Travel Supplies: Must-haves

There are a number of indispensable items that any travel guidebook worth its’ salt will recommend that you bring. Backpack, Band-Aids, raincoat, camera. Check. Check. Whoops. Check.

Backpack: A backpack is the most ubiquitous item to a traveler. The actual activity is now probably more often called backpacking than it is traveling. Buy something lightweight, comfortable, adjustable, comfortable and practical. And comfortable. A waist-strap is a must-have, and multiple access points are great. Getting out those running shoes at the bottom of a 70 L pack with your only access at the top is annoying. That means that everything must come out and go back in again. Trim your pack’s straps to only the length that you need, and melt the nylon edges with a lighter so that they don’t fray. Excess straps can get caught in x-ray machines, taxi doors and airport trolley wheels. A rain cover is also a must-have, as it not only keeps things dry, but keeps the pack clean in dirty bus compartments. I’d recommend a neutral colour, as people (read thieves) are drawn to flashy colours. If a thief has the choice between black and neon yellow, their eye will be drawn to the neon. I met travelers (backpackers!) in South America who went a step further and used a burlap sack as a combined cover and theft deterrent. Also, keep some excess room in your pack for souvenirs (the standard advice I’ve heard is 25 %). Leaving for your trip fully loaded will make it annoying to cart back all those toques from Lima and coconut bowls from Chiang Mai. Some people subscribe to certain “rules” about weights, volumes, backpack sizes, etc. Some people say 10 kilos. I think that this is a personal choice, and depends on the length of your trip, the variety of climates you’re visiting and your propensity for shoes and fashion. Less, however, is certainly more. My pack varied between 15 and 20 kg. Most international flights have a 20 kg baggage allowance, so this should be your upper limit. It’s also quite heavy to lug around. However, please avoid the lure of a roll-y suitcase. While these may seem uber-practical in our flat, level, first-world pragmatism, they fail in the muddy, cracked sidewalk third-world reality. But what about in airports, you ask? I have yet to encounter an airport where a trolley was unavailable, though some places may require a (refundable) deposit. Plus, lugging around your backpack will make you stronger, and a lot less likely to pack frivolous items. Running for that train, bus, plane and jumping on those boats is a lot easier with a backpack than a suitcase with shitty wheels flopping all over the place. Jess and I have caught a train running with our packs while a couple with a head-start missed the train with their roll-y bags. True story. Customs officials are also a lot less likely to want to rummage through a backpack than a suitcase. Food for thought.

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Band-Aids: Don’t underestimate the number of Band-Aids you’ll need. I have a propensity for cutting myself on barnacles, falling on coral and stepping on sea urchins, so I may need more Band-Aids than the average traveler. They aren’t hard to find, but 50 Band-Aids weigh almost nothing and take up almost no space. And, much like a seat belt or a helmet, you don’t need them until you need them, so it’s better to be proactive. Put them in a greater first-aid kit with things like Polysporin, Afterbite and moist towelettes. A needle and thread, waterproof matches and tape come in handy as well (who knows when you’ll need to stitch yourself back together?).

bandaidsRaincoat: I’m not a complete fool, I didn’t head to the wettest place on earth without a raincoat, but I did buy a new one before we left and I didn’t test it out. I thought I’d be able to trust a brand-new supposedly waterproof North Face jacket. The one I bought turned out to be quite permeable, and customer support was less than helpful while we were away. Having spent quite a bit of money on it, the jacket spent the better part of six months rolled up in the bottom of my backpack, waiting to be returned. When I took it back to the store, they mentioned that it looked brand new. Sure does. It didn’t get worn because it didn’t work. This is not an indictment of all North Face gear. Jess’s jacket (the ladies version of mine) worked great. It kept her dry. Annoyingly so. The take home message here is to test out your gear. Check your batteries, make sure your Band-Aids stick, walk around in your (fully-loaded) backpack and tighten the screws in your sunglasses.

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Camera: A camera is probably the second-most important thing to bring, after your passport. Some people have a point-and-shoot, some people simply use their cell phone and some people have a high-test DSLR with five different lenses. Whatever your jam, make sure that you know how to use it, that you’re happy with the picture quality, that battery life is adequate and memory is plentiful. We took a Canon Rebel T3 DSLR with an 18-55 mm lens. We packed some neutral density filters and a remote (aka shutter release cable). We also took a lightweight, compact tabletop tripod (the Ultrapod II). The ND filters aren’t too helpful for your everyday photog, but I like to try and capture silky waterfalls. The shutter release is mostly useful for advanced skills like star trails, light trails and timelapses. The tripod is indispensable, especially if you’re not very steady or shooting in low-light conditions. The selfie stick is a divisive item, and one that I am vehemently opposed to. The amount of egotism in today’s society would make Narcissus blush, and the world doesn’t need another photo of you pursing your lips in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal or the Harbour Bridge. Take a photo, enjoy the moment, and if you don’t have someone to take your photo, make friends with other travelers and trade favours.

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The above four items are obvious, but having just returned from six months abroad, we’ve developed our own little list of things we’re glad we brought, things we wished we hadn’t and things we either bought or wished we’d brought.

Things we’re glad we brought:

  • Headlamps. We take streetlights and 24 h electricity for granted in the western world. Maybe it’s because I’ve always lived in the city, but there’s always been enough ambient light to guide my way. This is most certainly not the case in Bolivia’s altiplano, Costa Rica`s beach roads, Bali`s rural rice fields or the remote caves in Laos. We were so happy to have brought these lights with us.

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Swiss Army Knife. I have a beautiful wooden Wenger knife that was a birthday gift from my traveling partner-in-crime , and it has opened wine, cut off hangnails and been generally indispensable. It even shocked a Swiss traveler when he saw that I, a mere Canadian, possessed a knife from his homeland that was capable of opening a bottle of chocolate milk for him.

