Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hoi An

March 14 – Met CJ and Scott at Sunflower Hostel, walked around the market, checked in to our rooms, napped, and headed into town for the Full Moon Lantern Festival.  I thought I was going to be in awe of all the lanterns lighting up the town, but I was a little disappointed at how crowded yet unimpressive the town seemed.  Bought a candle and set it in the river, a tradition that’s supposed to grant good luck.

Hoian is one of those towns that I like to refer to as a “black hole”.   Almost a full week was dedicated to shopping, drinking, and eating the local favorite called cao lao.




March 19 – Moved to “home stay” for the night since Sunflower was booked, slept in, biked to beach with Sam and met Jake and Tim from Nha Trang.  


The bike ride and time at the beach made Sam and I really upset that we’d been spending our time for the last week in the worst ways.  To make it worse, I was reading Thoreau and his words are so incredibly powerful.  Fittingly, he discusses that you should not feel the need for new clothes until you can say you are a new person inside.  I feel really horrible about how materialistic this town has made me feel, but for the sake of record I’ll divulge my purchases: two tailored dresses, one kimono, two leather shoes, three lanterns, two sets of chopsticks, and one hand painted scroll.  I wasn't completely pleased with the clothing purchases, but the shoes are really amazing.  If I ever go back I'll have to stop back in to say hello to Hin at the shoe shop called "Be Be" (578 Cua Dai St).

The scroll I don't feel bad about at all - paid a man on the street 150,000 dong/$7 to hand paint bamboo and the phrase "nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to" (one of my favorite lines from the meditation retreat on Koh Samui).


March 20 – Paid for and picked up all of our goods and headed out at 1pm for the overnight bus to Hanoi.  

Nha Trang

March 11 – Our first full day in Nha Trang I went for a run in the morning down along the beach, then headed to the beach with Sam, Flore, Jake, Corey and Gabe.  Later in the day all of us went to the mud bath (120,000 dong/$6) and then to Nha Hang Yen which is ranked as the best restaurant in NT.

March 12 – Woke up pretty early in time to get on the bus for our “booze cruise”, but when we all got on the boat we thought it was going to be a pretty boring day.  The boat was full of older Asian passengers who were judging pretty hard when we got on the boat with our rum and cases of beer.  Went to two different islands and swam around, but after they gave us lunch, two other boats all piled onto ours and they did a international karaoke party which was awesome.  


Flore also surprised everyone by playing the drums like a pro.  

Jumped off the top of the boat and swam to a "floating bar" to share a drink with everyone.

Got back to the hostel and got ready to go out to Why Not Bar for the night.


March 13 – The whole gang in Nha Trang, which ended up being quite a few people all decided to motorbike to the waterfall out of town.  I rode with CJ, my amazing Canadian friend that we met on the slow boat.  

Once we got there though I felt really ill and had to sit at the front while everyone else explored the area.  Grabbed a kebab for dinner and then headed for the overnight bus to Hoian.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Da Lat

March 7 – Arrived in Da Lat at 4am and thankfully Paradise Hostel let us get a few hours of rest in the dorms.   Nothing else exciting worth sharing during the day I don’t think (the problem with procrastinating for two weeks about writing down details of the trip).
March 8 – Spent day walking around Da Lat with Sam and had dinner with Mark and Ivan, two half Vietnamese half Mexican brothers that grew up in Italy and now live in Southern California.  Nice to have them with us as they were able to translate menus and teach us a few words.  Dinner at a local restaurant and then dessert at some small hole in the wall that served fried bananas covered in a sweet sauce.
March 9 – Went abseiling in Dalanta with an organized group and it ended up being one of the most challenging and rewarding days I’ve had in a very long time.  To be honest I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to do it with Sam, but I absolutely loved it.  Got harnessed up, did a few trial runs and then got into abseiling down four different ledges.  The first two were relatively easy, but when we got to the third everyone started getting a little nervous.  This was seriously a monster of a waterfall and they were asking us to gracefully climb down it.  I went towards the end of the line, so I saw some real horrors (people slipping and not able to get up), but I was determined to do it.  Had a little chit chat with the guy that was holding the safety rope and really felt comfortable taking directions from him.  I think the secret was not looking down because I think I would have actually had a heart attack looking down 25 meters through a rapid waterfall.  Took my time, didn’t slip, let go and fell about 4 meters to the water, and was thankful that I was alive to tell the tale.  

