These are my favorite vegan restaurants in and around Chiang Mai's Old CityRead More
Someone read my mind in Malaysia. He leaned out of his top bunk, looking at me with complete sincerity and declared that “Singapore was soul-less.” I was glad he said it first, though my word of choice would be different. ‘Sterile,’ is what I would choose. Be it soul-less or sterile, I still liked it after the crush and dust and chaos of the rest of Southeast Asia. What does that say about me? I’m still struggling to decide, but I believe the heart, the temperament even, can be compartmentalized and split between the wild and the cultivated. Such is Singapore- a steely, pristine jewel that sits in the midst of chaos, serenely in the midst of the Indian ocean.
Getting to Singapore from Malaysia came in the form of a 40 minute flight- which is pretty much the ideal flying time. I was fully ready to mark the airport as my permanent residence, hoping no one would notice, and would, were it not for the $70 I had already dropped on two nights at a hostel. Singapore is blessed by a remarkably efficient and clean and high powered subway and train system that took me from the warm, clean, technological womb of airport safety and into the city up to little India, where my hostel was located. I walked the two blocks to the building and was surprised by the vastness of it all, the color of the buildings in Little India and the scent from a multitude of different curries.
Other areas, too, were vibrant in their representation of self- Chinatown was a bustling, red lantern filled zone packed with tourists and doodads for sale and topped with orange tile roofs while a gorgeous Indian temple flanked its left side. The wide, wide wide streets were lined with charming buildings, occasionally with architecture reminiscent of colonial style, most new and steely, covered in vines and other greens.
I took a day to walk from Little India to the Bay area, where I fully accepted that Singapore is a city from the future. The suspension bridge over the river was an absolute feat of engineering- its skeletal steel structure looked as fluid as flowing rivulets of water and the whole thing lit up in a symphony of colors. Gardens by the Bay was just as exciting. It was quiet and serene, and I was happy about this because my pit stains were massive and it doesn’t seem like Singaporeans sweat at all. The gardens were punctuated by the ever recognizable ‘techno trees’ covered in plants that light up at night. I was less enthralled with those than I was the actual plant exhibits, including one- the silver forest- which is just masses of those beautiful silvery palms. The tranquility here is not displaced- Singapore itself is tame. I never felt like I was going to get run over and the cars always left me a wide breadth while passing. I headed back to Chinatown for a bite to eat and ended up with a raw vegan pad thai that was 17 Singapore dollars. As a makeshift grace, I fervently prayed that Singapore dollars were nothing like US ones.
Singapore left a bit of an impression like Malaysia: vast and wide and high- it is easy to feel like an ant here. It is easier to feel like an ant- and a poor one at that- at the Marina Bay Sands, where I found myself on foot, desperate for a view of the city. After walking for what seemed like 2 and a half years, I found the tower that housed the elevator and for 28 Singapore dollars zipped on up- my ears popping from the pressure. The view was spectacular with everything glittering and reflected in the bay and tourists leaning in various poses of anxiety against the clear glass wall that keeps you from tumbling into the thick, Singapore air. Mission fulfilled, I walked home through the quiet, marvelous city, though it was difficult because some streets are so wide they require a reroute to an underground pedestrian tunnel.
My scariest experience in Singapore was checking my bank account and doing so made my hair stand on end. I vowed only to walk and to eat cheaply, which was how I ended up at the best stocked 7/11 I’ve ever seen in my life the evening of my second day. There I bought a cup of noodles and a vacuum sealed ear of corn (inexplicably from Chiang Mai- bittersweet) for dinner. The 7/11 was in the heart of Little India and it was a swift departure from the business clad downtown world. Surrounded by almost exclusively men and the unfamiliar dialect tones of Pashtun and Hindi, I started to grow nervous, as if I had shed the hard, shiny shell of courage that I had built up and shellacked meticulously during my adventures in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia had suddenly crumbled after softening in a familiar environment. Catching my own silliness, I relaxed and began to appreciate the vibrancy of Little India in all of its colorful buildings, street art, and clean streets as the men ignored me and flowed into a nearby temple to pray.
On my last morning, I strolled through more narrow and vertical alleyways that were lined with well maintained shops and eateries and shrouded- much like Malaysia- under little arched corridors that ran perpendicular to the shops entrances. Singapore seemed in harmony with its encroaching nature and there were lush green palms everywhere- a jungle removed and then superimposed on the city that replaced it. My time in Singapore city had come to an end, but I wasn’t particularly bummed, after all- that just meant more time at the airport.
I didn’t believe in love at first sight...until I saw Yangon.
From the air, it looked vaguely Thailand-ish, the packed roofs of its pastel colored suburban area as colorful as rows of smarties candy. As we tilted in the wind and eventually landed with a massive thud, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never even considered visiting Myanmar- nee Burma- much less touring it with my Aunt and Uncle. Myanmar/Burma, until recently, was largely off the beaten path of tourists due to issues with the corrupt government.
It is a widely held prediction, however, that Myanmar is going to blossom as a tourist destination in the next couple of years. Yangon itself is quite cosmopolitan. It is home to 7.2 million people- Burmese, Myanmar minority groups and many foreigners. It is the seat of rapid development in Myanmar and an established city in its own right- a fact that surprised me as our van sped down impressively large promenades, lined with cheerful red and white alternating curbsides and lush and cared-for green medians.
Men and women in sarongs strolled past, many young couples shyly arm in arm. Nearly everyone un-self consciously donned soft taupe paste smeared all over their cheeks and foreheads, a traditional Burmese form of sunscreen and skincare from the native Thanaka tree. This protects the skin against sun poisoning (among other things...like epilepsy).
I gazed in amazement as the van sped through the city, as Yangon proper is mercifully free of motorbikes (banned), but subject to the *dings* of bicyclists and the shouts of overly bold pedestrians who darted in and out of start and stop traffic. I gazed out the window at crops of tall, wide buildings. Many were shabby and whitewashed and had been overtaken by an unlikely duo of black mold and cheerful flower boxes.
A soft layer of taupe dust covered the sidewalks and rose into the air as people strolled down the sidewalks. Buses pulled up alongside of the van- they were spare, I noted. Their worn sides peeled paint and their windows were missing, kind of like gap teeth in a cheerful smile. People hung out of their windows, trying to catch a gulp of fresh air. Some stared at us from their seats. The gazes were not particularly friendly, nor were they menacing, just matter of fact. As we looped through residential neighborhoods, I noticed that faded blue satellites were ubiquitous and perched precariously on the sides of multistory apartment buildings- like alien, electronic beetles.
Dogs wandered autonomously through the streets, unfazed by the traffic or by sharing the road with people who paid little attention to them. They were on their own private missions and led their own private lives, and they all looked like they were part of the same family with their pointed snouts and perky, triangle ears, smooth coats and friendly, alert tails.
The streets of Yangon were diverse, to say the least. Some were quiet alleyways with not much happening. Others buzzed with activity. I glanced down one to find a full blown hacky-sack tournament, complete with a volleyball net and more than fifty cheering spectators.
The central downtown area featured the colonially inspired city hall- a grand white affair with spires. Directly facing it is an open lawn not unlike something you’d see in New York or Washington DC. In the midst of the picnicking families and the shy couples, there is a central obelisk that is supposed to represent Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948. I couldn’t help but to see the Washington Monument reflected in it.
