“Down South”: Beaches, books, and more

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I’ve learned in Sri Lanka that I’m more of a “mountains and rivers” and less “beaches and palm trees” kind of girl. That said, I have spent more time on the beach in the past few months than I thought I’d ever spend on the beach in the course of my entire lifetime. The beaches in the southern part of the island are generally quite accessible to me in Colombo thanks to a new highway. Nowadays it takes only two hours to get to Matara, for example, and before the highway that trip could take several hours along the coastal road.

I’ve also learned in Sri Lanka that, while I love the amenities a city provides, I also am a country girl at heart and need to get out of the hustle and bustle (and honking horns and traffic) quite often to keep myself enjoying the city life. So because it’s quick escape from city living in Colombo, I’m learning to love the beaches down south. I say “learning to love” because I still love my mountains and rivers but I’ve grown to appreciate the unique gifts of coastal getaways, despite my extremely sunburn-prone skin (I’m recovering from a burn as I write this) and the propensity for sand to migrate home with me from the beach only to inexplicably turn up in my bed (WHY??).

The south has not just provided me with a beaches but also with some fun activities, too. Here’s a round-up of some of my weekend excursions in the south over the past few months:

Dalawella beach

Towards the end of last year, some friends and I got into our heads that we should rent a villa with a pool near the beach. And, honestly, it was the best idea ever because it felt very luxurious but was actually reasonably priced because we brought most of our own food and split the cost of the house evenly. It was relaxing and wonderful to have time by the pool during the day and then venture out to the beach for sunset. It was a very low-key weekend but I think back to it fondly (except for the *wonderful* tuk-tuk drivers who ripped us off on the way there… but what to do?).

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Hanging out on the giant rock on the beach (some people went higher but I 100% chickened out!)

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The after-thunderstorm sunset was breathtaking on the beach

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We rented a villa with a pool! Such luxury!

Whale watching in Mirissa

For my friend’s last weekend in Sri Lanka, we decided to finally invest in seeing some whales. I say “invest” because it’s one of the pricier activities you can do in the south. I wanted to make sure I went with a reputable company that treats with the whales with the respect they deserve and I also wanted to make sure I was safe on a boat in the middle of the ocean so that meant going with a more expensive option.

At dawn, we were picked up from our hotel (a rather… interesting… establishment in nearby Weligama, where we had spent our Saturday lounging on the beach). Then we were shepherded onto the whale watching boat, which was much bigger than I expected, and given breakfast while we went about an hour out into the ocean, until it was deep enough to find the whales. Sri Lanka has a variety of whales that you can see but we were looking in particular for blue whales – the biggest mammals on Earth!

It took a bit but eventually we saw a few for ourselves. Because they are so big, they don’t breach the water like humpbacks or other smaller whales could. Furthermore, they are more shy and less curious than some other species so even though they are massive, they can be more challenging to find. When we did find them, it was amazing to see their backs come up out of the water and then see their tails as they dove into the depths again. We also saw approximately a billion dolphins on our way back to land, which was truly breathtaking.

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Late afternoon on Weligama beach, a favourite spot for surfers in Sri Lanka

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Caught the sunrise in Mirissa while heading out to find some whales

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Breakfast on the boat started with a HUGE plate of fresh fruits

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One of the whales we saw as it dove into the ocean (photo by Raja & the whales, the company we went out with)

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Some of the hundreds and hundreds of dolphins we saw on our way back in (photo by Raja & the whales, the company we went out with)

Galle Literary Festival in Galle Fort

People who know me know I’m a little more than extra nerdy about books and reading and it’s only gotten worse in Sri Lanka with my newfound love of audiobooks. So when I learned that there is an international literary festival in Sri Lanka, I was sure to visit! The festival is in Galle in January each year. I went earlier this year and stayed inside the fort to have easy access to all the events. I spent Friday afternoon, the whole day on Saturday, and then Sunday morning in Galle, attending events with authors like Christina Lamb, John Gimlette, Shyam Selvadurai and more. I also watched the sunset each night – which is spectacular from the fort walls – and, of course, I indulged in all my favourite Galle fort treats like fruity gelato, fancy ice teas, and I even took myself out for a fancy Sunday brunch by the sea at Jetwing Lighthouse hotel.

