Italy: Pisa – Viareggio – Lucca – Bologna – Venice

The Tuscan city of Pisa is basically only known as being home to a poorly built tower, but it turns out there’s more to it than that. The leaning tower itself is quite small, and the stairs to the top can be climbed for a horribly high price (for a long time it was so structurally unsound that you could not even approach it). More entertaining, however, was standing back from the crowds of tourists and watching while people climbed and maneuvered to get the perfect ‘leaning tower’ pose.

Pisa, it turns out, is a university town filled with expensive boutiques and young people who mainly are involved in cultural studies. It holds the 19th oldest university in the world, and despite its small size is full of churches and piazzas as beautiful as any others we had seen.

We had a long lunch of wine and pizza and found a huge mural tucked away on a side street which is the only permanent work of the artist Keith Haring.


After decent pizza and silly pictures, we drove to the posh beach town of Viareggio. A free night at the five star Best Western awaited us, and the weather was perfect for a walk on the beach.

Viareggio holds an annual carnival and many prestigious events, and the wealth of the city was very evident. Our hotel was pure luxury and directly across from a white sand beach where we enjoyed a perfect sunset before (yet another) pizza dinner.

The following day was our final driving day in Italy, and it was set to be a long one. The hotel had an extravagant breakfast and we headed onto the road early. Lucca, a city very nearby Viareggio, was our first stop. There was little to see other than the piazza, but we took the opportunity to explore the side streets knowing we had a long drive ahead.


Hours in the car on side roads to avoid tolls brought us to the city of Bologna, famous for the typical cuisine of Tuscany and a halfway point to Venice, our final stop. We arrived in the afternoon hoping to find the abundance of meat shops and markets we had come across elsewhere, but the tight streets were mostly filled with expensive restaurants and clothing shops. There were dozens of delis selling charcuterie platters and wine, but the parma ham, parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar were priced for tourists and we weren’t able to find exactly what we were looking for. Bologna was exceptionally busy and seemed more expensive than anywhere we had visited so far, but i’m sure it would be different if we had spent more time in the city itself.


The sun was starting to set, rain clouds were gathering in the sky and we knew we had a long way to travel in order to reach Venice by nightfall. When we finally arrived at Venice airport to return our rental car, the rain was pounding down and the air was freezing cold for the first time in almost two weeks. We took a ridiculously expensive bus ride into the town of Mestre (the mainland city beside Venice) and tried to find our hotel in the pouring rain wearing summer clothes at nearly 10pm. Mestre, what a lovely city! I recommend never going there unless you are absolutely forced to. Our hotel appeared closed from the outside, and once we were ushered into our room we had to avoid loose floor tiles and do a deep bedbug check before falling asleep, wet and exhausted (this was one of the worst places we had stayed in during our year of travels, the cheapest hotel in the vicinity of Venice, and also the hotel we paid the most for). It had been far too long of a day, but tomorrow we would be in Venice!

The bus into Venice was quick and easy, and our hotel was a two minute walk (over bridges, of course) from the bus station. We were able to enjoy one last free night of luxury in the Best Western Hotel Olimpia, directly on the canals in the center of Venice. The sun was shining, and we were able to check in early. You know your hotel is fancy when everything is gold and the wallpaper is made of fabric!


Venice is a city impossible not to fall in love with. It is everything you imagine, from every book, movie and love story. The canals are filled with gondolas and the streets hold shops selling Venitian glass and carnival masks. There are an unbelievable amount of tourists there during the day (mainly from the much despised cruise ships), but once the sun sets everyone goes back to their cruise cabins and horror hotels in cheaper Mestre, and the city belongs to the locals and those wealthy enough to afford the fancy hotels.

Twice in one day we walked across the city to a fast food fresh pasta restaurant I had found online called Dal Moro’s, which served the best pasta I’ve ever had. We sat beside the canal and ate our hot pasta while watching the world go by for 6€ each, better than any touristy restaurant! The owner spent the day working the till and became a quick friend, and we visited on the second day as well. If you’re ever in Venice, eat here!


Thankfully Venice was our last stop in Italy and one of our last stops on this year of travel, otherwise I would be coming home with a full suitcase of leather, olive oil, glass and clothing. I had no idea Italy was such a wonderful and cheap place to shop, and ended up with hundreds of photos of couture clothing that I’ll dream about until we go back and I have shopping money.


Staying in downtown Venice allowed us to go out in the evening, and though most things were closed, we spent hours getting lost in the narrow streets and having a picnic of pasta and wine at St. Mark’s Basilica. I was able to Skype with my dad as we walked along the canals, and we slept in the next morning in our fancy hotel. We visited our pasta shop one more time before leaving and after sunset, made our way to the Mestre bus station to catch our 12 hour ride back to Frankfurt.

