Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

I. LOVE. Ubud!

As hesitant as I had been about it prior to my arrival, due to my lackluster introduction to Bali, Ubud did not disappoint.

I had made a couple of Coushsurfing requests for Ubud but the 2 people I contacted were unavailable and unreachable respectively.  However, I had one woman who actually reached out to me.  While I usually don’t accept unsolicited invitations, there was something about her profile and references that made me want to stay with her so I accepted.  Good decision.

Surien is a beautiful, caring, kind, spiritual and friendly woman.  We quickly formed a friendship and joked with one another constantly.  She was born in Lombok and had been living in Jakarta for years before moving to Ubud just a few months earlier.

I spent 4 nights staying with her, and then another 5 nights staying at a homestay nearby called Goutama which was perfect for me.  Surien had another Couchsurfer just before me, Christy, whom I met when I arrived and we all became fast friends.

Ubud has some incredible shopping, but you must be prepared to spend more than you would plan to on a backpackers budget if you actually intend to indulge.  I was swayed a handful of times to buy some clothes that I knew were actually great quality and would last me a long time as opposed to my usual cheapie purchases.

Ubud is very green and lush and has a wonderful energy about it.  It just felt like such an easy and lovely place to stay awhile.  It turned out to be one of the cities I’ve spent the most time in in my entire trip.  That’s just how much I enjoyed it there.  Perhaps it was in part because I made some lovely friends, but the feel of the place is what held me there.

I did go to visit the Royal Palace which was nice and the monkey forest which I loved.  The monkey forest is a gorgeous sanctuary and the monkeys are adorable and so much fun to watch.  One even jumped on my back at one point which is evidently good luck.

I rented a moped while I was there and just spent my time idling around, trying loads of different and delicious food and hanging out with friends.  One day, Surien, Christy, Thomas (a friend I made in Seminyak) and I all took our bikes out to see some rice fields and the Kintamani volcano which were both incredibly beautiful and scenic although the fields had unfortunately already been harvested.

On a couple of different nights we went to hear live music played; once it was soul and jazz music at the Jazz Cafe (bland food) and the other time was latin music at the Laughing Buddha (amazing food).  We ate at the most incredible restaurant where all the vegetables are fresh from their garden/rice fields which are surprisingly huge and located just behind the restaurant.  I forget the name of the place but will get and add it later.

One day I even went with Christy to a hula hooping class where I learned some new tricks and decided that I want to try doing it more at home.  It was such a blast!

We spent one evening at another couchsurfers home for a potluck dinner at his beautiful house surrounded by flowers and trees on the outskirts of the city.  And another time we went to a TedX event to watch the live broadcast of the bi-annual TED conference.

I even managed to go watch a ritual ceremony on one day though I’m still confused to this day what the ritual was celebrating or dedicated to.

More than anything, I just loved BEING in Ubud.  There was something so peaceful and rejuvenating about being there and I’m glad I was able to spend as much time there as I did.

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Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia

I left my hotel in KL around 7:30am and took the metro to KL Central to the bus to the airport. A bit of a pain in the ass at such an early hour but nonetheless seamless and straightforward. From there I flew to Bali. Bali had always marked the end of my trip for me so it was sad and exciting at the same time to be landing there. It was weird to know that there was less than 4 weeks left of my 2 year journey.

I booked 3 nights at Guess Guesthouse, one of the only hostels I could find in the area of Seminyak, technically located on the outskirts in Pettitingat. The hostel was really quite nice. Air conditioned rooms, comfy beds, and lockers which quite tech heavy locks on the doors. My showers there often ended up being on the cold side but I think that was just bad luck.

After getting in around 5pm I was burned out and not up for anything other than internet and dinner so that’s what I did.

The next morning I rented a motorbike for 2 days and spent some time checking out the shops in Seminyak (which are great and plentiful but on the expensive side if you’re on a backpacking budget) and the beach. The beach really wasn’t anything special so I just got a massage there and then headed back home. I met a French guy named Thomas who was heading to Ubud the same day as me so we agreed to share a hired car there. He rented a moped (for the first time ever actually) and we ventured out for the hour long drive to Uluwatu, one of the main famous temples in Bali. It offered a terrific view of the ocean but other than that the temple itself was nothing spectacular in my opinion. It was filled with monkeys however which I loved so I took my time watching them and taking pictures before we figured it was time to head back.

