Packing Tips from a Longterm Backpacker

Are you considering a vacation, a month away, or even long term travel? Living out of a backpack may seem daunting at first, but once you learn how to pack up everything you need, it’s actually pretty easy. Furthermore, living with less is so much more simple than having a closet full of things. It simplifies decision making and makes cleaning up a breeze!

Backpacking Tips
My backpack and I when I first started, my 3rd day in China.

There are two things of equal importance in my book when it comes to packing for backpacking style travel, both short and long term. One is packing what you need and needing what you pack and two: your bag itself.
1. When choosing what will become your shell, your home on your back, comfort is key and a good design is helpful. Choose a backpack that suits your body. If you are small, short stature, or petite, a small bag is best. Don’t get something that towers over you and weighs you down. And even if you can carry a larger bag, ask yourself if you will want to, or even need to. I’m 5’3” (160 cm) and carry a small/medium 44 liter Kelly Redwing pack and it’s perfect. It has a sturdy waist strap, a chest strap, and best of all, perfect compartments. Choose a backpack that can zip open in the front, not a stuff in from the top style bag. That way, you can unzip it and take out what you need without making a mess.
2. Organization is essential. Use packing cubes and small bags to organize specific items. Of all the things in my bag, I actually have more bags than anything else! You can order packing cubes on Amazon or pick them up at some markets if you’re in Asia. They typically come in a variety of sizes per set and mine came with a laundry bag as well. I chose the largest cube to hold all of my pants/shorts/leggings, the medium for shirts and tops, and the small one for undergarments like underwear, my bathing suit, bras, and sports bras. I have a smaller bag for socks that I stick inside of it. All of my clothes fit into three small cubes and they go in the main compartment of my pack.

Backpacking Tips
What I’m currently carrying.

3. Keep essential items close by and non-essential, but necessary items in a lesser accessible area. I keep all of my toiletries in a toiletry bag in the right side pocket and a make up bag in the left. It’s always been like that and I never have to fumble around looking for some basic items like my toothbrush and toothpaste. In an even smaller bag that I picked up in Mongolia, I have some hair elastics and barrettes. They stay at the bottom of that outer pocket. The items that I use less frequently, like medicines, a poncho, and my headlamp, are at the bottom of my bag or in the top pocket.
4. Don’t overpack. Before you head out on your adventure, consider the activities in which you will participate. Ensure you have what you need for those main things, like hiking boots if you will be hiking, but if there’s something you won’t need often, don’t take it. There may be certain things that are a must have for you, but weigh the pros and cons and determine if lugging it around will be worth it. I wish I had my own mask and snorkel because I have some quality gear in my small storage unit back home, but carrying it around is cumbersome and space consuming. Although I enjoy snorkeling, it’s not a main focus of my trip so I make do with the cheap equipment available on the different boat and island hopping tours I’ve done.
As you get further into your travels, you will develop a system that’s quick, easy, and works for you. I always allocate a ton of time to pack up before I go somewhere, but the reality is, it usually only takes me a few minutes. I don’t know why I think it will take a long time, I do it regularly and with all the same stuff!
I just wanna delve a bit deeper into my own organizational skills! I do like to be organized, but because I don’t buy souvenirs, (space is an issue, of course), much of what I do buy is functional, if I do buy anything at all. Here’s a breakdown of my bags:
1. New “laundry bag.” I left my original one back in the States for some reason, so I bought a cloth bag in Laos that I can use as a grocery bag when I go home. Sometimes it’s empty, sometimes it’s full!
2. Embroidered toiletry bag from Thailand. I love these bags, they fit perfectly in the side pocket of my pack, and I love the colors and designs that you can find them in. I have bought many for others as gifts as well!
3. Hair elastic drawstring bag. My only souvenir from Mongolia, it doesn’t take up any space and holds all my hair ties, which would have otherwise been lost by this point.
4.Blue mesh zip bag. I picked this up in Vietnam to hold some “emergency” items, medicine, band aids, and that sort of thing. I never use them, but have them if I need them.
5. Textile half oval shaped zip bag: my one souvenir from Bhutan. I bought it to house my electronic accessories: my power bank cord, iPad plug, and my Vivoactive charger.
6.Green embroidered bag: another souvenir from Laos. I just couldn’t pass it up. I loved the colors and embroidery. I even bought one for my Bangladeshi host, Humaira. I put a bunch of misc. items in it like my head lamp, a small flashlight, and the chest strap to my heart rate monitor that I never use. (It won’t connect. Sad face).
7. Blue elephant coin purse. My cousin bought a buttload (official term) of these in Chinatown in Thailand for less than $2.00. I took one to replace the Lululemon one I used. I keep small bills in it and only use that for cash transactions. That way, I’m never pulling my wallet out in public and if something ever happens (God forbid), nobody would gain much from stealing it.
8. Water bottle holder. Yet another souvenir from Laos. That thing is so handy. You gotta keep hydrated in humid Southeast Asia and holding a bottle all day is annoying. I wish I could have bought 100 to give away to friends and family!
9. Plastic make up bag. Just a run of the mill, durable toiletry bag. It came with a suitcase I bought back in the states a long time ago.
10. Multicolor zip bag: my mom gave me this before I left, before I perfected my packing system. It currently holds my Diva burn sample packs. I just like it so I still have it.
11.Eddie Bauer Stowaway Bag. This 21 liter bag is actually pretty awesome. I bought it this summer at an outlet and it’s handy and compact. I use it for day trips, beach trips, and sometimes as a carry on.
12. Eddie Bauer three zip over the shoulder bag. Another handy bag. I don’t like carrying much with me so I use it while I’m out. It fits my phone, wallet, sunglasses, and a few other small items.
13. Eddie Bauer tablet over the shoulder bag. Perfectly fits my iPad.

Backapacking Tips
Your pack can always doble as a weight. Doing squats at the train station in Ella, Sri Lanka.

