Day 266: The Chinese Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 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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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 254-255: The Journey to Dive Certification

I met Birgit at 7:00 am like I promised. I did the mask clearing in the shallow end and then in the deep end. We swam back to the shallow end and I tried the mask removal. I did it, but Birgit wanted me to do it again. She wanted me to be confident and not scared. On the second try, I struggled a little bit. She didn’t feel comfortable doing it in the deep end and our hour was up.

I went to the office while Birgit finished the classroom work with the other girls. While I was waiting to talk with the owner about my options to do a “try dive” that day, I met Gary. He was another instructor there. Gary was petite, around 40 years old, and was from England. He told me that I should buy a mask there because having a good mask makes a big difference. Over time, it would conform to my face and would develop a good seal. After trying a few on, I bought a mask and snorkel.

I signed up for a try-dive on the boat that afternoon. I had some time, so I ate breakfast down the street at the same place I went to the morning the day prior. The waiter came over and said, “Do you want the same? Thank you for coming everyday.”

I walked back to the dive shop and did a quick orientation with the try-dive group. Our instructor was Lewis. He was in his late 20s, had semi-long, curly blonde hair, and was from Scotland. He went over the basics and then we all boarded some pickup trucks that took us to the boat.

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I sat on the top deck of the boat and talked with Michael. He was tall, had brown hair and a beard, appeared to be in his early 30s, and was from Serbia. He was traveling in Thailand for three weeks on a holiday. Once that ended, he was going to work from Chiang Mai. He was a programmer and the company he worked for agreed to let him work remotely for a couple of weeks. This was his first time diving and he was in my group of four for the try-dive. It was Michale’s first time traveling solo and he thought it was fascinating that I had been traveling solo for so long.

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We arrived at our dive spot and I met Frankie, our instructor. He was tall, athletic, had short blonde hair, appeared to be in his mid-20s, and was from England. He was really friendly and helped all of us get our wetsuits and equipment on. I did as I was instructed and used one hand to hold the mask and regular against my face, and the other hand to hold my weight belt in place. Then I jumped off the boat and into the ocean.

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We swam a long way to get to a shallow part of the ocean and then we deflated our BCD’s and descended. We all got into a circle and were asked to do a few simple skills. I found it really difficult to stay down and Frankie had to add some weights to my BCD, for a total of eight weights. Birgit told me that she was very buoyant and I quickly found out that I am too.

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I did all of the skills successfully, even the mask clearing. I found it difficult to stay put though. We briefly swam around the coral, following behind Frankie. The water was fairly warm and it was really clear. We didn’t get a lot of time to explore because we spent so much time doing the skills. We swam back to the boat to go to the next dive site.

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Frankie gave a lot of good reminders, like keeping our hands clasped in front of us so we didn’t use them.  Using just our legs would help with our buoyancy. Once we got back to the boat, they said we could do another dive for $1,000 baht ($32 USD). Three of us said yes. Micheal didn’t want to go because his sinuses were really hurting him after the first dive. The other two people in our group were a German couple in their late 20s.

For the second dive, we used a rope that was anchored in the water to get us to the bottom. This time I knew what I was doing and my breathing was much better, but getting my breathing under control made me sink quickly because I was overweighted. I had to put a few puffs of air in my BCD.

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We swam around, following Frankie. The water was clear, the fish were colorful, and it was fun. I spent a lot of time thinking about my breathing and realized that when I breathed out, I slowly sank. When I breathe in, I slowly rose. We were under the water exploring for 47 minutes. My buoyancy was pretty good, I was horizontal, and I was feeling more confident.

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The dive went really well and Frankie told me that he thought I would have no problems finishing the certification. The problem was timing. I had to catch a flight out of Thailand in two days because my Visa would expire and you can’t fly for 18-24 hours after that much diving.

Diving below the surface of the ocean increases the pressure around you. Nitrogen is absorbed into your body tissues and bloodstream from the air you breath compared to the pressure surrounding you. As you ascend, built up nitrogen becomes little bubbles and leave your body. Flying in a plane too soon after a dive causes the same effects as ascending too quickly. Large nitrogen bubbles go into your bloodstream, creating the bends.

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When I arrived back at the shop, I talked with the manager. He told me that one of my dives that day could count towards my certification. He could arrange for a one-on-one instructor the following day to complete my pool session, the one hour of classroom work on dive planning, taking the exam, and the final three dives. I was surprised that he was able to make this work. I paid for the two extra dives and it was settled.

That evening, Roctopus Dive was having a celebration for those who just completed their various certifications. I was invited to attend as well. The outdoor bar was off of the beach and was mostly filled with dive instructors and their students. When I arrived, Frankie walked over to me and said he would be my one-on-one instructor the next day. He high-fived me saying, “Dream Team!” We got along well, so I was happy about that.

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Birgit was there too. She still had the final two dives with the German girls from my original class the next morning. She was so encouraging as well and it really pumped me up. Birgit told me that she used to be a graphic designer, but spent the last two years getting her Divemaster certification. She wasn’t sure how long she’d keep doing it, but she realized she’s made for warm weather and Estonia is too cold!

Harry, my new British friend, arrived on the island and I told him to come down to meet the team. He was scheduled to start his Open Water 20 the following day with Roctopus Dive. He stopped by and I introduced him to Lewis, who would be his instructor. Harry wanted a good nights’ sleep, so he left shortly after.

