Ecuador Part 1 – The Amazon

Day 1: October 1, 2019

Our flight left from Edmonton at a very acceptable time, but we still had to be up at 4:30 am. We had a five hour flight to Houston where we spent a five hour layover grabbing lunch and just relaxing. Then we had another five hour flight to Quito, Ecuador. On this flight we had the row in front of the emergency exit which meant we couldn’t lean our seats back. This was a big mistake. It was so uncomfortable and all we wanted to do was sleep.

We arrived in Quito just after midnight, cleared customs fairly quickly and picked up our bags. We then went outside to catch a taxi. The official taxis have orange license plates. There was a set price from the airport into the city. It was $26 USD for our cab ride. In 2000 the Ecuadorian sucre was given up for the US dollar after the sucre dramatically lost its value.

We checked into the Masaya Hostel which was suggested by our tour company. It was a nice quiet hostel. We had a private room with our own bathroom. We dropped our bags and went to sleep exhausted from a long day of travel.

Day 2: October 2, 2019

We woke up around 7:00 am to have breakfast and get ready to meet our tour guide in the hostel at 8:00 am. Around 8:10 am we started getting worried. Then at 8:30 am we looked up the tour company’s phone number and were just about to call when a man came in. He asked if I was Merai Downey to which I replied yes. He said Santiago sent him and we kind of shrugged not understanding who Santiago was. We had booked the tour online using Viator and the tour company just said Live Ecuador. We went with him because he knew my name.

We had dressed in all of our clothes because our itinerary said we were going to Cotopaxi where the weather was supposed to be -15 degrees. The driver then said he was driving us to the hot springs and then to the Amazon. It turned out we were doing the itinerary we had seen online in reverse.

Our first stop was Papallacta Hot Springs. The temperature was a little on the chilly side and these hot springs were outside. We changed into our swim suits and ventured into the pools. They had a bunch of smaller pools around the site and then a bigger one. It was nice and relaxing and not too busy. We spent about an hour there.

Enjoying Papallacta Hot Springs

As we were leaving we got pulled aside by one of the employees at the hot springs to watch a mock exercise with paramedics. All we saw was them carrying a man in a blanket to the meeting point. We aren’t quite sure why we needed to see it.

We returned to our driver and he drove us to a nearby town where we had trout for lunch. The portions were very large. There was a bowl of popcorn to start, our main meal and then a bowl of rice came out. We also tried a homemade alcohol made from fermented sugar cane with different tree barks.

On we drove, into the Ecuadorian Amazon. We drove to Suchipakari Lodge located near the small town of Misahualli. Our driver dropped us there and one of the staff helped carry our bags to the lodge which was about a five minute walk along the nearby river.

At the lodge we were shown to our room which had a beautiful heart display of flower petals. It was very cute and thoughtful.

Our bed at Suchipakari Lodge

We chilled in our room until just before supper time when we met our guide for our time at the lodge. His name was Dorian and his community was about 20 minutes up the Napo River. He told us about our plans for the next day and got us fitted with some rubber boots.

Supper was held in the main area of the lodge open to the Amazon breeze. There was another large group there from a running club. We went back to our room right after and went to sleep.

Day 3: October 3, 2019

We both had really good sleeps the night before. I think we both needed to catch up. We had breakfast at the lodge and then Dorian met us with three other travellers for a walk through the jungle.

Our guide, Dorian, on the far right

We saw lots of different plants and Dorian explained their different uses. Our walk ended at the Napo River where there was a motorized canoe waiting to take us to a nearby Kichwa (Indigenous peoples of the Upper Amazon Basin) village.

In the village, we were greeted and given braided head bands that were supposed to keep away the mosquitos. We were also given face-paint using a plant then when broken open has a red liquid.

Danny’s head band and face-paint

We were shown how to take a plant (we think it was a palm leaf) and scrape off the green skin to get a fibrous rope. The community uses the rope for fishing and for making different items such as net bags.

Making rope

Next the lady showed us how they take clay from a certain part of the river and are able to use it to make pottery. They paint the pottery with different colours of clay using a brush made from the hair of a young girl since it is softer.

Making bowls from clay

The last item they showed us was how they make chicha, a fermented beverage made from cassava in this case, but can also be made from grains, maize or fruit. They boil the cassava for 30-40 minutes then mash it up. They then leave it to ferment. It used to be fermented by chewing and spitting the cassava, but when the Spanish arrived it increased the spread of tuberculosis so they stopped that practice. We were given a taste of the unfermented chicha which tasted like yogurt.

Danny helping to make chicha

We thanked the women for showing us a part of their culture and continued in the motorized canoe. Along the way we saw some squirrel monkeys jumping through the trees along the river.

Our journey continued to an animal refuge centre. They take in animals that have been apprehended by the government because they are illegal to have as pets. We saw parrots, turtles, monkeys, caiman and pecari.

There were two especially sad looking monkeys. Both had mental health problems due to how they were treated in the past as well as their previous diet. One was a capuchino monkey which are known for being very intelligent and are often used in movies because they can be taught tricks. However, this also means that being locked in a cage can have devastating effects.

Capuchino monkey

We returned to our canoe and took a ride to a picnic spot. We were able to go for a swim there in the muddy water.

After we walked up the trail a bit to a small group of houses where we were able to try to shoot a blow gun. The blow guns typically shoot 20-30 m and are used to hunt monkeys and birds. The darts and gun are made from palm trees. There is cotton on the end of the dart to keep it straight. The bag of darts had a set of piranha teeth hanging from it which was used to sharpen the darts. They also will boil a dead poisonous frog to add poison to the darts. Our practice involved shooting a wooden owl. I don’t think we did too terribly.

Blowgun practice

Our canoe returned us to our pick up point and we walked the 30 minutes back to the lodge. Danny and I played some cards until we met Dorian again for a night time walk through the jungle. We stayed nearby the lodge and took a trail around to look for different insects. We saw lots of different types of frogs, crickets, spiders, moths, walking sticks and caterpillars.

Creatures from our night walk in the Amazon

Back at the lodge we had supper and went to bed.

October 4, 2019

At breakfast the tour guide for the running club started explaining something about protests. We had no idea what was going on and had to ask their group. It turned out the Ecuadorian government had removed fuel subsidies causing diesel prices to rise from $1.03 to $2.30 per gallon and gasoline from $1.85 to $2.39 per gallon. In Quito, the taxi and bus drivers were protesting this increase and transportation was shut down. The running club had been planning to go to Guayaquil for a marathon, but now weren’t sure if they would be going.

We started our day by taking a taxi ride to a waterfall just outside of Misahualli. There was a little falls right near the start, but we hiked up another 30 minutes to a larger one. There was a pool there to swim in which was very refreshing.

Waterfall near Misahualli

On the way back down Dorian broke open a yellow cocoa to show the beans inside. We each took a bean and stuck it in our mouths. It was covered in a sweet film that had a hint of chocolate taste. We had lunch back at the bottom and did some more swimming by the first waterfall. Then we waited for our driver to pick us up to take us back into town.

Our driver never showed up and we found out later that when Dorian called him he said that due to the protests, he wasn’t allowed to leave the town square. There was someone there with a clipboard checking to make sure no one was working. We walked out to the main road to see if we could catch a ride back. Within five minutes a truck stopped to pick our group of six up and take us back into town.

The town was dead. I guess there are normally a lot of tourists there, but the protests had stranded a lot of people. We walked to “Monkey Beach” where there are usually lots of monkeys in the trees, but they must have been at the protests as well. Back in town there were a couple of monkeys hanging around looking for food. One came over to see us by sliding down a telephone wire.

Monkey in Misahualli

Dorian had to do some improvising and hired us a water taxi to take us to another Indigenous community along the Napo River. One of the members of the community explained to us how 17 years ago they had been digging foundations for a building and found this gigantic rock. He showed us all of the different animals and rivers that could be seen in the rock face. Some scientists had taken a sample to see if it was actually a meteorite.

Rock found in one of the Indigenous villages

After a group of women performed a traditional dance for us. We were encouraged to join in which as pretty cool. We thought they would show us more dances, but after one dance we left. The water taxi had waited for us and took us back to our pick up point from the previous day. From there it was only a 30 minute walk back to the lodge.

Traditional dance

When we arrived back to the lodge, the women from the village had beat us back there. They were there performing a wedding ceremony for a couple from the running club also staying at the lodge. They had gotten engaged before the trip and since they were stranded at the lodge decided why not get married.

