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We’re taught that first impressions are important, but once again, travel has shown us that things aren’t always as they seem.
At first glance, the town of Irkutsk was grim. Crumbling roads emerged from the melting cover of snow as beat up cars, trams and buses jostled around town in no tangible order. Our taxi driver delivered us to a tired wooden house that on first glance appeared to be sinking into the muddy earth surrounding it. He assured us that it was the spot, although the lack of conviction in his voice as he unloaded our entourage of bags left me doubting otherwise.

To our surprise the building did indeed house our accommodations for the next several days, and the interior was in much better shape than the exterior. We were greeted at the door by the owner, a tall and lanky young Russian named Maxim who spoke sufficient English with a typical Russian drawl. He’d been working on renovating the hostel over the past several months and had turned it into into a comfortable and cozy retreat from the outdoors. As we settled in and got our bearings, we began to realize how much Maxim’s hostel was a metaphor for his people; at once cold and unwelcoming on the outside, the longer you stayed the more the facade crumbled (or sank, if you will), leaving nothing but a warm invitation to stay on the inside.

It took us two days to convince Maxim we didn’t want to walk on a frozen lake or trek through the frozen tundra; we were here to ski the Siberian mountains! Some phone calls were made and the next day we found out that a group of locals were heading to the mountains in 3 days time; if we were able to feed ourselves and find some sleeping bags we were more than welcome to join them. We were overwhelmed by Maxim’s help and his friends’ willingness to let us tag along on their trip; Russian hospitality was definitely shaping up nicely, and we could only hope the snow proved to be just as good where ever the heck it was we were headed.

The following day Maxim put us in touch with the first of the many Serge’s we’d end up meeting throughout our travels through Russia. Through many rounds of Google translate Serge welcomed us into the fold of the Baikal backcountry ski community. It would be Serge’s cabin which we would be crashing at for the next four nights, and that night we went to dinner to meet up with his friend Stepan, who would be our guide while we navigated the slopes of the Siberian backcountry. Although Stepan wasn’t certified, he knew the area well and was happy to have more guests along on the trip, proud to show off the knowledge and skills he had acquired while exploring his regional mountain playground.

Situated three hours from Irkutsk by car, the mountains that sit on Lake Baikal’s southeastern shore form a natural boundary between the motherland and Mongolia. A unique microclimate from the lake allows cold air moving down from the north to pick up moisture and dump it on the opposing shores – creating a skiing paradise that begins in late fall and continues into the following new year. Ten years ago the recreational possibilities were realized and the first accommodation was built, which it turns out, meant a shipping container was hauled up to the bottom of an avalanche chute and fixed with a stove that vented to the outside. It was enough to house those hearty souls passionate for the sport however, and since then the area has only grown in popularity. Fortunately for us the container has long been abandoned (but still remains in place), and we were treated to stay in Sergey’s cabin, one of approximately twenty that are now used throughout the year.

Arriving at the cabin that afternoon after a quick snowmobile lift up (from a kind gentleman named Sergey nonetheless), we were soon introduced to the rest of our crew; Kes, a young pilot from Moscow, Sergey “kamikaze” from Sheregesh, Yannick from Chamonix and Aubrey and Marie from Quebec. With just enough time for two laps before dark set in we strapped on our skis. Spring conditions were setting in and the snow was soft and crumbly under our feet, and we skied it with grins on our faces, whopping and hollering the whole way down. Somehow, beyond our greatest expectations, we had made it into the backcountry of Siberia, and to our delight, by the time we pulled back up to the cabin, it had begun to snow.

The next morning we awoke to a foot of fresh power. Our motly crew enjoyed an excited breakfast knowing it was ours for the taking; such are the rewards of backcountry skiing. With only a small handful of other locals there during the week, we would have our pick of lines on the mountain all day long. After everyone was strapped in and a safety check was done, Sergey led the charge up the mountain, breaking a trail with the finesse and ease of someone who has spent the last ten years of his life exploring these hills. Later we would learn that it was only three years prior that someone had introduced the locals to ski touring equipment; before then they had simply strapped everything on their back and walked up the mountain in their boots, or if they were lucky enough to own a pair, snowshoes. Such was the way of the Russian though, and it was inspiring and infectious; like stories from our grandparents time, they didn’t wait for someone to come along and show them where to find adventure and explore; they took the lead and the risk and made the adventure their own; simply teaching themselves as they went.

