Day 267: Driving a Motorbike in the Rain

It was cold at the homestay in northern Vietnam. I grabbed a blanket from the empty mattress pad next to me and put it on top of mine. That kept me warm and comfortable through the night. As I ate breakfast, I talked with the three travellers from Holland about medical school and how they needed a break. I told them about my travels and we had a great conversation about finding the right path in life.

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Before we left, two of the women from the house took a picture with me because of my height. They were dressed in beautiful local garments and I tried my best to thank them for their wonderful hospitality and “happy water.”

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Opi instructed us to hit the road, so Ben, Berry, and I strapped our backpacks onto our motorbikes and we were off. It was very foggy and humid outside. It was still cold, so I wore my coat and bike gloves.

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We arrived at Lung Khuy Cave and started hiking to the entrance. The path was at a slight incline and on the side of a mountain. The fog was so thick, it was like walking into a cloud. Very large spider webs perched on top of bushes and looked like floating clouds among the foliage.

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We passed a woman walking down the path with a huge bundle of tree stalks and leaves neatly bound to her back. It must have been three times her size. We had seen this while driving, but it was easier to see just how large the bundles were now that we were closer.

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As we climbed the mountain, it got steeper and steeper and I started to sweat. I took off my coat and tied it around my waist. The path was dirt and then turned into flat stones. However, the fog made the stones wet and slippery. Because they were at a steep angle, I slipped a couple of times, but was able to keep myself from falling. Then the path turned into steps. So many steps.

We arrived at the cave after 40 minutes and had it all to ourselves, which made it peaceful, but also a little creepy. There was a slightly elevated metal path that wrapped around the cave. As we walked through, Opi told us stories about the cave. He pointed to a patch of bright green grass. It started growing when they put lights in that section.

Opi explained that the locals believe there are spirits in the cave because one time a guy and his son broke a stalactite off and took it home. Shortly after, they died in a mysterious way. The cave has only been open to the public since 2015.

As we headed back down the mountain, my right knee was hurting pretty badly. It had been hurting on and off for the last two months, which was really frustrating me. I tried to ignore the pain by talking and distracting myself. Then I realized I was talking a lot. I said, “Opi is probably annoyed with me.” He chimed in, “I like listening. It’s easier for me to understand your accent over the English and European accents.”

We stopped for lunch and as we were walking to our table, I noticed that some women were staring at me. I asked Opi if they were staring because my water bottle was so big. He said, “No, it’s your height.” I smiled and sat down. We ate fried rice with an egg on top and it was delicious.

Before we left our lunch spot, I put my raincover on my backpack because it was slightly misting outside. Right after we started driving, it was full-on raining. I regretted not putting my rain jacket on. My coat was keeping me warm, but it was quickly getting covered in water. It was so cold that I could see my breath.

The water droplets were so tiny that I couldn’t have my visor down. Once the tiny droplets covered it, I lifted it up so that I could see. Rain was getting into my eyes and water dripped from my visor onto my face. I squinted and tried my best to see in the fog. The visibility was poor as we climbed the mountain.

Going down the mountain was slippery, so Opi took it slow. Adding to all of this were trucks racing by. We were all just trying to get to the bottom safely. All I could think about was how cold and wet I was.

When we got back down to the base of the mountain, it was warmer and no longer raining. The roads were still wet, but I was so relieved to have the rain out of my eyes. After passing through some towns, we were back on the flat, main road and stopped to take pictures. I put my rain jacket on because my coat was too wet.

Two French guys and one girl stopped to take pictures too. They had just left Ha Giang and noticed my wet helmet and asked if it was raining. I explained that it was raining up the mountain and they should put on their wet weather gear. I also told them to make sure they down-shift into second gear when climbing the mountain.

Shortly after, we arrived back in Ha Giang. After dropping our backpacks at Opi’s hostel, we drove to a massage place to help our sore muscles. Opi translated for us and we all agreed to do the herbal bath and a massage. I was taken upstairs to a small room with a massage bed. Then the petite woman showed me a door on the other side of the room where a bathtub was. She turned the water on and put herbs inside. She didn’t speak any English, so we had a hard time communicating. I was trying to ask how long I should stay in there, but she didn’t tell me. When I had asked Opi earlier, he said the bath would be around 30 minutes.

The woman left the room. I was uncomfortable undressing because there was just a frosted glass wall between the small room with a bathtub and the massage room. Then there was frosted glass from the massage room to the hallway.

I quickly undressed and did my best to squeeze myself into the small (but tall) tub. I relaxed and was hoping that the herbs would help my muscles. Then after 20 minutes, the woman came into the room. She pointed for me to get out and go to the massage table. I was embarrassed because I was naked in the tub.

I asked her to leave so I could undress, but she wasn’t budging. I motioned for her to leave and she stepped into the other room (on the other side of the frosted glass). I got out and as I dried off, she came back into the room. Frustrated, I tried to cover myself up. She pointed to the massage table and I kept asking if I should put my clothes on.

I was very unclear if I should be dressed or not, so I put my underwear on and climbed on the massage table. The blanket was too tiny to cover most of me, but I did my best. I was on my back like the woman instructed me. She was behind my head and rubbing my shoulders. Then she started to rub my forehead and face.

The pressure the woman used on my forehead was starting to really bother me. I tried my best not to complain and figured she’d move on soon. Except she didn’t. Over and over, she squeezed my forehead. I couldn’t take it anymore and instinctively moved my head, waved my hands and said, “Enough.” She moved back to massaging my shoulders, but it was so forceful, it was painful. Then she was back to the forehead. I had to push her away again.

As the woman painfully pressed into my shoulders, she typed something into her phone on Google translate and showed it to me. Google didn’t translate well and it said something about a man doing it. She also pointed to the door. Confused, I shrugged my shoulders. She kept showing it to me and I said I didn’t want a man doing the massage.

The woman didn’t give up. She kept speaking vietnamese to me and I’d speak English to her. She stopped messaging again to show me her next Google translate. It was something about “a woman massaged her son.” I said I didn’t understand and typed that into the Google translate.

The woman moved around, punching my arms and legs. Then she squeezed my right knee so hard that I immediately pulled it away in pain. I tried telling her “not so hard.” I made a face of pain, hoping to convey that she was pressing too hard. I was baffled as to how a woman so small could have such a tight grip and cause so much pain.

Next, the woman had me turn on my stomach so she could massage my back. It was better, but she still kept talking to me in Vietnamese and I’d explain that I couldn’t understand her. All of a sudden, she left the room. She came back with Opi who was also mostly naked. Opi said, “She wants to know if you think it’s too hard.” Trying to cover myself up, I said, “Yes! It’s too hard.” Opi translated and left the room.

Towards the end of the massage, the petite woman started walking on my back. She held a pole on the ceiling and walked all over me, including the back of my legs and arms. While she was very petite and had soft feet, it was still painful! I couldn’t wait for the massage to be over. Then the women tried to crack my back and I’m not very flexible. She moved my body all around. Once that was complete, the massage was over. The woman breathed heavily and we laughed at the ridiculous situation we were in. She must have thought I was a giant.

I got dressed and met everyone in the lobby. I explained to them that I had the worst massage of my life, how much it hurt, and that we could not communicate. Ben and Berry said their couples’ massage hurt as well. We drove back to the hostel and I was very dramatic in showing how the woman tried to move me around, walked on me, and punched me. We all laughed about it.

Ben and Berry had to catch their bus, so we said our goodbyes. We hoped to meet up again when we were in the middle of Vietnam. It was hard saying goodbye. They are such good people and I really enjoyed their company. I felt better knowing I’d probably see them in a week or so.

Back at the hostel, Opi and I sat on the couch in the lobby and talked about his business. Those of us on the tour all agreed to write him five-star reviews because we all had such an incredible experience. We warned Opi that his business is going to continue to grow because he does a great job at creating a local experience and is such a fun guy to be around. We cautioned him not to grow too fast, or the quality of his tours might suffer.

I told Opi that I had a hard time finding his company on Trip Advisor because it wasn’t showing “motorbike” tour. We searched through the app together to find ways to change the headings.It listed “hop-on/hop-off” and I showed a picture of a bus that is a traditional hop-on/hop-off bus and told him that he should remove it from his heading because it might be confusing people. I also proofread his listing to correct some grammatical errors.

Opi and I had a nice time talking about business, how to succeed, and our future plans. Opi told me that I did a good job driving and he seemed proud of me. He said, “When I was first showing you the bike, your hands were shaking and I was worried. My friends noticed it too. But then you took off and were able to do it.” I laughed because I didn’t realize my hands were shaking.

It was time for dinner and my night bus wouldn’t be arriving for awhile, so I walked down the street and across a bridge. I found a small restaurant and looked at the sign. I saw the same fried rice and egg that I had for lunch. I enjoyed it so much that I bought it again. I asked the woman how much it cost. She didn’t speak much English, so she typed the price on her calculator on her cell phone and showed it to me. That was a frequent tactic that locals used to show the price. They knew the numbers, but didn’t know how to pronounce them. It was a successful way to communicate.

I walked back to the hostel and Opi and Eddie (the other tour guide) were eating in the kitchen. I joined them and we had a shot of happy water. Opi had arranged for my VIP night bus to take me back south and it would be arriving soon.

I had such a great time with them. Even though I couldn’t talk to Eddie much because he didn’t speak Enlgish, his actions told me all I needed to know. He was kind. He was driving behind me on the last day and stopped to pick up my chapstick when he saw that it fell out of my backpack. I was grateful that he grabbed it. When it started raining and it was foggy outside, he pulled up next to me and switched my headlights on. He had a caring and kind soul and I appreciated that.

All of a sudden, the VIP bus arrived early and I had to grab my bags and get on before they left. Opi helped get my bags to the driver. Then Eddie came to the living room with shots of happy water. We all cheered, clinked our glasses, and took the shot. We hugged goodbye and Opi walked me outside to the bus. We hugged again and wished each other well and to stay in touch. I was going to miss Opi – his positive spirit, the good conversations, the goofiness, and friendship.

I got on the bus and the driver asked me to take off my shoes and put them in a plastic bag, so I did. There was one aisle with pods on both sides and two floors. The pods had a reclining padded seat, a small TV, a water bottle and snack, a curtain to the outside and to give privacy to the inside, and a blanket. I was thrilled to have this bus instead of the horrible sleeper bus I traveled in on my way there. This bus only cost about $5.00 more and was definitely worth it. The man instructed me to climb the ladder into the top bunk in the second row.

I laid down and curled up under my blanket. I thought about my time on the Ha Giang Loop. It was incredible. The scenery was magnificent, the motorbike was an adventure, the locals were hospitable, and the people on my tour was a blast! We all became fast friends and bonded really well. Opi created a family-like experience, put safety as a top priority, and tended to all of our needs. I was happy that I chose that tour. As I look back on the month I spent in Vietnam, this tour was definitely the highlight. It was exhilarating, beautiful, and just so much fun! When people ask me what I loved most about Vietnam, I always tell them about this tour and how the Ha Giang Loop should not be missed.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

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Day 266: The Chinese Border

After we said goodbye to Erik and Melana, we continued our trek through the mountains in northern Vietnam. Ben and Berry rode on the back of the bike of two guides and I continued to drive my own bike. It was colder that day, 48°F (8°C), so I put my coat on instead of my wind jacket. It helped, but the wind still made its way through and made me feel a little cold.

Opi told me I was one of the few people who came prepared for cold temperatures. He said most people on his tour think it’s always hot in Vietnam and they only have shorts and t-shirts. I explained that a friend who had been to Vietnam in February told me it was cold in the north (especially the mountains) and warm in the south. Since I knew I was going to be there in March, I prepared for both warm and cold weather. I was happy that I had my extra luggage that day.

The mountains seemed to go on forever. They were steep, sharp, and unlike any mountains I had seen before. They were lush and beautiful. Everytime we passed people, they waved and smiled. Sometimes the kids would try to high-five us as we drove by.

We were headed to the border with China and as we got closer, I saw a few disturbing sights. When we turned a corner, I saw a cat that had been tortured. His head was up against a rock with a stick sticking out of his head. Then, a motorbike going the opposite direction of us had a crate attached to the back that was full of puppies. When we stopped at the border, I asked Opi, “Were the puppies in the back of that crate for people to sell and eat?” Opi looked sad and said, “Yes. Some small villages in China still eat dog and they trade with some villages in the north of Vietnam. It’s illegal in Vietnam, but because they’re close to the border, it still happens.”

Berry and I were on the verge of tears. She thought the cat was just laying on the rock until we explained that it had been tortured. We agreed that it was becoming a sad day in Vietnam.

We parked our motorbikes and walked towards the border. There was a fence and a large opening, but there wasn’t anybody guarding it. Warning signs of landmines were posted and Opi told us that some landmines are still buried from the wars with China.

He told us not to step even a foot across the border because the Chinese are known to hide out and if someone steps across, they’ll arrest them. At the time, China was holding several American and Candian tourists, accusing them of being spies because of the trade war.

We took pictures at the landmarker and I chose not to cross the border. Berry is originally from China and has dual citizenship. We saw merchants on the other side with items they were selling in a van. It was in the middle of nowhere, but I guess they were there to trade with Vietnam. Berry confidently walked across the border and over to the van. After talking to them for five minutes, she came back and said they were there selling items they had made.

We continued driving and Opi took us to a gazebo. First, we had to drive through a small village and then went on a very small concrete path that had very little guard rails. I definitely wouldn’t have known about this area on my own. When we arrived at the parking lot, several flights of stairs took us to the gazebo overlooking the valley below. We were the only people around.

Opi pointed out the mountain across from us and the river below that separated the two mountains. He said across the river was China. Just then, Berry’s phone welcomed her to China, thinking she was there because we were so close. Her phone changed to a Chinesse network and she said, “Let’s test it.” She tried to pull up Facebook, Instagram, and Google and all three were blocked.

I couldn’t believe it. I always heard things are restricted in China, but I’ve never actually experienced it. I asked why they are restricted and Berry explained it’s because the government doesn’t want people influenced. They have similar websites, but they’re regulated by the government. I felt very grateful to live in the U.S. where freedom of speech is expected (even though it’s often under attack).

We continued driving and passed kids walking with garden tools. They were guiding some cows and goats. The oldest kid who appeared to be around nine years old held a beer in his hand. Berry pointed it out and it just added to our list of sad sights that day.

We took pictures and enjoyed the scenery. However, as we drove through the small town to get back to the main road, we saw stray dogs that were in poor health. We also saw a woman walking a pig on a leash. It was so different than the U.S. where dogs are on leashes and pigs are in pens.

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant on the side of the mountain. Ben broke out his drone and we tried over and over to get a shot with all of us jumping at the same time. We failed because of the delay of the camera, but we had a fun time trying.

Our next stop was the King’s Palace. The palace is on display for tourists and there were tour busses in the parking lot. The palace was owned by a Hmong King who made 20 tons of opium each year. The palace was protected from bombs by the mountain. In 2004, they opened it to the public. Some of the extended family members still live nearby. It took seven years to build and it looked like places I’ve seen in movies. It was worn and empty, but had several square courtyards inside without roofs.

