Cambodia in 16 Days

I’ve found during my travels that instagram has been a really awesome way to connect with people and stay connected with friends back home. I had a good friend in college (named Helen), but after we graduated, she moved to a different state, and we didn’t keep up at all, besides following each other on instagram of course. And 9 years later, it turned out that both of us are on this same type of journey across the world. She was in Australia with plans to stop in SE Asia before going home, and I was already in SE Asia, so after nearly a decade of not talking, we decided to meet up in Cambodia! And it was wonderful!

Below is a summary of our trip with my real feelings about each place, and lots of practical tips. I entered Cambodia by bus, from Bangkok which cost $30. I got my visa ahead of time through this website, and it cost $36. It was very convenient.

Sixteen days in Cambodia cost me about $600. (This definitely does not include all the money I lost when my purse was stolen)

Siem Reap (3 Days)

Helen and I met up in Siem Reap. After getting over the shock of seeing each other after 9 years, we went out on the town! We both found Siem Reap to be a really fun city. Pub street is a really fun area with tons of cute bars and restaurant. Somehow they all look like they came staring out of a West Elm magazine! There’s a large market nearby with the usual tourist items, but if you go a bit farther out, and cross the river, you can find some very nice more unique markets. We also checked out Artisans D’Angkor which does a nice free tour, and you can watch the artists making the products, which was really enlightening.

For food, Pub Street is very popular. All the restaurants sell the same type of food. One place we really liked (not on Pub Street) was Spoons Cafe, which also has a great mission. Excellent food, and very good, maybe even a bit over-the-top hospitality. We also ate at Temple Coffee n’ Bakery one night. They have a really cool rooftop bar at night, and we were the only tourists when we went. We also couldn’t stay away from Project Y. Another mission-driven spot near Pub Street. Honestly the best froyo I’ve ever had. And the people are SO nice, and love to talk about what they are doing and how it’s changing lives.

Iconic image of Angkor Wat that is not exactly what it seems…

Iconic image of Angkor Wat that is not exactly what it seems…

And of course, the reason people stop in Siem Reap, is for Angkor Wat! Although I enjoyed this, it wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be, and I would do it differently if I had the chance. For one, it’s more expensive than I expected. One day passes are $37/person, and you need a tuk tuk driver to accompany you all day because the grounds are absolutely massive. Our tuk tuk driver cost $21 (plus tip) for 8 hours. We booked him through our hotel.

However, what we should have also done…and I highly recommend to you…is to hire a guide, or find some sort of audio guide before you go. You really need this or you have no idea what you are looking at. There’s almost 0 signage and no educational information. We walked around for 8 hours, and really had no idea what we were looking at.

The reason it’s not quite as spectacular as I though it would be is because the area is so huge, and you take a tuk tuk on normal roads from temple to temple. You don’t feel immersed in the experience. Maybe if you do the 2 day pass, and explore a bit more, you can feel more immersed…but I don’t know.

Also, the main area, and iconic photo you see of Angkor Wat is not nearly as beautiful as it seems. That beautiful body of water is actually a swampy and shallow bog with like 100 people standing at its edge all trying to get this picture. (Re: my tip about don’t plan your trip through instagram in this blog post)

But overall, I really enjoyed Siem Reap and it’s definitely worth 2-3 days on your trip to Cambodia!

Phnom Penh (2-3 Days, if any)

After Siem Reap, we took a 6 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh that cost $15. Honestly, I vote to skip this city entirely. I didn’t like the city from the moment we got there, and then my purse was stolen (detailed in this blog post), reconfirming my feelings. But besides that, there really wasn’t anything special to see in my opinion. The real reason to go there is to see the Killing Fields. So if you want to see those, then go to Phnom Penh. If you don’t, skip this city. And if you do go, I heard the area near the Russian Market is a nice place for accommodation.

San Monorom (3 Days)

We couldn’t wait to leave Phnom Penh, so we took a 6 hour minibus ride to San Monorom that cost $10. We went there to visit the Mondulkiri Project, which is an ethical elephant sanctuary. I’ve been searching high and low for one my whole time in Asia and finally felt like this one looked good enough to try.

The Tree Lodge

The Tree Lodge

We stayed at Tree Lodge, where the tours leave from. One cute and open-air double bungalow is $10/night. This place is really adorable and has great food as well.

We booked the 2 day tour with the Mondulkiri project and were quite happy with it. First day was trekking, and second day was the elephants. The first day, we got to ride in the back of a pick-up truck to the small village where our 18km trek began. We met our guides, and got some water and headed off.

On the way out, we saw a dead dog’s head on a stick which was quite alarming. We later learned, that most people in the village are animists, and this was an animal sacrifice that they made.

The 18km trek was quite nice. The landscapes were really beautiful and we hiked through the jungle as well. We stopped for lunch at a waterfall, and swam afterwards but it was very cold. I struggled a bit on the trek, as usual. It’s doable, but there are some uphill stretches that are a little tough. However, no one else seemed to have any problem with it. In the evening, we got a quick cold shower out of a hose in the wall, ate some pretty good dinner, family style on the floor, and drank some very interesting rice wine. We slept in hammocks, and let me say, they are not really comfortable for a full nights sleep! Plus they are a bit musty and you are using some old, and probably never washed blankets that everyone shares. But, I’ve basically gotten used to being a certain level of dirty or unsanitary at all times.

Fascinating creatures!

Fascinating creatures!

It’s alarming when they approach you in the water!

It’s alarming when they approach you in the water!

The next morning, we had some banana pancakes with Nutella, and then set off to meet the elephants! This was a pretty cool experience, and from what I could tell, I would give this an 8/10 on the ethics scale. The elephants had tons of land to roam, they each had their own mahout, they are given proper veterinary care, and they only buy elephants in an ethical way. All these elephants were already domesticated, and came from forced labor situations, so they are already accustomed to humans and being cared for. And they only had 5 elephants. The 5 elephants came to us because we had bananas, which they love, and then they left when they wanted to. We could walk around with them in the jungle.

