A Mini Guide to Southeast Asia

DSC_0957_4.JPG

My favorite animal is a close tie between elephants and platypus (platypi?), but platypus don't fit in for the sake of this post. My favorite food is any sort of spicy Asian noodle bowl. So when I was able to eat spicy noodles with elephants walking nearby, I'd knew I'd found my place. It's crazy to say, but a few YEARS ago two friends and I traveled through Southeast Asia for roughly three months. It was the kind of trip they make movies about. Meaning yes - it was incredible to wake up next to elephants; yes - things went wrong. And yes - we got sick. But only after drinking the water! We ate from every sketchy street vendor you can imagine, and everything was dandy, until one day in Cambodia we were hungover/extremely lazy and got a splash of water in our mouths after brushing our teeth. I'd say all three of us were bed ridden from dusk to dawn that day. The below is a rough guide to traveling through Southeast Asia!

-          Eat like the locals.

-          Pack a filtering water bottle (saves plastic and is useful in rural areas) or straw

-          Book hostels ahead of time if you can, the good ones go fast (Try Hostelworld or Hostelbookers) We were trying to meet people as we went along our trip, so we tended towards hostel stays or home-stays with locals, versus Airbnbs or hotels

-          Always carry a sweater or scarf with you for going in to Temples (they require your shoulders to be covered and are pretty strict about it)

 Life in the back of a tuktuk - keep all limbs inside the ride at all times.

Life in the back of a tuktuk - keep all limbs inside the ride at all times.

 Thailand

 Bangkok

Read this.

o   Hostels:

  • Bed Station
  • Boxpackers
  • Lub D Bangkok

o   Activities:

o   Resources:

o   Eat: EVERYTHING (including street food! None of us got sick from doing this. I 100% recommend) - Pad Thai, Tom Yum Soup, Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam), Pad Kra Pao, Pad See Ew

Chiang Mai

o   Hostels:

  • Hug Hostel
  • Spicythai Backpackers

o   Activities:

DSC_0063_2.JPG

o   Eat: Kao Soi Noodle soup

Pai

Pai is a super crunchy, hippie area about 2 hours by car from Chiang Mai. I highly recommend! It's got nightly markets on the streets, a very chill vibe, and really interesting people. There are also really pretty waterfalls nearby.

WARNING: The road is super curvy and known to make people very car sick. If you’re up for it, you can self-drive in a scooter, but people also crash these pretty often. Otherwise, Pai is DEFINITELY worth seeing. It’s a super crunchy, hippie town in the mountains and has gorgeous waterfalls nearby

o   Hostel we stayed in: Circus School Hostel

 

Cambodia

Siem Reap

o  Lara Croft meets Legends of the Hidden Temple: Go here to see Angkor Wat and the famous temples but do not stay more than 3 days (there is nothing else to see/do here and it’s very touristy) 

Sihanoukville

o   Beach town – very touristy/more for partiers. A more chill version is Otres Beach, about 20 mins by Tuk Tuk

Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Just to pass through – don’t stay here long! Super smoggy and congested)

  • Vietnam War museum - not a light viewing. The museum gives an interesting, and opposite, perspective on the war

o   Eat: Pho! and Bahn Mi from local carts

  • Transportation Note: In all of Vietnam, make sure to look at the cost of flights first, and then research overnight buses. Flights can be as low as $30 USD. I do NOT recommend taking trains. They are pretty unreliable, costly, and smelly (I once woke up with my head on the window, and a cockroach crawling nearby)
 Cao Lau

Cao Lau

Hoi An

o   MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE CITY

o   Stay at a homestay instead of a hostel this time!

o   Eat: Cao Lau! 

- Friend's recommendation: White Rose dumpling house - 

Hanoi

Hanoi is another large, bustling city, though much more amicable than Ho Chi Minh. There is a huge amount of expats living in the city, all around the 20-30 year old range, so it makes for a fun atmosphere. 

o   Eat: Bun Cha Noodles

 a bunch of bun cha noodles

a bunch of bun cha noodles

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is reachable first by bus from Hanoi, and then by boat. We booked an overnight "party" boat, which I would probably never do again even if you paid me. BUT the destination itself is really beautiful. Most boats, overnight or not, will take you to Cat Ba National park where you can hike for a bit, see the local monkeys, and go kayaking. Make sure to look into the weather for the time you'll be there (we were technically there in their winter, so at night it was frigid).

