One year ago.

thailand

One year ago today I embarked on the journey of a lifetime. To leave my family, friends and job in NYC to teach English to 4th graders on the other side of the world, in Thailand.  Although it was unconventional, had nothing to do with my career, and it meant traveling alone to a very, very far away place, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I truly believe it was one of the best learning and life experiences I have had thus far.  Since returning and deciding what is next on my life agenda, I sometimes forget the lessons and richness of the experience. However, on an interview yesterday, I was asked an interesting question. “What was the most important thing you learned during your time in Thailand? What surprised you?” I was honestly caught off guard. During my interviews I am very rarely asked a serious question about my time in Thailand. Mostly people are curious, ask me how I got there, but never what I did once I was there. Let alone what I learned.  The main focus is usually around my relevant experience prior to Thailand, in marketing, which obviously is most practical.  So I had to pause and think.  And then it all just came to me and began rolling off my tongue before I could stop it.  Reflecting on it more now, on the anniversary of my departure, this is what I learned.

Not everything is always as it seems.

I have found most of my life I usually have preconceived notions of how things will go. Expectations, either high or low, usually mapped out in my brain before visiting somewhere new, meeting new people, visiting somewhere or even when I went off to college. I have a picture or map, planned out in my mind. Probably because of my constant need to plan and organize things. Well, that road map, picture, and idea of what my life would be like in Thailand was quickly thrown out the window. Nothing could have prepared me for the people, places or things I did and learned while there. It is the type of place that really takes all of your preconceived notions and turns them upside down, but in the most wonderful way. Whether it was my day-to-day life, teaching the kids, traveling, or the friends I made,  I always pleasantly (and sometimes not to pleasantly) surprised by the outcome. And for someone like myself, who relishes in control, productivity, and a sense of “how things should be” it was an eye opening and really helped me to let my guard down, not jump to conclusions, and take things as they come.

Slow down and let go.

It is very difficult, especially in your day to day life in the US, to just stop for a second and really take in what’s around you. I have always  struggled with that.  There is always something to do, somewhere to go, someone to see, something to buy, somewhere to eat, or another activity to keep your days, weeks and months chugging along. In Southeast Asia it is very, very different. There isn’t a sense of urgency. Besides the traffic. Especially while traveling. It is perfectly acceptable to let days roll by while you enjoy your surroundings. Coming from a family and culture where there is a need to get the most of your time and experience anywhere, see the most things, take the most pictures, meet as many people as possible, that was difficult. But I quickly learned there wasn’t always a set schedule for the bus, and the trains rarely left on time, and you will get there when you get there. This forced me, whether I wanted to or not, to learn how to let things go, slow down (mostly because at times even if I wanted to get somewhere there were 5 obstacles in my way) and just enjoy the scenery.

To be fearful is not a weakness but an opportunity.

My time in Thailand and Southeast Asia came with a lot of uncertainty and at times, fear. Not the dangerous fear, the kind where your life is at stake. But the fear of the unknown. Before going to Thailand I had never taught. And suddenly I was a teacher. To 105 fourth grade students. With not a whole lot of guidance on how to do so. It was terrifying. But you take it day by day. You mess up. Sometimes you get it right. And it gets easier.  The students, teachers, and friends make it easier. And the students at the end of the day, don’t know you’re afraid. All they want to do is love you and learn from you and their open-hearted acceptance makes you become a better teacher than you thought you could be.  To do things that scare you will help you learn more than you could imagine. As long as it’s safe of course.

Before Thailand I had never really traveled alone, besides on business. But that didn’t really count. I had the opportunity for a few short trips to stake out on my own and enjoy the solitude and anxiety that it can bring. And it was wonderful. Although it can be intimidating and even scary, especially for a young woman, if you are smart and smile you would be amazed at the people and places you will see and meet along the way. Traveling alone opens up a whole different door and road for experiencing things differently.  I believe forces you to meet people and be more open to experiences you may not be open to if you were with a group of friends. On those short solo trips I met many strangers with amazing stories from around the world, I was approached by locals to dance in the park, to offer advice, and hear their stories. I was able to map out my day as I saw fit and see what I wanted to see.  What it scary? Yes. Intimidating? Definetely.  But boy was it worth it.

I know it sounds cliche but I cannot help but believe it to be so true, do something that scares you. 

