Crushing on Grape… I mean, Cape Town

AKA: The time I drank all the cheap wine in Cape Town 😉

Our FlySafari flight from Zanzibar arrived in Johannesburg on April 27th, 2016, where we had an extended layover. We were delighted when we discovered a craft brewery in the airport (that also served South African wine). We made the most of the 7 hour layover before boarding our flight to Cape Town with wobbly legs!

Our flight touched down just after 10:00 pm in the evening. We took a taxi to our AirBnB, as our cell phone wouldn’t connect to the airport WiFi in order to arrange an Uber. Once we arrived, we learned that the taxi cost nearly double what an Uber would have. We wouldn’t be making that mistake again!

The next morning we got acquainted with Simon, our AirBnB host, and his wonderful little house. He had a hydroponic garden, fancy espresso machine, and little outdoor soaking pool. As Cape Town was moving towards their winter months, the temperature was a little on the chilly side, so we wouldn’t be making use of the pool – but at least Paul was able to enjoy the espresso machine!

Simon and Paul, next to Simon’s hydroponic garden

We spent the morning doing loads of overdue laundry, and then we headed out to explore the trendy suburban area of Observatory (sometimes called “Obs”), where we would be staying for another two nights. We quickly learned how well we fit in there… Well, how well we COULD have fit in, if we weren’t suffering from “reverse culture shock” haha! The streets were lined with swanky restaurants and bars, cute clothing and coffee shops, and many hipster bearded men and stylish bohemian women. Even the grocery stores were clean and modern! Although we wanted to enjoy it, we couldn’t have felt more out of place and uncomfortable. Cape Town was going to be an adjustment after becoming accustomed to the rest of Africa.

We ended up at a place called Queen of Tarts for breakfast, which had spectacular muesli and freshly baked pastries. That evening we ate at a popular burger place called Jerry’s Burger Bar. When I asked Paul if it was the best burger he had had in six months (as he regularly stated haha), he said it may have been the best burger he had in six years! I opted for a fancy salad, which was equally awesome.

We spent the rest of the evening enjoying cheap drinks at home; me cracking open my 1 litre box of wine I bought for about $3 CAD at the grocery store! Oh God, did I ever miss wine!

The next day we took the train from Simon’s house to Simon’s Town about an hour away. Simon’s Town is a quaint little seaside city with lots of charming nautical themed restaurants and shops. The main attraction for this area is Boulder Beach, where a colony of over 3,000 African penguins live. We had a great time watching the adorable little animals cruise the beach, many of them nesting with brand new fluffy little babies!

We had lunch and enjoyed the scenery for most of the day. The weather was too cold for beach time, but it was still a wonderful area to explore. That evening we went for a late dinner at a pizza joint called Ferdinando’s Pizza. We were starting to get more comfortable with the westernized culture… The amazing food helping to persuade us back to civilization!

That evening, Simon invited Paul and I to join him on a evening trail run. I was feeling completely drained, but Paul decided to join him. As they were leaving, he advised Paul not to bring his camera, as he had previously been mugged on the same trail…

Cape Town is a BEAUTIFUL city, one which we could both imagine living in… However, it was hard not to notice the electric fences lining the houses, bars across all windows, and buzzer entry gates to many restaurants and shops… crime is still a big issue, and although we never felt unsafe, we can see how people felt the need to take precautionary measures.

Paul had a great time with Simon (obviously with no pictures to share haha). They watched the sunset and bonded over music. Real romantic 😉 OH and luckily they did not get robbed!

In the morning, before heading downtown where we would be staying for the rest of our trip, we stopped by a little flea market in a church to watch Simon’s band play. Unfortunately, we only got a chance to hear one song before they took a break from their set. When we returned from searching the streets for a pharmacy, we had missed the rest of their show. But the little we did hear sounded awesome!

We took a 10 minute Uber ride for $5 CAD to Tamboerskloof, another super trendy area, this time in downtown Cape Town. After checking into our 6 bed dorm room in Amber Tree Lodge, we were happy to conclude that spending three nights wouldn’t be too uncomfortable. It was an extremely nice hostel! We became friends with our other dorm mates (two men from Sweden who were travelling for a year, and a Peace Corp volunteer from the States) and made plans to have drinks together that night.

Paul and I headed to a popular bar just up the street called Rafiki’s where we had some patio drinks. Then we crossed the road to go for dinner at an awesome taco place called EL Burro Taqueria. We spent the evening back at the hostel staying up late swapping stories with our new bunk mates, who were unfortunately all checking out the next day.

In the morning, we took to the streets to head towards the V&A Waterfront. The weather had improved so it was a great day to wander. As soon as we reached the harbour we spotted a sea lion in the water who was rolling around and putting on quite the performance! We let the goofy animal entertain us for a while before moving along. The whole area reminded us of Victoria, BC.

We headed into the food market, and oh boy… we were in heaven! Endless food booths spread among a large building, with a bar upstairs offering craft beer and cheap wine. It took us a very long time to decide what to eat from the insane number of choices, but in the end we scored! The Awe Africa booth dished out the best tasting pork belly sandwich imaginable for Paul, and a spectacular Malay chicken wrap for me.

After lunch, we decided to make a stop in H&M, as Paul was desperately needing pants for the cooler evening temperatures of Cape Town. The deals were unbelievable so we agreed to spoil ourselves a little, as we had already made the reluctant decision to cut out our extremely expensive plans of visiting a Safari Park and diving with Great White Sharks. For $60 CAD total, we got Paul a pair of pants, two t-shirts, a button up long sleeve shirt, AND I got a summer blouse cover up, a button up shirt, and a tank top. We were pretty pleased with our sweet deals and new threads.

We walked along the famous Long Street on our way back to the hostel and decided to stop into a bright yellow building called The Beerhouse that the Swedish boys had recommended to us the night before. Paul was elated when he was able to order a tasting flight that was ALL hoppy beers. I ordered a ½ litre of “craft wine”, that came in an adorable little growler bottle for only $5 CAD! One of the beers from Paul’s flight, blew him away. He ordered a pint after, and it it quickly became his favourite beer OF ALL TIME! It was called the Atlantic Storm Buccaneer (in case anyone visiting South Africa is ever looking for a tasty hoppy fruity beer).

We stayed at The Beerhouse for dinner, already planning what we would order the next time we visited!


When we got back to the hostel we met our new dorm mates; the wonderfully friendly Gwen and Ben. Immediately we hit it off with the awesome couple from Portland! We spent the evening visiting with them, as well as our new friend Richard from Kentucky, who was staying in another room. Richard was able to tell us more about the Table Mountain hike which we planned to take on in the morning.

When Paul and I woke up, we grabbed breakfast from yet ANOTHER trendy cafe/bar in the area called The Power & The Glory. Then we decided to walk a couple extra Kilometres (instead of taking transit) to the parking lot for Table Mountain where we could catch a free shuttle to the hike/cable car starting point. We regretted this a little, as the 2 kilometres were entirely uphill, so our calves were burning before we even started our hike.

When we reached the cable car station, we were a little confused on where to start the hike. We asked some friendly locals who gave us detailed instruction. OH the convenience of being back where English is the native language! They explained to us that there are two main routes you can take; the easier, most popular one, or a much more difficult one that requires some scrambling but rewards you with spectacular views the whole time. It was an easy choice for us. Within minutes of hiking we ran into a group of local men who were slowly making their way down. They told us they tried to take the difficult way, but got scared and turned back. We were starting to feel a little unsure of our decision…

A few meters later we reached the split in the route – left for Platteklip Gorge, or right for India Venster. The sign was filled with warnings about how much more difficult the India Venster route would be, but we decided to ignore the daunting sign, and move forward anyways. We could always turn back… It’s possible we were feeling a little extra confident after recently summiting Mount Kilimanjaro 😉

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We didn’t have to climb for long before we had a fantastic view overlooking the city! The mountain terrain itself was equally interesting. Much different than we were used to; more desert like, featuring neat colourful lizards.

We continued to follow the trail that was almost completely parallel to the cable car above us. When we made it to the chains and staples, we understood the message the sign was trying to convey. There was minimal coverage, so a slip and fall could mean a tumble to your death down the mountain face! Luckily, neither of us are much afraid of heights and actually found the challenges quite exhilarating.


As we wrapped up and around the face of the mountain, our view only became more and more spectacular. We went from admiring downtown Cape Town, to the adjacent Lion’s Head mountain, and then finally the shoreline of Camps Bay and the Twelve Apostles mountain tops that line the Atlantic coast. After about 3 hours, we reached the top of Table Mountain!

We had a celebratory drink at the cafe and then walked around exploring the giant flat plateau. It was very busy, which was surprising to us, as we had only encountered a handful of people on the way up. I guess a lot of people had used the cable car, or taken the other hiking route. It was a little chilly up top, but still very sunny and clear. We were extremely lucky, as Table Mountain is notorious for the “tablecloth”, a giant sheet of cloud that often engulfs the entire mountain diminishing any possibility of a view.


We decided to take the safer route down, as it would be starting to get dark soon. We quickly realized it was almost entirely stairs. Much safer, but would have been a killer legs and cardio workout on the way up! We were in a valley with little view, so we were very thankful we decided to take the other route up.

It took us about an hour to get down to the cable car station where we caught the shuttle back to the parking lot. Then we used our sore and shaky legs to walk the 2 km back to our hostel. Table Mountain won us over and became one of our favourite mountains we had ever summitted, second only to Kilimanjaro!

We had plans to go with Gwen, Ben, and Richard for dinner that night. We all decided on Italian… Okaaaaay, maybe I was the one who suggested it, haha 😉
After a great meal at a place called Mitico, Paul forced everyone to The Beerhouse for a couple rounds of cheap drinks. He HAD to have another pint of Buccaneer beer, and ask the Portlandians for their opinions. They agreed and said it was one of the tastiest brews they ever tried!

Eventually we headed back to the hostel for some even cheaper drinks. It was our last night in the hostel, so we made the most of it.

Richard, Paul, Ben, Gwen & I

The next morning Paul and I moved just up the street to a private Guesthouse for our last night in Cape Town. It was called the The Lions, and it was very nice. We had splurged a little, using our last remaining free night from hotels.com. 

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The hotel had a guava tree in the backyard!

The next day, we took local transit with Richard to a gorgeous beachside suburb called Camps Bay. The three of us had lunch and gelato, and then walked along the ocean. The water was a crisp 10 degrees celsius so we passed on swimming, but we still enjoyed our beach time.


That evening, our FINAL evening in Africa, we decided to go for a fancier dinner. Richard, Paul, and I headed to a place that had been recommended to us by a few people called Fork Tapas & Pinchos Bar. The three of us shared a huge variety of amazing bite sized dishes, plus a couple of drinks each, and the total bill was only about $60 CAD! It was one of the best meals we had on our entire trip, so it was perfect for our last night. The three of us went back to the hostel to join up with Gwen and Ben for a final hangout before we were all to split ways in the morning.

Later that evening, on our walk back to our guesthouse, Paul and I stopped in to The Power and The Glory for one last drink. Neither of us were ready to go to bed, because we knew that when we woke up in the morning, it would all be coming to an end… We sat at a tiny table along the window looking out at the dimly lit street on the other side. We reminisced on all of our adventures, while I sobbed tears of utter sadness. Eventually, Paul was able to pull me home to bed, where we fell asleep for the last time in Africa.

The next morning, we checked out and left our bags at the guesthouse. Our flight out of Cape Town was scheduled for later that afternoon, which meant we still had a few hours left to spend in one of our favourite cities we travelled to. So… off to the Beerhouse we went! Unfortunately, I wasn’t the best company, as I spent most of our final visit crying over my glass of wine again 😦

I was 100% positive I was not ready to go home. As much as I missed all of our family and friends, and Winston, the thought of not traveling anymore was tearing me up inside. At this point Paul had grown pretty weary of the long days, unexpected expenses, general lack of safety and security, and the never ending visits to the toilet haha… So he was pretty okay with the idea of going home. We finished off our drinks, grabbed our bags from our hotel, and Paul dragged me to the bus stop to catch transit to the airport.

My face for the last two days in Cape Town 😦

First we flew 9.5 hours to Dubai, where we had a 4 hour layover. Then we were supposed to fly another 15 hours to Chicago, but due to a mechanical issue, the plane ended up sitting on the tarmac (with us all aboard) for an additional 3 hours, making our “flight” time more like 18 hours… The delays caused us to miss our connecting flight to Calgary, so we were forced to reschedule it to the following morning, with an additional stop through Dallas. Luckily, the website we had booked with (Skypicker) had a guarantee with their booking, so they arranged all the rebooking and a free night hotel stay in Chicago at no extra cost.

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As much as we would have loved to use the opportunity to explore Chicago, we arrived late in the day and jet lag was already kicking our butt. Instead, we ordered in deep dish pizza to our hotel room and used the evening to catch up on some much needed sleep.
Very early the next morning, we were shuttled to the airport for our 2.5 hr flight to Dallas. When we arrived, we found out it was ALSO delayed… This time it was only by an hour, but Paul was on the verge of ripping out his hair at this point. Even I was starting to get sick of travelling!

We arrived at Dallas airport, and a couple hours later we boarded our final flight. 4 hours later, we had finally landed in Calgary! We were surprised by a bunch of family waiting to greet us at the airport! Apparently there had been even more people organized to come the night before when we were originally supposed to arrive!

We walked in the door of Paul’s parent’s house 57 hours after we had left our hotel in Cape Town… How exhausting! But we were welcomed home in the best way possible. Not only did we have the surprise greeters at the airport; we had a beautiful handmade ‘welcome home’ banner with pictures from our trip and personalized gift baskets (done by Angel & Nettsie), some of our favourite Canadian food and beverages, and a clean comfortable bed!

I can tell you that it took a LONG time to readjust to real life… I am still trying to! Post-trip depression, reverse culture shock, whatever you want to call it: it’s very real. Luckily, we have awesome family and friends who constantly remind us how wonderful home is… and regular hikes in the Rocky Mountains help as well!

We are so incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to see so much of the world! We are better people because of it. One day when we are old, we will show this blog to our children and they can see how awesome their parents “used” to be haha 😉

Thanks for following along with our journey!

6 months, 12 countries, 60+ cities, 14 flights, endless buses, trains, and boats, MANY new friends, and more memories and pictures than we could count.

Love Paul & Allie
Demsky Duo… Domesticated?

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Zany Zanzibar

On the morning of April 16, 2016, we woke up early and went for our free buffet breakfast at our hotel in Dar Es Salaam before catching the 6:30 am shuttle to the airport. Shortly after we boarded our 30 min Fastjet flight (which only cost us $50 CAD/each!) to the island of Zanzibar, just off the coast of mainland Tanzania.

We landed and took a taxi to Stone Town (the ancient part of Zanzibar City), where we had booked a room for the first 3 nights. The streets were completely flooded from all the recent rain, transforming the roads into small rivers that our driver had to cautiously navigate. It made us extremely nervous about the coming days. We had planned a total of 11 days on the island which we hoped would contain plenty of sun and relaxation, as we had just finished climbing Mount Kilimanjaro a few days earlier. The taxi took us as close as it could, at which point we got out and leaped down the submerged alleyways to the quaint Zanzibar Lodge.

Considering it cost us $47 CAD/night (steep for our standards), the accommodation was a little disappointing – but what it lacked in presentation, it made up for with its perfect location right in the middle of town! As we were checking in, we recognized a group of four girls (mostly American) from our flight who were also staying at the guesthouse. We chatted for a bit and briefly introduced ourselves.

After dropping off our bags, Paul and I started wandering the maze of streets that make up Stone Town. Immediately we understood what all the fuss was about and why the entire town is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The distinct architecture, unique atmosphere and blend of people, all reflected a fusion of East African culture with European, Indian, Arab, and Persian influences. Everywhere you looked was an overwhelming presence of history. It was breathtaking, even drenched in rain.

We decided to go for brunch at the popular Stone Town Cafe. Because it had stopped raining, we were able to be seated on their lovely outside patio where we enjoyed coffee, spiced tea, and a very good meal. It was interesting to see how many different types of people there was conversing at the cafe, in particular an abundance of foreigners. Not surprisingly, expats from all over the world have decided to make Zanzibar their home.

We continued to stroll through Stone Town, falling more in love with the architecture. In particular the spectacularly unique doors, which are elaborately carved from wood and decorated with brass studs (a style that originated as a defense against charging elephants).

Because most of the roads are too narrow for cars, people predominantly get around on foot, which made it feel like we had travelled back in time. It was impossible not to get lost in the huge puzzle of streets, and we constantly found ourselves walking in circles, but that was all part of the fun!

While walking along the seafront, we heard “HEY CANADIANS!” called from a little cafe. One of the Americans, from the group of girls staying at our hotel, was calling us over. She informed us that they had taken the liberty of signing us up on their group tour out to Prison Island for tomorrow. We had been planning to go anyways, and since she was a temporary resident of Tanzania, she snagged an insanely good deal. We happily accepted!

After walking a bit more, Paul and I stumbled upon a bar called Tatu. We decided to indulge in a couple afternoon beers while watching football with the locals and chowing down on a bowl of complimentary popcorn (Africans sure love popcorn!).

Once it got dark, we headed for a late dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by some of the locals, called Lukmaan. They have hot trays of ready to order Zanzibari cuisine, cafeteria style. We weren’t sure what all the dishes were but we pointed at what looked good, and we were both more than happy with what we ended up with. There may have been a slight inflation in price… as it wasn’t quite as cheap as the locals had lead us to believe. BUT our huge meal still only came out to about 20,000 TZS total (approx. $12 CAD), so we weren’t complaining!

The next morning we woke to no rain and more sunshine, which was a huge relief! We ate breakfast and then met the group of girls, who we had now learned more details about. There was:

  • Allison from Kansas – who also goes by Ally (was temporarily living in Tanzania, as a volunteer teacher through a church program)
  • Cara from Illinois (was temporarily living in Zimbabwe, volunteering through the same church program as Allison)
  • Rachel from New Zealand (was temporarily living in Tanzania, as a volunteer teacher through a different church program)
  • Lilia, originally from Russia, but living in Portland (was a temporary resident of Tanzania, while in the process of adopting a baby from an orphanage)

Besides Allison & Cara (who knew each other through their church program), the girls had met for the first time only a few days prior, and spontaneously decided to take a vacation together!

The six of us walked to the docks and got our snorkeling gear. Paul had read online about a place called Nakupenda Beach, which is a giant sandbar island during low tide, and we all agreed we wanted to add it to our tour. Because most of the ladies knew some Swahili, they were able to negotiate the amazing price of only 8,500 TZS/person ($5 CAD) for the total tour including our snorkel gear. Our hotel was asking for $24 USD/person for a tour of just Prison Island!

We all hopped on the wooden speedboat and cruised for a while to Nakupenda Beach. It was completely deserted and absolutely gorgeous! Just a giant isolated sand bar in middle of ocean, surrounded by stunning teal waters. We walked around collecting pretty shells and then floated in the super salty ocean. We also snorkeled for a bit, but the area was lacking anything interesting, so we gave up pretty quickly.

Once back on the boat, we cruised over to Changuu Island (also known as Prison Island). Unfortunately, the whole place was pretty underwhelming… The island was supposed to be used as a prison for rebellious slaves in the 1860’s, but no prisoners were ever housed on the island. Instead it became a quarantine station for yellow fever cases, and after a short period of time, it was turned into a tourist destination. Today it still operates an overpriced hotel and restaurant.


The island is home to a collection of endangered Aldabra giant tortoises, that were gifted in 1919 from the British governor of Seychelles. This was definitely the highlight! We wandered around the tortoise habitat for a while trying to find the oldest one from the age they paint on the back of their shells (which ended up being 198!). We were also entertained by watching one of them persistently try to eat a green water bottle, haha.

Afterwards, we snorkeled around the island a bit more. The underwater scenery was more interesting than before, but still not amazing. Paul’s snorkel was letting in water, and Lilia (who stayed on the boat to guard our belongings, as the boat driver had proven to be untrustworthy…) offered to switch with him. She threw Paul her mask while he was in water, but it didn’t fit. While he was attempting to switch the snorkels back, his forearm got wrapped by a jellyfish! As he tried to pull it off and splash it away, he felt something hit his foot so he quickly threw his mask on and looked underwater. The other mask he was holding was gone! The water was maybe 25 feet deep, and he couldn’t see the mask anywhere. We all tried searching for a while (including the boat’s driver), but to no avail. Everyone climbed back aboard and we drove to shore, dreading the inevitable fee we would be charged for replacing the mask. Once back on land, we bartered with the owner and settled on the equivalent of $15 USD… On a positive note – the whole trip still cost us a lot less than if we had booked through our hotel!

Afterwards, we all went for lunch at a small restaurant and then headed back to our guesthouse to clean up and relax a bit before dinner.

We met up a couple hours later and walked to the Forodhani Gardens. Locals were jumping off the harbour into the water. We watched them for a while, until the sun dipped into one of the most spectacular sunsets we saw on our entire trip!

Once it was dark, the food market opened. We ordered some skewers of mediocre grilled seafood (a large portion of which we fed to a pack of stray cats). We also tried the famous “Zanzibar Pizza”, which was almost identical to Thai Pancakes!
After eating, the whole group headed to a trendy (but expensive) place called ‘The Tapperia’ for some drinks, where we spent the rest of the evening visiting.

The next day, Paul and I ventured out to The Old Slave Market. This was probably the most interesting tourist thing we did in Zanzibar, as it provided some education on the dark history of the island. Our tour guide showed us around the Anglican cathedral which now stands on the area that held one of the world’s last open slave markets, shut down by the British in 1873.

We were able to see the original cramped dingy cellars where the slaves were held for days with no food or toilets. Because of the recent rain, the underground area was flooded with a few inches of water. Our guide pointed out to us that the same thing would have happened when slaves were living there as well… which made it even more upsetting.

Outside there was a life sized statue of slaves with the original chains wrapped around their necks. It was an extremely moving piece of art.

The whole tour was another depressing experience for us – but a necessary one. We were given a small insight into some of the cruelty and suffering the people of Africa have had to overcome, and an even greater appreciation for the lives and privileges we were born with.

We ran into the group of girls while we were at the Old Slave Market and decided to join them in continuing to tour some of the attractions of Stone Town. We visited The Rooftop Restaurant, which is the tallest building in Stone Town. The restaurant was closed, but they let us up top to take pictures of the awesome view.


All the coffee drinkers felt it was necessary to try an expensive coffee from Zanzibar Coffee House, so next we headed to the famous cafe. We unanimously agreed that the beverages and desserts were worth the marked up price!

We had plans to travel northeast to the beach village of Kilima Juu Pwani the following day, so we decided it would be wise to load up on some very important provisions (ie. snacks & alcohol), as we knew there wouldn’t be many cheap shops near the resort we were staying at. So that afternoon we split up from the girls to run errands. Somehow Paul and I ended up at The Tapperia again for lunch. We really shouldn’t have, considering how expensive it was… but the complimentary fresh bread with olive oil and balsamic was just too tempting to resist!

We met back up with the girls for dinner at an Indian restaurant called Le Spice Rendez-Vous. The whole table split multiple dishes that were all extremely tasty! After dinner, we found a rooftop bar where we ended the night with some drinks and shisha.


The following afternoon, we met up for one final meal with the girls at Abyssinian Maritim Ethiopian Traditional Restaurant. Paul and I shared a couple of different meat stews which were very good, but we both had a hard time getting used to the injera (East African flatbread) that all the meat is served with. It has no taste and the texture of a spongy soggy towel!

We had a great time in Stone Town with the ladies! We are so glad they signed us up on their tour that first day. They provided us with many laughs and interesting stories from our time in Zanzibar. Each one of them was extraordinarily kind and easy to get along with. We were sad to part ways, but they were on to their next adventure, and Paul and I were ready for some much needed rest and relaxation.

We gathered our bags and walked to catch a dalla dalla (form of local transportation – sometimes known as “the chicken bus”) to our next destination on the island. Most dalla dallas are just trucks with benches placed in the bed, although we did see some that were minibuses. It was pretty overwhelming trying to figure out where to catch the correct vehicle, and how much it should cost, but after some asking around and haggling, we managed to find a ride for only a few dollars each. For two uncomfortable hours we sat painfully squished in the back of a truck with about 14 other rotating passengers, until finally we were the only two remaining. For an extra dollar, we were able to persuade our driver to divert down a side street, taking us a few kilometers closer to our next accommodation. We got off with cramped limbs and a layer of dirt on our skin from the mud that had misted us the entire drive.

Our resort, Miramont Retreat Zanzibar, cost $47 CAD/night for a beautiful bungalow right by the ocean with private beach loungers. It felt extra luxurious coming from our modest accommodation in Stone Town, and it cost the exact same price!

The next three days were pretty uneventful – which is exactly what we were hoping for! During the day the tide would go out as far as the eye could see. We would wade through tidal pools examining sea creatures, including sea urchins, which we had to nervously navigate around. Then we would spend the rest of the day laying on loungers, alternating between reading and napping.


For dinner, the restaurant at Miramont Retreat would serve fresh seafood meals for 18,000 TZS/person ($10 CAD), cooked with whatever the fishermen were selling at the market that day. The meals were incredible and the portion size was so large that we were able to share one order between the two of us! After dinner, we would have drinks in the restaurant with the friendly Romanian owners, and then sit on the beach admiring the stars and gigantic full moon.


One afternoon, we walked a decent distance to the nearest village to stock up on more cheap water and snacks. We walked along the beach, passing by more resorts until it transitioned to small local communities of huts set up on the edge of the sand. We were able to find a hut that functioned as a shop for the village where we loaded up on goodies. They were pretty thrilled to get our Mzungu business and we were stoked on how much money we were saving!

On the walk back, we saw a little girl crouching over the sand in the distance. As we approached, she quickly stood up and started running towards us waving and looking for a high five… at which point we noticed the steaming turd she had just left on the sand! Needless to say, she only got an “air high five” haha!
We also saw a giant herd of goats running down the beach, which entertained me a lot more than Paul haha 🙂


After leaving Kilima Juu, we were heading to another beachside village call Nungwi, at the most northern point of the island. We had learned we were going to have to go all the way back to Stone Town in the south to pull out money before we headed that direction, as there were no ATMs in the village. So after checking out of Miramont Retreat, we walked to the road to try to flag down a dalla dalla to drive us two hours back to town.

After withdrawing cash, we had lunch at Stone Town Cafe again, and then caught another dalla dalla ride three hours north to Nungwi. It was a long day filled with more uncomfortable travel.

Our next accommodation, Kigwedeni Villas, was the same price as our other two lodgings, and had all the same amenities (except this time we had to walk a whole 300 metres to get to the beach). The villa’s Manager, Idris, was one of the nicest locals we met in Zanzibar. We spent many hours chatting with him throughout the next four days. His English was impeccable, and he had a great sense of humor!


On our first day of exploring the area, we ended up running into Hannah and Millen from the UK (the couple who also did Kilimanjaro, who we met in Moshi). They were going to a full moon party that evening which they invited us to. We considered it for a while, but ended up bailing, as the entrance fee was far too steep for our tight budget. We also decided we are getting a little too old for those types of things – which is both depressing and encouraging 😉

We spent the next three days almost entirely at the beach, except when we were hiding out from the torrential rain storm that passed over most afternoons. The beaches were definitely some of the most beautiful we had seen on our entire trip, complete with silky soft sand and water so blue it looked like it had an Instagram filter over it.


The only downfall (which was a BIG one for Paul), was the Rasta Beach Boys (and occasional local Maasai person) who continuously pestered us to buy stuff or go on boat tours. They were aggressively persistent, especially when you made the mistake of being too polite and continuing the conversation past the initial “Jambo!” greeting and “Mambo!” response. We normally enjoy conversing with locals, but the topic never seemed to evolve from them selling us something… If we weren’t able to turn them away immediately, it only seemed to lead us deep into a trap. The harassment was worse than anywhere else we visited our entire 6 months travelling!

Oh and I guess there was one other “minus”… the sea urchins. We so cautiously avoided them in the tidal pools, but didn’t realize they were also a danger in the deeper ocean. Paul learned the hard way when he kicked one while floating in some choppy water, breaking off parts of spines in the bottom of his foot. I was taking photos of him, clueless to his pain… This is him limping back to the sand haha!


Some of the the Maasai people on the beach came over and told us to put papaya on it. We thought they were being sneaky and trying to sell us some papaya LOL… But later on, Idriss confirmed that papaya is a natural pain remedy! After a lot of googling, we ended up deciding to leave the five small spine tips in his foot, which eventually worked their way out. He was very lucky he just kicked the urchin, and didn’t step down on it, or we would have been making a trip to the hospital!

We ate most of our meals at our villa because it was so cheap. One night we splurged a bit more and ordered lobster. Turns out lobster from this part of the world is very spiky, making it even more difficult to eat, and not nearly as tasty as the Atlantic Lobster we are accustomed to.

On our last day, Idris let us check out late so that we could spend the morning at Kendwa Beach. He told us that it was the nicest of all the beaches. It had shallow, calm, crystal clear turquoise waters (with no sea urchins!) – basically straight off of a postcard. We had a flight to South Africa the following morning, so against our desire to never leave the beach paradise, we had to return to Zanzibar City for the night.


Our plan was to catch another dalla dalla, but while we were waiting on the side of the road for one to pass by, a car with two local men pulled over and offered us a ride for the same price. Being accustomed to this type of thing from Uganda, we accepted. We are lucky we did, as minutes later it started pouring rain, and being in the back of a mostly open truck would have sucked big time!

