monks in mandalay u bein bridge

A Little Nostalgia… A Reason to Love Southeast Asia

In recent posts, I’ve talked about how I’m a bit lost right now in terms of knowing precisely the direction life is taking. Each time I sit to write, that single truth stands out above the rest. I’m in a transition, and those feelings and thoughts manifest in my writing; when I try to ignore them, I feel uninspired.

Instead, I’ve embraced this nostalgia, shining a light on my travels these past years through the only perspective I have: my own. I find myself mulling over what precisely Southeast Asia holds that motivated me to circle back to that region many times over, both literally and figuratively in the past four years.

Roti

Celebrations are underway as a passing tuk-tuk is pummeled with water! Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Buddha with strings at a wat on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, Thailand

When I’m in North America, I catch myself in an everyday circumstance—a coffee at Starbucks or dinner with friends—with my thoughts flying tens of thousands of miles across the world on a brief mental trip to Asia. I flit away on side-trips for several seconds before jolting to the present. And with the nature of my ongoing travels, those thoughts eventually propel me back to Asia; I have spent weeks of my life in transit waiting for the giddy relief of stepping out of the airport and breathing in the scent of warm, sticky air tinted with deep-fried food, car exhaust, and possibilities.

I visited Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on my first year traveling around the world, and I was captivated to the cadence of life. But friends, plans, and a trip itinerary that first year pushed me into motion and I left Southeast Asia for India after just two months backpacking the region.

In subsequent years, I lived Chiang Mai for a time, and I fell in love with the city so much that when I decided to travel with my niece in 2011, my thoughts immediately circled around the community and welcome I feel when I land in Southeast Asia.

Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Golden flourishes at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Each time I returned, the culture gave me something I needed, something I craved in my soul, if that makes any sense. There’s a simplicity to traveling in Southeast Asia—it’s easy in terms of a tourism infrastructure, communication, and other traveling friends. Over the years, the region fostered an environment that allowed me to sink into the experience as I couldn’t do in some other countries and cultures. And as I spent more time in Southeast Asia—visiting Myanmar, Malaysia, and Bali, too—I found increasingly more things to love its understated charm.

Warm smiles.

Open conversation.

A helping hand and shared snacks on endless bus rides.

All these things are mere pieces of a whole that is hard to describe, and no single aspect pulled me back to Asia.

A wai from a monk statue in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Details at a temple during one of my many wanders through the Wats in Chiang Mai.

My stories about Southeast Asia are some of the most popular on my site, and I have so much I still haven’t shared over the years: tidbits of my observations, anecdotes of funny/touching/meaningful moments, and even pervasive cultural norms that I deeply love.

And so, to the extent that I have never really talked about the region in the broad sense—the dominant Buddhist religion, the modern and ancient temples, and how food integrates into life in a way foreign to my culture back home—I began to think about the bigger picture that drives me back to Southeast Asia countless times.

Religion is one of those taboo topics for me on this site, and in my personal life if I am honest. The topic is too polarizing to discuss outside of trusted friends, so instead of pinpointing specifics, I’ll note that a motivation when I left to travel back in 2008 was to come to terms with my brother’s death, and the quandary of faith I had in the years since that happened.  I went through a tough time figuring out where I sat in my soul with religion after he died, and my personality quirks necessitated that I find more possible answers to the big questions in life. How to other cultures handle death and the afterlife?

monks at Maha Gandayon Monastery in Mandalay
Monks line up for lunch at a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Definite answers will never come, but I found new knowledge and belief systems that shifted my perspectives. Although the entire journey changed me, it’s my time in Southeast Asia—meditating and learning more about Buddhism—that opened my mind, allowing me to find peace within myself, and within the world’s disparate religions. There is a peacefulness inside holy places of every faith that I’ve come to love.

The churches of Europe.

The temples of Asia.

The mosques of the Middle East.

These places contain the energy of every person who has ever visited.

The energy in Asia healed me a place in me I didn’t think it was possible to repair.

We often have blinders on to the commonplace, to our familiar surroundings. It’s not that I couldn’t have found my way to peace back home, but more that I didn’t even know where to begin looking.

In Asia, although locals may be accustomed to temples, this wasn’t the case for me. I loved sunrise walks through the cities and towns as the initial rays of light glinted from the gilded tips of temples, washing over flame-tongued dragons flanking the entrances, and illuminating monks tidying temple grounds.

Decorative entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dragon details guarding the entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wat Phra Singh in at night Chiang Mai, Thailand
My favorite temple in Chiang Mai, a small one that I would pass each night on my way home.

The temples, called wats, in Chiang Mai are beautiful, and the old city has temples on every corner. In fact, temples were so pervasive that I taught Ana the layout of the city by the location of nearby wats—they are among the easiest ways to orient yourself in the city, to look at the map and find the closest wat!

And on the topic of Ana, I believe Southeast Asia was a beautiful first introduction to the world for her. I chose our destination with forethought because I knew this was my chance to open her mind at an influential time in her life.

While I surely could have done this in South America or Europe, Asia provided stark contrasts in nearly every way.

I wanted to jolt my niece out of complacency and force her to think about the givens in life that, at 11-years-old, she thought were universal to all people and cultures. The religious differences, and how that manifests in every aspect of life, was a very tangible experience for Ana—and for me in the early days of traveling too. But other aspects leap out as influential as well.

food temple thailand
Street food vendors at a local festival dish out piping hot, fresh eats.

