Tips for Long-Term Backpacking on a Budget: Part II

We know that the prospect of long-term backpacking, especially on a budget, can be both exhilarating and terrifying. If you’re wondering how far you can stretch your funds, what to do about insurance, how to protect yourself against identity theft, what types of technology will be your best friends, and just plain how to approach life on the road, then this article is for you! (Click here for Part I of this series covering planning your trip, transportation, accommodations, and health and wellness.)

 

Money Matters 

Budgeting: We attempted to budget $50 a day between the two of us (including our hotel costs, but not including flights). Travel gurus like Nomadic Matt recommend this budget for 1 person, but we tried it as a couple. Most of the time, we stayed on target. Travel days and tourist days usually threw this out the window though, and that was ok, because there were plenty of times when all we did was cruise the beach or explore a town with our only expenses being food and accommodations. For the first month of our trip, we were very lax about budgeting. After noticing our bank account quickly draining, we immediately set out on a budget, logging purchases every day in the Notes app on our phone. We definitely recommend budgeting from day 1, especially if you have no income. Don’t be fooled by the allure that everything’s cheaper in a particular region. No matter where you travel, every purchase adds up.

Exchanging Money: Though convenient, it’s not necessarily advantageous to change a lot of money at the airport. The airport exchange counters will often boast ‘no fees,’ but that is typically in exchange for a higher conversion rate than you might find on the street. This is where your conversion app comes in handy. Do a conversion ahead of time so you know what to expect. We always tried to use up most of our money in a country before we left, and then took out money at ATMs in the new country.

ATM Fees: Speaking of ATMs…those fees really do add up so take out as much money as you can at a time, every time.

 

Insurance, Finance, & Identity (Oh My!)

Insurance: We used World Nomads for our health insurance and to insure our gear from damage or theft. World Nomads is super flexible regarding the length of time you can purchase insurance. They have seemingly good coverage (we only say that because we never actually used it), and a comprehensive website with tons of travel tips.

Banking & ATMs: On the Thai island, Ko Lanta, we experienced every traveler’s nightmare – our bankcard got stuck in an ATM at 711 (pictured is the actual ATM that ate our card). At this point in our travels, we had no SIM card, so we could not make a phone call to the bank. We waited for about 40 minutes hoping the card would come out, but it never did. A good Samaritan let us use his phone to call the bank, but conversation was difficult with the language barrier. Long story short, our amazing AirBNB hosts tracked our card down on the mainland, and we were able to pick it up a week later in Krabi. Luckily, it perfectly coincided with our onward trip to Cambodia. If it hadn’t, we would have had to cancel the card. All that said – we highly recommend using ATMs at a bank and during banking hours whenever possible. This way, if you have any issue, the tellers can help you on the spot.

Protect Your Internet Security with VPN: We used the VPN service ‘Hide My Ass,’ and it worked well the majority of the time. Where the Internet was weaker in general, it struggled to connect. What is VPN and how does it work? VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It allows you to access the Internet safely and privately by routing your Internet connection through a foreign server while hiding your actions. VPN software encrypts your data making it so that your online activities appear like they are coming from the foreign VPN server, not your computer (thus, hiding what you’re doing – like entering a credit card number into a website, your IP address, etc.). Whenever possible, use your VPN, and especially for online transactions.

Avoiding & Dealing with Identity Theft, Thieves and Fraud: We had our credit card information stolen in Cambodia when making an online purchase over a hotel WiFi signal without using our VPN for just 5 minutes. At an ATM machine in Bali, our bankcards and pin numbers were copied directly from the ATM pad, and each of us had over $200 withdrawn from our accounts months after we returned to the States. Luckily, in both cases, our money was recovered. Fraud can happen at any time and when you least expect it. How to avoid it? Use your VPN whenever making online purchases. Make photocopies of important documents like your passport, license, and all credit cards. Store them somewhere other than where you regularly keep those documents, and hide your cash in several places throughout your bags. We also took out one credit card in each of our names in the event we were in a jam. This was especially helpful when we temporarily lost our debit card to that ATM.

Another tip: Do lock your bags whenever they are unattended, and if there’s a safe in your hotel room, use it. This isn’t personal. We struggled with feeling like locking our bags inherently meant we didn’t trust hotel staff. It doesn’t mean that. What it means is you can’t afford to lose your stuff. If you’re going to be in big crowds, consider a zippered backpack (we also secured our bags with carabineers) and shamelessly wore a fanny pack.

Negotiate Fees Ahead of Time: Whether that’s a hotel room, a cab ride, or a tour guide – it’s always better to determine the price in advance. No surprises make both parties happier. This is particularly important in very touristy areas. We had a tuk tuk driver that was taking us back and forth to Angkor Wat in Cambodia over several days. On the last day, we were continuing on to a farther destination. That morning, he and a group of other cab drivers swarmed us as we loaded into the cab to tell us that the day’s ride would be double the price of the others. Caught off guard, we begrudgingly agreed. If we had discussed the fee the day prior, all of that irritation would have been avoided.

Technology

Power Adapter

Power Adapters: This is something we wondered about before we left the States. Should we purchase power adapters ahead of time? What if we couldn’t find them on arrival and our electronics went dead when we needed them most? Ultimately, we opted to hold out until we arrived in each country, where purchasing the appropriate power adapter was either achieved in the hotel itself, or at a nearby grocery store (within walking distance). We only needed two adapters each for our entire trip. One worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. The other worked in Malaysia and Hong Kong (pictured).

SIM Cards Are Your Friend: SIM cards make your life infinitely easier. They’re cheap, simple to get (at 711 or the grocery store), and are refillable by making a call. All you need is an unlocked cell phone. Before we discovered the world of SIM cards, we relied on WiFi for Internet and phone calls, which was both limiting and freeing. However, we felt much more confident when we started purchasing SIM cards, and were able to do a whole lot more, too.

Apps: We relied on a lot of apps during our travels. Here’s what we used: XE Currency Converter, our bank and credit card apps, Uber (yes, Uber is available in many countries), flashlight app, AirBNB, Hostel World, VPN (Hide My Ass), Google Translate, Google Maps (you can download maps directly to your phone to access without an Internet signal if needed), Agoda, Skype and What’s App for making free phone calls using WiFi. Note that you’ll need a valid phone number to use What’s App.

Equipment

Equipment: Depending on your purposes, you may need to bring more or less technical equipment on your trip. As bloggers, we each brought a laptop, mini external hard drives, shared an iPhone, a solar powered charger, and brought along a waterproof GoPro (highly recommended if you’re planning on snorkeling or scuba diving). We also each had a Kindle.

 

Adjusting to Long Term Travel

Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude: Be flexible. Your attitude can make an uncomfortable situation either funny, tolerable, interesting, or miserable. We loved the advice we once read about imagining ourselves sprinkling magic fairy dust on everyone we encountered on our travels, especially those in the service industry. Smile. Ingratiate yourself. Asking people how they’re doing and taking the time to say thank you can go a long way. And tipping, though not necessarily expected, can really make someone’s day.

Dealing With Authorities: Immigration, customs, Visa processing, police – it can be intimidating. Be polite, own the frame, and act with integrity. You do not necessarily have the same rights you’re used to at home.

Drugs: We are not in favor of the criminality of substances, but we don’t make the laws. If you’d like to use some illegal drugs while you’re traveling abroad, you might want to look into the penalties for said activities ahead of time. The punishment you can face if caught for something as benign as smoking marijuana is pretty frightening in some places and totally not worth the risk (in our opinion).

Bagan

Respect Local Customs: As Westerners, we are used to being able to wear what we want out in public, but in some countries it’s not appropriate to go out without covering up, regardless of your gender. Even if it’s hot, even if it seems silly, or you just plain don’t like it, remember that attitude of gratitude and wanting to be a good steward on someone else’s land. Cover up when appropriate and respect the rules at religious sites.

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Speaking in Tongues: Make an effort to learn a little bit of the local language everywhere you go, even if it’s just hi and thank you. Locals always appreciate when you try to speak their language.

Bathrooms: Bathrooms vary where you travel, but in SE Asia, the toilet, shower, and sink combo are typically all in one space and sometimes crammed on top of each other. In our hotel in Hong Kong, we could shower, sit on the toilet and brush our teeth at the same time. In less developed countries you might also encounter the squatty potty, which is like a trough in the ground. Also good to know: in many SE Asian countries you should never put toilet paper, tampons or any other foreign objects into the toilet, as the plumbing cannot handle it. Spray guns attached to the toilet (bum gun as we called it), or just a bucket of water to wash off, may be found with or without toilet paper in some places. You get used to it. When we didn’t know what to expect, we brought our own TP, just in case.

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Sustainability: Traveling long term often leads to tourists producing heaps of waste in whatever country they’re visiting, be it plastic bottles, bags, straws, food packaging, and more. You can go the extra eco-friendly mile by bringing along a reusable water bottle, shopping bag, and straw. If this isn’t possible for some reason, opt not to use straws, reuse disposable water bottles and bags, and of course, recycle whenever possible.

Lastly, if you’re looking to see wild animals while abroad it’s essential to research all wildlife tourism outlets in advance. Check out our article on this subject to learn more about this industry, and the places we recommend visiting.

Enjoy Your Trip!

Bali Know Stone Unturned

Backpacking for an extended period of time is the experience of a lifetime. Enjoy every moment. You will likely cherish them for the rest of your life!

Let us know where you’re headed this summer in the comments.

Wildlife Tourism Exposed: Nat Geo Uncovers the Truth About This Shadowy Industry

A tourist riding an elephant in Phuket, Thailand. Though elephants are considered domestic animals in the country, they must endure a brutal crushing of the spirit in order to serve man.

Wildlife tourism is a booming international business born out of the human desire to engage with exotic animals. Inextricably linked with the illegal wildlife trade – a black market with an annual estimated worth of $7 – $23 billion that puts 7,000 species at risk – the tourism industry has a dark side that has long been hidden from the public.

During our travels in South East Asia we had a number of unforgettable experiences with wildlife, as well as the chance to observe good and bad practices across the region. National Geographic’s recent exposé on the topic is a deep dive into this shadowy industry, and is essential reading for anyone passionate about travel, animal rights, and conservation. Below is an account of some of our experiences with wildlife tourism, our recommendations on where to go and what to avoid.