I was shocked by what they look like up close. Firstly, Asian elephants are quite different looking than the gray African elephants I’m used to seeing depicted. They are smaller (though still huge animals) and have a brown color. I couldn’t believe how rough and wrinkly their skin was. They almost seemed prehistoric. Their eyes were more like a horses or a goats where you are kind of unsure what’s going on in their heads, not like a cat or dog where you feel connected instantly.

After this encounter, we had a rest…which we needed after the trek the day before. I fell asleep immediately. In the afternoon, we had the river encounter. Honestly, this felt wildly unsafe to me. I’m glad I did it, but I’m also glad it’s over, and I never need to do it again. We stood at a part in the river right next to a waterfall, and the current was strong. In areas, it was a little difficult even just to stand. Meanwhile, a giant multi-ton elephant is standing next to you vying for your bananas! This felt like a disaster waiting to happen. People brought their young children in the water, and it just felt like such a bad idea. We were supposed to “bathe” the elephants but they weren’t so interested in that, and like I said, it was difficult to stand, let alone scrub an elephant…

After that, we had to take another 30 minute hike just to get out of the park, and I was completely exhausted by then. We got back to the Tree lodge in the evening, and stayed one more night there which was really nice after all that hard work.

Exhausted post hike glam pic!

Exhausted post hike glam pic!

Overall, I think this was a good experience. I had a lot of fun, and I do feel like the elephants are treated well. In terms of safety, I would give this a lower rating. Safety standards are generally very different in Asia, but I felt like being in the river with the elephant was pushing my limit.

Sihanoukville (1 Day, if any)

The next morning, we took at 14 hour minibus ride that cost $18 to Sihanoukville. It was supposed to be less hours, but we hit a ton of traffic just before reaching the city. Sihanoukville was the worst city I’ve been to in all of SE Asia. I mean, the whole place is basically a dumpster. I feel bad saying that, but it’s true. The roads are completely torn up, walking around is a hazard, there are large groups of men loitering, insane traffic, and trash everywhere. Do NOT stay here unless you have to. You do have to come here in order to get a boat to Koh Rong. But if you can avoid staying the night, do so. We had to stay the night unfortunately, and stayed in this super overpriced and gross hotel near the water.

Koh Rong (6 Days)

Koh Rong is a really lovely and fun island off the coast of Cambodia. It’s very popular for the party crowd, and it’s main attraction is seeing the bioluminescent sea plankton at night. Sadly, we only had one good weather day, and the rest of the days it rained or was cloudy.

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Helen and I spent an indulgent 5 nights drinking too much, eating too much, dancing, and playing pool and other bar games at a really fun place called Reef on the Beach, in one of their private bungalows. We had a great time, but after 5 days of this were completely exhausted, and ready for some more wholesome fun.

The plankton is quite easy to see. If you go to a dark spot on the beach at night, you can swim, not even too deep..and when you move the water around, it will light up like it has lots of little blue lightning bugs in it. I think you can take a boat out as well into deeper water, which I’m sure is really cool, but we didn’t do this.

Note, that there is NO ATM on this island so make sure you have enough cash when you arrive. There is a small and overpriced snack shop near Reef on the Beach. But the main town is about a 40 minute walk. So we spent the majority of our time at Reef on the Beach, napping, reading, and preparing for the night ahead…

If you want a quieter stay, you can try Koh Rong Sanloem which is a smaller island not too far away.

We left Cambodia by taking a sleeper bus to Bangkok that cost $30. Remember, these are beds!! So I really don’t recommend taking these buses unless you have a friend to take the spot in the bed next to you. Some are VERY cozy, and it would not be fun to share with a stranger, especially a strange man. It’s near impossible to sleep anyways as the roads are so curvy, and I was always almost hitting my forehead on this metal bar on the side of the bed. And Helen and I both had to get out multiple times on this bus to pee on the side of the road. Always an adventure!

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is a really fun city to explore! It’s full of expats who have found a home there, and I recommend staying at least 5 days. It’s a good place to rest if you are traveling a lot, because there is delicious, healthy food, and great yoga classes. In this post, I’ll cover food, what to do, where to stay, and how to get around. My 10 days in Chiang Mai cost about $350.

Doi Suthep Temple

Doi Suthep Temple

Another gorgeous temple I stumbled upon.

Another gorgeous temple I stumbled upon.

Food

Let’s talk about food! Sooo many yummy options here, oh my! I’d been traveling the southern and central Thailand up until this, and was disappointed in the healthy food offerings (lots of delicious street food of course). So it was a huge relief to be here. Salad Concept is a really fun restaurant where you can make custom salads and salad wraps. They have SO many different topping and dressing choices. Creamy sesame was my favorite. Goodsouls Kitchen had really delicious food (including smoothie bowls) and baked goods. The night markets here are abundant, and have tons of good things to try. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to try mango sticky rice. Khao Soi is the traditional dish of Chiang Mai. It’s a soup dish with noodles and meat, and is quite spicy. A Kitchen is a darling local place I highly recommend. Definitely try the pineapple curry!! And any time you are in Thailand, go for a 7-Eleven meal! 7-Eleven’s are literally on every corner in all of Thailand. I liked to go for the refrigerated grilled cheese (which they toast for you on the spot!), a ice cold coke, and a chocolate chip banana muffin! This costs about $2.

Lots of cute things to find in Chiang Mai!

Lots of cute things to find in Chiang Mai!

And beautiful colors everywhere.

And beautiful colors everywhere.

What to do

Yoga. My two favorite places to do yoga were Chiang Mai Holistic and Heart Space. Chiang Mai Holistic is a very nice place, with great classes and some free community offerings. They also have delicious protein shakes for after your workout. I loved the peanut butter one. There is also a free yoga class every morning in the park. I believe it’s at 9am, but you can find out on the Chiang Mai Community facebook page.