I continued talking with people at the bar. I met Frankie’s girlfriend, who was from Boulder, Colorado. She was really nice and we talked all about Colorado because I used to live there. Next, I talked with a girl named Nicole. She was from Norway and was in the middle of her Divemaster training. She was 25, but seemed more mature. I told Nicole about my love of Norway and how I’d like to live there one day. A 34-year-old man from Ireland started talking to us and he was flirting with Nicole. I excused myself from the conversation so they could continue flirting.

I also met Lauren from England. She was in her mid-20’s and had medium-length, blonde hair. She was traveling alone and had just finished her Open Water 20 and wanted to do the advanced course next. She very much wanted a boyfriend because she felt alone on this island full of couples. She told me that she fell for her instructor, Gary, but he didn’t seem to reciprocate. I felt for her. Learning to dive is a very personal experience with your life at stake. It’s easy to develop feelings for your instructors. She was interested in a couple other guys at the bar, but wasn’t having much luck. My heart broke for her broken heart and I understood her feelings. I needed to get some sleep, so I said my goodbyes and drove back to my Airbnb.

The next morning, I met Frankie in the pool for an hour. I needed to do the last few skills before I could move on. Everyone pumped me up the previous day, so I was determined to get through successfully. There were two tips that Frankie gave me that were game-changers for me.

First, Frankie told me to stop lifting my mask up at the top when I was trying to clear it. He showed me how he does it with just one finger. He pressed it in the middle top part of the mask and then blows out of his nose. That’s really all that is needed because the air from the nose slightly opens the bottom of the mask, allowing the water to get out, but not allowing for more water to get in. When I was trying to lift the bottom part of the mask and tilt it back, it was coming off too much and more water would get in.

Second, Frankie told me to tilt my head to the side when I took my mask off. He said the bubbles coming out of my regulator were probably causing me to struggle with water going up my nose. Turning my head to the side made all the difference! As soon as I turned my head, the water didn’t get in because the bubbles weren’t going into my nose.

Frankie made me do the mask clearing and mask removal in the shallow end for 20 seconds instead of 10 seconds to make sure I was comfortable. He told me that I smashed it, which fueled me to keep doing well. Next, we had to do a few skills in the deep end, including the mask removal swim. Frankie told me that he was going to make me swim longer than most people to, again, to make sure I was comfortable. I aced it! I wasn’t in a hurry at all and I had no problems putting my mask back on and clearing the water.

After the hour in the pool, Frankie and I went to an outdoor restaurant on the beach. We studied dive planning while eating breakfast. Then I had to take the exam. I was so nervous because I had to pass. I got 43 out of 45 correct!

Next up, it was time for three dives. We took the pickup trucks to the boat, Frankie briefed me on the plan, and we jumped into the ocean. We swam to a shallow end where I did the mask removal again and a few other skills. I passed those and felt really good. After a quick 30 minute dive, we went back to the boat for another tank of air. Frankie was pumping me up saying things like, “You smashed it! You crushed it! Great job!”

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For the second dive, Frankie told me that we’d swim around the coral and enjoy the dive. There were a few things I had to do, like keep him updated on my air levels. On the way to the surface, he told me that we’d stop at five meters for a safety stop for three minutes. Our watches would tell us when we were at five meters and would begin a three-minute countdown.

When you ascend, the pressure eases and the nitrogen from the compressed air gets absorbed into your tissues. Ascending too fast will reduce the pressure too quickly. A safety stop helps to control the off-gassing. We weren’t deep enough to actually need a safety stop, but I needed to do it for certification. It’s also good practice to do one on every dive.

In addition to the safety stop, I needed to do two more skills where I was either the hero or the victim (air-share). If I was the victim, I would signal that I was out of air, accept Frankie’s spare regulator, and ascend together using his air. Then we’d reverse it and I’d be the hero and give him my spare regulator.

To descend, I didn’t have a rope this time and it took me longer to get down. I was trying, but I’m very buoyant. We swam around and Frankie pointed out fish and beautiful coral. After 25 minutes, we started to ascend to do the safety stop. We patiently waited, but after two minutes I took a deep breath. That breath made me start to ascend and I panicked. I also forgot that as I ascend, the air that was in my BCD expands and I didn’t let it out.

Frankie was angry. He was forcefully pointing for me to get back down. I looked at him like, “I don’t know why I’m ascending.” Then I looked up and realized I was almost at the surface. I looked around to make sure it was safe to surface and then was there. A minute later, Frankie surfaced. He was not happy, “Why did you surface? You were kicking. Now we can’t just enjoy the last dive. We have to do the safety stop and both air-share skills. If you miss the stop on this last dive, I can’t certify you.”

I had made Frankie disappointed in me and I hate disappointing people. I am much more motivated by positive reinforcement than I am negative remarks. I felt like I had let him down. It went from a fun and exciting time to a real drag. Before we got back on the boat, I had to do some surface skills like taking my BCD and tank off and back on again.

I passed those and climbed back on the boat. Then we headed to the next dive site. I was trying not to freak out about the pressure of having to do everything perfectly on the last dive. If I didn’t do them successfully, I couldn’t get certified and all of this would be for nothing.

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Before our last dive, Frankie said I needed to tell him when I was at 120 PSI, we had to do a safety stop, and the two air-share exercises. We jumped into the ocean and started our dive. Things were going well. My buoyancy was good, I was swimming behind Frankie, and keeping my eyes on my air. Frankie excitedly pointed out fish and coral, but I was focused. I told Frankie when I was at 120 PSI and we were able to continue. About 40 minutes into the dive, we slowly started to ascend.

