Island living in Koh Rong Samloem

Koh Rong was one of those places that I kept hearing about whenever travelers would talk about Cambodia. I was assured several times, by several different people, that I would absolutely love it. So once it came time to decide “where to next?”, we did our research and found out about Koh Rong Samloem, an island 30 minutes away from Koh Rong by boat (I’m not gonna lie, Mava and Felix did most of the research). Although developing quickly, this island is way under-developed compared to its “big sister” party island, Koh Rong. This was shaping up to be the blissfully idyllic getaway we all needed, and our Google searches assured us that we would be greeted with eye-blinding white sandy beaches, turquoise water surrounded by lush greenery, and best of all: very few people. We got to the pier in Saracen Bay in the afternoon and walked until we found the cheapest bungalow available. The beauty of travelling in low season is that we paid a third of what we would have paid in high season for a 4-person bungalow right on the beach with a five star view (we paid $20 per night instead of $60). We played odds to determine who would get the king size bed and I won! (I slept like a starfish for the 4 nights we stayed there.) Upon checking in we were told that electricity is only available from 6 PM to midnight and that there is no WiFi on the island. Perfect.

 

wpid-wp-1447489471678.jpegwpid-wp-1447489471665.jpegwpid-wp-1447489471662.jpegwpid-wp-1447490174485.jpegwpid-wp-1447490174466.jpegwpid-wp-1447394269797.jpegwpid-wp-1447490174468.jpegwpid-wp-1447489953958.jpegwpid-wp-1447394269779.jpegwpid-wp-1447489686108.jpeg

 

We walked around to discover our new home, which took maybe 20 minutes. We checked out the 3-4 restaurants on the island dispersed between the beachside bungalows and found our favorite. Sweet Dreams is owned by a Ukrainian couple that run everything themselves, including the cooking and serving, so it takes some time but it’s totally worth it. The chocolate cake is exquisite. Also it didn’t hurt that it was the cheapest restaurant on the island.

wpid-wp-1447489954291.jpegwpid-wp-1447489307969.jpegwpid-wp-1447489686105.jpeg

wpid-wp-1447489471661.jpeg

 

Visiting during low season also has its downside though – we didn’t have the best beach weather. But we did have the best chilling weather, where you don’t feel bad about doing nothing all day because you can’t do any activities in the rain, right? Either way, there’s not much to do on the island, but that’s pretty much the whole point of going to a remote tropical paradise island in my opinion.

 

Eventually we made it to the western side of the island to see what else the island had to offer. I think our laziness had been putting us off from exploring sooner, since we were told we would have to trek for about a half hour to get there. In reality it was more like a 20 minute leisurely stroll through the jungle on a flat sandy path. We were rewarded with the amazing Lazy Beach, that was ironically less lazy than the beach we were staying at. While our beach was perfectly serene and waveless, Lazy Beach had huge waves that we played in until the stunning pink sunset. We inquired about the bungalow prices on this beach, and discovered they were way out of our price range (cheapest one was $60), so we had dinner there and went back to our side of the island.

 

wpid-wp-1447489392258.jpegwpid-wp-1447491392319.jpegwpid-wp-1447394369728.jpegwpid-wp-1447490626414.jpegwpid-wp-1447490688332.jpegwpid-wp-1447490588475.jpegwpid-wp-1447490786646.jpegwpid-wp-1447490842254.jpegwpid-wp-1447490964825.jpegwpid-wp-1447394369726.jpegwpid-wp-1447490982965.jpeg

 

The highlight of my time here (and to be honest one of the highlights of my entire trip to date) was swimming with the luminescent plankton in the ocean at night. The effect is really magnified on the island since there is no electricity after midnight, so with no lights around, the plankton glows so bright I thought I was in a scene straight out of the movie Avatar. Even your footsteps glow when you walk towards the ocean! Crazy.