As we wound our way up the valleys and onto the ridge line of the mountain, the sun broke through the clouds, highlighting beautiful alpine bowls that ran into long treed descents. The group excitedly switched over our gear and one by one enjoyed our first taste of Siberian powder as we descended to the valley bottom. We did three more runs on that day, stopping only briefly for lunch and tea in the warm sunshine of the valley bottom.

Over the next few days we enjoyed beautiful sunshine and warming temperatures. Although quickly changing spring conditions steered our decision making process we were still able to find fresh snow on the northern aspects, skiing hard all day and basking in the sun with a cold beer back at the cabin by late afternoon. As the weekend approached the locals started to trickle in, joining in on the turns when they could and stopping by the cabin at night to swap stories and drink. Although a little off the mark Alison was delighted when a group of four barged into the cabin one evening demanding to know which one of us was ‘Alice’. After deciding that it must be she they were looking for and declaring so, the group burst into song, serenading her with a full rendition of a popular Russian tune which revolves around the bearer’s name. It was heartwarming and hilarious all at the same time, and only stood to reaffirm our love of the Russian people. With open arms we were welcomed into a close knit community of friends and quickly became one of their own; with a shared passion for the outdoors we bonded, never having felt more at home.

As we packed our bags four days later plans were already in the works for the adventure to continue. Marie and Aubrey and Alison and I would end up renting a car and driving two days south to see Sergey (kamikaze) in Sheregesh, where a few more days of skiing awaited us on his local mountain. We bid farewell to the rest of the group after one last night of debauchery and dinner back in town, sad for the trip to end but looking forward already to everything that lay ahead. Russia was continuing to prove itself beyond expectation, and we couldn’t wait to see where else the road was going to take us.





Beijing To Baikal

Long before we ventured overseas, Byron and I had often discussed our shared desire to include train travel in our time abroad. Although the leading candidate at the time was India (we were still planning on going to Nepal at this point), the idea was quickly left on the table when our plans left us touring around Southeast Asia instead. While we were enjoying the light and fluffy in Japan though, Powder magazine published a story titled “The Great Siberian Traverse”; a full length feature that follows three prominent skiers as they trained across the vast expanse of Siberia, skiing wherever possible along the way. That was all the incentive we needed; if they could do it, why the heck couldn’t we? The plan was made and visas were secured; our route would take us by train from Beijing to Russia (via Mongolia), where our first stop would be the city of Irkutsk. With ten days in Beijing to kill before our train left for Russia, we had just enough time to explore one last corner of Asia before heading north into Siberia.
Our first day in Beijing was beautiful; the air was crisp and the skies were blue, while a chilly wind kept the skies clear of both cloud and Beijing’s infamous pollution. As the wind died off over the next day or two though and the smog began to settle back into the city, we quickly developed a desire to leave the city. By night cars illuminated the all-encompassing pollution which shone like fog in the headlights, and by day you could count those which had remained parked for the night as they became covered by a distinctive film by the next morning. If inanimate objects bore this coating of pollution on the outside after only a day, what on earth did the inside of our lungs look like after two?
Our escape came on the China Highspeed Railway. After a little research we set our sights on the Huangshan mountains, which sit 1300km south of Beijing, only a mere 6 hours away when transported by one of the country’s newest rail lines traveling at speeds of up to 300km/hr. Onboard the train the next day, we were afforded a unique (albeit quick) view of life in China’s rapidly expanding countryside. Much of it simply resembled one construction site after the other; although there were breaks in between where flocks of sheep and farmers still roamed through their rapidly shrinking pastures, everywhere we looked a new rail line, highway, or high rise was being built. The economic growth the country is experiencing thanks to its adoption of quasi-capitalist principles coupled with a commanding one party government has resulted in rapid expansion with little to no consultation; zipping through rural farming villages cut in half by a high speed rail, it was painfully obvious that this growth has come fast, and the rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats.
We arrived at our destination in time to catch the last bus of the day, and were delivered to our hotel in the small town of Tangkou under the cover of darkness. The next day we woke to clear skies (hooray!), surrounded by towering granite peaks. Excited to explore these peaks, we boarded the bus which would deliver us into the park and the start of the trails. Although still quite commercially developed (think paved stairs and garbage cans all the way up), it was wonderful to be outside experiencing another face of China. Quite similar to the landscape of California’s Yosemite National Park, Byron and I slowly made our way up the mountain where we would spend the night in one of the hotels perched on the side of the jagged peaks.
Due to cultural differences in dormitory and shared bathroom etiquette, what happened that night will unfortunately go down as the worst night in the history of our entire trip. Sleep deprived and disgusted, we threw on our clothes the next morning and set out to explore the remaining trails before making our way back down into the valley. The sun greeted us along with the weekend crowds as we descended the mountain, and I chuckled as Byron was stopped again and again for photos along the way with awe struck Chinese. I don’t know if it was his blue eyes, blonde hair or blue pants that won them over, but either way it was a photo op they weren’t going to miss. After a short tram ride down the mountain we were soon back on the bullet to Beijing, ready for the start of our next adventure. Skis and gear in tow we boarded the train a few days later, ready to see what Siberia had in store for us.

