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.

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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.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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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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Days 251-252: Koh Tao Island

I woke up in my hotel in Krabi, Thailand scratching at bug bites. I wasn’t sure where I got them, but they itched! I booked a package ferry and bus ride to Koh Tao Island from my taxi driver the previous day, so I got picked up from my hotel at 11:30 am and taken to a bus stop.

After enjoying some fried rice at a stand and talking with a guy from France, I got on the bus. It took a few hours to get across the peninsula, where the bus dropped us off at the ferry terminal. When I boarded the ferry, they just stacked suitcases and bags in the front of the inside room.

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I spent some time inside writing for my blog and then I wandered to the top to watch the water. We stopped at two other islands (Koh Samui and Koh PhaNgan) before arriving in Koh Tao. Each island was beautiful and I enjoyed watching the sunset on the water.

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By the time we arrived on Koh Tao, it was dark outside and a cool 86 °F. Getting my bags was a challenge because everyone was trying to find theirs in the chaotic stacks. I got a taxi, which was pretty expensive for Thailand ($13 USD), but they don’t have many cars on the island. We drove just over a mile and arrived at my Airbnb.

I was renting a room from a family. I walked into the downstairs portion and was greeted by a pregnant woman sitting at a desk. Although she didn’t speak much English, the woman directed me outside and up two flights of stairs to my room. Her husband carried my bags and told me that his wife could do my laundry for $6.50 USD. It would take 24 hours because they line-dry clothes. It sounded pretty good to me, so I gave him my dirty clothes.

The family rented out a couple of other  rooms, but I felt like I hit the jackpot. I was on the top floor with incredible views of the island because the house was situated on a hill.

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I walked down the hill to the first restaurant that I saw, which was Italian. It was romantic and the other patrons consisted of couples and groups of girls. This island was not a party island like Phi Phi. I sat alone and ate delicious tuna fish. After I ate, I stopped at a market and bought some bottled water. I huffed and puffed as I carried the six, 1-liter bottles up to my Airbnb.

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The next day, the Airbnb host told me that his brother rents motorbikes next door at his shop. Since I was staying with them, they would rent one to me for four days for only $700 baht ($23 USD). I could park the motorbike in the small dirt section in front of their building and the building next door where they (and several construction workers) were doing renovations.

The brother got me a bike and showed me the basics. He also didn’t speak much English, so it was a challenge. The shop is on the side of a steep hill and the night before I heard a girl crash her motorbike across the street while trying to drive up the entrance to her nice hotel. I ran outside when I heard the noise and saw her boyfriend helping her get up and move the bike. I had to sign a form saying that if I wrecked the bike, I’d have to pay a lot of money.

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I rode a scooter in Italy five years prior, but that’s about it. I loved riding that scooter though and even thought about buying one. I was confident I could drive the scooter, but I wasn’t so confident that I could make it up the steep hill. As I pulled away, I kept stopping, hitting the breaks, and putting my feet back down on the ground because I felt like I was going to fall to the side. You need to put your feet up and onto the bike platform once you start driving for obvious reasons. The problem was that I had to turn the throttle hard to get enough power to go up the hill, which scared me.

The poor owner looked worried as I kept pausing to put my feet back on the ground. My Airbnb hosts and some of the construction men were watching me and the pressure was on. My hosts were encouraging me, saying I could do it. Finally, I gave it enough power, lifted my feet, and took off up the hill. I made it to the top and then the road went back down the other side of the island. It was so beautiful! I was thrilled to be on a motorbike and thought it would be a perfect way for me to get around.

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There was a crazy steep, small dirt path leading up a hill. I paused, unsure if I could go up it. A couple drove down the path and said it would be fine. Then a woman came driving up, past me, and drove up the path. Shortly after, she came back saying it turned into too much dirt and wasn’t suitable for the scooters. As I was waiting to see if she would come back, the owner of the bike came riding up. He wanted to check on me and make sure I was ok. I thought it was nice, but I knew he was also likely concerned about his bike.

