Day 264: Driving a Motorbike Through the Vietnamese Mountains

I woke up in my hotel, packed my bags, and asked the front desk where the nearest ATM was located. The man didn’t speak much English, but gave a few instructions. After walking for seven minutes and not finding the ATM, I asked store owners if they could help. I kept getting led astray and could not find the ATM anywhere. Opi, the tour guide for the motorbike tour called me and asked where I was. I explained that I couldn’t find the ATM (I needed to pay him the final amount of the tour in cash).

Opi explained where the ATM was located, but it was pretty far away. I walked as fast as I could and finally made it. The money in Vietnam is called dong and a bottle of water usually costs $10,000 dong. Most ATMs in Vietnam would let me take out $3,000,000 dong ($130 USD). For some reason, this ATM was only letting me take out $200,000 dong ($8.60 USD). I still had some cash on me, so it would give me enough to pay Opie. However, the ATM gave me small $10,000 bills, which was really annoying.

As I walked back to my hotel, Opi drove up on his motorbike and told me to get on the back. I hopped on and he took me to the hotel, called a taxi for me because of my bags, and drove off. I took the taxi to Opi’s hostel. Opi lived there and no longer rented out the hostel to guests. He allowed me to put my bigger bags in his room and I brought my medium-sized backpack for the things I needed during the four-day motorbike tour.

It seems that I’m always rushed and flustered. I tried to calm myself down, but the morning had already made me anxious. Opi introduced me to the others on the tour: Erik and Melana, and Ben and Berry. We said our hellos and Opi quickly took me outside. He showed me the motorbike that I would be driving and said he needed to make sure I was capable of driving it before we started our path up and down the steep mountains. He handed me elbow and knee pads, and a helmet.

The group, including Opi’s friends, were all watching as I sat on the motorbike and Opi showed me how to change gears. I had driven an automatic bike a few times, most recently on an island in Thailand. This bike, however, was semi-automatic and to shift I had to use a foot pedal. While one foot had to shift, the other foot had to use the back brake. One of the handle bars also had a brake for the front tire. To accelerate, I had to turn the throttle with my hand.

As Opi instructed me, I failed at looking like I knew what I was doing. I saw the look of worry on his face. Then I looked at his friend’s faces, who appeared to think I was crazy. I was late arriving there and didn’t want to hold anybody up, so I tried to convince myself to hurry and just do it. Opi told me to drive down the street, turn down another street, turn around and come back.

I kept hesitating because the motorbikes and cars seem to rush past me on the street. Opi told me to scoot back and he jumped on the bike in front of me. He drove down the street and turned onto another street that wasn’t as crowded. Opi got off the bike and I drove away. I was pleasantly surprised that I could drive it. Shifting with my foot was a challenge because I had to move it to get to the pedal. I succeeded in merging in traffic and making a turn and I made it back to the shop.

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Once we were back, the others put their pads on and strapped their backpacks to the bikes. Opi gave all of us a large bottle of water and secured it to the bike as well. Then I noticed that the others were all riding on the back of a motorbike. I was the only one driving my own bike. I didn’t even realize it was an option to ride on the back of a bike, but I felt proud that I was driving my own.

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Just like that, we were off! We left Ha Giang and headed towards the mountains. Opi led the way with Ben on the back of his bike. He instructed me to follow directly behind him in case there was a problem. It also allowed him to gauge if I was able to keep up. We drove single file and at first the road was flat, which I was grateful for. I was feeling confident and was loving the scenery!

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We drove on the windy road at a good pace, occasionally stopping for pictures. The green fields surrounded the road. The mountains were quickly in front of us as we drove through small towns. Motorbikes with items like over-sized bundles of bamboo and supplies were strapped to them as they zipped by us. Villagers, often women, were carrying the bundles that weren’t being hauled on motorbikes.

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All of a sudden, we started to climb up a steep mountain. The signs read “10% grade,” which is pretty steep. The fog was coming in very thick, making it difficult to see all of the scenery. It was cold outside, but was bearable with a wind jacket. The roads had many large potholes, so I was always very alert and doing my best to avoid them.

The road wound its way up the mountain and I noticed that Opi would honk his high-pitched horn several times as we turned into the curve to warn others that we were coming. The road was narrow, so this was necessary. I was close enough to Opi that I usually didn’t need to honk, but as time went on, I confidently honked my horn too.

Occasionally busses would pass us, which made me a little scared. They were smaller and more narrow than most busses that I had seen, but on the narrow, steep roads, there wasn’t much room to pass. The bus would honk its horn (which sounded like a funny cartoon horn) and we’d all drive as far to the right as possible. It was difficult at times because if I went too far to the right, I’d hit the gravel and get nearer to the edge of the mountain.

We stopped on the side of the mountain to take pictures and to enjoy the view. Opi told me that I was doing a great job at keeping up and driving safely. He and the others told me that I was a “badass” for driving myself. Opi and I decided to take a photo showing our bad-ass selves.

