One Dollar You Pay!!

AW sunrise last

Matt and Kyle- Chapter 3:

Things could not have gone any better in Thailand for the four of us, but it was unfortunately time to move on to our next destination. After 45 days there ourselves (about 9 for Matt and Kyle) we were crossing the border to Cambodia. Before the trip planning I could have told you absolutely nothing about Cambodia. Truthfully, I thought it was in Africa. But it is the site of the ancient Angkor Wat temple, something you’ve certainly seen pictures of if you’ve ever seen a “X# of places you need to see” sort of list. The word temple is actually a bit of a misnomer for Angkor Wat because while it is a specific temple in the city of Siem Reap, the modern city exists surrounded by hundreds of ancient structures. Typically, tourists will pay a cab or tuk tuk to shuttle them about until they’ve had their fill of temples and the scorching heat for the day. We elected to follow suit and did our research on google as to which temples looked the coolest.

 

Most everyone starts at the main temple, the Angkor Wat (Wat essentially means temple in terms of Buddhist areas) for sunrise. The sky on our day was a spectacular purple pink that we humbly watched shift and develop for about 45 minutes at around 5:30AM. After watching the sunrise from outside, we headed in and explored the absolutely massive complex. It was incredible. Massive, intricate, fairly well preserved given the age. There were LOTS of people there, but with the exception of a few areas, enough space to be just fine. The first vendor we saw was a tiny Cambodian woman who promised to make us breakfast. “Everyone calls me Lady Gaga” she informed us as we politely declined. We continued on to our next stop, the Bayon temple. This temple has the giant stone faces, which were really cool. The carvings on the wall were really neat, animals, battle scenes, servants aiding the ancient royalty – all stories scrolling out in front of us modern day readers. Bayon, shaped like a pyramid, photographed really well in the early light. We tackled 8 temples in total for the day. 7 of them from the sunrise until the heat simply became too much for us. We hit East Mebon for sunset, which ended up being a little bit of a let down. Still an impressive pyramid, but the sunset was more a dimming than any sort of colorful display. The other major temple of note is Ta Prohm. This is the one with the enormous trees snaking their trunks roots and branches amongst the ancient stones. It’s a spectacular interaction between the wood and stone; preserved ancient culture and persistent creeping nature. Over thousands of years the two melded together into a sight unlike anything we’ve seen the world over. I personally can’t really recommend a visit here highly enough.

 

 

Aside from the heat, the other ever present thing among the ruins were vendors. For the most part they are vocal, but not pushy. Something to expect in a poor country such as Camb. It can be annyoning, but we just tried to remember the context, we were in their land, climbing around and photographing the treasures of their ancestors, and in the modern day the people have very little. Even if you don’t buy from them, you can at least strike up a friendly conversation. I had a nice chat with a policeman who offered to sell me his medals, another group of guys said that for they would personally sell me one of the entire temples for $1M USD!! Both are deals I seriously considered. I also managed to snag a photo op in front of one of the temples with the largest chainsaw I’ve ever seen by talking to a landscaping crew member. Eat your heart out leatherface! While all these vendor experiences sound like fun, by far the most enjoyable was watching the crowd of vendors who would verbally pummel Kyle into repeated submission. Adults and children alike circled like tiny brown sharks around a bleeding seal. His only escape was to buy a magnet, a picture, drink etc. We don’t know why they singled out Kyle, but it had to be something that they noticed, and of the four of us, he was certainly the most… compassionate negotiator. Even in our time in Thailand, it took Kyle a little bit of time to warm to the idea of hard negotiating for every single purchase. Something we’d become quite accustomed to by this point. Sometimes, Kyle would negotiate a $1 off a purchase only to pay the person the full price anyways out of guilt. It’s only because he has a big heart, but it made Kyle and easy target for the observant sharks as well as for our jokes. I imagine Kyle still has nightmares of being encircled by magnet wielding 4 year olds shrieking “One dollar you pay!!” until he finally relents.

 

For anyone who may want to consider a trip to Angkor Wat, here’s a list of the temples we visited (arranged in some sort of logical transport order. The last one on the list could be skipped to be honest based on our experience)

 

8 Temples

ANGKOR WAT Sunrise

2-Sunrise at Angkor Wat

3-Central Angkor Thom (Bayon)

4-Pre Rup

5-Banteay Srey

7-Ta Prohm

8-Ta Som

9-Preah Khan

10-East Mebon

Bakong Sunset

 

That night we headed to the market to grab some souvenirs and gifts for friends and family at home. We bought quite a few items, including a massive duffel to haul all our crap that we had bought so far. A special thank you to both Matt and Kyle for taking it back with them. The banner deal for the night was a fiercely negotiated purchase of 27 pairs of pants. This might actually be a slight underestimate of quantity. I’ve heard rumors that the cost of pants in Cambodia has risen so sharply as a result of this transaction that the locals have been priced out of the market and are now in an emergency state of pants-less-ness. The vendor who coordinated the deal between multiple stalls has reportedly retired as a result of the windfall of cash. To put it simply, we bought lot of pants. After this we hung out a little longer in town, but made it a somewhat early night and headed back to crash… PANTS!

 

The next day we were traveling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh via bus. It would be a six hour trip which we heard could be a little rough. It proved to be all that and more! Calling this escapade “a little rough” would be like calling Miley Cyrus a little trashy. We hit every bump in the road for all six hours, and a few more just to be sure. On top of that, our driver was on loan from a demolition derby. He would beep people out of our lane, pull off to the right and off-road around people and go head-on into opposing traffic in a game of chicken we thankfully always won. Just when we thought he was out of tricks, he began off-roading on the lane to the outside of oncoming traffic. This guy had created four lanes with our bus on a road most Americans would be wary without a jeep. Because of the dry dirt nature of the roads, the only thing visible out of the window was flying dust. Every once in a while the dust would clear long enough to see nothing of interest and a good bit of trash. The van was to be frank, hot as shit. We all baked in the hot stickiness fearing for our lives and feeling slightly sick… well all except for one of us. An informal game developed where we would all just sit and wait for the next aftershock-like set of bumps to arrive and nearly toss one of us on to the floor. The game took an exciting turn when we noticed a woman asleep who’s body jiggled like a bowl of jello with each of these instances. She was (Athena’s words) well developed… and probably not wearing the adequate type of support for such a bumpy ride. I’m glad we didn’t die on the road, and due to this woman, also glad no one lost an eye.