As we strolled on past the open green lawn, we were greeted by more colonial architecture, completely reminiscent of the age of the Brits. Under the imposing red, brick city hall, there was a far stretching and lively food market packed with roasted sweet potatoes, peanuts, salads, noodle bowls, cuts of meat and seasoning. It was sensory overload- the scents and sights surprisingly different from that of their Thai neighbor. As I oogled all of the goods and swayed to the sound of the bells that sugarcane sellers use to attract their customers, I noticed someone take a picture of me.
The waterfront of Yangon was something else. The parking lot was littered with candy colored plastic chairs. Food stalls and trucks were crammed into the already busy space and they sold everything from sausage to ice cream. Iron bridges with precarious wooden steps- missing in some places- linked one side to the next as the river flowed in between. It was- in the late afternoon sunshine- like a rollicking channel of gold. Seagulls rode the wind in a circular pattern above a certain old lady who gave me a toothless smile and offered up a bag of seed. Other vendors sat in the hot sunlight, their backs against the iron beams of the bridge, peddling their wares. Long, wide bellied boats sat delicately on the bobbing river, their captains waiting to ferry people back and forth. Once the boat was full, the engine sputtered to life with a belch of pure black exhaust and the whole crew lurched forward, bouncing over the glittering water. The waterfront smelled like garbage, charcoal, salt and seagulls.
As we flew through different sections of the city, my aunt and uncle commented that it reminded them of Mumbai. I had never been but it was clear to me that we were in the Indian quarter as we passed a beautifully adorned Hindu temple, covered in pastel faces. In other parts of the city, the French quarter, I was reminded of lower Manhattan. There were actual brownstones here that wouldn’t be out of place in the East Village, except for the enormous amount of dust and the women serenely walking with enormous piles or bowls on top of their heads.
As the sun slips lower and lower into the sky, we decided that it was time to visit Yangon’s jewel: the Shwedagon Pagoda. By the time we arrived, it was dark and the stars glowed. We took a lift to the top and stepped out, discarding our shoes among the hundreds of others. We stepped onto the still-warm floor of the pagoda and were taken back immediately by the pure volume of gold. Gold spires abounded, a forest of them around the central pagoda. Worshipers murmured softly in reverence as they circulated, clockwise, around and around the pagoda. It seemed an entirely separate world from the hustle and dust of Yangon proper. This is why Yangon is so magical: it's a city of dust and gold, the rush of the crowd and the quiet reverence of the pagoda.
There was something about the crunch of the leaves, the smell of the peat, the big moat and the sounds of bicycle dings in wooded area around Angkor Wat that reminded me of the park in the town where I grew up. There was a weird familiarity about it all, but there was also an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder that smacked me in the face as I rounded the corner of the moat and saw the outline of Angkor Wat against a cloudless sky.
My day did not start smoothly. The park was a short bike ride from my hostel so I peddled out at 7 am, only to find that I had to buy a ticket at the office...three miles away. So, down the national highway I went on my creaky bike, riding in the red dust on the side of the road under the punishing sun, dodging enormous water trucks and cows who had no qualms about cutting me off.
The ticket office was swarmed at 8am and we were funneled into lines. To buy a ticket for Angkor, you have to decide how many days you want to spend there. One day was $20, three days was $40 and five was $60 (in the few weeks since I visited, they've actually doubled the price. Talk about timing).
I thought that anything over three was overkill unless I decided I wanted to be an archeologist, so I went with the three day pass. It was a bit like going through customs at the airport- they used a little webcam to take an unflattering picture and pasted it on a small card-stock rectangle. I was ushered out to make room for the jostling crowds so I went to reclaim my bike that was chained to a sign in front of the office on the side of the highway. To get to the other side of the highway, I had to push it through a grassy ditch as street vendors laughed at me. Then I had to ride it (walk it) the three miles back up to Angkor.
By the time I arrived (officially a ticketed visitor) it was 9:45 am, and the sun was brutally hot, though the moat gave off a nice breeze. Me and about 300 other excited tourists walked down the long promenade through the front gate of Angkor. It all unfolded in front of me. It was sort of shocking, no pretty much completely shocking- the majesty and the grandeur of it was mind-blowing. Visually, it’s stunning but, historically, it’s almost unimaginable: Angkor Wat was built in the twelfth century by over 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. The limestone used to construct the temples was mined from a mountain almost 50 km away and floated on rafts down the river to this site- in what used to be (and sort of still is) the middle of the Cambodian jungle.
It was hard work, climbing through the chambers of Angkor- rooms that used to be libraries or devotional places- but were now largely barren, except for the magnificent carvings in the wall and an errant statue, draped in gold fabric. It was cool in here, dusty, with the smell of antiquity and must: a smell that would make me cover my nose in annoyance at home but that intrigued and delighted me here. It was nice to take refuge in the cool dark, but there was no quiet. The sound of camera shutters, feet, children screaming and conversations in every language you can imagine filled the rooms, echoing loudly in the cavernous, dusty space. Lines were held up by photo hungry tourists, and I was surprised to see monks solicited for photos as well. Especially since the askers posed in mock reverence and then moved on as quickly as the photo had been taken, not interested in the moment, but in a depiction of it.
Angkor was amazing, but after two and a half hours, I was ready to move on. I refueled with an overpriced (read: 2 USD... I've been spoiled) coconut shake and unlocked my bike from the queue, peddling onward to the Bayon Temple complex. The ride to Bayon is pleasant and shady- exactly the restorative half an hour I needed out of the sun. It is less busy than Angkor, but still has an enormous influx of visitors. Even though it was probably no more than a mile and a half down the road, I felt like I was in a different world because the tree-lined promenade to the complex was quiet and strangely wild- inhabited by wide-eyed monkeys and large, muddy hogs.
I pedaled frantically, memories of my Balinese monkey catastrophe dancing in my head. If anything could distract me from the lurking monkey presence, it was Bayon: a majestic and spiky looking temple complex that greeted me with its large, carved blissed-out faces. Bayon was like its own jagged world where you could get completely and utterly lost, imagining what transpired here 900 years ago. There is no shortage of intricate temple carving and it inspires awe and also complete confusion as to how the hell they built this.
After another two hours of exploring and getting lost in the maze of dark, lichen-covered stone, I decided to call it a day. There was too much to absorb and I think I'd reached my daily recommended dose. The next day, I took a tuk tuk around the large circuit to see Ta Prohm, the temple from Tomb Raider, which was gorgeous but sort of ruined by over zealous wooden barricades, signs and photo hungry tourists.
I sort of felt like Goldilocks at times- if there were few people, as there were at the brown Hindu temples along the circuit, I felt eerily alone and slightly afraid. If there were too many, as there were basically everywhere, I felt claustrophobic and irritated. There was no in between, no matter what part of the day I went.
Ultimately, Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complex is an incredibly beautiful place to visit- full of antiquity and a vibrant history. However, I imagine that it is a shade of what it once was- it is too overrun, the commercial creeps in right outside of the front gates and I cannot imagine its grandiose stone structures will maintain their original majesty under the weight of hundreds of thousands of tourists to come.
My first impression of Cambodia was that it was 'orderly.' For anyone who has ever been, you're probably thinking, what is this girl smoking? But initially, that’s how it seemed. When I zipped through customs at Siem Reap International Airport, I noticed that there was a very *orderly* and streamlined method of obtaining rides from the airport to a hotel. There were even fixed rates ($6 a ride). Bali, take note!! I thought to myself as I hopped into the back of a tuk tuk.