I was so scared that I would start to ascend too quickly and miss the stop. I felt like I couldn’t stop it last time. This time, we stopped at five meters and I controlled my breathing. I made it for three minutes and we ascended. After that, we lowered five meters and did the air-share, ascended, and descended to do the final air-share.

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I completed the skills, but it was hard to be excited because I felt like I let Frankie down. I was also exhausted. It was a long day. Frankie talked about the things we saw and said I didn’t even seem excited. I told him it was hard to be excited when there was so much on the line. We got back on the boat and went back to the dive shop. Frankie told me to meet him at the bar on the beach and we’d log our dives and then I’d be certified.

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We sat on cushions on the sand drinking a beer. Frankie congratulated me, but I felt sad. I have been working hard on expressing myself instead of holding things in, only to cause resentment later. I told Frankie that he really bummed me out when he was yelling at me in the water when I missed the safety stop. I explained that his forceful pointing made me panic even more. It felt like he thought I barely scraped by on getting certified, when earlier he was saying I smashed it.

Frankie apologized and felt bad. He explained that he was stressed out by the other instructors and their impatience. There were several groups on the boat that day, but they didn’t have to do the skills that we had to, which takes more time. He felt pressure from them to hurry up and get on the boat, so we could go to the next site. I understood because I felt the pressure too.

It was a long 10-hour day and we were both exhausted. We ended on good terms and I was really happy that I cleared the air. I wanted to be happy about getting certified and I didn’t want to leave being angry. We hugged and I appreciated all of his efforts. I was able to get a personal one-on-one training and I couldn’t have asked for better instructors.

Birgit was patient, thorough, gave clear instructions, and was encouraging. Frankie gave me tips that changed the game for me, pumped me up, and taught me what I needed to know. I would go on to dive in Vietnam, Western Australia and Queensland Australia. Those dives would highlight for me just how good Birgit, Frankie, and Roctopus Dive are. I haven’t experienced a better group of people or safety standards as I did with this group.

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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Days 248-249: Phi Phi Island is One Big Party

I woke up still exhausted from the day before. I needed to apply online for an extended tourist visa for Australia because I planned to go there after Vietnam. I booked my airfare from Vietnam to Melbourne after I was accepted for a house and cat sit in Ballarat, an hour and a half outside of Melbourne.

All Americans need a visa to visit Australia. The standard visa allows you to stay for up to three months, is easy to fill out, and costs around $20. I wanted to stay for six months because I didn’t want to be limited in house sitting. The tourist visa allows you to stay up to 12 months, but I had to confirm over and over that I wouldn’t work or attend school while I was there.

It took me a few hours to fill out the application on my phone, cost $140 USD, and I had to attach a copy of my passport and two months’ worth of bank statements showing that I wouldn’t run out of money. Once I was finished, the confirmation said the average time to process the application was 29 days. My flight was in 35 days. Thankfully, I was approved in three days for a six-month stay.

Once that was finished, I walked to the beach. It was very hot outside: 96 °F with a real feel of 107 °F. I laid on the beach and tried to get a tan. I got into the ocean for a little bit, but my phone and room key were buried in my bag, so I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I got out of the water because it was too stressful.

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I walked around the island, seeing what else was around. The white sand beaches were beautiful and the water was clear. Unique wooden boats were lined up on the shore. As I wandered through the narrow passageways, men wheeling carts full of supplies passed me. They shouted, “beep, beep, beep!” to warn me to move. I ate some fried rice and went back to my hotel.

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After a quick shower, I walked to The Only Bar to meet Harry, Dave, and Charlie from England. I accidentally took the long way there and walked over a mile in the heat and humidity. I shortly became a sweaty mess and my shower seemed pointless.

When I arrived at the outdoor bar, I saw a small dance floor, a DJ, some tables, and a section with foam pads with backrests to sit and lay on. The whole bar looked out to the ocean and the other bars across the island. I ordered a drink and sat on the pad next to my British friends.

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Dave and Charlie came over and gave me a hug. I hadn’t seen them since Chiang Mai. Charlie danced while Dave sat next to me and talked. We caught each other up on our adventures over the last week and a half. Dave started dancing while I met some women who had been sitting with the guys.

Davina was in her 40s, had medium-length blonde curly hair, and was from Wales. She was really friendly and told me that she’s been divorced three times and has two kids who are now grown. She just packed up and left to start traveling solo.

Davina showed me tattoos on her feet. On the inside of one foot it read,”Made in Wales.” On the other foot, it read, “Not in England.” She laughed and said she got tired of people thinking that Wales was in England, not knowing that it is a separate country in The United Kingdom. Davina was proud of her Wales heritage.

A girl named Amie was also sitting on the padded area with the group. She was in here 20s, was very short and petite, had long blonde hair, and was from England. She had been living in Thailand for a year and a half. Amie lived in Phuket, about a three hour ferry ride away, with her Thai boyfriend. She had a bandage over one ear and explained that she had an ear infection. She couldn’t work with the infection, so she decided to take a mini-vacation to Phi Phi Island.

There was another girl there from England traveling solo, but I didn’t talk to her much. Davina thought it was the coolest thing that we were all solo female travelers. She said, “Cheers to female empowerment!” We sat around a circle on the pad and told stories about our travels.

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I noticed that the other customers at the bar were mostly French and German and didn’t speak English. It seemed that all of the English speakers gravitated to one another.

Davina went home to rest, but we agreed to stay in touch and maybe meet up later. Amie and I got along well. She told me that she didn’t think she’d meet any friends because she usually doesn’t get along with other women. She likes genuine people who are down to earth. We laughed and became fast friends.