We arrived just as the ceremony was starting. It was very moving. It reminded us very much of the way we got married when we were in Nepal. We both had tears in our eyes as they said their vows. They had a bit of a dance party afterwards with some special drinks.

Wedding ceremony

Just before supper Danny and I decided to play some pool in the main area. The running club had mostly sat down at the nearby tables. One of the men stood up and asked for everyone’s attention. We assumed he was going to give a toast to the new couple, but instead he said how disappointed he was to see people from their group drinking alcohol. One of his friends who was only recently sober was very upset seeing other people drinking and was thinking about leaving. It was explained that the running club was created to help people who were at the bottom and there were people who were recovering addicts and alcoholics. The conversation ended with the creator of the running club, “The Judge” saying that he understood and all events going forward would not have alcohol. It was a really touching moment and showed how expressing your feelings openly can be met with understanding. It was inspiring how much the group cared about each other.

When I googled their running club later to see if they were on Facebook, I found that they actually have a documentary coming out October 14, 2019 called “Skid Row Marathon”. I’m very interested to see it now.

The running club is called “Skid Row Running Club” and was created in 2012 by a Judge after a man he’d sentenced to prison returned to thank him. The runners in the club are from all walks of life. Some members are homeless or in recovery and others are lawyers, social workers, students or off-duty police officers.

We were served a barbecue supper which was delicious then we returned to our room for sleep.

The Ecuadorian Amazon has been a real treat for us. We added this tour on because it fit in before our scheduled tour to the Galapagos. We didn’t really expect much from it, but feel pleasantly surprised. We loved visiting all of the Indigenous communities and walking through the wilderness. It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow. We are supposed to head to Banos, but are unsure if we will be able due to the protests.



April 2019

A couple of months after we returned from our round the world trip, I started to really feel like traveling again. I wanted to go anywhere. Jamaica had been on our original list to travel to after Christmas following our round the world trip, but then we ended up staying at home after Christmas.

One day WestJet and Air Canada both had seat sales to the Caribbean. We found an all-inclusive hotel nearby Montego Bay and booked the trip before we could talk ourselves out of it. We have always been critical of all-inclusive resorts, but we had never been to one before so we thought this would be our chance to give it a try.

Tuesday morning, we were up early to fly four hours to Toronto with a quick hour layover followed by another four hour flight to Montego Bay. We took a cab to our resort. The cabs had set prices, but they were expensive ($30 USD for a 15 minute ride).


We arrived at the Holiday Inn Montego Bay. The main building had a bar, some shops, a spa/salon, slot machines and table tennis. For food, there was a main buffet area, a Japanese restaurant, a Jamiacan and an Italian restaurant, as well as a pub on the second floor. The resort also had a seafood restaurant near the water, a “Jerk Hut”, a stand with ice cream, nachos and hot dogs, a grill with hamburgers and fries and then numerous bars scattered about.  There was also live entertainment throughout the day and evening at the main stage.

Holiday Inn Montego Bay

There was a fitness centre, a basketball court, a beach volleyball net, mini golf and four tennis courts. They also had kayaks, catamarans and paddle boats. You could pay extra for motor sports. There was a regular pool near the main building and then an adults only pool on the other side of the resort. They had a bit of trouble finding us a room, so we ended up getting a VIP wristband which from what we understood just meant we were in an adults only building right beside the adults only pool.

One of the things that made the resort so beautiful was an island just out from the main beach that you could walk to very easily. The water in between got up to just above my knees.

We started off our resort life with supper at the buffet. I was already judging the place. I love buffets, but I really didn’t need to fill my plate twice or have four desserts. There was so much unnecessary eating and wasted food. When I think about it, it makes me feel sick. Here we are wasting tons of food when there are people that don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Resort Life

We spent our days at the resort swimming and snorkeling. There were some fishies and even a sting ray around the pier and behind the island. 

Fishies Seen While Snorkeling

One morning after breakfast we took in a free tennis lesson. Neither of us have played before so it was really interesting to learn the grip, swing and follow through.

During one of our lounging days, we also took a short catamaran ride. We also ate at some of the restaurants and had lots of drinks.

Lounging on the Beach

One of the nights we went to the Seabreeze restaurant on the resort for a seafood dinner. You had to make a reservation, but the cost was included. It was a good excuse to dress up and the food was pretty good.

Sunset at the Resort


We had planned to book our excursions when we got there, but dealing with the hotel seemed too complicated and talking to the cab drivers we felt like we were going to get ripped off. Instead we went online to our trusty Viator and booked some excursions their website.

Appleton Estates

Our first excursion was to Appleton Estates to discover how rum is made. The drive took us about 2.5 hours from Montego Bay and was on a winding road over the hills. Our tour started with a welcome drink then we were shown how they used a donkey powered press extract juice from the sugar cane.

Donkey Powered Sugar Cane Press

We got to sample the raw sugar cane as well as the juice. The juice was then boiled to make molasses and sugar crystals which are then distilled into rum. It was cool to see the unaged rum all the way to the 30-year rum and how the colour changes. We were given samples at the end and then our driver took us to YS Falls.

Rum Aging

YS Falls

YS Falls is a more local version of the popular Dunn’s River Falls. We arrived and changed into our swimsuits in the changerooms. I only had my waterproof running shoes and really should have had some water shoes. We walked up to the base of the falls and there were guides there to help you climb up the falls themselves. We linked hands in a chain with the guide going first and telling us where to place our feet. It was very exhilarating and a bit terrifying not knowing if your next step would be a slippery one.

At the top there was a rope swing into the falls that I chose to do. I don’t have much practice with rope swings, so I basically just stepped off the side and dropped. The depth was a bit of a surprise which is probably an indication of how much cliff diving I have done.

The night before there had been a big rainstorm so there was more water at the falls than usual and the water was more brown than teal. The large amount of rain meant we couldn’t climb higher than where the rope swing was located as it was dangerous.

We tipped our guide and changed back into our clothes. On the drive back I felt like my ears weren’t popping properly. I started to feel a build up of pressure. By the time we got back to the resort I was in a lot of pain. We ate a late lunch and then went to the nurse’s station. She said it was likely just water stuck in my ear and gave me Cetamol (acetaminophen) to relieve the pain. The pain did disappear right away, but my ears still felt very muffled.

Luminous Lagoon

We were picked up from our hotel on the Sunday evening to see the Luminous Lagoon. The drive took about 45 minutes. We were taken to a lagoon side bar, given a welcome drink and then we waited for the sun to go down. There were about 14 of us in the boat. Up the shore there was a much more commercial operation. It seemed like they were herding people onto boats.

Swimming in the lagoon was pretty incredible. As you moved your hands, the microorganisms were stirred up causing a photochemical reaction making the water streak with a green/blue light. I felt like I was magical moving my hands through the water.

Our driver returned us to the resort and we had a nice chat. We asked him how he felt about the resorts as a local. He said we can build more as they bring money to the Jamaican economy and employ many people. This made me feel a little less bad about staying at the resort.

On Monday morning, we packed up then I decided to return to the nurse’s station to confirm I was okay to fly as my ear was still muffled. It was a different nurse this time and she said they never recommend flying with an ear infection. She said I might be able to take some sinus medication and be all right, but there was a risk of rupturing my ear drum. This did not sound good. I asked to see a doctor so they could confirm if my ear was in fact infected. The nurse called and was able to get a doctor to drop by the hotel (for only $180 USD). The doctor looked in my ears and confirmed they were both infected. He advised me not to travel.

We returned to our room and I called our insurance company to start a claim. I was told to wait to cancel our flight until I heard back from them. I was also advised they likely would not cover Danny staying with me.

We checked to see if there were rooms available where we were staying, but they said they were fully booked. We looked online and found a place that looked similar but was on the “Hip Strip” in Montego Bay. We took a cab there but weren’t able to check in until 3:00 pm.

Montego Bay

Hip Strip

While we waited to be able to check in we decided to walk to downtown Montego Bay. To get there, we walked along the Hip Strip. The Hip Strip is located within Montego Bay and consists of a bunch of shops and clubs. It seemed to be where most tourists hung out. Margaritaville, a water slide and giant trampoline, is also located on the Hip Strip. There were lots of souvenirs to purchase and lots of women asking if I wanted my hair braided. Now looking back I wish I had gone full Monica 🙂

Harbour Street Craft Market

On the way, we also walked through a local flea market, Habour Street Craft Market, on the way. There were lots of different touristy items to buy there: Rastafari hats, shirts, masks, baskets, local paintings and lots more. It wasn’t too busy there and there were lots of vendors.

