An Introduction to Bangkok

An Introduction to Bangkok

Of all the cities in the world that I had yet to visit, I’d probably heard the most about Bangkok. Friends, family, and bloggers a plenty had told stories, shared photos, and broken down all the do’s and don’ts of visiting the Big Mango. Although I’d never set foot in Thailand before, I felt prepared.

  • I was ready for the suffocating humidity thanks to a previous trip to Vietnam.
  • I was armed with a pocketful of Thai currency.
  • Our accommodations were meticulously researched.

But, no amount of research or pre-trip planning can ever truly replace first-hand experience. Especially, since we were visiting during a very unique and tragic time. Just a few weeks prior, the highly beloved King Bhumibol passed away leaving the people of Thailand in a state of mourning. Grieving their king like a family member, the locals were clothed entirely in black, many even traveling far distances to pay their respects.

Upon arrival in Bangkok, my sister-in-law Faith and I queued for a taxi and soon afterwards arrived at our River District digs for the next two nights.

We loved our vantage point on the river because it meant we got to take longboats and ferries on our full day of temple touring. Similarly dressed in black, we set off to visit the newly re-opened Grand Palace.

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We showed up at the palace in a bit of confusion. Everyone was gathering on the sides of the street as if a parade was about to happen. We weren’t sure if we should wait around or not but ultimately we decided to just get our tickets because nobody seemed to know what was going on. And it was at that moment that the skies opened and we experienced a classic Southeast Asian downpour. The rain was so heavy that it bounced off the pavement. We opted to hide and wait, hoping that this would be a short storm. But, after about 45 minutes we gave in and joined the few brave souls slopping around in the puddles.

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We wandered the grounds in eerie solitude, getting a unique opportunity to experience the grandeur and cultural significance of the Grand Palace without the masses. And then as we rounded the corner, we saw hundreds of people huddled under cover in silence, paying their respects. We did our best to enjoy our time but after about an hour of trudging around like a couple of drowned rats, we gave up and high-tailed it into one of the only open buildings we could find – The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It was actually really cool to see the queen’s wardrobe, which seemed like something you’d picture the British royals wearing. On our way out we almost missed the Activity Room, which would have been a tragedy because they let us play dress up!!

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That was definitely the turning point for the day because from there it just got better. We sought refuge in a restaurant serving up beautifully plated dishes. And I finally got to check eating Pad Thai in Thailand off my bucket list.

We relaxed by the riverfront for a little while longer so that I could enjoy a dessert popsicle inspired by the Thai flag – delicious and very instagrammable :)

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After refilling our tanks we set out for temple #2 and the one that I was most looking forward to seeing – Wat Arun.

We arrived just in time for magic hour and the dreamy light that travel photography dreams are made from. I was absolutely blown away by the immaculate grounds.

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We ended the day back at our hotel with free welcome cocktails by the pool while watching the sunset over the river… oh and an authentic thai massage. I could sure get used to this whole vacation thing. The affordable luxury is one of my favourite things about Bangkok.

Bangkok is a big, noisy, chaotic, exciting city, which is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. But after one full day of barely scratching the surface, I knew that I wanted more. I could easily envision myself coming back again and again with all of the diverse experiences awaiting me.

And with that, we were off to Koh Chang for some much needed R&R but we’d be back again in a few days to take in a totally different neighbourhood, Sukhumvit. There’s nothing like a roof top pool to make you never want to go back to work.

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Our time in Bangkok was brief, but it was enough for me to know that this is my kind of city. I’ll be back… I couldn’t leave if I didn’t believe that.

Have you been to Bangkok? What cities have you visited where you needed more time?

 

 

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Sweet Simplicity on Koh Chang

Sweet Simplicity on Koh Chang

When I chose Thailand for a weeklong vacation, my only goal was relaxation. I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to see everything on my wish list so I didn’t even try. Someday when I have more time, I will return to the Land of Smiles to explore all the jungles, beaches, and temples that my heart desires.

In the meantime, I set my sights on Lonely Beach. After a couple of nights in bustling Bangkok, my sister-in-law Faith and I journeyed to the most Eastern edge of Thailand to its second biggest island, Koh Chang.

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Koh Chang is one of the lesser known tourist destinations in Thailand, which was exactly what appealed to me. Quiet. Beautiful. Secluded. The perfect spot for our “sistermoon” and perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Southeast Asia.

Upon arrival at the 3 star Warapura Resort we quickly fell into a blissfully relaxing daily routine. Each morning we woke at our leisure in our private waterfront villa and enjoyed breakfast by the ocean. After sipping on Americanos and lazying around in hammocks, we walked down to the white sand beach.

Once we got to the beach, we rented beach chairs and an umbrella and set up camp for the day. The aptly named Lonely beach was sparsely populated with soft white sand and crystal clear turquoise water as warm as a bath. It was pure heaven and I never wanted to leave. We spent most of our time in the water, taking breaks to quench our thirst with the local Chang beer. It’s a tough life.

 

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After we had our daily fill of Vitamin D we walked back to our home away from home to shower off the salt water and catch up on wifi time. Our location on the western side of the island was ideal for coupling happy hour cocktails with sunset watching each evening. I’ll never tire of fiery skies.

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One of the best things about Thailand is the affordable luxury. Each evening we ordered authentic Thai dishes like pad thai, papaya salad and mango sticky rice for just a few dollars and pampered ourselves with pedicures and massages that would cost 5 times more at home.

I can’t say enough good things about this little slice of paradise and the opportunity to get a week of quality time with my sis. It was short and sweet and simply the best! I’m so glad that I opted for an untraditional vacation destination. It was definitely worth the long flight.

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 What’s the most relaxing vacation you’ve taken? Where should I go next?

Photo Essay: Visiting Taiwan for Free!

Photo Essay: Visiting Taiwan for Free!

I’ll be honest – Taiwan wasn’t on the top of my travel bucket list but when the cheapest flight to Thailand involved a 15 hour layover in Taipei, we decided to make the most of it.

