Backpacking Southeast Asia
As good stories often do, this one began with a bottle of wine. I was having dinner with my boyfriend and discussing the big question: What's next? See, I'd quit my job the day before in order to embark on the path towards entrepreneurship. I was still a mixture of terrified (what have I just done?!) and giddy (I'm going to be my own boss!)
Fueled by several glasses of wine and this whirlwind of emotions, I set down my glass and smiled. "I'm going to go travel for awhile." The idea had sprung in my head just moments before and stuck like glue. I'd always been envious of those people who drop everything and backpack around Europe or Asia. At this precise moment, I realized I could actually pull it off, too. What better time to take a break before moving full steam ahead with my CatCoq brand? I had a rare opportunity on my hands and once I had it in my mind to do this, there was no turning back.
A month later, I was on a plane to Manila.
Tuesday, January 25: Denver, USA to Manila, Philippines
I sat next to my friend, Tiffany, 30,000 feet above the ground. We were twenty hours into our travel time and had another four to go before landing in Manila. Weeks earlier, she'd also quit her job and accepted a position at the FAA in Denver. Tiff had a couple weeks between her old and new job and had decided to join me for the first two weeks of my six-week adventure.
A few days before we left, I rode shotgun across Kansas and helped her move in to her new home in Denver. We spent the weekend moving boxes, checking out the local microbreweries, and hashing out the last-minute details of our trip. The morning of our flight, I packed up my backpack and came to the realization that I'd be doing this every day for the next six weeks.
After 24 hours of traveling, we landed in Manila and were met by our guide for Luzon, Joey. He drove us to our hotel and chatted happily as we slumped into our seats and zoned out like zombies.
Wednesday January 27: Manila to Banaue, Philippines
We had time for a quick breakfast (an omelette + latte) before Joey picked us up for our seven-hour car ride to Banaue, which turned out to be closer to ten. Our lunch break was timed perfectly to combat my motion-sickness from being in a car all day. I ordered a chicken sandwich and, on a whim, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. When in Rome, right? This was the first lesson that, as a rule, Asian food in Asia is infinitely better than Western food in Asia. I picked at the sandwich, but ordered seconds of sticky rice and ate every morsel.
We arrived in Banaue about an hour before sunset. It's a city of 20,000 deep in the mountains of central Luzon. Buildings and homes are built right into the steep mountainsides with stilts wedged into the hill to keep them steady. We wondered aloud how often one just tumbles away down the cliff.
If the city of Banaue was our first culture shock, our hotel room was the second. The hotel itself was tucked along a hill between shops and we nearly walked right past it. The front faced the road and the back was perched on a sheer cliff. Our room was cliff-side, but the view was about it's only redeeming quality. It smelled of mildew and body odor. The beds were small and crammed together, with stained and rumpled sheets. The floor of our bathroom was wet and a diluted puddle of blood pooled in one corner. Our shower was a dripping faucet over an empty plastic barrel. Tiffany and I hadn't spoken since walking in. We turned to look at each other, saw each another's expression, and both burst out laughing. We'd wanted out of our comfort zone and were getting our wish.
Thursday January 28: Banaue to Mondulu, Philippines
I awoke at 3:30 am with the roosters. I laid in bed, answering emails until I fell asleep again at five. (The other redeeming quality of this hotel, besides the view, is that we get adequate WiFi in our room.) My real wake up happened two hours later. Also with roosters. My god, those things are awful.
Tiffany and I ate our breakfast (traditional Philippine style with rice, fried egg, and spiced ham sausage) at the hotel's deck on the cliff-facing side. We chewed in silence as we took in our view– the morning fog-coated mountains of Banaue and its little buildings in the valley below. We wiped our mouths, bought some extra water bottles, and caught a ride to the trailhead. We were going to spend the next few days hiking to the Batad Rice Terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage site and, consequently, the reason we came this far north. We planned to spend the next few days hiking with a local guide, Alvin. He told us we were the first Americans he's ever taken on this trek. Challenge accepted.
After several hours of hiking easy, albeit muddy, terrain, we stopped for lunch under the shade of a lean-to. I demolished my granola bar and gulped down a half liter of water. A few hours later, we stopped at a waterfall, peeled off our socks, and dipped our sweaty feet in the chilly water. A group of young Filipino boys gathered on the bridge overhead, flexing their muscles for us and demonstrating their push-up ability. We clapped appreciatively.
Soon, our path through the jungle opened up to the famed rice terraces. We knew this point was coming, but our minds were still blown at the view. Our timing was perfect– the sun was due to set in an hour, so the light was golden and hazy. Deep shadows and shimmering highlights enhanced the view even further. The rice terraces were carved into the mountains 2,000 years ago and the indigenous people have been farming them ever since. Our path was only a foot wide; it's a 15-foot drop to the next terrace, which meant lots of careful steps.
We picked our way along the terraces for another two hours before reaching our destination for the night: the village of Cambulo. Children and dogs greeted us as we walked past the village huts and to the guest house. We tossed down our packs and slumped down on stumps outside. A village woman showed us our "shower": a bucket of water with a scoop. We both politely declined, and drank beers outside as our sweat dried. (The next day, as we trudged up another hill in our sweaty clothes, we regretted this decision immensely.)
Although other hikers joined us at the guest house, Tiffany and I were the only two Americans in the village. A group of girls followed us around, giggling and chirping, "Hello! Good morning! What is your name?" It was evening, and despite us telling them our names several times, the motto was endlessly repeated. We smiled, but were appreciative of their English lessons. With western hikers using their village as an overnight stay, these kids will grow up with the opportunity to practice English on a daily basis. It's a huge step up for their community and means that these kids will have opportunities in life that's not afforded to most rural children.
After dark, we clustered in front of the guest house and listened as one of the hiking guides played the guitar and sang. One of the hikers, a Frenchman, started playing a game of tag with the children. They laughed and screamed as they ducked between sheds and around corners. Tiffany and I watched, smiling and sleepy-eyed. Our stomachs were full and our calves were cramping. Despite the roosters, we slept like logs.
Friday January 29: Cambulu to Batad to Sagrada, Philippines
After finishing breakfast (banana chocolate pancakes), we wandered outside to wait for our guide. A small puppy was curled up in the ashes of a fire. His nose was flecked with soot and his little body was emaciated. I approached him to see what was wrong, but he ducked away his head and began shivering. One of the guides said he was sick and would probably die in a few days. There was nothing I could do to help him and I felt awful. It wasn't until later that I thought I should have brought him a bowl of water at least, but by that point I was miles away. It was a glum start to the day.
Our hike to Batad took about half the day. Our first sight of the mountain village was from a viewpoint high above. This is the National Geographic view and is completely surreal. We hiked down to the waterfalls and spent a few hours resting and chatting with a group of Norwegian hikers. We headed back up to the village for a late lunch. Tiffany ordered corned beef, but we found out later that it was probably dog. I was desperate for a shower, so our guide showed me a nearby outhouse I could use while we waited for our lunch to be cooked. After three days, the bucket and scoop were finally appreciated. A used bar of soap became my body wash, shampoo and conditioner. Still, I've never felt so clean.
Tiff and I caught a jeepney back to Banaue and I chose the prime spot on the roof. We whizzed through winding mountain roads at top speed and I couldn't keep the smile off my face. Local boys weren't shy about catching a free ride as we drove past; a few vaulted themselves onto the jeepney as we drove by and stood on the back bumper until we reached a small town and they jumped off. As fun as riding on the roof was, it may have contributed to the incident a few hours later, back in the car en route to Sagada: I turned to Tiffany with my hands over my mouth and a frantic look in my eyes. She translated my expression to our driver, and within seconds I was leaning out of the car and heaving on the side of a mountain road.
Saturday January 30: Sagada to Tarlac, Philippines
After sleeping for about ten hours the night before, I felt a million times better when I woke up. We had an hour to kill before our rendezvous time with Joey, so Tiffany and I had breakfast at the only place we could find that was open in Sagada at 6am. I ate half my omelette and fed the rest to a calico kittykat. We were only a few days in and this was already becoming a habit of the trip.