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Opi pointed out the village below and the surrounding mountains. Two of the peaks were nicknamed “breast mountains” because they look like two even breasts. The fog was thick, but we got views of the breast mountains from above and down below.

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We stopped a few times to take pictures. We frequently passed two groups: the British girls I met on the bus getting to Ha Giang and a group of four masculine women who appeared to be in their late 40s to early 50s. They were all riding on the back of the motorbike of guides and we were the only ones wearing protective pads, giving me more confidence in Opi.

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At one point we stopped at a coffee shop that was in a hut on the side of the mountain in the middle of nowhere. It was great to stretch and get a warm drink. I ordered the “Coffee + lots of milk” and sat on the bar that overlooked the scenery. I sat next to the girls from the U.K. and we chatted. They were all traveling solo, but met in a hostel. They hired three guys to drive them on the Ha Giang Loop. They appeared to be in their 20s. One girl, Cherrelle, told me that I was brave to drive on those roads by myself.

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Another girl, Harmeet, told me that she was traveling for a couple of months, but had to get back to London by summertime because she had five weddings to attend. Between bachelorette parties, bridal showers, and weddings, her whole summer was packed.

Once we finished our drinks, we continued to drive up the mountain. The road was very windy as we kept climbing. As we neared the top of the mountain, there were ferns and pine trees. It reminded me of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S.

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Shortly after, we stopped for lunch. We sat outside at a table with umbrellas. As our lunch of shared dishes was being prepared, the guides took breaks. I sat at the table with the others in the group and got to know them:

Melana and Erik – She was 33, had medium-length brown hair, was about 5’7”, and was a physical therapist. Erik was 32, had short brown hair, was about 6’4”, and was a manufacturing engineer. She and Erik were dating and lived in Ohio. Melana has lived in many places, even in Kuwait, and didn’t care for Ohio. She loved to take pictures at various sites of her doing the splits because it had become a tradition. They were on a two-week vacation and were only doing the three day tour, so they’d be with us for two days and then would head back to Ha Giang with their guides.

Ben and Berry – Ben was 33, had short black hair, was about 5’8”, and used to work in IT. Berry was 31, had straight black hair just above her shoulder, was about 5’2”, and used to work in IT on the front end. She was originally from China, moved to Sudan for a couple of years in middle school, and moved to the U.S for college. Ben was originally from Taiwan and moved to the U.S. in high school. In college, Ben and Berry met in their first class on their first day of school. They started dating and have been together ever since (now they’re married)! After college, they moved to New York. They thought it was fun in their 20s, but it became the “same old.” It’s also too expensive to live there. Berry quit her job and Ben went on an eight month sabbatical so they can travel. They rented out their apartment and started traveling the month prior. They spent a week in Taiwan, then went to Hawaii, Thailand, Burma, and now Vietnam.

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Opi and the guides joined us and introduced us to “happy water,” which we’d later realize was homemade rice wine. They poured the clear happy water in small-sized shot glasses and it tasted strong. We took the opportunity to get to know the guides.

Opi was in his early 20s, was around 5’9”, had bleach blonde hair on top, earrings, and an athletic vibe. He was from the area and grew up in a small village. He taught himself English in three months from watching YouTube videos. A couple of years ago, he opened a hostel in Ha Giang, but then the city started putting in bogus rules. He lives there with some friends, but no longer runs it as a hostel. Instead, he started his own company, Ha Giang Roadtrip, to offer motorbike tours. What made his company different than others was that the tour guides were all from local tribes. There is a large company that offers tours, but Opi focuses on homestays and getting off the beaten track. His tours drive the Ha Giang Loop, but also go into side areas that most people don’t know about. Opi was a smart, funny, light-hearted guy who was a blast to be around.

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Opi’s friend Zing was a character! He also recently learned English from YouTube videos and was still practicing. He’d often ask us what a certain word meant and to correct him when his English was incorrect. He was Opi’s “right hand man” and Opi was teaching him how to respond to customers who emailed or texted. He was also being taught how to lead tours on his own as Opi’s business was expanding. Zing was always hilarious, singing Celine Dion’s, “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. Melana was on the back of his motorbike and he’d sing it for her while driving.

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The other two guides didn’t speak English, so we didn’t get a chance to know them much. Opi told us one of them was his father and we all thought he was joking until days later when we realized he actually was Opi’s father. The final tour guide, Eddie, was Opi’s friend who appeared to be in his early 20s as well.

After lunch, we continued driving and stopped in a small village where Zing was from. They took us into a small bamboo building where women and girls were weaving rugs and all sorts of fabrics. One woman gave us a demonstration of how she uses a wooden machine to help her weave the rug.

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Next, she showed us how she gets a shine to the rug by standing on a flat piece of stone with a circular stone piece beneath. She rocks side to side, allowing the fabric to be smashed between the two with the rocking motions. It takes a lot of hip movements and Zing demonstrated it for us. Melana and Erik gave it a try and said it was difficult.