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I went back down the hill past my Airbnb and into town. There were a lot more motorbikes and cars, so I drove slowly. Driving on the left wasn’t very hard because the lanes were basic. I drove all around the island and then saw a lookout point with a bar at the top. I pulled over and parked by all of the other scooters. A blonde American girl in her early 20s was getting back to her dirt bike and we chatted. I told her that I was impressed that she was on an actual dirt bike. She said she grew up in the country and was used to them. Then she asked me what I had to leave with the bike rental company. I told her nothing, I just gave them money for the rental. The girl looked worried, saying they took her passport and asked for a $5,000 baht deposit. Once they saw that she had $5,000 baht, they asked for $8,000 baht ($260 USD).

The girl, clearly concerned, looked at her boyfriend when I told her that I didn’t leave a passport or a deposit. However, I explained that I rented from the brother of my Airbnb hosts, so he gave me a deal. It’s one of the nice things about staying in Airbnb’s with locals – they help you out. I told the girl where my place was and warned her because I read online that it’s a common thing they do. They hold your passport and won’t give it back unless you pay a crazy amount of money. Don’t ever give up your passport.

The girl and her boyfriend drove off and I climbed some rock-steps to the top of the lookout point. It was breathtaking! From that spot, I could see two different beaches, one on each side of me. The land jetted out, so the beaches were in coves below me. There was hardly anybody there either. I ordered a watermelon frozen drink and sat down on a mat. It was 83 °F with a real feel of 94 °F and the breeze felt good.

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After my drink, I got back on the bike and ended up at a hotel on the beach. I passed two guys playing pool and asked for a table. It was 2:30 pm and there wasn’t anybody there! I know I often eat at strange times, but I couldn’t believe how empty it was. I ate some food while sitting at the best table right off the water. It was crazy. In Hawaii, places would be much more crowded, and Thailand was a fraction of the cost you’d pay in Hawaii. It was just as beautiful as Hawaii too.

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After I ate, I drove to the dive shop, Roctopus Dive, where I would start my three and a half  day diving certification class. I was getting Open Water 20 certified, which would allow me to dive up to 20 meters anywhere in the world.

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I arrived at the shop to start the orientation. At the last minute, a guy walked in and signed up for the class. Roctopus Dive only trains in groups of four or less and this guy now made five. I was impressed that, at the last minute, the company found another instructor and separated us.

I was in a group with two other girls from Germany. One girl was only 18 years old and the other was 22. They weren’t traveling together though. The 18-year-old was traveling with a friend who was getting her advanced certification, so she thought she would get Open Water 20 certified while she was there. We also had a third girl with us from Germany who was working on her Dive Master certification, so she was in training.

Our instructor was Birgit. She appeared to be in her mid-20s, had long wavy blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and was from Estonia. She was very beautiful and had an athletic build to her short frame. Because everyone except for me was a non-native English speaker, she spoke with a very distinct pronunciation. Birgit had been teaching dive certification for two years and loved it. From the time she was young, she called herself a mermaid.

We were in a small air-conditioned classroom learning “academics.” There was a lot to learn and we were assigned homework that had to be completed before the next morning. Once class was over, I drove back to my Airbnb, walked across the street to the hotel rooftop bar and ate dinner. The place only had a group of three people there and once they left, I was all alone. The view was beautiful and the music was nice.

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After dinner, I went back to my Airbnb and did the homework on my phone. We were provided an app to read through A LOT of information and we had to take (and pass) several quizzes. I was lying on the bed and kept falling asleep. There was so much information and I was struggling to retain it all. I kept failing the quiz on equipment, but it wouldn’t tell me which one I was getting wrong and would change up the questions on the next quiz. It took me a few hours to go through it all and I was exhausted.

I had never dived before, but so many people recommended Koh Tao for certification because of the cost. It cost me $350 USD and I was told it would cost three times that in a place like Australia. I figured I should take advantage of the lower price and the warm, calm water in Thailand. I had no idea what I was in for.

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.

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Day 243: Discovering Bangkok, Thailand

I woke up in Bangkok with no idea how I was going to spend my time. I searched on Trip Advisor and signed up for a bike tour. I’ve found it’s always a good way to see a new city because you move faster than walking, but slower than in a car.

