Xin Chao, Vietnam

We thought the hardest part about leaving Laos would be tearing ourselves away from the 4,000 Islands. Not for the first or last time on our trip, we were wrong.

Don Dhet, and all of the islands I’d imagine, have a sort of Shangri-La gravitational pull. A short vacation easily turns into a long stay, which then gives way to a new home. (And there are vacationers turned locals all over the island to prove it.) Don Dhet remains my plan B if I can’t find work in the states. It was that great.

But Susan and I had already booked our trip home and Vietnam awaited. We didn’t book tickets from Don Dhet, because as you can imagine, bus tickets are a bit more expensive on an island. Instead, we took the advice of some local friends and got tickets for our first boat and bus to Pakse, a hub city, where we would purchase another ticket for transit to Vietnam. Or so we thought.

Our travels very rarely started at bus stations, and this trip was no different. We got dropped off at a travel agency office, and they informed us that they didn’t have any trips to Vietnam planned for days, but we might try at the bus station. We tuk tuk’d there, found the station closed and no future Vietnam buses posted for weeks because of Chinese New Year.

We tuk tuk’d back into Pakse and found the same answer at ever tour agency we stopped at: no buses until after Chinese New Year.

If we were wandering with no schedule or timeframe, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Since we had flights booked out of Ho Chi Minh City, this was indeed problematic.

We tracked down a reasonable hostel and got to work figuring out how to get across the border. Susan started searching for flight options, but found them to be outrageously expensive. Apparently there are price hikes since everyone is flying home to celebrate – you guessed it – Chinese New Year. I took a walk down the street to see if there were any tour agencies we missed, and ponder how to convince Susan that hitch hiking might be our best option.

Luck was on our side and I found a man who had seats available on a van going to Hue the next morning. He guaranteed our passage and said he would personally pick us up in front of the hostel the next morning.

Sure enough, just after 4 a.m., our knight in shining mini van arrived and loaded our travel packs. We drove a few minutes down the road, and he stopped to drop us off with another waiting passenger. He explained in the limited English we shared that the actual van would pick us up there. At this point, we had come to accept that it’s never just one vehicle. The van before the van. The tuk tuk before the bus. It usually works out. So we waited.

A few other people gathered, and then a pick-up truck pulled up. The one other passenger who had been there when we arrived waved us over and pointed to the back of the truck. It was our ride.

Our one English speaker had departed, so we charades our way into confirmation that we were supposed to hop in the truck and go. So we did. Driving down the road in the pre-dawn hours, I wondered if this was how we would cross the border.

It wasn’t. We stopped in a parking lot, where a kombi (oversized van) was loading. Our guide waved us over and motioned to bring our bags. We hopped in the van and hoped for the best.

It was us, seven men, one woman, and a chicken.

On our way to the border, we stopped for a lunch that must have been included in our ticket price, because no one brought us a bill. I couldn’t identify what was in several of the bowls on the table, but our fellow passengers kindly pantomimed how to construct our bowls of broth, noodles, and toppings. It reminded me of the early days in Macedonia before I knew much of the language and smiled my way through meals.

Soon afterward, we reached the border, which was our easiest crossing of the trip. With our visas already secured, we just waited for our passports to be checked. No extra fees. No questions. (So I guess the annoyance of getting visas back in Bangkok was worth it.)

The chicken in the van did not appreciate being left alone during this process however, and was quite vocal about his protestations. We theorized that perhaps he had forgotten his chicken passport and was worried about getting caught, or maybe he had been scorned by a hen in Laos and was anxious to get into Vietnam.

We never solved the “why did the chicken cross the border” mystery, because no sooner had we arrived in Hue, we were dropped off on the side of the road. The driver pointed at the ground and said, “Hue!” which served as our confirmation of arrival. Our friends from the van waved us off, the chicken waved a wing (I’m guessing), and we headed off to our next hostel and next adventure.

 

Sah-bai-dee, Laos

We almost missed out on the best part of the trip. 

The visa delay in Thailand (and the required return trip to Bangkok) meant cutting our original plan to head to Vietnam through northern Laos. We said goodbye to our plans to see stunning waterfalls and cross the border by boat, deciding that Angkor Wat and Cambodia would be our substitute. Thankfully, the patron saint of our trip, Anne (who we met at that hostel in Bangkok), suggested heading toward Vietnam via the 4,000 Islands in Laos. 

