhentians a hidden gem in Malaysia is that not everyone is willing to go through the effort to get there. However, those who do are greatly rewarded and I am one of the many people who came back for a second time.

Fly: You can fly into Kota Bharu airport and take an hour long expensive taxi ride to Kuala Besut, which must be timed right unless you want to stay overnight to catch the ferry.

Bus: The majority of budget backpackers take the night bus from various locations around Malaysia. I have gotten to the Perhentians from both Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur, which are on the opposite side of the country, but it was relatively painless. You can book a bus at easybook.com or busonlineticket.com and simply check in with your emailed boarding pass at the bus terminal of your choosing. The bus ticket cost will vary, but mine was 46 ringgit from KL, which is about $11 USD. Not bad for saving a night of accommodation as well!

After you arrive to Kuala Besut, you can catch one of the ferries to the islands which run from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The return ticket is 70 ringgit no matter where you buy it (doesn’t save you any money to buy a return since one way is 35, it’s just more convenient), and just show up to the ferry terminal 15 minutes beforehand. The boat ride is about 30-45 minutes, depending on conditions and how many stops the boat makes. To get back to Kuala Besut, you can take any of the ferries which run at 8:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., usually the first or last depending on whether you want to take the day bus or night bus back to a main city.

 

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Where to stay:

Perhentian Besar- nicer resorts, more expensive, “honeymoon” area

Perhentian Kecil- cheaper, more backpacker vibe, especially Long Beach

Note that many people are put off by the Perhentians because virtually no accommodation options are listed online, so they think they have limited/expensive options. Not true! Just show up and find somewhere that fits your needs :).

Recommended accommodation:

Matahari Divers (Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil)- 25 ringgit for a fan dorm room and the best dive packages. I highly recommend diving with them whether you stay there or not! To give you an idea of cost, I paid 400 ringgit (a little under $100USD) for 4 nights of accommodation and 4 fun dives with all gear included. How crazy is that?!

Panorama Divers (Long Beach)- Inexpensive dorm rooms are available here (Somewhere around 25-30 ringgit if I remember correctly) with dive packages, but Matahari has better package pricing. This is a much bigger dive resort and has an AMAZING buffet breakfast that you should definitely try once!

Monkey Divers (Long Beach)- 50 ringgit for an air-con dorm room (game changer!) and they also offer affordable diving packages.

Oh La La- Dorm rooms run around 30 ringgit per night and the location is great (right next to Panorama, Monkey and Matahari dive centres. I haven’t personally stayed here but I’ve heard good things!

Maya Bungalows (Coral Bay on Perhentian Kecil)- 50 ringgit for a 2-person fan bungalow on the beach with ensuite bathroom. I stayed here for a few nights last year and thought it was a great deal!

Sunrise Hostel (Long Beach)- 20 ringgit for a dorm room, but I really wouldn’t recommend staying here unless you are desperate for super cheap accommodation. There is zero security and the staff was rude last time I stayed there, even after someone got robbed in my room!

There are also plenty of random bungalows you can walk around Long Beach or Coral Bay to find, but pricing will depend on the place. Bubu Villas are on the far side of Long Beach from the pier if you’re looking for a fancier hotel and Ombak is on Coral Bay which is also on the pricier side.

 

 

Extra tips:

Bring CASH with you! There are NO ATMs on the islands- nope, not one. If you plan to do a big diving course, most places will accept credit cards for an extra fee. However, Matahari does cash advances from a card with a 5% fee for customers and 10% for non-customers (handy to know!). Also, bring your own locks because most of the budget accommodation options don’t have much security (no doors, keys or lockers), so it’s better to be safe than sorry :). Bring plenty of books for relaxing at the beach between dives, because all of the book exchanges on the island require you to trade two books to take one, aka BYO!

 

Have any more recommendations for the Perhentians that I missed?! Let me know in the comments section! If you do decide to visit, feel free to reach out to me and I am more than willing to answer any questions! Thanks for reading and happy travels :).

 

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On Happiness

Happiness- could this be any more vague?! What even is happiness? Is it posting cool Instagrams, eating and drinking at trendy places in trendy cities, getting your tan on at the beach, hustling to pursue your dream career, having the perfect relationships? I’ve been thinking about what being “happy” means a lot lately. To me, happiness isn’t black and white. There are many facets to being happy and it can look totally different depending on the person. But how do we know if we are happy and how can we improve our happiness?! Hopefully this post can shed a bit of light. So…here goes a little different type of blog post than usual. Watch out..it may get personal!

 

 

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Throughout my travels, I often ask myself: if I had a flight home/___ country tomorrow, how would I feel? If I would be sad about it, then I don’t book a flight. It may be oversimplifying things, but many decisions in life can be made this way. Forget the pros and cons lists, just ask yourself: which of these two options will give me more joy?

 

This reminds me of a concept found in a book my grandma told me about called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”, which provides a unique tactic to help declutter your life. As someone who lives out of a backpack, this concept is particularly important to me. The point being, through the simple act of deciding whether an object brings you joy or not can easily help you declutter your living space or make moving easier. This same concept applies to most decisions in life. Yes, we must weigh the possibilities and there are certain limitations such as time, money, family, health, etc. but I challenge anyone to try this simple practice out in their daily life. It can be as simple as what you are going to eat for dinner or whether you go out to meet a friend. Which option brings you the most joy?

 

When I think of the times I have been most happy, I am usually surrounded by passionate, interesting people, on a beach, in the sun, or underwater. I think about each of those memories with a critical eye- why was it that I was so happy in that moment?

 

This reminds me of an activity I did for one of my previous jobs: The Wheel of Life happiness assessment. In essence, the “Wheel of Life” is broken up into categories, which you rank from 1-10 based on how satisfied you are with that area. The activity encourages you not only to rank each category, but to reflect on why you feel the way you do and how you can change small aspects of your life to see vast improvements with your happiness. I won’t go on about it, but you can read more about it on this website if you’d like!

 

According to the “Wheel of Life”, the eight categories of happiness are: family/friends, romance, health, fun/recreation, finances, career/business, personal growth, and physical environment.

 

I absolutely love this activity because it puts a vague feeling like “happiness” into tangible, objective terms that you can set clear and realistic goals to improve particular aspects of your life. The best part is that it helps you realize that no one on earth will have a 10/10 score for every category, and that is totally okay! Identifying the areas of your life that you are highly satisfied with is actually just as helpful as knowing the ones you aren’t. The key is to focus on balance, not perfection, and to remember that your happiness is up to you and shouldn’t be compared with anyone else’s. I would love to hear what you think about the “Wheel of Life” activity or the art of decluttering your life, or even if you just want someone to talk to! Feel free to send me a private message or email :).

 

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Alright, here’s where it gets personal…

For those of you who know me (most who are reading this probably do), you may be wondering how I’m doing personally. Or not. If not, feel free to close this tab :). Most of you know I have been traveling for more than three years continuously (both for fun and for work), that I often post awesome pictures of the exciting things I have been doing and seem to be “living the dream.” I’m sure some of you know there is a certain level of facade social media plays and that day-to-day life is not always reflected. I personally choose to share positive, exciting or funny things in my life, and not always the challenging or difficult things, which is a personal choice. (What purpose does it serve anyone else to share my negativity to the world?) You don’t see me posting about going through hell with customs trying to get a package with my medication that’s being held (on two separate occasions in two countries, mind you), or when I feel exhausted and irritated after a long travel day, or when I’m frustrated at technological issues with my tablet (yes, I wrote this post from my phone). No, not everything in my life is perfect and that’s okay, but I also choose to look at most situations with a positive attitude. Sure, when my phone got stolen in Vietnam it sucked, but I am now able to look at it as a lesson and have grown from it (yay for unintentional phone detoxes!). I’m currently waiting out an annoying tropical storm in Thailand and wish I could be at the beach, but I’m writing this and watching House of Cards instead (Frank Underwood, you dog).

 

I know many bloggers, Instagrammers and travelers in general who may post picturesque views and share the excitement of their lives, all while being unhappy underneath or they may be traveling for the wrong reasons. Some may be homesick, broke, tired, or the lifestyle may not be for them. Luckily, my friends and family know I am not one of those people (phew!), but I also know my limitations and will follow what makes me happiest. Happiness cannot be forced, whether it is with a job, a new city, traveling, or relationships.

 

So, how am I feeling? I’m turning 26 in three days and I have been doing a lot of reflecting lately. To be totally honest, if I were to rank certain parts of my life on a scale of 1-10, I think all of the categories would score very close to either a 1 or a 10, which sounds a bit odd. Many of the categories that people my age are typically not satisfied with (travel, excitement, personal growth, independence/freedom, physical location, no stressors) are all 10s for me, which is awesome. However, when it comes down to it, the categories I have been neglecting are really being neglected (as in, for years). My relationships with friends and family, my dating life (#foreveralone), being intellectually challenged, pursuing my career goals, my health and my finances are all scoring pretty dang low. So, what am I gonna do about it?! Who knows… Maybe some big changes are a comin’! Stay tuned :).

 

*ominous House of Cards theme song plays…*

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking the East Coast of Australia

Welcome to the ultimate guide to backpacking the east coast of Australia! Just about everyone who visits Australia wants to travel up the east coast to see the world-famous cities, islands and beach towns. I spent an incredible 6 weeks visiting just about every spot up the coast and wanted to share tips, photos and basically everything I wish I knew beforehand :). I have included recommendations for hostels, things to do, and how to get around. Hopefully you find it helpful if you’re planning a visit or just want to see what I’ve been up to lately!

