Isla Mujeres

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IMG_4747Literally translating to “Island of Women”, this colourful fishing village was my favourite stop on our journey through Mexico.  Just a short ferry ride from the mainland, it contrasts immensely to the fast-paced
chaotic tourism that comprises Cancun and I think is an absolute must-visit for everyone. For a set fare (about 80 pesos) the ferry terminal is just a short taxi ride away from the bus station. A return ticket to Isla costs about 136 pesos (with the brightly coloured ferry company Manaja) and the trip takes 25 minutes. For us, getting back to Cancun proved a little more difficult – for some reason (not sure if it is always like this) but the ferry queue was enormous. We were in line and there wasn’t enough space on the ferry, so we had to sit in the queue for another hour until the next ferry arrived.

One of the coolest hostels I have ever experienced is Poc Na. Recommended to us by friends, it was located right on the beach, with a dive school attached, as well as offering free yoga, Spanish lessons, massages, beach volleyball and live music (to name just a few of the options) on a regular basis. It also offers various day trips and has a beach bar, a café, and spacious, clean rooms. The hostel is only a few blocks from Playa Norte. With warm blue water that is shallow for ages and heavenly cabanas (which get snapped up quickly!) it is definitely one of the best beaches on the island for swimming and sunning yourself.
The island itself is tiny, and extremely walkable. There is only about 16,000 permanent residents, basically all of whom which are involved in tourism in some way. IMG_4836The town is condensed at the northern end of the island (where the ferry drops you off) and is packed with bars, restaurants, and shops full of cute trinkets. Isla Mujeres is only about 8km long, and at its thinnest point it is possible to see from one side to the other.

I would definitely recommend hiring a golf cart as a fun and convenient way to see the island, visiting the far spots that you mayn’t otherwise reach, and viewing where the craggy cliffs meet the warm blue tones of the Caribbean. We hired one for 650 pesos (Poc Na has them available for hire, but they were sold out for the day already when we went) and attempted to cover every nook and cranny of the island. We passed Dolphin Discovery, the Turtle farm, explored the ruins at the southernmost point of the island, and stopped for a drink at a bar that overlooked the water (with beer “so cold it’ll make your teeth hurt!”).

Other places we ate at include Velazquez, which had simplistic décor (plastic tables and chairs) that was just perfect for this cute little place, overlooking the pier, boats and setting sun. For some reason, ordering a whole fresh fish felt like a necessity as we sat under the beachfront palapa (thatch roof). It was so delicious. The margaritas were enormous, and also delicious. Another spot overlooking the water is Bally Hoo. This place was a lot more formal in comparison (and its prices reflected that to some extent). The service was incredible – the waiter noted both of our names, and used them generously throughout the night. I had steak fajitas and a large mojito – it didn’t take us long to learn that the drinks in Isla were far bigger and stronger than anywhere else we had been. For dessert, I would definitely suggest indulging in the Spanish classic: Churros. At nham nham churros, a family owned and operated business; I splurged on a Nutella filled churro, and momentarily went to heavy. The place itself is cute too; a little food cart within the shop itself, and you can watch the churros being made from scratch. If your body is craving some vitamins and minerals I would head to Green Verde. Admittedly we didn’t make it here, but it was recommended to us a million times. It was a decent walk from the town centre and when we ventured there with the golf cart it was closed for the hour. I was pretty disappointed not to eat here, but c’est la vie.

I was ridiculously excited (and nervous) to get back into the water and do some diving. It had been almost been a year since I last went, and getting my equipment ready was quite a bit harder than I expected (increasing my nerves ten-fold). The boat was pretty small compared to other boats that I have been on (a few of us felt pretty sea sick), and running on Mexico time we were late in leaving. Isla is famous for whale sharks, however it was the wrong season for these gentle giants, and instead I got offered (if I was adventurous enough) to dive with some more ferocious bull sharks (I was nervous enough about the diving itself so I passed on that one!).

First we visited Musa (aka the Underwater Museum). Put in place by the people of Cancun, the museum was full of statues, grenades, cars and would have been incredibly awesome had there just been a few more fish/wild-life. This was my first experience where some of the members of my group had terrible dive etiquette (which must have been bad, for an amateur like myself to notice), for example pushing past each other (and me) underwater, swimming off without their buddies, and not knowing how to effectively communicate with the team. It was a little frustrating, and made me a bit panicky! Our second dive was along a reef at the south of the island. Again the sea-life was pretty disappointing, although we did spot some lionfish and barracuda. We were encouraged to swim through a long, dark, low cave; and although I almost self-induced claustrophobia, I was proud to say that I did it.

