All of a sudden, I'm 25... an age at which younger primary school Kirst thought older, adult Kirst would have had things all figured out. Turns out, I didn't and don't have things figured out... not at all. I'm 25, and have nothing to show for it. Nothing but memories.
Home is where your story begins...
...And, though Home may also be where your story ends, it definitely isn't your whole story... At least not for me.
People say it's harder to come back home than it is to leave, and, in the four months I was there, I can say that this is completely true. Don't get me wrong... coming back home for more than five days (for the first time in nearly two years) was as heartwarming and wonderful as you'd think it would be. Everyone is happy to see you... they're happy to hug you, and to have a conversation that's not on a screen.
When you meet your friends after months of poorly timed text convos and missed FaceTime calls, they're all buying your drinks, and interested to hear your stories from the road. It's like you never skipped a beat.
Then, eventually, the novelty of you being back wears off... but, there you are... still back. Home is still home, and you're still you... except... you're not.
Unless you've done it, not many people can fully understand what it's like to touch down in a new, unfamiliar place... A place where you don't know anyone... where you don't fully understand the language, the currency, the transportation systems... and where the simplest tasks become a challenge.
You've learned to love foods you couldn't quite pronounce the names of, and played weird drinking games with strangers who turned in to friends. Sometimes your heart was so full, you felt like it could burst... and other times, it did... it absolutely shattered. You slept on floors, slept with bugs, and even slept in an aircon-less hut, in the middle of a random Thai island... where you fell in lust with a Spanish dive instructor... and you fell in love with life.
Unless you've done it, it's impossible to fully grasp the impact of all this... All of the beautiful souls you've met, the places you've seen, the things you've done, and the experiences that changed you.
After awhile, you stray away from telling these stories at all... because talking about "your favorite place in Thailand" or "that one time in Myanmar" just feels, well... pretentious.
I realize that I am so lucky to have had all of these experiences... and I know that not everyone can, will, or even wants to. I don't think I am better than anyone else, but there were times at home when I felt like I had to downplay the person I'd become... with old friends, new friends, and, sometimes, even family. (Excuse my French), but F that. I worked really hard to get to where I am, and, as much as my parents have supported me, the life I've led was not handed to me... I made it happen for myself.
I quickly realized that watering yourself down is THE most self-deprecating thing you can do...
Because when you have to be excessively modest, to belittle your accomplishments, and to downplay your dreams JUST so everyone else in the room can feel bigger, well, then you have left little to no room for your own future growth.
After completing two overseas work contracts, two months of living out of a backpack, nearly two years of non-stop travel, and three days of being home, I did the gut wrenching, but inevitable, thing that any long-term traveller eventually has to do. I got a job... and a few days later, I got another job. I was back in the service industry, and back to my old home antics... Working non-stop. Almost immediately, my personal growth came to a screeching halt.
One of my main reasons for returning home was to see family, but because I was constantly in a server apron taking orders, or behind a bar pouring drinks, that never really happened. And when I wasn't making people's drinks, I was consuming them... sometimes at alarming rates (because, well... days off were hard to come by... and when we had one, we went all in).
I wasn't growing, I wasn't changing. I was working myself in to the ground, but I wasn't working towards anything. I had hit a standstill, and I damn near started moving backwards.
Two months flew by, and by the end of June, I couldn't stop thinking about Seoul. I missed the city that never sits down. I missed teaching, my students, my sushi mom, and the incredible subway system. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I hadn't been ready to leave because I wasn't finished with this city yet... or, rather, the city wasn't finished with me. My purpose here hadn't been fulfilled, and I hadn't quite finished this chapter's transformation.
Coming back to Seoul just made sense.
It's somehow been nearly a month, and I am loving this city even more than I did the first time around. I've reconnected with some old friends, made some new friends, and even get to see some of my old students. My new neighborhood is awesome, my new kindy kids are adorable, AND I GET TO HAVE WEEKENDS! AND HOLIDAYS (which, you bartenders know is un.heard.of)!
Overall, I'm focused, happy, and, to put a long story short, I am truly living my best life.
For whatever reason, I thrive in the unfamiliar... but, this time around, Seoul isn't completely unfamiliar. I've figured out just enough to where the city isn't totally daunting. I'm comfortable here, and don't feel completely out of place... it feels a bit like coming home.
In a city where next to no one knows my name, I have an easier time remembering who I am... and more importantly, who I want to be...
...(And don't worry, they whole "Impending North Korean Nuclear War" thing is TOTALLY being blown out of proportion by the Western media. It's fine... I'm fine).
Travel burnout is a very real thing, and, after a month of nonstop travel, it hit me like a freakin’ wave.
Things had become rocky with the person I’d travelled with in Indonesia, and I can now attest to the many horror stories I’d heard about traveling with close friends – (10 out of 10 would not recommend).
I was exhausted...
Tired of airports. Tired of living out of a backpack. Tired of not knowing when I’d be able to do laundry. Tired of not being understood... And I’ll tell ya what, this exhaustion and burnout could not possibly have come at a worse time.
Cambodia was about to rock my world.
Before visiting the country, I saw a lot of your typical, travel blogger-esque photos. You know the ones I’m talking about… Pretty girls wearing pretty dresses, and probably a sunhat of sorts, strolling through temple ruins. Based on these and these alone, Cambodia looks picture perfect.
