Tonsai Bay in Summer and in Winter – When to Visit Thailand?

My wife Olena and I may be two of the only people on Earth who have ever visited Tonsai Bay in Krabi, Thailand in both Winter and Summer. The first trip was a magical ten days full of perfect weather, daily excursions, and lots of swimming and lounging in the sun. Though it probably shouldn’t have, the atmosphere of our second venture to Tonsai really caught us off guard…

My wife Olena and I may be two of the only people on Earth who have ever visited Tonsai Bay in Krabi, Thailand in both Winter and Summer. The first trip was a magical ten days full of perfect weather, daily excursions, and lots of swimming and lounging in the sun. Though it probably shouldn’t have, the atmosphere of our second venture to Tonsai really caught us off guard…

December 2016:

Our first trip to Tonsai was during the Christmas holiday in 2016. We flew into Phuket, spent the day on the famous Patong beach, and hopped on a ferry to the much more chilled-out Tonsai Bay. The late-night party life hasn’t been our thing for years, so it was nice to head to a more secluded area. In fact, Tonsai Bay is only reachable via longtail boat from Ao Nang beach in Krabi. This makes it all the more exclusive!

There are a few ways to get to Tonsai. Most likely if you’re in the area you’ll hear that most tourists are going to the nearby Railay Beach resort area. You can get a longtail boat for around 100 THB per person from either Railay East or from the more accessible Ao Nang beach. My suggestion is to head straight for Ao Nang and, in the high season (December), there will be plenty of others willing to share a longtail boat. If there is no longtail boat available, you can walk from Railay beach, but if it’s high-tide you have to hike up and over some pretty treacherous terrain. Not recommended if you have lots of luggage.

Upon arriving, one must walk about half a kilometer up a small hill, through the forest and past hordes of thieving monkeys. After arriving at our $6 per night bungalows, we immediately felt at home. Not too crowded, very relaxed atmosphere, Bob Marley on the loudspeakers, helpful and friendly staff, and a fire show every night. The seating area at Chillout Bungalows included several hammocks, some picnic benches and even a few tree houses. Surrounding the bar area were several food stalls where anyone can find a delicious bite to eat. Chillout is located on Tonsai’s only main strip which is lined with more relaxing bars, some restaurants and a few more similar bungalows.

The bungalows themselves were incredibly basic. One bed, one shelf, one bathroom, one fan, and electricity only between 6PM and 6AM. We were officially off the grid, and it felt fantastic! Life was good. We had five full days ahead of us to relax in the sun and go on adventures.

During this trip, we spent a couple days on the beach, a few days on excursions in Krabi, and one day island-hopping, snorkeling and kayaking. It was the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure. We were sad to wave goodbye to Tonsai and longed to return someday.

July 2018:

Fast-forward 19 months to July 2018. We had a flight booked on July 27th to leave China for good and start a new life in New York City. We were going a bit crazy because I only had one day to pack between school finishing and leaving the country. Also, my birthday was coming up. After lots of back-and-forth decision making, we decided I would take an entire week, unpaid, off from work to go to Thailand for a full 9 days. After all, it was our last chance in Asia!

Olena and I are avid travelers, but we never return to the exact same place. We’ve always considered it a waste of time and money because the world is so big and want to see as much as possible. Well, with visions of our time in Tonsai at Chillout Bungalows swimming in our heads, we booked four nights at Chillout and a flight into Krabi. We were determined to repeat our experience on our last trip. It was so exciting! This time, we planned to take fewer excursions and just relax on the beach. It was going to be amazing!

I think you see where this was going. Our second trip to Tonsai was absolutely nothing like the first. For starters, the weather. No one bothered to tell us and we never bothered looking, but July is right in the middle of Thailand’s rainy season. In fact, two ships carrying tourists had capsized the day before we arrived, killing more than 50 people in the very same bay we planned to take a ferry. To the North, 12 boys had been trapped in a cave because of rapidly-rising water. When we arrived in Krabi, a torrential downpour started within minutes, right out of the sunny blue sky.

The rain was so bad that, when we arrived at Ao Nang beach, where tourists had lined up in December for a longtail boat to Tonsai, we found the beach deserted, waterlogged and devoid of any boats. We were informed that no longtail boat would go that day because of the weather.

Our spirits would not be crushed! We were determined to get to Tonsai. We grabbed a Tuktuk to Ao Nan Mao pier, got on a longtail boat to Railay Bay, walked over a kilometer in the rain to the aforementioned treacherous path, climbed up and over carrying 20kg each on our backs, and finally made it to Tonsai. The walk through the Railay area was depressing. The beach, crowded with tourists last time, was as empty as the food stalls that lined the streets. Arriving at Tonsai, waterlogged and exhausted, we still felt a spark of joy at our accomplishment. This spark, however, was quickly extinguished by the weather and the low season. Walking up the path to Chillout, no monkeys barred our way to beg for fruit, no happy locals greeted us on our way, all the bars we passed were either closed for good or completely empty, and to cap it all off, some rich guy had bought a bunch of land in the center of the area and cut down most of the trees. What had once felt like a secluded walk in the forest felt much more exposed and public.

Arriving at Chillout, we found the bar also empty and almost no one staying in the bungalows. No fire shows planned for the evening, no music on the loudspeaker, just the dreary-eyed people who ran the place during this low season. With all of this against us, the lack of electricity and comforts of home were much more noticeable. Back in our rooms, instead of an off-the-grid lifestyle and chilled-out atmosphere, we instead noticed the dirty sheets, wet bathroom and lack of light. We made the best of it, went swimming in the rain, but ended up canceling our next few nights and moving on to Phi Phi island, where our adventure took a much more positive turn.

The moral of the story:

Know the season of where you’re traveling, and never expect a journey to the same place at a different time to be the same as the first trip. In fact, I think that in life we should never seek to repeat exact experience because it lines you up for disappointment. Let every experience be its own, and try to keep your chin up! As I said, we still had five more days and ended up having a fantastic time in Phi Phi. The weather improved, our spirit was revived, and we learned a lot from the experience. Tonsai Bay, it was amazing while it lasted, but it’ll never be the same again.

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Throwback Thursday: Italian Adventures

How canceled flights, stolen deposits, and ankles sprained by angry volcanoes made our trip to Rome, Naples and Pompeii impossible to forget!

How canceled flights, stolen deposits, and ankles sprained by angry volcanoes made our trip to Rome, Naples and Pompeii impossible to forget!

Prologue:

“Ickily! Easyjet is offering flights to Rome for less than 2,000CZK!”

This was the excited exclamation several months ago from my girlfriend Olena, who is an expert when it comes to finding cheap deals on travel, food, going out and the like. At first I was naturally skeptical, “Yeah, of course, then there’s all the hidden fees, right?” Well, it turned out (as she loves to hear me say) that she was right. A few clicks of the mouse later we had two tickets to Rome Fiumicino airport in June. Aside from the cheap accommodation we booked through Airbnb, we had absolutely no itinerary planned and nothing booked, but that didn’t matter. I would reschedule some lessons and we would leave on a Thursday night and arrive on Monday evening, only missing a bit of work. Satisfied and filled with excitement for the coming journey, we shelved the rest of the planning til later, only occasionally bringing up the trip as the weeks went by.

Flew by would probably be a much better way to describe how the following weeks passed. One minute we were still freezing in Prague and the next we were lying on a beach under the Italian sun… But I’m getting ahead of myself. This all sounds very well and good, but our journey was not at all without its complications…

Thursday, June 11th, 2015:

The Travel Gods first strike while I’m sitting in my last lesson of the day, three or four hours before our flight. My tablet is playing a listening text for my student whom I am preparing for the FCE exam. While the listening plays from my tablet, a message from EasyJet pops up. I’m not usually in the habit of checking my emails during lessons, but I cannot ignore the preview of the message: “We regret to inform you that…” My heart immediately starts racing, Attempting to hide my suspicion of an impending disaster, I open the email to find that our flight has been cancelled.

I continue the lesson with my student, but I can’t really focus. What are we going to do? Can we reschedule? Will there be another flight we can take? How much is this going to cost? Will we even be able to go on our trip? Over the past week we’ve spent a great deal of time planning this trip, and in my backpack are not only our flight tickets but several entrance tickets to the sites we are hoping to visit…

Finally the lesson ends and I have a few minutes to review the email in detail before catching my train back to Prague (I work in a small town south of Prague, about 40 minutes away by train). It turns out that it isn’t our flight there that has been cancelled, but the flight back. This comes as a relief, but only a small one. Many things still need to be worked out.

Jump ahead to my train ride home, where I am on the phone via Skype, talking into my headset to a Customer Service representative in India who claims to go by the authentically Indian name of “Tom.” Apparently, there is great news! We can simply leave on the same EasyJet flight the next day, arriving Tuesday night instead of Monday. An extra day in Italy, isn’t it great?

My impatience starts to escalate, “I’m sorry Tom, but unfortunately we have jobs and we can’t just call out of work as we please…”

“I understand your situation sir,” says ‘Tom,’ “but because I can offer you a flight within the next 24 hours, we are not obligated to pay for a ticket on another airline for Monday night. You can leave on the Tuesday night flight with no problem.”

Our conversation continues in circles like this for nearly half an hour and after various threats of bad feedback and of flooding social media with EasyJet horror stories, I’m finally able to convince a representative to let me find a flight from another carrier, for which they will ostensibly reimburse me. I call Olena, who is also on the way to the airport, and explain the situation. We decide to wait and figure it out after going through security at the airport. After all, we have several days to figure it out while in Italy.

Our arrival in Rome proves to be later than we expected because, of course, the flight is delayed for three hours. A very nice woman notices us talking and informs us of the delay, and we thank her for the information. Well, at least that gives us time to conduct research into possible flights…

…which yield very poor results. If we want to leave Rome on Monday night as planned, it would mean not arriving in Prague until Tuesday morning with an eight-hour layover in Paris. I’m not one who can sleep in airports, so that is not an attractive option before a seven-hours day of teaching.

Several Customer Service calls later (This time I speak to “Linda” and “Peter”) we decide we’ll just have to call our bosses, explain the situation, and come home Tuesday night. For me this means a loss of 1,500 crowns (about $60) and a few disappointed students, but for Olena it means over-using her holiday time and missing important face-time with Tomáš Baťa, the founder of the fashion company Baťa for which she is a new employee. She’s been looking forward to meeting this fashion guru for some time, so it comes as a real let-down. Now find ourselves reciting a mantra that will become familiar to us throughout the trip, “It could be worse. Let’s not let this ruin our trip.” After all, we had an extra day in Italy!

We then turn to the next problem at hand. We are going to be too late in Rome to get normal public transport to our accommodation, so we have to find another way. Our host informs us that a taxi would be over €60, and we prepare for the first of many extra expenses on the trip.

