planning

My Stuff is Ready to Go

I’m all packed. Same Gregory Deva 60L backpack, same Fjallraven Totepack No.1, same packing cubes and system – I fell back into old habits pretty quickly. I’ve made a few adjustments here and there based upon my experience from last year, but despite saying that I was going to bring less I think that I am actually straddling the line between reduced packing and over packing. Here’s why.

I have two weeks in San Francisco first. This has led to a fairly blasé attitude about the shirts I am bringing. I have a third cube of clothing that is “for SF” and that I say I will get rid of when I leave, but just like the “for Rio” bag last year I have a feeling some of it will stay with me longer. I also threw in an extra of everything again, knowing that I technically have the space to fit it. And, since I have pretty much zero attachment to anything I’m bringing with me, the fact that I don’t mind ditching things along the way has contributed to the extra stuff – I admit it’s a bit backwards but thinking “I’ll just throw it out if I don’t want it anymore” resulted in more stuff sneaking in. Plus with the warm climate I’m going to they’re all small tank tops that don’t take up much room. So with that, I admitted defeat to myself and packed up everything.

But I still don’t count the “for SF” cube as being part of my 6-months-worth of clothing. So here is what I’m bringing for the trip, minus the supposed “for SF” stuff.

6 Months of Clothes

Clothes for 6 Months

Doesn’t look too bad right? 4 tanks and 4 tshirts, 2 long sleeves, 1 inbetweener, 1 cardigan, 1 dress, 1 jeans, 1 black yoga-type pants (hopefully to be replaced ASAP), 1 shorts, 1 set of sleeping stuff (shorts and tank), 9 socks and underwear, 4 bra types, 1 bathing suit (but top and bottom are reversible so it’s like having 4), 1 sneakers, 1 Toms, 1 Tevas (bringing the Tevas back), 2 hats, 1 gloves, 1 buff, and 1 scarf (not pictured, had to dig it out of a box).

One thing that is also more concrete this time is the notion that I will get things I need along the way. Like new pants. Last time I got thin loose pants in Vietnam that ended up being a great addition – mostly for hot weather temple days when I had to be covered up – and I’m hoping I’ll find something similar this time. They would replace the black yoga-type pants that I do not want to bring but packed anyway since I need some alternative to jeans. Picking up clothing and accessories that I needed was also a great excuse to get souvenirs.

Other things that are not pictured here are the same practical items I had last time – medical kit, hygiene stuff, collapsible 1L water bottle, sleep sheet, etc. If you’re really curious just let me know and I can list those out too, but it’s pretty much everything you’d expect.

My electronics haven’t changed either: Canon G16, GoPro, Lenovo laptop, iPhone 4S. They all worked so well why would I change anything? I did not end up getting the external hard drive like I said I would, I just couldn’t justify the price, so I’ll go with Google Drive again. It works fine, as long as I can get enough of an internet connection to upload. Plus now I know my camera’s memory card has enough space for over 6,000 photos. I did bring a back-up 4GB SD card again, but this time loaded it up with movies I forgot I had on my external hard drive at home. Since I am out of Sopranos (anyone want to send me seasons 4-6?) I need something else to entertain me when I don’t feel like reading. For music I am bringing my shuffle again, but I have tripled the amount of songs in my iTunes library. Just because the shuffle can only hold 150 songs doesn’t mean I only have to have 150 songs with me. This way whenever I plug in my shuffle it will randomly select a new batch of songs to load so I’ll have at least some change of music. I plan on doing that about once a month.

I did get travel insurance again: Explorer level through World Nomads. Now if something happens to me in the caves in Mexico or on a flight to the Corn Islands I will be protected. Better to be safe than sorry. All my important Google Docs have been updated and I made sure to scan in my license this time so if it gets stolen at a club again I will have some proof I can drive. Major oversight on my part last time.

So with all the logistics taken care of, I’m all set and ready to go. You’d think I’d be jumping up and down in excitement, but for some reason I’m pretty relaxed about all of this. Maybe because it’s become so routine for me now there’s no reason to stress. Or maybe it’s just not real yet, and I need to get on that plane before it sinks in. Or maybe the distraction of seeing everyone in SF first is pushing the international trip to the back of my mind. Whatever the reason, at least I’m not freaking out about anything. And now I can just enjoy my last weekend in the beautiful countryside of Vermont.