I wasn’t really impressed with Seminyak. It is very commercial and there isn’t a ton to do. I did however convince myself to buy a new (definitely not cheap) bikini from Billabong because I hadn’t gotten a good quality new one in years. Three nights was definitely more than enough for me and I was enthusiastic to move on.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

After the 9 hour bus from Koala Besut to KL, I made my way to Reggae Mansion, a hostel with fantastic reviews that I had mad a reservation at on the recommendation of a local friend. This turned out to be the perfect decision as the hostel is one of the best I’ve ever stayed at. There is a restaurant attached to reception and a rooftop bar. The showers are wonderfully hot and the bathrooms oddly never overly busy considering how big the place is and how many people I assume they have to cater for. The dorm is definitely the best I’ve ever seen. It was designed so that each bed is essentially a big cubby hole one next to the other, each containing a full sized bed, personal lamp and electric socket with a curtain for complete privacy and a locker storage underneath. Completely amazing.

My first morning there, my friend Hilmi, who I met in Vietnam doing the Mekong Delta tour, picked me up and took me to see a local monument, check out one of the many huge shopping malls and have lunch at his apartment cooked by his dad who was visiting. He dropped me back at my hotel for a rest and then retrieved me again later for dinner at an awesome place where mostly only locals go. His family and friends are so cute and it was so much fun visiting with him and them. Unfortunately we only ended up with the one day as his car broke down the following day (so I just had a small walk around and did some errands).

I only spent 3 nights in KL, and having arrived late and left very early, I only actually had 2 full days there. And I wasn’t really keen on signing up for a day long tour where they drive me place to place to take pictures. But if nothing, I can absolutely recommend Reggae Mansion if you stop through KL at any point. It was perfect.

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Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

What was meant to be a 20 hour train ride wound up rounding out at about 23 hours.  I officially have a new longest single journey transportation in my trip.  This train was fine but certainly not nearly as nice or comfortable as the one I’d had a couple of nights before and much more crowded.  I was definitely a bit cranky when we finally arrived.  From the train station I had to hire a motorbike to take me to the border.  There I stamped out, walked to the Malaysian border and stamped in.  Then I found out that the there was a 1 hour time difference and my only way to reach the harbor in time to catch the last jetty to the Perhentians was to take a $26 taxi.  Having no one to split the bill with I wasn’t thrilled but those are the perils of solo travel and sometimes you’ve just got to suck it up.  Everything went smoothly and I got the last boat to the islands.

I ended up spending an entire week, 7 nights on the smaller of the two islands.
There isn’t loads to do on the islands but they are beautiful and it’s very relaxing.  I went scuba diving 4 times while there.  It is the cheapest single fun dives that I have come across in my travels at only about $23 a dive, but I still didn’t overdo it due to budget and that I knew I would be diving in Indonesia as well.  I dived with Turtle Bay Divers and really enjoyed my divemaster, a smiley Lebanese man.  The diving was stunning.  Great visability and loads of cool things to see.  I finally saw my first sea turtle up close and even got to see my first sharks: bamboo sharks, a cat shark and reef sharks, all of which are small and not aggressive.  It was a fantastic experience.

I stayed for one night in my own cabin but had a miserable stay due to some incredibly loud neighbors blasting techno music from 12am-7am even though I asked them 3 times to turn it down.  Bastards.

I spent the rest of my stay in the dorm at Mohsin Chalets which was perfect.  The mattresses were comfortable, there was air conditioning, loads of cool people, and free wifi in the reception/restaurant area (a HUGE plus on an island whose internet cafes charge $5 an hour).  The only downside was the ice cold showers but that was the norm on the island and you didn’t really mind much when you had just come in from the sweltering heat.

I made a bunch of friends in the dorm and spent the week just hanging out on the beach, eating Malay food and diving.  I wasn’t in a partying mood so I didn’t get into that but there are some very cool beach sheesha bars that you can hang out at.

I had originally planned to do Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia but was swayed by other travelers glowing accounts of the Perhentians.  Clearly I didn’t regret my decision to check out the islands instead.  I had a wonderful stay.