Lucky for us, the Taoyuan International Airport offers FREE half day tours. That’s right – 100% free. After disembarking and breezing through customs we signed up for the daily morning tour. The itinerary included a stop at the Shou Sin Fang Creativity Wagashi and Cultural Centre, which is essentially a pastry factory (yes please!). We got to make our own pastries (which we quickly devoured) and then roamed the factory sampling as many local cakes and pastries as possible.

Our second stop was at the Zushi Temple in the bustling town of Sanxia, just 22km southwest of Taipei. There we learned about the Taoist religion and participated in some of the religious practices like lighting incense and learning our fortunes (my future looks pretty excellent!). We also got to wander around the beautiful  surroundings, soaking up the sunshine and striking up friendships with the locals.

Although, it was just a taste of what Taiwan has to offer, it was enough to entice me to return some day for a longer visit. Thanks for the memories TPE.

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Introducing Istanbul: Touring the Top Sites in 48 hours

Introducing Istanbul: Touring the Top Sites in 48 hours

If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, then you will undoubtedly pass through the fascinating city of Istanbul. Not only is it the largest city in Europe with a population of nearly 14 million people, but it is also the only city in the world to straddle two continents. The Asian side of Istanbul, which I regrettably didn’t have time to visit, is separated from the more famous and touristed European side by the Bosphorus strait – a beautiful waterway that I fortunately did take the time to sail across.

In a city that has served as an imperial capital for the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires over the past 1600 years, it would be impossible to see it all in just 48 hours. But, we sure did our best to tackle the medley of Christian and Islamic historical sights – a truly intoxicating mix of East meets West.

These are the top sights I would recommend if you only have 48 hours to explore Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)

Named for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior,  this is one of the two mosques in Turkey that has six minarets (tall towers used for the call to prayer). Visitors are welcome free of charge but must abide by a few important rules. There is a strict dress code (women must cover their hair, shoulders, and knees), every one must cover their shoes with plastic bags, and you should avoid entering at prayer times. Our group were eager to take on the challenge of being culturally respectful – and I think I would have loved wearing a scarf on my head if it wasn’t so hot.

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Unfortunately my experience was a bit frustrating as I became increasingly annoyed by other tourists who were incredibly disrespectful and ignored the clear signs and instructions about proper dress. It was a strange feeling inside the blue mosque because although I was grateful to see such an important and beautiful building up close, I felt like we visitors shouldn’t have been allowed inside. It felt like a place that was too sacred and special to be a spectator. I wonder… Where do we draw the line between respect and tourism?

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Hagia Sophia

What a history! Right next door to the blue mosque is this ancient structure with quite the varied past. Beginning as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia transitioned into a Roman Catholic Cathedral, then back to Greek Orthodox, to an Imperial Mosque, and finally to the museum it is today. It’s quite something to see the fragments of various religions peeking through the cover-up attempts.

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Basilica Cistern

One of our favourite stops of day one turned out to be the Basilica Cistern – but not for the reason you may think. The  largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul, the basilica provided a water filtration system for many palaces over the centuries. Okay, so yeah that’s impressive. And, we very much enjoyed the cool underground location as a way to beat the heat. But, what really made it our favourite stop of the day was the ridiculously cheesy photo shoot that we happily forked over 20 lira in which to participate. The four of us dressed up like a sultan and his wives and were taken through a series of hilarious poses with props and everything. The final product is simply priceless.

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Topkapi Palace

Topkapi palace was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years and one of the best examples of palaces from that period. It also contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. We spent a couple hours wandering about the grounds and visiting various museums. The crowds, heat, and sheer size of this compound definitely wore us down so come prepared with water and snacks.

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Grand Bazaar

I’ve never been much of a shopper when I travel. I prefer to spend my money on experiences rather than tangible souvenirs but I have to admit that the Grand Bazaar won me over. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops – the word overkill comes to mind. I still didn’t make any purchases but I really enjoyed the incredible variety of products and labyrinth like maze of shops. It’s definitely worth a visit even if you don’t like shopping.

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Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe is the largest palace in Turkey and the most opulent place I’ve ever seen up close. My travel partner, Mindy, has been to Versailles and even she agrees that this place takes the top spot. It definitely had a different feel than the other sights in the city as it was built in the mid-1800s and evoked a much more contemporary and luxurious style similar to that of other European monarchs. We took a 45 minute guided tour of the inside and we were gutted that we couldn’t take photographs. However, I couldn’t resist sneaking a pic of the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier that we came across at the end of our tour in the Ceremonial Hall. A gift from Queen Victoria, it has 750 lamps and weighs 4.5 tonnes!

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Fortunately, the grounds were equally gorgeous so we took plenty outside to make up for the lack of indoor footage.

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Bosphorus Cruise

I love water. I love lakes. I love the ocean. I love rivers. So it was a no-brainer when I learned that you could take a two-hour round-trip ferry cruise (one of my favourite forms of travel) on the Bosphorus for only 12 Turkish lira (less than $6 CAD). It was a very relaxing way to take in the sights from a completely different vantage point.

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Istanbul has a ton to offer. And even though I was impressed by many of the world-class sights I saw during my stay, I left feeling a bit disappointed. I don’t think Istanbul quite lived up to my expectations.

I blame the majority of this on the fact that Istanbul was our last stop of the trip and followed our time in Cappadocia which was nothing short of magical. Our apartment was probably the least favourite accommodation of the trip and we were all getting a bit tired of being together 24/7.

Honestly, I don’t think Istanbul got a fair shot. I would LOVE to go back and spend a whole week. Without the pressure of needing to see all of the famous sights, I imagine myself getting lost in some of the local neighbourhoods and indulging in more of the delicious street food. I would revisit some of the places I really loved, spacing out the visits so that I could stay longer. Overall, this was a great introduction but not enough for me to fall in love. I guess I’ll just have to come back again someday. Aww shucks!

Captivated by Cappadocia: History & Adventure in Central Turkey

Captivated by Cappadocia: History & Adventure in Central Turkey

The first thing I realized after stepping out of the airport shuttle in front of the Kelebek Cave Hotel in Goreme is that two nights wouldn’t be near long enough. I was instantly smitten by the fairy chimneys, valley views, and our cozy bedroom (with fireplace!). I got lost pretty much every time I tried to go anywhere on the property but who really cares when the place looks like this!

