A Chicken Sacrifice and a Trash Canyon

There are a couple of popular day trips from San Cristobal. I decided to do two that would give me a little taste of the region: one indigenous town and one natural wonder.

San Juan Chamula
Many people recommended going to see the nearby village of Chamula for its interesting church. Interesting did not properly prepare me for this experience.

The easiest way to get to Chamula is by minibus; it’s a quick 20 minute ride from the main market in San Cristobal. So naturally, I opted to walk, despite the fact that it had been less than a week since my 5 day jungle trek. Because.. I’m me? The walk was two hours all uphill on the side of a pretty major road. That probably sounds bad, but it was actually lovely – the landscape in Chiapas is beautiful, I was surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, I walked past sheep, goats and chickens that were hanging out on the side of the road, and the weather was perfectly sunny with a bit of a chill that made the exercise enjoyable.

When I got to Chamula I was at first entertained by the small town nestled in a valley. I walked past a few souvenir shops on my way to the main square. The church was not free to enter, so I kept walking around to see what else the town had to offer. Nothing. If it’s not a market day, there’s nothing going on in Chamula other than that church. People looked confused to see me wandering past their houses in a part of town tourists stay away from. So I went back, forfeited my pesos, and went inside the church.

I don’t even know if I should describe the church in case anyone reads this before they go see it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. So if you are one of those people stop reading now. There’s a reason they don’t allow pictures inside.

I did not look into the indigenous culture of Chamula before I went to the town so I had no idea what to expect. I walked into what looked like a colorful church to find long green grass spread out on the floor. Altars to dozens upon dozens of saints lined the walls on each side. I walked past worshipers who were on the ground facing the altar. They had used wax to stick small thin candles to the floor in even lines and were sitting behind them chanting. I stood at the front and observed the emphatic devotees. Then it happened.

A mall pulled a chicken out of a cardboard box. He held it by its head and feet, wings outstretched, and waved it in circles over the candles and over the man to his left, chanting the whole time. I watched these rotations oddly mesmerized, wondering what the man had done to need a chicken waved over his head, and as I was watching the man stopped moving the chicken and pulled hard at its neck. Oh my god, he just sacrificed it. I watched him kill this chicken. In a church.

I had to walk past the chicken on my way out – my scarred walk out – and saw it laying lifeless in its cardboard box. I immediately got in a collectivo and went home. After more time in San Cristobal I learned that the people of Chamula still use sacrifice all the time. It’s apparently worse on Sundays, when dozens of animals are sacrificed in and around the church. They also will still burn someone in the town square if he has mistreated the wrong person. It seems to be an old, lawless, backwards by modern standards society that is still allowed to exist somehow.

San Cristobal still has a vast indigenous population, and Chamula is just one example. There’s a reason it’s the home to the Zapatistas, another group I did not know much about before but learned more about while I was there. Their fight for indigenous rights has occurred during my conscious lifespan, a fact that I was shocked to learn simply because of how little I had heard about it living in the neighboring country. This is all part of the fascination of the Chiapas region, albeit perhaps less enjoyable than the beautiful landscape but worth looking into.

Cañón del Sumidero
Next I decided to focus on that beautiful landscape, so Ale and I went on the tour to Cañón del Sumidero. It started out gorgeous – towering limestone mountains rose out from the green water, reminiscent of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. Again I marveled at a landscape I did not know existed in Mexico. We saw giant iguanas, a huge crocodile chilling on the bank, and tons of birds. Then it turned sour. We saw a dead crocodile floating in the water. We saw rivers of trash that the boats simply drove around. We wondered how it was possible to have so much tourism money and boat traffic passing these problem areas and still have such a profound issue with garbage.

I tried to enjoy the ride. Our driver took us to a shrine inside a cave, underneath a multi-tiered waterfall, and past trees that floated off the side of the mountains, looking like they’d been put there by some talented CGI engineers. But I couldn’t ignore the trash. And then we reached the end of the river and our boat sidled up next to another boat that was selling snacks and drinks. We scoffed at the blatant attempt to get more money out of tourists, until we saw they were serving micheladas. Two please. If we had to go back through the river dump, we may as well boost the experience by sipping on a tasty michelada.

On the way back to San Cristobal we stopped in a town for an hour, another excuse to spend money. We took advantage of the time to get tacos and 1L micheladas (1 each) and the piñata that was in the Hostal Casa Gaia photo. Blame it on the michaeladas, but we were inspired to bring a little fun back to the hostel.

Would I recommend these excursions? Yes, hesitantly. The landscape of the canyon is beautiful but I would like to see some initiatives to clean it up before sending more people that way. And Chamula, well, it’s part of being in Mexico.


Charming Nagasaki

I wound up in Nagaski more by coincidence than desire to see the city, and now I view my short visit there as a testament to why I should follow even the smallest of signs from the universe.