 

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Before you begin your east coast adventure, there are a few important things to consider:

How to travel: Bus vs. car/van

I’d say the majority of the people I met on the east coast booked a hop-on-hop-off bus package from Sydney to Cairns for somewhere between $400 and $600 from a travel agency. After talking to plenty of people who have done the east coast, I decided not to take the bus (which are pretty awful from what I hear) and just bum rides off people to make my way north. I chose this option because I had no time limit or plan and I was by myself, so I had ultimate flexibility. (No mom, I didn’t actually hitch hike) I would highly recommend this option no matter what season you travel in because so many people have cars or vans and want to share fuel costs. It’s also a great way to meet people along the way!

Winging it vs. booking in advance vs. travel agency package

Depends. Depending on the season you are traveling in, what you want to do and how particular you are on tours and hostels, you may want to book a package to save some money or totally wing it. To no surprise to those who know me, I decided to wing it, which was the perfect option to me. The vast majority of people I met on the east coast had tours or packages booked in advance, and people seemed to be shocked that I didn’t plan anything or buy a hop-on-hop-off bus pass. Here are some pros and cons for both:

Booking a package:

Pros- could save money by booking with an agency and getting a discount by staying at the same hostel chain, easy to book and don’t need to worry about anything along the way, some packages offer some flexibility with how long you can stay in each place

Cons- easy to get ripped off, can’t choose individual hostels or change plans, no flexibility to switch tour companies for Fraser Island or the Whitsundays, pressure to do everything at a certain pace, could waste money if you choose to opt out of some activities that are included

Winging it:

Pros- gives you ultimate freedom, can travel with other people you meet and adjust plans along the way, can stay longer or shorter in certain places, can choose which hostels you want to stay in, can book whatever tours/activities you want and not be forced into booking with certain companies

Cons- you would not be able to do wing it during peak season (December-February) because everything gets booked up so quickly, you may not get your #1 choice in hostel or tour dates if they are already booked, harder to predict your budget

 

How much time: I personally spent 6 weeks on the east coast and thought that was perfect, but just know it is very expensive. If you are limited on time or money, I would recommend a minimum of 4-5 weeks if you really want to see the east coast. People who only have two weeks often feel rushed and only get to see a few of the highlights, but the main issue is how much time you’d be spending traveling (unless you fly from place to place).

 

Now to the fun stuff… here are all of the AMAZING stops along the east coast! I traveled from Sydney to Cairns but it could easily be done in the opposite direction :).

 

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Sydney- 2-3 days

Sydney is an absolute must for Australia! Though I think there are much better places to live and visit (cough, Melbourne, cough), it is definitely worth spending at least a few days here.

Where to stay: I stayed with a friend but everyone recommends Wake Up! Hostel

What to do: See the main sites like the Opera House, Bondi Beach, etc., enjoy the nightlife, then leave! (However, I am coming from a very biased former Melbourne resident perspective…. Melbourne over Sydney forever!) There are plenty of blog posts out there about Sydney from people who spent more time there than I did (only a week and a half total), so give it a quick Google for more info!

 

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Jervis Bay- 3-4 days

Jervis Bay is a few hours south of Sydney and unfortunately, is not often visited by backpackers. Trust me when I say this place is absolute PARADISE! Hyams Beach is famous for having the whitest sand in the world and is totally gorgeous. Jervis Bay is a unique area that offers the amazing beauty of Australia without the crowds of other popular spots.

Where to stay: Accommodation in Jervis Bay can be difficult and I’m not sure if there are any hostels in the area (I could be wrong!). Luckily for me, I was visiting a friend I met in the Philippines (the infamous Australian “grandma” for anyone who I’ve told about her!) and she let me stay with her, which was perfect. I know a few other people who have stayed in an AirBnb type of place, but the best option would probably be to camp or have a campervan.

What to do: Visit the incredible national parks and forests right along the ocean, relax at the beach and enjoy the beauty of the area. There is plenty to explore if you are a beach and nature lover, but you definitely need a car!

 

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Port Macquarie- 2-3 days

Port Macquarie is often skipped by people who head straight to Byron Bay from Sydney, but I was so glad I stopped here to break up the drive!

Where to stay: Port Macquarie Backpackers! This small hostel with awesome staff is a great place to feel welcomed and meet other travelers heading up the coast.

What to do: Visit the Koala hospital, see the wild kangaroos, go on the coastal walk, relax at the beach, and get involved with some water sports!

 

 

Coffs Harbour- 2-3 days

Coffs Harbour is another spot often skipped by backpackers heading to Byron, but again, I am SO glad I stopped here!

Where to stay: Aussitel Hostel! This is one of my favorite hostels on the east coast! They have activities planned every day, an awesome atmosphere especially at night, and super helpful and social staff.

What to do: Go on the daily activities with the hostel, go kayaking/SUP on the creek, check out some local beaches, bushwalking/hiking, lookout spots in the forest, kangaroo tour, and of course, check out the famous Coffs Harbour Big Banana!

 

byroneasterlypoint

 

Byron Bay- 5-7 days

Do. Not. Miss. This. Byron is at the top of everyone’s list for favorite spots in Australia, and for good reason! It’s a cute surf town with awesome food, nightlife, and activities. Stay as long as you can here!

Where to stay: There are a ton of awesome hostels in Byron, and I ended up going with Cape Byron YHA which is AWESOME. I had the best time and met some of my favorite travel mates here! Plus, there’s no hostel bar so you can bring your own alcohol on the premises :). Other options: Aquarius (biggest party hostel next door to Cape Byron), Arts Factory (nature lovers and hippies unite!), or really any of the popular beach hostels. I haven’t heard a bad thing about any hostel in Byron!

What to do: Visit the beaches, go on the lighthouse walk and stand on the most easterly point of Australia, enjoy the nightlife (Two words: Cheeky Monkeys), great food (Chihuahua tacos are the ONLY authentic Mexican food I have found in Australia) and awesome vibes. If you want to get adventurous you can also go hang gliding or paragliding!

 

 

Surfers Paradise/Gold Coast- 5-7 days

Surfers Paradise: Vegas meets Miami meets Australia. To be honest, people typically either love or hate Surfers, depending on their interests. The area is known for being superficial and very touristy, which it is, but it’s definitely worth a visit. I highly recommend timing your visit from Thursday to Monday if you are interested in the nightlife!

Where to stay: Down Under Hostel- awesome location, helpful staff, best bar and lounge area. The most popular hostel is probably BUNK, which was booked when I was there.

What to do: The Gold Coast theme parks are super popular and a main attraction in the area. As a huge fan of waterparks and roller coasters, I couldn’t miss Wet n’ Wild and Movie World. Top tip: buy a season pass for all the parks for $90, or if you want to waste some money, spend $80 to go to one park for one day :). We even sold our passes to travelers we met later on headed south for $20- score! Other than theme parks, the Gold Coast is known for surfing, beaches, and nightlife. The clubs in Surfers Paradise can be pretty crazy and the pub crawl is definitely worth doing on a Wednesday or Saturday. Look out for deals on drinks at different venues each day of the week, especially for girls! If you want to see some amazing views, head to Skypoint, which is 77 floors high, and looks amazing at sunset. If you have time, I’ve been told Burleigh Heads is worth checking out as well!

 

 

Brisbane- 2 days

Brisbane, aka Bris-Vegas, is a city almost every backpacker visits. Coming from a biased Melbournian perspective, I didn’t really enjoy Brisbane if I’m being totally honest. It seemed like just another city, but a smaller version of Melbourne or Sydney with less culture and no beaches. Brisbane is mostly known for nightlife, but if you’re not interested in that, it may even be worth skipping if you’re pressed for time. (Brisbane lovers, please prove me wrong and comment to tell me what I missed out on!)

Where to stay: Nomads Hostel- awesome location, helpful travel desk and job desk, tons of people everywhere, right above the most popular backpacker bar (Down Under Bar, also has yummy, reasonably priced food with a 20% discount with your hostel room card). There is also a Red Cross next door and I highly recommend giving blood if you’re eligible. It’s super easy and goes a long way to help save lives :).

What to do: Walk around Southbank, see the famous Brisbane sign at night, do some shopping, visit the Mount Coot-tha viewpoint, visit Kangaroo point, relax at the manmade beach, take a ferry ride around the river, or visit the famous Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. For a fun night out, Down Under Bar is the best backpacker bar with a different theme every night- don’t miss it!

 

noosacoastalwalk

 

Noosa- 3 days

Noosa is a ritzy holiday surf town with lots of shopping and food, and absolutely worth a visit!

Where to stay: Nomads has a good location with a fun bar, but I would actually recommend Halse Lodge YHA, which is closer to the beach and has a better atmosphere (it was booked when I was there!).

What to do: Go on a few of the nature walks around the national park, check out the beach and surf if you can, and sign up for an everglades kayaking tour (I didn’t do this myself but heard good things).

 

 

Rainbow Beach/Fraser Island- 5 days

Rainbow Beach is the gateway to Fraser Island (an absolute MUST), and most stay here for one night before and after going to Fraser Island. To be honest, Rainbow Beach itself doesn’t have too much to offer, but Dingos Hostel is awesome!

Where to stay: Dingo Backpackers Resort is the best in my opinion, but basically your options are either here or Pippie’s next door.

What to do: Other than seeing Carlo Sand Blow (giant sand dune) for sunset, there really isn’t much to do in Rainbow Beach other than anxiously await your Fraser trip J. Fraser Island is absolutely incredible and I had one of the best experiences on the east coast here. This is the largest sand island in the world and is popular for backpackers, families on holiday, and locals alike. Driving a 4×4 on the sand is a unique experience that should not be missed, not to mention the amazing beaches, lakes, creeks, rainforests, lookouts, and the famous Maheno shipwreck. I have never seen as many stars in my LIFE as I did on Fraser and will never forget the bioluminescent plankton and dingoes all over the island.

 

 

I highly recommend Dropbear Adventures’ 3-day tag-along 4×4 tour, which is absolutely the best!! Dingos is the main tour and they churn out up to 100 people per day on their tours. Most people staying at Dingos hostel went with them, but I talked to someone who used to work there and she actually said she would go with Dropbear over Dingos any day! I did quite a bit of research and asking around, and Dropbear is consistently rated the top Fraser tour out of MANY!

