"Is This Real?"
This story actually starts after a lunch break at my corporate job, 9 months ago.
I remember staring at my office computer background as I logged back in after grabbing a quick bite. Beyond the little symbols for Microsoft Word, Excel, and Outlook, there it was: a picture of the Phi Phi islands, with their towering limestone formations and perfect green-turquoise waters.
I literally just kept looking at it, almost like if I focused hard enough, I might just be transported there.
“Someday” I thought, before the phone rang and I was whisked from my daydream back to the daily grind at the office.
You could say Thailand was on my mind, but it was more than that. I had seen so many creators’ photos and videos of Southeast Asia, and was ready to get there myself, and capture these incredible places through my own lens.
I felt I was going soon. I wasn’t sure when or how, but I was going.
At this same time Nick was working a typical 9-5 job as a bank examiner. Driving through rural Iowa farm towns and auditing banks, he would comb through mountains of paperwork and verify checklist after checklist. Needless to say, this didn’t last there long. Nick had decided to focus his spare time on photography and videography, an interest that had always provided a creative outlet.
Fast forward 4 months, and I came across a contest on Instagram for the second time. The first time I dismissed it without thought, but the second time…I just couldn’t ignore it.
A lot had already changed, and I was no longer at the office. Instead, I was seeing this contest after a quick swim in the azure waters of the Caribbean, cooling off after a long day of filming in Playa del Carmen. I had taken the leap. Quit my job, made a 6-month time investment in my video and photo skills, and was traveling around the Yucatan Peninsula filming. I mean, even just reading that back it sounds like a Facebook commercial to sign up for a webinar…right?
Yes, I was in paradise, but there were no Ferraris and 4-story luxury villas. Truth was, I was living on a budget, filming and editing 10-14 hours a day, and spending long nights learning new techniques. I was getting to do what I love while exploring a dream destination, which you absolutely cannot beat. Later that week some dude named Nick Payne from my filmmaking group was coming through Playa, so we were planning on meeting up and filming a little bit.
So back to this contest, was it too good to be true? There was a company called Hey Dude Shoes offering to send two content creators to not only Thailand, but also the Philippines and Bali. I was stoked with what I was capturing in Mexico, but in the back of my mind I was still thinking about Southeast Asia.
I was eating a burrito at one of my favorite taquerias in Playa when Nick and I found out we won.
Completely epic, both the burrito and the news!
I was stoked on another level and with that we were on our way! I packed up my things in Mexico, flew to Chicago, and those comfortable shoes arrived in the mail. April 1st rolled around and a couple long flights later Nick and I landed in Bangkok.
Bangkok was a blur of busy traffic, colorful Tuk Tuks, incredible Buddhist temples, and discovering Pad See Ew which we then wanted to try it at every restaurant. The list of activities also included catching a Muay Thai fight night and getting a Thai massage which was WAY too intense, my back hurt for 2 days after.
I’d always wanted to go see the Golden Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, so that was at the top of my list for Bangkok. I also had my favorite meditation session of the whole trip at the temple grounds there, so that entire experience was epic.
What definitely stood out to me the most from Bangkok was Wat Samphran (the Dragon Temple). We found out about it last second when Nick saw a picture of it on Instagram, so we immediately decided to go for our last day and it ended up being one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.
It’s a 17-story structure that is wrapped in the grip of a massive dragon that curls around the entire building, from top to bottom. Climbing to the top of the temple through the dragon’s belly to see the view from up above was like something out of a fantasy novel. The temple is still quite unknown to the extent when we spoke to the staff at our hotel before leaving, they hadn’t even heard of it. The lack of tourists definitely contributed to a greater sense of tranquility while there and also added more to the mystery and grandeur of the temple. I’m beyond grateful that we had the chance to see it as we did because I’m sure that one day it will be more widely known and much busier.
We saw the smog on arrival in Chiang Mai. We had been warned that burning season was going on in Myanmar and that the pollution would drift over the border into the valleys of Chiang Mai, forcing everyone to wear masks. We saw the smog upon arrival in Chiang Mai and when the sun would set, it would fade from a perfect orange to red, all the while burning its way through the thick haze before it’s last pink light gave way to the night sky.
If ever we needed a breath of fresh, there truly was no better place to be than Chiang Mai because we knew what awaited.
Hanging with ELEPHANTS.
Our day in the Elephant Eco Park was definitely one of my top 3 days of the trip. There were so many highlights, from baby Jackie trying to playfully tackle everyone with his trunk while we were giving him a shower in the river, to feeding all the elephants pounds and pounds of bananas and taking 60-year-old Moto out for his walk through the scenic valley. It was awesome to see how free and protected the elephants were in the park we visited and how they genuinely interacted with us out of curiosity and friendship.
While waiting at the airport before heading to the Philippines, I got hungry after seeing Nick eating a cheeseburger and hit up a food stand without realizing that our flight was about to board in 10 minutes. Big mistake because this was literally the spiciest food I ordered all trip long.
I took one bite of the “street food inspired” dish and my mouth was on fire. You know when the food is super spicy but also like 150 degrees hot? Like hot and also spicy hot? This checked all the boxes.
It was then that I saw the MANY sliced red Thai chillies among the chicken and I immediately walked to the Krispy Kreme next to our table looking for anything to cool off my mouth when Nick heard them call for us to board our flight.
I could’ve just left it, but it also tasted so good and I was hungry. I haven’t ever felt the burn like I did trying to finish off that huge bowl of food in 10 minutes, but I got it done and your boy didn’t even need a Tums.
