Postcards from Ha Long Bay

Perhaps one of the most recognisable sights in Southeast Asia is Ha Long Bay. Located on the northeast coast of Vietnam, the bay is a bumpy 3.5 hour drive from the capital city of Hanoi. The vastness of the UNESCO heritage site quite literally took my breath away. With a name that translates to ‘Bay of the Descending Dragon’, Ha Long Bay spans an impressive area of 334km² and is populated by 1,600 monolithic islands made of limestones and hollowed by beautiful grottos. Some of these islands are even believed to be over 20,000,000 years old. Upon the glassy water, junk boats spread their sails like amber wings and fisherman cast their neats over floating villages.

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If you liked these photos, you might also be interested in checking out my 2016 Vietnam Travel Vlog on my Youtube Channel. 0:43 is where the Ha Long Bay magic happens!

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Vlog: Vietnam Edition

It’s that time of the day again, when I’m scrambling to my laptop to write and publish the day’s blog post before midnight. I always swear I’m going to be prepared and proactive and draft my posts before it gets to crunch time, but something always gets in the way. That ‘something’ is usually ‘excuses’. Sigh.

Anyhow. Time for round two of the vlogs! This time, I have condensed two weeks of my Vietnamese adventures into two and a half minutes of highly-edited, explosive footage. Okay, so maybe it’s not as Spielberg-esque as I’m making it out to be, but the sentiment is there.

Out of all of the countries in Southeast Asia that I visited on my last trip, Vietnam was unquestionably my favourite. I guess there’s just something about crawling on your stomach through war-torn tunnels, and trying to cross a five-way intersection whilst motorbikes hurtle full-speed at your small, defenceless body that leaves a lasting impression on you. Obviously the Vietnam experience extends beyond that, but those were definitely some of the things I think every tourist should prioritise when they book their tickets.

The five places within Vietnam featured in this vlog are (in order of appearance): Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Note all the H’s. Hanoi was my absolute highlight of the trip; I can’t way to share my experience of staying in the Old Quarter in a future blog post. Hoi An takes out the award for the prettiest town, with streets decked with lanterns and fabrics that create a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour. I doubt I have to convince you of the beauty of Ha Long Bay, and Ho Chi Minh City was quite possibly the best history lesson I have ever had in my life. More on all of these enchanting places later, but if I’ve peaked your interests, then I invite you to view my 2016 Travel Vlog for Vietnam on my YouTube channel.

What was your favourite part of Vietnam? I found myself drawn to the north, but maybe that’s because I thrive in colder weather (cheers, New Zealand). Would love to hear your thoughts!

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Postcards from Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is perhaps one of the most important tourist attractions in Cambodia. Consistently topping the lists for Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet’s must-see tourist destination in the world, the resplendence of this temple has stayed with me a long time after visiting it.

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King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat in the 12th century to honour the Hindu god Vishnu; a century later – when Cambodia converted from Hindu faith to Buddhism – the temple was converted to Buddhist use.

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The temple showcases beautiful classical Khmer architecture.
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The temple was to built to face west. This direction symbolises death, a fact which contributes to theories that Angkor Wat first existed as a tomb and for the purpose of funeral rites.
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Below; standing on the ‘centre of the universe’.
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It may have taken 37 years, 300,000 labourers, 6000 elephants and 5 million tons of sandstone, but the temple was built without machines.
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Just look at those colours! Stretching over 400 square kilometres, Angkor Wat is considered to be the largest religious monument in the world.
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Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat that was designed to deter people from swimming into the complex from the outside.

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If you’re hungry for more Cambodia titbits, be sure to check out my Siem Reap quad-biking experience – and stay tuned for my Cambodia travel vlog!

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Vlog: Siem Reap Edition

Look what’s arrived! It may have been a whole three months since we were sipping mango smoothies in the back of a tuk-tuk, but I finally got around to throwing together a short travel vlog of the two days we spent in the beautiful Cambodian town of Siem Reap.

The ‘Deats

Name: Siem Reap

Location: Northwest Cambodia

Currency: Cambodian Riel & USD

Language: Khmer

Population: 230,000

Known For: Temple of Angkor Wat

If you fancy seeing more of what we got up to, then check out the following posts: Postcards from Angkor Wat and the Number One Thing To Do in Siem Reap That’s Not Angkor Wat (noticing a trend…? ?)