I was so proud of myself for completing that and I really would have been happy for that to be the end of the day, but they told us there was one more waterfall to abseil down that they called “The Washing Machine”.  Note to self: do not abseil down waterfalls named after kitchen appliances.  Absolutely horrified being lowered into a rapid waterfall and having them tell you you’re going to be sucked under, just hold your breath for a few seconds.  I was happy to do that one once but never again.  

Walked up a huge hill to get back to the road and saw a girl who was really badly scrapped up.  Earlier in the day we’d had the opportunity to cliff jump off from either 7 or 11 meters high.  I, as a ration human being (with no health insurance I should mention), opted out of this challenge.  Apparently, this poor girl had gone for the 11m jump but hadn’t cleared it, so she tore up the whole side of her leg and went head first into the water. 
Got dropped off back at our hostel and agreed to have dinner together with a few of the abseiling crew.  Went to the same local restaurant and dessert place and then headed back to the hostel to get ready for a night out with Ben, the owner of the hostel who’d invited us out to see “Vietnam’s best DJ”.  Went to Rain Nightclub, which was actually surprisingly swanky for such a small town, and had a great night dancing with the group from the hostel as well as a few locals.


March 10 – Went to Crazy House (which is really a horrible tourist trap) with Sam and Flore, a Dutch girl we’d met abseiling, and then headed back to catch the bus to Nha Trang.  

Got to Mojzo Inn and got put in a dorm with Flore, Sam, Gabe, Jake from England and Corey from SF.  We all went out to dinner together and then the boys and I bought some beers and sat on the beach for most of the night.  Went for a little midnight swim which was awesome as well.

Ho Chi Minh

March 3 – Arrived in Ho Chi Minh where we were greeted by Pia.  We dropped our things off at Khoi Hostel, the three of us went to lunch at Mumtaz Indian Restaurant and then a visit to the War Museum.  On our way back we saw Simon and Joshe, two German guys we had taken the slow boat with, and then Pia and I went out for the night and saw Frank, who Sam and I met on the bus up to Pai, and we spent the night drinking with him and his two friends.

March 4/5 – Walked around town and went to the post office which is actually a really nice and efficient building.  Walked home along the river and ate at a kebab restaurant around the corner.  Traffic in HCM is absolutely insane - got a shot crossing right before the rush hour crowd came by.


March 6 – Spent pretty much the whole day applying for jobs (none of which I’ve heard back from).  Hoping to find work for a few months so I can travel to South America in December before I start working full time.   Took the night bus from HCM to Da Lat.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Koh Rong/Sihanoukville

February 23 – Going out for a late night of drinking and dancing is probably never a good idea when you need to get on a minibus at 7am.  Rushingly I threw all my things into my bags and ran outside to catch our bus to Sihanoukville.  Got there around 12pm and rushed to get on the 1pm ferry to Koh Rong.  That’s about the time I realized I’d either lost the GoPro or it had been taken when I was in Phnom Penh.  Got on the very shaky ferry over to Koh Rong feeling hungover and depressed about my recent loss, looked around for a place for the night and found two double beds for $6.50 each/night.  Walked down the beach and had dinner at Coco’s (bacon wrapped chicken and cabbage), where we would eat most nights on Koh Rong.
February 24 – $1 soup for breakfast, $1 smoothie for lunch, spent a few hours lying on the beach, dinner again at Coco’s (pumpkin soup) and quiz night there.
February 25 – Moved things over to Paradise Bungalows ($35/night).  Spent a few hours on the beach, napped, ate at Coco’s again.

February 26/27 – Pretty much dead to the world.  Spent a full 48 hours without leaving my little beach bungalow.  Worst part was that I didn’t even sleep during the day, I just laid there awake, wallowing in my misery.  It’s scary how mentally out of it I was though.  When you’re staring at the wall for 10 hours but you never get bored you know something’s wrong.  Started another round of Cipro and started feeling a bit better.  Most exciting thing that happened for me those two days was walking into the bungalow and seeing a huge monkey eating the Pringles Sam had left in the room.
February 28 – Seeing as I’d lost my GoPro on the way to Koh Rong and got deathly ill while there, I was in a bit of a rush to get off the island.  Pia and I took the speed boat back to Sihanoukville ($15) and stayed at Stone Boutique Hotel with Pia for the night.  She went with me to the Vietnam Embassy to get visas for Sam and I and then we biked around town.  It was hot and exhausting and I hadn’t really eaten anything in the last 72 hours but it was so nice to get out and do something active.  Spent the night relaxing in our hotel room watching BBC news (cmon Ukraine get It together).

