Weeks 22-26: One New Month, Three New Countries

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. The mind is everything. What you think you become.

Buddha

From Hanoi to Chiang Mai

We left Hanoi clad in matching head-to-toe fruit couture. It was really fun and another moment to feel connected as a group. Our flight to Chiang Mai was just a quick jaunt, which was a welcome change from our previous transitions. From the moment we landed in Chiang Mai, I knew I was going to love it. I had the exact same feeling I had when we landed in Medellin. I just could immediately feel the energy of the place and my body and mind reacted positively. I heard someone describe Chiang Mai as “a beach town without the beach” and I think that’s the perfect description. It feels very chill and laid-back and the people are so friendly. After the insanity of Hanoi, it was a welcome change of pace. It’s kind of insane that a place and its atmosphere can affect you that quickly (and scary, too, to think of the reverse). Something to keep in mind as I think about the “afterlife” once my travels are over.

Polaris ❤

In any event, our apartments in Chiang Mai were the best yet. We all lived in three connected towers in studios or one-bedrooms. It was nice, it almost felt like college or law school again. You could just walk down the hall to visit your friends, there was always someone who was willing to go grab a bite or explore, but you had your own space. (It really made me miss freshman year slash 1L of law school!) That sense of community is something that is hard to maintain in adulthood. When we live in apartment buildings in “real life,” we might know our neighbor across the hall from comings and goings if we’re lucky, but from my experience, people don’t really try to cultivate a true community across a building. It kind of makes me sad to think about that lost opportunity. In my DC apartment building, I really only spoke to my doorman. I would see people in and out all the time and might say the passing “Hello,” but nothing more. I never house-sat for anyone or watched their pets. I didn’t ask them how their kids were doing or what new things were going on with them. Again, yet another thing to think about for whatever the “afterlife” may bring. I think we could all us a little more community in our lives.

Anyhoo, our activities in Chiang Mai were amazing. The first day we landed, we went to an elephant sanctuary. It was wonderful to be that close to these majestic creatures. I will admit though, afterwards, my friend Daniela posted a really interesting article about these types of places, and it made me think twice. Even if you’re not riding the elephants and you don’t see any mistreatment per se, the fact that these animals are being raised to interact with humans and allow you to pet them/wash them/whatever with them, means they are being bred in a way and that is problematic. It gave me pause and a lot of food for thought about whether visiting these places in the first place is really helping anyone. It’s interesting because I really don’t enjoy going to zoos back home, they really make me feel icky, for the reason that these animals are just being kept to have people gawk at them. It’s funny because I think most people would not consider me an animal person at all. I don’t really like being in the company of most animals, save a few dogs…. But that’s the thing, I know I don’t want them in my space and I’m certain they don’t want me in theirs. I’m not really sure why we think we have a right to catch them and stare at them and make them live their lives out on our terms. But, I digress. I’ll post the photos anyway.

Chiang Mai has a lot of really lovely temples and an old city inside four walls that has a lot of beautiful places to explore. There was a temple where women weren’t allowed to enter so that was a fun little treat. There were even temples that had full-size wax sculptures of monks sitting there that looked so realistic! It was like Madame Tussaud’s, Buddhist-style. Chiang Mai is also a digital nomad hub, perhaps the biggest one in the world, so it was VERY easy to live there for a month because it is so catered to Westerners. There were Westerners everywhere. I went to a yoga studio, a salad shop, a mall, even had Western-style brunch! It really was very east-meets-west there. I even ran into a woman from my hometown at a women’s digital nomad lunch! What a small freakin’ world.

My scary thing of the month (there are multiple of these this month): trying Crossfit with my friends Christina and Dare! Christina and Dare are both Crossfit loyalists, and I have been wanting to be more structured in staying in shape, so they were so encouraging and I went along with them! I even enjoyed it enough to go twice! I have done Crossfit before in the States and have not had good experiences, frankly. The one in Chiang Mai was great, and I was so happy to experience it with my friends! I also got to try Muay Thai boxing, which was really fun.

