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So right in Koh Rong

As if no one has ever said that before…

Immie wanted to go to the beach because she had heard you could see bioluminescence here. Being from San Diego, we had bioluminescence a few times—essentially you go out at night and there is plankton or algae or something in the water and it lights up fluorescent green when it is disturbed. It’s actually pretty cool. One year I saw dolphins playing in it but since it was night all you could really see were little green circles where they were jumping out of the water. When you walk along the beach, you leave behind glowly green footprints and the waves are all green and glowly—so yeah, it’s pretty cool.

Anyway, here we are on yet another bus…

bus veterans

You actually arrive in Sihanouk which is a coastal city on Cambodia. We checked into a hostel for 1 night and were tempted in by these Australian boys who were heckling us from the street, challenging our beer pong skills. Exhausted from a long day of travel, we didn’t want to play beer pong but they had great sangria deals so we stayed.

The next day we got up early to catch the boat to the other boat to get us to Koh Rong. Koh Rong is an island and as we hear, it becomes quite the party island during Australian summer times. Luckily for us, it wasn’t one of those times but I could definitely see the ghostly potential of a crazy time. It’s like walking into house party the next morning…

Koh Rong

We opted to stay on a secluded side of the island so that we could see the bioluminescence as clearly as possible. We might have been the only ones out there. We spent the day snorkeling, swimming, laying out, and making friends with this guy…

doge is much playful

#lipkit

When the sunset and it was dark enough to see the bioluminescence, we walked along the beach. It was really still water so we didn’t see anything lighting up from shore. Feeling like it wasn’t dark enough around us, we kept walking down the beach with growing dissatisfaction—WE CAME ALL THIS WAY FOR NOTHING! I told them about how it is in San Diego and they were bummed we weren’t seeing the same thing. After about an hour of walking along the beach, we decided to give up and head back. On the way, we saw a bungalow with the lights on and decided to ask (for directions?). Lucky we did, too! The local merely gave us a single sentence, “…go out in the water…”

Armed with marching instructions, waded out into the water. Since it’s Cambodia, the water is very warm here, even at 10 pm. As soon as we got 10ft out into the water, incredible blue fairy sparkles surrounded us! It was so magical and like nothing I had ever seen before. It was like being in real-life Frozen. We danced in the water and sang Disney songs for probably an hour. It was amazing. If you splashed you saw them, if you twirled you saw them, you could even try and catch some in your hand.

When our skin got so pruny it couldn’t hold any more water, we got out and saw that we had been playing for nearly 2 hours. On the way back, we saw a disgruntled French couple who was feeling the way we were a few hours prior. We gave them the same sage advice our friend did and advised that they, “…go out in the water…”

It was well worth the detour down to the island and, aside from the magical lights, the scenery ain’t bad either.

dweeb party

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What? Angkor Wat

A not-so-quick bus ride over the border of Laos into Cambodia kicked us off in Siem Reap. Here, Ulysses and I met up with Immie and her friend Gaby. As soon as you step into the backpacker area of town, you get harassed by tuk-tuk drivers offering you the best deal in town to see the ruins. We ended up going with this cool driver who offered to pick up the day before so that we could get the proper tickets to spend sunset at Angkor Wat and come back the next morning for sunrise. Both are breathtaking in their own way but I personally preferred sunset for the tranquility and light. Sunrise is very crowded and there are a bunch of local vendors going by Lady Gaga, Harry Potter, Spiderman, etc. selling hot cocoa and warm sandwiches. I imagine the names are to make it easier for Westerners to remember.

All pensive and stuff…

You can plan out your own plan of attack for exploring. There is no shortage of places to see but there are a few fan favorites. The tuk-tuk drivers know them all and for the most part, keep the tourists on a well-thought-out track. I’d recommend a brief history lesson before walking through so that you can appreciate the incredible construction and durability of this place. Angkor Wat was only recently opened to the public in the 90’s. Much of this place is well-preserved but I doubt it will remain that way based on the amount of foot traffic this site sees on a daily basis.

shot on the iphone 5 lol

but how did they do this?

dweebs.

who’s that?!

We made a point to spend the entire day exploring finishing at the famous Tomb Raider temple. Toward the end of the day, it started to downpour and luckily we were at the ends of our energy so it was a good excuse to call it day. The thing about temples is that they are so amazing in their construction and history yet you can get desensitized to them after seeing about 100 or so. It’s a terrible thing to realize and say but they are certainly enjoyed the most in brief interludes.

Still not sure how this tree grew on top of rocks but here it is growing.

Channeling my inner Laura Croft

All in all, the Siem Riep obligatory stop is worth it. From here, the girls split off to head to Koh Rong.

 

We are the three best friends that anyone could have #nudlen

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Konglor Cave & The 4,000 “Islands”

Before we hit the islands, we decided to make a stop at Konglor Cave. So glad we did because this is truly one of the more impressive natural wonders I’ve seen. Imagine a cave so big, so vast, so amazingly HUGE and you might have a concept of what Konglor Cave is. You can kayak through the whole thing apparently but we opted to take a motorboat tour since you can get really lost inside if you don’t know where you’re going.

Most of the cave is steeped in darkness but with headlamps, you can get a picture of how big the cave actually is. The people who guide tours through this thing must know it inside and out because, there is no map, no guide, no nothing. Yet, somehow they know where every rock jutting out of the water is, they know where to turn, and when to slow down—pretty amazing stuff. You could honestly fit an entire city in there.

Just outside Konglor Cave

Walking toward the cave entrance

 

From there, we made our last and final stop in Laos—the 4,000 “Islands.” I put it in quotes because they are much islands as Nick Cage is a good actor. There are actually only 3 real islands—Don Dhet, Don Khon, and Don Khong. We stayed on Don Dhet. You can explore the entire island by bike in half a day and there really isn’t much else to do here than eat and drink and enjoy the scenery. It’s a great place to add a little “magic” to your life if you get my drift. I recommend the coconut shake. 😉 What I don’t recommend is the food. To this day, I still don’t know what it was but got deathly ill here. I thought I had dengue for about 24 hours. Luckily, the worst of it lasted a day and a half and I was back to my normal self in a few days.

Sunset on Don Dhet

Only 194 KM to Siem Riep

Pink

Nois! It’s Goodfood, trust me…

 

On to Cambodia!