 

The true Trans-Siberian starts in Valadvostock On Russia’s far east coast, traversing 9000km across the word’s largest country to arrive in Moscow one week later. Rated as a more popular option however is the Trans-Mongolian route, which heads north through Mongolia from China before connecting with the Trans-Siberian rail line 50 hours later in Irkutsk, Russia. Once we had firmly wedged our skis and oversized bags into our sleeper berth we excitedly settled in to watch Beijing fade away. As we jostled and bumped through the countryside China soon faded away into the cold wilds of Inner Mongolia. We reached the border late that evening and took the stop as an opportunity to grab a breath of fresh air and stretch our legs. We laughed as a Malaysian couple whom we had made friends with earlier that day experienced their first breaths of cold air; newly married they had chosen the train trip to Russia’s capital for their honeymoon. We repeatedly assured them that even for seasoned Canadians, -20C is cold for anyone. Still sceptical they grabbed a few quick breathless photos and smartly retired to the warmth of the waiting train. The next day was spent comfortably traversing the Gobi desert, still deep in the grasp of winter. That evening we made one last midnight border crossing and sleepily smiled as the border official checked our visas and stamped our passports; we had just entered the Russian Federation.
Our first glimpse of Siberia was exciting; we awoke in the morning to beautiful sunshine and Lake Baikal on one side of the train, and spectacular snow capped mountains on the other. As we pulled into Irkutsk that afternoon and grabbed a taxi to our hostel, all we could think about were the chilly peaks we had passed by that morning and wondering just how the heck we were going to get back there to ski them.


  

  


  
  
  

Huangshan Mountains

  
  
Huangshan Mountains
  Huangshan Mountains 

Huangshan Mountains



Beijing metro on route to Siberia.



  Goodbye China

China Mongolia Border
  

Gobi desert
 Home on the rails

Leg stretch.  Ulaanbaatar, Monoglia

New locomotive. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
  Mongolia

Mongolia
  Mongolia

Mongolia


Lake Baikal

Hokkaido Deep

 