March 1 – Walked Pia to the bus station in the morning and then picked up our Vietnam visas ($60).  Spent most of the day watching movies and then went downtown with Sam once she got over to the hotel.

March 2 – Biked to Sokha Beach with Sam and spent a few hours there, grabbed some pizza downtown, checked out and got to bus station.  Sleeping bus to Ho Chi Minh and transfer to VIP bus.  I have no idea how to explain the concept of this sleeping bus.  It’s rows of tiny cubbies that if happen to be traveling alone, you’d be sharing comfortably with a stranger.  Probably would have preferred taking that all the way to HCM, because the VIP bus only reclines 70% and the airconditioning was spotty.


Phnom Penh

February 20 – Took a tuktuk in the morning to the bus station and waited for our minibus headed to Phnom Penh.  After a few hours, we arrived in Phnom Penh where Gabe was waiting for us at the bus station with a tuktuk to take us to our hostel called Top Banana.  Got settled in there, and then went out to dinner with Gabe’s new friends, Sammy and Coco, at a restaurant called La Croissette.  Got a chicken burger with pesto, mozzarella and sundried tomatoes which was amazing.  Went back to Top Banana and had a beer at the hostel bar and went to bed. 
February 21 – In the morning Sam, Pia and I organized a tuktuk to take us to the killing fields which are a little outside the city.  Spent a few hours walking around listening to the audio guide explaining a little about the history of the Khmer Rouge and the massacre that happened in Cambodia in the 70’s and 80’s.  It was crazy to hear that one out of every four people in the country were killed during that time.  To make it worse, bullets where rarely used since they were so expensive, so those in charge of carrying out the murders usually did so by beating the people to death with whatever tools were handy.  So after listening to that and even seeing some decaying bones peaking out of the soil, the three of us were not in the most chipper of moods.  Our tuktuk driver asked if we wanted to go to the shooting range, another popular tourist attraction in Phnom Penh, and I could not imagine how anyone would want to do that following what we had just experienced.  I would like to note though that many of the people we met there did go to shoot AK47s and one friend paid $200 to shoot a rocket launcher.
Once we got back to the hostel, I decided I wanted to walk around town a bit by myself.  I really love interacting with locals when I’m by myself.  I feel like I’m much less assuming when I’m by myself and it’s easier for people to open up to me.  Had a few laughs with some of the tuktuk drivers who at times can be extremely persistent about driving you somewhere.
Took a nap when I got back to Top Banana, then got ready for what I thought was going to be a night out with the whole gang.  Pia wasn’t feeling well, and Sam and Gabe said they were too tired, but I was so excited to go out to an African club called “Do It All” with Coco and Sammy, the Nigerian guys we’d met the night before, that I decided to go alone.  I realize this doesn't sound like the wisest decision, but in my defense, I think I’m an excellent judge of character and Coco and Sammy turned out to be so wonderful by taking me to this club and watching out for me.  I absolutely loved the music and had such a good time dancing with them.  I didn’t really want to leave but we left around 3am and they drove me back to my hostel.

February 22 – After waking up, I decided to take another walk around town and did that for a few hours.   Took a nap, showered, and the whole group headed over to Coco’s where he said he’d cook us an African dinner.  Had a nice time chatting with the four Nigerians, one being an actual prince, and then we all headed over to a club called Pontoon for the night.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Siem Reap

February 17 – In the morning Sam, Pia and Gabe went to floating village, I slept and started another round of Cipro since I’d been feeling poorly for a few days.  We moved to Siem Reap Rooms ($10/night) so we could have our own air-conditioned room in a quieter area of town and after settling in we took a tuktuk to Angkor Wat for sunset.  Gabe had recommended the sunset at Baphun which was really remarkable and not crowded at all.  After a few hours there, we got dropped off in town and walked around pub street, the main bar area in Siem Reap.  For dinner I got a fruit shake for $1 and we tuktuked home for another $1.