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Even though I could have happily hung out at the hotel all day, I was eager to explore.

Goreme is the most popular village in Cappadocia but since it is still relatively small, we decided to check out the nearby Open Air Museum on foot. It is important to note that I was expecting a casual wander not an epic hike, which is of course what happened. We reached the museum near closing time so we opted to check out the caves and hills in the surrounding area instead.

What seemed like a gentle incline soon turned into a treacherous climb due to my flimsy sandals on shale rock. We spent the better part of two hours playing in the hills with many screams and much laughter. Rachel and I were hobbling around like old ladies with Caleb mocking us while trying to keep us from falling. It ended up being one of my favourite evenings and we got some incredible photographs too.

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The next morning we were supposed to go on our hot air balloon ride but it got cancelled due to bad weather. It eventually got rebooked for the next day (THANK GOD!) but in the meantime we consoled ourselves with an amazing day tour by Heritage Travel.

The History and Adventure Tour picked us up from our hotel at 10:00am and drove us 5 minutes to the start of our hike in the beautiful Rose Valley. The weather didn’t cooperate very well with some light rain cutting our hike a bit short but we were still able to see fairy-chimneys, local farms, pigeon houses and cave chapels.

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The weather cleared up just in time for our next stop at the Monks Valley (Pasabag), where we got to see the mushroom-shaped fairy chimneys and St. Simeon’s monk cell.

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By this time we were ready for lunch in the Kings Valley. After some pretty lacklustre buffet lunches on previous tours, we had very low expectations for our meal. We certainly never expected it to be the best meal of the entire trip! Our group was taken to a private organic farm where some local ladies cooked us a fresh, vegetarian meal in a picturesque outdoor setting straight out of the movies. Now that’s farm to table!

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In the afternoon, we toured the Kaymakli underground city, the first and most popular underground city in Cappadocia. This complex carved underground was used for hundreds of years by locals to hide from Romans, Persians and Arabs. We were able to explore 4 levels deep and get a sense of what life was like underground.

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That was supposed to be the end of tour but because our hike was cut short, we were able to add one last stop at the Panoramic View. This is a popular viewpoint in Goreme that earns its name in spades.

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Our tour guide was informative and interesting and the stops on the tour gave us a great overview of the region. I had no idea there was so much to see in Cappadocia but I sure hope I make it back someday. It’s a one-of-a-kind place like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Eating my Way through Greece & Turkey

Eating my Way through Greece & Turkey

When I first started telling people that I was planning a trip to Turkey, the one thing that everyone told me was that food was ahh-mazing!

Now I already rank Mediterranean cuisines like Italian and Greek on the top of my list so I was confident that Turkish would be just as delightful (pun intended). After two weeks of indulging in meal after decadent meal, I couldn’t help but share some of my favourites. Hope you’re hungry :)

Tomato keftedes (fritters) & Greek Salad   Skala Restaurant (Oia, Santorini)

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Santorini is famous for its flavourful tomatoes. We sampled them many times in our daily Greek salads but we also sampled the local island delicacy of deep-fried tomato fritters. They were so good that we ordered them more than once. And with a view like the one from Skala restaurant… I could have sat and savoured them all day long, especially when a parade of donkeys passed by our table. Dinner AND entertainment… what’s not to love?

Chicken Souvlaki with Tzatziki     Fanari Restaurant (Fira, Santorini)

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For our final dinner in Santorini we headed to Fanari Restaurant in the main town of Fira where we enjoyed flawless sunset vistas and a classic Greek dish – souvlaki! It’s simple but it’s famous for a reason – you simply can’t do Greece right without this dish.

3. The best Gyro in Greece  Lucky’s Souvlaki (Fira, Santorini)

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If there is one meal that stuck in my mind for the entire trip it was this gyro in Fira. A gyro is like a doner or a kebab, essentially meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie and then wrapped in a pita or sandwich. The toppings differ from place to place but I prefer mine fully loaded. I did some pre-trip research and found out that the best gyros on the island could be found at Lucky’s. The internet did not let me down because this place was cheap (2-3 euros) and mind-blowingly delicious.

4. Authentic Greek Frozen Yogurt   Selatrevo (Fira, Greece)

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I’m was already a frozen yogurt fan before this trip but now I’m craving a Greek fro-yo place to frequent at home. The flavour of the Greek yogurt is so much richer and Selatrevo has even caught on to the craze of letting you add your own toppings. The store clerk told us that she knew we were from North America because no one else knows what to do with the self-service bar. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment but we certainly knew what we were doing :) It may have been the priciest cold treat we bought during our travels but it was well worth it.

5. Gözleme   Kelebek Hotel (Goreme, Turkey)

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Our cave hotel in Cappadocia ended up having a very nice restaurant terrace that became a permanent fixture during our stay. For our first dinner, I ordered a dish that I had never heard of before called gozleme, which is a savoury traditional Turkish flatbread made of hand-rolled dough that is lightly brushed with butter and eggs and filled with cheese, chicken, and mushrooms. It’s basically a pancake that you’re allowed to eat for dinner – so that made this breakfast obsessed traveller verrrry happy.

Farm to Table Lunch   King’s Valley Farm (Goreme, Cappadocia)

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The best meal we had in Turkey was this unbelievable lunch that was included in our History and Adventure tour by Heritage Travel in Cappadocia. They took us to this private farm in the King’s Valley where a group of local ladies cooked us a four course, vegetarian meal consisting of bread, salads, stuffed peppers, soup, bean stew, and dessert. I’m not exactly sure what I ate but it was all quite delicious and the experience of sitting outdoors in the middle of this hidden valley was definitely a highlight.

Chicken Curry  Kelebek Hotel (Goreme, Turkey)

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I said we couldn’t stay away from our hotel restaurant and I wasn’t kidding. We returned for another dinner and the Turkish version of chicken curry did not disappoint. But then again, I think everything on the menu was a win.