In conclusion…

I cannot be grateful enough for my time in Southeast Asia and the people and experiences that came with it. There was such a richness around the whole experience and it is safe to say I have left a piece of my heart in all of the places I visited, with my students and with all the people I met along the way.  And one last thing I learned that I never thought I would truly understand – the importance of packing light. You would be amazed at how far you can go without everything you own.  Take that as you will.

Family Matters: BKK, Ayutthaya, Railay Beach

April 4-13, 2013

Everyone knows Thailand is a hot place. A hot, humid, place. I was fortunate enough to spend most of my time there during “winter”. Which means the kids wear sweatshirts because its 80-90 degrees with a lower dew point as compared to 100 degrees and 100% humidity.  For those who are unfamiliar, there are three seasons in Thailand: Summer, Winter, Rainy. In central Thailand winter is usually like December-January/February and starting in March the summer creeps up on you. Then I think around May is when rainy season starts and goes until what in America we consider Fall. Rainy season however is really just spouts of heavy, monsoon like rain about once a day. It’s not like Seattle where its misty and rainy a lot. It rains really hard for like an hour then stops.

My Dad snapped this shot in Railay

My Dad snapped this shot in Railay

Okay enough Thailand Weather 101- back to the real purpose of this post: my parents visiting in the height of Thai summer. There is nothing else in the world that will test the love and dedication of a family like 100 degrees in a hot, smelly, humid city that you are expected to tour around. That’s the definition of a mother/father’s love. So I was truly lucky to have my parents come visit me during one of Thailand’s hottest months: April. Because they were only going to be there for about 10 days I knew I had to keep the schedule packed for my curious/wanderlusting father, while balancing the sanity and enjoyment of my mother. And I had to ensure they didn’t die of heatstroke. I was ready for the challenge.

Being my parents were part of my final tour, I had gotten most of my Thai travel ninja skills down. I had tested tours, all modes of transportation, seen many places and heard from my other well traveled friends the places that I must see before leaving Thailand or dying. So I decided to keep it simple: Bangkok for a day of adjustment, Ayutthaya because I hadn’t been there yet and to see Thailand’s previous capital, back to Bangkok for a tour and then down south to a place I had heard marvelous things about, Railay Beach in Krabi. It was jammed, it was packed, but I knew my parents could handle it. Plus they owed me for 25 years of dragging me through hell and high water on our family “vacations” (aka boot camps through Gettysburg reinactments, Disney World, Bermuda, and god knows where else).

Being I am pretty sure I have a slight case of OCD and really thoroughly enjoy planning and traveling I put together the below itinerary/schedule to keep us on the same page and on track. I am sharing this in hopes it may help someone else looking to travel for a shorter time period to Thailand and in the off chance they would like to hire me as their personal guide/trip planner. I am available.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 10.29.24 AM

The bread and butter. Please, hold your applause.

So now that the cats out of the bag- that I am crazy- and you know almost every detail of my trip, let me review the highlights and put some color around this crazy table.

As I think I may have mentioned, it was hot. When it is hot in Thailand it is super important you get an early start on your day, wear dry fit clothing, and bring a lot of money for water. My parents packed perfectly. Loose, North Face, quick dry shirts, comfortable shorts and shoes. They were ready. And excited. One of the most exciting things was to hear my mom keep saying “I can’t believe I am here! Who would have thought I would ever go to THAILAND in my life?!?! At 60! This is incredible!” Sharing those experiences with friends and family is really what makes traveling so great.

In front of Temple of Dawn

In front of Temple of Dawn

One our first day in BKK we did the usual sights, on our own: Wat Arun, Reclining Buddha, took a walk through the flower market, where my dad made us stop every two seconds to video tape or take a picture, we took the river ferry and I introduced them to the wonderful Bangkok sky train system. From there we went to another sight I had yet to see- the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American who moved to Thailand in the 1950’s and 1960’s and put Thailand on the map in the west for their silk. And he is also famous for vanishing during his career, no one knows what happened to him. His home and collections have been preserved in Bangkok and you get to do a brief tour of his house, which is in the famous Teak style. It is absolutely beautiful and definetely worth checking out, he has a cool story. My mom really enjoyed it.