Our plans for the day quickly began to unravel– not only was there an unexpected parade route along the main street of Sagada, but just about every citizen of the city was involved. We wanted to visit the famous Hanging Coffins, which are only accessible by authorized guide, but every guide seemed to be participating in the parade. Joey eventually found us a sixteen-year-old who was happy to slip us through the gates and show us around for some extra cash in his pocket.
The hanging coffins are pretty much what they sound like: caskets suspended along the side of a cliff. The practice of hanging the dead goes back millennia, but the coffins of Sagada are all fairly new, within a hundred years. Members of the Igorot tribe believe that by moving the bodies of the dead to high places, they'll be brought closer to their ancestral spirits. The Igorot also want their deceased loved ones to be closer to the basic necessities of life: sunshine, rain, and fresh air.
The site itself was mesmerizing. It reminded me of the first time I saw above-ground tombs in the cemeteries of New Orleans. Unfortunately for the tradition of hanging coffins, the area is prone to earthquakes. This explained why all the coffins in sight were all within a few generations. Our guide took us a few miles away from the site, to a massive cave opening in the forest. Inside, about twenty beat-up coffins were stacked just inside the entrance. These were the previous residents of the cliff face until an earthquake toppled each one to the ground. Locals collected the bones and repaired the coffins, but they never hung again.
There were ropes set up on a bare cliff face adjacent from the Hanging Coffins, so Tiffany jumped on the opportunity to do some climbing. My calves were still tender to the touch after hiking, so I sat out while she shimmied up the rocks. She scaled the easy route in under five minutes, so after rappelling back to the ground, sought out the more challenging climb next. A small crowd gathered to watch her a second time. I beamed on behalf of Americans, women, and American women.
We'd whet our appetite for caves, so we made our way to the entrance of Somage, one of Sagada's most famous caves. Our guide was a wiry fourteen-year-old that shot ahead of us in his flip flops (and with our main light source.) We spent the first thirty minutes scrambling over guano-coated rocks, using our palms to guide us along the boulders. I reminded myself not to touch any part of me that I didn't want smeared in bat shit. Soon, we were deep enough in the cave that the bats were reduced to distant chirps and replaced by the trickling of an underground stream. We tossed our shoes and proceeded along the wet cave floor barefoot. I spotted tiny crabs, bright blue and pink, in the clear pools of water. There wasn't a soul around besides the three of us and we enjoyed the solitude.
By the time we'd made our way back to the entrance, the parade had ended and tourists had flocked to the entrance of Somage. The walk back up to the road was about a millions steps. I was sweating and heaving as I climbed, fully aware of the group of Chinese tourists laughing and filming my ascent. I was too wiped from the past three days to even muster up a shred of embarrassment. We had time for quick showers and lunch before our nine-hour drive to Talac. I wasn't taking any chances with motion sickness, so I popped two Dramamine and a Valium for the drive. My pill cocktail worked wonders– I slept most of the drive and spent the rest of the time zoning out while looking out the window, barf-free.
We were headed to the province of Tarlac for one purpose: to hike to the crater Mount Pinatubo, one of the Philippine's active volcanoes. The town surrounding the volcano is a military base, so we had to pass through armed soldiers as we made our way to our hotel. We arrived around 10 pm and tossed our bags on an outdoor table. Tiff and I watched geckos hunt mosquitos while Joey argued loudly in Tagalog with the manager. Our gecko-watching / ineffective eavesdropping was interrupted by a giant eagle that dropped out of the night sky and landed next to us in the garden. He didn't seem to care when we approached, but held up its wing to shield the flash of our camera. It was like an irritated salute.
After twenty minutes of waiting, we came to find out that the hotel was overbooked. Joey wrangled us back into the car, with the manager hopping into the passenger seat. He promised to show us our alternate accommodations. Tiffany and I were skeptical, as we had previously been told that this hotel was the only place to stay near Mount Pinatubo, but we didn't really get much say in the matter. The "extension" turned out to be a concrete block of rooms located in farmland off a dirt road. Tiffany whispered in my ear, "keep track of where we came from in case we need to run." Very comforting. There were five rooms in the strip and all the doors were opened. We peered into the first and saw concrete walls, ceilings, and floors. Three of the rooms didn't have mattresses, just bed frames. One was entirely vacant and looked as if it had been freshly hosed-down. At this point, we began to wonder where the hell we were. We watched as the manager tossed a pair of women's shoes out of our room and hastily made up the bed. Mosquitos swarmed the fluorescent bulb on the ceiling. It wasn't until the two men left and shut the door behind them that it clicked in my head: Our "hotel room" was a repurposed prison cell, probably built and used for the military base. We coated ourselves in DEET and were too tired to do anything but pull the stained sheets over ourselves and fall asleep.
Sunday, January 31: Tarlac to Manila, Philippines
Well, Mount Pinutoba is off limits for the day. The US Air Force is training the Philippine Air Force on maneuvers and our hiking path is currently being leveled with bombs and bullets. We ate a glum breakfast, which was only improved by the little black kittykat begging for scraps. She reminded us of our black cat we had as college roommates. We named this one Evie the Second and snuck her plenty of food.
Soon, we were back in the car for our three-hour drive back to Manila. We stayed at the same hotel as we did on our first day of the trip, but our perceptions have one-eightied. The room is spotless, the water pressure is amazing, and the WiFi actually works! Why were we even complaining in the first place? These mattresses are divine.
After spending so much time crammed in the back of a car, Tiff and I were dying to do something active. We signed up for a bamboo bike tour of Manila and were antsy to get moving. Our biking guide, Alyanna, was about four and a half feet tall and apologized after every corny joke she made. It was incredibly endearing. After the first thirty minutes, Tiff and I dubbed it the "no-bike tour", since we only pedaled about 100 meters before stopping at landmarks to listen to Alyanna talk. Eventually, the two of us just started biking in circles while she explained sites. The rest of the group, about five people, joined us in our endless circling. If Alyanna was annoyed, she kept her mouth shut.
The no-bike tour ended around 7 pm and we all decided to grab dinner together. Even Alyanna joined, after texting her mom to make sure it was okay. Tiff and I were surprised that we were the only ones who ordered bottled water instead of drinking the tap water on the table. Evidently the three Aussies, Frenchman, and Brit are less concerned about contaminated water than the two paranoid Americans. Figures.
Our taxi back to the hotel took over an hour. It was only a 15-minute ride to get there, so we began accusing the driver of taking us in circles in order to rack up a higher fare. After listening to us bitch for thirty minutes and receiving no tip, our driver dropped us off at our hotel and peeled away. Tiffany and I were still fired up, so we ranted to the front desk clerk about what happened, only to find out that our driver wasn't lying about the parade blocking the Main Street. At 10pm on Sunday night. We went to bed feeling like assholes.
Monday, February 1: Manila to El Nido, Philippines
Today's the day we say goodbye to Luzon and head to a different island for some beach time. We over-prepared and arrived three hours before our domestic flight to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. We were dining on cinnamon rolls in the terminal and twiddling our thumbs when Tiffany decided to actually read the plane ticket. It was a good thing she did because it turned out that Air Asia has a one carry-on bag policy. I was carrying all my possessions for the next six weeks on my back in a large 45-liter pack, plus a smaller daypack as a for the daily essentials. My large pack was stuffed to the gills and there was no way that my daypack was going to fit without a total reorganization. Our flight was due be called any moment, so I fastened my daypack to the outside of my backpack with carabiners and concealed the evidence by wrapping my rain cover over everything. It was an awkward haul along the tarmac and into the plane, but at least I made it without incident.
The drive north from Puerto Princesa to El Nido took us five hours. Tiffany and I agreed that our driver was 100% a drug dealer. First, he stopped on the side of the road to hand a bulky envelope to a motorcyclist (his "brother"), who just happened to be there. We raised our eyebrows, but didn't become suspicious until a few hours later, when we stopped at a shack on the side of the road so he could "throw away trash". This chore took about five minutes and involved another party. Nail on the coffin: he had two cell phones. Still, he was pretty chill. We shorted him 500 pesos ($10.75), but he said it wasn't a problem and to just pay him when he picked us up in a few days to go back to Puerto Princesa. Deal.