The king had three wives, but the second wife was never pictured because she only birthed girls. We walked through all the rooms and saw guns on display that people could grab. Opi picked one up and showed us how they used the holes to fire from. The doorways were so short that I had to duck.

We continued our drive and stopped at a lookout point with an incredible view of the road that snakes its way through and around the mountain. We were on the main road where small tour busses go, so there was a parking lot there. Usually we just pulled to the side of the road to take pictures because most of the time the roads weren’t that busy.

As we took pictures, a boy who appeared to be around eight years old grabbed a cigarette from Opi. Opi just stared at the kid in surprise and watched as the kid lit the cigarette and started smoking. The boy was wearing extremely worn out, dirty clothes and his body was covered in dirt. He casually sat on the half wall smoking and sharing the cigarette with some younger boys.

Then we saw young girls who also appeared to be around eight years old, but they were dressed in beautiful, clean clothes. They were wearing way too much makeup and held flowers that they were trying to sell. The girls were beautiful.

Opi told us not to give the kids any money because they stop going to school and do this instead. Tourists will stop and take pictures of them and in return they’ll give them money or candy. They think they’re helping, but it is why the parents have their kids do this instead of going to school. They can make more money for the family from tourists. Opi told us that in the peak season, they can make $45 USD a day. The average salary in Vietnam is $200-$250 USD per month.

The boy smoking pulled out a kitkat and ate it as he watched for tour buses. We asked Opi if we could take pictures and he said we could. We just shouldn’t give them anything. All of a sudden, a tour bus was coming up the windy road. The kids all got so excited, but the bus kept driving by and the kids got bummed out.

It was heartbreaking. These kids didn’t know any better and their parents were incentivized to have their kids do this. In Thailand, their theory was not to give money to homeless because it teaches bad behaviors. They don’t have many homeless people, so maybe their theory works. It saddened me to think that westerners were creating these behaviors, thinking they were helping.

We drove down the windy road and it almost made me dizzy from going left to right over and over again. It started to get foggy and colder. We stopped briefly for pictures and Opi and Eddie looked freezing and uncomfortable.

We made a stop in a small town for some coffee and yogurt with fruit. It was always nice to take a quick break.

By the time we arrived at our homestay, it was 6:30 pm and it was almost dark. This time, there were other travellers staying there too. Ben and Berry had a room to themselves and I was assigned a mat in the large room that was shared. They had a curtain separating the large room into smaller rooms and had doors to the balcony that were separated, so it felt like my own room. That is until I could hear others next to me talking. They were speaking Dutch, so I couldn’t understand them. My little room had three mattresses and mosquito nets. The mattress and the bathrooms were pretty nice.

For dinner, we met in a downstairs room that was indoors. There wasn’t any heat though, so it felt freezing in there. I kept my coat on until enough happy water (rice wine) warmed me up. The family who owned the house was a young couple with a little girl around four years old. There were also some older women and their husbands who helped cook and clean. We all ate as one big family.

Across from the dinner table were three travellers with another group of guides. They were from Holland and were on day one of the four-day tour. Our guides all knew each other, so they chatted. The Holland travellers (husband, wife, and friend) were in their early to mid-20s, and all had blonde hair. All three of them((Jelle, Malou, and Hanna) were in medical school and had some time off. They were spending five weeks in Vietnam on holiday. Jelle was driving his own bike, but Malou and Hanna were riding on the back of bikes.

We all agreed that the roads were crazy and bumpy. Ben, Berry, and I told them what to expect since they were only on day one. They were going the opposite direction that we were going. We all had such a fun time talking, eating, and drinking happy water. The happy water was always in a reused water bottle and it flowed freely into our little shot glasses. Ben, Berry, and I warned the Holland travellers about the happy water and how much they’d end up drinking. We started enjoying the happy water so much that we’d call regular water “sad water.”

After dinner, the generous hosts surprised Malou with a birthday cake. I was thrilled! Berry turned to me and laughed, “You finally get your cake!” After enjoying the delicious cake, the guides busted out their karaoke microphone. There was an app on their phones that connected the wireless microphone and amplified the sound.

We all had a blast singing songs and being silly. We realized we needed to have Zing involved in karaoke because he promised us we’d do it and he’d sing “My Heart Will Go On,” but the night before he was too tired. Melana, Erik, and Zing had made it back to Ha Giang and Zing was waiting with them to make sure they made it safely on the night bus. We Facetimed them through Facebook messenger video call and sang the song for them. They sang along while people stared at them on the sidewalk. It was so fun and the perfect way to say goodbye before they boarded their bus.

Berry and I stood up and sung “I Just Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Huston. We laughed, danced, and had such a fun time. Berry was so fun and sweet that I was really enjoying our friendship. We goofed around and took shots together celebrating our last night together in the North.

The party started to move outside and we asked Opi what he was doing on his phone. He showed us Tik Tok and Ben, Berry, and I all made a funny video with Opi for the social media platform. We weren’t familiar with Tik Tok, so afterwards we asked him about it. It turned out he had a crazy high amount of followers. We said, “Wait, so you’re famous?” He humbly laughed it off, but we weren’t surprised because Opi is a funny, creative guy.

It was cold outside and getting late. I took a shower and went to bed before I ended up with a hangover. I went to bed with a smile on my face. I loved that people from so many different cultures could be comfortable around each other and have so much fun together. It’s moments like this that make me realize why I love traveling.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 263: The Worst Bus Ride of My Life

It was time to checkout of my hotel in Hanoi and head north to Ha Giang. I talked with a woman at the reception desk about the best way to get there because it was a six-hour bus ride away. I asked her about the 10:00 am bus and taking a taxi to get to the main station. I found a site online that said the seats were recliner seats and it was not a sleeper bus. I also read that the sleeper buses were very uncomfortable. I wanted to get some writing done, so a seat would be better than a sleeper bus.

The woman told me that I’d be better off taking the 11:00 am bus because she could get them to pick me up. Going to the main bus station would be backtracking. I explained that I needed to get there by 5:00 pm and she assured me that I would. After eating breakfast, I brought my bags to the lobby.

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At 11:08 am, I asked the woman at reception, “I thought the bus left at 11:00 am?” She replied, “Yes.” Finally, at 11:30 am, a van picked me up. It was small and the back didn’t have much space for luggage. There were three guys in the back from Europe. I sat in the front seat with my duffel bag on my lap. Next, we picked up three British girls and there was no space for their giant backpacks, so they had to put them on their laps. They said the tight van quarters were “mental.”

At 12:15 pm, we arrived at the bus station and were instructed to board the bus. We put our luggage in the lower portion of the bus. I was extremely upset when I saw that the bus was a sleeper bus. There were three rows of sleeper “seats” that consisted of slightly reclined seats on the floor with a metal container where you were supposed to put your legs and feet. There were two narrow walkways and it was already halfway full. There were also metal bars around each sleeper seat that were holding up a second level.

The driver instructed me to take off my shoes and assigned a seat in the middle of the first floor. It was extremely narrow and made for people shorter than 5’2”. Being 6’1”, it was laughable. The problem is that I had to put my legs into the metal container. Since they wouldn’t fit, I had to sit with my legs bent and my knees practically in my face.

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The British girls were behind me and felt bad for me. They could barely fit and knew it was even worse for me. The bus filled up and we were off. I desperately didn’t want to take this bus for six hours, but at that point, I didn’t have an option. The British girls pointed to a guy above them on the second story who had a blanket over him. They thought he might be masterbating. I cringed.

The bus smelled of body odor and farts. People shouted on their phones, watched videos on their phones without headphones, and the driver constantly honked his horn. There was not a restroom on the bus, so I tried not to drink too much water. There wasn’t any air flow near me and I was miserable.

If I stretched my legs, my butt was halfway up the reclined seat and my head would hit the top floor. I found that I could turn to my left side and at least then my legs weren’t bent in my face. However, the metal bar was painful. I put my blanket on the bar which helped a little bit.

After two hours, we stopped at a remote store that also had a restroom. I got off the bus, not knowing how long we had there. The restroom was a squat toilet and didn’t have toilet paper. I was very grateful that I always carried Kleenex with me throughout Southeast Asia. There wasn’t any soap, which was common, so I used my hand sanitizer.

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I bought a small bag of puffed chips and a cup of popcorn. I got back on the bus and climbed to my seat. I couldn’t help but notice that we picked up another six people who didn’t have seats. They sat in the two aisles and two of them decided to sit directly next to me, shoulder to shoulder. This meant I couldn’t turn my legs to the side. It was also absurd that two decided to smash me in instead of sitting near our metal feet containers.

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I asked the man on my left if he could scoot up a little so I could turn my legs to the side, but he didn’t understand me. I called a worker over and asked him to tell them to move. He didn’t speak English either. I tried to use Google Translate, but I lost cell service. I used my arms to motion, showing them scooting up. That worked and he had the men move up a little. It was enough for me to turn my legs to the side. I couldn’t stretch my legs, however, because the men were in the aisle.

I tried to take a nap, but my legs kept losing circulation because of the metal bars. I shifted to try to get the blood flow back. We made several random stops on the side of the road to let people off the bus. To pass the time, I wrote for my blog on my phone and listened to music. When it got dark outside, colored lights came on like it was a nightclub.

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We arrived in Ha Giang at 6:40 pm. I was supposed to meet with the motorbike tour guide that afternoon, but with the delay I had to reschedule to later that night. I stood in the parking lot and tried to find a Grab. They were all busy, so my request wouldn’t go through. A guy standing nearby who appeared to be a taxi driver said he would take me for 50,000 dong ($2.15 USD). I tried to explain to him that all I had was one 10,000 bill and 500,000 bills and needed change. I used Google Translate and he agreed to give me change, but it took five minutes for us to understand each other.

Once I got into the car, I realized there was not a taxi sign on the car and I got nervous. Then I thought about how he talked with some guys as he left the parking lot. Are they kidnapping me?

Thankfully, I arrived safe and sound at my hotel. The man at the front desk didn’t speak English, so he couldn’t answer any of my questions about the WiFi, breakfast, or how to turn on the lights. He just pointed to the elevator. The hallway on my floor was dark and I had to turn on the lights. These are the moments that make traveling as a solo female scary.

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I walked down the street and ate dinner. The town was small, but had a decent amount of shops. I went back to my hotel and met Opie, my motorbike tour guide. I signed up for a four-day tour around the mountains in the north that would begin the following day. Opie was in his early 20s, around 5’9”, had bleach-blonde hair on top, had earrings, an athletic vibe, and was really nice.

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Opie wanted to make sure I knew how to drive the motorbike because it was semi-automatic and I would need to shift with my foot. I looked it over and said I think I could do it. He told me that I could store my belongings at his hostel the next day and just bring my backpack on the tour.

I went back to my room to repack so that I had what I needed for the tour. The BBC was on TV and they were showing live footage of the Brexit deal with Theresea May in Parliament. I found it very interesting because even though they were obviously angry, they still had respect for each other. In the U.S., it seems as though we’ve lost all respect for the opposing party. I enjoyed seeing how another country conducted their politics.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider 
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Day 262: Learning about Vietnam

When I arrived at my hotel lobby, I intended to grab a quick breakfast, but my tour guide showed up early. The hotel staff, being concerned about my breakfast, made me an omelet to-go. As I walked to the van with my tour guide, Trung, he said, “Vietnamese don’t like empty stomachs.”

The tour would take us a few hours northeast to Ha Long Bay for the day. I sat next to Trung while we picked up the others. He appeared to be in his late 40s and was talkative. He told me that his father was a photographer for the communist government and he hoped that Trung would take over and save the world. Trung told me, “I don’t want to be friends with the computer. I’d rather be friends with you guys.”

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Trung was from Hanoi and he loved the city. He explained that families live together and keep adding floors to the house when the family expands. He said, “If one family member goes to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s very sad because they’ll have nobody. They’ll be on their own.” Trung didn’t seem to like Ho Chi Minh City in the south. He said Hanoi in the north takes care of homeless people, but the south doesn’t, so they have a lot of homelessness.

Once we picked up all of our passengers, Trung continued to talk to the group about Vietnam. He told us that HIV is a huge problem for the country, with 50 new cases each day. He pointed out their red-light district, where sex workers charge for services by the hour. Trung said that because people live with lots of family members, they don’t have a lot of privacy, so many go to the red-light district for prostitution and drugs. He warned us to watch out for needles on the street because they could be infected.

We passed Samsung City, which is a compound developed and owned by Samsung. There are 130,000 people living and working there. It’s so big that they have their own schools and hospitals, and they have to take a bus to get to other buildings. Trung told us that it’s mostly run and operated by the Koreans. There are half a million Koreans in Hanoi.

Trung told us that Vietnam and Singapore are the most expensive places to buy a car. Vietnam tries to control the number of cars sold, so there is a 250% tax on cars. If everyone owned a car, the streets would all be in gridlock. The country has 97 million people and more than 60 million motorbikes. Trung told us, “You could bring your car from the U.S. that you paid $10,000 USD for and sell it here for $30,000 USD.”

Vietnam has a large population considering the size of their land. Four million Vietnamese live outside of Vietnam, with the majority in the U.S, France, and Australia. Trung told us about the corruption with the police in Vietnam. He said, “The cops here are rich. They are not rich in the U.S.” He explained that the cops will pull you over and you will be forced to pay them to stay out of jail. They have a term called “umbrella,” which is when you know someone in the government who can get you off. In return, you’ll need to give them the most expensive lobster and whatever items you sell or make.

Trung pointed out the relatively safety of Vietnam and the fact that they don’t have bombings or terrorists; however, he said they have problems with China, Laos, and Cambodia (their surrounding countries).

In China, they have a shortage of women, so men go across the border to remote towns in the north of Vietnam and tell women they will marry them, give them children, a job, and a good life. These women are so isolated that they believe them. When they get to China, they’re sold into prostitution and work for free. If someone is caught trafficking five or more women, it’s a death sentence. Trung told us that they used to shoot people for $.50 each, but since 2015, they instituted lethal injection. It now costs $10,000 each. Trung said, “I prefer the bullet. Save the money for the people.”

The problem with Laos is the drugs that come from the Golden Triangle (borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar). Technically the law states that if you have more than six grams, it’s a death sentence, but people with money can buy their way out. This has allowed a lot of drugs to get into Vietnam.

The problem with Cambodia is the gambling. There is gambling in Vietnam, but only foreigners are allowed to partake. Trung said that Vietnamese people love to gamble, so they go across the border to Cambodia. They end up losing a lot of money and borrowing from the casino. Eventually, they lose enough that they have to sell their kidney for $5,000. Then rich Chinese come and buy it for $40,000. Trung told us that there are five million kidneys for sale there.

I was thoroughly enjoying learning about Vietnam, but then we stopped at a pearl palace. We had some time to browse and buy jewelry. They have a huge pearl industry there and I bought a pair of earrings. Shortly after the pearl store, we arrived at the boat that would take us through HaLong Bay. We were seated at tables for lunch. We joined another group, but there was still only about 30 people on our tour.