Sam Sharpe Square

We continued on to the middle of downtown to Sam Sharpe Square. Sam Sharpe was born into slavery in the early 1800s. He organized a peaceful general strike to protest working conditions which became the 1832 slave rebellion. He was singled out as starting the rebellion and hanged in the area now known as Sam Sharpe Square. Slavery was finally abolished across the British Empire in 1838.

Sam Sharpe Statue

At the Sam Sharpe statue a man came up to talk to us. We are always suspicious because it seems friendly people are always looking for something. The man started with just talking to us about the statue and then wanted to take us around the square. I ended up getting a call from the insurance company who advised that they would cover Danny staying with me. We told the man that we had to go and he insisted on getting us a cab. We then said we were just going to go to a restaurant. He put out his hand asking for a tip which we disagreed in paying and walked away.

We walked to a nearby restaurant to discuss what we should do. Danny had prepared himself to leave in a couple of hours, so this changed it all. He decided to stay with me <3. We returned to the hotel and were able to add him to the room I was in. We checked in and the hotel was not near as nice as the Holiday Inn. Luckily, the food was really good. There was a small pool, a small gym, a BBQ place and table tennis. Across the street we had free access to a very nice beach called Doctor’s Cave.

The next day we took a cab down to the doctor’s office to get him to fill out a form for the insurance company. He checked my ears again and they were still infected.

City Tour

The next day we booked a tour around Montego Bay. Our driver took us through the downtown then around the “old money” houses. These houses were almost like mini acreages. Then we drove up to where people had seized land to build homes forming a ghetto. Apparently, crime is bad in that section. Our driver said its not somewhere he would drive at night. Then we drove to the “new money” houses. There was less space between the houses there. Next were the middle-income houses where our driver lived. He said most people start with a small house then build additions onto their houses. They rent out the additional rooms to supplement their income. Our driver said he makes $80 USD/week. In Montego Bay there were a bunch of call centres where people make $2-3 USD/hour.

Next we drove up through the hills to see some rural communities. There were mango, orange, breadfruit, ackee and banana trees. Our driver was telling us that the Chinese have done some investing in road construction in Jamaica. We drove on part of a newer road that was paid for by the Chinese. It seems like they have their fingers in everything. It’s worrying what kind of deal Jamaica signed based on what we have heard about it other countries regarding Chinese investment.

We drove back to Montego bay and up to Richmond Hill. In the 1700s there was a sugar cane plantation located there. From the balcony there was a wonderful view of Montego Bay.

View of Montego Bay from Richmond Hill

We were returned to our hotel by lunch and played quite a few games of pool and did a lot of scrolling through Facebook. We may have also spent quite a bit of time in the bar.

Doctor’s Cave

The beach included in our hotel stay is a very famous one. Doctor’s Cave is a private beach located in the middle of Montego Bay’s Hip Strip. It is rated as one of the best beaches in Jamaica due to the clear turquoise waters, white sand and calm waters. There were changing rooms and showers right there and beach chairs and umbrellas could be rented. It also had a restaurant and bar right there. We spent one morning here enjoying the sun and Danny did some snorkeling. It got very busy in the afternoon and we were glad we had gone early.

On the Thursday we decided to head back to the doctor’s office to get my ears checked out. The same doctor wasn’t in, so another doctor had a look. She said there was no infection and that I was good to fly.

There was a flight leaving in a couple hours so we decided to just go to the airport to see if we could get on the flight. I called the insurance company to let them know and asked if they would cover the additional cost of the flight.

When we got to the airport, we looked online, but were unable to book as it was so close to the flight time. We went up to the WestJet desk and they were checking in people. We asked about getting on the flight and they were able to get us on. However, they were unable to use the money from our account that had been transferred from us cancelling our original flights. I was nervous about doing this because I didn’t know when we would use the money on the account otherwise as it expires in a year. Danny just really wanted to get home and back to work so we booked it.

Our trip ended up being more than we expected. I was happy for the extra stay, but Danny felt anxious about not being home. We are glad that we were able to experience resort life, but I don’t think we will choose to do it again. The excessiveness of the food and drinks bothered me a lot and it felt like we had little access to actual Jamaica. I was glad we had the extra days to get more of an experience within Montego Bay even though it was in the touristy section.



Day 269: December 5, 2018 Again

Flying in to Vancouver got me really excited. I started bouncing in my seat once I saw the Canadian coast. There was something about seeing a piece of Canada. There was so much openness and wilderness. Exhausted, we landed in Vancouver around 10:30 am. Neither of us got any sleep on the flight.

View of Canada from the plane

We didn’t have very much time in the Vancouver airport. We had to go through immigration, collect our bags, drop our bags, then find our gate in only one and a half hours. That may seem like a lot of time, but anyone who’s done a lot of travelling understands that it really isn’t.

As we handed over our immigration form the officer asked where we were traveling from. We both replied, “Seoul”. He then asked for how long and we replied, “Five days”. “Were you anywhere before that”. Danny replied, “We were in Vietnam. We’ve been travelling for ten months”. The officer then looked questioningly, “Are you employed?” To which we had to reply, “Not currently”. He then asked how we paid for the trip. I replied, “With our savings”. The officer then nodded and motioned us to pass. I was worried that could have been a lot longer of an exchange. During our immigration exchanges I didn’t like bringing up that we were unemployed or how long we were travelling. I think it made us seem suspicious, but I guess there are quite a few people like us.

We went to our gate with about half an hour to spare. Surprisingly, we passed no Tim Horton’s walking through the terminal! I was a bit disappointed. Instead we went to one of the mini marts to get some water. I also picked up some Ruffles All Dressed chips. I had been craving some really good chips while we were away. They were everything I wanted.

Canadian chips

Looking around the terminal I realized how Canadians have a certain look. There were a lot of hoodies, jeans, camo, Carhartts, hi-vis jackets and baseball caps. You don’t see any of that elsewhere, especially in Southeast Asia.

We got on the plane more excited than ever. On this flight our exhaustion overcame us and we fell asleep before we had even taken off. We landed in Edmonton around 3:00 pm. We had to use the washroom before we exited into the arrival area. Even the Edmonton Terminal felt like home. It was all familiar.

My parents were waiting in the arrival area. My dad looking at the board, wondering where we were as our flight had landed awhile ago. It was so nice to see them and I gave them both huge hugs.

We drove out to my parents acreage that is about an hour outside of Edmonton. It is crazy how much open space we have in Canada. You take it for granted when you are surrounded by it all the time.

Danny’s parents were waiting for us at my parents’ place and we gave them big hugs as well. For supper we all share “Chinese food” which we now know is not as good as actual Chinese food.

December, 2018

The next couple of days of our return we spent trying to figure out how to sleep normally. Our systems were so turned around. Every time I woke up I had to remember where I was.

We both kept our vehicles stored at our parents so once we put full insurance back on them and updated our registration we were able to get around. I thought it would feel odd driving again after 10 months, but it was just like riding a bike. I had really missed the freedom of driving. We both also feel we are much more chill about driving now. After seeing the lack of rules of the road in the other countries, we feel less upset when someone slightly cuts us off.

Since we’ve been back, we’ve really noticed the friendliness of Canadians. The door gets held open for you and if you hold the door open you receive a thank you in return.

The open space and fresh air is still a wonder to me. The first couple of times Danny and I went for a walk outside, we couldn’t get enough of taking deep breaths and staring in amazement at the wilderness.

Our Christmas and New Years were spent with our family. We both agreed that this was one of our best Christmases yet. We both were so thankful to be back and really able to be present and mindful of what we have.

January, 2019

Danny is back to work now and absolutely loving his job. He says work is just him getting to hang out with his friends all day. We have moved in to my parents’ condo in Edmonton for awhile to save up some money for a house outside the city. We still have a spare room so if anyone from our travels wants to come visit we have the space! After travelling for so long we would love to show someone else our beautiful country.

Jasper, Alberta

When I think back now to our travels it all seems like such a dream. Did we really just travel for 10 months around the world? We have so many amazing memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything. We made so many new friends that I feel so close to even though we only met briefly and are now oceans apart.

