Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Songkran Sendoff

I left Jimmy in Singapore and journeyed back to Thailand. I had a super nice Best Western booked for my last two nights in Bangkok. I had nothing planned but to repack, lay by the pool, read, and write, and that's exactly what I did. I also FaceTimed with my mom for two hours. I can't believe my parents will be picking me up from JFK in four weeks!

Although I had plenty of time to venture out into Bangkok one last time, I decided not to. My last two weeks of traveling had gone flawlessly and I didn't want anything to go wrong to put a damper on my last impression of Thailand. Another reason I decided against leaving: Songkran. Songkran is the celebration of the Thai New Year. This three day celebration (six days in some parts of the country) is basically one huge water fight. Thai people (and foreigners who join in) roam the streets with water guns, buckets of water, and hoses, soaking anyone and everything in sight. They also carry around beige talc mixed with water that gets smeared on random street dwellers with intentions to bless them in the New Year. Normally, I'd be really into this, but I was alone and afraid for my belongings. Anyone is fair game during Songkran, so I sadly skipped going into Bangkok.

Being one who likes snacks available at all times, I decided to walk about four minutes to 7-11 to pick things up for my flight. Even though I was positive nothing would happen, I prepared. I took my wallet, left my phone in the room, and put on old gym clothes. I was safe on my way to 7-11, but on the walk back, a truck pulled over ahead of me. Crap. The bed of the truck was full of Thai people with a big bucket in between them. They were coming for me and all I could do was embrace it. Two men came over to me; one with a bucket of water, one with a bucket of talc, both with enormous smiles. I could tell they were being a bit cautious, but when I yelled SONGKRAN! they let the water pour (being careful not to get my wallet, how nice of them). Water ran down my head, chest, and back, followed by the smearing of talc all over any exposed skin from the neck up. I could tell how pleased they were that I was such a good sport. When they were pleased with their work, we tried to have a conversation but the language barrier was up between me and everyone in the truck. Obviously not getting too far with that, they thanked me and let me on my way.

I walked into my hotel lobby drenched, pale-faced, and smiling from ear to ear. Everyone in the lobby joined in my laughter and one of the Thai bell boys said Songkran got you! It was all in great fun and it was honestly the perfect experience to end my time here. It will always remind me that Thailand really is the 'land of smiles.'

Never did I have a desire to go to Asia, and now I'm finding it extremely difficult to say goodbye. I am a very, very lucky person to have gotten an opportunity to teach here, to have my first backpacking experience, and to explore five countries and all the beauty they have to offer. I'm even luckier to be able to stay with one of my best friends in London for a bit before it's back to the real world. Thailand, you've been good to me and I hope to be back sooner than later, but it's finally time to give my hair a break from the humidity! Kristen, I'm coming for you and America, you're close behind!!


Backpacking pros:

-Time to read new books. I can't wait to read Gone Girl! (After two pages) Oh whoops I already read it.

-Running into old friends along the way. Being reunited requires a celebratory drink, right?

-Meeting new friends. 

-Doing things people dream about. Scuba diving in Cambodia, biking Angkor Wat, crawling through Vietcong tunnels, and kayaking in Ha Long Bay.

-Seeing so many of these places in a small amount of time. All of the above done in 20 days.

-Whether it was pointing us in the right direction, taking us somewhere, or helping with a problem, I've met far more good people than bad.

-Little to no shopping. Tell me I can't buy this because I can't fit it in my bag.

-You gain independence.

-Make your own schedule. Eat, sleep, and sight see at your own flexible pace.

-Time to grow. Traveling gives you heaps of time to think, to reflect, and to learn about yourself. You grow in a way you might not even realize and you learn how much you are capable of achieving.

Backpacking cons:

-Dorm life (if on a budget). In my opinion, dorms are okay for a weekend, but staying in dorms consecutively makes you miss your own space. Forewarning to strangers: I'm waking up at 5 AM so I'm apologizing ahead of time if I wake you up.

-Safety and security. Stop it right now, my laptop is gone.

-Transportation. You just cannot control it. If I was driving I'd be there in 2 hours not 4.5.

-People try to take advantage of the tourist, but that happens on any vacation I suppose.

