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Archive for Asia

Hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu, South Korea

Once again, I have allowed a considerable stretch of time to pass since my last appearance in the blogosphere. So many travel-related things have happened in the past few weeks that I could have written about, but I’ve been too busy (and too lacking in motivation) to bother. Long story short, I moved to South Korea on Feb. 20 to teach English with EPIK. After landing at Incheon Airport near Seoul, I was whisked away to Konkuk University in the city of Chungju, where I spent a week listening to lectures and participating in seminars at EPIK Orientation. After that I was put on a bus and carted off to Daegu, where I started teaching at a middle school on March 6. I like the job so far, but lesson planning has been taking up a lot of my free time, and blogging — as so often happens — has been put on the back burner.

Anyways, last Saturday I decided to reward myself for completing my first week at the new job without any incidents. (Well, without any major incidents…On my first day of teaching, I accidentally said “shit” in front of an entire class of second-grade middle-schoolers, resulting in the biggest eruption of laughter the school probably heard all week. OK, maybe that does count as a “major incident,” but it could have been worse, right??) Since Daegu is surrounded by mountains and is known for its fantastic hiking opportunities, I decided to climb up one of the city’s most heavily-hiked mountains: Mt. Apsan.

I found Mt. Apsan fairly easy to get to via public transportation. The night before I planned to set out on my hike, I consulted a few other blogs and websites to figure out how to get there. All of them said that I would need to catch a bus in order to get to the beginning of the trail. This bummed me out a little, as I was worried about having to go through the hassle of figuring out where and when to board the bus. Luckily, however, when I looked at a map I found that Mt. Apsan is only about a 20-minute walk from Hyeonchungno subway station (on the red line). No bus required! Hassle averted (this time).

I arrived at the base of Mt. Apsan at 11:00 a.m., and began my long hike to the top. There are several different trails of varying lengths and difficulties that you can take to get there. Since I didn’t have a map with me, and didn’t know where to get one, I stuck to one rule: Whenever I came to a fork in the trail, I took the path that led the steepest way UP. I mean, when climbing a mountain, one cannot go wrong as long as one keeps heading in the general direction of “up,” right?

Finally, at about 12:30, I arrived at the top of the mountain. I still had a short way to go before I reached my main objective — Apsan Observatory — but my efforts were rewarded here with a little peek over the city as it stretched off into the distance.

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

After walking along the trail a little longer, I came to a café that looked like this:

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

On top of the café was a viewing platform called Sopra Observatory. No purchase from the café was necessary to visit the observatory, so I walked right on up. On reaching the top of the stairs, I was met with the most spectacular view over Daegu.

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu hiking Mt. Apsan in Daeguhiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

Apsan Observatory on Mt. Apsan in Daegu

Apsan Observatory


After staring at the magnificent scene before me for several minutes, trying to make note of all the tiny details, I continued on my way along the trail. Finally, at about 1:00 — two hours after I began my ascent up the mountain — I arrived at Apsan Observatory. A rather sizeable crowd was gathered on the viewing platform, but there was still plenty of space for all of us to admire the amazing vista spread out before us. As is always the case when hiking a mountain, the view more than made up for the arduous trek to the summit.


I must have accidentally taken one of the longer trails up Mt. Apsan, because I went back down by a different path and it seemed to only take a matter of minutes. (Obviously I know that walking DOWN a mountain is much easier than walking UP. But even when taking that into consideration, I’m sure the path I took back down was a lot shorter than the one I took up.)

On the way back down, I passed by the beautiful Anilsa Temple. My phone’s battery was almost dead by this point, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a bit to snap some photos of the colourful, intricately-detailed architecture of the temple.


By the time I arrived back on level ground, I had just enough charge left on my phone to navigate my way back to Hyeonchungno station via GPS. Next time I go hiking, I will remember to bring my portable charger!

My day on Mt. Apsan was definitely a day well spent, and just the release I needed after a week of being cooped up inside, slaving over lesson plans. If you’re looking for a great way to while away a sunny afternoon in Daegu, you can’t go wrong with a hike up Mt. Apsan!

 

3.5 Weeks Island-Hopping in Thailand

I saved the islands of Thailand for the end of my 3-month trip through Southeast Asia because I had a feeling they were going to be my favourite part. Turns out I was 100% correct in my prediction. I had such a fantastic time hopping around from one gorgeous island to the next.

