Siem Reap — Angkor Wat Temples & Bike Rides

We arrive in Siem Reap at 8pm Saturday night after another joyous and bumpy 7-hour bus trip. This one was EXTRA bumpy and it’s probably because there was no bathroom on board and although I’ve been purposely not drinking much water, I had to go. Boy, did I have to pee. I survive, and we are greeted at Ta Som Guesthouse with the guy (who I’m pretty sure thought we were Australian because he kept making Australian jokes and laughing at himself) making us welcome drinks! Papaya-banana-mango smoothies, mmm. We were staying 3 nights so were jazzed with the welcome party. We stayed on the 4th floor (no elevators anywhere, and we always seem to be on the top floor, am I complaining?) in room 134. Room 134 on the 4th floor, made me chuckle.

Walked to a side street and got some easy cheap dinner. The owner, a Cambodian named Paulie, was doing trick shots on the pool table while we ate. After kicking Haley’s butt in Connect 4 (okay fine I only won once), we played a few games with Paulie and an Aussie named Luke. I suck at pool, like, really bad. Luckily, I was on Luke’s team and he was good, and also really laid back so he didn’t mind. His Australian electrician license expired so he’s been backpacking for over a year, not working, just traveling and kicking it, that’s what I like to see!

Ta Prohm, where Tomb Raider was filmed! Angelina? Is that you?

Ta Prohm, where Tomb Raider was filmed! Angelina? Is that you?

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

We spent the following day exploring the Temples of Angkor Wat. A friend I studied with in Australia (2009) recently backpacked Southeast Asia with her husband and recommended the Tuk Tuk driver they had. His name is Meas and he brought us ice cold water and a friendly smile. He drove us around to each of the temples and was very reliable. Thanks for the hook-up Britt! Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world (or at least that’s what my postcards say) and it’s unbelievable. IT’S HUGE. The amount of detail, meaning, storylines, and labor that went into building all of these temples leaves you mind-blown. Meas took us first to Angkor Wat (the biggest, and best in my opinion) then to The Bayon, and ending with Ta Prohm a.k.a the TOMB RAIDER TEMPLE. Add in a few smaller ones along the way, a lunch with smoked fish that makes your stomach turn, 90+ degree sun, the steepest stairs in the world, and by 2PM you’re ready to call it quits. We both aren’t reallyyyyyy Temple people, but both really enjoyed Angkor Wat. A lot of people do 2-3 day tours of these temples, but 6 hours was good enough for us! hah!

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat

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As if I didn’t get enough cardio and sun, I went for an afternoon run. I felt like a pile, but pretty good by the end of it. Because of how dehydrated I’ve been I was craving a beer, and nothing else. I wanted to see Pub Street anyways so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. It was 5pm so I looked at Google maps briefly and walked in it’s direction. I was in Julie-land and overshot the street by 10 minutes, laughed, and turned around. Once on the street it didn’t look as touristy as everyone said it was, I also didn’t recognize any of the bars I heard about. Turns out, I was on Khmer Pub Street, the street with a bunch of run-down local bars. It was deserted. I laughed again and got a Tuk Tuk and said I need to go to Pub Street! and he was like okay 2 dollars! and I was like fineeeeeeeee. Got to Pub Street and told Halez just to look for me on one of the outdoor patios when she was done with her afternoon frolic. Sat next to 3 other guys (swiss, irish, british) and chatted it up. We all drank .50cent drafts and shared stories and laughs. Ended up getting dinner with them at a super local spot right around the corner with no inside, no bathroom, and best yet, no name. There was one guy in charge of making everyone’s food and he looked about 20 years old, and he did it in the middle of the restaurant. The food was incredible, cheap (1.50), and we ended up sitting next to 4 South-African sisters who ditched their husbands and kids for a 2 week Cambodian vacation, they were grrrreeattttt.

Merv! Retired cop from Northern Ireland with a passion for beer and fannypacks

Merv! Retired cop from Northern Ireland with a passion for beer and fannypacks

Party Time

Party Time

The next day we rented bikes and rode through dirt-road villages along the river. Our destination was Tonle Sap Lake, but when we got close the guard wouldn’t let us in! hah! Riding through the villages was really fun because all the kids we passed said “Hello!” every.single.one. They meant it too, they were so friendly. It was a SCORCHER. Rode past beautiful fields and villages, stopped for a shade break and rode back. We stopped at a Hammock Bar and I got a smoothie. Hung out on the hammock, journaled, read, swayed, and then realizing (rather abruptly) that the smoothie was a straight laxative, went running to the bathroom. Showered and rested up out of the sun for an hour and grabbed some dinner and the best Gelato I have ever had. Made with only Palm Sugar, Fruit, and Water, I got the Venezuelan Chocolate and it was such a surprise because I don’t even like chocolate ice cream (sorry dad). But THIS, oh my, THIS was something to be sad about when gone.

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Chillin'

Chillin’

After a nice morning run I laid in the Royal Gardens to do some planks and push-ups. Two girls came over and sat down next to me. They were very shy and didn’t know much English, but were in school and learning it. They kept giggling and would ask me questions with what words they knew. I tried to get them to do some push-ups but they just laughed like I was crazy! I asked them a lot of questions but they didn’t understand any. We took a few selfies, we listened to my beats, and shared a lot of laughs (even though we both didn’t know what we were laughing about). The Cambodian kids are my favorite part about Cambodia. The landscape is beautiful (very green), the culture is interesting, but the kids of Cambodia have been my favorite. There is also so much support here for them. A ton of restaurants and trade shops in Siem Reap are Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s), which help support and train the kids of Cambodia. A lot of the proceeds go to schools, and a lot of them offer apprenticeships and training programs with valuable work experience. We have not seen anything with this type of frequency in the other cities we visited (and we’d know, we do a lotttt of restaurant hopping), so it was nice to end our trip in Southeast Asia on a positive note. I’m aware that’s just one part of Cambodia, and there is a lot of poverty throughout the Kingdom, but knowing there are bright spots in places makes me very hopeful.