  • Power Bars, Cliff Bars and Shot Blocks. Triathlon training introduced us to the world of protein, calorie and electrolyte supplements. Those hot bus trips are seemingly always over lunch, and quite often your only choice is a Coke and some Pringles. These are two brands that have penetrated the world market, but they don`t always fill the need, and we were glad to have alternative snacks with us. Cliff bars aren`t easy to find abroad, so stock up when you can find them.
  • iPad with an SD card reader dongle. Maybe it`s because I like the word dongle, but it doesn`t have to be an Apple product. Some sort of tablet with ample memory and a way to transfer pictures, write emails, blog, post your epic photos to Instragram and facetime with your family is a must-have. Wifi is everywhere now, and the internet cafes of yesteryear have gone the way of the dodo. Writing on your phone is a pain, and laptops are too bulky, so we found an iPad mini was just right (Goldilocks would be proud). We also found a bluetooth keyboard that doubled as an iPad case, which was amazing, especially since typing on a touchscreen isn’t so amazing.
  • Giant ziplock bags. On the order of 10 L, these bags were great for compressing clothes as well as segregating dirty, smelly socks, t-shirts and runners. If you’ve just left the beach and are getting on a bus, this is a great place to cram your damp towel and keep other clothes fresh and dry.

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  • Reusable water bottles. Again, this was a great idea in theory. In practice, however, it was a waste of time, money and space. We sent Jess’s water bottle home from Australia, and mine home from Vietnam. They also leaked, and if we hadn’t wanted to get some money back from MEC, we definitely would have just thrown them out. Most places we visited didn’t have potable water anyway, so you’re buying plastic bottles. Unless you’re staying somewhere more than three days, buying a 4 L bottle is pretty impractical, rendering a refillable bottle useless. Also, in 40 degree heat, ducking in to an artic chilled 7-11 to buy a bottle of ice-cold water is pretty much necessary.
  • A spare pair of flip flops. I notoriously tear (literally tear) through flip flops at least once a year. I figured that starting with a used pair and spending six months chasing summer that I was bound to wreck at least one pair, so I packed a spare pair. I lugged them everywhere, until I finally sent them home from Vietnam. There are 250 million people in Indonesia, and 60 some-odd million in Vietnam, and none of them, NONE, even the construction workers, wear shoes. They all wear flip flops, so it isn’t that terribly difficult to find some more if you wreck yours. Don’t bother bringing spares.
  • A big bottle of Pepto Bismol. There are some things that we were worried about being able to find overseas, such as allergy medicine that I’m not allergic to (oh, the irony), and liquid gel ibuprofen. We needn’t have worried about Pepto Bismol, and we lugged 250 mL of the pink slime around for 6 months and never used it. We saw it available in plenty of pharmacies though. This may seem trivial, but 250 grams here and there adds up quickly.
  • So many clothes. All of my clothes got worn at least once, but some of them only got worn once. I’m not a huge fan of elephant pants, Bintang singlets or t-shirts with nonsense written on them, so I didn’t buy too many clothes while traveling. But make sure that the clothes you do bring are versatile. Running shorts that can double as swim trunks and triple as walking shorts are great. Three pairs of shorts is less great. Pants will not get worn in Asia other than to visit temples, so choose wisely.

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  • Cough drops. With 40 degree temperatures and 100 % humidity, your Vicks and Halls start to dissolve. Then the ants find the sugar. Then your air conditioned room solidifies your Vicks and Halls again, and trap the ants like mosquitoes in Jurassic Park. Just buy some when you need some.
  • Paper guide books. I was less than impressed with the Lonely Planet by the end of our trip, and was even more annoyed by lugging around all of those books. It’s a shame I’m such a Luddite, but I’m working on it. Kindle versions would have been better.
  • Untested running socks. I have a favourite brand of synthetic running socks that effectively eliminated blisters from my life (Wigwam Ironmans), and I got a couple pairs of different running socks as a Christmas gift. I brought these along untested, and got some lovely mega-blisters after my first run. They were promptly binned, but I then had two fewer pairs of useful socks, and finding Wigwams in Peru isn’t easy. See my above comments about testing your gear.

Things we bought:

  • A waterproof bag. I don’t mean ziplock bags, folks, although those have their place, and we definitely brought some of these, both big and small (see above). I mean one of those serious roll-up, throw in the water with your camera, for-kayakers, waterproof bags. The one we bought came tubing in Vang Vieng and water-sliding in Nha Trang and kept our camera dry.

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  • A rain cover for Jess’s big backpack. My pack had one built in, but we hadn’t really thought about Jess until the first torrential downpour. We rigged up some garbage bags until we could find an outdoor store that sold a proper one.
  • A screwdriver for my glasses. Six months of abuse for prescription glasses or sunglasses, and a screw is bound to come loose (in your glasses). Six months of travel will loosen some other screws too, but that’s a whole other post. I had a bunch of these tiny screwdrivers at home, but neglected to bring one. Thankfully, I found an optometrist who sold them, but if you’re like me, you’re nowhere without your glasses so save yourself the hassle and bring a screwdriver.
  • A second small backpack (day pack). At the outset of our trip, we thought we’d minimize, and share one small backpack. In theory this is great, traveling light and all that. In practice though, it leads to disagreements about how much to bring with you each day, how much water to carry, and who’s turn it is to have a sweaty back. We ended up buying a second one in Thailand, but it had pretty much fallen apart by the end of the trip.
  • A small umbrella. We got caught in more than one downpour, and with a non-waterproof waterproof jacket, we ended up buying an umbrella at a wildlife refuge gift shop just outside Sydney. The plus side is that is totally practical, adorned with Tasmanian devils, kangaroos and koalas.