     As we wound our way North from Sapporo on Japan’s largest northern island, Byron and I quickly began to understand what all of the hype was about; Hokkaido meant snow, and a lot of it. Cold dry Siberian air collects moisture as it crosses the Sea of Japan heading south, depositing it in the form of the lightest, driest powder snow on earth. On average Hokkaido and its surrounding mountains receive seven meters of average snowfall, which rarely sees the freeze/thaw cycles we are used to in North America, meaning that that seven meters is there to stay for the winter. We arrived in the small town of Furano mid-February, eager to experience what we would quickly start to term ‘Japow’. 
     Furano is a small town right in the middle of the Hokkaido island; not quite as developed as the Niseko resort area made famous in recent years through various ski movies and magazine articles, it was a great place to get our ski legs back, make some new ski buddies and enjoy our first real taste of winter. After enjoying a couple of rare sunny days exploring the resort area and its backcountry, we had our legs back and were ready for some steep and deep. Our prayers were soon answered, and the snow began to fall. And fall it did. Throughout our stay in Japan, the weather patterns and snowfall would be a constant learning experience. Everything we knew about snowfall and snow conditions changed; snow fell at -5C but also -30C, and it was always dry, always light, and always bonded quickly and well to existing snow to create a stong, stable snowpack (ie a backcountry skiers dream).  

   After our few introductory days at the local resort, we began to explore the surrounding backcountry terrain with new friends we made at the local hostel we were camped out at in town. Seeing our lust for snow and the desire to explore more of the region, they put us onto a backcountry area accessible from a few small onsens (locally developed hot springs with attached accomodations) located only a short bus ride away across the valley in Hokkaido’s largest mountain range, Ishikari. Surrounded by the Daisetsuzan National Park, these onsens were open year round via a narrowly plowed mountain road, and guaranteed fresh tracks for days. If the weather happened to clear while we were there we would also be afforded views of Ishikari’s highest peak, Ashahi-Dake; an active volcano topping out at 2200m.

     With the promise of fresh, deep tracks and hot springs at the end of each day, we bade goodbye to our new friends and the little town of Furano. After many rounds of “sumimasen” (excuse me/sorry in japanese) we wedged our over sized load onto the mini bus loaded with Japanese elders heading for their daily mountain onsen (it’s hard to remember who ‘sumimasen’ed’ more, us or the bus driver. As we quickly learned the Japanese are ten times more polite than your average Canadian, and will apologize for even the slightest inconvenience, even if it’s clearly us that should be apologizing). Our lodge for the next five nights was perfect; a spotlessly clean dorm room (the Japanese are also fastidiously clean, another welcome trait), kitchen for cooking, and an expansive network of hot spring baths to spend hours in after a day out playing in the snow. At the end of each day everyone gathered in the kitchen regardless of language or age and ate, laughed and drank together.

       During our stay at the onsen we met a pair of adventurous and hilarious friends from Colorado also out in search of deep snow in Japan. The four of us hit it off immediately, and after bidding the Ishikari range goodbye we spent the next 5 days together road-tripping through Hokkaido skiing powder, eating sushi and sharing new adventures and a lot of laughs. When me met Phillip and Jeremy we’d been on the road for over 6 months; their energy and enthusiasm for adventure was, for us, a needed recharge. They lived and travelled with an infectiously calm but fierce love for adventure and life; they traveled and started each day with little expectation other than to enjoy and live in the experience, a motto that Byron and I wholeheartedly embraced and still try to carry forward with us each day still. Their thoughtful yet carefree attitude toward adventure made us all fast friends, and we were very sad to say goodbye when it was time for their flight home. 

       To most, Japan seems like a daunting and expensive travel destination, and they’re not wrong; unfortunately, south east Asia this is not. We knew that our time in Japan would quickly deplete our resources the longer we stayed, so we did everything we could to find ways to minimize the blow to our budget.  

       As it turns out (and not surprisingly), this is a common conundrum for travellers everywhere, and several networks have been set up to accommodate those looking for a live/work exchange. After completing our profile we were bonafied jobseekers according to workaway.com, and after a few emails we were set to swing hammers and help out with some renovation work while our host put us up in a shared house with others in the same boat; the deal seemed pretty reasonable, and there was a network of local hills in the area to ski at during our time off. After six months of total freedom this would be the first time we would be required to answer to someone and return to a semblance of responsibilities. All we could think was it was a good thing there was a ski resort in town.

