Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ho Chi Minh City

Everything seemed to be going so well. We got let into Vietnam without any issues and our bus even arrived to Ho Chi Minh City a half hour early. Then we got scammed twice within 10 minutes, leaving Vietnam -2 points right off the get go.

The taxi we chose to get in ripped us off. It was a "fake taxi". The meter was going up exponentially fast and we immediately knew that this guy was taking advantage of us. In the midst of this, we realized that we needed to exchange money to pay the guy ripping us off. He took us to a sketchy jewelry store where a sketchy man was waiting for us. His sketchy exchange rate was atrocious, but we kind of had no other option. We thankfully only gave him 1,000 baht, because come to find out, he had given us some fake money. This was almost enough to make us turn around and go back to Cambodia!

In the morning, Brittany and I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were about 90 minutes outside of the city. This is where the Vietcong dug three-tiered tunnels to attack the American soldiers during the Vietnam War. It was interesting and our Vietnamese guide was very knowledgeable. We got to crawl through one of the tunnels which was a bit too stuffy for us. We tapped out at the first stop.

Back at Saigon Backpackers Hostel, I went to take out my computer to upload pictures, and realized my laptop was gone. I immediately broke down because this is any travelers worst nightmare. Brittany and I went through the scenarios, but it all came back to us having no clue! I called my hostel in Phnom Pehn. It was not there. My only thought is that someone swiped it from the bus at one of our stops. Leaving things on a bus is an amateur move, but I'm normally too trusting of mankind. I had to try to think positively. At least I still had my money, passport, and phone. In the midst of it all, Amelia's friend Jason came to take us to dinner. He's been living in Vietnam for a month and we found a great place to eat Vietnamese. We had a lot of fun and took my mind off of the mystery of the missing laptop for a few hours, until I got in and FaceTimed my parents. Water works all over again. Now we're joking about how light my backpack is without it (and how I can help my friends carry their belongings). Always look to the bright side!

So, Ho Chi Minh City, usually better known as Saigon, is another city along our journey that is rich in history. I've always known the name Saigon, thanks to my early Roz's Dance Works days. When I was maybe 7 or 8, my cousin Kara danced to The Heat Is On In Saigon, along with another song from the musical Miss Saigon. Although I don't remember the dance, I can remember that number was my favorite throughout my 12 years at Roz's, and it also made me think that Kara was a huge superstar. Which she is ;) They actually still wear the rice paddy hats here!

HCMC is one that I really enjoy. It is pretty modern, green, and clean, and reminds me a bit of New York City in a way. We found a program where Vietnamese university students take people on free tours, so we decided to do that. It was interesting. Hii took us to a market, to the Reunification Palace, lunch, a Chinese pagoda, and most strangely of all, the Vietnam Museum of Natural Medicine. It wasn't technically a free tour, since we had to pay for Hii's entrance fees and lunch. Fine print of course. We were confused as to why he wanted to take us to the extremely pointless and boring medicine museum instead of the War Remnants Museum, but we decided to do that one on our own the next day.

I would highly recommend the War Remnants Museum. It gives a play by play of the history of the Vietnam War. Lots to read and lots of photographs. The whole second floor was filled with photographs from the action that brave (or crazy) photographers and journalists took. They were really intense and eventually got brutal. The pictures show the truth though. Weapons, blood, scared children, soldiers.

Most surprising to me was the fact that many American soldiers became monsters. Coming right from learning about the genocide in Cambodia, we talked a lot about how anyone could kill innocent people, and here we were learning that our guys did something similar. To me, it looks as though when you're in the midst of a war, you desensitize yourself, and maybe start finding other victims, even if they are innocent civilians. Some of the stories in the museum of what American soldiers did to civilians is horrific.

