Breaking up with Asia

Well here it is, the end. I’ve procrastinated writing this post for a few reasons. 1) because one of my most unfortunate qualities is that I have procrastinated everything my entire life 2) because this post marks the definitive end of my adventures across Asia, a fact that I have been woefully ignoring 3) because I feel an overwhelming need to justify my 5 month experience in one final post, a task which I am completely incapable of. That being said, here we go!

Before I get too deep (yeah, we’re getting deep today friends), let me tell you about my final week in Asia! I think I use this particular adjective too much, and it’s a loaded word, but here I go again- my last week in Asia was perfect. Just like the rest of my adventure- inspiring, chaotic, overwhelming, fun, humbling, flawed, spontaneous, easy, difficult, beautiful…. perfect! I have always been a perfectionist (yuck.), but this word now has new life for me. I used to think perfection meant I had to be good at everything- but that’s BS. Perfection is not at all the absence of fault, my adventure had plenty of faults (none of which I regret); but rather the ability to embrace the bad and the good equally, recognizing that one could not be without the other. Too much good is- boring, unfulfilling, annoying. Too much bad is- depressing and useless. In the right amounts, a natural balance of the two is- perfect. Alright now that we got that tangent out of the way (do I have ADD?), let’s get back to Cambodia.

One thing I would like to share about Phnom Penh is the horrific history of the Khmer Rouge and their deadly regime. For those of you who don’t know, the Khmer Rouge (led by dictator Pol Pot) took forceful control of the country in the 1970s. They spent three years in power, during which time more than 25% of the population was ruthlessly murdered by the government. What a disgusting statistic. Imagine if your government just wiped out a quarter of your population, one of every four of your friends is now dead. These innocent people were beaten, starved, and worked to death. No one was spared. The educated, successful, ambitious, intellectual, and creative citizens of the country were sought out and arrested. They were tortured for months before eventually being executed. The more poverty stricken part of the population, who weren’t thrown in jail, were put to work 12 hours a day to increase the government’s profits on exports. Since they were busy selling all that was produced, there was literally not enough food left in Cambodia to feed the people. Even the people that worked for the Khmer Rouge were at risk of sudden execution. Anyone could be killed at anytime for any reason. My friend Helene and I spent an entire day at both the killing fields and the infamous s-21 prison while in Phnom Penh. It was the kind of day that leaves a lump in your throat and a knot in your heart. The amount of human suffering that occurred during this time in Cambodia is almost incomprehensible. An entire generation of intelligence and leadership was taken from the Cambodian people. To put the ruthlessness in perspective for you, of the 17,000 people that were arrested at s-21 prison (one of countless such prisons in cambodia), 7 made it out alive. If you ever have the chance to get to Phnom Penh, I implore to spend a difficult day learning about the heartbreaking history of the Cambodian people. It will likely leave you shaken, but also with a renewed desire to spread more good in the world.

A cell block inside the S-21 prison
A cell block inside the S-21 prison
All prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were photographed upon their arrest, here are a few of the innocent faces
All prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were photographed upon their arrest, here are a few of the innocent faces
A tribute to the lives lost at the killing fields. Many victims remains are still found around Cambodia today.
A tribute to the lives lost at the killing fields. Many victims remains are still found around Cambodia today.

After Phnom Penh, we left for Siem Reap to experience another important (and more impressive) part of Cambodian history at the temples of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a stunning complex of ruins from the Angkorian Empire that ruled much of Asia during the 14th century. We spent 3 days exploring these beautiful and mystifying structures with some new friends from Phnom Penh. Together we were a group of 6- from USA, Denmark, Australia, Scotland, and Holland. We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around for our sightseeing excursions and really had an amazing time exploring this breathtaking place. The place truly has an air of magic that is palpable to its visitors. You could really spend hours wandering each temple. I would definitely say it should be considered one of the top sights in the world. You should absolutely make it a priority to get here in your lifetime. In our time outside of Angkor Wat, we enjoyed the creature comforts of Siem Reap. Siem Reap is the city closest to the temples and as a result has grown in size and activity as the number of tourists has increased. Although it lacks the true Cambodian character, it is a fun town with great restaurants and lots of energy. We happened to be here on the weekend, so we were able to take advantage of all the excitement that the very entertaining ‘Pub street’ had to offer. Pub street closes its block to cars when the sun sets every night and turns its music up as the other bars close their doors. What results is an international dance party in the middle of the street that continues until the sun comes up. I never made it that far, but it was good fun anyway. After taking full advantage of our last Cambodian destination, it was time for my final visit to Bangkok. An ironic place to end my trip, considering 7 years ago it was the city that started it all! In 2006, I spent 5 weeks volunteering in Bangkok. Thus beginning my love affair with Asia, and eventually leading to my desire to return to this part of the world! Anyway, because I can’t seem to leave anywhere on time, I obviously changed my flight and much to my mother’s disappointment bought myself an extra day in Asia. I realize, I have an Asia problem. Oh well. In the end, I did board my flight and reluctantly said goodbye to my asian adventures.

Exploring the temple complex by tuk tuk!
Exploring the temple complex by tuk tuk!
Ornate Angkorian architecture
Ornate Angkorian architecture
Exploring with friends ( thanks Pete Williams for the photo!)
Exploring with friends ( thanks Pete Williams for the photo!)
Angkor at sunrise
Angkor at sunrise
Missing Cambodian nights out with my travel buddy
Missing Cambodian nights out with my travel buddy

So, here it is- this is where I say goodbye. Now I won’t promise I’ll never write again, because I kind of like this blogging thing. But at least, this is where I close the chapter on the last 5 months of my life. Some of the best 5 months of my life. For obvious and less obvious reasons, it’s a hard chapter to close. The best way I can think to relate it to you is that it’s like mourning a break up. Breaking up always sucks and it just takes a while to get over it. Although in the end the break up may have been for the best, it’s still requires adjustment and figuring out how start your new days with a positive attitude. Some moments, I want to burst into tears I miss traveling so much, other times I am so excited for everything that is next to come. Essentially, I spent the last 5 months in a relationship with myself.  I realize this is incredibly selfish and a completely unsustainable way to live, but for 5 months it was beautiful. Ultimately I cared only about myself every single day. I gave myself what I wanted and what I needed, without giving much to anybody else. I put all my energy into looking after me and I am so grateful for that experience. During this relationship, I took myself on a lot of really awesome dates across the world. Now, I will go back to Utah where I will spend the majority of my energy giving to my patients, my boyfriend, my family, and my friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love all four of those things immensely and it brings me much happiness to give to these incredible people. But the last 5 months reminded me that we have to spend an equal amount of energy loving ourselves. After all, your relationship with yourself is the longest relationship you will ever have, might as well commit to making it work. While mourning my breakup, I will learn to find a balance between caring for myself and caring for others. Often, we forget that this is an essential part of a good life. I encourage you all to nurture your relationship with yourselves. Some of you may disagree, but I think we all deserve 5 months of selfishness at some point in our lives. I now know myself better than I ever have before and in turn, am able to give more of my ‘whole self’ to the people around me. The last 5 months have given me so much happiness in my heart, I have even more to share with others. So my advice- be selfish, take care of yourself first. It will make you a better person. To my friends, apologies in advance that I might be the really annoying girl who won’t stop talking about her ex for months to come. What can I say, Asia has my heart.

Now I’ve just realized I lied to you all. This isn’t my goodbye. I have a lot more to say and I guess I don’t shut up easily. My family and coworkers will definitely vouch for me on that one. So now that you understand my separation anxiety from Asia, I will share more next time on the adventure itself. Asia is a gold mine and I want to tell you all the secrets. At this moment, I am still playing tourist and en route from NYC to Philly. I will travel the northeast USA for the next 3 weeks before finally returning to Salt Lake City. The adventures continue…

Tuk tuk lady

That’s my Cambodian name. Everywhere I go, I am greeted by eager (read: desperate) waves and happy ‘tuk tuk lady’ greetings. (For those of you who haven’t been to Asia- a tuk tuk is the motorcycle-pick up hybrid used for a taxi.) Every man in Cambodia with a set of wheels knows my nickname and I can’t actually walk more than half a block without attracting masses of tuk tuk lady fans. It’s like being a celebrity, except that no one wants my photo just my money. Okay so maybe it’s not like being a celebrity. But still, being the tuk tuk lady gives you instafame in Cambodia and even with a tan, I am still not successfully able to hide my identity behind a pair of sunglasses. I am recognized everywhere. Angelina, I feel ya. No okay so I’ll stop making myself sound importnant because in reality, I am not unique. All foreign women are known around here as tuk tuk ladies. I imagine it began as a proper question with infliction and everything- intended to be read as ‘tuk tuk, lady?’. These days the concern for proper english grammar escapes the tuk tuk drivers and the phrase has instead turned into a nickname that lovingly refers to us chicks as oversized motorcycle-cars, capable of carrying 6 passengers in our bellies. “HEEEEY, TUK TUK LADY!!!!” But really, everyone should get to Cambodia at least once- just to experience the prestige of being the elusive, but highly sought after tuk tuk lady. Well when I put it that way, I guess it’s more like being a rare bird. Finally someone sees me for what I am!! 😉

