Ultimate Guide to 1 Month in the Philippines

 They say Thailand is the land of smiles, but the Philippines is home to the happiest and friendliest people EVER. I say that as a fact, because it surely is. I mean, their famous fast food chain is called Jollibee…and let me tell you, they are more than jolly! But seriously, I have never experienced a place with more trustworthy, helpful, friendly, and welcoming people. Spending the past month in the Philippines has been absolutely incredible, and I’ve met more local people than I could’ve ever dreamed of. From the beautiful beaches to unbelievable waterfalls and marine life, the Philippines has so much to offer, and I am so excited to share more about it with you!

 

Before I dive in, I will just say that no matter how long your visit to the Philippines is, I would HIGHLY recommend starting in Cebu. There is a ton to see in a relative close proximity and the area is very accessible to other places in the Philippines. I was planning on staying in Cebu City for a night, but I got there and realized it was a busy city with not many tourist attractions, so I ended up taking a 3 hour bus to Moalboal for my first destination (SO lucky because this worked out perfectly).

 

My itinerary:

Manila (redeye flight) -> Cebu City -> Moalboal (4 nights) -> Oslob (1 night) -> Dumaguete (3 nights) -> Siquijor (3 nights) -> Bohol (4 nights) -> Puerto Princesa (1 night) -> El Nido (3 nights) -> Coron (3 nights) -> Puerto Princesa (1 night) -> Guimaras (2 nights) -> Gigantes Islands (2 nights) -> Iloilo City (1 night) -> Manila (redeye flight)

*** Disclaimer: This is not necessarily the perfect itinerary, and I definitely could’ve been more efficient if I had planned in advance, but I had the BEST time ever! I would make variations to this itinerary based on what your interests are, especially if you plan to go Scuba diving. Though I am no expert on the Philippines (yet!), I would be happy to talk to you about planning out a potential itinerary if you plan to visit. I also have a friend, Andrew, from the Philippines who has traveled a ton (has been to all 81 provinces!) who you can talk to as well :).

 

Moalboal– a diver’s paradise

  • Accommodation: Moalboal Backpackers or Marina Lodge (next to each other)
  • Dive at Cebu Dive Center on the north side of Panagsama
  • Dive or snorkel to see the famous sardine run! Literally, millions of sardines swimming around you- absolutely incredible.
  • Go to White Beach
  • Eat the BBQ in the small plaza of Panagsama- the pork belly is to die for!
  • Kawasan Waterfalls are ~20 minutes away (see my post about Kawasan Falls here!)

 

 

Oslob– swimming with whale sharks

You can swim with giant whale sharks for ~$20 USD any morning from 6-11 a.m., when they are fed by locals. Whale sharks are truly incredible creatures and are the gentle giants of the sea, so no need to worry about being in close proximity to them :). I will warn you that swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob is pretty controversial because feeding them every day interrupts their migration and breeding patterns. I would highly recommend going to Donsol to swim with them in the wild if you are there during whale shark season (December-May) instead of Oslob, but if you do choose to go in Oslob, prepare for lots of people but a truly incredible experience. I was very torn about going and wasn’t initially planning on doing it, but I decided to just say “screw it” and go because I was already there and probably wouldn’t get another opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and had an unforgettable experience, but I didn’t leave feeling great about the impact this business is making on the whale sharks. If you have any questions about the whale sharks, you can do more research online, or I’d be happy to talk to you more about it!

 

 

  • Accommodation: Sharky’s is a basic hostel right next to the whale shark beach entrance and the owners are SO nice!
  • Tumalog Waterfalls are nearby, so I’d check it out if you have time!

Don’t miss Sumilon Island, which is only a 30 minute boat ride from Oslob and home to the most pristine sand bar I have ever seen! You can hire a boat to split with a group for 1500 pesos (~$32 USD) and head there right after you swim with the whale sharks. Check out these amazing photos!

 

 

Dumaguete– bigger city for a more local experience, one hour boat ride from Oslob (Liloan port)

  • Accommodation: Harold’s Mansion is an awesome hostel with an even better rooftop and attached dive shop, walking distance from Dumaguete port
  • Apo Island: great for snorkeling or diving with sea turtles!
  • Casaroro Falls and Forest Camp: take a motorbike to visit this 100 foot waterfall and hidden oasis in the hills!
  • Check out Rizal Boulevard and eat at Jo’s Chicken

 

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Siquijor– MUST visit! One of my favorite places 🙂

Siquijor is locally known for witchcraft and lots of superstition, but it is also a hidden gem off the coast of Negros Oriental. It is not quite popular yet, but more and more people are finding out about it, so I think it will blow up with backpackers in the next few years! You can easily take a ferry from Dumaguete to get there, which makes it even better. It is definitely necessary to rent a motorbike on Siquijor to get around, but don’t worry, it’s cheap and the island is actually a great place to learn how to ride one (you still need to be VERY careful). If you don’t rent one, be prepared to pay a pretty penny for tricycles everywhere!

  • Accommodation: Tori’s Paradise (two locations, I stayed at the one with the sandy beach closer to the port); other budget hostel options: JJ’s, Kiwi Dive Resort, Tori’s Backpacker Paradise (better location, but beach isn’t as nice)
  • Highlights: Cambugahay Waterfall, Salagdoong Beach for cliff jumping, Balete tree with fish spa, riding a motorbike around the entire island (my favorite Barangays were Lazi and San Juan!), Friday night parties at Czar’s Place
  • Another highlight for me was San Juan’s fiesta party, a once a year celebration which included tons of food (the locals I met had two full pigs on the table that we feasted on!) and a giant paint party/rave. I happened to be there the same weekend as fiesta and happened to meet amazing local people, but it was more of a lucky coincidence than something to plan a trip around. See photos below!
  • Eat at Joel’s Chicken in Siquijor town- they will serve you a whole or half chicken on a plate and it is SO good!

 

 

Bohol– a WHOLE lot to do!

Bohol is most famous for the Chocolate Hills, Tarsiers (smallest primates in the world), and beautiful beaches. The main island of Bohol is quite large, but most visitors stay in Panglao, a small island connected to Bohol by two bridges. Alona Beach is the most famous spot and has lots of beach resorts, but I actually found it to be quite charming!

  • Accommodation: Nuts Huts (I didn’t stay here but everyone says it’s awesome) is in Loboc on the main island of Bohol. It is pretty difficult to get there (motorbike is recommended, or an expensive tricycle ride) but I’ve heard it’s definitely worth it, even though there’s no Wi-Fi up there! I stayed at Coco Farm for one night, which is an awesome bungalow style hostel in Panglao, but it’s quite far from the beach, which I didn’t like as much. They offer a lot of tours and the hostel has a social atmosphere, but I was on a mission to stay as close to the beach as possible. I ended up staying at Dormitel.ph (private room for 400 pesos a.k.a. $8.50) for 3 nights, which was nothing special but it was only a 5 minute walk to Alona Beach and had a perfect location. Other travelers I met stayed at Moon Fools nearby (580 pesos for a dorm room), which has more of a backpackers vibe, and loved it as well!
  • Highlights: Riding a motorbike all around Panglao and Bohol to visit the Chocolate Hills, Tarsier Sanctuary, Bee Farm, waterfalls, and smaller towns scattered throughout the island was awesome. I didn’t do it, but you can also go zip lining over the river in Bohol!
  • Balicasag Island: Attention all Scuba divers! Do NOT miss this island! There are plenty of dive shops on Alona Beach that will take you to Balicasag and they all have the same prices (1500/dive). I went with Alona Piratas because I liked the dive master and they provided free lunch, but there are lots of other shops to choose from.

 

 

Puerto Princesa- a quick stopover

When flying to Palawan, most travelers stop through Puerto Princesa on their way to El Nido, which is on the north tip of the island. I stayed for one night at the beginning of my time in Palawan, then another night again before flying out. It really just depends on what time your flights are!

  • Accommodation: I stayed at Sheebang Hostel for a night, which was cheap, close to the airport, and had a great backpacker vibe. It’s a little out of the way if you actually want to explore the city, so I’d stay somewhere else if you want to check out PP before heading north.
  • Underground River: I decided to skip out on this because I’ve heard it’s expensive for what it is (1000 pesos/~$22 USD) and is quite touristy. I’ve also seen incredible caves similar to this in Vietnam, so I opted out, but it’s definitely the top thing to do in PP!
  • If you do stay in Puerto Princesa and feel like Vietnamese food, don’t miss Bona’s Chao Long House!

 

El Nido– famous island hopping

Tour A or Tour C- enough said! I won’t spoil it for you, but you can check out a few photos below. El Nido is a must-see in the Philippines!

  • Accommodation: Our Melting Pot (OMP) Hostel has a great location and social atmosphere, but it’s a little pricey for what it was (600 pesos/~$12.50 USD). After staying for one night, we found another hostel called Pawikan down the road for cheaper and it was so much better! They welcomed us like family and it felt more like a homestay than a hostel. Highly recommend!
  • Food: Art Café is AMAZING and you should definitely splurge to eat there at least once (highly recommend the pizza, tuna melt, and pasta). There are plenty of restaurants on the beach with fresh seafood to try, and if you’re brave enough… you can try the Filipino delicacy, balut. You can look up more details about it, but I did in fact eat a fertilized/half-developed baby duck egg, wings, bones, beak and all. I gagged the whole time, but got it down and felt like I was on Fear Factor! The photo below is not for queasy stomachs…
  • The Reggae Bar on the beach is definitely the place to go at night- also has great live music!

 

 

Coron– shipwreck diving, island hopping and sunsets!

Coron is a 7-8 hour boat ride north of El Nido, and to be honest, a bit out of the way, but it’s totally worth it, especially for divers. The wreck diving there is SO cool and the snorkeling is some of the best in the Philippines. The island hopping tour (Tour A) is just as good as El Nido, if not better. Don’t miss Kayangan Lake either!

  • Accommodation: Coron Backpackers was recommended to me, but it was pretty far out of the way and we saw a mouse run across the counter as soon as we walked in, so I was almost relieved to find out they were fully booked. We stayed at Seahorse Guest House (a bit of a splurge for 600 pesos/$12.50 USD per night), which had a perfect location, HOT SHOWERS (so rare), and an amazing rooftop breakfast included in the price. The sunset on the rooftop is unbelievable- see photo below.
  • Other things to do: Rent a motorbike or take a tricycle to the natural hot springs, hike up to the Coron sign/viewpoint for sunrise or sunset, and don’t forget about diving!

