February 2nd, 2018

Embarking on a Year of Travel, Part 3

My travels finally have an end date: I’m currently planning to head home on May 28. If I make it that long, I will have been gone for thirteen months. So with four months to go, I’m in the last third of the trip. 

I’m also in a markedly different phase of the trip. Halfway through January, I left We Roam. I flew from Cambodia halfway around the world to South Africa and spent a couple weeks with my mom, on an Adventures by Disney trip that took us to the Garden Route and on safari. More on all of that—both the South Africa trip and the decision to leave WR—soon.

On safari!

From this point on, I’ll truly be flying solo. I have a few meet-ups planned—a We Roam friend whom I met in Barcelona will be joining me in Mexico City for her birthday and a longtime friend from my law school days is coming to Peru for the Machu Picchu trip finale. But I’ll be on my own day-to-day, setting my own itinerary, and making my own travel arrangements.

Just a couple weeks in, I’ve already exercised that freedom. Lately I’ve had some doubts about my ability to last until May. The first six months of my trip were pretty orderly; I was based in one city and generally took one side trip each month, usually just a long weekend, sometimes a week. It was manageable. But ever since late November, my travel has been out of control. In summary: Myanmar to Hanoi to Hong Kong to Hanoi to Da Nang to Hanoi to Ha Long Bay to Hanoi to Phnom Penh to Hong Kong to Siem Reap to Phnom Penh to Cape Town to Knysna to Kapama to Auckland. In the last two months, I’ve spent no more than eight consecutive nights in one bed. 

So now I’m in New Zealand, and I was supposed to embark today on an eighteen-day road trip through both islands, making my way down to Queenstown, partaking in adventure sports and wine tasting along the way, and not staying in any hotel longer than two nights. 

I just couldn’t do it.

I’m completely worn out from the last couple months. I’m in the beginning stages of a cold, which will either be mild or terrible, depending on how much I let myself rest right now. I’m jet lagged. I still have a lingering bit of traveler tummy; I don’t think my stomach has felt wholly well since I got to Asia in October. 

And I’ve also been overwhelmed by work lately. I launched my own freelance book editing company, Hyphen, at the beginning of November. I’m extremely proud of how well it’s done so far. I just sent my 50th client invoice, I nearly doubled my target take-in for January, and I’m currently scheduling edits for early April. But I’m working much more than I was before, and it’s tough to do that with short-term travel and nonstop tourism. I was tuning out the guides on the bus in South Africa to work and finishing “one last paragraph” at lunch. You may have noticed that I didn’t write a single blog post in January; I didn’t have one spare hour.

A friend once used the phrase “emotional resilience,” and I’ve thought of it often. When I’m tired and stressed, my emotional resilience dwindles. Yesterday, I found myself having a mini-breakdown in the Waiheke ferry terminal, trying to get back to Auckland in the midst of a storm, and I realized I had fully drained my reservoirs and was no longer having fun.

So I’m accepting my physical, mental, and emotional limitations. I thought about just going home, to be honest, but winter and a terrible flu season are making New York less appealing. Instead, I’ve decided to head to Sydney early. I was scheduled to be there for twelve days at the end of February; instead, I’ll spend the whole month there and take in the city at a more relaxed place, with time for work and rest. 

I’m a little disappointed in myself. Planning is my strength, and this road trip was impeccably planned. Part of me feels like I should just suck it up and execute it. But I know that it’ll be worthless if I can’t enjoy it. So I’m tucking the itinerary Word doc into my travel folder, with the tentative idea to come back next winter. And I hope that cutting myself a little slack here will allow me to fulfill the ultimate plan of staying on the road for a year.

So on to Australia!

December 22nd, 2017

I Am Hanoi-ed

I’ve hit a travel wall. I’m not having fun right now, and if I could teleport back to my bed in NYC, I would.

The thing about this trip is that when I’m in the midst of a good month, when I’m vibing with the city and have a decent apartment, I feel like I could do this forever. When I’m in a bad month, I just want to crawl under the covers and cry. 

This is a bad month.

Myanmar was amazing (I still owe you part two of the report, it’s coming, I promise), but it was busy and draining. I didn’t have much time to work, and business has been busier than I expected—a great thing in the long term, but a difficult thing in the short term. I really needed to be able to settle smoothly into Hanoi and get some shit done.

Instead, it’s just been one annoyance after another.

They issued a single-entry visa instead of a multi-entry visa, so I had to redo the process after going to Hong Kong last week (and of course the “fast” track guy was 30 minutes late and made me wait longer because I didn’t have a printed copy of the approval letter they expressly told me I didn’t have to print, and then they wound up applying for the multi-entry visa that I didn’t need the second time around, resulting in an extra $25 fee yay!).

My apartment is crap. Some of the problems are fixable: I was given one towel covered in visible stains. The kitchen didn’t contain a coffee mug, and the single pan was covered in black crap, making my usual scrambled egg breakfast impossible to cook. All of that was remedied, but it wasted time and energy I didn’t have, and allegedly I’m paying a company so that I don’t have to deal with all that. If I were in an Airbnb, I could probably get refunded for that level of ridiculousness, but on We Roam, I’m stuck.

And some things can’t be fixed. The hot water heater for my shower takes nearly an hour to heat up. Then in order to have enough hot water to last for the full shower, I have to stop and start it throughout. And I have to start with the dial to the right so it doesn’t scald me, then slowly and carefully crank it to the left as the hot water runs out. 

And naturally, this palace is down this confusing series of alleys. Think Venice, but not adorable; I have a good sense of direction and find it incomprehensible. And when a motorbike beeps, signaling it’s turning the corner, you have to press yourself against the wall to make room. Let’s not even talk about the rats I’ve seen scurrying around.