With all the scams and corruption that I ran into in Ho Chi Minh City, I am still happy with my visit. With bad always follows good. The people who scammed us and who stole my laptop will get theirs. It's called karma. The good for me came in experiencing the history and a new city. I also had sushi for the first time since America, and that was enough to keep me smiling for days!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Phnom Pehn

Our travels to Phnom Pehn went off without a hitch. When we stepped off the bus, we were hit with the calls of "tuk tuk lady" "tuk tuk please". I cannot tell you how annoying and frustrating this has been in Cambodia as a whole, but the number of tuk tuks in Phnom Pehn is overwhelming. By the last night in Phnom Pehn, we were actually yelling at the drivers to leave us alone.

Our first morning, we had to find a place to do our visas for Vietnam. After reading various ways to go about this, we decided to go to a travel agent and paid $60 for a thirty day visa. Why you have to pay so much to get into a country for a short visit I'll never understand.

Brittany and I found a cheap breakfast place and my meal reminded me of Bob's Diner. A veggie omelette, home fries, and toast for $3. When we began asking our waiter for tips on how much to pay for a tuk tuk so we don't get ripped off, he replied, "Oh, I have a tuk tuk driver, want me to call him?" How could we decline?! So, Simon was our driver for the day. We paid $20 and Simon stayed with us from 9:30-4.

Phnom Pehn is similar to Siem Reap in the amount of dust and in the amount of history. Our first historical stop was the Killing Fields. You may find yourself asking when this Killing Field is from, just like I did. I knew little about Southeast Asia at all before I came to this continent. I had no clue there was a genocide in Cambodia and I was especially shocked to find out that the genocide ended only 35 years ago.

The Killing Fields are just that, a place where the masses were taken to be killed. Not gassed like the Holocaust, but brutally battered and beaten to death. Pol Pot was the man in charge of the Khmer Rouge, which was the group who led the mass destruction of the Cambodian people. Pol Pot was a brilliant man with a great education, but he believed that only a certain kind of person was pure. Most people seem to have been impure to him, as he did not discriminate. Even famous people and Westerners were murdered. At the same time the genocide was taking place, Pot was getting funding from the UN for his party, and Western countries did not even know this was happening, or at least pretended not to know. The Vietnam War had just ended and some countries may have been closed off.

There was a $6 entry fee to the Killing Fields, and we got a headset. Normally I wouldn't want a tour, but this is the only way to learn anything here. It is very quiet. No one is talking, and you immediately get a somber, depressed feeling. The headset explains what certain areas once were. It gives a great history on the genocide. It tells personal accounts from people who lived through it. Some were survivors and some had worked at the camps. The accounts are very detailed and emotional, which really makes you think long and hard about the whole monstrosity. My main thoughts were, how could any person think it is okay to kill millions of people and how could something like this occur only 35 years ago?!

Simon took us next to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I paid $2 to enter this museum, which was once a security office, called S-21. The office was designed for detention, interrogation, inhuman torture, and killing. We got to see the old school rooms that were transformed into prison cells. As you can imagine, living quarters were extremely cramped.

Something very interesting about this genocide is that every single prisoner was documented and every person's picture was taken when they entered. This usually occurred before the prisoner had time to process what was going on. At the Killing Fields, I learned that the genocide began in 1975 and ended in 1979, where 1.7 million people were killed. This became an even worse reality to me at the museum. The prisoners' pictures are on display, and some of the pictures look like they could have been taken yesterday with an Instagram filter.

Thousands of pictures are there. Men, women, and children. Khmer and Westerners. Some are smiling, some are clearly angry, and some seem indifferent. It was difficult not to feel emotional, as many faces seemed to be pleading, and you just know deep down that these people in the pictures did not survive.

I'm very intrigued by the genocide, so I bought a book about it to try and educate myself a bit more. The book is called Daughter of the Killing Fields, by Theary C. Seng. I'm 15 pages in and I'm already hooked! This topic will be a good one to discuss in a classroom in the future and I think it will bring on some great conversations.

After we walked through the museum, we asked our driver to take us to a spot for lunch. Maybe for comic relief after a depressing morning, we were taken to Tuk Tuk Cafe. It was packed and is appropriately named for the amount of tuk tuks lined up outside and the congregating drivers.