Other highlights from Chiang Mai: Khao Soi. I’m not sure how many of you have heard of this Thai dish, I certainly hadn’t before coming to Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, I don’t think most Thai restaurants back home serve it. It’s amazing. It’s this noodle soup (you can get it with whatever protein or lack thereof you want) with this amazing peanut/spicy/sweet/savory/acidic amazingness sauce. I must have had it at least once a day there. Chiang Mai/Northern Thailand is known for this dish, it’s their thing, so if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you should definitely try it. And if anyone knows of places back home that serve this, help a sister out!

One of our events was to be able to meet with a Buddhist monk, ask him questions, and do a short meditation session with him. Hearing about his life and daily routine was fascinating. He entered monk training as a young boy, about 11-years-old. He is now in university and still maintains the monastic lifestyle. It is his choice. He says he has friends who started in school with him but, as they got older, decided to leave the lifestyle to start families (monks can’t touch women or get married) or because they wanted certain careers. He says he stays in it because he really likes the discipline. He also said he may stay for life or he may leave at some point to enter the workforce. Monks have embraced technology to a point, i.e. they have computers and do use the internet for studying and learning. But, they have a strict daily schedule. They’re up at 4 AM for their morning chores, then by 6, they are doing their morning meditation, then it’s breakfast, and on for the day. They cannot eat after noon, so they have their lunch meal then and that is their last meal of the day. (The original intermittent fasting, if you ask me!) Then they’re back home and going to bed early. There are five main precepts of Buddhism that all Buddhists are to try to adhere to (monks or non-monks), and these are considered precepts and not rules because there is no punishment in Buddhism, only karma. What goes around comes around. If you put bad energy out, that is what you will receive in return. The five precepts are, no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no consuming intoxicating substances. Monks have to follow 200-or-some-odd additional precepts to maintain their place in the monastic lifestyle. What I found interesting is that men can become monks for a short time, even if they have a “normal” life with a wife, job, and kids. Government jobs in Thailand will give you a few months off to go be a monk. As long as your wife agrees to it, you can go do it, get the discipline, and return to your regularly scheduled programming. Fascinating. I also found the meditation really helpful. We did a “dynamic” meditation, which had us do certain rhythmic arm movements to get into a meditative state. I’ve really struggled with meditation in the past, and this sort of “dynamic” meditation really helped.

We also go to go to a ladyboy cabaret. This was incredibly fascinating. We were given the chance to talk to the performers beforehand about their lives and their journeys. They were so vulnerable with us and I learned a ton. It’s very interesting how conservative Thai culture is on some things and how open-minded on others, and conversely, how strangely conservative/progressive our culture can be.

I also did both track events this month. One involved us hiking through the hills where the hill tribes lived. It was nice to get out of the city and be in nature. Our second track was hiking a “sticky waterfall.” This was my second scary thing of the month. These were waterfalls that were pretty high, and we were just barefoot walking up the stones. We were rewarded with a pretty sweet inflatable water park at the end. So that was nice! Although I did end up with some nasty rashes on my legs from crawling around on these inflatable rafts and from going up the waterfall. BUT, I am super proud of myself. Add “climbing up a waterfall” to things Old Abby would never do on a normal Sunday.

I should also note that I realized there are certain things I don’t like and don’t want to do. Such as night markets. Night markets are not for me. I’ve tried them, and I get why they are fun and exciting for others, but that’s not where my attention is best spent. Large crowds in enclosed spaces have never really been my thing in general (might be because of my height), but add in not being able to see the way out and the activity being shopping, and I’m out. No thanks. Not for me. I’ll see you when you get home. Chiang Mai has a famous night market, and I could not get out of there fast enough. Another thing: stray animals. So hard to get used to. Dogs, cats, random pigs. Not my jam. I’m not being hard on myself about it; I’m not going to like everything, and that’s fine! It’s good to know the things that you try and don’t like just as much as the new things you try and do like.