Traffic in general is delightful. You may have heard what an event it is to cross the street in Vietnam, but being in a car isn’t much better. In order to be close to the workspace, we’re far from the Old Quarter and all the tourist attractions. Getting to see any of the sights requires a 30-minute Uber or Grab ride. Last night, three Ubers in a row refused to take us home because they were hoping for airport fares. We finally got a Grab, and he literally hit (lightly, but I mean still) a traffic cop trying to pull us over. Then he…panicked, I guess…and wouldn’t stop at our destination, resulting in an unnecessary 15-minute walk home.

The cherry on top of the Hanoi sundae is the air quality. Pretty much everyone got very sick when we came here, and my throat is permanently swollen. The smog is so thick, you’d think it was fog—but it’s not! It’s enough to make you seriously consider one of those surgical masks; I walk around with my scarf over my face most of the time.

If this were my first month on the road, this might all be a grand adventure. But it’s my eighth, and it’s Christmastime, and I am fucking exhausted. Despite my tiredness, I’m having a hard time sleeping, and I have a 30-hours-and-counting headache. I’m struggling to get work done, and I just realized today that I idiotically booked a flight from the wrong city—a mistake that required a $66 phone call, on top of the change fee, to rectify.

I need a real break, but there isn’t one for a couple months. So I’ll just keep pushing through, I guess, hoping I stumble on a place that reinvigorates me. Travel is very rarely dull, but it isn’t always fun.

Thanks for letting me rant. It helps a little.

December 11th, 2017

Myanmar Mysteries with The Flash Pack, Part 1

At the end of November, I left Thailand a few days early to set off on an adventure within my adventure: a 12-day trip to Myanmar with UK-based touring company The Flash Pack. Ads for this company popped up on my Facebook feed, and I was eager to investigate as it’s targeted at solo travelers in their 30s and 40s who want nice accommodations but adventurous, authentic experiences—me, in other words.

My short review is that both Myanmar and Flash Pack lived up to my lofty expectations, and I highly recommend both. My time in Myanmar may well be the highlight in a year full of them, and I’ll definitely be taking another Flash Pack trip soon. 

The details, however, are so numerous that I’m breaking this post into two parts. Our days were jam packed full of excitement. 

Day One

I arrived in Yangon in the early afternoon. Flash Pack arranged a transfer, so it was an easy process getting to our (very nice) hotel, the Chatrium. My Myanmar welcome was an exuberant one, as Pope Francis arrived the same day. The streets were lined with people waving signs and bands playing; it made the start of the trip quite festive. 

My roommate (Flash Pack sets up same-sex roommates for you unless you pay a single supplement) had left a note on my bed with the safe code, saying she’d see me soon, and we had a couple spare hours before we were meeting up to officially start the trip, so I grabbed my laptop and settled in at the lobby bar for a snack and a couple hours of work. This would become a pattern on the trip, unfortunately. Everyone else was on vacation, but I was still working remotely, so in our brief moments of downtime, my fellow travelers would hit the pool, while I hit my keyboard. 

We met up at 4 pm for a quick overview. We had a local guide, Joshua, who traveled with us for the entire trip (and did an amazing job taking care of us and showing us his country). The maximum group size for this trip is 14, but ours was just 7—six single girls in our early-to-mid-30s and one poor, beleaguered (just kidding, he loved us!) man in his late 40s.

Then we left for sunset at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous site in Yangon. Unfortunately, clouds were rolling in just as the sun was coming down, so we missed the famous light on the pagoda, but it was still breathtaking at dusk: 

We spent an hour or so walking around, observing different rituals. My favorite was the pouring of water on the Buddha at your day station (as with Chinese birth years, Myanmar notes birth days), as the woman on the left, a fellow Wednesday afternoon birthday girl, is doing.

And at night, people lit candles in a ring around the pagoda—almost otherworldly.

Joshua took us to dinner at a local restaurant where we had the first of many Myanmar beers, and then we got to know each other a bit better at the hotel bar before turning in. Every morning on the trip was an early one.

Day Two

Joshua led us on a walking tour around Yangon. It’s a bustling, modern, VERY traffic-laden city, but I loved how the people still had a distinctive Burmese appearance, and the street culture was thriving. As a remote worker, I especially appreciated seeing all the mobile offices set up on the streets. We Roam has a running “office anywhere” photo competition that provokes ridiculous photos in places where people clearly couldn’t work…but these people on the streets really living the idea of office anywhere.

I’ve always preferred to take pictures of places over people, but I couldn’t resist a few street scene shots as we walked around:

We made a brief shopping stop (the man in our group excused himself; we were a pretty stereotypical bunch) and had lunch before a couple hours’ break at the hotel. We then reconvened to visit the picturesque Kandawgyi lake, with reflections for days:

We had a skewer-filled dinner on what’s known as BBQ street, sitting outside a restaurant that housed the first of what we would come to call “adventure toilets.” (Squat toilets are still prevalent in Myanmar, and let’s just say that some of them are more adventurous than others.) The food was delicious, but outside we were targets for many children asking for money, some of whom stood there throughout the entire meal. There are enough tourists to Myanmar that they have the game down pat, but few enough that their attention is quite focused—though we eventually moved far enough off the beaten path that we were left alone. 

Day Three

Our first travel day! The longest we stayed in any hotel was two nights; I wasn’t lying when I said it was a busy trip. We took a flight to Bagan and checked into the Aureum Palace Hotel, with one of the most appealing pools I’ve ever seen. Bagan is famous for their 3,000 ancient pagodas, and the infinity pool overlooked several of them. Joshua gave us the option of a local lunch and an activity or two, but once we saw the pool, we were done for.

We tore ourselves away a few hours later, though, to visit the first few of many pagodas. It felt surreal to see these structures just sitting out in fields, largely unbothered by tourists:

We were surprised and delighted to walk through an archway…

 

and see a field of cows with two old women minding them next to one of the pagodas:

Then we grabbed some beers and took a short boat ride out on the Irrawaddy River to watch the sun set:

Not nearly as impressive as the sunset coming up next; get ready.