 

 

Iloilo– gateway to Guimaras

I spontaneously booked a flight to Iloilo about halfway through my time in the Philippines, and I’m so glad I did! When I did some more research and talked to a few locals, I found out about Guimaras, the island next to Iloilo City (15 minutes by boat) known for having the sweetest mangoes in the world! Yes, I tried mango pizza and an amazing mango shake :).

  • Accommodation: If you stay a night in Iloilo City and are looking for a cheap place to stay, I highly recommend Ong Bun Pension House. It’s right near the mall, about half the price of all the other hotels in the city (350 pesos for a small fan room with shared bathroom), and I felt plenty safe there. In Guimaras, I stayed in my very own bungalow on the beach in Nueva Valencia for 700 pesos at Raymen Beach Resort, which I highly recommend. You can also stay in Jordan at JM Backpackers, but it’s not near the beach.
  • Don’t miss: The Pitstop restaurant in Jordan, Guimaras for their famous mango pizza!

 

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Gigantes Islands– untouched paradise!

I found out about the Gigantes Islands on a random blog post, which inspired me to book a flight to Iloilo. The Gigantes Islands are a remote set of islands to the northeast of Iloilo, and I’ll be honest, it’s a pain to get to, but totally worth it! To get there, you can fly into Iloilo or Roxas City, take a bus (4.5 hours from Iloilo) or van (3 hours from Iloilo) to Carles or Estancia ports, and take a boat to Gigantes Norte or Gigantes Sur. Make sure to check boat times before going, because they don’t run often!

  • Highlights: UNLIMITED fresh scallops, island hopping, super friendly locals and Filipino tourists! I was the only foreigner there and was treated like an actual celebrity :).
  • Island Hopping: I highly recommend booking an island hopping tour with Gigantes Island Tours (Facebook page is here!). Paul and his huge family will take care of you and make sure you have the best time EVER! I got to stay with their family and it was one of the best things I did in the Philippines. No Wi-Fi/cell service, no running water, electricity for a few hours each night (brownouts are common though), but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. They live off of fresh scallops, crab, squid, and different kinds of fish, but mostly scallops. My favorite were the fried scallops, which I like to call scallop “nuggets”! Feel free to ask me if you want more info about the Gigantes Islands!

 

 

Book in advance or plan as you go?

You have two options when traveling in the Philippines, and both have pros and cons. You can either do lots of research to plan your flights/transportation in advance, or you can plan as you go to give yourself more flexibility. Though I chose the latter option, which worked great for me, it definitely had its drawbacks. Because I essentially came to the Philippines without a plan (had a general idea of where I wanted to go, but I heavily depended on word of mouth when I got there to plan my time), I ended up paying more for internal flights than I needed to. I paid $40-$50 USD per flight because I waited until the last minute to book, and if I had planned in advance, I could’ve paid about half, or even less! However, it was well worth it to me to have flexibility and be able to go to places like the Gigantes Islands, which I never would’ve known about if I had planned in advance. Your ability to plan as you go is also specific to season- I visited during low season (June-September), so I didn’t need to book in advance if I didn’t want to. If you go during high season (November-April, summer being March and April), I would highly recommend booking flights and accommodation in advance, because tourist destinations will get very crowded. I hope that helps!

 

Helpful tips for the Philippines:

  • ~45 Philippines pesos to $1 USD
  • There are 7,107 islands in the Philippines!
  • Each region in the Philippines has their own unique dialect, though Tagalog and English are the country’s official languages. You could have a group of 20 Filipinos together and they wouldn’t be able to understand each other if they were from different places, which I think makes the Philippines even more unique!
  • Islands are divided into provinces, then municipalities, then barangays (community/village)
  • Each barangay has a basketball court/community center, which is where most events are held. Basketball is HUGE here!
  • Stay at LEAST a month if you can! Traveling between islands can be time-consuming and you will wish you stayed longer if you only have a week or two. If you are limited on time, I would recommend picking one area to explore, rather than trying to fly and island hop all over the place. If you have a month, I’d pick three areas, otherwise you will be flying around too much.
  • Transportation: buses, tricycles (tuk-tuks in other Southeast Asian countries), ferries/boats, jeepneys (you ride in a covered truck bed with about 15-20 of your closest Filipino friends squished next to you, but worth it for only 7 pesos), planes, but most commonly, motorbike!
  • Visas: You can get a free VOA (Visa on Arrival) for 30 days, but be prepared to pay a terminal fee of 700 pesos ($15 USD) at the airport when leaving the country and 200 pesos ($4.50 USD) when flying domestically.

 

Food:

Filipino people eat a LOT of bread, meat, and rice. It would be very difficult to be a vegetarian here (but not impossible). There are bakeries on every corner and BBQ is pretty much an everyday thing.

  • Pork/chicken/squid adobo- a classic Filipino dish: delicious marinade of vinegar, salt, garlic, pepper, soy sauce, and other spices that originated as a practical way to preserve meat without refrigeration
  • Pancit- popular noodle dish
  • Lechon- spit-roasted pig served with liver sauce
  • Bulalo- beef soup rich with flavor
  • Pork barbeque- my favorite, cheap meal!
  • Milkfish/bangus- a classic Filipino fish that you must try!
  • Rice, rice, rice- did I mention, rice?
  • Bread- bakeries on every corner, cheap and looks like there is a great selection, but it is quite misleading because every product they sell is essentially the same thing- sweet bread in all sorts of shapes and even colors, but tastes basically the same! If you go to the Philippines, you WILL eat pan de sal, small, sweet buns, for breakfast (yum, carbs!).
  • Halo-Halo- shaved ice with ice cream and all kinds of fruit toppings!
  • Ube ice cream- this purple yam flavored ice cream is hugely popular!
  • Balut- a trip to the Philippines would not be complete without trying balut, which is a 17-day old duck embryo, served with vinegar. Did I try it? Yes. Did I like it? Absolutely not. But some Filipinos swear by it!
  • There are tons of other Filipino dishes to try- these are just a few!

 

Other places to visit:

  • Banaue rice terraces
  • Mayon Volcano in Luzon- the world’s most perfect volcano with a symmetrical cone shape
  • Malapascua- a small island to the north of Cebu, perfect for diving and known for Thresher sharks sightings!
  • Boracay- I chose to skip it because it has gotten overrun with tons of people, it’s quite expensive, and there are places just as beautiful that aren’t as much in the party scene as Boracay. Most backpackers I’ve talked to said they loved Boracay, but every local person I’ve met says there are better places to visit elsewhere. Up to you!
  • La Union- recommended by lots of locals and several travelers I met, but I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about it (yet!).
  • Siargao- surfing capital of the Philippines
  • Camiguin- another untouched island in the Bohol Sea, the second smallest island in the Philippines!
  • Tinuy-An Falls- the Niagara Falls of the Philippines
  • I haven’t heard many positive things about Manila from travelers and it can be dangerous at night so I chose not to go this trip (solo female traveler problems). Now that I have lots of friends from Manila, I will definitely come back to the Philippines and visit!

Where else have you been or would you go? I’d love to hear about your favorite places in the Philippines in the comments!

 

Again, I’d love to help if you are planning a trip to the Philippines! It has become my favorite country I’ve visited and I will DEFINITELY be back. Salamat (thank you in Tagalog) for reading and happy travels!

How I Visited Kawasan Waterfalls for $1

What is Kawasan Falls?

Kawasan consists of 3 tiers of incredible waterfalls with pristine, turquoise water in the heart of the Philippines. I found out about it because of a video I saw online one time, so I made sure to go while I was in the Philippines!

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Where is it?

On the island of Cebu, about a 20-30 minute bus ride south from Moalboal or a 3 hour bus ride from Cebu City, toward the center of the island. If you visit the Philippines, I highly recommend flying into Cebu City airport and exploring the surrounding areas. Don’t worry, I’ll be posting my itinerary and recommendations for the Philippines soon!

Why visit?

I’ll just leave this here…

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How to get there:

  • Take the Ceres line bus from Moalboal for 19 pesos (~$0.40 USD)
  • Pay 40 pesos entry to the waterfalls (~$0.75) and enjoy!

When to go:

I highly recommend going to Kawasan Falls in the morning to avoid the crowds. I went around 10:00 a.m. and was pleasantly surprised with how few people were there. I’ve seen pictures and it seemed like it was quite crowded, which may have to do with the season (this is low season) and time of day. Extra tip: if it’s crowded at the first set of falls, head straight up to the second or third level, where there will definitely be less people :).

Things I did not pay for:

  • Organized canyoneering tour (my friend did one for ~$50 USD)
  • Tricycle/tuk-tuk ride from Moalboal (300-400 pesos)
  • Life jacket rental (50 pesos) *** Must be a strong swimmer to swim under the falls without one…I struggled a bit 🙂
  • Bamboo raft ride (300 pesos)
  • Table to sit at/store belongings (300 pesos)
  • Fees to use the rock waterslide and rope swing (10 pesos each)
  • Food (200-300 pesos)

If I paid for all of these things, I would’ve spent almost $30 USD! Kawasan is quite touristy (obviously people don’t want to miss out on this beautiful site), but if you do it right, it can be very cheap and you can avoid the crowds.

What did I do?

Well…. I swam under a few waterfalls…

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Went cliff jumping with the canyoneering groups….

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Hiked through the jungle….

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Slid down a rock waterslide….

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Swung on a rope swing….

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Spent a few hours floating in water that could not be any more pristine….

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Overall, I had an amazing day and met awesome people! I loved going by myself because I could go wherever I wanted and stay as long as I liked, which is the best part of solo travel, in my opinion :). If you ever get a chance to go to Kawasan Falls or the Philippines, DO IT! I am happy to answer any questions if you do!

 

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Did I miss anything? Do you know of any more waterfalls in the Philippines that I can’t miss? I’ve made it my goal to see how many waterfalls I can visit in my month here. Tough life, right? Thanks for reading!

 

Lessons Learned From Travel Nightmares

Traveling full time for the past two years has given me a ridiculous number of crazy travel stories, but I’ll start this post off with a little tale from my recent flight to the Philippines from Cambodia….

What I thought would be a semi-sleepless night, but not the worst travel day, became quite a nightmare. But to be expected in Southeast Asia, right?