Our resort, Cadlao, is incredible. We were greeted with mango smoothies as we checked in. We'd both been craving fruit and were feeling particularly weak-willed after five hours in the car, so we took the shit risk and gulped down every drop. We dubbed our room "the honeymoon suite". The rooms here are duplexes, with front porches and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the pathway. The sheets were crisp and ironed and there was no trace of a squat-shitter toilet to be found. Our bathroom even had toilet paper ready on the roll. We were truly in paradise.
We were dying to dip our toes into the ocean, so we tossed down our bags and sprinted back out the door. We walked along the beach and into the town of El Nido, where we grabbed a beer (I scoffed when the bartender charged an outrageous $1.50 USD) and enjoyed the view of the islands poking through the vast ocean. We ate dinner back at the resort, dining al fresco with the salty sea spray of the ocean misting our glasses. (Grilled tiger prawns the size of my hand, garlic rice a glass of cabernet.) Tiffany and I decided that we were on our lesbian honeymoon, as all the other guests are couples. She was clearly the femme in her pink tank top and skirt. I was dressed in my grubby hiking shorts and a baggy t-shirt.
Tuesday, February 2: El Nido, Philippines
Bacon and eggs for breakfast, although all the bacon went to a marble-coated beach bum dog. The WiFi signal was actually strong for once, so I texted with Mom, Dad and Drew while Tiff and I waited for our island-hopping excursion to start. They were all doing well, although Drew said that talking to me via Facetime was like communicating with an astronaut on the ISS. (The three-second lag was just enough to make a conversation virtually impossible with our constant interrupting of one another.)
We visited five islands by boat: creatively named the Secret Lagoon, the Hidden Lagoon, the Small Lagoon, the Big Lagoon, and Cadlao. The Secret Lagoon is accessible only in low-tide, through a small hole in the rock. The water was warm and mostly knee-deep. Tiff bouldered up the cliff face, and tore up her palms/knees on the jagged rock in the process. She deemed her injuries worth it, as it meant she officially bouldered in Asia.
We kayaked through the Small Lagoon and watched fuzzy brown jellyfish float past our boat. We were told they couldn't sting us, but I still kept my fingers out of the water. We ate lunch on Cadlao Island– grilled fish, calamari, chicken, mangos, rice, pineapple, and eggplant. Afterwards, I slumped into a chair and watched the waves until I fell asleep. Cadlao is a private island, owned by our resort, so we were the only seven people there. It was blessedly peaceful.
We fit in one more snorkeling stop before heading back. Tiffany and I quickly became friends with Tony and Mark, a Canadian couple with hilarious anecdotes from their previous travels. I floated in the waves along the shore with both Canadians, talking about traveling experiences while unknowingly filling my bikini bottoms with sand in the current.
After our island hopping tour, Tiff and I caught a tricycle to Las Cabanas, a beach famous for its sunset view. I bought a San Miguel the two of us walked along the shore with the waves lapping at our feet. Tiffany found a chair next to a beach tree and plopped down to read her book while I made my way further down the coastline, to an unobstructed viewpoint about a half mile further down the beach. Once I deemed the view worthy, I sunk down into the sand and watched the sun slowly dip behind an island on the horizon. This was one of my first "alone" moments of this trip and gave me a small taste of what is to come.
We ate dinner back at Cadlao, at our usual table on the patio overlooking the waves. I enjoyed every morsel of my ceviche. Dinner discussions: 1) A hiker's decision to climb past a dying man on Everest in order to summit VS another hiker's decision to save a dying man on K2, forgoing his summit. 2) Kevin Carter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Nat Geo photographer who captured the infamous shot of the starving African child surround by vultures ...and later killed himself. 3) CEO salaries. 4) CEO salaries for philanthropies. 5) Whether parenthood should be a right or privilege. 6) How we both like the mountains better than the beach.
Wednesday February 3: El Nido, Philippines
Today is our "do nothing" day. We both slept in till the leisurely hour of 6:00 am before we wandered to the beach and watched the fog over Cadlao Island. It's a drizzly morning. Breakfast of coffee and a cheese omelette with garlic rice. We cautiously ate the mangos out of our fruit bowl. (Our food safety standards are slowly slipping.) While we ate, we watched sea birds pick apart crabs on the rocks.
I spent the morning lounging in a lawn chair by the infinity pool, reading my book, and texting Mom, Dad and Drew. The WiFi connection was still fairly terrible, so they only got about half the photos I tried to send. I also dropped off my laundry. My hiking clothes smell so terrible, it was embarrassing. I wandered along the coastline and found some remains of the unlucky crabs from the morning.
We signed up for a couple's massage. After a full hour, I was reduced to jello. The masseuse started with my neck and worked her way down to my toes. I prayed the soles of my feet weren't black. The scalp massage was incredible. I left with soft muscles, oiled skin and greasy hair. Best $16 spent yet. Lunch = more mango ahi ceviche + grilled mango crepes. I can't get enough of these mangos.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon with our books by the pool. Our dinner consisted of grilled mangos and ice cream. It was a treat yo self meal after a treat yo self day.
Highlight of the day: Tiffany eating half a bag of beef jerky before realizing the contents were coated in ants. She screamed bloody murder and I toppled over laughing.
Thursday, February 4: El Nido to Puerto Princessa, Philippines
We met our driver at 4:15 am to head back south to Puerto Princessa. It's the same guy (drug dealer) from a few days ago. We gave him the 500 pesos that we'd shorted him last time and he seemed satisfied. It was a five-hour drive to the Underground River and as soon as we got out of the car I knew I had gotten my hopes up. Huge crowds of tourists wandered around, loud children were everywhere and there was a general chaotic atmosphere. Tiff and I looked at each other, sighed, and nestled into an open space along the pier.
While we were waiting, I wandered off in search of the source for the fried bananas I'd seen people eating. They were caramelized and had a thin brown sugar shell. They looked delicious. While I was on my quest, a fellow Westerner approached Tiff and asked who she was traveling with.
"I'm here with my girlfriend."
"Oh! Is she Filipina?"
At this point, I squeezed my way through the crowd back to Tiff, banana in hand. "Want a bite?" She burst out laughing. We're definitely on our honeymoon.
We were wrangled through the line and into a boat with three Filipino men who were in the city for a convention. All of us were strapped into neon orange life jackets for the short journey to the other side of the bay, where the entrance to the cave lay. Many boats were approaching the shore at once and tourists were vaulting themselves into the knee-deep surf and thrusting themselves through the waves to get in line for the cave entrance. It was like Normandy, but with more fluorescent orange and children.
Tiffany and I both were in sour moods. "Any activity that commences with a mandatory group photo is an activity I'm not going to enjoy." I silently agreed with her and smiled as the professional photographer lined us up for our group photo and clicked the shutter. While waiting for our turn to see the cave, we wandered along the shore and found a dog going ape shit over a log in the water. It was one of the funniest moments of the day. Maybe it was because I was so frustrated with the cattle-wrangling of this excursion, but I started laughing and couldn't stop.
We soon packed into another boat like sardines, but this time with mandatory hard hats. I took mine off as soon as I sat down in the boat. When the guide suggested I put it back on, I declined. He seemed disinclined to protest and left it at that. The cave itself was stunning. High ceilings and the occasional chirping as a bat swooped overhead. As soon as we glided through the cave entrance, everyone shut their mouths (in awe as much as a precaution to the bat droppings) and a blessed silence overtook our surroundings. Evidently there are miles more of the river, with a second access point within the mountains. The most peaceful point of the day was just gliding along in silence and marveling at the undisturbed beauty.
Afterwards, we rejoined the chaos of finding out boat. Our new guide changed our boat number so many times, we eventfully stopped asking questions and just followed like sheep. Thirty minutes later, we were ushered into our new boat. After the cruise across the water, we waited for our turn to unload. It took another thirty minutes of idling and breathing in exhaust, but it felt like two hours as the boat rose and dipped in the waves. I was completely ready to get on solid ground. Tiffany wondered aloud if we'd get to dock faster if I threw up. The thought had already crossed my mind.