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Things we wish we’d brought

  • A GoPro. We swam, sailed, and surfed. We boogie-boarded, canoed, tubed, cliff-jumped, rock-climbed and scuba dived (scuba dove?). We definitely lived the “Be a Hero” mantra, but didn’t have the waterproof camera gear to capture every moment.

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  • More Passport photos. We brought 2 photos each, for our Cambodian visa, but other countries have ever-changing visa requirements, and the Lonely Planet is hugely unreliable for this type of information. If you get your PADI open-water certification, you’ll need 2 passport photos as well. Better to come prepared than get gouged at the border or dive shop for a simple photo.
  • A kindle. Combined, we read between 15 and 20 books. Paper books. Heavy, expensive, paper books. Combined with the guidebooks, this was a lot of weight. And since we weren’t always staying in hostels, we had a hard time finding book exchanges that had anything worth reading. You can download books to the iPad, and we did this a bit, but it seemed as though whenever one person wanted to read on the tablet, the other wanted to make people jealous with photos on Instagram. You can’t beat paper books on a bus or at the beach, but a kindle-type thing would eliminate the weight, make the books a bit cheaper, and I’d be a lot more likely to read it at the beach than the iPad.

Hopefully this advice is useful. If you’re reading this and have some of your own input, leave a comment. It will help us the next time!