The saga begins… I had a flight from Siem Reap at 10:50 p.m. to arrive in Manila at 2:45 a.m., then another flight to Cebu at 6:00 a.m. What could go wrong? Well, my flight was delayed for two hours out of Siem Reap, and I ended up landing in Manila just after 4:30. That meant I had 45 minutes to deplane, get through customs, get my bag from baggage claim, find out which terminal my next flight is at, get there, and check my bag before the cut-off time.

As soon as we landed, I rushed through the airport as quickly as I could, cut a few lines, and made it out of baggage claim by 5:00, where I was greeted by a seemingly nice “airport official” **scam alert**, who helped me figure out that my flight was actually in Terminal 4. Manila happens to have quite a massive airport with four terminals very spread out from each other, and where I needed to go required a taxi to get me 4 km there. Apparently, airport shuttles don’t run before 7:00 a.m., so I was forced to follow this man to a sketchy looking taxi. At that point, I didn’t care what it cost, I just needed to get to that terminal in the next 15 minutes (traffic is also crazy there). The driver showed me a sign that said I needed to pay 1700 pesos, which is equivalent to $40 U.S.!!! I was in absolute shock and the two men acted like I was the crazy one and said that is the normal price. To give you some perspective, that’s more than I paid for my flight to Cebu! Panic started to set in because I was running out of time, but I haggled them down to paying $10 U.S., since I didn’t even have any pesos yet. It was unfortunate, but could’ve been worse.

After practically jumping in the backseat the whole ride, I arrived at the terminal and cut in line to get through the initial security checkpoint, putting me at the check-in desk at 5:17 a.m., two minutes after the cut-off. I looked up to read “CHECK-IN CLOSED” in big, red letters on the board, and my heart sank. After begging a few employees to let me check my bag, I got through security just as they were calling for the last passengers on the Cebu flight. Miracles do happen!

After an easy hour flight, I excitedly took a taxi to the hostel I was going to stay at for a night in Cebu City, only to realize there is quite literally nothing to do there (it’s mostly just a stopover point to get to the cool places) and my hostel was empty. As I was checking in at 9:00 a.m., all I wanted to do was sleep, but I knew I would be sitting around by myself all day and wasting a day I could be at the beach. Here’s how I know traveling these past two years has changed me: I was spontaneous and decisive right at that moment. I decided not to stay there and took a taxi to the bus station to find my way to Moalboal, a random location I picked on the map (but knew I wanted to go to at some point), which was three hours south.

 

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Although the bus ride was lacking air conditioning and I was the only westerner on board, the wind was plentiful from the open windows and I enjoyed incredible views the entire ride (See photo above). I picked a great hostel when I got there and ended up spending the afternoon at the famous “White Beach” after signing up for my open water Scuba course for the following three days. Finally, I was doing exactly what I came to the Philippines for! I was rewarded with this incredible sunset for my first night:

 

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After experiencing a whirlwind of 18 hours on a nightmare travel day/night (surprisingly not the worst I’ve had though…), I have gotten a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned from travel experiences like this one:

  • Stay calm and use humor to get you through it: This always helps me. I’m usually cracking sarcastic jokes to people around me whenever we encounter a delay or when something ridiculous happens. It puts me at ease and seems to help others as well. Staying calm and keeping your mind at ease is so important in any difficult situation, however you choose to do it.

 

  • Don’t stress about things you can’t change: At the airport, I was sitting next to a British couple who had a flight to catch from Manila as well, and they were getting into panic mode as soon as the flight got delayed. They were both frantically researching how much it would cost to change their next flight if they missed it, what the status of the incoming plane was, and discussing all of the scenarios the delayed flight could lead to. They even talked to the airport employees to tell them how important it is that they get to Manila as soon as possible. Even though my flight was 30 minutes before theirs and their conversations could’ve gotten me more stressed out, I kept reminding myself that I shouldn’t stress about something I cannot change. Could I make the plane get there faster? No. Could I complain enough to get them to realize how important my flight was? No. So I sat and read my book in peace :).

 

  • Feel the fear and do it anyway: I read this quote in Cambodia on a decorated sign above a trash can, and it really stuck with me. This is a mantra that I realized I try to live by- do things that challenge and push you, even when it scares the hell out of you. Book a one way flight to Thailand with no plans? Sure. Show up to a new city with no accommodation? Why not. Go cliff jumping? Duh. I think back to the moments in my life that I’ve grown the most, and they usually are situations that were difficult, scary, or uncomfortable at the time. Travel is the same way. We wouldn’t have crazy stories or develop a sense of confidence and problem solving skills without these tribulations that come with the territory. Travel is not always easy- EMBRACE IT!

 

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  • Be willing to stand up for yourself: In the story above, I mentioned that I ran through security and customs, cut a few lines, and talked to several employees, all who helped me just a little bit along the way. Before asking for help or special treatment, it is important to think through what you’d like the outcome to be. When talking to the security guard at customs in Manila, I made sure that I was clear about my ideal outcome (that I got to cut the line), not just to tell someone how stressed out I was or that I was going to miss my flight. In situations like that one, every minute counts, so it is up to you to speak up when you need help, especially as a solo traveler. If I made one decision differently that day, I would’ve most likely missed my flight. It’s okay to speak up when you need it, just be sure to give those people running through the airport cutting lines grace when it happens to someone else :).

 

  • Have faith that things will always work out: Have you ever gone through a difficult situation and not gotten through it? Since you are here reading this, the answer is no. If you keep that in mind, no matter what the situation is, life becomes SO much easier. Even when it seems like there is no way out of it, I always remind myself that it WILL be okay and I will look back with a funny story to tell. (E.g. When my motorbike broke down on the side of the mountain in the rain, I remember thinking “Hmm, I wonder how this will all work out” instead of “I’m totally screwed right now!”) It’s difficult to change your mindset with this, but when you do, you virtually eliminate the majority of unnecessary stress in your life. Try it!

 

Whether it’s a terrible travel day or just a plain old awful experience, sometimes it takes a difficult situation or what seems like the worst scenario possible to realize how lucky you really are when it works out in the end. It puts things into perspective and also better prepares you to handle anything that comes your way in the future. Instead of looking at a challenge as a negative thing, I have been consciously trying to look at is as a way to build character, as well as my confidence for future experiences. If you didn’t know this already, traveling is not always easy! Life is not always easy. But it can always be fun and a constant learning experience.

Thanks for reading :). I’d love to hear your feedback or any crazy travel stories you have too!

And to the couple running from baggage claim who I yelled “Youuuuu can do ittttt” at: I hope you made your flight to England!

Adventure Adam: Koh Rong’s Best Boat Tour

Koh Rong, a backpacker’s island paradise off the coast of southern Cambodia, is known for its beaches, nightlife, and basic bungalow accommodation. It’s only a short ferry ride from Sihanoukville and even closer to the neighboring and less populated island of Koh Rong Samloem, which is also worth a visit if you’re looking to relax with close to no people around. I loved my three day visit on Koh Rong and I hope to go back one day! The highlight of my stay was without a doubt, the boat trip I went on with Adventure Adam, so I wanted to write about it for anyone who plans to visit so they make sure not to miss it :).

Adventure Adam began just as a nickname, which he then turned into a reputable tour company on the island. Adam is infamous on Koh Rong and has built relationships with expats, travelers, and locals alike. I happened to find out about the tour through the tour guide, Ben, who I met the night before, but you can also stop by Rising Sun restaurant/bar to learn more about it. There are several other boat tours from Koh Rong, but none are as long as Adventure Adam’s, and don’t include nearly as much. This all-day boat tour is $25 with a shirt or $20 without a shirt and leaves from Rising Sun at 9:00 a.m., returning around 8:00 p.m.

 

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What’s Included:

  • Snorkeling with gear
  • Fishing pole and bait
  • Fruit and cookies to snack on in the morning
  • BBQ lunch
  • Free water on the boat
  • Two free beers and whisky with mixers to share (most people BYOB as well)
  • T-shirt or singlet/tank top
  • Several swim stops and information about each place
  • Knowledgeable and friendly tour guide

 

The Tour:

After departing from Rising Sun, you’ll head to a modest boat, which can fit up to about 20 people. It’s actually better that way because you really get to know the group on the tour and can get around quickly on a smaller boat.

Ben, our awesome Australian tour guide, was well-versed on the island and went above and beyond to tell us all about Koh Rong’s history and future (lots of development is to come), as well as information about famous resorts and local villages.

 

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The first big stop is the Preksway village, which means Mango River in Khmer, and was one of the highlights of the day. Not knowing much about the tour beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised with our visit here. Adventure Adam is the only tour group permitted to visit this village because of the relationships Adam has built and maintained with the local people. In the village, we played with friendliest kids ever, and purchased snacks, drinks, and coconut oil from the locals. The village is home to about 800 Cambodian people, and there is a temple in the midst of being built, which should be completed in about three years.

In addition to seeing the homes of the local people and walking around the village, we also learned about the conservation efforts, education, and support being provided to Preksway village. Adventure Adam, along with other donors, are raising money to hire/train a midwife, build a library and school, and support the village in a sustainable way. Adventure Adam also plans to train local teenagers to become tour guides and eventually run their own tours out of the village, which I think is an excellent way to provide opportunities for their future. I also liked knowing that they will only agree to support the Preksway village if they agree to educate the residents on the dangers of littering and keep the trash under control.

 

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The rest of the day consists of plenty of swimming, snorkeling, fishing, lots of flips and even a few bellyflops off the boat. Drinking a beer while playing Frisbee in the shallow water with new friends at sunset can hardly be beat. The Khmer boys, who help run the tour, are amazing fishermen and caught more fish than the rest of us combined. They even cooked up the few fish we caught for us to try with some local snacks from the village.

After watching the incredible sunset from the water, we stopped the boat in complete darkness to swim with bioluminescent plankton, a once in a lifetime experience. We got extremely lucky with the weather- sunny during the day, but the clouds rolled in after sunset, which blocked the moonlight, giving us perfect conditions to see the plankton light up fluorescent green. I couldn’t believe how bright the plankton were, with and without a snorkel mask. It felt like time had stopped and we were all just truly enjoying the moment. After swimming with the plankton, it’s back to the shore to end the unforgettable day.

 

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I can’t thank Adventure Adam and Ben enough for making my trip on Koh Rong! If you’d like to get in touch or check out their Facebook page, here is their contact information:

 

Adventure Adam Activities & Tours

adventureadamtours@gmail.com

Adventure Adam Tours on Facebook

www.adventureadam.org

 

Thanks for reading and safe travels!

Vietnam in 30 Days

31 days. 12 cities. Hundreds of new friends. Thousands of memories. No regrets.