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Harry had been lying on the mat while Dave and Charlie danced away. I leaned over to Harry and said, “You’re not even going to say hi to me?” He slowly turned his head and said, “I’m pretty out of it right now.” Indeed he was.

After a few hours of hanging out at the bar, I wasn’t feeling very good. I realized the bartenders filled the cups with 50% alcohol and 50% mixer. Amie and I laid there watching the ocean, feeling relaxed. She left at some point to go home, but I didn’t feel like I could walk back, so I stayed there.

I went to use the restroom and felt like I needed to throw up. I was standing at the shared outdoor sink contemplating when a French girl came up to me. She said she only speaks a little bit of Enligsh and asked if I speak French or German. I sighed, “I only speak English.” She mimicked putting her finger down her throat and told me to throw up because I’d feel better. She walked away and came back with a bottle of water, which was so sweet.

Finally after ten minutes of standing there, hoping to throw up, I put my finger down my throat. It was all liquid and I realized I hadn’t eaten dinner, just some fried rice around 4:30 pm, which was lunch and dinner. It was now around 1:00 am. I knew if I didn’t throw up, I wouldn’t make it to the boat the next day.

When I returned to the padded area, the guys were gone. I messaged them and Harry wrote me back saying that they didn’t see me, but they were tired and decided to leave. I laid back down on the foam padding with my head propped up. I needed to rest more and drink water. At 2:00 am, the bar was closing and the lights came on. I got up and wandered through the passageways. The sweet French girl saw me and helped guide me in the correct direction.

On the way back, I saw a stand selling pizza by the slice. I bought a slice and ate it as I walked back to my hotel. It wasn’t very tasty, but it was just what I needed. I felt so hungry and I really wanted the bread.

The next morning, I was supposed to meet the guys at 10:00 am for a private boat tour. I needed to extend my stay one night in order to stay another day. My hotel didn’t have my room available another night, so I had to pack up my stuff and move it to another room upstairs. I felt ok in the morning and I was happy that I threw up and ate pizza.

After switching rooms, I walked down the beach to the restaurant that the guys told me about. Harry mentioned days earlier that they had met some British girls there and they all decided to take the private boat out for the day. It only cost each of us something like $12 USD and we’d have a driver take us around the island to different spots for six hours.

I arrived at the restaurant and Dave was there with the two girls. I didn’t realize they were the two girls that the guys had been dancing with the night before. Nobody introduced us, so I thought they were just random girls at the bar.

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We were waiting for Harry and Charlie to arrive, so I had the chance to order breakfast. The boat was just off shore, but the driver needed some time to wait for the tide to come in before we could leave. I was happy to have the opportunity to eat and get some coffee.

The English girls were nice. They were in their mid-20s and were on vacation for a couple of weeks in Thailand. Laina was tall (around 5’11”), had long dark hair, and was voluptuous. She often talked about herself as being “big,” but she looked good and owned it. She had a lot of confidence and a big personality.

Stevie was slightly shorter than Laina, had medium-length brown hair, was fit, and had a sexual vibe about her. Both of the ladies often posed for pictures with “duck lips.” I felt a little out of place at first, but they ended up being really nice!

Harry and Charlie showed up and ate some breakfast. We also ordered lunch for take-away, so we had something to eat on the boat. When the tide was right, we all boarded the boat. It was a small wooden boat with wooden slats in the middle to sit on. You could also sit at the front of the bow.

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As we rode around the island, I noticed Stevie and Dave were pretty much an item. They often sat together and had a lot of physical contact. Everyone opened some beers that they brought and I couldn’t stomach the thought of more alcohol, so I stuck with water.

The island was incredible! We rode past rock formations and into small alcoves. It looked like something from a movie. The water was a beautiful light turquoise. The driver would stop at a spot and we’d jump into the water, swim to a beach, or snorkel around. We were often the only ones in the little alcoves. At one spot, colorful fish swam next to our boat. I jumped into the water and snorkeled around them.

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We continued driving around the island. Some spots had other boats from larger tour companies. Since our boat was small and we had a personal driver, we were able to go to hidden, secluded areas. At one spot, I swam to shore with Laina. We enjoyed playing with the sand because it was so soft. It didn’t feel like sand, it felt more like powder.

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 I got to know Laina better and I told her that I had been married for ten years, but I was divorced. We had a nice conversation about relationships as we swam back to the boat. She had such a strong self-confidence, I wanted to learn from her. I wasn’t feeling very good because I was getting sea sick. I took some Dramamine to help, but I should have taken it before we got on the boat. I was trying hard not to feel nauseous.

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Halfway through the day, I noticed that my gel nail polish from the manicure I got a few days earlier was peeling off. I said, “Wow, the salt water is destroying my nail polish.” Harry rolled his eyes and said, “That’s such a bird thing to say.” Confused, I asked what he was talking about. He explained that it’s an expression meaning “it’s such a woman thing to say.”

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We continued in the boat and the sun reflected off of the water as it started to set. We pulled into a medium-sized beach where other boats and tourists were enjoying the area. We stayed at this beach longer, so I got my towel and laid out. I dozed off because the Dramamine made me sleepy. After that beach, we drove back to the main part of the island.

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As we got off the boat, Harry said we should make sure to grab all of our trash so the driver doesn’t have to clean up after us. He started collecting trash and handing bags for people to take with them. Harry always bragged that he was not a nice guy – he was a heartbreaker and a womanizer. I said to him, “You always say you’re not a nice guy, but your actions show you are actually a nice guy.” I hope that as Harry gets older, he realizes that being a nice guy is actually an asset. Being a jerk and a womanizer might work while you’re young, but it won’t work as you get older. The Harry I knew was actually a considerate guy who cared and I wanted him to embrace that.

