Koh Lanta, Bali

My last day in Hanoi was fairly uneventful. I caught up on some emails and photo editing and spent the remainder of the day and evening with a Dutch couple from my Halong Bay trip and one of the Canadian siblings from my Sapa trip. The next day we all took the same flight to Bangkok so we were able to split a cab on both the Hanoi side and the Bangkok side. I checked in to the hostel where I was meeting up with my old highschool friend Corina later than night, relaxed a bit, and then met back up with them for dinner.

After dinner the four of us played card games for a couple hours and then I began to get incredibly nauseous. After a vomiting episode in the restaurant bathroom (sorry if that’s too much information), I immediately took a cab back to my hostel where I was hit with full on food poisoning. It ended up being some of the most miserable 24 hours that I can remember (the only worse food poisoning I’ve had was back on my study abroad program in Ecuador). Unfortunately during that time, Corina also arrived and then had to spend her first day in Bangkok alone as I couldn’t even keep a half sip of water down and was too sore and weak to move out of bed. Thankfully I felt somewhat better the next day as we had to catch a flight down to Koh Lanta. After checking in to our hostel there we walked across the street to an amazing beach, aptly named Long Beach (as its 3 km long).

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We spent the remainder of the day napping and swimming at the beach and returned to our hostel in the evening for a light dinner and early bedtime.

Day 2 in Koh Lanta began with another trip across the street to Long Beach where the water was even calmer than the previous day.

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After lunch we got a cab all the way to the south of the island where there is a small national park. The 45 minute drive was one of the most gorgeous drives I’ve done as we went along the cliffs looking through jungle at beautiful beaches below.

We spent the remainder of the day at the national park. There are two beaches there, one is rocky but has reefs (if you bring your own snorkel gear) while the other is sandy and calm. Separating the two beaches is a little jut of land with a lighthouse on it, so we climbed up to the top to get lovely views in all directions.

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Then we hiked down in the sweltering heat and spent an hour and a half lounging and swimming at the sandy beach (as we didn’t have the snorkel gear to explore the other one).

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The whole national park area is swarming with monkeys that kept trying to get into our backpacks when we weren’t paying attention so after 1.5 hrs of fending them off we decided to explore some more of the national park. They had a 2 km nature hike that we were excited about at first but after the entire first 25 minutes were pretty much vertical stairs with no end in sight, we decided to turn around and head back towards the beach. Once we were there we wandered around the flat part of the jungle where we ran into a gazillion more monkeys and 3 gigantic monitor lizards. The monitor lizards were so cool! I didn’t even know that they were in Thailand.

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Then we went back to the beach for a tiny bit more relaxation before heading back to our hostel.

Our last full day in Koh Lanta we got picked up early and transferred to a speed boat. We took this about 1.5 hours to a small pair of islands, Koh Rok and Koh Rok Noi. First we went to this calm little bay and snorkeled for about at hour. The coral and fish were so lovely and we even saw a sea snake! They’re very venomous but thankfully it wasn’t interested in us and we were able to watch it peacefully. It was only Corina’s second time snorkeling ever and her first time she had no instruction so I helped teach her how to do it and how to relax and enjoy it. At first she seemed tense but I think by the end of the day she was enjoying it more!

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Next we boated over to a channel between the two islands for our second round of snorkeling. It was quite beautiful as you could see beaches on both sides.

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Unfortunately though, the channel seemed to have some currents so although the coral formations were truly stunning at the second site, it was really hard to swim around much so it was nowhere near as relaxing as the first site.

After this we went ashore at the beach on Koh Rok for some tasty tasty lunch. We then got an hour and a half to relax on the beach, and wow was it a beautiful beach. The sand was perfect and buttery soft and the water was soooo blue. However there were a decent number of people so it wasn’t as relaxing as our other beaches but that didn’t stop us from fully enjoying the sand and water (and unfortunately getting a bit sunburned while we were at it).

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Then it was time to head to our final snorkeling spot. This spot was a very large bay and we had enough time to explore almost all of it. The fish there were definitely the most colorful and diverse, and I even saw a gigantic eel (still haven’t identified the species though). The water around the boat however was a bit filled with jellyfish, I spied them both on the surface and I could feel the microscopic kind stinging my arms, so that was annoying but I just tried to avoid snorkeling near the boat. I also saw the most amazing sea anemones. They were gigantic and bright blue and when I dove down to swim next to them, I noticed that each one was occupied by a little clown-type fish. It was lovely. It made me really wish that I had an underwater camera.

Then it was back onto the boat for a nice long ride back to the beach where our hostel was. It was a thoroughly exhausting day but also so spectacular.

We woke up very early the next day and got on a ferry to Phuket. It was a fairly long ferry ride and then the taxi to our hostel was long as well. By the time we arrived, it was during the hours that they were closed for lunch and cleaning so we went to the beach nearby to relax. There we read our books, swam a bit, and treated ourselves to mango smoothies and chicken sandwiches (not very Thai, but my stomach was still feeling hyper-sensitive).

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Then we checked into our airport hostel, repacked our bags and enjoyed the room’s air conditioning as even at night the heat and humidity was brutal.