Fortune begins to shine a small ray of line upon us when we arrive in Rome at 2:00 AM Friday morning. As we wait for our luggage, we spot the same woman who told us about the delay. We ask her how she plans to get to the center, and she said by taxi. We agree to share the ride with her, cutting the cost in half for all of us.

Waiting for a taxi outside in the pleasantly warm Roman night, our new companion realizes that she has no cash and goes off to find an ATM. Olena and I are having a hard time locating the taxi, so I decide to run over to a bus that’s loading on passengers and ask where it’s going. The driver says they’re going to the city center, and the cost is €7. We’re now left with a moral dilemma: Let the bus go and wait for our new cohort, or take the bus and leave her in the dust. Well, we’re already feeling our wallets thinning, so we take the latter option.

“This is gonna follow us for the rest of the trip, you know.” Olena says as our bus pulls out. “Karma is gonna pay us back for this.”

“Don’t worry. She will understand… right? Besides, our karma can’t be that low. Let’s just call this strike one…”

A half-hour journey later brings us to the central train station, where we have to pay for a €20 taxi ride to our host’s apartment. The bill I plan to send EasyJet now stands at €34, and it will continue to rise.

Our host is understandably annoyed at our late arrival (nearly 4 AM) and leads us to our room. The accommodation is great, but she could have been a bit nicer. Oh well, we thought again. It could be worse. At least we finally have beds to sleep in… for about four hours. We are scheduled for entrance into the Vatican at 10:30 tomorrow, so our sleep after such a long day of travel ends up being less than satisfactory.

But we made it, we’re in Rome! Ahead of us we have a tour of the Vatican, the ancient Colosseum, the Roman Forums, sun-drenched beaches, and a trip to Pompeii to cap it off. We are not to be brought down!

Friday, June 12, 2015:

Seemingly five minutes later, I awaken to the Chocobo theme from Final Fantasy VII that serves as my phone’s alarm clock. I’m not particularly exhausted; I seem to have slept fairly well in the last four hours. I turn over to make sure Olena is awake and get a groan in response, which in her language means only kisses will wake her up, and I am happy to oblige.

We shove some croissants down our throats and brew up some instant coffee and are out the door by 9:45. We finally figure out where to buy a ticket for the bus and are on a packed bus minutes later. We barely have room to move, and it must be over 30 degrees in the bus. Nevertheless, we’re excited for our trip to the Vatican, a country to which neither of us has been.

We head in the general direction of the Sistine Chapel with the help of Google Maps, but it turns out the whole city is surrounded by a ten meter-high wall with one entrance half a kilometer away. We have about five minutes to get there…

Having purchased tickets online, we pass the throngs of people waiting in line with well-deserved schadenfreude. They will be waiting the better part of an hour while we sail through the front entrance. The extra €4 we paid for advance tickets were well worth it. Things are looking up after all.

I may be an English teacher, but I am not nearly eloquent enough to describe the beauty of what we saw in the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. I will let Olena’s skillful photographic eye guide you through our winding journey through halls of statues, tapestries, ancient maps, mosaics, and of course the Sistine Chapel itself. I encourage you to look at her Facebook page, where she will undoubtedly post pictures from our trip. I’ll put up a link at the end of this post. She got some great shots, and we even managed to sneak in some forbidden pictures in the – “Silencio! No photo, no video!” – sorry, that guy is really giving us a hard time. We would NEVER take pictures in the Sistine Chapel. No way, no how.

Our eyes still dazzled by the wonders of the Vatican, we head to a nearby cafe to meet up with Hana, an acquaintance of Olena. She works as a tour guide in the Vatican and is from Ostrava, in the Czech Republic. The information she gives us is incredibly helpful, and she even leads us around down a few streets to find some cheap pizza, our first of many pizza lunches. On the way, I pick up a sun hat for €5 which, knowing myself, I will undoubtedly lose in no time.

So. We’re still exhausted despite the overpriced yet delicious espresso but it’s only 3PM. We need to take advantage of our limited time in Rome. So what do we do? We take a metro as far as we can to the outskirts of Rome. A short walk from the metro station and we’re lying on the beach, relaxing. We still have another two days in Rome, so why try to force it on us while we’re so tired? Besides, the beach is nice, even though it’s a bit cloudy and windy. The water is nice too, and we enjoy a quick dip. We even buy one of those giant fabric tapestries that the meddlesome vendors are selling and sip cheap wine as we watch the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea. The stressful journey to get here seems distant, and we let the evening wind wash away our troubles of the previous day.

Saturday, June 13, 2014:

The chocobos wake us from deep sleep after a hot but restful night back in our little room. After some breakfast and coffee, we’re still not exactly sure what we’ll do today. After lots of Googling we decide to hit the Colosseum first. Most of the sites we want to see are in that area, so it’s a logical place to start.

We make a pit-stop at the central train station to pick up our Roma Pass which will not only give us free entrance without lines to the Colosseum and the Forums but will also give us unlimited access to Rome’s rather extensive public transport system. That done, we head to the Colosseum. Outside the entrance I pick up another €5 hat because, yes, I lost the first one. But don’t worry, I’ll lose this one too in a few days I’m sure.

We experience that familiar feeling of schadenfreude as we float by the lines of people waiting to buy tickets. We do a circuit of the ancient amphitheater and are amazed by the size and splendor of this structure which was built such a long time ago. The word “awesome” is one of the most overused words in the English language and thus has lost its true definition which perfectly describes the scene around us. This isn’t the first time this thought crosses my mind.

My camera is acting up, so I decide to stop using it for the rest of the trip and let Olena be the photographer. She not only has a much better camera but also a better eye for photography. I still snap the occasional selfie with my phone’s camera though. Again, check out her Facebook page for some pretty fantastic pictures.

Our next stop is the ruins surrounding the Forums, where we pass temples to various gods. Olena intones that the gods better appreciate how much money was spent on their worship given the multitudes of people who could have been fed with the same money. I agree, but hey. That’s ancient history. (bada-boom-TSH!)

It’s 33 degrees and we are starting to get really tired again, but we trudge on past more gorgeous ruins. We end up in Piazza Venezia and find ourselves jaded by the wondrous things we have seen. After all we’ve experienced, it’s getting more and more difficult to appreciate the smaller buildings. “Meh” we say, as we pass the Basilica di Santa Maria. “Psh” we mutter as we saunter by the Trajan Forum. “I think it’s time for a pizza break, huh?”

A short tram ride brings us to a small pizzeria where we enjoy some more cheap yet delicious pizza. We sit by the river and munch while discussing what to do with the rest of the day. We know we want to watch the sunset near the Castel Sant’Angelo, but it’s too early for that. We decide to go and relax in a park for a bit, while seeing the famous Spanish Steps on the way there.

Again, we seem to be a bit jaded by what we’ve already seen, so the Spanish Steps honestly just seem like a glorified flight of stairs. I’m sure it would be more impressive if we knew a bit more about them, but for now we just curse the heat as we trudge up the ancient staircase. A quick look at Google Maps shows us that the Hard Rock cafe isn’t far, so we head there. It’s kind of a tradition for Olena and me to get a drink at the Hard Rock in every foreign city we visit.

Well, we visit the Hard Rock, but we definitely don’t have a drink there. The smallest bottled beer would run us 6.75€ and a large draft beer would be more like 13€. Yeah, no thanks. But the place was pretty cool and the bathrooms had toilet seats. Seriously, you’d be surprised what a rarity that is. For some reason, most public toilets in Italy don’t have toilet seats. If you’re more learned than we are, please enlighten us as to why this is…

We head to the nearby Villa Borghese park to relax. We make a few organizational calls, arranging our trip to Pompeii and our last night in Rome. It’s here that the Travel Gods strike again.

Our plan has been to head to Pompeii via a ride share service, then head back Monday night to stay at a really nice hotel room in Rome that we’ve booked for an amazing 600CZK each ($25). Turns out that booking.com has deceived us and this is no hotel but some kind of vacation home that you’re supposed to rent for more than a month… The stay is €44 for one night, which is a great price, but we are informed that there will be a €50 cleaning charge plus a €7.5 “tourist tax” and a €20 fee for arriving late in the evening.

We decide to cancel this booking, but we still have to pay the €44 for the stay. EasyJet’s bill continues to rise…

Anyway, it works out okay because we decide to just stay an extra night at our hostel in Pompeii and go straight back to the airport from there on Tuesday. This will prove to be a good decision because we will need the extra time in Pompeii.

So, back at the park. We head towards what looks to be a small lake on Google Maps, and it turns out there are some rowboats you can rent for a 20-minute romantic voyage around a small yet beautiful stone temple to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Olena assumes the Cleopatra position as the front of the boat while I do the dirty work. It’s all very romantic, yadda-yadda-yadda =P

Now it’s time to watch the sunset so we take a bus close to the St. Angelo Bridge, one of the oldest bridges in Rome. We buy a couple cheap bottles of wine (come on, give us a break, we’re in Italy) and sit by the river. We play music from our smartphones, reflect on the beautiful day, and clink our glasses (well, bottles) as the sun sets on a toast to another fantastic day.

Sunday, June 14, 2015:

It’s not even 7:00 when the chocobos rouse us from our rest, and we hastily get ready to leave Rome behind. In less than two hours we’re meeting up with our driver with whom we arranged a drive to Naples. If you’re ever in Italy, Blabla car is a great way to get around. 10€ each gets us to Naples in less than three hours. The driver and his girlfriend are really nice and they even take us exactly where we need to be in Naples. We pick up a Pompeii card, a similar pass to the Roma Pass, and schlepp our luggage through the narrow streets of Naples. Our walk takes us by some stunning views of the city. “So, when are we moving here?” Olena asks, not for the first time.

We were informed by our driver that we were not permitted to leave Naples without trying some of their famous pizza. Apparently the Margherita pizza was invented here in 1889. According to rumor, famous chef Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi created the pizza to resemble the colors of the Italian flag. He made the pizza for Queen Margherita of Savoy while she was visiting Naples.

We find a reputable-looking place and decide to sit down because we have a bit of time to kill before catching our train to Pompeii. We order up two of the best pizzas we’ve ever had for only €6 each. I’m no George R.R. Martin, so I won’t go on for three paragraphs about these pizzas, but I easily could if I tried. We even manage to save a bit for later.

Our bellies content with these oily yet scrumptious delights, we descend into the metro into one of the coolest stations we’ve ever seen. It’s got an “under-the-sea” type theme, the tiles and paint making wave patterns on the ceiling. “I would totally be making fun of someone in my shoes in Prague” Olena remarks about her touristy camera-clicking, never missing a photo op.