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I walked back to my hotel and showered. Then I met the crew for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant. Harry really wanted to pick his own fish from a market and this restaurant let you pick your fish from a display of seafood and then they cook it for you. It was a beautiful night and we enjoyed wine. Harry commented that my hair looked more blonde. It tends to get lighter in the sun and a full day on the ocean did lighten it up a bit.

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The six of us had a delightful dinner with sand under our feet. The food was good, but the company was better. Laina and Stevie told us about their life in England and how they’ve been friends for a long time. They’ve had lots of wild adventures and they often go on beach holidays.

After dinner, we walked to an outdoor bar that had lounge cushions on the sand. We got drinks while loud music pumped around us. I told Harry not to fall asleep again (he fell asleep at the bar the night before). We danced around and then I sat on a cushion. I watched people walk by on the beach, dance on sand at our bar and bars next to us, and couples enjoying each other’s company.

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Phi Phi island is definitely a party island. It felt like a place where French and Germans got to escape their winter. Sort of like Cancun for Americans on spring break. I was enjoying the night, but the cushion was so comfortable that I fell asleep! When I woke up and we left the bar, Harry pointed out that I was the one who fell asleep this time. He said, “Typical American. Tell others not to do it and then do it yourself.” Oops.

We all walked back to the hotel where the guys were staying. Their room had three twin beds and a balcony. Harry had to turn back because he accidentally left his shoes at the bar. When we arrived at the hotel, Stevie sat on Dave’s bed and Liana sat on Charlie’s bed. I sat on the bed that was left, Harry’s bed. When Harry arrived, he told me I would need to “relocate,” so he could have his bed. I got up from his bed and stood around while he laid down.

It hurt my feelings because I just wanted a place to sit down. The other guys didn’t tell the girls to move. I tried to ignore it as Harry started to fall asleep. The rest of us drank, ate snacks, and danced around. Laina asked me how old I was and I told her that I just turned 39. She was surprised and said she thought I was maybe 32 because I said I had been married for ten years.

Dave asked me if I wanted a can of jack and coke and I hesitated. I felt bad taking a drink that I didn’t pay for and I wasn’t sure how late I wanted to stay up, which resulted in me being unable to make up my mind. He ended up giving me one and said, “Sometimes you’re really awkward, you know?”

I couldn’t get that comment out of my head. I sat there feeling rejected. I am awkward sometimes. Maybe it was a cultural difference between us because I wasn’t from England. Or maybe I’m just awkward. I tried hard to ignore it, but that combined with Harry telling me to relocate made me feel depressed. I was standing on the balcony with Laina, Stevie, and Dave. In an exaggerated tone, I made a comment to Dave that I didn’t want to be awkward. He immediately said he was joking.

I fought back tears and told him I know sometimes I’m awkward. He explained that he said that because sometimes I don’t accept things from them. I said I’m not used to it because I’m usually the one offering things to people. He felt bad and tried hard to reassure me that we were friends and he was just joking. It was British humor. I knew Dave was a nice guy, but I felt sensitive to the remark.

I finally left just before 6:00 am and walked 15 minutes back to my hotel to get a few hours of sleep. Tears fell down my cheeks as I wondered if I’d be alone forever. Maybe nobody wants to date me because I’m too weird. I was feeling over-emotional and overly sensitive.

Overall, it was a fun day and a fun night. I got to know Laina and Stevie, and we all had a great time together. I’m really happy that I had fun people to hang out with during my time on the island. Going to a party island alone was intimidating. Having friends on the island allowed me to experience the island as it should be. I wouldn’t have been able to go on that boat alone and going to bars alone is not very fun. I will always remember my time on Phi Phi Island as a great time with great friends.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 247: Bangkok to Phi Phi Island

I arrived at the Bangkok airport for my AirAsia flight to Phuket. I tried looking online for the baggage and weight allowance, but failed to find anything. When I purchased my ticket, I paid an extra $40 so that luggage was included.

I put my purse inside my small duffle bag and planned to use that as my “personal item,” my medium-sized backpack as a carryon, and would check my suitcase. I arrived at the counter to get my ticket and a woman pointed to a man to the left who was weighing bags. I put my suitcase on the scale and it showed 22.5 kilos (49.6 pounds). In the U.S., the weight limit of a checked bag is 50 pounds.

AirAsia has a total checked bag limit of 20 kilos (44 pounds), regardless of how many bags you have. The man informed me that the price for an overweight bag is $350 baht ($11.45 USD) per kilo and they round up. I was upset because I had already paid $40 for the bag and I thought this was excessive for a bag that would have met standards in the U.S.

The man then weighed my backpack as the carryon and said they only allow 7 kilos (15.4 pounds). My backpack weighed 7.2 kilos so he said he’d let me slide. He instructed me to another counter to pay for the excess weight of my suitcase. I was extremely angry that the information on baggage allowance and the additional fees are not listed anywhere online or at the airport. How was I supposed to prepare?

At the next counter, the woman rudely told me to put my suitcase on the scale. It showed 25.5 kilos and she demanded $2,100 Baht ($69 USD). Getting angrier by second, I told her that scale was incorrect because the man’s scale said it was 22.5 kilos. She didn’t care and wanted $2,100 Baht. I told her I’d pay $1,050 Baht. She said I could try the scale next to her, so I moved past the customers at the counter and put my suitcase on that scale. It also showed 25.5 kilos. Getting angrier still, I said I was only going to pay for 22.5 kilos because that is what the scale showed where the man already weighed my bag.