Recently, when I’ve watched the news, everything seems closer and I relate more to it. When the story of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister being ousted came out, I thought of our GAdventures CEO, Udi and the family we stayed with in Negombo. How did they feel about this change? When news comes out about North Korea, I think of our guides, Miss Chang, Miss Rim and Mr. Ri. How are they doing? Marta, our Airbnb host in Slovenia and Catherine, our guide in Beijing seem to come into our conversations quite often. Marta, we think of her kindness and hospitality. Catherine, we think of her spunk and energy.

For now, its about trying to get back to normal after being away from so long. I already can’t wait for our next trip. It probably won’t be near as long though.


South Korea – Seoul

Day 264: December 1, 2018

Our flight left Hanoi at 1:50 am for Seoul, South Korea. It was about a four hour flight. We arrived, exchanged some money, took out some more cash and bought a new SIM card. Then we walked to the train to take us in to Seoul from the airport. It was about an hour ride. Our Airbnb host had given us amazingly detailed notes on how to get to the apartment using the train system.

When we arrived at the Airbnb, we were too early to check in, but we were able to store our bags in the luggage room. We walked up the street to order some food for breakfast. I had sweet and sour chicken with a sliced up raw onion and Danny had noodles with a black bean sauce.

The street our Airbnb was on was in the middle of an area with tons of restaurants. We were worried at night it might be a party street, but it was mostly young professionals walking around.

Street our Airbnb was on

After breakfast we walked north to Gyeongbokgung Palace which was the royal palace of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). It was built in 1395. Much of the palace was destroyed by Japan during the 20th century.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Next we walked to Bukchon Hanok, a traditional Korean village. It was the residential quarter of government officials and nobility during the Joseon dynasty. The narrow streets were very interesting. There were people with signs saying to keep quiet. It seems the residents have only allowed the continued tourism if it is less noisy.

Bukchon Hanok

We then went back up a walking street and entered a cat café. It was $12 to enter, but entry came with a beverage. There were lots of different looking cats: one with stubby legs and a long body, one huge one, one without hair (a Canadian sphinx), one grumpy faced, etc. There were even two adorable kittens: one orange and one black. How crazy is that!

Cat café

We sat in the cat café enjoying our time then realized we could check in to our Airbnb. We were both super exhausted. Our room was very tiny, but worked for the couple of days we were there. Prices for accommodations were fairly expensive.

We watched some Netflix then went down to a Korean BBQ restaurant for supper. We were rather disappointed. The meat was great, but the only sides were pickled vegetables.

Korean BBQ

After supper we went to Baskin Robbins to end our day on a better note. I love the vibe of Seoul. Out on the main street we passed one store a couple of times playing Christmas music. I just wanted to stand outside the store. It made me super homesick and excited to just be home already. The streets in Seoul aren’t very crowded. There is little to no traffic noise. You don’t have to fear for your life crossing the street like in Vietnam. It’s very chill so I think we will enjoy our time here. We returned to the Airbnb and watched some Netflix before an early morning tomorrow.

Day 265: December 2, 2018

We ate yogurt and cereal in our room then walked up the street to a popular nearby hotel for the pick up for our tour to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Korea. The hotel was all decked out in Christmas decorations.

Lotte Hotel

Seoul has a population of 10 million. The satellite communities have an additional population of 10 million. South Korea overall has a population of 50 million. The distance from Seoul to the DMZ is 50 km. Pyongyang is 200 km from the DMZ.

Our tour started at the Freedom Bridge where 12,773 prisoners of war were exchanged in 1953. On holidays, South Koreans with a North Korean background come to the bridge to pray for their ancestors. Ribbons tied to the surrounding fences are prayers for reunification. According to our guide, the younger generation seems less motivated to reunify because they see things as fine the way they are and they lack the connection to North Korean family.

Freedom Bridge

Next we went to Dorasan Station. In 2000, the South-North Joint Declaration was made by the two Koreas. They agreed to connect the railroad line between the two nations. The Trans Korean Railway would connect to the Trans Siberian Railway and the Trans Chinese Railway. In November, 2018, trains were sent north from South Korea to survey the railway.

Dorasan Station

Six million people had died in the Korean War by 1953. A ceasefire was signed, but the country is still at war. Our tour guide told us about some incidents in the continued fighting between North and South Korea. In 1968, 31 North Koreans came up the river and attacked the Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean President. In 1983, North Korea assassinated 17 South Korean politicians in Myanmar. In 2010, the North Koreans bombed an inhabited island in South Korea.

In South Korea, every male is required to participate in mandatory military service at 19 years of age. If he goes to university the military service can be postponed. At 29 year old he must do service or go to jail. According to our guide, in North Korea, every male has compulsory military service at 16 years old for 10 years. Our guides in North Korea had told us that military service was completely voluntary.

Our next stop was the Dora Observatory where we saw across to North Korea. There was a complete lack of trees on the North Korean side which we hadn’t noticed when we were on that side. An industrial complex built by South Korea within North Korea could be seen from the observatory. It used North Korean labour and South Korean raw materials.

View into North Korea from the Dora Observatory

Korea has a multi party system with two major political parties: Liberal and Conservative. When the Conservatives are in power there is a poor relationship with the North Koreans. When the Liberals are in power there is a focus on reconciliation. The current party in power is the Liberals which have been bringing forward many steps to better relations.

Next we went to the “Third Tunnel”. Defectors have been interrogated and advised there are more than 20 tunnels from North Korea heading towards Seoul. Only four tunnels have been discovered. The one we visited was found in 1978 and was 70 m deep.

The climb down through the tourist trail to the tunnel was 350 m long. At the bottom we were in the original tunnel and able to walk 265 m along it. At the end there were three blockades to block the North Koreans. The distance from the third blockade to the military demarcation line was an additional 170 m. The tunnel is 1200 m in the North and 435 m in the South.

Sadly, we were unable to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) where the two sides have buildings facing each other. A joint effort was underway to remove land mines from the area while we were visiting so the JSA was closed off. There are more than one million land mines spread across the DMZ.

We also read on the news later that day that a North Korean soldier had defected and crossed the DMZ into South Korea the previous day. Around 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the ceasefire.

We returned to Seoul to a ginseng centre then were dropped off at City Hall. From there we walked to Namdaemun Market which we thought had street food, but it was mostly clothes and household items. We walked a bit further to Myeongdong Market where there was street food and tons of cosmetic stores. We had mandu (dumplings), a chocolate ball smashed with a hammer, pajeon (Korean pancake) with beef and vegetables, hotteok (Korean donuts) filled with cinnamon, sugar and sunflower seeds and gyeran-bbang (egg bread).

Danny smashing the chocolate ball with a hammer

We walked around the area quite a lot checking out the different shops. After we walked back to the Airbnb then went up the street to a Mexican food restaurant for supper. It was very yummy.

After supper we went across the street to a bar. We asked if there were karaoke rooms inside and they replied, “Yes.” We were charged a $10 per person cover charge which we assumed would cover the karaoke. We were wrong.

In the private karaoke room, the server tried to explain the pricing. His English wasn’t great and our Korean is non-existent. We eventually figured out that we had to buy a certain set of drinks then the room was free. We ended up paying an additional $30 for two beers, a bottle of Soju (Korean alcohol) and a plate of nachos. We then got the room for one hour. It was becoming an expensive night!

The karaoke system was started, but I had no idea how to use the machine and the key pad was in Korean. I tried pressing every button possible to switch the song, but couldn’t make it work. Eventually, I went out to grab the server and he explained the three basic buttons.

Figuring out the Korean karaoke system

Then Danny and I rocked out! There was a pretty good selection of English pop songs. We almost wished we had paid for two hours by the time it was done because we were having such a good time.


After karaoke, we went to a Virtual Reality (VR) café we had seen the day before. We paid for 30 minutes only because they were closing in less than an hour. The first game was Skyfall where you ride up an elevator then walk off a plank and fall. That was the whole game, but it was pretty adrenaline pumping. We tried another game, but Danny couldn’t get his to work. I played by myself while he tried a different game. Before we knew it our 30 minutes was up. We left and returned to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 266: December 3, 2018

We slept in a bit and watched some Netflix. When we finally got out of bed, we walked across the street to a bibimbap restaurant for lunch. Bibimbap is rice topped with sautéed vegetables, chili pepper, soy sauce or soybean paste. Meat or egg are then usually added on top. This was one of our favourite Korean meals.