From Napoli Centrale we hop on a commuter train with the catchy name of “Circumvesuviana” (can you guess where it takes us?) It being a nearly cloudless day, we are treated to fantastic views of the volcano as we roll by. It’s an active volcano, and we joke about it erupting with only half smiles and nervous giggles.

The train station in Pompeii is a circus of street vendors selling any kind of souvenir you can imagine. My second hat is already gone, left in our Blabla car driver’s Subaru, and I’m not going to buy another one. There’s a line, and I’ve crossed it.

After politely shaking our heads at the hordes of vendors in this carnival of consumerism, we hop on a bus, courtesy of our Pompeii Pass. It’s only a five minute ride to our hostel.

And what an awesome hostel it is! We are greeted by the friendliest couple we’ve met so far who welcome us with stereotypical Italian friendliness. We have found so far that Italians are quite friendly in general, and these two don’t disappoint. Every time we have a question they are happy to oblige. They lead us to our private room complete with a double bed and a private bathroom and best of all, air conditioning. These hot nights have been brutal, and the AC is a welcome addition. Best 600CZK ever spent. If you ever stay in Pompeii, look up Agora Hostel.

It’s already 4:00. Our plan was to go up Vesuvius tonight by bus, but our host suggests waiting until tomorrow because it’s getting late. Instead, he recommends something completely unexpected: a trip to the romantic little coastal town of Sorrento. We take his advice and hop on a 20-minute train ride.

The town is absolutely gorgeous. I’ll say it again: look at Olena’s photos to see what I mean. The view of the Bay of Naples is breathtaking. At the very least, look it up on Google Images.

We walk down a narrow path to the beach area maybe 30 meters below us and look for a place to swim. There are many paid beaches around, but it is Italian law that each town has to have at least one free beach. We find just the one, a very small and crowded patch of sand, but we don’t care, we just want to dive headfirst into that beautifully clear blue water. With the corner of our eye on our belongings, we make the blissful plunge.

We stay at this beach for several hours, until the sun touches the horizon and we start to get a bit cold. As it goes down, we reflect on the wonderful trip we’ve had so far. The Gods of Travel may have got the upper hand at the beginning, but we are making the best of it, and the best definitely is the best.

Monday. June 15, 2015:

It was a blessing in disguise that we had to stay an extra day, because it would have been a shame to pack up and leave from here. We still had a lot to see. There was Vesuvius, and of course the ruins of the ancient city destroyed by its eruption.

After a delicious breakfast and some coffee, we hop on a bus that takes us up the mountain. We get some amazing views on the winding road and are almost to the top after only 45 minutes. We’re informed that it’s about a 20-minutes hike up to the crater at the summit. On our way up, the clouds start to move in and our view is completely obstructed. At first I think this is a real shame, but Olena reassures me, saying that it’s actually pretty cool how the clouds are moving. The frequency of her clicks from behind me confirm that she’s enjoying the sights, clouds or no clouds. I decide that she’s right. Why complain about the conditions we’re given? It’s a blessing just to be up here.

Olena has told me that she was not allowed to take any sand from Hawaii back to the USA because the gods punish anyone who does so. She almost took some sand home anyway but discarded it at the last second, apologizing to the gods. We haven’t been told such a thing about Vesuvius, so we select a particularly colorful handful of volcanic rock from the ground and tie it up in a baggie with plans to take it home. I’m starting to get a little bit nervous about the level of bad karma beginning to surround us. First there was the woman we left high and dry at the airport, now we’re stealing from Vesuvius… That’s two strikes, and perhaps there are more gods than just the Travel Gods…

Finally at the top, we make the circuit around the crater. It is a truly unbelievable sight. The crater is more than 250 meters deep and up to a kilometer across. The mountain used to be three times its current height of 1200 meters before its explosive eruption in 79 AD which destroyed the surrounding towns and killed 16,000 people. The molten rock shot 33 kilometers into the air at 1.5 million tons per second, the temperature of which was 1.5 million times the temperature of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima. Those numbers might be unbelievable, but not as much so as the spectacle before us. It was truly amazing.

On our way back down the mountain we stop at a souvenir shop, where I haggle quite a bit with the vendor. Olena buys a really nice ring made of volcanic rock and I buy her a heart-shaped necklace of the same material. A bit more haggling gets me a hematite ring thrown on top, and the woman gives me a really dirty look and clearly doesn’t like me. “What if she cursed you?” Olena jokes. I laugh along with her, but the edge of my mouth shows a nervous tick. I can think only one thing: strike three.

As we walk down the mountain towards the buses, we realize we only have about ten minutes until the bus leaves. If we want to see the ruins of the city too, we have to hurry. We begin to jog down the hill, in the face of the looks of concern that we keep getting from the people who see us doing so. Oh well, I just don’t want to sit around in this heat for another hour while being badgered by street vendors. We’ve got ten minutes and maybe another 600 meters to go. Then we’ll be on our way. If we can just- CRACK!

My vision goes blank as a howl of pain escapes my throat. I’m vaguely aware of several people surrounding me to check what happened, because now I’ve fallen to the ground and am still involuntarily moaning in pain. As my thoughts clear I locate where the pain is coming from. It seems I that, while running, I caught my foot in an uneven patch of rock and landed directly on my left ankle, which is where the cracking sound came from. My first though is first   and then the more immediate question of “How the hell will I get down from here?”

Okay, time to start thinking logically. I gauge the pain and realize it isn’t quite as bad as it was right after the fall. Maybe it’s just adrenaline, but I can use that. First I need to try to stand on it, because if I can’t it’s probably broken.

I am able to make some stumbling steps, and yes, I can stand on my left foot. Good sign, but it’s far too painful for me to walk all the way down to the buses. Plus, the bus comes in six minutes, and the next one isn’t for an hour. What can we do?

Olena flags someone down and tells them to call a car to take us down.  We have seen one going up, so it’s definitely possible. Not long after, fortune shows a wan smile as a park ranger’s car comes from the top of the mountain. We flag it down frantically and it takes us to the buses.

I sit down at the small cafe near all the buses and can’t help sobbing in pain. I’m trying to stop, but it’s some of the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I’ve always been a bit reckless, but I’ve also been really lucky and have never had a very serious injury. I quickly pop three ibuprofen from my bag and eat a Mars bar to go down with it.

A very nice Italian man offers to call us an ambulance because the bus will take a long time, and won’t go straight to the hospital. My ankle could easily be broken so I definitely need to get it checked out. We agree, but my American brain can’t help but picture this bill for this. We’ve already paid much more than we’d expected on this trip. I don’t know how much I can afford. But there is no escaping the fact that this is the only way.

It’s almost an hour before the ambulance comes, but luckily by then the pain has subsided to a dull ache and I am no longer humiliating myself by sobbing. I could probably get into the ambulance myself, but they put me on a stretcher. I’ve never been in an ambulance before so I’m pretty scared. Especially because I am in a foreign country and have no idea what their policies are.

Right when I get into the ambulance the medic takes out a needle and a tourniquet. I start to panic, demanding to know what they are going to do to me. The medic doesn’t speak English very well, so he just keeps saying “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” I finally get him to confirm that they’re not giving me any drugs, and it’s just an outlet for quick access at the hospital if they need to use it. Standard procedure. But still, the panicked feeling is there.

Olena has climbed into the back of the ambulance with me and is holding my hand, God bless her. She won’t even sit in the back of cars because it makes her nauseous, so I am very grateful that she’s there. I know it isn’t easy, especially on the windy roads down Vesuvius. As the sirens blare and we speed on towards the hospital, I catch a glimpse of Vesuvius and think again: strike three. Touché, Mountain God.

At the hospital, they wheel me into a room where we wait for about ten minutes. Now my ankle doesn’t hurt so much and I’m worried that we’re just wasting time. I finally get an X-Ray and wait in suspense to finally be told that nothing is broken. It’s just a really bad bruise. I am told to take ibuprofen and no to walk on it for five to six days. I can’t help but think of the ruins we wanted to see today, and the Cat Empire concert I have coming up in two days. Still, I’m happy it isn’t broken, and I’m glad I got confirmation.

Now we’re left with the problem that we’re eight kilometers from town and have no way to get back. I have one of the guards call a taxi, and in thirty minutes, around 4:00, it arrives. The meter is already at €25 when he arrives because of the drive there, and a trip to the ruins costs me a solid €40. But amazingly, the ambulance ride and the X-Ray were free. I wasn’t even asked for an insurance card, only my passport. Point one for the Italian healthcare system.

I still haven’t given up on seeing the ruins, especially knowing how badly Olena wants to see them. For her Pompeii is a life dream and the main purpose of our trip. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna ruin that, so I stumble with her up to the entrance. It hurts a bit, and I really shouldn’t be walking on it, but I can get by.

I don’t see as much as Olena does because I’m mostly sitting while she walks around taking pictures, but it’s still really cool. It boggles my mind that this was once a bustling city whose life was cut short in an instant, not to be discovered for 1,700 years.

We walk through the main square, into private homes complete with baths and fireplaces, through public bath houses and temples to various gods. The temples are plentiful, but clearly the gods were not sated in the end. As we walk towards the exit (well, as Olena walks and I hobble) we pass by the amphitheater of Pompeii which is having a special exhibition of the bodies that were excavated from the ruins. Plaster casts were able to preserve several bodies in exactly the same position they were in when they died. One shows two people huddled together, many with their hands shielding their faces, and even one mother with a child on her lap. It’s horrifying yet fascinating at the same time. I can’t imagine what those last moments must have felt like, futilely trying to fend off the inevitable. The exhibition is called “Stolen from death” – a very fitting name.

Somehow I manage to stumble my way back to the hostel with Olena’s help and we enjoy a €5 carbonara dinner. I am utterly exhausted from the stress my body has sustained, so we call it a relatively early night, especially since we have to be up for a big day of travel the next day. We cap it off with the season finale of Game of Thrones and hit the hay.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015:

We wake up around 8:30, and I examine my foot. It seems to be in just about the same condition it was in before: a dull ache and not too painful to walk on. I think I will make it home without damaging it more.

We have breakfast one last time at the hostel and begin our long journey home. It’s a pretty uneventful trip on several forms of transport: A bus to the center of Pompeii, the Circumvesuviana to Naples, a train to the Rome main station, a bus to the airport, a plane to Prague, and a bus a and tram home. I check on my foot when I get home, and it’s starting to get really purple in some places, but it still doesn’t hurt to walk and I know it’s not broken, so all I can do is wait and stay off it as much as I can.

The Travel Gods cost us quite a bit of money, the Mountain God messed up my foot, and we spent quite a bit more money than we’d meant to, but it was a fantastic trip. Olena and I have been to many places together but never have we had a trip as action-packed as this one.

