10 Simple, Free or Low-Cost Things to Do For More Authentic & Adventurous Travel (125 Words)

Here's my mental cultural checklist for each country I visit. I'm not super strict about it. I just try to let things happen naturally and I've rarely regretted it! 

• Ride a public bus and/or train

• Eat something local from a street vendor (preferably cooked/avoid meat)

• Buy & try local fruits, veggies (preferably peelable) 

• Learn to say Hello and Thank You in the local language

• Talk to at least one new person each day 

• Visit at least one museum

• Visit at least one park/green space 

• Look for local street murals and/or public art

• Drink a local beverage (non-alcoholic, usually tea) 

• Participate in local events/festivals or volunteer for local organizations when possible

Holi is celebrated in Nepal and India in March

Holi is celebrated in Nepal and India in March

Local produce in Cairns, Australia

Local produce in Cairns, Australia

Local fruit shake with a new friend in Nusa Penida 

Local fruit shake with a new friend in Nusa Penida 

Riding the local Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Riding the local Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Street Art + Yoga in Singapore

Street Art + Yoga in Singapore

What's something you enjoy doing to enhance your travel experience? 

Much Love,

Yangon Travel in 200 Words / 5 Pictures

E-visa Tourist 28 days
Yangon International Airport (RGN); Present PRINTED COPY of approval letter @customs

Main city is walkable; also use public busses, train, pedi-cabs and taxis

Chan Myaye Guesthouse: So nice, I stayed there twice! 
(in private room $20-$22 USD per night)
Dorm beds (fan only), singles with A/C en suite or shared bathroom
Great location, yummy breakfast included, sweet staff
So many stairs

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Must-See: Shwedagon Pagoda

8,000 kyat entry, huge complex
No shoes, floor gets very hot mid-day
Keep shoulders, knees covered
4 entrances (north, south, east, west)
Contains Buddhist relics, possibly the oldest stupa in the world (2,600 years old)
Walk clockwise, Know your birth day of the week so you can stop at that section of the stupa

Shwedagon Pagoda Complex

Shwedagon Pagoda Complex

Also:
Sule Pagoda: Downtown near city hall, Ancient Buddhist stupa, site of 1988 Uprising

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda

Bogyoke Aung San Market: Jewelry, arts, crafts, clothing (closed Mondays)

Circle train: 3 hours, under 500 kyat, see a lot of scenery and locals

Snacks for sale on the Circle Train

Snacks for sale on the Circle Train

The view outside the city on the Circle Train

The view outside the city on the Circle Train


Kandawgi Lake - FREE, nice green space, playgrounds (east of Shwedagon)


Peoples Park - west of Shwedagon, green space with museum, 5,000 kyat entry


Botahtaung Pagoda - Near Yangon River 3,000 kyat entry
(The rest of the river is mostly industrial.)

 

Feel free to ask more specific questions or for advice in the comments. 
Much Love,

Pashupatinath & Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal

This actually happened a few weeks ago when I was still in Nepal. Better late than never, I guess!

Pashupatinath is the oldest and most well known Hindu temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, situated on the banks of the Bagmati River. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means you will get charged 1,000 rupees ($9.50 USD) to visit. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the actual main temple but you can walk around and enjoy the sights and take pictures. You can get a really good panoramic view of Kathmandu here as well. 

Myself and three others from my home stay visited here and were immediately approached by a youngish Nepal tour guide. We saw temples devoted to Shiva, Hanuman the Monkey God and several cremations happening along the river. 

The Hindus have a much more pragmatic view of death; it's just another part of life. There are specific rituals start differently depending on the age, gender and caste of the person who died but everyone ends up as ash in the river. Our guide said it can take two or three hours for a body to burn completely. 

We met a group of Sadus hanging out around the temple who speak English and will ask for money in exchange for blessings or photos. I'm not sure if they were legit or not but our guide assured us that they use the money to buy food for themselves and the poorer communities in the area so I obliged. On the other hand, I was really annoyed by the vendors that kept approaching me and trying to sell me crap that I didn't want or need. 

Our guide also took us to a nearby elderly complex where Mother Teresa used to work. The old ladies and gents were lined up for their lunch and had colorful laundry drying all around courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was a temple with a bell that one old woman rang incessantly for several minutes. 

Our guide showing off his Shiva Trident tattoo 

Our guide showing off his Shiva Trident tattoo 

At the conclusion of our tour, we tipped our guide and headed in the direction of our next destination. A black temple dog with white paws that we called Puppy escorted us as far as he could but had to leave us and turn back when we got to main road because that turf apparently belonged to other dogs. 

We walked a long time before arriving at Boudhanath. I didn't realize I had already been there during my first day long tour of a color-coated Kathmandu but didn't mind visiting again. The stupa was still covered in scaffolding so I didn't even bother trying to get a good picture of it, but there are plenty to be found of the beautiful Boudhanath online.

View from the top of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple near Boudhanath

View from the top of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple near Boudhanath

We did enjoy exploring the Tibetan Buddhist temple situated next to it as well as our vegetarian, rooftop lunch. Then we walked. We walked a lot. It was a long way back to Thamil and I ended up taking a cab the rest of the way back to the home stay from there due to both mental and physical exhaustion. 

Spices for sale near Boudhanath

Spices for sale near Boudhanath

Elephant statue guarding the stupa

Elephant statue guarding the stupa

My Long, Laborious Layover in Bangladesh: Worth It?

I knew flying from Kathmandu to Yangon on Bangladeshi owned & operated Biman Airlines would be a bit of an inconvenience but I never dreamed it would turn into the such a nightmare. The actual flights were fine, it was everything in between that was burdensome. I spent a lot more time and effort to save some money, but was it worth it? I experienced and documented this ordeal so you can decide for yourself.

Just to provide some context, there are no direct flights and no easy way to get from Kathmandu to Yangon. Here are your options: 1. Book cheapest ticket via Biman and deal with the 21 hour layover. 2. Pay nearly twice the cost to fly one of the Middle Eastern Airlines all the way back to UAE or Oman or somewhere, wait 6-8 hours then fly back past Nepal to Myanmar. 3. Take a bus a cross over a land border, which complicates things because you cannot use the online pre-approval letter  - which I have - for land borders. It can only get you a visa when arriving at certain airports. Instead you must have a visa approved by an embassy or consulate and there isn't one in Nepal so you'll have to go to another country first like Thailand. 

Here's what to expect should you book the same itinerary that I did. 

Step one: book flight online. The Biman website is pretty terrible so I had to go through a third party, cheapoair.com. Total cost: $268.05.

Fly Kathmandu to Dhaka. There is a vegetarian meal option despite the fact you cannot specify it in advance like every other airline and no one from customer service answered your email prior to the flight. Sandwich served is 98% bread, 1% cheese, 1% mayo. Pretty sure it is the meat option sans meat, or, a culinary afterthought. The sandwich is accompanied by Pepsi (seemingly the official corporate sponsor of the entire country), vegetable crackers with all the nutrition that wheat, sugar, flour & "vegetable flakes" has to offer, one packet of ketchup and a strange but sweet noodley dessert thing. 

Arrive Dhaka airport. Do not go to VOA desk.  Instead go upstairs to the Transit area which you are supposed to inherently know how and where it exists despite there being zero signage. Talk to someone at the desk. Good luck because they each have different levels of English so it's like a game of roulette, really. And even though there is clearly a no smoking sign, at least half of employees will have lit cigarettes between their lips. 

Choose your fate for the 21 hour layover:

1. Stay in the airport and Biman covers the cost of dinner that night and breakfast the following morning. You sleep in the airport. Theoretically, it's free, but uncomfortable. 

2. Pay $21 for a transit visa and $30 to stay in a hotel overnight. Transportation to and from the hotel as well as dinner and breakfast are included in this cost. 

I chose the latter option while two Danish girls on the same flight chose the former. There is no wifi in transit area.   

See two cats mating on the floor. Stop, do double-take. Yes, two cats are indeed mating well inside the airport before you even get to customs or baggage claim. 

Receive red, plastic token for Sky Link hotel. Have exactly $51 US currency or you will be waiting over an hour for change. Wait another hour for airport to contact the hotel. Get escorted by a transit employee downstairs to the desk next to the VOA desk for transit visa. Receive paperwork. Get escorted to customs to stamp passport. Get escorted to baggage carousel to retrieve bag which arrived long before you did. Get escorted outside into the heat & humidity to wait for hotel shuttle. 

Shuttle picks you up and gets stuck in traffic on a road that smells like dirty diapers. You must keep the window open for a breeze because the air con on the van doesn't work and it is stiflingly hot so you tolerate the stench. 

