I am now home back in Boston, and as promised, I am going to give an overview of my last month travelling. There’s a lot to mention (partially why this post is so delayed… the task felt daunting), but I’ll try to keep it as short as possible. Mostly, I wanted to write this for anyone who ever has any interest in travelling around Southeast Asia and wants good travel recommendations—or, anyone who just wants an idea of what it would have been like, had they done it J
First, to finish up with Thailand…
Devon and I first travelled to Chiang Mai, a popular tourist destination in the north of Thailand. If you have one week in Thailand, I recommend you spend half of your time in the south at the beaches (Krabi, not Phuket!), and the other few days in Chiang Mai. It is a blast: city-like in that it has something fun to do each day, but still quaint and architecturally (and historically) interesting. Here are a few top recommendations of things to do in Chiang Mai:
1. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary—Devon and I spent the afternoon feeding elephants bananas, rolling around in the water with them and giving them a bath, and eating a buffet lunch of our own. So cute!
2. Thai Secret Cooking School—the woman is so sweet, taking you to the market in the morning to pick out your own fresh ingredients before showing you how to cook Thai basics like pad thai, spring rolls, and curry. It was SO delicious and such a fun way to spend the afternoon.
3. Zoe in Yellow—a really fun club/bar area, mostly filled with tourists… great for socializing, and you can find quieter areas to drink beer or louder areas to dance, depending on what you want.
4. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep—a beautiful gold temple at the top of a mountain, and even after all the temples I’d seen, something still worth checking out for the view of the city!
5. Wat Umong—some underground tunnels with Buddha statues.
6. Sticky waterfalls—if you have an extra day, these are so fun!
Honestly (this’ll sound pathetic, I know), we spent the rest of our time lying by Gaby’s pool or heading to the mall/movie theatre. We were really desperate for a break. I also probably shouldn’t give any food recommendations, since we mainly stuck to eating great pizza, Mexican food, and salads… but this was what was so lovely about Chiang Mai… it had a LOT of options: day-time activities, night-time excursions, work-out classes, and restaurants, depending on what you’re looking for.
Oh! And, most importantly… if you ever visit Chiang Mai, stay at Squirrel Hostel. You won’t regret it. This was probably my favorite hostel I’ve ever stayed—they placed movies on a projector in their yard every night, and each night we were there, the owner texted me in the morning to ask what I wanted to watch. They had cute lights strung from tree to tree, popcorn and other options for drink and food, and we paid $6 each for the entire 6-person bunk bed room to ourselves. We used her laundry machines and her free bicycles to get around the city. She also drove us to the airport, no charge. Seriously—such an amazing, cozy, home-y place to stay!
After Chiang Mai, we headed with our friend Heidi to Pai. We’d heard a lot about Pai, and the rumors all seemed to be true: it’s a bit of an artsy, hipster, tourist-created “chill zone” about three hours from Chiang Mai. Although certainly not the most authentically-Thai place we’d ever seen, it was unique and authentic in it’s own way… hammocks swinging from trees in gardens with tea and cats, Bob Marley music playing along the market street, foreigners milling about with dreads and zero makeup, etc. etc. As Devon kindly (and perfectly) put it, “this is the type of place where people come and don’t shower for a couple weeks, and sleep in the dirt, and then say ‘backpacking, man,’ isn’t it?”
Here are a few top recommendations for things to do in Pai:
1. Rent motorbikes and drive around Pai… we saw the ‘Pai’ sign and took pictures by it before ordering coffee overlooking the mountains; visited bamboo bridge; visited the land split; and visited the canyon (pictures below… all SO worth checking out… beautiful and unlike anything I’d ever seen).
2. Wake up for sunrise. Although it was a little cloudy when we did it, it was still a great way to spend the morning… we paid a songtaew driver to take us, but looking back, I think it would be cheaper to drive your own motorbikes if you still have them.
3. Eat at Om Garden. Delicious, organic, healthy… (very un-Thai).
4. Take a day trip to Lod Cave in the afternoon. We’d heard that, at sunset, all the bats in the cave leave to go find food at the same time all the birds from outside come in to sleep, and there’s this massive collision… although I don’t think we saw anything that dramatic, we still got to see hundreds of black birds flying in circles so dramatically it looked like a bees nest had been kicked over (except, of course… birds).
5. Motorbike to hot springs. Yes, you will think that maybe you might die on this trip, flying almost vertical down mountains and then almost tipping backwards as you try to get your motorbike up the next vertical mountain… but it’s a fun adventure all the same.