 

elicreek

 

1770- 1-2 days

This fun town is named after the year Captain Cook discovered it, so yes, the name is actually a number! Most people stop here for the night to break up the long drive between Rainbow Beach and Airlie Beach, but I would consider staying an extra day or two if you have time!

Where to stay: Cool Bananas or Southern Cross Hostels- both are unique and I highly recommended!

What to do: See kangaroos in the wild or at the sanctuary, go on the infamous Scooteroo tour (ride a real chopper on a 3 hour tour around the area for about $85AUD), or get in some surfing.

 

nomadsairliebeach

 

Airlie Beach/Whitsundays- 5 days

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, and most backpackers stay there a night before and a night after their tour. After the devastation of Cyclone Debbie in March, Airlie Beach has surprisingly made a great comeback.

Where to stay: The main hostels people stay at in Airlie Beach are Nomads/Base, Magnums and YHA. I highly recommend Nomads/Base because Shed Bar is awesome and it’s a huge hostel with a great atmosphere :).

What to do: I was surprised that the nightlife in Airlie Beach is actually super fun and there were a couple cool restaurants on the main strip. The obvious activity in the area is go see the world famous Whitsunday Islands! There are hundreds of boat tours leaving from Airlie Beach and the sheer number of options can be overwhelming, so I’d consider visiting a travel agency to help you out with recommendations. As for what I did, I can say that the Atlantic Clipper is the biggest, craziest, and best party boat on the Whitsundays. You can book it or their partner boat, New Horizon (smaller, less of a party) through True Blue Sailing or any travel agency. There are a TON of Whitsunday party boat tours, but I’ve heard good things about Spank Me and Tongarra. I can’t really speak for the more relaxed or smaller boats, but there are plenty of travel agencies out there (Cheap Az Travel, Peterpan’s, Mad Travel, etc.) that can help you out if you aren’t looking for a party (but you should :)).

 

 

Townsville- 1-2 days

Townsville is often overlooked because it’s mainly known for being the mainland town to get you to Magnetic Island. However, if you have time, I would stay for at least a night to check it out!

Where to stay: Rambutan Hostel in Townsville is probably one of the nicest budget hostels in Australia- no joke! Most only stay a night or two in Townsville before heading to Magnetic Island, but believe me when I say this place is worth a stay. What budget hostel has a pool with cabanas?!

What to do: There are a few things to do in the surrounding areas, but you don’t necessarily need to stay in Townsville to do them. The most popular being the Billabong Sanctuary and sunset at Castle Hill. A lot of people who were on a tight schedule skipped Townsville and caught the first ferry to Magnetic Island when they arrived from Airlie.

 

magneticisland

 

Magnetic Island- 2-3 days

Magnetic Island is a unique gem in northern Queensland, and is luckily only a 25 minute ferry ride from Townsville. It’s actually named after the apparent magnetic effect the island had on Captain Cook’s compass when he was exploring in 1770. I would say two or three nights on Maggie is plenty, though many just stay for one. I loved that this island was full of pine trees and huge boulders, reminding me of Yosemite in California, but is situated in tropical northern Queensland!

Where to stay: The main two hostels on Maggie Island are Base and YHA, Base being the more popular and more social hostel. If you’re looking for a good party, this is definitely where you want to be. Not to mention the INCREDIBLE ocean view I had from my bed in my 8-bed dorm!

What to do: The Forts walk to see an old military fort at the top of the island with wild koalas, rent a topless “Barbie” car to explore the island, visit the many beaches, feeding the wild wallabies, go snorkeling/diving, and watch a beautiful sunset.

 

 

Mission Beach- 1-2 days (if skydiving)

I personally skipped Mission Beach because I was told that there isn’t much to do there except the world famous skydiving, which I wasn’t planning on doing. This is definitely the most popular spot to skydive in Australia, mostly because you get to land on the beach!

 

 

Cairns- 5-6 days

Most backpackers either start or end their east coast journey in Cairns, which is known for the many activities in the surrounding areas and oh yeah….the GREAT BARRIER REEF!

Where to stay: Gilligan’s is the best hostel and bar in Cairns and is absolutely MASSIVE! Awesome pool, perfect location, $4 dinner specials, tons of people and a great atmosphere- what else do you need?

What to do: Visit the man-made lagoon for a swim and live music, check out the Cairns night market, visit the many waterfalls around the area (either with Uncle Brian’s Tour or your own car), go diving or snorkeling at the GBR, visit the botanical gardens, and go white water rafting, sky diving or bungy jumping! Top tip: there are TONS of drink specials at Gilligan’s every day, but particularly on the weekends, so I highly recommend coming for Friday and Saturday night when girls drink for free!

 

loveaustralia

 

Extra tips:

Food: Eating out in Australia is extremely expensive, so shop at Coles or Aldi (Woolworths if you can’t find the other two) and take advantage of hostel kitchens! Food, alcohol and accommodation are easily the most expensive parts about traveling in Australia, so if you can cut down on the cost of meals, it will really help out. As far as alcohol goes, cheap wine (goon or bottles) is probably going to be your best bet. I don’t think I ever saw any backpackers drinking hard alcohol outside of a bar or club! Wine, beer or cider is definitely the way to go. Bonus tip: McDonald’s has $1 frozen Cokes and $0.60 ice cream cones!

How much to budget: You can expect $30 per night on average for a basic hostel bed during shoulder season, so I would assume these prices would go up during peak season (December-February) and during holidays/festivals. The other options besides hostels are to get a campervan, go camping or utilize Couchsurfing. Food, activities and alcohol will also greatly affect your budget as well. To give you a basic idea, I spent a little over $3,000AUD, but I know people who spent a LOT more in 6 weeks.

Bonus tip: Make sure to look out for hostels with their own bar. If this is the case, you will not be allowed to bring alcohol into the hostel due to liquor license laws, therefore you will be forced to spend your money at the bar there or risk getting caught with hefty fines if you sneak it in. If you’re looking to party for cheap, definitely stay at hostels that will allow you to BYO.

Wifi: I highly recommend getting an Australian SIM card if you weren’t planning on it already. Relying on hostel Wifi is pretty much impossible so I would make sure to get plenty of data so you don’t have to worry about it! Some hostels have free Wifi in reception during certain hours and allow you to purchase a better Wifi service if you want, while some don’t offer it at all. Most of the time, it was unreliable, so just be prepared with your own data! Or just enjoy the moment and avoid being on your phone :).

 

That’s all, folks! I hope this massive guide has been helpful for those who are planning a trip to Australia or know someone who is! Feel free to pass it along to anyone you think mind find it useful and don’t forget to leave a comment with feedback or anything I missed!

After an incredible whirlwind of 6 months in Australia, it’s back to Southeast Asia for me!

Backpacker’s Guide to Indonesia

To be completely honest, I don’t even know where to begin with this post, because there is just THAT much to say about Indonesia. Did you know that Indonesia is made up of over 18,000 volcanic islands (that’s almost triple the number of islands in the Philippines!) and is home to the largest Muslim population in the WORLD? I spent a month in this beautiful country and didn’t even scratch the surface of what Indonesia has to offer, but I wanted to share some tips for anyone planning to visit or hoping to learn more about it!

 

komodofish

 

Route:

One of my favorite parts of solo travel is the ability to be flexible with your plans, and I certainly was in Indonesia. I met some of the most incredible people in this country and switched around plans to travel with different groups, so I definitely didn’t make the most efficient use of my time, but that’s fine with me!

When most people think of Indonesia, they immediately think of Bali, which is probably the most popular island for tourists to visit. You could easily spend a month alone just on Bali, but I personally think two weeks is enough if you are limited on time or want to hit some other unique areas in Indo. In most countries I have made guides for, there is a typical route or a logical way to plan your time, but that really isn’t the case here and it totally depends on what kind of experience you are looking for. Because of that, I will touch on each place I visited and also include a few suggestions for places I haven’t gotten a chance to see yet.

Where to Visit:

Kuta:

Alright, so let’s get this one out of the way. Kuta gets an extremely bad reputation amongst the majority of travelers and almost every person who gave me advice about Bali before I arrived said “Whatever you do, get out of Kuta immediately,” so I went in with low expectations and planned on staying only one night since it is close to the airport. But guess what! I LOVED Kuta! I will shout it to the sky over and over- yup! I loved Kuta!!! Okay, now that’s out of the way.

What Kuta is good for: partying (Skygarden- don’t ask questions, just go and enjoy all you can eat and drink for $8 US), meeting people, learning to surf, variety of food options (both local and western), walkability, shopping, activities (two words: WATERBOM waterpark), accessibility to airport, sunsets on the beach

What Kuta is NOT good for: interacting with locals, authentic Indonesian culture, learning to ride a motorbike (LOL), people who think they are too good for “touristy” areas, people looking for peace and quiet, people who can’t handle people constantly trying to sell you things, peaceful/serene/beaches

There you have it. To some people, Kuta sounds like hell on earth, but I had the best time ever there and met some of my closest friends I met traveling, including my current roommate in Melbourne! With all of this information, decide for yourself if you want to visit or not. For my purposes, Kuta did its job and I actually came back to the same hostel three separate times and stayed a total of 12 nights! No *ragrets*.

Where to stay: Captain Goose Hostel. I actually counted and in my 6 months in Southeast Asia, I stayed in 57 different hostels. This hostel is in the top 3 best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, mostly because of the people, the pool, the awesome vibes, and the free pancakes all day. I can’t recommend it enough!