Oh my goodness! I have a ton of bags. I’m a bag lady! I even have 3 more small ones I gained while in the Philippines. One from a hotel and two from a survey I completed while at the airport in Manila. Crazy thing is, I want them and even think I can use them. 😂🙈 But guess what? All of these things simplify my packing and make the process like a game of Tetris. I’m a good player, it all fits!
What about you? Are you a bag lady? Have you perfected your art of packing? What’s your favorite souvenir to collect while abroad? As for me, I think I need a few more bags! Next up, I need to do a post on what to pack for long term travel.

A Good Hostel in Cebu, Philippines 🇵🇭

Fitness, fun, food, and travel… It’s what my blog and my Instagram account (Tiffany_The_Happy_RD) are all about. I don’t always get to fuse all components though but today I can.
I found a hostel on Cebu. Somebody on one of my FB travel groups actually recommended it. I was interested in the “private beach.” Not having to walk somewhere for the main reason you visit an island is a convenience. Nordzee Hostel is located in Boljoon, along the east coast of Cebu. It takes about 3 hours to get there from Cebu City, depending on traffic. The bus ride costs about $2.50 from the South Bus Terminal. The hostel has its own private beach and the selling point for me was one of the Booking.com reviews: “The best western food on the island.” I was sold, looking for a break from rice and noodles these days.

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Welcome!

I checked into my 6 bed dorm with a private balcony and met another traveler. We went down to the restaurant on premises for a late lunch. There were some western style offerings on the menu: chicken salad, pizza, calzone, pasta, and a few other things. Chicken salad it was. Sometimes I’m just so thankful for some raw, fresh chopped vegetables and some lean protein.
I was excited to see some makeshift workout equipment. There was a wooden bench and a homemade rack that held some homemade dumbbells. They, along with a couple of bar bells were made with a simple metal bar with concrete moulds at each one. A smaller one was a water bottle, and the largest appeared to be from a planter. Ingenious and fairly functional.

Homemade Gym equipment
Homemade Gym equipment.

I hooked my TRX up to a tree and ended up working out all three days that I was there.

TRX in paradise!
TRX in paradise!

The hostel also rents snorkel equipment, has a small pool, cushioned beach loungers, a beach side bar, and hammocks, none of which I really used (sadly). Unfortunately, most of my time in Cebu was met with rain, apparently from a typhoon that was headed towards Japan.

Cebu, Philippines during the rain
Cloudy skies and rainy days. Balcony view.

I attempted to visit Kawasan Falls, but by the time I arrived, they were closed due to high water levels. I’d taken the local bus so at least I didn’t spend a lot of money, but it really felt like a waste of a day.

Near Kawasan Falls
The walkway to Kawasan Falls, Just before I was told they were closed.

The other thing to do on Cebu is go swimming with the whale sharks, the biggest shark there is, yet like manta rays, they are very docile and gentle animals. I opted to skip this excursion as I heard it’s quite “unethical,” but I’m regretting it so! I love large see creatures so this was my chance to see them up close and personal. They do get fed, which messes up migratory patterns, but you’re not allowed to swim after or touch them. There are steep fines and you could even end up in jail. So while feeding them isn’t best practice, the sharks are protected to an extent.
Unfortunately, my time in Cebu was short and wet. I didn’t end up doing anything the island is known for but at least I found a hostel with some decent food (although, I will say it was a bit pricey but at least serving sizes were decent). I was able to workout with a beautiful backdrop despite the gloom, and I got to see a lot of the island considering all of the bus rides I took.
If you’re looking for a chill place to stay on Cebu, check out Nordzee. The beds are adequately comfortable, there’s plenty of areas to relax on the property, and you can even get in a workout in a really beautiful setting. And of course, when the weather is nice, you can go swimming and snorkeling in the Bohol Sea. Oh, and they have a Pet turkey and a few chickens that hang out!!

If you go, let me know because I ended up taking my room key with me! 😂

Travel in Bangladesh

To say I was scared would be a great understatement. Perhaps paralyzed with fear is a more descriptive phrase. I stood on the edge of the infamous fishing troller, both feet side by side on the last bit of open space that was left on the overcrowded single mode of transport to and from Saint Martin’s Island. I was momentarily frozen, I felt the blood rush from my face down to my feet, I even felt light headed. There’s not a lot that bothers me but I was petrified.

The busy pier in Teknaf, Bangladesh

The trip didn’t start there at that trash filled port, however, it began 4 hours earlier in Cox’s Bazar. We checked out of our two bedroom, $18/night hotel room (breakfast included), and ventured out to get the bus to Teknaf, one of the easternmost towns along the coast in Bangladesh, 5 miles from the Myanmar border. Humaira, my host, told me we would take a bus, but on the busy streets of Cox’s Bazar, filled with the whizzing buzz of vehicles and the bells of rickshaws, she motioned for me to get into the back of a covered truck. It had two bench seats on the inside and a row between the main cab and those of us in the back.

Ready to go.

There were 14 people in that small space, the attendant hung on to the ladder on the outside of the vehicle, and another young boy sat on the top. Three plus hours in that cramped space.

Our truck/bus attendant from Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf.

The thick air barely filtered through the open windows and when it did, it brought along dirt and dust that filled the nostrils and the corners of my eyes. As we traveled, some people got off and on, freeing up some space, but it was still cramped nonetheless. Humaira spent some time standing on the back, and I eventually did the same for a few minutes, needing a breath of fresh air and to stretch my legs. The portion of the trip we spent along Marina Drive was amazing, with the endless beach and seemingly calm sea in the background.

The sea from Marina Drive.

As we traveled, people were inquisitive. Why was there a foreigner in the area during low season, and furthermore, why was there a foreigner in the area given the Rohinga refugee situation? People kept repeating, “Be careful, it’s not safe.” But our minds were clearly made up and we were making the journey to Saint Martin’s Island, a speck of land in the Bay of Bengal, just a few kilometers from the Burmese shore.

