The most beautiful place on Earth

Sunday, Feb. 27

We’ve found the most beautiful place on Earth: Chilliwack, B.C.

Surprise – we’re home!

After three hellish days of flying with the flu – where our bags were ripped apart, we had a flight cancelled and a ticket “lost” in the system – we arrived at Vancouver Airport on Saturday afternoon.

Our amazing friends Scott and Corey picked us up, in secret.

And like great Canadians, they brought along Caesars.

We also made the all-important stop at Tim Hortons – perhaps not the best mix, but still delicious.

And then, before we knew it, we were home.

There was mass confusion, tears, jumping and hugging.

Unfortunately, we had to surprise my family over the phone as there was too much snow in Chillliwack this morning.

We’re so thankful to be home, I don’t know if I can put it into words.

We feel like we’re floating, but our heads are spinning.

Everything from sleeping in our own bed to using a microwave is amazing to us.

We don’t have to worry about a hotel check-out time, catching our next flight or packing our bag.

We’re simply in awe.

It really is true: you never know what you have until it’s gone.

Thankfully, we got it back again, and we couldn’t be happier.

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Hiking the stairway to heaven

Monday, Feb. 21

Hiking is great.

But when you’re wearing rain boots (and given two left shoes), it’s not ideal.

Especially when it’s the rainy season and you’re traipsing along a muddy cliff edge in the fog.

That pretty much sums up our first two days in Sapa – a hillside region in Vietnam.

On Friday, we took a nine-hour overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa – a terrifying experience in itself.

Every time the train jolted we were thrown to the other side of our bunk beds, making for a long night.

The town of Sapa is located in the northwest of Vietnam near the Chinese border and is inhabited by minority people such as the Hmong and Yao groups.

The area is full of jagged mountains, layered in terraced rice paddies. From the right angle, they look like staircases, leading endlessly into the foggy sky.

We were supposed to take a four-day trek through the mountains, but for a few reasons, quickly bumped it down to two days.

Mainly because Matt caught the flu. But also because it was the most unsafe hike we’ve ever experienced.

On the first day it was so foggy we could barely see a thing.

We had a group of older tribal women leading us through the mountains, grabbing us by the wrists with their boney fingers.

They were dressed in colourful headscarves, traditional black cotton dresses and rain boots.

Hand-embroidered purses stitched in neon pink, blue, red and green were slung across their bodies.

They also had a thatched basket strapped to their backs holding goods to sell to tourists.

We walked along the rice paddies, visited a handful of villages and watched young boys celebrate New Year’s by throwing beanbags at a target.

On day two, we hiked through a muddy bamboo forest, washed our boots in creeks, and took in the sights of minority villages from the top of a waterfall.

And to top it off, yesterday we visited the Bac Ha market – a three-hour bus ride from Sapa.

While the woven purses, blankets and silver trinkets were beautiful, it was the women in their colourful, traditional clothing that made the market special.

This is what we expected Vietnam to be like.

And it was well worth the train journey.

Changing seasons overnight

Thursday, Feb. 17

Matt and I finally made it to Vietnam – after being turned away from our flight on Monday.

We didn’t realize you needed a visa to get into the country. Duh.

In our defense, we haven’t needed to process a visa before landing in a new country on this entire trip.

We’ve been able to apply for them on the plane or at the airport.

Thankfully, the flight attendant was nice enough to switch our flights, free of charge.

Our hotel even bumped our dates, too.

So we had another day to relax in the 36 degree, Cambodian weather.

We probably should have soaked it in a bit more.

It’s 10 degrees in Hanoi, Vietnam and we’re freezing.

We’ve bought toques, earmuffs and gloves.

It’s a difficult shift, jumping from summer to winter in a few short hours.

So far, Hanoi is incredibly busy, loud and smoggy.

The buildings are all terraced, like in Europe.

The skinny, tall businesses make for a squished city.

In the centre is a large lake, lined with benches, art and trees.

Despite the scenery, I wouldn’t consider it a good place to relax – every car and moped is constantly honking its horn.

Tonight are taking an overnight train to Sapa, a town in the mountains.

We’re hoping to experience some traditional Vietnamese culture and maybe even some good weather.