So, what haven’t I been up to since arriving in Cambodia! Aside from an abundance of tuk tuk ladies, this country is also full so many other good things. After our harrowing crossing of the border from Vietnam (just kidding. Even though I was mentally prepared for disaster, it was the easiest thing I’ve done in Asia.), our first stop was Kep. Kep is a small fishing town with not much going on except for seafood and sunsets. Not a bad thing after having spent the previous week inhaling the toxic fumes of Saigon’s very polluted air. In Kep, I reunited with my very lovely norwegian friend Helena whom I met at a yoga class in Sri Lanka. We will travel Cambodia together before going our separate ways in Bangkok next week. (AH Bangkok next week- tear.) After just two nights in Kep, we made our way to dusty little Kampot where we spent just one night as a layover on our way to the very south. For such a small, random town, Kampot has a surprisingly large expat community and I swear there must be something in the water. I know of more than one female backpacker who has decided to make Kampot their home, in the name of Cambodian love. Kampot moms- you raise good sons, well done. In Kampot, Helena and I rented bikes for the day and explored the backroads of the nearby villages. This was my first taste of real Cambodian life and we had a beautiful day getting lost with the locals. Also I just have to give another shout out to Kampot chefs- thanks for the BEST omelet I’ve had in Asia. If you ever find yourself in this charming little town, go spend an afternoon or a day at Cafe Espresso and order everything on the menu. Cambodia is the first Asian country I’ve been to that serves real cheese and I am now in culinary heaven. Merci beaucoup, French colonization!

Helena, enjoying everything in cafe espresso
Helena, enjoying everything in cafe espresso
Adorable girls on our adventure in the villages!
Adorable girls on our adventure in the villages!
Sunsets in Kep
Sunsets in Kep

Next, we were off to Sihanoukville for some serious beach bumming. On the way Sihanoukville, I found out that Cambodians seriously know how to pack em in (like, as a country, they would probably kick ass at Tetris) and have a commendable ability to get their money’s worth. We were at least 20 in what I can only assume was a 12 person van. Every time we thought we were full, there was another traveler squeezing their bum into a seat I didn’t know existed. Our bags were roped to the trunk in some sort of impressive spider web fashion, and even though I had my doubts (cars have trunk doors that shut for a reason) all of the bags arrived in Sihanoukville. We even passed a van that had gotten really efficient and turned the exploding bag mess into extra seats behind the van. So people were actually sitting on floating bags that weren’t even inside the van, Cambodians really know how to tie a rope. Anyway I spent the trip to Sihanoukville with a fortunately petite and kind Canadian girl on my lap. After 2 hours of awkward spooning and sharing equal frustration over our unfortunately large bums, how could we not be friends? So Helena and I, with our new friends Jesse and Cole arrived in Sihanoukville and wandered off to Otres beach to find our very own beachside bungalow. Sihanoukville is itself a city, which is then divided into several different beaches; with the most popular being Serendipity beach. Thanks to the masses of tourists, it’s not so serendipitous anymore and fortunately some girls I met in Vietnam had recommended Otres. Otres is the free spirited hippy sister of the somewhat skanky, definitely boozy but very popular Serendipity. So we settled for a wooden shack with just enough room for 2 beds and fully equipped with mosquito nets and fans. That’s all you need when you pay $6 a night and can roll out of bed to the beach. After 3 days here we were then easily convinced to join our Canadian friends for a few days on a mostly deserted island called koh rong.

Fresh coconuts and warm waves, life is good on Otres!
Fresh coconuts and warm waves, life is good on Otres!
Snorkeling off Sihanoukville
Snorkeling off Sihanoukville

The only way I can capture our arrival off the ferry on to the white sands of koh rong is by comparing it to the very cliche scene from Leo DeCaprio’s ‘The Beach’. Not even kidding, that’s how we felt. This is a hidden paradise and definitely had to consider if I really wanted to share the secret with you all. You’re welcome. As you get near to the pier, it becomes quickly obvious how pristine this island is. Minutes later, you find yourself with your feet sinking into the silky white sand surrounded by happy beautiful young people swimming, dancing, and playing to groovy music while enjoying their sunset cocktails next to turquoise blue water and palm trees. It really is too picture perfect and if it sounds like I am describing something directly out of your dreams, it’s because I probably am. Koh Rong is the beautiful beachy heaven of young travelers. The street is nothing more than a beach and the hotel rooms resemble the treehouses we had in our backyards as kids. The locals are friendly, the food is delicious, the beaches are deserted, and the cocktails are endless. It is not yet marred by any resorts and the majority of the ’employees’ at these bar-guesthouses are fellow backpackers who’ve decided to stay put for a month, entertaining the short time vacationers in exchange for room and board. Not a bad deal. You won’t find any families here and certainly no one that is looking for a high level of customer service, also hopefully you don’t mind rats. After a few days, Helena and I had to drag ourselves away from this hotel California-esque paradise before we got sucked in forever. Anyway- go there, before it becomes the next Thailand. And take me with you.

Arriving in our beach bliss!
Arriving in our beach bliss!
Sunset cocktails
Sunset cocktails
HEAVEN
HEAVEN

So, next we were off to Phnom Penh; the rapidly growing capitol of Cambodia. In a nutshell, Phnom Penh sucked us in and then spit us back out. But it was a blast and I would go back in a heartbeat. We got an unfortunately unpleasant welcome to the city after arriving at almost midnight and going out for a short walk to find a drink. Given that we had no map and definitely no bearings, this turned out to be an expensive walk when a few minutes later I found myself standing jaw-dropped without a purse. Yup, fell victim to my first Asian scam theft (jury is still out on who was responsible for the missing iPhone). Anyway, we realized after that these 2 guys on a motorbike must have been stalking around behind us for a little while, waiting for their chance. My purse was a tiny thing that I really didn’t even think was noticeable from the street. And like a responsible traveler, I had my bag facing the inside of the sidewalk and the strap across my chest. These guys have SKILL. I thought he was just a terrible motorcycle driver and wasn’t looking where he was going. Then my bag was gone and so was the motorbike. It was like magic. All I have to say to you motorbike thief- karma’s a b*tch. He only made off with $40, my southwest card (pretty sure that’s not gonna help you out in Cambodia, buddy), a room key, and my Burt’s bees. Overall I’ll cut my losses and consider it a win. I used to carry around my passport and all of my bank cards like a big dummy. Phew. So- I got over it quickly and we had a really good time in Phnom Penh. Our next days consisted of mostly wanderings around chaotic Phnom Penh- lots of really good food and unique shopping, with plenty of spontaneous local experiences. Our nights consisted of new friends, too many cocktails, and an excessive amount of dancing. I have definitely not been a regular participant in the Asian nightlife scene, but I’m pretty sure Phnom Penh has got it going on. Between generous happy hours, a myriad of rooftop bars, and what naive me considers a raging club scene- it was really good times. Also it should be said that nowhere else in the world exists such an eclectic crowd of booty shakers- I’m talking broke backpackers in dirty clothes, flawless lady boys, weekend warriors on short holidays from Europe, rich old creeps, Cambodia’s elite, and petite ladies in more petite dresses looking for rich old creep love. Interesting. My liver hurts just thinking about our revelry. It’s my last week in Asia, might as well go out with a bang yeah?

Being a fake foodie and enjoying delicious organic food in Phnom Penh :)
Being a fake foodie and enjoying delicious organic food in Phnom Penh 🙂
Phnom Penh market
Phnom Penh market
Phnom Penh from above
Phnom Penh from above

Now, after barely making our minivan (apparently, on 3 hours of sleep, you don’t hear a 7am alarm clock) to Siem Reap, we have arrived at our final Cambodian destination! I will post again soon because I still have much to stay about the Khmer Rouge regime and my heart aching experience at the killing fields and the notorious S21 prison. But that’s heavy and i’ll save it for another time. I will be in Siem Reap until Monday or Tuesday, exploring the famous temples of Angkor Wat and soaking in all the Asian culture I can get. I’m not ready to leave.

Happy New Year, from Cambodia :)

Happy new year my friends! I hope you all enjoyed your celebrations and are excited about what 2013 has given you and what 2014 will bring to you. For me, a new year is another reminder that life goes quick and the present is really a precious thing. I think this has been one of my biggest lessons in 2013, and I am grateful to have developed an awareness of the power each day holds. It sometimes terrifies me that we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, next week, or next year. But if we recognize this, then we also have the ability to appreciate each day’s potential. So much can be done in a day! Every day we have the opportunity to make ourselves and those around us happier, better people. If each day holds that much magnitude, imagine what can be done with 365 of them! I love what I have done with my year. Use your years wisely my friends, you never know when you will run out.

I celebrated the new year in Saigon, Vietnam with an eclectic crowd of new international friends. We were a group of- Vietnamese, Australian, Dutch, French, and American. It was perfect. (Except for that part where I woke up without an iPhone.) My nights out in Asia have generally been somewhat few and far between (25 is the new 50, when it comes to my ability to consume alcohol without a hangover) so it was fun to dress up (backpacker style) for a night of celebration. Though Saigon is generally a busy, crowded city; the people in the streets seemed to multiply on an exponential level this night. Most were on a mission to get to the harbor for fireworks. Sadly I missed these, but from what I hear they were pretty incomparable to our 4th of July celebrations. The night was a perfect way to end my month of Vietnam and mark the completion of a year of adventure. December was after all, my last full month in Asia. 😦

So, since my Christmas post I have been moving at a rather leisurely pace through the southern part of Vietnam. I spent the holiday in a beach town called Mui Ne, with some Australian friends I met in Nepal. Christmas Day included bikinis, sangria, and spring rolls. It was pretty blissful. Through the power of the Apple geniuses I was able to open gifts with my family, virtually, for the 3rd year now. I think they are getting used to my face on a computer screen. I sent back a bag of Asian Christmas gifts with my friend Alyssa, so it was fun to watch them open them. I spent a few days at the pool before making the longest 200km journey to Saigon ever. 8 hours… Seriously?! It doesn’t even make sense.