That night, Brittany's friend Kylie met us at our hostel. She has been volunteering at an orphanage for three months and was spending her last weekend in Cambodia. We went to dinner, and we were bombarded with drivers as usual. While sitting, a cute Khmer girl selling wallets and bracelets came to our table. She was very friendly and polite, so we each bought a bracelet for $1. As soon as she walked away, another girl selling the same things came over. We were sad to say no, but there are only so many bracelets that can fit on my wrist. This girl got so mad and stormed off, but not before saying under her breathe, You are not fair, you are stingy. We were shocked! The parents send these kids to do this as soon as they get out of school, around 11 AM. How awful that the kids are helping take care of their family at 8 years old.

The next day, Brittany and Kylie went to an animal rescue, but I didn't want to spend the money. I watched The Following, wrote some emails, and uploaded some pictures. There isn't a whole lot to do in Phnom Pehn, so I didn't feel bad being lazy for a day.

Before we left for Vietnam, we went to a place called Daughters of Cambodia, which Alicia had recommended. Daughters is a program that reaches out to girls involved in sex trafficking. Daughters offers an escape by providing salaries, training, and classes on essential life skills. At the Daughters visitor center in Phnom Pehn, you can eat at the Sugar and Spice Cafe, get pampered at the Hands n Feet Spa, buy something handmade by the girls at Daughters Boutique Shop, or watch an educational video about the history of Daughters. Brittany and I went with Hanna and Jana, two German girls we met back in Siem Reap. We each bought something small at the boutique, since the prices were a bit high for our backpackers budgets. We also ate at the cafe, which was amazing. I had a grilled pepper salad. It was literally a bowl filled with yellow and red peppers, cherry tomatoes, and homemade ricotta cheese. I was in heaven. I am glad that we made it to Daughters, and it was the perfect way to end our time in Phnom Pehn.

Although Phnom Pehn was not my favorite city, it is rich in history and something worth checking out in Cambodia. One or two nights is all that is needed there. The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng are amazing, humbling, and sobering, and are two places I will never forget.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Koh Rong

The trip to Koh Rong was my first experience with a sleeper bus.  Luckily Brittany and I sat together or else I’d have been up, close, and personal with a stranger.  We stopped a few times during the 13 hour drive since the bus had no toilet.  I witnessed my worst and most unclean squatter during this trip.

 The bus took us to Sihanoukville, the beach city in Southern Cambodia where the ferry leaves for Koh Rong.  There, we picked up our ferry tickets, paid for our scuba diving, and booked our departing bus to Phnom Pehn.

We took three steps onto the pier of Koh Rong and immediately decided that we would never want to leave.  While checking in at Monkey Island Bungalows, we asked if they had vacancy for an extra night, and they did.  They even helped us change our bus ticket, so we tacked on an extra night!

Our bungalow was beautiful, but very basic.  We really roughed it for four nights.  Our bungalow was a stone’s throw away from the beach.  The sounds of the ocean put me to sleep every night.  We had a porch with a hammock.  Our beds had mosquito nets, which I had never had to use before.  There was no fan or air conditioning, but this is all authentic to how the island works and operates.  Also, wifi was difficult to come by, and the bungalows are solar powered.  We only got light from 5-11 PM.  Monkey Island’s restaurant is where we found wifi, but it was pretty poor at most moments.  Monkey Island also had a charging dock, run by a generator, for phones, as the bungalows had no outlets.  It was the perfect refuge, and it was nice not reaching for my phone until dinner each day.

 Brittany and I decided to do a fun dive in Koh Rong.  I probably won’t dive again in Southeast Asia, so we decided to go for it.  It cost $80 for two dives and lunch.  We met our divemaster, Luke, that morning.  He seemed awesome and we were excited for the dives (and nervous since it was our first dive since our certification).  Luke told us that two Russian men, who spoke zero English and had not been diving in six years, were also joining us.  I could tell that Luke was a little uneasy about taking the Russians out, but we all geared up and jumped in.  Luke gave us the signal to go down, but once we did, the Russian guys were nowhere to be found.  I also went down too quickly, and my head suddenly felt like it was going to explode.  My left hear was ringing and I began to panic.  Luke motioned for us to go up, as he could not see the Russians.  Luke, not really knowing what to do, asked us to go back to the boat so he could go find the men.