It was a night tour to avoid the daytime heat because it gets very hot and humid in Bangkok. I spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood where I was staying. I ended up near a college and there were young kids in uniforms everywhere. They ate at cafes and bought street food.

The narrow streets were incredibly difficult to navigate. Sometimes the sidewalk was walkable, but often vendors were suddenly on the sidewalk and I’d have to duck below their umbrella or go into the street. Other times, motorbikes were parked on the sidewalks, making it impossible to use. The street was always just inches away. I thought for sure I was going to be hit by a car or a motorbike.

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Bangkok had more cars than Chaing Mai. It felt like New York, except there weren’t any homeless people around. I zigzagged through the streets until I found a sushi restaurant. It had air conditioning, so it felt like a good place to eat.  

After I ate, I realized I needed to head downtown for my bike tour. I ordered a Grab and ten minutes later it arrived. The price was $210 baht ($6.80) and the driver asked if I wanted to take the highway for $50 baht ($1.63) more. I thought he was trying to scam me, so I said the price should only be $210 baht.

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Just after we passed the highway entrance, the traffic on local streets came to a complete stop. The driver told me that it would take an hour on the local streets and half an hour on the highway. I needed to be there in half an hour, so I asked him to take the highway. It took him awhile to get there. Sure enough, before getting on, he had to pay $50 baht at a toll booth. I gave him the $50 baht and was grateful that I arrived just in time.

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There were five of us and a guide on the bike tour. The guide was funny, but he didn’t give a lot of information. It was sunset when we started our ride through extremely narrow alleyways. We had to constantly ring the bells on our bikes to alert people to move.

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We arrived at the river and waited in line to board a ferry. Once it arrived, we carried our bikes on the small boat. The sun was beautiful as it set.

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We arrived at some temples, which were lit up at night. They were so beautiful and there was hardly anybody around. We couldn’t go inside, but I didn’t care because they were so cool to see at night. The guide told us that we’d “see the beauty of the night” and he was right.

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We had some free time to wander around and I talked with some others on the tour. There was a single guy from Bangladesh, a couple from China, and a single girl from Chicago who teaches English in Korea. She was tall and sporty and we talked about how she takes long weekends to travel to nearby places.

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We continued on and this time we rode over the bridge across the river. The guide warned us to watch out for busses because “they are the king of the road.”

We arrived at the flower market, which was mostly marigolds for people to put at the temples. The flowers were beautiful and plentiful. We parked our bikes out front and didn’t lock them up. I asked the guide about it and he said it wasn’t necessary. Sure enough, our bikes were fine when we returned.

Street food vendors were just outside of the flower market. Our guide bought some food for us to try, like pork on a stick and fresh fruit. I tried a tiny bit of a hot sauce and my eyes started watering! It was too hot for me and I grabbed my water.

We continued riding our bikes and stopped at some more temples. They were incredible! The artistic and intricate designs were so unique as the lights highlighted all of the details. We explored on our own and nobody else was around, a rare thing in Bangkok.

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The bike tour finished and I was close to the famous Khao San Road. It’s a street known for its wild antics, backpackers, and a crazy party scene. Khao San Road was more like a wide alleyway with shops, restaurants, bars, and street vendors everywhere. It was packed. I squeezed my way through the vendors selling things like scorpions on a stick. At times, it was tough to get through the crowd.

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One male vendor told me, “You must be from America.” I replied, “I am.” He continued, “How long are you here?” I didn’t answer and kept walking. He didn’t stop, “Why won’t you talk?”

I saw a man with a sign trying to get people to go into a comedy show. He was from Australia and I briefly talked with him. He told me that the show was about to start, I’d get two drinks included in my ticket price, and he promised the show would be hilarious. I enjoy a good comedy show and it was only $6.50 USD, so I said sure. He walked me down a narrow hallway with nobody around. I followed him and asked, “How do I know you’re not trying to lure me somewhere?” He laughed, “You don’t. That’s the fun part.”