After we took the train to the west part of the city to go to the Racoon Café. We were both pretty excited. We ordered drinks then sat outside the racoon room to watch as we couldn’t bring our drinks inside.

As we watched our opinion on our visit slowly changed. The raccoons seemed significantly overweight and not happy about being there. We had thought they would be more domesticated and enjoy the company of humans. They seemed to just be looking to escape. We decided it wasn’t our thing and left.

We walked up the street to the Trick Eye Museum, which has 3D optical illusions set up for Instagramming. We enjoyed walking through although there were a few more people than we would have liked.

Trick Eye Museum

Next we went to the Ice Museum which was an ice house built inside a giant freezer. There was even a slide.

Ice Museum

After we went to the Love Museum which was an adult version of the Trick Eye Museum. It was less busy, but the pictures were maybe not appropriate for this blog.

On our way to the train, we stopped at a stand selling poutine. It was pouring rain so we stood under an overhang and ate. It was a much better poutine than the one we had in Thailand or the cheesy fries we had in Cambodia.

Poutine in the rain

We returned to the Airbnb, watched some Netflix then walked south to a restaurant near Myeongdong Market that was suggested to us by a friend. We had the bulgogi which is thin, marinated slices of beef or pork that is grilled. Traditionally, the meat was reserved for nobility. It was very delicious.


After supper we walked around the market a bit then made our way back to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 267: December 4, 2018

The excitement of going home just keeps building. I’ve found I need to put it to the back of my head or I just start vibrating. We are getting so close! I almost don’t remember the last 266 days. The start of our trip feels forever ago and I wonder if it was all a dream. Am I still in the dream? Will home feel like reality again?

Danny went for a run and I went to Starbucks to catch up on blogging. There are so many Starbucks here! Danny met me after his run and we went upstairs to a pizza place for lunch.

After we went up the nearby walking street to do some tourist shopping. On our way back to the Airbnb we stopped at another cat café. We played with the cats for over an hour and a half. Then we chilled in the Airbnb until we were hungry.

Cat café

We walked up the street looking for a cheesy rice dish we had seen on signs. We found a place, but it didn’t end up being as amazing as it looked. Korean restaurants really like cooking food at the table.

Ready for cheesy rice

After we got ice cream and sat on the second floor looking out over the street. We watched a truck promoting the bar we had gone to a few nights previously doing laps around the streets. Danny started announcing it like a race and I timed the amount of time to do a lap. We were also watching a lady handing out pamphlets. She was targeting couples, but we still don’t know what she was selling because when we left an hour later to go to sleep she didn’t approach us.

Day 268: December 5, 2018

I woke up fairly early and couldn’t sleep any longer due to excitement about going home. Danny called his parents then we packed our bags and put them in the luggage storage. We went down the street and got Taco Bell for lunch as not many restaurants were open at 11:00 am. After lunch we picked up our bags and took the train to the airport. We had to wait about an hour then we were able to drop off our bags. On the other side we found a place with salads for lunch. Vegetables were a bit hard to find in Seoul, along with fruit. All of their vegetables were pickled.

I called my parents while we waited to board. The Air Canada plane wasn’t as large as I thought it would be and there were many empty seats including the one beside us. Our flight was a bit delayed leaving, but only by about 15 minutes.

We are so excited to be heading back home. It all feels a bit unreal. We aren’t sure how we will fit into life back in Canada after being away for 268 days. I’m most looking forward to all of those hugs that I will receive from the people I love.


Vietnam Part 4 – Hanoi

Day 259: November 26, 2018

We had breakfast in our Hanoi Airbnb then I went for a workout. When I got back Danny went for a workout. I called my parents then cut a mango. We had ramen for lunch then took a Grab car to the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Danny wanted to get the jacket he bought in Hoi An taken in a bit. The first tailor we went to only made clothes. The second didn’t really speak English, but using Google Translate we communicated and she sent us to another shop. The lady there didn’t speak much English, but Google Translate saved us again. We were able to say what we wanted and by when. We will see how it works out!

We walked down to Hoa Lo Prison which was constructed by the French in 1896. The people in the village that was there prior were relocated in order to construct the prison, court house and secret police headquarters. The prison had space for 500 political prisoners, but a maximum of 2,000 prisoners were held there.

From March 11-16, 1945, over 100 prisoners escaped through an underground sewer. On December 24, 1951, 16 prisoners escaped again through an underground sewer. The guillotine was also used by the French in Hoa Lo.

Sewer prisoners used to escape

When the French left Hanoi in 1954, the prison’s ownership fell to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. During the war with the Americans, pilots shot down were held in Hoa Lo prison. They sarcastically called it “Hanoi Hilton”. The museum said this was a little joke of the Americans as they were treated very humanely and given many luxuries. Americans, however, describe unsanitary conditions along with torture, beatings and poor food. John McCain was held in this prison during the war when he was a US Navy pilot. Every country seems to have its own way of displaying events to make themselves look better.

Prison uniforms of the Vietnamese and Americans

We left and walked up the street to a café called Cong Ca Phe which had the decor of the Vietnam War and the staff in army uniforms. We had a tea, but both of us weren’t really enjoying the busy streets of Hanoi. The traffic and honking was constant.

We walked north to Hanoi’s Train Street which squeezes between residential buildings. Many homes had coffee shops on the edge of the tracks. It was a very photogenic place to walk. We left the residents behind and thinking there would be an exit from the tracks further up, we kept walking. The train crossed bridges over the streets so where we thought we could exit we could not. The tracks were elevated from the street so there was no escape.

Hanoi’s Train Street

After going ten minutes too far we had to turn back. I felt anxious being trapped there especially since we didn’t know when the train was going to come. Back at the exit we caught a Grab car back to the Airbnb. Danny made supper and we watched some John Oliver videos before bed.

Day 260: November 27, 2018

We were up early for a quick breakfast then took a Grab car to the Old Quarter to be picked up for our day tour. The pick up was about 15 minutes late which made us both feel a bit nervous that no one would show up.

Our tour went to the province of Ninh Binh about two hours south of Hanoi. Our first stop was Hoa Lu, the first capital of Vietnam established in the 10th and 11th centuries. The local warlord Dinh Bo Linh, known as the First Dinh Emperor, created the capital in 968 after years of civil war. A majority of the capital no longer exists.

We walked through the main gate to the city which led to an open square. The city was located in a valley between steep limestone mountains making it easy to defend. There was a river running through the capital providing water and a food source. The population eventually became too big for the area between the mountains and the capital city was moved.

Main gate of Hoa Lu

We visited the Dinh Temple which had an area behind doors with a statue of the king. Businessmen will pay money to get inside to touch the statue for luck.

Dinh Temple, Hoa Lu

Outside we could see the flag of the first dynasty. It had red in the middle with yellow, blue, white and green outlines. The colours represented the five elements: fire, soil, water, metal and wood.

Flag of the first dynasty, Hoa Lu

The first king was assassinated and his general, Le, came to power establishing the Le dynasty. He married the first king’s wife to provide legitimacy to his rule. He was not as respected as the first king and therefore his temple, which we visited next, was not as ornamental.

We left and drove to a restaurant for lunch. Sadly, the food wasn’t that great. We enjoyed talking to some of the people on our tour. It is a bit sad now when people ask us about our trip. We don’t sound as excited as when we started our trip. Now we are just more excited to go home so we enjoy talking about that more than where we’ve been. It does make us seem a bit like downers, but I think we are just tired.

After lunch, we went for a boat ride. It was a row boat with space for two people. A lady rowed the boat while we sat enjoying the view. All the rowers used their legs to row instead of their arms. It was pretty impressive and they seemed to have more power.

Row boat ride, Ninh Binh

We floated passed the steep mountains and went through a few caves. Our rower was super quick and we passed everyone. Back at the dock we walked up to a restaurant and were provided some lemon tea and fruit.

Going through the caves, Ninh Binh

We then hopped on some bicycles for a short ride through one of the villages. After the bike ride we hopped back on the bus and drove to Mua Island which had a little cave at the base then a 500 stair climb to the top.

Hiking up Mua Island

The view from the top looked down at the river our boat ride had been on. The other way looked over the rice fields we had seen on our bike ride.