Arrive at hotel and hand over passport to check in. Get escorted to your room which surprisingly has a full bed, functional tv, power outlet, electricity, weak Aircon, ensuite bathroom including shower and western toilet (but no toilet paper) and your choice of cold or nearly warm water. Wifi is free and astonishingly fast. 

You are told to report for dinner on the 6th floor at 8:30 - you must specify vegetarian or you will automatically be served meat. You receive a call in your room at 8 saying your dinner is ready now. You are alone but a meal to satisfy a family of four is prepared and served. It is spicy. The seal on your bottle of water is broken so you know it's been used before and refilled. You drink it anyways. 

You eat as much as you can, which is not nearly half, and return to your room with an employee who sprays your room with chemicals to deter mosquitos. You are pretty sure you are the only guest in the hotel. 

Get ready for bed. Notice cigarette burns in sheets and cigarette butts in bathroom. Sleep is actually ok as long as you have an eye mask and earplugs because the traffic outside is noisy and nonstop and there is a weird, green orb glowing above your bed. 

Wake up dazed and confused. Remember you are still stuck in Bangladesh. Call reception to ask when Breakfast is served. He says Breakfast is at 8:00 and the shuttle will leave for the airport at 10:00. Receive call at 7:30 that Breakfast is ready. Eat a light but satisfying meal. Return to your room to use Internet and revel in the calm before the transit storm. 

There is a knock on the door at 9:30 to tell you the shuttle is already here. Quickly pack and come downstairs to board shuttle. The ride is between 20 and 30 minutes back to the airport. You are told to go inside to Row D and left to fend for yourself. 

You find Row D which apparently stands for Deserted, Dysfuntional, Difficult, or many other possible disappointing D words. You are told the computer system is down so you must go to another Row. Go there, wait in line, get escorted by airport employees out of line to fill out customs departure form. Get back in line, reach counter where employee checks your ticket then refuses to check your bag and sends you back to Row D to wait for a special Transit employee. Wait several minutes for said employee to arrive who magically uses computer system to print your boarding pass but still does not check your luggage.

Get escorted through special transit area and get passport stamped again. Agent does not take customs form that you were specifically told to fill out. Transit employee abandons you and tells you to "walk that way" (left.) 

Walk "that way" lugging both bags. Check boarding pass for gate. It is a blank space with no number. Go back to transit area and ask which gate to go to. You are told that the gate will be announced and to sit and wait. 

See stray airport cats again, but separate and not mating this time. 

Announcements are unintelligible over the intercom so you keep checking the monitor, which is staticky and barely readable. Finally monitor claims your flight is boarding at gate 6. Lug both bags to gate 6 and stand in line. Get told to go to gate 6A instead. Walk to gate 6A and stand in long-ass line. Give up on carrying rucksack and kick it along the floor as the line moves. Very. Very. Slowly. 

One hour later, reach front of line and hand ticket to employee. Employee tells you gate has changed and to hurry to gate 4. You want to punch someone but you refrain and hustle to gate 4 and wait in another line. See Danish girls again who say they had a much simpler and less eventful experience. You envy them. You are told you cannot take water so you drink it all while in line. You realize your flight will not be leaving on time. 

You send bags through security screening  which includes your supposed-to-be-checked-bag full of liquids. No one seems to care. You get frisked by a female employee behind a curtain.  You enter another waiting area. You wait impatiently because now you have to pee since you drank the entire contents of your water bottle and there is no toilet even though it now appears that the previous no water warning was empty rhetoric. You curse the engineer that designed security screenings at the individual gates. Your flight should have left 30 minutes ago yet no one has even boarded the plane. 

Later someone says it is time to board. You follow the herd downstairs and a board a bus that takes you to the plane. You shove your rucksack and backpack into the overhead bin. The plane is over half empty so you can choose a row all to yourself. But the legroom leaves much to be desired and can only comfortably accommodate someone under five feet tall or a double amputee. (Literally only 5 or 6 inches between you and the next seat.) Your plane takes off over an hour late. 

The same meal is served, only this time with a small bag of peanuts so that you don't starve during the additional hour of flight time. You finally land in Yangon, grateful that you and both bags have finally arrived. 

Total cost: $319.05. Total time: 26 hours. You vow never to fly Biman nor to travel through Bangladesh again. 

 

Painting Tibetan Thangka in Kathmandu, Nepal

If you've been to Nepal, you will see some beautiful, incredibly detailed paintings for sale everywhere from the urban capital in Kathmandu to the rural villages. Thangka (also sometimes spelled tangka, thanks or tanka) is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist art form. Paintings of Buddhist deities, scenes or mandalas are painting on cotton or silk and used to be displayed only in monasteries and during religious festivals. They can be also be used as teaching tools or for meditation, but nowadays are mostly sold as souvenirs to tourists. (And they are worth every rupee, by the way.) 

But wait, why are they all over Nepal if they are Tibetan? Ever since China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, many refugees, including the Dalai Lama, fled the country and many ended up in neighboring Nepal. 

Many of the galleries that sell these paintings had signs advertising schools so I assumed that they would accept foreign students, if for nothing else than the money. Many of these studios were understandably clustered around Boudhanath, the famous Buddhist stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu which is one of the largest in Nepal. It's normally a very impressive structure but it was under renovation, partially due to the earthquake last year so I mostly saw scaffolding during my visit. I inquired about painting at one of these schools and was advised that it would take 7 days and cost 5,000 rupees (about $50 USD). This was a bit out of my budgets for both time and money and was too far to travel from my home stay in Swayambhunath (aka the Monkey Temple). 

Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

When I got back to my home stay, I explored the immediate area hoping to find another Thangka school since Swayambhunath is also home to a Buddhist stupa. I found no schools but I did discover Swayambhu Environmetal Park, which was free to enter and enjoy and boasted three huge Buddha sculptures representing (left to right) Avalokiteshvara, Amitaba Buddha and Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) all over 19 m (60 ft) tall. 

Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

The next day I searched the internet and found a supposed school located just inside the city and well within walking distance at around 3 km/1.8 miles (one way). After walking the dogs, I headed into town in search of said school. When I arrived, I found it boarded up so I kept walking and ended up at a school in Durbar Square. I was thrilled to find a secret entrance where I wouldn't be hassled by the tourist police to pay the 10,000 ($9.50 USD) rupee World Heritage entrance fee, which I had already paid upon my first visit during Holi, but no longer had my ticket to prove it. 

The owner of the shop, Dev, gladly agreed to let me paint my own and we bargained a price of 3,000 rupees ($28 USD) for the process and supplies. After I looked at a few paintings for inspiration, he agreed to prep a canvas and sketch out a simple mandala shape based on what I liked. I agreed to come back the next day at 10:30 AM.

Day One

Day One

When I arrived the following morning, my canvas was waiting and the pencil-sketched skeleton on it was about 20" x 20". (I actually still haven't measured the full canvas.) I could tell he used a compass for the circles but freehanded all the straight pieces so I had to spend a little time erasing and realigning parts of the sketch with a ruler. 

I had an assortment of acrylic paints but kept a limited palette of blue, orange, green, red and black. I sat next door on a cushion on the floor of a shop that sold masks and singing bowls. Everyone was very friendly, not to mention curious about what I was doing so I frequently had an audience of locals watching me paint, all offering words of praise and encouragement. I painted for five hours that day, stopping only for a quick lunch break from a nearby vendor who make me a fried egg sandwich which others called a 'Nepali Burger.' I finished the first layer of colors (phase 1) and most of the '[out]lining' (phase 2). 

Day Two

Day Two

On the second day, I arrived around the same time and painted for six hours. I got through the majority of the gold detailing. This color was literally powdered 18 karat gold mixed with a bit of water. I wanted a gradient of blue rings around the main image so Dev MacGuyvered a compass together out of string and pushpins and penciled in some perfectly circular guidelines. 

One day three, I walked to town with two other girls from my home stay. I showed them my painting-in-progress and Dev bought us all tea. We all chatted for a bit while I started working and once their cups were empty, they headed off to find the Horse Festival. Gotta love Nepal! Another day, another festival!

Day Three / The Finished Product

Day Three / The Finished Product

It took me about three more hours to design & paint the outermost gold border and paint the blue rings and the background. I was so thrilled to paint those final few brushstrokes around the edge of the canvas. Even though I knew I had just spent days doing it, the painting still didn't feel real. All the locals that I got to know over the past few days complimented me on my work and one even volunteered to take pictures of me holding the finished product. 