Just a visual of the area.

The Rohinga are considered a stateless people. When the British drew up the Burmese borders, they fell within that country, but they’ve always been denied a nationality. Within Myanmar, they are not allowed movement, state education, nor civil service jobs. The group, predominantly Muslim, has long been persecuted in Myanmar, a predominately Buddhist country, and violations against them have been termed “crimes against humanity.” In the recent past, the situation has escalated and more than 900,000 refugees have fled from Myanmar to escape the current genocide the group is facing. It’s a complex issue that doesn’t get a lot of press in the West, but the situation is likened to apartheid.
During one of the bus stops, a young woman with red, bettle nut stained lips and worn teeth sat opposite me. She had two young children, a small rice sack of belongings, and wore a black hijab. She had an empty look in her brown eyes and that face with her fine features and small nose will forever be ingrained in my mind. Her husband was killed in Myanmar and she’d recently crossed the border. Although there are various checkpoints along the roads to prevent the Rohinga from totally infiltrating Bangladesh, the woman and her two children were allowed on the bus. They were traveling from one refugee camp to another, closer to the border to meet other family members. She got of the truck and we drove away. She was clearly not Bangladeshi and I’m clearly not Rohinga.

Fresh bettlenut at a market we passed.

When we finally arrived in Teknaf, the port town where we’d take the fishing troller to the island, we were running out of time. The boat was about to depart so we hopped in a rickshaw and headed to the pier. There was a buzz of commotion. A dock so narrow you couldn’t tell if the crowd was going left or right, there was trash everywhere, and the midday sun was beating down. Humaira bought our tickets and that’s when the fear set in. As I stood paralyzed, I was told to sit down, but there was no place to sit. The hull of the boat was filled with various items. Chicken cages stacked one atop another, supplies for the island, peoples’ personal belongings. My bag was tossed to the side somewhere and I found a spot about as wide as my butt on top of a grain bag. The boat was packed. Every square inch of the deck and sides was covered with people. There was no shade from the sun, umbrellas of all colors served as a roof for the troller with hijab clad women beneath them, children patiently waiting for departure, men chattering amongst themselves.

Looks comfortable, right??

We were packed in like sardines, except sardines are meant to swim in water. If that overloaded boat sank in the sea, I don’t know who would have made it to safety. It looked like we were refugees fleeing some war torn country, but refugees were actually fleeing to Bangladesh. I sat quiet for a long time, thinking about my life and all the things I still wanted to do. I had a vision of myself sitting in a cool, clean, small apartment somewhere in San Antonio, calm and peaceful. I assured myself I could swim to safety no matter what, but I became paranoid about my passport. If that ship sank, I could be stuck in Bangladesh without it. I was thinking about things that seriously. I even emptied a ziplock bag of peanuts in case the situation turned for the worse. Hey, it was all I could think of. The waterway to the sea was a narrow river, so the boat was protected for 14 miles from whatever conditions may be out in the great wide open. We met two other Indian travelers and eventually chatted amongst ourselves. When the river opened up to the Bay of Bengal, there were swells off in the distance. The troller began rocking back and fourth, waves splashed over us and within minutes, I was soaked. We had about an hour to go in those choppy waters and it was intense to say the least. The Indian lady was near hysterics, my frustration and nervousness were released in the form of tears rolling down my cheeks as the sun burned my face. The stench of the poultry below wafted up through all of the items in the hull. Khushe, the other girl traveling with Humaira and I, began crying. Because I was stuck, wedged in between bags and on top of the grain sack, the Indian man gave us updates on our arrival. I couldn’t see anything. 50% left, 30%, and so on. I eventually calmed myself and tried to comfort Khushe and the Indian lady. Finally, we made it. Our troller hit the pier, cracking the cement railing above. People began jumping of the boat. It was pure chaos. Stuff and people everywhere. When the one white girl was seen on the troller, news spread like wildfire. The first officer of the Coast Guard was alerted and only later did we learn the Second officer appointed himself as our guardian to keep us safe on the small, 3 mile long island. We attracted a crowd, people looking at us, at me, as if no other white person had ever been there. But there had, we were just visiting in the low season, that’s why the proper ferry was unavailable. We searched and settled on a hotel room. The sun was setting. We went to that island to go to the beach and that’s what I wanted to do. I put on some leggings and a sports style t-shirt and we took off. No swimming in a bikini in a Muslim nation.

Sunset in the Bay of Bengal

The sky was incredible. Colors you only see in professional photos, all shades of red, orange, and yellow, and as the sun sank lower into the sea, we saw pinks and purples and a blend of nature’s beauty that was out of this world. The death defying troller ride was worth it.

Sunset in the Bay of Bengal

A few minutes later, the hotel manager and the Second Class Coast Guard officer showed up at the beach. Humaira was scolded for us females being out there alone and from that point on, it was determined we’d have our own personal body guards and protectors while there. We were reminded of the Rohinga again and told that there had been cases of bodies turning up on shore. There were some navy and coast guard boats patrolling the waters as well. I was hoping we could hitch a ride to shore with one of them!
We had dinner, showered, and got an invite to the Officer’s Club but we only sat outside. The officer had given Humaira his number in case of emergency, but he called her constantly. He knew of our fears leaving the island the next day and taking that same boat ride back. What if the weather were worse? What if there were more people. He promised we’d be safe. He said he himself would be the one to say when the boat was cleared to go and if necessary, we could even be the only ones on board.
It was late. We went to our room and crashed for the night, praying the sea would be calm the next day.

Sampon Boats on the beach by the officer’s club.

We woke up early and walked the beach. The hotel manager eventually met us and we ventured down, yet again, to the area outside of the Officer’s Club. The second officer had the hotel manager fetch us some breakfast. Paratha, lentils, and an omelette “burrito” on the beach, not a bad way to start the day. While the sea was calm, there were dark clouds in the sky. The officer ensured us we would get off the island and he would be at the pier when we left. He said to be there at 10:00 so we went to get ready. Then there was a torrential down pour. We waited longer but made our way to the pier. The officer was waiting. It was half as crowded as the day prior and they split up all the people into two boats. We puttered away under dark, drizzling skies, not having paid a single taka for the ride.