I only got to spend two days in Siem Reap, so it is definitely a place I will be returning to in the future. Do you have any recommendations for what I should do the next time I’m in Cambodia?

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Ginger Passport’s YouTube Channel to keep updated with the latest videos!

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There and Back Again: Hobbiton in Greyscale

When I first pitched the idea of showcasing my experience of the Hobbiton set tour in black and white, I was met with sarcastic laughter.

What would you want to do that, for? my boyfriend ridiculed. The whole point of Hobbiton is that people want to see all the colours!

At first I admitted that he had a point. But then I thought; fuck it. This is my blog, and if I want to do a greyscale piece, then I will bloody well do a greyscale piece. Besides, there’s something poetically beautiful about black and white pictures. Furthermore, it seems every photograph of Hobbiton is in colour. What’s wrong with incorporating a point of difference?

For those of you who have been living under a rock, Hobbiton is the location that Peter Jackson and his crew shot ‘the Shire’ scenes in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies. Tolkien fans from every corner of the globe make the pilgrimage here to experience the unforgettable authenticity of Middle Earth. Hobbiton is not just a tourist attraction; it’s its own world.

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The ‘Deats

Company: Hobbiton Movie Set Tours

Website: www.hobbitontours.com

LocationMatamata, New Zealand (2 hours south of Auckland)

Cost: $79 for adults (departing from the Shire’s Rest)

Tip: Remember to book in advance! Upon arriving, you will have to battle an army of elves and wizards (see what I did there?) to get to the front of the queue to buy your tickets. Even then, you will probably find that the tours are fully booked for the next couple of days; unless you feel like waiting on the off chance that someone doesn’t show up for their tour, it’s a long drive back. Also, don’t forget to bring your I.D. Each ticket comes with a complementary beer, and you won’t want to miss out on the Green Dragon Inn’s original brews.

If you’re hungry for some more Middle Earth visuals, check out my North Island Travel Vlog on the Ginger Passports’ YouTube Channel, and give a cheeky subscribe!

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Vlog: Thailand Edition

I wish I had the luxury to say, ‘you may have noticed that I have been absent from posting for the past month or so’ like most bloggers, but that would have required me to make regular updates in the first place. As this is only my third post, I’m going to let that slide, but worry not! My goal is to create new content every MONDAY, WEDNESDAY and FRIDAY! Now, let’s see how long that lasts for…

One of the perks of having my own blog is that I have complete creative freedom over what I create and produce. For me, this means that I am not limited to sharing my experiences in just one format. So I have decided to experiment with my cinematic side, and have put together a vlog (or ‘video log’ for the less informed – looking at you, mother) to document my adventures in Thailand this past November.

Without further ado, please enjoy my Thailand vlog! And feel free to stop by my new Youtube Channel and give it a cheeky subscribe (and a thumbs up if you’re feeling extra spicy).

Comment with your own Youtube channel and/or videos – I’d love to check them out!

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Vlog + Photo Diary: North Island of New Zealand

I decided to take a different approach to my latest vlog. Instead of doing the typical comprehensive travel guide to a destination, I edited together a collection of my favourite one-off moments from my latest adventure: a road trip around the North Island of New Zealand.

From waking up to the skyline of Auckland’s CBD to trying Dunkin Donuts for the first time, and from pretending to be a Hobbit in the Shire to playing the piano on the Wellington waterfront, cramming 10 days of unforgettable thrills (and 10 days of highly forgettable car sickness) into 2 minutes and 15 seconds was no easy feat.

Enjoy.

And some extra goodies…

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Flying into Auckland on Air New Zealand
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You can’t travel to Auckland and not try bagels from the Best Ugly Bagel Co.
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Savouring those precious moments whilst I was still a Dunkin Donut virgin
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If you visit one eatery in Auckland, make sure it is the Garden Shed at Mt. Eden
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There and back again… literally, this is my second time nerding out at Hobbiton
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Falling in love with Rotorua’s natural beauty
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Exploring the capital
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You know a city is pretty awesome when you find a painted piano sitting on the waterfront

So… who’s up for a South Island road trip?

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Riding a Water Buffalo in Vietnam

There are many things you can do in Vietnam. You can swim in Ha Long Bay, you can crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels, and… you can ride a water buffalo.

When I saw ‘Ride a Water Buffalo’ on my trip itinerary, I didn’t quite know what to think. So far, we had stuck to the conventional tourist activities you might see topping lists on TripAdvisor. But hey – I was up for anything!

