My Travel Companion’s Kind Words About Me

This post wasn’t written by me, but it was written by my Russian friend just shortly after we parted ways.  She posted it on facebook and I wanted to post it here as it is as much a part of the memories as the posts I have been making:

Manila is the best place to meet people. The most amazing travelers I met were in this city. There is something special about the hostel I am staying. Special atmosphere and well organized space which make people get to know each other.
Three months I met Marcia at the same place. She became my travel partner for some places in the Philippines and later on decided to change the tickets back home to be able to join me in my trip without purpose and destination for another month.
She is certainly my soulmate and we had a blast whenever we went. I have learnt a lot from this experienced traveler who has visited over 70 countries and really thankful to the universe for bringing us together at the same place and time.
When people asked us where we were from and we replied Canada and Russia you could see instant sparkles of astonishment in their eyes.
Words cannot describe what an amazing time we had together – by the end of our journey we could be able to read thoughts of each other just watching the eyebrow move or look of each other. That has been a pure harmony.
Dear Marcia, I wish that you will find what you are looking for very soon and that we will meet up again one day to travel a bit more, discuss all the possible topics and play shithead on the bus to somewhere.

 

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Submerged in Southern Laos

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Laos is a country which when I traveled it 2 years ago, I was told that there is no defining feature to Laos unlike its neighbouring countries, but when you get there you never want to leave.  I would agree Laos is the perfect country to just lose time in. This time, my visit to Laos would encompass the southern part: the Bolaven Plateau and 4000 Islands.

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First we arrived in Pakse and we decided that it was time to try the motobike.  Although, the perfect time to do this was when we were doing nothing in Kampot; take a bike out and play around with it. We decided that our first time on the bike would be when we had to travel 46km one way.  As it was new to us, we opted for an automatic bike but it was twice the price to rent it so we just took one.  My Russian friend drove first and she made it look so easy. It didn’t take her long to get comfortable with the bike. We had gone to see an ancient temple, Wat Phou, in Champassak.  After exploring the temple in the sweltering heat, it was time to head back to Pakse.  It was also my turn to drive the bike.  Well, I didn’t go very far before skidding with bike and falling.  I got back on had a bit more play with it and then my friend said “Are you ready? Let’s go.”  Then she got on the bike and the bike swayed as I couldn’t get the balance, so I stopped and chickened out as I needed more time to get used to it.  That was my attempt at a motobike.  We kept the bike for the next two days as we ventured up to the Bolaven Plateau to see the many waterfalls in the area.  I let her do all the driving because I needed time to get used to driving it and we were always going somewhere.  I have to say, the love affair of seeing Laos on the back of a bike was totally lost on me.  You can’t read, you can’t sleep, bugs hit your face and it so uncomfortable.  Maybe when you are driving it’s more exhilarating but as a passenger, give me a bus any day.  She loved it.  She got very confident almost too quickly.  I have to admit I was a bit nervous on the back.  I was watching the speedometer to make sure she didn’t go too fast. Every time, she turned to talk to me or was looking at the surroundings, I was saying a silent prayer.

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After Pakse and surrounding areas, we headed to 4000 Islands.  We stayed on the island Don Det.   I have to say that Don Det was my favourite island/beach chill out place in the whole four months.  I can’t quite put my finger on it.  It didn’t offer the crystal clear waters of Gili T or El Nido- it’s on the Mekong, it’s a river.  There were no snorkeling opportunities, but there were fresh water dolphins.  Maybe it was the company, but something about Don Det just made me want to stay.  Most of our time was spent doing nothing; by this time we were professionals at it.  In all fairness, I’d say we actually were more active here than in other places.  We tubed along the Mekong and got one speed push bikes and went to neighbouring islands to see waterfalls.  We even booked a kayaking tour.

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The first time my friend and I were in kayaks, we were in single ones on our own.  The next time we had the one-sided oars.  This time when we had double kayaks and could finally kayak properly together, she ditched me for someone else! Rewind- when doing long travels, you sometimes end up randomly bumping into people who you’ve met along the way.  On the island, my friend bumped into her Greek friend who she had met in Chang Mai two months previously.  So off she went with him in the kayak.  I do not exaggerate, but not 15 minutes into the tour, I hear my Russian friend screaming and turn and look back at them as they are headed straight into an island (a lot of these 4000 islands are just green growth on top of rocks).  The guides had this look on their faces that read “You can’t be serious.  We haven’t even hit the hard part yet.”  Watching for them, as they came around the island, their kayak slowly started to tilt and turn over.  Out they fell.  I started laughing, it was too funny, words can’t describe.  Then suddenly I stopped laughing, my eyes widened and I covered my mouth.  A girl in the tour said “It’s okay, you can laugh.”  To which I replied “I know I can laugh, they’re my friends.  But they have my camera!”