Meatball Durum Wrap    Mama’s Shelter (Istanbul, Turkey)IMG_4263IMG_9969One thing that I knew we HAD to do in Istanbul was eat dinner on a rooftop terrace. I found Mama’s Shelter online and even though the price tag was a bit steep for this crew of backpackers – the sunset views of the Sultanahmet were well worth it. And they didn’t even charge me for my delicious rose sangria so I can’t really complain.

What are some of your favourite travel dining experiences? What country tops your list? Leave a comment below.

Travel Highlight: Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia

Travel Highlight: Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia

This is what $100 million dollars looks like. IMG_4259 Do I have your attention? This is without a doubt the best thing that I did in Turkey. Not only was riding a hot air balloon a giant check off of my travel bucket list, but it was the reason I wanted to go to Turkey in the first place. That’s a dangerously high mark to live up to. Fortunately, Cappadocia and it’s famed hot air balloons delivered one of my favourite travel moments ever!

But, it almost didn’t happen at all…

Everyone knows that things can go wrong when you’re travelling. And unfortunately, Murphy’s Law often comes into play at the most inopportune times.

When I started organizing this trip, I wanted to leave very little to chance. Not only did I have some newbie travellers joining me but I had some major travel dreams that needed to come true. So, I used my expert planning skills to secure our flights WAY in advance with a top notch balloon company in Goreme. The best flying weather is from April through October when the skies are clear and the winds are light at dawn. We booked our flight smack dab in the middle on June 30th. I triple confirmed our dates with the hotel and was ready for the experience of a lifetime. But, as we got closer and closer to the designated date my weather app stalking revealed a blip in our weeks of sunshine-filled Mediterranean bliss. I started to get very nervous. What happens if they cancel our flight? We were only spending two nights in Cappadocia and had a flight to Istanbul scheduled on our second morning. We only had one shot.

On the morning of our flight we woke up before dawn for our 4:40am hotel pick up. It was at this point that my friend Mindy informed me that she had been sick all night and after taking one look at her I knew she wouldn’t be joining our group. With strict orders to stay in bed and drink lots of water, I left with Caleb & Rachel. We arrived at the balloon office to a light buffet breakfast and a waiting game. The weather forecast was not promising. After repeatedly being informed that they would decide in 20 minutes and then again in 20 minutes, we got the news. What CAN happen DID happen. Our balloon ride was cancelled.

I had mentally prepared myself for this disappointment and had already begun working on a back-up plan. We would simply rebook for the next day and if necessary push our flight to Istanbul back a few hours – it only cost €15 anyway. What I was not prepared for was the news that they were fully booked for the next day. WHAT!!!! For those of you who know me, I’m sure you can imagine my reaction and the full scale meltdown that proceeded. Not my finest hour.

Rachel and I tore back up the hill to our hotel reception and begged the night manager to help us. Keep in mind that it’s still before 6am. We asked if we could call the other balloon companies in town to check for other openings. He politely informed us that reservations at all the balloon companies would be closed until 8am and that we should come back later. We all decided to go our separate ways – Rachel & Caleb to get some more sleep and me, to sulk alone on the breakfast terrace. I ended up making friends with some of the kitchen staff and had a long leisurely breakfast with bottomless coffee and apple tea – so I guess there are worse places to be disappointed. Did I mention that we stayed in a cave hotel? IMG_1634 IMG_1633 When 8am rolled around – Rachel & I were back at the reception. We hijacked the front desk and basically demanded that the receptionist call every balloon company in town, which he did. We are quite a convincing pair. Unfortunately, he got the same response from every single company. Full. At this point we had to get ready for our History and Adventure tour (more on that later) that was departing at 10am and I needed to tend to my sick room-mate. But, not to be deterred, I went back to the front desk at 9am to speak with the daytime agent. She promised to call around while we were on our tour and sounded quite optimistic.

And what do you know… she came through with a confirmed booking on Deluxe Balloons and an earlier pick-up time that would allow us to still make our original flight to Istanbul! I couldn’t have been more thrilled to find out that I had to wake up before dawn yet another morning.

So early on Canada Day, my travel crew with a mostly recovered Mindy, woke up to clear skies and minimal wind. We were a go! IMG_4255 IMG_4254 IMG_1821

This is what happiness looks like :)

This is what happiness looks like :)

After a chilly dawn launch in our 16 passenger basket, we floated for one hour over the Cappadocian moonscape dotted with villages, vineyards, and the show-stopping Rose Valley. Our pilot informed us that no two flights are the same because we go wherever the wind takes us. We watched the sunrise over the mountains cast the most picture-perfect lighting over the dozens of balloons that joined us in the skies. It’s crazy to think that this is an everyday occurrence here. Each balloon costs roughly a million dollars and with approximately 100 balloons launched each day, we helped fund a 100 million dollar view. And we were happy to do it!IMG_1839 IMG_1864 IMG_1904 IMG_1908 IMG_1848 IMG_1866 IMG_1898 IMG_1935 IMG_1938 IMG_1912 IMG_1852 IMG_9896 IMG_1927 IMG_1943 IMG_1948 IMG_1874 After taking approximately a trillion photos and videos we proceeded to land in a nearby farmer’s field, narrowly missing some fruit trees and a vineyard. The ground team that had been chasing our balloon from below arrived within minutes to help guide the basket onto the truck and return us to our hotel.

But first, some bubbly for a traditional champagne toast to a successful aeronautical adventure! IMG_4250 Have you ever been on a hot air balloon ride? What’s on your travel bucket list? Leave a comment below.

Pamukkale: A Cotton Castle in the Sky

Pamukkale: A Cotton Castle in the Sky

After a walk back in time through the ancient streets of Ephesus, it was time to move on to another famous UNESCO site. I never would have guessed but our visit to Pamukkale-Hierapolis was one of the most unexpected delights of my time in Turkey.

I honestly had never even heard of Pamukkale until I saw it coupled with a 2-day tour to Ephesus (both sites are relatively close) and really had no idea what was in store for us. We woke up bright and early to stop by a lovely viewing spot at the base of the cliffs near a gorgeously colored lake. I was mesmerized by the “snowy” mountains and very curious to get up close and personal.