Here’s a little highlight reel of the islands I visited!

 

Koh Tao

The first stop on my island-hopping tour was the small island of Koh Tao. My favourite thing that I did while staying here was to take a longtail taxi boat over to the tiny nearby island of Koh Nangyuan and climb the stairs up to the viewpoint. Koh Nangyuan is only a 15-minute boat ride from Koh Tao (300 baht for a return trip). This island is one of those incredible places you can’t believe is real. The view from the viewpoint is breathtaking. I would have sat and stared at it a lot longer than I did if only it hadn’t been so crowded and there hadn’t been a long line of people awaiting their turn on the viewing rock.

 

 

There are also a few really nice viewpoints in Koh Tao that you can hike to. The best one is probably the John-Suwan Viewpoint, but be aware that the path up to it is extremely strenuous. It’s not a long hike to the top, but I literally had to climb uphill on all fours, squeeze through narrow crevices, scramble over rocks on a path that was barely there, and pull myself along using ropes that were dangerously frayed, all while somehow holding a 1.5-litre water bottle in one hand.

I think the view was worth the struggle though.

 

 

The path up to the John-Suwan Viewpoint begins at Freedom Beach. It’s supposed to cost 50 baht to go up, but when I went there was nobody there collecting money. Sweet!

My biggest disappointment in Koh Tao was that the famous Koh Tao Pub Crawl had been indefinitely discontinued shortly before I arrived on the island. I had been really looking forward to taking part in what is supposedly one of the world’s best pub crawls. Luckily Koh Tao still has great nightlife every night of the week. I went out by myself, met some cool people, and had a lot of fun. The Fishbowl is definitely the most popular bar on Sairee Beach, Koh Tao’s main party beach. I constantly heard people talking about it, and it was always packed with fun-loving partiers when I was there.

Koh Tao was good times and good vibes!

 

Koh Phangan

Stop #2 was Koh Phangan, a party animal’s island paradise. The main reason I wanted to go to this island, of course, was to attend the infamous Full Moon Party on Haad Rin beach. Actually, the biggest bucket-list item of my whole trip was to not only make an appearance at the party, but to stay there until sunrise. I’m happy to report that although I required a half-hour power nap on the beach, I successfully stayed out until 8:00AM. At that point I walked back to my hostel and immediately headed straight for my bed, which I did not leave again even once until 6:00PM. I finally managed to drag myself out of bed to eat dinner and take a shower, and by that point it was just about bedtime again. That day was the only real hangover I had throughout the whole trip, but the Full Moon Party was so worth it! I had a blast there.

 

My morning-after painted legs and sandy bed

 

A word of warning about Haad Rin beach: Theft is rampant there. I found that out the hard way when my phone got stolen on my second night in Koh Phangan, two nights before the Full Moon Party. Actually, BOTH of my phones got stolen — I always travel with one phone that takes decent photos but doesn’t have GPS, and one phone that takes shitty photos but has functioning GPS. Normally I only take the latter phone with me on a night out, but for some reason I had decided to take both phones with me the last two or three times I went out. It was late at night — probably 2:00 or 3:00AM — and I was drunk (surprise, surprise). I was at one of the bars on the beach when I happened to look down at my handbag and notice that the zipper was wide open. I immediately panicked and looked inside. Sure enough, both phones were gone. The next day was spent travelling to the police station to file a report, and then wandering around town trying to find the supermarket where the lady at my hostel advised me to go to buy a new phone.

I’m a very frugal person (some would call me cheap), so I bought the second-least expensive smartphone at the store. (The absolute least expensive didn’t look too promising.) It was called the Wiko Sunny2 Plus, which is something I had never heard of before. The box said that the phone’s camera was 5 megapixels. Now, I know absolutely nothing about phones or cameras or megapixels, but a lot of the phones at the store had cameras with 5 megapixels, so I figured that would be okay.

Well, as soon as I got home, I took the phone out of the box and snapped a photo with it. The picture quality was absolutely horrendous. I’m pretty heartbroken about it because having decent photos of the places I visit is really important to me. Serves me right for being cheap, I guess! (Anybody want to buy me a GoPro?)