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Phong Nha Caves- A Must Visit

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Now that we had spent a couple of days in Saigon, it was time to head to the caves which would be a bit of trek to go and see. Normally, if you were traveling Vietnam, you would visit either on your way from/to Hue.  As we were skipping all the highlights in between Saigon and Hue, we decided to fly to Hue (as opposed to taking a 28 hour train ride) and then get the DMZ transfer, pricey, but direct from the Hue Backpackers Hostel.

The Phong Nha Caves have just recently opened up to tourism in the last couple of years and the traffic into the area is still quite low.  The national park here is a world heritage site which boasts the largest cave in the world.  Having very little information about the caves, we were surprised to get there and find out how extensive the caves were and if you want to do it properly, you should come with lots of money and time to do a multiple day trek.  The most phenomenal trek is a 7 day 6 night trek through the park and Hang Son Doong Cave.  You just don’t show up to Phong Nha and book this tour.  They limit the number of people per year that can enter this cave and it costs 3000USD.  But from the pictures that were shown to us, it looks absolutely amazing and I would consider returning to do it.  There is a forest growing in the caves and rock formations that I have never seen before.  However, with the time and the money we had, we stuck to the more accessible caves.

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The first cave we visited was named the Phong Nha Cave.  We had to access it by boat.  One boat costs 350 00o dong and can take up to 14 people.  The boat takes you along the river and into the cave.  Surprisingly, there weren’t too many people in the caves which was really nice as it was very quiet to ride along the boat and watch the stalactites and stalagmites.  Then we got a chance to get out and walk in the caves.  There were no walkways with rails, so you could walk right up to the rock formations.

The next day we did a tour which would take us through the national park and into Paradise Cave and another cave known as the Dark Cave.  In the Dark Cave, we would have to swim through it.  The section of the Paradise Cave that we went into was very touristy and had been laid out with walkways and colourful lighting.  We walked about 1.4km through this cave, but the cave is deeper and if you want to you can explore more of this cave in a different tour.

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At lunch, we were mentally preparing ourselves for going into the next cave as we weren’t sure how cold the water was going to be.  One of the guys on the tour asked “When are we going to go into the mud hole?” My Russian friend, said if I could have seen the look on my face I would have laughed as my eyes darted back and forth with confusion on my face.  “Mud hole?”  I asked.  “We were told about water, not mud.”

We headed off to the last cave.  After getting into swim suits, life jackets and helmets with head lamps, we had to kayak out to the entrance of the caves.  My kayaking skills had been improving over the past 3 months, but there was a new challenge today.  How to kayak in pairs with a one-sided oar.  My poor friend and I kept going in circles.  We couldn’t figure out how to go in a straight line.  But didn’t feel too bad because everyone else was struggling.  Eventually, we were able to keep a pretty straight course by moving in a wide snaking fashion.

Once in the cave, we had to walk through some ankle high water and then we were told to leave all cameras (although, I had already left mine) and shoes.  We headed off in single file through a narrow part of the cave.  Suddenly as the walls came in closer we found our feet being sucked into mud.  One of the group members said that you could tell when people had hit the mud because the giggles started.  As your feet sunk into the mud, the mud surrounded it and didn’t want to release our feet for the next step.  We held the sides of the walls and walked heavily through the cave until we reached the parts of the cave where we had to climb over rocks, climb up steep hills and slide down steep slopes.  The mud was slippery, so it was challenging to hold on and safely climb.  Going down the slopes was much easier, just slide down and enjoy the drop!  We ended up in a slightly less viscous of pool of mud with the consistency of chocolate pudding.  I think this was the mud hole.  We were instructed to turn off our head lights and the guides unleashed mud bombs on us.  We had this huge mud fight in the dark.  It was so much fun.  Any reservations I had about extending my trip were eliminated at that moment in a mud hole in the middle of Vietnam.

