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.

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Day 265: Being Silly

I woke up in a homestay in the northern mountains in Vietnam. I tried to use the bathroom, but was told the power was out and I needed to use the bathroom downstairs. Melana and Erik didn’t take a shower the night before because they were tired, so they had to take cold showers using buckets of water. 

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The homeowners made all of us different breakfasts based on what we requested. I had scrambled eggs on a baguette. We took pictures with the hosts on a table outside and thanked them for their wonderful hospitality. Opi found Erik’s and my height fascinating and he took a picture in between us. He thought he was our height if he was on his tippy-toes, but he couldn’t quite get there. 

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We drove away and continued our trek through the mountains. I felt better on the bike and my legs were less sore. I was doing a better job at shifting and braking. Going up steep hills, I quickly down-shifted, so I could make it up. I avoided the many, many potholes. My back and shoulders hurt a little bit though because we were on the bikes for so long. 

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The clouds and fog weren’t as bad as the day prior and we were treated to breathtaking scenery. The entire drive was amazing. We saw cows on the side of the road that were led by a woman. They stopped and grazed on the side of the mountain. Kids played around houses that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere on steep ledges. 

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We were feeling a little tired and stopped at a restaurant with incredible views of the canyons. I got a yogurt with fruit and enjoyed the break. Once we were back on the bikes, the road was rough. It was difficult to navigate and to stay on the concrete sections. 

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We stopped for lunch, which was shared. I always enjoy shared meals because I get to try different foods. As we finished up, the group of women in their 40s-50s stopped in for lunch. Melana and Erik told us that they had met the women on their bus ride to Ha Giang. The women said they all planned on driving their own bike. They had never driven a motorbike before and thought they could learn now. Melana and Erik were skeptical that they could learn on the steep mountains. Sure enough, within one block, two women crashed their bikes and one had road rash. The drivers made them all ride on the back instead. 

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At lunch, Melana told us that she was a breast cancer survivor. She had surgery and the night before was her one-year anniversary of being cancer free. She was only 33 years old and I couldn’t believe she had gone through that. It reminded me of my friend, Kirsten. She found out she had breast cancer when she was 29 years old and pregnant. She had to go through chemo while she was pregnant. Thankfully, she and the baby are doing great. I was happy that Melana survived. My grandmother died of breast cancer at age 42. This was another reminder for me to enjoy every single day because we truly don’t know how many days we’ll get. 

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After lunch, we stopped at some beautiful passes and took pictures. Now that we all knew each other better, we had a blast being silly. Ben and Berry are the cutest couple. They took a picture of them holding hands, so I mimicked them holding my hand out to no one. Sometimes I can laugh that I’m single. 

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Now that we were on the main loop, it was more crowded. One time when we stopped to take pictures, two french guys stopped too. They were driving their own motorbikes, had go-pros on their helmets, and blasted Prince music. They got off their bikes and danced to the music. Zing, being our musical talent, joined them as we walked towards them. We all laughed hysterically at the random dance party between strangers. 

We stopped at a lookout point that had a castle-like edge. Other tourists were stopped there too. Some came in busses and some were riding on the back of motorbikes. We climbed down the stairs and enjoyed the river below in the middle of the canyons. When I got back on my bike, people seemed surprised that I was driving myself. 

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The drive kept getting better and better. I loved every second of it. The others asked me if I was able to see the scenery since I had to pay attention to the road. I felt that I was still immersed, felt the wind in my face, and had enough moments that I could look around at the beauty.

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We arrived at our hotel in Dong Van. I had my own room with two small beds. We had two hours to relax and shower before dinner. It was nice to just lay down for a bit.

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Dinner was at the restaurant next door. We enjoyed lots of happy water (rice wine) once again and we were so slap happy (and a little drunk), tears of laughter ran down my face. 

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We bonded over our sore butts and the fun times we just had over the last two days. Erik and Melana would be leaving in the morning and would head back to Ha Giang, so we wanted to have a fun night before they left. Melana struggled to use the chopsticks after the happy water, which made us all laugh.  

