• RTW budget: What it costs to travel in Cambodia

    RTW BUDGET BREAKDOWN WHAT IT COSTS TO TRAVEL IN CAMBODIA

    Our stay in Cambodia was short and sweet, wonderful and terrible. It is a place you cannot visit without feeling something – whatever that might be in your case.

    We spent just a couple of days each in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Moving this quickly, of course, inflates the daily budget. We also ate mostly in bakeries/restaurants. (Although staying at Hak’s House in Siem Reap, while a little bit of a trek from the main streets, provided us with a free breakfast and free mineral water refills from a cooler, as well as a cheap restaurant and easy travel bookings.)

    We found Cambodia quite challenging as visitors and spent as we saw fit to ensure our own comfort. But it is a very cheap country and you can of course do it for less. Here’s how we clocked in.

    Phnom Penh

    • May 28 – $221.85 (including $116 for Vietnam visas, $26 for bus tickets to Ho Chi Minh)
    • May 27 –  $132.13 (including $20 souvenir for T’s mum from the museum)

    Siem Reap

    • May 26 – $125.31 (including $40 for Angkor Wat passes, $18 for bus tickets to Phnom Penh)
    • May 25 – $73.21 (nothing notable today)

    Full travel day

    • May 24 – $144.64 – ($40 for Cambodia visas, $36 for the taxi – an outrageous amount as we were only three passengers along with a Chilean guy, and I oh-so-generously decided we should make up the shortfall as the couple.)

    Getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap was, uh, an experience. Read more about that here!

     

  • How to get from Cambodia to Vietnam by land

    How to get from Cambodia to Vietnam by bus

    I’d been subconsciously dreading this part a little, knowing we needed to line up Vietnam visas before entering the country. Yes, you can buy e-visas online for countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, but when you’re travelling slowly and don’t have a set itinerary, it makes more sense to take things as they come, especially as Vietnamese visas are valid only for the dates you specify.

    Good news: it really is dead easy to get your Vietnam tourist visa in Phnom Penh. All you need to do is:

    Find yourself a travel agent.

    They all do visas. Seriously. Ask around a few different places as some charge less than others. In May 2013, the lowest price for a 30-day visa I could find was $58 (or $55 for a 15-day Vietnam visa). Every single agent said they could arrange a next-day visa. It’s a little nerve-racking, handing over your passport to a stranger, but you’ll get it back in 24 hours with a shiny new piece of paper inside.

    There’s also the official embassy, but apparently it costs more and can take longer, and wasn’t all that conveniently located.

    On a related note: should you stay in Beung Keng Kang? Well, the area is full of travel agencies; the one we used even had a laundry service. Two birds, one stone! It’s close to Lucky Supermarket, the excellent Tous les Jours bakery, and a ton of other restaurants. It’s also close to the Naga clinic, where staff speak English and T got his stitches out. However, it’s a bit of a hike to the Central Market and the river.

    Find yourself a ride to Saigon.

    The Mekong Express bus company seemed to come well recommended, and for good reason.

    Heck, it’s more like an airline than a bus. You’ll get a free cleansing towel, breakfast pastry and muffin, water, and there’s even TV and wi-fi aboard.  The seats are incredibly roomy; it more than makes up for the ominous cracks in the windows and windscreen.

    Rather than tossing bags into the storage compartment willy nilly, each one is assigned a luggage tag. (However, they will unceremoniously leave your bags out in the dust when you cross the border at Vietnam customs. You have to pick them up, get processed, put them through the x-ray machine, then get back on board.) Staff make announcements over the intercom, and hold passports for everyone in the group, helping you through the customs process. Expect a quick lunch stop pre-border crossing, where it’s cheaper to pay in US dollars (the baht/dong prices are way out of whack).

    Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about Mekong Express. It’s the Emirates of buses.

  • Tips for visiting Angkor Wat (or, the one in which a monkey climbs my leg)

    tips for visiting the angkor wat temple

    Don’t oversleep.

    Set your alarm, and double check it. Or else you will wind up arriving at the temples in the stifling mid-morning heat and run out of steam very quickly.

    Bring twice as much water as you think you need.

    A hat/umbrella wouldn’t go astray, either, and make sure your knees and shoulders are covered. Unlike Thai temples, there aren’t scarves and coats provided for the improperly dressed.