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One of the many beautiful sea views in Galle

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Cute outdoor hang-out area set up by the festival

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One of the AMAZING performances I saw during the festival

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I also had the honour of hearing Sri Lanka’s first Everest mountaineers speak about their climb in May 2016

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The Galle fort walls are one of my favourite places to catch a Sri Lankan sunset

Hikkaduwa

It took me a long time to finally get myself to Hikkaduwa but eventually one too many friends shared photos of themselves with sea turtles that I simply had to get myself down there. I visited friends in Matara on Saturday. We browsed beautiful batik at Jez-Look Batik and ate dinner by the ocean at Dutchman’s Street in Fort Matara. Then, on Sunday, I took the morning train to Hikkaduwa. When I got there, I immediately went for a long walk on the beach… at high sun… without sunscreen… (I’m really smart.) So after acquiring myself quite a lovely sunburn, I spent the rest of the day under palm trees reading and chatting with friends. Oh, and we all finally got to see Sri Lanka’s sea turtles! After seeing smaller sea turtles in Borneo at Christmas when I went snorkeling for the first time, I needed to see some again. They are so amazing and the ones at Hikkaduwa are so big and wonderful. It might have even been worth the sunburn.

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Very green view from my friends’ balcony in Matara

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Hikkaduwa beach (Taken as I accidentally baked in the sun… oops! Remember to wear sunscreen ALL THE TIME in Sri Lanka, folks)

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GIANT SEA TURTLE! So beautiful and amazing!

Here’s to more beautiful beach time in the future!

Even more stairs: Things I’ve climbed in 2017

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After hiking Mount Kinabalu at Christmas last year, I wanted to find some more hikes closer to home in Sri Lanka. The central hills of Sri Lanka are prime hiking areas so I thought I’d find lots of hiking to do there and also in some other parts of the country. And I did! Yay! Here are some stories from the hikes I’ve done in 2017 so far:

Utuwankanda (January 2017):

This rock is famous for it’s epic history: the nineteenth century Robin Hood of Sri Lanka, Saradiel, used the top as a lookout. He would see the caravans of British goods coming down Kandy Road and then loot! The hike up this rock is only about a half hour. It is not particularly hard except at the end where you have to do some scrambling to get the best views. Once you’re at the top, you’re pretty high up so it looks like you worked really, really hard to get there (but you didn’t!). 

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On top of Utuwankanda

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Another view from the top of Utuwankanda

Adam’s Peak (February 2017):

I know I said I did not enjoy hiking Adam’s Peak the first time (and it’s still very true that I didn’t) but I had the opportunity to go up a second time, this time during the pilgrimage season, so I took the opportunity to go on this adventure with friends. Adam’s Peak is the second-tallest mountain in the country and it’s an important place for people of all religions in the country. Different religions believe the rock formation at the top is the footprint of an important figure. For Christians and Muslims, it’s the footprint of St. Thomas or Adam. For Buddhists, it’s the footprint of Buddha. For Hindus, it’s the footprint of Shiva. This is to say that during the pilgrimage season almost every person in Sri Lanka wants to climb Adam’s Peak.

So when I went again, it was on a Saturday night… a weekend… and a holiday even (it was Sri Lanka’s national day)… during the busiest season… This meant approximately ten thousand people were climbing it at the same time. The stifling crowds were the most anxiety-inducing experience of my time in Sri Lanka so far. After being pancaked for hours on the stairs in the middle of the night, we didn’t quite make it to the top (because we just couldn’t take another few hours fighting through crowds). If pressed, I would say it was nonetheless a worthwhile experience because we took the long hike back down, which was quite beautiful, though admittedly very long and hot. In all, we walked about twenty-five kilometres from about 1:30AM to 12:30PM that night.

While it was fascinating to be a part of the pilgrimage, I really wouldn’t recommend hiking on a weekend holiday during the season. It was much nicer in November when the “crowd” was approximately three hundred people. And even then, Adam’s Peak isn’t a really a hike, just a really long staircase comprised of thousands and thousands of uneven stairs. That said, you can’t beat the sunrise view at the top.

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The triangular shadow of Adam’s Peak (I didn’t get to see this last time!)

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Didn’t make it to the top because of crowds, but the view for sunrise was still pretty great!

Bible Rock (February 2017):

Bible Rock is so named because of its distinctive shape that makes it look like a giant open book / Bible. I’ve wanted to hike it since I first saw it from the road en route to Kandy. It took me a while to get around to it but I was finally able to climb it last month. And… it was an alright hike. Most of the hike was up a very, very steep concrete road. It was not a fun or comfortable walk, especially since we started mid-day (aka in high heat). Also, it was strange to “hike” up a road when every now and then a tuk-tuk would putt past or a person living in the area strolled by carrying washing that had been done in the water source at the bottom of the hill. (Because of the severe drought here right now, all the nearby water sources like rivers have dried up so the people who live in the houses up that road must go down to the bottom and then carry it back up every time they need water, as they do not have running water at home).

