Monthly Archives: April 2016

Vietnam

Whoa. I don’t even know where to begin. I kept so busy in Vietnam that I couldn’t find a single free moment to sit down and write about it all. Right now I’m on a layover in Malaysia on my way to Bali, so I want to try to get a post in before the mayhem continues!

Vietnam was absolutely amazing. I’ll start from the beginning.

I didn’t do a whole lot of research before going to Vietnam. I booked my flight into Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and out of Hanoi in the north, so I had ten days to make it all the way up the coast. While I was traveling, I felt ridiculous for making that kind of itinerary for myself, but now that it’s said and done, I’m glad that I did.

I landed in HCMC in the afternoon and it took me over an hour to get through customs. There weren’t a lot of people, but the visa process in Vietnam isn’t as streamlined for tourists as it is in Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Before going to Vietnam, I had to get a letter granting permission to enter. There are tons of companies online to secure the letter, I just went with the cheapest one with good reviews. It cost $20.  I had to print the letter and an entry form to show at the airport in Bangkok before I was able to get my boarding pass. It’s unnecessarily complicated. Anyhow, upon arrival, I gave my passport and approval letter for them to process my visa. It cost another $20, and I was waiting for them to do it for about 45 minutes. For an extra $20, they could do it in 5, but I wasn’t in a rush.

I exchanged my currency right in the airport. I was shocked to see that their exchange rate was higher than when I searched on Google, and there wasn’t a fee to exchange it. I was happy about that.

The taxi to my first hostel cost about $15 for an hour or so ride, which is expensive by backpackers standards but pretty cheap compared to the United States. Within the first minute of leaving the airport, the mayhem that is HCMC traffic became a reality. Lines on the road are not observed, and I think it’s safe to say it was crazier than Thailand. It was organized chaos, though. Everyone was honking their horn the entire time, which is the complete opposite from Thailand.

When I got to my hostel I was really scared to cross the street. There was an intersection nearby without a stoplight where cars and motorbikes just had a free for all, and it somehow all worked out. I watched an elderly woman cross the street and noticed if you’re walking, you just have to trust that the cars and motorbikes will go around you. I met a few people from the hostel that showed me how to walk right into moving traffic and not get hit. It’s completely against all human instincts, but it’s absolutely nuts. The only option for crossing the street there was to walk confidently across and to not pause. The most accidents happen when someone doesn’t continue their pace, I guess. I found it pretty interesting.

My first meal in Vietnam was Pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup. I’ve had it before in Seattle, but trying the real thing was out of this world. The broth tasted about the same, but the noodles were incredible. They served it with a huge variety of condiments, and everything was delicious.

I only stayed in HCMC for 2 nights, as I was in a rush to make it up to Hanoi. I got a chance to visit the War Remnants Museum, which was so fascinating and depressing. It was all about the American War (what we call the War in Vietnam). The majority of the displays were photographs, but they had really detailed captions with lots of interesting information. There was a whole exhibit on how the war was protested all over the world. The most interesting exhibit to me was the Agent Orange Exhibit, because it was the most information I’ve ever learned about Agent Orange. I remember learning about it in high school, where they basically told us, “yeah, we used chemical warfare and it was bad…” but seeing the actual impacts of the chemical (that is still affecting Vietnamese people today) was pretty intense.

They had deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde, and that was probably the worst part for me. After spending a good amount of time there, I was pretty depressed but I’m glad I went.

My friend told me that I had to check out a city called “Dalat” on my way up north, so that was my first stop after HCMC. When I was planning the trip I made a note that tickets can be purchased online for the bus website, but because I didn’t actually buy the ticket I didn’t realize that they don’t accept foreign credit cards. I spent a good hour in the hostel trying to figure out why my card wouldn’t process, and I was frustrated once I found out why.

HCMC is pretty touristy, and they have a lot of little shops around the area I was staying in that offered bus tickets. The guy at the first shop that I went into wanted to charge me 2x the price that was listed on the website. When I told him about my dilemma with the credit card, he was nice and honest with me and told me that the bus company’s office was right around the corner. It took a total of 5 minutes, and I had my ticket booked and paid for with cash.

The bus ride to Dalat was really nice! The sleeper busses have two levels of reclining “beds,” and they weren’t too shabby!

Because I’d only been in Vietnam for 1 full day, I was pretty excited to get to relax and enjoy the scenery. The bus attendant was incredibly friendly. The bus was really cold, so he gave me a blanket, then he tucked me in like a burrito! He was really sweet and accommodating throughout the trip, and in hindsight I know now that a lot of Vietnamese people are like that.

Dalat was my favorite part of Vietnam, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of the climate and the hostel that I stayed in. The altitude of Dalat is about the same as Fort Collins, so it was a lot cooler. It’s the coldest I’ve felt since I left Colorado in September. When I say cold, I mean it was like 75 degrees, but it still felt incredible.

The hostel that I stayed in was called “Mr. Peace Backpackers Hostel,” and I picked it because of the incredible reviews online. I was greeted at the door by a Vietnamese guy about my age (“Mr. Peace”) who ran up and gave me a big hug and a cold water. As I got to know him more, he opened up into a pretty outrageous personality, and quite possibly one of the best hostel owners I’ve ever stayed with.