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After dinner, the guides went to their rooms while the rest of us walked around the town. I was really craving cake, or any sort of dessert. It was hard to find it in Southeast Asia. We walked around the two main streets, but did not find any sweets. Instead, we got boba tea at a cafe. As we waited for our orders to-go, a woman walked into the shop and had her friend take a picture of her with Erik because of his height. Then she saw me and took a picture with me on one side and Erik on the other. 

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As we walked around, we stopped at a bar and got a drink. We talked about our travels and where Melana and Erik were headed next. They redeemed hotel points and were staying at a resort in the middle of Vietnam. They were looking forward to the warmer weather and the luxury that came with resorts. This was their annual two week vacation, so I completely understood their desire to relax. 

We walked back to our hotel and I enjoyed a night of sleep on a thick mattress and some privacy. The next morning, we ate breakfast at the same restaurant next door.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Erik and Melana. Zing was Melana’s driver and Opi’s dad was Erik’s driver, so we’d have to part with them too. Even though I only knew them for two days, it was sad to say goodbye. We all bonded on our first trip to the mountains in Vietnam. 

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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.

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Days 256-257: Final Days in Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 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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Day 253: Dive Certification Failure

I drove the scooter to my diving class that started promptly at 8:00 am. Birgit, our instructor, started the class by going over the questions that we had failed on the quizzes on our homework. I wasn’t aware that she could see how many times we failed and which questions we got wrong. Oops. Next, we continued with academics, learning all about the math that goes into it, the different types of oxygen, hand signals, and all of the ways you can die.

I know this is all necessary, but there are so many ways you can die when diving. Not just running out of air, but getting the bends. Initially, I was worried about sharks. After all of the academics, I didn’t even think about sharks. I only cared about all of the science that goes into breathing under several meters of ocean water and how not to die. The number one thing to remember is to “never hold your breath.”

We got an hour break before going into the pool. I went to a restaurant and got some food and then headed back down the street to the dive shop. We put shorty wetsuits on (a one piece short-sleeve shirt and shorts). It was thick and helped with the cold. We got into the shallow end of the pool and put our BCD (vest) with tanks on.

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We had to do a lot of skill tests under the water, but in the shallow end first. We put the regulators in (the piece that goes into your mouth and gives you oxygen) and got on our knees so that we were completely submerged in the water. Birgit would demonstrate a skill and we would each do it one-by-one while she watched us. She always had me go first, which was good because I didn’t have time to overthink anything.

We performed the following skills:

  • Swim in a circle for two minutes straight without touching anything to demonstrate that we could swim.
  • Use hand signals to show that we were out of air, accept the spare regulator on Birgit’s BCD, and switch regulators while still breathing and surfacing.
  • Use hand signals saying we were ok, signal that we wanted to surface, signal that we wanted to go down, etc.

There were about 24 different skills that we had to perform to show Birgit that we could do them with confidence. The hardest one for me was the mask removal. First, we had to demonstrate clearing our masks. We’d pinch the top to get some water inside the mask, than we’d breathe out forcefully through our nose while holding the top sides of our mask, allowing the water to go out the bottom.

I had two problems: 1) I have always plugged my nose when I go under water, so letting water into my mask was causing water to go up my nose. 2) I was lifting my mask up too much, so more water would just come in instead of it emptying.

Birgit assured me that if someone struggles with diving, it’s always the mask removal and clearing part. She encouraged me, was patient, and talked me through it.

I was eventually able to clear the mask, but then I had to do the mask removal. In this skill, we had to remove our mask entirely, keep it off for about three seconds, and then put it back on. It would be full of water, so we’d have to clear the mask. We had to do all of this under water. Because the chlorine would burn our eyes, Birgit said we could close them, which I did.

Once I took my mask off, it felt like water was gushing up my nose. Birgit told me that water would stop going up and it would be fine, but there was something causing me to breathe in bursts. It wasn’t natural for me to close off my nose. I am someone who only breathes through my nose when I sleep. I am not conditioned to not breathe through my nose.