 Following our homestay guide in Sapa

Following our homestay guide in Sapa

Sapa

o   Stay in a homestay in the rice paddy villages. The ladies of the village will walk you through the area until you arrive at your designated homestay. We ate dinner cooked for us over a tiny fire overlooking the hills

You can book most of these "excursions" from hotels or hostels in Hanoi. Definitely haggle!

Laos

Vientane

o   Wake up at sunrise to see Monks

o   Read this

Vang Vieng

o   Four hours by bus, quite touristy but young

o   Take tubes down lazy river and stop at the bars along the way

Luang Prabang

Go to the Kuang Si Waterfalls! Just hop in a tuk-tuk from the center of town in Luang Prabang (average cost 30-40,000 kip). Make sure you plan your day to allow for at least four hours at the falls itself. The entrance fee is 20,000 kip ($2.50 USD)

 Kaung Si Waterfalls

Kaung Si Waterfalls

Safe Solo Travel on A Super Slim Budget: 5 Tips to Get By On The Fly

As an American who has spent the last year living in Australia, and 3 months traveling through SE Asia prior, money was definitely an obstacle along the way- but never a complete roadblock. Before that I studied abroad in Europe in undergrad - so I was especially on a tight budget then. Here are 5 tips on my insights to traveling solo and on the cheap - 

1. Stay in hostels / Couchsurf / Airbnb

 Our Airbnb flat in Hobart, Tasmania

Our Airbnb flat in Hobart, Tasmania

Stay with Locals and Make Travel Friends - Couchsurfing is NOT as sketchy as it sounds. Even as a solo female traveler you can safely stay on a fellow travelers couch for free and learn heaps more about the city than you would in a fancy hotel paying extortionate amounts.

If you're still a bit hesitant, hostels are cheap alternatives to hotels. You're surrounded by like-minded travelers (often on similar budgets), and some are actually quite accommodating. Check out the reviews before you book on Hostels Worldwide - Online Hostel Bookings, Ratings and Reviews and Hostels, Hotels & Youth Hostels at hostelbookers

And lastly, my new favorite, Airbnb! A cheap alternative to hotels, Airbnb allows you to stay in other people's homes (and usually meet the owner's as well - providing lots of insight and local advice on your current city). I've recently stayed at Airbnbs in Tasmania as well as London and couldn't be more satisfied with each experience!

2. Be a backpacker

 Backpacking through the ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar

Backpacking through the ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar

There is a nomadic lifestyle associated with simply using a carry-on size backpack while traveling, in lieu of a rolly suitcase. You'll skip the airlines charges for checked luggage, you'll learn to prioritize when packing, and you'll skip the impulsive travel buys simply because you don't have the room in your bag.

3. Pack a water filter (and reusable bottle)

IMG_3702.JPG

When traveling through Asia, my friends and I saved heaps by simply packing a water filter. This way we were able to refill our water bottle wherever, and not have the worry of getting sick in the case that it was contaminated water. These days there are even water bottles with filters attached within them. However, I used a simple life straw and never once got sick. Amazon.com : LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

4. Set up your networks prior to leaving

IMG_3703.jpg

In this day and age of social networking, you're bound to know someone (or someone who knows someone) in the destination(s) you're headed. Reach out to friends and let them know your travel plans. Most likely they'll give you a connection in the area, and if not, they might just be able to give you some tricks of the trade for traveling solo there. There's nothing better than meeting a new friend in a new destination, and having them show you around. You get the perspective of a local but still have the feeling of an explorer.

Be sure to check out local groups on Facebook, Couchsurfing events & groups, or even just websites like Hommily, a social network specifically made for travelers.

5. Eat the street food!

 Food stall vendors on the west coast of Krabi, Thailand

Food stall vendors on the west coast of Krabi, Thailand

Pad Thai off a cart anywhere and everywhere in Thailand is usually around $1 and equivalent in size to that of 3 dinners. And, as if that wasn't good enough, it's DELICIOUS. While you should always have your guard up regarding the cleanliness of street food, if you dismiss it altogether, you will truly be missing out on a good chunk of the best part of traveling - experiencing other cultures. My personal recommendation - just stick to the most popular street carts. If there is a line, it's legit (specifically if the line is made up of locals)!

5A. Find alternate forms of transportation (Less safe, more money-saving)

Depending on the mode of transportation, usually the cheaper the expense, the less safe the vehicle. I've ridden motorbikes in Thailand, electric bicycles in Myanmar, unstable TukTuks in Cambodia, highly unregulated buses in Northern Vietnam, non-airconditioned overnight trains in Southern Vietnam, uncomfortably packed vans in Laos, etc. If you can dream it, (and you have good coordination) you can most likely cheaply ride it. 