Heart Space was my favorite thing about Chiang Mai. They describe themselves as a community space for people to come together, open, and heal through meditation, song, ceremony, and whatever else the heart desires! And I have to say, it lived up to this description! I had been traveling for about 4 months at this point, and was still really struggling with depression and loneliness, and Heart Space was a place I felt so much peace and calm. I want to as many ceremonies as I possibly could. I had many dancing, eye gazing, chakra opening, cacao drinking, crying, laughing evenings spent here. The woman who runs the show is a true gem! I hope this place will be around for a long time.

Sticky waterfall. Now this is really cool! It’s a pretty big waterfall cascading over limestone rocks which have a stickiness to them that allows you to easily climb up and move around. There are some slippery areas, so do be careful. I spent a couple hours here with a friend I met in the area, and it was a blast exploring at our own pace. But you can also do this tour through any local company or airbnb.

Bars. North Gate Jazz Co-Op is a really fun and popular jazz spot with great energy in the main square. Warm Up Cafe is outside the square a bit, and pretty much only locals go there so it’s a cool experience. And Zoe in Yellow is a main dance club in an area of clubs and bars that was quite fun.

Hike. I hiked Monk’s trail to Wat Pha La and that was nice. But I more enjoyed the hike along the Huay Keaw Waterfalls. It was great to take a dip every time you got hot along the way, and you can walk for a long time up the mountain. I did these hikes in one day by taking a Grab taxi from one starting point to another. But be careful hiking here! I was almost bitten by a poisonous viper along the trail. (for real people)

Doi Suthep. This is a really lovely temple at the top of a mountain right outside Chiang Mai. I highly recommend going in the evening because the temple takes on a whole new aura at night. It’s peaceful and calm, and maybe even a bit mysterious or eerie. The breeze blows and the tiny bells all over the temple ring beautifully. You can see the whole city from up there. You can do a meditative walk around the inner path at the temple. You meditate while walking around it 3 times. I really enjoyed that.

Chiang Mai is a really fun place for shopping!

Chiang Mai is a really fun place for shopping!

Thank you to my friend Helen Dear for these photos!

Thank you to my friend Helen Dear for these photos!

Sunday Night Market. This is the best market I’ve been to in all of SE Asia. It’s the best because it has so many different hand crafted items from local artisans. As opposed to all the same cheap stuff at every market stall that you usually see. I wanted to buy everything I saw! So many cute and unique things. I ended up purchasing a really cute and inexpensive cross-body bag, which unfortunately was stolen from me later (See blog post: How my Purse Was Stolen in Cambodia). And the fried sweet potato balls are a must try! Soooo good.

Thai Grand Canyon. I did not go to the Grand Canyon because I found out about it too late. But it looks like TONS of fun, and I wish I had! Definitely check it out.

Getting Around

Chiang Mai is kind of walkable. It’s better once you are inside the old city square. But it still takes about 30-40 minutes to walk from one end to another. There’s a lot of traffic on the outskirts, and crossing the street to get into the old city is a pain.

Grab is very useful there for taxis or motorbike taxis. There are also these red pickup trucks that drive all around town and take tourists to main attractions. I found them to be a bit tricky to use. But you just kind of walk up to them…while they are driving…and ask if they are going where you need to go and how much it costs. They are called songthaews.

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Where to Stay

I stayed in the Nimman area which is just outside the old city to the Northwest. This was a nice area for food, and not too far of a walk to the old city. I would recommend staying here, or within the square of the old city. Anywhere you stay, you’re bound to find adorable murals as you explore, like the one on the left!

Chiang Mai is a great place to explore, and absolutely worth a spot on your Thailand itinerary. You can also get to Pai from here which I’ve heard wonderful things about. Just beware, you take a 3 hour minivan ride there on very curvy roads. Even the strongest stomachs get motion sickness on this one!

Malaysia in 15 Days

When I say Malaysia, I mean the mainland portion below Thailand. There’s a whole other section to explore that includes Borneo (amazing!), but I did not see that part. To be honest, Malaysia was not my favorite country. I felt overwhelmed by the big cities, the heat, and the modernization, and the food wasn’t that great. I felt like I could feel and see the presence of the patriarchy here more than the other countries I’ve visited. Besides the site-seeing detailed below, I also spent two weeks working at a horse farm which was very nice, but really hard work! I’ll do another blog post on that sometime.

These 15 days in Malaysia cost me about $700 in total.

Malacca (2-3 days)

Malacca (also spelled Melaka) was my first stop in Malaysia, and also my favorite place I saw there. I took a 6 hour bus from Singapore to get there for $18. Definitely stay near the river in Malacca. I stayed here which was just a short walk to the river, and I really enjoyed it (but note: there is no AC).

The best part about Malacca is all the beautiful murals everywhere. Walking around was a real joy. Then you have the river, which at night is all it up and very lovely. There’s a great ice cream place on the river called Fruit Cones that I went to every night. The tuk tuk’s in Malacca are really fun and over the top. They each have a theme and are decorated crazily, and drive around playing loud, obnoxious music. Baby Shark was a very popular theme haha. There’s a great night market as well called Jonker Street Night Market. It has a hilarious giant karaoke stage. Pretty much only old men got up and sang and they were all surprisingly really good.

Make sure to give durian and cendol a try while you are there! Cendol is a traditional, and very strange dessert containing ice, green rice flour jelly, coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, and whatever other toppings you want like beans and corn. It’s like lunch and dessert in one bowl….

Kuala Lumpur (2-3 days)

I had a friend from America join me at this point which was really great! Since Malaysia was turning out to not by my favorite country, it was nice to have a friend to explore it with and liven things up. In Kuala Lumpur, we just did a lot of walking around, and a LOT of eating at McDonald’s haha. They had the best McDonald’s I’ve found so far. Banana pies that were to die for. Tons of different ice cream flavors and dippings. My favorite was sarsaparilla ice cream dipped in chocolate. Caitlin said the chicken curry pie was “phenomenal,” but I don’t eat meat so I did not try it.