The Week of Preparations

It’s time. This is my last week in Vermont – on Monday I start the process that is leaving, first to Jersey City for three days, then to San Francisco for two weeks, and then finally to Mexico City and Central America for as long as it feels right (or until the end of March, whichever comes first).

Last Wednesday was my last day at one part-time job, Thursday was my last day at the other. This means that I have returned to the status of “unemployed” for the foreseeable future and I couldn’t be more excited about it. I celebrated the end of three months of work with a great weekend tubing on Saratoga Lake and partying at Travers horse race with friends. But I knew upon returning it would be time to get down to business.

IMG_7586 So that’s where I’m at today. I sat down and made “The Seriously Big To-Do” list at the end of last week, recalling the steps I went through last June, and am giving myself Monday to Friday to cross them off. Then I can focus on playing again.

The question is, where do I start? I’ll probably jump around ADD-like, breaking up important logistics like phone calls to credit card companies and purchasing travel insurance with more fun tasks like updating my music selection and getting rid of clothes.

One thing that’s very different this time from last time is that my post-trip plans require me to pack even less even more strategically. Last time I just moved everything I couldn’t let go of out of an apartment to be stored in my parents’ garage; this time I plan to have just one suitcase of clothing/shoes/accessories so that when I make the move to Europe next year (Phase III of this wandering life plan) I don’t have to lug as much stuff on the plane as I did when I crossed the United States.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same process as last time. Me, my to do list, and five days of tasks. Nothing that isn’t worth it for the six months of adventure that will follow.

I Lived It, So Now I’m Barely Prepping

I’ve been feeling like I’m not doing enough to prepare for this next trip. I decided I’m going, I bought a flight, I mapped out a few highlights to get a general idea of a route, and I started refreshing my limited Spanish with Duolingo. I looked up my malaria pill needs and visa requirements, a few technical details that I knew needed to be sorted out a couple of weeks in advance. But still I have this feeling of “what am I not doing that I should be doing?” So I pulled out my old Round the World planning book to flip through the pages that I’d found to be so crucial last year.

Short of some notes on what I need to remember to stock in my medical kit and where it says I shouldn’t miss in Central America, I didn’t pay attention to much else. The reality is, I know all I need to. I’ve gone through this before, and not just the planning but the actual life of travel, and the practical knowledge I gained is way more valuable than anything a book can tell me.

I know I need to get travel insurance before I go, an expense I’m waiting to cover until my last paycheck. I know the wardrobe changes I need to make and the weight of the bag I want to have. I know I will be staying in hostels, drinking water out of water bottles, and carrying the necessary copies of things in case something goes awry.

As for the rest of planning, the point is to not plan, so why would I even dive into any location specifics? People tell me all the time “I loved this town” or “I have a friend living here I can connect you with.” I haven’t even left and the trip is taking shape.

So instead of all this pre-trip prep that I had so diligently taken care of last year, I’m finishing up my final summer projects and occasionally checking in on minor details that come to mind. I’m not worried or stressed – I know I can do this, so I know when the time comes I’ll be ready and able to quickly get back into the swing of things. Until then, I’ll probably be pretty quiet on here while I’m out there enjoying the end of summer in Vermont.

Next Steps: Planning, or Lack Thereof, and Why I Got a Guidebook

So I’ve decided to go to Central America… Now what?

The planning process this time is much more low-key than it was for my RTW trip last year. In fact, it’s near non-existent. With the aim to travel totally flexibly and recommendation-based, I don’t want to do much research into specifics. I know some places I want to see in every country – obvious ones like Chichen Itza, Caye Caulker, Antigua, the Panama Canal – and that’s enough of a start for me. If I look into it too much then I’ll come up with all of these places that I’ll try to make it to like I did last time and feel rushed to keep moving. I’m going with a more “ignorance is bliss” approach this time; I can’t miss what I don’t know about.

11756941_981959892428_1804110344_o

I still did buy a guidebook: Lonely Planet’s Central America on a Shoestring (if it’s not broke don’t fix it). In my last trip I thought the Shoestring guides were good resources to have with me even if they weren’t my first mode of planning. At the end of each country chapter there’s a history section that I would read on my way into the country to get a little background on where I was going and what I would be experiencing. If I found myself without a clue of where to stay when I arrived somewhere I would go to the accommodation page and target the neighborhood pointed out as a hostel-centric area. Plenty of times I tore out the maps and used them to get myself around a city or neighborhood, especially at night in search of a bar. And of course if I had a lack of advice on where to go next I could read through the locations for inspiration.