After “hiking” up the road for quite a while, we finally reached a trail. The trail was quite short, though, because we’d climbed up most of the way already on the road. After a brief scramble up some stairs cut into the rock, we emerged on top. The top is remarkably wide, taking about ten minutes to walk from one end to the other. (The view from one end shows the scars on the side of one of the hill, the result of one of last year’s many landslides. Landslides and flooding came about a year ago during the floods from a tropical storm that caused the deaths of many people in affected areas.) There is a small Buddhist temple on one end of the top and, on the other end, there are big rocks that provided us shade while we hung out up there, enjoying the view and resting before our descent.

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From the top of Bible Rock

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Hanging off the edge! (But don’t worry, Mum and Dad! We were safe!)

Horton Plains (March 2017):

The hikes in Horton Plains National Park are some of the few in the country that provides some flat-land hiking. Most hikes in Sri Lanka seem to be motivated by climbing to the top of some big rock or hill. In general, I haven’t found even one hike motivated by “it’s pretty here so let’s just walk around” because even in Horton Plains, you go for the view at what is called “World’s End”. Don’t get me wrong, climbing up things is fun because of the views (Sri Lanka’s hills are extraordinarily beautiful) and that fulfilling sense of accomplishment when you get to the top… But sometimes you want some variation! (If you know any non-“up then down” hikes in Sri Lanka, please let me know!)

Anyways, I loved Horton Plains. I had waited a long time to complete this particular bucket list item because I wanted to take the train there but trains can be impossible to book, especially on long weekends. These tickets are in such high demand because between Kandy and Ella (which this park falls between) is Sri Lanka’s most famous train journey, filled with incredible views of the hills and tea plantations along the way. Luckily, I actually ended up coming to this area for work. We had a training in Nuwara Eliya (a good place for everyone from all over the country to meet in because it’s pretty central) and then we all went to Horton Plains at the end of the training as a team building activity / thank you for sitting through two solid days of intense training on social sustainability programming.

The hike is gorgeous and the landscape in Horton Plains is so unique to the rest of the country. It was certainly one of my favourite places I’ve been to in Sri Lanka so far. It’s called “plains” because there are areas that look like open plains, which are so unusual in this part of Sri Lanka. Along the way here, you also hike through some dense forest and there are hills all around you when you reach the lookouts (there’s a reason it’s called “World’s End!). It’s a wonderful place to visit and I think I might go back for a longer hike that I’ve heard rumours of from another volunteer who also has the hiking bug.

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World’s End at Horton Plains

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The view from a little higher up at World’s End! (We were lucky to have such clear skies!)

Little Adam’s Peak (March 2017):

While we were planning the training in Nuwara Eliya and the visit to Horton Plains, I was chatting with another volunteer who suggested I take a day off work to go from Nuwara Eliya to Ella afterwards because I’d mentioned I wanted to do the second of two popular hikes in Ella. In November when Aurora visited, I hiked Ella Rock (still one of my favourite hikes in the country) but we didn’t have time to also hike Little Adam’s Peak, a hill across the valley from Ella Rock that boasts some amazing views from the top, too.

I decided to take the advice and visit Ella again after Nuwara Eliya. This time, I booked myself a “fancy” train ticket on the privately run ExpoRail car, which is fancy because you get served water, tea, and food and get air conditioning and an outdoor observation area. I took this train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella (about five hours) on a Sunday and stayed overnight in Ella that night. The next morning, I woke up around sunrise, put on my hiking gear, and walked to the base of Little Adam’s Peak. The walk there was fine, mostly road and then a private path through a tea plantation, which gave me gorgeous views of the sunrise illuminating Ella Rock. The climb up Little Adam’s Peak, though, is exactly like Adam’s Peak: ALL STAIRS. But this time it was all stairs for about ten minutes only and then you’re at the top so it was much less mentally taxing to climb. 