-Backpacks are heavy.

-Chances are you'll be on a constant budget. Should we really have a beer or do we want to eat breakfast in the morning?

-Clothes are worn again and again and you have limited choice in clothing, especially if you are traveling for a long period of time.

-You will unpack and repack every day. Of course the shirt I want to wear is at the bottom of my backpack.

-What kind of bathroom will you end up with? Guys!!!! We have toilet paper!!!!

-Currency change in each country. I just got 4,000,000 dong! What, I'm not a millionaire?

Backpacking may not be for everyone, but it is something I suggest to do at some point if the time and funds are found. These points are completely biased on my experiences, but I believe they are general positives and negatives that come with the territory. Happy travels!


The decision to go to Singapore was pretty last minute. I knew I had some extra time before London and I would be alone, so why not go see a familiar face in nearby Singapore? Jimmy and I actually are family, contrary to popular belief! My dad and his mom are cousins which makes us second cousins, so it was even better to visit with family!

When I first got to Jimmy's place, he had to go back to work for a few hours which gave me the perfect time to recover from my week with Jordan. I did laundry and slept for a couple of hours. Jimmy picked me up around seven, and we headed toward Marina Bay. We walked around for quite a bit, and I immediately saw how beautiful this country is. Jimmy took me for late night snacks at Newton Plaza for fried rice, sting ray, mussels, and sweet and sour chicken. It was my first time ever having sting ray, and I hate to say it was pretty good.

I must have been exhausted, as the next day I slept until 12:30, a rare occurence. We took the MRT (subway service) to Orchard Road, walked around a bit more, and went to the Marina Bay Sands Sky Bar for happy hour. One beer here was 17 Singapore Dollars, or $15. Similar to the sky bar in Bangkok, this was pretty pricey, but then again all of Singapore is expensive. It was an unfortunately hazy day so the view wasn't great, but it was still cool to see the city from above!

That same night, we went to Jimmy's friend Albert's place. Albert and his girlfriend are from Spain and were some of the friendliest people I have met along my way. After some beers and tequila, we went out to a club named Kyo, where their friend was DJing. Kyo also had $5 drinks until midnight, so we surely stocked up and played beer pong!

Jimmy had all intentions of taking me to Sentosa that next day, but neither of us were feeling even 40%. Sentosa is an island resort that has a sand-less beach and Universal Studios Singapore. I didn't feel like I had to go there because I had heard from many people that it is nothing special. Instead, we had a lazy day and finished with a feast in Chinatown for dinner.

My last day in Singapore I was on my own. I took the MRT (which is incredibly easy to navigate) to the Botanic Gardens. These gardens are filled with plants native to Southeast Asia. I spent a couple of hours there and set off toward Orchard Road with the intention to go shopping, and shop is what I did. Besides souvenir shopping, I haven't bought a thing for myself since October, so I thought a small spree was deserved. I did some damage at H and M, and when I accidentally stumbled upon Forever 21, I literally had tears in my eyes. I did more damage.

Singapore is in no means a place for the budget traveler, but is definitely a place I'd pick to live if I were to move to this side of the world again. It is beautiful, extremely clean, and very modern. Singapore has incredibly strict laws, hence the cleanliness. One time on the MRT, I took a sip of my Vitamin Water. Jimmy quickly told me not to drink anymore and pointed at a sign. $500 fine for eating or drinking on the MRT. No eating or drinking on public transportation?! Sounds ridiculous, but as I looked around no one was and the subway was spotless. I'm a large fan of this country and hope to spend more time there in the future (when not on such a budget).

A Bro in Thailand

Ahh the joys of flying. How much easier it is to take a two hour flight than a 12 hour bus ride! I said goodbye to Amelia, Mikaela, and Brittany at different times. I was sad to leave them, but had a happy heart knowing that these will be lifelong friends who I will see back home.

Never did I think I would be so happy to get back to Thailand. After the ups and downs of traveling there, I was shocked that I wanted to kiss the ground at BKK. My happiness was solidified when I ate dinner at a small cafe. I was the sole customer and the Thai owner played me American songs on his guitar for over an hour. Much appreciated. I picked Jordan up at the airport at 11:30 PM and he was so excited that we just stayed up discussing Thailand for hours. With him here, my travels finally felt like a vacation!