It continued to pour rain as we navigate the narrow streets of Stone Town, searching for our AirBnB accommodation in a local family’s home. Eventually we found the modest apartment located above some shops.

For dinner, we ended up at a great little restaurant called Lazuli, which had very good food and amazing freshly squeezed juices (mmmm, passion fruit). We only wish we had discovered it earlier, as we would have loved to eat there more than once!

Early the next morning, we took a dalla dalla to the airport. We left ourselves plenty of time, not trusting how long the local transportation would take. Once we arrived, we had a couple hours to kill before we were to fly to Cape Town. We spent the rest of our Tanzania Shillings on overpriced snacks and a deck of cards, and took some time to review pictures from our 11 day visit to the island.

We are so glad that Paul’s cousin Darren suggested Zanzibar to us, as it wasn’t even on our radar. I still find myself daydreaming about the ancient alleyways of Stone Town and pristine beaches along the coast! Maybe one day we will be one of those expats conversing at the Stone Town Cafe 😉

Love Paul & Allie
Demsky Duo Disembarked

Conquering Kilimanjaro

April 7th, 2016 – At approximately 9:00 am local time, 14 hours after leaving Uganda, we felt our comfy Modern Coast coach bus come to a sudden halt. In chaotic fashion we scrambled to awaken from our slumber, grab our belongings and get off of the bus into the bright scorching streets of Nairobi, Kenya.

We were right in the heart of a disastrous maze of taxis, buses, and local foot traffic. We got our bags and found our bearings, all while being hassled by numerous touts trying to convince us to take their taxi, stay at their hotel, eat at their restaurant, etc. We politely turned them away, keeping a close eye on all of our belongings. Nairobi, sometimes known as Nai-Robbery”, has notoriously high robbery rates. Because of this, we wanted to get out of the bustling metropolis, AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!

Our next destination was the city of Moshi, nestled at the base of Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania. We had learned from research before leaving Uganda that almost ALL of the reputable bus lines left Nairobi at 8 am. Yeah, you can look back up at the top of this entry at our time of arrival…. we had missed our window.

Not wanting to wander the dangerous and insanely packed streets of downtown Nairobi, we looked around nearby for any recognizable bus companies or travel offices, but without any luck. Just as panic was about to set in, Allie and I spotted this dilapidated piece of junk green bus, with the words ‘Perfect Bus’ painted above the front windshield. In elementary bubble letters, there was also the words Nairobi-Arusha-Moshi on the side. What luck! We ran up to an older gentleman smoking a cigarette that appeared to be the bus driver. We began asking him if they were headed to Tanzania, only to find that his English was very limited. After a few minutes of struggling to communicate with our language barrier, we were able to gather that he and his men were driving to Arusha. Since Arusha was less than 2 hours from Moshi, we decided this was our best option (under the circumstances) to at least get us into Tanzania. After some bartering, we managed to secure two seats for $22 USD.

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Picture of a much more “well-kept” version of the Perfect Bus. Provided from google images, as we definitely didn’t pull our camera out haha.

The driver then informed us that the bus was scheduled to leave in half an hour. That’s when Allie and I suddenly remembered our midnight border crossing. We unexpectedly had to break our crisp $100 USD bill in order to pay for a transit visa while entering Kenya earlier that morning, and we were going to need to replace the bill in order to get our Tanzania visas! Stricken with trepidation, I dropped my bag beside Allie, left her with the ‘Perfect Bus’ driver and some locals, and began sprinting through the crowded dusty streets in search of a bank.

Like something out of a movie, I ran up and down winding side streets dodging buses, taxis, and motorcycle traffic; weaving around donkeys and live animals, and was the recipient of tons of stares the entire way as I was the only white person for miles. Eventually, I came across an odd building that appeared to be a modern, secure, multi floor bank. I waited my turn to use an ATM, to realize it only dispensed Kenyan Shillings. I walked inside and was directed from this counter, to that counter, to the 3rd floor where I had to take a number and wait. Once called, I handed over my credit card and waited some more. Another 5 minutes later, they called me up and gave me back my credit card and a fresh $100 USD bill. The teller looked at me like I was crazy, as I took the money and darted for the door.

I busted back out onto the dirty and psychotic roadway, trying to retrace my steps and once again navigate through the horde. As the green ‘Perfect Bus’ came into view, I finally caught a glimpse of Allie standing right where I left her, guarding our bags with a concerned look on her face. Phew! What a relief!

As I came into her line of sight, I saw the same relief rush over her. Our anxiety filled 30 minutes in downtown Nairobi had us on edge, but we managed to secure onward travel and had everything we needed to continue on to Tanzania… High fives!

We boarded the sketchy bus which was now mostly full of local passengers, and STUFFED inside and out with burlap sacks, plastic containers, and all sorts of packages. They even had a mound (nearly 5 feet tall) of materials and parcels strapped onto the roof! We managed to get some seats to ourselves, exhaled a sigh of relief, and laughed off another crazy morning in Africa.


I pulled out my phone and was able to look up directions on our maps app to determine that the drive from Nairobi to Arusha was approximately 4 and 1/2 hours, not including the time we would have to spend at the Tanzania border crossing. I walked up to the driver one last time and asked him if the bus was direct to Arusha, and he concurred.

SIX HOURS LATER, we were only at the Kenyan/Tanzanian border… The bus had stopped dozens of times to pick up/drop off materials or passengers, and was a stinky hot toaster at this point. We climbed off the bus and were informed that the guards were going to have to search and inspect the entire thing, and that it could take some time. We were directed through a series of lines where our passports were stamped for leaving Kenya, and pointed towards the Tanzanian side of the border.

It was truly confusing, as there was a large barb wired fence that seemingly split the road in two, but you could walk right around it… almost everything was always ‘under construction’ in Eastern Africa, and their work ethic and concern for time was minimal, at best. We wandered back and forth trying to figure out which way we were supposed to go, as there were no signs, and no one to follow or direct us.

There was a small wooden hut about halfway between the Kenya and Tanzania border patrol buildings, and it was manned by a group of men. They waved us over and started explaining to us what we needed to cross into Tanzania. After a few minutes of going over a list of items, they informed us that our $100 USD was to be exchanged with them for Tanzanian Shillings in order to pay for the visas. Allie had done research ahead of time which indicated otherwise, so it seemed suspicious… But I handed them the bill anyways, and they gave me back a handful of shillings. Before turning away, I quickly pulled my phone out and converted the amount they had given us back into USD. It was only $20! I quickly snapped back at the men and asked them for either more shillings or my $100 cash back. They said, “No, no, no, this is how you pay for the visa to cross into Tanzania”. We weren’t buying it and I got slightly aggressive demanding my money back. Eventually they obliged, and Allie and I stormed off towards a Tanzanian guard in the distance. We asked him where we needed to go to get our tourist visa, and he pointed us to a brick building a few hundred yards away. I asked him about the wooden hut, which was now completely vacated, and he just shook his head. Crooks.

We found the Tanzania entryway and got all of our papers filled out, and were required to hand over the crisp $100 USD bill (thank God we we got it back…). Our passports were stamped and we were approved entry into the country that is home to Kilimanjaro. We walked back out into the sun excited for the journey ahead!


I hope you enjoyed that extremely thorough account of crossing into Tanzania, because this is where Paul finished writing haha… I’ll take over from here, in hopes that we actually get around to completing this blog someday! 

– Allie


We were informed by a bus crew member that the vehicle was still being inspected by border guards, and that we would have to wait a while longer… Paul and I found some shade from the scorching sun and killed time chatting with some of the other passengers, while sharing peanuts we had bought from a stand.

The border officials had to go through every single bag and parcel inside and on the roof of the bus. It took forever. Eventually, we were allowed back on board to continue the drive.

It was after 7:30 pm when we finally arrived in Arusha – 10 hours after leaving Nairobi, and 24 hours after leaving Kampala in Uganda! It was dark outside, and we still had to find our way to Moshi. We had no Tanzanian shillings, only a handful of US dollars. After asking around, and turning down some locals who offered to drive us for $150 USD… We finally met a helpful man who couldn’t speak much English, but seemed to know where we could catch a bus. He lead us without saying a word through the crazy streets, for what seemed like an extremely long time.

Eventually, we came to a sketchy looking bus park and he directed us to one of the local buses. We handed him $2 USD for helping us, and negotiated with the driver to let us on board the already PACKED bus for a few more USD. He agreed and we squished into two of the last open seats.

The drive between Arusha and Moshi is only supposed to take an hour and forty five minutes, but because we were in Africa… we didn’t arrive in Moshi for another two and half hours. It was almost 11:00 pm when we were dropped off in yet another questionable bus park.

The first cab driver that approached us said he knew where our AirBnB address was located, and he agreed to accept USD, so we hopped in. Then we proceeded to drive all over Moshi looking for the AirBnb for over an hour…

Besides the peanuts, and a couple of bananas some locals shared with us on the Perfect Bus, Paul and I had not eaten since 6:00 pm the night before in Kampala! We were ravenous, exhausted, and extremely frustrated. Eventually, we gave up and told the driver to just bring us to a hotel that was cheaper. He brought us to ‘Golden View Hotel’, which was on budget at 40 000 TZS/night ($25 CAD).

It was a decent room with a double bed, attached bathroom, and fan. Nothing special, but completely adequate! We went upstairs to the hotel restaurant, which was in the process of closing up. We ordered two beers, and asked them if they could cook us anything at this ungodly hour. They said they could make us some fried chicken and french fries, which we wolfed down within minutes of it being served.

The next morning, we checked out and walked a couple kilometres to ‘Parkview Inn’, the hotel Mar Tours & Safari had arranged for us to stay in before our Kilimanjaro trek. What an upgrade! The hotel was beautiful, with one of the most luxurious rooms we stayed in on our entire trip. There was even an outdoor pool, but the weather was too rainy to make use of it 😦

Shortly after checking in, the driver for Mar Tours arrived to take us to their office to finalize our trek details. We still hadn’t gone to a bank to get the remainder of the money we owed, which the owner from Mar Tours had assured us we would have NO problem pulling out in Moshi…

The driver detoured and took us to the biggest bank in town, Barclays. We filled out some forms, and after waiting a half hour, we were informed that the cash advance had failed. No one there wanted to help us, and we were given no other explanation as to why it didn’t go through.

Not wanting to hold up the driver anymore, we told him we would find our own way to the office once we figured out where to get the money. We then spent the next two hours trying every bank in town. It seemed the only way to get cash was to use the ATM, which had a maximum withdrawal limit of less than $200 USD (no where near how much we needed). Pulling out multiple times would not only cost us a fortune in fees, it would exceed our cards daily transaction limit. We decided our only other option was to do a Western Union transfer, which meant someone from home would have to help us out.

We walked to the Mar Tours office to inform them of our predicament, explaining that we would need to pay the remainder of our balance in the morning, before we left for our trek.

We rented some necessary gear we were missing (winter coats, gloves, etc.) for a price so steep we could have purchased them brand new. Then they informed us that our team would include a total of 8 porters, plus a cook, AND an assistant & lead guide… for just the two of us! This was more people than we expected (or felt necessary), but apparently, it was “the minimum number of people”. A giant lump formed in our throat, as we realized we would be responsible for tipping every single one of them on our own…

We left and went for lunch at ‘Pasua Café’, which became an instant favourite. It had a great laid-back Rasta atmosphere and amazing pulled pork sandwiches.

Once it was morning time in Calgary, we returned to our hotel to Skype with Paul’s Mom, Nettsie. The connection was terrible, but we managed to communicate that we would be email transferring her money, which we needed her to send back to us through a Western Union transfer for us to withdraw the following morning. While we were sleeping that night, she sent the money. We are extremely grateful she was there to help us! If she hadn’t, we couldn’t have started our trek the next day, which would have cost us even MORE financially.

 

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Looks like we had lots to pack… yet somehow I still ended up wearing the same pair of pants for the entire 6 days on the mountain haha!

Early the next morning, we set out on a mission to collect our Western Union money. Of course, that didn’t go smoothly either! We ran around visiting multiple banks, only to be told the “network was down” or the “amount was too high”. Time was ticking, as we were supposed to be at the Mar Tours office in half an hour to leave for our trek! We eventually found a bank that would process the transfer. After waiting for what seemed like forever, Paul was handed a HUGE wad of cash in front of over a dozen curious locals… We quickly stuffed the money into our bag and ran to Mar Tours. We were over an hour late. Luckily, it was just the two of us trekking, so we weren’t holding anyone else up.

We paid the remainder of our tour fee, collected our rental gear, and hopped in the van with the rest of our crew. We were introduced to our guide, Manase, and assistant guide, Dennis.

The lack of food, lack of sleep, and constant adrenaline over the previous days had left us both emotionally and physically exhausted, but we were both too amped up to relax. We sat there wide awake for the entire 2.5 hour drive to the starting point of the trek, anxiously awaiting the adventure we were embarking on.

We stopped part way to register and pay our park permit fees (with credit card – thank God!) at the Kilimanjaro National Park Limits, and then continued on to the Rongai Gate.

Originally, we had hoped to climb the Machame route, as it is well-known and treks are typically cheaper. Because we had extended our travels in previous countries, we had unintentionally pushed our trekking dates into the rainy season… Research informed us that the Rongai route on the North side of the mountain typically gets less rain, so we changed our plans a couple weeks prior.

“The Rongai route ascends Kilimanjaro from the north-eastern side of the mountain, along the border between Tanzania and Kenya. This route retains a sense of unspoilt wilderness and offers a different perspective on Kilimanjaro by approaching it from the north. The topography of the route does not allow for the application of the climb high and sleep low principle and hikers generally suffer more from altitude sickness on the Rongai route compared to other routes”

We signed in at the Rongai gate (1990 m), ate our bagged lunch the tour company had packed for us, and set off on our first day trekking!

We started in farm villages filled with fields of maize, but the scenery quickly transitioned to pine forest that looked oddly similar to Canada. We spotted a couple of black-and-white colobus monkeys in distant trees, which quickly reminded us that we were nowhere near home!

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Dennis, our Assistant Guide, started to teach us some Swahili. Most importantly “Pole, pole” (“Slowly, slowly”), which we heard constantly from our guides over the coming days, instructing us to go slow; an important principle for trekking at high altitudes.

We only hiked for about 3 hours (6.7 km) before we reached Simba Camp (2,671 m).

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Our camp was already set up by the porters, and it wasn’t long before dinner was fully prepared. We scarfed down the tasty meal of fish & chips from the comfort of our dining tent! Shortly after, we hit the hay. We both desperately needed to catch up on some sleep, especially me, as I was starting to develop a head cold.

We had began taking Diamox (Acetazolamide) a couple of days earlier, which is used to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. It can also be prescribed as a diuretic, which meant we both couldn’t make it through that night (or any night after) without having to dart out of the tent to relieve ourselves in the bushes or nearby squatter shack. Although these pee breaks were bitterly cold and extremely inconvenient, they provided us with some of our best star gazing opportunities! Each night the sky became increasingly spectacular, until eventually, every gap of darkness was filled with more stars than either of us had seen in our entire life.

The next morning, we ate breakfast (bread, hard boiled eggs, bananas, & African porridge), and started trekking by 8:00 am.

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We spent the next 6 ish hours (16 kms) hiking through a new climate zone: heathland. The temperature had dropped some, and bushes had replaced trees, which opened up our view of Kibo peak!

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Wildlife was less common now, but we did find a chameleon! Paul almost stepped on it, but miraculous spotted it before doing so. This was the highlight of my day! The adorable little reptile let us hold him for a bit to take pictures, before we released him back onto a shrub, away from the trekking path.

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When we arrived at Kikelewa Camp (3,600 m), it was all set up. The weather was starting to get chillier, and the winds had picked up, but we had still escaped rain up until this point.

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We explored the area for a bit before dinner (beef stew with rice), killed some time reading, and then visited the dining tent once more for our nightly tea and popcorn snack before heading to bed. Then we bundled up in our sleeping bags and fell asleep early. Because I had been cold the night before, I convinced Paul to zip our sleeping bags together to share body heat. Turns out the zipper on his side was broken and kept slipping open, so he didn’t have the best sleep. I on the other hand, slept much better cozied up to him 😉

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Our third day was our shortest day of hiking, so we got started a bit later in the morning. We could tell we were already getting quite high in elevation. The vegetation became entirely short shrubbery, and besides the occasional white necked raven or four-striped grass mouse, all the wildlife had vanished. We had also reached the clouds, so a damp fog clung to the hillsides. It drizzled on us for most of the day, which definitely wasn’t the best conditions for my head cold. I was starting to feel terrible. Luckily, it only took us two and half hours (3.7 km) to get to Mawenzi Tarn camp (4,303 m).

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This was the biggest camp we stayed at, situated right below the towering jagged peaks of Mawenzi (the second highest peak on Kilimanjaro, Kibo being the highest). There was even a row of squatter toilets at the camp, although only 1 of the 3 was in usable condition. There are pictures online from high season where this camp is littered with tents, but at this point in our trek, we had yet to see another soul outside of our crew.

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It was extremely windy when we arrived, to the point our tents were barely holding on. We ate lunch sitting in the corners of the dining tent, pinning it down with our chairs to stop it from blowing away. After lunch, I took a nap while Paul read a bit. A couple hours later, the wind had died down, and Manase and Dennis were collecting us to go for an acclimatization hike.  

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Our guides lead us very slowly up a nearby peak. This was the first I started to feel the affects of the altitude. It was difficult to catch my breath and the one hour hike (with maybe 300 m of elevation gain), felt more difficult than it should have. I also couldn’t breathe properly out of my stuffed up nose, so I am sure that didn’t help! The amazing view of Kibo peak was worth every puff! The main purpose of the climb was not the view though, but rather to aid with acclimatization. It is very beneficial to climb high during the day, and then sleep lower overnight. At this point, we had about 50% less oxygen available to us (compared to sea level). We were high enough to be at risk of developing altitude sickness (and still going higher), so this hike was crucial to our success on the mountain.

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Our camp down below!

For dinner that night we ate pasta with “chicken sauce”. Our appetites were diminishing with the increase in altitude, and the quality of the meals was also dwindling, so it was becoming difficult to get food down.

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I woke up the next morning feeling a bit better! We left camp at 8:00 am to start our fourth day of hiking.  

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All vegetation had vanished, as we now walked through the climate zone known as the alpine desert. We crossed over the barren saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo, stopping to check out the wreckage from a passenger plane crash that killed five people in 2008.  

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We reached Kibo hut (4,720 m) based right below the daunting peak we would be climbing later that night. The (9 km) day took 4.25 hours. There was still some sun, so we tried to hang our clothes to dry that were damp from the previous day’s rain and sweat. This was the first time we saw other people, as there were a few other small groups of trekkers staying at the camp and planning to summit the same night as us.

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I could definitely feel the altitude at this point. The squatter shacks were located down a tiny hill (if you could even call it that), and a trip there and back had me gasping for air.

For dinner, we forced down some spaghetti with mushroom sauce, and then climbed into our sleeping bags by 6:30 pm to try and get some sleep before our midnight summit attempt.

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We were woken up at 11:00 pm by our guides. After dressing in layers (2 pairs of socks, three pairs of pants, and twice as many top layers), we went to the dining tent to wake ourselves up with some tea and biscuits. Manase took our blood oxygen reading (as he had done every evening, for the last couple of nights) and confirmed we would be okay to ascend. We began our climb just before midnight.

Climb is an exaggeration I suppose… Because we were so high, moving too fast could induce altitude sickness in minutes, so we were limited to a sluggish shuffle. This was A-OK with me, as I physically couldn’t have handled anything more! We moved along in a line, Manase leading the way, me following him, Paul behind me, and Dennis bringing up the rear. The porters all stayed behind at the camp, awaiting our return.

Pitch black surrounded us, with only our headlamps to guide us, but we could tell we were weaving our way up a very steep hill covered with fine stone scree. Further up the mountain we could see the headlamps of another group of trekkers. They seemed to be moving quite quickly. A while later (we had lost all perception of time), we passed them, as a lady in the group was violently throwing up… This is one of the many symptoms of altitude sickness. We never saw them again, so I am not sure if they ended up making it to top.

At this point I was starting to feel an increase in altitude related symptoms myself. My body was extremely heavy and sore, especially where my camelbak straps were resting on my shoulders. I was a little nauseous when I bent over, and I constantly felt like I was on the verge of passing out. It’s a good thing Paul was walking behind me, because he frequently had to steady me as I stumbled to catch my balance. I continued to push forwards though, focusing on each small step.

Paul felt pretty much fine at this point, besides a shortness of breath. Any time either of us would take a sip of water, it took minutes to be able to catch our breath again. Eventually our camelbak hoses froze, and we had to drink water from the canisters that our guides carried up for us instead. The cold also zapped all the battery in my iPod, which I was trying to use to listen to audiobooks. It didn’t matter though, because I couldn’t pay attention to it anyways.

We continued to climb up to Gilman’s point (5,681 m), located on the crater rim. Both of us didn’t doubt for a second that we were going to make it to the top, so we didn’t stay for long. It was cold and we wanted to make it to the real summit in time for sunrise.

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The next section was very steep and snowy, so it required a lot of physical and mental effort. This is when Paul really started to feel the altitude as well. He couldn’t believe that this was what I was dealing with the majority of the climb!

Finally, we reached Uhuru Peak (5,895 m), the highest point in Africa! Just as we did, the sun started to peek up behind us, gradually lighting the snow and glaciers surrounding us. The sky was the prettiest gradient of baby blue and cotton candy pink. It was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined!

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We had made it to the top in about six and half hours, summit time just before 6:30 am. We were the only and very first ones up there, so it was completely silent. I had never experienced such quietness. It felt like we were in outer space.

A wave of awe washed over me, and next thing you know, I was sobbing frozen tears haha! Partially from exhaustion, but mostly because of how overjoyed I was with what I had just accomplished. I had checked something off my bucket list that I wanted to do ever since my parents took me to the IMAX movie of Kilimanjaro when I was only 11 years old 🙂 it was an incredible feeling (minus the freezing cold and light headed part)!

We watched as the sun fully rose, and took some obligatory pictures with the famous sign; although my face was too cold and exhausted to smile properly, haha.

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Paul, Manase, and Dennis all had some celebratory swigs of whiskey from a bottle we had carried up. I opted out, still too drained to join in. It must have went straight to their heads, because immediately they were singing and dancing around!

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It was about -20°C and our toes felt like they were going to fall off, even with the two pairs of thick hiking socks, so we left pretty quickly after that. I think we were up top for about 20 minutes; like I said, we had lost all concept of time.

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As we were leaving, we started to encounter other climbers reaching the summit. It felt pretty good to know that we had been the first ones from both basecamps to reach the top that morning!

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We continued back down to Gillman’s Point, where we had another celebratory shot of whiskey (me feeling well enough to partake this time), and then we practically skied straight down the mountainside, using our heels and poles to slide in the soft volcanic ash. As we descended, the temperature rose, and we had to continuously peel off layers of clothing.

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The whole trip (approx. 11 km) took us a total of 8 hours and 40 mins. Once back at Basecamp, we were welcomed by cheers and hoorahs from our porters, congratulating us for accomplishing the treacherous feat.

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We ate some watermelon, rested for an hour, and then packed up all of our stuff. We continued down the mountainside to another camp at a lower elevation.

Ascending for the summit, we were forced to walk the pace of a 90 year old man with a walker, but it doesn’t matter what pace you descend at. For our trek down, we could go as fast as we wanted and finally set our own pace!

This time we were taking the Marangu Route down (instead of returning the way we came up). We hiked downhill over steep dried up stone river beds. Our body was exhausted and already starting to ache. It was a long long day, but we were both too ecstatic with what we had accomplished to feel any negativity!

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2.5 hours (10 km) later, we reached Horombo Hut (3,705 m) where we ate lunch and relaxed for the afternoon. After a hodgepodge dinner of all the leftover food, we crawled into our tent very early, utterly exhausted.

We woke up at 6 am the next morning to a foggy, but beautiful, sunrise. After breakfast, we packed our stuff up one last time, and left our porters to finish taking down camp. We barely stopped or took any breaks. Our knees were killing us, but we both were in a rush to get off the mountain and into a shower and comfy bed!

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It was much different scenery on this side of the mountain, and we were able to see some of the unique plants that are native to the mountain, such as the strange giant groundsels, or the delicate Impatiens kilimanjari flower (which can only be found on Kilimanjaro – nowhere else in the world). As we entered the rainforest climate zone, we also spotted Blue Monkeys, more White Colobus monkeys, and a Tree Hyrax.

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We got to the Marangu Gate in less than 5 hours (20 km), where we signed out from the registration book and filled in our summit details. We were given the gold certificate for our successful climb, which Manase presented to us.

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After gobbling down our final bagged lunch, we met our whole crew at the fully loaded van. We handed out our tips to our guides, cook, and porters. Everyone gave us big smiles and a hug, or a cool intricate African handshake, and then they all performed a song and dance for us. It was pretty heartwarming, and we were sad to know we would soon be parting ways with the group that had been like family for the last week.

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We all piled into the van and drove back to Moshi. They dropped us off at the luxurious Parkview Inn again, where Mar Tours had arranged another night’s stay for us.

After checking in, we took ridiculously long steaming hot showers, ordered ourselves beer from the hotel restaurant, and sprawled out on the king-sized bed. We could already feel the muscles ceasing in our legs.

Once it was morning time in Canada, we connected online to update our family and friends on our safe return, and skype Claire & Verena (my Nieces) to wish them a happy 6th and 1st birthday!

After a couple more celebratory beers, we mustered up the motivation to leave our room and find dinner. It was pouring rain at this point, so we ended up just returning to Pasua Café for some more of their yummy pulled pork.

While there, we met a nice young couple from the UK, Hannah and Millen. Turns out they had summited Kilimanjaro the exact same morning as us, from the Machame route (the route we had intended to take). It had poured rain on them the entire time, so we were relieved to hear we made the right decision to switch routes!  

They also told us that the tour they had booked locally was supposed to “include tips” for their guides and porters, but in the end, they found out that the crew never got anything extra. They didn’t have any money and had to leave them with nothing extra after 6 days of hard work and very little pay… We couldn’t imagine how terrible that would have felt!

We said goodbye after a few more drinks, making plans to meet up in Zanzibar, which also happened to be their next destination.

In the morning, we had to check out of our expensive hotel and check into something more affordable. We decided to head back to Golden View Hotel (the hotel our taxi driver took us to the first night).

We spent the day walking all around Moshi with very sore legs. We had to find a place to drop off our copious amount of dirty laundry, as well as somewhere to purchase bus tickets to Dar Es Salaam for the following morning. It didn’t stop raining on us the entire day.

For dinner that night, we went to a place called ‘Mimosa’. It was off the main streets, situated in a random park. I had a salad with tender minute beef, apple, and blue cheese (oh how I missed salad!), and Paul had a burger, which he said was maybe the best burger he had on the entire trip… I am pretty sure he said this at least five times on our trip though, so I am not sure how much merit that statement holds LOL, but the food truly was excellent!

The next morning, we got up early and walked to the Dar Express Bus Station, which was really just a shack on the side of the road. We had booked bus tickets the previous day for $20 CAD each. For over an hour we sat nervously with a few other passengers, wondering if we had gotten duped out of our money… But eventually the bus showed up.

11 hours later, we arrived in Dar Es Salaam. Our hotel had a van waiting for us at the bus station, which we were appreciative of, as the area appeared very rundown and unsafe. We arrived at the brand-new accommodation, ‘Silver Paradise Hotel’, that I had found online for a steal of a deal – $25 USD/night for a beautiful room, with free buffet breakfast. It was in a terrible neighbourhood, but we didn’t care, as we were only staying the one night before heading to the airport early the next morning.


Climbing Kilimanjaro was the most expensive thing we did on our trip – almost $2,000 CAD/each (including the park fees of $950 CAD/each, our tour fees, and our fancy hotel before and after the trek), but NOT including all the gear rental and tips for our crew. We could have saved money by booking a random tour in person when we arrived in Moshi (especially if we joined one with other trekkers), but we felt it was worth spending a bit more to go with a reputable company we could research beforehand. We knew we could trust them (based off reviews) and that they treat their porters ethically (many budget operators severely underpay and overload their porters). Mar Tours & Safari was still one of the cheapest operators we could find online, and in the end, we were pleased with the service they provided.

We also could have paid A LOT more money to go with an American based luxury tour operator, so that we could sleep in a fancy tent with cot beds, and have a portable toilet carried for us… But that was not the experience we wanted! It was also very important to us that our money went into the pockets of a locally owned business, and not an adventure company based out of elsewhere in the world.

Climbing Kilimanjaro in the rainy season was a questionable decision. We got extremely lucky with weather on the mountain (because we changed our route), but the nights were still freezing cold (especially the summit night!), and we got soaked while staying in Moshi before and after our trek. But in the end, climbing during off season turned out to have way more positives than negatives. I have read horror stories about people lining up at the summit to have their 15 seconds in front of the famed sign, before they return to a crowd of people so big “you would think you were at the top of the Eiffel Tower”. Because other trekkers never held us back, Paul and I were able to get to the summit early enough to watch the sunrise from the top (normally done from Gillman’s Point), and have uninterrupted peace on the roof of Africa, which is practically unheard of. Almost every camp we stayed at we had all to ourselves, which is partially because we were climbing a less popular route – one more reason we are thankful we decided to climb when we did. We never considered the Rongai route, but it ended up providing us with stellar scenery and serene trekking conditions. We really couldn’t have asked for things to go better for us (minus the difficulties getting to Moshi, pulling out money, and catching a head cold haha…). We barely even got blisters from our hiking boots, which if you read our blog about our trek in Myanmar, you’ll know why that is a big deal!

