They’re everywhere you look…
Aside from the many amazing adventures we experienced during our visit, such as meeting real reindeer farmers and cross-country skiing for the first time (!), it was the country’s natural beauty that captured us the most. Maybe that’s a photographer thing!
We spent a week touring the main spots of the Lapland region, including a north to south route through Inari, Saariselkä, Kemi and Rovaniemi. Our highlights? If you’re looking for the most enchanting scenery and an authentic Lapland wilderness experience, the north would be our recommendation. Specifically, Inari and the surrounding areas of Saariselkä.
Inari is the homeland of the indigenous Sami people, who if you get a chance to meet, will give you a true taste of life in Lapland’s extreme conditions. One of our favourite experiences of this was spending a morning with real reindeer herders and taking a sledge ride out to meet the beautiful wild reindeers. You can read the full story in our article ‘8 Awesome Things To Do In Winter In Finland!‘ Here are our photo highlights.
Although we didn’t have much luck chasing the illusive Northern Lights, we did get a small glimpse!
Approximately 70km south of Inari and close to Finland’s mountainous arctic fell area, is where you’ll find the little village of Saariselkä. It’s most famous for outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, spas and traditional Finnish saunas – another of our favourite Lapland winter experiences! Husky and reindeer sledding is also popular here.
For us, it was the area closest to Urho Kekkonen National Park that really took our breath away. Surrounded by vast arctic woodland and beautifully snowy hills and mountains, it’s truly beautiful and well worth a few days of your time. Not only are there lots of stunning hikes and cross-country ski routes, it’s a great place to adventure and also relax. Specifically, Kiilopää fell centre, positioned on the edge of the national park, is a great place to stay to explore the best of the area. Here are a few of our photo highlights.
There’s also a long list of things to do in the area…!
For more detailed information and the story of our first cross-country skiing experience and hiking around Kiilopää fell centre, don’t forget to check out our article ‘8 Awesome Things To Do In Winter In Finland!‘.
However if all of this beautiful nature is not your priority because you’re really just excited to hunt down Santa Claus and his elves, then you should head to Rovaniemi! As the “official” home town of Santa Claus and the capital of Lapland, it’s the biggest town in the region and packed full of Christmas themed hotels and also the famous Santa Claus’ village…every child’s dream!
The easiest way to get around Lapland in winter is by hire car. However, if you’d prefer to avoid driving, then there are also plenty of bus services between the main towns. If you plan to fly to Inari, it’s possible to collect a hire car from the airport, however be sure to book it in advance. Despite the deep snow and weather conditions in Lapland, the roads are generally very well maintained and easy to navigate. However be sure to keep a look out for reindeers, especially at night!
There are a variety of hotels to choose from all around the main towns of Lapland, however be sure to book in advance as the best ones get booked up in advance!
As always, we recommend the hotel booking site Agoda.com. We usually book our accommodation in advance as you typically get a lower rate and the most popular spots get booked up quickly in Lapland, especially during peak seasons and public holidays!
We like Agoda.com as it offers a wide range of accommodation, from cabins in the wilderness to chain hotels, typically with free cancellation or the option to change your dates if needs be. Plus you can book most places without a deposit!
Planning a holiday to the beautiful white sands of Boracay island but confused by the many plane, boat and shuttle bus options? You’ve come to the right place! Here you’ll find everything you need to know about how to get from Manila to Boracay, where to stay and what to do on Boracay island!
You may not realise it, but Boracay island doesn’t have its own airport. So the first step to getting there is to book a flight to its closest neighbouring island of Panay, where there are two main airport options. The closest of which is Caticlan Airport, otherwise known as Boracay Airport or Godofredo P. Ramos Airport.
From this airport, it’s only a short 10 minute land transfer to Caticlan jetty port, where there are speedboats and local outrigger boats to ferry you to Boracay. The boat journey takes approximately 15 minutes. Currently, the main airline options to Caticlan Airport are Cebu Pacific (otherwise known as ‘Cebgo’) or Philippine Airlines, both of which run various daily services.
The other main airport option is Kalibo, an approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes bus ride from Caticlan jetty port. Flights to here are usually cheaper, however you must factor in the cost of the transfer. In addition to Cebu Pacific and Philippines Airlines, Air Asia also provide daily flights to Kalibo.
As it’s much quicker and easier, we recommend flying to Caticlan Airport and transferring to Boracay Island from there. However to make the whole process even simpler, we also recommend booking a ‘door to door’ transfer service for when you arrive. This will make the process of getting from the airport to your accommodation so much simpler and less stressful!
As we booked our flights with Cebu Pacific, we were given the option to add a transfer service at a reasonable price which was great! The service was provided by Southwest Tours and we’d recommend them. If you don’t book with Cebu Pacific, then you can also book directly with them via their website.
Firstly, our flight from Manila to Caticlan with Cebu Pacific was smooth and with no issues, unlike our planned return! Unfortunately our return flight was cancelled (due to plane scheduling issues) so we had to book a different flight with Philippines Airlines to ensure we arrived back to Manila in time. We’ve heard that it’s common for flights to be delayed or rescheduled to Boracay so we’d recommend allowing plenty of time for any onward flight connections!
Our boat and shuttle bus roundtrip transfers with Southwest Tours made both journeys so much easier. For the short boat crossing, they use a mixture of speedboats and more traditional local style boats known as outriggers, which we got to experience en route to the island. It was rustic but a great and authentic experience.
Unless you plan on staying at one of the bigger resorts on Boracay, you have three main areas to choose from along Boracay’s famous ‘White Beach’. These are known as stations 1, 2 and 3.
We chose to stay at the south end of White Beach near to station 3. This was by far the quietest area but still had plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants to choose from. Station 2 is probably the liveliest area of the island, much more developed with an outdoor mall and lots of cafe, bar and restaurant choices. We didn’t spend much time at station 2 as we preferred the quieter and more rustic authenticity of station 3, but if you want to be near the ‘D’mall’, then this would be the place to stay. Station 1 was more mixed, but generally quieter than station 2. Station 1 would be our second choice behind our first choice of Station 3.
One advantage of staying near station 3 is that there are more budget accommodation options, particularly during the more expensive high season (October to May). So make sure to book your accommodation in advance!
If relaxing under a palm tree isn’t enough for you, there’s plenty of activities to keep you occupied on and around the island…here’s a list of the most popular:
So that’s it! A quick round up of how to get to sunny Boracay including where to stay and what to do on the island. For more general information on how we planned our trip to the Philippines and details on ALL of the amazing places we visited (especially our wonderful El Nido Tours), check out our article Where To Go In The Philippines: Our Top 4 Destinations & Tips!
We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer flight, train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!
Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means if you choose to book somewhere though our link, we receive a small commission. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you anything more, and most importantly, we only recommend companies that we use ourselves so you can trust our recommendations!
It’s probably something to do with the 7,000 or so islands (!), but when it came to planning our first Philippines adventure, it proved to be much more challenging than expected.
We’d been inspired by an array of idyllic Instagram photos showing off its stunning crystal clear snorkelling waters, pristine beaches and dramatic island sunsets, but other than those, we didn’t really have much clue about where to go, when to go or how to travel around. All we knew was that we couldn’t wait to explore a new Asian country, so the planning began…
We started in all of the usual places by ordering a Lonely Planet guide, consulting our trusty friend Trip Advisor, and of course various blogs and forums. As always, we checked our favourite Asian accommodation booking site too – Agoda.com to figure out a rough budget.
The result? An even longer ‘must visit’ list…argh!
When it comes to visiting a new country, the Lonely Planet guide is usually our initial ‘go to’ resource to get a broad overview of a place. We especially like the ‘Top Destinations’ and history and culture overviews, however when it came to deciding on where to go in the Philippines, we were left struggling to decide, especially on a sensible route. That’s where the book let us down.
“Thank goodness for blogs!” I remember blurting out one day when I finally got the information I was looking for and figured out a plan!
“Thank goodness for blogs!” I remember blurting out one day when I finally got the information I was looking for and figured out a plan!
Of course we didn’t expect to have time to cover ALL of the ‘best’ places in our roughly 3-4 weeks. One thing we’ve learned over the years from our travels is not to rush around trying to fit everything in. We’d much rather fully enjoy a few places and experiences, than fleet from one place to another without having a chance to fully explore. And of course, some time to relax too!
It’s important to take into consideration time, budget and seasonality when it comes to planning a trip to the Philippines, as the ‘best’ time to visit can vary significantly from place to place. Especially given the country’s vast geography!
Thankfully we planned our adventure for the months of December and January, which is typically a good time to visit as it’s mostly dry and not too hot. If you plan to visit during the wet season (typically from May to October), then it’s recommended to allow extra travel time in case your journeys are disrupted by typhoons. As you’ll rely on air and boat travel to get around, it’s probably wise to avoid low season where possible.
When it comes to the Philippines, there’s no obvious route or well-trodden backpacker path, like with say Vietnam or Cambodia, which is why it’s so tricky to decide. So instead we decided to focus on the places and more importantly, experiences that excited us the most.
Whether you’re passionate about hiking volcanoes, trekking through rice terraces, discovering local marine life, or simply kicking back under a palm tree with a fresh coconut (mm!), you’re spoiled for choice in the Philippines. Being a lover of lists, I decided to write down all of the places that excited us then work through each one to determine:
Is it the right time of year to visit?
Is it a unique natural wonder?
Is it more or less exciting than the previous place/experience?
Can it be worked into a sensible route?
Three and a half weeks sounds like a lot of time, but once you factor in travel time, it’s really not that long. You could literally spend months touring the country’s thousands of islands!
With an initial list of around 12 different places and experiences, it was a hard job whittling it down to my target of 3 or 4, but it had to be done! So here’s what we decided upon, including our route and timings…we hope it helps!
Our route and itinerary may not be exactly for you, but we had a wonderful time and would highly recommend everywhere that we visited!
So in order of highlights, here’s our final destination list:
El Nido is probably one of the most popular destinations in the Philippines, and for good reason. From beautiful white sand beaches and secret clear water lagoons, to stunning cliff-backed islands and spectacular sunsets, it’s a truly magical place. We spent a full week exploring and could have easily lingered longer. For a full account of our El Nido experience, including details of our favourite El Nido Tours, head over to our full article ‘Island Hopping In Paradise: Our Favourite El Nido Tours’.
It’s most famous for its unique ‘Chocolate Hills’ and small primates (namely the very cute ‘Tarsier’), but we discovered that Bohol island has a lot more to offer, especially around its beautiful Loboc River. We spent 4 days here with a mix of touring the island’s main sights and relaxing by the Loboc River, which was a great combination. We especially loved our first experience of stand up paddle boarding! For a full account, head over to our article ‘Top Things To Do In Bohol, The Philippines’.
We hit the jackpot with our accommodation choice in Bohol! Most of the photos above are from our time at the Loboc River Resort, so if you’re heading to Bohol, we’d recommend checking if its available on your dates on our favourite accommodation website, and get it booked as its very popular!
You can’t visit the Philippines without visiting one of its famous white sandy beaches, and although it’s cliche, we decided to see what the fuss was about at Boracay’s famous ‘White Beach’. We were wary about its booming tourism and busy ‘stations 1 & 2’, so we decided to stay near to ‘station 3’ hoping for a more quiet and relaxing time, which thankfully it delivered! You can easily fill your time with some of the various water sports, sailing or island hopping but after a busy time touring and hiking, relaxation was the name of the game for us. So that’s what we did.
For more information on how to get to Boracay, including tips on where to stay & what to do, visit our article ‘Manila To Boracay – How To Get There & How To Plan Your Holiday!’
There are so many great places to stay on Boracay, the island has a huge range of accommodation from budget to high end luxury! Check what’s available on your dates through agoda.com, its the site we use to book accommodation all over the world!
Our day hike to Mount Pinatubo was most definitely one of our most memorable experiences in the Philippines. Not only was the scenery unique and spectacular, it was a great adventure! Starting off with a bumpy jeep ride through amazing lunar like landscape, followed by a fairly easy but rewarding hike to the stunning crater of Mount Pinatubo. It was well worth the trip! For our full account and lots more photos, head over to ‘A Spectacular Mt Pinatubo Tour, Philippines’.
Note: It’s possible to do Mount Pinatubo as a day tour from Manila, however we’d highly recommend dedicating at least a couple of days to it. Depending on Manila traffic (which can be horrendous speaking from experience!), the travel time to get there can be quite long and tiring. So to fully enjoy this day hike, we recommend staying at Alvin’s Homestay in the nearby town of Santa Juliana before embarking on one of his brilliant day tours.
With more time we would’ve loved to visit the famous Banaue Rice Terraces in North Luzon as they look spectacular!
Here’s a summary of our chosen route and how we got around:
We always recommend that you book your journey in advance, so you have peace of mind that your seats are booked! We recommend using 12go.asia as they offer train, bus and ferry ticket booking online in advance! Check out your journey options and prices here and get your seat reserved!
If you’re looking for some accommodation options in the Philippines, we recommend you use Agoda.com to check your accommodation options! Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas for the Philippines, check out the options here!
From beautiful white sand beaches and secret clear water lagoons, to stunning cliff-backed islands and spectacular sunsets, it’s a truly magical place.
We decided to dedicate a week of our time in the Philippines to El Nido, and we could have easily lingered a little longer. Not only are there plenty of amazing boat tours to occupy you, it’s a beautiful place just to relax and take some time out. So our advice? Don’t rush this place. Simply kick back, order a fresh coconut with rum (well it’s a local favourite so it would be rude not to!), and enjoy another spectacular sunset. You’ll think you’ve landed in paradise.
Whilst we could’ve easily sat around drinking fresh coconuts all day, we actually did go on some adventures during our time in El Nido, and we’ve been looking forward to sharing them!
Read on for our highlights including top tips on island hopping tours, how to get there, and where to stay!
After some basic research on El Nido, you’ll quickly learn that most of the island hopping tours on offer are to set destinations around the Bacuit Archipelago, and there are 4 main tours to choose from. Simply known as Tours A, B, C & D, each one offers a different experience to some of the 45 beautiful islands and islets of the Archipelago.
To give you an idea, here’s a summary of each tour:
If like us, you don’t have enough time (or budget!) to do all four tours, choosing which tour to take can be tricky. We looked into each one a little more and decided that we didn’t want to miss the famous lagoons and snorkelling from Tour A, and Snake Island looked incredible in the photos we’d seen, so Tour B was a must too. Luckily it turned out that these are the most popular tours too, so we secured the cheapest tour rate based on exceeding the minimum number of guests filling our boat – bonus!
As most companies and accommodations operating island hopping tours offer the same inclusions and type of boat, typically at similar standard prices (approximately 1,300 PHP/$28 USD per person as of December 2015), we didn’t feel the need to shop around for a change. For convenience, we simply booked through our accommodation in Corong Corong (Greenviews Resort) and the next day we were off on our first island hopping tour – we were so excited!
Following our long journey to El Nido, we decided to rest up for a day and book the next available day tour, which happened to be Tour B. So forget chronological order, we started with Tour B!
Packed and raring to go, we greeted our fellow travellers before wading our way out to our boat. As with most sailing and fishing boats in the Philippines, it was a beautiful traditional style outrigger boat, otherwise known as a ‘bangka’. It was cute but much smaller than we expected, so we prepared for a bumpy ride!
All aboard and greeted by our local tour guides for the day, we set sail for our first destination, Snake Island. Of all the places we were set to visit around the Archipelago, we were really excited about Snake Island! Imagine two islands, beautifully connected by one long and winding pristine beach, accompanied by crystal clear water on either side…yup, this is real!
Wandering barefoot along Snake Island is an experience to treasure, and if you feel like it, you can also take a short climb up to a beautiful outlook point. Just make sure you bring some decent walking sandals, it’s well worth it!
Having worked up an appetite from our small hike and time wandering Snake Island, we were excited when our guide told us we were heading to our lunch spot next…and what turned out to be our first experience of the Archipelago’s famously pristine and deserted beaches…
After a delicious lunch (freshly prepared by our tour guides!) and a wander along what felt like our own private beach, it was time to return to our bangka and cruise to our next destination – the aptly named Cathedral Cave.
After admiring Cathedral Cave, it was time for some snorkelling in the nearby waters. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any turtles as hoped, but there was plenty of other marine life to admire. It’s the crystal clear waters around the islands that make it extra special.
We’re not sure if it’s normally part of Tour B, but our lovely guides stopped by another beautiful island on our way back…it was the perfect end to our first tour of the Bay.
Safely back to our temporary home by Corong Corong bay, we took our positions to enjoy another amazing sunset while we reflected on a wonderful day, and got excited for the next…
Having got a taste of the sheer beauty of the Bacuit Archipelago from Tour B (and a relaxing day to recover in between!), we couldn’t wait for the adventure that awaited us on Tour A….secret lagoons, snorkelling and more deserted beach hopping!
And with a few more fellow travellers joining us this time, we were treated to a cruise on a slightly larger bangka!
Arriving to our first destination was no less than spectacular.
Unfortunately we don’t have an image of the small lagoon, as we had to swim through a small gap in the limestone to reach it, so you’ll just have to take our word for it that it’s beautiful! Completely surrounded by jagged limestone cliffs and deep crystal clear waters await you here.
It was enroute to our next stop that we got to admire some of the most beautiful limestone islets we’d seen so far…
That night we witnessed some of the best sunsets we’ve ever seen in our lives! The Philippines sure does spectacular sunsets!
And just when we thought they couldn’t get any better, the colours just kept changing…
So that was our El Nido Tours summary! If you haven’t been then hopefully we’ve inspired you to visit, and if you have, then hopefully this brings back special memories of an incredible place.
As usual, we’ve noted down some top tips to make your experience even more enjoyable!
It’s a little bit of a trek to El Nido in the North of Palawan island, but it’s most definitely worth it, so try not to let the distance put you off going! Unless of course you don’t have enough time to allocate a few days to it once you arrive.
One of the cheapest and most common ways to get there is by shuttle bus from Puerto Princesa, which depending on stops, takes approximately 5-6 hours.
Puerto Princesa is the main town on the island and has a local airport hosting many budget airlines including Cebu Pacific, Air Asia etc which all operate regular flights from Manila and Cebu.
When it comes to arranging your shuttle bus transport from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, we highly recommend booking this well in advance, especially during peak season (public holidays and typically March to early June). We used the service Daytripper for our journey and would highly recommend them. Alternatively, book an online transfer with www.elnidoparadise.com.
We decided to avoid El Nido town itself as we’d heard it’s nothing special, and chose instead to stay round the coast by the bay of Corong Corong. Why? Well mainly because of the sunsets! Unfortunately El Nido town’s sunsets are obstructed by tall Cadlao Island, so if it’s sunsets you’re after then we’d highly recommend staying in the Corong Corong area instead. It’s also very peaceful and has a good selection of restaurants and accommodation options, most of which offer the standard island hopping tours. What more could you want?!
If you’d rather cut to the chase, then we’d recommend scrolling to the bottom of this article where you’ll find all the answers to your questions! Or if you’d like to increase your excitement levels just that little bit more then first have a read through our experience of visiting the spectacular Grand Canyon South Rim…
It’s been a while since we stepped foot on the mighty Grand Canyon for the first time, but it’s a moment we’ll never forget, and we’re excited to finally share it, including our future aspirations to hike through it!
Despite only spending a few precious hours there, the Grand Canyon’s epic beauty and vastness captured our hearts immediately. Grand is most certainly the right word for it.
From the moment we first laid our eyes on the canyon, to trekking around the various observation points, we were truly in awe of it. The South Rim is widely regarded as the most spectacular viewpoint, and it’s easy to understand why.
It was a particularly mixed weather day when we visited, with moments of beautiful striking sunshine, which quickly changed to dark stormy clouds before suddenly clearing again to reveal blues skies. Although it was tricky to get the camera settings right, it made for some very dramatic views!
It was amazing to witness the different views and colours that came with each change of light. If you look carefully, you can see the Colorado River snaking its way through the canyon during this hazy moment.
After 2 hours walking along the South Rim, we jumped on the national park shuttle bus to see the mighty Canyon from some other viewpoints. We decided to stay as long as possible, hoping to catch at least the beginning of sunset, but alas time was getting on and we had to get on our way to our accommodation for the night.
The only regret we have is not planning to spend more time at the Grand Canyon. It’s easy to follow the routine of the majority of other visitors i.e. just rock up for a few hours and tour the same viewpoints of the South Rim, but since our visit we’ve realised there’s so much more you can do! So amidst our reminiscing today, we’ve been dreaming and plotting our return to this natural wonder of the world…
We’ve had a taste of hiking in canyons now and loved it (see our Epic Hike To The Highest Point In Zion National Park) so it feels necessary and exciting to dedicate at least a few days to this awesome place!
If you’ve read our recent posts, you’ll know that trekking and hiking has become a main feature of most of our favourite travel experiences to date. There’s something very special and exhilarating about the challenge of a hike, and of course the feeling of satisfaction when you finish it, never mind the spectacular views along the way.
