Greetings from Stockholm! Our first day got off to a bit of a late start; our 9:10 flight from the UK had us getting into Sweden around 1:00 in the afternoon, which meant we didn’t get to our hotel until about 2:30/3:00. Public transportation in Sweden is actually incredibly easy and efficient; from the airport we took the Arlanda Express into the city center, which was a quick and comfy 20 minute ride. From there we hopped onto the subway and then connected to a tram, which brought us directly in front of our hotel. We checked in at the fabulous Motel L and were given access to our room immediately and were pleasantly surprised to see that it was cute, comfortable and fashionable.
I can’t recommend Motel L highly enough–the staff were very accommodating for a relatively budget hotel, the rooms were stylish, clean and very quiet. It was a little bit out of the city center, but public transportation made it an easy connection to get just about anywhere. Breakfast wasn’t included in our stay, but we could pay 90 SEK (about $9, typical in Stockholm) to get essentially an all-you-can-eat deal, which was well worth the money every time. I didn’t expect much from the breakfast based on the Tripadvisor reviews but personally found it to be exceptional; I was able to get gluten free bread and mini-pastries in abundance (the standard serving came with two rolls and either two slices of bread or two pastries depending on the day), which was more than enough to feed me (and probably a few other people, too).
They also had a huge array of meats, a few cheeses, a selection of yogurts, granolas and cereals, fresh fruit and lots of different milk items, including oat milk (unexpectedly amazing), soymilk, lactose free milk and normal milk. There weren’t really any hot items, but I don’t see why you’d need a hot breakfast with choice like that!
We obviously didn’t arrive in time for breakfast on the first day, so we sought out a few local bites after freshening up and then headed to Old Town. It was a gloriously sunny day and we decided we’d spend it getting comfortably lost and wandering the streets. I was worried that Old Town would be insanely touristy, and in a lot of places it was–there was no lack of kitschy tourist shops selling standard tacky souvenirs– but we were shocked by how un-crowded it was.
There were tons and tons of hidden gems in Old Town, including a few fantastic Swedish design shops (my personal favorite was Designfirman, pictured below), gorgeous old buildings and cobbled streets, a handful of trendy but moderately expensive gastropubs and restaurants and a few points of interest, including the German Church and the Riddarholmen Church, which is the oldest surviving building in Stockholm.
13,000 steps later we were growing peckish and ready to sit down, but we were too early for the dinner reservation we’d tentatively made at the Flying Elk restaurant. We stopped into a cute, rustic looking spot called the Corner Club and were greeted by Oskar, a friendly barman who sat down with us and walked us through their cocktail menu. We ended up ordering three different types of cocktails between the two of us–the Milkman, Oh Canada, and Honey Dew You Know (all very cleverly named). The first drink we had was the Milkman, which was incredibly strong but had a very pleasant aftertaste.
We decided to get some food in the pub instead of at the restaurant and were pleased to find that they actually shared a kitchen. I ordered the cheeseburger and fries and was excited to learn that it could be made with a gluten free bun even though it wasn’t noted on the menu. It was hands down the best burger I’ve ever eaten, even if it did come in at 204 SEK (about $20). Food in Stockholm is generally expensive (even by New York City standards), but every single expensive meal that we had was totally worth the price. I was worried about how well I’d be able to eat in the city with dietary restrictions, but I can happily report that there was no need to worry: the Swedish are very accommodating and gluten free substitutions usually come at no additional charge.
One of the other bartenders noted that she was also gluten free, so we shamelessly asked her for a list of restaurants she’d recommend that had gluten free options. Between herself and Oskar we were given a list of probably 10 places, including our definitive favorite restaurant in Sweden, Matkonsulatet, which I’ll write about in detail in my upcoming gluten free guide to eats and sleeps in Stockholm and also in my post about our day 2 adventures (link coming soon). We ended up not leaving Matkonsulatet until about 10:45 PM and were exhausted after our early morning flight and extensive wanderings, so we headed back to the hotel and cozied down into bed for an early-ish night.
Its been raining for almost a month (yes, a whole f****** month) here in Denver, but we FINALLY got a reprieve last weekend! After checking the weather report and seeing that thunderstorms weren’t on the horizon until about 2 pm, I asked my high school bestie Andie to come out early on Sunday morning so that we could get a nice hike and lunch in before the rain came back. We decided the night before that we’d go to Table Mountain, which boasts easy-to-advanced hikes and stunning views. It’s only about 30 minutes from Denver and dog-friendly, which was a must, as my little buddy Willie was desperate for a nice, long walkie!