It was the night after Matt left. I was alone in my hostel in Tokyo and unsure what my next steps would be. Should I stay in Japan and go south to Fukuoka? Or maybe hop over to South Korea or Hong Kong? Or go to the airport and find the next reasonably priced flight to somewhere random? (I still want to do this third option one day. Movies and TV shows always have people buying tickets at airports, who really does that? Hopefully me one day. I want to go to a major airport, look at the departure board, and pick a flight that sounds good. Maybe next trip.) Then I met my bottom bunk mate Franka who had just arrived in Japan and already discovered the frustration of accommodation. She had had to book a double room in Nagasaki, her next stop, for just herself because it was all that was left. So, she said, if I did end up going south to Fukuoka and wanted to come by Nagasaki for the weekend, she had an open bed in her room.

Once I decided to explore Kyushu after Tokyo, Franka’s Saturday arrival in Nagasaki – the day that I would leave Fukuoka – turned out to be perfect timing. Nagasaki made sense for my route and was supposedly a highlight of Kyushu, and with the option to share a room that would help cut costs for both of us it seemed like a logical next stop. So I messaged her to see if she still wanted a roommate. She did.

Nagasaki is a charming city. It has a mixture of cultural influences: it has Japan’s oldest Chinatown and was at one point in history a major Dutch trading post (hence Franka’s interest in going there, she’s from Amsterdam). It is a pleasant city to walk around, with enough activity to feel alive but not too much to overwhelm the small streets. There’s plenty to explore, from the picturesque Nagasaki River spanned by stone bridges to the covered arcade and surrounding streets lined with local shops and restaurants to the numerous temples and shrines. And for further excursions the streetcars are easy to navigate while adding to the delight of the city.

I had one of my favorite mornings in Japan in Nagasaki. Our fantastic hostel, Nagasaki International Hostel Akari, has a program where locals volunteer to take around visitors for an hour. Franka and I spent the morning with Ayumi, a sweet 29-year-old teacher who grew up in Nagasaki and is teaching herself English. She volunteered so she can practice the language. She took us first up to the Suwa Shrine – a great place to look out at the hills of the city – where she taught us the ritual of throwing a coin into the trough, bowing twice, clapping twice, and bowing once more, for good luck. This luck seemed to work when we visited the small zoo next door, home to many birds and monkeys, including one peacock who showed off his gorgeous feathers during a mating attempt with the females sharing his enclosure. Ayumi proclaimed us very lucky for getting to see this rare show. Next up was the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, which was meant to be just an exterior look but again luck took over and we were invited inside to see a samurai play about the kite festivals, and a lesson about not trespassing on a farmer’s land in order to win. We made our way to the Meganebashi Bridge (Spectacles Bridge), known to be the most beautiful of the stone bridges due to its pair of arches, where we jumped out onto the stones below for a picture. What was supposed to be an hour tour turned into a whole morning, and we were having such a good time that we asked Ayumi to join us for lunch. She took us to Bunjiro, a lunch spot that specializes in tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) and is clearly a local favorite. I don’t ever eat fried food at home but found this meal delicious. And the best food award goes to Japan.

While the sites and the lunch were amazing, the best part was seeing them all with Ayumi. I always value time spent with locals, getting to talk about what life is really like in the place I’m visiting, so I really appreciated that she took so much time out of her day to show us her city.

I could go on about other parts of Nagasaki – the peaceful Kofukuji Temple, the wonderful handmade ceramics shop where I got a sake set for a wedding gift, and the accidental but fun night of drinking games in the hostel with more new international friends – but that would make this already long blog post inordinate. There is one more thing though that I feel I have to relay.

After we said goodbye to Ayumi, Franka and I went to Nagasaki Peace Park. Nagasaki was the second and last city on which the United States dropped an atomic bomb at the end of World War II. I felt a need to see the site where this happened, like I felt the need to go to the museum in Hiroshima, to acknowledge and mourn this horrific event. Just like Hiroshima, Nagasaki has turned this event into a call for more peaceful relations across the world. The Peace Statue points one hand up to the sky, signaling the threat of nuclear attack, one hand to the left symbolizing peace, and has closed eyes in prayer for those who lost their lives. Nearby is a stone pillar marking the hypocenter of the explosion and preserved areas of land where debris is visible embedded in the dirt. There is another museum here but we chose not to go in; the park was enough for me, causing contemplation and reflection through its simple yet powerful monuments. It was an echo of how I felt in Hiroshima.

Just like the morning with the city and Ayumi, I valued the conversation with Franka even more than seeing the sites of Peace Park. As we explored we talked, an American and a Dutch, about the dropping of the atomic bomb, war, the attacks on 9/11, and other world conflicts. It was a candid conversation, serious yet still light, between two new friends from different parts of the world, and one of those moments that just happens in a trip like this. I really appreciate those moments.

Nagasaki was unexpected and maybe that’s part of the reason it was so great to me. So thank you Franka for leading me to this wonderful experience.

Life and Tourists on Inle Lake

I went straight from Bagan to Inle Lake. I considered doing the two-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, like most people do, but in the end decided to just take the bus straight there. Two reasons: 1) I am a little tired of jumping around and kind of just wanted to get there; 2) I am a lot tired of the Banana Pancake Trail and didn’t feel like being in another organized group of Westerners escorted through a prescribed tourist-friendly route.