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Back to Bangkok, Thailand

Barnaby was flying out of Bangkok in a couple of days and it was best for me to make my way down to Malaysia to make the best use of my time so I joined him in taking a shuttle back to Chiang Mai and the overnight train to Bangkok.

The train was beautiful and comfortable and very unexpected.  It was much nicer than any train I think I have ever been on.  There were individual reading lights next to each bed, a plug to charge electronics, comfortable mattresses with clean sheets and pillow and plenty of storage space.  It was lush.

Once we made it to Bangkok, we cabbed it to Kho San Road and grabbed a room at D&D Inn, which was quite nice and although pricier than what I usually spend, fairly reasonable for the room you got.

We idled around, shopping and eating.  The following morning, as early as we dared, we were picked up to go on a tour of the floating markets.  These were something I had been interesting in seeing and missed on my first pass through Bangkok so I was looking forward to checking them out.  They turned out, however, to be a disappointment.  They were highly (although probably not unsurprisingly) touristy and commercial.  Walking along the river offered nothing more than an endless supply of knick knacks for purchase. I will admit that for a few snapshots, the view of the boat filled river with folks selling food and random goods out of their canoes is a pretty cool sight.  But the novelty unfortunately wears off quickly.  We were taken on about a 30 minute motor boat ride through the rivers that was definitely the highlight of the day trip.  There we could see peoples homes and regular shops from the water which was beautiful and lovely.

After making our way back to Bangkok, I had t grab my things and bid my new friend Barns goodbye before grabbling a taxi and heading back to the train for my next overnight train to Malaysia.

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Pai, Thailand

Oh how I loved Pai.  I only spent 4 nights there and sort of wish I had spent more.

There isn’t necessarily that much to DO in Pai.  But the energy there is so wonderful and for some reason it’s just such a divine place to be.
My first day there I made a good friend in Barnaby, yet another Brit, who I spent much of the next week with.

There is certainly partying if that’s what you’re keen for, though I only really partook once and had more tame evenings the rest of my time there.  There was a beautiful outdoor bar/dance place called Ting Tongs that had a lovely ambiance to it.  I didn’t care for the bartenders who were inexplicably rude but other than that it was a cool place.

I finally got up the guts to rent a moped on my own while I was there.  After just a day of riding it around, I regretted that I hadn’t rented one sooner!  It is such good fun.  And it’s super easy to drive.  We took quite a long and difficult drive to find an isolated hot springs.  We missed the trail at first and wound up at a beautiful overlook that none of us in a group of 6 really minded stumbling on to.  After a couple more mis-steps we found our way to what was essentially an off roading dirt path.  Not the ideal way to start your career as a professional mopeder but you deal with what comes your way.  It definitely wasn’t the easiest of trails with lots of bumps and puddles and rocks, but we all made our way in and out.  Barnaby and I were proud of ourselves as the only new drivers in the group, the other 2 girls were riding on the back with 2 other guys.  The hot springs lived up to their name and were indeed a lovely reprieve.  But being the generation of ADD that we are, we lasted 20-30 minutes before we got bored and were ready to head back.

The rest of my time in Pai was spent looking for waterfalls that we couldn’t find, driving around the town and eating yummy food.

I stayed at Spicy Pai which was a great hostel.  All the huts were made of bamboo and fixed with comfortable bunk beds.  There were great hot showers and a perfect common area where everyone hung out together throughout the day or at night for some beer and guitar jams.

We also spent a couple of hours one afternoon in a pool at another nearby hostel.  So escaping the heat isn’t such a tough task.

On my last full day there, a bunch of us went to watch the rocket festival where they quite literally were launching homemade rockets and judging whose went the furthest.  It was quite cool to see them go but in the blistering heat, none of us managed to stay for longer than a few launches as the waiting time between them could be tedious.  The heat was so strong it was actually making be a bit nauseous.

All in all, I loved Pai.  It’s one of the rare places where I really hope to go back one day.

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

After Luang Prabang, I spent the better part of 3 days traveling to Chiang Mai.  I decided to take the slow boat as it was significantly cheaper than a flight and the overnight bus with chair seats only seemed rather unappealing.