Honestly, I wasn’t much looking forward to returning to Saigon but it seemed to be the next stop on the road south so there was again. To be fair, I had only previously spent a day in Saigon, which isn’t any amount of time to judge a city. This time I was here for a week, and I did indeed leave with a new opinion! Saigon is a crazy chaotic city, but it is also vibrant and full of an endless number of things to do. I also happened to find myself in the city at the same time as many other friends and made some good new ones during this week. I hadn’t yet stayed in a hostel during my entire time in Vietnam so I decided it was time to live like a backpacker again. It was a fancier hostel than most, called Townhouse 50. I spent my first couple days with a Canadian teacher who lives in China and then a dutch guy who became my buddy for the week. We enjoyed an interesting (word choice?) tour of a cao dai temple (this religion worships the left eye and only exists in Vietnam. True story.) and a very biased adventure in the cu chi tunnels. The cu chi tunnels are an infamous network of passageways that was largely responsible for the success of the Vietcong in southern Vietnam. I believe it extends for almost 200 km. Here we watched a movie that introduced us to ‘American Killer Heroes’ and were able to witness the brutality of replica ‘American soldier traps’. Being an American, it was a little bit hard to listen to at times. All in all, it was very eye opening and education. But I would not suggest any Vietnam vets visit this place. The rest of the week I enjoyed the more local side of the city with my new Vietnamese friend, Tram. I met Tram through Alyssa, the first time I was in Saigon. She was gracious enough to take my around on her Vespa for several days and we got up to a lot of fun. To top it all off- I was lucky enough to see my coworker, Thu, who works as a pharmacist on my unit at Huntsman. We caught up over some very culturally confused German beers (served by Asians in lederhosen) and as always, it was soo good to see a familiar face from home!

The day after New Years, I left with my Australian friends for a 3 day tour of the Mekong delta that would eventually drop us at the Cambodian border. Generally, I am not one for organized tours but we decided this would be the most practical way to explore the south. It was good, we spent a few days on various rivers and waterways and enjoyed many markets and exotic dishes of field rat and snakes. I did not indulge in either of this delicacies. We made it to the border on the 4th of January, the same day on which I unfortunately realized my Vietnam visa had expired on the 3rd of January. I was sure this could only end as an expensive mistake for me and we went to passport control unsure of where it would go. Well, they handed my passport back to me with an exit stamp and no questions asked. I have no idea. We were well prepared to encounter several hassles at the border (it is not a popular tourist crossing) but miraculously encountered none. We made it through at least 5 border guards of both nationalities before making it successfully to Cambodian soil. All those people, and it only cost us a $2 bribe to the ‘health official’ who used his laser pointer to our foreheads to tell us we passed the temperature check. He must have been in a generous mood, because he gave us a $1 discount and with a big smile explained that this fee was because ‘I am police officer!’. Fair enough, at least the man is honest.

Well, now I am on the beach in the very south of Cambodia enjoying the precious time I have left on this beautiful continent! Less than 2 weeks. More on Cambodia later! xo

Love in an unlikely place

I am head over heels in love with this country. I can’t seem  to understand where or why so many of my fellow backpackers formulated the negative opinions that were shared often throughout Thailand. It is certainly a country with a rough exterior, but as they say- you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, right? Likely, I think these nay sayers either didn’t spend enough time here or chose to have their entire opinion marred by one negative experience. The truth about most of Asia, is that it’s gruff and often desperate. This is especially true in a communist country, who’s history is riddled with the atrocities of war and government oppression. Unfortunately, the outcome of this is that a few unsavory and dishonest characters have made it their business to prey on naive tourists. Most of the people who had a poor taste of Vietnam, shared a similar story. You find this everywhere in Asia, but I firmly believe if you stay half awake and follow your gut when being propositioned for something that sounds too good to be true, it is unlikely you will come across any harm. Also, trust only yourself. That being said, the quality of life in Vietnam has improved significantly in the last decade and it is generally a country of happy, hard working people. In three words- I would describe the Vietnamese as friendly, enthusiastic, and curious.

My last post finished with my arrival in picturesque Hoi An, which is ironic considering I now find myself, 10 days later, on a bus back to Hoi An. Before coming full circle, I have journeyed to the very north of Vietnam- visiting snowy Sapa, capitol city Hanoi, breathtaking Halong Bay, and finally historic Hue.
After our motorcycle adventure, Alyssa and I spent 3 days getting completely sucked in to the charm of Hoi An. This is the quintessential postcard city, that has been fantastically preserved and restored from it’s glory days in the 1800s. It is a french-appearing colonial town, with brightly colored stone buildings that decorate the canals and cobblestone streets. It is the perfect place to get lost or cozy up in a cafe with a book. We spent our first day enthralled by the abundance of small shops, selling everything from jewelry, hand woven fabrics, tailor made suits, art work, house decors, and the list goes on and on. A great and unique place to start our Christmas shopping. On day 2, we rose early to join a “Heaven and Earth” bicycle tour of the Hoi An country side. Despite overcast weather, we had a blast exploring the small villages and farms that dot the land around the Thu Bon river. Before leaving the next afternoon, Alyssa and I decided to divide and conquer for the morning so we could both accomplish our desired adventures for the day. Mostly i just needed an excuse to not go on a jog with her. Anyway, I rented a bike for a dollar and made my way to the beach. This was a beautiful ride that culminated with coconut trees and white sand. I didn’t have my bathing suit, so today I was just looking not touching. On my way back to town I intentionally took a few wrong turns and landed in a busy market. Markets are always exciting to me, as they are literally alive and the energy is palpable. After no more than 5 minutes and no less than 50 “you buy something?’s later, I began being tailed by a woman who appeared to be playing cat’s cradle with a thin string wrapped around her fingers. After pausing for half a second too long, I was now at this woman’s mercy and was quickly informed that the string was in fact a very successful method of hair removal (“3 month no hair!”). Well, given that I had been shamefully examining the unattractiveness of my eyebrows that very morning, I decided it was a sign and agreed to follow her to her shop.For those of you that are aware of my previous Asian beauty salon experience, where the notorious Bangladeshi mullet first came to life, you can imagine I was a little bit nervous. Before I had the chance to run, or even exhale, my face was being chalked and the strings were being rapidly pulled and pushed across my eyebrows. It hurts about as bad as you would expect it to but was over quickly. After my ‘salon artist’ tried unsuccessfully to talk me into getting my cheek hair threaded (surprise, apparently I have cheek hair?),  she took one look at my foot and I was easily convinced that I needed to have the ‘dead skin removal’ procedure done. This procedure entailed a lot of moisturizer and a very sharp razor blade. Afterward, it was proudly proclaimed that my feet were “like baby bum!!”. Perfect. Before I could say no, my fingers and toes were being clipped and painted and my $2 threading turned into a $13 spa treatment. I’ll consider it a win. Also, I had enough will power to say NO to the offer of hair cut. That’s a lesson I only needed to learn once.
Lovely Hoi An :)
Lovely Hoi An 🙂
The colors and architecture of Hoi An
The colors and architecture of Hoi An
I am frequently mistaken for a local
I am frequently mistaken for a local
Getting my foot shaved. First time for everything!
Getting my foot shaved. First time for everything!

After a short flight to Hanoi, we enjoyed an excellent dinner at New Day restaurant before boarding the overnight train to Sapa. We were going to Sapa for the weekend, for 2 days of trekking in this mountainous region of minority villages. Unfortunately, we forgot what month it was and when we disembarked the train in our flipflops and shorts the next morning we were greeted by freezing rain. Hmm, maybe we didn’t really think this one out. The weather went from bad to worse and we spent the weekend trudging through muddy land slides and trying to defrost by small charcoal fires. At night, our lovely host family gave us several pounds of heavy blankets and it was actually the best night’s sleep I’ve had. By sunday it was snowing and I was sure I would lose at least one toe.My lips were a dark shade of purple and I was becoming convinced I would never feel warm again. Given that my only remaining options were flip flops or toms, I bought a pair of rain boots from a hotel receptionist upon our return to civilization and I am still sure that it was the best $3 I ever spent. We were grateful to board the train back to Hanoi, and I spent the night with 5 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, and 2 pairs of socks on. No exaggeration, I was that cold and was that illy prepared for cold weather. Next time I go to the north of anywhere in December, I will remember to bring a sweater. That being said, we still managed to have a lot of fun and our brief and mostly foggy glimpses of Sapa’s famous views were truly breathtaking. Sapa was definitely a mountain town that reminded me a lot of the alps. It should also be said that this was the first time Vietnam had snow since 2010. We picked a good weekend.