Most helpful though was the transportation information. Each country has a “getting to” and “getting away” section that not only helps with flight versus bus evaluations but also finding your way into town from the typically far away airport or bus station. Then there’s the call-out boxes of bus matrices that are good guidelines for frequency, length of time, and cost to get between between places of interest. But if I were to give a “most helpful section” award it would go to the border crossing information. These guidebooks highlight the best places to cross borders and explanations of how it all works. This information is hard to find elsewhere; many travelers referenced my books to see what we were up against.

As helpful as the internet is, there’s no way to beat having a physical reference in your hand when you have to make a snap decision in Bangkok traffic about whether you can ditch the southern bus station idea and instead go to the train station with your new travel companion to catch an overnight train to Surat Thani to make it to Khao Lak by tomorrow. With no cell phone service and no understanding of Thai where else are you going to get the answers you need?

Notice though that all of these reasons for getting the guidebook are not talking about planning, they’re focused on use on the road. I’ve barely opened it since I bought it and don’t plan on reading it much until I’m on my way into the next country. And of course I will again rip out the countries as I leave them, decreasing the heft of the book as I go.

I got one more reference book: Lonely Planet’s Latin American Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary. Now that I have this, I wonder how I could have possibly gone to South America without it. The layout is so helpful, broken down into sections like transport, meeting people, and menu decoder, plus a small two-directional dictionary in the back, that I am already anxious to put it to use. I am also trying to keep up on my Duolingo app to refresh what Spanish I knew and learn more before I go. This time I really do want to learn Spanish, especially when I think about how easily I picked it up last time. I’ve even thought about taking a language class in Guatemala for a week or two.

My last written guide, for now, is BootnAll’s How to Plan an Extended Trip in Central America. I read this back when I was still debating what to do; I wanted to have some sort of idea what I would be getting myself into, and as I read about the different places and type of travel I would be doing I found myself only growing more and more excited. It’s part of the reason I ended up seriously looking into flights. As always, BootsnAll provided helpful inspiration. I marked the places the guide highlighted in a Google Map to get a general idea of a route, and I will again be using this website to outline my budget.

Otherwise I’ve already gotten extremely helpful tips from friends on where to go in Mexico and Nicaragua, and am hoping for more soon. So please, if you know anywhere I absolutely can’t miss, let me know!

“Where Should I Go?”

Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten lots of destination-related questions. I love fielding these questions – I could talk about the places I went for days on end. Not that I don’t also love helping with backpack choices and solo travel tips, but the locations themselves are what drive us all.

So I figured why not post what I’ve responded to the question, “Where should I go?” It might be useful to other people and a good place to point friends to in the future. Plus I just can’t imagine answering the other most-asked question, “What was your favorite place?” How could it ever be possible to pick one place? I’ve been able to narrow it down to some highlights but even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much. This is probably the closest I can come to any kind of “top places” list.

So here they are, my “where you should go” recommendations:

I will always tell people to go to South America. I spent three and a half months there and personally preferred it to the other regions. As I traveled I found myself constantly wondering how expensive flights were from Asia to South America, and this wonder has not ceased now that I’ve returned. Actually South America is part of the reason I came back to the US – it was unreasonable to go straight from Japan so I planned to go by way of the US. Some of the places that I recommend looking into are:

  • Colombia. I will never stop loving Colombia and it’s one of the first places I want to go back to. The Caribbean Coast is gorgeous and hot, the cities are fun, and the mountains great to explore. It has lots to offer and some of the friendliest people.
  • The Amazon. The Amazon in Brazil, just outside of Manaus, were 6 of the best days of my trip. It’s not an easy itinerary, at least the one we did since we slept in hammocks in the jungle and caught our own dinners (piranha, peacock bass, etc.), but it’s a very cool experience. Plus if you go here then you can go through Rio, which is a fantastic city.
  • Buenos Aires. One of my favorite cities in the world. If you want a more urban trip definitely go here – drum shows, theater performances, weekend markets, insane nightlife, delicious food. There’s also some low-key escapes depending on how long you’re there, like the Tigre and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
  • The Salt Flats in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you want otherworldly nature go here. The Salt Flats is a three-day tour through landscapes that don’t look like they should be real, and the desert is a Mars-like playground for sandboarding, hiking, biking, and stargazing.
  • Machu Picchu. This is a bit of a bonus since I did not go there on this RTW trip – I was there in 2012 with friends – but it is still one of my top South America experiences so it just didn’t feel right to leave it off this list. We did the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail through SAS travel – our guides knew everything and told stories along the way, we had really good food, and the hike was the perfect mixture of challenging and fun. Plus Cusco is a great place to spend a few days acclimatizing.