Other options: Coco Beach Hostel (no pool, but free breakfast and nicer rooms than Captain Goose, good to just chill out, not as social), Ayu Lili Garden Hotel (very cheap for a hotel, good location, great pool, not as social but good for a splurge night if you’re on a budget), or any of the other nice resorts/villas in the area

 

Ubud:

Ubud is becoming more and more well-known and is definitely not one to be missed. This is where you can experience more authentic Balinese culture, relax, get a massage, see the rice terraces and monkey forest, and do plenty of shopping. I will say that a lot of people come to Ubud expecting it to be more of a “village” experience than it actually is, so be warned that the main part of town is crowded and touristy, but it has a totally different vibe than everywhere else in Bali.

Where to stay: Puji Hostel or In Da Lodge Hostel. I stayed at Wanderlust (owned by same people as Puji and just down the road) for a night, and it wasn’t bad, but Puji is definitely more social and also has on-site laundry!

Don’t miss: hike up Mount Batur volcano for sunrise (though you can book this from other parts of Bali, it is closest to get to from Ubud), white water rafting, monkey forest, Umah Ubud (amazing food, best pizza for cheap)

mtbatursunrise

 

Spas: Sedona Spa was unreal and I highly recommend it. For $16 US, I got a 90 minute spa package, which included a private room overlooking rice terraces with a full body massage, green tea scrub, soak, and flower bath with tea and watermelon afterwards. It is DEFINITELY worth going to a nicer spa in Ubud rather than a cheap massage parlor off the side of the road.

Splurge meal: Chill Out Restaurant has an amazing filet mignon steak for only $7 US- highly recommend :).

 

Uluwatu:

This chill surfer town is such a unique place with AMAZING food. When I think of Bali, I think of hippie/vegan/healthy food, and this is definitely where you can get it. So much good food here and fun places to explore on a scooter. DISCLAIMER: You must be able to ride a scooter/motorbike to get around Uluwatu. Public transport is non-existant, Uber/GrabCar/Blue Bird Taxi are not allowed, and everything is too spread out to walk. It’s an amazing place to visit, but not worth it if you can’t get around on a scooter in my opinion. However, it is a very easy place to learn if you aren’t experienced! There is little to no traffic and most of the roads are easy to navigate. As always, be careful and don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with. Another note: have a plan for getting out of Ulutwatu so you don’t end up taking an expensive private driver out like I did. I even tried getting an Uber/GrabCar but there were no drivers in the area or they wouldn’t come because they are banned there. We had no other choice but to get a private driver to get us to Jimbaran, the nearest big town, then get an Uber from there. This definitely shouldn’t deter you from visiting; it’s just one thing I wish I knew beforehand :).

Where to stay: I stayed at Bingin Inn, which was super nice with a pool and reasonably priced. I hear Karma Backpackers is great as well but it was a bit out of the way so we decided not to stay there.

Don’t miss: Bukit Café is an absolute MUST, so is Cashew Tree..such amazing food here!

Things to do: Hire a scooter and check out some of the beaches like Padang Padang, Bingin, and Dreamland, and Single Fin Bar has an amazing party on Sundays if you can make it for that. It’s not to be missed! Check out the M Resort for an incredible sunset and see this super lux hotel- just walk in with confidence and no one will question you :).

canggu

 

Canggu:

Canggu (pronounced Chang-goo) is another beach town a bit farther out past Seminyak from Kuta, and I absolutely loved it! This is another place where you definitely need to be able to ride a scooter to get around (Uber/GrabCar is also banned here, but you can still be dropped off if you’re coming from somewhere else) but it is definitely more accessible to other places than Uluwatu. If I had to choose one of the two to visit, I would probably pick Canggu simply for convenience in location, but I loved both places!

Where to stay: We splurged a bit and stayed at Butterfly Beach Apartments to chill out, but LayDay Hostel was recommended to me by many people if you’re looking for a budget hostel.

Things to do: Rent a scooter and check out the beaches around the area, watch all of the surfers or surf yourself, try all the amazing food, go shopping at the cute boutiques (they are expensive), visit Tanah Lot temple

Don’t miss: Crate Café for breakfast, Betel Nut Café, Nalu Bowls, Cloud 9

 

Lombok:

I was planning on going to Lombok and never ended up making it, but wanted to share a few tips from other travelers I talked to about it. Lombok is an island near Bali (close to the Gili islands) and has a lot to offer, including beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and the famous volcano, Mount Rinjani. Mount Rinjani is quite a strenuous multi-day hike, but everyone I know who has done it said it was totally worth the effort and the cost! I personally opted for the easier and cheaper sunrise hike up Mount Batur on Bali, but I hear Rinjani is much more special. Overall, I’ve heard mixed but overall positive things about Lombok, and if you are looking to get away from crowds on Bali or Gili T and have the time, Lombok is great to visit for a few days!

Where to stay: From what I hear, Kuta (not to be confused with Kuta on Bali) is better to stay at rather than Senggigi, which is closer to the port.

gilit

 

Gili Islands: Just to clear up confusion, many people refer to “the Gilis” but most are actually just referring to Gili Trawangan, the largest of the three islands. If it wasn’t obvious, “gili” means “island” in Indonesian :). The three islands off the coast of Lombok are Gili Trawangan (aka Gili T), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Gili Meno is known for being the “honeymoon” island and is mostly comprised of expensive resorts, so I just visited the other two. One of the coolest parts about the Gilis is that there are no cars or motorbikes on the islands. The only way to get around is to walk, ride a bicycle, or be driven in a carriage pulled by a horse!

giliswing

 

Gili Air:

Gili Air is the more chilled out version of Gili T, and I like to think of it as the happy medium between Gili Meno and Gili T. There are definitely more families and couples here, but there are still plenty of backpackers to meet and places to go out. I surprisingly had amazing food on Gili Air (I wasn’t expecting much for a small island) like fresh seafood and I found the prices to be lower than Gili T.

Where to stay: Gili Air Hostel was good but does not have WiFi. The bar in the back is great for meeting people (a lot of dive instructors living on the island actually come here for cheap drinks before going out), and they offer free movies!

What to do: Diving and snorkeling are both fantastic, and it’s a great place to chill out on the beach and avoid the crowds of Gili T. If you dive, I highly recommend Manta Dive Centre (shoutout to Dani for being the best instructor ever!). Note that the dive and snorkel spots are pretty much the same as the other islands, so if you don’t visit Gili Air, don’t worry about missing out on any secret spots since boats from all three islands go to the same spots.

DCIM103GOPRO

 

Gili Trawangan:

Gili T was one of my favorite places I have visited in all my travels in SE Asia. I’ll be honest, after liking Gili Air so much, I had low expectations for Gili T because I have heard that it’s just a party island. After visiting, I found out that it is SO much more! I will definitely be back at some point. I could honestly picture myself living there!

Where to stay: Gili Mansion is cheaper than Gili Castle, which is their partner hostel, and you can still use the facilities at Gili Castle like the rock wall and the pool! When I visited, Gili Mansion was still under construction (they seem to be building an awesome pool!) and only had a small common area, but most people just hung out at Gili Castle anyways.

What to do: Play mini golf, enjoy the outdoor movie theater, check out all of the cool bars (huge party at one place every night), visit the beaches and famous swings for sunset, go on a boat trip (either snorkel or there are several party boat trips), walk or bike around the island, check out the night market

komodosunset

 

Labuan Bajo/Komodo National Park:

This place had been on my bucket list for a very long time, and I knew it would be my grand finale of diving for my trip in SE Asia. If you Scuba dive, I HIGHLY recommend going to Komodo National Park. Though it is by far the most expensive diving I have done in SE Asia, it was an experience of a lifetime and I do not regret it for a second. Komodo….as in, Komodo dragons, you ask? Yup! This is also where you can see the largest lizards in the world. Trust me, they look like a cross between a crocodile and a dinosaur and they are massive!

komododragon

 

Disclaimer: Though Komodo Island/Rinca Island are cool and Labuan Bajo has a few other things to offer besides the world famous diving, I would not make the effort to come to Komodo if you aren’t a somewhat experienced diver. To be eligible to do a live aboard trip (which is what I did), you need to have your advanced open water license and be very comfortable in the water. Komodo is known for strong currents and potentially dangerous spots, so it is not for the faint of heart. Some companies will let you go on day dives with just your open water certification, but I think it really depends on how experienced and comfortable you are in the water. Plus, I highly recommend doing a live aboard trip over day dives because there are SO many spots you can’t reach from Labuan Bajo in one day and it is an entirely different type of experience. I did mine with Blue Marlin Komodo and had one of the best experiences of my life. You can read more about my experience here if you’d like! If you are considering visiting Labuan Bajo/Komodo, feel free to reach out to me and I can give you more detailed tips! If you’re considering, DO IT. Once in a lifetime diving with mantas, sharks and turtles with ideal conditions, that is all I will say.

How to get there: Fly into Labuan Bajo (you can usually get cheap flights from Denpasar) or take a four day boat trip from Gili Islands or Lombok

 

Other places to visit in Indonesia:

Sumatra, Sulawesi, Java/Yogyakarta, Nusa Lembongan, and so many more! I know I hit only the highlights, so definitely do some additional research on other cool islands to visit :).

Visas:

Luckily, Indonesia offers an easy, free 30-day visa on arrival for most countries, so no need to arrange anything in advance. If you know you want to extend your visa for more than 30 days, you can pay $35 US on arrival for a 60-day visa, which is easier and cheaper than trying to extend at a later date through an agency (however, still possible to extend later on).

Warning: Don’t be like me! Learn to count! Clearly I was distracted and made a stupid mistake when I booked my flight out of Bali. I accidentally overstayed my visa because I somehow forgot that October had 31 days and just assumed my one month visa was good from October 17 to November 17. Lesson learned- Indonesian visas are 30 days and 30 days only, no matter how long the month is. I’m still salty about this and don’t even want to get into the story, but I ended up having to pay an extra $50 US on my way out because of my stupidity. Oh well…everyone makes mistakes while traveling and I’ve just learned to laugh at it!