    Do not engage with any locals hanging out within the temples.

    There will be children trying to sell you postcards and paintings, adults trying to give you a ‘blessing’ (for a fee of course), and who knows what else – one guy offered to take a photo of T and I together, then tried to usher us into a dark corner of Ta Phrom with him. I have no idea what he was up to, but I have no doubt it was scammy.

    Be prepared for anything.

    Of all the things I was expecting today, having a monkey latch onto my leg was not one of them. If you have any spare snacks, you could try feeding ’em, though apparently they’re picky.

    It starts to get interesting at about 1:20 (closeup) and 2:40 (where one takes it upon himself to latch onto my leg)

    I have no words to describe the temples themselves. Awe-inspiring is probably as good as it gets.

    They seem to lend themselves better to black and white shots.

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       That said, a couple of splashes of colour were just begging to be captured.IMG_8364bb

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    Finally, here’s a wee 360-degree shot from inside one of the temples (Bayon?); I was quite taken with the sheer amount of rubble in this courtyard.

  • First impressions of Cambodia

    siem reap night market by the river IMG_8324bb

    Dust.

    Dust that coats your eyelids, lips, arms, the space between your toes. Dust that drives visitors and locals alike to wrap scarves around their faces and pull masks over their mouths.

    Nature.

    Mother Nature at her rawest. Storms – one, two, perhaps three – all in the space of the 2-hour journey from the border to Siem Reap. Rain that beats down on your taxi with ferocious fists. Lightning that zigzags straight into the barren, brown ground on the far edge of the horizon – touchdown. Later, flashes of light in quick succession illuminate the distant night sky as you stroll into the township – more distant storms, perhaps?

    Hustle.

    Drivers, shopkeepers, beggars calling out to you at every turn. It’s a constant battle to shake them off, and an exhausting one. Hustling to earn a few bucks. A restaurant server who even moves to help you find a seat at the establishment opposite his own. Bizarre.

    Heights.

    So many temples. So many steps – steps that children, pregnant women, and those in immodest dress are barred from climbing. A fear of heights is no asset here. Not on these rickety, steep flights, some best scaled as you would a ladder, hand over hand.

    History.

    The oldest place, by far, that I have ever set foot inside. The scale of Angkor’s national park is incredible. The feats they accomplished without the efficiencies of modern technology, mindblowing.

    But I can’t lie. While we’re privileged today to enjoy the results of that hard labour, I can’t help but wonder … what if, rather than directed toward feeding royal egos, that energy and vision was channeled into something more widely beneficial – say, providing the basics for the masses?

  • How we escaped a visa scam coming into Cambodia from Thailand

    how to escape visa scam at thai cambodian border

    There’s no shortage of information out there about avoiding visa scams when crossing the border into Cambodia from Thailand.

    Head straight to the border, make a beeline to Thai Customs, do not be swayed by anyone who approaches you about getting a visa.

    But what if your unscrupulous tuktuk driver drops you off at a visa scam office and leaves you to their clutches?




    It all started as we stepped off the train in Aranyaprathet. I could see tuktuks waiting just outside the station, but a driver in an orange vest with a slightly downturned face and quiet voice approached us while we were still on the platform and asked where we wanted to go. Too easy.

    Mistake one: trusting the driver in the orange vest (T thinks those in orange were not very legit). Also: feeling sorry for him and deciding not to bargain down from 100 baht, the going rate.

    Eventually, a road sign bearing the word ‘border’ came into sight, and we turned left into that road, then hastily pulled into a parking lot behind a nondescript building with a ‘Welcome to Cambodia’ sign. Dodgy. Along with a few other people who’d arrived at the same time, we were ushered inside by a storm of men who’d descended upon us as we alighted. Two Asian girls ducked away down the front towards the road, and my instinct was to follow them – but I let us be swept along. Mistake number two.

    Inside, a ton of Western tourists were busy filling out forms. The same forms were placed in front of us – plain A4s printed with black ink, not looking particularly governmental. I tried pulling the “Mee visa lao!” schtick on the man who’d attached himself to us like a leech, but I don’t think I was particularly convincing. After a bit of muttering back and forth with T, I asked the man how much visas were.