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After the demonstration and browsing the shop, we continued our journey through the mountains. We saw farmers on the side of the mountains, picking from their fields. I couldn’t believe how they created ledges that were just a few feet long on the side of the mountain to farm. Then they’d create several more, making the side of the mountain look like it has long horizontal steps going down it. They handpicked and planted, carried the crop up to their motorbike, and strapped very large bundles to the back and drove off. Others would strap the bundles to their backs and walk to their home. It made me reflect on what we call “hard work” in the U.S.

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As we reached the top of a mountain, the sun started to peek through the fog and clouds, giving off rays of light as it began to set. We stopped to take pictures and it felt angelic up there. The views were constantly breathtaking with lush greenery on the steep mountain peaks.

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Halfway down the mountain, there was road construction. The entire road turned to loose, medium-sized gravel for about two miles. Opi told me to be careful and not to hit my back brakes too hard because I’d skid. I gripped my handles hard and tried my best to keep control of the bike, but it was difficult. I had to go with the flow without sliding off the side of the mountain. My arms were so tight that they started to ache. It was an intense section, but I made it out successfully without losing control or crashing.

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 Once we were at the bottom, we drove through a small village and arrived at our first home stay. When we got off of our bikes, the others told me that I looked like a professional driving down the gravel road. I felt relieved that maybe I did know what I was doing. Zing told me that I was a “super driver.”

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The homestay was operated by a local family – a young couple with a baby. Right next to the house was a rice field. Opi showed us around and where to sleep. The others had private rooms, which consisted of four walls and a double mattress that was about two inches thick. My mat was in the main room where the guides would sleep. There were several mats and I took one in the corner in hopes of avoiding any snorers. The guides ended up taking mats on the other side of the room, so nobody was directly next to me. We had mosquito nets above our mats and I had a curtain at the end of mine, which was nice.

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While the family cooked us dinner, we got settled and drank some beer. Some of the guides had “happy flower,” which is marajuana from a bong. The downstairs had open walls to the outside, a pool table, and two wooden tables. Our bedrooms were upstairs, which had thin wooden walls. The two bathrooms were also upstairs, but off to the side. We had to walk across a bamboo balcony to get to the bathrooms.

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When dinner was ready, we all ate in the middle of the room upstairs where most of the mats were. They placed a large rug on the floor and we sat in a big circle. Small plates of food were prepared and we ate in a communal style. The food was delicious! The host kept serving happy water and I was feeling slightly drunk. We did the vietnamese “cheers” which consists of shouting several verses:
Một hai ba zô
Hai ba zô
Hai ba uống

In English, it means:
One, two, three, cheers!
Two, three, cheers!
Two, three, drink!

It was a very fun dinner, even if we couldn’t communicate very well with the homeowners. There were universal hand signals, smiles, and thank-yous. The husband kept filling our shot glasses as soon as they were empty. Melana said she struggles using chopsticks when she’s been drinking, so she put her hand over her shot glass. It seemed to be the best way to communicate “no more please.” For dessert, the wife cut a pineapple in a way that impressed us all. The baby was a favorite and we all played with her. I switched my body positions often because my legs kept falling asleep.

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Once dinner was complete, I talked with Ben and Berry about travel planning and how time consuming it is. It felt good to have someone understand what it involves. When I first arrive in a new city, I have to spend time finding things to do and don’t want to miss things that I would love. Then I spend time doing the things, which leaves no time for actually writing. Ben and Berry were vlogging about their travels, but were also very behind. Ben will edit their videos while Berry researches the next city. As we stood in the main room upstairs talking and laughing, the lights were turned off. We assumed this was our cue that we should go to bed.

I grabbed my shower items and went to the bathroom to take a shower. The room had two large windows that were mostly open to the outside. The floor was bamboo, which made me fear that I’d fall through the uneven floor. There was a slab of rock underneath the showerhead, which was helpful because it gave a more sturdy base.

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After my shower, I went to my mat to sleep. I was used to homestays like this because of the adventure tour I did in Thailand. The mat was thin, so my hips hurt a little bit. I turned and woke up a lot to switch sides since I’m a side-sleeper. Overall, I was very happy to be on the tour. I really enjoy seeing areas outside of major cities. I was getting to see small villages and had the opportunity to see how they live. So far, the locals were all very hospitable and friendly.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 235-236: Joy

It was our final full day of the REI Adventures tour in Thailand. The morning was warm with a cool breeze. Seven of us walked to a nearby village (Nicole, Cathy, Terri, Kristen, Christian, and Neil). We passed a school and continued walking down the dirt road.

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We arrived at the very small village and locals were there to greet us. Several of the women started to put out their hand-made goods in hopes that we’d buy some. As they set up, we walked around the village.