Silk at Jim Thompsons House

Silk at Jim Thompsons House

The next day we were off to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Bangkok. I decided it would be nice to take a train, something different and scenic. As is customary with Thai transporation, it was about an hour late. Maybe more. My dad was not pleased. However, we got there, stayed at one of the most highly recommended guest houses in town: Promtong Mansion. The woman who owns it is so sweet and helpful and will help you book anything. It was a great place for a short stay. We did make the mistake of the first day renting bicycles, in the heat, and I am pretty sure we almost died. During our trip we were each given the opportunity to have a breakdown or just not have a good day, I think that was my Dad’s. We didn’t really know where we were going except to see a lot of ruins and temples, it was SO hot (he had been the one months prior to address the issues that could arises with coming in April, I assured him it couldn’t get THAT much hotter. I was wrong.) So our bike ride enjoyment was short lived.

Typical.

Typical.

That evening we did do a little river tour though, on this little wood boat, which I was sure we would sink, and that was a kind of cool tour that was really cheap, like $6 a person for a couple hours. You stopped at 3 or 4 temples on the river and saw a “mini Angkor Wat” at sunset. It was a bit hazy so no real sunset but it was still something different and a bit cooler.

Mini Angkor on our river trip

Mini Angkor on our river trip

The next day we did a decided to do a tour of a really big Wat/ruins that were pretty cool and check out the Floating Market. It was a good day, not being on a bike at noon was a good choice. The temple was really cool, my dad took some really good pictures of some little boy monks and got to get his meditation on. The floating market was a bit kitschy but fun and we were able to start picking up some souveniors for friends back home. The piece de resistance was two fold: the live performance/enactment of battle of what I think was the Burmese and Thai’s and the fish spa.  My mom and I didn’t stick around too long for the enactment, it was very loud, crowded and violent. And one of the soldiers kept trying to scare me, it was weird. That’s what caused us to wander to the fish spa. Which is where you sit on bench, stick your feet in a bucket of water filled with those little “doctor fish” and they seize your feet and eat the dead skin.

Fish spa!

Fish spa!

It was SO weird. I shrieked when I put my feet in and they swarmed. But it doesn’t hurt and is relatively harmless, just tickle. It’s worth a try. While waiting for my dad we sat their looking for him and trying not to squirm. He found us and obviously wanted to try. He then struck up what felt like a 5 hour conversation with the owner, an Englishman who had retired and moved to Thailand and opened this with his Thai wife. Dad got his information incase he decides fish spas were always his life long dream and opens one in NJ.

At the end of our exciting day in Ayutthaya we opted to take my old faithful form of transport back to BKK: a minivan. It was good for my parents to experience my preferred mode of transportation and the love/hate relationship we had developed. It was a breeze, we made it back lickety-split and settled into U-Place, a recently opened guest house/serviced apartment I found during my research. It had a pool, clean beds and fit the bill because it was near Khao San Road, which I was eager to show them. We went for a swim, hung out, and then walked down to Khao San Road, which as usual, was pulsing. It was pretty hot that night though and waiting on my dad to video everything he saw got a bit annoying after a while so we didn’t last long. Plus we had an early tour with Tours with Tong and our trusty guide Gin. Which was fantastic. Again a long day and a bunch of things to see, she took them to the Grand Palace while I waited in a coffee shop and then we went to the Marble Temple and Chinatown. Both of which I hadn’t really seen yet. Her English was great, she was funny and got my parents. And took us everywhere we needed to be before our flight to Krabi that evening. At the last temple we went to, the Marble Temple (I think), we were fortunate enough to see a young monk being ordained. Which I had never seen before. He was dressed in white and his friends and family were there to see it all go down. At the beginning of the ceremony, he stands on the front steps of the temple and throws blessed 10 Baht coins to everyone. That was really cool because we were there for it. The crowd scrambled for the coins as Gin explained the customs to us and a nice Thai gentleman handed us some of the coins he had picked up. It was a very special right place/right time moment that I am glad I got to experience.

At the grand palace

At the grand palace

At the end of our day, we bid Gin farewell, gathered our things and went to the airport to get an Air Asia flight to Krabi, where we would then take a taxi and a long tail boat to Railay Beach. The place I had been waiting for. A couple of things I learned in my research about Railay for those who are interested in going. For one, it is what some may call a “hidden gem” as far as beaches in Thailand go. As it seems to be the case, when a pretty place is discovered in Southeast Asia, it is immediately seized upon, buildings are built, construction constructed, and little or no city/environmental planning takes place. I can see this happening in Railay. Broken into three sections, West, East, Tonsai, and Phra Nang, there is more and more building there everyday. In fact, on our second day there a huge tanker thing pulled up right smack in the middle of the beach and set up shop for some sort of construction. It’s sad really. Needless to say, as far as Thai vacation spots go, this is still one of the least developed I had seen. It’s quiet, quaint, relaxed and has a charm and character beyond most of the places I have visited in my travels, around the world. It’s a bit of a hike to get there, but if your looking for a relaxing, breathtaking, getaway, GO. And don’t tell anyone. Or else it will get crowded. I should probably delete this post immediately.