        Our communal house was located in Kutchan, a small town about ten minutes from the resort center of Nesiko. The Aussie whom we were working for had lived in the area for twenty-odd somewhat years, and had grown accustomed to using ‘workaway-ers’ to staff most of his commercial operations, which included a few restaurants, a hotel and a small ski school. Although we didn’t agree with all of his business practices, the situation did allow us to prolong our departure from the endless snowfall of Japan. We committied to a month of hard labour before we moved on; and just as with most of our other experiences in the country thus far, it turned out to be a worthwhile one. For one month we found a place to call home, and were able to share it with others from around the world, adding to a long list of friends whom we’ll forever be grateful to have met. For one month we skied together, “worked” together, cooked together and partied together. It was an awesome family of travellers who for a short time made a home away from home that much better.

      The area around Niseko is blessed with some of the highest snowfall in Hokkaido, and even on this reported ‘low snowfall year’ it didn’t dissapoint. One morning we woke up to almost a meter of fresh snow; it took us nearly fifteen minutes to shovel a short path for the van to the street but everyone knew we weren’t going to work until it was skied; there was so much powder that we enjoyed fresh tracks all day that day and even the next. At one point when we had to do a short boot-pack Byron volunteered to cut the trail; I was shocked into giggles as he plowed into the snow; waist-deep on his 6’5″ figure. The longer we stayed in the region the more secret pockets of fresh snow we found, a few quick minutes from any of the resort trails would often lead to soft, fluffy turns undiscovered by those skiing the groomers only a hundred meters away. 

     Dominating the Niseko area is the dormant volcano Mt Yotei. This massive 1900m beast dominates the local vista on the rare days when the clouds part, and with constant snowfall throughout the winter her flanks are constantly filled with deep snow just waiting to be skied. With a clear day in the forecast coinciding with our day off Byron and I along with two others from our house made plans to get an early start on the next day and summit the volcano. After an early start we were already cutting our track up the side of the mountain when the sun came up, giving light to the birch above us and sparkle to the snow crunching below our skis, promising a day that wouldn’t soon be forgotten. After six hours and 1600 vertical meters of breaking trail we crested the peak and got our first glimpse down into the crater; it was perfect. After a lap down into the belly of the beast we cheered and screamed every exclamation and explicative we knew (at least I did); we had just skied into a volcano! I was beyond giddy to say the least; if the volcano decided that was the moment to come back to life and blow her top I would have died a happy girl. 

     Our luck with the weather held and we descended into the crater one more time before we headed for home, enjoying the vertical mile of powder skiing we had worked so hard to gain that morning down the other side towards home. We owe the weather and volcano gods a huge arigato gozaimos for our day on Yotei, as it will be one that will live in our hearts and memory forever. 

      Unfortunately our love and pursuit of snow in Niseko didn’t always coincide with our work responsibilities and we usually neglected the latter. Our volunteer boss eventually felt that we were no longer holding up our end work/live deal, and so it was on this note that we were unceremoniously fired from our ski bum jobs. This was a first for both of us, and one we did in the end, take very lightly, and with a large dose of humour. We spent a few more nights in our Kutchan house as refugees, and after a large farewell party with our adopted workaway family left the Japow behind and boarded a short flight to Beijing. Little did we know our ski adventures were only getting started.

   

     
   
    
   
   
    
   
   
    
  

   

  

  

  

  

   
    
    
 
   
    
 

Tokyo, Welcome to Japan

  As our flight slowly banked toward the final approach to Haneda we got our first glimpse of the sprawling Megapolis of Tokyo. The forest of high-rises and endless sea of city that spread out beneath us was spectacular. Stepping off the aircraft into the chilly January evening was confirmation that we’d left the tropics behind. After collecting our ski gear which had been shipped from Canada, we marched onto the Tokyo subway skis in tow. This was a fairly awkward affair, public transit and skis don’t mix all that well. We extracted ourselves and our gear from the subway at the correct station, and promptly got lost looking for our AirBNB rental. With our ridiculous amount of gear, and stunned looks, a older Japanese couple noticed our situation and kindly walked us to our house.