A scene from National Geographic

Sunday, Feb. 13

Cambodia only sounds like an intimidating place.

That’s due to its fairly recent, violent history.

But the country has transformed into a safe and rewarding place to travel.

Located between Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, tourists are flocking to Cambodia from Europe and North America to experience everything it has to offer.

In Siem Reap (in the north), the food is cheap. You can get a pint of beer for 50 cents and a glass of wine for $1.75.

Pub Street is lined with bars and restaurants that serve traditional Khmer food, Italian, Chinese and even Mexican dishes.

It’s located between two markets, which both sell handmade goods, clothes and trinkets.

And the locals are the proudest and most helpful we’ve come across yes.

But nothing beats the sights.

Following our three-day adventure through the Angkor Wat Kingdom, Matt and I did another tour today.

We visited Kompong Phhluk, a village built on stilts.

It’s about 16 km from Siem Reap, on the flood plains of the Tonle Sap Lake.

The homes tower on stilts, some 10 metres high, to protect themselves from the wet season. (It’s currently the dry season.)

Following a boat ride down the main river, we transfered over to a tiny, flat canoe.

A small woman using a long paddle slowly toured us to the mouth of the lake, where we once again transfered back into our boat.

We felt like we were shooting a scene for National Geographic.

We watched young boys trying to catch fish with their bare hands, men detangling their fishing nets and woman trading fruit between boats.

Next, we walked through the village.

We could hear the odd battery-operated TV blaring from inside the thatched huts, which had entire families captivated.

A couple of kiosks were selling warm cans of Coke and Sprite, a few women were hanging laundry and a handful of children were chasing each other down the dirt road.

At the local school, we handed out books and pencils to the young students. It was on a first come first serve basis, so kids were running from across the village with their arms stretched upwards, begging us for something new.

Following our village excursion, our tuk-tuk driver, Vibol, took us back to the house he grew up in for some dinner.

A family in Chilliwack has sponsored Vibol and his young daughter to learn English. We were put in touch with him through a mutual friend.

Following a two-hour tuk-tuk ride through the countryside, we arrived at a village that Vibol said has never before been visited by tourists.

Shortly after arriving, we were each offered a coconut.

We sat and drank it from a straw as the entire family, approximately 10 adults and 10 kids, watched in silence.

Only two people in the family spoke English.

It made for an interesting evening, full of polite nodding and smiling.

After watching the men and kids catch some small fish from the ditch in their back yard, they fried us a special meal of fish and rice.

We had to kindly turn down the fish.

Again, the family sat in silence and watched us eat.

It was one of the most awkward, rewarding and amazing days we’ve experienced.

Angkor Wat: Kingdom of wonder

Saturday, Feb. 12

When Matt and I visited Cappadocia, Turkey in September, I described it as somewhere that takes your breath away at first glance.

I said it was the type of place we thought existed only in textbooks, which would never be done justice with my poor explanation or photos.

Well, we found another place just like that.

Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The city is home to the Angkor Kingdom, a temple complex built in the 12th and 13th century, spanning over 1,000 square km.

Our first glimpse of the ancient world was on Thursday at 5 a.m., waiting for the sun to rise over Angkor Wat temple.

Most visitors surround the pond near the temple’s entrance, as it provides a beautiful reflection amongst the fuschia water lilies.

We were no exception.

At 7 a.m., amongst the haze and pollution, the flaming orange sun slowly started peaking out from behind the pinecone shaped towers.

According to the Angkor Temple Guide, Angkor Wat it is the world’s largest religious building.

It took us two hours to explore the grounds in the early morning heat before moving on.

We bought a three-day pass for US $40 so we could experience the UNESCO World Heritage Sight to its fullest.

There are about 1,000 temples in the area, spread out amongst farmland and forest.

We visited 13, travelling by tuk-tuk.

The Bayon temple was our favourite.

A tall, strong and intact building, it’s what we expected most to look like. (Yet, they were all completely different.)

Surrounded by trees, the temple has a fantastic layout. From the ground, you can see the massive, smiling, stone faces on the upper terrace, which are still alive with detail.

All four levels of the temple are filled with elaborate walkways, depicting images of war and religion.

The temples in the Angkor Kingdom have bounced between Hinduism and Buddhism, and now share a number of religions.