The woman let me walk 15 feet over to the original scale and put my bag on it so that I could show her. Sure enough, it showed 22.5 kilos. The woman reluctantly said she would charge me for 3 kilos over ($34 USD). She didn’t care that two of their scales were weighing bags incorrectly and overcharging customers. I tried to tell other customers about their shady business practices.

I’m not currently earning an income, so I care about wasting money. The airline was trying to charge me an extra $34 USD because of a faulty scale. I was angry that I still ended up paying a total of $74 for one suitcase that wasn’t even 50 pounds. Southwest Airlines lets you check two suitcases for free and each one can weigh 50 pounds.

I was even more angry that I couldn’t prepare. If I had known about the baggage fees, I likely would have paid more for a ticket on a better airline that has better baggage allowance, better leg room, and better customer service.

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After going through security, we were instructed to board the plane. We were bussed to the tarmac, climbed up stairs, and made our way to our seats. I sat down and couldn’t believe how little leg room was available. I know I’m taller than the average person, but my knees were so smashed into the seat in front of me that they were in a lot of pain. The person in front of me also decided to recline before we even took off.

We took off 40 minutes late, not because of a delay, just because they didn’t seem to follow any sort of schedule. I sat on that plane and decided I would never fly AirAsia again. I have flown other discount airlines and had good service. AirAsia was awful all around.

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Some people have said, “That’s why I only fly with a small carryon backpack that is seven kilos when I fly to Asia. I just bring sundresses and flip flops.” First, even if I brought the exact same clothes as someone else, mine would take up much more space and be heavier because I’m twice their size. I’m not 5’2”, I’m 6’1”. My shoes are also much longer than theirs. Second, I was traveling for eight months, going to varying climates that required both winter coats and swimsuits. I was doing a lot of outdoor activities and needed things like hiking gear. I was also doing city exploring. I wasn’t doing yoga in Bali and lounging at the beach all day.

That’s great that some people can fly with a seven kilo backpack. I am not one of those people and never will be. I’m also not an overpacker. I brought the things I needed for the weather, activities, and length of time I was traveling in three countries. Trust me, I don’t like lugging around my bags. But I had things like my vitamins and medications so I didn’t get sick, my keyboard and iPad so I can write, and the appropriate attire.

After a frustrating, but short flight, we arrived in Phuket. I booked the ferry to Phi Phi Island online in advance, which left at 11:00 am. After getting my suitcase, I walked to a booth that had cell phone data. My data was almost out so I topped it off for $5 USD and received another five GB. I used the ATM and paid a $7 USD fee (not including my bank fees), bought a bottle of water, and looked for a taxi. A man approached me and offered to give me a ride to the ferry for $700 Baht ($23 USD). I explained to him that I needed to arrive to catch the 11:00 am ferry. It was 10:22 am when we pulled away and he said it would be difficult to make it in time.

The taxi driver was driving fast at first. I called the ferry to see if they would wait for five minutes. They didn’t speak English, so the driver offered to talk to them. He spoke to them in Thai and handed my phone back. He started driving slower and said I likely wouldn’t make it.

We arrived at 11:07 am and the ferry was gone. Great, now they care about leaving on time. I went to the booth of the company I bought the ticket from and they said I could board the next ferry, but it didn’t leave for four hours. They recommended I buy another ticket with a different company that was leaving at 12:30 pm. I didn’t want to hang out at the ferry terminal for four hours, so I bought another ticket for the 12:30 pm departure for $600 Baht ($20).

I bought some breakfast, used the toilet and boarded the boat at 12:10 pm. It didn’t leave until 12:42 pm. I was frustrated. Did I just get swindled? Perhaps. The taxi company and boat companies sell tickets as combo packages. They all work together. Maybe my driver told the ferry to leave on time and he slowed down, making sure I missed it. The man who sold me the ticket for the ferry I was on tried very hard to get me to buy a new ticket and buy it fast. And this one didn’t leave on time, like most things in Thailand.

The ferry took a couple of hours to arrive at Phi Phi Island. Most of the tourists were French and German, so I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I got off the ferry when we arrived and walked to my room. I booked it through Airbnb, but it was actually a small hotel.

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There are no cars on the island, so you must walk everywhere. The fancy resorts that are farther away and up hills have men with carts that come and get people’s luggage for them. My hotel was cheap. I would not be getting any such service. I wandered through the narrow streets full of shops, tattoo shops, and restaurants, getting very turned around.

It was extremely hot and humid. The real feel temperature was 108 °F. I eventually made it to my hotel hot, sweaty, and out of breath. The woman showed me my room, turned on the air conditioning unit, and said, “I’ll show you the safe later. Maybe you could cool down and take a shower?” Wow, I must have been a hot mess.

After cooling off for 15 minutes, I asked the woman what she recommended that I do while I was there for a few days. She recommended that I hike to a lookout point that evening and watch the sunset, go to the beach the following day, and then go on the boat that my new British friends told me about.

Harry, Dave, and Charlie from England were on Phi Phi Island. We met in Chiang Mai the week before. I sent them a message letting them know that I had arrived and was about to do a hike to a lookout point. They said they were actually on their way and told me to hurry up and they’d wait for me.