I am happy that I don’t have to work until later tomorrow, because I have a lot of things to do. Maybe I’ll even sit down and write up a blog about our trip. For now, we drift off to sleep with dreams of ancient ruins, Italian beaches and romantic sunsets swirling through our minds.

Epilogue:

Well, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. Special thanks to Olena for being an awesome travel companion and for finding the tickets in the first place. Feel free to post any comments or questions, and be sure to check out this page because I’m sure there will be photos sometime in the next few days. Give it a “Like” while you’re at it: https://www.facebook.com/thetravelbugbite/

For those worried about me, don’t. This was all a true story, and it was quite bad when it happened, but I promise you I’m fine. I think my foot should heal in a week or two, and I’ll never run down an active volcano again 😉

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New York City Explorer Pass vs. Sightseeing Pass

Quick facts about both passes:
– They both offer free entry to over 80 attractions (though some are already free anyway)
– They both offer to pay by the day or pay by attraction packages
– The included attractions are quite similar for both passes
– They both exaggerate how much each attraction costs when bought separately

A quick Google search of “Which Tourist Pass to use in New York City” will no doubt leave you scratching your head. Under all the ads from Viator, TripAdvisor and Groupon, you’ll see links to the many different tourist passes offered in New York City. The most popular are the New York City Explorer Pass and the New York Sightseeing Pass. You’ll have to advance several pages into the Google results to finally find personal accounts written by people who have actually done the research and planned out an itinerary that makes sense. If you’ve made to this page, congratulations! I am a real, live person here to tell you which pass is actually worth it!

The Travel Bug Bite has already posted about how the New York City Explorer Pass saved us over $100 with its 5-attraction pass. I’m not here to say one is hands-down better than the other. Instead, I’ll take you through the process we used to decide where to go and which pass to purchase. If you’re in a similar situation, great! If not, this article should still give you some idea about how these tourist passes work.

Quick facts about both passes:

  • They both offer free entry to over 80 attractions (though some are already free anyway)
  • They both offer to pay by the day or pay by attraction packages
  • The included attractions are quite similar for both passes
  • They both exaggerate how much each attraction costs when bought separately

Prices and attractions:

New York City Explorer Pass

  • 3 choices – $89
  • 4 choices – $119
  • 5 choices – $134
  • 7 choices – $169
  • 10 choices – $219

You can get a quick 5% off for entering your e-mail address so our 10-choice card would be $208.05 per person.

New York Sightseeing FLEX Pass

  • 2 attractions – $64
  • 3 attractions – $89
  • 4 attractions – $110
  • 5 attractions – $135
  • 6 attractions – $150
  • 7 attractions – $165
  • 10 attractions – $199

The 10-attraction Sightseeing Pass is already $10 cheaper, plus we got a Father’s Day discount which made each ticket for 10 attractions only $159.20! We found that it would still be worth it for the original price though – read on!

How Did We Decide?

No matter which package you want, whether a quick two-day trip or a longer trip like ours, it comes down to what you want to see and how much it would cost to pay for everything separately. Me being my stingy self, I wanted to find out how much money we would save if we went to the most expensive attractions that we wanted to see. To get a general idea, you can see the value on each of the company’s websites: Sightseeing Pass here and the Explorer Pass here. Take these with a grain of salt though because some of the prices are exaggerated. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History are both “Pay what you want” and the listed fees on the websites are actually the “suggested admission” prices. Don’t waste one of your valuable “Attractions” on these!

Here is our suggested method of planning your trip:

  1. Make a list of places you want to go
  2. Check each attraction’s website to confirm its cost
  3. Since each pass is around $200 for 10 attractions, make sure your average price per attraction is over $20.
  4. Read the fine print! Does any attraction say “only covers blahbitty-blah?” Does it require booking in advance? Be sure to check these things before making your choice. Nothing worse than getting all the way to Ellis Island only to find out the tour doesn’t actually include going inside the Statue of Liberty!

After looking at the list on both websites, we decided on the following attractions:

  1. Empire State Building – $37

For the Main Deck on the 86th, the 102nd floor is $20 more and not included. Also, for the Sightseeing Pass, this attraction isn’t technically included. You need to redeem your $40 Attraction Credit and book this for free through CitySitesNY.com.

  1. Top of the Rock Observatory – $36

$5 extra for Sunset Times not included.

  1. One World Trade Observatory – $32

Only available on the Sightseeing Pass, not the Explorer Pass.

  1. Coney Island Luna Park – $49

The $49 fixed date pass includes ALL rides when purchased separately. The Explorer and Sightseeing pass both exclude the iconic Cyclone roller coaster and any “Extreme Thrill” rides. We decided to use this on the Sightseeing Pass and pay the $8 each if we want to ride the Cyclone.

  1. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty – $25.50

NOT including access to the pedestal and crown of the statue. Only includes ferry and access to the Immigration Museum. To get to the Crown, you need to book months in advance here for $21.50.

  1. Hop on, Hop Off Bus – $59

Downtown Tour, Uptown Tour, Brooklyn Tour, Night Tour and Ferry Tour. Unfortunately, the Night Tour and Ferry Tour count as separate attractions.

  1. Hop on, Hop Off Night Tour – $0

Valued at $0 because the $59 when purchased separately here lets you ride all four tours, including the night tour, for one price. We already counted that $59 above, so we can’t count it again here.

  1. Spyscape – $39
  2. I ntrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum – $39
  3. 9/11 Memorial Museum – $24

Grand total if purchased separately – $340.50

Total savings with the Sightseeing Flex Pass – $141.50

Total we will save because of the Father’s Day discount: $181.30

Wow! So either way, even if you aren’t lucky enough to score the discount we did, you’ll be saving some serious money!

The Verdict

When it comes right down to it, these are very similar passes offering an almost identical list of attractions for a similar price. We went with the Sightseeing Pass because it includes One World Trade, we got a discount on Father’s Day, and it was already $10 cheaper. Make a list of attractions check the prices and fine print, and you’re sure to save with either pass.

Want your own pass? Use the affiliate links below! It’ll help The Travel Bug Bite grow =)

New York Sightseeing Pass: http://www.anrdoezrs.net/links/8827860/type/dlg/https://www.sightseeingpass.com/en/new-york

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Five Things NEVER to Buy at the Grocery Store Again

These days it’s easy to get caught up in all the flashy products available at the supermarket. Everything has a fancy, complicated version of itself. Pick up a bottle of tomato sauce at a grocery store and count the ingredient. Now grab the tortillas and see if you can pronounce all the chemicals. Finally, look at the fancy $10 organic peanut butter, and you’ll see the point I’m trying to get to: salt and peanuts. That’s it…

These days it’s easy to get caught up in all the flashy products available at the supermarket. Everything has a fancy, complicated version of itself. Pick up a bottle of tomato sauce at a grocery store and count the ingredients. Now grab the tortillas and see if you can pronounce all the chemicals. Finally, look at the fancy $10 organic peanut butter, and you’ll see the point I’m trying to get to: salt and peanuts. That’s it.

The peanut butter example is to show that there’s no reason to buy something like this in the store when it’s so simple. The other examples illustrate all of the useless and complicated things that are in basic products. I’m here to tell you about 5 things that are ridiculously easy to make in your own kitchen. There’s no need to EVER buy any of them in the store. You’ll save money, get creative, be healthier, waste fewer containers, and most importantly be able to show off to your friends.

#1 – Peanut butter

Why God, why? WHY do we insist on buying this crap when it literally has two ingredients! You have been LIED to your whole life that peanut butter is something to buy at the store! Not only is it always sold in wasteful plastic, it’s usually loaded with extra salt, sometimes sugar, and all sorts of other chemicals. “Oh, but I buy the fancy organic peanut butter” I hear you say. Again, WHY? This can be made at home in ten minutes, for a fifth of the price. Here’s how.

1. Put peanuts in the oven for 10 minutes at 190 degrees C.
2. Put peanuts in a food processor and pulse. Scrape down the sides. Pulse.
3. Repeat until it’s peanut butter.

That’s it. Never again will you pay $10 for a jar of peanut butter containing $2 worth of peanuts.

#2 – Milk

Okay, yes, I’m vegan, but that isn’t my point here. Obviously, most of us don’t have a cow out back that we can milk for cow’s milk. I’m referring to the alternatives, like rice milk, cashew milk, almond milk, etc. This is also something that’s insanely easy to make at home. Most alternatives to cow’s milk are healthier too! You don’t have to be a vegan to appreciate the smooth taste of freshly made almond milk. Instead of buying a $5 carton of milk every week, try this:

1. Fill a large mason jar 1/3 of the way up with almonds. Fill the jar with water.
2. Wait a few hours, or overnight.
3. Drain the almonds, fill the water up again (drinkable water this time).
4. Dump water and almonds into a blender.
5. Blend.
6. Strain out the almonds with a fine strainer or nut bag, back into the mason jar.

That’s it. You can do the exact same thing with rice, any nut, oats, chia seeds, pretty much any grain. No more wasting cartons, wasting money, or torturing cows for no reason.

#3 – Tortillas

Again, two ingredients, maybe three if you’re feeling frisky. Ignore the novel on the back of your overpriced tortillas and grab some flour. You can make literally hundreds of tortillas for the price of that package, and your gut will thank you for it. Here’s how:

1. Dump a bunch of flour into a bowl. I don’t know, let’s say 300 grams.
2. Add a cup of water and stir until it’s doughy. Not too sticky. Imagine pizza dough.
3. Sprinkle some dough onto your (clean) counter.
4. Grad a golf ball-sized wad of dough and flatten it over the flour. Use a rolling pin or your hands. You’ll get better with practice. Flip it occasionally.
5. Add a LITTLE oil to a pan and get it SUPER hot.
6. Cook the tortilla on that pan for 30-60 seconds on either side.

That’s it. If you like it salty, add some salt to the dough. Or anything. Cinnamon, garlic, any seeds or grains, all can be additions. Play with it however you want. Keep the packaging of your old tortillas in the bathroom for some light reading on those especially long visits.

#4 – Oatmeal

This stuff can be SUPER expensive when you buy the fancy kind. But let’s not do that. Let’s see what’s lying around your house and make it into something you can have for breakfast for a week or more. Grab any nuts you have (peanuts, cashews, almonds), some cinnamon, rolled oats, and some honey or agave.

1. Put all the things listed above into a bowl.
2. Mix them around a bunch with your (clean) hands.
3. Spread it all out onto a baking pan and bake at 200 C for 20-25 min.
4. Lick your fingers.

That’s it. Once it cools, put it in a big container and it’ll store for weeks. Use some of that milk you made earlier for an incredibly healthy and delicious breakfast.