February 18 – Woke up at 4am, Mr. Som picked us up at 5am and drove us to Angkor Wat for sunrise.  Way too crowded, as everyone wants to be on the left side of the pond to see the reflection and the waterlilies.  I just stood on the right side most of the morning just so I could have a little space.  Sunrise was nice but nothing absolutely incredible.  Also saw Ta Prohm, Ta Keo and Bayon.  Ta Phrohm is known as the "Tomb Raider" temple and Bayon is incredible with faces carved into massive posts.  Paid Mr. Som $18 total for his 7 hours of work.  Came back and took a four hour nap.  Went into town, got dinner and went to bed early.

February 19 – Woke up again to meet Mr. Som at 5am and headed to Pre Rup for sunrise, which was much better not so much for the view but for the fact that there were only two other groups there which ended up leaving so for an hour we had the place to ourselves.  Headed 30km out of Angkor complex to visit Bantsrai (Lady Temple), which was smaller but had beautiful carvings all over it.  Had a laugh with some local children when Pia took a few photos of them with her Polaroid – such a cool idea to bring that and be able to give the children here pictures of themselves.  Got there at just the right time because as we were leaving all the tour buses started to pull up.


Went back to the hotel and took a nap until Mr. Som picked us up again at 4pm to take us to the sunset at Pre Rup.  Again, we wanted to go somewhere where you didn’t have to fight for a spot and it was lovely watching the sun go down behind these beautiful temples.  Got dropped off in town again and got a Mexican dinner at Viva Viva.  After a bucket of margaritas there, we headed over to Angkor What? Bar for a bucket of long islands.  Had such a fun night drinking and dancing it really made me wish we had a few more nights there.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Luang Prabang

February 10 – Woke up and saw Robbie and James, our English friends who’d arrived earlier the day before.  After breakfast we all piled into minivans again where we were taken to the Lao boarder.  Had a very frustrating and hilarious encounter with a group of Chinese tourists who apparently do not respect the sanctity of a line. After we got our Lao visas ($35), we all boarded buses that took us to the Mekong where we would board the slowboat.  Had an amazing first day with everyone on the boat drinking Lao Lao beer and singing along with the guitar songs some of the guys were playing.  Around dinner we arrived in Pakbeng where we got off the boat and walked around town to find a place for the night.  Ended up at a guest house where Sam, Jeremy and I split a queen bed and James and Robbie slept on mattresses on the floor.
February 11 – After a little confusion with the slowboat situation, our little crew found some space on the back of one of the boats where we all sat on the floor.  Another amazing day drinking and playing cards, I honestly was a little sad to see the day end.  Got a taxi with everyone into town and checked in to our hostel, Central Backpackers.  Went out to dinner with Sam, Jeremy, Robbie and James and then went to Utopia, the main tourist bar in Luang Prabang, for a drink.

February 12 – Went to the Kuang Si Waterfall around 2pm and had such an amazing time there with all my new friends in this incredible place.  There are so many different levels of waterfalls and pools and the water was menthol blue it really was amazing to see.  



When we got back into town we went to Lao Lao Garden for dinner, Utopia for a drink and then to the bowling alley to continue the night as everything else in Luang Prabang closes at 11:30pm.  Everything was great until we were driving home and had the taxi driver take us to get some food before heading back to the hostel.  He dropped us at a sandwich stand and everyone was getting food, and then he started getting a little pushy about getting us back, so some of us got back in the taxi and all of sudden Mike, one of the Candian guys in our group and the driver started yelling at eachother and everything escalated rather quickly when the driver pulled out a knife and was threatening to stab him.  A friend pulled Mike away and we all quickly paid and walked the rest of the way home.  We were all just glad nothing bad ended up happening.
February 13 – Sam signed up for a design class for the day, so I spent most of the morning walking around town.  Bumped into Pia, a Chilean girl in our group, and sat down for a coffee with her.  Stopped into Ock Pop Top and bought a blue silk scarf (230,000 kip/$30), took a nap and headed out with a few friends to get dinner in town.  One of the famous Luang Prabang dinners is the 10,000kip buffet, which comes out to a little over a dollar to fill up your plate with all kinds of vegetables and carbs.  10,000kip more for meat and a seat at the tables.  Went to Utopia again for a drink after dinner.
February 14 – Went for a run along the river in the morning and ended up stopping into a local travel agent who booked Sam and me plane tickets to Siem Reap on the 16th.  Ran back, had breakfast, showered and went to sleep.  The whole crew went to the waterfalls again and while it was definitely my favorite place in Luang Prabang, I just wasn’t feeling up to going and I’ve learned that its really not a good idea to push my body here.  Went out for a Valentine’s dinner with Sam and Pia at Tamarind, a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet book.  Highlights: pumpkin, coconut & ginger soup and the purple sticky rice dessert.
February 15 – Went a bit out of town in the morning to the Ock Top Pop factory to see how all the scarves are made, came back to the hostel to nap, I had the buffet dinner again mainly for the squash and other veggies that were surprisingly well cooked, and Tamarind again so Sam and Pia could have the soup.