I had two thoughts. One was that I was disappointed that we missed our first dive.  Two was that I was thankful that I didn’t have to go down since my head felt like it had fallen off and my left ear was clogged and ringing (and later on noticed I had popped blood vessels on my face and one on my right eye).  When everyone got back on board to head to the next site, Luke told us that we could tag along with another group because he felt he needed to devote himself to the Russian men.  We completely understood, so we went on the next dive.  The visibility was not great, but my head did not explode, so that was a plus.

When we finished, Luke offered to take us out on Tuesday morning to make up for the first dive.  It was so generous of him since he knew we would not get our money back.  We laid on the beach for the rest of the afternoon and had an amazing bbq dinner at CoCos.

Another thing that is a must do on Koh Rong is Long Beach.  It is one of the best white sand beaches in the world.  Since there are no roads on the island, you can get there two ways: a 25 minute long tail boat or a jungle trek.  We heard the hike was around 45 minutes so off we went.  This was one of the most difficult hikes I have ever done.  We trekked up steep dirt hills, up large rocks, and we climbed down so many boulders.  Brittany seemed to be a natural, while I trailed behind, sliding down on my butt most of the time!  Rocks are not my thing and Britt knows this, so she offered to help with my things.  At one point she said, hey, you’re conquering another fear!  I’m not sure how one could be afraid of rocks but yup, add it to my list!  I’m mostly afraid of slipping and falling off of them, and this had great potential.  I have not been that sweaty in my whole life but every inch of that trek was worth it.  As soon as I saw the white powder and turquoise water, the hike was already forgotten.

I have never seen a beach like this before, nor is it likely that I will ever see it again.  The only accommodation on this side of Koh Rong is Broken Heart Guest House.  It is a series of private bungalows off of the beach, and you could stay for a mere $35 a night.  The only place to eat is the restaurant at BHGH, where I had fish n chips and a coke for $6.50.  Besides this, there is 7 kilometers of beach and a very small amount of tourists.

Brittany and I just laid in the sun all day, trying to fight off sunburns by applying sunscreen often, but failing with the strong sun.  We had many canine visitors throughout the day.  There were a couple puppies who grabbed anyone’s attention they crossed.  While watching the sunset, one precious puppy took it upon himself to crawl up on my lap, curled up into my sarong, and took a nap.  The cutest thing ever.

To take a break from laying, we took a walk down the beach.  Luke, our dive instructor, had told us that the Bulgarian version of Survivor was being filmed at the end of Long Beach, and Brit is a huge Survivor fan, so we went exploring.  A couple km down, we saw a bunch of Khmer people carrying wood to a boat.  As we got closer, we saw a colorful obstacle course set up on the sand.  We asked, “Survivor?!” and the men smiled and shook their heads yes.  We aren’t sure if we had just missed the challenge, or if it was going to happen soon, but it was a cool thing to see.  It is funny that we were on one very inhabited part of Koh Rong, all while people are filming a television show on the other side, distraught and needing food and water.

 We stayed on Long Beach for the sunset and took a long tail boat back.  The water was very choppy and the island had one white storm cloud with lightening going constantly.  It was such a cool sight to end the day.

Tuesday morning, Luke took us out for our second dive, just the three of us.  We saw some great coral and wildlife, even though the visibility was worse than Sunday.  I got poked by a black sea urchin, which hurt badly.  Apparently the stinger is just in my finger until it desides to disintegrate. Luck was not on my side with diving on Koh Rong, but I lived to tell about it.