The foggy and unbearably cold, but still picturesque, rice terraces of Sapa
The foggy and unbearably cold, but still picturesque, rice terraces of Sapa
A Hmong woman, one of the many local women who practically dragged Alyssa and I up and down the muddy hills of Sapa. Don't worry, we then repaid them in very overpriced handicraft purchases.
A Hmong woman, one of the many local women who practically dragged Alyssa and I up and down the muddy hills of Sapa. Don’t worry, we then repaid them in very overpriced handicraft purchases.
Defrosting our toes next to our cereal bowl sized fire.
Defrosting our toes next to our cereal bowl sized fire.
The coziest blankets on the whole planet earth!
The coziest blankets on the whole planet earth!

After spending the next day in Hanoi completing our Christmas shopping, it was time for me to say goodbye to Alyssa. I am so used to traveling on my own or with ‘strangers’, so it was a welcome experience for me to travel with a good friend. I love the liberty of being on my own and having the freedom to decide what i want to do each day. But traveling with Alyssa was easy, and we made good companions. The next day I left for a 3 day boat cruise through Halong Bay. I had been here once before, in 2006, when I took a short trip to Vietnam while spending my summer volunteering in Bangkok. It is a UNESCO World Heritage sight, and the powerful splendor of the bay’s limestone cliffs convinced me to go back for more! Unfortunately, I was still in the northern part of Vietnam and it was still a lot colder than I was prepared for. At this point I had been recycling the only two long sleeved shirts I have for at least a week. Stinky. We spent the days cruising through amazing rock formations, kayaking, visiting floating fishing villages, and exploring a local island. I returned to Hanoi with one more day to soak In the sights.

Sunset in Halong Bay
Sunset in Halong Bay
Exploring Halong bay by kayak
Exploring Halong bay by kayak
Trying to keep warm in my summer clothes! Wrong season.
Trying to keep warm in my summer clothes! Wrong season.
This is the life
This is the life

Hanoi is a loud, cramped city but has such an amazing amount of character you can’t help but love it. I enjoy Hanoi a lot more than I enjoy Ho Chi Minh City. If you ask anyone in the south of Vietnam, they will warn you sternly that the northerners are not as friendly and not as kind as them. While I do think the Southerners have a unique charm and generosity, I found no fault with the northern Vietnamese people. As much as I was enthralled with the winding streets of Hanoi’s old city, I decided it was only just to explore the other areas as well. But the old city still remains my favorite, I could spend days sitting in the little plastic chairs on the side walk, drinking Bia Hoi (25 cent draft beer, that must be imbibed the day it is brewed, as it has no preservatives) and people watching. So, I went and saw the legendary lake who’s famous turtle is very much still alive and is said to be guarding the country’s most important sword. I also stopped by to say hello to Ho Chi Minh, but his grave site is only open for 3 hours a day so I just waved from outside the gates. Soon, it was time for me to board another train.

The chaotic streets of Hanoi!
The chaotic streets of Hanoi!
Enjoying Bia Hoi in the mini size chairs of Vietnam
Enjoying Bia Hoi in the mini size chairs of Vietnam
I am only (with some degree of humility) posting this picture so someone could share the laugh with me. I honestly had no idea I looked like THIS until I had someone take a photo of me, unfortunately at that point the day was over. Backpacker fashion :/
I am only (with some degree of humility) posting this picture so someone could share the laugh with me. I honestly had no idea I looked like THIS until I had someone take a photo of me, unfortunately at that point the day was over. Backpacker fashion :/

On this train I found myself waking up Hue, the imperial capitol city of Vietnam. The imperial city is a massive walled in conglomerate of ancient buildings, temples, gardens, and reception halls. For me, it was reminiscent of Mulan and I was a giddy little girl seeing my favorite Disney movie come to life. It was a fascinating place and full of incredible history. I spent the day touring the other relics of the city with 3 American girls currently serving in the Peace Corps. Remember, when I barely survived my one month stay in the little Nepali village? These brave girls have been doing that for TWO YEARS in Indonesia. They were cool chicks and I was glad to have spent the day with them. In the evening we enjoyed the free Bia Hoi offered by our hotel, the not so legally named “Google Hotel” who’s logo is plagiarized right out of the 90s. It’s a pretty eccentric place, but very enjoyable. After we felt we had sufficiently filled up on our share of free beer, we headed out for a night of backpacker fun. As the first bar closed however, I decided it was my queue to turn as I had to be up at 6am for a full day tour and we all know how unsuccessfully I function with a hangover. It turned out to be a very good cool, when I ran into some fellow revelers the next day who were still nursing the casualties their previous night’s alcohol intake well into the evening. This tour was a full day excursion up to the well known “Demilitarized Zone” or DMZ, that unfortunately was the home of a horrific amount of blood shed during the Vietnam War. This area was essentially the border line between the North and the South, the two opponents of war. There was an obscene number of casualties here and it gained a terrifying reputation among soldier. It was interesting to learn more about the war and see where a lot of the worst days were experienced. We also visited an underground village, that went up to 23 meters deep and housed an entire village of 300+ people during the war. This was their only option to escape the endless bombing that persisted over their homes. It was quite the system and was very successful, as all the villagers survived the war against unlikely odds. There were also 17 babies born underground in the tunnel network! I could not spend 5 years in a  cave.

Amazing imperial architecture from the 18th century
Amazing imperial architecture from the 18th century
Exploring the underground village outside of the DMZ! Best $3 boots I ever bought.
Exploring the underground village outside of the DMZ! Best $3 boots I ever bought.
'The rock pile', a significant battleground of e Vietnam war
‘The rock pile’, a significant battleground of e Vietnam war

And that brings us to the present day, where I am on a not so luxurious bus returning to Hoi An! I will enjoy the afternoon here before I check into my next hotel aka train carriage number 7 and wake up on the beach in Mui Ne. I will spend Christmas here, with an Australian couple I volunteered with in Nepal. Looking forward to a sunny holiday! Hope you all enjoy your families this week. I will be enjoying mine from very far away, over a hopefully reliable Face Time connection. It’s just like being there! Happy Holidays 🙂

update: blogging on the bus cost me my keyboard. My fancy little iPad bluetooth keyboard is likely for sale on the streets of Vietnam somewhere. I feel like I have lost a blogging limb. I guess I better start exercising my thumbs for touch screen typing 😦

The backroads by motorbike

I came to Vietnam with low expectations and unsure of what I would find. Through Thailand I heard people argue passionately about their love or loathing of this country. I visited Vietnam briefly 6 years ago, and although an intimidating country I did not remember having developed any seriously negative conceptions. So I arrived with an open but unsure mind, ready for more adventure!

I met my long time friend Alyssa in Ho Chi Minh after a relatively painless flight from Thailand. I say relatively painless, because I have discovered it there is a law of science that prevents me from traveling smoothly. This time my trouble came when I accidentally re-entered the country of Thailand illegally after receiving my exit stamp. It was a little bit harrowing trying to talk my way out of that one, with immigration officials who were thoroughly perplexed by my ability to have accomplished this. After a few tears (I think I made them nervous), I was allowed to once again exit the country, this time with an escort. So, Alyssa is joining me for a brief 2 week tour of Vietnam before returning to the states for Christmas. I haven’t seen Alyssa for 3 years, but we are lucky enough to share a friendship that picks up right where it left off! She was one of my closest friends in my teenage years, and there’s a lot to be said about that.

Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon, as it is still referred to by the Vietnamese) is a big, loud, busy city. It is the most modernized of the country’s cities and acts as a hub for education, business, and politics. Here, we enjoyed a self guided walking tour of the crowded, terrifying streets; a gut wrenching lesson on the Vietnam war; and our first taste of local food and booze! Walking around the city was fun and slightly hilarious. If you have not heard, there is an art to crossing the street in Vietnam and it is not for the faint hearted. Unfortunately, until you figure it out, you’re not going to make it very far. The technique is something of a cross your fingers and hope for the best, while walking steadily and confidently to the other side of the road. The very worst thing you can do is stop or change your pace. Literally, you just have to hope for the best and GO.  There is no break in the traffic and no one gives a sh*t if you’re standing at a crosswalk patiently. You just gotta go. This is usually successful because just as badly as you don’t want to get hit by a car/motorbike, they don’t want to hit you. So far so good for us newbies. After making our way across the crazy chaos of HCMC streets, we spent our afternoon at the Vietnam War museum. Though it was an incredibly biased portrayal of the events of this devastating war, it was eye opening nonetheless. Both Alyssa and I felt ashamed about how little we really knew about this travesty. Somehow it seems to always be overlooked during high school history classes. In the evening we enjoyed fresh spring rolls with some new friends from Australia, Holland, and England. The food was delicious, but a lot more daunting than some of the countries I have been in. Pig’s ear salad, anyone? We finished our day in HCMC with a few drinks on the street, before boarding a 1am bus north to Dalat. This was the first ‘bunk bed’ bus I have ever been on and it was pretty hilarious. There are literally 3 rows of bunk beds with reclining seats. Generally, they would tolerable for one night’s sleep. However, on this particular bus, sleep was hard to come by as our driver felt in neccesary to drive 1,000 miles per hour and honk his absurdly loud horn every 3 seconds. I did not exagerate any of those things. Needless to say, after arriving in Dalat at 6am we spent the next 3 hours in bed.