Our original plan was to hike for about two hours, maybe a little bit less, but straight up and down. We parked, unadvisedly, near the neighborhood access on an nondescript side-road. We learned later that there’s an actual parking lot with amenities like port-o-potties and the like, which is 100% where we will park next time! Its a long drive from Denver and not having a bathroom at the beginning of the trail was basically torture.
Anyway, at our jumpoff point there was only a small posting about trails and whatnot, without any real marking as to where we were or what paths went where. This was exceptionally confusing when it came to deciding which direction we were meant to go in to start our hike, which we thought would be about three miles. Ultimately we made the wrong choice and ended up on the North Table Loop, which is said to be 5.9 miles long, but in actuality ended up being about 8 miles. In spite of not being the trail we’d anticipated doing, the hike was scenic and beautiful, and was a great workout to boot! We really felt like we earned our lunch!
The beginning of our hike was pretty easy and almost entirely flat. Occasionally we’d run into another hiker or a small cluster of people, and at one point we were overtaken by horses, but other than that it was peaceful and quiet. Midway through the hike things became increasingly difficult, and there was a marginal but steady uphill stretch that lasted for about a mile, which fully wiped Andie and me out, but the little dog was having a grand old time! Eventually we found the entrance to the park, and pushed on reinvigorated to the last quarter of our hike. By this point we’d been hiking way longer than intended and could see a thunderstorm approaching over the opposite set of mountains, inconveniently as we were passing a field of giant, metal electric towers. Fortunately no one was hurt, but it definitely put a hustle in our steps!
When we finished we loaded back up in the car–very muddy dog included–and headed into town for some lunch. We got to Sherpa House at 2pm, only 30 minutes before they closed, but were SO excited to find out that they still had their lunch buffet on, for $9.99 all you can eat! I ordered a chai in addition to the food I picked out–some memorable favorites included the Chicken Tikka Masala, a tasty spinach dish, some Onion Bajhi (onions battered with chickpea flour and deep fried–I probably ate 6+ of them, they were out-of-this-world delicious!) and potatoes that were covered in what appeared to be a yogurt sauce. I’m gluten free, so Naan was out of the question, but the Onion Bajhi totally covered my craving for carbs!
Very full and already sore, we got back into the car and hustled back to Denver, where I proceeded to get a 90-minute massage for $12.50 (yes, you read that right!) at the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado with my sister. All in all it was an amazing day, in spite of the threatening weather and the unexpected ruggedness of the hike, and the massage after the hike was exactly what I needed to recover!
Bucket List Traveler Info:
Activity Type: Adventure–hiking!
Price: Free + Cost of lunch and gas.
Value for Money: A++
Suitable for: Everyone! There are easier hikes you could do with kids. Probably not a great activity for mobility-disabled people.
Recommend: Absolutely! Hiking in Golden is great and I’d go back just to get lunch at Sherpa House!
Located a few hours’ drive out of Auckland, Rotorua is a mecca for backpackers, adventure travelers, nature lovers and luxury travelers alike. Situated in the midst of one of the most tectonically active regions in the world, Rorotua boasts thermal parks, hot springs and mud pools, many of which can be enjoyed by tourists on any budget. In recent years Rotorua has become something of a pilgrimage destination for Lord of the Rings fans, eager to see for themselves the locations that director Peter Jackson earmarked as his top choice for the backdrop of his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. Adventure junkies can explore nearby glowworm caves or go ZORBING, and in their down time rent bikes and explore the Redwood Forests, which are free and open to the public. Whether you’re interested in BEING A HOBBIT FOR A DAY IN THE SHIRE or getting a healthy dose of culture in the cradle of Maori territory, Rotorua has a little something for everyone. My guide offers advice on where to stay and what to do in the city, offering both budget activities and a few splurge activities for good measure.
Where to Stay:
Crash Palace is my go-to recommendation for backpacker’s lodging in Rotorua. Located just off the main drag, Crash Palace has the advantage of being spacious, comfy, welcoming and quiet. It’s a short five minutes’ walk from the nearest grocery store (where you can pick up ingredients to cook in one of their two fantastic kitchens) and a two minutes’ walk away from the town center, where you can catch the bus to activities located outside of town, including Zorbing and nature walks, or rent a bike so that you can go exploring without having to rent a car.