After a month that came and went way too quickly, I have officially fallen in love with Vietnam. There are no words to explain how much I learned traveling through this incredible country, so I wanted to share a bit of insight, lots of tips, and an ideal itinerary for a month-long trip. Feel free to share this post with anyone you think might find it useful for a future trip! I also made a GoPro video of my Vietnam trip if you want to check it out here  :).

 

Traveling in Vietnam: Because Vietnam is such a long, narrow country, almost everyone travels from north to south or south to north, starting in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. I personally did north to south, so that is what this itinerary follows, but it can very easily be done the other way around. One of the best parts about this is constantly seeing other travelers you know! I loved knowing I would always know people at every hostel I stayed at, and I ran into familiar people in the randomest places. You will notice that it is a VERY small world in Vietnam.

The easiest two ways to get around are by motorbike and by bus. Those who are confident enough to ride over 2,000 km via motorbike will buy one in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and sell it at the end of their trip, but many choose to rent in certain cities (particularly the famous Hai Van pass from Hue to Hoi An) or just take buses. I rode on the back of many motorbikes, but never actually rented one myself in Vietnam (probably will in Cambodia) and opted for buses instead. Buses are very easy and cheap to book, and night buses save you money on accommodation as well :).

 

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Cost: The U.S. dollar is strong and worth approximately 22,000 Vietnamese Dong, so it is ideal for foreign travelers who are on a budget. Everyone has a different style of traveling and often prefer to spend their money in different ways, so it can be difficult to say how much to expect to spend for a month in Vietnam. I chose to save money on food and accommodation (~$5 US/night for hostels) so I could splurge more on activities and can’t-miss experiences, meaning I spent a bit more than someone who prefers to just chill out or not spend money on doing crazy stuff like rappelling down waterfalls. Note that alcohol can play a big factor in your daily budget, depending on how much you drink, but many hostels in Vietnam give out free beer and cheap drinks ($.50 to $1 is common for a beer and ~$2 for a cocktail, but pub crawls are the best way to get your money’s worth). In my month in Vietnam, I spent an average of $35/day, which includes everything from buses, food, snorkeling, canyoning, custom clothing, etc. I didn’t find it too bad for going all out :).

 

Itinerary:

Hanoi– 3 or 4 nights

This big, bustling city is a great starting point for Vietnam. Soak up the culture and get excited for awesome food and more motorbikes than people!

Where to stay:

  • Vietnam Backpackers Hostel- Original or Downtown (both are great, downtown location is more of a party hostel)
  • Hanoi Rocks Hostel (very much a party hostel, I stayed here one night and that was plenty 🙂 but tons of fun!)
  • Central Backpackers (I didn’t stay here but I’ve heard great things)
  • Chien Hostel (newer hostel and my friends who stayed here loved it)

Do not miss:

Explore the Old Quarter, do a pub crawl through a hostel, walk around the lake in the Old Quarter, see the water puppet show, check out the bookstore street perpendicular to the post office (has the word Dinh in the street name), and if you want a splurge meal, Pizza 4Ps is amazing!

 

Sapa– 2 nights

Doing a homestay in a village outside of Sapa in northern Vietnam (close to China border) is almost a rite of passage for backpackers. You can book a tour or homestay in advance in Hanoi or when you get to Sapa, but I actually just showed up on the bus without a plan. I got very lucky and had an incredible experience with locals I met right outside of the bus station (they will come up to you and show you their guest book with reviews in English). Typical homestays arranged in Hanoi are about $100 USD, but I only paid $40 for two nights (not including bus fare), which was a much cheaper price and was a more authentic experience than what most of my friends did. However, there is no guarantee you will get lucky like I did, so make sure to do your research first and ask other backpackers for recommendations (I heard of many “mamas” to stay with through word of mouth). I stayed with Mama Mai in the Hmong Village, which was a 4 hour trek from Sapa. It doesn’t get any more rural than that! My favorite part about doing the homestay was being in the Hmong Village, which I found actually has the most documentation/artifacts/photos online and in museums out of all of the ethnic groups in Vietnam. I even saw a photo of the grandma I stayed with at the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi- how cool is that?!

 

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When you do a homestay, no matter how you choose to book it, the local guides will take you trekking to see other villages and explore the rice paddies, cook local cuisine for you, and help you experience the incredible beauty of the mountains of northern Vietnam (you literally will hike through the clouds!). Overall, I highly recommend taking a trip to Sapa, even if you only have one night and have to take a night bus. It was one of my favorite things I’ve done on my entire trip! Even if the family you stay with doesn’t speak much English, my advice would be to interact with them and learn from them as much as you can. You can always talk with other travelers, but when else can you ask a local person questions about their culture and learn about their experiences first hand?

 

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Halong Bay– 2 nights

Seeing Halong Bay is an absolute must in Vietnam. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is world famous for its thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests and you’ll never see anything else like it. Because it is so popular, you have many different options to see it. If you are not looking for a party scene and want to save money, I know many people who took a bus or motorbike to Cat Ba Island, then booked a boat tour to Halong Bay from there. The more popular option is to book a tour in Hanoi, and even still, there are tons of options either from tourist offices or hostels/hotels.

 

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If you’ve done any research on Halong Bay, you’ve probably heard of Castaways Island, which is the most well-known party tour run by Vietnam Backpackers Hostel. Beware- there are MANY copycat tours and even more scams from companies who claim to do “Castaway Tours”. I can’t even tell you how many people I heard of getting scammed an overpaying for a tour which was not what was advertised. Make sure to ask lots of questions, and if you are want to guarantee you have a fantastic time, go straight to Vietnam Backpackers Hostel- Original and book it in person from there. Though I felt physical pain when I paid for this very expensive tour ($200 US for 3 days), it was WELL worth it. At Castaways, you stay on a private island with a beach, go tubing and kayaking, go on an all-day boat cruise, drink copious amounts of alcohol, and meet truly incredible people. Anyone wearing the yellow wristband in Vietnam shares a special bond of what they experienced at Castaways :). I have also heard people who went on the tours run by Central Backpackers Hostel and Hanoi Rocks to Halong Bay and loved it, so Castaways Island is definitely not the only party tour out there, but it is definitely (in my biased opinion) the best.

 

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Phong Nha– 3 nights

Taking a night bus to Phong Nha from Hanoi is cheap and easy, so don’t worry if it’s your first one. Do not under any circumstances skip Phong Nha! I am baffled when I hear of people going straight to Hue from Hanoi and missing out on one of my favorite spots in Vietnam. The actual town of Phong Nha doesn’t have much to see, but it is a truly incredible area surrounded by farmland and national parks, known mostly for the famous caves.

 

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Where to stay:

  • Easy Tiger Hostel- This hostel is fantastic and has a pool, which is a huge selling point for the hot weather in Phong Nha. They also have a ton of hammocks on the property, which is perfect if you take a night bus and arrive early in the morning before reception opens. The staff is extremely helpful and they do a talk every morning at 9:00 a.m. to explain all of the activities to do in the area. The hostel is huge and extremely social in the day and at night, so I highly recommend it!

Do not miss:

Dark Cave (ziplining into a mud-filled cave…need I say more?), Phong Nha Cave (you go in a boat and it looks like Pirates of the Caribbean!), farmstay happy hour for sunset (info at Easy Tiger), and if you’re feeling really adventurous, go to “The Pub with the Cold Beer” in the countryside where you can kill your own chicken before you eat it. I won’t post the gruesome photos or videos here….but I did participate in this traumatizing/unique experience. Sorry vegetarians! Feel free to ask me about it if you want more info :).

 

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Hue– 1 night

The bus from Phong Nha to Hue is only about two hours, so it’s super easy to head down there just for a night as you travel south. Hue is fun to see and Vietnam’s beautiful imperial city on the river, but if you are pressed for time, I would accept it if you skipped it.

Where to stay:

  • Hue Imperial Backpackers Hostel, which is run by Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (other locations in Hanoi and Hoi An)

Do not miss:

The famous imperial Citadel, tombs, pagoda, abandoned waterpark (super cool!), Hai Van pass to Hoi An on a motorbike if you’re up for it!

 

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Da Nang– 1 or 2 nights

The bus from Hue to Da Nang is only about 2 hours and run throughout the day. Da Nang is a beach town mostly known for Vietnamese vacationers and not too many westerners (even my hostel roommates were Vietnamese!), but definitely has a lot to offer. My favorite part about Da Nang is how modern the city looks, especially when it is all lit up at night.

Where to stay:

  • Funtastic Beach Hostel- Funstastic has two locations, and I chose the one at the beach, which was great. One of the owners is a world-famous food blogger, so they have awesome food tours and restaurant recommendations here. They even offer free van rides to Hoi An every day!
  • Danang Backpackers Hostel- I didn’t stay here but it gets great reviews and has a more central location!

Do not miss:

The Dragon Bridge Show is held on Saturday and Sunday nights and is absolutely fantastic! The giant bridge across the river is in the shape of a dragon and lights up at night, but on the weekends, the dragon spits out fire and water at 9:00 p.m. and soaks everyone around the bridge! This show is actually more like a festival with food, carnival rides, live concerts, etc. and is ALL Vietnamese tourists. No joke, I did not see another westerner the entire night and I was in a sea of thousands of people! Everyone was taking photos of me and my Norwegian friend and asked us to practice English with their kids. It was hilarious! Also, I didn’t have time to do it, but walking food tours are very popular. Check out multiple beaches in the area, as well as the famous Marble Mountains :).

 

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Hoi An– 5 nights minimum

Hoi An is easily one of my (and everyone else’s) favorite places in Vietnam, so I am not joking when I say to stay for 5 nights. Known for its tailor shops on every corner, well-preserved Ancient Town, coffee shops, and French colonial influence, Hoi An is somewhere you will definitely want to spend more time. If you can, try to time your visit around the Full Moon Lantern Festival, because this was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Releasing lanterns into the river and seeing thousands of them around the entire city was awe-inspiring. Rent a bicycle or motorbike to explore the countryside, go to An Bang beach (just watch out for the jellyfish!), walk around the old city at night, and enjoy the unique atmosphere of Hoi An.