Before we traveled, Ana took a page out of my book on the food front—we have to eat each day and that’s about as far as the conversation goes. The food culture of a place didn’t much matter to me when I first left to travel either, but it was the river of flavors (to use a phrase from my friend Naomi Duguid) that opened my eyes to the subtle joys of trying and experiencing new foods. I will never be the most adventurous eater because I’m vegetarian, but in Southeast Asia, for the first time in my life I found myself excited at the adventure of wandering fresh markets, peering over open flames, and following scents to unexpected new flavors and dishes each day.

chapati stand mandalay

Food connects us if we allow it to, and meals are often a shared experience in Asia in a way that is completely foreign to us in North America. You sit, knees at your chin and crouched on small plastic chairs, with steaming, fresh plates of food. The hustle of motorbikes, families, and children all pulse nearby, and no person is off-limits for a conversation.

In this part of the world, more of life takes place on the streets than back home. I love this connection to others merely by spending time outside as a part of your daily eating experience. I wanted Ana to see for herself that things we take as truths—you maintain a bubble around you when in public in the U.S. and you do your best never to bump into the bubble those nearby—are not universal truths.

As I have noted, it’s hard to pin down exact reasons I love Asia, they shift and morph each time I revisit the country.

A year and half ago, I knew I needed more time in the region, I needed to take Ana and show her what I loved, to share the things I had learned and learn more alongside her. I was drawn back to Southeast Asia over the years, and I learned and grew as a person. Much of the perspective shifts I talked about in my recent post, How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me, occurred from my time in Asia. Traveling there healed a place in my soul.

And yet, now it’s time to move on.

It occurred to me recently when talking to a travel friend that I am done, for now. I don’t know why I’m done, but the draw is gone. I have pangs of nostalgia for the insane honking of tuk-tuks while smells of nearby street-food pervade the air, but not so much so that I want to return, not at this juncture in my life.

Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset.
Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset near Mandalay, Myanmar.

For now, I head to Mexico, as I mentioned last month, and I hope for a new set of adventures in 2013 that continue the travel journey. I leave for Mexico in a few weeks, but yet I’m still processing thousands of photographs from my travels over the past two years. My memories of the temples, and the sounds and sights of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that I will miss in the coming year inspired me to write today’s post, but I am eager to find new experiences and new opportunities for growth.  :)

Is there a place on your travels that you return to often, or where that calls to you in some way?

A Little Volunteering…Continued Mentoring Years Later

Posing with our V-Day BootyTwo weeks ago I was playing around on Facebook as a way to procrastinate the real work I should have been doing when a chat window popped up – from a sweet young woman I met at the orphanage in Cambodia where I volunteered more than a year and a half ago.

Many of the older girls at the orphanage asked for my email and Facebook details at the time and we have very sporadically kept in touch, talking every month or so, mostly just quick hellos and messages from them imploring me to come back for a visit.

But the tone of this chat was different right off the bat. She seemed sad. And that’s saying a whole lot because the girls from the FLOW orphanage are eternally sunshiney and happy during our conversations, upbeat and enthusiastic about their studies and their life goals.

She had left the orphanage about a year ago to start her second year of college and take on a full time job. That meant this was her first year out of the control and protection of the orphanage environment and she was confused and overwhelmed, having a hard time balancing the need to make money and feed herself and her fierce desire for an education.

I listened to her, offered advice and encouragement – gave all of the support I could from the other side of the world to a woman who has experienced a life so far removed and different from my own.

Lucky with His PuppyThen days later an email arrived from Varanasi, India. Lucky was one of the most promising students I taught at the monastery in Nepal and I helped him prep for his University entrance exam while I was there. He got into the University and writes me regularly of his life, studies, and thoughts.

As I’m reading his email a different FLOW student chat messages me – she doesn’t understand the meaning of non-verbal communication, can I please explain. Twenty minutes later we’re still brainstorming fun situations that use non-verbal behavior.

Then another email. A different student needing advice.

The calls for mentoring rained down on me this past week.

Sometimes I feel so inept and useless. They are struggling with situations and rising up from situations I can’t even fathom. If I could afford to sponsor each and every one of them through college I would. But maybe that wouldn’t even be helpful.

So instead I give these kids the only thing I can, support and love. They’ve overcome so much; they dream of being doctors and lawyers, international translators, businessmen and politicians.

And I listen to their dreams and encourage. I am so thankful I chose to share a few weeks of my life and time with these students when I volunteered last year. They inspire me on a daily basis to look at life with a little bit more gratitude and thankfulness. Their passion and perseverance to achieve their goals is a monthly reminder to take stock of those things I take for granted and work a little harder to make a difference in my life and the world.

A Little Treat…Six Sweet Eats from Around the World

Everyone has those signature dishes they’ve tried in a new country – whether it’s a local delicacy or just bizarre street eat. But what about those fun snacks and new flavors on old favorites?

Delicious Snacks and Treats from Around the World

Some of these are sweets, some salty. But all are portable and can make a great treat on a long bus ride…interestingly, most of my favorites from my travels are centered in Asia!

NEPAL: Lapsi

Lapsi Candy from Nepal

Topping the list is this sweet jellied candy. I don’t even like chewy candies but this one has a mild flavor and it’s deceptively easy to just plough through a package in one sitting. The traditional/plain flavor is my favorite but it was fun to shake things up with the spicy lapsi every few days too!