That illusion was shattered 10 minutes later when said tuk tuk died in the middle of the highway (after swerving to avoid a herd of white cows) and then sputtered sadly to the side of the road, where a woman wearing long pants, a turtleneck, a sweater, a hat and gloves (in 95 degrees) wordlessly poured an old tequila bottle of yellow petrol into the tank. We sputtered away nonchalantly. The air was all smoke, incense, garbage and grilled bananas.
We headed to my accommodations, a 'resort' (optimistically called so because it had a pool the size of a postage stamp). I had selected it based on proximity to the temples and great booking.com reviews, but beyond a dot on a grid map, had no idea what the neighborhood was like. So, I was completely confused when my driver veered off the main strip- a wide, tree lined promenade named after Charles De Gaulle- onto a deserted red, dust road. My heart stopped.
Now, solo travel is a peculiar beast, and this was my first introduction to it. I realize now (and probably at that exact moment) that traveling alone requires a significant amount of trust: in people, in the universe, in yourself. In my opinion, this is especially pertinent as a woman, and also as an overly paranoid person. Suffice it to say, blind trust and I are not natural allies and I felt every cell in my body turn on high alert as I grappled with what to do next. Throw myself off the tuk tuk? Demand we turn around? Trust?
My fears (like most) were in vain. "Directions?!?" My driver asked, as I stared at him dumbly and gestured at the the screenshot I’d taken of the map. The dot indicating my accommodations was in a network of other little streets and I had absolutely no way to figure out where we were in relation. We were at an impasse, just shrugging at each other. He spoke very little English and I spoke absolutely no Khmer, but panic is an effective common language. When he saw the concern work its way across my face (I’m pretty expressive), he decided to go back to the main road, where it was at least easier to determine location.
From there, I meticulously counted tiny side streets and pointed to where the destination road should be. And what do you know? It had a small sign- it actually had better signage than any town I’ve driven through in New Jersey. We veered right and drove down it. Bounced down it. Careened down it.
It was a charismatic street, not formal and clean like Charles De Gaulle, but lined with piles of trash, and adorned with giant rocks. Families lived on it in humble houses, but it was clearly the domain of the village children who rode bicycles (no hands), waving and shouting "HELLO! " without any hint of an accent.
I went sort of limp when we finally arrived, and I basked in relief as I waved goodbye to my tuk tuk driver, who rattled away. “Welcome to Cambodia, my friend,” the ‘resort’ owner said.
“My friend” is as typical a greeting in Cambodia as “hey, asshole!” is in New York. It is so pleasantly prevalent here. That and being called “lady,” which carries none of the dregs of frustration that it may to a native English speaker. It is an address of respect, free from any implications of sarcasm.
This pleasantry runs deep in Khmer (Cambodian) culture. An equally important aspect of life in Cambodia is speed. I thought that the traffic in Chiang Mai was scary, but I came to long for it. A day after I arrived, I borrowed the hotel’s bike to travel into town (about 2.5 miles) and I had to ask what side of the road people drove on. The resort owner looked aghast. "The right, of course."
Of course?! As far as I could tell, people drove whichever way they preferred at any given time, not heeding other motorcyclists, buses, bicycles, and least of all- pedestrians. When I asked for a helmet, he chuckled and patted my arm, "too much worry my friend."
My biking was less than successful. I rode (shakily, praying fervently) on the side of the highway half of the time and walked with my bike at my side the other half (dodging lunatic drivers), prompting amused local inquiry as to whether or not I actually knew how to ride. I felt like a bit of a wuss after I watched children no more than 7 speeding along in the shoulder of the main highway, often with no hands on the handlebars. I felt especially dopey after I witnessed a young mother, perched nimbly sidesaddle on a speeding motorbike, nursing a new baby. All helmet-less. Safety standards are slightly different here.
Riding/walking to downtown Siem Reap was a dusty affair. Everything I saw in Cambodia is covered in a fine powder of varying shades of red. After a long day exploring, I often thought I had gotten a nice tan, which disappeared quickly in the shower as puddles of terra cotta swirled down the drain.
The downtown area is a world apart from the village where the ‘resort’ was located. It is hectic, with no specific rhythm. There are markets around every corner and there is a frantic buzz of transit and movement, like bees, but with no defined path. The air is thick with exhaust and dust. The building style is somewhat confusing- a mix of Khmer and French colonial (Cambodia was French ruled until 1953). It is all colorful, but grand in some place and more ragtag in others. Chaos prevails.
There is the effusive enthusiasm of the Pub Street area, which is packed with hungry, excited and drunk tourists. The wide streets here are jammed with vendors and ice cream carts and elephant print pants. Indoor-outdoor bazaars house rows of restaurants and there is the soft call of ‘tuk tuk? Lady?! Tuk tuk?’ everywhere you go. There is an interesting juxtaposition here, between tourist and local, as if each do not quite know what to make of each other. There is some begging and lots of haggling. There seem to be distinct boundaries, distinct cliques. This place is for tourists, that for locals; there is a bit more of a divide than what I’d experienced in Thailand. The coexistence is peaceful, though. The Cambodians, acknowledging that their own nearby Angkor Wat is a mecca for culture-hungry Western tourists, have accommodated accordingly, right down to the adoption of the US Dollar as common currency.
The days were hot as hell, the humidity as punishing as the glaring sun. The nights were intensely buggy- on one I got a combined 48 mosquito bites on my calves (new personal record). Sleep was necessary after a long day of temple trekking, but not always effortless. You’d think it would be in the village setting, but each night, some music fanatic would bump Khmer tunes into the early morning. It is influenced by Indian and Chinese music, with lots of chanting, rhythms and percussion. Good for dancing, not so much for sleeping. After catching some shut eye, the neighborhood rooster made sure that everyone was awake with the sun. In my 5 days there, I don’t think I slept past 6:58 am once.
I left Cambodia riddled in bites, sleepy eyed and temple-d out. I also left it happily. Don’t get me wrong- was a privilege to visit, to be in the presence of amazing culture and a tumultuous history and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my life, but my internal rhythm clashed slightly with Cambodia’s. At times it felt more laborious than leisurely, though in retrospect, it is better to be challenged than coddled. As we took off, I waved goodbye to the red land spotted with brush and jungle, forgetting my frustration, feeling only gratitude and an overwhelming excitement to be home, in Thailand.
If I thought Chiang Mai was a haven for vegans (which I do), then Ubud is like plant-based nirvana. Your girl tried to hit every vegan restaurant in this Eat, Pray Love town, but a gal on a budget with a case of Bali belly can only do so much. I tried my best. Here are the places I dined in Ubud, Bali.
Lauren and I ate here every single day. Sometimes multiple times a day. It is THAT good. The menu is really extensive and there is something for everyone. Atman has multiple locations and the one we went to had non vegan offerings, so it’s good if you’re dining with an omnivore. Atman has a cozy interior- soft yellow light (so so so bad for pictures though) with traditional tables and then floor style seating with a little balcony section that juts over the street. The menu includes Balinese favorites and more Western fare. All is delicious. It’s a little pricer than you can probably get, but they do take cards (bless!). The servers are all so lovely and accommodating and the food is really beautiful. My only complaint is the soundtrack which was full of karmic, chanting songs that were sort of weirdly hypnotic. Maybe that’s why we ended up dining there six times in four days…
- Gado Gado (Balinese salad of steamed veggies, greens, and a chunky peanut sauce) is a hearty, satisfying salad with flavorful peanut sauce. You say you’re not going to finish the side dish/bowl filled with sauce, but you do.