In fact it was following our visit to the Grand Canyon that inspired our recent visit to another famous desert canyon, Zion National Park. Although it doesn’t match up in size, it’s incredible natural beauty and amazing day hikes were inspiring and rewarding. (Read more about our Epic Hike To The Highest Point In Zion National Park here.)
Alas we vow to return to the Grand Canyon and next time to ‘go over the edge’! Apparently it’s only by getting close to the detail of the canyon that it can be fully appreciated so watch this blogspace for the update, photos and stories to come!
As always we’ve compiled our top tips and some important information to help you plan your adventure, so here’s what we learned along the way so far!
Coming from the South (typically via Flagstaff), you have a couple of entry options to choose from to get to the South Rim area of the Grand Canyon. Most people enter via the 180 North, however a good alternative route is via Highway 89 North to Cameron as this way you’ll enter by the less busy east entrance where you can also enjoy viewpoints overlooking the Little Colorado River Gorge, Desert View (including the Watchtower) and Grandview Point along the East Rim.
A free shuttle bus system operates in the Grand Canyon Village area which takes you to various different viewpoints. We’d recommend leaving your car and using this easy frequent service to get around!
The busiest time to visit the Grand Canyon is from the end of May to early September, however the crowds are less at the start and end of this time. We visited in mid May and found the climate to be extremely pleasant and there weren’t many crowds. Note that it can get extremely hot during peak summer so if you do visit during June, July or August, be sure to bring plenty of water and stay hydrated! October is said to be a nice month to visit due to mild weather and the beauty of the aspens changing colour, and much reduced crowds! Finally, plan to stay for a sunset as they’re said to be spectacular!
Admission to the Grand Canyon National Park is for seven days and includes both the North Rim and South Rim. The cost for a private vehicle is $30.00 or for individual entry (including cyclists), the cost is $15.00. Simply pay upon entry to either the South rim, East rim (‘Desert View’) or North rim.
It may be a relatively small national treasure, in relation to its fellow famous canyons such as Bryce or the mighty Grand Canyon, but it’s Zion’s compactness, accessibility and awe-inspiring views that drew us in, and we were not disappointed.
There’s plenty to see and do in Zion National Park, from short and long hikes, to simply touring the park by free shuttle bus (see more information on this at the end of this article!). You could easily fill a few days or even a whole week here! However if like us, you only have a couple of days to explore, it can be tricky to decide between the various viewpoints and day hikes.
We’d done our usual research and whittled the many hike options down to a decision between two – the famous ‘Angel’s Landing‘ or the less famous but also popular, ‘Observation Point‘. Both hikes promised sweeping vistas over the canyon but ultimately our decision came down to two things: 1) Angel’s Landing can be famously overcrowded, particularly towards the top as the final section involves traversing a sheer cliff using chains and guard rails (eek!), and 2) although slightly longer in distance, Observation Point is at a higher elevation (over 2,000 feet) providing arguably the greatest of all vantage points, including a view over Angel’s Landing! So without enough time to do both, we decided on Observation Point and geared ourselves up for the 8 mile roundtrip to the highest point in Zion National Park!
For lots of useful information on getting to Zion National Park, entry costs and useful tips on the park’s free shuttle service etc, see the end of this article. For inspiration and the story of our hike to stunning Observation Point, then read on!
Based on our trusty national park guide, we prepared ourselves for the fairly strenuous 4-6 hours round trip to Observation Point. Although we were taking on the hike in spring rather than peak summer, we’d been warned about the desert conditions and the unrelenting midday sun, so we decided to set off early in order to make most of our ascent in the cool of the morning, which turned out to be a great idea! Not only was it a pleasant temperature, but it was great for capturing photos while the light wasn’t too bright. And of course, good photos = a happy Barry!
The trail to Observation Point begins at the famous ‘Weeping Rock’ (the 7th stop on the free Zion Canyon shuttle) and it isn’t long before you get a spectacular elevated view of the canyon. We’d recommend taking a break around half way up the first section of the zigzag trail to catch a breath and enjoy the view!
It was another half an hour or so later when the trail got really interesting. Having completed the first section of the hike on a steep but mostly paved route, we turned a corner and entered what felt like real canyon territory. All of a sudden we were facing a dramatic backdrop, surrounded completely by deep reds and oranges, we’d entered Echo Canyon!
Echo Canyon was a fascinating section of the trail. For around 20 minutes or so, we climbed and jumped from rock to pool to rock, pausing along the way to admire the natural beauty surrounding us.
Thankfully our early morning start had afforded us a quiet trail so we took our time, peering through the various canyon slots and beautiful sedimentation along the way. It was like a beautiful painting from every angle!
By this point, we’d reached the half way point of elevation at around 1,000 feet above the valley floor and thankfully our legs were still full of energy to push onto the second half of our ascent. It was time to leave the heart of the canyon behind and experience yet another dramatic change of scenery.
We’d reached the other side of the canyon and were now surrounded by vast dry stream bed. The deep reds and oranges of the canyon wall now gave way to the exposed whites and greens of the ‘Temple Cap’ formation layer. The variety of scenery we’d encountered already was amazing and we still had a way to go, we couldn’t believe it!
It was vast and breathtakingly beautiful, but we’d left the pleasant shade of the canyon behind so it was time to push on to what was about to be the toughest part of the hike. With mostly sheer cliff drop offs to traverse now, it was time for the steep switchbacks we’d read about – eek!
So with our sun cream topped up and plenty of water on hand, we got stuck into the final ascent through the white cliffs. Although it was a little tough in places, especially when the wind picked up and we had to pause to grip onto the cliffs(!), it was an exhilarating challenge. Though we imagine it would be a much different experience in peak summer!
We encountered lots of different types of hikers along the way, providing encouragement and support to each other as everyone endured the steep incline of the cliff face. We lost track of time a little at this point, but it was at least another hour or so before we reached the highest elevation of the trail and could celebrate that the hard part was mostly over.
We’d finally reached the highest point of the trek! So at around 2,100 feet above the valley floor, we stood on the rim of the sandy upper plateau and took in the stunning 180-degree canyon view below us. It was hard to believe that we’d only been hiking for a couple of hours or so and reached such a high elevation, never mind such an incredible viewpoint, and yet we still had the best to come at Observation Point! How could it get much better we asked ourselves? Well of course we wanted to find out!
Picking up our backpacks once again, we pushed on to reach our final destination. Thankfully the last section of the trail is mostly flat, so we made quick work of the final mile along the northwest loop to Observation Point. Passing through trees and a few crowds that had already arrived, we finally made it to the magnificent 270-degree rim vantage point. Wow, it certainly didn’t disappoint!
There’s no doubt that it far surpassed our already high expectations. Every angle presented a different but incredibly stunning view of the red canyon and lush valley below. If we looked close enough, we could also see some fellow hikers atop the ridge of Angel’s Landing below, what an incredible view!
After enough time for photos and admiring the view, we happily took our spot under one of the many trees to rest our weary legs and munch on our well-earned lunch!
Suitably rested and re-fuelled, we made a start on our 4-mile return journey, but not before one last look at the incredible view below.
Thankfully the descent was easier than expected, and remained interesting with lots of incredible viewpoints along the way, which were now even more enjoyable knowing we’d already achieved the summit of Observation Point!
Admiring the view from Observation Point was undoubtedly the highlight of our visit to Zion National Park, and a day hike that we’d HIGHLY recommend! Just be sure to take your time descending as the paved trail is not kind on the knees, so allow plenty of time and take it easy.
Prior to our day hike to Observation Point, we spent our first day at Zion touring the various viewpoints and stops using the park’s excellent free shuttle service. It was most definitely the perfect introduction to the park providing lots of useful information along the way and a great way to get our bearings so we’d highly recommend doing this first, if you have time to do this and a day hike. Otherwise just go for the hike as all of the valley floor views are easily more impressive from above!
Zion National Park is situated in southwest Utah near the town of Springdale, and is only a few hours drive from Las Vegas, so is a great way to take a break from the city and get outdoors! It’s also a pretty straightforward route along the I-15 North, with beautiful views along the last half an hour, so be sure to have your camera ready before you even get to the park!
From April to October, cars are not permitted to drive through Zion Canyon, so your best bet for getting around is to use the park’s free, fast & easy shuttle bus. (Note that if you visit between the months of November and March, you are allowed to drive in the Canyon and can park in any of the parking lots for free!)
Once you arrive to the town of Springdale, look out for the orange coloured shuttle stop signs. There are 9 in total starting at the Majestic View Lodge and ending at the Zion Canyon Village. Simply jump onto the free shuttle bus at any of the stops signposted along the route, most of which are adjacent to plenty of free parking areas to leave your car. Parking gets busier the closer you get to the park. With buses every 5-10 minutes, you don’t need to wait long! Zion Canyon Village is the last stop on the Springdale shuttle loop, before you have to get off and transfer to the main park shuttle, just passed the visitor centre and formal park entrance.
The shuttle service is totally free and a great relaxing way to tour around the park itself. There are also 9 shuttle stops within the park at various viewpoints and hiking locations, so simply pick up your free guide at the park entrance to find out about each one. The shuttle departs from the Visitor’s Centre every 15 minutes or less and you can just jump off wherever you feel like exploring. We recommend covering the whole shuttle bus loop however as it’s a great way to see all the main spots inside the park, with the added bonus of interesting information about the geology and history of the park being narrated along the way!
You can find the park map and guide here.
The standard entrance fees at Zion National Park are $30 per vehicle, and $15 per person. Both of which are valid for 7 days.
While Zion Canyon can be visited year-round, it is said to be most pleasant in the months of April, May, October, and November. Summer time is extremely hot, and in the winter there is the possibility of snow, especially at the canyon rim’s higher elevations. However note that access to the spectacular ‘Narrows’ is usually closed from mid-March to late May. We were disappointed to miss this as we visited in April, but hope to return some day!
We opted to stay in a small B&B outside of the park, however there are some lodging options inside the park at the Zion Lodge or various camping grounds. It is better to book ahead however as the accommodations in and around Springdale get booked up quickly, especially during peak season.
Though we’d highly recommend the hike to Observation Point, there are many other hikes available at Zion National Park. Click here for a link to the park’s official hiking guide, including a list of all of the available hikes with difficulty ratings, estimated times and descriptions.
The Finnish Lakeland is probably best known for its popularity during the Finnish ‘midsummer’, where the days are long and the sun starts rising almost immediately after it sets. But after our recent experience in February, we discovered the Finnish Lakeland is equally as charming in winter!
Following a wonderful few days spent in the heart of the Finnish Lakeland last summer, we wanted to return to experience winter time in this beautiful place. Having experienced fishing under the midnight sun, we couldn’t wait to get out onto a frozen version of the lake to try another new experience, ice fishing!
And so for the first time, we drilled our holes in the ice and set up position with our rods and bait…unfortunately though, it wasn’t exactly the best weather day for it. Okay that’s probably quite an understatement, it was windy and freezing!
We’d come prepared with our various layers on, but even our veteran local guide was finding the conditions a little rough (and advised us that it’s not normally like this!) so unsurprisingly it wasn’t too long before we all called it a day and retreated to our cosy cottage fire and heated the sauna!
It wouldn’t be a typically Finnish cottage without a deliciously warm sauna attached to it, and so, during our 4-day stay in Rock and Lake‘s lovely ‘Lempi’ cottage by Lake Soukkio, we made the most of our sauna and hot tub! All we needed was lots of firewood (of which there is plenty in the forested Lakeland, handily provided in our own wood shed) and we were off!
Saunas are hugely popular in Finland (apparently there are approx. 2 million, for a population of 5.3 million!) and after a day of ice fishing we started to understand why! Saunas are not just a way a life, but rather a meditative experience for Finnish people. The whole process, from gathering the wood and feeding the burner, to slowly letting it work its magic, is actually part of daily life here. This is something we could sure get used to! The process of heating a sauna is calming and shouldn’t be hurried, patience is the key! And so, as our boots hung to dry, and our fingers warmed up over our wood fire, we waited as our sauna heated up.
Our lovely log burning fire in Lempi cottage
Lempi’s amazing hot tub with a view!
Undeterred by our previous day’s ice fishing experience, we decided to venture out again! This time, with some local experts to witness their unique technique of fishing in winter. I never thought I’d describe fishing as exciting but it really was!
Holding tight onto our wooden trailer, we were towed out onto the centre of the frozen lake. This was going to be fun!
After a few minutes zooming across the frozen lake, we jumped out of our trailer and joined our local fisherman to learn and watch as they expertly demonstrated their unique ice fishing technique.
With no official name, we’ll call it the large under-ice net technique! Catchy, I know.
The technique looked fairly complicated to us, but somehow they manage to connect a huge net between two holes in the ice (using a special device that propels the rope under the ice). This net is then left for a day or two before being pulled out through one of the small holes, with the hope of being accompanied by a few fish!
We were fascinated by it and watched eagerly as our local expert fisherman went about their routine of drawing in their previously set up nets to check for catches. Despite the cold weather, it was inspiring to watch locals utilising a traditional fishing technique in the heart of the Finnish lakeland.
We watched excitedly as our local fisherman pulled out their first catch, then the second…third, and then what ended up being several catches that day! From pikes to capers, they must have caught around a dozen fish, and certainly enough to feed their family for a couple of days, which was their main goal. It’s illegal to sell fish without the right permits in Finland, so most locals fish solely for their own family’s consumption.
It was clear that this wasn’t an easy process and took real determination and hard work to maintain the nets, which can get tangled very easily! As a result, the fishermen need to visit them regularly to check on the positioning of the nets. Unfortunately this is an ancient technique which is fading out of use in the area, despite the fact it seemed extremely successful!
So after a cold day on icy Lake Kyyvasi, it was time to try another Finnish winter tradition…BBQ!
Getting cosy in a BBQ hut and toasting sausages over a hot fire is another popular activity we could get used to! This experience was made particularly special by the fact that we were surrounded by beautiful 360 degree views of the heart of Lake Soukkio, in Rock and Lake’s ‘Tiilikka’ holiday cottage. What an amazing way to enjoy the frozen views whilst keeping warm and cosy!
Of course we didn’t visit Finland in winter just for some fishing, saunas and BBQs, but also to hunt down the magical northern lights! Sadly, they turned out to be much more elusive than anticipated and we didn’t get lucky with our timing, but thankfully the night sky didn’t disappoint completely. As the clouds cleared in the evenings, we were able to admire the peace and natural beauty of the wonderful array of stars.
You won’t find much light pollution here in the Finnish lakeland, and so the night sky is often an array of beautiful night stars and, as we were told, often a wonderful spot for admiring the aurora borealis (we were just unlucky this time!). However despite the fact we didn’t get to admire the amazing northern lights, we enjoyed these wonderful moments of beauty.
Another fun activity popular in Finland winter time, is good old-fashioned kicksledding. It’s pretty simple, get wrapped up warm, grab a sled and enjoy riding around the smooth frozen lakes of the region. We had great fun trying this for the first time on Lake Soukkio!
However if this all sounds a little too energetic, there are many beautiful walks to choose from around the area. From short walks around the beautiful Rock and Lake cottage area to longer hikes where you’ll need a map, there’s plenty to choose from. Just remember to bring your snow boots!
It’s safe to say that we loved our four days spent in the heart of the Finnish Lakeland, and can now recommend this as a relaxing winter or summer holiday destination!
Rock and lake currently offer around 30 different cottages for rental in and around the Finnish Lakeland area so we highly recommend them as your first stop to finding your idyllic lakeside spot! During our recent winter visit, we stayed in cottage ‘Lempi’ close to the shores of Lake Soukkio. It was a beautiful setting, particularly due its extremely close proximity to the lakeside complete with a hot tub/jacuzzi, sauna and 2 open fires. With 4 bedrooms, it also comfortably sleeps 9 people and has the added advantage of disabled access (which is uncommon for most lakeside cottages). For more specific information however, have a look at the Rock and Lake website.
As we’ve mentioned, there are lots of activities that can be arranged through Rock and Lake, including:
Is it easy to get here?
The short answer is yes! From Helsinki, it is a straightforward 3-4 hours drive to the Rock and Lake cottages. The directions provided by host Jenni for the last section of the drive were great and brought us directly to the cottages with no issues.
We opted to take a hire car and found it very easy to drive around due to the quiet roads. We found drivers to be patient and the roads were clearly sign-posted with speed limits. There were also plenty of service stations to make stops and buy groceries for the cottage (ABC stores are open 24/7!). You can also hire an automatic car if you aren’t confident in driving on the right hand side of the road.
More Information Required?
The Finnish Tourism Board, Visit Finland are a wonderful source of knowledge on all types of travel to Finland and a friendly bunch to get in contact with too!
Note: We were guests of ‘Rock and Lake‘ in conjunction with ‘Visit Finland‘, however all views expressed in this article are our own and this is an honest account of our experience. You can read our other Finland articles here.
Lapland is of course, the official home of Santa Claus, and is a dream destination for families and children, desperate to meet their idol and pass on their Christmas list.
But as we found during our time there, there is so much more to winter in Finland, especially around the vast northern area of Lapland!
Lapland is an enchanting and beautiful place. Picture perfect winter wonderlands adorn every turn in this wonderful region, and the vast size provides ample opportunities for a variety of activities.
So here’s the lowdown on our top 8 recommended activities during winter in Finland, complete with mini-stories, photos and video!
This was an absolute highlight from our time in Lapland, and most definitely a top recommendation!
Close to the heart of Finland’s Sami culture centre in the northern area of Inari, we spent a wonderful morning in the forested wilderness surrounding Inari with two local reindeer farmers, learning about their lives and meeting their many reindeer.
Something we always aim for on our travels are authentic experiences, and this was certainly one of them. This wasn’t petting a reindeer in a zoo or enclosure, this was a 20 minute drive into the woods from Inari, followed by a 30 minute snowmobile ride through the snow blanketed forests of Lapland!
Sat in a sledge behind a snowmobile, we were hurtled across frozen lakes and through narrow, tree-lined routes towards our local reindeer herders’ farm. This was an absolutely brilliant experience of winter in Finland!
When we arrived, we were instantly greeted by many reindeer wandering around the forest. It was so exciting and we were already delighted when, all of a sudden, our farmer guide blew on his special whistle and out of nowhere hundreds more reindeer began appearing all around us. It was a completely overwhelming experience as everywhere we looked, more reindeer appeared from behind snow covered bushes and trees, with their grey, black and white furs contrasting against the beautiful white scene around us…
They came in their droves, surrounding us entirely in a matter of seconds, their antlers and bodies gently brushing against us as we spun around to capture the scene in our minds.
It was incredible.
After the initial couple of minutes, we got our bearings and began watching and admiring the reindeer as they fed. The farmers we had come with were feeding their reindeer today, something they do every two days, so the reindeer were excitable and constantly jostling with each other for position.
After a while we all sat down by a fire, expertly set up by the reindeer farmer in a simple hole in the snow. Despite the cold, it was cosy as we sat on small rugs and listened intently while our hosts explained their labour of love and how reindeer farming works, especially in Lapland. From the history of herding by snowshoe and cross-country skis, to the more modern approach with snowmobiles and ATVs, it was fascinating to learn and get a glimpse into their lives. All the while a small pot of tea brewed above a roaring fire.
It was at this point that the initial bewilderment subsided, and we were able to sit back and admire the reindeer in a more relaxed setting. Reindeer for the most part have been romanticised in our culture, forever linked to emotions of youth, innocence and, of course, Santa and the most wonderful time of the year. By sitting in the wilderness of Lapland, we saw them in their natural habitat, battling each other with their antlers, grazing and sitting in the snow with a quizical watch over us.
After a couple of hours, it was time for us to bid farewell to the reindeer and make our way back to Inari. It had been a wonderful and enchanting experience, and one we wish we had even more time to enjoy.
As we bumped our way back along behind our snowmobile, the snow-covered trees racing passed us, we reflected on what a beautiful scene we had just witnessed.
In Lapland, the mystical beauty of the reindeer in our minds was matched, and perhaps even surpassed by what we found in that cold, snowy forest in Lapland.
If there is something that is quintessentially Finnish, it must surely be the sauna. Everywhere we went in Finland there was a sauna, from private ones in our hotel rooms to larger public saunas, there is no shortage to satisfy the locals love of a daily visit. In fact most Finns even have one in their home, now that we could get used to!
So of course it goes without saying, that when we were offered the opportunity to take the experience to a whole new level, well we grabbed it, despite what was involved! We just didn’t realise it would be quite so extreme…
The ‘smoke sauna’ was the good part, we later learned. Consisting of a huge stove filled with wood, this is a special type of sauna without a chimney (known in Finnish as the savusauna). As the wood is burned, the smoke fills the room while the fire is allowed to die whilst the smoke ventilates out when hot enough. What’s the result of this special type? Well the air is smooth and whilst still extremely hot, it’s less intense on the skin due to the wood smoked method and therefore extremely enjoyable for much more than 10 minutes!
