- Written by Dan
The World Is Your Oyster
Text and Photos by Colton Powell
Yet having never quite fancied oysters, I was a little uneasy about packing my life into a backpack and setting off to explore the world. To say that I have travelled before is somewhat of an understatement. A few family road trips here or there and some tropical resorts make up the current stamp collection in my passport.
My disdain for oysters aside, I have always had a burning desire to travel. Growing up, my father always took us off the beaten path to experience a different side of our destination. Whether it was down back alleys, over no-entry barricades or on hikes into the unknown, I was taught to have a keen eye for the hidden gems of a city. Hopefully these teachings will come in handy as I embark on a 72-day trip to Asia.
Over the next few months, along with a good friend, I will be exploring over 10 countries to experience all that Southeast Asia has to offer. Leading up to this trip many people have asked, "Why Southeast Asia?" Which only has one correct answer: why not?
Southeast Asia is the quintessential backpacking route that millions have traversed over the years. It also helps that it is somewhat inexpensive, drawing young travellers from all corners of the globe. Having never been away for more than two weeks at a time, I can guarantee that we will have some interesting stories to tell as we wrestle with the challenges of backpacking.
From sprawling urban metropolises to sandy beaches, we will be testing the waters of adventure along the way.
Our trip begins with three days in the heart of Tokyo, to experience Japanese culture and to fill our bellies with its delicious cuisine. Japan, although not technically considered in Southeast Asia, has always been a bucket-list item for me to check off. Having studied it in school, Japanese culture has always fascinated me, and living in Vancouver sushi has been a staple of my university diet!
We only have a short time in Tokyo, but it will act as a stepping stone into Asia, giving us a few days to adjust our clocks and get our bearings.
As the seatbelt sign sounds, I am asked yet again to turn off my electronic devices as we begin our descent. Let day one commence of what is sure to be an adventure of a lifetime. Stayed tuned for more!
Click next to continue to Part 2 of Colton's Asia Experience
Welcome to Tokyo
By Colton Powell
Weeding through a fog of jet-lag in our heads it took a little while to realize we were actually in Tokyo. Having flown 11 hours our body clocks were backwards and we figured the best way to start our adventure was to embrace the city nice and early.
If someone was to ask me to describe my first thoughts of Tokyo it is almost impossible to put in words. First off the city spans the horizon for as far as the eye can see in every direction. For all I know I'm pretty sure it goes on forever. It is one of the cleanest cities I have ever seen. The streets are spotless yet there are no garbage cans anywhere to be found. There are also vending machines on every corner that have both hot and cold drinks. You can walk out the front door and get a can of hot coffee straight out of the machine.
This is where we learned that Tokyo has a variety of local customs and practices, that we failed to follow. It is considered rude to drink or eat while walking, a phenomenon completely foreign to North America. Therefore drinking our vending machine coffees attracted a variety of glares and glances as we made our way around the city.
We hopped on the metro which is surprisingly easy to navigate and headed out to explore the city. On the train we came across our second interesting custom, where speaking loud in a public place is not common and can be considered rude. Bryan and I attracted more glares as we chatted with our best indoor voices, while everyone around us communicated at a low whisper.
Our hostel was nestled down a small red lantern lit street in Asakusa, the district of Old Tokyo. Here small alleys house vendors with a plethora of Japanses knickknacks surrounded by some of the oldest temples in the city. The streets here were calm and quiet away from the busy centre of the city.
Click next to continue to Part 3 of Colton's Asia Experience
What Does Melting Velvet Taste Like?
By Colton Powell
Before going to Tokyo almost everyone who has ever been told me we had to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market.
The market is the one of the largest wholesale fish and seafood markets in the world-officials claim close to 20 percent of the world's total fish catch comes in and out of here. It is also home to an early morning fresh tuna auction, where you can see giant tuna sold off to buyers from all over the city.
Given that the auction starts at the crack of dawn and only allows a limited number of visitors, we opted to head to the inner market once it opened to the public...at a more reasonable time of 8:00 a.m.
We headed down on the metro and arrived just before opening, after a briefing at the main entrance. There we were given a map and warned not to interfere with the business of the market and to stay out of the way of vendors and buyers alike.
The most impressive part of the market is the tuna. Some stalls housed full-size fish that had been bought at the morning's auction which were the size of a small couch. Throughout the market giant slabs sit ready to be filleted or sold in large sections. The tuna is cut frozen either with a bandsaw or with a long knife that looks like a large sword.
After seeing so much seafood, hunger took over so we headed to the sushi restaurants just on the outside of the market. Here there are long lines waiting to taste the seafood right from the market. We found a small place and had the freshest sashimi I have ever eaten. It was like velvet melting in your mouth-just incredible.