Italy was amazing, and though it strained our budget much more than we thought it would (so expensive!), it was absolutely worth it. I can understand why almost 50 million tourists visit every year.


Back to Germany, and then off to sunny Cuba!

-Ben & Chelsea

So far:

We have taken 10 ferries, 1 cruise ship, 4 boat rides, 19 airplanes, 43 busses, 9 long distance trains, 11 motorbikes, 1 rental car, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 65,250 km in 326 days and have been to 18 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 59 hotels, hostels, Air B&Bs and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).





Italy: Rome – Vatican – Perugia – Siena – Florence

Our night at the highway hotel in Naples was less than pleasant, but we had a decent breakfast and ventured out on the 230km drive to Rome. Because we had opted not to take the highways, we drove through tiny towns and villages that gave us an interesting glimpse into Italian life. Most roads were narrow and very poorly maintained. I started to worry about the undercarriage of our rental car, as we had chosen not to get extra insurance. We drove through very poor cities at the foot of huge mountain ranges where immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa tried to wash our windows and sell us packages of kleenex at every stoplight. Prostitutes dotted the roadside the way I assumed we would see fruit stands. Each girl had a foldable chair and sat in her designated area waiting patiently for the truck drivers who had diverted off the highways. We saw many men pulling over without a second thought (It turns out that despite the mainly Catholic population, Italy has legalized prostitution as long as it does not take place within a brothel).

Our accommodation was just outside of the city, and once we got settled and changed, we hopped on the subway and rode thirty minutes into the city center to begin our whirlwind tour of Rome. The subway brought us directly to the Colloseum, which was as massive as you imagine and full of three times as many tourists. We had lucked upon yet another very hot day with clear skies, and the lineup to get in was massive. We chose to buy the Roma Pass, which entitles you to 48 hours of perks like free transportation, one free museum entrance, and no lineups for attractions. We ran back over to the Colloseum and quickly got in (avoiding heat stroke and a two hour wait was well worth the extra money). There was not a ton to actually ‘see’ inside, and there was far less information posted around than I expected, but when in Rome, it’s something that can’t be missed!


Rome, the capitol city of Italy, was founded in 753 BC (according to the myth of Romulus and Remus). It is the 14th most visited city in the world, and we definitely felt this as soon as we entered the downtown area. We left the Colosseum and its hordes of tourists and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Pantheon, Forum, and the Altara della Patria.


Our evening ended with a coin tossed in the Trevi fountain (which is said will bring you back to Rome one day. Fun fact: around €3,000 is collected from the fountain every night in high season) and a romantic sunset on the Spanish Steps.

Because our trip was booked last minute, it was a bit of a struggle to prebook tickets to the sights we wanted to see (which is apparently completely necessary even in low season). We had tickets to the Vatican museums scheduled for the awkward time of 11:30am, so we woke up early and took the subway to a nearby area of town with a pretty piazza and a surprise clothing market. While the piazza was a bit of a letdown, I did find a beautiful new shirt and some postcards!

The Vatican area was the biggest tourist trap I had ever seen, and as we walked towards the museum we saw countless people being lured in by ‘Vatican employees’ selling ‘VIP’ tickets and offering rides to the ‘other entrance’. We waited until our designated time and were finally ushered in to the museum after security more strict than most airports.


I was incredibly surprised that cameras were allowed inside the museums and quickly began snapping away. Everything was so gold! So grand! So bejewelled! The museum itself holds pieces from Raphael to Da Vinci, Carravagio to Corregio. The Gallery of Maps was one of the most astounding things I have ever seen, and there was a huge amount of non-religious work. I can only imagine (and hope) that the Pope must spend hours admiring all of these treasures once the tourists leave!


The most famous work here is of course the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, a huge room located under the museum. As German writer Goethe said, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

The chapel truly is a place of quiet contemplation and prayer, more than anywhere else I think i’ve been in Europe. But there were so many people it was hard to breathe let alone appreciate the art. No photos are allowed here, thankfully, but I will stick to the pictures online when I want to appreciate Michaelangelo’s frescos rather than braving the crowds.

Vatican City was exactly what you see on TV: hundreds of chairs in front of a gigantic church surrounded by normal businesses within a wall. Unfortunately the Pope was in Georgia while we were there, so we toured through St Peter’s Basilica before leaving to find lunch.