There’s one problem with going straight to Inle: I arrived at 3 am. Why they run night buses here from 7 pm to 3 or 4 am I’ll never understand. Just leave at 10 and save everyone the hassle of waking up in the middle of the night. This is the case with all night buses to and from Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Kalaw, and Inle.

The early arrival meant that I had to book accommodation in advance. All the hotels are used to people showing up at that hour, but they also ask if you have a reservation. I heard from a few girls who tried to get a bed on the fly that our guest house in Bagan had said it was full when there were three open beds in the dorm; they blamed it on the receptionist just wanting to go back to sleep. So I booked on Agoda and suffered the pain of a jacked-up price and a booking fee. My advice to you would be if you chose to book ahead, call the place instead of booking online, then you should get the right rate.

After a nap in reception I was led to my room around 8:30 am, immediately showered, and treated myself to a latte and chocolate croissant lunch at a wifi-strong french cafe in town. I caught up on the news. It was a lovely leisurely morning. Then it was time to explore.

I rented a bike for the day at Lonely Planet-recommended Thu Thu (where I also took my laundry, so much cheaper than the hotel) and followed the road northwest around the top of the lake. Another day on another bike; cycling seemed to be the theme of Myanmar, but with such pretty scenery it makes sense.

And then the universe did its thing where it was like “no worries I got your back” and I made friends. I stopped to take a picture on a bridge, where someone else had also stopped, and we started talking. Another American! We cycled and chatted, and I learned that Riki was traveling with his wife Julie and a Swiss girl they’d just met Katarina. Soon after I met them as well and boom, just like that I had friends not only to bike around with for the day, but to drink wine with and get a boat with. Talk about right place right time. You win universe, you always do.

We biked down the one main road, eventually making it to a pagoda with a view of the lake. Finally, there it was. The town everyone stays in, Nyaungshwe, is not actually on the lake but a river that leads to it, so to see the lake you have to either bike an hour or take a boat. The ride home we suffered two flat tire casualties – Julie had to hitchhike home on a dump-truck and Katarina had to stop a few times to get enough air in her tires to make it back – so when we finally reached their hotel we made the executive decision to take a tuktuk to the winery. Nothing could hold us back from the wine.

The view from the winery was beautiful, but the wine itself was not. We each had our own tasting of four wines and no one liked the last three, but we decided the Sauvignon Blanc was good enough to split a bottle as we watched the sun go down. Conversation with new friends, wine, and a sunset, what more could you ask for?

The next morning was an early one; we left at 7 am for our boat tour around Inle Lake, the main attraction. The way the boats work is you book a boat for the day for a set price – 15,000 or 18,000 kyat for more stops (the one we chose) – whether you’re alone or have people to split it with. This is another reason it was so fortunate to meet three new friends; most boats take 4 people so I filled their last spot, and I didn’t have to pay for a boat all by myself, which also would have been pretty boring.

I have mixed feelings on the boat trip. I’ll start with the negative. Many of the stops felt like a tourist shopping trip. All of the local crafts – silversmith, lotus and silk weaving, cigar rolling – had shops attached, and one stop – the floating market, which isn’t even floating right now since it’s dry season – was purely shopping stalls selling all the same paraphernalia. Boats full of tourists disembarked and swarmed. Luckily we had left a little earlier than most so at each location we docked while it was still quiet and left when the masses arrived. The only saving grace was that seeing people make everything was actually interesting. They can roll a cigar in 20 seconds! I was impressed.

The positive part of the boat trip was the boat part. We rode past and through fascinating scenes, from the morning fisherman to entire towns built on stilts. I didn’t realize just how expansive these towns would be. We stopped at a monastery on stilts, and the restaurant we had lunch at slightly swayed with the movement of the water. There’s even the floating gardens, where crops grow in the water and people tend them from boats. It was incredible to see life lived on water in this way.

The strangest part had to be the Burmese cat village. Inthar Heritage House on Inle Lake has taken it upon themselves to make sure this breed of cat doesn’t go extinct; they have 35 cats right now, and those cats live both in part of the house and on their very own island with little cat-sized bungalows. Seriously. It was different, to say the least.

At the end of the day the boat ride was worth it. I’ve always enjoyed any day spent on a boat, where motors replace horns and canals are highways. But one question is still bugging me: in a country where cars drive on the right side of the road, why do boats drive on the left? Anyone know?

That night I had a final tea leaf salad dinner, which turned out to be my last tea leaf salad in Myanmar (so sad), and said bye to my new friends, as I’ve had to do so many times in the past 8 months. Such is the travel life. The next day I departed for Kalaw, happy to have seen Inle but ready to move on.

Mr. Steven’s Boat Trip on the Ayeyarwaddy River

My guest house had signs advertising a Sunset Boat Cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River. I’d heard some positive things about it and was curious to see a little more of the area, as well as break up some of the temple time, so I signed up to go my second afternoon in Bagan. Great decision.

Steven, a resident of Sausalito, CA for most of the year, started the Renegade River Adventures as a way for visitors to see a different part of Bagan, and in the end help it improve. We were led down to the boat by an adorable kid from Myanmar who was Steven’s right hand man; three more Bagan teenagers rounded out the crew. The trip had four stops: the first and second were alright, but it was the third stop that left a lasting impression, and the fourth was just a pleasant way to end a great afternoon.

