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The destination dilemma, solved

28 Nov

I choose my travel destinations in the same way a wino selects a bottle of red: I browse options available, seek informed reviews, develop a shortlist to compare types, values and prices, and then proceed with the option that best suites my taste at the time.

It's time to get back to the drawing board to plan for your trip of a lifetime!

Considering the current high value of the Australian dollar and frequent flight sales by budget airlines, we have access to more holiday destinations than ever before. Seasoned backpackers and first-time tour goers alike are taking advantage of this opportunity as if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime scenario because, really, it might be the best chance many of us get to tick off some big items on our bucket lists. In times like this, how do you approach and plan for travel?

Do you indulge in fancy accommodation and premium dining experiences rather than backpacking?

Do you take longer holidays and spend more time getting to intimately know the places you visit?

Do you check out as many places as you possibly can via an organised tour because it might be the only time you’ll ever venture abroad?

Do you buy more nic nacs and gifts for family?

Several different factors contributed to my recent decision to book flights to Bhutan for the upcoming Christmas break. I initially considered the country because I was craving a taste of Asia again but wanted to avoid known tourist hot spots; Bhutan has a reputation for being the country with the least tourists on the planet!

The concept of holidaying in Bhutan was strengthened when I was reminded that the country has no traffic lights, has banned advertising billboards and measures growth of its economy in line with Gross National Happiness. Yes, yes, yes!

The deciding factor was the realisation that Bhutan will now cost me around half as much as it would have five years ago. That’s right, as a result of the current favourable exchange rate, it will cost me almost 50 percent less than when I have considered the holiday in the past. I know this because travellers can only access the country by paying a daily tariff communicated in US dollars – it includes all accommodation, transport, entry to sights and even meals – enabling me to fairly accurately calculate the total costs relative to time and exchange rates. For me the current exchange savings translate into spending twice the time getting to know the last shangri-la, Bhutan.

I later realised that this decision means I will be going to the Himalayas during winter. Rather than purchasing a fine red wine, I think I’ve grabbed a chilled bottle of bubbly straight off the ice. I’ll toast to that!

By Marissa Toohey

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Byron Bay: One of the best diving sites in Australia

22 Nov

The only way to enter the open water from Byron Bay is by launching off the beach. It makes for peaceful waterways with few fisherman and lots of big fish.

The highlight of diving at Julian Rocks in Byron Bay is getting up close to these guys: grey nurse sharks.

Click the image for more of Shea's photos of diving at Julian Rocks.

Click the image for more of Shea's photos of diving at Julian Rocks.

Click the image for more of Shea's photos of diving at Julian Rocks.

Read about my encounter with a whale while diving at Byron Bay.

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

Experience and protect the whale’s echo

19 Nov

Whales are amongst the most intelligent and fascinating creatures on Earth. Just consider the way a pod of whales passing near a coast summons the attention of hundreds of people – boats, kayakers and swimmers all surrender their activities in anticipation of catching a glimpse of these magnificent creatures breaching the surface. I’m one of few people who have also experienced the echo of a whale from under the surface while diving at Byron Bay recently and I was in awe. Like millions of people across the world, I had been dreaming and hoping to encounter a whale in the open water for many years.

I was thrilled to get my opportunity to dive in the presence of a pod of whales but was also saddened by the realisation that the chances of it ever happening again were incredibly slim. These thoughts culminated during the week when I met Captain Paul Watson who is preparing to lead the Sea Shepherds through their most daring campaign ever: Operation Divine Wind, aiming to stop Japanese whaling in the Antarctic region for good.

Watch The Captain’s talk about the upcoming Divine Wind anti-whaling campaign which I enjoyed during the week. Video by Sea Shepherds Brisbane.