Lovely Laos

During our first week in Thailand, we took a side trip to Laos. This included a stop in Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai was interesting. There are famous temples there–the White Temple, the Blue Temple, and the Black House. The White Temple was really interesting. Some refer to it as “Temple Disneyland.” It was fairly recently built by the Thai national artist in the 1990s. He put a bunch of different modern-day characters in the temple, like Marvel characters and Star Wars characters. Our guide explained that this was to help younger generations associate good morals and behaviors with characters they looked up to. Our hotel in Chiang Rai was amazing and we were bummed we only had one night there.

We got up bright and early the next day and rode to the Laos border. Once there, we got on a bus that took us to our “slow boat.” Our boat was awesome, it was just eight of us from our group and a Spanish family of three. The boat was massive with lots of space for relaxing and enjoying the scenery. I highly, highly enjoyed this time. Laos is a beautiful country, really untouched. This may seem uncouth, but I imagined that this is what an explorer (read: colonialist) must have seen and felt when coming to this country for the first time.

Our boat started at the border and then we stayed in a village along the way on the river for a night called Pakbeng. This was cute and we got to stay in these little lodges. Then, we continued the next day all day on the boat and ended in Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang was SO quaint, so cute, I loved it there. The first day we were there, we toured around the city, saw the temple and the royal palace. The second day, we went to the Kuang Si Waterfall. This was honestly one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen and my favorite thing I’ve seen on Remote Year thus far (except for Machu Picchu). The water was such a bright crystal-clear blue and we got there early in the morning before the crowds and were able to enjoy the beautiful, peaceful scenery. I’ve never seen water that color, and even though I had seen pictures beforehand, I really thought people were editing the photos to make the water look that blue. Turns out, it’s caused by the limestone runoff. If you ever make it to this area of the world, I highly, highly recommend a detour to LP and to this waterfall in particular. I fear that in a few years, it will be overrun with tourists and the natural state of the place will be somewhat diminished. By the time we came down from our hike up (which was really cool on its own!), the place was TEAMING with tourists who were essentially ignoring the signs about where they could and could not swim. Makes me nervous for the future!

I was really pleasantly surprised by our entire week in Laos. I really didn’t know what to expect, as opposed to the high hopes I had for Vietnam and Thailand. I will really look back on those few days as some of my fondest thus far. It was such a cool experience to go into a country, having really heard nothing about it beforehand, and being wowed by most of the things you see. I hope I get to have that experience again!

(Edit: third scary thing of the month was flying Lao Airlines on a prop plane back to Chiang Mai from Luang Prabang. But I survived with flying colors!)

Bangkok with Mom and Dad!

My last week in Thailand, I flew to Bangkok to meet up with my parents who were flying in a few days early before they set off on their own grand adventure! I cannot begin to describe how nice it was to see my mom and dad. Especially to see them so out of their comfort zone and being so game and so adventurous. I was so impressed. I love you, Mom and Dad!

We spent a day doing a little touring around Bangkok. I’m not going to lie– Bangkok was not my favorite. I really did not like it. I found the “sights” pretty underwhelming. The Royal Palace was crowded, hot, stuffy, and I had a “Mona Lisa” moment with the Emerald Buddha. I do not know how many of you have seen the Mona Lisa, but it’s this piece of art that is so famous and so revered, and I waited and waited in line to see it, pushed through the crowd, got elbowed in the face, and finally got up to it and it was this tiny little portrait. Such a let-down. Same thing with the Emerald Buddha. After seeing the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (which WAS very cool and very big), I expected the Emerald Buddha to be this massive statue. It wasn’t. It was this tiny little buddha in this room way up high. I had gotten jostled around to see it and it was so hot. I had to wear two layers because my jeans were not deemed appropriate enough, so I had to borrow money from my tour guide to buy a skirt. And then, I was completely let down by the end result. Just goes to show you, sometimes the “must-see” sights and the tourist attractions are really not much. Bangkok was the first place I’ve been where I did not really do much research beforehand and it showed. I just signed up for a sights tour on site without really looking into it. Lesson learned.