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Top Five Travel Experiences

Waking up for sunrise at Angkor Wat; surfing the morning waves in tiny Santa Catalina; horseback riding through the tobacco fields in the noonday sun in Salta; being surrounded by lunching monkeys in Ubud; watching the sunset on Gili Air and letting go of a lantern into the Koh Samui night sky. Our trip around the world had quite a number of incredible experiences. But, people love putting labels on things: top ten lists, top five lists, favourites… So if we had to pick five, just five, of our most memorable experiences from the last six months, here they are in chronological order (as it is way too difficult to pick favourites).
When people picture paradise, there are a few places that spring instantly to mind. El Nido on Palawan in the Philippines. Zakynthos in the Cyclades in Greece. A lot of people probably have a generic image in their mind of a tiny island of white sand, with a palm tree or two swaying in the breeze, surrounded by impossibly blue water. Most of these people have never even heard of the San Blas Islands, much less have any idea what they look like.
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Jess and I spent four days on a 40 foot catamaran sailing around this archipelago of 360 or so islands near the very beginning of our trip. We visited new islands every day, kayaked in the crystal blue water and ate freshly caught lobster delivered to the stern of our temporary home. We found thousands of conch shells littering the beaches and dined on stingray. All with the most beautiful background. There are a few spots on this planet vying for paradise, but the San Blas Islands, with their lack of development, has to be near the top of the list.
How to get there:
You can arrange round-trip transportation from Panama City which includes a pretty nauseating couple of hours in a jeep on a rollercoaster road, or you can fly to the island of El Porvenir from Panama City. Once in the Guna Yala region, there are water taxis that can take you to the few islands you’re allowed to camp on, or to your waiting charter boat. Most tours will arrange all of this for you, and it works more or less like clockwork. Alternatively, you can explore the San Blas islands on your way to or from Colombia.
Pro tips:
If you’re headed to Colombia, this is a pretty amazing way to get there. There is no overland route between Panama and Colombia. The border region is home to the Darien Gap, a 40 km roadless stretch controlled sporadically by guerillas. The only way to get to Colombia is to fly.
Be warned of the “backpacker” boats to Colombia. Some boat captains overload their boats to make a quick buck, and will go out even if the seas are probably too rough. The captain of our boat quit doing this and had some disparaging things to say about some of the operators.
If you can book directly with the boat instead of a middle man, you can save up to 20 % or more. Our captain has a loose association with a few other boats (www.sanblascatamarans.com). Otherwise, there are a number of booking companies that can help you out. Steph at San Blas Adventures was very helpful.
I spent nearly six weeks in Peru in 2005, and the highlight by a big margin was Machu Picchu. Having no fixed itinerary (and not being a particularly avid hiker), I didn’t do the Inca Trail then, and we opted not to this time as well. The trail was closed for maintenance at the time (and every February), so it wasn’t even an option anyhow. There are a lot of experiences that get built up by everyone you talk to, and ultimately let you down a little bit. Machu Picchu isn’t one of them. It absolutely lives up to the hype and is beautiful and magical.
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There is a good chance that you will see cloud, rain and sun on any day you choose to visit. Do not let this dissuade you. Watching clouds swirl around as llamas and alpacas roam the ruins and the sun burning off the mist is a pretty mystical experience, and it makes it pretty clear why the Inca chose this place. I took a timelapse of the clouds, and I think it does a pretty good job giving you a sense of the place. Despite the number of people visiting, the magnitude of the place spreads the tourists around pretty well.
How to get there:
You can hike the Inca trail from near Cusco, which takes 4 days and has some pretty serious elevation gains and reaches over 4000 m of altitude. Or you can take the train from Cusco. To each their own; there are downfalls for either option, including time and cost. Note that the train from Cusco doesn’t actually take you to Machu Picchu; it takes you to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the hill from where you can either walk along the road (5 km) or take the bus. Also note that Cusco is at 3300 m of elevation and altitude sickness (or soroche, to the locals) is a real thing, so give yourself some time to acclimatize, drink plenty of water, limit your booze and do some research about other treatments (pills or chewing coca leaves, for example).
Pro tips:
Buy your entrance tickets online in advance. They limit the number of people allowed in to 2000 per day, and only 400 per day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, so it often sells out. The credit card payment on the English version of the website didn’t work for us, so we did it in Spanish (you can have two tabs open and follow along in English if you need to; the payment is the last step). There was a pretty good how-to online that I found.
If you’re taking the bus up from Aguas Calientes, consider buying your bus ticket the afternoon before, as there WILL be a lineup in the morning.
Spend as little time in Aguas Calientes as possible. The dining options are better than they were in 2005, but other than some pretty murky warm springs and a craft market, there is precious little to do. There are train departures late afternoon that will get you back to Cusco for a late dinner, and you don’t need a whole lot more than 8 hours at Machu Picchu itself.
Bring mosquito repellant. Ten years ago, I stopped counting after I got to 100 bites on one leg. You’ve been warned.
It is a common saying that anything worth doing isn’t easy. If this is true, getting to Uyuni is DEFINITELY worth doing. The Salar is another one of the places that I visited on my trip to South America in 2005 and had to visit again with Jess. There are pictures I took ten years ago that still make my jaw drop, even with next to no photography skills and a camera hastily bought to replace a stolen one. I wanted to come back here to experience the wonder again, and get a second chance at some amazing shots. The beauty is unmatched and with no pollution and hardly any atmosphere, the colours pop and the reflections are intense.
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This is another place that far exceeds the hype, mostly because there is no hype. National Geographic Traveler and Travel and Leisure Magazines are starting to pick up on it, but for now, this still seems to be a word-of-mouth destination. The salt flats occupy an immense area that can be seen from space, but the tour is more than just sodium chloride. You visit borax lagoons, hot springs, out-of-this world rock formations and bubbling geysers. You’d think you were visiting the moon, Mars and Neptune from the photos. It gets to over 5000 m of elevation here, so take some precautions about weather and altitude.
How to get there:
There are a number of ways to get to and from Uyuni, none of which satisfy both the “cheap” and “easy” boxes. There are flights from La Paz, or buses from La Paz or Potosi (and stops in between). There is also a train originating from near the Argentinian border, but it has limited departures, and all are overnight affairs. One alternative is to start or end your tour in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. There are more options for ending your tour there than starting it, but it is a good option if coming from or going to Chile, as the last day of the salt flats tour is effectively a long drive back to Uyuni.
Pro tips:
Try and book ahead with the tour group of your choice. We chose Red Planet Expeditions based on good word of mouth, and it was great, but we had to stay an extra day in Uyuni because they were booked up for the morning we wanted to leave.
Plan your arrival and departure carefully. You really don’t want to spend any extra time in Uyuni. There is NOTHING to do, it’s dusty, and the wifi is pretty terrible. If you’re heading south, the night bus only has two departures weekly (subject to change at any time without notice!). Check online, as the Lonely Planet is notorious for screwing up information like this.
If you’re into photography or sunsets (or both) and you’re in Uyuni during the rainy season or when there is a small layer of water on the salt flats, go for a sunset tour. The reflection shots in full sun are amazing, but the sunset shots are something else. There was a couple on our tour that showed us some of their shots, and it made me want to go back for a third time.
Go to Minuteman Pizza. It is the only thing worth eating in Uyuni, and the owner is really nice (try the spicy llama pizza!). If you didn’t get a chance to eat there before your tour, you can go the night after your tour before your night train or night bus leaves.
The well-trodden traveller trail in Southeast Asia passes through Huay Xai in northern Laos. Most backpackers, however, simply view it as the departure point of the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Only a few hours from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the border town is a convenient entry point from Thailand into Laos.
The real highlight of the city, though, is that is the jumping off point for the Gibbon Experience. A lot of travellers give it a miss, either because they don’t know about it, or think it is too costly. While expensive by backpacker standards, everyone we’ve met who has experienced it has stated unequivocally that it was worth every last cent.
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Living in a treehouse surrounded by nature with only zipline access is pretty spectacular. The possibility of seeing (and hearing!) Black Crested Gibbons is just the icing on the cake. You sleep in treeforts up to 150 m off of the forest floor and go to sleep with the sounds of the jungle all around. You wake up to singing and wailing of Gibbons. It’s a childhood dream living like the Swiss Family Robinson. Nothing like it anywhere else.
How to get there:
You can get a bus from Chiang Rai (or Chiang Mai) in Thailand to the border town of Chiang Khong and then take a combination of tuk tuks and a bus over the border to get to Huay Xai. From further south in Laos, you can take the slow boat for 2 days via Pak Beng (don’t do it!) from Luang Prabang, or a bus from Luang Prabang.
Pro tips:
Treehouse 7 is supposedly the best for Gibbon sightings. We saw them on morning two, and although they were far away, they were LOUD, and it was an incredible experience. Treehouse 7 also has amazing sunset views. If you’re a couple, the third storey is a loft for 2 people with a trap door.
Treehouse 5 is the probably the best in terms of the zips in and out. This is the one in all the promo pics. If you want an amazing photo, I would recommend stopping halfway on the zipline in and snapping your pics. Alternatively, a GoPro or DSLR on sport mode while you’re zipping will still afford some great photos.
Treehouse 2 is for 2 people only, so might be pretty cool if you’re looking for a bit more of a private, romantic experience. It is available only by specific request, but remember, some of the best experiences are those that you share with new friends. We actually met some expats living in Thailand who’d been reading our blog. Amazingly small world.
We heard that the Waterfall Experience involved significantly more hiking, and the waterfall itself wasn’t much to write home about. There is supposedly less chance of spotting gibbons than with the Classic Experience as well. Everyone we spoke with had a blast, no matter which option they chose.
There is a third option, called the Express, which is only for two days and one night. There is a good amount of transportation time in and out of the Bokeo Reserve, so it’s not really two full days. Do what your budget and timeline allows, but if you’re already in northern Laos, slow down a bit and enjoy yourself (skip the slow boat to Luang Prabang and you’ve saved yourself a day!).
For a lot of people, no trip to Thailand is complete without getting their PADI Open Water Diver certification. For some, it is simply a bucket list item and they never dive again, while for others, it is the beginning of an obsession, an addiction or a career. We definitely met some people in the latter category, including Rich, an instructor at Ban’s who came to Koh Tao in 2001 to get his certification and never left. It’s unclear where we’ll fall on the spectrum, but it is likely somewhere in between, as we were bitten by the bug and are eager to dive again.
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Breathing underwater is an amazing sensation and watching the bubbles slowly float to the surface while fish swim around you is mesmerizing and peaceful. Hunting for Nemo, turtles, eels, whalesharks…unreal. I’m sure scuba diving anywhere is pretty cool, but in Koh Tao with 31 degree water and 30+ metre visibility and a huge array of sealife pushes it over the top. Definitely happy it was on our bucket list and we were able to cross it off.
How to get there:
It all depends where you’re coming from, but there are numerous boat connections from Surat Thani on the mainland, Koh Samui (where there’s an airport) or Koh Phangan (FMP!). To get from points north, Surat Thani has an airport, or there are long haul buses.
Pro tips:
The time immediately following the Full Moon Party (FMP) on Koh Phangan is the busiest for dive certifications on Koh Tao. Accommodations and prices will be a little harder to negotiate. Likewise, the time leading up to FMP is busier. From what we heard, about a week after the FMP is the quietest, which may give you some bargaining power.
We stayed and dove with Ban’s Diving Resort. We loved it, but it is the world leader in PADI Open Water Diver certifications, so if you’re looking for more of an indie vibe, look elsewhere. We spoke to a few people, and nobody was unhappy with where they’d chosen. Often, as with any group activities, the other people and instructor can make a big difference. We had a great crew.
The island above the water is beautiful as well, so take your time, relax and explore. If you love it, stay longer, go deeper and get your Advanced Open Water, and get to dive at night with the phosphorescence. Give Koh Samui a miss…Koh Tao has great bars and fireshows and the people are true water and nature lovers.
Best advice though….go and discover your own top five!