The next we woke up at 5 to get to the airport. We flew from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur where we had to exit immigration and customs and get a boarding pass for our next flight on the other side. This was a bit of a hassle but allowed me to get a Malaysia stamp on my passport…although it felt a bit like cheating. We had a 6.5 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur so we decided to wander outside of the airport for food so at least I had breathed Malaysian air and stepped on their soil (trying to deserve that fresh passport stamp here…). Then we checked back in, hung out at our gate, and flew to Bali in the evening. With the time change and long flight, we didn’t arrive in Bali until late and it was an hour and a half in a taxi until we arrived in Ubud, where our first guesthouse was (we arrived there at almost 10 PM..) Once we got to our guesthouse we were informed that they actually were full (kind of frustrating as we booked it 2 months ago…) but the lady brought us about 20 feet away to her sister’s guesthouse where we stayed in a very beautiful and spacious room. However, it was very open to the elements and the temperature didn’t drop whatsoever, even at night so it was a very sticky couple nights of sleeping.

I woke up pretty early the next day. I really wanted to sleep in because the beds were so comfortable and the room was so pretty and serene but the heat was already out in full force and I couldn’t keep my eyes closed against the sweat anymore. After a truly lovely breakfast, we headed out to explore Ubud. Our first stop was a big marketplace where Corina picked up a few souvenirs. Then we found a shaded little temple and rested from the sun.

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Ubud is a very spiritual city so there are temples everywhere. It’s quite pretty. Also, they put offerings and incense out in front of every building every day so the streets are littered in these beautiful little banana leaf offerings.

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Our next stop was the Grand Palace. It wasn’t exactly a Palace or that grand but it was a nice temple space and had enough shade to keep us in ok spirits.

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By this point we were covered in sweat so we found a gelato shop with a fan and took a short break. Then we wandered a bit further down to another temple that had a beautiful lotus pond in front. After meandering through the small temple grounds we are at a cafe in front of the lotus pond and had some delicious cured salmon, avocado, and ginger tea. It really helped out my stomach.

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Then it was back onto the streets where we wandered into various shops. As lovely as Ubud is, it is very gentrified. There are so many “hip” and yuppie boutiques that are pleasant enough to browse but kind of lack that traditional flare. Eventually we decided to walk back towards our guesthouse. We only made it 20 minutes before we realized that we needed air conditioning right that second. The heat was so brutal and we literally felt like it was suffocating us, so we ducked into the nearest air conditioned coffee shop, ordered some juice and sat there in the cool air for almost an hour. Finally it was time to brave the heat again so we went to the sacred monkey forest. It is a beautiful (and very shady) forest with lots of old temples that is filled with monkeys. We wandered through the forest and watched the monkey families for a little while.

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After, we walked back to our guesthouse where we filled the bathtub with cold water and sat in our bathing suits in it as if it were a pool. The heat was so intolerable that it was the only way to get our body temperatures down. Then we relaxed and napped until it was time for a late dinner. I tried to post this on my blog then but the wifi connection was way too slow for any of the photos to upload. After dinner nearby we went to bed early, thoroughly exhausted from the hot climate.

The next day we had an early breakfast and then packed and lounged in our room until we had to check out at 11. Then we ate lunch and found ourselves a cab to Uluwatu, where our next guesthouse was. Our drive was excruciatingly long but our taxi driver was so friendly which helped pass the time. In general, Balinese people are some of the most social and smiley people that I’ve met. They’re so open and want to tell you all about themselves and learn about you. We arrived at our guesthouse, and were greeted by lovely staff and the most blue and pristine swimming pool. After the excruciating heat of Ubud, we immediately jumped in the pool where we spent almost the entire remainder of the day.

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In the evening we walked 15 minutes to a beach north of us. It was very scenic although the beach itself wasn’t terribly inviting as it was rocky, with big waves, and was covered in seaweed.

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We ate dinner there while the sun began to set and then we hiked back up the cliffs and returned to our guesthouse to spend the remainder of the evening swimming.

Our first full day in Uluwatu, we began by sleeping in. Our bungalow was nicely air conditioned and the refreshing air was too irresistible. Then we had a light breakfast and swam in the pool before walking to the beach on the other side of us. This beach was a bit nicer as the sand was quite soft but it was also quite crowded as it is a beach featured in the movie Eat, Pray, Love.

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Thankfully we found ourselves a nice shady patch of sand under a rocky protrusion. It was nice because the rock was covered in seaweed and there were baby crabs picking away at the moss and kelp, which kept me thoroughly entertained.

We spent a few hours there, swimming, lounging, watching baby crabs, and snacking on grilled corn before we decided to trek back up the cliffs to find some real food. At our late lunch/early dinner spot there was this really loud noise that I had heard the previous night at our guesthouse. I tracked it down and discovered a massive gecko. It was so massive that I couldn’t really believe it was a gecko. I ended up googling “giant gecko Bali” and discovered that it was a Tokay Gecko which are apparently quite common. I was fascinated.

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We spent the remainder of the day and evening drinking mango juice and lounging around the pool while I attempted to write an essay for a scholarship opportunity on my phone as neither us nor our hosts had a usable computer. Unfortunately in the evening the electricity completely died so I was unable to submit my essay, as it took the wifi with it.

Today we slept in again, waking to the sound of our electricity returning. After some more morning swimming (I’ve been swimming laps in the pool! Not just lazily swimming!) we began the trek to Uluwatu Temple. The sun was beating down on us though so after our first major incline we decided to grab a taxi the remainder of the way. The temple in Uluwatu isn’t the most exciting but the location is what makes it so special. It is perched on cliffs above amazing turquoise water and crashing waves.