 

balirafting2

 

Food:

I will be totally honest here and say that after spending 6 months backpacking in SE Asia on a tight budget, eating mostly local food, I was ready for a break in Indonesia. I did try several Indonesian dishes like Bakso soup and nasi goreng (local version of fried rice), but I ate a LOT of western food and a lot more McDonald’s than I ever thought possible. Not sorry! However, I definitely encourage you to try the local cuisine wherever you go and try as many new things as possible :).

 

gilicastle

 

Phew! That was a ton of information. I hope you found this guide to Indonesia helpful and choose to visit this beautiful country as soon as possible! As always, let me know if I missed anything in the comments or shoot me a message or email if you’d like any additional advice. I’m happy to help!

10 Reasons to Travel Solo in Southeast Asia

“I wish I could do what you’re doing. I’m living vicariously through you!”
“I could never do that with my job.”
“Aren’t you scared of traveling alone?”
“Isn’t it dangerous in those countries?”

“Have you run out of money yet?”

I have heard all of these countless times since I’ve been traveling through Southeast Asia for the past six months. For some reason, solo travel is not the norm (in the U.S. at least) and people think I am crazy for doing it!  Yes, I am adventurous (maybe a little crazy), and yes, I love what I’m doing. And you can do it too!

Traveling is not impossible. Traveling solo is not terrifying. And I’m here to tell you why you should make the leap and just do it. I introduce you 10 reasons to travel solo in Southeast Asia:

1. Once you get there, you will realize that everyone is in the same boat. All it takes is one small conversation and before you know it, you’ll make plenty of new friends.

 

DCIM101GOPRO

 

2. It’s cheap! I’ve paid only $3 USD for hostels an $1 for meals in parts of Southeast Asia. Sounds a lot cheaper than life at home to me.

 

3. So many people do it. It may not be the norm in the U.S., but a couple days in SE Asia will show you how common it is for people as young as 18 to travel alone.

 

4. You (probably) won’t get murdered or kidnapped. The media portrays many places to be much scarier than they actually are, and let’s be honest, if you’re on the main backpacker track, you will be constantly surrounded by other travelers. Just don’t be dumb (okay, you are allowed to make a few dumb decisions because everyone does, myself included) and be aware of your surroundings, and you will feel perfectly safe. In all of my travels, I have rarely felt unsafe and if you’re from the U.S., be honest with yourself and know that it’s actually more dangerous at home than in many places around the world. Don’t let fear hold you back!

 

5. Hostels make everything easier. If you stay in budget hostels, you are guaranteed to meet other solo travelers who want some company. Most hostels have shared space and even arrange activities for travelers to do together. It may sound intimidating especially for introverts out there, but imagine how easy is it to just say hello to the person in the bunk next to you in your dorm room and ask where they’re from. Done and done!

 

6. It’s easy to get around. Traveling in SE Asia is a breeze (for the most part), making it even easier to travel on the fly without a set itinerary! From night buses to slow boats to shared vans, there are plenty of ways to travel over land without booking flights. Even the flights are cheap though! You can read more about booking cheap flights in SE Asia on my blog post here.

 

7. You will meet people from all over the world and learn more about yourself and those around you than you could ever imagine. I have stayed in touch with so many people I’ve met traveling and have even met up with plenty of people later on during my travels. In fact, I’m in Indonesia as we speak with a friend I met in Thailand six months ago and I’m planning on living in Melbourne with a girl I met in Bali. I’ve met up with travelers I met on this trip months later in different places and already have plenty of friends in Australia where I’ll be settling for a while. You’ll even have plenty of friends to visit all over the world on future trips!

 

 

8. Think of all the crazy stories you’ll have. Riding motorbikes up a mountain in Cambodia in the pouring rain with no poncho and close to zero visibility was not fun at the time, but it was an adventure with another solo traveler that I’ll never forget. Or even going white water rafting in Indonesia and climbing a volcano at sunrise with people who were strangers just days before. Did I mention that my boat in the Philippines got struck by lightning? The list goes on!

 

DCIM103GOPRO

 

9. Prove to your friends/family/boyfriend/girlfriend that it can be done. Prove to them that you won’t get “murdered” or “kidnapped” and just go. I’ve heard so many people who say they have disapproving people in their lives, but ultimately, it’s your life and you have the freedom to go on an adventure of a lifetime. (Unless they are paying for it :))

 

10. If you wait around for other people to join you, you’ll never end up doing the things that make you truly happy! So now is the time. No one is stopping you except yourself, so whether it’s tomorrow, next month, or next year, find a way to make it work and book the flight!

 

DCIM103GOPRO

 

Need more inspiration for how to feel the fear and do it anyway? Check out my post on what happens when you let go of your fears here. If you do decide to make the leap and travel solo, I am happy to talk to you about it or give you tips for Southeast Asia, so feel free to send me a message or email!

 

As always, thanks for reading :).

A Backpacker’s Guide to Myanmar

Myanmar: the land of friendly locals, awe-inspiring pagodas, and untouched culture. Before I dive into what to see, where to go, and how to get there, I wanted to give a bit of a background on Myanmar to give you some important context. Although Myanmar is becoming a more and more popular place to visit since it has opened for mass tourism in 2012 after being ruled by an oppressive military socialist system until 2011, I urge you to do some research on its history to be aware of what is happening today, as it is still one of the most corrupt and censored countries in the world. Before visiting Myanmar, I highly recommend reading the book “Finding George Orwell in Burma” by Emma Larkin. I wish I could have read this informative and fascinating book before I went, but I am glad I have this additional context now and hope to pass it along to others who hope to visit!

shwedagonbuddhas

 

Historically, Myanmar has struggled politically, socially, and economically for hundreds of years and has experienced countless strikes and uprisings throughout the years. This is due to multiple changes in political power (particularly during the 20th century), corruption, and oppression, particularly of ethnic minority groups. Many authors and leaders in politics have been sentenced to prison or house arrest, interrogated, and accused of false crimes, which has led to a hush-hush atmosphere and a sense of paranoia throughout the country. In 1990, the opposition, National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the elections by a landslide, but the military ignored these results. Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the many political prisoners and a pro-democracy leader, is a significant political figure who was put under house arrest for 15 years over the course of 21 years ultimately being released in 2010, and you can even visit her house in Yangon today. Before 2011, you would never see anyone, even tour guides, openly talking or writing about politics or the government in Myanmar, but luckily, thanks to Freedom of the Press, you can read about it here and other sources online J. A gradual shift to liberalization has been underway since 2010, but significant progress is anticipated now that the government changed hands in April 2016. According to BBC, in 2012, the government lifted pre-publication censorship of the press and allowed privately-owned daily newspapers to publish. In recent years, Myanmar has also unblocked international news websites, as well as sites like YouTube.

A Few Important Facts:

  • In 1886, Britain made Burma a province of India, but ruled the country from 1885 to 1948, which is why you will see a heavy British colonial influence in many parts of Myanmar today.
  • In 1997 President Clinton issued an Executive Order for U.S. Sanctions on Burma because “the Government of Burma (then ruled by a military junta) had committed large-scale repression of the democratic opposition in Burma…” These sanctions prohibited new investment in Burma by any U.S. persons.
  • In 2005, the capital city was suddenly moved from Yangon to the central city of Naypyidaw, which I’ve heard is eerily empty even though highways were built in anticipation of more people.
  • In 2016 President Obama issued an Executive Order lifting the 1997 sanctions due to the tremendous progress towards democracy.

Myanmar vs. Burma?

The official name changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of the student-led uprisings in August of 1988. The name remains an issue in the country as some do not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling military government, nor their right to rename the country. This is also when the city of Rangoon was officially renamed Yangon. I hope that clears up any confusion :).

shwedagonpagoda

 

Myanmar has plenty more to offer besides its political issues and depressing history, so not to worry! There is a huge tea shop culture in Myanmar, which I found particularly interesting. You can find tea shops on every corner, and this is where locals often come to congregate, having conversations on topics ranging from politics to books to family life to current events. You can always find groups of men hunched around small stools in a tea shop, looking extra secretive. Myanmar is a surprisingly literate country, and you will find streets full of used book stalls in Yangon particularly. In fact, this is where I bought “Finding George Orwell in Burma”, which after reading it, holds much more significance to me.

Now, onto the fun stuff!

bagansunrise1 

Recommended route for two weeks:

Yangon -> Bagan -> Kalaw -> Inle Lake -> Mandalay (-> Yangon if necessary)

This is what I did and the timing was perfect for seeing the highlights of Myanmar. However, if you are wanting to see a bit more, I would recommend three weeks and adding on Pyin-oo-lwin, Hsipaw, and Hpa An to your itinerary. If you read the book I recommended, you will understand the historical significance of Pyin-oo-lwin (previously known as Maymyo).

How to get there:

Although you can now enter Myanmar via land from Thailand, I would recommend flying into Yangon or Mandalay and going from there. If you do want to enter over land, there are only certain places this is allowed, so make sure to do your research beforehand.

Visas:

There are two options for 28-day tourist visas for Myanmar, but know that no matter what, you MUST have a visa arranged in advance.

  • Option 1: E-Visa. Now that tourists are permitted to apply for visas online, it has become quite easy to get one in advance. However, the cost is $50 USD, so keep that in mind.
  • Option 2: Embassy. I personally chose this option because I was already near an embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the time, and it saved me $30. For $20, you can easily apply and obtain your visa within a few days. Just look online to see where your nearest Myanmar embassy is.

 

Money:

There is a lot of outdated information online about money in Myanmar, so I thought I would set the record straight. Yes, there are ATMs. Yes, you need to bring crisp U.S. dollars in large denominations if you would like to exchange money. Yes, you should check with your bank to make sure Myanmar is not a blocked country for your debit card, because some people’s cards do not work there. The exchange rate is approximately 1000 kyat to $1 USD. That’s all :).