The atmosphere inside Crash Palace is great; the first floor is open and comfortably appointed, with a combined dining and movie-watching room, a smaller room with a pool table just off reception, a kitchen, a toilet, a computer room and an outside patio with a hot tub. Guests are given a key code that they can use to get upstairs, where the rooms are located. The owner and manager of the hostel is friendly and happy to answer any questions you have about the hostel, about Rotorua and about the activities accessible from the area. Crash Palace is hooked up with loads of great deals and discounts, including a reduced rate for Hobbiton and $10 off OGO (Zorbing).
The hostel offers free wifi, which is a huge bonus for New Zealand and a major relief for backpackers who are tired of paying out the nose for internet access. I would definitely recommend having your own computer, though, as the computer in their computer room can run a little slowly if you need to back things up or upload images. The hostel also runs a nightly program for its guests, which can range from a free family dinner to pub crawls to movie nights. Pasta and rice are always available from the front desk for free, and alcohol can be purchased from the front desk bar as well.
What to Do:
As a minor-league nerd, I have to say that my favorite paid activity in Rotorua was going to Hobbiton. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of Lord of the Rings, the Hobbiton tour is one of Rotorua’s must-dos. The tour I did picked me up right at my hostel on the way, giving us bits of information about the tour as we neared the farm on which the movie set is located. The set itself is beautiful, nestled in the rolling hills of New Zealand’s countryside, and the Hobbit holes look cozy enough to live in! Spend some time ambling around the Shire, snap a few shots of Bag End, listen to your guide’s super-informative facts about the set and the creation of the movies, then end your day with a complimentary cider, ale or ginger beer at the Green Dragon. If you’re interested in learning more about exploring Hobbiton, check out my in-depth post about it HERE.
Although I loved everything that I did in Rotorua, Ogo stands out to me as something very quintessentially Rotoruan. Ogo, better known internationally as Zorbing, was founded in our very own Rotorua, which remains one of the few places where you can actually have an authentic Zorbing experience. So what’s Zorbing, you might ask? Zorbing is essentially rolling down a hill in a giant, soft-plastic hamster ball. It’s crazy fun and a great activity to do at any age, and would be a great activity for families with hard-to-please children. If you’re interested in learning more about Ogo/Zorbing, check out my detailed blog post about it HERE.
If you’re lucky enough to have a car or know someone who has a car, I would highly recommend driving out to Kerosene Creek or the Hot-and-Cold thermal pools, which are located about twenty minutes outside of Rotorua Town. The hot pools are free and open 24 hours a day, which makes them great spots to lounge around on a lazy Sunday afternoon or on a romantic date night.They can be a little bit tricky to locate and aren’t maintained to touristy standards, as some other for-profit thermal pools are, but they are absolutely worth the effort! Visiting the thermal pools was one of the highlights of my trip and, when I was there, were enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Pro tip: if you’re visiting at night be sure to bring flashlights and candles with you, as there is no artificial lighting on-site.
Another free activity located just a twenty minutes’ walk from the Rotorua City Center and Crash Palace. The Redwood Forest is an absolute treat, with walking paths for varying levels of endurance and fitness (ranging from 30 minutes to 8 hours, ouch!). The forest itself is beautiful and huge, with massive Redwood trees sprouting up around aquamarine colored creeks. The Redwood Forest is truly something out of a fairy tale and makes for a great natural escape.
Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland:
Tour busses run to the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland several times a day, and I’d recommend going in the morning in order to catch their daily Lady Knox geyser show. The Thermal Wonderland is chock full of amazing, other-worldly geological oddities, including the toxic looking Devil’s Hole, the brilliant orange geothermal pool and the super-hot mud pools. There are three walks available to Thermal Wonderland explorers, ranging from 30 to 75 minutes.
While I did not personally attend any of the Maori evening shows, I heard that they were absolutely incredible and offer an up-close-and-personal introduction to Maori culture. The buffet dinner is apparently to die for and the shows are said to be fantastic as well. This would be very much worth a look if you’re interested in learning more about the culture of the Maori people.
The Government Gardens:
The Government Garden is a gorgeous, sprawling park just outside Rotorua City Center. It’s a nice place to take a walk, featuring some of its own thermal activity, which you can view free of charge. Best when explored in the daytime, as it can be a little dangerous come nighttime.