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We walked along the cliffs, admiring the scenery but there was very little shade the whole way. Corina had not been staying hydrated enough and the sun and heat eventually got the best of her and she got dizzy and started throwing up so it put a bit of a damper on the day and we had to rush a bit through the remainder of the visit to the temple to get her back into the shade and cooler temperatures.

Once we got back to the room she took a recovery nap while I finished up my essay, submitted it, and finished writing this post.

Then we headed to a nearby neighborhood where we got a really lovely dinner and watched our last Balinese sunset.

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The next few days are days in transit so my next post (which will be my last post for this trip) will be from back in the states.

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Hue, Phong Nha, Northern Vietnam

Our one night in Hue we spent at the hostel socializing. I found two backpackers from Buenos Aires so I spent the whole evening practicing my Spanish with them since I haven’t really had a chance to have a real conversation in Spanish in so long. It was so fun and it came back to me quickly, although it also made me feel like I need (and want) to take some Spanish lessons once I get back to the states…

The next morning I woke up and ate some banana pancakes, checked out of the hostel, and put my backpack in storage. We were only in Hue for one day so I spent the whole day meandering around the imperial city there. Hue was the capital of the Nguyen empire, so the imperial city is a massive walled complex. A ton of it was completely destroyed in the war, as Hue was also unfortunately one of the most intensely bombed areas. However, despite this, about 40 (of the originally 180) structures are standing and what is left is so beautiful and impressive. There were palaces, a royal reading house, a royal theater, various royal residences, and numerous beautiful temples. Also, every part was covered in very informative signage so you knew what every pile of bombed rubble used to be and what every standing structure still was. Unfortunately I can’t remember which things were which so I’ll just post a whole bunch of photos of the whole imperial city.

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I spent the whole day at this imperial complex and still hadn’t visited everything but at a certain point my back and sinuses were feeling unhappy so I walked back to the hostel, stopping at a cute but little royal antiquities museum. Then I got some delicious spring roll/vermicelli noodles as an early dinner.

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Eventually it was time to hop onto my night bus to Phong Nha, a small town that serves as the base for exploring some of Vietnam (and the worlds) most impressive caves.

Our first day in Phong Nha, Emma and I took motorbikes to Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in the world. The drive there was truly gorgeous. The whole area was limestone cliffs and the mountains were covered in lush jungle vegetation. It was so pleasant. Once we got to the entrance we had to hike in through the pretty ferns to get to the cave.

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The cave itself was so stunning. It was indeed a very long walk through all of the stalactites and beautiful cave formations. There were also these little mineral ponds that were so calm that the surface was like a mirror. It was stunning.

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After a while wandering through the cave we headed back out, hiked back through the jungle and got on the motorbike to head to Dark Cave. Here we actually swam to the cave (with a guide this time) and we’re given headlamps and hard hats once we reached the entrance. Then we hiked through knee deep water until we reached a section that was almost like a slot canyon. At this point it was starting to get very muddy. We finally reached this lake that is completely mineral mud. It is the weirdest mud. It makes you completely buoyant, so much so that it takes serious effort to push your feet down to touch the bottom. It was really cool but it made my organs feel all weird to be so completely weightless. Also every single inch of us was covered in this mud which was quite funny but frustrating if you opened your mouth, and it would have been a disaster if you had anything in your eye. After a while of floating around in the mud we hiked back out and kayaked downriver to get back to the motorbikes. The river was also so clear and blue so we swam around for a bit to try and get some of the mud off, although it seems to have permanently stained the white parts of my bathing suit a weird pinkish brown.

Then it was back onto the bike to head back to the hostel. The light was stunning on our trip home as the sun had already set but the remaining rosy light was reflecting off of the white limestone cliffs. The trip back was also gorgeous but in a different way as we were going through rivers and farmland and villages. I tried to take a couple photos but we were in a rush since we didn’t have lights on the bike and darkness was fast approaching so the photo below doesn’t even come close to doing the scene justice.

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Emma left that night, so I was back to traveling on my own, and that night I even got my dorm room completely to myself as Phong Nha is quite a small place and hasn’t hit peak tourist popularity yet. It was very calming.

The next day I had a slow lazy morning and then spent the rest of the day wandering around the village and the neighboring villages taking photos and eating delicious Vietnamese food.

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Eventually it started pouring rain so I headed back to the hostel and later got on a night bus to Hanoi.

I arrived in Hanoi quite exhausted and couldn’t check in to my room until 1. Fortunately they had a free 3 hour walking tour of the old quarter of Hanoi at 10 so I joined in. It was a really lovely tour. Hanoi is a really nice city, at least the old quarter is. We went to a small temple, then to a catholic cathedral. Our tour guide told us that Vietnam is very religiously diverse and the population is evenly split between Buddhism, Catholicism, and atheism, with a minority group practicing Confucianism. Very interesting.

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After this we went to the main lake in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake. On weekends they shut down the roads surrounding the lake to vehicle traffic so everyone is just out playing in the streets. There were so many families around and there were all sorts of little plastic cars and scooters and roller blades that kids were renting and riding around on. It was so sweet to watch.

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The lake itself was also quite pretty and there is a special little temple island in the middle of it dedicated to the turtle god. Within the lake there are apparently ~20 different kinds of turtles that you can find. Unfortunately though I didn’t see a single one…

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After the lake we headed to the original place that made egg coffee, a Vietnamese specialty. Although I don’t usually drink coffee, Hanoi is famous for this egg coffee so I had to try it. They mix egg yolk with condensed milk and whip it so that it becomes a meringue, then you have to stir the meringue into the coffee.