Getting Around:

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your preference, the main way to get around Myanmar is by night bus. The pros: save on accommodation, relatively inexpensive, more time to explore and less travel time. The cons: uncomfortable, little to no sleep, lots of waiting around, arrive at odd hours in the night. Buses are very easy to book the day before you travel, which allows you to be flexible when traveling through Myanmar. If you are traveling to a place only a few hours away, there are also day buses available, but generally, journeys six hours or more are via night bus. Most hostels and hotels can book them for you, or you can visit any tourist office to book. Helpful hint: some bus stations like Yangon and Inle Lake are far outside of the city, so be prepared for an extra taxi or van ride to your final destination or to the bus station from your hostel or hotel.

 

Food:

Must try food: tea leaf salad, mohinga (fish noodle soup served at breakfast, don’t ask just try), Shan noodles, curry, samosas, and whatever other local dishes you feel inclined to try!

shwedagon1

 

Yangon:

In 10 words or less: tea leaf salad, cinemas, tea shops, Shwedagon, Chinatown, circular train

Where to stay: Backpacker Bed & Breakfast (best location) or Four Rivers, Agga Youth Hostel is also popular

Don’t miss: 999 Shan Noodle House, Rangoon Tea House (splurge meal), Independence Monument Park, Chinatown (19th St.) for Chinese BBQ street food, Shwedagon Pagoda, take the circular train all the way around (3 hours), drug eliminating museum (hilarious government propaganda)

Top tip: ask a monk at Shwedagon Pagoda to show you where the tiles are to stand on at sunrise or sunset when the light hits the diamond at the peak of the pagoda perfectly. If you time it right, you can see blue, red, green, yellow, and orange colors individually depending on which tile you stand on. It was amazing!

Side note: Thanaka, a watery, yellow paste made from tree bark, is used as both decorative makeup and sunscreen and you will see mainly women and children wearing it throughout Myanmar, typically in swirls on their cheeks. I’ve tried it and it also has a refreshing, cooling feeling on your face to help you beat the heat!

 

Bagan:

In 10 words or less: pagodas on pagodas, history, untouched, e-bikes, sunrise

Where to stay: Ostello Bello is probably the most popular hostel in Bagan, but it is also expensive (for a reason! It’s really great). Another alternative is Bagan Central Hostel ($9 USD/night), which is right around the corner and perfect for me. Besides the plumbing issues, it has a great breakfast, beautiful property, and is very conveniently located.

Don’t miss: this should be obvious, but don’t miss the sunrise in Bagan. You can explore the temples (almost 3,000 of them, some as old as 9th century) on your own, so don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path. Also, you can visit several local villages and get to know the locals, so grab a group from your hostel and go!

Top tip: when you rent an e-bike to explore the temples, shop around because you can get it down to 3000 kyat (less than $3 USD) per day. Also note that you will need to pay 25,000 kyat for entrance into Bagan. Most hostels or hotels will ask you for your ticket and some temples require you to show your ticket to enter, so this is pretty unavoidable. Your taxi from the bus station will most likely stop at the ticket area to have you pay.

 

 

Kalaw:

In 10 words or less: gateway to Inle, mountain town (Tbh, I wasn’t here long enough to tell you more about it!)

Where to stay: The Golden Kalaw Inn was a fantastic place to stay for the night before beginning the trek to Inle Lake. The owner is SO nice and helpful and I can’t say one bad thing about this place.

Don’t miss: Ever Smiles trekking company is the best! You can sign up for a two or three day trek to Inle Lake with them, and the two day trek is ~$32 USD. Highly recommend!

Top tip: make sure to wear long pants (brush and mosquitoes) and pack light for the trek. Although it is not a rigorous hike by any means, you will definitely be glad you brought only the necessities. Don’t worry, the trekking companies have a porter to bring your bags to meet you at Inle Lake.

 

inlelaketour

 

 

Inle Lake:

In 10 words or less: canoes, fishing, handicrafts, touristy, sunsets

Where to stay: I stayed at Shwe Pauk Pin, which I had no issues with, other than that there was no WiFi as advertised. Free breakfast, communal area, air con, cheap bike rentals, we didn’t need much else. A popular new hostel at Inle is called Song of Travel, so I would recommend staying there if you are looking for a more social vibe, as I have heard great things about it!

Top tip: be prepared for little to no WiFi at Inle Lake!

Don’t miss: hire a boat to take you on a tour around Inle (15,000 kyat), bike to Red Mountain Winery (great views for sunset but don’t expect much for the wine), walk around the town

 

Mandalay:

In 10 words or less: dusty, hot, markets, palace, Mandalay Hill, big city

Where to stay: I stayed at A1 hostel because it was cheap, which was fine because I was with friends, but there is no social atmosphere there whatsoever. I didn’t do much research on accommodation for Mandalay, so there may be some better hostels out there!

Don’t miss: Mandalay Hill (long hike up, but incredible views and pagoda at the top), check out all of the markets, visit the famous palace

Top tip: Although I only spent two days in Mandalay, this would’ve been the place to skip if I was more limited on time.

 

I hope this guide has been helpful, whether you are planning an upcoming trip or just want to learn more about this special country. Please let me know if I missed anything or if you have any feedback :). Thanks for reading!

Diving in Flores: Why You Should Choose Blue Marlin Komodo

If you haven’t heard, Komodo National Park in southeast Indonesia is one of the top dive spots in the WORLD. With unparalleled sea life, including white and black tip reef sharks, gray reef sharks, manta rays, plenty of sea turtles, and hundreds of unique species of fish, as well as ideal diving conditions, there are few places that beat Komodo. Thousands of people visit Labuan Bajo every year specifically for the world-class diving Komodo offers, and it is no surprise.

Planning a visit? You have a few options to go diving at Komodo, but I highly recommend going with a live-aboard trip rather than day dives. Is it expensive? Sure, but day dives also add up. Is it worth every penny? Absolutely. If you’re considering a live-aboard trip out of Labuan Bajo, do not miss Blue Marlin Komodo, a PADI 5 Star Dive Resort, which offers unbeatable, once-in-a-lifetime trips.

 

Blue Marlin offers a variety of options for live-aboards at competitive prices, but I went with the 4 day/3 night trip on the Ikan Biru, and had one of the best experiences in all of my time in Southeast Asia. Imagine spending four days doing nothing but three things: eat, sleep, and dive in paradise with a small group of awesome people!

ikanbirugroup

 

Why choose Blue Marlin Komodo?

The shop: Blue Marlin is one of the only dive shops in Labuan Bajo with an on-site restaurant, making it even more convenient to hang out when you’re not diving. They offer both local and western food, and it also happens to be a perfect spot to watch the beautiful sunset over the harbor. As I walked through the town, I saw that many dive shops were overcrowded and understaffed, so I was glad to be welcomed by the friendly staff and people hanging out at the restaurant each time I walked into Blue Marlin.

 ikanbiru

 

The instructors: The three instructors on the Ikan Biru, Sean, Cat and Fai, were all experienced, professional and extremely personable. One of the most unique parts about the live-aboard experience with Blue Marlin is the comprehensive and informative briefings before each dive. I learned more than I could’ve imagined from Sean’s briefings, and even the dive masters who were guests on the boat said they were very impressed. He gave us detailed explanations about sea mounts, currents, splits, the geography and topography of Komodo, and even drew diagrams of each dive site on a white board. I have never seen any other instructor provide that kind of education before! Something else I appreciated was how accommodating they were to all seven of us on board. The instructors catered not only toward varying skill levels, but they also made sure we saw what we wanted to see (mantas, Komodo dragons, sunsets, etc.) and gave us plenty of options for our dives.

komododragon

 

The crew: I was surprised that there were actually more instructors/crew than guests on the Ikan Biru, which was awesome. The crew provided great service, always had our gear perfectly arranged, cooked and served all of our food, did all the dishes, and even served us drinks on the deck whenever we wanted! You don’t always notice when everything runs smoothly on a boat and typically only pay attention to what goes wrong, but I definitely noticed that nothing went wrong. They all did a fantastic job and went above and beyond to make our live-aboard experience unforgettable.

komodoshark

 

The equipment: This is something that could easily be overlooked because you always assume your gear will be fine, but I just wanted to give Blue Marlin a shout out for having top notch rental equipment that no one ever complained about. If you’re diving four times a day, you are bound to have some type of issue with your wetsuit, booties, fins, etc. but none of us did. The staff at the shop fits you with all your gear beforehand, so I was glad to leave with not even a single blister!

The food: I couldn’t possibly leave out one of the best parts of the Ikan Biru live-aboard- the food! Our chef made us huge meals with both local and western options: pasta with meat sauce, beef curry, bruschetta, spring rolls, fish curry, coconut soup, chicken with peanut sauce, fresh fruit, fruit juice, tofu, tempeh, huge breakfast with eggs, French toast, pancakes, oatmeal with fruit, just to name a few. We also had unlimited sodas, water, and the infamous Pocari Sweat while on the boat. Even in between dives, our chef served us snacks like fried bananas with Nutella. Yum!

ikanbirufood

 

What I like to call the “ninja” approach: The staff, instructors, and boat crew took care of all the behind-the-scenes stuff without a hitch to make sure we could focus on what we were there to do, which was dive and relax. I can only imagine how much effort and logistical planning must go into preparing for live-aboard trips, and I appreciate how smoothly everything ran from the time we left the dive shop to when we arrived at varying times back at the harbor (some people stayed a few extra nights). On the Ikan Biru, I swear there were ninjas somewhere on board who cleaned and restocked everything, made up our beds, arranged our gear, and cleared away all of the trash when we weren’t looking. But I know it was just the amazing crew!

ikanbirubeds

 

Overall, Blue Marlin Komodo is not to be missed, and I couldn’t imagine a single person regretting doing a live-aboard. Even if you choose to do day dives through Blue Marlin, they have an awesome speed boat, Toby, which allows you to do three dives in one day to be back at the shop by 4:00 p.m.