Take home message from this blog post: if you are in the vicinity, visit Isla Mujeres.

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Tulum

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A $7 bus ride and approximately an hour from Playa del Carmen lies Tulum. If you are after a holiday destination that incorporates a pristine beach, a laid-back atmosphere, ancient Mayan ruins (Tulum means “wall” in Mayan) and of course, authentic Mexican food, then Tulum will probably fit the bill. Better still, it’s warm all year around (although rainiest in June, September, and October).

Sleep

We stayed at the Lobo Inn, which was about 200m from the entrance to the ruins. The hostel has the potential to be awesome – however it was quite a way out of town, lacked power-points and lights in general (which reflects Tulum’s lack of a community power supply), and the bathrooms were sub-par. It did offer a delicious free breakfast, as well as the opportunity to borrow bikes – we claimed two straight away and used them to ‘xplore the ‘burbs.

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La Coqueta = top notch. Near the supermarkets (Charmani is the better quality of the two), we were told to expect a wait but that it would be worth it. We crept in to get the last available table. Here I experienced my first Mexican Coca-Cola (they use palm sugar instead of the artificial stuff that America puts in) and a delicious vegetarian wrap. It was so good, had there been time we definitely would have come back.

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Move

Cycling: Unlike New Zealand, helmets are considered a mere accessory – therefore no one wears them. Cycling round the ‘burbs are an inexpensive, fun way of seeing the area and gives you freedom an ability to explore in a way walking and taxi’s do not. The houses in the area were minimalistic, with cheaply constructed washing lines and beaten-up cars outside, often guarded by a dog – probably a stray.

Do

Beach: Tulum’s biggest draw card. White sand that stretches for miles, clean blue water, and for once, more palm trees than people – it was a stereotypical beach-lovers paradise. Cabanas dot the dunes, and occasionally vendors wander past with fresh fruit for sale (to my dismay no-one seemed be selling mango).

Ruins: Dating from the thirteenth century, it doesn’t take long to see why the Mayan’s chose this picturesque spot for their temples. Big grassy spaces dotted with palm trees (it reminded me of a golf course), private beaches (but open to the public within the ruins) and lots of stone ruins. The ruins cost 650 pesos, and are an afternoon well spent.

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Cenotes: A must-do whilst in Mexico. Natural freshwater pools in caves, there are two main ones near to Tulum; Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos. We opted for the latter and for 400 pesos caught a collectivo (about a 25 minute drive from the entrance to the ruins) where we got dropped at the entrance, with a piece of paper that had someone’s name on it. It was all very confusing, but in the end, a driver collected us, drove us through the entrance to the cenote where we got given snorkels, flippers and directions to the ‘baby’ cave. We thought it was strange to be offered wetsuits in Mexico, but after jumping into the water we soon realised why: it was ICY cold. We snorkelled through the cave until we were comfortable, then we headed back up to the equipment area, where we were taken to the more advanced cave. A guide led us through a long cave – it was really dark (we had underwater torches) with stalactites, bats, and lots of beautiful scenery.

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Akumal: A collectivo ride later we found ourselves dropped off at an exit point on the side of the highway. We were unsure where to go, so we thought logically and walked back along the road to the entrance of the Akumal Resort, only to be denied entry, and told to walk back where we came from. Feeling very uncertain we walked along the highway exit, but thankfully it evolved into a commercial boulevard (for the general public). It is about a ten minute walk. A Mexican man latched onto us as we walked and miraculously convinced us into signing up for his snorkelling tour.

Seventy minutes and 300 pesos later we had our own private guide who pointed out eel rays, fish, squid and sea turtles. And not just one sea turtle, we saw several. They were enormous, and were not at all afraid of humans. Every so often they need to come up for air, and when they mission it to the surface, you almost feel that if you don’t get out of their way they will swim straight through you. It was fascinating, and the water was so warm I could have stayed in there forever.  We left all of our clothes and valuables in plastic containers on the beach, and although they were ‘supervised’ we were still pretty relieved to see everything there upon our return.

After returning our snorkel gear, and being given a sea urchin as a gift from our guide, Hailee and I went and found a spot in the sun. It started raining and Hailee went for lunch; I accidentally fell asleep and somehow got really sunburnt (which sure makes carrying a backpack painful). My day was made when I found a man selling fresh mango on sticks with chilli and lime for just $3.