 

Once we arrived in Phnom Penh Athena and I took a good deal of time to get our bags and possession in order for the boys to return to America with. It had been a few weeks since we’d done a “spring cleaning” of our bags so it was good to get lean again. While we tackled this issue, Matt and Kyle went out to learn about the somber side of Cambodia’s history. During the 1970’s, Cambodia was stricken with a mass genocide orchestrated, strangely enough by own of its own citizens who rose to power. The leader, Pol Pot, was a believer in communism who shunned “city people” and the educated. Young poor vulnerable boys from the countryside were recruited and with the wages and food given to them, in turn became an army of Pol Pot’s enforcers. People were executed for such reasons as having higher education or because they wore glasses. He knew that the educated would stand in his way and he systematically transported and ultimately executed an astonishing 2/3rds of the country’s population in what came to be known as the Killing Fields. Exploring this dark time in history is a way to acknowledge the terrible reality of the events, in my opinion honoring the victims, and trying to understand the local people and culture on a higher level. After Matt and Kyle flew back, I visited the killing fields myself and as they told me it was a very moving experience. It makes me sad that humans could do something so horrible and on such a grand scale to one another- and it’s shocking that it happened so recently, horrifying really. Hopefully, we have progressed as a species past things so terrible, but on a more local level I hope that my experience and understanding of these events help me to just show more compassion to those around me in my day to day life.

 

Before the crew met up again in the late afternoon Athena and I decided to celebrate our cleaning and packing with our first street food of PP. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be found. We settled on a little stall where we split some chicken noodles and frog legs (just for the novelty on the second dish). It was tasty, but doesn’t stick out as terribly remarkable.

 

Our plan for the night was to hop on the nightly Mad Monkey’s (our hostel) bar crawl. We had a good time jumping from bar to bar meeting new friends from around the world and ultimately ended up feeling good and at a giant club. We were feeling so good in fact, that we all seemed to decide that we would show off our incredible first world dance moves. I’m sure everyone was exceedingly impressed. That’s definitely what happened. The only other notable item of the night was the number of working women who abounded at the club. It was always funny for us to watch them approach the guys and be turned down. Even though they didn’t present him with any magnets, I think Kyle felt bad and gave a few of them a dollar. We headed home to pass out with only one full day left in our time together.

 

 

The next day was Thanksgiving day which since they use the American dollar as their main currency, is obviously huge in Cambodia. They have huge parades rivaling that of the Macy’s in NYC and most everyone dresses up like pilgrims eating turkey in the street. Ok, so maybe that’s not exactly how it goes down. It was business as usual in Cambodia for most people there but we decided we were going to celebrate our way. We started the day with our own slightly earlier version of black Friday to fill what little space we had left in our bags. We purchased some more gifts (which some of our most devoted readers [no, not you Jason Wilson] have yet to receive) Rolexes, Beats headphones, and what I would have to say is the best money I’ve ever spent on a “gift” for Athena. As we headed back to the hostel in our tuk tuk, Matt, Athena and I excitedly talked about all the swag we had just obtained for ourselves and for gifts. Kyle however remained quiet. We didn’t pay much notice until… “Guys, um. I can’t get my watch off.” Kyle had invested in the highest of quality Rolex watches (he had paid nearly $10 we think) and it was now officially stuck on his wrist. He had apparently been working on it the entire time and now had given up, literally held captive by his own frugality. We each took a turn until we were eventually able to pry it open (didn’t need to cut it off thank goodness) resulting in a collective sigh of relief.

 

 

After dropping off the booty from our shopping spree, we looked up some of the best restaurants in town where we would have our thanksgiving feast. Our original plan was to find the best area for street food, and each set out with a budget of $5 to have more food and variety than we could ever possibly consume in one sitting. It’s amazing that $20 will provide this for 4 people, but absolutely true. Unfortunately, we never found a solid street food stretch with much diversity in menu. The only area we found had about 14 identical restaurants lined up along the filthy street. As a result we decided to pass.

 

Instead we decided we’d just find a highly rated place, and then just order a ton to share family style. Our meal ultimately consisted of duck spring rolls, pork stuffed squid, pork and eggplant wrapped in banana leaf, beef filet with peppers, and pork belly. Much to the dismay of many of you following at home, we also ordered a special “local” plate consisting of silk worms, friend baby frogs and giant crickets. This was by far the most bizarre food we had our entire trip.

 

The rundown of the three is as follows: 1) baby frogs- basically fried to the equivalent of a chip, pretty much dry, crispy/crunchy and a little salty. Worth eating for the novelty but not much more than that. 2) silk worms- gross looking little cocoons which had just enough squishiness to repulse me. Think of a gross “Gusher”. Thankfully just like the real Gushers, not really that much gushing going on. 3) The GIANT cricket. The most intimidating thing I’ve ever considered eating. Looked ready to hop at any moment and nearly as big as my entire thumb. After working up some courage for a solid 10 minutes, I gave it a crunch and it was also pretty dry. (a big relief) Glad I didn’t wimp out, but I wasn’t looking for seconds.
All in all the food was good, but the non-weird stuff was only ok, didn’t blow us away. Kind of disappointing given the original plan. It was our last major meal with Matt and Kyle, who seemed to have a great time adventuring with us, we know we really enjoyed their company. It was a great slice of home and a lot of fun traveling together. Thanks guys!!

 

By the way, if you are still wondering about the “gift” mentioned above, it was the engagement ring I would give to Athena in New Zealand!!

 

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Wallarag – town in Australia or made up word?

Our next stop was so spectacular that we adjusted our plans within minutes of arriving to have two days here. Wilson’s Promnotory was beautiful from the second we pulled in. We were pretty beat after a long day of driving so after we set up camp we took a nice long nap under the hot sun on the beach. We woke up at dusk and thought it was the perfect time to take a walk along the freshwater stream that ran into the salty sea. After we got back to our tent and ate dinner, we saw a couple at the site next to us playing a card game that looked interesting. As you could probably imagine – Rob and I are always looking for new movies/games/whatever to entertain us at night. Cards are an easy choice, but most of the games we know are either for more than 2 people or are drinking games. They were playing something called Monopoly Deal with a special deck – after our next trip to the store, this game quickly became our top choice of entertainment. We tweeked the rules a little to better fit a two player game and now it keeps us occupied for at least an hour or so every night, so thank you to that random couple wherever you are.