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I was seated with Joanne and her parents. They were from Singapore and welcomed me into their family. Joanne appeared to be in her 30s and was very pretty. She worked in hotel sales and had been working for a Thai company for the last eight months, but planned to start a new job when she returned from holiday. The Thai company was too “old school” and once the top boss said yes, there was no arguing. Joanne’s parents have been to the U.S. and enjoyed their visit, but it was close to 30 years ago.

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The boat cruised through Ha Long Bay, which was incredible! Large rock formations were spread out all over the place. There are thousands of rock islands that vary in size. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is nothing built on the rock islands, most likely because they are steep cliffs.

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We were served various fish dishes to share. I had a hard time eating some of them, like octopus. We arrived at a rock island, climbed a lot of stairs, and looked around inside a cave. The cave had a very large main room and it was just our group there. During the war, they used it as a make-shift hospital. Hospitals were often targets, so this allowed them to treat patients without the threat of bombs. Trung told us that during their rainy season, tourists have to take their shoes off because the cave starts to fill with water.

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We took the boat to another area that had a large pontoon platform to get into smaller boats. The smaller boats would take people through an archway, into a circular area, and then back to the pontoon. There were a lot of boats that had dropped off large groups of people. It was maddening to watch the chaos as people tried to line up to get on various small boats. Most of the tourists were from China. They tend to travel in very large groups and they don’t follow lines when waiting for something, so Trung was frustrated. He told us, “We welcome westerners and all the Chinese show up. We don’t welcome them, they just come. If we stop welcoming westerners, the Chinese will stop coming.”

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We got into small boats and a local rowed us through the archway and into the circular area. It was a short boat ride, but it was fun. We got back to our boat and were served fruit and coffee on the top deck. It would take about an hour to get back to the port and the boat weaved its way through the islands as the sun started to set.

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I talked with Joanne while enjoying some fruit. She was really sweet and we shared our contact information because I had a 24-hour layover in Singapore on my way to Australia and we hoped to meet up. Joanne planned to do some volunteer work in Fiji for several months. She had a very empathetic heart.

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The views of Ha Long Bay were beautiful and I was happy that I had the chance to visit. Joanne and I had to say goodbye once the boat docked because we were in separate vans.

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On the way back, Trung asked me if I had a man at home and was traveling without him, or if he was at the hotel. I said, “I’m divorced. I’m traveling alone.” Trung excitedly said, “Oh! You’re forever free?!” I responded, “Yup.” Trung was married for 13 years and had two kids, but he and his wife ended up getting a divorce. He told me that after ten years, you just get so bored of seeing the same person over and over. Early on in their relationship, they partied and had fun, but not anymore. They had an amicable split in the end.

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Trung dropped me off at my hotel and I walked down the street to eat Bun Cha. It was my favorite dish on the food tour, but this restaurant wasn’t very good. Next to me was a young couple smacking on their food so loud that it was driving me crazy. It seemed that many people in Vietnam were on a mission to eat as loud as possible. I ate as quickly as I could and went back to my hotel. After working on my blog, I was off to bed. The next day I would be leaving for a motorbike tour in the northern mountains for four days and I couldn’t wait.

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Day 261: Vietnamese Prison

An old co-worker, Austin, was in Hanoi for the day before flying back to Thailand, so we met for breakfast. I hired Austin a couple of years earlier to work in sales. After earning his Master’s degree, he quit in the spring of 2018 to travel the world for a year. He was in his mid-20s, was about 5’8”, had black hair, and looked a lot like my ex-husband. 

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Austin spent several months in Europe, Egypt, India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He needed to leave that day before his visa expired, so he was flying to Thailand for a short time and then planned to go back to Vietnam because he loved it there so much. He was traveling as a backpacker, staying in hostels. He frequently met other travelers and ended up traveling with them for a while. 

Austin originally planned to travel for a year, but it was going so fast that he realized he wanted it to be more like two to three years. After Southeast Asia, he planned to go to Australia to visit his sister who was living in Perth. He also applied for a work visa there because his finances would only last a year, which was coming up soon. 

Austin gave me a lot of good tips on things to do in Vietnam because he had spent the last month there. He told me that when he first arrived, he was lonely and it felt strange traveling solo again because most of his travel was with other travelers he met. Within a short time in Vietnam, he met more travelers and explored with them. 

I was happy to see Austin and to see him enjoying travel so much. He had the right attitude and appreciated the ability to travel. It was funny because we were both managers at Target, but at different times and both worked with my friend Karyn. We both worked at McMaster-Carr and were now traveling the world. We enjoyed talking for a few hours over a delicious breakfast. 

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Austin had to go buy a plane ticket and leave the country that day, so we parted ways. I walked to the HOA Ko Prison. The sign at the entrance said, “A hell on earth in Hanoi set up by French Colonialists, it was also called “a school” by Vietnamese patriotic soldiers (1896-1954), a “Hilton Hanoi” – where the American Pilots lived while they were arrested in the North of Vietnam (1964-1973) and now it is “an attractive destination” by the friends who love peace.” 

There was a special exhibition called “Finding Memories” currently at the prison. The sign described the presentation as recreating “the struggle of the people of Ha Noi and Hai Phong to overcome the pain and loss of war and to achieve victory. It helps those who haven’t experienced wars to learn more through remarkable and humane wartime stories, especially the stories about American pilots in Hanoi-Hilton. 45 years have passed, and the Vietnamese people always bestow the most beautiful appreciation for American Peace-lovers.” 

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The French controlled Vietnam for 100 years and built the prison in 1896. It was one of the biggest and most solid prisons in Indochina. The prison signs describe  the poor conditions that the French created for the Vietnamese people. It was hard to walk through the rooms and cells. Sometimes there were porcelain sculptures in the shapes of bodies to depict what it was like for prisoners. There was also a guillotine on display. 

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A pamphlet provided more information, “Throughout nearly a century under the French occupation (1858-1954), the life of laboring Vietnamese was extremely hard and miserable: shortages of food and clothing and family separations. Not being resigned to losing the country and being enslaved, the Vietnamese rose up against French colonialists and regained national independence and sovereignty.” 

The first part of the pamphlet talks about how the “Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters” were treated inhumanely by the French. They were tortured, lived in unsanitary conditions, and then killed. I did my best to remember that I was only hearing one side of the story. 

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During the American War (we call it the Vietnam War), they captured hundreds of American soldiers and kept them as prisoners from 1964 to 1973. Sign after sign pointed out how good they were to the Americans. They gave them daily exercise and even let them put up a Christmas tree. They could also send letters home. I tried to keep an open mind and recognize that I was hearing the history from Vietnam, so the story might be different if told by the prisoners. 

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The last section of the prison was devoted to the peace that the U.S. and Vietnam now have. They were proud that they beat the U.S. despite their better technology and said it was because their spirit was stronger. There were pictures of John McCain who spent years there as a Prisoner of War. There were also pictures of recent U.S. and Vietnamese presidents shaking hands and agreeing to peace. 

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As one tour guide would tell me many days later, “The U.S. and Vietnam share a history.” It was hard to imagine the pain that took place at that prison when it was operated by both the French and the Vietnamese. I know people who fought in the Vietnam war and it wasn’t easy for either side. I thought that overall, the prison did a good job of saying just that – most people suffered on both sides while governments fought. 

After the prison, I walked to a cafe and enjoyed a dessert. The sidewalks were packed with motorbikes, so I often had to walk on the street.

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I kept walking and ended up at a festival where streets were closed off. Little kids drove tiny cars around, which was so adorable! Then I came across food stalls, so I ate a crepe-like wrap and sushi rolls that had hotdogs and vegetables inside. There were groups of people singing and playing music, and others creating giant Jenga stacks in a competition. 

I ended up at a theatre that had a water puppet show. I bought a ticket and enjoyed the playful production. People played music on the side of the stage while puppets raced around the pool of water. 

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I walked through a night market on my way back to the hotel. It was packed with people shopping and eating. I wasn’t feeling very good and my throat was still hurting, so I didn’t stay long at the market. After working on my blog, it was bedtime. I had a long day ahead of me the following day and wanted to make sure I was well enough to attend. 

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Days 259-260: Food Tour and Exploring Hanoi

I skipped breakfast at the hotel again because it ended at 9:30 am and I wanted to be hungry for a food tour that I signed up for. When I walked through the lobby, the staff pointed out that I missed breakfast again and said the next morning they’d give me a wake-up call. I appreciated their concern, but I was hoping that staying in a hotel instead of an Airbnb would give me some privacy. It appeared that the hotel staff were very concerned about my food intake.

The food tour guide, Minh, met me in the lobby. She was 27, had glasses, her hair was in a ponytail, and she was short. She told me to grab a jacket because it might get chilly. I followed her instructions and then we walked to a hotel to pick up a guy. Minh told me about the city as we walked. She was cute and grabbed my arm when crossing the street to make sure I followed her. She was petite, but fierce. She crossed those streets like they were nothing. Minh asked me what it’s like traveling alone as a female. She told me that she likes to travel with friends, but she thought I was brave to travel alone.

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We arrived at a hotel and Jake was waiting to join the tour. He was 26, lived in Los Angeles and Boston, was tall with brown hair, and was in medical school. He was doing an internship in Thailand and he was only in Hanoi for the weekend to explore.

We took a taxi to the next hotel and picked up Michiel. He was from Holland and was only 18 years old. He was around 5’9”, was thin, had light brown hair, a nose ring, and an earring. He was taking a gap year before college, which is common there. His friends weren’t traveling on their gap year, so he was traveling solo for a few months. Jake asked Michiel how his parents feel about him traveling alone. He explained that his parents said he couldn’t take a gap year if he didn’t travel. Michiel pointed out all that he’s learned and and that traveling solo has forced him to do things for himself. I was impressed that he was traveling internationally by himself at 18. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do that at such a young age. At age 20, I drove from Missouri to Colorado by myself and visited family and friends. But going overseas and exploring on your own is a whole different story. Michiel was mature, smart, and fun. It was great seeing him out there exploring the world.

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The four of us walked to our first destination. When crossing the street, Minh told us, “Just be confident.” She held up her hand and we crossed with her. The three of us were all scared to cross the street, so we followed her closely. We went to several food stalls and small restaurants down alleyways eating donuts, egg and dill patties, rice pancakes, soup, meat, ice cream, and (my favorite) egg coffee.

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As we sat at a miniature table, we got to know each other better. Michiel was staying in hostels and explained that they’re mostly great, but sometimes he gets to one where nobody talks and he gets lonely. Jake confirmed traveling solo can be lonely for him at times too. It made me feel better that they also experienced loneliness.

Jake told us about the things he was learning in Thailand. He was in a smaller village just north of Bangkok. One time there was a man who had a spinal injury and his muscles were completely frozen. The local doctors did acupuncture on him and Jake watched as the muscles loosened and the man could move around again. I was happy that Jake was learning both western and eastern medicine because I think it’ll make him a better doctor.

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Minh was from a small town, but she moved to Hanoi when she was eight years old. She told us that the government took homes from the wealthy and gave them to the poor. Because of this, houses have seven to ten families living in them and they all share a kitchen and bathrooms. Most homes have a business on the ground floor (like a restaurant) and they all live in the floors above.

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The government charges taxes based on the width of the house, so everyone builds very narrow houses that are very deep and tall. The houses were sometimes so narrow that I could almost touch my arms on both walls. The houses were packed in side-by-side and sometimes trees grow right in the middle of courtyards, making their way up the house.

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We continued eating at the various food stalls around the city. Minh took us to a cart that the woman carries on her shoulders everyday using a wooden pole across her shoulders. She sets up in front of a bar that is closed until the evening and serves food during the day. There were tiny plastic stools just six inches off the ground for customers. A few men were sitting on the stools eating and one told us that we need to try it if we wanted to “see the real Vietnam.”

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We went to our last stop for egg coffee and sat at a small table. Egg coffee is whipped egg (mostly egg whites) that fills half the coffee cup. The whipped part is sweet and once you stir it, it tastes like a creamy, sweet latte. They started making it many years ago because they couldn’t afford milk or cream.

All of a sudden, my stomach was very upset. I raced to the single-use restroom and wasn’t feeling well. After our coffee, I was luckily feeling a bit better. We walked around for a bit and then said goodbye. We were all extremely stuffed and wanted to take a nap.

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On my walk back to my hotel, I stopped for a manicure for $12 USD. The salon also offered a Swedish massage for $17 USD an hour. I agreed to the massage and was taken upstairs. There were a few tables very close together with sheer curtains around them. The woman made me uncomfortable as she stood there while I undressed. I laid under the blanket and hoped nobody else came in.

After my massage, I rested at my hotel. I still didn’t feel very good and spent time talking on the phone and working on my blog.

The next morning, the hotel staff made good on their promise and gave me a wake-up call for breakfast at 9:00 am. I ordered a banana pancake and beef noodle soup. I love the soup, but it is hard to eat onions in the morning. I went back to my room and researched while resting since I still wasn’t feeling well. My throat had been hurting for the last day and I didn’t want to push myself too hard.

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In the afternoon, I talked with the girl at the front desk and she gave me tips on what to do. It was hotter outside – around 70 °F (21 °C). I walked around and made it to the famous train tracks. They’re famous because houses, shops, and restaurants are lined up extremely close to the tracks. Trains still use the tracks, which makes it crazy that people are actively walking on them.

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I ordered a banana coffee at a shop and sat against the wall on a small ledge. I enjoyed watching the people in the lively area. Tourists posed for pictures in the middle of the tracks creating their (not very) unique pictures. I talked with a young couple from the U.K. and took their first picture together in eight months.

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I walked to the Citadel, which is a huge complex. I didn’t learn much about it because I wasn’t on a tour, but I walked around enjoying the structure, narrow and steep stairs, beautiful flowers, and jets.

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In the evening, I walked to a theater and saw an acrobat show where they did all sorts of gymnastics using large bamboo. Once that was finished, I enjoyed a drink at a rooftop bar while looking at the skyline. I used the time to search for day tours of HaLong Bay. Once I got back to the hotel, the girl at the front booked a tour for me.

Sometimes it feels overwhelming going to a large city not having researched what to do. I often struggle with feeling like I’ll miss out if I don’t constantly do something. I’m learning to let that go and be ok with relaxing a little bit. It’s still a struggle, but I consciously try to have some downtime.

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Day 258: Arriving in Vietnam

I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at 8:30 pm and headed to customs. There was a desk with various forms and I grabbed the one I needed, filled it out, and returned it to the man at the counter. The man instructed me to have a seat and wait for my name to be called. I had applied for and received a visa approval online from the Vietnamese government the week before, but I still had to wait for the final visa.

There were rows of plastic chairs and probably 40 people waiting. I sat down and listened in on nearby conversations. A young couple from Belgium was talking to a European couple about their travel woes. They explained that they flew in from Laos and used a third party company when they applied for their Vietnam visa. The visa didn’t arrive in time (that’s why I went straight to the Vietnamese government website) and Laos wouldn’t allow them on the plane to Vietnam without paying a $100 USD fee for not having the visa.