What’s also unfortunate is that I kind of missed out on all the beautiful sights that Koh Phangan has to offer. Since I was staying so close to Haad Rin beach, I spent all my nights drinking and partying at the bars there, which meant that I never had enough energy to do much during the day. It’s such a shame because I know there’s so much to see and do on the island, and I hardly saw or did any of it. I did manage to go for a walk to a lovely, deserted viewpoint one day, but sadly most of the photos I took that day were lost when my phone got stolen. I guess that means I’ll have to come back someday, right?

 

Ao Nang

After Koh Phangan, it was back to the mainland to spend four nights in Ao Nang. I would say the #1 thing to see if you stay in Ao Nang or Krabi is Railay Beach. It’s one of the most famous beaches in Thailand for good reason. The combination of the emerald water and those majestic limestone karsts makes for some strikingly beautiful scenery.

(Sorry about the poor quality of the photos. I wasn’t kidding when I said that my new phone takes the shittiest pictures ever!)

 

 

It’s super easy to get to Railay Beach from Ao Nang. Just walk to Ao Nang Beach and buy a longtail boat ticket for 200 baht return. I recommend taking the longtail boat past Railay all the way to Phra Nang Beach (same price), then walking from there to Railay and from Railay to Tonsai Beach. I believe you can take a longtail boat from Tonsai Beach back to Ao Nang, but if not it’s a short walk between Tonsai and Railay. (Just be prepared to get wet, as you have to wade through waist-deep water in order to reach the sand at Railay Beach.) You can then take a longtail boat from Railay Beach back to Ao Nang Beach.

 

Tonsai Beach

Tonsai Beach

 

If you’re in the mood for a day trip, there are lots of little islands nearby Ao Nang that are easy to get to via longtail taxi boat or organized tour. I chose to visit Koh Poda, only about 8km away from Ao Nang, after seeing some gorgeous pictures online of its pristine white-sand beach. I bought a ticket for a longtail taxi boat ride to the island, and then waited over half an hour before enough like-minded travellers showed up for the boat to leave. I paid 300 baht for the return boat ride and another 400 baht for entrance to the island, which is part of a national park.

Koh Poda certainly is gorgeous, but there is literally nothing there except the beach. You can’t wander off and go hiking around the island; you can only wander the length of the beach and back. The place is not completely deserted, but it’s far less busy than anywhere in Ao Nang, and there were definitely moments when I was on the far side of the beach and there was not another human in sight. I’m not sure that my short trip to Koh Poda was worth the 700 baht that I paid for it, but I’m glad I went because I got some beautiful photos out of it. (Or at least as beautiful as my awful, awful camera can manage.)

 

 

Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta was such a breath of fresh air after all the partying I did on the other islands. It’s a place where people come to just chill out, and I can’t imagine a better place to do so. You probably won’t find any nightlife as wild as what you’ll find on islands like Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi. One night, there was supposed to be a Half Moon Party on one of the beaches, so I decided to go with a few people I had recently met. We walked and walked along the beach but couldn’t find a party anywhere. We did come upon a bar where live music was being played and quite a few people were listening. But the strange thing was that not a single person was dancing or partying. Everybody was just sitting down on the ground in front of the bar, watching the musicians and just chilling out. It was a nice atmosphere, but we were disappointed because we were looking for a party.

What Koh Lanta lacks in terms of nightlife though, it makes up for with its abundance of beautiful, almost-deserted beaches. I stayed at Blanco Hostel, which is only a couple minutes’ walk from Phra Ae Beach (also known as Long Beach.) Long Beach is a beautiful, white-sand beach that stretches for almost 4km. Its considerable length means that it’s never crowded, so it’s easy to find a nice place to lay out your towel.

 

 

On my second day in Koh Lanta, I went swimming at a lovely little secluded beach close to Relax Bay with a couple of new acquaintances. We laid on the beach from 2:00PM until sunset and saw probably fewer than 25 people all day.

 

 

Koh Phi Phi

While conducting research for this trip, I kept reading over and over that Koh Phi Phi is over-crowded, over-rated, and good for nothing but partying. I didn’t find any of that to be true. Okay, so I guess I was there at the tail end of the high season or even the beginning of the low season, but I didn’t find the island over-crowded at all. I mean, yes, there were a lot of people there, but certainly not so many that it was annoying or inconvenient. Furthermore, I think Koh Phi Phi might be the most beautiful of all the islands I visited in Thailand. If you want to snap a photo of that quintessential Thai scenery — brightly decorated longtail boats floating in clear turquoise water — Koh Phi Phi is the perfect place to do so.