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Morning came and we needed to make the most of our last day in WP. We went on a short trek up to an amazing overlook of the ocean. At the top, we were surrounded by crystal clear blue water and beaches on all sides. The only time I had seen water this amazing before was when we took our dive trip out to the Similan Islands in Thailand. The water we were seeing this day though was about a million degrees colder. People in Australia (and New Zealand we would come to find) have a very skewed view of what “cold water” is. I wouldn’t get into that water without a wetsuit, generally two wetsuits and people were out there swimming in nothing but a bikini! Even Rob thought it was too cold for a swim, so I knew it wasn’t just me being a baby. After our overlook walk, we went to a place called “Squeaky Beach” It gets it’s name from the sound the sand makes when you dig your feet in and shuffle. Squeak, squeak, squeak with every step. Quite entertaining for at least 10 minutes. We ended our day with a walk through Lilly Pilly- a rainforest type walk with thousands of flies. Flies were something that we found to be a serious problem in Australia. They are nothing like flies at home – these guys are 3x the size and persistent as all hell. You swat and dodge and they just continue to follow you everywhere. As you could imagine, a damp, rainforesty, swampy walk was FILLED with them. It put a damper on our celebratory beers midway through the hike, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying the beauty of our surroundings. Just before finishing the hike, we noticed a shuffle in the bushes well off the path. With a little bushwacking and some persistence, Rob was able to capture some fantastic images of a striking jet black cockatoo adorned with flashy yellow plumage along its wings. We have deemed this area a ‘must return’ to spot. There are so many more things that WP has to offer that we just didn’t have the time to do, so we will be back some day.

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What to say about Gippsland Lakes… well it was a pretty shit stop to be honest. I am sure it has a lot to offer, but we didn’t get to experience it. We intended to rent a sailboat and glide atop the beautiful lakes basking in the sun. Once we showed up, we saw that motorboats were our only option, which was fine, we decided to go for it. The boat rentals only took cash of course, so we drove down the street to the ATM. We had recently lost our ATM card and had a replacement sent to us, but we hadn’t activated it yet. We can’t make calls on our phone so we went to a Macca’s (McD’s) to use their internet for a skype call, which failed to work. After about an hour and a half we were able to get my dad to call and help. We paid for the boat and got out on the lake 2 hours later than we planned, finally we would be able to enjoy these beautiful waters. We started up the boat and puttered out to a sand bank, but halfway here we realized that “full speed” was equivalent to that of a elderly snail. As soon as we got to the closest sand bank, we took a break and anchored down for a swim. The water was FREEZING. Awesome. We made a sad attempt at going to a new spot, but the wind had picked up and our boat continued on as slow as molasses; we made it about 3 feet in 20 minutes. Our rental period was almost up and we hadn’t done ANYTHING. As we headed back, we approached convergence of lake and ocean. We were instructed NOT to go too close because if we hit the ocean waters we would never make it back. Of course the winds continued to work against us and we began drifting closer and closer to the ocean. Rob was paddling with our singular paddle while I desperately tried to get the motor to go faster. Thankfully minutes before we hit the outlet, a nice couple offered us help and tossed us a rope and pulled us back towards the channel that would get us back to the rental shop. We let go when we felt we could get back comfortably. We went back to puttering along while other boats from the same renter passed us by with ease. Once we were 45 minutes late to return our boat we got a tow from a second generous group- taking accepting their services all the way back this time. We were miserable by the time we hit land. Just exhausted from the struggle. The renter only returned us about 20 bucks on the boat even though they determined that there had been something wrong with the motor. Needless to say we were anxious to get out of Gippsland and onto our next stop.

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To answer the title question – Wallarag is a made up word, but here are some town names from Australia that shockingly are NOT made up:

  • Bong Bong
  • Come by Chance
  • Humpybong
  • Jimcumbilly
  • Nowhere Else
  • Ozenkadnook
  • Poowong
  • Tom Ugly
  • Wonglepong
  • Xantippe
  • Yorkeys Knob
  • Cowcowing
  • Koolyanobbing
  • Wooloolmooloo

Our very strange New Years Eve…

12 apostles

Our initial Australia plan was to spend Christmas week in Melbourne and the week following NYE in Sydney. This was until we looked at the price of lodging in Sydney around the holidays. We were looking at $80 a person for a dorm room in a hostel! It was just outrageous. We changed our plans last minute and decided that we would rent a car and drive up to Sydney over a weeks’ time and stop at a few places along the coast. Driving ‘The Great Ocean Road’ (GOR) and visiting the 12 Apostles is a very popular day trip if you are in Melbourne. This was in the complete opposite direction of Sydney, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see such an iconic spot. We also decided to drive a few hours even more out of our way to Grampians National Park. We did a short but steep tramp (what the Australians call hiking) up to an amazing overlook. Once we were at the top we could see to what felt like the end of the earth. After that we headed down to the GOR and began our trip towards the 12 Apostles. This coastal drive has some of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. We arrived at the first lookout and were floored by the dramatic landscape in front of us. Aqua blue waters, giant sand colored cliffs with white waves smashing powerfully against them. We drove a little further until we got to the Apostles. There are actually only 8 – I don’t think there were ever actually 12 of them. Many of them have fallen over the years due to erosion. There were (as usual) a TON of people around the lookout. It was so stunning as the sun set that no amount of people could take away from it’s beauty.

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After dark, we headed back towards Melbourne to our campsite. We arrived in the dark to a sign that said it was full and that you needed to reserve ahead of time. We thought for sure that we were screwed. There was a gravel road nearby that we were thinking might lead us to a secluded place that we could sneak a tent and leave early in the morning. At the end of the road we found another campsite with ONE empty spot that may have not actually been an official spot, but it was good enough for us. We set up shop and were drifting off when I heard a noise that sounded like an angry boar in the woods. I panicked and asked Rob if he had heard it – he had – but he decided that sleep was more important so he told me that “it was probably some bird” and I should just close my eyes. I heard this noise 3 or 4 more times throughout the night and each time Rob told me to relax and go back to sleep (later I found out that he was just as nervous as me, but didn’t want to get up to check it out). Continue reading to our Philip Island post to find out what the noise was! We got up early the next morning to head to our next stop along our route but were quickly diverted from cooking. Our campsite was invaded by a nosy visitors coming from all directions. We had 3 wild parrots sitting on our car! Rob approached one of them slowly with some bread and within minutes, the bird was sitting on his arm and eating out of his hand! I joined in on the fun when a cockatoo came up wondering what was going on. This went on for about 20 minutes until we had to leave. The birds were amazing, especially the giant cockatoo, an experience we’ll never forget.