We finished the day with dinner at a marionette show, an old tradition in Myanmar from the days when it was used to entertain the king. This wasn’t the favorite activity for a lot of the group, but I really enjoyed it. I’d been surprised before by how much I liked the Salzburg marionette theater; it’s an art form that requires a great deal of skill. And one of the performers we saw is apparently famous for his level of talent. 

Day Four

The fourth day was one of my two favorites on the trip. (I can’t choose between them; don’t make me.) We gathered in the lobby at 5 am (particularly early since my poor roommate was up all night sick to her stomach, the first of many of us to go down, as is basically inevitable when you visit this part of the world), but we were excited despite our exhaustion, as this was the first time to go ballooning for most of us, including me. 

We took a bus to a field for a safety briefing over coffee, then stood by, watching them inflate the balloons.

Once we were airborne, it was just magical and somehow peaceful, despite being sixteen people in a balloon basket.

When we got back to the hotel, we quickly changed clothes and then hopped on slow-moving scooters to explore more of Bagan’s pagodas. The pagodas themselves were beautiful, but the best part was the journey, rather than the destination. Driving a scooter down a dirt road, pulling over to the side of the road to let a cart and oxen past, calling hello (Mingalaba!) to much speedier motorcycles passing by. It was a ridiculous amount of fun. 

 

Though all the pagodas were pretty, I enjoyed the story behind the one below. After having to repair the top portion repeatedly after earthquakes, they finally said, eh, let’s just make it gold. Why not?After another tasty meal, we passed up afternoon activities in favor of a few more hours at the pool and one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen:

Day Five

We hit the road again, waking up early for a flight to Heho airport and then a couple hour’s drive to Kalaw. I, sadly, felt very under the weather, just congested in my head and my chest and generally rundown. When I go on my next Flash Pack trip, I’ll be much better rested; constantly on the move like I am now, I feel like I’m just one errant sneeze and bad night’s sleep away from collapse. So I missed the hike that everyone else enjoyed while I took a five-hour “nap,” but I can tell you that the drive in was lovely. We were up in the mountains, on twisty turny roads; we’d moved from suffocating heat to chilly breezes; yellow wildflowers bloomed everywhere. 

Unexpectedly, Kalaw has an excellent Italian restaurant; a man from Italy married a local woman and is turning out delicious pasta and pizza. I rallied enough to join the group and eat spaghetti carbonara (carbs are great for your immune system; it’s science) and then had a Nyquil night. 

Day Six

Back on the road, via bus this time, we started with an hour’s drive to the Green Hill Valley Elephant Sanctuary, where we fed elephants who were mercifully retired from the logging business they’re still used for in Myanmar and gave one of them a scrub down in the river. 

I felt better but still not one hundred percent, so I was almost glad to spend most of the rest of the day in the car, on a long four-hour drive to Inle Lake. We did have one fun stop, though, at an umbrella workshop where a man made these gorgeous creations by hand, whittling the wood on a foot-powered machine to make the frames. I bought one, obviously (a little one). Once again, this was something the rest of the group wasn’t super jazzed about—though I believe they appreciated it more once they got there—and I was like YES, UMBRELLAS! Basically 34 going on 85; don’t mind me.

The Pristine Lotus Resort was maybe my favorite of our hotels; I wish we could have stayed more than one night. They designed the rooms to look like boats on the water from the balconies, and the setting on the lake was marvelous. We arrived just in time for twilight. 

As you can tell, I had an incredible journey. In editing this post, I had to do an adjective search; I used the word beautiful SEVEN TIMES in the first draft. But it really is; am I right?

Stay tuned for part two, which includes my other favorite day in Myanmar! 

 

November 27th, 2017

The Best Restaurants in Chiang Mai (and a Cooking School for Good Measure)

While in Thailand, I read a short story collection called Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. My favorite quotation from the book came in the first story: “Americans are the fattest, the stingiest of the bunch. They may pretend to like pad Thai or grilled prawns or the occasional curry, but twice a week they need their culinary comforts, their hamburgers and their pizzas.”

Not exactly complimentary, but there’s some truth in there. When I go on vacation for a couple weeks, I always eat the local cuisine, but traveling as I am for months on end, I do need my “culinary comforts.”

The Chiang Mai food scene is the best of all possible worlds, offering both delicious (and deliciously inexpensive) Thai food and, given the large expat population, all the Western comfort food you could want, from Tex Mex to fancy brunch. Before this month, I’d been eating one meal a day at home and one out. In Chiang Mai, I ate out morning, noon, and night; it was just too good.

Even so, I didn’t come close to trying all the fantastic food the city has to offer—I think I could be in Chiang Mai for months before doing so. Of the restaurants I did manage to visit, here are a few favorites:  

Thai Food

Tong Tem Toh

One of the group favorites and the site of my joint birthday dinner, Tong Tem Toh is best at night, when they have the grill going on the side of the street. It caters to carnivores—the Northern style sausage was the best I had, and the grilled pork shoulder was equally delicious. There’s a wait every night, but take a number and grab a beer from 7-11; it’s worth it.

Anchan

On the other end of the food spectrum is Anchan, a vegetarian restaurant. The sign outside proclaims you “won’t miss the meat,” and while we were skeptical, they’re absolutely right. They change a few items on the menu weekly, but one constant is their blue pad Thai, colored with the butterfly pea flower, their namesake. Everything I ate there (and I went more than once) was amazing: pumpkin curry, banana fritters, papaya lime smoothie—you can’t go wrong.  

Ginger and Kafe

For a more upscale experience (the site of another birthday dinner [I had three in total; don’t judge me]), Ginger and Kafe has an adorable atmosphere, with a perfectly decorated patio, as well as delectable food. We all stuck to their Thai specialties—pork belly curry and garlic fried rice for me, yum—they also have a large Western menu. And they have excellent cocktails, which is a rarity; beer is the best option most of the time.