Dalat is known as ‘the little paris’ of Vietnam. Like much of Vietnam, it is highly influenced by french architecture and design. It is a nice town up in the hills of Central Vietnam and has a particularly unique climate. They say that Dalat typically experiences all 4 seasons in one day. I found this to be mostly accurate. Unfortunately, we only had a day in Dalat but it was a charming place and is a great base for adventure activities in the surrounding hills. On this visit, our adventure of choice was motorcycles. After advice from a friend and reading up on the famed ‘easy riders’ of Dalat, we were on a mission to find a man with a motorcycle. Well, turns out these men are everywhere in Dalat and there is no longer one established group of ‘easy riders’. Easy riders are a group of guides who specialize in taking tourists to the more untouched parts of Vietnam by way of motorcycle. In the past, this was a very well recognized ‘club’. These days there are many copy cats (the asian rule of thumb is generally- if someone else finds success, I will copy them and also find success) and it can be difficult to discern who actually knows how to guide a succesful motorcycle tour. So, with some trepidation, Alyssa and I headed out on a hunt for our easy rider. We didn’t look far (at all.) until fate intervened and we were introduced to the most perfect man. His name was Loc and his resume is as follows: he is 62 (going on 90), has 2 teeth, he smiles with his whole face, has a wicked laugh, and the most sarcastic sense of humor. He spent 7 years with the special forces of the US army during the Vietnam war, during which time he picked up a few dirty jokes and a very bad smoking habit. He has a wife whom is shaped like a square (his words) and a cat who’s name he does not know. He eats only chicken and rice, and sometimes eggs. Vegetables are the devil and as he inhales his 30th cigarette of the day he refuses to drink his soup broth because it contains MSG. This is a man who has his mind made up and his priorities straight. For Alyssa and I, it was love at first sight and we knew he’d be our guide even before he handed over his volumes of tattered, leather bound reviews authored by the satisfied tourists who had come before us.

Loc and his friend Do picked us up at 8am the next morning. I settled in to my seat- squeezed comfortably in-between Do and my plastic wrapped backpack, which found its home bungee corded to the rear of the bike. With Loc and Alyssa in the lead, we were off on our 4 day adventure of the Central Highlands! This turned out to be one of the more incredible experiences of my lifetime. If any of you (at any age) find yourselves in Vietnam, an easy rider tour is not something to be missed. I do have both Loc and Do’s contact information… if you’re ever in the area. Our 4 days were filled with backroads, beautiful scenery, every farm/factory/craft shop tour you could imagine, surprised locals, and delicious although slightly suspicious appearing food. Loc was the boss, but Do was the Vietnamese encyclopedia. I learned SO much about the country, its people, and its history. There is such a rich culture here. I have little experience with motorcycles, and spending 4 days on the back of one was about the most fun I could imagine. What a unique way to see a country! After day 1, we didn’t see another tourist and we were truly immersed in Vietnamese life. The people we met were so friendly and a bit taken aback to see 2 really white girls cruising down the street. I swear a few people went off the road trying to get a good look at Alyssa, who stuck out in stark contrast to her dark skinned, well weathered chauffeur who was at least 2 feet shorter than her. The people in this part of the country were some of the friendliest I have met; inviting us into their homes for tea, complementing our pale complexions (not something to envy), and laughing with us about who knows what. Some of my favorite stops included: a silk factory (I even ate a silk worm. ew.), a weasel poop coffee farm (you read that right), the Ho Chi Minh trail (an amazing place to step foot, given it’s history), the dirt trails surrounded by miles of rice paddies (and as a result, a limitless supply of potent rice wine), a minority village’s weekend market (here, I was made to feel like Angelina Jolie- people literally just wanted to touch me), more than one breathtaking waterfall, and the many hole in the wall food establishments with highly questionable meat dishes (it’s hilarious I started this asian adventure as a vegetarian). This would have been the ideal journey to have strapped a go pro to my head, but alas I was only armed with an iPhone (apparently knock off Nikon products purchased in Thailand work only for a few days, lesson learned.) to document this unique perspective. These are a few of our amazing moments:

With my excellent guide-chauffeur, Do!
With my excellent guide-chauffeur, Do!
A dusty day on the road
A dusty day on the road
Loc, teaching us about the craft of Vietnamese coffee!
Loc, teaching us about the craft of Vietnamese coffee!

 

Alyssa and I, sharing the same affinity for cleanliness, killing two birds with one stone.. who doesn't love a waterfall shower??
Alyssa and I, sharing the same affinity for cleanliness, killing two birds with one stone.. who doesn’t love a waterfall shower??
The amazing silk factory! These women have incredible patience and skill.
The amazing silk factory! These women have incredible patience and skill.

 

A quick rest at one of the many roadside hammock stops
A quick rest at one of the many roadside hammock stops
Alyssa and Loc, at the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail!
Alyssa and Loc, at the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail!
A special forces vet, telling war stories in front of a barely remaining  american bunker.
A special forces vet, telling war stories in front of a barely remaining american bunker.
A hot afternoon swim in our own private lagoon!
A hot afternoon swim in our own private lagoon!
So many showers this week!
So many showers this week!
Sunset over rice paddies
Sunset over rice paddies
School boys biking home
School boys biking home
I'm a natural!
I’m a natural!
Breathtaking backroads
Breathtaking backroads
Late night lessons in Vietnamese!
Late night lessons in Vietnamese!
Washing down another dodgy dinner with some potent happy water!
Washing down another dodgy dinner with some potent happy water!
Riding off into the sunset on another perfect day in Vietnam :)
Riding off into the sunset on another perfect day in Vietnam 🙂

We completed our journey in the horribly hedonistic beach resort town of Nha Trang. Upon arriving we were immediately relieved to have bus tickets arranged to leave just a few hours later.  We spent our short time here with our toes in the sand, getting cheap back rubs and succumbing to the persistent hawkers selling handmade jewelry. The more obnoxious these vendors are, the more you are generally willing to pay them to go away. A sales technique they have perfected. We boarded the bus and made a significantly more comfortable overnight trip to Hoi An, about 10 hours north. This driver must have had a screw loose or something, because he actually drove under the speed limit and neglected to use his horn. I was confused.

Well, for now I will stop here and share more on our northern adventures later. Hope you all have survived your Christmas shopping. It’s been a little bit more fun picking out presents on the streets of Vietnam than my usual last minute battle at the mall. I will say that there is no lack of Christmas trees in Vietnam. Plastic of course, but beautiful nonetheless! Unfortunately (but understandably), the Vietnamese have not adopted the holiday cheer that is felt so warmly in the States at this time of year. I do miss it and might actually be forced to download a Mariah Carey Christmas album just to fill this holiday void. Ho Ho Ho! (Chi Minh)!

Hope you are all enjoying December. December for me has brought a new country and a decision to extend my stay in Asia. After much thought, I have decided that it what I want and what is right for me at this particular moment in my life. That being said, I change my mind a lot and you shouldn’t be completely surprised if I book a ticket home on Christmas Eve. Anyway, having worked as an oncology nurse for 3 years I have been well exposed to the fragility and preciousness of life. We only get one of them after all, so might as well make the most of it. And right now I feel like this is the thing in my life I need to be doing. So we will see.

I am now in Vietnam, having arrived last Wednesday from Thailand. Vietnam is amazing, but more on that later. My few last days in Thailand were filled with islands, scuba diving, food, and nights out. After my last post, I left on a 3 night scuba diving live aboard boat. It was me and 24 of my closest friends. Well kind of. Most of them I met that day, but also many of them were new friends that I had met hanging out in Khao Lak for the past week. Both students and instructors, it was such a good group of people. We left on friday night, and spent the next 3 days rising with the sun and scuba diving until our bodies were pruned. We did 3-4 dives a day, at various sites around the Similan Islands. On Sunday we did a night dive, which entails complete darkness and flashlights! Definitely makes your heart flutter, but the ocean at night is a whole different place. I saw so many cool fish and octopus and eels and snakes and turtles and coral. And I am finally officially an open water certified diver! I am hoping to get a couple more dives in on my tour of Asia, might even go back to Thailand. Anyone want to join me?? A few of my friends there were completing a 6 week ‘Dive Master’ training, which allows them to eventually become diving instructors but also certifies them to lead trips. Many of them end up working in Khao Lak for the season and then often ‘chase’ the scuba seasons around the globe. Mexico anyone?

After returning from the boat trip, I stayed one day longer in Khao Lak than originally anticipated. I just have such a hard time saying goodbye to places I love! But my friend I was meeting in Vietnam was delayed due to visa troubles so I figured why not, right! Monday night consisted of a big night out with my new scuba friends, lots of Thai beer and live music. Yes please. Also some late night pool poaching at the most luxurious hotel pool I’ve ever seen. It look like it could have maybe hosted the olympics of Ancient Greece. Tuesday and wednesday was beach time and last minute souvenir shopping before I was on my way to Ho Chi Minh City. My travels were undoubtedly filled with a little bit of chaos, because that’s just the way it goes. This time it was a matter of immigration. My flight to HCMC from Phuket included a layover in Bangkok. I ‘checked out’ of Thailand at Phuket immigration and was labeled with a ‘fly thru’ sticker upon boarding the plane. Apparently this meant I was to remain in my seat at arrival in Bangkok and wait for an escort to my next international flight. Well I must have been sleeping during that announcement because as my head was up in the clouds I followed the rest of my air asia compatriots and suddenly found myself standing at the baggage claim. As in, on the very wrong side of immigration. As in, CRAP I was in the country illegally. I literally RAN to immigration, where I tried hopelessly to explain myself before even handing over my passport. To which I was responded with “You have departure stamp!!! Why you in Thailand?!?!” Uh Oh. I was escorted to the immigration office where someone recognized my ‘fly thru’ sticker and after making copies of my entire passport decided I was okay to, re-depart. I squeezed out a few tears that may have helped as well. Anyways, in my stressful situation recovery time I was unfortunate enough to pass a McDonalds and gave in immediately. Oops. Some things are just out of my control. The rest of the travels were uneventful and I arrived safely in Vietnam.

