Khawp Jai Lai Lai (Thank you very much, Laos!)

December 28, 2012
Current Location: Vientiene, Laos

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I think I could spend the rest of my life on this group tour. 14 little ducklings scurrying after our mother duck as she leads us from village to ruined temple to street market. I’m used to traveling on my own, planning my own trips, figuring out my own transportation. We don’t stay at comfortable hotels, but the conveniences of a group tour are pretty amazing (she checks us all in at the border crossings, translates for us everywhere we go). The conveniences aren’t really what make it so great, though. For me, the structure given to our days and schedule is exactly what I needed. Instead of constantly worrying about logistics, following their schedule has freed my mind for introspection.

One thing my inner self was telling me is that I’m kind of done with temples, monks, and elephants for a little while, and I need some beach time ASAP, so I changed my travel plans. I’m cutting out Chiang Mai, and instead spending NYE in Bangkok with three of my tour mates. Then, I head straight to Koh Samui on Jan 1. That gives me about 6 days in the islands to seriously relax, get some sun, do my laundry, read, write, and deal with the 1600 (and counting) photos I’ve taken. I’m feeling very backpacker-esque, floating wherever my whims take me!

Laos is actually an amazing backpackers’ retreat. It’s warm but relatively pleasant, beautiful, exotic, full of historic AND adventurous things to do, and the people are relatively relaxed (compared to Thailand and Cambodia). Luang Prabang, the historic capital, isn’t anywhere I would have thought of visiting, but it’s a really charming, nice town. I could spend a week there, if it weren’t so hard to get to from the US.

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The woman offered “Noodle Soup?” and we said “YES!” Best mystery order ever.

Also, Facebook wins – over and over. Meeting up in random towns in SE Asia with friends from the US I haven’t seen in 10 years, all because we saw each other’s plans on Facebook, is amazing.

We’ve packed some of the most memorable and death-defying moments of my life into the last few days. Although, admittedly, every moment here is kind of death-defying since everyone seems to take anything related to safety extremely casually.

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I was the only one from our group of 14 to jump off these waterfalls. It was the best! (Dude included in the photo for scale.)
Kuang Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang, Laos

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Who volunteered to ride for an hour on the angry elephant’s neck with nowhere to hang on? Me, of course!

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Omg, you guys – I need one.

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Hot air balloon ride over Vang Vieng this morning.
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Tomorrow, we poke around Vientiene (the Capitol of Laos), cross the border to Thailand, and then take an overnight train to Bangkok — and then go our separate ways. I’m definitely still in denial. Then the clock really starts on my time left as a wanderer.

It’s not all bad, though. Ending the tour portion of my trip means no more:

  • Squat toilets
  • 7 hour bus rides
  • Potentially deadly ice in the drinks

On my first day in Bangkok over two weeks ago, I was overwhelmed and wondered if I could survive it for a month. Now, after Cambodia and Laos, returning to Bangkok feels like returning to full, modern civilization — almost like returning to the US. I don’t care if this makes me uncool — I am going to eat SO MUCH PHAD THAI when I get back to Bangkok!

Unexpected Return to Civilization

December 24, 2012 (Christmas Eve)
Current Location: Pakse, Laos

Goodbye: flat, dry, hot Cambodia! Hello: leafy, mountainous Laos!

Laos is a pretty mystical place. The jungles are so dense and unexplored that it leaves a lot of room for stories about hidden monsters and magical beings. Our local guide told us about 40 meter anacondas that will kill you just by looking at you, and 8 meter dragons (snakes, I think?) in the Mekong. The walk up the road to Vat Phou was definitely magical. This ancient, crumbling road with white trees bending overhead felt a lot like walking up the yellow brick road to Oz. Or like the city of the Wheelers in Return to Oz.

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Vat Phou, Laos

We’ve reached the midpoint of the group tour. Half the group has food poisoning, and stress is getting higher. Since Angkor Wat, accommodations have gotten progressively rougher as we’ve journeyed deeper into Cambodia and Laos. The water & food has become less safe, the power less reliable, the showers worse, and the mosquitoes more evil and malaria-ridden. We all signed up for this, of course, and will all love the memories, I’m sure, but it’s a bit draining in the moment.

That said, I love the group. I love sitting for hours at a restaurant on the Mekong River drinking Beerlao with 7 other women from around the world, playing MASH and laughing, as we tell each others’ fortunes with the silly schoolyard game. (We all swear to update each other on facebook when those fortunes obviously come true!) The group is generally pretty respectful and well-behaved as we travel around, so I don’t think we draw more attention than necessary as “tourists”, but people are certainly interested in finding out the story behind this mixed group.