Batu Caves. There were some monkeys on the stairs that we fed crackers to which was fun!

Batu Caves. There were some monkeys on the stairs that we fed crackers to which was fun!

Petronas twin towers. This is a nice area of the city to walk around in.

Petronas twin towers. This is a nice area of the city to walk around in.

Me trying fried banana for the first time at the night market. Very delicious!

Me trying fried banana for the first time at the night market. Very delicious!

We saw the Batu Caves, the Petronas twin towers, walked around the city parks, and went to a fun night market. We also went to the shopping mall a lot! This is a very popular activity because it’s so hot there. Might I recommend eating at Llao Llao yogurt bar when you are at the mall. Best frozen yogurt I’ve ever had!

The next day, we did a really great hike through this airbnb experience. Definitely recommended, we had a great time and the views were stunning. We also got to try “scrambling” which we had never done before. The guide was wonderful, and an adorable local dog joins you on the hike every time because the guide gives her cat food at the top. It was so cute.

Gorgeous view from the top!

Gorgeous view from the top!

The infamous pup that joins you.

The infamous pup that joins you.

Cameron Highlands (2-3 days)

Next, we took a 4 our bus to Cameron Highlands for $8. This area is known for their tea production and the rolling hills of tea plantations really are beautiful. But that’s one of the only things that is nice about this area. The town isn’t very cute, the taxis are overpriced, and all “strawberry fields” are a big disappointment. The nicest thing about Cameron Highlands was the weather! It was actually cool! Probably low 70s the entire time which was a nice break from the heat and humidity of the rest of SE Asia.

A tea plantation in Cameron Highlands. There are tea houses all over the road that you can stop for some delicious ice tea and scones.

A tea plantation in Cameron Highlands. There are tea houses all over the road that you can stop for some delicious ice tea and scones.

The other really cool thing to do here is visit the Mossy Forest. This is a must-do if you are in the area! A group tour is easier because the roads to this are really rough and it’s hard to get a taxi driver to take you there. We were lucky enough to find one, and he charged us $10 each, and waited for us while we explored. The Mossy Forest was really a spectacular experience. At first, it seemed a little boring. We walked along wooden pathways for a while, and got a taste for the eeriness of the forest. We thought that was it, but then the path disappears and opens up to the true forest which you can walk into for hours. It’s so mystical in there, you feel like you are in a different world, maybe a scary movie. The air is misty and there’s moss everywhere and unusual and powerful trees. We had a blast climbing up and over all the hills and roots and discovering what was around each corner. I felt a little uneasy being in the forest with just the two of us, so you may prefer to go with a tour group. But everything was fine, and every now and then we would run into another group of hikers. Highly recommend! And, of course, the pictures just don’t do it justice!

The Mossy Forest

The Mossy Forest

Caitlin, after a pretty steep climb up!

Caitlin, after a pretty steep climb up!

Penang (2-3 Days)

Next, Caitlin and I traveled to Penang (or Georgetown). We took a 5 hour bus to Butterworth That cost $9. And then a 30 minute ferry from Butterworth to Penang, which I think was <$1. The ferry was cool. We stayed at this airbnb, which I really liked. And there was a lot of delicious food and a great grocery store called Cold Storage in the area.

In Penang, we hiked through the Penang National Park, along the Turtle Beach Trail which I really enjoyed. It started pouring rain at the end, I mean pouring. We got completely drenched and waited for a boat to take us back, but it was fun. We also visited the Penang Hill, which was pretty cool. The funicular taking you up to the top was quite the adventure!

We did this farm-to-table cooking class through this airbnb experience and enjoyed that as well. Airbnb experiences have been a great resource during my travels.

Results of our farm-to-table cooking class.

Results of our farm-to-table cooking class.

Caitlin looking cool, trying to beat the heat!

Caitlin looking cool, trying to beat the heat!

Langkawi (3-4 Days)

Caitlin had to return to America, so I went to Langkawi alone. I took the ferry back to the mainland, took a 3 hour bus from Buttorworth to Kuala Perlis for $4, and then took a speedboat to Langkawi for $4. It was a bit scary, honestly. I felt crowded and stuck in the boat, and was very happy to be off when it was over. In Langkawi, I stayed in this adorable, but not very convenient airbnb. It was not a convenient location, and living on the third floor with detached bathroom was also inconvenient. I started getting really depressed in my solo endeavor, and after 2 days there, decided to splurge on a nice airbnb with Netflix that was closer to the attractions. I stayed there for a few days and honestly saw nothing, because I was in such a low point of my travels. So I really have no recommendations on Langkawi, sorry! However, I can highly recommend this airbnb. It was extremely nice, as was the family who host it. They even had a dinner one night for all their guests.

The coolest thing, and only thing, I did on Langkawi was finally learn to drive a motorbike! I had been riding on the back of them, mostly completely terrified, and I decided I wanted to learn. The airbnb let me rent one, and it was the perfect spot because there were long stretches of country road with no one on them except some cows. So here, I proudly learned to drive! And since then, have been able to drive in the other countries I visited.

This is where I practiced driving a motorbike for the first time! Safe and beautiful.

This is where I practiced driving a motorbike for the first time! Safe and beautiful.

It’s worth noting here, that I don’t really know the rules behind riding motorbikes in Asia. It may not be legal, I know sometimes cops will stop you just to get a bribe, and I’m pretty positive your health insurance will not cover an accident on one of these. And accidents seem to be very common with foreigners. You’ll see a lot of white people walking around with huge areas of road rash or large bandages covering massive areas of their legs and arms. So do your research, and proceed with caution!

But, man, I just felt like…how can I come to SE Asia and not learn to drive one! So I did. =)

Singapore in 3 Days

As I’m definitely not a city girl, I was surprised to find out that I really enjoyed Singapore! Of course, I did only stay there for 3 days, and that was quite enough for me. But I definitely recommend this as a stop along your way. It’s a great place to explore for a few days before heading to Malaysia.

