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Donsol Trip Details

Swimming with Whale Sharks:  Before I get into the details of the trip, I of course have to share this video with you!  Sadly, the video doesn’t perfectly show just HOW BIG the whale sharks are, but it’s a pretty amazing experience jumping into murky blue water, not sure what to look for and then suddenly, THIS is in front of you:

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Super short, as I thought it was almost over–little did I know there was another 10 feet of whale shark coming. Ooops…

Swimming with them up close like that was pretty incredible, when you first see them you just can’t believe how big they are!  Overall, however, the experience wasn’t so great.  It took us 1.5 hours in the boat before we even jumped in, and when we did, despite watching videos explaining how it’s 1 boat, 6 people limit per whale shark, blah blah blah, it was actually as many boats as can get there on time, 50 people all over the whale shark, swimming around you, kicking you in the face with their fins, etc. 

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If you caught it from the front and didn’t do the stupid thing to try to get a movie out of it (like yours truly), then you could get a head start and swim with them for at least a minute before being trampled, but from the 4 whale sharks total we saw, on the 3 hours we were out there, the first time, I was messing with my camera to get a picture (and almost got run over by the huge fin on its tail, ooops), the second and third time I got the videos above, and the last time there were already way too many people there to let the experience be enjoyable, but I was able to catch one last picture.

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You gotta love Filipinos…  (That’s our guide and whale spotter – who needs to splurge on swim trunks when you have briefs?)

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Swimming with them was not cheap, it’s P3500 per boat, plus another P300 per person.  We decided to dive instead the next day since 3 dives for one person was about the same price for a couple to do the whale shark, and it took all day vs a couple of hours.  We were going to try again on Monday morning, but about a hundred college kids came into our resort and we just knew it would make the experience hell.

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Flight:  Once again we took Cebu Pacific.  Tickets for the both of us were P5,200 total after taxes (about $60/person).  This was a totally cool view right before landing too!  A volcano!

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Hotel:  We stayed at the Vitton Resort, which was so freaking cute, and at P2,200/night (about $50) for a room with AC, hot water, and breakfast, it was a great deal!  The beds were not the most comfortable (but that’s standard here), but the location couldn’t have been more convenient.  Right next door to the where you sign up for the whale shark experience, across from the dive shop and right in front of the beach.  Not the prettiest of beaches, but it had a great view!  And ah, let’s not forget about the pool!

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For the cons?  They were very slow at responding to emails so we could book it, so for a while we thought we would have no place to stay (we booked our flights back in October).  So so so slow.  At first we got quoted in dollars with a 15% surcharge for the bank deposit.  WTF??  Later she apologized that she didn’t realize we were in the Philippines and gave us a rate in pesos without the surcharge.  (And by later, I mean 1.5 weeks after I questioned the amount and finally called the hotel to ask about it, and it was still another 2 days until she gave me the correct amount and bank account info.  You would think they would want my money.)  If you’re wondering, yes, there’s barely any credit card transactions in hotels here, so unless they’re with agoda.com, or a similar site, you have to make a cash deposit at a bank to reserve it.

The other con?  Our last night, on Sunday, around 4pm non-stop noise started.  Girls screaming, doors banging every 3-5 minutes, and it didn’t stop until well after 11pm, after we had asked them about 5 different times to make noise outside the rooms (let me clarify that I didn’t start complaining until 9pm, when we were in bed exhausted after a day of diving), and a good hour after we had already complained to the hotel staff as well.  They basically had a group of college kids (and college kids here are 16 years old) staying at the hotel, and ALL THEIR FRIENDS who were staying at another location also arrived around 9pm on a coach bus and hung out there, making noise in all the rooms, running around the place, slamming doors NON STOP.  We had to be up early (since we still hoped to do the whale shark thing), and this was ridiculous.  The fact that the hotel allows non-guests to come in and hang out (and we’re talking about dozens of non-guests, not just a couple of friends or guests coming to eat at the restaurant) is unacceptable.

The next morning at 6am?  We wake up with loud banging on OUR DOOR from their chaperones who couldn’t even be bothered to look at their room list and make sure they don’t bang in the wrong door!  (Our friend had the same experience, and she was staying in the other side of the hotel.)