  

     I think I’d describe Tokyo not as one large mega city, but as a collection of cities within a city. Take the metro to any of the major stops and when you reach street level you’re in the middle of a new city. We stashed our stuff, grabbed some saké and set out to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s major commercial centers, the municipal government buildings are also located there. It’s a bustling mix of old and new. Gleaming corporate high-rises and the Golden Gai, its narrow streets packed with tiny bars and restraunts, lay side by side. The 47th floor observation deck of municipal building provides a stunning (free) view of Tokyo and its surrounding areas, complete with Mt Fuji in the background. To the south of Shinjuku we explored the shopping streets of Kabukichō and walked into Shibuya crossing. Where every 90 seconds the traffic lights turn red and 100s of people make there way across the intersection, an endless sea of people. And while the traffic flows, the sidewalks fill up anew with people waiting to cross. There is a unique energy to Tokyo, millions of people going about their daily business. But horns don’t honk in frustration, sirens don’t wail in panic, people don’t even walk against the signal. It’s a quiet, dignified order. It’s not Asian, It’s Japanese. The unfaltering politeness of the Japanese, their fastidious attention to cleanliness and order makes Tokyo peaceful yet bustling. 
      With more restaurants than any city on earth, great food was always easy to find. It was always nice to step in from the cold and enjoy a bowl of ramen or pull up to a Sushi bar. Most of the popular ramen spots would have vending machine at the door where you’d select your meal of choice, pay for it, and receive a chit with which you’d then present to the staff. A very efficient procedure, and very Japanese. Vending machines are everywhere, over 5.5 million of them across the country, selling everything. Our favourite choice soon became the “Fire” brand coffee, the cans came adorned with characters from the Star Was rebel alliance. If you found the good machines, there’d be a red button under the can of Fire. Pressing the button would produce a smoking hot can of coffee, perfect for January in Japan. 
    Seafood is a huge part of the Japanese diet, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Tsukiji fish market. The largest seafood market in the world, almost 6 billion USD worth of seafood passes through the market annually. It’s home to the world famous tuna auction which gets underway at 5am. We slept in and showed up for the wholesale market at 9am. You can meander up and down isles stocked with basically everything the ocean holds, for now. It’s a carnival of sights and sounds. Thankfully in the chill of January the smell was absent. It’s really an accidental tourist attraction, we can’t buy anything, we just get in the way and make photos. The merchants tolerate the gaijins getting in the way, but you’re wise to look out for the forklifts buzzing around. This is, afterall, a place of business. Feeding the people is very serious business. The Market is scheduled to be relocated later on this year as Tokyo will be redeveloping the downtown site in preparation for the 2020 summer games. 
   Our Air BNB pad was located in the Akihabara hood, it’s basically a huge arcade. We spent our final Tokyo night drinking saké and playing video games. Byron was pretty good with the claw and scored us some very plush stuffed animals, which soon replaced our less than adequate pillows. Our time in Tokyo had been short, We really only scratched the surface. But it was time to fly north to Hokkaido and see what the snow in Japan is really like.  
 

   
  

Our Tokyo Home

  


  
   
    
    
   
   
    
    
    
    
 
   
    
   

Thailand round 2…On Beaches and Buoyancy

 After two months of new cities, roads and adventures, it felt great to be back in Bangkok where we knew the streets, sights, and most importantly, where all the best street food vendors were located. Although many of the friends and travelers we’ve met along the way made their best effort to get in and out of Bangkok as quick as they could, Alison and I found that we enjoyed the crazy collision of culture, religion, and late night shenanigans that this city has to offer. It was also nice to be back in a traveling hub where backpackers converge and we could sit for a few nights enjoying beer on the street while swapping tales of travels with others. After spending a few days gathering information and seeing a few of the sights we missed the first time around, we jumped back on the bus and headed south, making way for the small island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. 

  The northernmost of three large islands situated in the Gulf, Koh Tao is quieter and less rambunctious than its sister islands to the south. Since the first hotel was built in 1984 it has experience rapid growth to tourism, and is now known for its affordable and excellent SCUBA diving. The island boasts more dive shops than 7-11s, a feat in this country, even if you are on an island! Despite its popularity however the island still maintains a laid-back tropical island charm, where sunsets are watched from the balcony with a beer, and residents are tucked into bed not long after dark.