February 16 – In the morning we did a little shopping at market where Sam and I both bought fabric that had been used in traditional Lao costumes.  Got a sandwich to go and rushed back to the hostel to catch our tuktuk to the airport with Pia.  Got into Siem Reap and after some initial taxi confusion, finally made it to our hostel for the night - Downtown Siem Reap Hostel ($8).  Met up with Gabe and took a quick walk through town to get some dinner.

Chiang Mai

February 4 – A few of the Pai gang headed out for Chiang Mai in the same minibus group.  Spent a few more dollars versus the public bus for a quicker journey with seats that actually fit our legs.  Laura, a British girl from the group, had stayed in Chiang Mai before so we followed her as we searched for a place to stay for the night.  We all had dinner at the market near Thapae Gate, went to THC Rooftop Bar and then out for the night at the downtown bar area, which was this fantastic little street corner with every bar playing different kinds of music.   Our favorite was the live band that played upbeat reggae music.


February 5 – In the morning we gathered up our things and moved to Deejai Backpackers Hostel, which itself was a really awesome place but location wise was a bit far from the city center.  Had some initial taxi drama and ended up having to pay 100baht each even though we didn’t use the taxi for the day, but at that point police were being called and we all figured we’d rather pay than deal with a bad situation.  After getting settled in, we headed over to the pool down the street and spent most of the day lounging there.  Got some street food for dinner and headed to a muay thai fight (400baht/$12).  They started with young boys fighting and worked there way up to the top age group, where the winner won a few hundred dollars.  Headed down to the bar area after the fight was over and spent the night out there again.

February 6 – Woke up late, walked over to the local park and spent a few hours lying under the trees with a few friends.  Decided to go see a movie, and on our walk over we saw Wat Sri Suphan, this beautiful temple with incredible silver work all over it.  Saw Wolf of Wallstreet which I enjoyed more just because it was such a familiar activity more than the movie itself.  Early night in to rest for the long next day.
February 7 – Woke up and tuktuked over to the tiger kingdom where waited for a few hours to get our fifteen minutes with the baby tigers.  It was really cool to interact with them but tigers sleep during the day so in general they weren’t all that active.  For the money and time spent I don’t think its an activity I would do again.  Stopped at the snake farm for a few pictures with a large python and then drove up to Wat Doi Suthep where we explored the area a bit. 


On our way back into town we were greeted with beautiful lights and music which symbolized the beginning of the flower festival in Chiang Mai which just happened to be February 7-9.  Got dropped off in the city center and walked around all the food and craft stalls.  I bought a beeswax batik indigo scarf (500baht/$15).
February 8 – Slept late and spent most of the day walking around town with Sam.  Stumbled upon this store full of beautiful woven scarves and spent about an hour there admiring everything and talking with the employee there who told us about all the fabrics, patterns and villages that make the scarves.  Bought two scarves, one yellow and one red for 2800baht ($85) – which I struggled painfully with as this was my most expensive purchase of the trip so far, but I really do love them and the prices are incredible compared to what you would pay for a silk scarf in the US.
Spent our last night in Chiang Mai walking around the flower festival and headed to THC Rooftop Bar again for a quick drink.

February 9 – Woke up early and got picked up by the tour company we’d booked through the hostel for a day with the elephants.  We really wanted to go to Elephant Nature Park, but they were all booked, so we went with “Patthana Elephant Park”, which we later learned is really a pseudo name for the Panda Tour Company.  I knew I didn’t want to ride the elephants so I was already skeptical about the whole day, and then when they started training us it just didn’t seem like they were treating the elephants well.  When Sam and I finally did get on our elephant and started walking around the park loop, I really did not feel comfortable on it.  To make matters worst, we had the worst “mahout” there, and our elephant clearly was scared of him, so when he started yelling at it to keep going the elephant was definitely upset, and that’s not a great thing to pick up on when you’re on top of it.  So Sam and I asked to get off and ended the day early.  Really unfortunate that our experience ended like that but lesson learned I guess.

