Nepal: My Journey to Everest

EBC Trek

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Mount Everest. It was on day three of my trek to Everest Base Camp, on a ridge high above the Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. We had arrived in Namche the day before, socked in by a thick cloud cover. Nearly all trekkers making their way to Everest stay at least two nights here to rest and acclimatize. To better adjust to the altitude, people make the most of their free day by making a popular day hike to Khumjung, a smaller village above Namche. We set out for the day after breakfast and started the steep uphill climb from right outside our guesthouse.

The day was an absolute stunner. Being December, the air was cold and crisp, but the skies were unbelievably clear and so deeply blue. I recall being able to make out every ridge and crevice on the snowy mountains in the distance as we made our ascent. Weather-wise, it couldn’t have been any better. Together with two fellow solo travelers I had met on the first day of the trek, we marched our way up the steepest section. Eventually the slope transitioned into a more gentle climb through yak pastures and the odd little stone house. After about an hour, we made our way over the last small knoll–and there it was. From this viewpoint, you have a remarkable sweeping panoramic view of the Khumbu Valley, home to some of the highest mountains in the world. Peaking out behind Lhotse, another Himalayan giant and the fourth highest point on Earth, the summit of Everest rose high into the dark blue sky. It didn’t tower over the other nearby peaks like I thought it would, but one could still easily point it out. On this day, the winds were calm and gentle from where we were standing. But at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet), the jet stream was slamming into the mountain’s distinct black pyramid-shaped summit, leaving a long wispy trail of snow and ice being blasted off by hundred mile an hour winds. It was hard to believe I was actually standing in the shadow of the highest point on Earth–the roof of the world. I’ll never forget that moment.


Kathmandu (elev. 4953 ft/1400 m)
Kathmandu

My journey in Nepal began in the bustling capital city of Kathmandu. Having been just traveling through Southeast Asia for the past three months, the crazy driving, congested streets, and hazy air pollution that hung over the city was nothing new to me. What was new was the slight chill in the air. Being early December in the foothills of the Himalayas, I had left behind the the heat and humidity of the tropics. Instead the days were cool and dry–and I was freezing. By cool, I mean it was probably still 70 degrees (21 C) during the day, dipping down into the low 50s in the evenings. But after 2 years of chasing summers, this was the coldest I’d felt in a long time. Living the past year in Australia, my wardrobe mostly consisted of shorts, tank tops, and a pair of flip flops. It was time to trade it all in for some warmer clothes.

Luckily, Kathmandu is a backpacker’s dream when it comes to shopping for trekking gear and clothing. Particularly in the district known as Thamel, which is one of the main tourist areas in the city, where the narrow dusty streets are lined with shops selling backpacks, sleeping bags, trekking gear, wool hats, scarves, and knock-off North Face jackets. I spent a few days in the city getting adjusted and prepared, shopping around for some new warm clothes and getting some things I needed before starting my trek. Since I was going alone without the assistance of a trekking company, I had to organize my permits and flights on my own, which turned out to be easy enough.

In order to do any trek in Nepal, tourists must first obtain a tourist card (TIMS card) from a either a travel agency or from the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu, which essentially is a record of your travel plans. In case of an emergency, the government can keep track of your whereabouts in the country. I went to the Nepal Tourism Board for this since I could also get my national park entry permit there. Between the two, the TIMS card was 2400 rupees (about $22) and the park permit came out to be 3000 rupees ($28). Not the cheapest, considering how cheap everything is in Nepal (which is pretty dirt cheap), but it’s necessary for anyone wishing to go trekking.

Thamel

Some other miscellaneous things I shopped around for to prepare for the trip included Diamox (altitude sickness pills), baby wipes (because there are no warm showers up in the mountains, and being gone for two weeks you gotta stay clean somehow!), heaps of Snickers bars (gotta load up on the sugars and protein when you’re burning all those calories), trekking poles (only $8 for a pair!), and best of all a nice big puffy down jacket I scored at a shop for only $50 (to this day it’s still the warmest jacket I own, and I still happily wear it on cold winter days). Also since there are no ATM machines on the trail nor any means to pay for anything by card, you have to take a ton of cash with you on the trek. I took out about 32000 rupees, or roughly $300. Enough for 2 weeks worth of food and accommodation (which gets expensive the higher and more isolated you get). For 14 days of trekking, I averaged out at about $18/day for everything, not including the cost of the flights. I also packed my handy water bottle, which has a strong filter straw to purify the tap water that I could at tea houses along the way. This not only saved money on buying plastic water bottles (again, things get expensive the higher up you go as it all has to be carried in on someone’s back) but also reduced the amount of litter I was bringing.

Having gathered all the essentials for the trip, packing and repacking to make sure I had everything prepared, I only felt somewhat ready. I had to wake up at 4:30 the following morning to catch my flight to Lukla, but I found difficulty sleeping that last night in Kathmandu. Deciding to go on this trek independently without a guide or tour group was a choice I knew was a bit unconventional, but I was counting on finding other solo travelers to join. Having only been 9 months since the devastating 2015 earthquake that rocked the country, tourism in Nepal had fallen drastically. My hotel was nearly empty. During my first few days in Kathmandu, I hadn’t really met any other backpackers, other than a nice Canadian I had dinner with on my last night. He had just finished his trek and insisted that there were lots of solo travelers taking on the EBC to meet. This was at least assuring to hear.

Day 1: The Crazy Flight to Lukla and the Walk to Phakding (elev. 8562 ft/2610 m)
Lukla Airport

Getting in a whopping 3 hours of sleep, I actually somehow felt quite energized when I woke up. With no one out on the streets at that hour, getting to the airport took no time at all. Before I knew it, I was boarding a tiny de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, crammed in with about 15 other people. Soon enough we were climbing out of Kathmandu into the thin mountain air and set a heading for our destination about 30 minutes away: Lukla. Having read articles and seen Youtube videos about this flight titled “World’s Scariest Airport“, this was a major portion of the trip that I was both really excited and nervous about.

Lukla is a busy little village right at the start of the EBC trek and serves as the gateway to the Everest region. Walking there from the nearest road takes 5 days, so most people opt to fly in to the town’s tiny airport. The runway itself is only 1730 ft (527 m) long and is not flat at all–it’s literally perched on the side of a mountain on an 11.7% gradient. With a wall of rock sitting at the far end of the landing strip, planes can only fly in and out in one direction, using the forces of gravity from the slope to speed up for take off and slow down for landing. Due to several crashes in the past, flights only take place when the weather conditions are favorable and visibility is good. Rising out of the cloud of smog hanging over Kathmandu, the morning skies were crisp and clear. The view from my window of the sunrise over the Himalayas  was breathtaking. We passed over hilltops, deep ravines and valleys, roaring rivers, and in the distance massive snow covered peaks lined the horizon and seemed to go on forever. A wondrous sight that distracted me from the nerves I had earlier upon take off wondering if I’d ever get back on the ground again safely.

Cruising Over the Himalaya

Our 30 minutes in the air flew by quickly and before long we were on final approach to Lukla Airport. From my seat, I could see through the cockpit window–it literally looked like we were going to fly straight into the side of the mountain. Eventually what looked like the shortest runway in the world came into view. Touching down, the pilot immediately threw on the brakes and within 5 seconds we came to a near stop before the rock wall and rolled onto the tarmac. As we exited the aircraft, 2 other planes arrived behind us. Within 10 minutes, the planes were unloaded, reloaded with new passengers and cargo, and were rumbling down the runway back to Kathmandu. Incredible. The noise of the prop engines soon faded out and we were left to nothing but silent mountain air.

Somehow my backpack and that of a fellow American from Alaska were the only ones that ended up on the last plane in, so we had to hang around the airport until the next fleet of planes arrived and dropped them off. He was also traveling solo and we clicked pretty well, so from the start I had a hiking buddy and didn’t have to walk by myself! In fact on that first day we met a couple other people who were doing the trail independently, and throughout the duration of the trek I was never really alone. Since everyone is going in the same direction at the same pace, you see familiar faces day by day. After the first few days, our group had grown to include a Dutch guy, a woman from Jordan, an Australian couple, a Thai guy and his guide, among several others we saw frequently. It was quite the international crowd!