The first stop was at a temple and cave, where the most notable thing was not the place itself but the response Steven’s visits have gotten. This place used to be littered with trash, like a lot of Myanmar unfortunately is, but since he started bringing his boat trip here (the first to do so) people have taken on the task of keeping the land clean. Now they’ve built a road to access the cave – this is when I heard Steven refer to the new tourists arriving in buses as “air-conditioned tourists,” a term I thought was quite fitting – and a few people have popped up to sell trinkets. The second stop was at a beach for swimming. They set up chairs on the sand and we chatted with beer (sold on the boat by the boys).

The third stop was at a village. Steven’s trip is the only one that visits this particular village, and he is friends with all its residents. As we approached he cut the motor and told us a little about what was about to happen: we each received a lunch box full of oranges and a laminated picture. This village only eats what it grows, and it doesn’t grow any citrus, so there is a hole in the people’s diets. Kids love the oranges and now know that we will be bringing them; we were allowed to hand them out as we saw fit but had to come back to the boat sans oranges.

The picture was a person in the village we had to find. The people who live there have no pictures, of themselves or their families, so Steven collects the pictures that tourists take, prints them out, and then asks the next visitors to bring them to the person so they have a picture of themselves, and in order for the cycle to continue we had to take pictures of people while we were there.

I was unsure what to think of this when I was handed my picture, but as soon as I got off the boat and was surrounded by kids who wanted to show me the way to my guy I was wholly on board. I had three little escorts to find Uzo, in exchange for oranges of course, and once I reached his house I realized he was ready for me. He ushered me in to sit down and promptly placed steaming hot corn on the cob in front of me. He motioned to eat. He grabbed another tourist off the street to join us – Filip- and motioned for him to eat too. He also gave us peanuts with tea leaves and poured us hot tea. We used hand signals and a few words to communicate. He showed me his old Burmese currency and I gave him a US one dollar bill, which he tucked into his shirt pocket. He gave me a Burmese cigar. He showed us through pantomime that his wife was out harvesting peanuts like the ones we were eating. His son joined us, 7 years old, in school, and asked if I would like thanakha – a paste made from tree bark that is worn all over Myanmar for healthy skin and sun protection. He took me upstairs to apply some, and they showed us their altar to Buddha. I took pictures of them together, and they asked for a picture of me with the boy. I have never had an interaction with a local family like this. I was touched.

Filip needed to find his guy so we said goodbyes and thank you’s all around. I hope whoever gets Uzo’s picture that I took has as positive an experience as I did with him. More people helped us find Phillip’s person, and after an exchange of photos we had to head back to the boat, but not before we were stopped by another man who ushered us into his home to meet his family and have more corn and peanuts and tea leaves. They already had another pair of tourists there too. A teenage girl pointed to the ring on my finger, one of the two I got at the St. Kilda market in Melbourne, so I put it on her finger. She put hers on mine, and that’s how we left it. Every time I look at my left hand I am reminded of the kind spirit of the people in this village. It was an incredible experience that I was sad to leave, but the time had come to get back on the boat. Sunset was almost here.

We ended our day on a little sand island watching the sun sink into the river, Filip and I puffing on our gifted Burmese cigars. It was beautiful (even more than over the temples) and a perfect end to the day.

The next day I stopped by the local photo shop, Linn, and copied the pictures I had taken into the folder “Steven.” I hope they bring some joy to the people I met like they brought joy to me.

I Got Healthy in the Mountains of the Cameron Highlands

The ride to the Cameron Highlands was rejuvenating. It didn’t take long till we were winding our way up tight mountain roads passing rich greenery. I read for a bit but passed a lot of time listening to music staring out the window. It was another crazy drive that reminded me of places I’ve enjoyed on my trip so far: Baños, Minca, Dalat were all approached on similar drives. It was a happy connection. I smiled. I already felt better up in the mountains.

When I got off the bus I was pleasantly surprised by the temperature; it was cool. The first thing I did at Father’s Guesthouse was put on jeans, a sweater and a hat. I was cozy and content. I’d missed a bit of a chill after all those weeks in sweltering heat. My evening was calm on purpose: blog, curry, reading. A final attempt to feel good again.

My one full day in the Cameron Highlands I did the highlight: the Mossy Forest tour with Cameron Secrets. We started in the tea plantation hills overlooking the whimsical rows of tea plants. There were some low misty clouds that created a fantastical atmosphere. The whole scene was very photogenic. After a brief lesson in tea production from our guide we went to a viewpoint, the highest peak in the region. The clouds had cleared and we were lucky to see nothing but blue skies over rolling green hills all around us. It was time to explore those hills, so after a short drive we were in the Mossy Forest.

The Mossy Forest is exactly what it sounds like. Trees and paths are blanketed in green moss. Interesting plants spring up from the soil and grow down from the branches. We trudged on a muddy path around, up, down, up again, in a swirling pattern only our guide knew, being told stories along the way about the forest, unique plants, conservation efforts, and parts of life in Malaysia in general.