I still wonder where people go when the only thing they have to say about Cambodia is how beautiful and amazing it is. Sure, the temples are breathtaking... And, yes, the lights and competing Top 40 tunes blaring from Pub Street’s booze carts make for a fun night out… That is, if you get drunk enough to overlook the barefoot kids begging tourists for money late in to the night.
After having been there, I’ll say this… Yes, it is a beautiful, amazing country, as rich in history as it is in heartache. The poverty and hardships still faced by much of the population were indisputably visible… and, as someone who wears my heart on my sleeve at all times, I found it hard to come to grips with this gruesome reality after witnessing it first-hand.
Here’s a little history lesson for ya...
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians through execution, forced labor, and starvation. This (very recent) genocide resulted in the loss of a quarter of the population, including many of the country’s doctors, politicians, teachers, scientists, and anyone else who was viewed as a threat to the regime.
Families were separated, and, instead of going to school, children were put to work or trained to fight. The devastation that took place under Pol Pot in these four years has had lasting negative impacts on the Cambodian people, and millions of undetonated landmines and ordinance still litter the country today.
After reading up on the history of Cambodia, I knew it would be a tough country to visit...
...I had no idea just how tough it would be, or how much it would break my heart.
I knew I wanted to do something… anything… to give back while I was there, and, though it was only a small gesture, I opted to send my old teaching supplies to Siem Reap versus leaving them behind at my school in Seoul.
While researching reputable organizations, I read numerous articles about scams in Cambodia – Schools, orphanages, and even “non-profits” that, to put it simply, are not legit, and take advantage of tourists’ bleeding hearts. I made sure to find one that was legitimate… the Angkor Legacy Academy, located in the heart of Lolei Village, about half an hour outside of Siem Reap. After spending ₩150,000 on expedited shipping, and raising money to donate to the school’s community food program, it was finally time for me to make my way to Lolei myself.
Though I’d planned to volunteer at the academy and teach a morning English class, I woke up that particular day with a horrible stomach bug… and, if I’m being totally honest, an odd sense of anxiousness.
Cambodia was doing a number on me, and I was beginning to question whether or not the school in Lolei was like the ones I’d read about. I decided to sleep it off and headed to the school that afternoon instead.
Later that day, after shaking off whatever funk I woke up in, I hopped in a tuk-tuk with my driver Buffalo and we headed to the school. As hordes of tourists went in their vans and carts toward Angkor Wat, Buffalo and I turned down the road and headed in the opposite direction. For half an hour, we drove through absolute nothingness… empty road and empty fields for miles. Finally, we took a left onto a narrow dusty street marked with a sign for Lolei. We tuk-tuk’d along a little bit longer before stopping in front of a big, open air classroom.
As soon as the cart came to a stop in the drive, a dozen kids immediately rushed towards us. Unlike many of the other children I’d encountered on the streets of Siem Reap, they weren't asking for money or trying to sell me souvenirs. They were all politely smiling, introducing themselves, and asking my name. Two young girls reached for my hand as I got out of the tuk-tuk, and led me into the classroom. Then they spotted the big box Buffalo was carrying from the cart and their eyes lit up. The kids all crowded around, likely curious as to what was inside.
After figuring out who the teacher was, (which took a while, as she looked no more than 18 herself), I asked if I could speak to the director, Sovannarith. We’d been communicating back and forth for a month or more, and I’d called him earlier that day to let him know when I was on the way. Oddly enough, he was nowhere in sight.
The teacher gave me a confused look, (which I figured just meant I’d butchered the hell out of Sovannarith’s name), and went to get the director. The shirtless, potbellied man who walked out of a back room was most definitely NOT Sovannarith. He exchanged words with Buffalo in Khmer… and then Buffalo turned to me and said, “This is the wrong school.”
Of all the things that broke my heart in Cambodia, this damn near ripped it right out of my chest.
I apologized profusely, explained the situation, and did the only thing I knew to do. I opened the box intended for the other school, and emptied it of half its contents. The sheer gratitude for simple things like new pencils, notebooks, whiteboards, hair clips, and stickers was heartwarming... and also heartbreaking, because I wished that I could do so much more.
I said goodbye to the children, and Buffalo and I headed down the road to the other school. In the smaller, more rundown classroom, the kids gleefully went through the remaining contents in the box. Though they didn’t know the difference, I felt horrible that I’d given away half of the supplies. While they drew on their new white boards and emptied the box, I emptied my wallet. I gave Sovannarith the $100 I’d raised for his community food program, (and the rest of the US and Cambodian money in my wallet).
Just when I thought Cambodia had finished mentally and emotionally rocking my world, I had a chat with a volunteer who was teaching at the school and staying with Sovannarith’s family in the village. I told him what happened, and found out about an "orphanage" in the area.
At said orphanage, the kids were known for rushing to any volunteers who showed up in the drive. They would greet them the same way they greeted me. I put quotations on the word orphanage, because, supposedly, at this orphanage the orphans are actually kids who are bused from their homes... and their parents... to pose daily as orphans.
Like I said before, I'd done research on these types of places, and made sure to find a reputable school. Yet, as luck would have it, a fake orphanage is, possibly, exactly where I ended up.