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Before we could head to the terraces we made a pit stop at Cleopatra’s Pool (Antique Pool of Pamukkale). Legend has it that this artificial pool was a gift from Mark Anthony to Cleopatra. After an earthquake in the 7th century, the remains of the surrounding structures ended up tumbling into the pool. Today you can swim among the massive marble columns while enjoying the thermal hot springs. We skipped out on the extra 30 Lira price tag to spend our time in the much cooler (and FREE) terrace pools.

Cleopatra's Pool

Cleopatra’s Pool

On our way to the terraces we passed by the ancient city of Hierapolis, which was founded in the 2nd century as a thermal spa. Many people believed that the waters had healing powers and the city became known as a healing centre. We casually walked by but again… the cotton castle was waiting…

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When we finally approached the edge of the 200m cliff, we were instructed to take off our shoes. Giddy with excitement we carefully tip-toed our way over the rocky terrain before reaching the springs. The landscape before us was surreal. Created by flowing hot springs and travertines (limestone deposits), the natural phenomenon here has resulted in mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins. The 17 hot water springs range from 35 – 100 °C and have been bathed in for 1000s of years. We spent the better part of an hour photographing every angle, dipping our feet in the pools, and even swimming.

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It’s easy to see why Pamukkale garnered the nickname of Cotton Castle. Other descriptors we used included glacial, lunar, and cotton candy! I’m so glad that we added this to the itinerary at the last minute (okay… it was still like 3 months prior… who am I kidding?) because it should be on every traveller’s Turkey bucket list.

Ruined by the Ruins of Ancient Ephesus

Ruined by the Ruins of Ancient Ephesus

What superlative should I use to describe my visit to Ephesus… only the best preserved ancient city in the world! I should really just stop visiting ruins from this point forward because is anything really going to compare? I’ve been ruined for all future ruins! (See what I did there?)

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Now if you haven’t heard of Ephesus, it was an ancient Greek city on the Ionian coast, which is now modern day Turkey. It was the third largest city in Roman Asia Minor and the centre of trade in the ancient world. It’s also famous for being the site of one of the original seven wonders of the world – The Temple of Artemis. It’s basically just a pile of rubble these days, but still pretty cool.

Not much left of this world wonder...

Not much left of this world wonder…

Ephesus was nothing short of impressive. We easily wandered around the 2000 year old streets for hours, continually awed by the next monument around the corner. I was shocked when I learned that Ephesus wasn’t on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites only to find out that it was added to the list mere days after my return home. It’s about time!

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We majorly lucked out during our mid-morning visit. The weather was much cooler and we even had a brief rainstorm that kept us quite comfortable for our mostly exposed touring. And the crowds were relatively sparse, which is a total miracle when you’re visiting the number one tourism site in Turkey during high season.

Now I could continue to list off dozens of noteworthy facts and figures but I think I’ll let the photos do the talking.

Temple of Hadrian

Temple of Hadrian

The Library of Celsus

The Library of Celsus, built in 117 AD was one of the most beautiful structures in Ephesus.

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The most magnificent structure in Ephesus, The Great Theatre, seated 25,000.

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Ephesus was a perfect start to my time in Turkey, setting the stage for some of the most awe-inspiring sites I’ve ever seen.

In My Bag: Packing for Summer in Europe

In My Bag: Packing for Summer in Europe

While I’m currently gallivanting around Europe, I thought it might be apropos to provide another dose of packing advice.

It is my travel mission to pack as light as possible (hello carry-on!) while still managing to look stylish. I look back at the photos from my 8-month back packing trip to Europe in 2005/2006 and I cringe at the outfits I put together. I wore a ski jacket in 80% of my photos and couldn’t have looked more like a tourist if I tried. Since then, I’ve learned that comfort and efficiency does not have to sacrifice style. With some strategic choices and some handy tools (read: packing cubes!) I am travelling in Europe for 2 weeks with less than 20 lbs on my back!

Here is the breakdown of what I packed in my bag:

CLOTHING AND SHOES

  • 1 pair of walking shoes (BOBS with memory foam)
  • 1 pair of dressier sandals (Clarks)
  • 1 pair of flip flops (Flojos with arch support)
Three is the perfect number for travel shoes.

Three is the perfect number for travel shoes.

  • 1 pair of jeans (for the plane and chilly evenings)
  • 1 pair of loose fitting hippie pants
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • 3 dresses
  • 1 skirt/dress (convertible)

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  • 8 tops (3 t-shirts, 5 sleeveless)
  • 2-3 cardigans (for the plane, chilling evenings, hot air balloon)

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  • 1 bikini
  • 1 set of sleepwear
  • 12 pairs of underwear + 3 bras (excessive maybe)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 pair of bandelettes
  • 1 belt
  • 1-2 scarves (for the plane or to use as a shawl)

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Note: Packing Cubes!

All of my clothing easily fits inside three small packing cubes. The larger blue one is for all of my bottoms and dresses, the medium red is for tops, and the small red is for underwear. These packing cubes make it insanely easy to pack and repack quickly when living out of a backpack. Read more about my packing cube obsession here.

TOILETRIES & ACCESSORIES

  • Stella & Dot Hang On Travel Case (toiletries/make-up/jewelry/sunscreen)
  • Norwex Cloth
  • Small Medicine Bag (Kleenex, band-aids, medication, hand sanitizer, wet wipes)
  • Travel Flat Iron
  • 1 Pair of Sunglasses
  • Tote Bag (for beach use/extra stuff for airplane)
  • Cross-body Bag (Lug – Moped Day Pack) – The best travel day bag that I’ve found!

ELECTRONICS

  • iPhone 5C
  • Headphones
  • iPhone Charger
  • Camera + Charger (Canon Powershot SX700)
  • Spare Memory Card
  • Portable Charger
  • E-reader (Kobo Aura)
  • Voltage Converter
  • Adapters

DOCUMENTS & MISCELLANEOUS

  • Passport & Visa
  • Wallet
  • Travel Documents & Insurance
  • Sleep Sheet
  • Pillow Case
  • Ear Plugs
  • Travel Journal / Pen
  • Travel Umbrella
  • Luggage Locks

This was my first time bringing only a carry-on to Europe. Do you find it difficult to travel light?