- Jukut Urab (Balinese salad of chopped long beans, coconut, sprouts, chili and two little pyramids of steamed rice) is probably my favorite. SO GOOD. Tangy, a touch salty, and a bit sweet all at the same time.
- Bubur Injin (Balinese black rice pudding made with caramelized bananas, fresh coconut and coconut cream) is amazing. I had it for breakfast one day and I was bouncing off the walls. Hearty, too.
- Potato Roastie (flat, fried potato cake on lettuce topped with avocado) pretty self explanatory, but still delicious! Afterward, I sort of felt like I was swimming in oil, not walking on sunshine, though.
As for non-vegan food: Lauren had the potato and spinach soup and sung its praises. She also ordered the avo toast and when it came out we sat there in shock because it was basically the leaning tower of pisa, but with slices of fresh avocado. We also randomly started ordering wheatgrass shots there, and they were fresh and courteously delivered with a slice of orange. I tried the coconut and cacao ball, which was yummy, and the caramel slice which made me feel like I had a hangover. I think that raw desserts require a semi-specific sweet tooth, and if you’ve got it, Atman’s desserts are probably for you!
OK. This is the first place I ate in Bali and it made me swoon. If you go, eat upstairs as it has a calmer vibe than the rest of the cafe, which can get a little noisy and crowded. I ate on the upstairs balcony and it was beautiful. The staff is really really lovely at KAFE. They are so willing to recommend things that you’ll like, and I ended up with an amazing lunch. I ordered Meg’s Big Salad Bowl, raspberry leaf tea and this delicious carrot-pineapple cake. Holy moley. As a very visually inclined foodie, I was blown away by my meal. The salad was pretty much a work of art, and everything was delicious- the very delicate spiralized vegetables, the creamy avocado, the tiny bits of perfectly marinated tofu-tempeh crunch (just enough!) and the crunchy pumpkin seeds on top! It came with a tahini based dressing and two nice pieces of toasted bread (the quickest way to my heart). The cake was also delicious- just sweet enough and perfectly spiced. It came with a dollop of cashew cream and I had to restrain myself from licking the plate. If you come to Ubud, go to KAFE. Please. I am begging you.
I stepped into Clear Cafe one cloudy afternoon (ironically) and was immediately taken aback with how gorgeous it was. The entrance is circular and you step into an open, airy cafe with a spiral staircase leading to elevated seating and the most beautiful bathroom I’ve ever seen (gold. toilets.). I took a seat on the floor at a low table that was placed next to a koi pond and happily ordered a thai tea with cashew milk (delicious, a little textured from the thickness of the cashew, but still amazing) and a dragon bowl (tempeh, grilled veggies). I’m not going to lie, the menu was so large and expansive that it threw me off a bit. There were multiple food ‘themes,’ which always makes me question how authentic/good the food is, but my dragon bowl was quite delicious! The tempeh was well cooked (a difficult feat) and the veggies were roasted nicely. The staff was also extremely friendly and helpful. A little on the pricey side, but I'd pay for the atmosphere again!
I ran into Down to Earth just as the monsoon rains started and found myself in the lower level of the cafe, which is a shop dedicated to selling holistic health remedies. My stomach rumbled before I could buy out the store, and I ran up to the cafe and sat on the covered balcony, where I could listen to the rain but stay dry (though staying dry in Bali’s rainy season is a feat). My server was so sweet and helped me decide between the thousand dishes that I wanted to order. I ended up with a vegan chocolate milkshake (tasty, but too thin and icy for it to really be considered a dessert drink) and their "Almost Perfect Wrap," which I can attest was pretty close to perfection. It came stuffed with tofu, beans and avocado and was accompanied (on the side) by a delicious, sharp pesto, hot sauce, air-fried slabs of sweet potato and a little pile of crunchy coleslaw. I loved this place- really mellow soundtrack and plenty of space to spread out. Again, a tiny bit pricey, but it seems that the niche vegan places in Bali with ‘western’ food have a bit of a higher threshold.
This adorable cafe is located just outside of the monkey forest and the perfect place to seek shelter from the afternoon rain, which is precisely how we ended up there. We sat outside, facing the street, but under the thatched roof that was deflecting the monsoon. The staff seemed a little tense and eager for us to eat and leave, perhaps because it was high lunch time. I ordered the vegan peanut butter and banana smoothie bowl which came looking like a work of art with sliced bananas, strawberries and granola. It was delicious, but I would’ve preferred it to be a bit colder and creamier- maybe I'm just a smoothie snob. Lauren got a bowl of steaming, perfectly sliced fries, which were delicious. Prices are moderate, compared to our other meals, and the atmosphere was nice, since we sat outside.
After getting thoroughly lost in someone’s backyard on my way to this semi-hidden spot, I had high hopes for Alchemy after hearing about its famed breakfast bar. I walked into the all-white space, which is also a holistic product shop and was sort of left to fend for myself. I sat myself down and had to get a menu for myself and aggressively make eye contact with a server before I was helped. It wasn’t an enormous deal, but I found it a little bit odd that they were so inattentive, seeing that there were only a handful of us in the restaurant. I opted for the breakfast bar, ending up with a decanter of warm mango smoothie, mango fruit, watermelon, dragon fruit, blueberry fluff, and chia seeds. It was fine, but for the same (not inexpensive) price I could’ve gotten the mushroom quiche that my neighbor was in rapture over. If you decide to go to Alchemy, I would suggest skipping their breakfast bar and heading straight for the main menu, which seems to be the primary reason people go. Next time (if there is one) I’d opt for the savory offerings.
My alarm went off at 1:37. It was a thoughtfully chosen time- 1:30 was too early for a 2 am pickup, and would leave me desirous of a few more minutes of sleep. 1:45, on the other hand, seemed to be cutting it too close, especially because there were two of us and only one bathroom. I contemplated the idiocy that was going to bed at 11:30 and then waking up two hours later to climb a mountain. My iphone’s ‘marimba’ alarm thundered through the room, triggering angry memories of waking up for 8 am class. I squeezed my eyes closed. “Maybe we shouldn't go…” I hopefully suggested to Lauren, who was still half asleep. I knew that wasn't really an option, so I muffled the alarm and suited up for the two and a half hour trek up Mount Batur (for reference: leggings + tank top + sweatshirt = sufficient for December in Bali at an altitude of 1,717 m).
Our trek leader arrived at 2:02, meaning we prayed fervently for 2 minutes that we could go back to bed. (I realize it sort of sounds like we weren't excited for this trip, but we were, just not after 2 hours of sleep). We hopped in the van behind two beautiful and very alert Swedes. The 5th member of the group turned out to be a Singaporean girl, studying to become doctor. She had a lot to talk about with the Swedes, who had just come off of 5 months in Singapore. I noticed that they were weirdly attempting to ‘out-Singapore’ her. You know that phenomenon where you've lived in a foreign place long enough for it to become your home and for you to become the sole purveyor of knowledge regarding its history, culture, and where to get the best chicken rice? I only have this authoritative knowledge on northern New Jersey, so I shut my mouth and ate my banana crepe.
We continued on. By now it was 3:30 and Lauren and I decided to stay awake by listening to scary podcasts in the dark van as we sped (literally SPED) through the roads of Bali like something was chasing us. At 4 am, we abruptly stopped in a gravel lot and piled out in the company of about a hundred other sleepy tourists. I adjusted my new headlamp (thanks for your foresight, Talia!), we met our guide and off we went. The first 35 minutes were easy, and by that I mean relatively flat hiking on gravel and dirt. I would've liked a bit more of a challenge, I thought, as the Swedes raced into the darkness ahead of us all. I shouldn't have been worried since the trail got dicey 40 minutes in: increasingly vertical, increasingly rocky and increasingly strenuous. The hardened, black lava had created a sharp and gnarly path. Also, I forgot to mention: Mount Batur is also an active volcano, last erupting in 2000.