INDIA: Fennel Seeds

Candy coated Fennel Seeds India

A small bowl of fennel seeds is served at the end of the meal in regions of India as a palate cleanser. These seeds are a mixed medley of plain fennel, sugar coated fennel and small bits of crystallized sugar – once you’re used to ending each meal like this it’s hard to leave the table without craving the strong licorice flavor! I even shipped some home to my dad since he’s a licorice fanatic.

BOSNIA: Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight!

The huge Turkish population in Bosnia means that this sweet treat is authentic (I haven’t yet made it to Turkey!) and different from what you can find in the US and the West. This soft jelly candy greatly differs: rose water with pistachios, sweet lemon, and sticky dates with a softly chewy walnut. Like an ice-cream shop in the states you pick out your selection of Turkish Delight from a selection upwards of 15 flavors in some cases! Though not my favorite candy, fun to when eat in the region.

CAMBODIA: Sesame Seed Squares

Sesame Seed Candies

The healthiest of the lot this treat packs in protein from the sesame seeds and is incredibly simple – a lacing of honey or sugar syrup binds the sesame seeds together. It’s a great way to tide over dropping blood sugar until you can find some food and is my go-to for a quick bus ride snack! They sell these treats all over South East Asia, India and Nepal had some less than inspired sesame seed sticks.

NEPAL: Dried Figs

Figs!

We are talking serious addiction and the best dried/pressed figs, hands down, I have ever had. Walk into any of the stores in Thamel, Kathmandu and they sell little baggies of these deliciously fresh dried figs.

ASIA: Mango Flavored Everything!

Mango flavored Corn FlakesUS and European based companies target the flavors of their products to the region – and outside of the US mango is really a whole lot more well-loved.

The most fun find was mango flavored Corn Flakes in Nepal- bought as an addition a movie night with new friends they were a huge hit…and so addicting the box was consumed in a few hours by just three of us!

Other mango treats found in the region include yogurt (if your in a lactose-accepting region of Asia) sodas, chips, cookies… just about anything that could take a mango flavor is on offer. Also a wealth of freshly dried ones as well!

What are your favorite quick snacks and treats from around the world?

Cambodian Dancer Children

A Little Travel Memory … Cambodian Child Dancers, aka Can Your Fingers Do That?

One day I sat chatting with the children at the orphanage I volunteered at last year in Cambodian I stuttered into a shocked silence as they casually stretched their fingers backwards—their fingers dipping so far back over the top of their hands with pressure that the tips could actually touch their arms. I had been at the orphanage for several days by that point, but as I acclimated to the surroundings and developed a pace and routine I hadn’t (apparently) paid attention to the casual stretches that made up a strong part of nearly every child’s life if they were one of the ones studying traditional Khmer dancing.

Cambodian Dancer Children
Just as I used to practice my Irish dance steps under the chairs during lectures in class, these kids took any opportunity to stretch their fingers and further a process that takes years—the methodical warping of their hands that will enable them to skillfully execute the intricate hand movements inherent to Khmer Aspara dancing, Cambodia’s primary cultural dance. This dancing is on display as tourist-centric shows at the pubs in Siem Reap, but beyond that it’s also a very prominent part of Cambodia’s heritage, one that is gorgeous to watch and actually quite unique from some of the related dance styles in Thailand.

I didn’t catch a photo of the kids actually in action…or any of the professionals, but this photo blog has an amazing post highlighting just what these dancers can achieve with their hands.

So I dare you, try it out and see how far you can get your fingers to bend on their own and then using your other hand!?!

How’d ya do?

A Little Quandary…When do you Donate?

The oldest girl in the group of children, she couldn’t have been more than 13, leveled a sly look my way before stating:

“Lady, you buy our bracelets or who knows what will happen to your bicycles…”

At that point, I think my jaw dropped.

The Backstory

Laura and I rented bikes for a day of exploring the Angkor temples closet to Siem Reap – and after a pretty harried bike ride down a dusty and trafficky road we were grateful to chain up our bikes to a nearby tree with some pretty pathetically thin chains.

Welcome to Angkor Wat
Locals and tourists alike bike around the Angkor Wat temples

As we bent over our bikes several of the children selling information books and bracelets surrounded us and proffered their goods. We good-naturedly tried to joke around with the kids and steer the conversation elsewhere from the buying of yet more bracelets…it didn’t work.

At that point we very firmly (but still smiling) declined buying any of the bracelets, books, necklaces, and handmade knickknacks. We had just finished chaining up the bikes and were ready to head into Angkor Wat when the oldest of the girls sized up the situation and looked me straight in the eye when she hit with that line:

“Lady, you buy our bracelets or who knows what will happen to your bicycles…”

Then, at my shocked and incredulous look she quickly back-stepped a bit:

“Oh no lady, we won’t do anything to your bikes…but if you buy bracelets then we will watch them for you…otherwise who knows what will happen to them…”

Protection from the mad dust and pollution!
Protection from the mad dust and pollution as we tuk-tuked it every other day we visited the temples

The Internal Debate

Laura and I were both pretty taken aback by the situation but quickly recalculated and with a brief glance agreed that one of us would buy the $2 worth of bracelets now and the other one would pick out something when we came back for our bikes.