Western Food

Rustic and Blue

Rustic and Blue is maybe the most expensive restaurant in Chiang Mai (almost certainly the priciest casual spot), but they can take all my money. They have healthy smoothie bowls and sinful almond croissants as big as your head, all-day breakfast with amazing French toast and duck confit, and pages and pages of lunch and dinner options as well. They cater to the expat and digital nomad crowd, and they do it well.

The Salad Concept

The name says it all; build your own salad or choose from their extensive menu. I can personally vouch for the chicken Caesar wrap and Thai mint dressing on anything. But what really had me coming back was the smoothie menu. I’m addicted to their mango-passion fruit smoothie, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do without my fix.

Why Not

This is where you get your pizza—wood-fired, natch—which is what we had for our untraditional Thanksgiving dinner. Their spinach tortellini in cheese sauce is also amazing. And everything is served on a large and lovely patio. So Why Not? (If you’re also a fan of The Lizzie McGuire Movie, sorry not sorry for that one.)

Coffee Shops

Ristr8to

Your coffee cup runneth over in Chiang Mai; I’ve never seen so many coffee shops in such a small area. Ristr8to is your place if you like your coffee fancy. They’ve won awards, they make lovely latte art, and they have a sign out front asking you to please not drink iced coffee because it is not their specialty. I had a chilled espresso with butterscotch milk that is their specialty, though, and it was insanely good.

Roastniyom

I’m a little biased because Roastniyom was downstairs from my apartment, but it has solid coffee, and moreover, it’s a great place to work. Bustling but not too loud, good wifi, and there was always an empty table. I can also highly recommend their muffins.

Street Food

Go to the Sunday market. Eat everything that looks good (sausage on a stick, freshly cooked pad Thai, pork dumplings, coconut waffles, MORE SMOOTHIES). Be happy.

It’s a very simple, yet brilliant, life plan. 

Cooking School

Asia Scenic Cooking School

Not exactly a restaurant, but one of the biggest and best meals I had in Thailand. In just four hours, we took a tour of the market and made noodle, salad, and curry dishes, plus a spring roll. I opted for the pad thai, chicken larb, and panang curry. Our instructor made it seem easy, and the food was worth slaving over a hot wok outside. We received cookbooks as souvenirs; I’ll definitely haul my butt to an Asian grocery so I can stock the pantry and make this food at home.

Chiang Mai may well be my favorite food city so far; honestly, it was hard to narrow this restaurant list down. I couldn’t eat all the food in Chiang Mai, but I certainly tried my best.

November 22nd, 2017

A Slightly Awkward Solo Trip to the Thai Islands

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about how I’m not bored when I take beach vacations alone. And I’m not…but sometimes I am lonely. Beach vacas are prime spots for couples, after all. More than that, though, sometimes resorts make it way more awkward than it needs to be. 

I took off by myself for, after a stopover in Bangkok, five nights divided between two islands: Koh Kood and Koh Chang. They’re two of the three Trat islands—located to the east, close to Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, they can only be reached by taking a ferry from Trat, a tiny, one runway, propellor-plane airport about a forty-five minute flight from Bangkok. The remoteness of the islands is part of the allure; they’re less populated and touristy than the more famous stops like Phi Phi.

Koh Kood in particular feels like another world. There’s one main road that winds around the island, with only a few shops and restaurants, by which I mean huts on the side of the road—no chains here, not even 7-11 (a staple in much of Asia).

The awkwardness started when the driver from the resort met me at the Trat airport. Apparently the resort told him he was picking up two people, so I had to communicate across a language barrier that it was, in fact, just me. It continued as I went through the various transit stages: He drove me in a van to a checkpoint, where I got a ferry ticket and transferred to a golf cart. The golf cart drove me to a ferry, and that driver carried my bag onto the boat and made sure I got a seat. Another driver met me when the ferry dropped me off on the island, and he drove me to the resort in the typical open-air pickup truck retrofitted with bench seats, while a hotel employee sat in the back with me and told me a bit about the island as we drove.

The most awkward moment came when we arrived at the hotel. A line of about six employees stood out front to greet me with a chorused Thai hello. They presented me with an orchid garland and then insisted on taking my photo before I checked in—they never delivered the print as promised, though; perhaps they also recognized that it was a bit sad.

I blame forced luxury for all of this nearly as much as traveling alone. I love a nice room, a high thread count, and plenty of amenities, but beyond that, I generally want to be left to myself. The hotel, High Season, was very nice, but as one of only two five-star resorts on the island, it seemed like they felt pressure to provide services that felt a little performative. But the fact remains that it would have been far less uncomfortable if I were traveling with another person.

I spent a quiet day and a half on the island. It poured for much of my only full day, a huge tropical thunderstorm that woke me up when it started at 5 am, and I spent the morning hiding behind my mosquito-netted bed with a cup of coffee. I appreciated how isolated the resort felt, though—I only saw a handful of other people; after the welcome greetings, it was quite peaceful. And, when it wasn’t raining, it was lovely:

I then took a ferry, by which I mean a mid-sized speedboat, to Koh Chang, a larger and more populated island. My resort was a little less fancy but a lot more of a bargain, so there was mercifully less fanfare. Though when I checked in, I of course got the, “Are you alone? Really, just one? No one is joining you later?”

Just. Me.

The resort, The Dewa, was much busier, though, so I was surrounded by more couples and several families as well. It always feels strange to me to see couples my age with a baby, even though it’s more than normal now that I’m in my mid-thirties. 

The most awkward moment came when I was in the shower one afternoon and housekeeping started knocking at my door. I was in the middle of rinsing out my hair, so I couldn’t do much. I exited the bathroom in a towel just as a man from housekeeping was coming in. He apologized and left quickly, yet not a minute passed before he knocked on the door again. In fairness, it was to give me delicious cake, but give a girl a second to put on a robe. Or give a girl a second person to answer the door.