He convinced me to take the “Mr Peace Secret Tour” and I am so glad that I did. It started at 8am and didn’t end until 6:30pm. We went to see everything that is an absolute “must” in Dalat, which included: a silk spinning factory, an incense factory, a broom factory, a rice wine distillery, two waterfalls, a rural town, a gerber daisy farm, a rose farm, and a coffee plantation. The whole tour was done by motorbike, so I was on the back of one of the guides’ bikes. He had a real motorcycle, so it was nice and comfortable compared to the standard motorbike. They also gave me a legitimate helmet, and not the garbage cheap ones that usually come with motorbike rentals.

There were only 4 of us who signed up for the tour, so we had 4 bikes with 8 people. The cost of the tour was $40, but it was absolutely worth every penny.

We drove past a dog butcher, but Mr. Peace was gagging so much that he could hardly tell us about it. He basically muttered that people in Vietnam eat dogs. It was really sad and disturbing to see, so I’m not going to go into the details.

 

Aside from the tour being amazing, I found that I got along very well with everyone else that was staying at the hostel. I made friends with people from Mexico, Germany, Canada, and Switzerland, and we had the best time getting to know each other. I feel like I’ve known them for much longer than the short 3 days.

I ended up having such a great time in Dalat that I got distracted and didn’t get my bus/train combo ticket booked in time for the following day. I was planning on going up to Hoi An, which is about 18 hours to the north. I had booked a homestay for the following night (and had already paid for it) so I was upset with myself for not handling it before the offices had closed. Mr. Peace helped me book a combo bus ticket that left at noon that would get me to Hoi An at 6am the following morning at 6am. I was bummed that I had already paid for the homestay and was going to miss a night, but I couldn’t do much about it.

The bus ride up was pretty miserable, I’m not going to lie. The beds weren’t as spacious as the bus I had taken before. My backpack goes absolutely everywhere that I go because it has my laptop in it, so I was sharing the tiny bed with my backpack. Every two hours or so they would pull over to let everyone out to go to the bathroom, and it was impossible to get a solid sleep because they would turn all of the lights on and yell at everyone to go to the bathroom.   I arrived at my homestay at 6am and I was exhausted.

The homestay is the only homestay I’ve booked since I’ve been traveling around. They had great reviews online and I thought it would be nice to have a room to myself after weeks of shared dorm rooms. It was really rejuvenating to be able to rest up, and they gave me a pedal bike to ride around Hoi An.

Hoi An is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main reason that I fell in love with the place is that you can get custom made clothing for CHEAP. I was immediately suckered in by a lady who started talking to me on the street. Hoi An was probably the pushiest place I’ve been to so far. The people on the street will not accept no for an answer, and they follow you. This lady helped me find an ATM, then asked if I would at least take a look in her shop.  She had tons of photo albums of dress designs that she could do, and rows upon rows of different colors of fabric. I ended up picking out a dress and fabric (even though I don’t really have room for a dress…) and she made me a dress in just FOUR HOURS!!! She quoted me $20, and I was way too tired to try to bargain with her. I agreed because, let’s face it, a custom made dress for $20 is quite alright. I felt duped because I know that they would’ve taken half of that, but I’m not going to dwell on it.

She had me try it on when I went to go pick it up, and I have to say, it’s my new favorite dress! The sewing is very quality, and the material is soft. It fits me like a glove. I’d call it a “win.”

I also went to see the ancient ruins of “My Son” the Hindu temple outside of Hoi An, but honestly I’m starting to feel a little burnt out of temples. Also it was like 105 degrees.

I tried my new favorite Vietnamese food while I was in Hoi An. It’s called Bahn Xeo, and they were kind of like tacos. They take a savory pancake and fill it with bean sprouts, green onions, and pork/shrimp/tofu (depending on your preference) and then they deep fry them. To eat them, you soak a piece of egg roll wrapper in water and roll them into it with mint leaves and cucumber, and then they’re dipped in peanut sauce. They were incredible, and I’m going to have to find a recipe when I get home!

From Hoi An I had a flight to Hanoi because another 18 hours in a bus just wasn’t practical. I bought the ticket a month in advance and it cost me $30, so it seemed worth it to have more time in Hanoi and less time in a bus.

Random note: On the way to the airport I saw a dead guy. There was a motorcycle accident where the guy was dead but they just put a little piece of cardboard to cover part of his body.  It was on a highway and the police were just directing traffic around him. It was intense.

I be honest about my time in Hanoi, I didn’t find anything particularly charming about it. It was chaotic and congested, and I was just passing through on my way to the airport. I was only there for one full day, but I made the best of it and did a walking tour. I met some new friends from London and Romania, and we spent the day exploring together.