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I was shocked at how basic each house was. Built with thin bamboo walls and floors, the houses were a foot off the ground to withstand flooding. One woman was washing things in a bowl. The village was similar to ones we had stayed in – no plumbing.

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A few of the homes were abandoned. Stray dogs roamed through the streets. We each bought a couple of small items, mostly to help support the villagers. They were so friendly, with big smiles on their faces. Neil walked over to me and gave me a threaded bracket, “You can put this on your backpack to help identify it. I got one for you, Nicole, and myself – the three solo travelers.” It was such a sweet gesture and the bracelet still adorns my backpack.

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As we walked back to our eco lodge, I thought about how grateful I am that we have running water, plumbing, and electricity in the U.S. Even if I end up in a small apartment again one day, I will be grateful for four walls and these amenities. Many people around the world live without them.

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The cooking class was held under the pavilion at the ecolodge. I paired up with Nicole and Cathy. The chef taught us how to cook several meals with fresh food. I’m not the best cook, so I was happy to have Nicole and Cathy. Each meal was delicious and surprisingly easy to prepare.

After the class, we loaded into the vans to drive back to Chaing Mai. I fell asleep during the drive, but after an hour, I was woken by the sudden urge to use the toilet. After attempting (unsuccessfully) to communicate with the driver about stopping to use the restroom, I held it until we arrived at the temple. I made him stop at the entrance where I saw a restroom and literally ran to it.

The temple was beautiful and laden with lots of gold. There was an option to have a conversation with a monk. It’s an opportunity to learn about Buddhism, and for the monks to practice their English. Our group walked around and then boarded the van to head to another temple.

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One van went back to the hotel instead. There were elephant statues around the second temple and it was huge. We walked around outside and learned about some of the history and restoration efforts before going back to the hotel. There was also a sleeping Buddha, which is the second largest in the world (the biggest is in Bangkok).

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After showering for our final farewell dinner, Nicole and I went to the pool and enjoyed some happy-hour drinks. Then we all boarded the vans again for dinner on a riverboat.

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Our group was the only one on the boat. Servers took our drink orders and brought out food before we started to cruise down the river. It was a beautiful night  and a perfect way to end the trip.

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We all had so much fun telling stories about the trip, drinking wine, and telling each other what our plans were for the following days once the trip was complete. We even had karaoke. Scott and Steve sang some songs, which provided great entertainment. Clark gave a beautiful speech, thanking Tri for providing a great tour and giving him our pooled tips as a thank-you.

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My birthday was the next day, so they all sang Happy Birthday to me. It’s funny how 15 complete strangers can spend nine days together. Eating meals together, sleeping in the same room, hiking, biking, and experiencing a new culture together. I think it’s inevitable that people will have moments of not agreeing. I’m sure there are moments that I annoyed people. But in that moment on the riverboat, all I felt was joy.

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Each person had something to contribute and a life story of their own. I loved getting to know each of them. As we drank and listened to karaoke, I could feel tears welling in my eyes and thought, “What a beautiful thing. All of us are forever a part of each other’s story.” I am happy to have gotten to know them and to have spent my first week in Thailand with them. I hope to have made life-long friends during that trip.

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Once diner was finished, we said goodbye to Mimi and Lisa because they had a very early morning flight and would miss breakfast. Mimi is a firecracker, full of life and opinions. She was always very encouraging of my travels and I appreciated her support. Lisa had stories of adventures she’s been on – one where she passed out on a bike trail in Europe and was helicoptered to a hospital! We said our goodbyes and wished each other well.

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It was also time to say goodbye to Tri, our guide. He was a nice guy, taught us a lot, and did a good job handling our different personality types. He worked extremely hard to make sure we were all comfortable, well fed, and safe. He also threw in jokes at random times, keeping us on our toes.

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One of the vans went to the night market. Tien, Nicole, Neil, Scott, Andrea and I all walked around together, enjoying the booths and nightlife. I bought a few items that I thought were small enough to fit in my bag. When we returned, we said goodbye to Neil because he’d leave very early for a flight as well.

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I was sad to say goodbye to Neil. He had told me about his wife who had passed away many years ago and his son. He was retired and had a sense of adventure that I admired. He also had a peaceful, calming, sweet spirit. He was always so genuine and I loved talking with him.

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The next morning, the rest of us (except for Cathy and Terri) ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. It was the same hotel we stayed at for the first two nights. Nicole suggested that we each say what our favorite part of the trip was. I enjoyed hearing everyone’s perspective. The answers ranged from biking, hiking, getting to see remote villages and rice fields, and of course meeting the people. Clark said everyone has encouraged him and he’s enjoyed hearing about all of their activities and adventures. I agree. Everyone had an impressive, adventurous spirit.

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They all wished me a happy 39th birthday. We hugged goodbye and most people headed to the airport to catch flights home or to other destinations.