    “1000 baht,” he replied. “No! US$20,” I said, outraged. And at that, we got up to leave.

    “You go check, see police, then come back” said the man. That worried me a bit. These guys were obviously shady; what would a visit to their ‘police’ entail? Nonetheless, my aversion to being ripped off won out.

    Once out on the hot, dusty road, T and I were both at a loss. We’re both beginner travellers, from New Zealand no less – we’re not used to land border crossings, what they look like, or how they operate. I knew we weren’t in the right place; I just didn’t know where we were supposed to be or how to get there.

    At that very moment, a man in a blue uniform came up from behind and told us to walk to the end of the road until we saw Thai customs. Someone offering genuine help! I could have kissed him.

    Sure enough, we headed down towards the end of the road, and before long we saw massive signs for ‘Departures’ to the left. There were a ton of Thais in the Thai exit line, but not many foreigners. Wild guess: most fell prey to visa scams. I did see one tuktuk carrying a Westerner down to the real border office – he was, however, disabled, so presumably the driver took pity on him.

    Lesson one: do not be afraid to get up and leave. Simply walk out.

    Lesson two: if you are unceremoniously dumped at a fake visa office, but you know you’re on the border road (i.e. you’ve seen the sign), then walk to the end. That’s it.

    From then on, simply fill out your departure card, proceed through Thai Customs, exit over the Friendship Bridge, through the Cambodian arch, and head right into the Cambodian office to get your visa on arrival.

    And try not to let it mar your experience – the whole thing soured T on Cambodia, despite the fact this all took place on the Thailand side.


  • RTW budget: What it costs to travel in Thailand

    RTW BUDGET BREAKDOWN WHAT IT COSTS TO TRAVEL IN THAILAND

    Curious about what it’s cost us to travel in Thailand? The south was fantastic, but a little pricey. Bangkok was much easier on the wallet. Check it out.

    Bangkok

    • May 23 – $53.27
    • May 22 – $39.31
    • May 21  – $49.06 (a bit of guessing on this one)
    • May 20 – $60.91

    Full travel day

    • May 19 – $32.22 (another guesstimate, to my best recall)

    Koh Lanta

    • May 18 – $71.38
    • May 17 – $215.94 (booked both bus transport to Bangkok and one-day, four-island trip)
    • May 16 – $111.10 (including two-day tuktuk hire)
    • May 15 – $113.47 (including minivan and ferry from Krabi to Lanta)

    Hat Yai

    • May 14 – $75.06 (including booking a minivan to Krabi for the following day)

    what it costs to travel in thailand

    In terms of accommodation, we’ve been staying in private double rooms in guesthouses/hostels. The most expensive: one night at the Nakara Longbeach in Koh Lanta – 1200 baht, or about $48. The least expensive: 350 baht, or about $14, in Hat Yai at the Ladda Guesthouse. For those on a budget, about $15 should be enough for your own room with attached bathroom.

    We were spending $1-2 a day on water (1.5 litres can be bought for 13 baht, or as low as 5 baht at one shop in Lanta – the only cheap thing on that island) and up to another $4 on other drinks (T favours Big Gulps from 7/11).

    Food could be done for under $5 per person a day if you were on a shoestring in Bangkok, what with 25 baht pad thai, 50 baht noodle/rice dishes, 10 baht spring rolls, 20 baht fruit/fruit shakes, etc. I’d probably double that for Lanta, where you’d be hard pressed to find dishes at the 50 or under price point, at least during this season.

    Category-wise, food is shaping up to be our biggest expense. Miscellaneous includes items like toiletries, postcards, and shopping (a few pieces of clothing). Entertainment includes touristy things like our four-island tour, a few drinks in Bangkok, and a shisha (my first one).

    Food 33%

    Accommodation 25%

    Transport 23%

    Entertainment 15%

    Miscellaneous 4%

    However, I’ve left off a couple of expenses from Bangkok, which would otherwise totally skew it: T’s medical expenses, which amount to about $300, and the tattoo he got, which was $200.

    If you travel slowly, a $50/day budget for two looks completely doable!