In a happy coincidence, we did meet up with my friends from DC, Daniela and Jeremy, who are also on their own year-round trip around the world. As luck would have it, we were both considering doing the same food tour our second night in Bangkok! It would have been so funny to show up to a food tour and see my friends from halfway around the world standing there. The food tour was really fun, we made eleven stops and trekked through all of Chinatown. We even made a stop where I tried grasshopper, cricket, and worm!! I was so impressed with my parents, again, not just for their stamina in terms of shlepping all over Bangkok, but also their willingness to try new and weird foods! Good job, Mom and Dad!

The next day, we hung out by the pool and did an amazing cooking class. If you’re ever in Bangkok, I highly recommend this cooking school called House of Taste! We had a great time and I’m very excited for my mom to recreate some of the recipes we made. We made tom yum soup, pad thai, green curry, and mango sticky rice. They were all incredible and we had a great time together!

That night, Daniela, Abby and I went to Skybar, which is the most famous rooftop bar in Bangkok. The Hangover Part II was filmed there. The view of the city was incredible, I must admit. However, each drink there was minimum $30! I have never paid $30 for any kind of beverage in my life. Also, it had a very strict dress code. Abby and I had both tried to bring our parents there the day before and we were turned away because our fathers were wearing shorts! (Sidenote: Abby’s parents and my parents did get to meet at the bar downstairs, it was a fun Iowa-Meets-Russia moment :-).

And then, all too soon, it was time to say goodbye to them. I was really emotional pulling away from them to go to the airport. I cried in the cab ride. It was so hard. It’s funny, you think at 30 years old, saying goodbye to your mom and dad should be a piece of cake. I don’t live near them in the States anyway. And yet, I was bawling like a baby. The good news is, there is FaceTime! I am excited that I will be seeing them over the holidays though! Only four more months to go 🙂

Cambodia

After Bangkok, Abby and I began our romantic sojourn to Cambodia. After a quick 45-minute-plane ride, we landed in Siem Reap. Our hotel there was so nice. Highly recommend it! Since we only had a couple of days, we immediately booked a full-day tour of the temples. Our first day there, we visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, and Ta Phom. It really was awe-inspiring to see the incredible craftsmanship and labor that went into building these 1000 years ago. I still cannot really fathom how this was done that long ago without electricity or modern machinery or metal? These were massive stones with the most intricate carvings on them on these GARGANTUAN structures. It was truly an impressive human feat.

After visiting the three main temples, we were zonked. We came to our hotel and had massages (read: best massage of my life! She seriously split every single muscle fiber I had). We then went to a Cambodian restaurant and got gelato at this amazing gelato place. Took a stroll down Pub Street. For a small city in Cambodia, this place has a ROCKING nightlife. Since I am an old lady, we did not partake, but just observed this nightlife. Then, our second day, we slept in, relaxed by the pool, and then did a “sunset” Jeep tour through the countryside in an old US army jeep left over from the Vietnam War. The reason I say “sunset” in quotes is because we did not actually see a sunset. Our friends from Polaris had done this tour a month prior and had beautiful pictures enjoying the sunset from the Jeep. We had done about two hours of the tour and had a lovely time, and we had just pulled in to the spot to view the sunset, and as our guide parked the car, it started monsooning. Not just some rain, but full-on hurricane/monsooning. And we were in an open-top Jeep. Abby and I couldn’t do anything but laugh. It was just the ultimate perfect timing. Being completely drenched to the bone with nowhere to hide and nowhere to go. Our driver said this was the first time this had ever happened to him. That’s what we get for trying to do a sunset tour during rainy season! To be honest, this will be one of my most memorable moments of the year. When you’re traveling, you have to be game for anything. I’m just really grateful I was traveling with someone who saw the humor in the situation as much as I did. It made for some funny before and after photos and also some GREAT off-road puddle-smashing!