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It was actually so delicious, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t really care for eggs or coffee. It was very thick and frothy and creamy.

After that we headed to a market which was fairly uninteresting and chaotic so we moved on quickly and headed back to the hostel. I checked in to my room, rested a bit, ate lunch and then headed off to return to the lake.

I sat down next to the lake and within minutes was approached by a group of 20 year old students who wanted to practice their English. This is apparently quite common around this lake (as I was later approached by 3 more groups of students ranging in age from 8 up to 20… the 8 year olds were the cutest). They had a list of questions that they were supposed to ask but we ended up getting super off topic and we ended up chatting for a full hour and a half. It was so lovely, and they tried to teach me some Vietnamese but the pronunciation is so hard that I’ve already forgotten almost everything that they taught me.

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After bidding my new friends adieu I continued my stroll around the lake, meeting some more curious Vietnamese people and watching all of the sweet couples cuddling up along the shore.

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Finally it was getting late enough that I decided to head back to the hostel, just in time for some free beer. I spent the remainder of the evening making friends and getting destroyed at foosball.

The next day I checked out of my room and put my bags in storage. Hanoi is famous for its food, so I soon went out to find some Bun Bo Nam Bo, a Hanoi noodle bowl specialty that I’d read about. I found a little hole in the wall type place and ordered some and it was so tasty.

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It was also a humongous portion and I was so hungry that I gobbled it down and then realized how stuffed I was. I wandered around the old quarter for most of the remainder of the day. Eventually I was hungry again so I tried another Hanoi specialty, this time called Banh Cuon. It was honestly a bit weird. First off they barely spoke English so I thought I ordered pork but then it looked very odd and tasted possibly a little shrimp-y. It’s basically these big wide slightly soggy rice noodles surround some ground mystery meat and you dip it in this sauce that seemed just like fish sauce with chilies floating in it. The flavor was quite good but the weird texture and mysteriousness of the ingredients were just odd enough to push me to gobble it down rather then savor it.

After dinner I headed back to the hostel to rest and then took a night bus to Sapa.

Sapa ended up being my favorite place so far. It’s in the far north of Vietnam, right on the border with Yunnan, China. It’s very mountainous and the area is scattered with hilltribes who have terraced the foothills of the mountains for rice paddies. We trekked 16 km through the mountainous terrain with a beautiful little hill tribe family as our guide, stopping to eat and catch our breath. It was actually one of the most scenic and gorgeous places I have ever been.

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We made it to our homestay around 4 and settled in. My tour group was such an amazing group of people. It was 2 Americans who were on their gap years before starting at private liberal arts colleges (so I gave them lots of fun advice), an incredibly fun Australian guy, and a hilarious brother and sister duo from Toronto (and the sisters name was Tara so that was fun). Our beds were in a cabin and right next to eachother so it was basically like summer camp. In the evening, I broke away from the group and went on a walk down the river to read my book and watch the sunset. It was so beautiful and peaceful.

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Our homestay family made us a delicious dinner and then we spent the whole evening having such a blast. We played game after game and then danced around for hours before the mosquitos and exhausting from our hike got the better of us.

The next morning we woke up to a delicious crepe breakfast, put on our hiking shoes, and continued on to our next village. The breath-taking views continued on and we eventually reached this big cliff face with a waterfall down it where we relaxed for a bit and enjoyed the view.

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The remainder of the walk was quite arduous as we went up huge hills and then down slippery muddy slopes but we eventually got some tasty noodle soup for lunch, and then finally reached the main town of Sapa.

We had 2 more hours until our bus so our little group wandered around the town, and we eventually found a little cafe to just enjoy the incredible view and drink juice and coffee.

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Then it was back onto the bus to Hanoi. I got in at 10 PM and immediately had to repack my bags before catching a 7 AM bus to Halong Bay.

I went on a tour through my Hanoi hostel in halong bay as it is fairly confusing to deal with on your own and there are lots of “tour” scams. It was nice doing it through the hostel as there were 12 other backpackers my same age with me and we had 3 tour guides who were also our age and knew how to keep everything fun and laid back. Our first day in halong bay we checked into our dorm bungalow on a private island and got served a delicious lunch.

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Then we got onto a boat and went all around the bay, finally stopping at one point to jump off the boat and swim around a bit. Unfortunately it was freezing outside so it made the swim and post-swim a tiny bit miserable but it was still fun.

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Then we went a little further and got to kayak all throughout the bay. It was so much fun. We went through one area that was a floating village. There are ~1000 people that live in these floating villages throughout halong bay. It was really amazing to see. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera with me but it was all so scenic. After a nice long kayak ride it was back to our little island for rest and dinner. After dinner we all stayed up late hanging out and playing games.

The next day we took a boat ride to one of the major islands where we got bicycles and went all around the island. It was such a nice ride.

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Eventually we got off and hiked up one of the many limestone mountains in the area. It was quite the grueling hike, but the view at the top was so worth it.

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The hike back down was equally brutal and a few people in our group took some big tumbles. Thankfully I was not one of them. Then it was time for a long bike ride back to the boat where we were greeted by an extremely late lunch. We were so starving that the food was quickly gobbled up. We got back to our island stuffed and exhausted and all napped until dinner time. After dinner it was another night of dancing and games. Our group of people was so much fun and we all got along really well so that made the whole trip even better.

Our last day in halong bay we went on another hike, but this time on the island that we were staying on. It too had some brutally steep moments but the views were again so worth it, and we got to go to a beach that was covered in monkeys.