Our travel agent hooked us up with a company called Jack Tran Tours, an environmentally-friendly family-run business in Hoi An, central Vietnam. Their mission is to expose travellers to the traditional Vietnamese culture and encourage them to engage with the local people.

And so it was that one drizzly morning, we hopped on the Jack Tran bus and were driven to where we would embark on our tour. After donning some sexy disposable waterproof ponchos, we were each assigned a bicycle which we were to cycle through a patchwork quilt of rice fields to our final destination.

We had only a rudimentary idea of what we in for. After a meet and greet with the lovely Spanish couple also in our tour group, we were introduced to the real star of the show: the water buffalo.

Having ridden an elephant in Thailand only days early, I was extremely anxious to dive headfirst into the action. As soon as our tour guide – a bubbling ray of sunshine called Yen – asked who would volunteer to ride it first, my hand shot up faster than lightening.

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Water Buffalos

  1. They are typically found throughout Asia, although also in places such as Australia, Turkey, Italy and Egypt as well.
  2. They are used (among other things) for ploughing and other forms of labor; although they have been replaced by tractors in many parts of the world, they are still used in Southeast Asia for tilling rice fields.
  3. Although they are more expensive than cattle, they are favoured by rice farmers because they are stronger and ideal for working in deep mud due to large hoofs and flexible foot joints.
  4. They spend a majority of the day submerged in water to maintain a stable body temperature.
  5. They can grow to 2650 pounds and 10 feet tall.

If the water buffalo was even aware of me climbing clumsily onto his back, then it didn’t feel the urge to show it. The first thing that struck me was how it’s bones jutted out from it’s skin, and how it lazily rocked side to side as it ambled onto the rice paddies.

As one of the richest agricultural countries, Vietnam – after Thailand – is the largest exporter of rice in the world. It is also the seventh-largest consumer of rice.

Perhaps the highlighting of the experience aside from riding a water buffalo was sifting rice. This is one of the latter parts of the farming process that requires sieving harvested, dried and pounded rice kernels in a flat basket to separate the loose husks.

As you will observe below, my friend and I had varying levels of success.

This was definitely one of the experiences that has stuck with me long after I returned from Vietnam. There’s just something about sitting and looking like an echidna on the back of a water buffalo and stomping through muddy rice paddies barefoot.
If you are passing through Hoi An, I strongly recommend you take the time to pay the team at Jack Tran Tours a visit and book yourself in for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only will you gain insight into the underrated process of rice farming in Vietnam, but you will receive the epic opportunity to ride a water buffalo. Make sure you ask for your tour guide to be Yen; I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as vivacious and charismatic in my life.

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The Reality of Elephant Riding in Thailand

You can’t travel to Thailand and not ride an elephant.

Or can you?

I try to live an ethical life. I only eat vegetarian so as not to support the meat industry. I avoid buying cosmetics that have been tested on animals in a laboratory. I make a conscious effort to educate myself on global issues from a variety of sources so that I can make informed choices on things that matter. So you’d think that I would be able to resist my temptations to visit an elephant park on my trip to Thailand, right?

Wrong.

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Just why are elephant parks unethical?

There are a number of reasons. For starters, despite claims that the elephants are ‘rescued’ from the wild, this is not always the case. Many elephants are captured as young calfs, and tortured into submission. This process is referred to as ‘Phajaan’, which roughly translates to ‘Elephant Crushing’.

Furthermore, even if they were rescued, that does not mean to say that the park has bettered their situation. As Brendan van Son of Brendan’s Adventures put it: “… these animals are being exploited for the financial wellbeing of the company that rescued them.”

Many riding experiences also include mounting a howdah onto the back of the elephants for tourists to sit on. These platforms have been known to rub against their skin and cause blistering and pain. Despite their enormous size, the weight of these platforms can also be problematic and lead to permanent spinal injuries.

It is also impossible to provide the equivalent conditions for elephants in captivity as they would experience in the wild. Elephants have evolved to survive – and thrive – in an environment that parks just cannot recreate. This can lead to premature death, disease and an overall diminished quality of life.

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I know what you’re thinking: You’re a massive hypocrite, Dani! You participated and reaped the rewards of elephant tourism, and yet here you are, bad-mouthing the industry. Sort your shit out!