We all had a bit more time before we needed to be at our next destinations so we (actually Felix) found a backpacker bar in Sihanoukville that was looking for Western staff to work in exchange for free accommodation, food, and most importantly, alcohol. As soon as we got to Sihanoukville we binged on cheap food and beer (this is due to what I describe as the island effect – more remote places are always double or triple the prices on the mainland because they have to bring everything in on boats) and caught up with the world after a couple of wifi-less days. The next afternoon we started our new “work” at JJ’s Bar. This mostly consisted of waking up for breakfast at 1:30pm, handing out flyers on the beach for a half hour, then free time until the evening, when we hand out some more flyers. Then my favorite time was around 10pm when the party starts and our job was to talk to people, hand out free shots, and generally make sure everyone is having a good time. In fact, we had so much fun that we only worked there for 4 nights instead of the initially planned 7 nights (also because I like my liver and wasn’t being very nice to it).

 

wpid-wp-1447490419886.jpeg

 

Next stop: Siem Reap!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Nha Trang and motorbiking the Hai Van Pass

I took my first of many overnight buses in Vietnam from Saigon to Nha Trang, where I was looking forward to lazing on the beach and chilling out. If you’re looking for a highly touristic, seaside resort town in Vietnam, this is the place to be. But it had sun and beach, so I was happy. I also got to have a relaxing day at the Thap Ba Hot Springs and Mud baths and a fun boat trip around the islands close by.

imageimageimageimage

imageimage

imageimageimageimage image

image

image 11889523_10153554259741411_5260300769740729168_n

 

Next destination was to Hoi An, a city with a deep heritage of culture and trade. The Old City of Hoi An is also Unesco protected, and is beautifully pictutesque both during the day and at night. You can spend your days at the beach, or walk around the Old Town, adorned with Chinese lanterns, and enjoy some shopping and $0.25 draught beer near the Japanese Covered Bridge and Quan Cong Temple. At night, the town looks completely different as it comes alive under the city lights, with street vendors selling delicious food and various souvenirs. You can even light a lantern and drop it into the river, through the swan boats passing by.

wpid-wp-1440235837260.jpegwpid-wp-1440235839551.jpegwpid-wp-1440235843360.jpeg

 

Unfortunately I only got to spend about two days in Hoi An, as I took the opportunity to motorbike through the Hai Van Pass from Hoi An to Hue. Even though the weather was less than ideal (spoiler alert: it rained) the journey and views were spectacular. We stopped in De Lat on the way to see the Marble Mountains, where several Buddhist temples have been built into the caves.

 

Once in Hue there wasn’t much to see, unless you’re a real history buff. We walked around the city and saw the Imperial Citadel, as well as the numerous Tombs of the Emperors along the Perfume River.

 

Next stop: Hanoi!

 

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛 💛 💛 💛
(Nha Trang is very skippable if you’re short on time, as is Hue if you wish to go straight from Hoi An to Hanoi)

 

Traveler’s tips: best hostel in Nha Trang is Tabalo, althought they’re not on Hostelworld (you can also book buses and boat tours directly through them). No night out is complete without a visit to Why Not bar. I stayed at Sunflower hostel in Hoi An, good location outside of the Old City, buy they have a great pool and shuttle buses to take you to the Old City at night. You can pretty much rent a motorbike anywhere to drive to Hue, and they ship your backpack for you ($15 in total). The road is very driveable from Hoi An to Hue,  the bus takes around 4 hours and it took us about 7 hours including the stop at the Marble Mountains.