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Then it was back to the main part of our island for some final card games and lunch before our bus/boat trip back to Hanoi. I made it back in the evening, caught up with people back home, and then decided to head out for some late dinner. I got Pho from a tiny stand on the street and it was quite tasty, then I wandered around and stumbled onto the Hanoi night market. It was really interesting. It was geared towards locals, not tourists, as most of the stuff was clothing and accessories, but it was fun to wander around in the chaos and just watch people haggle over prices while snacking on the various fried street foods along the way.

Today is my second to last day in Hanoi. For the most part I took it easy for the day since I’m pretty physically exhausted from all of the hiking and exercise from the past week. I finally headed out for lunch at a nearby place that specializes in Bun Cha, a Hanoi specialty that Obama tried when he came to Hanoi. I didn’t make it to the place that he went to because it was far away and there was a place closer that had better reviews on trip advisor.

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It was indeed quite delicious and they showed me the proper way to eat it which was very nice. Afterwards I decided to stroll around through the Old Quarter to see if I could find myself a watch. I unfortunately broke mine beyond repair and thought it might be cheaper to just get a replacement in Vietnam. It was quite a frustrating search and I ended up confused and with no watch, so I guess I’ll just find one when I get home. The stroll around the old quarter was nice though. It was, and still is, the main shopping hub of Hanoi. Every street is named after the type of goods sold on it. Some of the stores have just turned into general tourist-crap stores but many of them still retain their original function so there is a street where every shop is selling aluminum wares, a street where every shop is selling silk, and then the street that my hostel is on is dedicated to stores selling ropes and string.

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Tomorrow’s my last day in Vietnam which is sad but I’m excited to head back to Thailand and meet up with one of my old school friends!

Saigon, Da Lat, & Hoi An

My second evening in Ho Chi Minh, 5 other travelers and I headed to a bar that’s on top of a skyscraper. The view was really amazing and the other people were so friendly so that was fun. My next day in Saigon, I booked a Mekong river tour. I hadn’t heard the best reviews of it, but it was only ~$6 and included water and lunch so it couldn’t really be that bad. We started out with a 2 hour bus ride to the river delta while our very funny guide explained what was on the schedule for the day. Our first stop was a small temple that had 3 giant Buddha statues, one standing, one sitting, and one reclining. It was a pretty little temple, and seemed to have a lot more Chinese influence than the temples in Thailand.

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Then we piled onto a boat that took us over to an island that had a coconut candy factory on it. We got to sample the coconut candy but then they of course tried to push us to buy some. Didn’t buy anything the whole day. Next we went to an island where they served us lunch. It wasn’t the most appetizing lunch, but it was food. Then we had an hour to explore the little island. I had mixed feelings about this. First we walked past a “crocodile” (pretty sure these were caimen, not crocs but that’s what they called them) farm. At first I was excited to see “crocodiles” but then I realized how terrible the conditions were, it was like 50 animals in one tiny enclosure barely bigger than my living room and I got a bit depressed. So I moved on to explore the remainder of the island with a couple Dutch people on my trip. We got free bike rentals so we took the bikes out of the tourist area and biked around the island through banana and coconut farms, which was charming.

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Our next stop was a honey farm, where we were served free honey tea but then of course pressured to buy some. Thankfully we moved on quickly and got in these little banana boats that took us down a little Mekong tributary. It was really pleasant, and I kept spotting these weird little creatures that looked like a mix between a fish and a salamander that were climbing out of the water onto the mud using what looked like fins, not legs. I still have no idea what they were but they were everywhere. I’ll have to look them up.

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We ended with some fresh fruit at this place where we were serenaded with traditional vietnamese singing. It was a bit bothersome because I don’t exactly like being sung to and it wasn’t particularly good and of course they asked for tips. After this we headed back to the main land and got back on our bus to Saigon.

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So in total, it wasn’t the best experience because a lot of it was clearly designed as a sort of tourist trap, but the banana boat trip and bike trip were quite nice and worth it so I don’t regret my $6 spent. Then it was back to the hostel for some free beer and socializing. A new British girl arrived at my hostel who was so incredibly entertaining and had just gotten back from scuba diving for 2 weeks in the Maldives where she got covered in jellyfish stings. So I listened to all of her diving stories and then we headed out on a pub crawl put on by a neighboring hostel. It was really fun, and I made a lovely group of friends.

The next day I checked out of the hostel and then spent much of the day lazing around their common room. Eventually my hunger overtook my laziness and I found a stand selling sandwiches that were a cross between a banh mi and a gyro. It was fantastic. Then I walked through another part of downtown Saigon for the rest of the day. After wandering I was feeling sore so I went to a massage place where the masseuses are blind. It was the best massage yet and it was only $3. So crazy. After dinner with some of the people from my hostel, it was time to get on my overnight bus to Da Lat. It was truly the weirdest bus I’ve ever been on. The seats are beds and there are two levels of them. So there was someone sleeping above me.

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Thankfully I passed out right away and woke up when we arrived in Da Lat at 5:30 am. Unfortunately the reception at my hostel wasn’t open until 7, but there were two other backpackers in the same boat as me, so we lugged our stuff up to a little cafe, ate some breakfast Bun Bo Hue (noodle soup), and rested. Then I walked the 2 km to my hostel and fortunately there was an open bed, so I was able to check in immediately and sleep for the remainder of the morning. Also the beds at this hostel were memory foam, which made sleep all the better.