Other than that, it was standard—every night, for instance, the hotel restaurant set up candlelit tables on the beach. It was very romantic, but I put my game face on and ate there anyway. I watched the sunset alone:

And the fire show alone:

And I enjoyed myself, as I nearly always do. Traveling alone, particularly to places seemingly designed for couples, is sometimes sad and uncomfortable, but it beats the hell out of not going.

November 17th, 2017

Falling Short of and Exceeding Expectations: Loy Krathong/Yi Peng and the Chiang Mai Cabaret

It’s hard to avoid having expectations when you travel. You know rationally that if you set the bar low and go in expecting nothing, you’re less likely to be disappointed. (Some people on We Roam think that’s part of why we all loved Belgrade so much.) But when you start reading about a place and researching all there is to do, it’s tough not to get excited. And it’s good to look forward to things—but sometimes the actual experience is nothing like you imagined. 

Our first weekend in Chiang Mai fortuitously fell on Loy Krathong and Yi Peng, two festivals that combine to create three days of excitement. The most well-known images are of people releasing lanterns into the sky, but it also involves releasing krathongs (small floating sculptures decorated with banana leaves and flowers) into the river. There are parades and dance exhibitions and special ceremonies at temples. I couldn’t wait.

The day of Loy Krathong started well. Our workspace hosted a workshop to make our own krathongs, graciously providing all of the materials. The final products were so lovely that people stopped us on the street to ask where we’d purchased them. 

Then we headed to the river for the evening release. Everyone describes it as being magical—you place your krathong in the water, candle and incense lit, or light your lantern and lift it to the sky, and you let go of your worries from the previous year and make a wish for the year to come. It sounded beautiful, magical, serene. 

But the reality was chaotic at best and dangerous at worst. We had to fight our way down to the river to release our krathongs, the final push occurring on a dubiously constructed wooden dock with flaming lanterns flying at our heads from the bridge above. Then instead of carefully placing our vessels in the water and watching them float away, we passed them off as quickly as possible to a man standing in the river below; the people behind us shoved through before we could see our krathong’s fate.

The attempt to release a lantern was even worse. Just buying one was a struggle in itself, then the flimsy paper was ripped by the crowds pushing past. We opted not to try to launch ours, as we watched lanterns burning in trees, getting caught on power lines, and even singeing people after failing to take flight as intended.

Lantern in a tree–fortunately, the trees are very green in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai, for reasons none of us can fathom, opted not to close the bridge where they specifically told tourists to release their lanterns, so in addition to thousands of people with burning objects, there were cars trying to make their way through the crowds. I couldn’t help but feel anxious, seemingly surrounded by potential threats.

Taking photos in this melee was difficult, and my iPhone was actually better at distinguishing the proper lighting than my fancy DSLR. Just know that below these lovely lanterns is a battle. 

 

I was happy I saw it but even happier to make it home unscathed. Perhaps the festival of my dreams exists in a smaller Thai town, but in Chiang Mai, it’s too overrun for me to feel the spirit the holidays represent.

But travel giveth as well as taketh away, and my experience at the Chiang Mai Cabaret a few days later was so much more than I could have hoped.

Informally known as the ladyboy cabaret (a term widely used in Thailand though obviously problematic), the show is located in the night market, and a few of the performers stand out front in sparkly costumes and feathered headdresses to entice tourists inside.

When I see a Broadway musical, my general test is whether I find myself smiling throughout the show, and by that measure, the cabaret was a huge success. The lip syncing is generally terrible, but it just adds to the fun. The dancing is energetic, with everything from Vegas-style showgirl numbers to a Rhianna S&M impersonation that was eerily spot on, and the guys in the first couple rows of the audience get way more of a show than they pay for. 

I went with a few friends the night before my birthday, but despite the occasion, my expectations were low. The online booking function on the website didn’t work, I’d heard almost nothing about it, and the venue itself is a little shabby. But it turned out to be a hell of a lot of fun and a far less stressful night than Loy Krathong. 

Travel is always surprising, and fortunately, sometimes the surprises are good. 

November 6th, 2017

6 Things I’ve Learned in 6 Months of Travel

I left New York on April 29; this month in Chiang Mai is my seventh on the road. I’m not quite halfway through—currently planning to head back sometime in June probably—but it seems like a good moment to pause and take stock.

I was feeling a bit melancholy in September, thinking about how I don’t feel like I’ve changed much on this trip. Prior to this adventure, the most extended time I’ve spent away was a seven-week study abroad program in college. That was my first time leaving the country (apart from the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, which hardly counts), and I grew so much. During my last week, navigating the streets of London alone—and pre-Google maps, for the record—I had an epiphany: that I didn’t want to keep heading down the road to early marriage with my small-town boyfriend, that I wanted to see more of the world, and I wanted to see much of it alone. 

Well…mission accomplished, 20-year-old Jennifer. She might have revised her wish slightly had she known just how far the scales would tip away from love and marriage, but that’s a topic for a different day. To today’s point, I think that with such a grand experience, I was expecting this journey to be similarly revelatory. But six months in, I’m still epiphany-less. To be fair, I’m in my thirties now. I’ve lived in five different cities, moving from coast to coast, worked numerous jobs in three different industries, and dated…quite a few men. I may be past the epiphany stage. Still, I am growing a bit, pushing my boundaries and learning new things—here are six of them.

1. I can go anywhere.

Before this trip, I’d traveled solo more than most people I know, but there were places I felt hesitant to go and things I wasn’t sure I could do. My solo travels were limited to Europe, the Caribbean, and one trip to Buenos Aires. I wasn’t sure I could navigate Asia alone. I’d never rented a car in a foreign country. I had a strange aversion to buses. 