When we finally got to our hotel in Puerto Princessa, we were wiped. All we wanted to do was relax and read our books in the hammocks with a beer in hand. As we checked in, the concierge reminded us of our pre-booked "Firefly Tour". On a boat. They wouldn't refund us, so we came back to the room and vented amongst ourselves. Eventually, Tiffany decided she'd go back to the front desk and handle it. Her plan was to tell them that she threw up on our last tour, so there was no way she was getting on another boat. She even mentioned she might puke on the other hotel guests if she did board the Firefly Tour boat. Of course, all this could be avoided with a full refund. I hid in the room while this was taking place. She eventually returned with the news that the front desk was "considering" and would get back to her with their answer. When a member of the hotel staff knocked on our door to tell us we'd get a full refund, I pretended to be sleeping.
Dinner was one of our cheapest yet. Two scrawny little kittens were hanging out by our table, but were too skittish to let us approach. However, they did thoroughly enjoy pouncing on the tea wrappers and bottle caps we rolled on the ground. I ordered them a plate of tuna. They packed in as much as they could and, bellies bloated, dozed in kitty loaves by my feet. That alone beat the Firefly Tour by a landslide.
Friday February 5: Puerto Princesa to Manila, Philippines
We enjoyed a leisurely morning of bacon and eggs for breakfast, although an orange cat wound up with most of my bacon. We had some time to kill before we had to head to the airport, so I sprawled out in a lawn chair by the pool and called Mom and Dad to chat. They commented on all the birds they heard on my end of the line. It's funny how you almost become deaf to their music after just a few days in paradise.
The airport bathroom didn't have toilet paper or paper towels to dry my hands. At this point, I was neither surprised nor upset. After landing, we hopped in a cab to our hotel in Manila. During the ride, we overdid it a tad in letting our driver know we were familiar with the area and thus not to try to rip us off: "Oh, it's so great to be back in Manila. I'm so glad we're staying at our favorite hotel. It's so close the airport. I'm so familiar with the route from here to there that I could make it blindfolded."
After arriving back to our hotel, we tossed down our bags and ventured out to the market. We'd been warned there would be pickpockets aplenty, which was part of the allure. At one point, a woman came rushing up to us with 40 pesos in hand. Apparently, it had dropped out of Tiffany's backpack while she was taking our her phone. I guess we had the opposite market experience. I bought a pair of purple headphones so I can start listening to audio books. I'd realized early on in the trip that my Kindle would be useless to me on bumpy, curving roads.
We were on a mission to make it to the Bay Leaf hotel, which afforded stunning views of Manila at sunset. After walking, taking two jeepnies, and one tricycle later, we were hopelessly lost. We finally gave up and grabbed a cab back to the hotel, missing our reservations at Bay Leaf. We glumly ate noodles in a small shop along a busy road instead, which was a little disappointing given it was our last night in the Philippines. I called Drew and wished him a happy 29th, then browsed the internet until I fell asleep.
Tomorrow, I'm saying goodbye to Tiffany and embarking on the next leg of my journey: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
Monday February 8: Siem Reap, Cambodia
I woke up at 4:00 am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Let me back up: two days prior, I said goodbye to my travel companion and boarded a flight to Bangkok. One I arrived at my hotel, I met up with my G Adventures group. We'd be spending the next month together in Southeast Asia with a local guide, Meaw. (Yes, like the cat.) I only spent one night in Thailand before getting on a bus to cross the border into Cambodia. The bus ride took all day, but I eventually arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia: home to Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex that's featured on the Cambodian flag.
Angkor Wat was actually one of the biggest influencers to me being where I was at this moment. My entire trip was based of my desire to see this place in person. Years earlier, I'd clipped a picture of the temple from a magazine and pinned it to the wall in my bedroom. I hadn't even realized where the photo was taken when I did this, but thought it looked so alluring. Angkor Wat is the largest temple complex in the world and spans back to the 12th century. Its temples are scattered among the jungle, build behind moats and alongside the river. Now, I was about to see the site with my own eyes. I sat in the dark, on the steps of the ancient library, and watched as the sky lightened and the sun began to swell behind the temple's towers.
I ordered shrimp for lunch. The shrimp went to a scrawny kitten at my feet and I ate a granola bar out of my backpack. Soon, a fat yellow kitten joined his sister for the shrimp feast. He was less shy, so I scooped him up and rubbed his ears as he purred in my arms. I managed to hang on to him until it was time to get back on the bus.
During sunset, we hopped on ATVs and rode through rice fields. By the end, my thumb (accelerator) was throbbing and dirt caked my face, but I couldn't stop smiling. We had a group dinner at a karaoke bar and I never realized how horribly long "Bohemian Rhapsody" was until I sang it out loud in public.
Tuesday February 10: Siem Reap to Phnom Pehn , Cambodia
Adios, Siem Reap. Before boarding the bus to Cambodia's capitol, I wandered across the street to the ATM. I had to shoo the children out of the shelter so I could pull out $200 USD without getting harassed. It as a seven-hour bus ride to Phnom Pehn, with the last four hours of the highway being packed dirt roads. The dust was so bad that sometimes I could only see a few feet in front of the bus. Occasional, water trucks drive along to tamp down the dirt & reduce dust.
Halfway through our journey, we stopped at a market that offered all sorts of delicacies: tarantulas, crickets, water beetles, cockroaches, frogs, crickets and the likes. I chewed on the deep-fried tarantula and decided that it tasted pretty much like any other deep-fried dish. A little girl placed another (live) tarantula on my shirt, which was fine. What was not fine was when she returned with a squirming black scorpion. I think "NO NO NO NO NO" passed the language barrier, because she smiled and backed off.
This was the first time in eighteen day that I had a room to myself. I celebrated by spending the evening eating Reese's in bed an browsing Reddit. It was amazing.
Wednesday February 10: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
It was a somber day. I visited the mass graves of Choeung Ek, one of the many Killing Fields of Cambodia. Over a million people were slaughtered between '75–'79, during the Khmer Rouge regime's genocide. Anyone who might voice resistance against the regime was targeted for execution: academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, government officials, and soldiers, along with their entire families, were all imprisoned and eventually murdered. I had to sidestep over clothing, bones and teeth, which emerge from the dirt after every rainfall. The state soldiers were instructed not to waste ammunition, so they killed women, men and children by hand with crude tools, dumping their broken bodies into mass graves. This always occurred at night, so music was blasted through loud speakers to muffle the screams of the victims. This is a tragic place and visitors leave thousands of bracelets around the poles surrounding the few excavated graves in an act of solidarity.
Hundreds of skulls are stacked in the Buddhist temple that now occupies the site. The skulls are labeled to indicate adults, children, teenagers, males and females. The skulls are fractured and broken, with the instruments of their destruction displayed on the lowest shelf. It was horrifying to take in.
In the afternoon, I visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site is a former torture and detention center occupied by the Khmer Rouge regime. An estimated 20,000 political prisoners were slaughtered here at Security Prison 21 and this was only one of 150 execution centers in the country. The regime had repurposed a high school and the classrooms were sectioned into small cells and torture chambers. You can still see the blood and footprints under the chains within some of the cells. A beam outside that the students had used for exercise was strung with rope to hang countless victims during the Khmer Rouge's rule.
Of the thousands of prisoners, only seven walked out alive. Two of the survivors were present to talk about their stories. I spoke briefly with Chum Mey, an 86-year-old survivor from this prison. His wife and 2-month-old baby had been shot in a rice paddy just a few miles away, but he survived throughout the genocide. Chum Mey was about to visit the US for the first time in order to speak to university students in Ohio. He asked if there were any Americans in our group and I, being the only one, stepped forward and talked to him about his upcoming trip. I'd spent the past six hours immersed by senseless death, so I had tears into my eyes while small-talking with him about how beautiful spring is in the midwest.
I bought a book from Bou Meng, another former prisoner who escaped death by painting portraits of party officials during his imprisonment. I didn't linger, because frankly I just wanted to get out of there. I was utterly emotionally drained.