Even though I only had five days in Rotorua, this little city absolutely won my heart. With friendly citizens, natural wonders and Hobbity delights abound, I found myself getting incredibly comfortable with Rotorua and its surrounding areas. Crash Palace is the ideal place for backpackers to stay given its proximity to attractions, its cost and its closeness to the grocery store, which is key for travelers on a budget. Overall an amazing place to spend a couple days, though I certainly could have spent a lot longer there and am dying to go back!
Anyone who knows me knows that my absolute favorite and most highly recommended tourist activity in the entire world is the Elephant Nature Park, located north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I first visited the park in 2011, when its herd was slightly smaller and fewer tourists were coming through. Since that initial visit, which I wrote about HERE, a lot has changed! There’s more tourists in the park, which is great for animal welfare and has definitely helped this sanctuary to thrive by providing the money and volunteer hours needed to keep all of the animals happy, healthy and safe. There’s also a lot of new volunteer housing, new options for daily and over-night stays (including the Pamper-a-Pachyderm option, which wasn’t available before), and a whole lot more staff running around. One of the biggest (and my personal favorite!) changes, though, was the addition of the Dog Rescue Project, which houses over 420 rescued dogs.
The Dog Rescue Project was started in 2011, just after my first visit to the park. The autumn of that year saw major flooding throughout Bangkok, which left many people and animals out of home and shelter. Many dogs were either separated from their owners, drowning, or otherwise in trouble, and The Elephant Nature Park took them in and created a new home for them at one of the far ends of the park. Today, the Dog Rescue Project has grown from the initial hundred-and-some dogs who were saved from the floods into the cohesive, 420+ dog program that it is today. The dogs come from many different circumstances; some come from abusive owners, some from the streets, some are saved from the dog meat trade, and some have been poisoned. Regardless of their background, each dog is considered carefully before being placed into his or her new run, is provided with good medical care, and is given an opportunity to live a long, happy life, free from abuse and hunger.
So, what’s it like to be a dog rescue volunteer?
I arrived at the park not really knowing what to expect this time around, but was integrated pretty quickly into the routine. The first few hours that I had at the park were spent with a combination of dog and elephant volunteers. My group and I were given a tour around the park, introduced to a few elephants, and learned a little bit more about how and why the animals had come to the park. After lunch, all of the new visitors to the park watched a video about the phajaan, or the centuries-old system for “crushing” an elephant’s spirit and molding it for human service. The phajaan is the backbone of the current elephant tourist trade, without which elephants cannot be ridden. Even though this blog post isn’t about the treatment of elephants or even about the elephant-y part of the park, I have to put it out there once again: if you’re ever traveling in Asia, please, please, please, please, please! don’t ride an elephant. Its cruel from start to finish, and only serves to hurt the gentle giants that most tourists love. On a lighter note, the elephants that have been lucky enough to find a home at the Elephant Nature Park get to live out the rest of their (hopefully long) lives eating fruit and freely roaming around, and will never be forced to perform for tourists ever again.
But anyway, back to the dogs! After the video I was introduced to my fellow dog volunteers for the week, Izzy, Rebecca and A.J. We also met several longer-term volunteers, all of whom welcomed us and were thankfully very patient with us while we learned the ropes. Big thanks especially go out to Carolina, Ryan, Sabrina and Pedro for making us all feel welcome! We were thrown into the swing of things straight off the bat, which was a little bit overwhelming at first but became normal surprisingly quickly.
Our days went just about the same way for the entire week; we were up and at the main building for breakfast by 7:00 am, then met up at the dog clinic at 8am sharp to start the morning duties. The dog clinic is where dogs are taken if they get injured or get sick while living in their runs, with stay lengths varying between a few hours to longer than a month, depending on the problem. The clinic is divided up into a few different holding pens; in the back there’s the “Gallery,” which has both individual cages for dogs and a tiled, fenced-in area out back for the dogs to play and relieve themselves in when they aren’t being fed or given medicine in their cages. In the front there’s a row of cages with access to dirt-and-grass runs out the back. There’s also a number of cages that don’t have access to the outside, and these dogs were always our first priorities in the morning, as they needed to be walked.