Got back to Deejai, walked to a local market for some dinner, and got picked up around 7pm for the start of our journey to Lao.  Ended up sitting in the front of a minibus with an Australia named Jeremy that would become one of our good friends on the trip.  Six hours later and we pulled into some remote hotel where they put us in rooms for the night.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pai

January 29 - Got into Chiang Mai two hours after scheduled arrival time, and after getting passed the initial ambush of people trying to sell us bus tickets for 300baht and taxi for 200baht, we found a tuktuk driver to take us to the bus station for 40baht each and booked a public bus up to Pai for 80baht each.  You really do get what you pay for – the bus was slow and extremely cramped.  I had my knees out in the isle because they didn’t even fit in the seat.  A fun ride full of 20 somethings all talking about their traveling experiences and plans.  Got to Pai and walked to our hostel, Darling Viewpoint, and quickly realized we did not want to stay there long.  The “dorm” was really just 12 matresses thrown on a floor together, so we changed our four night stay there to only two and decided to find a new place for the rest of our time in Pai.  Spent the night walking around the streets shopping and eating street food (as we’d do every night in Pai).

January 30 – Our first full day in Pai we met up with Gabe, Emilie’s friend from Michigan who we met on Koh Phangan.  He stayed at Spicy Pai, a hostel we would have stayed at had there been any beds available.  A group of people from that hostel were going around for the day on motorbikes so we tagged along, Sam with Gabe and I rode with James from England.
First we went to the Chinese Village, which to be honest was this really tacky tourist attraction that was extremely inauthentic, with a human ferris wheel and a concrete castle.  We drove up the hill a bit for some tea and a nice view.  Then we went to Mor Paeng Waterfall, which was really cool because some guy was playing the didgeridoo, another older man was juggling and people were jumping and sliding into the waterfall.  That pretty much sums up Pai.


Then we headed to Land Split where the man working there gives you free juice, taro roots and banana chips and you pay whatever you want as a donation when you leave.  They also had the biggest chicken I have ever seen, which also happened to be blind so it was pretty easy to pickup and get a picture with.

We all headed back to Spicy Pai, and I switched from riding with James to riding with Leo from Sweden.  Leo had a Honda Phantom and I was really excited to ride on it and we headed out to the Canyon to watch the sunset.  Leo and I got there about ten minutes before everyone else because he was driving so incredibly fast, and then I got off the bike on the right side – big mistake – and burnt the side of my calf on the exhaust pipe.  I guess they call it the Thailand Tattoo because it happens to so many people here.
Watched the sunset at the canyon, which is the amazing landscape of trails with extremely steep drops on either side of the path.  The group climbed up through the trails but I stayed behind because I was barefoot and my leg was really starting to hurt.  Did our typical Pai routine of shopping/eating and headed to bed.

January 31 – In the morning Gabe came to pick Sam up to go to the hotsprings while I stayed behind because I didn’t want to go in with my burn.  Went for a run instead, which in retrospect was a very poor idea because my wound got really dirty.  Came back, showered and headed to the pharmacy where I picked up some antibiotic cream for burns and some proper bandages.  Packed up all our stuff and Sam and I headed down the road a bit to Family Huts, where we got our own bungalow with a bathroom for 400baht ($12) a night.  We’d been paying 150baht each at Darling so we didn’t mind the extra 50baht for more comfort.  The location was also much closer to the main road where we spent most of our time.

Walked and shopped with Sam during the day.  Got ready for the Reggae on the River which was this concert a good walk out of town.  Had a lot of fun sitting in a little teepee talking with one of the bands that was playing that night.  After a great night of dancing and hanging out with new people, Leo said he would take us back to our place.  I think Leo and I were both a little disoriented in the dark and without seeing our typical landmarks, but I saw a ridge I thought I recognized as the one close to where we live, so he dropped us off there and we started walking.  Turns out we were 10 km out of Pai, so I flagged down a passing motorbike with two young guys on it and without speaking very much English, we somehow communicated that we needed to head back into town.  Thankfully, they agreed to take us into town and the four of us rode about 15 minutes until we saw something we actually recognized.  Made it back to our little bungalow and promptly fell asleep.  Pretty stressful/terrifying experience in the moment but the next day Sam and I had a nice laugh at the shenanigans we got ourselves into.