Last year the Sea Shepherds obstructed the course of Japanese ships so severely that they only achieved 17 percent of their kill quota and were forced to turn around and go back home. This made whaling completely economically unviable for Japan. Despite this serious outcome last year, the Japanese Government has still committed to go ahead whaling over the next few months and The Captain said they have even dedicated almost $30 million just to stop the Sea Shepherds. To make matters worse, the Australian Government continues to let these ships refuel in our territory and has rejected all requests by the Sea Shepherds for a boat to standby incase of an emergency. Considering the hostility demonstrated by Japanese ships last year and the fact that the majority of Sea Shepherds crew members will be Australian and New Zealand volunteers, it is disappointing that the actions of our leaders don’t reflect the population’s love for these animals.

The recent announcements that two species of rhinos became extinct – one in Africa and the other in Vietnam – highlighted the fact that the world needs to act faster to protect its animals. If whaling continues in the way that poaching has, the next generation of children will never hear the spectacular echo of a whale.

Please watch the above video of The Captain’s talk in Brisbane during the week and see why the Sea Shepherds are a cause worth busting your bubble for.

By Marissa Toohey

City with abseiling right at its doorstep

1 Nov

How many cities offer outdoor rock climbing and abseiling within walking distance? I recently popped out of home for just a couple of hours during a Sunday evening for a session of sunset abseiling with exquisite views of Brisbane city. How cool is that?!

Shea takes his first steps over the edge of the cliff at Kangaroo Point.

I went abseiling down a cliff at Kangaroo Point, along Brisbane River.

I'm enjoying abseiling for the very first time and just minutes from my apartment in Brisbane city.

We enjoyed watching the sun lower behind the city and finished abseiling right on dark.

The first steps were the scariest but, after leaning over the edge, I quickly trusted the ropes. Bunny hopping down the wall was hilarious and I even started racing to get to the bottom before others. I’m now looking forward to another Sunday session of abseiling and I’ve set my sights on the Glasshouse Mountains for next time, which are only around an hour north of Brisbane.

Check out Adventures Around Brisbane for details on abseiling at Kangaroo Point and bust your bubble with abseiling too!

By Marissa Toohey

I’ve seen how a simple investment in development pays dividends forever

23 Oct

In Vietnam I saw that individual cash donations provided bricks and mortar to build homes for people in need, which protected them from typhoons and severe illnesses like malaria, and even improved their education and livelihoods through stability.

I’ve seen firsthand how simple contributions play a part in creating better lives and futures for marginalised households.

Here is a short video that inspires me and demonstrates how you can also do something as simple as investing in a single girl to produce positive impacts for families, communities, women and even the world: it’s called The Girl Effect.

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

I enjoyed the world’s only dive rig

25 Sep

My scuba diving hobby has taken me to many exciting places and the greatest, so far, was Seaventures Dive Rig – an old oil rig that was converted into a diving platform and hotel, located just minutes from one of the hottest diving destinations in the world, Sipadan.

Seaventures Dive Rig at Sipadan in Malaysian Borneo.

The idea of staying out to sea on an oil rig intrigued me. It was fully fitted out for convenient diving, with several rooms up top and a large bottom deck that had diving gear for grabs and a lift straight to the water below.

The Seaventures operators also arranged daily diving trips to nearby Mabul Island and Sipadan, which lived up to the hype created by famous Jacques Cousteau’s top review. The dramatic wall, large schools of fish, reef sharks, turtles and anemones were even better than those I’ve seen on television.

Me diving under the Seaventures Dive Rig.

Diving along the wall of Sipadan Island.

A giant school of Barracuda at Sipadan.

A Whitetip reef shark at Sipadan.

Visit the Seaventures website for more information on oil rig accommodation and diving at Sipadan.

By Marissa Toohey

Walking the Bridge to Brisbane

12 Sep

Me and my team after the Bridge to Brisbane race.

The Bridge to Brisbane race was a simple way to enjoy a sunny day and contributed to a good cause. Every entry helped to raise funds for Legacy Queensland which is an organisation that cares for the spouses and dependants of Australian veterans through pension advocacy, safety and security, financial security and social and medical care.