When there were enough volunteers available we had people working together to make sure that the dogs were fed, watered and walked as efficiently as possible. Another volunteer would stay back to clean the cages and areas where dogs made messes so that the dogs could return back to comfy, clean cages. This could take anywhere from an hour to several hours, depending on how many volunteers we had on hand and how many elephant volunteers were able to come by to help us with the walking. After we finished walking, feeding and caring for the clinic dogs, we went out to the runs, which can hold anywhere from two dogs to thirty dogs, depending on the size of the run. Here we checked the dogs for ticks, bite wounds, gunky eyes and ears, for white gums and for unusual skinniness. Blood parasites from ticks are common in the tropics, they symptoms of which include weight loss and light-colored gums. Most of the dogs in the Gallery were being treated for the parasites, and treatment lasts for about a month.
At 11:30 or so we’d break for lunch, and when we came back at 1:00 the process starts all over again. We take all the dogs out for their walks, and when we’re finished with walks we could be doing any number of odd jobs; some days we’d go back to the runs to do more tick checks, some days we’d be put in charge of moving dogs from one run to another, and some days we’d just be bathing or playing with the dogs. There was never a lack of things to do, and by 4:30 pm, our clock-out time so to speak, we were always exhausted.
Even though I was only there for a week, I found myself getting super attached to some of the pups and it was definitely hard not to take one home with me! The ENP offers a super-easy dog adoption program for people living in the US, Canada, the UK and Europe, and they’ll make all the arrangements for you to pick up your new best friend at your nearest airport. As fantastic of a home as the park is, some of these furry friends would definitely benefit from having a forever home with humans instead of a big pack of dogs.
And now the fun part! Let me introduce you to some of my absolute favorite furbabies that I got to know. Most of these dogs were in the clinic when I visited, but some were living at the dog volunteer house, and others were just dogs that made a significant impression on me when I met them in their runs.
Bear is a super-sweetie staying in the clinic while I was at the park. He’s affectionate, walks well on a leash, and loves! giving hugs, even though he’s probably a little bit too big and heavy to be giving so many hugs. Some people might find his size and weight a little intimidating, especially when he jumps up to give his hugs, but I couldn’t love him or his hugs more! Bear also walks well on a leash and loves other dogs.
Ayo, the legless wonder dog, is another super-sweet dog. Ayo lives at the volunteer house, and was always amazingly affectionate and agile in spite of having three legs. For the most part she gets along well with other dogs, but apparently has been known to get jealous about her people. All-around very loving and energetic, and definitely very handsome!
Mocha is another dog who lived at the dog rescue house, and is probably the sweetest of them all. Affectionately nicknamed “princess” during our stay, she has an adorable habit of sitting with paws crossed and looking very regal. She also gets along well with other dogs, and is not skittish or afraid of people in the least. Total sweetheart!
Castor was one of the dogs in the runs who absolutely stole my heart. He lived in the run closest to the dog volunteer house, and I always made a point of saying hello before I went home. Castor was just all-around super friendly, loving, and always excited to see people. Another gentle giant, he’s an absolute doll!
Nom lived with Castor in Open Run 9, and was another treat. She loves attention and giving kisses, and would sometimes poke her head all the way through a hole in the chain-link just for a little petting. An absolutely gorgeous sweetheart and gets along well with other dogs!
Unfortunately, I can’t post about all 420+ dogs here, but I can say that most all of them are worth getting to know. Working with the dogs is an extremely emotional experience, and one that’s hard to forget (I even have ENP dog rescue dreams weekly!). Its hard when you fall in love with a dog or two or ten and then have to leave them, and its hard not knowing what their lives are going to be like once you leave. But its also extremely rewarding work, and even when you’re stressed or understaffed or emotionally drained, the dogs’ positive reactions always make it worth it in the end.
How You Can Help
There’s a lot of different ways you can help! Obviously the most rewarding way would be to go and volunteer yourself. The dog rescue project does not get nearly as much attention as the elephant program, but the work is, in my opinion, more meaningful and allows you to directly connect with the animals in a way that you don’t get with the elephant program. But if you are planning a trip to the park and don’t know if the dog project is for you, or if you’re really, really set on doing the elephant program, you can still take an afternoon and come help out with the dogs, or even come just after lunch to help with walking. The dogs (and volunteers) need all the help they can get, and working with them is really underrated.