Climbing Kilimanjaro will forever be one of my favourite (and most rewarding) life experiences. I only hope that one day we can spark the desire in our future children to climb Kilimanjaro (like my parents did with the IMAX movie), so that I have an excuse to climb it a second time 😉

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This inspirational note was gifted to me with a Swiss Army Knife from a Sales Rep who works at my old office. Thanks again Paul & Louise Hendriks!

Love Paul & Allie
Demsky Duo Disembarked

Uganda Be Kidding Me!

While checking in for our departure flight at the airport in Colombo (Sri Lanka) on March 28th, we were pleased to find out that FlyDubai had upgraded our seats to first class for the first leg of our trip to Uganda! We boarded the flight to Dubai at 1:30 AM, enjoyed a complimentary glass of champagne, and had a wonderful five hours of sleep in our comfy first class seats.

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Clearly a little tipsy from our beers at the airport and free champagne, haha!

We landed in Dubai, where we had a three hour layover before our next flight to Entebbe, a major city in central Uganda. The flight was delayed a bit, and once we finally boarded, we sat on the runway without moving for over an hour. If only we had first class seats for the second flight as well!

Finally we landed in Entebbe at around 4:00 pm, two hours later than scheduled. We planned to stay and volunteer at an orphanage I had found online, but first we would spend the night in the capital city of Kampala, where we had booked an AirBnB room. The Orphanage’s Manager, Doreen, arranged for her Father to pick us up from the airport and drive us to our accommodation.

It took us an hour and a half to get into the heart of Kampala, and it probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear that we experienced a bit of culture shock on the drive. Already we could tell things were going to be much different than we had become accustomed to! When we finally pulled up to our AirBnB address we were a little nervous, as it was a very run down apartment complex, that didn’t look entirely safe. After we entered the apartment by unlocking the steel bar cage encasing the front door, we were pleased to see that it was nicely updated. The balcony had a view of the neighbourhood, including a group of about six huge Marabou storks that had claimed ownership of a pile of burning garbage within the complex’s walls. We had numerous sightings of these gigantic (adults reach up to 5 ft. tall) vulture looking birds who hang out right in the middle of the city, but we never got around to taking a picture of them ourselves. Here is an image from google to give you an idea of what they look like:

Marabou storks

After we got settled in our room we ventured out nervously into the nearby streets. We thought we were used to locals staring, but this was on a whole ‘nother level… It didn’t help that the neighbourhood we were staying in was quite run down and busy, a detail that was missing from the AirBnB description. We tried to blend in by faking as much confidence as we could, pretending not to look lost as we searched for the nearby supermarket.

The roads were all red dirt with ramshackle buildings lining the sides. Sidewalks were pretty much nonexistent or completely falling apart. Everywhere was so busy with vehicles, people, cows, and goats. We were not sure what to do with ourselves, especially when it came to crossing the completely unregulated jam packed streets! Finally we located the surprisingly modern supermarket. We picked up ingredients to make ourselves breakfast the next day and some treats for the children at the orphanage. It was getting dark, and we realized we had barely eaten all day, so we quickly grabbed dinner from a nearby eatery. They served us some mediocre lunch leftovers for a very cheap price.

The next morning we went to find a SIM card so that we could look up the directions to Miryante Orphanage, but our cell phone wouldn’t work with the data, so we ended up visiting an internet cafe instead. We spoke with Doreen who was worried about us going to the ‘New Taxi Park’ alone, but we tried to reassure her that our accommodation was less than a fifteen minute walk from it. She warned us not to let anyone touch our bags, as people would try to steal them. We went back to the apartment, grabbed our backpacks, and headed out.

We found the New Taxi Park with no trouble at all, but we had only been given vague instructions on what to do next; so when we got there, we were very overwhelmed looking out at a giant maze of gridlocked vehicles. The lot was much larger than a football field and so tightly compacted with taxis lined up end to end, there was barely enough room to walk between each vehicle. In Uganda (and other parts of Africa), “taxis” (also called matatus) are actually shared minibuses that will drop off or pick up passengers anywhere along specific routes. Sometimes they cram in over 20 people, when there is only enough seating for a very squished 15 (including a driver). We had no idea how to tell which taxi was going where, and the conditions didn’t look favourable. We decided we would be more comfortable looking for a coach bus that was heading our direction instead.

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More google images to show what the Taxi Park looked like!

Link Bus Kampala

As we were wandering around, a man approached us and asked us where we were going. We told him the town of Fort Portal and he said to follow him. He took us to a different section of the park that was filled with larger buses. As soon as we walked up, we were swarmed by more than a dozen other men. Half of them worked with the man who was directing us, and the other half were trying to convince us to take their bus company instead. Each group was insinuating that the other one was going to rip us off. The large men started yelling and arguing, shoving and throwing punches at each other, and then physically pulling Paul and I in opposite directions! I broke free and dragged Paul out of the mob with me. I didn’t know what to do so I ran over to a bystander who looked like they could maybe help. I desperately pleaded him to tell us which company we should go with. He pointed at the opposite bus company (from the initial man who lead us) and said “go with them, they will take you where you need to go”. They were wearing more official looking jackets that said ‘Link Bus’, so we took the man’s advice and quickly followed them to their large beat up bus, while the men from the other company swore and continued to make a scene.

We bartered our tickets down to 20,000 Uganda Shillings each (about $7.75 CAD), insisting that we bring our backpacks on board, and arranging to be dropped off along the way at a village near the orphanage. Once seated, we took a deep breath, looked at each other… and started to laugh! What else could we do? We had just survived one of our most nerve racking travel experiences, and if we didn’t laugh about it, we probably would have started to cry, haha. What an introduction to Africa!

The three hour bus ride wasn’t as unpleasant as we anticipated, although there was a man walking up and down the aisle talking loudly into a microphone for the majority of the trip. At first we thought he was a pastor preaching the bible, but then we realized he was passing around items for people to test out. We concluded he was some sort of salesman doing an odd live infomercial!

About two hours into the trip we stopped in a town so that passengers could go to the bathroom or get something to eat. The bus was instantly surrounded by men and women carrying food and drinks for sale: skewers of mystery meat, roasted plantains, chapati, bags of peanuts, and other local foods. They called at us, reaching up to our windows, “Muzungu, Muzungu. You want Soda? How about chapati?”. This was the first of many times our vehicle would be swarmed by street hawkers, and the first of even more times we would be called a Muzungu (“White Person”) haha.

An hour later the bus dropped us off right in front of Miryante Orphanage. Billy, the social worker at the orphanage, met us at the road and showed us up to the main buildings. As we were coming up the path, we were swarmed again… but this time it was by a mob of adorable hugging little children! A little girl took Paul’s hand and an adorable little boy took mine (who I would later grow extremely fond of), and the group lead us up to the guesthouse.

The accommodation was nicer than we expected. It had no electricity or running water, but it was all ours – complete with a private queen size bed & mosquito net, and a sit down toilet we could flush with rain or well water. We also had our own kitchen with a gas stove top and a hanging basket for food (to keep it safe from the rats who are common visitors in the guesthouse).

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We were told we could cook our own meals if we got bored of the orphanage’s food, which we soon learned was the exact same thing, 3 meals each day, on a weekly rotation. The week we were visiting it was beans and Posho (pronounced poe-show), which is finely ground white corn flour mixed with boiling water until it becomes solid (kind of like a very plain polenta). We joined in on this meal a few times; it was actually pretty edible, and definitely filling. More often we opted to make our own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One night I cooked us a giant batch of spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce. We each devoured a dish by lantern light in the guesthouse, and then gave the rest of the food to some of the orphanage’s workers – they were equally excited to be eating something different!

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We spent the five days helping teach English to the nursery school children while the older kids left to go to primary or secondary school. Our teaching consisted mostly of games, practicing the alphabet, shapes, numbers, and colouring; so it was pretty entry level stuff, but lots of fun!

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One of the days we went to the closest town (an hour away) to get groceries. It was actually the same town the bus stopped at on our journey from Kampala. We went with Doreen, who was going to visit a sick child in the hospital. She flagged us a taxi and bartered them down to 5,000 UGX each ($2 CAD).
Our first experience with a taxi was a cramped and stinky one… which is pretty much identical to every experience we had after that! We squeezed into the already overflowing vehicle, practically sitting on other people’s sweaty laps. It stopped another TWO times to squish more people in. At one point it was so full they had to keep the door open for the conductor (person who collects the fares) to hang out the side of the speeding vehicle. The chicken we could hear clucking from inside someone’s bag made the experience that much more ridiculous!

We made it in one piece, and after Doreen showed us where the market was, we went our separate ways. We picked up a few things including some fresh passion fruit (a new favourite from our time in Sri Lanka). Then we visited an internet cafe to try to arrange transportation to Tanzania for the following week. The computers were SO slow and our internet time kept expiring, preventing us from being able to book our trip fully. We ended up with bus tickets to take us as far as Kenya, and we would have to figure out the rest once we got there.

We tried to find somewhere to eat lunch, kind of excited about the idea of missing another meal of Posho, but we were shocked at how little there was for options. We settled on a hole in the wall eatery that seemed busy with locals. There was no menu or choice, we were simply dished a plate of cooked fish and plantains. We were confident they overcharged us for the very modest meal… but we were happy to pay it, as it was a refreshing change.

When we were finished, we had to catch another taxi back to the orphanage; this time by ourselves. Doreen had warned us they would try to gouge us on the price and to be happy if they let us on for 7,000 UGX each. We were pretty pleased with our bartering skills when we were able to get them down to 6,000 UGX each… Wooohoo, saved $0.40 CAD! The ride was exactly like the first one – cramped and sweaty. While we waited for it to fill up, hawkers pestered us to buy food, ignoring us when we tried to explain that we had just eaten. By the time we departed, I had gotten pretty good at turning people away politely by engaging them in a different conversation. Most of them were just as excited to practice their English as they were to sell us something!

One of the days at the orphanage, Paul helped build a swing set for the children with one of the workers named John. They ended up growing quite the bromance. He told Paul all about his family, who he barely sees because everyday he works such long hours at the orphanage. He was a very nice man, who had a giant pearly white smile!

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The finished playground

We spent another one of the mornings learning Rutoro (the local language used in the village) from Miryante’s Manger, Joseph. This helped us to communicate with the children who didn’t know much English. We were each given a pet name called an Empako. There are twelve different Empakos, some for both sexes, and some for just males. They are used as endearing nicknames between friends. Mine was Abwooli which means catlike or caring, and Paul’s was Apuuli, which we were told doesn’t have an exact meaning (maybe they picked it because it sounds like Paulie!). Unfortunately, we weren’t going to be able to use our new language skills (or nicknames) for the rest of our travels in Uganda, as there are over 40 different languages spoken throughout the country. English is used as the common language between most regions, which is why so many locals can speak it fluently.

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Our teacher, Joseph

One afternoon Billy and a few of the older children took us for a hike to a nearby viewpoint. Billy showed us the orphanage’s farmland and crops, and pointed out unique local plants along the way, making for a very interesting afternoon. The whole experience showed us what a beautiful lush green country Uganda is!

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On our last evening the entire orphanage organized a song and dance performance for us. We were so touched by the sentiment, but even more impressed when we saw how extremely talented they all were! They even got Paul and I up to dance with them, which they thought was absolutely HILARIOUS! Especially when I busted out my submarine or “sinking dance move” skills, pinching my nose and twisting to the ground, haha. It was very evident how much music and dancing meant to them all, bringing pure happiness to people who don’t always have a lot to be joyful about.

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The only thing I wish I could change about the evening was the location of the light fixture… the sole light for the entire schoolhouse was hanging directly above our chairs in the centre of the room, causing us to be continuously pelted in the face with various gigantic flying bugs as they darted at the bulb above us. I shuddered as I picked a few of them out of my sports bra before going to bed!

It was so hard to say goodbye to everyone the following morning – in particular my favourite little boy, who’s name was Deo. We would both break out into huge smiles every time we saw each other! He was 8 years old and had been taken away from his home, as he was brutally burned by his father as a form of discipline… He had only been at the orphanage for a month when we visited, but you could already tell how extremely happy he was to be there. They were helping to treat his large wound and working with the NGO Justice for Children to advocate for his protection.

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Picture from Miryante, when Deo was first brought to the orphanage.

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Saying goodbye to Deo. Look at that infectious smile!

Miryante is an amazing organization that relies heavily on donations from all over the world. Most of the children only had the clothes on their back, they get the same basic meal for a week straight (with meat only on special occasions), and toys/games are scarce. They do all that they can, and are continuing to work to improve the lives of the children with the limited resources available to them. They have implemented many projects in order to help them be more self-sufficient, such as farming and selling crafts made by the children. By doing this, they are also teaching valuable life skills to the children, so that in the future they may succeed on their own.

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We are pleased that we were able to give them a small donation, thanks to the help of some friends and family. If anyone else is interested in reading more about the organization, or donating towards them, their website is www.miryanteorphange.org.

It was a very wonderful experience, and we wish we could have stayed longer and done more. Someday in the future I hope to return!

When it was time for us to leave, Doreen walked us down to the road. We waited for a while for a westbound taxi to take us to the town of Fort Portal, but nothing ever came. Eventually Doreen flagged down a random approaching car. For the very cheap price of 10,000 UGX (less than $4 CAD), they agreed to take us to the town one hour away.

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Saying goodbye to Doreen

This was our first experience with “hitchhiking” in Uganda, but we were soon to become quite familiar with it, as it is one of the main forms of transportation in the country. This particular car ride however, was the closest we got to thinking we were going to die on our entire trip… and it had nothing to do with the hitchhiking part. The two local men, although slightly intimidating (being well over 6 feet tall with strong builds, and not a lot to say to us), still seemed nice enough; however, about 20 minutes into the drive, torrential rain began to fall. The road was completely invisible and the car’s bald tires were causing us to hydroplane and skid from side to side! The driver had to continuously reach forward to wipe the windshield with his shirt sleeve because the car windows had fogged up so much. My stomach flipped and flopped, while Paul and I squeezed each other’s hands in the back seat. We had been on MANY sketchy forms of transportation over the prior five months, but we typically trusted the driver to get us there safe knowing that they had done the route many times before. This time, we knew nothing of our driver’s experience level. Even if he happened to be the best motorist in the world, all you could see (out of his small rubbed circle of vision) was a sheet of grey rain and the occasional glare of dim oncoming headlights…

We may have aged a few years from that drive, but in the end we miraculously avoided skidding off of the roadway or into any oncoming vehicles! When we had safely arrived in Fort Portal, we kissed the ground, paid the driver, and wandered off to figure out our next step of getting to ‘Kibale National Park’, another 40+ kilometres away. It was April 3rd, Jane Goodall’s birthday (obviously 😉 ), so it was only fitting that we would be heading to a national park that is home to thousands of chimpanzees!

After having lunch and visiting an internet cafe, we hadn’t come up with any definitive answers, so we took to the streets to ask locals where we could catch a ride to Kibale. We were pointed in a direction along a muddy roadway, and eventually found ourselves in another reasonably priced hitchhiking ride with a man and his wife who were heading south. What we didn’t foresee was that the winding road leading to the park was entirely ‘under construction’. It was a complete disaster, and we had some more extremely close calls, slipping and sliding on the slick deep mud. The drive took MUCH longer than it should have, but we did pass by our first group of wild baboons, so that made it worth it!

Once we arrived at the ‘Chimp’s Nest’, our hotel situated right within the park’s limits, we realized something terrible… In our frenzy to find our way to the park, we had completely forgotten to pull out cash from an ATM! The hotel we were checking into did not take credit card and neither would the national park for our chimpanzee tracking permits. The closest machine was over an hour away, BACK in Fort Portal… the town we had JUST came from!

As it was now quickly turning to dusk, the odds of us finding another hitchhiking ride or a cheap shared taxi was unlikely. The hotel told us a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) ride would be our only option, but it would cost us; considering the distance, condition of the road, and the fact that it was now getting dark.
We reluctantly negotiated a price of 60,000 UGX (just over $20 CAD… 3 times what we had just paid to get there) for a ride to town and back. We both squeezed onto the back of the motorcycle, cuddling up to our driver for the long muddy dark drive ahead.

We puttered along in the the isolation of the thick Ugandan jungle. There weren’t any other vehicles around whatsoever. The vast expanse of the starry sky provided a faint amount of light, but the thick mud and scattered puddles prevented us from seeing the roadway clearly. To make the drive exceedingly difficult, the headlight of the boda-boda was only bright enough to illuminate a few feet in front of us, and ONLY when our driver was hitting the throttle! He’d give it some gas, see where he was headed, then roll forward in pitch black, hoping his calculations were correct before turning the throttle again and illuminating another section. Several times as he hit the gas to shed some light, the motorbike began to slip out sideways, and Paul and the driver had to put their feet down preventing us from toppling over or sliding out in the red mud. It was a white knuckle hair raising experience!

Well over three hours later, we arrived back at our hotel. Although it took forever (resulting in extremely numb butt cheeks), and may have caused some more grey hairs to sprout on our heads (Paul’s especially LOL)… I actually kind of enjoyed the sketchy ride through the dark jungle forest. The whole scenario was just too far fetched not to chuckle at! Both of us on the back of a motorcycle, driving through misty blackness, along a mud road in Africa. The sky was littered with stars and the jungle on either side of us moaned with nocturnal life. So creepy and unreal, and at the same time, absolutely beautiful and wild. But I guess I could just have been delusional from surviving multiple near death experiences in one day! We slept well that night, planning to see wild chimpanzees the next day.

In the morning, we learned that we would have to secure a chimpanzee tracking permit from an office 30 minutes away from the park before we could join a trek within the park’s grounds. Today’s organized trek started in less than an hour, so we decided we would join the following morning’s trek, opting instead to use the day to arrange our permit and explore the area.

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Road leading to The Chimp’s Nest

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View from the Chimp’s Nest Restaurant

We decided to have lunch at a small family run BBQ pork eatery. They told us we would have to wait for a while for our food. We understood why when shortly after we ordered, a man drove up on a motorcycle with a live pig tied to the back of it… It was a little unsettling, but at least we knew the food was fresh! It was actually a delicious meal and extremely cheap as well. While we ate we were visited by many local children who were delighted at the chance to practice their English. All the Children we saw in Uganda were super friendly! Since we were visiting in the country’s rainy season, there were very few tourists, which made people that much more curious about us.

After lunch, we began walking in the direction of the permit office, hoping to encounter a taxi heading the same way. Trudging through the winding jungle roadway for about a half hour, we turned the corner and suddenly encountered another group of wild baboons. There were mothers with their infants and big strong male leaders, all staring us down. We proceeded to walk forward, trying not to let them sense our fear, and avoiding direct eye contact. The baboons parted the way in front of us, and allowed us to walk away in peace. Once we got a few paces away, we both exhaled, and lit up smiling in disbelief!
We also encountered an insane amount of butterflies along the walk, as we came across giant clusters of the beautiful fluttering creatures hovering over a patch of ground. Upon further inspection, we realized that the delicate insects were swarming piles of feces left behind from one of the various animals that live in the jungle… We no longer admired the poop butterflies and tried to stay as far away from their gatherings as we could, haha!

We walked a few more kilometres, jumped on another boda-boda ride, followed by another hitchhiking ride; and after securing our permits, finished the round trip on a shared taxi. The 1 hour trip took us at least 2.5 hours to complete. That night we enjoyed an awesome dinner cooked by the Chimp’s Nest restaurant, and then ended the evening sitting on our patio looking up at another brilliant starry night, entertained by the presence of multiple shooting stars.

We woke up early the next morning to go on our chimpanzee trek. We were assigned our guide, equipped with a gun (which we learned was just precautionary, and more for protection against the wild elephants), and set out on foot into the forest. In addition to elephants, Kibale National Park is home to 13 species of primates, one of which is the chimpanzee. More than 1,450 chimpanzees live in the park, which is more than anywhere else in Uganda. Of the many communities of chimps in the park, two of them have been habitualized for research and tourism purposes. Habitualized means that the animals are still wild, living freely in their natural habitat, but after many years of repeated exposure to human beings, they no longer react to our presence. There are very strict rules in the park about getting too close to the chimps, but basically they are comfortable with humans creeping around and gawking at them.

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Our Guide

Almost immediately after we started our three hour trek, we were able to hear the Chimp’s calls and spot some of their fresh tracks. We followed our guide’s lead and less than fifteen minutes later we had spotted a single male chimpanzee. My face was already aching from smiling with excitement! We followed the chimp as he searched the forest trying to find the rest of his group (simply known as his community). He would do this by every so often running full speed up to a large tree, jumping and kicking off of it, while simultaneously drumming it with his fists and letting out a bellowing call. We would then all pause in silence with the chimpanzee, listening for the distant group’s response that would lead us all in the right direction. After a while of following the chimp, our guide let him wander off, as he didn’t want to stress out the primate too much.

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That black blur is a Chimpanzee!

It didn’t take us long to find the rest of the community on our own. We were blown away as we worked our way into the middle of a group of over 2 dozen chimps, including our lost buddy who we had been following earlier. We were told this particular community was home to more than 120 chimpanzees.

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Our guide said we were quite lucky as he pointed out the community’s alpha male, as well as the ‘challenging male’. We got a dramatic introduction, when seconds later, the challenging male charged at the alpha trying to display his physical ability. All the chimps started to hoot and howl, while the younger male grunted and strutted around puffing his chest out and slamming his fists on the ground and nearby trees. I guess these confrontations happen quite often, more frequently now that the alpha male, who is in his forties, is too old and weak to be their leader anymore.

A secondary challenge came only a few minutes later, with the strong 20 something year old male involving us in his demonstration this time… While standing together as a group (our guide, Paul and I, and a family of 3 Americans) we were suddenly deafened by the calls of the primates echoing each other in excitement. The challenging male was running around “charging” the forest, slapping trees and trying to convey his strength. Suddenly he barrelled directly towards us! We jumped and huddled together on the verge of screams, while I repeated something like “What do I do?! What do I do?! You never told us what to do!”, grasping onto our poor guide’s arm. A minute later it was all over and calmness returned to the community. Turns out that in the commotion, the challenging chimpanzee had actually swiped at the American Dad’s leg! The mud hand print on his pants confirmed the story. Luckily, the chimp was very gentle or the man could have been seriously injured. We all sighed a breath of relief… but oh my goodness was it ever exhilarating!

We spent the next couple of hours in that area, amongst the group, taking turns watching different chimps interact. Mine and Paul’s favourite was the “Vice President” of the group who looked so content; laying in ridiculous human positions, daydreaming up at the sky. We also got to witness the alpha male being groomed by a female who was carrying a tiny little baby!

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The “Vice President”

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We were lucky enough to spot a few of the other kinds of primates in the forest, such as the black & white colobus monkey, as well as the endangered red colobus monkey. We didn’t see any elephants, but after hearing what our guide had to say about their temper, that was probably a good thing! We finished the morning after just over 3 hours hiking through the Ugandan jungle, feeling extremely grateful and giddy! Afterwards we hurried back to our hotel to check out and figure out a way back to Fort Portal.

After waiting on the side of the road for a while, we were able to flag down transportation to Fort Portal for 5,000 UGX ($2 CAD) in the back of an empty gravel truck that was already carrying two locals. Half way through our trip the truck stopped to fill up with gravel. The driver could see we were concerned, but said not to worry, we can just sit on top of all the loose rocks they were slowly shovelling in… We explained that we were also in a bit of a hurry, as we were hoping to catch a bus back to Kampala that night. The driver took pity on us and decided to wave down the next passing vehicle. They agreed to give us a lift for an additional 3,000 UGX. Once we got to town, we went for a late lunch and tried to decide whether we should make the trip back to Kampala, or just spend the night in Fort Portal and start again in the morning. We made the choice to keep moving, and we jumped on a bus leaving shortly after. The trip took longer than it should have and we didn’t arrive in the capital for another five hours. Once in Kampala, we nervously navigated the dark streets trying to find a hotel that we had read decent reviews about (‘New City Annex Hotel’). It was in a much better area (with real sidewalks!) than our last stay in the city, so once we had successfully located it and secured a room, we felt much better.

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Beautiful view from our ride in the back of the gravel truck

We had a bus booked to Tanzania (well, to Kenya) for 7:00 pm the following evening. We still hadn’t figured out exactly how to get from Nairobi to Moshi (in Tanzania –  the starting town for our Kilimanjaro trek). We spent the next morning making sure our first bus tickets were confirmed. Then we did some shopping around the markets looking for another pair of sunglasses for Paul. This would be the fourth pair he bought on the trip! Good thing they only ended up costing $2 CAD! Later on we enjoyed an amazing Indian dinner at a place called ‘Masala Indian Restaurant’.

When it was time to catch our bus, we convinced the bus company (Modern Coast Bus Line) to cram us into their courier delivery truck for a free lift to the bus station. We boarded our surprisingly nice bus, which we had splurged on “VIP class” for, costing us only 88,000 UGX each ($35 CAD) for the 14 hour ride across the border.

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A few hours later, we had one final jab in the wallet at the Kenyan border. The guards explained to us that our “East African Visa” (which allows free travel between Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda), that we had specifically asked and paid for at the Ugandan airport, was just a normal Ugandan Visa… meaning we would have to pay an additional $20 USD per person for a transit Visa through Kenya! The only money we had was a $100 USD bill which we needed later for entry into Tanzania. We handed it over, knowing we were going to have to find a way to replace the $40 USD before we reached the Tanzanian border.

I found myself understanding what Paul Theroux meant in his book Dark Star Safari: “… a person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick; the distant border, what appears to be the edge, is the country’s central reality.”

The next morning, we arrived in Nairobi at 9:00 am, an hour after our expected arrival time. This was also an hour after all the reliable bus companies we had read about online left the station to Tanzania. It looked like we may be stranded… Luckily, it was morning and light out, as Nairobi, notoriously known as “Nairobbery“, is not somewhere to hang out with all your belongings strapped to your back and not a clue where you are going…

I’ll leave the rest of the story to our Tanzania blog entry, but as you can expect, we had another LONG day ahead of us.

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In the back of the gravel truck!

Overall, I can’t say our time in Uganda went smoothly… AT ALL! There were many times we said to ourselves “Uganda be kidding me!” 😉 but I wouldn’t change a thing about our visit. I really enjoyed the country that brought us countless crazy adventures, many first time experiences, and some of our best travel stories. When I look back on our trip, Uganda is one of the places I long for the most. Not sure that Paul would say the same thing though, haha!

Love Paul & Allie
Demsky Duo Disembarked

Stunning Sights of Sri Lanka

We collected our bags and walked out of the Sri Lankan International Airport in Colombo just after 11:00 PM local time on March 13, 2016. Although dark outside, the air was still extremely humid and warm. We jumped in a taxi and headed to our hotel called ‘C Son City Residence’ in the nearby city of Negombo.

When we woke up in the morning, we were given a complimentary breakfast, which was a massive traditional feast cooked up by the hotel owner’s wife. It was delicious and a great introduction to some of the country’s customary dishes.

We hadn’t done any planning for our 2 week stay in Sri Lanka, other than researching a few things that we really wanted to do. Pre-booking everything in the Philippines ended up being more of a disadvantage, so we knew we would prefer to play it by ear this time. After discussing it over breakfast, we decided we would head north to the ancient city of Sigiriya. We finished our food, gave many thanks to our wonderful Chef, and walked to the nearby bus station to inquire about catching a bus that morning. After talking to a few locals, we learned that we were going to need to take three separate buses; the first of which was leaving in less than 20 minutes!

We ran the 2 km back to our hotel, shoved all of our belongings in our backpacks, and quickly handed over our room key. We made it to the bus station just in time, cramming onto the first of many local buses we would ride in Sri Lanka.

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After a switch in the city of Kurunegala, and then in Dambulla (where we had to fend off a Tuk Tuk driver who failed in convincing us that a bus wasn’t coming), we FINALLY made it to the town of Sigiriya. The whole trip took 6 and half hours, but only cost us a measly $3.00 CAD each! Sri Lanka definitely has the cheapest land transportation of anywhere else we visited; although you have to be prepared for long travel time, reckless driving, and (more often than not) extremely squishy rides. Thankfully the Sri Lankan people are very friendly, and were always happy to assist us with navigating the local transportation system. Another interesting aspect about Sri Lankan bus rides (that some people may consider a negative, but I thought was very entertaining), is that they typically blast traditional music, very similar in style to bollywood music!

We asked the bus driver to drop us off along the road so that we could walk a couple kilometres to the accommodation we had booked that morning, called ‘Jaana Guest’. As the name states, the very quaint guesthouse is ran by a man named Jaana and his family. The room was modest, but for just over $20 CAD/night, it was exactly what we needed – especially since it included free WiFi and breakfast! This part of Sri Lanka was extremely green and lush compared to the developed cities of Negombo and Colombo, which was much more what we pictured the country would look like.