So what’s the extreme part you might ask? Well it’s the tradition that follows the sauna that shocked us, literally! After enjoying the warmth of a good sauna, it’s traditional in Finland to take a dip into the closest lake or pool (despite it being winter or summer!) So at Kiilopää, right in the heart of sub-zero Lapland, this involved taking a rather refreshing dip in the Kiilopuro fell brook i.e. a small but deep pond of freezing cold water adjacent to the sauna! So with a wintertime water temperature of approx. -1 ºC, it was just a little bit of a shock when we tried the famous Finnish sauna routine for the first time…well that’s an understatement!
The first part was simple enough, we sat in the sauna and we sweated, and sweated a bit more…it was damn hot, just the way the Finns like it. After 15 minutes, we both looked at each other, it was time for our freezing ice bath. So out of the sauna we went, into the brisk cold air outside. A quick jog along the wooden promenade brought us to our challenge, an icy cold pool of water below us. It was so cold the steps were frozen. No time to think, there were Finns watching and we didn’t want to disappoint. Into the pool we went.
The initial shock was bewildering, firstly the pool was a lot deeper than we thought, so as we cautiously entered it wasn’t long before we were neck deep in icy cold water with no ledge to hold us up! I know we should’ve expected it to be cold, but it really shocked our systems. I went to grab hold of the rope, only to find that it had frozen solid. Damn it was cold in here!
Before I knew it, Laura was out and heading back to the sauna, leaving me to freeze my extremities off. And it felt like they were freezing off. Fearing my chances of having children, I launched myself out of the ice pool, along the freezing wooden promenade and back into the heat of the smoke sauna. Only now this boiling hot sauna didn’t feel remotely hot, my body so cold from the ice pool. I found Laura in the darkness, and slowly, over the next ten minutes our bodies warmed back up until we were once again sweating.
“Let’s go back in the ice pool!” Laura whispered to me. I was baffled, there was no way I was going back in that ice pool.
A few minutes passed, and after watching various elderly aged couples take the plunge again and again, I reluctantly headed back into the pool.
Again the cold brisk air hit us as we jogged along the wooden promenade, and this time there was no delay as we launched ourselves into the icy waters. The initial impact was the same, a massive shock of cold that felt like it was coursing through our veins. But after a few moments, everything went eerily calm. It was still very cold, but this time we were able to stay in longer. My extremities didn’t feel like they were going to drop off this time. Phew.
Again we only lasted around 30 seconds, but trust me it felt a lot longer than that. We took a moment, relaxed our breathing and took it all in. Then we bolted again for the sauna.
Back in the safety of the sauna, I could finally relax. All my bits were intact, and it was time to enjoy sweating it out with new Finnish pals. Or so I thought.
Around 10 minutes later, Laura turned to me and uttered the immortal words:
“I want to go in the ice pool again”
I was speechless, I thought perhaps I wasn’t hearing right. Maybe my ears were full of sweat. But no, it was true, my wife is a glutton for punishment. I was done with the ice pool, in fact if I never see an ice pool again it’ll be too soon. But she was insistent, she was going back in the icy water. And so in she went, one last time.
This was her best performance yet. She hardly screamed at all this time, and spent exactly 40 seconds in the water. Moments later she was back in the sauna…
Although it might sound like we hated the ice pool, it really was an incredible experience, and one we would recommend you try at least once, perhaps twice. The contrast of hot sweaty skin and freezing cold water is invigorating, and we can see why it’s a favourite pastime of the Finns.
We managed to capture some GoPro footage of our experience, so check out the video below to see our shocking but invigorating ice pool dips!
From one classic Finnish pastime to another. This time it was cross-country skiing, and something we were very excited to try when we arrived in Finland.
The premise is pretty simple, you grab a couple of skis and sticks, and you head out onto one of the many trails to get some exercise and explore the forest. Sounds simple right? Well after a couple of hours of tuition and practise, it unexpectedly was! We’re absolutely no experts but cross-country skiing turned out to be one of our favourite experiences in Lapland. There’s something truly magical about being out in the wintry forested wilderness, able to explore under your own steam, in a quiet and serene way.
If you’ve been downhill skiing before, cross-country skiing isn’t too difficult to figure out and something we’d highly recommend trying when in Lapland. The main difference? The skis are smaller, narrower and lighter, and although you clip your feet to the skis, you’re able to lift your heel off the ski to aid your movement. Easy!
Here we are getting some tips at the brilliant Kiilopää ski school in Northern Lapland…
After our lesson, we skied for around 3.5 hours, exploring the many trails around vast Urho Kekkonen National Park in Northern Lapland. It was an amazing experience, though probably long enough for us with our legs beginning to ache towards the end!
Ah Finland, home of the Aurora Borealis which makes an appearance around 200 days a year. Such a good chance of seeing it! Or so we thought.
The experience of hunting the aurora borealis is up there as one of the most frustrating of all our travel experiences. We have been incredibly lucky with weather conditions on many of our adventures that it was bound to run out at some point. And sadly the weather didn’t cooperate in our time hunting the Aurora Borealis.
Despite spending a week in Lapland, and countless hours standing outside in the cold night, the northern lights proved almost elusive, until one evening in Inari where I caught just the slightest of glimmers in the night sky.
I had been standing in the cold for 3 hours. It was now 11pm and -22 °C. I was cold, once again my extremities began freezing up and I seriously considered going back inside. But then something caught my eye directly above me.
It began as what looked like a white sliver of cloud directly above me. But it was moving in a unique way, seemingly remaining in situ but still rippling above me. I turned my camera around to capture it, and suddenly it exploded into green, just hovering above me. It was truly mystical, and all I could keep saying to myself was “it’s here, it’s here”!
In the excitement, I caught these 2 images of it, my small experience of the northern lights.
It hovered above me for only 3 minutes, but it was a magical moment. There was not a single person with me, I stood on a frozen lake at 11pm all alone, freezing but so excited. And 3 minutes later it disappeared, and that was it. Our week of aurora hunting resulted in a 3 minute sighting, but I was thankful I’d had that.
It’s worth setting expectations when it comes to the northern lights. They are elusive, and many people don’t see them. We met people who had been in Lapland for a week and didn’t see them once, not even a glimpse. So check the aurora forecast every 30 minutes and be ready to run out at a moment’s notice, as I found, the northern lights can be a fleeting experience.
After our experience of the ice pool with our smoke sauna, you’d think we’d had enough of throwing ourselves into freezing water. But no! If there’s one thing we love, it’s a unique experience we can’t get anywhere else. And so here we were, getting suited up in a wet suit on an icebreaker ship in the Gulf of Bothnia, ready to jump into the frozen arctic sea!
Perhaps we should rewind a little. Earlier that day, we’d stepped aboard the Sampo Icebreaker, the only tourist icebreaker ship in the world, at the port of Kemi in Lapland.
We’d left port, and our powerful ship had smashed its way through huge sheets of ice. Surrounded by vast white expanse, we’d watched in awe from the outer deck as our ship dramatically cracked, shuddered and lifted up to make its incredible journey through the arctic ice pack.
After a fascinating tour of the 1960 built ship, including a special sneak peek into the bridge and engine room, it was time for our dip in the frozen arctic sea…
The Sampo Icebreaker has its own special wet suits that keep you completely dry, so you don’t need to undress to get into the sea – simply step in, get fully zipped up, and slide yourself into the icy waters!
This was a really great, if surreal experience. The suits not only keep you dry, but also afloat, so you don’t have to do anything, just lie back and enjoy the surreal experience.
There’s something strange about floating on your back, in a frozen sea, alongside the hull of a huge icebreaker, but we weren’t complaining, it was a brilliant experience, and if you do take the amazing icebreaker cruise, you have to try the ice dip!
If you find yourself in Southwest Lapland (perhaps already booked on the Sampo Icebreaker cruise from Kemi that we’ve just mentioned!), then why not consider this other unusual and totally unique winter in Finland experience!
Drawing thousands of tourists each year, it’s a fascinating winter landmark of the small coastal town of Kemi. Specially constructed on an annual basis, you can visit the ‘SnowCastle’ and even sleep overnight in the ‘SnowHotel’ for around 3 months of the year (typically January to March).
Despite this being something of a touristic novelty, we couldn’t resist trying the experience for ourselves for a night and here’s what you can expect.
The vast construction and intricate sculpting, all made from real snow and ice was fascinating, but don’t come expecting a cosy and warm night’s sleep (obviously!). This is definitely one of those memorable, but once in a lifetime travel experiences!
A simpler but still very enjoyable activity around Lapland is exploring some of the many beautiful areas and national parks by foot. Near Kiilopää fell centre, positioned within the eastern national park of Urho Kekkonen National Park (the second largest national park in Finland), there are many mapped out routes so we decided to explore by snowshoe – another new experience for us!
We found snowshoeing a great way to access parts of the snowy walks we might not have otherwise been able to traverse. Again it was surprisingly easy to get used to the snowshoes and they were great for discovering our own quiet and peaceful areas.
We were absolutely stunned by the natural beauty of this area, and would love to return some day for more cross-country skiing and snowshoeing adventures!
Last but by no means least of our highlights of Lapland has to be a special mention to the delightful and hearty cuisine we came across. Being food-lovers, we’d done our research and couldn’t wait to sample some of the local produce. Thankfully it didn’t disappoint!
From delicious soups to light fish dishes and heavier stews and steaks, we loved following up our cold outdoor activities with a hearty warm buffet or gourmet meal!
Soups are a Finnish favourite and often accompanied by freshly baked healthy rye bread, so it was a welcome lunchtime staple for us. Usually followed by some locally caught fresh fish or meat for dinner, with reindeer being the staple dish of the Sami culture in Lapland. Though it wasn’t our favourite, there were always many options to choose from so every meal was an exciting event…yes we love our food!
So that’s it. A full round up of our favourite Lapland adventures! As you can see, we crammed a lot into our 1 week winter tour. There is so much to see and do around this vast area, and it would be easy to fill weeks rather than days. However there’s no doubt that it’s the beauty and peacefulness of Lapland that makes it so magical. A truly enchanting place to visit.
Note: We were guests of Visit Finland for this latest adventure, however as ALWAYS, all opinions are our own.
Waving goodbye to the people of Yen Duc Village, our wonderful new Vietnamese family and friends, was one of my most emotional travel experiences to date. So much so it’s taken me some time to actually write this article. Firstly because I want to give this incredible experience the justice it deserves, but secondly because I well up with emotion every time I think back to it. Yen Duc Village filled our souls with a mixture of joy, sadness and empathy that we’ll never forget. In just 48 hours, we met some of the most wonderfully hospitable and warm people. They welcomed us with open arms and treated us like extended family in their small close-knit community.
And what a strong community they are, you can feel it as soon as you arrive. As we cycled around the village for the first time, we couldn’t go further than 20 metres without a friendly local waving hello to us or calling out “Xin Chao!” (a greeting in Vietnamese which phonetically sounds like ‘Tsin-chow’) even whilst working hard harvesting their rice, or sweeping their paths, or carrying their homegrown fruit and veg supplies to the market. It seemed that they were genuinely happy for our visit, and that the small number of tourists who visit the village were having a positive influence.
Our wonderful local guide, Ms Huong, explained how the success of their homestay tours had afforded them the ‘luxury’ of 24 hours a day electricity to the village, of which they were very grateful. As well as being able to light up their homes in the evenings, it brought practical solutions for the local businesses and education. Especially during the winter time when it gets dark around 5.30pm.
Note: The village itself is a small community of around 5,000 people who live in the province of Quang Ninh near Dong Trieu town, in Northeast Vietnam, around 60 km south of Halong Bay, hence why it makes for an ideal visit on your way back to Hanoi from Halong Bay!
We visited various different family homes and local businesses during our time at the village, all of which were fascinating and a real eye-opener into rural life in Vietnam.
From living with our lovely and kind host ‘Mr Sans’, to learning to harvest rice and attending our first Vietnamese village-style wedding (including singing karaoke & dancing with the locals haha!), we loved every moment of our time at Yen Duc Village – so read on for some short stories of our highlights including our favourite photos and videos!
Amazingly, our visit to Yen Duc Village happened to coincide with one of the most important times of the year. It was harvesting season, and given that it lasts for only 2-3 weeks and occurs just twice per year in the North (3 times per year in the South due to the warmer climate), we were especially lucky!
Before our visit, we knew that rice was an important part of life in Vietnam, but we hadn’t fully understood the impact of it and its fundamental role in community life, especially in this area where rice production is the main source of income. Rice harvesting dominates life here in the village, and almost everyone gets involved in some way. Whether it’s preparing the land for the next harvest, to carefully tending to it, followed by the rather arduous task of actually harvesting it, drying it and finally the long process of separating it from the husk. It’s an unending process and constant work, driving the ebb and flow of daily life in the village.
It was on our first cycle around the village that our local guide taught us about the tools and techniques used for the job. From the old techniques and tools to the modern methods, we were shown how the harvested rice is gathered and separated from its husk. It didn’t take more than a minute of trying it out ourselves to appreciate how hard work it can be!
It was amazing to learn that many local families still use these old techniques to this day, sharing the workload out amongst the whole family.
However modern day rice production has brought some newer machines to the village, speeding up the process and increasing efficiency, especially for the long process of separation from the husk. We saw locals operating these huge machines on our way around the village.
It was fascinating to get up close and personal with the most important part of life here, and we left with a whole new appreciation of rice!
Following our rice harvesting, we tried our hand at some fishing at one of the many fish farms in the village. We’d been fishing before, but never like this. After being provided with our lovely ‘fishing suits’ (which consisted of knee-high welly boots connected to plastic trousers up to the waist!), we quickly realised that this was not going to be any sort of typically relaxing ‘sit-by-the-pond-style’ fishing with a rod, we were about to get knee deep in water, and as it turned out – knee deep in mud too!
We laughed as we climbed into our long pants and boots, this was going to be fun! Next we were handed our special wooden baskets and shown the technique to apply, which mainly involved moving as quickly as possible around the pond whilst slamming our baskets open top downwards into the mud with every step…sounds easy right? No way! The mud was so thick and deep it was like trying to move around quicksand, except it was thicker and very sticky! However we gave it our best shot and despite my movements being significantly slower than Barry’s and our expert guide’s, amazingly I managed to catch one! Not wanting to slip my hands through the basket weave to grab the poor little fellow though, thankfully Barry was nearby and did the job for me…but then stole the glory for catching it – typical!
Our guide caught a few more fish, but we decided one was enough for our next meal, so we carefully released the others back into their pond and happily set off to cycle back home to Mr San’s house to enjoy our catch!
If there was one thing we didn’t expect from our Yen Duc Village homestay experience, it was definitely this!
Getting to attend a local wedding obviously isn’t usually included in the 3 day/2 night itinerary for visitors to Yen Duc Village, but again we got lucky with our timing and were very kindly invited! Little did we know that it would be one of the best moments of ALL of our travels, and here’s the short-ish story…
Fresh from our fishing experience (well ‘fresh’ isn’t really true!), we had only been back on our bikes for around 5 minutes or so, navigating our way through the village’s brimming rice paddies when we spotted the beautiful multi-coloured marquee. Well, correction, we’d actually heard the loud party music blaring from it first! It stood out a lot in such a peaceful rural setting! And so our guide was just beginning to explain about it being a big local wedding celebration when we saw a beautifully dressed woman standing outside the entrance, cheerfully waving as if to usher us all over!
It turned out that this was Ms. Men – the mother of the bride no less! It was the pre-wedding celebration party of her daughter, Huyen and everyone in the village was invited, even us! We couldn’t believe it, including our guide Huong, who couldn’t wait to show us what a real village-style Vietnamese wedding was like. So we immediately peddled over and parked up our bikes, alongside what looked like around two or three hundred other motorbikes lining the pathway to the marquee!
Eventually making our way over to our lovely host and mother of the bride Ms. Men, we were greeted with the most pleasing smile and hug, and were reassuringly told (thanks to an english translation by our guide), that we were warmly welcome and that in fact “everyone was waiting for us to join the party!” – we couldn’t believe it and for a moment we felt like foreign celebrities in the village!
So, despite smelling a little fishy and in desperate need of a shower(!), she reassured us it was fine as tonight was the more informal ‘pre-wedding party’. It was the next day that the main wedding event would take place (and the one to dress smartly for) – phew we thought! So with the music already blasting out and lots of the local village already in attendance, we no longer felt like gate crashers and were ushered in to join the party. Oh and apparently we were just in time for the buffet dinner being served – result!
We’ll never forget the moment we entered the marquee. We were welcomed with open arms and smiles, it was a little overwhelming but totally amazing at the same time. Right in that moment, our love for the people of Yen Duc Village was cemented, forever.
Without wanting to dominate proceedings too much (it wasn’t OUR wedding after all!), we waved and greeted as many people as possible with our best pronunciation attempt at “xin chào” (greetings in Vietnamese) before searching out the bride amongst the sea of friendly faces. It didn’t take us long to find her. Surrounded by her close friends and female relatives, each taking turns to hug her in celebration of her impending wedding ceremony the next day, she was glowing and had a beautiful sparkle in her eyes. To be honest I was a little embarrassed to go over to her, given that I’d never met her in my life and we had just been invited to her pre-wedding party, garnering an unnecessary amount of attention already! This could be awkward I thought, letting my typically British social norms in. But of course it wasn’t. It was Vietnam and I was in a rural village where everyone was welcome (even foreigners!). So true to form, as she spotted me (kind of easy given that I was the only pasty white female amongst her guests), her face lit up and she greeted me with the most beautifully sweet smile, whilst all of my remaining nervous and awkward feelings totally washed away. She was delighted to have us there, thank goodness! After a mutually warm hug and lots of congratulations, best wishes and thank yous from Barry and I, she was quickly ushered away to greet more arriving guests. Luckily we managed to snap a quick picture with her.
We learned from our local guide that this one of the most prestigious family weddings for the village and everyone had been invited (as is tradition in rural villages in Vietnam). It was the wedding of the beautiful daughter of the manager of the Yen Duc Village tourism programme and so we’d apparently become their ‘guests of honour’ (regardless of the fact we were just lucky enough to be visiting the village at the same time)!
Following our warm greetings by everyone, we were ushered to our table and sat alongside a number of wonderfully cheerful and friendly locals to enjoy our wedding feast. And what a feast it was! About 8 different delicious looking dishes were gradually delivered to our table for us to share. It was incredible and all home-cooked by the family and friends of the bride.
Next came the ‘important’ part of the meal. It wouldn’t be a proper Vietnamese party without copious amounts of rice wine! And so it began. Round after round our little designated shot glasses were topped up with special homemade wine by various different locals wanting to “cheers!” with the foreign celeb guests – haha!
And so, it didn’t take long before we were feeling the effects and being unwittingly ushered towards the dance floor, and, oh dear, the karaoke mics…
The idea of the wedding guests hearing a popular English song sung by foreign native-English voices was apparently an exciting prospect! And so, not wanting to let our wonderfully kind hosts down, and as a sort of thank you for their incredible hospitality (maybe it wouldn’t be seen as a thank you after hearing us however!), we obligingly stepped up to the stage and took the mics. The joy and anticipation of our new Vietnamese family and friends was written all over their faces. We had to do this! Now it was just the small matter of picking a song…
The main sound system suddenly stopped blaring out its Vietnamese techno, and the karaoke screen set up whilst our new friends starting shouting requests. What to sing! Barry, a little over ambitious about the song availability, shouted over to request “anything by Oasis!” but was unsurprisingly greeted by confused faces. That clearly wasn’t an option! So we decided to leave the song choice up to our ‘fans’, and waited for the screen to load…
The first English song choice was then selected…grinning at each other, we cleared our throats and prepared to belt out ‘Hello’ by Lionel Ritchie, what a classic!
If you’d like to hear our not so dulcet tones, and the 2 songs that followed (yes one song wasn’t enough apparently!), check out this go pro footage of our amazing experience and highlights from the wedding!
Singing and teaching the local Vietnamese farmers the moves to the Bee Gees ‘Stayin’ Alive’ was a surreal but brilliant moment and one we’ll never forget! And so a little tipsy on rice wine and elated from such a wonderful and unique experience, we decided to leave on a high. After all, we knew it would take a while to say cheerio to all our new found friends and kind hosts, so we hugged, waved and thanked as many people as possible as we walked back through the marquee passed the long tables of guests, young and old, all having a great time.
What a memory and an experience we will never forget!
After being invited by the mother of the bride again, we returned to the marquee the next day to see some of the formal wedding day. We only had a short time but were delighted to arrive just in time to see her beautiful daughter, Huyen, in the most amazing wedding dress and being whisked away by her handsome new husband. It was an emotional goodbye for the bride’s family and friends in the village as she was leaving to begin her new life living with her husband and his family, as is the tradition in rural Vietnam.
The party doesn’t stop once the bride has left however, apparently the drinking and eating goes on for the rest of the day! However we had lots of other activities organised for the day as part of our tour, so we bid the guests and our lovely host farewell for the last time and hopped back on our bicycles for our next adventure in Yen Duc Village. It was time to meet the wonderful Mrs Thai…
As it was our second visit to Vietnam, we had gotten all too familiar with the history and harsh reality of both the French Indochina war of the forties and fifties and the Vietnam War of the sixties and seventies. Through our visits to various museums and the fascinating Cu Chi tunnels of the Viet Cong in the South, we’d learned a lot about the country’s war-torn history. But it was meeting the inspiring and wonderfully strong Mrs Thai of Yen Duc Village, that gave us a whole new appreciation and empathy of the impact of the war. So much so that we decided to create a short documentary about her.