I said goodbye to Nancy and Steve. They’re level-headed, outdoorsy, and kind. Steve turned on his cell service, even though he was getting charged for data, to see how far away we were from the temple when I had to suddenly use the restroom. That’s the type of people they both are. He instinctively did what he could to help me.

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Christian and Kristen are one of the cutest couples I’ve met. They support and care for each other, setting a great example of what a healthy relationship looks like. They were so much fun to hang out with and kept me company in the back of the line when hiking.

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Clark and Tien were the comedy duo. They cracked jokes at each other and made all of us laugh many times. Clark kept things light-hearted and enjoyable. He is humble and his wisdom will be cherished. Tien and I had many great conversations about life and understood each other. I was so happy they were along for the trip.

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I got teary-eyed when saying goodbye to Nicole. I couldn’t have asked for a better roommate. She helped me carry my bags at times and gave me her leftover sunscreen because I lost mine. She was always thoughtful, caring, and respectful. I have so many good memories of us laughing as we fell asleep. We have a lot in common and I am honored to call her a friend.

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I put on my swimsuit and headed to the gorgeous  pool. As enticing as it looked, the water was cold! Even though it was hot and humid outside, it was hard to get used to the frigid temperature. The pool wrapped around the middle of the property past the guest rooms. It wasn’t very deep, so I just walked along and enjoyed the vegetation. Then I saw Scott and Andrea doing laps around the pool. We talked for a bit and then they continued to get a few more laps in before check-out.

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Scott and Andrea are smart, athletic, successful people. But they never bragged or made me feel bad for not being as athletic as them. They were kind and generous. They were going to check into another hotel in Chiang Mai and had hired a guide to take them on a trail run in the mountains that was more than 20 kilometers.

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I decided the water was too cold, so I sat at the swim-up bar. I was the only one there. I ordered fruit and ice cream inside of a pineapple and a drink. I was happy that I was celebrating my birthday in Thailand. I got a late check-out for the hotel and enjoyed a bubble bath before finally leaving. I hoped it would help my swollen ankles. They had been painfully swollen since I arrived in Thailand.

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My next place was an Airbnb on the other side of the city. I took a Grab (it’s like Uber) and met the owner of the studio apartment. She gave me the key and I gave her cash since Airbnb mistakenly cancelled my reservation. The apartment was great! It was newly remodeled and had everything I needed. For $23 a night, I couldn’t beat it.

I started some laundry and had to line dry my clothes on the balcony since they don’t have dryers there. I took a brief nap and then met Cathy and Terri for dinner and to explore the night market. I ordered a Grab using their app and the driver was listening to Adele in concert on a built-in tv screen monitor. He was singing along and said he loves Adele. Adele breaks international language barriers – the language of love.

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I was so happy when Cathy gave me my phone charger that I had left in my hotel room. We walked around to several shops on the narrow streets while Cathy searched for deodorant. It was hard to find one she was familiar with. Terri had re-injured a bad ankle and it was very swollen. She was struggling to walk, so we took a taxi to a restaurant.

We sat outside by the river and enjoyed the night. Terri told me about an adventure she had when hiking to base camp on Mount Everest. She was with a group on the day they got the massive earthquake of 7.8 magnitude in 2015, which destroyed most of the area. They were only about two hours from base camp and had just packed up from eating lunch. All of sudden, the earthquake struck, creating an avalanche. A guide grabbed her to try and protect her as the snow came rushing at them.

The avalanche knocked them over, but thankfully they were ok. Many people died that day at base camp and if she had been on schedule, she would have been there. I was fascinated by her story. She explained how it took days to be evacuated and when they finally were, the city below was demolished.

Cathy, Terri, and I talked about our next travel plans. They were headed to the elephant sanctuary the next day. Because it was my birthday, they got two pieces of cake and we all shared. They also paid for my dinner. I was so happy I didn’t have to spend my birthday alone. Every year, I tend to get emotional around my birthday. Maybe it’s because it’s the day before Valentine’s Day, but I tend to get sad. That day I wasn’t sad. I was happy to celebrate with friends and I was excited about my upcoming adventures.

After browsing the night market, I said goodbye to Terri and Cathy. Cathy is responsible and at times can be strict with herself. I loved when I’d see her smile and loosen up. She has a good heart and I was happy to spend time with her. Terri is full of adventure and had a lot of stories of travels around the world.

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If you’re interested in doing the REI Adventures tour, here’s a link to the one that I did. I recommend the tours because they provide all of the food, accommodations, guides, and a lot of the equipment you’ll need. REI Adventures has given me the opportunity to stay in remote places and hike on trails that I simply wouldn’t be able to do on my own.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 231: Hiking in Thailand

I woke up in our first Thailand homestay feeling surprisingly refreshed. I was worried that I wouldn’t sleep well since the padding was pretty thin and there were snorers in our group. I slept much better than I thought I would and I was excited for another day of hiking.