Braving the Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City

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As we continued our unplanned travels, we hit a snag when my Russian friend wanted to go to Vietnam and I wasn’t too keen as I had been there before and was quite content with what I had seen.  Also, the visa is 70USD to go there.   So we made a compromise, we would go just to see this cave complex in the middle of the country that has just recently opened up to tourism called the Phong Nha Caves (more on this in next post).

As we were in Cambodia, we first crossed the border and headed to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.  Although I had been hesitant to go back there, upon waking up in the city, I was absolutely elated to be there.  I couldn’t wait to eat banh (Vietnamese sandwiches), pho, bun (Saigon style which is the style that you get in the western countries), and they cook their meats in this lemongrass, ginger, chili sauce that is to die for.  Oh how I’d forgotten how great the food in Vietnam was!

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Then there was the cracked egg shell tea set that I had wanted to buy last time that I was in Saigon, but couldn’t because I had no space to carry it with me.  I thought that I would get a chance somewhere else in the country to buy it once I dumped some of my stuff, but never saw it again.  Not even in China where they make everything.

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Finally, I would have the chance to visit the Cu Chi tunnels which I didn’t get a chance to do the first time round.  No visit to Vietnam is complete without learning about the history of its war.  The Cu Chi tunnels are where the Viet Con hid out while fighting the American soldiers.  You can visit this site which is about a 60 minute drive away from Saigon by paying 5USD for transportation with a tour group and then the entrance fee once there. Here you will be able to explore some tunnels and if you really want to, you can shoot a machine gun.  Yes, shoot a machine gun.

There are two tunnel systems that you can go through.  One mostly everyone walks through.  It’s relatively clean (just dusty) and it is lit with lights.  There are many exit points along the way if you don’t like it and want to exit.  In here the tunnels are connected to rooms where the soldiers would congregate for different activities such as eating.

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And then there were the other set of tunnels… Optional…  This sampling of unlit tunnels that we could choose to go into had a very narrow opening to enter.  Then initially you could “monkey walk”- walking in a squat position, and at some point, you had to go on your hands and knees.  We were warned that these tunnels had bats.  So the first set of people that went down said that they saw the bats, but that they were not in the areas that we were crawling in.  My friend went down and said that she didn’t even see any bats and she was looking.  By the time that I went down, I was one of the last people to go.  Two people were in front of me and we were supposed to stick together.  All we had for lights was the flashlight function on mobile phones.  After posing for some photos as I squeezed my way down the rabbit hole, I got into the tunnel and couldn’t see the two people that had gone ahead of me, but I could hear them.  We had been instructed to turn right and then left in the tunnel.  So I made the right turn and was now crawling on my knees.  Black things were flying past my head.  OMG, bats. I started feeling anxious.   I called out to the 2 ahead of me.  No response.  I couldn’t hear them.  I called out again and nothing.  I found the tunnel where I was supposed to turn left and all I could see were bats hanging from the low ceiling.  If I continued to crawl toward them, I would run into them with my forehead.  I remembered people saying that the bats were not in the parts of the tunnel that we crawled through.  So I thought that I had gone the wrong way.  So I backed up looking to see if there had been another left turn.  Then, thankfully, I heard voices from behind me.  I called out to them.  They caught up with me and I let them go ahead of me because I wanted them to be the ones to encounter the bats first.  They went ahead and as they disturbed the bats and they started to fly, they flew into my head.  So much for not going first.  From this point, we were just 5m around a bend from the exit.  When I came out, my friend and others were wondering what had happened to me in there and why I’d taken so long.  Embarrassed, I told them I panicked because of the bats.  So be warned, if you go down the optional tunnels, they aren’t kidding when they say there are bats in there.

Rabbit Island: It Doesn’t Get More Basic Than This

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Only 30 minutes by bus from lazy Kampot, you can find a beach resort town named Kep. Catering to a slightly didn’t clientele, the bungalows here are actually luxurious and were out of our price range. Trying to keep up with our atmosphere of pure relaxation, we got ourselves onto a ferry and headed directly to Rabbit Island.

In the Philippines, I thought El Nido was rustic, but compared to Rabbit Island, it was extremely touristy. In Indonesia, I thought Gili Trawangan was a backpackers paradise, but Rabbit Island must be like what Gili T was 20 years ago.