An adorable restaurant near Arab St, where I stayed

An adorable restaurant near Arab St, where I stayed

Another reason to only stay 3 days is that it’s quite expensive. I stayed at this hostel, which was a very average hostel, but it cost $17/night. I did like the location though. It was on Arab Street and there were a ton of cute restaurants and bars with lots of beautifully painted wall murals. And it was about a 10 minute walk to the nearest metro station which was pretty convenient. Did I mention there was a Popeye’s within walking distance! Hello buttery biscuits and french fries!

Glow-in-the-dark walls on Arab St. at night

Glow-in-the-dark walls on Arab St. at night

The main parts of the city are as pristine, beautiful, and interesting as everyone says. The high fines for littering keep the streets looking beautiful, and there are many unique buildings with beautiful plants surrounding them or growing up them. A focus on the environment seems to be important, which you’ll see more of at Gardens by the Bay.

The supertrees as the storm was rolling in.

The supertrees as the storm was rolling in.

Supertrees as the sun was setting.

Supertrees as the sun was setting.

Gardens by the Bay was definitely one of my favorite things about visiting Singapore. The super trees are stunning (albeit not as tall as I thought 🤔), and the light show in the evening is fantastic. I paid for the full access ticket which was $28. This gives you access to the everything, like the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome, but does not include the Skyway which is a bridge connecting some of the super trees (it’s $8 extra). Unfortunately, it stormed a bit the day I went, so the Skyway was closed. The park itself is quite large, and you can spend a lot of time exploring it. The Cloud Forest was really cool too, definitely worth it. And the Flower Dome had some unbelievable flowers along with some great educational material about how we can and must save the planet before it’s too late.

The marina at night!

The marina at night!

My other favorite thing about Singapore was the marina, especially at night! Omg, I had such a great time there! There’s this wonderful light-up double helix bridge, an area with live music, a very expensive and beautiful mall, stunning views, and of course the famous boat hotel. I did not go up into the boat hotel because I am afraid of heights. But the most fun I had at the marina was actually renting an electric scooter and scooting around the whole thing! Idk why, but this was just so grand; I was laughing the whole time. I also had the best soft serve melon flavored ice cream of my LIFE there! It cost $4 which was obscene but so worth it. See if you can find the stand selling it!

You can get to both the marina and Gardens by the Bay using the metro. In fact, the metro stop for Gardens by the Bay is very fun and reflective of what you’ll see there!

The only other main place I explored was Little India, which I wasn’t impressed by. And I missed some opportunities for some Michelin star-rated street food. So check that out before you go! Happy travels!

How My Purse Was Stolen in Cambodia

There are a lot of warning signs to this story, that I wish I had taken more seriously. Maybe this could have been avoided. But I’d been traveling for about 5 months, and had gotten really comfortable..too comfortable apparently. Moral of the story is, always trust your instincts!

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I was traveling on the main tourist track through Cambodia with my friend Helen. We started in Siem Reap, and had a great time there. It’s very cute and walkable. There’s tons of adorable bars and $1 smoothie stands everywhere. We went to this amazing frozen yogurt shop every night called Project Y. Overall, we were having a great time, and expected the same thing of Phnom Penh, our next stop.

But when we arrived, I disliked the city right away. It just had a feeling to it that I knew wasn’t me, and I felt uneasy and wanted to leave. On our first day, we just walked around. It was super hot and there wasn’t anything great to see.

Strangely, nearly every time one of us had our phone out getting directions or taking a picture, a Cambodian man would come up to us and tell us to be careful with our phones. It happened at least 5 times. It was eerie and, honestly, made me wonder if those men were trying to trick us or something. I didn’t like it.

The next night, we decided to go to a night club called Pontoon Club. We had been going to bed early every night, so thought it might be fun to go dancing and stay out a bit later. We heard from others that this night club was a bit sketchy, so we were already very on guard. We just had a couple drinks, and danced, carefully holding our purses next to us.

On our way home, we turned onto a main street to get back to our hostel, Base Villa. This street was very busy and thriving during the day, but at night, it felt scary. It was the only leg of the walk that felt this way. I turned to Helen and said we need to be careful on this street. I was expecting a person to come up to us, maybe, so I was watching for that. But I wasn’t expecting what happened next….

Helen and I were walked side by side, briskly trying to get down this street. All of a sudden, a motorbike was next to me, and a tuk tuk was next to Helen, blocking us in together. Within a split second, they had cut my purse away from my body and were gone.

Then it was all quite dramatic. Once I realized what had happened I started screaming “they stole my purse!” I starting running after them (futile) but tripped and fell on the ground (I’ve never been very athletic.) A nice tuk tuk driver stopped and picked us up and drove after them (this was a bad idea because they could have been in on the scheme as well, but in my panic, I wasn’t really thinking). Anyways, there was really no hope of catching them…

I had heard of this happening before the trip, but motorbikes are everywhere. You get so accustomed to their presence. I never expected this, and it happened so so fast.

I lost my wallet with my license, credit card, debit card, $30, and my iPhone (luckily I had my iPhone data entirely backed up on iCloud). So then ensued the awful walk back home, the people at our hostel telling us there’s no point in contacting the police unless I had phone insurance (which I didn’t), staying up late calling my bank, canceling my cards, changing all my passwords….

I had another credit card hidden in my backpack in case something like this happened, but it was of very little use. It has high international transaction fees, and after hours on the phone with my bank, was still unable to withdraw money from an ATM with this card. Luckily, Helen generously lent me some cash so I could survive a few weeks while I waited for my new debit and credit cards to reach me in Laos (thank you mom for sending them!).

Later, I learned from other friends that Cambodia is very known for petty theft. So please be careful when traveling there. Although this can and does, of course, happen many places in SE Asia! And speaking of….

