Lessons Learned and Advice to My Future Self

DSC02942When we began planning our trip to SE Asia, we were thinking of it as an adventure, a fun-filled excursion during which we would see beautiful palm tree-lined beaches, turquoise water, centuries old temples, and colorful markets. Once we got into the mental zone of travel and the routine of backpacking, we got to see all of these things and more, most of which we’ve shared on the blog. What I hadn’t planned on were the psychological hurdles that I had to deal with in order to get into that mental zone, relax, and be in the moment of the trip.

Trying to summarize what I learned from the trip, it turns out that these ‘lessons’ were things I already knew. But taking some time off gave me the mental space to remember them. The trip was all the adventure we were hoping for — and in many ways we never expected. It also gave me the opportunity to learn more about myself and rediscover some important advice for being happy. The experiences we had will always be with us, but over time I think it will be easy to lose sight of the lessons. Here is a reminder for my future self.

    #1: Wherever You Go, You Bring Your Bullshit With You (a John Ryan twist on the popular Buddhist saying ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are’)

hmm, a double meaning?

(Angkor Wat, Cambodia)

I’m very sure I will spend the rest of my life working on this one. But, what I really learned firsthand was that I create a lot of my own stress. This is not to say that work, school, family, and other responsibilities aren’t real and stress-inducing. (I mean I have to give myself a little bit of a break!) I’ll just say that I really understood how much of it was/is self-created when I finished my phd, quit my job, and went halfway around the world with no responsibilities, only to find myself still feeling really stressed out. Yeah. And of course, there can be some very real (feeling) travel-induced stress along the way, but how we react to it is up to us.

Anyway, I probably could fill a book with all of the thinking this has gotten me doing about my relationship to stress. The point is that I very highly recommend taking the time off to go on a long trip. It is the adventure of a lifetime and a great way to step away from daily stressors and contemplate your life. But if you go, just be prepared to spend some quality time with yourself (and your bullshit).

    #2: Curb Your Expectations

One of the ways I brought my ‘issues’ with me on the trip was by setting some pretty high expectations. Of course I understand, at least on an intellectual level, how much my enjoyment of any situation is related to balancing my goals and expectations for it with how I react to what actually happens. Sadly, knowing this hasn’t kept me from getting caught in the expectations trap over and over again, and the trip was no exception. Early on, I found myself dealing with some disappointment.

Things can go any number of ways ...

(Angkor Wat, Cambodia).

For the first few weeks, everything seemed really hard, and all the planning we had to do was quite overwhelming, and I didn’t feel blissful or stress-free at all. I was also recovering from the exhaustion I felt after all that was involved in wrapping things up before we left on the trip. With some help from my wise and patient travel partner, I quickly realized that I was overloading myself with expectations. Of course I didn’t feel blissful in the first few weeks of a very long trip through several foreign countries! I needed to just relax and let things unfold. It was only after I let go of a lot of ideas I had in my head for how the trip would feel to me, how I would feel in any number of circumstances, or how it would compare to other people’s trips, etc, did I truly start to be in the moment of the trip and enjoy each day for whatever it brought. So it is a little embarrassing to admit that I struggled so much with this, but I really did. And, as the Buddhists have been telling us for centuries, this stuff about expectations really applies to everything in life.

    #3: While in Transit, Mind Your Tongue (as the Cambodians might say)

Sometimes you don't even get to sit down in the pick up truck.

Sometimes you don’t even get to sit down in the pick up truck.

This is a practical travel tip that I can’t skip over, given how often it came up for me. Literally, be careful not to bite your tongue while you are bumping along down the road. Maybe it is because I chewed a lot of gum in order to ward off motion sickness, but I can’t even count the number of times I thought “wow, that was lucky, I easily could’ve just lost part of my tongue!”

In SE Asia more than anywhere else I’ve been, there were unexpected curves, bumps, dips, and jolts around every corner. I had to keep reminding myself to stay alert while in transit and make sure I didn’t get caught with my mouth hanging open while I was staring in awe at some spectacular temple or vista in the distance! And, this went for watching our hands and feet, too, as we learned early on in one of our many back-of-a-pick-up-truck rides that there are many ways to smash an appendage.

    #4: Live More Simply

I have not written much about the incredible economic disparities between us and most SE Asians, but they were obvious on our trip. We met so many hardworking people who didn’t have enough money to leave their towns to visit the natural beauty in their own country, much less stop working for a few months and fly around the world. It was humbling and eye-opening, just like it is every time I have visited a developing country. Taking this trip really magnified a lot of issues related to consumption, pollution, poverty, development. And there is so much to be said and done about all of these things. But to be brief, I want to remind myself to appreciate what I have, to consume less, and most importantly, value the intangible things that money cannot buy.

    #5: Stop and Smell the Roses

This is another really obvious one. But I had forgotten it somewhere along the way and going on this trip was a great reminder. Like most people, I’m on the lookout for beautiful and interesting scenes when I travel. And sure enough, I really noticed so many more things on the road than I did when I was just going about my life at home. I love that traveling in a foreign place forces me to slow down and take in everything around me. And when I start doing that, I realize how much beauty there is.