Now I’m spending my birthday alone in Bangkok this week, I’ve rented cars in Germany and Croatia and just mapped out a road trip through both New Zealand islands, and I’m about to book a bus to Chiang Rai. There are still a few places in the world I’d choose not to go (I have a lot of Feelings about the harassment of women in many parts of the Middle East, for instance), but I feel completely confident that wherever I want to go, whatever I want to do, I can figure it out. 

2. I still have so much to learn about the world. 

A couple months ago, someone messaged me on OkCupid and asked whether I was traveling to learn more about the world or myself. Though that’s somewhat oversimplified—you’ll always be doing a bit of both—it made me realize that perhaps the reason I don’t feel like I’ve changed a great deal on this trip is because I’ve already invested a lot of time into self-growth over the years. I’m looking to discover the world, rather than find myself. 

The first couple months I was just spinning with all the changes, but starting in Berlin, I’ve made a conscious effort to learn more about the places I’m visiting—not just where the best restaurants are, but a bit about the history, culture, and current political climate. I’m trying to read at least one work of fiction and one of nonfiction each month and to read the local news. It’s highlighted how little I learned in school, where history classes generally stopped with World War II. Even in a relatively familiar country like Germany, I realized I knew almost nothing about the Cold War and how it still affects Berlin. With a place like Thailand, I’m a blank slate. It’s all connected, though, especially in our rapidly shrinking society, and I feel like I understand the world a bit better than I did a few months ago.

3. Where I am has a huge effect on how I feel.

When I decided to move to NYC from Houston about five years ago, my dad was not pleased, to put it mildly. We were talking about it over dinner, and he said, “I don’t understand why you can’t stay here. Some people are just happy wherever they are.” 

I could only reply, “Okay…but I’m not one of them.”

I’ve really always known that about myself (oh, how I itched to leave Oklahoma growing up), but this trip has made it even more clear. I’ve felt at home in about half the cities I’ve visited. In Barcelona, Berlin, Belgrade, and now Chiang Mai, I’ve been markedly more cheerful and productive. In Prague, Split, and Seoul, I watched more TV, ate nutritionally worse food, and left the apartment less often. For my own wellbeing, I need to be somewhere that energizes me.

What’s interesting is that this trip is changing my idea of where that might be. Before I would have told you that I need to be somewhere with a million things to do, a big city with lots of culture. But there’s loads to do in Seoul and very little in Belgrade and Chiang Mai. This is going to sound so simple and silly, but I think what makes me feel most content is having several good restaurants and coffee shops, places at which I enjoy hanging out, within walking distance. If it takes too much effort to get somewhere, I wind up staying home.

4. I actually like being alone.

I’m clearly comfortable being alone, or I wouldn’t have named my blog Girl Flies Solo. But for some time now, I’ve had this question in the back of my mind: do I really enjoy being alone, or have I just become comfortable with it out of necessity? The past six months have confirmed that yes, I actually do appreciate spending time by myself. I’m not a hermit; I need regular socialization as well. But I get cranky if I don’t have enough quiet time alone.

And on the flip side of this, I am finally ready to give up trying to be a group person. For much of my life, I’ve felt bad about not being adept in a group setting. I’ve been awkward and uncomfortable on the cheer squad, in a sorority, as a member of Junior League. And while there have been numerous benefits to traveling with We Roam, there have also been many times in which being part of a group has made my experience worse. I’d rather focus more on the places I’m in than the people I’m with…and that’s okay. 

5. The more I see, the more I want to see.

I’ve added more places to my list than I’ve checked off this year: Northern Croatia has a truffle festival in the fall. How have I not yet been to Seville and Granada? And those are just the places I haven’t visited at all; there are many more where I’m desperate to spend more time: That day trip to Timisoara, Romania was not enough. I need at least three months (a year? a lifetime?) in Berlin…but maybe a winter home in Chiang Mai. 

Many travelers keep track of the number of countries they’ve been to, which is fine; I do it, too (loosely…I think I’m somewhere in the low 30s at the moment). But I feel certain I could visit every country in the world and still not be finished traveling. Each place I’ve been has inspired me to explore further and more deeply.

6. I can travel as much as I want…but I don’t want to travel full time. 

I think the greatest gift We Roam has given me is the knowledge that I can travel long-term and work on the road. For reasons I still can’t quite fathom, it just never occurred to me. I had a remote job and a desire to travel more, and I was still sitting in my apartment in New York, planning a one-week vacation here and a two-week trip there. Ridiculous! I love spending a month in a destination—it’s enough time to feel like you understand a place, to see a bit of the surrounding area, to know if you want to spend more time there, and to get your work done in the process. I’m definitely going to continue traveling this way in the future.

But this trip has also made me realize that I don’t enjoy being on the road semi-permanently. I like having a home; I miss my bed and bookshelves and closet. I haven’t become one of those nomads posting a photo of myself on a mountaintop with a long explanation about how I’ve left everything behind and now I feel so freeeeee! This lifestyle has some amazing benefits, but like everything else, it has its drawbacks, too. I think my ideal going forward will be having a base in the States and taking around two extended trips a year. But we’ll see what unfolds.

 

For now, as ever, onwards. I can’t wait to see what I discover in the next part of my journey. 

 

October 28th, 2017

Please Don’t Touch Me: Cultural Differences in Seoul

I know I said before that I was excited about living in places that are more different than home—that apparently has its limits.

One of the most interesting things to do while traveling is to observe the similarities and differences between cultures. Seoul is, in many respects, a very modern, Western-feeling city. There’s extensive and easy public transportation, and Itaewon, the expat neighborhood, has all the cuisine I’ve been missing on the road (Tex Mex! Pizza! BBQ!). 