Having said all that, you can’t go wrong in Asia either, of course. A lot of people are intrigued by the extreme difference of the culture in Asia and I was right there with them. Some of my favorite experiences happened in Asia. Here are my recommendations:

  • The Temples of Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia. Another one of the best weeks of my trip. The architecture is stunning, and spending your day on a tuktuk riding past ruins is pretty amazing. Siem Reap has a fun streak to it on Pub Street but it’s really all about Angkor here. I would love to go back to Cambodia and get to Koh Rong on the coast, every backpacker’s favorite beach. Also depending on the length of your trip you could add Laos, which has great outdoor activities to offer but wouldn’t be the first place in Asia I would recommend. I do want to go back though; I was pleasantly surprised by that country.
  • Myanmar. Like everyone says, go now, before tourism totally changes it. This country just opened up a few years ago and you can already see the changes, and how it’s not ready to handle them yet. But the people are the kindest I met anywhere and the scenery is beautiful. It will be vastly different from home though so that has to be something you’re okay with.
  • I hesitate to recommend Northern Thailand because I had a really different experience there at a festival, but the time I spent in Chiang Mai was great and with everything I’ve heard about Pai it’s one of the places I most want to get to next time I’m there. Most people I met traveling in Southeast Asia put this at the top of their list. If you happen to be planning a Southeast Asia trip in February go to Shambhala.
  • Another qualified recommendation is Vietnam. Some people love it, some hate it. I had a different time there due to a family visit but if you’re curious about it then it’s worth checking out. Hanoi was good and Halong Bay/Lan Ha Bay were spectacular. Plus it had the best cheapest food and coffee of my entire trip.
  • Japan, especially Tokyo. Fascinating culture, energetic cities, gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, efficient travel, and the best food, there’s no way to go wrong in Japan. Tokyo was actually my favorite, despite the popular opinion that Kyoto is best, for its quirkiness, modernity, and variety of activities. If you have time try to make it to the island of Kyushu – it’s much more low-key but still wonderfully Japanese.

Lastly, New Zealand. Of the Australasia portion of my trip I preferred New Zealand. The scenery is unbeatable, the adventures are endless, and the atmosphere is so chill it’s hard to ever want to leave. I still play with the idea of moving to Wanaka for a while. Go to Wanaka! I love that place. And the Abel Tasman Coast Track. And Milford Sound.

If anyone has any more questions about locations (or anything) just ask! I love talking travel, obviously, and am more than happy to help if I can.

300 Days Later

I’m back in the United States.

It happened just as abruptly as that sounds. I had started considering what to do after Japan before I even got there, and this idea of returning had always been an option, I just wasn’t sure it would win out. I thought about going to South Korea, Taiwan, or England. There was more world to see and people to visit, was I ready to give in to going back already?

Then a couple of things happened. First, my ideas about my future changed. I realized that travel, my nomadic existence, was not just a phase but a new way of life. I couldn’t imagine returning to a desk and a schedule. Not to say that I didn’t crave some normalcy sometimes, but the idea of settling down in one place with just two weeks of vacation a year, knowing that there was so much more out there that I wanted to see and do, didn’t sit well with me. So I decided that for the foreseeable future I would attempt to keep going. But in order to do that I had to work again for a bit – my money wouldn’t last forever. Which is why, when I got a very tempting offer for a summer job that would allow me to work for 20 hours a week primarily outside and live in Vermont, a place I had dreamed of returning to for my readjustment to the States, I had to take it. I start June 1.