 

 

Of course, Koh Phi Phi’s main tourist attraction is Maya Bay, which became internationally famous in 2000 when it starred in the aptly-titled Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach. It seems that most people visit Maya Bay as part of a group tour, but since I hate tours I decided instead to hire a longtail boat with three other people from my hostel. We each paid 450 baht (plus the 400 baht entrance fee for Maya Bay) to hire the boat for three hours. We decided to leave at 6:30AM in order to reach the bay before the massive crowds rolled in. Unfortunately, I had been partaking in Koh Phi Phi’s wild nightlife the previous evening and I overslept (oops!), so we didn’t end up leaving until about 7:15. By the time we arrived at Maya Bay around 8:00, there were already lots of people there, but not so many that it seriously detracted from my enjoyment of the place. Crowds or no crowds, The Beach is definitely a sight not to be missed.

 

 

At 9:00 we left Maya Bay and our boat driver took us to another beach called Monkey Bay. It was a lovely beach, but unfortunately we didn’t see a single monkey. We stayed at Monkey Bay for 20 or 30 minutes, then our driver took us back home. (After a quick breakfast with my dorm mates, I went straight back to bed.)

 

 

If you’re looking for an easy but highly rewarding activity to do in Koh Phi Phi, I wholeheartedly recommend hiking up to the famous viewpoint. Actually, there are three viewpoints (appropriately named Viewpoints 1, 2, and 3), and each one is more spectacular than the last. They’re all connected by a single trail, so that you have to walk past Viewpoints 1 and 2 to get to Viewpoint 3. Getting to the last viewpoint is not a long or strenuous hike by any means, and the views at all three points are absolutely killer. The natural beauty of Koh Phi Phi is something I won’t soon forget.

 

Viewpoint 1

 

Viewpoint 2. Now we’re talkin’.

sunset at Viewpoint 3

 

Phuket

Out of all the places I visited during my 3.5 weeks of island-hopping in Thailand, I liked Phuket the least. (I’m not alone in that feeling — every single person I met who had been to Phuket told me they didn’t like it.) It’s not that the place isn’t beautiful or that there’s a shortage of things to do there, it’s just that it’s so much more expensive than anywhere else in Thailand. Phuket is a huge island, and all of its sights are well spread out, so there’s no way you can walk between them. Since I don’t drive, the only way I could get around was by taxi or tuk-tuk, and the prices they charge are outrageous by Thai standards.

For example, I wanted to visit the Big Buddha, which is one of Phuket’s most popular attractions, and it turned out to be the most expensive taxi ride I’ve ever taken. For the 30-minute drive there and the 30-minute drive back to Patong, I paid a whopping 1,000 baht. That’s $40CAD! Insane. There were so many other attractions in Phuket that I wanted to see, but I just couldn’t afford to go to them. If I could drive I would have rented a scooter for 300 baht a day and driven myself around, but alas! I’m a wimp and would never attempt to drive a motorized vehicle here or anywhere else for all the tea in China.

As for the Big Buddha though, it’s definitely worth visiting. (And entrance to it is free, which made my 1000-baht taxi ride a little easier to take.) I spent a decent amount of time wandering around the huge statue, taking pictures of the magnificent views, and trying my best to avoid the monkeys that were always attempting to steal people’s food.

 

 

On my second-last day in Phuket, I joined a full-day group tour of the islands in beautiful Phang Nga Bay. As I’ve said before, I hate group tours, but I couldn’t possibly leave Thailand without seeing Khao Phing Kan (more commonly known as James Bond Island), and a tour was the easiest and cheapest way to do so. The lady at the tour agency where I bought my ticket gave me a great deal on the tour. The price in the brochure was 3,400 baht, but she only charged me 1,000 baht! (To be honest though, I don’t think the tour was worth anywhere near 3,400 baht, and I wonder if anybody else ever actually pays that.)

Our first stop was the main attraction of Phang Nga Bay and the sole reason I came on the tour: James Bond Island, home of Thailand’s most famous rock. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of pictures of it before, but here are a few more. Doesn’t that rock look like it’s about to topple over?

 

 

After that we went to Hong Island, where we all got into kayaks and had an expert boatman paddle us around through limestone caves and hidden lagoons. It was pretty cool to get up close and personal with that amazing scenery.