Our guides and the homeowner cooked up a huge, beautiful spread for breakfast. We ate outside on the covered picnic table. The fresh air, the rising sun, and bright blue sky created a gorgeous scene. We all got dressed, packed up our day packs, and started hiking.

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REI Adventures drove our bags to the next place so all we had to carry was our day pack. I really liked hiking to our destinations. There’s something satisfying about knowing my own two feet brought me there.

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As we walked out of the small village, Tri looked back and told us about their traditions to celebrate Chinese New Year, which involves slaughtering pigs. Mimi, being a vegetarian, got very upset and asked Tri to stop talking about it. I wanted to know about it so I asked Tri to continue. Frustrated, Mimi walked off. I don’t really understand not listening to someone explain a culture and their practices just because you don’t personally agree with it.

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We continued hiking and made it into the jungle once again. The bright green foliage surrounded us. I rotated from being in the back to being in the middle. We passed through bamboo sections and then a wheat field.

I was feeling much better that day because I was taking my salt pills when I should. The heat and humidity were high, but the breeze made it bearable. I was still a sweaty mess, but taking the pills really helped to ensure my electrolytes were balanced.

For lunch, we stopped in a semi-open space. The guides quickly gathered jurassic-sized banana leaves for us to sit on. Then they handed each of us our own little fried rice wrapped inside of a beautiful banana leaf. One of the nice things about going on an REI Adventures tour is that they feed me much better than I would feed myself. On hikes, I usually just bring protein bars and packaged foods like tuna.

We had a fun time laughing and relaxing on our banana leaves. I was happy to have a break and let my muscles rest after so much climbing.

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We continued hiking through the thick trees and brush. We even walked through a fruit tree farm and were able to pick some fresh fruit and eat it as we continued to hike. Once we reached the peak of the mountain, we started our descent. Going down is much easier for me, so I was elated to get the break.

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After hiking 11 miles with significant elevation gain, we arrived at our next homestay around 4:30 pm. This time we had two showers available. While the water was still freezing, we had lights inside and the sun hadn’t gone down yet. We made a list and let the people who didn’t get a shower the night before a chance to go first. Because I was the last to arrive, I was put at the bottom of the list. Just like the night before, the water was so cold, it took my breath away!

For sleeping arrangements, two of the married couples got their own rooms in small cabins. The rest of us had to fight it out for a space in the main upstairs of the house. Because I hiked in the back, the spaces were mostly taken by the time I arrived.

I climbed up the wooden staircase on the outside of the house and went inside. There were four mattresses in a small area and around the corner, there was a small nook with a double mattress. The other five mattresses were on the balcony. Each mattress pad had a mosquito net just like the night before.

The only beds left were the double mattress in the nook, one on the balcony, and one in the inside by the door. Nicole, Christian, and Kristen also still needed a bed. It made sense to give the double mattress to Christian and Kristen. But that meant my roommate Nicole and I would be separated. We had become good friends, so I was disappointed.

I was hesitant to be on the balcony, but I was next to a couch, making it harder for me to fall off. I was outside with Mimi, Lisa, Terri, and Cathy. They tried to make me feel at home, but I was upset that Nicole and I were left with whatever beds remained.

We were told to bring our shoes inside for the night because otherwise the dogs would take them and run off. There are a lot of stray dogs in Thailand because they don’t spay and neuter, and they don’t have shelters for animals. They are often in poor condition and carry diseases, so we were instructed not to touch them. It wasn’t clear if the dogs around the property were stray dogs or the owner’s pets. We also saw cats climbing around on the roofs.

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We all took showers and changed into warmer clothes as the sun started to set. The property was beautiful and very isolated. There were benches overlooking the mountain range. As people showered, some of us sat on a bench eating some nuts and beans, getting to know each other better.

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Nicole and I joined Neil who was enjoying a large bottle of Chang beer on the picnic bench. The bottle was indeed large, but Nicole and I agreed to each get our own. Cathy and Lisa asked us if we wanted to share our beer, but we declined. We wanted the full bottle. We giggled as we started to feel the effects of the beer.

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Neil, Nicole, and I were the three solo travellers. Neil had a sweet personality and could make me laugh with the slightest comment. He was easy-going, retired, and had done a bit of traveling. The three of us were slap-happy and couldn’t stop laughing as we drank.

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Cathy told us about her son in high school and her husband. She’s very fit and works out a lot – she loves pickleball. She can be very serious and regimented at times. Her favorite quote was “No calories through beverage”, whenever someone asked if she wanted a drink. She did, however, love Thai iced tea. She let herself indulge once a day to have a sugary beverage. I kept trying to get her to have more drinks (coffee, tea, shakes, beer) and I’d say, “You’re on vacation. Enjoy it a little.” I suppose that’s why I have extra weight on me that I’m lugging around.

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For dinner, the guides and the homeowners cooked up another amazing, freshly made meal! I was enjoying all of the family-style meals because it gave us all a chance to bond, just like a family.