#5 – Guacamole

Ah yes, the caviar of the hipster. People will shell out 10 bucks for a jar of this (welcome to China). You can make it at home for $3. Go and get three avocados, half an onion, as much garlic as you can stand, a lemon and a tomato from your kitchen.

1. Chop up the ingredients above and throw them into a food processor (obviously, squeeze the lemon; don’t chop it…).
2. Press the “On” button.
3. Wait one minute.

That’s… Yeah. That’s it. You just made some delicious guac to serve with the two-ingredient tortillas you made earlier. Make both these things for less than $5 at your next potluck and you’ll be famous. Take THAT, Cindy and Martin from down the street.

So yeah. You can make all this at home, mostly with stuff you have lying around anyway. Hopefully, you found at least one of these things useful, and even more importantly, I hope that next time you’re at the supermarket and pick up a product, you’ll think twice and maybe do a quick Google search of “How to make ______ at home.” You’ll be surprised what you can do yourself!

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Going Zero-Waste: 5 Things You Can Do RIGHT NOW!

Recently our friends and readers have been asking us what steps they can take to “go zero-waste.” Maybe they’ve have read that America alone uses 100 billion plastic bags a year. Possibly they are worried about the impact we’re having on marine life, like the whales that are being found washed-up with their stomachs full of plastic. Maybe they’ve heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that’s now twice the size of Texas. Whatever the reason, they want to know what a single person could possibly do to help!

Recently our friends and readers have been asking us what steps they can take to “go zero-waste.” Maybe they’ve have read that America alone uses 100 billion plastic bags a year. Possibly they are worried about the impact we’re having on marine life, like the whales that are being found washed-up with their stomachs full of plastic. Maybe they’ve heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that’s now twice the size of Texas. Whatever the reason, they want to know what a single person could possibly do to help!

Living a lifestyle free of needless waste doesn’t have to be hard. With a few simple steps, you can be on your way! It’s important to remember that striving towards a zero-waste lifestyle is NOT an all-or-nothing endeavor. Every little bit helps! Here are five things you can do to start RIGHT NOW!

1. Carry a “Zero-waste kit” in your car, bag, or purse.

My wife and I realized that the three single-use products we used the most were plastic bottles, to-go products and plastic straws. Instead of using these every day, consider making a Zero-Waste kit with things like reusable cutlery, aluminum straws, a collapsible container and of course, a reusable water bottle. Read more details in our Guide to Building a Zero-Waste Kit.

2. Say no to plastic bags

We buy a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. Here in China, vendors love to bag each item separately. For a while, we were each using up to five plastic bags every single day. That’s thousands of bags a year! Not anymore! Buy yourself a reusable canvas bag, sold at any major grocery store. In my backpack, I always carry a Trader Joe’s bag for fruits, vegetables and anything else I might buy on the way home from work. Why bag everything separately? It’s all going the same place!

Having said this, don’t throw away the precious plastic bags you might still have at home! Feel free to keep using those! Just try not to build up your supply.

3. Buy in bulk and use what you have

Of course, if you want to buy a bunch of oats, seeds, grains or nuts you can’t exactly put it all in one big canvas bag. I know it’s convenient to stop at a bulk shop on your way home and grab the necessities in plastic bags, but consider bringing some containers with you. This can be free! Use anything you have around the house. We buy a lot of Nutritional Yeast and these large containers are fantastic for buying things in bulk and storing them at home. So what if the vendor gives me a weird look when I ask them to weight my cashews in a Nooch jar? We’re trying to save the world here! And guess what, maybe she’ll go out and tell her friends about the (“crazy”) guy who went out of his way not to use plastic. Another great way to spread the word!

4. Always ask for less plastic

We know ordering online is the easiest way to get what you want easily and quickly. Heck, I post links to products all the time! I’m not asking you to stop ordering online, especially if what your ordering is helping you on your way to a zero-waste lifestyle. Just one suggestion: most websites have a “note to seller” option when you’re checking out. Just put a quick note in there requesting less packaging, if possible. Does your new collapsible container need to be bubble wrapped a thousand times? No! Do the two sandwiches you ordered from Subway need to be bagged separately? Of course not! Even if the seller refuses, asking can’t hurt. If enough people start putting notes like this in their purchases, maybe companies will start following the trend! If we keep it up, more eco-friendly packaging options will become available.

5. No one is perfect!

Ok, so you’ve got your zero-waste kit, you’re saying no to plastic bags and straws and you’re asking sellers to use less plastic. One day, you forget to bring your straws and your favorite vendor gives you a plastic one. Another day, you really need to order a breakable item that will come shipped in bubble-wrap. It’s okay! Don’t beat yourself up about it! Striving towards a zero-waste lifestyle is a process and no one is perfect. No one is asking you to abandon all worldly conveniences and go live in the woods. Remember EVERY TIME you make a conscious decision not to use a plastic bag, that’s one less bag that could end up in the ocean. EVERY TIME you do remember your zero waste kit, you’ve won a small victory towards a better future.

Being 100% zero-waste is extremely difficult and sometimes seems impossible. But taking small steps on the way there is easy! You’ll save money, have less junk in your car and home, and most importantly will be a constant voice in the growing choir that’s chanting the same thing:

“I can make a difference!”

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Creating a Zero-Waste Kit: It’s Easy and Cheap!

In the morning, you stop at Starbucks for an iced coffee. You like it sweet, so your stir in some sugar. You’re late, so you grab a quick bagel off the street for breakfast. Next, you stop at the local deli to grab a sandwich and a bottle of water to have later for lunch, plus a couple mustard packets to spice it up. By the time you get to work, you’ve inadvertently used a paper cup (lined with plastic), a plastic lid, a straw, a plastic stirrer, two sugar packets, a plastic bottle, a plastic bag and packaging for your bagel, plastic wrapping and a plastic bag for your sandwich, plus two plastic mustard packets. Statistically, 10% of that will end up in the ocean.

In the morning, you stop at Starbucks for an iced coffee. You like it sweet, so your stir in some sugar. You’re late, so you grab a quick bagel off the street for breakfast. Next, you stop at the local deli to grab a sandwich and a bottle of water to have later for lunch, plus a couple mustard packets to spice it up. By the time you get to work, you’ve inadvertently used a paper cup (lined with plastic), a plastic lid, a straw, a plastic stirrer, two sugar packets, a plastic bottle, a plastic bag and packaging for your bagel, plastic wrapping and a plastic bag for your sandwich, plus two plastic mustard packets. Statistically, 10% of that will end up in the ocean.

Am I asking you to give you your coffee and street food in the morning? No! Am I asking you not to get your favorite sandwich for lunch? Absolutely not! Can you enjoy all these things without single-use plastic? The answer is a resounding YES! You might even save some money. Here’s how to create a zero waste kit that’ll fit in any bag or purse.

  • Water Bottle: By far the most important thing to have on you at all times. Why pay money for a single-use bottle when you can bring your own? I tend to prefer drinking from glass bottles like these but you can carry a BPA-free plastic one if that’s too heavy for you.
  • Coffee Cup: Whether you like it hot or iced, it’s easy to carry a cup for your coffee. Some places, like Starbucks, even offer a discount! Try this one for iced or this one for hot.
  • Cutlery Kit: Instead of using plastic knives and forks, carry around a portable cutlery kit like this one. This kit is less than 150 grams, making it easy to carry around in any purse or bag!
  • Collapsible container: Fan of street food? Like to order take-out? Carry around one of these silicone collapsible containers. They’re BPA free, can withstand very hot and very cold temperatures and can be thrown in the dishwasher after use. They’re great to use at home too!
  • Aluminum straws: If you’re a fan of smoothies, juice, cola or iced coffee, you no doubt use a lot of plastic straws. Not anymore! Just grab a set of reusable aluminum straws! Just remember to remind your server that you brought your own!

Now, let’s go back to your morning commute:

You stop in at Starbucks and hand them your cup. You get a 10 cent discount on your coffee, which will add up to $20 a year in savings. You kindly ask the barista to add some sugar for you, which they do from a glass jar. You stir the iced coffee with a spoon from your cutlery kit and pop in your aluminum straw. Now you’re headed to the bagel shop, where you kindly ask them to hand it to you without any packaging. You eat your bagel on the way to the deli, where you order your sandwich for lunch. They know you by now, so they accept your reusable container with a smile and even offer to wash it for you. They know you like it spicy, so they add some mustard from the deli counter. You put your boxed sandwich in your bag or purse and head to work, having used ZERO single-uses products. No new waste will end up in the ocean, and at lunch, you’ll be a constant advocate for your new lifestyle as your friends and colleagues watch you take out your container for lunch and fill your water bottle from the tap.

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Bali 2018: Seawalker Experience

For the underwater sea walker experience, our driver took us to a small beach on Turtle Island. This area is generally pretty controversial because of their treatment of turtles and other animals, so we skipped the animal experiences and went straight for the Sea Walking.

Upon arrival, we were sat down and shown a list of water activities and prices. The Seawalker experience was listed at $90 per person which is more than double what we’d read about online. We showed him a post on our phone with a much lower price, and he agreed to let us go for $40 each.

Remember, in Bali you can bargain anywhere! This whole setup reminded me of buying a used car, complete with the guy going to a back room to talk to his boss every time we asked for a lower price… In summary, don’t go for the listed price or you will get RIPPED OFF!

Next we were given a key to a locker, changed into swimsuits, and hopped on a 5-minute boat ride. We were a bit nervous to begin with but our guides reassured us and gave us a briefing on how the experience works. There were just a few simple rules: keep your head level, only look up, and don’t look down or your helmet will fill with water.

Even if that happened though, they said we could just look up again and the helmet would fill with air. Oh, and remember that a thumbs-up gesture doesn’t mean everything’s good, it means TAKE ME UP NOW I’M FREAKING OUT! If you want to say you’re OK, use the OK symbol.

After putting on water shoes and getting in the water, they lowered huge weighted helmets onto our heads. They must have weighed 50 pounds each because we immediately were immediately pulled down.

Climbing down slowly, we kept having to pop our ears to equalize the pressure. If you’ve never been deep under water before, it’s easy. Just stick your hand inside the helmet, plug your nose, and blow out. This should do the trick.

When we got to the bottom we had a few minutes to get used to breathing in the helmet, walking without looking down, and just the sheer craziness of the whole situation. From there we were free to roam around a bit, taking selfies with the thpousands of fish surrounding us.

I said earlier that we avoided the controversial animal activities, but it turned out that this experience wasn’t exactly environmentally friendly either. The guide took out fish food and let us hand-feed it to the fish, which was cool, but we couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty for intruding on their environment. But on a scale of seeing animals in the wild to exploiting animals in the circus, this was closer to the former.