 

island

island

 

After Hong Island we stopped at Naka Island to go swimming. I definitely could have done without this part of the tour, as Naka Island wasn’t even picturesque enough for me to bother taking a single photo. All in all, it was a pretty decent day, but I would have been happy if I had just seen James Bond Island and then gone home.

*****

Saving the Thai islands for the last part of my three-month trip was a great decision. I enjoyed them more than any other place I visited in Southeast Asia. It was with a heavy heart that I left Thailand and flew back home to reality. The three months that I spent in Southeast Asia were probably the best three months of my life, and I fully intend to find myself back in this magical corner of the world one day!

5 Days in Siem Reap, Cambodia

 

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4 Days in Battambang, Cambodia

I was really looking forward to my stay in Battambang because I thought it would be my only chance to see the “real” Cambodia outside of the cities. Although Battambang is the second-largest city in Cambodia, there aren’t a lot of attractions within the city itself. Most people visit Battambang to ride a bicycle or motorbike around the countryside surrounding the city. There are plenty of attractions within a 30km radius of Battambang that are fun to navigate to on your own.

On my first day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle from a rental shop on Street 2.5. I paid only $2USD to have the bike for the whole day. I pedalled 15 km to Phnom Sampeau (also sometimes called Phnom Sampov), a hill with a temple on top of it that affords a great view over the city. It was not an easy ride in the Cambodian heat, let me tell you. I had to keep stopping every few minutes to take a drink of water.

Soaked with sweat and severely dehydrated, I finally got to Phnom Sampeau, parked my bike, and paid the $3USD entrance fee. Just as I was about to start walking up the stairs, a young Cambodian boy approached me and asked if I was going up to the temple. I had heard that there are always local children hanging around who take it upon themselves to act as guides for tourists around the temple and caves on the hill, and then expect a couple of dollars for their services. Sure enough, the boy (who told me he was 13) accompanied me up the stairs without asking me whether I wanted him to or not. I walked and talked with him for a while, and then handed him a $1 bill and told him I could go the rest of the way by myself. He accompanied me all the way to the temple anyway, but then thankfully left me to sightsee on my own.

The temple itself isn’t really anything special, but the view over Battambang from where it stands is pretty nice. There are tons of monkeys hanging around the temple, so be careful. Thankfully, they seemed completely uninterested in me for the most part. There was a curious little one that kept coming towards me as I was walking away from him, but I managed to scare him off before he attacked.

After seeing the temple, I walked around and explored a couple of cool caves around the hill. During my ramble, I ran into the Cambodian boy again. He and a couple of other boys took me to a cave known as Flower Cave. Then he brought me into a small, dark cave where I had to use my cell phone flashlight to see bats flying around overhead. (He assured me in advance that I did not have to pay him anything for this tour.)

Battambang

Flower Cave

Whether you choose to cycle, take a motorbike, or hire a tuk-tuk, I highly recommend checking out Phnom Sampeau. There’s quite a lot to see there.

On my second day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle again. This time I headed towards the ancient ruins of Wat Ek Phnom, about 12 km outside of town. The ruins don’t cover a very big area, but it was pretty cool to climb around and explore them. As a bonus, there were only a few other people there, so I could take as many selfies as I wanted without feeling self-conscious.

That night, I went to a performance by the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) circus. PPSA is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Cambodian children through arts training and educational programs. Their circus is well-known as one of the top attractions in Battambang. The performers at the show I attended were absolutely incredible. It’s insane what some people can do with their bodies. I was a little bit terrified when one of the female performers started hula-hooping with a ring of fire, but she pulled it off effortlessly. And when another performer built a tower by balancing cylinders and boards on top of each other, I was like, “Oh hell no. Ain’t no way you gon’ stand up on that, boy.” But then lo and behold, he stood up and balanced on it while hardly even shaking! Don’t miss a PPSA circus performance if you visit Battambang. (I paid $14USD for my ticket, and the show lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.)

The next day I didn’t do too much of anything. I had planned to take a ride on the Bamboo Train, which is supposedly the #1 must-do attraction in Battambang, but I found out from the staff at my hostel that morning that the old Bamboo Train has been closed and the new one is located some 20km out of town. I wasn’t going to pay $20 to take a tuk-tuk there and back, so I decided to just spend the day walking around the town.