EBC Trek

Passing through the shops of Lukla (which was so touristy it even had it’s own unofficial Starbucks), the walk to Mount Everest began with a gentle downhill stroll. Even without a guide, following the trail was easy enough to navigate on our own. For the most part it was pretty straightforward, but at forks and other spots where you needed them, there were signs pointing out the right direction. After three hours of following the milky blue waters of a mountain river, we arrived in the village of Phakding and found a guesthouse to stay the night in for only 300 rupees (less than $3).  That first night was the best night of sleep I had on the trip. From that point on the higher we went,  between the thinning of the air and freezing temperatures at night, it became much more difficult to get rest.

Day 2: Namche Bazaar (elev. 11,286 ft/3440 m)
High Bridge

The following morning after a breakfast of tea and Sherpa bread, we carried on with our first hill day. During the night clouds had rolled in so the warm sunny valley we had walked through the day prior was now cool and misty. We continued following the river upstream, occasionally crisscrossing our way to the other side via long metal rope bridges. After a couple hours, we arrived at the park border and checked in with the officer. While he was processing my information, I noticed on the wall in the back of the office a chart that listed visitor numbers month by month, year by year. The number of people visiting the park had been steadily increasing throughout the years, but this year, following the massive earthquake that had taken place that April, the numbers had tanked to nearly half. It was pretty staggering to see how much the earthquake had influenced tourism in the country, even in areas like the Khumbu Valley where the effects weren’t as severe.

EBC Trek

After passing through the park gate, we walked onward toward the base of Namche Hill. All along the way since we had left Lukla the day before, we had been passing numerous Sherpa people carrying heavy loads up and down the trail. Since there are no roads here, everything has to be carried in by yak or on the backs of human beings. Some of these porters were carrying ridiculous loads–bundles of 2x4s, metal doors, and even once we saw a guy carrying a porcelain toilet. On average, porters carry up to 80 pounds strapped to their heads and backs delivering supplies and materials to villages and communities all throughout the region. This made my 14 pound backpack look like a little handbag.

Namche Stupa

After about two hours of steep climbing through the forested mountainside, we finally stumbled into a very foggy Namche Bazaar. This is the largest settlement in the Khumbu region and Sherpa capital. The narrow stone streets are all lined with hotels and guesthouses, shops selling more trekking gear, bars, restaurants and coffee shops. During the busy peak season the town can accommodate several thousand people, but in cold December post-quake, the town was quite. We booked ourselves a couple of nights into a big three story guesthouse that was pretty much empty for about $2 a night.

Day 3: “Rest” Day – First View of Everest (12,401 ft/3780 m)
Tenzing Sherpa Memorial

As previously stated, nearly everyone on the EBC who makes it to Namche Bazaar and wishes to go higher stays an extra day to acclimatise. If you go up too quickly, you risk getting altitude sickness which is no fun (I had it once before while in the Andes in Ecuador and it’s no fun. Imagine having the worst hangover for three days). It’s best to acclimatize by going up high during the day and then sleeping at a lower altitude at night, so we decided to climb further up the hill behind town to visit the nearby village of Khumjung.

Namche From Above

The cool, misty clouds from the day before had lifted so when we woke up we were greeted with an amazingly clear blue sky and visibility was absolutely perfect. It took a little while getting up the hill–not because we were too tired, but because we were constantly distracted by the view the whole way up. Eventually we arrived at the top of the plateau where we were greeted with our first view of Everest as well as other notable Himalayan giants, including the very prominent and beautiful Ama Dablam. Nearby was the Everest View Hotel, which at 12,400 feet claims to be the highest in the world. We stopped here to have a quick lunch and warm up a bit while enjoying the views on the back patio.

Afterwards we carried on doing a loop through the nearby Khumjung village. I had heard rumors that there was a monastery somewhere around the village that housed a supposed yeti scalp, but we never found it. We had spent most of the day out hiking around so we were pretty beat by the time we wandered back into Namche. So much for a rest day. We walked into a bar that was showing reruns of Everest documentaries and movies. It was also the only place I found on the trail that had free WiFi so I sent off a few last messages to friends and loved ones back home.

Day 4: Tengboche (12,700 ft/3870 m)
Ama Dablam

After a “restful” two nights in Namche, we carried on to the next village–Tengboche. This was meant to be a long day, with 6.4 miles (10.4 km) of walking up and down mountains. The distance wasn’t too bad, the annoying thing was that to get to Tengboche we had to hike back downhill to the river and then climb all the way back up to the top of the ridge where the village sits. It was a long day that took about 6-7 hours.

Shortly after leaving Namche, we soon came upon a stupa (a dome-shaped structure serving as a Bhuddist shrine) memorializing Tensing Norgay, a Nepalese citizen from the Khumbu region who, along with New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, led the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in May 1953. The memorial was adorned in lines of colorful prayer flags, slowly flapping in the gentle breeze, in plain view of Everest’s summit. It was a peaceful place for a break.

Tensing Norgay Memorial

The first portion of the day was actually really nice. The descent back to the river was mostly gentle–more of a traverse across the ridge. Being above the tree line, we had stunning views of the Khumbu Valley for a good portion of the walk. Eventually we got to a fork in the road and we steeply descended downhill  toward the river. Along the way, we encountered several groups of trekkers returning from Everest. Their faces showed signs of utter fatigue and weariness–a foretelling reminder of what was to come and that about a week later we’d be making the same grueling uphill climb back.

EBC Trail

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived at the river and took a long break eating lunch at a little cafe in the village. Crossing the river was yet another classic Nepali-style swing bridge (we had crossed several the first few days). We bathed in the sun, we watched a yak train, a common sight along the trail, make its way over the bridge. I thought all the swinging rope bridges looked sketchy, but it was assuring to know that if the bridge could hold up all those yaks it could certainly hold 150 pound me.

After lunch and lazing about in the sun a lot longer than we probably should have, we crossed the river and started the slow uphill climb for the next hour and a half. Despite being December, when the sun was out it actually got quite warm, especially going up hill. We peeled off our layers and slowly made the dusty, sweaty climb up the hill stopping occasionally to snack on Snickers. By the time we made it to the top, the clouds had started to move in again and what was a mostly warm sunny, blue sky day quickly turned into a cold mist. We each booked a room in one of the big guesthouses where everyone else was staying at. My room was north facing and absolutely freezing, so I piled on all the layers I could find in my pack.

Tengboche Monastery

The hill-top village is well-known to be the home of the largest Bhuddist monastery in the Khumbu region, Tengboche Monastery. Joining the rest of the group outside, we all walked over to the large monastery to watch the monks do a meditation ceremony. We all sat down along the wall of a large room, the air heavy with the scent of incense. In the middle of the room were dozens of monks sitting in rows slightly hunched over while they chanted and played their instruments. The vibe and atmosphere was somewhat haunting, but in a good way. It was an intriguing spectacle to watch. The room didn’t have any heating however, and it was absolutely freezing. Since we had to take our boots off and leave them outside, my feet felt like bricks. It also appeared that a few of the monks were sick. One had a horrible cough. It made me feel a little sorry for them that they were exposed to the damp and cold all the time.

Day 5: Dingboche (14,469 ft/4410 m)
Ama Dablam

Day 5. Woke up from the coldest night yet (and it only got colder from there). There’s no heating in the rooms in any of the guesthouses along the way. It was hard getting out of my sleeping bag as my room felt absolutely frigid when I got up. My water bottle actually had little bits of ice floating around in it. The only place to warm up was around the stove in the dining area downstairs, which we all would huddle around and socialize while waiting for breakfast. Once breakfast was done, we headed out for another long day of walking. The morning fog broke just in time as we were leaving, the sky opening to another crystal clear blue day. On this day, we’d wander up further into the valley, right in the shadow of Ama Dablam. Everest may be the highest in the world, but Ama Dablam is seriously one of the most majestic mountains in the Himalayas.

Crossing the 4000 meter mark, I could definitely notice a difference in my breathing and overall energy levels. I’m naturally a fairly fast walker and at sea level I can walk for hours and hours without getting tired. Up here, my pace was much slower and I needed to take a break every mile or so. But given the remarkable views everywhere, a break was really necessary to take it all in properly! Aside from being wide-eyed and in awe of the scenery and making a new “friend” with a stray dog that had followed us all the way from Tengboche, the rest of the day was pretty mundane. Nearly 7 miles (11 kms) later, we rolled into Dingboche later in the afternoon than we usually did. Luckily Dingboche is wide out in the open on the valley floor, so with the sun still up we had some time to warm up a bit and relax before sunset.