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When we arrived at the door, I paid for a ticket and was let inside. It was a small stage and there were only about 20 people there. I enjoyed the show and a couple of guys were funny. When the final guy went on stage, he asked the audience where they were from. There was a man and a woman in their 30s from Germany. The drunk woman loudly informed all of us that they were “sex tourists.”

Bangkok is known for the sex industry. Men can easily pay for sex with any type of woman, “ladyboys” included. I saw a sign on Khao San Road to watch a “ping pong” tournament. I was already warned that those tournaments are where women shoot ping pong balls out of their vaginas.

Hearing the tourists say they were “sex tourists” was disgusting to me. Westerners can go to Thailand and pay little money for sexual services and it made me feel sorry for the women there. It is common that family members will get girls into the industry to help make money. It’s a large business because of western men.

A few weeks later, I would meet a guy from Europe who would tell me that when he was on Koh Tao (a Thai island) the women would lure him into a bar. One time, the women started rubbing his penis and one even unzipped his jeans and pulled his penis out. They told him they could “finish the job” for $50 USD if he followed them to another room. He declined and said he couldn’t believe how bold and forceful the women were. He figured it was a whole scam to get men to buy overpriced drinks in the bar.

After the comedy show, I continued walking down the street, checking out the insanity. The music from the outdoor bars was extremely loud, competing to be heard. Obnoxious, drunk tourists were everywhere and I was getting overwhelmed, so I decided to leave.

I started walking down the street, looking for a good place to call a Grab. It was so crowded everywhere and nowhere for a car to pull over, so I kept walking. After 20 minutes, I finally ordered one. A pink taxi showed up, which confused me since Grab is usually someone’s personal car. I was happy to have experienced Khao San Road, but once was enough for me.

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Day 242: Train Ride to Bangkok

Before I left the U.S., I booked my train ticket from Chaing Mai to Bangkok because I had read that the train can fill up in the busy season. It was early morning and the train would take ten and a half hours to arrive in Bangkok. I was in a hurry leaving my Airbnb and quickly ordered a Grab (similar to Uber).

Halfway into my Grab ride, I realized I still had the key to the apartment. Crap! I messaged the owner and explained that I forgot to put the key in the mailbox in the lobby like I was instructed, but I was now in route to the train station. The owner was kind and brainstormed with me on how I could get the key back. We decided that I would drop it off in the lobby of the hotel across the street from the train station. I had to go there to pick up my tickets anyway.

I arrived at the upscale front desk looking like a disaster. Flustered and out of breath after carrying my bags up the stairs, I frantically told them what happened and asked for an envelope. The two women behind the desk didn’t speak much English, but eventually I was able to use Google Translate to get an envelope. I put the key inside with some money for their trouble, and wrote the owner’s name on the outside. I tried my best to explain to the women that they needed to hold the envelope for the owner, who would pick it up shortly.

I messaged the owner to let them know the key was at the front desk. I was relieved when they messaged back a few hours later saying they were able to pick up the key and thanked me for the money.

I quickly walked across the street, found my train, and boarded like the usual hurricane that I tend to look like when traveling in a hurry. I’ve taken many trains in Europe over the years and I’ve loved them. I’ve found them to be comfortable, spacious, and provide beautiful views of the countryside.

When I boarded the train in Thailand, I couldn’t find space for my suitcase. I’m used to trains having a small section near the doors for large suitcases. There was the typical overhead space, but my suitcase was far too big and heavy to put there. I rolled my suitcase to the other door and there wasn’t space there either. I flagged down a woman who worked there and asked where I should put my suitcase. She shoved it in a small space behind someone’s seat on the end. It seemed to be ok, so I put my backpack above my seat and sat down.

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The train was scheduled to leave at 8:50 am, but it left about ten minutes late. It was full and I was glad that I bought a ticket in the air conditioned car in advance. I looked around and I was one of three non-Asian people. The train carried mostly locals, who seemed puzzled as to why I was there. Across from me was a retired couple from the U.K. After an hour, we chatted for a bit. The man told me that they were traveling for a few weeks around Thailand. I told him about my travels and that Vietnam was my next destination. The couple had gone there six years ago. We talked about the war with America and he recommended that I watch a documentary about its history.