Cheesy, sure. But it is also true.

Cheesy, sure. But it is also true.

But what dawned on me upon coming home is that slowing down and appreciating things is a frame of mind, and one I shouldn’t reserve for when I’m traveling. I only fully grasped this while we were back home and taking a road trip from New York to Kentucky. I couldn’t get over how beautiful every place we visited was to me. At first, it was strange that I was noticing this. I even chuckled to myself that I could only find a view of the West Virginia mountains from the window of an interstate motel to be breathtaking because I was still in ‘travel mode.’ As soon as I had that thought, and realized the result of that way of thinking, this lesson hit me like a ton of bricks.

I’m really hoping that this new awareness, or perspective, doesn’t fade too much over time. And maybe it is inevitable that it will when the hustle and bustle of life gets distracting enough. In just two and a half months back, I’ve already been reminded how much easier it is to think about all these things when I’m not working. I hope that when I need a reality check I can remind myself of these lessons by looking back at our pictures and reading this post. And, when the time is right, I’ll start planning to skip town again.

Folks just hanging out, watching the sunset. Railay Beach, Thailand

What it’s all about. Railay Beach, Thailand.

Our Trip by the Numbers

I thought it would be fun to quantify some things about our trip. It is interesting to look at it this way because I sure thought we took more than 4 train rides, but given that three of them were at least 12 hour rides (and one was about 16 hrs), I think it just felt like more. It also turned out that boats were our main way of getting around. Makes sense since we spent so much time on islands. Also, if you’re interested this Google map has all of our stops and details the route we took on our trip.

These stats are for each of us; we each took 4 trains rides, 12 bus rides, etc. Except for the # of massages, which is a total: Lori - 19; John - 1.

These stats are for each of us; we each took 4 trains rides, 12 bus rides, etc. Except for the # of massages, which is a total: Lori – 19; John – 1.

A few other stats:

  • Average $ per hotel/per night – $42 (if we exclude Thailand, it was $30 avg/night.)
  • Average $ for a 1 hour massage – $6
  • # of nights spent sleeping on board a boat – 2
  • # of nights on sleeping on a bus or train – 4
  • # of cases of intense food poisoning – 2 (1 each)
  • # of cases of dysentery – 2 (Both Lori)
  • # of cords/electronics we left behind in hotel rooms – 3
  • # of items stolen from us – 0
Favorite t-shirt souvenir. Purchased in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

And I had to share my favorite t-shirt souvenir (from Vietnam). “Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel walk into a bar ….”

Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok

John prepares to head out into the main walkway with his second gun of the day.

John prepares to head out into the main walkway with his second gun of the day.

One of the best parts of extending our trip by a couple weeks was the fact that we got to spend our last weekend in Bangkok during the Thai New Year. To celebrate Songkran, as it is called in Thai, the entire country participates in a massive water festival. This tradition of throwing water on people originated with catching water that had been poured over Buddhas for cleansing and then pouring the water on people’s shoulders as a blessing. It has evolved far beyond this today, of course. But given that New Years is at the end of the dry season and Thailand is hot as Hades then, the timing sure couldn’t be better.

We spent all day Saturday souvenir shopping at the outdoor Chatachuk Market. Not knowing what to expect, we prepared by putting our electronics, passports and money in Ziplocks and wondered if we were being overly cautious. Ha! Little did we know we would not be dry for the entire next two days. Of course, we bought water guns at the market and that was a clear sign to everyone around us that we were fair game.

Not only did we engage in quite a few water gun fights, but various people dumped buckets of water on us, over and over! Even when we were in a tuk tuk on the way back to our hotel, we got completely soaked by revelers with full buckets. And so we were indoctrinated into the incredibly fun ritual of celebrating New Years, Thai style.

These kids are hiding out in a closed-for-the-day clothing stall and are firing straight at John!

These kids are hiding out in a closed-for-the-day clothing stall and are firing straight at John!


Getting ready.

Getting ready. Clothes are still mostly dry.

This poor kid!

John really gets into “celebrating New Years” … who knows what this poor kid was thinking?!

In the fray

In the fray. Completely soaked at this point.

We didn't take this one, but it captures the "bucket effect" - which was how we got completely soaked both days.

We didn’t take this photo, but it captures the “bucket effect” – which ensured that we got completely soaked both days.

Life on the Beach

Nice Buddha painting in a nearby hotel

I really liked this Buddha painting in a nearby hotel

As the end of our trip neared, we were excited to get to one place and spend the rest of our time there. We chose to go back to Ko Pha Ngan in the Gulf of Thailand because it had the best mix of things we were looking for: lower hotel prices, a laid back and less populated/developed atmosphere, nice beaches, etc. We lucked out by finding a hotel that was basically on the side of a hill so while it had a great pool and restaurant down near the beach, we got a good deal on a very nice room because it was a pretty good hike up the hill. This also meant it had amazing views of the cove we were in.
View from our beach

View from our beach


View from our balcony at sunrise.

View from our balcony at sunrise.