I finally decided it was time to get out of bed around lunch time. I walked all through the center of town looking for street food called da lat pizza. Eventually I reached the main lake in Da Lat and thought maybe there would be a food cart somewhere around it.

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After almost fully completing the 6 km trek around the lake I finally found a cart selling banh mi so I bought one. My inability to know how to order food in Vietnamese meant I just got whatever she handed me. It was a sandwich with about 5 meats in it. It tasted delicious, although the texture was a bit suspicious so I just had to gobble it down before thinking too hard about it. Then I wandered back up through the hillside and around the town where I bought some more questionable street food, this time a weird jelly boba type drink that ended up being overly sweet so I only made it through half of it.

Once I got back to the hostel I rested some more before a tasty “family style” dinner served for all of the travelers and then some more evening socializing.

The next day I set out early for an EasyRider motorcycle tour. This entailed me and 3 other people from my hostel sitting on the backs of motorcycles while we were toured around the Da Lat countryside. Da Lat is very different from other places that I’ve been because it’s at 5000 ft elevation so the weather is significantly drier and there are pine trees rather than palm trees. Our first stop was a little pine grove that we hiked up to see a view of the city and surrounding farms (a huge portion of produce around Vietnam is grown in Da Lat).

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After this we continued on for a while on this long and winding, but very scenic road, stopping at another viewpoint, a flower farm, and a coffee plantation. At the coffee plantation we learned about this special coffee that is actually made from coffee beans that have been digested by weasels, which apparently makes it a delicacy. It was very interesting.

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Our next stop was a cricket farm (for eating) and a rice wine farm. We got to try samples at both and the rice wine was especially delicious. Then it was on to a silk factory which was interesting but a little gross as every surface was covered in wet silkworm carcasses.

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Next we went to Elephant Falls, which was gorgeous. We walked way down to the bottom of the waterfall which was fun, but muddy.

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Then we had a cheap little lunch. It was good but the meat was slightly questionable (thankfully did not get sick from it!). Then we walked over to a fairly modern temple that was built in 2007. It was very Grand and impressive, with a gigantic Happy Buddha statue.

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Then we got back on our bikes and headed off on a long trip to Pangour waterfall. We stopped once to look at these peppercorns trees that are actually growing around gigantic coffee trees.

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Pangour Waterfall was incredible. Truly breathtaking, I had no idea there were waterfalls like that in Vietnam. We walked around there for a bit, checking out the waterfall from all different angles before hopping back on the motorbikes for a long ride back towards Da Lat.

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On the way back we stopped at a mushroom farm and an indigenous village where they had build a massive rooster statue. We also stopped at a couple more viewpoints, including a beautiful alpine-esque lake.

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In the end, it was an incredibly informative tour and our guides were so friendly and knowledgeable. I had a family dinner that night with the other travelers from my tour and then we went to this crazy bar that’s designed like a mix between a maze and a funhouse. There are false stairways everywhere and in places the ceiling drops to about 3 ft. It was quite entertaining.

The next day in Da Lat, I went on a canyoning tour with 4 other backpackers. First we got dropped off and geared up in half wetsuits, harnesses, and hard hats. Then we headed to this dirt hill where they taught us how to rappel. With this knowledge in mind we hiked up this canyon until we got to a bit cliff face. First we rappelled down the dry part of the cliff and then it was time for the challenge of rappelling down the waterfall. It was a bit terrifying because the water is just pouring down on top of you so you can barely see but it was quite exhilarating.

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Then we hiked through the jungle for a bit more than a half an hour. There were birds everywhere and it was lovely to be tucked away in such a forest. Eventually we reached our next waterfall, the “washing machine”. For this waterfall we weren’t really climbing down it but rather just dropping down it. It was a bit overwhelming because it’s just a bunch of water pushing you down and again you can’t really see much but it was very refreshing and the swimming hole at the bottom was quite nice.

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Then they set us up on this zip line across a giant swimming hole and we spent the remainder of the afternoon zip lining into the water and cliff jumping.

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After a full day of activities they set us up with a make your own banh mi station which was so delicious and some beers. By then end of the day I was damp and exhausted and cold so it was nice to go back to the hostel and just relax. I spent the remainder of the evening there socializing with other people of course before heading to bed early.

The next day I checked out of the hostel and then had to wait for my night bus to Hoi An (a 17 hr bus ride). Our bus was running 2 hours late but thankfully I booked the same bus as a British girl, Emma, that I had befriended in Ho Chi Minh who was on the same trip plan as me. Having a bit of company made both the bus delay, and the accompanying overnight bus ride, a little more tolerable.

We made it to Hoi An and were staying in the same hostel for the same number of days, so it’s like having a travel companion. Our first day we were exhausted from our excruciating bus ride so we rested a bit at the hostel and then headed out with 2 other backpackers to explore Hoi An. Hoi An is famous for its tailoring shops and there are hundreds of them where you can get custom clothes designed and made overnight for dirt cheap. Emma had a list of things she needed made, and one of our other friends wanted to get a custom suit made so we spent the afternoon wandering around between tailor shops until we found the best price with the best fabric to get their clothes made. It was interesting to watch, and I decided to get a jumpsuit made since I can never find ones in the US that fit right. Then we went to a bakery that had incredible banh mi for less than $1 and was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. We spent the remainder of the evening just wandering around some of the produce markets along the river in Hoi An.