Later that day, I wandered around the streets of Phnom Penh with Erik (Switzerland), Wolfgang (Germany) and Tom (England). We made our way to Wat Phnom, the temple on the hill. As we climbed the steps up, we saw cages packed with tiny, fluttering sparrows. $1 USD buys you two to release. While the liveliest birds were congregated at the top of the cage, the bottom was littered with feathers and small birds with broken, dragging wings. It was horrible. My first impulse was to had over a fifty and free the whole cage, but that would only pay into the system and cause more harm to the birds in the long term. Every dollar just supports this disgusting business and keeps it going. The vast majority of these sparrows are lured with seed near the temple and caught with nets over and over again, never escaping the endless cycle. I found three "freed" birds with their wings outspread on the hot pavement, unmoving except for their little heaving bellies. It was hard to tell if their wings were broken or they were merely exhausted from all their handling. I carefully scooped each one up and placed them off the path and in the grass under the shade of a tree.
I began my day picking my way through the Killing Fields, then touring the Genocide Museum, and now was watching these wounded little birds at a temple in the middle of Cambodia's capital. My emotions today were distilled to the most basic: sad because of unnecessary suffering and angry at the people who cause it.
My bitter mood was eased on the walk back to our hotel. Wolfgang and I bought coconuts on the street and sipped the sweet water through comically large straws. The four of us stopped at a restaurant along the river and enjoyed drinks with a peaceful view of the water. It was nice to momentarily escape the car horns and motorcycles on the busy street.
The hotel next to ours, Sun & Moon, makes our place look even more like a dump. The four of us wanted to see what their rooftop situation was, so we strolled in and boarded the elevator like we belonged. Their roof contained an infinity pool overlooking the city, as well as a fully-stocked bar. We ordered beers and relaxed on the patio. It was a refreshing taste of luxury after several days of shitty hotels, non-western toilets, and public busses.
Thursday February 11: Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Cambodia
5-hour bus ride. Erik, the Swiss guy, is delighted when I do anything that's stereotypically "American". At our restroom stop, I ordered a chocolate muffin. "Ah! That's so American!" He seemed disappointed that I didn't drive a pickup truck back home and that I wasn't excited about the cowboy hats for sale back at Angkor Wat.
Friday February 12: Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Snorkeling all day. I avoided a sunburn, probably because my skin turned to leather after two weeks in the Philippines. I was looking forward to watching the sunset and having some personal-reflection time. I found a secluded spot on the beach and got about two minutes in before a little boy came over to see if I wanted to buy some fried dough. I declined, but he plopped down next to me and seemed content to chat away, nevermind the language barrier. I sighed and opened up my 2-pack of Reeses that I'd been saving, and handed him one. The two of us ate chocolate, licked our fingers, and played rock-paper-scissors as the sun slowly set over the Gulf of Thailand.
Saturday February 13: Sihanoukville, Cambodia to a village along the Mekong River, Vietnam
We were in for a 12-hour bus ride, crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam. Donning a backpack half my weight and shuffling through border crossing in 100° heat in the middle of the afternoon is not exactly a picnic. We arrived in a jungle village in time for a home-cooked dinner. Four hours later, I barely made it outside and into the outhouse before I started heaving. I heard something shifting around on the tin roof above me, but I assumed it was tree branches. I spent the next hour cooped up in the little structure, emptying my stomach. On my way back to my sleeping quarters, I glanced behind my shoulder and saw the outline of a large animal watching me from the roof of the outhouse. I stumbled forward to the bunkhouse and slammed the door behind me. As I tucked the mosquito netting beneath my mattress in the darkness, I decided I'd better google "large mammals in Vietnam" the next morning.
Sunday February 14: Village to Saigon, Vietnam
I just started a new audio book, Tim O'Brien's The Things We Carried. It's interesting to hear firsthand about US soldiers in the Vietnam war while I'm here right now. Also, it's narrated by Bryan Cranston (Heisenberg from Breaking Bad) so that's just an extra bonus.
Before departing for Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City), we hopped on a boat to check out the floating market on the Mekong River. Vendors sold everything from fresh produce to iced coffees. I decided I'd better keep my stomach empty today. After all, I had an eight-hour bus ride ahead of me and couldn't afford to have a repeat of last night. I watched the coffee boat glide by with longing.
Monday February 15: Saigon, Vietnam
After getting a quarter of the way through The Things We Carried, I was pretty ramped up to see the Củ Chi tunnels themselves. The tunnels are an immense underground network that were used by the Viet Cong during the war. The tunnels served as supply routes, living quarters, hiding spots, and booby traps for the South Vietnamese and American armies.
The tour of the site was very pro-VC, praising their cleverness and strategic guerrilla tactics. VC soldiers made their shoes into two inverted styles in order to mask which direction they were headed. They observed Mimosa pudica, sensitive plants that closed their leaves when touched, to see if soldiers had recently walked past. They bathed in stolen GI soap to camouflage themselves to the search dogs. They only cooked in the morning so the smoke would blend in with morning fog. They created decoy tunnels for the GIs and South Vietnamese to easily find, which were booby trapped with spikes and cobras.
Our tour included a gallery of booby traps used by the Viet Cong. Almost all of the traps had a spike or bear-trap component. A false jungle floor rotated upwards and heaved soldiers into a pit of spikes. Doorways were trigged with boards of spikes that would plummet down from the ceiling. Clever hinges in the wood ensured that a man's genitals would be specially targeted.
I asked our guide if she's ever had an American Vietnam vet in one of her tours. She confirmed and said he'd had plenty of stories to share, as he'd been stationed near this site and fought the tunnel-dwelling VC. It was an emotional experience for him to revisit this place. I can't even imagine.
The Củ Chi tunnel site also included a shooting range, where tourists could fire a number of assault rifles, such as M16s or AK-47s, as well as machine guns. As much as I'd like to shoot my weapon of choice from the Nintento-64 game, Golden Eye, I wasn't interested in participating. It seemed tactless, considering our surroundings.
I'd only whet my appetite for Vietnam War history from the other perspective, so I headed to to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I expected to see some anti-American/South Vietnamese propaganda and exaggerated glorification/stoicism of North Vietnam soldiers, but was blown away by the level of it. Fun fact: the Vietnamese government dropped "war crimes" and "aggression" from the museum's title in the 90s, following the US embargo lift. Still, it wasn't a museum to miss. It exposed the horror of war and atrocities that were committed, albeit heavily one-sided.
My last excursion in Saigon was to the street market, where I bought porcelain soup spoons for mom. I made it back to the hotel only asking for directions three times. I had time to grab some snacks from down street, then boarded a nine-hour overnight train to Nha Trang.
Tuesday February 16: Nha Trang, Vietnam
I arrived in Nha Trang, Vietnam at about 6:00am. I yawned and shuffled off the overnight train, heaving on a heavy pack before I even got in my morning stretch. This was my "do nothing and see no one" day and I was so excited about it. My breakfast view was spectacular– I sat in the shade under an awning and watched the waves lap up the sand. I was surprised to see Eggs Norwegian on the breakfast menu. The only Western breakfast options I'd seen in Asia had been eggs, bacon and toast. It was insanely expensive and I gobbled up every morsel, telling myself I'd be more thrifty for the remainder of the day.
Most of my day was spend on the beach with my book. An afternoon rainstorm kicked in around 3:00pm and I decided that was a good time to go check in to my hotel and grab a shower. I left the hotel again an hour later, and had managed to dodge the storm. I walked back to the beach and scoped out the buildings along the shore. One in particular was calling my name. It was one of the highest buildings and I could see palm trees peeping over the glass ledge. I wanted to get up there.
The hotel turned out to be a further hike than I'd thought, but I once I was there, I was so excited to make it up to the roof for the golden hour. Unfortunately, fate had a different plan. The hotel concierge informed me that the rooftop bar, Skylight, didn't open for guests until 6pm. As my parents and former teachers can attest, I don't have a great track record for listening, so I thanked him and made my way to the elevators anyway. I quickly realized I wasn't going up without a key card, but a man hopped on before I had a chance to plan my next move. I totally scored– the guy was going to the 32nd floor and the Skylight Lounge was on the 41st. I got off the elevator with him (he seemed awkward about this) and found the stairwell. I was breathing hard by the time I made it to the door of the rooftop. I reached for the handle, but the door didn't give. Locked. I sighed, decided it had been worth the shot anyway, and hopped down the stairs to the 40th floor so I could grab the elevator back down. The full error of my decision-making flooded in when I realized that this door was locked, and each stairwell door from here on down would be inaccessible to me without a keycard. I banged on the metal for a few minutes before I accepted my fate. It was 1,168 stairs from this point to the first floor. I counted.
