Monday, 20 August 2012

Travel Series : A Recap!

I realised that I have quite a lot of travel posts on here so I thought I would regroup them all in one post for easy access! They are subdivided according to their topic :)

Travel advice

Packing :      
How to pack for backpacking
Packing list : Electronics

Packing list : Fashion
Packing list : First Aid
Packing list : Travel Essentials
Packing list : Toiletry Items

Packing light : toiletries (2)
Packing light : toiletries (1)

 Planning :
Planning a backpacking trip
Tips for organizing a backpacking trip

 Go to know :
Overland crossing Thailand-Cambodia

International Cuisine

Panama & Costa Rica

My travels

Why I love backpacking
My Backpacking Hit List
Scuba Diving

South East Asia :
Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4
My Bucket List

Central America :
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4,
Part 5Part 6Part 7

 Vegas :
Part 1Part 2


Central America :
Big Daddy's Grill & Patio
Cafe de Encuentro
Pension Marilos
Hostel Balboa Bay
Hostel Casa Verde
Hostel Casa Max
Hostel Pangea

Saturday, 18 August 2012

SE Asia Backpacking Series : Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Hanoi

Greetings from Hanoi! Where the food, the beer and the rooms are amazing and cheap! I love this place :) I've made so many food discoveries here, it's hard to believe.My trip ends in two weeks, so this post will probably second to last. I'm leaving for Bangkok tomorrow and we will probably spend our last two weeks relaxing and eating. I'll also make an update post about my bucket list soon! I have achieved most on there already and anything I haven't done is now off the table. Anyway, I'll make a detailed post about with pictures for proof ;)

So enough rambling, I'll start where I left off last time which is when we left Bangkok for Cambodia. I said last time that we didn't have such a good time in Cambodia. However, that story will have its own post because it's not only very long to explain, but also I'd like to be able to warn other travelers in case it can be avoided. Plus, if you're not interested in me complaining for a million paragraphs then you won't have to read it :P You can read about it here if you are interested.

So in Cambodia we headed straight for Siem Reap where the famous Angkor Wat is located. It is such a large site that you need more than one day to visit it and walking is almost impossible. Instead it is recommended that you hire a guide and tuk tuk for the day to bring you around which we did.The site was impressive and filled with history. We only went for one day though, since we were getting more and more anxious to move on (if you've read my post about the issues we had you know why by now). We then headed for Phnom Penh to arrange our Vietnamese visa. We paid a surchage to get it within the hour and left the next morning for Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

In saigon we did a bunch of activities. We visited the China Town (which wasn't as impressive as we would have thought from what we had read in our guide book), went to the mall for a couple games of Pump it Up, visited the Sky Deck of the Bitexco Financial tower for a few good shots of the city's sky line, went on a dinner cruise, to a water puppet show and finally did a cooking class.

My favorites were the puppet show which was simple, but fun and traditionnal and the cooking class which taught me loads about the vietnamese cuisine. We cooked four dishes : pho ga (noodle soup with chicken), Banh Cuon (steamed rolled cakes), Ban Xeo (savoury sizzling crepes) and a beef, starfruit and banana salad (don't know the name), plus three different dipping sauces made from fish sauce. Love!

The cooking classes are always great because they help you understand the ingredients and dishes better. It sorts of demystifies them for me and makes me more eager to be adventurous and try dishes I normally wouldn't.

We left Saigon after a couple of days and I was starting to feel under the weather. Once we got to Nha Thrang I was pretty sick already and all I wanted to do was rest. So we spent almost a week there doing nothing but sleep and eat. Didn't get to enjoy it all that much, but at least the food was good and I had a margarita bigger than my head :P (not all by myself lol).

By then, my birthday was getting near and we decided to go see the best beach in Vietnam : Mui Ne. We booked a cute and comfortable bungalow directly on the beach in a nicer resort to celebrate. For my birthday we watched the sunrise on the beach, ate seafood and watched a movie. Pretty low key, but we still both needed rest. We also went to check out the sand dunes that week. It was our first time in anything close to a desert and I was really impressed. We did some sliding on the dunes and watched the sunset. After that, we left Mui Ne and backtracked to Saigon to catch a plane for Hanoi.