View from East Railay viewpoint!

View from East Railay viewpoint!

So as mentioned, to get to Railay can be a bit of a trip. First get to Krabi. Krabi airport or Krabi town. From there, you take a taxi to the pier, I don’t know what it’s called, and then take a longtail boat to either East or West Railay. Probably East Railay because that’s where most the accomodations are. We stayed at Sunrise Tropical, which I do recommend. It’s in a great location and is reasonably priced for a resort. It’s kind of the middle road of accomodations there. It’s a 5-10 minute walk from Phra Nang Cave/Beach and 5 minute walk to West Railay and 5 minute walk all the way to the other end of East Railay where bars and restaurants are. So it’s perfect. They also offered us the option of combined cab/longtail transport for like $15/person and it was totally worth it.

Another note: the tides in Railay are crazy. As I mentioned, most of the building is on East Railay, which is not a beach, but mangroves. The tide goes in and out of here like CRAZY. The best time to arrive is early in the morning or late at night when the tide is in. When the tide goes out, you and your luggage have to walk across the mangroves and sand and dirt to the longtail boat. These people look ridiculous and uncomfortable. At lunch one day my dad aptly noted they looked like refugees. It was true.

Sunset on West Railay. The tide coming back in a bit.

Sunset on West Railay. The tide coming back in a bit.

Okay enough details! Lets get to the good stuff…the beach. Go for the beach. It is so calm and beautiful and the landscape and back drop is insane. Really unlike anywhere I had ever been. Phra Nang Cave and beach is what I think is ranked one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And it is. It’s breathtaking. Whats different about these beaches is that they are not commercialized yet. No chairs, no food stalls or hawkers. Just you, your towel, and the sand thats as fine as confectionary sugar. Which can be annoying because it’s difficult to get off. Vacation problems. There are a few longtail boats that have made themselves snack stands, but since there really isn’t anywhere to get food on Phra Nang beach, its okay, and I think part of the character. You can rent kayaks in West Railay for about $6-7 an hour and kayak from there to Phra Nang and around the krags. My mother and I did that one day and it was really cool.

Phra Nang Beach. Looks like a postcard

Phra Nang Beach. Looks like a postcard

As I mentioned in my Mother’s Day post, there are viewpoints you can hike up, one in between East Railay and Phra Nang Beach and one at the end of Phra Nang Beach. We did the latter with my dad. This led to a bat cave. It was pretty cool but also kind of scary. But gave you a cut out view of the beach which was really cool and I have in the gallery below. We also met some rock climbers along the way, this place is HUGE for rock climbing, and you can take classes there. For our 3 days and 4 nights there we went to the beach, explored, kayaked, my dad went scuba diving, we got a massage and did some shopping. As I mentioned, its just a tranquil, beautiful, relaxing place. Oh and on our last day we rented a longtail boat for a few hours to go out to the other islands near by: Chicken and Poda. Which was cool. There was literally  no one on them at the end of the day. Except this little girl. Tell me this isn’t the best picture you’ve ever seen?

She was supervised by parents, I swear.

She was supervised by parents, I swear.

And on our last night we were afforded an incredible sunset. It was really great. I think that was one of my favorite times in Thailand and one of my favorite places in the world. It was just so different, so beautiful, and to share this incredible unheard of place with my parents was really, really cool. They loved it.

We left Railay to venture back to my Thai hometown of Chonburi, just in time for Songkran, the Thai New Year festival. To give you a synopsis and the real information, I googled Songran:

Songkran is a Thai traditional New Year which starts on April 13 every year and lasts for 3 days.  Songkran festival on April 13 is Maha Songkran Day or the day to mark the end of the old year, April 14 is Wan Nao which is the day after and April 15 is Wan Thaloeng Sok which the New Year begins.
Songkran means “movement” or “changing” since according to Thai astrology, the sun will move into a new sign of the Zodiac on this day.  Songkran is also called the “Water Festival”.  Water is believed to flow and wash away all bad omens during this time.  Thus, it is a time for cleaning; houses, villages, temples and spirit houses.