The couple got off the train in a small town, so we wished each other well. The train often stopped in small towns for pick-ups and drop-offs. While the towns are larger than the villages that I visited in the northern mountains, they aren’t nearly as large as Chaing Mai. They were good mid-size cities. The countryside was stunning – all green rolling hills and farmland.

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When I booked the train the month before, I read online that the trains are often delayed. The website warned of not booking a flight within less than five hours after the train was scheduled to arrive. I figured out why. The train would frequently go backwards to make room for an oncoming train. This was often just after we left the station. Sometimes we went backwards or stopped for ten minutes. Other times we went backwards or stopped for at least 20 minutes.

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I went to use the restroom onboard and was extremely disappointed when I saw a squat toilet. I checked the other toilet to see if there was a sit-down toilet in there. Nope, another squat toilet. If you’ve never seen a squat toilet, it is a hole in the ground with a metal plate around it, like a pan. I am tall and cannot squat that low, so I did my best to aim correctly. The train was bumpy and swayed side-to-side, adding to the difficulty. I was grateful that I always carried a small pouch of tissues in my purse and hand sanitizer. I decided I would limit how much I drank in an attempt to avoid having to use the squat toilet again.

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For lunch, the crew came around and served small plastic containers with fish that were like sardines. It was dry and hard to eat. I didn’t want to be rude, so I ate as much as I could. Luckily the rice wasn’t bad. I’m not used to eating fish like that and it made my stomach turn. I ate my protein bar to help fill me up.

Mosquitos flew around the train from time to time. I never heard any announcement for a cafe car and all of the locals had their own food, so I didn’t try to find one. They all seemed to have this ten and a half hour train ride down. The old woman next to me tied a plastic bag to the bar near her and used it as a trash bag. She had lots of snacks and food in plastic containers.

We didn’t talk because she didn’t speak English, but I dropped my snack at one point and she picked it up. I thought she seemed nice. That is until she asked me to move seats. Several hours had gone by and there was now an empty seat across the aisle. I knew someone would eventually get on, but the woman was pointing forcefully, so I moved over.

Sure enough, someone got on the train an hour later and asked for their seat, so I moved back to my seat. The woman got off the train at around 4:30 pm and a chubby guy sat down instead, making me feel squished. I spent most of the time on the train listening to my music and writing on my iPad mini to catch up on my blog.

We arrived in Bangkok two and a half hours late, getting in close to 10:00 pm. I normally like trains, but this train was not enjoyable. I did get to see the countryside, but it was a very long day in a bumpy, mosquito-filled train with not much to eat. I decided trains were not a good option in Thailand.

As I was waiting to get off the train, I was standing in the aisle with my suitcase. A man near me asked, “Where are you from?” I replied, “The U.S.” His face lit up, “Oh! USA baby!!” I laughed. He continued in his limited English, “Trump! I like him. USA number one. That’s how it should be. My sister is married to an American.” I just smiled and nodded and then got off the train.

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I ordered a Grab to my Airbnb. As we drove on the highway, I could see all of the high-rise buildings, which was very different than Chaing Mai. I was sitting in the back seat and looking out the front window watching a guy on a motorbike drive in front of us. All of a sudden, there were emergency lights redirecting traffic. My Grab driver and I watched in horror as the man in front of us zigzagged, swerved, and eventually hit the car coming onto the highway.

We both gasped and were concerned for the driver. There were already emergency personnel there and thankfully he wasn’t going too fast, so we continued on.

I arrived at my Airbnb, which was a four-story narrow house connected to many other houses. I followed the instructions and got the key from the lockbox. The first level looked like a business with glass windows, workout equipment, and random stuff sitting around. I took off my shoes and carried my bags up three flights of stairs. My room was labeled and it appeared several rooms were rented out.