Once we got settled in, Jaana and his Wife gave us a lift to the mini mart on their way into town. Our plan was to walk back, but they warned us to get back before dusk because of the dangerous wild elephants that come out at night… We thought they were kidding at first, but apparently this is a very legitimate concern in parts of Sri Lanka!

While we were in the mini mart, a random Czech tourist asked Paul about his Calgary Flames hat. Turns out he is best friends with the hockey player Jakub Nakladal who was on the Flames’ team at the time! It was pretty cool to have such a random connection on the other side of the world; plus Paul got to enjoy a few minutes of hockey talk… something I am not great at providing!

That evening, Jaana’s family cooked us up an absolutely amazing Sri Lankan meal with curry, and endless side dishes, for 750 LKR each (less than $7 CAD). It was probably the best meal we had our entire time in the country! While enjoying dessert, their adorable daughter entertained us with magic tricks.

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Jaana’s  adorable Daughter

We were about to head to bed when I spotted a scorpion the SIZE OF MY HAND (anyone who knows my hands, knows how gigantic that actually is haha) on the outside of the guesthouse crawling straight for our open bathroom window! Jaana’s son scared it away with a stick, but not before we grabbed our camera to take some pictures:

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The whole purpose of coming this way was to visit ‘Lion Rock’, an ancient rock fortress. However, when we learned the entrance fee to climb the UNESCO World Heritage Site was 4,200 LKR (nearly $40 CAD) per person (plus Tuk Tuk transportation), we just couldn’t justify it… Luckily, Jaana was kind enough to provide us with a much more budget friendly option: ‘Pidurangala Rock’, another large rock to the north, which provides the best view of Lion Rock itself.

The next morning at at 5:00 am, Jaana’s Nephew took us by Tuk Tuk with a couple from the UK who were also staying at the guesthouse. He only charged us $2 each, plus we paid a small donation fee of 500 LKR (less than $5 CAD) to the temple at the base of the rock. Instead of the temple being overrun with monkeys (like we had seen so often in our travels), there were dozens of dogs… in particular adorable little puppies! Although most of them were nothing but skin and bones 😦

We started up the stairs behind the temple in the pitch black, the light from our headlamps providing us with our only vision. Leading the way was Jaana’s Nephew, and following behind us was a couple of older dogs, and one TEENY TINY black and white puppy, who struggled to jump up the giant steps.

It was a strenuous 40 minute climb, but we were rewarded with the most amazing view when we got to the top! As the sun rose, the early morning fog dissipated, revealing behind it a gorgeous 360 degree view as far as the eye could see.

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Lion Rock definitely deserved attention with it’s unique shape, but there wasn’t a moment that we wished we had climbed to the top of it instead. From our viewpoint could even see the swarms of tourists atop it’s flat peak, and slowly climbing it’s many stairs.

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Lion Rock

Pidurangala Rock was definitely one of the most beautiful hikes we had done up until that point, especially considering how short of a climb it was. We had the whole top to ourselves for quite a while, with a handful of people arriving much after us. We took time to soak it all in, capture some of the beauty with our camera, and give congratulatory cuddles to the little puppy who had made it all the way to the top with us (sorry we goofed up and never took a picture of him…)

When we got back, we were served our fantastic free breakfast. We considered staying another night because we loved the Guesthouse so much, but we knew there wasn’t much more for us to do in the area. We connected to the WiFi to try to book our next accommodation and Skype with family, but we never got a chance to finish either due to a power outage in the area. During our time in Sri Lanka, we had a minimum half hour power outage almost every day, due to some sort of organized load shedding scheme.

So we checked out and boarded a bus back to Dambulla for 40¢ each. From there, we decided to jump on a bus to the city of Kandy, which was a three hour drive away, and only cost us another $1 each. On the way we were able to book accommodation with our shotty data connection from a SIM card we had bought at the airport.

When we arrived in Kandy late that afternoon, we were blown away with how beautiful of a city it is, with it’s giant centerpiece lake and surrounding jungle covered hills. Although it is a very busy city, there is something peaceful about it.

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We walked a couple Kilometers around the lake to our new accommodation, ‘Majestic Tourist Hotel’. Once we were checked in, we decided we needed a nap after our sunrise trek from that morning. It turned out that we needed more than just a nap though, because we didn’t end up waking up until the following morning. Oops!

While enjoying our complimentary breakfast on the hotel’s rooftop the next day, we skyped with Paul’s Mom. The view was spectacular, and even offered monkey sightings as they skipped along the powerlines below us.

That afternoon we went shopping at the main market to try to find hiking pants for Paul. It was so chaotic, more so than any of the other markets we had experienced thus far. Locals from each shop wouldn’t let you leave. They pleaded and begged for you to try stuff on, as they ripped open sealed bags to try to find something to match what you were looking for. We didn’t last long before deciding it was absolutely not worth the stress. We ended up visiting a few clothing stores, which was a lot less hectic than the market, but didn’t end up provide us with what Paul was looking for.

Missing meals from home, we indulged a little that day, as there are endless restaurant options in the bustling city of Kandy. But we did notice the increase in prices of westernized food, even more drastic to the markup in Southeast Asia.

While walking along the lake, we spotted a giant pelican sitting in a tree. I tried to tell Paul to get close so that I could take a picture, at which point it reached forward and tried to bite his head with its insanely large beak! We almost peed ourselves laughing – as did all the locals watching!

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That evening, we went to visit ‘The Temple of the Tooth Relic’. This was one of the big things on my to-do-list, as it is Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha. It is actually one of the most sacred places of worship in the entire Buddhist world. The entry fee was pretty steep at 1,000 LKR (almost $10 CAD) each. There was a ceremony at 6:00 PM which we intentional timed our visit for, as we thought that it would be a neat experience, but it turned out to be a huge disadvantage because of how insanely busy it was.

We waited in a line for over an hour to be ushered by a doorway where we gave a flower offering. You don’t actually get to see the tooth, as it’s kept in a gold casket shaped like a stupa, situated on a pedestal at the end of a hallway. Pictures of the relic were not allowed.

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Line up to see the Tooth Relic

The whole complex was crammed with hoards of tourists and locals, squeezing their way around to other rooms to see ancient scriptures, golden Buddha statues, or murals of the history of the Sacred Tooth. There were so many beautiful statues and carvings that you could spend hours getting lost in… that is if you could ignore how overwhelmingly claustrophobic it was! After watching some drummers play a ceremonial beat, we headed home.

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The next morning, we took a Tuk Tuk to the train station. After buying our $1 ticket to the nearby city of Hatton, we stuffed ourselves with yummy Samosas while we waited to board our first Sri Lankan train.

Anyone who has been to Sri Lanka will tell you that riding the train is an unforgettable experience! After taking the train in many other countries, we can confirm that no other views compared. Although something people don’t mention as often, is how the popular routes book up… which doesn’t deter the offices from continuing to sell more and more tickets, until the point where people are literally spilling out of the cars! Luckily, for this ride we were able to secure seats and enjoy the 2 and half hour ride comfortably.

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When we arrived in Hatton, we immediately jumped on a local bus to the town of Dalhousie, which took another hour and 45 minutes. This also provided spectacular views as the school bus style vehicle winded up and around the side of a mountain covered in tea plantations.

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When we arrived, we got checked into ‘Blue Sky Guest House’. This was probably one of the worst accommodations we stayed at… possibly on our entire trip! At an overpriced rate of $28 CAD/night, we got a tiny room only big enough to hold our double bed. The window didn’t close all the way, which was not ideal with our tattered and stained mosquito net. But the best of all, was the family of cockroaches who kept popping out of the open drain in the dingy moldy bathroom! We made due, as there isn’t much to pick from in the small town of Dalhousie, which is the starting point for the main trail to the popular ‘Adam’s Peak’. This was our purpose of visiting, so we knew we wouldn’t be spending much time in the room, as we planned to leave in the middle of the night in order to reach the top for sunrise.

As soon as we dropped our stuff off, we knew we needed to get as far away from the room as we could! We walked around the small town and ended up at a local restaurant. For dinner we split a dish of Kotto Roti, made from roti mixed with vegetables, meat, and egg.

After dinner, we realized what day it was… St. Patrick’s Day! If we were at home, we would have been celebrating at the pub with green beers. A regular beer would have to do, so we made it our mission to track one down – something that is not easily done in most Sri Lankan cities. After asking some locals, we were directed to a hotel. They must have been selling the beers illegally, because the whole transaction felt very sketchy and secretive… but we managed to walk away with two (extremely warm) beers for an outrageous cost. We went back to our hotel, put on our only green pieces of clothing, and said cheers to another holiday abroad!

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After catching a few hours of sleep, we left our hotel at 2:00 AM to climb to Adam’s Peak.

7 km up a mainy stepped footpath (approx. 5500 stairs!), sits Sri Pada (“sacred footprint”), also known as Adam’s Peak. It is a 1.8 metre rock formation, which in Buddhist tradition is said to be the footprint of the Buddha, in Hindu tradition it’s that of Shiva, and in Islamic and Christian tradition that of Adam, or that of St. Thomas. I think what makes it so special, and something I absolutely HAD to visit, is that it is such a highly regarded spiritual place for so many different religions; a beautiful symbol of unity.

The trek started out warm, making us regret bringing so many layers, but we had been warned that it gets very chilly at the top. We could see the faint trail of lights along the path winding higher, and higher, into the darkness, so we knew we had a lengthy night ahead of us.

Not long after we started, we hit the crowds of people going up. We saw the occasional other tourist, but the majority were local pilgrims; some very old and frail, some climbing with bare feet, others carrying tiny sleeping children. It was very humbling. At the top there is a bell, and tradition stipulates that pilgrims ring once for every successful ascent of the mountain they have made. As we reached the top, we could hear the bell ringing consistently, sometimes more than a dozen times in a row.

Our thighs were burning from the neverending steps, but it continued to get more and more crowded, until eventually we reached a halt. We had no option but to stand in line with hundreds of other people waiting their turn to visit the top. The higher we got, the colder it was (now very thankful we brought layers), especially since we had practically stopped moving.

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A couple hours later, we had officially shuffled our way to the top. We inched along with the crowd to a spot that looked like we could maybe get a view of the sunrise. It would have to do, as moving elsewhere was not an option. We stood for a while waiting before the sun began to rise, the sky turning a bright orange red, and we could start to make out the landscape below us.

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I started to feel very claustrophobic. My legs were aching from climbing so many stairs, and then standing pressed up against other people for hours. We made the decision to head back down before the sun had fully rose, hoping to get a jump on the ridiculous crowd we knew would be following.

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Crowds of people still waiting to get up to the top, as we started to climb down.

Unfortunately, we never got to look around and see the actual sacred footprint… but making it to the top still felt like an important accomplishment, and a big checkmark off my bucket list!

As we climbed down, we watched as the clouds continued to lift like a sheet. The views were spectacular!

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Once we were ahead of the crowd, we switched to running down the stairs in order to save our knees some grief. The locals looked at us like we were crazy haha. We made it back to our hotel just after 7:00 AM, the round trip taking us about 5 hours.

After a short nap, we boarded a packed bus back to Hatton. Only 40 minutes into the trip, we heard a big bang sound. The bus continued to drive slowly, but now significantly leaning towards the cliff edge on our left! All of the tourists on board started to panick, and insisted that the driver stop to let us off.

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The bus emptied and everyone moved to the side of the narrow road. We were not sure what to do, but a local who spoke English was able to inform us that a replacement bus was on its way. About 20 minutes later it arrived. We were relieved once we got on board, but it didn’t last long…

Paul has a theory that the bus drivers in Sri Lanka get paid some sort of bonus if they make it to their destination in good time; that is the only way to explain why they insist on moving at such insane speeds, regardless of the traffic or road conditions! The driver who picked us up on the replacement bus was probably the craziest of them all, as he sped down the mountain, skidding and drifting on the dirt road. At one point the entire rear left wheel was spinning off the edge of the mountainside! It was one of the scariest rides we had on any transportation our entire trip. He did make great time though, even passing a few buses that had left before us!

When we arrived in Hatton, we immediately hopped on a train to Nuwara Eliya. The train was much more crowded this time, with no seats available; we didn’t mind though, as we were able to pop a squat on the floor with our legs dangling out the open sidecar doors. The 1 and a half hour ride was even more beautiful than the last, as we rumbled through the breathtaking countryside.

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Our purpose for stopping in Nuwara Eliya was to visit the famous ‘Horton Plains National Park’, but once more, we were shocked to learn how expensive the entrance fee was (approx $30 CAD/each, plus another $30+ CAD for transportation). We regretfully decided it wasn’t worth it, considering we were heading to the town of Ella next, where we would be able to do lots of hiking for free.

For dinner, we walked to a highly rated place called ‘Salmiya Italiano Restaurant’. The little ramshackle building looked like a total dive, but the appearance didn’t at all reflect the quality of food, as it was maybe the best pizza we had on our entire trip!

Afterwards, we headed into the center of town in search of somewhere to relax and enjoy a beer. As I mentioned earlier, alcohol is very hard to find in many parts of Sri Lanka. Restaurants, grocery stores, and mini marts don’t typically sell alcohol; only off sales at bars, or very uncommon specific “Beer Stores”. It is also not very cheap, as the average beer set us back about $3.50 CAD for a 600 ml bottle.

After wandering for a while, we met a very friendly younger local who offered to show us the way to a beerhouse. We chatted while we walked, until we reached the point where he needed to split ways with us, but not before pointing out to us ‘The Pub & Restaurant’. We hung out at the beerhouse for a while chatting with another couple we met from Sweden, before deciding to call it a night and walk home.

We left the next morning to take the train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. This stretch of train ride is supposed to be one of the nicest in world. This must be listed in every guide book about Sri Lanka, because when we arrived, we were shocked to find hundreds of other tourist passengers waiting to get on the same train… When it showed up, everyone started shoving each other to get on. We were packed in like sardines, with barely enough room to stand, let alone look out the window at the passing views. It was unfortunate.

Three hours later, we arrived in Ella. We were soaked in sweat and even more sore from standing the whole time. We had booked a room at ‘The Rock Face’, which we learned was literally situated on a rock face… up a gigantic steep set of stairs. At this point our legs were ready to give, but the climb was worth it, as the $30 CAD/night (with breakfast) room was very lovely. We even had our own outside sitting area where we had a partial view of the popular ‘Ella Rock’.

Ella has a much more laid back atmosphere, with an almost hippy vibe to it. The main part of town is situated along a road lined with bohemian restaurants and quaint guesthouses, with vibrant green hills sloping up on either side. We were caught off guard by how many other backpackers we saw, as we had seen few others up until this point. It was definitely more westernized than everywhere else we had visited in the country up until that point.

For dinner we headed to the trendy ‘Cafe Chill’, where we enjoyed a dish of curry wrapped in banana leaf. It was extremely good! While we were eating, we met two families from Canada who were travelling together with their children for a year… It was like looking into the future 😉 or at least I like to think so!

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The next day we ventured out to do some more hiking. On our walk to the trail to ‘Little Adam’s Peak’, we met a friendly local who was working on a tea plantation. She tore leaves from the plants and smushed them together, offering out her leathered palms to sniff. The smell was fantastic, and the gigantic smile she gave us in response to our reaction was heart warming!

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After making it to the top of the much easier Little Adam’s Peak, we were rewarded with a fabulous view of the surrounding area. The rolling mountains almost looked fuzzy with their dense green vegetation. We hung out at the top for a while taking pictures, and made friends with another stray dog. This one liked to stand ridiculously close to the steep edges, making us very nervous!

 

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After climbing down, we continued to journey forward hoping to locate the ‘Nine Arches Bridge’. Along the way we stopped at a small juice stand where we decided to try a glass of freshly squeezed Wood Apple juice. We both looked at each other with delight! What an amazing beverage; a combination of sweet, sour, and delicious, but like nothing we had ever tasted before!

Shortly after we came across the Nine Arches Bridge. It was bigger than we expected, and made for great pictures.

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We decided to walk along the train tracks, as it was the most direct way to get back to town. It was fun, although I kept getting nervous a train was going to come. I had bigger concerns when we walked past this sign though haha…

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As we walked up to Ella’s train station, we heard cheering and calling coming from a field below. A bunch of locals were playing a game of cricket, so we stood watching for awhile amid a large crowd of Sri Lankans as they cheered their teams on.

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It was a great two days in Ella, and if we hadn’t been itching for some beach time, we would have loved to stay longer! The next morning we hopped on a local bus to Monaragala. The two hour trip cost us 175 LKR each ($1.50 CAD). After Paul made a visit to one of the grossest bathrooms he encountered on our entire trip, possibly his life (I decided to hold my pee… something I had become very proficient at), we left the station on another bus heading to the beachside town of Arugam Bay (200 LKR).

 

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Sweet little girl on one of our local buses

Three hours later we arrived and checked in to ‘Millennium Rest’. For only $19 CAD/night we got a very nice room, with free breakfast, and it was RIGHT across the street from the beach! We had reserved 3 nights online, but upon arriving, we immediately booked one more. The incredibly outgoing manager, named Ilyas, sat and chatted with us for almost two hours before we went to our room.

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Later that afternoon we walked along the beach, and then wandered through the shockingly empty town. Pretty much all the restaurants were closed, even the top rated ones listed on TripAdvisor. We were visiting during the end of “off season”, but it’s not like it was unpleasant weather or anything; it was actually insanely hot and beautiful everyday we were there.

Finally we found an open restaurant called ‘Why Not?’. We have probably seen about a dozen Why Not Bars/Restaurants in our travels, haha! Just as we finished ordering our dinner, the power went out. Luckily they didn’t need power to cook our meal and we were able to enjoy it by candle light.

The next day we spent hours on the quiet beach reading and swimming in the heavy waves. I was silly enough to only wear SPF 15, and paid for it with a super painful sunburn!

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We decided to eat dinner at our accommodation, as we didn’t feel like hunting for an open restaurant. Lucky for us, Millennium Rest also had a great (and reasonably priced) menu. We shared fresh grilled snapper and chicken curry that was fantastic.

We stayed up late drinking and playing cards with Ilyas and Matthew, a yoga instructor from London, who was on vacation from his training in India. We took it upon ourselves to spread more of the “Big Two addiction” 😉

The next morning we had signed up for surf lessons, something Arugam Bay is famous for. The waves were extremely strong, and the best area was very crowded, so it didn’t make for the best learning conditions. We were both able to get up quite a few times though. One time I even rode a wave all the way to shore and stepped off the surfboard onto the sand! Paul would agree I did better than him, but I also got beat up more than him… “swimsuit top over my head, sand-burn scrapes, choking on salt water” beat up haha. I still have a lump on my leg and a scar on my hip from the experience!

We spent the rest of the day relaxing and trying to book flights to Africa. For dinner we ate at the hotel’s restaurant again, this time sharing traditional dishes of Chicken Briyana and Dolphin Kottu Rotti (no, it’s not actually made of Dolphins haha). A couple from Germany (Fierdi and Christine) had checked in that day, so they joined us that evening as we played more cards with Ilyas and Matthew.

The next morning we needed a little break from each other haha… so Paul rented a scooter (or Scooty) and drove to other beach spots called Pottuvil and Whiskey Point, while I opted to head back to the nearby beach for some more reading.

Paul said cruising along the turquoise ocean in the warm sea breeze was incredibly refreshing, and he wandered a few beautiful beaches that were completely deserted before meeting back up with me that afternoon.

That evening we decided to go for an early dinner and opted to try somewhere different. We ended up at a tiny restaurant called ‘Rotti Point’, and for 600 LKR ($5 CAD) we got a burger with cheese, fries, and a delicious fresh coconut milkshake.

After eating, we hopped on the scooter and drove a few Kilometres to Elephant Rock, where at sunset you can spot wild Sri Lankan elephants. We climbed up the big boulder, and sat and watched as two different families of elephants grazed and swam across the lagoon, all while the sun was setting in the background! Even though we had already seen elephants on our trip, it was a very rewarding experience seeing them free in their natural habitat.  

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We spent our final evening as we had all the nights before; playing cards with Matt and Illyas.  We packed our bags, and in the morning we headed out early for a long day of travel. We took three different local buses for a total of 11 hours travel (for only $6 CAD each) to reach the other beachside city of Unawatuna (probably our favourite name of anywhere we visited, haha).

We didn’t arrive at our new accommodation ‘La Villa’ until 9:00 PM, but for some reason our room still wasn’t ready (pretty sure they forgot about our booking). We headed out to find some food, as all we had eaten that day was samosas and other snacks sold by street side vendors along the bus route.

Unawatuna was much busier. We were shocked at all the other tourists, as we had grown accustomed to being some of the only ones in Arugam Bay. The beachside town was even more westernized than Ella was. Every street you turned down was lined with trendy restaurants and bars, gift shops, and hippie cafes. Even at this late hour, there were many tourists out partying and having a good time.

After walking through town for a bit, we finally settled on a busy place called ‘Pink Elephant’. This was a great idea, as the meal was awesome. I had a salad, and Paul had the catch of the day, which was a seared tuna in a dijon mustard mango sauce. It was his favourite meal in Sri Lanka!

When we got back we were able to check in, and to our dismay, we were given another gross insect infested dump that cost us over $30 CAD/night. We were too tired to care, and reluctantly crawled into bed with a trail of tiny ants crawling up the walls next to our head. 

In the morning we set out to find ‘Jungle Beach’, which is a bit of trek to get to, as it’s hidden away from the main town. On the walk there we spotted a few monkeys hanging out and a fairly large monitor lizard. Upon arrival, it appeared as though the beach was very very busy. However, there’s two parts of the beach, the farther second spot was less busy and more beautiful, so we set up camp there and wasted away most of the day relaxing.

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Once we got hungry, we walked back to the main beach (Unawatuna Beach) and had lunch at ‘Koko’s Beach Bar & Grill’, right on the beach itself. Afterwards we sat in the sand and watched the sunset. 

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Found a piece of coral that looked exactly like Winston!

For dinner, we headed to another highly rated place, called  ‘Roberto & Marco Ristorante Italiano’, where we had Salmon Penne and delicious thin crust pizza. It was a more expensive meal, but worth every Rupee!

We finished the night off back on the empty beach under the stars, drinking some “Arrack Attacks” we mixed ourselves with the local alcohol. It was a perfect end to a fantastic day!

In the morning, we ate breakfast and checked out. We headed to Unawatuna Beach one last time, before taking a Tuk Tuk to the train station in the afternoon. When the train arrived, it was almost empty so we got great seats. The 3 hour ride (190 LKR) was probably the most beautiful one we had in the country, as we chugged along the coast watching a gigantic pink sun setting over the ocean.

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Once we arrived back in Colombo, we walked 2 Kms to the hotel we had booked. This time we weren’t shocked when we saw the poor condition of the room we were given – at least there were no bugs!

It was dark out now, and we had barely eaten all day, so we hit the streets in search of food. We tried to ask one of the men who worked at the hotel, but his English was so limited he couldn’t assist us much.

Colombo, like most major cities, is dirtier and less friendly than the rest of the country. We were shocked by how little there was for restaurants. Eventually we stumbled upon a vegetarian cafeteria style place. The locals looked at us like aliens, and no one spoke a lick of English, but we were able to order an assortment of mystery dishes by pointing at the different trays. Then we walked back to our hotel, where we ate our meals with our hands from the floor of our room. 

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Paul was looking more and more like a caveman as our trip went on, haha!

The next day we made it a mission to finally find pants for Paul, as he was supposed to have more modest clothing for teaching the Children in Uganda (our next destination). First, we needed breakfast… We thought it would surely be easier to find a restaurant in daylight, but boy were we wrong.

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After a couple hours of walking we manage to find some sort of strange fast food café that served us a (mostly bread) sandwich & fruit salad. It provided us with enough sustenance to continue our shopping task. It was so hot and chaotic in the city, we felt like we were on the verge of heat stroke again. At one point, we stopped to rest under the shade of a large tree. When we looked up, we saw that it had dozens of gigantic fruit bats hanging from it! By late afternoon we had finally found a real restaurant! It was called ‘Sea Fish’. Half their menu wasn’t available until dinner time, but the meal was still good and the AC provided a nice break from the heat. After some more walking, we called the pants search off. We were cranky, sweaty, and exhausted, so we headed back to hotel to regroup. On the way we picked up some dinner samosas.

Because we were catching a plane that evening, we had already checked out of our hotel. While we waited to leave to the airport, we ate our samosa dinner and shared some beers on the hotel balcony with one of the men who worked there. As the sun started to set, we spotted many more giant bats, this time flapping through the twilight sky.

At 7:00 PM we grabbed our bags and walked to Fort Colombo Station so that we could ride a local minibus one hour to the Airport. This was the cheapest way to get there. However, the latest bus departure available arrived at the airport 6 hours before our flight was to depart… So we had a lot more time to kill!

We hung out on a bench outside the airport looking at pictures. Somehow, we got into conversation with an Indian Astronomer who was returning home after visiting Sri Lanka for work. We had a beer with him while he ranted about how much he hates Sri Lankans. After asking to take a picture with me, he told us he was going to send it to his wife to make her jealous… He was a very interesting character, haha. We also met a Sri Lankan family who had an adorable little boy who I had fun playing with!

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Before we knew it, there was only 3 hours left before our flight, so we were finally able to go into the airport and check in. Once we got to the FlyDubai desk, they advised us that they had overbooked Economy, and would be upgrading us to First-Class for the first leg of our trip to Uganda! 

Sri Lanka was a super friendly and breathtakingly beautiful country! We are very glad we added it to our itinerary. We really pushed ourselves outside of our comfort zone, and managed to see a more authentic side of the country. Although we didn’t love the less than pleasant accommodation… we definitely enjoyed the welcoming locals, the amazing food, the cheap public transportation (trains especially), the wild animals, the endless hiking, the gorgeous scenery… I could go on and on 😉

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Love Paul & Allie
Demsky Duo Disembarked

Singapore on a Shoestring

After a seven hour flight, Paul & I landed in Singapore around 5:00 pm on March 11, 2016. We took an Uber to the hostel we had booked, called ‘The Hive’. Immediately we noticed a difference in the cost of things. A twenty minute Uber ride in the Philippines would have cost us under $5.00 – in Singapore it was almost $25.00! Which is exactly why we had only booked two nights in the city… which still cost us $40 CAD/night for two beds in a 10 bed dorm room (and that was actually a pretty good deal).

Once we arrived and got settled at The Hive, we were pleased to learn that the Hostel had free laundry services! Well… they had a really nice washer and dryer we could use ourselves. Jumping at the chance to wash EVERYTHING in our bags without being charged per article or by weight, we stuffed everything we could fit in the wash. While waiting for our load to finish, we got to chatting with two of our bunk mates. The young men were from the United States, but were currently doing a semester of University in Thailand, and were visiting Singapore for the weekend. It didn’t take long for us all to bond and decide it was necessary to track down some beers! We started canvassing the streets, checking every store that looked promising. Not only was there a lack of alcohol in general, but any we did manage to find was outrageously expensive. We finally settled on a little mini market where Paul and I bought a 6 pack of Chang (the cheap beer in Thailand) for approximately $16 CAD! We quickly realized that we would have to cut back on our alcohol intake for the duration of our stay in Singapore; which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing!

The four of us went back to the hostel and enjoyed our overpriced beverages in the common area, before Paul and I decided to head to bed. The boys went downtown to go drinking more and they later informed us that the average cost of a beer at a bar was about $16.00… for ONE beer!

We woke up early the next morning with a big day planned. We prepared ourselves our complimentary breakfast (peanut butter and jelly toast) and hit the streets. We jumped on the train and took it a couple stops to Chinatown. Singapore’s metro system (SMRT) was a breeze to use! It really made us realize how inferior the systems are in most major Canadian cities. Riding the train also happens to be TripAdvisor’s #2 thing to do in Singapore 😉

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We wandered Chinatown for a bit; looking in stores and feeding on delicious meat filled sticky buns. Paul also had a Singapore Coffee, which he said was one of the best coffees he had on our entire trip.

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We were set on finding a cheaper side to Singapore, so we tracked down a food hawker center in Chinatownm, called ‘Maxwell Road’ that Paul had read about online. One of the food stalls was another Anthony Bourdain hotspot that we were hoping to try, but the lineup was out the door and around the block, so we settled for dishes from a couple of other vendors. We were able to fill ourselves on dumplings, a large dish of chicken fried rice, AND share a single beer, for under $20.00 CAD.  I also got the chance to chat with an older Singaporean man who sat with me while Paul waited in line for food. He spent most of our short visit complaining about the terrible tea he ordered and telling me all about how Singapore’s economy is collapsing. Being that English is one of the main languages of the country, we could communicate without effort. The simplicity of this interaction with a local was a refreshing change… regardless of how pessimistic the conversation ended up being!

Later that afternoon we ventured over to the Waterfront Promenade, where there was a variety of temporary art installations set up involving lights. They were obviously meant to be enjoyed in the dark, so we made plans to stop by again in the evening.

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We continued to wander the downtown streets, pleasantly shocked with how safe and clean it felt. We thought to ourselves how easy it would be to call the city home… that is if beer wasn’t so expensive!

Next we headed over to the Gardens by the Bay, which is a giant park with a few indoor observatories and many different outdoor gardens with inspiring art pieces. Again, we realized we needed to come back at night time to truly appreciate a lot of the art, but we wandered around the giant park for a while anyways; deciding against paying the steep entrance fee for the observatories themselves. We walked for so long we decided to take a short nap in a grass amphitheater in the middle of the park.