Click next to continue to Part 4 of Colton's Asia Experience
By Colton Powell
It was our final night in Tokyo, and we were exhausted from exploring most of the city on foot.
We decided the best way to cap off our Tokyo sojourn would be to try one of Japan's famous beers at a local establishment. So we headed for Shinjuku, an area in Tokyo known for its neon lights and popular nightlife.
We walked the endless streets of flashing lights and were approached by people selling anything from jewellery…to a more intimate style of nightlife. It was our last night so we were set on finding a traditional Japanese watering hole, but nothing seemed to jump out at us.
A man approached us asking if we were lonely, to which we politely declined and told him all we wanted was a cold beer. He responded in Japanese and gestured for us to follow him. We were somewhat hesitant, this being our second night in Asia, and were unsure if we could trust our new acquaintance. I could hear the voices from various family members in the back of my head telling me not to follow.
"Don't talk to strangers!" my mom had always told me as a kid, preparing me for this very moment.
I definitely failed my training as we continued to follow the man down a small alley off the main street. As we entered the alley he yelled something in Japanese, and a small potbellied man appeared from a shop. He nodded and disappeared back into the woodwork through a pair of curtains.
We were told to sit, and the stranger we had just met said "Beer, enjoy."
Then he bowed, waved, and left us sitting in a small quiet alley wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. The small man reappeared out of his shop with two large bottles of Asahi, one of Japan's most famous brews, along with three small glasses.
He sat with us at the table, and with a big smile said "Drink!"
After having a few sips of what I think may have been the coldest beer I've ever had, we learned that our new friends name was Makoto. He spoke very little English, but that did not stop him from trying to learn where we were from and what brought us to Tokyo.
We headed back to our hostel, excited to have met such a character and astounded by how welcoming he had been to us. If you ever find yourself in Tokyo, make your way down the back alleys of Shinjuku and try and find Makoto-he'll be the guy rubbing his belly and ready to hand you a cold Asahi.
I know I will definitely be back to Japan to explore more of Tokyo, and the rest of what I'm sure is a beautiful country. Now it's off to Hong Kong.
Click next to continue to Part 5 of Colton's Asia Experience
Hong Kong Hustle
By Colton Powell
We left Tokyo in the early hours of the morning after sleeping in the Haneda airport.
And with little to no sleep arrived in Hong Kong ready to take on the next destination. Exhausted, we found our hostel and decided to take a quick nap and go exploring later in the afternoon.
Hong Kong was a complete change from Tokyo. Instead of an endless urban sprawl, towers dominate the landscape, stacked side by side, rising up into the clouds. The city felt busy, with a sense of urgency, as people hurried to complete their daily errands. The city itself is situated around the busy Victoria Harbour, as ferries shuttle people from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island.
We happened to arrive in Hong Kong during the ongoing protests against the Chinese government. We were told to expect the worst, and figured since we were staying close to the affected areas we would be right in the middle of the chaos. We soon discovered that most of the initial protests had died down, and all that remained were signs and barricades that caused a giant traffic jam rather than a legitimate safety concern.
Unlike dim sum in Vancouver, where the cart comes to the table, here you go to the cart and fight for your meal. I went first and found myself in the middle of a food auction, as people screamed in Cantonese and waved their paper, waiting for the lady to stamp it and give them their selections. I made it out of the chaos with one of the last dishes, which looked like some sort of Chinese sausage roll. Five minutes later we braved the cart again, and came back with a BBQ pork bun and a chicken leg wrapped in a local herbal remedy that one of the couples informed us was good for our health.>
We soon learned one of the guys sitting at our table was also from Vancouver, and was now working in Hong Kong. He acted as our guide for the rest of the meal, and ordered us some rice and noodles to satisfy our appetites. We exchanged numbers and he volunteered to be our tour guide for the rest of our stay in Hong Kong.
Although we only had a short stay in Hong Kong, we managed to pack in a lot of sights and attractions.
The city is extremely fast paced, and busy, and it is easy to get lost on more than one occasion. It is filled with an energy that makes you feel alive and excited the entire time you're there. I think this is why so many travellers use it as a hub to begin or end their adventure. It truly is a gateway into Southeast Asia, and a great place to get your feet wet before you head further south.
Sham Sui Po
By Colton Powell
While eating dim sum on our last morning in Hong Kong we were seated with another fellow Vancouverite who now lived in city. First he showed us how "going for dim sum" actually works, so we stopped embarrassing ourselves and learned how to order. After a great morning meal bombarding him with questions about the area and the local customs, we agreed to meet later that night for dinner in Sam Sui Po on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, close to where he lived.