It’s so unbelievable how easy it is to meet people while traveling. Now that I’m thinking about it in the 10 days I was in Vietnam, I’ve somehow acquired 15 new friends on Facebook. Traveling alone is the best way to meet a lot of new international friends. While I was exploring with my new friends in Hanoi I remembered why I travel alone. It is fun to have people to talk to and explore with, but traveling with people really slows down the whole experience. We ended up with a crew of about 6, and moving around the city took forever because it seemed like everyone needed to stop for something at different times. Even coordinating dinner took a solid 2 hours because we were waiting for everyone to finish doing what they were doing, then we waited for everyone to get ready, and then finding a restaurant we all agreed on took forever, and then finding a restaurant that we all agreed on that could accommodate 6 people was nearly impossible.

My final dinner in Vietnam was amazing, though. Between 6 of us we ordered 10 different things off of the menu and shared them all. I had the most incredible spring rolls that I’ve ever eaten! I am definitely going to miss the food in Vietnam.

Now that I’m gone, I realize how much I wish I would’ve just traveled in Vietnam for the whole five weeks of travel. Although I love moving around and seeing new things, Vietnam was so beautiful and diverse that I wish I would’ve had a lot more time to explore. Usually when I travel through countries I consider it my last time, because each time I plan a trip I want to see a country that I haven’t seen before. Vietnam was the first country that I’ve traveled to that I decided that I will definitely be going back. I absolutely loved it there!

Well, I started writing this post when I was the airport in Malaysia but I didn’t quite have enough time to finish. I’m in Bali now and I’m completely worn out. I will be moving pretty fast through Bali as well, but I’ll have 26 hours of travel on my way home to post an update about Bali.

I also wish I could’ve uploaded some pictures to go with this post, but the wifi at my current hostel in Bali is impossibly slow. I’ll be doing a mass upload when I get home!!

It doesn’t seem real that I’m going to be going home in just a short 9 days!! It’s a bittersweet mix of feelings between excitement and sadness.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

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Cambodia: Part II

On Sunday night I decided to go to the Cambodian circus.  I had found it on TripAdvisor as a “must see,” and it’s been a while since I’ve last gone to a circus. Two Malaysian girls from my room at the hostel were also going, so we decided to split a tuk-tuk ride there. The tuk-tuk driver offered us a price of $4 total to take us there, wait for the show to be over, then bring us back. This is when I realized how hugely I had been ripped off before.  Most of the times that I overpaid I knew I was getting ripped off, but I have such a hard time bargaining over a difference of $3 when I know it means more to those people than it does to me.

Anyhow, the circus experience was phenomenal. Our tuk tuk driver wasn’t familiar with where it was, but I was able to use Google maps on my phone (despite not having service or wifi) to navigate us there. The two girls, the driver, and I were all pretty blown away that we were able to find it like that.

The venue was a traditional circus tent with seating to accommodate fewer than 200 people. There were three ticket options ranging from $18-35, but we booked the cheapest because we figured it wouldn’t be too bad. I’m actually glad I didn’t spend the $35, because we were still seated right up against the action.

The Phare Circus is a product of an NGO that allows underprivileged kids to attend imageperforming arts school for free.  It was created after the fall of the Khmer Rouge for a way for kids to heal from the hardships they’d experienced. The proceeds from the performances go back into keeping the school up and running.

The show lasted about an hour and a half. There was a projector screen with translations into various languages so everyone could keep up with the dialogue of the show. The storyline was about a disabled man who came to a village and was ridiculed by everyone, so he asked the gods to turn him into a beautiful woman. Once he was a beautiful woman, he tempted all of the men in the village, and everyone wanted the woman to like them. Disease came to the village, and they thought the woman was a curse, so they killed her. Once she was dead, the gods came in and said that they misunderstood the woman’s purpose and that disease came because they were shallow in who they were accepting. They apologized, the woman came back to life as the disabled man, and they all lived happily ever after.image

When they first came out on stage, they came out with such booming energy that I felt so excited my eyes welled up with tears. I think it was a combination of exhaustion and excitement, but I haven’t seen someone do that since I took my niece to Sesame Street Live. It’s hard to put my finger on what it was that was so electrifying about their energy. Throughout the story they performed outrageous stunts that kept the whole audience entertained.  At the end of the show they offered everyone a chance to go down and meet the performers. We decided not to, just due to the lines. It was a great experience, though, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone traveling in Siem Reap.

The day after the circus I went on a tour called, “A Day in the Life.” I booked online a few weeks in advance because the tour only operates 3 days a week, and they’re small groups. I was picked up at my hostel at 7:45am, and met up with my tour group which consisted of a mother and daughter from Maryland who are a military family currently living in Seol. We got into a van with our guide and a driver. Our guide, Lee, spoke flawless English with an Australian accent.

Lee told us about the tour company (Beyond Unique Escapes) and the nonprofit HUSK Cambodia. HUSK is an amazing nonprofit that focuses on improving the lives of people living in rural villages. They have built schools, implemented water filtration systems, imagethey build houses, and so much more.  Our first stop on the tour was at a market about 3 miles outside the city of Siem Reap. We walked around to pick out ingredients for the lunch that was going to be prepared later in the day. The market tour felt a little bit uncomfortable, because everyone was staring and they weren’t smiling. When I asked Lee about it, he said that it’s because the people aren’t used to seeing foreigners and they were probably scared.