The boat was less crowded on the second day.

The fun wasn’t over however! Thankfully the sea stayed calm. We did get a bit wet from the rain, but all things considered, that was the least of what could have gone wrong. When we arrived back to the mainland, I was so relieved. We were all grateful and starving. After we ate, we tried to find a similar bus like we’d taken the day prior, but there was nothing in sight. Apparently, some Rohinga had died in one of the camps and available vehicles were being used to transport the bodies. It’s like that trip couldn’t get any more complex. We’d saved money on the boat but had to shell out a bit for a personal tuk tuk back to Cox’s Bazar. But we made it and we were safe. Humaira got yet another call from the officer and he wanted to provide dinner for us. His friend had a restaurant on the beach so we filled up before our overnight bus ride back to Dhaka.

Another sunset view.

Of all the places I’ve been and all the experiences I’ve had, this little trip was exceptional on so many levels. The fear, the beauty, the conflict, the people, the food. At the end of it, the officer called Humaira and asked her to tell me he hoped, and they, the Bangladeshis hoped, that I had a good time. They wanted me to know Bangladesh can be a place to visit where people can be friendly and caring. All of the tourist police and soldiers manning the check points along the way were equally friendly and concerned about our safety as well. Humaira was concerned about the danger we’d faced getting to Saint Martin’s Island and she wanted desperately to be able to get off. Once we were in the clear, however, she confided she couldn’t wait to go back, but in the season! No more traveling by fishing troller.

No thanks.

I left Bangladesh with so many experiences. I wanted to write them all down, but more than anything, I wanted to share my story of our crazy trip to Saint Martin Island. Bangladesh is a country that ultimately does not see a lot of tourists and I’m sure even fewer make it to the easternmost point to the island. Furthermore, the Rakhine State along the border of Myanmar is closed to travelers as well for obvious reasons.
If you made it this far (I know this was a long post), thank you for reading. I hope you at least enjoy the photos of a place that you may otherwise have not known existed. I’m glad I have a unique story to tell, but no more overcrowded fishing troller trips for me. And mom and dad, if you read this, sorry!! I won’t put myself in danger again!

How to Get a Visa on Arrival in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Just in case anyone ever searches how to get a visa on arrival to Bangladesh, now you will know! If you are not a US citizen, check the regulations for your country.

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I’d done some research on line prior to my arrival in Dhaka and learned a visa on arrival is possible, although the details were a bit muddy. I hoped I’d be ok given the info I read on the US State Department website, so I skipped going to the Bangladeshi Embassy in Bangkok and took off with high hopes. When we arrived, I followed the crowd and came down a staircase with a sign welcoming you to Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. There are two small security gates on the right you have to pass through and the VOA arrival desk is right there, just beyond the sparsely covered “health desk.”
I stood in line for 60 minutes. There were only 4 people ahead of me. In the meantime, another flight landed and a bunch of Chinese were in line. One came in front of me waving a paper in the officer’s face. Hell no. I’ve been in line for an hour, you’re not cutting me.
A Thai airways rep came to the desk and asked if anyone had luggage. We’d been in line for so long those who didn’t need a visa on arrival were likely long gone, along with their belongings. I hoped my bag would be there when I exited.
I chatted with a guy in line on an emergency medical mission for UNICEFF to Cox’s Bazar to help out with the Roginga issue.
At the visa desk, I spoke to two different officers. They were kind, but asked a slew of questions. They even called my contact here. She said she would be taking her exams and her phone was off. I thought I’d be stuck until she answered, but he motioned for me to go pay the VOA fees. I’d planned for $50 according to the US Embassy website. It was $51, but no big deal, now I just have a bunch of small bills in my wallet. Your length of stay with a visa on arrival is 15-30, discretion given by the officer. They knew, according to my paperwork, I’d be here for 7 days. I showed him the itinerary for my flights on my phone. I guess I could have made things easier by printing it out. Luckily he granted me a random 9 days. If you want a visa for a longer period, you have to have more documents and more money. A 1-5 year visa is $160 and must be arraigned prior to arrival.
He asked if I knew how to get to where I was staying and where it was. He’d already asked if it was my first time here so he clearly knew I didn’t know the city. I explained to him a 2nd time I was waiting for my friend and she would pick me up when she was done with her exam at 2:00.
When the officer finally gave me my passport back, I was relieved. I was also a bit disappointed that my visa was just a small stamp that took up a quarter of a page in my new, big passport. Before I would have been happy, but now that I have plenty of space in there, I wanna fill it up!

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Not only did the VOA process take a long time, but immigration as well. There were 7 people in front of me and I waited for over 20 minutes. What takes so long? When I got to the desk, he said I was good to go because I already had my visa. Most places require you to go through immigration even if you have a visa. Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam require it and I have full page visas from those countries and got two out of three on arrival.
Hamina, my host, had messaged she’d finish her exams at 2:00. We landed at noon. Soon I was out the door and we met. Even though Dhaka reminds me a bit of Kathmandu, it’s always an adjustment arriving to a new place. Glad I’m not a solo traveler here and being with a local host is great.

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Enjoy your visit!

 

Long Term Travel

15 Month Funk

I’ve started and restarted this blog so many times. I don’t know what’s up. I’m in limbo. I’m in a weird spot. I wanna be in two places. That in and of itself isn’t that abnormal for me, the girl who wants to go everywhere, but lately, I want to be home and off to somewhere new. It’s a weird place to be and I’ve been here for about a month. I just hit my 16 month “travelversary,” but I started this blog around month 15. I’m currently in Bangkok, passing time before I head to Bangladesh, but somewhere between Vietnam and Laos I developed a weary feeling, and it hasn’t completely passed yet.