It was one of the best rooms we’d had on the trip, with a very large balcony that we slowly took over for what turned into 3 weeks. Our daily routine included eating, reading, getting in some internet time in the restaurant (no access up in our room), hanging out at the pool, and walking across the beach to the nearest store to buy the 6 liter bottles of water we went through at an alarming pace. This way we could refill our 1 liter bottles and use fewer of them. Sadly, Thailand was the only country where these larger bottles were an option.

DSC05530During these final weeks we also fretted over the decision of whether or not to extend our trip. But when we weighed the costs versus the benefits, it was almost foregone conclusion. We stayed longer. And even with the small issue of overstaying our visas and having to pay a modest fee on the way out, it was well worth it. Lest anyone think we were cavalier about visa issues, we weren’t. We went to great lengths to try to extend our visas the proper way, but it didn’t work out. So, before we overstayed them, we did tons of research and talked to some people, and were pretty sure we could just pay a fine at the airport. It all worked out ok.

Having a 'bucket' and watching the crowd grow at the beach. Then we got out of there before it got too crazy.

Having a ‘bucket’ and watching the crowd grow at the beach. Then we got out of there before it got too crazy.

After settling in to our home for three weeks (the longest we stayed in one place on the trip), we left the beach a couple times for some final adventures. We happened to be there during one of the infamous ‘full moon parties‘ that draws over 20,000 people to Ko Pha Ngan every month. We strategically stayed on the opposite side of the island from this party beach.

We also rented motorbikes, did some more exploring and hiking, and took an intro to scuba diving “class” (which in Thailand meant a 15 minute prep class before you donned the heavy gear and jumped overboard in the middle of the ocean!).
DSC05501I had a strong aversion to staying underwater for too long and was on the verge of panicking because I feared I wouldn’t get enough air. I forced myself to give it a try and descend about 10 feet to see how it felt, and then I was done. Contrary to my anxiety-ridden state, John was calm and collected (at least on the outside). He liked it more than I did and completed two 12 meter dives, but I don’t think either of us will be itching to go again anytime soon. We were very glad we tried it given the opportunity.
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View from the top of the trail to Bottle Beach, at about 850 feet above sea level.  It was intense because the hike was steep for our non-hiking shoes, and we also went at the hottest time of the day.

View from the top of the trail to Bottle Beach, at about 850 feet above sea level. It was intense because the hike was steep for our non-hiking shoes, and we also went at the hottest time of the day.


But this was the end of the hike, so we practically ran out of the jungle to the beach to go for a swim. The only way back to our motor bikes at the beginning of the trail was to hike back, or take a boat. We had set out to hike both ways, but by the end we opted for a boat ride.

But this was the end of the hike, so we practically ran out of the jungle to the beach to go for a swim. The only way back to our motor bikes at the beginning of the trail was to hike back, or take a boat. We had set out to hike both ways, but by the end we opted for a boat ride.


we spent a lot of time in these papasan chairs.

Back at the resort, we spent a lot of time in these papasan chairs.


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On our last day at the beach, this tornado-like water spout showed up. Luckily the clouds blew over by the afternoon.

On our last day at the beach, this tornado-like water spout showed up. Luckily the clouds blew over by the afternoon.

Last day at the beach. So many mixed feelings. It was the most blissful and relaxed I've ever felt, but we were also excited to come home and see friends and family. (In all honesty, we likely would've stayed a lot longer if we hadn't used up our trip budget!)

Last day at the beach. So many mixed feelings. It was the most blissful and relaxed we’ve ever felt so we didn’t want to leave, but we were also excited to come home and see friends and family. But I guess if I’m being honest, we likely would’ve stayed a lot longer if we hadn’t bought a return ticket at the beginning of the trip!

Paradise Found: Sleeping on a Boat in Maya Bay

On the small ferry to Ko Phi Phi. It was either sit on the hull and get windblown and wet, or suffer the thick diesel smell below ...

On the small ferry to Ko Phi Phi. It was either sit on the hull and get windblown and wet, or endure the thick diesel smell below …

We had a lot of mixed feelings about going to the touristy Ko Phi Phi islands, which are reputed to be party central. However, they are supposed to be among the most beautiful islands in the world and we wanted to have a glimpse while we were so close. The main island (Ko Phi Phi Don) is so popular that hotel prices are quite high, so we decided to take a chance on an overnight boat trip to the nearby Ko Phi Phi Leh, (a national park where The Beach was filmed). There are no hotels on this island so it is full of day trippers between sunrise and sunset. The ‘Sleep Aboard‘ trip is the only authorized group that can be on Maya Beach after sunset, so you end up having the place to yourself (aside from a few park employees that camp inland from the beach). This meant that we would only have about 6 hours to spend on the main island of Ko Phi Phi Don before our boat left, but that turned out to be just right for us.

View of the center strip of land connecting two beaches on Phi Phi Don (yes, it is pronounced 'pee pee'). It was sweltering hot and we were carrying our packs around for the overnight boat trip. John and I had a difference of opinion over whether or not to take the 1/2 hour, uphill hike to the viewpoint in the noontime heat with our bags. We compromised and John had a beer (or two) and watched the bags while I did the hike. It was a tough hike in the heat, and I don't think I would've made it to the top with my bag, so I was relieved that John didn't want to do it in the end. It all worked out and the hike was well worth it for the views.