The tour group consists of 15 people:

  • 8 women traveling alone (2 Americans, 1 Canadian, 2 British, 2 Australian, 1 Swedish), 21-42 years old.
  • 1 married Australian couple
  • 1 German couple in their 20s/30s traveling together
  • 1 older Canadian guy traveling alone
  • 1 British guy traveling alone
  • Our tour guide is an amazing Thai woman.

Thank goodness for Facebook! There is actually a teeny, tiny chance that I won’t completely lose track of all of them when the tour is over.

We hit our first real snag on the trip yesterday. A storm on the Mekong River was causing waves and a dust storm. We were supposed to cross the river via rickety ferry to get to our overnight homestay in a village on one of the Lao islands. We all prepared for no running water, no power, and were ready for our authentic Lao experience. But no one felt safe getting on that ferry. We watched skeptically as other boats really struggled to make it, remembered all the news stories about ferries sinking with tourists onboard, and we counted the life jackets on the ferry (count: zero). So we turned back to Pakse. They put us in one of the only hotels that could accommodate our group, the Pakse Hotel, and it turned out to be the nicest hotel we’ve stayed at so far. Steady Internet, modern showers, and $5 60-minute massages next door was EXACTLY what we all needed.

I’m on Day 5 of food poisoning. We all spend a lot of time trying to figure out which meal caused it, but then we all happily keep eating everything my doctor told us not to — any ice, fruit that we didn’t peel ourselves, food that isn’t broiling hot when we receive it. Carrying my backpack became really hard when all I’d eaten for 3 days was white rice. Luckily, we are all walking First Aid kits, and most people take care of each other.

A few random photos from the past few days:


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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Rickshaws in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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Having a hard time not snuggling the probably-rabid feral cats. My roommate swears to hit me if I get too close. She’s tough, she’ll probably do it!20121224-062937.jpg
Dolphin watching on the Mekong River at sunset

The Kingdom of Extremes, Cambodia

December 20, 2012
Current Location: Phnom Penh, Capital City of The Kingdom of Cambodia

As we’re about to leave Cambodia, I’m going to post some current thoughts out of order (skipping over December 15-19 for now). Cambodia has been such an experience of extremes.

  • If I had known that there would be MORE THAN ONE TOWN SPECIALIZING IN FRIED SPIDERS, I may not have booked this tour!
  • If I had known what an amazing person my tour guide would be, and how much focus she would put on understanding how terrible things are for the kids of Cambodia, and actually helping then out a little bit along the way, I would have made everyone I know come along with me.
  • I’m having a hard time not giving everyone all my money, knowing that each person is supporting 10-20 others.
  • Angkor Wat was everything I’d hoped, and more. Certainly worth waking up at 3:30am to get there for sunrise, and definitely worth getting a teeny bit lost from my tour group to stay behind and get the best sunrise photos.
  • My roommate is awesome. And I don’t normally do well with roommates.
  • In fact, I’ve grown to really like most of the people in the group. And of course moreso as I hear their stories. In the past day or two, they’ve gone from people I’m glad are around to stave off isolation, to people I enjoy seeing every day. It’s fun that there are 8 women traveling solo, out of 14 people.
  • Many of us appear to be slightly allergic to Cambodia. Since the moment we crossed the border, we’ve been itchy, without any bites.
  • Unexpectedly, going on the quad ride through the Siem Reap countryside turned out to be one of my top 2 experiences on this trip so far. Riding alongside the people on bikes, families on motorcycles, farmers walking their cows home on the road was a magical experience. I regret not getting any photos of the things I saw during the ride out before sunset, but I probably soaked up the peaceful, beautiful experience better that way.

I’ve had a stomach ache all day and haven’t been able to eat a thing. I was still able to do all the group things — including visiting the Pol Pot death camps and the Killing Fields, which was an extremely sobering experience.

Getting into the extreme poverty and horrifying RECENT history of Cambodia is awful and, honestly, makes me a little scared to be here. But it’s certainly putting my life into perspective in a very good way.

I wish that I’d thought to pack some of my son’s old clothes to bring to the kids here and in the mountains of Laos. (Apparently, it’s freezing and they can’t afford clothes – our tour guide bought 20 sweaters in Siem Reap to bring to the hill tribe kids in Laos.)