Interacting with captive elephants is very easy in South East Asia where thousands work in tourism, and where opportunities to ride elephants are widely available. We took the above photo while hiking to Big Buddha Phuket on a very hot day in Thailand. The hike took us through a jungle path along a cliff overlooking the Andaman Sea and past an elephant trekking camp on a busy road. The photo pretty much captures how elephant tourism works.

It’s easy to see that the tourist on the elephant appears overjoyed. Riding an elephant is probably a life long dream of hers because she likely has no idea of the cruel breaking of the spirit, known as phajaan, or the crush, that all elephants must endure in order to be obedient enough to give rides and perform tricks. Phajaan is a torturous event over days or weeks that usually occurs when an elephant is a baby or juvenile. The babes are separated from their mothers and beaten until they have lost the will to resist the elephant trainer, called the mahout.

The mahout sitting on the elephant’s neck in the photo uses his feet to guide the elephant by tapping her forehead with his right heel and steering her movements with his left foot on her ear. The bull hook in his hand, the tool most commonly used to control and discipline elephants, looms ominously above her head. A pink scar rings her back left ankle, likely the result of prolonged restraint. These are the things we can see.

What’s not visible in the photo are the concrete slabs connected to thick chains that line the edge of the cliff where we assumed the elephants rest at night, or the shacks in the jungle where it’s likely the mahouts and their families live. Beyond the animal cruelty that often goes unseen in this business is the human suffering of the animal caretakers who rely on the industry for their livelihoods. In Thailand, elephants are legally classified as domestic animals like horses or cows, and elephant training, like farming or ranching, is often a family tradition. In the case of elephant ownership, a lack of upward mobility often keeps families stuck in the cycle. The mahout is not the owner of the elephant camp.

We watched the above elephant in a caravan of several pass us, including one who walked with all four legs shackled together. When we reached the main road and entrance to the camp we discovered a baby elephant pacing in a small pen and a young male attached to a chain constantly pulling on his short tether. A family with a young child paid to feed him. We were asked if we wanted to feed the baby elephant, but declined, and continued on our hike unsettled by what we had seen.

Elephants carry tourists in high heat at Angkor Wat’s Bayon Temple in Cambodia. An elephant that died of heatstroke under these conditions in 2016 sparked an international outcry, including a petition to ban elephant riding in Cambodia that was signed by tens of thousands. This photo was taken in 2017.

National Geographic’s recent article covers a wide range of animals involved in wildlife tourism, from bears to wolves, sloths, elephants, tigers and marine animals spanning countries and continents. The main take away, though, is not just an understanding of the misery often involved in wildlife tourism, but the way tourists are duped. When writing about elephant camps in Thailand the article’s authors described two camps: one that offers elephant rides, and another that calls itself a sanctuary. At the “sanctuary” the animals seem free from servitude. But it turns out both camps are owned by the same company, and those elephants at the “sanctuary” also give rides.

This story hit close to home for us. One of our favorite experiences during our time in Asia was a day of snorkeling in Thailand, which we booked on a whim through our hotel. It was only later that we discovered the same company also offered elephant rides. Had we known at the time, we would have taken our business elsewhere.

We had a similar experience in Borneo when we visited two wildlife centers operated by the Malaysian government: Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which appears to be doing great work returning orangutans to the jungle permanently, and their counterpart, Matang Wildlife Centre, which houses a menagerie of endangered and exotic animals that have been injured, orphaned, or rescued from the exotic pet trade. At Matang, most of the animals were living in cramped, small and sparse enclosures unlike their freely roaming cousins in Semenggoh.

Though Matang is not a zoo or sanctuary, not all the animals living there are releasable, causing visitors to wonder why the permanent residents are not living in better conditions. With no rangers available to answer questions, we left with the impression that Matang is under staffed, under funded, and poorly maintained, housing depressed and distressed wild animals. What we saw – pacing sun bears, an orangutan staring at the wall, rhinoceros hornbills in small confines, and a gibbon that threw poop at us – did not give us a good feeling, and it turns out other visitors shared our concerns. A slew of negative reviews on TripAdvisor have since reached the government, though it remains to be seen if any action will be taken to improve the conditions at Matang.

Orangutans at Matang Wildlife Centre in 2017.

Though not all experiences with wildlife tourism involve cages, chains, and trainers, when booking a tour out in nature you can still encounter some less than stellar guides and operators.

In Indonesia, we booked two tours around Komodo National Park that involved snorkeling with manta rays. It was surprisingly difficult to find information on most tour companies ahead of time, with many travel bloggers advising visitors to book in person. We scheduled one tour in advance with a sustainably minded company and the second on arrival, resulting in two very different snorkeling experiences.

The guides from the tour booked in person urged our group to jump into the ocean practically on top of the manta rays into a dark, swift current without any explanation of what to expect, while guides from the tour booked in advance encouraged us to calmly and gently enter the water at a distance so as not to disturb these gentle giants. Though no one was hurt with the first tour group, we felt that the experience could have been dangerous for us and the mantas.

So how can you avoid supporting unsavory organizations when seeing wildlife?

Research is your best bet. Visit the company websites and look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor before booking. Reading blogs about others’ experiences can also be helpful. Though this will usually do the trick, it’s not always possible to know what a wildlife center, park or tour will be like until you get there. If something seems amiss, ask employees, and share your experience with others. Generally speaking, if an animal is performing i.e. being made to pose for photos, be constantly handled, do tricks, or give rides, it’s probably not a good situation. If you are able to interact with wildlife, it’s important that any contact is on the animal’s terms.

Arctic wolf, Sugar, relaxing at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in New Mexico.

Thankfully, there are plenty of sanctuaries, national parks, and reserves that offer opportunities to engage with wild animals ethically. Here are our recommendations on where to visit based on our experiences:

  • Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand – This sanctuary for elephants rescued from logging and tourism is truly fantastic. They have several projects around Thailand and neighboring countries allowing tourists to interact with retired elephants humanely. A number of tours and volunteer opportunities are offered. We volunteered on site for a week.

  • Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Kuching, Borneo – The orangutans at Semenggoh have been rehabilitated and released back into the wild after being injured, orphaned, or rescued from lives as pets. The center is open twice a day for visitors to observe orangutans during feeding times, though seeing them is not guaranteed. Visitors have no contact with the orangutans.

  • Komodo National Park with Flores XP Adventure, Indonesia – Flores XP Adventure is an eco tourism company offering tours around Komodo National Park. On our single day tour, we saw komodo dragons, dolphins, tropical fish, manta rays, reef sharks, and flying foxes in the wild. Tourists have no contact with the animals.

  • Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, Ramah, New Mexico – WSWS rescues wolves and other wild canines from the exotic pet trade, providing lifetime sanctuary. Like ENP, visitors can choose from a number of tours and volunteer opportunities. We worked at WSWS for two years and definitely recommend a visit.

  • Wolf Haven International, Tenino, Washington – Wolf Haven also rescues and provides lifetime sanctuary for displaced wolves and wolf-dogs. They are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association. Guided tours with no animal contact are available by appointment.

  • Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali – The Monkey Forest Sanctuary is home to over 600 long-tailed macaques on 30 acres of protected jungle within the city of Ubud. The monkeys are wild, but not shy. Although it is possible to touch them, it’s not recommended.

  • Bako National Park, Borneo, Malaysia – During our visit to this protected peninsula, we saw bearded boars, proboscis monkeys, macaques, a pit viper, and many other animals along the trails and beach. There is no interaction with the wild animals at Bako.

Ultimately, wildlife tourism exists because people love animals, but if we remain shielded from the reality of the industry, elephant riding, tiger cuddles, exotic animal performance, and ownership will continue. As awareness of the unethical practices involved in most animal attractions spreads, the industry will have to change, benefitting humans, animals and ecosystems alike.

*Interested in more ways to help? Thailand is planning to allow Asian elephants, an endangered species, to be exported from the country beginning June 23, 2019 for the purposes of research, study, good relations, and parts or products for academic research or as antiques/art objects. Asian elephants are a keystone species making them critical to their ecosystems, and with only about 1,000 left in the wild in Thailand, this new law, which would lift a ban on elephant exportation that has been in place for the last decade, is likely to compromise the Asian elephant’s future in Thailand and beyond. You can help by signing and sharing this petition to stop Thailand from exporting elephants.

A happy herd at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Orangutan Sanctuary: Visiting Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Borneo

The allure of seeing orangutans in their natural habitat draws visitors from all over the world to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, a nature reserve just 20 kilometers south of Kuching City in Sarawak, Borneo. Open all year round, the Centre is home to a colony of semi-wild orangutans and is the ideal place to spot this incredibly rare, shy and endangered species in the jungle. Started in 1975 as a sanctuary for orangutans that were injured, orphaned, or illegally kept as pets, today Semenggoh is the largest orangutan rehabilitation center in Sarawak. The Centre offers visiting hours twice a day during which guests can watch the orangutans descend from the treetops to feed. 

A BRIEF HISTORY

With their name meaning ‘people of the forest,’ orangutans only exist in two places in the world: the lush jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. Tragically, deforestation, human encroachment and habitat loss continue to threaten these amazing creatures with extinction. Semenggoh Wildlife Centre exists to conserve these animals and their habitat, while educating the public about the orangutan and their need for protection. 

Run by Sarawak Forestry, Semenggoh boasts a rehabilitation program that has been so successful there are now three generations of orangutans living in the reserve. Beginning with just 11 animals in the 1970s, each rescued between the ages of 1 and 5, the sanctuary now has nearly 30 healthy adolescent and young-adult orangutans living in a population that is so strong the park cannot introduce any more outsiders. The rehabilitation program has since moved to Matang Wildlife Centre in nearby Kubah National Park.

During their rehabilitation, the orangutans undergo training to allow for their eventual release and subsequent independence in the wild. Though they spend most of their time in the jungle, they are also trained to return to the Centre during feeding times when they can receive a free meal, as needed. Since the reserve cannot supply enough wild food for all its inhabitants, the Centre offers feedings to supplement the orangutans diet. While orangutans primarily eat fruit, they also forage for bark, honey, insects, young shoots, and occasionally bird eggs and small vertebrae. During feedings, the Centre offers bananas, sweet potatoes, coconut, papayas, pineapples, sugar cane and hard-boiled eggs.