The young backpackers obviously didn’t have a lot of money, so they were frustrated. While we all waited for our names to be called, the Europeans told the couple that came from Laos that they’d have to pay a fee of $25 USD to get their visa on arrival. I had also read that it had to be U.S. dollars or Vietnamese Dong. The young couple looked frightened as he explained that he only had Laos money and the ATM was not allowing him to take out money. I was fortunate that the ATM gave me Vietnamese Dong.

The young backpacker came back from the counter and said they let him pay in Laos money, but it was the equivalent of $80 USD, not $25. The guy started to vent about the corruption he was experiencing in Southeast Asia. He was told by other backpackers that when they were in a hostel in Bangkok, they were smoking weed in a place where everyone smokes. However, it’s technically illegal and they were busted by the police who told them they had to pay a $600 USD fee or be jailed. It was a lot of money, especially for backpackers.

My name was called and I walked to the counter. I paid $2 USD for them to take a picture of me and add a small printed copy of it to their file. Then I paid the $25 USD fee and walked through customs. When I handed the man my passport, he didn’t say a single word to me. He just looked at his computer and handed my passport and 30-day visa back to me and I was on my way.

After I grabbed my luggage, I stopped at a booth selling SIM cards. I paid $13 USD for a month of 60 GB and walked outside. A taxi driver approached me and offered to give me a ride for 400,000 dong. I wasn’t familiar with their money yet, so I used my currency conversion app (Globe Convert) and realized it was $17 USD.

I pulled up the Grab app and it said the price would be 268,000 dong ($11 USD). After I pointed out the discrepancy, the man said that Grab drivers aren’t allowed to do pickups at the airport. I pushed back once again explaining that the app says they do pickups there. He reluctantly resigned himself and agreed to charge me 200,000 dong ($8.50 USD). The man also said I would need to wait ten minutes to see if there were others who needed a ride.

I agreed to the taxi man’s price and waited while the man asked where I was from. I said “Los Angeles.” The man got excited and said, “Ohhhhhh!!!” Nobody else showed up, so he started to drive me to my hotel. It felt strange driving on the right side of the road. I didn’t realize I had gotten used to driving on the left in Thailand.

It felt cold outside with a temperature of 68 °F (20 °C). After spending a month in the Thai heat, this was a nice reprieve. The first part of the drive from the airport to old town Hanoi had a modern highway, was well maintained, there were trees on the side of the road, and there were more cars than Thailand. Thailand had a lot of motorbikes. The driver often drove in the middle of two lanes, making me nervous. As we got into old town, the motorbikes were everywhere, honking constantly.

The driver pulled over and pointed down a very narrow alleyway, which was the street that my hotel was located down. His minivan wouldn’t fit, so I’d have to be dropped off there. It was sprinkling outside, so thankfully my hotel was just a quick, one-minute walk.

A friend recommended the hotel to me. She told me they treated her like royalty and she loved her stay there a couple of years ago. I walked into the small lobby around 10:45 pm and asked to check in. The man said he couldn’t find my reservation and said perhaps I booked with a different hotel. Then he pointed towards the front door. I insisted that I had a reservation and gave him my reservation number.

The man found my reservation, apologized, and then brought me fruit and tea. He understood it was too late for me to get dinner, so he brought me bread and butter to my room too. The room was very narrow and small, but it was clean and comfortable.

I was exhausted after a full day of travel by ferry and planes. After a shower, I was ready for bed. I turned off the lights, but the light on top of the closet cabinet wouldn’t turn off. It was a light for the closet, but the top had a circle cut out around it, letting the light shine in the room. I grabbed the desk chair and climbed on top to see what was going on. I called reception and tried to explain that the light wouldn’t turn off. The man at reception didn’t understand me, so he hung up and came to my room.

I was in my PJs and let him inside. I explained that the light should be turned off when I close the closet door, but it’s not connecting for some reason. He climbed onto the chair and played around with the wires and switch, but couldn’t get it to turn off. He suggested that I just remove the key card and cut off all of the power to the room.

Frustrated, I explained that if I did that, I couldn’t charge my phone or use the AC. The man stepped back on the chair and disconnected some wires and the light turned off. He said someone from maintenance would repair it the following day and he left.

The next day, I slept in and then worked on my blog. Next, I talked with some family and friends in the U.S. and updated them on my whereabouts. I had no idea what I was going to do in Vietnam, so I spent some time researching on TripAdvisor. At 3:30 pm, I left the hotel to explore and get some food. On my way out of the hotel, the front desk staff said they noticed that I missed the free breakfast. Embarrassed, I explained that I had some writing to do.

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The narrow streets and alleyways in Hanoi were loud. Motorbikes raced by while honking their horns, and street vendors were everywhere. When I arrived at an intersection, I noticed there were stop lights, but they weren’t turned on. It was just a constant free flow of cars and motorbikes. Crossing the street was difficult. I had to make eye contact with the drivers and walk across while bikes zoomed behind and in front of me.

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Motorbikes were often parked on the sidewalk, forcing me to walk into the street. As I continued walking, I came across a beautiful lake. Bright flowers were in bloom all around, groups of people were playing games, and others were going for a stroll. I followed the path around the lake and ended up at a temple. I bought a ticket and went inside. It was a beautiful, small temple.

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I found a restaurant nearby on TripAdvisor with a 5-star rating. I didn’t have a reservation, but they told me that if I was done by 7:00 pm (it was 5:45 pm) I could get a table. It was a romantic, upscale restaurant filled with couples. I paid $26 USD for a three-course meal including wine. The food was delicious and I considered this a treat.

Next to me was a couple in their 20s from the U.K. Their snobbish attitude was apparent when they instructed the waiter that the girl was vegan and clarified, “no butter.” The server confirmed, “vegan?” I thought it was insulting that they assumed he didn’t know what vegan means considering he is a server in a major city.

The waiter mentioned the fish sauce that he’d remove as well before he walked away. Looking concerned, the girl said to the guy, “Wait, so all the food we ate in Thailand…I wonder if it had fish sauce in it?”

The guy responded with what I was thinking, “Yes, I’m sure it did. Especially the pad Thai.”

The girl justified it, “Well, it was vegetarian at least. I don’t eat food when I know it’s not vegan.”

The guy responded, “Yes you do.”

Getting upset, the girl said, “No I don’t. I know a guy that says ‘as long as I don’t know if it has stuff in it, I’m vegan.’ That’s not me.”

The guy laughed, “It is when you’re drinking.”

Dining solo at times is lonely. Other times, it’s entertaining. After enjoying my delicious meal, I chatted with the server, Leah. She told me about herself and how she was learning English. We had a nice conversation, but it was close to 7:00 pm and I had to skedaddle.

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I walked back to my hotel and was enjoying the cooler air. Street vendors were setting up small tables in the middle of the streets. Shirts promoting the meeting with President Trump and Kim Jong-un lined the clothing booths. The two had just met in Hanoi and the t-shirts had their faces outlined with the word “peace.” The city was abuzz and I was excited to see what Vietnam had in store.

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Days 256-257: Final Days in Thailand

Once I completed my dive certification, I needed to figure out how I was going to leave the island to catch a flight to Vietnam. Down the street from the dive shop was a hotel that also booked ferries and flights. I spent the next two hours reviewing my options. Weeks earlier I booked a flight from Phuket to Vietnam with a layover in Bangkok. When I booked the flight, I didn’t know I would be going to Koh Tao.

Phuket was now in the opposite direction and would take a full day to get there by ferry and bus. The nearest airport was on another island, Koh Samui, which was a two-three hour ferry ride away. I planned on taking the overnight ferry and bus to Bangkok and pick up my flight there from the layover. The woman at the hotel told me that the ferry that left that night in a few hours was their crappy one with uncomfortable cramped beds that were all in the same room. The thought of having to pack my bags and spend an overnight on a crappy ferry and then a long bus ride after several exhausting days getting my dive certification sounded like torture.

I was still in my swimsuit and all I wanted to do was rest. I had two problems: 1) My flight was already booked. 2) My visa was expiring the following day. The woman at the hotel was very helpful and connected me to AirAsia just to make sure I could actually get on the flight if I didn’t start in Phuket and joined in Bangkok. Unfortunately, their customer service is awful. They told me that if I didn’t get on the plane in Phuket, my ticket was invalid and I couldn’t get on in Bangkok. Even if I made it to Phuket, I couldn’t fly that soon after so much diving.

I decided to just forget about the plane ticket and lose the $135 that I paid. I extended my Airbnb by another day and searched for plane tickets from Koh Samui and Chumphon. The only options for flights had me leaving Thailand one day after my visa expired because of long layovers in Bangkok. I searched online and found that most likely, I’d just need to pay a fee and it would be fine, especially if it was just a day.

Once I had things booked, I decided to enjoy the rest of my time in Thailand. I met Davina for dinner because she was still on the island. She told me about her life back in Wales. She was a nurse and as long as she worked once every six months, she could continue in that career. Once her 15-year-old daughter moved in with her ex-husband, he took her to court for child support (even though she never received any when she had custody). She made a lot more money than him and decided to sell everything and spend nine months in a van touring Europe. Davina then went back to Wales and worked for a few months to save up money and then started traveling again – this time to New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand.

I completely understood Davina and was happy she found a way to live life on her terms. I also made a lot more money than my ex-husband and it cost me financially when I filed for divorce. Thank goodness we didn’t have kids. I have many female friends who have had to pay child support to their husbands who either didn’t make much money or didn’t work at all. It’s an awful feeling to watch the money you worked so hard for disappear.

Davina and I talked about how it is to date at our age. I swiped through Tinder with her to show her people in the area. It was awesome to chat, laugh, and have some company for the evening. Davina was starting to feel sick and had to move her advanced diving class back a few days and she’d end up not completing the dive class.

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The next day, I tried to ignore the construction banging next door because I desperately wanted to sleep in. I spent some time editing my blog and making a video. Then, I took my motorbike to the other side of the island. After walking down several stairs, I ended up at a restaurant where I enjoyed a happy hour two-for-one drinks. The views were incredible and I was trying to soak it all up before I left the following day.

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I continued driving my motorbike around in the sun. I ended up back at the lookout point I had found a few days prior. I enjoyed a refreshing coconut drink and then a beer as I watched the sun set. The sunsets on Koh Tao are some of the most magnificent ones that I’ve ever seen.

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I drove to Siree Beach and ate dinner at a busy restaurant with cushions on the floor with low tables. My fish wasn’t good and my legs started to hurt from sitting like that. I didn’t want to spend my last night in Thailand alone and a guy from Tinder had messaged me. He wanted to hang out a couple nights earlier, but I went to dinner with Davina instead. That night, he said he’d be off work at 11:00 pm and we could meet for a drink. He was from France, was 33, and was there for a few months helping a friend with a restaurant.

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Harry, my British friend, was eating at a nearby restaurant after finishing his homework for his dive class. I joined him, but got there as he was finishing his meal. We had some beers, but he didn’t want to stay up late because of the early-morning dive class. I enjoyed Harry’s company. I saw a lot of potential in him, but told him that he needed to mature a bit. Harry told me that he had matured a lot in the last couple of years. Before, he had no morals. His parents divorced when he was 12 and probably contributed to his behavior.

Harry told me that before he went to Australia solo two years prior, he didn’t do anything for himself and was pretty spoiled. We talked about how traveling solo makes you wiser and makes you have different priorities. In London, Harry would wear very expensive outfits, but in Thailand he just wore t-shirts. I thought it was great that Harry was taking on solo travel, especially at his age. I’m not sure that I would have been able to handle it at age 23.

Harry said he’d stay with me until my date was available. However, at 11:00 pm, the restaurant wouldn’t serve beer unless we went to the bar, so Harry decided to leave and get some rest for his class. After finishing my beer, I walked around while messaging the guy from France. He said he was cleaning up and we were trying to figure out where to meet. Then he stopped messaging, so I walked to a small outdoor bar.

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I sat at the bar and talked to a guy from Denmark who was extremely wasted. He ordered shots for his friends and then didn’t have the money to pay, so he denied that he ordered them. After accidentally knocking over his drink, he left with his friends. Next, I talked with a guy from Sweden who works on a cruise ship in Norway. He works for 22 days straight and then has 22 days off.

The bartenders were a couple who owned the bar. The guy was from Germany and had long blonde hair pulled back on top and shaved on the bottom. He was tall, had lip rings, and seemed smart. The bar had a board on the wall next to me showing how many shots were bought and consumed by each country. I took a shot for the USA and saw that some guy from Alaska took an insane amount of shots over a few days to try and get us to win. We came in third place in the first round and were making good progress in the current round.

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There were 18-year-olds from Europe dancing at the bar to the upbeat music and it was a fun night. The owner of the bar gave me a lot of tips for Australia because he spent a year there. He told me not to miss Tasmania because it was his favorite part. He came to Thailand eight months prior to get his dive master certification, but realized he could make more money running a bar. The guy wrote down things for me to see and do on my phone, so I wouldn’t forget. His girlfriend didn’t seem very happy about it. I went back to my Airbnb and was happy that the French guy ghosted me. I had a great night without him. He messaged me the next day saying he fell asleep and apologized.

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I packed my bags and checked out of my Airbnb. I stood in line to check in at the ferry station and ran into Michael from Serbia. I had met him during my “try dive” a few days prior. We sat together on the ferry until he got off at Koh Pha-ngan. I was taking the ferry to Koh Sumai. I asked Michael if Serbia was safe to travel to as a foreigner. He said it was and he gets asked that all of the time. He explained that they haven’t had a war since the 90s. The US was bombing them for “political reasons,” he explained. Michael said they tend to have wars every 30 years and it’s coming up to 30 years without war. He said, “Come visit while you can!”

Michael’s company was letting him work remotely for two weeks after his holiday, but it was an exception. He’s a leader at his company, so they weren’t going to let him do it full time. It was great talking with him, but we had to say goodbye. I continued on the ferry and fell asleep.

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When the ferry arrived in Koh Samui, I took an hour van ride to the airport. At the VietJet Air counter, the guy asked to see my visa for Vietnam. I showed him my preapproval letter in my email, but he had me print it. He also made me show him my plane ticket out of Vietnam before I could board the plane.

When I arrived to customs, there were large signs on the walls saying that if you overstay your visa, even by one day, you could be jailed. I started to panic. I did not want to be jailed in Thailand. When I got to the man and showed him my passport, he asked why I overstayed by a day. I explained that I couldn’t fly because of diving and missed my flight. He told me I needed to pay the fee, which was $500 baht for each day ($16 USD). I was grateful that he didn’t put a red stamp in my passport, which I read would decline re-entry.

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My SIM card ran out because it expired after 30 days. I was trying to book a hotel in Vietnam using WIFI, but it wasn’t letting me connect. It was time to board the plane, so I walked outside and climbed the stairs. When we arrived in Bangkok, there were three of us marked as “quick transfer” because we had a connection to Vietnam. A woman met us as we got off the plane and escorted us to a van that took us across the tarmac. The woman explained that our bag might not make it, but it would be put on the next flight. Great.

After being dropped off, we had to walk all the way through a long hallway, up the escalator, and back through security. Then we walked to our gate. They looked at my passport and made me show my visa again. Thankfully, the flight was running 20 minutes late, so I connected to the WiFi and booked my hotel. As we boarded the plane, a man backed up and accidentally rolled his suitcase over my bruised toe, making me wince in pain.