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Feeling refreshed from our nap, we headed back into the heart of downtown. We decided we should eat cheap again for dinner, so we walked to another hawker centre called ‘Lau Pa Sat Festival Market’. Inside was a huge array of different food stalls serving meals from all parts of the world. We shared a few different small things, as we were still pretty full from lunch. We also managed to find a minimarket next to the Food center that sold beers for about $2 CAD, so we stocked up on a few for our evening!

Now that it had gotten dark out, we walked back to the Waterfront Promenade to check out some of the wonderful light displays.

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We considered staying for the famous water light show, but we ran into another couple from our hostel who said they had found it pretty boring, so we made the decision to rush back to the Gardens by the Bay for the “Supertrees” light show… something Paul desperately wanted to see. It was definitely worth it! After hanging out in the gardens for a while watching the trees glow, we took the SMRT back to our hostel and called it an evening.

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The next morning we headed out to explore more. We stopped by a shopping center to restock some necessities like sunscreen and bug spray. Then we wandered into Little India. Guess what we decided to do for lunch… go to another hawker center! This time it was called ‘Tekka Market’ and it was all Indian food stalls. Again, for less than $20 we got Chicken Masala, Butter Chicken, a heap of rice, stack of naan, and a beer each! It was incredible Indian food as well.

We spent a little while looking in shops in the area and to our surprise a lot of the merchandise was reasonably priced. Some things could even be considered cheap! Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to shop; we had a plane to catch that afternoon.

We decided to save ourselves some money and take transit to the Airport. We had to switch trains three times, and it took us about double the time, but it cost us about half of what an Uber/Taxi would have. With the well marked and smoothly regulated transit system, we made it for our flight without a hitch.

Our visit to Singapore was very short but we were pleased with how much of it we got to see, especially on such a tight budget! The clean streets and easy going atmosphere make it a place that we would be happy to stop in on another trip in the future.

Next up, Sri Lanka!

Love Paul & Allie
Demsky Duo Disembarked

Flying Through the Philippines

On February 25, 2016, Paul and I flew from Hanoi (in Vietnam) to Manila, the capital of the Philippines. We landed at the early hour of 5:00 am. Being that we had no real urge to spend any time in Manila, we had prebooked another flight out of the city for 10:00 am, leaving us with 5 hours to kill in the airport. We caught up on some much needed sleep on the floor and almost ended up missing the check in for our next flight, as we had forgotten to account for the 1 hour time change from Vietnam!

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After a short flight south, we arrived in the city of Legazpi by late morning. It started raining immediately. We took a taxi to our hotel, ‘F2M Tower’ but had to wait to check in, so we used the opportunity to check out the area. We quickly became introduced to two major interests in the Philippines; shopping malls and fast food!

After checking into our brand new lovely hotel, Paul opted for another walk around town while I took a nap (he is apparently better at sleeping on airport floors than I am, haha). He was quick to notice how interested the locals were in him. Kids were running up to give him high fives and inviting him to play basketball with them. He was the only tourist he saw for the hour and a half he walked, the entire time being watched and looked at by every local he strolled past.

That evening we walked to the Boulevard, which is a popular street lined with bars and restaurants that runs along the ocean. Again, we were greeted by many locals who smiled and waved, including an elderly lady who even told us how beautiful we are haha! We had a great meal at a popular restaurant, called ‘Zoe’s Kitchen & Fat Wacky’s’, that was recommended to us by our hotel owner.

Our whole plan for visiting the not so touristy city of Legazpi was to climb their iconic symmetrical Volcano, Mount Mayon. It is the most active volcano in the Philippines (it’s actually one of the most active in the world), so we weren’t surprised to learn that some recent activity made summiting it impossible. If we couldn’t go all the way to the top, it wasn’t worth the large price tag for an organized trek. So the next day we had nothing planned; in a city that doesn’t have much to offer, and to top it off… it was pouring rain. We spent most of our time wandering the various shopping malls and interacting with more intrigued locals.

Early the next morning we packed up and walked down to the bus station. We squeezed onto a shared minivan to the nearby city of Donsol for 70 pesos ($2.00) each. We decided to include a visit to the tiny beach town in hopes of snorkeling with whale sharks, as Donsol is supposed to offer one of the best opportunities in the entire world. About two hours later we were dropped off and got checked into our hotel for the next couple days, called ‘Amor Farm Beach Resort’. It was a rustic charming “resort”, that we got for a good deal (about $25 CAD/night). Had it not been still raining, we could have made good use of the beach! We ordered all of our meals there for the next two days, as there aren’t very many options in Donsol. Our hotel’s restaurant was actually rated number #2 on TripAdvisor; out of the whole 7 options in the town 😉 They did however prepare some of the best authentic Filipino dishes we had the entire time we were in the country.

We met a nice couple from the UK who was also staying at our hotel and we all made plans to wake up early the next morning to go to the Whale Shark Interaction Center. On a first-come first-serve basis you can arrange a three hour whale shark boat excursion through the Interaction Centre. There is no guarantee that you will see any whale sharks, but considering the total cost for both of us (including a tip) was 2000 pesos (or about $55 CAD), it was worth the gamble. From research, we learned that it was wise to book through the Interaction Centre and not an outside company. They’re a much cheaper option than any pre-arranged tours, and are supposedly more involved in preservation and protection of the world’s largest fish.

Just after 7:00 am the next morning, the four of us were assigned a boat with another couple and we headed out to sea with our crew members, hoping we would get lucky. We spent the entire three hours driving around the ocean without spotting a single whale shark… All the recent rain had made for very poor visibility in the deep ocean water. A couple false alarms had only made us more anxious to see one. We were about to head back, when suddenly the driver (instead of the two spotters) caught a glimpse of one! Our boat spun around and zoomed over. Our group was first to jump in, with another 5+ boats following right after. Within moments of landing in the water with our snorkel gear, we were suddenly being kicked in the face with a mob of flippers from the other boaters. Being that we were still some of the first people in the water, everyone from our boat got a pretty close up view of the whale shark for about 20 seconds before it swam further away… except for Paul, who missed his chance entirely when a small Asian lady decided to use him as her life preserver, haha!

Feeling bad for Paul, our guide told the driver to spin the boat around for us to jump back in again. This time we were all alone when we found the whale shark, and when I put my head underwater its face was inches in front of mine! I lifted my head out of water in a panic, but quickly remembered that was exactly what we were there for. I went back under and realized I needed to lift my flippers up to my chest in order to avoid kicking the giant creature swimming below me! Paul also got right in front of its mouth and then had it swim between his legs, with its giant fin almost brushing against his body. Our crew said this particular whale shark was about 10 meters long! So needless to say, we all went back to shore feeling pretty ecstatic (and very relieved) that we got to see one! Unfortunately, our pictures didn’t turn out as well…

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The sun had come out, so Paul and I took up our chance to use the beach loungers at the resort. We indulged for a bit too long, and both ended up very burnt!

That night we went for a firefly boat tour arranged through the hotel. We immediately became friends with the group of vacationers from Manila who were also on the tour with us. The group consisted of Pepito, Adi, and a sweet quiet girl who we regretfully didn’t get to know as well. We all decided to buy beers for the tour, which was a couple hours long. Our driver paddled us along the water through a mangrove forest, while we watched millions of little fireflies light up the trees like Christmas lights. It was quite spectacular, and a first for Paul, who had never seen fireflies before. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were feeling the 6.9% Red Horse Strong Beers and having a great time with our new friends. We continued to party back at the resort’s restaurant, really making the most of our last night in Donsol. Pepito even offered to show us around Manila (his home) if we could make time for a visit; we agreed and made plans to meet up later on in our stay in the Philippines!

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The following afternoon Paul and I dragged our hungover butts onto a shared bus back to Legazpi, where we had booked another night’s stay. We weren’t all too thrilled about that, because as we had learned from our previous visit, there isn’t a lot to do in Legazpi… But we were forced to plan most of our Philippines visit in advance, instead of playing it by ear, which we would have preferred. It was the only country on our trip that was guaranteed to ask for proof of onward travel before you enter their country; so we already had a flight to Singapore booked, limiting ourselves to a short two week time frame to see the country.

That evening in Legazpi we went for dinner at a highly rated Italian place, called ‘Small Talk Cafe’. Paul got Bicol Express Spaghetti, which was a twist on one of the region’s local dishes. They also had a huge selection of dessert recipes involving Pili Nuts, which are grown in volcanic soil in the Philippines. Of course “Cookie Monster Paul” chose the Pili Nut Cookie!

We checked out the next morning after enjoying our hotel’s free pancake breakfast, delivered from ‘Jollibee’, the most popular fast food joint in the Philippines, haha! Afterwards, we headed to the airport for our short flight back to Manila.

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When we arrived in Manila, we took an Uber straight to the Ohayami Bus Station. We had many hours before our bus left at 9:00 pm to the northern city of Banaue, so we left our bags and decided to try to walk somewhere to eat. Things got interesting, as TripAdvisor directed us on a 5 Km walk through some sketchy residential areas. Locals were staring at us, some even asked “what are you doing here?”… Which was exactly what we were asking ourselves! The whole situation was a little unnerving. We never located the restaurant we were looking for, so when we FINALLY found our way back to the bus station in the dark, we still hadn’t ate anything. We walked the opposite direction for about one minute and found a cluster of good looking restaurants! We settled on a burger place, before heading back to wait for the bus.

A nine hour bus ride later, we arrived in Banaue (Northern Philippines, in the Ifugao province). The change in temperature was dramatic, as the daily highs sat at approximately 15 degrees celsius lower than in Manila. We had breakfast at our new modest hotel, ‘Uyami’s Green View Lodge’, and started making plans for a two day trek through the rice terraces.

The Banaue Rice Terraces are 2,000-year-old layered terraces that were carved into the mountains by ancestors of the indigenous people. They are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are considered by many people to be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World.

We spent the day exploring the tiny mountain town, preparing supplies for our trek, and learning how limited the restaurant selection was in the area. Every place had the exact same disappointing (and overpriced) menu…. We were REALLY beginning to miss our daily Banh Mi sandwiches!

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The next morning we woke up early to meet John, the local guide we had arranged. We all squeezed on a Tricycle (Philippines version of a Tuk Tuk) to our starting point. We began our 20 Kilometer day in drizzling rain. The walk to the first town, called Cambulo, was on a road that is being constructed along the mountain. The first 1 Km was concrete, and then it changed to thick deep mud. Every once in a while we would have to step to the edge, as a truck carrying way too many people would trudge its way past us, stopping every few meters for someone to dig it out of the mud or move a giant boulder off the unfinished road. As the day grew on, the fog rose and we had a wonderful view of the vibrant green rice terraces to admire as we walked along the road above them.

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We had lunch in Cambulo, trying some of the region’s local dishes, and then continued towards another town called Batad. Following up and down forest trails, we reached the top viewpoint where we were absolutely blown away with the beauty of the rice terraces! Many say the Batad rice terraces are the most spectacular in the region, and we would most definitely agree.

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We sat to appreciate the view for a while before attempting the extremely sketchy steep steps down from the viewpoint; which I would not have recommended to anyone who is at all afraid of heights! Then we balanced and weaved our way along the edge of the rice terraces themselves, which were approximately 1 foot wide and covered in mud or loose rocks.

On one side of the terrace walkways there was shallow rice paddy pools filled with mud and bacteria, and on the other side, a 20 foot drop to more pools below. We really had to watch our step, and ease our way along the twisted winding structures. Paul slipped at one point, sinking his boot into deep mud; thankfully he fell the safer direction! We had our nice expensive hiking boots with great tread on them, meanwhile our guide John was hopping along like a ballerina in plain old rubber boots! You could tell he was very experienced, as he guided us nimbly and confidently along the intertwined maze of walls and steps.  It was more adrenaline pumping than some of the crazy activities Paul and I had participated in before!

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Eventually we reached the Guesthouse we were staying at down in the base of the valley town. What was supposed to take us seven hours, only took us five. We had a rest, and then had dinner cooked for us by the local family we were staying with. We celebrated with some beers with John, where he told us all about his dreams of moving to Calgary to become a Cowboy. We learned that country music is a HUGE thing in northern Philippines… Oh, and also that we should be very careful what we order, because apparently so is eating dog!

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The next morning we said goodbye to the family that hosted us and climbed up and out of the valley of rice terraces. Once at the top, we immediately climbed back down another 500+ extremely steep steps to the Tappyia Waterfall on the other side of the valley. It was huge and powerful! We weren’t surprised when John told us a few tourists have even died by trying to swim close to it. It was far too cold and rainy for us to go into the water, so we didn’t stay for long. We climbed back up the 500+ extremely steep steps, and then crossed the entire valley of rice terraces, balancing along the edges, one foot in front of the other. This section took us over an hour with our shaky sore muscles.

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Once we were out of the town of Batad, we started our trek to our final destination, Lannah Village. It was a beautiful 10 Km walk through the mountains, with much more familiar terrain. We passed some female locals working along the cliff edges, who smiled at us with red teeth from chewing on betel nut.

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We finished our second day in about four hours, which meant we had to wait for our tricycle, as it had been arranged to pick us up later in the afternoon. We decided we were up for another few Kilometers, so we walked to the even further village of Bangaan.  Just as we were arriving, our driver showed up in a van instead of a tricycle. This was a huge relief, as it had starting pouring rain again, and the flooding roads would have been difficult to navigate.

It took about one hour to drive back to Banaue. When we got there, we said our goodbyes to John, who had became a really good friend. If anyone travels to Banaue, we strongly recommend you contact him: Facebook: John Comiting / johncommiting@yahoo.com / (0906) 566-4368

We have nothing but good things to say about the extremely friendly (and funny) Filipino Cowboy. We are still impressed with how well he traversed those narrow terraces with giant rubber boots on his feet. John, when you make it to Calgary someday, we can’t wait to take you to the Stampede 😉

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We picked up our bags from the hotel we stayed at our first night in Banaue, and they allowed us to shower and freshen up in the communal bathrooms. We had to catch a 7:00 pm bus back to Manila that evening, so we were very thankful we were able wash off the two days of mud we had caked on.

We arrived in Manila the next morning at 5:00 am and took an Uber to our hotel, ‘Haeinasa Condotel’. Again, luck was in our favour, as they let us check in more than six hours early! We took a much needed nap, and then headed to the mall to replenish toiletries, etc. We also ended up stopping into a salon so that Paul could get a hair trim for 39 pesos ($1 CAD!), and I decided I would get waxed… which turned into threading (because the lady didn’t know how to wax), and then two hours later, left me walking out of there with skin missing from my armpit… definitely a terrible terrible idea! But at least Paul’s haircut looked good, haha!

Later that afternoon Pepito met us at our hotel. We grabbed some Red Horse from 7-11 and caught up over the beers. Once it got dark we took an Uber to a trendy restaurant he had recommended, called ‘Invito’. We all shared the squid ink calamari, steamed mussels, and pork belly with a peanut sauce. It was insanely delicious! Then we walked along the “hipster” street of Manila called ‘Maginhawa Street’, which was a very different experience than the first time we wandered around the city! We ended up stopping for drinks at a bar and talking about movies for hours. We had a lot in common with Pepito. It is probably worth mentioning that he spoke better English than any local we met while travelling… In fact, Pepito spoke better English than us sometimes! We are so glad we met him, and thankful that he took the time to show us a more positive side of Manila. We hope to meet again someday 🙂

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The next day we had a 3:00 pm flight to Puerto Princesa, on the beautiful island of Palawan. We grabbed Jollibee for brunch, as it was the only thing close to our hotel and we figured we needed to try their popular fried chicken at least once before we left the Philippines!

We got to the airport with two hours till boarding… and then proceeded to stand in line for two hours without it moving. Finally the AirAsia staff explained that our flight had been cancelled. Apparently, the airport in Puerto Princesa was closing at 8 pm due to the recent occurrence of strong winds; compounded with a couple other delays, our flight would not make it in time. They told us they would be shuttling all of us to a complimentary hotel, with free dinner, and then taking us back to the airport at 2:00 am in order to catch a 4:00 am flight instead. A lot of people were very angry. After we contacted our hotel in Puerto Princesa and moved our reservation by a day, we were actually pretty stoked to be getting a free dinner and night of accommodation! While waiting for the shuttle to take us to the hotel, we were paged to the check in desk to receive our “free dinner”… Jollibee fried chicken, TWICE on the same day, haha!

After dinner, we really weren’t expecting the hotel to be much, so we were blown away when we pulled up to the ‘Heritage Inn Manila’, a fancy five star hotel!

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We got settled in our awesome free room, and then decided to venture out to the SM Mall of Asia, which was only a 1 Km walk away. We wandered around the gigantic mall for a while getting lost, and eventually found ourselves in a supermarket where we picked up some snacks and a bottle of wine. We headed back to our hotel and polished off the wine in our plush king size bed while watching animal planet on the flat screen TV!

We got a couple of hours sleep before we were woken up to catch our 2:00 am shuttle back to the airport. We boarded our flight on time and reached Puerto Princesa by 6:00 am. YET AGAIN, we were fortunate enough to be able to check into our next hotel (‘Butterfly Totem Guesthouse’) a few hours early so that we could catch up on some much needed sleep.

After our nap we went for a late lunch at a seafood place, called ‘Badjao Seafront’. It was right on the water surrounded by mangrove trees. Then we headed to a Craft Brewery, called ‘Palaweño’, so that Paul could indulge in some desperately missed IPA beer. I even enjoyed it, as It was a refreshing change from all the plain beers I was growing accustomed to. We spent a while sitting at the bar visiting with the friendly bartender and a couple we met from the Netherlands.

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The next morning at 6:00 am, we were picked up for the Underground River tour that we had arranged through our guesthouse. The minibus ride to Sabang, where the pier is located, was about two hours long. When we arrived we had to wait until our boat number was called. While waiting for our turn, we had a buffet lunch where we got the chance to try a woodworm; or as the locals call it Tamilok. It is actually a clam type creature (which prompted me to pass, because of a possible allergy) that they harvest from inside the mangrove trees. Paul said it was pretty tasty!

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After lunch, it was our turn to take the 20 minute boat ride to the cave’s entrance. There we had to wait for a while longer before we could take the actual canoe tour into the cave.

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The Puerto Princesa Underground River has been listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. It is one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world, with a total length of 8.2 Kilometers. The tour was guided by audio headsets and took about 45 minutes. It was nice how they insisted on complete silence (that’s why they use audio headsets) in order to not disturb the tremendous amount of bats who call the cave home. We were warned a few times not to look up with our mouths open!

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The cave itself was quite spectacular, but unfortunately the only real light we had to see with was coming from the headlamp on our boat navigator’s head. Paul was kicking himself after for not using our own headlamps, as there were many things in the dark depths that caught our eye. This was one advantage of the built in spotlights in the caves in Vietnam.

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Once back at our hotel, we went for dinner at a nearby restaurant, called ‘White Fence Country Cafe’. Paul got a burger with all the fixins and I got a salad, which I was seriously craving! We also decided to go to the popular ‘Tiki Bar’ for a beer, but didn’t stay for long, as we were exhausted from the busy day.

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The next morning we took a cramped six hour minivan ride to the opposite side of Palawan, to a place called El Nido; which should simply be called paradise! It was love at first sight when I got a glimpse of the beach side town as we started driving down a giant hill towards it. We checked into our tiny accommodation, ‘Cool Tricks Inn’, and hit the town to explore. The first thing we did was book our return bus to Puerto Princesa, in order to catch our flight out of the country a few days later. We did this regretfully, as we were already positive we weren’t going to have enough time in the wonderful town…

After lunch we spent the rest of the day hanging out at the beach near our place. While Paul went for a swim, I got swarmed by a whole gang of curious little kids. They had fun sitting next to me, staring at my Kobo while I clicked to turn pages. They told me all about the different boat trips the island offers, one of which we had booked already for the next day.

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That night we made plans to meet up with our friend from the UK, Francis, that we met on the Inle lake trek in Myanmar. We went for dinner and then headed to ‘Pukka Bar’. Without a sim card or WiFi, we weren’t able to make any solid plans, so we missed each other that night; but Paul and I had a nice evening just the two of us. We enjoyed some beers on a deck overlooking the ocean’s crashing waves, reflecting back on our favourite experiences on the trip so far.

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The next morning we had our boat trip, ‘tour A’. The boat was a small catamaran style vessel, with room for about 12 people. We got acquainted with the others on board while we headed to the Small Lagoon. The ocean was a spectacular greenish teal colour, some of the nicest we had seen. We sailed around giant limestone cliffs protruding from the water; it reminded us a lot of a more tropical version of Ha Long Bay. Some of the islands were covered in a lush vegetation, but other were sharp etched grey rock, similar to something you would see from Mordor in Lord of the Rings.

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When we got to the Small Lagoon we were given a kayak to navigate into it. We were pleased (but also a little nervous) when we spotted a giant jellyfish floating inside! Afterwards our boat headed to the Secret Lagoon, which could only be accessed by slipping through a tight rock crevasse. We floated on our backs in the salty lagoon for a while, enjoying the peacefulness. Next we headed to a small little isolated beach off of one of the limestone islands, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch that our crew members barbecued for us right on the boat.

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When we reached the Big Lagoon we decided not to pay extra to rent a kayak, so we attempted to walk the shallow water to the entrance. It was quite far and rock fish kept aggressively darting at our feet, causing a sharp stinging feeling that is surprisingly painful! We turned back before we entered the actual lagoon, and opted instead to snorkel around our boat. The surroundings were spectacular; nice clear water, with endless coral reef.

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We finished the day off at Papaya Beach enjoying the last of the sun, before heading back to shore.

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After showering up at our hotel, we headed downtown to attempt to meet up with Francis again. This time we were successful! He brought along his friend from the Netherlands, and the four of us went for dinner at a local place on the beach. We caught up on all that had happened since we last saw each other, almost 2 months earlier! It was so nice to see a familiar face, and hear about all the great adventures he had gotten into. The visit was much too short, so we squeezed in one final beer at their hostel, before rushing to catch our evening bus back to Puerto Princesa at 9:30 pm.
We were sad to say goodbye to Francis again, especially when we were reminded once more of how friendly he is. We had spent almost every last Peso in our wallet (knowing that we would be flying out of the country in the morning), so he bought us water bottles for our bus trip. Thanks again for the visit, Francis! We definitely have a spare bed in Canada with your name on it 🙂

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Five hours later we arrived back in Puerto Princesa at about 3:00 am. Cherry Bus Company allowed us to stay and sleep on the parked bus until 5:00 am, which I had discovered was possible by reading blogs online beforehand. We had met two girls on our bus from Sweden, and made plans to share a taxi together to the airport. When we got out of the bus station we discovered that there were only tricycles, and since we all couldn’t fit on one with our big backpacks, it was going to cost 300 pesos ($8.00 CAD) for two tricycle. Paul and I had exactly 45 pesos ($1.50 CAD) left in our wallet… we also knew it shouldn’t cost that much, as the airport was only 5 Km away. We decided to start walking, thinking we could at least cover some of the distance and maybe negotiate a better price with a different driver. The Swedish girls stayed and bartered.

About 2 Km into our walk, a tricycle drove up to us and told us that the girls had arranged for him to come back and get us. If he did, they agreed to pay 155 pesos, which with our 45 pesos, would make it a total of 200 pesos for him. Again we were blown away by the kindness of strangers, who bartered to help our situation. We also learned a valuable lesson about not spending every last penny before leaving a country, because you never know what will come up. For example, having to pay a departure tax of 750 PHP ($20 CAD) each at the airport… something I had read about before hand, but completely forgotten. So in the end, we had to visit an ATM regardless! But we swore we would pay forward the kindness to some other struggling traveller!

We boarded our Cebu Pacific flight out of Puerto Princesa to Singapore a couple hours later, this time without a hitch. Our time was definitely too short in the Philippines, and some poor planning (and unfortunate luck) didn’t allow us to make the most of our limited 2 week timeframe. Hopefully someday we can return so we can see more of the beautiful country, and reunite with some of the wonderful people we met while visiting it!

Love Allie and Paul
Demsky Duo Disembarked

Vietnam… Nom nom nom

On to the land of tasty Banh Mi sandwiches and delicious Pho!

We pulled in to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, at around 6:30 pm on February 4, 2016. We had been travelling via bus since leaving Rathana and his village in Cambodia 12 hours previously. Upon arriving, we walked a couple km’s, managing to find and check into our hotel called ‘Ava Saigon 2’. It was a decent place for around $26 CAD a night, included free breakfast (with DELICIOUS Vietnamese coffee), and was right in the heart of the city. After dropping our bags off in our room, we hit the streets in search of something for dinner.

Less than a block away, we came across a small food stand ran by a cute elderly Vietnamese lady. She couldn’t speak a lick of English but we managed to order ourselves our first Banh Mi sandwiches; commonly known as Vietnamese subs in North America. We walked back to our room, and devoured the common street delicacy. The second I finished, I reached into my pocket, looked at the money I had (now called Vietnamese Dong), fished out another 40,000 Dong (about $2 CAD), and RAN back to buy 2 more! The Banh Mi would become a staple food source for the 2 of us in the coming weeks.

The next day represented my 27th lap on this rock flying around the sun. Allie and I had a pretty busy day planned, not so much as to celebrate, but to figure out what to do with our “10” days in the fairly large country. She still managed to make the busy day special, and kept me smiling all the while, like she always does!

We started the day off by going to the busy central marketplace called ‘Ben Thanh Market’. We grew an immediate concern for walking in the city, as the streets were PACKED with gregariously moving traffic in every direction. There are barely any sidewalks, and you have to sidestep cars, trucks, and motorcycles constantly. To cross the street, you just had to kind of walk out into the swarm of flowing metal and hope that the sea of machines would part and allow you safe passage. It was terrifying! Allie got to a point of just holding onto my arm and looking at the ground, while I walked us out into the dangerous roadway, staring into the eyes of the oncoming storm of drivers and praying they’d stop or avoid us.

After a tedious nerve racking walk, we entered into a large warehouse type building labyrinthed with aisles and sections of a huge busy marketplace. They sold everything from clothes, housewares, food, and everything in between; usually with some form of false branding. The shop owners were quite aggressive, barely letting you glance at their goods without jumping into your face and forcing you to look at or buy something. I was looking for a new wallet as, well, it went a-wall a few weeks back. Didn’t lose much money or anything truly important, but was a tad bit inconvenient. I had come across almost exactly what I was looking for right away, but I hadn’t looked around much and I didn’t have any idea what the going rate was for a cheap leather wallet in Vietnam. I told the lady I was gunna look around and come back, and in response she cursed me and said, “You have bad luck coming your way”, and proceeded to tell me that even if I came back, she wouldn’t sell the wallet to me. Quite the marketing technique!

I ended up finding a near identical one a few shops later, and I bought it for a little higher than the first lady even offered, more or less just in spite. Allie also scored a beautiful new purse, which has held up very well and still looks good today. The 2 cost us less than $15 dollars Canadian in the end as well!

Being hounded our whole way out by shop owners, we finally made it back onto the street, and headed over to Mobifone’s head office to get a local SIM card for my phone. We figured after not having data in the past 2 countries, it was time to utilize it again. For less than $6 CAD, I got enough data and a handful of minutes to last us a month!

Starting to feel a little famished, Allie suggested we get something to eat, but since it was my birthday I could have ANYTHING I wanted.

It was time my friends.

Time for my first Big Mac in months.

McDonald’s here we come!

It was the first (and only time on our 6 month trip!) that I had the Americanized fast food in a far away country, where beef is not the most common of things around. It was a tad disappointing to say the least, as you just can’t replicate Alberta beef, even if it’s the terrible quality shipped around to Canadian McDonald’s.

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With the Golden Arches under my belt (and it a notch looser), we began the time consuming task of finding our route and transportation for the coming weeks. We had planned to use a bus company called The Sinh Tourist, which had a service that you could pay for one ticket and hop on and off their coach buses at multiple stops across Vietnam. Unfortunately for us, we had arrived in the country just before one of their major holidays called ‘Tet’.

Also known as ‘Vietnamese New Year’, Tet is the largest and most popular yearly festival in Vietnam. Celebrated on the first day of the first month in the Lunar Calendar, Tet’s celebration is the country’s longest holiday, and can last up to seven days. Most locals get the ENTIRE time off, so that they may go visit and spend time with their families. You can imagine the sort of crunch this puts on the transportation circuit running the entirety of the country. Also, the celebration brings a vast number of Chinese tourists that come for vacation, warmer (or cooler) weather, and to escape the home crowds during their own Chinese New Year, which is on the same day as Tet.

To say the least, the Tet celebration affected us IMMEDIATELY. The Sinh Tourist bus company was not operating the open ‘hop on hop off’ service Allie and I were so eagerly planning to rely on for our time there. We started planning our route, and couldn’t believe how few bus, train tickets, and accommodations were actually available countrywide. We even tried to go for dinner at one of the highest rated (but reasonably priced) restaurants in Ho Chi Minh, several days before the celebration was to commence, and they were closed for 10 days!

We spent a significant amount of time looking into and booking our options for the coming weeks. We tightened and played with our budget, and realized we could probably extend our planned 10 days to a full 2 weeks. Later on in the trip, that was once again extended to a full 3 weeks, due to the extremely low living expenses we incurred each day, and our infatuation with the country overall.