Girl on Songkran. Photocred to my dad

Girl on Songkran. Photocred to my dad

So we went back home for a big water fight. The biggest water fight in the world. I opted for us to stay in Bang Saen, the beach town about 20 minutes down the road from my school because it is a bit more scenic, has more hotel options, and gives a serious comparison to Railay. They loved it. My mom was excited to see where I lived and taught. I think it assured her that I had been safe and sound the past few months. My dad thought it was great because we were hanging with the locals, in the “Seaside Heights of Thailand”. Our first night we had a good dinner, did karaoke with about 4 other Thai people at a bar and tucked in to get ready for the big day.

Songkran festival in Bang Saen. Faceoff

Songkran festival in Bang Saen. Faceoff

Nothing could prepare us for it. Pick up trucks lined the entire street and rolled in along the beachside road with buckets of water and people and water guns. It was nuts! Music blaring, water splashing, kids laughing, older people dancing…interestingly. It was insane. As westerners the Thai people would hesitate but squirt us none the less. And put clay on our faces. Which was actually pretty cool. We ventured down to my town to see a parade rolling on through and I showed them my school, apartment, and where my market was. My market had transformed into a carnival and street fair and my family was very impressed, to say the least. I couldn’t really get them to understand it NEVER looked like that.

The festival was great and I am so glad we got to experience it. My mom left that day, in the nick of time I think, because at night it just got crazy. Besides being a beautiful, fun, different festival, its dangerous. It has become a drinking fest and the Bangkok Post literally does a death count daily of accident and incidents from the drinking and driving. That part was scary. But all in all good.

We were clayed and cleansed by my school in Chonburi

We were clayed and cleansed by my school in Chonburi

And from there my mom went home and my Dad and I went on to Vietnam! It was a whirlwind trip. In about 10 days I did more with them than all of my visitors combined and they were such troopers. I am so lucky to have been able to share Thailand with them and show them the place I had called home for six months. To many more family adventures! Check out the gallery below for more pictures.

A word of advice. Courtesy of Richard Branson

A word of advice. Courtesy of Richard Branson

I got an email this morning from LinkedIn with a commencement address from Richard Branson. Normally, I don’t read these things but I was particularly interested being I had just watched my younger brother graduate from college. And the title didn’t hurt:

Class of 2013: You’ll Never Again Be so Unburdened; Do Something Bold

I think that pretty much sums it up. Anyway, I recommend anyone to read it, whether you’re a recent grad, looking for a career change or looking to travel, I think it provides some great insight and advice. 

Northern Nam: Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

My final week in Southeast Asia was spent in Northern Vietnam, specifically in a place I had never heard of until I booked my flight, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. I heard had Vietnam overall was fantastic and that if you could only go one place, Ha Long Bay was the place to go, and I don’t think it could be more true. Overall, I actually think I liked Ho Chi Minh better than Hanoi, but Ha Long bay is too magical to miss and just about 4 hours away from Hanoi so if you can only do one, choose the north.

Ha Long Bay

After spending a few great days in Ho Chi Minh I was off to meet my friends in Hanoi, who were anxiously trying to choose the appropriate tour for Ha Long Bay, which is like picking the best Starbucks in Manhattan. They all look exactly the same, the pricing is the same- they are all just variations of each other. However, any true Starbucks connoisseur knows that the differentiation is in the details- the personality of the barista, cleanliness of the bathrooms, do they offer the full breakfast sandwich menu? This can make or break a Starbucks. The same goes for Ha Long Bay tours. The guide, cleanliness in accommodations and the food are what differentiates all of these white washed junk boats. Luckily, my friends did their research and with the overwhelming assistance of our guesthouse tour expert, Michael, we found the perfect fit: Elation by ODC Tours. The boat slept about 13 people, was quaint and elegant all at the same time and somehow the three of us were put in the honeymoon suite fit with a marble bath and back deck. And it fit the bill. For $90 a person we would spend one night and two days hanging the bay, kayaking a bit, hiking a bit, seeing an amazing cave and eating a lot.

Zee suite

Zee suite

When going to Ha Long Bay there are three well oiled options. You can do a day tour, an overnight tour, or a 2 night 3 day tour with a possible excursion to Cat Ba island. We opted for 1 night and 2 days being my friends were running out of the allotted time they had in Northern Vietnam. I think we could have easily stayed 2 nights, it was that enjoyable, but one night is great as well. I don’t know if I would do a day trip unless I really had no other option. It’s a bit of a trek out to the bay and half of the beauty is just sitting, relaxing on the boat and reminding yourself it’s all real. Not a picture.

