#TRAVEL – Indonesia: Peace in Ubud

I’ve never read the book Eat, Pray, Love, nor have I watched the movie. But, nonetheless, I heard Ubud, Bali was an interesting place to visit for reasons other than “It’s where that really good book/ film is set”.

I was right.

Ubud is located about an hour north of Bali’s main airport and is easily accessed by bus, van, car, and bike. If you are visiting after spending a few days in Kuta, the tranquil and relaxing atmosphere will be a welcome breath of fresh air. Many visitors go there to practice yoga, meditation and detox. Ubud boasts many health-orientated stores and calming areas, making it the perfect place to unwind and get back in touch with yourself.

That said, despite being a peaceful and chilled setting, there are actually quite a few things to do:

Monkey Forest

The most popular tourist attraction in Ubud is the monkey forest. For a small price, you can enter a reasonably large area of temples, trees and wilderness to observe wild macaque monkeys run around and interact with each other and their paying visitors (hold onto your camera with a strong grip).

Rice Fields

Turn left, turn right, go north, go south…Ubud has no shortage of rice paddies! I would definitely recommend renting a scooter and driving out of the town center to check out some of these beauties. They are oddly fascinating and undeniably beautiful.

Pools

Just because you’re away from the coast, don’t think that you’re going to miss out on some great waters (you are in Bali after all). The majority of hotels and homestays in Ubud boast spectacular swimming pools, many with infinity pools looking out into stunning green scenery.

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The Streets

Ubud’s streets are full of quirky cafes, homestays and old buildings. Hours can be spent walking around marveling at the various types of architecture and having a browse at what interesting products are for sale.

Chill Nights

The nightlife in Ubud is a world apart from Kuta. I love to party, but visiting Ubud allowed me to experience a more relaxed and cultural vibe. Whether you see a puppet show, walk the beautiful streets or have a cold beer at the jazz bar, you’ll always be wearing a smile across your face.

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If you’re in Bali, don’t skip over Ubud.

.. and don’t forget your guide!

#TRAVEL – Vietnam: Habitable Hoi An

If you only have the chance to visit one place in Vietnam, make it Hoi An!

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Hoi An is an ancient town, located on the coast in central Vietnam.

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It’s one of those places where you stay longer than initially intended. I think I ended up staying 3 days longer than planned. If it wasn’t for a flight booked to Singapore, I could have easily made it 30.

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Hoi An is a well-known hotspot on the Vietnam backpacker’s route that doesn’t shove the tourism down your throat like so many other places. However, it does have the perks of a popular place; a lot of things to do!

You can a bike (push or motor, depending on how lazy you feel) and ride around for hours absorbing the European style architecture and picturesque sights.

Bursting with nice restaurants and quirky bars, the streets are alive night and day!

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If you want a fun night and good music, don’t miss Why Not? bar

It also possesses a beach, which is a pretty nice place to lay with Mrs.Sunshine and drink a few beers in between cooling off in the blue ocean.

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Hoi An would be considered the ‘whole package’ to many backpackers. It has a lot of history, many activities to do and things to see, good nightlife and a beach!

It’s a winner!

Discover more of Vietnam, with this …

That Time I Think I Snuck Into Cambodia

That Time I Think I Snuck Into Cambodia

When traveling through South East Asia you’ll quickly find that there is a more or less established backpacker’s route—while you and your fellow travelers may be hitting the same spots, it’s likely you’ll be going in various directions and orders. Usually this makes it fairly simple to learn how to get from place to place—wherever you’re going next, chances are someone in your hostel just came from there. This is why I was so surprised to find it insanely difficult to get information on the best way to get into Cambodia from Laos by land.

Basically the only piece of advice I could get was “Take the best deal you can,” which was always inevitably followed by some horror story of scams, theft, and abandonment. Nevertheless, I figured if they survived I could certainly do better…right?

After having spent a good deal of time in Laos, I’d decided that Angkor Wat was next on my list, so early one morning my traveling buddies and I headed to the bus station in Vientiane to book tickets to Siem Reap, a journey that takes roughly 24 hours if all goes smoothly. Getting the right tickets was simple enough, but information on the visa process was both scarce and confusing. Luckily, a friendly stranger at a picnic table said he could get us through process cheaply and painlessly. All we had to do was drop our passports in his duffel bag, give him $22, and fill out the visa application which he had run out of. Not to worry, my new pal assured us, he’d have more soon. He then left us, saying he’d meet up with us again at the border.

Yeah, I know, handing over your documents to a sketchy stranger who is clearly conning you probably isn’t the best decision, but we’d definitely all heard worse beginnings that ended alright, so I figured there’s a chance it would be worth the risk.

As we boarded our bus, the driver exchanged our tickets for those we’d need at the next stop. While we knew we needed to switch buses at the border, we were told our next set of tickets weren’t actually for Siem Reap, but for a town I’d never heard of with a train to Siem Reap. At any rate I knew that if it turned out to be a lie, at least I’d be stranded with an entire bus worth of people and not alone.