Day 6: “Rest” Day 
Himalayan Companion

Now having ascended 3500 feet (1000 m) over the past two days, it was time for another rest day to acclimatize. We still spent a portion of the day going out and hiking up to the top of one of the nearby hills, but it was not nearly has strenuous as we did on our rest day in Namche. When I arrived at the top of the hill, I found the little black dog that had followed us from Tengboche the day before. That little guy was everywhere! I was finished with my morning hike before noon and spent the rest of the day actually getting some well needed rest, hanging out in the common room and catching up on some reading (I had bought a copy of Into Thin Air while in Namche, a fitting book to read while hiking to Everest).

Sunset in Dingboche

I forget what the name of the guesthouse we stayed in was called, but it by far had the warmest stove of anywhere on the trek, which we all happily huddled around. There really wasn’t much to do in the in the evening except talking and playing card games (I became really good after spending endless hours playing card games like President in the evenings in Nepalese guesthouses). With no Internet, it was actually quite liberating being disconnected and off the grid for a few weeks. Everyone was actually interacting with another rather than sitting off in a corner somewhere glued to the screens of their phones. The camaraderie between my fellow trekkers and Sherpas is something I really miss about Nepal.

Day 7: Lobuche (16,210 ft/4940 m)
On the way to Dingboche

Trying to catch up on as much sleep as possible, I had a late start on this day and ended up walking alone for half the day. The first portion of the trek was pretty easy, crossing a big plateau through grassy fields where yaks roamed and grazed. Eventually I caught up with my friend from Alaska that I had met at the airport and we trudged onward to our lunch spot at a guesthouse settled right at the base of a big steep hill that we’d have to climb. I was already feeling a headache coming on that that day from the altitude so I had started taking Diamox pills to ward it off. We took an extra long lunch break, drinking mint tea and eating garlic soup (which apparently also helps with the altitude).

The rest of the day was exhausting. Now at over 15,000 feet (4600 meters), my 14 pound backpack seemed to weigh like a ton. My steps became slower and breathing heavier. We slowly trudged up the hill. Not wanting to overdo ourselves with the altitude, we took a short break every few minutes. After about an hour we finally reached the crest of the hill and took a break. Nearby I noticed several stones decorated with prayer flags, painted and engraved with names of those who had lost their lives on Everest. Among the names were some I had recognized from the book I was currently reading, including Seattle climber Scott Fischer who was one of 12 people who died in a single night during a blizzard in May 1996.

Everest Memorial

Beyond the Everest Memorial, we reached the toe of the Khumbu Glacier, which flows down the valley from somewhere around the 25,000 foot level on Everest, making it the highest glacier in the world. The last 45 minutes or so of the day was spent following the glacier to the pit stop of the day, Lobuche. The clouds had moved in again around this time and aside from the sound of our breathing and footsteps, everything was eerily silent.  Occasionally you could hear the thunderous rumble and groans of ice breaking and shifting, which echoed through the valley. By the time we reached Lobuche, I was dead tired. I tried to refuel on Snickers bars and momos (Nepalese dumplings) while rehydrating on tea, but was starting to lose my appetite (especially when you’ve been eating the same meals for a whole week). I didn’t stick around for long in the evening playing cards with everyone else. Instead I went to bed pretty early, bundled up in all the clothes I had to keep warm.

Day 8: The High Point – Kala Patthar (18,514 ft/5643 m)
View from Kala Patthar

Today was the day when we would reach the highest point and spend the night in the small village of Gorak Shep. After another cold, unrestful night’s sleep the night before, I had another late start getting out the door. Despite being on Diamox, I still had a headache and I tried to stay rehydrated on several cups of tea. Everyone else had left by the time I finally started walking.

I made the effort not to overdo myself on the last day of gaining altitude. My Alaskan friend was feeling pretty ill so he went back down that day. The pace was pretty slow going. For the past several days helicopters had been flying overhead occasionally. None of us were really sure if they were just transporting supplies or evacuating injured trekkers, but according to one of the Sherpas we met along the way, the latter wasn’t all that uncommon. Altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness) is commonly experienced by visitors who aren’t accustomed to the lack of oxygen at altitude. In rarer cases, high-altitude pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) also poses a risk to even the healthiest of climbers. Deaths on the EBC itself are uncommon, but not unheard of. This is why rest days and acclimitization is so important.

I arrived in Gorak Shep around 2:00 pm and dropped my bag off at one of the guesthouses and rested for about an hour after lunch. Gorak Shep, one of the highest settlements in the world, was more like a few buildings scattered across a big dusty field. On the opopsite side of the field is the base of Kala Patthar, a large hill that is usually the highest point that trekkers go on the EBC trek. When I felt rested and energized again, I set off across the field and began the final ascent.

Kala Patthar

In contrast to the surrounding giants Kala Patthar looks fairly small, but from Gorak Shep it’s another 500 meter (1,600 foot) push. At sea level, another 500 meters would have been a piece of cake. But when you’re enduring the effects of altitude, it was a struggle. My pace was very slow–I’d take a few steps up and then pause for a second to catch up on breathing. It’s a weird sensation, experiencing the thinness of air. Not that I was gasping for it, but it just never felt like my lungs ever got full no matter how much I breathed in. The other thing about this particular hill were the false summits. Right when you thought you were nearing the top, you’d come over the ridge and find the true summit was still high above. It was disheartening as it seemed so far away. The silver lining to my slow progress however was by the time I actually had made it to the top, it was right around sunset and it was a perfect clear day. I climbed up onto to the summit block decorated in colorful prayer flags–at 18,514 ft (5643 m) it was the highest I’ve ever been. Even at this height, I was still a solid 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) below the top of Everest. From here you get a 360 degree panoramic view of the valley. Far down below, somewhere on the Khumbu Glacier, was the site of Everest Base Camp. And far up above, so close yet so seemingly far away, the summit of Everest basking in the orangish-pink alpenglow. Being lost in the moment, I barely noticed the heavy fatigue or biting cold of the strong winds whipping across in my face. A few of the others I had been walking with the past few days were also at the top and we shared the moment together.

Everest

After about 20 minutes of summit time, we headed back down. Going down was much quicker than going up, but at this point I had a throbbing headache and my legs were killing me. Stumbling back into the guesthouse, I went and threw on some more layers of clothes to keep warm and ordered some dinner in the dining area. From that point, things started going downhill from there. Aside from the headache and loss of appetite, my stomach also felt a bit off. I tried to force myself to eat and drink up some tea but it was no use. I felt terrible. I got really nauseous at one point and went outside and got sick. When I came back in, the guesthouse owner came over to check in on me and said he was a little worried about my condition. He suggested that if I didn’t get any better by the next morning, he’d offer to call in a helicopter. Although I had travel insurance, a $10,000 helicopter evacuation wasn’t something I was really keen on dealing with. I drank a couple cups of tea and headed off to bed for a much needed rest.

Day 9-13: Back to Civilization 
Trekker

Luckily, aside from another night of not getting a whole lot of sleep, I didn’t get sick again and managed to eat a small breakfast the next morning. The original plan was to wake up early and do the final stretch of the walk to the actual site of Everest Base Camp, but I opted to start heading back instead, satisfied that I had at least made it to the top of Kala Patthar (which is much higher than EBC and actually has a view of the summit). Initially the walk was a bit rough considering the condition I was in, stumbling over stones through the boulder field just outside Gorak Shep. I spent the whole day walking back from Gorak Shep to Dingboche, happy to return to that warm guesthouse and thaw out by the stove. I got a restful night sleep there and continued on the next day, all the way to Namche Bazaar. By now I was feeling much better. The oxygen-rich air of the lower valleys was so rejuvenating–I felt stronger with each step I took. It was amazing how much my overall mood and state of health had changed in just a day. After one last night in Namche, I walked the remainder of the way back to Lukla. What took 9 days to walk up only took 3 days to walk down, a total of 89 miles (124 km) to Everest and back.

My flight back to Kathmandu the following day got cancelled due to heavy fog that never lifted until the next day. I didn’t mind since I could at least relax and socialize with some of the other people I had been walking with the past two weeks. Luckily we were only “stranded” in Lukla for the one extra day. The day after that the weather was clear enough to fly and we were back in Kathmandu in no time at all.


One week after finding myself face-to-face with the highest mountain in the world, I found myself a world away in Paris. It was a weird sensation to be back in a western society after three and a half months of Asia. The last few weeks of clear, clean air and the silence of nature was replaced with crowded streets and hazy skies. I was very thankful however to be able to take a proper shower again and have a nice warm bed to sleep in. Ever since Nepal, I’ve never taken having a soft, warm bed to sleep in every night for granted again.