I was on the plane to Vietnam and was happy that I wasn’t jailed for overstaying my visa. I reflected on my month in Thailand. I hiked and biked in the jungles with REI Adventures and some really awesome people. I explored cities and temples. I ate some delicious new food. I swam in clear, warm waters and learned how to dive. I watched some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. The best part is all of the people I met. Even though I was traveling solo, I was rarely alone. I met people who made my time in Thailand such a special place to visit. I look back on my time there with nothing but fond memories.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 244-246: City Living

Miley, my Airbnb host, gave me a ride to the Sky Train which would take me to the Siam Center, a mall in Bangkok. Miley was tall, had red circular glasses, and a confident stature. She appeared to be in her late 20s and was in charge of the Airbnbs in her family home. I got in the front seat of her car and turned around to meet her family.

Miley’s mother and grandmother were in the back, so we said hello to each other. Then they said something in Thai, which I couldn’t understand. I looked at Miley for help and she said, “They think you’re very brave to be traveling alone. They think it’s great.” I smiled, “Oh, well tell them I said thank you!”

Miley dropped me off at the Sky Train station and gave me instructions for how to use it. I climbed a few flights of stairs, bought a ticket at the ticket booth, and followed the ticket booth operator’s instructions on where to stand to get the correct train to the mall.

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The Sky Train is an elevated metro system and provides some amazing views of the city. I wanted to ride it and I read online that the malls in Bangkok are something special to see. It made sense to take the train to the mall. It wasn’t very crowded, it was new and clean, and it reminded me of England. In Thailand, they drive on the left, say “mind the gap” when getting on and off the train, and “mind your hands.” In Chiang Mai, a local told me they had a strong presence from England decades ago, so they have replicated a lot of the Brittish culture.

The Siam Center was huge! I first started to look around the outside covered area and found a small shop selling a “pancake cup,” which is a cup of mini-pancakes, strawberries, and cream. I ate a cup while enjoying the small air conditioned section. I continued walking and noticed shops had very narrow stores with glass doors. The doors allowed for air conditioning and they only had to cool off a very small section. What it created, however, were small store booths that looked like little jail cells.

I continued walking around, but the heat and humidity were making me uncomfortable. I found a restaurant with air conditioning and ordered a chicken with egg. After that, I went to the main indoor section, Siam Paragon. The multilevel glass windows made it look regal and expensive.

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I used the toilet and it included a container of disinfectant that you could use to wipe your seat. Bathrooms (or toilets as they say) are very inconsistent in Thailand. Most are run down, or only have squat toilets, don’t have toilet paper and instead have a spray nozzle attached for you to use to wash yourself, and no soap. But there are also high-end places like this mall where the toilets are fancy – they included toilet paper and the spray nozzle, soap, and were incredibly clean. This bathroom was cleaner and nicer than most bathrooms in the U.S.

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I continued walking around and couldn’t believe how amazing this mall was! The floors shined from the marble, sculptures hung from the ceiling, and I could look up and see seven stories! Most stores were priced similar to an average store in the mall in the U.S. There were also high-end stores like Chanel, Bvlgari, Cartier, and Rolex.

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This mall had everything you needed: furniture stores, hair salons, investments banks, a bowling alley, a boxing gym, a movie theater, a food court, lounges, and car dealerships with actual cars inside! I watched as children in school uniforms worked on homework in the food court and it appeared people spent many hours there.

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I was exhausted from walking around so much and even though there was air conditioning, I was still a little warm. I read online that the movie theater there is a “must see,” so I headed to the very top floor and found it. I talked with the girl at the counter because I was confused about the theatre options. She talked me into the higher-end theater that came with a small ice cream, a latte, a small bottle of water, and a lounge recliner seat. It cost $32 USD, which I thought was a lot, but I wanted some down time.

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I walked into the VIP lounge and was treated like royalty. While they got my ice cream, latte, water, and the popcorn that I ordered for $5 USD, I went to use the toilet. It was the most fancy toilet I’ve ever seen! I had my own little room that was covered in marble. The toilet lid opened itself when I approached. The seat was heated, it washed me, and then flushed itself. As soon as I left my little room, which included a personal sink and cloth washcloth, a housekeeping woman immediately went in to make sure it was perfect for the next guest.

I got to my theater and it was dark, so a man walked me to my seat using a flashlight. My seat was a large double seater for couples. There were only two other people in the theatre and they were a few rows up from me.

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I watched the movie, The Favourite, about Queen Anne. The movie was in English, but it had Thai subtitles. I enjoyed the movie and the pampering was nice.

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When the movie finished it was dark outside. I walked through the mall some more and eventually left. I walked towards a rooftop bar,  checking out the shops and nightlife around me. It reminded me of New York City because of its size and high-rise buildings, but the walkways, stairs, and bridges reminded me of Las Vegas.

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There didn’t seem to be any trash cans around on the street corner like I’m used to. When I had trash from a water bottle or snack wrapper, I just put it in my purse until I could find a trash can. The strange thing is that they don’t have a lot of litter around. I also noticed another big difference than the U.S. Maybe it was just where I was walking (near a high-end mall), but I didn’t see any homeless people. I saw only one disabled man laying on the street asking for money. In the U.S., homelessness has become an epidemic for many cities.

I walked just over two miles and arrived at a rooftop bar that I found online. It provided incredible views of the majority of the city. I paid for the view in the price of the drinks ($12 USD each). I enjoyed some appetizers and cocktails while enjoying the evening. I didn’t run into many tourists, especially Americans, during most of my time in Thailand. But in touristy places like the rooftop bar, I could hear American accents.

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I took a Grab to my Airbnb and slept in the next morning. I was feeling extremely tired. I lounged around, updating my blog and creating a video. It takes much longer than you’d expect to do all of this.

I needed to eat more than a protein shake, so I wandered around my local neighborhood. On the way out, I met Miley’s mom. She didn’t speak much English, but she was really welcoming. Miley’s family always had a smile on their faces.

I ate Americanized chicken for dinner, but it was not good. As I walked around, I saw a nail salon behind the glass windows, so I stopped in. They didn’t speak English, but a customer translated and told me to come back in 20 minutes. I enjoyed some ice cream and made my way back.

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The manicure wasn’t done very well because the girl didn’t do much cuticle work. They had gel polish though, which I couldn’t find in Chiang Mai. The girl then worked on my feet while another girl and a guy just hung out talking in Thai. She saw that my big toe on my left foot was bruised under the nail and she kept asking me something in Thai. I kept telling her I don’t speak Thai.

Then the girl who was just hanging out used her phone and Google Translate. It said, “nail figure” and I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know what that meant. Then she typed “are you hurt?” I shrugged again, “I guess so.” I didn’t know where I got that bruise, but it hurt, especially when she dug under it.

As I sat there getting my nails done, I played on Facebook and saw that the girl, Tsui, who I met in Chiang Mai at the Art Museum posted a sweet message to her account about the time we spent together. Tears came to my eyes as I read it. Seeing her post made me smile and I was grateful that I had this opportunity, even though it was tiring at times.

The next morning, I took Miley’s advice and took a Grab to Nonthaburi Pier. When I arrived, I searched for the long tail boats. I read online that the boats were a really fun way to get to the island that I was going to. There were a few different men with long tail boats and one approached me. He told me it would cost $400 Baht ($13 USD) for a round trip.

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The driver’s name was Pet and he helped me get  into the small boat without tipping over. I sat on two wooden boards in the middle, just in front of Pet. The boat was so close to the water that when we took off, water was splashing up on the sides. I didn’t get wet though and it was a really fun ride! The wind was a nice reprieve from the heat and humidity.

Pet stopped a couple of times for me to take pictures. We rode up the river, passing under a huge modern bridge, small houses that were right off the river on stilts, and statues.

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I climbed off the boat when we arrived to Ko Kret, a man-made island. Pet told me to be back there in two hours and he would pick me up. The island is still in the craziness of Bangkok and they offer a weekend market. I perused the stalls of interesting foods, occasionally buying some to try. I resisted the temptation to buy anything else. It was over 100 °F outside and walking around in the humidity made me sweat like crazy.

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After two hours, I returned to the spot Pet had dropped me off and thankfully he was there waiting. The boat ride was just as fun getting back. Once I got back, I took a Grab to another weekend market that is well known in Bangkok, the Chatuchak Weekend Market.  

The market had so many stalls that it felt a little overwhelming. Some stalls were in the sun, while others were under a shared roof. With no air conditioning, it made it difficult to spend much time there. The vendors sold everything from clothes, food, and household items to essential oils. I mostly purchased cold beverages.

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In the maze of shops, I found a tiny room with sliding glass doors with air conditioning and just enough space for five people to sit down for a massage. I paid $6.50 USD for a 45-minute foot, neck, and back massage.

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The massage was good, but the woman was really digging into my foot. Two minutes after walking away, the top of my right foot was hurting so bad that I started to limp. I forgot that a bad massage is worse than no massage.

The Sky Train was nearby, so I bought a ticket and stood in line for the Siam Center. It was taking a while for the train to arrive and then a man came by and said it was broken, but should be up soon. After 20 minutes, the station was packed. I squeezed my way inside and made it the Siam Center.

I had a coupon for a 15 minute massage that was part of the movie theater package I purchased days before. I sat in the cool, comfortable plush chair while the woman painfully massaged my neck and shoulders.

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After the massage, I walked a few blocks to the Hard Rock Cafe to buy a shot glass (I collect them). My limp was more pronounced now, making me look funny. When I arrived hot, sweaty, and limping, the woman told me that they had a happy hour special – two for one drinks. That sounded appealing, so I sat down and enjoyed mojitos and a salad. Nothing makes you look more pathetic eating alone at a restaurant than enjoying two drinks at the same time.

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After Hard Rock, I walked around for what seemed like an eternity, trying to find a Boots pharmacy. I finally found it at the bottom level of the food court of the huge mall. I asked a pharmacist for help with my toe nail. I told him that maybe it wasn’t a bruise under the nail, maybe it was a fungus. I also needed an antihistamine cream for some bug bites. The pharmacist was helpful, but it turned out it was just a huge bruise under my toenail and the antifungal cream didn’t help any.

To get back to my Airbnb, I was going to order a Grab, but there was nowhere for them to pull up. The Tuk Tuk drivers offered a ride for $20 USD and didn’t know where I was going. A Grab would cost me around $4 USD, so I kept walking.

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The busy streets were insane. At one point, I needed to cross a large intersection, but they don’t use crosswalks. I waited for five minutes with a large group of people. The cars didn’t stop. Multiple lanes of motorbikes, cars, Tuk Tuks, and busses raced by. Eventually, some people started to cross. I took advantage of their numbers and joined them. It was wild! We formed a group and slowly crossed while vehicles passed in front and behind us. The stop lights have a digital display that counts down how long until it changes colors, mostly starting from 40 seconds. That helped to know when the light was going to change.

I continued walking while attempting to find a place where a driver could pick me up. It was like the Las Vegas Strip – multiple lanes with a divider in the middle of the street. I passed “love massage” places and lots of tourists. Finally, after a mile of walking, I ordered a Grab. When the driver pulled up, it was on the opposite side of the street.

I had waited 15 minutes for him to arrive in the traffic and I knew there was no way that he could get to me. I took a deep breath and ran across the multiple lanes as fast as I could. I got to the divider and once it was clear, I ran across those lanes to my driver.

Bangkok is an exhausting city. I am glad I was able to see and experience it, but the crowds, heat, humidity, traffic, and overall insanity made me want to get out. I was headed to Phuket the next day, and I decided I needed to spend some time relaxing on the islands for the next few days.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 240-241: “You’ve Never Met Anyone Like Us, I Promise You That”

It was super early in the morning and time for an ATV ride. I was ready and waiting in my workout clothes for the van. After picking me up, the driver pulled up to a nice resort and three fit, attractive guys walked towards us. I was suddenly aware that I was in workout clothes with a baseball hat on.

The van had two long seats facing forward and then two long seats in the back that faced each other. The driver put the guys in the back after they tried to get in the side. I turned around and smiled and one said, “We got booted to the back” in an accent. We had an hour drive to the mountains where the tour would start, so I turned around and asked if they were from Australia.

The guys told me they were from England, just outside of London. They had flown to Bangkok for two days and only arrived in Chiang Mai the day prior. They were so hungover from Bangkok, they hadn’t seen any of Chaing Mai yet because they spent the day recovering at the resort.

I asked their names: David, Harry, and Charlie. I laughed, “Are you guys in a boy band like One Direction?” They were not a boy band – they were just friends. Harry had blonde, wavy hair just above his shoulder with part of it pulled back into a ponytail. Charlie had short dark hair and a small amount of facial hair. Dave had wavy, short brown hair with volume on top and several tattoos.

Dave and Charlie worked in heating and cooling and Harry worked in golf course landscape. They were all on holiday for a couple of weeks. After two weeks, Dave and Charlie would fly back to London while Harry would continue to travel for the next month.

Harry planned to go to Vietnam after Thailand, which was my next destination. He didn’t have anything booked like I didn’t, so he could have the flexibility to move around his location and dates. In April, he would fly to London for a few days and then to the U.S. to do an eight month internship at a golf course.

Harry had travelled solo to Australia two years prior and I planned to go there after Vietnam. We talked all about Australia and he suggested places to see and things to do. I didn’t know how old the guys were, but I figured they were in their late 20s.

When we arrived at the outdoor tour agency, I found out there was a hike and rafting available too. The other group of people we picked up were only doing rafting, and the guys from England were doing the hike to a waterfall and the ATV tour. I only signed up for the ATV tour. The hike sounded great so I paid extra and joined. As I was putting my bag in a locker, Harry ran over to say goodbye and I said, “Wait for me, I’m coming on the hike too!”

It was a quick ride to the start of the hike. It was me, the three English guys, and a couple from the U.S. I wasn’t prepared to hike, so I didn’t have my backpack. Harry offered to carry my water bottle on the side of his backpack. I left my sunglasses in the locker and Charlie let me use his. We had to cross a few logs over rivers and Dave held my hand to help me across.

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The guys were so friendly and hiking without a backpack was much easier. It was beautiful outside, but getting hot. The guys hiked without shirts and I worried they’d get sunburned. They asked me if I got my jabs before coming to Thailand. Confused, I asked what jabs are. They mimicked a needle going into the side of the arm. “Oh! Vaccines!” I told them I got hepatitis A and tetanus shots and they really hurt. Harry couldn’t get in the clinic in time because you need a couple of weeks for the vaccines to take effect.

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The guys smoked cigarettes on the trail several times. I told them, “I’ve never met someone who smokes on a hike.” Harry laughed, “You’ve never met anyone like us, I promise you that!” That would be an accurate way to describe this crew. During the hike, the guys crudely talked about partying and women. Perhaps they’re younger than I thought.

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We arrived at the waterfall and got in to enjoy the cold water. While we sat on rocks, I talked with the couple from the U.S. They were from New Jersey and appeared to be in their late 20s. They both had recently quit their jobs to travel for two months before moving to Philadelphia. They didn’t have jobs lined up, but were confident they’d find them once they were settled.