View of the strip of land connecting two beaches in the center of Phi Phi Don (yes, it is pronounced ‘pee pee’). The heat was sweltering and we were carrying full day packs around for the overnight boat trip. John and I had a difference of opinion over whether or not to take the 1/2 hour, uphill hike to the viewpoint in the noontime heat with our bags. We compromised and John had a beer (or two) and watched the bags while I did the hike. It was a tough hike in the heat, and I don’t think I would’ve made it to the top with my bag, so I was relieved that John didn’t want to do it in the end. It all worked out and the hike was well worth it for the views.


View from the Ko Phi Phi Don viewpoint over to Ko Phi Phi Leh (where The Beach was filmed).

View from the Ko Phi Phi Don viewpoint over to Ko Phi Phi Leh (where The Beach was filmed, on the other side of the island).

After I climbed to the Phi Phi viewpoint and John had a few beers, he decided to try his luck at a local barber for his second haircut on the trip. This stylist ended up giving him a great haircut and goatee trim, all with little-to-no communication between them.

After I climbed to the Phi Phi viewpoint and John had a few beers, he decided to try his luck at a local barber for his second haircut on the trip. This stylist ended up giving him a great haircut and goatee trim, all with little-to-no communication between them.

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Choosing to breeze in and out of Phi Phi Don and spend the night on a boat in Maya Bay was a great decision. Sleeping under the stars in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been was one of my favorite nights on the trip.

We had quite a full day of activities, which included: ferrying over to Phi Phi from Ko Lanta, hiking and walking around Phi Phi Don, afternoon snorkeling off of the boat on the way to Maya Bay, watching the day trippers and other boats trickle away after the sunset, and eating a full Thai dinner and drinking a couple ‘buckets’ of the local Sangsom rum and coke while getting to know our fellow passengers on Maya Beach. All of this was followed by midnight snorkeling among the bioluminescent fish in the bay. We had so much fun and it was so beautiful that it seemed surreal.

We stayed up really late hanging out with some great folks from all over, including England, Ireland, France, Argentina, Belgium, and surprisingly, only one other American. Even after such a packed day, I was so full of adrenaline and awe at everything around us that I could barely sleep. Not only was sleeping under the stars pretty incredible, lightning in the distance made for such a beautiful sky that I didn’t want to close my eyes and miss a moment of it. I hope I never forget how I felt lying under the brilliant sky that night.

John and I were especially struck by how much better this overnight boat trip was than the one we took to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. The Ha Long Bay boat was much nicer, with private cabins and fancy-looking (but not tasting) 5 course meals. The Maya Bay boat was pretty basic, with a tiny bathroom, and buffet style food. A foam mat and pillow, wherever you threw them down, counted as your accommodation for the night. The difference was actually pretty stark (and the Ha Long Bay price almost double), but the Maya Bay folks did something right because it was by far the better trip. I thought the forced ambiance of luxury on the Ha Long bay trip was stifling, whereas the casual, no frills atmosphere that the folks running the Maya Bay trip created was conducive to connecting with folks and having an adventure. We’d highly recommend the Maya Bay boat trip for anyone going to Ko Phi Phi.

View of The Beach while there are still hundreds of tourists on it ...

View of The Beach as the sun sets, while there are still hundreds of tourists on it …

And after everyone left and just our boat was left. It was such a different (better and bigger feeling) place when it was empty.

And after everyone left and only our boat remained. So much nicer when it was empty.

Hanging out at sunset.

Hanging out at sunset.

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Waking up on the boat, with The Beach in the background

Waking up on the boat, with The Beach in the background


Feeling good even after very little sleep under amazing stars and lightning in the distance.

Feeling good even after very little sleep.


Watching the sun rise

Watching the sun rise over the bay


John taking one last swim and getting surrounded by thousands of tiny black fish.

John was surrounded by thousands of tiny black (harmless) fish while taking one last swim in Maya Bay.


Our awesome crew

Posing with the rest of our group


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Climbing, Hiking, Sweating, and Swimming in Thailand

Karsts at Railay Beach

Karsts at Railay Beach

After our amazing two weeks at Otres Beach, Cambodia, we were almost reluctant to have to go back on the road again. But with two short flights and one bus ride of about the same length, we made it all the way to the southwestern coast of Thailand in one day. And here we began our final 6 weeks of beach hopping in Thailand.
Enjoying a sunset on Railay Beach

Enjoying a sunset on Railay Beach


We spent one night on a beach called Ao Nang, which we really didn’t like that much. Next we took a boat over to a place called Railay, which is basically a peninsula cut off from the mainland by large limestone karsts. It isn’t an island, but you can only get in and out by boat. We’d heard about Railay from several friends who’d been. The thing to do there is rock climbing, so I was keen to go climbing and do a little hiking. You needn’t be a climber to enjoy Railay (or its neighbor Tonsai), as they are breathtakingly beautiful and worth the trip to get there.
Railay Beach. This is where you come in and out, and you have to carry all luggage through the water to small long boats that take you around to the mainland.