 

Pricing:

Before you go into cardiac arrest, keep in mind that you definitely get what you pay for with the price of a live-aboard, and there is a LOT included. The price of 3,450,000 rupiah per night ($265 USD) includes four days of non-stop diving (I was able to do 12 dives!), incredible food and drinks all day long, a full professional crew, multiple instructors, hotel standard accommodation under the stars, top notch equipment and gear, trekking on Komodo island to see the Komodo dragons, and a truly unforgettable experience.

 

Accommodation in Labuan Bajo:

If you have a few extra nights before or after your live-aboard, Blue Marlin Komodo also offers affordable accommodation right downstairs from their shop and restaurant. Dorm rooms run at 150K rupiah per night, but private rooms are also available.

 

If you have any questions about Labuan Bajo, how to get there, Blue Marlin Komodo, or Komodo in general, I would be happy to help. Or feel free to contact Blue Marlin Komodo directly:

 

Email: info@bluemarlinkomodo.com

Website: http://www.bluemarlinkomodo.com

Facebook and Pinterest: Blue Marlin Komodo

Instagram and Twitter: @bmkomodo

 

As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Backpacker Guide to 2 Weeks in Malaysia

Somehow, Malaysia was not originally on my list to visit on my trip in Southeast Asia, but after hearing so many positive things about it, I decided to see for myself. I am SO glad I did! You can check out my GoPro video of my adventure in Malaysia here :).

For some background, Malaysia is known for its agriculture, beaches, nature, snorkeling/diving spots, and mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese, and Sumatran cultures. I had some of the best food in Southeast Asia here and had a fantastic time. This guide is based on my experience with two and a half weeks and I hope you find it informative and learn a bit more about this incredible country!

 

Recommended Itineraries:

Two weeks: Georgetown (3 nights) –> Langkawi (2-3 nights) –> Cameron Highlands (2-3 nights) –> Perhentian Islands (4 nights, depending on whether you dive) –> Kuala Lumpur (2-3 nights)

If you have more time, you could add a visit to Taman Negara National Park and Melaka, which I have heard good things about.

Keep in mind that the Perhentian Islands are closed from November to March because of monsoon season, so plan accordingly if you’d like to visit. If you don’t go to the Perhentians, I would spend any extra time you have in Georgetown!

 

Penang/Georgetown

Georgetown is one of my favorite cities I have visited in Southeast Asia and it has a unique blend of Malay, Indian, and Chinese cultures with a major British influence. I will clear up any confusion now and say that Georgetown is a city on the island of Penang, which is off the west coast of mainland Malaysia. Many people say they are visiting Penang, but will spend the majority or all of their time in Georgetown. There are other places to visit on Penang, but Georgetown is the most popular for tourists and I would recommend staying there!

Things to do:

  • Peranakan Museum and Blue Mansion tours (I enjoyed both of them, but they are both similar, so if you are tight on time, I would go to the Peranakan Museum because there are more exhibits in the other buildings on the property)
bluemansiongeorgetown
  • Check out all of the street art! Many are even listed on maps.me and Google Maps, but it is very easy to stumble upon the famous paintings, sculptures, and metalwork of Georgetown while walking around.
  • Walk around and get lost in the little streets. I took this photo when I was just wandering around:
oldtowngeorgetown

 

  • Armenian Street at night for unique desserts, cute shops, and temples lit up at night
  • Go to at least one of the 3D museums. I went to the 3D Time Tunnel museum, which was informative and also had some hilarious photo ops:

 

  • Visit the Kek Lok Si temple, cable car for views of Penang, and botanical gardens, which can all be done within a couple of hours
penanghillview

 

  • Try all of the incredible food! Recommended restaurants: Mugshot Café, Sushi Kitchen (vegan sushi), The Black Kettle (splurge meal), The Saferoom (liquid nitrogen desserts and Dragon’s Breath kettle corn!), street food in Little India, or just head to one of the many trendy bistros/cafes in Georgetown that you are bound to stumble upon.

 

  • United Buddy Bears at the Esplanade was one of my favorite places in the city, with 143 bears representing most countries in the UN, each uniquely decorated to represent their country.

 

  • Batu Ferringhi Beach is good to visit but nothing too special. There are lots of resorts and it’s a bit out of the way, but if the weather is good and you have time, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. Tip: take an Uber there for only a few dollars!

 

Where to stay:

I stayed with a Couchsurfing host in Georgetown, but I was able to check out a few of the popular hostels while I was there. The Frame, 80s Guesthouse, and Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel are all good options for budget travelers, but there are plenty of others in the main hostel area, so you shouldn’t have to worry much about location.

Pro tip: Make sure to get a cheap SIM card so you can use Uber. It is way cheaper than using taxis if you need to go somewhere and it’s super convenient! Most places you can walk or take the bus, but I saved tons of money using Uber instead of the double decker tour bus or taxis for activities that weren’t within walking distance.

Best parts: Walkable, lots to do, amazing food, unique blend of cultures, architecture

 

 

Langkawi

Langkawi, which means brown eagle in Malay, is home to the steepest cable car in the world, beautiful waterfalls and beaches, and is a popular vacation spot for both Malay and foreign tourists. Langkawi is known for being a duty-free island, so alcohol and cigarettes in particular are cheaper than the rest of Malaysia. I don’t smoke, but I was shocked to see that cigarettes were only 2rm ($0.50 US)!

langkawiboattour

 

How to get there: The two hour ferry ride from Penang (~$18 USD) is very easy to book. If you are coming from the mainland, you can also take a ferry from Kuala Perlis.

Things to do:

  • Cable Car: I actually would not recommend going here because it is expensive (45rm or $11 USD) and the views are frequently covered by the clouds at the top. It seemed like a touristy thing to do to check off your list, and I wouldn’t do it again. The Seven Wells waterfall nearby, however, was amazing, and I would definitely check it out if you’re in the area. Plus, it’s free! Cable car “views”:
langkawicablecar
  • There is an awesome night market on Thursday nights in Pantai Cenang, which had incredible food!
rolledicecream

 

  • Enjoy the beautiful beaches with plenty of restaurants/bars, watersports, and places to chill out, either near where you stay or on one of the popular island hopping trips. I went island hopping, which was fun and very cheap (only 30rm or $7 USD), but I’ve heard the Mangrove tour is supposed to be even better!

 

Where to stay:

I stayed at Gecko Guesthouse, which I would highly recommend. It is inexpensive, has a fun and social vibe, and the perfect location right next to the strip of restaurants, shops and bars. Zackry Guest House is another popular hostel, but the location is not as good.

Best parts: Beaches, resort/beach town feel, great place to relax, easy to access via Penang

 

 

Cameron Highlands

The Cameron Highlands, located in the center of the mainland of Malaysia, is known best for its trekking/nature walks and for being the home to the biggest flower in the world. The cooler climate and lush soil makes for an excellent place to grow strawberries, tea, and many other crops. The highest point in the Cameron Highlands is Gunung Brinchang at 6,666 feet, and if you go to the top, you can see breathtaking views of the area while standing in two states at once!

butterflymalaysia

Tours:

Pretty much everyone does at least one tour in the Cameron Highlands, which range from a couple hours to all day, depending on what you want to see. If you don’t rent a car or motorbike, this is the best way to see a lot in one day and meet other visitors. With that being said, they are the definition of a tourist trap (gift shops, short stops with lots of driving, etc.), so just be warned in advance. I did the half day tour to Gunung Brinchang, mossy forest, a butterfly garden, BOH tea plantation, and a strawberry farm, which was plenty for me and was a fair price of 50rm or $12 USD. There are tons of walks/treks you can do on your own, so don’t be afraid to venture from a tour.

 

Where to stay:

I stayed at TJ Lodge for 16rm ($4 USD), and it was fantastic! The owner, Won, is extremely friendly and helpful, and the hostel is clean with good WiFi and a perfect location. I would highly recommend it for budget travelers, but there are tons of great hotels and hostels in the area, and even some luxury hotels.

Best parts: Nature, cooler climate, easy to book tours or explore on your own

 

 

Perhentian Islands

Perhentian Kecil (small) and Perhentian Besar (big) are the two islands off the east coast of mainland Malaysia known best for snorkeling/diving, incredible beaches, and being a (somewhat) untouched paradise. I would absolutely go on my honeymoon here! But until I find a husband, I’m fine with going solo to dive with sharks :).

The marine life is unreal at the Perhentians. I swam with turtles, reef sharks, blue-spotted rays, a humphead parrot fish (HUGE!), and even an octopus, on top of millions of other fish. Check out some of the photos:

snorkelwithturtle.PNG

 

How to get there:

Depending on where you are coming from, it can be a bit of a pain to get to the Perhentians, but once you arrive, you will be SO glad you did it! The night bus from Penang to Kuala Besut (closest port to Perhentians) is about 11 hours, and you will need to take another hour boat ride from there. Luckily, you can arrange a package with all transportation included from pretty much anywhere in Malaysia, so though it can be time-consuming, it is not difficult to figure out. I booked my transportation directly from my hostel in Langkawi for 170rm ($40 USD), which included a van from the hostel to the port, the ferry to Kuala Perlis (on mainland), the night bus from Kuala Perlis to Kuala Besut, the boat ride to Perhentian Kecil, and a return open boat ticket back to Kuala Besut. It was a bit pricey, but again, SO worth it.

The nearest airport is Kota Bharu, which is about an hour away from Kuala Besut, so if you have the chance to take a bus to either place, definitely go directly to Kuala Besut.

Recommended dive shops:

Matahari Divers was absolutely amazing (staff, price, location, boats, gear, etc.), so I would definitely recommend them. There are plenty of dive shops on Long Beach, which is the best access point for diving and snorkeling, so I would check out the different shops to see who you like the best and what prices they offer (all similar). But you should just go to Matahari to make it easy :).