Ironically, as I’m talking about being “game for anything” while traveling, my check-in experience from Cambodia was one of the worst I had ever had. Flying a budget airline… you get what you pay for I guess. I thought I had bought a checked bag in advance; I remember going through all the steps and getting the confirmation. But, when I got to the check-in desk they told me they couldn’t find my checked bag reservation. They then told me I could only bring 15 kgs, instead of the 20 kgs I had planned on. Otherwise, I would have to pay $320 USD. So of course, I tried to take 5 kgs out of my bag to get it under. Thank goodness Abby had space in her carry-on to fit my stuff in. Then, going through security, they searched my entire carry-on to find my pair of nail scissors that they confiscated! I had never had nail scissors confiscated before. It was clear they didn’t know what they were and weren’t even sure these were the type of scissors they were supposed to confiscate. But, I was too tired to put up a fight. This was all before 8 o’clock in the morning. Ah well. When traveling for a year, some travel days like this are bound to happen and I tried to take it in stride. I had a few lip-quiver moments, but got through and landed safely in Japan with all of my belongings (minus one nail scissor!)

Six Months In

This week marks the end of my adventures in Southeast Asia and with it, six months and exactly halfway into this crazy year. It’s hard to believe it’s already six months in, but in some ways, I can’t believe it’s only been six months. In Southeast Asia, there is a famous saying, “Same, same, but different.” It’s on t-shirts and people will constantly say it as a joke to us foreigners. Kind of like, hey I’m selling you this knock-off Prada bag, it’s “same, same, but different.” Or hey, this meal you’re having is just like a McDonald’s burger back home, it’s “same, same, but different.”

I can’t help but take that saying to heart. Although Southeast Asia has been the biggest culture shock for me so far in my travels, and I’ve had some of the toughest moments yet, it’s also brought some things into tighter focus for me. I’ve been thinking about my own version of the saying, which is somewhat backwards. “Different, but same, same.” For instance, I am grateful to my Remote Year family for all their support and for going on this wild ride with me. Six months ago, 30 perfect strangers decided to do something insane. Although we were coming on this journey for completely different reasons, from completely different places, with different jobs, different home lives, we all wanted to reach for something more together. We were different, but same, same. Now, I can’t imagine a time when I didn’t know these people. I am grateful for my parents, who support me in everything I do and love me no matter what. Having this last week with them was so wonderful and being able to discover new things with them in a foreign place was an invaluable experience and brought us so much closer. Yet, the love and bond we had was the same as it’s always been. Different, but same, same. I am also grateful to the local people I have met on this journey. Although many times we did not speak the same language, we did not eat the same foods, we did not wear the same clothes, we are all going through the human experience together. It may seem cliché to say, but I really have felt that so deeply these past few months, and it has created a profound shift in my psyche. In the US, I feel like we (I) get very caught up in the meritocracy and social status and the categories of life that we are taught to think are so important. And then you go on a Jeep tour in the countryside of Cambodia where little kids run to say hello to you because they are excited to meet another person and not because you are so-and-so from who-knows-where who does god-knows-what and looks like you-know-who. And then it downpours, and you all just smile and laugh together because you all recognize the absurdity and futility of the situation. Everyone on this earth just wants to be happy, to be loved, to feel the bonds of community, and to leave something behind when they go. That’s all that matters. We are different, but same, same.

See you in Japan!

ATZ

1 comment

  1. Love your re-interpretation of different but same same!! Your writing and reflections continue to give me chills. Also so interesting about monk life (thanks for sharing your learnings!) and LOOOVE seeing you and your parents!!!! Such a cute chef family. Glad they were able to visit, and I’m sure you’ll all be happy to reunite again soon 🙂

    Like

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