I left my heart in Palawan

I finally made it to El Nido, Palawan after a 28 hour journey from Sagada. Although cloudy and a little rainy, I could tell I would love El Nido. Nestled around towering marble and limestone cliffs and green hills, El Nido (“the nest”) is a thriving tourist center, and probably the most popular destination in Palawan.

image

As I arrived and met some people at the hostel, I was convinced to sign up for a boat tour the next day that would take us island hopping. I woke up the next morning to extremely heavy rainfall – seriously like a wall of water coming down from the sky – and was told that this was the first time in several days that the tour was not cancelled due to bad weather (go figure). Some places we saw on the tour included Helicopter Island, Hidden Beach, Star Beach and the Matinloc Shrine. According to legend, the beaches and islands surrounding El Nido inspired Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which was written while the author was living in El Nido. Incidentally I read the book here before knowing that.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

That being said, you don’t need to do any of the tours to fully appreciate El Nido. In the 6 days I spent there, I must have spoken about those tours countless times, and with every single person I met (60% of the time, I was asked what tours I had done every time). Other possible non-tour activities include: renting motor bikes and driving to different non-tour beaches, renting kayaks and visiting different non-tour islands, and snorkeling (best snorkeling in Philippines – shout out to Isolde, pronounced Ees-old-dehh). There are plenty of great local places to eat (including a crepe stand with The. Best. Nutella. Crepe. Ever) and the two bars open at night are crazy fun.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

 

Next stop for about 11 of us from the hostel in El Nido was Coron, famous for its World War II wreck diving. In 1944, a fleet of Japanese ships ships hiding in the harbour were sunk in a raid by the US Navy. As a result, there are about 10 well preserved underwater shipwrecks that have spawned beautiful coral reef (shout out to my diving buddies/kings Edward and Henry).

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Apparently still tour crazed from El Nido, we hired a boat for all 11 of us one day and did our own island hopping, where we explored Coron Island and the Twin Lagoon (and plenty of snorkeling in between).

imageimageimage

image

image

imageimage

imageimageimage

image

image

 

After a quick stop in Puerto Princesa, it was time to head back to Manila.

Next stop: Saigon, Vietnam!

MellowYellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛

Traveler’s tips: there’s a ferry to/from Manila to/from Coron, but from what I heard it can take up to 24 hours (even though they claim it takes 16 hours) and it isn’t too much cheaper than flying to Puerto Princesa. The ferry to/from El Nido to/from Coron is bearable in good weather but pretty horrid otherwise, its a pretty small boat so 7 hours of choppy waves can be a bit rough. You can always fly to/from Coron but its about triple the price. I stayed at OMP in El Nido and at Kokosnuss Garden Resort in Coron, both highly recommended!

Chillin in Canggu

It was hard to decide where to go from Ubud. This would be our last stop in Bali – Fred’s last stop of her trip – so it had to be a good one. We were in constant debate between Canggu and Nusa Lembongan. Canggu had the good vibes we were looking for, but Nusa promised pristine white beaches and crystal clear water that always attract us like moths to a flame.

After much deliberation, we settled on Canggu (pronounced Chan-goo). Less than two hours away and a haven for surfers (read: chillers), this was the perfect last stop. So what if the sand wasn’t fine and white, and the water wasn’t the perfect shade of blue? Tourists and locals alike were chilled out, the streets laden with rice fields and hipster restaurants/cafés reminiscent of my old neighborhood in the Plateau (or Brooklyn for you non-Montrealers).

Days were spent lazing by the beach and nights were spent drinking beer and socializing/partying with the others staying at our hostel.

image

image

image

image

image

All in all, Canggu did not disappoint. In fact, it was the perfect ending to the perfect trip with my two best friends.

Next stop: Manila, Philippines!

MellowYellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛💛
6/5 (Canggu set new standards)

Travelers tips: We stayed at Surfers Hostel (The Village, but we heard The Temple is also really good). Crate has the B-E-S-T breakfast. Also, the best tip I can give you is go to Canggu. Just make sure you go at the end of your trip, otherwise you may never leave.