The painting process itself was somewhat meditative - especially the intricate detail work with the tiniest of brushes. It's complete focus and concentration, trying to translate the design from my mind to the paper. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to Nepal or Tibet and study at a proper school with a Lama. In the meantime, I'm going to keep seizing every opportunity I have to be creative. 

Solo Travel & Stuffocation

Packing light - or at least attempting to - has been somewhat of a challenge for me. The weight of my pack(s) decreases with each trip, but I still have too much stuff. I mean, did I come here for new and exciting experiences or to lug a bunch of stuff around like a boat anchor? 

Stuff in Nepal

Stuff in Nepal

I also had some insight into my own hypocrisy. I want to live and travel minimalist, yet I still fall into the trap of buying souvenirs for myself and for others. At least half a dozen times during this trip so far. The stuff is really hard to resist. At first glance it's shiny or colorful or exotic or "such a bargain." But in reality you just end up with cheap junk. I've been to many markets in many different countries and it's all the same: local handicrafts that will end up sitting on a shelf and collecting dust, cotton elephant pants and t-shirts that don't last, jewelry that just gets added to an overwhelming pile and ultimately ends up getting sold at garage sales, brand name counterfeits and knock-offs, and the list goes on. Not to mention the vendors can be incredibly aggressive or persuasive and it's easy to get guilted into buying things you don't even want in the first place. 

Stuff in Sri Lanka

Stuff in Sri Lanka

With nothing but the best intentions, you attach the amazing experiences that you saw, heard, touched, smelled and tasted to the things you buy. So you attach feelings of fondness to these inanimate 'gifts.' But the recipient did not experience these things so she/he will appreciate the sentiment but the thing will probably get used once or twice then disappear into the darkest depths of the closet. Or the thing may not get used or appreciated at all. 

Stuff in India

Stuff in India

For Christmas last year, I gave my mom a silk scarf from Cambodia and a jade bracelet from Vietnam and I have yet to see her wear either gift. I knew she already had piles of jewelry and a collection of scarves before I purchased these things but I felt obligated not to come home empty-handed, especially around the holidays. I'm not upset and it's nothing personal against my mom - it's human nature to want more than you need and to not use all that you have, at least in the West. With regards to the holidays, I'm sure my mom appreciated my gifts of time and effort like cooking, chauffeuring, conversing, teaching yoga and even a foot rub or two more than anything tangible that was under the tree. 

Stuff in Singapore

Stuff in Singapore

Not to mention unplanned souvenirs and gifts can easily blow your travel budget. If you're on a tight budget, you're gonna buy cheap stuff that is mass produced so that a thousand other tourists can buy it too. If you have a bit more money and want to buy some exotic furniture or decor for your home, the item itself may seem like a steal but the shipping costs and risk of damage during transit quickly add up. 

So here's my solution. It's unrealistic and setting myself up for failure to think that I can go the rest of this trip without buying anything else. So after Nepal, I am limiting myself to one item per country. Quality over quantity, one of my core values. Each thing also has to be useful and lightweight. And I have to like it, love it, can't live without it. No buying it even if I'm on the fence or have an inkling of doubt. 

And no more junk for family and friends either. There are several reasons why I've determined postcards are vastly superior souvenirs.
1) Each is handwritten and personalized for its intended recipient.
2) It's a nice, somewhat nostalgic surprise that stands out among the monotony of junk mail, catalogs and local advertising.
3) It's cost effective - most often less than one US dollar for the card and postage.
4) If you look hard enough, you can find unique cards that still support local artisans/photographers.
5) If the recipient doesn't feel the need to keep it, it can be recycled.
6) They are sent right away and don't weigh you down, taking up precious space in your backpack.
7) The personal connection of seeing a picture and hearing how much you loved traveling to a place is more likely to inspire someone else to travel there too instead of a generic trinket. 

Awesome Postcards 

Awesome Postcards 

I'm leaving some stuff behind in Nepal but I'm still stuck lugging around a bunch more junk from home that I've since decided I can live and travel without.

This lesson I've learned from long-term, solo travel is so applicable to the rest of life too:

You can do more when you have less stuff weighing you down. 

Tokyo, Japan

This was not part of my original itinerary. Initially, I just had a layover scheduled here during the course of my final flight home in December, but I extended my stay for a few days, because: Tokyo. I've heard so much about this city, I just had to see and experience it for myself since the opportunity had presented itself. 

I had an exhausting flight from Hanoi to Tokyo that departed just after midnight and arrived around 7 AM in the morning. I suck at sleeping on planes so I was dragging my feet in a daze through the Tokyo airport. The only upside was that a new friend happened to be on the same flight, but we parted ways in the airport because she was flying all the way back to the States. 

I was too tired to function so I ended up in a capsule hotel called 9 Hours that was attached to the airport. The capsules were just as cool and compact as I had expected, but turned out to be far more expensive. It was like $20 bucks for just three hours. After some semi-lucid sleep, I collected my bags, bought some subway tickets, got some yen from an ATM, ate an overpriced lunch and then headed from the airport to my hostel. 

Tokyo is huge and overwhelming and has a ton of different neighborhoods. I had booked only one night in a cheap hostel near the Akobonobashi station in Shinjuku. I was the only girl in a fully booked room full of 10 beds and nine other dudes. There were stains (possibly blood or some other bodily fluid) on the floor and my bed was in the middle of the room, nowhere near an outlet. The room smelled like stinky boys and the bathroom was even worse. This is why I usually book female dorms when traveling: the smell(s).

The silver lining of this place, though, was that they had great internet. So I was able to plan out the rest of my days here, as well as book another hostel in the Asakusa area on the recommendation of a friend form college. That night I went to bed relatively early and got up super early around 5:30 AM, excited for my first full day in this crazy city. 

I took a couple different lines on the metro subway to get to Hiro-o station and tried to find a temple that supposedly hosted foreigner-friendly morning zen meditation sessions. The directions on their website were not great and I wandered for a while and found a traditional-looking temple-ish place and lingered outside. An elderly Japanese lady noticed me lingering outside and invited me inside, but neither she, nor the other handful of people there, spoke any English and I knew I wasn't in the right place. She fumbled through a pile of brochures in just about every other language but English, so I still don't know where I was. I bowed graciously and said "Arrigato" and left as politely as I could.  

I remembered seeing a tree that obscured part of the temple in the picture online so I started searching for trees, thinking it would lead me to the temple, but instead I ended up at Arisugawa-No-Miya Memorial Park. It was a big and beautifully landscaped area complete with a pond, bridges, trails, trees and tons of sitting areas. I decided to just sit here and meditate instead since I gave up on finding the temple after at least an hour of wandering around. The chill in the air was refreshing and definitely felt like December, but the fiery foliage made it feel like the beginning of fall. After about an hour of mediation, I walked around the park watching other people walking their dogs, feeding pigeons, chatting in pairs or getting in a quick morning workout. 

I was impressed with and enjoyed the Tokyo Metro subway system. Despite being the world's busiest railway, it's one of the most organized and easiest to navigate in my experience. I even survived Shinkjuku station, the world's busiest rail station. But once I got above ground, it was a different story. Tokyo addresses are super confusing with like 3 different numbers and I really had trouble making sense of it.  I only had my little samsung with limited battery life and no sim card so I couldn't completely rely on GPS so I had to supplement my navigation with old fashioned paper maps and directions. 

One of the things I wanted to do most was to find a traditional zazen temple and learn about zen buddhism and meditation. It first piqued my curiosity after I heard all about how much Steve Jobs was into it when I read his biography last year. Let me tell you how many times I tried and failed to make this happen. 

1. Before I arrived in Tokyo, I tried to book a temple stay in advance. I got responses from temple in Kyoto, but apparently they are pretty popular this time of year and I couldn't book two consecutive nights. And, as awesome as it would have been to take a bullet train to Kyoto, it would have been a lot of extra strain in terms of time and money so I abandoned that plan. 2. I found a few spots supposedly in Tokyo but received no response from the ones I was able to email. 3. I attempted to find Kourin-in temple for morning meditation near Hiro-o to no avail. Found the park instead. 4. Found a recommendation for the Buddhist English Academy online. . I went to Nishi Shinjuku anyways and walked around for at least an hour looking for this place, only to discover that the address was for an apartment in a residential building and that the phone number provided was not in service.  5.Took the metro all the way out to Myogadani Station for a Wednesday night Zen meditation intro class, only to find the temple non-existent. It was literally razed to the ground with the empty lot surrounded by a white tarp. Supposedly a new temple is going to be built in its place. 6. I found another local Zazen meditation experience through Voyagin.com but it turned out to be "currently unavailable" when I inquired about it.