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Our next stop was to see… PENGUINS! We had a few other things to see before we got to them though. Rob started out with a late afternoon surf, while I relaxed on the beach. The waves were big, and it took a solid swim and a little luck to make it to the point of catching a break, but equally rewarding to ride a few. After hanging ten, we had a date with some Koalas! There was an awesome conservatory on the island filled with Koalas. They are as cute as the look in pictures. We did notice that when they walk on the ground they look like little old men, very hobbly. It was apparently mating season because we heard a few of the males call out to the females, which was when we realized that THAT was the noise we had heard in the middle of the night at the previous campsite! Had we known it was a koala, Rob may have gotten up to go find it! Intermixed with the koalas were a few wallabys (a wallaby is a darker, smaller kangaroo). On our way to see the penguins, we saw an echidna on the side of the road. Rob attempted to get it to flip over but it was so terrified that it just curled up into a tiny little spiky ball. It was finally time… we were so anxious to see our little formal friends. The conservatory had bleachers set up on the beach and once dusk hit, the penguins began popping up in little groups. We would see a group of 5 or 6 peek their heads above the water close to shore and then they would ride the wave in and out until they were able to get their footing and then waddle their way to the nests on shore. They didn’t allow you to take pictures or videos so of course we snuck some of both anyways – we will post the videos soon!

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Later that night it was a total change of pace as it was time to celebrate New Years Eve! We bought a streamer gun, 2015 hats and a bottle of champagne. Here’s a quick recap of what transpired in hands down, the weirdest NYE ever.

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Consider socializing with fellow campers around the park, decide they are all underage, morons, or a combination of the two. Elect instead to do a power hour in the car. Receive a knock on window at 11:40, invited out by some non-morons to go down to the beach. Dubbed new friends, dude, chunk and double chunk. Quickly decide new friends are also morons. Chunk and double chunk maintain inadequate pace to arrive at beach by midnight (despite it being their idea). Watch fireworks.

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As a group, make fun of idiots poorly attempting a beach bonfire. Chunk and dude run off to join fellow idiots. We announce our intention to take a walk down the beach by ourselves. Double chunk announces her intention to impose on our walk. We progress down beach, slowly. Stop for break on account of DC. DC begins listing her life’s problems to us. We attempt to counsel her on her array of issues (I sleep too much, my fiancé is now dating my best friend, I eat unhealthily). DC abruptly changes subject, inquires about our musical tastes. We request something uniquely Australian. DC responds by playing Nickelback. Athena laughs, then needs to backtrack when we learn this is not a joke. We then decide it would be better to join bonfire with idiots. Bonfire goes as expected, idiots live up to their reputation. Give away 2015 hats and in exchange we get to leave. Head back to the campsite… On the way back to the campsite, encounter two kids attempting to start a driveway bonfire. We strike up a conversation, and learn that they are 15. Their parents come out to yell at them and ask who we are. We are invited in for a drink. This turns into hanging out for 2 hours. We all get drunk and Rob is invited to go fishing tomorrow. We stumble the rest of the way home and fall asleep. Rob wakes up in 3 hours for fishing. (multiple fish end up being caught) These are the highlights of NYE 2015.

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Melbourne, Australia

 skyline 2 melB

I (Athena) went into Australia paranoid, because 2 days prior to departure, my dad decided to send us 23 reasons not to visit the country. This list contained every single ferocious and poisonous creature that lurked around Australia’s terrain. This list of course did not even phase Rob, but I had my guard up before we even got off the plane. We arrived in Melbourne city and immediately that list went out of my head. It was unlikely that I would find a killer croc in city center and the city had such a good vibe, I got sucked in and was anxious to explore. It was Christmas time and incredibly warm, something neither Rob nor I had ever experienced in tandem. Rob specifically since he is always in snowy Pittsburgh for the holidays. It was a big task to get Rob into the Christmas spirit, but I had a list of Christmas activities for us to do. I had my heart set on getting a place to ourselves for the holiday since this was our first Christmas together and our first away from our families. It took us a while to find a place that was affordable and also not shared, but we did and it was in a great location. Upon arrival, we received updated information on the house that it was actually a college dorm during the year and is usually vacant during the holidays but not this time. We would be sharing the house with 2 college kids staying in Melbourne for Christmas. WTF. We got to our “Victorian House” as it was labeled and it was a mess – boxes everywhere from kids moving in and out, both the kitchen and bathroom were dirty. It just looked like college kids lived there. Our bedroom upstairs thankfully was clean and one of the guys staying with us was pretty cool and the other moved out after our second day. This was our nice quiet house for Christmas. We had surely stayed in worse conditions during our trip so we made the best of it and started seeing the city as soon as possible.

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We started with a $5 visitor shuttle which takes you on a mini hop on/hop off tour of the city. This allowed us to get our bearings a little and see what we might want to go back to. The city was filled with AMAZING architecture. Each building was cooler than the last and gave off a very hip vibe (for those of you in ATL – it is like being in a whole city of O4W with even cooler buildings). {*Note from Rob: I must have told Athena all about the shuttle because she was napping HARD throughout, haha. Carry on now honey…}

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That night we headed into town for the first of our many Christmas themed activities. We started with a light show on town hall. They had Christmas music blaring and an amazing array of lights streaming across the front of the building. Each street had a different Christmas theme so we just worked our way down each road enjoying the Christmas spirit. Our last Christmas activity in town was carols in the square, where we watched and listened as people sang some classic Christmas tunes.

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One of the great things about Melbourne is that they have city bikes every few blocks. You can rent a bike for free under 30 minutes and return it to the next bike station, so Rob and I would get the bikes out every morning and head to town and return them before our 30 minutes were up. We rode to the Royal Botanic Gardens on a few different occasions. It is free to visit and a beautiful place for a picnic midday. Another common stop we made was at the library. The library was center town with a bike station right next door. There was always live music on the street in front of the library (as well as along all the other major streets) and all of the entertainment was AWESOME, plus free wifi for planning our day.