With a pretty solid plan and some bookings confirmed, we decided to try a more Westernized restaurant that night, in hopes that they too wouldn’t be closed down for Tet. Luckily the ‘La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant’ was up and running, and my first choice for my Birthday dinner abroad. We had absolutely sensational tacos, and their servings were certified GIGANTIC. The service was impeccable, and our awesome Vietnamese server gave me a free tequila drink that was both incredibly tasty and loaded with enough booze to kick my happy Birthday buzz up a few ranks.

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Afterwards we had a few more celebratory drinks at our hotel while playing cards, and Allie even let me play metal music all night! Yussssss! ✊

All and all, it was a fantastic Birthday, and even though we didn’t do anything significant, it was still very special.

The next day we explored Ho Chi Minh a little further, and ate lunch at a wicked place called ‘My Banh Mi’. The prices were a little inflated in comparison to the street side vendors, but their sandwiches came in a vast multitude of types and had incredibly tasty twists, including a huge list of savoury homemade sauces. They were some of the best sandwiches ever, and worth the extra buck.

Next we hit up the ‘Vietnam War Remnants Museum’. Here they housed a collection of war memorabilia from the American invasion in the 1960’s & 70’s. There were photos, propaganda posters from each side, tanks, planes, guns; everything that was salvaged countrywide. Rooms on different floors were dedicated to specific events including guns and ammo, Agent Orange effects, and a background and timeline of the whole event. Allie and I soon realized we didn’t know all that much about the whole war, but it became apparent almost immediately that the United States truly didn’t have the most justifiable reason to invade their country.

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We saw some of the atrocities brought onto the Vietnamese people during the time period as well, seeing photos and reading stories of Agent Orange victims. There are still many people today being affected by the horrible herbicidal warfare technique. It was used to kill crops, bushes and trees of the communist insurgents. As many as 3 million people have suffered major illnesses because of it including disability, still-births, cleft palate, neural tube defects, spina bifida, and deformation. Some of the images were very heart wrenching.

Once we got a little taste of the history behind the Vietnam War, we immediately went back to our hotel and watched numerous ‘crash course’ YouTube videos on the subject. We spent a couple hours giving ourselves some Social Studies refreshment, and learned a few things that we hadn’t come across in the Canadian education system. Very informative! Lol.

That evening we walked the streets in search of a restaurant to eat, finding that even more of the local eateries were closed than the night before. With Tet fast approaching, the Capital city was in a constant hustle and bustle. We ended up sitting down at a very good traditional Vietnamese restaurant, the name of which I would never even be able to attempt to repeat!
Allie had her first bowl of amazing fresh Pho (pronounced FU, like fur or fun without the last consonant); while I had a “dry pho” of vermicelli noodles with salad, ground peanuts, and marinated seared pork (which we soon developed an addiction to). They both were insanely good and cost next to nothing!

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The next day we grabbed ourselves some more Banh Mi sandwiches from a street vendor (still just $1!) and hopped on a Singh Tourist bus for a 5 hour ride to Mui Ne. The beach front city is a major tourist hotspot, and is divided into 2 main sections down the main strip; one side being more English oriented, and the other half Russian.

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Upon arriving around 6:00 pm, we realized why there were so few accommodations available to book. Almost everything along the main strip was closed, as most of the guest houses and resorts were shut down for Tet, allowing the locals on staff to travel home and spend the holidays with their families.

We ended up staying at a place called ‘Blue Sky Guest House’, which was decent enough for just over $20 CAD a night, and situated right across the street from the beach. That evening was the actual Tet New Year’s celebration, and we were informed by our hotel’s receptionist that there was going to be a party and fireworks in the next town over.

We popped out on the empty roadways in search of something to eat. We decided to rent a scooter from the shop right next door for 200 000 VND, which works out to approximately $12 CAD total for 3 days of use.

We picked a few restaurants out on Trip Advisor, and proceeded to drive up and down the Mui Ne strip in search of them. We managed to locate numerous eateries that interested us, but they were all closed. Eventually we stopped at a place called ‘Joe’s Cafe’. It was packed, and had a live band jamming some tunes. Allie and I set up on the street front patio and enjoyed a scrumptious meal, cheap beers, and a pretty stellar performance by an incredible female Vietnamese vocalist. She had insane blues/pop pipes!

Later as we were struggling to stay awake, we debated and decided against making the trip to Phan Thiet to join in on the Tet festivities. We were exhausted, and ended up watching part of a movie and crashing before midnight. Frig, we’re getting old… Hahaha!

The next day, we met up with one of our friends, Krista Baron, from back in Kelowna! She happened to be in Vietnam with her parents for a family friend’s wedding. They were staying at a beachfront resort in Phan Thiet with a nice pool, so when they offered us to come on over and hang out, we obliged without hesitation.

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After some poolside beers, sunbathing, and visiting with Krista and her family and friends, we were invited to join them that evening for dinner. Everyone washed up, and we headed out. I took Krista on the scooter with me as we followed the taxi full of everyone else, so she could enjoy a little cruise around in the fresh Mui Ne ocean air. We arrived at a large 2 story Vietnamese restaurant, called ‘Nhà hàng Cây Bàng’, situated on a small ridge overlooking the South China Sea.

The bride to be in their group was actually from Vietnam herself, and ordered the whole lot of us a seafood hotpot. She mixed seafood, noodles, veggies, herbs and spices into a large pot in the center of the table. After specific amounts of time, she dished out little bits of everything to us all. It was quite the feast! There was a plethora of shellfish, prawns, different types of fish, and lots of traditional Vietnamese vegetables and dishes that we would never have even thought of trying.

During our fantastic meal, the sun dipped along the shoreline and gave us a spectacular sunset! One of the best we’ve seen still today.

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Krista’s parents ended up paying for our meal as well, which was way too nice of them. THANKS AGAIN MR. AND MRS. BARON!
Afterwards, we said farewell. We truly enjoyed our refreshing time with a recognizable face and friend from home.

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The next day, Allie and I hit the road on our swanky scooter once again. We toured throughout the area, stopping to see the ‘Fairy Stream’ (a mud stream between clay cliffs) and the 2 entirely different Red and White Sand Dunes. It was a fantastic day of adventure, and even presented some extremely tense moments when we almost ran out of gas in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We managed to snap some really great and memorable pictures!

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The White Sand Dunes were further inland than we had anticipated, and the drive home ended up being much later than we had hoped. The sun was setting fast, but as we rolled down the hillside and approached the ocean, we were awarded with an incredible sunset to our left, while cruising along the shoreline with breathtaking views. It was quite a magical ride! Unfortunately we didn’t stop to take any photos and decided to just savour the moment, as once more our gas levels were unbeknownst to us.

The next morning we boarded what was possibly one of the worst bus rides we experienced, through a company called Nam Long. We were going from Mui Ne to Da Lat, which was only a 4 hour drive. The extremely crammed, no leg room, extra hot bus fared terribly through the ridiculously windy and bumpy mountain roads. Our driver constantly put the pedal to the metal, then slammed on the brakes. It made for a very uncomfortable ride.

Once safely in Da Lat, we immediately recognized our brilliance in booking a room well ahead of time. Allie had been watching accommodations online, and as they all seemingly began to disappear, she jumped on a very decently priced hostel. Within a few minutes of walking the streets of Da Lat, we could see tons of tourists scouring the area for any vacant accommodations. Everything was full! Tet had brought a tremendous amount of Chinese tourists abroad to celebrate their holiday away from home in much cooler weather and with extremely cheap expenses. That on top of the ridiculous amount of ‘normal’ tourism for the period, it made for a poop storm of accommodation shortage.

We thankfully got to our place called ‘Mr. Peace’s Backpacker Hostel’, which was ran by a very enthusiastic and witty man (who goes by Mr. Peace), and his adorable “wife” Strawberry. I say wife, in quotations because almost everyone we talked to was convinced he was gay, Lol!
He had a huge heart, and with the incredible influx of tourists and the possibility of people being left out on the street, he allowed more than 20 guests over capacity sleep at his place. He didn’t have beds per say, but many people obliged a little floor room and for just $1 USD, Mr. Peace allowed them to stay. There was literally NOTHING available in the entire city. We even gave up one of our bunk beds one night to a very nice couple from the UK, named Amy and Elliott. They thanked us profusely and left a cute note for us on our pillow when they departed. Lucky enough, we crossed paths again later in our Vietnam travels!

Anyways, we checked in and were shown our lovely 12 bed hostel room that was obviously fully booked. Allie and I were left with 2 top bunk beds, and were not the most impressed with the single bathroom we all had to share situated RIGHT in the middle of the room, only separated by a paper thin door. Yeah, everyone could hear everything that went on in there at all times. A little awkward to say the least…

We quickly dropped everything off and went out to find something to eat. Once again, we arrived at a restaurant we had hoped to eat at only to find that it too was still closed for the seemingly never ending Tet holiday. We wound up at another highly rated place next door called ‘Da Quy’, where I ordered caramelized fish in a clay pot. It was so incredibly delicious!

We took it easy that night and didn’t socialize all too much, as Allie wasn’t feeling very well.

The next morning, we made up for our hermit behaviour by introducing ourselves and chatting with some of our roommates.
They were:
Kieran and Nichole from Ontario
Julie from Nova Scotia
& Charlie and Max from Thailand

We all jumped on the friend wagon pretty quick (being predominantly Canadian and all ;)), and went out for breakfast Banh Mis and coffee. After further discussion, we all revealed our plans to travel onto Hoi An next, and most of us were thinking of departing on the exact same day. With that in mind, we all retreated back to the hostel and proceeded to find the very best deal. We ended up booking a bus ride with Futabus to Nha Trang, then an overnight train to Da Nang, followed by a short 30 min taxi ride to our final destination of Hoi An. Kieran and Nichole from Ontario, Charlie and Max from Thailand, and Allie and I all booked the trip together.

With our route in the books, the lot of us went to explore the Da Lat Central Market. We found it comical that they mostly sold “winter clothing” for locals, where the temperature was considered quite warm to us Canucks; usually mid 20’s. Kieran bought a big bag of local exotic fruit, and we retreated to the hostel to chill for a bit.

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That night, the lot of us went out for dinner to a cheap local place where you get all the fixins to make your own fresh salad spring rolls. I was decent at it, but when handed a faulty rice paper, I constructed an abomination of a roll that had everyone laughing. Wasn’t as easy as it looks!

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We capped off the night by playing several games in the beautiful pool hall next door to our hostel. Beers were dirt cheap, and an hour of pool was 16 000 VND, about 60¢ CAD! Kieran and I got a little competitive, and made each other sweat in a best of 5 match. He took me out as we went down to the wire, and I’m still hoping for a rematch one day!

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The next day Allie and I were up bright and early to go on a canyoning adventure. We looked into it before arriving in Da Lat, and booked through a decently rated company called ‘Highlands Holiday Tours’. Mr. Peace offered a canyoning trip as well, but he jacked the prices up because of the high demand during Tet, and we stuck with the cheaper option being Highland.

We drove out to a river and canyon area, got strapped up, and were taught how to repel down cliff sides and waterfalls. Allie was awesome at it, and didn’t falter once. Myself on the other hand, I don’t know if it’s because I played sports my entire life that require you to keep your center of gravity up and square to your feet, but I was terrible. My subconscious wouldn’t let me lean back far enough, and I paid for it with a couple of bruised knees.

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We started off quite difficult, traversing down a steep and slippery waterfall. Next was a dry descent where you let go of the rope and dropped over 12 feet into the cold pool of water below. Then we did a MASSIVE waterfall, which most people struggled with; except Allie who accomplished it with grace and ease. Last was another dry abseil where we got to jump and free fall a little easier. All in all it was a great experience and a lot of fun, even if I wasn’t the most fluid of abseilers!

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We returned to the hostel and discussed with everyone who had gone canyoning either that day or the one prior, and it turns out there are different locations. Not sure which is better, but both our tour and the one Mr. Peace sent people on sounded completely different, and equally awesome!

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For lunch we all headed out to a hole in the wall local eatery, where we found one of our favourite Vietnamese dishes, Bun Thit Nuong; a vermicelli dish with peanuts, salad, fish sauce, and lightly seared pork. It was similar to the one I had ate in Ho Chi Minh City a week or so ago, and was incredibly tasty! The best part, a whole serving was 25 000 VND. Math that up. It’s just over $1 Canadian! CRAZINESS! Along with Banh Mi sandwiches, that dish became a common lunch for us.

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Later that evening we all went out to one of the nuttiest and coolest places Allie and I have ever been. It was called ‘100 Roofs Cafe’, and looked like some kind of Alice in Wonderland acid trip of a structure. There were 6 floors of tunnels, mazes, enchanted forest deco, spiral staircases, rock hideouts, and large pockets of areas where you could sit and chill. The place was AMAZING, and Kieran and Nichole introduced us to the real fun; playing Hide N Seek! We all pitched in and bought a 2-6 of rum for less than $5 CAD, and someone took off with the bottle. We spent hours searching the labyrinth of caverns trying to find who had possession of the rum. If you found them, you’d each take a shot, and the person who found the other would then take off with the bottle. It was so much fun, and made for a truly entertaining (and intoxicated) evening.

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On our way out of the bar, we were stopped by an elderly man and became lost in discussion with him. It turns out he was the architect of the building! We took a picture with him and he showed us a whole portfolio of his work. I wondered what kind of drugs he must have done to come up with all this stuff, Hahaha!

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The next day we were all hurting a little bit. We relaxed with some greasy fatty bakery goods (including incredible cheese sticks) before the 6 of us boarded our 4 hour bus ride to Nha Trang. The ride was a little crazy, as I think our driver must have been hopped up on some crazy caffeine or speed. We whipped around cliff sides and the narrow mountain roads, and ended up getting us to our destination city a whole hour ahead of schedule! Even with the seat gripping and tossing, we managed to glimpse incredible views of jungle coated mountaintops dancing above clouds of thick milky fog. It was a sight to behold!

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Gladly back on our feet in Nha Trang; Kieran, Nichole, the Thai boys, Allie and I hit the streets in search of food. Most of us still not feeling the hottest, we decided on Pizza Hut… Yeah, lol. It was mildly disappointing for the lot of us, but at least we got our fill of greasy western food… enough to go out and buy a bottle of whiskey to split! We sat on the train platform sipping on some whiskey and playing round after round of Big 2 (which we had obviously taught everyone by this point haha) while we waited for our delayed train to roll in. We were all aboard near midnight, and Charlie, Max, Allie and I were all given beds in the same 6 bunk cabin. We got to our car and discovered a Vietnamese family had taken over all of our beds. We had to kick them all out, and during the confusion, Allie offered up her middle bunk so Charlie wouldn’t get claustrophobic and suffer on the very top. The top bunk was THE WORST, as you barely had enough room between the bed and the roof to roll over, and the rocking of the train was most violent. Allie had a terrible time, and later regretted it after feeling ill the entire ride. Although the Pizza Hut and rum she consumed earlier definitely contributed…

11 hours later, we arrived in Dong Hoi, on the nauseatingly corporate ‘holiday’ known as Valentine’s Day. Allie and I had arranged for our hotel driver to pick up the 6 of us, and we made the final stretch to Hoi An. Charlie and Max had booked themselves a couple of bunks at a hostel, so we dropped them off before heading to our accommodation.

Kieran and Nichole followed us to our place, and inquired about availability for themselves. Unfortunately it was fully booked, but it worked out great in the end as they found a sweet hotel with a pool down the road, which we obviously milked and spent most of our time at, haha! We checked into our lovely place called ‘Green Grass Land Villa’. It was ran by the sweetest Vietnamese lady, and was a gorgeous place for a very reasonable $25 CAD a night. It also included free breakfast AND bike rental, which is essential for getting around the flat widespread city of Hoi An.

After spending the afternoon poolside at Kieran and Nichole’s with beers and countless rounds of Big 2, we all went out for a fabulous Valentine’s Day dinner at a wicked Italian restaurant called ‘Good Morning Vietnam’. Lucky for Allie, Kieran and Nichole are probably some of the only other people on the planet who love pasta and cheese as much as she does, therefore solidifying the decision! We were also joined by 2 girls that Kieran and Nichole had met during their Vietnam travels; Tessa from Holland and a friend of hers who we regrettably didn’t get to know all that well. We all had a fabulous meal, which was a little harsh on the new wallet, but so worth it.

Afterwards we all cruised on our bikes through the busy downtown streets in the area called ‘Ancient Town’. It’s a neat cobblestone grid of streets with a collection of old buildings and architecture that was not hit by any major air raids during the war. At night the eclectic streets are illuminated by strings of lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and colours. A very cool atmosphere!

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The next day Allie and I opted to cruise around town on bicycles. First stop was the local marketplace where I was looking to purchase my 3rd pair of sunglasses! Good thing they’re cheaper than a beer at home, haha!

Afterwards we ate at ‘Banh Mi Phuong’, which according to Anthony Bourdain, serves the best authentic Banh Mi sandwich worldwide. I had the exact one he had ordered (basically mixed meats), and I gotta say I think he was wrong on that one. It was super fatty, and underwhelming. Allie had a BBQ pork one from the same place, and it was much tastier. Nearby is another shop called ‘Phi Banh Mi’ which we ate at on a later day, and overall we thought was WAY better. Maybe Allie and I should get paid to travel the world and rate different foods and eateries? Hahaha.

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Next we took a ride several kilometers north to the beach and resort part of Hoi An. It was a very nice ride, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t the greatest when we arrived. Not warm enough to suntan and the waves were crashing in far too forcefully to even contemplate a swim. We sat and watched the shifting sea for a while, and then headed back to town.

We spent the afternoon poolside at Nichole and Kieran’s place playing cards once more, and Tessa had moved into their hotel as well. The 5 of us headed out for dinner, with the inclusion of Mariya (a Russian-Canadian) and Amy and Elliott (the couple from London who we gave our bed to at the hostel in Da Lat). Mexican was the unanimous choice for the evening, so we hit up ‘Hola Taco’ for some delicious fresh tacos with a nice twist of ingredients in each kind.

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Then we all wandered the nearby streets of Ancient Town once again, before deciding to pop into a place called ‘Dive Bar’ for a beer. The place was packed and thumping loud, so we crammed up into a tiny loft space above the crowd.

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Realizing how expensive it was, we headed back out after one round, this time retreating to Amy, Elliott, and Mariya’s hostel called ‘Sunflower Inn’. There they had cheap beers and somewhat of a party going on in the attached bar, and a Foosball table that Kieran and I once again used to bring out our competitive edges.

Once the night wore thin, we said our final farewell to our newfound friends, made the journey via bike back to our place, packed our bags, and hit the pillows with a minibus awaiting us in the morning.

Bright and early we were picked up and dropped off at the train station in Da Nang, where we awaited our train to Dong Hoi. I discovered via other tourists that all the trains heading north were ridiculously delayed, and I was notified that our morning train was to be 6 hours late! I enquired at the ticket counter and managed to switch our tickets to one of the trains that was supposed to leave hours prior, thankfully saving us a boatload of time.

While we were waiting, the Thai boys Max and Charlie waltzed into the station as well! We hadn’t seen them since our overnight travels from Da Lat, and our schedules never seemed to work out while in Hoi An. We visited for a bit before a train FINALLY appeared, and we said farewell for the last time.

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The condition of the train was absolutely terrible, and we had even “splurged” for the soft seat option, which cost us a whopping $6 CAD each for the entire journey. Out of curiosity, I walked to one of the hard seat train cars (the even cheaper option), and discovered that it was literally wooden slat benches to sit on. Rather uncomfortable for slow long train rides through the Vietnam countryside!

6 hours later we arrived in Dong Hoi, and shortly after our accommodation called ‘Nam Long Hotel’. We were immediately told that they overbooked, and we were FORCED to take a free upgrade to a room in their more expensive newer hotel called ‘Nam Long Plus Hotel’. What a drag… Especially for less than $17 CAD/night… 😉

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The next day, we went to the caves! Vietnam is world famous for the stupendously incredible cave systems, including the newly discovered Son Doong. I desperately wanted to book a tour of Son Doong during our trip, but it’s outrageously expensive and monopolized by one government sanctioned company in order to carefully study and preserve the world’s largest cave. We also heard that they are fully booked until the end of 2017!

Not being gazillionaires, we opted for a tour of 2 amazing caves. The first one was called ‘Paradise Cave’ located an hour and a half away from our hotel in Dong Hoi. This particular cave is currently the longest cave system ever discovered, but tourists can only walk a kilometer into the behemoth underground passage on a boardwalk. The experience was a little spoiled by the well-crafted pathway and bright cheesy lights illuminating the stalactites and stalagmites, but I was still in awe. I enjoyed a wave of feeling so small and insignificant in something so vast, beautiful, and old as time itself. I loved it!

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After taking it all in and being so psyched about the elation I felt, we continued with our tour which included a mediocre lunch. Then we headed out on a small boat with a group of around 8 into the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as ‘Phong Nha Cave’. It’s a 14 km underground river system of otherworldly sites. We were given a guided tour as we were slowly paddled down the winding river system into grottos and cave chambers. The cave is home to an astronomical number of various bat species, so as to not disturb them, there are no motors. We were later dropped off at the mouth of the cave and able to go in on foot to explore the chambers running parallel to the river. Again we were astounded by the overwhelming feeling of smallness in something so ancient and breathtaking. Once we returned to the mouth of the cave, we boarded our boat, and cruised the river back to where our bus was waiting for us.

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After our hour and a half drive back, we went for dinner and took it easy that night, as the temperatures were lowering and rain had settled in.

The next morning we Skyped with Nettsie (my Mom) and went for brunch at the ‘Tree Hugger Cafe’. It was a little pricey in comparison to most Vietnamese meals we had eaten, but Allie had amazing yoghurt and muesli and I once again had a western style feast. A great change from the Banh Mis!

We killed time that afternoon wandering around Dong Hoi and taking it easy while we awaited our 9 pm bus ride to Hanoi. Just before our bus was set to pick us up, we had to return to the original Nam Long Hotel, where we initially booked our room before being moved and upgraded. We walked into the lobby to wait, and lo and behold, we ran into Elliot and Amy, the couple from the UK we met in Da Lat and Hoi An! They too were headed to Hanoi, as well as Halong Bay. We loosely made plans to book our Halong Bay tour together, and said bye for now as our bus arrived.

Before we boarded our bus that evening, we grew exponentially nervous about the company we had booked called ‘Queen Café’. We read horrible gross things online, and the reviews were plentiful. But we did realized that most were written during the Tet holiday season, and could most likely account for many of the issues tourists were complaining about. In the end it was a great ride with no problems at all! It was a sleeper bus, with race bucket seats permanently leaned back in lay-z-boy position. We both slept decently through the night.

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What was supposed to be a 10 hour drive from Dong Hoi to Hanoi was over and done well before that. We were abruptly awoken and told to exit the bus before 5:30 am. We were an hour and a half earlier than expected, and only a few blocks from the accommodation we booked in the Old Quarter called ‘A Dong Hotel’ (Lol! Still makes me laugh!).

With a few hours to kill before the Booking Agency / Hotel opened its doors, we were greeted by a smiling enthusiastic gentleman who owned a tiny hole in the wall restaurant next door called ‘King Cafe’. The prices were exceedingly reasonable, and the elderly owner was very kind and attempted to chat with us with his limited English. The food was quite good for the price, and I think we returned another 2 times for a meal because of the chivalrous Vietnamese host.

Growing very weary and tired at this point, we scooped up all of our bags and attempted to check into our hotel right next door. The room wasn’t vacant as of yet, so we deposited our big bags and wandered the streets until mid-morning. The main streets and marketplace of Hanoi are very well organized into types of goods and services. For instance, one street is all hardware stores, the next all textiles and sewing shops, suddenly it’s all shoes, followed by the tourist restaurants and pubs, and so on. The streets were insanely busy and crammed with crazed scooter drivers once again, but nowhere near as nutty as Ho Chi Minh City had been. We really enjoyed the city of Hanoi.

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I checked Trip Advisor for any leads on a cheap tasty lunch, and once again came across a Banh Mi stand with exceptional ratings. This time however, we DEFINITELY found our favourite. ‘Banh Mi 25’ is an ittie bittie street stand on a hardware store street, that has teeny tiny plastic tables and chairs set up along the sidewalk. It is ran by a happy go lucky family that is above and beyond nice to every patron they have. You have a few choices of sandwiches, and can add Laughing Cow cheese to any of them. Still with a price tag near $1 CAD, this was the creme de la crop of Banh Mis. One of the family members seated us with some tea and bananas, while the others prepared our order. SO unbelievably tasty. I think Allie and I ate there at least once a day during our stay in Hanoi… sometimes twice, haha!

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Now utterly exhausted, and Allie starting to come down with a nasty cold, we returned to A Dong Hotel and were able to check into our room. After a quick nap, we hit the streets for dinner. Hanoi is always buzzing with nightlife; whether it’s from tourists packing westernized pubs or locals pouring out onto the streets in little plastic tables and chairs from tiny restaurants; there’s activity almost everywhere. We decided to try another authentic Vietnamese dish for dinner, called ‘Bun Bo Nam Bo’, at an eatery titled the same. There are multiple vendors selling the very dish on the exact same street as the highly rated one, so we had to be sure we entered the correct eatery. For 60 000 Dong (just over $3 CAD), we got a bowl full of noodles and beef with all the fixens. It too was ridiculously delicious, and was basically a beef version of the Bun Thit Nuong; the dish we had fallen in love with in central Vietnam.

The next morning we spent time organizing flights to and throughout the Philippines, as well as booking our tour of Halong Bay for the following day. We ended up getting a great deal on the ‘Fantasea Cruise’ 3 day tour, but we asked to be dropped off on Cat Ba Island for an additional night. All in all we paid just over $400 for the 2 of us, accommodation and all meals included (except for our night on Cat Ba). So we didn’t pick the cheapest company possible, and didn’t stretch for an outrageously overpriced one either. We let Amy and Elliot know who we went with via Messenger, and then went for Banh Mi 25 again. Afterwards, we went for a lengthy walk around town, touring the nearby ‘Hoan Kiem Lake’ and checking out a couple of tourist attractions we opted out of.

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That evening we hit up ‘Gastro Food & Beer Pub’ for dinner and a couple drinks. Food was tasty, although more overpriced than we were used to. Once the sun set, we walked over to the night market which spans the entirety of the main road in the Old Quarter from north to south. They had the road closed off to traffic, but it didn’t stop it from being a busy crowded experience. We bought a couple of articles of clothing, and retreated back to the hotel. Now Allie really wasn’t feeling the greatest, so we made it an early night in order to be well rested for our departure to Halong Bay in the morning. Besides, we had a few more days to enjoy Hanoi after we returned from our tour.

We were up and all packed bright and early the next morning, and boarded our shuttle bus for the 3 hour drive to Ha Long City. As soon as we got on the bus, we noticed Amy and Elliot! We had never heard back from them the night before about which tour they booked, so it was a complete surprise. They had opted for 1 night tour, but chose the same company as us in hopes of reconvening. There were 3 Fantasea Cruise boats departing at the same time, so we were very lucky and happy to have the chance to spend more time with them. Once we arrived at the docks in Ha Long City, we boarded a small boat and were transferred to our larger vessel, called a ‘junk’, where we’d be sleeping and eating for the next few days.

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The boat fired up and sailed out into the maze of islands and inlets of Halong Bay shortly after noon. The weather wasn’t the greatest, as it was incredibly hazy and didn’t offer the best clarity for views. It wasn’t raining much, so it could have been a lot worse too! We all “Oooh’d and Awed” as the boat wound its way through emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped with rainforests.

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We anchored and were ushered onto a smaller day boat that brought us to a beach and ‘Sung Sot Cave’. It was another gorgeous cave, this time lit up with weird colourful lights; it kind of looked like the guts of a Christmas tree. Although the weird colours made it seem very fake and surreal, there were areas that looked completely different from the first 2 we had visited, and could have been mistaken for scenes from the moon or Mars.

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After a brief tour inside, we went out onto the beach for a little sand and clouded over sun, before returning to the day boat. We cruised back to the junk and drove around a few more islands while we changed and layered up with rain jackets for a little foggy and rainy kayaking.
Once situated in our double person kayak, we paddled around for a while, entering an inlet between two islands where we spotted monkeys along the shore. The whole experience was very cool, although it would have been much more enjoyable with some sunshine and a clearer view of our surroundings.

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That evening we had an authentic Vietnamese dinner on the boat with Amy and Elliot, and then returned to our cabin below with them to play cards and sip whiskey. Several hours after sunset we returned to the upper decks to admire the moon and stars, which were struggling to pierce through the thin veil of cloud, but nonetheless looked fantastic so far away from civilization. At this point Allie was nursing a full blown cold, and the rest of us were exhausted from the long day, so we headed to bed fairly early.

The next morning at the crack of dawn we were offered to go on one of the islands for a short trek up to a viewpoint. I ended up going alone with Amy and Elliot, as Allie was feeling absolutely terrible and reluctantly decided to stay in bed. The climb ended up being a short trip up a winding staircase to a clouded over viewpoint. Not worth it in the slightest, especially with the swarm of other tourists we battled through that were dropped off by other boats.

Afterwards it was time for us 3-day tour folks to split ways with the 2-dayers. I bid farewell to Amy and Elliot, as they returned to the big boat in order to be shuttled back to the harbour with the majority of our group. They knocked on Allie’s cabin door and said goodbye to her as well, while she rested to rid herself of her awful cold. Later that evening, the junk was to rendezvous with us boasting a new group of tourists that we joined for dinner.