 

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Where to stay:

  • Sunflower Hotel (actually a hostel with a great pool and fantastic free breakfast)- Book in advance because it can fill up. I showed up without a reservation and got lucky, but I heard of many who were turned away. This is the #1 spot for backpackers to stay!
  • DK Hostel (part of Vietnam Backpackers Hostel group)- More expensive at $12 US/night, but I’ve heard good things about it.
  • Under the Coconut Tree- This hostel is on the beach (a 10 minute drive outside of town) and is perfect to chill out for a few days. I didn’t book in advance and wasn’t able to stay here because it was booked, but plenty of my friends have stayed here and said it was great. If you don’t stay at the beach, you can easily rent a bicycle or motorbike or take a taxi to spend a day there. One thing I wish I did was get up early to watch the sunrise from the beach! The pictures I’ve seen look incredible.

Do not miss:

Full Moon Lantern Festival (look up dates online and see if you can make it!), get a tailored suit/shoes/clothes/bathing suit, rooftop drinks at the Chef, An Bang Beach (tip: walk farther down the beach for cheaper lawn chairs and food), and Bale Well restaurant to make your own spring rolls with a set menu.

 

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Nha Trang– 1 or 2 nights

I would highly recommend stopping in Nha Trang, not necessarily because it’s a particularly amazing place, but it breaks up your journey from Hoi An to Dalat and puts you on a bus for 12 hours instead of 17, which makes a huge difference. Nha Trang is mostly known for being a beach town EXTREMELY frequented by Russian tourists (literally, all of the signs are in Russian). For some reason, it can get a bad rap with travelers, but it is definitely worth seeing for at least a night.

Where to stay:

  • iHome- This is the popular backpacker hostel in Nha Trang, and though I didn’t stay here, I’ve heard amazing things about it!
  • Mojzo Inn or Mojzo Dorm- They have two locations and I stayed at the inn, which is closer to the beach, and had a great time. They have free beer every day, are very helpful at the reception, and it’s only a 5 minute walk to the beach.

Do not miss:

Snorkeling or diving (Nha Trang is known for this), nightlife, Bai Dai Beach (aka Long Beach) is a 30 minute motorbike ride out of the city, but you will NOT regret it. Why? See exhibit A:

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Dalat– 3 or 4 nights

I would recommend taking the 4 hour bus ride to Dalat from Nha Trang during the day, because it is absolutely gorgeous! My bus was at 4:00 p.m. (I squeezed in snorkeling in the morning), but I didn’t get to see much scenery on the way up in the dark. If you do take a later bus, take a daytime bus when you leave Dalat! Dalat is a cooler (literally, the temperature is actually cold and you will not sweat- it’s amazing) mountain town that is a favorite for many backpackers. It’s great for outdoorsy activities, waterfalls, and enjoying cooler weather!

 

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Where to stay:

  • Dalat Family Hostel- The actual rooms are mediocre and cramped, but the atmosphere, staff, and travelers make up for it times 10! If you’re looking to meet amazing people and have a good time, just trust me on this one and stay here :).
  • Cozy Nook Hostel- Lots of my friends have stayed here and loved it!

Do not miss:

Canyoning (rappelling down waterfalls, cliff jumping, etc.), night market, Crazy House (on top 20 list of weirdest hotels in the world), waterfalls, 100 Rooms Maze Bar (yes, this bar is a super tall building made into a giant maze that looks like Alice in Wonderland!)

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Mui Ne– 1 night

The bus from Dalat to Mui Ne is about 4 hours, and is a great stop to make on your way to Ho Chi Minh City. Mui Ne is known for its watersports and sand dunes, but there is not much to see in the city itself, so in my opinion, one night is enough, though I could’ve spent an extra day just hanging out at the pool.

Where to stay:

  • Mui Ne Backpacker Village- This is basically the only place you’ll want to stay in Mui Ne, mostly because of the awesome pool. This is a pretty large hostel and it’s very social, so even if you are just there to see the sand dunes, you will still meet lots of people. P.S. the chicken burger special at the hostel restaurant is amazing!

Do not miss:

The sunrise tour to the sand dunes! For only $7, you can spend the morning riding around in a Jeep to all of the best spots in Mui Ne, including the white dunes, red dunes, and the Fairy Stream. Definitely worth your money! If you are willing to splurge, for about $40 US, you can take surf or windsurfing lessons. Lam Tong Family seafood restaurant is a short walk from the backpackers village and has AMAZING cheap seafood!

 

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Ho Chi Minh City– 4 or 5 nights

The bus from Mui Ne to HCMC takes about 5 hours, not because of the extreme distance, but the sheer amount of traffic there is getting into this crazy city! HCMC is an incredible place with lots to see and is a wonderful way to end your time in Vietnam.

Where to stay:

  • Vietnam Inn Saigon- This hostel was fantastic and includes free breakfast, two free beers every day, and an awesome rooftop bar on the 9th floor. The pub crawl is on Mondays and Thursdays and it was probably the best one I have done on my trip so far! The hostel is very social and pretty large, so it’s ideal for solo travelers wanting to meet people.
  • Hideout or Hangout- I didn’t stay at either, but I’ve heard great things about these partner hostels. The original location (Hideout) is more expensive, but the Hangout and Vietnam Inn Saigon are both the same price and only a 2 minute walk from each other across the park. The pub crawls go to the same places as well, so I saw lots of friends who were staying there while I was out.

Do not miss:

War Remnants Museum (hopefully this is a given), Cu Chi Tunnels, a pub crawl (through hostel), Street Food Market (best food I’ve had in Vietnam…still dreaming about that bacon wrapped pulled pork hot dog), ABC Bakery, The Lunch Lady (best pho and spring rolls ever!), Sky Bar on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower for drinks at sunset (you can pay $10 US to go to the Sky Deck viewing area, or just go to the bar for an overpriced drink, which is what I did)

 

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Mekong Delta– 1 night

Almost every tourist office and hostel in HCMC advertises tours to the Mekong Delta. Many people choose to go on a day trip, but I would actually recommend staying overnight there because it would be an extremely long travel day and completely exhausting just to take a day trip. I booked a two day trip with a homestay through my hostel, and had an amazing time! This was partially due to the people I met and did the trip with :). The tour can be cheesy and fast-paced at times, but you can’t miss seeing the morning floating markets, riding on a boat through the canals surrounded by tropical trees, or seeing the copious amounts of random animals at some of the stops (i.e. crocodiles, snakes, porcupines, horses, frogs, weasels, etc.).

 

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I will never forget my homestay experience either! After eating a home cooked meal with fresh fish the father caught that day and talking with the family we stayed with, we played cards and did magic tricks with the father, who did not speak a lick of English. Sitting around the table with two Dutch people, a guy from Spain, two Czech people, another American, and a Vietnamese man playing cards was an awesome way to connect without needing to speak the same language. Waking up to Vietnamese coffee with a view of the river wasn’t too bad either :).

 

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Extra tips for Vietnam:

Street food– always look for crowded places where locals are. The best food is typically at places where you sit on a plastic stool/tiny chair outside! I never eat anywhere that’s empty or if it looks super westernized. Don’t be afraid to try places without English translations! Don’t even ask what it is, just be open to trying new things.

 

Safety– Though Vietnam is generally very safe, there are dangers in any country. My first day in Vietnam, my phone got stolen by a guy on a motorbike when I was walking at night. I cannot even tell you how many of my friends were robbed in Vietnam, so make sure to be aware of your surroundings, especially at night. Do not take ANY valuables out with you at night especially, never walk alone, keep belongings close and away from the street where someone could snatch it from you, and even try walking against traffic so no one can sneak up behind you on the road. This is not to scare you, but it is a sad reality in Vietnam and it is important to be aware. If you are robbed, don’t let it affect your view of that city, of Vietnam, or the people, because generally, people are VERY nice! I certainly learned my lesson and I am SO thankful for travel insurance. If you do happen to get robbed or need to file a claim with your travel insurance, make sure to file a police report and get an official stamped copy, as you will need to submit it with your claim.

 

Open Bus Ticket– If you plan to take buses the majority of the time, you may want to purchase an open bus ticket. This will save you money and you can buy a ticket for 4, 6 or 10 rides, but it can be a bit complicated to book them because you need to find that same company in each city. If you do buy an open bus ticket (I didn’t, but I would’ve saved a bit of money if I did), I would book it through Sinh Travel or Hanh Café, which are big companies and easy to find throughout Vietnam.

 

Easy Riders: This motorbike company is a great option for people who want to ride on a motorbike and enjoy the views of Vietnam, but not necessarily drive it. Easy Riders are common in every city or town and you can hire them to drive you to a destination (my friends and I rode with Easy Riders to one of the caves in Phong Nha), do a one-way rental to drive a shorter distance like the ____ pass between Hue and Hoi An, or hire a driver to take you on a multi-city tour for as long as you’d like (I met someone who was with a driver for 5 days visiting the towns through central Vietnam). It is a bit more expensive than renting a motorbike yourself, but it is a safe way to enjoy the sites and not worry about directions/roads/other drivers.

 

Visas– It is important to know that you need to prepare for your visit in Vietnam in advance. It is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that you cannot just show up to and get a visa on arrival. As far as visas are concerned, you have two options:

  1. Get a government letter of approval for tourism online (~$18 US) and fly into the country to get a visa on arrival for $25 US. A quick Google search will populate a ton of websites to get you this letter, so just make sure you look at a few for prices and make sure it’s legit. I used http://www.vietnamvisa.govt.vn, but there are plenty of others out there. Again, you can only get a VOA with this letter of approval if you FLY into Vietnam.
  2. Send in your passport to the embassy in advance to get a visa before you arrive. I did not choose this option simply because I was already traveling when I was planning this trip and could not send in my passport, but it is a popular option and eliminates any stress about getting a VOA. This is also the only way to can get into the country over land, so keep that in mind if you want to take a bus or another form of transport besides a plane.

You can choose either a 30-day or 90-day visa and either single entry or multiple entry visa, depending on your travel plans. If I could go back and do anything differently, I would’ve gotten a 3 month visa to give me more flexibility and not feel rushed toward the end. Save yourself the trouble of trying to extend your visa (an annoying and pricey process) and just get the 90-day visa because you WILL want to stay longer in Vietnam, I guarantee it!

 

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Phew! That was a ton of information. I hope that helps if you are planning a trip to Vietnam, currently traveling there, or just wanted to see what I’ve been up to this past month. Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to add anything I missed or feedback in the comments section!