Maybe all the fast travel in Vietnam wore me down. But it’s was epic!

I think I was in a funk. I think at times, I’m still in a funk. Was it the 15 month funk? I don’t know, but it’s unusual. I’m typically a happy, bubbly person and I was pretty down and out for over a week not too long ago. At one point, I even recall holding back tears, and that was on a plane to Laos. When I go somewhere new, I’m giddy with excitement, but that day, something was wrong. What happened to me?

At least all the scenery in Laos was beautiful.

Travel is interesting, sometimes, you’re alone for chunks of time, and others are spent with groups and travel companions. One of things I love most about this lifestyle is that you get to meet so many interesting and awesome people, but the downside is, at some point, either you move on or they do. You develop great but fleeting relationships with perfect strangers who could, in the real world, be your BFFs. These interactions are more intense than in that real world too because both parties understand each other on a different level and both parties know that it will likely be a brief relationship. And when I say relationship, I mean it in the sense of interactions and relations with others, not something romantic (because I don’t have those kinds of relationships on the road!).


It’s been a long time now that I’ve been on this crazy Asian Adventure. I never thought I’d be the one in a group who has been traveling the longest. I’m now that person. When I meet people on vacation, they look at me in shock. But yeah, it’s been 16 months now and I think it’s long enough that most of my real friends are like, “Yeah, ok Tiffany, you travel, we get it. Maybe it’s time to get a life,” (LOL). I don’t know but I find these days I keep more in touch with people I’ve met in Asia than my friends at home and it’s my friends at home I miss the most.

Travel buddies unite inside Phong Nha cave. It’s nice to revisit people. It feels like you’re meeting up with old friends.

A part of me has this feeling like, “It’s time to go home, no wait, it’s time to think about going home.” Again, that feeling of wanting to be in two places at once. One of those places is home, and one is traveling. Home these days is a weird notion to me as well, but honestly, I am looking forward to going back to San Antonio, a place I lived for 13 years and never even called home. But in a way I guess it is. My roots are there, my friends, professional connections, what few possessions I still own, and my dog, all in San Antonio. I want more than transient friends and ephemeral relationships. I want to meet someone or be with someone who wants the same out of life as me and not fear they will fly off to a new location next week or next month.

Everything I still own all fits in here. But my dog is NOT in there, don’t worry!

This is such an interesting feeling all in all, doing what you love and yet not wanting to do it much anymore. As far as long term travel is concerned, this is an issue for many. It’s hard to have balance with this type of lifestyle and you either accept it for what it is, or put down some roots somewhere. For me, at this age, I don’t want to start over, so the only logical choice is to go back where I already have roots.

One of my regular friends in Asia since January.

I made some friends earlier this year while I was in Melaka, Malaysia. They are from Massachusetts, just a hop, skip, and a jump away from my own family. Six months later and we finally met back up in Bangkok. They’ve been on the road for over two years and just yesterday Rebecca said, “The longer you travel, the slower you go.” They are renting a place in Greece for three months, a change from Asia and the longest they’ve stayed anywhere to date. And I’m doing the opposite, my typical “slow travel” style is about to speed up. My way of finding “balance” with this lifestyle is to end it. I can’t do it forever, not emotionally, not financially. In January, the party’s over, but in that time I have a lot planned! Despite my “funkiness,” I’m excited too. New places, new experiences, new people, and yet I may cross paths with some old travel friends.

My Massachusetts “travel family” and I catching up in Bangkok.

I don’t know if my travel musings get old to those that read them, but some days you just have time to think and be alone. I try to sort them and map out the best route to deal with the thoughts in my head. Lately, all paths lead to “home,” for a little while at least, but I’m definitely not taking the fastest route to get from Point A to point B! I still have some interesting places on the horizon and perhaps some countries on the list that some may have never even heard of before. In the meantime, I’ll continue to wander and roam, all the while thinking of home. I hope my friends will still be there when I get back. My friends and a bottle of wine. Just one, then back to the grind that I’ve grown to miss so much!

Night out at home with my NH bestie.
A blurry picture with my SA bestie and her son.

P. S. Last night I went through all the blogs I’d ever written. My semi OCD self wanted to sort them into the category menu I learned to create back in February. I needed a desktop to simplify an otherwise tedious task so I stopped by Hom and sat in silence for a while. This whole relationship thing (or lack thereof) is definitely a theme, it’s not the first time I’ve brought it up. I’m tired of being alone, yet I was alone before I started this, so what if I go home and am still alone? That’s the thing, the main problems you have in life travel with you. What will be different? How will I deal? The same as always I guess, throw myself into my own life, get consumed by the grind, the gym, and the same old routine. When you can’t get what you need, you learn to need the things you got.

A Hike in Nong Khiaw

The road from Vang Vieng is a bumpy one. It curves and turns and you feel all the uneven surfaces in the pit of your stomach. If you focus on the horizon, or some other point in the distance, perhaps you can stave off the feeling of motion sickness, but these days, it’s been getting the best of me. If I know I have a van or a bus trip coming up, I don’t eat much and I mentally prepare for the bumpy road ahead. After my time in Vang Vieng, I went to Luang Prabang, about four hours north. Four long hours in a cramped van, so I wasn’t in the mood to get in another one anytime soon (especially knowing I bought a plane ticket back to Bangkok), but a photo captivated me and I wanted to see the views for myself. Nong Khiaw, another 3 hours north by van, a village that doesn’t even have a name on my Maps.Me map but in recent years has grown a bit. There are a few westerners who own some establishments, including Delilah’s, the hostel where I stayed.

The road that runs through Nong Khiaw. The viewpoint is on the top of that mountain.