Motoring off to the bus depot to head to Cambodia

Why is this girl’s outfit so trendy?

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Sublime In Vang Vien

It might sound silly, but making sure that you stay at a hostel that fits your personality is key to backpacking. On the scale of gap year kids having alcohol for breakfast and quiet, 1-sentence spoken types, I’m somewhere in the middle. The first hostel I intended to rest my head at was under construction. For how long, it is difficult to say. So, I gracefully made a quick exit with the excuse that my friend was staying at a different hostel.

More on the main drag, I found a place that was perfect. I met this group of friends that were traveling together and had also just arrived. They were planning on doing the infamous river float the following day and everyone jumped onboard their plans. For those who don’t know, Vang Vien is well-known by backpackers because you can rent an inflatable donut and gently float down the river with the current. There used to be a bunch of bars all along the river banks but after a few rambunctious backpackers overdid it, many have been shut down. There are still about 4-5 bars that operate which is more than enough, in my opinion.

After renting your donut, you get driven to the river drop-off point where you literally just put your donut into this giant river and float down. After a few minutes of floating, a bar appears on the banks and the bar keeps are hollering at you as you float nearer. They throw water bottles with a few rocks in it toward you with an attached rope so they can reel you in. Yup, this happens.

If you are one of the unlucky, less coordinated souls that miss the rope and your window of opportunity, you can either swim back against the current (not recommended while intoxicated) or keep on floating and wait at the next bar. I never missed. 😉

It’s all very fun, but contrived—like a Vegas pool party. There is not 1 local partaking in the fun, other than the bartenders who own the establishment. But everyone is there to have a good time and the drinks are dangerously strong. After a full day of bar hopping, drinking, dancing, almost making the bar floor collapse from too much jumping, you end at Smile bar. And, of course, everyone has a smile on their faces.

Smile bar at sunset:)

Here you can grub out to get some much-needed sustenance in your alcohol-filled belly. There are also “magic” add-ons to everything but honestly, that is probably the last thing you’ll want to do at this point in the day.

The next day, feeling like I needed a cleanse, I convinced a few other like-minded individuals to rent bikes with me and bike down to some caves we had heard about to do some exploring. We only had 1 fall during the ride there! We checked out two caves and had the whole place to ourselves. Ranging from pitch black darkness to slimy moss-covered rocks, these were pretty cool. Not to mention the jumping into the canal just outside the second cave to wash some of the grime off of us. Not that it mattered…The way back was a bit challenging since we wanted to do a loop and the path we chose was incredibly muddy. As in, cannot traverse muddy. As in, your shoe comes off because the mud is so deep and sucks it right off your foot.

Bike Gang

Around the caves scenery

Since we had gotten our cave energy flowing, we wanted to make it to the Tham Nam water cave. By the time we got there, we were starving and luckily there was a nice lady making some hot soup. Once we had eaten, we jumped into some donuts (again) and pulled ourselves along a rope into the water cave. It was so cool! The connected cave tunnels are endless and the way the light illuminates the water at the mouth of the cave is beautiful. Once inside, the darkness is so hauntingly still that you can’t help but imagine the start of a horror movie.

Bonnie, Immie, Ulysses, and I had gotten on really well and decided to head down toward the 4000 islands together. The adventures continue.

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You Have To Kuang Si This Waterfall

Getting into Luang Prabang can be jarring if you just came from a sleepy little town full of good ol’ fashioned nature. The city is bustling and the night markets are packed. Tourists are walking around everywhere in every pattern of elephant pant. Locals shout from their tuk-tuks everywhere you go with “deals” going to Kuang Si falls. This is the main attraction in the city.

I had budgeted a few days for Luang Prabang just because it was forecasted to rain and I had heard the falls are most beautiful on clear sunny days, obviously. Never the less, I had made arrangements with a driver to lump a full day of attractions into a flat fee of 40,000 Laotian Kip, which is maybe $5 USD?

Classic back-of-tuk-tuk-shot

The first stop was the golden temple. This is arguably a stop you can miss because you get dropped off, then you have to pay a nominal “entrance” fee, then you have to pay for a boat ferry across a river, and then you get guilted into a donation to enter the cave. The inside is pretty, but unless you are crazy about Buddha statues, I’d skip this tourist trap.

Do you ford the river or hire a Laotian boat?

Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha rockin’ everywhere

Pretty good view though

Next, there was the bear sanctuary which is conveniently located right before the falls. I could have spent much longer watching these cute little furry nuggets but I was really eager to get to the falls.

Playpen

This is either a sun bear or a moon bear, I can’t remember

Unfortunately, even though it was fairly clear the day I went, it had rained pretty hard the day before so the mud run-off made the falls all brown. It was a far cry from the Instagram shot I was hoping for but it was still fun tree-jumping into the main pool.

Raging waters 😀

.05s hangtime

Gorg.

Still gorg…just a bit lower

There are numerous pools and a nice walk around the base of the falls. I would highly recommend heading up the right side of the falls because it is much steeper than the left (that way you can come down the left side). There is a secret path that is blocked on the left side that I didn’t find the first time around but I went back a second time, hoping to get a better, bluer view of the pools but I’ll settle for sitting in a pool at the top. Unfortunately, I was a bit skeptical about bringing my phone with me across the waterfall path and into the pool, so you’ll just have to go and see for yourself what the view is like. 😉

Secret waterfall path leading to the secret pool

Coming down the left side, there are wooden steps that go right under the falls. It’s amazing to think someone built these staircases.

Steps may be slippery when wet

All in all, Luang Prabang is an obligatory stop for a Laos visit. I’m sure there are much more secluded, equally beautiful waterfalls in the country but this is a nice taste. And, as if I didn’t get a full dose of tourists in this city, I was off to Vang Vien—the infamous backpacker stop.

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Definitely Not Laos-y

Doing the land transfer from Sapa into Laos is nothing short of chaotic. You board the overnight bus in the evening in Sapa and, if you were able to actually fall asleep, you are woken up by the sudden stillness. Check your phone, it’s 4 am. It would seem that the bus driver has abandoned you and your fellow travelers on the side of the road with no explanation.

