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5 top experiences abroad

20 Nov

1. Paragliding at Hopfgarten in Austria.

If you look really closely you will see the paraglider in the sky. The views of the alps were stunning.

 2. The gibbon zip-line experience in Laos.

The Gibbon Experience is an ecotourism adventure; a system of zip lines that soar high above the jungle. Click the image to watch my video.

 3. Motorcycle ride around the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

This photo was taken while riding with my friend Jess who was living in Soc Trang, Vietnam. It's worthwhile taking your own time to explore this area.

 4. Climbing to the summit of Mount Fuji in Japan.

The difficulty of the climb to this summit should not be underestimated. Click the image to read my blog post on the Mount Fuji climb.

 5. Feeding elephants at Chiang Mai in Thailand.

Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand allows you to care for injured elephants. Click the image to watch my video.

By Marissa Toohey

theBubbleBuster recommends: The Third Wave book

15 Nov

The Third Wave book motivated me to volunteer again. Click the image to read more about the book.

Alison Thompson was living in New York City when the Boxing Day Tsunami devastated Asia. Instead of watching developments on television or donating small sums of money to assist with aid efforts like many of us did back in 2004, Alison packed her possessions and flew to Sri Lanka to help in any way she could.

The Third Wave tells the story of an Australian volunteer who intended to work for two weeks and ended up dedicating the rest of her life to helping others. Despite the physical and emotional challenges that Alison outlined throughout her story, it’s easy to understand why she has committed to working in development for the long term. The Third Wave demonstrates the real power of individual efforts in generating positive change.

I strongly recommend this book if you are interested in learning more about disaster recovery or meaningful volunteering abroad, in addition to those people simply seeking inspiration again like myself.

By Marissa Toohey

Travelling for less is more

23 Oct

I’m not ashamed to admit that travelling is all about quantity rather than quality for me. I’d share a dorm room with a sasquatch and eat nothing but haggis if it meant that I could afford to spend a few extra days on the road. That’s how much I love travelling.

Considering my success in exploring nearly 30 countries over just the past few years and with no more than an average salary, I’ve realised a number of good tricks to minimise costs. These are my top tips for getting the most bang out of your buck:

Liaise directly with service providers
Plan and manage your trip directly with service providers to avoid higher prices due to handling fees. I always book my own flights through airline websites, unless I need assistance coordinating a complicated stop-over involving more than one airline.

Shea enjoyed authentic Japanese accommodation. This bed 'n breakfast was attached to a temple at Takayama in the Japan Alps.

Swap Hilton for homely
Popular hotel chains are enjoyable but they’re generally expensive and don’t offer a real taste of the countries they are in. I use hostelworld.com to identify authentic guest houses or bed ‘n breakfasts that cost only a fraction of the price and usually come with hospitable local operators and cultural quirks.

Capsule hotel accommodation in Tokyo, Japan - it was affordable and fun to experience.

Take advantage of last minute deals
Depending on your destination, it’s sometimes possible to negotiate cheaper rates for accommodation on arrival. This is particularly true in Asia and it’s all part of the fun of bargaining within many Asian cultures. Similarly, tour operators sometimes offer lower prices to fill remaining seats.

Don’t buy a new “holiday wardrobe”
Is it really worth spending a few hundred dollars just so you can wear a couple of new outfits in your photographs? Unless you will be hiking above 3,000 metres or white water rafting for several days, I guarantee you already have appropriate clothes for your upcoming journey. If you insist on jazzing up your wardrobe, buy some accessories while you’re on the road.

Only invest in gifts that really matter
Too often I see tourists spending large sums on silly gadgets and items which they can buy at home anyway. Save your spending money for things that are unique to your destination or buy goods from locals in need to make a small difference in their lives.

By Marissa Toohey

Hobbies to [reverse culture] shock you – a post for my dear expat friends

29 Jul

HOBBIES TO [REVERSE CULTURE] SHOCK YOU  How many hobbies does it take for a blonde to get over reverse culture shock? Six: golf, dressmaking, scuba diving, jogging, bushwalking and even burlesque dancing.

It might sound like a joke but it’s my life.

I’ve been back in the “western world” for almost half as long as I was gone and I’ve only just made it through all the typical phases of reverse culture shock:

  • the honeymoon period when I fell in love with all the little things I’d missed;
  • the shock phase which consisted of panic attacks over (what then seemed like) absurd retail prices and feeling like I didn’t belong; and
  • finally the adaptation phase as I recognised good opportunities, accepted benefits of the Aussie lifestyle and became used to and even excited about the idea of sticking around Brisbane for a while longer.