Doing the trek to Everest was something I had dreamed about doing for years and I was very happy to finally tick it off the bucket list. What a challenge. It was by definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally, but it was all worth it.

Everest

Culturally and aesthetically, Nepal is one of the most beautiful and amazing countries I’ve ever been to. As a lover of hiking and the mountain, it’s no surprise that it’s on my top 10 favorite places I’ve been to so far. Even today from time to time, I still daydream about those deep blue clear skies, the giant craggy snow-capped peaks, and the warm hospitality of the Sherpa people.

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Vietnam

Hoi An

Now that I’m more settled back to life in the United States, I’m finally getting around to posting more about my travels from the past year. There’s so much to catch up on! It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year already since I left Australia and began my journey through Asia and Europe. This post is written to reflect on my time in Vietnam.


From what I had heard from friends and fellow travelers, Vietnam was always one of those places that you either loved or hated. While the general consensus was mostly positive, regarding Vietnam as a place not to be missed, there were the few I came into contact with who would say otherwise. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was one of the countries I was most looking forward to visiting during my time in Asia.

Luckily, it lived up to the reputation that lots of people had talked about. In fact, it’s one of my favorite countries that I’ve been to thus far! Finding the allure in Vietnam I think takes a certain type of traveler and personality to appreciate. Compared to other SE Asian countries, it doesn’t really have the best beaches. The cities are crowded, polluted, and chaotic. Petty theft and scams are common. Street vendors and touts are constantly buzzing around trying to sell you something. The people have a reputation of being unfriendly to tourists. The heat and humidity is drains you. Despite all these groans that many travelers have when they visit Vietnam, some of these negatives where actually positives for me. I loved the crowded, chaotic streets buzzing with endless motorbike traffic and honking horns. I’d never seen such chaos and activity like that before. It was absolutely crazy and there was always something interesting going on around the next corner. And ever since Vietnam, I’ve never worried too much about crossing the street in traffic anywhere else in the world!

Hanoi LocalsAs an American in Vietnam, I wasn’t sure what the reception would be to locals I’d meet considering my country’s bloody history and involvement there in the past. While I didn’t find people there as friendly as those in nearby countries (mostly people from older generations), I generally got that the resentment was because I was a tourist not just because I was American. However, there were several times where I had positive interactions with people who seemed genuinely curious in where I was from and what I was doing in Vietnam. Oftentimes, especially while hanging out in city parks, university students would come up and politely ask if I could talk with them to help practice their English. I remember one particular group of college students who went out of their way to buy me ice cream (for those who know me, nothing makes my day more than free ice cream)! There will always be bad apples anywhere you go, but I like to think that there are more than enough good ones around to make up for it.

Vietnamese CuisineThe thing I loved most about Vietnam by far was the food. With over 500 traditional dishes varying region by region across the country, there was such a multitude of flavors and culinary wonders to try everywhere you go. With the mix of the French, Vietnamese, and Chinese influences, Vietnam is a melting pot of different cooking styles. Being in tropical Asia, there are also plenty of strange and exotic fruits to try. Best of all, eating is extremely cheap and there’s always something yummy cooking somewhere.

There is also a lot of natural beauty packed into this country, with lush jungles and rain forest, wondrous caves, steep misty mountains, stunning karst landscapes, and vibrant green rice paddies that cover entire hillsides. Although the scars of war and modern-day industrialization have altered the environment in negative ways, Vietnam is still a stunning place visually.

Trying to pack in as much as I could, I spent nearly a month traveling through this marvelous country. Here were some of my favorite places:

Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh

My favorite of the two major cities in the country, Ho Chi Minh (called Saigon by the locals) is bustling, crowded, and the streets are chaotic, amok with endless motorbike traffic (fun fact, Vietnam has more motorbike drivers per capita than any other place on Earth). Even crossing the street here is an adventure—the traffic rarely ever stops so you just have to bravely and confidently just keep walking as everyone drives around you like the parting of the Red Sea. We stayed at an amazing hostel in a high-rise building for just $6 a night, which had a pretty cool rooftop bar with fab views of the city.

Ho Chi Minh at Night

One thing I noticed about Ho Chi Minh, as well as several other Vietnamese cities, were that they were very green despite being so polluted. Hoi Chi Minh especially was full of parks and green spaces where people could go out and enjoy the nature. It was often a place where people gathered in the morning for group exercise and in the evening to socialize.

You can also learn quite a bit about the history of the Vietnam War here. The War Remnants Museum gives an interesting perspective on the war, and the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels allows you to see and experience how the Viet Cong carried out their military campaigns using their extensive underground network of tunnels.

Mui Ne
White Dunes at Mui Ne

Mui Ne was originally a sleepy fishing village, but now most tourists come here to windsurf and check out the nearby sand dunes. The hostel I stayed at, was one of the nicest I had been to in Asia, was right on the beach for only $6 a night! The whole town is very spread out, all along the coast with accommodations and restaurants catering to tourists. We took a tour in an old US Army jeep for the day that made several stops around the area, including the village where we could see how the fishermen make their catch with nets and a little round boat that resembles a soup bowl. That part of beach was really polluted however, with trash strewn everywhere and the air was thick with the smell of dead fish. Not super interesting really. We also stopped by this really unique place called Fairy Creek, a little stream flowing through reddish/orange rock and sand formations. But the big attraction here are the sand dunes. Far out of town are mountains of sand that resemble more of a Saharan landscape than one in Southeast Asia. Not as impressive as the ones in New Zealand, but still very cool to see and worth the visit! Also Mui Ne was where we had the best bahn mi in all of Vietnam, right from this little old lady’s street cart.

Da Lat
Cayoning at Da Lat

Farther inland and high up in the cool, misty mountains, is the city of Da Lat. Also known as the “Paris of Vietnam”, Da Lat is not your average Vietnamese city, full of French-style bakeries, well manicured parks, and Parisian-esque architecture (the town even has it’s own version the Eiffel Tower). Situated in the Vietnamese highlands, the climate here is much cooler than what you would normally expect in Vietnam. The city is popular among Vietnmese tourists and newlyweds as a honeymoon destination. We came here for a few days to get a relief from the heat and humidity that Vietnam is so well known for, and to  check out the several waterfalls that are located around the region. The waterfalls and surrounding mountainous terrain make the area ideal for adventure sports, including canyoning, which involves the exploring a canyon by a range of different activities such as rappelling and cliff jumping. I had never done it before so I decided to give it a go and had a blast scaling waterfalls, floating down the river, and jumping off a 40 foot cliff with a diverse group of fellow travelers.

Hoi An
Evening In Hoi An

Oh Hoi An. Easily one of my favorite places that I went to in Southeast Asia. This ancient town by the river is incredibly atmospheric and fantasy-like, almost something like you might see in a Miyazaki film. The Old Town is so well preserved, with colorful old weathered buildings evoking French, Japanese, and Chinese influences during its heyday as a major port city and cultural melting pot. Unlike other cities in Vietnam, the pace of life in Hoi An is taken back a notch. As a UNESECO world heritage site, some of the streets are pedestrian only, and what a difference a place makes without the constant buzz of motorbikes.The atmosphere is calm and peaceful. At night the whole city lights up with beautifully decorated lanterns lining the streets and floating serenely down the river. It vaguely reminded me of a scene from a Miyazaki film. Aside from lanterns and old buildings, the town is also known for its tailor shops where can get a custom made suit or dress made for you for a really good deal. Being situated near the coast, the beach is an easy bike ride away as well, making it a relaxing place to hang out at for the afternoon. I ended up staying here for five days with a group of friends and would still go back if I ever find myself in Vietnam again.

Hue Hue

I was only in Hue for less than a day, but I thought what I saw there was really impressive. The city was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors and is home to a massive complex known as the Imperial City. Located in central Vietnam near where the north and south halves of the country meet, it was also the spot where one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war took place. I spent a good portion of the day wandering around the city, a lot of which was damaged during the war but now restored.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

A UNESCO Heritage Site, everyone who comes to Vietnam inevitably ends up here at some point of their trip. It’s well known for it’s emerald green waters and the thousands of stunning limestone rock formations and islands that rise straight out of the sea. Given the sheer size of the bay and the fact that’s only accessible by boat, the best way to see it is to do an overnight cruise, which we did. Our itinerary included a visit to the cathedral-like Thien Cung Cave, kayaking in the bay at sunset, an on-board Vietnamese cooking class, and hiking on the famous Cat Ba Island. It was super touristy, but given it’s status as one of the great natural wonders of the world it was so worth going to!