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Playa Del Carmen

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$250 bought me my flight from New York to Cancun. The airport in Cancun was pretty basic, and to our frustration every single one of the ATMs at the airport was broken. Thankfully, the machine didn’t eat either of our cards (others weren’t so lucky), and Hailee was carrying some leftover US dollars. The conversion rate was easy; basically 10 pesos equalled $1. At the airport we jumped on an ADO bus for 68km to Playa del Carmen – it took about an hour, cost $16 (prices fluctuate depending on the season) and was extremely spacious and cool (which I was already grateful for, after only 10 minutes in the mild Mexican heat!). There are two bus stations in Playa del Carmen – the ‘old station’ is on the corner of Juarez and 5th Avenue and the ‘new station’ is essentially at the opposite corner of the town, right next to the big supermarket MEGA, and Walmart.

We stayed at Tres Mundos Hostel – which was clean, friendly, and quiet. It was within close proximity to both the beach and 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) and the weather was so warm that the cold showers were welcomed. The main street, 5th Avenue, is one row back from the beach and has fancy all-inclusive resorts at each end. It is incredibly festive, crowded with high-end shops, souvenir stalls and over-priced bars and restaurants. The streets are thick with American accents, and little Mexican men promoting their souvenirs by telling you it will help you find a Mexican boyfriend.  The souvenir shops run by these cheeky Mexicans are a source of entertainment on their own. You can find everything from sombreros, ceramics, blankets, leather, food, magnets and of course, tequila. As soon as we set foot in one of these places, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I gave into the temptation of these colourful delights.

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Venture two streets back from the beach, and you are already hitting local territory – with street food, carts, and houses. So it is relatively small, and doesn’t take long to explore by foot, which I loved. Running perpendicular to the beach is Avenida Juarez – which has lots of smaller shops, where prices tend to be more negotiable. There are also lots of food stalls, and a small food market. It has an entirely different vibe to 5th Avenue, and feels far more authentic. At the south end of 5th Avenue I located a bunch of shops I’d adored in Europe – such as Pull & Bear, Zara and Bershka and at the northern end were more shops, including Forever 21.

The beach was fine – but for a New Zealander (inherent beach snobs) it was overcrowded and a little bit dirty. We spent a few well-needed days by the beach. We were craving sun, sea and sand after our week in New York. The weather was very temperamental – always hot, but there were numerous patches of rain throughout the day. This was fine; it provided opportunity to pop up into town for a quick bite, or to browse the shops.

Our first Mexican meal we wanted to be authentic – therefore we had to find somewhere selling Mexican food amongst all the Italian, French and other touristy cuisines on offer. We settled on a place called La Fisheria – which at the time I didn’t find too expensive (given the exchange rate) but I soon learnt it was more of an upper-end restaurant, definitely targeted at tourists. Despite that, the menu was mouth-watering, and the food fantastic; my yellow fin tuna tostada with mango guacamole was almost worth dying for.

An avid blogger myself, I always take enjoyment out of visiting places that other people recommend on their travel blogs. In Playa del Carmen, we had been advised to eat at El Fogan, which is on the far side of town by the supermarket (only about 5 blocks). We arrived, and it was buzzing with people. We sat down to find the entire menu was in Spanish. Unfortunately, I was not as bilingual as I’d thought, so we had to piece our way through the menu, still being a little unsure of what we actually ordered I got tacos el pastille; the beginning of a trend, and certainly, the beginning of the end. For about $1, I got two tacos, with the meat coming off the rotisserie (commonly seen in kebab shops in NZ). Another restaurant recommended by a blogger was Le Cororela. This place was located near the south end of 5th Avenue; cheap, authentic and delicious, we shared tacos, enchiladas and a quesadilla – washed down with a green smoothie (had to get my nutrients from somewhere!).

[Nearby is the Xcaret Eco Park, which is a popular tourist destination, especially for families, and is home to many activities (for example cenotes, snorkelling), wild-life, beaches and eateries. Also, just a ferry ride away is the island of Cozumel, which although we didn’t have time to visit, Hailee spoke highly of it – a great opportunity to hire quad bikes and do some exploring, as well as a world-class destination for snorkelling and diving. It costs approximately $25 and takes 45 minutes to reach by ferry.]

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Hawaii: The Aloha State

Hang loose, or as they say in Hawaii, ‘shaka’. A chilled American state that is rich in Pacific traditions and culture (due to its strong identification with Polynesian history) and combined with its classic American tourism, it seems to be a holiday destination common with travellers all over the world. Time constraints meant I only had enough time to visit Oahu, but I was determined to make the most of it.