Eating out in Italy can be pricey, especially around areas like the Vatican, but we found a great traditional Italian buffet for €10 and had a relaxing meal and glass of wine before our next stop: the Castel Sant’Angelo. This castle-turned-museum used to be the highest building in Rome, which meant gorgeous views over the entire city for us! It has had many incarnations since it’s building around 135 AD, originally intended as a mausoleum but most recently used as a Papal residence.


Our action packedtime in Rome came to a close with a cup of gelato in the piazza watching an Italian Michael Jackson impersonator dance his heart out.


We left on the long journey to Florence early in the morning (after finding a nasty scratch on our car from the parking lot). Our first stop was the town of Perugia, a university town in the hills of Umbria. I had heard of Perugia only from the infamous Amanda Knox trial but recalled noticing beautiful scenery on the news, so we stopped for a couple of hours to walk through the streets and take in the views. A small organic market was set up beside the university where we bought a big bag of delicious apples and had a picnic overlooking the valley below.


Our next stop was Siena, a Tuscan city known for the Palio horse race which takes place twice a year. We looked through cool vintage shops and delis before coming across the Piazza del Campo, a magnificent square in the center of town with sloped ground perfect for relaxing on hot summer days. Evening was coming quickly and we still had a ways to go to get to Florence, so we headed back onto the road.


Florence is the capital of Tuscany and holds more art, culture, fashion, amazing food and history than you could enjoy in an entire lifetime. We arrived late in the evening after a very long day and were greeted by our Air B&B host whose home we would spend the next three days sharing. He spoke no English, but our room was comfortable and clean (and 45 minutes by bus from the city center). We rushed out to find a bottle of wine and a bad takeaway pizza.

It was an easy bus ride into the city center, passing the rougher parts of town but getting a good feel for the city itself. I had been disappointed that we couldn’t buy tickets for the art galleries as they were all sold out, but the day we arrived was free museum day, which meant massive lineups but no cost!

We explored the Palazzo Pitti, a Medici palace which now houses some of the best art, costume and porcelain in the world. There was a fabulous Karl Lagerfeld photo exhibit, and our free tickets included entrance to the Boboli gardens which were a peaceful retreat from the busy city.

By the time we made our way to the Uffizi gallery, the massive lineup had died down enough that we decided to wait. After only a few minutes we were able to enter and walk among the Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carravagio, Dürer and Rembrandt pieces (among thousands of others). I was able to stand as close as I wanted to the Birth of Venus while tourists took selfies around me (I must be in a lot of photo albums by now).


The sights of Florence greeted us on every street we went down, including the Ponte Vecchio, Santa Croce, Baptistry and Medici Chapel.

We also stumbled upon a leather school where we were able to watch as students from all over the world hand sewed purses and belts.


The food in Florence, and Tuscany in general, was amazing. We drooled over every stall in the Central Market and ate fresh pasta prepared with whatever sauces we wanted, topped with a heaping pile of freshly grated parmesan. Pizza, while not as good as in Naples, was best at a small and crowded restaurant called Gusto which has been featured on many tv programs all over the world. Paired with the best table wine served in a plastic cup you can imagine, the Margherita with fresh fiore de latte cannot be beat.

On we continue towards Pisa!

-Chelsea & Ben











Italy: Bari – Gravina – Pompeii – Naples

After a short time in Germany enjoying a family holiday in the North and a wonderful day trip to the Pfalz wine region of Germany and France, we started to consider where we could go next. It was my dream to visit Italy, and when we found a 20 € flight to Bari, we bought it without another thought. We had ten days to drive from Bari (a fancy port city in the Apulia region) to Venice, where we would return the rental car (hopefully still intact) and enjoy a couple of days in the city of canals.

After a short flight from the closest airport, we arrived ready to pickup our rental car. While scratched up, it seemed to be in good condition and when we finally figured out the Italian GPS system, we were on our way. Our first night was spent at an overly expensive bed and breakfast located beside the airport on a sketchy side street. We left early after a strong espresso and croissant and drove into the city to explore.

After finding parking and hoping we hadn’t driven into any forbidden zones (Italy is known for their insane and dangerous driving, and for the steep penalties for driving in the city centers), we spent some time walking near the water while being reminded of the capital city of Malta.


We made a short stop in the ancient city of Altamura (where a fancy wedding was taking place) and continued to Gravina, a small farming town about two hours from Bari where we had found decently priced accommodation (Italy is not like Asia, it turns out, where our average room price was $16 CAD per night). We ended up in the middle of farmland in a beautiful ‘agrotourismo’ hotel, with a large living room, bedroom, bathroom (with hot water heated by solar panels) and a terrace overlooking the fields. Off we went to find a grocery store to stock up on water and food to create a picnic at the hotel.