Tam Coc & Trang An
Tam Coc

Just outside of the industrial and not-so-attractive city of Ninh Binh lies one of Vietnam’s lesser known gems. From here rice farmers make their living working the fields and paddies in the shadow of a dramatic karst mountain range, resembling somewhat of a terrestrial version of Ha Long Bay. Here slow moving rivers lazily meander their way through the steep mountain valleys and cave systems, which also harbor old sacred temples and pagodas. Low-lying wooden boats gently glide down the river, typically rowed by local women. While the stunning scenery rivals Vietnam’s other natural wonder, Ha Long Bay, the atmosphere here is much more relaxed and you gain a sense of what rural Vietnamese life is like. Aside from taking a cruise down the river, I fondly remember renting a bicycle and riding deep into the countryside, past villages, waving kids, farm animals, stray dogs, and vibrant rice terraces. It was here that I felt like I had somewhat left the main tourist trail and was seeing the real Veitnam. I’d take Tam Coc & Trang An (the two rivers that flow through this region) over the hyper-touristy Ha Long Bay any day.

Sa Pa
Sa Pa

Sa Pa was a highlight of my trip to SE Asia. The town itself is just a pretty little mountain station, perched high on a hilltop in Vietnam’s northern highlands near the Chinese border. The town faces across the valley towards Fansipan, the nation’s highest peak at over 3100 meters (10,312 feet). The valley below is beautifully sculpted by rice terraces that seem to go on forever, built and taken care of the the various hill tribe communities that make their home here. The region is known as a prime spot for trekking, which becomes apparent as you walk down the streets with shops full of North Face backpacks, trekking poles, jackets, and other mountain gear. You can have a trek arranged through your hotel or travel agency, but we decided to just go along with these two little Hmong ladies who convinced us to go on a walk with them to their village (one of which was 8 months pregnant–such troopers!). They guided us through the rice terraces, showed us which plants they use to make dye for their clothing, how to extract and process it using their traditional methods, as well as making the material for their clothing from hemp, which grows naturally on the mountainsides. I even did a home stay in one of their homes and got to see how they live on a daily basis. It was an eye-opening experience and incredible seeing this lifestyle still existing in the 21st century. Something I will never forget!

Although I spent nearly a month here, I still feel like I only scratched the tip of the iceberg so to speak in Vietnam. There’s so much packed into this country, I don’t think it’s possible to see it all for what it is in just a single trip, or even multiple ones for that matter. I’ve heard so many stories and experiences from friends and fellow travelers of incredible places they went to that I never had the time to see. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back to Vietnam again any time soon (so many other places in the world left to see) but if I do, it’s assuring to know that I can come back here again with so much more to discover.

My Favorite Places In The World

A lot of times I get asked what my favorite place in the world is. And the answer I give is pretty ambiguous, because it’s hard to choose just one! There are several places I can think of that were especially memorable and favorable, all for different reasons. If I had to narrow it down to a top 10, these would be the ones (in no particular order):

1. New Zealand
Emerald Lakes | Tongariro
Might be a bit biased since I lived there for nearly a year, but New Zealand is one of those places that always seems to be on everyone’s top lists! And for a good reason too, there is so much packed into this little country–towering volcanoes, lush rain forests, beautiful beaches, charming rolling hills, fjordlands, gorgeous mountain ranges. It’s a stunningly beautiful country everywhere you look. As an outdoorsy, nature-loving kind of guy this is the perfect country for me and I love that fact that there’s so many things to do here to get your adrenaline rush fix. Besides that, Kiwis are some of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve met! The Maori culture here is strong and very interesting to learn about.

Highlights: Doing the Tongariro Crossing; heli-hiking on the Franz Josef glacier; black-water rafting Waitomo glowworm caves

2. Australia
Golgum Pool
Even as a kid, I always wanted to go to Australia so having the opportunity to live there for a year was a dream come true! Australia has become my second home and I’m considering moving back here again one day. I’ve fallen in love with the laid-back, easy going lifestyle that defines Aussie culture. The work/life balance here is something I admire. I’m also a lover of the sun, so a sunny warm climate is also pretty ideal for me. Two of my favorite places in the world are here, one being Sydney. I’m not normally a big fan of cities, but Sydney is one I’d live in. The other being the Margaret River region of Western Australia, where I lived and worked for 6 months. Some of the best beaches I’ve seen to date are there and it’s also one of the country’s premiere wine regions. It’s a beautiful place to live. I really hope to make it back to Australia again one day!

Highlights: Living in Dunsborough, WA; road tripping up the East Coast and across the Outback; exploring Kakadu National Park by 4WD

3. France
Birds Eye View of Paris
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in France now, more than any other European country, and I’ve grown quite fond of it! Most of the time I’ve spent there has been in Paris (one of my favorite cities in the world), but in this most recent trip I also got to see a bit more of the countryside in the Alsace Region as well as the city of Lyon. The thing I love about France is despite it’s relatively small size (well compared to the US at least) is how diverse it is. It’s got beautiful farmlands and rolling hills, wine regions, rugged coastlines, high mountains, a warm Mediterranean climate in the south. Plus I have an affinity for French language and culture, making this one of my favorite places!

Highlights: Walking the streets of Paris at night; wandering around the Christmas markets in L’Alsace

4. United States
Daydream
Even though this one is obviously biased as it’s my home country, nothing beats the diversity of the United States. From the polar regions in Alaska, to tropical jungles in Hawaii, to the stunning deserts in Utah and Arizona, there is such a huge range of places to see in the US. As a nation made up of immigrants, there is also such a huge pool of diversity in the people as well and you can find pretty much any kind of food from around the world that you can think of if you look in the right places. Despite living there most of my life, there’s still so much I have to see!

Highlights: Washington State in general, my home state (and the best state!); road tripping around Utah and Arizona; summer days with family on the New Jersey shore

5. Ireland
Stormy Skies Over Connemara
I’m currently backpacking through Ireland at the moment so I might still be caught up with the initial awe and excitement of being here, but I’ve loved every bit of it so far! Ireland is an absolutely beautiful country, especially out west and to the north along the rugged, weathered coast. While the weather might not be so nice all the time (where else is it sunny, then rain sideways, and hails all within a 10 minute time span?), it’s breathtaking when the sun is out. Irish people also have to be the among the most charming and friendly people I’ve met so far. I love Irish accents and find some of the expressions and things they say very amusing! Everyone is so chatty and welcoming that it’s super easy to make friends with the locals here!

Highlights: Driving around Slea’s Head; Killarney National Park; hanging out with locals in pubs

6. Portugal
Lonely Beach | Lagos, Portugal
Portugal is another place I’ve visited recently and absolutely fell in love with. I had no expectations coming here and ended up finding a place with picturesque cities, warm and welcoming people, amazing food and wine (port wine is out of this world), a nice warm climate most of the year, and beautiful landscapes. I was very surprised to find that many people here speak very good English, making it a lot easier to talk to people! It’s also a great destination to go to if you’re on a budget, as everything is cheap here compared to the rest of Europe. I’m still getting over the buzz of being in Portugal and really want to go back again sometime!

Highlights: Drinking port wine in Porto; exploring castles in Sintra; kayaking along the Algarve Coast in Lagos

7. Vietnam
Hmong Family
Vietnam is one of those countries visitors either love or hate, and fortunately I fall in the love category. From the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh which are buzzing day and night with the noise of endless waves of motorbikes, to walking with the ethnic Hmong people in the quite rice terraces in the north around Sapa, this is a country rich with history, cultural diversity, and one of the most distinguished cuisines in the world. The food alone is a major reason to love Vietnam. The variety in different dishes they have is astounding. There is quite a defined backpacker/tourist trail that runs the length of the country, but there are so many relatively undiscovered places to explore if you go off the beaten path.

Highlights: Boat trip on the river in Trang An, through stunning karst formations; Hoi An; canyoning in Dalat; trekking and doing a home stay with Hmong people in Sapa

8. Peru
The Locals of Machu Picchu
Peru is a special country to me, because it was the first place where I began traveling solo! I spent a week there in the area around Cusco and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which is still one of my most memorable trips to date. While I would have liked to have stayed longer to see more of the country, what I did see and experience there was inspiring and made me want to travel independently as much as I could from that point on. I remember feeling so nervous and awkward when I arrived at the airport and I had to bargain with some dodgy cab drivers to get to my hostel. I stayed in a hostel by myself for the first time and forced myself to talk to strangers to make new friends. I Wandered around and got lost in the streets of Cusco and tried new foods in the local market. On the day of the trek our group had breakfast with a Peruvian family on their farm. It was exhilarating Walking through the Andes and being surrounded by stunning scenery everywhere, being in awe as I walked through the ruins of Machu Picchu. I would love to go back here again and see more of South America in general!