Wow. 

There have been lots of moments that felt familiar along the way. Smiling to myself as the train to Chiang Mai passed rice fields that reminded me of my favorite running route in Orizari. Watching a grandmother fuss over her little one the way the babas do. But the 4,000 Islands, outward appearance aside, felt like home. 

Sure, Orizari is surrounded by mountains instead of other islands, but the feel was the same. It was the relaxed, if the bus is late, we wait. There’s always more time for another drink, or a few more minutes to sit and chat. I loved it. 

We had the kind of trip there that people complain about on the way and brag about later. We got picked up in Cambodia by the wrong tuk tuk to meet our bus. Backtracked. Then the right van took us to meet a bus. The bus drove for a few hours and dropped us at a gas station, where the driver said, “Wait. Another bus will come.” So we sprawled around the gas station reading, snacking, and wondering how long and if a bus would show up. Two hours later, another bus pulled up across the road, honked, and waved us over. Another hour and one of the staffers asked for extra money to take our passports for us through the border. We declined. He smiled and took our bus tickets. 

We walked through the border and met a guy from England who has lived on Don Dhet for six years. He ushered us through like baby ducklings. 

We paid the bogus $2 stamp fees, but still netted a savings from what the helpful bus man wanted to charge. One of our friends asked nicely and said “please” and they didn’t charge him. The man who took our bus tickets sneered. 

The bus drove 30 minutes more and dropped us off at an intersection, where we loaded into the back of a truck, backpacks piled high. (Our fifth transportation change of the day, btw.)   

Down a bumpy, dirt road for another 20 minutes and then we traded bus tickets for boat tickets. But that cranky man from the second bus took ours. Thankfully, with about 10 other people in the same boat (lol. punny.), the woman with the tickets let us on anyway. 

Then we walked down to the long, wooden boat, filed on two by two, and wondered how we were so lucky to enjoy a sunset arrival. 

We didn’t have a place to stay, so with our new friend (who was seriously our mother duck) leading the charge, we wandered down the path till we found an open bungalow. $2.50 per person. 

Somewhere to sleep secured, we walked back to the restaurant/bar/guesthouse spot where our new friend worked. 

We never left. We played cards, made instant, incredible friends, enjoyed Beer Laos, ate shakshuka for breakfast with new Israeli friends, compared travel stories, ate plates of rice and noodles, laid in the hammocks reading, tubed down the Mekong River, barbecued on the beach, walked around the island, biked to see the waterfalls, laughed a lot, sat in awe of sunsets that streaked the sky with new colors every time you glanced away, said sa bai dee (hello) to everyone, high-fived the kids running by, loved on all the street dogs that wandered in and out of restaurants to cuddle up at their leisure, drank fruit shakes, built bonfires on the beach, watched for shooting stars, lost track of what day it was, and felt at home everywhere. 

In a few days, we were greeting familiar faces strolling down the main path and we were settling into easy routines, always eating at the same place because the food was always good and we were always there. 

We met a few people from around the world who had visited once or twice and then never left. One year. Two years. Six years. It only takes about 10 minutes on the island to understand why. 

We had a hard time pulling ourselves away, but we had to reach Ho Chi Minh for our flight home eventually, so reluctantly, after five days of bliss, we strolled down the path one more time, saying ‘sa bai dee’ to all those familiar faces and getting on one more boat. Until next time, Don Dhet. 

Angkor Wat sunrise

Getting to Siem Reap from Bangkok was the deal of the trip. 

The train ticket was 48 baht, and thanks to incredible info from Seat61.com, we were ready to navigate through the fray when we got off near the Cambodian border. (Can’t recommend this resource enough.)

We went from train to tuk tuk, and 20 minutes later, walked across the border. We were warned about lots of people trying to scam you and overcharge for passport photos or medical checks (photos you need; medical checks you don’t btw), but it wasn’t bad. Maybe we just had a slow day at the border. 

The border agents threw in a few extra charges, which online accounts had warned about, and we just paid. It was a situation where everyone knew it wasn’t a legit fee, but you just had to go along to get the stamp in your passport. (It was only an extra few dollars when you converted and it’s pretty hard to argue with someone in possession of your passport.) 