Everyone was looking around trying to assess the situation—do we get out? Do we wait? Also, where are we? After the first 30 minutes go by without any sign of return from the driver, a bold backpacker abruptly gets up from his plastic seat and goes, “I’m going to get some food.” As if this made it okay for the rest of us, most people end up trickling out shortly after. There are a number of pho places serving tea and noodles. Since we are all off the bus, we figure the bus driver will realize where we went if he does return.

After having an early morning snack, we all trudge back toward the bus only to realize that, oh gosh, it’s gone. Commence freakout since everyone’s stuff was also on the bus. The larger group splits up into smaller groups as we go off trying to track the bus down but unfortunately, rusty old buses are in large supply at this depot. “What number was on the front?” someone asks. And then, victory! It is spotted with 3 men on top casually and carelessly throwing our bags off of the bus into another bus. I guess this is where we transfer?

Now fully awake and alert due to the bus mishap as well as a few cups of tea, we are on the road again. We figure out that we were at the last stop in Vietnam before the border crossing. It wasn’t long until we were at the border and exchanged documents with the officials. During the ride, I had made friends with a fellow traveler from Canada named Jeff. He was also traveling solo and without much of a plan. When I told him that I was headed to Luang Namtha to do a multi-day trek through the jungle, he asked if he could join. So the two of us got off the bus at the less touristy route everyone else was headed on. The town we had to overnight in was…”small” would be a generous world. But, we found some lodging and got some dinner before we had to wake up the next day to catch a tuk-tuk to the bus station to get to Luang Namtha.

The rain made this bit of the journey a little more complicated and we were worried that the bus might not show because, well, we were in the middle of nowhere. But, sure enough, an hour and a half late, a bus in great need of smog check came rumbling down the dirt road.

Finally, we made it to Luang Namtha which I feel the word “town” is appropriate. I found The Hiker which was the company that was recommended to me. There happened to be one other girl there also checking out the itineraries, Mary. She and I got along really well and decided to do the same trek to make the cost go down. The guy running the place said we would have a good group because it would be Mary, Jeff, myself, and another couple.

The next day, we all met up at The Hiker and jumped in a van to start the adventure. The first task was getting the kayaks down from the top of the van. We were going to kayak down the river, have lunch, then stop at our guide’s village, and continue to the rice paddies to crash for the night before hiking the next day.

Keepin’ it authentic!

Kayaking down the river was a surreal experience. The current ebbed and flowed, sometimes getting a little rambunctious with some rapids, and other times gently ushering you along so you didn’t even have to paddle. After a few hours of river appreciation, we were signaled to pull off on a bank. Our guide looked around, pulled off a few large banana leaves, and placed them on our flipped over kayaks as a makeshift table and tablecloth (table leaf?).

Feeling so serene…

Come n’ git’ it!

I personally enjoy rice in block form.

Lunch was an amazingly tasty spread of sticky rice, some kind of chicken, crunchy fried something, and beans. From there we continued on the river a short way until we came upon our guide’s village. He gave us a tour and let us chase the little piglets and ducklings and meet his daughter. We had to leave before it got too late because we still had a while to go to get to the hut where we would be sleeping.

Stahp following meeeeeeee

Dawww *oink oink*

Nestled village

As we tramped through bushes that were taller than my head, we came out on a clearing of rice paddies that I swear were nuclear green. Not sure if that’s how they look usually or if something crazier is going on, but none the less, it was eye-opening.

Our guide’s parents were at the hut arranging a fire for us and gesturing us to go inside and change into dry clothes. The hut was up a 4-rung ladder and literally a wooden room. We set our sleeping bags down in a little cuddle puddle and emerged to help with dinner. We cut beans, sliced tomatoes, and stoked the fire while our guide was off hunting frogs. Little did we know, we were also having frogs for dinner. It’s amazing how good food can taste with so little. The scene makes me laugh thinking about germaphobic friends that would probably cringe.

Fresh Fish 😉

So farm to table right now

The frogs…

But seriously so tasty

After dinner, our guide’s parents had brought us a little treat of fermented rice alcohol. It wasn’t sake—it wasn’t anything that I had tasted before. It was in a really heavy clay vase that was filled with, what I am assuming to be rice and water. There was a small opening at the top with a stick protruding out and a long, thin straw wrapping around it. We all took turns sipping it in a circle like you would a hookah. I will have to say there are better ways to get drunk than this, but it definitely helped us fall asleep after frog skewers.

Let’s party

Early the next morning, we woke to a clanking pot as breakfast was being prepared. Once fed, we started out on the hike that was through some dense forest. The path was really muddy given yesterday’s rain and we all took turns laughing at each other when someone slipped. The top gave us a nice peak of the green, green valley but other than that, there wasn’t any crazy monument or summit to speak of—I guess that’s real nature.

Early morning fog 

It’s a beaut 

Coming back always seems to take the most out of you. After the adrenaline and excitement wears off and all you want is a hot shower, the way back seemed to take ages. Once back in town, the group took a nice victory selfie and made plans to meet up for dinner and karaoke once we were clean. We had dinner at this cool, hip eco-friendly cafe/restaurant close by and even our guide came out! He showed us the local karaoke spot and we met his friends who were excited to “party” with some tourists. We all had horrendous renditions of songs you might get from a NOW 3 disc.

Well, I got the important stuff in there

A Lao-jito complete with eco-friendly wooden straws

Singing covers like no one’s business

We turned in fairly early since we were all so tired…plus Jeff, Mary, and I had an early bus to catch the next day to Luang Prabang.

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What’s Sapa’in?

Chapter 16: It only gets better

After I bid Kristy farewell, I went back to the hostel to book some transport and activities for Sapa. This is northern Vietnam country famous for lush rice paddies and the Hmong tribes. I read a brochure on Mt. Fansipan—the highest peak in Indochina. It’s rated very difficult and when I expressed interest in doing it, the hostel staff gave me a weird look and reiterated that it was “verrrrrry difficult.” So, of course I had to. It is outlined as a 2-day trek with overnight transportation to Sapa so I knew it was going to be a bit tough.

At this point, I was fairly use to the SE Asia overnight bus standards and was able to fall asleep fairly quickly. The road up to Sapa is pretty bumpy and windy so it still was a far cry from a sleep number bed experience but hey, I didn’t see any roaches so I wasn’t complaining. Rather than being jostled awake by the bus driver or loud angry Vietnamese screams, I woke up on my own accord with the first bits of morning sun streaming through the windows and the soft rustling of other passengers gathering their things. I suppose they pulled in around 4:30a and just let everyone sleep until about 5:30-6a. Don’t let this serene description fool you because what awaits just outside is absolute chaos.