After driving out of the city, we reached a supermarket with a completely empty parking lot. The store was entirely empty save for three employees. It was 5pm. While ordering a little bit too much Parma ham, we asked the deli server where all the people were. Was it a holiday? Was the store closing soon? No, we were too early, it seemed. Italy comes alive in the evening, and we were crazy to be out shopping at only 5pm.

Gravina was beautiful, but we left early the next morning to continue towards Pompeii, passing the bustling Amalfi Coast along the way. Pompeii was a special request of mine and it definitely lived up to my expectations.The ruins are perfectly intact, there was no line to get in, and there was a strangely large and busy city just outside the gates of the ‘tourist attraction’. We spent three hours combing over the time-frozen city, and it was exactly as grand as I imagined it would be. How beautiful and strong this city must have been, directly on the coast and at the foot of a beautiful mountain (which turned out to be a destructive volcano, but still).

Once again, our hotel was located outside of the action in a city just outside of Pompeii called Ercolano. Little did we know when booking, we were directly on the way up Mount Vesuvius! Our accommodation was nothing special, but the views over the bay of Naples, the island of Capri and the volcano was truly breathtaking (there were also two tiny kittens who made their way on to our dinner table and on to our pillows, which always helps!).


Not wanting to miss the opportunity, we hopped back in the car and drove up to the peak of Mount Vesuvius to watch the sunset. It was freezing cold, windy and quickly growing dark, but I will never forget that night for the rest of my life.


Naples, a city of around one million people in the Campania region, was our next stop. Known as one of the poorest cities in Europe, there is a large local mafia presence and a serious petty crime problem. Walking from the parking lot to the city center, we witnessed a local man being ‘brushed against’ by a would-be thief who caused him to drop his newspaper while grabbing for his wallet. Welcome to Naples!

I quickly understood the charm of the city, however, in the crowded cafes and cheap, trendy shopping. People didn’t seem to have anywhere better to be than in the streets, even on a midweek morning. Pizza places dotted every corner and there was barely a tourist in sight. We waited half an hour at the Pope’s personal favourite pizza restaurant (which had also come highly recommended by our previous hotel owner) where we ate the most delicate, delicious pizza we’ve ever had in our lives (I will dream of this pizza for years).

The weather was gorgeous (close to 30 degrees every day so far) and we spent the day walking along the promenade people watching and stopping for a strong espresso when we started to get tired. We climbed to the top of the Castle Nuovo, with sweeping views over the city, and made our way back to the car to continue on to our hotel (which turned out to be a lovely hourly trucker hotel directly on the highway, but at least they gave us a welcome bottle of sparkling wine to numb out the sound of our vomiting neighbours).


Next stop, Roma!

-Chelsea & Ben


Indonesia and Thailand: Lombok – Bali -Bangkok

We took a thirty minute flight from Bali to Lombok and arrived at the airport ready to haggle for a cheap taxi. Our young driver swerved around sharp corners, narrowly missing kids walking down the road as the sun went down and everyone gathered on the street to burn their garbage from the day. Our guesthouse was basic but new, with only a bed, toilet, showerhead and sink (not even a garbage can or table!). We ate dinner at the small warung out front and settled in for the night.


Lombok is an island between Bali and Sumbawa, known mostly for its quiet Southern beaches and amazing surf spots. There were very few tourists on Kuta beach where we stayed, and it was clear that the island has not yet boomed in the way Bali has. The turquoise water was perfect for swimming and the sand was made entirely of tiny coral beads.

In the afternoon, the beach filled with local kids trying to sell their bracelets after school and stopping to sit and talk with the few tourists around in order to practice their English. We spent every day relaxing on the beach overlooking volcanoes and drinking from fresh young coconuts. Breakfast was enjoyed at the warung beside our hotel and consisted of a plate of never ending all you can eat banana pancakes and local coffee (mixed with rice and meant to be a meal replacement, this will give you a mighty stomachache if you drink too much!).


As a special treat for Ben’s birthday, we ventured across the island of Lombok to Sengiggi beach, a more touristy area with a grand Sheraton resort which I booked on loyalty points for the weekend. Our bus shuttle turned out to be a private car that drove us through the main city of Mataram, a bustling Muslim hub of markets, mosques, schools and donkey carriages mixed into the terrible traffic. The hotel was located directly on the beach, and we immediately jumped into the huge swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. Ben’s birthday dinner was spent at a restaurant nearby with our feet in the sand and the sunset directly in front of us. We ate far too much (Australian steaks, fish tacos, tuna salad, and a dessert that was delivered at the wrong time but was still delicious!) and splurged on a decent bottle of Indonesian rosé.