The rest of our time on Koh Rong was filled with a bit more sun and good food, and I was so sad to leave.  Koh Rong is so wonderful that many people who come to visit actually stay more long term.  Luke had been there for 14 months, and Niels, a Dutch guy who worked at Monkey Island, stayed for four months.  It is a common thing for a person to say, “I planned on staying a week but I have been here for two months.”  Why would you not if you had no other plan?  It is beautiful, serene, quiet, hardly touched, fun, peaceful, and very cared for.  Upon arrival, we had two men welcome us, give us a complementary fruit drink, and tell us the do’s and don’ts of Koh Rong.  This was strange to us, as I would never picture being welcomed to a whole island, but the people who live here truly love Koh Rong.  One don’t is no fires.  A couple months back, a candle started a fire that took down a couple of buildings.  Luke was there trying to help.  He said he was petrified, and if the wind hadn’t changed, the whole island could have gone up in flames.  The people of Koh Rong also love their animals.  Choco’s program is a new program started to raise money to keep the dogs up with checkups, sterilization, and shots.  There are organized beach cleanups every week and a three month volunteer program for education.

I feel extremely lucky to have witnessed Koh Rong and its natural beauty.  A year ago, there were only a handful of spots for accommodation.  Since then, development has doubled, and I really fear for the future of this island.  I am blessed that I got to visit the island before it eventually becomes the Phuket of Cambodia.  Unfortunately, build up is what Koh Rong will do, as land is currently being cleared to accommodate the next set of bungalows.  Within 20 years, Koh Rong will be full of resorts, villas, a beach club, many more restaurants, a casino, and roads.  It is sad to think about, but what I can hope for Koh Rong is that Long Beach remains untouched.  With the lack of electricity and scarcity of water (we couldn’t even do laundry on the island), I hope that the most gorgeous beach I ever did see stays beautiful.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Siem Reap

Our train left at 5:55 AM from Bangkok and we paid 48 Baht, or $1.46.  This was the same train as the last nightmare one we took a couple of months ago.  No AC, just the open windows and the countryside.  We stopped at the smallest “train stations” I have ever seen, as well as random places where Thai men seemed to just emerge out of nowhere to get on.

When we got off, Brittany and I took a 20 Baht truck to the border.  Here, we smoothly obtained our tourist visas and entered Cambodia!  Our first glance was a strip of hotel casinos, one being the Tropicana.  Encouraged by a man at the border to only get Riel, we exchanged 3,000 Baht for Riel, and on we drove to Siem Reap on a bus for two hours.  We were swarmed by a load of tuk tuk drivers who wanted to take us to our hostel.  They immediately charged us in dollars, making us very confused about what the dominant currency in Cambodia actually was.

The Siem Reap Hostel warmly welcomed us, and it was a great stay.  The staff spoke amazing English, they offered tours of different attractions in the city, there is a swimming pool and a full bar with food, and the dorms were extremely nice for a hostel.  I guess all of those hours spent planning on Trip Advisor paid off after all!  The first night in, we were exhausted.  We found a restaurant down the street, and we enjoyed great chef salads and our first Cambodian beers (Angkor and Cambodia).

The next day, we decided to explore Siem Reap, just me, Brittany, and an old fashioned map.  This became interesting as we both seem to be directionally challenged.  We found many nice Cambodians along the way willing to point us in the right direction, as well as many persistent and annoying tuk tuk drivers trying to give us a ride.  HELLO, can’t you see we are using our legs and walking?!

Finally, we stumbled upon Pub Street at 11 AM extremely dehydrated and sweaty.  Of course, I was thirsty for a $0.50 beer, so down we sat to rehydrate.  We did a bit more walking and went back to shower.  Side note: Siem Reap is dirty.  Not so much dirty with garbage like Thailand, but dirty with dust.  There is bronze dirt lining each side of every road, and it is constantly blowing in the air.  It made our feet look like we had gained a tan, but the fake tan faded with a shower.

That night, we paid Vice, one of our hostel’s tuk tuk drivers, to take us up to Angkor Wat to see the sunset.  The entry fee to get into Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples is $20.  This is a decent fee for it being one of the seven wonders of the world.  Instead of going inside, like the thousands of other tourists, we sat on the opposite side overlooking the water.  Unfortunately, thre was nothing spectacular about the sunset that night, or maybe we just picked a bad spot to sit.  Vice, who waited for us, practiced his English by telling us a short version of the history of Angkor Wat.  He praised our hostel for employing the drivers, and we also found out a bit about his family.  We gave him an extra dollar because he was so wonderful.  Even though it doesn’t sound like very much, that will go a long way for a Cambodian family.  Vice dropped us off at a place called Khmer Kitchen, which has amazing authentic Khmer food and there was a wait at the door for tables when we left!