After the border, we found the free shuttle to the bus station for the next leg in the trek. (We were skeptical, but pleased to find the shuttle really was free.) At the bus station, we got a lousy rate to convert money and realized that US dollars are accepted across the country. (But not coins. They told me this after I counted out the correct amount in quarters. Sigh.)

We boarded an oversized van with about 12 other people and after the obligatory roadside stop (because every driver has a friend whose business they are trying to buoy), we had an uneventful drive to Siem Reap.

We go dropped off, far from the center of the city, in a crowd of tuk tuk drivers all vying to take us to our hostels. Since it was our first stop in Cambodia, I had no idea what a fair price would be. 

And then I discovered maps.me.

A couple from our van pulled out their phones and said they were walking the 20 minutes to the center if anyone wanted to follow. We took them up on it and despite a hot walk, it felt good to win, just once that day, when someone tried to rip us off with an unfair price.

(On Maps.Me: I ended up downloading the app, which works offline without data or a cell plan. Oh, and it’s a free download. Not bad, right?)

We had a great hostel, but Siem Reap was a little overwhelming. More than anywhere else on the trip, it felt like people were up charging and looking to rip you off. (Which I guess is a product of a tourist grown town.) It was one of the stops on our trip where we saw the most visible poverty, which contrasted the overpriced restaurants and bars on every corner, catering to tourists with fat pockets and waistlines.

We had gotten a lot of recommendations about how to see Angkor Wat best, with people suggesting we needed six days. We decided to take one. 

The length of our stay was also cost prohibitive on our post-Peace Coprs budget. The one-day ticket to visit the temples was $20. Three-day tickets were $50. That didn’t include meals or transportation, which easily doubled or tripled those numbers.

We did a little Google homework, bought snacks, and made arrangements with the driver recommended by our friend Anne in Bangkok. His price wasn’t the best in town, but it was fair and gave us the flexibility to go at our own pace without a group from the hostel, and we felt good supporting someone that came recommended. His story is all too common in Cambodia; his family suffered as a result of the war. He was very kind and spoke strong enough English to talk about life in Cambodia, a welcome change from the other locals we met who were just looking to sell something. 

Meeting locals has been a travel priority for Susan and I, coming from our Peace Corps mindset of integration and understanding. The sunrise over Angkor Wat was stunning, but we were put off by the scores of people clamoring to tilt their selfie stick at just the right angle and the inconsideration that abounded.

We got our beautiful view and got out of there. Bik, our driver, took us around to the other temples where for a few hours, we enjoyed minimal crowds as we wandered the ancient grounds. By the end of the day, the temples started to blend into each other, and we were glad we had only booked a one-day ticket. The main temple and that sunrise view was worth seeing, but we were happy to be heading to Laos in the morning.

Siem Reap Pro Tips:

  • Seat61.com is useful in all countries and all situations. The site is a wealth of knowledge for not only transportation routes, prices, and accommodations, but also includes a collection of first hand narratives and instructions for border crossings.
  • Maps.me is a free download, and from there you can choose to download the city or country of your choice. It works offline, without data, quite accurately, and includes search options for food or other amenities.
  • You can still find great street food at great prices in Siem Reap, so don’t be discouraged by the pizza shops and burger joints. We ate at the same shop for several meals, enjoying $1 plates of delicious noodles.
  • If history and temples are your thing, consider getting a guide or a longer-term ticket for the Angkor Wat complex, but for the average viewer, it’s easy to get templed out.
  • Appropriate dress for women in temples is covered shoulders, and no, a scarf over a tank top won’t cut it at the main temple. Apparently their standards have gotten stricter due to a rash of idiot tourists taking nude photos at these sites. (I wish I was making that last bit up. Google it.)

 

Back to Bangkok

With my heart full of joy from my elephant time, we headed back to Bangkok to pick up our visas for Vietnam and try to figure out how to spend the rest of our month in Southeast Asia. 

The train ride south was one of the more pleasant 15-hour journeys I’ve enjoyed. 