After two nights at the Sheraton resort (and a major ant infestation in our room on the second night), we moved over to a smaller hotel down the road for our last days on Lombok . It happened to be close to the best warung we had come across on the island. The daughter of the owners stole our hearts and sung us the songs she had learned in school while we waited (far too long) for our food to arrive, watching the rats running across the ceiling.

As one of Ben’s birthday gifts, I booked a snorkeling tour which brought us out into open ocean and to the Gili islands for an entire day. Our guide was a young Mexican guy who had been diving his way around the world, and we shared our tour with people from all over the world, old and young.

We were some of the only snorkelers (my migraines prevent me from diving, unfortunately!) but we saw even more sea life than the deep divers on our tour did, as we were able to swim directly over the coral reefs and into shallower water. We saw ten fully grown Hawksbill sea turtles, a small reef shark, a lion fish, angel fish, puffer fish, parrot fish, clown fish and blue gruby. After street food on Gili Trawangan (a tiny island seemingly only inhabited by partiers drinking very poisonous homemade alcohol), we had one more dive before going back to the mainland exhausted but happy.


After our time in Lombok came to a close, we boarded the public ferry back to Bali. The five hour journey was long, hot, crowded and tiring but we were blessed with a dolphin pod sighting at sunset and the company of many German travellers (who are always up for a good chat, no matter where you are).

Our final nights in Indonesia were spent at a gorgeous Sheraton hotel minutes from the beach and the action of the town. We spent our final days in Bali back at the same beach spot as before with our new friends relaxing in the sun, releasing baby sea turtles (that we now knew could grow up big and strong), swimming in the pool and eating amazing food. On our last night in Indonesia, we indulged in a traditional buffet dinner and dance show.


Indonesia is a special place. It is a country that I can fully say I fell in love with as much as Germany, Thailand and Cambodia. The people are genuine and kind, but more than that, fun. The food is beautiful and simple. The scenery is breathtaking, and the culture can only put a smile on your face. We are already planning to visit again.


As the song goes, One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble. Not much between despair and ecstasy. 

Our flight back to Germany left from the great city of Bangkok, which meant a five hour flight from Denpasar to Don Muang Airport. Using my remaining AirMiles, we booked the Royal Orchid hotel overlooking the Chao Praya river in downtown Bangkok. We quickly enjoyed the pools and sweeping city views before heading out for a quick Thai massage and a trip to the infamous Patpong Night Market, home of the pingpong show (don’t ask if you don’t already know what it is). Souvenirs were insanely overpriced, we were overly exhausted, and it was time to eat. We settled on a street restaurant that served beer in wine glasses and took extra pad thai for the airplane home. After an insanely long day, we said goodnight to the city lights of beautiful Bangkok and prepared for our next adventure: Autumn in Europe.


Goodbye Asia, it’s been a blast!

-Ben & Chelsea

So far:

We have taken 7 ferries, 1 cruise ship, 4 boat rides, 18 airplanes, 42 busses, 9 trains, 11 motorbikes, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 59,764 km in 283 days and have been to 16 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 48 hotels, hostels and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).



Indonesia: Bali – Kuta Beach & Ubud

Firstly, apologies for the very late post. Indonesia does not have the best wifi in the world and I write this from a comfortable couch in Germany!

We arrived in Bali in the evening and had a private car pick us up and bring us to our hotel (the first of many free nights from all of the loyalty points we had collected). Our room was massive and clean (finally!), and across the street from a few family-run street restaurants called warungs. The owner of the one we visited for dinner spoke no English but a kind young guy helped us to translate our order. He invited us to see him at the beach the following day, explaining that his friend taught surfing lessons.


After a long sleep and a traditional Indonesian breakfast (lots of noodles and rice, as always), we headed to the famous Kuta Beach,  a surfing hotspot on the Western coast. The beach was one of the most spectacular either of us has ever seen. Without even looking we found the surf shop our new friend had been telling us about, and we spent our entire time in Bali lounging on the sand by their surfboards and beach bar with our new Indonesian friend, his German girlfriend and a great group of local guys.


On an overcast day, Ben braved the waves and learned to surf from the guys we had met earlier on. It took little effort before he was standing up.

Bali has a wonderful sea turtle conservation program (www.baliseaturtle.org) that collects the eggs laid by mother turtles who have returned to their own birthplace after twenty years, an area that is now full of tourists, surfers and animals who would otherwise destroy these endangered eggs. On the first ‘release day’, we joined well over a hundred other tourists and locals in releasing one baby sea turtle each into the ocean as the tide came in (we took part in the event three separate times over the course of three weeks).