After the market he took us to a Buddhist pagoda, where we walked around and learned more about the Buddhist culture in Cambodia. The pagoda had a school for boys, which prompted me to ask Lee about the girls. He said that the girls traditionally stay at home and learn how to be a wife. They’re not able to become monks anyway. That is where HUSK foundation comes in, as they’ve setup a school within the village with free access to over 400 children. We learned some startling statistics about the children attending school in Cambodia. The most amazing piece was that in the high tourist season, 75% of the school kids leave the village to sell souvenirs at the temples. Lee told us that it is important not to give money to the children, because it only adds to the begging cycle.  The HUSK school is 100% taught in English by volunteers. They don’t have enough resources to have a proper school schedule for everyone, so the age groups rotate on a schedule of three classes per week for an hour and a half each class. It was really startling to hear how little access to schooling the kids have, but amazing to hear of foundations such as HUSK that were there to help.

From the pagoda, we went to each pick out a fruit tree. I guess a tree was included in the price we paid for the tour. They were grown by a local farmer, and we were going to plant imagethem in the house of a local family. I picked a custard apple tree, and then we got onto carts being pulled by cows to get to our next site. We met a local family who taught us how to weave together palm leaves to fix a wall of their house. In total we weaved 15 panels, and it felt like we actually helped the family. They seemed very grateful, and it didn’t seem at all like we were being intrusive tourists. We planted the trees and headed out, but not without being profusely thanked by the family.

We got to meet some local women sewing stuffed animals to sell as fair trade handicrafts. The nonprofit provided them with the materials to sew, and they directly received a part of the proceeds from the sales. The building that they were working in was constructed using plastic water bottles packed with plastic bags, and was built by a school group from Canada. All of which was organized through HUSK. I can’t overstate just how much this foundation was doing to directly benefit the people of the village.

I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty during the entire thing. A big part of me regrets the decision to teach for profit in Phuket. After I saw the lack of schooling available to the kids in Cambodia, I wished I would’ve spent the last 7 months of my time helping them instead.

Before I decided to go to Phuket I had been accepted to serve in the PeaceCorps in El Salvador. My main priority was to make a difference and gain cultural experience in return. After applying, but before being accepted, I backed out. I think what made me change my mind was the lack of individual freedom and the 28-month time commitment. I am content with my decision not to go, but there’s still an ounce of regret there. In Phuket I had all the freedoms of a 25-year-old Westerner, and I stayed for an ideal amount of time. The main problem is; I wasn’t working to improve the livelihood of an underprivileged community, which was something that originally spurred my desire to travel abroad again.

It’s a complicated balance, I guess. I know this is not my last trip abroad. There are endless opportunities to volunteer abroad for shorter timeframes, and I know now that I’ll just need to seek them out next time. Just a learning experience, I guess.

Getting back on track though…

The tour felt less like a tour, and more like an insight into the efforts of HUSK Cambodia to improve the lives of underprivileged communities. It was an inspiring and humbling day.

The next day I left for Bangkok, where I am now. There will be a whole new post on the Thai New Year coming up soon, but I’m done writing for now. J

Also, I am heading to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam tomorrow at 11am. Everything is moving so fast it is getting hard to keep up with all that I have to say throughout these travels!

 

Stay tuned!

p.s.

I have my laptop connected to a wifi hotspot from my cellphone, since I am trying to use the last remaining data on my Thai SIM card. I was able to upload a lot more pictures, so make sure to check them out!

 

Cambodia: Part I

Well, I am in Bangkok for the 2nd time now! I spent the past 5 days in Siem Reap, but the internet connection at the hostel was pretty bad. I wrote the following post on Sunday, April 10,  but was unable to post until now. This is Cambodia: Part I. I’ll try to get the rest out soon!

I flew into Cambodia on Thursday morning. I will be honest here, I didn’t do a whole lot of research before I came. I guess I got lazy about it because I figured I’d only be here for five days.

When I was at the airport in Bangkok getting ready to leave, I went to a money exchange counter and asked to change the equivalent of $100 from Thai baht into Cambodian riel. The lady at the counter laughed at me, and said “mai mee” which means “we don’t have” in Thai. She held up USD. I had read online that USD can be used in Cambodia, so I switched the money over to USD. I had been thinking that it was an optional currency- that you can basically choose which you’d like to use. That’s not a lie, but it’s a little less optional as I had found out. Cambodia generally uses the USD for everything over $1.  Everything under $1 is paid for in Riel. For example, when I first got here I paid for a $5.25 meal with 10 USD, and my change was 4USD and 3000 Riel. 1000 real is equal to 25 cents. I was perplexed by it for the first day, but now it makes a lot more sense.

I also didn’t realize that Cambodians drive on the right side of the road. I had finally gotten used to the traffic direction in Thailand that crossing the street here took me a minute to figure out. Since it’s what I grew up knowing, it’s been easy enough to adjust back.