It’s time for us to Split

It is said that rubbing the right big toe of the statue of Gregorius of Nin outside the gates of Diocletian’s Palace in Split will bring good luck and ensure a return trip. If any such rewards are true, Jess will be the recipient, as I think I was too busy taking photos and shooing away other tourists to actually rub his toe.

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After our one night (and many kilometre) detour to Plitvice National Park from the Istrian peninsula, we headed down the Adriatic coast to Split. The narrow, windy roads were a nice change from some of the major toll highways, and we passed through many small villages with beautiful stone houses and hilltop castles. We also passed a good number of abandoned houses in various states of disrepair, some pockmarked with bullet holes; a constant reminder that in the not-too-distant past, this area was a pretty major conflict zone. We veered inland for a while before making a right turn towards the coast and the city of Split, which has pretty stunning surroundings of the sea on one side and limestone cliffs all around.

Split is the second largest city in Croatia, and the run-in towards the ocean does little to hide this. There are countless ugly apartment buildings and big box stores lining the main drag. The sea, however, is the omnipresent turquoise blue of the Croatian coastline and thankfully draws your attention away from the drab Soviet-era architecture.

We were staying in a great little Airbnb just a few hundred metres from the old town and Diocletian’s Palace. Other than the Palace itself, there are some beautiful buildings in the old part of town. Diocletian was the 46th emperor of the Roman Empire, reigning from 284 to 305 AD. The palace was finished around the turn of the fourth century and was meant partially as a retirement residence, though it also functioned as a garrison. Diocletian didn’t exactly get to enjoy retirement though, as he died while still emperor. As we had made extensive use of the car in Istria, we decided to park it for a few days and explore mainly on foot. This was fine, although we’re pretty sure that somebody siphoned our quarter tank of gas sometime during our four days there.

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On one of our days, we endeavoured to enjoy a self-guided walking tour of Diocletian’s Palace and the old town. The walking tour began at the statue of Gregorius of Nin, which is located outside the Golden Gate, one of four main entrances into the Palace. Gregorius was a 10th century Bishop in Nin, a nearby town that was the centre of the Croatian branch of the Catholic Church. Along with King Tomislav, Gregorius was instrumental in changing the language of religious services in Croatia from Latin to the national language and is thus an important historical figure. The statue was cast in 1929 and was originally located inside the palace walls, but was moved outside by the Italians during World War II. It is much photographed, and the continuous rubbing for good luck has polished most of his right foot to a shiny bronze.

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My planned walking tour quickly devolved into aimless wandering, after a few missed turns and an inability to read a map, which was just fine. Most of the main tourist sights inside the walls, such as the cathedral, museum and bell tower, have paid entry anyhow, and our budget for such things was exhausted long ago. The touristy sights are also, you guessed it, full of tourists. Blech. We settled with watching the hordes from the main square with lunch one day, and iced cream another. Quite amusing was watching people getting their photograph taken with some oyung men dressed as Roman gladiators. Half of the people didn’t realize that these photos weren’t free, and the other half knew but tried to get stealth shots without paying. We must have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of terrible photos taken. For those of you who don’t enjoy people watching, I don’t understand you. Jess and I practically make a sport of it. It’s right up there with eating and swimming, competing for the top spot of favourite holiday activities.

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Diocletian’s Palace was abandoned by the Romans not long after his death, and remained uninhabited for a few centuries. In the 7th century, it was repurposed as a refuge by local residents evading Slavic intruders, and has been inhabited ever since. Now there are restaurants, shops, hotels and homes within the Palace walls. Much like the old town in Rovinj, polished white stone paves all of the alleyways, and the high walls provide much-needed insulation from the hot sun.