When there was a silence I found myself filling it with don't stop studying! study! study! study! because they knew what that word meant. They were the best.

When there was a silence I found myself filling it with don’t stop studying! study! study! study! because they knew what that word meant. They were the best.

The Kingdom of Cambodia — Phnom Penh

4 Nights spent in Cambodia split between the Capital city of Phnom Penh and the better known Siem Reap. There are no trains in Cambodia so we took a 6 hour bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. We get on the bus ($10), are seated in the first row, given a box of 2 bread-based treats, and are being serenaded by the one, the only, Mariah Carey. They had a TV in the front and it was playing old school music videos for the first couple hours, and since everyone knows how this made me feel I’ll spare you all the gushing. But seriously, Mariah – Brittney – Celine- S-Club 7 – a foreign replica of 98 degrees, etc. ALL in their best days. Oh man, okay okay, I’ll break here.

The King's residence, The Royal Palace

The King’s residence, The Royal Palace

The journey was a bumpy one. Why I thought Cambodia would have paved roads I’m not sure. It took us an hour at the border to get the whole bus (and 7 other tour buses) through VISA approvals (waiting in hoards of body odor watching men in uniform aggressively stamp things) and then we were off again. We got into Phnom Penh around 2 and thanks to Haleys tripadvisor addiction, went to the best place for lunch. It was an organic raw superfood juicery with the freshest food and drinks, exactly what we wanted after so much traveling, nutrient overload!

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I regrettably did not have much excitement for Phnom Penh, through word of mouth it seemed more of a stopover on your way to Siem Reap rather than a place you spend more than 1 or 2 nights in. I was expecting a dirty, dark city littered with tragedy and poverty stemming from the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that they were able to start rebuilding after the Cambodian genocide and all around repulsive rule of the Khmer Rouge. We did not have time to make it over to the “Killing Fields” but heard it was definitely something to see if you are ever in Cambodia. Not a happy day trip, but a very educational, eye-opening, and emotional experience.

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Coconut Truck!

Coconut Truck!

We spent our only night in Phnom Penh as you should, scouting happy hour deals and drinking with the locals (expats or not). After a couple Cambodian Brews we found ourselves in a tiny room that fits only a tiny bar. This tiny bar, called Templar, had 3 female Cambodian bartenders who were extremely nice and funny. The place is run by a 49-year-old British guy who lived in a lot of places in Southeast Asia but found his home in Phnom Penh. He is also about to marry one of the girls he hired, she is in her early 20’s, the wedding is 3 days long, and there is 17 outfit changes. He said he’s looking for a doppelganger for that part. Anyways we got 3 top shelf cocktails that were some of the best we’ve ever had, all for 6 dollars total. We really, really like Cambodia. Thanks to Carl, all his girls, and the other guys at the bar for a great time!

Sampling the Cambodian Brews

Sampling the Cambodian Brews

My minty vodka cocktail the owner said I MUST have

My minty vodka cocktail the owner said I MUST have

Woke up in the morning and went for a very humid, lung sucking run along the river. It was really nice to be able to run without worrying about motorbikes beeping at you or a Tuk Tuk running over your toes. Went back to the juice place for breakfast, Artillery, and got a slamminnnnn’ breakfast and juicey. Back on the bus for the 7 hour trek to Siem Reap. Phnom Penh was way better than I expected, we could have spent another day there easily. I was most excited to see the contrast between the people of Vietnam and the people of Cambodia (if it even existed) and I was glad the Cambodians seem to be friendlier and less pushy. A very poor country, but the people are more pleasant and less aggressive with wanting your money, they more so just want to talk to you.

Welcome to Cambodia, here's some TP and bottled water

Welcome to Cambodia, here’s some TP and bottled water

 

Ho! Chi! Minh! Ho! Chi! Minh!

I chanted that all day for 2 days (in my head only, not trying to stand out more than I already do). The flight was a short 1.5 hours from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh, and if it wasn’t for a French lady named Sophie, very smooth. Sophie started off a crazy lady, but ended up being such a treat. We couldn’t shake her, it was a day full of saying goodbye and reuniting 3 minutes later. It started with her being in our shuttle bus to the airport. She was freaking out because she didn’t think we’d make it there on time. Then she was behind us at every checkpoint at the airport. She even sought me out to tell me she thought I should help my friend because she thought Halez was having some baggage trouble (she wasn’t). We boarded the bus to take us to the plane together. We boarded the plane way before her and then she showed up and sat right next to me on the aisle. We left the plane together, we looked for a taxi together, we shared a taxi, she got out of the taxi. Keep in mind there was a “goodbye!” after every phase of this travel process. She was hilarious talking and joking with our cab driver on our way to District 1, so Sophie made back all the points she lost on the flight.

The best (worst) part about Sophie is that she is a “gazer.” When you are in the aisle seat of an airplane, and you don’t know the other 2 people, don’t you feel UNCOMFORTABLE gazing out the window? Looking past 2 people who, in their peripheral vision, see you STARING at them? I couldn’t help but turn my head and risk making VERY awkward eye contact with her just to make sure she was, in fact, looking out the window and not at my face. I again have just surprised myself with a paragraph, the opening paragraph nonetheless, about a subject really not worth anyone’s time. Sorry but not really.