The room was large with a private bathroom and a small balcony. I was happy to have a small kitchenette, even though it was on the balcony. It had air conditioning, a TV with Netflix, and it was a comfortable space. The bed was hard, as was pretty much every bed in Thailand. I was exhausted from the day and went to bed right away. I knew Bangkok was a large city, so I was interested to see how it differed from Chaing Mai.

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Day 239: Elephants in Thailand

I signed up for an elephant tour a couple of hours outside of Chaing Mai. I was instructed to meet at a nearby hotel that morning for a pickup because I was staying at an Airbnb. Apple maps did me wrong and I wandered through an alleyway working up a sweat in the 92 °F heat (with 42% humidity). I pulled my hair back, turned around, and eventually found the hotel.

As I waited for my ride, I reflected on the prices in Thailand. Things seemed to be priced inconsistently. For example, I was paying $20 a night for a studio apartment Airbnb, but the elephant tour cost $47. An ATV tour that I was signed up for the following day cost $114. Yet, I could buy a small plate of delicious cooked noodles on the street for $0.60. Coffee drinks seemed to universally be overpriced, mostly costing $2.50-$3.00.

Finally, the van arrived to take me to the elephant sanctuary. The other tourists were Chinese and German, so I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. The driver, the guy behind me, and one kid next to me coughed incessantly. I tried my best to hide away from them because I did not want to get sick in Thailand.

I chose this elephant sanctuary because they don’t offer rides. My understanding is that the places that offer rides treat the animals poorly. This sanctuary does its best to treat the animals well while also giving visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with the elephants.

On the drive there, the driver told us about the elephants in Thailand.

  • There are 4,000 domestic elephants and 3,000 wild elephants.
  • In the early 2000s, there were companies that had elephants playing basketball and football, but they’ve stopped that now.
  • Elephants eat every half hour to every hour, so they require a lot of food.
  • Asian elephants are smaller than the African elephants.

We arrived at the sanctuary and it was organized chaos. Tourists piled out of several vans and were told which group they’d be apart of. We were all instructed to change our clothes into the scrubs with bright prints that they provided. They said it helped the elephants to remain calm if everyone was wearing the same outfit and one they were used to seeing.

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After putting on the unflattering clothing, my group of 20 or so headed to the first group of elephants. There were tourists from China, Australia, Israel, Spain, and Germany, but no other Americans.

The tour guide demonstrated how to feed the elephants. We were each given a small cloth bag that hung on our shoulder and contained sticks of thick bamboo. There were a few elephants and the guide showed us how to hold the small stick out with our hand so the elephant could grab it with his trunk.

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I was a little nervous because elephants are very large animals and once they see the bamboo, they come over pretty quickly. I put my hand out with the stick and an elephant grabbed it with its trunk and chomped loudly while looking for more. We had a lot of sticks in our pouches, so I gathered with about five people as we took turns feeding one of the elephants. It was so much fun to be that close! I patted the side of the elephant and felt the rough, hairy skin. I was still nervous to get too close.

Once our sticks were gone, we walked over to a cart with long branches of bamboo. We stuck each piece out and let the elephant grab it, take off the leafy parts, and drop the parts they didn’t like.

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After that, we walked over to a section with tables. We mashed together wet food into balls and were able to stick it directly on the tongue. The elephants seemed to really like those. Once those were gone, the elephants got into a small pond, laid down, and let us brush them and pour water over them. Elephants don’t sweat, so they need a reprieve from the Thai heat. We all got into the pond with them and covered the elephants with water as they relaxed.

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I thoroughly enjoyed feeding and bathing the elephants. They are gentle giants who have sweet souls. It was time to say goodbye to our new friends and change out of our uniforms. Once dressed again, we met in an outdoor covered patio for some fruit refreshments.

I sat next to two young couples – one from Spain and one from Israel. The couple from Spain was beautiful and looked like they were out of a magazine. The woman had lots of makeup and fake eyelashes, which looked out of place at the elephant sanctuary.