At the tender age of just 23, Mrs Thai’s husband was assigned to join the southern resistance army to fight against the U.S. army in the Vietnam War, leaving Mrs Thai, only 21 at the time, to fend for herself and her 4-month old son. During what was an extremely hard time, Mrs Thai’s husband made 3 visits home over a period of 4 years but sadly then lost his life fighting in the war. He became a hero in his village.
During our visit to Mrs Thai’s humble home, we spent time talking with her whilst she cooked us lunch on her traditional firewood stove. Thanks to the translations of our guide Huong and with the use of various facial and hand gestures, we got to know Mrs Thai and learned of her emotional story and strong spirit. Despite being offered the hand of marriage of many other local bachelors (Mrs Thai was a popular young lady!) she’d decided to remain faithful to her beloved hero husband and to this day has remained in their first family home and worshipped his photo and spirit ever since.
Meeting Mrs Thai first hand was an emotional experience, however our guide explained how much joy we had brought her that day. She’s barely travelled outside the village and therefore never had the opportunity to meet ‘foreigners’ before. We couldn’t believe that we were her first ever non-Vietnamese visitors. She was just as fascinated with us as we were with her, asking where we were from and about our lives and families back home. Her eyes actually sparkled with interest and joy at meeting us, we felt so touched.
We didn’t want to leave and we’d been equally touched by our short but fascinating meeting. After cycling away from Mrs Thai’s beautifully shy and satisfied smile, we knew immediately that we had to return before leaving to thank her for such a special experience. We decided we would buy her a gift and return to surprise her with it. So the next morning, we headed to the local market and chose a beautiful hand-embroidered pillow, hoping she’d like it. We returned later that morning, taking her by surprise. Sweet as ever, she was embarrassed she hadn’t tidied the house and offered us to stay for lunch but we politely declined and said our final emotional goodbyes.
As with all of our best travel experiences to date, it’s about the people you meet, and it’s safe to say we’ll never forget Mrs Thai. We gained a great deal of empathy and appreciation for Mrs Thai and the many other widows of the war that will now remain in our hearts forever.
(Note: Meeting Mrs Thai isn’t part of the usual homestay itinerary at Yen Duc Village, we had simply requested to meet a member of the community and luckily for us she was kind enough to oblige as a favour to her neighbour and our lovely guide Huong, despite feeling very shy about it!)
There’s nothing better than a home-cooked meal, and that’s why our homestay experiences never fail to disappoint us when it comes to food. They’re usually healthy, made with freshly sourced local ingredients, delicious and totally authentic!
Having experienced a Vietnam homestay before, we had pretty high expectations for our meals at Yen Duc Village! But incredibly they managed to totally exceed them and surprised us with every meal, so here’s a sample of what we enjoyed. From homemade clam & pork soup (a delicious breakfast speciality for the area!), to grilled fish and fresh prawn spring rolls, it was a culinary adventure as well as a cultural one!
Another experience we loved during our time at Yen Duc Village was being able to test our own culinary skills by learning how to make some traditional dishes, including this locally famous rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and some delicious sweet rice deserts! Including rice dough balls with green bean, sugar cane & sesame seeds inside which Huong then boiled with fresh ginger juice & coconut milk – it was soooo tasty!
It’s no secret that Vietnamese food is our favourite cuisine, and was one of the driving forces in our decision to return to delicious Vietnam. We’re so glad that we did as its depth of flavours and fresh combinations continue to surprise us at every meal. We can’t get enough!
During our interactions with the local people of Yen Duc Village, we quickly discovered how highly they value tradition and family life. One of our visits in particular brought us to the fascinating home of Mr Te, owner and occupant of the oldest house in the village.
It was a pleasure to meet Mr Te and through translations by our patient guide Huong, we were able to enjoy an interesting conversation with him about his family and life in the village over some delicious cups of jasmine green tea (the most popular local tea and now my favourite!). We also answered his questions about our travels and life in Scotland. Amazingly, although he’d had many visitors, we were his first from Scotland so he was very interested to meet us and learn about Scottish culture. Luckily I had one of our wedding photos to hand so he’s now familiar with kilts! Though explaining Haggis was a little more difficult…
He told us fascinating stories about his life and in particular his important job during the war which involved managing the production and distribution of rice supplies from the village to Vietnamese troops in the South. He and his wife worked very hard during this tough time.
Afterwards he gave us a tour around his beautiful old house. The main part, authentically decorated and adorned with many family portraits, was surrounded by intricately carved wood without the use a single nail, as he proudly told us!
Mr Te is now retired and in addition to maintaining his old house and beautifully blooming garden, his other main passion is his family tree. Proudly displayed in the worshipping area annex to the house, it’s huge and takes up the whole wall!
Grabbing his pointer, he talked us through generation after generation of his family starting with his grandparents and finishing with his many beloved grandchildren. It was so impressive and especially fascinating to hear about the roles that he and his several brothers and sisters played during the wartime.
As with everyone we’d met so far in Yen Duc Village, he was incredibly warm and friendly, and so kind to invite us into his beautiful home, a historical treasure of the village.
We also got the opportunity to meet various different local people of the village during our short 2 day stay, so here are some of our other highlights.
We had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours visiting the home of one of the village’s well known local folk musicians and songwriters. Along with his group of singers and musicians, they played us various traditional local songs and even attempted to teach us one! That was a challenge!
On day 2 of our Yen Duc Village tour, we made a stop off to meet this hard working couple and to witness their fascinating broom making process and basket weaving skills. Being the sole suppliers to the village and to other markets outside the village, they are very busy and spend long days crafting their products. It’s a long slow process but the results are amazing. Here’s some examples of their beautiful work and us attempting it ourselves!
And finally, Yen Duc Village wouldn’t be the same without their water puppets! A strong tradition and unique talent only in the north of Vietnam, this is a fascinating old art form which is still learned and performed today. Yen Duc Village proudly puts on a show every day for tourists making a brief stop off on their way back from Halong Bay, so as guests of the village, we were invited backstage for a view of the show on our last day. It was amazing to see the skill and detail involved behind the scenes in making the show.
Suited up in plastic wellies and waist high trousers, we watched as the team plunged themselves into the pond behind the black screen and skilfully presented various traditional folklore stories to the audience with their handcrafted water puppets, perfectly in time to the soundtrack. Although the performance itself is a little bizarre, it’s a fascinating art form and was incredible to get a first hand glimpse at the skill involved in making the show.
It might sound a little cheesy or cliché, but it’s experiences like this that reaffirm our love of travel. The people of Yen Duc Village truly touched our hearts and gave us memories we will never forget. This is without a doubt one of the greatest ‘homestay’ experiences we’ve ever had, and we’d recommend it to anyone looking for a genuinely authentic insight into real Vietnam. We left inspired by this friendly community and with a desire to share our stories. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about them.
Note: To arrange a 1 or 2 night stay at Yen Duc Village, contact them via their own website or through the Indochina Junk website. We were guests of Indochina Junk, but as always all our opinions are our own!
From small rustic canoes, occupied by farmers transporting their freshly picked herbs or vegetables to market, to large wooden barge ships packed so full of rice they looked as though they were sinking(!), the river is a throng of activity and the lifeblood of the Mekong Delta.
There are so many routes and destinations to choose from in the Mekong Delta, and it can be tricky to decide where to go and how to get there. So before we delve into our highlights and experiences, here is some practical (and hopefully useful!) details about our route.
After lots of research and deliberation, we eventually decided on a route to the Mekong provinces of Ben Tre, Vinh Long and Can Tho. Why? Firstly because we felt that three destinations provided enough for roughly a week without being too busy, and secondly because we wanted variety! Each of these places offered a different experience along the way, both in terms of activities and environment.
We picked Ben Tre province for its abundance of fascinating coconut factories (as well as brick factories) and peaceful canals, Vinh Long province for an authentic homestay experience, and finally Can Tho city for its famous floating markets and picturesque rural canals. We were not disappointed!
We covered quite a lot of ground (and water!) during our one week ‘DIY’ adventure in the Mekong Delta, so rather than detail every part of the journey, here are our highlights in a series of short photo essays and stories, we hope you enjoy!
As Vietnam’s premier coconut growing region, Ben Tre is a quiet province in the Mekong most famous for its coconut production. Being a little ‘off-the-beaten’ tourist path, it’s quiet compared to some other destinations in the Mekong, making it a great place for a more peaceful and serene boat trip. During our visit there, we took a tour around its fascinating local factories, rivers and picturesque canals, and here are the highlights.
It’s easy to understand why it’s nicknamed ‘The Land Of Coconuts’ (or ‘Xu Dua’ in Vietnamese)!
Putting aside our coconut passion for a moment however, the first stop on our half day boat tour was in fact to a local brick making factory. Little did we know this would be the most fascinating visit of the whole tour!
Touring the local brick factory was a fascinating and humbling experience. As we walked around, meeting local workers along the way, our guide explained to us the long, hard and rather dangerous process involved.
From the collecting of the river clay and moulding/cutting of each individual brick, to the highly manual process of transferring every single brick (by hand!) into the massive 20,000 capacity hot kilns for a 2-week cook, it’s back-braking work. Never mind the constant shovelling of rice husks (every 15 minutes) to keep the kiln fires roaring at their 1,000 degree temperatures for 2 weeks at a time! It’s a relentless physical process.
Despite all of this hard work and the long hours (typically 12 hours a day we were told), the labourers are paid based on production rather than time, so the pressure is constantly on to work as hard as possible, despite the minimal pay.
It’s experiences like this on our travels that make us appreciate what we have and how hard life can be. We left the brick factory with the highest respect for these hard working people and of course, a whole new appreciation of bricks!
The next two stops on our tour brought us to the staple businesses of the local area, coconut production. With such a huge supply of coconuts, there are lots of factories in this area manufacturing coconut products. From coconut candy to savoury snacks, you can find all sorts here so we visited this riverside factory to see how it all worked.
The simple factory, perched on stilts by the riverside, was intriguing. We watched in fascination as the men expertly cut the shells whilst the women carefully carved out the flesh of the inside. The speed and precision at which they hammered through each coconut was amazing. But it was all about speed, as again our guide explained how their wages were calculated based on their individual production volume/weight. Wow.
Although not as physically back-braking as the brick factory, it was clear how hard the locals had to work and usually for long hours. Yet despite this they never failed to raise a smile and say hello whilst we toured around to learn their processes. Once again we were grateful and humbled by our experience, and the resilience and friendliness of the Vietnamese people never failed to amaze us.
We also learned about the various uses of the coconut and sampled our first Vietnamese coconut candy, it was delicious!
The final place on our Mekong tour around Ben Tre province brought us to this small homemade weaving factory, where we were shown how the locals skilfully work their hand looms to produce all kinds of beautiful mats, hats and bed bases.
They worked so fast and expertly that we could hardly see each row being wound! Here are some of the highly skilled locals in action!
After our visits to the various local factories, we finished our tour with a lunch in the jungle near the river and were treated to the local seafood speciality of elephant earfish.
Deep-fried and mixed with rice noodles, lettuce, cucumber and pineapple stuffed into a rice paper wrap and dipped in a typically fresh Vietnamese sauce, it was absolutely delicious.
Afterwards, we took a short but slightly hair-raising jeep-ride back to our boat with our local guide and fellow travellers. Even Barry’s hair was out of place for once – wow!
A day on the Mekong starts very early, usually before dawn for most locals. So we decided to do the same when we took our early morning boat trip from Ben Tre to Vinh Long. We’d become adapted to early rises – they’re hard to avoid when the sun beams into your room at 5am! So a 6am start was no problem, especially since it’s a great time to witness life on the river while the locals make the most of the coolest part of the day.
We loved all of the boat trips we ventured on during our week in the Mekong Delta, but this was one of our favourites…probably aided by the novelty of swinging on hammocks while we sailed! It’s these little surprises that make us love Vietnam!
It’s not cheap, but it is possible to charter your own boat to take you between destinations in the Mekong. We decided to do this for one of our journeys around the area, not only to avoid a hot local bus trip (though this was a bonus!), but to have the opportunity to see and experience more of the Mekong. After all, it’s all about the river and that’s where most of the interesting day to day life occurs!
Instead of 2 or so hours in a hot and sweaty local bus, we spent 4 blissful hours chugging along the river in this lovely boat. From fully loaded rice barges to fruit and vegetable farmers transporting their goods to market, we chugged by all kinds of boats and ships going about their business on the river (even a floating petrol station!). There was always something happening!
With so much going on, it was fascinating just to sit back and observe river life all around us. Before we knew it we were almost 4 hours into our journey and getting closer to our next Mekong destination of Vinh Long.
Our arrival to our homestay in Vinh Long is an experience we’ll never forget…
After some 4 hours or so of sailing along the river, stopping off at a couple of floating fruit-sellers along the way, our boat finally left the expansive Mekong river to make its way along the more narrow ‘sông Cổ Chiên’ river for the final leg of our journey towards Vinh Long.
Unable to communicate much with our boat driver due to our lack of Vietnamese and his lack of English, we had had no idea how long it would take to get to our homestay accommodation. So it was a great surprise when after around 4 and a half hours of chugging, our driver finally slowed the boat and manoeuvred us towards a tiny overgrown jetty by the side of the river.
For a moment we wondered if it was the wrong place due to the overgrown vegetation and lack of boats at the small jetty, but as we made our approach, we spotted a local man giving us a very enthusiastic double-handed wave in the distance. Standing beside his bicycle, his face broke into the warmest and most welcoming of smiles. We knew then this must be the right place, and this lovely looking gentleman must be our host!
With our boat moored up, we thanked our driver and jumped onto the jetty where we were warmly greeted by Mr Truong. He was the owner of Ba Lình Homestay and kindly loaded our bags onto his bike before guiding us towards his house. It was only a short walk, but a fascinating one as we tried to take in our new surroundings whilst chatting along the way.
The route was initially along a lush forested path, shaded on both sides by a dense growth of coconut trees and healthy looking green papaya plants. After a few minutes as the path widened, we passed by a small local community hall where there was music blaring, apparently from a neighbour’s wedding celebration. Following that we passed what turned out to be our neighbour’s home, where children played in the garden and dogs ran around chasing after them, and finally arrived to the homestay.
It was beautiful and much larger than we expected! Two large wooden clad buildings, surrounded by beautifully lush garden teaming with fruit trees and fish ponds. It was simple and peaceful, and we immediately felt an air of calm about the place.
Other than the occasional motorcyclist riding passed, there were no cars and the neighbour’s chickens were the only source of ‘noise’. We immediately fell in love with the place and were delighted it was our new home for the next couple of days.
After being shown to our basic but pleasant room and a short tour of the house, we were welcomed with a pot of hot jasmine green tea, which we shared with Mr Truong as he spent time answering our questions and explaining his successful homestay business.
As with our previous homestay experiences, it was more like a basic guesthouse with a host family. We like this because it means you’re not always in the main family home which gives you the choice to interact with your hosts and other guests as little or as much as you like, whilst still having some personal space in between times.
One of our favourite things about homestays, is not only getting to know the family and local customs, but also learning about the local cuisine and of course, getting to sample it! What we loved about Mr Truong’s homestay was that each night he welcomed all of his guests into his kitchen to help prepare the evening meal and learn a few local recipes. I was particularly happy when we got to make one of my favourite dishes, the famous Vietnamese Green Papaya salad with shrimp. It’s a simple but extremely delicious salad, which we usually ordered with most meals when we got the chance!
During our stay, we took a wonderful half day boat tour around the area which gave us the opportunity to explore Vinh Long’s small floating market and some local factories including a coconut, rice and honey making factory.
Like a lot of the Mekong Delta, coconut production is a main source of income in Vinh Long, with many factories perched by the riverside. We visited this large one during our tour and found it to be another fascinating insight into local life. First we watched and learned how these coconut pancakes are all individually made by hand.
Then it was onto the coconut candy process, where each mixture is stirred by hand then cut individually after being set in a mould. It was a time intensive process, but with delicious results!
After our fascinating factory tours, we transferred onto a small rustic rowing boat to cruise through the quiet and narrow waterways around Vinh Long. Away from the hustle and bustle of the main river, it was a very peaceful way to fully appreciate the area’s stunning natural beauty.
On our final day at the homestay in Vinh Long, along with some fellow travellers we’d become friends with at the homestay, we decided to explore the mainland area around, this time by bike. Despite the area being much more vast than we expected and having only a very basic map as our guide, we managed not to get (too) lost!
Along the way, we came across large farmlands and settlements occupied by friendly local families who waved as we cycled passed or sometimes ushered us in to take a closer look. They were as intrigued about our being there as we were about them!
That evening we spent more time learning to cook local Vietnamese dishes with the family, as well as getting to know our fellow guests from all parts of the world. It was another wonderful Vietnamese homestay experience. We’d learned about the local family culture, tried various local foods (we might not have otherwise tried on our own), made some great friends in our fellow guests, and got the opportunity to have local experiences we wouldn’t have otherwise had.
(Click on these links to read about our previous Ba Be National Park and Sapa homestay experiences!)
Our third and final destination on our ‘DIY’ tour through the Mekong Delta was to the bustling riverside city of Can Tho. Famous for its floating markets and university, there is a constant bustle of activity in Can Tho both in the streets and on the river!
From locals making their way to stock up on supplies from the early morning markets, to late night gatherings around small plastic tables on the kerbside where families and friends tuck into shared steaming hotpots and barbecued pork skewers, the buzz of life seems endless here. Though that’s Vietnam for you and what we love about it!
One of the most popular draws of Can Tho is its large wholesale floating market. Known as ‘Cai Rang’, it begins very early in the morning (typically immediately after sunrise around 5am) and lasts for the full morning until the day heats up around noon.
To avoid the crowds and larger tour boats, it’s best to get there as early as possible. So thankfully already adapted to the early rises of the Mekong, we signed up for a sunrise tour and we weren’t disappointed!
It was peaceful yet fascinating to be on the river at such an early hour. With coffee in one hand and our cameras in the other, our boat slowly chugged its way along the river while our local guide explained about local river life.
As usual the river was awash with early morning activity, and we loved witnessing this ancient fishing technique being used by local fishermen.
It was an hour or so before we finally arrived to Cai Rang floating market, and we were excited and intrigued to see how it all worked. In the distance, we could already see lots of boats in position, waiting for customers to load up on their fresh goods.
As we got closer we could see the fully loaded boats, almost brimming with fresh produce!
From potatoes, carrots and pumpkins to watermelon, coconuts, pineapples, and papayas, there’s a huge variety of fresh produce on offer, most of which comes from local farmland.
What was fascinating was the technique used by all of the sellers for advertising their goods. We noticed it straight away. Can you see the long poles sticking out of the boats in the photos above? These are bamboo sticks, adorned with a selection of the boat’s goods, designed to make it easier for buyers to find what they’re looking for. Want some carrots? Just look up and scan the horizon!
Cai Rang is one of the largest floating markets in the Mekong Delta and well worth a visit. Many villagers come to sell their produce and it’s fascinating to observe everything happening on and around the river.
It’s a unique way of life to us but just normal daily business for the locals, most of which even took the time to wave hello or give us a warm smile as we chugged by with intrigued eyes.
Following our visit to the floating market, we continued further along the river until turning off along one of the many narrow canals. From here we chugged along until we reached our jumping off point for this coconut and rice noodle factory. It was another fascinating insight into local business. We learned the techniques of coconut pancake making and noodle manufacturing, all within a rather atmospheric family-run factory.
Lastly, our tour brought us to this quaint and quiet waterway. It was just one of the many picturesque rural canals in the area where it’s fascinating to observe riverside village life.
It was great to step off the boat for a change and have a wander around the village. It was beautiful, thanks to its lush rice paddies, fresh growing fruit (everywhere!) and scenic narrow bridges connecting small canals.
It was fun attempting to cross the ‘monkey bridges’ along the way, as their named by the locals due to the narrowness of the pieces of wood. Perfect for monkeys but not so much for us!
We also came across the largest jackfruit we’d ever seen growing on trees along the way, oh and of course more fresh coconuts. It’s no wonder there’s lots of butterflies around.
The Mekong Delta is a vast and incredible place to visit, and in our opinion the best way to see it is to organise your own DIY tour. There are many options from Ho Chi Minh City for day and overnight tours, but to get a better sense of the Mekong Delta, you need to take it slowly! Jump on that bus, hop onto that boat and get out and see a different side of Vietnam!
Our round-trip route through the Mekong from Ho Chi Minh City was as follows:
Ben Tre ⇒ Vinh Long ⇒ Can Tho ⇒ Phu Quoc ⇒ Ho Chi Minh
Here we explain how we travelled from place to place (mostly via public transport):
We’d recommend Thinh Phat bus company for this easy 2 and half hour journey from Ho Chi Minh City. They have regular buses (leaving every half an hour when we travelled with them) from ’25a Su Van Hanh Street P9 Q5 HCMC’ (not far from district one) and tickets are very reasonably priced (only a few pounds each when we travelled). On arrival to Ben Tre, we were seamlessly transferred to a shuttle bus to make the final journey to our hotel, which was included in the bargain price.