VISITING

The best time to view the orangutans is outside of the fruiting season, which lasts from November to March, when the animals may not venture back to the Centre to feed. We visited in May, which turned out to be perfect.

The Centre is open twice a day: from 8 – 10 AM and 2 – 4 PM. This is to limit potential contact between humans and orangutans. Feedings occur from 9 – 10 AM and 3 – 4 PM. The entrance fee is about $2.50/person for foreign adults. Pro Tip: Your ticket can be used for the entire day, making it ideal to visit in the morning so that if the orangutans don’t show up for breakfast, you can come back in the afternoon for a second try.

Semenggoh is a 30 – 40 minute drive from Kuching City and is accessible by public transit. We began our morning early, but not early enough to make the 7:15 AM bus, and instead opted for an Uber ($5) which got us to the Centre 20 minutes before feeding time. On the way back, we took the bus.

Upon arrival we purchased our tickets at the main gate and walked down the long road to a small gift shop and information center housing photos and bios of each of the orangutans living in the reserve. After a quick look around, we wandered on toward the viewing platform and found a roped off path leading to the feeding area where we waited in front of a sign reading ‘Sarawak Forestry.’ Shortly after, our guide for the morning, Dominic, appeared and addressed our large crowd of about 40 people.

Dominic advised the group about safety – no eating or drinking, no flash photography, and to stay 20 feet from the orangutans at all times, and of course, to remain quiet. After the introduction we ventured down a short trail to the feeding area and secured ourselves a spot directly in front of the feeding platform surrounded by dense jungle. A staff member tossed bananas onto the platform before calling to the orangutans in a melodic tone that sounded like “aaaoooo!” several times. 

Then the mesmerizing happened: the trees began moving in the distance, limbs shook and swayed until we caught a glimpse of some large orange bodies shifting through the canopy. Two sisters born in the park, each with their baby, descended long ropes to the platform to gather bananas. The ropes allow the orangutans to swiftly and easily access the feeding platform and return to the trees to eat, rather than having to move from tree to tree to get there and back. This also provides visitors with great viewing and photo opportunities. We saw Analisa, the first orangutan to be born in the park, and her young baby, and Saddamiah with her 3 year old, Ruby.

The orangutans moved deftly and quickly through the trees, at once strong, fluid and incredibly acrobatic. It was an immense joy to see them traveling through the jungle, so close to us, yet at a safe distance. Once happily fed, the orangutans departed, disappearing back into the thick forest. In all, we saw them for about 30 – 40 minutes.

By the end of the hour, only a dozen or so spectators remained. At that point, our guide, Dominic, shared with us which orangutans we had seen along with their ages, all information we wouldn’t have known had we left early.

While park staff is eager to usher everyone out after feeding, the reserve is also home to a botanical garden, a crocodile habitat, and other rare animals including the giant squirrel, pigmy squirrel, gibbons and a variety of birds. Those who arrive early may have a chance to spot some of the other flora and fauna the sanctuary has to offer.

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

Having a chance to view orangutans in the wild was an incredible experience, and one we will never forget. Their grace and majesty is truly awesome to behold. We highly recommend a visit to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre where each ticket sold helps support orangutan conservation.

Visiting: The Ice Castles

Tucked into the base of the White Mountain National Forest are NH’s Ice Castles, an acre of hundreds of thousands of hand-placed icicles aglow with LED lights, creating a maze of dreamy frozen canyons, tunnels, squeeze passages, slides, fountains, sculptures, icy thrones, and more. The experience is one of 6 across North America, and the only one of its kind in the Northeast.

Now in its 6th season in NH, visitors can take a horse drawn sleigh around the property, fly down a tandem ice luge slide illuminated by pulsing rainbow lights, and warm up around controlled fire pits with hot cocoa and sweet treats.

The Ice Castles can be found in the following cities: North Woodstock, NH, Dillon, CO, Excelsior, MN, Lake Geneva, WI, Midway, UT, and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

This fun and beautiful attraction is a wonderful way for families, couples, and friends to celebrate the magic of winter.

Tips for Long-Term Backpacking on a Budget: Part I

Padar, part of Komodo National Park, Indonesia

Each New Year brings with it a welcome refresh, and the excitement of new experiences, relationships, and destinations. Will you be traveling to new vistas this year? We know there’s lots to think about when planning a long trip abroad – passports, visas, finances, gear, health, and just plain traveling all the time – especially when backpacking on a budget. The lightness of your pack is freeing, adding more weight to each item brought along, while you collect stories and insights throughout the journey to carry back with you.

This is the first of two articles sharing some of the tips, tricks and hacks we learned along the way through research, mistakes, and experience during our travels in South East Asia. Here we’ll cover planning your trip, transportation, accommodations, and health and wellness.

 

BEFORE YOUR TRIP

US Passport Know Stone Unturned

Passports & Visas: Make sure your passport is up to date well in advance of your trip. Express passport renewal services exist but they’re more costly. Find more information on getting or updating a U.S. passport here.

Some countries require Visas for any length of stay, while others may allow you to visit for anywhere from 1 – 3 months before requiring a Visa. You can determine what countries require Visas by visiting their embassy websites. We used the Department of State website which lists a ton of relevant information by country, including Visa requirements, vaccinations, travel advisories and other tips.

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Onward Ticketing: If like us, you’re vision of long-term travel is one of freedom and openness without having every destination pre-planned, you should know that you will often be expected to have an onward ticket when entering any foreign country. We learned this in the wee hours of the morning at Boston International Airport on our way to Indonesia. Eager to get to Bali and expecting to decide where we’d travel next from there, we discovered that we would not be able to board our plane without proof of our onward destination. This applies to anyone flying internationally with a one-way ticket. For the airlines, your onward ticket is proof that you won’t be staying in a country beyond the time allowed, which is often 30 days. We booked a flight from Bali to Phuket, Thailand, on the spot for just under a month after we would arrive in Indonesia. Crisis averted. Thus armed with the knowledge that we would always be at risk without an onward ticket, but still not wanting to pre-plan our entire trip, we discovered an onward ticketing website that offers a solution to this problem. The site allows users to rent onward tickets for $10 with their names on them to use as proof for the airlines. We used it once or twice, and always with success.

Marry Me Bali Know Stone Unturned

Choosing Your Gear: This was one of the most agonizing decisions we made leading up to our trip, but the amount of research put in more than paid off. We both chose Osprey backpacks: the Farpoint 40 for Nikki and the Porter 46 for Chadley. Those numbers correspond to the volume of each bag, measured in liters. We brought packing cubes to condense our belongings and organize our packs, and day pack Osprey bags for everyday living (these bags are super light and fold up into a neat little ball for easy packing when not in use). Nikki also brought a cross body purse, Chadley brought a Martin Backpacker guitar, and both of us took along sealable waterproof bags, just in case. They came in handy. 

Bali Know Stone Unturned

Pack Light: Less is more, especially in a hot region! Not only will schlepping too much stuff cost you at the airport (see below), but you’ll want to have room to take some special trinkets home with you, including new threads. We saw lots of folks dragging rolling suitcases in the most unlikely places, and even met a backpacking couple with a huge rolling suitcase they called their souvenir bag. You really only need to pack enough clothes for a week or so. (Soap isn’t that hard to find) Ultimately, it’s good to remember whatever you bring with you is what you have to carry, and lift into the overhead bin.

TRANSPORTATION

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Your Baggage Weight Matters: We tried to take our bags with us as ‘carry-on’ every time, and usually we were successful. Once however, we had to pay nearly $100 (more than the plane ticket) to have 2 backpacks checked at the last second, because they weighed too much. While we were used to baggage size requirements in the US, in Asia there are also strict weight limits. As your travels go on your bags tend to get heavier. Go to your airline’s website to find out their weight requirements and check your bag online in advance if needed, it’s much cheaper. However if you are able to travel with only carry-on sized bags, you can reduce costs, and more importantly the risk of being separated from your bags.

Bagan Know Stone Unturned

International Driver’s License: It’s good to look into this if you plan to drive a car or even a motorbike abroad. Getting caught without a valid license by local police could cost you precious time and money you’d rather spend elsewhere. We drove motorbikes without the license and didn’t have any problems, but we were advised by locals to avoid police ‘traps’ on a few occasions.

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Expect Chaos at Airport Taxi Stands: The moment you leave an international airport pretty much anywhere, you will likely be bombarded by taxi drivers wanting to give you a lift. This can be overwhelming if you’re not expecting it. If you are expecting it, it’s much easier to hold your ground, choose the right transport for you, and get the price you can afford. Be confident and take your time. Don’t let anyone rush you into a decision. Extra tip: Look up the standard cab rates in the city you’re traveling to before you get there. If you forget to do that, this information is often in the back of your in flight magazine.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Eden Hotel Bali Kuta

Search Multiple Booking Sites for Accommodations: There are often different deals at different times for many hotels and hostels across platforms. We used Agoda, Orbitz, HostelWorld, and AirBNB primarily. And check the hotel website you’re interested in, too. Technology changes, but the concept of perusing multiple websites for the best deals will remain.

Serenity Eco Guesthouse and Yoga Bali

Where to Stay: We typically stayed in hotels, hostels, and occasionally AirBNB’s that cost between $15 and $25 a night, with a preference for $15 - $20/night. In South East Asia this was most often achievable. We looked for the following in a place to stay: breakfast included, private room with ensuite bathroom, walking distance to attractions yet outside of the hustle and bustle of ‘town,’ WiFi, and a pool if not near the beach. Note: Staying in the shared room at a hostel will run you much less than a private room anywhere, and can be as little as $5 - $10 per night. This is a great way to stretch your funds while meeting lots of new people at the same time.

HEALTH & WELLNESS

Charcoal Powder

The Dreaded D: Bali Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, traveler’s diarrhea, whatever you call it – nobody wants it, but almost everyone gets it. Pack activated charcoal and/or clay tablets for a gentle remedy. This always worked for us. That said, if your condition persists, take something stronger and consider heading to the doctor.