The hostel that I stayed at, Here Be Dragons (great hostel!), happened to be hosting a cocktail party in their bar that night where all cocktails were $2USD from 5PM – 11PM. I decided to go on a hunt for a bottle of vodka to use for pre-drinking before heading to the bar that night. Let me tell you, I have never in my life had so much difficulty finding a bottle of alcohol. I walked around the town for hours without success. I inquired at so many convenience stores whether they had any vodka (or rum or gin or anything else that would alter my mental state), but the answer was always negative. Finally I popped into a random, unassuming little shop and saw a row of whiskey bottles on display — apparently the only kind of alcohol they sold there. I realized this was the closest I was going to come to what I wanted, so I asked how much it was. The girl working there told me it was 3500 Cambodian riel, which is $0.90USD. Damn, what a steal! Granted, the alcohol content was only 23%, so it was hardly even whiskey at all, but beggars can’t be choosers. The girl wiped off the thick layer of dust coating the entire bottle (clearly this whiskey is not a big seller) and put it into a bag for me. I walked away feeling finally victorious, and also convinced that bottled vodka simply does not exist in Battambang.

On my last day in the city, I rented a bicycle once again for another hot, sweaty ride through the Cambodian countryside. My goal this time was to reach Phnom Banan, another hill with a temple built on top of it and great views. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it all the way to Phnom Banan. It would have been a 21-km ride there and a 21-km ride back, and I was just too hot and sweaty to complete that mammoth task (not to mention the long walk up the stairs to the top of the hill). Besides, I had slept in that day and consequently didn’t start my bike ride as early as I would have liked, so I was worried I might not make it home before dark if I took time to explore Phnom Banan. I rode as far as a temple which, according to my map, is known as Wat Bay Damram (about a 15-km ride) and then turned around and headed back. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to Phnom Banan, but at least I got to see a glimpse of rural Cambodian life during my ride. That’s what I really wanted to see when I came to Battambang anyway.

Battambang is a place that you should definitely visit if you want to see what Cambodia is like outside of the cities. There’s nothing like having the freedom to explore on your own two wheels, and Battambang provides plenty of opportunities to do that. As long as you don’t mind being (extremely) hot and sweaty all day, you’ll have a great time there!

Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia!

4 Days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

While I was in Thailand and Vietnam, so many people warned me that Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was a scary place to be. Whenever I told people that I was staying there for four days, they looked at me in shock and assured me that that was way too long to spend there. Almost everybody I spoke to who had been to Phnom Penh told me that either somebody had tried to rob them there or they knew somebody who had been robbed there. Nobody seemed to have anything good to say about the city. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive about my upcoming time in Phnom Penh.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried at all. I honestly have no idea why everybody seems to hate Phnom Penh so much. I never felt the slightest bit unsafe while walking through the streets there. To me, it seems to be a pretty typical Southeast Asian city in every regard. The tuk-tuk drivers are ubiquitous and annoyingly persistent — it seemed like every 30 seconds somebody shouted at me, “Hello, lady. Tuk-tuk?” — but they’re completely harmless if you just ignore them. Of course I kept a close eye on my bag at all times, just in case, but there’s really no reason to be scared here.

There are two main sights in Phnom Penh that nobody leaves the city without seeing: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields. During the 1970s, Cambodia fell under control of an evil communist party called the Khmer Rouge. In their attempt to create a perfect society, the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered millions of Cambodians. Under this murderous regime, which lasted from 1975 to 1979, the country lost 30% of its population.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison for detaining, interrogating, torturing, and murdering innocent people whom they deemed enemies of the revolution. Today it’s a museum that allows visitors to learn about the horrors that occurred there during the darkest chapter of Cambodia’s history. It’s certainly not a fun place to visit, but it’s an essential stop in Phnom Penh for anyone who wants to understand the unfathomable suffering that Cambodians underwent only a few decades ago.

Phnom Penh

The day after I went to Tuol Sleng museum, I visited the Killing Fields. This is one of the many sites in Cambodia where prisoners from S-21 and other prisons were taken to be executed (beaten, stabbed, and hacked to death because bullets were too expensive) and buried in mass graves. I paid a tuk-tuk driver $15USD to take me there, wait for me while I visited, and then drive me back to the city. (It’s about a half-hour drive each way.)