Departure Lounge: Greece & Turkey

Departure Lounge: Greece & Turkey

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!!!! Summer is swiftly approaching and with it… my next big travel adventure!

In many ways, this trip has been 5 years in the making. It all started in a crowded pub after the first day of an economic conference. My university friends, married couple Rachel & Caleb, were hilariously sharing the story of their disastrous honeymoon in Paris. It was a 3-week comedy of errors and the retelling had our table in stiches. But this story was more of a tragedy in truth because poor Rachel virtually swore off international travel ever since. Being the travel evangelist that I am, I promised that someday I would take her back to Europe and show her how awesome it can be. Well, that someday has finally arrived.

In just a few weeks I am travelling to Greece and Turkey with both Rachel & Caleb (wish me luck!) as well as my frequent travel partner Mindy. If summer in the Mediterranean can’t win them over, then nothing will. We only have 2 weeks but I am confident that our itinerary has something for everyone: Beaches, History, Culture, Adventure, and Food!

Itinerary

June 20-21: Athens, Greece

June 22-25: Santorini, Greece

June 26: Bodrum, Turkey

June 27: Ephesus, Turkey

June 28: Pamukkale, Turkey

June 29-30: Goreme, Turkey

July 1-4: Istanbul, Turkey

These are the activities I am most looking forward to:

  • Renting ATVs and driving around the island of Santorini.
  • Drinking wine while watching the famed Oia Sunset
  • Exploring Ephesus, one of the best preserved ancient sites in the world
  • Riding a hot air balloon in Cappadocia!
  • Sinking my teeth into Turkish cuisine (rumored to be A-MAZING!)

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I am SOOO excited for this trip and I can’t wait to start posting about it. Stay tuned this summer for all the details!

Where are your summer plans taking you? Have you been to Greece or Turkey? Any tips? Leave a comment below.

My 7 Wonders of the World

This is a special edition of my Favourites series.

It seems like there are so many variations of the Seven Wonders of the World floating around that I decided I would create my own from places that I’ve actually been.

My 7 Wonders of the World

Machu Picchu, Peru

Without a doubt, Machu Picchu is the most spectacular, awe-inspiring site that my eyes have ever seen. It absolutely lives up to all the hype! I trekked 33 kilometres over three days from Lares to Ollantaytambo before finally taking a train to Aguas Calientes and making the early morning trip to Machu Picchu. From touring the ancient capital of the Incas to hiking Wayna Picchu, the whole experience was incredible from start to finish. These Incan ruins need to be on every person’s bucket list.

Machu Picchu

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

While I was planning my trip to Egypt, people were constantly asking me Why Egypt? This question seriously puzzled me. Don’t people understand that to see the pyramids one would have to go to Egypt? Well this original wonder of the world certainly earned its place. Riding camels around the site didn’t hurt either…

Camel Time

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The most recent wonder on my list is the magical Halong Bay. Even on a mostly cloudy day this place had a mystical hold on me. With nearly 2000 limestone islets and floating fishing villages creating a tropical kaleidiscope above the green waters, this place is more than worthy of a spot on the new 7 wonders of the world list… and mine too!

Fishing Village

The Colosseum, Italy

I’ve visited this famous amphitheatre twice now and both times it transported me back in time. I’ve read so many stories and seen so many films (Gladiator anyone?) from the era of the Roman Empire and it is always haunting and humbling to be standing in a place so rich in history and tragedy. I can only imagine how impressive it would have been back in its glory days.

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The Eiffel Tower, France

Paris je t’aime! Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m not living in a chic apartment in the Cinquième (5e) arrondissement splitting my time between the cafe culture and long walks along the Seine. But, I digress. There is no building on earth that I was more excited to see than the Eiffel Tower. After studying French for 8 years, this was the place that I most wanted to see when I went to France and the place that I would most like to re-visit… and soon!

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Alhambra, Spain

This palace/fortress, originally constructed in 889 and reconstructed in the mid-11th century by the Moors was a major highlight of my 3 months in Spain. It might not be as popular as some of the other wonders on this list but it is every bit as beautiful. My only regret is that I didn’t take more pictures… I was too busy experiencing in the present tense.

Alhambra

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Croatia, Croatia, Croatia. The country that won my heart in one, all-to-brief week. And the crowning jewel is this absolutely stunning national park filled with turquoise lakes and magnificent waterfalls. This was the perfect day trip from Zagreb and a must-see stop for any trip to the Balkans. I can’t wait to go back!

Plitvice Lakes

 

My Top 5 Favourite Beaches

I decided to finally take the time to reflect on my travel past and document some of my absolute favourite finds over the past twenty-something years.

This is the first post in a new series on my travel Favourites (yes – I am Canadian, and this is how we spell favourite!)

Since it is summer, I thought it would be apropos to begin with the best beaches I’ve been blessed to sink my toes into.

 

Top 5 Favourite Beaches

 

Bai Dai Beach, Nha Trang, Vietnam

This gorgeous beach on the South China Sea had everything: White Sand, Warm Waters, and No one around. Touted as the best beach in a country with over 3000 km of coastline… it is easy to see why people love Southeast Asia.

Bai Dai Beach

Muchavista Beach, El Campello, Spain

I was incredibly lucky to spend 3 months living just a mere 5 minutes from this expansive beach north of Alicante. The entire length of the beach is lined with a boardwalk and a tram so that even getting groceries became an exciting event.

El Campello

Lanikai Beach, Kailua, Oahu

On my second trip to Oahu, I decided to do my research and find a beach, ANY BEACH, other than Waikiki. My search landed me on lovely Lanikai in the sleepy town of Kailua where public access is restricted to pedestrians only, making it the perfect island escape. It’s also made quite a few top 10 lists so this one is a no-brainer.

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Coronado Beach, San Diego, California

Whenever I go to San Diego (which is fortunately quite often) I always look forward to spending time on the island of Coronado. I can’t believe that people actually live there all the time because it is almost too lovely to be real.