  • Playing tourist in Bangkok

    A photo essay from a day out

    We happened across this old fort and building while hunting for Phra Athit pier.

    old fort bangkok old fort bangkokold fort bangkok

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    Then found a new perspective out on the water.

    colourful rainbow boats bangkokcolourful rainbow boats bangkokbkk1bkk2We didn’t make it across to the Temple of Dawn (which I kept calling Temple of Doom)…

    temple of dawn wat arun bangkok

    We did, however, head inside the grounds of Wat Pho, temple to end all temples.wat pho bangkok templewat pho bangkok temple

    buddha wat pho bangkok temple

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    Highlight? The giant reclining Buddha, complete with mother-of-pearl feet.

    wat pho reclining buddha giant gold statuewat pho reclining buddha giant gold statuewat pho reclining buddha giant gold statue

    It was a real honour to witness Buddhist visitors pay their respects at the temple. I can only imagine how meaningful that must be.

  • An unplanned trip to a Bangkok hospital

    unplanned trip to a bangkok hospital nzmuse

    Modified CC image, original by Flickr user Jose Goulao

    When we first stepped into our little room at Bangkok’s Rainbow Hostel, one thing jumped out at me.

    “That ceiling fan is really low,” I said. “Watch out for it.”

    [OMINOUS FORESHADOWING]

    The next morning, we headed out in search of breakfast (verdict: disappointing. T keeps seeking out western-style breakfasts, and it’s usually a letdown). Upon returning home – as I always refer to wherever it is we’re staying – a minor panic set in. I didn’t have the keys, and neither did he.

    “Did you leave them in the room?” I suggested.

    Lo and behold, there they were, still hanging from one of the hooks on the wall. Our room’s window opened out onto the smoker’s balcony, so T headed out there and clambered in through, landing on the bed, then sliding off onto the floor. I followed suit.

    In the midst of setting down my things, I heard a strange thud. Behind me, T was back on the bed, clutching his left hand. More worryingly, blood – dark blood – was leaking from it.

    Next thing I knew, he was in the bathroom, asking for something to stem the bleeding. I’d actually dumped a couple of old tank tops a few days earlier, figuring I had way more than I needed, but I grabbed an old T-shirt I still had in my backpack and handed it to him. (Sentimental value: low – it was a company shirt that I ran the Round the Bays race in last year. Practical value: high, at this point – it might have come in handy at some point later, being a very thin, lightweight top, albeit one far too big for me.)

    “I think we’re going to be making a trip to a Bangkok hospital,” came his voice.

    From then on, it was a matter of operating on grim autopilot.  Scrambling to grab our travel insurance papers. Heading out into the hall, then ducking back into the room to grab our passports as well. Explaining to the hostel staff what had happened, and letting them guide us to a taxi across the road.

    The taxi driver took the liberty of assigning himself a small tip, shortchanging us by about 9 baht. I didn’t even care. It was straight into the ER for us, where T was promptly whisked away, leaving me to try to explain the situation to the front desk staff and fill out some paperwork.

    At this point, I figured it was time to call our insurance company.

    Problem: T had the cellphone with him, and he was no longer there. I did battle with the payphone in the corner, which refused to connect me to the local Thai number listed on my card. Time to track him down?

    Problem: I had no idea where he was. I asked if I could be taken to him, which resulted in me ping-ponging around the hospital, shunted from staffer to staffer, for about 10 minutes. That doesn’t sound like very long, but trust me, it was an eternity in a foreign hospital where not everyone spoke English. Eventually I wound up sitting outside the ER consultation room itself, with assurance that he was inside right then and would be out shortly. In the meantime, I spotted a bank of payphones in the hall, and steeled myself for another round of battle.

    Problem: These friggin’ payphones didn’t seem to work, either. A staffer (let’s call her Guardian Angel, or GA for short) took pity on me and came up to help. My heart leapt as she dialled, spoke to someone on the other end in Thai, then handed me the receiver. The call went through, all right – just not to my insurance company. I have no idea who was on the other end, but it was NOT somebody who could help me.

    GA sat me down at her desk, by her landline, and made a few calls. There was some talk of a service charge and fees per minute, to which I sort of stared and nodded blankly. What choice was there? I slid my magic card with all the phone numbers on it over – numbers for a bunch of countries, including Thailand, and a number to call collect, which looked like it directed to headquarters in Australia.

