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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Turn Down For WAT?

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Time for Siem Reap, and oh boy – we were excited. We jumped into a tuk-tuk with Mao (who would become our newly-found pal) who dropped us at our hostel – Garden Village Guest House – we thought we had signed up for a 25 bed dorm, but we were luxuriously given a 3 bed room to ourselves. Not surprisingly, it was inconveniently located on the top floor. We headed down the road for lunch – we found a little place where fried vegetarian noodles were only $1 and positively delicious. That evening Mao came and picked us up from our hostel, where we went and bought our temple passes (from 5pm they can be pre-purchased for the next day, with early access allowed to watch the sunset the night before the designated day) before heading out to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. It was a bit of a climb, and the requirement of wearing cardigans and long pants meant Summer and I both worked up a bit of a sweat. Sure it was beautiful, but the extraordinary amount of tourists meant it verged on unenjoyable. We wanted to maximise our time up there after the sun went down so we headed over to where the elephants were tied up, as riding them was something James still hadn’t had the opportunity to do. Unfortunately these elephant rides cost $20 for a one way trip. Regardless, James befriended an elephant by the name of Sambo, and as we were about to leave, three Asians arrived with a spare ticket –and James managed to score himself a free ride down. Summer and I left him to begin making our own way down; a ranger who was clearing the grounds spotted us and accompanied us down. He took a steep short cut down the side of the hill – it was now dark, and the ferocious pace set meant Summer and I had to concentrate so hard just to avoid rolling an ankle or worse. Mao was waiting for us at the bottom, where he then drove us back into town and dropped us Pub Street. The streets and shops were alive with colourful lights, excited people and delicious smells. We wandered around for a while before settling on somewhere for dinner.  Realising my time in South East Asia was coming to an end, I was taking every opportunity to have spring rolls and/or rice paper rolls. Needless to say, this attitude resulted in a lot of rolls being consumed over these few days.

An early start for ANGKOR WAT. One day, three day or five day passes are available. We decided we’d get a one day pass and just make a huge day of it (to save on both money and time). We arrived bright and early and grabbed spots for ourselves next to the pond – although we seriously regretted not bathing in insect repellent first. We had brought our own breakfasts to avoid the expense of the food on site. The ironic thing about the morning was that the sun never actually rose; it just got light. After a while we decided it was time to move on and we started to explore our surroundings. The temple was out of this world. The detail on the walls was something else; the place was so incredibly old, yet so beautifully preserved. We tried to take a jumping photo, but the guy trying to capture it failed miserably. We spent a few hours wandering around before locating Mao, who then took us to Angkor Thom – basically a village of temples. Our first stop was my favourite – a temple called Bayon, which consisted predominantly of huge faces carved into the rock before playing a forced game of “Lava” (hopping from rock to rock in order to avoid the heated ‘lava’ on the ground). We saw a lot of temples that day; lots of walking, stair-climbing and sandwich breaks. The Elephant Terraces were definitely a personal highlight. The last stop of the day was Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider Temple: Lara Croft, watch out. Overgrown with trees and fighting off jungle, this temple was definitely the most fun to explore. After purchasing some artwork we were templed out, so Mao drove us home and helped us move to Downtown Siem Reap – a notorious party hostel. That night at dinner Summer rapidly deteriorated into a state of sickness and had to leave, so James and I decided we’d go to the circus – our spontaneity meant we had to move fast. Unfortunately, two tuk-tuk rides later we learned it was sold out – instead we went and had blind massages; from people that weren’t even blind.

We awoke to James’ day of birth – his day to be spoilt. We considered doing a day trip to Kompong Pluk (a village on stilts) but were advised it wasn’t worth it at this time of year as the water was too low). We had a luxurious breakfast next to the pool before we went shopping and explored the town a little further, before having our feet nibbled by fish and heading home to pack for our early morning bus. Once organised we headed out to partake in the “Official Siem Reap Pub Crawl”. It started at X Bar, and to our surprise (and delight) it was run by Kiwis. After putting on our pub crawl singlets we moved around a number of bars throughout the night. From flip-cup to beer pong, sex move competitions and water fights it was a great night. James got extremely drunk, and we recorded a hilarious video of him eating a lime and getting more “vitamin C than vitamin D”. The last stop of the night was Temple Bar – I didn’t last too long, it was just too busy. Summer came home a bit later; and in the early hours of the morning in crept James – approximately 30 minutes before we had to get up for our Bangkok bus.

Feeling awfully dusty, James left behind both his wallet and his iPod. We were picked up by a bus and dropped off to climb aboard another bus. We arrived at Poipet a lot later than anticipated, only to be warned there was at least a two hour wait ahead of us through customs. One queue led to another and next thing we knew three hours had passed and we still weren’t out the other side. I don’t know how James and Summer survived, given their hangovers. Finally we were through, and were ushered to a tuk-tuk to get a ride to the bus station where we then had to wait for a minivan. We then officially began the worst journey of the trip. Summer and I were crammed so tightly into the front seat, where Summer could control the air conditioning dials with her knees. The driver was relentlessly ruthless on the road – paid no heed to the speed limit, overtaking etiquette – in fact, to any road rule whatsoever. Somewhat miraculously, we made it to Bangkok alive where we stayed at a hostel called Link Corner Hostel with Abby and her boyfriend, and Alex (other James’ girlfriend). It’s main plus was that they offered bag storage (and its proximity to airport access) – perfect for mine and Summer’s venture to Phi Phi the next day.