 It had been 10 years since I’d been under the water on a dive, but after a quick refresher in the shallow water we headed out to the deep, excited to see what secrets lay beneath. I’d forgotten how awesome it is to be underwater; the feeling of being completely weightless, swimming silently about while curious fish flitted in front of your eyes, while the more shy ones tucked themselves further into the rocks or anemone, hoping to escape your sight. The world under the water is such a fascinating one; to think that all that we see when we are diving is constantly there, swimming, eating, living just as we do on land beneath the water on a day to day basis fascinates me. Sometimes when I’m on a boat I look over the edge and get lost simply thinking about everything that is going on down there, everything that we know, and so much more that we don’t. It both fascinates and scares me, and I think it is what always keeps me coming back for more. The sea is such an incredible place and what makes it more incredible is how little we truly know about it. 

Although I was hesitant to go diving after 10 years out of the water, I’m glad I did. In the past I have had trouble pressurizing my ears when diving, however this time with some recommended 7-11 decongestants (oh thank heaven!) and Alison’s encouragement we were soon swimming peacefully along side each other under the sea. Alison and I have been on the road together now for six months, never more than a few feet apart. For many that may not work, but for us it has been a welcome change to the time we spent apart while focused on our careers over the past few years. It has made a strong relationship stronger, and we continue to push each other when needed; this time I was happy Alison pushed me into the water. 

After two full days of diving we pulled ourselves out of the water to dry off and explore the island a little bit further by land. Diving in 30C water is a far cry from my certification dives off the coast of Nova Scotia, and it was definitely a welcome change. Although we didn’t see any big sharks or whale sharks, we did see healthy coral and all the fish that rely on a healthy reef eco systems. What initially started out as a 2 day trip turned into 6, and put Koh Tao up there on the list of one of the best places we’ve visited so far on this trip, and one we’d definitely return to. 

From Koh Tao we headed west across Thailand’s narrow sliver of land to Ao Nang, where we set up shop for the remainder of our days in the country in a little bungalow tucked up off the beaches, at the edge of the jungle under towering limestone peaks. Every night as the sun set bats would leave their hiding spots in the cliffs high above and come down to our cabin, chasing the bugs that swarmed to our porch light in the dying light of dusk. Some seemingly the size of birds, these never failed to cause Alison to shriek as they swooped in for the kill, always coming so close to our heads but never hitting as they caught dinner and dashed back out again at breakneck speed.  

By day we explored the surrounding area of Krabi beach and Koh Phi Phi Island, while at night we ate our fill of delicious seafood and street food. Our days in the sun and warm water were numbered, so we soaked up every last bit of the rays and even snuck in one more day of diving. Only days before we had hit the button and booked the flights for the next stage in our adventure… in a week’s time we would say goodbye to the warmth of south east asia, and say hello to the snowy winter streets of Japan. After three months exploring this beautiful corner of the world, we decided it was time to change gears, we’re going skiing baby! Japow, here we come!

xo, Alison and Byron


Recommendations:

For those looking to do some diving in Thailand, we highly recommend checking out Koh Tao. The diving is the most affordable we saw in the region ($70CAD for a 2 tank dive), and the marine life is plentiful. We dove with the PADI certified dive shop Ocean Sound, a well run and reputable company owned by a fellow Canadian who has lived on the island for over 10 years now. We also dove with Buddha View diving on Koh Tao, and The Dive in Ao Nang, both great companies that offered great service and dives.

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

     

    
    
    
    
    
  

Cambodia

 With the Christmas holidays approaching and our cycling adventure now behind us, we set out for Cambodia. Arriving in the the capital city from Ho Chi Minh City via bus, the freedom our own two wheels afforded us already seemed like a distant memory. As the bus careened into Phnom Phen, a frenzy of hungry tuk-tuk drivers immediately surrounded the bus, hustling for a fare. Succumbing to one extra persuasive individual we jumped into the back, knowing then and there our days of independent travel were over.