I still have not fully processed the range of emotions I felt during my visit to Cambodia. I was in awe at the Temples of Angkor. I was happy to reunite with friends I’d met in Vietnam on Pub Street. I was heartbroken every time I gave money to kids on the street, and every time I turned them down.
That day in Lolei, I felt helpless, stupid, sad, and even a little angry. At the same time, I thought, who the hell am I to judge?
Whether or not that open air classroom, of a potentially fake orphanage, was filled with orphans or children with families, at least it gave these kids a safe place to play and to learn. If that’s their only option, or their best option, then who am I to say whether it’s right or wrong? Since I’m not sure about the legitimacy of this place, I’m really glad Bleeding Heart Kirst hadn’t given the director any money. I’d just given things that, hopefully, have been used and enjoyed by those kids… and I would do it again.
Siem Reap broke my heart...
...and, all of a sudden, the global gallivanting I’d saved for and carefully planned for months began to feel really selfish.
I witnessed first-hand something I already knew, but that hadn’t quite yet hit home. The world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and travel isn’t as glamorous as Instagram makes it out to be.
If you’re anything like me, visiting Cambodia will be overwhelming.
Though you may feel hopeless and powerless, remember there’s always something that can be done to give back. I don’t know about you, but I’d take helping on a small scale over doing nothing any day… and, while in Siem Reap, I found a number of places and ways to do just that.
If you're planning a trip to the city, and are interested in finding out how and where to give back GET IN TOUCH.
For a better understanding of Cambodia and it's history, I highly recommend reading First They Killed My Father, a powerful memoir written by Loung Ung, a survivor of the Pol Pot regime.
Looking for a quiet escape in the magical rice fields of Ubud? Does your dream Bali vacation involve spending a night in an eco-treehouse or bamboo cottage?
If you’re anything like me, you answered yes to both of these questions – Keep reading to find out how to make your Bali travel dreams a reality.
Down a winding path in the rice fields of lush Ubud is a quiet, cozy spot that you won’t find on GoogleMaps - Firefly Villa
Firefly, a beautiful rice field hideaway, is the perfect place to stay while visiting Ubud.
Though it’s just a short walk to the city center, the property is highly secluded, and only accessible by foot or by bike.
Firefly can arrange airport transfer for you at a cost of US$30, if you give them enough notice... since it will literally be impossible to find on your own. I took my chances on snagging a cab at the airport, (and ended up paying about half that). Bali travel tip! - If you're getting a taxi from the airport, BARGAIN for a cheaper fare. In my experience, something about being a solo female traveler with a too big backpack on my back made some people think they could get one over on me.
The first taxi driver who approached me... while I was eating breakfast at the airport cafe... (and not at all soliciting a cab)... said he'd ONLY charge me 400,000 rupiahs to get to Ubud. The second cabbie I was approached by after breakfast one upped him by quoting me an "excellent flat-rate price" of FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND. 500,000 rupiahs to Ubud?! Try again, El Chapo! I stopped, looked at him, said, "You must think I'm some kind of stupid," and kept walking.
Travel hack: Even though it's frowned upon/"not allowed" in some parts of Bali, you can still download Uber to at least get an estimated price for your trip. Bargain for a ride priced a bit higher than Uber, and Wa-lah! Never get duped by rip off cabbies who don't run a meter ever again! A bit of negotiating/playing hard ball later and I found a taxi driver to take me to Ubud for 200,000.
My taxi driver looked confused as he came to a stop at the side of the road, a location given to him after calling a staff member at the villa. He turned to look at me in the backseat and asked me, yet again, “Are you sure this is the right place?” I shrugged, called the Airbnb number, and within a few minutes, a motorbike engine sputtered to a stop. A hotel staff member had parked their bike at the top of a very steep hill, and was walking down to the road to help me with my belongings.
With my big backpack on the handlebars, and my small backpack on my back, the two of us somehow kept our balance as we rode down the tiny path through the rice fields. He asked me, “Are you afraid of snakes?” as a massive lizard cut across our path, then made some comment about the beauty of staying in nature (that I only halfway heard because my eyes were peeled, and I was concentrating on the presence of snakes). I wondered, not for the first time in my life... (and also likely not the last), “WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU GOTTEN YOURSELF IN TO?”
We arrived at the property and all my worries dissipated. I'd totally stopped my attempted snake spotting because HOLY SHIT - This place was a DREAM.
Though I was early, and the Bamboo Eco Cottage wasn’t quite ready for me to check in, the manager Ketut was very warm, welcoming, and told me to make myself at home in the open air kitchen and common area.
After travelling for 39 hours straight from Myanmar, I was perfectly okay with that. I grabbed a beer, my journal, and a cozy spot on the couch overlooking the quiet rice fields.
I have nothing but good things to say about FireFly... and the best part is the affordable price.
It was so relaxing, and though there's a lot to do in Ubud, FireFly made me want to kick back and do absolutely nothing. The first day, we stayed in the Bamboo Eco Cottage, a perfect little loft with a private walkway, patio, and a beautiful view. No one was checking in the following day, so we were able to spend the morning having a delicious breakfast and relaxing in the sun on the patio with a cute Bali pooch who came to hang out with us.
For our second night at Firefly, we moved to the Birds Nest, a literal four-story bamboo, treehouse style nest with private pods that can only be accessed by using their respective wooden ladder. Each level has a double bed with a canopy, a light, and an outlet. As you can imagine, these aren't extremely spacious, but it's all the space you need (and a hell of a lot better than a hostel bunk bed).