Landing in Honolulu airport, I walked outside and located myself a shuttle into Waikiki for $US16. It took about 45 minutes to get to Waikiki – and this was at about 10pm at night. My return trip to the airport only took me 25 minutes, although I would allow at least an hour if you were travelling to or from at rush hour. I got dropped at the Polynesian Hostel Beach Club Hostel which was pretty cheap by Hawaiian standards (US$25/night) and had not much going for it except its location (very close to the beach and the main Waikiki strip). The ventilation was minimal, the bathrooms were revolting, and the staff seemed clueless – but I guess you pay for what you get, and we didn’t plan on spending any time there.

Indulge

One of my favourite things about visiting tropical countries is that I know fresh fruit will be a plenty – and I was not to be disappointed. Everything from strawberries to papaya (which I’ve since learnt is the first tropical fruit I can take or leave) and of course pineapple (unsurprising given Oahu is home to the Dole plantation). Diamond Head Cove Health Bar radiates energy; fresh, colour and healthiness are all in abundance. Further, Tucker and Bevvy’s have a delightful array of nourishing choices, all made right in front of you (and located a mere 2 minute walk from our hostel).

While it is hard to escape the inherent commercialism that is Waikiki, it is definitely still possible to excite ones taste buds and indulge in some delicious food. My first fruit indulgence came at the Hula Grill, which is attached to the Outrigger Resort. It came as a delicious fruit platter with a pina colada dipping sauce, and a view to die for. It had a pretty varied menu, with something to suit all ages.

My flatmate had recommended Island Vintage Coffee for their acai bowls (delectable bowls of healthy goodness) but I would have been at ease eating anything off their menu – it is a must visit for brunch. It is located upstairs along Kalakaua Avenue; a wide boulevard lined with trees, shops and of course, tourists. Island Vintage Coffee also has a wee gift shop with lots of beautiful hand-crafted treats, that I would have stocked up on had I been going back to New Zealand sooner.

We decided we couldn’t be in America and not visit the institution that is the Hard Rock Café. Decked out in guitars, TVs, and other rock’n’roll memorabilia, the place was massive, and a lot of fun. We were forewarned about the portion sizes, so we shared the fajitas as a main, followed up with dessert. Delicious, classic, and the walk home was well-needed to ensure that we didn’t go to bed feeling sick!

We spent a while looking for a place to drink, and eventually learnt that if you just walk through one of the copious numbers of resorts, beach bars basically dot the length of the beach.

Culture and History

It is hard to say no to doing a Luau when in Hawaii. We signed up with Germaine’s Luau – a cringe-worthy, but totally worthwhile experience. For $US70 we got picked up from our hostel, driven out to Kapolei Beach, where we took part in a full back-yard style luau, watched a cultural performance by some incredible dancers, indulged in a full American-style buffet (with 3 free cocktails) and got dropped at our door at the end of the night. Our “escort” for the night was an elderly lady called Georgie, who was so full of enthusiasm that we almost couldn’t cope. The bus trip was about an hour long, and we were pretty relieved to see it end. We received shell lai’s and had our photos taken before we found seats at the picnic style tables set up in front of the stage. We watched some local men dig up the ENORMOUS pig that had been slow roasting under the ground all day, and which we were about to tuck into as part of our dinner. The show consisted of approximately 5 female, and 4 male dancers, a female host and a band. They were extremely rhythmic, colourful, interactive and their energy was highly contagious. There was ample opportunity for the crowd to get up onstage and learn various types of dancing. Through dance they showed various island cultures; Taihiti, Samoa, Fiji, Cook Islands, and interestingly, New Zealand. For dinner there was so many things to try – we had to be extremely tactical about stacking our plates. There was pineapple slaw, rice noodles in broth, fish, chicken, pork, beef, macaroni and potato salad, fruit salad, taro paste (“poi”), coconut haupia (dessert), chocolate cake and much more. We were so full afterwards, that we wanted to sleep the whole bus ride home (unsuccessful, thanks to Georgie). I won the most beautiful, authentic lai when I answered a question during a pop quiz, so the bus trip wasn’t all bad!