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Ho Chi Minh was crazy crazy. The most common way travelers explain the attempt of crossing the street is by comparing it to Frogger. There are minimal signs, rules, lights, lines, lanes, ANYTHING that would promote safety. I’m now really good at crossing these streets because I simply don’t give a shit. If they hit me, so be it, but I’m 100 percent positive they won’t. It’s a strange, strange trust. The city is filled with tall buildings, hotels, BRIGHT lights, and tons of noise. My main interest in Ho Chi Minh was visiting the War Remnants Museum.

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Notre Dame Cathedral

I’m not sure why I thought this would be a small Museum, but it was much larger than I envisioned. Outside were several fighter jets, tanks and missiles that the Americans used in the Vietnam War. Inside was 3 levels with different galleries of photos, memorabilia, letters, propaganda posters, and war crimes. I have always had a big interest in the history of wars and love reading books and watching movies about them. The Vietnam War has a larger effect on me because my Uncle Billy died during combat on March 25th 1969 in Southern Vietnam. Of course I never met my Uncle, but he was my mother’s only brother, thus leaving her with 6 CRAZY sisters (with my mom being the craziest, of course). He could have used the “sole surviving son” that would have kept him out of combat zones or his Engineering degree that could have kept him out all together. He did not feel it was fair for him to defer and others to serve, so to Vietnam he went. As I looked at all the photos I kept thinking I would see his face, and I kept an eye out for his division.

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With learning about the Vietnam war briefly in High School, and doing a little research on my own, I was still shocked by the intense hatred everybody had toward Americans for being in Vietnam. I didn’t realize how much damage we did to helpless villages and the shameful war crimes we committed. The attitude was to kill everything in sight, and that is a duty they carried out. I was scared to tell my mom that I was going to Vietnam. I scooted around the subject until the last possible second. I know how much anguish she (and all my Aunts) carry around, and it surfaces with the mention of War, Vietnam, and more directly so, Billy. I felt guilty for wanting to go to Vietnam on, what this trip can easily be called, “vacation.” Was I really planning to go to Vietnam, lay on the beaches where millions have died, and enjoy the luxuries of cheap but really nice hotels? My mom didn’t react like I thought she was going to, she almost did, but I think deep down she saw it coming. She also had exhausted herself with worry about everything else at that point that she just didn’t have the energy to really question me. So I thank you, mom, for not making me feel guilty for enjoying Vietnam, I know it’s been really hard on you, and you emailing me once every 3 days is a huge accomplishment!

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The War Remnants Museum was a very heavy way to spend the afternoon. Eye-opening, educational, and worth the visit. Both Haley and I were left floored on why in the world they would ever want Americans back in their country, let alone be so darn welcoming and friendly. Our relationship has come a long way, and the Vietnamese have been nothing but helpful and accommodating. Some have gone so far to say “Ohhhh America??? that is my favorite! Welcome!”

It was our last night in Vietnam so we went to a packed outdoor restaurant and I ordered something I had never heard of before, Grilled Blood Cockles. It was under the BBQ section so I figured it was some sort of grilled fish. They were clams, they tasted like the Jersey Shore, and I gagged. I don’t regret choosing them, it was a good lesson learned, but my God, never again. Vietnam has been so wonderful, very friendly people and I’ve tasted my favorite foods so far. A ton a fresh seafood and more stir-fry. We are taking a bus over to Pnohm Penh, Cambodia next, can’t wait for more new places! Everyday, new things.

Grilled Blood Cockles. Same same but disgusting

Grilled Blood Cockles. Same same but disgusting

This is more like it...snacks for the bus ride! haha

This is more like it…snacks for the bus ride! haha..bread.

Central Vietnam

We made it to the coast! Beach time! Well, that was the plan anyways. I read a lot of good things about Da Nang, an up and coming beach town in central Vietnam. Heard even more great things about a beach there called My Khe, or China Beach. After 15 hours on a nasty train we were excited to lounge on the sand, then we looked out the window. Rain day! Hahah…our first beach day came on our first rainy day, it was perfect really.

A very nice old lady gave me her rain poncho

A very nice old lady gave me her rain poncho

We walked along the beach, grabbed some fresh seafood, and decided to bar hop the day away. We got caught in the rain several times in between drinks, but we just laughed about it. It gave us time to plan the rest of Vietnam and out of pure curiousity I logged on to my trusty kayak.com app. We had planned to do one more 15 hour train ride to Ho Chi Minh, but I thought maybeeeee we could avoid that. Found a flight for 37 dollars each! Didn’t take much consultation, we booked it, right there at the bar. 1.5 flight, saves us an entire day!

I assume it was the weather, and that it’s winter, why Da Nang seemed deserted. We decided to cut it a night short and head to a place we’ve both been really looking forward to, Hoi An, just a 25 minute drive south.

Rice Paddy Fields

Rice Paddy Fields

We booked a Homestay in Hoi An because we heard that’s a really good town to do it in. We stayed at Mr. Tuans house in a very nice room upstairs. He cooked us breakfast each morning and recommended all his favorite things. His Homestay is only 2 years old, before he ran it he worked at a boating booking office and made $200 a month. Now he has his Homestay with his family but has to work everyday all day because he is the only one who can speak any English. It makes me sad he doesn’t have any free time for his hobbies (volleyball) or to travel outside his town. It also makes me realize how soft Americans can be, how many times have you complained about having to stay at the office an extra hour? Not getting enough vacation days? Not getting paid ENOUGH? Too many times. He and his family also all sleep in the same room downstairs while he rents out the nice big ones to guests upstairs. The work ethic is instilled early, and they do whatever they can to make money, money to be used in the ways it was intended to be used, for food, water, and clothes.