My travel companion stayed on the second level, and, with a go big or go home mentality, I decided to stay on the fourth. The climb up is definitely not for the faint of heart, but don't worry about having to take any of your things up there with you, as lockers are provided in another common area.
When we woke up in the morning it was POURING down rain. I couldn't even be mad at Mother Nature for ruining our plans to explore Ubud, because the sound of the rain from the treehouse was absolutely incredible. It was like sleeping in the clouds, and neither I nor my friend minded pushing back our plans for the day to stay in our nests a little longer.
Despite being an open-air, eco-property, FireFly was really clean (with the exception of the bugs who, lets face it, live there). The food was delicious, and the staff was so helpful when it came to arranging activities, boat tickets, and transportation around the city. The one thing that may be a down side for some travellers visiting this property is the spotty wifi. Also, the power as a whole cut out a couple of times, but this wasn’t just a property issue, it’s a city/Bali-wide issue.
All but one of the other guests were friendly, laid back, and understanding of the fact that when you’re staying in the midst of nature, you’re not going to have aircon constantly blasting, or full bars on your cellphone. However, a deranged solo traveller, who we coined “Cali Bro,” absolutely flipped out about this… (and everything else). Despite his cursing, shouting, and promises to give them a bad Airbnb review, Ketut the manager, and the rest of the staff, handled him flawlessly. (If you do read a bad review of the property, chances are it’s him and shouldn't be taken to heart).
In addition to having a horrible attitude, Cali Bro left his stuff everywhere, blasted his shitty music for everyone to hear, and even used the food in the fridge that belonged to the property restaurant. There’s a difference between respectfully making yourself at home, and treating a shared space like it IS your home, and Cali Bro definitely did the latter. He has apparently behaved this way before, and, in an attempt to keep him from returning, was banned by the host on AirBnb. Cali Bro literally made a NEW ACCOUNT in order to stay there and wreak havoc again.
Seriously, Airbnb if there’s anything you can do about making sure that FireFly's management never has to deal with this guy again, I know they, and travellers like myself, would appreciate it (as he was the only negative aspect of my stay here). CHEERS!
I loved this place and can't wait to go back to stay in one of the many other villas on the property - (maybe one with A/C! Because, yes they have those).
And I almost forgot - The outdoor showers and bathrooms are incredible! Whether you're trying to cool off in the heat of the day, or showering under the stars, the bathroom situation at FireFly WILL NOT disappoint.
Visiting Ubud? Need a ride? Call Gusti!
Want to skip the hassle of haggling with cabbies, or just want to learn a thing or two about Bali? Get in touch with Gusti! Referred to us by Ketut, Gusti was one of the best people I met in Indonesia. He didn’t just take us from point A to point B, he taught me a lot about Balinese culture, customs, and was just a really nice guy.
On our last night in Ubud, he took us to a local market and bought more street meat and Balinese cakes than our two stomachs could handle - things we never would have known to get on our own. (He also explained the process of rice farming to me... and now I can FINALLY sleep soundly - Kid you not, he actually pulled the car over and picked some from a roadside field to show us where the rice comes from).
If you're also curious as to how rice happens (or if you need a ride) you can contact him at +62 (877)-6043-7705. Tell him Kirstie sent ya!
New to Airbnb? Click here to sign up and receive a discount on your first reservation (so you can rice and shine at FireFly Villa, too)!
Ahhhh, Hong Kong...
A long anticipated dream destination and the first stop on my, also long anticipated, backpacking journey.
After a bit of a rough start to the trip (which involved somewhat intentionally missing my Thursday evening flight for one last Hana Sushi dinner... and then squatting for the night in my empty, but unlocked, apartment), I finally arrived in Hong kong and began my two month, mini tour de Asia.
A few days earlier, I had said goodbye to my kindergarten class at graduation (which was quite possibly one of the hardest things I've ever done... Seriously though, how freakin' cute are these little monsters?!). I'd finished my job in Korea and completed a marathon around Seoul to close my bank account, sort things out at the pension office, and tie up all other loose ends.
Turns out making an international move is hard... and there were A LOT more loose ends than I thought there would be. I had been so occupied with preparing for the move and saying my goodbyes that I really didn’t plan much of anything for the first stop on my trip. I had no idea what to expect of Hong Kong, which isn't always a bad thing... but in this case, it kind of was.
For starters, (and the only real problem), was that I thought it was going to be MUCH warmer. I had only packed one pair of jeans, one light hoodie, and a couple three-quarter sleeve tops (all of which I planned to leave behind when I left for Vietnam). The rest of my, somehow filled to the brim, packs contained nothing but island wear - bikinis, shorts, tank tops, a totally unnecessary beach ball and god knows what else.
Speaking of filled to the brim backpacks... my god was it heavy. Thankfully, once I arrived in Hong Kong, finding my way from the airport to my hostel wasn't complicated. With my backpack on my back and carry-on on my front, I boarded the airport express train, and within half an hour was at Central Hong Kong Station. From there, my hostel, Check Inn was just two MRT stops and a short walk away in Wan Chai… (not to be confused with Chai Wan which is the last stop on the line and literally on the opposite side of the city. Don't make this mistake, as it'll be a time consuming one. I don’t know why cities give metro stations such similar names).