I mentioned in my blog post “How to Pack for a Year-long Warm-weather Trip Abroad,” that I purchased and have been using this purse specifically designed for travel. One of the ways it’s designed for travel is that the straps cannot be cut through. Seems great, except that….had I been wearing this purse when the incident happened, likely I would have been jerked forward, and dragged on the ground until the purse finally slipped off me (this actually happened to a friend of a friend in Bali). Luckily (I think), I was wearing a very cheap purse I had purchased at a market in Chiang Mai, so it cut away from my body easily. Now, I’m back to wearing my travel purse, but I’m really not sure how I feel about it now! I keep it tightly held to my body when I walk around so that no one can grab the straps.

The safest bet is probably to carry a cheap bag with a bit of cash in it, and keep your phone, cards, and more cash in a money belt around your waist. But I know that that is really quite inconvenient.

My friend Helen and I a few days before the incident

My friend Helen and I a few days before the incident

Whatever you decide to do, I hope this story can inform your decision. Stay safe and vigilant!

P.S. This is nothing against Cambodia! Helen and I had a wonderful time there (which I will detail in a future blog post), and actually most of the Cambodians I met were the most hospitable people I’ve met my entire time in SE Asia.

Bali, Indonesia: Ubud & Canggu

Bali was the first stop on my trip! I chose this because I thought it would be an easier transition from my old life. I spent most of the time in Ubud, and totally fell in love with the spiritual offerings and the food! Wow, the food. SO many vegan and vegetarian options. I stayed there for the first month of my travels, but after moving on, becoming depressed in my solo endeavor through Singapore and Malaysia, so abruptly decided to fly back to Bali for 3 more weeks to gain some clarity. So I spent nearly 2 months total in Ubud.

Sunrise hike on Mount Batur

Sunrise hike on Mount Batur

Ubud

Ubud is in the center of Bali. Ubud is known for its spirituality, self discovery, yoga and all that. LOTS of stuff there – healers, cacao ceremonies, rebirths, women’s circles, ecstatic dances, sound healing, meditations, whatever you can think of. I loved being there. It’s full of tourists and ex-pats, but it’s just an easy and safe place to be. If you stay in the center of town, you can get everywhere in walking distance. I spent a lot of time at the Yoga Barn doing yoga and attending their free community classes which are really good. Kundalini yoga is life changing…not to oversell it or anything! I also highly suggest trying the Ecstatic Dance at the yoga barn on Friday nights. It’s worth the experience.

Where to Stay

Most people stay in a homestay there. Balinese people open up their homes which are basically tiny communes with a temple that the whole family lives at. I stayed here for over a month and loved the family, location, and all their amenities. You can learn a lot about the Hindu customs and traditional Balinese lifestyles by staying at the homestays. Airbnb is a wonderful resource for finding great homestay. If you are looking for a cheaper place, I also stayed here, and the family was really wonderful!

Getting Around

Getting around in Ubud mostly is done by foot. There is a public bus called Kura-Kura that can take you to a few places (including taking you almost all the way back to the airport for a fraction of the cost of a taxi). Or there’s taxis which are the main mode of transportation. They look down upon taxi apps but people still use them. GrabCar and GoJek are the best. GrabCar you can use in pretty much all of SE Asia. Otherwise, there’s taxi drivers everywhere constantly asking if you need a taxi. Definitely don’t accept their first price. You can hire a car or a scooter driver. Scooter drivers are cheaper and more fun. Just please wear a helmet!

The view from the plane on our descent to Bali

The view from the plane on our descent to Bali

Arriving on the Island

When you fly into Denpasar (southern part of the island), you can expect to pay about 300,000 Indonesia Rupiah ($21) to get to Ubud. Where a GrabCar or GoJek will be closer to 270,000. So generally, the apps are cheaper. If you land at the airport, you can always look for other obvious tourists and see if they’ll split a cab with you to Ubud or wherever you are starting.

The Monkey Forest, Ubud

The Monkey Forest, Ubud

Amazing free breakfast everyday at my homestay

Amazing free breakfast everyday at my homestay

Food!

One of my favorite places to eat was Bali Buda the restaurant (not the grocery, although it also has delicious offerings). I love all their food, but especially the tacos and the pumpkin pasta, and the free peanut butter cookies you get when you pay. Green Key makes the best smoothie bowls that I could find. I loved their chocolate protein one. Warung Sopa is a nice local place with really good sugar cane juice and food. Happy Falafel makes the best falafels I’ve ever had! Overall the food in Bali is super delicious and healthy and reasonably priced. A satisfying meal will cost $3-$6. CP Lounge is a fun place for dancing if you want to get cray one night.

What to Do

Popular things to do in Ubud are the monkey forest (so fun), visiting waterfalls, seeing the rice terraces, walking the Campuhan Ridge, and anything spiritual. As mentioned, the Yoga Barn is really lovely, and another spiritual place to check out is the Pyramids of Chi. I also did the Mount Batur sunrise hike (pictured above) and really enjoyed that. It was beautiful and there were a ton of monkeys vying for our leftover breakfast boxes.

Gorgeous sunsets in Canggu!

Gorgeous sunsets in Canggu!

Canggu

The only other place I went to in Bali was Canggu, which is on the west coast. This is a party beach town, but not as insanely party as Kuta or Seminyak. I personally wasn’t impressed with Canggu except for the food, and they have super beautiful cafes that really cater to the digital nomad crowd. It’s bigger than Ubud and sidewalks aren’t really a thing so you really need a scooter to succeed there. Or be constantly hiring a taxi driver. And I wouldn’t recommend scootering there if it’s your first time. Traffic is crazy in all of Bali.

But if you do go there, definitely eat at the Shady Shack (this is probably my favorite food from my entire trip), Cafe Vida (amazing poke bowls), and check out Pretty Poison skatepark bar. Also, there’s a speakeasy near there that you enter through a refrigerator in a convenience store. Very fun!