Ta Prom, also known as the Tomb Raider temple, was another favourite.

It’s a single level, sprawling maze of broken pathways and intact doorframes, sheltered by the jungle.

Many of the walls are being strangled by overgrown trees – their roots wrapping around the walls like octopus tentacles.

While the Angkor Kingdom attracts busloads of tourist every hour, the temples are never too busy.

The crowds are dispersed over so many acres that you often find yourself alone.

Getting turned around in the maze-like passageways, with nothing by dusty sunlight to guide you, can get a bit eerie.

Even more so when a small Cambodian child appears from thin air, asking you to buy a bracelet.

Children selling goods is another huge part of the Angkor Kingdom.

After a few hours at school, kids typically join their parents at work to sell books, coconuts, postcards and pineapples.

And boy, are they ever good at their job.

One adorable little girl, who approached us with a swarm of her friends, started to cry when we said no to some bracelets. As soon as she thought we were out of earshot, she started giggling.

The next day, when Matt and I were eating lunch, a young girl came up to our table and started spewing off facts about Canada after spotting our flag.

“Canada – you speak two languages: French and English. Your capital is Ottawa. You have a population of 34 million people.”

Matt and I were so impressed that we gave her some money.

(We quickly Googled the population of Canada and found that she was right – even more impressive.)

Not long after, another little girl gave us the exact same speech, word for word.

We’re suckers.

But it’s a beautiful country, full of beautiful, kind people and amazing sights.

So we love it here.

For me, Cambodia has been the most amazing part of our trip.

Elephant Heaven

Sunday, Feb. 6

The first time an elephant wraps its trunk around your wrist and slimes all over you while searching for food is a bit daunting.

But it’s surprising how quickly you get used to something so odd.

Today Matt and I arrived at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It’s a 75-acre reserve that is dedicated to educating people about the endangered Asian elephant while rehabilitating rescued ones.

It houses 35 elephants (including two babies), over 70 stray dogs, numerous water buffalo and a baby bear.

Nestled amongst the mountains and alongside a river, it’s the perfect setting for any type of tourist.

Besides the typical sightseer, the reserve has hundreds of volunteers that travel from around the world to work with the elephants.

We opted for a three-day visit.

Today, we got up close with the animals and quickly realized just how amazing they are.

For their awesome size, they’re incredibly quiet, slow and gentle.

Their skin, which is an inch thick, is like dry, folded leather, covered in short, wiry hair.

And it’s speckled with a pink hue.

But you have to look closely because the animals are covered in dirt – they use it as a natural sunscreen.

The pink extends from their trunk to their ears.

The edges of their ears are all tattered, providing a lace effect when they flap them back and forth.

It’s something they do when they’re happy, like during feeding time.

As vegetarians, their meals consist of watermelon, cucumber and pumpkin.

After each meal they have a bath in the river where visitors douse them with buckets of water.

While it’s a hands-on experience, the park has also added an educational portion.

They showed a video detailing the decline of the elephant population in Thailand.

It’s fallen 95 per cent in the past 10 years.

That’s mainly because elephants are considered livestock in Thailand and have no laws protecting them.

It’s a mentality that has been part of the culture for thousands of years.

Visiting a small enclosure that is trying to change that point of view is incredibly inspirational.

Fragrant, fancy flowers

Saturday, Feb. 5

Travelling involves a few risks.

And today Matt and I took a major one. We left our hotel for about an hour while still sick with food poisoning.

Luckily, we had some great timing.

We wandered out into the main street during the biggest parade we’ve ever witnessed.

It was the 35th annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival.

There were dancers, marching bands and beauty queens.

The numerous floats featured sculptures of temples and animals, created with an endless amount of flowers.

Chiang Mai, also known as the Rose of the North, is home to thousands of unique blossoms which were showcased at the event.

After our quick sightseeing experience, we curled up in bed with some great movies – I think it’s fair to say we watched at least 20 flicks in the past three days.

Thank goodness we’re staying in a nice place.

I booked this four-star hotel in advance thinking we’d need a bit of luxury before heading to the elephant sanctuary.

I never could have guessed how much we’d appreciate it.

Hopefully this royal treatment helps us feel better for our next endeavour.