 February 1 – Woke up late and got breakfast with Sam along the main street.   Spent the day lounging at Fluid, the town swimming pool.  That's about the extent of our activity for that day.
February 2 – Got up early with Sam and walked over to Aya, the local motorbike rental shop, and picked up a Honda Icon.  I think it was around 120baht/day ($4/day), but I opted for the additional damage and theft insurances which brought the total to 200baht/day.  They gave me a two minute tutorial and sent me off on my way.
We headed to Spicy to meet up with the group and headed off to a set of hotsprings where the road was described as “treacherous”.  Already apprehensive about driving a difficult route my first day out, as we were pulling out of the gas station Gabe pulled out of the gas station too quickly and bailed when he saw a car coming straight at him.  So then the three of us were then racing to catch up with the rest of the group going about 80km down the freeway and then realized we got lost.  Somehow we all found each other and paid our 40baht to get in.
Drove for a few minutes with no problems until the paved road ended and the dirt road began.  I trailed the group down an incredibly steep, dusty road full of holes and I admittedly almost ate it at the beginning as the brake (left hand) and gas (right hand) are easily to confuse your first day.  Made it down and watched everyone enjoy the natural hotsprings while I minded my wound and had a lovely time sitting under the trees reading Thoreau.


Lunch across the street from the hotsprings and headed back to Spicy.  Checked out Coffee in Love, spent some time at Mor Paeng Waterfall, and enjoyed a rest at the Strawberry Farm.  On our drive home we stopped when we saw an elephant on the side of the road.  Fed him a few bananas and got our photos in.


February 3 – For our last day in Pai we spent most of the day walking around and soaking up all that is Pai.  Really no pictures do it justice – something about the vibe there is just amazing though.  I bought a dress (500baht/$15) from this lovely woman who we’d visited a few other times, as well as a brass and rose quartz bracelet (300baht/$9) from a street vendor.

Sam and I made it our mission to make it to the big Buddha for sunset, and on our way got a little lost and ended up driving up and down this incredible difficult road.  Somehow we both made it out okay and sprinted our way up to the top of this hill just in time to see the sun set.  Met Gabe for at a bar called Why Not? Because…why not?  Headed over to Ting Tong for our last drink in Pai and headed to bed.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Koh Samui

Sam and I took a ferry the morning of the 20th to hop over to the next island over, Koh Samui, to begin our week long silent meditation retreat.  Took a taxi to The Icon, and then got picked up by the retreat staff and taken to a secluded oasis in the island hills.  Had a few initial conversations with other retreaters and was a little sad to think I wouldn’t be able to talk with them more the next week.  Took a tour of the property with the group and checked out our accommodations, which was a long room with many wooden boards, straw mats and a wooden pillow for each person.  Yeah…a wooden pillow.  That evening we started the silence and began to fall into our daily routine.
4:30am – Wake Up
5:00am – Morning Reading
5:15am – Sitting Meditation
5:45am – Yoga
7:00am – Sitting Mediation
7:30am – Breakfast
9:30am – Dhamma Talk
10:30am – Walking/Standing Meditation
11:00am – Sitting Meditation
11:30am – Lunch
2:00pm – Meditation Instruction and Sitting Meditation
3:00pm – Walking/Standing Meditation
3:30pm – Sitting Meditation
4:00pm – Walking/Standing Meditation
4:30pm – Chanting & Loving Kindness Meditation
5:30pm – Tea
7:30pm – Sitting Meditation
8:00pm – Group Walking Meditation
8:30pm – Sitting Meditation
9:00pm – Bedtime
9:30pm – Lights Out