After being hand-fed for a while by humans, these fish have been domesticated and probably wouldn’t survive without us, but at least they’re not caged in at an aquarium. It was a lot of fun, but we probably wouldn’t do it again because of the impact on the fish.

After 10 minutes of Ooooing and Ahhhhing at the fish and coral, the guide signaled that it was time to go up. I was starting to feel a bit like Darth Vader in the helmet, so that was enough time for me.

This was a once in a lifetime experience, and we’re still on the fence about the impact on the environment. If you decide to go on a sea walk, just keep in mind that you’re guests in the fish’s home, try not to disturb their surroundings.

For more adventures in Bali and around the world, follow The Travel Bug Bite!

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10 Tips for Travelling to Bali

Bali is a wonderful place to visit from anywhere in the world, at any time of year. To get you ready for your trip, here are some tips for travelling to Bali. The first 5 are tips for preparing to go, and the last 5 are things to keep in mind after you’ve arrived.

1. Visas

Great news! Citizens of over 140 countries in the world no longer need visas to enter Bali. Click here to see if you’re eligible! If you’ve read that there’s a Visa fee, that information is outdated. The 30-day stamp is free. The only thing you need is a copy of your itinerary for your flight leaving Bali, and you’re good to go for up to 30 days. Bear in mind that this free visa is NOT extendable. To get an extendable visa you need to pay $35.

2. Flights

When we book a trip, we usually book the flights and accommodation WELL in advance and worry about the details later. For flights, we always use Skyscanner.com. If your dates are somewhat flexible, you can get a great deal. We paid around $400 for a round-trip from Shanghai and my mother paid about $800 for a round-trip from JFK in New York. We flew during the Chinese New Year holiday, which should have made it super expensive, but we booked nearly a year in advance. The earlier you book, the cheaper the flight (generally). If you’re coming from the States, expect to have a layover if you want a cheap flight. With a layover, a trip from JFK takes around 24 hours. But it’s worth the wait!

3. Accommodation

Some people like to more spontaneous, but we tend to book accommodation in advance. In Bali, AirBnB is a great way to find a place to stay on a budget. We stayed at several places for as low as $5 a night per person and had no complaints. You can get hotels for much more, or hostels for even less, but we find AirBnB to be a great middle-ground, and it’s easy to use in Bali. Make sure you get the AirBnB app so you can stay in contact with the hosts.

4. Transport

Uber and Grab both work in Bali, but be careful. The local taxi operators absolutely HATE Uber because it drives out their business, and we’ve heard some stories about Uber drivers actually being physically assaulted by local taxi drivers in certain areas. It’s very likely you’ll find an Uber connection and then get a message from your driver asking for your WhatsApp info so you can arrange pickup outside of the app… This is kind of annoying, but it’s still cheaper than a local taxi. When we were travelling from Ubud to Sanur, the official Uber price was 90,000 Rupiah, but the driver wanted 200,000 in cash without using the app. We settled on 150,000 but had to walk a bit and meet him outside the center of the city because he was afraid of conflicts with the local taxi drivers.

Instead of battling with Uber in the sometimes unforgiving Balinese heat, we opted to have a private driver for the day any time we wanted to go to multiple destinations. Almost any local taxi driver will offer these 8-12 hour tours and many of them even have brochures in their back seats. Expect to pay around 500,000 Rupiah, or about $35 USD, for an entire day of driving you around. The drivers are trustworthy and don’t expect payment until the end of the day, and the best part is that you can leave your bags in the car and go sightseeing without being weighed down. We used this kind of service at least four full days on our trip and believe us, it’s worth the money!

5. Internet

Planning on the go is the best way to enjoy Bali. Don’t bother making a detailed itinerary and booking tours in advance because it’s much easier and cheaper to be flexible, and the unpredictable weather can unexpectedly change your plans in a heartbeat. To be this flexible, it’s MUCH easier if you have an Indonesian SIM card. Call your carrier in advance to make sure your phone is unlocked, get a SIM card at the airport when you arrive, and you’re good to go for the whole trip. A 7-day plan with 4.5 gigs of data cost us a whopping 45,000 Rupiah, or just over $3 USD.

Now that we’ve covered the planning phase, here are some tips for after your arrival in Bali!

6. Food

The food in Bali is great! It’s not too spicy like some other areas of Asia (I’m look at YOU, Thailand), and you can get a variety of different options, both meat and vegetarian. We didn’t cook much because the food is so cheap, and because our AirBnBs didn’t have kitchens. Specifically in Ubud, there are some great buffets for only 50,000 Rupiah ($3.50) for all you can eat vegan food. They even had vegan cakes and ice cream! Even if you’re not a vegan, this is hands down the best option. Other places we went for vegan food include Happy Buddha and Loving Hut in Denpasar. Aside from that, there’s always good old street food which is both incredibly cheap and delicious. Just bring a few extra Tupperware boxes, because if you eat on the street a lot it tends to create a LOT of plastic waste… In short, you won’t go hungry in Bali, there are plenty of options, and it won’t break the bank even if you eat out for literally every meal and never cook yourself.

7. Money

Indonesia uses the Indonesian Rupiah. At the time of this recording, there were about 13,000 Rupiah in one US dollar. This can get pretty confusing when you withdraw a million Rupiah from the ATM and the machine spits out 20 blue 50,000 Rupiah notes… To save your head some pain, keep the magic number 7 in mind. The biggest bank note is 100,000 Rupiah, which is almost exactly $7. From there, it’s pretty easy to work out prices. 10,000 is 70 cents, 100,000 is $7, and a million is $70. We found ourselves going to the ATM almost every day because there is often a one million rupiah limit per transaction, but don’t let that get you down. With such high numbers and low value notes, it can start to feel like you’re spending a lot of money. Keep reminding yourself that 100,000 is only $7, and you’ll marvel at how cheap everything is in Bali!

8. Language

Generally we recommended learning a bit of the local language before travelling to a new place, but to be honest, we found that almost everyone we interacted with was very happy to speak English. Go ahead and learn some Indonesian phrases if you want to, but English will get you through just fine. Just don’t be too rude about expecting everyone to speak perfect English =)

9. Monkeys

Yes, that’s right, a whole segment on these little devils. Monkeys are everywhere in Bali. From the high cliffs of Uluwatu Temple to the streets of Ubud, these very cute and photogenic creatures can be tricky little things. They won’t physically harm you, but if you have food on you they WILL seek it out and they WILL take it. At Uluwatu Temple, they are notorious for taking sunglasses and hats straight off people’s heads and holding them ransom until you give them food. Believe me, it happened with my own glasses. Just keep your stuff out of reach, don’t get too close, take some photos and everyone should get along just fine. Remember, you’re guests in THEIR house, not the other way around.

10. Where to go?

Again, you want to be pretty flexible because of weather and energy levels. Some days you might decide you just want to relax on the beach after several long days of sightseeing. We’re pretty ambitious travelers and always try to see as much as possible in the amount of time we have. To give you an idea of what you could see on a ten day trip, check out our 10 Day Bali Itinerary.

Those are our tips for planning a trip to Bali! If you have any other tips or experiences, please post them in the comments below!

 

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Bali Holiday: A 10(ish) Day Itinerary

So you’re thinking about a trip to Bali, or at least a way to vicariously live through a fantasy trip, but you aren’t sure what you’ll have the time or money to do there. Well, we’ve just returned from an unforgettable trip in Bali, and we managed to do everything we dreamed of and more, without breaking the bank!

If you have ten days in Bali, this is the place for you! If you have less time, you can use the information here to pick and choose what you want to see. If you have more time, well, take it a bit more slowly!

One more note: This is just the order we happened to do things based on internet research, suggestions from locals, and weather. Your itinerary could be in a completely different order! I have to say though, that this trip worked out perfectly for us and there isn’t much we would change, given another chance.

Day 1:

Overview: This day was primarily arrival, resting up, and planning the next 10 days.

Ngurah Rai International Airport, Denpasar:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y85v9y3u

More info: https://www.baliairport.com

Personal tips: Pretty easy airport to get out of. Grab a $5 SIM card, fire up Uber, and get where you’re going for cheap. Don’t take rides from random taxis unless you want to pay more than double the price. Alternatively, arrange to be picked up with your hotel or even AirBnB. We got this service for less than $15 for three people. It’s more expensive but gives you peace of mind.

Planning: We spent most of this day planning the rest of our busy trip. Read on to see the results!

Day 2:

Overview: The night before, we’d hired a private taxi driver who had picked us up the previous night. He charged us 500,000 Rupaih ($35 USD) for an entire 8-hour day of driving us wherever we wanted to go. He was very nice, trustworthy, had many suggestions, and the best thing about it was being able to leave our things in the car while we were out sightseeing. Don’t pay your driver until the end of the day, just to be sure! And if you use a private driver, be sure to get their phone number so you can find them after each activity.

Recommended: Bosono +62 822-8205-1311

Barong Dance:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yc4vtuol

More info: https://tinyurl.com/yb9keexj

Personal tips: Must see while in Bali. A very interesting cultural experience, complete with slapstick comic relief. Entry fee RM 100,000 ($7 USD).

Sea Walker Experience:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yahstck3

More info: https://www.water-sports-bali.com

Personal tips: They asked us initially for $90 per person, but we showed them a website that was much cheaper on our phones. We managed to get them down to RM 500,000 per person, about $35 each. The experience was amazing and can’t be described in words, so check out the above YouTube link!

Tohpati Batik Village:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yb6txvzo

More info: https://tinyurl.com/y8y3s9u8

Personal tips: They will offer to batik a quick design on your clothes, so be sure to decline if you’re wearing anything expensive. Inside, you can buy lots of batik good for very reasonable prices.

Celuk Gold and Silver Village:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ybxewlw9 (Celuk Village)

More info: https://tinyurl.com/y88qkecv

Personal tips: A bit depressing to see the conditions these people work in, but still interesting to see how jewelry is made. If you plan on buying anything, start by offering 50% of the asking price and go from there.

Coffee Plantation:

Google Maps: All over the place, including right next to the Gold and Silver Village

More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak

Personal tips: To be honest we didn’t note the name of this plantation, but they are everywhere. Just tell your driver you want to try Luwak Coffee and they’ll take you to the nearest one. Generally they offer free tasting of all the different kinds of coffee! We bought some to take home; it was delicious! We gave the actual Luwak coffee a miss though, because of the inhumane exploitation of the animals.

Painting “Village”:

Google Maps: All over the place

More info: http://www.whatsnewbali.com/must-visit-traditional-villages-in-bali/

Personal tips: These art markets are also everywhere. Just tell your driver to take you to a painting market. If you want to buy something, be prepared to haggle!