Side note: Bethany says I’m fake for having travelled with two backpacks, but with a laptop, a drone baby, and other gadgets, (not to mention copious amounts of underwear), it was not easy to pack for 2+ months of life-ing in one bag! I gave it my best effort, and, overall, did a fairly decent job of downsizing. After seeing loads of other people toting around two (sometimes three) packs, I realize it’s a thing backpackers do, and am no longer concerned with my little sister’s hating ways. ;)
Anyway, back to Hong Kong...
As soon as I touched down and got through customs, I purchased a couple essentials - my train ticket and a SIM card. I would highly recommend picking one up at the airport. I used to go to cities disconnected… as a matter of fact, I lived in Seoul on airplane mode for well over half a year. This time, knowing that my visit would be short, I decided that I didn’t want to spend it wandering around lost. Having a SIM (and an updated version of google maps - this is crucial) allowed me to find everything I was looking for fairly easily, including my hostel.
Planning a trip to Hong Kong?
On a time limit?
Keep reading for my top HK recommendations - things you'll need, places I loved, (and how to get there)!
Buy a Sim Card
Being connected in Hong Kong made my visit to the city such a breeze (once I'd updated my version of GoogleMaps). I was walking the streets so confidently that I must have looked like a local... and was asked (more than once) for directions. This is even funnier, and more ironic, given that, prior to moving to Asia, my sense of direction was literally nonexistent.
There are several prepaid SIM cards you can purchase and pay for as you go, but I went with the Discover Hong Kong SIM available at the airport. There were two options -the 5-day pass for HK$88 or the 8-day pass for HK$118. (Note: You'll need to have an unlocked phone to use any SIM card abroad).
The Octopus Card is Hong Kong's equivalent of T-money in Korea and Taiwan's EasyCard. You use it to pay for everything from the train, taxis, and can even use it at convenience stores and restaurants. It was so efficient and convenient - (and saved me from having a ton of excess HK coins when I left). Just make sure you've always got it charged up! You can add money to your card at convenience stores and metro stations - and can get back whatever balance is remaining before you leave!
I was able to buy a pre-charged card at my hostel but they an also be purchased at metro stations or convenience stores.
10,000 Buddhas Monastery
This is one of the top tourist attractions in Hong Kong, and there's no wonder why. I'd recommend it for many reasons. For one, it's free. Two, the sheer number, and variety of expressions and poses among the Buddha statues is pretty awesome. Three, it was a nice workout... (that was rewarded by a solid view of Hong Kong once I reached the top). As there are a lot of stairs, I'd recommend wearing good walking/climbing shoes.
Getting there is really simple. Take the Blue line to Sha Tin Station, and the monastery is a short walk away!
Take exit B at the station and walk down the ramp beside the bus terminus to the street. Follow Pai Tau Street around to the left. Then take the first right on Sheung Wo Che Road and walk to the end of the street. On the lefthand side of the dead end, you will see a small sign and a pathway leading to the Monastery.
Nan Lian Garden
Amid Hong Kong's skyscrapers lies the tranquil and perfectly landscaped Nan Lian Garden. This cute little garden was the most zen spot to stop and relax after climbing a million stairs at the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery... and before accidentally hiking a mountain. The Chi Lin Nunnery is nearby as well!
Take the MRT to Diamond Hill Station and walk out of exit C2 (by the 711). Walk around the shopping centre to the left then cross the road at the first intersection on the right.At that point, you should see signs and the entrance to the garden. Hours of operation are from 7 am to 9pm and admission is free!
While you're in the area, check out Choi Hung Estate (just one stop over), too!
I, very obviously, was not dressed for a hike... but nevertheless, that's how I ended up spending the greater part of a day in Hong Kong.
At the last second, after discovering not one but TWO epic hikes nearby, I decided to ditch my plans of lazy wandering and sight seeing to get a birds eye view of Hong Kong instead... and since I didn't want to waste time going all the way back to my hostel to change when I was already at the right station, I made my way up to Lion Rock in jeans and beat up converses instead.
The hardest part about this trail (if you enjoy climbing) was finding it, as there were many places that (to me) looked like possible entrances, that, in fact, were not. (May or may not have spent some time wandering around construction sites, and a bit too close to electrical towers).
The view of city from the top was well worth the climb, even on a fairly smoggy day. If you plan on doing any hike in Hong Kong, Lion Rock is definitely an epic one.
Since I had originally intended to hike Kowloon Peak, I went to Diamond Hill Station (and stopped to hang out in Nan Lian Garden for a bit before deciding to making my way to Lion Rock. You can also get there from the nearby Wong Tai Sin Station).
The walk to the trail is about 1.6 miles from the station, which I didn't mind since it was a nice day. It was also a good opportunity to see a different, less touristy part of the city. If you want to save your energy for the hike, and not worry about draining your phone battery mapping your way there, take a cheap taxi to the trail instead!
Heads up! Bring lots of water, as there's nowhere to buy any along the trail. (For extra stair master action, do what I did and combine this hike with a visit to the 10,000 Buddha's Monastery. Let's just say my legs were burningggg by the time I got back to my hostel at the end of the day).
If you're into people watching or photography, you'll find a haven for both at the edge of Kennedy Town on the notorious Instagram Pier, otherwise known as the West District Public Cargo Depot.