Thirteen uncomfortable hours later, the driver ordered us off the bus and told us to walk across the border, and when we got to the border patrol & customs check not to stop at the window, just walk around them and take the ladder or ramp up a wall. Leery about leaving my luggage behind but seeing no other option, I followed the small crowd into no-man’s land when everyone suddenly stopped dead. An officer had come out yelling “HEALTH CHECK” in English, while about 30 feet ahead of us stood a man roughly 3 feet tall with a hump and a googly eye, waiting.

Seeing as how my friends were clearly a bit freaked out (and rightfully so) I figured I may as well go first and see what they’d actually do—turns out the little dude just takes your temperature and sends you along. At least I was first to use the public thermometer.

After passing through we easily spotted the wall we’d been told about and over we climbed to find a handful of stalls with people hocking bus and van tickets of their own. It was here were learned that—big surprise—the train station we were headed for didn’t exist and our tickets were worthless from that point on.

So here’s the rundown: We’re stranded on the side of the road in the blistering heat of Cambodia with no luggage, no passports, and no transport.

Pooling what little cash we had (and paying in multiple currencies) we were able to secure van tickets to Siem Reap, with the promise that they’d be air-conditioned and wifi-capable.

After standing around for another lifetime, a motorbike eventually showed up and the driver dropped off a plastic shopping bag full of passports, which other passengers and I began reading out names from and passing around. We did indeed find new visa stickers inside, with our information hand-written on top, not looking anything close to legit, and signed by “Jeff”.

Eventually, a caravan of passenger vans showed up, some carrying our luggage and others waiting to take us to our next destination. Turns out “air conditioning & wifi” is often code for “overcrowded and full of live chickens”.

At my next hostel I met a guy who had done the visa process by the book on his own, and while he saved $2 on his visa, the trip also took him 12 hours longer.

I would be no means recommend taking the route I took, and I’m sure there are plenty of options out there. I’ve heard that while the visa prices have increased in recent years, so have transport options and the border itself has become more streamlined and less corrupt.

My advice?

Take the best deal you can.

– Ashley

#TRAVEL – THAILAND: KOH WOW!

During my 18 months in Thailand, I naturally explored most of the country, but there were still some stones I’d left unturned—so in December 2015 I decided to take a short vacation to the Thai island Koh Tao and check out somewhere I had not been before.

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Koh Tao is located a short ferry ride north of the famous Koh Pha Ngan and about an 8-hour drive south of the capital, Bangkok. Koh Tao, or ‘The Divers Island’, boasts everything you expect of an island in Thailand: breathtaking beaches, turquoise waters, panoramic viewpoints and picture-postcard nature. My time there was full of fun activities, laughs and great food. Sadly, my journey there wasn’t.

How to get there

Ok, as far as night buses go, this one wasn’t the worst, but it probably was the most poorly planned. Foreigners usually travel to Koh Tao by taking either a night bus or a night train from Bangkok to the ferry port in Chumphon where they then continue to the island by ferry.

Stocked up on water and full on Pad Thai, my friends and I waited for departure just off Khoa San. The bus was one hour late, but the frustration from waiting quickly left us once we saw the huge Captain Jack Sparrow picture along with the Honda and the Ferrari logos painted across the bright green double-decker we were about to spend the night on. It was hilarious and definitely not legal.

The first hour of the journey went smoothly, then BANG – popped tire.

In most places, this would cause an immediate stop—but in Thailand, no. The driver continued the remaining 7-hour journey trying to keep the bus on the road as it swerved between lanes like a drunken old man stumbling home from the pub. I admired his effort just as much as I judged his stupidity.

Finally, we arrived at Chumphon 3 hours early and so the most vexing part of the journey began. It turned out we weren’t actually early, most bus companies drop their passengers off 3 hours before the ferry departs. Being stranded at 4am on a dark pier thriving with mosquitoes isn’t fun. Why do they do this? I’ll never know. But if you’re reading this and making that journey anytime in the future, be warned.

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Things to do

Diving & Snorkeling
Most people reference Koh Tao for its diving. The island has no shortage of dive schools that offer competitive prices for those looking to obtain their PADI. For those not wanting or having the time to complete a diving course, snorkeling is the second best option. There are many great snorkeling spots around the island—the vibrant fish are spectacular and you may even be lucky enough to spot a few sharks (shy ones of course!).

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Viewpoints
The viewpoints in Koh Tao are phenomenal. Some are difficult to climb, but the view at the top is always worth it.  I really enjoyed the view from Freedom Beach viewpoint.

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Koh Nang Yuan
Koh Nang Yuan is a beautiful small island very close to Koh Tao. Like Koh Tao it has great beaches, diving and snorkeling, and additionally boasts hiking and zip-lining.

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The average price of a meal, beer and accommodation on Koh Tao doesn’t vary much from the other Thai islands or the touristy areas in Bangkok.

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If you’re looking for more than just a ‘party’, go to Koh Tao.

-Liam

This Lonely Planet guide to the Thai islands & beaches has everything you need!