Before even stepping outside the bus, a quick glance out the windows will tell you it’s going to be a toughie to escape the hoards of Hmong women in traditional garb trying to get you to come to their accommodation and little Hmong children pushing bracelets and other trinkets in your face. As I stepped off a bit weary and dazed, I wondered, “how am I suppose to find out where I’m going…” Right then a man taps me on the shoulder with a torn piece of paper and some scribbled names in pencil. He goes, “what’s your name?” I say it and help him out by pointing to it on his piece of paper. He directs me to a cab and says, “stay.” Mind you these buses pull in every morning and I was shocked that this basic system worked so seamlessly—within twenty minutes everyone seemed to be in the right place.

Anyway, I was shuttled off to a hotel meeting point with 3 other people who were all doing a different hike. Once at the hotel we joined/were joined by 20 others all with the same confused look on their faces. Chatting some folks up, I realized that no one in this group was attempting the Fansipan peak which started to make me a bit anxious. Breakfast was included here which was nice and I had some more pep in my step after some pho and coffee. Then as everyone went off into their respective hiking groups, little ol’ Aaryn was left alone. Just when I thought all was lost and I was stranded some guy comes running up the stairs and goes, “Aieryin Kobayashi?”

I’ve put a weird amount of trust into strangers on this trip and just jumped on his bike to get to the office for the Fansipan route. There I met 3 other guys from Singapore and 1 Canadian guy who were also doing the hike! WOOHOO, fwends. It was quite the journey and the Singaporean guys were, admittedly, not in trekking shape exactly. Not to say I’m some mountaineer but it was a bit difficult at times to keep the group together. At one point, we turned around and 1 of them had hiked the soles of his shoes off….on both shoes! Thankfully one of his friends had an extra pair of shoes (weird.) in his bag so the group pressed onwards.

 

Not sure if they closed their eyes on purpose…

I think it says, “Trail Head.” Let’s hope at least…

Being a goob.

We started the hike around 9am and hit the lunch site around 1p. Gorged on some Bahn Mi with an extra side of canned meat, sponsored by Singapore. The fellowship trekked on to hit the resting point at 4pm were we had a nice hot meal prepared by a lovely Vietnamese woman who lives up on the mountain. At 5:30p after dinner, we were wondering what we were doing but our guide said to sleep. We laughed in response at first since the sun was still up and joked, “why are we waking up at 3am or something?” Two, was his answer.

One of the Singaporean guys brought his iPad so we put on The Judge (great movie) and fell asleep around 8pm? Woke up bright and early at 2:00am, had some hot soup and rice, got out our torches (i.e. flashlights) and set off to beat the sunrise to the summit. This portion was a bit tough and the higher we got, the colder it got. I’m talking freezing. Travis and I set ourselves ahead of the others since the horizon was lighting up and we were still a ways from the summit. As we got to the summit area where the cable cars lets people off, we were hands-and-knees crawling up the stairs. Tired, freezing, and sweaty—we made it.

Feeling anything but blue at the top

Highest point in Indochina!

You can’t tell but I’m smiling for this picture.

I think the way up was a bit demoralizing for the Singaporean guys and after our little photo session, they opted to wait at the cable car station and take the cable car back down. Which, if you’ve ever been in any distance race before, you know this is the worst thing that can happen to a group. Travis and I were set on completing this hike so we trudged on ahead, back down the mountain, party of 2 (4, if you count the guides). I’ve decided going up is much easier than going down and while we were able to gauge how much farther we had, there were some points when my resolve was tested to its max. Even as we climbed the last stretch and I saw signs of life (a poster in the trees) we still had more than I thought to go. In a last burst of energy, I sprinted by Travis up the last little hill to the parking lot claiming that first place finish!

It’s cheesy but they give you little certificates of completion and a medal. #worthit.

Since I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay, Travis suggested that I head back to the hostel he was staying at. It was a sister hostel to the one he works at in Hanoi and he said the ladies there are super cool. It’s called “Hmong the Hills” and I can’t resist a good pun.

After a full day of relaxation, I figured I might as well do a rice paddy walk through the village. It’s considered difficult but after what I had just conquered I thought it would be cake. The beauty of Sapa can’t really be described. It’s just so green and lush and clean feeling. It’s quiet, yet bustling with life. The green of the paddy fields is cut by blues and whites of the river trickling down the hillside and brown paths that intertwine between villages. Somehow they all know how to navigate these windy paths as if they had GPS for them. I loved Sapa.

I appreciate rice so much more now

What a boss.

Casual stroll

Coolin’ off and having fun doing it

Headed back into Sapa town the next morning, I had to find a bus to take me over to Laos. There was an overnight one which I always think are an economical choice. So I booked it and killed some time wandering around Sapa town which is terribly touristy in comparison to the hillside. Off to Laos.

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Pho’n with XT

Chapter 15: Vietnam x2

After changing hostels to the livelier counterpart of the guesthouse I was staying at (a long walk across the street) I settled into the lobby patiently awaiting Kristy’s arrival. I received a text from her right as she landed and was getting stoked! Getting periodic updates via blue box, “getting to baggage claim,” “finding the exit,” and then, “….” Nothing. 30 minutes go by; then 45 minutes. Now I’m starting to worry because the airport is maybe 30 minutes from HCM. But maybe she ran into some traffic or couldn’t find a taxi. After chalking it up to nothing, I realize more than an hour and a half have passed since I heard from Kristy. Initiate panic mode: I went full on Karen. I was texting and calling and messaging through every message outlet at my disposal. I was starting to wonder what I would do if she was missing. I didn’t even know where the embassy was located! Just as I was about to enter full panic mania, I glance out the window and see a disheveled XT attempting to cross the street. For those who have not been to Vietnam, crossing the street is a true test of faith. You pretty much have to just hold your breath and step out into moving traffic. The trick is to keep an even pace and just keep moving—the bikes and cars will move around you. Though, being the first few hours in Vietnam, Kristy’s face was plastered with a look that still makes me smile thinking about it—just utter confusion, worry, tiredness, but mostly confusion.