Now that I’ve blabbed on about it, I realize most people don’t know what is so majestic about this bay. Well, for starters, it’s supposedly one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. So there’s that. But I don’t even really know what that is so I guess it’s not saying much. Second, the bay is filled with over 3,000 limestone krags, jutting through the emerald waters. To say the landscape is dramatic is an understatement. Lady Gaga’s entrances at her concerts are dramatic (or crazy, whichever you prefer), this is on a whole other level. You’re floating on this boat, through these huge sheer cliffs of rock and vegetation, just mumbling to yourself or your friends, “This is incredible. Wow. I can’t believe this. Wow. I can’t believe this is real life. Wow. This is amazing.” etc, etc, etc. You will say this over and over and it will not get old. Nor will the krags. I felt like a character in The Land Before Time.

Some kragage. There are a million of them.

Some kragage. There are a million of them.

Needless to say it was all perfection. I don’t need to give you the minute by minute details of what we did. All of the boats run a tight ship and offer the same agendas, kayaking, hiking to a viewpoint, meals, caves. Some obviously better than others. There is great food and a full bar on your mini cruise ship. So it’s a great getaway.

View from the viewpoint

View from the viewpoint

On our way home from our delightful journey we had a bit of a hiccup. A flat tire. The van had to pull over in god knows what town and get it fixed. The auto repair shop was right next to a little restaurant where the women who worked there were sitting outside with their kids. One of which was a 3 year old boy who was relieving himself in the street and then running around. The little boy was really cute and funny so we sat on the curb on the other side of the street and I kept trying to beckon him over. He would look at us, slyly, then run in the other direction. Eventually, his mother, who saw the game we were playing beckoned us to come over by giving us chairs. So we sat silently across from each other using our hands and eyes and emotions to communicate. She held her other son, who was also adorable and we found out he was about 6 months old. Her friend brought us out some green tea and her other children for us to admire and coo over. It is these casual encounters and circumstances that help make trips special. Meeting people from all over the world, seeing how they live, communicating with just your eyes, hands and shared human experiences. Plus, it didn’t hurt the kids were really cute.

My friend snapped a shot of me making the initial move to the other side of the street to meet our new 3 year old friend.

My friend snapped a shot of me making the initial move to the other side of the street to meet our new 3 year old friend.

Hanoi

When we returned to Hanoi we checked into the May De Ville Hostel, which I would highly recommend to anyone going to Hanoi. Reasonable, clean and with a variety of pricing options it’s in a great area and serves breakfast. Albeit a crazy area. That is when I became acquainted with the madness that is Hanoi’s traffic. Saigon has nothing on this city. It is insane. There are no sidewalks because they are taken up by street restaurants and stands, no traffic lights because apparently they aren’t important, and an incessant honking of scooter horns it could drive ya mad. But other than that, it’s great 🙂

Sheer madness

Sheer madness

Another great thing about Hanoi is this little thing they have called Bia Hoi . Bia Hoi is a popular, cheap draft beer that is served on the streets around happy hour and into the night. People post up on the sidewalks, sitting in kiddie chairs at kiddie tables, in front of places that have it, order simple fried foods and  $0.25 drafts of Bia Hoi. You just sit, drink, snack and watch the madness. It’s really cool. If you go to Hanoi you MUST Bia Hoi. I don’t know if your supposed to use it as a verb but I am.  I am also thinking of starting this in Brooklyn. The hipsters will flock.

On my friends last day in Hanoi (they had an open bus ticket to start heading south) we decided to take a tour with what Trip Advisor said was one of the top activities in town: HanoiKids. Hanoikids is a non profit, volunteer org where students in Hanoi volunteer to give free tours to practice their English. There are a few options of the tours you can do and they are very popular so its important to book ahead. We somehow squeezed in a slot on Saturday morning. We decided to have them take us to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho as the Vietnamese call him, is embalmed and on display for the people to pay their respect to. Little did we know there was an apparent holiday going on. They pulled a Thailand on us. So the line was outrageous. We decided to try and wait it out to our Hanoikids guides chagrin. They said most westerner’s just want to walk around and not go inside. Well, they hadn’t met our motley crew and we were in it to win it and get a glimpse of Uncle Ho. An hour later of line waiting and conversation on favorite hobbies, music, and the Hanoikids stories and we were in. And it was kind of cool. But kind of weird. Guards like shuffle you around the glass case where he’s just laying there. One of our guides told us there are conspiracies that it’s not really him but a wax statue because Vietnamese people believe you need to be buried or cremated to have your soul released or something along those lines. I guess we’ll never know.