The last stop felt most touristy: a tea factory that is supposedly still functioning but was closed today due to a low tea harvest, and the tea shop. We had an hour here to enjoy the tea and the view, aka buy things. I had a peach iced tea and it was nice but nothing Lipton couldn’t do. The view was pretty though.

After tea most of the group got dropped at a nearby town to walk back to Tanah Rata. I would have normally joined them but I was so close to healthy that I decided not to push it. Home for me. It was the right choice. I had an Indian pancake with veggies for lunch in town and spent most of my afternoon on the computer, blogging and editing a video from Fraser Island. It felt like a different life already and only 2 months had passed. I had dinner with the nice people from my tour and we played a game of Pictionary before bed.

I love these quiet interludes between louder adventures. They relax me, make me feel happy and at peace.

The Cameron Highlands was perfectly timed. It was a short stop on my short Malaysia trip but without it I don’t know when I would have felt better. I left the Cameron Highlands feeling healthy, happy, and ready for Bangkok. The only problem was I had to go to Penang first.

Maya Bay and Our Last Day on Phi Phi Island

We were slow to get moving January 1st. It was our last day with Kate and Garrett, and their last day on Phi Phi, so we knew we wanted to make it to Maya Bay, where The Beach was filmed. Eventually we got going, just in time to get on a 2:00 boat.

The boat out to Maya Bay is another organized snorkeling tour but we were hoping to avoid some crowds by going late in the day on New Year’s Day. The first stop was Monkey Beach. This is actually just a small beach that has aggressive monkeys on it. Tourists in bathing suits unload out of their boats to take pictures with monkeys eating snacks. It’s a strange sight and Kara and I weren’t so into it. Kate and Garrett got less into it after Garrett was ruthlessly attacked and bitten by a monkey! He had to get 12 preventative rabies shots when he got home. Sorry Garrett! Stupid monkeys.

Next up was a drive-by past a cave. Not too impressive, but the Phi Phi Leh island was beautiful to ride around. We stopped for some snorkeling and it actually was pretty nice. We jumped off the two-story boat into warm clear water and swam around with the fish for about half an hour. There were so many fish it was like swimming in a fish tank. The coolest part was probably the silver school of fish darting around near the surface of the water.

Then it was time for the main event. The boat turned a corner into Maya Bay and shuttled us to shore. There were still a good amount of people around so we did the quick walk through the jungle to the opposite side, which was more or less just a viewpoint out to another rock island and the sea. By the time we got back though the beach had started to clear out. It was nice that we were some of the last people on the beach; we were able to enjoy it without the crowds and boats everywhere. It is a stunning beach. You wonder if it’s really worth the hype, and it’s pretty damn near perfect. As the sun was starting to go down there was a glowing light coming through the entrance to the bay that created a beautiful, peaceful scene. We got back to the boat before the sun went down and were served fried rice as we started to go back home. Once the sun set it was instantly rocky and colder, and we were happy we hadn’t waited too much longer.

We had a low key night, fitting after the night before, and just hung out at a chill bar, Sunflower, near our hotel playing scrabble and sipping on crazy big frozen mojitos. The next morning Kate and Garrett stopped by to say goodbye on their way out. It was so fun having friends around for a little bit. It’s incredible seeing friends again after so long, and in such remote places, and feeling like it hasn’t been all that long. It felt weird how not weird it felt to see them. It was a perfect time to join together too; an epic New Years party, some chill time in Tonsai and Phi Phi, and an afternoon of snorkeling and beautiful beaches.

Kara and I had one day left on Ko Phi Phi. It was probably one day more than we really needed there but we took advantage of a nothing day to just chill. We had a gorgeous view from our hotel’s infinity pool and spent most of our time there talking about her upcoming wedding (yayyy!) and my thoughts on the next few months. It was more of that sister time that I was so excited to get when she arrived and it was a perfect setting for it.

That evening we ventured to the other side of the island to check out a different beach and again found a nice happy hour spot. This time we were sitting on reclining cushions listening to reggae watching the fire performers practice. We hung out there for hours, through dinner, and eventually got coaxed into the fire show. Kara’s guy had barely had time to practice but he didn’t need it; clearly the pro, he spun a firey stick around Kara in double time. My guy had the poi balls and as he spun them in patterns around me he asked about my single status and if I would wait for him. I teased him about needed to trap girls in fire to hit on them and told him just don’t burn me and we can talk. It was a lively way to end our time on Ko Phi Phi.

My Day with Sokoma

Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. The main part of town was manageable to walk around and the rest is easily accessible as long as you don’t mind a bumpy motorbike ride on uneven dirt roads.

When the boat was pulling up to Battambang I was shocked to see two dozen men on the sloped shore holding up signs for accommodation and tuktuks. “You need tuktuk? Anywhere in the city 50 cents!” “Need accommodation? So-and-so-hotel, best rooms, cheap!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the site and then walk straight past it. I had no accommodation but the map looked like I could walk to the few options in my Lonely Planet, which was right. It was no more than 10 minutes from the boat to the guesthouses. First one, full. Second, full. Shit. Do you have a recommendation? Try 333 around the corner. Dorms are full, but there’s a private available. How much? $4. Good enough.