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One evening we met up with Jess, a girl who we had met in Rome a few months prior. Rob had mailed her his speargun from Cambodia because we were not allowed to fly with it through our 2hour layover in Singapore. Jess was kind enough to hold onto it for us until we arrived nearly a month later. We went out to a rooftop bar that Rob and I had read about – Naked for Satan. There was a pretty lengthy line to get to the upper floor, but we stuck it out, being rewarded with a great view of the city once we sat down and had a few drinks. It was really great to catch up with a friend we had made along the way.

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Just as I do every year since childhood, I woke up at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning. It was strange waking up into a bed that wasn’t mine, in the middle of the summertime in a country I hadn’t ever been to before this. After I hung up the minimal Christmas decorations Rob and I had brought from Asia, I wrapped the Christmas lights around Rob as he slept, waking him when I tried to sneak a Santa hat on his head. We had already exchanged Christmas gifts in Vietnam, or so I thought. Rob surprised me with holiday suspenders! Sadly they were child sized so I just clipped them onto my shorts and let them hang gangsta style. We decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather, packed up a picnic and a kite and rode bikes down to the beach. We spent our day flying kites, drinking wine and enjoying the warmth. It was a strange way to spend our holiday, but we made sure to watch a few Christmas movies (such as A Christmas Story) in the evening to keep us in the spirit.

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The day after Christmas, we got to meet up with my cousin and his girlfriend – Dimitri and Jade – for the 2nd time on the trip. (We stayed with them for a few days when we were in London a few months back). We spent the evening walking around town until we found a cozy bar with pool tables. We approached the bar to order a round of drinks and our bartender, David, made some small talk – asking where we were from, etc. Turns out, he was from Atlanta, Buckhead to be exact and used to live 5 minutes from Rob and I. We hung around and played pool for a while, more accurately Rob and Dimitri played pool while Jade and I just moved the balls around the table. Rob and David made plans to watch the falcons lose to the Panthers in the morning as Dimitri and Jade were off on a mini trip down the great ocean road for the next day. A route we would follow for our first day of our 7 day road trip. Rob and David watched the game and David was kind enough to bring us an unlocked phone to use on our trip as our phone had taken a swim in a river and was no longer working. His phone helped us so much while we were in Australia since we didn’t have GPS or any way to look up information about our stops, so a special shoutout to him for being a major help. Our last night in Melbourne we met up with David and Dimitri for a few drinks at a local pub, it was a pretty chill night but it was great to hang out with my cousin again on our trip and to get to know our new friend.

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Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

Ha Noi was our last stop in Vietnam and the bus ride to get here was interesting to say the least. We had at this point done many different buses, many in Vietnam that were “sleeper.” On a sleeper bus, each person has their own sleeper pod, a seat that reclines all the way flat with a cubby for your feet and things. There is a top and bottom “floor” and 2 isles running down the bus amid the 3 seats per row. This results in not having to sleep too close to your neighbor. The back row (both top and bottom) is 5 sleeper beds right next to one another – no isle. We of course got stuck on the back row – top set so we would be sleeping next to strangers on both sides. Of course, the guy next to Rob reeked of cigarette smoke – ugh. We went about getting our things set up when I noticed a strange thing on Rob’s pillow… it was a foot! (Don’t worry… it was attached to a person). Rob shook the guy awake and asked him to move his foot. He was lying in a sort of “trunk space.” Maybe 1.5 feet wide and 3.5 feet deep and 7 feet long, the type of space you would throw your luggage and forget about it until 2 hours after getting off the bus. What I’m trying to say is that this was not a purchased seat. – We had come to find that this was common on many of the minivans and buses. There would always be some random local person that would get on the bus and lay on the floor for the ride or they would move around a couple of the paid people to other buses and throw on a non-paying local. It was a real pain. – This guy was one of those people. We decided to just ignore him and warned the girls that were setting up next to us to be wary of a lone hand creeping over the side. Throughout the bus ride our trunk smuggler would have a limb creep over the edge of the seats into our space, he had a lengthy conversation on his phone, continuously shined the light of his phone near our faces when the whole bus was darkened for sleeping and most absurd of all – after a bathroom break when he had to crawl over us to get back to his cubby, he said “HELLO!” so we all said hello back, complete with an eye roll, and then as he settled back in he said “hello, hello, hello, hello” nonstop until the girl next to me said goodbye, to which he answered “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” Just a tough ride.

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We arrived in Hanoi and immediately noticed that there were more motorbikes here than in any city we had seen yet. I may have touched on this in a prior post; however, I will restate here that there are NO rules of the road in these countries. If you have a motorbike you can put as many people as you want on it (6 was the most we saw), drive anywhere you want, completely ignore street signs and lights and load it down with anything. We decided to play a game where we took photos of the most ridiculous things we could find on bikes. There is a slideshow of our findings at the bottom of the post. The craziest was a full size Christmas tree complete with lights and decorations which was of course set upright on the back of the bike. There was this one “intersection” with no lights or stop signs where you had 6 directions of traffic intersecting one another, it looked like a big star and everyone just keeps moving through and somehow manages not to cause accidents. It is a miracle and exciting to watch. We decided to eat at a café above this intersection and watch the madness from a bird’s eye view. After watching for 5-10 minutes, Rob decided he was going to go play amongst the madness. While I watched from above, Rob proceeded to cross the road back and forth, and then just stand in the center and walk random circles around and within the continuously flowing artery of jumbled traffic.

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The streets in this city are set up differently than anywhere else. Each street has an item, such as shoes, and every store on that street sells shoes. There are 40 or so different streets set up like this some are also food streets. We had heard of a “chicken street” from a few fellow travelers and put this at the top of our list. After some searching, we found the right street and sat down to have the staple meal that EVERY restaurant on the street serves: BBQ chicken with honey glazed and grilled bread. It exceeded all of our expectations. We went ate there twice and would have eaten there more if we had more time. Another great place that we stumbled upon was the Hoi An Social club where we were able to get actual real beer. This was a stark contrast from the Leo or Chang we had been drinking (the ONLY beer you find in any Southeast Asian country and it tastes like a Bud Light reject – stronger flavor yet less satisfying).