I look over Brisbane city from Mt Coot-tha. Bushwalking has become a hobby and coping mechanism.

The only way I really kicked reverse culture shock, though, was by getting to know my long term enemies: routine and commitment. I didn’t go crazy and sign up for a two-year phone contract or anything silly like that – I said “commitment”, not “long-term commitment”. It was new hobbies that gave me regular activities to look forward to in the short term and connected me with the Brisbane community.

Settling back into Australia was more difficult than I expected and much harder than adjusting to Vietnam. I’ve continued missing the affordable travel and daily social events of my Vietnamese lifestyle but, of course, that’s only natural. Now I’m focused on enjoying the “sunshine state” with its beautiful national parks, beaches, dancing venues and welcoming new friends.

I quite like Brisbane and it could even turn into love. But I’m taking it slow – just one hobby at a time.

By Marissa Toohey

This post is dedicated to my dearest friends from Vietnam, many whom are now returning to Australia as well. I hope you all cherish the exciting moments when you realise you can drink tap water again and walk down a footpath without getting abused by a motorbike driver. I equally encourage you to allow yourselves to mourn the loss of your Vietnamese lifestyles because we had a f*cking good time that would be hard to top. Wishing you all the best in your returns, reunions with family and friends, your coping mechanisms, new hobbies and future adventures. I genuinely hope we all remain great friends for many years to come.

This is how it works in Vietnam

21 Aug

THIS IS HOW IT WORKS IN VIETNAM  Experiences are very different when living rather than travelling in a country. Outlook, attitude, understanding, curiosity and patience vary. Culture shock can even be more extreme as people moving to a country realise they need to deal with different issues for a long time, while visitors only ever manage difficulties for a few days.

The best advantage of living in a country however, such as Vietnam, is the opportunity to learn how everything works. I heard many stories and advice from friends that have travelled in Vietnam, but my experiences have been quite different.

Catching taxis. Most travellers claim taxis in Vietnam rip off westerners, charging astronomical prices unless a set price is negotiated at the very start of the journey. The fact is there are many fake taxis around which use fake meters, and genuine taxis will refuse to negotiate a rate. You should always take a taxi from one of the reliable companies, such as Vinasun or MaiLinh, and look for a sticker on the dash that says around 12,000VND per kilometre. There should also be plastic tags on each side of the meter box which means it is locked and cannot be tampered with. Of course there are still a few fake versions of the Vinasun and MaiLinh taxis in operation, but a keen eye on the meter helps to avoid tricky situations. Don’t be afraid to ask the driver to pull over if you suspect something dodgy.

Bargaining at markets. I was warned that shop owners often ask for three times the actual price of items. Therefore, a rule has been promoted that your first asking price should be one third of the sellers asking price and negotiating begins from there. In my experience (and remember I scream tourist, with blonde hair and pale skin), more often than not, shop owners only ask for a few extra dollars. A good way to get an idea of the real price is to browse a fixed price shop and then ask the price at a number of market stalls until you find one you are happy with. Shop owners love to bargain and negotiate, so if you find a shop owner disengaged from the game, you have obviously suggested a price that is way too low. But nevermind, there’s always a similar stall just a few meters away where you can start the game all over again. Learn a few local phrases, including “how much is this?”, “too expensive” and numbers and you will find the experience a lot more rewarding.

Explore Vietnam closely and you will see Government posters about future planning

Communism. Most people ask if communism is obvious in the streets of Vietnam and a common response is, you will see it if you’re looking for it. There are grand military and government buildings, signs that promote future planning and I’ve seen a couple of vans from the soviet era. However, my favourite example of communism is simply the attitude of Vietnamese people. Emphasis lies on families and communities rather than individuals, which is even obvious in the way Vietnamese people address others: as if they are part of their family. For example, “chi” means older sister and is how you refer to any woman who is older than you. Similarly “anh” means older brother.

I’m still uncovering many tips and tricks in Vietnam so stay tuned as I reveal more over the next five months.

By Marissa Toohey

Top tip – How to beat holiday tummy

9 Jul

TOP TIP – HOW TO BEAT HOLIDAY TUMMY  It’s not uncommon for people to spend the first few days of an international holiday in the foetal position with gastrointestinal pain. Food poisoning, bacteria, dysentry and even stress can cause stomach pain. So I have researched some tools and gadgets that help to avoid “holiday tummy”.