Since arriving here, I have come down with some rare unknown strain of the Asian bird flu. Well not quite, but my face feels frequently likes its going to pop and I have never seen such a rapid production of snot in my life. Fortunately it has not been debilitating, most just a huge annoyance, but hopefully it will be on its way soon. So, after a day in Saigon I have made may way north where I am exploring the Central Highlands by motorcycling. Aside from saying it is absolutely amazing, I will wait until the completion of the trip on Tuesday to fill you in on the rest! Good luck with the Christmas shopping and hope you are all enjoying the snow. xox.

Hi friends,
I am now again in the south of Thailand enjoying time in the sun and becoming an Open Water Certified Scuba Diver! Since I last posted, I spent a few days in Pai which was surprisingly wonderful. I was afraid it would be too crowded to be enjoyable, but fortunately it has still retained all of its character and charm. I stayed two nights in a little bungalow that had a roof made of leaves and a wall I could stick my hand through. Also if I jumped on the bed I think I would have gone straight through the floor. It was a cold night sleep but it was a fun place to stay. It was called “The Pai Circus School and Resort” and you could take all kinds of juggling and fire poi lessons. I didn’t. I spent my weekend in Pai motorbiking through the Thai countryside, playing in waterfalls, and enjoying the company of new friends. It was good times!

My cozy little bungalow :)
My cozy little bungalow 🙂

Leaving Pai on Sunday, I began a long and arduous journey to the beach. Public transport post: My first leg included a mini van from Pai to Chiang Mai around the most winding roads your could ever imagine. So winding in fact, that it has lead the roadside shop keepers to post signs such as this-

image

After a brief stop in Chiang Mai (with just enough time for one last yoga class at Wild Rose!) I was boarded on to my overnight “VIP” bus. Remember last time when I took a VIP bus and it was AWESOME? Yeah, this time my “VIP” bus was a disgusting conglomerate of ripped and stained seats with questionable smells. I guess I should have seen through the half price ticket. Ah well, scammed again. Next- I arrived in Bangkok the following morning, 2 hours late and on the other side of town from the bus station. I guess scam buses don’t park at bus stations, I did in fact board it in the back of a gas station. Anyway, now I needed to be at the airport in 45 minutes for my flight to Phuket. Well, unfortunately for me the only taxis I was able to wave down for the next 30 minutes refused to use their meter and wanted a double fare. No thanks. So I finally caught a cab 5 minutes before take off, and after significant protest traffic (don’t know if you’ve heard but the Thais are trying to overthrow their government) made it to the airport well after my flight had taken off. So I take a deep breath and get in line to buy a new ticket. $130, 3 hours, and an overpriced “limo” ride to Khao Lak later, I have reached my destination! Now I need to brag for a moment and just let you all know that through the chaos, I didn’t shed a tear! Not one! I considered it briefly during my desperation for a taxi, but it didn’t happen. For those of you who have been reading along since I left, you may remember that time I cried over a plate of airplane eggs. Anyways, I think my skin is getting a little thicker and I’ve toughened up. Hooray!

So now I’m in Khao Lak, having just completed day 1 of my dive course! This is the second dive course I’ve taken in my life (this cert will be a little higher) and so it’s not been too difficult. I got talked in to joining the live aboard ship for the weekend so I will stay here until at least monday. The catch of the live aboard was that it returns on Monday and my visa expires on Saturday. So to solve this dilemma, yesterday I went to Burma! The dive shop manager (Wicked Diving, its fantastic!) offered to take me along on the “visa run” him and his girlfriend just so happened to have had planned for the next day. Thailand has these crazy laws where you can only stay in the country for a certain amount of months, but as soon as you leave the country and re-enter you can have a new visa. So, a popular tourist trip in Thailand has become a “visa run”. Mostly, these are booked with travel agencies. But I had the luck of tagging along with two seasoned pros. I went to Burma for 10 minutes, just enough time to have my passport stamped in and out… and then I returned (via rickety wood boat) to Thailand where I have been granted a legal stay until Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas, let me bore you a few moments with my current internal struggle. When do I go home?!?! Help me, suggestions and opinions please. I have no flight home (unless I miraculously arrive in Dubai by the 17th of December) and haven’t made up my mind about if I am meant to stay in Asia or be home for the holidays. Here is the dilemma. (Disclaimer- I’m going to get real here for a minute… so if you don’t like the mushy stuff stop reading now). I love my family, and as most of you know my mom and dad move to Slovakia on January 1st. On top of that, I generally live across the country and work a job that doesn’t close its doors on a holiday. I had planned to spend this Christmas with them and would really love to. Can we delay Christmas by a month? Then all my problems would be solved. So if I come home at Christmas I can spend the holidays with my family and enjoy my mom and dads company before they move to Europe. I also told my work I would be back in January and I feel more and more guilty the longer I stay away. My heart also aches hearing of the hardships of my patients and coworkers and not being able to be there. So there’s that. On the other hand, I have found myself in Asia. And I am afraid I will lose myself if I go home. I know I need to go home eventually, but I don’t know if I’m ready yet. These past few months I have discovered a new comfort and a happiness of being more alive and more myself. I know I am getting cliche and far too gushy, but I can’t help it people. Sorry, bear with me! While pleasant, my life in Salt Lake was monotonous and I was just going through the motions. Doing things I thought were or would make me happy, while still feeling an incredible amount of boredom, anxiety, insecurity, and restlessness. Since traveling, I have felt more me than ever before and discovered a confidence I didn’t know I had. At home, my anxiety was so bad I was seeing a therapist regularly and it was affecting both large and small decisions. Now, I can’t even tell you the last time I felt anxious. Maybe only a fleeting feeling a handful of times since August. Well, until this past week when I have been running circles in my head trying to make a plan. So this is my problem. Do I stay or do I go now?? (hehe) Real life is waiting and will always be, so I have to go back. I just don’t when. What I have learned these past few months is nothing short of amazing, and I am so connected to myself I can’t even believe it. I have never appreciated me like I appreciate me now. I don’t want this to go away and I am worried that when I go home it will slowly dissolve and I will be back to my routine life. It’s easy to say “Well, just don’t let it happen! You’re happiness is up to you and you are in control”. Yes, I realize this and I hope this will be the case. But I have found something amazing here and I hope you can understand why it is  hard for me to let it go. So, if I leave, am I quitting my adventure too soon? Or if I stay, am I just avoiding the inevitable? What to do. I am lucky enough to have the support of my family no matter what I choose. Grateful for this!

Hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving and a tasty turkey. I went for a scuba dive and then a korean barbecue. No turkey for me this year, but it was fun nonetheless! Missed our annual game of LCR though. Tonight I board the boat for the weekend where I will complete my certification. Should be fun! Enjoy your holiday weekend 🙂