I was extremely excited for Pearl Harbour. After reading Unbroken and watching the Pearl Harbour movie, it is a piece of history which I find extremely interesting, and was looking forward to seeing in the flesh the remnants of the events of December 7, 1941. We had been given conflicting advice about our desired time of arrival – apparently the queues can be astronomical, tickets sell out (there is only a set number per day) and everyone says to get in early. We left at 8am and travelling on the local bus, we arrived 1.5 hours later. It was SO slow. I would recommend hiring a car, finding a cheap tour, or walking part of the way before getting on the bus. We hadn’t taken bags as we were told the queues to check them in tend to be massive (they weren’t), but it meant we could head straight in and get our (free) tickets for the Arizona Memorial. We explored the site; plaques described the weapons, and other equipment used during the war, before we got in line for the ferry at our designated time. First we watched an extremely well-made movie that retold the story of that horrific day, although it was slightly one sided in that it left out crucial historic events, such as the Hiroshima bombing. Incredibly interesting regardless though, and afterwards we stepped onto the ferry which took us to the memorial where we could get off and check it out. It was essentially a big white platform (partially funded by Elvis Presley) which looked down onto the overturned ship. A room at the end contained inscriptions with the names of the 1,777 people who had died there, as well as any later deaths of people who had been left to rest at the memorial. It was a highly touching experience, and it can be further enhanced by the hiring of audio guides and visiting the other memorials at the site. Fun fact: the name arises because oysters were once farmed there.

Explore

Waikiki Beach is nothing short of crowded. Once we fought for and won ourselves a spot, we kicked back in the sun for a few hours. The beach is steep – one of those situations where everyone looks uncoordinated as they clamber out of the water, but the water was cool and refreshing.

There is high-end shopping available at your fingertips, as well as all of the usual American chains. About a half hour walk away is the Ali Moana Shopping Centre, an enormous indoor/outdoor plaza with levels and levels of shops. It is just across the way from the Ali Moana beach, which is slightly less populated than the main Waikiki strip.

Diamond Head is a crater located at the far end of Waikiki Beach. It is about a two to three hour round trip walk from Waikiki, but you can catch buses to the crater itself, from which it is about 20 minutes to the summit. We opted to walk the whole way, and although the views were beautiful, the number of people on the track really diluted the experience. The earlier you get there the better I think, unless you don’t mind bumper-to-bumper foot traffic, and queuing for a picture of the view.

Discover the North Shore

We hired a car from the Outrigger Resort to do our own exploration of Oahu Island. To get out of the city,  Belinda navigated; I drove, and we eventually made our way onto the highway. We reached Hanauma Bay which is renowned for snorkelling. It is supposed to be extremely sheltered due to being formed within a volcanic cone. Unfortunately for us, the entire reserve is closed on Tuesdays. So we continued onwards and upwards towards Makapu’u Lighthouse. It was no longer than an hour walk (return trip) and provided us with impressive panoramic views of the landscape and ocean surrounding the Hawaiian coastline. Between December and May it is also a popular spot to watch whales migrating, at times there can be hundreds! Continuing on, we followed directions given to us by a friend, and we hit Lanikai Beach – which was the epitome of a tropical beach: crystal blue water, white sand, palm trees, next to no people, and a reef to snorkel on. After our tummies reminded us that they had been neglected, we continued driving until we found Giovanney’s Shrimp Truck. For $13.50 we indulged in a shared feast of steaming hot, creamy, garlic shrimp – upon which I quickly mastered the art of de-shelling. This was followed up by some shaved ice, which seems to be everywhere in Hawaii. Next stop around the coastline is Turtle Bay; numerous movies (including Forgetting Sarah Marshall) have been filmed here, and it is easy to see why. We were immediately greeted by immaculate grounds, golf carts, and palm trees. We parked up and wandered around, through the bar, past the pools, spa, wedding set-up, along the beach, until we had done a complete circuit of its exterior. It oozed romance, and perfection.

From here, as a surfing enthusiast, Belinda knew her way well to the beach that was home to the Banzai Pipeline. On this particular day the waves had been determined to small for the competition to run, however there was still heaps of surfers in the water (and the waves were certainly not small by normal person standards) so we sat and soaked up the vibe for a while. Behind us were the sponsors’ houses, so the likes of Volcom, Ripcurl, Red Bull etc all had big beach houses built just beyond the sand dunes where the pro surfers stayed during the competition. Beyond this beach is Waimea Bay, which is where another of the pro surf tournaments is held earlier in the year. A little further along you hit Haleiwa, where we beached until the sun went down, before I had my first fish taco at a cute little place called Cholo’s and a gelato from IL Gelato (next door) for dessert. Reluctantly we headed back to Waikiki where we dropped the car off (we had opted to drop it off after hours, meaning we were under no rush to bring it back).