SteriPEN available at walkabouttravelgear.com

  • Transportable water purifiers use ultraviolet light to destroy waterborne microbes. One of the greatest traveller purifiers available is SteriPEN (pictured left) available at walkabouttravelgear.com. All you need to do is insert the tip of the pen into the water and press the button to initiate the purification process.
  • The Survival Straw removes harmful bacteria, pesticides and heavy metals from water sources, greatly reducing the chances of contracting bugs including Giardia. It allegedly eliminates odor and bad taste as well.
  • Microfilters and Potable Aqua are additional options. Potable Aqua is supplied in two bottles; the first is germicidal tablets and the other is neutralizing tablets that remove iodine taste and color.

It’s sometimes difficult to maintain these measures so it’s a good idea to pack supplies that help to manage diarrhoea if it occurs, including biodegradable toilet tissue, hand sanitiser and Gastrolyte.

Never be paranoid about stomach issues though, as food and drink are often the highlights of certain destinations.

Please comment below with your special holiday tummy tips.

By Marissa Toohey

Top tip – How to stay happy when Mother Earth's a b*tch

30 Apr

HOW TO STAY HAPPY WHEN MOTHER EARTH’S A B*TCH  The problem with coordinating holidays around events that involve nature is Mother Earth often gets in a bitch of a mood. I recently got really disappointed when the weather ruined my plans at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. Firstly my dive was canceled for the Poor Knights Islands, which are reported to have some of the greatest dive sites in the world. The next day I was booked to swim with wild dolphins – something I have wanted to do since I was five or six years old – and that was canceled as well, because of rough seas.

I was especially annoyed because I usually keep my travel plans flexible, moving from town to town as I wish. But for this particular trip my accommodation was set in stone, which means I couldn’t stick around to go diving or dolphin swimming when conditions improved. The only reason I had a strict itinerary on this occasion was because it was Easter holidays and hotel availability was tight.

When I consider how most of my friends travel – with every single minute locked into a specific time or place as arranged by a neurotic travel agent – I realise most people become frustrated when things get canceled or postponed. And it’s heartbreaking when holiday dreams get swept away. So in effort to help my friends, family and random readers to avoid the heart-wrenching disappointment of a canceled event, these are my hot tips for making a holiday fun and flexible:

Don’t risk forfeiting huge accommodation costs.  Unlike most accommodation websites, such as wotif.com and lastminute.com, hostelworld.com does not require you to foot the whole bill up front, which means you can forfeit a booking at the last minute and only lose a few dollars. I once forfeited a hostelworld.com booking in Japan because I was exhausted after climbing Mt Fuji and just wanted to collapse in a bed at the foot of the mountain, rather than catch a train to Tokyo as planned. Hostelworld.com offers hostels, bed and breakfast arrangements and budget hotels. It’s a great site for booking accommodation when you’re already on the road.

Take advantage of cheap last minute offers.  Don’t book flights ten months in advance and risk cancellation from unforeseen events, such as volcano eruptions! You can grab cheap airfares as close as a month from your planned departure date. Sign up for monthly newsletter updates that feature great sales. Visit http://au.travelzoo.com, www.bestflights.com.au or go to the travel section of your favourite news website, for example The Sydney Morning Herald Traveller distributes special offers and discounts through its e-newsletter. Sign up at www.smh.com.au/travel.

Find a flexible tour operator.  If you’re not comfortable travelling alone or planning it as you’re on the road, there are tour operators that offer flexible arrangements. For example, Busabout offers hop-on hop-off deals on a series of networks. All you need to do is select the network, for example the North Loop of Europe, and then travel at your own pace, jumping on and off Busabout buses in certain cities until you complete the entire network.

Take your sweet time driving.  Hiring a car can be expensive but it allows you to take your sweet time getting from A to B and sometimes produces unexpected discoveries along the way. It also means you can easily access alternative sights to keep busy if events are canceled. If you’re on a tight budget, limit car hire to just a few days as required and don’t forget to claim frequent flyer points through your booking – they can go towards reducing the cost of your next flight.

