Month: November 2016

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 :).

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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! 🙂