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Once the hike was finished, we sat outside at small tables and ate chicken and rice. The guys told me to join their table, which was nice. Before I ate, I told the guys that I was concerned about two bug bites that I had gotten a week before while on the nine-day hiking and biking tour. I thought they were mosquito bites just below my left knee on the inside. I showed the area to the guys and they were concerned. The redness and swelling had spread to a large area and was hot. The two bites were clearly marked with dots as well.

I asked the owner if he had any allergy medicine. He looked shocked and said that he didn’t know what I was bitten by, but it definitely wasn’t a mosquito. He gave me some Claritin and some cream. Charlie gave me some Afterbite for the itch. He said his mom made him bring it. Thank you Charlie’s mom.

Harry told me that maybe we could travel together a little bit in Vietnam once the others went home. We all connected on social media so we could stay in touch.

Lunch was over and it was now time for ATV riding. We put on arm and knee pads to help protect us. First, we all had to ride a small section of very bumpy, hilly, terrible terrain so they could gauge our experience level. Once that was complete, we rode on a paved street for a little bit until we reached the mountain. The six of us followed the guide up the mountain.

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The mountain was extremely steep. The windy dirt road was filled with large cracks and ditches that were created by runoff. I was worried I would flip to the side because it was so uneven, or maybe I’d accidentally drive off the side of the mountain. But I didn’t want to be the one to hold up the group, so I kept up. Our tires kicked up the dust in huge plumes.

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We arrived at a lookout point and stopped to take in the view. It was incredible! The thick green trees covered the surrounding mountains. I was extremely happy to feel the wind and adrenaline.

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We arrived at the top, where a small village sits. The residents had electricity from solar panels on their roofs. We walked around the village and saw a very basic school and stray dogs. We also checked out a homestay, which was similar to ones I stayed in the week prior, then we headed back down the mountain.

On the way down, we passed elephants being walked by their owners and a pickup truck full of people standing in the back. They held onto the bars that surrounded the truck and I couldn’t believe the truck was attempting to climb the mountain on that road. We pulled our machines over as far as we could so they could safely pass. The people smiled, waved, and were taking pictures of us. One small child said, “So cool!” I guess we looked like professionals with all of our padding on.

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Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, we drove through a village and passed military personnel carrying large guns over their shoulders. They were there for training. We drove down some small sand dunes and got to drive in the river! Water splashed around us as our machines rushed through.

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We drove on a road following the river and saw several people bathing their elephants in the river. The sun was starting to set and we had beautiful views. We stopped to take it all in. The guide told me that most people either get to ride the village at the bottom or climb the mountain. We were able to do both because we rode fast and were all capable of handling the machines. He said, “You have a good group.” Shortly after, Charlie broke his third machine from doing too many tricks.

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Dust covered our faces – a sign of a good time. We got back and returned the ATVs. Then we boarded the van to go back to Chaing Mai. The guys talked about going to see the nightlife and I asked if I could join. They said, “The more the merrier.”

After showering and getting ready, I met the guys at a restaurant at 10:30 pm. They were just finishing dinner outside. Dave bought me a beer and we enjoyed the night air. Then we walked to the place next door. There were several bars and clubs next to each other and some had outside areas that just blended in with the street.

We got drinks and stood on the street, watching all of the party people dance under the covered section. There were a lot of tourists and “lady-boys.” The guys told me they had to be careful that a lady-boy didn’t fool them. I asked how they can tell. They pointed to one and said, “That’s a lady-boy. He’s too tall and has big boobs.” I replied, “So women are short and have small boobs?” They told me they have to look at the forearm to confirm because men have different forearms than women. Lady-boys are common in Thailand and I’ve been told that families will transition boys to girls as young as seven so they can earn money.

We walked to a reggae bar down the street that had a live band. They closed shortly after we arrived, so we walked to another club. To get there, we had to walk down a dark alleyway. I told Harry that it was ok because I carry a small pocket knife. He was surprised and told the others. I told them, “I’m a solo female traveler. Yes, I carry protection.”

The cub was crowded with tourists and played a lot of music that you’d hear in a club in the U.S. After getting drinks, we stood on the side of the dance floor. The guys kept going outside to smoke and I stayed inside. Harry assured me they wouldn’t leave me, they were just going outside to smoke and they’d be back.

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I noticed an aggressive drunk guy hitting on a couple of girls who seemed to be annoyed by him. It was so crowded that it was hard to move, so the girls couldn’t just walk away. I decided to intervene and help them out.

I wedged my way in between the guy and the girls and asked if they wanted the guy to stop hitting on them. They told me they did not want to talk to the guy, but he wouldn’t leave them alone. I used my height and blocked the guy. One of the girls was Minhee, from Korea. She thanked me for helping them and we laughed that the guy seemed confused as to what was happening. She was traveling solo to Bangkok and Phuket like I would be, so we stayed in touch to possibly meet up at a later date.

As I stood on the side of the dance floor against a half-wall to an upper platform, a very tall, young drunk guy with blonde hair kept trying to hit on me. I wasn’t interested in him and attempted to give several hints that I wasn’t. However, the guy leaned in and was in my personal space. I took a step back and said, “no.” I motioned to Charlie nearby and he said, “You only live once. You’re traveling.” I told him I wasn’t interested.

Then the guy leaned in and tried to kiss me. I backed up, but I hit the wall and couldn’t back up any further. It was too crowded to move to my right and the guy kept leaning in. I quickly turned my head and he kissed my ear with his wet mouth. I reached and grabbed Harry’s shirt for help. Harry pushed the guy away, told him to “f*ck off,” and I was able to get away.

A little bit later, I was people-watching and a tall German guy started talking to me. He was friendly, smart, and funny. He pointed to a really tall guy and said, “My friend over there really likes you. He saw you push that guy away and said you must have a personality. He’s really shy. You gotta make a move. He likes you a lot.” I explained to the guy that I briefly talked to his friend, but he stopped talking and ended up several feet away, talking to other people. He convinced me to talk to his friend again. Eventually I made my way towards him, but shortly after I somehow got pulled away.

Harry found me and apologized for being gone so long. They ran into a guy from their hometown outside smoking and lost track of time. Eventually the club closed, so I walked out with Harry, Dave, and Charlie.

As we walked down a dark alley, there weren’t many people around because it was past 2:00 am. We heard some people getting closer behind us and Harry quietly said, “You still have that knife? Maybe get it ready just in case.” We made it just fine and ended up on a main street near the river. We saw two girls and two guys talking by the river and we joined them.

The girls, Holly and Violet, were from London and had just met the two American guys from New York. Holly was super sweet and we talked about our travels. Violet would go back to London before Holly and she’d travel to the southern Islands solo. We agreed to stay in touch and hopefully meet up later. While she squeezed my hand, Holly said she loved my accent and wanted me to keep talking. Finally someone liked my accent!

Holly asked me if the three guys I was with were decent guys. I told her they were a little wild, but they had been sweet to me. She said, “We only started talking to them because you were with them. I figured they couldn’t be that bad if a girl was with them.” Holly and Violet were beautiful women in their late 20s and super sweet. I realized the guys from New York and my new British guy friends were all interested in the girls and fighting for their attention.

It was now just after 3:00 am and we all realized we needed to leave the street and go somewhere. The New York guys tried to convince the girls to go back to their hotel, while the British guys tried to make a case for their hotel to continue to party. The girls asked for my advice and I said I preferred the British guys. The New York guys had just insulted Violet’s hair and the girls were offended, so they decided not to go with them. Then they realized they had an elephant tour in the morning that they didn’t want to miss, so they went back to their hotel down the street.

The British guys walked to a Tuk Tuk and said, “Christy, let’s go. Come back with us.” I figured, why not? Dave sat on a tiny seat by the Tuk Tuk driver. I sat on the back seat with Charlie to my left and Harry to my right. I put my arms around them to keep them inside because Charlie kept leaning out. I had wanted to ride in a Tuk Tuk since arriving in Thailand, but hadn’t yet. The wind felt awesome in the night sky and the guys made me laugh.

When we arrived at their hotel resort, they asked the front desk for beer and to my surprise, the staff brought cans of beer to their room. They played music while Charlie danced in a green silk robe and his underwear. Then Harry was in his underwear dancing around. The guys kept going to the balcony to smoke while I relaxed.

Dave and I talked about our past relationships. He asked how old I was because he noticed I said I had been married for ten years. I told him my age and asked how old they all were. He was 25, Charlie was 24, and Harry was 23. Wow, I felt old. I thought, “Is this inappropriate that I’m hanging out with these guys?” Then I realized men hang out with younger women all the time. Why can’t I do the same?

At some point in the early morning, the guys were all outside on the balcony smoking and I fell asleep. I woke up from the cold breeze coming inside and saw they were all asleep. Harry was next to me, Charlie was in a twin bed, and Dave was outside sleeping on chairs that he arranged so his legs were propped up. I thought it was nice they let me sleep, even though there wasn’t space.

I woke up again when their alarm went off. They had a flight to catch that morning to Phuket and I knew they needed to pack and leave soon. I had a splitting headache, so I said goodbye and left. We agreed to stay in touch and meet up on the islands in the south if we were there at the same time.

I got back to my Airbnb and crashed after taking some Excedrin. I missed a bike tour I signed up for, but I preferred to sleep. When I finally woke up, I did laundry and got some food, but spent most of the day recovering. I had a blast with my new British friends. They were fun, wild, funny, and were sweet to me. Every once in awhile, I like to enjoy a night where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I had wanted to see the nightlife in Thailand, but didn’t want to be by myself. I was happy to have them to explore with. Harry was correct – I’ve never met anybody like them.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 228-229: Overcoming Fears? Maybe Not…

I arrived at the hotel and met the 15 people who I would be spending the next nine days with through REI Adventures. My taxi was late getting to my previous hotel to pick me up, so I arrived about ten minutes late. Everyone was fit and standing in the lobby of the outdoor/indoor hotel. The guide, Tri, was giving the group an overview of what the week would look like. I met everyone so quickly, I couldn’t remember who came with who or anybody’s name.

The two vans would be leaving soon to take us to our first destination for the afternoon. While we briefly waited, a girl walked up to me and said, “Hi, you must be my roommate. I’m Nicole.”

We were both solo travelers and neither of us paid the $600 single supplement fee, so we were roomed together. Nicole was 44, but looked like she was in her early 30s. She had brown hair, a sweet smile, and was very athletic. She lived in Denver, Colorado and worked from home as a project manager.

It would take me two days to learn everyone’s names and remember where they were all from, but here they are!

Nancy and Steve: Married couple in their 50s who live in North Carolina

Andrea and Scott: Married couple in their 40s who live in Minnesota

Christian and Kristen: Married couple in their early 30s who live in Washington

Terri and Cathy: Two women friends in their 50s who live in California

Mimi and Lisa: Two women friends in their 50s who also live in California

Tien and Clark: Friends Tien (in his 40s) and Clark (in his early 60s) who live in New Mexico

Neil: Man in his 60s who also lives in Washington

Nicole: Woman in her 40s who lives in Colorado

We boarded the two ten-passenger vans and drove to Wat Suan Dok Temple. I sat in the front row of one of the vans, next to Cathy and Clark. We talked and got to know each other. It was clear that there were different personalities on this trip.

We arrived at the temple and had to climb up 300 steps. I was wearing mid-length jeans that made it an uncomfortable journey to the top. To get into the temple, women need to have their shoulders and knees covered. I was wearing a tank top, so I was provided a short-sleeve shirt to wear while I was inside.

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Our guide, Tri, had been leading tours for several years. He was short, had black hair, and had a huge, welcoming smile. His English was pretty good, but sometimes we struggled to understand each other.

The temple was outdoors and I was sweating in the sun. We had to take off our shoes and leave them outside. The stone floor was warm on my feet and I didn’t like walking around barefoot. We huddled around statues as Tri told us about the stories behind them. Thailand is predominantly Buddhist. I was starting to get overwhelmed after 30 minutes. It was a lot of information to take in and the heat wasn’t helping.

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The temple was full of tourists. With a group of 15, it was difficult to navigate through the crowd. At one point, I accidentally lost the group and the people behind me were now lost with me. Clark teased me because he had been following me. Oops. We eventually found the rest of the group and then headed back down the 300 steps.

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We ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant. All of our meals would be shared family-style. There were five vegetarians, so Tri asked that they sit together to make sharing easier. During lunch, I was able to talk to a few people and tell them about my travels. They were surprised to hear that I had been traveling for seven months and they enthusiastically asked me questions.

Nancy works at an REI store, which is a separate division of REI Adventures. Her khaki clothes gave her an outdoorsy look. It seemed to make sense that she’d work there. She knows a lot about the outdoors, so I’m sure she is super helpful to customers. Her husband, Steve, works as an engineer and is also into the outdoors. He struck me as responsible and smart.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel to check-in and clean up a bit. The hotel was a beautiful resort that had a lot of green trees and impeccable landscaping. It had soft, comfortable beds.

For dinner, we boarded the vans again and went to a restaurant. Because it was Chinese New Year, Tri gave us the option of going to an outdoor market to check out some festivities. Some people in the group had just flown in that morning, so they were exhausted and opted to go back to the hotel. A few of us went to the market.

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It turned out to be the market I had visited the day prior. Now that it was nighttime, it was packed! It was difficult not to get separated from the others. We watched some festivities on a stage and walked around the booths.

After walking around a little bit, we decided to go back to the hotel and get some rest. The next day would be our first hike and ziplining. I was excited for hiking, but less excited about ziplining.

We ate breakfast at the hotel, which had an incredible buffet spread, and left for our hike. We drove to a small village of wooden houses precariously built on a steep hillside on the side of a mountain and started our hike.

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Once we passed the houses, we started to climb on a trail through the forest. It was warm outside, but there was a cool breeze. I quickly fell to the back of the group. Ascending is harder for me because it’s hard to catch my breath. My slow heartbeat starts beating too fast and I need small, 30-second breaks.

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I was in the back with Christian and Kristen. They’re the young married couple from Washington (Seattle). Christian works for REI Adventures and does the planning part before people leave for the trip so they’re all prepared. He had been working there for less than a year and really liked it. He wanted to make it clear he was just on vacation and wasn’t working.

Kristen worked in admissions at a university in Seattle. She was so sweet and friendly and also wanted little breaks, so we stuck together. They are one of those couples that is really cute together because they are both kind and thoughtful.

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The trail was narrow and not very well maintained. Trees and bushes often overtook the trail. The dense forest was beautiful and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t more humid. It was “cool season” for them and being in the mountains made it much cooler than the rest of Thailand. Thailand has three seasons: Cool, Hot, and Rainy.

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We arrived at a beautiful waterfall where we took pictures and ate snacks. I took a picture with Nicole, my roommate. She was hiking at the front of the group because she’s very athletic.

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After our snack, we continued climbing. There were a few bridges, which were ladders laid down with some fences, that we had a cross. One bridge was more a swing-type bridge.