Allie stayed sound asleep in our cabin as the boat made its way to Halong City harbour and back. The rest of us 3 day trip bookies (which just so happened to be 3 Swedish girls and myself) spent the afternoon on the smaller day boat, stopping for a couple of excursions. Honestly it wasn’t as awesome as it might sound, and get your head out of the gutter, haha. First we visited a pearl farm, which was fairly interesting, until they brought us through their shop and tried to guilt us into spending money on their “natural” pearls. I’m not sure if this is how it’s always been done, but I learned that they actually insert a small bead made of shells into the oysters once they reach a certain maturity. The bead is surgically inserted into the oysters along with mantle tissue, and it coats the bead in mineral deposits for several years. They later remove the beautifully coated bead and sell it as a pearl. Some of the pearls you get are not much bigger than the bead that was initially inserted, making me reconsider their value and purity.

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We jumped back on the day boat where we had lunch, and I was fortunate to be given ALL the seafood because the girls were too squeamish to eat any of it, haha. Afterwards we were dropped off for a second bout of rainy kayaking in a different area than before. This time we had to navigate through a cave, and I paddled with one of the Swedish girls. The 3 of them were not the most nautically inclined, and they crashed and smashed into cave walls and shores all the while. We eventually beached on a beautiful deserted island where the girls took a rest on the sand and I went for a walk to explore (okay, I was really just tying to find somewhere to pee). Just around the bend, there was an incredible isolated beach. It had the most stunning views of 2 opposing island peaks, the clearest blue water, and sang a symphony as the waves rolled mounds of coral and shells along the shore with each lap of the ocean. It was serenity. Probably the most overwhelmingly peaceful moment I had on the trip. Unfortunately our waterproof camera had crapped out on us by this point, and I have no photograph to remember that moment of pure ecstasy. Oh well, the simple memory will have to do.

After my moment of zen was abruptly cut off by the wailing of a Swede in distress, I ran over to find that a minuscule crab had taken their kayak hostage! I saved the day by removing the Grand Theft Crustacean and we returned to the day boat. Not long after it cruised back to the junk where I finally met back up with me Wiff.

Overall, Allie didn’t miss out on too thrilling of a day, and by the time I joined her back on the big boat, she was feeling much improved. We had another similar authentic Vietnamese dinner on the boat with the Swedish girls that night, as well as a couple of drinks before calling it a day very early once again.

The next morning we switched junks to one that was heading for Cat Ba Island. We had made an arrangement with our tour company that included transfer for us to and from the island, basically turning our 3 day tour into 4 days. We had organized our own accommodation on the island, but the Fantasea tour included a group organized hike up to a viewpoint on Cat Ba. The weather wasn’t ideal, as once we reached the top the entire landscape was coated in a thick layer of cloud. The hike itself however was quite enjoyable, and Allie was able to sweat out the last of her sickness.

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We were then dropped off near our accommodation, splitting ways with the rest of the tour group who had an organized itinerary and hotel stay. The place we had ended up booking, called ‘Quynh Trang Hotel’, was the best deal we found on accommodation for the entirety of our travels. For a whopping $9 CAD, we got our own private room & bathroom complete with two double beds, WiFi, air conditioning (not that we needed it), satellite TV, AND free breakfast! We were blown away with the deal. We got checked in and headed out in search of dinner.

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The rain was coming down heavy, and the streets were slightly flooded, so the search only lasted several minutes before we stumbled upon the highly rated ‘Oasis Bar’. We relaxed while chowing down on delectable and ginormous Tamarind Prawns the size of your fist. We hung out for a while enjoying cheap beers, while I played a few rounds of pool against some locals who couldn’t speak a lick of english. It was a pretty stellar evening!

The next morning we met up with the rest the of the Fantasea group to be shuttled back to a junk en route to Halong City harbour. Once we were all safely on board, we were given a Vietnamese spring roll cooking lesson for the duration of the trip. Afterwards we docked and squished into a minibus for our 3 hour trip back to Hanoi.

Upon arriving back in the major city and once again checking into ‘A Dong Hotel’, we headed out for dinner. We were tempted to indulge in ‘Bun Bo Nam Bo’ for a second time, but decided we should try something new. We settled on a restaurant called ‘Minh Thuy’s Family Restaurant’. The menu was comprised of a mixture of classic German and authentic Vietnamese dishes, inspired by the two main chefs. One of the head chefs was actually a contestant on Masterchef Vietnam! Allie opted for a German meal of roasted pork and she was practically in tears over how much she loved the potato dumplings it was plated with. I ordered a Vietnamese clay pot fish dish, which was blended with the oddest mix of asian herbs and spices and was absolutely fantastic. The whole meal (with beers) was surprisingly cheap, below $20 CAD!

The next day was our last day in Vietnam… We organized a taxi from our hotel for later that evening in order to catch our flight to the Philippines. We woke up early and enjoyed a final breakfast at ‘Kings Cafe’, our farewell lunch at ‘Banh Mi 25’, and spent the rest of the day wandering the city checking out more markets and shops, as well as indulging in an egg white coffee. By late afternoon, we ended up deciding to go see Deadpool in the surprisingly modern movie theater. The movie was awesome , BUT I was extremely disappointed and baffled as to how much of the gore was cut and censored from the movie. Every scene with an injury, impalement, or severed limb was zoomed way in on a section where you could only make out a character and some arterial spray. Vietnam must have strict censorship, as the movie was even rated 18+.

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After an evening stroll around the lake, we headed for our very last Vietnamese dinner. Since we were leaving the country that evening, we had spent almost all of our remaining Dong, therefore we were hoping to find a restaurant that would accept Visa so we didn’t have to incur any more charges for pulling out cash. It was an easy decision, as ‘Minh Thuy’s Family Restaurant’ from the night before not only had incredible food at very reasonable prices, they offered Visa as a payment method! We shared an order of the Vietnamese chicken and sticky rice dish that the lady from Masterchef made for the judges, and were blown away with how good it was. Of course Allie also made us order a side of the potato dumpling with my yummy pork schnitzel so that she could eat them one more time as well, haha!

During the entire dinner we reminisced on our time in Vietnam, and we both couldn’t shake the feeling that we REALLY weren’t ready to leave. The people we met, all of the incredible activities, the ever changing landscape from south to north, the budget prices, and the ridiculously amazing food left a lasting impression.

We sauntered back to ‘A Dong Hotel’ one last time, and a couple hours later were picked up by the taxi we had arranged, and headed to the airport.

We said goodbye to a country we grew to adore. What was supposed to be 10 days turned into 22, and if we could have had our way, we would have made it even longer. There is no doubt in our mind that one day we will return… we will be back Vietnam, for you and your tasty Banh Mis!

Love Allie and Paul
Demsky Duo Disembarked

It’s a Holiday in Cambodia

I wrote this blog entry, but Paul insisted on naming it… haha!

January 21, 2016 – The morning of our flight to Cambodia, we decided to utilize our hotel’s shuttle service to Yangon airport, but that meant we had to leave at 6 am in the morning. Our flight wasn’t until 11:50 am so we had many hours to kill, but we managed to get in a long overdue Skype session with Nettsie and Mike, so it wasn’t all bad.

After a 1 hour flight, a 6 hour layover in Bangkok, and then another 1 hour flight, we finally arrived at Siem Reap airport at around 9:00 pm. We were picked up and brought to the hotel we had booked, ‘Antique Palm Hotel’. When we got there, we were informed that we had to spend the first night at their sister hotel, ‘Dyna Boutique’, as there was an issue with the plumbing in our room. They quickly shuttled us in a Tuk Tuk to the other hotel, only a short drive away. We made it an early night, as we were exhausted from travelling all day long.

The next day we moved back to our original hotel and relaxed by the pool. We ventured out to Pub Street for dinner that evening, which we followed up with drinks at the famous ‘Angkor What? Bar’. We decided that it was necessary to order two drink buckets, so that Paul could get a free t-shirt 😉

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A little hungover the next morning, we decided to spend another day taking it easy by the pool, before our plans to go to Angkor Wat for sunset. We weren’t there long before a group of well dressed locals invited us to have a drink with them. It was the managers and a few employees from the 3 sister hotels, having a party in celebration of all 3 of their hotels being fully booked, so we felt obliged to accept their offer. Plus, we figured a little “hair of the dog” might help our hangover!

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The extremely friendly Cambodians continuously fed us free alcohol and Khmer (Cambodian) food until it got dark. It started with some gin and tonics, quickly moved to “tequila sunrises”, and when the hard alcohol was all out, they ran and got beer! We were persuaded to cancel our sunset plans to stay and party with them longer, and by the end of the evening, they had also succeeded in convincing us to book an extra night at the hotel (for an even cheaper rate than had we paid online).

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The number of people dwindled down, as they either returned to work or headed home, but one of the men, named Rathana, stuck around until we had to leave for our late night dinner reservations. We shared some special heart-to-hearts, which most of you know, is my favourite form of conversation 😉

After learning about his life and family, we felt inspired to ask if he knew a way we could visit a village like the one he is from. He sobbed happy tears when we asked, answering “My family! You can come and stay with my family!” He was so touched that we were genuinely interested in learning about the traditional Khmer way of life; telling us that “no tourists ever care about these things”. We told him it would be a honour, and made plans to meet up at the end of our 2 week stay in Cambodia.

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We finished off the awesome day with dinner that night at the amazing ‘Genevieve’s Restaurant’. Their famous Beef Lok Lak dish was probably the best beef dish I have ever tasted… Unfortunately, after a day of drinking, Paul doesn’t remember much of the meal, haha.

We are a little ashamed to say it, but we spent the following day relaxing by the pool nursing hangovers, AGAIN. As you can tell, we relished in the fact that we had spoiled ourselves with a pool, and with an extra night now booked, we didn’t feel as pressed for time. Best part – it only cost about $25 CAD a night to spoil ourselves with a swanky hotel in Cambodia!

We went for an Italian dinner on pub street that night and headed to bed soon after. We had made plans to start early the next morning for sunrise at Angkor Wat.

We were picked up at 4 am by our Tuk Tuk driver and after a very chilly 20 minute drive, we arrived at the gates to get our full day passes, which cost $20 USD per person.

We were dropped off at the main Angkor Wat pavilion where we gathered around in a large crowd for a couple hours before the sun finally rose over a pond in front of the famous Temple. We quickly learned that Angkor Wat also has its share of people who like to budge in front of you. We had sat for hours in a perfect spot, but when the sky finally started to light up, people managed to find a way to shove right in front of us completely blocking our view, sometimes even with tripods (deja vu of Bagan)! This spoiled the magic a little bit, but when we did manage to snag a view, the sunrise was spectacular!

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Luckily, we had gotten great advice from another local we had become friends with at the “Antique Palm Pool Party”, named Salt. He suggested we leave the main Angkor temple immediately after sunrise and head to the other temples, then loop back around later in the day when it would be less busy. So next we headed to what turned out to be our favourite Temple in the Angkor Wat complex, called Bayon. For the first 20 minutes we were pretty much alone to explore. It was very peaceful walking around the beautiful temple, that contained some wonderful carvings and Buddha sculptures.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring all the ‘possibility of visits’ within the busy temples with our trusty Tuk Tuk driver, Mr. Savanna (tuktuk_sovann@yahoo.com), who we would strongly recommend to other people. We hired his friendly services for the entire day from sunrise to sunset for under $20 USD!
We spent hours and hours wandering through many different temples and ancient structures; only stopping to take a break at lunch time, which included a short nap in public hammocks outside the restaurant.

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We continued sightseeing until sunset. I wish I could write that sunset at Angkor Wat was everything we had dreamt it would be… but unfortunately, it turned out to be quite the disappointment. We queued in a line up at the famous sunset Temple, Phnom Bakheng, for a couple of hours until 5:30 pm when we we were allowed up top with a “limited group” of 298 other people (300 being the restriction). Once we had found a surprisingly perfect viewing spot, we sat and watched as the clouds only slightly lit up, while the sun set completely behind a wall of haze. Possibly the least spectacular sunset we have witnessed to date. But I’m sure we would have always regretted not attempting to see an Angkor Wat sunset.

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We returned to the hotel, had dinner and a couple of beers with Salt and Chen (friends from the hotel), before heading to bed exhausted.

The Angkor Wat Temples were very amazing and we can see why they are considered a wonder of the world, but given the choice between Angkor Wat and the Pagodas of Bagan (Myanmar), we would without a doubt choose Bagan. Although we fear with time, they will become just as busy as Angkor and won’t hold the same magic we experienced.

The next morning, we took a 6 hour bus ride to Phnom Pehn. When we arrived that evening, we checked into our hotel (Diamond Palace) and went for an awesome Mexican meal at a place called ‘Taqueria Corona Restaurant’.

We woke up the following day and walked to the Vietnam embassy to apply for our visas. Somehow we went the wrong direction and ended up wasting our whole morning trying to find the place.

After finally locating it and applying for our visas, we walked to the S21 Prison or “Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum”. We were given a guided tour of the school turned prison, that was used to hold torture victims during the horrible Khmer Rouge in 1975 – 1978. Most people sent here were convicted of treason against the government, even though most of them weren’t guilty of a single thing. They’d be tortured until they admitted to whatever they were accused of and then their entire family would be rounded up and sent there as well. It held approximately 14,000 prisoners during operation and only 12 people survived. Needless to say, it was a very heavy experience… but something we felt extremely important to witness. One of the most disheartening things was that it really did not take place that long ago!

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We walked back to the area near our hotel and went for dinner at ‘Momma Wong’s Won Ton House’, which serves Japanese appetizers with an awesome twist. We had pork belly sliders, duck dumplings, and crispy Asian potato pancakes. All of them were amazing!

To follow up on S21 Prison, the next morning we visited the infamous Killing Fields or “Choeung Ek Genocidal Center”. This is where the torture victims and their families were brought to be slaughtered after they had been imprisoned at S21. Again, no words can explain the sadness that touched our hearts. We were speechless as we took the guided audio tour through the grounds, and stood where thousands of Khmer people were senselessly killed and buried in the masses. It gave us a small insight into the terrible things the people of Cambodia had to overcome. One of the facts that really shook us was that almost 1.7 million were killed during this 3 year period… In comparison to the total population, that was 1 out of 4 people gone.

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On the way back, we stopped to pick up our approved Vietnam visas, and then ended up at Momma Wong’s again for lunch/dinner. This time ordering a different set of dumplings and the ‘pork belly maple donuts’ that had tempted us the day before. Still didn’t disappoint!

Once back at the hotel, we waited for our shuttle bus to pick us up to go to the beach side city of Sihanoukville. It never showed, so we were forced to take a very frantic Tuk Tuk ride to the station, getting us there just in the nick of time. We had heard stories of the terrible buses in Cambodia, but after our first ride going smoothly, we had decided to ignore the rumours… wrongfully so. The extremely grungy and dated bus didn’t have reclining seats or any leg room, but the real icing on the cake was when it broke down. We were stopped on the side of the road for over half an hour with the smell of gasoline pouring in from somewhere down below. No explanation was given, just the occasional visit from the driver to spray air freshener throughout the cabin. Eventually we started moving again and arrived in Sihanoukville around 1:00 in the morning.

We checked into our modest hotel room (Invito), which was above a restaurant and contained a shared bathroom, even though online we had paid for a private one…

After getting some sleep, we woke up and booked our boat tickets to the island of Koh Rong, leaving only a couple hours later. We also decided to book our bus back to Siem Reap to stay with Rathana, which we had planned for a few days later.

After a 1 hour boat ride, we got to the incredible island of Koh Rong. We still had to find accommodation, as we couldn’t find anything worth reserving online. Most places were all booked up, including a few places suggested to us by other travellers, but we managed to find a super crummy shared bathroom bungalow accommodation, called ‘Cambodia Guesthouse’. All of the wooden rooms were attached under a single open air roof and you could hear EVERYTHING going on in the other rooms. Luckily, it had a mosquito net… but that didn’t make us feel any better about the rat Paul saw while unpacking. We paid the $12 USD for one night, hoping to find something better for the following one (which in the end, we didn’t).

After walking along the main beach till the sun set, we indulged in some cheap ($2.50 CAD) pasta from a street food stall for dinner and then ended up at a bar called ‘Bamboo’ for a beer.

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We met yet another German named Max, who was working there, and we quickly became friends. We got to talking with him about how we wanted to spend a night in hammocks on ‘Long Beach’, which was on the opposite side of the island. Somehow the small talk involved into actual plans. It was decided that the 3 of us would do it two nights from then. We also made the tipsy decision to book a boat snorkeling trip for the following morning… forgetting we had fresh tattoos that can’t get wet!

We rose early in the morning to go on Adventure Adam’s Boat Trip. The first stop was a small rural fishing village where we walked around for a while. We saw their primary school and the Buddhist temple they were building. We also bought fresh roasted cashews and coconuts from the locals, who were very thankful and friendly!

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We spent some time snorkeling with our tattooed arms above our heads (although I gave up protecting mine after I had had consumed a few beers, haha). We got the chance to fish over the side of the boat, with only one tourists being lucky enough to catch anything, and then had lunch cooked for us right on the boat.

We watched the sunset by Long Beach, however it was a little too cloudy to fully admire. Once it got dark, we all went swimming with glowing plankton under a brilliant glittering starry sky. That was definitely the highlight of the whole day! A very unforgettable experience.

Overall, it was a very good day, even though we had to try to stay out of the water more than we would have liked. Paul got to play his music over the speakers on the boat most of the day, so he was pretty thrilled about that; however the majority of the group didn’t recognize his songs, especially the Canadian artists.

We got dropped back off at shore and had a BBQ dinner at Bamboo, where we visited with some of the people we had met, and also made more solid plans with Max for the following night’s beach camping adventure.

The next morning, after another horrible sleep at the Cambodia Guesthouse, we checked out and dropped off our bags with Max at Bamboo. Then Paul & I headed to ‘4 KM Beach’ to wait until Max got off work that afternoon. We found a secluded spot to relax and ended up napping for a bit. By the time we had woken up, we were both crispy burnt. We left the beach and went for an awesome lunch at a Thai place, called ‘Sigi’s Restaurant’. It’s a very small eatery just off the main strip, ran entirely by one very funny and nice older gentleman. It was another incredible Thai meal, that we once again had in a neighbouring country!

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When Max got off, we organized hammocks and picked up some alcohol and water. Because Max had dislocated his shoulder a couple weeks earlier, we decided we should take the long way around the island to the beach, instead of taking the shorter way over hills and rocks through the middle of the island. This meant that in over +30 degree sun (carrying water, booze, hammocks, and day packs), we had to climb through a local village built on rocks and then walk for another hour and half on a bulldozed dirt path, until we finally reached the 7 kms of beautiful Long Beach sand.

We could immediately see what all the fuss was about. The sand was so white and powdery, it squeaked when you walked on it! It was the exact same texture as walking on a fresh deep snowfall. The water was a mesmerizing blue, the perfect temperature, and calm enough you could float undisturbed. Barely anyone in sight, as far as the eye could see. It felt like our own deserted Island!

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Once we had found a place to set up camp, Max and Paul played with the Wababa ball in the ocean, while I watched the sun go down. Before it got dark, Paul and Max made a fire.

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We had brought some leftover Thai for dinner, which I had set down on a stump while we set up camp. A short while later I returned and found it completely covered with a dense layer of 1000 tiny ants! This meant we had no food, except for a couple cookies in the bottom of Paul’s bag… But we had plenty of whiskey!

We sat around the fire and watched the stars slowly come out and twinkle all around us. We looked up and down the beach and noticed that there were no other fires in sight the entire evening. We had the whole 7 kilometre stretch to ourselves!

After playing some card games and having a couple drinks, I started feeling very rotten. I decided to go to bed early, but not before completely emptying my limited stomach contents. I managed to sleep in my hammock for a little before the boys decided they were ready to do the same. I was woken up and immediately had to run to the pitch black area behind our camp, where I continued to get sick (from every end imaginable…), while also on the verge of blacking out. It was probably the sickest I have ever felt in my life! With Paul’s help, I was finally was able to crawl back to my hammock and drift in and out of sleep until sunrise the next morning.

On top of my constant waves of nausea the whole night, the little ants that ate our dinner continued to swarm anything with scent in our bags, eventually climbing up our hammock strings to bite us. Rats were scurrying around below us and we all couldn’t seem to maintain a comfortable body temperature, switching between freezing cold and sticky warm. It definitely wasn’t the best sleep for any of us.

In the morning, Paul and Max walked to a village on the opposite end of the 7 km beach to find breakfast, while I continued to die in my hammock, from what we decided must have been severe heat stroke.

Finally, we decided to make the long (and HOT) trek back to the other side of the island. Paul and Max were starting to feel pretty hungover, so they too were hurting. The trek was painful and I thought I may pass out a couple time, but after 2 long hours, we finally made it back to the main town.

Overall, it was quite the experience. The beach was absolutely gorgeous (definitely top of our beach list), waking up to it COMPLETELY deserted was a spectacular feeling, and we really enjoyed hanging out with our new friend Max. With some more planning ahead of time, and a little less sun during the day, it could have been much more enjoyable!

Max had to work that evening and we had to catch our boat back to the mainland. He let me take a freezing cold shower in their bathroom, and then we grabbed our big backpacks and were off.

Another hour long boat ride, and then a couple hours of waiting in Sihanoukville for our bus to Siem Reap. Luckily, it was a sleeper bus with full flat mats to sleep on. I took a bunch of gravol, curled into fetal position, and passed out for most of the drive. Paul unfortunately started feeling a lot like I had the night before and spent most of the trip praying for a bathroom stop. Including one ‘vomit comet’ incident right out front of the bus that may have scarred some other tourists 😦

Paul had mentioned to the bus driver multiple times that he needed to drop us off an hour before we reached Siem Reap, in the town called Dom Dek, so that we could meet Rathana and go to his village. We awoke around 8 am, and discovered we were in Siem Reap… The driver never stopped for us. When we confronted him, he said “I’m too tired, I forget”. Panicked, with no way to alert Rathana, we jumped in a tuk tuk for $10 USD (basically the same cost as one of our bus tickets from Sihanoukville), to go another hour back the way we had just came from. Poor Rathana had been waiting for us for almost 2 hours!

The tuk tuk followed Rathana to his village. His family has 2 properties in the village: The main house that has been passed down a few generations (now owned by his Sister), and a rustic farm house that his family hangs out at during the day. They all sleep at his Sister’s (including him when he visits), as it has more space, beds, some electricity, and a squatter toilet shack. The farm house has none of these things, but is a great space for hanging out and cooking meals for the whole family.

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Rathana was very concerned about our comfort, but we decided we would be more than okay with sleeping in hammocks at the farm house, as we didn’t want to be an inconvenience to anyone. Knowing him, he would have kicked someone out of their bed for us, haha!

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The first day was a little rough, as we were both still feeling terrible and often had to make the 400 meter dash to the toilet at his Sister’s house (by which I mean the squatter shack… with no running water or toilet paper).
His family was super sweet though! Constantly trying to talk to us in Khmer because they didn’t speak a word of English. We met both his parents, his Grandfather, one of his Sisters (and her Husband), his Brother (and his Wife), and their children. As well as his Uncle and Aunt, and many of his good friends. Everyone seemed extremely happy to meet us; except for Rathana’s dog, who never grew to like us… he was a little racist haha.

I helped Rathana’s Mother prepare lunch, and later on we watched as his Brother and Brother-in-Law pumped the water out of a pond on their property, in order to scoop out all the fish inside. They must have “caught” at least 20 fish, some quite large.

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Paul helped cook the fish for dinner, learning the art of chopstick barbecuing. Later Rathana’s Mom walked over and flipped the searing hot fish with her bare hands, making Paul feel a little wimpy haha. We ate dinner with all of his family and many of his friends that night.

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After dinner we drank beers with Rathana and his friends for a while, before convincing them that we needed to go to bed so that we would feel better for the next day. We got cozy in our hammocks, with Rathana set up on the floor, and slept decently throughout the night.

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We woke up for sunrise the next morning so we could watch and listen while Rathana’s Grandfather flew his unique kite that makes a humming noise almost like music. Apparently his Grandfather wakes up early every morning to do this (weather permitting), and Rathana misses the sound deeply when he’s away.

We had breakfast (rice porridge) with his family before heading out on scooters to a temple called Beng Mealea, about an hour away. The drive through the countryside was gorgeous!

The temple complex was a similar yet smaller version of the Angkor Wat Temples, but just as popular with Chinese tourists! The structures were more destroyed and consumed by plant life than a lot of the temples in the Angkor complex, but that just added to the beauty. Rathana and his close friend showed us around for the better part of the day.

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After driving back and enjoying some lunch, Rathana took us to meet his Uncle who farms palm sugar. His property is in the same village, just a few hundred meters away, and it is filled with palm trees.
First Rathana’s Aunt showed us how she hand makes hammocks that she sells to other villagers. It takes her a whole week to make one, costs her $5 USD in supplies, and she sells them for only $10 USD! We thought about buying one ourselves, but the one she was working on wouldn’t be ready for a few days and we really didn’t have ANY extra room in our bags.

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We watched as her husband, who we later learned was 55 years old, scaled palm trees on rickety wood ladders that he had built himself. He then squeezes out the flower of the palm tree to gather the syrup into pails. There were probably 10+ palm trees and each one could be harvested twice a day. His Uncle wakes up at 4 am to start collecting and doesn’t finish his day until 4 pm! 12 hours of climbing up and down impossibly tall trees… Not surprisingly, his muscles were HUGE! He looked like a Cambodian Popeye!

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They let us have a taste of the fresh palm juice, and eat some of the tasty palm fruit that the trees also produce. Then they showed us how they turn the juice into pure palm sugar, which we also got to taste.

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After returning to Rathana’s farm house, we were met by the “Village Manager”. Being the talk of the town, I guess he had heard we were staying and came to get more details. Since we were the first tourists to visit, he was quite curious. He told Rathana’s family that they should have reported our presence, so that they could have increased security to look out for our safety. He also asked Rathana multiple times if we were “sure we wanted to stay in the farmhouse” and not at the Guesthouse in the nearby town. Rathana had to explain, on our behalf, that we knew what we were getting into and that we preferred to stay with his family.

Before dinner that night, Rathana took us and some of the local kids for a ride on their tractor around the village’s different farms. The sun was setting and it was so beautiful! The kids riding with us spent the drive pointing things out to me so that I could teach them the English translation. It was super cute!

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I also caught one of the many baby chicks that were running around the farm; something I had been trying unsuccessfully to do since we had arrived!

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Again, many family members and friends joined for dinner that night. It was extremely impressive how many people they could cook for with the tiniest and most basic of kitchens. And all the meals we had were extremely good! A lot of them a bit of a mystery… but still very delicious!

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More beers were enjoyed that night, some paid for by ‘winning beer tabs’ we collected from the night before! The Angkor Beer company in Cambodia has free beers (and apparently much bigger prizes) you can win from the pull tabs on their cans. Kind of like a more awesome version of ‘roll up the rim’ at Tim Horton’s. Paul and I had previously never won any beers on our own, probably because we always bought single beers at mini marts. On the first night of drinking with Rathana’s friends however, we had collected 10 free beers out of a case of 24! On the second night we collected another 9!
Paul also took the liberty of teaching Rathana how to shotgun a beer, haha.

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We were spoiled with more and more traditional food, which apparently is a custom in Cambodia. Instead of potato chips and other drunken snack food, they prepare another whole meal! First his Mother and Sister cooked a chicken, then they smashed the entire thing (bones included!) in a mortar bowl with fantastic smelling herbs and a bunch of spices. When Rathana saw how confused we were at them crushing the bones into the mixture, he explained that they would simply move aside… This was not true! But oh my gosh, was the dish ever amazing! Juicy shredded chicken with fresh chilis, peanuts, and the most fragrant herbs we had ever tried. We did have to pick around the bones and tendons, which everyone else though was very strange. We tried to explain that at home, we don’t normally eat certain parts of the animal. They would laugh, toss a whole piece into their mouth, crunch down all the hard bits, and swallow!

We had a great night listening to classic Khmer music (which is actually very catchy), including a live performance by Rathana’s Brother-in-law on a traditional Cambodian bow string instrument called the ‘Tro’.

The next morning we had to wake up early to catch our 8:30 am bus to Vietnam. Rathana shuttled us one by one on his scooter with our big backpacks to the Dom Dek bus station.

While he took Paul, I got the chance to sit with his Mother and Sister. His mom held my hand so tightly, with her calloused, but still tissue paper soft skin. We took turns speaking to each other, neither one of us understanding what the other was saying. We laughed and hugged, and I didn’t want to leave her embrace… It touched my heart so deeply, the kindness of these strangers who took us in, treated us like family, and shared with us their world. It was such a wonderful and humbling experience.

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We said goodbye to our new brother, Rathana, thanking him profusely for all he did, and boarded our 12 hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Cambodia did not turn out at ALL like we had expected, but are we ever grateful for how it did! Some of our favourite memories from the trip will definitely be from the time we spent at Rathana’s village. We hope to visit Cambodia, and especially Rathana’s family, again someday soon.

Thanks for reading!
Until next time.

Love Allie and Paul
Demsky Duo Disembarked

The Magic of Myanmar

To kick off this leg of the trip, I just wanted to give you a tiny briefing about the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and why we decided to visit. It’s not on many people’s radar as a travel destination, but anyone who’s travelled South East Asia will have heard from other visitors of its magic.