Secrets to Booking Cheap Flights in Southeast Asia

Before I came to Southeast Asia, I had heard that flights are “dirt cheap and you can get anywhere”, but I will admit, I was a bit skeptical. After some recent experiences booking last minute flights, I thought I would share some tips if you’re looking to save money traveling in SE Asia:

  1. Utilize Travel Apps: My two favorite apps to use when booking flights are Hopper and Skyscanner. They both have websites, but you can often get better prices on their apps, so I use them more often. When I want to book a flight, I look up flights on Skyscanner to get an estimate for the cost, then check Hopper to see if it predicts whether the price will go up or down in the coming days or weeks. You can also set an alert on Hopper to notify you when prices go down, so even if you forget about that flight you need to book, the app will still remind you. Skyscanner is basically a cheaper and more thorough version of websites like Expedia, and I have found much lower prices on it, so I highly recommend it! I have also heard good things about Momondo, so I may check that out soon :).
  2. Look at all of your airport options: I was in Koh Samui and wanted to book a flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. Booking directly from Koh Samui to LP would’ve costed me over $300 US, so I needed to look into other options. If you are on an island or somewhere not easily accessible, definitely check out other nearby airports. I found out that only specific airlines can fly into the Koh Samui airport and some budget airlines aren’t allowed to fly there at all. After a recommendation from a fellow traveler, I looked into the Surat Thani airport, which is the closest airport on the mainland of Thailand. A flight to Bangkok that would’ve costed me over $100 US from Koh Samui only costed $20 US from Surat Thani! I easily took a ferry to the mainland, then took a bus to Surat Thani to catch my flight the next morning. My experience in Surat Thani ended up being very interesting, considering I did not see a single other western person or meet anyone who spoke English. The plus side of staying overnight somewhere that is the opposite of touristy is that you can stay in a safe hotel with a great location for only $8 US. Long story short, I booked a flight from Surat Thani to Bangkok on Thai Lion Air for $20 US and a flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang on Air Asia for $50 US, totaling to $70 US instead of over $300! It was definitely worth taking an extra ferry and exploring a new city for a day.
  3. Carry-on Luggage: This one is simple, but can really save you a ton of money in Southeast Asia. If I purchased luggage on my flight to Laos, it would’ve costed me almost as much as the flight itself! Luckily, my backpack is small enough I can sneak it on planes even though it is over the 7 kg limit :). If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia, definitely consider downsizing your backpack- you will not regret it!
  4. Read the Fine Print: Before booking a flight, always read the fine print and see if checked luggage is included, if you need to print your boarding pass before arriving at the airport, if there are any additional taxes or surcharges, and if there is any flexibility with your ticket. It may be worth paying a bit extra to have the flexibility to change your dates if you need to!
  5. Compare Your Options: Though flying is usually fastest and cheapest in Southeast Asia (depending on where you are going), there are plenty of ways to get around. Before booking a flight, always look into your other options like an overnight train or bus, a ferry/boat, or a combination. There are tourist offices everywhere in most cities and they can easily book a combination ticket for you. Looking online is smart, but there are some modes of transportation that are not listed online. Whatever you choose to do, don’t stress! You can always figure things out on the fly, so I definitely recommend just going with the flow and booking as you go :).

 

Expert hint: Some budget airlines in Asia do not accept foreign credit cards when booking online. Do not fear! In Thailand, you can actually select 7/11 as a payment method when you check out and you can pay cash at any 7/11 location with a print out of your voucher. After a few days of frustration and calling the airline, I was amazed that this actually worked! I have also heard you can pay cash at travel agencies as well, but I’m not sure what they charge for commission.

 

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For reference, some popular budget airlines in Southeast Asia are:

  • Air Asia
  • Nok Air
  • Thai Lion
  • Jetstar
  • Tiger Air
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Hopefully this helps if you plan to travel in Southeast Asia in the future or are traveling right now! If you have any other tips to add, feel free to post in the comments section :).

Kuang Si Waterfalls & Other Tips for Luang Prabang

 

Laos: the land of roosters, butterflies, incredible landscapes, and limestone caves, with a rich history and French influence. If you haven’t heard of Kuang Si Waterfalls, a quick Google image search will show you why so many people travel to Laos just to see this oasis outside of Luang Prabang. I have been to some incredible waterfalls in my life, and this one is by far the best (even better than Krka National Park in Croatia!). Here are some tips and pictures if you are looking to go in the future or just want to learn more about it:

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The Kuang Si Waterfalls are about a 45 minute drive outside of Luang Prabang and an absolute must-see if you are in Laos. Between the Black Bear exhibit and series of 7 cascading waterfalls, there is a ton to explore at the park.

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How to get there: Find a tuk tuk on the street near the night market and negotiate. Don’t book through hostel or guest house; you will get ripped off! I would recommend a tuk tuk over a minibus/van because you can see the beautiful views better and you are less likely to get carsick on the windy roads with an open air truck (I did both and much preferred the tuk tuk).

Go with a Group: The bigger the group (4+ is good), the lower your price. Tuk tuk drivers may start out with something outrageous like 80,000 kip per person, but believe me, if you try hard enough and talk to enough drivers, you can get it down to 20,000 kip ($2.50 US) per person roundtrip. The driver will wait for you for three hours at the park entrance, but see if you can negotiate 3 ½ or 4 hours- you will want to stay longer!

Once you get to the bridge with the incredible views and photo ops (see below), you may think you’ve reached the top of Kuang Si Falls…don’t worry, there’s more. Continue on the trail (I highly recommend wearing sturdy hiking sandals like Chacos as opposed to flip flops) and you will see a fence with barbed wire and a sign that says “do not pass”. Go against what your gut may tell you and crawl through the fence to reach the best part of your day. You can swim at the very top of the waterfalls, go underneath the 300 ft. waterfall into a small cave, and take some incredible photos. There are typically just other backpackers up there who’ve heard about this “secret spot” through word of mouth, so it’s a great chance to make new friends!

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I didn’t do this the first time I went, but I am so glad I went back to Kuang Si Falls to hike up and around the top waterfalls. If you continue on the trail to the left when you climb back through the “do not pass” fence, you will not regret it. There is a trail at the very top above all of the waterfalls with incredible views of the mountains and there was not a soul up there when I went. You can even follow the signs to get to another cave farther back, but unfortunately, I ran out of time, and followed the trail down the other side of the waterfalls (see photos below).

Butterfly Park: There is a butterfly park about 300 meters away from Kuang Si falls, which is a great addition to a day trip. I wanted to go until I found out it was 40,000 kip for entrance, which is pretty expensive for Laos standards. I’ve heard it’s beautiful, but didn’t get a chance to go for myself, so let me know what you think if you do!

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Though I could visit Luang Prabang just to see Kuang Si Falls, there is also a ton of other activities to do. Here are a few I recommend in order of how much I enjoyed them:

Night Market: Make sure to eat at the buffet at least once (15,000 kip for all-you-can-eat vegetarian food), eat at the noodle place on the corner by the tourist center, try the local coffee at the countless cafes, and support local people by buying their unique handicrafts. If you head to this area in the day, there is an awesome spot with several vendors selling fruit shakes and sandwiches. I highly recommend the chicken, cheese, and avocado sandwich!

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Utopia: This bar and restaurant is the best spot in town with totally different vibes in the day and at night. With views of the river, tons of places to chill out, yoga classes, delicious food, and a sand volleyball court, Utopia is a great place to hang out in the day or around sunset. At night, this is where all of the backpackers come to hang out and drink at the bar. Though there is music and plenty of flowing drinks, this place usually doesn’t get too rowdy and is a great place to meet new people.

UXO Visitor Center: I learned SO much about the history of Laos and how the Laotian people are still affected by the Vietnam/Second Indochina War here. Do not miss this visitor center while you are in Luang Prabang- it was absolutely fascinating, heartbreaking, and eye-opening to learn about the unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War scattered throughout the country and how they even have to teach the children how to identify and avoid them. UXO is an organization that goes to villages throughout Laos to detonate or defuse these deadly unexploded bombs that kill hundreds of Laotian people every year. How did I not learn about this in school?!

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Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center: Another educational spot that should not be missed when in LP. I learned about the different ethnic and cultural groups of Laos and all about their daily lives, crafts such as weaving and embroidering, and how tourists can support the local people. Amazing!

Bowling: As strange as it sounds, bowling in Luang Prabang is basically a daily ritual for visiting backpackers. After Utopia closes at 11 p.m., everyone heads to the bowling alley, as it is the only place open late and is surprisingly a lot of fun when there are that many people there.

Mount Phousi: Hike to the top of this mountain with a temple for beautiful views of the river and the city for sunset. I would not recommend doing what I did and going at 1 p.m. in the peak heat hours of the day (even though the views were still worth it!).

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Royal Palace Museum: If you’re a museum buff, check out this museum to learn about Laos’ history, get to know the royal family, and see beautiful traditional art.

Free Movie Night at L’Etranger Café & Bookstore: Just make sure to buy food or a drink here, and take a night to relax watching a movie in the upstairs lounge. The night I went, we watched The Intern!

Sunset Cruise: I attempted to do a cruise with Sa Sa Sunset Cruise, but unfortunately, not enough people signed up that day (#lowseasonproblems). I hear it’s fun though! If you end up going, let me know how it is :).

Other than that, walking around the Old Quarter is a great experience in itself. There are plenty of shops and cafes to take refuge in from the heat, but my favorite part was just enjoying the French Colonial architecture and walking along the river. There are a few other activities I missed, so make sure to look online or ask around for other things to do, such as seeing the early morning Alms Giving Ceremony.

 

How much to expect to spend: Depending on what you’re doing, you can expect to spend between $10-$15 USD per day including accommodation (this could be more if you buy alcohol).

Hostels:

LPQ Backpackers hostel (40,000 kip/$5 USD per night): Simple, but does the job. I had no complaints about this hostel, other than the rock hard beds and not-so-helpful reception.

Khounsavan Guesthouse (50,000 kip/~$6 USD per night): This hostel had better reviews, more people, and a pool, so I switched here for my last two nights. To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed based on the food, reception/service, and (bath)rooms. The pool was nice and the people I met were great, but I think the signs that say “rated best hostel in Laos” may be a bit of an exaggeration. Regardless, it is still a fun place to stay, especially if you’re looking to meet people and go out.

If you don’t want to book anything in advance, you can very easily just show up near the night market and find tons of guesthouses nearby. However, some of these guesthouses may not be as social as the two I recommended above :).

Booking Busses: Almost everyone is either going to or coming from Vang Vieng via bus, and there are a ton of places to buy bus tickets. I highly recommend going directly to the bus terminal and buying your ticket there, rather than buying at your hostel/guesthouse or at a tourist office. These places will charge you extra and there are a lot of scams for “VIP buses”, which are quite the contrary. I paid 85,000 kip for my “VIP” bus, but others on the same bus paid 115,000 kip because they did not buy directly at the bus terminal. Just an extra tip!