We got up in hopes of doing the whale shark, and as we’re on our way, that coach bus pulled up, and all those kids from the night before started streaming back into the hotel (note: NOT on the tourist center, on the actual hotel grounds), while the guy was talking to them on a megaphone (!!!) at 7 o’clock in the morning!  Most guests were still sleeping at that time (and I know that’s true because we were the only non-college kid at breakfast).  All that crowd joined with the ones that were staying at our hotel, and gathered by guests rooms, and not ONCE the hotel staff told them to tone it down, that maybe using the megaphone or gathering by guest rooms would not be appropriate at 7am (or to be honest, I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to use a megaphone by guest rooms unless you’re announcing an emergency!).

So yeah, screw swimming with whale sharks that day, or even hanging out at the pool until our afternoon flight.  We were out of there by 8am, having checked out early because we couldn’t deal with the noise anymore.  The hotel staff just gave a “I’m sorry” and left it at that.  How about telling the crowd to tone it down and gather at the tourist center where there are no rooms nearby instead?  How about not allowing so many non-hotel guests to hang out at night at the place (I could see a small group, but this was ridiculous).  So this ruined our last day there, and kind of made the whole trip be a bad experience.

We decided to go to the volcano an hour away and rent an ATV instead, but by the time we got there it was covered in low clouds, and things were super-muddy from the rain the night before, so we scraped that idea as well, and had 5 hours to kill at a local mall.  Fun times.

I still recommend Vitton, but before you book it, I would just check if there are any sorority or other type of college trips staying there at the same time, to save yourself some headache and sleep deprivation.

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Diving:  We went diving the next day with the dive shop directly across the tourist center.  For 3 boat dives, including all equipment and lunch, it cost P4,500/person.  (Cheaper than the Giddy’s Place dive shop that charged our friends P5,000/person for the dives.)  We went to San Miguel Island, and then two dives at Manta Bowl.

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I’ll post the pictures of our dives and give details tomorrow!

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Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): Trip Details

I haven’t written a thing about Ho Chi Minh City yet.  And there’s a reason for that.  All all the cities we visited, I didn’t like Ho Chi Minh.  (By the way, if you never heard of Ho Chi Minh, you probably have heard its previous name:  Saigon.)

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Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad city.  But it’s more crowded than Manila but also doesn’t have reliable public transportation like Manila.  Plus the motorcycles…  Replace every jeepney in Manila by about 300 motorcycles and scooters, and you get the idea of traffic there.  It made a challenge to cross the street, even when the pedestrian light was in your favor.  I had a video of it, but all my videos mysteriously vanished from my SD card, but I can leave you with this picture for an idea…  Things were calmer during the day time because it was all closed, so at least we got to relax during the day.  But at night?  They all came out.  We didn’t even go to see the fireworks because the thought of dodging that again was tiring.  And yes, there were kids in those motorcycles, babies being held by parents, etc.

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Visa:  Most people, including Americans and Europeans need a visa to enter Vietnam.  You can go to the consulate and get one, but they don’t have consulates in every city, so you can also apply online for a “visa on arrival” to avoid having to mail your passport back and forth.  We went through vietnam-visa.org for our visa on arrival. 

So sure, it didn’t help that we had gotten an authorization for visa on arrival and had to deal with lines, a looooong wait (all while our luggage sat unattended on the carrousel), grumpy immigration officers who wouldn’t even tell us anything.  (If we already had a visa, it would have been a lot quicker, but since my parents had to go through this route, we decided to do the same.)

We gave our passports and forms, they took it and refused to tell us a word after that, not even a “just wait.”  After about an hour or so total (after we had left the plane) our name was finally called.  A lot of people in the plane after us got called before us, so it’s not even a first-come, first-serve thing.  The lines now were so huge (and non-orderly), that we had a hard time getting through people to reach the part of the window to get out passports back.  There’s not even enough seats for everyone, so count on standing for a while.  Luckily, our luggage was still there (we were the last ones of our flight to pick up our luggage), as Vietnam is known for having issues with things stolen, including from the airport, so we were very concerned the whole time. 

Taxi Scams:  When we went to get a cab, we knew about their reputation (BAD, BAD, BAD!), so we decided to pay more for one at the airport, using one of the airport counters (we used Saigon Tourist).  It was a flat fee of $8.  (Later, reading wikitravel – which for some reason doesn’t open here in Manila – I was able to confirm that it was indeed the safest route!)

As soon as we left the airport the taxi driver started demanding 100,000 Dong (about $5) for airport fee, claiming it was a per person fee to exit the terminal (yeah, right).  The fee suddenly became 80,000 Dong instead (20,000 per person).  When we questioned it, he slammed on his breaks and came to a complete stop OUTSIDE of the airport and was about to kick us out of the car.  AFTER WE HAD ALREADY PAID THE FULL FLAT RATE TO GET A TAXI!  So we said “ok” that we would pay him at the hotel. 