Instead of taking the public bus (which apparently takes around 2 hours), we opted to arrange a private boat transfer direct from our place in Ben Tre to our homestay in Vinh Long. Although this was a much more expensive option ($50 each), it turned out to be one of the highlights of our Mekong Delta trip and therefore was well worth the extra coin! Especially as we had a private boat with our own skipper, comfortable seats and our own hammocks to chill out on, it was worth every penny and we loved it! We were on the boat for around 4-5 hours and also stopped off at a floating market along the way too, so it was also like a tour rather than just getting from A to B. So if you can afford this we’d highly recommend it, however there is also a public bus option to Vinh Long if you’d rather save on this.
From our homestay in Vinh Long, we followed our host’s guidance to catch the local ferry back to the main town where we very easily picked up one of the many public buses traveling to Can Tho city. They are both regular and cheap (we paid only 40,000 dong each, around $2!) for the roughly hour and a half journey. Obviously there was no A/C for this price and it’s a very local bus (I.e. It stops very often on the way to pick up absolutely anyone who waves their hand out on the road!) however it’s an amazing experience and one to have at least once on your travels in Vietnam!
(Note: We travelled by cheap flights for the final leg of our tour from Can Tho to Phu Quoc island and then from Phu Quoc island back to Ho Chi Minh City.)
One of the reasons we love to inspire travel is because it inspires us, and it affects us deeply. Once again, travel has gotten under my skin and dug deep into my soul. It’s not necessarily changed me as a person (not as much as our first adventure anyway), but it’s affected me greatly, and I’ve tried to put these feelings into words.
If you’ve been on any kind of adventure of your own, you’ll probably empathise with these feelings below. Or, if you’re thinking about taking the plunge and booking that flight to Bangkok (or wherever!), I’m hoping that this will inspire travel in you and cast aside any doubts to just go for it!
It was whilst admiring the beautiful variety of trees lining Boracay beach in the Philippines, that I felt inspired to write down these reflections. So it seems appropriate that this is my first one. It might sound strange, but I don’t think I’ve ever fully appreciated nature until I started travelling.
Maybe it’s because of the weather at home (which is often cold and wet!), but when I’m ‘on the road’ I find myself paying so much more attention to my surroundings. Travelling, especially anywhere new, has that effect on me. Whilst I’m trying to soak up everything around me, new experiences heighten my senses and draw me into my new environment.
Whether it’s waking up to the sound of birds singing in the morning (or more likely a loud cackle from the neighbour’s chicken in S.E. Asia!), or taking in the awe-inspiring view of a dramatic volcanic landscape, travel makes me love and appreciate nature, in a way I never knew before.
It might seem obvious, but the most precious gift of all that travelling gives you is time. Time to be in your own thoughts and time to think, clearly.
By switching off from my routines in daily life, such as chores, to-do lists or even just the normal distractions of the TV and phone, I can think more clearly, especially about my goals and passions in life. What do I want to achieve this year? How am I going to do it? What do I want to make more time for?
Whether it’s riding the bumpy 8-hour bus to our next destination, lying on a tropical beach with beautiful palm trees swaying above my head, or trekking through a scenic rice paddy in Vietnam, travelling gives me a LOT more time, and therefore room to breath, reflect and dream.
Simply by changing our environment, I feel inspired and new thoughts and ideas seem to spark into life.
Every day is a school day, as they say! From history to geography and culture, travel constantly teaches me something new every day. From how noodles are made, or rice is harvested, to the difference between a young coconut (typically green on the outside and white on the inside!) and a mature one (the brown ones we’d typically see in a UK supermarket!)…I never knew how amazingly delicious young coconut juice was! Or from how the famous chocolate hills of Bohol were formed and the fact that the Philippines has over 7,000 islands!
It’s not just things or people we learn about though, travel teaches me about myself too. By being constantly thrown into new environments and situations, everyday is a lesson in self-development! I’ve feel like I’ve learned more about myself in the last 4 years than I had in the previous 27.
One of the most important things I’ve learned (and continue to learn every day whilst travelling) is the value of patience. Something you realise quite quickly when you start a new adventure, is that as soon as you step into that airport terminal or bus station to take your first journey, you’re no longer in control of everything, and the best thing you can do is accept your new reality as quickly as possible, and go with the flow.
After all, what’s the point in getting annoyed if your flight is delayed by 2 hours, or your tour is cancelled due to bad weather. There’s nothing much you can do about it! And so being patient is the best way to handle it – something we’ve learned after numerous delays and extra-long bus journeys! Rather than get annoyed, we just shrug our shoulders and grab another coffee, or enjoy a few more chapters of our books. It’s to be expected occasionally along the way, and is usually not a major issue. Delays and relinquishing control will only spoil your adventure if you let them!
Something we’ve noticed, and love about the locals on most of our travels, is their incredible patience and ability to not get frustrated or annoyed in tricky situations. We always try to take a leaf from their book.
For example, when we first arrived in the Philippines, it was a Saturday in December, nothing too innocuous about that you would think. We’d arranged for a driver to collect us from the airport and take us directly to our homestay accommodation, north of Manila city near Mount Pinatubo. The journey was estimated to take around 2-3 hrs, but after 5 hours or so, we found ourselves still stuck in a traffic jam in Manila city, and hours from our final destination!
It turned out, as our driver calmly explained, that as it was the first Saturday in December, we’d arrived on one of the busiest Christmas shopping days of the year! Hence the bad traffic as everyone was commuting in and out of the city. We couldn’t believe our bad luck as we could’ve flown in any other day of the week!
But it was our driver that we felt sorry for, having to concentrate hard in the crazy traffic for such a long time. Amazingly though, not once did he come across annoyed or display any kind of ‘road rage’, despite knowing he had to make the long return journey that evening. He kept his cool, and slowly navigated us through the city with various detours along the way to avoid the jams. Of course we took a lead from his behaviour and tried our best not to be bothered either, despite what was supposed to be a 2-3 hour journey turning out to be 8 hours! However it was a good lesson in patience, that was for sure! Thankfully our long journey was totally worth it as our Mount Pinatubo Tour was spectacular! (Follow the link above to read more about it.)
The best thing about travel for us is the people we meet along the way. From sparking a simple conversion or showing thanks to a local who helps us along our way, it enriches our experience and helps us get to know and understand the local culture.
Some of our most rewarding experiences have come from homestays. Either arranged through a company, or independently where possible, this usually involves staying with a local family for a night or two, in order to learn about their day to day life and experience it first-hand, whilst also sharing our lives with them. We’ve had some wonderful homestay experiences along the way, most of which we’ve shared here on the blog (article links: Peru, Morocco, Laos and Vietnam – Sapa & Ba Be National Park).
One of our favourite homestay experiences was in Ba Be National Park, and was a highlight of our time in Vietnam. After trekking through the stunning countryside of Ba Be National park, we spent the night at a local family’s humble home, deep in the countryside surrounded by rice paddies, and water buffalos for neighbours! We spent the evening eating delicious home-cooked Vietnamese cuisine and drinking local ‘rice wine’ whilst getting to know Mr Hung and his family. After visiting the local school and witnessing the hardworking locals on the rice paddies, we left with the greatest of respect for the local people, and a desire to share our experience. (For the full story, click on the link above!)
One of our other favourite things to do when we travel is to try as much of the local cuisine as possible, even when we’re not too sure about it (remember the sheep’s head in Morocco?)! We absolutely love discovering great local food and it’s especially exciting when we discover a delicious new dish!
As you’ve probably gathered from our blog if you’re a regular reader, food is a passion of ours. It’s one of the main reasons why we love Vietnam (hands down our favourite foodie destination!), with India coming a close second (well in my opinion – Barry would probably argue Mexico or Japan!).
However apart from trying new foods, I love the fact that travel constantly takes me out of my comfort zone and encourages me to try new things and experiences. For example, I would probably never have hiked a mountain over 4,000 metres high in Morocco (in winter!), climbed an active volcano in Chile, or even imagined taking a polar plunge in the icy cold waters of Antarctica! Travel has definitely taken me out of my comfort zone and with it, provided the most rewarding experiences!
It may sound a little cheesy, but travelling definitely makes you find your true self – there’s no shying away from it.
When planning an adventure, sometimes the huge range of choices and decisions to make can be overwhelming. Should we book a tour or travel independently? How long should we stay there? Should we book an activity or just relax? It’s hard to know how you’ll feel in the moment, but the best way to answer all these questions is to be honest with yourself. Do you enjoy trekking enough to book a 4 day trip or would it be better to book the 2 day option? Do you really want to spend days touring all of a city’s museums or would you prefer to grab a coffee and watch the world go by in a local cafe?
I love the fact that travel gives you these choices. However, when in doubt, we always revert back to asking ourselves what do we enjoy most, and ultimately, what makes us happy. Personally, we love a great adventure, and get a great buzz and sense of achievement from a tough scenic trek, or roughing it a little to camp under the stars, but we also know how much we enjoy a little comfort and relaxation. Especially AFTER an adventure. So we’ll ensure our adventure is based on these preferences. By being honest with ourselves, we know that a mix of adventure and relaxation is how we like it, and will make us most happy.
It’s easy to take what you have for granted, and travel reminds me of this constantly.
We regularly witness the struggle and hard times of living in a developing country, and it’s a humbling reminder of how lucky we are. It makes us appreciate what we have, and reminds us that we were simply lucky to have been born where we were.
One particularly eye opening experience was when we learned about The UXOs bombs of Laos. Before travelling to Laos, we weren’t aware of the huge effect that unexploded ordnance (UXO) had had, and continues to have on the population as local people still live in danger of UXOs. Remnants of the Vietnam war, Laos is still plagued with buried bombs, causing hundreds of accidents a year as they are discovered by children or farmers in the countryside. It’s hard to comprehend people living in such danger, decades on from a war fought in another country. Therefore, discovering the brilliant charity organisation COPE during our visit to Laos gave us hope for the locals, and encouraged us to share an article about their amazing work providing prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to victims of UXOs. Again, we left with a whole new understanding of a country we didn’t know much about previously, and an appreciation of how lucky we are not to be living in danger like that.
Travel inspires me to be more creative, it unlocks skills I forgot I had. Away from the burdens of modern life, and with time to think and reflect, my inner creativity is awakened. Sometimes I feel like travelling takes me back to my childhood creativity. To skills that were somehow lost or buried in the maelstrom of ‘growing up’, or perhaps pushed aside when spending too much time memorising facts for exams.
There’s a chance that you think you aren’t creative, or that’s a skill other people have. But travel gives you the head space to explore your creative mind, and you may just find yourself writing, or drawing as you sit on that bus, or on that beach. Travel gives you the chance to reawaken those skills and desires. Believe me, I’ve experienced it. And whilst I love a good book or a gripping movie, I get even more enjoyment out of creating something of my own (such as this blog!) and travel inspires me to do so.
Last but not least, travel touches my soul in a way I never expected it could. It might sound a little cheesy but it’s true. By seeing and experiencing other cultures and ways of life, travel opens my eyes and makes me question life (in a good way). It inspires me to aspire for more from life.
Travel helps me put insignificant tasks or routine into perspective. It makes me want to complete them quicker or abandon them altogether if they don’t really matter. Hell, does that dress really need ironed or can you just hang it outside for an hour to let the wind blow out the creases naturally? Yes it might not be perfect, but I could spend that 15 minutes doing something that will actually fulfil me or better still, make that phone call to a friend or family that I’ve ‘not had time for’.
One recent travel experience that dug so deep into my soul that I’ll never forget it was our 2-day homestay experience at Yen Duc Village in North Vietnam. The whole experience was amazing (full article coming soon) but in particular, it was our touching and inspiring meeting with a local war widower, Mrs Thai, that affected me the most. So much so that we decided to make a documentary (with her permission) of her incredibly sad but inspiring life story, and you can watch it here.
So that’s it, 10 ways travel inspires me and 10 reasons why I shall keep on travelling! Hopefully this has either reminded you why travel is an awesome thing to do, or provided the catalyst to inspire travel in you!
If you’re wondering what it’s like to cruise Halong Bay with Indochina Junk, then read this detailed review. From the ship facilities, to excursion experiences, we cover it all (including our best photos and videos)!
Please note, we were invited back to Halong Bay by Indochina Junk to work in partnership with them, but as with everything on Worldly Nomads, our opinions remain our own!
When we researched our first trip to Halong Bay back in 2012, we were overwhelmed by the huge number of options available! How long should we spend on Halong Bay? What kind of tour? What type of boat? Which company is the best? With so many conflicting reports online, our next best option was to take advice from some fellow travellers. They were quite insistent that we go with Indochina Junk, and that we’d have an amazing experience. So of course we took their advice, and well, it was soooo good that we left desperately wanting to return some day. Luckily that dream came true last month, and we’re now reporting back on our second incredible trip with Indochina Junk!
From the extremely fresh and delicious food (some of the best we’ve ever had and that’s no exaggeration!), to the incredibly friendly and professional staff, we absolutely loved everything about our Indochina Junk tour and would highly recommend them to anyone.
So for more details and what to expect, covering everything from the ship accommodation, to the food and kayaking excursions, this is a full guide. However before delving in, have a quick look at our short documentary video from our recent 3 days/2 nights cruise on their newest and very beautiful Dragon Legend cruise ship!
Our room onboard the ‘Dragon Legend 2’ cruise ship was complete luxury and totally exceeded our expectations! We’d been told that this new ship was a class above the ‘Dragon Pearl’ ship (the one we chose for our first adventure to beautiful Halong Bay) but we didn’t expect it to be quite so opulent! With traditional wood panelling and carvings, the rooms (as well as the rest of the ship) are full of authentic and tasteful decorative detail. It’s no wonder the ship took 2 years to build!
We also had LOTS of space and even our own little living area with a great big window which was perfect for enjoying the beautiful views from the comfort of our room!
We’d got used to the usually hard mattresses in Vietnam, so it was a very welcome change to have a luxuriously soft mattress! I also appreciated having a lovely dressing table with mirror for getting ready and plenty of wardrobe space (a luxury I wasn’t used to during our travels!). The rooms also have A/C, a minibar and TV (not that you’ll have much time to watch it!).
Then there’s the bathroom…wow. Again we had a lovely big window so that we wouldn’t miss the views, but what we didn’t expect was the large jacuzzi-style bath, complete with separate shower and a hot towel rack! Naturally I was desperate to get into the bath to enjoy the novelty of admiring the bay views from my bubbles…yep I was in heaven. In fact writing this now makes me wish I was there again!
Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of time for jacuzzi baths as there’s so much to enjoy elsewhere onboard the ship! Nevermind the amazing excursions including kayaking, rowing boat trips and swimming! (See more on these in the excursions section below.)
The ship also features a beautiful sundeck area complete with a small but lovely pool and spa.
The standard of food on the ship is some of the best we have ever experienced, and that’s no exaggeration! It’s no secret how much we love our food when we travel, especially Vietnamese cuisine (hence why we returned for more!) however the food served on the Dragon Legend (and the Dragon Pearl on our previous trip), was really amazing!
Not only is it all absolutely delicious and freshly prepared, the variety is incredible. Expect to eat everything from fresh crab, clams, tiger prawns, deep fried oysters (our new favourite!), stewed pork in hotpot to traditional chicken noodle soup (Pho Ga). Here’s a sample of some of the most delicious dishes we were served!
Just be prepared for LOTS of courses so each meal takes some time! But you really won’t mind that when you’re being served the most delicious food whilst sailing passed awe-inspiring views of endless limestone karts and islets!
There are 2 dining rooms on the Dragon Legend ship, outdoors and indoors. Providing you have good weather, you’ll be served most of your meals at the beautiful outside area where you have uninterrupted views, however the inside dining area has big windows also allowing good views.
The same goes for the bar which has both an outdoors and inside option. If you’re lucky you’ll be welcomed by ‘Harry Potter’, nickname of the witty and confident head barman on the Dragon Legend 2. Just like all the staff on the ship, he is eager to please and will make sure he makes you the ‘perfect’ cocktail!! The bar is also well stocked, so you’ll be sure to find your perfect sundowner tipple!
Sailing around beautiful Bai Tu Long Bay (the quieter part of Halong Bay) on the Dragon Legend ship is just one amazing aspect of the cruise, and would be reason enough to visit! However, it’s the excursions that really make your trip, as these are the moments you get to discover this incredible place for yourself, and also get a little closer to the amazing towering limestone karsts and islets!
We took several kayaking trips during our 3 day/2 night cruise with Indochina Junk, the highlight of which was visiting this secret lagoon which involved carefully navigating our way through a dark limestone cave…it was so exhilarating to get inside!
Another amazing feature of the bay is the wildlife. Once you get up close to the karsts on your kayak, you can see lots of little crabs and sea creatures crawling over the rocks. Looking up, you’re likely to see the most beautiful eagles soaring above you, as well as many beautiful butterflies fluttering passed. It’s quite amazing!
We also got the chance to visit this beautiful floating village and tour around it on a little rustic rowing boat with a local guide. It was a very peaceful way to appreciate the stunning views and learn about the fascinating way of life on this part of the bay. Imagine living here!
The sunsets over Halong Bay are like no other, and we enjoyed our excursion to this private Indochina Junk beach where you can swim and admire the amazing sunset!
For more images and a video of our excursion highlights, take a look at our highlights video over in our full Bai Tu Long Bay experience article. As you’ll see from our video, the huge advantage of sailing with Indochina Junk is that you’ll hardly see any other boats on your journey, as they have private access to some of the most beautiful parts of the area, making the experience even more peaceful.
(You can find a detailed summary our 3 days/2 nights cruise itinerary over on the Dragon Legend website.)
The journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay takes around 4 hours (sometimes longer depending on traffic), including a toilet break around halfway at a large factory where you can pick up a snack or souvenirs too.
Included in your tour price is pick up and drop directly from your hotel in Hanoi, and the air-conditioned vans used are very comfortable with free water provided. This was one of our transfer vehicles.
Nothing will prepare you for the crazy traffic on the roads, but that’s normal for Vietnam! All our drivers drove very safely, putting us at ease on the journey. It’s amazing to watch what the locals transport on the back of their motorbikes along the way, so just sit back and enjoy the view. We even saw one guy carefully balancing 6 huge tree plants strapped around a sack of rice on the back of his – incredible!
Once you arrive to Halong Bay, you’ll be welcomed by the lovely Indochina Junk staff and ushered to a nice cafe style waiting area where you’ll meet your tour guide and the rest of your fellow travellers. There’s also free wifi, water and toilets there. After a brief introduction, it’s time to board the small transfer boat to the ship. This is where it gets exciting as you’re finally on the bay for the first time and about to get your first glimpse of the ship (and your home) for the next couple of days!
Last but not least, here are some of the wonderful staff of the Dragon Legend Ship!
There’s no doubt that you’ll have a great guide to accompany you on your tour, and the rest of the staff are also fantastic. We couldn’t fault the service. From the food and drinks, to the excursions and cleaning of our room, everything was perfect and ran like a well-oiled ship (sorry for the pun!).
You may already be familiar with the negative stories about some Halong Bay cruises, such as rat-infested boats, boat traffic and polluted waters, however this is why we’ve shared our amazing experience in detail! Be assured that there are brilliant options for cruises on Halong Bay, especially those provided by Indochina Junk, who we highly recommend!
We were back in Bai Tu Long Bay, the magnificent World Heritage site in the North of Vietnam. This was our second trip on the bay, and it was just as spectacular and awe-inspiring as the first time! Take a glimpse by watching our epic highlights video below!
It was a dream come true to return, especially because we were back with the same tour company who took us on our first adventure to Bai Tu Long Bay 3 years ago, the awesome Indochina Junk. But this time we were on the larger and rather grand new ‘Dragon Legend II’ cruise ship. It was so exciting!!
The scale of Halong Bay is hard to comprehend. With thousands of limestone karsts and islets stretching for an incredible 120km of coastline, it’s truly a sight of epic proportions. However, as you pass through the various islets and channels, it becomes hard to truly appreciate their scale, so the best way is to get up close with the karsts in a kayak!
Slipping into a small kayak, and paddling away from your ship, immediately gives you a much better sense of the scale and grandeur of Bai Tu Long Bay. The limestone karts are simply enormous, and dwarfed our tiny kayak as we paddled around them! Yes that is us in our kayak!
As the tide ebbs and flows, it reveals different colours on the karsts as the water gradually works its way into the base of each karst. The result is a spectacular top heavy rock, many of which you feel could push over given enough leverage.
As you paddle close to the karsts, they come to life as thousands of small grey crabs cling to the sides, scuttling in and out of the various holes and crevices at the bases. Looking up, the lush green vegetation and bushes protrude from the sides of the karsts, demonstrating an uncanny knack for flourishing in the most unique of places.