I talked with the couple from Israel for a little bit – Reny and Mark. When I said I was from the U.S., Reny pointed out that our presidents were good friends and she was glad the U.S. is supportive of Israel. I asked her what it was like living in Israel and told her that I have a friend who has family from Israel, but she grew up in the U.S. She recently moved to Israel a couple years ago. Reny said, “Yes, a lot of people have a love-hate relationship with Israel. They leave and come back.”

Reny described life as being difficult in Israel at times because it can be violent and sometimes they have terrorist attacks. The green line is where Palestinians and Jews live because they both believe it is their land. Reny lives in a small city near the green line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I told her my friend lived in Tel Aviv and while rolling her eyes, she said, “It’s the trendiest and hippest city there.”

Reny and I talked about the oil and gas in the area. She said, “We believe the U.S. doesn’t like when it’s loud in the Middle East because gas prices go up. When it’s quiet, gas is cheap.” Reny was upset at their recent hike in electricity costs, which increased by 10%.

I was really enjoying getting to know Reny better. We talked about travels and hiking, and she told me about a hiking trail in Israel that goes from the north to the south and takes two months to hike. We couldn’t finish our conversation because we were all called to get on to our busses, and she was in a different bus.

It was a good day. I was able to meet elephants and meet new people. One of the nice things about traveling solo is that people are more willing to talk to me because I’m not already involved in a conversation with the person I came with. I loved that I was meeting people from all over the world. Even though I was in Thailand, I was learning about countries like Taiwan and Israel from fellow travelers.

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Day 227: Arriving in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I arrived at the airport in Chiang Mai, Thailand around 8:00 am. I was curtly ushered towards customs. “Wrong. Walk around.” I was a little intimidated to be in a country where I did not speak the language and I tried hard to navigate the airport effectively.

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I arrived at the baggage carousel and found my bag with the two clear plastic bags draped loosely around it. The attendants in Osaka, Japan did their best to keep my items inside after the luggage handlers had ripped both zippers and the lock off of my bag. Unfortunately, my items were starting to spill out. I ended up losing my sunglasses in that debacle.

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After getting my luggage and getting through customs, I headed to a booth that sold local SIM cards. Everything is on my phone and my AT&T plan cost an extra $10 a day for international use (in addition to my $85/month bill). I would be in Thailand for 30 days, so that wouldn’t be cost effective. Instead, I opted to get a local Thai SIM card.

The two young women at the booth were busy as they swapped out SIM cards for other travelers. When it was my turn, one girl grabbed my phone and quickly went through the prompts, which were all in Thai. The SIM card was cheap – around $10 USD for 15 GB of data. They only took cash so I quickly walked over to the ATM.

I needed to get to my hotel and there was a booth offering shuttle and taxi rides. I paid the $11 USD and got into a taxi. I didn’t realize they drive on the left side of the road in Thailand. I talked with the taxi driver until he said his English was “just ok, but you talk very fast.”

I arrived at the hotel around 9:30 am and hoped to check in since I had gotten less than three hours of sleep in the last 32 hours of travel. Chiang Mai is 14 hours ahead of Los Angeles, which makes the jet lag pretty rough. I only got about four hours of sleep the night prior to leaving Los Angeles, so I was feeling incredibly sleep deprived. Since it was the Chinese New Year, all of their rooms were fully booked. The front desk informed me that I wouldn’t be able to check in until the afternoon.

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I walked to the outdoor restroom by the pool, put in my contacts, left my luggage at the front, and started walking. I decided I should get my nails done because they were in bad shape and I thought it would be much cheaper to have them done in Thailand than in the U.S.

I wandered through the narrow streets that didn’t have sidewalks. Cars and motorbikes zipped by me at rapid speeds. Following Apple Maps, I wandered through narrow alleyways, checking out the back of houses, their fences, and clothes drying on lines.

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It was a cool 68℉ with a real feel of 71℉. I finally found the nail salon, but it was closed due to the holiday. I continued to wander around and ended up at a river. The beautiful trees and flowers shimmered in the bright sunlight. I walked along the path and crossed a bridge to the city center.