The scenery along the way was beautiful, and the drop down beds were surprisingly comfortable. I liked settling into my own little cave for the night. (Let’s get real. I felt like a hobbit, which made my heart burst with hobbit and elephant joy.) I also loved that when they played the national anthem around 8 p.m., everyone stopped what they were doing, stood, and sang along. The song ended and the world around me resumed.

We got out of the train station and easily found our way to our hostel, the aptly named Cozy Bangkok Hostel, where our room was ready even though it was hours before check in. 

The parade and events honoring the king meant we hadn’t been to some of the tourist stops on our last pass, so we planned to check out the palace and then wander with a friend from the hostel. But it turns out the palace is pretty expensive in comparison to other exhibits, so we just took a photo outside and called it a day. 

Plus, the coolest thing we saw in Bangkok was the reclining Buddha, which was just big, and wow.

 

The most important thing was we needed to get to the Vietnam Embassy to pick up visas between 4 and 5 pm. No earlier, no later. 

Susan wasn’t feeling well, so I grabbed a motor bike taxi and headed over on my own. I checked the price, gave the driver the address, and then held on tight. Zipping in and out of traffic was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking. I loved it. 

He dropped me off at the embassy. I picked up our passports after a bit of a wait, double checked all the dates and info, and spent the evening exploring before heading back to the hostel. 

I had planned to try to make it to a Couchsurfing meet up, but instead, we spent several hours chatting with a woman at our hostel who was on her way back to the UK after spending a year teaching English in Cambodia.

We had just sat down to try to come up with a general plan, since the original fell apart on day one. (A loose plan at least, since post-Peace Corps me is way more game to just wing it.)

Anne heard us talking about possibilities and in the end, she helped us design the next several weeks, starting with Cambodia. 

She had recommendations for sites, food, beer, and contact info for the best tuk tuk driver in town, who had been a student in her adult classes. And then Anne went a step beyond and introduced us to another Peace Corps Volunteer who happened to be at the hostel too. 

He was about to start his third year in the Philippines, and was taking his extendee leave. (Peace Corps pays for a trip home for a month if you sign up for an extra year.)

It was fun to compare posts, food, families, and like classic PCVs, we were on poop stories within 15 minutes. 

Just before midnight we remembered that we had to be back at the train station around 5 a.m., so we wished him luck and finished repacking for the next country. Next stop, Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Sawa dee Chiang Mai

The journey north started hesitantly. The sleeper cars on the train were sold out and when they said the seats reclined a little, we had no idea what our 15-hour ride would be like. 

We were pleasantly surprised though with spacious seats, and the afternoon departure meant amazing views of the countryside outside of Bangkok. 

I couldn’t help but grin when the first rice fields came into view. It looked just like Orizari. 🙂

Vendors got on and off at every station, walking the length of the train calling out (or singing out in some cases), what they were selling. This lasted late into the night, so we were quite tired when we pulled into the Chiang Mai station before dawn. 

We shared a red taxi with some other travelers, and thanks to the wonderful host at Chill Bed Hostel, we were ushered in and sent to bed straight away. 

(Red Taxis are pick-up trucks with long benches and a covered roof in the back. They can fit probably a dozen people plus luggage.)

I only had a few hours to bond with my pillow before I was off again to spend a half-day at an elephant sanctuary. 

I had no coffee, but I had plenty of elephant adrenaline. (I mean, guys! I was going to play with them!!)

Our hostel host set it up for me via email before we arrived, which was perfect. My friend Susan, who I’m traveling with, wasn’t interested in the elephants (don’t worry, I’m questioning her sanity too), so she slept in while I fed bananas to my new best friends. We drove more than an hour outside the city, up windy roads and dirt paths into the jungle, and then the magic happened.

This sanctuary had nine elephants, ranging in size, as young as a few months, and as old as 35 years. They were all wandering near the feeding area, waiting impatiently for us to learn the proper technique. (And snap a flurry of photos.)

We fed our friendly hosts bananas and sugar cane, first raising our treats above our heads and saying, bahn. At the key word, the elephants open wide for us to place  a banana or piece of sugar cane in their mouths. 

Then they immediately reach out their trunks to see if we have more. 

It was delightful. Seriously, magical.  I’m grinning just thinking about it.

The elephants were playful and fun, giving out kisses and hugs with their trunks and always stretching out toward whoever had a banana in hand.