When I got to the top, the clouds had come it and I couldn’t see anything, nothing of the beautiful view I knew was hidden behind the mist. I was a little sad but I figured I had seen the view from the other side in November so I left to go see the nearby famous Nine Arch Bridge instead of waiting around for the clouds to clear (which could take a while). I walked to see this beautiful bridge (built during the British colonial period) and then walked back to Little Adam’s Peak on my way back to Ella town. My train home wasn’t until later that day and it wasn’t even mid-morning yet… So I decided to climb up the stairs again to see if I could get the view. And this time, it was perfectly clear! I was greeted with a spectacular view of the valley below and Ella Rock on the other side. I was tired after climbing twice in about an hour (as well as from the hike to and from the bridge) but I think it was very worth it so I’m happy I spent the energy going up again. Besides, I got to rest my legs for the rest of the day on the ten hour train journey back to Colombo (which was a very beautiful journey that was also very, very long so thank goodness for Audiobooks to keep me distracted and entertained!). 

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The spectacular Nine Arch Bridge

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Little Adam’s Peak stairs… Sri Lankan hiking often involves an extraordinary amount of stairs

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Second time was the charm! Clear skies after a gloomy first run up the stairs. (That’s Ella Rock behind me!)

Christmas above the clouds: December 2016 trip to Malaysia

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About a week after I traveled to Thailand, I was yet again in the Bandaranaike International Airport fighting through crowds to get to my gate. This time I was flying to Kuala Lumpur, then on to Kota Kinabalu for some Christmas holiday adventures in Malaysian Borneo. After a not-at-all-fun overnight flight from Colombo (turns out Air Asia flights are never fun), I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport around 6AM. I paid to store my backpack in the terminal so I didn’t have to carry it around the city with me and then I spent the day exploring before my evening flight to Kota Kinabalu.

I found myself a train ticket to get me to the famous Batu Caves, which house Hindu temples. I climbed the billion stairs to the top and then explored inside the main cave. Even though it wasn’t the most breathtaking place, it was nonetheless a very unique worshipping space and I’m glad I took the time to visit. After, I hopped in an Uber and visited the nearby Kanching Falls. It’s a series of seven waterfalls in a lovely park could have used a cleaning (although I have a feeling that the monkeys were responsible for spreading trash from the bins). I climbed all the way to the top waterfall (all the while hoping that the rumours I’d heard about purse-snatching up there were unfounded). It was extremely hot and humid and pretty soon sweat was pouring off me, which made me long to swim in the falls like some of the other visitors. Sadly, I didn’t have a swimsuit so I just wandered about and took in the scenery (and spent my time mostly dodging the monkeys…).

To get back to city centre, I took a local bus that picked me up from the highway. I had some time so I figured this wouldn’t be an issue even if it took a long time. I was right, thankfully, and I eventually made my way into KL central area, with the help of some of the free shuttles sponsored by the government (if you go to KL, be sure to check them out because they are quite convenient!). While I waited for my friend Julia to arrive in KL – she had been traveling in southeast asia for a month so was meeting me in Malaysia – I also visited the famous Petronas Towers and one of the markets in the area.

Julia and I finally met at the bottom of Kuala Lumpur Tower. We paid the (exorbitant) fee to ride the elevator to the top to see the city of KL laid out beneath us and tried to catch up on all that we had missed since seeing each other last about three weeks before. At the top of KL tower, we had both expected the viewing platforms to be very secure, with cages keeping people from throwing things down below or even falling from the top like what you would see at the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada… but there was none of that at the top of this very tall tower. Instead, there were just simple glass barrier walls that seemed secure enough for use at a mall but not safe enough for what is (I repeat) a very tall tower. We nonetheless explored the viewing platforms but neither of us could truly brave the glass boxes with glass floors that jutted out from either side of the tower. We spent enough time at the top to take in the view and take some photos and then we hurried down because there was a rather large thunderstorm approaching from one side, the lightning threatening to strike anything very tall in the area (like, perhaps, the tower we were standing on…).

By that point in the afternoon, it was time for us to venture back to the airport. We collected our bags from the luggage storage service and then boarded our flight to Kota Kinabalu. After a short flight, we arrived in Kota Kinabalu quite late on Christmas Eve and collapsed into bed at Borneo Backpackers. We needed our sleep because we were climbing a mountain the next day! We woke up around 5AM on Christmas morning, grumbling that we definitely didn’t get enough sleep for the long hike ahead of us. We groggily pulled on our hiking clothes, ate a quick breakfast, and were met at the front of our hostel by a van.