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I found a coffee shop on the other side. The air was getting warmer by the minute and I was starting to regret wearing my mid-length jeans. I stopped inside, bought a cold coffee drink, and relaxed on a couch under the air conditioner. I was starting to feel tired, so I got up and continued to walk around. I found an outdoor market selling belts, souvenirs, scarfs, elephant pants, etc.

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I ended up walking to an inside part of the market. It was huge and had fresh foods. On the upper level, I found a merchant selling luggage. It was the perfect time to buy a new bag since mine was completely ruined. I debated whether or not I should continue with a duffle bag or get a suitcase. The duffle bags were small and I was afraid it wouldn’t be sturdy enough for my long-term travels. I didn’t want to lug around a suitcase, but it would be sturdier (or so I thought-spoiler alert). The suitcase was priced at $1,300 Baht, but I talked the saleswoman down to $1,100 Baht ($35 USD).

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I rolled my empty suitcase behind me as I headed back outside. It was now lunchtime and food vendors were starting to put small tables and chairs in the middle of the walkway. I picked out four pieces of sushi at one vendor and some noodles at another. Each one only cost me $0.60 USD.

I was annoyed by my suitcase as I continued walking around the market. It was getting hot outside (it was now 84℉ with a real feel of 92℉) and I was wondering where all the tourists were.

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I found another nail salon on Apple Maps that was on the way to my hotel. I walked for another 20 minutes, dragging my suitcase along with me on the sides of narrow streets, hoping a car wouldn’t hit me. I made it to the small nail salon that was attached to a hotel. I walked inside and the woman across the hall in the hotel front desk came running over. She said she could give me a mani/pedi for $14 USD, but she didn’t have gel so it would just be regular polish.

Exhausted, I agreed. She turned on the air conditioning unit when she saw how hot I was. The woman started with a pedicure and put my feet into a small shallow glass bowl. My feet are large (I wear size 12), so they didn’t quite fit. I didn’t care. I was extremely exhausted. The heat, lack of sleep, and jet lag made me fall asleep in the chair. I would occasionally wake up – startled and wondering where I was. I would look at the woman who smiled and slightly laughed. Then I’d fall right back asleep. She must have thought I was so strange, but I was exhausted enough not to care.

After my mani/pedi, I walked back to my hotel. I could now check-in and I desperately wanted to curl up in bed. I got my bags and the front desk staff looked at me funny as I carried my new suitcase upstairs. The room was huge! I thought about sitting at the enticing pool, but I feared I would burn as I snoozed. Instead, I passed out on the bed for two hours.

When I woke up, it was time for dinner. I was still exhausted and could have easily continued to sleep, but I forced myself to get up in an attempt to get acclimated to the new time zone. I found a dinner restaurant online that was just a short 10 minute walk from my hotel on the riverfront. When I arrived, they seated me outside by a pool surrounded by beanbags and tables. Beautiful string lights were hanging above, making it a perfect romantic spot for dinner.

The server didn’t speak much English, so we communicated through pointing. She put a bottle of bug spray on the table, but it was such a nice night I didn’t even need it. I ordered Pad Thai, one of my favorite foods, and enjoyed the evening.

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On my walk back to the hotel, I searched for convenient stores so I could buy some water. After a few attempts, I gave up and walked back to my hotel. I had taken off my belt during my nap and my jeans were now falling down. I took a shower and crashed hard that night.  

The following morning, I ate breakfast at the outdoor restaurant at the hotel. The waiter seemed surprised to see I was alone and since I had two vouchers for food, he kept trying to give me two meals. Great. It’s not embarrassing at all to be alone, with two meals at your table.

As I sat at my table waiting for my multiple plates of food, Facebook reminded me of a video I had shared in 2014. It was a video they had created of a montage of pictures over the years. Almost every picture involved Aaron from a life that no longer exists.

I hate wasting food, so I almost ate two full breakfasts. I went back to my room to pack my bags. I needed to get a taxi to another hotel where I’d start my REI Adventures trip. This would involve hiking and biking across northern Thailand and I couldn’t wait! There were 15 people signed up for the tour and I was excited to see who I would be spending the next nine days with.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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