Though there was a slightly concerning sign at the entrance saying to keep out, that didn't deter dozens of people, locals and tourists alike, from walking their dogs, jogging, or having full blown photoshoots around the pier... (I'm talking balloons, costumes, the whole nine yards).
So, truth be told, I never would have found or known about this place had it not been for an accidental tinder date I found myself on one afternoon. I had planned to just come to Kennedy Town for brunch, but, while enjoying my avo-toast, a guy I'd matched with (who apparently lived in the area) walked by and recognized me. He offered to show me around the area, I agreed, and, after riding his (pictured) one seater bike tandem style (and receiving several bewildered stares), we ended up at the pier.
You can get there from Kennedy Town Station or HKU Station (but HKU is a bit closer if you're walking). Take exit B2 and walk down Hill Road. Taking a left on to Des Veaux Road W will lead you straight to the West District Public Cargo Depot (aka Instagram Pier).
This was a really cool and colorful spot that I would definitely recommend checking out. After a big rainstorm, you'll be able to catch an epic reflection of the sky in the puddles on the pier... (and, speaking of catching things, while you're in the Kennedy Town area, head to CATCH for a delicious brunch and a refreshing mimosa or three).
If you've seen Alan Walker's Sing Me to Sleep music video, Martin Garrix's Insta photos while visiting the city, (or really any photo of Hong Kong beyond Victoria Peak), chances are, you recognize this building. Though it's a bit off the beaten track, and not exactly on TripAdvisor's Hong Kong top 10, for me, the stacked urban architecture of Montane Mansion was my number 1 must see.
There are two different courtyards to explore, each with their own view. You must take a set of stairs on the street level to access the courtyards.
This has been the location of several photo and video shoots, and is basically an architectural photographers dream, but it's important to remember that it is, first and foremost, a residential area... so flying your drone through the courtyards probably isn't your best bet. Though I'm sure they're used to it, I felt a bit bad about hanging around snapping photos of what is home to so many people.
Montane Mansion is a short walk away from both Quarry Bay Station and Tai Koo Station. I went to Quarry Bay and walked out of exit B alongside King's road, (though you can also get there by heading to Tai Koo and out of exit A).
Victoria Peak, according to TripAdvisor and numerous other travel blogs, is supposedly the number one, absolute top "Must Do" thing for tourists visiting Hong Kong. Personally, I found it to be just a little bit overrated. Don't get me wrong, the view is pretty dope... but the tram line was INSANE and, due to my limited backpack wardrobe, I absolutely froze once I reached the top. For me, it just wasn't worth the money or time I spent getting there (and the line to get back down was even longer).
There is a trail from HKU that will take you up to the peak, but since I was in a hurry to see the sunset, I opted to splurge on the tram instead... However, I probably would have been better off walking. Since the tram line was so long, I missed the sunset by a long shot. By the time I arrived at the peak, it was well after dark. Aside from the long lines, (and freezing at the top), Victoria Peak does provide a great view of the city lit up at night.
To get to the peak lower tram terminus, go to Central Station and take Exit J2 onto Charter Road. Turn left and walk down Murray Street then continue straight down Garden Road. You will see the lower tram station located on the left. Cross over Garden Road and you're there!
Again, I found Victoria Peak to be a bit overpriced and overrated. For an equally good view of the skyline, with shorter lines and more personal space, go to the Hong Kong Observation Wheel instead... (or take a hike up to Lion Rock)!
Man Mo Temple
In the middle of bustling Central Hong Kong lies calm Man Mo Temple - a tribute to Man (the God of Literature) and Mo (the God of War). If you stick around long enough, I guarantee you will leave smelling like the many incense rings burning inside.
From Sheung Wan station take exit B and walk alongside Des Voeux Road Central. Turn left on to Cleverly Street then turn right and walk a few meters down Queens Road Central before taking a right on to the staircase known as Ladder Street. It took me AGES to find the temple because I was trying to walk along actual streets and sidewalks and didn't think to look for staircases. After that cross Hollywood Road to Man Mo Temple.
Star Ferry - Victoria Harbor
Though there are definitely faster and more effective ways to cross the harbor, if you're going to do it at night... you might as well do it inexpensively, and while getting a kickass view. According to local food Tinder date, who you can read about at the end of this post, it's actually the cheapest way to cross the harbor - (cheaper than the MRT or a taxi).
Whether you're going from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui, or vice versa, you'll get an awesome view of the skyline if you choose a bench that's facing the right direction. Every night at 8 PM you can catch the Festival of Lights, a big lights and music show coming from the skycrapers on the Central/Wan Chai side - (so if you happen to get the ferry at that time, be sure to choose a seat facing that direction to enjoy the show on your ride).
I rode the Star Ferry to the Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon side, arrived in about 10 minutes, and it only cost me a few dollars on my Octopus card. Once there, you can walk along the Promenade, or browse the shops on Nathan Road.
To get to the Central Star Ferry pier, head to either Hong Kong station (exit A2) or Central Station (exit A). If you're taking the ferry to the central side, you'll find the Star Ferry Pier by going to Tsim Sha Tsui station (exit 6).