It’s recommended you do the “View Point” Hike as a sunrise or sunset trip, so once I arrived, I brought my small day pack to the hostel, had lunch, cooled off a bit, and let some time pass.
I set off on my own, there are not many tourists in the small village. I thought I may meet someone along the way seeing as it is one of the few things to do around the area. When I arrived to the ticket booth, I paid my 20,000 kip entry fee (about $2.40) and read the signs. “Unexploded bombs still in the area,” and “One of the most bombed areas in Laos.” That means, stay on the trail.

There is still UXO out there.

In the West, at least where I am from in the United States, I feel most people do not know much about this small landlocked country in Southeast Asia. I didn’t know much about it myself until I arrived and have since learned that the official name of the country is Laos, PDR, the Peoples’ Democratic Republic, but at the same time, they are a communist country. Laos made up part of French Indochina (along with Vietnam and Cambodia), but they gained independence in July, 1949. The Laotian Civil War took place from 1953-1975 between their then communist political movement and the Royal Lao Government. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped over two million tons of ordinance in this country. According to some sources, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita and over 580,000 bombing missions were conducted. This time was called the Secret War In Laos and the US wanted to support the Royal Lao Government against the emerging Lao communists and they also wanted to disturb traffic on the trail to Ho Chi Minh. Like in Vietnam, many of the bombs that were dropped never exploded. In some cases, the thick jungle provided a buffer to incoming bombs, and in others, the rice paddies were too soft so bombs did not detonate upon impact. Since the end of the war, over 20,000 people have been injured or killed due to UXO and although over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped, around 80 million did not detonate. To this day, less than 1% (ONE PERCENT ?), have been destroyed. People still die from remnants of a war that ended nearly 40 years ago.

No more bombs and hopefully, no trash.

That brief history lesson to say: Don’t go off the trail! Back to my hike. Because I’d traveled in the morning, I treated the hike as my exercise and activity for the day. I carried a 1.5 liter bottle of water with me and started off at 4:00 pm. The mountain was void of people. I was alone in nature, save for the enormous insects in the dense jungle. The path was muddy and steep. Jagged limestone rocks line the trail, as well as thick bamboo forests and trees of unknown origin to me. It didn’t take long to work up a sweat in the thick humidity. In fact, I was already soaked by the time I got to the trail head. My hike up wasn’t too bad. My knee and legs are strong enough to continuously climb. I only took a few momentary stops to chug some water. Part way in, I noticed my electrolytes were off, I was feeling a bit uneasy from the heat, the beads of sweat dripping off my upper lip no longer tasted salty, and not to mention I’d hardly used the restroom all day. But I’d rest at the top and have a proper dinner when I finished. I was cautious of my every step. Having had surgery in January, I’m still careful with my knee and protect it as much as I can in an unsteady environment.
There was a good stretch of dense jungle, the trail darkened and it was difficult to tell which way to go or how far I was from the top, but I kept on and before I knew it, there was a cleaning towards the sky.

Green and Blue

All the drops of sweat were worth it, the view was incredible. The sun was still high but would soon set. A blue background broken up with pointy peaks of green, a meandering river down below, beauty all around.

Time for a break! Always on a quest.

After some time, I laid back on a flat rock marveling at the scenery around me and the peaceful sky above. “I’m the only one here,” I thought. Then just at that moment, the serenity was broken by a voice, my heart jumped, but it was just another tourist, and honestly, I was thankful. As it turned out, 6 of us were at the summit for sunset, but my nerves got the best of me. I’d left my pack in Luang Prabang and inside, my headlamp. I never use it, but it’s one of those things that when you need it, it’s incredibly handy and now, I needed it. After watching the skyline transform with the setting sun, I started off on my own. With my knee, the steep descent, and a muddy path, I wanted to beat nightfall.

The bamboo was so thick, you couldn’t see through it.

As I approached the thick part of the jungle, it was as if someone turned off the lights, it was already dark so no way could I beat nature. I went slowly, cautiously, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. Luckily, the rest of the group caught up and I expressed my concern over going back down. I turned on the flashlight on my phone and placed it in my tank top, facing out. It did the trick and lit the path in front of me. The others let me keep the lead and followed my pace. Every step was precarious. A slight slip in my case (or anyone’s for that matter) could result in a serious injury. These things are now always on my mind. I run through different scenarios, what would I do, how would I get out? I was thankful I wasn’t alone. As I age, I grow more cautious. A major injury really makes you aware of your body and movements. But we descended, slowly and surely, eventually down the path and onto solid ground. Enriched with the natural beauty of the setting sun, and even the darkness, for the stars shone bright in the night sky. United in the end by a fortuitous meeting with strangers, grateful for their company and support, another experience in the books. I didn’t use to worry about these things when I was younger. I used to run free and not be afraid of anything, and now, I fear falling, yet when it doesn’t happen, I tell myself I’m stronger, and not to let my fears get in the way of what I want to do. And well, as you can see, I don’t! I go and seek opportunities, often alone, I meet great people along the way, and see epic scenery. Plus, an hour up, an hour and a half down, I got in my exercise for the day.

Another view from the top.

What are some of your fears? Do they change as you age? Have you over come any of them?

Slow Internet

This will be my shortest post ever. I hope you read. ?

I haven’t posted for 2 reasons. 1. I spent two weeks working on a project at a hotel that will soon be opening a new cafe. The cafe will serve meals for the health conscious traveler so I created some recipes to be used once ready. Because I like structure (even though I don’t always have it as a traveler), I spent my mornings after the gym with my face in my iPad. After looking down for a few hours, my neck gets stiff and I need a break, so I didn’t want to do much blogging. 2. The internet here in Laos has been quite weak. Blogging and furthermore, uploading photos and media is time consuming.

Vang Vieng from above.

After two weeks in Vang Vieng, a small town north of the capital, Vientiane, I packed up and came further north to Luang Prabang. If anybody visits any part of Laos, it seems they come here as it’s known for some beautiful nature and some epic waterfalls. I can focus on writing up a blog or two here soon as I think it will help me get some stuff off my chest AND soon I’ll be in Bangkok again. Whhhattt? Yep, travel,plans often change but I’ll have a week of down time while I wait for my next leg: Bangladesh. Woo boo. It will be country #50 in the books for me!