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Our next day in Hoi An, I accompanied Emma to some of her various fittings at the tailors and then we bought old town exploration tickets that allowed us to go into 5 different buildings, sights, or cultural events. We went to the old Japanese covered bridge, 2 old assembly halls, an old house, and a traditional performance art show. They were all very spectacular and at one of the assembly halls, we got swarmed by a class of elementary school kids who all wanted high fives, it was very cute.

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We got some delicious Hoi An specialties for dinner and then finally we headed back to the hostel, socialized with some other backpackers and headed to bed early.

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The next day we slept in a bit and then finished touring the old town. Emma had her final tailoring fitting and I had to pick up my jumpsuit, and then we wandered into a different part of the old town, admiring the lanterns and fruit vendors, and picking up some Vietnamese donuts along the way. Eventually we headed back to the hostel where we got a free street food tour that took us to various stops. Only one stop included something I hadn’t already eaten but it was still all so delicious. We got banh mi, pho, these little rice paper/egg/beef dumplings, and fruit shakes. At this point I started feeling a bit sick, as my throat was feeling very scratchy and my head was hurting.

I woke up the next day to a full blown sickness, I’m thinking it’s just a common cold. I couldn’t get out of bed all morning because of my congestion and body aches, but in the afternoon I finally decided I needed some fresh air so Emma and I rented bikes and biked through the rice paddies on the outskirts of town on our way to the beach.

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We didn’t make it to the beach because at one point along the way we stopped to take photos and I heard some mewing sounds coming from a gutter. We ended up finding 3 itty bitty kittens, wet and shivering, dumped in a shrub. We freed them and fretted about what to do with them. We ended up wrapping them in Emma’s sweatshirt and putting them in my bike basket.

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They quickly fell fast asleep in the cozy sweatshirt while we struggled getting through the rice paddies and coconut farms in all of the mud. We finally emerged onto a main road and I saw the name of a hostel that I recognized. We went inside and they helped us get in contact with a woman who runs the only cat shelter in Hoi An. After struggling with communication with her we finally got her address, and biked all the way across town to find her. By this point it was dark and drizzling and one of the kitties was mewing again. Finally we found her, and she was so lovely and said that she had already found them a foster family. So the story ended really happily, and it was a lovely little Valentine’s Day surprise. Then it was back to the hostel to pack up and get ready for our next bus ride.

Emma and I just arrived in Hue, so we’ll do some exploring here before heading north to see some caves.

Bangkok & Siem Reap

We made it to Thailand! It’s so hot and humid here but thankfully not too mosquito-y. Getting here took a bit of effort due to both Luke and my flights getting canceled due to weather. My flight was rescheduled for earlier while his was rescheduled for later, so I got to Bangkok about 12 hours before him and headed over to our hostel to pass out.

My first morning in Bangkok I slept off a bit of jetlag and then wandered down a canal near the hostel.

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I ended up at a temple complex called Loha Prasat. It was a 5 story building and each floor was laid out a bit like a labyrinth with Buddhas throughout.

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After a bit of walking meditation I wandered through an old historic neighborhood and found another temple called the Golden Mount. It has a huge constructed mountain in the middle with Buddhas relics enshrined at the top. It was a bit of a trek to the top but once I made it I was rewarded with this gorgeous view.

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After the climb up the golden mount the heat was really getting to me so I headed back to the hostel where Luke arrived soon after. We lazed around for a little while before heading out to explore. We walked along the main canal and then cut through The Grand Palace. The nationally adored king Bhumibol passed recently, and there was some sort of mourning service happening as we walked thorough. Then we headed to Khaosan Road and Soi Rambuttri to check out the tourist scene there (those are the main tourist streets in Bangkok) and grabbed our first Pad Thai dinner.

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We were both too jetlagged and exhausted to do much in the way of night life so we got a couple of Thai beers to drink on the roof of our hostel before heading to sleep.

Day 2 in Bangkok, we woke up early and walked back to the grand palace. After a bit of confusion we finally made it to the temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Pra Kraeow). The temple grounds there were so magnificent. All of the tile work and gilding on the temples and statues was so intricate and colorful.

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Next we walked to Wat Pho, another gigantic temple. We spent a couple hours meandering through the many different temple structures, each containing unique Buddhas telling different chapters of the iconic Buddha life story. The reclining Buddha was also truly amazing. It’s scale cannot be captured by photograph.

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During our touring of Wat Pho we stumbled upon this market that was serving up a free Thai lunch. Of course we had no idea what we were eating (although we definitely spotted some chicken feet in what otherwise looked like tom kha soup) but it was nice getting a tasty free meal as long as we didn’t end up with food poisoning from it.

After Wat Pho, we took a ferry across the canal to Wat Arun. Much of this temple was closed due to restoration efforts but we still took a brief stroll and lots of photos before hopping on a canal express boat to Chinatown.

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Visiting a Thai Chinatown fascinated us both, with a blend of cultures that seemed surprisingly at home together. There were little shops selling made-in-China goods everywhere and the abundance of street food made the sidewalks almost impassable yet so vibrant and colorful.

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Eventually the heat and crowdedness got a bit overwhelming so we headed back to the canal ferry and took it for a while up the river. It’s nice because it’s less than 50 cents and essentially a boat tour for however far along the canal you want to go. Each ‘stop’ was more like a ‘float-by’ as there was very little time to get on and off. Seeing the city from the water was cooler in every way.