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imageOne evening, we had a great dinner at a restaurant called Bokeria, where we enjoyed some Croatian treats like marinated anchovies, cured ham and of course, Malvazija. It was a great spot, and we indulged in two of our favourite holiday activities: eating and people watching!

On another of our days in Split, we walked along the harbour and the waterfront to a nearby beach, where we enjoyed the fact that the Adriatic, even in July, is WAY more refreshing than the Gulf of Thailand. While it was definitely amazing scuba diving in 31 degree water, the 25 degree Croatian water cools you off pretty quickly. This completed the trifecta of favourite holiday activities for Split.

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Our last day, needing a break from the heat, we sucked it up and paid the entrance fee to climb the bell tower. From the top and many points in between, there were beautiful views of the city, the sea and the surrounding islands. It was interesting to see the spectrum of acrophobia (the fear of heights), with some people bounding up the slippery stairs while others had a vise-like grip of the railing while emitting some pretty pitiful whimpers.

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The next stop, after a drive further south down the coast and through Bosnia and Herzegovina (which maintains about 10 km of coastline from when they divvied up the former Yugoslavia), was Dubrovnik, where we met up with my sister, her husband, and our two rambunctious nieces for some much needed family time at the end of a long trip.

Bright Blue

Plitvice is a magical place where lakes run into other lakes over mossy terraces with milky blue water. After exploring Istria we headed south through Croatia to Plitvicka Jezera National Park. Plitvice is probably the most famous sight in Croatia; it is a natural beauty where fairies surely flutter about when tourists aren’t around.

Everything is blue and green and the sound of hundreds of waterfalls is very calming. Over the many lakes and waterfalls are wooden bridges and catwalks that you can tiptoe over as you criss-cross your way through the park. It’s difficult to describe how beautiful it is so instead I’ll just show you.

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If we could have gone swimming in the water or if there had been fewer tourists around, it would have been even better, but it was still a gorgeous stop on our journey down the coast.

Roving around Rovinj

Enough of this bus, train, taxi, tuktuk nonsense. Our first stop in Croatia, after immigration and the baggage claim, was the car rental desk. We were going to be travelling in style for the next three weeks. Ford Fiesta style. The only problem (for me) was that every affordable car rental in Europe is a manual transmission. Having grown up in a household with cars with automatic transitions only, driving with two feet is a skill I never bothered to acquire. This means that while on holidays in Europe, I relinquish control and get to try my hand at navigating. Another skill that I never bothered to acquire.

Our first stop in Croatia, after a stopover night in Zagreb, was the small town of Rovinj, on the west coast of the Istrian peninsula. We stayed at a great little AirBnB right in the centre of the old town. Istria is an old Venetian stronghold, so it has a bit of an Italian influence in the cuisine and lifestyle. Also, in true Venetian style, the old town was built on water, so the entire thing is a more-or-less circular peninsula. The old town is pedestrian only, so there lots of windy little alleyways paved with marble and lined with cute little shops selling lavender, wine and olive oil (along with myriad crappy tourist knick knacks and tacky resort wear).

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The apartment was great. Having a spot to keep wine cold and cook breakfast was pretty awesome after 3 months of Asia and eating only in restaurants or from street vendors. Another great feature of the apartment was the wine shop downstairs. The owner, Emmanuel, was super friendly and helpful. On our first night, we were in need of a bottle of wine, and he recommended one that he called his favourite (it was on the cheaper end of his offerings, which is always nice), and he had an open bottle in his fridge, so we could try it. He then put our bottle in his freezer while we made dinner. A lot better service than in the wine shops at home. I think Jess liked it as he was a pretty good looking guy too (Lana, are you reading this?).

The next day, we headed north to do some wine tasting. Emmanuel made a couple of recommendations and made appointments for us. We visited Matosevic winery in the morning, and then had lunch in a small town called Porec. In the afternoon we headed to Roxanich winery and again tried a number of different wines, including the white and red varietals that the region is known for: Malvazija and Teran. These grapes can be quite varied in their character depending on fermentation and aging, which is always interesting to taste side by side. We preferred fresh Malvazija, which has spent less time aging and is meant to be drunk right away. It is difficult, if not impossible to find Croatian wines at home, so it was interesting to learn about wines that we knew nothing about.

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Using our newfound freedom, we continued north to Grosnjan. Grosnjan is a cute little medieval village set atop a hill with a population of about 100 people. The 14th century Venetian fortress is inhabited mostly by artists and shopkeepers selling art and Istrian handicrafts. Unfortunately, the weather arrived to Grosnjan at the same time we did, and although we braved the rain for a bit and wandered the narrow cobblestone alleyways, most of the liveliness of the town wasn’t as evident as it might be in the sunshine. We’ve been pretty fortunate with the weather on our trip, probably being able to count the rainy days on two hands, so it’s hard to complain.

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The day after, we headed south, destined for Pula, the largest city in Istria (though still pretty small at about 60,000 people). We wound our way through a series of small towns, stopping at a beachside resort town by the name of Fazana. A lot of the towns in Istria are quite popular with the Euro summer holiday crowd, and Fazana was no exception. Everywhere you go, there are a huge number of campervans and camping resorts, advertising everything from paintball to waterslides to go-karts. Kind of strange, really.

Pula isn’t quite as picturesque as Rovinj, but the old town features a first century Roman Amphitheatre reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome. The Amphitheatre is in great shape and houses the city’s film festival in mid-July as well as concerts. With a view of the harbour from inside the arches and columns, it’s hard to imagine a better setting for a sunset concert or movie. There are a few other Roman ruins around town, which is a beautiful contrast to the sea-side fishing village.