By Marissa Toohey


Top tip – Become the world's lightest packer

26 Mar

TOP TIP – BECOME THE WORLD’S LIGHTEST PACKER  When it comes to stuffing my backpack for an overseas holiday, I am one of the world’s lightest packers. It’s hard to believe, I know, that a woman can pack so lightly and I must admit I have my partner to thank for teaching me. When we travel overseas, we generally carry one backpack between us. Because he is usually responsibile for carrying it, he makes sure I don’t pack any unnecessary items, including hair straighteners and high heel shoes (yes, they are unnecessary).

The last time my partner and I went abroad for two weeks, we carried just 11kg of luggage between us.

After reflecting on my experiences of brutal culling, I have summarised the best tips for reducing your luggage:

In weeks leading up to your departure, don’t buy new clothes specifically for the holiday unless its vital. Without a doubt, you will be tempted to pack your old favourite clothes as well as the new ones which doubles the number of items in your backpack. Only buy new items that are absolutely necessary and that you don’t already own. For example, if you plan to trek the Inca trail and you don’t own a pair of suitable joggers or hiking shoes, you really need to buy a pair as thongs just won’t cut it.

Cut the shorts and add leggings. Sure cargo shorts are comfy but they are also bulky and heavy, adding weight and reducing space in your backpack or suitcase. Pack a pair of leggings or footless tights as an alternative. The best thing about this is that you don’t need to leave your pretty dresses at home any longer – by wearing leggings underneath them, dresses become much more comfortable for walking and traveling. Not only are leggings practical but they are so much cuter than cargo shorts!

Do you really need all of those electrical cords? It’s easy to get carried away with packing cords to charge everything, including your phone, iPod, camera, video camera, laptop, alarm clock and more. Before you know it, you are connecting so much equipment that you could channel enough power to sustain the entire hotel you are staying in! Don’t even let me begin to tell you how many carbon emissions this kind of activity generates. Firstly consider which electrical items you can leave at home and then identify ways to conserve battery power for your remaining items. It is often possible to buy a universal adaptor that will charge most of your items.

The rule of 3s. Three pairs is the absolute maximum number of shoes you should pack on any holiday. Three pairs includes comfortable shoes for high impact activities, such as joggers or hiking shoes, shoes for daily walking, including thongs or sandals, and one pair of nice shoes for restaurants, clubs and events. High heels are tricky to pack and you often find your feet are too tired from walking during the day that you can’t stand the thought of heels by nighttime anyway. Ballet flats are ideal as they are comfortable to walk in, they suit almost any outfit and they are easy to squeeze into your suitcase or backpack.

By Marissa Toohey


Top tip – The Cranberries rule for backpackers: No need to argue

25 Mar

TOP TIP – THE CRANBERRIES RULE FOR BACKPACKERS: NO NEED TO ARGUE  It’s eleven o’clock at night and I’m stumbling back to my hostel in Rome when I witness a familiar scene: two young Aussies with tears streaming down their faces, shoes in hand and storming off in opposite directions. Almost everyone has heard the story of the BFFs (best friends forever) who embark together on a dream journey and bitterly return when the reality becomes a nightmare. What’s with all the drama?

Sure, it’s difficult spending 24 hours seven days a week with anyone, especially if you enjoy your independence. But how quickly we forget what travelling and, more importantly, what life is all about. The Cranberries said in one of their most successful songs, “we were raised to see life as fun.” And that’s exactly how it should be on the trip of a lifetime.

Here are a few things to consider that will help you to achieve a fight-free trip.

Pre-departure precautions

If you have concerns about your travel buddy at the time of booking your trip, your reservations are probably going to eventuate. Furthermore, it’s likely your friend is having similar thoughts. Be open and discuss your issues. You might decide its wiser to travel in a tour or to invite another friend who helps you both to compromise.

Identify and compare each of your priorities for the trip. Ensure that your itinerary allows both of you to complete your most exciting experiences and then make compromises on other things.

While you are there

If you feel like you need some space, tell your friend. If you don’t tell them, they won’t know until you are already fed up.

Take advantage of differences in interests to spend some time apart as required. For example, while one of you enjoys a bike riding tour of the city, the other may be studying local art or sampling sweets at the food market.

Be sympathetic to one another when you are tired or in stressful situations.

Keep talking. Think about something your friend does at home and ask them about it. Many arguments occur because an individual, for whatever reason, feels isolated or neglected. Show that you are interested even after weeks on the road together.

Mix and mingle with others. However, it is important that you never totally abandon a friend, no matter how much they are annoying you. When out at night, keep a watchful eye on each other.

By Marissa Toohey


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