You can also opt to adopt one of the park dogs, and there’s no shortage of dogs for you to choose from! The park’s website has a small “meet the dogs” section, which you can find HERE. Obviously these are not all the dogs at the park, nor all the dogs available for adoption. Its a good place to start, though, so its worth a look!
If you want to help out but aren’t ready to book your ticket to Thailand just yet and don’t have the time, money or capability to take on a new fluffnugget in your life, you can also SPONSOR A DOG for 1,000-2,000 baht, or about $30USD. You could fund-raise with a charity or group to purchase an expensive item (listed below), or donate money to buy less expensive items. You can also donate any of the following (taken from THIS PAGE on the ENP website):
Expensive $$$ items:
Mid range $$ items:
Cat scales (table top)
Various medical supplies
Durable dog kennels
Small $ items:
Medium size dog collars
Durable and long leashes
Stainless steel bowls (lg, med and small)
Iv extension sets
Cat litter and litter trays
Fees & Whats Included: One week’s stay at the Elephant Nature Park with the Dog Rescue Program costs ~$155USD, and includes accommodation, food & water, a t-shirt, a water bottle and a water bottle holder.
Accommodation: Accommodation is on-site in stilt houses. Each room can house 2-3 people, with double and single beds available. The beds all have mosquito netting and there are fans in the rooms.
Working hours per day: 8:00 am until 4:30 pm, with break for lunch.
Food: Buffet-style vegetarian food. Lots of options, very very tasty, but hard to eat gluten free, which was an issue for me. Celiacs beware of the fake meat, or “wheat meat,” as it is most definitely not GF.
Bucket List Info:
Activity Type: Volunteering
Value for Money: High value! The food and accommodation alone is given at a pretty cheap price for traveling, the park is gorgeous and you really feel like you’re doing something. Its extremely rewarding and I can’t wait to do it again.
Suitable for: Able-bodied people who love animals and are willing to work hard.
Recommend: Definitely, to anyone and everyone who will listen! Its an amazing experience and the whole ENP set-up is legitimately one of the best non-government organizations (NGO) I’ve ever seen. An amazingly good cause that’s well-executed and extremely thorough in organization.
As some of you may already know, I’ve been dying to go skydiving for a very long time! Having done a lot of rock climbing, zip lining and other adventure and thrill-seeking activities in my past, I wanted my skydive to be beyond exceptional. So I went out of my way to save my first skydive for the adventure capital of the world: Queenstown, New Zealand. Luckily for me, the weather in Queenstown was fantastic when I was there in late August, so I had my pick of nice days to dive on.
On the day that I ended up doing my dive I didn’t actually intend on throwing myself out of an airplane at all. I was meant to be going on a relaxed tour of Milford Sound, but my tour company failed to pick me up. So instead I booked myself in for a skydive, with the takeoff time scheduled for one hour after deciding I was going to be diving. Even though I wasn’t exactly mentally prepared for the dive, it worked out better for me in the long run; having more time to think about what I was about to do would arguably have sent my anxiety sky-high (pun a little bit intended), and I was almost guaranteed good weather conditions, so my dive would both be beautiful and safe.
Tip: the best time to do a skydive is in the morning, as weather tends to change in the mid-to-late afternoon, which means your dive could be cancelled or delayed. Its also best to book your skydive early in your trip, if you’re traveling, so that you don’t hit a patch of bad weather and end up not getting to dive at all!
The company that I jumped with is called Nzone and their office was conveniently located on one of Queenstown’s main drags, Shotover Street. I arrived at 9:00 in the morning for the 9:30 am jump, which was really the 10:25-ish jump. We spent the first half hour going over basic safety protocol and video and picture options before learning a little bit about what our dive experience was going to be like. After being told your options you get to choose whether you want to do the 12,000ft or the 15,000ft skydive, and I would definitely recommend doing the 15,000ft! I would recommend knowing your weight approximately before you go to dive, as there are weight limits in place for safety reasons. They do have a scale in the office, but it seems like it would be a bit embarrassing to weigh yourself in front of a room full of people, especially if you find out you dont make the cut. The weight limit is 100 kg, or 220 lbs.
At 9:30 our van came to pick us up, and we were driven about 20 minutes to the dive site. It was situated ideally, with mountains flanking both sides of Queenstown’s big, blue lake. The air was clean and crisp, and it was chilly in spite of the sunny weather. Our group of 12 or so was broken up into two groups of 5-6 people, and sent out on two different airplanes. My mini-group was sent out on the second airplane, so we got to relax in their heated lounge and prepare ourselves as we watched the first group go up and down before us.