Highlights: Cuy (guinea pig) breakfast on a farm in the countryside; trekking on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; climbing Huayna Picchu

9. Hong Kong
Hong Kong Lights
I love Hong Kong. It’s the kind of city that’s always buzzing with life and there’s always something interesting happening around the corner. It’s blessed with a beautiful harbor and surrounded by jungle-covered mountains. The contrast between nature and cosmopolitan city life here is amazing. One minute you can be on a bustling street surrounded by enormous sky scrapers, the next you can find yourself on a quite path going up into the mountains. And the food here is to die for! I loved exploring all the exotic fruits in the street markets (rambutans and mangosteens are my Asian favs). Chinese food in general is addicting, and the experience of being the only westerner in a family-owned noodle restaurant is memorable. I’ll never be able to look at Chinese food anywhere else in the world the same way again, the real stuff is so good!

Highlights: Eating amazing Chinese food; seeing Victoria Harbour at night; exploring the markets; cable car ride up to the Giant Buddha statue

10. Nepal
Swayambhunath | Kathmandu
As a lover of hiking and mountains, Nepal was always on my list of places to visit. Now I can say I finally have and it’s just as brilliant as I thought it would be! Despite going in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake, the country is very much open for tourism. The country is one of the best places in the world for trekking, the opportunities are endless. I did the Everest trek and although I did have a bout of food poisoning and altitude sickness (not a great combo), it was a very memorable experience. Aside from the stunning beauty of the Himalayas, Nepal is also very rich in culture and diversity. There are over 40 different ethnic groups and tribes living here and the beauty of the Himalaya is stunning.

Highlights: Trekking up the EBC trail and seeing Mount Everest up close.

Why You Need To Go To Nepal Now

EBC Trek | Ama Dablam

As my plane touched down at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, I really wasn’t sure what I would find in a place that recently suffered from natural disaster. The date was November 30, 2015, a little over 7 months after news spread across the world of a massive earthquake that rocked a small country nestled among the highest mountain range in the world.

From the airport I took a taxi into the city, and as we drove I looked out the window and assessed the conditions of post-quake Nepal. To my surprise, everything seemed to be business as usual as far as I could tell. The only thing that became apparent to me right away was that even during rush hour, the roads seemed much emptier and lacking the endless bumper-to-bumper traffic that is typically omnipresent throughout Asian cities. My initial assumption was that this was a result of the earthquake, but my driver explained to me that the big concern at the moment for most Nepalese people is actually India’s oil embargo on Nepal. This has gone on since September 2015 and many believe India’s actions are in response to the country’s newly drafted and controversial constitution. As a landlocked nation, Nepal is entirely dependent on it’s southern neighbor of India for fuel and other important resources. The resulting fuel shortage means more people are off the roads (which might help a little in reducing the high pollution levels in Kathmandu), but it also means that the people have less access to foods and supplies (like medicine) that normally have to be imported by trucks.

To make matters worse, since the earthquake, the western media has portrayed Nepal as an unsafe and unstable place to visit. Even in the weeks prior to my arrival, I was still seeing images of famous, beautiful temples in rubble and buildings in ruin. This has resulted in a huge setback in the tourism industry. Fewer visitors, unfortunately, means many people who work as guides, porters, hoteliers, and many other tourism-based jobs that are vital to the economy (tourism is the largest industry) are unemployed. It was shocking to see the numbers posted on this sign at the park office at the entrance to Sagamartha National Park, down on average 50% of the usual inflow.

EBC Trek | Tourist Numbers

While I did observe some damaged areas in Kathmandu, it certainly wasn’t widespread. Most of the main historic sights and infrastructure had been reopened or was being rebuilt. Unfortunately the epicenter was closest to the most densely populated part of the country, which is why there was such a high number of people affected. But at the time of the earthquake, news media made it seem as if the entire country was destroyed. In many other areas around Nepal, such as the popular Everest region, the effects of the earthquake were much less. When I did my trek in early December 2015, I noticed hardly any signs of damage aside from a few buildings, which may have suffered due to poor construction to begin with anyway. In other regions, such in the country’s far west and east, minimal to no damage was reported.

Harati Devi Temple | Kathmandu

To hear all the negative news coverage was discouraging because during my few weeks in Kathmandu and trekking in the Himalayas, I saw a very different Nepal. I saw a colorful, diverse, and vibrant nation full of stunning scenery and friendly, resilient people who are desperate for the tourists to return. The truth is, there’s nothing much to worry about at the moment for visitors. It’s still fairly safe, the country is still stunningly beautiful, and the people who are well-known for their friendliness are just as warm and hospitable as ever.

Nepal has declared itself open for tourism. They desperately need visitors to return. So if there was a better time to go, let 2016 be the year to see this amazing place.

10 Magical Places In Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a remarkable part of the world. The region is bursting with vibrant cultures, wild jungles, alluring beaches, exotic temples, natural beauty, and fascinating cuisines, making it one of the most desirable destinations for travelers. Despite the ever-growing tourist trail that people typically follow, there are still a few places here and there that still make you feel as if you’ve discovered something special. Here were some of my favorite spots during my three month trip through Southeast Asia:

1. Secret Waterfall | Bali
Secret Waterfall | Bali
The Bali highlands are littered with gorgeous waterfalls, some more well-known than others. We planned on spending a day finding some that we read about on Google, but after a chat with our scooter rental man, he advised us of a beautiful set of falls hidden somewhere deep in the mountains that not many westerners ever make it to. So off we went on our scooters through a maze of back roads that brought us up and down steep, jungle-claded hills, through rice farms, narrow paths, and towards the end a long, steep staircase into a canyon where we had to cross a small stream before finally reaching the falls. There were actually five in total, gently cascading down through luscious green foliage clinging to the rock wall. Although I’ve seen much bigger falls in the past, these were especially memorable because of the crazy journey it took to get there–and we nearly had the whole place to ourselves!

2. Ubud Rice Terraces | Bali
Ubud Rice Fields
Just outside of the Balinese cultural center of Ubud, you can find yourself wandering through vibrant green rice farms and rice terraces. There are plenty around to get lost in, including the famous terraces of Tegalalang, but one of my favorite spots was only a 20 minute walk out of town at a little restaurant called Cafe Pomegranate. Built overlooking the rice fields, coming here in the evening hours is an enchanting experience as the sun goes down and the fireflies come out. Their coconut curry is also some of the best I’ve ever had!

3. Angkor Wat | Cambodia
Hidden Temple
While Angkor Wat is perhaps the most well-known destinations in all of Asia, it’s immense size allows for opportunities to leave the crowds and explore the ancient ruins in solitude. It’s so huge that there plenty of places away from the main attractions that see scarcely any visitors. Although we did see the big sights such as Angkor Wat temple and Bayon (which are incredible), we found it amazingly simple taking a side road to other less-visited temples set back further into the jungle. There was even one decent-sized complex that we had all to ourselves! Sometimes it pays to go one way when the crowds go the other.

4. Koh Rong | Cambodia
Koh Rong
A few years ago this place was lying pretty low on the traveler’s radar and was considered a hidden gem. Today, the island gets much more visitors as the secret has gotten out, but compared to other SE Asian tropical islands it’s still relatively undeveloped. And while it rained during the majority of our visit, there was something enchanting about this island. Maybe it was serene atmosphere that came with the absence of cars and motorbikes (there are no roads on the island). Maybe it was, when the sun actually was out, the stunningly blue seas and beautiful white sand beaches. Whatever the reason may be, Koh Rong was for sure one of my favorite places in Cambodia.

5. White Sand Dunes | Vietnam
White Dunes
On the southeastern coast of Vietnam is a little fishing town called Mui Ne, and just outside of Mui Ne is a landscape that will make you believe you are in Saharan Africa rather than Southeast Asia. Huge mountains of sand rise up here, a stark contrast to the green countryside that’s typical in Vietnam. You can rent an ATV to get around on the dunes, but they’re rather noisy and get stuck in the sand easily. The best way is to just walk, feeling the warm sand between your toes and hearing only the wind blow.