All of the kids were grinning widely at our sudden about-face and eagerly proffered their colorful basketfuls of bracelets so that we could adorn our arms with several of the light brown bamboo woven circles.

What’s the Solution?

So here’s the conundrum…what would you have done in this same situation? As a traveler I hear all of these opinions:

  • Don’t give to beggars, give to local support organizations…
  • Don’t buy from street children because they should be in school and you only encourage them to sell goods to tourists…
  • Donating to kids on the streets contributes to their exploitation and abuse in countries like India, so don’t give your spare change…

And all of this is well in good in theory. But what about in practice? I caved in this situation and bought goods from the kids – in fact, I bought boatloads of bracelets from the little ones all throughout my time in Southeast Asia…it’s really hard to say no – and in a few cases I bought the bracelets from my niece, but other times purely out of guilt.

Sunset at Angkor Wat
Sunset from one of the moderately crowded temples we could bike to in the evening

It’s just, I don’t know where the middle-ground is…I do have the money to donate to the occasional beggar, and certainly to give a bit of money here and there to the kids. In some cases, I would whip out a spare banana from my purse to those kids begging for food…and about 60 percent of the time they accepted it gratefully; then there’s the 40 percent who just wanted the cash and walked away from the food – it’s those situations that make it all so discouraging and confusing at times.

As far as the kids who basically brokered a soft-core bribe at Angkor Wat for the bikes…yeah, I paid them, which likely means they’ll do it to other tourists too. And while I don’t regret the decision per se, I’m still pretty conflicted about how to deal with these situations on my travels.

Any thoughts?

A Little Discovery… 20 Neat Things I Learned By Traveling in Developing Countries

I landed in Italy after six months in developing countries, and it was a shock to the senses in some regards. I remember having culture shock when I landed in Bangkok all those months ago. I didn’t expect the reverse culture shock of landing back in the Western world. Having my bestie Jenn fly over for this leg of the trip gave me new perspectives about my months spent traveling in developing countries. For me, after five months of backpacking, I  had lost track of the delineation between my experiences and my life back home in the states.

Jenn, however, had no such confusion. She arrived with shiny-clean clothes and a backpack that smelled distinctly better than mine — what is that funk?! Jenn knew two things about herself when deciding to join a leg of the RTW trip: she definitely wanted to meet up somewhere, and she had no wish to travel in developing regions. Props to her for knowing herself well enough to not embark on something she couldn’t handle. My experiences in South and Southeast Asia are among my favorite, but there are many easier places to travel, and these places have equally beautiful sites and cultures.

Arriving in Milan, my cousin and I slogged off of the plane — we were sweaty, dirty, and I had a small sugar-ant infestation in my backpack. (Perhaps I should have left the half-eaten Snickers behind in Delhi?) Jenn took one look at me and started a list of all the crazy differences in my perspective and earlier travels compared to what we were about to face in Italy.

The streets of Yangon, Myanmar
The streets of Yangon, Myanmar

Now, this list is not to be seen as a discouragement from travel in less developed countries — I had wonderful experience and it shifted my perspective in profound ways. Although I love Europe, I know that it was only by adding Asia to my travels that I could build a deep and nuanced consideration of our global community. I count many of my experiences as the most transformative on my journey.

And also to note, I understand that some of these point to deep fundamental issues facing developing countries, such as lack of government stability, poor transportation infrastructure, systemic education issues, and more. Consider reading up on why the developing world is developing before you travel there. It helps keep everything in perspective if you better understand root causes.

This is more of a brief look at some of the more endearing, hellacious, charming, and weird things I’ve contended throughout my months traveling in developing countries. Jenn and I compiled this list throughout the three weeks we traveled together. We made a note every time Jenn exclaimed, “Are you serious! That happens?!”

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

1. Shots.
Lots and lots of shots are needed. They poked me relentlessly for weeks to administer them all in time. And shots don’t guarantee that you won’t get sick. You will get sick. The shots simply offer up that you probably won’t die from your sickness. There are only a few shots you need when traveling in other developed countries, but far more when you venture off the path a bit.

2. Drinking the local water results in illness.
It just does. Sadly, I did it anyway once or twice and I came to Italy sporting a rockin’ case of giardia. Plus, I almost died in Laos of dysentery. This is a very real consideration. Of note though, unlike the Western world, the medicine to fix my illness was just 80 cents in Nepal. What are we even doing with our healthcare system in the U.S.?

3. Squatting over a ceramic floor toilet is a luxury.
In the U.S., we basically have just one style of toilet, and even going to Europe is a shock when you see a squat toilet. Boy aren’t those the good days though. These squat toilets are actually better for you though. Of note though, ceramic squats are the good ones — sometimes they’re just a hole!

4. Life is lived outside.
The air takes on a different quality. In India especially, it’s a smell I will never forget. It’s a country scented with a beautifully fragrant mingling of urine, cow dung, exhaust, incense, and humanity. Sounds potentially gross, but makes me a bit nostalgic for that wacky place.

5. It’s a crowded place out there.
Space is a Western luxury, by and large. In the cities of South Asia, people swarm you, watch you, talk to you, and possibly pet you. In India, the women would stroke my hair and hand me babies, pretty much just because I am light-skinned.  Life is lived in close quarters so you will get up close and personal with each new country. But perhaps the best thing, eventually you become wholly accustomed to it and unfazed.