Entrance to the Killing Fields is another $6USD, and you get an audio guide for free. I normally don’t like audio guides and don’t bother with them, but this one definitely enhanced the experience a hundredfold. The buildings that once stood at the Killing Fields have been torn down and replaced by signs that explain what was once there, but the audio guide elaborates extensively on what the signs say. The information is terribly interesting too, and I learned a lot during the 80 minutes or so that I spent at the Killing Fields. It’s mind-boggling and horrifying to think of the atrocities that human beings committed against other human beings here and elsewhere in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

After I got back from the Killing Fields, I walked to Phnom Penh’s Central Market. In terms of how it’s laid out and what’s sold there, the Central Market resembles every other market in Southeast Asia. The cool thing about this one is the large, dome-roofed Art Deco building that it’s housed in. It’s worth checking out if you have some spare time in Phnom Penh.

The next day, I decided to check out the Royal Palace, which is the official residence of the King of Cambodia. The palace is certainly beautiful, but definitely not worth the $10USD entrance fee. It was modelled after the Grand Palace in Bangkok, so the buildings look very similar to the ones there. If I remember correctly though, the temple complex in Phnom Penh is much smaller and less impressive than the one in Bangkok. I’m sure I spent far more time exploring the Grand Palace than the Royal Palace. So if you’ve already seen Bangkok’s palace, you can probably pass on seeing Phnom Penh’s.

If you want a hostel recommendation, the Mad Monkey is THE place to stay in Phnom Penh. It’s a huge, clean hostel with its own bar, restaurant, and pool. The city doesn’t seem to have a huge number of options in terms of nightlife — everybody in the hostel heads out to the same small nightclub at 11:45 every night, and then just walks back home after dancing for a while — but I always had a fun night while staying at Mad Monkey. They host a different event in the bar every night of the week (e.g. free keg parties, free punch parties, pub crawls, pub quizzes, BBQs, etc.), so it’s easy to meet people and socialize. It’s pretty clear why this is the most popular hostel in Phnom Penh.

As you can see, my apprehension towards Phnom Penh turned out to be completely unfounded. The tuk-tuk drivers are annoying as hell, but nobody ever made me feel at all unsafe during the four days I spent there. To be honest, there aren’t a ton of things to do in the city, so I can understand why so many people want to leave after seeing the Killing Fields and S-21. But I personally had quite a good time in Phnom Penh, thanks to the cool hostel I stayed at and the great people I met there.

Next stop: Battambang, Cambodia!

5 Days in Ho Chi Minh City

I actually liked Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) a lot more than I thought I would. I thought it was basically going to be a repeat of Hanoi — terrifying traffic, dingy streets, impassable sidewalks. To my surprise, I found HCMC to be completely different from Hanoi in all the best ways. For the most part, you can actually walk on the sidewalks there — they’re not crammed full of parked motorbikes and people eating on little plastic chairs. HCMC is just so much brighter, sunnier, and generally more pleasant than Hanoi.

My first day in HCMC I decided to devote to some standard sightseeing. First I walked to the city’s most famous market, Ben Thanh market. I didn’t take any pictures there, but it’s basically just your typical Southeast Asian indoor market. I’m sure you can imagine what it looks like. I browsed around aimlessly among the narrow lanes for a while and then left.

After that I decided to check out the city’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, which has a viewing platform on the 49th floor. The ticket price is expensive at 200,000VND, but you get a fabulous 360° view of the city.

Ho Chi Minh City

When I felt I had soaked up the view long enough, I returned to the ground and headed towards one of the most famous buildings in the city, the Notre Dame cathedral. They’re currently doing some maintenance work on it, so it’s not at maximum attractiveness, but the façade is still as stately as ever.

Directly across the street from the cathedral is the Central Post Office, so I figured I might as well check that out while I was there. I know nothing about architecture, but I can see why the post office is well-known as one of the best examples of French colonial style in the city.

On my second day in HCMC, I paid a visit to Independence Palace (formerly known as Reunification Palace). Honestly, I’m neither a history person nor a museum person, so this wasn’t the most enthralling attraction for me. I walked around the palace peeking into one fancy-ish room after another until they all started to look the same. I wouldn’t call Independence Palace a must-see unless you’re really into Vietnamese history.

The one place I knew I couldn’t miss seeing while in HCMC was the Mekong Delta. Normally I hate taking tours — I would much rather visit places on my own — but since I only had one day to visit the Mekong, a tour was both the easiest and the cheapest way to do so. I stayed at The Hideout (the most popular party hostel in HCMC) and noticed they were offering a one-day Mekong Delta tour for only 230,000VND. That sounded like a good deal, so I booked it.