Jordan and I started in Bangkok. We got a tuk tuk for the day, saw a couple of temples, Wat Pho included, and then made our way to a tailor shop that a Thai man highly suggested. Of course the tuk tuk driver got commission if he brought tourists there and of course Jordan got talked into buying two custom-made suits. They should be arriving to New York shortly! As we were driving around the city, it made me so happy to see how giddy Jordan was. He quickly fell for the country that I am so dearly fond of.

That day, we checked into The Warehouse Bangkok, a hip new hotel that was very accommodating. First thing on the list that night, the setting of The Hangover: Sky Bar at Lebua State Tower. I have to admit I had some doubts about going there, but those doubts were immediately put to rest as soon as we stepped out of the elevator onto the 64th floor. The view of Bangkok was amazing, looking up at the golden dome was unreal, and the taste of Jack Daniels was just what I needed. Although the drinks are MUCH pricier than I've been used to in Thailand ($16 for a Jack and coke), I was ready for the splurge. You actually can go up there without buying anything, which is great that the hotel doesn't charge a fee. After meeting two girls from the UK, the four of us headed to Khoa San Road, Bangkok's hub for Westerners and backpackers. Jordan got his fill of scorpion, frogs, and insects, and we had an unintentional, but very fun, night out.

At the airport the next morning, I had McDonalds for breakfast, the first fast food I've had in SE Asia (pat on the back). The Hangover cure. Next stop was Phuket, a well known and touristy island in Thailand. Our hotel, Amata Resort, was enormous and beautiful. First thing on the to-do list in Phuket: get Jordan a bamboo tattoo at Siam Ink. The tattoo came out so nicely and will be one that always reminds Jordan of how amazing this trip was :) I was very tempted to get one myself, but I decided to hold off. You're welcome mom and dad. That same night we went to a Muay Thai fight at Patong Boxing Stadium. Some fights are staged, but at this gym it's the real thing. We saw multiple knock-outs and for 1,300 baht and six fights, it was worth it.

The next day we took a day trip to Maya Bay and Koh Phi Phi. Maya Bay is where The Beach was filmed and it was jam packed. Our boat stopped far away from the beach with intentions for the passengers to snorkel for an hour. Jordan and I decided we wanted pictures on Maya Bay. We swam there and back and it was an extremely difficult swim amongst all the boats driving past. Was it worth the swim and three pictures? Probably not, but at least we got a solid workout. We made a stop to Koh Phi Phi for a couple of hours and Jordan got some major sun poisoning. Red from head to toe.

I planned a day for Jordan to ride elephants. Since I had already done so in December, I opted out and sent him out alone. I'm pretty sure this was his best day and I'm glad he got to go. While he did that, I enjoyed a beer at an Irish Pub and got a pedicure! By this point, I was beginning to feel a bit traveled-out. A month of traveling was starting to wear me out! We planned on going out this night, but got distracted by a talented group of break dancers on Bangla Road. We ended up having drinks at a bar next to them and watched for two hours. Jordan did a trick and it made his life!

Off to Koh Lanta we went! I wanted to stay here one night because it is a much less touristy and more remote island. We stayed at the lovely Papillon Bungalows, a short walk from the deserted Phra Ae Beach. We layed, we swam, we collected seashells, we walked. It was a quiet refuge after Phuket. I put up a photo of seashells on Instagram that afternoon that said that I was in Koh Lanta. Technology is so interesting, as my friend Ally, who taught in Chon Buri, saw this and reached out. She was on the island alone, and the three of us met for dinner and drinks on the beach.

After only one night on Koh Lanta, Jordan and I set off on the ferry for Ao Nang, Krabi. Ao Nang reminds me a bit of Ocean City. It's a cute little beach town with amazing beaches so close by. I did a big splurge for our last place. Ao Nang Cliff Beach Resort. The most beautiful view and room. There was a jacuzzi on the balcony, a gorgeous view of the gigantic limestone cliffs, and a refreshing pool. We took a long tail boat to Railay Beach. I heard and read nothing but great things about this beach, and it exceeded my expectations! There were limestone cliffs on either side of us and the beach had only a handful of people when we arrived. It was a relaxing morning, especially with the foot scrub and aloe massage that we got in the shade.