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Avoid Raw and Uncooked Veggies: Unless you know your salad greens were washed in purified water, that super looking health salad might be setting you up for a day or several in your hotel bathroom in some countries. When in doubt, opt for cooked meals.

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Drinking Water: In some countries its best not to drink the tap water without boiling it first to avoid illness. If this is the case, you can take further precautions by not opening your mouth in the shower, and brushing your teeth with filtered water. Pro Tip: Most countries with water sanitation issues use filtered ice, but if you’re unsure whether the ice in your drink is clean, just ask.

Ko Lanta Boat Thailand

Motion Sickness: We're not into pharmaceuticals, but if you’re prone to motion sickness, pack some Dramamine. Rule of thumb, if you hear from other travelers that the route ahead is nauseating – believe it. Nobody wants to be the one person barfing on public transportation all the way to your next destination. Trust us. Additional things that help – Fishermans Mints can calm the stomach, but they are not a solve all.

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First Aid: It’s always good to pack a first aid kit, especially if you’re planning on some adventurous hikes. Here’s what was in ours (italics indicate those items we actually used during our travels): band aids, tweezers, alcohol wipes, antibiotics, anti yeast medication, Dramamine, activated charcoal, goldenseal/Echinacea pills, probiotics, melatonin, turmeric pills, solar powered battery charger, hydration pills, anti-diarrheal medication, heavy duty insect repellent, organic insect repellent, feminine products, and sunscreen. These last two items can run you a pretty penny depending on the country, so you might opt to bring them with you. 

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Vaccines: Depending on where you’re traveling, you may face some mandatory vaccinations. A quick look at the US CDC website per country will help you determine this, along with all the recommended vaccines, which can seem like a long and scary list. Other than what’s mandatory (nothing for where we traveled in South East Asia) the rest of the recommended vaccines are really a personal choice. We opted with two of the plethora of options available - Hepatitis A and Typhoid - and got our shots at Passport Health, which is available in most major cities internationally.

Good to Know: We paid out of pocket because our health insurance would not cover any of the recommended vaccines. If you have great health coverage and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg to get yours at your primary care doctor, obviously opt for that. Passport Health was a good service with kind and knowledgeable staff. We went in Boston, MA, just 24 hours before our flight. Also note, some vaccines require multiple doses over a period of several weeks or months. Do your research in advance so you know what’s required. Regarding insect borne illness – yes, the threat of malaria, and other mosquito born diseases is scary, but unless you’re going to be in the deep jungle trekking for weeks this is probably not a huge issue for you. We bought heavy insect repellent, but never used it and regretted bringing it along. Passport Health gave us a comprehensive booklet with detailed worldwide health information, including what seasons would be worse for certain diseases, as well as the regions affected. All this said – to each their own. Please remember we are not doctors and this is not medical advice.

ENJOY YOUR TRIP!

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai Thailand

Long-term backpacking is wondrous, life changing, and often a once in a lifetime experience. While traveling on a budget can be challenging, the experiences you’ll have will far outweigh the difficulties. In the next article we’ll share our tips on budgeting and finances, insurance, identity theft, technology, equipment, and adjusting to long-term travel.

Where are you going this year? Let us know in the comments!

Feeding 70 Wolves on Christmas

Two Nikki’s: Nikki getting ready to feed high-content wolf-dogs, Nikki and Maki.

After giving and receiving gifts, nothing says “Christmas” quite like sitting down to a delicious feast with those you love. What will you be cooking up this holiday? At Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a refuge for wild canines rescued from the exotic pet trade, employees get into the spirit by serving up hundreds of pounds of raw meat to animals in need.

Nikki hand feeding Arctic wolf siblings Thunder and Alice.

As staff members at WSWS, we woke up early on a white Christmas in 2016 to feed 70 wolves, wolf-dogs, and other wild canines. The morning was bright and beautiful, with deep snow, happy wolves, and an ATV filled with over 200 pounds of meat. Accompanied by two of the sanctuary’s volunteers, we delivered meals to each of the sanctuary’s residents.

WSWS’s rescues typically receive 3-5 pounds of food per feeding five days a week to replicate a natural diet (wolves in the wild can only eat when they catch food, making periods of fasting perfectly normal for them). While most rescues eat frozen meat loaves, some have special diets and feeding arrangements depending on their nutritional and behavioral needs.

Nikki separating high-content wolf-dog, Forest, from Thunder and Alice for safe feeding.

Feeding and fasting days at the sanctuary are the same every week, providing the rescues with a sense of routine. And with the holiday falling on a feeding day, we were happy to help spread some Christmas cheer! Feeding all 70 rescues was a large task for just four people, but the serenity of the snow covered sanctuary on Christmas morning filled us with merriment and joy.

Forest eating while Thunder and Alice eagerly await their breakfast.

Living With Wolves: The Joy of Giving

Lucian, a wolf-dog at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary diving into his holiday present.

“The more we are concerned about the happiness of others, the more we are building our own happiness at the same time.” – The Dalai Lama, Daily Advice from the Heart

Enriching wild animals in captivity is vital to their mental and physical well being. Enrichments promote joy, stimulate the senses and give captive animals something to do outside the norm. Like humans, wolves are family oriented, social animals that love play. At Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a refuge for captive-bred wolves, wolf-dogs and other wild canines rescued from the exotic pet trade, enrichment is central to animal care and is provided in various forms tailored to each rescue’s desires and personality, including various treats, meaty bones, interesting scents, human contact, walks, toys, splash tubs and more.

Wolf-dog, Nimoy, showing off his present.

While the above are delivered daily, special sanctuary wide enrichments occur four times a year, when each rescue receives a seasonally inspired surprise. Boxes wrapped with colorful paper, smeared with interesting scents and filled with treats are doled out in winter. Easter baskets fitted with frozen rabbit shaped meat loaves and other goodies are delivered in the spring. Chilled watermelon meat treats are passed out in the summer, and pumpkins filled with meat are presented near Halloween.

Rain, one of the sanctuary’s shyer wolf-dogs tentatively inspecting her gift.

Many of WSWS’s long-time residents are used to receiving special treats and know just what to do, open them, grab the goodies, destroy the packaging, and pee on it for good measure. Others who are new to the pack may be apprehensive about the foreign object at first, not sure what to make of it or how to access the treats inside, and might even need a little help from a human friend to open it.

Lucian marking his territory once through “opening'“ his gift.

“Present Toss” as the winter seasonal enrichment is known, is a thrill for both the residents’ caretakers who make and deliver the gifts, and the rescues who devour them.

Caring for the sanctuary’s seventy rescues is an enormous labor of love that is often selfless. The daily work can be difficult, and anything but glamorous at times (picking up poop, mending fences, filling in holes, and sorting through 40 gallon barrels of raw meat are everyday chores).

Nimoy eagerly snatching his present.

And while many rescues were raised with some form of human contact and do enjoy being pet, going for walks, and interacting with their caretakers, an equal number shy away from any form of human interaction making them entirely hands off.

Thus, the joy in the job is quite simply the act of giving the rescues the best care possible, and being entirely present with each animal so as to be receptive to their individual needs, even if they never seem to say ‘thank you.’ This is the essence of giving, and the giving season that is upon us: to give without expecting anything in return, but to find our own enrichment and joy in the simple act of preparing and presenting the gift of our time, attention and love.

Romeo, a rescued red fox, enjoying one of his holiday gifts.

GUIDE to Visiting Angkor Wat Archeological Park, Cambodia

Siem Reap

On the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia, lies Angkor Archeological Park, home to the relics of the Khmer Empire’s once thriving ancient city consisting of hundreds of temples spread across 154 square miles of jungle and farmland.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, which thrived from the 9th to 15th centuries, and may have supported over 1 million people. UNESCO declared the archeological park a World Heritage site in 1992, and considers the remnants of this once great civilization to be one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia.

For many Cambodians and Buddhists, the temples remain sacred places of worship, but no matter your faith, these relics will move you with their undeniable soul.

Here’s what it’s like to visit. (Click on the headers below for a detailed review of each temple.)

RECAP: GETTING THERE, RULES & REGULATIONS, WHAT TO BRING

  • Visa On Arrival – Many foreign travelers will need to obtain a Visa On Arrival when traveling to Cambodia. No prep work or applications needed. Simply fill out the appropriate form at your port of arrival, wait in line, have your passport stamped by an immigrations agent, and carry on your way.

  • USD is the Official Tourist Currency – USD is the expected cash currency at all sites, restaurants, hotels, etc. Only fresh, unmarked and recently issued bills are accepted.

  • Dress Code – The temples are active places of worship, requiring respectful and appropriate garb. Women and men are expected to cover their shoulders, and legs should be concealed past the knee.

  • Get Your Pass – Passes can be obtained at the main archeological museum for 1, 3, and 7 days. Pass purchases are cash only with fresh US notes. Proper attire is required. The pass is a photo ID that you will have to present at each temple entry point, and it will be stamped each day it’s used.

  • Tuk Tuk’s – Hiring a tuk tuk driver to take you to the sites near Siem Reap costs about $20/day. With this fee you are hiring a private driver to wait for you at each site and take you to your next destination. Tuk Tuk’s to further destinations, like Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean, will cost about $40/day. Check with your driver in advance.

  • Biking – You can bike to Angkor Wat from Siem Reap and the surrounding area, but keep in mind the possibility for extreme heat, and that you’ll be required to bike through downtown Siem Reap to get there.

  • What to Bring - Sunscreen, your pass, water, camera, snacks, handkerchief, hat or parasol, US cash (small bills a plus).

  • Tour Guides – Tour guides can be very helpful if you’d like to dive into the history at each site. If you only have the cash to spring for a guide once, we recommend doing so at Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom to get the most bang for your buck. Look for guides from the tourism department. They’ll be in uniform with official tourism patches and badges. A two-hour tour at Angkor Wat costs about  $15, plus tip. 

We purchased a 3-day pass, which was good for 10 days, allowing us to spread our tour over a week, giving us plenty of time to rest up in between our temple days. If you have the time to spare, we recommend this approach. Visiting the sites is incredible, and exhausting. Make sure to hydrate and relax in between! 