I knew the bananas and sugar cane ran out when the elephants started wandering away. (I get it. Food is my top priority too.) 

Then we followed them on a walk through the jungle, where they kept eating, took care of some business (ahem, you know the kind), and then ate some more. 

After they ate again, it was bath time, which turned into spraying all the guests with their trunks and the most adorable moment of my life. 

Guys. Gosh. It was so great. dsc_0272-min

The self-restraint I’m showing by not posting every picture is impressive. 

So that was day one in Chiang Mai, and it was hard to top. I loved their night market (which it turns out almost every town has, but they were my first and favorite). We visited some beautiful temples, including one on a mountain outside of the city. 

The only bummer in Chiang Mai was realizing that the malaria meds Peace Corps gave me were causing problems. I had no appetite, felt like I had a pill stuck in my throat constantly, had terrible indigestion and acid reflux, and had pain whenever I tried to eat. It was also hard to sleep because it was worse while laying down. So, after Google told me this often happens to people who take doxycycline, I decided to just wear more bug spray and hope the side effects went away. 

But despite that though, elephants! 

We had hoped to head east to Chiang Rai and then into Laos, but visas waited in Bangkok. We had sleeper cars for our return train, which was like having my own little hobbit hole. 

So we headed back to Bangkok with no plan beyond picking up our visas for Vietnam, but има време секогаш, така ли? (There is always time, right?)

Pro Tips:

  • elephant sanctuaries are great. Riding elephants is not. Learn more here.
  • Red Taxis are a great way to get around and if you have a tourist destination out of town, a good way to save some money. Two German girls approached us outside one of the temples to ask if we wanted to join them and save a few baht. We ended up as a group of six, and visiting something we probably would have skipped on our own.
  • Uber is a thing, and cheaper than taxis. Or hostel host requested one for us a few times.
  • Seriously, the elephants were so great. 

Sawasee Ka Bangkok

When I started thinking about where I wanted to travel after Close of Service (COS), my biggest priority was somewhere warm and affordable.

(January in Macedonia = super cold. Two years of volunteering = poor.)

Naturally, Southeast Asia was a top contender, and it’s on the way home (if you take the long way). We planned to head north through Thailand, cross through northern Laos, and then head south through Vietnam. We landed in Bangkok thinking we would stay no more than two nights, which we hoped would be enough time to secure visas to Vietnam and acclimate to yet another time zone. 

It turns out, our trip encompassed Chinese New Year, which celebrates the lunar calendar. The Vietnamese Embassy was not offering express visas, so the earliest we could pick them up was in four business days. And there’s a weekend in there, so make it six days. Oh and Susan forgot her passport the first time we went to the embassy, so make it seven days. But that’s the last day before the embassy closes for the holiday, so don’t miss it. Yikes!

So our plan for Southeast Asia went belly up after less than 24 hours. Oh well. Има време. 🙂 

We decided to cross off the major tourist sites in Bangkok, head north to Chiangimg_7323 Mai for a few days, and then return to pick up our visas and figure out where to next. 

But it turns out, our visit fell 100 days after the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and a huge procession around the city shut down the Grand Palace, several other sites, and at one point, all the streets between us and our hotel.

Oh well. Има време. 🙂

Seeing the procession was interesting, because we had seen photos and flower arrangements and billboards with well wishes and condolences all over the city from the moment we got off the plane. He was clearly a beloved man, and even months after his death, many locals lined the streets dressed in black, honoring their late leader. 

The city itself was nice, but it was the biggest place I’ve been in years. The size of the buildings was  crazy to me and the traffic was always ridiculous. It was a little bit overwhelming at first.

The street food was all amazing though and I loved paying less than $1 for a giant plate of noodles, so overall Bangkok was okay for me. (food > everything)

With Vietnam visas in the works and photocopies of our passports to offer to our next hostel, we boarded a 15-hour train to Chiang Mai, where relaxation and elephants were waiting for me. 