Because we had three beds in our hotel room, I suggested that Ally stay with us on our last night, and I'm glad she did! The three of us went to Crazy Gringos for 50 baht tequila shots ($1.50) and 120 baht passion fruit margaritas ($3.60). It was a great last night with Jordan and I was sad to leave him at the airport the next day!

Since this was Jordan's first time in this part of the world, I'm going to have him write his own post. His experience was much different than mine and he'll have more of a tourist view! I know how much he loved the country and I'm happy for him to share!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Ha Long Bay

The same morning we arrived back in Hanoi from Sapa, we took off again for Ha Long Bay with Vega Tours. Four hours in a van, and we met our new guide, Slim. Friends with Tu, Slim had a similar personality. Very friendly, very chatty, and very knowledgeable.

Ha Long Bay is a place that I have marveled over for a couple of years now. It is one of the natural wonders of the world. It is one of those places that you pin on Pinterest just because of its beauty and you think, this is a place I would die to go to someday. The bay is filled with roughly 2,000 tall, mesmerizing, limestone islands that just keep rising above sea level. The islands are most amazing when the sun is shining, but unfortunately for us, and the millions who visit, the bay only sees the sun for 80-90 days a year. We had a fog surrounding us the whole time, but it was still beautiful.

We rode a small boat to get to ours, where they made us wear life jackets. This may be the first time in Asia that anyone seemed remotely concerned about our safety, so we happily played along. Our bay boat was much nicer than the others at the pier, which proves that you get what you pay for at Ha Long. Our rooms were clean and cozy, almost as nice as cruises I have been on.
We were starving, as it was 1 PM, and were more than delighted to be greeted by a delicious, never-ending lunch.

After lunch, we took a tour through Surprising Cave. We waited in the line of tourists, and it was so beautiful. The cave was a gigantic mass of stalactites and stalagmites and it was cool to see how the water once formed it.

From the cave, we got to go kayaking around the bay. Mikaela and I were blessed with defect oars, so we got an enormous arm workout, but it was worth it. I felt so small amongst the humungous fixtures of limestone darting out from the water. They are all covered in lush, green trees and shrubs, which makes it look like a scene from Tarzan. I kept thinking I would see a gorilla climbing one, but to my disappointment, there are no gorillas in this part of the world. We kayaked through a circular lagoon that was another peaceful spot. Kayaks are the only thing that can get in, as the entrance/exit rises only slightly above your head.

We again had a dinner to brag about.  Shrimp cocktail, squid, grilled fish, steamed vegetables, rice, and an amazing chicken that we raved so much to Slim about that he brought us leftovers from the table next to us. We enjoyed a few Bia Ha Noi, some games with our waiter, and called it a night very early (not before finding out that chocolate/peanut butter Oreos exist, what happy people we were!) We were still pooped from Sapa!

We woke for breakfast at 7, and by 8 were on the small boat to Ti Top. Here, we climbed 350 steps to a lookout point. Still feeling it from Sapa, I felt like I had to talk to my legs to tell them to move. At the top, the view was a bit disappointing, mainly due to the amount of fog. We couldn't even see past the limestone right in front of us. Even so, we took in what we could see, snapped some pictures, and made our way back down the way we had come up.

When we returned to our boat, it was already time to turn around to go back to the pier. For the next few hours, we got to relax on the deck and read, watching the limestone structures pass by on either side, taking it in before we reached civilization yet again.

I'd suggest Vega Tours to anyone traveling in the Northern area of Vietnam who is willing to pay a little bit more for a tour. I know for a fact that we got a better and more authentic experience in Sapa and Ha Long Bay after talking to people who chose other companies. 

I can't believe how quickly my time of traveling is going. Jordan has arrived in Thailand! Ironically, Jordan was actually one of the last people I saw at home, as I had breakfast at Bob's with him and Mike Lacasse the morning I left for Thailand. Now he is the first familiar face I'll see from home after being deprived for five months!