DAY 1: ANGKOR WAT AND TA PROHM

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, meaning ‘temple city’ is the main attraction at Angkor Archeological Park. Built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II as the king’s state temple and capital city, Angkor Wat, which was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and remains an internationally relevant Buddhist site today. When the Khmer Empire left Angkor in the 15th century to build a new capital, Angkor Wat remained one of the only temples that was never fully abandoned. Historians believe this is the reason it has remained so intact. Its large moat added further protection by prohibiting the jungle from reclaiming it. French explorer Henri Mouhot introduced the site to westerners in the mid-1800s.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm has been left much in the condition in which it was found by westerners in the 1800s, and is one of Angkor’s most famous jungle temples. Overgrown with enormous trees, the temple has largely merged with nature making it a mystical sight to behold. Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries under King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university, the temple was famously brought back into the spotlight by the 2001 film Tomb Raider.

DAY 2: ANGKOR THOM AND PREAH KHAN

Angkor Thom

After Suryavarman II’s death and the ransacking of Angkor Wat by Khmer enemies, King Jayavarman VII moved the capital to Angkor Thom in the 12th century where under his reign the present day ruins were built on the same site as a former Khmer capital. Angkor Thom houses the famous and widely recognizable Bayon temple, or temple of 1,000 faces, featuring over 200 gigantic blissful faces topping 37 towers. The old city is also home to the royal palace, the temples Baphuon and Phimeanakas, the Elephant Terrace, and the Terrace of the Leper King. This walled city is believed to have supported 80,000 – 150,000 people at its height. 

Preah Khan

Like Ta Prohm, the jungle is steadily re-claiming Preah Khan, and features incredible feats of crumbling temples supporting the growth of enormous trees with roots that have become part of their foundations. Built in the 12th century under King Jayavarman VII to honor his father, the site was a combination of city, temple and Buddhist university serving as a hub for nearly 100,000 officials and servants, including 1,000 teachers and another 1,000 dancers. The temple is built on the site of Jayavarman’s victory against the invading Chams in 1191. It’s modern name, adapted from the original, means ‘holy sword.’

Surrounded by a moat, the temple is built in a flat style with successive rectangular galleries gathering around a central Buddhist sanctuary. Like it’s neighbor, Ta Prohm, it has been largely unrestored, allowing the jungle to slowly overtake it.

DAY 3: BANTEAY SREI, KBAL SPEAN, AND PRE RUP 

Banteay Srei

Built from striking red sandstone and lined with well-preserved intricate and elaborate carvings, Banteay Srei is unlike any other temple in Angkor Wat Archeological Park. Located 16 miles northeast of the main Park, visiting Banteay Srei and its surrounding sites is a worthy commitment.

Known colloquially as The Pink Lady Temple and The Lady Temple, Bateay Srei is a 10th century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and is the only major Angkorian temple that was not built by a monarch. It is most famous for its color, its small size, and equally miniature yet mightily impressive artwork. 

Kbal Spean

A jungle trek into the Kulen Hills will lead you to Kbal Spean: an archeological site of river carvings leading to a sacred waterfall. The site’s famous reliefs were carved by hermits into the naturally formed sandstone of the riverbed and its banks between the 11th and 12th centuries under the reign of King Suryavarman I, and King Udayadityavarman II. The site is also known as the ‘valley of 1000 lingas,’ and the ‘river of a thousand lingas,’ for the many lingas carved there (lingas are the phallic symbol representing the Hindu god Shiva). The Siem Reap River, which flows over the sacred lingas into Angkor, was believed to bless the city. Many other Hindu gods are also featured in the carvings. When the water table is low, the carvings are visible in a 150-meter section of the river in the middle of which is a naturally formed sandstone bridge. They stretch to a waterfall where visitors can bathe and be blessed beneath its spring.

Pre Rup

Overlooking the countryside and surrounding jungle, Pre Rup glows with a lovely reddish hue in the hours near sunrise and sunset due to its brick, laterite and sandstone construction. Aligned with a north south axis, this temple is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Locally believed to have been a mortuary, Pre Rup was built as a state temple under King Rajendravarman in the 10th century in the temple mountain style that is characteristic of many of the Angkorian sites.

GOOD TO KNOW

  • Handling Solicitation – The moment your tuk tuk arrives at any location expect to be approached by men, women and children looking to sell you anything from pants to guide books, postcards and trinkets before your driver can even park. When inside the sites, you may meet locals asking for donations, and encounter park staff or even police officers that will offer to take your photo in exchange for a ‘tip.’ The best way to handle these situations is a simple, brisk and sometimes repeated no thank you.

  • Temple Fatigue is Real – There is so much to see at Angkor Wat that it could easily take a month to dive into all the details of each of these ruins. Don’t try to do it all. Rest when you need to and call it a day when you’re ready. Though many people begin their tour at Angkor Wat as early as sunrise and trudge through the rest of the day in the heat, we opted to start between 8 and 9AM and wrap up by closing, which was perfect for us. The amount to see can be over-stimulating. We recommend taking time to just sit and be in those spaces, really commune with it. You may see a little less, but you’ll likely feel more. Pro Tip: We visited in March, one of the hottest times of the year, and noticed that the heat of the afternoon drove away much of the masses allowing us to enjoy several temples with very few other visitors. A real treat!

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

These are the kinds of places that stir the heart and the imagination, that strike us not only with their awesome beauty and gateway to spirituality, but with their undeniable humanity that gives us pause by daring us to look at ourselves, where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we are headed as a global people.

Visiting: Pre Rup, Cambodia

Siem Reap

Pre Rup was the last temple we visited on our epic three-day tour of Angkor Wat Archeological Park. We arrived near sunset after spending the majority of the day in the Kulen Hills touring Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean. The brick, laterite and sandstone construction made this temple glow with a lovely reddish hue as the day neared its end, and we enjoyed the beginnings of a sunset from the top of the temple, overlooking the countryside and surrounding jungle. 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PRE RUP

Aligned with a north south axis, this temple is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. It was built as a state temple under King Rajendravarman in the 10th century – as early as 961 or 962 AD. Pre Rup’s construction is in the temple mountain style that is characteristic of many of the Angkorian sites, consisting of several outer walls leading to towering temples at its core. It was the second temple to be built in Angkor after the Khmer capital was returned to Koh Ker.

The temple’s name is relatively modern and translates to mean, “turn the body.” This is in reference to the common Cambodian belief that the temple was a hosting site for funerals, during which the body’s ashes were ritually turned in several directions throughout the services. 

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

After a long day of temple touring, visiting Pre Rup was markedly relaxing. There were very few tourists when compared with the other sites we visited, allowing time for us to sit still and be. If you’re looking to capture this temple’s rosy pigment, keep in mind that Pre Rup shines its brightest in the hours near sunrise and sunset, making this site a perfect beginning or ending to your day or tour.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Kbal Spean, Cambodia

Siem Reap

About 16 miles northeast of the main Angkorian ruins is Kbal Spean, a jungle trek into the Kulen Hills to an archeological site of river carvings leading to a sacred waterfall. We visited after touring Banteay Srei in the same area, also known as the Pink Lady Temple. Being a bit farther out of town, and costing more to get there, Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean are often paired together as a day trip. Visitors can also take a tour at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, which lies at the foot of the trail to Kbal Spean.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Tucked into the jungle, Kbal Spean is famous for its relief carvings made into the naturally formed sandstone of the riverbed and its banks. Carved into the rock by hermits between the 11th and 12th centuries under the reign of King Suryavarman I, and King Udayadityavarman II, this site is also known as the ‘valley of 1000 lingas,’ and the ‘river of a thousand lingas,’ for the many lingas carved there. Lingas are the phallic symbol representing the Hindu god Shiva. The Siem Reap River, which flows over the sacred lingas and into Angkor, was believed to bless the city. 

Yonis representing the Hindu goddess Shakti in the feminine symbol of fertility and genitalia are also represented. Many other Hindu gods are also featured in the carvings, such as Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi, Rama and Hanuman.

After the monsoon season when the water level begins to drop, the carvings are visible in a 150-meter section of the river in the middle of which is a naturally formed sandstone bridge. They stretch to a waterfall where visitors can bathe and be blessed. The site was ‘discovered’ by westerners in 1969, but exploration was halted by the Cambodian civil war. The site reopened for safe visits beginning in 1989.

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO VISIT

We found ourselves at the trailhead to Kbal Spean after a 20-minute tuk tuk ride from Banteay Srei and eagerly headed in. We walked leisurely through the jungle, taking about an hour to reach the falls, stopping now and again to watch a troops of ants, and linger in a grove of tall trees where monkeys shrouded by leaf cover high above ate fruit and spit pits down to the ground. We trekked barefoot on the soft red earth over roots and rocks, a path tread for centuries, watching a rainbow of butterflies float by in singles and pairs while listening to monkeys hoot and tropical birds call until we reached the lingas at the rock bridge. Two dogs – a three-legged puppy and its mother – greeted us.

We were lucky that it had rained heavily the night before, uncommon for March leading up to the rainy season, making the falls full and cleansing, and carrying the rush through the forest. Hot and sticky from a jungle hike in jeans, it was both exhilarating and joyous to cleanse beneath the clean and powerful falls that had been blessed by the age-old lingas. Vines draped over the falls trickling droplets of water. It truly felt like a hidden oasis.

Good to Know: Throughout our time at Angkor Wat we quickly discovered that pretty much anyone who offers to take your photo for you expects to be paid in return. At Kbal Spean, a park staff member accompanied by a young boy followed us the whole way from the lingas to the waterfall continually offering to take our picture, and encouraging us to take off our clothes and get into the waterfall. Though we repeatedly declined, the ranger hung around for quite a while. It was a bit uncomfortable to feel like we were being watched, but he eventually left allowing us some peaceful moments alone at the falls. 

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

Kbal Spean is a unique site at Angkor Wat Archeological Park taking visitors out of the city to enjoy the Cambodian countryside and its abundant nature. After several stiflingly hot days of touring the park’s busy temples, it was wonderful to get away from the crowds and play in the falls!