We arrived in Hanoi about 4 days ago. Since then, we have made incredible food discoveries, walked around the old quarters, rode around in a cyclo and bought snake wine and a traditionnal vietnamese hat. Among the amazing food we've had here are : Bun Cha, Banh Cuon (which was surprisingly hard to find in the south), Crab spring rolls, vietnamese iced coffee and vietnamese Iced tea.

Yesterday, we left for Cat Ba, an island near the famous Halong Bay. However, when we got there the weather wasn't on our side (we should've checked beforehand, because the weather forecast for the whole week was horrid). One the night we were there, there was a rainstorm with violent winds (trees were uprooted), the electricity kept going off, rain was leaking in our room, all the restaurants were closed because there was no electricity (hence no food for me that night) and to make it worse our room was full of tiny ants. The next morning was no better and since it wasn't any kind of weather we wanted to do outdoor activities in, we decided to come back to Hanoi right away, where electricity is thankfully a little more reliable.

We ended up moving our flight back to Bangkok to tomorrow morning so that we could go back to thailand right away since we really have no other destination in mind for Vietnam right now. I'll update on how it's going once we're there!

Travel Advice : Warning About Overland Crossing to Cambodia Through Poipet

This post is about the troubles I encountered in Cambodia specifically when crossing the border from Thailand to Poipet Cambodia, then in Siem Reap and Phnom Phen.I'm making a post dedicated to this since it's pretty long to explain. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy Cambodia, but we fell prey to a few choice scams which I hope to warn others about.

Basically, we had a lot of trouble staying away from scammers in Cambodia. It's not like we weren't careful. Most SE Asia countries see this phenomenon to a certain degree. For instance, in Bangkok, tuk tuk drivers offer to drive you around and then try to coherce clients into buying fake/cheap gemstones in jewlery shops where they have a commission. There are also many organised scams going on in Vietnam as well. Basically, when a smartly-dressed individual with more than basic english offers you help randomly, you should generally be cautious.

Knowing this, we have always been careful when travelling around here and have never had any issues (apart from paying a little too much for a cab ride from time to time). That all changed the minute we decided to cross the border into Cambodia. Now, it might have been the destination we chose (Siem Reap, the city where the famous Angkor Wat is located), or the border we crossed (Aranyapathet - Poi Pet)  or maybe even the time of day (afternoon), but things quickly went from bad to worse.


First, we chose to cross the border independently. (Group crossings can be arranged in Khao San Road, but it's generally more expensive). We took an overland bus from Bangkok to  Aranyapathet. The bus  dropped us off in Aranyapathet on the thai side. Then, we had to take a tuk tuk from there to the border. Be wary, these tuk tuk drivers will bring you to an unofficial thai office where they will try and sell you a Cambodian visa. Don't purchase your visa at the thai office they bring you to. Instead, keep walking and go straight for the border crossing. You can arrange your visa directly there. The people at the thai office will try very hard to sell you a cambodian visa. I believe the visa they issue is valid, however they a lot more for it.(1200 baht). If you ask them, they will tell you it's the official way of getting the visa (it isn't). The people working there do not wear uniforms or any kind of identification.  Truth is, you can get the cambodian visa directly during the border crossing for only 20$ (again, fair warning, if you pay in baht they will charge you more. It's 800 baht if I remember correctly).

We avoided the office and went straight for the crossing by foot. Right away, a well dressed man started following both my boyfriend and I and another couple. He kept giving us "useful advice" telling us where to go (which was indicated clearly enough) even though we kept telling him we were fine on our own (by then we were sensing he was trying to pull something fishy on us).

At the visa office, we got our visas with no issues in only a couple minutes. Keep in mind that you need a passeport photo for the visa. If like us the border officials tries to make your purchase the arrival card for 100 baht, refuse. The arrival cards are free at the next office. (at this point the guy from earlier was still following us despite our efforts to get rid of him. He even told us he "tried" to warn us not to pay the extra 100 baht. He obviously said this after we paid though.)