Our bags got lost on arrival in Cebu, but we were super fortunate they were delivered to us by evening that same day. We spent the afternoon exploring the city a bit and then geared up for a big next two days.
It was here, that Nick overcame one of his biggest fears, swimming with sharks. Granted, we swam with whale sharks who are literally nicknamed “gentle giants,” but to someone who has a lifetime phobia of these sea beasts, all logic goes out the window. After being in the water for 10 minutes, we finally started to relax and fully embrace the experience. From swimming with whale sharks in Oslob to seeing Tarsiers (one of the world’s smallest monkeys!) in Bohol to floating around in the turquoise waters of Kawasan Falls, our time in and around Cebu was so epic.
My favorite spot of them all ended up being Tumalog Falls, which was actually more like an add on to the trip. When we arrived at the waterfall, our guide told us we’d stop by here really quick for 20 minutes to take some pictures and then head out. Instead, we stayed for over an hour and I could’ve stayed all day. The height and the flows of the waterfall made it so epic and there was barely anyone there. It seemed like something out of a movie. I mean, I have driven around and hiked to almost all the major waterfalls around Tennessee and nothing even came close to this. Walking out to where the water hit the base of the falls and feeling its weight as it washed over me was pretty special. Watching the birds fly through the mist at the top of the falls with the sunlight peeking through made for some truly epic scenery.
Honestly, there were multiple times in the Philippines when I reflected at the end of the day on what we’d seen and gotten to do and just had gratitude wash over me like the waters of Tumalog Falls.
I have a list on my phone of places that I want to visit and experiences that I want to have in my lifetime and for the last two years, there was this place called Kalangamman Island on that list. I had seen a video about it a while back and threw it on knowing it was one of the more isolated, long shot spots on my list. Well just so happens, Kalangamman Island is actually a part of the Philippines and with over 7000 islands this one just happened to be on our itinerary.
Kalangamman Island is a bright white sandbar that reaches far out into the ocean, with turquoise water surrounding it on all sides. If they needed to put a picture in the dictionary with the definition for paradise, a photo of Kalangamman would be perfect.
There really isn’t much that words can describe better than seeing drone shots of this place. If all that wasn’t epic enough, a pod of dolphins swam with the boat on our way back.
Thank you, Philippines. You were legit.
B: Blew my mind
A: Amazing nature
L: (3) Level KFC?!
I: Insane sunsets/Indra is the man!
The people you meet along the way on any trip or journey have a huge impact on your perceptions and experience. Bali had some of the friendliest locals I’ve ever met. I have to give a massive shout-out to our friend Indra, who drove us to a bunch of places, from Ubud to Uluwatu and more. Getting to know him during our time in Bali was awesome and he was always sharing details about the traditions, daily life, and history of his island and people. It’s so cool to see the pride that Balinese people take in their island and its beautiful nature, which really shines through with everyone you meet.
There was a 3-level KFC in Bali with glass windows all the way up. This was the fanciest KFC I’ve ever seen in my life. They don’t look anything like that back in Nashville nor in Kentucky for that matter, Colonel Sanders would be proud.
The Sacred Monkey Sanctuary in Ubud was one of the coolest places I’ve ever been because as soon as you enter, you know that you’re in the monkey’s territory. This is their kingdom. They go where they please, jump on you when they want, and would love to swipe your camera, sunglasses, or anything shiny.
Trees covered in vines tower well over 100 feet forming a canopy above that the sunlight filters through. There are monkey statues everywhere, covered in moss, with plants growing all around them, as if you’ve just discovered them while wandering through an ancient forest.
I now understand why people rave about Kelingking Beach after visiting. It’s raw and yet perfect, like a diamond that doesn’t even need to be cut.
The path to reach the beach below speaks to that. It’s steep, it’s rocky, and the wooden and bamboo railings don’t instill too much confidence that they’ll hold. Getting to the bottom revealed more than just incredible scenery. It made me feel small, Like the same kind of small I feel when I skydive and see the semi-trucks on the interstate looking like little ants when I’m parachuting down. To see the cliffs rising behind me and the sheer power of the waves right in front of me felt like I was in nature’s domain. That’s when the rugged beauty of the entire landscape really hit home. It was one of those places where you turn around in a circle a couple of times while looking up because there is something to see on all sides, but you can’t take it all in just your first time around.
I only got to jump into the water for like 2 minutes because I was filming or flying the drone the whole time, but man did that moment define “doing what you love”.
That was also when I remembered that we needed to be back at the car by 4pm to catch the last boat by 5pm and it was already 3:40. BIG MISTAKE.
The climb down took about 30-35 minutes and the climb back up was going to be way harder, especially with all the gear on my back.
I remember passing like 5 people near the bottom and by the time I reached the top, I looked back, and they were still not more than halfway up. My shirt was soaked in sweat, breathing was ragged, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t cramped up. I immediately bought a water bottle from the nearest store and downed it faster than a Bugatti can go zero to sixty.
Then I head to the parking lot and hopped in the car by 4:05. Overall, it was worth it, but I suggest planning better than I did and do not try the climb up like it’s an American Ninja Warrior speed course.
Chalk that up to another experience I’ll never forget, a beach I’ll never forget, and to living a life full of making memories.
Thank you Hey Dude Shoes for being more than a company that makes super comfortable shoes, but truly takes people anywhere. Y’all said it would be the trip of a lifetime and it sure delivered.
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