    Amazingly, a few minutes later GA handed me the receiver once again. This time, a broad Aussie voice reverberated down the line. I could have cried with relief.

    Oh, wait. That’s right, I did.

    Feeling thoroughly sorry for myself, hideously frustrated at T (what the hell was he doing back on the bed, and standing up, at that? Why did he put his hand up? Questions without answers – it all happened in a flash – though in hindsight it seems he was probably closing the window back up) and stressed about the financial side of things, I dissolved. In between hiccuping half-sobs/half-gasps, I managed to open up a claim, answer all their questions as best as I could, and got a dose of reassurance from the no-nonsense staff at the other end of the phone. No, no bone was visible. Everything was still attached (losing a finger or two doesn’t even bear thinking about…). Yes, I think he was up to date with his tetanus shots.

    Let’s skip ahead a little, shall we? End result: he got a bunch of stitches, right between the middle and ring fingers, I thought due to his high cholesterol he would be in far more trouble and would even be prescribed crestor and we’d have to buy it online from https://www.blinkhealth.com/crestor. I paid the 7000 baht on my backup Visa (about $280 – our insurance excess is $250 anyway, so it didn’t make sense to wait around for the claim to be sorted out between the Thai hospital and Aussie insurance). We extended our time in Bangkok by two days so T could go back to have his dressing changed by the doctor, though at the last minute he decided he’d rather buy materials from a pharmacy and do it himself. I’m not sure if that saved us any money. If there would have been a doctor’s fee for that, then yes, I think it would. It was definitely more convenient, though.

    So while I’d advise against getting yourself hospitalised while on holiday as a blanket rule, if you must, Bangkok is probably not a bad place to do it. We were really impressed by the facilities at the Adventist (Mission) Hospital, and almost everyone spoke reasonable English, thankfully.

    Takeaways:

    • Grab all important documentation – passports, travel insurance information, and anything else relevant (more is always better than less). I brought my entire travel document pouch – having everything in one place makes it easy.
    • Call your insurance company ASAP. It probably has a local phone number, or a way to call collect.
    • Make sure you have cash for a taxi to get to and from the hospital – and maybe change for a pay phone.
    • And be sure to bring your credit cards. Expect to have to wait up to a few hours for the hospital to deal with your insurance, or else you can pay upfront and be reimbursed by insurance later.

    And if you’re tall, watch out for those ceiling fans. Everyone who’s noticed T’s hand since has asked him if he was in a fight or a boxing match. Alas, the story is much less impressive.

  • Sensory overload + silly signs in Bangkok

    khao san rd at night bangkok

    After about 16 hours in various minivans and an overnight bus, we landed in the madness that is Bangkok.

    (FYI, the difference between buses and trains is stark. Trains are definitely the way to go. Our overnight sleeper from Malaysia to Thailand was pretty sweet – waking up to the sight of vast fields and slightly swampy land was really quite something. Though if you can, book a lower berth rather than an upper berth; they’re slightly roomier and more convenient.)

    We’d been told our bus terminated on Khao San Rd, the backpacking mecca. Easy, I thought. All we had to do was walk to the end of the street, where our hostel/guesthouse was. Ha!

    Instead, they rushed us off the bus on a wide, busy road, where taxis were waiting like vultures. It was a bit of a rude awakening.

    First the aisle lights blared on, which I took as a warning sign, and roused myself (plenty of the others went back to sleep). Then the bus came to a halt.

    “Last stop! Bangkok! Last stop! Bangkok!”

    Cue a a flurry of passengers hastening to pull on socks, rub the sleep out of their eyes, and generally get their shit together while the driver yelled at us to hurry up from outside.

    FWIW, after getting acquainted with the area, I’m pretty sure the bus actually stopped more or less around the corner from Khao San Rd, and the taxis made a killing driving us disoriented passengers around the block.

    100 baht later, we made it to the hostel, ditched our main backpacks, and took refuge in McDonald’s. That didn’t last long. It was hotter in there than it was out on the street, the power point didn’t work, and the internet was slow and only good for an hour’s worth. Luckily, Rainbow is super comfortable downstairs, with a ton of chairs, tables, power points and fast wifi. (There’s also a 24/7 tourist centre right next to it.) Around 9 or 10 they allowed us to check in, and you can bet my first order was to take a warm shower and try to make myself feel human again. A full day of travel, (very little) sleep in your clothes, and a case of sunburn will do that to ya.