At times, the trail was steep and narrow on the side of the mountain. Tri said once during the rainy season, a guest slipped and slid down the side. She ended up being ok, but was cut up. I was grateful it wasn’t raining.

After several miles of hiking, we went to a beautiful outdoor restaurant for lunch. Most places in Thailand are outdoors, which makes for a very relaxing atmosphere.

During lunch, I talked with Tien. He’s a psychiatrist, but was going to start a new job soon working in more of the administration side of a healthcare company. He was married with two young kids. Tien had a subtle sense of humor. We talked about my travels and his job throughout lunch.

I also talked with Clark. I told him about my solo travels and some of the things I need to be aware of as a solo female. He said, “You’d be hard to kidnap.” I asked why and he replied “Because of your attitude. You don’t seem like a victim.”

After lunch, it was time for ziplining. We drove five minutes to Flight of the Gibbon. We were fitted with gear and weighed because they have weight limits. Because our group was so large, we split into two. My group had the following: Clark, Tien, Scott, Andrea, Mimi and Lisa.

Clark and I were both nervous. He’s tall and extremely fit. He does a lot of trail running behind his house in New Mexico and can be pretty hardcore with his workouts, but ziplining didn’t appeal to him very much.

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We jumped off the platform one by one. To stop, this zipline company doesn’t use brakes. The zipline in Canada that I had gone on a few months prior had a brake system. Instead, you have to raise your legs when you’re coming into the treetop platform and the guide will help stop you before you smash into the tree. I was nervous about this because on the zipline in Canada, I kept inadvertently turning around, so I always went backwards. This time I needed to make sure I didn’t turn or I wouldn’t know when to raise my feet.

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The zipline has 14 lines, which is a lot. The two other places I’ve ziplined only had six to seven lines. I zipped across, tightly holding my harness. I could not relax because I kept thinking I’d be too heavy and I’d fall. What if the safety standards haven’t been met? I tried to convince myself thousands of people do this and I’d be fine.

Once I landed on a tree platform, the guide would hook my harness onto a cable wrapped around the tree. This was necessary because the platforms were very high into the tree with very limited space for standing. The seven of us would pile on, hugging the tree as we waited for everyone to finish. A couple of times, there were still people on the tiny platform from a group in front of us. I worried there were too many people on the platforms, but at least we were clipped to the tree.

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We continued zipping through the forest, and each time I was scared. I just wanted to get done with it. The trees were beautiful, but I just couldn’t shake the fear. The local guides sometimes did crazy things like pulling on the line when someone was on it, making the person bounce. On one line, they recommended we go “Superman” style where our face would go first, facing the ground. Then we’d have to climb up a rope net. I just did the regular line instead of that contraption.

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Most people were really enjoying the adventure, even if they questioned some of the safety standards. Clark, on the other hand, was like me. I couldn’t tell if he was joking at first because he’s a big jokester, but he was just as frightened as me. Fourteen lines is a lot and it was starting to weigh on him. He knew there was no way out – we had to complete the lines. At one point, he turned to me, “I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m serious. I have nothing left to give.” I knew exactly how he felt.

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Halfway through, we came to a section where we had to rappel down from high above on the tree platform. I’ve never repelled before and having to rely on the guides lowering me down was not comforting. I knew I had no other option to get down. I sat down and tried to get myself to go through the small square hole in the platform. I told the guy to go slow and said I just want to get home alive.

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We continued on several more lines until we were finally done. The final line was to rappel down again. This time I enjoyed it. The guide lowered me slower than others, which made me feel better. Once we were done, I was relieved.

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A few months later, Scott came across an article about that zipline, Flight of the Gibbon. A 25-year-old Canadian tourist was on those same lines two months later and fell to his death. He was halfway through one of the lines when “the lock on his body harness and the main line broke.” His girlfriend watched as he fell and I can only imagine the horror they both felt. My heart breaks for them.

Reading about that accident and the history of accidents at that zipline made me incredibly grateful we were all safe. I recognize that many thousands of people have been on those lines and have not gotten injured. However, the company has had other accidents and even deaths over the years. From my own experience, I can say the safety standards were poor. Pulling on lines to make people bounce around was not safe. The company is currently shut down for an investigation. REI Adventures has discontinued using that operator and instead of zip lining, people will now meet elephants. I think that’s a great alternative and I’m happy they are always looking out for the safety of their members. I can confidently say that was my last zipline adventure!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 223-226: Overseas vs Wedding

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I picked up my rental car and drove towards my old workplace to meet a friend for happy hour. Jimmy and I used to go to happy hour at Geezers, so we met there like old times. We had a great time catching up over some drinks.

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I was staying the night at my friend Trisha’s house, but my friend Debbie had the key to my storage unit. It was late and they were in bed, so I picked up the key from Debbie’s mailbox and drove to Trisha’s house.

I’ve picked Trisha up from her house several times, but I’d never actually been inside. She has two children in grade school and they were all in bed. Her son Hunter was letting me use his bedroom while he was in Trisha’s room. Trisha left me instructions on how to get inside, which felt like a typical Airbnb for me.

I walked inside and looked for pictures on the wall so I knew it was her apartment. I was up late that night because I had to do some updates to my blog. The next morning, I drove back to Debbie’s house because I had the wrong key. After getting the key, I drove to my storage unit to get some paperwork from the sale of my house. Once I had that, I drove to Torrance to give all the documents to my tax accountant. This all reminded me just how spread out Los Angeles really is.

Once that was complete, I went to my friend Carey’s hair salon in Long Beach to get a haircut and highlights done. Then it was off to Debbie’s house for lunch. After that, I went to the bank because they did not properly add my beneficiary to my accounts. They don’t have locations in Missouri, so I needed to do it while I was in California. Having a life in multiple states 2,000 miles apart is complicated.

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After making a quick stop at Target to get some things, I headed back to Trisha’s house. We quickly got ready and drove to El Segundo to meet my friend Toni for dinner. It was great catching up and having a “girls night out.”  After swinging by REI to get a battery pack, we went to another place for drinks.

Once Trisha and I got back to her place, Trisha tried to help me fix my duffle bag. It was a new bag and I only used it as a backup bag while traveling the last six months. The baggage handlers at the airport somehow bent one of the bars on the bottom, preventing the handle from extending. I’m too tall to hold the loop on the side and it was too heavy to carry. But no matter what we tried, we couldn’t fix it.

The next morning, Trisha and I went to a restaurant for breakfast and then I drove to the airport to drop off my rental car and catch my flight to Thailand. As I drove to the airport, I realized my ex-husband was getting married that day. I had seen a few weeks earlier that my ex-sister-in-law was tagged at his fiance’s wedding shower with a hashtag of their wedding date. It was strange seeing a picture with my ex-mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, and two sister-in-laws in a group picture with Aaron’s soon-to-be wife. I have those same pictures with them.

It was a strange feeling knowing he was getting married less than two years after our divorce. I had ended the marriage because of his lies, but it still felt strange. It felt strange because he kept telling me he didn’t want the divorce, he loved me, and had no interest in dating. And before the divorce was final, he was on Tinder dating his first match, who he was now marrying.

I reflected on the symbolism. He was getting married on the same day that I was heading overseas. He would make the same vows to her as he made to me. They would likely be blissfully happy that day, sharing their love with their family and friends – just as he did with me. I have those same pictures with him – cutting the cake, dancing, and committing to each other.

I remember on my wedding day I felt panicked. I was in the little waiting room with my dad as we waited for the wedding party to walk down the aisle under a large tree at a golf course. My dad and I would drive up on a golf cart. I remember feeling worried – was I making the right decision? I convinced myself it was just nerves. But deep down, I remember thinking, “this is forever” and feeling slightly panicked.

After the ceremony, the best man told me he watched a large vein in my forehead pound with blood during the ceremony. Nerves, I told him. We had a great day and people told me for years that it was one of the funnest times they’ve had at a wedding. It was a great day. If only it were all true. If only I had married the person I thought I was marrying.

I don’t feel jealous or envious of Aaron getting married. I’m happy he’s moved on and that he’ll be just fine. But it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a strange feeling. It’s hard to put into words.

I don’t mean to be cynical about marriage, but I have a hard time believing people will be together forever. Vows are said with good intentions. People intend to be with the other person until “death do us part.” But the reality is more like “I promise to be with you unless you…”

I know what you’re thinking, “You have to fully commit for it to work out.” But the truth is that you cannot control your spouse and the things they will and will not do. When I hear vows now, I have a lot of hope for couples, but I also know it wouldn’t be unheard of for them to divorce and fall in love with someone else. It all seems so fleeting.

While Aaron prepared for his big day, I headed to the airport. I was happy with where my life was going. When I filed for divorce I still loved him, but I knew he wasn’t good for me. I had stood up for myself in a marriage built on lies, confronted many of my fears, followed my heart, and was living the life I believe I’m meant to live. It was poetic that I was leaving on his wedding day.

LAX is one of the world’s worst airports, but the international terminal is slightly better with better food and shopping options. It’s also less crowded.

I was flying with Japan Airlines for the first time. The plane had two seats, an aisle, four seats, an aisle, and two more seats. I got an aisle seat to the right of the plane. The girl next to me at the window looked to be in her early 20s and seemed to be with the two people in front of us. She didn’t get up to use the restroom the entire 12-hour flight to Osaka!

During the long flight, everyone was quiet and respectful. We left around noon so I wasn’t tired. Instead, I watched free movies on the screen in front of me. I used my Bose headphones so it felt like I was in a movie theater. After a movie, I’d do some writing for my blog on my iPad mini and keyboard that I brought. Once I was tired of writing, I’d watch another movie.

When the flight attendant brought dinner, I was amazed! It was all free and delicious!

  • Chicken and mashed potatoes
  • Salad
  • Quinoa
  • Fruit
  • Noodles
  • Miso soup
  • Bread
  • Green Tea
  • Water
  • Wine
  • Ice Cream
  • Warm towel

I got up a few times to stretch and use the restroom. There were toothbrushes in there for people to take and use, which I thought was a nice touch. The flight attendants would go down the aisles from time to time selling items from a catalogue. The homemade looking signs declared, “Some unique items you can only buy here.”

I was only able to sleep for about 45 minutes on the plane. We arrived at Osaka close to 1:00 am Los Angeles time, but it was 6:00 pm there. I was astonished by the toilets! I’ve always heard that Japan has fancy, complicated toilets and they weren’t lying. I had a private stall with a whole slew of buttons. I pressed the music button and whimsical music played. I wish the U.S. would get on board with these awesome additions.

I walked around looking for a place to eat, although I wasn’t sure if I was overeating or not eating enough on the plane. It seemed like they kept serving food, but with the time change, I had no idea if I should be eating or not. A friend recommended a place there, but after searching and searching I couldn’t find it.

I had a six hour layover there and I asked the security guard about the restaurant and he told me it was located outside of security. I asked if I could just go outside of security for the shops and restaurants and come back in and he told me that I couldn’t. There were hardly any shops or restaurants in the section I was in.

I felt like I was walking around in circles as I ate some bad sushi and visited the couple of shops. Finally, I found a table ledge with computers and space for people to put a laptop. Nobody was over there. I was writing, but as the night went on, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I was literally falling asleep at my keyboard.

Finally, it was time to board the plane to Bangkok, Thailand. It was a six-hour flight and I was looking forward to getting some sleep. When they scanned my ticket, a buzzer went off and they pulled me aside. My duffle bag was sitting there, wide open. They said somehow it was broken in transit. The entire lock and both zippers on top were completely broken off!

My items were almost falling out. The attendants told me they would wrap it in two big garbage bags and tape it all around. I asked that they please wrap it tightly so things don’t spill out. I was so frustrated as I boarded the plane.

I was only able to sleep for a little more than an hour. My body was completely off kilter with the time changes. I watched some movies until we arrived in Bangkok. I had a four and a half hour layover.

The airport is huge, with very long terminals. I walked for what seemed like forever to my next gate. I ate a donut and got some coffee. The time went fast and it was time to board my next flight to Chiang Mai. It would be an hour and a half flight and this is where the real adventure would begin!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 175: Leaving Whistler with a Bang!

After spending six weeks in Whistler, it was time to leave. As I packed, I reflected on my time there and all the things I did:

  • I wrote a lot, oftentimes sitting in a reading nook, peering out the window. A few times, I was able to watch the snow fall.

I settled in, bought groceries and cooked. I even joined a gym while I was there.

  • I watched fall transition to winter, and enjoyed taking in all of the changes during walks in the forest and around town.

I took the bus to town and got to know some locals. I even took advantage of locals’ only discounts!

  • I cleared more than eight inches of snow off my car a few times, drove in the snow, and scraped ice off my gas tank so I could add gas.
  • I met a few guys. Each one helped me learn what I want and don’t want in a relationship.
  • I sat at bars alone, often times listening to live music. Sometimes I felt lonely, but I made myself get out and about anyway.
  • I attended a wine festival and a film festival.
  • I went snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

I did a beer tour tour, a nightclub crawl, and went to a vodka freezer.

  • I went to game nights, pub trivia, and bar bingo.
  • I made several new friends.

I very much enjoyed my time in Whistler and could see myself living there someday. I don’t get that vibe often with places. I don’t know where I’ll end up living, but Whistler is on my list of possibilities.

Before I left Whistler, I wanted to give a letter to Josh, who I had met right after Thanksgiving. When I dropped Josh off after spending 16 hours together, I didn’t know his last name or phone number and I had hoped he would reach out to me. I was 99% sure I’d never hear from him, which made me bummed. I wrote him a letter telling him how I felt because I’m tired of living life afraid – afraid to be me, afraid of rejection, and afraid of being vulnerable. I knew he worked at a fine dining Italian restaurant, but I couldn’t remember which one so I held onto the letter until I could figure it out. Before I left town, I planned on walking into his restaurant, handing him the letter, and walking out.

When I got sushi with my new friend Brittany, she connected me to a Whistler Facebook group. I found Josh on the group and felt relieved that I at least knew his last name and had a way of contacting him. One night at bar bingo, my new friend Saya convinced me to send Josh a message on Facebook. I thought I had seen him at the bar, but the guy disappeared. After a few drinks, I decided it was a good idea.

Of course, my message was lame (what did you expect?) and I said, “Are you around?” This was after not seeing or talking to him for two weeks. I had become accustomed to guys either not responding, responding very late, or responding in a disrespectful way after online dating. I was pleasantly surprised when he wrote back within 15 minutes. We conversed about the weather and how the snow was great. He said now that it was snowing, he was waking up very early every morning to ski. He told me which restaurant he worked at, so I was happy that I could give him my letter.

It was my last day in Whistler and after snowmobiling, I showered, ate dinner, and prepared to leave my Airbnb to surprise Josh with the letter. I was extremely nervous.

“He will probably think I’m a weirdo.”

“What if I become the laughing stock of his friends?”

My friends back home all thought I was crazy. Their response was always the same – if he was interested in you, he would have contacted you. He just wanted to have a fun night and you’ll never hear from him again. That’s how men are. I could hear the tone in their messages as they told me I’m such a hopeless romantic and that this likely would end with a broken heart. I didn’t care.