6. Pick your battles.
Every culture is different, and that’s not just in developing countries. Landing in Japan is like a slap in the face with different cultural practices. In developing countries though, that’s where to often find the starkest differences. You can’t freak out over it all. Some seemingly unpleasant things will be a fact of life. Pull on your humanity and remember to keep perspective when it seems like shit is hitting the fan.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu
Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

7. Chaos. Everywhere.
Sometimes it’s organized chaos. Often times it’s not. And while there are some notable exceptions to that, for a first-timer in a place like India, it feels like life is running at a frenetic pace.

8. Amenities, toiletries, and creature comforts are very basic.
Chalk this up to quirks. Somehow I found a jar of Skippy peanut butter in Dharamsala, but I spent three months searching for Q-tips. What you take as a baseline normal part of life might not be normal at all where you’re visiting. Usually they have a local work-around, though, so ask a bit about how to solve your dilemma if you can’t find something on the road.

9. They have public transport figured out.
So much of the world outside of the U.S. has taken public transportation as a key concern. Trains run through India, buses dart across Southeast Asia. And while transport can sometimes be amazingly on time, it also might never show up. Learn to go with the flow and don’t pick this as a battle because you won’t win. Just embrace the experience and go with the flow.

10. Nothing will faze you, which is really not such a bad way to live.
I found that a result of traveling in Nepal was a total desensitization to boisterous political demonstrations that might lead to mayhem. It’s not that I wanted it to happen, but that frenetic fear was gone. When you’re on the road, you’ll figure it out if it’s serious enough to call for it.

11. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about bodily functions.
Diarrheal illnesses are real. You will get one, it’s just a matter of time.

Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar..
Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar. Remarkable.

12. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about your travel companion’s bodily functions.
You will know as much about their bodily functions as you do your own. It’s just a fact of life on the road and an open topic for discussion. I’ve even broached the subject with random travelers because, hey, we’re all in this together.

13. Pop songs that normally make you sneer become the new favs.
Many songs that are a decade old have just hit it off in the places you’ll visit. And boy do they embrace them with enthusiasm. Once there’s a hit that seems to go over well, it plays incessantly. These songs though, they’re another layer of nostalgia because they invariably link themselves to places, events and smells. Summer of ’69 reminds me of tubing in Laos. And I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have listened to Shaggy in the past three days — were nearing a dozen!

14. It doesn’t make sense.
If you didn’t grow up there, then some of the quirks will just not make sense. But it will be interesting, if you allow yourself to be open to curiosity in each new place.

15. A lot of unexpected things are just a bit harder to do.
Finding the right train takes a while. Using dial-up speeds in an internet café could be a half-day project. Finding that book you want to read may take months of combing tourist book swap shops. But there’s time, so what’s the hurry?

16. Outside of the US, some places just don’t queue … they just don’t.
The idea of a neat line of people waiting until their turn — sometimes that doesn’t exist! In India, a few times I had someone throw an elbow to advance toward the vendor. Those it’s weird, I learned to gently shove, and give a good push right back at them.

17. Traffic and cars.
Nothing I read prepared me for sheer amount of traffic — and that’s saying something, I lived in L.A.! Lines in the road are often nonexistent, and your mode of transportation will think nothing of dodging through oncoming traffic. If it’s faster than waiting on the correct side of the road then it’s fair game. And helmets on motorcycles rarely exist. This is changing in many parts, but helmet laws are rare in a lot of places. Oh, and motorcyclists can accomplish great feats — I’ve seen some talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, and safely transport an entire family. They keep it interesting, that’s for sure.

Streets of Bangkok, Thailand
Streets of Bangkok, Thailand

18. Oh, and really: It still doesn’t make sense.

19. Their idea of modesty is much different than ours.
Dress codes vary by country, and many are becoming more Western in style, but only a bit. Modest dress codes are in order in much of the developing parts of Asia. And it’s kinda nice. Once you embrace the modesty of the developing world it’s hard to go back. I love my Indian kurta with all of my heart. It was only after some distinctly strange looks in Milan that I shoved in deep into the recesses of my pack and pulled out other more fashionable items I had last used in Australia. They are a bit obsessed with fashion there, I guess. But even then, I pulled it out for long travel days.

20. The people are generally incredibly and overwhelmingly warm.
Most people in the world want you to visit their country and enjoy it. To explore and have a good experience. The kindness if very real and countless people offered me meals, conversations, and friendship.

There is so much to love about these less-structured countries. Most people call them “developing,” but really that’s a term for the economists. These countries have developed cultures, food histories, and long histories that dates far back into history. I know that Jenn will never join me in many of these places, but I have a special place in my heart for the swath of countries I traveled on that part of my round the world trip.

Monks in Laos in the early morning.
Monks in Laos in the early morning.

The best I advice I can offer to new travelers is this: Recognize that control and certainty don’t exist. Just surrender. As a Westerner, you have to abandon the preconceived notions. And definitely abandon the need to control every moment and circumstance. You could try to force everything into a sanitized version of what you expected. But what is the fun in that? It’s all better when you are just floating along with it, adrift in the well-meaning chaos.