Ah life is good in Chiang Mai! I have migrated  north since Conor left and now find myself in a small charming city one overnight bus trip away from Bangkok. Since I last posted, Conor and I spent a couple more days on Ko Lanta before arriving back in Bangkok on friday. We opted at the last minute to stay in the comfort of the funky fish and just do a day trip to the much talked about island of Phi Phi. This turned out to be a good call, as an hour on Phi Phi was more than enough for us. This is island is one of the most beautiful in Thailand and the big secret is out- ALL the tourists know this. It has unfortunately been destroyed by commercialism and trash and I was almost legitimately afraid I was going to spontaneously sink into the Andaman Sea with the whole island. It’s also gotten quite a reputation as an island that never sleeps. Don’t get me wrong, we all know I like a good party, but this was just not the kind of island vibe we were looking for.  In the end, we had SO much fun on Lanta and both kind of wished we could trade places with the retired swedish man who had been looking for an adventure and had stumbled upon a beachfront Ko Lanta bar in need of a new owner. Lucky guy. Our last day in Bangkok was brief, and Saturday I was returning Conor to the airport far too soon. The couple days after he left was the first time I’ve had even a twinge of homesickness. But the adventure must go on and the next best thing a lonely girl can do, is keep herself busy!The next night I took an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. I had survived the train so I figured this was the next challenge in travel. I’m a light sleeper and a cranky tired girl so I was nervous. We left at 9pm and pulled into Chiang Mai at 5am. Too bad my hostel didn’t open til 7. What to do with 2 hours. Anyway, the bus wasn’t bad we got a boxed dinner and apparently a breakfast that I confused for dessert. Oops. Didn’t want to eat at 5am anyways. So, a couple hours later I was in love with Chiang Mai. I was here looking for calm and peace after a couple of crazy weeks and this is exactly what I have found! My first morning was spent wandering aimlessly in an old city that was (mostly) pollution free and actually had space to breathe! In the afternoon I took a vegetarian cooking class that was connected to a restaurant I had frequented in Bangkok. I am absolutely no good at cooking so I was imagining it would likely be a huge waste of my time. While I definitely didn’t win the class award for best peanut sauce, the class was so good and I had a lot of fun. I might even be able to successfully through a thai styled dinner party! Don’t worry friends, I’ll practice on Conor first. The school was called Morning Glory Cooking Classes, I highly recommend it! Even got to take home leftovers. Win. In the evening, I found out I was lucky enough have showed up in Chiang Mai for the annual lantern festival which was beautiful. Giant floating paper lanterns are released into the sky by the hundreds and it’s really quite a sight. There was also a parade of Thai culture.The next day I woke early for yoga at this great little place down the rode from my hostel called Wild Rose. It’s an antique wooden building that has so much air and natural light running through it. A really beautiful space to practice in and the class was an hour and a half for $7. Can’t beat that. A few hours later (I was not being zen at all) I was running down the streets of Chiang Mai to make it nearly on time to Wat Suan Dok (temple) where my meditation retreat would start. It was much further away by foot than I had anticipated and I was not sure how highly monks regard timeliness. I made it,just 3 minutes late and all was forgiven. There were about 30 students in total for the 2 day retreat. All ages and from all over the world. We were an eager and anxious group of novices  with little to no meditation experience between us. The retreat is run through an outreach organization called ‘Monk Chat’, aimed at teaching those interested more about the practice of Buddhism. The course started with an intro to buddhism, during which we were introduced to the basic principles of the belief system. Per our monk leader, buddhism is not a actually a religion but rather a way of life. It was very interesting and I really think there is a little bit of buddhist in all of us. Essentially it is a path of precepts that equate to living a good life of kindness, caring, confidence, and selflessness. We each practice this in our own way and at various levels. Next, we were taken by pickup truck (again, the blog on public transport in Asia…) to the Internaltional Meditation Center located outside of the city. This is where we would be learning and practicing mindfulness for the next 2 days. I have only ever meditated within the discipline of yoga and on my own by way of “meditation for beginners” books. I had previously enjoyed what I’d experienced and was excited to really get a crash course with some pros. Like most, I struggle with the concept of “shutting off my mind”. It doesn’t come easy for anyone, it’s not just you that can’t get all those crazy thought to chill out for a few minutes. When I first discussed this idea of “shutting off your mind” with my very knowledgeable and well balanced friend Melissa, she shared an interesting concept. That it is not so much about ‘not thinking’, it is more the filtering and release of all these consuming thoughts. When meditating, you realize how much trash we carry around in our heads all day long. Through meditation, you are processing through these thoughts and letting them escape you rather than just trying to stop them. Brilliant woman! And so I stopped trying shut off my mind, and just let it rid itself of all the self created pollution trapped inside. My monk guide advised the same- consciously trying to stop your thoughts is actually in itself creating another thought. Just stay focused and your mind will eventually quiet itself.The 2 days consisted of learning various meditation techniques. These techniques include- standing, sitting, walking (which itself has 4 techniques), and laying (2 techniques). The monks walked us through it the first few times and then we were on our own. The conclusion of day 1 consisted of an hour long meditation for us to really try out our new found skills. We did however have the option to change positions every 10 minutes so it wasn’t quite as daunting as it sounds. So- here I am, all excited and ready to go explore my mind and savor the silence and find out what this is all about. It was a good hour, I really felt connected and disconnected all at the same time. It was a difficult, but enjoyable process. Until it was time for a bathroom break and I discovered that the sensation of disconnect had actually been coming from pants. I now have something in common with Janet Jackson. Although I think mine was more embarrassing, just saying. Anyways, I go to the bathroom and go to untie my pants from the back when instead of grabbing fabric I grab nothing and just feel my cold butt cheek. I turn around, in terror, and sure enough there is the whole big white left side of my bum just exposing itself to the world. I instantly do some laps around the room trying to test out the theory that, no of course I would have felt a breeze and my pants have not been like this for an hour. No breeze. I adjust the cloth trying to see if it really wasn’t as bad as I thought. It’s pretty bad. I realize when I was busy learning how to bow to Buddha the fabric must have come out from under the one measly piece of string that was tying it around my waist. The pants are about size 10 XL and are wrapped around you before being secured (or not secured) by the string. Ok well now I’m humiliated. I realized now that one nice American dude had tried to give me a heads up with a quick pinch on the arm and a quiet “hey”… but I thought he was just being friendly so I waved and kept walking! Conveniently I had spent the last 30 minutes in walking meditation, doing laps around the room just to ensure that all 30 students, 2 monks, and a giant buddha had the privilege of seeing my bum. At least it’s a good bum! Sorry monks, I hope you aren’t having too many nightmares. And to my meditation friends that saw my moon- did you give up at “intending to clothes my eyes” (in an asian robot voice)… your eyes were NOT supposed to be open!And so concluded day 1!Day 2 was more of the same, with slowly increasing lengths of meditation time until we were at 2 hours of silence with 20 minute intervals. The whole experience was so wonderful. I felt light and happy and grounded at the end of the day. The best part was my evening yoga class where I totally kicked ass and got into some pretty intense poses I didn’t even know I was capable of. Connected to the meditation or not, I don’t know, but it was a sweet surprise that made me want more. After yoga I went and found some equilibrium in the form of a big bowl of noodles and a cold Singha (local beer) to balance out my abundance of healthy practices. It’s all about the yin and yang right? Too much of one thing is never good! 😉 I met with some of my fellow meditators and got talked into a weekend trip to a small mountain town called Pai. This town is touted as a little hippy paradise away from all of life’s troubles. However, I haven’t stayed at hostel yet where everyones not chatting about the magic of Pai (most haven’t been yet) and so I can only imagine it is has begun to succomb to the fate of Ko Phi Phi. For this reason, I had no intention of going. But, here I am on a bus going to Pai. I will spend the weekend with these new friends and find out what Pai is all about. I am sad to leave Chiang Mai, I really love this city and could spend a long time here I think. There is an amazing community of expats and the city is just so alive.

Okay well guilty of not posting this before arriving in Pai… blogging takes commitment people! But I will post now and share my Pai experiences in a few days. Today I am returning to Chiang Mai and having round 2 on the night bus to Bangkok! Bye!
Also- my photo upload does not appear to want to work today (#bloggingproblems), pictures coming soon!

A much overdue post! I have been so busy in Thailand that any spare time I have I usually spend sleeping, which says a lot because I am still freaking exhausted! I have been in Thailand for about a week and half now. It’s going too quickly! Conor arrived last monday and we have been doing the most fantastic tour de Thailand ever. He is only here 12 days so it was tricky trying to come up with an itinerary that would hit all the good stuff but not leave us running from one place to the next. I did a lot of research pre arrival (way back when I had lots of time for reading in my little mud house with no electricity, remember that?) and I don’t mean to brag but I could potentially be a travel agent. Maybe it’s genetic and I got it from my mom. Anyway we spent our first two and half days in Bangkok hanging with the hoards of tourists that flock from all over the world to play in this country. It was interesting being in Bangkok after spending so much time in Nepal and then Sri Lanka, there are white people EVERYWHERE. And there is a lot of money and a lot modernization. It’s good and bad. Bad because it almost feels like there are more tourists than Thai people and you can’t help but feel a little guilty. You also inevitably lose the character of the country when everything is tailored to foreigners. It’s good because the masses of people speaks for the charm of the country, it is incredible and everyone wants a piece of it. I also enjoy meeting other travelers and am now being afforded many luxuries I was left wanting in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Mostly- Not being looked at and/or judged for being a woman, electricity 24 hours, english speakers, shopping. So we enjoyed our few days of sightseeing and photo snapping. I even splurged and we stayed in this posh little hotel called Shanghai Mansion in the heart of Chinatown. It was amazing, if you ever need a great a place to stay- go there. Other highlights included- river cruising, buddha and temple sightings, fish eating our feet, so much street food, roof top cocktails, a thai ska band, and a Muay Thai match.

On Wednesday we crammed into a “bus” (also known as a van, where I am from) and sucked our bellies in while balancing our massive backpacks (why would the bus have room for luggage?) for the one hour ride to Ayuthaya. Ayuthaya was the previous capitol of Thailand back in the 1300s. It was full of massive palaces and temples where the Kings and Monks ruled. A few centuries later most of the structures were destroyed by the Burmese during the war. Now all that’s left is these incredible ruins that will make your jaw drop. Despite the destruction, the buildings are beautiful and the size and detail that was created so many centuries ago is just amazing. We stayed here overnight and rented to bikes to explore the ruins. It was a quick side trip from Bangkok and gave Conor a good taste of the rich history of Thai culture. We arrived back in Bangkok on Wednesday afternoon where we had just enough time to grab a drink with some friends of mine from Nepal (an Australian couple who is traveling Thailand now as well) on the notorious Khao San Road. Then we we’re off on the overnight train to Southern Thailand! A word of advice for future rail travelers- book ahead!! We misinformed that we could get a ticket just before we got on the train, unfortunately I didn’t see the blurb in my guide book that recommended the opposite until just a few hours before the train left. We were left with the option of buying seats (for a 12 hour, 7pm-7am ride) or purchasing very overly priced beds from an incredibly savvy travel agent who tailors to people in our situation. She buys out the last car of beds just for the desperate last minute folk. Anyway, it was well worth the money. We got seats that converted into bunk beds and got to know some great Swedes who thought they could actually eat “spicy” food in Thailand. Note: Nobody can eat spicy food in Thailand without some pretty severe consequences.