After Pai, we spent a day (and about $20) checking out the White temple and Black house in Chiang Rai. With extra time, the White temple is in itself worth the trip to Chiang Rai. It’s stunningly, shockingly beautiful, with haunting details like piles of hands coming up out of the ground.
After returning to Chiang Mai for a day or two (and one more pool day), we left Thailand and headed across the border to Vietnam (an easy process, especially if you pay to get your visa-on-arrival online ahead of time).
We started in Hanoi. The city was surprising in so many ways. Many of the shops along the street sold the same thing—random things, like clocks or mirrors—and looked identical (indicative of the Communist government, I was told). But there were also many beautiful French-styled buildings, and I loved the architecture. Also, if you didn’t already know this—Vietnamese traffic is INSANE. They have 6-way intersections without a single stop sign or streetlight. The whole premise of driving in Vietnam is pretty much, drive when you want, where you want, and hope you don’t get killed. Surprisingly, it works better than you’d think, except it made crossing the street a ridiculously dangerous feat where we’d flap our hands like penguins to signal the drivers to slow down, and weave in and out of crossing motorbikes, barely reaching the other side of the street alive.
Devon and I spent the first day visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature, and the Hoa Lo prison. If you have a couple days in Hanoi, this is definitely a good first day, especially if you walk to each place on foot. It gives you a good idea for the layout of the city, and there’s a lot of really interesting history behind each attraction.
After that, we took a 6-hour long bus ride to Sa Pa. We’d signed up for a 2-day, 1 night trekking adventure with Sa Pa sisters—definitely recommend. We were able to personalize our adventure and climbed up a mountain the first day to see some of the most beautiful sites I’d ever seen; then we stayed overnight in a local family’s house, eating authentic home-made Vietnamese food and paying for a hot medicinal bath in the family’s brown bucket. I was shocked to see that some people still live like this, cooking over some charcoals in the middle of the kitchen floor and washing the dishes in a soap-y mess in the corner. Our trek guide even told us this crazy story about how women are often kidnapped by men if the men want to marry the women but the women don’t like the men. She said: “I was kidnapped three times. These are boys I’d been in school with since elementary school, but they were unhappy because they liked me but I had another boyfriend. If you don’t escape in 3 days, you have to marry them. You can escape by pretending you are really in love with them, and offering to cook them breakfast, for instance, and then running out the door when they aren’t looking. So I did this twice, but the third time I escaped, my uncle told me, ‘you are 17-years-old… you cannot escape again. No one will ever want to marry you.’ So I went back and married the third guy.”
“Do you love him now?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, yes!” She nodded firmly. Her friend, another local woman who was married, said, “I used to be afraid to go to the market to get kidnapped. Now, every time I go, I pray someone will kidnap me!” They all laughed casually about it.
After our Sa Pa adventure we spent a few more days in Hanoi, exploring the city, eating from ‘top’ restaurants we’d heard about on TripAdvisor, etc. Honestly, 4 days in Hanoi was too much for us. We were excited to get out of the city.
I highly recommend one other thing while you’re in Hanoi: sign up for a cruise along Bai Tu Long Bay (the sister to Ha Long Bay, which is the more popular one). Bai Tu Long Bay has the exact same views as Ha Long, but it’s not nearly as touristy (at least, so we were told). We signed up with Halong Sapa Experts and spent the day kayaking along the bay before being treated to Happy Hour on the cruise, a cooking class, and some of the most delicious food I’d eaten in all of Asia. Even our cabins were beautiful, looking more like 5-star resorts than most other places we’d stayed.
After that, we journeyed to Hoi An, a small historically Chinese port that is now a beautiful and colorful canal-side town. This was definitely our favorite part of Vietnam. It was a beautiful little town, much like Epcot at Disney World. We spent the first day riding bikes to a beautiful beach not more than 3 miles from our hostel. The second day, we went on a bike tour through rice terraces (we stopped to both ride buffalos and push buffalos through the wet rice fields, helping turn over the rice so that new rice can grow) and then drifted in wooden boats along a bamboo river. Our guide then took us to his house to eat delicious homemade food (SO good) and showed us how to cook Vietnamese pancakes. The third day, we shopped and all ended up buying tailor-made dresses (we could pick the style and the fabric design) for $13 total—and all the dresses (and rompers) were finished within hours.