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After dinner was complete, a few of us watched the stars shine brightly above. It was incredible not having any light pollution around for many, many miles. It started to get a little cold outside, so we headed to bed. In the main house, I could hear one of the guides snoring so I put my earplugs in. It didn’t work too well, so I put my headphones in and played some music.

It was actually really refreshing to sleep on the balcony. The fresh air and sounds of nature were peaceful. Of course, I had to use the toilet in the middle of the night. I swear this never happens when a toilet is easily accessible. Using a headlamp, I had to put my shoes on outside, walk down the outdoor staircase, and across the yard to the toilets.

In the morning, I heard Cathy quietly sit up, turn around, and whisper, “There’s a beautiful sunrise.” I sat up, turned around, and saw the orange sun starting to make its way up to the sky. It was amazing to just sit on my mattress pad and watch it unfold. I was happy that I ended up on the balcony.

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Shortly after I woke up, I used the toilet and walked to the ledge where I could see the mountain range. Steve and Nancy were up early and taking pictures. One of the advantages of going on an REI Adventures tour is you get an opportunity to stay in homestays in remote areas. I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my own.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 230: Villages in Thailand

On the third day of the REI Adventures tour, we were able to enjoy the delicious breakfast buffet at the hotel. Right after I sat down to eat, I received a notification from Airbnb that my studio apartment I had booked once the tour ended was cancelled. Confused, I logged on to see what the problem was.

I messaged the owner and let her know that my reservation was cancelled by mistake through Airbnb. The home owner and I agreed that I would just pay her cash when I arrived and she’d keep the apartment available for me. I was happy because the price for my stay in this apartment was only $23 a night.

Dealing with Airbnb and the homeowner meant I had to frantically scarf my food down and ignore my roommate, Nicole. We had to be at the vans ready to go, so I didn’t have much time. Thankfully, I was able to get it resolved and get to the vans.

We left the hotel and drove towards the mountains to visit hill tribe villages. The roads in Thailand are often bumpy and windy. I get carsick if I try to read in the car. Sometimes if my head is turned sideways looking at someone talking, I will start to get nauseous. The best place to sit for motion sickness is the first row because you get less bumps there. Unfortunately, there were several people in our group who also get motion sickness, so I sat in the back.

My roommate Nicole also gets carsick. We were in the van for a couple of hours and Nicole and I were talking to each other in the backseat. She told me about her travels and hiking various famous mountains. Her accomplishments were impressive, but she was humble. We talked for awhile, until we both needed to look out the window to attempt to alleviate the nausea. I took a dramamine in hopes that the motion sickness would subside.

When we arrived to the villages, our guide, Tri, talked to us about the general life in a village. The area we were visiting was a combination of many different tribes. They built this area to showcase a mini-village of each tribe, their customs, and their people.

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Tri stood in front of a large painting of the king of Thailand. He told us there are six main tribes in Thailand and they are mostly in the mountainous northern and western parts of the country. Generally speaking, the women work harder than men. When a family gives birth to a girl, they are very happy because she’ll bring in money from the husband. She’ll also work harder both in the fields and in the home, while the men will take opium and sleep in the fields.

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We wandered through the streets and saw several different tribes selling hand-made items. The tribespeople weren’t pushy though. They just casually stood near their booth and would tell us the price of an item if we pointed at it.

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We saw some women weaving fabrics, while others proudly displayed their products. One tribe is known for their long necks. They put rings around their neck and keep adding to it in hopes that their necks will stretch. I bought a couple of items, mostly to support their efforts.

Once we finished exploring the villages, we stopped at an outdoor market on our way to lunch and were given ten minutes to browse. There were fresh vegetables and even fried insects – beetles, crickets, you name it! I declined trying one and kept walking.

I was walking alone and a vendor asked me, “Where are you from?” I replied, “America.” He got very excited, “Oooooh! USA! Super Power!” I smiled and slowly kept walking. He continued and mentioned how tall I am and then asked, “You married?” “No”, I replied. “Ooooh, are you alone?” As I walked away, I told him I was with a group.

For lunch, we went to a restaurant that sat right off of a river where people on rafts raced through the rapids. We ate family-style, but this time the vegetarians asked Tri not to be separated because it didn’t allow them time to talk with the non-vegetarians. We each had our own plate of pad Thai, which was delicious!

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I sat next to Scott and Andrea, who are from Minnesota. Scott works as an industrial engineer and Andrea works as a physical therapist. They told us how cold Minnesota was when they left and how a huge snow storm was sweeping the area. They were happy to have escaped it.

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Once lunch was finished, we began a hike to the village where we’d stay the night. It was hot and humid. This hike would take more than three hours and involved a lot of climbing.