I changed my clothes and wandered through the narrow, winding streets. The island has two large land masses with mountains on each side, but the middle is a skinny stretch of land. The skinny stretch is where the bulk of the hotels, bars, and restaurants are. I couldn’t tell which direction was the beach and once I finally found it, I didn’t know which side of the island I was on.

Harry called me and tried to help give me directions. The guys didn’t have cell service in Thailand, so they had to use WiFi. Harry would walk into a bar to use the WiFi so he could message me. I was walking on the beach and trying to make my way to the bar they were at. Then Harry called me and said they saw me in the distance and were worried that I was too far away. They didn’t want to miss the sunset, so they continued and said they’d see me up there.

I told Harry there were two paths to the lookout point. One uses a ton of stairs and the other is a pathway. The woman at my hotel recommended I take the stairs because it’s hard, but gets you there quicker. The path is long and takes awhile to get there. Harry didn’t know about the steps and said they were just going to follow the path. I found the steps and said I’d see them up there.

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After ten minutes and many, many stairs, I arrived at the first lookout point. It was beautiful and I took the opportunity to take some pictures and catch my breath. The island has mountains too, which really add to the scenery.

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It took another ten minutes to arrive at the very top. It was crowded and there was a small store selling drinks and popsicles. I bought a popsicle and sat on a large rock. The view was incredible! I could see the majority of the island, the mountains, lush trees, and the ocean.

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Off to the side and a little farther up, there was a bar and restaurant. In order to enjoy the view on their rooftop, you needed to purchase a drink. I bought a beer and sat at a tall table. Next to me were two French girls and a guy. I had run into those French girls at the first viewpoint and they were very rude and self absorbed, taking tons of pictures at the sign and ignoring the fact that others were waiting. The girls looked like Paris Hilton and didn’t seem to notice that I existed. They sat next to me drinking their coke and smoking their cigarettes.

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I tried to ignore them and just focus on the view. I looked around for the guys on the rocks below me, but couldn’t find them. It turns out they ended up at a different viewpoint. There weren’t many people on the rooftop bar and it was more enjoyable. The bugs started to come out once it got dark outside, so I started the trek back down. I stopped at a restaurant and ate some Pad Thai before heading back to my hotel. I took a shower and was so exhausted that I fell asleep with the light still on.

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That day was extremely frustrating. It felt like nothing was going my way and the world was against me. The beautiful sunset helped end the day on a better note, but I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to wake up refreshed. I wanted the next day to be better. I needed the next day to be better.

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 233: Kayaking Fiasco

After a few days of hiking in Thailand, we were about to start the biking portion of the tour. The hotel breakfast was sparse and served instant coffee. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, the 15 of us were fitted for our bicycles.

We left the hotel and we were soon riding through rice fields. I was so excited for this part because I had seen pictures online of previous tours riding bikes through the fields and it looked so beautiful and unique. Just like with hiking, I fell to the back of the pack. This time, Neil was often with me. We were in awe of our surroundings and liked to stop and take pictures. Sak, one of the guides, was in the back with us.

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img_1496I loved the symmetry of the squares that bordered sections of the fields. The bright green neon blades of baby rice looked so delicate in the still water. I couldn’t believe how tedious it must be to plant and harvest the rice by hand. Occasionally, we saw workers in the field who would wave and smile.

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img_1523I was grateful that I brought some padded bike shorts as we pedalled along the bumpy dirt roads. The bikes had suspension, which also helped with bumps and potholes. The sun was brightly shining. Riding the bike gave us a nice breeze. After the rice fields, we rode through a forest to kayak on a lake.

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It was close to lunch time and it would take an hour and a half to paddle to a floating restaurant. My roommate Nicole and I shared a kayak and I sat in the back. I was so thrilled because my first REI Adventures trip was to Norway for hiking and kayaking. We kayaked through the fjords for five days, which was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

img_1556The kayak was the “sit on top” type and there wasn’t much room for my long legs so my paddle kept hitting my knees. To avoid this, I had to lift my paddle up higher, which let in more water than usual from the paddle.

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Nicole and I were cruising along in the front. Slowly, it was getting harder and harder to paddle. We started to lose our balance and would tip too far to one side. It freaked me out and I’d overcompensate by going too far the other way. I was confused. What was causing our sudden imbalance?

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Just over halfway to the restaurant, I noticed the water bottle between my legs was floating in water inside the kayak. Concerned, I tried scooping the water out, but it didn’t seem to subside at all. The rolling of my water bottle made it worse, shifting the weight in the kayak. I told Nicole about the water, but she couldn’t see it because she was in front of me. I put my hand behind me and realized that section was full of water too.

A few people noticed something was wrong and paddled towards us. All of a sudden, a slight wave created a huge imbalance. I warned Nicole, “We’re going to flip.” And then we did.

Our kayak overturned, throwing us into the lake. We both quickly grabbed the upside-down kayak. The ones who paddled towards us were quickly there to assist us. Tri, our guide, jumped into the lake to help. He flipped the kayak back over but it was still not empty of water.

I was embarrassed and confused as to what happened. I have been kayaking many times in much rougher waters and have never flipped. Cathy said she noticed water was filling up in the back a while before. Was I too heavy and sinking the kayak?

Tri looked all over the kayak and found that the plug on the bottom that is designed to drain any excess water that gets inside was broken, so water kept getting inside. He let us use his kayak so we could continue to the restaurant and he rode in a boat that was nearby.

It was difficult getting back into the kayak in the middle of a lake, but several others in our group held the kayak steady. I went in the front this time and had more leg room, enabling me to paddle lower and get less water inside.