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Hoi An is often described as a town so charming it belongs in only a postcard. It proved to be true, it was beautiful. We got free bikes from Mr. Tuan and rode them all day, everyday. Most everything is walkable, but the beach is a 20 minute ride outside of town Finally got a sunny beach day! The weather said it was to be cloudy all week, but boy did I get burned up! It came out of nowhere, and was sunny both days we were there. An Bang beach was the perfect spot to swim and lay out for the morning. Mostly peaceful but still had locals approaching you to buy things (fruit, beer, sunglasses) even as you lay there eyes shut, they just don’t seem to understand the preciousness of personal space.

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Every night the locals light up those bright paper box things (are you following?) that you can buy and release on the river. Between all the floating lights, lamps, lit up arched walking bridges, and a community of peacefulness, it has been my favorite town of this trip. A lot of great restaurants, bakeries, and even a local, organic, superfood juicery right in town (spent A LOT of time there). It was really nice to slow down and have a complete free day to go to the cafes, beach, walk about, and mingle at the markets. Hoi An you are wonderful, and I will miss your charm. Time for the hustle and bustle of HO CHI MINH

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Cacao, Goji Berries, Banana, Coconut Milk, and Mint

Cacao, Goji Berries, Banana, Coconut Milk, and Mint

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is one of THEE must DO’S in ALL of Vietnam, soooo we did it! It’s a huge bay in Northern Vietnam that you could navigate for weeks and still not see it all. Being on a time crunch, we did it in a day! Most people do a 2 or 3 night boat cruise, but we wanted to spend more time in other places so we just jammed it right on in the itinerary. There are a TON of tour companies and the best advice we got for choosing the right one was, pay a bit more if you don’t want rats scurrying about and a reliable staff. So we ended up picking Alova Cruises for 50 bux each, incredibly large and fresh seafood lunch included.

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It was quite an efficient day. It was so efficient, that, it made me want to do another season for Trek America as a trip leader to see if I could pull off the efficiency this guy did.

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We got picked up at our hotel in Hanoi sharply at 8AM. Took a mini coach bus 3.5 hours to the bay with one annoyingly-pushy-touristy rest stop in the middle. Every time I touched a snack to see what in the world it was a staff member would walk over, stare over my shoulder, and say “hello lady.” EVERY TIME. Eventually I learned not to touch anything and just simply stand over it maneuvering my awkward body trying to read the labels because I didn’t want someone to hover me anymore, but it didn’t matter, they seemingly raise from the depths of the touristy rest stop hells without a sound JUST to make you feel weird. They win, they always do. Did I just write a paragraph on the touristy rest stop?

After handing out tickets, unloading the bus with it still in motion, and paying a lady a dollar to use the bathroom, we boarded the boat. We sat down with a couple other people, a really cool Canadian named Hannah and an undercover Ukrainian who “didn’t speak very good English”…oh really Andre? And why again are you able to receive phone calls in the middle of the sea? What provider are YOU using? HMM? anyways, they were really cool and we shared a great fishy and vegetably lunch with them. I was too busy drooling to take any photos.

The Undercover Agent, black bandanna front left stage right (i was never in drama club)

The Undercover Agent, black bandanna front left stage right (i was never in drama club)

Hung out up top until our first stop for kayaking. Most people (the older folk) chose to hop in a bamboo rowboat that looked really cool, but undoubtably a huge bore. Halez and I hopped in a kayak after not receiving any instruction, filling out any waivers, or being able to buckle OR zipper our life jackets (little broken). Very different than any tour operator in America who now a days make you watch a 20 minute instructional video on proper protective equipment and the dangers that lie ahead. Nope, In Vietnam you just go with it, which makes for more action and less waiting around. We went through some caves where we bottomed out a few times, quiteeeee shallow in those things. The best was watching our Canadian friend and undercover agent navigate the waters together, if we got stuck 3 times they must have gotten stuck 23 times.

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The key to success is communication

We board the boat and next stop is the Caves. The French founded this huge cave and the Vietnamese must be responsible for all the rave lights they installed in there. It was a disco underneath, a beautiful and geologically mind numbing disco. I loved it. Okay back to the boat to ride home, but first everyone sit down to your fresh watermelon we’ve cut up for you!

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Ha Long Bay was extremely gorgeous. It was filled with limestone rock structures (not a geology major here people) and had a certain peace about it. Out in the middle of it all were floating villages that were really cool to see and ponder about…where did they poop? Did they like all these cruise boats invading their space? Can I move in? What would my duties be? Could I be kicked off my floating boat home? Anyways, we got lucky with the weather because it’s usually rainy and foggy this time of year in the bay and we got a clear and sunny day. The temperature was a bit cold and a slight fog covered the area, but for this time of year the weather nailed it.

Floating Village

Floating Village

Overall we spent 4 hours on the actual boat, then got back on the bus where I resumed my throne at my single window seat above the back tire. My knees may have exceeded the height of my face, but I dug it. 3.5 hours back to Hanoi. We get back to our hotel at 8:15pm. Halez and I clean up for a few then race the streets to find dinner. We had a 15 hour train to catch at 10! And we need snacks!

We get to the train station and a guy offers to grab our bags and lead us to our track and room, he does this rather abruptly, he puts our bags under our seats and we thank him. He sticks out his hand and yells “TIP”…I immediately am like “NO WE DIDNT EVEN NEED YOUR HELP” but I kept quiet and Haley tipped him hah! The sneakiness and hustle drives me nuts, it’s fine when they are nice about it but most of the time they are in your face doing anything for you to buy their service or product. I’ve kept calm by telling myself it’s a cultural thing and I need to adapt and accept, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s a humanity thing, and I hate being treated like an ATM, and treated rudely at that. Oh well, I’ll deal.