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The thick forest was unforgiving. The dense vegetation often brushed up against my legs. I was sweating profusely in the extraordinary humidity. When I sweat too much, I need to take salt pills so I don’t lose too much salt. About 30% of people are salty sweaters. The group was moving so fast, I was struggling to keep up. I didn’t have time to take my pills. In addition, the Dramamine made me feel tired.

I was in the back with Christian and Kristen. I felt bad and hoped I wasn’t keeping them from the rest of the group. Kristen assured me that she also likes little breaks – we were soul sisters. We would often stop for 60 seconds just to take a breather. There was another guide, Sak, in the back with us. The four of us had a fun time looking around at the Jurassic-sized leaves and learning from Sak. He told us that when bamboo dies, it sprouts a flower. Just one flower it’s entire life and only when it is about to die.

The rest of the group would stop every 20 minutes or so to let us all catch up. Those of us in the middle and the back would arrive, and within one minute, we were off again.

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I felt my heart pounding and realized I should have taken my salt pills. Once my electrolytes are out of balance, I can feel it in places like my heart.

While the hike was challenging, it was also beautiful! We were the only ones on the  trail. Finally, we arrived towards the top and were rewarded with incredible views. The sun was just starting to set and was giving off splendid rays of light.

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This fueled me to get to the homestay. As we approached the small village, I couldn’t believe people lived there. It was extremely remote, steep, and the dirt road was in terrible condition.

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Our homestay was with a local family who had a large main room filled with 15 pads to sleep on. Each thin pad had a mosquito net above it. The floor was made of thin pieces of bamboo and I was afraid I would fall through, so I stuck to walking near the main wooden beam down the middle.

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I’m sensitive to people snoring so I asked that I be on the end and not near any snorers. I brought earplugs, but the sound of snoring is usually so loud they only slightly work. I had my iPod shuttle just in case.

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It was evening and there was only one shower available. It was outside in a small concrete building that was not completely enclosed, letting the cold air inside. They don’t have electricity so we were warned the water would be cold. People made a verbal list of who would take a shower next. I was number four on the list until some of the women decided to make another list and I was bumped towards the bottom.

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The sun was quickly setting and we were desperate to get a shower in before it was dark since there wasn’t a light in there. When it was my turn, it was almost dark, so I brought my headlamp inside to see my shampoo and soap. I knew the water would be cold, but I didn’t expect it to be freezing. A thin stream of water forcefully came shooting out! I gasped for air and almost started to hyperventilate from the harsh cold. I showered as quickly as I could.

To use the toilet, there were two small rooms in the same concrete building. Because they don’t have plumbing, there is a pot full of water next to the toilet. Once you’re done using the toilet, you have to scoop the water with a bowl and dump it inside the toilet, which slowly drains it. You have to put a few bowls of water in order to get it to fully go away. Behind the toilets were pigs, which you could hear while you took care of business.

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As we all showered and drank some beers, the guides and homeowners cooked our dinner. On the rough dirt street, young children drove by on motorbikes, often 2-3 per bike. Stray dogs also roamed around and we were instructed not to touch them as many of them carry disease.

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There were a few people who didn’t get showers because they didn’t want to shower in the dark. Dinner was ready and there were a couple of dim lights hanging above the table. As we sat down to eat, Clark gave a nice speech. After a tiring day of hiking, it was nice to have some time to unwind.

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After dinner, we enjoyed the stars above with the complete absence of light pollution. The village was celebrating the Chinese New Year, so the occasional firework went off. Tri told us that families will kill one of their pigs and eat it over the next three days and basically have a party the whole three days.

Once the sun fell, it got much colder. After star gazing, we all headed to bed. I put my earplugs in, but I kept waking up because I needed to use the toilet. Of course. This never happens when I’m inside of a house. But if I go camping or have the toilet outside, I suddenly have to go. I tried to ignore it because it sounded like rain was pouring down outside. I wondered if it was flooding. I didn’t want to put my glasses and shoes on and slip through the mud.

Then suddenly I realized maybe it was wind and not rain. I listened intently and realized I didn’t hear anything hitting the roof, so it must be wind rushing through the trees. I reluctantly put my glasses on, walked down the entire room following the beam with the light from my cell phone. I put my shoes on that were sitting outside by the front door steps and made my way to the toilet. Sure enough, it was extremely high winds, not rain.

I returned to my bed and went back to sleep. At 4:40 am, roosters started to crow. The sound was deafening so I tried to smash my head into my pillow. It didn’t work. I put my headphones on and played music on my iPod shuffle. We were warned about those roosters and they weren’t kidding. The roosters crowed for the next several hours. The thin bamboo walls did nothing for soundproofing.

Steve had noise cancelling headphones, but he still heard the roosters. He joked the next morning that if a company can create the ultimate soundproof headphones, their slogan should be “Strong enough to combat roosters.” I also found out the next morning that Mimi fell into Steve and Andrea when she went outside to use the toilet. Having 15 people sleep in the same room only inches apart makes for an interesting night.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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