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Hanoi Photos

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Our big thing for these last few days in country was a 3-day cruise to Ha Long Bay. We picked the days surrounding my birthday so we would be at sea for my 26th. If you don’t know what Ha Long Bay is – Google some pictures or look at ours below. It is STUNNING. It was the inspiration for the floating island landscape in the movie Avatar. There are just hundreds of ENOURMOUS cliff faced islands spread throughout this huge bay. It is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and it lives up to its title. We learned the hard way that you should book these cruises through your hotel even if you pay a little more because the people who did that seemed to have a much more organized trip. We got switched around with 5 different groups of people in our 3 days. It was a bit frustrating, but we made the best of it. Our first day we had a 3 hour bus ride to the port and then a few hours by boat until we got to the “WOW” spot. It floored us as these giant cliffs came into view.

We were dropped off on a beach that had an overlook point at the end of a short trek. We took off with our group and headed to the top for some great pictures. On the way down we took a minor detour along with some others to a second overlook. While on our descent a group of people came running up the stairs in a panic because there were monkeys chasing them. I assumed they were being melodramatic until I saw the large and clearly unhappy monkeys behind them coming up the stairs. One of them charged the group of us and the rest went into the trees to work their way towards us. I immediately backed away and began up the stairs when someone came up from behind me saying, “They are chasing us!” I went into a full sprint and hurried up the stairs and out of site. After I felt out of the woods and I turned to say something to Rob and realized he was not with me. He had gotten trapped by the monkeys and went down towards the second overlook instead of back towards the beach. After 10 or 15 minutes, I saw him coming up the stairs towards me when one of the monkeys jumped out of the trees and bared his teeth at Rob. Thankfully he got through with no scratches. Rob mentioned that there was a moronic hippie trying to make friends with one of the aggressive monkeys until he intervened.

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Later in the evening they gave us kayaks to use for an hour. Rob and I paddled through a cave and once we got through it we were surrounded on all sides by cliffs. It felt like we were in the movie “The Beach” (more so than when we were actually at the filming location of that movie a month earlier). We finished up the night with some card games and a little too much booze with our fellow shipmates. Our room that night was chilly to match our shower that had no hot water, but it didn’t compare to the night that many of the other cabins had with no heat all night and it was COLD out. I guess we didn’t realize how lucky we were!

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We woke up the next day and were taken to a pearl making village where they showed us how they cultivate pearls from the oysters in the bay. It was interesting to see them crack open an oyster shell with a little tiny pearl inside. Afterwards, Rob and I were split off from the group and sent back on a different ship that took us on a longer trip around the bay to a small private beach with about 10 huts on it. This was where we would stay for our second night. It was heavenly, comfortable beds, hot showers, a beach to ourselves and a view to leave you jaw dropped. We took out one of their kayaks that evening and discovered a wonderful cove that we had all to ourselves. It was surrounded by cliffs (similar to the one we saw the day prior except smaller). The acoustics in the cove were amazing; we were able to create huge, loud echoes that kept us entertained for a couple hours. Within like 20 minutes of relaxing on the small beach we had there, another couple came into the cove. We were a little disappointed that our spot had been discovered, but that quickly turned to annoyance when they set up shop on the beach only a few feet away from us on a beach that had PLENTY of space. It was like being in a movie theater alone and having one other person come and sit right next to you. Ridiculous. They left after about 20 minutes (Rob was trying to not-so-subtly glare them away) and we hung out for the rest of the evening until dinnertime. The next morning was my birthday and at breakfast I was surprised with a plate sized Thai pancake and everyone sang me happy birthday. It was such a sweet thing for Rob to organize for me and made a great start to my important day. This was also our day to head back to the city so we packed up and took a beautiful boat ride back to Hanoi.

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We went out to one last dinner for my birthday in the city where I got to wear one of the dresses I had made in Hoi An and it felt like I wasn’t living out of a backpack for the first time in months. We ate at a nothing little restaurant in town with some FANTASTIC food, just like literally everything else we had eaten in Vientam. Our days in Vietnam finished up with as much last minute shopping as we could pack in before heading out to Australia! We were sad to leave SE Asia but anxious to get to OZ and be somewhere that we spoke the native language again. Our Vietnam South to North trip has to be considered a huge success, and we recommend it to all our travel-hungry friends out there!

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Ha Long Bay Photos

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Video clips from all of Vietnam
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The Saga Continues… Matt and Kyle come to visit – Part 2

The next chapter in Kyle and Matt’s visit had us checking out of the big city and into Thailand’s world renowned islands. We took a flight from Bangkok to Krabi, and from there, a ferry to Koh Phi Phi. Phi Phi was one of our earlier stops on our first lap of Thailand so we had a bit of experience here and knew what to expect. We wanted to find a bungalow on the beach that was a bit further from the nightclubs so we weren’t kept up late if we decided that we didn’t want to party until 2am. Fortunately, that situation really never arose…

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We ended up staying in a bungalow probably about 250 feet further from the noisy beach clubs than last time. It wasn’t much, but it was something, even if only in our heads. What this bungalow did have though, was a balcony overlooking the Phi Phi bay. When the tide was up, it was the best view that money could buy – for $27! Relaxing on a Thai beach or bay takes bliss to a whole new level. If all of your problems feel as if they are half a world away- it’s because they actually are.