I’m lucky to be a part of such a large family back home; one fully stocked with adventurers bitten by the never satisfied travel bug. Before we set out on our trip, we sat down with a few of my close cousins and got many great ideas and pieces of advice. My cousin Steve and his wife Shauna had travelled S.E. Asia (and more) in similar fashion to what we were doing, and had recently went to visit Myanmar on a 2 week vacation. They highly recommended it, and boy are we glad we added it to our itinerary.

The country was long ruled by a military dictatorship, that is until economic standstill and extreme currency devaluation in 1987-88, which prompted anti-government riots to break out. The dictator party’s response was to throw the entire country into an Orwellian type nightmare for decades.

Over a very long period of time, internal and external forces brought on democratic reform. In 2012, media censorship was abolished, allowing the World Wide Web to FINALLY become available to its citizens without aggressive censorship. Being able to freely access the internet, the people were astounded at their lack of development in comparison to the rest of the world. It could be very risky, even dangerous, to travel to Myanmar until 2012 due to its strong military presence and rogue rebel groups that ravished the countryside.

They’ve been in constant political and civil unrest for years and years, and only this past Fall was a proper election finally held and won by the opposition called the ‘National League for Democracy’, led by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Tourism has only been fully open for a few years, and we were so very happy to see it now, and not in the future. They seem to be rapidly embracing democracy, technology, and the many things that make a country become a tourist hotspot.

We flew out from Bangkok and arrived in the Myanmar capital city of Yangon on January 7, 2016, where we boarded a shuttle bus to our hotel around 7:00 pm. The 18 km drive took us over 2 HOURS! A true testament to the traffic in the bustling and poorly regulated streets. With the experience of heavy psychotic traffic in multiple countries’ major cities under our belts now, it didn’t really phase us. What did though, was our first real experience of culture shock.

It was like going back in time, seeing what major Asian metropolises would have looked like 20 years ago. Everything was dated; buses, cars, shop fronts, and clothing worn by the locals. We were in awe.

We checked into our hotel called ‘Ocean Pearl Inn II’, and were introduced to staff who were above and beyond genuinely nice. Everyone we encountered in Myanmar was very helpful and kind; and it didn’t feel at all like any of them were after our money. The people have adapted to tourism very well, prompting many to learn how to speak English from local courses or online through Youtube videos. We were blown away by how well some of them spoke it, some having only learned it a couple of years or even months ago.

One ‘minus’ we encountered however, was the hotels and guest houses were grossly overpriced in Myanmar. For a mediocre room, with a double bed and bathroom it cost around $40 CAD. At this first particular hotel we did get ‘free breakfast’ included, but we found out the following morning that it was instant coffee, toast, and a banana.

Anyways, we dropped our bags and walked out onto the streets. It’s quite humid and warm there, even at night. The street neighbouring our hotel had quite a pungent aroma; being a small market lined with fresh fish, meat, veggies, and fruit that roasted in the hot sun all day.

Kiddie corner to our hotel entrance was a small restaurant packed with locals, which is typically a really good sign. We hadn’t eaten for several hours, and at that point just wanted to find something nearby. We thought what better way to get accustomed to the local cuisine, than to just dive right in!

We sat down at a little plastic table set, with chairs too small for kindergarteners, and looked at a menu board with pictures of dishes and Burmese writing. An eager young boy, no older than 10 came to our table to take our order. We quickly realized all the servers and even the chef we could see in the back were ridiculously young. We tried to speak to the boy, he didn’t know too much English, but he was the ONLY one that knew any. We asked what he suggested and he pointed up to the menu board at a noodle dish, so we agreed. We got tea and coffee, and the dishes that came out turned out to be some sort of Burmese spiced peanut chicken(?) spaghetti noddle. Surprisingly delicious!

We finished up and after several minutes of trying to get over the language barrier, asked for our bill. The cute little lad ran back up to our table and asked me kindly for 1,100 Myanmar Kyat (pronounced ‘chat’). I was floored. Earlier at the airport I had pulled out nearly 300,000 MMK for approx $325 CAD. That translates to our whole meal costing us an absolutely astounding $1.20! We could get used to this! 😆

Afterwards we walked up and down the nearby sidewalks in sheer astonishment. There were shop cross houses in dilapidated buildings, clusters of street vendors, constant heavy traffic, modestly dressed people always offering up a smile as we passed, and no other ‘white people’- or tourists as far as the eye could see. There were no 7-Elevens, fast food joints, or busy ‘Westernized’ bars or restaurants.

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Countries we had visited so far had signage and advertisements written in the local language AND English; not here though. Almost everything was written in traditional Burmese, which uses none of the ‘alphabet’ letters. The language is beautifully written, with lots of circles, c’s, arches and doohickeys, and is impossible to attempt any recognition as an outsider.

Without any idea of which way even being up, we retreated back to the hotel to do some research for the coming weeks.

The next morning we had scheduled appointments with the highest rated and recommended tattoo artist in Yangon for a consult. I had been looking into getting something small done in Thailand, but with New Year’s and our rapid schedule through the country, it was never feasible. I wanted something written in a foreign language that was without the use of typical letters; Thai being a good option. With that chance past, my only other possibility during our trip was Myanmar, and holy moly I’m glad it worked out that way.

We met with the only artist at the Golden Dragon Tattoo shop, named Ye Kyaw Myat. I showed him what I was looking for, he whipped up a stencil right away, and we set a date for the session. Unfortunately he was all booked up for the next couple of weeks, but managed to find a slot for me. Allie was flipping through a book of traditional Burmese art all the while, and came across a cute little elephant drawing. She asked Ye Kyaw if he could squeeze a small window of time in to get it tattooed as well, and scored us a decent price for the pair.

We had initially planned only 1 week in Myanmar, but with the only available appointment being nearly 2 weeks away, we were “forced” to extend our plans. This didn’t bother us in the least! 😁

With the knowledge of having to be back in Yangon on a specific date, we needed to book our accommodation and flight out for the end of our trip. But first, lunch!

We went to what is probably the busiest and most famous eatery in Yangon called ‘999 Shan Noodle House’. It’s a packed tiny restaurant with 2 floors, crammed with tiny tables, locals, and tourists. The food was delicious, and again, extremely easy on the wallet. If I remember correctly, our entire meal cost us well under $5 CAD once again.

Afterwards, we went back to Ocean Pearl Inn II and thoroughly planned and booked all the necessary things for the next 2 weeks.

The next day we explored the city of Yangon a little more, and came across the beautiful St. Mary’s Cathedral.

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Further south near the Yangon River, we paid the minimal fee and went into Botahtaung Pagoda. It is said that they house some ancient remnants of Buddha here, including some of his teeth and hair. After wandering for a while, we were approached by a monk who shuttled us around showing and including us in multiple Buddhist prayers. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but was a fun and interesting guide through the busy tourist attraction.

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We then explored the city for awhile, looking to restock on supplies such as toothpaste, sunscreen, and what have you. Oh yeah, sunscreen. If there was anything I could suggest to a traveller going to S.E. Asia for an extended period of time, it’s to bring lots of sunscreen. It’s SO expensive everywhere else! We’re talking near $20 CAD for a super small bottle. Unfortunately for us, I forgot I had our last Banana Boat 30 SPF (brand new at that point) tucked into the very bottom of my backpack, which I then brought through Bangkok International as a carry on… didn’t make it through security with it… bone head move.

Anyways, Myanmar didn’t have a lot of Western brands or items, and it was extremely difficult to find specific things, especially at affordable prices. After procuring a few necessities, we returned to our room and packed our bags.

We had arranged an overnight bus from Yangon to the city of Bagan for later that evening. But first, we had to make our way to the main bus station an hour and a half drive outside of the city. We ended up chatting with a Swiss couple who were heading to Bagan as well, so we opted to split a taxi together.

During our ride, we brought up the fact that our booked bus was the hotel’s cheapest available option, and the couple expressed that we may have made a huge mistake. They were booked on a ‘V.I.P. bus’, which seated about half the people and cost over 25% more. They were told by friends to always take the V.I.P. option while travelling Myanmar.

We grew a little nervous hearing this, but tried to make light of the situation; cracking jokes the whole drive by pointing at dismembered ratty buses stuffed to the brim with locals and referring to them as ‘our bus’.

We arrived at the swarming chaotic station where we separated from the Swiss couple in attempts to find our own bus company’s banner. The whole area is crammed with taxis, buses, and shuttles of all types; as well as different companies and crew members shuffling about and yelling over the air brakes and exhaust.

We found our bus and to our surprise, it looked normal! We boarded and were delighted at the more than decent seats, blanket, and bottle of water waiting for us. We were relieved and flabbergasted at how much better it was than the vision the Swiss couple had installed in us. The bus departed shortly and wove through the streets, stopping periodically for bathroom breaks.
11 hours later, we arrived in Bagan before the sun had even rose. I wanted to rush to our hotel, check in, and then take off to find a beautiful view for the coming sunrise. We were quite tired though, having not slept the greatest on a winding bus through the night, and at that point we were actually missing out on the room we had booked for that entire night.

We got to our hotel called ‘May Kha Lar Guest House’, and awoke a staff member sleeping on a bench in the lobby. He was a little disoriented, asked us a few questions, shoved a key in my hand, and directed us towards our room before making his way back to the bench in a daze. As we gathered our things from the lobby, another tourist wandered in and asked if there were any more rooms available. The groggy man said no, and waved the solo traveller away. Good thing we booked our room ahead!

We got into our room which has actually quite drab and cruddy. The washroom was gross, with mold and nasty dated everything. I checked the bedding and frame for bugs, and tested out the uncomfortable spring lump of a mattress. Before our 3 night stay was through, I even found a decent sized cockroach skittering across our floor. I put a glass over it trapping it, and left it as a surprise for the cleaners.

Even though the room left much to be desired, it still cost us approximately $45 CAD a night! Although, it did include breakfast; which we missed the first morning because they failed to tell us that it ended at 9 am. I think besides our first few nights in our private Villa in Seminyak, Bali, that may have been our most expensive stay to date. Not to mention that it actually had really great reviews compared to all of the other accommodations in the area, which begged me to wonder what a real ‘budget’ accommodation would have looked like.

After a short rest in our grunge pad, we went to the rental shop next door and rented an E-Bike for the next 3 days. It was very similar to the scooters we had rented over the past month or 2, but ran on electricity and was dead silent while driving. We began cruising around in search of some brunch.

Bagan is essentially set up in an L shape of 3 towns: Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung-U (where we were staying). Most of the Pagodas (which are the main attraction for tourists) are scattered primarily around Old Bagan. Nyaung-U is the closest to the bus station you arrive at, making New Bagan the furthest and most expensive to reach upon arriving.

Somewhere between Nyaung-U and Old Bagan is a street lined with the highest rated restaurants among the 3 townships. We peeked at a few on TripAdvisor, and noticed the area housed the majority of them. We decided on a place called ‘Weatherspoon’. After pondering for a few, I ended up ordering “The Best Burger in Asia”, which was amazing, and Allie got a fantastic veggie burger.

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We went back to May Kha Lar Guest House afterwards, and with the help of our super friendly receptionist, we set up and mapped out a plan to visit the famous pagodas. The vast countryside of Myanmar is scattered with over 4000 of these ancient temples. We planned a route and time frame to visit most of the highly recommended ones, including multiple sunsets and a sunrise.

First up was a trip just south of Old Bagan to North Guni Pagoda for sunset.
The drive was amazing to say the least. Cruising on paved highway with sightlines to towering pagodas off each side whizzing by. We eventually hit our turnoff, where you begin the off road e-bike trek to the specific pagoda you want to visit. Some of these ‘driveways’ were smooth and well driven, while others were bumpy as hell or had deep trenches of sand. The sand was the worst, as you’d lose almost complete control and fight gravity to stay upright. We did have one minor wipe out the next day… no injuries though, and all part of the fun!

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So sunset, right, we were on our way to the temple we had chosen to watch our first Myanmar sunset. While traversing the dirt and sand road, we happened to pass the most popular sunset pagoda called Shwe-san-daw Pagoda, which consists of 3 viewing levels. We could see from quite a ways away that it was already PACKED with people, making us nervous for the scene at North Guni. We ended up there with tons of time to spare, and it was nowhere near as busy as the other more popular pagoda. We set up in a wicked spot, and spent an hour or so watching the sun disappear over the enchanted landscape.

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The next day we were up bright and early to make our continental breakfast, then immediately hit the road on our super sweet electric scooter! We drew a small tour on the map for ourselves, and visited somewhere near 20 beautiful, compelling, ancient Pagodas. It was an unbelievable experience!

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Each one was completely different from the next, with its own carvings, different Buddha, architectural shape, or secret passage ways that made it completely unique. Most of them were at one point Hindu temples of worship, but over a long period of time were converted to Buddhist Pagodas. Some of the Hindu touches were still left behind however.

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By early afternoon, we felt we had fully explored more than enough of the fascinating temples; even though we could have gone to hundreds more if need be… With time on our side, Allie and I decided to hit up the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda for sunset, the one we passed that was PACKED with people the day prior.

Once we arrived, still 2 hours before the sun actually went down, it was already swarming with tourists! Well, Chinese tourists mostly… and they all had their massive tripods set up blocking all views and decent spots to watch the celestial orb drop behind the Burmese mountains. Some of them had multiple tripods and cameras going, taking up several meters of prime viewing real estate for themselves alone. We luckily managed to snag a super sweet spot right on the very edge of the dramatic Chinese tripod infestation.

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At one point, Allie spotted some farmers herding their cattle toward the direction of our line of sight, and she bet me the Chinese tourists were gunna go nuts. Sure enough, as soon as they crossed into view on the planes below under the setting sun, cameras went off like machine guns in a World War. She totally called it, and it was quite funny!

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We relaxed, took some photos, and observe one of our favourite sunsets to date.

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Once the sun dipped behind the distant mountains, we headed to a very modest restaurant and local eatery for dinner, called the ‘Shwe Ou Food Garden’. We were the only tourists there we could see, and we ate a pretty good authentic meal while enjoying extremely cheap beers and laughing at the constant ‘kissing noises’ emitting from the crowd.

Oh yeah, so 2 things.
First, traditional mannerisms in Myanmar are inclusive of making extremely loud and crude kissing noises at your server… to ask for the bill of course! Every time we heard it, we giggled a little. Allie actually became pretty proficient at it by the end of our visit!
Secondly, beer is SO cheap! We don’t remember exactly, but I think it was somewhere around 700 MMK for a pint or 1400 MMK for a fourty (1.14 litres), equivalent to 75¢ and $1.50 respectively. They had the similar tourist brands of basic 5% beer, but also had Dagon & Mandalay ‘Strong’, which were near the 8% alcoholic content. A good change from the Bintang / Tiger / Singha beer taste.

I’m not going to go into too much detail, but they also had pretty damn good whiskey at absolutely ridiculous prices. It could be an alcoholic’s paradise, Hahaha!

We packed it in early that night, having to check out of our guest house in the morning. There was still one thing we hadn’t yet covered while in Bagan: an infamous sunrise. If you Google Bagan, you’ll typically see pictures of a hazy sunrise dousing the magical land in fog and beautiful colours. We had to see it for ourselves!

We got up at a rough 4:00 am, and made our way to the ‘best sunrise pagoda’, called Dhamma-yan-gyi Pahto. We hopped on the E-Bike and drove through the pitch black on the deserted roads and dusty pathways. Another thing that has eluded my mentioning so far, is also how cold it actually gets in Bagan. It’s situated much higher North than anywhere we had been on our trip so far, prompting temperatures to plummet at night. Needless to say, driving in the stark cold in the dead of night was not pleasant in the slightest! I think it was somewhere around 12 °C, which doesn’t sound bad at all, but when you’re in shorts and acclimatized to at least 10 degrees warmer, it gives the bones a good rattling.

We got to Dhamma-yan-gyi Pagoda, parked our E-Bike, and headed up to the very top to find a nice spot for viewing the impending sunrise. Again, it was already stuffed with more tourists than we could count, but we managed to situate ourselves in a pretty good spot where we could see just over the tops of the Chinese tripod & camera wielding heads.

A couple hours later, and the land began to emerge beneath us from the shroud of darkness. It was so breathtaking, words cannot describe. Wisps of fog danced between pagodas and trees, tall ancient temples danced in the shadows and oncoming light, and then the hot air balloons took flight. Over a dozen balloons ascended and came into view over the vast landscape, giving us some of our favourite pictures from our trip thus far! It was like something out of a fairy tale complete with a gushy happy ending.

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After taking it all in, we headed back to May Kha Lar Guest House, packed our bags, and checked out. With a few hours to spare, we decided to go somewhere a little different for lunch. Myanmar does have it’s own identity as far as food and local dishes are concerned, but they’re also directly inspired by the 4 bordering countries. Because of this, they also have extremely good and authentic Thai, Indian, Nepalese, and Chinese food. For our final meal in Bagan we decided to go for our first ‘Indian’ meal at a p[lace called “Wonderful Tasty”. We ordered some Chicken Masala and O. M. G! It was to die for! Allie still says it was probably her favourite meal on our trip.

After eating our fill, we scooped up our bags and boarded our overnight bus to Kalaw; another 9 hour bus ride. By now we both were pretty efficient at sleeping on buses, and the highways in Myanmar were somewhat straight and not AS bumpy as some of the other countries we have visited. However the last stretch of the drive was extremely windy and uncomfortable. Most S.E. Asian bus drivers tend to go AS FAST AS THEY POSSIBLY CAN AROUND EVERY CORNER! ALL THE TIME!

We arrived at 2:00 in the morning, and we’re a little nervous about what we were going to do. We didn’t have a room booked until the following evening, which means we weren’t supposed to be able to check in for another 12 hours! We stumbled through the dark and deserted streets of the small town for about a half hour, before finally coming across our accommodation called ‘Nature Land Hotel’. There were 2 teenaged boys manning the gate, and we inquired about our room for the next evening. Without hesitating, they looked up our name and handed us our room key! SCORE! Free bed for 12 hours! We didn’t know what we would have done to kill time if it didn’t work out.

After several more hours of sleep, we were even greeted with free breakfast in the morning. Again, we weren’t even supposed to be checked in for several more hours!

We spent the day wandering the small town’s marketplace, cheap restaurants, and we booked our ‘Trek’ for the next day; the sole reason we were there. The city of Kalaw is the starting point to an epic 3 day 2 night hike through the Myanmar countryside, traditional tribes, and villages. We booked our tour through ‘Ever Smile Trekking’, for around $60 CAD each; which included a guide, all meals, and accommodation at farm houses along the way! Pretty awesome deal if you ask me. We were told that the maximum was a group of 8, and they already had 7 for tomorrow, but they would squeeze us in to finalize a group of 9.

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With everything booked we relaxed at our hotel for a few hours before heading to dinner. We ate at a quaint little house that was called ‘Thirigayha Restaurant’. Here I ordered one of my favourite meals thus far; a Nepalese dish of fish and spices steamed in banana leaf pyramids. It was so freaking good!

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We hit the hay early, packing all of our necessary gear into our day packs for the next 3 days.
The next morning we handed our big bags off to Ever Smile, and they shipped them to our final destination of the trek.

We were then informed that there was 20 people now booked to leave for the trek that morning with us! A huge change from the maximum of 8 they quoted us a day earlier. We were split into 2 groups of 10, and damn did we ever get lucky.

Our group consisted of:

– The French mademoiselles, Stephanie and Laurene
– Francis, an extreme friendly Greek from London
– Hannah from Finland, who spoke the most fluent English, we thought she was from North America
– Our new Canadian buddy Nolan, who hails from Roughrider Nation
– And the 3 Dutch musketeers, who all were travelling on their own: Loes, Joram, and the absolute hilarious and infamous Ab (pronounced UP).

To round things off we were given the world’s sweetest and most amazing guide, Mary.
We all set off together around 9:00 am, and quickly made friends as a group.

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We trekked for hours through ever changing beautiful landscapes. There were farms, rice fields, mountainsides, isolated towns, lakes; you name it! And almost everywhere you looked was another stunning view.

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Each day we hiked roughly 20 kms, before coming to a very small village where we slept in the loft of a farmhouse. No running water, barely any electricity, and nightly cold snaps that prompted us to huddle in cocoons of stacks and stacks of blankets.

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We became a very tight nit group, exchanging stories and travel ideas among many gut wrenchingly funny anecdotes from the forever young Ab. We invited Mary our guide to hang out with us the first night, and we asked her a bunch of questions about her country and culture. She said it was the first time she had ever really hung out with a group on one of her tours, which she had been doing for a few months now. We were very happy to spend time with her, and it showed again how awesome of a group we luckily were a part of.

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The only difficulties Allie and I faced over the 3 days of hiking was a the fact that our feet were COVERED in blisters! It made no sense to us, as we were wearing our boots that we had been using in Vancouver for almost 2 years! After the first day, Allie stopped wearing hers. By the end of the second day, I stopped wearing mine. And to join the party, Nolan had switched out of his Converse kicks. That translates to the 3 Canadians in the group all wearing socks and sandals for the entirety of the third day!

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We’re a little worried that our trusty boots caused us so much pain, since we’ll be wearing them for 6 days on Kilimanjaro. We do think however that the very flat landscape contributed to it mostly, as there wasn’t a lot of ups and downs, which we’re much more used to.

After 3 amazing days of trekking about 60 km, incredible authentic cuisine, breathtaking views of ever changing landscapes, taking in glorious sunsets with cold beers, and enough laughs to give everyone 6 packs, we reached our final destination of Inle Lake. We parted ways with Mary, and each one of us gave her a big hug. She was the best!

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Right after we all boarded a very narrow boat carved out of a single tree, and cruised through the narrow shallow waterways through marshes and floating villages before hitting the open lake. The whole boat ride was approximately 45 mins, and offered great views of the nearby mountains and lake culture. I snapped some cool pictures of traditional fisherman balancing on the tip of their boat, steering/paddling, and casting their net. It was a pretty cool and serene ride after 3 long days of dusty trails.

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On the other side of the Lake, we arrived at the main town where all of us kept together to find ‘Lady Princess Hotel’, which was where our large bags and luggage were transported to. Allie and I had already booked a room there before the trek (coincidentally), and everyone else checked in and got a room alongside ours, except for Ab who had booked a room in a hotel down the road.
DESPERATELY needing showers, we all bolted into our rooms with plans to meet up once again in a couple of hours.

Feeling clean and refreshed, we all met back up looking dapper as hell, finally not covered in a thick layer of Myanmar red dirt. Almost everyone was baffled to find out I actually had long curly hair; yes, that’s how dirty and greasy we had been, Hahaha!

Once the crew was all together again, we went to ‘One Owl Grill’ down the street and all ordered a much needed hamburger or chicken burger. They were soooo good… Unfortunately though, the alcohol prices ran quite high, so we moved our group of 10 further into town and found a super cheap local restaurant. We drank, told stories, and laughed until we closed down the bar.

The night was pretty messy, and even ended with me playing air guitar and screaming along with Queen at the top of my lungs on a table at the hotel… Yeah, one of those nights. We also lost our first item on our trip; Allie’s purse. It only contained some makeup, small medicine bag, and her phone… The phone definitely sucked, but it was pretty damaged as is, and Allie took it as a sign from the universe to be more disconnected from the internet for the rest of our trip.

OH! Almost forgot. At one point during the evening, we even got into a game of ‘Never Have I Ever’, which was going swimmingly until we came to Ab. He had drank at EVERY person’s turn, and when we finally got to him and explained that he had to say something that he’s never done, keeping in mind that we drink if we have. He sat there stumped for a couple minutes, before finally lighting up, looking around and bellowing, “Fuckin’ he’ll, I don’t know, I’ve done everything!”

We still laugh thinking about that moment. The man was a legend, always cracking wise jokes and making everyone around him smile. There was another moment during the trek I’ll never forget. It was mid morning and another tour guide needed to pass off her group of 9 trekkers, so that she could go back and get something that was left behind. Of course the lovely Mary obliged, and we were absolved into a larger group of 19. The 9 newcomers were mostly all women, and VERY easy on the eye, if you catch my drift… 😉

We were only walking with them for a few minutes before coming to a clearing where a really run down Pagoda was disintegrating into ruins, and Mary told us of an old tale. The temples were to be refurbished and restored at one point, but a GIANT snake had moved in and ate some of the local townsfolk. The snake guarded the Pagoda and is said to still be resting and awaiting more victims, prompting the villagers to never attempt another reconstruction.

During the telling of this tale, Ab had disappeared in the bushes right behind the ruins (most likely to drain the main vain), and reappeared just as Mary finished. I shouted over to him asking if he found the Giant Snake.

Without missing a beat, he shouted back, grabbing everyone’s attention, and said,
“Giant Snake! You betcha, I got him right here!”
And reached into his pants as if he was about to flop out his you-know-what right in front of us all! The female newcomers who had no idea who this man was and hadn’t spoke a single word, stood frozen and absolutely MORTIFIED beyond belief, while our original group of 10 burst into laughing fits that brought tears!

I miss the man. He was a blast, and I think I can speak for us all saying he helped make our trek such a memorable one. If you read this Ab, Cheers buddy!

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Anyways, the next day we met back up again and rented bicycles. The town is a little too spread out to explore just on foot, so we all acquired some wheels, and headed to some hot springs which were recommended on travel websites. A 20 km ride later, we arrived and were shocked to see an asking price of 10 USD per person for entry. Wise Francis asked if we could all take a peek at the spring pools to determine if it was worth it. DEFINITELY NOT. Basically a small circular wooden tub with some warm water in it. We also heard there was some free ones nearby, so Francis enquired and we we directed to 2 questionable bathing pools that were separated for each sex. No one was touching the water in there either!

Although the hot springs were a bust, we were all delighted to be spending more time together. After a quick bite nearby, we headed further down the road where some locals waved us all onto one of the narrow boats to get back across instead of biking it. We all piled into one and our bikes in another, and took another lovely boat ride across Inle Lake.

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Once we reached the other side, our group split, as Hannah needed to return to the town to catch her bus. The 3 Dutch folk, (Loes, Joram, and Ab), as well as Allie and I hit up the local Myanmar winery hidden in the countryside! Allie and Loes were SOOO excited for some nice wine, but once we tasted our wine samples, they both were unable to satisfy their cravings… Not the best wine I had ever tasted either… Kind of a weird fruity with a hint of gym socks.
We ended up purchasing the cheapest bottle of white that was from ANOTHER winery (go figure), and watched the sunset over their grape vines. It was quite nice!

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Then the 5 of us biked back to the hotel, a little wobbly, and in the dark. It was almost pitch black and took nearly 40 mins, but luckily we had the well practised Dutch cyclists to guide us.

Still not not sick of each other, the remainder of the group ate dinner together that night and met up once again the next morning. Ab had taken off to his next destination, and our group had thinned a little, but the few of us went to explore a nearby monastery and art temple called Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery and Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung.

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Afterwards, the 6 of us stumbled upon this empty but incredible bar called ‘Eden Bar & Snacks’. The owner was so enthusiastic and wonderful. He kept bringing us alcoholic drinks, and sandwiches to taste test for him and give feedback. It was awesome! We all got a little tipsy, and before we knew it, we had to RUSH back to our hotel so Allie and I could make it in the nick of time to catch the shuttle for our overnight bus back to Yangon.

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We said farewell to the close group of friends, who for a short time, were nothing less than family.

We drove 11 hours through the night and arrived back in Yangon around 6:00 am.
We checked back into Ocean Pearl Inn II, since the location was great and the price was reasonable (for Myanmar).
That night we went to a small Thai restaurant called the ‘Green Gallery’. The decor was chic hipster looking, almost as if it were a restaurant in downtown Vancouver. We ordered a Penang and Yellow Curry. They were absolutely incredible, probably the best Thai we had each ever tasted. In Yangon, Myanmar of all places, go figure!

First thing the next morning, we returned to Golden Dragon Tattoo, where we each got a small piece done for a grand total of $100 USD. I got lyrics from the band Northlane written in traditional Burmese, and Allie got a very tiny intricate elephant, which Ye Kyaw added tons of free hand personal touches and almost microscopic fine details. Both of us were very happy with the results!

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Now, to nurse these puppies by keeping them clean and out of the sun or water for a few weeks… What fun!

Afterwards, we returned to ‘999 Shan Noodle House’ for a second helping of the deliciously cheap noodle dishes. We spent a couple more hours wading through the mind boggling culturally opposite streets of what we now knew to be the norm.

That night we took it easy, and looked over all of our pictures from the past couple of weeks. Damn was it amazing.

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Allie and I have been asked over the past couple of months to recommend our favourite place we’ve visited, and we always respond in sync, “MYANMAR!” Without question, the most amazing place we’ve travelled to.

I don’t know if it was the overly generous and genuine people, cheap delicious food (and beer!), the breathtaking landscapes, the history of the country itself and it’s thousands of ancient pagodas, or just the overall magic it seems to emulate; we fell in love.

We can’t recommend enough to all those heading to S.E. Asia for some travelling to ensure you pass through the enchanted land. In only a short period of time, maybe even a couple of years, the overall complexion of the country will change dramatically due to their rapid growth in new technology and democracy, and the obscenely high amounts of incoming tourist traffic. Although it is great for their economy, it usually brings things like scammers, thieves, closed down or regulated attractions, higher prices for EVERYTHING, and just an overall loss of the ‘magic’ we felt.

Thanks for taking the time to read that hefty entry. More to come!

Love Paul and Allie
Demsky Duo Disembarked