masauleum

After the that we walked the beautiful grounds, saw a palace and some other important things and then had a great lunch of Pho spring rolls. Basically the soup turned into spring rolls. They were amazing. We bid our guide adieu and walked back to pack the girls up and move me to another hotel since May De Ville was full for the night. We said our sad goodbyes, knowing I would not see the girls again until America, and went our separate ways. I was sad and jealous to see them go, but overall happy and excited for their next adventure and just wish I had the time to join them. Unfortunately I didn’t, I had two more days in Hanoi before heading back to Bangkok and then back to the good old US of A.

The next two days were a slow but sharpened blur, which I know makes no sense but I feel tends to happen when I am traveling alone. I did an early morning Sunday Walking tour with Awesome Tours, which was cool. I got to see the streets abandoned except for vendors and the Vietnamese people practicing their exercise routines around the lake that  is in the middle of the city. That is also when I had my Vietnamese Dance Lesson as I mentioned in another post.

The lake in the middle of town

The lake in the middle of town

I strolled the streets, enjoyed the cafes and restaurants, shopped and decided to take a trip to the Temple of Literature, what is said to be one of the oldest educational institution in the world, founded by Confucius himself. I met a woman while there, who had been traveling around the world alone for the past 7 months and asked her if she would like to do a tour with me and split the cost. It was nice to just have someone to join you, help you take pictures and share travel stories and experiences. After the temple we had lunch together, swapped stories, suggestions and contact information and went our separate ways.

I switched back to May De Ville even though it was a bit more expensive ($25, oh my!) since I didn’t really like the hotel I switched to and when you are traveling alone, I am a firm believer you have to do what makes you comfortable. On my last night, I went to the walking street night market, which is also crazy and actually almost got pick pocketed. Six months without an incident and in my final days I almost got robbed. I would have killed someone if that happened. Luckily, I reached down for my bag just as someone was trying to fidget with my latch and they pulled their hand away, leaving my belongs with me, thank god. I turned and saw a Vietnamese woman with a blanket draped over her arm and realized she was my suspect. She wandered off into the crowd. Sure, I was spooked, but luckily, nothing had happen and it wasn’t like I was in danger. Just my credit card was. I steadied myself, kept my hand on the latch and walked back to the hotel. My flight was on a Tuesday morning, early, so I booked  taxi to take me to the airport at around 7.

This is where things become a slow blur. I remember getting in the taxi, onto the highway but I don’t really remember the airport. Checking in, getting on the plane, going through the motions. All I can remember thinking is, “Yes, Vietnam. I have liked you very much. I would like to come back someday, if you’ll have me”

Sunset in Ha Long Bay

Sunset in Ha Long Bay

Mother Knows Best

When one decides to travel across the world to do something completely outside of their comfort zone the end goal is usually something of independence, self growth, and exploration. Which is exactly what I had intended to do when I went to Thailand. What comes along with this package  however is the awareness of where those three things were coming from before embarking on your own. The dependence, self-confidence and support to explore all came from one very special person: your mom.

image

In honor of Mother’s Day and the things I have learned over the last six months, I would like to dedicate this post to my amazing mother, Terry. The one who kept me alive this long so I could experience these amazing things, gave me the self-confidence and assurance to explore and grow, and inspired me to be the woman I am still striving to become. This post will be a bit different from the post I wrote about my father on Thai Father’s Day, which he so affectionately calls, “his eulogy”, but the intent is still the same.

Like most people, I think I have the best mother in the whole wide world. Being I’ve tried to travel a bunch of this place, I think I stand on good grounds when I say that. However, as with every daughter growing up, there comes a time in your relationship when your mother becomes more than just your mother. She slowly but surely, without you realizing it, morphs into one of your best friends and you begin to respect her on a whole new level. You’ve outgrown the petty arguments, somehow survived puberty and menopause together, and have reached a mutual love and respect. This happens to everyone at different times and I honestly have always had a great relationship with my mom, but I think the time it finally really hit me that our relationship was at a new level was when her and my father visited my in Thailand. And let me tell you why.

image (2)

For starters they would have never made it there without my mother. As my brother and I decided the other day, she is like our family’s business manager; the glue that keeps us together. She keeps everything in order, the seen and unseen and we would basically dissolve, be homeless, without health insurance and I would have no idea where my birth certificate is, without her. Basically my brother, father and I probably wouldn’t be citizens anymore. When I found an extremely reasonable flight for the two of them to come to Thailand she was on it like white on rice, worked out the details, was able to coordinate using some of their miles and the two of them made it over here for less than what some people pay one roundtrip flight. Girlfriend’s got it together.