Jenn’s list began to balloon out of control by the end into the most minutely hilarious additions, but really these are just some of the top reasons to dig in and love every moment of traveling in developing countries!  :-)

If you’re planning a trip, why not head over to my travel planning resources page for the nitty-gritties on everything you need to plan the trip. And my country guides offer a great overview of what you should know before you go, as well as how to travel responsibly in each new place.

Angkor Wat Cambodia

A Little Exploring… The History and Fun of Visiting Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Traveling Southeast Asia these past months has been an incredible whirlwind. Seven weeks seemed like enough to make the backpacker loop through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but that isn’t even remotely the case. I decided to adjust my itinerary and save Vietnam for another trip, which has allowed me to more deeply explore Laos. Once I finished ziplining at the Gibbon Experience in Laos, I didn’t have much time left. I only planned a few hard and fast days for these round the world trip, and meeting my cousin in India is one of them.

With that in mind, I hopped on a puddle-jumper flight out of Luang Prabang and landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia just an hour later. It would have been a gross oversight for me to leave Southeast Asia without a visit to one of the most recognizable UNESCO sites in the world: Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Taking it Slow My First Days in Cambodia

Landing in Cambodia was a shock to my senses. Laos is widely regarded as the most laid-back and quiet of the Southeast Asian countries, and after more than a month in Laos, I wasn’t prepared for the bustle and energy of a big tourist city. It’s not just the traffic—although there is a lot of it—and it’s not just that the city is hopping with activity—although it is. It’s the sum total of everything that just crawls up your skin and lodges in your brain as you walk the streets. Siem Reap has aggressive child begging issues. That’s largely the fault of the tourists for funding the beggars, and a systemic Cambodian issue that there is enough poverty that begging needs to happen.

The entire change of pace both Luang Prabang and the peaceful quiet of the Bokeo Nature Reserve had me off kilter. Instead of jumping right into Angkor Wat, the key reason I was in town, my friend Laura and I decided to hole up in guesthouse and adjust, calibrate, and recharge. After all, this is one of those “main events” of backpacking the region and I wanted to be prepared to explore and enjoy!

In the first days, I shopped the markets and powered up with delicious vegetarian restaurants. The choice of veggie restaurants in Southeast Asia’s bigger cities is definitely a reason to visit. Though I love the charming towns, it’s nice to have a selection of interesting options!

Piles of fresh fruit and veg at the markets in Siem Reap

dining out in siem reap tofu steak dinners in Siem Reap

The begging is hard not to avoid. Within a minute of leaving your hotel and guesthouse, you’ll likely discover the street kids and beggars in your area. Some approached and clasped my hand. Others followed with quiet pleas. I’ve been back to Siem Reap since, when traveling with my niece, and the vibe hadn’t much changed. One reason I find it overwhelming is because of the idea that it’s not always a good thing to pass money to the beggars—these children are sometimes run as a business and might not see much of the money.

Within walking distance of our guesthouse, Laura and I found a fabulous night-market and we were still quite close to the touristy areas of the city. I actually liked that we were in the thick of things after going off the grid and getting horribly ill in Laos.

Laura and I spent our first evening camped out at an exquisite gourmet vegetarian restaurant. The best part, it was affordable. The total price of dinner, drink, appetizer, and dessert: $7. And this restaurant had my favorite unique drink to-date, a cold and tasty Tamarind Ice Tea. It was bizarre and the first sip was face-scrunchingly tart, but after that it was wholly refreshing and just what I needed after a blisteringly hot day. And boy am I loving the warmth here! While others sweat profusely in the baking hot heat, my Florida-girl self is loving every second of it!

It didn’t take long to recharge. Tasty food, rampant free WiFi at nearly every restaurant, and I was in heaven. In fact, I managed to crank out some mad work while I was in Cambodia, which is topping up the travel fund nicely. I am not sure what I will face in India, so I wanted to log good hours for my client now, while I could.

Exploring Angkor Wat by Bike

The flight from Laos to Cambodia was very dear, but I came here to visit Angkor Wat. I’ve read National Geographic for most of my life, and this is one of the big items I’ve always wanted to explore in person. Laura and I woke up early and slathered ourselves in of sunscreen. I also rocked a large floppy hat, sunglasses, and a face mask to combat the dust and traffic pollution—I was the height of attractive let me assure you! Kitted out for an entire day out at the temples, she and I rented bicycles and headed out to the main temple complex at Angkor Wat.

We opted for the three-day pass to the temples and a wave of joy, excitement, and the thought finally rushed through me when I rounded the bend and first sighted the huge moat and iconic towers of Angkor Wat. The complex lies a bit outside Siem Reap, so we biked for a while, finally making a long shady stretch before we rounded a bend in the road. Then it was jus there. Huge, ancient, and humbling.

We secured our bikes in the large parking area, we flashed our passes, and then joined the heaps of other tourists with mouths shuffling across the long bridge. I admit, I gapped. I stopped and photographed it all. It was just impossible to take understand the magnitude of this beautiful ancient city.

I knew only a bit about Angkor Wat’s history before I arrived. King Suryavarman II built the temples in the 12th Century as a holy city by for his people. Even more though, is that Angkor Wat is just one of a dozen of pagodas in the area. Although the three spires of the main temple are most iconic and emblematic of this site, it’s spread across acres of land. This wasn’t just a temple, it was a thriving and active city.

Welcome to Angkor Wat sign as we biked into the temple complex.