The van took us to the base of Mount Kinabalu, which we would climb over the next two days. Mount Kinabalu is 4095 metres tall and can be summitted in two days. On Christmas day, we hiked up and up and up on a simple path for about five hours. We stopped a couple of times for snacks, lunch, and some water but we always missed the views on the way up because of the mist. (We prayed it would not be misty the next day for our summit so we could get a clear sunrise and pretty views for our descent.) The hike was challenging but not too strenuous and it was fun to greet all the hikers with a smile and “Merry Christmas!” Certainly a Christmas day to remember.

When we reached the hostel that we would rest at before summitting, we were a bit tired but more hungry than anything else. Thankfully, the hostel has some excellent food and comfy beds. And, in celebration of Christmas, Julia and I bought a beer apiece and said “Cheers!” as a man dressed as Santa Claus gave all us weary hikers candy. It was fun and silly and kept everyone’s spirits up for the holiday. The hostel didn’t have hot water that day because the sun wasn’t out enough for the solar panels to warm the water so we each only had a very short shower before climbing into bed and resting until about 1:30AM, when we awoke to begin our summit.

The summit started out with lots and lots and lots of stairs then slowly morphed into a hike on rock. Again, we climbed up and up and up. Julia and I felt strong and we eventually made it towards the front of the pack. When we looked down, we could see a trail of lights beneath us from the headlamps of everyone climbing up that morning. The air was a bit thinner up there but I still felt pretty solid and felt thankful I was hiking with Julia because it was nice to have someone to push with. We reached the summit just around quarter to five in the morning… and we were the first team at the top!

It felt like such an accomplishment… but it meant that we had to wait in the freezing wind for longer than everyone else. I wish I had brought with me warmer clothes but I survived (and Julia survived my complaining with a remarkable amount of patience – thank you!). Thankfully, the sunrise was worth the frigid wait! We knew the skies were clear because we saw the stars on the way up and so we were lucky enough to see the full sunrise from the summit of the mountain. It was beautiful and such a great atmosphere because everyone at the top was congratulating each other on making it up to the top. I’ve never done anything like that before so it felt like such a rewarding moment.

Once it was light enough, we began the descent back to the hostel. It was fun seeing where we had hiked a couple of hours before in the dark. With the sun up, we could see everything and it was extraordinarily beautiful! We kept repeating, “This is the best Christmas ever!” (Side-note for family reading this: I missed you, I promise!) and we took approximately ninety million photos (even though our phones kept shutting down because of the cold!).

At the hostel again, we ate a huge breakfast (our third meal in about twelve hours because we had eaten before the summit, at around 2AM), then grabbed our things and headed back down. When we reached the bottom, I was truly exhausted but also exhilarated. The whole hike was a very cool experience! (But I needed about 24 hours of sleep by the end of it.)

The next day back in Kota Kinabalu, Julia set off for her Open Water PADI diving course and, since I had decided not to do my PADI this time, I set off to do other things. Over the next few days, Julia successfully completed her PADI and fell in love with diving and, even though I kind of regret not completing it with her, I still did some pretty cool things with my time there. I paraglided from Kokol Hill, ziplined between two islands, snorkeled with sea turtles and so many kinds of fish and coral in the Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park, and spent an afternoon hiking around one of the islands in the area.

After this short time in Kota Kinabalu, we flew back to KL, where we met our friend Maree, who had flown in from Australia. We all took a bus and then ferry to Pangkor Island, where we met Maree’s friend who had flown in from Nepal and her aunt from Australia. We spent just a couple of nights there and during this time, we mostly hung out on the beach, ate delicious curries and soups, and watched the sun set in bursts of yellow, orange, and red. It was a lot of travel to get there and back but I’m still glad we went because it was a pretty cool place to ring in the New Year before flying back to our respective homes in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Australia.

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The main temple at Batu Caves

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Photobomb-ing the Petronas Towers

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On top of KL Tower, inside the glass box

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Thunderstorm approaching! On top of KL Tower

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Sunrise at the summit of Mount Kinabalu

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Sunrise part 2!

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Amazing views from the top

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So beautiful up there!

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One of the ferries that brings people from Kota Kinabalu to the TAR marine park islands

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Shallow clear waters between two of the TAR marine park islands

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End of the island-to-island zipline

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View from the top of Kokol Hill before paragliding

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Paragliding! (with pilot Chris)

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Beautiful beach on Pangkor Island

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Sunset on Pangkor

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Merry Christmas! (I know… I know… it’s March! Took me a while to write this… oops!)