On a cleanliness scale, this train is the pits. I don’t expect much, but my word is this one beat up. I can’t complain though because we got a 6 person sleeper ‘room’ and we had the whole thing to ourselves! We each took bottom bunk and the 2 shelves above us were sooooo unoccupied. We got on the train at 945 and for those 15 minutes before departure we froze everytime we heard a footstep, then said a powerful little prayer, and released a sigh of deep relief. Extra lucky because this train didn’t have any bunk curtains, zero privacy. We read, we journaled, we slept, I played solitaire until I eventually won, and we got to our destination on the Central Vietnam coast at exactly 1PM. Overall not a bad ride, and always good to travel overnight because it takes care of accommodation and is very efficient for the timely traveler. Onto the beaches!

Northern Vietnam — Hanoi

Vietnam, how excited I’ve been for you! The only country where you have to do some preparation to obtain a Visa before arrival. We knew it was going to be difficult to get in, but we had all the paperwork and pictures we needed to scoot by. Our 1 hour flight from Laos into Hanoi (Northern Capital) was full of retired rambunctious French folks who were passing around Whisky in a spray bottle. All you heard was spritzspritzspritz, HA HA HA…it was awful. Gosh I hate tour groups. AND they all had a conical hat that needed special storage, biting my tongue biting my tongue.

Local

Local.

Clearly, we needed to get off that flight fast so we didn’t get stuck behind theses guys. We BOOKED it and got to the Visa line first (from our flight) waited for 20 minutes and then were told we were in the wrong line. We go to another line, get (rather aggressively) told what to do, and wait in another line. We receive all our paperwork and stamps and go wait in another line. We pay $45 and we’re through, yippee!! Believe it or not, it went better than either of us expected it to. Victory in Vietnam.

Through advice and recollections of friends, I was kind of scared of Hanoi. Didn’t help we showed up at 11:30pm and needed to explore the alleys for food (went well, by the way). We had a great hotel for $40 where the staff was more than helpful and kind. We did a lot of logistical planning in the morning and ended up changing the plan and staying in Hanoi for another night. This gave us the whole day in Hanoi to explore and they switched us to a different hotel, a hotel with the 2 most adorable human beings I’ll ever meet. We were escorted to our new hotel, Skyline Hotel, down the street and were greeted by a Vietnamese man named Jack. Jack was probably in his 20’s, just a little guy with the most genuine enthusiasm you can get. He was SO happy to have us stay at his hotel, and he was so helpful with advice. Later that day we met Dave. We couldn’t believe we hit the hotel staff jackpot TWICE in the same hotel, Dave MIGHT have been more adorable and excitable than Jack. Dave also wanted to learn English and kept asking us if certain phrases he was saying made sense. He then told a few stories of “slang” words he learned, and his favorite three are…”sucker” “in the buff” and “bucks (as in dollars)”. He couldn’t say these seriously because he thought they were bad words, so he kept laughing so hard. It was the cutest display of learning I have ever seen. It was also the best service I’ve ever received by any accommodation, restaurant, tour, etc. The. Best. So if you find yourself in Hanoi (very up and coming city) stay at the Skyline Hotel!

The Vietnamese celebrate their New Year in the middle of February, and they get REALLY excited about it

The Vietnamese celebrate their New Year in the middle of February, and they get REALLY excited about it

Hanoi proved everything I thought about it false. Although, it was absolutely a nightmare crossing the street. There are basically no streetlights and many intersections and narrow, narrow, roads. 75% are on motorbikes and the others are in cars or buses. The only way to get to the other side of the street without taking 45 minutes out of your day is to trust they will go around you, because they will. Oddly enough, they know what they are doing on those scooters, and killing an innocent tourist isn’t a good look for their city. Hanoi had a beautiful lake, Hoan Kiem, that is even prettier at night. It is all lit up and a lot of locals jog around it. After a huge lunch of about 3 courses and a huge Hanoi Brew, we walked back to our room after stopping at 7 different North Face shops (so strange) browsing for jackets. Turns out it’s winter here, we had NO idea! Hah, mornings and nights are pretty cold, but we’re headed south so we’re trying to avoid the purchase. I decided to go out for a run around the lake and stopped once to play an odd game that involves a birdie-type flying object and your feet. It’s hacky sac with a weighted birdee. Get it? It’s incredible, and I’m terrible at it. I stopped again to sit on a bench and reflect, had many moments of gratitude. I stopped again to play soccer with a little kid. He was playing all alone so we passed it back and forth right by a crazy busy intersection for 20 minutes. He sent me into the street once with a bad pass and so I returned the favor later on in the game. We both survived. His name was Sakum and he’s got a great first touch, star potential. I then stopped to eat a donut on a stick. My run was so far over at this point I laughed all the way to the shower.

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Night street soccer

Night street soccer

We were lucky enough to be in town on a Friday night when there is a huge night market right outside our hotel. We walked around for a bit and I bought a towel that I’m still not sure if it’s a towel or blanket. Either way, I can use it for many activities. For dinner, Jack told us about a restaurant that serves only one dish. One dish only. He said an American magazine called it one of the “Top 20 foods to eat before you go to Heaven.” We were sold. It’s a restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong and it only serves Grilled Fish. We walked in, were ushered upstairs, thrown down in our seats, given a plate of spices and clear noodles and 45 seconds later a steaming hot pan of grilled fish was being cooked at our table. We threw everything together in our bowls and loved it. All for $7 (although kind of expensive for Vietnam). I paid and waited for my change. We watched as the owner sat down and started tending to other duties, clearly with no intention of giving me change. I went up and asked her for my change and she goes “oh yes, yes, here it is.” A good example of how sneaky they can be. We ended our night with bubble tea and got ourselves ready for a long day on Ha Long Bay!

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I am very happy Hanoi proved me wrong. It was a really great visit and much cleaner than I thought it would be. The people are pushy, the driving is chaotic, and the struggle is real, but that’s not the entire city. We found the good ones, and they will be the memory of this dear city. Forbe’s says it’s one of the fastest growing destination cities in the world, so you better get there quick!