I’ll write it here to keep myself accountable — I need to make sure his extra stuff goes to kids who really need it. I’d like to figure out a way to ship stuff here after I get home, but it may be just as helpful to give it to a charity in the US. We always give everything to Goodwill, which is good, but it would mean something to me to give them directly to orphans.


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One Day in Bangkok

December 18, 2012
Current location: Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’m not keeping up on this as well as I’d hoped, but I’ve decided to be okay with that! Days are extremely long & busy, which is great, and managing/backing up my photos takes up the last bits of energy before I pass out for 5-6 hours of sleep.

I’d hoped to keep up on this so it was fresh and not just a recap… but here’s the start to my recap.

Wednesday-Thursday, 12/12/12-12/13/12
Travel Days

My big anti-jet lag plan was to stay up nearly all night Tuesday night, and sleep all day on the 20 hours of flights to Bangkok, ending up on Bangkok time. It basically worked! And as a bonus, I was unconscious for enough of those flights to make them bearable. Getting off a 12 hour flight, just to get straight onto a 7.5 hour one was pretty torturous, though. I actually sort of hoped for a flight delay out of Tokyo so I could have a break between flights, but the airlines chose that particular day to run all three of my connections back to back with no delays or issues!

After a ride in a hot pink taxi, I arrived at The Bangkok Centre Hotel at 1am Friday morning. Where did Thursday go?

Friday, 12/14/12
Bangkok, Thailand

This was my first day exploring a huge foreign city alone. I headed for Old Bangkok, figuring I couldn’t go wrong by starting with the big and most famous temples.


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Grand Palace, Bangkok
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Covered up to visit the temple, in 95+ degree temperatures.
Grand Palace, Bangkok

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Grand Palace, Bangkok
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Apparently, even monks go on group tours!
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Long tail boat ride on the Chao Praya river
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Wat Arun, my favorite temple in Bangkok. Yes, I climbed it!
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The view from the top of Wat Arun
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My first meal in Thailand ended up being the best. This set the highest bar possible for Phad Thai!

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Dinner in Chinatown, Bangkok
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Frog in a bag, Chinatown, Bangkok
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Dinner in Chinatown, Bangkok
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Dinner in Chinatown, Bangkok
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Tuk Tuk ride home in Bangkok

Three days’ recap down, four more to catch up on!

Adventures in Photo Management: The Dark Underbelly of Travel in the Digital Age

In leaving the US for a month, I expected that I would miss some culturally relevant event. During my exchange to Japan in 1996, that Big Event was Tickle Me Elmo. You can’t really catch up on that type of experience from afar, or afterward.

However, I never expected something so tragic as the recent elementary school shootings to happen basically immediately (or at all). As I happily uploaded the first of my photos, I was shocked to learn from facebook what had happened. I had landed in Bangkok just hours earlier, and all I wanted to do was get back on a plane immediately and go hug my son. Not being able to physically hold him and reassure the mama bear inside that he’s okay was extremely painful. However, I have Skype, and can talk to him and see his sweet face every 12 hours. Logically, I know he is okay. My heart goes out to the families who truly did lose their sweet babies. It makes no sense. None.

I thought about whether to keep posting photos and anecdotes from my trip for now — it seemed almost disrespectful to interrupt the flood of emotion pouring out on facebook with my silly vacation stuff. But a few people requested that I keep posting, so that there was something positive in the midst of all the sadness. So, I will. But I do it respectfully, and not without care for the more serious things going on.

So, back to the travel blog — the thing about blogs is that you have to keep on top of them while thoughts are fresh. As I’m gallivanting all over Bangkok, I’m constantly writing posts in my head. But most of my actual down-time and precious internet time has been spent figuring out how to deal with all my photos. I want to share them, but first I want to make sure they’re backed up online in case my backpack is stolen at some point, along with all my physical photo storage. I already have over 200 photos, so this is quickly becoming a massive undertaking.

Here’s what I’ve settled on:

  • Camera -> SD card reader -> iPad
  • iPad -> Dropbox (backup)
  • iPad -> facebook (immediate sharing of a few photos)
  • iPad -> Snapseed (editing the best photos)
  • iPad -> Blogging at some point?

This evening, I even chose a bar based on the free wifi offered with the beer. I don’t even like beer. But it allowed me to keep my backup upload going during dinner!

Anyway, now that I’ve got this worked out, I’ll try to catch the blog up soon on my 21 hr travel day and my first two amazing days in Bangkok.