My private room in 333 was not as luxurious as it sounds, nor as private. I had a roommate: a gecko. The bathroom had a shower head on the wall with just two options – on or off, no hot water here – and the toilet flushed by pouring water into it from the bucket sitting under a tap on the floor. It smelled awful. The hard bed had an old fleece blanket with an unfamiliar cartoon on it for warmth, which was pretty unnecessary given the constant heat in Battambang. I opted to sleep in my sleep-sack with the fan pointed directly at me. I did have a TV! A generous 10-inch TV from the 80’s. I managed to find some English channels so I got all caught up on The Voice and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (they really went downhill after 1).

I had two days in Battambang between the social days of Siem Reap and seeing my sister in Thailand so I wanted to spend these alone. Meeting people traveling is great, but I sometimes miss the alone time that I expected to have so much of when I decided to travel alone for so long. This was one of those times I made sure to get in some me time. Except for the 8 hours I spent with a 60-year-old Cambodian man. That kind of break in alone time though is exactly what I like when I take days in towns by myself like this.

My first morning in Battambang I was on my way to find food when a man on a motorbike pulled up asking if I wanted a driver for the day. $10. I said I was going to rent my own bike, I did actually want to get out and see the temples around the city that day, but he had some good points about gas and potential for the bike to break and he was also a guide. When I said I needed food first he said he would take me somewhere to eat, then we’d go. Alright sir I was convinced.

Great decision. I had a fantastic day with Sokoma. He was more of a guide than I ever would have expected. As we drove around he pointed out typical Cambodian architecture – house on stilts for the floods, many windows around the one floor above, the underneath serving as a living space in the dry season – and showed me things that were not just the main highlights. He took me to Cambodia’s only vineyard for some wine, brandy, grape juice, and ginger juice tasting (it wasn’t even 11 am yet; the wine was like fruit juice but the brandy was pretty strong); we stopped at a rice factory so I could see how rice kernels get separated from the plant; he told me all the crops that were growing from rice to peanuts and showed me how two kinds of plants close their leaves when you touch them; he pointed out chili’s growing on the side of the road; he stopped so I could try a fried cricket from a street-side stand (really really crunchy, not much flavor).

Along the way we talked about Cambodia: religion of the area and his own beliefs; how people lived and farmed outside of the city, with so little water around; the fact that they eat dog and apparently it is quite tasty, although I still couldn’t bring myself to try it; and most interestingly what it was like to live during the Khmer Rouge. He has seen decades of life in Cambodia and asked me if I wanted to know more. I did. It was a fascinating conversation that was unfortunately cut short by the spectacle of the bats, but I feel so lucky to have had it.

And of course he took me to the main sites: the Wat Banan temple, where I climbed up over 300 stairs to see what temples really look like when they’re not preserved like they are at Angkor Wat; the supposedly oldest temple in the area (whose name I completely forget); the Killing Caves, the site where thousands of Cambodians were murdered by being dropped into a cave; and above it the Phnom Sampeau temple complex, where I helped a monk practice his English. This is also where the bats made a mass exodus at dusk in search of food. We watched for 15 minutes then chased them down the road on the bike so I could see the groups of bats weaving their search patterns. Truly majestic, if a bit creepy. We also made a bonus stop because we had some extra time (apparently I move faster than most people he takes around) – a Buddhist shrine deep inside a cave, which I descended into alone. It was silent, dark, eerie, and only by the light of a flashlight could I see the giant reclining Buddha against the wall. I was proud of myself for making it there but the images of the robbery attempt just a day and a half before made me paranoid so I got out pretty quick. Not many people see this place though so again I felt lucky have had Sokoma as my guide.

We got back after dark and I felt like I had seen everything and way more than I set out to see. I thanked Sokoma. He was truly fantastic. Also don’t worry, I filmed pretty much the entire day on my GoPro. Watch out for the video in the next few months (tons of footage to edit).

The rest of my time in Battambang was pretty relaxed. I did a self-guided walking tour of the architectural history of the city based on a map by Khmer Architecture Tours. I sat at a cafe in the air conditioning blogging and backing up pictures. I had a final Cambodian meal at White Rose, the place Sokoma had taken me for breakfast, on a balcony overlooking the night activity on the street below. The next day I would leave at 8 am for a lengthy land trip down to the coast of Thailand.

I reflected on my time in Cambodia. I loved it. I felt sad to leave, there was so much more to see there. I knew I had to get to Thailand to meet up with friends but wished I had more time. It felt very different from leaving Vietnam, a place I knew I had missed things but felt okay with departing. I still haven’t ripped the Cambodia pages out of my guidebook just in case I end up back there. One day Cambodia, I’ll see you again.

Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay

I hit a wall when I tried to write about Halong Bay. I think it’s been so hard for me to write about because I’m torn between two posts: 1) The majestic place that is Halong Bay; 2) My mental state in Halong Bay. I’m very aware that what I’m writing goes out to the online world, so it can be hard to know how to approach these things. As I’ve written more, I have found myself wanting to portray the places and helpful tips on seeing them for other travelers, just in case someone stumbles across my blog when looking up a place (as I have with others), but I also have to be true to myself. Ultimately this blog is my record of my trip. So I’ll just have to include both posts somehow. I’ll start with Halong Bay itself.