At 6:00pm, I was the first one in the Skylight Lounge. (Legitimately, this time.) The views were worth it. To the west, I was staring right into the South China Sea. Behind me and to each side was the city of Nha Trang. I settled into a couch and tried to read my book, but was too distracted by the sights. After a full day left to my own devices, I was beginning to feel sociable again. I messaged my friends a picture of the view. Within twenty minutes, Wolfgang and Tom were sitting beside me and the three of us were gushing over how cool this was.
Ice cream for dessert with Wolfgang, Tom and Wendy. Wolfgang was upset he was given a spoon (instead of a fork) to eat his cheesecake and motioned to the waitress for a proper utensil. Much confusion ensued. At one point, the waitress brought over a selection of five spoons, misunderstanding his problem and thinking he wanted to select his own. I was literally squeeking as I laughed, trying unsuccessfully to suppress it.
Wednesday February 17: Nha Trang, Vietnam
I wandered to the same breakfast place on the beach as yesterday and ordered the exact same thing: Eggs Norwegian with a latte and large Perrier. I know you're supposed to be immersing yourself in the culture and trying new things at every opportunity, but it was 8:00 am and I was still waking up and craving a bit of routine. Plus, it was delicious.
After eating, I wandered along the beach with the waves hitting my calves. I'm still listening to Bryan Cranston narrate "The Things We Carried" with my cheap earbuds from the Manila market. I found a hammock a few miles down and parked myself there for the better part of the afternoon. I knew it belonged to the adjacent resort, but told myself it was fine since there were about ten empty hammocks in my line of sight.
I spent the late afternoon at Vietnamese mud baths. I'd only experienced mud baths once in my life prior, in the Costa Rican jungle, and these were definitely a world of their own. Step 1: Lay down in an empty tub and turn the faucet until you're completely immersed in mud. Literally, the mud bath part of this experience. I filled a pail and poured it over my head for the full experience. I could taste the grit in my teeth. Step 2: Sprawl out on the rocks and let the mud bake into your skin. Once it started cracking, it was time for Step 3: Outdoor shower tunnel. Extremely hot with needle-like jets of water pricking into my skin. Why can't the water pressure be like this in any of our hotels? Step 4: Natural hot springs. This was the pampering I'd been expecting. Step 5: Sitting underneath the waterfall, also fed by the same hot springs. Step 6: Find a lawn chair by the pool and relax. I was exhausted by Step 7: take a real shower and leave.
Dinner on the beach = seafood hot pot (shrimp, mussels, fish, and soft-shell crab with noodles and steamed veggies) + a pina colada, and finally an ice cream Sunday with coconut + chocolate ice cream, pecans, lumps of brown sugar, and cinnamon. I was stuffed and happy as I waddled to the train station to catch my overnight ride to Hoi An. I was able to call Mom and Dad from the station before leaving. Dad is cleared of pneumonia and leaving for a guy's hiking trip tomorrow. We managed to get in a whole 15-minute conversation before the WiFi cut out. My friends and I listened (and sang along) to our favorite rap hits of the early 2000s while waiting for the train. (Holidae Inn, Yeah, Drop It Like Its Hot, etc.)
The sleeping quarters in the train were pretty bad. There was grease all over my pillow and the sheets were dirty. I slept gingerly on my camping towel, trying to not roll over or touch anything.
Thursday February 18: Hoi An, Vietnam
Arrived in Hoi An around 8:00 am and actually managed to check into our hotel that early. I spend the afternoon wandering around Old Town with my roommate, Wendy. When we got bored, the two of us hopped in a taxi to the beach. We found two lawn chairs and spend an hour reading our books, her in the sun and me in the shade. When we got hungry, we headed back into Old Town and found a little nook of a restaurant by the river. We dined on fried bananas with coconut cream, washed down with white wine. A few hours later, we ate our real dinner, complemented with even more wine. I ended the night as you do, by buying more lanterns than I could feasibly carry for about a million dong. ($50 USD.) I hadn't realized they'd be so heavy when I was eyeballing them, but decided I'd just deal with the ramifications in the morning, pending my inevitable hangover.
Friday February 19: Hoi An, Vietnam
First things first: Find a post office to ship my drunk-decision lanterns back to the USA. Total cost = around $50 USD, which was the same price I paid for them in the first place. Not bad. Still, it'll take three months by boat before I ever see them again.
It was a packed day of biking, noodle cooking, beach drinking, lantern making, and wandering. I decided that as far as cities/towns go in Vietnam/Cambodia, this is the most beautiful place I've been. I rented a bike for 30,000 dong (a little over a dollar) and spent the day biking through through rice fields and beachside roads with Tom, Wolfgang, and Wendy. The four of us spent forever trying to take a good selfie with a water buffalo in one of the paddies. He snorted and we screamed.
We ate dinner on a restaurant rooftop overlooking the lantern-clad river. Wendy does a really good "Hello!" "Five dollar!" "Where you from!?" imitation of the shopkeepers along the street that are always trying to engage us to buy things. It's horrible and the funniest thing I've heard since Wolfgang's spoon/fork fiasco at the ice cream place back in Nha Trang.
Saturday February 20: Hoi An to Hue, Vietnam
See ya, Hoi An. After a four-hour bus ride, I arrived in Hue. It's safe to say that we're definitely in Central Vietnam now, although still along the coast. I explored the (rainy and cold) city alone. I spent some time in an art gallery reading my book in an attempt to shake a bicycle taxi driver that had been following me, but found him waiting outside when I emerged, two hours later. I did the fake phone call thing when he tried to convince me to get in his bike taxi for a tour of the city, and after a few minutes of pretending to talk to my friends, he peddled on. I killed some more time in a warm coffee shop, where the owner was pretty ecstatic to have a foreigner visit. I sipped a macchiato and smiled while he snapped a photo of me for his Facebook page. It was starting to get dark and I had no earthly clue where my hotel was, so I didn't stay long.
I ran into a group of kids that wanted to practice English and talk to me about their immersion program. I tentatively accepted, mainly because I didn't want to be alone on the street. I'm glad I stopped. They didn't want me to come visit their shop, or want money from me, which was what I had initially assumed when they began talking about a Vietnamese custom called Lucky Money. They actually just wanted to chat. We talked about how much I was enjoying Vietnam and they were delighted to hear it. They then gave me the pouch of Lucky Money, folded into an origami shape. They led me back to my hotel and I gained five new friends.
It was too rainy and cold to venture outside, so I played cards with my friends in the lobby. I ordered a glass of wine from the bar and came back to the table for the next hand. Ten minutes later, a teenager with a bike helmet handed me a plastic cup with my Sauvignon Blanc. The bar was out of wine, so they'd called a courier. Insane. I would have just ordered a beer if I knew. After dinner on a nearby restaurant patio, we played a few shitty games of pool over rum and cokes. Rats kept scattering around and ducking past us and into the kitchens.
Sunday February 21: Hue Vietnam
I rented bicycles with Wendy and the two of us biked over the bridge and wound up in the suburbs of Hue. It was so quiet and peaceful. We peddled past rice fields, dogs, and children shouting "hello!" when they saw us. Boarded a 14-hour overnight train to Halong Bay. Next up: Northern Vietnam.
Monday February 22: Halong Bay, Vietnam
Arrived in Halong Bay around 7:30 am. The hotel breakfast was 70,000 dong, so I filled up on seconds. Today's plan: explore Ha Long Bay. It’s been cold and foggy, but that just made the boat ride more spooky. From the boat, I could only see fog in all directions. Occasional, the ghost of an island would begin to accumulate in the distance. It was eerily quiet except for the sound of waves chopping against the hull.
Our boat ride took us to Sung Sot Cave, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cave itself reminded me of a similar experience I had in a cave in Chattanooga, Tennessee: rainbow lights on the cave walls, huge crowds, and man-made easy walkways along the cave floor. I was a little disappointed; I like cave exploring better when you actually have to work for it.
I spent the boat ride back talking to our boat guide about communism in Vietnam. I was curious how an individual (Vietnamese) man could come to own an entire island under a communist government. The guide told me that after the Soviet folded, Vietnam followed China in adapting communist politics with a free market economy. Only North Korea & Cuba have communist economies, which explains why Vietnam seems to be doing so well comparatively.