From here, the ascent seemed impossible. We kept climbing and not getting any closer, any more vertical. The stars were amazing, though, and I kept turning off my headlamp and plunging us into complete darkness to look at them because the Milky Way was so clear. At some point, I noticed a weird pattern of stars arching right in front of us, and when I pointed it out to my guide he laughed and gestured to my headlamp. The string of stars was actually a line of hikers with flashlights, making their way up the peak. I was shocked. They seemed so far away and so high up. I couldn't even imagine making it 15 minutes further. In retrospect, I realize that the darkness worked to my advantage. The night was equivalent to the blinders on a horse, preventing them from the undue stress of the surrounding environment- encouraging them only to focus on the next couple of steps. It was step by step, some huffing and puffing and the kindness of our guide who literally hauled us up steep ascents that we made it to (what I thought) was the peak. It had a sign and everything! I looked across to the neighboring mountain, illuminated in the first strains of morning light and threw my arms up in triumph. Seeing my exhilaration, a guide approached me nervously and tugged on my sleeve, pointing to what I'd missed behind me- the continuing trail up a near vertical slope to the actual summit. “15 more minutes…?” He offered, hopefully, seeing the look on my face.
I honestly considered staying at that peak, but then saw an older German gentleman ascending in tight jeans and FLIP FLOPS and was very inspired by his climbing ethic, so I went on. This portion of the trail was most difficult. Our guide called it a “sand cliff,” which sums it up perfectly. Black volcanic sand created a scramble that was only climbable when you sandwiched your belly to the land with a fair amount of determination and upward velocity. Looking down was a bad idea, so I kept my eyes trained on the hundreds of tourists’ upturned faces, increasingly illuminated by the rising sun. We made it *just* in time, as the sun splashed over the neighboring peak. Clouds filled the valley, but we could see the immense expanse of rice paddies and even the ocean through the cloudless patches. To our right was the wall of the volcano, lush green with black, dried lava. The mood at the top was celebratory, as hikers munched on volcanically steamed eggs and banana sandwiches and waited to be warmed by the sun.
Mount Batur is sacred to the Balinese and there was a tiny altar at the top, with offerings to various Hindu deities. At one point, a hefty wild monkey munched on leftovers there before inciting a fight with a friendly mountain dog, who chased him off the side of the cliff, which was all VERY Nat Geo.
Photo ops complete, we started our descent, which had me filled with dread. It was distracting now that we were so absorbed by the view. It was also treacherous, as many of the paths were blanketed in loose rock that had me sliding down portions, thanks to my well worn sneaker soles. In fact, the descent is less a climb, and more a session of ‘mountain surfing.’ If you have bad knees or ankles, bring some kind of hiking pole or get yourself airlifted down (ha).
We rested midway and met some more monkeys, who were scruffier than the ones we had encountered at the monkey forest. I guess this was to be expected since they live in an active volcano and have more to worry about than adequate grooming. However, they are just as smart as their forest counterparts and leapt on my partially opened backpack, looking for anything/everything to eat. Again, more monkey contact than I was interested in. From there, the trek down was far easier and we even saw some hikers catch rides down on the back of locals' motorbikes.
As we reached the giant parking lot at the bottom, I realized that my legs had stopped shaking nervously from the stress of the descent. I was happy to be back on solid ground. Post-trek, I have an enormous amount of respect for Mount Batur- for its beauty, for its challenging trails, for its view, and for its ability to get me out of bed at 2 am: all qualities of a very special place.
a note about Mount Batur: it may or may not be illegal to hike on your own, so you should go with a guide. Prior to arriving in Bali, you may see that you can book a guided trek online for upwards of $60 USD. Don't do it! Once you get to Ubud, there are a plethora of tourist companies willing to sell a package at a much better price. We heard everywhere from $250,000-$900,000 IDR ($18-$70) for a single hiker, and settled on $250,000 IDR ($18) with Pineh Bali Tours, who also offered a free stop at the famous Tagalalang Rice Terraces afterward!
Just as crows hoard shiny objects, I hoard pictures. It’s no secret that I love to take them, collect them and smoother my walls with them. National Geographic is my publication of choice and I have stacks of carefully torn out magazine pages of dream destinations: the sahara, the great salt flats, the dead sea, you name it. My iPhone camera roll is also filled with screenshots from instagram travelers, who are living the life in beautiful foreign lands. One location, in particular that I always thought was out of reach was Bali, Indonesia.
I’d long been attracted to the island by the lush greenery, the zen atmosphere, the crystalline waters, the rice terraces and of course, the pilgrimage of Liz Gilbert. Bali. I associated it with healing and restoration, with beauty and mystery and soul searching and all that jazz. In other words, I had high stakes. Though my expectations for a 5 day trip did not include a complete spiritual transformation, I did experience the magic and the allure that makes Bali an incomparably special place.
The plane shuddered to a stop. My knuckles were white from a particularly turbulence filled descent and a landing that looked as if it had just missed the turquoise blue ocean. By some stroke of luck, the girl I’d been sitting next to suggested we find a taxi together. I didn’t realize how much I’d need her support until we stepped outside of the beautiful Denpasar airport and were smacked in the face with humidity and the incessant, persistent and unyielding queries of “taxi??? TAXI????’ One driver followed me and my travel buddy nearly half a mile murmuring “taxi???” even after our increasingly unfriendly “NO”s.
It seemed that the Balinese taxi mafia (!!?) has effectively scared off more affordable options, like Uber or GrabTaxi, so we walked over to the arrivals area and managed to convinced a metered taxi to take us to central Ubud, where we were both staying. The route through Bali looked to me like a combination of Thailand and the Azores, Portugal. It was clean and lush green, with well populated roads, surprising injections of street art and a melange of dark moss covered brick, grey stone and magnificent statues. It was soggy and damp, the middle of Bali’s rainy season.
Bali smells clean and somewhat spicy. Each day we stayed in Ubud it rained at about 1 pm- thick, heavy and unyielding sheets of rain. Motorists sped through the wet roads, splashing us and contributing to the fast-moving floods that surged down streets. After the rain, and again each morning, early-rising Balinese put out tiny offerings to the Hindu gods. They are little baskets made from palm fronds and filled with flowers, bits of food or rice and a stick of incense, which contributes to the air’s light spice/perfume scent. They are everywhere! On the street, in front of shops, on statues, even on parked motorbikes. At the end of the day, when they are trodden and sad, they are swept up and replaced.
One of Ubud’s attractions is its Monkey Forest- a sanctuary for over 700 Balinese long-tailed monkeys (scientific: Macaca fascicularis, English: Macaque). They are adorably cheeky, calculating and perpetually hungry. They eat primarily sweet potato, banana, corn, cucumber, coconut and other fruit- so we basically have the same diet. This does not curtail their penchant for human sweets, which I experienced firsthand after a monkey attacked my backpack, stealing a lozenge wrapper which he proceeded to suck on for the next 20 minutes. Satisfied with that level of human to monkey contact, especially after watching other visitors get mildly mauled for bananas, Lauren and I sat down to chat with a Monkey Forest Guard. 10 minutes later, I had a monkey sitting on my head, as comfortably as he would a tree branch, much to my (kind of) horror. Everyone watching thought this was hilarious as he pawed through my hair, but once he started to get a bit nippy, it was game over for me. Shaking myself free, we left the monkey forest and headed for lunch.