The next day, we flew to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. We spent the first day lying on the most beautiful mainland beach I’d ever seen. We ate at some cute hippie restaurant for dinner and woke up to take a ferry to Koh Rong Sanloem, an island off the coast. We’d decided to ‘ball out’ for this trip because it was the last leg of our journey together, so we spent $80 ($20 each) to stay at a beautiful villa called ‘Sweet Dreams.’ The villas were stunning, and it was the most peaceful, quiet, calm 24-hours we spent travelling. We spent the entire time lying on hammocks reading and sitting on swings in the light blue ocean and swimming and kayaking and then reading some more; we ate all our meals at Sweet Dreams (didn’t really have an option).
After our relaxing mini-vacation, we took a bus to Phnom Penh (because it was halfway between the beaches and Angkor Wat), spent the day there (nothing much to comment on, except that Big Little Lies is a GREAT TV show), and then continued to Angkor Wat. We were able to pay $5 each ($20 total) to rent a private songtaew driver for the entire day. Not only was this so worth the money, but it was also nice because we didn’t need to pre-plan anything. Since our driver is from the area, he knew exactly which temples we should see. We woke up to see sunrise at Angkor Wat (I hated the early wake-up, but I’ll admit, it would be difficult to see Angkor Wat any other way… the heat of mid-day would be stifling). After sunrise (and MANY pictures), we went to Preah Khan (which has trees growing right through it) and Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider movie). We’d planned on driving around all day with our songtaew driver, but the thing is… how many ancient ruined temples can you really see, before you’ve felt like you’ve seen them all? After seeing Angkor Wat, the others didn’t seem exceptionally impressive. We checked our watches: 10 a.m.
“Could you maybe… take us back to our hotel now?” We asked our driver. “Is that lame… like, do other people ever come to Angkor Wat and only see…3 temples…?”
He said, “Some people only see one. It is not lame. That’s okay. I can bring you.”
We went back and jumped in the pool (MUCH needed… I’ve never felt heat like Cambodian heat), grabbed lunch (with wet towels on our necks to keep from passing out) and then our sweet songtaew driver drove us to our next hostel, no cost (since we’d technically paid for the day). We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Big Little Lies and preparing for our departure the next morning.
We said goodbye that night and I woke up the next morning, got myself to the airport, and flew to Dubai. A family friend met me at the airport and brought me back to her house. I will say this about Dubai: the city itself is stunning, and unlike anything else I’d seen before. The buildings are all sand-colored and elaborate and every 10 feet I saw Aladdin-Palace-esque architecture. The city is also fascinating for so many other reasons: first, barely anyone there is from there, so it is essentially a huge melting pot of the richest expats from all over the world—the richest Indians, Chinese, Americans, British, etc. It is also just so elaborately expensive: in Cambodia, I probably spent $50 total for the entire trip. In Dubai, I spent $100 on one taxi ride that couldn’t have taken us more than 5 miles (granted, I think we were ripped off).
My friend Gaby met me there. Although we had a fantastic time at the one excursion we’d planned (a Desert Safari with Dune Bashing, Sandboarding, Camel Riding, and BBQ Dinner… $85 for a 6-hour excursion), for the most part, Dubai was out of our budget. I spent $30 on plain spaghetti (the only thing I’d thought I could afford at the mall), and we did zero shopping, but still spent another $100 on our uber ride home later. We spent the last day walking around the spice souks, and that was fun. The city was truly magical at night, too—just stunningly beautiful, especially across the water.
The desert excursion was great. We spent 2 hours driving up and down sand dunes in a 4-wheeler, tipping at times onto only two wheels and feeling like any minute we’d tip over completely. Then we rode camels (in a quick circle), sandboarded (the SLOWEST activity I’ve ever done… you had to try really hard to move at all down the sand), got some henna tattoos, smoked some sheesha, ate some dates, watched a girl belly dance, talked with the nice Indian family we sat next to, ate a barbeque dinner, and went home. It was definitely worth the money for all that was included.
Then, finally, that Thursday morning, I journeyed home. Weirdly enough, the entire thing feels like it already didn’t happen. The strangest part is, it feels like that area of the world doesn’t even exist when I’m back in America. Southeast Asia is almost never in the news. Besides the few Facebook messages I’ve exchanged with my students, I have no idea what my students are up to. People just don’t talk about it much here, or if they do, it’s because they know a friend’s mother’s sister once travelled to Vietnam for vacation. It isn’t widely explored by Americans, but hopefully this blog post helps make it sound slightly more do-able, because it is insanely cheap to travel around Southeast Asia (even for a month), and just as importantly, it will be eye-opening and different from any other trip you take in your entire life.