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We got off near our hostel, hung out there for a bit and then set off across town to find a little restaurant that was supposed to have some of the best pad Thai in Bangkok. It was quite delicious and very unique as it was wrapped in fried egg, almost like an omelette of pad Thai.

The next day we woke up quite early and got on a flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia. The flight was quite quick, the Siem Reap airport was very unique, and the Cambodian visa on arrival process was a piece of cake. In no time we were carted off by the tuktuk driver sent by our guesthouse. Immediate impressions of Siem Reap were so great! It’s got a ton of character and in a lot of ways reminds me more of Nicaragua than Thailand. Our guesthouse is great and we were greeted by delicious Khmer curry and 50 cent beers. We lazed around the guesthouse for a bit and then went out to a very fun little restaurant with delicious tropical cocktails that were so good and not overly sweet whatsoever (something that usually turns me off of tropical cocktails) and amazingly delicious and cheap food. Then we walked all through the Night Market and Pub Street and got some more 50 cent beers while watching geckos hunt.

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Yesterday was the first day in Angkor Wat. Our same TukTuk driver from the previous day came and picked us up early in the morning and whisked us off to our first temple. We arranged for him to spend the whole day driving us around (which sounds expensive but was actually ridiculously cheap). Our first stop was Pre Rup, a Hindu temple-mountain in the “Big Loop”.
It was quite a trek up some giant and steep stairs up to the top but it was a great way to start off our temple-ing. Also we were there at ~7:30 am so we beat the crowds which was quite nice.

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Next we went 23 km north to Banteay Srei, the Citadel of the Woman, named so (according to lonely planet) because the stone carving there is so intricate that there is no way a man could have done it. It was astounding, the carving was beautiful and the stone was in so many different colors, but it was unfortunately totally swarmed with tour groups.

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After this we backtracked to the Banteay Butterfly Center where we saw all of the species of butterflies in the area and got a very ecologically informed tour (although despite our tour guide’s knowledge of butterflies, his accent made it a bit difficult to understand). We saw all of the butterflies at various forms of life including gold flecked pupae and outrageous looking caterpillars. Also the tour guide told us about the center’s initiatives to teach locals (especially local children) how to farm butterflies so they can sell the pupae/chrysalises back to the center to be distributed to global butterfly centers. All and all it was a very pleasant and beautiful little stop.

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East Mebon was next, another Hindu temple in the big circuit. This one is known for having an abundance of elephant sculptures. Again it was quite breathtaking with its sculptures, architecture, and stone carvings.

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Next was Neak Pean, a Buddhist water temple. The hike out to this temple was so beautiful, on a boardwalk across a bog/flooded forest. The temple itself was very different than the others with its structures all surrounded by ponds.

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Here we stopped for some fairly lame and overpriced lunch. It’s quite the scheme because no one thinks about bringing lunch with them and then everyone’s forced to eat at these eateries. But it wasn’t terrible and it was still cheaper than the US. Also the waitress was very cute and seemed to have a crush on our tuktuk driver and their little flirtation was fun to watch.
After lunch we headed to our last temple of the day, Preah Khan. This temple was the highlight of the day for me. It’s a giant temple that is primarily Buddhist but has some satellite Hindu structures. A lot of it was overgrown with jungle vegetation and unlike the other sites, there were so few tourists. There were also little butterflies flying all over the overgrown temple with made for an incredibly peaceful experience.

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Thankfully after this we were headed back to the guesthouse because the afternoon sun was brutal and the breeze not quite strong enough. We made it back to the hostel, rested, did some laundry, and then wandered down the block to another incredibly cheap restaurant for delicious dinner and cocktails.

Today we woke up at 4 am to get to the main temple, Angkor Wat, for sunrise.There were absurd numbers of tourists, but it really was stunning watching the sun rise over this gigantic temple. Then we explored the temple in the early morning light.

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Today was our tour of the main circuit of temples so we next headed to Bayon, in Angkor Thom. I actually studied Bayon in a Buddhist Art class in college so seeing it in person was quite exciting. There are 216 faces on the 54 towers in Bayon. There are supposedly the faces of Avalokitesvara but also closely resemble the king who commissioned the creation of this structure. We got a fresh coconut and wandered around, eventually stumbling upon a group of monkeys. A couple of the monkeys had sweet little babies climbing on them as well.

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From there we walked past a couple elephant temples to find our tuktuk driver and drive to the next stop, Ta Keo. Ta Keo is only partially finished but was still very impressive. It reminded me of the first temple we visited, Pre Rup, as it was quite the mountain and we had to scramble up multiple sets of ridiculously steep stairs to get to the top. It was worth it though for the view and the breeze. Coming back down those shallow and steep steps was really the tough part though, but we made it and ate some pineapple fried rice at the base.

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We completed our “small tour” with a visit to Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple that was once a monastery and university for the whole temple complex. This is another temple that has been left to the jungle in a sense. There are huge trees growing over many of the ruins which makes for quite the viewing experience. The movie Tomb Raider was actually filmed here, which you could recognize immediately if you’ve seen that movie. Although there were lots of tourists here, there were so many pathways and hallways that you could easily escape all of the hustle and bustle. We actually got lost in the maze of ruins while trying to find our way out which was kind of fun.

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That concluded our day at the main temples and we headed back to catch up on sleep after waking up at 4 am.

We returned to the restaurant from last night for dinner and filled up on more delicious Cambodian specialties and amazing cocktails while our wonderful waiter August taught us snippets of Cambodian.

One and a half more days left in Siem Reap and then its back to Thailand for the beach.