Railay Beach. This is where you come in and out, and you have to carry all luggage through the water to longtail boats that take you around to the mainland.


View from the top Phra Nang Beach hike, where you can see both Railey East and West beaches.

View from the top Phra Nang Beach hike, where you can see both Railey East and West beaches and the karsts in the background that block the area from the mainland. Even though we did this hike early in the morning to try to avoid the heat, it was extremely intense and sweaty. For much of the hike, there were ropes that you had to use to haul yourself up the rocks. It was one of the most fun hikes either of us has ever done.


At this point on our trip, it was mid-March and the temperature was getting hot. One of our main goals each day was drinking enough water and swimming after any physical activity. The weather was really starting to slow us down. Luckily, we were at the beach so the pace was slow and swimming was easy to find.

Phra Nang beach on Railay, where we happened upon after a very intense hike. We jumped right in for a swim.

Phra Nang beach on Railay. We happened upon this almost-too-good-to-be-true beach after the very intense hike to the viewpoint. We jumped right in for a swim.


We took an "intro to rock climbing" class since this was John's first time climbing outside. Maybe should've expected in such a rock climbing mecca, it was not geared toward beginners. I found it to be really tough and I have to say I was extremely impressed with how well John did. We did four climbs, and I'd say they were around 5.8/5.9s. Not beginner's routes.

We took an “intro to rock climbing” class on Railay, since this was John’s first time climbing outside. We found the routes to be simultaneously challenging and exhilarating. We had a great time and were rewarded with amazing views of the ocean from the top of the highest climb.


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Tonsai Beach, next door to Railay where the more 'hardcore' climbers now go to escape the tourists on Railay.

Tonsai Beach, next door to Railay, is where the more ‘hardcore’ climbers now go to escape the tourists on Railay. We just did some hiking and exploring around the gigantic rock formations coming up out of the beach. Once high tide came in you couldn’t walk between Tonsai and Railay on the beach; we just made it back before the path became submerged under water.


Monkey on a wire in Tonsai.

Monkey on a wire in Tonsai.


Another fun monkey pic on Tonsai.

Another fun monkey pic on Tonsai.

On the ferry to Ko Lanta.

On the ferry to Ko Lanta.

After leaving Railay, we headed even further south to an island called Ko Lanta. We weren’t sure how long we’d stay here but before we knew it we’d been there seven days.

All in all, we loved our week on Ko Lanta. I did pick up a mild case of dysentery there, but we weren’t moving around so it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. And really, the heat was far worse in my memory — Lanta was the southern most point that we’d been on our trip and at the end of March it was getting HOT. Most afternoons, the beach and the pool at our resort were too hot to swim in (I know, it was tough). Plus, the price of our rustic bungalow on Ko Lanta (and around much of the western coast) was almost double the prices we were finding back on Ko Pha Ngan (in the Gulf of Thailand, where we went our second week). So we decided to head up to see the famous Ko Phi Phi islands while we were nearby (more on that in the next post), and then make our way back to the Gulf for our final few weeks.

View down the beach on Ko Lanta

View down the beach on Ko Lanta

Another shot of Ko Lanta

Another shot of Ko Lanta

Sunset on Ko Lanta (the beach was rocky after the tide went out. So while it was pretty in its own way, it wasn't great for swimming.

Sunset on Ko Lanta. The beach was rocky after the tide went out, so swimming was best during high tide.

On Ko Lanta, we spent a lot of time in the bar that was connected to our bungalow/resort.

On Ko Lanta, we spent a lot of time in the bar that was connected to our bungalow/resort. John and I hope to have a structure like this with mats and hammocks in our backyard one day.

From Ko Lanta, we did a 'four islands' day tour that included swimming through a pitch black cave (Emerald Cave) following a guide holding a flashlight to the center of an island where you swim out into a stunning beach w/ green water. The opening of the cave is in the center of the photo where there is a group of people in life jackets coming out. John is hanging out in the water on the right.

From Ko Lanta, we did a ‘four islands’ day tour that included swimming through a pitch black cave (Emerald Cave) following a guide holding a flashlight to the center of an island where you swim out into a stunning beach w/ green water. The opening of the cave is in the center of the photo where there is a group of people in life jackets coming out. John is hanging out in the water on the right.

Swimming on scenic Ko Ngai during the four islands tour.

Swimming on scenic Ko Ngai during the four islands tour.


In spite of seeing one amazingly beautiful island after another, the best part of the four islands tour was spending the day with this really fun couple from Serbia. We had a great time hanging out and will look them up if we're ever in Belgrade.

Although we saw one amazingly beautiful island after another, the best part of the four islands tour was spending the day with this really fun couple from Serbia. We will look them up if we’re ever in Belgrade.