So after wasting so much time and effort in my quest for zen, I decided it would have to wait until a later date when I could not only plan a proper trip in advance, but confirm it in advance as well. 

But back to the more successful stuff that I did. I was glad I moved to Asakusa because it was a livelier and more artistic area. I booked a few successful activities via Voyagin. The first was a customized art and design tour of Tokyo with a local designer named Kota. He met me at my hostel and showed me around the city. It was such a relief to be with someone who knew where he was going and spoke Japanese! Plus he was good company as well. We started at the famous Senso-ji temple, which is the oldest in the Tokyo area. It was free to enter and explore, but teeming with vendors and tourists. Next we went to Jimbocho Street which is know for it's abundance of book stores. We spent a surprising amount of time perusing old books and scrolls in the stores, and I ended up buying a book of poetry from the 1950s for a friend back home. 

Our tummies were starting to grumble, so Kota took me to a little place that had VEGAN RAMEN! It was delicious and apparently hard to find according to other friends who have visited the city, so I'm eternally grateful. The last stop was the Advertising museum, built in the basement of a mall in the shadow of Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising agency.  I couldn't stay long because I had to head to my next appointment with a local lady to learn Japanese calligraphy. I made it to the subway station with no issues, but then I got lost several times between there and her house, with people on the street giving me terrible directions. One girl even walked me to the police station, when I thought she was walking me to the house. Anyways, I showed up 30 minutes late but still managed to get some good practice in and paint a satisfactory character for the word "wisdom." Definitely better than any souvenir I could have bought on the street. 

My last day in Tokyo was a bit of a blur. After so many days surrounded by sky-high concrete I was craving some nature so I headed to Mount Takao, located less than an hour outside the city by Express train from Shinjuku. It was colder and more precipitous than I anticipated so I ended up buying a hat and gloves at the base. A sporadic mix of rain and snow fell from the clouds above. My left foot (the one injured in Bali) had been hurting for a few days so I opted to take the cable car part way up the mountain, then walk the rest of the way. There were tons of other locals around, but hardly any other obvious foreigners. There were several shrines and one large temple complex along the way. 

If you reach the top on a good, clear day, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance, but my view was thoroughly obscured by the weather. I was pretty hungry so I ordered Honshimeji Kake (soba noodles with mushrooms) and Amazake (warm fermented rice drink) for lunch at a small shop. There, I met a fellow American that was in Japan for a few days en route to visit family in Vietnam. We chatted and walked back down the mountain together and shared an affinity for steamed red bean paste buns. Drool. I really enjoyed some delicious food in Japan!

Once I got back to the city, I headed straight for one of their famous Cat Cafes. I arrived, ready to be showered with love and affection from exotic kitties, but was kind of underwhelmed. There were way more people there than I expected and the cats were only interested in you if you had food. I tried several different toys, but none of them were interested in playing. Just food. You pay by the hour at these places (there are also owl cafes and bunny cafes) and I was about to leave when I met a group of Americans. One or two were marines stationed elsewhere in Japan and the others were just visiting. They invited me to karaoke and the infamous Robot Cafe show, so I figured WTH since it was my last night. 

We rented a traditional private booth at a karaoke bar to kill time before the robot show. Apparently unlimited drinks came with the rental, no doubt to supply liquid courage to shy singers. One dude was confident in his skills without an alcoholic crutch and sang a pretty legit Sinatra. The rest of us, were your typical tone-deaf karaoke-ers. This was my first time ever singing Karaoke but I've known the song I would sing for years now: Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood. If you know me, you know this is an odd song choice because I am no fan of country music; in fact I think this is the only Carrie Underwood song I know. It's just fun to mock-sing with a raspy drawl. So, check that off the bucket list. The other musical selections spanned several genres and decades including Britney Spears, TLC, Missy Elliot, Shaggy and some other more recent songs that I didn't know because I rarely listen to the radio these days. 

So last but not least was the robot show, which I will attempt to describe but honestly you just have to see it to fully understand and appreciate it. It's not cheap but one of the guys offered to pay for my ticket so that was awesome. We were front row for all the crazy, loud, neon, random action. It was like a mashup of Japanese pop culture; like a live action anime featuring a variety of costumes, robots, epic battles followed by energetic dancing and singing. And some weird skit about a couple of Santa's reindeer beating the crap out of him. (Not sure which two but my money would be on Dancer and Prancer.) 

It was a late night to say the least and I didn't get much sleep so my final challenge was getting myself and my luggage back to the airport for my 11ish flight back to the states. I grot a seat on a shuttle bus and everything went smoothly until I arrived in Dallas. It's so stupid that you have to recheck your bags and go through security again when you literally just came from an international flight. I narrowly arrived at my connected and then a few hours later I landed in Charlotte. My bag didn't make it onto the same flight as me, but the airport promised to fly the bag to GSP and then have it delivered to my parents house the next day. Annoying, but really not a big deal in the gran scheme of things. Traveling solo for so long has really helped me put things into perspective. 

Ha Long Bay & Hanoi, Vietnam

Is it just me or do all the cities in Vietnam start with H? (Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hanoi, Ha Long…) Anyways… 

The day after arriving in Hanoi, I was picked up early in the morning and took a three hour bus journey to Ha Long Bay (translation: descending dragon bay) for a 2 day/1 night cruise. This was definitely my biggest splurge in Vietnam but totally worth it because the area is a unique Natural Wonder of the World and UNESCO World Heritage site. There are close to 2,000 limestone karsts and isles that jut out of the water like mountain peaks that have been swallowed by the sea. Kinda reminded me of the end of Waterworld. 

There were several boats constructed to resemble the old junk boats with their distinctive, ridged sails, but I was a bit disappointed that the only time the sails were up was when they were docked in the bay whilst transferring tourists. My room was nice - all wood with an ocean view and my own bathroom with hot shower. 

Each meal seemed to have a five course minimum and was pretty meat-heavy, but they gladly accommodated my vegetarian diet. It was a tasty blend of traditional Vietnamese dishes with some western supplements, but honestly it was too much. I had to find the balance between trying not to waste too much while still avoiding a full on food coma. 

On day one, we set sail (figuratively) around 1 and cruised through the monolithic karsts for a few hours. Later we arrived at the Vung Vien Fishing Village where locals paddled small boats full of tourists past floating houses and bunches of boats. Later we had the option to paddle around ourselves in bright blue kayaks, so a new French friend and I spent about an hour exploring the karsts in the immediate vicinity of our boat. It was a bit of a challenge to find our specific boat again because they all kind of look the same as the government mandated that all the boats be painted white a few years ago. That night I opted to be a recluse and relax in my room with my book instead of participating in a "cooking class" to learn how to make spring rolls - again - and the subsequent happy hour and squid fishing. 

Day two involved an early morning Tai Chi class on the top deck (which I supplemented afterwards with some of my own yoga), a buffet breakfast and a trip to Hang Sung Sot, known as Surprise Cave to the hoards of tourists that are herded through it daily. I was a bit disappointed at first because we were packed in like sardines in the first chamber but eventually spread out more in the later, larger chambers. It's the biggest cave I've ever seen and the spectrum of colored lights strategically located throughout the space really enhanced the ambiance. After that it was time to pack and we headed back to the dock to disembark. So it was more of a 24-hour cruise rather than 2 days. 

A few notes on Halong cruises: You kind of get screwed as a solo traveler. They consider the rooms double occupancy so you get charged extra if you're by yourself. My boat charged $110 per person if you're a pair or couple but $160 if you're single. I also booked my trip online before I even got to Hanoi via the Hanoi to Halong website. However, once I arrived at my hostel in Hanoi, I found out that I could have booked cheaper, not to mention more last-minute, through them. It would have cost much less because they pair you up with other solo travelers if you book alone. I wouldn't exactly call it a regret, though, because I did like having my own room without mystery roommate who could have turned out to be awesome, but also could have been a nightmare and tainted my trip. Most of the boats and the itineraries seem to be pretty much the same. 

Hanoi in Northern Vietnam is geographically the largest city in the country but has a slightly smaller population than Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It's still just as chaotic with traffic and you are still risking your life when you attempt to cross the street but overall I preferred Hanoi to its aforementioned, southern counterpart. 

Perhaps it's because I really enjoyed my hostel and the immediate surroundings. I had my own private room with a big, comfy bed and bathroom at Golden Time Hostel for just $16 per night. It was next to a park, which was next to a large & lovely lake, around which was built most of the sites and social scene. 