After the boat tour through the bay, I walked through city with Wolfgang, Tom, Wendy and Dani. We explored the market and felt bad for chickens. I bought more rambutans and split them open as we walked, eating the sweet fruit inside. We stopped at a backpacker’s hostel for some beers. I spent most of dinner talking with our guide, Meaw, about Buddhism. She told me which parts she was good at following (showing compassion, being a good person) and those that she wasn’t so great at following (avoiding meat, abstaining from alcohol).
Tuesday February 23: Halong Bay to Hanoi, Vietnam
On the way out of Halong Bay, our bus stopped at a pearl farm. I learned how pearls are cultivated, crafted, and turned into jewelry. It’s an incredibly tedious process and requires a fine eye.
It took us four hours to arrive in Hanoi by bus. The first place I wanted to check out in Hanoi was the Temple of the Jade Mountain. The Buddhist temple is built on a little island (Jade Island) in the middle of Hồ Hoàn Kiếm lake (Lake of the Restored Sword). It was a quick walk– the lake itself is in the middle of the city. I walked past a line of orange-clad Buddhist monks as I crossed the bridge to the temple. I spent half my time on the island petting a Bonsai tree-dwelling cat and the rest exploring the temple and the grounds.
Hanoi is known for its egg coffee, a traditional drink prepared with egg yolk, sugar, condensed milk and espresso. It was delicious and reminded me of a crème brûlée.
Wendy, Tom, Wolfgang and I spent the day wandering around the city streets. We watched a bride pose for her wedding photos by a fountain, stopped inside the Hilton to warm up and listen to a pianist in the bar, tried (unsuccessfully) to go inside the opera house and at one point stumbled upon a makeshift badminton court on the sidewalk along a busy street. There was a net and everything. We asked a nearby man if we could borrow his rackets (he wasn’t using them) and played two-on-two until we were asked to please leave. It was a good day.
Wednesday February 24: Hanoi, Vietnam
I didn't sleep past 3:00 am last night because some girls were hammered in the hallway– screaming, crying and knocking on doors. It was the worst. On the bright side, since I never fell back asleep, I was the first one down for breakfast at 6:30 and got my choice of breakfast pastries before they got picked over.
Wendy and I walked to get egg coffee, then headed to see Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. There were two entrances to the complex– one took visitors to the museum and palace. The other lead straight to his mausoleum. We were having a hard time explaining to the guard (directing tourist traffic) what we came for, so Wendy was very blunt. "We want to see the BODY.” She got the point across.
It took about 45 minutes shuffling along in line, but eventually we were able to enter the mausoleum. No one spoke and armed guards stood at attention. The room containing his body was cool and dark. A daybed was surrounded in glass. Inside, Ho Chi Minh himself lay semi-propped at 45-degree angle, his face turned towards the opposite wall. His skin was yellow and waxy and his hair and beard were perfectly combed. It was eerie. Photos are strictly banned inside the mausoleum, and I had no interest of breaking any rules with armed guards a few feet away, and hundreds more soldiers marching throughout the complex outside.
Afterwards, Wendy and I walked to the Hỏa Lò Prison, the infamous POW prison where Americans were sent during the Vietnam War. The propaganda in this place did not disappoint. Visitors learn that Americans loved it here. They were treated more like guests than prisoners, and all of them preferred it here than to be out in the field and fighting for their country. All of the Americans changed their ways and loved Vietnam after their "stay" here. Despite the heavy-handed (and at times, eye-rolling) propaganda, I’m glad I visited this place.
My debit card is blocked, so I opted for a $2 noodle soup for lunch. I waited until 7pm to call Mom, who wakes up at 5am. She’s going to call my bank when they open in four hours and pretend to be me and hopefully get my card unfrozen.
Vietnam, it's been a treat. Between the beaches, markets, biking, water buffalos, friendly locals, fellow travelers, city exploring, artwork, FOOD (oh god, the food) museums & memorials, I'm officially adding this country to my list of all-time favorite places. I didn't know much about this part of the world before I arrived, but I'm leaving with some insane memories & a new respect for the culture, history & people. I'm already mentally planning all the things I want to see on my next trip here. Get ready, Laos. You're up next!
Thursday February 25: Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos
Tom and I grabbed some egg coffee down the street, then walked to Hanoi’s Fine Arts Museum of Vietnam. The museum is housed in two buildings that were once the French Ministry of Information. The art is all Vietnamese and dates from 10,000 years ago to today. I loved every inch of it.
After the art museum, Tom and I grabbed döner kebabs from a street stall downtown. We then found a place to exchange our remaining dong to dollars and headed to the airport for our flight to Laos. I managed to connect to WiFi and found out that Mom successfully got my debit card unfrozen. Way to go, Mom! I needed $35 USD to get my Visa on arrival in Laos, so it was perfect timing.
In the Hanoi airport, I also managed to download a few songs on Spotify. I’d been going this entire time without music on my phone and I felt deprived. I spent the entirety of the short flight smiling and looking out the window, with David Bowie and Ben Folds blaring into my ears.
A few hours later, we landed inVientiane , the capital of Laos. I was dying for some alone time, so I begged off from the group dinner and walked around the streets until I found a little tapas + wine restaurant nestled into a street corner. I sat on the patio with a glass of wine and spent the evening people-watching. I felt so refreshed and invigorated. My introverted self is happy.
Friday February 26: Vientiane to Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng is a little mountain town along the Nam Song River in Laos. It's located halfway between the capital, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang. Because of its prime location, many travelers stop here on their way between the two cities.
It’s so nice to be out of the city and back in the mountains. We arrived as the sun was setting, so I tossed my backpack in my hotel room and explored the town on my own. I found my way down to the river and plopped down on a bungalow/dock, where I ordered a bottled water from a waitress. It never arrived, so I left and found another small restaurant that did finally acknowledged me. I sat cross-legged on a carpeted mat on the patio overlooking the river, eating mango sticky rice with a grin on my face.
Saturday, February 27: Vang Vieng, Laos
I woke up and finally got to see Vang Vieng in the actual daylight. The most notable features are the karst hill landscapes surrounding the entire town.
I spent all day with Wendy, Wolfgang and Tom. We woke up early and kayaked along the Nam Song, rented bikes and traveled along dirt rods, scrambled up cliffs to explore caves, and visited the Blue Lagoon. It was an action-packed day and we ended it deliciously with goat cheese pizza at a restaurant down the road.
After twenty minutes of scrambling up rocks that looked like they must lead to somewhere cool, we found a cave! My only regret was my decision to wear rubber flip flops.
Sunday February 28: Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos
8-hour bus ride to Luang Prabang. Very boring, but listening to my audio book. Stopped for lunch with a view over the mountains. Chicken noodle soup. A dog got most of my chicken.
Monday February 29: Luang Prabang, Laos
It's an early morning for me in Luang Prabang. Every morning at 5:00, a procession of Buddhist monks collect alms offered by locals and tourists alike. I bought a small basket of sticky rice (10,000 kip = $1.23) and placed balls of rice into their pots as they proceeded down the street. Looking forward to riding the karma train all day.
Today, I realized that I have more varieties of lip balm for this trip than I do t-shirts. I guess my lips look better than my sweat-stained tees. I rented a bicycle and spent most of the day exploring the city. I stopped in a few stupas, read my book by the river, and bought about five paintings from a street vendor.
Tuesday March 1: Luang Prabang, Laos to Chang Mai, Thailand
Today's the day I say a sad goodbye to Laos, but get reunited with Thailand for the first time in a month. I arranged for a ride to the airport & when an old farm truck showed up, I just started laughing. Only in Asia do roll up to my terminal in the bed of a pickup truck. Here's my view on my way there:
This is one of the first days that I am truly alone and I feel wonderful. I splurged on my hotel– 1,000 baht a night (a little less than $30 USD). The place is incredible. The shower has a glass partition separating it from the rest of the bathroom, so the western-style toilet (and toilet paper) doesn't get soaking wet every time I shower. The water pressure isn't phenomenal, but it's a hell of lot better than some of the other places I've stayed. Plus, the water starts out hot and stays hot. The mattress is like sleeping on clouds and I'm not worried about bedbugs here. Essentially, my room just feels clean and enjoyable to be in. I asked the hotel staff about renting a bike and they told me they offered them for free for hotel guests. I feel like I'm at the Ritz Carlton.