Our time in Kuta was mostly spent relaxing by the pool, swimming in the warm ocean, chatting with our new friends and walking around the very busy town. Bali was the first stop on our journey that we visited during high season, and tourists crowded the streets and Western restaurants. It was difficult not to spend money in the flashy shopping malls and expensive bars, but it was nice being back in decent hotels and it was obvious why Bali has been a tourist favourite for so long.


After a lazy week in Kuta, we moved up the island to Ubud, a bustling little inland town which was featured in the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love. There was a noticeable difference in the percentage of women versus men, and it seemed as though many of these women had come from all over the world to cleanse themselves with yoga retreats, tropical smoothies and expensive bamboo clothing.


Not everyone was trying to be Julia Roberts, however, and there was a lot more to Ubud than initially met the eye. Our guesthouse was quiet and fairly central, with a sweet cat and three small dogs to keep us company and fried bananas with chocolate and cheese for breakfast every day.


Walking the streets of Ubud was so unlike anywhere we had been, and although it was significantly more expensive and touristy than other places, there was a calmness about the city that I loved. While exploring the area we passed soccer fields full of kids, grand Hindu temples, a palace, countless art galleries and jewellery shops.


We spent several hours wandering through the beautiful Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a holy place for Balinese Hindus and a tourist attraction known worldwide. Over 600 monkeys hang from tree branches, run over the paths and temples and patiently wait for bananas which can be purchased at the entrance. Better than any zoo, they have 115 different types of trees to swing around in and despite being so used to people, these macaques live freely in their natural habitat.

Ubud was amazing, and if i’m ever in need of a soul-searching getaway or a spiritual cleanse, I will slip on a mandala necklace and some bamboo yoga pants and head back to the narrow, quiet streets.

Off to Lombok we go!

-Ben and Chelsea


Cambodia: Siem Reap – Angkor Wat – Phnom Penh

After a five hour trip along newly paved roads in an old van with no air conditioning, we arrived in Phnom Penh for a two hour wait. The dirty, dark city was not somewhere we wanted to spend much time in, and we were thankful for the stopover so we knew what to expect. The next bus picked us up late and no one spoke English (which meant almost missing it), but we made ourselves comfortable (despite being mercilessly stared at by all the locals) and tried to enjoy the seven hour journey with Cambodian karaoke music videos and bizarre Chinese movies blasting in our ears. We arrived in Siem Reap well after sunset and found our way to our hotel near the riverside.

Siem Reap is the most visited city in Cambodia because it is the location of the famous Angkor Wat. We were surprised by the modernity of the city: fancy shops and restaurants lined every street and the entire city seemed made for tourists with its ample transportation options and sidewalks. The two city blocks of pub street reminded us of a fancier Khao San Road, and we spent most evenings with a cold 25 cent beer people watching until after midnight.


Shortly after arriving in Siem Reap I got quite sick, and we ended up extending our stay from three to six nights. Ben ventured out to walk along the river while I laid in bed, and when I was finally well enough to go out again, I had a personal tour guide to show me the sights. We visited a craft market where local artisans made wood and stone carvings and silk products, and a temple with unique sculptures showing life and death.

There were several night markets in the city which were all cleaner and more expensive than their counterparts in other cities, but we found some souvenirs to bring home that we hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Every evening we ate at the same roadside stand and ate spicy noodles and fresh fruit smoothies while chatting with other travelers (we met a lovely Mormon family from Utah with seven children who had quit their jobs to travel the world, and a mother with her autistic son who had come to Cambodia to teach).

The rooftop jacuzzi (with no hot water, of course) was the perfect place to relax during the hottest parts of the day reading a book and planning the rest of our journey.


When I finally felt better,  we found a young tuk tuk driver who would take us to Angkor Wat to see the sunset and pick us up bright and early the following day to continue our tour for only $22 USD. We left our hotel around four in the afternoon and drove to the ticket office, where we waited over an hour for the ticket booths to open. Slowly, the room filled with other sweaty travelers wanting to take advantage of the ‘free’ sunset (you are able to purchase a ticket for the following day but enter the temple complex thirty minutes before closing in order to see the spectacular sunset).


Angkor Archeological Park is a massive area of over 500 acres and is considered the seventh wonder of the world. Millions of tourists from all over the world flock here every year to explore and photograph the temples and nature. Our sunrise tour started at five in the morning, and the sun began to peek over the trees as we entered the park.


For seven hours we drove from temple to temple, jumping out to see the amazing and varied architecture while our driver napped in his tuk tuk. The ‘small tour’ included five stops over several kilometres; we opted for the $20 USD one day ticket but it was easy to see how you could spend days exploring every inch of the park.