Upon the recommendation of my sister, I saw a water puppet show on my first night in town, which could alternatively be called Synchronized Marionette Swimming. It's a tradition that dates back to the 11th Century and there's a popular theater in Hanoi that still hosts several performances per day. They have live music and all kinds of puppets from people to dragons to birds, some with special effects like breathing fire or spitting water. All of the singing and speaking is in Vietnamese of course, but it seemed to be a combination of life and legends specific to the country. The puppets grow rice, row boats, catch fish and have a few comedic skits mixed in. This Wikipedia entry features pictures from and information about the actual show that I saw. 

I spent a day walking around the city seeing museums. My first stop was the Vietnam National Museum of History which was a mix of interesting and 'meh.' My favorite exhibit explained the significance of sacred and mythical animals throughout Vietnam. This included relics and descriptions of 27 animals total including everything from elephants and tigers to dragons, phoenixes and garuda birds. Overall worth a quick visit. One other museum is included in the ticket price for this museum: The Museum of the Revolution, which I do not recommend. It's not very well executed and even though I was like literally the only person walking around their half-assed hallways, they kicked me out after about 30 minutes and said the museum was closed. They offered no further explanation so I can only assume it was a lunch break - or maybe the staff just wanted to go home. 

I left and easily found a pedi-cab driver - the most eco-friendly form of transport in the city - who would drive me the 4 km length of the Guinness Book verified world's longest mosaic mural. The work began in 2007 and was created to celebrate the millennial anniversary of Hanoi in 2010. 

I find the idea of many different artists collaborating on a single mural project very communist but I found the corporate sponsorship to be decidedly capitalist.  Still it's pretty impressive, albeit hard to enjoy safely since it's located along one of the busiest roads in the city. And how do the residents show their appreciation for this achievement? By literally pissing on it. I came upon a guy who I thought was admiring the wall as well, only to discover that he was relieving himself. Many other parts of the wall bear the same unmistakable stench of urine as well. Sad. 

My last stop was the Women's Museum, which was fantastic and I highly recommend it. My only regret was not getting there earlier because I only had two hours to explore the multi-story museum. The museum has well-executed exhibits on traditional fashion, domestic and family culture and the women's significant involvement in the wars. 

I really wanted to visit Sapa and see some natural beauty but I didn't have enough time so I instead opted for a day trip to Tam Coc which was much closer and easier to access. We saw a few old temples then toured the area by boat and bike. Locals paddled us in pairs through three natural caves created by the water and karsts similar to Ha Long Bay. And also tried relentlessly to sell us stuff, which was kind of annoying since we were literally a captive audience unless we jumped out of the canoes and swam away. 

The bikes were a bit questionable but we proceeded with the tour anyways. The scenery was lovely and then I couldn't help but laugh uncontrollably when one of the pedals fell off of the bike that another lady on the tour was riding. Our guide ended up switching bikes with her and getting towed back to the base by another guy on our tour. Teamwork! 


Saigon/HCMC, Vietnam

I arrived via the airport in the biggest city in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, traditionally known - and still widely referred to today - as Saigon. I took a cab to my hostel in the heart of the backpacker district on Bui Vien street located in District 1. 

Saigon has about twice as many districts as Panem in the Hunger Games. The city has 24 total: 7 named urban districts, 7 numbered districts and 5 outer, suburban districts. And each had its own kind of identity. Districts 1 and 3 are in the heart of the city where most of the action is. I later stayed at a friend's place in District 2 which is a short ride from the city and packed with ex-pats who want to live in a quieter area. 

And once I visited the 250 km Cu Chi tunnel network in a village about and hour and a half outside the city, I was like "OMG there's even an underground "district" strategically used to win a war - just like District 13 in the book!" FUN FACT: Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins' father actually did serve in Vietnam so my theory is totally plausible! 

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi tunnels

Despite the infamous war ending exactly 40 years ago, there are reminders of it everywhere and the tourism industry thrives off of it. Much of the art in the Museum was obviously influenced by it. The War Remnants Museum is a must-visit and it was incredible to see the war from the Vietnamese perspective. There were some pretty graphic pictures and stories and also some pretty staggering statistics pertaining to the death and destruction that took place here. My favorite display was the collection of anti-war protest and vietnamese propaganda posters from around the world - some great graphic design pieces there. It seems humanity just can't learn from it's mistakes because there is still so much unnecessary war and violence today. Oh, and despite being American, never did I feel like I was resented for my nationality. I encountered so many people that were just genuinely nice and hospitable. 

http://www.vnpropaganda.com/

http://www.vnpropaganda.com/

The most prominent of these awesome people was Tat. So here's how that connection happened: A girl from America (me) meets another girl from London at a meditation retreat in Thailand who's brother was best friends with this guy from Vietnam who also lived and studied in the UK. And Kevin Bacon probably fits in there somewhere too. She introduced us on Facebook and I ended up staying in his otherwise vacant apartment for a few days which I totally appreciated beyond words. Even though I would do the same if the situation were reversed, and I did host several friends and family at my homes in Florida over the years, I have trouble accepting others' sincere generosity like I don't deserve it or something. 

Anyways, every Tuesday, Tat buys pizza for the local orphanage and organizes fun, engaging projects for them. I helped distribute the culinary treat, topped with cheese, shredded shrimp and quail egg, to about 40 orphans ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers. Then he led a project instructing the kids how to make multi-colored origami stars which only about half the kids that started had the attention span to actually finish. I made two and gave mine away to the littler ones. I practiced a bit of English with some of the older ones and the smaller ones just wanted attention and often tried to climb me like a tree. Kids just want to be cared for and about no matter what country they're from so I'm glad I could make even the most minuscule impact on their lives. 

I serendipitously met another really cool dude from Nepal at a Vegan restaurant near my hostel. His name is Sramdip and he's a tattoo/street artist as well as fellow vegetarian so we were fast friends. He showed me around the two main street art areas in Saigon. 

The second was a food and music venue called Saigon Outcast which ended up being only about 5 km away from Tat's place in D2. I ended up changing my flight so that I could attend at least the first day of a two day Melting Pot music + arts festival taking place here over the weekend. My favorite of the musical performers was Suboi, a pretty cool and widely-known female Vietnamese rapper. I definitely had to do something artsy/cultural that week because I was missing my own beloved Art Basel back  home in Miami for the first time in several years. 

Anyways, Sramdip (@sramdip on instagram) and another artist Kris alias Frenemy (@frenemylife) from Austin, Texas did some impressive live painting during the event and the air was perfumed with the familiar smell of spray paint fumes. I also met Jimmy, an ambassador for Lovebot (@lovebottherobot), a street art group based out of Toronto that wants to spread love and kindness across the globe. 

I also saw Dennis - alias My German Stalker (lol) - again as this is city number three in which our paths have crossed. We had a drink and caught up at a rooftop bar which overlooked the park, which was packed with people and pop-up venues so we decided to check it out. We took the lift down to street level then explored what turned out to be the Taste of the World Festival, where they had neon-lit kiddie rides, food and drinks from a few other countries and a main stage with a variety of performances from trick bar tending to fire twirling to salsa dancing. 

I spent one day touring the Mekong Delta well outside of the city. I was pretty disappointed not to see a "lively" floating market as promised but the boat and bike rides around the river were ok. I'm glad I got to experience it, but it's mostly just muddy water that seems to flow forever in all directions. 

Altogether I spent a full week in Saigon and miraculously managed not to be trampled by any of the herds of wild scooters roaming the city streets. It's really not a pedestrian-friendly city so I ended up using cabs and Uber (no tuk-tuks here) for the majority of my transportation needs. 

Temple Tour | Siem Reap, Cambodia

First off, my flight here from Bangkok was pretty terrible and I do not recommend Bangkok Airlines or the Siem Reap airport, but you don't really have a choice with the latter. My plane was sitting on the tarmac with no explanation for at least 30 minutes (the flight is only an hour) and the air con vents in my row weren't working so I spent the flight fanning myself in vain with a safety instruction card but I still got pretty sweaty. The airline is also incredibly wasteful; it's completely unnecessary to give people a moist towelette before takeoff and a crappy in-flight meal (with no vegetarian option I might add) for barely a one hour flight. I was also slightly disappointed to receive American dollars when I withdrew money from the ATM. I quickly learned that it's the standard currency here (at least for tourists and travelers) but you can get some 100 and 1000 Cambodian riel notes here and there as change (instead of US coins). 