In the meantime, a few photos:
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Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

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Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

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Apparently, monks take group tours, too!

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Found my first elephant <3

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This is where I officially stopped listening to Travel Doctor’s advice about not eating ice.
Chatuchuk Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand

A Disturbing Lack of Plaid

Days 1-2: Exotic Portlandia and San Francisco

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Sunset over Portland

Since I already had a previously-purchased, non-refundable ticket to San Francisco (long story), I thought that spending some time in SF on my way out of the country sounded like a fun thing to do. This wasn’t my most convenient idea ever. Hanging out in the grey city of fog with only the clothes I packed for Thailand is… chilly. The hipsters don’t understand my rain jacket, sundress, sandals, and distinct lack of plaid.

In trip-planning news, Citibank’s automated anti-fraud credit card measures are so aggressive that it was nearly impossible for me to book my Thai hotels & train tickets online this weekend. They blocked every charge, crashed whichever website I was trying to use to purchase something, and then notified me via text or voicemail that I needed to call them back within 2 days or my credit card account would be suspended. At this point, I count 7 hours of my life lost to dealing with this nonsense.

I’ve let them know where I will be, that I won’t have ANY phone access while I’m traveling, and if they pull these kind of shenanigans while I’m gone, I will be royally screwed. Citibank swears they have my travel plans noted and will stop blocking my account, but I guess I’m now mentally prepared to end up moneyless, credit card-less, and stranded. My cardboard sign will say “Will Project Manage for Airplane Tickets.”

I did eventually manage to book places to stay for my entire trip, so I probably won’t be sleeping on the beach. Here’s the trip:

PDX -> SF -> LAX -> Tokyo -> Bangkok -> Cambodia (Angkor Wat!) -> Laos (Malaria!) -> Bangkok -> Chiang Mai (Monks and Elephants!) -> Koh Samui (Island beaches!) -> Seattle -> PDX -> home!

It’s going to be strange, wonderful, and disorienting to be disconnected from the holiday markers of time in the outside world.

  • Christmas
  • New Year’s Eve
  • The End of the World (according to the Mayan Calendar)
  • And perhaps most importantly – The Hobbit Premiere. Hope someone will go see it with me when it’s a month old!

Edit: I just realized that I lost the 3rd & 4th doses of my typhoid vaccine pills.  I may not be able to get as adventurous with street food as I had planned.

Eat, Sleep, Facebook

“Ever notice that ‘What the hell’ is always the right decision?” – Marilyn Monroe

Let’s acknowledge the Thai elephant in the room:  30-something woman planning a last-minute trip alone to SE Asia — it’s totally an Eat, Pray, Love-style cliche. But, whatever!

  • Planning time: 5 days flat
  • Travel time: 29 days
  • Countries planned: 3 (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos)
  • Known travel companions: 0 (But I’m with a tour group of 10 for 15 days, and I think that I’ve almost sold a few of you nomads-at-heart on meeting me in Bangkok for NYE!)

My visit to the Travel Doctor made me take the SE Asian Malaria Mosquitoes pretty seriously.  I’ve been pumped full of injectable and pill-form vaccines, and I’ve treated my long clothing with Permethrin, the latest in Mosquito Avoidance Technology. The bad news is that there’s no prevention or cure for mosquito-transmitted Dengue Fever, also known as “bone-breaking fever.”  Sounds like a party.  On the other hand, the good news is that it’s not the season for Japanese Encephalitis.  So, yay?

I’m nearly packed. The big question on my mind tonight is whether to bring my iPad AND my 11″ Macbook Air so that I can edit photos on the road, or if that puts me at too much risk, carrying all that plus my camera, etc.?  I am open to thoughts on this.

Other important questions:

  • How will Santa Claus find me in Laos?
  • Why did I book a tour that passes through a town that proudly serves fried spider?  “It’s recommended that you eat these furry arachnids as you would a crab, by cracking the body open and pulling the legs off one by one – delicious!”  Holy barf.

After the group tour ends, I have 7 days in Thailand that I haven’t planned out yet — no hotels booked.  I’m still considering where I want to spend NYE, how much beach time I want, and how safe I’ll feel traveling around by myself. I’m leaning toward splitting the final days between Chiang Mai and a beach resort… although I suspect NYE in Bangkok might be fun.

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Turns out that packing for Cambodia looks a lot like packing for yoga class! Plus nasty chemicals.

I hope to meet this guy.