Coachella Camping Hacks

Camping at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival in Indio, California is often labeled a rite of passage for first-year festival attendees. The party does not end the second the last band leaves the main stage every night; there is something kinetic about the rowdy crowd. Campsite dance floors blast music hours after the venue locks its gates for the night, and other campers who are too wired to sleep re-cap their day and plot a schedule for the next one. This either sounds like a very good time, or a turnoff to those who only go to Coachella to see their favorite bands live.

Entering the venue

Entering the venue

So why, for five years (going on six) have I camped out rather than get a hotel? The answer is pretty simple: the camping community is welcoming and the benefits of not having to take a shuttle or drive to the venue every day makes the choice a no-brainer. Camping allows you to roll out of bed when you want, catch an afternoon nap, grab snacks or drinks of your choosing and it grants you the ability to slap a burger on the grill whenever you want. To me, camping at Coachella is not just a rite of passage, but also a way to improve your festival experience. Read on to help get the most out of your camping experience, and so you don’t spend your days waiting in line to take the shuttle into town to buy the essentials you forgot to bring. Continue reading

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Luxury Cruising on Ha Long Bay For a Backpacker Budget

We opted for the most inexpensive 3-day, 2-night Ha Long Bay cruise that we could negotiate. When the day came to leave, we were on pins and needles worrying whether we just made a terrible mistake.

Minibus from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

Our minibus from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay.

That morning, we left our hotel and headed to the travel agency we booked the cruise through so they could store our large bags. At 8:15am, a tiny, wiry Vietnamese man representing FantaSea Cruise popped inside the office, “Ha Long?” We nodded and he motioned for us to board the waiting minibus. The vehicle was half full when we boarded, but after a few more stops, it was at its 18-person capacity. The man who collected us introduced himself by saying that we probably could not pronounce his name and so we should call him Peter. He would be our tour guide for the ride to Ha Long Bay pier and for the second and third day (FantaSea runs several boats each day with their own tour guide, so Peter was going on a different boat for the first day).

The ride from Hanoi takes roughly four hours with a break halfway. The rest stop is a glorified attempt to sell goods to a captive audience, but the bathrooms were clean and new and had plenty of toilet paper (always a plus in our book). The building itself had a wide array of items for sale, with an open area dedicated to workers hand-stitching patterns and images on large canvases. Scores of tourists milled inside the building as our minibuses waited outside. Continue reading

Taking a Long-Distance Public Bus in Laos

Eating on a Bus

Mike tries to eat sticky rice with chopsticks on the bus.

Travelers through SE Asia all have their own long-distance bus horror stories. Some of them involve pothole-ridden windy roads and vomiting passengers. Others involve real danger, like an engine catching on fire or the driver falling asleep and running the bus off the road. Many people warned us about Thai and Cambodian drivers, though we never felt they were that bad. After way too many white-knuckle drives through India, everyone’s driving seems an improvement.

And then we reached Laos. They are a little more reckless than the rest, and we read a few accounts of overturned night buses. We had decided back in Cambodia that we would avoid overnight buses at all costs, and we’re trying our best to continue that in Laos. To do that, we made more stops along the way instead of just hightailing it from the south (where we entered from Cambodia) to Vientiane, Laos’ capital.

One such trip was a 10-hour bus ride from Savannakhet to Vientiane, which we were told could actually take anywhere from 8-14 hours. Many routes offer VIP tourist buses, which are supposed to be faster, more comfortable and have working air conditioning. But this route only offered a VIP overnight option, so we jumped on the public bus at 8am with the locals. We were the only foreigners onboard throughout the whole ride. Continue reading

Skipping Scams at the Thai-Cambodia Border Crossing

Visa Scam Center

Turn right to encounter your first visa scam of the day!

I was anxious about crossing into Cambodia. Mike and I read up on a couple border scams and we were prepared to be misled and lied to, but I didn’t know how our pushback would be received. One thing was certain: We were determined to exit Thailand and enter Cambodia without paying a cent more than the official rate.