After a big bear hug, we set our stuff inside and decided to go grab some food. Since I had been  in Saigon for a while, I took her around to some of the cool spots that I had found like this hip new Bahn Mi place, Pasteur St. (of course), and the fancy Bixeco Tower for the night skyline and fancy drinks. Walking around HCMC was so much more fun with a bud. We explored a bunch of streets and sampled everything. One of the highlights was a sampler plate of sticky rice! We also tried some corn dish that was alright, probably wouldn’t get it again. The late night food star was this pancake thing we had in a less than credible “establishment” (pictured below). I’m thinking it probably has a B- for the health code grade. Oh, and we can’t forget how Kristy just kept ordering boiled eggs mistakenly…or maybe she was just getting trolled.

Yummy corn thing

nom nom nom…

The Jamba Juice of Bahn Mi

Tell me what’s yo flavah OoOoo

Michelin 5-starred Dessert

…But really, this pancake thing was bomb (and also $0.02)

We also reserved a space for the Cu Chi tunnel tour which was not bad for $5. Our tour guide though—what a character. He started the bus ride off with “Goooooooooodmorning Vietnam!” (RIP Robbie). He even snuck in some well placed jokes and well-intentioned jabs at the bus load of tourists he was carting around. And just when we thought it was all fun and games, the dude does a 180 and goes stone-cold serious on us about who is to blame for the Vietnam War and who is still paying for it. *Crickets* Needless to say, the stop at the Agent Orange Victim workshop was pretty somber and we weren’t the only ones eager to get out of the bus when we reached the tunnels.

The tunnels are nothing short of impressive and really showcases how resourceful and scrappy the Vietnamese were in fending off combatants. Despite being at a resounding resource deficit in comparison to their enemies, the makers of the Cu Chi tunnels were so clever in utilizing what they had available and taking full advantage of their size difference. The tour was sprinkled with the slightest bit of propaganda and I think the words “celebrated American killer” were uttered more than a few times. We didn’t have very long in HCMC and I knew Kristy wanted to see the War museum as well. So after the Tunnels we headed out for the museum. I had been before but there was so much more to see. And despite it being a very emotionally heavy day, it was really nice. I never felt compelled to study history in school but there is something different about being in the actual place learning about it. In hindsight, we as Americans really do not put enough time into learning from our mistakes.

Since we were short on time, we had decided it was best to break up our trek toward the north with some flights and overnight buses. We were flying from HCMC to Da Lat. It was definitely one of those flights where they go, “we’ve now hit cruising altitude.” And then about 2 minutes later go, “please make sure your tray tables are secured and you chair is upright for our decent.” When we arrived, we must have looked like stereotypical travelers that didn’t really know what we were doing. These two youngish looking business men type struck up conversation and asked what we were doing in Da Lat. After chatting a bit, they offered to take us into the city since they already had ordered a car. What luck! It was roughly an hour drive to the city of Da Lat from the airport so it was much appreciated. We didn’t even mind that they friended us on Facebook and proceeded to message us some random, mis-translated on-goings of their life like, “it’s raining today—kakakakaka.” Still not sure what the appropriate response to that would have been.

Da Lat was nice because it is famed for being one of the cooler spots in Vietnam. We were staying at Mr. Peace’s hostel which had pretty good reviews when I had researched it. When we walked in Kristy got an enthusiastic hug and a kiss on the cheek with some flamboyant hand gestures from Mr. Peace whilst I got a sideways hello afterthought. Speaking with some of the other people there, we realized Mr. Peace seems to have a grudge against his fellow asians—weird. Anyway, we were only staying 1 night in Da Lat so we didn’t have time to do the canyoning but we walked around to the market and this AMAZING bar called 100 floors. To this day, coolest bar I’ve been in. It is a constructed labyrinth of imagination. A mix between Alice in Wonderland and Pirates of the Caribbean. Not sure what I mean? You’ll have to check it out for yourself. The famed “crazy house” that is an actual tourist attraction you pay for paled in comparison, needless to say.

Not much from the outside, but don’t miss this

Da Lat treated us well and was a nice reprieve from the humid sticky-ness of Saigon. Can’t forget this cutie either!

Me, reincarnate

Here are some pics from our sunrise run to the Valley of Love (which we did not have to pay for woohoo!).

Valley of Love <3

And our horse friend that we rescued from winding its lead around a tree.

Saved this horse’s life, maybe…

From Da Lat, we took a bus to Nha Trong where we caught our connection sleeper bus to Hoi An.

That bus does things to you

We were staying a bit out of town but directly at the beach at this Coconut hostel. Such a chill place complete with a cutie pie puppy. Directly upon arriving at 4am, we had booked a cooking class straight away to take full advantage of our time there. A few hours of waiting in the lobby area and we were getting picked up to head to the local market. Once we were properly acquainted with some of the local foods we were going to be using, we were dropped at the river where we hopped into giant basket boats for crab catching! The local woman with us made it look so easy but trust me, it’s not. Kristy and I didn’t catch 1 sadly. But it was still fun learning. From there we got to the cooking place and spent the next few hours rotating around stations making papaya salad, eggplant saute, pho, rice paper, spring rolls, and bahn zeo. SO. FULL.

Somehow it’s only funny when XT does it

XT pondering the vast expanse of the universe and what would be a good insta caption

Mama making it look easy

Chef XT Mami

On a date

Still on a date

The summer festivities and the lantern lighting on the river also happened to be that same night we arrived. So we rented bikes after recovering from our food coma and headed toward the town. While we were walking around, this other American guy heard us speaking with each other and introduced himself. As a fellow traveler you welcome all solo’s as a rule of thumb, if you’re cool. So, being cool, we invited him to walk around with us to see the sights. This was a mistake since he proved to be interesting (*bad connotation*) company. That’s harsh—he was fine until we decided to stop into a bar for a drink. It was packed with other backpackers and there was Asian McLovin’ (literally) walking around selling laughing gas balloons. Kristy and I opted not to but Mr. Floppy hat guy was chain huffing essentially and being extremely rude—worst of all, he was being loud about it to the point where other people were whispering about it. So now, Kristy and I have the unlucky circumstance of looking like we are associated with this turkey. We managed to ditch him after a series of looks and supported white lies of being tired and going back home. I know, I know…so mean. Trust me, you would have done the same thing. Once we got back to the bar sans Flop hat, we were able to relax and get a few drinks along with some general merriment. Properly tipsy, we decided to head back since we still had about 2 miles to bike. As fate would have it, as we are walking back to our bikes, who do we see sitting at a local spot watching the Euro Cup? FLOP HAT. No way. We narrowly escaped and were getting riled up about the slightest odds of us running into him again.