Once we got out of the cab, we grabbed all our things and kept on walking.  Asked the reception desk at our hotel about it and she shook her head and laughed saying there was no fee.  He followed us to the hotel, then talked to the reception and demanded only 20,000.  Since we were (originally) planning on giving that as a tip to him anyway, we gave it to him, but amazing how it went from 100,000 to 20,000, no?

So you can see that after this welcome into the country we were already not too excited about Ho Chi Minh…

To go back to the airport, we took one of the recommended taxi companies (Vinasun and Mai Linh are the two reliable ones), and we had no issues, so there’s that.

Hotel:  For $54/night (after taxes – also booked through agoda.com) we stayed at the Lan Lan 1 hotel.  I highly recommend it!  This was for sure the BEST hotel we stayed at.  Everything was nice and brand new, the location was great, the included breakfast was perfect for both western (eggs, croissant, coffee, yogurt, fruits…) and eastern (porridge, rice, spring rolls…) tastes and we also had free Wi-Fi and toiletries.  The rooms weren’t big, but perfect.  The hotel staff were all very friendly.  We were in District 1 (the best location to stay at) and were only a block from the Ben Than Market.

The one thing we had no idea was going on? 

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The Tet.  Or in other words, Vietnamese New Year (coinciding with the Chinese New Year).  So the Ben Than Market was closed.  Stores were closed.  Some museums were closed.  Some restaurants were closed.  (See a pattern there?)  So though we spent almost 2 days there, I feel like we didn’t really get to see everything…  We ended up going to the backpackers area both days, as that was the only place that had open businesses.

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Which brings me to…

To do:   There are a lot of things you can do in Ho Chi Minh, like going to see the old war tunnels outside the city, going to Ben Than Market for shopping, visiting the history museum…  But we saw none of that due to the holiday, and our very brief time there.  What I don’t recommend you visit?  The War Remnants Museum.  I don’t care what side of the war you agree with, but blaming Americans for things that happened before they showed up, it’s pretty ridiculous for a museum.  Case in point, showing a guillotine to execute prisoners followed with “the last person executed by guillotine was in 1960” (when the war was actually in between South and North Vietnam at the time, but there’s no mention of there ever being a separate government in Vietnam in any place in the museum).

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But what really really bugged Karl to the point he looked a bit green?  (And it bugged the crap out of me too.)  Souvenir shops in the museum selling dog tags of dead soldiers (both American and South Vietnamese dog tags).  If you want to display that in your museum, then by all means, but selling as souvenirs dog tags of fallen soldiers?  A bit disrespectful for the dead (regardless of what side you’re on).

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Money:  It’s worth to change it to Dong, as all prices were in Dong, but a lot of stores would unofficially accept dollars, and even give you change in dollars.

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Internet:  Facebook is blocked, and I’m sure other sites too.  So if that’s your only means of communication with friends outside the country, make sure they know you might not be reachable for a while.  Sites giving you an US IP are also blocked, if you’re thinking of just going around the rules.

So though we missed out in a LOT of things in my list to see, we did have fun seeing the Tet festivities and the whole craziness of the city.

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And we got to walk around quite a bit and see a few of the other things Ho Chi Minh had to offer…

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For those of you who have been there in recent days, did the Tet just spoil our experience (if things were open, we would have seen a whole different side to this city) and it’s worth another visit, or did we see pretty much everything there is to see?

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Siem Reap Trip: The Details

I’ll be posting details of every place we went to, but figured since I already gave a little update from Siem Reap, Cambodia, while we were still traveling might as well put the recap and the trip details here along with more pictures (which I’ll sprinkle throughout this post).

No flight costs on these reviews, since we had booked everything together: Manila> Bangkok> Chiang Mai> Siem Reap> Ho Chi Minh> Manila

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Money:  DO NOT CHANGE YOUR DOLLARS TO THE LOCAL CURRENCY!  Everything there was dealt in dollars:  the tuk-tuk rides, markets, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, etc, so if you’re off to Siem Reap, make sure to bring dollars!  Places also barely accept credit cards, so bring enough cash with you.

Siem Reap, is still a fairly small town, and though it’s full (FULL!) of expats, it’s super-cheap.

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The only time we ever touched the Cambodian Riel was when getting change – there were no US coins, so anytime change was less than a dollar we would get a bunch of Riels (which we kept a few, because they’re pretty, and sadly not worth more than a few cents).