We came out of the subway in the early evening to meet Vince, now our volunteer tour guide, and found ourselves in a new area of the city. There were no other tourists to seemingly be found, and the streets were filled with people everywhere. Vince arrived and told us that he knew of good place to grab some dinner before we headed down to the markets, so we followed him through the busy streets past vendors, hanging ducks and Chinese Medicine shops selling exotic remedies, eventually making it to a small alley.
Vince explained that a lot of street food in Hong Kong had become illegal due to health concerns, but this alley was one of the only remaining places in this part of the city. This was a comforting thought before we ate.
The food arrived and it was delicious.
We had chicken, pork, oysters, fresh fish and more-the table was filled with food. We gorged ourselves while Vince explained about his time growing up in Vancouver and about his new job in Hong Kong. As we ate, a few cats wandered by every once in a while, presumably to see if they wanted what we were having. We ate until we could barely move from our chairs, and fed some of the leftovers to one of the local felines.
By Colton Powell
The next stop on our trip brought us north from Hong Kong to the city of Guangzhou, in mainland China.
My cousin and his family have lived here for the past three years, and they acted as our guides for our stay. Coming to China, I did not really know what to expect. I imagined a rundown version of Hong Kong, with utter chaos and traffic everywhere. I was very wrong, and this city completely surprised me.
The best way to describe Guangzhou is that it's a futuristic city which acts as a model for China's rise as a global power. As far as the eye can see are skyscrapers taller than mountains that seem to go on forever. There are cranes everywhere, and the city seems to be in a constant state of construction. However, if you happen to have a local as your guide you can still find the remains of the old city that are teeming with street markets, selling anything you can dream of. For us, we were lucky enough to experience both sides of the city.
We explored one of the market areas hidden among the highrises. Here the buildings were crumbling, waiting to make way for more skyscrapers. We lost ourselves in the tight network of alleys, where people sold fresh fruit, meat and SIM cards.
The most popular stores seemed to be hair salons, as locals get the latest styles in ancient barber chairs. There was even a dentist, which just seemed a little out of place. We then traded in the heavy aroma of the alleys and headed to the electronics market in the center of downtown.
Click next to continue to Part 8 of Colton's Asia Experience
In the Eye of the Storm: Iloilo City, Philippines
By Colton Powell
When you travel around South East Asia you are always on the hunt for the best deal.
Whether it's bargaining in markets or picking the cheapest hostel, saving money is always on your mind. This means that flying budget airlines is a must. However, with budget airlines comes obscure flight times often in middle of the night.
The next stop on our trip has us headed to visit a friend Bryan and I had gone to University with who currently lives in Iloilo City, Philippines.
Given our choice of a cheap $100 flight we were scheduled to leave Hong Kong at 2:30 a.m. Departure times seem to be a guideline rather than set in stone so the plane was delayed until 3:30a.m.
We were abruptly jostled awake about an hour later as the turbulence began.
If there is one thing I have learned it is that flying during monsoon season is a not a fun time.
As we began our descent I don't really know how the plane stayed in the sky. With shaking, random drops and heavy turbulence we came through the thick clouds to land. As we came through the bottom of the clouds we were only about 500ft off the ground and swaying back and forth through the heavy winds.
We said our blessings and decided what funeral arrangements our families would hopefully make. We circled in the rough skies for what seemed like hours which in reality was maybe ten minutes and made another approach to the runway.
My palms hadn't been this sweaty since square-dancing in high school.
I closed my eyes and held my breath as we swayed, rocked and got pushed around like clothes in a washing machine.
Our wheels finally touched the ground and the plane erupted in applause as we were finally safe.>
As we stepped out of the airport the wind could practically blow you over and it was still pouring rain. Most of the roads were flooded from the storm but it didn't seem to matter as long as we were alive and on the ground.
Click next to continue to Part 9 of Colton's Asia Experience
By Colton Powell
Having spent the first two weeks of our trip in cities it was safe to say Bryan and I were ready to get our first taste of the beach.
We made it to the Philippines and have been staying with our good friend Sunny who is acting as our tour guide. Our first stop was Boracay, a small island located off the northern tip of Panay Island where we were staying.
We drove four hours from Iloilo City and hopped on a small boat to the island. Once across Sunny flagged down a Tricicad, the only form of transport on the island, and we crammed in. We whizzed down the tight streets finally making it to our hotel that was only a one-minute walk from the beach.
When you first walk onto the beach in Boracay you are lost for words.
I kept thinking this place couldn't exist, it's too beautiful. I had always wondered where those pristine white sand beaches' you see on the postcards were from, and now I know.