I know, I know. I’m the first person to admit that there are so many appeals to elephant riding. It’s sensational to get up and close with creatures that have previously only existed in films or in enclosures at the zoo. Especially coming from a country where elephants are not indigenous (*cough New Zealand cough*), this is an undoubtedly thrilling experience.

Secondly, there is an element of control that goes hand and hand with being taught how to ride an elephant. These beings are the largest land mammals on earth. Riding them is nothing less than a humbling experience.

Thirdly, it can sometimes be hard to imagine traveling to destinations such as Thailand without ticking elephant riding off your bucket list. They’re a cultural icon of Southeast Asia, and boycotting the experience is far more than a missed photo opportunity.

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The elephant park I visited in Chiang Mai, Thailand was called Baanchang Elephant Park. We learnt how to look after, feed, ride and bathe the elephants, all of which were experiences I thoroughly enjoyed.

They didn’t use howdahs, but rather invited you to ride on their backs with nothing but a loose rope knotted around the elephant’s neck and girth for stability. I have researched this, and the evidence shows that this is not nearly as harmful to the elephant as are howdahs (for more on this matter, see below). While in hindsight I would not do this again, if you are hell-bent on getting on the back of an elephant in some way or another, then this is the way to go.

I did not witness any examples of unnecessary brute force being inflicted upon the elephants at any point during my stay, even when the elephant I was riding decided to veer off the track and go walkabouts through the bush. It was lightly guided back to the group where we peacefully carried on without any fuss.

I do not have complete and unwavering knowledge of how ethical Baanchang Elephant Park is, but from my experience and research, they seemed to tick a lot of the boxes. If you are considering visiting Baanchang on a future trip to Thailand, I suggest you peruse their website to fully understand the nature of their company and their dedication to giving elephants the highest quality of life possible within a domesticated environment.

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I am not against all elephant parks. Just the unethical ones. If you are firmly planted in your plan to visit a park, then I ask that you consider the following in mind…

  • Take your time when choosing a park to visit. If you are rushing to map out your itinerary and don’t allow yourself to carefully research what each park offers, then you are far more likely to risk supporting the dark side of elephant tourism.
  • Ensure that the park only features elephants they have been rescued from abusive circumstances, and has an emphasis on educating tourists about caring for elephants as opposed to giving rides. Whilst I discussed that riding bare-back is better than riding with a howdah, refraining from riding at all is even better.
  • If you are like me and can’t keep your hands off souvenirs, check to make sure you are not purchasing ivory. Ivory’s monetary value is the primary reason elephants are poached in the wild. To put the gravity of this issue into perspective, it is believed that – since the 1900s – the Asian elephant population has halved. Halved. Let that sink in for a moment.

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The Asian elephant is now an endangered species. It is estimated that only 30,000 exist in the wild. While I do not condone parks that mistreat elephants, there are those that strive to rehabilitate and protect them from extinction. We may have to come to terms with the reality that these parks could be the saving grace for these animals, and I strongly believe that we should support them. You can find a list of ethical elephant sanctuaries to visit here.

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I would like to note that I am not an expert on the ethics of elephant parks. I am purely someone who is discussing a personal experience, has researched this issue and is passionate about the politics of animal cruelty.

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The Number One Thing To Do In Siem Reap That’s NOT Angkor Wat

Don’t get me wrong; Angkor Wat is unbelievable. But if traveling has taught me anything, it is that if you really want to experience a place, you’ve got to go behind the scenes. And for our time in Siem Reap, that meant…

Quad-bike riding.

Yes, you read that right. Dirty, smelly quad-bike riding.

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Arriving in Cambodia earlier that afternoon, I hadn’t known what to expect from the country. Having traveled around Thailand and Vietnam for the previous three weeks, I had borrowed ideas from the more rural provinces and improvised somewhat, but there were still a lot of blank spaces left to my imagination. As we drove from the airport to our hotel, it quickly became apparent that Siem Reap — a resort town in northwestern Cambodia — was no Bangkok. Siem Reap was rustic and relaxed; a breath of fresh air after the commotion of it’s Southeast Asian siblings.

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Cambodia also saw a friendly return of the tuk-tuk. We had farewelled the tuk-tuk culture in Thailand earlier in the journey, and had been less than satisfied with the cyclo experience of Vietnam. We were picked up in a tuk-tuk from our hotel and arrived at the Quad Adventure base five minutes later with wind-swept hair and knuckles whitened around the edges of our seats. If I had thought Vietnamese traffic got the adrenaline pumping, then I was in for a surprise.