Prices will vary depending on whether it's a weekday, weekend, or holiday, but (at the time of this post) the Star Ferry runs daily from 7:20 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Choi Hung Estate
Colorful Choi Hung Estate is one of Hong Kong's oldest public housing estates and the home of the infamous rainbow basketball court. If you follow travel Insta-accounts or photographers abroad, chances are you've seen this multi-colored court. I've seen photos of it so many times that I knew I had to make the trip to see it myself... The only problem was that the photos I'd seen never had the location tagged. THANKFULLY, I ended up on an accidental tinder with a ginger fella who we'll call Ron Weasley. (If you're wandering how dates happen accidentally... be sure to read til' the end).
Weasley was an artsy photo dude and told me which subway station to head to if I wanted to find the court. Despite Ron's (somewhat vague, but decent) directions, I still spent a good 20 minutes wandering around the estate looking for the basketball court. All of the buildings have the same happy rainbow color scheme, but, like I said, I wanted to find THE basketball court... and FINALLY, I did.
Just in case you're ever looking for this iconic spot, here's a tip to save you the aimless moseying - LOOK UP! If you're looking for the basketball court on ground level, you'll never find it because the basketball court is actually on top of a parking deck (which is really near subway station exit and entrance to the complex... so if you wander in amongst the buildings like I did, you've gone too far).
As you can imagine, this place becomes a photographer/Instagrammers playground later in the day, but when I went just after sunrise it was just filled with local old timers walking laps, watering the plants growing in the garden, or (as pictured) doing aerobics.
To get to Choi Hung Estate head to the subway station of the same name (easy, right?) When you arrive take exit C3 or C4 and head to the parking deck! Take the stairs and you're there. I'd recommend going early when there are locals and it's not just a photo-shoot frenzy.
Tai O Fishing Village
At the far west side of Lantau Island you'll find Tai O, a small fishing village, and one of my favorite places I visited in Hong Kong. Coming from Seoul, I was damn near sick of cities, so it was really cool to get out of the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle to this small, quiet (albeit still a bit touristy) fishing village.
Also... try the Donuts in Tai O - Delicious and worth the wait if there is one.
If you're going to make the trip to Lantau Island to visit the fishing village, you might as well make a day of it and go to Ngong Ping Village and the Big Buddha as well. Located not far from Tung Choi station, it's kind of on the way to Tai O and will help break up the journey a bit. The Po Lin Monastery is also by the Big Buddha, and is definitely worth seeing if you're in the area.
To get to Ngong Ping, first take the train to Tung Chung Station at the western end of the orange line. Once you arrive, walk out of exit B around the corner (to the right) and across the street to the Tung Chung Bus Terminus. Bus number 23 will take you to Ngong Ping and the Big Buddha. The Po Lin Monastery is also there and definitely worth checking out (check the first map below for a pin)!
From the Big Buddha, you can take bus number 21 to Tai O Fishing Village. (Bus 11 Will take you from Tai O back to Tung Chung).
If you want to visit Tai O first (map 2), take bus 11 from Tung Chung and then Bus 21 to the Big Buddha in Ngong Ping Village. Bus 23 will take you back to Tung Chung - or you can catch the cable car from Ngong Ping if it's running (which it unfortunately wasn't when I was there).
I hope this information proves to be useful, and that you enjoyed reading about my (mis)adventures in Hong Kong.
Where is your favorite spot in the city? Let me know in the comments below - as I will definitely be returning and would love suggestions from locals or fellow travellers!
All of the directions provided are up to date as of May 2017, BUT if you find an error or change that should be made, (in bus numbers, station names, etc.) drop me a note in the comments section and I'll update it!
Also, I frequently take the scenic route, so if you know of a faster way to get to any of these places, let me know!
Check out the Hong Kong recap below
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Last March, I took a TEFL course to prepare for teaching abroad in Korea. Day one of the course was all about culture shock, and, though I consider myself to be a fairly well-rounded, cultured individual, I quickly realized that I’d never actually experienced culture shock. Despite having traveled abroad numerous times, I was always either with family or in a comfortable, familiar place.
Now, I’ve been living on my own in Asia for nearly a year. Though I’ve adjusted to life here, and settled into somewhat of a routine, I still experience culture shock on a regular basis. Here are, what I consider to be, seven of the most culturally shocking things about living in Korea.
1. Squat Toilets
There are few things worse than desperately having to pee at the end of a long flight. The plane is descending for a good half hour, and the "fasten seat belt" sign is on the entire time. So as to not be scolded by a flight attendant on the descent into Dubai (where I had a layover before flying to Korea), I opted to hold it.
By the time the plane landed and taxied in, I REALLY had to go. I was hoping for a quick walk up to the airport… (And that I’d be find a toilet even more quickly). After the seemingly endless descent (and the bus ride to the airport terminal), I found a toilet alright. It was a hole… in the ground - my very first squat toilet experience, and my first time REALLY being shocked culturally. I was so shocked, in fact, (and had to pee so badly) that I let out an involuntary “Whaaaaaat?!” and nearly peed my pants. To make matters worse, I was still following America's TSA regulations and had brought all of my luggage into the stall with me.
It's a good thing that I was exposed to squat toilets early on, because they're quite literally everywhere. On that note, I quickly discovered that culture shock is a very real thing.
2. Shower Bathrooms
Shock number two is also bathroom related. Since I was expecting it, my shower bathroom wasn’t so much a shock as it was an odd and difficult thing to adjust to. When my recruiter sent photos of my apartment, I noticed something that looked like a hose attached to the sink in the pictures of the bathroom. After speaking to some friends who had taught in Korea, I discovered that, no, I was not seeing things, and that, yes, for the next year, I would in fact be using a shower bathroom.