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Where the culture is alive: Chiang Mai

Unexpectedly, one of the coolest cities I have ever been to.

Recommended to us by friends, we stayed at Libra Guesthouse. At approximately $10 a night, this was hands down one of the best places we stayed in Asia. The family running the hostel are incredible. When we arrived, after showing us to our room, and letting us choose from their extensive, great value menu, they sat us down with a million pamphlets and ran us through everything to do in Chiang Mai: from how much, to its location, their personal experiences and whether they thought it was something we’d enjoy, based on the few minutes that they had known us. We pretty much planned our entire week then and there. And from here on, they had taxis organised for us, always on time, and ready to go. Some of my highlights:

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  • Exploring the city itself: Chiang Mai is a historical old city, built in a huge square and surrounded by a moat, which made it slightly easier to find our bearings, and therefore navigate. The old city itself was pedestrian dominated, which made walking around a pleasure. The markets were incredible. Both the indoor and outdoor, the day and the night. We could have spent many an hour wandering here; it was a fantastic place to practice our bartering skills, especially as everything seemed so cheap after having come straight from the islands.
  • Monk chat: A well known (but not hugely crowded) tourist attraction was the ‘Monk Chat‘. On the upper West side of the square is a temple, where you can visit  the monks for Q&A – essentially an hour of asking the monks whatever you want. We wanted to increase our understanding of their chosen lifestyle, they were working on improving their English – so essentially it was a win-win for everyone. After the Q&A session, we had a meditation lesson, where a monk taught us about the three types of meditation: sitting, standing and walking. A highly calming, interesting and worthwhile experience.
  • Tiger Kingdom: Located a bit further out of the city, it is a good idea to arrange with the tuk-tuk driver to wait out there for you. Cam and I bought the “Big Tiger  Experience” (420฿ ), and Summer splashed out to also buy the “Baby Tiger Experience” (600฿ ) – which in hindsight may have been better, as the tigers were far more playful (Summer even endured a scratch!). A lot of debate exists about whether the tigers are drugged, and I remain undecided – despite signs everywhere that refute this, the tigers were admittedly awfully placid. One of those activities that is hard to resist, but I personally would be less inclined to do it again.
  • A massage at the Women’s Prison: as a way of reintegrating female prisoner’s into society, they offer massages down at the prison. There was a two hour wait, so I collected my number and went shopping for a few hours. For 180฿ (compared to the 300฿ on Koh Tao) I received the best massage I would the entire time I was in Asia. For those wondering, I also resisted the urge to ask her about her crime that had landed her there.
  • The temple on the hill: We caught a taxi up to a temple (Wat Prathat Doi Suthep) that overlooks the city of Chiang Mai. It was breathtaking. The temple was so beautiful, so detailed and so colourful, we spent a long time just gazing. The view had the potential to be incredible, although it was slightly smoggy. Be warned – they will try to charge you a 30฿ foreigner fee – so we just walked around the side to the other entrance and didn’t have to pay.
  • Sammy’s Cooking School: one of the most fun things I have ever done. We got picked up from our hostel and taken to a market where we met Sammy. He showed us around the market, showed us how coconut milk was made, and talked us through the different types of rice. We then headed out to the school itself; which was located somewhere in the countryside and very lush and green. From a set menu we chose one option from each category to cook. I chose green curry, coconut soup with chicken, minced chicken stirfry with holy basil, papaya salad, pumpkin custard and also deep fried banana. Summer chose different options to me – including yellow curry, chicken and cashew nut stirfry, and spring rolls. As you can imagine, this was a huge amount of food – so the mid-day siesta on the hammocks was well needed.
  • Trekking: I was hugely excited for this, however compromise had to be made when the others made it known that they weren’t so keen – a two day trek was agreed on. A bout of food poisoning left some of us doubting our ability for the trek, reinforced by a horribly smelly and revolting market we were forced to stop at on the way to the trek, and the atrocious quality of the road. We stopped at a waterfall, and some hot springs; I was still too queasy to swim. From here the walking began – although hard at times, it was entirely bearable. We made a few stops at various villages, getting tours from the locals and snapping some highly Insta-worthy pics. Our final destination was a bungalow-type hut thing, where we all slept together, with a mosquito net between two. We met the resident elephant, Maitre’dee, whom we then accompanied back into the jungle. The locals there cooked us dinner – huge quantities of curry and rice, with banana spring rolls for desert. After dinner the ‘happy water’ (a horrendous home-brew) and the guitar came out, as did two lanterns, which we all wrote on before we released them up into the sky. The next morning we rose early for a bit of elephant spotting. Unfortunately we only found one, but were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to take turns riding it bareback back to camp. We then got to bathe the elephant in the river. After breakfast we climbed aboard some bamboo rafts and sailed down the river for a few hours. Although it was really fun, the water was cold, and so after Kelsey fell in and I took a fall (during some rapids) I think everyone was pretty relieved to finally step onto solid ground.

From Chiang Mai we caught a 6 hour bus to Chiang Rai; one of the many kind souls at Libra Guesthouse met us at the bus stop with our bags after the trek, so we could begin our journey onwards the same night. I have fond memories of this place, made especially so by the wonderful people at Libra.

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