At the top of Mua Island

We climbed back down and then returned to the bus for our two hour ride back into Hanoi. We were dropped off in the Old Quarter and walked to a pizza place. The pizza was very yummy! There were many people working there, but we were the only customers. It was similar at the convenience store next to our Airbnb. There were about four or five people working there, most just standing around. Back at the Airbnb we fell asleep early.

Day 261: November 28, 2018

We were up early again and took a Grab car back into the Old Quarter. Our Airbnb location has been a bit inconvenient because we keep having to catch rides into the centre. It is about a 25 minute drive one way.

Our tour to Bai Tu Long Bay picked us up and drove us to the harbour about three hours east of Hanoi. Bai Tu Long is right next to the famous Ha Long Bay, but much less busy.

A small boat took us out to our larger boat which had about 24 cabins. The cabin was perhaps the nicest room we have stayed in on this trip. Our window was huge and looked out at the steep mountains in the bay. The bathroom had a two person tub with another huge window.

Our boat to Bai Tu Long Bay

I called my dad to show him the gorgeous view then we went up on the deck for lunch. We had a bit of relax time then got ready to go kayaking. We went out into the bay and rowed over to a cave. When we got back to the boat we were able to jump in the water for a swim. The water was not as warm as in Thailand or Cambodia.

Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay

We returned to the room and cleaned up for supper. It was nice to dress up a little bit since we were on such a fancy boat. We sat at the front of the boat before supper with a bottle of wine and talked about home.

Sunset view from our boat, Bai Tu Long Bay

We went to the dining room for supper and enjoyed a very nice meal. The chef brought out some very fancy food carvings. Then one of the crew members played a beautiful melody on a flute. After another member of the crew did some magic tricks. He was looking for a volunteer and I quickly pointed to Danny. He went up and did an awesome job.

Danny participating in a magic trick

After supper we looked up at the stars from the sun deck. Then we returned to the room to sleep.

Day 262: November 29, 2018

I didn’t sleep very well so I was up early enough to participate in tai chi on the sun deck. The scenery as we moved through the islands was beautiful. We had a buffet breakfast then got ready to go for a walk on one of the islands. We walked out to a small sandy beach then climbed the stairs up to a large cave. Local fishermen use the cave during large storms for protection. It was a very beautiful cave to walk around.

View from outside the cave, Bai Tu Long Bay

We returned to the boat and sat on the sun deck enjoying the view going by. Lunch was a buffet. We returned to the sun deck then until we arrived back at the harbour. Our van to take us back to Hanoi picked us up there. We stopped once to view a water puppet show. It was funny, but not as amazing as I thought it would be. Apparently the one in Hanoi is a lot more impressive.

Water puppet show on the way back to Hanoi

We were dropped back in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and took a Grab car to our Airbnb. It was in the same building as our previous one in Hanoi, but a different apartment. We relaxed for a bit. Both of us were exhausted.

We took a Grab car back in to the centre around 6:30 pm. We had supper at Bun Cha Hang Manh which is famous for its bun cha, a dish of grilled pork served with rice noodles, herbs and a sauce (fish sauce, sugar, lemon, vinegar, stock). The sauce definitely made the dish.

Bun cha

After we walked up the street to the tailor we had dropped of Danny’s jacket at to have it taken in. He tried it on and it was a bit too tight. Uh-oh! Nothing she could do. We will have to let it out ourselves.

We stopped at a convenience store to pick up some food items for tomorrow. Then we returned to the Airbnb and went to sleep right away.

Day 263: November 30, 2018

Neither of us slept very well again. I’m not sure if its just nervousness or excitement for going home so soon. We chilled in the room watching TV then Danny called his parents. After he went to the gym while I caught up on blogging.

For lunch we went into the Old Quarter to Banh Mi 25. Banh mi is a Vietnamese sub. These ones were delicious! We sat in a park eating them and watching a legit cock fight. I had no idea that they were still a thing. Between fights the “trainers” would rinse their birds with water similar to a boxing trainer rubbing down their fighter in the corner.

Cock fight

We walked up the street and I went for a massage. Danny went across the street for a haircut then walked over to the government buildings and square in front of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. He met me back at the spa and we returned to the Airbnb.

Ho Chi Minh Square

Danny made supper while I packed up. We ate and watched videos. Then we thought we should try to get a bit of sleep. Our flight to Seoul was scheduled to leave at 2:00 am so we would not be getting much rest.

While I was getting my massage I started really thinking about being home again. I think it finally sunk in that in less than a week we will be home. Danny and I talked a bit about this then eventually fell asleep.

The alarm at 10:00 pm was a very rude awakening. We got about an hour and a half of sleep. We packed up and caught a Grab car to the airport. Everything took awhile to get through because it was fairly busy at the airport. On the other side I gave my parents a call while we waited to board.

I don’t think either of us really enjoyed the city of Hanoi. It was so busy and noisy we really didn’t want to spend much time in the Old Quarter. I was glad we had two trips booked to get out of the city. Bai Tu Long was absolutely beautiful and I don’t regret us spending the money to go there in class. I’m getting more and more excited every day to get home. The flight to Seoul feels like the first step towards home and I can’t wait for the flight after that takes us back to Canada.


Vietnam Part 3 – Hoi An

Day 255: November 22, 2018

We woke up and took a Grab car in to Hoi An from our Airbnb near the beach. We found a place to have breakfast then walked up the street to Yaly Couture. This tailor was suggested to us by our GAdventures guide.

We went in and said we wanted to order some clothes. We were both assigned a lady to help us. They brought us catalogs to look through to pick designs. Danny picked out a nice suit with a vest. I started out looking at blazers then moved to blouses and dresses. I picked out some designs and talked through what I liked. We then went and picked out fabrics which was pretty tough. I found it hard to imagine what the article would look like in the end. Next the lady, Sally, took my measurements. I ended up getting two blazers, a long sleeve blouse, a tank top and a dress. Because I ordered over a certain amount I received a free short sleeve blouse.

We paid a 50% deposit then left feeling confused if we would like what we had purchased. We walked around the ancient town which was very beautiful. We browsed in the shops and enjoyed the lanterns hanging in the streets.

Streets of Hoi An

We ended up returning to a tailor we had passed earlier that had a very nice dress outside. I asked the price and it was very reasonable so I agreed to it. Then I also ordered a jumpsuit since finding one is always impossible for my long body and short legs. She took my measurements and I paid for the items.

We continued our walk to a food market. We ordered a traditional Hoi An dish, cao lau, which was noddles, pork, lettuce, herbs and crackers with a sauce. It was pretty good and super cheap.

Bought some bananas

After lunch we decided it was time to head back to the Airbnb. We changed into our swimsuits and walked down to the beach. It was way more windy than we expected making the water very choppy. Instead of swimming we walked along the beach then sat watching the waves.

Walking along An Bang Beach

We returned to chill for a bit in the Airbnb then went up the street to a hotel restaurant for supper. There were lots of friendly doggies around the streets to pet. When we returned to the Airbnb we went to bed.

Day 256: November 23, 2018

We were up early and tried to get a Grab car into Hoi An. Apparently, we were too early as there were no cars available. Up the street we saw a taxi so we walked up to see if it could take us. The driver was just getting ready to wash his car, but agreed to take us into Hoi An.

We arrived at the hotel where our day tour was picking us up. We walked up the street to try to find breakfast, but nowhere was open that early (it was just after 7:00 am). Finally, we went into a hotel that said they could make us breakfast. It was basic, eggs and bread. We paid then walked quickly back to our pick up point.

The tour van picked us up on time then we picked up a couple other groups of people and started our drive into Da Nang. Our first stop was Linh Ung Pagoda which means “the Buddha blesses you”. The location was called Monkey Mountain by the Americans due to the monkeys located there. The pagoda was built between 2006 and 2010.

Monkey God

The highlight was a 67 m tall Lady Buddha statue facing towards the sea. She has an image of Grand Master Buddha on her crown. Her one hand shows she is meditating and the other is holding a bottle of holy water used to save the world. Her bare feet are standing on a lotus flower. Underneath the flower are clouds because she is flying in the sky to help people around the world.

Lady Buddha

We returned to the van and drove to a marble statue carving place. To make a Buddha statue it takes four months of carving and one month of polishing. From there, we walked over to one of the Marble Mountains. There are a set of five marble and limestone mountains named after the five elements: metal, water, wood, fire and soil.