Admittedly I had very limited knowledge of Siem Reap and Cambodia for that matter when I first included it in my itinerary months ago. I thought Siem Reap was just a temple or two but it turns out there are 100 square kilometers of temples and other ancient ruins scattered around this area, which is unlike anything else I've ever seen. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, brings in tourists by the busload and it's even part of their national flag. So the flag also kinda functions like a perpetual advertisement, reminding you of how awesome their ancient architecture is, and that you are missing out if you don't come see it! Brilliant. 

Seriously, Rome and Athens ain't got nothin' on Siem Reap. 

Angkor Wat: The Main One

The main attraction of the Siem Reap temples is Angkor Wat itself, which translates to Capital Temple and is according to Wikipedia is the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu during the reign of King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century but it soon transitioned to a Buddhist temple before the turn of the 13th century. 

It's surrounded by a large moat and is west-facing so the sunrises are supposed to be spectacular, but also super crowded with tourists, so I don't think it's worth getting up that early. As I walked up the first few steps toward the bridge, I was talked into renting a tour guide for $15 since I didn't do a ton of research in advance. He spoke decent English and gave me lots of great insight, but also walked me right through the mini market to the left of the temple where I was mobbed by merchants yelling at me to buy their stuff. 

Here are some of my humble pictures but there are way better ones online. 

Bayon: The One With The Faces

I really liked the rather serene faces, or maybe it was several variations of the same face at this temple. It was built by the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th or early 13th century. The faces are thought to symbolize either the king himself or the bodhisattva of compassion. 

 

Ta Prohm: The One With The Trees/Featured in Tomb Raider

This one is your Hollywood-induced picture perfect image of what all ancient temples in forests in movies look like - except it's real life. It was built by the same King Jayavarman VII from Bayon and was meant to be a forest monastery and university for Mahayana Buddhist monks. I love how much nature has started reclaiming the temple ruins. It really inspires your imagination and makes you feel like Indiana Jones or Laura Croft, maybe because parts of the 2001 Tomb Raider movie starring Angeline Jolie were filmed here and no doubt inspired her to adopt her now 14-year-old Cambodian son Maddox in 2002.  

Temple Tips

Tickets are pretty expensive and there's really no way to get around it because guards check your pass at every temple. A one day pass is $20, the three day, which I opted for, is $40 and a 7 day pass is $60 and you can only get them at this giant booth a few km south of Angkor Wat. Then there's the cost of transportation, either a bicycle, motorbike, tuk-tuk, car, mini-van or bus, except my bike was free to use from my hotel. 

There's the small loop which is relatively close together and includes the most famous sites of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm and a few other sites that are stoptional. No matter what time you go, these spots are always covered with tourists like ants swarming a lollipop. This is the area that I spent two days and over 100 km bicycling. I probably could have done it in a day if I didn't get lost a few times and if I didn't have to bike 10 km each way to and from my hotel. 

The big loop includes a bunch of other miscellaneous sites that are more spread out so I hired a tuk tuk driver for $20 for this. Not only do you see a few more temples, but you also see more authentic Cambodian culture and landscape. I loved buzzing by all the little villages and rice paddies. There are also a lot less tourists. 

The forecast is always hot with 100% chance of sweating so I am glad I wore my lightweight, quick dry synthetic trekking top and pants from REI. You should cover up shoulders, torsos and knees both to protect yourself from the sun and to be respectful of the people and places you are visiting. 

You will have local merchants and kids begging you to buy things at every single temple. Magnets, postcards, elephant pants, scarves, paintings, guidebooks, etc. The kids are the hardest to say no to, as they will always tell you that the money is for school, but they're most likely being exploited because they should actually be in school - not selling trinkets to tourists.  

More Advice on Trip Advisor

Adventures in Chiangmai, Thailand

After two weeks at the temple in Fang, I took a minibus on Sunday back to Chiangmai, which consisted of a three hour journey and two military checkpoint stops. 

I stayed in a capsule hostel on the edge of the city that cost $4 USD per night. It had great reviews on Hostelworld but I wasn't a huge fan. Especially when two French dudes stumbled in after midnight and woke up pretty much everyone in the dorm. 

After at least a dozen different Mirandala (Miranda + mandala) sketches, I was finally satisfied enough with a design to have it permanently etched into my skin. It's more of an abstract lotus to represent this incredible journey during which I feel like I've started blossoming and it's located approximately where my heart chakra would be. 

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 9.36.36 PM.png

I went to the Master Tattoo shop and a cool dude named Aan took just over two hours to transfer the design in the traditional Thai style, using a piece of bamboo dipped in ink instead of a mechanical needle. It feels like exactly what it is, someone slowly and methodically stabbing you with a sharp stick. The pain was comparable to a modern tat and particularly hurt around the spine area and when he did the dots and the thicker lines. I'm super happy with how it turned out but it wasn't the cheap Thai prices you get accustomed to for everything else. It cost me 5,000 baht or about $140 USD, but with my limited knowledge of American ink, I think it still cost me less than it would have in the States. It you want to make bank in Thailand, be a tattoo artist. 

That night I saw my first Muay Thai fight, which is basically Thai kick-boxing. The ring was a proper underground venue that had bars on all sides and smelled like cigarettes, sweat and tiger balm. I paid 600 baht for my VIP ringside ticket and happened to sit next to three Chinese guys. 

There were 5 warm up fights, a main mens fight and a ladies' title fight between a Thai and a Canadian. The guys were all Thai, progressing from the lowest weight classes that barely broke 100 lbs up to about my weight. Yes, I was a bit shocked that I weigh more than I think all but two of the fighters but Thai people tend to be smaller and some of the first few kids couldn't have been over 18. 

There was an intermission of sorts where two guys choreographically battled it out with swords, presumably because they both showed up wearing the same outfit: blue boxer briefs and a red bandana. I instantly thought of a Liu Kang vs. Liu Kang Mortal Kombat fight, sans the levitating bicycle kicks, and actually yelled "Finish Him!" at one point. After that was a comedic Blind Boxing match where three small guys and one fat guy walked around the ring punching each other while blindfolded. 

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.10.12 AM.png

It was a late night because almost all of the fights lasted 4 or 5 rounds and there was only like one knock out. The Canadian "Cocoapuff" ended up winning the belt in the Ladies title fight and I rode in a tuk-tuk back to my "crap-sule" just after midnight. It's a bit out of character and my first live fight but I have to admit I really enjoyed it. 

Midweek I transferred to new accommodation in the heart of the city, which turned out to be one of my most favorites throughout my whole trip. I was searching for yoga in Chiangmai and came across a 3 day package that included a morning and an evening group practice, my own little private bungalow and a daily green smoothie and bottle of local Kombucha. Only moments after arriving at Bluebird Eco Village, I was smitten and impulsively extended my stay to 5 days, encompassing all the time I had left in Chiangmai. (More on this in the next post about staying and eating sustainably in Chiangmai.) 

Despite loving the location I was in, I got a bad case of the Traveler Blues (not to be confused with the harmonica-loving 90's band of the reverse name). I guess if you travel alone long enough, you are bound to get lonely. I tried everything to shake it. Checked social media, still not happy. Morning yoga class, still not happy. Meditation in my room, still not happy. Reading my book, still not happy - although admittedly it's a book about the Pol Pot regime so I wasn't really expecting that to cheer me up. Ate healthy food, still not happy. Ate not-healthy food, still not happy. Took a walk outside and visited some local museums, still not happy. Took a nap, still not happy. I finally snapped out of it when I met some really interesting people that later checked in to the village. 

The Blues are the worst part but the best part of travel is meeting people that are way more interesting and inspiring than you are. I first met a chick from Canada who stared traveling the same time I did around June, except she is on a hiatus/sabbatical because unlike most of 'Merica, employers in our Northern Neighbor Nation actually believe people should have periods of enjoyable breaks from their jobs. Anyways, she brought her own bike and cycled/camped across Europe for three months before flying to Southeast Asia and peddling across Vietnam and Cambodia. She also came to some of the yoga classes. 

Then I met a super cool, super talented kid from Colorado that was on a bit of a break as well... from dancing in Taylor Swift's 1989 World Tour. Wait, what? Yep. Wow. They all get a few days off between China and Australia so instead of going home, he decided to stay in the area. I'd already been in Chiangmai a few days and have extensive tour guide experience from my days working at the Admissions Office during University so I volunteered to show him around.

We ate dinner at one of my favorite Veg joints nearby then strolled around the main streets of the city. Then we headed back to the Muay Thai venue, because everyone just needs to experience this while in Thailand. I'm making it mandatory. There were a lot more KO's this time and the 'lady fights' were far better and more entertaining than the mens'. Again there was a Canadian chick, who I suspect may also work as a lumberjack back home based on her size and strength, but she lost on points to her smaller yet faster and more agile Thai opponent. 