Halong Bay is one of those places that is entirely deserving of all of its praise. It’s Vietnam’s answer to New Zealand’s fjordlands. It’s the end of the world. The way to visit Halong Bay is on a boat tour, which takes you in between soaring karst mountains that rise directly out of the water. I found myself just sitting at the front of the top deck staring in awe at the sight all around me.

I chose a quieter tour on purpose, opting to avoid any mention of “party boat.” I was picked up at my hostel and, with my four new travel companions, driven 3 hours to the dock. Our junk was an in-between: not new, but not falling apart. Since there were so few of us I was upgraded to a private first level room, complete with my own balcony! Luxury. Lunch was served as we departed for the cave, a main tourist attraction. The cave is overrated. It probably was cool before it was Disneyfied with colorful lights. We were herded around with all the other tours being shown the same rock formations and what they supposedly looked like; a couple, a lion, a boob.

The afternoon was dedicated to getting to where we would dock for the night, which was a perfect way to spend it really. It was such an enjoyable ride. Upon arrival we had some free time to kayak around wherever we pleased. The water was so calm and the mountains so huge around us. After dinner on the boat we all called it a night rather early, which was fine with me since we had an early morning for the next leg of the trip.

I chose to do a night in Lan Ha Bay on an island – based on a great recommendation from a friend – so after breakfast we took a bus across Cat Ba Island to board our next boat out into Lan Ha Bay. We puttered through the largest floating village in this area; an impressive array of houses and shops all bobbed on top of the water, and I wondered how the families raised kids somewhere where they had to balance on beams to walk around. It wasn’t much further through more karst mountains until we reached our private island: Monkey Island.

There is just one hotel on the island made up of bamboo bungalows set back from a small beach with a gorgeous view. I had my own bungalow just steps from the sand. Lunch was served – hot pot this time, a group activity – then free time for kayaking. This water, much closer to open ocean, fought back against me way more than in Halong Bay, but it made for a more rigorous kayaking adventure. Later that afternoon our guide led us on a hike up and over the mountain to a beach on the other side where the monkeys liked to hang out. Turns out monkeys really like white bread; we saw tons of them up close. They started out cute, but once a new group showed up and provoked them we saw their mean side.

The evening was another quiet one, and the next day we started the long journey home early. Boat to bus to boat to bus – it took all day to get back to Hanoi.

This three day trip was a peaceful getaway in amazing scenery. I definitely recommend spending a night in Lan Ha Bay. It was so much quieter than Halong Bay so it felt like a real escape, and it’s still stunningly beautiful. I felt so lucky to be there.

So the second part.

I started the Halong Bay adventure unsure of my tour decision. My resentment of tours upon leaving Australia carried over into Vietnam a little bit and I spent most of the ride there thinking I should have gone about this in a different way. But maybe there is no right way to do Halong Bay. Then as we were gliding through the rock formations I decided it was nothing to harbor over because look where I was. The thing that really mattered was that Halong Bay was worth it in every way, no matter how I got there.

All I could think was: “This is good for me, this is what I needed. I should really start believing in myself more. Isn’t that what the yogi said anyway? Just keep going, I’m strong, I can do it.”

Everything that I had experienced in Vietnam shook me in ways that are hard to talk about. I needed to get out of South Vietnam, I needed to get out of the craziness of Hanoi, and I needed to get into serene, gorgeous nature and be by myself. I spent a lot of time just thinking, admiring where I was, and working through what I was feeling. I meditated both mornings with pleasing results. I came around to travel decisions that felt right for me, most immediately that I needed to go to Cambodia.

I was sad to leave Lan Hay Bay but confident in the decision I had made to go to Cambodia. Sometimes I just need a little alone time in nature and everything feels right again.

I Was Supposed to Kayak in Noosa but Oh Well

The last stop on my pre-booked adventure tour was a 2 day 3 night kayaking and camping trip in the Noosa Everglades. I knew nothing about Noosa before I visited Happy Travels in Cairns, but they offered to throw it in for free and I like kayaking so why not. But I was never really excited about it, and after the Whitsundays and Fraser Island tours, and seeing the same familiar faces in Airlie Beach, Rainbow Beach, and the Greyhound bus, I was feeling a little exhausted and over these prescribed tours. I felt like I was being herded along with the rest of the foreigners, only seeing the parts of Australia that the travel agencies wanted me to see exactly how they wanted me to see them. This wasn’t the type of travel I had done in South America and it wasn’t what I had wanted to do here or for the rest of my trip.

So when I called the Noosa Everglades company before getting on my bus to confirm the shuttle would pick me up and they told me that I was too late to confirm, the shuttle was running only at 1:00 that day and I wouldn’t get in till after 3, so my only option was to take a local bus and a AUD 30 cab ride out to them, I had no qualms about changing my plans. I took this as a sign from the travel fates that I shouldn’t force the kayaking trip just because a travel agency told me to. I wasn’t into it, the fates didn’t want to make me go, so I dropped it.