Surfing lessons are popular in Changgu but the ocean was too rough for my liking when I was there. And of course, lots of beautiful sunsets. That was really the best part.

Other popular places that I wish I had seen in Bali, but just was too in love with Ubud to leave are Nusa Penida (an island) and the Gili Islands. I saw photos from friends and it looked absolutely stunning!

9 Tips for Traveling South East Asia

As I’ve been traveling through South East Asia for nearly 6 months, I’ve learned a few things on the road that I did not learn in my research ahead of time. I’ve been to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. These tips apply to visiting any of these countries.

Little India, Singapore

Little India, Singapore

1. Carry extra passport-sized photos with you

This is recommended anyways in case you lose your passport. But what I didn’t realize until I got here, is that many countries require a visa on arrival, which will require one of these photos. If you are an American citizen, you can enter some countries with no visa, AKA a visa exemption. Those countries include Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. All the other countries will require some kind of visa to enter. And those visas require a picture. When you enter one of these countries, or if you apply for visa ahead of time at an embassy, you will be asked to fill out an arrival card, pay (usually in USD), and supply a visa photo. They create your visa on the spot for you using that photo. Take as many photos as you need to enter all the countries you plan on entering.

2. Take the bus!

If you are traveling for a while, and time isn’t that important, please take the bus! Night or day buses, but day buses are my favorite because you get to see the beautiful landscapes. A 10 hour bus ride honestly goes by so fast when you can look out the window. I get all my best ideas in these moments. I heard J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter on the train every day to work, and this makes total sense to me now.

Book buses 1 day ahead if possible. Even during low season, buses fill up quickly. And don’t string too many bus journeys together, because the buses are usually late to arrive. And if you have one shortly after another, chances are you will miss it. You can book your bus at the bus station (usually cheapest), through whatever hotel or hostel you are staying at (very convenient because they usually pick you up at your location), or through these three websites which I found very helpful: www.easybook.com, www.12go.asia, www.rome2rio.com. The tickets on here will be a bit more expensive because it’s online booking, but often it’s worth it.

Be aware, if you are in some countries, like Laos or Cambodia, a night bus is often a sleeper bus. Meaning you will be in a bed with whoever has the seat next to you! As a women traveling alone, I DO NOT recommend doing this, unless you have a friend to share the bed with. I’ve heard of women getting stolen from or groped on these night buses. The one time I accidentally took a sleeper bus alone, one of the bus workers got in bed with me in the middle of the night and I was extremely uncomfortable the entire time. The width of the bed is a twin! Not a double! I tried to tell him no, and to get another bed, but he refused. After 2 hours of laying with my eyes wide open, I finally decided to try and annoy him until he left – moving around, eating, unzipping my bag, pushing him onto his half of the bed. Which worked swimmingly, and he finally left!

3. Use apps like Grab for taxis or motorbikes

Grab is a popular app in many places in SE Asia. Another like it is GoJek, used for motorbikes in Bali. These are very useful in big cities, and if you have a SIM card so you can book anytime. You can see the drivers rating which made me feel very safe getting into a taxi alone. The prices are very fair, and often lower than if you just got someone on the street.

4. Share taxis when arriving in a city

Whether you arrive by bus or plane, you are usually a ways out from the city center, or wherever you plan to go. This is a good time to ask other travelers to share a taxi with you. It’s safer and cheaper. For example, if you land at the airport in Bali (in Denpasar), it’s about an hour drive to Ubud, which is where many of the tourists will be heading. Every time I landed at the airport, I walked out to the taxi area, and found other obvious tourist to share a ride with me, cutting the cost in half or thirds. And making friends along the way!

5. Expect fees

I have an international credit card through Chase that has 0 international transaction fees which is really wonderful. However, it’s a bit rare that I can actually use this card. Only in big cities, or sometimes when paying for a hotel. And in many places, if you use a credit card, they will ask if they can charge you a 3% fee. They ask…but you don’t really have a choice. The other way to get money is using a debit card at the ATM. This is usually what I do. But unfortunately, this comes with two fees. The ATM fee which is usually between $3-$5, and my bank’s fee which I believe is 5%. So it’s quite steep! I try to get out larger chunks of money, and do this as infrequently as possible. But you have to balance this of course, because you never want to carry too much cash.

6. To SIM or not to SIM

If you choose not to have a SIM card (maybe you are really cutting costs) definitely download the app Maps.me. Somehow I did not find out about this until 5 months in, but it is CRUCIAL. It’s a complete offline maps app and works very well. So when you are in your hotel, you’ll have wifi. And when you aren’t, you’ll have maps access which is really important for safety and fun.

Because I knew I was traveling long term, I chose to cancel my phone plan entirely back in the US, and buy a SIM card each time I entered a new country. I transferred my phone number to Google before cancelling, so that I would not lose my phone number that I’ve had for years. If you fly into a new country, getting a SIM card is very easy and convenient at the airport. They know what they are doing and usually speak English quite well. If you enter by bus, you’ll need to go to a convenience store and get a SIM. This is usually more challenging, but doable. Either way, have your passport ready. They need this to sell the SIM card to you. General cost for a SIM card that lasts 30 days with a reasonable amount of data is $10-$20. Pretty cheap!

7. Workaway

I highly recommend including a workaway into your journey if you have enough time. Workaway.info is an amazing website that connects travelers with people all over the world who are looking for help. Any type of help you can think of! Animal care, painting, building, teaching, community work…whatever skills you have, someone will be glad to host you. You usually work for 4-5 hours a day, in exchange for a free place to stay and free food. It’s an amazing opportunity for both parties.

Many of my favorite travel experiences have been through workaway. Taking care of Poitou donkeys in France, insulating a house in Italy (that’s a story for another time haha), caring for horses in Malaysia, teaching English in rural Myanmar, painting signs for a jewelry store in Laos…the list goes on! It’s an amazing way to get a better understanding of local culture and lifestyles, and make life-long friends. And of course, it is the most affordable way to travel.