Uluwatu Temple:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ycb2mxsc

More info: https://tinyurl.com/ya356eop

Personal tips: Best view of the sunset in Bali, possibly in the world. Don’t miss out on this amazing chance. BE CAREFUL OF THE MONKEYS! One of them stole my glasses and threatened to break them. Fortunately there are local ladies nearby who accept 20,000 RM to bribe the monkeys with fruit to get your stuff back. Keep your hat and glasses in your bag, and your bags closed.

Day 3:

Overview: We hired Bosono again for the day, and it was well worth the price!

Kemuneh Butterfly Garden:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yah2hgpx

More info: http://www.kemenuhbutterflypark.com

Personal Tips: Probably the best butterfly garden we’ve ever been to. Very humane conditions, helpful and informative staff, and overall good vibe. You can even hold giant moths and stick insects!

Tegenungan Waterfall:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yabqmbhm

More info: https://tinyurl.com/ybgt3hjo

Personal Tips: Be prepared for lots of stairs and an amazing view. If it’s the middle of the day, use sun screen and a hat, and bring some water.

Batuan Temple:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y8lcj3ss

More info: https://tinyurl.com/y9rnzm9b

Personal Tips: Beautiful 10th century temple complex, small donation suggestion for renting a sarong.

Two Guns Tattoo Studio:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y7ecyhy3

More info: https://www.facebook.com/TwoGunsTattooStudioBali/

Personal Tips: Best tattoo shop in Bali! We paid 1.2 million ($80 USD) for a small tattoo (Australian cleanliness standards). This is the minimum price and it goes up from there.

Tanah Lot Temple:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yd94z5qc

More info: https://tinyurl.com/h6jh2ff

Personal Tips: We honestly enjoyed Uluwatu more for the sunset but it could have been because of the weather. It was quite crowded, cloudy, and very windy. I’m sure it would be nicer in better weather, so definitely don’t pass this up. For the sunset, head up the stairs to one of the many restaurants and grab a cheap beer.

Ubud: Our next stop was the town of Ubud, which is a great central location for all activities in Bali.

Day 4

Overview: Money forest and massage!

Monkey Forest:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y9kmmn2l

More info: https://www.monkeyforestubud.com

Personal Tips: Walkable from almost anywhere in Ubud. Remember that you’re a guest in the monkeys’ house, and be nice to them! The walk through the forest is beautiful, and the monkeys are much friendlier than at Uluwatu Temple.

Massage: Google Maps: Anywhere

Personal Tips: Get yourself a massage at any of the various spas in Ubud. We paid RM 100,000 ($7) for a one-hour deep-tissue massage. Perfect midway through a busy trip!

We went to bed early, because the next day started at 2 AM!

Day 5

Overview: Mount Batur Sunrise Trekking!

Mount Batur Sunrise Trekking:

Google Maps (Mountain itself): https://tinyurl.com/y73pcu82

More info: https://tinyurl.com/yaobh3ca

Personal Tips: Don’t bother booking in advance because the weather is unpredictable and the price is higher online. Just ask the staff at your accommodation for the best and cheapest tour. Whether AirBnB, a hostel or hotel, they will point you in the right direction.

The rest of the day you may want to just relax, because you’ll be tired from the trek. We grabbed a bottle of wine from Coco supermarket and relaxed on our porch =)

Day 6:

Overview: We hired the host of our AirBnB to drive us around. RM 400,000 ($28 USD) for the whole day.

Tegallalang Rice Terrace:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yd4o8cj7

More info: https://tinyurl.com/gpgv7sw

Personal Tips: Try the nearby swing for a thrilling view of the terraces! Grab lunch at one of the many cheap eateries while enjoying the view.

Tirta Empul Temple:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y7f7tuxv

More info: https://tinyurl.com/jajdo7f

Personal Tips: Pack a bathing suit and purify yourself in the holy spring. Remember to be respectful of the religious customs. Definitely a spiritually rewarding experience, even if you are not religious. Don’t get the outdoor sarong wet! Rent the special green one for the water.

Gunung Kawi Temple:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y8ebjvbp

More info: https://tinyurl.com/hmvnjay

Personal Tips: Be prepared to climb a lot of stairs, but it’s worth it. When you finish, get a coffee from one of the shops at the top overlooking the rice terraces. We had a rainy day, but it was still magical.

Day 7:

Overview: We spent this day touring the Tamblingan Twin Lakes region! We used Bali Dynasty Tours, and their price and service can’t be beat: https://tinyurl.com/y9qzzfgh. 650,000 for a driver for the day plus 600,000 for the tour of the lakes. Overall, around $27 USD per person for the day! They do offer an all-inclusive tour that includes Lunch and entrance fees, but we went with just the driver.

Tamblingan Twin Lakes Tour:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ybu4q637

Personal Tips: Go with the agency listed above. Our guide was amazing, took us to the best spots, and the price was very good. They took us to Ulundanu Temple, Banyumala Twin Waterfall, Ulun Danu Temple, and the Bali Botanical Gardens. Oh, and on that note:

Botanical Gardens:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y9lpq59o

More info: https://tinyurl.com/y92n89v5

Personal Tips: Don’t go here at the end of the day. It was beautiful and seemed to have a lot to offer, but it was closing when we arrived at 4:30. If you want to go here, set aside at least half a day. Allegedly, this garden is home to the famously aromatic “Corpse Flower!”

Day 8:

Overview: We left our awesome accommodation in Ubud for an equally awesome one in Sanur: Pondok Nuri Homestay. We spent most of the day at the beach!

Beach, Pantai Matahari Terbit:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yayzknhu

Personal Tips: Much less busy than Sanur beach and lots of cheap shopping in the area. You can also catch a ferry from here to the nearby island of Nusa Penida, but we decided it wasn’t worth the 300,000 RM each for just a day-trip. If you have an extra night, we hear it’s a great stopover!

Day 9:

Overview: Hidden Canyon, Uluwatu Part 2!

Hidden Canyon Beji Guwang:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y78p45pd

More info: https://tinyurl.com/yb7bljf3

Personal Tips: Not for the faint of heart! Be ready to climb, balance, and swim against strong currents. If you’re physically fit and adventurous, don’t miss out on this amazing place. Be sure to call ahead to make sure they are open though! They often close it off after heavy rain. +62 857-3727-0288

Uluwatu Temple Kecak Dance:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ycb2mxsc

More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kecak

Personal Tips: We only went to Uluwatu a second time because the tickets for the Kecak dance had been sold out the first time. Be sure to arrive by 4 to get tickets and a good seat for this amazing show!

Day 10:

Overview: Just the beach today!

Sanur Beach:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y9plfggh

More info: http://www.bali-indonesia.com/sanur/

Personal Tips: It was our last day, so we stayed here all day. Good shopping in the area, lots of food and cheap drinks, white sands, and a nice view. We paid a small fee to use beach chairs and umbrellas. We even rented a jet ski in the area! We paid 380,000 for 15 minutes.

Day 11:

Pack your bags and head to the airport. Uber will get you there for very cheap!

Accommodation:

Family Room Denpasar – Moslem village – AirBnB:

More info: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/19789795

Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/y7H5efYR9Un

Personal Tips: $4 a night per person. Incredible price. But, bring earplugs if you stay here because the nearby mosque has a loud call to prayer every day at 5 AM. Aside from that, it was amazing. Good location and friendly house-sitter.

Tutde’s Place – AirBnB:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ya2nxzv3

More info: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/15332469

Personal Tips: if you come to Ubud, stay here. It’s awesome. That is all.

Pondok Nuri Homestay, Sanur:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ya8szp8m

More info: https://tinyurl.com/y8cm33zl

Personal Tips: Clean rooms, good price, nice host, perfect location, can’t complain!

Food:

Loving Hut, Denpasar:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ycobpqot

Website: http://www.lovinghut.co.id

Personal Tips: Great place to go for vegan food! Even if you’re not vegan, the food is amazing and cheap.

Happy Buddha, Denpasar:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y73mt3nx

More info: https://tinyurl.com/y78kztzj

Personal Tips: More awesome vegan food in Denpasar, with a very kind lady running the place.

Veggie Karma, Ubud:

Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/yakftjbf

More info: https://tinyurl.com/yba34vry

Personal Tips: ALL YOU CAN EAT for under $4! All vegan food! Even if you’re not vegan, don’t even THINK about not eating here at least once. We ate here three times and could barely walk afterwards. Also, there’s a similar place next door that offers the same price, and they even have coconut milk ice cream! In short, Ubud is a haven for vegans.

Street food and cafes:

Personal Tips: There are cafes and street food everywhere! Enjoy the cheap food in Bali!

And that’s it! We hope you found this itinerary useful for your planning! Don’t over-plan though, because life in Bali can be unpredictable! If you have your own experiences, please comment!

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Harbin Ice and Snow Festival 101: Weekend Guide

Is a winter trip to Harbin worth it for just the weekend? If you live in Eastern China, the answer is “Yes!” Not only is it possible, but we wholeheartedly recommend it!

You may have been searching around trying to figure out how to “Do Harbin in one Weekend” but have been getting some conflicting information. I know we were… Well, look no further! It took us quite a bit of searching around various forums, YouTube channels and Tripadvisor reviews to finally form a perfect itinerary for a winter weekend in Harbin. You can fly out after work on Friday and be home in time to get some sleep before returning to work on Monday!

If you’re just here for the basic info on the top sights in Harbin, scroll to the end. For a detailed itinerary read on! You’ll also find some tips on flights, accommodation, transport, food and weather. Here we go!

Friday – Arrival

This day is just for arrival and settling in. After heading out of the airport, you’ll get your first of many hefty slaps in the face by Jack Frost. Don’t worry though, because that long line of cars you see are all warm taxis and Didis. Don’t pay more than 200 RMB to get to the city center. We’ll cover transport and accommodation later in this article.

Anyway, unless you got off work super early and somehow arrived before midnight, you probably won’t have time to go out after arriving. We wouldn’t recommend staying out late anyway, because you’re in for a couple of long and chilly days!

Saturday – Sun Island + Ice and Snow World

On Saturday you’ll tackle the first two items on the list. Feel free to sleep in a bit and grab some breakfast nearby. You’re not in too much of a hurry because the main event of the day is in the evening. We arrived late, so we slept until about 9:00, suited up, and were out the door by 10:00.

Your first stop is the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Expo. It’s best to visit here during the day because at night the lighting isn’t so good, and of course because you want to spend your only night at Ice and Snow World. So, hop in a taxi or Didi and tell them to take you to Sun Island. You can show them the Chinese name and the picture at the end of this article.