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Banteay Srei, Cambodia

Siem Reap

Built from striking red sandstone and lined with intricate and elaborate carvings, Banteay Srei is unlike any other temple in Angkor Wat Archeological Park. Located 16 miles northeast of the main park, visiting Banteay Srei and its surrounding sites is a worthwhile commitment. Beginning at 8AM, the hour long drive on the back of a tuk tuk through the Cambodian countryside was both beautiful and eye opening, revealing at once the country’s picturesque pastoral landscape, and its poverty.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BANTEAY SREI

Banteay Srei, known colloquially as The Pink Lady Temple, and more simply, The Lady Temple, is a 10th century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is the only major Angkorian temple that was not built by a monarch. The site was ‘rediscovered’ in 1914, and first restored in the 1930’s.

When compared with the rest of the Angkorian sites, which are very large in scale, Banteay Srei’s construction seems miniature; making for a relatively quick visit.

Though widely known as ‘The Lady Temple’, and fabled to have been built by women, the translation of Banteay Srei means ‘citadel of the women’ or ‘citadel of beauty’ likely referring to the delightfully complex carvings and devatas, or female deities, they portray.

Sadly, the temple has suffered a great amount of theft and vandalism since the early 1900s targeted mostly at its statues, causing the Cambodian government to remove some of the statues and replace them with concrete replicas.

BEYOND THE TEMPLE

Being a smaller complex than the other major temples we visited, Banteay Srei felt the most crowded. It’s good to know that tour groups quite literally arrive by the busload at all of the historical sites. Having patience with the crowds is critical, and is how we got many of these shots!

We enjoyed perusing the pink temple and marveling at the incredibly detailed and very well preserved works of art that still line its walls today.

After our tour, we sat down to listen to The Landmine Victims Band (a common sight in tourist sections of Siem Reap), which played traditional tunes. One man even used a leaf as a kazoo!

We then strolled the grounds surrounding the temple, which led to a broad and secluded open field. On our way back, we encountered two young girls attempting to sell us various items. When we politely refused, one tried to snatch something out of Chadley’s pocket. Though this was the first and only time we faced potential theft along our travels, it is a cautionary tale. As a general rule, visitors are discouraged from buying wares from children, as this practice perpetuates systemic poverty.

Good to Know: While renting a tuk tuk and driver to motor us around the main Archeological Park was only $20 a day, trekking out to Banteay Srei and the surrounding area cost double. Though $40 for such a day trip is pretty standard (you can always try to negotiate for a lesser rate), we did not have the foresight to discuss the day’s cost with our driver in advance. Nor did our driver reveal the steep price hike until the morning of, when he approached us with a few other drivers to inform us of the price increase. Blindsided, we reluctantly agreed, which put a damper on the morning and our relationship with the driver, to say the least. Though we felt initially swindled, our research later revealed that this wasn't such a bad deal. Regardless, we highly recommend negotiating such things in advance to avoid any confusion.

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

Banteay Srei’s rosy relics offer something different from the rest of Angkor Wat, revealing a side of Khmer art and culture that cannot be seen anywhere else.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Preah Khan, Cambodia

Siem Reap

When exploring Preah Khan you are immediately struck by the majesty of trees, for they are just as impressive and monolithic as the structures that root them, creating a mystical atmosphere that is this temple’s very own.

Like the Angkorian temple Ta Prohm, the jungle has steadily re-claimed Preah Khan. Yet there appears to be a symbiotic relationship in how the trees embrace the ruins, their roots growing around columns that would otherwise be crushed by their mammoth weight, and instead of crashing through the roofs they stretch around corridors, becoming an integral part of these incredible relics.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PREAH KHAN

Preah Khan was built in the 12th century under King Jayavarman VII’s rule to honor his father. Once a hub of nearly 100,000 officials and servants, the temple is built on the site of Jayavarman’s victory against the invading Chams in 1191. It’s modern name, adapted from the original, means ‘holy sword.’

At its height, the site was a combination of city, temple and Buddhist university housing 1,000 teachers and another 1,000 dancers.

Surrounded by a moat, the temple is built in a flat style with successive rectangular galleries gathered around a central Buddhist sanctuary. The temple has been largely unrestored, allowing the jungle to slowly overtake it. Clearing of brush and other vegetation was undertaken from 1927 – 1932, and The World Monuments Fund has maintained the site since 1991.

The largest of all the trees rooted amongst the temples are of the spung variety, with roots resembling elephant trunks. They’re even hollow! Their appearance throughout the ruins is quite magical.

We visited Preah Khan in the late afternoon in March, which proved to be a quiet time with very few crowds.

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

At Preah Khan, visitors get the sense the jungle is not simply engulfing, but honoring this treasured temple. It is a place where ancient history lives both in defiance and harmony with the nature.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Bayon Angkor Thom

Siem Reap

Angkor Thom is the largest and one of the most historically important sites to visit at Angkor Wat Archeological Park. With its name translating to “Great City,” it’s easy to see why. Established in the 12th century as the capital of King Jayavarman VII’s Khmer Empire, this 9 square KM relic is believed to have supported a population of 80,000 – 150,000 people at its height! It’s home to the former king’s royal palace, the famous state temple, Bayon, also known as the Temple of a Thousand Faces, and many other important Khmer monuments from King Jayavarman VII’s reign, his successors, and predecessors.

It’s easy to get lost, literally and figuratively, in the majesty of these ruins as you walk the path of the many before you who lived, worked, played and prayed behind the walls of this once great empire. 

Bayon Faces

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANGKOR THOM

Though originating in its present form in the 12th century under King Jayavarman VII, the city dates back three centuries earlier when another Khmer capital stood there. A few temples remain from that time, including Baphuon and Phimeanakas, which was later included in the royal palace site.

In order to enter Angkor Thom, visitors must pass beneath its impressive gates adorned with the famously serene Bayon-style heads, which face each of the cardinal directions.

One of the city gates to enter Angkor Thom.

One of the city gates to enter Angkor Thom.

The city is surrounded by a moat and 8 meter high wall, with many roads entering and exiting crossing over bridges decorated with balustrades depicting larger than life human figures carrying the body of the Naga, a seven-headed snake guardian.

Angkor Thom also features a multitude of pristinely intact limestone bas reliefs. These incredible works of art line the walls at Bayon, the Elephant Terrace, and the Terrace of the Leper King, depicting stories and poems of ancient Hinduism, as mixed over the centuries with Buddhism, historical events, day-to-day scenes, and the region’s local flora and fauna.

Bayon

BAYON

The most famous and widely recognized temple at Angkor Thom is Bayon. Here, visitors walk amongst and beneath towers topped with more than 200 gigantic blissful faces, argued to have been designed either to resemble King Jayavarman VII himself, or the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. Where there were once 49 towers, today, 37 remain.

Angkor Thom’s main gates at each of the cardinal points all lead to Bayon at the center of the city. Like Angkor Wat, Bayon is built to resemble Mount Meru, with the city’s walls and moat interpreted to represent the outer lying mountains and ocean. The temple is primarily maintained by the conservation organization JSA (Japanese Government Team Safeguarding of Angkor).

Bayon

Bayon is one of Angkor Wat’s most visited temples, and the number of people at this site can be overwhelming. Featuring out-of-this-world photo opportunities, we felt at times that it was difficult to linger and simply marvel at the temple’s beauty without sensing that someone else was waiting for us to hurry up and move out of their shot. This feeling was strongest on the upper level where visitors can come eye to eye with Bayon’s majestic faces. Eventually, we found a quiet place above the crowd where we weren’t in anyone’s way and could truly enjoy the serenity the space has to offer.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

THE ROYAL PALACE

After our visit to Bayon, we headed to the Royal Palace, and from there intended to go to the Terraces. We trekked up and down the incredibly steep and narrow steps spanning four levels of the Royal Palace, at the top of which we enjoyed some truly fabulous views. At the back of the palace a reclining Buddha has been reconstructed from stones.

Somehow after this, we got lost, and ended up taking a detour down an unmarked path through the jungle that we thought was a short cut…It ended up at a field of cows. Oops!

“Hidden” bas reliefs at the Terrace of the Leper King

“Hidden” bas reliefs at the Terrace of the Leper King

TERRACE OF THE LEPER KING

Eventually we found our way back to the Terraces and first visited the Terrace of the Leper King, or Leper King Terrace. The site is named after a statue found there in the 15th century depicting Yama, the Hindu god of death. The statue was later dubbed the Leper King because of its discoloration, and it’s growing of moss, resembling someone with leprosy. This new name also fit with a Cambodian legend about a king with leprosy. Hence, the Terrace of the Leper King.

While it might seem like the statue is the main attraction here, we discovered a small labyrinth of incredible bas reliefs on either side of the stairs leading to the terrace’s platform. Don’t miss the hidden walls! This was one of the coolest parts of this terrace, featuring gorgeous and well-preserved artwork. It was also quite literally the coolest part: you can hide away from the sun and heat behind the walls!

The Elephant Terrace

The Elephant Terrace

ELEPHANT TERRACE

Onward, we continued to the Elephant Terrace, which as aptly named, features several walls held up by carvings of elephants. Though these carvings are well worn today, they still resemble pachyderms. 

This terrace is a platform from which King Jayavarman VII would view his victorious army returning home. It was also used during public ceremonies, and as the king’s grand audience hall.

The top of the Royal Palace

The top of the Royal Palace

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

There is plenty more to see at Angkor Thom than the four sites we explored, which took us nearly an entire day beginning at 9 AM! So plan for your visit to be lengthy, and savor every moment in this surreal and historical space!

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Ta Prohm, Cambodia

Siem Reap

Roaming the temple complex of Ta Prohm makes you feel like an old world explorer whose come upon this ancient site while trekking through the jungle. Around every corner, through every doorway and down every hall you find the duality of growth and decay. Enormous silk cotton ceiba trees emerge from the walls and roofs of temples, wrapping their roots around something that once was. Piles of rubble decorated with intricate carvings lay beside edifices both destroyed and reconstructed, withstanding the test of time.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TA PROHM

On the outskirts of modern day Siem Reap, Ta Prohm was built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries under King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university dedicated to his mother. Though many of the temples of Angkor were built in the ‘temple pyramid’ or ‘temple mountain’ style, such as Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Pre Rup, Ta Prohm was built in a flat style: a series of five rectangular nesting walls enclose a central inner sanctuary.