After a few tries, I was able to do the mask clearing and the mask removal. However, because I had struggled with it, Birgit made me do it a few times successfully before she was satisfied. It made sense. In order to certify me, she needed to know that I could do it calmly and not panic. Doing this several times was exhausting, but I completed it.

We took a quick five minute break to use the restrooms and then were back in the pool, but this time it was in the deep end. I had to equalize my ears a few times on the way down. Then we were tasked with doing all of the same skills. They would be back-to-back, without surfacing. Once we passed this part, we’d go into the ocean the next day and do some of the skills there, including the mask removal.

In the deep end, we had to do an additional skill. It would involve taking our mask off, swimming with Birgit so she could guide us with our eyes closed to one end of the pool and back, and then putting our mask on and clearing the water. This time, Birgit had the other girls do the skill before me.

As I watched Birgit guide the other girls one-by-one, I had time to think. I was exhausted. At this point, we had been in the pool for almost five hours, I was hungry, and I was also nauseous. I didn’t take any motion sickness medicine and the motion of the water over several hours was making me feel sick.

My mind wandered, Why am I doing this? I won’t be able to have my mask off that long because water will go up my nose. I won’t be able to clear my mask. If I’m panicked in the pool, I’m going to really panic in the ocean. Do I even want to dive? Am I just doing this because it’s cheaper here and it would be cool to say I did it? Maybe I don’t even like diving. I’ve never even done a ‘try dive.’ I don’t need to do this. I should just give up.

I looked to the surface and contemplated swimming up. Then Birgit came to me and it was my turn to do the mask-removal swim. I took off my mask and almost immediately swam to the surface. Sweet Birgit tried to convince me that I was so close and to return to the bottom, but I told her I needed a break.

I sat on the side of the pool while Birgit finished the last few skills with the other girls. Once they were finished, Birgit asked what I wanted to do. I told her that I couldn’t do it and I wanted to do the “try dive” the next day instead of continuing with the class. Birgit told me that it’s natural to struggle with mask removal and that I was so close to finishing, she didn’t want to see me give up.

I felt defeated. I’ve never quit anything in my life. I was drained and I felt like a loser. Birgit convinced me to meet her from 7:00-8:00 am the next morning before class and we could finish the last few skill exercises in the deep end and if I passed, I could continue with the certification. I thought maybe I’d feel better the next day, so I agreed.

I drove back to my Airbnb, showered, and met Davina at a restaurant for dinner. I met her on Phi Phi Island a few days prior. She’s in her 40s, is from Wales, and was traveling solo. I told Davina about my diving experience, how I thought I couldn’t do it, and felt like a failure. She was so encouraging and told me that I could do it. She is certified to dive and was going to get her advanced certification while on Koh Tao.

Davina and I had a nice dinner by the water. We talked about our previous relationships and dating at our age. It’s not easy and we both had stories (more like nightmares) of trying to find a good man. Davina has kids aged 18 and 23. She talked about them and how she encouraged her daughter to be an independent, strong female. Davina was really encouraging and I’m so happy I had her there to support me and make me feel like less of a failure.

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When I got back to my Airbnb, I did the homework and tried to sleep. I had a difficult time because I knew what awaited me in the morning. I tossed and turned, hoping that I would be able to complete my dive certification.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 250: Krabi, Thailand

I checked out of my hotel on Phi Phi Island and walked down the street to the ferry booths. I booked the 1:30 pm ferry to Krabi, which is on the mainland of Thailand. It would take two hours to get there and was scheduled to arrive at 3:30 pm. Once that was booked, I walked to a restaurant for lunch. I needed to figure out where I was going. I ultimately wanted to get to Koh Tao, another island, but it would take three hours by bus to cross the peninsula and then three hours by ferry to the island. It was too late in the day to make it and I heard good things about Krabi, so I figured I’d check it out for a day.

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I boarded the ferry, where there were lots of hungover people sleeping. I sat on the top deck on the back of the boat because I wanted to enjoy the ocean breeze and views. The ferry ride was beautiful as we passed islands and rocks in the ocean. The sun glistened off the water.