We had them take us to Entrance #1. Follow the obvious mobs of people heading to the ticket booth and pay for your ticket. After entering, you’ll be herded by several guides into golfcart-like buses. It’ll take you about 1km to the main attraction of the park… Don’t be sad that you’re passing some statues and pretty scenery; you’re not missing a lot because the bulk of the things to see are at the end of the line. You can always return later if you have time – the park isn’t huge.

Spend a good hour or two walking around photographing the various sculptures and statues. While marveling at the artistic craftsmanship, remind yourself that Harbin does get very warm in the summer, and 100% of these sculptures are doomed to melt! This makes it all the more special to see. I’m intentionally not posting many photos, because you shouldn’t be spoiled!

There’s a café or two by the lake so if you get too cold go and grab some coffee (26 RMB) inside. There are also plenty of outlets to charge your batteries which you are no doubt noticing have lost half their charge already due to the frigid cold.

Head back out and make sure you’ve done a good circuit of all there is to see. When we were there, there was even a place to inner-tube down an icy hill at terrifying speeds – for free! Try it if you dare!

By 14:00 you should be finishing up this leg of the trip. Make your way back to where the bus let you off and head directly in the opposite direction from the entrance to the area, towards the cable cars. We managed to find it with a combination of Google Translate and miming, so I’m sure you’ll be fine!

The Cable Car costs 50 RMB one-way or 80 RMB round-trip. It takes you across the frozen Songhua River to the center of town. It’s up to you if you want to spend the extra 30 RMB to go both ways, but we just grabbed a 40 RMB Didi right to the Ice and Snow World when we got to the other side… After stopping at a shop for some well-deserved Russian vodka, that is!

Again, you can use the Chinese name and picture at the bottom of the page to show the taxi driver that you want to go to Ice and Snow World. Believe me, they’ll know where you want to go!

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the main attraction! Hopefully you’ve managed to make it by 15:00 or so because the sun will set by 17:30 and trust me, you’ll want to see this place both at day and at night.

Don’t head directly for the sign marked “Entrance”. Go to the indoor ticket hall first, pay the ridiculous but worth it entrance fee, fill up on some free hot water, and head to the entrance.

Here I’ll leave you to your own devices. Every year is vastly different so chances are the sculptures and structures are not the same as when we went in 2018. All I can advise is to try to do a quick circuit while the sun is going down, find some high ground to watch the sunset and turn the ice a gorgeous silvery color, and then be dazzled as lights go on everywhere, giving you a visual feast beyond your wildest imagination.

By 22:00 or even before, you’ve probably been inside and out several times, eaten some greasy KFC or dumplings, lost all feeling in your fingers and toes, and have been sufficiently wow’d by this marvel of man’s artistic manipulation of nature. It’s time to get back into a cosy bed! Take your last few snapshots and head out the main gate where taxis are waiting. We took a Didi around 22:30 and were in bed by 23:00.

Sunday – Zhongyang Street + St. Sophia’s Cathral

Good morning! Again, unless you have a pretty early flight you won’t be in any hurry. Our flight was at 19:55, so we could take our time. Adjust your schedule accordingly and head out a good 4-5 hours before you need to be at the airport. You’ll probably have to check out of your accommodation, but ask the reception, or the AirBnB host, if you can leave some luggage. Our host let us leave our things until 5!

This time you’ll have your taxi or Didi take you to Zhongyang Street. Again, show them the info at the bottom of the page and you’ll be good.

They’ll drop you off at the North end of this old street, and if you have a bit of extra time, head north a bit to Stalin Park before heading south down the historic street. You can once again gaze out at the frozen Songhua River, and if you’re feeling up to it you can skate, sled, slide, or eve drive a car out onto the river! We didn’t have time for those kinds of things so we grabbed a few snapshots and headed down Zhongyang Street. Along the way, you might see the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac all made of ice!

Zhongyang Street is basically a shopping street, but even if shopping isn’t your thing it’s a lot of fun. You’ll pass various shops selling Russian goods, a few Russian restaurants, interesting architecture, and of course, countless advertisements made of ice sculptures! Including lunch at one of the many pubs and restaurants, expect to spend about two hours on Zhonyang.

The streets are numbered on a grid, just like New York, and your next destination is on W 14th Street. Take a left onto this street and keep going until you see St. Sophia’s Cathedral. No need for more of a description because the massive Neo-Byzantine dome of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral will be a dead giveaway after 500 meters.

Spend a nominal 15 RMB on a ticket inside and pop in for an interesting experience. Having lived in Europe for quite some time, it was a bit odd for us to see how this church had been first closed down and then converted into a museum. The altar and pews are gone, and in their place are historic artifacts and photos. Not much information is in English, but it’s worth a quick look, especially for the cheap price.

Grab a few more photos from the back side of the Church, then get into one of the many taxis waiting behind it.

We had enough time to spare to also head to Zhaolin Park, but we decided against it. We felt like we had already been sufficiently satisfied with our experience of Harbin. Also, we read that it was best viewed at night, and that wasn’t an option for us. We’re not at all saying it’s not worth the trip, because we simply don’t know. Go for it if you have the time and energy! Take a look hereto help make your decision, or just play it by ear.

What we can say is not worth it during the day is the ice bar at the Shangri-La hotel. We wasted a bit of time going there and found that 1) it wasn’t open for business and 2) it’s more of a restaurant than a bar. It was kind of cool, but not worth the time. If you have an extra day and 300+ RMB to spend on dinner per person, go for it.

Head back to your hotel, hostel or BnB, grab your stuff, and head back to the airport! From the city, it should be around 180 RMB to get to the airport. Again, don’t pay more than 200. If you don’t use Didi, take a metered taxi to avoid any scams.

On the plane, browse through your photos, relish in this thrilling experience, post a few snapshots to social media to make your friends jealous, and take a well-deserved nap on the flight home. Go to sleep that night with visions of brilliantly-lit ice dragons swarming in your mind!

Logistical Notes:

Flights

Our go-to website for flights literally anywhere is Skyscanner. You can read more about it here. With the help of this website, you can book a flight from Shanghai to Harbin only a few weeks in advance for around $450 per person. We went with China Eastern Airlines to get there, and Spring Airlines to get back to Shanghai (PVG). With a little luck and flexibility, you should be able to get a similar price.

Accommodation

When it comes to budget travelling in comfort, you can’t beat AirBnB. We found a place just a 10 minute drive to most of the main attractions for $84 for the whole weekend, for three people. If you break it down, that’s $14 per person per night. There are hostels for cheaper than that, but this place has had private bedrooms with huge beds and was very quiet. It’s a matter of preference, but we usually go with AirBnB. The host didn’t even speak English, but we got their WeChat info and used that to communicate the whole time and had zero problems even though we arrived at 1:00 in the morning! Here’s a link to the place we stayed.

Verdict: If AirBnB isn’t your thing and you don’t mind spending extra, there are plenty of nice hotels in the area. Check out Booking.com or CTrip. If you want even cheaper than AirBnB and don’t mind sleeping in a dorm-style room, you can find beds for as little as $7 each on Hostelworld.

Transport

Like with accommodation, this is down to comfort to cost ratio. For transport in general, you’re looking at three possibilities:

  1. Public bus – Cheapest, but slow, and very difficult to navigate if you can’t read Chinese.
  2. Taxi – Trustworthy, no risk of a scam, don’t need to speak Chinese, but a bit more expensive than Didi. Just show the driver the name of the place in Chinese, at the end of this article. Make sure they turn on the meter! If you do speak a bit of Chinese, you can negotiate with most drivers and even hire them for the entire day as a private driver!
  3. Didi – Similar to Uber. This is our preferred method. It’s super cheap and you know how much you’re going to pay before you even order the taxi. We probably took a dozen Didi rides on our trip and never waited longer than five minutes or paid more than 50 RMB, aside from the airport ride (180 RMB). Even if you don’t speak Chinese, you can open this article on your phone, copy the place name where you want to go, and select the first option on the list. From there, it’s pretty self-explanatory. The driver will no doubt try to call you, but if you don’t speak Chinese just ignore it and wait. Be sure you’re in an easy place for the driver to spot you, and be on the lookout for your car. Note: You need a Chinese bank account and a Chinese SIM card for this app to work properly.

Verdict: If you have experience with Didi, or are a bit adventurous, go with that. If not, a taxi isn’t too much more expensive. Don’t do the bus, because it’s not worth the hassle.

Food

This was actually challenging for us because we are vegetarian. We ended up eating a lot of fast food French fries, plain rice, and boiled vegetables. If you’re a carnivore though, you’ll find eats everywhere, from street food to fine dining. Search around here if you’re a foodie!

Weather

Harbin is COLD! The weekend we went, temperatures approached -30°C (-22°F). At this temperature, you can lose feeling in your hand just by taking a gloveless selfie. Come over- prepared, because you can’t be too careful. Wear thick boots with several pairs of socks, at least three layers on your legs, another four on your upper body, a good pair of cloves, a warm hat, a scarf, and even a head/neck warmer if you have one. I even wore a face mask, so the only part of me that was visible were my eyes. You might look like an arctic ninja, but you’ll be glad you thought ahead! We also brought a lot of disposable heat packs to stick on our backs, in boots, gloves, underwear, you name it. Don’t underestimate the cold!

Details about each site (With original photos)

#1 – Ice and Snow World

Chinese Name: 哈尔滨冰雪大世界
Address: No street address. Just show your driver the Chinese name and/or the picture.
Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ycj9gd6c
Price: 330 RMB for adults, 200 for kids. Free for kids under 120cm
Opening Time: 11:00-22:00
More info here.

#2 – Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Expo

Chinese Name: 太阳岛国际雪雕艺术博览会
Address: Same – No street address, just show the photo or name to the driver.
Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y6wqlcmw
Price: 330 RMB for adults, 200 for kids.
Opening Time: 8:30-18:30
More info here, but the pricing is outdated.

#3 –Zhongyang Street (Central Street)

Chinese Name: 中央大街
Address: Zhongyang Dajie, Harbin. Get dropped off near Stalin Park (斯大林公园)
Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y89n7l3g
Price: Free! Only what you want to buy
Opening Time: 24/7
More info here.

#4 – St. Sophia’s Cathedral

Chinese Name: 圣·索菲亚教堂
Address: 88 Toulong St, Daoli Qu, Harbin
Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y8ldd6qw
Price: 15 RMB
Opening Time: 8:30-17:00
More info here.

#5 – Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Show

Chinese Name: 兆麟公园
Address: Daoli, Harbin
Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y7czog55
Price: 150 RMB for adults, free for kids under 120cm
Opening Time: 10:00-21:00
More info here.

Still not convinced? Check out some of TheTravelBugBite’s videos of our 2018 Harbin experience!

Tips? Questions? Comments? Feel free to leave them below. Whether you have you own experience to share or if you’re still unsure about your trip and need some help, please share!

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