Once I committed to going back for the summer my time abroad suddenly had a limit. I knew I had to return at some point, so how did I want to do it? I could wait until the end of May and go through the East Coast, prolonging my travel as much as possible until my Vermont start date. Or I could surprise my best friends at a girls weekend in Arizona. My friends had decided months ago to have a weekend away at Jen’s new home, which none of us had seen yet, and I sadly had declined since I was halfway around the world. But then Kwaz came to India, and when we talked about what I would do next and the possibility of spending the summer in Vermont and how and when I would come back to do that, the idea of surprising everyone came up. I missed my friends. I had a fantastic life in San Francisco and that was mostly owed to the people there. If I went straight to the East Coast I would not see them, but if I went to Arizona I could stop by SF before going east. Plus it was much easier and cheaper to fly from Japan to Phoenix, and what better way could there be to return than by showing up at the Phoenix airport and giving your friends heart attacks?

I didn’t commit to this plan immediately but let it take its place in my thoughts amongst my other options. The more I thought about it though the more I realized that I couldn’t let it go, that every other option suddenly was being halted by this Arizona idea. I tried to figure out if I could fit in South Korea before I flew back, and in attempting to look up flights to England could only compare the price to the flight to Phoenix. So I finally gave in. If every other idea just didn’t sound as good as the surprise, why not just do the surprise?

It helped that the day I would return happened to be my 300th day abroad. I like round numbers and had had some sadness that I wouldn’t be making it to a full year, June 21, but the discovery that I would hit day 300 put me at ease.

20 countries in 300 days. That sounded pretty good.

So on April 6th I booked my flight to the US. For April 17th. Like I said, it happened pretty abruptly.

And the surprise was worth it. Showing up at the airport and having the incredible warm response I got from my friends – full of repeat hugs and “you’re not real!” and “how did this happen?” – made for a happy return Stateside. I love you guys. And now, writing this from a coffee shop in San Francisco after seeing even more friends, I know that it was right to come back here before going to Vermont. Add to that the amazing messages I got on my birthday yesterday – in person, texts, and Facebook – welcoming me home, and so far the dreaded end of traveling depression hasn’t hit. Instead I now have many plans to catch up with friends and family.

I’m sure the depression will come. I did almost start crying when the coffee shop played a song I had heard on repeat in Colombia. But for now, I choose to focus on the excitement of this return. And I also choose to keep traveling.

I’m in San Francisco this week, but will be adventuring around Canada for five days next week, then back to San Francisco for five more days, then New Jersey and New York City for a couple of weeks, and then I will finally move up to Vermont for the summer. Despite deciding to return to the States, I couldn’t stop moving just yet.

And all of this is in pursuit of a larger goal of not stopping. TBD where I’m going in September, but the hope is to get back on the road for at least another couple of months. My Travel Abrodge isn’t done yet…

And Then I Went to Japan

For months I had no plan after India. I had tons of maybes – Sri Lanka? Nepal? Europe? – but none of them were Japan. Not that I didn’t want to go to Japan, I’d just always viewed that part of Asia as its own trip separate from this year. So how did I end up in Japan?

It started with a friend I met in Uruguay. We’d kept in touch and talked about traveling together again at some point, and when we realized that the Rickshaw Rally in India was not in the budget for this year he threw out the idea of meeting him in Japan. At first I jokingly agreed, not believing I’d fly halfway across Asia to a place I had no intention of going to hang out with someone I knew for two days six months ago. But as I continued to travel according my plan I got increasingly annoyed at having a plan. Suddenly every idea I had about what to do after India felt like following the normal route, the expected what’s next, a plan I’d come up with because it made sense for where I was instead of the adventure of discovering somewhere new just because I wanted to go there.

I remembered Matt and Japan. I remembered how I’d left my trip open-ended so I could go somewhere totally random if inspiration struck, and that traveling with a friend I’d met on the road who had a good idea of where to go was always something I had in mind. And why not Japan? I’d always wanted to go, the culture seemed fascinating to me, and it was cherry blossom season after all, the best time to go. So from a shoddy internet connection in Bagan, Myanmar I bought a flight from Delhi to Tokyo. Because why the fuck not?

From the moment I left India I viewed Japan as an addendum. I felt like my RTW trip was done and anything else was just a bonus. So when I landed I threw my spreadsheet to the wind and didn’t look back. I knew Japan would be expensive – and it definitely is – but if I ran out of money the US wasn’t too costly a flight away. Not to say that we still didn’t try to be backpackers in this not-backpacker-friendly country, as will be apparent from my future posts, just in the interest of transparency I’ve kept the expenses of Japan separate from my RTW trip totals. Which I’ll talk about later.