6. Tam Coc & Trang An | Vietnam

Tam Coc
One of my favorite places in Vietnam, the area around Ninh Binh looks very similar to the famous Ha Long Bay just a few hours away, only it’s located inland among rice fields. The landscape here is breathtaking with beautiful karst formations that rise up from the earth resembling the backs of dragons. Taking a boat trip on the Tam Coc and Trang An rivers are the highlight of this area, taking you through some epic scenery and mesmerizing grottoes beneath the mountains. Best of all, the area is somewhat off the main grid that so many travelers in Vietnam follow. On my ride up the river in Trang An, I was the only westerner and had a great trip connecting with some of the local Vietnamese tourists in my boat, making for an enriching experience!

7. Hoi An | Vietnam
Evening In Hoi An
If you ever ask anyone where to go and what to do on a trip to Vietnam, there is a really good chance they will mention Hoi An. Hoi An is a beautiful little town on a river with a long history of Chinese and Japanese traders settling here. Although there really isn’t much to do here per se, Hoi An is well-known simply because of its relaxed, yet vibrant atmosphere. On any given night, the lantern filled streets and archaic buildings almost seem like a scene out of a Miyazaki film. It’s also a great foodie destination. Some of my favorite Vietnamese foods originate from Hoi An. It’s a place not to be missed when traveling in Vietnam!

8. Kuang Si Waterfalls | Laos
Kuang Si Waterfalls
This place is a real gem, situated about 18 miles outside of Luang Prabang in central Laos. Consisting of several tiers of turquoise-colored pools amidst a lush green tropical Laotian jungle, it might as well be paradise. Especially on a hot day, a swim in the pools is so nice and refreshing!

9. Ko Nang Yuan | Thailand
Koh Nang Yuan
Somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand are three little islands interconnected to one another by a beautiful white sandbar. The island, just a short hop away from the diving mecca known as Ko Tao, is a perfect place for a day trip relaxing on the beach or snorkeling among the coral gardens in the shallow clear blue waters.

10. Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh | Thailand
Maya Bay
Made famous by the movie “The Beach”, this beautiful place is often extremely crowded and overrun by tourists by day. Fortunately you can avoid the crowds by going later in the evening or early in the morning. I came here on an overnight boat trip and as the sun went down the numbers dwindled, and we literally had the whole beach to ourselves. There is nothing like watching the stars come out while laying on the sand, which literally felt as fine as flour, with the turquoise blue sea gently lapping at your feet. We even went swimming at night to see the phosphorescent plankton–a truly magical experience!

13 Reasons Why I Love Hong Kong

1. The Food Is Incredible
Hong Kong Eats

I had a feeling Chinese food here would be much better than anything I could get back home, but I was blown away by how amazing it really is. I spent a few days eating mostly dim sum and noodles, but there are also lots of other incredible foods here that just make your taste buds dance. Never again will I be able to eat Chinese food any where else with the same appreciation.

2. Hong Kong Milk Tea
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As a big lover of bubble tea I just had to try Hong Kong’s famous milk tea. It didn’t disappoint, I had some of the best bubble tea during my time here!

3. Getting Around Is Super Efficient and Easy
Hong Kong Street Car

There are so many ways to get around Hong Kong. Taxis, trams (pictured above), buses, ferries, gondolas, cable cars, hydrofoils, pedicabs, and an extensive metro system makes getting around the city easy and cheap. There are even underground walkways in some parts of the city so you don’t have to deal with traffic, rain, or the sweltering heat. Getting around the city is a sinch!

4. It’s Both Modern and Traditional
Monastery

One one side of the street you can have a modern skyscraper and just opposite you can find a monastery decorated with traditional and colorful Chinese elements.

5. The Festivals
Cheung Chau Festival

I was lucky to be there during the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, a quirky local festival that takes place a ferry ride away from the main city on the island of Cheung Chau. Aside from traditional ceremonies and a parade through town, the highlight of the event involves competitors climbing a 60 foot tower made of buns. It’s kind of a strange event, but that’s what makes things here so unique! It’s just one of several festivals that take place throughout the year in Hong Kong.

6. The Harbor At Night
Hong Kong Lights

There is nothing like strolling along the Avenue of the Stars at night to see the city light up across beautiful Victoria Harbour.

7. It’s Easy To Find Solitude
Cheung Chau

Despite being a major city, most of Hong Kong is actually rural and quite pristine. There are miles and miles of hiking trails through mountains and lush jungles around the city. And with hundreds of islands around, there are plenty of beaches you can go to and have the place to yourself!

8. The City Is Always Moving
Streets of Hong Kong

No matter what time of day, the city never seems to sleep.

9. There Is Always Something Interesting Around the Corner
Hong Kong in Rain

You never know what you’re going to find.

10. There Is Nature Everywhere
Kowloon Park

I have never seen a more literal interpretation of the term “urban jungle” than in Hong Kong. One minute you can be strolling along the city streets, the next you can find yourself on a quite path through the forest.

11. The Markets
Hong Kong Street Market

Hong Kong is full of markets and you can find so many interesting things in them. From cheap clothes to expensive, tailored suits and dresses, useless knick knacks, natural medicinal remedies, electronic accessories, flowers, exotic fruits and veggies, and amazing street food, you can find pretty much anything in the markets. There’s even a famous goldfish market full of aquariums where you can buy what else–goldfish of course.

12. Beautiful Art Is Everywhere
Guardian of the Monastery

There is beautiful art everywhere in Hong Kong, both modern and traditional. Especially in parks, which are beautifully decorated with stone statues, shrines, and zen-like gardens.

13. This View
Hong Kong at Night

There’s nothing like the glorious view that can be found from the top of Victoria Peak, making Hong Kong one of the most picturesque cities in the world.

Finding Paradise in El Nido

El Nido - Dolarog Beach

When I think of the Philippines, I think of beautiful beaches fringed with coconut trees, dense jungles, colorful coral reefs, and tiny little islands scattered across a vibrant blue sea. While there are many places throughout this island nation that may fit that description, it couldn’t have been more so than in El Nido on the island of Palawan. Going to El Nido was actually one of the main reasons why I decided to go to the Philippines. A few years ago I was watching an episode of the Amazing Race and they went to what was then a tiny little fishing village nestled between towering limestone cliffs. They then had to sailed out to the stunning Bacuit Archipelago just off the coast, and I was instantly enamoured with the place–I knew I wanted to go there one day!

So now that I’ve been there and seen it first-hand, I can tell you it was the most beautiful place I went to in the Philippines. In fact, I’d say it is a pretty good contender for one of the most beautiful places in world. While it’s obvious that the town has seen some growth in the past few years due to increased tourism, it’s natural beauty still remains mostly unspoiled. The islands here are spectacular and are riddled with thousands of dramatic limestone formations, hidden coves, and secret beaches. Island hopping is biggest activity to do here and can easily be arranged at any of the numerous tour operators in town. Day trips are generally around 1200 php (about $27 USD) and include lunch. Depending on the operator, you may or may not have to rent out snorkel gear (fortunately I had my own as our boat didn’t include it). The tours are simply named Tour A, B, C, and D, with A and C being the most popular as they take you to some of the archipelago’s best spots and highlights.

El Nido Town
El Nido

The boats generally leave around 9 am and come back late in the afternoon, so there is plenty of time out on the water. If that’s not enough, some operators also offer overnight tours, which I wish I had known about as spending a night on one of the islands sounds amazing! I ended up doing Tour A with a friend I met on the ride up to El Nido. Since it was the middle of the high season a lot of the boats were full of people, with 15-20 pax in each boat. We got lucky with ours somehow as it was just us and only two other people. It might as well been a private trip!

We made several stops throughout the day to explore a beach or go swimming, but my favorites by far were the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. The Big Lagoon is shallow passage between tall limestone cliffs that guard a large sheltered lagoon. Since the water is shallow inside the passageway, boats can only really enter at high tide. Small Lagoon is similar in that it’s surrounded by beautiful cliffs, but can only be accessed by a small hole in the rock that you have to swim or kayak through. Both were stunning and I couldn’t believe that places like this actually exist.

Entering The Big Lagoon
Big Lagoon
Island Hopping - El Nido

For snorkeling-lovers like myself, El Nido was heaven. While the snorkeling in the beautiful lagoons themselves were so-so, there are plenty of reefs around the islands you could spend a lifetime exploring. The coral gardens around are so colorful and abundant with life. We saw a sea turtle, barracudas, and a even a sea snake! When the boat wasn’t moving, we were snorkeling–we spent so much time in the water swimming with the fish. I think the snorkeling was actually the best part of the tour.