There are a number of other fitness and fundraising events held across Australia throughout the year, including the long running Cancer Council Relay for Life at several locations, the extreme Simpson Desert Multimarathon and, one of my favourite ideas, the Pub2Pub Charity Fun Run and Walk which is an annual Sydney event that starts at Dee Why Surf Club and ends at The Newport Arms Hotel.

By Marissa Toohey

theBubbleBuster reaches 18 months

9 Sep

It’s been 18 months since I posted my first words as theBubbleBuster.

I've shared a few embarrassing moments and photos! Pictured is my sunburn from the Mount Fuji climb - ouch!

During those months I’ve climbed Mount Fuji in Japan, photographed “Mount Doom” in New Zealand, scuba dived in Fiji, partied on Sentosa Island, lived in Vietnam, convinced my parents to join me on their first overseas journey, explored a township devastated by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, and also explored many emotional and physical changes as a result of some of these activities.

I have shared intimate thoughts and honest perspectives through many of these posts, which were always received by my readers with warmth and with encouragement. To each of you, I express sincere thanks.

To celebrate my success in continuing theBubbleBuster and with followers who actually enjoy reading it(!), I’ve collated the most honest and popular posts for your enjoyment. Here it goes:

You can browse all past blog posts via the Archive page. Do you have another favourite? Please share it with me in the comment box below.

By Marissa Toohey

For the love of diving

6 Sep

Despite popular belief, scuba diving is not generally about getting a rush of adrenalin. It’s about the feeling of weightlessness, the soothing rhythm of blowing bubbles, the stunning topography and fascinating interactions with underwater creatures. If you don’t believe me, just see for yourself …

This is the Great Barrier Reef which has over 1,500 species of fish.

I never get tired of diving with green sea turtles.

During a certain time of the year, you can dive with manta rays at North Stradbroke Island in Queensland.

If you study underwater landscapes closely, you find creatures that blend in with their surroundings, like this spotted porcupine fish.

Most people are afraid of grey nurse sharks but the species is not life-threatening to humans. They move slow and steady and often swim up nice and close.

You can now keep up to date with my diving expeditions around Australia and overseas through my partner’s website. Shea goes diving almost every single week so the website will be updated regularly. In addition, he recently bought an impressive new underwater photography kit so it’s about to get even better!

By Marissa Toohey

From a long journey to a single piece of paper

30 Aug

During the weekend I caught up with several members of my “Vietnam family” in Melbourne to reminisce and provide feedback to the organisers of our overseas assignments. As a reflection exercise, the event organisers asked us to illustrate significant moments throughout our time abroad.

An illustration of significant challenges and milestones during my assignment in Vietnam

I’m no Monet, so let me break it down for you: it was a bloody big year! It started like a party (represented by a karaoke microphone at the top of the drawing that looks like an ice cream) and there was plenty of time on the toilet as a result of my bad reaction to seafood and, well, stress from culture shock. I threw in a couple of computers to demonstrate that I actually worked when I wasn’t socialising or travelling. Really, I did.

In contrast, the bottom half of my drawing only signals a few of the challenges and questions I experienced as I removed the rose-coloured glasses and my understanding of Vietnam deepened. Flooding, poverty, censorship and language frustrations were just a few of the issues that caused me to question my position and future plans.

The problem was, I needed a larger piece of paper than I planned …

Indonesia’s underwater safari: Lembeh Strait

1 May

Diving closely behind our guide, we wait excitedly for him to reveal unusual creatures hiding in the dark volcanic sand of Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi. Using a long thin rod, he gently shifts the sand before us as he detects movement underneath. Suddenly a frenzy of goofy legs and arms spring into sight and we see one of the underwater creatures Lembeh is famous for: a wonderpus octopus.

Lembeh is different to other diving destinations because it doesn’t attract people for spectacular reefs or crystal clear water. In fact, the water is littered with incomprehensible amounts of rubbish. What Lembeh offers, though, are some of the most unusual and interesting underwater creatures on Earth and, in only around 15m depth, they’re accessible even for beginner divers.