8. Don’t plan your trip using instagram

South East Asia is a wild place! In many ways, it’s so different than the Western world. And, of course, that’s why we are so attracted to it! But things do NOT look like they do on instagram (This is an important life lesson actually 😂). Anyways, some of the most beautiful spots I went to were very beautiful in one corner, or from one angle (the angle you see in photos), but the rest of it was covered in trash (trash is a real problem in SE Asia), overtaken by tourists, filled to the brim with shops and taxi drivers asking if you want a ride. It’s just different. Unless you really go deep into the jungle, things are always a bit dirty, dusty, noisy, and chaotic.

And some things are just down-right fake. An example is the Gates of Heaven in Bali…an instagrammer’s dream right? Beautiful lake in front of those gates, right? Nope! It’s a tiny mirror, held up to the base of you camera, to create an entirely fake reflection after you stood in line for 3-4 hours. Moral of the story, I would not look to instagram photos to plan your trip because 99% of them are completely photoshopped or not encapsulating what is actually going on.

9. A lot of accommodations don’t have air conditioning

If you are someone who has a naturally high body temperature, make sure to check ahead of time that your accommodation has AC. A lot of places don’t, although they will always have a fan. Most places list whether or not they have AC, but some don’t. If you use Airbnb, you can filter to show only the places with AC. I’ve slept in plenty of places with only fan, no AC, and it’s usually fine. But I’ve definitely had a few sleepless nights because of the heat or humidity.

For more tips, like how to pack, check out my post on packing for long-term travel!

How to Pack for a Year-long Warm-weather Trip Abroad

As many of you know, in March 2019, I set off for a year long solo trip through South East Asia. My bag and my items have become my steady companions. They are my home and my comfort. I take good care of them, and use packing cubes to keep things organized and pack with care. I always kept my home very tidy, and I like to do the same with my bag. It’s a life-changing experience to live out of one bag for so long, especially coming from a culture where consumption is the rule. I love the concept that you can really carry everything you need right on your back. It’s truly freeing!

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The backpack I use is the Osprey Porter 46, and I absolutely love it. I’ve had it for 7 years and have used it for all my longterm and short term trips since I bought it. For my day bag, I am using this that I got off Amazon. I really like the looks and it is quite sturdy, but I do wish it was a little bigger. I use this cross-body bag as my purse, but please see my blog post of How My Purse Was Stolen in Cambodia as I still am not totally sure about this bag in terms of safety.

I spent a long time working on my packing list. And now that I’ve been traveling for 5 months, I can honestly say I did a damn good job. I’ve used every single thing I brought multiple times, and I haven’t needed to buy anything (except restock) since I began traveling. I have gone on a few shorter trips in previous years (2 weeks – 3 months long), so I had some good experience with packing that helped me figure out what a year would look like. Actually, I pack nearly the same for a 3 week trip as I do for a 1 year long trip, but basically just add some more meds!

You can access the full list below through pdf download. Some of these items I would consider luxury, and not a complete necessity, so I have added a * to those items. Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions. And happy packing!

Click here for the free pdf download of my packing list

In Ubud, Bali, getting ready to go to the airport in Denpasar. Not pictured: my cross body bag

In Ubud, Bali, getting ready to go to the airport in Denpasar. Not pictured: my cross body bag

Semuc Champey

I just returned from an amazing trip to Guatemala and Belize. I'll be posting my full itinerary soon, but wanted to go in depth on some of the highlights of the trip. The first thing I want to talk about was our adventure to Semuc Champey which was undoubtedly one of the most fun days of my life (and I promise I've had a lot of fun days!).

What It's Like

Semuc Champey itself is seven tiered pools of crystal clear green waters. You can swim in all the pools and the way to access the next one down is just to jump in, or "slide" down small waterfalls. It's one of the most stunning and unreal places I've ever been. 

When you go to Semuc, if you take a tour which I highly recommend, it's an all day adventure. From Lanquin, you ride on curvy and bumpy dirt roads for about 45 minutes, standing in the back of a pickup truck holding onto steal rods. 

You'll start your adventure in the K'anba Caves. They are caves with a few bats and lots of water which you sometimes have to swim through, but mostly can walk through. You'll scale rope ladders up waterfalls, jump into black waters from 15 feet up, and slide through a small tunnel into the abyss all in this adventure. 

Then your guide will take you to a rope swing, video below, and then a waterfall which turns out is the very end of the seven pools. You can swim to the waterfall which is so fun because the current is tough to fight! 

After this, you can do some river tubing down the river until you reach the 11 meter bridge which you can then jump off of. Of course I had to do it. I was very proud of myself; I don't think I realized how high it actually was because once I started falling it felt like forever! Be careful here, you definitely want to pencil in. Landing anywhere on your side will end in large body bruises! 

Then your guide will say you can hike to El Mirador which is a nice view point of the pools from above, however I do not recommend this. It's a difficult hike alsmot straight up for 30 minutes and then 20 minutes down to the pools. This leaves you with only an hour to experience the pools. The view was not a worthy trade-off, and if I had to do it over I would prefer to spend more time in the pools. 

El Mirador, the view from the top

El Mirador, the view from the top

How to Get There

We stayed in Lanquin which I highly recommend. We booked our tour through our hostel the night before. You can also stay in Coban but its almost 2 hours away from Semuc, where Lanquin is a nice 45 minute back-of-a-pick-up-truck ride away! 

You can get a nice massage (or shower) from the waterfalls that cascade in between each pool!

You can get a nice massage (or shower) from the waterfalls that cascade in between each pool!

Where I Stayed & What I Paid

We stayed at El Retiro Lodge in Lanquin and paid 150Q which is about $20/night for a private hut, but they have much cheaper accommodations as well. Bear in mind there are NO ATM's in Lanquin so come prepared. The amazing all day trip to the caves and Semuc which included transportation there was about $25 US. Astounding, right?! 

If you have any questions about this adventure, leave a comment below!