When I got to my hostel, exhaustion had finally caught up to me. In the previous 3 days I had flown to Bangkok, took a 2 hour train ride up to Ayutthaya and back, and then flown to Siem Reap. I started to feel like it was necessary to relax a bit. The Thursday that I got here was pretty much a rest day. The hostel does laundry for $1 per KG, so I put on my pajamas and turned the laundry into be washed, and then I took a nap.

The lady at the desk said the clothes would probably be done by 9pm. I went to check at 9pm, and she said they’d be done the following day by 9am. I woke up at 8am the next morning ready to explore. At 9am I checked to see if my laundry was done but it still wasn’t. I ended up waiting around in the lounge in my pajamas until 1pm.  I was pretty content with just resting up.

Once I went out to explore, I realized how crazy it is that I only flew an hour on the plane, and I landed in a country that has some pretty distinct differences from Thailand. The imagemanner of driving, the writing, the language, currency, and even the landscape. There is a stark difference in the terrain. Whereas Thailand has a lot of lush greenery, Siem Reap is dry as a bone. The roads are mostly all dirt, and they’re in terrible shape. It was quite a shock at first.

The poverty is a lot more obvious than it is in Bangkok or Phuket, and with it comes a lot of begging. Walking down the street here, it’s amazing how many times you have to tell people “no.” There are tuk-tuks every few feet with men hollering, “where you go, lady?” “tuk tuk, lady?” and massage parlours with women shouting “you want massage? Massage, lady?”

There are children on the street selling packs of 10 postcards for $1. They all have the exact same schpiel, “Lady, you want to buy postcard? $1 for 10. See? One, two, three….” And imagethey count out all 10 postcards. It’s heartbreaking. They’re on vacation from school right now (just like Thailand), so I’m not sure if they normally beg on the streets or if they’re just doing it on the holiday. It’s tough to decide whether giving them $1 would really help them, or if it’s encouraging them to beg for money as a way of life. Hard to say.

The 2nd day I was here I had a really hard time saying no to people. There are hundreds of landmine victims playing music on the streets, selling books, and finding alternate ways of panhandling. As I was eating lunch, I was approached by a man with both of his arms amputated at the elbow. He had a basket of books around his neck, and he was using what was left of his arms to pick them up and try to sell them to me one by one. He had a piece of paper that he took out of the basket that explained that he was a parent and couldn’t work because he was damaged by the landmines. I didn’t buy any of his $15 books, but I put $2 in his pocket. I felt really bad for him.

5 minutes after I did that, I was approached by a man in a wheelchair with no legs. He was selling books also. He gave me a piece of paper, gave me his schpiel, and asked if I’d like to buy a book for $15. I told him I didn’t have any money, and so he left. Less than 2 minutes later, I was approached by another landmine victim. And then a child selling magnets and bracelets. And then a street performer set up his act right in front of my dinner table, jumped through a ring of knives and fire, and then held out a hat from a tip. It because apparent that I had to keep a tough will and hang onto my money, otherwise I’d be flat broke.

Sticking with my budget has been a tough task overall. There are so many things that are $1 that they all add up, and soon I’m out $20 without even remembering what it was I paid for.

I’ve also been spending too much on food. Siem Reap is a huge tourist area, so there are restaurants of all kinds, with prices that are on par with prices in the U.S. I’ve been spending more on meals than I should be, because they have menu items such as feta salads. FETA. I had feta for the first time in 7 months, and I could’ve died. I need to remind myself that because I only have 5 days in Cambodia, I need to stick with authentic Khmer food.

So far, all of the Khmer curries I’ve had are, and I hate to say it, just not on par with Thai imagecurry. They’re still good, but they’re not nearly as strong or spicy. I’ve also gotten lots of questionable cuts of meat. I’m trying to hang on to every last bit of my sense of adventure when it comes to food, but it’s been tough. They have tons of edible bugs here, from tarantulas to scorpions, but I just can’t bring myself to try one. I’m growing pretty tired of dinner being a mystery dish, and I think a big part of me is gravitating toward the feta salad because I’m craving the confidence to know that I’ll enjoy my dinner and it won’t be a waste.

I’m already 1200 words in and I haven’t even gotten to Angkor Wat. I’m going to have to stop fluffing around with these posts.

So the hostel that I’m staying in helps organize tours. They have a board with the tour offers on them, and it’s easier than walking around trying to find a decent tour in town. I saw a tour advertised on the board for $6 that included 5 different temples (including Angkor Wat). It was a sunrise tour that left at 4:30am. I thought it was a pretty good deal, so I signed up. The price was cheap because it was a shared tuk tuk ride between 4 people. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t going to be a guided tour.

Leaving the hostel at 4:30am was a weird experience. There were people still awake and partying from the night before, and I was too groggy to comprehend anything. There were four of us that were put into a tuk tuk and sent on our way to the ticket office.  One of the girls that was awake from the night before was part of my tour. It was cool to talk to other travelers about their travel timelines, where they were going and for how long, what their plans were, etc. We got to the Angkor Wat ticket office at 5:15. A single day pass is $20, or a 3-day pass is $40. Despite being here for five days (with the sole purpose of visiting Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat), I opted for the single day pass. Every single person I’ve talked to who has been here has told me that three days of touring is exhausting and overwhelming. After having completed the one-day tour, I’m glad that I only bought the single day.