As nice as my room was, I was antsy to check out the city of Chiang Mai itself. I tossed my bags and hopped on one of the free hotel bikes to cruise through old town. I cycled through some stupas, then settled at a place with mango sticky rice and decent wifi. The Trip Advisor app has been my bible during this trip. While chewing on rice and mango slices, I planned out my evening.
I dropped off my bike at the hotel, showered, and headed back out to the night market. The hotel staff cautioned me against cycling at night, so I walked the two miles to the Night Market. The air was balmy and warm with a slight breeze. I had an earbud in one ear and the other bare so I could stay aware of my surroundings. I was alone, it was warm, and I had a full night planned. I was in an excellent mood.
My mouth watered when I saw the salads on the menu. While I enjoy salads, I would never literally drool for them back home. I hadn't had fresh greens since January and at the moment, nothing sounded better. The place seemed clean enough, so I went all in and ordered the Caesar. I relished every crunch of iceberg lettuce and salty anchovy. It was probably the best salad I've ever tasted in my life. If people watched me eat, I would have looked just like one of the stock photo clichés of "woman laughing alone with salad".
After my divine dinner, I headed to the heart of the Night Market, where I bought a ticket for the Ladyboy Cabaret Show. I have to admit I felt slightly self-conscious hunched over a high top in the front row, slugging a beer alone, and watching men dressed as women perform in front of me. Still, the performance was incredible. Costume chances, bad lip syncing, and plumes of feathers, sequins and glitter. At one point, one of the performers pulled a 20-something guy onstage and stripped off his shirt, threw him in a chair, and mimicked giving him a blow job. The room erupted in cheers, whistles and laughter, but no one laughed harder than his friends sitting at the table behind me.
After the show, I wandered through the Night Market and haggled over a few t-shirts and some new sandals. (I'd been biking/walking in rubber flip flops all day and they'd begun to wear through my skin.) I bought a banana + Nutella crepe off the street and hailed a tuk tuk back to my hotel. I had the wind in my hair and was taking huge bites out of the steaming sweet crepe with a huge grin on my face. Today was epic. Once I got back to my room, I texted Mom and Dad that I was home safe, then promptly fell asleep with Nutella still on the corner of my lips.
Wednesday March 2: Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, Thailand & back
I booked a tour to visit Chiang Rai to see the famous White Temple, AKA Wat Rong Khun. I wedged into a mini van with nine other tourists (in the too-small Asian seats) and we made the three-hour drive north. This temple is actually a work of contemporary art, designed in the 90s by Thai painter Chalermchai Kositpipat. The architecture is influenced by traditional Buddhist stupas, but the exterior is bleached of all color, making for a stunning sight. I stood in this spot for awhile just gaping:
Here's my little stroll through the damned. The idea is you have to experience the agonies of hell before ascending to heaven.
The White Temple was absolutely mesmerizing, but the hoards of tourists were overwhelming. The Chinese New Year was winding down, and so many people (always over the age of 50) were constantly bumping into me, cutting, and abruptly stopping directly in front of me to take photos. It was so incredibly irritating.
After the temple, we loaded ourselves back into the minivan and headed to the Golden Triangle: the borders of Thailand, Laos & Myanmar. This place got its name after the gold being exchanged at one of the most extensive drug trafficking sites in the world. ("Golden Triangle" has a better ring than "Opium Triangle".)
I didn't arrive back in Chiang Mai until a quarter to ten. I was so wiped from our full day of activities that I considered canceling my hiking trip tomorrow. I called Drew to hear his thoughts and he suggested I sleep on it. I'm glad I did, because the next day turned out to be one of my favorites so far in Asia.
Thursday March 3: Chiang Rai, Thailand
My ride arrived thirty minutes early, so it was a mad scramble to throw my shit together in the morning. I snagged a piece of toast & two bananas on my dash out to the car. Today = hiking in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Two hours in the bed of a truck to the trail head. 6 of us total with 3 guides. We hiked through dense jungle with the guides stopping to pick leaves, which later turned out to be either part of our lunch or our seats/table during lunch on the jungle floor. Veggies wrapped in banana leave & steamed over the fire. Chicken (chilled in the river) speared & roasted on sticks over the fire.
My utensil = a bamboo shoot chiseled into a spoon. Dessert = The sweetest & softest pineapple I've ever tasted. We hiked upwards into a pine forest, then ducked our heads under trellises growing papaya. I'm SO glad I decided to do this & not cancel. It's so nice to get out of the hustle, noise & pollution of the city. It's so quiet & serene. I'm filing my lungs with fresh crisp air. Made it into a village where I split a clementine in two & fed it to a curious pig. Back to Chiang Mai around 7:30 & caught a tuk tuk to my new hotel. Bye, amazingly clean & comfortable Peaberry. Nobody was around, so I tossed my bags & caught a tuk tuk to the #1 rated restaurant on trip advisor in Chiang Mai. My table had a little placard with my name on it so the waiters could call me by name: "Miss Cat". Thai-style gnocchi & a Caesar salad. By the time I meandered back to the main road & hailed a tuk tuk, the night market was packing up, so I headed back to the hotel.
Friday March 4: Chiang Rai, Thailand
I'm granting myself another "do nothing" day. First things first, "slept in" till 8:30, then ate a leisurely breakfast of rice soup with chives and a soft-boiled egg. Delicious. I showered, repacked, and dropped my bags off in the lobby and then rented another a bike. Since I'd already hit up the #1-rated restaurant on Trip Advisor the night before, I rode my bike to #2: a little brunch nook that served a mean latte. This place catered to Westerners, so their WiFi was amazing. I planned my next stop: a umbrella place in the city center. It turned out to not exist (or I just couldn't find it), so I searched tattoo parlors until I found one that offered henna. A British tattoo artist told me about all the latest gossip in her life and she freehanded a Mehndi pattern along my hand and wrist. It looked killer.
I spent the rest of the day exploring on my bike without any aim. I sipped a mango shake for lunch and decided I was really going to miss the $1–$3 fresh mangos. I stopped at an art gallery and picked up a medium-sized watercolor print. Blooms of wild color + a hint of a temple. The print was packed flat, so I biked awkwardly back to my hotel with it teetering out of my basket. After securing my new print with my bags, I walked across the street to buy some sliced mangos and an oatmeal bar to eat later for dinner on the night train to Bangkok.
Saturday, March 5: Bangkok, Thailand
I opened my eyes and it took a second to remember where I was. I'd fallen asleep an overnight train leaving Chaing Mai and woke up as we were entering Bangkok. I sleepily wandered to the train's bathroom and my eyes bulged when I looked in the mirror– I'd slept with my hand over my face and my right cheek was stained with henna. After much furious scrubbing and half a bottle of hand sanitizer, I'd blessedly returned back to normal, albeit with a very splotchy cheek.
I had one day in Bangkok and needed to make it count. The train deposited me around 6am and I couldn't check into my hotel until 3, so I had most of the day to wander around in the sun thinking about how badly I needed a shower. Wendy, Wolfgang, Tom and I joined together and grabbed breakfast before heading to the main Bangkok market. We weren't disappointed– the market itself took up multiple city blocks and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors selling their wares. I snacked on mangos with sticky rice as we wove through the packed aisles between stalls.
It was my last evening in Asia and all of us got together for a large group dinner. I sipped a Long Island Iced Tea and we watched the sunset over Bangkok from the rooftop. The rest of the night was an epic blur– I rendezvoused with my friend from college, Selby, and watched his band play in a soul bar downtown. Wendy's birthday began at midnight, so I convinced a bartender to give me a to-go strawberry margarita. He didn't have any to-go cups, so he poured the slush into a plastic bag and added a straw. Perfect. Happy birthday, Wendy!
At some point we made it to a street party, where I got my other hand hennaed-up as well. We all made it back to our hotel in the wee hours of the early morning and said our sad goodbyes. I took a 45-minute power-nap in my room before stumbling back out with all my bags and hailing a taxi to the airport. Worst flight of my life. Best night of my life.