I hope this was informative and showcased all that Luang Prabang has to offer, which is a lot more than Kuang Si Waterfalls! I kept extending my time here because I enjoyed it so much, so I hope you get the chance to go as well :). I will upload my GoPro video of Laos highlight soon- thanks for reading!

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How to Get an Adrenaline Rush in Koh Phangan

Alright, I just have to rave about two of the most fun things I have done in Thailand on the island of Koh Phangan! The Challenge Phangan and Slip n’ Fly are both popular attractions on the island for those looking for a huge adrenaline rush or just to work off a hangover from the Full Moon Party (see photo below). Here is a bit of information about each if you’re looking to go or just want to see more pictures!

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The Challenge Phangan is essentially a giant wipeout course on a lake which will leave you more exhausted than you ever thought possible from an inflatable course. With everything from a swing starting from a 30 ft. high platform to giant red balls to attempt to jump across, the course has a huge variety of challenges for every skill/fitness level. The giant blob is definitely the biggest hit and if you have the guts to do it, the staff will launch you with three people (see photo of my friend Mark mid-air below).

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Where is it?: On the northwest side of the island

Cost: 500 baht per person (~$14 US) for the day (pricey but WORTH it)

Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

How long to stay: Depending on the crowds and the size of your group, I’d go for a minimum of three hours. There is also a small restaurant there with (overpriced) food, but I highly recommend the nachos if you get hungry :).

Facebook page: Check out some of their pictures on The Challenge Phangan’s Facebook page!

Slip n’ Fly Party is equally as awesome as the Challenge Phangan, but in a totally different way. The park has a DJ attempting to play “western” party music, games like pool volleyball, lots of drinks, and of course, huge water slides. If you want to see someone soar, send them face first down the biggest water slide you will probably ever see and hope they nail the landing. Watching other people go down the slides is just as hilarious and entertaining as doing it yourself! If you dare to take a ball down with you and make it in the basket mid-air, they’ll even give you a free drink. I had so much fun at this park and met amazing people there too! The best part is that it was free for me and my friend Harry because I met a local guy who gave me a ride on his scooter the day before (sorry for hitchhiking, mom) and he put us on the list! That saved us a ton of money and made the day even better :).

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Where is it?: Toward the center of the island but easily accessible from the pier area via taxi/songthaew

Cost: 600 baht per person (~$16 US) for the day (still worth the price)

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. with happy hour (100 baht drinks) from 5-7

How long to stay: I could’ve stayed here all day! We were there for three and a half hours and I definitely could’ve used an extra hour or two. Then again, I spent a significant amount of time waiting at the top of the slides trying not to chicken out…

Facebook page: Check out some of their pictures on the Slip n’ Fly Party Facebook page!

If the photos aren’t enough, you can check out my GoPro video of my month in Thailand below with even more footage! As always, thanks for reading and have fun in Koh Phangan if you go in the future (you should!).

Must-Have Travel Products

Someone recently asked me if there are any products I don’t travel without, which got me thinking. One of my favorite things about traveling is gearing up for a trip by finding travel hacks and products that will make my trip even better. I thought I’d share a few of them with you here!

Loose mineral sunscreen:

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Ready for the longest name ever? Colore Science Sunforgettable Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Water resistant loose mineral sunscreen. Phew! I never travel without this amazing powder sunscreen. Melanoma runs in my family, so I am religious about sunscreen, especially on my face, but liquids can get super greasy and are annoying to reapply. This travel size mineral sunscreen comes in a tube with a brush, is easy to apply, is tinted like makeup (so I use it instead of foundation when traveling), and actually acts like a matte powder if your skin gets oily or sweaty. I can’t say enough good things about it! Luckily, my grandma gave it to me, and unfortunately, it’s pretty pricy, but I use it every day and feel confident that I’m protecting my skin. It’s only about 4 inches long so it fits in any small bag/purse, and comes with me everywhere! You can get it on Amazon here :).

 

Clarks tennis shoes:

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I cannot tell you how long I looked for a good pair of lightweight, neutral, cute, supportive, comfortable tennis shoes that were not running shoes to wear in Europe. I was searching for the unicorn of shoes and I magically found them at Off Broadway! Clarks is a widely-known and reputable brand, so I already trusted the name when I bought them. These shoes lasted me for two month-long trips in Europe, and they are the only tennis shoes I brought with me to Southeast Asia. They are flexible, easy to pack, washable, water-resistant (survived rainy days in London!), and perfect for travel days. One of my favorite parts about these shoes is that they are slip on, but look like they have real laces, making them super easy to take on and off (I’m looking at you, TSA) but not ugly like some other brands out there (not gonna name names… Sketchers). Though these are walking shoes and not meant for intense hiking, they definitely have enough traction to be worn during more adventurous outings. They come in several colors you can find on Amazon here, but I love my taupe/tan shoes with orange laces :).

 

Laundry detergent strips:

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Again, another product my grandma gave me, and I love it already! These Travelon strips are really only good if you plan to wash anything in a sink or bathtub, so they definitely do not replace real laundry detergent, but are awesome for travelers. One tiny case (smaller than a credit card) holds 50 strips, which last forever. Just throw 1-2 strips in and wash away! You can buy them on Amazon here.

 

Inflatable pillow:

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Both times I traveled through Europe, I took a memory foam neck pillow and carried it around everywhere with me. I knew how dirty it got and was pretty grossed out when using it, but I thought it was the only option to get some sleep on a bus/train/plane. Think again! I didn’t even know these existed until my grandma gave one to me, but there are, in fact, small, inflatable, travel pillows out there. Mine is the Azurec Ultralight Travel Pillow and folds into the size of a pair of folded socks when deflated, so it takes up virtually no space in my backpack. Whenever I need a pillow, I can quickly take it out, unroll it, and blow it up with no problem. Plus, it comes with a tiny cover that cinches closed, so I know it stays clean :). Such a life saver!

 

Vapur rollable water bottle:

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I used to carry around a CamelBak water bottle everywhere, before I realized how much space it took up when I didn’t use it as much as I thought I would. This collapsible water bottle is awesome because when not in use, it can be rolled up and secured to take up only a few inches of space, but it also holds 22 oz. of water when expanded. Pretty much every backpacker I see in Thailand has a large (empty) canteen type water bottle attached to the outside of their backpack, along with a plastic water bottle in hand, which must get annoying. I just have my little Vapur in my backpack in case I want to fill up at the airport or empty a bulky water bottle into it. You can even fold it when it’s filled to fit in a smaller bag! I found this one just by searching on Amazon, and you can buy it here for only about USD $6.

 

Emu Joy on-the-go Relief Stick:

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Bless this miracle stick! It has not left my side since I’ve been in Thailand and has been a total lifesaver. Luckily, this anti-itch/relief stick is only USD $8 on Amazon and is well worth your money. The size of a tube of lip stick, the Emu Joy on-the-go Stick is portable and great for bug bites, bee stings, cuts, scrapes, bruises, minor burns, and chapped lips or nose. Basically, this guy replaces several products and is just great to have around, especially if you are constantly getting bitten by bugs :). You can check out their website at www.emujoy.com or buy one on Amazon here.

**Disclaimer: Though I have included links to buy these products online, I don’t get paid if you click on the link. I just really like these products, so I wanted to share them!

 

Do you have any more awesome travel products you want to share? Feel free to add in the comments section. I hope that was helpful! Thanks for reading :).

 

Chiang Mai in 5 Days

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Spending this past week in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has been an absolute dream! It is everything I was hoping for and more, so I wanted to share a few of my experiences for anyone looking to visit this wonderful city in the future. Disclaimer: I have only spent 5 full days here, so I’m sure there is a TON I am missing. To find more activities and sites to see, I’d definitely check out TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, local tourist offices, other blogs, and by asking locals what to see. I can only hope these recommendations do Chiang Mai justice!

Background on the city: Chiang Mai sits in the mountains of northern Thailand and is famous for being a religious and cultural center. Home to hundreds of temples, CM is a Buddhist-centered city with tons to offer and a rich history dating back to the 13th century. The old city or “square” of Chiang Mai is surrounded by four “walls” with moats, making it extremely easy to navigate. Most of the temples and things to do are within the square, but there is a ton to see outside of the square as well.

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Weather: The weather is almost always warm to hot, but it can get colder than the rest of Thailand during the cool season (Dec-Feb). Hot season is April-June and is considered a low tourist season because of the tropical heat and humidity (also means less crowds). Rainy season in Chiang Mai is June-November and is actually not a bad time to visit because rain usually lasts for only an hour or so and helps cool you down. This week (end of May), the weather report said to expect thunderstorms every day, but it only rained twice for about an hour each while we were there, which was a wonderful relief from the heat :). Even if there is a short, torrential downpour, you can always buy a plastic poncho from 7/11 for 30 baht (less than US $1). In my opinion, rain jackets and umbrellas are not necessary, so I’m very glad I left mine at home!

How long to stay: At minimum, I would definitely stay 6 days, but I think you can hit the major sites and activities in 7-8 days. Obviously, the longer you can stay, the better! We went at a very fast pace and squeezed in a ton in our 5 days, but it would’ve been nice to take our time. Trust me, there is no way you can do everything you’ll want to do in only a few days!

Where to stay: We booked a nicer hotel in advance a bit south of the square, which was nice to be able to head straight to after 28 hours of traveling. I am super glad we only booked the first night because we were able to find a cheaper place to stay in a better location. We stayed at the Singha Montra Lanna for the first night, which had an amazing pool, Jacuzzi tub, and huge suite, but it was definitely unnecessary and we got a way better deal elsewhere. Luckily, our friend Lexxi lives in Chiang Mai, so she and her friend took us around on their scooters to find accommodation for the rest of the week. Shout out to Lexxi for being a wonderful tour guide!

There are three basic types of accommodation in Chiang Mai: hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. I didn’t do much research, but it really wasn’t necessary because there are hundreds of awesome places to stay, many of which do not have websites and are not on Hostel World. We stayed at an amazing hostel called Give Me 5 Hostel on the north side of the old city, on one of the two main roads which stretch across the entire square. A private room with ensuite bathroom was only 800 baht/night (about $22) for the both of us, which is still a lot for Chiang Mai! The location was great (we could walk basically anywhere we wanted to go in the old city and even to the night bazaar), it was clean, and very reasonably priced. We decided on Give me 5 after looking at a few other places, so don’t settle for the first place you find! Extra tip: You can always ask to see the room before you decide to stay at a place, so make sure to take a look to see if it’s clean and has air-con (we would’ve died without it). Another tip: It is very easy to get around, so you can always switch your accommodation throughout your stay to experience different parts of the city!