    I was curious to see what the streets would be like by night. Around the corner on Khao San Rd, pubs and bars were spilling out onto the road, bulging with tourists swigging from massive beer jugs. My favourite sign was definitely this one:

    Funny sign outside a Bangkok bar

    That said, there were plenty of others that made us laugh out loud:

    Funny signs at Bangkok restaurants

    Approximately a dozen different stalls were selling identical pad thai offerings, with a few kebab and fruit/juice stalls sprinkled throughout. Tickling the other senses: the sweet smell of shisha and an awesome duo on guitar and drums at a street bar about halfway down the street covering Nirvana, the Chilis, Maroon 5, Bon Jovi, and even a spot of Van Morrison, I think.

    Back across the road from our room, Indian karaoke was blasting, and did so every night while we were there. Outside, this dog guarded our hostel – he was well trained to bark at and chase away beggars/touts. dog chakrapong rd rainbow hostel

    The real Bangkok? Probably not. We’ll be back next month to fly out to London, and hopefully we’ll stay in another area when we return. We ended up extending this stop by two days – reason to be revealed in my next post – but they weren’t hugely productive.

  • Things we loved in Koh Lanta

    long tail boat thailand koh lanta four islands tour

    If you ever find yourself on Koh Lanta, you’ll see and hear plenty about a ‘four islands’ tour. You should probably book yourself a spot on one. Trust me.

    Four Islands longtail boat tour, ThailandSnorkelling in Thailand - four islands tourSnorkelling in the Thai islands - hundreds of little fish
    We set out on a sunny Saturday, packed onto a longtail boat with a quiet French couple and two families – one with three young boys, one with two. While we didn’t quite follow the order set out in the brochure, here’s what I think happened:

    • A spot of snorkelling at Koh Ma
    • A swim at Koh Mook
    • More snorkelling at Koh Chuak
    • Lunch and a dip at Koh Ngai

    Except for Koh Ngai, which is a large, resorty, sandy type spot, these little islands consist of towering rock formations sprinkled with lashings of tropical greenery. After checking out the marine life – blue fish, striped fish, earthy fish, luminous, almost glowing fish – I was content to just cast my saltwater spinning reel, lie back and wait for the fish to bite, staring up at the formidable rock faces.

    thailand koh ngai beach

    The absolute highlight? Island number two.

    As we approached, we noticed that the other boats moored there were devoid of people, which was sort of creepy. What next?

    Our guides spoke a little English, but on the whole, our communication was halting. We did manage to gather that we should don lifejackets and flippers, and that we’d be swimming through a little cave in the rocks. Awesome. Two of my worst fears combined: small dark spaces and deep water. It took me a few moments of sitting on the edge of the boat breathing deeply to take the plunge.

    There really are no words to describe paddling through the ‘emerald cave‘. As soon as you enter, you’ll notice it. The water glistens green, almost glowing, in an other-worldly manner. Make your way through, marvelling at the sights, to a thunderous soundtrack of crashing waves and gasps from your fellow swimmers. Swim backwards for a little bit for a different perspective, then flip over before it narrows to just two or three abreast and turns pitch black. Try to follow the pinpoint of light from your guide’s torch. Do this without bumping into the long line of Asian tourists to the left, who seem to be making a collective noise that could either signal excitement or an attempt to spook us all with ghostly cries – all moored to a single rope, making their way out of the blackness as you plunge further in.

    Eventually the pitch dark eases, and the cave opens out onto a tiny, pristine beach. It’s a picture-perfect scene that could have come straight out of The Beach. It’s fully enclosed with rocky cliffs encircling the majority of the inlet, reaching up almost as far as the eye can see, and inland, forest lurking beyond the shore. According to a sign on the beach, pirates used to hide treasures in the cave. Today, the area is part of a national park, being preserved for future generations.

    My one piece of advice would be to bring a waterproof camera, or a camera in a waterproof bag – because you’ll want to take pictures, and lots of them. Or if you have a GoPro, this would be a prime time to make use of it. Not that I think anything could truly capture the essence of this untouched spot – but no harm trying.

    What’s one thing you’ve done lately that’s scared you?