Also unlike most of the temples of Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left much in the condition in which it was found by westerners in the 1800s due to the magic of how it has merged with the jungle over time. The site has been conserved and restored by both the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, and the Archaeological Survey of India. The temple was famously used in the film Tomb Raider in 2001, returning it to the international spotlight and cultivating mass appeal.

Consequently, it is one of the most visited temples of Angkor due to its awe-inspiring setting. Surrounded by jungle, the crumbling temples have literally grown trees, giving visitors the feeling they are discovering a hidden treasure.

Like all of the popular Angkorian archeological sites, expect to see many other tourists, but know there are also plenty of opportunities to find yourself alone as you wander these magnificent ruins.

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

Ta Prohm evoked something deep in our core. It reminded us of the simultaneous transience and timelessness of life, to enjoy what we have, to be present and grateful for the ability to travel across the world and stand in the heart of such a potent site, a place that one day, like all things, will return to its source.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Siem Reap 

One of the great things about travel is getting outside yourself and everything you know by becoming immersed in all things foreign – language, culture, food, landscape, people, religion, and so on. It’s about becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, shaking up our routines and throwing ourselves into the unfamiliar. And what better way to do that, to reconnect with our deepest selves, our history, and humanity than by visiting some of the most impressive ruins this world has to offer: Angkor Wat?

On the outskirts of what is now known as Siem Reap in Cambodia, the relics of the Khmer Empire’s once thriving ancient city and temple complex attract thousands of visitors daily, making it Cambodia’s top tourist attraction.

For many Cambodians and traveling Buddhists, the temples remain sacred places of worship, but no matter your religion, Angkor Wat and its accompanying archeological sites will move you with their incredible history, artistry, presence and soul. To stand in Angkor Wat you are at once humbled by thoughtful, living architecture surviving the Khmer Empire, and elate with wonder like a fascinated child yearning to learn more. 

GETTING THERE

  • USD is the Official Tourist Currency – Having some US cash on arrival is a plus, but if you don’t, there are plenty of ATMs and banks where USD can be easily obtained. It’s important to note that only fresh bills are accepted (they must be unmarked and recently issued). So save those crumpled and ripped dollars in your wallet for another destination.

  • Dress Code – The temples remain places of worship for many, and you can be denied entry for wearing inappropriate garb. Women and men are expected to cover their shoulders and their legs past the knee.

  • Get Your Pass – Passes can be obtained at the main archeological museum for 1, 3, and 7 days. Pass purchases are cash only with fresh US notes. Proper attire is required, and visitors can be turned away for improper dress. The pass is a photo ID that you will have to present at each temple entry point. It will be stamped each day it’s used.

  • Tuk Tuk’s – Hiring a tuk tuk driver to take you to the sites within the main archeological park (ie - near Siem Reap) costs about $20/day. With this fee you are hiring a private driver (picture a motorbike pulling a cart) who will wait for you at each site and take you to your next destination. Alternatively, you can bike to Angkor Wat and the surrounding area, but do keep in mind the possibility for extreme heat.

  • What to Bring - Sunscreen, your pass, water, camera, snacks, handkerchief, hat or parasol, USD (small bills a plus).

TOUR GUIDES

As soon as you arrive, you are likely to be greeted by would-be tour guides. If you’re interested in hiring a guide for any of your temple visits, Angkor Wat should be first on the list, as it is considered the most important temple complex of the ancient empire, and therefore will set the stage for most of what you’ll see afterward, providing some context. Our guide, Thomason, was from the tourism department. Look for the guides in uniform with official tourism patches and badges. A two-hour tour with lots of precious photos taken by our guide was only $15 plus a well-deserved tip. In our opinion, it was more than worth it.

We were in awe to sit on the steps of the King’s Library

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANGKOR WAT

Angkor Wat, meaning ‘temple city’ is the main attraction at Angkor Archeological Park, consisting of hundreds of temples spread over 154 square miles of jungle and farmland. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, which thrived from the 9th to 15th centuries, and may have supported over 1 million people!

The entirety of Angkor was a hydraulic city with a complex water management system used not only for irrigation, but also to stabilize its architectural foundations by preventing groundwater from getting too high or low. UNESCO declared the archeological park a World Heritage site in 1992, and considers the remnants of this once great civilization to be one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat is such an important symbol to Cambodians it even appears on the national flag.

Built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II as the king’s state temple and capital city, Angkor Wat, which was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and remains an internationally relevant Buddhist site today. The complex is unlike most other Khmer temples in that it is oriented west instead of east, likely in reverence to Vishnu, who is associated with the west. The temple features five towers in the image of Mount Meru, the legendary home of the Hindu gods, along with a series of enclosing walls and moats representing mountain chains and the ocean. The temple is aligned with the spring equinox, during which the sun rises directly over the central tower. Throughout the rest of the year the sun travels up and down the western entrance gate. The temple incorporates many other examples of advanced mathematics, astrology, astronomy, and numerology – all evidence of the Khmer Empire’s expansive knowledge.

After Suryavarman II’s death and the ransacking of the area by the Khmer’s enemies, King Jayavarman VII, moved the capital to Angkor Thom and restored Angkor Wat. When the Khmer Empire left Angkor in the 15th century to build a new capital, Phnom Penh, near the coast, Angkor Wat remained one of the only temples that, while neglected, was never fully abandoned. Historians believe it has remained much intact for this reason, and because of its large moat, which stopped the jungle from reclaiming it.

In the mid-1800s French explorer Henri Mouhot successfully exposed Angkor to westerners, drawing comparisons to the pyramids of Egypt, thereby popularizing the now internationally treasured archeological site. 

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

We humans are explorers at heart. Visiting Angkor Wat and the surrounding archeological sites awakens this part in us, stirring a place in the soul that craves exploration and a deeper connection to the earth and our ancestry. It is a reminder that our world, our existence, and our history are at once mysterious and mystical, opening our eyes, as travel often does, to new ways of seeing.

 

SNAPSHOTS

The Ghostly Circus: Dante’s Inferno

Philadelphia, PA

 

Where can you find fire performers, tight rope walkers, jugglers, aerial artists on ropes, chains, hoops and cubes, fire fans, fire staffs, break dancers and buugeng wrapped into a play on Dante’s Inferno amongst a set of tombstones and mausoleums? At 7 Texture’s “The Ghostly Circus,” hosted by Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, PA!

Now in its fifth year, this theatrical performance in the style of Cirque du Soleil is filled with fantastical costumes, incredible performers, literature and wit. This year, audiences in the hundreds watched Dante embark on his epic journey through the 9 circles of hell over two nights in August. There, Dante followed a surly Virgil through a dance party in purgatory (imagine the same techno beat on loop for all of eternity), past lady luck, Cerberus the three-headed dog, and much more.


Virgil, the play’s MC, opened each night with these impactful words: “All of this is impressive - because it’s dangerous,” reminding viewers not to try this at home.  

In addition to those impressive feats by the many talented actors, a tasty array of musical choices from Sigur Ros to Black Sabbath, pop, techno, metal and live cello accompanied each act, creating a different flavor for every performance that carried the total package. This was the first year the Ghostly Circus, employed a play format to tie the variety show all together. The result was fluid, engaging, inspiring and fun! 

Opening night on August 10th was well attended by a diverse crowd of over 800 who enjoyed the ghoulish theatre from blankets and lawn chairs perched between gravesites. Food and beverages, including beer and wine, were available throughout the evening. What’s more? This unique, family friendly event doubles as a fundraiser for the historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, a pristinely kept public park overlooking the Schuykill River.

The show is produced and directed by Lauren Raske, co-founder of the design and event company 7 Textures.

Right now, the show is only in Philadelphia and typically takes place in August, so mark your calendar for next year if you’re in the area or planning a trip. And look out for The Ghost Circus making its way to a city near you!

SNAPSHOTS

Howl-O-Ween at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary

9 year old wolf-dog, Argo, snacking on his pumpkin treat at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.

Candy Kitchen, New Mexico

Halloween is a special holiday for many. For some, it’s even the most loved of the year! At Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a wildlife sanctuary in rural New Mexico, an annual Howl-O-Ween party marks this spooky October date. What better way to spend a Saturday around Halloween than with wolves in the crisp autumn high desert sunshine? Added bonus: each ticket directly supports the wolves and Wild Spirit’s mission of rescue, sanctuary and education.

We had a blast working this family friendly festival during our two years at Wild Spirit. Here’s what this fun day is all about!

The event typically begins with a “pumpkin toss” enrichment tour, during which Wild Spirit’s wolves and wolf-dogs receive pumpkins filled with meat, and sprayed with smelly scents to both enjoy and destroy. This is a great photo opportunity for guests and is generally restricted to a small tour that must be booked in advance, making it extra intimate. The rest of the day usually features standard tours of the sanctuary, food, music, games, costumes, roaming ambassador wolves (with their expert handlers) and a spooky night tour.

Each Howl-O-Ween is capped with an annual fire ceremony after dark in celebration of the lives of those rescues lost during the preceding year. Rescues’ ashes are offered to a sacred fire while Wild Spirit’s staff, volunteers and friends share memories of the sanctuary’s beloved canines that have passed over. It’s a special ceremony that all Howl-O-Ween guests are welcome to attend. 

Happy and safe Halloween to all!

PS - If you’re in the area or planning a trip, visit Wild Spirit’s website to learn more about this event, sanctuary tours, and lodging. This year’s festival is Saturday, October 20th.