We had a few options for getting from Bangkok to Cambodia (trains, buses and combinations). Ultimately, we chose a relatively new bus service run by the Thai government that travels directly from Bangkok to Siem Reap. The direct route seemed like the quickest and easiest option. We could also order the bus tickets online, which we love to do so we can accumulate credit card reward points. We thought that using a government bus would mean avoiding the infamous Cambodia visa scam, but we were wrong. Continue reading

5 Ways to Make the Most Out of Myanmar

The best way to understand Myanmar is to clear your mind of any other place you have visited and let it stand on its own. Forget that time India. Ignore that week in Morocco. Do not even bring up Thailand. Myanmar is different, not same same.

Myanmar Monks on a Motorbike

Myanmar monks on a motorbike at a cave temple.

Myanmar was a nice surprise and a welcome change of pace. Since it only recently opened its borders to mass tourism, many of the things we find unpleasant about other SE Asian countries do not exist here. Touts are not very prevalent, but where they do exist they are neither pushy nor persistent. We did not have to bargain hard for things like local transportation, and sometimes for food we paid the locals’ price (in many countries, foreigners are wildly overcharged). If a local does something nice, they are doing it because they want to, not because they expect a handout in return. When we were at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bagan, one of the locals wanted to put thanakha on Tara’s face. She took Tara to a nearby hut and showed her how to grind the bark from a piece of wood against a stone tablet to create the paste. As she was doing it, she asked if we wanted a fan or longyi, but there was never a hard sell. She did not ask for money afterward and seemed as happy as Tara to have this type of interaction. Continue reading

Trekking Across the Myanmar Countryside

Up until this point in our journey through Myanmar, most of the sights we visited were temples and Buddha sculptures, some in caves, some on mountaintops and all of various shapes and sizes. After the staggering number of temples in Bagan, we were ready for a change. Instead of taking a bus directly to Inle Lake, we decided to stop short in Kalaw, a small hill station of a town that has the distinction of offering treks to Inle Lake. We heard about these treks before arriving in Myanmar, and Lucie and Isabelle, the French girls we met in Hpa-an, confirmed that this is the most scenic and enjoyable way to get to the lake. So we spent a day in Kalaw to find a guide and opted for a 3-day, 2-night trek through Sam’s Trekking company.

Shan Noodles

Shan noodle breakfast at Golden Kalaw.

The next morning we rose early to watch the sunrise from our balcony. A man working for Sam arrived before breakfast to collect our large backpacks, which were being transported ahead of us to our guesthouse in Nyaung Shwe, one of the larger towns at Inle Lake. Though we wanted to pack light for the trek, the day bags we were carrying were still full, mainly out of concern that it may rain (and being it was the rainy season, it did).

Ambling downstairs, we devoured Golden Kalaw Inn’s free and filling Shan noodle breakfast. This guesthouse proved to be a solid choice for a whopping $12. After finishing breakfast and downing as much coffee as possible, we walked to Sam’s Family Restaurant to join the rest of our group: Nicole from Canada and Adrian, Anne Marie and Theo, all from Switzerland). We also met our English-speaking trekking leader, Do (as in: doe, a deer, a female deer), a veteran Kachin guide with more than 10 years of experience. Continue reading

Sesame Tea and Tales from Trekking Guides in Kalaw

After leaving Bagan, Myanmar, we grabbed a bus to Kalaw, a small hill station that serves as the starting point for treks to Inle Lake. We wanted to visit Inle Lake and had heard trekking (also known as hiking for our American readers) was a pleasant and leisurely way of getting there. Lucy and Isabelle (the two French girls we toured Hpa-an with) had recommended doing this inexpensive and fun (and non-bumpy) bus alternative to travel to Inle.

Bagan to Kalaw Bus

Fun on the bus from Bagan to Kalaw.

There were numerous trekking guide options online and in guidebooks, so while we were not afraid they would all book up, we called ahead to Sam’s Trekking just in case. Sam also owns a restaurant and told us to meet him there when our bus got in. The ride was not as bumpy and miserable as others had described, though the AC did mysteriously “break” a couple hours in. When we reached Kalaw, we piled off the bus with a few other foreigners. Immediately, we were inundated with people offering their services as guides. They ranged from people we had heard of with bona fide cards to scrubby characters with handwritten business cards. Sensing an opportunity to perhaps pay less per person, we collected everyone’s contact information and walked to our hotel to check-in. Continue reading