Other things to do

Museums and galleries are plentiful, as well as the Honolulu Zoo being located at the end of Waikiki Beach (closest to Diamond Head end).

Other things to look out for include the licence plates with the rainbow on them as well as the ABC convenience stores which are located approximately every 4 shops in Waikiki. These shops sell everything from fruit and souvenirs, to alcohol and pharmaceuticals. You won’t actually need to look out for one, as they are pretty hard to miss!

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Nha Trang

Good morning sunshine! After a subpar sleep (a bus bunk bed is incomparable to a bed, even when sleeping pills are involved) our lot groggily stumbled off the bus and started hunting for our Air B’n’B accommodation that we’d booked the week before. Being in a beachy tourist town we thought it might be worth splashing out for a party style penthouse, but when we found this place for $3.50 each per night, it was too much of a steal to refuse. And besides, it described itself as a brewery – who were we to say no?*

This place was far easier to locate than our prior Air B’n’B experience, and we arrived not long after 7.30am – thankfully they let us check in, but to our dismay, the power was out. So after fumbling around in the dark and taking a much needed (cold) shower, we headed out for breakfast to ‘Same Same But Different‘ – a saying that will never get old in Asia. Although the name was cliché, the food was perfectly fine, and not long after we found ourselves at the beach (6km long, they say it’s the most famous beach in Vietnam). The sand was plentiful, the water was warm – the gradient was steep and the waves were deceptively strong. If your exit from the water wasn’t tactically timed, the oncoming wave was bound to catch you and knock you over – it was definitely a challenge to look graceful whilst clambering out of this ocean! Our first beach time in a while, we unintentionally, but also inevitably, overstayed our welcome and received some pretty hefty sunburn in return.

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That afternoon we made our home at Booze Cruise bar – although more expensive than we were used to, the food was on point (they understood that when I ordered an egg, it was intended for inside my burger, not just as a hard-boiled extra on the side), the jam-jar cocktails were divine, and to make my day there were live screenings of the Australian Open – finally, some tennis. Conveniently, it was finals time – so it wasn’t too hard convincing the others these matches were worth the watch (especially with Jimmy and Summer there, both being avid tennis fans). After drinking our way through the tennis we found some of our own sports to play (pool, foosball and slap-cup) against some German lads before heading home for a relatively early night.

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The next morning James and I jogged out to explore the Hong Chong Promontory (granite rocks that ‘jut’ out into the South China Sea – not as impressive as it sounds), before downing an omelette and rushing back to get ready for our ‘cruise’ around some of the 71 islands that exist off the coast. A taxi picked us up and took us down to the wharf, where we met our crazy Vietnamese tour guide, who went by the name of Binh. The first island was a let-down; to get off the wharf you had to pay a fee to visit an aquarium – we weren’t there to look at fish through glass – we wanted to swim and party! James paid to enter, the rest of us just killed time on the wharf – taking photos and anxiously watching the sky becoming greyer by the minute. Thankfully the rain left us alone, and we were to endure another day of sunshine. The second island provided my first experience snorkelling – it was wicked! We also got to jump off the roof of the boat, and I took some pretty epic back-flip videos of the boys. By now everyone was pretty ravenous so we were excited to climb aboard and see the boats magical transformation into the Great Hall, where there were just plates and plates of food; a feast fit for kings.  To escape the cleaning up Kels, Summer and I went onto the roof and caught some more sun; we came back down to find our boat had been hijacked by the local band who then instigated an afternoon full of singing, dancing and general hilarity. They identified all of the nationalities on board, making each group come up onto the makeshift stage and sing a song inspired by someone from their country. Despite being handed Bryan Adams and Summer of ’69, the Canadians, somewhat disbelievingly, didn’t know ANY of the words. The Kiwis were the finale (saving the best until last), whereby James and Cam performed a fantastic re-enactment of the New Zealand haka. They were outstanding – definitely the crowd favourite! Our last stop saw us pay 3000 Dong to enter a resort, where we all just claimed deckchairs, ate ice-cream and napped.

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That night we stumbled across a street-food styled food court called Galangal for dinner (despite its size it still managed to be quaint) – the quail egg pastry was one of the best things I ate in Vietnam. This was followed up with an attempt to party – some more successfully than others; I was one of the worst, calling it in before the others had barely started. The next morning I went for an extremely long stroll along the beach before meeting the others for breakfast across the road from our hostel. It was an ironically terrible experience. When we arrived they were blasting “Gangnam Style”, followed by “I’ve Got A Hangover” – which did not sit well with the folks who had been out late the night before. We jinxed ourselves by asking for them to turn it down, because then there was a power cut and we had to wait an eternity for our meals; including me – as they had sold out of muesli. On the way out we spotted big tanks of animals that were barely alive (frogs, fish, sharks with no fins…) and we absolutely could not wait to get out of there.