For us, kayaking is the highlight of a visit to Bai Tu Long Bay especially when we get to paddle into secret lagoons…
Up ahead, lay a small entrance in the never ending karst’s wall which, amazingly, turned out to be the access point to a secret lagoon, only accessible at certain tide levels. Our luck was in today, as the tide was low enough to paddle through. So we slowed our kayak, and entered the darkness.
Navigating in darkness through a cave is difficult as you can imagine, the various stalagmites hanging down threatening to hit our heads, whilst the shallow waters gave many opportunities for capsizing. However after 5 minutes or so of slow and not so steady paddling, we saw daylight up ahead!
Blinking as we entered back into the daylight, we looked to find ourselves in a large lagoon, surrounded on all sides by towering limestone cliffs, woah! The water here was calm and serene, and the lagoon almost silent with only the sound of swooping birds and the echo of our voices. We naturally stopped paddling to enjoy the moment, it was such a beautiful place.
It was a strange feeling being in the lagoon, knowing the only way out is back the way we came! So after some moments of tranquility, it was time to head back through the shallow waters of the cave and follow our guide back to our ship, before any major tidal changes! What an adventure it had been!
Extremely satisfied from our amazing lagoon adventure, we returned to the ship to get ready for our next adventure to Thien Canh Son cave, the location for our dinner that evening. And what a setting it was!
Beautiful Thien Canh Son Cave on Hon Co island, Bai Tu Long Bay
Our amazing cave dinner setting!
Aside from enjoying all the delicious fresh seafood and our favourite Vietnamese dishes (have we mentioned how much we love Vietnamese food?!), the other highlight of our time on Bai Tu Long Bay was once again the incredible sunsets. Set against the hundreds of limestone cliffs, with the right mix of clear sky and cloud, they are truly magical and unique!
There’s nowhere else quite like Bai Tu Long Bay and for us, it has a unique way of making us feel calm and relaxed. We also had time to chill out on a mini beach at the foot of a huge karst to watch another incredible sunset!
With only miles and miles of beautiful karsts and the occasional boat slipping by, there’s no wonder it’s a great place to clear the mind and truly live in the moment.
The sunrises weren’t too shabby either! We witnessed some rather atmospheric and moody clouds surrounding our boat over the bay…!
The last day of our 3 days, 2 nights tour was just as exciting and rewarding. Starting with an early morning visit to the floating fishing village of Vung Vieng, we got a fascinating glimpse into the floating lives of the local families who inhabit the area.
The village is beautifully surrounded by a spectacular wall of karsts, best viewed from a small boat, so once again we disembarked our ship and slipped into these small rustic rowing boats to tour the peaceful area.
Despite this being our second visit, we absolutely loved our time on Bai Tu Long Bay again, especially with the wonderful crew of the Dragon Legend cruise ship from Indochina Junk. We would highly recommend this cruise, or any of Indochina Junk’s tours. It’s not often that we make such bold recommendations about a company however based on both of our amazing Bai Tu Long Bay experiences (you can read about our first visit here!) and our incredible Yen Duc Village tour, we’ve always had awesome, authentic, professional and friendly experiences with them.
A cruise around Bai Tu Long Bay could be the highlight of your trip. It certainly was for us.
Disclaimer: we partnered with Indochina Junk for this trip, but as with everything on our blog, our opinions above are an honest account of what we experienced.
A Mount Rinjani trek it is not for the faint-hearted, it’s gruelling and physically intense, but if you’re up to it, the rewards are breathtaking.
In this guide to Mount Rinjani trekking, we’ll cover:
You can also click on any of these points to go directly to that section of the guide.
This is a full, no holds barred account of our 3 nights and 4 days on Mount Rinjani with Rudy Trekker. It’s a long read (over 7,000 words!), but if you want the most comprehensive write-up of the Rinjani trekking experience, alongside some essential top tips (all of which we’ve summarised at the end), then this is the article for you! For the record, some of the views on this trek are the best we have ever seen in all of our travels!
First, have a look at our documentary highlights video before you dive into the story of our trek (it’s only 2 minutes long)!
We began with clear blue skies. Ahead of us, dominating the skyline, and everything around it, was the epic and awe-inspiring Mount Rinjani. A simple sign pointed us in the right direction, a wooden stick and piece of cardboard stuck out of the ground in sharp contrast to the dominating sight of Mount Rinjani in the distance. This is where it all begins.
There are few treks where the scale of the challenge is laid out so obviously. Ahead of us lay 4 days and 3 nights of Mount Rinjani trekking and hiking, culminating with a 2am summit attempt at 3,726 metres altitude. We didn’t know it then, but the next 4 days would be some of the most difficult and challenging trekking we have ever attempted. The next 4 days would also provide some of the most rewarding experiences and epic landscapes we have ever seen! And no, we’re not exaggerating.
The day started innocently enough. A hearty buffet breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and tea at Rudy Trekker HQ (you can see all the food we ate in our practical trekking Rinjani review). We’d booked a private tour, not because we’re unsociable, but more as a tacit acknowledgement that we were more than likely to be slower than most people attempting the climb, so we wanted to go at our own pace and not annoy anyone who wanted to go faster. This decision would prove wise as the trek unfolded.
After signing in at the national park checkpoint, we lugged our backpacks onto our backs, and began our trek. It was 8.30am when we started, but already the sun was beating down on us, the temperature rising with every step.
The first couple of hours were simple and leisurely. We walked through a barren land, scorched in places by the intense heat of the sun as the path gently snaked up and down the hills, guiding us on our way. For these first few hours, the mighty Mount Rinjani towered above us, the deep blue morning sky punctured now by wisps of white cloud gathering around the summit. This was the easy part.
After a couple of hours, we stopped for a hearty lunch. Our guide, Hans, pulled out two foldaway chairs to sit on as the porters prepared our lunch. We were the envy of many other groups as they sat on the floor without chairs! Lunch was magnificent, just what we needed to fuel our day of trekking. A salad to start with, followed by a large plate of chicken, rice, egg, fried noodles and tofu. To finish, some fresh watermelon, apples, pineapple and oranges. This lunch would set the tone for the rest of the trek, delicious and filling.
After lunch, we began the proper climbing. The first part was through wide open plains we’d grown accustomed to, but as we climbed higher we entered the forest. The temperature and mood changed significantly, the bright blue skies gave way to grey, miserable clouds above us. Our mood reflected this, as we went from cheery and excitable to quieter and more focused on getting up the side of the volcano before night fall.
After a further couple of hours, the temperature dropped even further as we left behind the baking hot sun drenched plains and began to move through the cloud line, and into the clouds themselves. Seeing clouds close in around you is an amazing experience, and it happened as we leaned against a tree having a break. To our left, small wisps of white and grey appeared, followed at great pace by the clouds rolling down the mountain and over us. In a matter of minutes, we went from blue skies and sunshine to grey, wet nothingness all around us. This trek just got serious!
For the next few hours, we continued to climb through the clouds, the water in the air occasionally ‘raining’ on us as we climbed higher. The wet conditions made the climb a little treacherous, as we avoided climbing on the thousands of tree roots that stood between us and the ridge. We kept our heads down, and pushed on.
After 6-7 hours of climbing, our guide Hans called back to us:
We stopped to look up, and there it was! Perhaps 20 minutes above us, the top of the ‘ridge’ (our summit for the day) was in sight at last! With renewed vigour, we laboured on hoping for our first view of the Rinjani crater lake. However after 7 hours or so of climbing and much effort, we were rewarded with a view of…wait for it…NOTHING!
Yep that’s right, visibility was limited to a few metres in front of us due to the incessant clouds we’d spent the last few hours climbing through. Dammit!
We found our campsite and settled down, happy to have made it to base camp but disappointed with the cloud cover. It was cold now at the ridge summit, and we piled on our fleeces, waterproof jackets, gloves and woolly hats to stay warm. Perched on our foldaway seats, we looked straight out at what seemed like a white, black canvas in front of us, the clouds completely blocking out the sun and the view below. We ate our dinner and sat quietly for half an hour or so, and then, a gap in the clouds appeared!
For the next couple of hours, the clouds swirled below us, occasionally giving us a glimpse of the lake and crater. At the time we were pretty disappointed with the weather, but looking back now, given that we had almost perfect weather the rest of our trek, we can’t really complain about the first night’s weather.
After dinner, we also got our first glimpse of our route to the summit, which we would be attempting in pitch darkness at 2am the following morning. Seeing this was not good for our motivation, the summit was still a long way away, and would take at least 4 hours for us, giving us an arrival time at the summit of 6am. Tomorrow morning was going to be rough!
Sunset that evening was spectacular, made all the more epic by our camping location!
We went to bed around 8pm that night, readying ourselves for the 2am wake up call, and our night-time ascent attempt to the summit. We slept fitfully, nervous about what the next day would bring.
It was 01:45, and we could hear our porters and guide moving about outside their tent. It was still completely dark, aside from the millions of stars lighting up the night sky. If we weren’t so nervous about the climb, we may have stood in awe and quiet reflection of the beautiful night sky. It looked truly magnificent. Alas, we couldn’t enjoy it – our minds were elsewhere. We were mentally gearing up for our attack on the summit.
Hans (our patient guide) called for us from outside the tent, and we tentatively poked our heads out to receive our omelette and some tea. As we sat there, group after group trudged passed our tent, each beginning their own attempt at the summit. We pulled on every layer we had, flicked on our headlamps, grabbed our walking poles, and began.
This might all sound a bit dramatic. After all, we were hardly attempting the summit of Everest. But to us, with almost no sleep from the night before, and total darkness affording us no view of our path, it was nerve-wracking.
The next two hours would be gruelling. We began by ascending the steep side of the ridge, which would take 2 hours to reach the top of the ridge. From there, it would take another 2 hours to walk along the ridge and ascend the final section to the summit (3,726m).
The first 20 minutes or so were relatively comfortable, as we clambered up and down small peaks as we slowly made our way upwards. But after this trekking aperitif, it was time for the main course.
Beneath our feet, the rocks and mud we had grown accustomed to gave way to volcanic dust. Imagine trying to climb an incredibly steep sand dune, except it isn’t a sunny warm day, and you’re not even on a beach. On no, in fact, your trying to climb this sand dune at 03:00 in the morning, it’s dark, it’s cold, you’re 3,000 metres up the side of a volcano, and it’s going to take you 4 hours! Yeh, sounds great.
If you could put yourself in our dust covered shoes for a moment, your morale may have been as low as ours was at that point.
Hans reached into his bag at this point and handed us a dust mask each to wear over our mouths and noses. We wrapped these around us, and looked up. Although we could see nothing of the climb in the dark, in the distance we could see the twinkle of headlamps way up the ridge. Sometimes there would only be 2. Must be a pair of climbers. Sometimes there was a train of 5 or 6 lights, like a trail of fluorescent ants on a black canvas. Each light provided us with a guide marker in the distance of where we had to go. What we would have given to swap places with those climbers at that point!
We soldiered on, and as we climbed we were passed by a few faster groups making their way to the summit, each battling their own inner demons as they climbed. Every now and then, a pair of climbers would pass us coming down the ridge. Evidently deciding the task was too tough for them.
This brought with it conflicting emotions for us. In part it spurred us on to know there were others struggling worse than us, but in part it made us battle our own thoughts of turning back. But we didn’t, we pushed on.
Two steps forward, one step back. That was the routine in the volcanic dust. The route at our feet was relatively clear to us with our headlamps, but the darkness either side of the path worried us. All sorts of visions and questions were running through our heads:
We had no idea, it was frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. But we trusted our guide and we trusted our tour company wouldn’t put us in great harm. Sure, trekking up a volcano is more dangerous than staying at home, but as we always do in these circumstances, we put our trust in the hands of the experts, they know what they’re doing.
It’s at these points on our adventures where we are reassured by our decisions to trek with local experts. We saw a few groups go up without a guide, and fair play to them, everyone has their own level of experience and confidence. But we always prefer to have a guide with us, and they have been critical to us a few times on our adventures, including when we were stranded in a Saharan sandstorm, or when we climbed Mount Toubkal in freezing temperatures. Our advice is clear, always research and pick your tour company and guide carefully. If things go wrong, they might just save your life.
Anyway, back to our Mount Rinjani summit attempt.
After around another hour or so, we stopped for a short break. We were 3/4 of the way up the ridge wall, and another 20 minutes would see us reach the top of the ridge. As we sat there, slumped on the sandy volcanic dust we had been battling for the last hour, way below us we could make out the twinkling of fires at our campsite below. It was one of those moments that seemed completely unreal both at the time, and looking back.
We’re not the most ardent trekkers or walkers, and I dare say we don’t enjoy every moment of a trek. But there is something about trekking that brings out the best in us, and our relationship. To go through a challenge so exhausting together, and to achieve something many people don’t, is the reason we take on these climbs. As was when we climbed Mount Toubkal in winter in Morocco, and Villarrica volcano in Chile, the most memorable of experiences come from the most trying of circumstances.
And these circumstances were certainly trying. As more campfires flickered into life below us, it was time to turn our backs on our temporary home and get ourselves to the ridge. We hustled ourselves up off the volcanic dust, and pushed ourselves on. One foot forward, slide back a bit. Other foot forward, slide back a bit. All the while the light of our head torches capturing the thousands of tiny dust particles kicked up with every step.
25 minutes later we made it to the top of the ridge. A cool gust of wind flowed over and around us. We stopped for a moment to get our bearings. In front of us, laid out in pitch darkness, was the crater lake of Mount Rinjani (Segara Anak), resplendent with its jewel in the crown, Gunung Barujari, a post-caldera cone that lies within it. Although it was pitch darkness, we could make out the caldera rim encircling the lake, and to our left we could see our route to the summit.
Hans (our guide) shouted above the wind:
He told us this partly as information, but probably mostly as a warning. Our interpretation of this statement?
We began walking along the ridge, tentatively putting one foot in front of the other. Some parts of the ridge were wide, some narrow with frighteningly steep slopes into the caldera. We proceeded with extreme caution.
After 30 minutes, a slow realisation began creeping over us. It was 04:30, and we had another 2 hours of climbing to complete to the summit. At this rate, we would be somewhere up the ridge as the sun rose. Basically we would miss the sunrise. I was also absolutely exhausted, and worried about the fact we still had 3 days of trekking to complete, even after this morning summit ascent (including a further 4 hours today).
Our attack on the summit was fading, but what to do? Sunrise was still an hour and a half away, and it was cold. Without any other real options, we decided to continue climbing, without any real plan in place. Perhaps we might find somewhere sheltered where we could hunker down for sunrise. Or find a rock to crouch behind. Either way, we ploughed on.
It was at this point that something remarkable happened. Something so perfectly fitting for our situation that it all made sense. One of those moments that occur when travelling where you can’t help but smile at the way the universe conspires to provide you with a solution.
Up ahead, perhaps 100 metres away, there was a small glow on the ridge. As we trekked closer, it became clear that there was a small campfire right on the ridge of the volcano! Sat next to it was an older guide, warming his hands in the darkness. This is going to sound cheesy, but at the time, it was one of the most beautiful things we have ever seen.
Imagine the emotions. We’ve just spent a day and a half climbing up a volcano, much of it in the middle of the night, in pitch darkness. We’re covered in dust, exhausted, and cold. We’re pretty sure we’re not going to achieve our goal of the summit, yet there seemingly isn’t any other option available to us.
And then, in front of us, is a kind old guide of 25 years experience, beckoning us over to join him by his fire. We looked at each other, and the decision was made. We would sit here, chat with our guides, and watch the sunrise from here. And so we sat, and munched on cookies on the rim of an active volcano, warming our hands by the fire as the sun rose.
Sometimes in life you just have to be honest with yourself, and do what you feel is right at that moment. Yes of course we wanted to conquer Mount Rinjani, and we were so close. Another 2 hours and we would have our summit bagged. But sometimes you have to think about what you would enjoy and remember more.
We had a choice, endure the pain and frustration of clambering up a ridge as the sun rose out of sight from us, or sit by a fire with new friends and soak up the moment. For us there was no question. Egos left us, and we soaked up this once in a lifetime moment.
As we sat by our fire, the stars in the sky slowly disappeared, one by one being drowned out by the impending rise of the sun. Only the moon was still visible. In the distance, on the horizon, the darkness gave way to brilliant reds, yellows and oranges, as a thin line of colour punctured the darkness.
Then the sun rose behind Rinjani, and with a bed of clouds lying below us in the distance, the silhouette of Rinjani projected itself over the island of Lombok. It was remarkable to see, and reminded us of just how epic the mountain was. Can you see the shadow of Rinjani spread out in the distance?
We huddled together and soaked it all in. The sky around us grew in colour as reds turned to oranges and yellows, and finally blues. We got our first glimpse of Gunung Barujari volcano, nestled in the caldera lake below.
It was incredible to witness. We left the guides by the fire and climbed a little further up the trail, and stood in awe of the view below us. We were completely alone, and stood for a few minutes as more and more of the crater was revealed to us.
We may not have made it to the summit, but spending an hour and a half sitting on the ridge of a volcano as the sun rose was pretty special for us.
At around 06:30, we began to make our way back to camp from the ridge. We bid our farewells to our camp fire friend, and walked back down the route we had come up. This was the first time we were able to see our route from earlier in the morning. With the crater rim snaking out in front of us, narrow parts gave way to shear drops in parts, but in general the route was clear and safe. Our darkness visions of what lay around us proved to be, for the most part, wildly exaggerated.
Heading down, we stopped for one last view of the caldera of the lake and volcano below. We may not have reached the summit, but we had a memory that will stay with us forever.
The journey back to base camp was easy and enjoyable, the loose volcanic dust that had been such a hindrance for us on the way up, became a fun and soft way to launch our way back down the ridge, and we took huge strides as the soft under footing allowed us to jog down in some places.
Within 45 minutes we were back at base camp, and our porters were ready with a hot cup of tea and our second breakfast of the day. This is where our porters really came into their own. Not only did they carry all our tents, food and cooking equipment, they were also experts at rustling up incredible meals for us.
So as we sat outside our tent at 08:00 in the morning, our guide Hans came over with our second breakfast, a burger with cheese, egg, salad and chips! How do they do it? From a small camping stove our porters created remarkable dishes. Never mind that it was the earliest we had ever eaten a burger, we scoffed it down in our tent. The hardest part of the four day trek was behind us, and we were relieved.
After an hour or so of resting, it was time to make our way down the side of the caldera and into the heart of the volcano. We packed up our bags, loaded up on water and biscuits, and left camp behind.
Our plan was simple. We were to spend the next 3.5 hours clambering down the side of the caldera, finishing up on the shore of the lake way below us, where we would camp for the evening. The lake looked tantalisingly close, but it was an onerous climb down the side of the volcano to make it there.
This part of the trek was relatively simple, we stepped, jumped and clambered over huge boulders and rocks on our way down. 2.5 hours later we had reached the valley floor, and from here it was around 1 hour to the lake. It was 11:30 at this point, and getting very hot. We buckled down and moved across the valley without a word between us, stopping only to take on water and a biscuit every now and then.
After a short pause to admire the beautiful valley view below, we kept moving. It had already been a very long day (2am to lunchtime) and we just wanted to reach the lake, and the fabled hot springs.
If that didn’t spur us on, nothing would.
The last half an hour was really tough, with the intense heat and our now aching feet pushing our limits. However, we pushed on through the exhaustion and made it to the shore of the lake. And boy was it worth it!
For some reason, we both hadn’t really considered what it would be like to be down by the lake. We’d talked about what the views would be like at the summit and on the ridge, but neither of us had any thought to the view we would have from the lake.
Perhaps that’s why we were so blown away by the view in front of us.
It’s hard to really articulate how it felt to be there. We’d already trekked for 2 days to reach this point, but more than that was the fact we’d travelled halfway around the world in the first place, with the Mount Rinjani trek being one of the main reasons drawing us back to Indonesia. To finally be here, and witness this incredible view was so very special.
As we stood on the waters edge, it gently lapping against the shore, we watched the porters cast rudimentary fishing lines into the lake, which they had baited. And then they waited. It was a calming and serene scene.
Porters hunkered down in crouched positions, laughing and talking with each other on the shore. As we cast the focus of our eyes further into the distance, the lake spread out in front of us, a dark blue shimmering body which drew the eyes further away until the imposing shape of Gunung Barujari volcano appeared, quite literally growing out of the centre of the lake.
This volcano was truly remarkable, and it’s worth repeating that the small volcano you see here, sits in the middle of the caldera lake of another, larger volcano. Before we had heard of Mount Rinjani, we had no idea that a place so beautiful and awe-inspiring could exist!
Without wishing to sound dramatic, it was the most incredible natural landscape we have ever witnessed, above even the places we saw in Antarctica and South America.
It was truly mind blowing.
As we sat on the lake edge, our lunch was delivered to us, and we sat and ate as various gases and steam were slowly released from the volcano in front of us. It was almost like the volcano was resting just as we were, recovering and waiting before going again.
This beautiful vista was only tainted by one thing, the sheer exhaustion inside both of us. I (Barry) in particular was struggling, I felt incredibly dehydrated, dizzy, hot and tired. As we sat on the lake edge, I guzzled down various rehydration salts, ibuprofen and food to sort me out. It was a rough couple of hours by that lake as I tried to pull myself together.