Slowing Down at Otres Beach

DSC04902After riding the bamboo train in Battambang we had a pretty open agenda for the rest of our time in Cambodia, as well as for the remainder of our trip. We heard great things about the Cambodian beaches, so we knew we wanted to check them out. From Battambang in the northwest, we had to take a 14 hour, two bus journey to Sihanoukville, on the southwestern coast. Once there, we took a short tuk tuk ride past all of the popular and crowded beaches (which are also reputed to be pretty seedy) to the edge of development at Otres beach. We stayed at a place called Mushroom Point, and lucked out on our second night by getting their best hut, right on the ocean. They didn’t take reservations or require you to tell them when you were leaving, so once we got this hut, we could play it by ear. One night turned into two weeks pretty quickly. If not for our 30 day visa limit in Cambodia and our goal to go back to the Western coast of Thailand before coming home, we may have stayed even longer.

Sunset at Otres

Sunset at Otres

There isn’t all that much to do at Otres aside from laze on the beach. We got to slow down and really relax for the first time on our trip, and maybe for the first time in our lives. It was amazing to have two weeks in one place with very little to do. Our hut there was the most rustic room we had, with no furniture other than a foam mat on the floor for a bed and a small shelf for our things, so we didn’t even spend much time in there. There were shared bathrooms with a hose for a shower (that often only had a small drip of water coming out), but we quickly got used to it. While Otres didn’t look as pretty as some of the Thai beaches we visited, we found it to be the best water for swimming on our whole trip. We spent our days alternating between eating, drinking, swimming in the ocean, and reading in papasan chairs.
 The road into Otres. Not a very developed place. There was talk about a French company coming in and developing a large portion of the beach, but for now their land is empty and the 20 or so other 'hotels' are small operations with several huts or bungalows. It had a very island feel, even though it isn't.

The road into Otres. Not a very developed place. There was talk about a French company coming in and developing a large portion of the beach, but for now their land is empty and the 20 or so other ‘hotels’ are small operations with several huts or bungalows. It had a very island feel for being so close to a major town.


John waves from out in the  ocean.

John waves from the ocean.


View down the beach; lots of people kite surfed. In the background there are various islands. We intended to visit them but we were so content at Otres that we never made it out to the islands.

View down the beach; lots of people kite surfed. In the background there are various islands. We intended to visit them but we were so content at Otres that we never made it out to the islands.


This is our beachfront hut at

Our beachfront hut at “Mushroom Point”


Inside our hut.

Inside our hut.


There was a slack line at the edge of Mushroom Point and a lot of time was devoted to walking across without falling. John was much better at it than I was, especially after I fell early on and got scared of breaking a limb.

There was a slack line at the edge of Mushroom Point and a lot of folks spent time trying to walk across without falling. John was much better at it than I was, especially after I fell early on and got scared of breaking a limb.


The gathering point for all the local folks selling stuff on the beach was next to Mushroom Point so boys were often playing on the slack line or just chatting with us.

The gathering point for all the local folks selling stuff on the beach was next to Mushroom Point so these boys were often playing on the slack line.


A little 4 or 5 yr old kid we got to know on Otres. He was always selling bracelets on the beach (hanging around his waist) and he really knew his way around an iPad better. Sometimes, like in this photo, we'd be talking and he would have to step away and take a phone call! It was the cutest and most hilarious thing. We figured it was his mom calling to check in.

A little 4 or 5 yr old kid we got to know on Otres. He was always selling bracelets on the beach and he really knew his way around an iPad, as I discovered one day when he commandeered John’s while I was reading on it. He hopped up into my papasan chair and played Angry Birds for 20 minutes in my lap. Sometimes, he’d come up to us just to chat and then he would have to step away and take a phone call! It was the cutest and most hilarious thing. We figured it was his mom calling to check in.


This little boy is the brother of the boy on the phone, and Coca is the woman on the right. She gave the best massages I had in all of SE Asia, and during our two weeks at Otres I set up a routine where she met me every other day at sunset for a one hour massage (for $6).

This little boy is the brother of the boy on the phone, and Coca is the woman on the right. She gave the best massages I had in all of SE Asia, and during our two weeks at Otres I set up a routine where she met me every other day at sunset for a one hour massage (for $6).


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At the end of our two weeks on Otres, feeling pretty relaxed in one of our favorite papasan chairs.

At the end of our two weeks on Otres, feeling pretty relaxed in one of our favorite papasan chairs.

Unexpected Delights in Battambang

Buddhas at Phnom Sampeau near Battambang

Buddhas at Phnom Sampeau near Battambang

For the most part, our time in Battambang was a few days of relaxing and decompressing after our fun-filled week with Alex and Camille at Angkor Wat. Battambang is a bit of a sleepy town, but this was just what we needed. Lucky for us, many tourists skip over Battambang on their circuit through SE Asia. I think it was the most authentic view we got into the normal lives of Cambodians (when they are not catering to tourists). And because we didn’t have any expectations for what we’d find here, everything we did turned out to be really fun.

In our three days there, we rode the bamboo train, took a cooking class, walked the roughly 4×8 block town numerous times, and visited the nearby Phnom Sampeu (a temple), which is near The Killing Caves (covered in this post about memorials of the Cambodian genocide). We also spent a not insignificant amount of time figuring out how to leave the town and buying bus tickets.