After the border crossing we got into a free shuttle for the tourist bus station from the border. This is apparently normal, or at least the Lonely Planet says it is the norm. (we reasearched the crossing beforehand to avoid any issues so we were expecting this). The man who was still following us encouraged us to do this (we should have been suspicious at this point) and even climbed aboard with us. It didn't seem that there were any other methods of transportation around though.

This shuttle brought us to the tourist bus station. There was no one there but a couple employee working at the ticket booths. When we inquired about bus schedules to Siem Reap, the lady at the bus station simply wouldn't answer us. This part we were already aware of. There is an organised scam going on from Poi Pet to Siem Reap. They force visitors to take a fixed price, two hour taxi to Siem Reap for 48$ US. This exorbitant fee is apparently standard and even endorsed by the police in Poi Pet. Since we had been forewarned, we weren't surprised to see that there was virtually no other options available and that the lady wouldn't cooperate and tell us bus schedules. She would probably have gotten into trouble if she had kept the taxi driver from getting us as his very lucrative clients.

With no other options, we managed to convice the other couple to split a cab with us for 12$ a piece. The trouble is, the cab driver and the men who had followed us all the way from the border kept asking to be paid the full amount up front. Our sources clearly warned about this. Do not pay the fare in advance. Apparently, most travelers that have paid before hand in the past never reached their destination and were dropped off in a random location by the taxi driver not long after he received his payment.

Of course, knowin this we refused to pay in advance to ensure we wouldn't suffer the same fate. However, our "guide" got very upset that we wouldn't. He started whinning and trying to convince us to pay right away. His argument was that if we didn't pay right away he wouldn't get anything in return for his work. (which basically consisted of following us even though we aked him not to). We tried to reason with him, but he wouldn't hear it until the man from the other couple gave him a bill of 10$ US so that he would leave us alone. At this point I was really starting to be pissed.

After we had to endure an horrible two hour drive with a mad men. First off he drove way too fast for our comfort.  Second, he kept passing other drivers in the opposite lane which admitedly is quite common here in SE asia, but he was doing it quite carelessly, waiting until the last second before a collision to resume his own lane. Anyway, we were all relieved to still be alive once we got to Siem Reap.

Once in Siem Reap, the taxi driver was supposed to bring us all to our chosen hotels. Instead, he dropped us off near his tuk tuk friends who told us they would bring us for free. By then, it was dark and we were exhausted  so we accepted even though we weren't convinced. Now you won't be surprised when I tell you that the tuk tuk didn't bring us to the right hotel. It was dark, we were on a small street in the middle of nowhere and we couldn't see the sign of the hotel so we weren't sure at first.  We asked and everyone in the hotel's reception kept saying we were at the right place. Turns out we weren't, but we only discovered that the next morning. We also discovered that the tuk tuk drivers sleep there and regularly bring clients in pretending it's the hotel they wanted.

After we visited Angkor Wat, we left for Phnom Penh, already exhausted by the fact that we had to be constantly on our guard. Once we got there, we wanted to make our Vietnamese visa (the vietnamese visa needs to be arranged in advance) so we took a tuk tuk from the bus station to the Vietnamese embassy. The tuk tuk seemed fine at first, but then he started showing signs of increasing insistance towards us.

First, he decided to wait for us outside the embassy while we were arranging our visas (even though we said it wasn't necessary). He also tried to convice us to bring us to many other hotels that the one we wanted, but at least he didn't force us. After that, he tried to convince us to bring us to the killing fields. We told him we were leaving the next morning so we didn't have time and he started getting upset. He said he didn't have clients lately and that he really wanted to bring us. Then he tried to make us feel guilty for not visiting Phnom Penh, etc. Had this point we had had enough and thankfully we were in front of our guest house and we retreated quickly to our new room.

To make matters worse, the next morning when we went down to the bus downstairs, we saw that he was there trying yet again to tempt us into letting him bring us around. It was all quite creepy the way he wouldn't let go and wanted us to feel bad. We left Cambodia for Saigon and got through the border with no issues. We haven't had any issues with scams ever since even though there is apparently quite a few going on here in Vietnam.