 Riding (and photographing) through Koh Phangan island, Thailand

Riding (and photographing) through Koh Phangan island, Thailand

In Cahoots with the Mahouts

Before arriving at the Elephant Nature Park in Surin, Thailand, the most extraordinary experience I'd ever had- the one that truly shocked me out of my mind, made me grateful for this crazy life, and always stuck out as one of the highlights of all my travels combined- was camping out in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. For 3 days and 2 nights, a group of ceaselessly curious students slept under the stars, peed in sand dunes in the pitch black of night, and even endured a wicked sand storm. We rode unbearably long bus rides all the way south from the city of Sevilla, endured a nauseating ferry ride across the Straight of Gibraltar, rode more rickety buses and eventually hopped onto some sand buggies to drive straight into the middle of nowhere. With nothing around us but ever-shifting sand dunes, it was instantly frightening and calming at the same time. Waking up with the sunrise and peeking my head out of our bleakly-constructed tents (literally a few sticks holding up handmade rugs), I was in awe of the world. 

But then, a new life experience wiped the Sahara out of the first place ranking. In January of this year, Taylor, Liz and I volunteered at an elephant conservation in a rural village of Thailand known as Surin. Upon arriving, it was a confusing campus of sorts. On one hand you still saw elephants chained up, a look of sadness in their beautiful orange hued eyes. On the other, there was a breeze of change in the air, and you could instinctively feel it. The Surin Project was created by Lek Chailert, a firecracker of a woman who for the past 10 years or so has been bulldozing her way through the elephant tourism industry of Thailand. What most people don’t understand is that industry is malevolent at best. It is a disgusting, torturous trade of commerce made up of businessmen and elephant owners who only see these animals as a method of profit. Long gone are the well-established social rankings of a mahout, proud caretakers of such majestic beasts.

 Taylor and Liz were able to meet Lek personally, and help out at a local school, teaching the children the importance of taking care of the eles [Photo credit to Lek]

Taylor and Liz were able to meet Lek personally, and help out at a local school, teaching the children the importance of taking care of the eles [Photo credit to Lek]

Nowadays you’ll find caretakers who will do literally anything with their animals in order to reap a dollar- from street begging on the corners of Bangkok (now considered an illegal activity, though there are hardly any efforts made to enforce this law), to exploitation by tourist rides, to the brutal manipulation of circus acts. Fortunately, elephants as circus entertainment are more often frowned upon than enjoyed in modern times, yet these acts still exist all over the world. And while we Americans frown at the exploitation of such an animal in a circus atmosphere, I can guarantee at least one of you knows someone who recently posted a picture riding an elephant in a Southeast Asian country. We clap our hands at Barnum and Bailey ending their elephant routines, and yet we Instagram ourselves leisurely riding atop the same animal. PEOPLE. Get it together. How do you think that animal learned to balance a chair on top of its neck, casually allowing a heavy wooden structure to pierce it’s most sensitive pressure points? Why is it there is always a mahout around as you ride, almost never seen without some type of brutal poking stick? For your safety? So that the elephant doesn’t stampede off while you’re taking selfies 8 feet above ground? It’s because that gentle beast has been brutalized since it was a baby- beaten with bamboo sticks embellished with rusty nails, all the while trapped inside a cage the size of our closets. It’s a fact that emphasizes the true nature of the phrase “Ignorance is bliss”. Admittedly, I knew none of this before volunteering at the ele park. I simply thought we were off to hang out with the coolest creatures in Asia (yeah I said it, Pandas!). 

To make me not seem like such a ele-obsessed girl watch the following (click Training Crush):

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0510/feature5/video.html 

Then make a promise to the poor creatures that if you ever find yourself in Asia (or India), you won’t ride one just because it looks fun. And if you simply cannot live without doing so, the important part is to know the establishment you’re paying is legit, and you do NOT ride with a chair. Ride bareback my friends – you may be fat, but not as fat as a bulky wooden chair (I speak for the general population at least).

Alright spiel over. And in lighter news I just tried to spell that as shpeel. Niiiiice. Losing my English already!

Anyway, back to the actual experience. Surin is a smaller version of Lek’s main conservation in Chiang Mai- a paradise filled with 30+ eles roaming in their natural habitat. While there are only around 13 eles, it makes for a more intimate experience- both with the elephants as well as the volunteers (and the mahouts!). In just a week we were able to identify all the eles we were helping, name each mahout we were socializing with, andddd I can’t even complete the sentence because that was the greatest amount of rubbish I’ve ever attempted to write at once. I could only name one elephant by the end and that’s because she was the biggest and thereby my favorite (and the oldest. With the coolest name). Her name was Fah Sei, meaning Clear Skies in Thai and she was a 25 year old beaut! As for the mahouts, well they just had Thai names I couldn’t remember. With the exception of Singh, who never stopped singing one line to one song nobody else knew, “One way ticket”. Literally, all he would say, on repeat: “One way ticket…” It was bizarre and hilarious. Taylor and I even started accidentally singing it ourselves like mental patients.