Sunny and her brother told us they would find the boat as they could get the best price. We watched for a good 20 minutes as they bargained with the boat driver arguing back and forth and trying everything to get a deal. From answering fake phone calls from other boat drivers quoting better prices, to walking away-they ended up getting us the sweet price of $7 CAD each for 3 hours that included a driver, a guide and snorkeling gear on our own private boat.
Sunny said we got ripped off and that it was normally cheaper.
As we climbed aboard our little skiff it looked like it had seen better days. It sounded like a loud motorcycle and looked like a small wave could sink us. They did have life jackets though so we felt safe enough.
We took a much needed rest in the middle of our own private bay when a man paddled over on a small boat filled with fresh coconuts. For 50 cents we each got one the size of a basketball. We downed the refreshing juice immediately in order to get to the delicious coconut flesh inside.
Our driver took us to a few more pristine beaches as I sat, toes in the water at the front of the boat. We then headed back to the main beach and spent the rest of the afternoon skim boarding with some locals, relaxing and enjoying the view.
We capped off the night with a massage and climbed into bed exhausted from the sun, waves and snorkeling.
Boracay will go down as one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever been to. If you ever make it to this paradise make sure to stay more than one day and remember that if you pay $7 to rent a boat, it's considered expensive.
Click next to continue to Part 10 of Colton's Asia Experience
Mambukal: Hiking in a Monsoon
By Colton Powell
Before you set out on any adventure you should always have a bucket list of things you want to see or do along the way. For me waterfalls and cliff jumping was an item that needed to be crossed off.
We traveled by ferry to the city of Bacolod, Philippines to meet one of Sunny's friends and then headed off into the mountains.
We didn't have the best day for hiking, as it was still monsoon season and pouring rain. We figured we were from Vancouver, meaning we were born in the rain, and could handle anything.
We arrived at Mambukal, a mountain resort located about two hours from Bacolod. It is home to a trek that takes you to seven different waterfalls up the side of Mt. Kanlaon.
We made it to the base of the trail and were approached by two guides who wanted to show us the way. We decided the more the merrier and followed them to what they called "the shortcut" up the mountain.
The trail twisted and winded up through tall trees, bush and went through several mountainside villages. The guides explained that the path we took was the only access to some of the villages. As we walked through, small children smiled and waved from their shelters. We meandered through rice fields and ran into cows, pigs and even a huge bull.
It felt like we had already been swimming from how hard it was raining so we jumped right in. The water was warm and the waterfall was so powerful that standing under it knocked you over.
We finished the final waterfalls and made it back to the base as it began to rain even harder than before. I felt like a wet dog that wanted to shake all the water off.
Click next to continue to Part 11 of Colton's Asia Experience
Uluwatu, Bali: Dancing with Fire
By Colton Powell
The next leg of our trip took us to one of Indonesia's most popular beach destinations. Bali is a surfer's touristy paradise, full of crazy nightlife, budget hostels and endless hawkers.
We opted to start our stay in Kuta, the main beach area of the city. Pretty quickly we realized that Bali is basically an Australian colony. You can't walk two feet without hearing a booming Australian accent calling off to one of their mates. Even the locals just assume you are from the land down under calling out in a chorus of "G'day Mate", "Transport Mate", "Surfboard Mate", in their own version of an Aussie accent.
We had five days to explore the island that we renamed Australian Hawaii and after some research decided to head down to southern tip.
There sits a temple called Uluwatu perched high above the water on the edge of steep cliffs. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, which has a predominantly Muslim population, in Bali around 90% of people practice Hinduism.
Bali being a small island has one of two choices when it comes to transportation: risk life and limb by renting a motorbike or hire a driver so at least you have a little more protection around you. Finding a driver is as easy as approaching anyone on the main streets of Kuta, and before we knew we were on our way.
We made it to Uluwatu just as the sun was setting and donned our respectable temple attire that we purchased at the local market earlier that day. The area was incredible; the whole complex sat hundreds of feet on top of massive white cliffs that dropped off into the crashing waves below. The constant pounding of the powerful surf is the only thing that could be heard, other than the sound of a few local monkeys.
As the sun began to set, the show began.
Thirty or so bare chested Balinese men swayed and chanted in rhythm as performers in elaborate costumes unfolded the story around us. The show consisted of a traditional Kecak dance that is a Balinese ritual based on the famous Hindu story of the Ramayana.
As the dance went on the sun dipped well below the horizon casting a soft red glow across the arena.