We visited Mount Thuy (water) which has Buddhist and Hindu caves. We went up the elevator then climbed steps to enter the temples. There were many different statues of Buddha around. One relief showed the four holy animals of Vietnam: dragon, unicorn, tortoise and phoenix. Some of the caves had holes in the roof from bombs during the war.

Holy animals of Vietnam

We continued down to Am Phu Cave which is considered hell. Buddhists believe you go there to confess your sins and then you can ascend to heaven. There were scary sculptures looking like demons. After looking around hell, we climbed a steep staircase up to Heaven. At the top was a view out across the water to Da Nang.

From Hell to Heaven

We returned to the van and were taken to Hoi An for lunch. After we returned to the van and drove out to My Son Hindu temples that were constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Cham people. The temples are dedicated to the god Shiva. My Son means “beautiful mountains”.

My Son Temple

Linga and yoni are what was worshipped inside the temples representing the male and female characteristics. The temples were very interesting to walk around. There were many towers which had windows. Then there were sets of a meditation house, a gate and a main temple. Only monks would enter the main temples.

My Son Temple

We returned to the van which dropped us off in the centre of Hoi An at 6:00 pm. We were late for our fittings, but it seemed all right. We tried on all of our clothes and our ladies marked off where things needed to be taken in. Danny looked super spiffy in his clothes.

Next we went to the second tailor and I tried on my other clothes which looked amazing. Danny kept commenting on how awesome they looked. It’s been so long since I’ve worn nice clothing especially something fitted. Danny then decided to get a wool jacket made. Then I decided to get one as well. Earlier in the day I had noticed a hotel in my only pair of pants left so I also ordered some pants.

Clothing purchases

After we had spent more money we went up the street for supper and celebratory drinks. Then we walked up the lanterned streets. At a bridge we bought lanterns and took a boat ride. We placed the lanterns in the water and made our wishes. What a magical place!

Evening boat ride in Hoi An

We walked some more, but an announcement in the streets said the tourist hours were over at 9:30 pm. We hadn’t realized there was a closing time, but we were almost ready to leave anyways. We took a Grab car back to our Airbnb then went to bed.

Day 257: November 24, 2018

We slept in a bit then walked up the street to a hotel for breakfast. Danny called his parents when we returned then we caught a Grab car into Hoi An. We tried on our clothing one last time for final adjustments. They had to do some touch ups to the button holes so we arranged to pick everything up later.

Walking around Hoi An

We went to a family restaurant for lunch then did some wandering through the streets. At 3:00 pm we had massages booked. We both came out with very sore calves; apparently we had both been tight there. We chatted with the receptionist who had brought us tea after our massages. Then we returned to pick up all of our clothing purchases.

Fancy clothe purchases

We had supper at the same place as the previous night, but ordered Vietnamese food instead of pizza. This included white rose (dumplings), wontons topped with salsa, spring rolls and a green mango salad. After we returned to the Airbnb and had a fashion show with all of our clothes before bed.

Day 258: November 25, 2018

Our host arranged a driver to take us to the airport in Da Nang. After not being able to get a Grab car the previous morning and it being a 40 minute drive we thought that was the safest route. We said good bye to the quiet neighbourhood and were driven to the airport.

We checked in and went through security. Then I called home as everyone was together for a birthday celebration. It was so nice to see my family. I can’t wait to give them all huge hugs when I get home.

We had pho for breakfast and waited for our flight to Hanoi. Danny received some messages from work that made him a bit anxious. It’s hard being so far away and not able to just handle things.

Our flight from Da Nan to Hanoi took just over an hour. At the airport we took a Grab car to our Airbnb. It is a very nice space with lots of room, perfect to relax. In the buildings was a Korean restaurant with plates of food on a conveyor belt which we thought would be fun. It ended up being a hot pot. We had so much food brought with it. We were getting worried about price, but it was actually a buffet with a set price.

After lunch we walked up the street to a supermarket. It was actually legit too. We were able to buy enough food to make a couple of meals which we haven’t done in what feels like forever. I also found enough ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies. I have been craving to make them since forever. I couldn’t find baking so Da or powder and I had to use oat flour, but they were edible.

For supper, Danny made a Greek salad and we watched a part of a series about the Vietnam war. I was starting to get sleepy so I went to bed and Danny stayed up a bit longer.

Everybody was telling us how amazing Hoi An was to visit that we were almost prepared to be disappointed. We were not disappointed. Hoi An is spectacular. The streets are wonderful to walk through and I loved ordering clothes. I kept wanting to get more and more. The atmosphere is very laid back and everyone in the streets is super friendly. It is definitely a place we want to return. Now we are in Hanoi for a couple of days.


Cambodia Part 2 – Phnom Penh & Sihanoukville

Day 244: November 11, 2018

We had the morning free to do what we pleased. It was Cambodia’s Independence Day this weekend so Phnom Penh was quite busy. Danny and I slept in, had breakfast in the hotel then chilled in our room. We grabbed a quick sandwich across the street for lunch then met the group at 1:00 pm to start our afternoon tour.

Our first stop was Choeung Ek Killing Field where over 20,000 people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime and placed into 129 mass graves. The location of Choeung Ek Killing Field used to be a Chinese cemetery. In Cambodia, 343 killing fields have been found. Inside each grave 30-400 people were found. The number increased over time.

Inside the gates there were grassy mounds which were the mass graves excavated in the 1980s. Behind was a forest with more graves that were not excavated. We were shown locations that rain had dug up clothes and bones. Skeletons that were excavated still had blindfolds on and wire tying hands behind the back.

Choeung Ek Killing Field

During the Khmer Rouge regime, people would be told they needed training and then taken for torture. After they would be taken to a killing field, blindfolded and forced to kneel in front of the grave. Hammers or axes were used to smash people on the back of the head one by one. Knives were then used to cut their throats to ensure no one survived. Sometimes to prolong the suffering a palm tree stalk was used to cut the victim’s throat. Chemicals were placed on top to stop the smell of the corpses. Revolutionary music was played to drown out the screams.

Palm tree stalks with little teeth

We were shown one mass grave in which naked women and children were found. The blindfolds were taken off the mothers and they were forced to watch as their children were grabbed by their feet and swung against a nearby tree. Other children would be thrown up in the air so the body would drop on a knife. Guns weren’t used as the bullets were too expensive, the sound was too loud and suffering was desired.

Most soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were children (10-15 years old) that were brain washed to remove their emotions. They would even kill their families.

Another grave was found to have soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. They all suspected each other so even they were not safe. The victims found in uniforms had no heads. It is believed the heads were used to scare the other members from betraying the Khmer Rouge.

One of the excavated mass graves

The Khmer Rouge or Polpot Regime was in power of Cambodia from 1975-1979. During this time, three million people died, almost half of the original population of seven million.

Polpot was not their leader’s original name, it was Saloth Sar. Polpot stands for political potential. He was born to a farming family in 1925. He lived in a Buddhist temple for six years and was a monk for two years. Eventually, he moved to the city to live with his sister where he studied at a good school and received a scholarship to study in Paris. There he learned ideas of nationalism and communism.

Eventually, he joined the communist party in the Cambodian jungle. The king at the time was very popular as he had freed Cambodia from French colonialism in 1953. In 1955, he abdicated for his father and became the prime minister. Many people then felt that his family was too in control and they left the city to join Polpot.

The prime minister tried to bring Cambodia out of poverty and in the 1960s it was a developing nation. Then the Vietnam War started. The prime minister decided to help Vietnam believing the Americans would lose. He allowed the use of the Cambodian border to bring in soldiers to south Vietnam which became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Many people were upset about this and left the city to join Polpot.

In 1967, the prime minister announced that those joining Polpot were his enemy. In 1969, an American bomb was used to kill Vietnamese soldiers on the border and many Cambodians were also killed. In 1970, there was a protest to kick the Vietnamese soldiers out leading to instability in Cambodia. The prime minister needed help so he left to seek support leaving the general in charge. The general betrayed him and worked with America to put in place a new government, the Khmer Republic. The people, however, disliked America due to the bombing on the border. This resulted in a civil war from 1970 to 1975.

The prime minister was stuck outside the country and needed to fight the general to get his power back. He decided to join Polpot’s Khmer Rouge and convinced others to join as well. In 1975, Polpot came to power by force and the general fled to America. The prime minister returned to Cambodia and was assigned as the head of state with no actual power. Eventually, he resigned and was put under house arrest in the Royal Palace.