After lunch and a rest, it was time to hit the hot springs and miraculously heal our aching muscles. We trekked the 10 minutes from the lake’s edge to the springs, and dipped ourselves in the hot waters.
We soaked our weary muscles for half an hour, before it was time to make our way to our tent.
We hauled our weary bodies back up the steep path we’d descended to reach the springs and hoped it wasn’t too far to reach our final resting place for the day. At this point, all we wanted was to collapse in our tent! But alas it turned out that we had some more hiking to do yet. It was incredibly disheartening to walk passed tent after tent, every time hoping the next one would be ours.
We’ll admit that we quietly cursed under our breaths at our porters and guide’s decision on where to camp at this point. Why couldn’t they just camp nearby? We are exhausted!
Just where the heck were we camping? All we wanted to do was stop walking, after all every other group was already relaxing by their tents. And we had to walk passed them all too. We were very frustrated!
All our cursing abruptly ended a minute later however. Our guide and porters had arranged something very special for us.
We reached the lake edge, and in the distance, along the shore, we could see one solitary yellow tent pitched on the water’s edge. As we got closer, we realised the amazing effort our guides had gone to. They had raced to the lake to arrive before any other porters, and set us up on our own private beach with a direct view of the volcano. The emotions of it all were almost too much. We lay in our tent and couldn’t quite believe where we were.
I just wish we felt better than we did at this point. We guzzled down various rehydration sachets and sugary drinks, and lay prone for most of the afternoon in the tent. Occasionally we would both sit up and admire the view again before laying back down. This view from our tent was incredibly special, and will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
That night, we wolfed down a bowl of noodle soup (again, delicious) and hit the sack around 7pm. It had been a rollercoaster day. We’d began trekking at 2am, attempted the summit which now towered above us, and made our way down and across the massive valley to where we were now. We were physically wrecked.
Hans came over to our tent that evening:
We slept deeply that night, and awoke around 6am. Gone was the exhaustion from the day before. We were well hydrated, we felt well and we were ready for our third day on our Mount Rinjani trek!
What a difference a day makes. Half a day of resting in our tent the day before, followed by a good night’s sleep, and we were ready to climb up the other side of the caldera. As we were on a 3 night/4 day trek, we were afforded the luxury of only a 3 hour climb up the caldera side today. If we were on a 2 night/3 day trek, we would have to climb the caldera and then descend the 5 hours back to Senaru village (601m) all in the same day. This is a big decision, and if you have time, take the 3 night option as it gives you more time to recover on the third day, plus you get to camp on the caldera rim again and enjoy the views rather than stop for a break and then leave it all behind!
Hans and our porters gave us a choice of when to begin trekking, and we opted for an 8am start as we would usually wake around 6am anyway, and we didn’t want to trek in the midday sun.
So we ate breakfast, packed our bags and began our climb to the top of the Senaru crater rim.
Taking in our view of the lake one more time, we turned and began our climb, first through the forest which surrounded the lake, the shade of the trees providing respite from the already hot, beating sun. After an hour and a half, we left behind the forest and began the much harder, steeper ascent to the crater summit.
This was where it became necessary in places to essentially climb up rocks and boulders, using our hands to pull ourselves up. In some places, there were rudimentary metal hand rails to pull ourselves up, but most of the time we basically found hand and footholds in the rock, and pulled ourselves up.
This part of the trek provides the most stunning views of the whole Mount Rinjani trek experience, so be sure to stop and take in the view at various points on the way up.
If you’re a keen photographer, the views of the lake halfway up are much better than the view from the top, so don’t wait until the top to snap some iconic photos.
After 3.5 hours, we reached the top of the crater, and boy were we happy!
It was almost midday at this point, and the sun was at its ferocious best, beating down on us. Our camp was once again perched in the best location, right on the crater rim and completely alone, but also completely exposed to the midday sun. There was literally nowhere to escape the intense heat.
The inside of our tent was like a furnace, outside was not much better. Now we could see why our guide offered to begin climbing after lunch, to avoid this intense heat at the top. But the way we saw it, we could either bare the brunt of the heat at the top, or climb up the volcano in the same heat. Either way we were going to be hot!
Our only solution was to lie just outside our tent, with our heads in the shade of our tent awning to avoid the sun on our faces. We lay there for an hour before all of a sudden the sun disappeared from above – the clouds were back!
This time, instead of being disappointed, we were elated! Over the next hour, the clouds whipped over us, bringing the temperature down, and then, from nowhere, the heavens opened and the rain lashed against the outside of our tent. Once again we were right in the middle of the clouds, the rain beating down on our tent.
We huddled inside our tent, thankful for the respite from the heat. After half an hour, the clouds partially cleared and the rain stopped.
By this point, Laura had fallen asleep, as had the porters and our guide. It was only 3pm, so the other groups coming up from Senaru hadn’t arrived at the crater summit yet. I clambered out of the tent, took my fold away seat and sat looking out on the lake below. I felt completely alone on the ridge, my only company was a handful of birds swooping around our tent, almost like they were playing a game of who could get close to the tent without hitting it.
The game quickly became, let’s see how close we can swoop onto Barry’s hat! Perhaps they thought it was a nest, perhaps they just saw the inherent fashionista styling of my hat and wanted it for themselves. Who knows. What I do know is that over the course of the next 15 minutes, they got more and more confident in swooping down on me, an almost silent whoosh accompanying the closest of fly bys.
It was a serene experience to sit atop the crater rim edge, and look out below. The volcano eerily silent, not even one other human to be seen. I sat there and pondered all that had occurred over the last couple of days, from our tough first day climb, to our failed summit attempt, to the campfire on the ridge, to the lake and our view from our tent, to the toughness of the trek and how ill I had felt the previous day.
All of this washed over me as I sat on the ridge.
After a while, Laura woke and joined me on the peak. We watched as our guide and porters stirred, and as the first groups who were only just beginning their treks began arriving from Senaru at their first night campsite. The groups we would share the ridge with that night were doing our route in the opposite direction.
We watched as they arrived after their first day, still clean and full of energy. We looked at ourselves, almost 4 days into our trek, covered head to toe in dust, bedraggled after all our trekking, the smiles on our faces beaming. Yes we were exhausted and dusty, but we were almost done! These guys still had it all to do.
Sunset that evening was a mixed occasion. For much of the early evening, the clouds covered the lake and our site, but every now and again, the clouds would clear, and the results were spectacular.
Our third campsite was just as epic as the previous two.
As the sun dipped behind the horizon, the sky once again lit up around us.
We sat and ate our fried rice, egg and crackers as the temperature plummeted around us, before retiring to our tent for the evening. We slept soundly again that evening, excited we had made it this far, and knowing the end of our trek was 4 hours away, down the outer side of the caldera and through the jungle tomorrow. All being well, we’d be back in Senaru village and our guesthouse by the early afternoon.
This was all the motivation we needed for our final push the next day.
After another deep sleep in our trusty tent, we awoke to our 5am alarm. We didn’t want to miss our final opportunity to witness sunrise over the mountain, especially from our favourite view so far. As usual our guide and dedicated porters were already up and busy preparing our final breakfast of eggs and toast. Not once did they let us down with our meals, what a team!
The sunrise didn’t disappoint either.
It was a fittingly beautiful start to our final day on the mountain and we had a great sense of joy running through our bodies that day. We had a long descent ahead of us (2,000m in total!) but we were safe in the knowledge that there was a hot shower and thick mattress waiting for us at the end! It gave us all the motivation we needed to push through for a final 4 hours or so.
As always Hans briefed us on the route and difficulty for the day. We like expectations setting. He’d warned us that the first hour or so was the hardest consisting of a steep descent down volcanic ash and large rocks, but that we would be rewarded by an easier 3-4 hours of final descent through thick jungle. Jungle?! We were delighted to hear it. One of the hardest elements of the last 3 days had been the nature of the open plains often fully exposed to the intense heat of the sun, so to hear we would be protected by trees and jungle for a few hours today was music to our ears.
The jungle was a refreshing change and an extremely enjoyable way to end our Rinjani trek. We found ourselves with enough energy to practically skip through it, jumping over large tree roots all along the route. Our surprisingly fast descent afforded us with plenty time for mini-breaks along the way to enjoy our natural surroundings. We would just sit quietly appreciating the beautiful greenery, plants, fruits and grasshopper sounds of the jungle whilst sipping on our remaining water and cookie supplies.
It was during this time we realised and appreciated how wise our choice had been in choosing to trek the route from Sembalun to Senaru, rather than the other way around. Finishing our arduous 4 days of trekking in the cooler climate of the shaded jungle was great! And made all the more special and rewarding when we reached the famous Rinjani national park signpost in Senaru…
We had finally completed our 4 day trek! We couldn’t believe it and a great sense of joy and relief washed over us as we were welcomed to celebratory high fives and hugs from our now close Indonesian trekking companions from Rudy Trekker, our wonderful guide Hans and his awesome team of porters. We couldn’t have done it without them!
All that was left was to make a final descent to Senaru village where our jeep awaited our pick up and transfer back to Rudy Trekker HQ where our long awaited hot shower waited for us. We couldn’t wait to get back now!
There’s no doubt it had been an extremely gruelling 4 days of trekking, exceeding our expectations in all kinds of ways. We’d challenged our bodies to their limits, suffered from all sorts of exhaustion, dehydration and mental doubts along the way, but we’d also been rewarded with some of the most stunning natural scenery we have ever witnessed and an experience we’d never forget. We were stronger for it and delighted we’d taken on the challenge. We just might not be signing up for another trek for a while however! It was time to recover and take stock on what had been an incredible adventure.
FINALLY, and MOST IMPORTANTLY…make sure you budget in some time to do nothing and relax after your trek as your body will need it! It took us a couple of days to fully recover from our trek so we really appreciated having a few days booked on Gili Air to do this! We stayed here, but you can also search for other options using the search box below! We always use agoda.com to book accommodation in Asia, it has the best selection of accommodation and prices! Check out your options below and look forward to your reward!
So we’d highly recommend this, and a great bonus is that Rudy Trekker will provide transportation direct to the island from their office in Senaru (included in your tour price) which includes a ride in their private speed boat! Yes it’s very cool!
Disclaimer: We received a discount from Rudy Trekker, but all our opinions in this article remain our own!
Still shrouded in darkness, our old taxi navigated its way through the quiet dusty streets of Mandalay. It was nearing 6am and sunrise was still a couple of hours away. We were a little tired after only landing in Myanmar the previous day, but despite the early start, we were curious and excited for the journey ahead. 9 hours of cruising down the Irrawaddy river from Mandalay to Bagan, Myanmar’s mecca of temples.
Our taxi soon reached the riverside, where despite the early hour, there was a buzz of activity in the shadows of the bare light bulbs. Men loading various baskets and large boxes of produce onto the boat, crew starting up the engine, and lots of fellow travellers eagerly queuing (or perhaps anxiously is a more appropriate word) to carefully walk the rather narrow gangplank to get onboard. As we got closer, I gave Barry a knowing look. The gangplank was only around 20-25 inches wide, it was going to require some very careful balancing with our heavy backpacks!
Like everyone else, we made it safely aboard and quickly found ourselves some comfortable seats to settle down for the long journey ahead. We hadn’t been sure of what to expect, but we certainly didn’t expect to have so much space and a whole bench to ourselves! I guess the boat wasn’t at maximum capacity that day. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was how chilly it was that early in the morning. As I looked around at my fellow passengers, a great mix of foreigners, I quickly spotted the locals as they snuggled under their big blankets. I wished I’d brought one too, or at least a fleece, but by now our backpacks were well buried beneath the teak floorboards in the lowest compartment of the boat. Oh well I thought, I knew it wasn’t long until sunrise so we got as comfortable as possible and patiently awaited the sunrise to heat us up.
It was almost 7am by the time we set off and got slowly on our way. I stared out into the darkness and pondered the next 9 hours on my bench. Backache and boredom seemed a strong possibility, despite my usual optimism.
But soon after we waved goodbye to the shores of Mandalay, the sun began to rise and a fresh cup of hot tea and bread with jam was on offer. Amazing! Things were looking up.
As we held onto our warm cups of tea, sipping them slowly in order to keep as much warm liquid in the cups as possible to heat our cold hands, I gave Barry another knowing glance. There was a lovely air of calm and peace. The boat was so quiet, its engine almost silent, incredible given how old it probably was. Though our very slow pace probably helped. As we gently sailed along, enjoying the changing light, we came across our first passing ‘traffic’ on the Irrawaddy river.
From simple canoes, to little fishing boats and makeshift home rafts, it was fascinating to observe early morning local life on the river. And it wasn’t long before we witnessed our first beautiful Myanmar sunrise.
As if it was planned timing (maybe it was!), just as the sun rose, I smiled as we spotted the steeple of a striking gold-leafed pagoda in the distance.
And then there were more. What an incredible sight! We’d reached Sagaing, an important religious centre on the outskirts of Mandalay brimming full of Buddhist monasteries and beautiful pagodas.
In fact the gold steeples just kept coming. And that’s when I lost all sense of time as I sat thinking, is 9 hours going to be enough? I don’t think I ever want to get off this boat.
As we passed by the distant temples, old stupas, basic bamboo houses and rustic canoes, it also occurred to me that I’ve never seen anything like this before. Despite lots of travel around other parts of Southeast Asia, this felt different, and almost like we’d been transported back to a completely different era.
Back on onboard, the temperature had heated up nicely and we’d even looked out the sunscreen in preparation for our jaunt to the top deck.
However after enjoying the sunshine for a while, the sun and heat had turned up a level, and with so little shade available, we were relieved to retreat back to our shady bench position downstairs. Especially as there was a waft of lunch being prepared…!
It was a simple choice of fried egg with noodles or rice, and a little veg on the side so we opted for one of each and shared. Both were hot and delicious which was impressive given the basic kitchen facilities!
After lunch, we resumed our people watching, which was just as interesting as the landscape.
You may notice from these photos that most Burmese men and women wear long wrapped–like skirts knotted in front (known as ‘longyis’), usually accompanied with rubber flip-flops. And for woman, it’s also common to wear wrapped turban-like cloth around their heads. The most distinctive feature of all Burmese fashion however is the common use of ‘thanaka’, a pale yellow paste made from ground tree bark, that is painted on the face. We learned this is partly used for beauty purposes like a make–up and partly used as a sun block, and is applied in a variety of ways but often as square patches or designed like the impression of a leaf on the cheeks with a single dot on the nose. Other times it’s just smeared across the face in a haphazard fashion, but it’s been a strong Burmese feature for the past 2,000 years and is still a unique visual symbol of Myanmar today.
We’ve mentioned it in our other Myanmar articles, the Burmese people are extremely welcoming and friendly, and eager to greet foreigners. We got this feeling immediately after arriving to the country and especially during this boat trip as we sailed onboard with some locals from Mandalay to Bagan. The tourists most definitely outweighed the locals, yet they were happy as always to engage in a friendly “mingalaba” (good day) or more if they were confident in english (which many were).
On route we also passed lots of local trade boats carrying logs or produce, a common sight on the river.
And further down the famous Irrawaddy river, we sailed under the huge arches of the impressive new Sagaing Bridge after waving to some friendly passing by crew!
It wasn’t long before the sun began to set on our long slow journey to Bagan, which was when I began to realise we’d been sailing for more than 10 hours by this point (already an hour longer than planned) with no final destination in sight just yet…
So with absolutely no idea about how much longer we had until our arrival to Bagan (and no inclination to try to find out!), we decided just to sit back, relax and enjoy the beautiful sunset views reflecting on the calm water of the Irrawaddy river. After all, when would we get this opportunity again.
The ‘golden hour’ seemed to last forever and the view just got better and better as we savoured the last few moments of the day’s sun. It was a fitting end to a magical journey.
It was dark again when we finally reached Nuang U, the port of Bagan. We could just see a faint glimpse of the silhouettes of bell-shaped temples. A reassuring comfort that we were in the right place. Our boat slowed and carefully manovered sideways to slip alongside the wooden dock. A group of around 20 people were waiting for us, ready to pounce as soon as our gangplank was in place (oh no I’d forgotten about that extra challenge), offering their taxi services or some bag carrying for a few extra kyat. It was a little chaotic, exaggerated by the darkness and late hour.
Our journey had ended up being almost 12 hours (as opposed to the expected 9) so we were a little weary by now and keen to get off and find our way to our guesthouse. Unfortunately we hadn’t planned ahead as we normally would by arranging a pick up from our guesthouse, so we had to go through the taxi negotiation process. Not ideal given the probably desperate look on our faces and ratio of fewer taxi drivers to tourists. Our bargaining was somewhat weakened so we probably got a little ripped off, but hey we didn’t care much at this point and just wanted to get safely to our guesthouse.
It was around a 20 minute drive through Nuang U and Old Bagan before we reached finally reached it and our long journey was over. Delighted, we tipped our overpriced taxi and made our way in for a warm Burmese welcome. It was just the start of an awesome adventure around The Captivating Bagan Temples Of Myanmar. We couldn’t wait to explore this magical sacred place, but not before some much needed rest.
We took this journey with a company called Malikha River Cruises and arranged our tickets through our hotel in Mandalay. I believe there are a number of ferry companies offering this route (as well as even slower government boat options which are probably a little cheaper if you’re on a tight budget) however despite our journey taking longer than expected, we would happily recommend Malikha. We had comfortable seats, friendly service, simple but decent food and good toilet facilities. The boat was extremely relaxing too!
If you’re looking for some accommodation options in Mandalay, Bagan or elsewhere in Myanmar, we recommend you check out Agoda.com. Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas on Mandalay or Bagan, or anywhere else in Myanmar, check out the options below!
Though there are many, some of our warmest Myanmar memories are from our time in Hsipaw, and here we explain why…
Trekking through the local ‘Shan’ villages around Hsipaw is an amazing way to meet the locals and to experience a little of their daily life. Here are some of the lovely people we met along the way.
Across all of the places we visited in Myanmar, we found the people to be extremely genuine and friendly, however we left Hsipaw with the biggest feeling of warmth in our hearts of everywhere we visited. It might sound cliché, but looking back over all our travels, it’s always the people we meet that make a place and Hsipaw is definitely one of such places.
On our day trek around the villages, we came across lots of local villagers who said hello and made us feel welcome. Though I think our legendary local guide (Mr Bean, yes I promise that was his name!) might have played a big part in our popularity!
On our way back towards town, we were lucky to see a procession of nuns making their way to a special ceremony…
You don’t have to trek far to witness some beautiful scenery!
Literally 10 minutes or so of ‘trekking’ out of town brought us to beautifully kept farmland and hill views such as this one. The whole area around Hsipaw is extremely ‘unspoilt’ and consists mainly of farmland, villages and green hills dotted with a few monasteries.
One particular trip worth making at some point during your visit is to the Thein Daung Pagoda, otherwise known as ‘Sunset Hill’. It’s a little out of town (around 1 and a 1/2 miles south of Hsipaw) but can easily be reached by bicycle followed by a short hill hike (around 20 minutes). It’s worth it because you get rewarded with a beautiful sunset view over the whole town and river, and you’ll probably meet some friendly locals along the way!
Conveniently close to town are various workshops and mini factories where you can see locals carrying out all kinds of local speciality work such as noodle manufacturing, weaving, shoe and leather making and even popcorn popping! Your guesthouse (you can find details of ours in the info section at the end) will probably be able to provide you with a local map with each of them marked out, however some were easier to find than others!
We were delighted when we came across this noodle manufacturing place. In fact we wanted to get inside and help the workers with their noodle ‘stamping’ – yes that’s how much we love noodles!
We also came across this rather well stocked bicycle shop, if that’s what you call it. I don’t know how she manages to stay balanced when stopped! Incredible.
And you’ll find plenty of friendly local farmers. We learned from our guide how hard they work, but despite the long hours, they still found time to smile, wave and shout hello to us. Yep that’s Myanmar for you.
It was on our day trek with the lovely and extremely knowledgable ‘Mr Bean’ that we had our most interesting experience when he brought us to a local monastery and nunnery.
During our short visit to the local nunnery we had the pleasure of sitting and chatting with the young student nuns. We enjoyed answering questions from some of the more inquisitive students who were confident to communicate in English with us. We shared stories about where we were from and our travels around Myanmar. I think they were almost as pleased to meet us as we were to meet them.
We also met some young monks who were taking a break from their studies. We’ll never forget the moment however that their eyes lit up as soon as they heard the familiar sound of the local ice-cream van coming to the monastery! They all quickly turned on their heels and ran as fast they could to make sure they got one. We got the impression that this was not an every day occurrence!
The final highlight of our time in Hsipaw was a day spent exploring the local sights by bicycle!
Thanks to the compactness of the town and the fairly quiet roads and paths, it’s easy to get around the area and in particular to find some special sights. Due to its history as a Shan Royal City, there are few such architectural remnants to be discovered.