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Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver, BC

No top 5 list would be complete without the place that makes me happier than any other. I live about 1 minute from the Pacific Ocean and it is a frequent stomping ground for me all year long. Vancouver has a lot of great beaches that I could include on this list (English Bay, Jericho Beach, Spanish Banks, Wreck Beach) but Kits beach is home. With breathtaking views of the North Shore mountains, Stanley Park, and the Vancouver skyline, it’s my favourite walk in the city! Our version of Venice Beach is also great for people watching, dog walking, bike riding, or playing some beach volleyball all year long.

Kits

 

What is your favourite beach?

Exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Sometimes the best way to experience a city is to get lost.

Hanoi - Old Quarter

I actually can’t believe I’m saying that because no one likes control and a plan more than me but there’s something about Hanoi’s Old Quarter that makes you believe the perfect shop, cafe, or even spa is just around the corner. I spent a lovely two days falling in love with Vietnam’s capital and indulging in the affordable luxuries of Southeast Asian fame. Spa pedicure for $12? Unbelievable back massage for under $15? Delicious meals for less than $5? YES PLEASE!

In addition to splurging (can you even say that when it’s that cheap?) on souvenirs and relaxation, I also enjoyed some famous sights. First up: Hoan Kiem Lake – A beautiful lake in the historic centre lined with trees and filled with picture perfect vistas.

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I also made sure to check out the famous Water Puppet show. It was probably the most confusing but somehow entertaining show I’ve ever seen. The entire production was in Vietnamese and I never really figured out what was going on but it was definitely worth the $3 ticket price.

Now, I was too lazy (It was hot!) to walk to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but I did manage to see his statue across from the lake.

Ho Chi Minh statue

And on my way to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum (yeah air conditioning!) I stumbled across St. Joseph’s Cathedral. You could definitely see the French colonial influence with this 19th century gothic church bearing a striking resemblance to Notre Dame in Paris.

St Joseph's Cathedral

After two days exploring Hanoi, and slowly re-introducing North American comforts, like the amazing treats at Joma Bakery Cafe, I was ready to head home. Vietnam definitely surpassed my expectations but I was ready for a break from the constant sweating… Summer in Southeast Asia is no joke! Hanoi was the perfect end to a perfect trip… until next time!

 

Halong Bay: Where the dragon descends into the sea

Legend has it that the mystical islands of Halong Bay were actually formed by a great dragon from the mountains. The ancient story says that when Vietnam was newly formed, its people had to fight fierce invaders from the North through the sea. The Jade Emperor felt sorry for the country and sent Mother Dragon and her children descending into the sea to defend them. The dragons helped to defeat their enemies with divine fire and giant emeralds (now the famous islands of Halong) that formed an invincible defensive wall. Thousands of years later, we now have one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

Halong Bay

Whether you believe the legend is true or not, no one can deny that Halong Bay is a remarkable place. Awe-inspiring. Breathtaking. Magical. None of these words can really describe the image implanted in my mind of countless limestone pinnacles jutting out of the sea. It was instantly clear why this beautiful place was selected as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2012 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

Halong Bay

My time in Halong Bay was short and sweet. At the Bay Chay wharf I boarded a junk boat at noon on Canada Day just in time to avoid a torrential downpour. Initially worried that the rain would ruin the scenery, I was quickly distracted by the enormous seafood lunch provided on board. With the weather quickly forgotten, I devoured course after course of squid, crab, shrimp, fish, and more dishes than I could handle. After I was thoroughly stuffed I realized that the rain had subsided and the sun was even breaking through the clouds (cue squinty eyes). We cruised the bay and visited a small floating village where I was able to capture some of my favourite images of the trip.

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Our final stop before heading back was the famous Thien Cung Grotto. The cave rises 20m above sea level and covers over 3000 square meters. Inside the cave you could wander up many levels where multi-coloured lights are projected onto the walls to illuminate the varied stalagmites and stalactites. That definitely conjured up some precious Geography 12 memories from high school.

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Although everything about Halong Bay was impressive, it wasn’t the highlight of my trip. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it seemed too obvious or possibly the overt tourism has diminished the wonder. I suppose that sometimes it is the simple and surprising that makes the biggest impact in the end. No matter, it was lovely, and I am grateful to have seen it for myself.

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Motorcycle Adventure in Imperial Huế

Unlike riding a water buffalo, riding a motorcycle is definitely an activity I’ve had on my bucket list for a while. Now, I don’t have any desire to own one but since Vietnam is home to over 40 million motorcycles, this felt like the perfect place to try it out.

Motorcycle

I was met in Hue, the former Imperial capital, with the first rough patch of weather so far this trip – truly a miracle considering it’s the rainy season. But, the wet skies did nothing to deter me from jumping on the back of a motorbike with my lovely driver Nee. He took me to see many sights that would have taken hours to see on my own, including another covered bridge, the imperial tombs, and the seven tiered Thien Mu pagoda.

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By the end of my three hour adventure, I had a new trip highlight. There really is no better way to get an authentic experience in Vietnam. Exhilarating, cooler (both in aesthetics and temperature), and convenient – the motorcycle is my new preferred way of city travel. The bike was even able to scale a mountain path to get me a view of the Perfume river… what’s not to love?

Perfume River

Cycling in the Vietnamese Countryside

After city hopping for several days I felt ready to experience something different. For a refreshing change of pace… I decided to take a bicycle tour of the countryside surrounding Hoi An. The scenery was beautiful and it was so nice to feel the breeze on such a hot morning. It definitely motivated me to keep pedaling because as soon as I stopped the sweat began to pour again. This is definitely the hottest spot on the trip so far!

After navigating some busy streets on my way out of town I was able to see local rural life in Vietnam. This included a stop at a farm to water the crops with traditional tools and a stop to ride a water buffalo. That’s right, you heard me… a water buffalo! I never even thought to put that one on my bucket list but very cool nevertheless.

 

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Charming and Picturesque Hoi An

The only place in Vietnam that I knew about before deciding to come here was the lovely UNESCO heritage city of Hoi An. I had heard of it from friends and travellers and knew it was famous for its European feel and small town charm. Well… Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I can confidently say that it’s my favourite spot in Vietnam (even with the skyrocketing temperatures).