First I had to get to Japan, and what a marathon that was. When I booked a flight from Delhi it seemed easy enough, I thought I’d be back up north in Rishikesh and just a quick overnight bus ride away from the airport. Then our India plan got turned upside down and I ended up in Hampi. To even get from Hampi anywhere is a bit of a challenge, let alone to Japan, but I tried to view it as its own adventure. I finally experienced an overnight train in India, something that was supposedly an essential part of India travel, from Hospet to Bangalore. And because of this route I met a friendly Canadian couple with who I shared a rickshaw to Hospet from Hampi (who ended up being in my train car) and while we killed time waiting for our train the man, who had lived in Fukuoka, Japan for 3 years, gave me all kinds of tips on what to do in Japan. It’s because of this interaction that I’m currently in Fukuoka. I also got to see Bangalore briefly on the hour bus ride from the train to the airport.

Then I got to fly Bangalore to Delhi, which had no benefit to me really, I don’t even remember this flight, but I do remember that my Delhi to Colombo and Colombo to Tokyo flights had some good movies and I got a decent amount of sleep. Then it was just a 2 hour subway ride from the Narita airport and I was finally in Tokyo.

It was a marathon to say the least. From leaving Hampi on March 17th at 5:00 pm local time to arriving at the hostel in Tokyo on March 19th at 3:00 pm local time, it was around 40 hours of travel. Nothing I couldn’t handle after the last 9 months, and the excitement of actually being in Tokyo was enough to keep me going. I couldn’t believe I was there, somewhere I had no intention of being, and reunited with a friend I hadn’t seen for 6 months. What I knew was that it was going to be quite the adventure. What I didn’t know was how long I’d be in Japan. The stamp in my passport gave me 90 days, and when I arrived all we had planned was 2 nights at this hostel in Tokyo.

So… now what?

Why Is It Cold in India?

I spent a day in New Delhi but you’d never know it from my camera. I took zero pictures. I blame it on the rain.

Yes it was raining in New Delhi. It was chilly and wet and the least motivating weather to do anything. It was the exact opposite of what I imagined India weather would be.

Most of our time in Delhi revolved around coming up with a plan for our quick two weeks in India. Just like the rest of my trip, we had arrived with nothing more than one night booked at a hostel and a general outline of things we wanted to see. And as will happen, that outline shuffled and changed as soon as we got into the specifics and talked to people in the hostel; what was my last destination became my first, Holi in the North instead of Mumbai took priority, and we cut Varanasi, a destination I had previously put at the top of my list but was too complicated and expensive to get to. Confident in our new plan we booked an overnight bus to Rishikesh and had the rest of the day to see Delhi.

We signed up for the hostel’s Old City tour at 2. We had one day there, we should see it right? But it was so cold, so rainy, so windy, and Kwaz and I hadn’t seen each other in almost 9 months. So we ditched the tour and found a cozy bar to call home while we caught up over beers and Indian food. To me it was the best way we could have spent our first day together. From what we’ve heard anyway, Delhi is just a big city filled with people not to be trusted. I don’t feel like we missed out on much. Plus it’s much easier to sleep on an overnight bus after drinking all afternoon.

The Decision to Go to Myanmar

I added Myanmar.

In the original plan I was going to India on February 9th but, seeing how it’s almost the end of February and I’m not in India, that flight changed along the way; it was more important to go to Holi so now I’m flying to India on February 28th. This opened up a new three-week window in my Southeast Asia itinerary.

When this change happened I saw it as a chance to add another country. Myanmar is the place to go now, everyone says, since it just opened to tourism recently and will probably change drastically in the next 10 years. I’d heard so many great things about this country and knew I’d be just a hop away in Northern Thailand so it sounded like a perfect use of my new-found time.

The land border between Thailand and Myanmar is a tricky crossing, and since I’d had some recent bus frustration I looked into booking a flight from Chiang Mai. In thinking about timing for Myanmar I had outlined the last two weeks of February; the cheapest flight happened to be on Sunday the 15th, which aligned perfectly. Over the past months I’ve had route questions that always ended up working out in the way my first instincts thought they might, so I decided that would probably happen again and I should just book the flight. As much as I hate booking definite things like flights, I prefer buses mainly for the ease of getting tickets on short notice, it seemed like the right thing to do. I had a visa (acquired in Singapore) and a now-unmovable date to India, so this was the time. I was going. Flight, purchased.