After almost a week in Siem Reap, we hopped back on the seven hour bus to Phnom Penh for a short visit before flying to Indonesia. As we had already experienced, the city was loud, dusty and chaotic, and our hostel was in an odd area (but was chosen because of the swimming pool). We found a jolly driver to take us on a day tour to all the main sights, which unfortunately centered around the horrific Khmer Rouge regime.
I am thankful that Phnom Penh was our final stop in Cambodia because it gave me two weeks to learn more about the tragic history of this amazing country. It shocked me that most tourists weren’t aware of the violence the country had suffered, and how recently it all took place. While the rest of the world was consumed with the Cold War and the horror of the Vietnam War, Cambodia was experiencing a genocide incomparable to anything else I can think of.

The first stop on our tour brought us to the S-21 Museum,  a high school in the center of the city that was transformed into a prison and extermination camp. Here we saw testimony from survivors of the regime (including two S-21 survivors trying to sell their memoires), most of whom were, even today, younger than our parents. The museum does a wonderful job of maintaining the honesty of what happened, and of explaining how and why the West turned a blind eye to what was going on so close to their own war in Vietnam.


Our second stop was the Killing Fields 45 minutes out of the city. It was here that more than 15,000 men, women, children and babies were brutally tortured and murdered. In total, at the 20,000 mass grave sites across the country, it is believed that at least 2.5 million Cambodians were killed in a four year period. That is more than a quarter of the total population, and does not include those who starved to death. I expected Cheoung Ek, as the fields are called, to be a somber memorial to the people who lost their lives. When I looked down at my feet with the audio tour playing in my ear and saw a piece of fabric sticking out of the ground, my logical brain decided someone had dropped something. How very wrong I was. Cheoung Ek has been largely untouched by the Khmer people, and the mass graves still hold millions of bones and clothing fragments. As we continued walking on the raised platforms, the earth below us began to expose the awful truth. Leg and arm bones protrude from the ground, exposed by the monsoon rains. Children’s shorts and t-shirts have become entwined by tree roots, and there are designated places to put bones and items of clothing that come free from the mud. Looking around at the silent visitors listening to their audio tours, it was common to see tears streaming down the faces of grown men and white faces of nausea that reflected my own. It took all of my strength not to be sick. Ben bravely ventured into the memorial temple which houses 5,000 human skulls while I waited outside. As we left Cheoung Ek, a monsoon began to pound down with unbelievable force, freeing more bones and pieces of clothing from the mud as we drove away, horribly shaken.

Our driver maneuvered us through the wet streets and dropped us off at our final stop, the Russian Market (so called because it was a popular shopping spot for Russian expats during the 1980s). The market was as chaotic as the city and it was fun to see beauty salons tucked between restaurants and shoe shops. Our day was over, and we returned to the hostel to jump in the pool and relax.

Our final day in Phnom Penh was another packing and preparing day. We spent several hours walking around the different neighborhoods and found the Royal Palace next to the river before wandering the stalls of the clean and touristy Central Market.

Our jolly tuk tuk driver picked us up the next morning and brought us to the airport. Our time in Cambodia was coming to a close, and we had both enjoyed the country far more than we had expected. Despite their recent history, Khmer people remain the most genuinely kind we have met in Asia and the country itself left a permanent impression on my heart.
Off to Indonesia!

-Chelsea and Ben

So far:

We have taken 6 ferries (+1 Cruise ship & 3 boat rides), 13 airplanes, 36 busses, 6 trains, uncountable subways, tuk tuks, songtheows, 11 motorbikes, city busses and car rides. We have travelled approximately 44447 km in 261 days and have been to 14 countries (including stopovers). We have stayed in 40 hotels, hostels and guesthouses (plus a lot of couchsurfing).



Cambodia: Sihanoukville – Kampot – Kep

In order to avoid the chaos of a land crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia  (including corrupt border officials who insist on any number of bribes), we bought a decently priced flight ticket and flew directly from Saigon to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This sleepy town is the top beach destination in Cambodia and is home to many expats from all over the world. It was heavily damaged during the Khmer Rouge regime and still has quite a lot of improvements to be made to make it a sought after resort destination. We stayed at a lovely hotel run by a Swedish man and Cambodian woman, and spent five days relaxing and sleeping after our whirlwind trip through Vietnam.


On the days we ventured out of the hotel, we visited two of the beaches (Ochetal and Independence Beach) which were mostly filled with locals enjoying long days out hiding from the sun and stuffing their faces with seafood. At Independence beach, we lay under a tree away from the burning sun and clung onto our bag every time a group of small, muddy kids came past looking to grab it from our hands. It was hard to believe that such a gorgeous place was home to such astounding violence only a few decades ago.