Tell me that’s not McLovin’

The next day, we had scheduled a bike tour with 2 students. This was the highlight of Hoi An in my opinion—no wait, the Bahn Mi was, but this was still good. Starting at 7am (before it gets hot) 4 of us set off through the small streets of the Old town and get aboard a ferry where we get to this small island and check out how they make the wooden canoes. We learned why they paint eyes on the front and how much time it takes to make one of those bad boys. The process is insane and involves soaking the wood in the river for a while. With some stolen Vietnamese cherries in hand as a snack, we set off for a kindergarten school. Now you know how much children love me, so obviously this was great fun. No, it was! Kristy was a hit being so “foreign” and I got mad-dogged. Classic me.

You get a TV, and you get a TV, EVERYONE GETS TVS!

Note the stare down up front

We stopped by a traditional weaver family hut and saw the process to make real mats—not that plastic shit. We even got to try a few strands. Let me tell you, there is some definite skill involved and it’s sad that the art is being lost since many of the youths are moving to tourism as a profession rather than continuing on their parents’ work. Not that you can blame them—the money and opportunities are better. Next we went and had some tea and snacks at this cute old woman’s house who was making rice paper. She also made the traditional, and not-so-traditional, paper offerings for the dead. Since they believe that there is an afterlife, on someone’s death day, they burn paper representations of the things they want their loved ones to have in the afterlife like iPhones, cars, clothes, money, etc. Seems kind of excessive since many of the big items can run up to $300 USD.

Harder than it looks

Biking all day, we worked up an appetite and were talking about how the local specialty of cao long (?) noodles were kind of a disappointment. Apparently there is this really old, perhaps sacred, well in Hoi An where they use the water to make these noodles that are specific and exclusive to Hoi An. Luckily our excellent tour guides knew where to take us to get the real experience. After enjoying some lunch, we settled our tummies with some delicious Vietnamese coffee and said our goodbyes. Our guides also pointed us in the direction of the famous Bahn me 49a—a spot that is proclaimed by Bourdain as the best Bahn Mi in the world. So, despite having just eaten lunch, we stopped in to get a sammy and sample the corn milk (don’t worry we saved the sandwich until later).

Bike Tour Hoi An

Mastering the Jump Pic

The neighboring city, De Nang, is about a 20 km distance from where we were. While most people would have rented motorbikes, Kristy and opted for bicycles. Yes, everyone thought we were crazy but before we set out, we were fairly optimistic. We made it after a sweaty ride that seemed longer than expected but saw the famed marble mountains and climbed around the temple. Then we settled on the beach with some coconuts and excellent lighting for some photo opps. For dinner we decided to do some research and seek out local gems but to no avail. We hailed a taxi since we were exhausted from biking and the place we wanted was closed and we were essentially dropped off where we were picked up but had to pay the fare which was unfortunate. We walked to this really good noodle soup place though and chowed down. We stuck around for some of the summer night festivities but ultimately just wanted to get back so we started the journey back home which was much better in the night since it was cool and without the beating down sun.

Triathlon Day

Cool Bridge Dragon 

From De Nang, we had another flight to Hanoi. Most people like Hanoi much better than HCMC but I found it to be kind of difficult to navigate. The hostel we were in was pretty cool though and it wasn’t long before we were headed out for out trip to Ha Long Bay. I honestly don’t know why some people only do a day trip to Halong Bay.

After an unexpected 4 hour bus ride and a 2 hour wait time in the dock we were ushered unceremoniously out to the docks. I guess more people than usual booked for the same days as us because we had to leave behind some people and make 2 trips because of the lack of life vests. While seemingly silly in the moment, this decision became even more dumb later on because of the abundance of other safety risks that were ignored following. Anyway! Made it to our boat and instantly had lunch (thank goodness) everyone was doing the awkward first day of kindergarten dance and getting to know each other. Kristy and I befriended a German girl Aline right away because she was traveling alone (been there girl!).

That day we went kayaking and cruised along the bay taking in the glorious sights around us. Despite Halong Bay being on the must-do list for everyone visiting Vietnam, it didn’t seem crowded by any means. The area of the bay we were in was fairly isolated and our squad of kayaks hitting the water remained unchallenged. At the turn around point of our kayak trip, our two guides struggled to translate the legend behind Halong Bay. Ha meaning dragon and long meaning water, I think. Legend has it, that the dragon came down to help some war against China and left its eggs or something which is what we now see as the beautiful limestone rocks jutting out of the ocean. Returning to the boat, we had swimming time were we could jump off the boat. Our trio was the first group of girls to conquer the jump #stillproud.

These views tho

“Are you guys on a professional kayak team?” Yes.

#Feminism #bebold

A few plates of fresh fruit were served and everyone was wondering about this strange white, styrofoam tasting morsel was on the plate. Kristy kept muttering, “it’s hicema, it’s hicema.” But literally no one listened and kept eating going, “what the heck is this.” Still laughing about it.

As night fell and more fried food was served for dinner, more people fell into a rhythm. As I mentioned, I think a ton of people booked for this day so there was another boat that tied itself to ours after dinner and we had a joint boat party. No mystery here which boat was having more fun as many of our boat mates looked longingly across to the laughter and shouting while we were still going through the, “so how long have you been traveling for?” set of questions.

Eventually, everyone made their way over to the other boat and joined in a game of Ring of Fire (never fails). Before you knew it, Kristy and I looked around and literally 90% of the boat had coupled off…great. Didn’t matter to us, we found ourselves right at home with some Aussies taking their gap year and schooling us in some real OZ slang. It was dead set nectah!

That night was spent on the boat and the morning brought shiny new faces to the top deck. If Halong Bay looks good at sunset, it is gorgeous in the morning. Everything is so still and quiet, the water looks like glass, and the rock formations look like they might have been frozen in mid conversation.

We made our way to a “swim spot” and by swim spot, I mean weird sewage area. They claim the water had all the garbage and run off in it because of the recent rain but I’m thinking the majority of it was there before hand. Such a tragic sight to see.