Some of you may be thinking, “Shower bathroom? What’s she on about??” Well, it’s a fitting name because there’s no tub, and the whole bathroom IS the shower. Basically, a knob on the faucet determines whether the water comes out of the sink or the shower head. Typically, I turn the knob back to sink mode immediately after showering (so as to avoid any disasters), but there have been several times that I’ve gotten totally ready to leave home and turned the sink on to brush my teeth… only to get completely soaked by the shower head. This sucks especially hard for someone like me who takes ages to decide what to wear.
At first the whole shower bathroom thing was SUPER weird, but now I kind of love it. There is so much more room for activities, it’s easier to drink wine in the shower, and my bathroom is always clean. Aside from the occasional surprise showers, the whole "Shower Bathroom" thing has kind of grown on me.
3. Living in the Future
With an incredibly Massive Time Difference
I thought I’d suffered jet lag on my trips to visit family in Europe, but it was NOTHING compared to what I experienced moving to Seoul. The 13 hour time difference was so tough to adjust to. Thankfully, because I’d spent two weeks in Ireland, my body had already jumped five hours ahead.
In the beginning of my year in Korea, I’d always want to stay up late to talk to people at home. However, I quickly realized that 9 a.m. comes quickly, and that late nights chatting with friends at home were followed by unproductive and exhausted days of teaching.
Drunk texting of any sort is even more highly frowned upon than usual. Whenever I’ve had a bit of soju, everyone back home is just beginning their day. It’s also super weird Face-timing or calling people back home while they’re out partying on a Friday night and I’m suffering a wicked Saturday morning hangover.
4. Korea Knows How to Party
Speaking of hangovers, NOTHING could have prepared me for Korea's drinking culture. There are no open container laws, so you can drink on the street, by the river, in a cab, on the train, at your local 711 - literally anywhere. The bar scene is fun, but my favorite place to drink (aside from the river) is a convenience store. It’s cheap, there are dozens to choose from within a half-mile radius, and they never close.
Soju, Korea’s signature drink, is both delicious and dangerous. They drink it straight… They add shots of it to cider… They mix entire bottles into pitchers of beer. It goes down like juice, but is essentially watered down vodka. I have fallen down many a staircase because of this deceptively easy drink.
My first staff dinner was basically a marathon of Korean BBQ and drinking games where the loser, or sometimes winner, drinks (you guessed it) soju shots. Said staff dinner ended with my phone taking a swim in the toilet, a wicked hangover, and a solid two weeks of being phoneless to follow.
Staff dinner number two involved less soju consumption on my behalf, but our Vice Director did buy us a bottle of tequila at the bar.
5. Personal Space? What's Personal Space?
Public transportation here is absolutely fantastic. It’s fast, cheap, extremely convenient, and, for these reasons, always busy. While the metro system is amazing, I will never NOT dislike feeling like I’m in a pack of sardines. When it comes to being uncomfortably up close and personal with strangers on the train, the golden rule is, “It’s not awkward unless you make it awkward.”
... But it’s not just the subway. In Seoul, the sidewalks are constantly teeming with people. Rainy days are the worst because the city turns into an umbrella war zone... though, I must say, the ahjummas, (old Korean ladies), are quite violent with their Sunbrellas on nice days as well.
To be fair, this country is TINY in comparison to it's massive population. Personal space can't really exist with so many people existing in such close quarters. I must say, I’ve become quite a master at bobbing and weaving my way through the crowds.
6. Couples Outfits
Though this photo was taken at Ultra Korea, seeing couples in identical outfits is not something reserved for music festivals. In fact, it isn't a rare occurrence at all. For Korean couples, twinning is not a mistake, it is the norm. It is carefully planned, calculated, and, to me, wildly comical.
I’ve seen some couples go so far with their clothing coordination that they even wear identical socks. I can only assume that the rest of their undergarments match, too (as, according to the mannequins at lingerie shops, this is also a thing).
7. I Actually Really Don't Mind Culture Shock
The term "Culture Shock" tends to have a very negative connotation, but, the truth is, after the initial mega-shock died down, I grew to enjoy the little daily shocks... (aside from the surprise showers - those definitely still suck).
There is nothing wrong or right about the things I've found shocking while living in Asia... they're all just different from what I was used to. It's almost as if I've had some sort of awakening - like I'm either seeing things with a new pair of eyes, or just truly seeing the world for the first time.
I will never not be a Carolina girl, but life in my small town North Carolina had started to feel like a habit. Everyday, I would go to jobs I had been working for so long that I could do them with my eyes closed. Had I stayed, I would have lost my mind. Here, life is different- It's interesting, it's stimulating, and, most importantly, it can be downright challenging. I had become entirely too comfortable at home, so these new challenges are totally welcome.
Though the big city life can take a toll on my s(e)oul, (pun intended), it's nothing a hike up the nearest mountain can't fix. I am loving both this beautiful country and it's vibrant culture, so much so that I'm extending my contract for another six months. I've grown to appreciate the feeling of pure lost-ness that, these days, I experience the majority of the time... for, in every new thing I see, and each new place I discover, it feels like I find another little piece of myself.