I felt awful because Nicole was exhausted. When our kayak was sinking with excess water, we had to paddle extra hard. I was trying to get water out while she continued to paddle, so her arms were very tired.

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The sun dried us off a little bit, but thankfully we had swimsuits on under our clothes. When we got on to the restaurant’s platform, people were talking about our fiasco and wondering what happened. I tried to just brush it off as an adventure. But then I heard that Tri did not have his cell phone in a waterproof bag when he jumped in to help us. It wasn’t working and we were worried it was ruined. I felt awful and responsible. Thankfully, days later, it suddenly started working again!

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The floating restaurant had a trampoline and a blow-up slide attached that ended in the water. Christian, Kristen, and Mimi walked along the foam pads and played on the trampoline for awhile. I decided I wanted to try the slide, but nobody was there any longer. We had time before lunch was served, so I decided to go for it.

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Kristen came to assist me with the floating foam pads. I have terrible balance and didn’t think I could make it to the slide by walking across the pads. Instead, I swam over and she helped pull me up to the mat. They had learned the hard way that the slide needed water. We filled up a bottle from the lake and once I climbed the stairs, Kristen handed me the bottle. I poured it down the slide and slid into the lake. It was a blast! I loved it so much, I went down two more times. A few others cheered me on, but they didn’t want to get wet.

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We ate a fresh lunch and relaxed for a little while. To get back to our bikes, we took Long Boats. The small, narrow boats are so close to the water that I sometimes felt the mist. It was a beautifully clear day and the boats were a lot of fun.

Once we were back at our bikes, we changed out of our swimwear and continued biking. After having a break from biking, my butt felt sore and my knee was hurting. Once we started riding again I warmed up a bit.

After leaving the lake, we rode on a closed-off paved street and then down a huge hill. Sak, one the guides, was in the back with me. He’s young and enthusiastic. He said, “You look like a professional.” The day prior, he teased me when I stopped to take pictures. He would playfully say, “Let’s go!” I would respond, “I’m coming, I’m coming!” As we rode across the paved road, I asked him how to say “I’m coming! I’m coming!” in Thai. He taught me and we repeated it dramatically over and over so I could get it just right.

After the huge hill, we were back in the rice fields. Sak told me that the bright green baby rice is there for one month and then it’s moved to another location for another three months before it’s ready. They plant rice twice a year. I asked how much they sell it for and he said it depends on the quality. The rain and sun play a big part. Thailand is one of the world’s biggest rice producers.

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After the rice fields, we rode on a dirt road. Sak and I rode side by side, talking. I asked if he’s ever been to the U.S. and he responded, “Only in my dreams.” “What is it like in your dreams?” I asked. He laughed, “Cold.”

I explained to Sak that only about half of the U.S. gets snow. He’s never seen snow before and curiously asked, “How do you get rid of the snow?” I explained that cities have snow plows, people shovel their driveways, and sometimes things are closed because of snow. In the end, it all melts when spring comes.

We arrived back at the hotel and Sak said, “Thank you for teaching me.” I was enjoying this new found friendship. There were a few people in our group who wanted to ride bikes longer, so they went back out. I had been eyeing the pool and convinced Tien to choose the pool over an extended ride.

When I arrived at the pool, nobody was there. The sun had just set behind the building and the water felt very cold. I didn’t care. The large, clear, clean, pool looked so enticing! There were water features luxuriously spilling into the pool. After days of hiking and biking, I deserved some excess.

Shortly after I arrived, Nancy showed up and did some laps. As she was leaving, Tien showed up. We discovered jets on the side that felt like a back massage. We sat there talking about life.

Tien had worked hard to become a psychiatrist and he was nervous about going into the insurance side of things. He would be starting his new job shortly after returning home. It’s always difficult to start something new and no longer be an expert.

Tien thought it was great that I was traveling for so long and he told me about his previous adventures and desire to travel more. He has a wife and two young children at home, which makes it harder. He understood how I felt before leaving corporate America and he was really encouraging as he supported my decision to travel long-term.

It was getting close to dinner time so we went back to our rooms to shower. After meeting everyone in the lobby, we walked down the dark dirt road to the same restaurant we ate at the night before. We picked up our laundry that we had left and it was all fresh and clean. The dinner was delicious as usual.

On the walk back to the hotel, I talked with Neil. He asked me what are the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far in eight months of travel. I pondered the question, “Hmmm, that’s a tough question.” After thinking about it for a while, I had a few answers.

  • I don’t like doing touristy things. I usually will go to some of the major sights, but I find myself getting bored easily because after awhile, it all looks the same. I was actively working on not going to places because I’m supposed to go, but going to places I wanted to actually see. I’ve realized I prefer to do outdoor activities (like hiking), and I enjoy the local places.
  • I have also learned that I enjoy doing things by myself. At home, I never go alone to a sit-down restaurant or to a movie theatre, but I enjoy being solitary in new cities. Why is that?

Neil was insightful as we discussed the different ways to travel. He said, “That’s always the question. What is the real Thailand?” Thailand is diverse. The mountains and villages are the real Thailand. The touristy spots are the real Thailand. The cities are the real Thailand. The islands are the real Thailand.

I went to bed reflecting on my travels. Neil had posed a great question. There isn’t one thing I can point to as my biggest lesson. There are so many small lessons. I’ve learned things about myself, about cities and countries, and about history. I’ve enjoyed the sites, the outdoor activities, new cultures, and most of all, the people. People are by far nice, caring, helpful, and genuine – all over the world.

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