I jumped in anyway because it was burning hot and, meh, if I’m going to die from something at least I swam in HB as much as I could. Back on board and cooled off, the boat set off for freedom island. The only island (allegedly) that has a double beach front. We got off here and claimed out bunks then set off to explore the floaty cushions, volleyball, hammocks, and general relaxation. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur as I ventured out in the kayaks once, laid in the hammocks for a good long while, lounged in the water, annnnd that’s about it. Commence fried food dinner!

Our backyard for a day/night

That night, as everyone got progressively drunker (including our timid and stone-faced guide), the drinking games became rowdier and rowdier. Even with drill sergeant Marty leading the way for most of the games. Then, as any drunk night on an island ends, everyone went skinny dipping. Not my first choice in activities, but literally everyone was doing it so I succumbed to peer pressure.

After having some fresh crab as a late night snack and getting a spider thrown on me, I hit the hay. 2 nights went by quickly but completely worth it. That morning was a slow moving march getting everyone back on the boat and to shore.

Nature being awesome

Oh, Halong Bay

Pretty swell

<3

The whole crew

Happy that we had made friends with so many cool people, we tried to make sushi plans for dinner. But, there really isn’t anything in a backpacker budget in HCMC in terms of sushi. Not sure what exactly we ended up eating that night but it wasn’t sushi. At this point we kind of had a ragtag team consisting of Kael, Marty, Aline, Dan, and ourselves. The six of us went out a few nights and even went to this other place I’m forgetting to ride boats and bikes and stuff. It was chill. Oh, and a puppet show.

Marty and Kael getting comfortable in the van

Rower Status: Chuck Norris

And, as each day passed, Kristy was nearer and nearer to flying to Spain. It went by quick, but damn did we pack a lot in.

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Xin Chao

Chapter 14: Vietnam – The Age Before XT

So here I am in HCM. What a whirlwind of traffic and noises and delicious anise smells that make my mouth water for some pho even as I write this. Prior to arriving, I had not heard nice things about HCM but I wanted to spend a good amount of time in Vietnam which was proving to be tricky as I had to line my schedule up with Kristy who was coming to join in me in a few days. I had about a week and some change to explore on my own and decided on a small guest house in the backpacker area. My first night in, I met this Chinese guy who had such good English I was debating whether he was American or Canadian. Turns out, he just really likes American TV. And I’m over here trying to learn German (8% fluent guys).

Anyway, he said he was going to check out Chinatown in District 5 the next day so he let me tag along. Although the Chinatown was fairly disappointing, I got a good idea on how big the city spans. It is divided into districts and I think most people never get out of Districts 1-3. Other than passing some restaurants with cages of puppies outside, it was a fairly nice day—just really hot. I spent the next few days just exploring the city and finding the best smoothie joints and cool spots. One in particular is Pasteur Street Brewing Co. Any backpacker who has been through Vietnam should know of this place because it is amazing and is a solid fix for those craving a craft brew.

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Keep in mind, this menu changes but is always divine (I’m told)

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Hipster-esque deco

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SD craft-brew palette approved

With a handful of days before Kristy arrived, I decided some day trips were in order. The first was to Can Tho. A small beach area that the Vietnamese vacation to during summer breaks. I opted to take local buses there since I had made friends with a Tourist Agency guy who was nice enough to write out very clear instructions in both English and Vietnamese in case I needed to show my destination to the bus driver (who does not speak English). I wish I had spent more time in Can Tho but I tried to combine that day with Monkey Island and the Mangrove forest. Had a scare and thought I got rabies from a monkey bite but it didn’t break skin so the crisis was averted. Still cautioned me enough to wave a stick around as I walked to fend off the rascals.

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Who needs a minivan when you have a scooter?

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30/4 Beach

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Promenade with frozen icepops and fresh seafood

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Lunch spot view

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Sh*t’s fresh

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Attack stance

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Mangrove forest that was previously leveled by agent o

The other trip was to Cat Be to see the floating markets. The 2-day tours were really expensive and I didn’t understand why since the local buses to the area seemed to be fairly inexpensive. It was enough to make me try my luck at the local buses again—armed with the confidence from my previous trip. This one was much longer and we made a stop at a bus station. I was pretty sleepy from the ride but still managed to turn around and make a mental note, “orange bus by pillar 17, cool.” Not cool. Came out of the bathroom with a snack in hand and the bus was not by pillar 17 and there were about 20 orange buses lining the parking lot. Commence panic and a frantic Aaryn running around to each bus asking for their destination. Luckily someone saw me struggling and helped me find the right bus just as it was pulling out of the lot. Finally, I made it to Can Tho and was picked up on motorbike by Mr. Hung’s son. The homestay was much bigger than I thought it was going to be and I had an entire bungalow to myself. That night, I helped prepare dinner which consisted of some spring rolls, catfish soup, some mysterious greens, and happy water.

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Mr. Hung’s Homestay

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Dinner

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Ingenius way of serving that moonshine happy water

The next day I hopped aboard a long-tail boat to the floating markets. Unfortunately by the time the tourists get there, much of the selling and chaos is finished. There were still some vendors out and the guy driving the boat told us you can tell what each boat is selling by what is hanging from the boat mast. The smaller boats drive right up to the bigger boats and use cables to latch on as they peddle their wares. I purchased a giant green mango and began counting down the seconds until I could eat it. Much to my dismay, it had a worm that had squiggled it’s way through half of it—still got a few good bites in though.

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Mostly everything is still flopping around

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Water level is real low getting into the market

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Passing locals 

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The neighborhood

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Note the eyes on the front of the boat and the mast up top showcasing that they are selling

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Skillz

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Mangoes <3

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Mekong River Delta

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Shopping

I was really sad to be leaving Mr. Hung’s homestay. Not only did he have the cutest little puppies, but his family was really nice and it was so peaceful.

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Around Mr. Hung’s Homestay

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River views

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So peaceful

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Personal bike tour

Upon returning to HCM, I had a bunch of new people in my dorm room and we decided to splurge a bit and catch an acrobatics show then head to the Bitxco tower for a view of the HCM skyline at night. #worthit There was even this terribly wonderful cover band there playing songs. We made sure to get the party started and they loved us. The acrobatics show was also amazing. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was very modern with crazy good use of giant bamboo poles. The only thing is I wish there was more context around what was happening.