Then Shambhala happened. The last day of Shambhala was February 15th, the day of my flight, meaning I would have to go back to Chiang Mai a day before it ended. I was torn up about this. Here I was in one of the best weeks of my trip and I had to leave a day early because I’d jumped the gun and booked a flight, something I rarely do. I cursed my planning self. My mindset at the festival was all about the now, the moment I was living, and the desire for ultimate flexibility. I’d already ditched my Pai and return to Chiang Mai plans, I could ditch my flight too. My visa was good until April, I could go after India; or screw the visa, it wasn’t that expensive. Then I could have more time to go to Pai and hang out in Northern Thailand. Why had I added Myanmar anyway? I should’ve just had more Thailand time.

Every day at Shambhala I was back and forth on this decision, but it was Josh’s encouragement to stay till the end of the week then still make my flight that stuck in my mind. He was right – this was an amazing experience, but for one final day I was going to completely miss out on a country that I had previously been excited about going to. I realized that while I was having the time of my life there, it would soon end, and once back in Chiang Mai I would remember just how much I had given up.

So I left. Goodbyes were hard; it felt like I was tearing myself away from my happy place. I had to convince myself the whole bus ride back to Chiang Mai to not get on the first bus right back to Chiang Dao.

Now I’m in Myanmar and I can, without hesitation, say that I made the right decision. This country is spectacular. It’s not easy by any means – hotels can be expensive, buses are always a question mark, and the signs of a country that is behind in development are obvious – but the sights and the people more than outweigh the hard parts.

As I write this I’m looking out over the town of Kalaw, nestled in between green hills. Single story tin roofs mix with multi-story stucco boxes advertising hotel names in big block letters. This is Myanmar, changing before my eyes, and I have become one of those “everyone” saying: “Go now. Go before the air conditioning tourists change it all.”

The Decision to Leave Vietnam

I realize at this point the timeline might be a bit confusing so let me lay it out. Here’s how my last week in Vietnam went: Ho Chi Minh City for 2 days, Hanoi for a day, Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay for 3 days/2 nights, Hanoi for one night, flight back through Ho Chi Minh City on my way to Cambodia.

Basically what happened was that I knew I wanted to get up to North Vietnam and at least see Hanoi and Halong Bay. I had a good time in Hanoi and adored Halong Bay, but I realized while I was out in Lan Ha Bay that I needed to go to Cambodia. Nothing against Vietnam, there’s still plenty to see and do there (Sapa, Hue, Mekong Delta, to name a few) but if I stayed to go to those other places it felt like I was just filling time before I had to meet friends in Thailand for Christmas.

I was in a weird place. Between family leaving from HCMC and meeting up with people for Christmas I had 2 weeks. It was not enough and too much time all at the same time. I love meeting up with people, but sometimes it puts a lot of stress on the planning process. So the beautiful part about traveling alone is that I can make any last minute decisions that will alleviate this stress.

So the night I got back to Hanoi I booked a flight to HCMC, which departed 13 hours later. I didn’t have a bus ticket to Cambodia but was confident I would figure it out when I got to HCMC. I knew where it left from and the names of two companies, and I booked an early enough flight (6:45 am eesh) that I had all day to get to Phnom Penh. That’s the other thing about traveling this long – I’m not afraid to wing it. It would work out. This became the theme of Cambodia for me, and something that is still happening. I’ll get there eventually, if it’s last minute so be it, flexibility is king right now. And I got there: less than 24 hours after booking that flight I was playing pool at a hostel in Phnom Penh. I love it when it all comes together.

So why did I decide to leave Vietnam? It’s hard to explain. I just wasn’t feeling it. It felt anxious, it wasn’t working for me. Something in me told me I had to go to Cambodia. Angkor Wat was one of the reasons I came to Southeast Asia, and it felt like now was the time to go there. Plus I can always go back to Vietnam. If something isn’t sitting right for this trip then I should make a change so I do feel right. I’m not going to get everywhere right now anyway so why force it?

Maybe it had to do with everyone talking about getting together for Christmas and I needed to be somewhere that clearly reminded me why I’m not there with them. Maybe I had some residual feelings from the Amanoi. Or maybe I just don’t vibe with Vietnam like I expected and it was bumming me out. Whatever it was, I decided to go. It was one of those times where I just had to trust myself; it will all work out. And as always, it did.