This is one of my favorites from my ride and it was after I got out!

So, stand by. I have some travel and food topics coming up.

Thanks for reading!

How to get From Sapa to Cat Ba

When you’re getting ready to make your next travel move, do you research where to go? How to get there? Do you check fares, schedules, and typical taxi rates? I met a fellow traveler when I was in Bagan back in May and he came to Vietnam just before me. Around the same time, an American family I’d met in Melaka, Malaysia, had also gone to Ho Chi Minh City. I was in a rush to catch up with everyone and accepting suggestions and recommendations along the way. I spent three days in HCMC, a few in Da Lat (where I wrote about coffee), three in Hoi An, and then I took a motorcycle ride from there, passing through Da Nang, ending in Hue. If you know Vietnam, you’ll see I skipped a few places. In my haste to not only catch up with the others and make it to Laos in three weeks, I was in frequent contact with my friend who was just a day or two ahead of me.
“Skip this,” he’d say, or “Don’t go there, it’s a waste of time.” And most importantly, he made a good call on recommending my then travel buddy and I get on the evening bus from Hue to Phong Nha. There was a bus, and arriving in the evening meant my German travel buddy and I could both see the caves! So that we did and at the same time, I caught up with Maz, my Bagan buddy from India.

A little dark, but we all made it to the caves!

To pay him back for all his recommendations and being my temporary tour guide as I made my way north, I wrote him a detailed message on how to get from Sa Pa to Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba Island. I’d actually had an idea of how to do it since our homestay host, Andrew, hooked me up with some info, and now I share with you, in more detail!
Taken from my message to Maz:
“I just got to the Cat Ba Central Hostel. $5.00/night, breakfast included. AC. Just north of the main strip.” It’s Not too bad for the price, comfortable beds, and all in all, pretty quiet. I booked it when I arrived in the morning.
Andrew had called a taxi for us before we left Ta Van. I’m sure any guest house owner would do the same and the rate was 200,000 VND. I left the village early to check out the Fansipan Cable Car ride with 3 others.

Fansipan Cable Car Ride

It was a beautiful day and in addition to getting a bird’s eye view of the rice paddies, we climbed 600 steps once we arrived to the top!

Some of the 600 stairs we climbed on the Fansipan Summit.

In order to get a van to Lao Caí where the bus station is located, I waited with two other girls at a hostel for pick up in Sa Pa. We made our way on the curvy mountain road, my right foot often pressing the non-existent passenger side break. We made it, stopped in a small office where a woman told us to be ready to go at 6:40, and had time to get dinner, like Andrew recommended. We were ferried to a different bus station in Lao Cai, waited for a while, and finally, around 8:00, the sleeper bus pulled away in the dark.
“When we arrived at the bus stop in the morning, it was early, maybe 4:00 I think but everyone stayed on the bus until about 6:00, sleeping. I was crashed out pretty hard. No taxi would take us to the Tuan Chau ferry terminal for less than 100,000 VND so we had to go and split it 3 ways. We even left the bus station, one guy followed us out. 4 different guys quoted 100,000 VND. We got there around 6:15 and had plenty of time before the first boat left so we found a bakery and had a bite to eat. The ferry ticket to Cat Ba was 25,000 and took about 45 minutes. It left around 7:45 am. On Cat Ba, there’s a city bus you can take for 25,000. The end of the line is the tourist district, but it’s more hotels and whatnot, less of a backpacker style area although there are plenty of hostels.
All rides were good. Ferry ride is very scenic.”

I saw more pigs, goats, dogs, and chickens than I did people.

Cat Ba is less touristy than Ha Long and it’s beautiful. On my first day I walked up a steep hill to a Cannon Hill Fort. It was interesting, very few people were there, and most importantly, the views were amazing.

It was spooky walking through the underground tunnel alone!

Ta Van-Sa Pa-Lao Cai-Cat Ba. Doable overnight and you get to bypass Hanoi, ultimately saving time.
There’s plenty to do once you arrive, so plan according to your tastes and travel style and if doing the trip in reverse, just ask your hotel or hostel owner to hook you up with info and hit up Andrew at My Tra in Ta Van for an awesome place to stay!

Why I paid $210 for a hotel room and how I got a free plane ticket home.

A free ticket home?!

I received an email from United MileagePlus. It was about a partnership with an app called RocketMiles. Earn miles every time you book a hotel room through the app. As a budget traveler, I figured the available hotels wouldn’t be in my budget, but I downloaded it anyway.

Rocket Miles View- Mobile Version

When I got the email, I had 20,800 frequent flier miles with United. I know some are not United fans, but I’ve flown them quite a bit over the years. I’ve amassed and used my miles over and over for different award tickets. I even went round trip to Peru (for two) using those miles.

Machu Picchu, Peru. 2013

Every dollar I spend on my United credit card I get a mile. I looked at hotels via the RocketMiles app in all the cities I’ve yet to visit: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Ho Chi Minh, and more. Of all those places, there was one hotel in Siem Reap that would give me 6,000 miles. But, it costs $210 per night. Yikes, that’s not within my budget.

I researched, did math, thought, researched some more, thought harder… Then I got yet another email. “Book by Friday and you’ll get an additional 3,000 miles.” So wait. I’ll pay $210 for the room and get 210 miles = about 21,000 miles. 6,000 for booking at this one hotel that’s offering more miles for the per night stay price than seemingly any other in SE Asia = 27,000 miles. 3,000 bonus miles = 30,000 miles.