We got off the boat to a shoreline of bamboo bungalows. There were 4-5 guesthouses with very basic accommodations. Each guesthouse has its own restaurant and that is all there is on the island. Toilets don’t flush, so you have to know how to use a bucket to flush. Most showers are bucket showers. We actually had a shower head but the pressure was so low, I used a bucket anyways. Electricity is via a generator which runs from sunset to 10:30 pm. You pretty much have to be in bed by 10:30 as there is no light anywhere. You also can’t sleep before 10:30 because you can’t turn off the light.

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Rabbit Island was the perfect place to do nothing. Sit in a hammock and read, bathe in the sea, drink coconut water, eat crabs and just enjoy the natural surroundings. For a bit more activity, we actually walked around the island which takes 2 hours to walk. There is well marked path for 90% of the journey. For the last bit, the path disappeared and we found ourselves skirting the edges of a manky mangrove and then having to walk on jagged rocks along the water edge. Oops have we done something wrong? No, we were on the right path.

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Rabbit Island was a paradise, I could have stayed longer except for one thing. The suffering at night when the mosquitos and sand fleas attacked with a vengeance. I couldn’t take the onslaught as they went for blood.

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So back to the mainland it was. Although a completely different feel from Kampot and Rabbit Island, it was worth a visit for the crab market. Here you could see the crabs being captured and brought in and sold. You could also partake in indulging in cheap crab in one of the many restaurants there.

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Happy in Kampot

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10 years ago, was when I first came to Cambodia. The country had just opened itself up to tourism. Most tourists just came to see Angkor Wat and left the country. There were no ATMs then; people left the country because they ran out of money. It was advised to stay on main roads as landmines were still randomly scattered about the countryside. A lot has changed since then which I commented on in previous post 2 years ago when I went to Phnom Penh to visit a friend. Now I’m back visiting areas in the south that have become attractions since my first visit.

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I met up with my Russian friend in Kampot which is this riverside town. How to describe Kampot… backwater town perfect for relaxing. We came there with high expectations of things to do there- sunset in Bokor Mountain, treks to waterfalls, visiting pepper plantations (kampot pepper is renowned), etc etc. What did we do? Nothing. It’s so easy to do nothing in this town.  It’s amazing how time can slip away so quickly and you’ve found that you’ve done nothing.
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We stayed in two different places by the riverside, Naga House and Samons Villa, in very basic bamboo bungalows.  Keeping in mind that I’m a city girl, born and raised, the closest to nature that I got on my family vacations was to American beaches. The first time I slept in a tent was when I was 28. Staying in these bungalows was a bit of a challenge for me. The walls were made of woven bamboo and there was a thatch roof. The walls didn’t meet the roof. I’m not referring to poor workmanship, I’m referring to purposeful ventilation. So we were completely open to all elements. I heard noises at night that I’ve never heard before. Did you know that geckos make a sound? We had the biggest gecko ever living inside of our roof. Frogs jumped around me in the shower. Stray cats found it easy to get into the bungalow. But this is the only way to experience Kampot, so I would highly recommend it.

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We did actually motivate ourselves to do something. We took some kayaks out for an hour. We had high aspirations of kayaking to a waterfall but found ourselves quickly getting tired of fighting the current. So it became a relaxing kayak where we didn’t stray far. Then we decided to go see this church that was 8km by bicycle. In the lazy attitude that we were in, we didn’t have the name or directions to the church and we started our journey at 4 pm. As we left the town, the roads worsened and became gravel and dust. I did notice that there were no street lamps along the highway.  At some point we turned off this gravel road to a dusty dirt road in search of this church. I’ll tell you right now, we didn’t find the church. We did find a cave which we took a peek at. But we decided to turn back because the sun was starting to set. Not more than 100m into our return journey, I noticed that my bicycle was becoming sluggish to peddle. I had a flat tire. How to cycle 8km on a flat? Keep filing it up with air every chance you get. I wanted to fix it properly but everwhere I went just wanted to put air in it. In a country where everyone is riding bicycles on crappy roads, you’d think it would’ve been easy to fix. I somehow managed to get back into town (in the dark), but by the end I had destroyed the tire. The tread came off the rim. Fortunately, that happened when I was walking distance from the guesthouse. This is why it was better for us to just do nothing than to try and be productive.
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We were happy in Kampot. We wanted to be happier. So we decided to try a happy pizza. Neither of us had had one before so we didn’t know what to expect. We bought it from special happy pizza where they didn’t charge us anything extra for a happy pizza. As we were eating it, we were waiting for something to happen. “Do you feel happy?” “No.” When we finished it, “happy?” “No?” 15 minutes later. “Anything?” “No.” So we googled it. How long does it take to be happy. We found a blog that said it was delayed. We waited. 1 hour, nothing. After 1.5 hours, we had given up. “Maybe we are immune.”  Around 2 hours later while playing cards, my friend did something while dealing, like putting the card face up when it should have been face down and we both looked at each other and started giggling. We knew what we were laughing at wasn’t funny but we couldn’t stop. We were on the ground rolling with laughter.  We weren’t immune after all and we were very happy in Kampot.