 

SNAPSHOTS

From Top Left to Right: Wolf-dog Nikki, Romeo the red fox, Nikki and Chadley, Executive Director Leyton Cougar with a guest, two photos of wolf-dog Skye, our friend Christine and her niece had their faces painted, volunteers preparing enrichment pumpkins, wold-dog Dakota, arctic wolf Powder, Chadley and Maddy delivering pumpkins to New Guinea Singing Dogs Reba, Bono and Princess, Yuni coyote, Dakota, Assistant Director Crystal and Ambassador Wolf Flurry greeting guests, Chadley playing music for guests, wolf-dog pup Quinn, Chadley giving wolf-dog Lucian his pumpkin, wolf-dog Kabbalah, Yuni, wolf-dog Maki, Maki scent rolling on her pumpkin, wolf-dog Cheyenne, Chadley dressed up, wolf-dog Contessa saying ‘hi’ to Wild Spirit photographer Steve, Contessa eating, wolf-dog Oni, and wolf-dog Zeus.

Ubud, Bali – Where to Eat, Play & Stay

Indonesia

Ubud is a bustling city in the heart of Bali, abuzz with merchants and markets, temples, spas, yoga studios and retreats, co-working spaces, health food, arts, culture and innovation, all surrounded by some of Bali’s greatest natural attractions. The city has become a haven for travelers, especially yogis and digital nomads, and is really a must visit when in Bali. Below are some of our favorite places in and around Ubud, with our travel tips learned along the way.

 

Getting There

Ubud is inland and situated in the southeastern part of the island, only an hour from the major airport in Denpasar, and the same distance from Canggu by car (where we stayed prior to our visit). Though the drive can be upwards of an hour and a half during rush hour. Growing up driving in New York and Boston, we have to say that traffic in Bali is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Narrow and winding streets not built for the volume of traffic they currently support, many without traffic signals, flood with motorbikes and cars during the heaviest commuter times. The jostling stop and go of such a drive can be nauseating. Best to pack some anti-nausea precautions. We were always stocked on Fisherman’s Friend mints, which did the trick 95% of the time (and they’re pharmaceutical free, yay!). Nausea aside, we enjoyed the scenic ride through villages and forests on the way to the city once leaving the populated seacoast.

 

Where We Stayed

Chadley singing songs on the balcony at Bisma Jaya.

There are hundreds of hotels, bungalows, hostels, AirBNB’s and guesthouses to choose from in Ubud, which can be a bit overwhelming. We pored over accommodations until we discovered Bisma Jaya on AirBNB, a relatively new guesthouse that was almost too-good-to-be-true affordable, with a pool, free breakfast, a secluded, jungle feeling yet within walking distance to all the city has to offer. Most notably, it’s just a 10-minute walk to Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, one of our main draws to the city.

We stayed at Bisma Jaya for about a week and loved it. We were lucky to have the guesthouse almost entirely to ourselves and enjoyed spending hours every day writing and playing music on our balcony overlooking the lush gardens backed into thick jungle. The location was even better than expected, truly tucked away from the hustle and bustle, yet right in the center of it.

Good to Know: After booking our stay we received a message from the owner through AirBNB saying she couldn’t accept payments through the site, and asked us to cancel our reservation. Through a series of messages our stay was guaranteed and we arranged to pay in cash on arrival. We were a bit nervous about the potential for misunderstanding, but our fears quickly dissipated when we met the friendly guesthouse manager, Made. However, to avoid this confusion, we recommend sending the guesthouse a direct message through Facebook to book a room.

 

Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

The Monkey Sanctuary is home to 600 feisty Balinese monkeys, also known as long-tailed macaques. This sacred swath of forest is protected by a local village, features several ancient and active temples, and fantastical sculptures. It was so much fun to coexist with the monkeys for a few hours in their surreal surroundings. Read more about our visit to the Monkey Sanctuary here.

Tegallalang Rice Terraces

A 25-minute drive outside the city lies a Unesco World Heritage site: the lush and storied rice terraces of Tegallalang. Like the Sacred Monkey Forest, this is a busy tourist attraction, but large enough to find solitude. We felt transported to another place and time as we strolled through an intersecting maze of picturesque and tranquil rice paddies where a traditional form of agriculture has remained intact for over 1,000 years. After wandering up and down this vibrant valley we made our way to one of the many restaurants overlooking the terraces to sip on fresh lime infused coconuts before catching a cab back to our hotel. We enjoyed a pleasant ride through the rural outskirts of the city passing farms, temples and villages. Take a look at our article on what it’s like to visit Tegallalang.

  

See a Kecak Fire Dance

The modern Kecak Fire Dance has evolved from traditional trance rituals that feature an acapella male chorus. The dance was adapted in the 1930s by German artist Walter Spies, who was living in Bali at the time. Spies tailored the Kecak Dance to Ramayana, a Hindu epic poem that depicts the struggle of a divine prince rescuing his wife from a demon king. Kecak itself has been historically performed by groups of 150 or more men wearing traditional checkered Balinese sarongs repeatedly chanting ‘cak’ while carrying out a synchronized dance. It has roots in an exorcism trance-inducing dance called sanghyang. The first women’s kecak group began in 2006.

The dance is performed at temples throughout the city every week. You can even see it at the old palace downtown. We caught one at a nearby temple and were blown away by the hypnotic acapella paired with the fluidly orchestrated dance. The costumes were also original, depicting larger than life characters like a white monkey king. And of course, the finale in which one of the dancer’s kicks flaming coconut shells toward the audience was a thrill all its own. We highly recommend checking out this one-of-a-kind, affordable cultural experience.

  

More Local Jams

Below are a few extra tips to guide you through this electrifying city.

  • Yoga, Yoga, Yoga – Ubud is a yogi haven with an abundance of styles, studios and retreats to choose from. Way too many to count, with more are cropping up all the time. For a recent review of the city’s myriad of yoga studios check out this list by the Never Ending Voyage.

  • Green School Bali – Ubud’s Green School is a non-profit, K-12 private and international school focused on sustainability from its curriculum to the physical space. Travelers can make an appointment to tour the school and even apply to volunteer.

  • Hubud – There’s a ton of innovation happening in Ubud, which draws digital nomads from all over the world. Across the street from the Monkey Sanctuary, Hubud is a busy co-working space that’s open 24-hours and fully equipped for getting work done, including access to printers, meeting space, private rooms, a small kitchen, café, and a lovely green patio. Take a peak at their promo video for a look inside.

  • Kopernik – We sat down with Kopernik’s Chief Strategy Officer to learn about what this non-profit is doing to improve the lives of people in poverty. With products ranging from solar lights, to eco-friendly stoves, and water purification systems, Kopernik is helping people in the most remote regions of the planet through technologies that focus on energy, water, sanitation, agriculture, fisheries, health, education and women’s economic empowerment. Check out their work to learn about all the people they’ve reached. If you’re looking for even more inspiration, this video is for you.

  • Atman Kafé – Absolutely, one of our favorite restaurants in Bali! With careful attention to clean, healthy, delicious food, Atman Kafe's enormous menu is filled with organic, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free goodies (they have meat, too). In Hindu philosophy, Atman means inner self or soul, and is defined as the spiritual life principle of the universe. True to it’s name, Atman Kafé definitely felt like it was on another level of awareness. We adored the watermelon salad, falafel beet balls, decadent smoothies and butter coffee.

  • Hike Mt. Batur – Mount Batur is an active volcano an hour and twenty minutes north of Ubud that’s famed for sunrise hikes.

 

Reality Check: Avoiding ‘Bali Belly’

What sounds kind of cute is actually an unpleasant right of passage many travelers endure in foreign lands, the dreaded stomach bug. A simple rule: don’t eat raw fruit or veggies washed in unfiltered water. We made a point of eating at health centric restaurants that boasted washing their salad greens in purified water, but the slightest slip up can really cost you! Takesumi activated bamboo charcoal and clay tablets work wonders for both avoiding and treating the symptoms. We cannot recommend these natural remedies enough. They were so effective we never had to use the heavy pills we brought along “just in case.”

  

Enjoy Your Visit!

It seems there’s something for everyone in Ubud, from the gorgeous rice terraces of Tegallalang, to taking in a fire dance, walking with primates in the Sacred Monkey Forest, or discovering the plethora of shops, restaurants, yoga studios and co-working spaces that make this city so exciting to explore.

Our Wedding Day

Our Wedding Day

One year ago today, we tied the knot on the back porch of The Needles Lodge at Camp Kiwanee, a rustic and picturesque campground overlooking Maquan Pond in Hanson, Massachusetts, surrounded by tall pines. 

Officiant: We were so blessed to have our beloved friend, Noel Coakley, officiate our wedding. Noel took such care to speak to who we are, what we see in each other, and our future as a couple. He held the space of the moment by keeping us present, and guided us into those first moments of wedded bliss. We love you, brother! We are truly honored.

Bridal Party: Kate Groob (Maid of Honor), Lauren Raske, Annie Krahl and Matthew Sheehan.

Groom’s Men: Austin Evans and Chris Evans.

Wedding Song: Albatross, by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.

Rings: Our wedding “rings” were lovingly designed and tattooed by our dear friend Brian Barthelmes. Our tattoo day spent with Brian a few weeks before the wedding was magic. We had always envisioned getting a shared tattoo of anchors to represent being anchored to one another, how in our union we find security and stability, even when the rest of our lives may be in flux. Thank you, Brian, for making our vision real with this lifelong gift. We love you!

Photos: We are so thankful to our friends Tim and Sarah for taking such gorgeous photos. All black and whites were taken by Tim Waite of Indigo Sky Studios, and all full color photos were taken by Sarah Rocca Vento of Sarah J. Photography.

Wedding Band: We write this with jest, because The Silks are so not a ‘wedding band,’ which is all the more reason why we were elated to have them play our wedding! It was super special to have our old friends from the music scene rock us into matrimony. You guys are awesome!!

Thank You Dan and Silvia, owners of Above The Clouds Catering, for such a tasty array of goodies made with love, Quenby from Wentworth Greenhouses for the incredible succulent centerpieces, Robin at The Country Thyme Shoppe for our bouquets, Shareen Bridal for Nikki’s favorite dress ever, Wedding Tresses for making us pretty, and Crystals and Kitties for our wedding favors. All other decorations were lovingly hand crafted by the bride, groom, and mother of the groom, Valerie Kolb.

We are incredibly grateful to our loving family and friends who traveled far and wide to attend our union and celebrate in our joy. We can never thank you enough for the gift of these memories. So without further adieu, please enjoy a look at the celebration! 

Much Love,

Nikki & Chadley