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Hotel:  I used agoda.com again to book our rooms.  We stayed at the Mekong Angkor Palace Hotel, after reading a ton of positive reviews.  For about $30 a night, with AC, hot shower, pool, free breakfast and wifi, it was a great deal.  The hotel was no luxury, but it was nice enough for us, and the location was unbeatable:  we were only a 5-10 minute walk to the markets and pub street (where most of the restaurants are), but in a quiet enough location that we could actually get some sleep (and we were also right next to a little supermarket, which was super-convenient!).  They also offered a free airport pick up by     tuk-tuk (you just have to email them your flight details).

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I didn’t take any pictures of the hotel room (I seem to mess them up before I think of taking pictures!) but I did take pictures of the hotel pool area, which was VERY nice:

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Getting Around:  I really really really recommend that you stay on or near the end of Sivatha Rd, making sure you’re walking distance to the Old Market area.  If you’re there, you can pretty much walk anywhere you need to go (except to see the temples, but regardless of where you stay, you won’t be walking distance to them, so it’s best to make your location convenient to everything else).

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There are a TON of brand new swanky hotels along Airport Road, but those are NOT walking distance to anything and you will need to negotiate with tuk-tuks every time you step out of your hotel, which can get tiring.

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As for getting to the ruins, we got a tour guide to show us around, and I recommend getting one too.  For $70 flat we got a van with AC and a tour guide.  It is definitely a lot cheaper taking a tuk-tuk, but on super hot days (a.k.a. everyday) it will feel really nice getting a short break from the heat, because it was brutal (I’m Brazilian and live in Manila, so you can trust me when I say the heat was brutal – when I’m not running, it takes a lot of heat to bother me).

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Food:  You can eat dinner for $3/person, or if you want something fancy, you’ll drop about $6/person.  It was definitely the cheapest place we visited.  There are many restaurants in and around pub street, and we had really great food every day.  You can even find Mexican food, if Khmer food is not your thing.  Here it was also easier finding food that was not spicy, unlike Thailand when even the non-spicy stuff is spicy.

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Keep in mind also that in the middle of the open-air night markets, there would be outdoor restaurants and bars.  Some of them had great atmosphere (definitely not what you expect in the middle of a market!), so explore a little bit before committing to a place to eat.

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Shopping:  Markets galore!  There were a bunch of different night markets, day markets and the whatnot.  A lot of things were very similar to what we saw in Thailand, but there was still a few things that were new to us.  I got a couple of paintings and t-shirts to bring back home.  Like every other market in Asia, make sure to bargain.  Just keep in mind Cambodian people are nice.  Soooooo nice.   So it makes it harder to bargain with them!

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Sightseeing:  I’m mentioning this last, but we all know you (or I!) didn’t go to Siem Reap to go shopping!  Of course, if you’re in Siem Reap, you’re here to visit Angkor Wat.   There are a ton of places to go to, which can get overwhelming, but definitely see Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.

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It’s another reason why a tour guide can be useful – not only is he telling you the background story of all the temples, but he’s also finding the best route to get you there, and what is worth seeing, what is worth skipping based on the time that you have (and no, he won’t make you skip any of the four major ones I mentioned above).

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When figuring out your budget for Siem Reap, make sure to budget money for the entrance fees as well.  The day passes are not cheap, we spent about $20 per person (if I remember it correctly), and they will ask for your pass before going in to each of these sights, so don’t think you can skip in paying (not that you should, as the money obviously goes towards conservation of the temples and the grounds).  You can also buy multiple-day or weekly passes if you don’t want to see everything in one day.

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Honestly, you can get everything done in one day, which is what we did.  It is tiring as hell, and towards the end you just don’t want to climb another set of stairs… but I’m glad we knocked it all in one day and had the next day to explore the town of Siem Reap, and relax a bit more.

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If you look at the pictures, you’ll see sometimes my shoulders are covered, others they’re bare.  It was hot as _____ (fill it in with whatever your favorite expletive is), but you do need to cover your shoulders for some of the temples.  I brought a shrug which worked perfectly for that.

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When you go sightseeing, make sure to bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.  I forgot the sunglasses at the hotel because it was cloudy when we left (but not so much an hour later), but don’t make the same mistake I did.

Ah, and don’t forget that for $15 you can also get a 20 minute ride on an elephant.  We didn’t take that, since we were still spoiled after spending a day with them.

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Siem Reap is definitely a “must go” place in Southeast Asia.  It’s completely different than anything you’ve seen.

And the ride back to the airport should cost you only $5 per tuk-tuk.

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