 

       The following day we wanted to take in some of Cambodia’s more recent history, and headed off to the Killing Fields. Throughout Cambodia, there are a numerous sites where the Khmer Rouge regime executed and buried over 1 million people in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ the country of those that threatened the communist farming utopia it envisioned for the nation. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, or ‘Killing Fields’ outside of Phnom Penh has preserved the graves and memory of those murdered within the region, and serves as a powerful reminder of the tragic and destructive power an unchecked governing body can reign over its own people. Much like the resilience and power we found in the Vietnamese however, the Cambodian people have shown strength in recovery and reconciliation since this horrific period of history. Only 40 years after the devastating regime massacred almost a third of its people, Cambodians are working hard to put the past behind them and rebuild the spirit and strength of their country.

     

 After a somber morning at the fields, we enjoyed lunch with our driver (now turned tour guide) at a great cafe run by an NGO that provides technical training for Khmer youth. The food was delicious, and as we ate our guide discussed life in Cambodia and the opportunities available for its people today. Although they are now standing on their own two feet, Cambodia still seems to be looking for a place in the world and a voice of its own. Often during our few short weeks in the country we found ourselves at a curious juxtapose of stunning cultural artifacts, surrounded by restaurants offering nothing but full western fare. It is my hope that Cambodia sees the beauty and strength in its own culture and ensures that it is preserved and championed in years to come; while it’s hard for an emerging market to find a balance between cultural preservation and visitor appeal, if the latter of the two becomes too much of a priority, they may run the risk of losing the first all together.    

  

 We spent the evening watering ourselves along the Mekong River, watching as families and friends played along the wide boulevard against the shores of the river. After a few days in the city we had finished our exploration, and were ready to pack our bags. With two months of jungle, rivers and roads behind us, we were finally heading to the beach, just in time for Christmas. 
  Koh Rong island is one of a handful of undeveloped islands off the the coast of Cambodia, just a quick ferry ride from the mainland. For five nights we enjoyed the sun, sand and clear blue waters of the gulf of Thailand as we relaxed in our tiny rustic beachfront bungalow. We read our books, swam day and night, and explored the the little lush island to our hearts content. After a month of cycling and a week of cities and buses, it finally felt like we had a chance to unwind. The sun and sea carried our aches away with the tide, along with our glove tans, worries, and cares.
 From Koh Rong Island we made the long haul to Siem Reap, home of the spectacular ruins of Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, they are a reminder of the Khmer people’s dominant reign over the region for hundreds of years, serving as the center of their long standing dynasty. Much like the Aztec Mayan ruins and the high altitude remains of Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat is a fascinating example of the strength and ability of people long since past.  
 After reaching our fill of historical culture we joined the throngs of people gathered on the streets of the city to celebrate the start of another year in a modern cultural fashion. As we clinked glasses with others from countless other nationalities, Byron and I said goodbye and gave thanks to the end of an amazing 2015, and set our sights on the continuing adventures that 2016 would bring.
 Two days later we boarded a bus for Thailand, ready to complete our loop of south east Asia as we made way back to the crazed metropolis of Bangkok. From there we would head south to experience the plethora of beaches and hot sun the southern stretch of the country offers, ready to dip our heads underwater and see if what we could find below matched all that had mesmerized us above. 

  
    
  

Killing fields memorial

 
   
    
    
   
   
 

   
    
   
   
    
  

  
 

   
 Happy new year ! 

Things on Scooters…

It was such a large part of our photographic journey through Vietnam and Cambodia…we just couldn’t resist sharing a few photos of the humorous, shocking and sometimes appaling things we saw on the back of scooters as we made our way through SE Asia.

Pretty good way for a pup to get around!

      

Note the ‘child seat’ strapped on the bike

 

This little piggy went to the market….

 

Even on scooters the girls remained prim and proper

 

The local air conditioning install men on their way to work

Just your average door delivery

 

I’m liable to believe the kitchen sink is in there too

 

No big deal. He’s got this.

 

Your local veggie delivery man.

 

Optimus Prime retired in Cambodia, as a tuk-tuk.

 

Don’t worry, this will work out just fine.

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BANNANA!!