Hoi An

One of my favourite things to do in any new city is wander around without an agenda and that’s exactly how I started my first day in Hoi An. It wasn’t long before I came across the tailor recommended to me by a friend back home and promptly ordered a custom dress and skirt (not pictured). Hoi An has over 400 tailors and they can have clothes custom made the same day! I am obsessed with my two items and keep wondering why didn’t I order more?!! I have this overwhelming urge to make this an annual pilgrimage!

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The heat was almost unbearable at times but I still managed to enjoy walking along the Thu Ban river and sneaking a free photo in the Japanese covered bridge (I think I was supposed to pay…oops). It was fun to explore but it was more fun to sit in a cafe by the river sipping on mango smoothies and eating pho under the fan. Have I mentioned how hot it is here? Let me tell you that 35 degrees plus 100% humidity makes it hard to do much of anything other than lie in the pool… Which I happily did later as well!

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The must-do event of the trip so far was catching the sunset over the river. At around 6pm when the sun is going down, the town totally transforms. The light from the sky mixed with all the hanging lanterns and floating candles was absolutely magical. I can see why people fall in love with this place.

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Beach Paradise in Nha Trang

My two days in Nha Trang were not nearly long enough to soak up all of the fabulous activities available. But, I did manage to squeeze in a lovely boat trip to snorkel in the South China Sea, an all day beach party with new friends, and some delicious Vietnamese cuisine.

This city had a completely different vibe than Ho Chi Minh City. I still feared for my life when crossing the street (crazy mopeds) but the atmosphere was way more laid back. I was fortunate to be able to enjoy the sunrise at the main beach one morning and it was there that I witnessed a jam packed beach at 6am. Apparently, the locals like to rise early to swim before the sun and the heat come out. That left a mostly quiet beach for us tourists to enjoy. Private cabanas could be rented for about $3 for the whole day and miles of white sand beaches were left for the taking. It’s no wonder the Russians have made Nha Trang their new go to vacation spot. I was certainly sad to leave but my skin needed a break from all that hot hot heat.

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Saïgon: Reflections on the Vietnam War

During my brief stay in Ho Chi Minh City (often still referred to as Saigon), I was able to get a quick history lesson on the Vietnam (read: American) war.

My first stop was Cu Chi just outside the city where a complex tunnel system stretching over 200km was built to hide and protect the Vietnamese from American attacks. Visitors are able to go inside some of the extremely cramped tunnels where at times you have to squat or shimmy to get through. I kept thinking that I would never have been able to survive for days in those tunnels let alone years. On display was also many types of traps and weaponry including a shooting range. The guns going off in the background made the experience all too real.

20140627-154010-56410331.jpgBomb Crater

Back in Saigon I took some time to explore the War Remnants Museum, which was very interesting. Outside were numerous tanks, planes, and helicopters from the war and inside were many photographs. The displays were heartbreaking as many images depicted the horrific effects of chemical warfare, mainly Agent Orange. The disfigurements, burns, and deformities still surface decades later and in so many innocent children. More civilians than soldiers died during the war making it so incredibly hard to understand how these tragedies happened and continue to happen in many parts of the world. I left feeling somber but also with respect for the resilience of the Vietnamese people who continue to rebuild their country to this day.

War Remnants Museum

 

Review: China Southern Airlines

When the cheapest flight from Vancouver to Vietnam was on an airline that I’d never heard of… I was skeptical. In the weeks leading up to my flight on China Southern, I read “horror” stories on the Internet of the conditions and service. So it isn’t surprising that I had low expectations. When I received notification of a schedule change resulting in an over night in Guangzhou… I began preparing myself for the worst.

But, in reality the experience was actually quite enjoyable. The aircraft for my 13 hour flight was clean and modern. Even 9 hours in, the bathrooms looked barely used. The flight attendants were kind and frequently brought beverages including complimentary wine. At my seat I received a pillow and blanket, as well as my own personal entertainment system. The most stressful part of my trip was selecting which movie to watch from the dozens of options.

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The part of the trip that I was most concerned about was getting my 24 hour transit visa and figuring out where I needed to go. I had originally planned to do a whole blog post on the process to help other travellers. Entirely unnecessary. As soon as I got off the plane I was guided step by step thanks to the lovely staff of China Southern. They honestly babysat me… Even providing me a map of the terminal. For a navigationally challenged traveller… This was a best case scenario. I would have had to try pretty hard to get lost.

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The flight boarded efficiently, left on time, and put me up in a free hotel as a result of the schedule change, including complimentary airport shuttle and breakfast. The trip was really as good as I could have hoped for… So all you picky flyers out there… Chill out. You don’t need to spend $2000 to get from A to B or in this case Vancouver to Vietnam.

China Southern

 

 

Departure Lounge: Vietnam Itinerary

Departure Lounge: Vietnam Itinerary

It’s time to get back in the saddle again! Or perhaps more appropriately, the back pack straps! I am a mere 3 days away from my inaugural trip to Southeast Asia (aka backpacker paradise!) and my first solo trip. I am both excited and nervous about spending two weeks in my own company, but I’m trusting Adventurous Kate’s promise that solo travellers are never alone!

Some of you may be curious about my travel itinerary for this trip so I thought I would include a brief synopsis of my plans.

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Itinerary

June 21-22:Vancouver, Canada to Guangzhou, China (next day arrival and overnight)

June 23: Guangzhou, China to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

June 24: Ho Chi Minh City

June 25-26: Nha Trang

June 27-28: Hoi An

June 29-30: Hue

July 1: Halong Bay / Bai Chay

July 2-3: Hanoi

July 4: Hanoi, Vietnam to Vancouver, BC (via Guangzhou, China)

I have some idea of what I want to do in these cities but I’m mostly looking forward to seeing what each day brings. That being said, these are the activities I am most looking forward to:

  • The infamous Nha Trang Boat Trip (aka booze cruise). Apparently, it’s the most fun you’ll have in Southeast Asia!
  • Getting custom-made clothing in Hoi An.
  • Touring the caves and waters of Halong Bay.
  • Eating as much PHO (pronounced fa) as possible… and learning the basics of Vietnamese cuisine.

I am hoping to post updates as I travel but that will mostly depend on my Internet access. Get ready for more fun updates to come!