The Gilis

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After almost two weeks in Bali, I met up with friend from London and we headed to the Gili Islands which are located off of the island of Lombok.  Gili actually means small island, and there are several small islands surrounding Lombok, but there are three islands which have collectively come to be known as the Gilis: Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan (Gili T for short).  I had only heard great things about these islands and that it is a must to do in Indonesia.  Their populations are small, they have no police here and they have no motorized transport, so you either walk, ride a bicycle or take a  horse drawn carriage around the islands.  Each island has a personality of its own and I only wish that I had had more time to explore each island thoroughly.

Gili Air is the closest to the Lombok.  I only did some small exploration on this island.  This island is known as the middle ground between mellow Meno and backpacker Trawangan.  It’s has a more chilled out atmosphere than Gili T.  It’s probably what Gili T was like 10 years ago.  When you go into the interior of the island, you can see the local villages and can get more a sense of their lifestyle than you can on Gili T.  The coral reefs tend to come right up to the island, so swimming is a bit more challenging off of this island.  If you are looking for a quieter more chilled place, then Gili Air would be a good place to rest your head.

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Gili Meno was completely different than both islands.  Completely not what I expected.  It is the least populated and has the least amount of tourists that stay there.  The beaches are better here, much easier to access the water.  The island itself is almost barren.  The most activity on the island occurs around the ferry port.  It has this amazingly eerie feeling to it.  It’s wild with jungle growing all throughout it with a lake on the north part of the island.  Parts of the vegetation are decayed and dying.  There are former resorts that have been abandoned and are crumbling.  You can’t help yourself from creating a story in your head as to what disaster could have possibly happened on this island to give it this feeling of a ghost town.

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Gili T, the backpacker island, is where I based myself.  The busiest of the islands with the most amount of restaurants and bars still had a chilled atmosphere.  Definitely a lot more chilled than Kuta Beach in Bali.  The best way to sum up the atmosphere of all the Gilis is when I went to rent a bicycle, I asked if they had a lock for the bike.  The guys response to me was “No one steals here.  If you lose the bike, then just come back and I’ll give you another one.”  Gili T has a small hill that you can climb and get a view of the Meno across the way.  When you explore the interior of the island, as you get further in, you see less homestays and start to see the locals homes and their farms.  The best way to spend the day there is riding a bicycle around the island, hopping off with your snorkel gear and going into the crystal blue water.  You can walk right out from the beach and snorkel around the island and see a variety of fish.

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Climbing pole- game that is played to get gifts down from top of pole

Climbing pole- game that is played to get gifts down from top of pole

 

 

Of course, there had to be some fun and adventure on the islands.  One night on Gili T, after dinner we went to have some drinks.  Being low season, the bars were quite quiet.  We went to this bar that was part of a dive centre.  There were 5  others there who were part of the dive centre. They were drinking and having a good time and then they started throwing each other in the pool.  My friend asked me if I had ever been thrown into a pool.  I said I’ve been thrown in water, but not a pool.  Maybe 10 minutes later we looked up from the bar and saw a couple of the people staring at us and then calling us to get into the water.  No way did I want to go in.  One of them came over to grab me but I lowered my body weight to the ground so that I couldn’t be picked up.  Then my friend, who was conveniently still in his trunks, decided to help them out and throw me in.  He undressed into his trunks before they threw him in.  When I came out, I was so drenched that water kept falling from my clothes every time I rung it out.  They (the dive people and my friend) I think threw me in 3 times.  But it was alright, I got some free shots out of it.  Admittedly it was a fun night.

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