Fifteen or so minutes later we went to the bathroom one last time, then headed out to get ourselves dressed. Our uniforms were very unfashionable grey jumpsuits, secured at the wrists and ankles with velcro and cinched tight with an oppressively thick harness, which made walking incredibly uncomfortable. We were introduced to our dive instructors, who attached a soft helmet, a pair of goggles and a pair of gloves to our uniforms, and then introduced us to our photographers before setting out on the plane.
The plane ride up was easily the most horrifying part of the entire experience. Before getting into the plane, I’d been relatively calm and collected, moreso than I would have thought knowing I was about to throw myself out of an airplane to freefall for 7,000 ft. But as soon as that plane began to reach altitude, I lost my cool. I was even thinking of backing out then and there, but fortunately was one of the first people out of the plane. Before I knew it my dive instructor was showing me his altimeter, and it was time to suit up. My photographer snapped a picture that does not do my level of panic justice, and then my helmet and goggles were put on.
Within seconds I was shimmied to the side of the plane, and after a super slow count to three, I was suddenly careening out the door of the open aircraft. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been quite as close to passing out as I was right then, looking down at the 12,000 ft between myself and the ground. After getting to the edge, I was shoved out of the plane face first and spend a few horrible seconds summersaulting weightlessly through the air, which was the worst and most disorienting part of the whole experience. After that it was all smooth sailing, without any more flips or other disorienting motions. After a few seconds it didn’t even feel like I was falling any more; instead, it felt like I was floating in an anti-gravity chamber, and the ground was coming at me. Mostly, things just got bigger, and I wasn’t feeling much of anything at all, except for the pressure in my ears from the sudden altitude change.
The freefall lasts for about 45 seconds, until the drive instructor pulls the parachute and you slow down. Once you slow down, you get the opportunity to really take in the scenery around you, which is absolutely amazing! The altitude makes it a little hard to breathe, but unless you have breathing-related illnesses, you might not really be all that bothered by it. After a few minutes of gliding toward the ground with adrenaline pumping, I finally made it safely back to earth. I was shaking hard from the adrenaline, but that went away after about twenty minutes. My dazed smile, on the other hand, wouldn’t budge for almost an hour. I couldn’t stop! It was an absolute amazing experience, and the pictures definitely do not do it
Activity Type: Adventure!
Price: $339 for 12,000 foot dive (45 second freefall), $439 for 15,000 foot dive (60 seconds freefall), $189 for photos or video, $229 for photo/video combo. (Note: Photos are 20 hard copies from dive in a cool little book, digital images on a USB stick, internet-accessible key code, and 7 postcards. Video is on USB.)
Value for Money: Good, if you’re into that sort of thing. Of course you want to pay a lot of money for safety, but its still hard to stomach paying $500 for anything.
Suitable for: Anyone with a thirst for adventure without bad panic-reactions.
Recommend: Definitely! Probably the best thing I did on my entire trip.
Full disclosure, everyone: I absolutely love Laos! After coming away from the very beautiful but also very loud, dirty and crowded country of Vietnam, Laos was a complete breath of fresh air. My first stop was in Luang Prabang, which is well-serviced by an international airport and is also located along several bus and ferry routes. I got a very last-minute flight here from Vietnam for under $200, and was able to take a tuk-tuk to my hostel for $3.50 ($7 flat fee from the airport, which can be split between a maximum of 4 people).
Location & atmosphere:
Luang Prabang is a small, wide-open city located in northern Laos, a former French colony. Situated along the banks of the Mekong River, this UNESCO World Heritage city offers a beautiful mixture of natural and man-made attractions, including waterfalls, river cruises, temples and markets. Compared to other major Southeast Asian cities, Luang Prabang has long, wide streets that are generally sparsely trafficked and are perfect for walking, biking and motorbiking.
What to do:
I only had two days in Luang Prabang, and although I saw most of the things I wanted to see, I definitely could have spent more time there. In the rainy season, note that you will probably only get a half-day of decent weather per day, so plan accordingly and expect to have a lot of time to relax! During the rainy times you can go to one of the many spas, enjoy a long meal in the pop-up restaurants along the riverside, or have a smoothie or drink at Utopia bar, which offers sun-beds and good views of the river from above.