Angkor Hall Buddha on display in the Angkor Wat main temple complex

Bas Relief Carving of a Horse at the Angkor Temples Lady Carvings on Angkor Temples Dancers carved into the temples of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is a labyrinth of intricately carved walls, over-hangings, and statues. When Laura and I entered, we both noted that there was a strange energy in the temple complex. It’s hard not to sound new-agey, but there was an odd vibe when we entered and we both felt it enough to turn to each other and note it. It wasn’t negative or unwelcoming, just odd.

And who knows, perhaps we’re off our rockers, but our initial inauspicious comment about the energy lead to a thoroughly frustrating visit. Within a few minutes of arriving, we lost sight of each other in the twisting hallways. Then we each spent the next four hours looking for each other. How you can lose someone for four hours in just one single location I do not know, but we were both dehydrated and exhausted by the time we found one-another by the food-stalls. Without a cell phone, we had resorted to asking the local children and vendors to keep watch for one another. (In fact, Laura’s description was “a tall girl with an ugly brown floppy hat”—apparently they knew exactly what she meant as they helped bring me to her). It wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but our bikes were locked together (and yes we both checked at the bikes) and it was all a tad overwhelming.

Angkor Wat

monks in Cambodia Monks taking a rest at Angkor Wat

Anyhow, even in the mad hunt for my traveling companion, I managed to see a great deal of the complex. At times, I lost myself when I would pass the intricate carvings of dancing ladies carved into the walls. As I passed throughout the different areas, I would often pop into the back of groups guided in English or Spanish. Then, as they belabored a point I would drift off to find other fascinating parts of the complex.

The long wall of images are Bas Relief carvings that circle the perimeter of the temple and tell the story of various battles. I loved the description of the carvings dedicated to the story of the Ramayana. I’ll admit that I first dove into this story when I had a brief but heartfelt obsession with the movie The Little Princess. The guides nearby explained how some of the fading reliefs represented various aspects of Rama’s journey. So neat.

On my search for Laura, I sat down at one point for about an hour—I figured if I stopped moving she might pass by me. And in that decision to take it slow, I found myself in a long chat with a handful of Cambodian monks. They spoke basic English, and after the standard pleasantries of my age, marital status, and the number of siblings (everyone asks you these three questions), I was able to probe them about their education and life. It was interesting, strange, and fun. They laughed a lot when I said something, I was never sure how much of the laughter was from a lack of comprehension and how much was because they were talking alone with a Western woman.

Posing at the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Pinching the sun on the towers of Angkor Wat Circling the sun

tuk tuk in angkor wat

Hearts of Angkor Wat

Sunset together from a temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Once Laura and I reunited we bought some bracelets from the children who had found me and brought me to Laura. Then we took their advice and biked to a sunset spot just down the road. The sunset temples are set about 15 minutes into the hills, and we dodged slow-moving tourists who were clogging the hiking paths. And even after the long day, somehow we arrived at the spot—and it was perfect—just in time to watch the sun take its last bow.

We explored other areas too—from the Tomb Raider temple to far out and dusty temples. Angkor Wat delivered in terms of fascinating history and a lot to see and explore independently.

Quick Tips: Angkor Wat Travel Guide

A Little Guide to Exploring Angkor Wat CambodiaWhen: Seeing a perfect sunrise or sunset is coveted by Southeast Asian travelers, and even though the temples are crazy-busy, it can be a beautiful experience. Arrive to the temples by 5:30am for sunrise, and between 5:15pm and 6pm for sunset. For a general sightseeing day, plan on leaving around 8am, so you catch the cooler morning hours to start. Hot tip: Enter the Angkor complex after 5pm and you don’t need to use a day on your pass. If you time it right, you can watch sunset on your first night, and then use your following day to fully explore.

How: Rent a bike for $2/day if you like to ride and/or if you’re on a tight budget. Tuk-tuk drivers cost $20 to $25 for a full day and this is ideal if it’s too hot for bikes, or if you’re venturing to the further temples.  On my second trip through Angkor Wat, my niece and I booked a day tour with Urban Adventures for our first day exploring, and this was a fascinating and fun way to learn the history and ask all the questions from a local who knew the answers.

Temples I loved: Angkor Wat, Ta Prom, Banteay Srei, Bayon, Srah Srang, Preah Khan, and East Mebon (in that order).

Sleep: Agoda is the best booking website in Southeast Asia, bar none, so start your research there. I also always check Airbnb as there are often affordable boutique options that are ideal for multiple travelers or couples. My niece and I stayed at the Cashew Nut, and the pool is a real highlight—when it’s hot, you’ll be glad for it. Siem Reap is a well-traveled city, so you can find budget dorms for as little as $2/night, but spend in the $15-$25 range and you really get a lot more for your money.

Guidebook: Download a copy of Cambodia: The Temples of Angkor is perfect if you’re keen to know a deep history of the temple complex and you’d like a DIY. Cambodia Lonely Plant and Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet guides are also good resources.

Responsible travel: There are a lot of things you should know before you go to Cambodia to make sure you have a responsible, ethical trip. This free Guide to Responsible Travel in Cambodia outlines the best practices of travelers, including how to support Siem Reap’s thriving social enterprise scene, and how to give back and volunteer, too.


Update from the road: I arrived in India and have joined forces with my cousin. I was sad to say adieu to Laura, we had incredible adventures these past two months. Everything from our surprising, random meeting in Bangkok to tubing to rock climbing and ziplining. I will surely miss that lady. For now, it’s onward to the Indian adventures.