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When I arrived in Krabi, I took a Grab to my hotel. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was. It had a resort feel to it with a pool and beautiful landscaping. When I arrived to my room, I was so happy! It was large, clean, and best of all, the air conditioning worked really well. I didn’t sleep well at my last hotel because the air conditioning was weak. I was going on four hours of interrupted sleep and desperately wanted to take a nap.

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Instead, I decided that I should enjoy the pool. After putting on my swimsuit, I headed to a pool chair. There were three young guys and two women in the pool. I laid out for awhile, but the sun had already set behind the tall hotel, so I decided to get in the water. As I got in the pool, the three guys got out and went back to their room. One of the women decided to go back to her room and take a shower.

The last woman in the pool approached me. She was from London and appeared to be in her late 40s. The woman told me that her family is from Goa, India and they still live there. She spent the last 11 years remodeling a flat in India as a holiday home near her family. She had recently finished it and took a trip to see the finished project. She decided to take a holiday in Thailand while she was close.

The woman kept swimming closer and closer to me and I felt like my personal space was being invaded. I found myself slowly backing up until I was against the wall. I was hoping she would notice and back off a little, but she kept getting closer and closer. She had me pinned against the wall and said, “You have very white teeth!” I laughed, “That’s funny. Someone on a tour a couple of weeks ago told me the same thing.”

The woman continued, “When you opened your mouth, I couldn’t believe how white they are!” I explained to her that maybe they stand out lately because I had a tan. Surprised, she said, “You mean you haven’t had any work done? It’s all natural?” I answered, “That’s correct. I mean, I use Crest Whitestrips every once in awhile, but that’s it.” I got out of the pool and went back to my room.

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I changed my clothes and headed out to dinner. The hotel offered an open air shuttle to the markets, so I took advantage of it. It was a blast! The air felt cooler than Phi Phi Island and Bangkok. Krabi was a medium-sized city, so it didn’t feel overwhelming.

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I wandered around the market trying different kinds of fish cakes, fried chicken, and then some pad see ew. The pad see ew booth had a few small tables, so I sat down at one. Shortly after, a couple ordered some food, but there was nowhere to sit. The owner instructed them to sit at my table, so they sat across from me.

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Alex was from Romanian and her boyfriend, Pawel, was from Poland. They were living in Poland and traveling through Thailand for three weeks on holiday. Pawel does interior work on flats. In Poland, they buy a flat with just the walls. Then the customer will go to his company and pick everything out to have it just the way they want. Then eight to twelve weeks later, it’s all done.

Pawel originally gave his employer a three month notice that he was going to take four weeks for holiday and had everything booked. Right before he left, his boss basically said he’d be fired if he didn’t come back within three weeks. They had to change their plans and lost money rebooking things, but he needed to be back in three weeks.

Alex worked in software sales, but she didn’t like it. She had a new job lined up for when she returned to Poland that would involve scheduling for project managers. They had recently sold their flat because they saw how much the market had turned and they wanted to take advantage of it.

The couple appeared to be in their mid-20s. Alex and Pawel met in college and had been dating for five years. They rented a scooter for the day and drove it all over the area. We got on the subject of ancestry and I told them that I wanted to visit Eastern Europe because I’ve never been there. I showed them my 23andme data, which shows my ancestry as Northern and Eastern European.

We enjoyed our Thai food, but they admitted they had grown a little tired of the same type of food week after week. Alex said they broke down and ate at Burger King one day. I laughed because I totally understood. After 45 minutes, they had to return their scooter. We said goodbye and I hoped to meet up with them if I ever made it to Poland.

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I missed the last shuttle back to the hotel, so I decided to walk. I walked along the riverfront and past more food stalls. Beautiful sculptures and art pieces were on display. Electrical wires randomly hung from multiple places, sometimes making me fear that I’d run into one.

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I walked through the town for a mile until I reached my hotel. I wasn’t too disappointed that I only spent half a day there because it didn’t seem like much was going on. When I got back to my hotel, I booked some things on Koh Tao, like a diving certification class and my Airbnb. I was nervous about diving, but I heard Koh Tao was the place to get certified. I looked forward to getting back to an island because the Thai Islands are magical.

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.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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