On day three, Brittany and I rented bikes to do the temples.  4:30 AM came quickly.  We got up, jumped on our rented bikes, and followed the path of the tuk tuks in the pitch dark to get back to Angkor Wat for sunrise.  We sat in the same deserted spot as the night before, and hoped that as the thousands rushed inside, we would see the best rise of the sun come above the temple.  Wrong again.  The sky was a disappointing haze.  We only saw the tiniest hint of pink, and by 6 am we set off on our bikes before the rush of people had the same idea.

In the area, there is Angkor Wat and many other temples and stupas.  We decided to head towards Ta Prohm first.  This is where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed, and we assumed that it would be mobbed during the day.  Biking there seemed to take forever.  My legs were already tired from my rented bike that was stuck in 4th gear, and by 7:30 AM, it had already reached 90 degrees.  Luckily, this temple was well worth it.  We were smart about going early, as Ta Prohm was nearly empty.  Ta Prohm is undergoing restoration, as is Angkor Wat and many other temples, but it was still amazing.  We got to walk through the tombs and see all of the impressive work from so long ago.  We also ran into so many cute Cambodian kids.  No wonder what Angelina Jolie made all that fuss about.

Back on our bikes we went, stopping at smaller temples along the way to Bayon.  Bayon was my favorite temple.  I’d say it has a lot of character, mostly because of the faces staring at you from the carved stone.  As impressive as it was, we spent a small amount of time there, due to our patience with tourists running low and the sun testing our hunger and exhaustion.

We saved Angkor Wat for last.  We were told to save the inside of Angkor Wat for last because it is the most extraordinary of all the temples.  Well, it was, but I do not recommend saving it for the end.  Brittany and I were so hot, hungry, sunburned, and exhausted at this point that we almost decided to not even go inside.  But, we were there and felt that we would regret it if we didn’t at least snap a few pictures.  So, amongst all of the excited and mesmerized tourists, we climbed the steps and briefly went in.  It was beautiful for sure, but I would have appreciated it much more if it was cooler than 105.

After, we still needed to bike back to the city, which was painful just thinking about.  I don’t think I have been that cranky in all of my bad travel situations in Thailand.  I think Brittany saw me mad for the first time even.  So sorry!! Hot and tired is not a good look for me.

We went to the air conditioned haven of the Blue Pumpkin.  We heard rave reviews and went in to refuel.  Who knew how much AC, wifi, and an iced latte could turn your day around!  The food was spot on as well.  I had a huge chicken pita that had zucchini and HUMMUS!!! Two things that I have missed so so much from home.  I became a much happier camper.

At the dorm, we showered, read, and napped in the comfort of the AC.  We eventually made it out to Pub Street, which is lit up and closed off to cars at night.  We got 'dressed up' and I even put mousse in my hair.  This was all for nothing though, as these restaurants are all open with only fans.  Even at 8 PM it was still 90 degrees.  After discussing our budget, we responsibly decided that staying out was not really an option (nor will it ever really be), and we called it a night.

Our last day in Siem Reap was very low key.  I met Brit at Sister Srey Café, where I had the most amazing breakfast: Pancakes stuffed with dragon fruit, watermelon, and caramelized bananas.  Oh, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream of course.  It is the cutest place, and a portion of all bills go to an education program in Siem Reap.  We did some reading there, and I finished To Kill a Mockingbird.  The café happened to have a book swap upstairs.  So, being a good backpacker, I left To Kill a Mockingbird behind and adopted a Jodi Picoult book.  This saved me from spending $14 on a new book, and I hope to be able to do this anytime I need a new read!  We checked out of the hostel at 12, but the hostel let us keep our bags in storage since our bus wasn't until 7 PM.  We found another place to sit and do some writing.  At Café Central, we found a bucket of French fries and the manager Mike, from Canada.  He had volunteered in Cambodia for nine months and liked it so much he decided to stay.  He spent over two months on Koh Rong, which is our next stop, so he wrote down some things for us to do and some people to ask for!