Not far from town (around only 15-20 minutes by bike) will bring you to the northern end of town where you’ll find two traditional wooden monasteries, ‘Madahya’ and the ‘Bamboo Buddha Monastery’. Both of which were worth a look around, especially to find the famous 150-year-old lacquered buddha inside the latter, but it was further along the route behind these where we discovered the real gem of the place, ‘Little Bagan’.
Some of the ancient brick stupas are overgrown with vegetation but this most definitely adds to the charm of this place and the feeling of adventure when you discover it, especially in its unassuming discrete setting. It’s no Angkor Wat but definitely makes for an enchanting visit, especially as you’ll most likely have it to yourself! Another advantage of venturing off the beaten path to Hsipaw.
Note: Don’t miss a stop off at ‘Mrs Popcorn’s Garden’ on the path back! If she’s still there, you’re in for a real treat. Seriously, order ANYTHING from her menu and you’ll love it. We went for a couple of her deliciously fresh smoothies and Barry tucked into one of her homemade curries!
We loved our Hsipaw Trekking experience and consider it to be one of the highlights of our time in Myanmar. In addition to the reasons we’ve summarised above, we found Hsipaw and its local people to be very genuine and a beautifully non-touristy place to visit. We left feeling like we’d experienced the ‘real’ Myanmar.
NB: We stayed at the popular Mr Charles Guesthouse during our visit to Hsipaw and would recommend it, especially for their tours with excellent local guides.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but at the ripe age of 30 and after several years of ‘wanderlusting’ around the globe, I haven’t really paid a lot of attention to my own beautiful country and unbelievably, this was my first ever trip to the Isle of Skye!
It might sound a little cheesy, but this road trip will forever stay in my memory as the first time I discovered my own piece of the real Scotland. And wow. What an incredibly dramatic place it is.
So, after lots of deliberation, we’ve picked our 10 favourite images from the trip. We hope you enjoy them and feel inspired to take a similar adventure, if you haven’t already! (Note: You can see our exact route via Google Maps in our info section at the bottom so go straight there if you wish to get going NOW!)
First up on our ‘must stop’ list is the desolate and intriguing Rannoch Moor. Consisting of a huge expanse of around 50 square miles of boggy moorland composed of blanket bog, lochans, rivers, and rocky outcrops, this really is dramatic Scottish landscape at its best! You’ll find this particularly beautiful spot to the west of Loch Rannoch and conveniently, we drove right by it en route north on the A82 near the Bridge of Orchy. We couldn’t believe we were only a couple of hours into our journey from Glasgow. It’s safe to say it totally blew us away!
If you’re lucky you might also see a grouse or red deer near here! Unfortunately we didn’t but there’s always next time…
Close after Rannoch Moor you’ll quickly reach one of the most dramatic and scenic vistas of the journey so far. Ok I know what you’re thinking…I’m probably going to use the word ‘dramatic’ a lot, sorry but it’s true!
This truly wild open space is completely surrounded by green hills and snowcapped peaks. And if that’s not exciting enough, it’s made all the more special by spotting one of the small 2-carriage trains skirting the hills in the distance on its merry way to Mallaig on the ‘West Highland line‘. We were lucky to see one and took great joy in watching it make its dramatic (oops there’s that word again) loop around the hills overlooking Loch Tully where the train line practically hugs the hillside. Can you spot the train in the picture below?
Despite taking the trip in early April, the weather was on our side. That’s just the thing with Scottish weather though, you never really know what you’re going to get, but at least it’s a pleasant surprise when it works out!
Another image we captured nearby to the Bridge of Orchy and just before arriving to Loch Tulla was this view towards the beautifully striking munro Beinn Dorain, a gaelic name meaning ‘hill of the otter’ or ‘hill of the streamlet’.
Less than half an hour further along the A82 will bring you to the famous Glencoe area where there are so many stunning viewpoints, it’s impossible not to make a few stops and even a walk if you have time. You’ll find this rugged and rather moody landscape near Ballachulish. We recommend taking a short walk around this beautiful area and there’s plenty space for parking which is handy.
Approximately one hour’s drive from Glencoe, and just after turning off the A82 onto the A87 near Invergarry, we got our first westerly view and boy was it worth the wait! By this time (around 5pm) the light was starting to change providing warmer tones so we couldn’t resist stopping to enjoy this beautiful view of the distant mountains of Knoydart overlooking Loch Garry.
No road trip to the Isle of Skye would be complete without the iconic Eilean Donan Castle shot, so we just had to include it in our ‘top 10’. This was the moment we saw it for the first time and it was easy to understand its popularity! Beautifully positioned on a small tidal island, where three lochs meet (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh) for hundreds of years, with just a footbridge connecting the island to the mainland. It’s a very ‘bonnie’ sight indeed!
So after MANY photo stops and the necessary coffee break, we finally made it to the Isle of Skye! It was a mere 10 miles along the road from the Castle to the bridge connecting the mainland to Skye. By this time, we noticed the sun starting to dip so we forced ourselves to reduce our stops and keep going in order to make it to a couple of special view points on the island in time for the golden sunset hour.
Luckily it was only a half an hour drive from landing on the island to reach this iconic view at Stone Bridge, near Sligachan and we made it in time…
Never before has the term ‘rugged’ been so appropriate. We’d heard Skye described as wild but beautiful before, and we could see why!
Further along the road towards Dunvegan that same evening, our luck continued when we got to witness this beautiful mountain view shrouded in low misty clouds above the white croft cottages of Roag, nestled by Loch Vatten. What a sight!
And we couldn’t resist this final shot taken on the last stretch of our epic Scotland road trip, just before the light finally faded to dark. What an amazing end to an incredible day!
It’s safe to say that Scotland has some pretty epic scenery, much of which we’ve still to discover, but in one single day we felt like we’d made an amazing start! We’ll never forget this road trip and can’t wait to explore more of our beautiful home country, so watch this space for more to come on the blog.
In the meantime, we had a busy but amazing couple of days on the Isle of Skye where Barry filmed his first ever ‘elopement’ wedding. To see the highlights, hop on over to Barry’s wedding video site here.
If you’re looking for some accommodation options in Scotland, we recommend you check out Agoda.com. Whenever we’re making plans for a new destination, we always research the accommodation options first to check what’s available. That’s just our travel style. If you want to get some accommodation ideas on Skye, or anywhere else in Scotland, click here.
The Midsummer celebrations take place in June (typically the 3rd weekend of the month), and was originally a celebration of the summer solstice. Now it’s seen as the beginning of the warm summer weather, which is definitely worth celebrating!
Before we headed off to our own cottage to experience the midnight sun for ourselves (and in particular to embark upon on our first ever midnight sun fishing trip!), we explored the city of Turku and part of the Archipelago on the south coast of Finland.
From sailing around the local islands on a traditional steamboat cruise to hiking through a beautiful forest on Korpo island in the Archipelago (despite the rain!) we had a great time, so here are our highlights.
There are lots of things to do in Turku and its vast archipelago of islands, however with only a couple of days available to spend in the area, we tried to fit in as much as physically possible in our 2 days!
So after a brief first encounter with Helsinki, consisting of a quick but delicious ‘Hesburger’ at the train station (luckily we were going back to Helsinki at the end of our trip!), we jumped aboard an impressively smooth and swish double-decker train for the short 2-hour journey to Turku!
As you’re probably aware, we don’t often write about cities in our blog (mainly because we don’t usually spend much time in them and prefer the great outdoors!), but our time in Turku turned out to be a very pleasant surprise and here’s why!
As the old capital of Finland, Turku is steeped in history and in fact hosts some of the most important historical buildings and archaeological ruins in the country, with its coastal location and proximity to Sweden playing a major factor in this.
So first up on our highlights list is one of such important buildings, the city’s wonderfully grand Cathedral (or ‘Turun Tuomiokirkko’ as it’s named). Built in medieval times in 1300, its colossal size and Gothic style is really quite striking.
The reason for its particularly large size was because when it was originally built, it was intended to be big enough to hold the entire city’s population! Which in 1300, was around 3,000 people. This meant that the whole town could gather together in the same place and also take shelter from any conflict when needed. Unfortunately though, just like the rest of the town, it was subject to many large fires over the years and had to be rebuilt several times since. It’s even larger now than it was then.
Looking around the Cathedral and learning of its significant history was fascinating, especially the most famous tomb belonging to Karin Månsdotter (d 1613), Queen of Sweden and wife of Erik XIV.
Stretching for around 2km through the heart of the city, the scenic riverside feels like the heart of the city with many of the city’s main sights (including the Cathedral and museums) and lots of restaurants, bars and cafes.
And around halfway along (towards the Castle), you’ll find this quirky little mode of transport…
…the shortest ferry crossing in the world?! It only takes 60 seconds to make the crossing from one side of the river to the other, so you don’t have to wait long to make this novel trip! We loved this, and went across the river and back – just because we could!
You’ll also find many historical ship builds and relics such as these along the riverside, some of which you can hop aboard for a look around.
Shipbuilding remains a strong industry in Turku, in fact several of the world’s largest cruise ships have been built here. It also hosts the main ferry port for connections with Sweden so if you enjoy spotting large ships, there’s usually plenty around the riverside!
The end of the riverside not only brings you to the beginning of the beautiful Turku Archipelago but also to the city’s other most important historical building, Turku Castle.
Described as a Renaissance Palace, the Castle (dating back to 1280) is Finland’s largest making it pretty impressive to see, even for a Scottish person!
Sadly we couldn’t explore the interior of the castle due to it being the midsummer holiday the day we visited, so we just had to enjoy the view from the grounds instead. Pretty impressive indeed!
Note: Normally the castle is open daily 10-6pm throughout the summer (June-Aug) and at the time of writing, entry costs €9/€5 adult/child.
The evening highlight of our whistle-stop tour of Turku was an exciting steamship cruise!
We’d hoped for a traditional Finnish experience (oh and “a good feed” in Barry’s words) and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
The buffet was great and there was plenty of traditional accordion music and dancing whilst the drinks flowed! One advantage of taking the trip on the midsummer holiday was that everyone was up for a really good party and a few drinks!
But the best part was the views from the top deck. The midnight sun was out in all its glory and for the first time on our trip, we got to enjoy watching the longest sunset we’d ever seen.
We cruised around the various beautiful local islands and islets for around 3 hours and in between the food, drinks and music, we enjoyed waving to the friendly locals as they passed by in their speed boats and yachts heading for their summer houses on the local islands.
There are a few different cruise options to choose from dotted along the riverside, but we enjoyed our traditional experience on the ‘S/S Ukkopekka’ and think that overall it was good value for what you get.
Note: At the time of writing, the evening cruise costs €48/€55 lower/upper deck per adult which includes the cruise, live music, a reserved table and buffet (children are half price). Click here for more information.
If you enjoy the outdoors then venturing to the south coast archipelago is a must in Finland. Our schedule meant that we only had 1 day and night there, which unfortunately wasn’t nearly enough time to explore as much as we wanted to, but despite this we enjoyed our short visit and hope to return (with more time and better weather)!
On our brief encounter, we visited the lovely island of Korpo and although it’s one of the five largest inhabited islands in the area, it was extremely peaceful, quiet and relaxing. Due to the unseasonably wet weather the day we visited, we didn’t get to experience kayaking around the island as planned, but instead we took some lovely forest walks and enjoyed a couple of delicious meals at probably the 2 best restaurant spots on the island which definitely cheered us up from the weather!
First up for lunch was the brilliant Hjalmars restaurant where we had the most delicious local dishes including some very fresh white fish and locally sourced meatballs with freshly picked lingonberries mm…
In the evening, we also tried out the local Steakhouse Buffalos, and thanks to it being the midsummer holiday, there was a special ‘all you can eat’ ribs buffet! That’s right Barry thought he’d died and gone to rib and beer heaven!
The other highlight of our visit was staying at the most beautiful country house, Hotel Nestor…
Not letting the rain dampen our spirits too much, we enjoyed the close by local forest walk and a visit to the beach.
Getting to the Archipelago was easier than we expected due to the good roads and very regular (and free!) ferry crossings along the route from Turku city. It took us only a couple of hours from Turku including the 2 ferry crossings on route to Korpo, both of which were quick and provided some lovely views!
Share your tips in the comments below!
Note: We visited Turku and Korpo in partnership with Visit Turku as part of our Visit Finland trip. To read our other posts click here.
When Barry and I were invited to experience the midnight sun in the beautiful central lakeland of Finland, we were so excited for the opportunity. We were intrigued to learn more about Finland, a whole new destination for us! We had some expectations about the nature and beauty of Finland, but we had no idea it would look this good. It literally took our breath away!
Not only was it simply stunning, but we also felt an immediate sense of calm and peace here. We knew we were going to have a really relaxing time, which was just what we needed after a busy few months of wedding film shoots! And chill.
We arrived to Finland in the middle of the ‘midsummer’ holiday, which we quickly learned is a pretty big deal and one of the most anticipated times of the year by Finns. Why? Because the long dark winter and cool springtime is officially over and the prolonged summer sun has finally arrived! Otherwise known as the ‘midnight sun’, which I think we now appreciate almost as much as the Finns, and this is why…
Ever heard of the golden hour? Well you probably have if you’ve spent any time talking to Barry.
If not, this is usually his absolute favourite time of the day. It’s that special time when the sun and sky looks glowing and warm and typically occurs around half an hour before and after sunset. Well this is where the Finnish midnight sun is unique as it creates the most wonderfully long sunsets resulting in the usual golden ‘hour’ lasting much longer! It truly is a photographer’s dream. We captured this moment around 11.30pm during our late night fishing trip…
Experiencing the midnight sun for the first time is really special, and gives you an incredible amount of energy to stay up late and enjoy every last drop of it.
The only downside is trying to wake up the next morning, which is difficult enough for us anyway! We couldn’t put our cameras down!
The sky would literally change colour ever few minutes and looked better every time! It was like an ever evolving piece of art that we couldn’t take our eyes away from.
Experiencing this made us realise why most Finns flock to the Lakeland to celebrate their midsummer holiday, and luckily we got to try it out for ourselves by spending a few days at the lovely ‘Kotiranta’ cottage by quiet Lake Soukkio. Just one of many cottages owned and managed by the excellent Rock and Lake.
Our cottage was fantastic. We had great self-catering facilities, a private sauna (another popular Finnish pastime) and our own pier/lakeside area.
It really was an idyllic spot to soak up the fresh Finnish air whilst enjoying the stunning natural beauty of the lake. We only wished we had a little more time there, even if just to take another couple of fishing trips in our little rowing boat, like this video from one of our evenings there.
There are so many lakes to choose from in the Lakeland area of Finland that it’s easy to get a cottage and piece of land all to yourself!
There are many great outdoor activities to enjoy here, from relaxing in a traditional Finnish sauna (we loved this!) to canoeing, swimming, golfing or taking a fishing trip around the beautiful lakes. You can read more about our epic midnight sun fishing trip here!
A drive around the local area will also reward you with some more beautiful views of the many small islands dotted around the vast Lakeland.
We met some wonderful people and felt very welcome during our stay in the Finnish Lakelands. We found the local Finns to be particularly friendly, warm and in tune with the British sense of humour, which is not always easy to find when travelling abroad! Oh and the water from the tap is deliciously fresh, perfect for a good cup of tea after a day out on the lake!
Rock and lake currently offer over 20 cottages (soon to be more!) for rental in and around the Finnish Lakeland area so we highly recommend them as your first stop to finding your idyllic lakeside spot! Remember they can also help you to organise activities in the local area, so if it’s a spot of fishing or even just a boat trip you’re after, get in touch with them.
Our midnight sun fishing trip, arranged by Rock and Lake (in conjunction with Kalaxi Fishing Oy), was the absolute highlight of our visit to the area, so we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a trip to anyone!
The short answer is yes! From Helsinki, it is a straightforward 3 hours (approx.) drive to the Rock and Lake cottages (however we came from the archipelago area near Turku which takes around 6-7 hours). The directions provided by host Jenni for the last section of the drive were great and brought us directly to the cottages with no issues.
We opted to take a hire car and found it very easy to drive around due to the quiet and safe roads. We found drivers to be patient and the roads were clearly sign-posted with speed limits. There were also plenty of service stations to make stops and buy groceries for the cottage (ABC stores are open 24/7!). You can also hire an automatic car if you aren’t confident in driving on the right hand side of the road.
Note: We were guests of ‘Rock and Lake‘ in conjunction with ‘Visit Finland‘, however all views expressed in this article are our own and this is an honest account of our experience. You can read our other articles here.
If you’ve done some research, you’ll quickly realise that there are a number of different ways to get from Bangkok to Koh Samui island, including train, ferry, bus, van or flight! Choosing your route can be a difficult decision, so let us make easier by sharing our top tips. Firstly however, check your specific dates and times by completing the box below and get your journey booked in advance!
You can of course take the flight option direct to Koh Samui, however if you’re looking for the cheapest way to get there then we recommend the Bangkok to Koh Samui ferry and bus option. Luckily we came across the Lomprayah company who offer a Bangkok to Koh Samui ferry and bus combo ticket for the complete journey! If you’re like us and prefer to avoid the stress of linking up individual journeys then this is a great solution. You can simply book one overall ticket (via their website or the 12go.asia box above) for the whole journey by coach and ‘high speed’ catamaran – easy!
Based on their latest prices, the full journey on the Bangkok to Koh Samui ferry and bus ticket costs around 1,400 bhat (£28) per person and there are two main timing options including either early morning departure (06:00) arriving in the afternoon (16:40) or the overnight option departing around 21:00 arriving late morning (11:20). Please note that prices and timings may change so be sure to check the websites for up-to-date information before you book! If you choose Lomprayah, their office is near Khao San Road in the backpacker hub of Bangkok, where your bus will also depart from. We found this pretty convenient for grabbing a cheap and filling dinner before getting on the overnight bus!
If you’re coming from the airport, allow around an hour to get to the office and an official airport taxi will cost around 600 baht (£12) based on current prices.
We took a very similar journey from Bangkok to Koh Tao with Lomprayah so can safely say that the bus was very comfortable and even offered a clean toilet! Our bus also left 45 minutes ahead of schedule (I guess because everyone had arrived by then) so we definitely recommend arriving early for your journey just in case! Upon our arrival to Chumphon pier (which was quite early around 05:00), we had a couple of hours to wait prior to our catamaran departure, so we took advantage of some comfortable deck chairs by the pier and enjoyed watching the sunrise. We had to check-in again at the ticket office at Chumphon pier (using our original tickets) prior to boarding the catamaran for the final leg of the journey, however this was pretty hassle free. The journey from Chumphon pier to Koh Samui (Maenam Pier) is approximately 4 hours so we recommend packing a few snacks and perhaps some sea-sickness tablets as the journey can be a little choppy at times!
The Bangkok to Koh Samui ferry and bus option is a good cheap alternative to flying! We also recommend arranging your hotel and a pick up from your hotel in advance to make the arrival to the island a little easier and of course much more stress-free!
There is a wealth of options available for travelling from Bangkok to Koh Phangan so after lots of research we wanted to share our experience to save you the hassle and make the planning of your trip from Bangkok to Koh Phangan a little easier!
Confused by the many train, plane, bus and boat options? We were too! So here’s our suggestion to provide a simple and affordable solution for the complete journey from Bangkok to Koh Phangan island. You can also check your specific dates and times, complete the box below and get your journey booked in advance!
To avoid the hassle of booking separate tickets for each individual leg of the journey, we came across Lomprayah bus and ferry company, and you can book a combined bus and ferry ticket online (see end of this article for online booking options!). So for the complete journey from Bangkok to Koh Phangan island, you can book 1 ticket combining a bus and catamaran journey from around 1350 bhat (£27) per person. There are 2 main options including an overnight journey with an evening departure (9pm) due to arrive to Koh Phangan around 10.30am or an early morning departure (6am) getting you to Koh Phangan by around 4pm. (Please note that prices and timings may change so be sure to check for up-to-date information and advanced online bookings!) You can also book online which is great. The office is in the backpacker hub of Bangkok so you can get a taxi straight there from the airport, just have a note of the address. From our experience, the approximately 1 hour journey from the airport shouldn’t set you back much more than 600 baht (£12) in an official airport taxi.
What to expect? On our journey from Bangkok to Koh Tao island (another of the beautiful south islands to explore close to Koh Phangan), our Lomprayah bus was very comfortable and clean with the added bonus of a rather odourless and well maintained on coach toilet! On our journey, our bus left 45 minutes ahead of schedule (probably because everyone had arrived by then) so we definitely recommend arriving early for your journey. Upon our arrival to Chumphon pier (around 5am), we had a couple of hours waiting time prior to our catamaran departure, however there were comfortable deck chairs and the bonus of watching sunrise to keep us entertained. We also had to check in again at the ticket office at Chumphon pier (using our original tickets) in order to board the catamaran for the final leg of the journey. The journey from Chumphon pier to Koh Phangan is approx. 3 hours so we recommend packing a few snacks to keep you going and to help fend off any potential sea-sickness! As with most of our trip planning, we recommend arranging your hotel and a pick up from your hotel in advance to make the arrival to your destination a whole lot easier and stress-free!
Want to know how to get from Bangkok to Koh Tao? Or from Bangkok to Koh Samui? Check out our other articles!