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Our first night was a more low key Phi Phi orientation. After the flight and ferry and searching for accommodation, we decided we’d go out, but we agreed to keep it chill. We walked up and down the beach, drank and had fun while checking out the scene. There were teams of local thai firedancers/flamethrowers twirling, tossing and flat out chucking flaming batons and numchucks all over the place, always an exciting spectacle. Athena put me on edge for a good 10 minutes when she was a volunteer for one of the shows. She stood in the middle of the flamers as they proceeded so throw enough flaming objects about her to start a new circle of Hell. The act seemed, hmm, semi-coordinated/pre-practiced, which added to my terror as she happily smiled amidst the fuego. Then there were plenty of crazy partiers, entirely out of control, who we people watched, and just shook our heads. Oh, to be 21 again…
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The next day we were up early, the four of us had booked a private longtail boat to shuttle us around Phi Phi and it’s surrounding islands. Getting the private longtail wasn’t the reason we needed to rise just after sunset, but getting to the immensely popular Maya Bay before it was swarmed with other tourist boats isn’t likely to happen otherwise. For those of you who have seen the 2000’s movie The Beach (LINK) staring Leo, you might remember this landscape as the Shangrai La hidden gem he stumbles across while trying to immerse himself in true authentic travel. No longer is it in any way off the beaten path, but its gorgeous water and sand, and nearly 360 towering rock cliff surround makes it easy to look past the other people sharing in it’s beauty alongside you. We spent at least an hour doing our best to capture the incredible essence of the landscape (note: we failed, it’s way more fantastic than our photos). We also got some hilarious photos of all the guys trying to hang from a particular stalactite for the “most epic photo ever.” Mostly we just tumbled over each other down into the sand and incoming tide, but it was quite fun. We headed from Maya bay to other coves surrounded by more towering cliffs and out of this world wallpaper for your computer type water. We had a few snorkel stops and then headed to the infamous Monkey Beach. This beach is equal parts exciting and terrifying. The first thing you need to understand is the monkeys rule the beach – and if you don’t realize that, you’ll probably get some form of rabies as punishment. The monkeys allow tourists to visit and photograph in exchange for handouts of food like bread and HOLY SHIT A BANANA, OHMYGOD EVERYONE FEND FOR YOURSELF!! We saw monkeys fighting, humping, and at one point hopping on a tourist boat and being carried off the beach and out to see because he was still searching for food aboard. They tolerated the gopro quite well, and one of the guys had the great idea to balance some bread on top of the camera, which got us some impressively close shots of the most brazen of beggars. After all that excitement, we headed back to our mainland bungalows and napped, hard.

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Over the night’s dinner, we discussed our plan for the evening. We discussed a few details and settled on a course of actions. Little did we know at the time, but remember the people who were absolutely out of their mind the night before…

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I guess a good way to go into what is to become a big night out is with three things. First: a large, obnoxiously large, cobra tattoo on your chest. The second: mustache, no brainer. The third, fluorescent body paint. What would a man with the cobra tattoo and mustache get painted on the remainder of his available chest space you might ask? Well, more cobra of course. 200% Cobra, 1 million % ferocity. All four of us looked incredible and when our powers combined we formed a powerhouse of inebriation that even Captain Planet himself couldn’t stop. It was as if we were on a runaway train determined to top the idiotic antis of all previous idiots observed the night before. We decided to each take turns boosting one another atop a pole to individually dance and drink on top of approximately 12 feet above the party. 12 feet above what probably would have been a catastrophic fall that luckily didn’t occur. At one point Kyle decided he was going to run around the beach jumping over fire as well as people who were lying on the sand. This seemed like a good time so several of us joined in. There were more antics I’m sure, but we’ll cut the story off here and say you just had to be there.

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The next morning, we woke up slowly while the guys went to the Phi Phi mountaintop viewpoint (which we had seen on our last go through). Predictably, they enjoyed it, but were hurting afterwards. To spend our last few hours on PP, we rented some kayaks from a man on the beach, snorkeled and hated our lives fighting the current on the way back. It was the worst kayaking experience ever, but we eventually made it back and will never speak of how terrible that was ever again. Those boats were stupid anyways.

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We bid adieu to Phi Phi and it’s party scene for our last stop in Thailand, Railay beach. Of all the spots Athena and I visited in Thailand over 45 days, this was our favorite. In fact, it’s in our top 3 places we’ve visited over our 8 months thus far. It’s a remote location only reachable by boat that offers, rock climbing, spearfishing, caves to explore, lagoons to trek to, muy thai to watch and the absolute perfect beaches to relax on. Our lodging at the private homes we rented from Railay Beach Club was our best accommodation in all of SEA. Our first night we arrived via the ferry, jumped off into the 3 feet of water with all our bags (that’s as close as the ferry gets you) and headed to shore. The surroundings of Railay take your breath away, and we were content to crash, catching it the next morning.

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The next morning we headed straight t the beach upon waking up. Most people to relax, myself to spearfish of course. This go round was less fruitful than the last time we were in Railay, no barracuda sightings or anything of that nature. I shot a few small fish that we kept and would eat throughout our few days. After beaching it up, and returning to our bungalow it was decided that the men would hike out to a remote lagoon rumored to exist high in the mountains between a couple of Railay’s beaches. (Athena wasn’t feeling the hiking urge that morning, so she opted out) On the way to the lagoon, we stopped at Diamond Cave. The $1 price tag of admission didn’t elevate our expectations much, which turned out to be a big error judgment. The inside of the cavern was massive and the texture of many of the walls under the tasteful lighting appeared like small diamonds with a subtle welcoming glimmer. It was not like any cave I’d ever seen before, and I appreciate the lack of colored lights or spotlights as is sometimes common to see with overdone or altered natural attractions in SEA.

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Once we were finished being awed by the caves (which we had entirely to ourselves save 1 person btw) we continued on our walk to the trailhead of the lagoon. On our way, the rain clouds that had been threatening decided to loosen their grip on the precipitation above. There were signs warning of the extremely slippery and steep track that awaited us, as well as a few pairs of discarded completely mud covered converse all-stars which gave a bit of foreshadowing for what we were in for. We took of our shirts, tightened our shoe laces and started the steep uphill route. Almost immediately we began picking up traces of the reddish muddy soil on our shoes, ankles, knees while bracing and hands while gripping roots and a few ropes which had been placed to aid in ascent. We painstakingly picked our way to the first highlight of the trek, a lookout over East Railay beach. It was quite a perfect lookout really by definition – we observed the clear/turquoise water below, groves of palms and of course Railay’s signature granite cliffs across the bay. Despite all this, it wasn’t the real reason we had decided to get halfway covered with mud and halfway soaked to the bone, so we continued on to finish the job as we progressed towards the lagoon. Shortly after another kilometer or so of uphill, the track changed and we began heading down. Heading down the slippery slopes presented a whole new set of challenges. Instead of fighting gravity to pull ourselves up, we were fighting it’s constant attempts to have us slip and sliding on the rugged path. It was a challenge for sure, but one that we welcomed. At this point on the trip, I can’t count the number of hikes and walks that we’ve done, but real challenges like this were what makes hikes (or any experience for that matter) memorable. And the most difficult parts were yet to come.