Tuk Tuk in Asia

A Little Transportation… Figuring Out the Roads & Rules of Southeast Asia

There’s a sense of poetic chaos to the roads of Southeast Asia. At first glance, there seems to be no rhyme or reason. Cars whizz past, motorbikes weave and pedestrians walk with a nonchalant indifference. This frenetic pace to the traffic baffled me in my first days in Southeast Asia. The streets of Bangkok are chaotic compared to those of Ho Chi Minh City, but they’re a far cry from the order and neatness of Orlando, Florida.

In the weeks and months since I first left home, I didn’t anticipate that traffic patterns and transportation would be two of the things most impacting my daily life on the road. And yet, even the streets of Sydney, Australia posed a challenge. And that was before I made it to Asia! Now, my Western sensibilities are assaulted at every turn and I’ve had to embrace a new sense of what order and “rightness” means. Because although it seemed baffling at first glance, there’s a balance and harmony to the streets of Southeast Asia that I find quietly lovely.

transportation in bagan, myanmar
Locals in Myanmar head home at the end of the day in Bagan.

Here’s what I first found baffling:

  • Lines in the road are mere suggestions.
  • It’s acceptable to cross traffic and drive in the opposite direction, against the grain.
  • There are no crosswalks and traffic lights are negotiable
  • Tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars and bicyclists all share the road.

And yet, there is a fluidity underneath the traffic patterns that I liken to the hive mentality of bees. The worst thing you can do here is make an unpredictable move. But on the other hand, if you signal your intent, then most anything is acceptable. In practice, that means you move your car over the line and into oncoming traffic if you’re looking to pass a slower moving vehicle — just let them know your intent. Then, as you move into oncoming traffic, everything just shifts to the left, then to the right. And if you need to make a turn but there’s no turn lane, cross sooner and then hug the curb as you drive against the grain. So long as you do it slowly and show your intent, traffic swims around you.

playing guitar in a tuk tuk in laos
Just a guy strumming his guitar in the back of a tuk tuk in Laos.

The same goes for pedestrians. Though it looks nearly impossible to cross the larger roads in cities like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Hanoi, you just have to know the way the game is played. In my early days in Southeast Asia, I would often wait for a local to begin to cross and follow them. The only way this works, however, is to put your trust in the hive.

Take a first step from the curb and you have now signaled your intent to cross the road. Given the right circumstances and assuming you’re visible, traffic will now adjust and swarm around you, predicting your path and speed. It’s almost like the person or tuk tuk or motorbike travels in an invisible bubble. That other people on the road calculate the trajectory of that bubble and then adjust their traffic pattern to match.

It sounds crazy. It feels crazy. And that’s just the half of it. Because at some point you’re the one doing the swarming around the obstacle and it’s just a wild feeling of chaos. Will it work? Will the traffic smooth out? Usually, it does. That said, this region of the world has among the highest rates of death from traffic accidents, so it pays to be cautious.

Hoping for safety with a wish and a prayer in Cambodia.

Let’s Talk About Types of Transportation

I was tense and white-knuckling it through every drive on my first days in Laos. Now, when riding in a tuk tuk I just sit back marvel at the organized chaos that somehow, you know, it just seems to work.

The tuk-tuk is the quintessential form of transport in Southeast Asia. It’s the easiest way to travel most cities in the region, and each town’s tuk tuk’s tend to have their own flair. These are motorbikes with a bubble on the back, that fits two to three (or a lot more if you have little kids too). Then there are the larger tuk tuks that are small pickup trucks with the back converted into two rows of seats. The first kind is popular in Thailand, and the second in Laos. (Of note, Thailand calls the pickup trucks songthaews and they are usually fully covered on the sides with cushy seats—here’s a rundown of all the both normal and weird forms of transportation in Thailand).

back of a pickup truck in Thailand
Our transport up the side of the mountain in Northern Thailand en route to the Akha Ama Coffee Journey.

On my first packed ride in a Laos tuk tuk, we squished nine backpackers into the back, and then our driver jetted from the curb and proceeded to weave and dart through traffic. I won’t be overly dramatic and say that visions of my life flashed before my eyes, but it was a close call.

Tuk tuk on the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand
A tiny tuk tuk in Thailand!

There are even more opportunities to push the boundaries of transportation. Motorcycle taxis run throughout most of the towns. So, if you are in a couple or with bags, you usually take a tuk tuk. But if you’re a brave (or incredibly foolish) soul, I’ve seen backpackers clinging to a motorbike with a 65 pound backpack dangling from their back as they wove through town. And helmets aren’t popular here unless you demand one. Places like Bali, Indonesia enforce the helmets laws (and in Vietnam, too), but most locals in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia seem to ride around the city with their helmet in the basket of their bike.

Motorbikes are the most affordable forms of transport, so it’s not uncommon to see almost anything being carted across town on one. It’s pretty standard to see entire families piled on the family motorbike, but also carts of chickens, massive pieces of furniture, pots of food, and anything else that a local might need to procure and move in their life.


It’s all been an education these past weeks. I head to India soon, and I hear tales of rickshaws and mules and human-powered transport. It should be a continuation of the adventures in transport!

Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia

A download of everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia, and a beginners guide of sorts for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!