That night, we decided to attend a traditional Balinese dance. After forking over 80,000 IDR (~7 USD), we were led to a dark, outdoor meeting area packed with chairs. There, we watched as over 150 Balinese dancers and singers performed the Kecak for us- also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant. It portrays a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey army helps Prince Rama kill an evil king. Using only their voices and hands, the dancers perpetuated a rhythm throughout (almost) the entire 90 minute performance. It was sort of hypnotic. At the performance’s close, a dancer in a trance-like state performed, holding a dragon figure, dancing through burning embers. I couldn’t believe the color of his feet afterward- completely black and singed, though he seemed calm and collected.
On one of my last days in Ubud, I went for a run. The morning is the only time this is really possible, before it gets too hot and before it rains. I decided that my chosen path would be through the rice fields. Not much running got done because the humidity was overwhelming and the view was spectacular. The rice fields are steamy and so green and quiet. The air hardly moves here, and if you go early enough, you can see the farmers start their day’s work. The view out into the fields of Ubud is beautiful- miles and miles of green punctuated by palm trees. It’s a dreamy running or walking route and is the cherry on top of an early morning in Ubud.
5 days was not nearly enough to explore the beauty of Bali. Still, I felt that I got a good sense of the community- a mix of foreigners, soul-searchers, yoga teachers, middle aged divorcees, and the implicitly kind local Balinese. Tradition abounds in Bali, as does the mix of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths. Craftsmanship is intricate, ornate and everywhere, as is color. The smell of frangipani and incense is omnipresent, giving the island a scent of sacredness. There is undeniable magic here, and I feel lucky to have been touched by it all, even that particularly enthusiastic monkey.
After being unceremoniously dumped in the dirt outside of Luang Prabang at 5 am, we hitched a ride into town and got to the ‘city’ center just as morning dawned. LP is up in the mountainous region of Laos, and I was freezing in the t-shirt that had seemed too heavy 20 hours prior, in sunny, sweaty Thailand. We stopped for breakfast, and I got vegetables with a traditional Laotian peanut and ginger spread, which looked eerily like earwax. Tasty, but not for the faint of heart, visually.
Luang Prabang is a rich historical cultural site in Laos, with some stating that Buddha used LP as a pit stop on the course of his travels. We figured if it was good enough for Buddha, it was good enough for us. Luang Prabang is Laos’ cultural capital, although its actual capital has flip-flopped throughout the ages- a reflection of the preferences of governing entities. LP was the capital throughout early centuries (14-16th) until 1893 when the French decided it was time to muscle their way in. LP was reinstated as capital again under the reign of King Sisavang Vong, but was permanently dethroned in 1946 when Vientiane snatched up the role as Laos’ capital.
As a result, Luang Prabang is a melting pot of traditional Laotian culture and French colonial influence, supposedly reflected in its variety of architecture. I say ‘supposedly’ because we were, admittedly, a bit more interested in the nature surrounding the city. So, after we dropped our bags off at the first hostel we could find (without determining prior that the dorm room smelled like death), we searched for a tuk tuk to take us into the mountains to the Kuang Si waterfalls.
We found one and narrowly avoided being mercilessly ripped off, thanks to Lauren’s haggling (about 80,000 kip each, RT). Off we went, flying through the backroads of LP, up dirt and gravel roads, past happy dogs and water buffalo who walked aimlessly in the wake of our dust trail. The views were gorgeous. We finally got an up close glimpse at the lush green mountains that LP is nestled between and we zipped past farmers, waving children, roadside snack stands and other windblown tourists.
We were greeted at Kuang Si by about half a dozen sweet faced Asiatic black bears (nicknamed Moon Bears, which is great because they were actually pretty spacey). Luang Prabang is home to the Asiatic Black Bear rescue center, which rescues these sweeties from poachers who capture them for their saliva- a pricey addition to health and beauty serums. We said bye to the bears, who were very nonplussed by our presence, and proceeded to the falls.
I’ve gotten into the lazy habit of not looking up pictures of the places I plan to visit, and it’s perfect because I’m always surprised and never disappointed. Kuang Si was no different. This water was so clear, so blue- the exact color of a Tiffany box. The rocks are limestone and the water is freezing cold and fresh. The falls are gentle and brave tourists waded in, pretending they didn’t feel the cold.
We decided that scaling the side of the waterfall was something we’d like to do, but were startled by the sharp and sudden incline- the trail went from an easy pleasure hike to a near vertical climb on a loose dirt trail with a sheer drop to the left side. I have never been so concerned for my life as I clung to tree roots while sliding down the side of the hill, my water bottle repeatedly falling out of my pack and smacking a hiker below me, who kindly and repeatedly retrieved it for me, even as he slid down the hill himself. And they say chivalry is dead! Well meaning hikers making the treacherous way down saw my panicked face and refusal to move for fear of falling, and dragged me up the hill by my hands, pulling me through the hardest part of the climb and reassuring me that there was an alternate route down. My heroes.
The top of the falls were a lattice of clear blue pools that you could soak in, connected by a narrow bamboo bridge (i.e. piece of wood hovering above the water). The vista was gorgeous and I felt a renewed appreciation for it as I remembered the horrific climb up. Our route down was much easier: a set of stairs built into the side of the falls that we slid down behind a single file procession of orange clad monks. As luck would have it, I met a fellow alumni of my college, who recognized the university logo on my hat. It’s a big world, but a small world.
Our time at the falls came to an end, as we wanted to see LP’s ‘temple on a hill,’ (Pou Si Temple) before the sun set.
Our timing was remarkable. We arrived just as golden hour did, rushing up flights and flights of stairs, passing old women who were selling birds in tiny grass baskets for tourists to release at the top (too sad to support). The temple was beautiful, but the real draw was the view. The light was so rosy, illuminating the sprawl of LP and the misty mountains we’d only recently descended from. The murky Mekong flowed, dark as chocolate milk, glinting the late afternoon light. It was tourist central, and I witnessed the scene, multiplied through hundreds of iPhone screens. As soon as the sun slid beneath a mountain peak, we dispersed, heading through the market in search of...pizza! We are Westerners through and through.
We had ‘the best pizza in SE Asia,’ though we did have to cross an extremely rickety bamboo bridge that was perched over the Nam Khan river. Fortunately, it was dark and I only heard the river rushing under my feet. From there, we stumbled into the tiny, homey Pizza Phan Luang for a delicious individual pie made by a kind Canadian. Cravings satisfied, we tiptoed our way back over the river, through the winding markets and the downtown area of LP, which was still buzzing at nearly 10 pm, and back to the hostel where we collapsed from a full day.
We flew out the next morning, gaining a new appreciation for the dexterity of the bus driver who had navigated the serpentine roads that were now easily visible by air. I waved goodbye to a beautiful, historical and pizza filled place. Maybe one day, I’ll be back.
My feet hit the pavement, my elbows swing out wildly. My form is definitely incorrect. There is sweat pouring down my face and stinging my eyes, and simply being in my skin feels like donning a wool suit in August. I try to breathe, but my lungs feel more like gills in the thick air. Still, I run.