I’d say we started off on a great note.  So far, no travel glitches, an amazing and very helpful hostel, and new sights to add to the list.  Off to Koh Rong we go!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Thai-ed To Thailand

It seems like just yesterday I got off the plane and had a panic attack when I couldn’t find the people picking me up at the airport in Bangkok. I was looking around anxiously trying to find my name written on a piece of paper, but Laura Konderwich was nowhere to be found. I thought to myself, hm, maybe they are waiting for me in a different spot, so on I went, toting my loads of luggage around the airport. After about a half hour of pacing back and forth, I was about to give up and what? Cry? Find a cab and hope they could guess where I needed to go? Go back to America? All of these thoughts were floating through my head when a nice Thai woman stopped me and asked where I needed to go in broken English. She had probably noticed the anxiety in my face as I was frantically looking around. All I knew to say was Anubanchonburi, and I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. Right as the name of the school came out of my mouth, I saw someone whip their head around and say my first name. I’m not sure I’ve hugged anyone that hard in my life.

I experienced Thai time, which I often talk and complain about, in my very first hour in Thailand. My Thai supervisor and Helen, the girl whose class I was taking over, came to pick me up. They profusely apologized for being late. The driver was late to pick them up, then he needed to get gas, and then there was Bangkok traffic. Helen told me right off the bat that being late was something I’d have to deal with and boy was she right.

On my ride to Chon Buri, I was trying to pick Helen’s brain while attempting to take in the scenery of my new home at the same time. No matter what you’re in a new place for, whether it be someplace you move to or someplace you visit for a brief amount of time, it is a crazy feeling. I can vividly remember having this feeling in other new countries, and I think I feel this way in any new place. It’s basically a feeling of I can’t believe I’m here. The same feeling crept back as I got closer and closer to my house. It just felt unreal, and once in a while I still have found myself taking a step back. I give myself a pat on the back, so to say, because I am proud of myself for all I have done here, and for even following through with coming to Thailand at all. I have proved a lot to myself.  I have conquered countless fears. I have become confident about where my future will lead me, and it is all because of my experiences here.

One thing I will never forget about that first day is pulling onto my road. It was then that I actually thought, holy crap, this is actually happening. The only way that I can describe my neighborhood is authentically Thai. We say it has charm. I’m not sure many people would agree, but it was my home for five months and I swear it is charming in its own way! We have gated houses, mom and pop shops, wooden rickety shacks on stilts, and of course the swamp of sewage and garbage right in my backyard. We have become very friendly with some of our neighbors, many who never fail to say hello in English, which goes a long way in my book. Just last night, we had friends over for a "last hoorah".  At one point, one of our neighbors came over to drop off a bag of mangos. Then when we ordered pizza, the Thai woman next door told the man on the phone how to get to our house. Everyone is so friendly in our neighborhood and I will miss the old men offering me whiskey every day!

My most generous neighbor sharing his whiskey

Greeted every day after school by this smiling face!

I thank my lucky stars that Amelia was there waiting at the house for me on that first day. Our mutual friend, Alicia, set us both up at the school, so Amelia and I were in constant contact in the months leading up to the move. From the second I arrived, we hit it off and began exploring. We spent just about every minute of our time in Thailand together, and I am thankful that I can now call her a lifelong friend. You make different bonds with people when you share experiences like this one together and I couldn’t have asked for a better roommate/travel buddy/coworker/friend. I'm not sure what I would have done without her wisdom, knowledge of travel, and advice. For example, she just saved my butt while packing. I showed her everything I had out to take backpacking, which was WAY too much. As I went through each piece of clothing, she was floored when I pulled out four black tank tops to bring, plus the one I was wearing at that moment. She was the voice of reason as usual and gave it to me straight. Laura, please only take one black tank top. My backpack will now be a pound lighter because of her! See you in Vietnam my pretty girl!