Riding the bamboo train

Riding the bamboo train


Riding the bamboo train was the main reason we came to Battambang and it was a great time. It only lasted about an hour and did feel touristy, but we went early on a gorgeous yet hot day, so it was pretty refreshing. I just don’t think there is anything like it in the world. Also called a ‘norry‘, the makeshift bamboo platforms on wheels run on old train tracks put in by French colonialists that were mostly shut down during the Khmer Rouge. A small electric generator engine powers the train, and the rails can be a bit warped as they haven’t been kept up. The only bamboo trains still running in Cambodia are in Battambang. Each platform went up to 30 mph and felt like a flat roller coaster (more like the bumpy old wooden kind) going through beautiful green fields and countryside. There was an increased adrenaline rush when we went flying over a few bridges that were quite high above either creeks or creek beds. We saw lots of other tourists taking the ~1 hr roundtrip ride like us, but locals also use the train for transportation and to carry things like rice along the route.

View from the bamboo train

View from the bamboo train


If you run into someone on the track, the 'train' with the fewest people on it has to pick up and move out of the way for the other one to pass. We probably passed about 5-8 others on our route, but the drivers have the move pretty down pat.

If you run into someone on the track, the platform with the fewest people on it has to pick up and move out of the way for the other one to pass. We probably passed about 5-8 others on our route, but the drivers have the move pretty down pat.


Meeting a platform full of locals heading the opposite direction.

Meeting a platform full of locals heading the opposite direction.


This was the end of the route for tourists - where we all got off and sat at a few tables while locals tried to sell us stuff.

This ‘station’ was the end of the route for tourists – where we all got off and sat at a few tables while locals tried to sell us stuff.


The kids at the end of the train ride make homemade jewelry out of bamboo leaves, and force it on you while insisting it is 'free, no money'. Of course I gave this kid a dollar for my ring, but I insisted he share it with his friends (who were also pushing their wares on me) and they all ran off squealing. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing to do or not.

The kids at the end of the train ride make homemade jewelry out of bamboo leaves, and give it to you while insisting it is ‘free, no money’. Of course I gave this kid a dollar, but I insisted he share it with his friends (who were also pushing their wares on me) and they all ran off squealing “she said share! she said share!”. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing to do or not.

Our cooking class in Battambang was one of my favorite activities on the whole trip. We had a really great instructor who owns his own restaurant called “The Smokin’ Pot.” The sign has a large smoking black cauldron on it so not that kind of pot (although we did learn that marijuana is used as an herb in traditional Cambodian cooking). At $10 for a 4+ hour class that included a trip through the market to buy everything we needed, this was a great deal. Since we didn’t have the opportunity to cook for ourselves on the trip, we didn’t often take the time to saunter through markets and never bought greens, fresh fish, or meat. But with our Cambodian instructor leading the way and conducting the transactions, we got a firsthand glimpse into a very traditional experience. We bought all of the food for our meals straight from the local market and then prepared it ourselves, which was (sadly) an uncommon experience for me.

At the market to buy food for our cooking class.

At the market to buy food for our cooking class.

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This woman cut the head off of the fish right in front of us.

This woman cut the head off of the fish right in front of us.


If a fish flipped out of its bucket, they just left it as if nothing had happened. I'll admit that it kind of freaked me out to stand next to it knowing it couldn't breathe, even though we were having another fish slaughtered right in front of us to eat later that evening.

If a fish flipped out of its bucket, they just left it as if nothing had happened. I’ll admit that it kind of freaked me out to stand next to this fish knowing it couldn’t breathe, even though we were having another fish slaughtered right in front of us to eat later that evening.


Look at the size of those beans and cucumbers!

Look at the size of those beans and zucchini!

This made me a bit squeamish.

This made me a bit squeamish.

And, with our finished products straight from the woks.

And, with our finished products straight from the woks.

Our tuk tuk driver/guide explaining this mural.

Our tuk tuk driver/guide explaining this mural.

Our day trip to the temple was really fantastic and included a strenuous hike up to and around the temples at Phnom Sampeu, which are on a limestone mountain with amazing views. The Killing Caves are also at this site. I think the best part about this whole day trip was that we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us from our hotel and back (about 30 minutes each way) and we had no idea that he was also going to hike with us through the entire complex and serve as a tour guide. The paltry amount he charged us (with no haggling from us) was so little that we actually felt bad, but I think this was indicative of the low demand in a not-so-touristy and poor town. He seemed really excited to have our business and hang out with us for the day and we really enjoyed his company.
Looking up to Phnom Sampeau from the ground.

Looking up to Phnom Sampeau from the ground.

A mural near Phnom Sampeau

A ceiling and wall mural near Phnom Sampeau

Large Buddha at Phnom Sampeau

Large Buddha at Phnom Sampeau


At the top of the hill; over 1,000 winding steps!

At the top of the hill; over 1,000 winding steps!


Close up of one of the temples

Close up detail on one of the temples


Resting at the top and taking in the view.

Resting at the top and taking in the view.

Traditional Cambodian dancers. I took this in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, but I forgot to put it in that blog post.

Traditional Cambodian dancers. I took this in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, but I forgot to put it in that blog post.