But there are differences, of course. Some of them are innocuous: sure, I’ll take off my shoes when I enter my apartment; I wish there were a chair up front to sit on when I have to put them back on, but whatever. Some of them don’t thrill me but don’t really affect me: many Koreans driiiiiink with dinner; just on Tuesday, I saw one girl fall down while trying to exit a restaurant, and another girl in my building had to run to the bathroom to throw up, all before 9 pm. But one difference I just can’t handle: Koreans, you’re nice enough, but please don’t touch me.

It happens on the street frequently. A woman, rather than walking around me, put her arms around me and physically moved me from her path. A man, upset that I didn’t take the flyer he was offering me, resorted to tapping my arm aggressively. 

I’m willing to believe that I was doing something wrong in these situations. The woman was older; perhaps I was supposed to leap out of her way. Maybe Koreans take all the street flyers they’re offered. (This would be a problem unto itself, but that’s another matter.) But whatever the problem, the solution is never to touch me.

The strangest incarnation of this issue was actually the best intentioned. We went to a restaurant one night, James Cheese Back Ribs. It’s basically just what it sounds like—baby back ribs with melted cheese wrapped around them. They have illustrative photos at the entrance to lure in curious travelers like ourselves:

I like the concept, to be honest. I love ribs, I love melted cheese, I’m down to combine the two. But the problem is that they didn’t just let you eat your cheesy ribs in peace.

First, they made us don protective gear. Koreans really, really do not like to eat with their hands. So we had to put a glove on our left hands and use chopsticks in our right hands to maneuver the ribs into our mouths.

Second, they wouldn’t let us assemble our own cheesy ribs. A woman wrapped cheese around a rib and deposited it into one of our bowls. Once we ate that rib, she would give us another.

If it had stopped there, I would have been baffled and slightly annoyed, but I would have been okay. But it did not stop there.

When we got fried rice, the woman who had been assembling our ribs mixed it up in the remaining cheese, made a bite (with kimchi, of course, the universal condiment), BLEW ON IT, and then fed my friend like a baby. My friend tried to protest, but it was useless. That spoon was going in her mouth.

At another point, I made the grievous error of touching a rib—lightly, I did not grab, my hand merely grazed the rib—and a woman came racing out of the kitchen with a wet wipe. 

Did she hand it to me to use as I saw fit?

No. She did not. She wet wiped my hand.

This is all hilarious, of course, but it also made me extremely uncomfortable. I don’t have a phobia when it comes to touch: I’ll shake someone’s hand upon meeting; I have zero problems when it comes to romantic relationships. But I don’t thrive on touch the way others seem to. I don’t feel the need to hug my friends when I just saw them yesterday. And I really don’t care to be unnecessarily touched, particularly by strangers.

One of the other people (a man, of course) at dinner thought I was being silly: “No, no, this is great; think about it. If you were lying on the beach, and some hot guy was feeding you grapes, wouldn’t that be awesome?”

No. No no no. First of all, I can eat the grapes by my damn self. But second, we’re at a restaurant, we’re eating cheesy ribs, and there’s not a hot dude in sight, just an overly attentive woman trying to wipe my hands and feed us.

And this wasn’t an isolated feeding incident; a woman at a bar offered us French fries and then attempted to deposit them directly in our mouths. I ran away.

It’s been an interesting month here in Seoul—I’ve seen some beautiful sights, learned quite a bit more about history and current events, and eaten some tasty food (the cheesy ribs, to be fair, were very good)—but the lack of personal space boundaries means Seoul will never quite feel like home to me.

I do live in New York, after all. We can scream obscenities at each other on the street corner; just don’t touch me.

October 26th, 2017

I Accidentally Climbed Daedunsan Mountain

Funny story.

I signed up to go on a foliage tour yesterday. There were a few options for which park to visit (South Korea has so many!), and based on the photos, the description, and the time of year, I picked Daedunsan. The itinerary said that we would leave Seoul at 6:30 am, arrive at the mountain at 10, take a cable car up, have time to enjoy the views, walk down, eat lunch around 12:30, and depart at 2:30 pm. Sounded like a lovely day trip.

We arrived at Daedunsan, and the guide explained that once you take the cable car up, you have to cross a bridge and then walk up 120 steep steps to arrive at the top. Okay, I thought, no problem; I can do 120 steps.

So we took the cable car up, and it was beautiful; it felt like we were birds swooping over the treetops.

We stopped at the observation deck to take a few photos (I suppose, in hindsight, this is what the description might have been referring to), and then we headed for the top. We started climbing stairs, and one of the two girls who was with me began to count. “Um…” I said, looking up, “I don’t think this is the 120 steps he was talking about. We have to cross a bridge first.” 

Indeed, in order to get to the bridge, we had to climb quite a few steps. But the bridge was lovely, and at this point, it felt like a nice walk.

 

After we passed the bridge, we climbed hundreds more steps, and I started to regret my life choices. Then we reached the point where there were no longer manmade steps, just rocks to climb and scramble over as best you could—on all fours, pulling yourself over on the railing, however you could make it work. I had to stop several times on the way to the top, but after about an hour and a half, I made it to the summit (receipts at left). I was very proud.

Me, feeling proud.

And the views were lovely:

But then I learned that sometimes going down a mountain is even worse than going up. There were supposed to be a few different trails to the cable car, one of which was allegedly easier, more winding and gradual. In fact, there were no easy ways to get on and off this mountain. After a brief respite on a leaf-strewn path in the woods, we headed down in earnest, and the trail looked like this:

Except sometimes there wasn’t a railing at all. At one point, I was hugging a rock as I walked sideways so as not to fall off the mountain. 

I wasn’t loving the hike at this point, but I was doing okay. Then one of the girls and I realized that we had somehow missed the trail that went to the cable car, we’d been left by our faster friend, we had no choice but to climb another 800m to the bottom, we had only a vague idea of what the right trail to get there was, and we had an hour to make it back before the bus left.

This was the point when I stopped having any fun at all and seriously considered the ramifications of sitting down on the trail and crying. Then I forced myself to keep going anyway. My legs were shaking, and it took all my mental energy to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was tired, so my balance was shit, and I have the bruises to show for it today.