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We continued on our path that looked like a flash flood nightmare until it led us to a cliff drop off. 20 feet straight down, muddy rocks, well I guess that’s it. Time to turn back. We stood in the rain, defeated, and attempted to analyze if there was any way around. There was nothing. We were ready to give up. Just before the last of us turned around to climb back home, we spied a rope, blended perfect with the color of the surroundings because it had obviously been gripped by many sets of muddy hands before us. We decided to take our chances and spotted each other until all 3 of us were safely down and over the cliff. We decided it would be very difficult to make it back over in the other direction, but that we would do it, because quite simply there was no other way out. We hiked on. In another 5-10 minutes, we encountered muddy crag #2. This time we looked for a rope and low an behold another was provided! Unfortunately it seemed at least twice as hard of a route down. Less footholds and a greater drop. We spotted each other down. Another 5 minutes of flat hike and we approached yet a third drop off. We found the rope quickly this time, but it only went halfway down. We were sunk. The remaining drop below the rope was a recipe for disaster and the conditions prohibited descending in any unsecured free climbing manner. We appeared to be done yet again. Frustrating because we felt as if we were so close. I guess the sign warning not to hike in wet conditions would have saved us a lot of time and trouble. Nonetheless, we decided to have one more look around at the possible routes down the face before turning back. That’s when we saw it. On the far corner of the cliff’s right side, a small hole that when crouched like a baseball catcher, we could fit through. On the other side of the hole we discovered a rope! This rope led to the bottom of the cliff. It was still a tough passage, but we had to try it. I made it down, as did Matt but unfortunately something bad was bound to happen on this hike. Kyle slipped, and quickly fell about 15 feet to the rocky ground. He was unresponsive as we rushed over to him… Just kidding, Kyle made it down our last slick drop and we almost instantly spotted the lagoon from our newly accessed position. We had made it!

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The lagoon itself was beautiful, and probably appeared even more so because of the process of getting there. The warmer than expected water was completely still while the cliffs surrounding the water on about 355 degrees climbed straight up. It gave the impression that we were the first people to ever reach our destination. Vines and trees climbed up the walls, other tropical plants topped the cliffs and there was no sounds except the rain pattering on these leaves. It felt as if we had snuck inside a volcano, but instead of lava it was filled with paradise. A perfect end to our afternoon adventure. We hung around for a while, but as the rain picked up slightly, we realized we better get out now before the conditions worsened. We made it home without incident, but had no time to relax and celebrate, there was still so much to do that day!

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We ventured into town for dinner where we also picked up a few gifts for family and friends. After that we did finally have the chance to chill for a few hours before our next activity for the night. We sat on our bungalow’s covered porch, listening to the sounds of the waves crash in front of us, and the noises of the night birds and insects of the jungle behind us. The jungle however decided to creep closer as we quickly faced an “air assault” from bats and the locusts! To top that, giant geckos emerged ready to help tackle any sort of insect problem that may or may not have been brewing. Given that the locusts were large and easy to capture, and these were in fact, the largest geckos ever seen in recorded history, I decided to step in and take action. Finding a locust was easy and capturing just as simple as pinching it by the wings on its back. Next we located the gecko on the beam above us using a flashlight. The final step was to hold the noisy fluttering locust so only it, not my hand, protruded out on the side of the beam accessible to the gecko. Then, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. “Ohhhhhhhhhh,” we all screamed! The gecko jumped to it and latched on. We did this a few more times and headed to town for another battleground just as exciting to observe with a front row seat… The muy thai boxing ring.

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As we sat around the well worn boxing ring waiting for the fights to start, the emcee for the event, a man who was about 20% Thai and about 80% Bob Marley, began to ask for volunteers. He brought three of us on state and informed us that we would be playing the didgeridoo. I managed to shock Athena by actually having a slight idea of how to play this Australian pipe of sorts (Thanks to my friend Brandon from Penn State for having one of these freshman year). The fights were awesome, the first one going to decision, and the second one ending early with a knockout. After the fights, we were treated to our 300th fire show on the beach, which we hung out watching for a little bit as there’s always a slightly different wrinkle to each performance. The 2 takaways from this experience were me getting hit with a flaming baton and the frequency with which the batons ended up actually in the ocean. Thankfully, there were no casualties this evening, but we left early so who knows.

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For the last activity of our already action packed day, we had the option to swim with glowing phytoplankton out in the ocean. Since Athena and I had done that once before, we elected to leave Matt and Kyle to tackle this one on their own. I’m sure they found it as romantic as we did previously. Swirling surrounded by glowing micro plankton all around you under the stars and faintly visible looming granite cliffs of beautiful Railay beach.

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Phong Nha Caves

Our next stop in Vietnam was Dong Hoi. This city was…well, boring to say the least. We arrived to our hotel at around 5AM after a VERY long bus ride. There was supposed to have 24hr reception but the place was locked up when we got there. Thankfully after some frantic knocking a man on an air mattress woke up and let us in. We weren’t able to check in at that hour (which we knew would happen) so we took naps on the very uncomfortable wooden couches. Later that night, we went out in the “city” to find a restaurant and after walking for about an hour, we had still not found a single place to eat. So we went back to the hotel and ate some very mediocre pasta there. This was about the most exciting thing that happened amid Dong Hoi city proper.

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Our second day here, we headed out of town to a popular stop in Vietnam – the Phong Nha Caves. There are many caves in this area, however it was quite cold outside so we weren’t able to do any of them that involved getting in the water : ( . With our weather and time limitations we decided to go and see the main cave. Phong Nha was the largest cave in the world at the time it was discovered, although many have since surpassed it in size. The only way to get into the cave is by boat, we were able to split the cost of the boat with a few other travelers that were going through the caves as well. They took us on a 30 minute boat ride to the cave mouth and then shut the motor off and the tiniest lady I have ever seen rowed our boat with 7 full grown people in it all through the cave and back. It was really an amazing cave, very little manmade additions, and just a few lights throughout so you could see the amazing stalactites and stalagmites.

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We didn’t do much else in this area since it was just an overnight stop but the Phong Nha Cave was really cool. We hope to go back one day to do the Soon Dong Cave – the world’s largest (known as of now). The SD cave is so extensive it actually houses an entire rainforest inside of it. Guided trips take you on a 7-day excursion inside the cavern – let us know if you want in on that trip!

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