Things to do:

  • This should be self-explanatory, but enjoy being in absolute paradise! Chill out on a hammock with a book, relax on the beach, go swimming, and enjoy the restaurants on the sand.
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  • Go on at least one snorkeling or diving trip. I have NEVER seen Scuba diving this cheap. $20 USD seemed too good to be true! This would also be an excellent place to get your Open Water Certification (PADI), because it was only 990rm (~$230 USD), which is the cheapest I have ever seen it.
  • Ombok Hotel/Restaurant at Coral Bay has a movie night every night at 7:30 on their outdoor projector, which is an awesome way to relax with some popcorn or dinner.
  • Watch the sunset at Coral Bay. Exhibit A:
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  • Walk around the island! There are several beaches and viewpoints you can walk to, so if you want to take a break from snorkeling or diving, spend a morning doing some exploring before the heat gets to you.

Where to stay:

  • Perhentian Kecil is the smaller island, which is recommended for budget travelers, whereas the big island is mostly high-end resorts and not as suited for backpackers.
  • I would recommend staying on Long Beach, which is where most of the action is. Coral Bay is a nice, quieter alternative on other side of the island (10 minute walk), but there are plenty of places to explore and you can walk to other beaches as well, so you aren’t limited to where you sleep.
  • Maya Bungalows at Coral Bay: 50rm ($12 USD) for a bungalow with a queen bed and private bathroom right on the beach! There are hammocks, a common area, and lots of palm trees if you want some shade. I wouldn’t stay here the entire time you are in the Perhentians (smaller and less action than Long Beach), but I loved it for two nights!
  • Sunrise Hostel on Long Beach: Do not recommend. This was the worst hostel I have ever stayed in, and that’s saying a LOT. I won’t go into detail, but it is not worth saving the couple dollars to stay here. All I will say is that the staff is useless and don’t care if people steal from other guests, there is no security whatsoever (no lockers, one key left at reception for dorm room with 10 people), it’s dirty, there is no WiFi, and there is only power at night (though this is common on the island), and there is no warm water, etc. Point blank: sleep on the beach before you stay here. J
  • Oh La La is 30rm ($7 USD) for a dorm room, and I have heard good things about it. It’s right next to Sunrise and I wish I stayed here instead!
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Safety:

One thing I did not know about the Perhentians before visiting is that robberies are extremely common, especially toward the end of the season. I know from first-hand experience (I’m fine, just lost quite a bit of money) how easy it is to be robbed on the island and even in hostels/hotels, so be very careful with your belongings and make sure to keep your valuables locked up or with you at all times. Generally, I felt safe on the island, but my hostel was not secure and I should’ve been more careful. This should not deter you from visiting the Perhentians whatsoever, but just a heads up!

Best parts: diving/snorkeling, island lifestyle, place to relax

 

 

Kuala Lumpur

KL is what Bangkok should be, in me and my friend Sessalli’s opinion. It’s a bustling city, but less intimidating and cleaner than Bangkok. One interesting thing to note about KL is that there is a heavy Muslim influence, and I actually felt like a minority here because I wasn’t wearing a headscarf or burka. It was so refreshing to see a place where Muslim people are accepted and would never be judged for their religion or culture, unlike many parts of the world. I thought it was really cool! Overall, Malaysia is very tolerant of different religions because of the cultural diversity, so you will often see mosques, temples, and churches all close to each other.

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Where to stay:

I highly recommend Sunshine Bedz. It has everything you could want in a hostel: helpful and friendly staff, perfect location, air con, strong WiFi, free breakfast, and easy to meet people. It’s a little pricy for my standards at $8 USD/night for a dorm, but I have no regrets whatsoever about staying here. Patrick, the owner, is an absolute LEGEND. This guy literally saved my life in an almost crisis by driving me an hour to pick up an important package that was held up at customs. He is a super fun and genuine, and I’d stay there just on that premise alone!

 Things to do:

  • Don’t miss visiting the Petronas Towers/KLCC fountain show at night, Chinatown, Central Market, and at least one rooftop bar.
  • Helibar, a converted helicopter pad turned into a rooftop bar, which happened to be walking distance from my hostel, was a great place to watch the sunset and see the KL skyline from above. Entrance is free, but you do need to purchase a very pricy (30-40rm or $8-10 USD) drink to get to the roof. This is a nice alternative to Skybar, but both have a great view of the KL skyline.
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  • Batu Caves: I didn’t have time to go here, but I’ve heard good things and you can get there by public transit. I’d look online or ask your hostel/hotel for more information.
  • Malls on malls on malls. Everywhere. I am from one of the shopping capitals of the world and I have never seen anything like it! Singapore is the only place I’ve seen that compares to the level of shopping there is in KL. If I wasn’t a poor backpacker, I would definitely buy all kinds of stuff in KL because designer items are much less in Malaysia than in the U.S. and many other places in the world. Is it necessary to have three H&Ms within a few blocks of each other? No, but it’s pretty dang cool.

Best parts: Easy to navigate public transport, shopping, food, nightlife

 

Helpful hints:

  • One U.S. dollar is worth approximately 4 Malaysian ringgit
  • Kuala Lumpur airport is a huge hub for several major airlines, including Air Asia, so flights will most likely be cheapest in and out of here. Many people choose to do a loop in Malaysia, starting and ending in KL.
  • Singapore is only a four hour bus ride from KL and is very cheap and easy to take, so I highly recommend taking a trip there if you have time! I chose to book my flight out of Singapore to make a short 24 hour visit and I am so glad I did :).
  • Indian food is extremely popular throughout Malaysia, so make sure to try all of the traditional dishes!

 

I hope you found this guide helpful and that you choose to visit Malaysia in the future! Though it may not be on everyone’s bucket list for Southeast Asia, it definitely should be. Did I miss something? Have any questions or feedback? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section!

As always, thanks for reading :).

 

4 Things That Happen When You Let Go of Your Fears

Fear can be crippling, makes you feel helpless, and seems to encompass your world at the most inconvenient of times. To put it simply, life is just a series of decisions. Ones that you make. So ultimately, you can become your biggest advocate or you can be your biggest inhibitor. The feeling of fear is a huge part of that. I cannot even begin to put into words how much I’ve learned backpacking by myself for the past 6 months in Southeast Asia. Traveling alone can be the most liberating and exciting experience, when you learn to entertain yourself, are forced to stick to your decisions, and hopefully gain a newfound sense of confidence. It can be difficult for some people to accept that things will go wrong and you will make mistakes while traveling, or just in life in general. My mom always says “You can’t control what happens to you, only your reactions to them“. So I have taken on the attitude that every experience is either a cherished memory or a really great story. This doesn’t just apply to traveling, and it can change the way we live our lives.
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Writing this post was inspired by a conversation I had with a fellow traveler, Anna, who I never would’ve met if I didn’t come to Myanmar, a country I wasn’t planning on visiting and knew close to nothing about. Anna moved to Vietnam to teach English for a year after graduating from college, and she is a total badass. I have loved traveling with her and her friend Cynthia and I know I will stay in touch with both of them in the future.
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When you let go of your fears, you can almost feel the internal shift in your mindset. When you do, some peculiar things happen:
  • Life becomes a lot easier. Suddenly, you stop worrying and begin to enjoy each moment for what it is, whether you are on an around-the-world trip, or just planning a fun weekend getaway. Having faith that everything will work out can truly shift the way you approach any situation in life. You don’t feel the need to stress out about things that will turn out just fine in the end. How many times have you felt extreme stress about something and realized afterwards that you never needed to worry about it in the first place? Think about how much easier your life would become if you just didn’t.
  • You open your world to opportunities, people, and experiences that you couldn’t have ever imagined. I truly believe that the best experiences come from the things you say yes to even when your immediate reaction is to say no. Take a boxing class in Yangon with someone you just met from a Facebook group? Sure. Do a homestay on a remote island in the Philippines with a family you’ve never met? Why not. Don’t think of what could possibly go wrong and things will (usually) go right. And even if they don’t, you’re going to have a really entertaining story.

 

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  • You feel centered, confident, and capable of so much more than you believed. I have never felt more at peace than I do right now, traveling in Southeast Asia completely on my own. I’ve felt these changes within myself because of the experiences I’ve had only because I made the leap and booked a one-way flight. Did I have that glimmer of doubt when I was planning this crazy trip? Absolutely. But I didn’t worry about it and guess what, it all worked out just fine :).

 

  • You become a “do-er”. You no longer sit wishing you were somewhere else or waiting for the next exciting thing to happen. You make it happen. I recently realized that the people I admire most are all “do-ers”. Like my friend Jackie, who moved to Taiwan when a job opportunity fell through, knowing it would work out regardless. She found the perfect teaching job and a place to live in a matter of days.  My new Australian grandma I met on a dive boat, Sylvia, who backpacks around the world staying in hostels at the ripe age of *somewhere in her 70s*, doesn’t let fear get in her way. Like my friend Lizzie, who had a few weeks between jobs and didn’t have anyone to travel with to Cambodia. She went alone and had a fantastic time. Or my friend, Greg, who sold his house in London and booked a flight to Thailand to start a new life, knowing he’d figure it out. All of these people don’t wish or talk about doing something, they just let go of their fears and do it.

 

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So say yes. When your heart flutters with nerves or you feel yourself overthinking something, just do it. When you think to yourself “I wish I could do that” or “what if ___ happens”, stop making excuses and make it happen. Book the one-way flight. Apply for the job. Move across the world. Write the book. Go back to school. People say that good things happen to those who wait, but I say good things happen to those who make them happen. Follow your dreams because you are truly the only one who has the power to make them a reality. Fear will always exist: it’s human nature. So as my favorite trash can quote says, feel the fear and do it anyway.
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Do you have any stories of when you let go of your fears and something incredible happened? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section! As always, thanks for reading :).