One last hidden treasure during our time in Battambang turned out to be the very loud nightclub by our hotel. It was apparently a popular spot every night with the locals, and this could’ve been much worse for us, but the music was fantastic from our balcony! It seemed to be a local band playing what sounded like traditional music, which we had also heard at Angkor Wat and reminded us of Bluegrass and Celtic music.

Our guide insisted on taking our photo in front of this white elephant, though we didn't really understand  the significance.

Our guide insisted on taking our photo in front of this white elephant, though we didn’t really learn the significance.


Enjoying a beer at a local joint. It was a sleepy town and we did lots of relaxing. I think we played pool at this bar for a while.

Enjoying a beer at a local joint. I think this photo captures the feeling of our time in Battambang.

Hot in Ho Chi Minh City

View of HCMC from our balcony at dusk.

View of HCMC from our balcony at dusk.

Even during the lead up to Tet – a holiday wherein cities emptied out – Ho Chi Minh’s [aka Saigon's] streets flowed with scooter traffic. We were parked in a part of town that allowed easy access to both historical monuments and cramped alleyways stuffed with restaurants, bars, guesthouses, barbers, card players, pho eaters, hawkers, and tourists.

Street view of HCMC during Tet.

Street view of HCMC during Tet.


And it was hot. Over the space of 3 weeks, we had travelled almost 1,000 miles North to South. Nearly freezing temperatures in Sa Pa had become steaming hot in Saigon. And we had the 6th floor room in a 7 story walk up. We were happy for the small balcony which we spent quality time on in the evening.

The recent history between Vietnam and the US seemed to hover around many of our interactions and experiences. In Ho Chi Minh City, we would spend time exploring this, visiting some of Saigon’s historical buildings and heading outside the metropolitain area to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an area in Southern Vietnam where anti-American VietCong attacked Saigon, the capital in the South, from a network of small tunnels that finally ended up stretching 400km.

View of HCMC skyline

View of HCMC skyline


Common to see a whole family on a motorbike.

Common to see a whole family on a motorbike.


One of the many flower and snake displays for Tet (2013 is the year of the snake). One of the many flower and snake displays for Tet (2013 is the year of the snake).


One of the restaurants we visited had an open kitchen across the alley from the front door.

One of the restaurants we visited had an open kitchen across the alley from the front door.


At the Vietnamese Reunification Palace.

At the Vietnamese Reunification Palace.

A guide at Cu Chi tunnels showing the size of the actual ones used during the Vietnam War.

A guide at Cu Chi tunnels showing the size of the actual tunnels used during the Vietnam War. The entire Cu Chi tourist area was thick with jungle vegetation and a shooting range on site gave tourists the opportunity to fire machine guns (for ~$1.75/bullet); the noise from the firing range combined with the intense heat and jungle setting offered an additional sensory experience to the history lesson.


And the tunnels the widened for tourists to go into.

And the tunnels they widened for tourists to visit. You could walk up to 100 meters in the tunnels but there were exits every 20 meters, and we found 20 meters was enough to give us the idea.

Buddhist Shrines and Hindu Grottoes

_DSC0716We rented motorbikes to get to Marble Mountain and at peppy speeds nearing 50kph (or 30 miles an hour) flew north up a four-lane highway that connected Hoi An to Da Nang. Offerings to ancestors littered the road as part of Tet. Fake paper cash, chocolate coins, glittering confetti, and other symbols of prosperity being ‘sent’ to the afterlife crept out into our lane. Most of it looked dangerous. Some of it was burning.

A karst formed of marble and limestone, Marble Mountain is twenty miles from Hoi An and topped with caves and tunnels filled with Buddhist sanctuaries, Hindu grottoes, and a Japanese pagoda or two. We were worried it would be too kitschy given the name but we ignored the hundreds of marble shops selling carvings of anything you could imagine and were pleasantly surprised. A long climb to the top rewarded us with odd paths leading to beautiful hidden treasures that our photos do a much better time of describing then these words do …

This is the view of several of the surrounding Marble Mountains from the one that is open to the public. There are five total.

This is the view of several of the surrounding Marble Mountains from the one that is open to the public. There are five total.

First set of stairs leading up to Marble Mountain

First set of stairs leading up to Marble Mountain. Stairs in Asia are almost never even or the same size.


Large Buddha on Marble Mountain

Large Buddha on Marble Mountain. Don’t be fooled by the perspective; John’s head is not bigger than the Buddha’s.

Tiled dragon

Tiled dragon

Another view from Marble Mountain (this is also the site of 'China Beach' from the Vietnam War)

Another view from Marble Mountain (below is ‘China Beach’ well known from the late 80s TV show ‘China Beach’, also the Vietnam War)


Even larger Buddha inside of a partial cave.

Even larger Buddha inside of a partial cave. (No, behind John.)


This large cave with a hole in the top had several shrines and even a little structure built into it.

This large cave with a hole in the top had several shrines and even a little structure built into it. No Well of Souls but we had left behind our Staff of Ra.


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View of the centerpiece of the large cavern above.

Above us the centerpiece of the large cavern.