If the weather is permitting, take a half-day to go see the Kung Si waterfalls outside of the city. A tuk-tuk roundtrip costs about $5, or 40,000 kip. Entry to the waterfalls is not included, and costs about $2.50 extra (20,000 kip). I would suggest leaving on one of the 1:30 pm tuk-tuks, then taking the return at 4:30. This is plenty of time to see the falls, with an included trip to a bear sanctuary on the way up to the falls. You can spend the day hiking up the waterfall, which is steep but provides decent views, or simply swimming in some of the lower pools, which I would recommend for those who are less fit or who have leg/foot/knee injuries. The best view of the falls is located just before the ascent to the top, where you can take pictures from the bridge.
During the second day I would highly recommend renting a bike, which costs about $2.50 for the day (20,000 kip). Riding the bikes is a great way to see the town itself, even if you don’t have a destination in mind. This is also one of the best ways to see all the temples in the area, including the majestic Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong) and the elevated Wat Pa Phon Phao. The views from the top of Wat Pa Phon Phao are stunning and highly recommended. You can also easily see the National Museum and the Handicraft Village, which I unfortunately didn’t make it to as it started to rain.
My favorite thing to do was the Night Market, which offers some of the standard touristy souvenirs and also some amazing food. I ate there every night and always had something new and different for pennies, and also took home some amazing teas, a tote bag and a scarf. Its very easy to haggle the vendors down, and I’d suggest asking for multiples for a much cheaper price or asking for a single item for about 75% of the original price. Usually you’ll end up somewhere around half or less of the original price offered. This rule generally does not apply for food.
Getting around Luang Prabang is super easy as the town isn’t very big. You could walk to most places within an hour, but renting a bike can be much faster and more fun. As stated above, bike rentals cost about $2.50 per day (plus a deposit). You could also get a tuk-tuk to take you around, for whatever price you can haggle! If it seems too high and your driver won’t budge, just say no thanks and try walking away. Usually you will get the price you ask for.
Where I stayed:
As a budget traveler, I stayed in a hostel called the Khammany Inn Hostel, which cost about $5.50 per night for a dorm, $7.50 for a private room. The rooms were decent, but less nice than some other hostels I’ve stayed in. All the same, they had aircon, free breakfast and an adorable puppy running around, so it was a pretty decent stay. On the downside, I had my laundry done there and all of my underwear and several of my tops went missing, so don’t do your laundry through the service offered there! Its also much cheaper to get it done elsewhere, and if you look around you should find a place that will do it for 8,000 kip, or about $1.
Where to eat:
Always and forever eat dinner at the Night Market. There are a few quick options right from the start, but if you walk down half of a block to a small alleyway you’ll see long rows of food vendors. Go there and check out the buffets– for 10,000 kip (~$1.25) you’ll get an all-you-can-eat plate full of local foods. You can also get freshly grilled meat for an extra 10,000 kip (~$1.25), which I’d definitely recommend. Once you’ve finished your main meal, head back up toward the market, but stop to sample some of the barbecued dried pork (5,000 kip (~$.75) per full serving, which I guarantee you’ll want!) and their coconut discs, which are made with rice flour and coconut for dessert.
During the day time you can also get quick bites to eat on the same street, with the fruit shake/crepe/sandwich vendors standing permanently in the same place as they do at night. Most shakes are 10,000 kip ($1.25), sandwiches and crepes may be slightly more.
Utopia also serves some pretty decent foods of local and Western varieties, but their service was definitely more than a little lacking in this department, so I’d suggest trying to find a little local pop-up restaurant instead.
Nightlife/Where to drink:
Utopia is really the only good place for young backpackers to go and drink, and you’ll see most everyone from your hostel there. Earlier in the evening, Utopia has a very relaxed vibe, with sun-beds and shisha available, while later in the evening it gets a little rowdy. Utopia does close at 11 pm, though, so its important to get there a little bit on the early side. After Utopia, some people go bowling (tuk-tuk drivers are happy to take you there), but you can opt to go home and drink there instead.
Overall, Luang Prabang was an awesome hit for me. I loved every second of being there, and could not get enough of the relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere. Take it at your own time and remember the popular pidgin’d acronym for the country’s name: Lao P.D.R- Please Don’t Rush!