The slow boat consisted of a 10 hour boat ride down the Delta on days 1 and 2 with overnight stays in Pakbeng and at the border of Thailand.  These little towns were just that, little.  There really wasn’t anything particular to see or do in either of them so beyond some very basic hotels and restaurants, there isn’t much to report about those.  On the 2nd day you actually arrive too late to cross the border (and even if you arrived in time, I believe it would be too late for a shuttle to Chiang Mai), so you’ve really no other choice then to stay the night.  In the morning, I took a ferry across the river where I would go through the Laos and Thai border crossings and wait for my shuttle to Chiang Mai.  The shuttle itself took around 4 hours and by 3pm or so I finally arrived.
Jenny and Hannah, having separated with me for a few days to see another town in Laos (and since they were flying to Chiang Mai) arranged with me to meet up again in Chiang Mai so we had decided on a hostel and they got us a 3 bed room for the 2 nights they would be there with me.

This time was of course too short since we’d formed a fast friendship and would have loved to spend more time together but such is the life of a traveler.  In the time we did have together, we managed to do a bit of sightseeing, got massages by working inmates from the womens prison (something that helps them prepare for life on the outside again), ate lots of tasty food as usual, visited the huge and fabulous night market and got the most incredible foot reflexology massages.

We went to the tiger sanctuary where we were actually able to get in the cages and take pictures with the beautiful giant cats.  I may not traditionally be a cat person but I certainly will make exceptions for ones this majestic.  It was wonderful and a bit exhilarating at times and the cats seemed loved and well cared for.

Our other big event, so to speak, was taking a Thai cooking course.  This was phenomenal.  We had such a blast going to the market where we were taught about some of the different ingredients used in Thai cooking and bought the fresh ingredients for our dishes.  Then when we returned to the school, our ingredients were separated out for us to prepare by chopping and crushing and grinding.  They showed us step by step how to make the dishes of our choice and we each did all the work on our own.  I loved the set up of this rather than the classes where you mostly watch them cook and they explain everything as they go along.  This was much more hands on.  We each had our own stove range and wok to work with and were carefully instructed through the process of each dish.  The best part of it was that it was so easy!  I made shrimp pad thai, green curry, chicken and cashew nuts, shrimp spicy soup.  We were even given cookbooks to take home with all the recipes they offer in the class!  It was so much fun.  I can’t wait to try some of the recipes at home!

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Luang Prabang, Laos

I forwent the 30 hour long bus ride from Hannoi and decided to splash out on a $182 flight from Hannoi to Luang Prabang. I nearly skipped this scenic destination on the basis of that I really only wanted to see Luang Prabang and I wasn’t sure it was worth spending the airfare for that. I was SO glad I decided to go, even if it was only for 4 nights.

Luang Prabang is a gorgeous little town. It’s very serene and the people of Laos are probably the friendliest I’ve come across in all of my time in Asia thus far. I made some new friends on the plane ride over, Melanie, Jen and Hannah from Manchester, England, and decided to share a room with them. Another good decision as they became some of my favorite people I’ve met on my trip. They are absolutely lovely girls who are all officially new doctors having just finished their studies.

We ate in the market a couple of times which was both delicious and very cheap and we scoured the night market multiple times during our stay. The night market in Luang Prabang is probably one of the best night markets I’ve come across in Southeast Asia. It is fairly sizable but more importantly, it touts many local crafts that you won’t find anywhere else. The prices are quite reasonable and negotiable as well.

On our first full day there we managed to get out of bed just shy of 5am (clearly not my idea) to go see the monks accepting offerings from whoever wanted to give them. It was interesting watching them walk down the street in a single file line while each stopping in front of those offering food to offer their blessings.

Later we went to Kuang Si waterfall. This did not disappoint. The water was a stunning shade of blue and there was a fabulous rope swing you could swing off of into the water. It was such a beautiful and relaxed location. It is definitely a must see in my book. We also spent time riding rented bicycles around the small town and enjoyed riding around and seeing the landscape.