You know something is going to be good when the first thing you do is sign a form stating that the company is not to be held responsible in the event of any injury acquired as a result of the activity. After signing our liabilities away, my travel companion Poppy and I were each assigned a guide to teach us how to operate our quad bikes. Having spent a considerable amount of time on farms as a child, the controls felt natural to me. After donning a motorbike helmet and face mask to scare away any potential Insta-worthy snaps, we were unleashed into the countryside of Siem Reap.

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With our guide in the lead on a motorbike and Poppy bringing up the rear, we were off! My butt three feet off the seat as we bounced over potholes and puddles, we streaked along the red pathway out of the township and into the provinces. The village life was an experience in itself; you’d pass open shacks furnished with the bare necessities, and yet the inhabitants would be sitting there, playing on an iPhone. It was the most bizarre, juxtaposed thing.

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And then there’s the temples. I’m not talking about the commercialised temples you’ll queue behind a hundred other tourists to see in Thailand. I’m talking about the quietly resplendent works of art you’ll find nestled in thickets in the Siem Reap countryside. Their  modest nature drew me to them, and I found myself wanting to learn more about their history. Unfortunately, my burning questions went unanswered. That’s the difference between a quad bike guide and a tour guide; the former is merely concerned with getting you from point A to B.

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The Siem Reap locals were one of the unexpected focal points of the trip – especially the children. On every leg of our journey, kids would be running alongside us, waving fanatically as we passed. Every time you waved back, their faces split into enormous, gleeful smiles. At one point, Poppy strayed from the track and I had to pull over and wait while our guide circled back to find her again. I amused myself with a posse of kids who ran over and decided to make friends. Their English wasn’t perfect and my Khmer was non-existent (to demonstrate the embarrassing extent of my knowledge, let me confess that I just had to google what the official language spoken in Cambodia is called), but we still managed to introduce ourselves.

Between them, the temples and the cattle – seriously, if I had a dollar (or Cambodian riel) for every time I stopped to take a picture of a cow, I could probably afford to take the quad bike tour all over again – I was falling in love with this lesser-known side to Siem Reap.

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Last but not least… the sunset.

Now, there’s a reason why the tagline for The Ginger Passports is ‘honest travel blogging’. I don’t want to propagate any illusions here. When we embarked on this tour where experiencing a highly-acclaimed Cambodian sunset was the anticipated highlight, I had my expectations. I imagined psychedelic hues painted across a sun-kissed sky like something out of a Baz Luhrmann film… but alas, was disappointed. Maybe I take our gorgeous New Zealand sunsets for granted, but the close of day in Siem Reap – or at least the one we experienced – fell slightly short of it’s mark.

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Expectations aside, when we finally pulled back into the Quad Adventure base an hour and a half later with aching backsides and stiff knuckles, we couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. Or the red dirt from every crack and crevasse in our bodies. But that’s another story.

4 Tips for the Quintessential Quad Bike Experience

  • Only go as fast as you find comfortable. In saying that, don’t sit on your guide’s tail the whole way. Don’t insist on passing them either; it’s not a race to the finish line! It is remarkably easy to take a wrong turn (see Poppy), and your guide knows what is a safe yet adrenalised pace.
  • Don’t wear your Sunday best. It will get caked in red dust, and you are not going to receive any sympathy when you complain that your $100 boutique top now needs dry-cleaned.
  • Don’t feel like you have to wear the visor on the helmet or the face mask. Both are purely designed to shield you from any unwanted dust on the road, but depending on factors such as the weather and/or traffic, this may not be an issue. Aside from the fact that the face mask makes you look as though you are entering a quarantined area, you’ll probably find them redundant. I personally found the visor to impair my vision, and tolerated the little dust that there was so that I could see clearly.
  • Be prepared. If you intend to bring a camera, make sure you have somewhere to store it when you need both hands on the handlebars. I had to get creative when I realised I had no pockets to keep my camera in when I got on the bike; and believe me, it’s not a pretty sight to have to fish it out the front of your pants when your guide offers to take a photo of you *insert eye-roll emoji here*

Stay tuned for my upcoming Cambodia vlog, which will showcase footage from the quad biking experience. To ensure you don’t miss out, follow The Ginger Passports to get email notifications when new posts are published. Or alternatively, subscribe to my Youtube Channel to receive updates when new videos are uploaded. I’ll see you there!

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