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Same Same, But Different — Laos

You see a lot of shirts, shops, even restaurants being called “Same Same but Different,” and through some heavy research from my partner in crime (she asked somebody) we found out it’s just a jab at all the designs and services here. Everything is practically all the same, but you know, different. So now they sell tees and tanks that say ‘Same Same But Different’ and I came very close to buying one.

Short but steep stair climb up Mt. Phousi for a good, but touristy, sunset

Short but steep stair climb up Mt. Phousi for a good, but touristy, sunset

The tents all set up for the Night Market, and of course one of the many Temples

The tents all set up for the Night Market, and of course one of the many Temples

We spent 3 nights in Luang Prabang, a northern city in Laos (pronounced without the ‘S’, by most locals). We had a very nice flight over from Thailand and an even nicer welcome into Laos. Paid $45 for a Visa and the lines were short and the process quick. Everything seemed to fall into place very nicely, and that’s how the entire stay in Laos went. Magical, really. The main accommodations in Luang Prabang are guesthouses. There are several on each side street along the Mekong River. We stayed at Pakam Guesthouse in a comfortable room and called it home base for the next 3 days. Did I mention they had free bananas? And guys out front who always wanted you to drink beer with them? And they did my laundry for a dollar and then hung my underwear in the middle of the street? So lovely, all of it.

Mini Bananas, I was never able to stop until I had 4 in a row...I do believe they are glad I'm gone

Mini Bananas, I was never able to stop until I had 4 in a row…I do believe they are glad I’m gone

If I'm gonna drink beer, it better be a BeerLao

If I’m gonna drink beer, it better be a BeerLao

Laos has a heavy French influence so when we heard that we both got very, very excited. I got super excited for the good bread, and Haley got super excited for the good pastries. During our time we both really loved a place called the Pilgrim cafe. They use filtered water for all their meals and triple wash their fruits and vegetables. Their menu was yummy and the staff friendly, it was definitely the favorite. There was a few good bars, a lot of great bakeries, and a lot of great cafes. FRUIT JUICES were everywhere, just a huge list of fruits and they make you a smoothie for about 2 bucks. My main fruits on this trip have been Coconut, Mango, and Banana. Those 3 fruits have brought me so much joy in so many different forms that yes, they deserve to be capitalized and made into proper nouns. But the big news was that I gave dragonfruit a try and I really liked it. That’s it, that’s my dragonfruit story. Not good enough to be dubbed a proper noun. Moral of the paragraph was that the food was very good in Laos. One night at the market I got a streetfood buffet for $1 and it was marvelous. It was a bit sketchy looking, but had a lot of people in line and sitting at the picnic tables eating it all, so I joined the party. PLUS, look away if you can’t handle talk about bodily functions, I haven’t been pooping, like, at all. Strange don’t you think? Everyone comes to Southeast Asia expecting to poop their brains out at least a few times due to bad water or shotty streetfood, but me? Nope, nothin’. My body just loves this cuisine so much it’s holding on to it for what seems like eternity. Can’t blame it though, the food has been the focus of most days (duh) (okay all days) and has been so magnificent I’d want to keep it for as long as possible too.

Smoked Coconut Juice! Always been a dream

Smoked Coconut Juice! Always been a dream

Street Food!

Street Food!

Dragonfruit! Oh, excuse me, dragonfruit. I just get so excited

Dragonfruit! Oh, excuse me, dragonfruit. I just get so excited

Kuang Si Falls was nothing short of spectacular. We took a Tuk Tuk up to the park (a 3-wheeled shanty looking metal vehicle that is as smooth as your crunchy peanut butter), about an hour drive. We were rattling and rolling up those hills. Those drivers hustle so hard for your money but you can talk them down to half the price they originally give you. Haggling is a huge part of this whole experience. It was much easier in Thailand, but I find it much more difficult in Laos. I’m really bad at it to begin with because I understand the money goes such a long way for them, so I usually just cave, if I even have the guts to haggle at all. But in Laos, with it being one of the most bombed and poorest countries, it’s hard to barter a few cents and dollars, even if they ARE being sneaky about it. The Laotians are also less in your face about everything. In Thailand and now in Vietnam people are constantly yelling at you “boat trip!??” “tuk tuk?!?” “sandwich?!?” “you eat here (shoves menu in your hand)” but in Laos it was way more conservative. Not everyone, but most people. People just lay around and eat and nap. I walked in an outdoor little convenience mart and thought I was alone until I saw an old lady roll over under some blankets in the middle of her shop. She didn’t get up, mind you, she just simply rolled over for comfort.

Happiness

Happiness

Rich Turquoise Swimming Pools

Rich Turquoise Swimming Pools

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There is so much to be learned from our time in Laos. The culture is so rich. All businesses must shut down by 11:30 (Gov’t Regulation) because the Monks have very early mornings. There is no partying, no loud noises, no touching the monks (shet), dress conservatively, ask before taking photos, and most places like you to take your shoes off before going inside. A major lesson I’ve been learning, and relearning for several years now is how to slow down. I can be an extremist most of the time, and growing up in New York there always seems to be an undying “go go go” inside of me. I find myself “striding it out” when I have absolutely nowhere to be, and then getting upset if someone cuts in front of me. Part of it is having a really competitive personality, part of it is growing up in a very large immediate and extended family, and part of it is again, growing up in the “gotta go” culture. I went to college in upstate NY, which was the first phase in slowing down. I did a season volunteering for trail crew in the wilderness regions of the Pacific Northwest, which was the second (most learned) phase in slowing down. I did a season leading Europeans back and forth across the country in a big white van, which was a MAJOR step back in the slowing down process, hah!…and finally, I moved to Wyoming, where I’ve had a 2-year introductory (although most days advanced) course to the benefits of a permanently slowed down life. Savor each bite, soak up the wildflowers, hold the door open for each and every person, get lost in nature, smile at the sky, complain about nothing, and live with gratitude and grace. Laos has reminded me to again always be present, to fully be with the people around me, and to extend all positive feelings. I am blessed.