The Lexus SUVs speeding through the beach town sharply contrasted the little kids selling cigarettes on the roadside at 10pm, and I began to understand the local understanding that Cambodia is home to twelve million people living in complete poverty and a handful of corrupt, wealthy men. We witnessed the prevalent sex tourism industry while drinking a cheap beer at a hostel, and on the last night wandered home through a citywide blackout (apparently a very common occurance).


Saying goodbye to the beach, we took a minivan two hours away to Kampot, a small inland town famous for its French Colonial architecture, the best and most expensive pepper in the world, and home to many NGOs (non-profit, non-government organizations).

Traveling in the wet season in Southeast Asia had not been an issue until we arrived in Cambodia; the heavy rain began in the morning and did not let up until the evening (you have not seen rain until you’ve seen and felt the monsoons in Cambodia!). Much of our time in Kampot was spent sitting in cafes and restaurants with soggy shoes and clothes, drinking 25 cent beer or thick iced coffees.


We did not see much of the famous architecture other than the durian statue in the center of town (durian is a pungent fruit with a taste and texture similar to rotten garlic, very popular in Asia but strictly forbidden in hotel rooms and on public transport).


I was excited to visit Kampot, but the children being taken advantage of by older white men (the ‘NGO workers’) was heartbreaking and the town itself seemed to have been forgotten by the government. The calm river flowing through brought a few tourists who seemed to remain in their guesthouses and Western restaurants. The night market, usually a spot to bring the community together, was a sad series of clothing shops, unhygienic food stalls and decrepit carnival rides.


The dreariness of the town aside (and the fact that it poured rain and our hotel resembled a prison, bars and all), we enjoyed the quiet of our time in Kampot and learned one important thing: Cambodia is, thirty seven years after the worst of the Khmer Rouge regime, still a major work in progress.



Our final Southern stop was a beachside town called Kep, a 25km drive from Kampot. We didn’t know what to expect from Kep (a town used as a retreat for the French during Colonial times, it was the first place in Asia to find women sporting a bikini), but the man-made beach was small and clean, and our accomodation was a beautiful traditional Khmer bungalow with a grass roof and open walls.


Crumbling Colonial villas dot the streets, and the new road into the tiny town is wide enough for six Cambodian lanes despite the complete lack of vehicle traffic in the area. Indeed, Kep is still a playground for the wealthy; while we were there the police had the entire massive roadway blocked off as the Prime Minister was in town for a fancy lunch at a five star resort.


Kep Beach is a source of pride for the Cambodian government. White sand from Kampot is brought in every two weeks and the beach is cleaned each morning to maintain its appeal. It will be interesting to see how this little place changes in the coming years.


For the time being, Kep is a quiet place and is still home to hundreds of monkeys that crowd the streets along the ocean searching for food and trouble. I could have spent hours watching the dozens of monkeys near the beach as they rummaged through trash cans and swung from tree branches and signs.

Kep is known these days as the home of Cambodian seafood, particularly crab (I know many of you are cringing at the thought of eating seafood from the South China Sea or the Gulf of Thailand, since we avoid these at all costs in Canada.  But don’t fret- they export the farmed garbage to us and save the clean, beautiful seafood for themselves!). We visited the famed Crab Market on two occasions: a fancy dinner of Kampot pepper crab (four crab for $10), pepper squid and cold beer with the tide lapping under our feet and a picnic of grilled fish and one kilo of fresh pepper prawns bought from the sea and cooked by a man with a gas burner and wok.

We rented a motorbike to explore the coastline and nearby local town, and spent 45 minutes driving through local villages (with plenty of smiles, waves and excited greetings from Khmer kids) to reach La Plantation, a twenty hectare farm growing some of the best peppercorns in the world.

During the Civil War and Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s, the doctors, lawyers, religious figures, students, intellectuals and political figures were slaughtered first under Pol Pot’s horrific rule. All hospitals, schools and agricultural areas were destroyed. The once famous pepper farms were abandoned for rice farming during the famine, and were only reestablished in the last twenty years with much foreign help. Kampot pepper was once the only pepper used in the top restaurants in France and is once again surging in popularity. We visited two farms (La Plantation, a massive but new farm and Sothys, a small farm employing volunteers) and learned about the completely organic cultivation of this amazing spice that is so different from the pepper we think of back home.

The countryside and people of Kep were, quite simply, amazing. Nature, ocean and farmland remains fairly untouched and the people were the kindest and friendliest we have met in eight months of traveling. On our final night we went on a bumpy drive on the motorbike through the national park, high up into the jungle overlooking the coast.

Kep was incredibly special, but it was time to leave the quiet South and head all the way Northwest across the country to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat.

-Chelsea and Ben