So with all this said if you are still reading this (I probably lost most of you at this point!) here is my advice.


1) Any well-dressed individual that speaks good english and offers help (without being affiliated with a company you are dealing with such as a bus company) in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand (whether local OR foreigner) is probably not offering out of the kindness of his heart. These individuals should be treated with caution since they often work for organised scams.

2) Always be firm about your destination to tuk tuk and taxi drivers. Never pay in advance. Only pay once you have reached the exact destination you were going for. If the taxi doesn't have a meter, make sure to agree on the fixed rate before you get in.

3) If the tuk tuk fare is incredibly low, it's probably too good to be true.

4) Reasearch your destination before you go to avoid known scams or dodgy border crossings.

Hope this helped! Sorry if this is incredibly long, but I hope It'll be helpful to some of you if you are looking to cross overland from Bangkok to Cambodia.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

SE Asia Backpacking Series : Ko Tao, Ko Samui, Ko Phi Phi, Chiang Mai (again :P) and Bangkok

Hello everyone! Long time no post! I wanted to post this earlier but the internet here is not always great and uploading pictures can be a pain. Now I have a decent wifi in my room in Nha Trang Vietnam so I will update you on how the trip has been going. First thing we did in Ko Tao was find a good diving resort for a couple fun dives. Our friends wanted to do the PADI Open Water Course so we went diving in the meantime. We dived 6 times, in 6 different sites, all of which were very nice. I reckon it's some of the best diving I have done so far (not that I have done that much :P).

 On our last day in Ko Tao, Mathieu and I went snorkeling in Shark Bay, where you can usually spot black fin sharks. We were able to see a bunch of different species of fish including one shark!

After that, we left for Ko Samui. In Ko Phangan, we met two girls from Quebec and decided to travel along with them for a while. We decided to follow them to Ko Samui as they were going there to celebrate one of the girls' birthday. We only stayed two nights. While we were there, we went to the Green Mango, a popular night club there. It was all a lot of fun :)

We left Ko Samui and headed straight for Ko Phi Phi where we spent a couple days. There, we went for two more fun dives (this time we saw a bunch of sharks and a sea turtle!) and a snorkeling trip to the beautiful beaches of the area, including Maya Bay, the place from the movie "The Beach". I wasn't so keen on the island itself though. It felt too crowded for the ressources and there was usually quite a bit of trash lying around. There were many nice restaurants there though and we even had a poutine! Who would've thought?

From Ko Phi Phi, we caught a boat to Phuket, were we stayed the night. Our plane for the north was leaving from there so we walked around the city a little bit during the day. After a pretty uneventful plane ride to Chiang Mai we were back, once again, in the north. Our friend had never been and since I quite enjoy it there, we decided it was fine to go back. This time, we went to a tiger farm, where you can pet tigers and take pictures with them and took a day long tour to the golden triangle and the white temple. The white temple was simply breathtaking and the paintings inside were amazing (pictures inside the temples aren't allowed in Thailand so I don't have pictures). We also went to the night market in Chiang Mai for some souvenir shopping, to see a muay thai show and to get thai massages. As always, Chiang Mai was a lot of fun and I'd definitely would go back in the future.

 Our friend's trip was getting close to its end by this point so we caught a night train back to Bangkok. After she left, Mathieu and I spent some time there to relax, went to the cinema, the arcade and ate huge amounts of japanese food. There are many great japanese restaurants at the MBK Center in Bangkok, I had no idea until this time that there was so much of it there!

We have been to Cambodia briefly since then and are now in Vietnam. Cambodia hasn't been the greatest experience for us, but we didn't stay very long which means it's hard to judge. I'll update in a bit on how it's going here in Vietnam! Right now I'm kind of sick and might go to the doctor tomorrow if it doesn't get any better. Not to worry though, I doubt it's anything serious, but I might needs some antibiotics to help speed my recovery :)

  That's all for now, hope you all enjoyed this :) How's all of your summers going so far? Let me know in the comments!


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