Well, the tour turned out to be a major cash grab and a reminder of why I hate tours. Our first stop in the Mekong Delta was a coconut candy making workshop. Our tour guide gave us a brief demonstration of how coconut candy is made there, then offered us free samples of the finished product. After that we were given an ample amount of free time to browse around the shop and check out all the coconut-related items for sale. It was pretty obvious we were only brought there in the hopes that we would purchase something.

Later in the day we went to an apiary for a tea tasting which was nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to persuade us to buy the honey that they put in our tea. The tea was just about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever drunk in my life, so I really had no inclination to buy any of the ingredients in it. After a very basic lunch, we had about half an hour of free time to explore Phoenix Island, but it was hard to see much in such a short time. There were some pretty flowers on the island though.

After leaving Phoenix Island, we finally got to do something cool: we went for a ride down the river in one of those little wooden rowboats. Just before getting out of the boat I was in, one of the women paddling it tapped me and said, “Tip money, tip money,” so I gave her 10,000VND.

The next thing we did was listen to a traditional Vietnamese musical performance. Towards the end of the performance, which only lasted a few minutes, one of the singers came around and put a basket on each table in the hopes that we would put money in it. I think a few people tipped, but she took back most of the baskets empty.

On the way back to HCMC, we stopped for 20 minutes at Vinh Trang pagoda. This is a beautiful pagoda, and our brief stop here was probably my favourite part of the day. The pagoda is surrounded by three large, white Buddha statues — one standing, one lying down, and one extra jolly Buddha sitting and laughing.

The next day, I decided to take another day trip — this time a DIY one. I chose to go to Monkey Island in Can Gio Mangrove Forest. It’s not actually an island at all, just a nature reserve that’s overloaded with monkeys. Believe it or not, I had never in my life interacted with monkeys before, so I was super excited to be in the midst of them for the first time.

Since I had no prior experience with monkeys, I didn’t know exactly what kind of behaviour to expect from them. I had heard that they sometimes bite and steal things out of people’s hands, but I guess I was too excited to be nervous around them. I was brave enough at the beginning of my visit to get right up close to them and stick my phone in their face to take their picture. There was a cute little one that I allowed to grab at my pants while I was kneeling in front of him and filming him. I thought it was charming and adorable until he started biting my leg. It was a very gentle bite that I barely even felt through my pants, but that’s when the seed of my mistrust of monkeys was planted. I realized for the first time that these creatures are savages that are not to be trusted.

A few minutes later, a bigger monkey approached me, stood up on his two hind legs, and started grabbing my bag. Decidedly uneasy now, I shook him off and quickly retreated. Later in the day, one of them actually jumped right up on my bag. Not gonna lie — I screamed a little as I shook the savage beast off. Monkey Island was definitely a cool experience, and I’m glad I went, but I don’t know if I will really be able to get excited anymore at the prospect of seeing monkeys.

If you’re not yet jaded by monkeys, and the idea of being attacked by a horde of them doesn’t faze you, getting to Monkey Island from HCMC is easy. Just walk to Ben Thanh bus station and take Bus #20 to Binh Khanh ferry station (about 45 minutes). Then take the ferry across the river and get on Bus #90 headed towards Cam Thanh. Make sure you let the driver know that you want to get off at Lam Vien Can Gio. I think the ride from the ferry station took about an hour.

All in all, HCMC is a very cool city and I had a great time there. I’m a little sad to be leaving Vietnam, and I’m both excited and apprehensive about my upcoming time in Cambodia. I’m looking forward to seeing the country, but I’ve had so many people tell me that the capital city, Phnom Penh, is a highly sketchy place where you’re at constant risk of being mugged. Well, Phnom Penh is my next stop, so I guess I’ll soon find out for myself!

3 Days in Nha Trang, Vietnam

I was pretty excited to finally leave Hoi An and arrive in the beach resort town of Nha Trang. Walking around and sightseeing in a city is nice and all, but I was so ready to be by the sea and sand. I think it must be impossible to be bored or sulky when you’re by the ocean.

On my first day in Nha Trang I walked to one of the city’s main attractions, the Po Nagar temple. The temple was cool, and the view over the water from here was pretty nice.

Nha Trang