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Heading back to Rovinj, we made one last stop at a town called Bale. Another medieval town, it was similar to Grosnjan, albeit without the hilltop setting. It’s quite relaxing walking around these old towns, taking in the stunning brick and stone buildings, all with green shutters and red clay roof tiles, as grumpy old women make their way home from the bakery and grumpy old men drink beer and play chess at the many streetside cafes. Olive oil and lavender shops abound, and we tried a few local olive oils. In a bit of a foodie revolution, these are now tasted like wine, sipped and swirled on their own, without bread. While not quite as enjoyable to simply drink oil, you can definitely taste differences without the masking effect of bread.

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Rovinj was a great first stop in Croatia. It was a good mix of real pizza (finally!), seaside dining, wine and olive oil tasting, swimming in cooler water and history. Definitely a much needed change from southeast Asia.

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On our last day, en route to Plitvice, we stopped at Kamenjak National Park on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula. There are a number of coves and rocky limestone outcroppings and the number of swimming spots is almost infinite. The main attraction here, for me though, was cliff jumping. The Lonely Planet described the cliffs at Kolomborica Bay as “popular with daring young men”. I satisfy at least one of those descriptors (so does Jess, but maybe a different one), so we decided to go for it. The biggest jump here was somewhere between 12 and 15 metres, and was pretty safe, as far as cliff jumping goes. The rocks weren’t too slippery, there was a bit of an overhang and the deep water is crystal clear. No surprises waiting below the surface. We both started with a beginner jump of about 8-10 metres before I moved on to the big one. I like Jess to capture my Evil Knievel moments, so I climbed up to the departure point, but timed my arrival a bit poorly. I got there first, and had to wait, slowly gathering fear while Jess got into position with the camera. By the time I stepped up to jump, my knees were weak, so I didn’t waste any time giving a yelp and making the leap. Your neck doesn’t recover from an impact like that quite as quickly at 33 as it does when you’re 18. The daring-er, younger men were climbing and jumping over and over. I was happy to swim around for a bit after and lay in the sun watching. After a little bit more swimming, we headed back to the car and our second stop in Croatia: Plitvice Lakes.

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Turkish Delight

Ready for a new continent and new adventures, Istanbul was actually a great transitional stop on our around-the-world adventure because it is the divide between Europe and Asia. Istanbul straddles two continents separated by the Straight of Bosphorous, and the result is a curious mix of Asian and European flare. We knew we didn’t have time to appreciate the full extent of Turkey but we’d heard so many great things about Istanbul and we needed to fly over it to get to Croatia so why not spend a few days there and see what all of the fuss is about?

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Thankfully, our Malaysian Airlines flight found its’ destination and after four days in Istanbul, I can see what all of the fuss is about. Istanbul is a plethora of sights, sounds and smells. It’s overwhelming for the senses but at the same time so much fun to take it all in. Looking at the skyline, you can’t miss the Muslim influence – there are mosques everywhere, with beautiful domes and minarets that look like something out of a storybook. In the Grand Bazaar vendors are constantly shouting at you to visit their stores and every few hours you can hear the Muslim call to prayer. The smell of doner meat permeates the streets and in the Spice Bazaar smells of saffron, coriander and curry swirl in the air. There is so much to do and see but just walking the streets became one of my favourite attractions.

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While wandering around the city and taking in the recommended sights we tried to eat as much local food as possible. One of the best thing about our trip has been the extraordinary variety of foods we’ve tasted and I wanted to ensure we got our fill in Turkey. Turkish people love to eat so it was no problem finding great places to try the local specialties. Some favourites included simit for breakfast (sesame crusted dough – much like a bagel really), pomegranate pistachio Turkish delight, kofte (Turkish meatballs), doner, dondurma (best described as chewy ice cream) and the Hope-Ross favourite: durum (the same beef or chicken meat as doner but in a wrap). If you haven’t tried it you must!!

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We stayed at an AirBnB in the trendy area of Taksim and found it was easy to walk places or jump on one of the many forms of transportation (boat, metro, tram, bus) to get around. We went to the requisite sights and enjoyed them but the real gem is one of the lesser known attractions – the Basilica Cistern or Sunken Palace. It’s old and wet and spooky all at the same time. It is full of dripping columns and Medusa heads all floating below the streets. The expert of historical thrillers, Dan Brown (obvs), has a new book that features the Cistern so that made it even more mysterious as we were sure Robert Langdon was going to jump out from behind a column at any moment to save us from impending disaster.

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We of course made it to the Grand Bazaar with the thousands of knick knacks, spices, candies and purses to choose from. The building recently celebrated it’s 560th anniversary making it the oldest covered market in the world. An Instagrammer’s dream really. Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were also interesting to visit. Hagia Sophia was a cathedral (built in 537 no less) that was later turned into a mosque. With the exception of the writing on the interior of the building the changes that it had undergone to become a mosque seemed very minor. Once we visited the Blue Mosque it became obvious that religious buildings, no matter the religion, are often very similar. Given the great divide between religions themselves, it’s ironic how similar buildings of worship are.

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One of the coolest things about our trip to Istanbul was meeting up with some locals and getting an insider’s look at what to do on a random Saturday. A guy we met on our Salar D’Uyuni tour in Bolivia told us that if we found ourselves in Istanbul he would connect us with his cousin who lives there and she would be our personal tour guide. Well we took Oz up on his offer and met up with Elif and her friend, Cem. It was such a cool experience to meet up with a total stranger save for our one connection in common and hang out. Elif and Cem were so kind; they took us to a neighbourhood of Istanbul we hadn’t discovered as well as a trip out to Maiden’s Tower, a tiny island off the Asian side of Istanbul with beautiful views of downtown and if you’re lucky you can even spot dolphins breeching in the Bosphorous. It was a treat to get a local’s perspective and to pick their brains on local customs and idiosyncrasies that we’d noticed. I can’t wait to be a stranger’s tour guide in Vancouver one day!