As I prepare to leave Thailand, I have to give it some shout-outs. When I leave a place that I grow to love, I always leave a little piece of me behind, and Thailand is no different (even though we often had a love-hate kind of relationship). I’d like to acknowledge all that I will miss in this wonderful country..

Low cost of living. Tonight I had my last fish dinner at our market, which is my favorite meal here. We got two large fish, endless noodles, lettuce, and cabbage, three plates of fried rice, three plates of papaya salad, and lots of Leo. There were nine of us and it cost 150 Baht a person (close to $4.50). This is an expensive splurge for us, as my dinner usually costs only 50 Baht. A movie ticket costs 120 Baht, or $3.64. If I am the stingiest person you’ve met when I get home, it’s because I am used to paying nothing for everything!

The night market. Our smoothie lady has the biggest smile and never fails to give us a taste of a strange fruit she could tell we had never seen before. The pad Thai couple has the best pad Thai I ever did have, and they also make a mean papaya salad (som tam). Pad see ew, hanging duck, meat on a stick, fresh fish dinner, guava, bananas, dragon fruit, watermelon, omelets, mango and sticky rice, baked goods, ice cream. This list doesn’t do my market justice.

Our smoothie ladies
Can't forget about the bugs

Islands. From Koh Tao to Koh Samet to Koh Chang. Thailand is known for its islands and I am so happy that I got to witness all of their beauty and uniqueness. My island days aren’t over yet though. Some of my last days in Southeast Asia will be spent island hopping. Originally the plan was to take them on alone, but I am extremely happy that my friend Jordan is joining me! Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, and Krabi. So much to see and so little time!

My favorite, Koh Tao

Traveling cheap. Nowhere in America could you travel 12 hours and pay only $22. Yes, getting here and back was a big cost, but traveling within Southeast Asia is dirt cheap. If you can afford to get a plane ticket here, the worst financially is behind you!

My students. I cannot tell you how many times I went home from work with a migraine these past five months. Trying (often failing) to speak over 36 children is nearly impossible, even when using a microphone. Teaching is hard work and often exhausting, but I wouldn’t have traded my students for anything. I love being with kids all day and it was a joy to have hopefully made even the tiniest bit of an impact on them.

Tonight is my last night in Chon Buri. After watching the sunset, eating some of our favorite market meals, and enjoying a couple of Changs, my anxiety is building and I am starting to get nervous about this move. As of tomorrow, I officially do not have a home for over a month. It is an exciting and scary thought at the same time! Tomorrow afternoon, I am dropping off my large suitcase at a storage unit in Bangkok, and then Brittany and I will be off to Cambodia. Posts and pictures may be far and few for a while, but if you’d like to track my journey, here is my travel itinerary:

March 10: Overnight in Bangkok
March 11th-21st: Cambodia with Brittany (Siem Reap, Koh Rong, Phnom Penh)
March 22nd-April 3rd: Vietnam with Brittany, Amelia, and Mikaela (Ho Chi Min City, Hanoi, Sapa, Ha Long Bay)
April 3rd-5th: Pick up Jordan/ Bangkok
April 5th-11th: Southwest islands with Jordan(Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Krabi)
April 11th-15th: Singapore with Jimmy
April 15th-17th: Bangkok
April 17th-May 11th: London with Kristen (Lance, Dana, and Al arrive May 2nd!)
May 11th- Back to Americaaa! (Happy Mother’s Day, mom!!)

I have been looking forward to backpacking for months and I cannot believe it is already here! After days of preparing, my bags are finally packed and off I go to continue the adventure! A gigantic thank you to those who have kept in touch these past five months, and especially to those who have mailed things to me. You have no idea how appreciative I am of every text, letter, or package I have gotten. Simple acts of kindness go a long way with me, and I will forever remember those who reached out. I also have to apologize to those who have sent me things that never made it here. Unfortunately, the postal system in Thailand is sketchy and unreliable and I am sorry that some packages got jacked. I love you for trying!

Just know, as you're headed off into the blue, that a big pice of Here will be going with you!
                            -Dr. Seuss