Melanie sadly was heading home after just 2 nights, so it was just me, Hannah and Jenny after that. Hannah, Jenny and I signed up for a 1 day Mahout elephant training with one of the tour agencies. It was absolutely fantastic! We went for an hour long trek on the elephants through the jungle. We had Mahouts on them with us but mine decided to slip off mid way through and walk so I got to ride my elephant all on my own, bareback on it’s neck! It was an absolutely incredible experience. After lunch and another ride around on the elephants on our own, we got to bathe them. This was so much fun getting in the water with the elephants and Mahouts who would have us climb up on the elephants and then command them to try and (often successfully) shake us off. The elephants seemed to be having just as much fun as we were. The water was incredibly strong though so we really had to fight to not get swept down the river. It was so exhilarating! After 30 minutes or so of this, we went back up to the camp and got to ride our elephants back out to the forest where they stay the night. This was definitely one of the highlights of my entire world trip. It was completely unforgettable.

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Hannoi & Halong Bay, Vietnam

I only spent a night in Hannoi before and after my 1 night Halong Bay boat trip.  It was really just another big city and nothing all that special in my opinion.

Halong Bay however was gorgeous.

We didn’t have the most ideal weather for it as it was cloudy and sprinkled rain here and there, but at least it didn’t rain the whole time and we still had gorgeous views of the hundreds of islands of rock formations.

I ended up on a boat named the Halong Party Boat.  I didn’t actually choose my particular boat but rather just booked it through my hotel and that was what they put me on.  Luckily for me, as I wasn’t particularly keen on a party boat, I wound up with a small group of about 12 people who were all laid back and fun to hang out with but no one was getting trashed or anything.

When I had been shown what the rooms would look like when  booking the tour I laughed because I was certain that the rooms on the boat wouldn’t even vaguely represent what I was shown.  But, while the boats all looked quite similar and worn on the outside,  to my complete shock and delight, the rooms were absolutely beautiful.  They were nicer than many hotels I’ve stayed in.  There were shiny wood floors and furniture, air conditioning, and each room had it’s own bathroom.  This is on a boat with at least a dozen rooms.  I was given my own room since our group size was so small.

All of our meals on the boat were delicious and very plentiful as well.  They were filled with meats and seafood and all sorts of sides.  They certainly keep you full.

Our first activity was to check out some of the huge caves that the rock formations have formed.  The sheer size of them was quite impressive and our guide seemed to enjoy pointing out shapes of animals or reptiles that seemed to shape their way into the rocks. (It felt like playing the cloud game since they could certainly be open to interpretation).

We stopped at one of the islands and hiked up a surprisingly difficult trail to the top to gain an incredible birds eye view of the islands.  Although exhausting, it was definitely worth the effort.

In the evening we all had a few drinks on the top deck of the boat.  There was a couple in their late 50s or so who had been married for 29 years that I chatted with a bunch.  They were absolutely adorable.  When I asked them what their secret was she just said that he was easy to be married to.  I later told them that they reminded me of how Sifiso and I are with eachother, because they’re so sweet to one another and clearly in love, and they told me just not to stop.  To keep doing what we’re doing.  Seems like sound advice.

The next day we went kayaking in a small area of the islands.  I’m far from a kayak enthusiast but it was nice to be in the water and get a good view of the sea villages.  We even stopped at one of the small islands and explored one of the caves.

After a cooking lesson on how to make spring rolls (and stuffing ourselves on them afterwards), we made our way back to the harbor.

It was a fabulous trip and I would highly recommend it.  If I had the time I probably would have done a 2 night trip on the boat rather than 1 night.  But it was lovely none the less.

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Hue, Vietnam

I only spent one night in Hue.  I knew there wasn’t loads to do there and I needed to stay a night before I could catch another bus to Hannoi.

So in Hue I did a city tour that would take up most of my day before having to get on my next bus.  (My first day there was spent posting things home and hanging about).

We took a long Dragon Boat ride, saw a beautiful Pagoda, had lunch, visited a couple of kings tombs, one of which was particularly unique and impressive, and the Citadel, which was huge and beautiful.  I met a cool Israeli couple who I spent the day hanging out with and ended up on the same bus as me to Hannoi.

Hue was an alright stop to make but nothing so special so if you’re short on time, I’d say it’s ok to give it a miss.

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