In the third act, small bundles of grass were placed on stage and lit on fire. Then one of the main characters dressed as the white monkey proceeded to kick the flaming balls around the amphitheater. They flew near the edge of the cliff igniting some of the shrubs and tall grass; another flew into the group of dancers and lit one of their robes on fire. No one seemed very concerned with the small fire that has started to burn so we just assumed this was all part of the fire code and a normal occurrence. The fire eventually burned out calming our nerves and the show ended with a beautiful dance and song.
We met our driver among the masses headed back to Kuta for a well-deserved rest. If you ever find yourself in Bali make sure explore beyond the main cities limits; you never know you may even get to see a bonfire!
Click next to continue to Part 12 of Colton's Asia Experience
Under the Sea: The Gili Islands
By Colton Powell
Gili Trawangan is the main island and became our home for 4 days as the next stop on our trip.
The island itself is made up of endless dive shops and small resorts. There is no motorized transport on the island due to its small size so instead horses and carriages roam the island offering a faster alternative. We decided to make the half-day trek as the area has become a diving mecca due to the pristine reefs that surround the islands.
Having grown up in BC I got my dive certification when I was still in highschool and was excited to finally venture into much warmer water than found back home.
We entered the water and at 29 celcius it felt like a bathtub. As we made our descent the reef below slowly began to come into focus. I was instantly lost in the colors and the sea of fish that maneuvered and darted quickly through the maze of coral.
I was so excited by the sensory overload of the reef that I quickly chewed through my air and after a short 35 minutes it was time to return to the surface.
Click next to continue to Part 13 of Colton's Asia Experience
Monkey Forest: Ubud Bali
The phrase goes monkey see monkey do, but after visiting the monkey forest deep in the heart of Bali, I think that I could be on board with doing what the monkeys do.
About two hours by car north from Kuta, lies a small community nestled on the large volcano that makes up the island.
The town Ubud, recently made famous from the popular book Eat, Pray, Love is a farming and artisan community that has become a mandatory stop on every traveler's Indonesian itinerary.
We had heard beyond the tight streets, eccentric markets and countless art galleries lies the Ubud Monkey Forest. I challenge you to pronounce the actual name: The Padangtegal Mandala Wisata Wanara Wana Sacred Monkey Sanctuary is a nature reserve and temple complex that is home to over 600 resident monkeys.
No matter where you looked there were monkeys everywhere. Swinging from trees, wrestling for bananas even baby monkeys catching a piggyback ride on their parents back.
Having never really been around monkeys before, their every move was unpredictable and we never knew what to expect. One of the sanctuary's handlers explained that they are quite tame and that if you place a banana on you head they will climb up to get it. We watched a young girl let out a loud shrill as two sizeable monkeys climbed her just like a tree to get to the banana prize that waited atop her head.
Koh Phi Phi
By Colton Powell
The next stop on our trip took us to Thailand.
Thailand is on the list of almost every South East Asia backpacker and is home to some of the most famous spots for the young traveller to explore.
We started off in Phuket to get grounded in Thai culture and then headed off to the island of Koh Phi Phi located just off the coast of Thailand in the blue waters of the Andaman Sea.
Having done very little research about Koh Phi Phi (KPP) I had no idea what to expect. The only knowledge I had was I knew it had been hit very hard by the tsunami in 2004.
We arrived via a large tour boat that brought us to the main dock on the island. We found our guesthouse and made our way down to the beach. We only had one day on the island and decided to rent kayaks to explore the bay. We bartered with the kayak man and headed out on the water.
We paddled out further from shore and quickly realized how stuffing our faces with food mixed with small amounts of exercise caused us to tire very easily.
KPP has one of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen and will go down in my top five sunsets. It is hard to fully comprehend what the town looks like until you see it from above. The only way to describe it would be paradise. Once we managed to close our gaping jaws we made our way back down to the town, found a small shop and rewarded our hard work with a heaping plate of Pad Thai.
Koh Tao is known to be one of Thailand's best dive sites and is home to clear waters and an abundance of marine life.
To our surprise it was completely empty except for a few stray dogs that greeted us as we made our way onto the sand. Somehow we had managed to find a secluded beach, a place we could truly relax. Hot from the hike we immediately jumped in the water and lounged as the warm ocean surrounded us and the waves lapped at our toes.
Reinvigorared we ventured out onto the rocky outcrop at the edge of the small bay and lazed until the sun baked our skin. As the sun began to set we found a swing hanging from one of the tall palm trees. We relived our childhoods and took turns swaying over the beach below as the sun sunk below the horizon.
A few visitors arrived by boat and disappeared into the bungalows nested in the woods behind the beach. Refreshed, relaxed and definitely sunburned, we made the journey back to our hostel, amazed that we managed to find our own private beach.