The next day we rented scooters and ventured out of the city towards Mae Rim to find some more "nature-y stuff." My scooter was much more bad-ass than the old beat up ones I had in Bali, and resembled a scooter version of the Bumblebee autobot, which I half-expected to transform at any moment. (But it didn't.) 

We followed signs up winding, mountain roads to the Tard Mork waterfall. All green everything! And the mountain air was so fresh and so clean (clean).The scenery was amazing and we hiked far off the beaten path near the falls. Despite the ominous high grass with mystery burial mounds and hidden holes, a handful of thorns and two leech attacks, I still had a blast. 

As we were riding back down the mountain towards the main road, we came upon rather festive occasion with loud, live music happening in the shadow of a large temple. We cautiously pulled in on our scooters and the group of questionably-sober, middle-aged Thai people beckoned for us to join them. They immediately offered us chairs and poured us some rum drinks, which we watered down because we still had a ways to go on our scooters. This was so much fun and my friend ended up in a dance battle with a little, old yet very spry Thai guy in a baggy blue suit. Another Thai guy that was missing most of his teeth was very seriously and intently explaining something to me in Thai, and I kept telling him I didn't understand but he would just nod and keep telling me and pointing in the opposite direction. I finally asked one of the ladies at the table to translate and it turns out he was trying to direct me to the bathrooms. 

It was all a bit surreal - like we totally crashed this Thai party and everyone loved it and now everyone has a great story to share with all their friends and family. You're welcome (lol). They took a ton of pictures of and with us before we graciously made our exit. We stopped at a simple, roadside cafe for dinner and I forgot to ask if the veggies were spicy so of course they burned my face off when I tried to eat them. We rode the rest of the way back to the eco-village in the dark and even through a brief rain shower that bordered on refreshing. 

Conveniently located next to the village was a temple which happened to host a "Monk Chat" on Saturday and Sunday evenings where they were clearly targeting tourists to come learn more about Thai culture and Buddhism. The two of us headed over and talked with a monk named Bin for probably close to an hour. It was really interesting and insightful and I think everyone left at least a little bit more enlightened. 

I spent the night packing up my laundry - my incredible, intoxicatingly fresh, machine-washed and dried clothes - the first proper wash they've received in 6 weeks - before falling asleep a little bit too late. I woke up early to return my rented scooter and then it was time for me to take a red Thai open cab to the airport. There's one of those crappy parts of traveling again - having to say bittersweet goodbyes to awesome people (this includes the adorable owner of the village) that you meet. I definitely left part of myself in Thailand - beyond just the buckets of mid-day sweat and the bit of blood lost to the thorns and leeches.  I totally could have hung around there for another day or two. Le sigh.


Thailand Temple Time: Part II

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

The border mountains with Burma

The border mountains with Burma

Thailand is the cleanest Asian country I’ve visited. (Well not counting Singapore which is almost sterile since everything is concrete or indoors.) In the past few countries, there is rubbish everywhere and people tend to put it in piles and burn it from time to time. Bleh - the smell of burning plastic is the worst. But not Thailand - they even have recycling! And I didn’t believe this at first but there are also people that make a living by going through the bright blue garbage bins and taking out anything that is recyclable as well.

Recycling makes me happy! 

Recycling makes me happy! 

I was surprised  that the traffic here is pretty much a parade of pick-up trucks. While waiting at a bus stop one day, I counted and there is literally about one sedan for every 20 trucks. Then at the other extreme lots of people buzz by on motorbikes as well. Maybe it’s just Fang but I just expected mostly motorbikes with some small cars mixed in and even tuk-tuks.

image source: thaizer.com

image source: thaizer.com

There are pictures of the royal family everywhere. On calendars in shops and restaurants, framed in the middle of street medians, on giant billboards. But most of them are not current and show especially the king in his much younger days. Not that I would have any reason to, but I’ve been told on multiple occasions not to insult the king as Thai people are very patriotic and hold their king in high regard.

THE TEMPLE TOUR

I thoroughly enjoyed the little temple tour that was arranged for us on Sunday. Oui, a Thai lay person that runs a canteen at the nearby school and helps out around the temple, drove us around in a truck to three very different temples north of Fang. The first was a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple which is not out of place since there’s a pretty significant population of them in Northern Thailand. It featured the traditional style architecture with the sloping roofs, lots of red and gold, paper lanterns and dragons draped over everything. There was also a ginormous Budai statue, or the Laughing/Fat Buddha that most people recognize in the West because they are always in Chinese restaurants and nail salons. Budai was a Chinese monk who was so well liked and admired that the Chinese consider him a Matrea or Future Buddha. Not the same at all as the original calm, cross-legged, meditating Buddha that lived in India 2500 years ago.

Budai 

Budai 

Chinese temple

Chinese temple

The second stop was an immaculate meditation retreat (open to Thai only) with a golden pagoda that you could see shining amongst the green mountains from far away. As we were driving up the last incline to the entrance, the left and right sides of the road were lined with adorable, lotus-shaped huts that house the resident nuns and guests. The circular temple was gorgeous inside and out and had a series of paintings of the Buddha’s life and legends on the inner walls and a lotus mural carved and painted all along the outer walls. In the center of the temple was a delicate looking glass structure that made me feel like I was looking at a scale model of the Emerald City from Oz. Strategically placed throughout the property was a collection of statues of Buddha, devas and nagas like an outdoor art gallery.

Golden pagoda

Golden pagoda

Mini Emerald City? 

Mini Emerald City? 

After this we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and I had pad see ew - the closest thing they served to pad thai. It was basically big, flat noodles with veggies. I was craving a salty snack while they prepared my food so I perused the racks of potato chips that they had to offer - and even 90% of these were meat flavored! There was pork, shrimp, chickend and even cuttlefish flavored crackers or chips, along with like two regular potato flavors and one bag of Thai Cheetohs. I ended up skipping the junkfood appetizer.

Cuttlefish Crackers, anyone?

Cuttlefish Crackers, anyone?

Our last stop was an impressive, seven level Forest Temple that was about as close to the Burma border as you can get. The mountains to the west form a natural border with Burma and Graham even pointed out a military base in a clearing atop one of the peaks. I was probably way too excited to see a cat which was pretty scraggly looking and was missing an eye, but still… kitty!

Forest Temple Meditation Trail

Forest Temple Meditation Trail

There was an amazing little meditation path the wound through the woods and ended at a giant concrete ‘boat’ overlooking the Me Kok river. The panoramic views of the landscape were incredible from this vantage point. As we walked along the path, Graham told us that some of the older monks can recall the days when wild tigers and elephants used to roam the area but of course they have long since disappeared. The trees would be gone too if it wasn’t protected temple land, and even then some loggers still try to force their way in sometimes.

Wat Thaton

Wat Thaton

This is also the location of Wat Thaton, an impressive, rainbow colored temple that houses a variety of Buddhist relics, so it’s kind of like a museum too. There are even ornamental baby Buddhas outside. We took a break here before heading home and I indulged in ice cream, thai iced milk tea and had a cup of traditional hot tea.

FRIDAY FEELS

So many feels today! I decided to have lunch at the canteen that Oui and his wife manage at the school. Yesterday he invited me there for lunch and said his wife would cook me something vegetarian but I wasn’t feeling great yesterday so I just had toast here instead. Today I walked over at a quarter past 11 and all the monks were heading to lunch as well. Oui wasn’t there but his wife was and she was very cute and very pregnant. She offered me iced thai green tea which is very sweet and loaded with condensed milk. Then she cooked me a simple meal of some sort of greens and sprouts with sauce on a bed of rice. I covertly added my usual handful of peanuts for protein and flavor. (I always do this at alms breakfast as well.)

I sat by myself at the end of a picnic style wooden table. It was just like sitting in a cafeteria back home except the students were all boys with shaved heads, wearing bright orange uniforms. One monk cautiously walked past me and said hello. I responded “hello” enthusiastically and eventually he sat down at the table - as far away from me as possible on the other side, but still. He had pretty good English and I found out he was 18 and his name is Kon. After a few moments, another monk shyly approached, said hello and politely asked permission if he could sit across from me. “Yes, of course!” He was very eager to practice his English and was so honest that he admitted he was nervous to practice with me and that he needs to work on his confidence. I assured him that his English was very good. His name is Long and he is 17. He practices a lot because he wants to study English at University and I don’t blame him. It will definitely open up a lot more opportunities for him. The two boys were in the same class and they have been monks for 5 years.