Secondly, at 60 years of age my mom has decided to take control of her life and her health and lost 35 pounds. And she looks absolutely incredibly. She began Weight Watchers about a month before my departure so when she came to see me 6 months later it was like being a participant in a surprise makeover show for my family. Svelt, happy and in all of her glory I was in disbelieve how healthy and beautiful she looked. My mother has always been a beautiful woman but when someone feels great about themselves it just takes them to a whole new level, she looked fantastic and was glowing.

Team Buksar looking good!

Team Buksar looking good!

Then there was the whole trip. Traveling with your parents can be tricky, especially when you don’t have a sibling around to balance it out. Being that my dad’s first priority most of the trip was his video camera, my mother and I were mostly left to our own devices, which was fine by me. It was our time together, planning activities, having lunch, exploring, laying on the beach, sweating, kayaking, that I think our mother/daughter relationship really reached the pinnacle of a friendship. Having been away from her for 6 months, learning more about myself as well as how much I still depended on her for so many things, I realized  many of the things I was learning about myself I had learned from her.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was when we went to Railay Beach, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life and travels. While walking around and getting a lay of the land we had heard there were a few viewpoints that gave you great views across all of the beaches, ocean, limestone krags, and overall landscape. However, they were hard to find. While wandering down one path we saw what looked like an informal ropes course going up the side of a hill/mountain. After having walked all around looking for the path to viewpoint we realized that had to be it: there weren’t any other options. Looking up at it, I was skeptical. My mom looked at me and said, “Want to give it a try?” “Sure”, I said uncertainly. She went first. Grabbing ropes, finding rocks and divots for our feet, she started navigating our way up. Sure and easy of herself. I on the other hand was a bit more insecure. “Mom, if this is the way up, this must be the way down…how the hell are we going to get down?” I said. “Not sure, but want to go a little more and see how we feel?” Her cool kept me assured. Then, we spotted a few people up above us. “If that woman in the bikini can do it, we can do it.” she said. Although still a bit scared, I realized she was right. Plus if she was 60 years old and wasn’t scared to do it, then I sure as hell couldn’t be.

The ascent

The ascent

We made it. A lot of sweat, dirt, and scrambling later and we made it. And it was worth it. West Raily Beach on our left, East Railay on our right, and a back drop of lush green hills. It was really breathtaking. And I would have never made it up there without my mom. I have always considered myself someone who is willing try new things, is adventurous,  up for anything, and that’s when I realized it was because of my mom. Sure, as I had said about my Dad, he pushes us to do everything and try anything, explore and take risks to the point of abandonment. So my brother and I try to do many new things but with an anxiety and caution or a resounding NO. It’s completely different when you’re doing something different or scary and your mom tells you its okay and leads the way. A blanket of relief and “okay, this can’t be THAT bad” overcomes you and gives you the confidence to do it. So thank you mom, for the gentle pushes, casual assurances, and overwhelming sense of relief you’ve given me as I have navigated through life and up that darn hill/what-I-consider-mountain. 

We made it! West Railay on the left, East Railay on the right, gorgeousness all around.

We made it! West Railay on the left, East Railay on the right, gorgeousness all around.

The descent, we made it!

The descent, we made it!

I could go on and on about how kind, compassionate, thoughtful, funny and intelligent my mother is but then this would turn into a book and not a blog and that is not my intent….yet. So I will end with a resounding thank you and toast to the woman of the hour in honor of this past Mother’s Day. Without you I would not be here, would not have made it this far, and would not have the confidence or a role model to inspire me to go as far as I would like to go. I hope I am one day a mother as wonderful as you, so great in fact that my future children write a blog about me. Or by that point make me a hologram message I can view through a chip in my eye or something. To Terrgirl! Love ya!

image (1)

Waiting for my dad to take our picture in less than favorable conditions...This pretty much sums up our lives

Waiting for my dad to take our picture in less than favorable conditions…This pretty much sums up our lives