Pro Tips for Bangkok:

  • For US citizens, a visa to Vietnam is $60 if you are getting it at the embassy for a land crossing. You can do it cheaper if you do visa on arrival through a tour company, but that’s only allowed if you fly in. 
  • Always ask taxi drivers to run the meter and ask a local what a price should be. We had drivers quote us 500 baht for a trip that actually cost us 80 baht. 
  • Always haggle for anything you buy from a vendor.
  • Eat the street food! Yummy, cheap, and seriously, so yummy. 
  • The foreigner office at the train station is super helpful. The bus station is upstairs in the same building, so compare prices before you book. Our round-trip train tickets were less than half the price of a one-way bus ticket to Chiang Mai. It took a bit longer, but the views along the way were beautiful.

Merhaba Istanbul, again

I have loved a lot of the places I’ve traveled as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but Istanbul was so wow the first time that I had to go back. 

Turkey was my first trip out of Macedonia, an adventure sweetened by spending it with my two cousins, one of whom was living there at the time. 

This time, I enjoyed Istanbul with friends who I met in Kocani, where they completed volunteer terms last year.

I’m traveling with another volunteer, who finished service in November, and we stayed near Taksim Square at an Airbnb, courtesy of a referral credit. (Shameless plug: want to use Airbnb? Sign up through me here and get a credit for your first stay and give me credit for my travels. Fala!)

It was a hip area with lots of shops and restaurants, and with three metro lines to get us wherever we needed to go. (The Istanbul metro is top notch. User friendly, lots of maps, and with English repetition and translations on most signs.) 

We spent one day with my friend Ali, who shuttled us around to all the main sites, sharing what history he knew and making up what he didn’t. (Everything was built in the 6th century and I always added that it honored the great Sultan Ali.) We walked through the exquisite Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque, free entry), walked past the Hagia Sophia (closed on Mondays), and then stopped at our favorite site in that area, the Basilica Cistern (20 lira entry). 

The Blue Mosque wowed me just as much as the first time, but the Cistern was the crowd pleaser. The light, the soft music playing, and the calm vibe were perfect. I also enjoyed a silly photoshoot with the medusa heads located in one corner. One is upside down and the other sideways, so we tried to make the ladies feel included. 

We had some traditional köfte for lunch (at the original place, Ali said), and then went for a boat ride on the Bosporus. The boat picked up near where Ali went to high school, so we got to hear about how his rival high school used to row down the water past their school and how after graduation, some people jumped in to celebrate. 

Turkish hospitality (which makes Macedonian hospitality seem small) meant Ali took us all the way back to the door of our Airbnb and insisting we stay with him next visit. 

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The next day, we went back to the Hagia Sofia (open on Tuesdays, 40 lira entry), and enjoyed wandering the historic structure. We made a wish in the weeping column, which someone unfortunately translated as the Sweating Column on the sign, and though we were impressed by the interior, my favorite moment came after we exited.

We walked out as the call to prayer started, and as we paused to take it in, the call from Hagia Sofia paused and the imam from the Blue Mosque picked it up. A third mosque nearby sounded next and all three alternated to the end. It was a beautiful experience.

With the touristy business out of the way, we went to the Asian side of Istanbul to meet another friend, Çan, and Iris. (After seeing us off at the bus station, she flew to see Çan the next day.)

We wandered a hip neighborhood, walked along the water, tried what Çan calls “food of paradise,” and then went for a beer together. It was a casual, wonderful afternoon, and a nice little baby step away from Macedonia and toward home.

[Quick sidenote: There has been a travel ban in effect for Peace Corps Volunteers to go to Turkey for the past year and a half, which prevented a second visit I had planned while my cousin was still living there, so I was happy to return to the beautiful country. Several people asked if it felt safe going there with recent events, but you can find danger anytime you step out your door. I never felt unsafe for a moment, and I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t let fear stop you from living. Of course, I was also with friends and didn’t go looking for trouble either, I should add since my mother is reading this.]

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Oh! And my favorite Turkish soap star, who I watched religiously all through Peace Corps training in Macedonia, is starring on a new series, so I got to watch her in all her glory. It was weird to hear her real voice speaking Turkish, since I’d only ever heard the Macedonian voice that dubbed over hers. She’s perfect in both languages, obviously.

It was a great way to start my trek, which will tentatively include Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, before a long flight to the west coast and a road trip back east. I’m missing my Macedonian life, but it’s pretty great to go places without having to fill out a Peace Corps permission slip.