We bartered with a taxi driver for a return trip to the 100 Egg Mud Bath – located about 20 minutes out of town. We decided on a group session – we were given free drinking water and bathing suits, and climbed into a medium sized bath, that was filling itself up with a warm and pleasantly thin mud. We immersed ourselves in the ooziness, massaging the goodness into our skin and lathering the mud onto our faces and necks – before Abby and James absolutely took the plunge and put their heads under. They resurfaced almost entirely unrecognisable. After we finished in the mud bath we had to rinse off in horizontal showers that sprayed water like bullets, and change bathing suits before we were allowed into the next lot of pools. Eventually we found the spa and stayed there for a bit, before getting changed to go and meet up with our taxi driver who had arrived to take us back into our accommodation. After packing up our belongings and grabbing some food, we headed off to climb aboard overnight bus number two – this time Hoi An bound.

IMG_8466* Our accommodation was in a prime location; it consisted of 8 bunk beds, with a massive dining table in the centre of the room, and a bathroom attached. It was rather dingy, as the only windows were internal so didn’t let in any real sunlight, however the owner was lovely – despite the small misunderstanding he had over how Air B’n’B worked (he thought that the $3.50 each we’d paid was just a deposit and tried to present us with a bill later – we had to calmly explain that wasn’t the way Air B’n’B functioned and that we would refuse to pay) and he looked after us wherever he could.

Diving into fun at Koh Tao

One of the things I had always dreamed about – becoming a qualified Scuba Diver, was about to come true. A ferry ride from Bangrak Pier, Koh Samui to Koh Tao, saw us collected by the Simple Life Divers crew as well as another reunion with Emma. It seemed like there were many good dive schools available, however these guys were efficient in their email replies, and located on Sairee Beach (a great place to be). They took us back to the Dive School so we could ‘dive’ into the paperwork, and after a muck-up with the bookings we were shown to our rooms at Tommy’s (non) Resort. Emma and I shared, whilst Cam and Summer were next door – and I don’t know that the standards of a “Resort” could get any worse, unless it was a self-proclaimed statement in the first place.

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Cam and Summer both spent a lot of the next few days being sick, and consequently (but not unwelcomely) spent a lot of time at the poolside, one perk (the only perk) of Tommy’s Resort. Meanwhile Emma and I spent a lot of time holed up in a classroom with our two Aussie instructors (Baden and Nick), some over-concerned Canadians “whose lives were on the line”, two Brits, Hayley and Sam (whom we ended  up spending quite a bit of time with) and a few others – making for a diverse and interesting group. When we weren’t at dive school we could always be found either at the beach, or at In Touch – a beach-side cafe, restaurant and bar that had a balcony on the sand, fantastic wi-fi and the most extensive menu one could wish for. As I googled it, I also discovered that it is actually a resort – wouldn’t be a bad place to stay, couldn’t be a more central location!

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The course itself was comprised of two mornings in the class room, one afternoon in the pool, and three dives out at sea. I quickly realised that I was simultaneously fascinated and (unexpectedly) petrified by the underwater world. Our underwater exercises in the pool taught me the dangers of the sport, and for me, it became a huge mental game of remaining calm and just breathing slowly. It was so frustrating. I hated the thought of my oxygen intake being limited to what came through a tube, and I was continually in fear that I would not be able to get enough. Practice makes perfect I guess, and the longer I spent underwater the easier it became. It only took seconds of being underwater in the actual ocean for me to become mesmerized – what you see on TV about the existence and serenity of the underwater world couldn’t be more true. The feeling was surreal.

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Our first dive was at Buddha Rock, and our second dive was scheduled for Sairee Beach, however the weather packed in, and not long after we also had to call it quits due to a lack of visibility. This wasn’t a bad thing; we were all shattered, despite the seemingly endless supply of sweet and savoury biscuits on the boat. On our third and final morning we arose before the sun, and managed to dive down to 17.6m at White Rock. We then had another attempt at Sairee Beach, where we got to visit the ‘Junkyard’, an underwater playground with gym equipment, a piano, and old tables and chairs. I was so relieved to have completed the course, and while I loved the experience I was unsure when/whether I would attempt it again. The school itself was incredible, I’d recommend it to anyone in a flash. [Insert Koh Phi Phi – where I would become addicted to diving]

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Ferries run twice a day to both Kohphangan and Koh Samui. We opted to ferry back to Koh Samui for another night at the Buddha Lounge (and to pay our last visit to Rob’s Bar) and then fly from Koh Samui to Chiang Mai. It is also possible to ferry/train/bus – but we wanted to save on travel time.