I knew logically they made sense. It was likely that he never wanted to know me past the night we met. But my instinct kept telling me that he was different. He wasn’t a jerk, he was actually a caring individual. I spent many hours getting to know him, and he didn’t act like other guys. He was tender, he was real, and he had a good heart. I didn’t blame him for not contacting me. It was a strange situation. I was traveling and was only there temporarily. Nobody wants to do long distance, so I didn’t blame him for that. I just needed him to know that I cared and that our time meant something to me, even if that meant I’d be rejected.

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I had a few shots of vodka in preparation for going to the restaurant where he worked. I arrived around 10:20 pm and couldn’t get myself to walk inside. It’s a fine dining restaurant. It’s not like I could just walk in and find him in a sea of people enjoying their fancy meals. I also didn’t want to ask for him because then his coworkers would all wonder what was going on.

I saw a second door that led to a hotel that was connected and went through it. I used the restroom, trying to convince myself that I had the strength and the nerve. People always tell me I’m the bravest person they know – I can assure you that does not apply to the romance department.

Sweating, I managed to get myself into the side door that was by the bar. There was not a single person at the bar, so I asked the bartender if the bar was open. He said it was and got me a menu. The section to my left was crowded with tables full of people enjoying dinner. Behind me, there were lounge tables and some dinner tables, but they were mostly empty.

The bartenders were all from France and were so friendly that it helped to calm my nerves. That, or the vodka was settling in. I ordered a drink and texted my friends. Kristina, who was from Germany, came down within 15 minutes and sat with me at the bar. I slowly turned around, looking to see if I could find Josh. I didn’t know if he was working that night, but it was my last shot.

Kristina and I talked all about her life in Germany. She told me about how she thought Canada would be a lot like the U.K., but she found that is not at all the case. She described German people as being very straight forward, but in Canada, they consider it rude. I told her it’s because Canadians are known for being very nice.

I was enjoying Kristina’s company. At some point, I thought I saw the back of Josh walk by me twice. He was headed the other direction so he only saw my back. I was also trying to cover my face with my hair. I told Kristina about my letter and my dilemma.

At just past 11:00 pm, two servers who were running the bar after the bartenders left said they needed to close out our tabs. I panicked and told Kirstina to stall. We slowly paid and I messaged Josh, asking him to come to the bar. He wasn’t responding and after a few minutes, our bill was closed.

Kristina, being a straight-forward German, asked the servers, “Is Josh here?” The girls looked at each other and one said, “I think he just left.” The other chimed in, “Yeah, he was helping a large party and once they were done, he went home. He just left.” Kristina immediately said, “Can we give you something to give to him?”

Panicked, I said, “No, it’s ok.” The sweet servers enthusiastically said, “Yeah! We can give him something.” Kristina tried to grab the letter from my hand and I tried to shove it back into my purse as I quietly told her, “It’s fine. I’ll message him.” The servers, trying to be helpful, said, “We can tell you his schedule tomorrow.” I assured them it was fine and that I’d message him.

Kristina and I walked outside and met our friends Saya and Misato from Japan, who had just arrived after getting off of work. We brainstormed as to what I should do. I wanted to just run away. Kristina reminded me that I wanted to tell him how I felt and I came there to give him the letter, so I should do it. She told me I could give the letter to her and she’d go back the next day and give it him. I gave her the letter and we all decided to go have a drink at Brickworks bar.

They all thought the idea of writing a letter and giving it to Josh was romantic and they gave an “awe…”. I explained to them what my brother used to say many years ago, “If the person likes you back, they’re flattered. If they don’t like you back, it’s stalking.” I think he’s right. I had no idea if Josh would consider this romantic or consider me a stalker.

As we sat at Brickworks, Josh messaged me back and said he was in bed after skiing and working all day. I told him it was my last night in Whistler and there was something I wanted to give him. He said he would come back out, but he was too exhausted. He asked when I was leaving the following day and said he could meet me to say goodbye.

I was happy that he offered to meet me. I told him once I checked out of my Airbnb, I was going to the holiday market at one of the hotels, and then I needed to head south by around 2:00 pm. He said he’d keep me posted because he would be skiing early in the day and then had to work that evening, but he thought he’d have some time to meet me in the village to say goodbye.

My new friends and I had a great time talking over some wine. I played some classic American songs on the jukebox and we talked about relationships, what it was like in their home countries, and how much fun we’d had together. They are amazing people with warm hearts, and they were so encouraging. I felt lucky to have met them and figured I’d go visit their countries once they were back there. They walked me to the bus station and we hugged goodbye.

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The next day, I checked out of my Airbnb and drove to the winter market at the hotel. Misato met me there and we looked around at the locally made items. It was much smaller than we anticipated, so we walked through the village. Misato hadn’t been in Whistler very long and was working a lot, so she didn’t have a lot of time to shop around yet. It was a great time because we got to know each other better now that it wasn’t in a loud bar or while we were playing a board game.

Josh messaged me at 1:00 pm saying he was about to do his last run and he’d be done by 2:00 pm. Then at 2:00 pm, he was done and asked where to meet me. Misato and I had just finished shopping and were by the Pangea Pod hotel, which is a hostel. They have a nice restaurant on the second floor overlooking the village. We went inside and I told Josh to meet me there.

When we walked inside, Brittany, my friend from the beer tours, was there to get people to sign up for the tours. It was perfect because I hadn’t gotten a chance to say goodbye to her. We talked for a bit and then Misato and I went to the bar to order some coffee while Brittany was at her table with promotional material. I was incredibly nervous and this time didn’t have alcohol to help give me courage.

As I was looking at the menu, Josh tapped me on my left shoulder. I turned around and he had a big smile on his face. I was awkward of course and messed up giving him a hug. He was in his ski gear, took off his jacket, and sat down. I was pleasantly surprised because I wondered if he’d just message me saying he was downstairs and ask me to come outside to give him whatever I had to give him. Or maybe he’d come upstairs, but quickly leave.

I introduced him to Misato and she ordered coffee, talking with the bartender. I was turned towards Josh, talking. We talked about the ski conditions and how amazing the snow had been the last two weeks. Within about ten minutes, Misato had to go to work so she hugged me goodbye. Ten minutes later, Brittany came over and hugged me goodbye because she had to leave.

I continued to talk to Josh over the next hour. I kept thinking he was probably about to leave at any moment. After 40 minutes, the bartender asked if I wanted to order anything (I never ordered my coffee) and I said no because I thought Josh was about to leave. To my surprise, he ordered an espresso.

We continued to talk and I told him about my snowshoeing and snowmobiling experiences. As he told me about skiing, he was enthusiastic and never made me feel awkward. I enjoyed talking with him and it was reassuring that we could still have great conservations, even without any alcohol. It reminded me why I liked him in the first place. He was so easy to talk to and I was attracted to him.

After an hour, Josh said he needed to go because he had to change for work. I told him I needed to get headed south to make it to Mount Vernon, Washington that evening to stay the night with a friend. We put on our coats, walked down the stairs, and went outside. He gave me directions on how to get back to my car and then he gave me a hug.

As we hugged, I reached into my purse to grab the letter. I had printed it at the library and put it in an envelope. I was terrified about how he’d react, but he came out to say goodbye and I was reminded that I like him. I could also run away right after I gave it to him.

At the end of the hug, I pulled the folded envelope out of my purse and said, “Just don’t make fun of me.” Josh looked down, took the letter, and looked up with a huge smile on his face. He immediately gave me another hug. I felt relieved that he didn’t make me feel like a weirdo. We said goodbye and went our separate ways.

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I drove to Washington feeling amazing. I had conquered a tremendous fear. I let myself be vulnerable, even if it meant embarrassing myself. I trusted my instincts and they were right. Josh wasn’t a jerk and he didn’t make me feel like it was a pity goodbye. He seemed happy and being able to see and talk with him again confirmed what I believed about him.

I know I can’t control the future. I can’t make someone like me. I am a hopeless romantic and I desperately want life to be like the great books and movies where big gestures happen and anything is possible. They say that you should “be the change you want to see.” Well, I want to see people letting themselves be vulnerable. I want to see people taking risks in life. I want to see people express themselves to those they care about. So, I decided to start with me. I can’t expect someone else to treat me that way if I’m not willing to do the same.

I knew I probably wouldn’t hear from Josh for at least a few days. I was feeling happy and content that I was able to say goodbye in person and give him the letter.  Now it was in his hands.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 104-106: A Typical Los Angeles Adventure

I arrived at Ryan Shuck’s house around 8:00 pm. I met him through a mutual friend and he lives there with his girlfriend, Caitlyn. Ryan is a well-known musician (currently the lead singer and guitarist in Julien-K) and he was about to leave for a six week tour, so he wanted to review things in the house with me before he left so I could keep an eye on it. His girlfriend and a roommate would be there too, but they worked a lot and weren’t around very much. The timing worked out perfectly.

I texted Ryan that I was there and he met me out front to help me with my luggage. I was embarrassed that my suitcase had just broken and was missing a wheel. We walked through the front gate, passed the pool, and went inside the house. The house had a beautiful 1950s design and Ryan did an amazing job decorating. He did such a good job, that his house has been featured in magazines.

After I set my bags down, Ryan showed me around the house because it was my first time staying there. He had a soundproof recording studio with a lot of guitars and a rack full of black leather jackets. I asked, “What all do you record in here?” He laughed, “Lots.” Other musicians record there too.

Ryan and I chatted over some wine in the kitchen. Ryan is tall, about 6’3”, and has a thin, athletic build. He has dark hair that was styled like a rockstar – shaved on the sides and long on top. He is in his 40s and exudes charisma. I felt embarrassed by my bland shirt and jeans.

Ryan and I talked about relationships, my recent travels, and his business endeavors. As Ryan told me more about his career, I was blown away. I only knew of him as a regular guy when I was first introduced to him, but he has platinum records on the wall, his music has been in movies, he has had top positions on the Billboard Charts, has been on Total Request Live, and has sold over three million albums.

According to Wikipedia, he is an “American singer, songwriter, guitarist, composer, producer, and entrepreneur. He has been a founding member of the industrial rock band Orgy. As of now, he is the leader of the Electronic rock / indietronica / dance project Julien-K and the guitarist and backing vocalist of Dead By Sunrise, the alternative rock side project of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington. Growing up, Shuck played in the Bakersfield-based rock band Sexart, alongside Korn frontman Jonathan Davis, Adema bassist Dave DeRoo, and Videodrone frontman Ty Elam. Aside from his musical career, Shuck also owns four popular restaurants in the Orange County, CA area and a recording studio in Long Beach, CA.”

Ryan is such a nice guy and it was awesome to have a normal conversation with him, even though he’s famous. We took our wine outside and sat by the pool, where we continued to talk. He made me feel welcome and he was easy to talk with.

After a couple of hours, Ryan’s girlfriend, Caitlyn, arrived after being in New York for work. She is tall (5’10”), thin, beautiful, 29-years-old, and super fashionable. She joined us at the pool and told us about her recent business trip. She works for a custom blinds store, but she used to sing in their band at times. It was getting late, so we all headed to bed. It didn’t feel like I was back in Long Beach because I wasn’t at my own place. As I was lying in the comfortable bed, I kept thinking about what a crazy adventure this has been.

The next morning, I went for a run around the neighborhood. It was surreal being back in California. It was October and very hot outside (in the 90s F). I was missing my cool fall temperatures in the north. I ended up running right by the golf course where Aaron and I got married. I hadn’t actually been that close to it since our wedding. I ran right by the fence that separated the outdoor pavilion and I paused to look at it. I guess it was closure for me. I know I take longer than most people to grieve and move on, but it’s necessary for me.

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Halfway through my run, my knee got a sharp pain. I couldn’t get it to go away so I had to walk back. It was probably because I hadn’t gone for a run in a long time – just a couple of times while on the road. After my run, I drove to Target to get some items that I was low on, like shampoo. Walking around there made it feel like I never left.

I picked up some food on the way back and ate it at Ryan’s place. As I ate lunch, Ryan was cutting the hair of his band mate so it was fresh for their tour. I had purchased one his albums on iTunes and had been listening to it during the day. I couldn’t believe how good it was! Ryan has an amazing voice and the beats were so unique, they put me a good mood.

Afterwards, I met Max. He was staying in the room next to mine. He was there for four months while he was doing a physical therapy internship. Max was in his late 20s, in great shape, had dark blonde hair, and was really friendly.

I had to shower and get ready for a friend’s birthday party. As I did my makeup, Ryan was running around the house packing for his tour. My friend’s birthday party was on a boat that he rented in the harbor in Marina Del Rey. I had to be there before the boat left and it was a 45 minute drive so I quickly left.

I arrived on time, but the birthday boy, Rohan, was running late with his pre-party crew. There were about five of us already there and they let us board the boat. It was beautiful as the sun was setting on the water. Rohan and the rest of the party showed up and we took off to the ocean. There was around 40 people packed on this boat.

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It was so much fun and I was able to catch up with some old coworkers. As we sailed around the harbor, it reminded me of why Los Angeles can be a pretty spectacular place to be. Several of Rohan’s friends from MIT flew in just to celebrate his birthday. I had a blast talking about my time in Alaska and Canada.

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Once the boat arrived back to the dock, we went to an Airbnb that Rohan and some of his friends had booked in the Hollywood Hills. It was a giant mansion on the side of the mountain – something you’d see in the movies. We hung out there for awhile and then took Ubers to West Hollywood. The clubs were ridiculous with mostly-naked people swinging around the place.

Once all of the clubs closed, we headed back to the Airbnb. We were partying and it was starting to die down around 3:00 am. I fell asleep while sitting on the couch, only slightly leaning back. I woke up at 6:30 am because I was very cold and shivering. There were other people passed out on the couch and I decided I needed to go back to Ryan’s place to get a good rest. Before I left, I walked outside to the back yard where the sun was rising over the Los Angeles skyline. It was beautiful and reminded me that it can be a pretty magical place.

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After a crazy and fun night celebrating Rohan’s birthday, I slept in until the late morning. I cooked myself some food while summarizing my trip so far. I enjoy data, so here you go:

Leaving Long Beach – arriving back in Long Beach:

  • 104 days (just under 15 weeks)
  • 10,400 miles driven
  • Approximately $1,350 spent on gas
  • 45 overnight locationsMotel: 11
    • Hotel: 3
    • Airbnb (room): 9
    • Airbnb (private space): 3
    • Airbnb (bed and breakfast): 2
    • Airbnb (house/condo): 2
    • Airbnb (guesthouse/lodge): 2
    • Hostel: 3
    • Friends/family house: 4
    • Cabin: 2
    • Lodge: 1
    • Deck on a ferry: 1
    • Structured Tent: 1
    • Backpacking Tent: 1
  • Total spent on accommodation: $7,539.64 (average per night $81.07)
  • 2 countries; 7 states/territories; 34 cities
  • Met up with 6 friends
  • Met over 65 people new people
  • 15 hiking trails; 5 bike tours; 5 ferry rides

I loved looking at the data. It put into perspective just how far I had driven, and how many different places I had spent the night. I still had a lot ahead of me, but I think it’s important to pause and reflect on your journey from time to time.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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