When Polpot came to power, the people were told to leave the city for two or three days so the enemies could be killed. People were collected and told to raise their hands if they had an education. They were promised good jobs, but they would need training first. No one ever came back from the training centre.

Polpot followed Mao’s communism where there were no rich or poor. Schools, hospitals and temples were shut down and the country closed off from the rest of the world. Everyone was forced to become a farmer. There was no property or belongings. Twelve hour days were spent in the rice fields with only one cup of porridge a day. Over one million people died of starvation. The regime was supported by China, as the rice produced was sent there.

Anyone from the previous government was the first to be killed. Next anyone opposed to the regime was killed. Foreigners were forced to leave, but some journalists remained and were killed for being spies. Next they killed the educated out of fear as they would not have been easy to brainwash. Over 1.7 million people were killed.

Our next stop was Tuol Sleng Prison or S-21 located within the city of Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng held 17,000 prisoners. It was a school transformed into a prison used for torture during the Khmer Rouge regime. In Cambodia, there were 167 prisons that were mostly originally schools. Many have been turned back into schools.

People were arrested for talking to their friends, wearing glasses or speaking more than one language. Once a person was arrested they were either tortured or killed immediately. Most people would answer the questions to stop the torture and then were killed in the killing fields. If one person was killed, their whole family was also killed to prevent them from seeking revenge.

We first saw Building A, known as the VIP prison for governors, generals, etc. Each classroom inside the building was split into two large cells. The rooms were often used for torture. Blood stains can still be seen on the floors.

A cell in Building A at Tuol Sleng Prison

Buildings B, C and D had 11-15 cells per classroom. Prisoners’ feet would be locked by long shackles. American bullet boxes were used as toilets and were emptied only once a week. If any spilled out, the prisoner would have to clean it up with their mouth.

Building B at Tuol Sleng Prison

During the Polpot regime, Vietnam and Cambodia were not very friendly. Vietnam followed Russian communism as opposed to the Chinese communism Cambodia followed. There was a border conflict as well, as Saigon had been a part of Cambodia and Polpot wanted it back. He killed many Vietnamese soldiers on the border.

Insiders of the Khmer Rouge went to Vietnam to ask for help to stop the regime as they were against the mass killings occurring in Cambodia. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia.

Tuol Sleng prison knew the Vietnamese were approaching so the official told the guards to kill all the prisoners. Fourteen people were killed and twelve survived (seven men and five children). The men that survived were skilled in some way that was useful to the Khmer Rouge.

One of the male survivors we met was at the prison. Chum Mey had been tortured for 12 days and 12 nights and then was to be sent to the killing field. A typewriter in the prison broke and he was able to fix it. He was then kept around to fix things around the prison. His story was very impactful for all of us there. We all had tears in our eyes. I asked him how he has the strength to return to the prison and stay positive. He said the world needs to know about what happened. We purchased a book of his story and were able to take pictures with him.

Danny with Chum Mey, survivor of Tuol Sleng Prison

We were also able to meet the oldest surviving child, Norng Chan Phal. His mother was taken prisoner and he was kept with his younger brother in the prison kitchen. He overheard soldiers talking about killing the prisoners and took his brother and three younger children to hide underneath piles of clothes.

Photo of the surviving children of Tuol Sleng Prison with Vietnamese soldiers

Chan Phal had worked in construction, but recently hurt himself preventing him from returning to work. The director of the museum at the prison offered him a job, but he finds it hard to return. He feels he has no other choice though to ensure his children are cared for. His story at first was such an uplifting story of humanity under an evil regime in how he saved those children, but there isn’t always a fairy tale ending. I felt for the man who was a hero, but struggles to find stable work.

Vietnam helped free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and then occupied Cambodia for another ten years. In 1980, the UN recognized Polpot as the Prime Minister as they wanted the communists to continue fighting each other. The UN supported Polpot while Russia supported Vietnam. Under pressure from the rest of the world, Vietnam withdrew. The UN ruled Cambodia for one year which is why the American dollar is still used in Cambodia today.

In 1985, a government made of the Khmer Rouge that had betrayed Polpot came to power, the Cambodian People’s Party. In 1993, Cambodia became democratic. The new government wanted to end the war so they accepted the Khmer Rouge back from the jungle. The government gave most of the Khmer Rouge amnesty as they said they had just followed orders. This is the government still in place today. It is said to be democratic, but the leader hasn’t changed.

In 1998, Polpot died of “natural causes”. Right before his death, he had been interviewed and agreed to go to court to tell everything that had happened during the Khmer Rouge’s time in power. No one saw how he died and his body was burned right away.

The current government has only allowed five people from the Khmer Rouge to be put on trial. The rest are still part of the government today. People who speak out against the government, even today, will be arrested. Our guide told us that the people in Cambodia don’t want a revolution as it led to a war before. They want slow change to eliminate the corruption. In schools, children are taught only the basics of the Khmer Rouge.

Our guide only told us about the recent history within the safety of the bus. We were told if someone overheard he might be arrested. In a way, it is his own personal protest. He said that many from the original Khmer Rouge are getting older and soon none of them will be left. Hopefully then the truth of it all will come out and the corruption can cease. It made me wonder what horrors will eventually come out of North Korea.

The truth of a country is sometimes hard to take. We knew going to Cambodia, that the Polpot regime had killed millions, but being there and hearing the stories makes it feel even more horrendous especially when the corruption continues. It’s hard to hear similar stories across the world of an elite that values money and power over everything even their own people.

We returned to our hotel in a very somber mood. We relaxed for a bit then went to watch the fireworks for the Independence Day celebrations. After we went to the night market for some local cuisine. We were confused about how to order so we ended up getting way too much food.

Night market, Phnom Penh

We went to a bar for some drinks after supper and played some pool then eventually took a tuk tuk back to our hotel to sleep.

Day 245: November 12, 2018

We had breakfast in the hotel then boarded our bus heading south out of Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. It was a five hour drive split up with lunch in between. Our hotel was not the greatest. Chinese resorts have taken over the area which has increased prices. Over a dozen high rise hotels were going up. It looked like the Chinese were creating their own city.

The group planned to go out to the beach. I needed some time to chill. Danny wanted to go to the beach. This led to an argument and Danny went to the beach. He came back for me at 6:00 pm in a much better mood, but I was still angry that he had stomped off. He said the group was going to eat soon so we walked out to the beach. There were pictures taken of us and we were actually not happy with each other.

Can you see the anger in this picture?

We ate supper at a bar nearby and chatted with the group. Eventually we returned to the hotel to talk about what happened. This has been a good thing about our trip. We are forced to talk about issues right away or it becomes unbearable. I also think I’ve become better at expressing my feelings. We went to bed much happier with each other.

Day 246: November 13, 2018

We left the hotel at 8:30 am and went into town to a restaurant that served us breakfast. Then we boarded a boat out into the Gulf of Thailand. The boat took us out to a small reef. We were given snorkel masks and jumped in. Danny went in without even a life jacket. He’s become a pro swimmer.

Snorkeling in the Gulf of Thailand

We saw quite a few little fish, but the coral wasn’t doing too well. After an hour, the boat took us to an island. We swam in the clear water there, enjoyed some hammocks, then had a BBQ lunch on the beach. We swam a bit more then boarded the boat to a different reef. The waves had gotten bigger so it was harder to swim. The coral seemed a bit better there. The snorkel mask wasn’t fitting right for me so I came in after not too long. After about 15 minutes the boat dropped us off at the beach near our hotel. We walked back and cleaned up.

The rest of the group went back to the bar we were at the previous night for supper, but we hadn’t enjoyed the food there. Instead we went to a restaurant at the hotel across the street from us. I had a very nice mixed seafood plate, Danny had fish and chips and then we shared a mango sticky rice for dessert. It was all very tasty. It was a bit more pricey than the other places we’ve been in Cambodia, but still much cheaper than Canada. After we returned to our room and caught up on internets. I finished the book I was reading about the life of Buddha then we went to bed.

Cambodia has not disappointed in terms of history. The two highlights we wanted to experience were Angkor Wat and learning about the Khmer Rouge regime. The heat in Cambodia was a bit much for me, but I’m glad we were able to get onto the water and do some snorkelling. Tomorrow we head across the border into Vietnam.