Guess what 30,000 miles can get? An award ticket from Santiago, Chile (where I plan on finish up my travels next year) to Boston. Well, it costs 30,000 miles and $53. My “research” was checking regular ticket costs from Santiago to Boston. The cheapest ones are currently $540. So I based my decision on the following:
Hotel Room: $210
Award ticket: $53
Total: $263

Reg ticket: $540
$540-263=$277 savings AND, I get a fancy place to spend the night. Not that I need it, BUT it will help later when I need a ticket to go home. Furthermore, I spent the last ten days house and dog sitting via workaway, so I didn’t spend money on a place. I allocate myself about $30/d, but if I break up this expense over 2 months, it doesn’t reduce my daily budget by too much. Lastly, I’m still hoping to do a workaway volunteer opportunity for three weeks in Laos. If that works out, it will greatly help my budget!

My dog for 10 days.

While house sitting, I didn’t use the AC much as it turned out to be quite expensive. I was often over heated and woke up drenched in sweat most nights. I developed a heat rash, and had no relief from the high temperatures. In just a short time in AC, my heat rash miraculously improved in record time.

Not going to lie, I love breakfast buffets!

Fitness center. Breakfast buffet. Swimming pool. Lounging in bed. The epitome of laziness and I somehow managed to save nearly $300 on a plane ticket home.

Just my big bed in an air conditioned room at the Royal Empire Hotel!

I don’t think I’ve ever paid this much to stay somewhere for one night. Well, there was that one time I had surgery at Bumrungrad International Hospital. I’m sure that was the most expensive stay of my life, but my 23 hours at the Royal Empire Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was by far the most I’ve ever paid for a hotel. I took full advantage, enjoyed it, and barely even left the place while there. All in all, it was worth the stay because of the frequent flier miles I earned. Was it worth $200? For what you can get in Cambodia, definitely not. The staff was nice, but people are nice even at the cheap hostels. It was good totally have my own space, cool off, and relax, but unless I can get another free plane ticket out of the deal, I won’t be spending any more nights in fancy hotels!

Whats your biggest travel splurge?

 

Dear Diary…

Sometimes I share too much, no?

My day began at 2:15 am. Given that I had an international flight ahead of me, something I’m typically excited about, I was feeling a little down. Perhaps I was tired from lack of sleep, perhaps I wasn’t looking forward to spending the next 22 out of 36 hours on an airplane, perhaps I wasn’t looking forward to more living out of a bag, even though I’ve been doing it for 14 months now… But I know those are all manageable issues for me and they don’t keep me down for long so I knew it was something a little deeper than that. Sometimes I’m sad when I leave a place, but I’ve planned another 6 months of travel so I know I’ll be back in the States soon. I’m even comfortable with that notion although I’m sure as my travels come to an end, I’ll feel differently. But- I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Passing time in Toronto, pondering the meaning of life.

Airports are probably not most peoples’ favorite places, but I’m often fairly content to spend a day traveling. I look at it as forced down time. A time where I mostly have to sit still. I watch people, I gaze at the big metal tubes on the tarmac that are capable of transporting us to entirely different places and spaces in a matter of hours, and I think about the meaning of life. Sometimes I catch up on reading, blogging, and when I’m too exhausted to think, I watch mindless TV series on Netflix. My iPad is often fully stocked with new episodes of something or other in case I don’t have wifi or there are not individual seat back screens (which I always hope for). What else is there to do?
Today I thought. Not only do I have plenty of actual in flight travel time, but I had an 8 hour layover in Toronto. Thankfully, it revived and refreshed me a bit. I was able to have lunch at Jal Gua Café, a place I’d wanted to visit for years. Emmanuel Jal was a South Sudanese child soldier, but he made it out with a crazy story that was documented in a book I read years ago, “War Child.” He’s now a well known international hip hop artist with some good songs and a passion for bettering this world we live in. He wanted to bring some of his Sudanese staples to the west and deliver them in a healthful manner and that’s what he’s done at his cafe. I had the “Miracle Salad,” a bowl of delicious, tender cooked beans and sorghum, topped with kale, tomatoes, broccoli, and a vinaigrette.

The Miracle Salad at Jal Gua Cafe in Toronto.

All things considered, it was nice to get out for lunch and walk around in the cool weather before I get back to the stifling humidity of South East Asia.
What’s my deal today besides the exhaustion that has already set in? For the last two months, well more actually, I’ve had plans with people I know. It’s been great catching up with friends and family. I had fun on my quick “around the world tour.” I saw people, shared stories, caught up on life and gossip with my girlfriends and I even reconnected with quite a few acquaintances I hadn’t seen in a while. It was fun and I was overwhelmed to learn of the amount of followers I have with me on my travels through Asia. People are living through me so I have to make sure I’m doing my best at this travel thing. It’s definitely positive, but what bites, one of the downsides many don’t talk about, is the accompanying loneliness that comes along with the nomadic lifestyle and once I leave Bangkok next week, it will begin again. This has definitely been a theme and I’ve blogged about it before, but the worst thing is, it won’t end when my travels end. Being in San Antonio was great, but all in all it was a stark reminder that I’ve pretty much been single since my divorce in 2014. I left my life to explore the world, I wasn’t “running” from anything, but the longer I go, the further I get, and the more I can see I would start to “run.” I will remain single because it’s nearly impossible to meet someone on such a journey. So I go, I take off, I fly, I ride… In a symbolic way, I can run away from my fears. In his book, “The Art of Travel,” Alain De Botton said “There is psychological pleasure in this takeoff, too, for the swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation. The display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives, to imagine that we, too, might one day surge above much that now looms over us.” Travel transforms us, but can I shift my own thinking in certain matters? Can I surge above this specific issue that looms over me? I can only hope because otherwise life is pretty good.
For now, I’ll travel. I’ll fly, take off, and do my best to keep an open mind that one day, not only will I meet someone who makes my heart beat again, but that it will be meaningful and lasting. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the ephemeral moments and focus on the positives from those situations. The world is a big place and those metal tubes can bring us all over. Let’s see where they take me the next 6 months and let’s see if I’ll be ready to go “home” at the end of it.