I am at Muang Chiang Mai Stadium, running laps at the rust red track alongside other runners, walkers and children because I can’t handle the moat route in Chiang Mai’s Old City any longer. Don’t get me wrong- it’s scenic for sure, and refreshing (though probably unsanitary) because of the spray from the fountains. But the levels of exhaust I’ve inhaled are ungodly and dodging the scurrying rats is starting to take a toll on my heart. I recently moved to the Chang Puak Gate area and the track is no more than 10 minutes from my new apartment. I take this as a sign to keep running.
Despite my rocky past relationship with running (I was on the track team in high school and once cried, claiming “exhaustion” during an easy three miler), I keep going. Half marathons excite me. I have no idea why. I think it's because every particle of my being revolts against the idea of running for two hours straight that I feel like I absolutely have to do it. Every time I finish one, I vow never again. Time to hang up these sneaks, sister. And then, like clockwork, two months later, I’ll start running again or impulsively sign up for another race. This is exactly what happened my first week in Chiang Mai. I landed in the sweltering humidity and thought yeah, I hate temperatures over 85 and humidity over 12%...yep, this is the activity for me. SO. I’m currently in training for a half on January 21st. It’ll be my third (Brooklyn Half and Prague Half preceding it). You know what they say- third time's a charm!
I only have about two months left to train, so by now, it’s crunch time. Between the stifling humidity my first weeks here and the overwhelming and lingering heat, I’ve honestly been more motivated to nap. But, a cooler front has kicked in these past two weeks, so I’ve been using it to my advantage and trying to get out and hit the pavement about five days a week. I admit, this is optimistic of me. Days I don’t run (and some days I do), I do a little cross training or bodyweight workout, just to mix it up. My training plan (if you're interested) is as follows:
- W 1: m (x) t (3 mi) w (4 mi) th (3 mi) f (x) s (5 mi) s (2-3 mi)
- W 2: m (x) t (3 mi) w (4 mi) th (3 mi) f (x) s (6 mi) s (2-3 mi)
- W 3: m (x) t (4 mi) w (5 mi) th (4 mi) f (x) s (7 mi) s (2-3 mi)
- W 4: m (x) t (4 mi) w (5 mi) th (4 mi) f (x) s (8 mi) s (2-3 mi)
- W 5: m (x) t (5 mi) w (6 mi) th (5 mi) f (x) s (9 mi) s (2-3 mi)
- W 6: m (x) t (5 mi) w (6 mi) th (5 mi) f (x) s (10 mi) s (3 mi)
- W 7: m (x) t (4 mi) w (5 mi) th (4 mi) f (x) s (11 mi) s (2-3 mi)
- W 8: m (x) t (4 mi) w (5 mi) th (4 mi) f (x) s (12 mi) s (2-3 mi)
- W 9: m (x) t (3 mi) w (5 mi) th (3 mi) f (x) s (5 mi) s (2-3 mi)
- W 10: m (x) t (3 mi) w (4 mi) th (3 mi) f (x) s (13.1 mi)
Running in Thailand has been the surest test of my determination. In high school, I was perfectly happy to be sidelined by a case of plantar fasciitis after wearing literal tennis sneakers to run. I was happy to use my asthma as an excuse not to log and slog long miles in sub freezing temperatures (it hurts), but here I found my excuses evaporating. Drink more water, wear more dry-fit, run later or run earlier. It's not that hard.
I'm back at the track. The heat fizzles out as the sun sets, and there is something a little magical about my early evening rounds on the red oval, my path illuminated by the big white stadium lights. I am surrounded by professional athletes and leisure power-walkers, and we all move in the same direction- a forward, ongoing stream of movement. We smile, grimace, sweat and laugh. We high-five and urge on compatriots, actions that transcend language barriers.
Ending my day here gives me a chance to reflect on the past 12 hours, to release whatever anxiety or concern has preoccupied my thoughts. This is cathartic. My relationship with running will always be a bit love/hate, I realize that. But. Yes, but! At the end of the day, the feeling of my body flying through space, the heat radiating through my sneakers, the wind whipping through my hair and the sweat dripping down the nape of my neck is the sweetest expression of freedom I can conjure. So I run.
There was a tap on my left shoulder. “Don’t carry anyone’s bags” was the hissed message in my left ear. I was 1 hour and 43 minutes into The Dressmaker and I reluctantly removed my earbuds, pausing Liam Hemsworth’s beautiful Australian drawl, to address my neighbor’s inaugural words of advice.
“The bags. Luggage. Don’t carry anyone’s. They could be a drug smuggler. You can get hanged in Malaysia if you’re caught.” Talk about 0 to 60. I stared at my neighbor dumbly. “Ok” I agreed, unsure of what else to say. “BE CAREFUL!” she looked at me with round, scared eyes and then leaned closer, as if confiding a secret- “but also... don’t worry!” Her face relaxed into a happy network of wrinkles. Luckily, I was halfway through my 14 hour flight to Hong Kong, so I only had 7 to imagine myself turning up on an episode of “Locked Up Abroad” for trying to be a good samaritan. At least she thought I looked nice. Nice and probably dumb.
We touched down at 5 am. She grabbed my sleeve again, “I live in Boston. Maybe I’ll see you there one day- say hi if you do!” I agreed. This woman could very well be some sort of fairy godmother. Then, I grabbed my carry-on and hurdled out of the plane before anyone could solicit me as their drug sherpa and have me thrown in airport jail.
I had to wait for an hour before the airport shuttle left for central Hong Kong. I had about 10 hours in the city before my final flight to Thailand. Having never been past Eastern Europe before, I found the city - or at least the airport at this stage- to be a good transition zone. There was familiarity enough due to the wide use of English (HK was established as British Dependent Territory in 1981), but also an abundance of Chinese lettering, which made me really feel like I was far from home (or at least in Chinatown, NYC). As soon as the train pulled up, I heard a couple loudly explaining that they were from FREEHOLD, NJ! Imagine that. Hong Kong: a great international destination where you can meet your neighbors.
We whizzed into the downtown area, arriving just as the sun rose. It was dead silent, save for the soft slap of the waves in the harbor and the excited morning sounds of the birds. I walked out of the train station, and my hair deployed immediately around me in the thick humidity. It was amazingly peaceful- Victoria Harbor was the color of a blue eggshell, the trees rustled from their bird occupants, and I could hear the soft shuffles of Tai Chi groups practicing in the many little public squares. I made my conclusion quickly: Hong Kong is a beautiful city.
My approach to the next few hours was to wander. I walked through the unexpected lushness of the business district, craning my neck to look at one mirror plated skyscraper after another. Everything was reflective and shiny there, muted by the deep green of ubiquitous gardens. Strolling is difficult, though. There are lots of ‘super roads’ that are not crossable if you want to continue living your life, so I spent time discovering little overpasses and taking the back roads.
Hong Kong is also not for the feeble legged. The city slices into the side of a pseudo cliff, and I felt that climbing up and down the hill qualified me for at least an olympic bronze. I quickly stumbled upon a free nature conservatory and animal sanctuary that was open at 7 am (?!). There, I met family of orangutans and a family of humans who were eagerly sticking their hands through the bars of the cage (they clearly missed all of those monkey horror stories on the news). Their caretaker eagerly related the monkeys' (somewhat tragic) backstory to me while dodging apple cores lobbed by one of the babies who was “jealous” of the diverted attention, thus permanently cementing my fear of caged monkeys. I left soon after, with the well wishes of the caretaker and an indisputable stink-eye from the apple thrower.