The temples that we visited were amazing. I am so glad that I woke up as early as I did toimage see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It was a beautiful experience. The other temples were pretty cool too, but the problem with not having a tour guide is literally having zero information on the temples themselves. They hardly had signs in English about the history of the temples. Most of the information signs were about archeology and restoration of the structures. They were cool to look at, but I felt like I didn’t get the full experience without a tour guide. Nobody else in our tuk tuk group wanted one. By 5:30am the German girl started to sober up and she complained about absolutely everything. She was really dragging us down. We were dropped off at each temple for about an hour, and she kept trying to convince us to leave early so that we could get back to the hostel because she wanted to nap. I had to try pretty hard to not let her dampen my spirits.

Even at 5:30am, the temples were absolutely packed with people. It’s funny when you look at the pictures I took you’d think that there wasn’t anyone else around. The truth is, most imageof the most famous parts of the temples had a line to wait in if you wanted your picture taken. I took a bunch of cool pictures of the sunrise over Angkor Wat, but I was taking them alongside hundreds of people.

For each temple I stood tried to seek out an English speaking group tour and follow them around. It worked out well. As it turns out, one of the temples that we went to was where they filmed the movie “Tomb Raider.” I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t followed a random tour. It was pretty hard to stay motivated to tour the temples because it is unbearably hot here. By the time we’d gone to our 5th temple at 11am, it was 104 degrees. The dress code is very strict about women covering their shoulders and legs, so I was in a lot of clothes too.

I guess if I were to do it over again, I would still purchase the single day pass, but I’d look for a guided tour to get the full experience.

Today I took it easy again, and did a walk around the old city checking out the markets and little stalls. The souvenirs are eerily similar to the souvenirs in Thailand. I’m pretty confident I’ll see the same souvenirs in Vietnam and Indonesia as well. There are some really beautiful fair trade handicrafts, but with the backpack as small as I’m carrying, I have to be strict with myself about not buying anything.

I did, however, buy a baseball cap. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve actually worn a hat around since I was a kid.  I’ve read dozens of packing lists for SE Asia and they always include hats, but I’ve always ignored them.  I finally caved and bought a hat after walking around touring Bangkok and Siem Reap, because the sun has been horrible to my face. Despite loading up on sunscreen every couple of hours, I have another sun rash across my forehead that’s worse than the first time I got it back in Phuket. So far the hat seems to be helping.

Ahhh, there’s so much more to say, but I’m afraid this post is long enough already. I have two more days here. I’m going to the circus tonight and on a “Day in the Life” tour tomorrow, so I’ll have plenty more to write again soon. I also have tons of pictures to upload, but I’ll have to wait for a hostel with better wifi. I also had not one, but two sketchy massage experiences in Cambodia, so I’ll try to include those into Cambodia: Part II.

It’s also impossible to upload a lot of pictures given the crappy wifi situation, but I’ll be uploading a lot once I get to a better connection.

Thanks for reading!

Arthur

This morning I made my way from Ayutthaya to Bangkok. I arrived at the train station at 11, not realizing that the next train wasn’t leaving until 12:15. I waited in the 98-degree heat just trying to keep a positive attitude. 12:15 came around and as I walked to the platform, an officer advised me that the train was running late, and it wasn’t going to arrive until 12:45. I was sweaty and frustrated. Once the train had finally arrived, I boarded to find out that the only empty space to sit down was on an edge of a bench. It was shaping up to be a rough morning.

About 20 minutes into the ride, a bigger seat opened up and I moved spots. A woman got on the train and was selling frozen towels and cold water. Things were starting look up.

I was fidgeting with the towel wrapper when the old man sitting across from me took it from my hands, twisted it up, and then popped it. I wasn’t the only one on the train who was surprised. He let out a little laugh and handed it back to me.

He introduced himself as Arthur. He pulled out a few rubber bands from his pocket, and my miserable train morning turned into a hilarious adventure.

He started doing funny little tricks with the rubber bands. He put one over his pointer and imagemiddle fingers, then waved a hand and they “magically” transferred onto his ring finger and pinky. Immediately after, he taught me step by step how to do it myself. He made me do it seven times by myself, and then gave me a thumbs up. Then he showed me a new trick. Then he taught me how to do the new trick. Then after I had done it seven times by myself, we moved onto a new one.

Once I’d learned the rubber band tricks, he looked around the floor and found a straw, and he started to teach me tricks with the straw. I cannot state enough how incredibly entertaining this all was. We were clowning around and laughing so hard that the other people on the train started watching, and it was quite entertaining. Did I mention this man only knew about 5 words in English?

After the straw tricks, he got out a coin. After the coin, he found 2 matchsticks. After the matchsticks, and I kid you not, he reached into his luggage and pulled out two metal forks. He balanced a matchstick and forks on top of a water bottle on a rickety train.image

The whole time this was happening, he had a squeaky toy in his back pocket. He would randomly squeak it, and then look around like someone else had done it. My stomach hurt from laughing.