While at the Surin Project, we stayed in huts right next to where the elephants were kept. They were previously the mahout’s actual homes, but with this new voluntourism trade, they gave up their houses in exchange for a commission gained monthly from the tourists. Waking up next to elephants is hands down the coolest sound ever, in history, ever. Think what it might sound like to wake up in Jurassic Park, autotune-in some roosters who sound like they’ve smoked cigs all their lives, get a couple dogs barking at each other for no reason, and you’ve got the soundtrack to an 6am wakeup call on an elephant park. The eles had a roar louder than any lion, their thundering call reverberating through the rickety walls of our little bamboo shack. Most people know I more than dislike waking up at sunrise, but this natural orchestra occurring outside my window didn’t bother me one bit. I found myself peering open my eyes with a geeky smile already on my face.

 SURRRRPRISE

SURRRRPRISE

With the organic alarm clearly going off without any signs of snoozing, we would hop out of bed (or if you were me, first checking for giant tarantulas…and mini tarantulas), and head off to breakfast. After breakfast we were given team assignments, which ranged from chopping down sugar cane with badass handmade machetes with the mahouts (one of them watched me while laughing uncontrollably because I got so into it- I took out all my rage on those poor canes of sugar), cleaning the shelters (aka picking up dried out heaps of ele poo), and helping to build new houses (fortunately for every future participant staying here I was too sick the day I was assigned to this). As you can see, I had a certain favorite activity to partake in.

 Intertwining reflections <3

Intertwining reflections <3

After the morning activities we would eat lunch at one of the mahouts’ wives’ restaurants- a little noodle shop where I had the best Tom Yom Gum to date. We would ride over on the back of a pickup truck, inhale our blistering hot meals in the blistering hot weather (enjoyably nonetheless!), ride back over and usually take a food-coma-induced nap. Then it was time for mahout socializing! An incredible part of the Surin Project’s goals is to not only inform everyone on the wrongdoings within the elephant tourism industry, but to also prove to the mahouts that they CAN make money in activities as simple as letting tourists see what they do on a daily basis, AND just hanging out with them! They were a rowdy group of Thai men but just as the saying of the country goes, they were never without smiles. They made up ridiculous games to pass the time, not excluding throwing balls of ele dung into a bucket and calling it Mahout Basketball. L.O.L. Needless to say, the mahouts were a riot. 

DSC_1015.JPG
 This wouldn't be my blog unless at least one picture of what I ate is displayed, nice and extra zoomed in :)))))))

This wouldn't be my blog unless at least one picture of what I ate is displayed, nice and extra zoomed in :)))))))

On our final night at the park, we walked with the elephants about 2 miles away and set up camp. Right next to a small river in Southeast Thailand, I would camp out once again under the same stars I had years before in the desert, yet this time with elephants by my side. The mahouts built a ginormous fire nearby, and we spent almost the entire night keeping ourselves warm with a concoction of delicious Thai whiskey and our own good spirits. 

"Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant;
the only harmless great thing."

- John Donne

For more information on Surin Project and volunteering with the Save Elephant Foundation, visit 

http://www.saveelephant.org/

Bangkok Garden

A little over two months since my departure, I finally have the time, the energy, a real-life, functioning computer AND the sweet nectar of the internet. At a hostel in Bangkok, I'm right back to where it all started. N'SYNC is playing in the background. And so, perfectly in my element, here it begins.

DSC_0004.JPG

The day after Christmas I embarked on a slightly spontaneous, slightly planned adventure to Southeast Asia. In the words of Alex Garland, author of the backpacker cult-read The Beach,

“If I'd learnt one thing from travelling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don't talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.”
DSC_0201.JPG

I did just that, with the exception of the ticket being to Bangkok, Thailand. As I've written before, Sameea and I tried to make a trip to Thailand as soon as we graduated, with little success. We were completely broke recent grads who had already booked a one-way flight to Los Angeles. Determined to still reward ourselves for the frequent all-nighters and math emporium nightmares, we made the trip into a West Coast adventure. Five years later, we were still itching to get a plate of real Pad Thai.