From Kuta Bali to Kuta Lombok (and the challenge of Mount Rinjani)

Kuta Lombok is the antithesis of Kuta Bali; quiet, remote and virtually untouched. On our way we stopped at a traditional Sasak hand weaving village, where we were able to see women weaving different patterns that were taught to them by their mothers, as each family has their own patterns that are passed down from generation to generation. We also got to try our hands at some hand weaving (pun intended) and don the traditional Sasak marriage outfit.

wpid-wp-1433146374241.jpg

image

After an incident involving a giant spider in the shared bathroom on our first night at the hostel, we decided to treat ourselves and book a hotel for the next two nights (a room AND a bathroom all to ourselves! And a hot shower too!) 

image

We rented mopeds and discovered the many exquisite beaches Kuta Lombok has to offer. But the real hidden gem here was the people – unfazed by tourists and genuinely good. There are also swarms of kids selling bracelets everywhere, mastering the art of negotiation and improving their English at the same time. Gabrielle must have bought at least 15 of them (bracelets not kids) and was identified the weakest link.

image

image image image image image

Once well rested and relaxed, it came time to hike Mount Rinjani – the second highest volcano in Indonesia at 3,726 meters high. We were a little hesitant at first; we had found the collective 4 hour hike up and down Mount Batur to be challenging, so naturally we were wondering whether we were physically and mentally capable of doing a 3 day hike. We ended up booking with an agency and hoped for the best. In the end, in my opinion, the trek was challenging but totally worth it (Fred might say differently). We trekked a total of 25 kilometers over the three days (split out 10/4/11) and camped in tents both nights at approximately 10 degrees Celsius (the temperature at the base must have been above 35 degrees). We were rewarded with breathtaking views that seemed almost unreal, along with an extreme sense of accomplishment – and maybe invincibility – at the end of the three day trek.

image image image image image image image image image image image image image image image

Next stop: Gili Islands!

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛

5/5

Travelers tips: Our first night in Kuta we stayed at Full Moon – OK rooms but very “rugged” bathrooms. We stayed at Kuta Cove for two nights – highly recommended. You can rent mopeds almost anywhere. Sonya’s restaurant is delicious – local food at local prices. Every weekend there is a beach party with a 50/50 ratio of locals and tourists – good live music, fire shows and cold beers.  

As for Rinjani, you can book with an agency for ~$130 or book a porter for cheaper but have to take care of supplies yourself. Ask yourself the following questions before booking: 

  1. Do I like trekking and/or rock climbing?
  2. Do I like nature?
  3. Do I like camping?
  4. Am I physically fit?
  5. Can I handle 10 hours per day of walking/climbing/being constantly on the verge of death, not showering, and going to the bathroom in the wild for three days straight? 

If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, then Rinjani might be for you. Good luck and godspeed.

Krazed in Kuta

Getting to Kuta from Ubud made me feel a little bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz – gone were the chilled out vibes and local culture of Ubud, replaced instead by the sensory overload and domination of Western culture in Kuta. We knew what we were getting ourselves into. A few people had already told us to skip Kuta altogether, but we had also heard there were some nice beaches (which we are big fans of).

So off to the beach we went, very crowded but also very beautiful. After experiencing our first breathtaking Kuta sunset we hit the town with two girls we met in Ubud (Katie from New Zealand and Fauve from Belgium). We danced and drank away until the wee hours of the night.

image

image

The next day we made our way to Seminyak – the older, more refined sister of Kuta. This took quite a while as we were paying the price for the fun we had the previous night. We ended the day with dinner on the beach, listening to live music.

image

image
image

For our final day in Kuta we went to Uluwatu. Here we saw the breathtaking cliff side Uluwatu Temple as well as some gorgeous beaches (Balangan and Suluban/Blue Point).

image

image

image

image

image

Next stop: Lombok!

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛💛💛💛
4/5 (only if you have time to spare)

Travelers tips: If you are going from Ubud to Kuta (or vice versa) it is worth stopping at the rice terraces (Tegalalang)on the way. In Ubud a taxi to the terraces and back will cost you 200,000 and Ubud-Kuta will cost 300,000. We got the cab to take us to Kuta with a 1 hour stop at the terraces for 330,000. We stayed at Kayun Downtown Hostel and would highly recommend it. If you’re not into the club scene go to AlleyCats. If you’re not into the party scene, do yourself a favor and go to Seminyak instead.