What to wear: I won’t write an entire packing list here (you can read my other blog post for that if you’d like), but I wanted to make sure to emphasize a few things about packing:

  1. Do not worry if you forget anything. Literally anything you could need can be bought in Chiang Mai for much cheaper (everything from clothes, to toiletries, to sandals, to backpacks- it’s all there).
  2. Unless you are coming during the cool season, do not bring jeans or pants other than maybe one pair of leggings for travel days, which are really not even necessary because you can buy elephant pants here for USD $2-3. I cannot even fathom putting on pants other than elephant pants, even though somehow locals do (who are used to this weather). As far as makeup and good hair goes, forget it. Just accept that you don’t need to do your hair or put much makeup on- it’s not worth it with the heat and humidity. I’d bring tinted moisturizer, waterproof mascara, and maybe some hair texturizer, but generally, it doesn’t matter anyways. Au natural is the best!
  3. Bring at least one sarong/sweater/shawl/scarf for temples (or you can just buy one there), as you must cover your knees and shoulders to go inside. Elephant pants are the easiest, but I did wrap a big scarf around my legs as a skirt one day to cover my knees- up to you. Please be respectful of the culture and values of Buddhism and do not show up in a tank top and shorts at a temple. Even though there are signs everywhere, you’d be surprised by what some people show up looking like.
  4. Pack what you think you need, then cut it in half. You do not need more than a few outfits and even though I used this tactic and brought minimal clothes, I still could’ve done with less. I literally could have shown up with one outfit and bought the rest there. Trust me- you will want the extra space in your backpack for souvenirs!

 

Getting around the city:

Songthaew (song-tao) or red truck: The name songthaew literally means “two benches” after the seating in the back of the truck with room for 8. This is basically the “Uber pool” of Chiang Mai, but just a lot less safe (sorry mom) and no need for a smart phone :). Generally, a trip inside the city is about 20 baht per person, but drivers may ask for more, so make sure to negotiate a price ahead of time. Also note, drivers can pick up other passengers on the way, so it may take longer to get to your destination. I would give more information about this, but another blogger wrote a detailed article all about getting around Chiang Mai you can check out here.

 

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Tuk-tuk: These three-wheeled scooter carts with room for 3 people (2 comfortably), are also very popular in Chiang Mai, but are a bit more expensive at around 50-100 baht per ride. However, they are faster, can weave through traffic easier, and you won’t be picking up anyone else on the way. Tuk-tuks are the equivalent to UberX :).

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Scooter: Though traffic can get pretty crazy and aggressive in Chiang Mai, I’ve heard it is one of the best places to rent a scooter in Thailand. We did not rent one this week, but we rode on the back of our friends’ scooters, which worked perfectly fine for us. There are tons of places to rent bikes, most of which I saw charge about 100-130 baht/day, but I’m sure you can negotiate a good price :). If I were to rent a scooter, I would get one for the day and drive up the mountain to Doi Suthep temple or for a few days to take a trip to Pai a few hours away. If you choose to rent a scooter, make sure to always wear a helmet, be very careful, and make sure you are confident riding one before getting out on the road. Side note: In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road, so just keep that in mind!

What to do:

See the elephants: All I will say is this is a MUST do. Seeing elephants was my absolute favorite thing we did in Chiang Mai and I highly recommend it. There are plenty of companies who take groups outside of the city to see elephants, and even some who offer longer volunteer programs. If you have your heart set on going with a particular company, you may want to reserve a spot a few weeks in advance to make sure you get in, depending on the season. We booked Dumbo Elephant Spa a few days in advance and had an amazing experience! This was mostly because we got to interact with the elephants in a close setting (feeding, mud baths, etc.) without riding them, it was cheaper than other options such as Elephant Nature Park, and we learned a ton about the elephants from the locals. To reiterate, there are a lot of companies you can book with, but please make sure to do your research and make sure the elephants are well cared for and they do not allow riding, as it is unhealthy for the elephants, especially when working long hours. I won’t preach about not riding elephants here, but a quick Google search will give you plenty of information :). Here are some photos from our experience with Dumbo Elephant Spa:

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This “mud” bath was mostly elephant poop, but it’s definitely great for some exfoliation!

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Cooking school: This is another must do in Chiang Mai! We had a wonderful experience with Asia Scenic Cooking School, which was a small class (9 of us) at a local farm, which included a tour of their garden and a trip to the market on the way to learn more about the ingredients. I definitely recommend doing a full day class at the farm (as opposed to in the city) with Asia Scenic, but again, there are several companies who run similar classes that have pamphlets at tourist offices, hotels, and hostels. Here are some photos from the 6 amazing courses we cooked:

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Temples: Chiang Mai is home to over 270 temples, all of which have something unique to see. Rather than wandering the city checking as many out as possible, I would recommend hiring a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the most significant temples and other popular sites around the city, such as the umbrella village, silk factory, other markets, etc. We paid our driver 600 baht (USD ~$17) to take us around all day, and it was well worth it! When you do visit the temples, make sure to be respectful of Buddhist customs and dress appropriately, even though it will be hot. This website has some great information about the do’s and don’ts.

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This is actually a wax statue of a monk that I was fully convinced was real:

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This was a temple made of entirely silver!

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Doi Suthep is a must-see temple at the top of the mountain. It’s a huge complex and has incredible views as well:

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Lady boy show: I don’t want to spoil anything for you, so I won’t say much about this other than you should DEFINITELY go to one :). We went to the show at the night bazaar, which started at 9:30 p.m.

Night bazaar: This is where you’ll find the best markets and live music! Make sure to go Ploen Ruedee International Food Market across the street as well :).

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Markets: There are tons of markets all around the city, where you can buy almost anything for very cheap- everything from shoes to electronics to trinkets and clothes. Many shops sell similar products, so definitely barter to get a better price. A good rule of thumb is to offer half of what the vendor is asking for, then meet somewhere in the middle. Have fun!

River cruise: One way to see another side of the city is to go on a river cruise on the Ping River. We did a dinner cruise through Riverside Bar & Restaurant for 150 baht (USD ~$4) and ate as we watched the sunset. There are several companies who run these boat rides, so I’d compare them online or at a tourist office if you’d like to go.

Massages: You will never find a massage this cheap in your home country! USD $5 will get you an hour long Thai massage at any of the hundreds of massage parlors which seem to be on every corner in Chiang Mai. Be prepared for a little pain and lots of stretching, but it feels amazing!

Night life: Chiang Mai has plenty of cool bars and restaurant, but does not have a big clubbing scene like some other big cities. Going out typically involves beer with ice (avoid Chang and go for a Leo or Singha instead) and live music, so definitely be sure to check them out.

Fish “massage”: This is one of the most disturbing and hilarious experiences ever. You can pay a small fee to dip your feet in a fish tank full of sucker fish to clean the dead skin bacteria/dirt/gross stuff off of your feet and legs. I was laughing so hard and squirming the entire time that I could hardly enjoy it, but it was definitely an experience. The night bazaar is a great place to do this, especially after a long day of walking around.

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Day trips: Doi Inthanon and Pai (try to stay overnight if you can) are great trips to take out of Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, we did not have time, but if and when I come back, I will definitely go to both of these places!

Ethical considerations:

  • When many people think of Thailand or Chiang Mai, they imagine getting close to a tiger like they see in many tourists’ pictures. I strongly urge you to think critically about whether you’d like to visit Tiger Kingdom, a popular activity in Chiang Mai. Just know that these tigers are drugged/sedated and it is not natural for humans to interact with these wild animals in such close quarters. Even if employees tell you the tigers are not drugged, just know that they are, and in my opinion, this industry should not be supported. If you do choose to go to Tiger Kingdom, make sure to educate yourself on the facts beforehand.
  • Another popular “site” to see is the Karen long neck village near Chiang Mai, which you may have seen pictures of online or in magazines like National Geographic. Karen women wear traditional brass rings around their necks, smashing their shoulders and rib cages down to make their necks seem longer for both beauty and tradition. Although the long neck women are famous and fascinating, I also urge you to consider whether you’d like to visit what can be considered a “human zoo”. I did not personally visit the Karen long neck village because I didn’t want to gawk and take photos of people who could be exploited for their traditions and culture for tourists. If you do choose to go, I’d encourage you to buy the goods they are selling, interact with the locals, and learn more about their culture, rather than just walk through and take photos. Whatever activities you choose to do in Chiang Mai, just make sure to do your research!

 

Other helpful tips:

  • 7/11: Normally an overlooked convenience store in the states, 7/11 is a godsend in Chiang Mai. After about a day, I realized how amazing the A/C is inside and how you can get pretty much anything you need there. If you go to CM, you will definitely find yourself going inside more 7/11s than you’d ever imagine, especially since there is basically one on every corner!
  • Screen shots: Make sure to screen shot a pin of your hotel/hostel/guesthouse to your phone to show to a tuk-tuk or songthaew driver, as many of them speak very little English and it is easy to point out on a map. Also, find a common landmark nearby because they will most likely be more familiar with the landmark, such as a temple, rather than a location on a map.

Travel Apps:

  • Maps.me: I highly recommend downloading maps.me offline map and downloading each city you are in when you get Wifi. There is literally no need for a physical map anymore with this awesome app! It’s basically Google Maps without using data, so it is very helpful for navigating around anywhere you don’t have cell service/Wifi/data.
  • Currency app: This is extremely helpful for when you want to check how much something costs in your own currency. It automatically converts any amount in any currency you choose!
  • Rome2Rio: This free app lets you type in any destination and it tells you your different options to get from A to B. For example, if I type in the CNX airport and our hostel, it tells me four different ways I can get there with all of the pricing. It also works for longer distances, too! I typed in Krabi to Koh Samui, and it showed me that I can either fly, take a combination of bus/ferry/taxi, or take a train/ferry, etc.

Wow, that was a TON of information! I would love to talk more about Chiang Mai if you’ve been, have anything to add, or if you’re looking to visit in the future. Again, I know I missed a ton of stuff, so make sure to do some additional research if you go :). Thanks for reading! We are off to Bangkok, Phuket and the islands!

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