A super small wine bar we popped in because it just looked, right. The bartender slid over a huge box full of quotes with no introduction, bliss.

A super small wine bar we popped in because it just looked, right. The bartender slid over a huge box full of quotes with no introduction, perfection.

 

Chiang Mai, Right On

When you travel north to Chiang Mai, you have 2 options. 24 hour bus ride where people puke everywhere, orrrr 12 hour sleeper train. We went for the sleeper train. The risk with the sleeper train is your bunkmates. Would we get a mother and screaming child in our quad the size of barbies closet? Would we get an all-to-comfortable couple from Spain? Would we get the party bro’s? Turns out, the sleeper train Gods really love us because we got 2 really awesome people, a Canadian and a Jordinian. They both teach at a performing arts school in Jordan and are now happily dating (aw.) They were a ton of fun to talk to and joke around with. We hit the Thailand sleeper train JACKPOT. Did not sleep well because it was incredibly drafty in there and the blankets they provide should not even be called such. They gave us cloths, and laughed at us. Although I was comfy in my bottom bunk the size of a bullet, and hope to revisit a night train experience better weathered and with a snowsuit. Vietnam, perhaps?

Chiang Mai is incredible. A lot slower pace, clean side streets, and a ton going on. Chiang Mai is in Northern Thailand and has a lot of Hill Tribes living in the area. We spent the first day walking about town, hitting up all the great markets, drinking more juices with friends staying at the hostel, and explored some of the Temples. Chiang Mai has the most temples out of any city in Thailand and was great to see a few (we’re not really temple people, but we try). We did an organic Thai cooking class the first night there. 3-course dinner and it was quite delectable. I don’t have many skills in the kitchen so I was pretty excited to learn new things, and that I did. We made a chicken and coconut milk soup, red curry with chicken, and pad thai. The red curry was entirely off my spice radar so I had a tiny bit and set it aside. Other than that the other dishes were soooo tasty. Everyone in the class was a good time and we’ve really, at this moment, been very very lucky with the other travelers we’ve come in contact with. I understand that most are really cool people, but sometimes you just can’t escape the weirdos, so far, that is not the case. (woot woot)

Pad Thai Team!

Pad Thai Team!

There are a TON of night markets in Chiang Mai, we were in heaven! We got thai massages for a couple bucks, great streetfood, more juices, and ate bugs. I went with the cricket and Haley devoured a huge grasshopper. We met a Canadian couple at the juice stand who dared us, so of course we dove right in. Not bad I must say, still got some legs in my teeth, but not all that bad. Also had some Pad Thai in Chiang Mai (how could I leave this country without eating the most popular American Thai dish? I couldn’t.) and it was really very good, nothing to rave about, but glad I gave it a go.

Yum yum!

Yum yum!

The big day was on Sunday when we went on a one-day trek (with more cool people and 3 killer Chinese girls). It started off a bit rocky when I left my credit card in the ATM and walked away. It wasn’t there 20 minutes later when I realized what I had done. It was pretty tough to cancel it when my phone doesn’t make phone calls and the company won’t let me do it online. Even harder when you’re in a van in the Hills of Northern Thailand with no connection to anyone, anywhere. Long story short, no additional charges on my card, cancelled it the following day, and I’m still an idiot.

We took an hour van ride and rode elephants! It was sad to see them shackled, but the alternative isn’t a safe life for them (at least that’s what people have told me and am believing). We met a girl who does a lot of blogging about Tourism and how (or if) tourists are killing it step by step, purchase by purchase. Tough subject to get into, a lot of valid points on both sides and also very different stories from each major place of tourism. ANYWAYS here we are ON a TOUR, which makes us tourists, so we didn’t overthink things enjoyed ourselves. We took a bamboo raft down the river which was incredibly relaxing. I was the winner of the day and got to raft with the 3 Chinese girls. The one in front of me totally fell off (there’s no rapids, not even close) and fully submerged herself. It was one of the funniest faces I’ve ever seen when she resurfaced. Poor thing, that water was super cold. We had some mixed veggies, rice, and curry for lunch and then did a couple hour walk around the rice fields and saw a waterfall. Super fun day filled with things I’ve never done before and really enjoyed.

Planting rice

Planting rice

Gentle guys

Gentle guys

Had another nice run in the morning and packed up for the airport. Big 1 hour flight to Laos that afternoon! It was either a flight, a 2 day “slow boat”, or a 1 day “fast boat”, or I’m sure another 24 hour bus ride (they all seem to be 24 hours, strange).  In this case, the boats are very dangerous and nauseating, as is the bus trip. Since we are trying to maximize our time and value every minute, we pennied up and bought a last minute flight. The plane was small, but clean and we were FED. Drinks and food on a 1 hour flight, we were both floored. Loving Laos already…

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A Couple Days in Bangkok

Thailand, Thailand, Thailand, known for it’s incredible islands, awful bus rides, lounging, partying, and drugs. Well to most people anyways. Halez and I approached Thailand a bit differently. In the beginning planning stages, and without knowing any geography of the region, I did a lot of research on each island south of Bangkok. In the later stages, when I did more research and we had an outline planned, we deferred. You hear a lot of great things about (some) of the islands down south, but not enough for us to make it a priority. They are extremely touristy (which we hate) and some of them down right trashy. Getting from one island to the next seems to be a bit nightmarish with the Ferries and Buses, sticky hot weather, and they are loaded with a bunch of drunk people. Fun in some regard, but when you are also going to Vietnam and Bali? Yeah, we’d take those beaches over the Thailand ones any day.  We hit up the 2 major cities in Thailand and spent a couple days at each, Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Temple in the Grand Palace