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Gorgeous

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Bieber hoverboards down below

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Vocal stylings of American cover song hits

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Raging off of “overpriced” cocktails and wine

All the same, the time had finally come. Kristy was arriving!

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Thailand comforts

Chapter 13: Chaing Mai, Pai, & Chaing Rai

Coming off of Myanmar, my threshold for pagodas and temples was fairly exhausted. This was pretty unfortunate considering that Chiang Mai is pretty renown for its temples in the Old City. Speaking of thresholds, I was beginning to hit mine in terms of fatigue, too. It had been pretty non-stop from Kathmandu and I felt well overdue for some A-time and a slower pace. I settled at a perfect little guest house in a corner of the Old City next to a park. It was perfect for what I needed and a nice home base for little excursions walking around the night market and nearby sights. I even managed to run a bit while I was there! Unfortunately, one misstep had me hobbling back after a turned ankle. In my defense the sidewalks aren’t exactly even.

The days walking around the city kind of blur together since I wasn’t after anything in particular. I adopted sort of a coffee shop hop throughout the Old City trying to decipher which places had the best wifi. Scattered between bouts of “work” I would meander about entertaining my palette most times. Thai food is pretty amazing and so fresh.

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Breakfast

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Snack time

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I really wish you could smell this picture

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Organic, all-natural, farm-to-table….cigarettes. #liveauthentic

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…take me back please

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Pretty gruesome meat table

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Yuuuuuuuuumy. o__O

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So many types of rice!

I decided to do a cooking class with Samee. Great decision. Not only was he super funny but the class was great and I was more than stuffed by the end. We began the day with a trip to the market to buy some fresh meats, spices, and vegetables. Some we were just going to use from Samee’s farm. I learned how to make green curry from scratch, pad thai, tom yum, and mango sticky rice. You can tell this wasn’t Samee’s first time around the block because he had even planned for a nap session half way through the class.

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Let’s get cooking!

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Actually farm-to-table

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Curry, step 1

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Curry, step 7 😀

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Tom Yum set-up

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We got Tom Yum, we got green curry, we got Pad Thai, and you can’t forget…

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MANGO STICKY RICE!

They pretty much had to roll me out of there I was so stuffed with delicious food. The next stop on the itinerary for Northern Thailand was a little place called Pai. Known for its friendliness for backpackers and chill vibe, I thought it was worth checking out. It’s a short 3-4 hours bus ride from Chiang Mai to Pai and the mini-van you take is also filled with other young westerns clad in their best elephant pants, handmade headbands, and an array of bracelets for that final touch of authenticity. Some fellow travelers had said that Pai Circus Hostel was the craziest and worth a stay. Though I wasn’t necessarily looking for a party, the description said “nightly fire shows” so, I mean, how can you pass that up. And, even though I haven’t been to a music festival like Burning Man or Lightning in a Bottle, I would imagine it is a similar crowd to what I found at Pai Circus. That being said, this place did not disappoint—with a small pool overlooking the valley and the friendliest people you’ve ever met, 3 days there was well spent. I ended up moving to a quieter bungalow for my remaining 2 days in Pai just for sanity sake, though. In all honesty, I felt like a tourist in their lives. I’m not exactly a free spirit with my chi aligned with the full moon vibes but it was still fun to pretend for a little bit.

Pai itself is a wonderful little town, albeit extremely touristy. The night market is one of my favorites as it is a perfect balance of just enough shops, good food, and $1 smoothies. I was there in off-season, however, and I hear it is body to body during peak months (so be wary). Pay is also a nice place to chill because there isn’t too much to do there in terms of obligatory tourist stops. So you don’t feel guilty lazying about all day because, well, what else would you do?

Some highlights did include Pai Canyon and the White Buddha. These can definitely be done in flip flops and in 1-day on a motorbike. And just like that, it was back to Chiang Mai. I had wanted to go from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai but these 3 destinations are in somewhat of a triangle and any bus route going to Chiang Rai goes back through Chiang Mai. So, back in the bus.

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Daily walk into town

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So peaceful here

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Well said, Alan (wall at Circus)

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Pai Canyon

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Those views

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Got me sweaty big Buddha!

I opted to do a 1 day tour of Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle since I had spent more time than I had planned for in Pai. And I was just feeling lazy. In hindsight, I don’t recommend the tour. I think you could probably break these two things into 2 days with a night stay in Chiang Rai and have a better time. As it were, I spent the better half of 14 hours in transit. The main attraction for Chiang Rai is the White Temple. This thing really is a beaut. It’s construction is fairly new and the mural on the inside is still in progress. The exterior and interior are stark contrasts and you won’t find another temple quite like this one. As you approach, you see scary heads hanging from the surrounding trees, each representing a sin. The “moat” around the temple is filled with outstretched hands from hell. Fun Fact: if you look on the right side, you can see 1 red painted fingernail. Our guide said it was because more men go to hell than women. There is a walk way that takes you over this moat and it is said to be bad luck to stop before you reach the heaven area which is marked by guardians and snakes (representing the divide between worlds). The real crazy part of the temple is the mural inside. Unfortunately you can’t take pictures of it but it depicts political figures, world events, pop culture, fictional tv and movie characters, and religious symbols. Pretty eclectic if you ask me. I only lingered for 15 minutes inside, but honestly you could probably stay in there for a good 30 min and find something new to entertain your eyes wherever you look.

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White Temple

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Moat of Hell

After the temple, we piled back into the van to head to the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is aptly named because it is where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos all meet. This is where drug lords would meet to trade their goods over international borders. But, because these countries all have their own currencies, they used gold to pay for drugs. Hence, the Golden Triangle. The backstory is more alluring than the actual place, in my opinion. It’s kind of just a river you boat across. I’d skip it next time.

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Long-necked tribe women weaving

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Dang, you’re cute

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Kewl.

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2 seconds into Laos

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Want to try? We got tiger penis, turtle, and king cobra whiskey

The last event of Thailand is probably the most random: a cat cafe. I know that they aren’t exclusive to SEA but hey, I had a free evening and who can pass up a nice drink with some cuddly buddies? Not I.

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Catmosphere

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Yoda

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Kitty Cadets

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Whoa there, calm your kitties.

Off to Vietnam and the countdown to see XT.