When we woke up we were just a van ride away from Khao Sok National Park. We spent two nights here in a crazy little tree house bungalow in a forest full of monkeys. This was Conor’s first experience of mosquito nets, cold showers, sharing your room with insects of various sizes, and unreliable electricity. I just felt like I was back at Auma and Baba’s house! We went jungle trekking to some waterfalls after arriving and enjoyed a very hot but fun hike. We even saw a snake eat a frog! So cool. The next day we took a tour to a nearby lake that is about the most massive body of water ever. It was created by a dam about 30 years ago and there are whole villages underwater. It is surrounded by limestone cliffs and more jungle. We went on a boat to a little floating village, where we explored via ancient and unsteady kayak the nearby coves. For lunch we were served very fresh fish and then we were off on another jungle trek. This time to a cave that was amazing! The cave was used as a communist hideout a few decades ago and is a massive network of pools and passages. It was full of bats and stalactites. It was a really cool experience.

The next day, we took another VAN (AHH) to the coast and hopped a ferry to the island of Koh Lanta. Speaking of another van, I think I could author an entire blog on public transport in Asia. Holy crap. Koh Lanta is labeled a beach bum paradise and that it is. We decided it would be a good place to start our time in the islands and it was a good call. This place is so chill and really lives up to its description. We are staying in a little multi colored bungalow with hello kitty sheets and silk-ish blankets. It’s got a lot of character. Anyway its $20 a night and a few steps from the beach. Yes please. Yesterday we went elephant trekking, weird but fun, and explored the island. Today we went on a snorkeling tour of four nearby islands. It was so beautiful and we saw lots of really cool fish. We opted for the cheap boat (the other options being- a large tour boat, or a an expensive ‘first class’ speed boat). Our was a long wooden row boat looking thing with a car engine on the back. I learned the hard way that it is not a good idea to drink a lot of gin the night before boarding one of these boats. Oh man, I thought was going to have to jump ship. I lived however, but not before forgetting my entire wallet (passport and everything. yikes.) on the boat and Conor having a lobster back (it was bound to happen sooner or later). We will stay here another day than go to Ko Phi Phi before returning to Bangkok for Conor’s flight home. This has been his first trip abroad and I’m hoping he’s caught the bug. So far so good! It’s been lots of fun. Okay skeeters are eating me so I gotta run, big hugs to all! xo

The adventure begins!!
The adventure begins!!

Conor ascending the steep steps at Wat Arun

A big gold Buddha at Wat Pho!
A big gold Buddha at Wat Pho!
Cocktails and the Bangkok skyline
Cocktails and the Bangkok skyline
Ringside seats at a Muay Thai match
Ringside seats at a Muay Thai match
The Muay Thai Champion!!
The Muay Thai Champion!!
A Thai night out, cheap beers and dancing to Ska music!
A Thai night out, cheap beers and dancing to Ska music!

 

Noodles at a floating restaurant in Ayuthaya
Noodles at a floating restaurant in Ayuthaya
Exploring by bike
Exploring by bike
An amazing sunset at the temple ruins of Ayuthaya
An amazing sunset at the temple ruins of Ayuthaya
Conor all tucked in for the night on our overnight train to the south
Conor all tucked in for the night on our overnight train to the south
A sleepy Conor ready for a day of exploring, from our little jungle hut!
A sleepy Conor ready for a day of exploring, from our little jungle hut!
Caving Khao Sok National Park
Caving Khao Sok National Park
I am now a licensed elephant driver. Lucky Conor, my first ever passenger!
I am now a licensed elephant driver. Lucky Conor, my first ever passenger!
A little bit of heaven at our beach side accommodation in Koh Lanta!
A little bit of heaven at our beach side accommodation in Koh Lanta!
Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea!
Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea!
Feeding tropical fruits to tropical fish!
Feeding tropical fruits to tropical fish!

So long, Sri Lanka!

My brief but beautiful time in Sri Lanka is up! It was a surprising country and I am glad I made the decision to stop here. My trip over from Nepal was unexpectedly expensive and seriously unenjoyable but definitely worth it. 

As I mentioned before, Sri Lanka is far more modernized and ‘western appearing’ than Nepal was. There is more money here and more catering to tourists. I had planned to make a quick tour of the country and see as much as I could, but that did not happen. Once I met my yogi friends I was blissfully stuck in the little beach town of Hikkaduwa. HIkkaduwa is considered to be somewhat of a ‘backpackers paradise’, an inexpensive slice of luxury for the budget traveler. It is full of surfing, beach bars, cosy restaurants, and well traveled young people from all over the world. My days consisted of early morning yoga with Lyndon, locally known as ‘the rubber man’ who is a British-pseudo Sri Lankan who has been living in Hikkaduwa for over 15 years. He is an extremely knowledgeable master of yoga who I wish I could pack up in my suitcase (he would definitely fit) and carry around with me for the rest of my travels. Starting each morning with a bit of personal challenge and re-centering does amazing things for the soul! If you ever make it to Hikkaduwa go see Lyndon. Next I usually crossed the street to “the coffee shop’ (a real life game of Frogger, crossing the street when in Sri Lanka) and enjoyed a most delicious cup of cappuccino with a homemade coconut muffin. A really lovely little family runs this place… and coconut muffins, come on! I need to get the recipe. The remainder of my day generally consisted of surfing, sunbathing, avocado salads, beach jogs, and dinner with friends. Life is freaking good in Sri Lanka! Needless to say, I didn’t make it on a tour of the country once I fell in love with Hikkaduwa. There has been something very comforting to me on this trip about having routine. I lack routine in my daily life at home, an unfortunate consequence of being a floor nurse. Some weeks I’m up all night at work, the next week I’m spending my weekend in the hospital, and the week after I’m working every other day. You just never know! This schedule prevents me from establishing any type of routine and because of it I often feel lost and out of control. Having routine these past few months (in the village in Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc) has really been so good for me. I feel more connected to myself and my life and I actually know what’s going on. Somehow I really need to try to incorporate routine into my inconsistent life back home.

I did manage to leave Hikkaduwa for a few days, and explored the more southern coast of Sri Lanka. Helena (my norwegian friend) and I got a cabana in a lazy little beach town called 
Mirrissa for a few nights. There was less of a party scene here than in Hikka and it was the perfect place to chill out. The dutch girls came down for a couple nights as well and we went on a safari to Yala National Park. See I did something besides lay on the beach! The safari was meh to begin with and we saw the typical jungle wildlife… water buffaloes, crocodiles, exotic birds, giant iguanas, monkeys, etc. Then, when we were all ready to call it a day… we literally drove right into a HERD of elephants. It was amazing!! And so beautiful to see these incredible creatures up close in the wild. Even two babies! We sat in the jeep for several minutes, in silence with mouths gaping, just watching these majestic creatures move around us. Made the whole experience worth it. After Mirissa, I went back to Hikka for one more day before heading to the airport. I loved Hikka, and could have stayed longer. When I first arrived it was definitely still ‘off season’, which was really great because it gave us the opportunity to really get to know the locals and enjoy the place without all the crowds. The scene really started to change by the time I was leaving (high season is coming!), and I think I’m glad to have been there when I was. A lot of Russians in Hikka also, weird. I went to one last beach party last night then caught a van to the airport at 1:30am to make a 7am flight. Not that much fun. But the flight was easy, and here I am in Thailand!

I am staying in a hostel for 3 nights and then my long lost boyfriend arrives on Monday. It’s been more than two months since we’ve seen each other, so it will be a happy reunion that we are both very much looking forward to. This will be Conor’s first time traveling internationally so I am very excited to introduce him to my life as a backpacker! If all goes well, he’ll be hooked and next time I head out on an around the world adventure I will have a travel buddy! Conor and I have been together for over 2 and a half years and although he knows me very well, I am really looking forward to him seeing me in this environment. Because, as weird as it sounds, traveling is often a place where I feel most at home and am really happiest. I am excited for him to experience that and get a better understanding of why I feel like its necessary (because it is!) to pack up and head across the ocean like I did. It took a long time for me to convince myself that I’m not the most selfish person in the world for leaving my life behind for a few months, but I really needed to do it to reconnect with myself. I can’t be me and feel good about it without having an experience like this. Thank you Conor, for understanding me and still loving me. I am the luckiest girl.

Well, I am happy to be in Bangkok! I was here 7 years ago and swore one day I’d be back. It’s always been one of my very places. But I really can’t believe I’m actually back! Last time I was here I was volunteering in Bangkok for 6 weeks and was just a little 19 year old! AW! This experience will be different and I’m excited to see more of the country. Hope you all had a happy halloween and have good things coming to you this November! 

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A Mirissa sunset!

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Yoga with the rubber man!

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A Hikka dance party!

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Jungle Safari at Yala!

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Elephant friend!

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Trying to look the part of a surfer chick…