My obsession with Thailand started in high school, when my dad and I would drive 45 minutes to a Thai restaurant called Bangkok Garden (in New Haven for all my Connecticut-ers (-ans?)). Growing up in Connecticut, the only real activity to keep my interest was the excitement of restaurants. (I almost wrote my interest in eating but I don't want anyone to picture a food-obsessed slob stuffing her face right after taking a picture of what she's about to eat- that's only me on the weekends). But seriously, most people know there's not much going on in CT for high schoolers, but there are heaps of good eats. Bangkok Garden, specifically, was the only restaurant I'd ever go to where I'd order the exact same thing every single time- Crispy Golden Bags, similar to fried wontons; a Thai bubble tea, black tea mixed with condensed milk and tapioca balls; and Drunken Chicken, ground chicken sauteed with peppers, green beans and basil, served over perfectly cooked sticky rice and a spicy sauce that makes me drool even while I'm writing from Thailand. This little Thai shop all the way on the other side of the world is where the craving began to seek out the very place where the food with this effect originated. I needed to go, and like the rest of my trips (or desires really) it consumed my mind- trying to plan, thinking when, where, how. 

In 2014, making our annual New Year's Eve trip plans, Sameea and I decided this was the year for Thailand. We booked a one way flight to Bangkok through Emirates and squealed over the phone in excitement. Clicking the Confirm Flight button, I had an epileptic type of reaction. I was convulsing out of my chair, more excited than any of the many times I've clicked the exact same link. I was going to Asia- an entirely new part of the world I'd never seen, a new beast to take on head first. 

Landing in Bangkok, after being served warm hand towels (what luxury!), delicious food and a smooth flight stopping in Dubai, I reached elevated levels of elation. After a quick taxi ride to our hostel, we stepped out into the smoggy air. It hit me like a punch in the face, inside a plastic bag, that was stuffed inside a sauna. I was bombarded with an abundance of sights, smells, noises- the true definition of sensory overload. If you've ever seen the beginning of The Beach with my boy Leo, it was 10 times more chaotic (that was also filmed 15 years ago so you can only imagine the increase in tourism and hustle over here. It's equally exponential to the increase in Leonardo Dicaprio's gut since then. I still love them both, though- Thailand and Leo- despite their shared gut-increasing tendencies). 

 A Sameea lookalike serves fresh fish on the streets of Bangkok!

A Sameea lookalike serves fresh fish on the streets of Bangkok!

Boisterous and overwhelmed, I was anxious to try everything, and even more eager to eat it all. I could already sense the endless hunger that came with Asia. And I was also actually hungry. Sameea, Sam and I dropped our backs- yes, I actually stuffed everything I was bringing on this 3 month trip into a single backpack (my poor heart hurting that I couldn't fit a single pair of heels)- and headed out into the wild jungle of the city. We were staying at Boxpackers Hostel, a clean, quaint place with pod-type beds and air-con, my one essential diva necessity.  We stopped at the lobby for a map but decided it'd be more fun to be spontaneous and simply go exploring. We took a left and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a market. And let me say, markets in Asia are absolutely nothing like your Sunday farmer's market back home. Though you could hardly make it through the slight walkway in between each stand, motorbikes also though they could squeeze through at the same time. I didn't know if I should panic or leap in excitement. I could hardly move among the swarm of people, meandering around while simultaneously realizing I blended in one way only- short stature. 

Once we broke back into the light of the outside world, we were immediately hit with a smell I can only compare to what dogs must smell when the first hint of bacon hits their noses (snouts?). The sense can be described as an undeniable NEED to find and eat whatever it is. The trio of foodies we were, we didn't think twice- we followed the smell. Blindly led by our noses, we stumbled upon a hole in the wall spot serving something out of a giant pot, steaming so much you could hardly see the Thai man behind the pot, ladling the dish into basic white bowls. We pointed to the pot, held up 3 fingers, and sat down. We had no idea what we were about to eat but we didn't care. It HAD to be good.

Our taste buds confirmed what our nose buds had already known. It was out of this world delicious. It's what I expect Anthony Bourdain meant when he first told about how Asia changed his life. This one bowl of beef broth and noodles was changing my life, spoon by spoon. I awkwardly held my chopsticks in one hand, using them to scoop up noodles, while my other hand dipped the tiny soup spoon into the broth. I can only imagine the scene we were making as the other Thai people in the restaurant peered over wide-eyed at our slurping and sloshing. It was so spicy I had to blow my nose after each slurp, my eyes tearing at the same time. I couldn't look more in pain, yet I was in absolute ecstasy.

This is what I had been waiting for.