Within a matter of minutes I booked two nights at the Nomads in Noosa, where it seemed like most of my Fraser Island tour was also headed, and decided to spend the third night in Brisbane on my way to Byron Bay, a city I was previously going to skip entirely.

Noosa was hot and full of the same gap year kids that were starting to irk me. I found great company in Guusje, Esra, Elsenoor, and Tom, a group of Dutch travelers with who I hiked the coastal trail, made delicious and cheap dinners with lots of veggies, and experienced at least a small taste of Noosa nightlife before feeling too old and going to bed.

Noosa itself isn’t that much. It’s a quaint town with a wonderful coastal walk leading from Noosa Beach to Sunshine Beach. This was the highlight and really the only thing to do unless you wanted to shell out the money to surf or kayak (a 1 day Everglades trip was AUD 85-185). Otherwise it was young backpackers participating in wet t-shirt contests and hanging out at the Nomads pool. In short, it wasn’t for me.

But I was happy with my change of plans. I chilled in Noosa, saved money with grocery store meals with Guusje and Esra, and got myself excited about breaking away from this crowd by choosing to go to Brisbane. It was the right decision.

Choosing a Salt Flat Tour Company

There are so many Salt Flat tour operators to choose from, and there seem to be just as many positive reviews on each one as there are negative. So how the hell do you know which one to go with?

Short answer: you don’t. You just pick one and hope for the best.

I opted to book through my hostel in La Paz, Wild Rover, who works with Extreme Expeditions. I went this route for a few reasons: first, I figured a reputable hostel would work with a good company for the many tourists its hosts; second, after doing some quick research I learned that this tour was priced reasonably compared to a few others I was looking into (Kanoo and Cordillera); and third, the process was incredibly easy – I booked and paid for the tour and my bus to Uyuni all at the hostel, and with credit card (finally somewhere that takes credit card!). If I was to do it again though, I probably would not have booked through Extreme Expeditions.

Why? Because I ran into other tours and envied them a little, mainly because of their guide. Everyone drives around in the same cars, eats the same food, and sleeps in the same places. The only difference really is the people you are with. Your driver acts as your guide in the Salt Flats, but depending on who your driver is you may not believe that. Once I referred to the driver as guide to someone who had been on a different tour and they said, “Oh we didn’t have a guide, just a driver.” That’s who I meant. Our driver was a semi-guide; he told us the basics about where we were but not much more than that. He also only spoke Spanish, so even if he had tried to explain more it would have been lost since the majority of my group didn’t speak a word of Spanish.

We met another group our first night who had a bilingual guide with them. She told them history of the sites and came up with the ideas for their Salt Flat pictures that we were all a little jealous of; the typical ones that play with perspective, ones of people standing on cars or crushing each other. We had no such pointers.

Then we heard another guide at one of our stops go into detailed explanation about the rock formations we were surrounded by; how they had been formed, why they got their name, theories about their appearance and the truth behind it. My entire group eavesdropped. As we walked back to our jeep, Tony remarked, “Now that’s a guide.” He was right.

For those who are curious, this guide was with Red Planet. I had heard of Red Planet and when I got off my bus I realized that the majority of English speakers on the bus had booked with them. This is when I started to think maybe I had chosen wrong. Maybe I should’ve pushed for an English guide or a more prominently reviewed company, if I could have found one. Going back to what I said in the beginning, if I had to book a tour again, I probably would book with Red Planet just from overhearing this one guy. But honestly I don’t know if a different company would have changed anything in the end. I really do think it is just luck of the draw.

So I was in the middle of the Salt Flats thinking about all of this and I made the decision to not be negative about it. Here is my conclusion on Salt Flat tour operators:

For everyone who booked through a smaller company like Extreme Expeditions, we were all thrown together anyway just to make sure that each jeep had its 6 people. Me and Sylvia were in one office, while Tony, Petra, Grant, and Marnie were in another, and since that totalled 6 we were all put in a car together. So in all likelihood unless you book with Red Planet or Cordillera you will end up in a truck that bears one of many names; ours actually said Alkaya Expeditions.

There is a range of possibilities of how this will end up: great and informative, like the two we were jealous of; middle of the road, like ours; or absolutely horrible. I had heard horror stories of drivers showing up drunk, making tourists drive, and threatening to turn the jeep around and take everyone back to Uyuni. At least I didn’t have one of those guys.

We had middle of the road, but I think a higher up middle of the road. We got some information on where we were, had no major issues, and I really do think that our guide cared about our group but was discouraged at our inability to communicate just like we were. So did this ruin the experience? Absolutely not, the Salt Flats are amazing no matter what. Could it have been more informative? Probably. Was there any way to guarantee that it would be? I doubt it. If anyone has any ideas on better ways to find and review these companies please share with as many people as possible. It’s an incredible experience and it is unfortunate that it is possible to come out of it with a negative opinion due to the luck of the draw with your tour company.

If anyone reads this who is planning on going and ends up with a middle of the road guide, I think the best advice I could give you would be to look around you. So what if you don’t know the details of how that stone ending up looking like a tree, the point is that you saw it, and years from now you most likely wouldn’t remember those details anyway but you will never forget the wonder you felt at seeing it.