This man was an absolute gem of a human being. In between teaching me his sweet tricks, he noticed I had a blister on my foot. He took out some tissue and Neosporin and bandaged it up for me! I was blown away at his kindness.

It was such a privilege to be able to have Arthur’s company on the two-hour train ride. The time flew by without realizing it, and I had hardly noticed the 98-degree heat on board the train. Even though I hadn’t known him for long at all, it was sad to say goodbye! As we were getting off the train, he said “Don’t forget me!”

 

Trust me, I won’t!

Thaime to Move On

Well, I have about 24 hours left in Phuket, and I’m feeling surprisingly at peace. On Friday I was a hot mess.

imageFriday was my last day of teaching the kindergarten orientation. It wasn’t too emotional to say goodbye to that group of kiddos because I’d only been teaching them for a few weeks. The heaviest part of leaving my classroom was looking back at all of the work I’d put into it. I remembered the nights I stayed at the school until 8pm making decorations for the class, and how excited my kids were when they saw the changes. I felt happy that I was leaving the classroom warmer than it was when I got there.I also left the new teacher with a desk that was much cleaner than my predecessor had left it!

Saying goodbye to the staff at the school was bittersweet. There were two teachers in the office that I just didn’t jive with, so I was happy to wave them goodbye. It was especially hard to say goodbye to my supervisor and the boss. My supervisor basically taught me how to be a kindergarten teacher. She has been so helpful and supportive throughout the semester, and I’ve cried on her a few times. I was sad to say goodbye to the main boss because I really enjoyed working for him. He’s in the process of hiring 6 new teachers by May, so I felt pretty bad contributing to that number.  He let me know (again) that I was the only member of the kindergarten staff that they were actually considering to take over as kindergarten manager. I truly wish I enjoyed teaching more.

The final week in my apartment was stressful because I was tasked with getting rid of everything that wouldn’t fit into my backpack. I had somehow managed to acquire quite a bit of junk since I moved here. I think since I thought that I would be staying in my apartment for a year, that I might as well make it look and feel like home. I ended up imageselling most of it on buy/sell Facebook groups, but for a fraction of what I paid only six short months ago. The most expensive item that I’d purchased was my motorbike helmet for $45. It’s pretty unusual to see a Thai person wearing any sort of helmet, let alone a helmet with full facial coverage. It made me feel like a power ranger, and it gave me the courage to drive on the highway.

I had the helmet posted online for over a week. I dropped the price from $30 to $20 to $10, and nobody wanted it. I was talking to my boss about it and he joked that if it didn’t sell, then I should just give it to him. Thursday night someone had offered me the equivalent of $6 for it. At that point I just decided that I might as well just give it to my boss.

I didn’t realize how excited he was going to be when I gave it to him.  He gave me 5 beers that he had under his desk. This is why I loved having this ridiculous British man as a boss. That probably sounds bad that he had beer at an elementary school, but there’s a story behind this. The English company gave him money to buy lunch for the whole office, and he’d asked us if we wanted lunch or if we wanted “take away beers.” We had decided on the beer, and the 5 beers under his desk were left-overs from that day.  Needless to say, I’m happy I decided to forego the $6 sale of the helmet and just gift it to him.

I came to Thailand with a duffle bag full of mostly clothes. I had a ton of clothes to get rid of. When I’ve lived abroad in the past, it was easy to just pass off the clothes to the local friends I had made. This time was different, because as I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t really made any Thai friends. I ended up giving the bulk of them to the Thai secretary of the school, who looks through them first and then donates them to the Burmese, who are a hugely disadvantaged population here in Thailand. I felt pretty good about getting rid of a bunch of stuff, because it was easily going to go to good use.

I was finished with class at noon on Friday, so I went back to my apartment and started packing my backpack and getting the rest of my stuff out of my apartment. I started to imagepanic a bit when I realized just how small a 40L backpack is. I’m not even 100% convinced it’s actually 40L because it’s a knockoff backpack (yes, just like knockoff purses, you can find knockoff backpacks in Thailand). I think the most stressful part of packing the bag was trying to situate my laptop in a safe way. Before I came here I bought an HP Stream Notebook for $170. It has been incredibly useful for lesson planning, watching movies, and blogging. Now that I’m going to be on the move, it’ll be weighing me down a bit, but I’m still happy I brought a cheaper notebook rather than an expensive one. The problem I’m running into when I pack is that the bag is packed so tightly that I feel like there could start to be some pressure on the laptop itself. I’m going to have to pull the laptop out of the bag each time I go through security for the 11 flights ahead… It’s just going to be an adventure. We’ll just say that.

It was about 2pm and I had my bags packed and I was all set to leave. My landlord wanted me to wait around until the evening so that she could check the place. After I’d packed everything, I realized that the place was in the exact same condition that it was when I arrived. My landlord is keeping the entire deposit (2 month’s rent) because I was leaving before the year was up. She refused to negotiate with me, and wouldn’t let find someone to take over the lease so that I could recover some of my deposit. As I was sitting there looking around the place, I decided not to wait around for her. She has a copy of the mailbox key, so I threw the keys in the mailbox and headed out.