By this time, it was time for them to go back to class so they excused themselves and I thanked them for talking with me. The temple gets plenty of guests but I doubt most of them interact with the monks so much. I really hope I gave those two kids some confidence after our little chat!

School for Monks

School for Monks

When I was finished with my meal, Oui’s wife offered to refill my tea and I asked her how much for lunch and she insisted it was free. I had a 100 baht note (about $3 USD) in my pocket and tried to hand it to her but she refused until I insisted she take it for the baby (in her tummy). She finally accepted it with a wide grin and I walked away with a smile, myself. It can be a bit intimidating being the totally obvious, odd person out but all the Thai people I’ve met so far are so nice so it really hasn’t been bad at all.

Another English-speaking monk actually added me on Facebook last week which I thought was a bit strange at first but then I thought they are just people that want to make connections like everyone else. I'm pretty sure he's going to University soon and may not even be a monk after that. Who knows? 

Longtail, our resident roadblock

Longtail, our resident roadblock

As of today everyone else is gone, even the coordinator, Graham (but he has a good excuse: he’s getting married.) So it’s just me and Longtail, our resident temple dog who I sometimes prefer to call Roadblock because she is always laying across one of the top stairs so that we have to step over her completely. She rarely moves - I think because the other dogs tend to bully her but she’s got it made and gets her own food and water and far more attention than all the others.

I'll be leaving on a mini bus to Changmai city on Sunday but I'm super thankful for this incredible, unique and inspiring experience. 

Week Three Wildlife in Thailand

For my last week at the sanctuary I switched over from elephants to work with the rest of the wildlife. These can be divided into a few sub-groups: two types of Bears, Primates, which include macaques, gibbons,  dusky langurs and one Capuchin, Nocturnals comprised of several slow lorises, a binturong and leopard cats and other wildlife consists of deer, otter, birds, reptiles and some other miscellaneous creatures. There is also a slew of domestic animals that have been collected over the years: at least a dozen dogs, a handful of cats, pigs and piglets, a horse and too many chickens. I got to work with or for all of these animals at one point or another during this week. 

The center cares for dozens of bears, most of whom were rescued from various places that thought it was a good idea to keep them as pets. You can literally buy bear cubs - and many other animals stolen from the wild - at some night markets throughout Thailand. They arrive unsocialized and malnourished as they were often fed soda, candy and junk food in small, cramped cages. 

Sun Bears and mostly black with a few tan markings and are known for their dragon-lady like long claws that I'm pretty sure they use mostly for digging because I've had to avoid several holes when cleaning their enclosures. They seem pretty small, until they stand up, and then they look pretty intimidating. We feed them a variety of fruit and often hide pieces in trees and tires and scatter it around their habitats to keep them stimulated. (Obviously the bears are locked in their dens when we do this.) We also sometimes stuff bamboo with pieces of corn and cucumber like a type of puzzle. Its really cute to watch because they usually sit down and play with it for a while before they finally pry it open; either by pulling out the piece of corn that acts like a cork or just breaking the piece of bamboo wide open. They're almost all adults but there is one mamma bear and a 12 week old cub that are heart-meltingly adorable. There are some really fluffy Asiatic Black Bears scattered amongst the bear habitats as well. 

Looks like a bear bong lol 

Looks like a bear bong lol 

The primates are probably the biggest challenge because they are smart and they are cheeky. I learned this the hard way. Generally, we put their fruit and veggie salads in baskets and they reach through the fences to retrieve it. As I was feeding a macaque named Dollar, he swiftly reached through the fence and grabbed my teal blue sunglasses right off my head and promptly dismembered them. I also got a bit too close to one of the gibbon enclosures during feeding time and a hairy go-go-gadget arm came out of nowhere and grabbed my hair, jerking my head back pretty fast. I'm glad it was french-braided at the time, otherwise, he might have pulled some hair out completely. 

A gibbon, or as I prefer to call it, a Grabbin' 

A gibbon, or as I prefer to call it, a Grabbin' 

There are several breeds of macaque, generally categorized by tail-type. There are long-tailed, stump-tailed and pig tailed and they abound all over Thailand. You'll see them lurking around temples and terrorizing villages. I guess I can't really blame them because people have taken over much of their habitat. The gibbons swing from tree to tree using their disproportionately long arms and make the most interesting and after while annoying howling sounds. The noises alternate between police siren and R2D2 and it always sounds like they are watching an intense soccer game where their team is really close to scoring a goal but the ball doesn't actually make it into the net. 

Many, many macaques 

Many, many macaques 

I find the dusky langurs really creepy as their face markings kind of make them look like members of the Insane Clown Posse. They always come out of nowhere and clasp the cage at eye level with you, bearing their teeth and making little gurgly/clikcy sounds. A lot of them have chain link tunnels connected to their cages that are suspended high in the trees and they will try to poop or pee on you if the timing is right. 

Creepy, clown-faced little monkey!

Creepy, clown-faced little monkey!

The nocturals were some of my favorites. The slow lorises are so cute, which is why there is such a huge issue with them being kept as pets. Despite their large, innocent-looking eyes, their teeth are poisonous and therefore often get yanked out without anesthetic to prevent their toxic bites. They are also night-dwellers so the daylight hurts their eyes and they are never feed correctly when kept as pets. These poor creatures get tortured then locked away in tiny cages just so someone can occasionally take them out and use them for their own amusement. Which brings me to my next point: photo props. Wherever the tourists go, the animal handlers follow, hoping to make a quick buck by exploiting their heavily drugged and/or sedated animal for pictures. DO NOT ENCOURAGE THIS INDUSTRY. Don't take pictures with wild animals when approached and don't go to tiger temples or anywhere else that promises safe interaction with an animal that would naturally want to rip your face off. 

One last quick anecdote about the slow loris. I helped my team leader with nocturnals on my very first day of wildlife and somehow one of their cages got left open. He had the keys but it was dumping rain so I'm not sure how happened. I didn't find out until the next day, at which point I felt horrible, but luckily the same leader found the slow loris that afternoon in a nearby tree because as their name suggests, they don't move very fast. I was so relieved. And I do a pretty amazing slow loris voice, according to my roommates. :P 

Slow Loris

Slow Loris

There are a few orange and green iguanas that reminded me of Miami. They never eat all their food and they love to have water sprinkled on them with the hose. There is one crocodile that gets fed one chicken per week by the Thai staff. There are a few birds of prey and a few non-native parrot species including a Macaw named Blue that will shout Hello (and sometimes expletives) at you as you pass by his enclosure. There is Bernie, the brain-damaged (dropped on his head by people as a fledgling) Cassowary that eats a lot of fruit and looks like a rather pre-historic creature. He looks like a cross between a colorful ostrich and a velociraptor and has the capacity to kill you but doesn't really realize it. The otters are freakin adorable and sound like living squeaky toys but their enclosure always smells a bit like dead fish because thats what they eat. 

The pigs and chickens and deer can be a nuisance but are useful as the scavengers of the sanctuary because they eat all the leftovers from our dinner and scraps from food prep for the other animals and whatever the monkeys drop or intentionally toss out of their baskets. 

If you've ever worked in the food service industry, volunteering for wildlife is a breeze. Its literally like working in a restaurant for wildlife: you prepare food, serve food and wash dishes. There is also a fair amount of pool and enclosure cleaning to keep everyone happy and healthy. When comparing it to the elephants work, it's more tedious and there is more to do, both because less people volunteer with wildlife and because there are so many more animals that require smaller meals. Working with elephants is like a series of sprints with lots of breaks whereas working with the rest of the wildlife is more like a daily marathon. 

I also took on another special project utilizing my occupational skills. Apparently there was a falling out with a former designer and she sabotaged a nearly 40-page document detailing everything e new volunteer needs and wants to know. All the fonts were converted to outlines, rendering them inevitable, and the pictures were all unlinked, making the document useless for printing. I helped teach their assistant In-Design (the whole teach a man to fish vs give a man a fish principle) and helped rebuild the file as well. I was really grateful for this extra experience because I enjoyed getting to know Tommy the UK Sanctuary manager and Edwin, the sanctuary's Dutch Founder. 

I was a bit sad to leave but I think three weeks was the perfect amount of time for me here. I would love to come back for another visit and encourage anyone else that loves animals to volunteer here! 

Furry bug, Limpy Gimp & Blister Girl

Furry bug, Limpy Gimp & Blister Girl

The Harvest Collection

Every other day a group of volunteers is rounded up to go harvest banana trees that we feed to the elephants. So how do you make harvesting banana trees fun? Turn it into a photoshoot! The fashion catalog is fake but the blood, sweat and tears is real!