Under The Yellow Sea
El Nido Reef

Back in El Nido, when we weren’t sailing around the islands, we simply spent our days on the beach. The town beach in El Nido proper is okay, but the water is mildly murky and the bay is crowded with boats. A better place is Las Cabanas Beach just a few kilometers south of town and easily accessible by tricycle for about 50 php. It’s much more relaxed here compared to the town beach and there are some good places to get good food and drinks right on the sand. It’s also one of the best places to watch sunsets!

El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset

Compared to the famous islands in Thailand or places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, El Nido is still relatively undiscovered and may as well be one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. Only until recently, in November 2014, the town itself only had electricity for a few hours a day. There’s not even an ATM machine, so travelers must stock up on cash before arrival. Getting there is an adventure in itself–it’s 5-6 hours by van or 6-7 hours bus, all along curvy rural roads that are still unpaved in areas. However, the region has attracted lots of attention in recent years thanks to a growing tourism industry and I can imagine in a few years El Nido will be the next big tourist destination for travelers in Southeast Asia. So get there while you still can!

Bohol: The Island of Chocolate Hills and Tarsiers

Loboc River

Bohol may be just one of the several thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, but it’s one that should not be overlooked. While it may not compare to the stunning scenery of El Nido on Palawan, the island is rich with history, an interesting variety of landscapes and wildlife, beautiful jungles, and some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels.

Arriving by ferry from Cebu, I was greeted at the wharf in Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital, by the usual throng of taxi and tricycle riders who tend to mob tourists looking for potential customers. My original plan was to take the bus to my accommodation, but eventually gave in to the pressure after a very determined young driver followed me all the way to the end of the pier asking if I needed a ride. When I asked where his car was parked, he pointed to a ruddy-looking motorbike that looked way too small for me and my big backpack. “Are you sure we can fit everything on there?” I nervously asked, having never ridden on a motorbike in my life, never mind with a complete stranger. “Yes, yes, it will be okay,” he nodded with an optimistic smile. I hopped on and we were off.

Loboc River SwingWe rode through the countryside past rice fields, old churches, groups of waving, smiling kids, and dodged the occasional chicken or dog that decided to stray out onto the road. The driver, Brian, was great, pointing out different points of interest and explaining their importance. About 45 minutes later we arrived at Fox and the Firefly Cottages in central Bohol. Located outside the nearby town of Loboc, the hostel was in the countryside in a pretty remote area next to a slow-moving river. Out here, the night air was filled only with the sound of frogs and crickets. It was a relaxing spot, and the owners and the locals living in the neighborhood were very nice! And being right next to the river, it was a great place to swim and cool off during the heat of the day.

Panglao Island

The next morning I caught a ride on a jeepney (an old converted WWII US Army jeep which provides the most popular form of public transportation in the PI) and made my way down to Panglao Island on Bohol’s south end. This is where some of the nicest white sand and palm fringed beaches in the province are found, granted it’s also the most touristy as the coastline is congested with hotels and resorts. Alona Beach is the most popular, but I decided to go to Dumaluan Beach with a nice German couple I met on the jeepney as we heard it was less crowded. The only way onto the beach was by going through one of the resorts, which was packed with Filipinos on holiday, but we easily escaped the crowds by simply walking a few hundred feet up the shoreline. Apparently the diving is really good off the coast here (the Philippines in general is supposed to be amazing for diving), which made me wish I had my PADI certification!

Chocolate Hills After a nice day at the beach, I left my new friends and headed back inland to the island’s most famous feature, the Chocolate Hills. The symmetrical grass-covered hills get their name when they turn a brownish color during the dryer times of the year. Many people, myself included, would say they resemble something out of a scene in a Super Mario game. It’s considered one of the best things to do in the Philippines, and while interesting to look at, there’s really not a whole lot else to do here. Still worth a look though, especially if you come at sunset!

Tarsier

Another famous curiosity is the Philippine tarsier, one of the world’s smallest primates which are endemic to the Philippines and are mostly found on Bohol. These odd-looking critters are an endangered species and are very hard to find in the wild, so we went to one of the nearby sanctuaries to see if we could see some. We ended up not seeing just one, but several of the little primates hiding in the trees and bushes around the park. They really are bizarre looking, with huge eyes and extremely long hind legs and fingers. Since their eyeballs are immovable, they also have the ability to rotate their head 180 degrees! Cute, but also kind of creepy, they reminded me of gremlins.

Boholanos

Two days was not enough time to spend on Bohol. While the island may look small on the map, it takes a few hours to cross and it’s rumored there are several beautiful hidden places that many travelers often overlook, places I would have loved to have visited if I had more time!

Swimming With Whale Sharks In Oslob

Whale Shark

The Philippines is famous for its abundant wildlife living under the sea. Thousands of people come here every year for the excellent diving and snorkeling. It’s also one of the best places to swim with the world’s largest fish—the whale shark. Also known as butanding in Tagalog, these gentle giants can grow up to 41 feet (12 meters) long and weigh as much as 23.5 tons. Despite their intimidating size, whale sharks are mostly slow-moving and fairly mellow creatures, drifting close to the surface through the world’s tropical oceans, filter feeding on plankton and small fish as they go.

You can find whale sharks pretty much anywhere in the Philippines, but there are two places in particular where they are especially common–Donsol and Oslob. Located on the southern end of the island of Luzon, Donsol has grown from a sleepy little fishing village to a whale shark watching mecca over the past few years. The other locale is near the little town of Oslob in Cebu, where the whale sharks can be found just a few hundred feet offshore.

Whale Shark

Getting to Oslob is rather easy. There are daily domestic and international flights flying right into Cebu City. From the airport you can take a taxi to the South Bus Station (about 250 pisos) where you can then take a bus to Oslob. The journey takes around 3-4 hours and cost only 150 pisos for an air-conditioned bus. I found the bus system on Cebu to be really good with buses making several trips between Cebu City and Oslob throughout the day.

Originally I had planned on seeing the whale sharks in Donsol, but since I was coming to Cebu anyway to visit the nearby island of Bohol I figured I would save time by going to Oslob. Upon arrival in town, I was told the best time of day to see the whale sharks was in the early morning as that’s the time of day they come to feed. The cost of swimming with the whale sharks is 1100 pisos for foreigners (about $25 USD) and includes your snorkeling gear, boat, and environmental fee. Before setting out to sea, we were given a quick briefing of the dos and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks. A few in particular I remember was that we weren’t allowed to wear sunscreen since it’s toxic to them. Another was we were supposed to give them a 3 meter berth and that we couldn’t touch them. Simple enough.

Whale Shark

We got in our boat and paddled off from the beach around 06:30 and within five minutes we were at the spot where the sharks were in water. Being only a few hundred feet off shore the water was shallow, maybe only 20 feet deep. As soon as we jumped in there was already one swimming by! Over the duration of the experience, I was surprised not only to see one or even two sharks, but a total of 5 whale sharks! Incredible. We didn’t have to go very far either as they swam right by the boat. They were varying sizes, but the largest one I saw was maybe around 30 feet long. We were given 30 minutes to swim with the sharks and I felt that was plenty of time.

Whale Shark

Until 2011, Oslob was just another little fishing town off the southeastern coast of Cebu. The sharks have been in present in the area for years as they are thought to have been attracted to the small shrimps that the fishermen use for bait to do their fishing. Initially this caused some fishermen to see the sharks as a pest as they ate their bait and scared away the fish and some used to capture and kill them. But when tourists began visiting the site to see the whale sharks, the fishermen saw the opportunity to make some money off of the tourism and the hunting stopped.

Whale Shark

While the hunting has ceased, the feeding of the whale sharks has become a controversial topic. While they’re by no means kept captive by a net, the fact that they’re hand-fed is concerning to a lot of people as the sharks lose their natural migratory habits and become more reliable on humans for food. I also didn’t like how crowded it was–there must have been a hundred people or so out on the water at once. It was pretty noisy and some people were kicking and splashing around. The only real positive thing about seeing the whale sharks in Oslob is that you’re highly likely to see them. I met people who had been to Donsol and while it’s much less crowded there it’s hit and miss. Some people got lucky and had an amazing experience, others not so lucky. But apparently its more regulated and eco-friendly in Donsol as well, something I think the people in Oslob could learn from.