I felt a little rebellious leaving like that, but I had a feeling that she was going to try to charge me for something else. She was already screwing me over on the deposit, so I figured that if there was anything that needed fixing she had more than enough money to take care of it. That’s what a security deposit is for, right?

I am SO GLAD I left when I did. Later that night she started rapid-firing angry Facebook messages to me. In case I haven’t mentioned it, she’s a 26 year old ladyboy diva who is constantly posting pictures of her new Gucci bags and Chanel perfumes.  She started messaging me “WHERE YOU GO? YOU HAVE TO PAY CLEAN FEE AND ELECTRICITY. YOU PROMISE. YOU NO STAY ONE YEAR.” I was absolutely baffled that she was demanding that I pay more. I found the clause in the lease where it said that the deposit would cover any outstanding bills and cleaning fees. She tried to say no, that I had to pay it because I didn’t stay one year. She was so angry and threatening that a part of me thought I should drive back and pay it… but there’s no way. That’s the reason I paid a security deposit in the first place. She said she’s going to the rental agency to talk to them about it, and I told her to go ahead. If it turns out that she’s right, and somewhere there’s a clause in the lease that I missed, then I will go ahead and pay it. Until then, I’m not going to be taken advantage of by her. It’s not my first rodeo with rental agencies. Turns out, you can fly halfway across the world, and they’re still trying to screw you out of your money.

I am staying at a hostel in Phuket Town, the area that I was staying in when I started my journey here. I love staying in this area, because everything I need is within walking distance. As I had previously mentioned, I was a mess when I arrived her on Friday night. I was sad about leaving the school, angry with my landlord, and anxious about my travels ahead. I decided I was going to make myself go get a massage. I figured if holding a pen between your teeth forces you to smile, which in turn makes you happy, then getting a massage would force me to relax… even though a “massage” in Thailand equates to getting beat up by a Thai woman.

I went to the same spa that I got my first pedicure in Thailand, because the building is up to safety standards and the place is relatively clean. I saw on the menu that they had a 1 hr massage/1 hr facial combo for $30. At first it seemed expensive, because I’m used to living off of a Thai salary, but then I realized I better take advantage of it before I leave! $30 for two hours in a spa is an absolute steal.

I chose an aromatherapy massage, which wasn’t a traditional Thai massage at all. I had gotten mentally prepared to get the usual beating,  but it was the complete opposite. It was basically an hour of her putting oil on my skin. BORING! The facial ended up being the brutal part.

I chose a “honey cucumber” facial because it was the only one on the menu that didn’t include facial bleaching. It sounded nice and relaxing. After that experience, I will now permanently associate honey with pain. She poured honey all over my face (including my eyelids!) and gave it a vigorous massage. I have some peach-fuzz sideburns going on, and I quickly found out that baby-fine hair and honey do not go together well. The honey stuck to the hairs, and each time she swiped her hands across them it felt like she was slowly trying to wax it off. If that wasn’t bad enough, she then proceeded to take her long nails and poke me all over the face. It felt like she had thrown some bird seed onto the honey and let the birds eat it off. It was the most ridiculous facial ever! She was compensating for the gentle massage, I guess.

Needless to say, it took my mind off of the emotional day, and I could relax at my hostel a little better.

Yesterday (Saturday) morning I woke up and went on a tour to Koh Racha. It’s the last time imageIt’s the last tour I’ll be doing in Phuket (and probably Thailand), but it was the perfect  tour to end with. Koh Racha is an island about 30 minutes away by speedboat. The speedboat ride was wild (he was going way too fast for the size of the waves), and I laughed as the boat full of Chinese tourists clung to their seats in horror. I’ve done a fair share of tours by this point, so I was used to it. Wild ol’ Thailand, baby. I’m going to miss it for sure.

We did about an hour of snorkeling, had a buffet lunch, and then had 3 and ½ hours to
hang out on Racha Island. I had coconut ice cream and hung out on the beach, and it was the perfect way to say goodbye to Phuket. I think the waters of Koh Racha are the clearest of any of the beaches I’ve been on, so it was like I had saved the best for last.

I woke up this morning and feel at absolute peace. I am shifting into adventure mode, and I’m so excited for the next five weeks.  I don’t have to worry about driving around anymore, and I can wander the streets and enjoy my final time here. My flight leaves for Bangkok tomorrow, and I feel like it’s time to go.

I have a solid itinerary down for the first 4 weeks of the trip. I have everything planned up until Bali, which I’m going to try to complete today. I decided that it’s cheaper and much more fun to book hostels, so my rule of thumb for this trip is to not exceed $10 per night for accommodation. So far it’s been easy! The place I booked in Siem Reap is $5 per night. I think I will splurge and stay in a beachside resort for my last couple of days in Bali, but until then, I’m back to the life of dorm rooms and shared bathrooms.

I’m sure I’ll have plenty of downtime to blog during plane, train, and bus rides. Moving around and seeing new sights definitely motivates me to write! Stay tuned!!