As I pushed further, the buildings became more pastel colored, dotted with hundreds of windows, balconies, and clothes lines. Signs popped up, covered in bright colors and Chinese characters and neighborhoods got denser and louder. Cafes, noodle stores, art galleries, pharmacies, and bookstores were plentiful, but I [disappointingly] didn’t come across a single steamed bun shop- which may or may not have been the driving motivation in choosing a flight with a layover in HK.
As the sun rose fully and settled mid-sky, I wilted completely from the heat, humidity and incline. I eventually decided to throw in the towel and go back to the enormous and nicely chilled airport where I blotted myself down in the privacy of the bathroom. There, I sat with my pulsing feet up, waiting for my flight and reflecting on how I would absolutely move to HK in a heartbeat- buns or no buns, and that's saying something.
Matters of the stomach tend to rule my day to day decisions, so my choice to take a 19 hour bus from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, Laos was solely determined by the fact that the difference in cost was equivalent to ~8-10 meals in Thailand. Complete deal breaker. Proud of my frugality, I departed, gratuitously considering myself a feminine (albeit slightly less rogue) Jack Kerouac.
Fatal mistake #1 was my blind trust in the timetable provided by the bus company. The projected ride time to the Thai-Laos border was grossly underestimated as was the immigration process out of Thailand and into Laos, which required a few different stops. We (weary, disgruntled bus-takers) scuttled around in confusion like dazed hermit crabs, mounds of luggage on our backs. The disorientation level was tangibly high- one young Dutch woman asked me what year it was when filling out her immigration card. I figured that maybe she’d been traveling through dimensions, too. Should lay off the Black Mirror?
We finally caught our first glimpse of the country- silhouettes of the Laotian mountains against the setting sun. This was beautiful, but also sort of concerning as we’d been told that the bus to Luang Prabang left at...sundown.
“Uh..sooo...when are we leaving?” I asked our guide, trying to disguise my panic. He smiled and nodded and I reciprocated because it seemed like a better move than losing my marbles in the middle of no man’s land. After a bumpy back-roads ride (enlivened by beats from a Laotian Bob Marley who was sadly not recognized by Shazam), we arrived at the overnight bus, marked ‘VIP.’ "Faaaancy" I sang to myself. Arrested Development fans, conjure a Michael Bluth voiceover: it was not fancy.
We were told to remove our shoes, which was not surprising (in Thailand, you are shoeless ~68% of the time). The shock came when we realized that instead of seats, the bus was stacked with camp style bunk-beds. It was stuffed to the brim with tourists, local Laotian families and the overwhelming melange of barbecue sauce, feet and pad thai. We (me + Lauren-travel buddy/now life partner) tiptoed our way down the waxy center carpet, stepping over children, splayed arms, legs and shopping bags. Then, complete and utter pandemonium ensued.
The bus driver had preemptively given our floor-bound bunk/shelf away to a family of five, who reluctantly climbed out as per his (aggressive) instruction. They took refuge with other families and in the empty storage berth. Tensions were running high, a tough situation to remedy while cornered in a two foot high bunk with about 8 inches of personal space. I aggressively huffed in the smell of barbecue and closed my eyes, praying for the swift passage of the next 12 hours.
That saying, ‘no rest for the weary’ really resonated during hours 8-19, which were characterized by a constant stream of sitar music played out loud on a tinny iPod speaker and sporadic, early morning chats between passengers. Sleep also escaped me (more favorably) due to the view outside my tiny, rectangular window. The sky was impossibly dark but it was spattered with glowing stars- more than I’ve ever seen in my life. Electric wires, mostly in lines of five, raced past the window. The clustered constellations started to resemble chords against what looked like a musical staff, but was only the pattern of wires. The bright, big moon was a full rest at the end of each stanza. I watched the sky as the bus raced around hairpin turns until I was interrupted by a perennially bus-sick child who yakked over the side of his berth, creating an unexpected waterfall for the Australian ladies beneath.
At this point, I fervently prayed to the dirty ceiling that I would never ever complain about riding NJ Transit again if this bus ride would just end. [Edit: in retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced that NJT is any better, but there is something about familiarity that distorts discomfort juuust enough to make us long for it.]
I’d like to say that a spectacular sunrise marked the end of the ride, but really the sky just turned a feeble, watery grey as we toppled happily out of the bus and into the dust of Luang Prabang.
Takeaways: if you’re feeling adventurous/good humored, try the bus one way, it could've been worse. If nothing else, the stars are worth the journey. But! If you can scrounge together the cash, it’s only an hour by air, so….
I’ve been in Thailand for exactly a month and I still haven’t cleaned my purse. I tentatively peeked in there the other day to find wads of toilet paper (#1 travel necessity), sunscreen, malaria pills, a headlamp, clif bar wrappers, my passport, a Chinese herbalist’s business card, a piece of paper with my fortune written on it, an advertisement for mango sticky rice and a passel of SIM cards. You’d think that this would qualify me as the Mary Poppins of Thailand, but, despite my apparent preparation for any situation, my efforts are continuously inadequate and almost always in vain in the Land of Smiles.
Here in Chiang Mai, the largest city in the North, life is not as blissful as the google image search of “Thailand” suggests. Even now, in the “cool season,” it is hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. I constantly feel like that egg. The tuk tuks and the motor bikes speed down the street with reckless abandon, threatening to flatten pedestrians with even more gusto than New York’s yellow cabs. Air in Chiang Mai is approximately 87% diesel fumes, and I am eyeing the patterned pollution masks at the night market with increasing enthusiasm. My appearance? I am always drenched in sweat. Nicely put by one sweet old man, “face VERY shiny.” I obey the cardinal rule and keep my mouth shut during my showers, even though this pretty much puts a cap on my morning/nightly singing sessions (luckily for my neighbors). Every night I fall into bed and have such bizarre dreams that dreamdictionary.org is diagnosing me with ‘extreme lack of direction,’ ‘major life changes and/or loss of control’ and ‘feelings of powerlessness.’ Every interpretation ends in concern, much like my parents’ texts.
But life here is good. Today, I bought a fruit smoothie for 56 cents (20 thai baht) and I almost wept thinking of that one time I willingly forked over 12 DOLLARS at Juice Press (for reference: 425 THB). There is grandeur here in the midst of noodle shops and modest apartment buildings because there are temples (“wats”) glittering throughout the city with their golden spires, flared roofs, animal motifs, proliferation of gold leaf and orange clad monks.
Chiang Mai is home to nearly 1.5 million people (and *roughly* 4 billion cats). 20% are ‘farang’ like me (foreigners- many from the UK and Australia) and 80% are local Thai. 100% of them are warm, kind-hearted and eager to feed and assist anyone and everyone.
Maybe it’s just the New Jersey in me or the constant conditioning to ‘stranger danger,’ but my initial reaction to this pretenseless kindness was suspicion. After watching residents leave their bikes unchained, their purses on the back of parked motorbikes, and their doors and windows open, I realized that trust and respect is a current that flows throughout this society. Here, smiles abound, even if someone does not get his or her way (I’m taking notes, parents). Here, ‘mai pen rai,’ is commonly used as a follow up to ‘thank you,’ but its core meaning is quite literally, ‘no worries.’ After the breathlessness of life in New York, this change of pace is growing on me. Yes, the first few weeks in Thailand were a combination of heat rash, fear of MSG overdose and the refusal to risk my life to cross the street, but as my first month here draws to a close, I pass the fruit markets, the open air jazz concerts, the friendly soi dogs, the monks receiving their alms, and I realize that here, life is golden.