Let me introduce you to some intriguing creatures I saw during my recent trip to Lembeh in Indonesia, with photography by Shea Pletz.

Hairy frogfish are difficult to find because of their camouflaged appearance.

Coconut octopus use coconuts and seashells for shelter.

Pygmy seahorses, only around 10mm long, are found 30m deep at Lembeh.

Stargazers bury themselves in sand and wait to attack prey above them.

Flying gurnards spread their wings and walk along the sea floor.

Ornate pipefish are rare and difficult to find.

Dwarf lionfish are as beautiful and attractive as they are venomous.

Covered in dark volcanic sand, it's difficult to tell which type of scorpion fish this is.

Pygmy seahorses blend in with the fans they cling to.

Other strange creatures you can encounter in Lembeh include: mimic octopus which contort their bodies and change colour to mimic other creatures; flamboyant cuttlefish which have long arm suckers that are brightly coloured; rhinopias which use camouflage to blend in with their surroundings; and juvenile batfish of a number of varieties.

How to get there
Lembeh is around one hour drive from Manado airport in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Flights go to Manado daily from Singapore and other domestic locations.

Where to stay
I stayed at Twofish Diver’s Resort on Lembeh Island. The resort is designed to cater for recreational divers and offers packages including daily dives and meals. Twofish also operate a resort on nearby Bunaken Island and arrange transfers and packages for both locations.

By Marissa Toohey

Helping vulnerable elephants in Thailand

18 Apr

Their skin looks tough and dry but the touch of an Asian elephant warms your insides. Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, north Thailand, allows you to care for dozens of beautiful elephants that have been injured and vulnerable in the wild. I recently volunteered at the park and got some video footage while feeding the elephants, bathing them, and watching them thrive in safe open spaces. Check it out below.

By Marissa Toohey

Laos, rich in many ways

31 Mar

South East Asia’s poorest nation economically is perhaps its richest in charm. Sprinkled with mountains and topped with endearing villages of wooden houses, Laos’ landscape is as stunning as it is difficult to travel across.

A small town en route from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang.

Dirt roads that wind around and around hilltops cause endless bus trips but panoramic vistas of jungles and riverbanks make hours in transit worth every minute of patience. The country reportedly earns around half its annual revenue through tourism, though, so while transport can be grueling, the country makes up in ample travel services including professional tour operators and competitive guest houses which are flexible to the needs of spontaneous backpackers.

You don’t need to plan an escape to Laos. Just apply for a visa upon arrival (at the time of publishing) and then succumb to the treats the nation offers as you move about, remaining open to the idea of lingering in townships which earn a special place in your heart.

Highlights

1. The Gibbon Experience is an ecotourism adventure for thrill seekers. Developed to raise funds for the protection of threatened Gibbon monkeys in Bokeo Nature Reserve in northern Laos, The Gibbon Experience offers an exciting combination of tree houses, trekking and zip-lines over 150 metres high!

Luang Prabang is one of the most beautiful places in Laos.

2. Teeming with temples, monks, and surrounded by rice paddies and Hmong villages, Luang Prabang is nirvana for travellers seeking natural beauty and local encounters. Go trekking to small villages, swimming at waterfalls, learn to become an elephant mahout or hire a motorbike and explore the wonders of the many mountains around.

3. There’s one destination in Laos which individuals either rate top priority or avoid like the plague. Vang Vieng is the home of “tubing”. Rent a rubber ring from the centre of town and float along the local river, stopping for cheap drinks at riverside bars. Beware of rope swings and people drinking “mushy” shakes.

Considered the most important sight in Laos: Wat Pha That Luang at Vientiane.

4. Vientiane has long been branded “one of the most boring capital cities in the world” but it offers the weary traveller a peaceful break with quiet streets and quaint restaurants. A modern boulevard is currently being constructed along the Mekong River and is set to be a beautiful and entertaining strip.

By Marissa Toohey

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