Eventually, two hours after we left the top, we made it to the bottom of the mountain. To the side of the highway, to be precise, where we had to backtrack for 15-20 minutes to return to the bus. (I’ve never thought so seriously about hitchhiking, but we can’t even get cabs to pick us up here, so I didn’t have high hopes for strangers.) We made it back 15 minutes before the bus left—no leisurely lunch for the weary. Standing at the bottom, I looked back up at the mountain in wonder.

I suppose I feel some small sense of accomplishment for surviving. Mostly, though, I’m just glad it’s over. But to be fair, the leaves were very pretty:

October 20th, 2017

A Strange Sort of Tourism at the DMZ

On Tuesday, I went to North Korea.

Briefly. Inside of a building. With military present. On a tour. Nothing to worry about, really.

I hadn’t planned on visiting the DMZ during my time in Seoul, but when a friend asked me if I wanted to join the tour she’d signed on to, with VIP Travel, I said yes. Why not, really?

Well, one reason why not is this sort of tourism makes me a little uncomfortable. I hated Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, with its fake document check and vendors selling gas masks. 

And in some respects, this was a similar excursion. The morning portion of the tour felt extremely touristy. Our first stop was a park, which I’m sure has some historical or political significance, but all we saw of it were preparations for the Ginseng Festival. We’d spent the bus ride learning about the seriousness of the conflict, hearing a story from our guide about her uncle, kidnapped as a child by North Korean forces and permanently separated from his family. Then we got off the bus and saw carnival rides.

But it was only a quick restroom break before getting back on the bus, going through a passport check (the first of many that day as we crossed back and forth into and out of the DMZ), and heading to the site of The Third Tunnel. 

For those of you who don’t know (I didn’t), North and South Korea aren’t divided by a border, per se. They never signed a peace treaty after the Korean War, only an armistice agreement. So instead of a border, there’s an MDL, a military demarcation line. And two kilometers on either side of it is the DMZ, the demilitarized zone. 

There are four tunnels, constructed by North Korea for infiltration, that South Korea has found, though they believe there are as many as 20 tunnels still undiscovered. The third tunnel is open to tourists to walk inside. We first went to a museum that briefly explained the history of the DMZ. Then we watched a short, yet very odd, film. It summarized the Korean War at blinding speed, touched on South Korea’s hope for unification, and then closed on an odd segment about the beauty of the DMZ with slow-motion footage of flowers blooming and a discussion of migratory birds. I left feeling like I’d just watched propaganda but had no idea of its aim.

Going into the tunnel itself reminded me of nothing so much as the salt mine tour Mom was desperate to take in Salzburg. Only with less to see, really; it was just a five-minute walk through a tunnel, hunched over at times (the tall man in front of me hit his [mercifully hard hat-covered] head repeatedly), and then you turned around and walked back. Walking out involved ascending a very steep 350m hill—not my favorite activity, but at least I felt like I accomplished something. No photos were allowed in the tunnel, sorry for that!

Our second stop was the Dora Observatory, a high point from which you could see North Korea. Not much to look at really, just a hazy mountain view, with a small village and a flagpole. (Apparently the two countries went back and forth erecting bigger and bigger flagpoles because of course they did. The double meaning of erection is not a coincidence, I think.) The most interesting thing I learned there is that South Korea uses massive speakers to blare k pop at North Korea. Really, I have video.

Our third stop was my favorite of the morning, Dorasan Station, the unfinished northernmost rail station in South Korea, which they hope will one day link the country to the north. Our guide put it poignantly: “We’re a peninsula, but since we can’t pass through to the north, it feels like we’re on an island.” 

Bush made a speech at the station in 2002, the text of which is displayed, and the evenhandedness and presidential qualities it showed just about broke me in light of T—‘s tweets. For the record, every person I talked to this day said he is making things worse here.

After a very quick lunch break, we boarded a different bus and went on to the second half of our tour to the JSA (Joint Security Area), officially the territory of the UN. This part of the day felt different, more serious—more like crossing the Berlin Wall when it was still up, rather than visiting Checkpoint Charlie today. 

After we signed the nuttiest waiver I’ve ever seen (and I used to do legal work for a reality show), we watched a PowerPoint presentation on the history of the JSA, hearing again about the acts of violence that have occurred here since the war, before things were regulated as strictly as they are now. 

We then boarded a military bus with our designated US solider—both US and Korean soldiers stay onsite—and drove deeper into the area, past a multi-layered barbed wire reinforced by a strip full of land mines, and on to the Freedom House, which we walked through quickly to stand on the steps and face North Korea. Or a building there, at least, with one soldier outside of it.

Our soldier barked orders at us: Stand in a single file line on the top step. Do not take photos to your left or right or behind you, only straight ahead. Do not make gestures. You can take photos for two minutes, now. 

The unzoomed view to the other side…

One woman apparently took a photo of something she wasn’t meant to; a soldier was by her side instantly, telling her to delete it. 

We then walked in two single file lines into a building situated exactly halfway between the north and south, with the MDL traversing the center. In the photo at left, the microphones on the table—ostensibly for negotiation—mark the MDL. I felt nervous while I was in there, more from my usual anxiety over following rules than any real sense of danger. But again there was the surreality of the contrast between the very serious situation this building represents and the inanity of tourists piling in and taking photos with soldiers.

And then it was back on the bus. The final place we visited before our tour concluded (besides the gift shop; there is ALWAYS a gift shop) was the recently constructed temple, a beautiful commemorative work, from which one day the bell will be rung, signifying peace.

It took me a few hours after returning home to shake my feelings of unease. For as cheesy as parts of the day were, as much as I’d laughed at them, taking the tour intensified the feeling that we’re edging closer to a precipice, which I very much hope we don’t fall over.