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Finding Nemo

Watching the bubbles slowly ascend to the surface while light filters down around you and schools of brightly coloured fish dance and weave in the currents is an other-worldly feeling. Koh Tao was our destination for getting our PADI Open Water Diver certification, because it is THE destination for new scuba divers. There are supposedly 60+ dive shops on the small island, making the competition so fierce that it is one of, if not the, cheapest place in the world to become certified. Thankfully, the competition is also so fierce that the quality of the dive shops is very high as well.

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Arriving from Koh Samui in the early afternoon, we set our bags down at our hotel, and stomped up the main strip, stopping to chat to the various dive shops. There were a few names we recognized from conversations with other travellers, and a few smaller shops we’d never heard of. The west side of the island, where most of the action is, has two beaches (Mae Haad and Sairee) that are separated by a small headland, and there are easily 20 dive shops within a 15 minute walk along the beach drag. Dotted over the rest of the island are the remaining dive shops, some merely storefronts while others take over entire bays with room for hundreds of divers. We’d also had a couple of touts selling their dive shops on the ferry over, and we’d entertained their sales pitches, as it was a longish boat ride. But as with everything in Thailand, it was a lot of “same same but different”. Prices, accommodation choices, itinerary…same same. Most shops include the course, all certification costs, 4 dives and 4 nights accommodation.

In the end, we settled on Ban’s Diving Centre. It is the biggest dive school in Koh Tao and runs like a well-oiled machine. While part of the allure was definitely the shimmer and shine of the resort, a lot of the allure came down to price. Their tout on the ferry had quoted us the best price, and luckily for us, their included accommodation was full, so free upgrade! The price we ended up paying wouldn’t have bought the hotel room at home, never mind two Open Water certification courses. As we found out, Ban’s is also the world leader in the number of Open Water certifications. While some people say there is a bit of a “cog in a machine” feeling to the resort, Ban’s is obviously doing something right. We got a very personal experience, it was completely our speed, and having 3 pools to choose from, multiple restaurants and bars, but still being within spitting distance of everything else, we loved it. We booked in to start our course the next afternoon.

The PADI Open Water Diver course consists of three classroom sessions, 4 quizzes, one long pool session (technically 4 or 5 confined water dives), 4 open water dives and a final exam. The first two dives are to a maximum of 12 metres while the third and fourth dives are to a maximum of 18 metres. We learned and practiced the necessary skills, such as checking and setting up our gear, removing it and replacing it underwater, communicating with our buddy, mastering our buoyancy and what to do in case of an emergency. Our group turned out to be all Canadian (two friends from Saskatoon and another guy from Calgary – both diving meccas) and our instructor was from New York, but if you’d had to guess, you’d have guessed California. Bro. It was a good crew, and Jess and I felt completely safe and calm the whole time. Having a great instructor and being very comfortable in the water definitely helped.

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I had been on the fence somewhat about whether I even wanted to do the course. My argument was that I had snorkelled in the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, French Polynesia and Indonesia. What more could I possibly see that I hadn’t already seen? After 2 dives, however, I found myself thinking ahead to completing the Advanced Open Water course, where we might be able to dive in Croatia, where we could go on diving holidays as well as possible dives that we could complete at home. There’s something amazing about breathing underwater, getting as close to the fish as possible and seeing what lurks below. Diving blows snorkelling out of the water.

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We saw an amazing array of fish and undersea life, but weren’t lucky enough to spot turtles or whale sharks, which inhabit the area as well. We saw the Titan Triggerfish, which can be incredibly aggressive and is known for biting. We thought we knew Triggerfish, as we’d seen Reef Triggerfish in French Polynesia and Hawaii (the simply named Humuhumu nukunuku apua’a), but this guy was easily 4 times as big, and pretty intimidating. We also saw Angelfish, Butterflyfish, Batfish, Pufferfish, Moray Eels, Stingrays and even Saddlebacked Anemonefish (Nemo!). On our last two dives, we had a couple of photographers join us, so we got some amazing shots of us as well as the sea life.

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Scuba diving ranks high up as one of the best experiences of our trip, and pretty high up on the list of life experiences as well. It didn’t hurt that the average water temperature was 31 C and the visibility was 30 metres! Our instructor, Andrew, said it was some of the best conditions he’d ever dived in.

In addition to being a dive mecca, Koh Tao is also a beautiful island. We knew that we needed to spend at least four or five nights there to complete our Open Water course, but we had no plans for our last two nights in Thailand. After seeing the island, we quickly decided to spend all of our remaining time there. One of the days we enjoyed a good sleep in after two mornings of 7am dives and just lazed at the beach and by the pool. For our final day we decided to say farewell to Asia in proper fashion – on a scooter. We explored a few of the beautiful bays and stunning beaches and could easily see why Koh Tao is such a popular destination. Fortunately, most of the visitors are genuine nature lovers and are a little more eco-conscious than the average backpacker in Vang Vieng or Khao San Road. The beauty here is getting preserved pretty well.

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I didn’t want to jinx it, but we’ve had pretty good luck scooting about Asia. We rented scooters 8 times in all, without so much as a hiccup (other than having to bribe a policeman in Chiang Mai). This was fortunate, as we saw a good number of cuts, burns, slings, black eyes, bandages and accidents. Didn’t see too many helmets though. People seem to think danger is on vacation too. My feeling is that if you’re not wearing a helmet, there’s probably nothing worth protecting anyhow.

Koh Tao was an amazing place to spend our last week in Southeast Asia, sneak in a few more green curries, sunsets and fire shows. It’s been a blast, and Thailand remains one of our favourite countries, but we’re definitely looking forward to Turkey and Croatia!

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