The whole week blends together now, but overall I thought it was a really great experience.  The whole purpose of the week was to teach us about the belief in Buddhism to live completely in the present.  “Nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to.”  In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to be completely unattached from things, people, your body/emotions, etc. 
The first few days I was really engaged and the days went by quickly, and on day three the meditation and the talk from the retreat volunteer Pierre, really broke me down in the best kind of way.  He talked about forgiveness, of yourself and of others, and it was so powerful and related so well to my life.  I left the retreat with the reminder that forgiveness, along with gratitude, are two of the most important capabilities in one’s life.
Around day four I started to lose focus and spent the majority of my days daydreaming, which is exactly what you’re advised against because the goal is to always live in the present.  Each day was a struggle both physically and mentally, and through it my mood shifted frequently between extreme confusion and intense clarity.  The fact that we weren’t allowed to talk didn’t ease any concerns.
On the last full day of the retreat, they drove us to a beautiful beach where we all sat together and meditated.  They then told us we had an hour to roam around the beach, and at this point everyone decided the silence was broken.  We all stood by the water’s edge and a few even felt compelled to jump in with their clothes on.  Once back on the retreat grounds, we ended the night with the opportunity to share how we got to the retreat and what we learned from it.  Despite my discomfort with public speaking, I got up and shared my story.  After each person shared it seemed as it gave the next person courage to share their deeper stories.  One person shared his struggle with depression and suicide, another told us he’d recently found out he was HIV positive – it was a good reminder that everyone has their struggles in life and to try to be empathetic as you never know what others are going through.  
The morning of the 27th I woke up as usual, headed to the meditation hall, and this time took a seat at the head of hall to read the last mornings reading.  It was called “Chief Seattle’s Message” and it was a speech he’d given to his tribe in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century.
Our last breakfast I spent chatting with Pierre as I was so interested in his life and how he’d arrived at this meditation center to guide us all.  Turns out he was an economist in Canada with three failed marriages behind him, and a few years ago he’d left that life and moved to Thailand to practice Buddhism.  He encouraged me to keep meditation and mindfulness in my life.  I think the biggest thing I realized during this week was that my whole life I’ve been floating, just getting by being genetically blessed with some general intelligence and athleticism.  I’ve never really applied myself to anything or followed through with things I attend to accomplish.  This week, even though at times I wanted to leave, I stuck with it and that alone felt really rewarding.  I hope that when I go home, if nothing else, I live every day with a little more intention and determination than I had in the past.
Headed off into town and walked around until we found a place to stay.  Sam and I split a little beach bungalow at New Huts on Lamai Beach for $15.  Spent the day lying on the beach and fell asleep to the sound of the waves that were 30 feet outside our front door.

Koh Phangan

Illness combined with miraculous recovery combined with extreme partying has delayed my documentation of the trip, so now this whole week is a big blur of activities.  Our first day here Sam, Emilie and I went to Ao Haad Yao, a beach of the west side of the island.  We met up with some of her friends from Michigan that night at Amsterdam Bar to watch the sunset, and then headed over to their hostel, Ringside, where we got ready for the Jungle Party.  Taxis dropped us off literally in the middle of the jungle where they had set up drink stands and a stage for a DJ.  Had a nice time dancing and getting to know the Michigan group.

The 15th was the day of the Full Moon Party, so we went around town to get neon t-shirts for the night.  Again went to Ringside, and then took a taxi over to Haad Rin, which is a beach on the east side of the island.  As we walked onto the beach, we were overcome with the music and lights on display at each different section of the beach.  There were people playing with fire (Sam even jumped over a jump rope that was on fire) and people hanging out on the beach, but most everyone was just dancing and having a great time.  Initially I was very concerned with how crazy the night would be, but overall I thought it was well put together and maintained, and only a few people had looked like they’d overdone it with the alcohol buckets.  Talked to a lot of interesting people that night and watched the sunrise from the beach.  

Understandably, we spent pretty much the whole day of the 16th in bed sleeping.
Took Emilie to the pier at 6am on the 17th and it was really hard to see her go.  She’s at the end of her traveling journey and we’ve just  begun ours.  Met up with the guys from Michigan later in the day and headed over to Koh Phangan National Park on the east side of the island.  A small beach with much courser sand, but there was a whole neighborhood built into the side of a cliff and it was a really cool place to spend an afternoon.  Had dinner at the local market across the street from Miriam’s (spring rolls for 10baht, pad thai for 60baht and fruit shakes for 30baht).

On the 18th the boys picked us up on their motorbikes and we went to Wipeout for a few hours to watch them attempt a water obstacle course.  We headed back to the beach they were staying at and spent the rest of the afternoon there.
On the 19th Sam and I headed out to the streets to find a place to stay as the room at Miriam’s was booked for the night.  Literally walked down the street and paid 250baht to stay a dorm style room.  We also bought our boat ticket to Koh Samui (200baht).