Temple in the Grand Palace

Bangkok was intense. I’m not a city girl, I’ve retreated to a small mountain town 2 years ago and I have no plans to leave any time soon. When I go to a city I get overwhelmed after 24 hours and look for the nearest escape. Truthfully, the only reason I was excited for Bangkok was because it was the start of the whole trip. Besides the weather, culture switch, and new environment, I really wasn’t too jazzed about it in comparison to the other places we’re going. It was completely nuts. Motorized scooters, Tuk Tuks, and big vans all weaving in and out of each other on narrow streets. People waving things in your face trying to get you to buy stuff, or yelling at you across the street trying to get you to sign up for a tour. On the plus side, the alleys are loaded with markets and you can buy any thing just about anywhere. I wouldn’t buy any meat on the street though, that seems to be why most people wake up the next morning with the shits. It’s pretty easy to see why when you walk past an old lady slicing up raw chicken on a wooden stool, under the baking sun, surround by flies. It’s pretty easy. Veggies only. We decided we were fancy and ate at really awesome organic, fresh restaurants and paid a bit more for it, but the food was absolutely delicious. The best part were the cocktails and fresh juices everywhere. I had so many beetroot ginger carrot (etc.) juices I was in heaven.

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Fresh Cocktails and Hanging Bookshelves at the Bookshop Bar!

 

We heard the river was a really great place to hang out but that proved wrong. The river was, in as many words, trashed. Filled with garbage and darker than your wooden table. We wondered what fish could actually live in there and would we dare order some? We did a lot of walking around and hitching rides on Tuk Tuks. We went to the Grand Palace but something seemed to be going on because a lot of the roads were blocked off to the Temples, someone VERY important apparently was in town. I went to Lumpini park which was gorgeous, had a big running/biking paved path that looped around the park and a ton of old school workout equipment. Ran to the park, did the loop, watched some Tai Chi and ran back home. After traveling for so long it was great to break a sweat and let myself be freeeeeee!

Fat Buddha adding extra motivation in Lumpini Park

Fat Buddha adding extra motivation in Lumpini Park

All in all, Bangkok was kind of what I expected. Huge city, pretty gosh darn Americanized, clean but dirty (just got with it), loud, and crazy traffic everywhere all day. I never really felt like I left the states, it was super modern. Glad I got to experience it, but would not be on my list to rush back to.

City Life

City Life

 

 

Okay, just 40 more hours and we’ll be in Bangkok!

Sometimes, okay most of the time, traveling doesn’t go smoothly, and then we all get mad at the wrong people and things when it doesn’t. WHY IS IT SNOWING, ITS JANUARY AND WE ARE IN NEW YORK, WHY IS IT SNOWING, NOW MY FLIGHTS NOT GOING TO LEAVE ON TIME! This is a true story, it actually snowed in New York on January 6th 2015. Our flight was delayed 4 hours, which gave us a very small chance of catching our connection, which was only a 90 minute layover. Okay it gave us absolutely no chance, but we weren’t bothered by it, we kept calm and went with the flow, other people in JFK, did not.

The first negative emotions came from 2 gentlemen threatening to slap each other because one did not let someone pass to get to the bathroom. I mean yelling face to face, hands in the air IM GOING TO SLAP YOU, Indian grown men. Not too threatening looking, but they talked the talk. Haley and I somehow got ‘upgraded’ to the exit row, which meant an unlimited amount of leg room but an INCREDIBLE amount of responsibility (what if we went down? Peoples LIVES are on the line!). We also never got a briefing on proper protocol, that was fairly unnerving.

The flight went smooth after takeoff, 12 hours in the middle seat with a guy who had his ‘lean’ on while sleeping feeling really comfortable taking up half of my seat as well as his whole window seat. Thanks dude. We got no sleep, we watched movies and drank wine but could not sleep a wink.

Arrive in Abu Dhabi and get directed to the Flight Exchange counter where we waited 3 hours in line. Etihad Airways knew it was so bad they provided sandwiches halfway through. Once our turn we dealt with the complete incompetence of the entire staff. No one knew how to help anybody. All we needed was the next flight to Bangkok and that seemed like we were asking to cure cancer. After an additional 30 minutes standing at the counter we secured a flight to Bangkok, but we had to fly out of Dubai (90 minute drive). She didn’t give us new boarding passes, just her word that we were booked on that flight. For the next 90 minutes we walked circles around the airport figuring shit out. All in all, we found the guy to drive us to Dubai and got there 2 hours before our overnight flight. The second we got to the Dubai airport everything was so much easier.

We checked into our flights and realized that, during their incompetence, someone majorly screwed up and put us in business class. We were flying Emirates, so the business class was unlike anything I’ve experienced (which isn’t much). I’d like to say they set us up in business class as an apology for the insane delay on our lives, but you wouldn’t believe that either of you conversed with these people, it was brutal.

There were so many activities to do that although we hadn’t slept yet (bout 35 hours at this point) neither of us could contain our excitement. We slept for a couple hours, I watched Tammy and giggled as I ate my 3 course breakfast and felt as good as anyone can, ever. Silly how a posh little experience can do that.

We made it! Got into Bangkok at 730am, pushed through customs, and Haley navigated us through the trains to get to our hostel. We showered so hard and hit the streets. It was an insane couple of days but we made it. Never lost our minds too bad, found it hard to complain when we are about to live the dream life for awhile. Just happy to make it safe and sound, Thailand here we go!

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