Full Moon Festivities

Most hostels on Kohphangan require a 7 night minimum stay across the Full (and Half) Moon party weeks. Being on the budget and time restrictions that we were, this wasn’t really an option to us. We took some advice from friends and opted to continue our stay on Koh Samui, and would just commute to and from the island for the party. Ferries run frequently throughout the day, so getting there would not be a problem. Tip: you can buy a return ferry ticket before you leave Koh Samui. We opted not to buy a return ticket so that we weren’t restricted to a return time and we didn’t want to have to worry about looking after it. Our choice sure made for an interesting night…

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On the morning of the Eve, Cam, Summer, me and a girl from our hostel Molly, joined the ferry queue to get to Kohphangan, home to the infamous Full Moon Party. The boat took us and our bright orange life jackets to the main port, where within seconds of stepping off the boat it was obvious that tourism kept this place alive. Fluoro was everywhere, as were DIY cocktail buckets, face paint, and of course, people. We explored the left of the port first, where there  was a bunch of swanky resorts and one of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen. We had a deliciously long lunch with an equally delicious view, before exploring the main streets of the beach town. After bumping into someone from New Zealand that amazingly both Summer and I knew, we ended up at Mellow Mountain (at the far end of Haad Rin beach).

After a less than favourable experience at Mellow Mountain we made our way to Emma’s hostel, which was ‘playboy’ themed, and offered free shisha. After demushroomising, and then getting our newly formed crew ready (completely transformed by the powers of fluoro body paint), we all headed out to dinner, bought DIY buckets and made our way to Cactus Bar where we had a good dance, and in general a fantastic time. Bizarrely enough, Summer and I bumped into our same friend, again, entirely coincidentally! We went down to the beach – 40,000 people sure makes it hard to move! We got separated very quickly, and after pushing and shoving our way down to the water, we decided this wasn’t half as fun as before and headed back up to Cactus Bar, where on the way we miraculously managed to reunite with our group, moments before the countdown. We spent most of the night on a balcony that overlooked the beach – the fireworks display after the countdown was epic! Not to mention the ripple of excitement when the hill behind the fireworks caught fire (thankfully this got put it before too long!).

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All too soon we decided it was time to farewell our newly formed ‘Team Seedy’ and after making the typical traveller resolutions of reuniting sometime soon, we began to make our way home. We did a double take when we saw that the wait for the ferry was about two and half hours long; so we were delighted (albeit apprehensive) to see a little Thai couple holding a sign that read “Express Taxi”. We picked our way down the rocks to an over-sized dinghy, which already held a group of drunk people. There were more people than life jackets, and the one-eyed driver was guided only by a lamp. Nevertheless, we continued to pursue this option, our regrets reaching an all time high when the driver asked us to realign ourselves so that the centre of gravity was concentrated in the middle of the boat; it seemed he was concerned that the boat was going to capsize. It was the longest hour ever, and although it made for a fantastic story after, I do not know that I would recommend it to someone else unless they were really out for a YOLO experience. We arrived home to find we’d locked ourselves out of our room, so a comfy night on the couch was spent, seeing in the New Year.

A few tips (both generic and personal) about the Full Moon Party won’t go astray here, so just thought I’d share my 5 favourite ones:

  1. Stay hydrated. Eat dinner, and take nothing but what you need. And what you do take, make sure it is secure.
  2. Buy your cocktail buckets away from the beach where you can monitor their contents. Too many people (including our friend) get spiked by the buckets for sale down on the beach (usually with methanol, by the vendors themselves).
  3. If not staying on the island, figure out the go home plan for the group in advance. Whether it be a ‘fend for yourselves’ approach, or by meeting at a certain place at a certain time, have this sorted. It is almost inevitable that someone from your group will become separated at some point, and it’s not something you want to be worrying about later.
  4. Wear shoes that are covered and comfortable. There is all sorts of unidentifiable muck everywhere, stuff you’d rather not think about (or feel) what it actually is.
  5. Lastly, do not rush to the party. It is there all day, and all night. So enjoy what else the island has to offer before you get there.

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